Authors: A Rogues Embrace
In loving memory of my grandfather,
who firmly believed in reading
all the fine print before signing.
(I do, Grandpa, I do.)
He took Elissa’s hand, but did not kiss it. Instead, he pressed it against his warm, bare chest. “You have nothing to fear from me.”
She felt his taut muscles and the beating of his heart. “I am not afraid of you.”
“I am glad to hear you say so.”
He lifted her hand to his chin so that her fingertips rested against his soft lips, while the stubble of his beard was like sand against the rest of her fingers. It was a simple thing and yet strangely exciting.
Too exciting. She had loved foolishly once; she would not allow herself to believe in love or be swept away by what had to be lust.
“No, do not draw back,” he insisted softly.
Then he kissed her as she had always imagined a man in love should kiss the woman he adored, with passion and tenderness in thrilling alliance, as if he were gently persuading her to love him, rather than demanding.
What kind of freedom was he offering?
itting beside his mother, six-year-old William Longbourne grinned at the brawny waterman guiding their vessel along the Thames. “My mama and I are going to see the king!” he declared proudly.
Elissa sighed with exasperation. “Will, please keep silent and sit still,” she admonished, wishing she could temper his excitement until they safely reached the shore. As it was, he kept fidgeting and rocking the boat.
And it really wasn’t necessary to announce the reason for their journey to everyone they met.
However, she might as well have wished the Seven Seas to dry up as for Will to be less boisterous on this particular occasion. After all, he had no reason to share his mother’s apprehension.
“I can see why the king’d want to meet your ma,” the waterman observed, licking his lips as he leered at Elissa.
If she had known the insolence she would have to endure from this disgusting knave, she would have taken the Puritan’s boat and paid the slightly higher fare.
But she had not, so she tried to ignore the impertinent lout while keeping one eye on Will and studying the massive structures lining the river.
Mighty buildings dominated the north bank, each one seeming to demand homage to its magnificence and to render human beings insignificant. Behind these imposing edifices, a haze of coal smoke rose from the multitude of houses, as well as the industries that lay cheek-by-jowl among them.
She wondered what King Charles, restored to his throne at last, thought of the choking air or the filthy river. Perhaps he was too busy summoning busy widows with estates to manage to notice.
She pondered the hundred things that could be going awry at home during her absence. Then she tried to force such thoughts from her mind, telling herself she would do better to prepare for her meeting with the king, which was to be this very evening.
“You keep your weather eye open when ye’re on the river, me lad,” the churl said with another disgusting smile that exposed his rotting
teeth, “and you might see the king sooner than you think. He’s often on the Thames, comin’ and goin.’”
“He is?” Will asked, looking around as if he expected to see His Majesty’s boat drawing up alongside even as he spoke. “Corning and going where?”
“Ye’re too young to know that,” the man replied with a chortle before he hawked and spat into the river.
“Will you please keep such remarks to yourself?” Elissa ordered through clenched teeth.
“Oh, look! Look!” Will cried suddenly, rising from his seat and pointing. “There he is! There is the king!”
He started to wave frantically, leaning precariously over the gunwale. “Your Majesty! Your Majesty!”
Flinging the edge of her cloak out of the way, Elissa lunged for Will before he fell over the side of the boat. She caught his jacket and pulled him backward.
“Keep him still or he’ll be at the bottom of the river,” the waterman muttered angrily as he steadied the small vessel with his pole.
“Not if you do your job,” Elissa muttered. Her frown turned into a scowl when she realized the lout was staring at her chest—or, more precisely, at the cleavage exposed by her gaping cloak.
She set Will beside her and wished she had worn her most plain, high-necked gown of
dull gray wool instead of this dress of rose-colored brocade. She would change before she went to court.
“Are you sure that’s not the king?” Will asked, nodding at a boat that was moving toward them from a short distance away.
In that vessel there was indeed a most magnificently attired man. He was clad in a short jacket and full breeches of brilliant blue trimmed with riotous and colorful embroidery. He also wore a white shirt with a large, lacy jabot and long cuffs, and he sported a hat with the biggest, whitest plume Elissa had ever seen. Beneath the hat was long, curling hair—a wig, no doubt—as well as a round, decidedly average male face unencumbered by a mustache.
Despite his fine and costly attire, if he had no mustache, he could not be the king.
Beside this fashionable vision was another man, dressed all in black like a Puritan, with a plain hat and natural black hair that brushed his broad shoulders. This man sat with astonishing aplomb in the rocking boat, seemingly oblivious to the smells and sights around him, or to whatever his more animated companion was saying.
As they drew closer, Elissa also realized the simply dressed man was one of the most handsome she had ever seen, with a fine nose and strong, clean-shaven chin. Unlike the other fellow, there was shrewd intelligence in
his dark, inscrutable eyes and a set to his jaw that told her that it would be risky to trifle with him.
If one of the men in that boat is royalty, she reflected, it is not the extravagantly attired one.
“That’s not the king,” the waterman informed them scornfully before he shouted a vulgar greeting to the other boat. Its pilot responded in equally earthy terms.
Annoyed that Will had heard such language, Elissa made a sniff of disapproval.
Then the other vessel passed them, and her gaze met that of the arrogant man wearing black.
Elissa’s heart began to beat strangely, and her body warmed as if… as if this man she had never seen before was touching her. Intimately.
She had not felt this way since William Longbourne had started courting her seven years ago.
No, she silently amended as she swallowed hard, I have
felt this way before—and I should not be feeling this way now.
She was a respectable widow, not some … some
to be pleased by the smiles of strangers, no matter how handsome or intriguing they were, or how long it had been since she had been with a man.
Obviously, despite the difference in their clothing and appearance, the man dressed in
black was no more of a gentleman than the waterman.
“Will, stop fidgeting,” she commanded sternly, wishing he would cease staring with such obvious fascination at those men in the other boat.
Then she feared her own expression had not been much different.
With a bone-jarring bump, the waterman finally brought his vessel beside slick, damp water stairs leading up a wharf. He then put his fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle.
“That’ll bring somebody to take your baggage, mistress,” he explained, nodding at the small, leather-covered, bossed box at Elissa’s feet.
The rest of her baggage was being brought to her lawyer’s home by one of her farm laborers in a wagon, for Mr. Harding had graciously invited them to stay with him while they were in London.
Mr. Harding had also offered to accompany Elissa to Whitehall, in case the reason for the king’s summons was what she feared.
Several ragged men began to crowd the steps, each one begging for the task of carrying Elissa’s baggage.
“That will not be necessary. I can manage,” Elissa replied even as she noticed another set of stairs several yards away. The boat with the
fashionable man and his handsome companion was putting in there.
The waterman ignored her and called to one of the men on the stairs, a tall, thin fellow who looked as if he hadn’t washed since birth. “Oy, Mick! Take the fine lady’s box here!”
“I said that will not be necessary!” Elissa repeated.
Too late. The waterman lifted the box and shoved it into Mick’s outstretched hands. Immediately the dirty, ragged fellow turned and dashed up the steps.
Stifling a cry of alarm, Elissa reached into her purse for some coins and shoved them into the waterman’s hand.
“Come, Will,” she commanded, helping her son out of the boat, then taking his hand and hurrying up the stairs as fast as the crowd would let her.
As she did, she tried to catch a glimpse of Mick, grateful that she had tied the purse containing most of her traveling money to her petticoat.
“You’re hurting me,” Will protested.
Elissa loosened her grip slightly as they came to the top of the stairs. Panting, she looked around the unfamiliar, cluttered, and crowded street. Nearby, a fruit seller with a basket of oranges slung over his arm stood with a bevy of haggling women.
Well-dressed, perfumed gentlewomen, servants, and some women whose occupation
seemed all too obvious by their slatternly attire mingled on the street, surveying shop windows. A group of well-to-do men discussing the price of candle wax marched past, while a collection of rough-looking seamen argued outside a tavern. Horse-drawn carts jostled for position as they rumbled along the cobbled street. Stray dogs barked and ran about underfoot, and the fishy, filthy smell of the Thames merged with coal smoke, offal, and perfume.
Naturally there wasn’t a sign of Mick.
“Madam, do you require some assistance?”
At the sound of the aristocratic male voice, Elissa eagerly turned around—to find not the black-clad man and his overdressed companion, but another fellow, tilting rather oddly to one side and wearing garments of dark green velvet, as well as red-heeled shoes and a feathered, broad-brimmed hat. The explanation for the unusual angle of his stance came to her when she saw the wineskin he was attempting to hide behind his back.
Obviously accompanying him were two other men, similarly well dressed in petticoat breeches, short jackets, plumed hats, and curling wigs, and similarly smiling with every appearance of kind, if somewhat sodden, concern.