The Maiden's Hand, by Wiggs, Susan
- ISBN: 9780778327394 | 0778327396
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 8/25/2009
"Said to you?" Spencer Merrifield, earl of Hardstaff, had the most endearing way of lifting one eyebrow so that it resembled a gray question mark. Sitting in his grand tester bed, his thin frame propped against pillows and bolsters, he was bathed in the early-evening light that streamed through the oriel window. "You spoke to him?"
"Yes. I—at the safe hold." She cringed inwardly at the small lie and studied the pattern of lozenge shapes that tiled the floor. Spencer would object to her being present for the hanging. But the safe hold was run by godly folk whose goals matched Spencer's own.
"I see. Well, then. What did Oliver de Lacey say to you?"
She frowned and plopped down onto a stool by the bed, tucking her soft, kerseymere skirts between her knees. "I thought his name was Oliver Lackey."
"That is one of his names. In sooth he is Lord Oliver de Lacey, Baron Wimberleigh, son and heir to the earl of Lynley."
"He? A noble?" The man had been wearing a stained shirt and plain fustian jerkin over torn and ragged canions and hose. No shoes; those were always appropriated by prison wardens. He had looked as common as a mongrel dog—until he had smiled at her.
Spencer watched her closely as if seeking to peer into her mind. She was familiar with the look. When she was very small, she used to liken Spencer to the Almighty Himself, with all the powers of His station.
"Betimes he goes about incognito," Spencer explained, "I suppose to spare his family from embarrassment. Now. What did the young lord say to you?"
Will you have my baby?
Lark's face burned scarlet at the memory. Her response had been a drop-jawed look of astonishment. Then, humiliated to the depths of her prayer-fed soul, she had flounced away, instructing him to hide in the cart until Dr. Snipes joined them and they reached the safe hold.
"I shall lie low," Oliver had said, "but I should be more content if you were lying beneath me."
Thank heavens Dr. Snipes had returned and spared her from having to respond.
Now she looked at Spencer and felt such a wave of horror and guilt that her hands trembled. She buried them deep in the folds of her skirts.
"I do not recall his precise words," she said, lying again. "But he had a most insolent manner."
"Perhaps his brush with death put him in a foul mood."
It was an unusually tolerant observation from a man of little tolerance. Lark blinked in surprise. She tried to will her flushed cheeks to cool. "He could use a lesson in manners."
"Be he rapscallion or man of honor, did he deserve to die?"
"No," she whispered, instantly contrite. She took Spencer's hand; his was cool and dry with age and infirmity. "Forgive me. I lack your generosity of spirit."
His fingers squeezed hers briefly. "A woman cannot be expected to comprehend the matters that move a man to courage."
She felt a sudden urge to snatch her hand away, then just as quickly buried the impulse. She owed all that she was to Spencer Merrifield. If from time to time his well-meaning comments grated, she should ignore them with good grace.
"And what lofty purpose do you have in mind for Oliver de Lacey?" she asked.
She could see the flame of the dying sun reflected in Spencer's cloudy gray eyes, which peered all the way through to her soul. Sometimes she feared his wisdom, for he seemed to know her better than she knew herself.
"Spencer?" She touched her stiff gray bodice, wondering if her partlet or coif had come askew.
"I've a purpose in mind for the lad. My dear," he said, "I am sick and getting sicker."
A lump of dread rose in her throat. "Then we shall seek a new physician, consult—"
He waved her silent. "Death is part of the circle of life, Lark. It's all around us. I have no fear of the hereafter. But I must make provisions for you. The manor of Evensong is already yours, of course. I intend to leave you all my worldly goods, all my monies. You'll want for nothing."
She did take her hand away then and tucked it between her knees, seeking warmth as an unbearable chill swept over her. He spoke so matter-of-factly, when in truth his death would change her life irrevocably.
"You are nineteen," he observed. "Most women are mothers by the time they reach your age."
"I have no regrets," she said stoutly. "Truly, I—"
"Hush. Listen, Lark. When I'm gone, you will be left alone. Worse than alone."
Worse? She caught her breath, then said, "Wynter."
"Aye. My son." The word was a curse on his lips. Wynter Merrifield was Spencer's son by his first wife, Doña Elena de Dura. Many years ago, before Lark's birth, the marriage had crumbled beneath the weight of Doña Elena's scorn for her English husband and her flagrant affairs with other, younger men. Like the Church of England and the Church of Rome, Spencer and Elena had been torn apart, the fissure created by infidelity and hatred.
And Wynter, now a strapping young lord of twenty-five, was the casualty.
When she had left Spencer, Doña Elena had not told him she was expecting a child. While in sanctuary in Scotland, she had given birth and raised Wynter to be as bitter against his father as she was and as devoted to Queen Mary as Elena had been to Catherine of Aragon.
Two and a half years earlier Wynter had come back to Blackrose Priory to hover like a carrion bird over his father's wasting form. Each day Lark watched him furtively from her chamber window. As slim and darkly handsome as a young god, he rode the length and breadth of the estate, his black horse sweeping along the rich green water meadows by the river or racing up the terraced hills where sheep grazed.
The thought of Wynter made Lark fitful, and she stood and walked to the window. The sun was lowering over the wild Chiltern Hills in the distance, and shadows gathered in the river valley.
"By law," Spencer said wearily, "Wynter must inherit my estate. It is entailed to my sole male heir."
"Is he your heir?" she asked baldly, though she did not dare to turn and look at Spencer.
"A sticky matter," Spencer admitted. "I knew nothing of his existence when I put aside my first wife and had the marriage annulled. But as soon as I learned I had a son, I had him legitimized. How could I not? He did not ask to be born to a woman who would teach him to hate."
Lark heard the clink of glass as Spencer poured himself more of his medicine. "I should not have asked. Of course he is your son and heir." She shivered and continued to face the window, battered by a storm of bitter memories. "Your only one."
"You must help me stop him. Wynter wishes to exalt Queen Mary by reviving a religious house at Blackrose Priory. He'll turn this place into a hotbed of popish idolatry. The monks who lived here before the Dissolution were voluptuous sinners," Spencer went on. "I sweated blood into this estate. I need to know it will stay the same after I'm gone. And what will become of you?"
She rushed to the stool by the bed. "I try not to think about life without you. But when I do, I see myself continuing the work of the Samaritans. Dr. Snipes and his wife will look after me." It had occurred to her that she possessed some degree of cleverness, perhaps even enough to look after herself. She knew better than to point that out to Spencer.
He gestured at the chest at the foot of the bed. "Open that."
She did as he asked, using a key from the iron ring she wore tied to her waist. She found a stack of books and scrolled documents in the chest. "What is all this?"
"I'm going to disinherit Wynter," he said. She heard the pain in his voice, saw the flash of regret in his fading eyes.
"How can you?" She closed the lid and rested her elbows on top of the chest. "You do love your son."
"I cannot trust him. When I see him, I notice a hardness, a cruelty, that sits ill with me."
She thought of Wynter with his hair and eyes of jet, his lean swordsman's body, and his mouth that was harsh even when he smiled. He was a man of prodigious good looks and deep secrets. A dangerous combination, as she well knew.
"How will you do this?" she asked without turning around. "How will you deny Wynter his birthright?"
"I shall need your help, dear Lark."
She turned to him in surprise. "What can I do?"
"Find me a lawyer. I cannot trust anyone else."
"You would entrust this task to me?" she asked, shocked.
"There is no one else. I shall need you to find someone who is discreet, yet totally lacking in scruples."
"This is so unlike you—"
"Just do it." A fit of coughing doubled him over, and she rushed to him, patting his back.
"I shall," she said in a soothing voice. "I shall find you the most unscrupulous knave in London."
Lark stood at the grand river entrance of the elegant half-timbered London residence. It was hard to believe Oliver de Lacey lived here, along the Strand, a stretch of riverbank where the great houses of the nobility stood shoulder to shoulder, their terraced gardens running down to the water's edge.
The door opened, and she found herself facing a plump, elderly woman with a hollowed horn thrust up against her ear. "Is Lord Oliver de Lacey at home?"
"Eh? He ain't lazy at home." The woman thumped her blackthorn cane on the floor. "Our dear Oliver can be a right hard worker when he's of a mind to be wanting something."
"Not lazy," Lark called, leaning toward the bell of the trumpet. "De Lacey. Oliver de Lacey."
The woman grimaced. "You needn't shout." She patted her well-worn apron. "Come near the fire, and tell old Nance your will."
Venturing inside a few more steps, Lark stood speechless. She felt as if she had entered a great clockwork. Everywhere—at the hearth, the foot of the stairs, along the walls—she saw huge toothed flywheels and gears, all connected with cables and chains.
Her heart skipped a beat. This was a chamber of torture! Perhaps the de Laceys were secret Catholics who—
"You look as though you're scared of your own shadow." Nance waved her cane. "These be naught but harmless contraptions invented by Lord Oliver's sire. See here." She touched a crank at the foot of the wide staircase, and with a great grinding noise a platform slid upward.
In the next few minutes, Lark saw wonders beyond imagining—a moving chair on runners to help the crippled old housekeeper up and down the stairs, an ingenious system to light the great wheeled fixture that hung from the hammer beam ceiling, a clock powered by heat from the embers in the hearth, a bellows worked by a remote system of pulleys.
Nance Harbutt, who proudly called herself the mistress of Wimberleigh House, assured Lark that such conveniences could be found throughout the residence. All were the brainchildren of Stephen de Lacey, the earl of Lynley.
"Come sit." Nance gestured at a strange couch that looked as if it sat upon sled runners.
Lark sat, and a cry of surprise burst from her. The couch glided back and forth like a swing in a gentle breeze.
Nance sat beside her, fussily arranging several layers of skirts. "His Lordship made this after marrying his second wife, when the babies started coming. He liked to sit with her and rock them to sleep."
The vision evoked by Nance's words made Lark feel warm and strange inside. A man holding a babe to his chest, a loving woman beside him…these things were alien to Lark, as alien as the huge dog lazing upon the rushes in front of the hearth. The long-coated animal had the shape of a parchment-thin greyhound, with much longer legs.
A windhound from Russia, Nance explained, called borzoyas in their native land. Lord Oliver bred them, and the handsomest male of each litter was named Pavlo.
Lark forced herself to pay close attention to Nance Harbutt, the oldest retainer of the de Lacey family. The housekeeper had a tendency to ramble and a great dislike for being interrupted, so Lark sat quietly by.
Randall, the groom who had accompanied her from Blackrose Priory, was waiting in the kitchen. By now he would have found the ale or hard cider and would be useless to her. This did not bother her in the least. She and Randall had an agreement. She made no comment on his tippling, and he made no comment on her activities for the Samaritans.
According to Nance, the sun rose and set on Lord Oliver. There was no doubt in the old woman's mind that he had hung not only the moon, but also the sun and each and every little silver star in the heavens.
"I wish to see him," Lark said when Nance paused to draw a breath.
"To be him?" Nance frowned.
"To see him," Lark repeated, speaking directly into the horn.
"Of course you do, dearie." Nance patted her arm. Then she did a curious thing; she smoothed back the hood of Lark's black traveling cloak and peered at her.
"Dear God above," Nance said loudly. She picked up her apron and fanned her face.
"Is something amiss?"
"Nay. For a moment you—that look on your face put me in mind of Lord Stephen's second wife, the day he brought her home."
Lark recalled what Spencer had told her of Oliver's family. Lord Stephen de Lacey, a powerful and eccentric man, had married young. His first wife had perished giving birth to Oliver. The second was a woman of Russian descent, reputed to be a singular beauty. Though flattered by the comparison, Lark thought the elderly retainer's sight was as weak as her hearing.
"Now then," Nance said, her manner brisk, "when is the babe due?"
"The babe?" Lark regarded her stupidly.
"The babe, lass! The one Lord Oliver sowed in you. And God be praised that it's finally happened—"
"Ma'am." Lark's ears took fire.
"Weren't for lack of trying on the part of the dear lordling. 'Course, 'twould be preferable to marry first, but Oliver has ever been the—"
"Mistress Harbutt, please." Lark fairly shouted into the trumpet.
"Eh?" Nance flinched. "Heaven above, lass, I ain't so deaf as a stone."
"I'm sorry. You misunderstand. I have no…" She lacked the words to describe how appalled she felt at the very suggestion that she might be a ruined woman carrying a rogue's bastard. "Lord Oliver and I are not that well acquainted. I wish to speak to him on a matter. Is he at home?"