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Face Down among the Winchester Geese

Face Down among the Winchester Geese by Kathy Lynn Emerson
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When her husband becomes one of the suspects in the murder of several Southwark prostitutes (known as Winchester Geese), Lady Appleton vows to uncover the identity of the real killer in order to prove her husband’s innocence. The year is 1563. "A solid bet for historical mystery fans." (Publisher's Weekly)

Historical mystery by Kathy Lynn Emerson; originally published by St. Martin’s Press and Kensington Books

Belgrave House; June 1999
180 pages; ISBN 9781575666556
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Title: Face Down among the Winchester Geese
Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson

Whitehall Palace
April 25, 1557

The one-eyed Spaniard shoved the door with such force that it slammed against the inner wall. As he advanced into the room, lingering vibrations dislodged a stack of elaborate animal-head masks and sent them tumbling to the terra-cotta tiles. Undeterred, he continued on his course, passing within a hand’s span of the pageant wagon in which Lora Tylney hid, trembling, fearful of discovery.

When the gaudily painted wood-and-canvas tower had been drawn into the great hall a few hours earlier, four golden-robed damsels had been inside. Now, while revelers throughout the palace and grounds enjoyed the subsequent banquets, dances, and masques Queen Mary had arranged to celebrate St. Mark’s Day, only one chamberer sheltered within, crouched low and concealed by the thin walls and lightweight frame but convinced that if she so much as twitched, she’d cast a shadow or otherwise betray her presence. She was no innocent, terrified for her virtue, but neither did she intend to pleasure more than one man this night.

“I saw her come in here, Appleton.” The Span­iard’s slightly accented words slurred, betraying a recent consumption of inordinate quantities of Xeres sack. As Lora had reason to know, Diego Cordoba’s features were handsome, in spite of the eye patch, but they already showed the effects of his dissipated life. His one good eye was bloodshot even when he was sober.

“Admirable wench.” Robert Appleton pro­nounced each word with studied care, for he was also deep in his cups. “Think you she’ll have us all?” Stumbling into the room after them were their boon companions—Pendennis and Marsdon, Elliott and Lord Robin.

“This doe set out to lure a herd of bucks.” Cordoba chortled at his own bawdy fancy. He staggered a bit as he turned in a circle, surveying the contents of the cluttered, dimly lit storage room. “’Tis plain she knows the surrender’s sweeter after a chase.”

Annoyance temporarily drove away the worst of Lora’s trepidation. How could he say such things about her? Had it meant nothing to him that he had been her first lover? She continued to hold herself as still as possible, though pain lanced through her from a stitch in her side. She was short of breath from running so fast, and could do nothing to calm the frantic beating of her heart, which she feared was loud enough to betray her presence.

“Search everywhere,” Lord Robin commanded. “If she’s here, we will find her.”

Pressing trembling fingers to her lips to hold back any sound, Lora considered the chances of escaping rough handling tonight. Another time, she might have welcomed into her bed any one of the bold and lusty fellows who pursued her, but not all together, and not here. She was no common woman. She was a chamberer to Queen Mary. She had her standards.

Madre de Dios!” Cordoba exclaimed.

Scarcely daring to breathe, Lora clasped her knees to her chest and buried her face in her arms. He sounded as if he were right on top of her hiding place. She could almost smell the sweet Spanish wine on his breath.

“What’s amiss?” By his voice, Walter Pendennis was some distance from the pageant wagon.

“Thought I had her,” Cordoba grumbled. “’Tis a fine figure in a gown I’ve embraced, but all of terra-cotta and paint.”

Closer at hand, someone started to laugh. Francis Elliott, Lora thought. Another handsome fellow, one who always wore stark black to contrast with his golden hair.

“Can you not tell the difference? My friend, if you cannot, then you are much the worse for drink.”

“I’ll know the woman when I hold her,” Cordoba bragged. “She’s softer than this.”

Lora heard the thump of his hand against the cos­tumed figure he’d captured. In her mind, she saw his fingers exploring her own contours, felt his wet mouth seeking hers. A little thrill ran through her. There was something about the Spaniard she could not help but find exciting even in these circum­stances. If they stumbled upon her, perhaps she could persuade him that having her all to himself would be much sweeter than sharing. Could she convince him to send his friends away?

“I warrant our quarry’s paps are softer,” Appleton declared in a loud voice. Lora heard a tinkling sound as he blundered into something decorated with bells.

“Aye. Nice and round and tasty. Ripe as new apples.”

Cordoba had reason to know, since he’d been her lover for the last several weeks, but this bragging offended Lora. Her cheeks flamed as she buried her face deeper in the fabric of her sleeves.

The stiff material of the trim rustled softly at her slight movement. Lora’s muscles tensed. Had they heard? The sound had seemed loud as a cannon shot to her. She expected to be dragged from her hiding place at any moment.

“Think you the Tylney lass superior to the king’s mistress?” Lord Robin posed the question. Then someone tripped over yet another obstacle and swore loudly, almost drowning out the salacious chuckle that preceded Cordoba’s answer.

“How are we to say? King Philip would have the head of any man he thought had made advances to his lady love. His wife, now—he’d gladly be spared bedding her.”

Poor Queen Mary, Lora thought. She’d been a dried-up old maid of nearly forty when she’d married the king of Spain. He was eleven years her junior. ’Twas no surprise he looked outside the royal bedchamber for sport.

The screech of unoiled hinges warned Lora that one of the courtiers had opened a chest. Did he think to find her inside? If so, he was cup-shot indeed!

“Methinks Queen Mary has noticed how the king looks at her.” The volume of Peregrine Marsdon’s voice indicated that he was some distance away. Lora knew him less well than the others, but had often admired the breadth of his shoulders and the gentle­ness of his smile.

“Lora Tylney?” Cordoba sounded befuddled.

“The duchess,” Appleton corrected him.

Not one of them was in full possession of his wits, Lora concluded, else they’d never carry on such a conversation. ’Twas dangerous to speak openly of the king’s private concerns. Hope grew in her that they’d forget what they were looking for and wander off. Mayhap they would go and bother the duchess of Lorraine, she thought spitefully. Queen Mary had given her husband’s alleged mistress apartments on the ground floor of nearby Westminster Palace, con­veniently accessible from the gardens.

“As trim a pair of ankles as I’ve ever seen,” Elliott declared. Once more a voice seemed to come from directly behind Lora’s hiding place. She made a small, startled movement before she managed to hold her­self still again.

“Aye,” Pendennis agreed. “I noticed her ankles during the dancing. What color do you suppose her hair is?”

Lora caught her breath and held it. They kept catch­ing her unaware, wandering back and forth as they were. Right now at least two of them were much too close.

Appleton muttered his answer. “Who can tell with the absurd headdresses women wear? And what does it matter? All colors look the same in the dark.”

“I am partial to dark-haired maidens,” Pendennis said. “And I like to keep the candles lit.”

“Maidens, is it? And where do you think to find a maid here at court?” Cordoba’s sneering words irritated Lora all over again. She had been a maid until she met the dashing Diego. That she’d been as eager as he to change that state was irrelevant.

They might have remained there, debating the matter at length, had not a new voice, one unfamiliar to Lora and shaking with barely controlled anger, interrupted them. ‘What business have you here, gen­tlemen? This is no place for your games.”

“Ah, Master Keeper,” Lord Robin greeted the new­comer. “And you, sir? Do I not know you?”

“A humble clerk in the office of the Master of Revels,” came the mumbled response. If the keeper was not shy about challenging his betters, his compan­ion saw the folly in it.

But Lord Robin’s reaction to being censured was mild. He merely complimented the keeper on the evening’s diversions.

“Save your flattery, m’lord.” Lora heard age in the voice now, as well as a certain testiness. “Best get you gone from here. The Master of Revels will not be pleased if any of these props or set pieces are dam­aged. Nor will the king.”

No other argument could work so well as that one, Lora thought. Cordoba owed everything to his over­lord and the Englishmen were all courtiers who’d come to court to curry favor with the Spaniard who’d wed their queen. They hoped to win back what they’d lost nearly four years earlier by siding with the late duke of Northumberland in his rebellion against her.

Aware that, for the moment, she was no longer being sought, and driven by an overwhelming curios­ity, Lora crawled slowly toward the opening at the back of the mock tower. Meant to allow the pageant’s damsels to enter unseen and remain hidden, it was covered by two velvet panels that hung without gap­ing. Cautiously, she reached out with both hands and parted the edges.

Two men were framed by the narrow opening. Appleton looked bleary-eyed and appeared to be a trifle bored. His tawny-colored velvet coat, decorated with strips of black satin, was sadly rumpled, and his hose were streaked with dust from the storeroom. Cordoba, nearly the same height but heavier, fiddled with a green satin eye patch that matched the sleeves attached to his green-and-gold doublet. Lora hoped the nervous gesture meant that he, too, was tired of the chase. She could not see the other courtiers, though she could hear them.

The keeper and the clerk proved no match for Lord Robin. Outnumbered and outranked by the courtiers, they soon departed. Then Cordoba began to turn and Lora hastily dropped the curtains back into place. Once again, she held her breath, hoping he’d not noticed the small movement.

“Presumptuous fellows,” Appleton muttered.

“Say rather they are brave men,” Pendennis argued. “Willing to risk our wrath to protect those things in their keeping.”

“I have no interest in these toys. I only want the woman.”

“But our quarry seems to have eluded us, gentle­men.” Elliott’s deep and resonant tones made him sound less impaired by drink than the rest. “While you spoke with the keeper, I discovered a back exit. Doubtless the lass slipped out that door just as we came in the other.”

Lora waited in an agony of suspense. Would they believe she was gone? She heard more murmured words, then the blessed sound of retreating footsteps. The level of light diminished. A heavy door thudded closed.

Silence reigned in the cavernous storage room.

Cautiously, after waiting for what seemed an inter­minable time and hearing nothing more, Lora emerged from her hiding place. She moved toward the door, then stopped abruptly, startled, when it began to open.

Had it been a trick? Had they returned for her? She’d already started to retreat in the direction of her former hiding place when a whispered voice called out. Her fear ebbed as she recognized it, van­ished when she saw that he was alone.

“Your humble servant, m’lady.” He made her a courtly bow.

“You need not m’lady me, sir,” she said lightly. “I am only plain Mistress Tylney from Lincolnshire.”

“It pleases me to think of you as my lady and, here in this setting, illusion must always take precedence over what is real.”

When he reached for her, she went willingly into his arms. One man she could accommodate. But he only kissed her gently, then set her aside. Disap­pointed, she pouted “Do I not please you?”

“Are you so eager to lie with me, mistress?”

She turned away, then cast a teasing glance at him over her shoulder. At the flash of intense emotion she saw in his eyes, she felt her own excitement increase.

“If you want me, I am yours.” She moved closer to the tower. “In here. ’Twill be more comfortable than the hard terra-cotta tiles.”

She heard him come up behind her, expected him to turn her in his arms and embrace her with a lover’s enthusiasm. Instead, his forearm abruptly cut off her supply of air as it pressed into her throat.

With a horrifying certainly, she understood. He did not mean to make love to her. He intended to kill her.

A harsh whisper, close to her ear, was the last thing she heard before one abrupt movement snapped her neck.

“Whore,” her murderer said. “No better than a Winchester goose.”