I’m pleased to share an excerpt of my romantic historical fiction novel, Traitor’s Knot. From time to time, I’ll be refreshing the post, so do check to see if there is a new one.
The garrison men swarmed Warwick market. From his position in the Cornmarket, James watched them check every horse in the pens, regardless of their coat. Wonder if Hammond posted a reward for the sorrel too, he thought wryly.
“Only three bags of barley, Hart?” the meal-man asked.
“Aye, three will do,” James replied. He tossed the man sixpence then brought the inn’s wagon close to the stall to load the grain. He hoisted the first bag over his shoulders with a low grunt. Henry was getting his money’s worth.
James threw the sack in the wagon and a fine dust exhaled from the rough burlap. After lifting the second grain bag, he glanced up and caught sight of a slim woman in a faded blue skirt, wending her way through the market stalls. James halted in mid-stride, unmindful of the grain slung over his shoulders as he admired her lithe grace and the way her dark hair gleamed against the whiteness of her coif. When she finally turned, he straightened in surprise. Elizabeth Seton.
A smile curled over his lips. Interesting. Giving little mind to where it landed, he tossed the grain in the back. Leaning against the side of the wagon, he watched her progress through the merchant stalls. Only when the grain merchant thumped him on the shoulder did he realize the man had been speaking to him.
“Forget not the last bag, Hart. I don’t care for Henry Grant to claim I cheated him.”
“I won’t.” James kept the maid in view. Why not make her acquaintance? She would hardly recognize him, given that he had worn a mask. He grinned. Step to it, man.
James scooped up the remaining sack and dumped it in the back, then latched the wagon gate. Dusting off his hands, he turned around to find his view blocked by Lieutenant Hammond and a pair of dragoons.
‘Od’s teeth, not now.
“Lieutenant.” James barely hid his irritation. “If you’ve come to lend me a hand, I fear ‘tis too late, but I thank you for your courtesy.” He tried to step around them, but Hammond moved to block his way.
“Are you in a hurry, Ostler?”
James looked past Hammond’s shoulder and lost sight of Elizabeth Seton. She couldn’t have gone far. “If you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend.”
“A few moments,” Hammond said. “I’m sure you can muck the stables another time.”
James’s jaw clenched. Damned Roundhead. His attention flicked to the russet dragoons at Hammond’s side. One was the soldier with the jagged scar with whom he had an argument the night Boddington bolted—Livingston, he had since learned his name. He and his companion postured like roosters in the hen yard. They’d like nothing better than an opportunity to crow before this London man. Step lightly. “What can I do for you?”
“How goes it at the inn?”
James glanced over at the dragoons moving through the market, questioning people. “Busy enough for a living.” He shrugged. “Come by for an ale later. The landlord keeps Warwickshire’s best.”
Again, he tried to move past, but this time Hammond halted him with his quirt. “I haven’t come to discuss the dubious merits of your innkeeper’s ale.”
James glanced down at the quirt and wished he could twist it around the Roundhead’s neck. Though it galled him, James forced himself to adopt an even tone. He even managed a tight smile. “Pity. ‘Tis far better than the thin brew they call ale at the Swann.”
Hammond’s jaw twitched. “The garrison is investigating another robbery, at that very establishment,” he said. “’Twas the work of the highwayman. Have you heard aught of it?”
James leaned against the wagon. “Aye, all of Warwick has. ‘Twas your horse, wasn’t it, Lieutenant, or did I hear an ill account?”
“You heard right.”
“I wish you joy of finding the villain,” James said. “If you’re looking for another mount, I may be able to help you since the horse fair is not for another month. There’s a spritely cob I can recommend.” He then turned to the scarred dragoon, “Your grey doing well?”
Surprised at the sudden question, the man muttered, “Aye, better.”
Hammond’s mouth curled down. “Did any strange horse pass through the stables this week?”
“We run an inn. Strange horses arrive every week,” James said. “Just the other day, we stood courtesy to a rather shady piebald gelding.”
Hammond slapped his quirt against his thigh. “I don’t appreciate cheek, Ostler.”
James smothered a grin and assumed a contrite expression. “Forgive me. What kind of horse were you searching for?”
“The brigand rides a dark horse, likely a black, with white markings.”
“Aye?” James allowed a trace of scepticism to creep in his tone. He scratched his head as though in doubt.
“Have you heard aught else?”
Over the past year, James had taken care to spread differing stories every chance he could. Henry’s inn proved the best place for these rumours to ferment. Few, when threatened, could recall the exact details of the encounter, and men believed anything they heard in a public house. “Naught but stories, though most agree that he rides a mahogany bay. Mind, I have also heard he favours a liver chestnut.” James shrugged. “’Tis easy to mistake one for the other,” James said. “Not sure that will help, though. They say he steals the mounts he uses and discards them at will.” He paused for a fraction. Devil take my soul. “Perhaps, Lieutenant, you should be searching for a sorrel mare.”
An angry flush stained Hammond’s neck. The other dragoons averted their eyes and examined the cobbles. “You find this amusing, Ostler?”
“Do they not steal horses in London, Lieutenant?” This constant reminder of his profession grated on James. “Question those who keep a straight face. You’ll have a better chance of finding your horse. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve pressing business elsewhere. But I’ll keep a sharp eye at the inn. With a ten pound reward for the rogue, I’m eager to collect.”
Hammond’s knuckles were white. “You do that, Ostler.” Straightening his coat, he glowered. “And I certainly will.”
James watched them leave. What made me do that? He knew he played a dangerous game, but the man set his teeth on edge.
A pox on him. I have better ways to occupy my time.
James looked around the market for the maid. Nowhere in sight. Such a comely woman would attract the attention of many. He should have no trouble finding her. Convincing the meal-man to mind his wagon, James settled his hat on his head and went off in search of the elusive Elizabeth Seton.
***People clogged the market, moving as slow as a herd of sheep and with as much purpose. Shrill cries of, “Wool, thirty-six shillings to the pound!” cut through the crowd. James scanned the square, looking for a dark-haired woman with a blue skirt. It was as though he searched for a chaff of barley in a stack of wheat.
Pressing forward, James manoeuvred against the tide of people. Soot-faced urchins ran between the channels that opened in the crowd, two jostling him as they darted past. In an effort to avoid further collision, he nearly bumped into a matron, her basket loaded with packages.
A broad smile spread across her face when she recognized him. “God save you, Master Hart.” Her free hand fluttered over her lace collar like a butterfly.
“And you, Mistress Boddington,” James tipped his hat to her. “I hope the family is faring well, considering.”
The woman flushed and bobbed her head. “With God’s grace. I pray to hear from Hugh soon. Our eldest son is managing the drapery in his absence.”
The moment she lowered her eyes, James tried to steal a glance over her shoulder. At of the edge of his vision, he caught a flash of blue, but Mistress Boddington looked up, and he had no choice but to return her undivided attention. “You’re lucky to have him.”
Mistress Boddington brightened. “My daughter, Sibyl, has also been a blessing. She has become such an adept housekeeper.”
James couldn’t fail to hear the expectation in her tone. This surprised him. Before Boddington’s disgrace, the woman would never have looked to an ostler to make a match with her daughter. One advantage to lying low in the stables. Sibyl Boddington was a pretty lass, though too timid for his taste. Now the maid from Weymouth…“Please, give my compliments to your daughter. If you need anything, don’t forget us at the Chequer,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me.”
The matron opened her mouth and searched for leverage to hold him back, but James managed to extricate himself into the safety of the crowd.
He quickened his pace. Where could she have gone? Taller than most men, James commanded a better view of the market, but still he could not find her. How difficult could this be? He rolled his eyes at the irony. He, James Hart, once the best scoutmaster of the King’s army and famed for his ability to track a field mouse, could not find a slip of a maid in Warwick market.
James made his way down Jury Street, through the livestock market where pens of bleating lambs trailed behind fat ewes. Someone had forgotten to latch the crates properly, and a pair of fluttering chickens escaped from their coop. The butcher tossed a scrap of offal over his shoulder, and stray dogs darted past to snatch it before they were beaten away.
Turning on Market Square, James paused to survey the haberdashers. Surely, he would find her here. Stalls of linens, laces and ribbons were all on display. Hats and coifs intermingled and for a moment, all he could see was an ocean of white and grey. About to turn away, his eyes at last fell upon the one he sought.
Elizabeth Seton browsed the household stalls, strolling at her leisure. James walked toward her, his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. She hovered over a collection of linens, and her fingers brushed over the cloths on display, but she did not linger beyond a curious moment. James kept a discreet distance, ever narrowing the gap. One slim hand clutched at her skirts, raising them slightly to avoid a muddy puddle before she continued on her way.
He halted his progress when she became rooted at the bookseller’s. While fancy ribbons and laces had not attracted her interest, a stack of pamphlets and chapbooks made the difference. She struck up a conversation with the bookseller, laughing at something he said. James rubbed his chin, engrossed. An unusual maid to be sure, he thought and drew closer.
Leaning over the small collection, her head tilted to peer at the titles. Hair secured in a sedate knot, a wayward tendril escaped its constraint. The wind lifted and teased the stray lock, contrasting to the paleness of her nape. He fought the urge to reach out and twist the strand in his fingers.
James bent forward, addressing her in a low tone, “Are you looking to improve your mind or to seek instruction?”
Elizabeth started in surprise. Her eyes widened and, for the first time, he realized how blue they were. Almost immediately they narrowed as though she wasn’t sure how to respond to his boldness. He knew he was being forward, but he had never won a thing without pressing his advantage.
“I am looking for a book on good manners, sir. I would not expect you to recommend one.”
James grinned. Without looking away, he addressed the bookseller who watched them. “Master Ward, would you be so kind as to introduce us?”
“I would,” the man chuckled. “Only I haven’t made the maid’s acquaintance myself.”
Amusement flitted across her lips. “Elizabeth Seton,” she announced.
“Mistress Seton, may I present Master James Hart, Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne,” the bookseller said, fulfilling his duty.
James swept his hat from his head and bowed elegantly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance Mistress Seton.” He rather liked saying her name.
“Master Hart.” Elizabeth canted her head and hesitated for a fraction. She looked at him openly and did not avert her eyes in modesty when he returned her gaze.
“You’re new to Warwick,” he said.
“How would you know this, Master Hart?”
“I know everyone in Warwick.”
“Not entirely so,” she said. One brow arched ever so slightly. “You did not know me until this moment.”
James found the way she held her head charming. “I stand corrected Mistress Seton. Still, you are new to Warwick.”
Elizabeth’s head dipped.
“If I were to guess, I’d say you were Mistress Stanborowe’s niece. I’ve heard that Ellendale has a new resident.”
“Indeed, your information is correct.”
“Pray, allow me the privilege of calling on you.” James leaned against the stall and nearly sent a stack of books tumbling.
“My aunt values courtesy above all and you, sir, are quite forward. I can only assume she would object.”
“I assure you, Mistress, I am not an objectionable fellow,” he said. “Is that not right, Master Ward?” He half turned his head to the bookseller’s.
“Quite true.” The man’s voice shook with laughter.
“There you have it,” James said. “If you can’t trust the word of a bookseller, all is lost.”
A small smile flitted at the corner of her mouth. James found the resulting dimple bewitching. “I must be leaving.” She picked up her purchase and prepared to depart. “God save you, sir, and good day.” She reached over to pay the bookseller, but Master Ward caught James’s warning frown and casually turned away.
“Are women from the south always so aloof?” he blurted. Lagging wit—you can do better.
She halted in surprise. “How did you know I came from the south?”
“Far south, I would guess,” he said with growing confidence.
“How do you guess this?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Naturally, by your speech.”
“Indeed? I could be from London,” Elizabeth replied, her tone clipped.
“You are as likely from London as I from Scotland,” James said, lifting a brow.
Elizabeth gave up trying to attract the bookseller’s attention and laid her coin atop a pile of chapbooks. She clutched her purchase to her chest in preparation for her escape.
“I will make you a wager. If I can guess where you came from, you will agree to let me call on you.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“I will wish you a good day and trouble you no more.” James offered his hand, though she chose to ignore it. “Do we have an agreement?”
Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. She pursed her lips, and a hint of a dimple lurked at the corners. “Agreed.”
“Let’s see—I would need you to say one word for me.”
“Which one?” Elizabeth asked.
“Aye, the very one. Say it again.” He crossed his arms and waited. When she repeated it, he nodded. “’Tis perfectly clear. Your speech has a Dorset flavour to it.” For truth, she did have a lovely, soft way of speaking.
Elizabeth’s brow arched slightly. “Are you certain I am not from Hampshire?”
“Aye, quite sure. Admit it, I’m correct.”
“Fine then, but Dorset is quite large, and that does not prove your wit.”
“An exacting maid. No doubt you’ll want me to do better,” he said with a slow smile. “I’ll need another word from you, then. Two if you please.”
“Truly? Which ones?” The breeze strengthened, and she brushed a tangled strand from her face. James caught the haunting scent of lavender.
With a smile, she repeated the words. The rosy bow of her mouth fascinated him.
“Unmistakable.” He grinned.
“I would lay my life upon it. ‘Tis a Weymouth cast.”
“Truly impressive.” Elizabeth’s blue eyes flashed. “Such a clever fellow to know this only by my speech. Would you not agree, Master Ward?”
This time, the bookseller laughed out loud. “Quite so, Mistress Seton.”
“Thank you for your stimulating instruction, Master Hart. I find my time has grown short. Good day.” She nodded farewell to the bookseller and started to walk away.
“What of our wager?” James called out to her.
Elizabeth stopped and faced him. “I will honour our wager at the time of my choosing. You didn’t stipulate otherwise.”
James chuckled. Damned captivating woman. He crossed his arms across his chest and watched as she walked away. With a last swish of her blue skirts, she melted into the crowd.
“Aren’t you going after her, James?” Master Ward leaned forward.
“Nay, not yet.” He smiled to himself, savouring the anticipation. He dearly loved a challenge.
Featured Image: Louise Rayner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons