Authors: Jane Feather
Rufus flung open the door to a chamber at the very end of the gallery, stepped inside, and kicked it shut.
He set the candelabra on the mantel, the flagon on a small round table, and with a flourish unwound his trophy, setting her on her feet.
“I won,” Portia said breathlessly, pushing her hair out of her eyes.
“A moot point,” Rufus said, catching her chin on the palm of his hand. He kissed her mouth, his lips hard and yet pliant, his beard silky against her skin. Portia kissed him back with a fervor that matched the beat of her blood.
She was aware of nothing now except the thrilling of her blood, the scent of his skin, the feel of his mouth against hers, the taste of wine on his tongue and hers. His hands ran down her body and she rose on tiptoe, her arms sliding around his neck as she leaned into the caress.
Rufus laughed softly against her mouth …
By Jane Feather
And soon in hardcover
fter eleven books for Bantam, it’s way past time that I expressed my gratitude to Wendy McCurdy, my editor. Her support, painstakingly hard work, and unerring sense of what will and will not work have piloted back on course more drifting manuscripts than I care to admit. It’s a lucky writer indeed to have such an editor in her corner. Thank you, Wendy, for a great partnership.
AY 11, 1641
hoebe swiped one hand across her eyes as she
felt for her handkerchief with the other. The handkerchief was nowhere to be found, but that didn’t surprise her. She’d lost more handkerchiefs in her thirteen years than she’d had hot dinners. With a vigorous and efficacious sniff, she crept around the hedge of clipped laurel out of sight of the clacking, laughing crowd of wedding guests. The high-pitched cacophony of their merrymaking mingled oddly with the persistent, raucous screams of a mob in full cry gusting across the river from Tower Hill.
She glanced over her shoulder at the graceful half-timbered house that was her home. It stood on a slight rise on the south bank of the river Thames, commanding a view over London and the surrounding countryside. Windows winked in the afternoon sunlight and she could hear the plaintive plucking of a harp persistent beneath the surge and ebb of the party.
No one was looking for her. Why should they? She was of no interest to anyone. Diana had banished her from her presence after the accident. Phoebe cringed at the memory. She could never understand how it happened that her body seemed to get away from her, to have a life of its own, creating a wake of chaos and destruction that followed her wherever she went.
But she was safe for a while. Her step quickened as she made for the old boathouse, her own private sanctuary. When her father had moved the mansion’s water gate so that it faced the water steps at Wapping, the old boathouse had fallen into disrepair. Now it nestled in a tangle of tall reeds at the water’s edge, its roof sagging, its timbers bared to the bone by the damp salt air and the wind.
But it was the one place where Phoebe could lick her wounds in private. She wasn’t sure whether anyone else in the household knew it still existed, but as she approached she saw that the door was not firmly closed.
Her first reaction was anger. Someone had been trespassing in the one place she could call her own. Her second was a swift pattering of fear. The world was full of beasts, both human and animal, and anyone could have penetrated this clearly deserted structure. Anyone or anything could be lying in wait within. She hesitated, staring at the dark crack between door and frame, almost as if the tiny crack could open to reveal the dim, dusty interior for her from a safe distance. Then her anger reasserted itself. The boathouse belonged to
And if anyone was in there, she would send them off.
She turned into the rushes, looking for a thick piece of driftwood, and found an old spar, rusty nails sticking out in a most satisfactory fashion. Thus armed, she approached the boathouse, her heart still pattering, but her face set. She kicked the door open, flooding the dark mildewed corners with light.
“Who are you?” she demanded of the occupant, who, startled, blinked but didn’t move from her perch on a rickety three-legged stool by the unglazed window where the light fell on the page of her book.
Phoebe entered the shed, dropping her weapon. “Oh,” she said. “I know who you are. You’re Lord Granville’s daughter. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the wedding? I thought you were supposed to carry my sister’s train.”
The dark-haired girl carefully closed her book over her finger. “Yes, I’m Olivia,” she said after a minute. “And I d-d-didn’t want to b-be in the wedding. My father said I d-didn’t have to b-be if I d-didn’t want to.” She let out a slow breath at the end of this little speech, which had clearly cost her some effort.
Phoebe looked at the girl curiously. She was younger than Phoebe, although she was as tall, and enviably slim to the eyes or one who constantly lamented her own intractable roundness. “This is my special place,” Phoebe said, but without rancor, sitting on a fallen beam and drawing a wrapped packet from her pocket. “And I don’t blame you for not wanting to be in the wedding. I was supposed to attend my sister, but I knocked over the perfume bottle and then trod on Diana’s flounce.”
She unwrapped the packet, taking a bite of the gingerbread it contained before holding out the offering to Olivia, who shook her head.
“Diana cursed me up hill and down dale and said she never wanted to lay eyes on me again,” Phoebe continued. “Which she probably won’t, since she’s going to be in Yorkshire, miles and miles away from here. And I have to say, if I never lay eyes on her again, I won’t be sorry.” She looked defiantly upward as if braving heavenly wrath with such an undutiful statement.
“I d-don’t like her,” Olivia confided.
“I wouldn’t like her for a stepmother either…. She’ll be absolutely horrible! Oh, I’m sorry. I always say the wrong thing,” Phoebe exclaimed crossly. “I always say whatever comes into my head.”
“It’s the t-truth, anyway,” the other girl muttered. She opened up her book again and began to read.
Phoebe frowned. Her stepniece, as she supposed she now was, was not the friendliest of creatures. “Do you always stammer?”
Olivia blushed crimson. “I c-c-can’t help it.”
“No, of course you can’t,” Phoebe said hastily. “I was just curious.” In the absence of a response from her companion, she moved on to the second piece of gingerbread, idly brushing at a collection of tiny grease spots that seemed to have gathered upon her pink silk gown. A gown specially made for her sister’s wedding. It was supposed to complement Diana’s pearl-encrusted ivory damask, but somehow on Phoebe the effect didn’t quite work, as Diana had pointed out with her usual asperity.
There was a sudden whirlwind rush from the door that banged shut, enclosing the girls in semi-darkness again. “God’s bones, but if this isn’t the peskiest wedding!” a voice declared vigorously. The newcomer leaned against the closed door. She was breathing fast and dashed a hand across her brow to wipe away the dew of perspiration. Her bright green eyes fell upon the boathouse’s other occupants.
“I didn’t think anyone knew this place was here. I slept here last night. It was the only way I could get away from those pawing beasts. And now they’re at it again. I came here for some peace and quiet.”
“It’s my special place,” Phoebe said, standing up. “And you’re trespassing.” The newcomer didn’t look in the least like a wedding guest. Her hair was a tangled mass of bright red curls that didn’t look as if it had seen a brush in a month. Her face looked dirty in the gloom, although it was hard to tell among the freckles what was dirt and what wasn’t. Her dress was made of dull coarse holland, the hem dipping in the middle, the perfunctory ruffles on the sleeves torn and grubby.
“Oho, no I’m not,” the girl crowed, perching on the upturned holey hull of an abandoned rowboat. “I’m invited to the wedding. Or at least,” she added with scrupulous honesty, “my father is. And where Jack goes, I go. No choice.”
“I know who you are.” Olivia looked up from her book for the first time since the girl had burst in upon them. “You’re my father’s half b-brother’s natural child.”
“Portia” the girl said cheerfully. “Jack Worth’s bastard. And so you must be Olivia. Jack was talking about you. And I suppose, if you live here, you’re the bride’s sister. Phoebe, isn’t it?”
Phoebe sat down again. “You seem to know a great deal about us.”
Portia shrugged. “I keep my ears open … and my eyes. Close either one of ’em for half a second and the devils’ll get you.”
“Men,” Portia declared. “You wouldn’t think it to look at me, would you?” She chuckled. “Scrawny as a scarecrow. But they’ll take anything they can get so long as it’s free.”
“I loathe men!” The fierce and perfectly clear statement came from Olivia.
“Me too,” Portia agreed, then added with all the loftiness of her fourteen years, “But you’re a little young, duckie, to have made such a decision. How old are you?”
“Oh, you’ll change your mind,” Portia said knowledgeably.
“I won’t. I’m never going to marry.” Olivia’s brown eyes threw daggers beneath their thick black eyebrows.
“Neither am I,” Phoebe said. “Now that my father has managed to make such a splendid match for Diana, he’ll leave me alone, I’m sure.”
“Why don’t you want to marry?” Portia asked with interest. “It’s your destiny to marry. There’s nothing else for someone as wellborn as you to do.”
Phoebe shook her head. “No one would want to marry me. Nothing ever fits me, and I’m always dropping things and saying just what comes into my head. Diana and my father say I’m a liability. I can’t do anything right. So I’m going to be a poet and do good works instead.”
“Of course someone will want to marry you,” Portia stated. “You’re lovely and curvy and womanly. I’m the one no one’s going to marry. Look at me.” She stood up and gestured to herself with a flourish. “I’m straight up and down like a ruler. I’m a bastard. I have no money, no property. I’m a hopeless prospect.” She sat down again, smiling cheerfully as if the prophecy were not in the least disheartening.
Phoebe considered. “I see what you mean,” she said. “It would be difficult for you to find a husband. So what will you do?”
“I’d like to be a soldier. I wish I’d been born a boy. I’m sure I was supposed to be, but something went wrong.”
“I’m going to b-be a scholar,” Olivia declared. “I’m going to ask my father to get me a t-tutor when I’m older, and I want to live in Oxford and study there.”
“Women don’t study at the university,” Phoebe pointed out.
“I shall,” Olivia stated stubbornly.
“Lord, a soldier, a poet, and a scholar! What a trio of female misfits!” Portia went into a peal of laughter.
Phoebe laughed with her, feeling a delicious and hitherto unknown warmth in her belly. She wanted to sing, get to her feet and dance with her companions. Even Olivia was smiling, the defensive fierceness momentarily gone from her eyes.