Clouds scudded across a sickle moon, blanketing its meager light. Barefoot and clad in a man's ragged shirt and cut-off breeches, Liliana climbed from the rowboat and slipped into the waist-deep water.
Perath handed over her pack. "Innana watch over you, Liliana," he said, keeping his voice barely above a murmur so it wouldn't carry. "Goddess willing, we will rendezvous at Saint Augustine's Port."
She acknowledged his blessing with a smile and a whispered, "Salacia guide you and protect you from storms, Captain." Then she dismissed him from her mind.
This was the first time she had set foot on Anglian soil, but she was hardly inclined to savor the moment. The instant the water's depth allowed, she sprinted for cover. She remained hidden for some time, watching for any who might have witnessed her arrival. When certain she was safe and unobserved, she pulled boots and suitable clothing from her pack. While she dressed, she recalled the sketch she'd been shown and wondered again whether Joseph Godwin, the young man she had been sent to retrieve, was as handsome as he'd been portrayed.
Phaugh. If the latest reports were accurate, there was no time to waste. Godwin was on the verge of ripening. She knew better than to fantasize about such a man. She heaved her backpack over her shoulder and vanished into the trees.
The aroma of a woman's arousal flooded Joseph's senses, enticing him from a deep slumber. Nimble fingers unlaced his nightshirt. He shifted restlessly, shivered as soft lips brushed his bared chest, and gasped at the unexpected shock of a fingernail flicking his nipple, teasing it erect.
He'd fantasized about this moment, reaching his majority and taking a virtuous young lady to wife and to his bed. He'd dreamed of it from the moment he'd first spilled his seed over his fine cotton sheets. A woman to do his bidding and relieve his needs--all his needs. A woman who would obey him, her master, without question. A woman of his own. A woman to own, to do with as he willed.
The heady musk saturating the room tantalized him, excited him, as did her hot panting breaths. The scent of a woman. So seductive, and so very wicked. Evidence of a flagrant disregard for the strict tenets governing women. He should reprimand her, punish her, report her to his father, the Anglian Council Leader, but her perfume overpowered all reason and righteous indignation. It curled through his senses, heightening his sensual awareness. It consumed him.
Her hand slipped down his belly, curled around his manhood, tightened to a fist. Joseph jerked reflexively, stifled a whimper as warm wetness lipped down his belly to lave the tip of his erect flesh. Losing himself in pleasure, he groaned aloud.
The animal-like sound echoed through the room, piercing his sensory stupor and allowing reason to penetrate. This was wrong. This woman, this situation--wrong.
He fought to free himself from the clutches of his delusion. And he lay panting atop his mattress, his body flushed and shaking, until profound relief soothed his sleep-fuddled mind. Today was his Birthing Day and he was still a virgin, still pure. He had not yet been given permission to take a wife.
It was a dream. And oh, what a dream it had been. To have a woman put her mouth on him--did he dare demand that of her, the virtuous innocent he would take to wife? Would she dare commit such an intimacy if he asked it of her? Would she allow him his pleasure or be so revolted that she would risk her reputation by disobeying him?
He imagined confessing such a shameful, explicit dream to his priest, and a rueful smile curved his lips. The poor man would have an apoplexy. Nay. This was a sin best kept between himself and his Maker. Surely the Divine Spirit would understand that a young man on the verge of choosing a wife could not be held morally responsible for such sinful delusions.
He relaxed back into slumber.
"Joseph." His dream-woman's voice was a seductive purr, heavy with a want and need that mimicked Joseph's own, and so gloriously enticing that it almost smothered the comprehension blossoming in his mind. And then her work-roughened hands roamed his body, skimming down his naked skin--
Her work-roughened hands.
His eyelids flew open and he froze. It was no dream. She was no product of his fertile imagination, no eager lady of quality he'd conjured to fulfill his base desires. He knew her. The girl in his bed, making free with his body, was the housemaid tasked with lighting a fire in the grate at dawn. "Bashima?"
Her gaze fixed on his face, heavy-lidded and knowing. She licked her lips ever so slowly, tantalizing him.
Joseph's manhood swelled as he watched her tongue moisten her swollen lips. Sweet Spirit have mercy on his soul. Even this plain little wench was a temptation. It would be so easy to forget who he was and everything he stood for, to explore her forbidden female body and learn what it was to truly be a man. Bashima was a servant and obviously willing to oblige him. He could use her and then command her silence--even make her disappear if he so chose. Who would ever know?
The Divine Spirit would know. And if for some unknown reason He chose not to smite him for his sins, Joseph's own father would not forgive such a crime. Giving in to such unholy lusts would alter him so profoundly that Lord Darien Godwin would take one look at him and know he had fallen from grace.
Sickened by his weakness, this... this unconscionable flaw of character that had him teetering on the brink of forfeiting his birthright mere hours before he claimed it, he shoved the girl away, spilling her from his bed.
Bashima dragged herself to her feet. She swayed, her pale eyes guileless and dazed. She inhaled deeply, smiled--a dreamy, vague smile. Her hands drifted to her bodice, flicking open the buttons and tugging down her chemise to bare startlingly bountiful breasts.
Joseph crawled swiftly across the mattress and slapped her hands away from her clothes. He felt his face burning as he tugged up her bodice, all the while attempting to avert his eyes and failing dismally. "Cover yourself, girl. Have you no shame? What if someone sees you?" What if someone saw him?
Tears pooled in her eyes, trailing down her freckled, homely cheeks. "Do you not want to love me, Joseph?"
He barked a laugh. The girl was delusional. He, Joseph David Godwin, heir to the vast Godwin estate and his father's pride and joy, in love with a servant? Ludicrous. "You are an indentured servant, Bashima. How could you possibly think I could love you?"
But bedding her--
His traitorous manhood was still hard, pulsating with need. The cursed thing lacked the slightest modicum of self-preservation. The least provocation might make him spill his seed. And at this moment, with Bashima's insidious perfume infecting him, playing havoc with his ability to reason, he was sorely provoked. Hellfire, it was on the tip of his tongue to take back his words, to compound his sins by lying to her and proclaiming undying love if only she allowed him to throw her on her back and mount her--the clerics and their oft-vaunted purity of body and soul be damned!
"Your scent. Ahhh, your scent." She inhaled again, her breath shuddering through her, eyelids fluttering closed as she arched toward him.
Enough. He must regain control, must not allow his loins to rule his head. He slapped her face. "What are you talking about, Bashima? What ails you? Are you possessed by the Devil?" His palm stung, and he endeavored to ignore both it and the reddening welt he'd raised on her cheek. Righteous anger rode his guilt. She had tried his patience to the limits. It was her fault he'd struck her. Her indecent behavior had driven him to it.
Wide-eyed, she palmed her cheek, comforting the hurt. She looked so forlorn, so utterly bereft, that his ire melted. "I did not mean to hurt you," he muttered. Her current wanton behavior aside, Bashima was a respectful, biddable girl, and he'd never raised a hand in anger to her. His father's eyes might gleam with barely restrained delight whenever he physically chastised his servants, but Joseph took no such pleasure.
She blinked. As she focused on him, her eyes rounded. She flushed and averted her gaze, and Joseph recollected that he was exposed. He wrapped his nightshirt around his body. "You're obviously unwell, Bashima. I shall call for the housekeeper. Perhaps a poultice or tonic will--"
"It beckons me, seduces me," she murmured. "I know it is wicked, but I cannot resist. It makes me wicked, too. Makes me desire wicked things."
"Your scent," she said again, her voice wobbling as though she was on the verge of frustrated tears.
He guffawed. Silly chit. He was no fop who doused himself with toilet-water. "You mean your scent. It is a whipping offense for you to adorn yourself with something as frivolous as perfume. I should rightly--"
"I wear no scent." She paled, seeming to come to her senses, aghast at her temerity for interrupting him and speaking to him so. She fell to her knees, wringing her hands. "I do humbly beg your pardon, Master Joseph. But--" She swallowed, eyes glazed with fear. Her voice faded to the merest whisper. "Oh, sweet Spirit, save me." She bent her head, clasped her hands and began to pray. Her knuckles whitened.
"Out with it, you foolish chit. Save you from whom?" He took a step toward her, stilling as her head snapped up and she recoiled.
"It is you. The scent, it comes from you." She scrambled to her feet and backed away from him, clapping both hands over her mouth and nose.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, wondering at this abrupt change of demeanor.
Suspicion lanced across her pale features. Her gaze sharpened with surety and a knowledge that chilled his soul. "You're one of them," she cried, her expression flatly accusatory and unforgiving. "You're a Scentinel!"
A Scentinel? Horror pierced his chest, a searing pain so acute it brought him crashing to his knees. Such an accusation, whether fact or fiction, would ruin him.
"You're one of those Satan-spawned beasts Nan told stories about when I was a child." Bashima's hate-filled glare slapped him. "I'll not let you ruin me." She picked up her skirts and ran from the room, slamming the door behind her, leaving Joseph clutching his stomach, sickened by her words. And fearful, for he knew in his heart that the girl spoke the truth.
He stared at the closed door. The walls of his chamber closed in, trapping him in a nightmarish existence worthy of Hell itself. His heart labored. He sucked in a breath, desperate for air, desperately seeking evidence to refute Bashima's claim. But he could not dismiss the way she'd reacted to him.
Instinct demanded that he ignore his state of undress, rush from the room and follow her. He defied it, refusing to allow the panic clawing his guts to rule him. Years of watching his father manipulate and control others had taught him a measure of cunning. He must act as though nothing were amiss, must show no fear, or he would be taken down like a fox cornered by hounds. He cast aside his nightshirt and forced himself to action.
He washed in the lavishly decorated personal bathroom leading from his dressing room before availing himself of the water closet. He wasted precious time locating his clothes and underthings. He thrust his arms into his shirt and struggled to attach his stiffly starched collar with trembling fingers. He pulled on stockings and breeches, donned a coat and the brilliantly polished leather boots he'd purchased only last week. A glance at his timepiece told him it would be another two hours before Abiezer, his busybody valet, graced him with his presence.
Two hours. All the time in the world for Bashima to wreak havoc. One misplaced word from the chit, and all his hopes and dreams would be shattered.
Joseph's future depended upon what he chose to do next. If he was to survive this catastrophe with his birthright--nay, his very life--intact, it was imperative to avoid women. A difficult task indeed, given the lamentable fact that Godwin Manor abounded with them. His mother, his ten sisters, numerous female servants. He needed a man's help.
He glimpsed his reflection in the mirror. His attempts to attain his usual immaculate style of dress had fallen woefully short. His own appearance, yesterday so very crucial, today was the least of his concerns.
He shrugged into his coat, tugging at it to ease the snug fit over his shoulders. He grabbed his gloves and strode to the door. He flung it open, every inch the arrogant heir to a vast fortune. It would be understandable, his reluctance to linger abed on this most important day of his life. A young man in his prime, impatient for the celebrations to begin, eager to embrace his future. A young man of one-and-twenty whose perfectly ordered life had just come crashing down about his ears.
With his shoulders hunched against truth's weighty burden, fearing the consequences of what he was about to attempt more than he'd feared anything in his privileged life, Joseph crept from his rooms.
He kept to darkened places not yet invaded by dawn's weak light, his hearing alert for footfalls. And as he skulked down hallowed hallways where once he'd proudly strutted, his mind whirled. Even Abiezer, who had served Joseph well over a decade now, was Lord Godwin's man, eagerly reporting any lapse of judgment on Joseph's part to his true master. And the other servants, all hand-picked by his father--what chance did Joseph have?
One chance. Mallothi. The one man who would obey him without question, whose loyalty was first and foremost to his young master.
Mallothi's world revolved around his beloved horses. The ugly hulk of a man showed little regard for any other creature save Joseph. And Mallothi had proved his worth with more than his handling of his master's horses over the years. Whatever Joseph needed done, Mallothi would do.
Soft feminine laughter gurgled down the hallway.
Abigail. He cursed beneath his breath. Of course his youngest sister would be up, risking their father's wrath to surprise her brother with Birthing Day greetings.
He sniffed his arm, inhaling deeply through his nose. He could no longer smell his own scent, the heady fragrance that had so beguiled Bashima. Maybe it was gone--a momentary aberration. Maybe he wasn't one of those evil creatures conjured up to frighten young girls into obedience. Did they even exist?
He could not take the chance. He huddled in the shadow of the ancient grandfather clock, barely daring to breathe.
Cap askew, Abigail breezed past him in an undignified flurry of skirts which cried out for chastisement and a lengthy lecture. Janna, her personal maid, scurried behind her, wringing her hands and begging her to be more circumspect.
Joseph allowed himself a slow soft expulsion of the breath he'd been holding and eased his cramped limbs.
Abigail paused mid-step.
She inhaled, nostrils flaring.
His breath caught.
She turned, her gaze searching the gloom of Joseph's hiding place.
His heart missed a beat and resumed a thunderous staccato when Janna ran headlong into her mistress, all but knocking her down. The resultant apologies and dispensing of a scolding proved enough of a distraction for Abigail. She continued on to Joseph's door and with a perfunctory knock, opened it and disappeared inside the chamber.
Now was his chance. Joseph straightened from his crouch and prepared to make good his escape.
Janna shrieked. "Miss Abigail, what are you doing with Master Joseph's nightwear?"
Joseph swallowed, his imagination running riot. He did not want to look, but Abigail was dear to him. He stole up the corridor and peered through the gap in the doorway.
His sister stood clasping his nightshirt to her breast. As he watched, she brought the fine lawn to her face and inhaled. The scent--his scent--took her. His own sister, a child yet in his mind, sighed rapturously. She swayed, glassy-eyed and slack-mouthed, her innocent young face marred by unseemly ardor.
"Please, Miss Abigail, give the garment to me for laundering," Janna said in a coaxing tone as she grabbed an edge of the nightshirt and tried to tug it from her mistress's grip. "Miss Abigail. What if someone happens by?"
"It smells heavenly." Abigail moaned. Her knees buckled, and she sprawled sideways onto his bed in a swoon.
Joseph's gorge rose. He swallowed convulsively to prevent himself retching.
The maid yanked the garment from Abigail's hands and crumpled it into a ball. Her eyes widened. She drew in a deep shuddering breath and raised the nightshirt to her face. "That scent--" Her lips curved into a beatific smile that smacked of religious rapture. "Oh, my. It is divine."
Abigail reared from the bed to snatch the nightshirt. She rubbed it against her cheek. "Mine," she purred.
Joseph could no longer contain his horror. He uttered a choked gasp.
Both girls swung to face him. As one, their bosoms heaved and their faces--their innocent faces--assumed blindly desperate expressions. "Joseeeeeeeeph," they cried in unison, arms reaching toward him in supplication.
Luck was on his side. He encountered no servants or family members as he hurtled through the house. Once he'd gained the relative safety of the yard, he cast a furtive glance about him and then forced himself to stroll nonchalantly down the path leading toward the stables. And he dared to hope, dared to believe that perhaps he would come through this nightmare unscathed, provided Mallothi did not flinch at doing what needed to be done.
What needed to be done.
Thou shalt not kill. The commandment burned through his brain. His stomach clenched. Possessing all the will in the world was of no consequence. He convulsed, vomiting the bitter dregs of last evening's repast all over his boots. He was about to command another to do what he had no stomach for. What sort of man had he become?
A man who would stop at nothing to protect himself and his standing in society.
A man just like his father.
Unlike his father, Joseph had no choice. His life was at stake. He spat, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and entered the stables, pausing inside to grab a handful of hay to clean his boots. Phaugh. The sour stench of vomit overrode even the sweet toasty smell of the hay. He grimaced and wrinkled his nose. "Mallothi, I need you. Now!"
He prepared to inform his groom precisely what he needed. An accident. No, two accidents, both carefully executed, raising no suspicions. No need for explanations--not that Mallothi would ask. The two maids must be silenced. Regrettable but necessary.
His sister, Abigail. What of her?
Perhaps she would understand. Perhaps she loved him enough to imperil her soul by keeping his secret. Perhaps she would even forgive him for what he'd done to her, what he had forced her to feel.
No. He could not risk compromising Abigail further. He would order Mallothi to locate someone learned in herb lore. He would contrive to have Abigail dosed with an herb that would bring on some foul malaise and thus confine her to her room. Yes, that would suffice to keep her safe. Any erratic behavior, any rantings and ravings, could be blamed on that malaise. Every female who had crossed his path this morning would then be accounted for. He would be safe. His mother and sisters would be safe. For the moment.
As for the planned celebration tonight? It was only the most significant night of his life when he would formally claim his majority and the benefits of his birthright. Alas, he could not risk it. He, too, would have to develop a convenient illness that precluded his attendance. He could even use the fact he'd vomited over his boots to his advantage. Pleading a virulent fever, he could take to his bed, refusing admittance to anyone save the family physician. That would give him much-needed time to strategize.
And later? Later he would--he would--
Accompanied by only a few carefully chosen menservants, he would retire to the country estate that he would shortly inherit, to convalesce. He would personally hire all servants needed to run the estate. He would surround himself with men. It was eminently feasible. He was, after all, a Godwin, answerable to no one but his father.
First things first. Convey his instructions to Mallothi and send him on his way. "Later" could take care of itself. Later, he would find a permanent way to purge himself of the evil that had infected him.
A rustling caught his attention. He pivoted on his heel. "Mallothi, you bird-witted slug-a-bed, I have been-- Father. What are you doing here?"