The Leading eBooks Store Online 4,272,009 members ⚫ 1,419,367 ebooks

New to eBooks.com?

Learn more

Firebrand

Firebrand by Kathy Lynn Emerson
Buy this eBook
US$ 5.00
(If any tax is payable it will be calculated and shown at checkout.)

Today Ellen Allyn would be called a psychic, but in 17th century England and New England the label was witch. When Ellen fled London, only the adventurous Jamie Mainwaring accepted her uniqueness. Sailing to New England together formed lasting ties between them, and they faced the untamed new world both together and alone in search of the truth about their hearts.

Historical Romance by Kathy Lynn Emerson; originally published by Harper Monogram

Belgrave House; November 1993
242 pages; ISBN 9780061081088
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Firebrand
Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson
 
Excerpt

London, 1632

Pain circled his eyes. The back of James Mainwaring’s head throbbed, and he wondered what giant’s manacled fist was clenched so hard around the scruff of his neck. All his teeth ached.

For a long moment Jamie lay perfectly still, unwilling to risk the agony movement was cer­tain to bring. He was equally reluctant to lift his eyelids, but even without sight he began to gain a sense of his present surroundings.

He knew he was lying on his stomach, naked, his head turned to the right, in a strange bed in a strange chamber. He was very sure that he was not in his own lodgings in Coney’s Court. This was not his fine, soft featherbed.

The thin, uneven, prickly surface beneath him was a bed tick stuffed with damp, moldering  straw. The musty smell was not quite strong enough to make him nauseous but more than sufficient to discourage him from taking too many deep breaths.

Gradually another scent began to tantalize him, one that was faint but pleasant. His slug­gish mind struggled to identify it through a haze of fuzziness and pain. Rose water. At almost the same moment that he reached that conclusion Jamie became aware that his right hand was rest­ing not on lumpy bedding but on flesh. His slack fingers were loosely curved around the unmis­takably feminine swell of a breast.

The soft contours rose and fell in an even pat­tern. She was asleep. Indistinct images formed behind Jamie’s closed eyelids, disjointed but telling. A woman’s eager hands, disrobing him. His own hurried fumbling with her laces. A frantic coupling. explosive and satisfying. A warm, female body curled close to his own, murmuring contentment.

Jamie opened his eyes less than halfway, just enough to allow him a glimpse of his bedmate’s face. With the hangings closed all around the bed it should have been dark within, but they were old and thin and enough morning sunlight filtered through to reveal her features.

He had no idea who she was.

Fair hair curled slightly around a face that was pale and very plain. Puzzled, Jamie stared across scant inches at his companion. She was come­ly—not ugly, but far from beautiful—and it was not his custom to pursue ordinary-looking wenches. Jamie’s preference was for the most exotic beauties available in Clerkenwell, the ones with dark hair and flashing eyes.

How had he ended up in the bed of this pale English rose? The effort to remember increased the throbbing in his head. In defense Jamie closed his eyes. He forced his thoughts back­ward, back to the previous afternoon. It had been twilight. He’d been in his chambers, day­dreaming as he so often did of ways to escape the future his father had mapped out for him.

More and more of late he had been beset by discontent, by a vague restlessness and by a growing resentment of parental control of the purse strings. His father had spent eight long years reading law at Gray’s Inn after he’d fin­ished his studies at Oxford, but Jamie had no burning desire to follow in the old man’s foot­steps. He’d made a token effort, for two inter­minable years now, and been bored to tears by Plowden’s Reports and Littleton’s Tenures.

The only book that really interested him was Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, which contained tales of wonderful discoveries and stories of bold adventurers. He’d been rereading one of his favorites when he’d been hailed by two of his fel­low students at the Inns of Court, Partington and Cary. Brendan Kinlough bad been with them.

Jamie winced and stifled a sudden urge to groan aloud. Details came back to him now. The Irishman was responsible for this agony. Kin­lough had been celebrating the purchase of an expensive new doublet, scarlet satin, boldly slashed and paned in order to show off the fine linen shirt beneath. They’d not be drinking any paltry English ale on this great occasion, he’d told his friends, but a hearty usquebaugh.

Usquebaugh. Aqua vitae. The water of life. The way Jamie felt now, a quick death would be prefer­able to living any longer. It was the devil’s own brew, a quick route to a long stay in purgatory.

Jamie’s recollections of the evening and the night that followed remained hazy. They’d gone to a play, he thought. At the Cockpit in Drury Lane? Or had it been at the Red Bull in Clerken­well? Either was hard by Holborn, where Gray’s Inn had imprisoned reluctant would-be barristers for generations. Jamie managed to call up a dim memory of a candlelit playhouse. It must have been the Cockpit, then.

Another glimmer surfaced. They had made sport of some courtiers they’d encountered there, several young dandies affecting lovelocks. Each of the foolish fellows had separated a single curl from the ringlets cascading down his back, tied it with a ribbon, and pulled it forward over the right shoulder. An absurd fashion and one most tempt­ing to snip off. Jamie was sure that had happened. He’d used a penknife and his prize had been a limp auburn lock. He’d nearly come to blows with its former owner after the deed was done.

Had they been evicted then, or had they stayed to see a play? Jamie could not remember, nor did he recall arriving at this place, whatever this place was.

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes a second time, his need for answers stronger than his desire to avoid daylight. One thing had changed. The woman was awake. She had not moved, except to turn her head toward him, but now she was staring right back at him, her eyes wide and blue and worried.

Beneath the thin, rough cloth blanket that covered them both, Jamie’s hand still rested against the underside of her bare breast. Tenta­tively, he moved his thumb upward to graze the nipple. Her response was immediate. The puck­ered flesh hardened, and hectic color flooded into her pale face.

He frowned and took a hard look at his bed-mate. After a moment he removed his hand and, very slowly, rolled onto his back to stare up at the faded blue ceiler over their heads.

There were no answers on the mildew-stained satin surface, only more questions, but he was noticing details now, proof that his mind was func­tioning again. He’d realized that the uncomfortable surface beneath him was a field bed. It had been rigged to resemble a four-poster and boasted a tester, ceiler, and bed curtains all around, but there was no disguising that it was really the poorest sort of portable, folding bedstead.

It did not match the clean-smelling female he was sharing it with, and that bothered him.

Jamie felt the whole flimsy contraption shift as his companion sat up. In an attempt to take the ragged dagswain blanket with her she tugged at the coarse cloth covering. Jamie flinched when a corner of the material slapped his tender, partially aroused flesh.

Her behavior made no sense and her silence left him feeling both annoyed and confused. A whore should not be shy. Where was the brazen demand for money? He wondered if he had paid her already, or had paid someone else for her time.

Through the opening between the bed cur­tains Jamie could see a slat-back chair with his own clothing and some of hers flung haphazardly across the seat and trailing over a well-swept floor. The sight reassured him. Likely he had not been robbed.

Ignoring the woman at his side, Jamie sat up and pushed the curtains as far back as they would go. He concentrated on keeping his head from dropping as he swung his legs over the side and stood. Remarkably, he had begun to feel bet­ter. His stomach remained steady. His headache seemed marginally less painful.

He crossed to the corner of the small room where, as he’d suspected, the round curtain of green saye hid a closestool. Even as he took advantage of the convenience he wondered at this sign of modesty. It was just one more incon­gruity in an already puzzling situation. Still brooding, he returned to the chair and used its top rail to support himself as he dressed.

She was watching him. Although his back was to the bed he could feel her eyes following every movement. As he pulled on his shirt and hose and breeches and set her plain linen chemise and simple gown back on the chair, Jamie tried to convince himself that she was just a hired bedwarmer, that they were in a room in a brothel, but there were too many aspects of this situation that did not make sense.

Jamie tugged hard on the tops of his tall, square-toed boots, shoving his feet back into them with more force than was strictly necessary Was she new to the game? A novice harlot? That was one possibility. The other was gnawing at his conscience, impossible to ignore any longer.

What if she was not a whore at all?

As soon as he was fully dressed Jamie turned to look again at the woman with whom he had spent the night. She was kneeling and facing him, wrapped in the blanket so that it covered her torso and lower body, though the arrange­ment left her arms and shoulders enticingly bare. She looked chaste and untouchable . . . and at the same time deliciously wanton.

“Are you mute?” Jamie demanded irritably. “Have you nothing to say for yourself?”

“What would you have me say?” Her voice was pleasant, soft and well-modulated, and she seemed genuinely curious to hear his answer.

He glared at her. “You might tell me where I am.”

“In my chamber.”

He glowered at the literal reply, and wondered if she might laugh at him. His head still pounded, making rational thought difficult.

“We are in an inn,” she added. A mischievous glint appeared in her eyes. “It is the Sign of the Green Rose, in Clerkenwell.”

And then she smiled.

The expression transformed her, temporarily banishing both Jamie’s headache and his ill humor. The plain face became beautiful. Her bright blue eyes sparkled like sapphires. The color of her smooth skin heightened from palest pink to vibrant rose. She had the prettiest teeth Jamie had ever seen, small and white and even, and her lips seemed suddenly fuller, more inviting.

Stunned, Jamie took a step closer to the bed, then another. Burgeoning desire erased every thought but one from his mind as he reached for her with both hands, grasping her soft, white shoulders and hauling her against his chest. He saw the smile begin to fade as his lips descended. He captured her mouth, intent on plundering the rich, hot depths within.

He half expected her to struggle, to protest, to pull away. When she did not he waited for her to use a courtesan’s practiced arts to inflame him further. She needed no such tricks. She returned his kiss with an innocent fervor, a passion unlike any he had ever encountered before. It was the most potent of aphrodisiacs, and yet, somehow, it was as disconcerting as it was arousing.

Protest was the last thing on Ellen Allyn’s mind as she melted in Jamie Mainwaring’s arms. She was entranced by the novel sensations coursing through her body, eager to learn more of the magic that could be created between man and woman. In the darkest hours of the night Jamie Mainwaring had taken her virginity and begun her awakening, but there had not been time enough for her to reach fulfillment. Now his kisses were causing that special excitement to build within her once again. The delicious unknown beckoned with powerful force.

Abruptly Jamie released her.

She blinked her eyes, confused and bereft and too inexperienced to know how to make him embrace her again. “Jamie?”

He took another step away from her, putting more distance between them. Sunlight danced at the back of his head, changing the hair he wore long, in the new Oxford style, into a golden nim­bus. His face was a perfect oval, rough with pale stubble but dominated by a long, straight nose and eyes that were as much green as blue. Those mag­nificent eyes narrowed as he stared at her. His face took on a hostile and suspicious expression.

“Who are you and how did I come to be here in your company?”

Ellen sighed. She had been unable to stop looking at him while he dressed. Naked, he was a splendid sight, tall and firmly muscled, slender rather than stocky. Even now, fully clothed, he exuded masculine power. In his fawn-colored doublet and the darker knee breeches, tied with ribbon garters, he was every inch a gentleman.

And he was in pain.

It was obvious to her that his head still hurt him abominably, but she suspected that his con­science might be causing him equal distress. Ellen knew then that she could not go through with the hoax his friends had devised.

She slid off the bed and, clinging tightly to the blanket to shield her nakedness, sidled toward the small wooden chest that held her spare clothing.

“The Irishman made the arrangements.”

“Kinlough?”

“Yes.” With nervous fingers she plucked a clean smock from the rough storage box. The one she’d been wearing lay in tattered ruins on the floor beside the bed.

Jamie rubbed his temples, as if that might help him make some sense of what she was saying.

“What arrangements? Who are you?”

“The Irishman bade me tell you that my name is Avelina and that this is my father’s inn, but that is not the truth. I came to this place only two days ago.”

“To set up as a whore?”

Ellen flinched but did not deny it. The less he knew about her and the real reason she’d agreed to enact this charade the better. She clutched the soft, well-worn smock close against the front of her blanket and glanced toward the bed. She had planned to scoop up her remaining clothes and dress behind the tattered sarcenet hangings but now Jamie blocked the return route.

“Your friends paid me handsomely to con­vince you that you bedded an innocent maid last night.”

“How handsomely?”

“Three double crowns.”

On Jamie Mainwaring’s expressive face out­rage warred with amusement. After a moment he grinned widely and Ellen had to fight against a desire to smile herself.

“Have they bribed the innkeeper, too? Does he lurk outside this chamber with a loaded musket?”

“He waits below.” Ellen saw the sparkle of imminent laughter in Jamie’s eyes and on impulse added, “With a pudding prick.”

He began to chuckle—a deep, resonant, infinitely appealing sound. “He’ll skewer me, by God! Apt retribution indeed, if I’ll not become his son-in-law. But, tell me, how do my friends mean to rescue me from my folly?”

Ellen met his eyes. “They do not plan to save you.”

“What? Will they let a wedding proceed?”

“They have placed bets on your reaction to finding yourself in bed with me and believing that you have ruined the innocent daughter of the house. Two say you will do the honorable thing and seek out the innkeeper to ask for my hand in marriage. They swear they will wait until you are standing in church in front of a preacher before they tell you that you have been gulled.”

“And the Irishman?”

“Wagered a sovereign that you will sense a trap and slip out by some back way.”

“They are all three below,” he guessed, “drinking small beer while they wait for us to wake up.”

He’d taken her disclosures unexpectedly well, proof that was a gentle man as well as a gen­tleman. Ellen had met few such in her lifetime. “That was the plan.”

Jamie’s laughter echoed through the small, dank chamber, giving it new warmth. Ellen lis­tened in growing delight, though she did not allow herself to join in. The sheer joy Jamie and his wildhead friends found in living was a revela­tion to her.

“I shall do neither,” he declared. “We will leave this poor inn together, ignoring both my erstwhile friends and your supposed parent, and let them think what they will.”

Her fingers trembled around the material she still held clutched to her chest. “I have taken the Irishman’s money. If he finds me again he might demand repayment.”

“Let me deal with Kinlough. Will you play along?” He moved aside so that she could gather up her remaining clothes.

“Where will you take me?”

“A better place than this, that I promise you.” An errant hope leapt in her heart, a desire to spend more time with Jamie Mainwaring, to learn again the touch of his hands on her naked skin. The blanket slipped, whether by chance or design she could not honestly say, as she scram­bled back up onto the bed. She glanced up quickly, hoping to catch Jamie’s reaction.

He was watching her with a new intensity. He cleared his throat. “There is one condition for my friendship.”

She waited, her heart hammering. He had to know already that she was willing.

With a rueful smile he shook his head. “Another sort of condition, sweeting.”

Instantly Ellen was wary. Had she let his apparent kindness and his handsome face mislead her? In the course of the night she bad almost for­gotten that she had meant only to use him. The money his companions bad paid her to cozen him had been welcome, but more welcome still had been the tantalizing possibility of escape. She had seen Jamie Mainwaring as her salvation, the means by which she might rid herself of the dan­gerous burden she had been obliged to keep secret for as long as she could remember.

She could not quite keep the faint tremble out of her voice. “What condition?”

“You must tell me your name. It cannot possi­bly be Avelina.”

He was teasing her. Relief made Ellen weak and grateful that she was already seated on the lumpy bed.

“I am called Ellen,” she said. “Ellen Allyn.”

“Well, Ellen Allyn, have you a real father somewhere?”

“Both my parents died of the plague.”

“It took my mother, too,” he said, suddenly somber. “It has been a bit more than a year now, but I still miss her.”

Her heart went out to him. It was a rare man who would confess love for the woman who had borne him. “My loss is not so recent. It was dur­ing the great outbreak.” That had been the year the plague had been so widespread that in one week five thousand Londoners had died.

He looked startled. “You could have been no more than a child then.”

“I was eight years old when the death cart came for my mother. It took my father two weeks later and three of my brothers the day after that.”

“It is a miracle you survived,” Jamie murmured.

Ellen scarcely heard. Memories flooded over her, painful and vivid, drowning all else.

“There was still food at first, and my remain­ing brother was in good health. Then one day he ordered me to bar the door and let no one enter, and went out to buy provisions and a preventive for the plague.”

Jamie came closer, moved by the raw emotion in her voice. Ellen stared at him, unseeing. She did not want to remember, but could find no way to stop either the images or the words.

“There were still some apothecaries left, my brother said, who would sell shilling powders and half-crown electuaries. He said he’d bring back a cake of arsenic for me to wear under my arm and rue and wormwood to stuff into my nose and ears, but he never returned.”

When the food had run out completely, Ellen remembered, she had put on her best gown and sat quietly in the empty house, waiting for some­one to come for her. She had not been ill at all, but by the time two more days had passed she was weak. Driven by hunger, she’d opened the door and looked out into the pale gray dawn of an October day.

There had been a cross on the door, and some words she could not read had been painted under it. More crosses had adorned adjoining buildings. Grass had been growing underfoot, right on the street. Ellen had not understood what that meant. She hadn’t realized why the smell of lime was so strong, either, until she’d come upon a lime pit overflowing with bodies.

At first she’d been aware only of a dearth of the usual London noises. There had been no boys crying out for passersby to purchase their wares. No one had offered apples or bread or meat pies for sale. There had been no horsemen in sight, nor any carts, not even the death carts. The only sound had been the dolorous tolling of the bells, which had gone on without ceasing for so many weeks that Ellen had no longer noticed it. She’d begun to walk, thinking to find a cook-shop, but houses and shops alike had all been boarded up. Every window and door had been tightly shuttered against the dangerous, plague-ridden air. No one had answered when she’d stopped and knocked.

“Ellen?”

The concern in Jamie’s voice brought her back to the present with a start. She tried to wipe out the rest of the memories. It did no good to dwell on them and she had more pressing matters to concern her now.

Jamie Mainwaring was standing very close to the bed. Her heart rate accelerated and she had to lick her suddenly dry lips.

He stared at her mouth, and for a moment Ellen thought he would kiss her again, but he held himself in check. Only a new harshness in his voice gave away the strength of his physical response to her.

“Where did you go after your parents died?” he asked. “Did some relative take you in?”

She shook her head and struggled to rein in her runaway thoughts. “I . . . I found work as a servant. My master, he died suddenly this week just past, leaving me without a home.”

Jamie nodded, drawing his own conclusions from that, but he still seemed puzzled by her.

“You are well-spoken for a serving maid.”

“My master taught me.” Ellen hoped Jamie would assume that she’d been employed in a gentleman’s household, or at least in some respectable merchant’s home.

“And my friends? How did they find you?”

“At the playhouse.” His surprise made it nec­essary for her to elaborate, but she did so reluc­tantly. “I hoped to locate a distant kinsman there, for my father’s cousin was reputed to have been a player of some stature, but I found no welcome, only lewd suggestions and rude behavior, which made your companions seem fine gentle­men in comparison.”

“And they offered you money, for which you have a desperate need.” Jamie nodded, apparently satisfied at last, and stepped away from the bed.

Ellen started to relax, relieved at having deflected his questions, but at that moment his eyes narrowed. He was staring at an area next to her on the bed. She followed the direction of his gaze, her heart sinking as she guessed what she would see.

The unforgiving sunlight picked out a telltale spot of recently shed blood.

Jamie sounded as if he were strangling. “Did I . . . were you—?”

“That stain means nothing.”

Their eyes locked. She met the penetrating look with an expression as bland as she could manage and prayed that her firm voice and calm attitude would be enough to convince him she was telling the truth.

Jamie gave a shaky laugh. “A part of the hoax, then?”

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. He wanted reassurance and she was determined he should have it.

“Very clever. Insidious. For a moment I . . . well, no matter. It was just a prank, after all.”

“I am not a virgin.”

It was true, now. Jamie assumed, just as she hoped, that she had some experience with men.

Ellen wondered why she felt such a sharp stab of disappointment. After all, there had never been any possibility that he would marry her. Gentlemen did not wed serving maids. It would have been rare enough to find one who’d even consider marrying the daughter of an innkeeper.

“I am not a whore, either. I pray you, give me leave to dress in privacy. It is passing cold to be wrapped in only a blanket.”

Her haughty tone seemed to amuse him, as did her claim that she was chilled. Ellen felt overwarm as Jamie’s eyes raked her from head to toe. Then he pulled the bed curtains together, and after a moment Ellen heard his booted feet strike the floorboards as he crossed the small chamber to stand at the single, narrow window set into the dormer.

Hurriedly she began to dress, and had her kirtle in place before she heard Jamie’s voice again.

“This is too dismal a place for you to stay in. Pack all your belongings. We will confound my friends and leave here with all your bags and boxes.”

“One small bundle only.” There had not been time to fetch more than a few personal items before she’d had to flee. With trembling fingers Ellen closed the last fastenings on her plain blue bodice and tucked her hair up under a simple white cap.

Jamie didn’t move as she came up beside him at the open window. He was staring out beyond the rooftops toward the distant waters of the Thames. “Merchant ships lie at anchor in the river, loading cargo to take to faraway ports. There are riches beyond dreaming to be had in foreign lands, if only a man be bold enough to go and look for them.”

Ellen heard the longing in his voice and won­dered at it. She sensed his restlessness but did not know what to say to him. He was, for all that they had shared in the night, a stranger to her. Troubled, she dropped her gaze and looked down into the innyard beneath the window.

Her horrified gasp startled Jamie out of his reverie.

“What is it?”

“Nothing. Nothing.” She backed away from the window, anxious to be out of sight before the man in the innyard looked up.

Frodsham had found her.

Even from this height there was no mistaking him. That had been Frodsham’s thin frame beneath his familiar loose overcoat. She did not need to glimpse his little rat’s eyes to confirm his identity, and she could not take the risk that he would recognize her.

Jamie caught her arm to prevent further retreat. He glanced sideways through the window. Although he did not force her back to his side Ellen could picture what he was seeing below The Green Rose had been built around a square yard big enough to give plays in. The ground floor boasted a run-down hall, stables, barns, two pri­vate parlors, and a public drinking room. Bed-chambers filled the next level, let out to travelers. The landlord kept his own rooms in the attic above the west wing and used the rest of this third level for storage. The tiny chamber Jamie and Ellen now occupied was just opposite the inn­keeper’s lodgings, in the center of the east wing.

She’d paid dearly to use the dreary attic room as a temporary hiding place, counting on her host’s reputation as a man whose silence could be bought. Too late she realized her one mis­take. She should also have found a way to bribe each of the inn’s servants.

“There is a weasel-beaked fellow in a dark green mandilion standing in front of the stable and talking to an ostler,” Jamie said. “Is he the one you fear?”

Frodsham was looking for her. There was no other explanation. If it had been tempting before to leave the Green Rose with Jamie Mainwaring, it was imperative now. She could not, would not, go back to her old life.

“Ellen, who is he?”

“No one.”

“You are afraid of him.”

“He . . . he wishes to collect a debt that was owed to him by my late master. He thinks I am obliged to pay it, but I am not, and not in the way he would demand payment. Please, Jamie, let us leave now.”

“How did you mean to go on, Ellen? You say you are no whore, and yet—”

“I planned to stand in Paul’s Churchyard and offer myself as a servant.”

“A sensible action.”

It was, unfortunately, no longer one she dared consider. St. Paul’s was the central marketplace for seeking such employment. Frodsham would be certain to look for her there.

Jamie scooped up the small bundle Ellen had packed. He maintained a light grip on her arm, as if he suspected she might try to bolt if he gave her the opportunity. “I have a better plan. My older sister, Mistress Mary Norwood, has need of a maidser­vant. You and she will suit each other admirably.”

“Your sister?” Ellen felt color creep into her face. “I am not sure that would be wise. She’s bound to ask questions.”

“She need not know how we met. Oh, Mary would not care, but her husband might.” He frowned, apparently imagining his brother-in-law’s reaction. “Do not trouble yourself about Samuel. He’ll agree to take you in if Mary wants you. He dotes on my sister, and he can afford to cater to her whims.”

“What will you tell your sister, then?”

“We will devise some clever tale. We will have ample time to think of one. Samuel Norwood’s house and haberdasher’s shop are in Whitechapel Street, on the far side of London in the parish of St. Botolph without Aldgate.”

Ellen’s uncertainty vanished. The location could not have been more perfect to put some distance between herself and the odious Frod­sham. “1 will gladly enter Mistress Norwood’s service, then, if she will have me.”

“Never doubt it, sweeting. She will find you a breath of fresh air, even as I have.”

Ellen blinked with surprise at Jamie's unex­pected compliment. She studied his handsome features thoughtfully as he ushered her toward the door. Anywhere away from Clerkenwell would suit her well enough, but, just perhaps, that was not quite all she desired.


Chapter 1

1638

A small, open boat, propelled by oars for lack of any wind, moved steadily over the smooth waters of the river Test, bearing its cargo from the West Quay of Southampton to the waiting Covenant. The ship that was to take them to New England rode at anchor in the har­bor, her great square sails furled. The masts and spars stood out sharply against a cloudless sky, draped with complex arrange­ments of canvas and enough rope to make Ellen Allyn think uneasily of a gallows.

Which was less painful, she wondered, to die by hanging or to drown? The morbid thought depressed her and she was glad to be distracted by the lively youngster at her side.

Samuel Norwood, named for his father, was eight years old. He bounced up and down on the worn, wooden planks, too excited to be still. Ellen kept a firm grip on the boy’s hand as they studied the sturdy merchantman, well aware of her young charge’s affinity for places hazardous to both life and limb.

“I wish we could leave today.” Young Sam twisted in her grasp and tried to wriggle free.

Because Southampton’s waterfront was even filthier than London’s Thames Street and at least as dangerous, Ellen refused to release him. The boy was an innocent, far too trusting, and she did not want him wandering into one of the many taverns nestled against the port city’s crumbling walls.

“Be patient, Sammy. We will sail soon enough.”

“But I want to go now”

Ellen could not share his eagerness to go to sea, although she had been glad to escape Whitechapel Street. Long weeks of confinement stretched ahead of them on board ship. Over a hundred passengers and more than a score of seamen would be crowded together aboard the Covenant on a voyage that could easily last three months or more. She did not allow herself to think past their arrival in the New World. The unknowns there were too numerous to dare to contemplate.

“Why must we wait? And why did we have to move into a house? Why didn’t we go out to the ship?”

“The Covenant may be in port for several weeks yet.”

 “Why?”

Ellen hesitated. The rules that regulated emi­gration in these troubled times had been worry­ing her. “Two of the king’s justices must satisfy themselves that your father’s certificate of reli­gious conformity is in order,” she said carefully, “and then they must administer the oaths of alle­giance and supremacy to him before they may grant him a license to pass the seas.”

They were also required by law to review every name on the passenger list. Would they have reason to hesitate over hers?

“Then will we go and live on the ship?”

Ellen forced herself to sound confident. “Yes, we will, but we may still have a while to wait. Before she can sail westward the Covenant must have a favorable wind.”

“Uncle Jamie is coming to see us off,” the boy said.

Ellen’s heart began to beat a little faster at the thought. She had only to look at the lad in her keeping, with his golden hair and blue-green eyes, to remember how handsome his mother’s brother was.

It had been more than five years since she’d seen Jamie Mainwaring last, nearly six since the memorable day he’d escorted her to the safe haven of his sister’s house and convinced Mary Norwood to take her in. Ellen had found great contentment in the Norwood household, and come to adore Mary’s children, especially Young Sam. If that one passionate encounter with Jamie Mainwaring had not succeeded in relieving her of her secret burden, at least he had taken her out of the reach of those who knew too much about her.

Only during the last year had she begun to be uneasy again. No one in the parish of St. Botolph without Aldgate had come right out and accused her of anything, but she’d seen the furtive glances, heard the whispers that sudden­ly stopped when she came into a shop. Ellen was all but certain that the clothier’s factor from Manchester suspected the truth. Why else had he suddenly decided to take his business to a rival haberdasher?

The boy’s high-pitched voice broke into her troubling reverie. “Uncle Jamie is as rich as a usurer. Father said so.”

Ellen held back a smile. “I do not think he meant to have you repeat that sentiment, espe­cially not in your uncle’s hearing.”

Jamie had left the Inns of Court a few months after Ellen met him. His father’s death had freed him to sail away in search of adventure. Samuel Norwood had been inclined to call him a wastrel then, the black sheep of the Mainwarings, but his attitude had undergone a rapid change when Jamie sent back the first fruits of his labor. In Russia he’d amassed a fortune in sables, and then he’d journeyed to Newfoundland to turn a tidy profit in timber. An astute businessman himself, Norwood could not help but admire Jamie’s natural talent for trade.

As Ellen and Young Sam watched, the boat reached its goal and supplies were off-loaded onto the deck of the ship. That mission accom­plished, the smaller craft began its slow journey back to shore. It would make many such trips before the passengers and all their possessions, including sundry livestock, were aboard.

“I want to ride in that boat when it makes the next trip.”

Ellen was searching for the best words to dis­suade the boy when she noticed a new smell among the noisome odors at dockside. It was civet, a fragrance gentlemen wore, ill suited to blend with the aromas of fish and tar, whale oil and offal. Almost as soon as she identified the scent, Ellen heard a low masculine chuckle just behind them.

Jamie.

She was more than half convinced of it even before she turned around and it was unmistak­ably his voice that spoke, addressing his nephew. “That is called a shallop, lad, a most convenient boat in coastal waters since it can be propelled by either sail or oars. I am shipping one similar to it to New England for my own use.”

The unexpected announcement so startled Ellen that she forgot she was speaking to her employer’s brother. “Do you mean it, Jamie? You are coming with us?” As she heard her own words she flushed and stammered. “I beg your pardon, Master Mainwaring. Your news took me by surprise.”

His left eyebrow twitched in amusement.

“Jamie will do, sweeting. I have been planning for some time to make the journey, but certain arrangements had to be made first. Even my sister does not yet know of my intention.”

Young Sam turned curious eyes to Ellen, then looked up at the tall, golden-haired man at her side. He smiled shyly. “Are you my uncle?”

“Indeed I am, lad.” Jamie knelt in front of the boy, so that they were eye to eye. “We are going to become great friends, I promise you.”

Worship shone on Young Sam’s face. He had been a toddler when his uncle left but he had hung on every word of the letters Jamie had written to Mary Norwood in the years since. She had read each one aloud to the entire household as soon as it arrived at the house in Whitechapel Street.

While his attention was centered on his nephew, Ellen looked her fill on Jamie. He seemed older, harder than he had been. The pointed beard he now sported and the accompany­ing mustache showed signs of recent attention in a barber’s shop. His clean hair, gleaming golden in the sun, had been neatly trimmed. It was shorter than he’d once worn it, but that in no way lessened his appeal.

Ellen had a sudden vivid recollection of the deeply erotic pull she had experienced the first time she’d seen Jamie Mainwaring. How could she not when it was tugging at her again, as strongly as if she’d lain with him only the night before instead of six long years in the past?

No other man before or since had ever affected her quite the way Jamie Mainwaring did.

Over the top of Young Sam’s tousled head Jamie caught sight of Ellen’s expression and wondered what she was thinking. She looked much as he’d expected she would—a little older, and dressed very plainly. By all reports she was well content with her role as Mary’s maidservant and a nursemaid to the children.

Did she suspect what he had planned for her? Would she cooperate? Jamie thought he under­stood the reasons why she’d been so careful not to confide in anyone in the past, but he hoped she would soon come to trust him enough to share her secret.

“How can a shallop fit on board the Covenant?” Young Sam demanded, drawing all eyes back to himself. “It is smaller but it is still much too big. There will be no room left for us.”

“My shallop is smaller, and designed to be cut down and stowed between decks. The top planks are removed on each side and the ribs cut off.”

“But then it will not sail.”

“I will put it back together again once we arrive in Plymouth.”

Young Sam considered this. “I think it would be easier just to build a whole new boat, and then we would have more space for ourselves on the journey.”

Chuckling, Jamie rose and took Young Sam by the hand. “We will be great friends indeed. Per­haps you will even help me put my shallop back together again, but just now you can assist me in another way. Will you introduce me to your three sisters? I remember Molly a little, for she is two years older than you are, but the others were born while I was out of England.”

“They are not very interesting,” Young Sam warned his uncle as he reluctantly let himself be led away from the fascinations of the harbor. “They are only girls.”

Jamie had arranged the lease of a house in French Street for the duration of their stay in Southampton. It was three stories high, with a central portion built of stone and the rest timber framed. They entered the hall by a side door, avoiding the ground-floor glover’s shop, which was the only section regularly in use.

Samuel Norwood returned to the house just as Young Sam finished presenting Suzanna, who was five years old, and Sarah, who was just two. Like the older girl, Molly, they were small copies of their mother. Each possessed the distinctive blue-green eyes of the Mainwarings and had also inherited Mary’s fine, light brown hair and her frail, delicate prettiness.

“They are very clever,” Young Sam grudgingly confided. “I am always the one who is blamed when they get into trouble.”

“I will not be fooled by appearances. I know full well what a trial sisters can be.” Jamie winked at Mary, his heart full of memories of the happy childhood they had shared. Until he’d been a little older than Young Sam was now their mother had taught Mary and him at home, instilling in them both a voracious thirst for knowledge and an exceptionally lenient view of mankind’s foibles.

As he turned to greet the children’s father Jamie was smiling. To a stranger these girls might indeed appear frail and delicate, most unsuited for the rigors of life in the New World, but he knew that was all an illusion. His sister had always been much stronger than she looked and he had no doubt that her pretty little daughters were, too.

“One hurdle passed,” Norwood declared as he sank slowly into a Glastonbury chair. He was some years older than his wife, short and heavy­set and swag-bellied.

“Have you registered, then?” Jamie asked. That was the first requirement of foreign travel, listing all their names and ages, and the head of the household’s place of birth and occupation.

Norwood shoved a pair of small, round spectacles back into place on the bridge of a nose that had been broken years before and peered up at his brother-in-law. “1 have committed to paper my intention to go to Plymouth in New England, there to inhabit and remain. God grant they will be less inclined to bring lawsuits there. England is become well nigh impossible to conduct a busi­ness in. Foolish regulations. Suppliers making trouble.”

Jamie let him grumble on without comment. Samuel Norwood had taken his share of adver­saries to court. He had an uncertain temper, and a stubborn streak that demanded he see through any matter that he believed touched upon his honor.

“Did they question the fact that we are taking two maidservants with us?” Mary asked.

“Two?” For the first time Jamie realized there was someone else in the hall, a big, rawboned woman, drably dressed.

“You remember Hester, Jamie. She was with us before Ellen came.”

He remembered her and the perpetually sour expression she wore on her pale, pockmarked face. He’d taken Ellen to his sister at least in part in the hope that Mary would let Hester go, but he should have known better. She was too softhearted ever to turn out an unsatisfactory, servant.

“No one questioned anything,” Norwood said. “It seemed they already knew you were the undertaker for this voyage. I hope you were not obliged to pay too great a bribe.”

“Do not concern yourself, Norwood. I can afford it, and I expect to make a healthy profit from the undertaking. The ship could be had for a mere one hundred and twenty pounds a month. Add pay for twenty-six mariners, a mate and a master, with all their victuals, on a voyage of four months’ duration, and the total is a mere eight hundred. I am assured of that much from passenger fares and freight to New England. The income from the downhill crossing will be pure profit.”

Even as he rattled off figures and took satis­faction in the admiring gleam in Samuel Nor-wood’s eyes, Jamie observed Ellen’s reactions. Having expected trouble over her passage, she was relieved that no one had questioned Norwood about her.

“What came on the return journey?” Norwood asked.

“More timber from Newfoundland.”

“I assume this ship you’ve leased for us is in good condition.”

“She has the best possible history for our pur­pose. She was used till now as a wine trader, which means she has a sweet smell and tight caulking.” Jamie turned to Mary. “Does the house suit you? The owner promised it would be amply furnished for our needs.”

“It is far more than we needed for so short a stay. You spoil us shamelessly.”

His sister’s gentle scolding prompted him to take a good look around. The hall in which they were gathered was by no means grand, and in the old fashion was unceilinged and open clear to the rafters. The upper chambers, front and back, were connected by a side gallery.

No tapestries graced the walls, only a few badly painted cloths. There was but the single Glastonbury chair, though there were several benches. The plate cupboard contained nothing more impressive than pewter. “You are accus­tomed to better than this.”

“We expect to live very simply when we reach New England,” Mary reminded him, “and ship­board quarters are not noted for their luxury.”

Norwood drew Jamie’s attention back to him­self. “There may be trouble ahead with that crew,” he complained. “If I were in charge I’d consider replacing them.”

Jamie’s eyes narrowed as his head snapped around. “What trouble, and how do you reach this conclusion? I was not aware that you had already been on board.”

“I did not need to visit the ship to see the way my goods have been stowed.” Samuel Norwood’s voice rose sharply as he described what he had seen through a spyglass. “Sacks of peas and oatmeal heaped here and there all over the main deck. Hogsheads of malt tumbled every which way. Casks of wine hard by kegs full of powder. Worse, some of the trunks and boxes containing our clothing and household goods and tools lie exposed to the elements. Nails rust. Cloth rots. God knows what they’ve done with the barrels that contain my inventory. I tell you, Mainwaring, these men are fit only for dismissal. I’d never have allowed one of my apprentices to arrange the wares in such a disorderly way!”

Jamie had been in his brother-in-law’s shop only once and had found it memorable both for the variety of its offerings and for its extreme neatness. Lanterns, mousetraps, even gloves, had been ranged in orderly fashion on Norwood’s shelves, together with caps and hats, light coats, purses, spurs, and gaming tables. He hoped to sell his wares to those already settled in New England. No doubt he’d do well in pepper mills and pins, needles and thread, so long as he kept control of an awkward propensity for speaking his mind.

“These crewmen are neither apprentices nor servants. They are an independent breed, answerable only to their captain.”

“Then I shall complain to him. I cannot allow my possessions to be ruined by carelessness.”

Jamie wondered if it would do any good to suggest that Norwood desist. The man sold smallwares, a term that could include almost any inexpensive item for which there was great demand. He understood laces and points, gir­dles and bows, and dealt in pen cases, paper, parchment, and boxwood combs. He knew nothing at all about shipping such stock across an ocean.

“The crew will make order out of chaos well before you sail,” Jamie promised. “Stay out of their way and let them do the work they’ve been trained for.”

“I had not planned to discuss my business with common seamen. I do not intend to have anything to do with them, or with the other pas­sengers, either. Why else do you think I insisted upon a cabin?”

“You are berthed in the larger of the two the Covenant boasts,” Jamie assured him, “while nearly everyone else must make do with makeshift cubicles between decks.”

Temporary partitions of lumber and canvas afforded little privacy and within those walls each traveler had barely enough space to string a ham­mock or put a narrow pallet down upon the deck.

“Who has the other cabin?” Mary asked.

Jamie grinned. He had not yet had the oppor­tunity to tell anyone but Ellen and Young Sam of his plans. “Why, I sleep there, sister dear. I've claimed the master’s small cabin in the after end of the half deck for myself.”

* * * *

“Well met,” Jamie said.

Ellen hesitated halfway up the narrow stair­way and looked up at him, suddenly suspicious. She and Jamie were alone in the house. Every­one else had gone on an outing in the country after Jamie had hired a coach for that purpose. “A last look at England,” he’d insisted, but declined to go along himself. At the last minute, Mary had decided one maidservant was suffi­cient to help her with the children and Ellen had been left behind, too.

Jamie grinned down at her now. “You are just the person to help me, Ellen. I have a shirt in desperate need of repair.”

She followed him up the spiraling stairs to his bedchamber, still wary, and felt both relieved and disappointed when he handed her the torn garment. It was made of fine Irish linen and not seriously damaged. A seam had opened along one side.

“Sit there and mend it for me.” Jamie indicated a low, flat-topped chest positioned at the foot of his simple flock bed.

As Ellen dutifully stitched, he began to talk of his travels. He described architectural wonders left behind in Russia by someone called Ivan the Terrible, and then he said, “There are natural wonders in this wide world, too. Imagine a great crystal castle rising from the sea.”

She could not.

“Ice, Ellen.”

He fascinated her with the sheer delight he seemed to take in sharing his experiences. That he would care to keep her company while she worked was flattering, but the details of the story itself compelled her attention.

“I made the journey to Newfoundland by what is called the stepping-stone route, from Ireland to Scotland to the Faeroes, then Iceland, and the tip of Greenland, and at length, Newfoundland. That is the shortest route from the Old World to the New. It was Midsummer’s Eve when I saw that fairy castle but for two full days we sailed through mountains of ice. There were dark patches of open water between them, and for those we steered, but a channel that yawned wide one moment could snap completely closed the next.”

Ellen had finished her simple task, sewing the split seam so evenly that none could tell it had ever come apart. She glanced up, looking in Jamie’s direction. He was gazing out the window, his thoughts obviously far from Southampton.

“We had almost reached open water when one last gigantic ice floe rolled into our path. It came at us like a battering ram and then there was another, on the other side. They caught our ship between them for an instant and we heard a terrible, rending sound in the hold. Seconds later we were free, but somewhere in the hull there was a hole, and all around us was dark, freezing water. I knew then that no one could help us but God . . . and our own determination to survive.”

Although it was obvious he had lived to tell the tale, Ellen shivered. Her imagination con­jured up terrible pictures of a tragedy at sea while at the same time she waited with great anticipation to hear the rest of the thrilling story.

“There was bad stowage on that ship,” Jamie said.

He looked so disgusted at the carelessness that Ellen nearly smiled. In spite of his casual dismissal of Master Norwood’s complaints, she knew that Jamie had gone aboard the Covenant the very next day to oversee the loading of their freight into the ship’s hold.

“Misplaced ballast almost caused us to swamp when water got in below decks. Only by strenuous bailing and pumping did we save our­selves, and then, by God’s grace, we found all the leaks. We stuffed the small ones with what­ever we had—clothing, canvas, bedding, even animal hides—but the largest hole in the hull was low and underwater. Our only recourse was to sink a bag on a rope and pray it would be drawn into the cavity and lodge there.”

“And was it?”

“After many tries. Thus were we saved from certain death, all except the ship’s carpenter, who was swept overboard and drowned while trying to caulk a port.”

The expression on Jamie’s face was remark­ably like the one Young Sam wore when he expected praise for some daring deed. Both were as apt to be scolded as admired, for both liked adventures that involved taking foolish risks.

“You are brave indeed to contemplate another journey to the New World when you so nearly perished on the first.”

“Not all crossings are fraught with peril. We will have smooth sailing on the Covenant.”

Ellen rose with the shirt in her hands. She was proud of her accomplishment, for when she’d first entered Mary Norwood’s service she had scarcely known which end of a needle to thread. Jamie’s sister had taught her with patience and kindness, treating her more like a friend than a servant, and never once had she pressed Ellen to reveal the reason why there were such odd gaps in her training.

Jamie accepted the folded shirt and tossed it carelessly on the bed. He caught her hand before she could evade him and tugged her gently toward the window. “Come here and look,” he said. “From this vantage point you can just see the Covenant beyond the rooftops. I can point out exactly why she is such a safe ship, why we’ve nothing to fear from—”

She had no warning.

There was never any warning.

In the instant it took to blink, Ellen lost all sense of her own body, her own thoughts and feelings, her own time. One moment she was standing at Jamie’s side. Then there was nothing but blackness.

Ellen’s visions had come to her in just this fashion for as long as she could remember. When the darkness lifted she felt no fear, only the curious sensation of being two people at once. She did not question how the impossible could be happening. She simply accepted. As Ellen Allyn she watched from outside the action, in the way an audience would see players enact­ing a scene in a play. At the same time she expe­rienced all the emotions, all the perceptions of another person.

The other opened her eyes.

She was sitting straight up in bed, clutching the covers to her bare breasts. A scraping sound had ripped her from an already restless sleep, setting her heart pounding in a violent cadence while her breath soughed in and out in shallow counterpoint. No dream, Marcella thought. She was wide awake now and still the odd, unnerv­ing noise continued.

Gripping the mocado bed curtains with both hands, she made the merest sliver of an opening and peered through it. The room beyond the green-and-white striped fabric was as dark as the inside of a collier’s mine. It was also at the top of her father’s fine, high house.

She shivered. Evil spirits roamed abroad in the night. Was this some demon scratching on the outside of the casement? Just roused from slumber, confused and not a little frightened, her vivid imagination conjured up a bevy of terrors before common sense triumphed over the moment of irrational panic.

She did not keep her shutters closed so tightly after sundown because she feared devils, but because the most learned physicians in Eliza­beth’s England advised that such a precaution kept other sorts of evil at bay. The plague, they said, was spread by the night air. There was a more practical reason, too. Closed shutters filtered the foul odors drifting up from Southampton’s narrow streets.

She reached for her nightgown, a rich red velvet robe trimmed in rabbit fur. Wrapped in its well-worn folds she felt brave enough to creep from the high, curtained bed. Her bare toes touched icy floorboards, making her wish she had lit a fire in her small enameled charcoal brazier before going to bed.

As she slipped her chilled feet into soft leather slippers the rapping came again, louder than before. Hesitating, she stared hard at the single mullioned window. Curiosity warred with cau­tion. She was certain now that whatever lurked outside was flesh and blood, but that did not make her nocturnal visitor any less dangerous. What manner of man would climb to a decent woman’s bedchamber in the middle of the night?

There was only one way to find out, and with no more ado she plucked up the silver candle­stick from her bedside table, lit the wax taper it held, and moved cautiously toward the window. Just as she reached the carved oak chest that served as a window seat the scrabbling sounds were joined by a husky male whisper.

“In the name of God, Marcella,” Davy’s slurred voice pleaded, “let me in before I fall to my death.”

The sound of booted feet sliding along the wall warned Marcella that he spoke nothing less than the truth. He might well make a fatal plunge to the hard-packed earth below if she did not come to his aid.

The window opened in, the shutters out. Set­ting aside her candle, she fumbled for the latches, scraping her fingertips on the rough wood. Finally one side came free.

Her Davy clung to the outside of the casement with a white-knuckled grip, his cloak billowing out behind him as he strained to keep his precar­ious perch. His amber eyes looked glazed in the moonlight. She reached out to seize his arm and help him over the edge of the sill and into her chamber, pleased to discover that although he reeked of ale his reflexes were unimpaired. Seconds later he was standing beside her.

Marcella’s figure, inside the clinging scarlet robe, was tall and slender, but she was no beauty. Her face was too long and thin for that. Her wide eyes were soft and brown, her skin pallid but blessedly unscarred by smallpox. Under Davy’s intense scrutiny heat rose to tinge her cheeks with pink.

The same flickering candlelight that revealed her reaction to him showed her his rugged, smooth-shaven face. His handsome mouth twisted into an arrogant grin as he swept off his ornate bonnet and offered a mock bow. The gesture revealed a mass of blond hair, thick and streaked with gold. “I have come for you, mistress, as I promised.”

“Oh, Davy, it is too late for us.” Marcella felt tears begin to well up. “You must leave before you are discovered. My father has promised me to the chandler’s son. The first banns will be called in church on Sunday.”

He said nothing, only reached out to touch a lock of her thick, curly chestnut hair. It hung nearly to her waist and his hand followed it down, skimming curves as well as tresses.

Marcella shivered in reaction. She did love him so. She wanted nothing more than to invite him into her bed, but instead she repeated the decision her father had made for her. “You must leave. I am forbidden to see you ever again. If Papa finds you here he’ll have you dragged off to prison by the watch . . . or worse.

Papa was known for his temper. His hands caught her upper arms in a painful grip. “I’ll not let another man have you. Come away with me, Marcella. Now. Tonight.”

She looked toward the open window in panic. “I cannot!”

“It is not so difficult a climb.” His inebriated grin was cocky and full of confidence, discount­ing his earlier difficulties. “I did not take such a great risk to reach you, my love. The rear wall is of stone of an extra thickness to accommodate the garderobes and the top lies but a little to the right and below your window. We have only to avail ourselves of that convenient step to descend safely.”

She was frightened by the idea of the climb, and in greater fear still of her father’s wrath. If he chose the wrong moment to relieve himself in the cupboard at the back of his chamber he’d surely hear them scrabbling down the outside of the shaft.

Marcella had never seen Davy in his cups before, either. That worried her, too. “I will meet you tomorrow, in the market, and—”

His grip tightened. Suddenly impatient, he dragged her toward the window. Marcella had to fight against her first instinct, which was to cry out in protest. She did not dare wake her father. If he caught them now he would beat her, and he’d probably kill Davy.

Silently, she came to a decision. She would run away. She and Davy would be happy together.

She tried again to free herself from Davy’s grasp. She needed clothes, and after she had dressed they would gather up her jewelry, to sell to live on, and leave by the front door.

Davy did not understand her renewed resis­tance. At what seemed to him to be an attempt to escape him, he lost his temper. “You will not reject me,” he vowed. “I will not allow it.”

With one leg already over the sill, he pulled her after him.

“No,” Marcella whispered. “Wait.”

A wave of dizziness swept over her as she caught sight of the ground below. It seemed a very great distance down. She closed her eyes and fought harder against Davy’s grip. Her growing terror fed on itself, and she whimpered.

Davy ignored the pitiful sound. He refused to listen to her frantic, incoherent pleading. He was much stronger than she. As he started to climb down he hauled her all the way out of the window, forcing her to begin her own descent. She clung to him and to the outside of the casement, her panic so great she could scarcely control her hands.

Her only warning was Davy’s startled curse. Then she felt herself slip as he lost his footing. To save himself, he released her.

She flailed desperately. For a moment she caught hold of his arm. Davy’s muscles had always seemed to her to be hewn of Spanish steel and now her hand slid away like silk off a blade.

Then she was falling—