A Short Contemporary Romance
(A pen name of Alison Stuart)
Copyright © 2002 Alison Stuart
Oportet Publishing March 2016
Shakespir edition 2016
Cover Design: Alison Stuart
Cover photograph: Purchased with Licence from www.canva.com
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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“He caught her in his strong arms and held her tight. She felt herself melt within the circle of his strength and leaned her head against his chest, feeling the strong beat of his heart beneath the thin fabric of his shirt. He bent his head and she looked up expectantly, her lips parted…”
‘Oh my God, Sarah! You don’t read this rubbish do you?’
Caught red handed, Sarah thrust FLAME OF MY HEART back on to the book shop shelf.
‘No. No. Of course not,’ Sarah forced herself to smile at Julie. ‘I was just seeing what all the fuss was about.’
‘I mean look at this cover,’ Julie pulled the book back off the shelf jabbing an accusing finger at the lurid purple hued cover depicting a muscle-bound man, his buttons straining on his inadequate shirt as he gazed deeply into the eyes of a wilting female reclining against his arm, ‘I can’t believe people buy this nonsense,’ she said, replacing the book among its companions. ‘I mean who believes in romance these days?’
Sarah blinked at her friend. ‘You don’t believe in romance? What about Stephen?’
Julia waved an immaculately manicured hand. ‘Stephen? Romance has nothing to do with Stephen!’
‘But you’ve been going out forever. Everyone’s just waiting for the engagement announcement.’
Julie bit her lower lip. ‘I didn’t say I didn’t love him. I just meant romance didn’t enter into it.’
Over coffee at the bookshop café, Sarah raised the question again. ‘So, why don’t you believe in romance?’
Julie gave her friend a withering glance. ‘Romance is fantasy, Sarah,’ she drew a breath, warming to her theme. ‘Romance is for vapid females in corsets and lace. This is the twenty first century. We can do anything – be anything we want. Just look at us! We’re already associates of two of the largest law firms in Melbourne and if we play our cards right, we’ll be partners in a couple of years. We sure as hell don’t need a man with a bunch of roses and sugar coated promises of happy ever after to make our lives complete!’ She took a sip of her coffee. ‘And, believe me, there is no such animal as a romantic man.’
‘Isn’t Stephen romantic?’ Sarah ventured.
Julie laughed. ‘Stephen’s a dear but quite frankly he hasn’t a romantic bone in his body. I doubt he knows the difference between roses and rosemary. Believe me, Sarah, it may be a truisim but men really are only after one thing.’
‘And some people are more willing than others to let them have it,’ the words were out before Sarah could stop them. She clapped a hand to her mouth. ‘I didn’t mean that to sound…’
Julie stiffened, her eyes widening and her mouth an O of surprise. ‘Well at least I have a man,’ she rejoined.
They looked at each other in horror but old friendship prevailed. They both laughed but there was an awkward silence as they finished their coffees.
Julie did a quick check of her lipstick and looked at her watch. ‘Must go back to work. See you Saturday night?’
Sarah lingered a few minutes staring at the empty coffee cup. She had to admit that Julie’s catty remark had cut her to the bone. It was not her fault she didn’t have a boyfriend. She just hadn’t liked any of the men who had been interested in her and there had been a few over the years. How could she explain to Julie that she was not after a relationship, she wanted a relationship with romance? She yearned for strolls in the park on chilly autumn days, champagne in front of roaring log fires, roses and gazing at sunsets.
Her relationships to date had centred on careers, cars, pay cheques, alcohol and sex. Not necessarily in that order. Romance, as she understood it, had not entered into it.
Sarah sighed and pushed her cup away. With a quick glance to see that no one else she knew was likely to be watching, she slipped back into the bookshop and purchased FLAME OF MY HEART.
Sarah toyed with her glass of wine, crossed and recrossed her legs and scanned the room for a friendly face. Maybe it was time to change the routine or the venue. She and Julie had been coming to The Club, a fashionable hang out on King Street, since they had first started out in the work force. She kept returning in the hope of meeting someone new and exciting but more often than not she found that the other patrons were now younger than her or the same drunken yobbos she had met before.
Sarah took a sip of her wine and watched Julie and Stephen on the dance floor. Stephen moved awkwardly to the music, his eyes fixed on some unseen point in the ceiling rather than his gyrating partner. He was good looking enough if you liked dark haired men but she’d always found him rather quiet and hard to get to know. She wondered why Julie with her gorgeous figure, mane of dark auburn hair and flamboyant personality had gone out with him for so long.
She scanned the room once more and decided to leave. An evening curled up with FLAME OF MY HEART held considerably more attraction than the night’s offerings. She stood up and turned without looking, her shoulder catching the hand of a man standing behind her. His glass of beer went flying, the amber liquid cascading in a golden, frothy fountain down the front of his immaculate white shirt.
‘Oh God, I’m sorry.’ Sarah reached for a pile of napkins on the table and began dabbing at the shirt: A fine linen shirt that fitted well across a broad expanse of manly chest.
‘It’s all right. No damage done. It will wash.’ His rich, deep voice caused her to pause in her ministrations and look up into a pair of the bluest eyes she had ever seen.
Sarah stopped dabbing and straightened. ‘I didn’t see you behind me.’
He smiled, revealing a set of perfect teeth that gleamed brightly against the tan of his face and ran his fingers through his thick, ash-blonde hair. ‘It was partly my fault. I was looking for a friend and not where I was going. You can make amends by dancing with me. No one else will, now I reek of beer.’
Somewhere above her, fireworks exploded, bells started to ring and celestial choirs burst into song. Wasn’t this how IT was supposed to happen? A stranger’s eyes across a crowded room?
Across the dance floor, she saw Julie mouth something to Stephen as they stepped on to the dance floor. Sarah smiled serenely and let herself into the music. This man was a wonderful dancer, languid and sensuous. She could feel herself responding to the rhythm of the song and his swaying hips. It was all she could do not to throw herself into his arms and…
‘Hi Tony,’ Julie sashayed across the dance floor with Stephen in tow. She kissed Sarah’s partner on both cheeks. ‘I see you’ve met my friend Sarah?’ she added giving Sarah a sharp glance.
‘Is this the friend you were looking for?’ Sarah asked.
‘It certainly is. You look great Jules. How are you Steve?’
Stephen clapped the stranger on the shoulder. ‘Glad you could make it, Tony! The tropical climate looks like it suits you.’
‘Tony’s just come back from Singapore. He’s been working with our firm up there,’ Julie shouted into Sarah’s ear.
‘Let’s go somewhere quieter and grab a drink,’ Stephen yelled.
The Club only had degrees of noise: noisy, noisier and noisiest. They settled for one of the less noisy corners and Stephen disappeared to the bar to get drinks.
Julie picked up her purse. ‘Excuse me for a minute Tony. I’ve just got to go and freshen up,’ she said. ‘Coming Sarah?
Sarah looked up at her friend. ‘I don’t…’ she began and then as Julie narrowed her eyes and made a discreet jerking motion with her head, she added, ‘…we won’t be long.’
‘Isn’t he gorgeous?’ Julie gushed as soon as they were in the sanctity of the confessional, otherwise known as the Ladies’ bathroom.
‘He’s quite cute,’ Sarah conceded.
Julie laughed. ‘Quite cute? Oh Sarah you are the end.’
‘How long have you know him?’ Sarah asked.
‘Oh absolutely ages. He used to work with Stephen and he is a darling,’ she leaned towards Sarah and whispered, ‘I had quite a thing about him for a while!’
Julie shook her head, her mouth assuming a downward cast. ‘Oh he was dating some gorgeous model so I didn’t get a look in and then he got sent overseas.’ She shrugged. ‘You know, the usual story. Just after he left for the Singapore office Stephen asked me out and the rest is history.’
‘What about now. Has he…?’ Sarah felt the heat rise to her face. ‘Is he…?’
‘Attached? Not that I know of.’ Julie tucked her arm into Sarah’s, ‘Go for it!’
Sarah went for it. By the end of the evening she had discovered that Tony loved skiing, diving and rally car driving. These were not activities that had appealed to Sarah in the past, but she was not above pretending that she loved them and who knows…? She might like them given the right opportunity.
As they parted at the front door of her flat, he said, ‘I’d like to see you again. How about dinner next Friday?’
What was a girl to say?
A perfect red rose arrived at her desk at work on Monday morning with a note that said simply “Until Friday”. When her PA asked her about her secret admirer, she smiled and said nothing.
Over the phone, Julie scoffed, ‘Roses? Don’t kid yourself girl. Tony’s no different from the others. Beneath that suave exterior he’s only after one thing.’
The other men she had dated had all been after the “one thing” and they were as subtle about it as one of the curries from her favourite Indian restaurant, the Taj Mahal. Tony was different. He actually seemed to enjoy her company for its own sake.
Dinner on Friday night was followed by a picnic in the Dandenongs which was followed by another dinner, dancing at a stylish night club, not the usual King Street haunts, walks hand in hand in the Botanical Gardens, more single red roses and chauffeur driven cars, all washed down with French champagne.
They talked of diving, skiing and rally car driving. They talked about the legal profession and they talked of love and past lovers and their hopes and dreams. They watched the sunset over Port Philip Bay, stared into each other’s eyes and kissed – long, lingering, passionate kisses.
FLAME OF MY HEART lay unread and neglected on Sarah’s bedside table.
Julie took a sip of her cappuccino, set it down and stirred the froth with her teaspoon.
‘Stephen’s asked me to marry him.’
‘Oh that’s great,’ Sarah enthused. ‘Did he go down on one knee?’
Julie gave a snort. ‘He popped the question over soup and a sandwich while we were watching some dreadful opera on the TV!’
‘Oh,’ Sarah scrounged for words to express her disappointment in the obvious lack of atmosphere involved. Failing to find anything appropriate, she said, ‘Still its wonderful news. Have you set a date?’
‘I haven’t exactly said yes.’ Julie set her cup down.
Julie shrugged. ‘It was all so… I just wish he was… well, you know… more romantic.’
‘I thought you didn’t believe in romance?’
Julie cast her friend a sharp glance. ‘I didn’t until I saw what I was missing. How is that gorgeous man of yours?
Sarah felt herself smirk. ‘He’s invited me down to a cottage at Airey’s Inlet next weekend.’
‘So this is the big weekend is it?’
‘Could be,’ Sarah shrugged. She had played the scene over in her mind: Candles, champagne, soft bed linen, and classical music. All so romantic, all so perfect, all so….
No wait, Sarah thought, all so what? All too perfect? Where were the fireworks, bells and angels now? They seemed to be out for a coffee break. Something was not quite right and she couldn’t pinpoint it. It was, she reflected, like being fed a steady diet of her favourite chocolate only to find herself longing for cheese.
That night she went home and read FLAME OF MY HEART from cover to cover but it offered her no answers.
The huge bunch of roses had a card. “Have been called back to Singapore for meetings. Will have to cancel our weekend. Will ring when I get back. Until then…Love Tony”.
As she arranged the roses tastefully in her biggest vase and set them on her coffee table, Sarah examined her feelings. A little disappointed perhaps but, oddly, not devastated, she concluded.
She unpacked her overnight bag, placing the expensive, newly acquired, silk night-dress, the price of which had apparently been costed by the square inch, at the bottom of her drawer, changed into her sloppiest tracksuit bottoms and prepared for an evening with a bad movie.
She had just curled up on the sofa with a cup of coffee when the doorbell rang. Stephen stood on the doorstep dressed in crumpled jeans and a tee shirt, so old the band had begun to fray. From the dark shadows under his eyes to the unshaven jaw line, he radiated misery.
‘Setting a new fashion in grunge wear?’ Sarah enquired.
‘Can I come in?’
‘Of course. Coffee?’
He nodded and slumped down at the table, his head in his hands, while she busied herself in the kitchen. Even when she set the cup down in front of him he didn’t seem to notice.
She sat down opposite him and forced a smile. ‘So, what’s up?’
He gave a great shuddering sigh. ‘It’s Julie. I think she’s dumped me.’
‘Oh no. What did she say?’
‘Well nothing really. I asked her to marry me last Saturday and we ended up having this peculiar conversation. She told me I wasn’t being romantic enough and I should try and be more like Tony. I’ve hardly seen her all week and then when I rang her today she said me she was going to Sydney for the weekend. She had meetings with clients.’
‘And that means she’s dumped you?’
He heaped sugar into his coffee and stirred it. ‘No. I popped into her office late this afternoon to say goodbye and her PA said that Julie didn’t have any meetings in Sydney. She had left work early saying she was going away with a friend for the weekend.’
‘Oh I see,’ Sarah took a thoughtful sip of her coffee which tasted strangely bitter. ‘Did she say where?’
‘Somewhere down on the coast.’
‘It wouldn’t be Airey’s Inlet?’
He looked up. ‘Yes that was it. She said the place they were staying was out of mobile range so she left an emergency number with her secretary. Only to be used in dire emergency under pain of death were her exact instructions.’ He looked up at Julie, his eyes stricken, ‘I think she’s gone with another man.’
A cold, hard lump formed in the back of Sarah’s throat and she glanced at the vase of roses and uttered a short expletive that cast doubts on the parentage of both parties involved.
‘I’m fairly sure she’s gone with Tony.’ She pushed the card that had accompanied the roses across the table at him. He studied it for a moment and looked even more miserable.
‘Perhaps if I had been more romantic… but I don’t… I can’t… I’m not like that. What did she want from me, Sarah?’
The naked misery in his face, made Sarah forget her own annoyance with her conniving swain. She put her hand over his, squeezing his fingers. ‘Believe me, Stephen, romance isn’t everything.’
He sighed and his fingers tightened on hers. An unexpected tingle of warmth ran up her arm.
She extricated her hand and stood up. ‘We can stay here and get depressed or we can go down to the Taj Mahal and eat a really hot curry.’
He nodded and the ghost of a smile curled his lips. ‘Curry sounds good.’
Over Chicken Tika and several bottles of beer, Sarah had her first real in depth conversation with Stephen. She discovered that he liked Art House movies and plays but never went to them because Julie hated them. He hated going to night-clubs but only went because Julie liked them. He asked, rather tentatively if she liked books and if she had read the latest Booker Prize Winner? Not all Sarah’s reading was confined to FLAME OF MY HEART and its ilk and he appeared surprised when she said she had. They discussed the book at length – she loved it, he hated it but they both conceded it was a modern masterpiece and couldn’t wait for the next book to appear. By the end of the evening they had agreed to see the new French film everyone was raving about.
Sarah hummed as she dressed for the night out at the movies with Stephen. Logic told her it was just a night out with a friend, nothing special, but when the doorbell rang she almost bounded to answer it.
Stephen stood on the doorstep with a sheepish grin on his face. He thrust a bunch of half-eaten, wilted carnations at her.
‘Sorry, it was all I could find in the garden,’ he said.
Sarah had always hated carnations but these seemed somehow different. She placed them reverently in her best crystal vase on the coffee table, consigning the vase of red roses to the back room.
The film was wonderful and they both agreed it was the best example of that particular director’s work they had ever seen. At her gate, Stephen stepped out of the car and walked with her up to the front door.
‘That was great. I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in ages,’ Sarah said, looking up into his eyes. They were a soft, gentle brown. Strange how she’d never noticed them before or the way his hair fell in a fetching cowlick across his forehead.
Somewhere above her a sparkler ignited, a small bell tinkled and a single soprano launched into song.
‘How about lunch at that new restaurant in Port Melbourne tomorrow?’ Stephen suggested.
‘Sounds good,’ she said, smiling up at him, not wanting to start fumbling in her bag for the front door key and bring the evening to an end.
He caught her in his arms and held her tight. She felt herself melt within the comfortable circle of his strength and leaned her head against his chest, feeling the strong beat of his heart beneath the scratchy wool of his jumper. He bent his head and she looked up expectantly, her lips parted…
Writing contemporary romance as Alli Stewart.
Award winning Australian author, Alison Stuart learned her passion from history from her father. She has been writing stories since her teenage years but it was not until 2007 that her first full length novel was published. A past president of the Romance Writers of Australia, Alison has now published seven full length historical romances and a collection of her short stories. Many of her stories have been shortlisted for international awards and BY THE SWORD won the 2008 EPIC Award for Best Historical Romance.
Her inclination for writing about soldier heroes may come from her varied career as a lawyer in the military and fire services. These days when she is not writing she is travelling and routinely drags her long suffering husband around battlefields and castles.
Readers can connect with Alison at her , , and .
OTHER TITLES by Alison Stuart
The Guardians of the Crown Series
Paranormal Historical Romance
Contemporary Short Stories
Love Above the Snowline
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But wait…there’s more… turn the page for an excerpt from HER REBEL HEART, a historical romance of the English Civil War…
A historical romance from
Kinton Lacey Castle, Herefordshire
July 25, 1643
Startled out of an uneasy doze by the crackle of musket fire, Deliverance sent books and papers flying as she rummaged through the detritus on the table in her search for the flint. As the candle sputtered into life, the door opened and her steward, Melchior Blakelocke, stood outlined in the doorway, holding a covered lantern.
“Are we being attacked?” Deliverance asked.
“I don’t think so,” Melchior replied. “In fact, I think it is our besiegers who are being attacked.”
Hope sprang in Deliverance’s heart. “Is it Father? Has he come to relieve us?”
She reached for the elegant French Wheelock musket her father used for hunting, running her hand over the well-polished wood of the stock. It had a kick that threatened to dislocate her shoulder every time she used it, but she took pride in her mastery of the weapon.
Outside, the entire garrison of Kinton Lacey Castle had deployed along the walls, but to her relief, the firing and shouts came from beyond the crumbling walls of the old castle. She took her now accustomed vantage point on the northern tower of the bastion gate and squinted into the darkness and confusion.
Smoke and flame from burning outbuildings lent a surreal light to the melee of men that whirled and danced in the shadows as if re-enacting some ancient pagan ceremony. Only the clash of steel instead of cymbals brought home the grim purpose of the bizarre pageant.
Two men on horseback appeared out of the smoke and cantered towards the castle. Backlit by the fires, they could have been a pair of vengeful spirits.
Her heart pounding, Deliverance raised her musket and fired, cursing in a most unladylike manner as the musket ball skimmed past the two men, taking the taller man’s hat. His horse, startled by its rider’s jerk of alarm, reared up depositing the soldier on the ground. For a moment he lay still, before rising to his hands and knees. Shaking his head, he rose slowly to his feet, casting an upwards glance in the direction of the castle, as he dusted off his hat and remounted his horse.
Melchior cleared his throat. “While that is excellent shooting, I think you will find they are friends not foes.”
Deliverance’s stomach lurched. “How can you tell?”
“They wear the orange sash of the parliamentary forces, my lady.”
Deliverance leaned the musket against the wall, clenching and unclenching her hand in an effort to disguise her shaking fingers. Nausea rose in her throat. It was the first time she had fired the weapon intending to kill and she had nearly killed one of their own relieving force.
She took a deep breath, struggling to regain her composure as the two men came to a halt at the bridge over the castle’s defensive ditch. Facing them were the stout oaken gates to the castle that Deliverance had shut on her foe two weeks earlier.
“Hold your fire.” The man she had shot at called up to the defenders. “We are sent by Sir John Felton to relieve this castle.”
Deliverance picked up her musket and drew back to a vantage point where she could see without being seen. “You answer, Melchior.”
Melchior cast her a sidelong glance and stepped forward to the battlements. “Your name, sir?”
“Captain Luke Collyer.”
“How do we know they’ve come from Father?” Deliverance prompted her steward.
“How do I know you are sent by his lordship?” Melchior demanded.
The man who had identified himself as Captain Luke Collyer produced a paper from his jacket and waved it at the wall.
“These are my orders. While I don’t wish to appear churlish, sir, we have no great desire to remain outside these walls when those knaves could be back at any moment.”
“What do you mean?” Melchior asked, leaning further over the ramparts.
“We appear to have seen off your besiegers for the moment.” The man’s voice rose to make himself heard by all on the castle wall.
Deliverance drew a sharp intake of breath as relief flooded through her. The siege was over but she still had to be careful. She put no trust in Farrington not to try and gull her in this fashion.
“Very well, Melchior, let them in, but I want every man with a weapon to have it trained on them.” She tapped a fingernail on the stock of her musket. “I will meet them in the Great Hall.”
“May I suggest a change of dress, madam?”
She looked down at her breeches. “Demure and ladylike?”
Melchior nodded. “Demure and ladylike.”
“Well, this is a warm welcome,” Luke said, as he and his comrade, Ned Barrett, rode under the gatehouse into the courtyard beneath a bristling bank of muskets. “First I’m shot at and now this. Hardly what I would have expected.”
He turned to Sergeant Hale, who had followed them in on foot. “Clear the village, Hale. Make sure none of the blackguards are left to bother us for the time being.”
“Sir!” Hale saluted smartly and turned back through the castle gate.
A tall, thin man with wispy, greying hair and a lugubrious expression waited on the steps of what would have once been the castle keep, but now more closely resembled a comfortable manor house, with mullioned windows knocked through its sturdy walls. Roses grew around the stonework. A few well aimed cannonballs would reduce it to rubble.
“My lady will receive you in the Great Hall,” the man announced, gesturing at the open door.
Fingering the hole in his hat, Luke, with Ned beside him, followed the man up the wide stone stairs toward the front entrance.
Despite its façade of tall walls, a tower at each corner and a solid gatehouse, even in the dark, he could see some of the walls had crumbled. The years had turned Kinton Lacey from one of Edward III’s ring of stout Marches castles to a family home that would be hard to defend.
They were shown through an ornately carved wooden screen into the Great Hall. A branch of candles on the long, oak table cast a thin light in the cavernous room. In keeping with rest of the castle, it appeared to have been modernised to provide such comforts as fireplaces, glazed windows and wooden panelling. Another tribute to more peaceful times.
In the shadows of the lofty ceiling, faded, dusty standards hung from poles and rows of hooks on the walls, indicating the places where ancient weapons had once been displayed. These, Luke assumed with amusement, probably now armed the garrison.
“Are you the men who saved us?”
Both men turned back to face the screen. A woman walked toward them across the flagged floor. Luke’s blood stirred as she came into the light thrown by the candles. This girl was a beauty. Soft, fair curls framed a serene oval face and azure-blue eyes held his gaze from beneath long lashes. Her perfect rose-coloured lips parted in a smile of delight as she looked from one to the other.
“Mistress Felton.” Luke gave her the benefit of his most courtly bow before prodding Ned to do the same. He could see from the idiotic smile on Ned’s face that he had fallen instantly in love. He just hoped Sir John Felton’s assertions concerning his daughter’s ability to defend her honor were not misplaced.
“You must be so brave,” the young woman enthused. “There were so many of them.”
“Captain Collyer?” Another woman’s voice, clipped and businesslike, cut across Ned’s stammered protestations of how simple the job had been.
Both men looked away from the fair-haired beauty. Another woman strode across the floor toward them.
“I see you’ve already met my sister, Penitence,” she said as she reached them. “I am Deliverance Felton.”
Luke stared. If this was Deliverance Felton, she could not have been more different from her sister. As dark as Penitence was fair, she was at least four fingers shorter, with a strong jawline, a long nose. Her saving grace were her eyes, large light blue eyes, the colour of the sky in summer. Where Penitence’s hair hung in carefully coiffed curls, Deliverance’s attempt at a similar style resembled bedraggled rats’ tails.
“Deliverance Felton?” Luke enquired with a trace of uncertainty in his voice.
“Yes,” she replied curtly, holding out her hand. “Your orders, Captain Collyer?”
Luke fumbled in his jacket, presenting her with the crumpled and stained paper.
“My orders,” he said with an inclination of his head.
Deliverance Felton turned the paper over and broke the seal. A second, neatly sealed letter fell to the floor. She stooped and picked it up, turning it over to peer at the seal, before tucking the packet away in her skirts.
She looked at Luke. “I thought my father might have come himself.”
Luke spread his hands. “He sends his apologies, Mistress Felton. The defence of Gloucester commands his full attention.”
“How is he?” Penitence asked.
“Well,” Luke replied. “Yes, very well, when I last saw him. In fine voice…” Ned’s elbow pressed into his side.
Sir John Felton had only let them out of Gloucester after an hour long lecture on how to conduct themselves. They were both in disgrace. A few long nights in one of the inns and the complaints of several good burghers of Gloucester had brought them to Sir John’s attention. He had judged their behaviour unfitting for the forces of the godly parliamentarians and the affronted citizenry of Gloucester and had sent them to the relief of Kinton Lacey.
“I see you have orders to reinforce the garrison here.” Deliverance looked up, cutting in on his reverie. “How many men did you bring with you?”
“Forty-five,” Luke replied.
Her eyes widened and the corners of her mouth turned down at the corners. “Only forty-five?”
“How many do you have in the garrison at present?” he asked, with a sense of foreboding.
“Twenty-three,” she said.
Luke glanced at Ned. “Colonel Felton led us to believe the garrison numbered over fifty.”
“It did,” Deliverance replied. “But Father took the able-bodied men and those left behind returned to their fields and to defend their own homes, particularly once Sir Richard Farrington started to send out raiding parties.”
“Sir Richard Farrington?” Ned asked.
“The local royalist commander.”
“An odious man, even before the war began.” Deliverance shuddered. “Always thought himself superior to us. It is his men who have been camped outside our walls for the last weeks.”
Luke smiled. “You do not seem particularly worse the wear for the inconvenience.”
Deliverance met his eyes with a smile of satisfaction. “That is because we were well prepared, Captain Collyer. We could withstand a siege of some months if need be.”
“I see.” Luke looked up at the bare walls. “And your weapons?”
She followed his gaze and a little colour stained her cheeks. “Ah…you guess rightly, Captain Collyer. We’re not well armed.”
“We’ve brought fresh arms and powder and a couple of small cannonade,” Ned said.
Deliverance Felton beamed, the smile transforming her face. “Oh, that is wonderful news.” Her eyes gleamed in the candlelight. “Cannonade—”
Luke cleared his throat. “Are there other Parliamentary garrisons in the area?”
“This is a county that holds strongly for the King, Captain Collyer, but there is a small garrison held for Parliament at Byton Castle, five miles north.” Deliverance sighed. “Other than that, we find ourselves in the midst of very unfriendly neighbours.”
Luke considered the odds as she had presented them: Two tiny outposts of parliamentary sympathy in a county professing itself loyal to the King. Did Felton really think he could hold Kinton Lacey? This Farrington, whoever he was, would have greater resources to draw on, and would return to swat this annoying little insect of a garrison at the earliest possibility.
He looked down at Deliverance.
She watched him, with the same bright, intelligent gaze as her father.
“I have the plans for the defence of the castle in my father’s library. I just haven’t had the men to do the work. Of course, now you’re here…Come this way gentlemen.”
She set off across the hall, leaving the two men scurrying to catch up with her. At the screen, the tall man stopped them, inclining his head to Luke.
“Your sergeant tells me the town is clear of the malignants,” he said.
“Excellent,” Luke said, allowing himself a small instant of self satisfaction. There would be precious few such moments in the weeks to come he suspected.
Deliverance regarded him from beneath her dark fringe, her hands on her hips.
“Captain Collyer, I am impressed. With less than fifty men you have seen off a force of three times that number?”
Luke smiled and inclined his head. “It would seem so. Darkness and a little subterfuge, madam.”
Deliverance turned to her man. “Melchior, I was just taking Captain Collyer and…” She looked at Ned. “I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“Ned Barrett, ma’am,” Ned replied. “Your servant.”
“This is Melchior Blakelocke, our steward and my second-in-command.”
“Your steward is your second-in-command?” Luke asked, the ill-concealed disbelief colouring his tone.
Deliverance cast him a frowning glance of disapproval. “Melchior saw service with my father on the continent, Captain Collyer.”
Luke glanced at Blakelocke and then back at his mistress. “I didn’t mean to imply—” She cut him short with a wave of her hand.
“People are not always what they seem, Captain Collyer.” She turned to a set of stairs, pausing to look back at the two men. “Are you coming?
Deliverance opened the door to the pleasant room that served her father as a library, when he was at home. In his absence she had taken it over, and it had become her sanctuary from the world. The familiar scent of dust, beeswax polish and musty books greeted her.
The papers she had dislodged in her haste to get to the walls, still littered the floor and the large table in the centre of the room could not be seen beneath the piles of books which were stacked haphazardly around a drawing of the castle and its surrounds. She had spent hours preparing this plan for the defence of her home.
Captain Collyer picked up a much-thumbed copy of The Exercise of Armes from one of the piles on the desk, and she caught the quick glance he exchanged with his colleague.
Heat rose in Deliverance’s face. “I am afraid all my learning is from my father’s books.”
She didn’t add that those books she had not found in her father’s collection had been secretly ordered from her longsuffering book seller in Ludlow.
“Well, it’s an excellent book,” Luke Collyer said, setting it back on the table. The quirk of his lips into a quickly suppressed smile did not escape her notice. Her skin prickled at the condescension in his tone.
She pulled the plan of the castle from beneath the tomes.
“I’ve had ample time in the last two weeks to consider the defence of the castle.” She flattened the creases from the paper. “Now, I think if we put a redoubt in here…” She stabbed at the paper with her forefinger. “And a defensive ditch, along here.”
When her remarks were met with silence, she looked up. Both men stared at her as if she had walked into the room stark naked.
“Is there a problem?”
Luke cleared his throat. “With respect, madam, but your father… Sir John Felton… has placed me in command of this garrison and I—”
“Do you not think me capable of having an opinion on how to defend my own home?” She fixed him with a well-practiced stare which would make a weaker man quail.
Luke Collyer returned the gaze without blinking. “I respect your opinion, madam, and if… when… I need your advice I shall ask for it.”
How dare this man speak to me in that condescending manner. She took a steadying breath and squared her shoulders. She was Deliverance Felton, chatelaine of this castle and this Collyer a mere…a mere…
“And what experience do you have, captain?”
The man’s gaze held hers and he too straightened, resting his hand on The Exercise of Armes. “I have been a soldier since I was nineteen, madam. I have fought on the continent and in the Scottish wars. Your father chose me for this task with every confidence in my abilities. You can trust me with the protection of this castle, and you can return to more appropriate concerns.”
“More appropriate concerns?” Deliverance bridled. “What is more appropriate than the safety of Kinton Lacey?”
Luke Collyer’s eyes narrowed. The unusual light grey eyes, at odds with the dark brown hair that framed his lean, tanned face were fixed on her had lost all trace of humour. She saw a hard, uncompromising soldier. “Forgive me, madam, but military matters are not for gently-bred women. All I am saying is that you are free to return to—”
“My embroidery, perhaps?” she said in a tone that dripped ice. “I assure you, Captain Collyer that the defence of my home is of far greater importance to me than its decoration. I have read all these books,” she gestured at the table, “and I warrant I know as much of matters military as you, Captain Collyer.”
“And I have had years of practical experience, madam,” he responded in a tone that matched hers for frigidity.
Melchior cleared his throat. “I think, madam, this is a discussion for the morning. These two gentlemen have ridden from Gloucester and fought a battle, vanquishing our foes. Sirs, you must be tired and hungry. Let me show you to your quarters and see you are fed. In the morning we will all be in a better position to discuss defensive works.”
Deliverance shot her steward a quick, angry glance. She did not need or want Melchior’s intervention but it had the desired effect, the tension in the room dissipating as if he had opened the window and let in the breeze.
She tossed the paper back on to the table and sniffed. “Very well. If you need me, I shall be in my chamber hard at work… at my embroidery.”
“Insufferable man.” Deliverance ranted to her sister as she concluded her summation of the discussion with Captain Collyer.
Penitence looked up from her needlework. “He is a man, Liv. Of course he is going to want to take command. What does Father say?”
Deliverance pulled out their father’s letter and began to read.
“Dearest daughter, I trust this letter finds you and your sister in good health. Reports of Sir Richard Farrington’s increasing movements in the area of Kinton Lacey has caused me some concern, so I am sending one of my best men to you to reinforce the garrison and command the defences in the event of an attack by the King’s men. I trust you to defer to Captain Collyer in all matters military. I feel more certain in my mind knowing you and my beloved Kinton Lacey are in a man’s hands.”
“There you are,” Penitence commented. “Father is quite explicit. Your Captain Collyer is here to take command.”
Deliverance sniffed and continued, her eyes widening as she silently read the next sentence.
“Deliverance, daughter, I must warn you that Captain Collyer has something of a reputation and an eye for a pretty face, so I trust you to see to the protection of your sister’s honor and to report to me should any indiscretion occur. Yr loving father JF.”
Deliverance set the letter down, wounded by the tone of the letter, particularly her father’s last words. Beautiful, gentle and serene Penitence would always be considered the one worthy of protecting, never her.
“What’s the matter?” Penitence, always intuitive to her sister’s moods, looked up, her brow creased with concern. “What else did Father say?”
Deliverance forced a smile. “Nothing. Just sent us his love.” She ran a hand across her forehead. “It has been rather a trying day.”
She refolded her father’s letter and tucked it into her skirts.
“Deliverance?” her sister prompted.
“I should be grateful to Captain Collyer for relieving me of the terrible responsibility of the castle’s defence. Grateful? This is my home, my castle…”
As Deliverance paced the floor, Penitence bent her head to her embroidery. Deliverance heard her sister murmur as she stabbed the needle through the cloth. “Poor man.”
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