Read Ring of Flowers Online

Authors: Brian Andrews

Tags: #Historical, #Romance

Ring of Flowers

Copyright © 2012 by Brian Hittle

This is a work of fiction. The scientific, legal, and medical references
contained herein were extensively researched and are based on fact.
However, the names, characters, businesses, and incidents are products
of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or
dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

ISBN:978-1-61145-745-2

CHAPTER 1

_________________

Eyam, England
August, 1665

E
THAN
C
ROMWELL WALKED
with purpose, like men with testosterone-laden agendas typically do. In three days’ time, he would propose to Kathryn Vicars, the most beautiful girl in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. No matter that she was the seventeen-year-old daughter of a lowly tailor, with no dowry to speak of. For Cromwell, she was desire incarnate. If he could combine all of the most delightful experiences from each of his five senses, and flood his brain with that pleasure in a single instant, the cumulative bliss would still fall short of how he imagined it would be to ravage her.

Cromwell rapped vigorously with gloved knuckles on the wooden door of George Vicars’ modest stone cottage. Inside, he heard the unmistakable cacophony of a stack of pots and pans accidentally knocked to the floor. This calamity was followed by an unholy expletive, and then the sound of shuffling boots.

“I’ll be right there … just a second.”

“Vicars! What on Earth are you doing in there? I don’t have time to wait for your fumbling and bumbling,” Cromwell barked. He raised his fist to pound again, but the door flew open instead. George Vicars, Eyam’s only tailor, stood in the doorway with a flushed face and eyeglasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. He pushed the spectacles back up to their rightful perch with a long, delicate index finger. Although he was thirty-nine years of age, his wrinkle-free, freckled complexion and full head of reddish-brown hair made him look like a man ten years younger.

“Good afternoon, Mister Cromwell. Please do come in,” said Vicars.

Cromwell stepped across the threshold and surveyed the tailor’s shop with smug disinterest. The expression, when combined with Cromwell’s meaty jowls and broad flat nose, made him look to Vicars like a bipedal Bull Mastiff, in expensive clothes.

“Vicars, have you finished with my breeches?”

“Yes, of course. I finished them in the Rhinegraves style as you requested, very loose in the thighs with both black ribbon and white lace at the knee. Let me fetch them for you.”

Vicars scurried around Cromwell, who was blocking the main walking path through the tailor’s shop with his considerable girth, and hurried over to a simple wardrobe constructed of unfinished English pine. He opened the right-hand door and retrieved a pair of breeches.

Cromwell rolled his eyes. “Vicars, those are not my breeches. Look at the tag, for heavens’ sake.”

A paper note fixed to the waistline seam read “Earl of Devonshire” in black ink. Vicars mumbled an apology and hurried back to the wardrobe.

“Here you go, sir. These are your proper breeches. Would you like to try them for fit?”

“I don’t have time. I’m a very busy man, you know. Besides, if you did your job right, tailor, then there should be no need,” Cromwell said, taking the breeches in hand. He paused for a moment to eye the tailor. After reaching some unspoken conclusion, he turned up his nose and continued. “I’m off to London this afternoon to buy an engagement ring for Kathryn. I will propose to her when I return, on Friday evening. I will send my carriage to fetch her at four o’clock sharp. Make sure that she is ready and dressed her finest.”

“Yes, Mr. Cromwell, you can count on me. Oh, before you go, I have something special I want to show you.”

Vicars was a man of modest means. As a tailor, he would never be anything but a man of modest means. When Cromwell had asked for his daughter’s hand, Vicars had no money or land to give as a dowry. Cromwell was of noble birthright and did not need either of these things, but that didn’t change the fact that a dowry was expected. So Vicars had offered the only thing he could, his services as a tailor. In place of a traditional dowry, Vicars had extended to Cromwell a lifetime of free tailoring. Cromwell had snickered at this gift, but accepted it. While he would never admit it, Cromwell quite liked the idea of this gift. His ever-increasing waistline required the frequent loosening of nearly all of his garments.

Vicars was no fool; he knew exactly why Cromwell wished to marry his daughter. He decided that his real wedding present would be Kathryn’s wedding dress. He would pour all his skill, and all his soul, into crafting a wedding dress worthy of Kathryn. A dress more beautiful than any the village of Eyam had ever seen, or would hope to see again.

From a rectangular wooden chest under a window, Vicars retrieved a bolt of fabric, measuring one yard long, by one-half yard wide, by one-eighth yard thick. The exterior of the parcel was wrapped in brown burlap and secured with twine.

“Here ‘tis,” Vicars said, holding up the package for Cromwell to see. “Direct from London. The finest white linen and lace that money can buy. Only the best for our Kathryn on her wedding day. Isn’t that right, Mr. Cromwell? This wedding dress will be my crowning achievement as a tailor. The finest dress anyone in the County has ever seen.”

“It looks to be damp,” Cromwell interrupted.

Vicars frowned. “I’m sure that’s just the wrapping. Not to worry.”

Vicars cut the twine with a small paring knife and unwrapped the burlap. Cromwell was right. The linen inside was wet. Not dripping wet, but clearly it had been soaked through during the carriage transit from London to Eyam.

“Oh, damn it, Vicars. You bumbler. It’s ruined!” Cromwell chastened, as he stepped in for a closer look.

“Not to worry, Mister Cromwell. I’ll just unwind the material and let it dry by the fire. Tomorrow ‘twill be as good as new,” Vicars replied.

Cromwell scowled and watched with growing agitation as Vicars began to unwind the bolt of fabric.

“It’s ruined, Vicars. Look there, the mildew has already set in. I see black spots. They’re everywhere.”

Vicars bent down and squinted to inspect the damage. The black dots were not mildew stains. He was certain of this because … they were moving.

Fleas!

The fabric was infested with black fleas. One of the little creatures sprang up, struck Vicars in the forehead right between the eyes and bounced off.

“Filthy vermin!” Cromwell bellowed. How something as perfect as Kathryn Vicars could have sprung from George Vicars’ loins was beyond comprehension, Cromwell thought.

Vicars shrank. The color drained from his face. It had cost him three months’ wages to procure linen and lace of this exquisite quality. There was no return policy on such things, and he could not afford a second purchase. He contemplated what to do, but no ideas came to him.

Then, as if on cue, all the fleas began springing up from the folds of the fabric. They hopped in every direction, dispersing quickly and wildly, each tiny parasite voraciously seeking its next blood meal. Vicars felt a prick on the back of his neck—an introductory bite—and smacked the spot with his palm.

Cromwell retreated toward the door, slapping wildly at his forearms and thighs as he did. Vicars grabbed the bolt of linen and followed him.

“In God’s name, Vicars, what are you doing?”

“Escorting my uninvited house guests outside. These little buggers are impossible to catch. I need to shake out the fabric before I dry it, or the whole cottage will be infested for months.”

Cromwell kept moving away from Vicars and did not stop until he was standing on the dusty cobblestones in the middle of Church Street. He watched with grim dissatisfaction as Vicars waved and shook the expensive fabric the way one shakes out a dirty doormat. Vicars took his time, unfurling yard after yard, and he did not stop until all the material had been thoroughly agitated.

The sound of wild, unabashed laughter—a girl’s laughter— caught both their attention. From around the corner of the church, Kathryn Vicars appeared, wearing a pale yellow summer dress. She was barefoot; her shining, gold-spun hair was untied and bouncing in waves as she ran. She clutched a mop of wildflowers in her left hand, her sandals in her right, and was looking over her shoulder giggling as eighteen-year-old Paul Foster chased after her. Paul was laughing too, but he stopped abruptly when he spied Ethan Cromwell and George Vicars.

Kathryn, who was still not looking where she was going, saw the expression on Paul’s face morph from delight to dread. Something was wrong. Her heart sank. Then, she ran into something big, and squishy, and unyielding. She bounced back and would have fallen down hard on her backside if two powerful hands had not grabbed her by the arms. She looked up and found the disapproving eyes of Ethan Cromwell staring down at her. He maintained his grip on her for a moment longer than was necessary before releasing her. Then, his frown changed into a furtive smile, which caused a sudden chill to run down her spine.

“Mister Cromwell! Please accept my sincerest apologies. I’m so clumsy,” Kathryn said, her eyes lowered and fixed on her bare dusty feet.

“Out for a bit of exercise I see. Very spirited of you.”

He looked beyond Kathryn’s bowed head. His gaze settled on young Paul Foster, who was frozen dead in his tracks twenty yards away. Cromwell took note of Paul’s muscular, tanned arms—arms well-conditioned from sixty-hour weeks of hard labor in his father’s fields. A jealous ember ignited in Cromwell’s chest, in what felt like a spot just beneath his heart. Then he looked at the tailor.

It was only a single glance, but in that glance Cromwell spoke volumes. And Vicars, whose eyes were obediently fixed on Cromwell, understood the silent diatribe with perfect clarity: Get control of your daughter. This childish romance ends today. If I catch her with the boy again, I’ll seize his father’s farm, fields, and livestock. I’ll make sure no one will hire anybody with the surname Foster from here to London. As for you, Vicars, if you want your daughter to become a Cromwell, you better teach her how to behave as a proper lady should.

“I’m off to London for a couple of days. I have a bit of jewelry shopping to do. Kathryn, you look beautiful today,” Cromwell announced cheerfully. Then to Vicars he added, “Remember what we talked about.”

The tailor smiled and waved, but uttered no reply.

“Kathryn, daughter, why don’t you come and give your papa a hand. Say goodbye to Mr. Cromwell and the Foster boy,” said Vicars.

“Good day, Mister Cromwell. Safe travels to London,” she said to Cromwell, who nodded, turned on his heels, and strutted off down Church Street. She waved at Paul, let her eyes linger on him for a prolonged wistful second, and then headed grudgingly toward the cottage.

“Let’s go inside, Kathryn,” Vicars said, motioning to the open door of the cottage. “I have something important to discuss with you. It’s time that we talk about your future.”

Kathryn frowned. She already knew what her father was going to say to her … the whole town knew what was ordained for Kathryn Vicars. What Ethan Cromwell wanted, Ethan Cromwell got. Her lower lip quivered.

“Okay, Papa.”

Vicars offered her a tender, fatherly smile, but she did not notice. As he followed her inside, he scratched at the back of his neck, where an angry, tiny welt had risen. Inside, millions of Yersinia pestis bacteria were already beginning to multiply and spread throughout his bloodstream. Unbeknownst to George Vicars, his daughter, and the other four hundred residents of Eyam, Death had arrived in a parcel of linen and lace from London.

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