Pain circled his eyes. The back of James Mainwaring's head throbbed, and he wondered what giant's manacled fist was clenched so hard around the scruff of his neck. All his teeth ached.
For a long moment Jamie lay perfectly still, unwilling to risk the agony movement was certain to bring. He was equally reluctant to lift his eyelids, but even without sight he began to gain a sense of his present surroundings.
He knew he was lying on his stomach, naked, his head turned to the right, in a strange bed in a strange chamber. He was very sure that he was not in his own lodgings in Coney's Court. This was not his fine, soft featherbed.
The thin, uneven, prickly surface beneath him was a bed tick stuffed with damp, moldering straw. The musty smell was not quite strong enough to make him nauseous but more than sufficient to discourage him from taking too many deep breaths.
Gradually another scent began to tantalize him, one that was faint but pleasant. His sluggish mind struggled to identify it through a haze of fuzziness and pain. Rose water. At almost the same moment that he reached that conclusion Jamie became aware that his right hand was resting not on lumpy bedding but on flesh. His slack fingers were loosely curved around the unmistakably feminine swell of a breast.
The soft contours rose and fell in an even pattern. She was asleep. Indistinct images formed behind Jamie's closed eyelids, disjointed but telling. A woman's eager hands, disrobing him. His own hurried fumbling with her laces. A frantic coupling. explosive and satisfying. A warm, female body curled close to his own, murmuring contentment.
Jamie opened his eyes less than halfway, just enough to allow him a glimpse of his bedmate's face. With the hangings closed all around the bed it should have been dark within, but they were old and thin and enough morning sunlight filtered through to reveal her features.
He had no idea who she was.
Fair hair curled slightly around a face that was pale and very plain. Puzzled, Jamie stared across scant inches at his companion. She was comely--not ugly, but far from beautiful--and it was not his custom to pursue ordinary-looking wenches. Jamie's preference was for the most exotic beauties available in Clerkenwell, the ones with dark hair and flashing eyes.
How had he ended up in the bed of this pale English rose? The effort to remember increased the throbbing in his head. In defense Jamie closed his eyes. He forced his thoughts backward, back to the previous afternoon. It had been twilight. He'd been in his chambers, daydreaming as he so often did of ways to escape the future his father had mapped out for him.
More and more of late he had been beset by discontent, by a vague restlessness and by a growing resentment of parental control of the purse strings. His father had spent eight long years reading law at Gray's Inn after he'd finished his studies at Oxford, but Jamie had no burning desire to follow in the old man's footsteps. He'd made a token effort, for two interminable years now, and been bored to tears by Plowden's Reports and Littleton's Tenures.
The only book that really interested him was Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, which contained tales of wonderful discoveries and stories of bold adventurers. He'd been rereading one of his favorites when he'd been hailed by two of his fellow students at the Inns of Court, Partington and Cary. Brendan Kinlough bad been with them.
Jamie winced and stifled a sudden urge to groan aloud. Details came back to him now. The Irishman was responsible for this agony. Kinlough had been celebrating the purchase of an expensive new doublet, scarlet satin, boldly slashed and paned in order to show off the fine linen shirt beneath. They'd not be drinking any paltry English ale on this great occasion, he'd told his friends, but a hearty usquebaugh.
Usquebaugh. Aqua vitae. The water of life. The way Jamie felt now, a quick death would be preferable to living any longer. It was the devil's own brew, a quick route to a long stay in purgatory.
Jamie's recollections of the evening and the night that followed remained hazy. They'd gone to a play, he thought. At the Cockpit in Drury Lane? Or had it been at the Red Bull in Clerkenwell? Either was hard by Holborn, where Gray's Inn had imprisoned reluctant would-be barristers for generations. Jamie managed to call up a dim memory of a candlelit playhouse. It must have been the Cockpit, then.
Another glimmer surfaced. They had made sport of some courtiers they'd encountered there, several young dandies affecting lovelocks. Each of the foolish fellows had separated a single curl from the ringlets cascading down his back, tied it with a ribbon, and pulled it forward over the right shoulder. An absurd fashion and one most tempting to snip off. Jamie was sure that had happened. He'd used a penknife and his prize had been a limp auburn lock. He'd nearly come to blows with its former owner after the deed was done.
Had they been evicted then, or had they stayed to see a play? Jamie could not remember, nor did he recall arriving at this place, whatever this place was.
Reluctantly, he opened his eyes a second time, his need for answers stronger than his desire to avoid daylight. One thing had changed. The woman was awake. She had not moved, except to turn her head toward him, but now she was staring right back at him, her eyes wide and blue and worried.
Beneath the thin, rough cloth blanket that covered them both, Jamie's hand still rested against the underside of her bare breast. Tentatively, he moved his thumb upward to graze the nipple. Her response was immediate. The puckered flesh hardened, and hectic color flooded into her pale face.
He frowned and took a hard look at his bed-mate. After a moment he removed his hand and, very slowly, rolled onto his back to stare up at the faded blue ceiler over their heads.
There were no answers on the mildew-stained satin surface, only more questions, but he was noticing details now, proof that his mind was functioning again. He'd realized that the uncomfortable surface beneath him was a field bed. It had been rigged to resemble a four-poster and boasted a tester, ceiler, and bed curtains all around, but there was no disguising that it was really the poorest sort of portable, folding bedstead.
It did not match the clean-smelling female he was sharing it with, and that bothered him.
Jamie felt the whole flimsy contraption shift as his companion sat up. In an attempt to take the ragged dagswain blanket with her she tugged at the coarse cloth covering. Jamie flinched when a corner of the material slapped his tender, partially aroused flesh.
Her behavior made no sense and her silence left him feeling both annoyed and confused. A whore should not be shy. Where was the brazen demand for money? He wondered if he had paid her already, or had paid someone else for her time.
Through the opening between the bed curtains Jamie could see a slat-back chair with his own clothing and some of hers flung haphazardly across the seat and trailing over a well-swept floor. The sight reassured him. Likely he had not been robbed.
Ignoring the woman at his side, Jamie sat up and pushed the curtains as far back as they would go. He concentrated on keeping his head from dropping as he swung his legs over the side and stood. Remarkably, he had begun to feel better. His stomach remained steady. His headache seemed marginally less painful.
He crossed to the corner of the small room where, as he'd suspected, the round curtain of green saye hid a closestool. Even as he took advantage of the convenience he wondered at this sign of modesty. It was just one more incongruity in an already puzzling situation. Still brooding, he returned to the chair and used its top rail to support himself as he dressed.
She was watching him. Although his back was to the bed he could feel her eyes following every movement. As he pulled on his shirt and hose and breeches and set her plain linen chemise and simple gown back on the chair, Jamie tried to convince himself that she was just a hired bedwarmer, that they were in a room in a brothel, but there were too many aspects of this situation that did not make sense.
Jamie tugged hard on the tops of his tall, square-toed boots, shoving his feet back into them with more force than was strictly necessary Was she new to the game? A novice harlot? That was one possibility. The other was gnawing at his conscience, impossible to ignore any longer.
What if she was not a whore at all?
As soon as he was fully dressed Jamie turned to look again at the woman with whom he had spent the night. She was kneeling and facing him, wrapped in the blanket so that it covered her torso and lower body, though the arrangement left her arms and shoulders enticingly bare. She looked chaste and untouchable ... and at the same time deliciously wanton.
"Are you mute?" Jamie demanded irritably. "Have you nothing to say for yourself?"
"What would you have me say?" Her voice was pleasant, soft and well-modulated, and she seemed genuinely curious to hear his answer.
He glared at her. "You might tell me where I am."
"In my chamber."
He glowered at the literal reply, and wondered if she might laugh at him. His head still pounded, making rational thought difficult.
"We are in an inn," she added. A mischievous glint appeared in her eyes. "It is the Sign of the Green Rose, in Clerkenwell."
And then she smiled.
The expression transformed her, temporarily banishing both Jamie's headache and his ill humor. The plain face became beautiful. Her bright blue eyes sparkled like sapphires. The color of her smooth skin heightened from palest pink to vibrant rose. She had the prettiest teeth Jamie had ever seen, small and white and even, and her lips seemed suddenly fuller, more inviting.
Stunned, Jamie took a step closer to the bed, then another. Burgeoning desire erased every thought but one from his mind as he reached for her with both hands, grasping her soft, white shoulders and hauling her against his chest. He saw the smile begin to fade as his lips descended. He captured her mouth, intent on plundering the rich, hot depths within.
He half expected her to struggle, to protest, to pull away. When she did not he waited for her to use a courtesan's practiced arts to inflame him further. She needed no such tricks. She returned his kiss with an innocent fervor, a passion unlike any he had ever encountered before. It was the most potent of aphrodisiacs, and yet, somehow, it was as disconcerting as it was arousing.
Protest was the last thing on Ellen Allyn's mind as she melted in Jamie Mainwaring's arms. She was entranced by the novel sensations coursing through her body, eager to learn more of the magic that could be created between man and woman. In the darkest hours of the night Jamie Mainwaring had taken her virginity and begun her awakening, but there had not been time enough for her to reach fulfillment. Now his kisses were causing that special excitement to build within her once again. The delicious unknown beckoned with powerful force.
Abruptly Jamie released her.
She blinked her eyes, confused and bereft and too inexperienced to know how to make him embrace her again. "Jamie?"
He took another step away from her, putting more distance between them. Sunlight danced at the back of his head, changing the hair he wore long, in the new Oxford style, into a golden nimbus. His face was a perfect oval, rough with pale stubble but dominated by a long, straight nose and eyes that were as much green as blue. Those magnificent eyes narrowed as he stared at her. His face took on a hostile and suspicious expression.
"Who are you and how did I come to be here in your company?"
Ellen sighed. She had been unable to stop looking at him while he dressed. Naked, he was a splendid sight, tall and firmly muscled, slender rather than stocky. Even now, fully clothed, he exuded masculine power. In his fawn-colored doublet and the darker knee breeches, tied with ribbon garters, he was every inch a gentleman.
And he was in pain.
It was obvious to her that his head still hurt him abominably, but she suspected that his conscience might be causing him equal distress. Ellen knew then that she could not go through with the hoax his friends had devised.
She slid off the bed and, clinging tightly to the blanket to shield her nakedness, sidled toward the small wooden chest that held her spare clothing.
"The Irishman made the arrangements."
"Yes." With nervous fingers she plucked a clean smock from the rough storage box. The one she'd been wearing lay in tattered ruins on the floor beside the bed.
Jamie rubbed his temples, as if that might help him make some sense of what she was saying.
"What arrangements? Who are you?"
"The Irishman bade me tell you that my name is Avelina and that this is my father's inn, but that is not the truth. I came to this place only two days ago."
"To set up as a whore?"
Ellen flinched but did not deny it. The less he knew about her and the real reason she'd agreed to enact this charade the better. She clutched the soft, well-worn smock close against the front of her blanket and glanced toward the bed. She had planned to scoop up her remaining clothes and dress behind the tattered sarcenet hangings but now Jamie blocked the return route.
"Your friends paid me handsomely to convince you that you bedded an innocent maid last night."
"Three double crowns."
On Jamie Mainwaring's expressive face outrage warred with amusement. After a moment he grinned widely and Ellen had to fight against a desire to smile herself.
"Have they bribed the innkeeper, too? Does he lurk outside this chamber with a loaded musket?"
"He waits below." Ellen saw the sparkle of imminent laughter in Jamie's eyes and on impulse added, "With a pudding prick."
He began to chuckle--a deep, resonant, infinitely appealing sound. "He'll skewer me, by God! Apt retribution indeed, if I'll not become his son-in-law. But, tell me, how do my friends mean to rescue me from my folly?"
Ellen met his eyes. "They do not plan to save you."
"What? Will they let a wedding proceed?"
"They have placed bets on your reaction to finding yourself in bed with me and believing that you have ruined the innocent daughter of the house. Two say you will do the honorable thing and seek out the innkeeper to ask for my hand in marriage. They swear they will wait until you are standing in church in front of a preacher before they tell you that you have been gulled."
"And the Irishman?"
"Wagered a sovereign that you will sense a trap and slip out by some back way."
"They are all three below," he guessed, "drinking small beer while they wait for us to wake up."
He'd taken her disclosures unexpectedly well, proof that was a gentle man as well as a gentleman. Ellen had met few such in her lifetime. "That was the plan."
Jamie's laughter echoed through the small, dank chamber, giving it new warmth. Ellen listened in growing delight, though she did not allow herself to join in. The sheer joy Jamie and his wildhead friends found in living was a revelation to her.
"I shall do neither," he declared. "We will leave this poor inn together, ignoring both my erstwhile friends and your supposed parent, and let them think what they will."
Her fingers trembled around the material she still held clutched to her chest. "I have taken the Irishman's money. If he finds me again he might demand repayment."
"Let me deal with Kinlough. Will you play along?" He moved aside so that she could gather up her remaining clothes.
"Where will you take me?"
"A better place than this, that I promise you." An errant hope leapt in her heart, a desire to spend more time with Jamie Mainwaring, to learn again the touch of his hands on her naked skin. The blanket slipped, whether by chance or design she could not honestly say, as she scrambled back up onto the bed. She glanced up quickly, hoping to catch Jamie's reaction.
He was watching her with a new intensity. He cleared his throat. "There is one condition for my friendship."
She waited, her heart hammering. He had to know already that she was willing.
With a rueful smile he shook his head. "Another sort of condition, sweeting."
Instantly Ellen was wary. Had she let his apparent kindness and his handsome face mislead her? In the course of the night she bad almost forgotten that she had meant only to use him. The money his companions bad paid her to cozen him had been welcome, but more welcome still had been the tantalizing possibility of escape. She had seen Jamie Mainwaring as her salvation, the means by which she might rid herself of the dangerous burden she had been obliged to keep secret for as long as she could remember.
She could not quite keep the faint tremble out of her voice. "What condition?"
"You must tell me your name. It cannot possibly be Avelina."
He was teasing her. Relief made Ellen weak and grateful that she was already seated on the lumpy bed.
"I am called Ellen," she said. "Ellen Allyn."
"Well, Ellen Allyn, have you a real father somewhere?"
"Both my parents died of the plague."
"It took my mother, too," he said, suddenly somber. "It has been a bit more than a year now, but I still miss her."
Her heart went out to him. It was a rare man who would confess love for the woman who had borne him. "My loss is not so recent. It was during the great outbreak." That had been the year the plague had been so widespread that in one week five thousand Londoners had died.
He looked startled. "You could have been no more than a child then."
"I was eight years old when the death cart came for my mother. It took my father two weeks later and three of my brothers the day after that."
"It is a miracle you survived," Jamie murmured.
Ellen scarcely heard. Memories flooded over her, painful and vivid, drowning all else.
"There was still food at first, and my remaining brother was in good health. Then one day he ordered me to bar the door and let no one enter, and went out to buy provisions and a preventive for the plague."
Jamie came closer, moved by the raw emotion in her voice. Ellen stared at him, unseeing. She did not want to remember, but could find no way to stop either the images or the words.
"There were still some apothecaries left, my brother said, who would sell shilling powders and half-crown electuaries. He said he'd bring back a cake of arsenic for me to wear under my arm and rue and wormwood to stuff into my nose and ears, but he never returned."
When the food had run out completely, Ellen remembered, she had put on her best gown and sat quietly in the empty house, waiting for someone to come for her. She had not been ill at all, but by the time two more days had passed she was weak. Driven by hunger, she'd opened the door and looked out into the pale gray dawn of an October day.
There had been a cross on the door, and some words she could not read had been painted under it. More crosses had adorned adjoining buildings. Grass had been growing underfoot, right on the street. Ellen had not understood what that meant. She hadn't realized why the smell of lime was so strong, either, until she'd come upon a lime pit overflowing with bodies.
At first she'd been aware only of a dearth of the usual London noises. There had been no boys crying out for passersby to purchase their wares. No one had offered apples or bread or meat pies for sale. There had been no horsemen in sight, nor any carts, not even the death carts. The only sound had been the dolorous tolling of the bells, which had gone on without ceasing for so many weeks that Ellen had no longer noticed it. She'd begun to walk, thinking to find a cook-shop, but houses and shops alike had all been boarded up. Every window and door had been tightly shuttered against the dangerous, plague-ridden air. No one had answered when she'd stopped and knocked.
The concern in Jamie's voice brought her back to the present with a start. She tried to wipe out the rest of the memories. It did no good to dwell on them and she had more pressing matters to concern her now.
Jamie Mainwaring was standing very close to the bed. Her heart rate accelerated and she had to lick her suddenly dry lips.
He stared at her mouth, and for a moment Ellen thought he would kiss her again, but he held himself in check. Only a new harshness in his voice gave away the strength of his physical response to her.
"Where did you go after your parents died?" he asked. "Did some relative take you in?"
She shook her head and struggled to rein in her runaway thoughts. "I ... I found work as a servant. My master, he died suddenly this week just past, leaving me without a home."
Jamie nodded, drawing his own conclusions from that, but he still seemed puzzled by her.
"You are well-spoken for a serving maid."
"My master taught me." Ellen hoped Jamie would assume that she'd been employed in a gentleman's household, or at least in some respectable merchant's home.
"And my friends? How did they find you?"
"At the playhouse." His surprise made it necessary for her to elaborate, but she did so reluctantly. "I hoped to locate a distant kinsman there, for my father's cousin was reputed to have been a player of some stature, but I found no welcome, only lewd suggestions and rude behavior, which made your companions seem fine gentlemen in comparison."
"And they offered you money, for which you have a desperate need." Jamie nodded, apparently satisfied at last, and stepped away from the bed.
Ellen started to relax, relieved at having deflected his questions, but at that moment his eyes narrowed. He was staring at an area next to her on the bed. She followed the direction of his gaze, her heart sinking as she guessed what she would see.
The unforgiving sunlight picked out a telltale spot of recently shed blood.
Jamie sounded as if he were strangling. "Did I ... were you--?"
"That stain means nothing."
Their eyes locked. She met the penetrating look with an expression as bland as she could manage and prayed that her firm voice and calm attitude would be enough to convince him she was telling the truth.
Jamie gave a shaky laugh. "A part of the hoax, then?"
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. He wanted reassurance and she was determined he should have it.
"Very clever. Insidious. For a moment I ... well, no matter. It was just a prank, after all."
"I am not a virgin."
It was true, now. Jamie assumed, just as she hoped, that she had some experience with men.
Ellen wondered why she felt such a sharp stab of disappointment. After all, there had never been any possibility that he would marry her. Gentlemen did not wed serving maids. It would have been rare enough to find one who'd even consider marrying the daughter of an innkeeper.
"I am not a whore, either. I pray you, give me leave to dress in privacy. It is passing cold to be wrapped in only a blanket."
Her haughty tone seemed to amuse him, as did her claim that she was chilled. Ellen felt overwarm as Jamie's eyes raked her from head to toe. Then he pulled the bed curtains together, and after a moment Ellen heard his booted feet strike the floorboards as he crossed the small chamber to stand at the single, narrow window set into the dormer.
Hurriedly she began to dress, and had her kirtle in place before she heard Jamie's voice again.
"This is too dismal a place for you to stay in. Pack all your belongings. We will confound my friends and leave here with all your bags and boxes."
"One small bundle only." There had not been time to fetch more than a few personal items before she'd had to flee. With trembling fingers Ellen closed the last fastenings on her plain blue bodice and tucked her hair up under a simple white cap.
Jamie didn't move as she came up beside him at the open window. He was staring out beyond the rooftops toward the distant waters of the Thames. "Merchant ships lie at anchor in the river, loading cargo to take to faraway ports. There are riches beyond dreaming to be had in foreign lands, if only a man be bold enough to go and look for them."
Ellen heard the longing in his voice and wondered at it. She sensed his restlessness but did not know what to say to him. He was, for all that they had shared in the night, a stranger to her. Troubled, she dropped her gaze and looked down into the innyard beneath the window.
Her horrified gasp startled Jamie out of his reverie.
"What is it?"
"Nothing. Nothing." She backed away from the window, anxious to be out of sight before the man in the innyard looked up.
Frodsham had found her.
Even from this height there was no mistaking him. That had been Frodsham's thin frame beneath his familiar loose overcoat. She did not need to glimpse his little rat's eyes to confirm his identity, and she could not take the risk that he would recognize her.
Jamie caught her arm to prevent further retreat. He glanced sideways through the window. Although he did not force her back to his side Ellen could picture what he was seeing below The Green Rose had been built around a square yard big enough to give plays in. The ground floor boasted a run-down hall, stables, barns, two private parlors, and a public drinking room. Bed-chambers filled the next level, let out to travelers. The landlord kept his own rooms in the attic above the west wing and used the rest of this third level for storage. The tiny chamber Jamie and Ellen now occupied was just opposite the innkeeper's lodgings, in the center of the east wing.
She'd paid dearly to use the dreary attic room as a temporary hiding place, counting on her host's reputation as a man whose silence could be bought. Too late she realized her one mistake. She should also have found a way to bribe each of the inn's servants.
"There is a weasel-beaked fellow in a dark green mandilion standing in front of the stable and talking to an ostler," Jamie said. "Is he the one you fear?"
Frodsham was looking for her. There was no other explanation. If it had been tempting before to leave the Green Rose with Jamie Mainwaring, it was imperative now. She could not, would not, go back to her old life.
"Ellen, who is he?"
"You are afraid of him."
"He ... he wishes to collect a debt that was owed to him by my late master. He thinks I am obliged to pay it, but I am not, and not in the way he would demand payment. Please, Jamie, let us leave now."
"How did you mean to go on, Ellen? You say you are no whore, and yet--"
"I planned to stand in Paul's Churchyard and offer myself as a servant."
"A sensible action."
It was, unfortunately, no longer one she dared consider. St. Paul's was the central marketplace for seeking such employment. Frodsham would be certain to look for her there.
Jamie scooped up the small bundle Ellen had packed. He maintained a light grip on her arm, as if he suspected she might try to bolt if he gave her the opportunity. "I have a better plan. My older sister, Mistress Mary Norwood, has need of a maidservant. You and she will suit each other admirably."
"Your sister?" Ellen felt color creep into her face. "I am not sure that would be wise. She's bound to ask questions."
"She need not know how we met. Oh, Mary would not care, but her husband might." He frowned, apparently imagining his brother-in-law's reaction. "Do not trouble yourself about Samuel. He'll agree to take you in if Mary wants you. He dotes on my sister, and he can afford to cater to her whims."
"What will you tell your sister, then?"
"We will devise some clever tale. We will have ample time to think of one. Samuel Norwood's house and haberdasher's shop are in Whitechapel Street, on the far side of London in the parish of St. Botolph without Aldgate."
Ellen's uncertainty vanished. The location could not have been more perfect to put some distance between herself and the odious Frodsham. "1 will gladly enter Mistress Norwood's service, then, if she will have me."
"Never doubt it, sweeting. She will find you a breath of fresh air, even as I have."
Ellen blinked with surprise at Jamie's unexpected compliment. She studied his handsome features thoughtfully as he ushered her toward the door. Anywhere away from Clerkenwell would suit her well enough, but, just perhaps, that was not quite all she desired.