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About the Author
Kathy Lynn Emerson lives in Wilton, Maine. She has written many novels, including romantic suspense and children's mysteries. Face Down Among the Winchester Geese is the third book in the Susanna, Lady Appleton, series.
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April 25, 1557
The one-eyed Spaniard shoved the door with such force that it slammed against the inner wall. As he advanced into the room, lingering vibrations dislodged a stack of elaborate animal-head masks and sent them tumbling to the terra-cotta tiles. Undeterred, he continued on his course, passing within a hand's span of the pageant wagon in which Lora Tylney hid, trembling, fearful of discovery.
When the gaudily painted wood-and-canvas tower had been drawn into the great hall a few hours earlier, four golden-robed damsels had been inside. Now, while revelers throughout the palace and grounds enjoyed the subsequent banquets, dances, and masques Queen Mary had arranged to celebrate St. Mark's Day, only one chamberer sheltered within, crouched low and concealed by the thin walls and lightweight frame but convinced that if she so much as twitched, she'd cast a shadow or otherwise betray her presence. She was no innocent, terrified for her virtue, but neither did she intend to pleasure more than one man this night.
"I saw her come in here, Appleton." The Spaniard's slightly accented words slurred, betraying a recent consumption of inordinate quantities of Xeres sack. As Lora had reason to know, Diego Cordoba's features were handsome, in spite of the eye patch, but they already showed the effects of his dissipated life. His one good eye was bloodshot even when he was sober.
"Admirable wench." Robert Appleton pronounced each word with studied care, for he was also deep in his cups. "Think you she'll have us all?" Stumbling into the room after them were their boon companions--Pendennis andMarsdon, Elliott and Lord Robin.
"This doe set out to lure a herd of bucks." Cordoba chortled at his own bawdy fancy. He staggered a bit as he turned in a circle, surveying the contents of the cluttered, dimly lit storage room. "'Tis plain she knows the surrender's sweeter after a chase."
Annoyance temporarily drove away the worst of Lora's trepidation. How could he say such things about her? Had it meant nothing to him that he had been her first lover? She continued to hold herself as still as possible, though pain lanced through her from a stitch in her side. She was short of breath from running so fast, and could do nothing to calm the frantic beating of her heart, which she feared was loud enough to betray her presence.
"Search everywhere," Lord Robin commanded. "If she's here, we will find her."
Pressing trembling fingers to her lips to hold back any sound, Lora considered the chances of escaping rough handling tonight. Another time, she might have welcomed into her bed any one of the bold and lusty fellows who pursued her, but not all together, and not here. She was no common woman. She was a chamberer to Queen Mary. She had her standards.
"Madre de Dios!" Cordoba exclaimed.
Scarcely daring to breathe, Lora clasped her knees to her chest and buried her face in her arms. He sounded as if he were right on top of her hiding place. She could almost smell the sweet Spanish wine on his breath.
"What's amiss?" By his voice, Walter Pendennis was some distance from the pageant wagon.
"Thought I had her," Cordoba grumbled. "'Tis a fine figure in a gown I've embraced, but all of terra-cotta and paint."
Closer at hand, someone started to laugh. Francis Elliott, Lora thought. Another handsome fellow, one who always wore stark black to contrast with his golden hair.
"Can you not tell the difference? My friend, if you cannot, then you are much the worse for drink."
"I'll know the woman when I hold her," Cordoba bragged. "She's softer than this."
Lora heard the thump of his hand against the costumed figure he'd captured. In her mind, she saw his fingers exploring her own contours, felt his wet mouth seeking hers. A little thrill ran through her. There was something about the Spaniard she could not help but find exciting even in these circumstances. If they stumbled upon her, perhaps she could persuade him that having her all to himself would be much sweeter than sharing. Could she convince him to send his friends away?
"I warrant our quarry's paps are softer," Appleton declared in a loud voice. Lora heard a tinkling sound as he blundered into something decorated with bells.
"Aye. Nice and round and tasty. Ripe as new apples."
Cordoba had reason to know, since he'd been her lover for the last several weeks, but this bragging offended Lora. Her cheeks flamed as she buried her face deeper in the fabric of her sleeves.
The stiff material of the trim rustled softly at her slight movement. Lora's muscles tensed. Had they heard? The sound had seemed loud as a cannon shot to her. She expected to be dragged from her hiding place at any moment.
"Think you the Tylney lass superior to the king's mistress?" Lord Robin posed the question. Then someone tripped over yet another obstacle and swore loudly, almost drowning out the salacious chuckle that preceded Cordoba's answer.
"How are we to say? King Philip would have the head of any man he thought had made advances to his lady love. His wife, now--he'd gladly be spared bedding her."
Poor Queen Mary, Lora thought. She'd been a dried-up old maid of nearly forty when she'd married the king of Spain. He was eleven years her junior. 'Twas no surprise he looked outside the royal bedchamber for sport.
The screech of unoiled hinges warned Lora that one of the courtiers had opened a chest. Did he think to find her inside? If so, he was cup-shot indeed!
"Methinks Queen Mary has noticed how the king looks at her." The volume of Peregrine Marsdon's voice indicated that he was some distance away. Lora knew him less well than the others, but had often admired the breadth of his shoulders and the gentleness of his smile.
"Lora Tylney?" Cordoba sounded befuddled.
"The duchess," Appleton corrected him.
Not one of them was in full possession of his wits, Lora concluded, else they'd never carry on such a conversation. 'Twas dangerous to speak openly of the king's private concerns. Hope grew in her that they'd forget what they were looking for and wander off. Mayhap they would go and bother the duchess of Lorraine, she thought spitefully. Queen Mary had given her husband's alleged mistress apartments on the ground floor of nearby Westminster Palace, conveniently accessible from the gardens.
"As trim a pair of ankles as I've ever seen," Elliott declared. Once more a voice seemed to come from directly behind Lora's hiding place. She made a small, startled movement before she managed to hold herself still again.
"Aye," Pendennis agreed. "I noticed her ankles during the dancing. What color do you suppose her hair is?"
Lora caught her breath and held it. They kept catching her unaware, wandering back and forth as they were. Right now at least two of them were much too close.
Appleton muttered his answer. "Who can tell with the absurd headdresses women wear? And what does it matter? All colors look the same in the dark."
"I am partial to dark-haired maidens," Pendennis said. "And I like to keep the candles lit."
"Maidens, is it? And where do you think to find a maid here at court?" Cordoba's sneering words irritated Lora all over again. She had been a maid until she met the dashing Diego. That she'd been as eager as he to change that state was irrelevant.
They might have remained there, debating the matter at length, had not a new voice, one unfamiliar to Lora and shaking with barely controlled anger, interrupted them. 'What business have you here, gentlemen? This is no place for your games."
"Ah, Master Keeper," Lord Robin greeted the newcomer. "And you, sir? Do I not know you?"
"A humble clerk in the office of the Master of Revels," came the mumbled response. If the keeper was not shy about challenging his betters, his companion saw the folly in it.
But Lord Robin's reaction to being censured was mild. He merely complimented the keeper on the evening's diversions.
"Save your flattery, m'lord." Lora heard age in the voice now, as well as a certain testiness. "Best get you gone from here. The Master of Revels will not be pleased if any of these props or set pieces are damaged. Nor will the king."
No other argument could work so well as that one, Lora thought. Cordoba owed everything to his overlord and the Englishmen were all courtiers who'd come to court to curry favor with the Spaniard who'd wed their queen. They hoped to win back what they'd lost nearly four years earlier by siding with the late duke of Northumberland in his rebellion against her.
Aware that, for the moment, she was no longer being sought, and driven by an overwhelming curiosity, Lora crawled slowly toward the opening at the back of the mock tower. Meant to allow the pageant's damsels to enter unseen and remain hidden, it was covered by two velvet panels that hung without gaping. Cautiously, she reached out with both hands and parted the edges.
Two men were framed by the narrow opening. Appleton looked bleary-eyed and appeared to be a trifle bored. His tawny-colored velvet coat, decorated with strips of black satin, was sadly rumpled, and his hose were streaked with dust from the storeroom. Cordoba, nearly the same height but heavier, fiddled with a green satin eye patch that matched the sleeves attached to his green-and-gold doublet. Lora hoped the nervous gesture meant that he, too, was tired of the chase. She could not see the other courtiers, though she could hear them.
The keeper and the clerk proved no match for Lord Robin. Outnumbered and outranked by the courtiers, they soon departed. Then Cordoba began to turn and Lora hastily dropped the curtains back into place. Once again, she held her breath, hoping he'd not noticed the small movement.
"Presumptuous fellows," Appleton muttered.
"Say rather they are brave men," Pendennis argued. "Willing to risk our wrath to protect those things in their keeping."
"I have no interest in these toys. I only want the woman."
"But our quarry seems to have eluded us, gentlemen." Elliott's deep and resonant tones made him sound less impaired by drink than the rest. "While you spoke with the keeper, I discovered a back exit. Doubtless the lass slipped out that door just as we came in the other."
Lora waited in an agony of suspense. Would they believe she was gone? She heard more murmured words, then the blessed sound of retreating footsteps. The level of light diminished. A heavy door thudded closed.
Silence reigned in the cavernous storage room.
Cautiously, after waiting for what seemed an interminable time and hearing nothing more, Lora emerged from her hiding place. She moved toward the door, then stopped abruptly, startled, when it began to open.
Had it been a trick? Had they returned for her? She'd already started to retreat in the direction of her former hiding place when a whispered voice called out. Her fear ebbed as she recognized it, vanished when she saw that he was alone.
"Your humble servant, m'lady." He made her a courtly bow.
"You need not m'lady me, sir," she said lightly. "I am only plain Mistress Tylney from Lincolnshire."
"It pleases me to think of you as my lady and, here in this setting, illusion must always take precedence over what is real."
When he reached for her, she went willingly into his arms. One man she could accommodate. But he only kissed her gently, then set her aside. Disappointed, she pouted "Do I not please you?"
"Are you so eager to lie with me, mistress?"
She turned away, then cast a teasing glance at him over her shoulder. At the flash of intense emotion she saw in his eyes, she felt her own excitement increase.
"If you want me, I am yours." She moved closer to the tower. "In here. 'Twill be more comfortable than the hard terra-cotta tiles."
She heard him come up behind her, expected him to turn her in his arms and embrace her with a lover's enthusiasm. Instead, his forearm abruptly cut off her supply of air as it pressed into her throat.
With a horrifying certainly, she understood. He did not mean to make love to her. He intended to kill her.
A harsh whisper, close to her ear, was the last thing she heard before one abrupt movement snapped her neck.
"Whore," her murderer said. "No better than a Winchester goose.
April 24, 1563
Church bells pealed as Susanna, Lady Appleton, pointed to the patch of ground she wanted her gardener to till. She found herself counting until the dolorous ringing stopped at forty-one, the age of the person who lay dying in a nearby parish.
Susanna had been in London only a week, just long enough to learn to distinguish the bells of All Hallows in Honey Lane from those of St. Lawrence in the Old Jewry. With some one hundred churches in the city, there was nearly constant tolling. In time, she hoped to become accustomed to the clanging, and to other intrusive city noises. The constant din from beyond her gate disturbed her concentration. Street cries pierced the air from dawn till dusk, and the noise of carts rumbling by on Catte Street was well nigh deafening.
"Put the leek bed there, Lionel," she said in a brief respite from the clamor.
It would lie between the new-built trellis and the raised beds of her physic garden, in which she had already planted a few of the selected seeds she'd sent for from Leigh Abbey, the Appleton family seat in Kent. It was a gentlewoman's first duty to keep her household healthy and for that reason Susanna needed fresh supplies of a variety of medicinal herbs.
Lionel went to work with a will, using first a shovel and then his little four-pronged fork and a trowel. At seventeen, he was all angles and sharp corners beneath his heavy canvas apron. Susanna devoutly hoped he was through growing. She got a crick in her neck looking up at him now, and she was uncommon tall herself.
While he worked, Susanna surveyed the remainder of the garden she was restoring in the small yard behind the house her husband had leased. Both garden and house, a long, narrow, three-story building with a garret above, had been neglected after the death of their owner. His widow had retired to the country.
Fortunately, Robert had given Susanna enough warning of their impending move to London for her to send servants ahead. Three men and one woman had worked diligently for a fortnight to sweep out all the old rushes, wash the floors and walls, air the house, and put in supplies. Faggots and billets of wood and a cauldron of coal had been safely stored in the cellar by the time Susanna arrived with three more servants, one cat, and enough furniture to fill the house.
From Leigh Abbey had come everything from tapestry hangings and curtains to beds, chairs, and tables, to candles and candlesticks. In addition, Susanna had loaded two wagons with chests and boxes containing clothing, books, and her own herbs and potions. One look at this garden and she'd sent back at once for seeds and for Lionel, who had started as a gardener's boy some years before and worked his way up to the post of second gardener at Leigh Abbey.
Already the two of them had unearthed the remains of open beds, raised above the level of the path on oak boards. Rosemary still grew in among the bricks in the garden wall and there were signs that a central walk had once been bordered by low-growing lavender. If Susanna had her way, both plants would once again flourish here.
A frown darkened her features. There was not as much width as she'd like in this garden plan. Lionel would scarce have room to kneel on the path and reach into the beds and weed. She would have to pay him something extra, she decided, for the ache he was sure to have in his back when he was done. And provide him with a soothing poultice. One of catnip, perhaps. Or lady's slipper.
Susanna drew on a pair of three-fingered gloves to protect her hands from cuts and scrapes and reached for a digging tool. She did not mind getting dirty, but she had seen too many small injuries become infected through carelessness. She did not plan to die before her time.
As she unearthed weeds from an overgrown patch of ground, Susanna found signs that a few primroses, periwinkles, and violets had flowered the previous month. A single bluebell was just about to open and she saw that, with care, she might yet have a few cowslips and some broom. One of the surviving rosebushes was also hardy enough to flower, together with honeysuckle. There could be nothing sweeter, she thought, than the combination of scents of those two flowers on an early morning in June. Perfect to help dispel the appalling miasma that seemed to hang over London, a pervasive stench made up of many parts, none of which she was inclined to try to identify.
For all her delight in a pretty, pleasant-smelling garden, however, Susanna put usefulness first. Some of the herbs she would plant had odors fully as appalling as that coming from the kennels in front of each householder's door. Other plants, though they were aromatic when crushed, did naught to scent the air in their natural state.
She frowned at the raised bed, where boards would divide each plant from the next in separate squares. Space was limited. She ran through the list of those herbs she customarily grew for medicines and sighed. There would be no room for them all. She would have to send for supplies from home, and buy other medicines from the apothecaries. That there were so many apothecaries, offering a wide variety of both herbal and chemical remedies, was one of the few advantages she could think of to living in London.
Borage, she decided, could be sown this afternoon. In June she would make conserves of the candied petals, but before the plant flowered she would gather leaves, using the green herb to make medicines. Borage was an ingredient in several soothing compounds. One eased sore throats, another inflammations of the eyes, and a third was good for itching. She would have to send some of the latter to her friend Magdalen, who was much troubled with skin rashes.
Susanna smiled to herself, thinking that perhaps Magdalen would not suffer that affliction quite so often now that her first, unsatisfactory husband had shown the good sense to die and leave her free to remarry. Henry, Lord Madderly, would not have been Susanna's choice for a mate, had she found herself in a similar situation, since with him came two wildhead sons, but Magdalen seemed content with her decision.
A sharp voice calling "Lady Appleton" and a jangling sound penetrated Susanna's reverie. She turned, startled, to see the plump and red-cheeked figure of her housekeeper hurrying toward her. From a ring at her waist hung keys to everything from the spice box to the front door. They bounced madly as Jennet advanced.
"Be careful!" Susanna called. The younger woman was about to trip over a gourd-shaped watering pot lying on the path.
Jennet gave a little hop to avoid it and continued on. "Someone has come to see Sir Robert." She took a moment to catch her breath. "A stranger."
Susanna lifted a questioning brow, knowing there must be a particular reason why Jennet had not simply told this person that Sir Robert Appleton was not at home.
"'Tis a lady, madam. Wearing a visor."
Brows arching higher, Susanna waited for further disclosures. Women might choose to conceal their features for any number of reasons. Some wished to hide the ravages of disease. Poor Lady Sidney, who had nursed Queen Elizabeth through smallpox just last year, now had a face so horribly scarred that she could not bear to have anyone look upon it. Other respectable women, those who wished the freedom to attend an innyard performance of a play without being recognized, also went masked.
"She will not give her name." Jennet worried her lower lip with her teeth.
Though the words remained unspoken, it was clear Jennet thought their visitor was another of Robert's mistresses, like the woman who had arrived at Leigh Abbey the previous winter with a babe in her arms, claiming the child was Robert's. Susanna's husband had at the time been out of the country, on a mission to Spain for the queen.
There had been a reason for Susanna to acknowledge the baby girl's paternity. She had therefore sent mother and child to live at Appleton Manor in Lancashire. Soon she would have to inform Robert, who had only recently returned to England, that he was a father.
"Show our visitor into my solar," Susanna instructed. "And offer her a little ale or some wine. I will come directly."
A good scrubbing would be necessary to remove the dirt from her face and beneath her fingernails. Susanna considered taking time to change into more formal attire, but decided that the loose-bodied gown she wore for comfort would have to do for this uninvited, unexpected caller. A fresh apron would cover the worst of the garden dirt.
As she washed at the hand pump in the yard, a single church bell tolled, signaling that death had come in the next parish. This ominous note underscored Susanna's one doubt about confronting the stranger. Would her interference create problems for Robert? Indeed it would if the woman were his mistress!
Susanna did not deceive herself. Robert had never been faithful to her. On the other hand, he'd always been courteous enough not to flaunt these illicit relationships. He did not bring his lemans into her home or even keep them in the same town.
There had been times during the nearly ten and a half years they'd been married when she had talked herself into being grateful to such women. Their services had allowed Susanna to maintain a civil friendship, at times even a partnership, with her husband. If she sometimes wished for more, she'd learned to still that foolish desire and channel her energies into more productive efforts.
Susanna gave herself a shake as she finished her ablutions. Best not to dwell on such things. Robert would never change. And there was a more likely reason why a mysterious visitor had turned up on their doorstep. Robert was one of the best of the queen's intelligence gatherers. On a few past occasions, Susanna had been helpful to him in his endeavors. That she might be so again had, in part, prompted her decision to speak with the masked woman who awaited her above.
If the stranger had come to deliver some secret into Robert's keeping, she might not like being confronted by his wife, but Susanna could see no alternative. This woman had come to Catte Street. Susanna had not sought her out. It was even possible Susanna was supposed to act as Robert's intermediary. That would certainly explain his unprecedented decision to lease a house.
In the past, he'd kept lodgings at court, or taken rooms in a nearby inn when his presence was required near the queen. Not only had Susanna never been asked to join him, she'd been discouraged from leaving Leigh Abbey. He'd seemed to prefer she stay in the country while he danced attendance on royalty.
Why, she wondered, did he suddenly wish to appear a devoted husband? A futile effort, most like, when it was no secret that her guardian had arranged their marriage.
A good wife would not question what her husband did, but even though Robert had been twenty-seven when they said their vows and Susanna nine years younger, she'd never been a biddable bride. She had an education to equal any man's and a mind of her own.
Still, she owed Robert loyalty. She knew from experience that he did nothing without a purpose. That purpose, most often, was to serve the queen. As Susanna climbed the narrow back stairs to her bedchamber, she just wished he would deign, once in a while, to share his plans with her.
Ignoring a looking glass, she quickly changed her apron, then ventured through a connecting door to the solar. The woman waiting for her there rose from the cushioned window seat and sketched a curtsey. Her only reaction to the fact that she was being greeted by the mistress of the house and not the master was a flash of surprise in the dark eyes behind the mask.
She was tiny, making Susanna feel like a giantess. Dark hair showed beneath her headdress, and her face was pale beneath the black half mask. Little else was visible. Gloves covered her hands, though she wore an ornate mourning ring on the outside of one. A widow? That seemed likely. Her cloak concealed the cut and condition of her clothing, but Susanna caught a glimpse of black fabric.
"My husband is not at home. May I be of assistance to you?"
"I think not." The woman's speech was soft, difficult to hear, but just those few words betrayed foreign birth. She was French, or perhaps a Fleming.
Her effort to leave was forestalled by Jennet's arrival with a tray heavy laden with food and drink.
"Come, madam. Let us be at ease together," Susanna invited. "You wished to speak to my husband, but he is not here. I do not know when he will return, but you are welcome to wait."
Reluctantly, the woman resumed her seat and accepted a cup of ale. Jennet busied herself pouring, offering an array of sweets, anything that would allow her to remain in the solar.
Susanna waved her away. The woman might hesitate to confide her business with a third person in the room. She need not know Jennet would remain just on the other side of the door, her ear pressed to the oak paneling.
The stranger nibbled at a piece of marchpane, but she took nothing else and offered no explanation for her presence. Unnerved by her steady regard, Susanna reacted by staring back, her blue eyes boring into that darker gaze. Two could play at this game. After a few minutes, Susanna's guest betrayed her nervousness by crumbling the last piece of marchpane on her plate. The fine trembling in her hands indicated she might be afraid.
"You are troubled, madam. 'Susanna was not without sympathy. "Tell me how I may assist you and I will attempt to do so."
Instead of answering, the woman rose abruptly. "You cannot help me." Her voice was louder now, and husky, as if she might be in the throes of some deep emotional turmoil.
Susanna. spoke to her departing back. "What shall I tell my husband when he returns?"
At the door the stranger turned. She lifted the visor briefly, to reveal an unmarked and very beautiful countenance beneath. "Tell him he will find me at the Falcon Inn near Paris Garden."
"And your name?" Susanna asked.
The visor fell back into place as its owner whispered her reply: "Je m'appelle Diane."