Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Craigsmuir Affair

"Ms Black delivers an excellently executed classic romance firmly rooted in a beautifully depicted
historical setting. The last few years of the 19th century come vividly alive, and both Daisy and Adam rise above the clichéd cut-outs to become characters it is easy to relate to and care for. The plot is well-constructed, the dialogue is enjoyable, the villains are agreeably villainous, and all in all this is a book warmly recommended for those who enjoy a well-written historical romance." Historical Novel Sciety reviews, Anna Belfraga.

EXCERPT:
He kept his gaze on the hem of her blue silk gown as it slid across the worn carpet. She glanced over her shoulder, then halted in mid-step and laid a graceful hand on the newel post at the foot of the stairs. ‘You don’t suspect I stole the wretched picture, do you? Is that why I am not allowed to go alone to my chamber?’
She was clever, too. It had not taken long for her to make the connection. Adam’s momentum carried him two steps up the staircase before he looked down into her wide eyes and saw the flash of temper there.
‘Oh!’ Her fingers tightened on the post. ‘Once in my room I shall tamper with the evidence. Is that what you think? What a silly idea!’
He looked down from his vantage point. With every breath she took, her breasts rose against the deep blue silk of her gown. His body tightened in response, startling him. Was he mistaken, or did the faint thrum of lust hang in the air?
‘Damn it all,’ he said softly. ‘Can we just collect the wretched lists and be done with it?’
The CRAIGSMUIR AFFAIR, published 20th July on Amazon kindle.

and for the UK -


Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Dream Catcher and Blue Bonnets and Highlands Folkore


I really enjoyed reading tales and legends from Scotland whilst researching for my historical romantic trilogy DANCING FOR THE DEVIL, which is mostly set in the far north of the Highlands.

 Photo courtesy of Pixabay


In Book 1 of the Trilogy - THE DREAM CATCHER - my heroine's first experience of Scotland is a terrible storm as her ship sails through the Minch - the body of water stretching between the north-west Highlands, the northern Inner Hebrides and the Outer Hebrides.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Folklore tells of a tribe of supernatural sea creatures who inhabited these waters - the Blue Men of the Minch. Partly human and partly mermen, they had blue skin and used to swim alongside ships and try to lure sailors into the water. They also had the ability to conjure storms and wreck ships, but interestingly they spared sailors who had a talent for poetry...

 They were said to live in caves at the bottom of the sea but their sentinel were always on the look out and alerted the others when a ship was sailing through the Minch. The chief of the Blue Men then gathered his men, ready for the attack. Before attacking the ship he would rise high in the water and shout to the skipper two lines of poetry. If the skipper was unable to respond immediately by adding two lines to complete the verse, the Blue Men would take the ship and drag it down to the bottom of the sea. If the skipper could complete the verse, his ship would be allowed to carry on safely.

Here is a boatman's song about the Blue Men:

When the tide is at the turning and the wind is fast asleep,
And not a wave is curling on the wide, blue deep,
Oh, the waters will be churning in the stream that never smiles,
Where the Blue Men are splashing round the charmèd isles.


As the summer wind goes droning o'er the sun-bright seas,
And the Minch is all a-dazzle to the Hebrides,
They will skim along like salmon--you can see their shoulders gleam,
And the flashing of their fingers in the Blue Men's Stream.


But when the blast is raving and the wild tide races,
The Blue Men are breast-high with foam-grey faces;
They'll plunge along with fury while they sweep the spray behind,
Oh, they'll bellow o'er the billows and wail upon the wind.


And if my boat be storm-toss'd and beating for the bay,
They'll be howling and be growling as they drench it with the spray--
For they'd like to heel it over to their laughter when it lists,
Or crack the keel between them, or stave it with their fists.


Oh, weary on the Blue Men, their anger and their wiles!
The whole day long, the whole night long, they're splashing round the isles;
They'll follow every fisher--ah! they'll haunt the fisher's dream--
When billows toss, Oh, who would cross the Blue Men's Stream!


(taken from http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/tsm/tsm08.htm)

 So where does the legend of the Blue Men of the Minch come from?

The obvious explanation is of course that the Blue Men are in fact not magical creatures at all, but porpoises which are often seen in the seas around Scotland.

 Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Historians also suggest two other possibilities. Firstly, the tales of Blue Men may refer to the ancient Picts who used to paint their body and may have used kayak-like boats to cross the waters of the Minch, therefore giving the impression that they were only half human.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Another explanation links the Blue Men to the time of the Vikings who around the 9th century took Moors captured in North Africa to Ireland to be slaves. The Vikings spent winter months near the Shiant Isles in the Minch, and some historians believe the blue men are in fact "marooned foreign slaves" (Mackenzie (2013), loc. 1391). More specifically, these Moors may be Tuaregs, who were always called the 'Blue Men of the Desert' owing to their indigo clothing and headscarves.

Then again, they might just be magical merfolk...


THE DREAM CATCHER and BLUE BONNETS are available from
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dream-Catcher-Dancing-Devil-Book-ebook-y/dp/B017D73N0Q/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blue-Bonnets-Dancing-Devil-Book-ebook/dp/B019E15RTE/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
And watch out for SWORD DANCE, Book 3 in the Trilogy, to be released on March 31st!

Monday, 15 February 2016

Nominated for Best Historical Book 2015 - 'Valens the Fletcher and His Captive.'



The review site, Love Romances Cafe, has nominated my medieval historical romance, 'Valens the Fletcher and His Captive' for Best Historical Book 2015! I'm delighted!

You can read more about this novel and the whole Medieval Captives Series here 

'Valens the Fletcher and His Captive' is available at Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Ebooks and More. 


Lindsay Townsend

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Morcar the Northern Earl and His Captive. Bk 4 of the Medieval Captives Series by Lindsay Townsend

PRE-ORDER NOW - AVAILABLE Tuesday, February 2nd.

Morcar the Earl is a pagan, hated by the Norman Bishop Cyril. Cyril and his bastard son Gaspar plot to unseat Morcar and kidnap his son Thorfinn to raise as a puppet manipulated by Cyril. Morcar is overcome and flung into a cave chained to a young woman, the witch Hemlock. Hemlock has herself been betrayed by Gaspar, who had forced her to be his mistress and then abandoned her once she became pregnant. Hemlock has just lost her unborn baby and is highly distrustful of men. 

 As a pagan, Morcar believes in many gods and worships the ancient stag god, whose horned tattoo he bears on his arm. It is partly for fear of the god that Cyril’s men dared not murder him, instead manacling him to Hemlock and leaving them both to starve. Can they work together to escape? Can they recover Thorfinn? In the end, what future can there be between an earl and a witch? A BookStrand Mainstream Romance.


STORY EXCERPT

Chapter 1

Fall of the Year, 1133, Northern England
Someone petted his hair. At least he still had a head, although it felt like a splintered log, which Morcar decided was better than the alternative. But what had happened?
Without opening his eyes, he flexed his fingers and toes, a rush of gratitude sweeping through him as he realized his limbs were also still attached.
And they may not have been.
A memory fell into him like a striking hammer on an anvil. Sudden fist and knife blows from behind, from unseen unanticipated enemies, wild fighting, his son—
Morcar reared up with a shout. The slim fingers petting his hair pushed him back down.
“Your lad is alive,” a voice breathed by his ear. “Alive and whole. The church-men took him. Sleep.”
“Do not order…”
The hand resumed carding through his hair and Morcar wallowed back into unconsciousness.
* * * *
Later he blinked again into wakefulness. His brains no longer felt to be seeping from his skull and his shoulders burned, which he assumed was an improvement on the hollow ringing that had throbbed through his body earlier. Shifting slightly, he forced his eyes open wider, seeing an orange, flickering glare against a black backdrop. Is it night or am I underground?
“Sage tea. Want some?”
Jerking aside, Morcar rolled onto his back and yelped, his vision blurring afresh for an instant.
“You have grazes and knife cuts and deep bruises down your spine but you can move so you will heal up tight. Tisane?”
He smelled the fresh, head-clearing sage tea, then, and watched a cup wobble in out of the gloom in front of him. Squirming onto his side, Morcar tried to clasp the cup and failed, tried again and succeeded.
He groaned as the hot drink almost scalded the back of his throat and then thirstily drained the rest of the cup.
“More?” the voice suggested.
“Please.”
His clearing vision showed a pair of startled hazel eyes and a heart-shaped, delicate face, framed by a melee of tangled tresses. The spiky brown hair looked surprisingly pretty on this urchin, though he had only seen short hair for women on female prisoners before. But what was he rambling about? Focus. A girl. My nurse is a girl. Her brilliant eyes reminded him sharply of Maud, his wife. My wife! Mother of our son. Thank the Gods she died in her sleep three winters past, at peace and ready to join the old ones. He could not have borne her suffering, else, or her knowing that their child had been stolen away.
Thorfinn, their son. Small and dark-haired like his mother, with a gap-toothed grin and a low, chortling laugh. Thorfinn, with his secret bedtime toy of a raggedy cloth robin and his favorite bright red boots. Named for the God Thor and Maud’s father, Finn. Five years old and already a fearless horseman and a merry, good-natured soul who would share his supper with any who looked hungry. Thorfinn would be a generous lord, leading his people with a high heart. Unless the church-men corrupt him. That is why they kidnapped him, to act as regents in my—his—lands and to raise him as they see fit.
Remembering Thorfinn’s wild sobbing as the bishops’ men took the boy away was the worst sound he had ever heard. Grief bit into his lungs, harsh as a Viking blood-eagle, and Morcar choked.
“Sit up, please,” the girl beside him coaxed. “You will breathe the easier.”
“Thor’s hammer! Do not order me—” Morcar’s rasped complaint subsided into a new bout of coughing. The wretched girl seized the advantage. Hauling him up under his arms like a bag of tools, she dragged him into a sitting position, bracing his back with a knobbly knee. Another cup of sage tea appeared and Morcar drank it, scowling at his rescuer. She was small and prickly, like a hedgehog, if such a creature ever dressed in a faded, ruby-colored gown and with grubby bare feet.
“My name is Hemlock.”
At his stifled snort, the girl flicked her bangs back from her forehead like an irritated mare shaking its mane and went on, “I am a hedge-witch, though by no means as powerful as Elfrida, Magnus’s wife.”
Morcar nodded his understanding, feeling a little ashamed now of smirking at her unusual name. The church-men disliked witches nearly as much as they disapproved of pagans.
“You follow the old ways?” he asked, wondering where they were.
Hemlock’s answer had him twisting round to stare at her. “Always. After my parents died, my greedy brother sold me to Gaspar, the bishop’s son. He baptized me by force and re-named me Mary. He cut off my long hair and sold it. I worked in his household for two years. Despite my protests and distaste, he kept me as a mistress until I got with child because I no longer possessed the herbs to make a pregnancy-stopping tisane. Then the pious bishop’s son called me a whore and cast me out.”
Hemlock stopped speaking, the sound of her quickened breathing very loud and echoing faintly. We are in an enclosed space, then, possibly close to the sea from the faint tang of salt I can smell and taste in the air.
“Why should Gaspar do that?” he asked, feeling still very slow and stupid as he caught up with Gaspar’s casual cruelty. To shear off a woman’s glory, her hair and then sell it, and worse, to throw her from his household when she was pregnant—Morcar shuddered, strongly, once. Children were a gift from the gods. “Why?” he asked a second time.
“He wants no bastards,” snapped Hemlock. She had gone pale, white to the lips. In the dark of the cave her face hung beside his like a death mask on a pole.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

THE DREAM CATCHER, Scottish Historical Romance by Marie Laval

My Scottish historical romance THE DREAM CATCHER was released by Áccent Press last December. It is set in the beautiful and wild landscapes of the Northern Highlands, near Wrath, and is part of a trilogy called DANCING FOR THE DEVIL.

Book 2 - BLUE BONNETS - will be released on January 28th and I thought I would share an excerpt from THE DREAM CATCHER about the very first meeting between the heroine Rose Saintclair and Bruce McGunn, laird of Wrath.

Excerpt

A giant stepped in front of her. Dressed in black riding boots, black breeches and riding coat, he was so tall and his shoulders so broad the already dark horizon darkened further.

     ‘Silence.’

     His voice was deep and calm, the voice of a man used to be obeyed. The crowd hushed at once.

     He bent down in front of her.

     ‘Well, well, who do we have here?’

     Even though she could hardly see his face, she felt his eyes bore into hers, and it was enough to make her mind go blank.

     ‘Rose…Rose Saintclair.’

     ‘Where are the others, your servants, your maids?’

     ‘I… I don’t have any.’

     ‘Really? That’s a surprise. All right then, come up.’ He held both his hands out.

     She hesitated a moment before placing her hands in his. He pulled her up and she flew straight into his arms, landing with a bump against his broad, hard chest. He was so tall she had to tilt her face all the way back to look at him. Her heart skipped a beat, then started bumping fast and loud.

     His eyes were grey and framed by dark eyelashes, his nose straight and strong, his cheekbones high and sharp. Thick black stubble covered his cheeks and chin, and his hair flew around his face, the colour of a raven’s wing. There was something dangerous about him, something reminiscent of a brutal warrior from days long gone by.

     She wriggled to free herself but he didn't let go and his mouth curved into a mocking smile.

     ‘Well, Fàilte, my sweetheart. ‘I’ll say this for McRae. If there’s one thing the rascal can do, it’s pick his fancy women.’

     His hand slid from her waist and he patted her bottom.

     Her reaction was instinctive. She swung her arm and lifted her hand to slap him. She didn’t have the chance. Without batting an eyelid he caught her wrist.

     ‘Steady on, sweetheart. You have a nasty little temper.’

     ‘And you have no right to insult me in this way, you vile brute,’ she hissed. ‘I am not Lord McRae’s fancy woman, as you so elegantly put it, I’m his wife!’

     She had expected at least a shocked response or a groveling apology but he merely smiled.

     ‘It’s all right, gràidheag, you don’t have to pretend.’

     ‘Pretend what?’

     ‘Pretend you’re married to the man. I don’t care if you’re McRae’s mistress or his laundry maid, if you scrub his back or his dirty shirts.’

     ‘I am telling the truth, you stubborn macaque,’ she shouted in frustration. ‘I married Lord McRae in Algiers four weeks ago.’

     ‘Please don't scream quite so loud. I heard you the first time. I just don’t believe you.’

     ‘What?’

     ‘First you introduce yourself as Rose Saintclair, now you’re spinning me a tale about being married McRae. Make up your mind, sweetie.’

     He glanced at her hand. ‘I don’t see any wedding band on your finger.’

     ‘That’s because Cameron wanted to keep the wedding a secret. Never mind, I don’t have to explain anything to you. Now let go of me.’

     She wriggled to break free, but he was still holding her wrist, leaving her no choice but to kick him hard in the shin with the tip of her boot – the very pointy tip of the fashionable new boots she had made in Algiers.

     ‘Ouch. Steady on, sweetheart.’

     ‘Let go of me, you deranged baboon! And stop calling me sweetheart.’

     She kicked him again, harder. He muttered something in a strange, guttural language she didn’t understand and let go of her so suddenly she staggered backward and fell on her bottom on the hard, wet cobbles.

     Her breath caught in her throat, her heart beat hard, erratic. Tears blurred her vision as people sneered and clapped around her. She knew McRaes and McGunns were enemies, but she had nothing to do with their feud, so why did everybody here seem to hate her so much? And why was the big hairy brute intent on humiliating her and not believing a word she said?

     He stepped closer and offered his hand.

     ‘Come on, now, sweetheart. Let’s start again. I think we got off on the wrong foot.’

     He sounded contrite but she wasn’t ready to forgive to forgive him. Ignoring his hand, she scrambled to her feet, and straightened her back. Attack was the best defence, her brother often said, and Lucas knew what he was talking about. He was the best scout in the whole of the Barbary States – or Algeria as the French now called her country.

     ‘Take me to your master immediately,’ she started in a voice as cold and steady she could manage, ‘so I can ask him to have you whipped for your insolence.’

     There was a collective gasp from the people around them. Not looking in the least impressed, the man crossed his arms on his broad chest and arched his eyebrows.

     ‘Really?’

     She took another deep breath.

     ‘That’s what I do to disrespectful servants on my estate, and I can assure you they stop smirking after five lashes.’ That was an outrageous lie, of course, but no one here was to know.

     'If what you said earlier is true, then I see McRae chose his bride well.’ The man’s eyes were now hard as steel. ‘You and he are indeed a match made in heaven, or in hell. I’m sure you’ll be very happy together.’ He paused. ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you, sweetheart, but I don’t approve of whipping people, or beasts, for that matter.’

     ‘And I don’t care a fig if you approve or not. It is for your master to decide your punishment, and from what I’ve heard of Lord McGunn, he is neither a patient nor compassionate man.’

     He arched his eyebrows. ‘I didn’t know I had such a bad reputation.’

     Rose’s heart stopped. He wasn’t… he couldn’t be…

     ‘I realise I failed to introduce myself. I am Bruce McGunn.’ He bowed his head in a military salute.

     ‘You are?’ The words came out as a squeak.

     His lips stretched into a tight smile that didn’t warm his eyes.

     ‘At your service, my lady. Now the introductions are over, shall we make our way to the Lodge?’


 Blurb

Can her love heal his haunted heart? - Cape Wrath, Scotland, November 1847.
Bruce McGunn is a man as brutal and unforgiving as his land. Discharged from the army, he is haunted by the spectres of his fallen comrades and convinced he is going mad. And he is running out of time to save his estate from the machinations of Cameron McRae, heir to the McGunn's ancestral enemies. When the clipper carrying McRae’s new bride is caught in a violent storm and docks at Wrath harbour, Bruce decides to revert to the old ways and hold the clipper and the woman to ransom. However, far from the spoilt heiress he expected, Rose is genuine, funny and vulnerable – a ray of sunshine in the long, harsh winter that has become his life.
Rose is determined to escape Wrath and its proud master – the man she calls McGlum. Will she be reunited with Cameron McRae, the dazzlingly handsome aristocrat she married after a whirlwind romance in Algiers, or will she risk her heart and her honour to help Bruce discover the truth about his past and solve the brutal murders committed on his land?

The Dancing for the Devil Trilogy includes THE DREAM CATCHER, BLUE BONNETS - both available now from Amazon - and SWORD DANCE (available in March 2016).

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dream-Catcher-Dancing-Devil-Book-ebook-y/dp/B017D73N0Q/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blue-Bonnets-Dancing-Devil-Book-ebook/dp/B019E15RTE/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

Author Bio

Originally from Lyon in France, Marie has lived in the beautiful Rossendale Valley, Lancashire, England, for the past few years and likes nothing more than dreaming up romance stories and handsome, brooding heroes. She writes historical and contemporary romance. Her contemporary romance A SPELL IN PROVENCE, as well as her historical romances, ANGEL HEART, together with the award-winning THE LION'S EMBRACE, and the DANCING FOR THE DEVIL Trilogy (which includes THE DREAM CATCHER, BLUE BONNETS and SWORD DANCE) are all published by Áccent Press.

 If you would like to see some of the photos of Scotland that have inspired Marie Laval whilst writing THE DREAM CATCHER, BLUE BONNETS and SWORD DANCE, please go to Pinterest (https://uk.pinterest.com/laval0232/)

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

A Medieval Cinderella trapped in a Golden Cage - "Mistress Angel" Reissued. Here's details and Chapter One as Excerpt

 My sweet to sensual Medieval Historical Romance "Mistress Angel" is being re-issued by Prairie Rose Publications  in Jan. It is up for pre-order at these places:











You can read an excerpt below

Historical Note.

The scene where Isabella is inside a golden cage suspended over the cobbled streets of London is based on a real event.  In May 1357 Prince Edward, whom we now call The Black Prince, escorted the captured king of France through London in a glittering victory procession. Londoners flocked to see this and the London guilds vied with each other to add to the spectacle. The London goldsmiths placed twelve maidens in golden cages above the route where the princes would pass.  In my novella, I make Isabella one of the maidens.

Child betrothals and child brides were a part of the Middle Ages. One of the most famous is Margaret Beaufort, who was married at just twelve and who became pregnant just before her thirteenth birthday. After a long and difficult labor she gave birth to a son who as Henry Tudor would become King of England and Wales. Even at the time the early consummation of her marriage was remarked on with some censure.  Margaret later was keen to ensure that her granddaughter was not sent to her betrothed the king of Scotland too young in case the king consummated the marriage at once and so injured her.


Excerpt 

Chapter 1

London, May 1357

     Isabella was reading a scolding letter from her mother when Sir William's man-servant John stepped into the workshop and jerked his head to the outside, holding the door open for her.
     She tucked the scrap of parchment into her belt and hurried into the back yard, lifting her skirts clear of the cloying mud. It was raining still, a light spring drizzle that had lasted for days and stirred up the usual offal and dung stink of London. She wrinkled her nose and covered her mouth with her hand.
     “Hurry!” John urged. “The master does not like to be kept waiting.”
     Isabella picked her way round a deep cart track and made for the stand of cherry and apple trees against the back boundary wall of her husband's family house. The tall, portly figure waiting beneath these trees was unmistakable, as was his goldsmith's livery, worn by most guild members only on festivals and holy days but as a regular costume by him. She bowed her head.
     Sir William waved his servant away. “You are too brown,” he grumbled as Isabella approached. “Are you a washer-wench, to be so brown? That will not do.”
     Naturally I am tanned, through outdoor work. She had been instructed by her husband's family to weed the garden plot and gather greens daily, all work beneath her, but Isabella knew better than to protest.
“My son?” she asked quickly.
     Sir William dismissed her anxious question with a sharp shake of his head. “Later,” he snapped. “When you prove your worth to us.”
     Isabella fixed her eyes on the golden tips of Sir William's gilt-edged shoes and strove to appear calm. She had been hearing variations of this and other complaints for years, and they held no sting for her. The absence of her son was altogether different. When may I see my child? It has been months since Richard took him from me and his family still keep us apart. Had I the means I would go to law, for in this household no one listens to me. How does my son fare? Does Matthew think of me? She longed to ask all of these things.
     “How long have you been with us, Isabella?”
     “For six years, since I wed your nephew.”
     She had been married to Richard at twelve, made pregnant two years later and widowed three years after that, following a long and bitter apprenticeship of wedlock. I have been a widow for six months and I do not miss a moment of my marriage.
     She sensed Sir William staring at her, stroking first his squirrel-fur cloak, then his neatly-trimmed beard. She resisted the impulse to shudder.
     “You are much improved in looks of late,” he remarked.
     Yes, not being beaten nightly by a drunken brute improves a woman's appearance. Isabella raised her head. “May I see Matthew?”
     Sir William frowned at the second mention of her son. “Did I not say later? Have you a better gown?”
     Accustomed to his abrupt manner, Isabella said nothing. Sir William need only check the household accounts to realize she had three dresses. One was her bridal gown, a tiny, wrinkled dress, worn with such hopes when she was still only a child. She could scarcely bear to look at it now.
     “We must have you robed in brighter colors,” Sir William continued. “And you must stay indoors. Wash your face in whatever women use to whiten skin. You must shine like a jewel.”
     When she was first married, Isabella had been full of questions, until Richard's ready fists had silenced her. She nodded to show she understood and waited to be told more. Perhaps I am to be married again, she thought, and hoped this time the man would be kind. Please let him bring my son Matthew back from wherever he is living and safe into our home. If my new husband does that, I will love him forever.
     Sir William picked a spray of cherry blossom and held it alongside her face. “Yes, you shall do very well,” he rumbled. “Your dowry is gone, you failed in your marriage task, you have no great skills, but we can put that beauty of yours to work.”
     Abruptly, he seized the front of her bodice and yanked on the loose cloth, half-exposing her breasts. Isabella covered herself with an arm but did not resist or utter a sound. If feigning acquiescence brought her news of her son she would be as still and silent as a grave.
     “Good, good.” Sir William strolled around her, pinching her flanks, muttering, “She needs a touch more flesh here, but her breasts are still ripe, for all her nursing of that pup.”
     Surely he would tell me if Matthew is dead? She had not set eyes on her son for seven months, since Richard had spitefully sent him off to another household, somewhere in Kent. My husband did that just before he was killed, murdered in a blood-feud not of my making but for which I am still blamed. When will it end?
     “You will oblige me,” Sir William went on, and he took her roughly by her shoulder and half-turned her, back to the house. “There, look at your son now. Not one word.”
     Isabella blinked the drizzle from her eyes and stared at the small, thin figure standing with his back to her in the open doorway to the workshop.
     It was Matthew, clothed in the belted blue cloak and cap she had made for him last winter, his fair, curling hair a little longer and more sun-bleached than when she had last seen him. He was growing and carried himself very straight, she thought proudly. She took a step forward, closer to him. He was no more than a baby when Richard ripped him from me. Now he is a little boy of  four years old, just four.
     “No nearer,” warned Sir William. “That is enough.”
     He gestured to someone at the house and the door closed, cutting Isabella off from that too-brief glimpse. Heart-scalded, she swung round. “Please, let me speak to Matthew,” she begged. Let me hold him, embrace him, smell him, hug him. Relief that he was alive washed through her, making her weak when she had to be strong.
     “To business,” Sir William remarked dryly, watching her fumbling with her gown strings, his eyes bright, with the pitiless interest of a bird. “You have seen the boy, now heed my terms.”
     Isabella chewed on the inside of her cheek to stop a rising cry, glad that the rain hid her tears. She nodded in silence, bracing herself.
     Even now, Matthew must not know I am here. Surely if he did he would come to me? And will I see him again? How long will he stay?
     Sir William smiled. “You will do much, make great efforts to see your son again?” He did not wait for an answer. “This family needs to make good alliances, and you are available. Stephen Fletcher I thought. He is armourer to Duke Henry himself, and widowed.”
     His smile widened and his hard dark eyes sparkled with open malice. “I understand he is like you, the offspring of a commoner. Some would call him a blacksmith. You should do well with him.”
     Isabella felt her face flush with anger. “And how, pray, will I meet him?”
     “Use what wit you have, girl, and find out!” He pinched her cheek, hard, and moved away, tossing her final orders as he strolled off. “I shall expect strong progress in your suit, Isabella. Win him within the month, become his mistress, extract rich gifts and favors from him, or you shall not see your son again. I will adopt Matthew as my own.”
     He went inside, out of the rain, and slammed the door in her face.

                                                             ****

     Isabella ran after him, but Matthew was already gone. Her heart aching inside her chest and desperate to escape the ready complaints of her mother-in-law, she claimed that Sir William asked her to collect a parcel of herbs from the apothecary's. Outside again in the rain, she stumbled by way of the back lanes to the house and shop of her friend, Amice the Spicer. 
     Amice took one look at her and drew Isabella behind the curtain at the back of her shop, where she had a bed she slept in when guarding a fresh batch of cinnamon from burglars.
     “Get under the covers and warm up,” she said, in her brisk, managing way. “As you see, the shop is quiet now, so we can talk. Have you received another letter from that prating mother of yours, blaming you for a feud not of your making? I presume your own flesh-and-blood have not welcomed you back?”
     “No, they have not.” Isabella shook as she stumbled into the bed. I do not think they will ever do so. Like Amice she knew that, according to custom, she might have returned to her own family, now that Richard was dead. Her parents however had cast her off. Her mother still wrote letters, but only to instruct her and to complain. To my parents I am one of the Martintons now. It was a terrifying thought, one she dared not dwell on.
     “Is your mother-in-law expecting you to spin gold from straw or some other foolishness?”
     Amice’s ironic question returned her to the present. A present even harder than my past. “I saw Matthew,” Isabella burst out through chattering lips. “They would not let me speak to him. He did not even know I was behind him.”
     “Ah, that old cruelty.”
     The sympathy in Amice’s warm voice brought Isabella to tears. She shuddered violently as her friend swept the warm, coarse blankets up to her ears.
     “Rest first, then tell me everything.” Amice bustled out into the shop again, closed the shutters and returned to light a brazier. “What did you say to get out of that wretched den?”
     “That my uncle needs herbs.”
     “I have those. I shall give you a bundle when you leave.”
     Isabella closed her eyes for a moment, willing herself not to cry. Away from her reluctant family-by-wedlock and the thunderstorm tension of the household, she felt her constant headache begin to clear. It was marvelous, too, to be safe at Amice's, snug and warm in a low-gabled shop perfumed with spices. She sighed, sitting up with a pillow behind her head as her friend brought her a cup of warmed wine. “Thank you.”
     “None needed.” Amice batted aside her gratitude. “We both know what you did for me. It is my pleasure to help you in return, in any way I can.”
     Isabella knew she meant it. They shared the cup between them, Amice telling of a Flemish merchant in the shop that morning, seeking pepper and saffron. Her black, strong-featured, full-lipped face was animated as she mimicked the accent of the Fleming, kicking her long legs against the wall as she reached the climax of her tale.
     “Paid me a good fistful of gold and unclipped coins for a few threads of saffron and one of my kisses. The man seemed to think I was an Ethiope out of Egypt and said my mouth was a lucky charm. I kissed him once, on the cheek, and did not tell him I come from the back end of Cheapside.”
     She chortled, finished the wine and put her dark, handsome head to one side. “You smell calm again,” she announced. Amice was a believer in the scent of things. “Will you have more wine? I have peppermint to disguise your breath from your mother-in-law.”
     Isabella smiled and shook her head. Reaching inside her gown, beneath the drawstrings Sir William had so roughly parted, she found the three gold rings strung on a cord and handed the rings and ribbon to Amice.
     “Sell or pawn?” Amice asked.
     “Sell,” Isabella said firmly. These rings were the last of her dowry, hidden away by her and forgotten by Sir William, Richard's mother and her parents. “I need a good price.”
     Swiftly she explained why. “I have only weeks to secure this Stephen Fletcher, and through him my son,” she concluded.
     “A harsh undertaking,” Amice remarked. “They are unkind people, your husband’s kin.”
     Isabella could not disagree but, thinking of the seemingly impossible task, she began to feel a coil of hope.
     “The goldsmiths' guild is planning a great spectacle when Prince Edward brings the French king back with him to London. I need to bribe my way into it.”
     “A good place to see and be seen, for sure. And Sir William swore you would have new gowns for this?” Amice held a ring set with a huge square sapphire close to the twisting flames of the brazier and gave a small grunt of satisfaction. “This is fine.”
     “Sir William promises many things, but I find they do not happen.”
     Amice's keen eyes glittered. “Then you are blamed.”
     Isabella shrugged. “I cannot afford to wait to see if he grants me fresh gowns. I have my son to consider.” Matthew! How I wish I could have talked to you today, held you, kept you by me.
     “I will go today, before curfew.” Amice rattled the rings in her palm. “Is any of this work Richard's? Let me avoid questions, if I can.”
     “Have no fear on that score. I have and hold nothing of his.” Which is why his kindred keep Matthew, as the only hold they have over me.
    She flinched as Amice brushed her wrist. “I will bring the money tomorrow,” her friend said.
     “Thank you,” Isabella murmured, wishing she could stay where she was until Amice returned. Knowing she must leave before she was missed in the workshop, she flung back the covers and scrambled to her feet. “I do not know where I will be tomorrow. Sometimes my mother-in-law keeps me at home.”
     “I will find you.”

                                                            ****

     The following day it was raining harder and foggy, a thick gray miasma coating the city roofs and towers. Isabella fretted about Amice having to visit her in this dismal murk, but her mother-in-law found an excuse to dispatch her into it.
     “I have a fancy for oysters and malmsey,” Margery instructed, counting a few pennies into Isabella's hand. “You must go, girl, I can spare no other. Take the spit-boy with you as guide, though you do not really need one, do you? Not with your parents living so close by the docks.”
     “Honored mother.” Knowing Margery would be irritated by that form of address, Isabella followed it up with a bow and stalked out into the pouring rain. She and the spit-boy scowled at each other until the end of the street, marched around a corner, shook hands and parted ways. Nigel was her ally, although both knew he was meant to spy on her for the family. Now they were free for an hour or so and Isabella intended to make full use of the time.
     She called on Amice first, but her friend was also out and Amice’s limping apprentice had no idea where she could be found. Resigned to seeing Amice as God willed it, Isabella drew her molting fur cloak tightly about her shoulders and trod nimbly beneath the dripping jetties.
     She loved being out in the city, part of its vivid heart. She was always excited to be in London, even in the dreadful year of pestilence when Richard had taken Matthew and, with his kin, fled the city for their holding in East Ham. She and the prentices had been left in the workshop and it had been hard. When she did not dread the boils and bloody coughing she feared fire, or looters, but they had all come through—London had not failed her, even then. Now, slipping and sliding through the muddy alleys, avoiding shadowed corners, flicking a small coin to a beggar camped beneath a jetty, she heard a hundred different voices in the fog and a dozen different tongues and knew she was home.
     Matthew should be with me, learning these streets.
     She did not make for the docks. Oyster and wine sellers thronged the city, so she wasted no effort on the wharves where wine barrels were unloaded. She had no desire to encounter her father, although he had lately grown so rich as a vintner that he might not trouble to be out on such a day.
     Reflected in the pallid fog, a moving, closing shadow shimmered against the wattle wall of the house opposite. Frustrated by her small, female state, Isabella hunched into a doorway and waited until the creeping footpad vanished along another narrow lane. Amice stalked these alleys like a warrior but Amice was tall and knew how to fight with a knife. Shorter by half a head and allowed no decent blades, Isabella was constantly reminded of how easily she could be mauled. Had Richard not proved that, night after night?
     Hearing the bells of great Saint Paul's thundering above her, watching the hop-and-skip of folk darting in and out of the rain, she waited until she could make out the raucous calls of the street sellers again. Moving on, she turned off the house-step—straight into the path of a man leading a bay horse and eating a pie.
     “Hold there!”
     The stranger tossed his pie to a shivering urchin and caught Isabella as she slithered back, his grip firm but not cruel. “If you would be a cut-purse, girl, you need to be quieter.” He stared down at her while his horse chewed on a slither of hanging roof-thatch and a water-seller shouldered past them both, muttering curses.
     “Forgive me, sir.” Isabella did not recognize the man but she was keen to be on her way. He was taller than Amice and almost as dark, with a tanned, clean-shaven face and penetrating eyes. Green-gray eyes, she realized with a jolt, as he plucked her off the step and up onto the saddle of his mount with the same ease as she might lift a toddler.
     “Unhand me!”
     “Where are you going?” he asked, ignoring her protest. She began to slide off the back of the glossy bay but he anticipated that move and stopped her simply by catching her foot.
     “Sir!”
     “This is neither the weather nor the place for a decent maid,” he went on, his green-gray eyes sparkling with amusement as she glowered at him. “Let me take you where you need to be.”
     Isabella knew she looked like a servant. “Why would you do that?”
     He grinned and released her foot. “Even beggars deserve kindness now and then. Besides, you did not get those good teeth and fine accents on any midden heap. Now, where should I carry you away to?”
     They were moving, Isabella realized, the horse piling through a vast puddle with the man splashing carelessly alongside. Another moment and they would be within sight of the grand houses and palaces of the river, and, to the north, the goldsmiths' new guildhall, still being built.
     It would not do for him to escort her there with so many wagging tongues eager to take the news to Sir William. If need be, I shall tell my own gossip and, please God, be rewarded for it with a visit to or from my son.
     “Here,” she called, pointing to a small glover's shop tucked around the corner of a crooked alley. “This is my place.”
     The stranger reined in at once. Before Isabella could stir he swept her off his horse and lightly onto the cobbles, nodding to the wide-eyed glover. “I will see you safe within.”
     “There is no need.” Conscious of his height and breadth and easy strength, Isabella felt heat tiding into her face. She prayed she was not blushing. “Thank you for your help, Sir…?”
     He smiled, his eyes still bright with amusement, and answered readily, “Stephen Fletcher, at your service, Mistress Angel.”
     Isabella automatically gasped. The very man I have to win! All calculation deserted her as they stared at each other. What will it be like to be in Stephen’s arms? What will his kisses be like?
     Heedless of the prickling rain, Stephen studied her for a long moment, his eyes narrowing as if he guessed her thoughts. Isabella forced herself to bow her head, her breath threatening to stop as she waited, crucified by his silence. What now? Should I say more, do more?
     She felt a gentle touch, softer than rain, brush against her cheek.
     “I pass this way tomorrow,” he said softly. “I need new gloves.”
     “I shall be here.” Why did I say that? ‘Tis madness to promise anything!
     “Until tomorrow, Mistress Angel.” Stroking another raindrop from her flushed face and raising a hand in farewell, Stephen mounted his bay and cantered off in the direction of the river.




Lindsay Townsend, historical romance.   Lindsay's Book Chat   

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