Catsholme Manor, 1547
The girl was seven years old and well aware she was disobeying her mother. She had been told not to stray out of the pleasure gardens, but the fish pond drew her like a sorcerer's spell. Nick had said it was stocked with roach and bream. She wanted to see what a bream looked like when it was still alive and swimming.
From the pond it was only a little way to the hay house and straw house and all the other outbuildings that served Catsholme Manor's demesne farm. Taking one last look over her shoulder to make sure her mother wasn't watching, Thomasine Strangeways continued the forbidden journey, exploring every nook and cranny that interested her until, rounding a corner, she came face-to-face with the flapping wings and sharp talons of an enormous rooster.
She was nowhere near the hen house, but the bird seemed to take exception to her presence. He flew at Thomasine, filling her with stark terror. She turned and fled, and in her panic climbed right to the top of the only safe haven she could find.
Heart racing, breath coming in ragged gulps, she looked back toward the ground. It was a very great distance below. The rooster was nowhere in sight, but now she trembled at the thought of falling. She'd escaped her tormentor only to be trapped atop an enormous hay rick.
Thomasine closed her eyes. She wanted to be found, but not by Mother. Miraculously, her prayer was answered, for when she looked again Nick Carrier was there, smiling his gentle smile as he approached the hay rick from the direction of the barns.
Nick was eight years Thomasine's senior, at fifteen almost a man grown. Secretly she thought him the most handsome youth in the village. He had a long, straight nose and light blue eyes, and though his hair was mostly brown there were strands of it that gleamed gold in the morning sun. He had the barest hint of fuzz on his cheeks, showing little inclination yet to turn into a fashionable beard.
"What are you doing up there, Thomasine?"
"The rooster chased me."
Any other boy would have laughed at her, but Nick just looked sympathetic. Then he climbed partway up the hay rick, clamped both hands about her waist, and lifted her off. Moments later she was standing safe and secure at his side.
With adoration in her eyes as well as her voice, Thomasine gazed up at him. "You are my hero, Nick. When I grow up I shall marry you."
His face crinkled into a smile, but again he suppressed his mirth. "If you turn out to be half as pretty as your mother, no doubt I will want to remind you of your pledge. But you are of gentle birth, Thomasine, and I am not. You'll look for someone with land and money when you come to wed."
Thomasine's chin shot up and tilted at a stubborn angle. "I do not want a gentleman. I want to marry you, Nick."
"If you say so, Thomasine."
He threaded her arm through his and, as gallant as any knight, escorted her back into the pleasure gardens. They had barely reached the fountain at the center when Thomasine's mother came looking for her.
Lavina Strangeways looked years younger than she was, and she was in truth no aged crone. She moved with sensual grace through the geometric designs of flowers and shrubs, a tall, slender woman dressed in vibrant burgundy, a widow who flaunted propriety with that color and by wearing her hair loose beneath her headdress. The lappets ended halfway down her back, but the thick tresses, in a brown so dark it appeared black, extended well below her waistline.
Mumbling that he had chores to finish, Nick made haste to leave. Thomasine's mother stared after him, a speculative gleam in her bright eyes. "That Nick's grown into a handsome fellow," she murmured "near as well-made as his sire."
"I am going to marry Nick when I grow up, Thomasine declared.
Lavina Strangeways fixed her daughter with a fearsome glare. "He's not for you, girl. You will abandon such a foolish idea this very minute, and then you will explain to me why you left this garden when I told you that you were not to wander off."