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All the Sweet Tomorrows

All the Sweet Tomorrows

Аннотация

    Bestselling author Bertrice Small continues the blazing adventures of raven-haired, emerald-eyed Skye O'Malley. This time, she is a pawn in the bitter war between England's Queen Elizabeth, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Once again, unprotected and alone, she must fight for her children. At the command of Queen Elizabeth, Skye marries the cruel Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre. Although her new life is horrid at first, Skye transforms it with her hot-blooded desires-only to be shaken with the news that her beloved former husband may be alive in Algiers. Her daring flight into eroticism and danger leads her ultimately to her heart's true destiny-as bold and sensual as Skye herself. She is a woman born to be loved by men, yet too proud and incomparable to answer to anything but the call of her own passionate soul.
    "Bertrice Small creates cover-to-cover passion, a keen sense of history and suspense."
    PUBLISHERS WEEKLY


Bertrice Small All the Sweet Tomorrows

    The second book in the Skye O'Malley series, 1984
    This book is dedicated with much love and great respect to the first hero I ever had, my father, David Roger Williams. You're still my hero, Daddy!
The world has laid low,
and the wind
blows away like ashes
Alexander, Caesar, and all who were
in their trust;

Grass-grown is Tara,
and see Troy now how it is-
And the English themselves,
perhaps they too
will pass!

    – Anonymous Irish poem, 17th or 18th century

THE PLAYERS

    THE O'MALLETS OF INNISFANA ISLAND, IRELAND
    SKYE O'MALLEY known as the O'Malley, chief of her clan
    SEAMUS O'MALLEY her elderly uncle, Bishop of Mid-Connaught
    ANNE O'MALLEY Skye's widowed stepmother
    EIBHLLN O'MALLEY Skye's elder sister, a nun and a doctor
    MOIRE, PEIGI, BRIDE, AND SINE Skye's other sisters, all older
    MICHAEL O'MALLEY Skye's full brother, a priest
    BRIAN, SHANE, SHAMUS, AND CONN Anne's sons, Skye's half-brothers

    THE HUSBANDS OF SKYE O'MALLEY
    DOM O'FLAHERTY her first, the Master of Ballyhennessey
    KHALLD EL BEY (Diego India Goya de Fuentes) her second, known as "the Great Whoremaster of Algiers," a Spaniard turned Moslem
    LORD GEOFFREY SOUTHWOOD her third, the Earl of Lynmouth, known as the "Angel Earl"
    LORD NIALL BURKE her fourth, and Skye's first love

    THE CHILDREN OF SKYE O'MALLEY
    EWAN O'FLAHERTY born March 28th, 1556
    MURROUGH O'FLAHERTY born January 15th, 1557
    WILLOW MARY SMALL born April 5th, 1560
    ROBERT SOUTHWOOD born September 18th, 1563
    JOHN SOUTHWOOD born December 15th, 1564, died April 15, 1566
    DELRDRE BURKE born December 12th, 1567
    PADRAIC BURKE born January 30th, 1569

    THE STEPCHILDREN OF SKYE O'MALLEY
    SUSANNE SOUTHWOOD betrothed to Lord Trevenyan
    GWYNETH AND JOAN SOUTHWOOD twin sisters, betrothed to Skye's sons, Ewan and Murrough O'Flaherty

    SKYE'S FRIENDS
    SIR ROBERT SMALL Skye's business partner
    DAME CECILY SMALL his elder sister, a widow
    ADAM DE MARISCO the Lord of Lundy Island
    DAISY Skye's tiring woman and faithful confidante
    SIR RICHARD DE GRENVILLE Skye's old friend, a sea captain

    THE IRISH
    THE MACWILILAM Niall Burke's father
    CAPTAIN SEAN MACGULRE the senior captain of the O'Malley fleet
    CAPTAIN BRAN KELLY an O'Malley captain
    CLAIRE O'FLAHERTY Dom O'Flaherty's sister
    SISTER MARY PENITENT the former Darragh O'NeiL Niall's first wife, marriage annulled

    THE ENGLISH
    ELIZABETH TUDOR the Queen of England, 1558 to 1603
    WILLIAM CECIL, LORD BURGHLEY the English Secretary of State, and the Queen's greatest confidant
    ROBERT DUDLEY, THE EARL OF LEICESTER the Queen's oldest friend, and favorite
    SIR CHRISTOPHER HATTON another of the Queen's favorites, and Captain of the Gentlemen Pensioners
    LETTICE KNOLLYS, COUNTESS OF ESSEX the Queen's cousin

    THE ALGERIANS
    OSMAN a famous astrologer and Skye's old friend
    ALLMA his French wife

PROLOGUE

    “This is all your fault, you meddling old man!" Skye O'Malley Burke shouted at her father-in-law, the MacWilliam of Mid-Connaught. Her blue-green eyes flashed fire, and her marvelous long, black hair, unbound and unruly, swirled about her shoulders as she paced furiously about the room. "You've gone and widowed me! Wasn't it enough that your wicked machinations kept Niall and mc separated all those years? Now you've widowed me! God curse you for it, old man! I’ll never forgive you! Never!" Then she burst into tears, collapsing onto the carved oak settle by the fireplace.
    The old man's face disintegrated under her fierce attack, and he seemed to shrink in size, as if seeking to escape the terrible, harsh truth of her words. "How could I stop him, Skye lass? Niall is a man long grown," his voice quavered. "He would not listen to me. How could I stop him?"
    She looked at him scornfully, and he withered further under her look of contempt. "You knew that Darragh CNeil was a madwoman for all her religious calling, old man. You knew! Still you let my husband ride off to her, and to his own death!" She closed her eyes a moment, and more tears spilled down her cheeks. "Oh, Niall," she whispered brokenly. Niall! Niall! Niall! came the mocking echo in her mind.
    The old man sniffed piteously as he wiped his nose on his sleeve, then said, "At least we've got the children, Skye lass. We've got Niall's son and daughter."
    " You have nothing,'' she. told him coldly. "I will take my children and leave this place. I will go home to Innisfana. I have always hated Burke Castle, but for Niall's sake I lived here. Now my husband is dead, and I will stay no longer!"
    Suddenly the MacWilliam grew angry, a bit of his old spirit coursing back through his tired veins. "You'll not take Niall's children from me!" he thundered at her. They are my heirs, the boy in particular. You cannot take them!"
    Her fair features darkened with outraged fury, and he could have sworn that sparks shot from her blazing blue eyes. "Do you think that I would let you have my babes?" she hissed angrily at him. "I'll see you in Hell first!"
    "You've no choice, Skye lass. Padraic is my heir with his father gone, and wee Deirdre after him. I’ll not let you take them from me!" For a brief moment he felt sure afid strong again.
    "Old man, you'll not stop me from whatever I choose to do!" Skye O'Malley declared. Then she rose from the settle and stormed from the room, not seeing his tired shoulders slump forward, defeated by the knowledge that she would leave him if she chose, taking his only grandchildren with her.
    He coughed deeply and, turning, spit a clot of black blood into the pewter basin on the table. The blood had been coming up for several weeks now. His instinct told him that he did not have a great deal of time left to live. Until now it had not worried him particularly, for his son had been a strong, wise man, mature for his years. Now, however, Niall was dead, and his only living male heir was six weeks old. The babe was strong, but anything was possible. If the child died before reaching his majority the English would eat up his holdings as they had so many in the past several years. They might anyway.
    Where had the time gone? the MacWilliam wondered. It only seemed a short time ago that he had been a young man in his full vigor, ready and eager to bed a hot-blooded wench. Now he was but a broken old man, clutching his faded memories and shattered dreams about him like a tattered cloak; his thin white hair lank upon his bony shoulders.
    The MacWilliam sighed sadly. God help Ireland-for surely no one else would. The Irish stood quite alone, England to one side of them, the open sea on the other. In a way it was their own fault, for they had no one ruler to rally them, but rather a thousand petty, bickering chieftains, each jealously guarding his own holding, and each making the alliances best suited to himself, not necessarily to Ireland. It was no wonder that the English with their one strong ruler could overcome the Irish. Irishmen, 'twas true, would not be conquered by war, but rather by their own weaknesses.
    Still, and here the MacWilliam smiled a dark, grim smile, his beautiful and willful daughter-in-law was a very powerful woman in her own right. In Ireland Skye was the chieftaincss of the wealthy, seagoing O'Malleys of Innisfana. Even though the O'Malley brothers were grown, they showed no great hurry to take the familial responsibilities their late father had bequeathed them, far preferring, as he had, to stay on their ships. Skye was the one with the head for business. In England she was the Dowager Countess of Lynmouth, a fine old English title. Her son from that union was the current earl. True, the golden-haired lad was but six years old, but he was the English Queen's godson, and quite in her favor. Even now he was being raised at court, and was Bess Tudor's pet page. The Queen had a weakness for attractive males, even little ones. Yes, the MacWilliam thought bitterly. Whatever happened, Skye O'Malley would survive. She had more damned lives than a cat!
    A solitary tear ran down his worn and wrinkled face. If his son had had her blessed luck he might be alive today. Darragh ONeil! He silently cursed the day he had ever forced his son into marriage with that cold bitch! Niall had originally been betrothed to her older sister, Ceit. That lass had died in an epidemic, but as both the O'Neils and the Burkes were eager for a match between their families, the younger sister had been brought from her convent as a substitute bride. Darragh O'Neil had been within a few hours of taking her final vows, and she was a born nun. She had not wanted Niall Burke. She had not wanted any husband, but after a good thrashing from her father she had done as she was told.
    The marriage had, of course, been a disaster. Niall had been wildly in love with Skye O'Malley, then the O’Flaherty of Ballyhennesseys wife; and when she was widowed he was unable any longer to hide that love. His own marriage had been conveniently annulled by Skye's uncle, the Bishop of Connaught, and Darragh had hurried gratefully back to her convent. Niall and Skye were then betrothed, but once more the fates had playfully separated them. Skye was captured by Barbary pirates, lost her memory, and endured much before they were finally reunited. Then, however, she was again another man's wife, and had not even recognized Niall. He, too, had another wife, the unfortunate Constanza, who mercifully died. As for Skye, she also lost her new husband to death, her English husband whom she had loved deeply. By then her memory of Niall had returned, but she had remained true to her Geoffrey, and the MacWilliam admired her for it. She was a remarkable woman, and he deeply regretted the years she and his son had lost.
    At last Skye and Niall had been married. Not, mind you, in any fancy ceremony with gladsome feasting afterward, but by proxy. The bride still mourned her English husband in her English castle, not even aware that her wily uncle, the Bishop of Connaught, had taken advantage of an old law that made him technically head of the family, and used that tenuous authority to marry her off. The MacWilliam chuckled hoarsely, remembering the deception he and Seamus O'Malley had used to wed the reluctant pair. His son had gone off to England expecting a warm welcome. He had not received it. The stubborn wench had led Niall a merry chase, almost driving him to violence.
    In the end, however, their love had won out as Niall had accepted that his wife was no longer the unworldly girl he had once adored, but rather an intelligent and passionate woman who had been the beloved of other men. She had been on her own long enough to learn to wield the great responsibility that was hers, and she was not about to give up her power to anyone, even a loved husband. What was hers remained hers. When he had accepted Skye for what she was, the marriage had flourished, and been blessed with two healthy, strong children within thirteen months of each other.
    The MacWilliam shook his head sadly. It had all been going so well. The Burkes had pledged their fealty to England's Queen in hopes of gaining a measure of peace, in hopes of surviving. Many of the noble Irish families had done the same in order to save their lands and their people. Most had been betrayed, for the English were not only incredibly savage when they chose to be, but insatiably greedy for the sweet green lands of Ireland. Still, they had so far left the Burkes and their own alone. Baby Padraic's inheritance was intact, and the MacWilliam knew that he could trust his daughter-in-law to keep it that way. Had she not fought so valiantly for her English son's lands and title? She would fight as fiercely for her Irish son also, he knew. The wench knew her duty as well as any man, and often did it better.
    Skye O'Malley. She was a beautiful and gallant woman, and he wondered if she would ever be allowed any peace. She seemed destined to find love only to lose it through no fault of her own. Damn Darragh O'Neil! Damn her mad soul to Hell! He began to cough again, and his blood, bright hot crimson, streamed and steamed into the polished pewter basin as his tired heart hammered against his thin chest. His son, his handsome fine boy, was dead, and their immortality rested with a suckling infant not even old enough to lift his head up.
    Another bout of coughing wracked his ancient frame, weakening him so that for a moment he did not hear the door to his private chamber reopen. There was a gasp, and then Skye's voice said resignedly, "Old man, will you stop at nothing to force me to remain? Will you even die on me now?"
    He grinned wanly up at her. "I’ve had my way in this life almost as much as you have, Skye lass."
    She would have laughed, but the sight of his bright blood in the basin sobered her. Instead, she put an arm about his shoulders. "Ah, Rory," she sighed. She used his Christian name only rarely. "Why did you not tell me of the blood?"
    "If I’m meant to die now then I'll die," he said fatalistically.
    "I’ll send for my sister Eibhlin," she said quietly, and then she helped him to rise and reach his bed. He was hard put not to grin mischievously at her, so apparent was her concern over him. Fate had conspired with him to keep her and the children here. She'd not leave a dying man for all she talked.

***

    Eibhlin O'Malley, a nun at the island convent of St. Bride's of the Cliffs, was famed in Connaught for her midwifery and her healing skills. She was in great demand, and her service among the wealthy had greatly enriched her small convent. Her service among the poor, and there were so many poor, had convinced Eibhlin that if there were a hundred of her it wouldn't be enough. Between her religious devotions and her growing medical practice, she averaged but two to four hours' sleep a night. At home in her convent for a short rest, she still came quickly across a stormy winter sea when called by her younger sister, Skye.

    "I’m surprised that he's still alive," she told Skye drily after she had made a careful examination of the old man.
    "Can we do nothing?" Skye was troubled. She was still angry at Rory, but she loved him as she had loved her own father.
    "You can make him comfortable," Eibhlin said, "and you can promise him not to take the children back to Innisfana."
    "Did he tell you I was going to take them?" Skye fenced with her elder sister.
    "Well, isn't that what you threatened?" Eibhlin's pretty face peered sharply at her younger sister from between the folds of her starched wimple.
    "I cannot bear this castle without Niall. I have never liked it, but without Niall it is impossible!" Skye wailed.
    "It is Padraic's inheritance, sister."
    "You need not remind me of that, sister," Skye retorted sharply. "He will have it! Did I not protect Lynmouth for Robin? Can I do any less for Niall's son?"
    "Have you cried yet, Skye?" Eibhlin looked closely at her sister.
    Skye's face was a closed and tight mask. "I have cried," she said, "for all the good it did me, which was none. I should be used to it by now, Eibhlin. How many husbands have I buried? Four! No, I take that back. I have only buried three. Niall's body was not found. It is lost at sea, the very sea that has enriched the O'Malleys so." A harsh laugh escaped her. "Our fierce old sea god, Mannanan MacLir, has taken his price from me, but 'tis too dear a price, Eibhlin. 'Tis too dear!" Her voice was trembling.
    "Skye!" Eibhlin put a loving arm about her sister, but she felt totally helpless. How could she possibly comfort her sibling for such a loss. Niall Burke had been Skye's first great love, and when they had finally wed everyone expected him to be her last love as well.
    "She killed him without mercy, Eibhlin," Skye said. "Darragh O'Neil murdered my husband, and do you know why?"
    "No, Skye," Eibhlin replied gently. "I know nothing but that Lord Burke is dead, and tragically at the hands of Sister Mary Penitent."
    "Sister Mary Penitent!" Skye's voice shook with anger. "Darragh O'Neil! 'Twas Darragh O'Neil who murdered my husband! Darragh O'Neil for all her religious calling! She lured him to her side by saying she was dying, and wanted to make her peace with him. Instead, she stabbed him to death-and condemned her own soul to eternal damnation. She has wantonly widowed me and cruelly orphaned my two children! I’d like to kill her with my own two hands, Eibhlin, but her convent protects her, says she is mad! I don't believe it! I don't believe it, but they will not let me in to speak with her. They say that the mention of my name sends her into fits. Fits indeed! The bitch knows full well what she has done! 'Tis naught but a ploy to escape me. God's bones! I’d like to set the English upon that convent!"
    "Skye!" Eibhlin was shocked. The English in Ireland were at this very time as systematically attempting to wipe out all the religious houses as their late sovereign, Henry VIII, had destroyed those same establishments in his own England. It was not as easy in Ireland, however, as it had been in England. The Irish did not love their English rulers, and this attack on their Church gave them one thing to which they could all rally honestly, peasant and noble alike.
    "Oh, I wouldn't, Eibhlin," Skye said contritely. "Uncle Seamus would have my head if I did, but I’d like to do it!"
    "I will get Uncle Seamus to aid us," Eibhlin said. "As the Bishop of Connaught he must order an investigation into Lord Burke's death. I will ask him to send me to do the interrogation, Skye."
    "Darragh's order is a cloistered one," Skye said. "He'll get nowhere with her Mother Superior. She was Aigneis O'Brien, and she's prouder than all the damned high O'Neils put together. She will say nothing other than Sister Mary Penitent is mad; Sister Mary Penitent is being restrained; that the nuns of St. Mary's will pray daily for Lord Burke's soul."
    Eibhlin's pale-gray eyes darkened with anger, and the tone of her voice was more O'Malley warrior than humble nun. "With or without Uncle Seamus's aid I shall get into St. Mary's," she said, "and I will find the truth of it for you, Skye. I do not understand why after all these years Darragh sought to seek out and kill Lord Burke. He did her no harm. Their marriage victimized him as much as it did her, and he helped to restore her to her precious convent. I don't understand why she suddenly felt it necessary to kill him; but I shall find out, Skye. I shall find out!”
    The two sisters embraced, and suddenly Skye began to weep, a harsh, bitter sound of such intense grief that Eibhlin, holding her and attempting to comfort her, felt her own cheeks wet with silent tears. How long they stood there swaying with their sorrow, clinging to each other, Eibhlin never knew, but suddenly Daisy, Skye's faithful English tiring woman, was running into the room and urgently begging them to follow her.
    "Tis the old man, m' lady! He's dying," Daisy said. "You must hurry, for he wants you!" She quickly turned from them, hastening out of the room.
    Skye and Eibhlin swiftly composed themselves and followed Daisy, moving through the icy-cold castle corridors to the warm chamber in which Rory Burke, the MacWilliam, lay eking out his last few moments upon this earth. Already the castle priest knelt by his side aclministering the last rites to the old man lying in his bed hung with wine-colored velvet. Still the MacWilliam's rheumy eyes lit up at the sight of Skye, and feebly he motioned her to his side, while at the same time impatiently waving the nervous cleric aside.
    "You'll not be going home to Innisfana now, Skye lass," he whispered at her with an attempt at humor.
    "No, Rory ban, I’ll not be going now," she answered him gcntly. Please don't die on me, old man, she silently thought. You're the last little bit I've left of my Niall. Oh, the bofs his son, but he's a babe, and we have no memories in common. Don't die, old man! Stay with me!
    "The first time I saw you, do you remember the first time I saw you?" he asked.
    "Yes," she said. "Twas the feast of Twelfth Night, and you'd called all your vassals together to celebrate. I was wed but a few months to Dom, and was already carrying his first child. Ah, Rory, when you first saw me you regretted the O'Neil match, you did!" She smiled at the memory of the proud young thing she'd been then.
    "I did," he finally admitted to her, "but in the end, Skye lass, you became Niall's wife, and the mother of my only two heirs. Protect them, Skye! Don't let the English take Padraic's heritage! By tomorrow he'll be the MacWilliam, and you must hold his inheritance until he comes of age. Promise me, Skye lass!"
    The years were sliding away and she was a young girl again, and her dying father was thrusting the entire responsibility of the O'Maileys of Innisfana upon her slender shoulders. All the ships, her five younger brothers, the goods and the warehouses, and the people-all her personal responsibility. She had it still.
    Then, too, there was her second husband Khalid el Bey's vast fortune to administer, and the monies and estates of her third husband, Geoffrey Southwood, the late Earl of Lynmouth; as well as the care of her four other children besides Deirdre and Padraic Burke. Now, suddenly, Niall was torn from her, and his dying father was pressing more responsibility upon her. It was far too much for one woman alone, and yet she could not refuse him. How could she? Would there ever come a time when she might be just a woman? She was so tired of it all, yet she couldn't let him down.
    “I’ll do my best, Rory," she said wearily. “I’ll do my best."
    He smiled up at her, trusting and satisfied. Then, closing his eyes, he quietly died. Exhausted, she walked from the room as her sister and the priest, their beads magically in their hands, fell to their knees and began to say the rosary. Daisy walked a step behind her, only hurrying ahead of her mistress as they reached Skye's apartments so she might open the door.
    "Get me some wine," Skye said as she sought the relative comfort of a large chair by the fireplace. Sitting down, she watched the low flames darting among the peatfire, and wondered what she would do. How long did she have before the English would come arrogantly to confiscate her infant son's holdings. The old MacWilliam's death would be the perfect excuse for them, for the wily old man had given them no cause while he lived to abuse him. Not that the English in Ireland needed excuses to ill treat the Irish. No one would come to her aid when it happened, and she couldn't blame them. More than likely, one or more of her Irish neighbors would try to steal some of the Burke lands, too. Her very gentler gave them the excuse they needed. A woman and child were easy prey for the cowards they all were. "Well, they'll not have it!" she said aloud as Daisy put the goblet into her hand.
    "What's that, m'lady? Who not have what?" Daisy was puzzled.
    'The damned Dublin English, Daisy, and our Irish neighbors, that's who! They'll not have Burke Castle, or Burke lands! Those are my Padraic's and I intend that it remain so."
    "But what can you do about it, my lady? If we were in England you might appeal to the Queen, but England is far, and London farther."
    "I’m going to England, Daisy!"
    "But you've been forbidden, m'lady! They'll clap you back in the Tower of London, they will! You can't go!" Daisy's eyes were round with her genuine concern. She had been with her mistress for seven years, and she loved her dearly. She also knew her well. When Skye made up her mind, little if anything could stop her.
    “I’ve been banished from court, Daisy, but not necessarily from England," Skye said craftily. "I shall go to Lynmouth, and from there I shall appeal to the Queen's Secretary of State, Lord Burghley. If it is Elizabeth Tudor's intention to aid me, I shall be permitted to travel to London. If not, I shall still try to make my appeal from Devon. I cannot sit here, Daisy, and just wait for the English to come and take Padraic's inheritance. When Southwood died I protected his son, and I must protect Niall's son, too. He can have nothing of the O'Malleys, for though I bear the title and the responsibilities of the O'Malley, it all belongs to my brothers and their heirs. If I cannot save Burke Castle and its lands for its rightful heir, then my poor Padraic will be landless and nameless. The ghosts of a hundred generations of Burkes would haunt me into eternity if I let that happen, Daisy."
    "When will you go?" Neither Daisy nor her mistress had heard the door open and close, but Eibhlin now stood within the room.
    "Now," Skye said. "I cannot lose a minute, sister. The word will be in Dublin quickly enough that Rory Burke is dead. I cannot even stay long enough to bury him, but he most of all would understand my haste."
    Eibhlin nodded. "Then I’ll be on my way to St. Mary's Convent to learn what I can of Niall's death. Uncle Seamus would approve, I know. Who will you leave in charge here?"
    "Connor FitzBurke," Skye replied.
    "Niall's bastard brother? Is that wise, Skye?"
    "Connor is the most loyal man I know, Eibhlin. He is a simple and good fellow without ambition. It would not occur to Connor to usurp Padraic's inheritance. He will protect the children and their inheritance with his own life. I can't take the children with me. I must travel too quickly."
    Listening, Daisy winced, and then wondered why she even bothered. Her bottom had been beaten to leather by now in Mistress Skye's service. One more midnight ride wasn't going to kill her. She never doubted that she would travel with her mistress. After all, no one else could do her lady's hair for court the way she could, and Daisy did not doubt that they'd be back at court. Nor did anyone else know the correct jewelry that went with each magnificent gown. No, she would be riding out with her mistress before the dawn even considered breaking.
    "Daisy?"
    The tiring woman looked up smiling. "Within the hour, my lady?" she asked, fully knowing the answer.
    Skye nodded smiling back. "Aye, Daisy. Just when I thought that our adventures were over, we're off again!"
    Daisy couldn't resist a mischievous grin. "I can't say I mind, m'lady. It was getting a bit quiet for me around here."
    "God ha' mercy!" Eibhlin cried. "She's surely become one of us!"
    "And not a bad thing either," Skye replied as Daisy hurried off. "A tiring woman who can keep up with me on a horse is a valuable asset, sister." Then she sobered. "Will you see to the servants for me, Eibhlin? I will need time to gather my wits before I speak to Connor."
    “I’ll see to it," was the quick reply, and then Skye found herself alone once more.
    She rose and walked over to the windows to look down across the darkened countryside. A waning moon cast its pale, weak light across the soft, shadowed hills. Somehow, she thought, it should have been a wild and stormy night that Rory Burke took his leave of this earth, not this calm and windless time. For all of Ireland's rich mystical heritage, there hadn't been a sign or sound of the ghostly death coach come to take Rory Burke's soul away. Neither had there been the faintest wail of a banshee. She pushed the casement open and heard the frantic scream of a rabbit as a hunting owl found his prey; and then all was silent again. Life went on, she noted. No matter the changes, life went on. Skye O'Malley sighed deeply. There was no more time for mourning.

PART 1

ENGLAND

Chapter 1

    It was the strong sense of family that the O'Malleys possessed that brought Seamus CMalley to his niece before her hurried departure for England. In his fine stone bishop's house a few miles down the road from Burke Castle, he had awakened suddenly in the middle of the night and known that she needed him. The old man had gotten up from his warm bed, dressed himself, and ridden off up the hill to aid her.
    Seamus O'Malley agreed with his niece's assessment of the situation. She had to go to England for the Tudor wench's help. The bishop was a realist. He didn't like the English, but they held the whip hand. He suggested that the news of the MacWilliam's death be kept secret; that he be buried surreptitiously. It was easy enough to do, for the entire castle still slept and the guards on the walls couldn't see what went on inside the building. With the aid of the family priest and Rory Burke's personal servant, the body was placed in the family crypt; the final mass was said in the early dawn after Skye had ridden off under cover of darkness.
    Then Seamus took up residence in Burke Castle and, in league with the priest, the servant, and Connor FitzBurke, conspired to keep the rest of Ireland from learning of Rory Burke's death while Skye hurried to gain English aid before little Padraic Burke's inheritance was stolen.
    The lady of the castle, said to be keeping a vigil for the ailing MacWilliam, was in truth galloping across Ireland to Waterford harbor, where several of her ships were presently berthed. The need for haste was so imperative that Skye and Daisy rode eighteen hours a day, stopping only to change horses, to eat a hot meal, and to rest a few hours daily. They stayed only with trusted friends, sleeping in the chilly lofts of their barns during the daylight hours to avoid curious eyes, and more curious questions. Even the most loyal servants gossiped.
    At Waterford, Skye took passage upon her stepmother's vessel, the Ban-Righ A'Ceo, (Queen of the Mist). No sooner had the ship cleared the harbor than she commanded the captain, "Kelly! Set a course for Lundy Island." Then she disappeared into the master's cabin with her tiring woman.
    Daisy sighed with relief at feeling the swell of the open sea and the chill late-winter wind that filled the sails. "Every mile we galloped I thought sure the Dublin English would be after us, my lady."
    Skye laughed, relieved herself. She always felt vulnerable upon the land, but upon the sea none was her equal. "Daisy, you speak as if you were Irish yourself," she teased her tiring woman. "Have you been with me so long that you're beginning to feel Irish?"
    "I’m English all right, m'lady, but I'm Devon English, and that's a whole lot better than being Dublin English. In Devon we're kind people, but those Dublin English are wolves of the worst sort!"
    Skye nodded in agreement, and then said, "We've a good strong breeze behind us. With luck we'll make Lundy in two days' time."
    "He'll be glad to see you," Daisy remarked quiedy, understanding her lady's need. Like most trusted servants, she knew all the intimate details of her mistress's life. They had been together a long time, and if Skye had grown more beautiful with the years, Daisy had changed not a whit. Small and apple-cheeked, her soft brown eyes were loving of Skye and watchful of others. She was no beauty, and never had been, being as freckled as a thrush's egg; but her gap-toothed smile was warm and merry.
    "I have to see him," Skye replied. "He is the only friend I have left, Daisy, besides Robert Small, and Robbie is at sea. He is not expected back for at least another month. I must talk with Adam." She curled up on the large master's bed, drawing a down coverlet over her. "God's bones, Daisy, but I'm tired! Take the trundle and get some sleep yourself, girl. We've ridden hard these past three days."
    Daisy needed little urging to pull the trundle from beneath the bed, unbind her soft brown hair, lie down, and fall quickly asleep; but her mistress, for all her exhaustion, lay awake and thinking. While Daisy snored, making gentle little blowing noises, Skye thought back over the last few years, and of how she had met Adam de Marisco, the lord of Lundy Island.
    Skye's third husband, Geoffrey Southwood, the Earl of Lynmouth, had died in a spring epidemic, along with their younger son. Their older son, Robin, had been put in the custody of the Queen's favorite, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Dudley, however, had used his office to rape Skye, and when she had complained to the Queen, Elizabeth had bluntly told her that if she made Dudley happy, then that was that. Outraged, Skye had decided to wage her own private war on Elizabeth Tudor, to pirate the ships and the cargoes that England needed so badly to enrich its coffers. She had enlisted, for a share of the profits, the pirate lord of Lundy Island. Adam de Marisco had fallen in love with her, but believing that she could never fall in love with him, he had setded for being her friend. She had, for a brief time, been his mistress.
    When, after her marriage to Niall Burke, she had been arrested by Elizabeth Tudor for piracy, it was Adam de Marisco who had come up with the plan to free her from the Tower. She knew, despite his denials, that he still loved her. Perhaps now it was unfair of her to seek him out. Although she frequendy wrote to him, it had. been well over a year since they had met, and so much had happened during their separation; but he would understand why she came. She did need him so much! She needed to hear his deep, booming voice calling her "little girl"; to feel his lean hardness against her. If only she might love him the way he had always loved her-but no. It was better that she didn't. She had been widowed four times. She was bad luck to the men who wed her. "I will never marry again," she said drowsily to herself.
    She had not realized how tired she actually was. Padraic's birth followed by Niall's murder; the MacWilliam's death; her breakneck race across Ireland to the sea. It had all taken its toll. She fell into a deep sleep; her last thoughts were of Eibhlin and whether she had breached the walls of St. Mary's.

***

    Eibhlin had, and now stood quietly before the Reverend Mother Aidan, born Aigneis O'Brien. The Reverend Mother was a short, plump woman with a plain, expressionless face. "It is very good of you to see me, Reverend Mother," she said smoothly. She could see that she was not very welcome at St. Mary's.
    "We could scarcely refuse our lord bishop," was the icy reply. Reverend Mother Aidan's smooth white hands, adorned with her plain gold wedding band and the more ornate ring of her office, moved restlessly in her lap.
    "You know why I am here?"
    "I do, but I do not understand it, my sister. Lord Burke's death was admittedly a terrible tragedy, but your investigation cannot bring him back." Her hands clutched at each other in an effort to still themselves. Good, Eibhlin thought, she's nervous. I wonder what it is she hides.
    "The bishop wishes to know why Sister Mary Penitent lured Lord Burke to this convent to murder him, Reverend Mother," Eibhlin said provocatively.
    "She did not lure him!" came the quick reply. "Dear Heaven, my sister, you make Sister Mary Penitent sound like a loose woman." Reverend Mother Aidan flushed beet red at the boldness of her own words.
    "Perhaps lure is not a good word, Reverend Mother. Nonetheless she brought him here under false pretenses." Eibhlin shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She was tired, having traveled all night.
    "That has not been proven!" The denial had a hollow ring.
    "It has. The bishop has in his possession the message that Sister Mary Penitent sent to Lord Burke. In it she declared that she was dying, that she wished to make her peace with him before she returned to God. Reverend Mother, be sensible," Eibhlin said with far more patience than she was feeling. "Lord Burke had not seen Sister Mary Penitent since the day she left Burke Castle to return here. He wanted their marriage no more than she did. If she was injured by the union then so was he. He held no grudge. Obviously she did, else she would not have killed him. That is not madness. That is revenge."
    "She is mad, my sister," came the Reverend Mother's shaky voice, "and what is worse, she is cursed. I am not sure that this convent is not cursed as well." The Superior was pale now, and her breath came in shallow pants.

    Ah, Eibhlin thought, here is something new. "Please explain yourself, Reverend Mother. The bishop is most interested. And so am I."
    "Sit down, sit down, my sister," the Reverend Mother finally invited Eibhlin, who willingly complied. When both women were settled the convent's Superior began her story. "From girlhood Sister Mary Penitent was always more devout than the others. Her devotion almost bordered on the hysterical. Still, she was obedient and gentle, a perfect daughter of the Church. When she returned to us after her marriage was annulled we received her joyfully; and although more nervous than she had been in the past, she seemed to readjust quickly to our simple convent life.
    "There was nothing out of the ordinary here until several months ago when Sister Mary Claire came to us. She seemed to single out Sister Mary Penitent from among us, and was with her at every opportunity. Suddenly the poor girl was jumping at every sound, and weeping at the slightest provocation. We tried to learn what was troubling her, but she claimed it was nothing. After Lord Burke's murder Sister Mary Claire disappeared, and we have not seen or heard of her since. We fear that poor Sister Mary Penitent has… has killed her also, though why we do not know, may God have mercy upon both their souls." Reverend Mother Aidan sought the comfort of her beads.
    "This Sister Mary Claire, Reverend Mother. Where did she come from? Surely you did not allow a stranger into your house?" Eibhlin's instincts were already alert.
    "She claimed to have come from our sister house at Ballycarrick, which was destroyed several months ago by the English. We did not know that any of our sisters there had survived, for it was said they barricaded themselves within their church, and that the English put it to torch, killing them all. Sister Mary Claire claimed that she was in the nearby village nursing an old woman when the English came. She said the people hid her until she could reach us. It was not unlikely, my sister. It has happened a hundred times in Ireland this year."
    Eibhlin's heartbeat had increased in tempo as the convent's head spoke. Sister Mary Claire! It couldn't be! It couldn't be! Yet it was the sort of foul trick that Dom O’Flaherty's sister Claire would involve herself in for sweet revenge's sake. 'Tell me, Reverend Mother, what did this Sister Mary Claire look like? Can you describe her to me?"
    "She had blue eyes, a fait complexion, and blond hair," came the reply.
    "Blond hair, Reverend Mother?" Eibhlin was growing more sure.
    "She said she had not yet taken her final vows, that she had a year to go before that holy day."
    Claire O’Flaherty! It simply had to be Claire O’Flaherty reaching out once more with her evil hand to strike at Skye and Niall. "Reverend Mother, I must now speak with Sister Mary Penitent. I have no other choice!" Eibhlin said urgently.
    The Mother Superior sighed resignedly and reached for the small silver bell by her hand. To the nun who answered its call, she said, "Please take Sister Eibhlin, the bishop's representative, to Sister Mary Penitent's cell."
    Eibhlin rose and followed the obedient nun from the Reverend Mother's closet and through the halls of the convent. Her guide finally stopped before a simple cell, and said, "In there, my sister."
    Eibhlin carefully lifted the dark linen covering that hung across the doorway and moved quietly into the plain tiny room. It was no different than the cells within her own convent; whitewashed walls with no decoration other than a crucifix, and no furniture other than a simple pallet bed set on the floor. Kneeling now before the cross was Darragh O'Neil, deep in prayer. Eibhlin waited politely for a few moments and then spoke softly.
    "Sister Mary Penitent, I am Sister Eibhlin, the bishop's representative. I have come to speak with you on the matter of Lord Burke's death."
    At first Eibhlin thought that Darragh did not hear her, but then the kneeling woman crossed herself and rose from her prayers. Eibhlin had never seen Darragh O'Neil before. She looked nothing like her aunt, who was the Superior at Eibhlin's island convent of St. Bride's. Ethna O'Neil was a beautiful and serene woman, but her niece's face was pinched and tortured. She was clearly suffering, and putting an arm about her, Eibhlin helped to seat her upon the pallet bed. Joining her there, she looked again upon the woman's face and knew that Darragh was sane for the moment, but how long she would remain sane she could not tell. She did know that she must act quickly if she was to learn the truth.

    "Sister Mary Penitent," she repeated softly, "I am Sister Eibhlin, the bishop's representative."
    "You're an O'Malley," came the dull, despairing reply, "and His Grace the Bishop is another O'Malley. Have you come to wreak your vengeance upon me?"
    Looking at this poor creature so obviously enslaved by her fears, Eibhlin suddenly felt sorry for Darragh O'Neil. "It is not our place to punish you, my sister," she said. "Only God truly knows what is in your heart and soul; but the bishop must know why you have done this terrible deed. Why did you kill Lord Burke, Sister Mary Penitent? Why did you throw his body into the sea?"
    Darragh ONeil lifted her eyes to meet those of Eibhlin O'Malley. The pale-blue eyes were filled with pain and guilt and totally lacking hope. "I did not want to kill him," she said slowly, "but Sister Mary Claire told me that if I did not he would draw me once again into carnal bondage, into his lustful power. I had to kill him! If I had not he would have taken me back! She said it!" Darragh's voice had now risen to a frightened pitch.
    "But why would you believe such a thing, my sister?" Eibhlin gently inquired. "You had neither seen nor communicated with Lord Burke since the day you left Burke Castle. For most of your marriage you did not cohabit as a man and wife do. Why did you believe the slanders of this strange woman whom you barely knew?"
    "She knew the truth!" Darragh O'Neil declared. "She came from the convent at Ballycarrick. Lord Burke managed those lands for a royal ward, and 'twas known that he was a bold, lustful man unable to keep his hands from any woman who took his fancy. Why, Sister Mary Claire told me that he even raped two novices of her convent! Raped and bewitched them so totally the Mother Superior at Ballycarrick was forced to drive the two poor damned souls from her convent, for Lord Burke had roused their baser instincts so uncontrollably that they did terrible and shameful things to themselves and each other in plain sight of their gentle sisters. It was wicked! As she left the convent, one of the two women shouted that Lord Burke had developed a taste for nuns; that his first wife was a nun; that he had told her he intended reclaiming her and making her his leman! I could not let him do that to me! I could not! Surely you, a woman called to God as I was also called, understand that."

    Eibhlin was frankly curious as to what else Claire O’Flaherty had told poor Darragh to rouse her enough to commit murder; and so she asked her.
    Darragh's weak blue eyes grew round, and she lowered her voice. "It was not so much the telling,'' she said. "She showed me. Several times she came to my cell in darkest night, and she showed me what Lord Burke had done to those two novices, what he would do to me. She sucked and bit my poor breasts until they were sore, and she put her long fingers inside of me, pushing them back and forth just like he used to put his big weapon within me when I was forced to be his wife. God! How I hated it when he climbed atop me! I couldn't let him do that to me again! Not again!” She shuddered her revulsion.
    Darragh was trembling now, and Eibhlin, angry as she was, hid her anger for fear of frightening the unfortunate creature any further. "How could you believe her, Sister Mary Penitent?" she asked. "Lord Burke has a beautiful wife, and two fine children. Why would he want other women? In the time in which you lived at Burke Castle did he ever mistreat the servant women or the peasants? He has never been a man to abuse women. What made you believe the woman who called herself Sister Mary Claire?"
    "Lord Burke's wife is dead," Darragh said. "Sister Mary Claire told me that Skye O'Malley is dead in childbirth."
    "My sister is very much alive," Eibhlin replied.
    Darragh shook her head in the negative. "No," she said firmly. "Skye O'Malley is dead, and Lord Burke was a wicked and lustful man. I could not let him force me back into carnal bondage. I could not!"
    Darragh O'Neil was quickly sliding away again into her mindless and mad world. "Why did you throw his body into the sea?" Eibhlin asked quickly. "What has happened to Sister Mary Claire? Please tell me."
    For a brief moment Darragh's reason returned, pricked by the urgency in Eibhlin's voice. "We lay his body on the beach for the incoming tide. There was so much blood. So much blood. The sea was lapping at his feet the last time I turned to look at him. He'll not come back to get me now, that wicked lustful man!"
    "Sister Mary Claire?" persisted Eibhlin.
    "Is she not still here?" was the reply. "We returned from the beach together. She was my friend.'' Darragh's eyes grew vacant again, and she arose from the bed knelt before the crucifix upon the wall, her rosary clutched tightly in her hands. "I must pray that the Devil will not be too harsh on Lord Burke," she said in a suddenly prim voice. "It is my duty to pray for him despite his many sins."
    Eibhlin could see that she had lost the unfortunate woman's attention. She knew now what she needed to know. The half-mad Darragh O'Neil had been used by the vengeful Claire O’Flaherty to murder Niall Burke. It was a pity that Niall hadn't killed the woman himself the last time they had locked horns in London. He had had the Queen's blessing to dispose of her, but instead he had simply driven her from the city and, he had supposed, from his life. It had never occurred to Niall, for he was simply not that kind of man, that Claire would seek to harm him further.
    Claire O’Flaherty! Eibhlin arose from the pallet bed where she had been sitting with Darragh O'Neil, and walked from the tiny cell. Claire O’Flaherty! Skye's sister-in-law from her first marriage, whose incestuous relationship with her brother, Dom, had driven Skye to leave her husband. Claire O’Flaherty! She was the most evil, the most wicked, the most venal woman Eibhlin had ever known. If the Devil had truly fathered a daughter, then Claire O’Flaherty was that daughter.

***

    "M'lady!" Daisy shook Skye's shoulder firmly. "M'lady, you will have to awaken."
    Slowly Skye opened her marvelous blue-green eyes and, turning over onto her back, gazed up at her servant. "How long have I slept?"
    "Almost a full two days, m'lady, and Captain Kelly says we'll be at Lundy shortly before sunset. I thought you might want to freshen yourself."
    Looking down at her travel-stained garments, Skye grimaced. The edges of her doubled-legged skirt and her sturdy woollen hose were filthy. How could her hose be so dirty when she wore boots over them? She shook her head. The boots, she noted, stood cleaned by her bed. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and stood up. Her silk shirt was stained beneath the arms and her doublet was wrinkled. "Oh, Daisy, I am a disaster," she said, shaking her head.
    Daisy chuckled. "A bath will fix you right up, m'lady. They loaded an extra keg of water aboard for you in Waterford, and it's heating in the galley right this minute. Captain Kelly understands your peculiarities. I’ll have a man bring the water in, along with a small tub, m'lady."
    "Get me something to eat too, Daisy. I’m famished!" Skye's stomach rumbled in confirmation of this statement.
    While Daisy saw to her meal and her bath, Skye walked outside and around the deck, greeting her men as she went. The breeze was still brisk and fresh and clean with the first early days of spring. Straining her eyes, she could just begin to make out the far dark rock that was Lundy Island. In less than two hours she would be there; and he would comfort her as he had so many times before. Skye returned to the master's cabin of the ship, where a seaman was just exiting after having delivered the small oak tub and the hot water.
    Skye stripped off her grimy garments, handing them to Daisy as she did so. Completely nude, she stepped into the little tub and sat down. "Ahhh," she breathed, pleased, "that is so good, Daisy. I didn't feel my aches until just now." Reaching out, she picked up the small cake of rose-scented soap that Daisy had left on the floor by the tub, and began to lather it between her hands. Daisy moved in behind her mistress, pinning her marvelous dark hair atop her head. Then, taking the soap from Skye, she briskly washed her back and commanded her to stand so she might wash her buttocks and long legs. Quickly she rinsed Skye, commenting. "It's too chilly in this cabin for you to remain for a soak, m'lady. We can't have you getting sick now, can we?" The tiring woman reached for the large rough towel upon the bed, and wrapped it about Skye as she stepped from the tub. Swiftly Daisy rubbed her down, bringing a rosy flush of color to Skye's gardenia skin, and then said, "Get back into that bed, m'lady, until you're good and warm again. I’ve got nut-brown ale, fresh bread, and some fine cheese for you to feast upon."
    Skye settled herself and began hungrily to eat Daisy's simple but filling offerings. "Well, I'm clean, but I'll have to get back into those filthy clothes of mine, worse luck!"

    Daisy smiled. "I had a feeling that you'd not reach Devon without a stop at Lundy, I did. The cabin boy is brushing the mud from your skirt and your hose, and I've a clean shirt for you in my saddlebags, along with some fresh undergarments."
    Skye flashed her tiring woman and old friend a grateful look. How well the faithful Daisy knew her. When she had finished eating and brushed the crumbs from Captain Kelly's bed, she arose again and began to dress. The clean silk underthings and cream-colored shirt felt good against her skin. Daisy handed her first the finely knit dark green woollen hose and then her matching double-legged skirt. Amazingly, they were clean now and quite restored to respectability. Daisy helped her lady back into her knee-high boots, while Skye fastened a wide leather belt about her tiny waist. The belt's buckle was a greenish bronze oval inlaid with black and gold enamel in a Celtic design. Skye sat again upon the bed while Daisy brushed her long black hair out, freeing it of its sleep tangles. Then she pulled it back and twisted it into one long, plump braid, which she fastened with a bit of dark wool.
    A quick knock upon the door followed by Skye's permission to enter brought Captain Kelly into the cabin. He was the youngest of her captains; a man with bright-red hair and warm brown eyes. He was slender and not a great deal taller than Skye; but he had a quick mind, and was a daring seaman. "We're entering Lundy harbor, m'lady. Have you any instructions for me while you're ashore?"
    "I want you to go on immediately to Lynmouth," she said. "Daisy will stay with you. Please remain at Lynmouth until I advise you further." Skye turned to Daisy. "See that the castle is made ready for my arrival. I will come the day after tomorrow. Send to Wren Court for Dame Cecily, and my daughter, Willow. I will want to see them both."
    “I’ll wait till you're safely ashore, m'lady, and I know that you've made contact with Lord de Marisco," Captain Kelly said. "MacGuire would keelhaul me from here all the way to the Giant's Causeway if I didn't."
    "MacGuire's behaving like an old woman these days," Skye grumbled, but she couldn't help but be pleased that Sean MacGuire, the senior captain of her fleet, yet pulled that kind of weight with the other men. MacGuire was her voice on many occasions, and she valued him highly.
    "Are you sure you don't want me to go with you?" Daisy asked.
    "No, Daisy. I'll be fine. Lundy is no place for a respectable girl such as yourself."
    Captain Kelly chuckled. "Nay," he said in a happy voice, "there is not a respectable lass on the island, praise God!"
    "Why, Kelly," Skye teased, "I'm surprised at you."
    "Well, I'm not!" Daisy snapped. "He has the look of a lecher about him!"
    "Mistress Daisy," Kelly protested, quickly contrite. Skye, her glance moving swiftly between the two, suddenly realized that Bran Kelly cared what Daisy thought; and Daisy obviously cared for the handsome young man.
    "Now, Daisy," she soothed, "a sailor without a true love is apt to have a roving eye, and so far I’ve not heard that Captain Kelly's pledged his heart to any lass."
    "And none is apt to accept him if he continues so fickle in his affections," Daisy warned ominously.
    Skye hid a little smile, and said, "Daisy, take my saddlebags on deck, please. I shall be out shortly."
    Daisy bobbed a curtsey to Skye, then tossed her head in a snub toward the captain and hurried from the cabin as Bran Kelly looked longingly after her.
    "Seduce her," Skye said warningly, "and you'll answer to me, Kelly. She's no lightskirt, and she is under my protection as well as being very dear to me."
    "I’m thinking of settling down," Kelly replied. "I'm past thirty now, and it's time."
    "When you make up your mind in the matter I'll give you permission to court her if it pleases her. Until then keep your codpiece tightly fastened, Kelly."
    Bran Kelly looked into the serious blue eyes of the O'Malley of Innisfana, his overlord and his mistress, and nodded blushingly. “I’d best go topside," he said, "and see to the landing. Lundy harbor is tricky, as you well know."
    She smiled at him. He understood. “I’ll come with you, and thanks for the use of your quarters this trip."
    Together they went out onto the deck, and while Captain Kelly saw to the lowering of the ship's anchor Skye gazed upon Lundy. It had been over a year since she had seen it, the great granite cliffs rising above the sea, the lighthouse at one end of the island, de Marisco's half-ruined castle before her. She sighed sadly. She had never again expected to see Lundy, or to lean so shamelessly upon Adam de Marisco; but dear God, she needed someone to comfort her, and only Adam would understand that need.
    The boat^s ready to lower, m'lady," Kelly advised her. Large ships such as the Ban-Righ A'Ceo anchored in Lundy Bay, away from Lundy's dangerous cliffs and rock-strewn shore.
    "My thanks, Kelly, for a good trip," she called up to him as she climbed into the small boat.
    "Your saddlebag, m'lady," said Daisy, leaning over the rail and proffering it to her mistress.
    "I won't be needing it now, Daisy," Skye replied with a quick smile, and then she commanded the lone sailor who would row her, "Let's away!"
    The cockle seemed to skim just atop the bobbing waves as it was rowed swiftly into the shore and the long stone quay that served de Marisco as a landing place. The sun, bright scarlet with streamers of gold and purple, was beginning to sink into the dark western sea as they reached their destination. From the grog shop in the bottom of the old castle a giant figure emerged and strode down the quay toward them. Skye scrambled from the boat, and then she began to move quickly forward.
    Adam de Marisco, his unruly shock of tousled dark hair blowing in the light breeze, hurried toward her. Though he had spent his youth at both the Tudor and the French courts, he was no elegant gallant, as his thigh-high leather boots, his doeskin jerkin with the horn buttons, and his open-necked silk shirt showed. Despite the chill, he wore no cloak.
    "Adam!" she called, running, "Adam!"
    "Little girl! Is it really you?" His deep voice boomed across the quiet evening, and then he was sweeping her into his bearlike embrace, burying his face for a long moment into the scented softness of her neck, his blue eyes warm with longing.
    "Oh, Adam," she breathed, feeling his familiar bulk and knowing with certainty now that everything would be all right.
    “I’m sorry about Niall, little girl."

    She pulled away from him and looked up into his handsome face. "You knew? How?"
    "A ship put in here several days ago, and its captain told me. They had met with an O'Malley ship, and learned the news from them." He put an arm about her and together they began to walk down the stone quay to his castle. "Was the babe you were carrying a boy?"
    "Aye, praise God!" she answered.
    "Then at least the old MacWilliam has his heir, Skye." They entered the lower level of the castle and walked through the rather dirty and disreputable tavern there, Skye nodding to those she knew, de Marisco's evil-looking retainers and the ever-present Glynnis, whose ample blowsy charms were well known by the men who passed through Lundy. Together they mounted the stairs to de Marisco's two-room apartment in the one remaining whole tower of the castle. Safely inside the big antechamber with its blazing fireplace, Skye turned to Adam de Marisco, and said, "The MacWilliam is dead. My infant son, Padraic, is now heir to the Burke lands."
    He drew a deep breath. "It's not public knowledge yet, is it?"
    "Not yet. The Dublin English have had their eyes on the Burke lands for some time now, Adam, but as long as the old man and Niall were alive they knew they had not a chance. We were fortunate in that Elizabeth Tudor needed my O'Malley ships, and dared not to offend me. I intend to send word from Lynmouth to Lord Burghley that I must see him. If I am to protect my Burke son's inheritance from predators, I must have the Queen's blessing. Each day England's fleet grows larger and stronger. If I and my ships are no longer of use to the Queen she will divide the Burke lands among her courtiers without another thought, and Padraic will be landless and nameless. I can't let that happen, Adam. I can’t!”
    He moved over to the oak sideboard and poured them each some rich, sweet wine; the crimson liquid cascading gracefully into heavy, carved silver goblets. Turning, he handed her a goblet, and said, "So, little girl, you're in the same defenseless position you were three years ago when Geoffrey died. Now, however, Elizabeth Tudor has an old score to settle with you, and you are even more vulnerable with two more babes to support."
    She nodded, and her sapphire eyes filled with tears which spilled uncontrolled from beneath her black lashes onto her pale cheeks. "Damn," she whispered, "I am prone to weeping these days. I don't know what's the matter with me, Adam."
    He snorted impatiently. "Skye, my sweet, sweet Skye! You are human is what is the matter with you. For all your great strength you are human! In the last ten years you have buried four husbands, three of whom you loved dearly. You have borne seven children altogether, one of whom you lost in a terrible epidemic. You have fought the Queen of England, and won, despite your imprisonment in the Tower. All these things cannot help but have taken their toll on you. Now you must once more, unprotected and alone, fight for your children. You wonder why you weep easily, my darling? I don't. I stand in awe of you, little girl. I am amazed you have not gone mad from it all."
    She looked up at him, the tears still spilling down her face. "I need you, Adam," she said low. "I have no right to ask it, but I need you so very much!"
    "I am here for you, Skye," he said quietly. "I have always been here for you, and I always will be." Tenderly he looked down at her, and then tipped her face upward to his. Bending, he gently brushed her mouth with his. "You're tired and you're worn, little girl. Shall I comfort you as I once did? It seems so long ago, sweet Skye, that we gave of ourselves to each other."
    "Oh, Adam, what kind of woman am I?" she whispered low. "My husband is dead but a month-and I loved Niall! Dear Heaven, how I loved him! Still I need you."
    He could see that she was trembling with emotion, and with pure exhaustion. She was not really ready to make love with him and, he thought, she might never be ready again. He loved her; he had always loved her, but Adam de Marisco was a realist. Once she had asked him to marry her, but as desperately as he had wanted her he had to refuse, for he knew that he had neither the power nor the great name that he felt Skye O'Malley deserved and needed. Reaching out, he lifted her into his strong arms and carried her into his bedroom. As he carefully deposited her upon his huge bed, he said, "I want you to get some sleep, little girl. Afterward we will discuss our needs, but first you will rest and calm yourself." He drew the fur coverlet over her.
    She nodded, strangely grateful to him, but sure she would not sleep. He watched over her as she finally did, wanting her with every ounce of his being. The wine in his goblet grew less, and he rose to refill it, returning quickly to his post. Adam de Marisco was a handsome man, standing six feet six inches tall with a body proportioned to match. His black hair was the color of a raven's wing, and his beard, once full, was now barbered as elegantly and neatly as any court dandy's, the round of his mustache giving his mouth a very sensuous appearance. He had heavy black eyebrows and thick lashes that tangled themselves over his heavy-lidded smoky blue eyes. His aristocratic nose, long and narrow at the nostrils, was a gift from his Norman ancestors.
    His wine now finished, he placed the goblet on a nearby table and, fully clothed, lay down next to her. Sometime in the night she whimpered with a bad dream, and he half woke to draw her into the safety of his arms, sliding his big body beneath the coverlet, murmuring comfort in her ear until she quieted and slept peacefully again. Once more he slid into sleep himself, the scent of her damask rose perfume in his nose, clinging to his silk shirt, bringing back a hundred memories that for him were as clear as when they had happened. The knowledge that he was holding her again gave him a wonderful comfort, and he slept heavily, contentedly.
    Adam de Marisco dreamed an incredible dream. He dreamed that he was nude, and being attacked by a flock of brightly colored tiny butterflies. Playfully they fluttered over his bare thighs and belly, tangling themselves in the thick mat of black hair on his chest. He could feel an ache of longing in his groin, and with a little moan he opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was Skye's dark head bent over his chest, and he realized that the butterflies were her lips that kissed him lovingly. "Celtic witch," he muttered, yanking her up by her hair so he might see her face.
    Her beautiful blue eyes stared half shyly at him, and then she said blushingly, "I need you, Adam!"
    His breath caught in his throat. She was naked, her pert small breasts as beautiful as he remembered, the dainty pink nipples thrusting forward. She ran a teasing finger down his thigh, and he realized with some shock that he was practically nude himself.
    Seeing his look, she chuckled, a distinctively mischievous sound, and said, "You sleep far too heavily, Lord of Lundy. Were I an enemy the castle would now be mine. While you snored and made little happy noises, I removed your pantaloons, drawers, and hose. Your shirt, alas, I could only unfasten."
    Moving her aside, he sat up and took off the offending shirt. "You're a shameless and bold wench, Skye O'Malley," he said through gritted teeth, "but I want to fuck you. God's bones, I want to fuck you!"
    She reached up, pulling him back down to her, and Adam de Marisco did what he had craved doing all night. He kissed her. His mouth closed fiercely over hers, demanding more of her than he had ever asked. He bruised her soft lips with his own. Her arms slid around his neck and pulled him as close to her as was humanly possible, and her tongue licked at his lips. He could feel the sweet small mounds of her breasts pressing against his furred chest, and he groaned guiltily. He had sworn to himself, when he had realized that Skye could never be his, that he would never again make love to her, but he knew tonight that that was a promise he couldn't keep. She said she needed him, and by God he needed her!
    Her softly taunting tongue was almost unbearable in its sweetness. His lips parted, and he allowed that tongue to dart within his mouth, to explore, tease, and caress as it met with his own tongue. Now he took the initiative, chasing her tongue back to her own mouth where he proceeded to harry and badger it with his own until she pulled her head away, moaning as a great shudder raced through her beautiful body and her nipples grew rigid with her desire.
    Adam de Marisco smiled as he looked down on her face. She was the most marvelously sensuous woman he had ever known. She gave herself totally and completely to him, trusting him as no other woman had ever trusted. Her eyes opened, and he said softly, "You are so lovely, little girl. When I contemplate all the delights that you offer me, I don't know where to begin." She smiled at him, and lowering his great dark head, he nuzzled at her breast. She sighed and made a soft "Mmmmm" of pleasure.
    For a long moment he contemplated those beautiful breasts. He had always thought that she had the loveliest little tits, sweet, and small rounds of honied flesh with their dainty pink nipples. He gently bit at one of them while his big hands kneaded her other breast hungrily. She threaded her fingers through his thick, black hair, one hand moving low to caress the back of his neck. Her touch sent a flash of heat through him, and he shuddered.
    Raising his head up he rained kisses on her upturned face, her slender throat, soft shoulders, and palpitating breasts. He swept lower, tonguing her navel, covering her belly with scorching kisses, and she blossomed beneath his loving hands and mouth. "Ohh, Adam," she murmured. "Oh, yes!"
    He couldn't resist a chuckle despite his own passion. She was so damned honest even in her desire. "Remember what I once told you, little girl. Love making is a great art. I will not hurry our pleasure, especially as I will not allow this to happen again between us."
    "Adam!" She tried to sit up, but he gently pushed her back and caught her gaze with his.
    "I will not be your lover, Skye O'Malley, and as I once told you I have neither the name nor the power to be your husband. You are dearer to me than any other person on this earth, and I would slay dragons for you, but I will not be your lover!”
    She did not have to ask him why, for she knew. He loved her, and she loved him, but it was not the abiding love that a woman gives her husband. They both knew it. Along with her business partner, Robert Small, he was the best friend she had in all the world, and she had treated him shabbily by coming to him, and asking, nay, practically begging that he service her as her prize stallion serviced her mares. She flushed with shame at that thought, and said, "Oh, Adam! I beg your pardon. Let me up. I shall go from you now for I had no right to come here at all."
    "Nay!" He gently pinioned her beneath him. "Have you become a wanton tease, sweet Skye, that having roused the beast in me you would now leave me?" He laughed softly. "You said you needed me, little girl. Well, now I need you, and I am weary of talk. Talk is for the afterward." His mouth made feathery movements down her body in a swift assault that caught her totally by surprise and left her breathless.
    "Adam!" she gasped.
    "Be silent, my darling!" he answered her, and then his tongue was gently seeking at the honey of her, sending small love darts of pure blazing heat into her very soul. His tongue was wildfire, stroking at the velvet of her greatest secret; rousing her to pleasures both known and unknown. Her beautiful body responded with the hunger of one long denied, and indeed she had had no lovemaking since the fifth month of her last pregnancy. She moaned as the liquid fire bathed her body, as his tongue sought and found, tantalized and pleasured, loved and pained her in both body and soul.
    Adam de Marisco took great delight in Skye's response, and when at last she was writhing and creamy with her passion he sat back on his haunches, his great lance thrusting forward. Lifting the almost unconscious woman up, he lowered her carefully onto his weapon as he cradled her in his arms. He was gentle, for she was tight with her abstinence, and as he filled her she cried out her rapture. Together they rocked back and forth until Skye shuddered violently and with a whimper went limp. Satisfied that she had attained her fulfillment, he took his own, laying her back now on his enormous bed to tower over her as he thrust deep and hard and sweet within her throbbing sheath. Then, satisfied he withdrew from her, and rolled away to catch his breath again before he drew her back into the comfort of his arms.
    They slept for several hours, awakening as the early light came through the single window in the tower bedchamber. She knew that he slept no longer by the sound of his breathing, and for a few long minutes she remained silent, unable to speak, not knowing what she might say to him. He solved the problem for her, saying quietly in his deep voice, "How can any mortal woman give such pleasure, hide girl? How I wish that I were the man for you, Skye O'Malley."
    "I wish you would wed with me, Adam, for you're the strongest man I have ever known. I have always felt safe with you, and you know you've always told me that without a man my wealth and beauty make me vulnerable to those in power. I am ashamed to have used you so, but I did need you. I did!”
    "Skye, there is no wrong in a woman desiring a man, but 'tis not reason enough for a marriage between us. You know that." He laughed in an effort to lighten the situation. "I cannot help but think that there isn't a man at Elizabeth's court who wouldn't have sold his soul to be in my boots last night." He raised himself up on an elbow and looked down at her. "You do understand however, why, I will not seriously entertain your proposal?"
    "I understand, Adam."

    "We are friends," he smiled down at her, "and I should hate you to meet a man you could really love and turn him away because of mistaken loyalty to me."
    "There will be no one else," she said firmly. "God's bones, Adam! I have outlived four husbands in fifteen years. Dom, of course, was no loss, the pig! Khalid, however, and Geoffrey and Niall are another matter. I loved them, Adam, and I cannot go through the death of another man that I love. I am beginning to believe that I am bad luck for the men that love me. I think I have had enough of husbands! My six children are enough to satisfy any woman. From now on I shall be free! Free to run my own life, and to choose my own companions."
    "And your lovers," he said quietly.
    "Perhaps," she said slowly, and then she blushed. "I find that I am not a woman to do without a man. Is that so awful, Adam?"
    "You could do without a man if you chose, little girl" he said. "Last night was different. You needed to be with a friend, with someone who loves you, with someone who could comfort you."
    "Ah, Adam," she teased him. "No one has ever comforted me better than you."
    Their eyes met and both remembered their first encounter when he had offered her his help, badly needed, if she would spend one night in his bed. She had been in pain then too, suffering over the loss of Geoffrey, and the loss of their youngest son, Johnny. When she had broken down and wept in his arms he had made passionate love to her. "Let me comfort you, little girl" he had said. Since then it had been a joke between them, and now both laughed with the same memory.
    "How long will you be at Lynmouth," he asked her when their laughter had died.
    "That will depend on Cecil. First I must send a message to him, and then I must await his decision as to whether I am allowed to go to court so I may petition the Queen for Padraic's lands."
    "And if you are not allowed back at court, Skye?"
    'Then I petition the Queen from Lynmouth. Robbie will be back soon, and he can speak for me if I am forbidden the Queen's presence."
    He nodded. "Where are your children now? Not all together, I hope."

    "Nay, Adam, I am too wise for that. My oldest son, Ewan O’Flaherty, is on his lands at Ballyhennessey. My uncle has sent my eldest brother, Michael, to oversee Ewan. He is thirteen now, almost a man. In three years we will celebrate his marriage to Gwyneth Southwood, Geoffrey's daughter by his first wife. Ewan's younger brother, Murrough O’Flaherty, is with the Earl of Lincoln's household. He will need influential contacts, as he is landless. I can give him wealth, but I can't give him lands. Those he must gain himself, Adam.
    "Willow is with Dame Cecily Small. My eldest daughter does not like Ireland. I think it must be her father's blood in her that makes her prefer a slightly milder climate. So I allowed her to winter with Dame Cecily as Robbie has been away. They are good company for each other, and Dame Cecily is teaching her all the housewifely arts. Thank God, Robbie and his sister adopted her formally, and gave her their name as well as made her their heiress. Having a Spanish father could harm her socially, and if it were known that Willow's father was once the Great Whoremaster of Algiers!" Skye shuddered. "As much as I loved Khalid, his daughter shall never know that." Then she was forced to chuckle. "It would amuse Khalid to know his offspring is a most proper little English girl; but without Robert Small's name to protect her, she would be lost. Most people assume she is actually related to Robbie.
    "My little Earl of Lynmouth is page at court. You see, Adam, I am forbidden court, but my Robin is Elizabeth's favorite pet. He grows more like Geoffrey every day, I am told." She smiled softly. "They called Geoffrey the Angel Earl. Our son, Robin, is known at court as the Cherub. How proud Geoffrey would be of him," she said. "My Burke children are safe in their castle.
    "No, Cecil cannot use my children against me. Only Robin is readily available to him, and as one of England's premier noblemen, he is inviolate. Besides, Cecil is too softhearted to war with children, thank God. A soft heart is the curse of an honorable man, Adam, and Lord Burghley is an honorable man for all he is Elizabeth Tudor's creature."
    "You haven't forgiven her, have you, Skye?"
    "No, Adam, I will never forgive her for what she did to me. Nor will I forgive her the time she stole from Niall and me, especially now that Niall is… is dead."

    "Skye, sweet Skye." He took her in his arms and held her against his hard chest. "No more wars with Bess Tudor, little girl. Promise!" He was suddenly afraid for her.
    "I promise you, Adam. I am a wiser woman than she who pirated the Queen's ships from right under her nose. The fart that Elizabeth could never prove it was victory enough."
    "We were lucky that time, Skye," he admonished her gently.
    She chuckled throatily. "I only regret the loss of the emeralds," she said, and he laughed with her. Then she pulled away from him. "Dammit, Adam, I am ravenous! You're a poor host not to feed me."
    "I thought you had all you wanted from me, little girl," he teased her, ducking the pillow she threw at him.
    "I’ve not had a decent meal in several days. Does Glynnis cook?"
    "'Tis one of her best talents," he remarked, waggling his heavy black eyebrows at her. Skye laughed as de Marisco continued, “I’ll have her fetch us something now that you're obviously up and determined to be on your way."
    Skye sobered. "Aye, Adam, I have to go. My messenger must be off to Cecil this morning."
    Within the hour Glynnis made her way from the taproom below to the tower antechamber, her sturdy legs bowed under the weight of the tray that she carried. "I've brought a bit of everything," she said with a friendly grin. "Ye'll not go hungry this day, m'lady." Glynnis then bobbed a curtsey and left them to contemplate the bounty that she had prepared for them. There were two steaming bowls of oat porridge smothered in stewed pears; a covered silver dish, badly tarnished, of eggs poached in heavy cream, dry Spanish wine, and dill; a platter of pink country ham, sliced thickly; a hot loaf of wheat bread wrapped in a linen napkin to keep it warm; sturdy stoneware crocks of sweet butter and thick honey. A silver pitcher of brown ale completed their repast.
    "God's bones," Skye exclaimed, delighted with the meal, "Glynnis can have a job in my kitchens anytime, Adam!" Then she took up a simple wooden trencher and filled it up. The porridge was quickly eaten, the eggs and ham devoured, and Skye, sitting back in her chair wrapped in de Marisco's huge silk shirt, her long legs stretched out, quaffed down half a goblet of brown ale and then reached for the loaf of bread. Carefully she sliced herself a piece, and spreading it first with butter and then with honey, she proceeded to eat it down.
    Adam, no mean trencherman himself, watched her with fond amusement and indulgence. He had always admired her fine appetite. Women who picked at their food believing it good manners annoyed him. Skye enjoyed good cooking, and ate as if she did. “I’ll sail you to Lynmouth myself,'' he said, and she nodded, her mouth still full. "Do you want me to stay with you until you hear from Cecil?"
    She swallowed. "No. Better Cecil not be reminded of your existence. I may need to run, and Lundy's a safe port for me."
    "Always, little girl!" he agreed with a smile that warmed her to her toes.

***

    They left Lundy as the sun was beginning to creep over the horizon, and with a fresh southwest breeze, they were easily and quickly at Lynmouth. He brought his small boat into the little cove beneath the castle's cliffs where a hidden cave had served the Earls of Lynmouth as an escape hatch for several centuries. He would not stay.
    "The wind will die by midday, and I’ll be becalmed here if I don't go now, sweet Skye. I don't particularly relish rowing home eleven miles." He pulled her roughly into his arms and kissed her quickly, tenderly. "Behave yourself, little girl. If you need me use the old signals. I'll have a boy on watch round the clock." Then while she watched, easy tears pricking at her eyelids, he sailed away from the landing out into the cove, and from there to the beckoning blue sea.
    She brushed the wetness from her eyes, and, mounting the worn stone steps within the cave, hurried unseen upward into Lynmouth Castle. Emerging from the narrow passage of the stairway into a corridor in the oldest part of the castle, she gained her own apartments.
    "Good morning, m'lady," Daisy chirped cheerfully as she came through the doors. "As luck would have it, I saw Lord de Marisco's little boat as it was sailing into the cove. Shall I get you something to eat?"
    "No," Skye replied. "I have already eaten. Is Wat Mason here, Daisy?"

    "Aye, m'lady."
    "Fetch him at once, Daisy. He's to ride to Whitehall with a message for Lord Burghley."
    "Lord Burghley is here in Devon, m'lady, at Sir Richard de Grenville's home."
    "He is?" Skye was surprised. "The old spider rarely leaves court. I wonder what has brought him down here."
    "The news is of rebellion, m'lady," Daisy said, her voice bright with importance. "Ever since last year when the Queen of Scots fled to England there have been murmurings. There is fear of a rebellion in the north among the marcher lords. They say those who would revolt would bring back the old religion, begging your pardon, m'lady."
    "It's all right, Daisy. I was born a Roman Catholic, and I see no reason to change my ways, but I also see no reason to involve myself in a damned rebellion over religion. Religion should be a personal and private thing between a soul and God. The northern lords are fools if they think that they'll dislodge Elizabeth Tudor and replace her with her cousin, Mary Stewart; but then they don't know Harry Tudor's daughter as well as I know her. They'll lose everything, the idiots, and the church won't restore what they've lost! Better to keep one's faith and one's possessions separate. Now go get Wat Mason. He'll have to go to de Grenville's house with my message."
    Daisy hurried from the room, and Skye sat down at her small writing table to pen her note to the Queen's Secretary of State and most powerful adherent, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. She had no doubt that the old fox would see her, but whether he would take her part was another thing. Still, Cecil didn't need any more trouble in Ireland especially with rebellion brewing in England. Thank God for Mary Stewart, Skye thought. I’ve never laid eyes on her, nor she me, but she has done me a good turn just by being in England for the malcontents to rally about. The note Skye wrote was a brief one, greeting Lord Burghley and saying that the Countess of Lynmouth would like an audience with him before his departure for court. She would either go to him, or be pleased to entertain him at Lynmouth. Would he kindly return his answer with her groom.
    Daisy returned with Wat Mason, who knelt in respectful greeting to his mistress. Skye sealed the message with her heavy gold signet ring, the O'Malley sea dragons pressing themselves into the hot green wax. Looking up, she handed the letter to Wat, and said, "Take this to Lord Burghley, the Queen's Secretary of State and Lord Treasurer. He is at Sir Richard de Grenville's home. Deliver it into his hands only, and then wait for his reply. Do you understand me, Wat? You will give my message to no one but William Cecil himself."
    "Aye, m'lady, I understands." Wat rose from his knees and hurried from the room.
    And now, Skye thought, the game begins. To her surprise, however, she did not have to wait long. Wat was back at Lynmouth by day's end, bringing with him a reply from William Cecil. Eagerly Skye tore the message open and read. Then she smiled with satisfaction and relief. Cecil would come to her. He would arrive at Lynmouth in two days' time, and stay the night before returning to London. She wondered what he would want in return from her. His help would not come cheaply, but Padraic's inheritance and name must be saved.
    "M'lady!" Daisy flew into the room. They're here!"
    Skye looked up, startled and for a moment unable to think what Daisy could possibly mean. Then, before she could gather her thoughts, her small daughter, Willow, ran into the room.
    "Mama!" Willow threw herself enthusiastically into Skye's arms.
    Skye's arms closed about her daughter and she hugged her hungrily. "Ah, my little love, how I have missed you," she said, and suddenly she was weeping happy tears at the sight of Khalid's daughter, so very much like him with his amber-gold eyes fringed in long, thick dark lashes, and her black hair.
    "Will you be here for my birthday, Mama?" Willow squirmed from Skye's arms and fixed her with a serious gaze.
    "Is it April already?" Skye pretended to consider it.
    "Oh, Mama! Of course it is April, and my birthday is in five more days! I shall be nine!"
    "So you shall, Willow. I shall soon have to find a husband for you."
    "I shall find my own husband, thank you!" Willow replied pertly, and Skye was reminded of herself. Willow might look like her father, but she was her mother's daughter, too.

    "You shall only marry the man you love, my darling,'' Skye promised her oldest daughter.
    "You spoil her," a familiar voice snapped, and Skye smiled over Willow's head at Dame Cecily, who was just entering the room.
    "So do you," she chuckled.
    "I did not expect you in England," Dame Cecily said, settling herself in a comfortable chair by the fireplace.
    Skye sat in the chair facing the older woman and, taking Willow onto her lap, replied, "I had to come. I have bad news. The old MacWilliam is dead and without an adult heir, my wee Padraic's inheritance is in danger. Lord Burghley is at de Grenville's, and will be here in two days' time to speak with me."
    Dame Cecily nodded. "Does he know ofthe old man's death?'
    "No one does," Skye said. "We buried him in secret, and my uncle Seamus is now in control of Burke Castle. I’ve come to present my petition to the Queen if Burghley will allow me back at court. If not, I don't know what I will do. Perhaps Dickon de Grenville will speak for me, and then when Robbie returns next month he can help me also."
    Dame Cecily sighed deeply. "Dearest Skye," she said. "I will go to the Queen for you myself, if necessary." Then she reached out and, taking Skye's slender hand in her plump one, said, "I am so very sorry about Niall." Her honest blue eyes filled with sympathetic tears.
    Before Skye might answer her, however, Willow spoke up. "Will you get me another father, Mama?" she asked. "I never knew my real papa, but I did so like Geoffrey and Niall."
    "I don't think I shall ever marry again, my love," Skye said. "Four husbands are quite enough for your mama, and I think I have all the children I shall ever need. You have not yet seen your new brother, Padraic. He is a fine little boy, just like Niall. Will you come home to Ireland with me this summer, and see him?"
    Willow nodded sleepily, for it had been a long day for her. Skye nodded to Daisy, who came forward saying, "Come along, Mistress Willow, and I shall give you a good supper of toasted cheese and sweet Devon cider. Then I shall tuck you into your own bed." Willow climbed from her mother's lap and, taking Daisy's hand, departed the room.
    "Have you heard from Robbie?" Skye asked Dame Cecily.

    "Aye. His advance ship put into Plymouth just last week. The Portuguese may think that they have a monopoly on the Spice Islands, but Robbie has his friends, too. The holds of his fleet are bulging with cloves, nutmegs, peppercorns, and cinnamon. He also told me to tell you that he has some particularly nice gemstones for you."
    "We'll make another small fortune with this trip," Skye remarked. "Even after the Queen's share we will have a fat profit." She smiled almost grimly. "It's all I have left, Dame Cecily. The children, and making a fortune."
    "You will love again, my dear."
    "Not this time," Skye said. "If I can insinuate myself back into the Queen's good graces I shall not need a man to protect me."
    "Remember, Skye, that it was the Queen who caused you to need a husband's protection the last time," Dame Cecily reminded Skye.
    "But the Queen knows that should she do to me again what she did last time, I shall revenge myself on her once more as I did before. Even if she couldn't prove that it was me pirating her ships, she knew."
    "Make no hasty decisions now, my child," Dame Cecily chided. "Wait until you have spoken with Lord Burghley. He may be the Queen's man, but he is a fair man for all of it."
    "Aye," Skye replied. "He is an honorable man."
    She kept that thought in her mind as she prepared the castle for Lord Burghley's brief visit. With its young lord away at court, and herself on her estates in Ireland, Lynmouth had been like a sleeping prince. Its mistress back, however, the servants polished and scrubbed, dusted and swept every corner of the castle. Great porcelain bowls of spring flowers began to appear in the main hall, and in the bedrooms herb-scented sheets and comforters appeared on the beds. When William Cecil and Sir Richard de Grenville and their train arrived two afternoons later they rode slowly up the raked gravel drive, admiring the well-manicured green lawns and brightly colored gardens around the castle. The moat round Lynmouth had been filled in in Geoffrey's father's time.
    Skye greeted her guests in the Great Hall, noting as she came forward that all the men in the party were most admiring of her. She had chosen to wear a black velvet gown, its very low neckline exposing her creamy chest and the soft swelling of her small breasts. Her neck wisk, a standing, fan-shaped wire collar, was of silver lace, as were the ribbons on her leg-of-mutton sleeves and her underskirt. About her neck was a necklace of silver and Persian blue lapis. Her dark and luxuriant hair was tucked beneath a fetching little silver lace cap.
    Curtseying prettily, she said, "Welcome, my lords! Welcome to Lynmouth!"
    "Christ's bones, Skye," Sir Richard de Grenville said, "you don't look any older than when we first met, and I hear you've finally given the old MacWilliam his long-awaited heir." He kissed her loudly on both cheeks, and then sobered "I was sorry to hear about Niall," he finished awkwardly.
    "It was a bad end to a good man," William Cecil observed. "Good day to you, madam. I am happy to see you once more in England."
    "If I am in England then I cannot be fomenting rebellion in Ireland," Skye chuckled devilishly.
    The Queen's man gave a dry bark of a laugh. "As always, Lady Burke, we understand each other," he said. "Now how may I be of service to you?"
    "May we speak in private, sir?"
    He nodded.
    "Dickon," she said to de Grenville. "Will you lead your gentlemen into the hall and avail yourselves of the refreshments my servants have laid out? I know it has been a dusty ride for you all." She turned again to William Cecil. "I have some rare Burgundy in my library, my lord." He followed her from the Great Hall and down a corridor through great double oak doors into a fine book-lined room with a beautiful aureole window. The sun pouring through the window at that moment made the room warm and inviting. Skye gestured. "Will you be seated, my lord?"
    He sat himself in a large, comfortable chair and gratefully accepted the silver goblet of fragrant wine that she poured him.
    After pouring herself one, Skye raised her goblet. 'The Queen," she said.
    'The Queen!" he answered.
    They both drank, and then Skye leaned forward and said, 'The old MacWilliam is dead, and my infant son is now the new Lord Burke."

    "I had not received that information," he answered, admiring the way in which she came right to the point. Most women shillyshallied about things like this. What was the matter with his Irish spies?
    There is nothing wrong with your intelligence from Ireland, m'lord," Skye said, amused, reading his thoughts. "I had my father-in-law buried in secret, and my uncle now holds the castle and lands for me. Your Dublin English and my fine Irish neighbors believe that Rory Burke lies dying, and even now they wait to steal his lands. That is why it is not public knowledge at this moment, and that is why I have come to you. Without the Queen's blessing and protection, little Padraic Burke will be not only landless, but nameless as well.
    1 must appeal to you, my lord. Allow me to return to court so that I may plead my case with Her Majesty. My O'Malley ships harry the Spanish for England, my fleets share their huge profits with the Crown. I ask nothing for myself, m'lord. I only ask for my son, the rightful heir to the Burke lands and titles."
    William Cecil stared into his goblet. In the north the marcher lords, Lumley and Arundel, Northumberland and Westmoreland, were already causing difficulties because of Mary Stewart, the Queen of the damned Scots. He knew that because of their religion they were considering pressing her claim to the English throne. God only knew that the Queen had been more than lenient with the Roman Catholic lords. Elizabeth Tudor preferred her own brand of Catholicism to the Pope's, but did not abuse her Catholic subjects provided they were loyal to England before Rome.
    Lord Burghley swished the wine about in his goblet, watching as the ruby liquid slid down the polished silver sides of the goblet. There was going to be trouble in England before summer's end. If the Crown did not confirm little Padraic Burke's place he knew that what Skye feared would happen. The Dublin English and her equally greedy Irish neighbors would swarm over Burke lands fighting for the least little scrap of it.
    The Irish, of course, would then fight the English. It didn't matter who won; the Anglo-Irish lords would demand monies and men to fight the Burkes and the O'Malleys, and the Queen would have to send those monies and men. Ireland was a bottomless pit for armies and gold, William Cecil decided. The Crown needed no more enemies or trouble in Ireland at this time. Especially enemies who commanded a fleet of ships and were not reluctant to use them against England. Skye's ships patrolled the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay for the Crown, taking Spanish treasure galleons whose cargoes enriched Elizabeth's coffers. They needed O'Malley ships, which meant that they needed Skye's friendship as well.
    "Hmm," William Cecil said. He had no intention of giving Lady Burke what she wanted cheaply, and he had suddenly thought of a marvelous use for her. "Madam, I can see to it that your infant son's rights are upheld by the Crown, but in return the Crown would exact a favor from you."
    "I have no choice," Skye answered him. "What is it you want of me?"
    "There is a small, independent duchy tucked just between Provence and the Languedoc in France. It is called Beaumont de Jaspre. The current duc has recently made overtures of friendship to the Queen. He has offered us trading agreements and hospitality for English trading vessels. We would like to accept his offer, for it will give us a safe port in the Mediterranean and a valuable listening post into France.
    "The duc seeks an English wife, for he has only one child; a boy who rumor says is feeble-minded. The Queen has not been able to think of whom we might send to Beaumont de Jaspre. An untried girl would be of little use to us. Her mind would be apt to be filled with thoughts of love and romance. You, madam, will have no such illusions; and will do your duty by England. If you will go as the duc's bride, then I will personally see that your son's rights are fully protected. The boy will grow up as Her Majesty's personal ward."
    "Are you mod?? The look on Skye's face was pure shock. "I cannot leave Ireland and England! My life is here. My lands, my wealth, my children! Besides 1 have sworn to never wed again, m'lord. I cannot lose to death another man whom I love. You cannot ask this of me!” But she knew that he could, and he did.
    "Madam, you have never even met the Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre. Therefore you cannot love him. If he departs this life it should be no matter to you. He is said to be in failing health for all his desire to father children. In all likelihood you will be widowed in a year or two; but in the meantime England will have a listening post in France's bedchamber."

    "You are heartless, sir!" Skye cried. "Ask anything else of me and I will gladly comply, but you cannot ask this!"
    "I can, madam, and I do! The only way I will support your son's rights is if you will agree to go to Beaumont de Jaspre as the duc's bride." His dark brown eyes looked straight at her.
    "I shall appeal directly to the Queen!"
    "You are forbidden court. Appear without the Queen's permission, and you'll return to the Tower, where you can do your son no good. Besides, the Queen will accept my advice in this matter. An infant heir is so vulnerable, madam, without strong protection. Who stronger than the Queen? A grateful Queen. Think, madam!"
    Skye knew that she was beaten. She could refuse William Cecil's infamous proposal and return to Ireland, where she would be forced to fight off the Dublin English and her Irish neighbors for the next fifteen years, until her son was old enough to fight himself; or she could agree to become a stranger's wife. The idea was totally alien to her, but she had no other choices. Still, she would not give in to the Crown without having certain conditions guaranteed her.
    "I want the same kind of marriage contract that I had with Southwood and Lord Burke," she said firmly. "What belongs to me remains mine alone. I will not give over my wealth to anyone else. Women are hapless enough creatures as it is in this man's world; but I will not be helpless as well, dependent on someone else for every pennypiece I spend. If the duc will not agree then nothing, Lord Burghley, not even your threats, can make me go."
    He nodded. "It will not be easy, but if your dowry is sufficiently generous, madam, we should have no difficulties with the duc. It is a simple enough matter to convince him that your estates are entailed to your children. As for your children themselves, they will remain here."
    She nodded in answer to him. It would break her heart to leave her children, especially her Burke babies, behind, but it would be safer for them. Padraic and Deirdre must remain on their lands as a symbol to their people. "My uncle, the Bishop of Connaught, must be allowed to govern Burke lands for my son," she said.
    "Agreed," William Cecil said. Old Seamus O'Malley might be a papist, but he was an honest one and a popular one. He would give the Crown no difficulties. If they put an Englishman or one of the Anglo-Irish in charge of the infant heir, the regent would eventually appropriate the child's inheritance. Besides, the safety of the Burke children themselves would be guaranteed in their grand-uncle's care.
    "My other children will remain where they are now," Skye said.
    Then you should have no difficulty, madam, in readying yourself fairly quickly. I shall return to the Queen tomorrow. You are to follow in seven days' time. You will advise me of your arrival in London, and I will arrange for you to come to court once more. Where do you intend staying?"
    "I will stay at Greenwood," Skye said. "Lynmouth House is too large to open for one person for such a short time."
    He smiled his frosty smile at her, pleased as he always was by her sense of economy. Like his mistress, Lady Burke was generous but frugal. She understood that wealth was to be husbanded and increased, not squandered idly. He fully approved her insistence on keeping her wealth in her own hands. She was an excellent manager, far better than most men he knew. Then madam," he said, "our business is now concluded. I shall look forward to seeing you at court."
    She showed him to the apartments where he would spend the night, and then quickly hurried to her own rooms. She could not believe what had just happened. She had vowed never to marry again, and now here she was about to be betrothed to a foreign duke and sent from England and Ireland. This man wanted children, and she was certainly a proven breeder. She shuddered. How could she allow a man she did not know to touch her? To make love to her? The mere thought of it was repellent to her nature. Lord Burghley had said that the duc was not in good health. Perhaps by the time she got there the duc's health would have deteriorated to a point where he could not fulfill his marital duties. One could hope.
    Dame Cecily hurried through the door demanding, "Well? Will Cecil support you and arrange for you to go to court to see the Queen?"
    "Aye," Skye replied, "but the price is steep. I am to leave here, and journey to a small independent dukedom between Provence and the Languedoc where I will wed with its ruler."
    "What?!" The older woman's face looked horrified and her hand flew to her heart. "Surely Lord Burghley jests with you, Skye? He cannot ask such a cruel thing of you!"

    "But he has, and I must comply with his request, as he knew I must when he suggested it. The duchy has offered England a base on the Mediterranean as well as a listening post into France and, I suspect, the kingdoms of Italy, although Lord Burghley did not say so. The duc is supposed to be in failing health, and Cecil says I shall probably be home in two years or less."
    "And afterward will they use the Burke children again in order to gain your aid?" Dame Cecily demanded, outraged. "God's foot! Has Cecil then turned pimp for the Crown?"
    "I don't know," Skye said wearily. "I can only hope that Lord Burghley will accept this sacrifice I make as payment in full."
    "I ought to give William Cecil a good piece of my mind!" Dame Cecily huffed furiously. "I cannot imagine what he is thinking of to separate you from your children!"
    Skye had to laugh. Dearest, dearest Dame Cecily. From the moment Skye had arrived in England several years ago, Robert Small's plump, widowed sister had taken her under her wing; had been a second mother to her; had loved her, and Willow, and all of Skye's children. She was a grandmother to Willow and Robin, but most of all she was a good and loyal friend. "Do not trouble yourself with Lord Burghley," Skye gently admonished the older woman. "It will change nothing. I will not, however, leave England until I have seen Robbie."
    "And your Burke children, Skye?"
    "If I go back to Ireland now to bid them a farewell I shall not be able to leave them, and I cannot take them with me. It is a long and dangerous trip I make. I do not know anything about this man whom I must marry. Besides, Deirdre and Padraic are both babies. They will not miss me as long as Uncle Seamus sees that they are loved and well cared for. And perhaps if this marriage works out I shall be able to send for them. I must ask you to care for Willow. The O’Flaherty boys are both safe where they are now." A small sob escaped her as she thought of Niall's children, so young and so helpless. How long would it be before she saw them again? Padraic would not even know her. He was just over two months old now. Deirdre, however, was almost sixteen months old. Would she remember her mother? Skye doubted it, and the tears flowed.
    Lord Burghley and his party departed Lynmouth the following morning, and for the next few days Skye went about the business of writing her uncle, her stepmother, and the others necessary to the smooth running of her world, of her plans to travel to Beaumont de Jaspre. These letters went off to their destinations by the fastest of the Lynmouth horses, for Skye wanted to hear from her family prior to her departure. She had decided to travel upon an O'Malley ship, and asked that her flagship, The Seagull, be awaiting her by month's end in the London Pool. She would insist that she be given a proper naval escort to avoid the danger of pirates, and so she might reach her destination safely. Remembering the evil Capitan Jamil in Algiers, she worried about reaching Beaumont de Jaspre at all; yet she felt she should reach the duchy easier by sea than by having to travel through France during troubled times, and indeed France was in turmoil at the moment.
    Just prior to her departure for London Skye received a long letter from her sister, Eibhlin, who wrote of her visit to St. Mary's and of what she had learned regarding the tragic death of Niall Burke. Darragh is truly mad, Eibhlin wrote. As for the evil Claire, she has disappeared as mysteriously as she appeared.
    Skye crushed between her two hands the parchment upon which her sister's letter was written. Claire O’Flaherty! "Damn your black soul to Hell!" she whispered fiercely. "I swear by St. Patrick himself that if our paths ever cross, I will kill you with my own hands!" Having said the terrible words, she felt better.
    Skye had decided to take Willow to London with her in order to have more time with her eldest daughter, and so Willow might see her beloved half-brother, Robin. She had carefully explained her difficult situation to her daughter, and Willow had understood. She was very much her mother's daughter with regard to finances, and knew that without property and gold a person was helpless; even with them, as her mother was, one was helpless to supreme authority.
    "Can I not come with you, Mama?" was her only question.
    "Not until I know if this marriage is to work out, my love," Skye said. "I do not even know the duc by reputation, Willow. He may turn out to be a fine gentleman whom I may learn to care for, and who will be good to my children; but he also might turn out to be not quite as nice, in which case I would prefer that my children are safe in England and Ireland. Do you understand?"
    "I think so," Willow said quietly. "If he is not a nice man, and I were with you, he might use threats against me to make you do things you would not do otherwise, like Lord Burghley."
    "God bless me!" Dame Cecily cried. "She is but nine, and already understands the way of the world!"
    "Better she does," Skye said, "and then she will not be disillusioned. You are correct, my love."
    "Then it is better I remain here with Dame Cecily," Willow said calmly.
    "Much better," her mother agreed. "At least for the present."

Chapter 2

    Exactly one week after William Cecil had departed Lynmouth Castle for London, the Countess of Lynmouth followed after him. The great traveling coach with the Southwood family crest emblazoned upon its sides lumbered along the muddy spring roads toward the capital. Inside, however, Skye, Dame Cecily, Willow, and Daisy were quite comfortable. The vehicle itself was well sprung; the red velvet upholstery hid suitably full horsehair and wool padding, which made for comfortable seats; and tucked at their feet were hot bricks wrapped in flannel, which, along with the coach's red fox lap robes, made for luxurious warmth. Skye absently rubbed the soft fur, remembering other and happier times when it had covered her and Geoffrey.
    The coachman and his assistant sat upon the box, controlling the four strong horses that pulled the vehicle. Six armed outriders preceded the coach, and six rode behind them. The horses were changed regularly, allowing them to keep up a fairly even rate of speed, and a rider had gone on ahead of them to arrange for overnight and midday accommodations in the best inns.
    They arrived in London some four days later and, passing through the bustling city, entered the tiny, quiet village of Chiswick where Skye's house was located upon the Strand on the Green, which bordered the River Thames. It was the last house in a prestigious row that included the great homes of Salisbury, Worcester, and the Bishop of Durham. Next to Skye's home, Greenwood, stood Lynmouth House, which now belonged to her little son, Robin.
    Greenwood, a three-storied house of mellow pink brick, stood within its own private grounds. As Skye's coach drove through the open iron gates past the bowing and smiling gatekeeper, and his brightly curtseying wife, she remembered how shabby the house had been on her first visit seven years ago. Now the manicured lawns edged with their private woods stretched out invitingly toward the house. A thought crossed her mind: It's good to be home. She smiled to herself. Greenwood had always been a happy place for her.
    "Welcome home, m'lady," the majordomo said as they entered the house. "I have a message from Lord Burghley for you. Where shall I have it brought?"
    "The library," she said quickly. "Willow, my love, go along with Daisy and Dame Cecily." Skye hurried to the library, drawing off her pale-blue, scented kid gloves and flinging them on a table as she entered. She unfastened her hooded cloak, pushing back its ermine-edged, dark-blue velvet hood to shrug the garment off. The attending footman quickly caught the cape and hurried out with it as the majordomo hurried in with her message upon a silver salver. Skye took it up, and said, "I wish to be alone." As the door closed shut she quickly opened Cecil's letter.
    Greeting, madam, and welcome to London. The Queen will receive you at eight o'clock this evening at Whitehall. You are not to wear mourning, as the Duc de Beaumont’s nephew will be present, but rather dress to suit your rank and your wealth.
    A sarcastic smile touched her lips. She would have to mourn Niall in her heart, for she was not to be allowed a decent period of grief by the Crown. Oh no! She was to be paraded this very evening before the duc's representative, and had been ordered to dress in her finest feathers. Cecil had never even considered the possibility that she might not show up in London, that she might run for Ireland and barricade herself in Burke Castle! With his customary efficiency he had known that she would arrive today, and had sent his message. She laughed, seeing the dark humor in the situation, and left the library to climb the stairs to her apartments, where she instructed Daisy which dress she would wear that evening.
    At a few minutes before eight o'clock Skye's town coach arrived at Whitehall Palace. As her footman helped her down, some half a dozen gallants stopped and stared openmouthed at her. She wore a magnificent gown of deep purple velvet with a very low square neckline. Her breasts, pushed up by a boned undergarment, swelled dangerously over the top of the gown. Its sleeves, full to just below the elbow, were slashed to show their lavender silk inserts, and the turned back cuffs of the sleeves were embroidered, as was the lavender silk underskirt, with gold thread, tiny seed pearls, gold and little glass beads. Beneath her gown Skye's legs were sheathed in purple silk stockings embroidered in twining gold vines. Her slender feet were encased in narrow, pointed high-heeled purple silk shoes.
    Her hair, parted in the middle, was arranged in the French fashion that she preferred, a soft chignon at the nape of her neck. There were silk Parma violets and white silk lilies of the valley sewn to a long comb, placed at the top of the chignon. The silk flowers were a delicious extravagance from France.
    About her neck Skye wore an incredibly opulent necklace of diamonds and amethysts set in gold, and in her ears were her famous pear-shaped diamonds that fell from baroque pearls. She wore but one ring this night, a heart-shaped pink sapphire on the third finger of her left hand.
    She had faintly highlighted her eyes in blue kohl, and reddened her lips, but her cheeks were pink with a combination of excitement, anger, and nerves. Wrapped in a gentle cloud of her damask rose perfume, she moved forward into the palace.
    One of the young gallants foolishly stepped into her path, doffing his feathered cap, and bowing low. "Just a word, oh exquisite one, and I shall die happy!" he lisped.
    "Stand aside, you silly puppy!" Skye snapped irritably. The reality of why she was here was beginning to sink into her soul.
    The gallant almost fell back at the sharp tone in her voice, and she swept on by him, finding her way with quick familiarity as old memories began to assail her. Turning a corner, she bumped into a courtier and, stepping back to apologize, gasped as the courtier caught at her hands, imprisoning them in his own. "Dudley!” she hissed at the smugly grinning Earl of Leicester.
    "Sweet Skye," he murmured. "I could scarcely believe my good fortune when Bess said you would be retiirning to us, widowed once more." The implication was plain, and it was all she could do not to shudder with disgust. Robert Dudley slipped an arm about her waist and pulled her close. His mustache tickled her ear as he kissed it, and then he whispered, "You do run through husbands, sweet Skye. Marry me, and I’ll never let you wear me out!"
    Angrily she pulled away from him, looking at him with distaste. Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, was as handsome and elegant as ever, but she still found his manner offensive and overbearing. "Unhand me this instant, Dudley! I am here because the Queen has special plans for me, and if you should attempt to attack me again I shall make the most outrageous scene this court has ever seen! Lord Burghley will protect me this time, you swine!" She tore his arm from about her waist. "You will crush my gown!"
    "And what special plans has Bess for you, sweet Skye?" He was completely unperturbed by her anger.
    "I am sure that you shall know that shortly, my lord. Now you will excuse me. I am expected in the Queen's chambers."
    "I will escort you," he said, taking her arm. She did not deny him that courtesy for she knew that once her betrothal became public knowledge, Dudley would be forced to leave her be. Silently they made their way to Elizabeth Tudor's privy chamber, where the doors were flung wide at their approach by the Queen's own guardsmen. As they entered, Skye recognized only two faces among the women in the Queen's rooms, Lettice Knollys, and Lady Elizabeth Clinton, born a FitzGerald. Lady Clinton was the Countess of Lincoln in whose household Skye's second son, Murrough, was a page.
    Suddenly a small blond boy dressed in pale blue velvet and silver lace stepped forward. "Good evening, mother," he said.
    "Good evening, Robin," Skye answered, her eyes devouring her son. She wanted to hug him, but knew she could not do so publicly.
    "Skye!" Lettice Knollys came forward smiling. "How good to see you again." Her eyes nicked to Dudley.
    So that’s how it is now, Skye thought amused. "Lettice dear, it is good to see you also." She turned slightly. "Beth, how are you?"
    Lady Clinton nodded. "I am well, and your Murrough is a delight, Skye. Never have I had such a gracious, well-mannered page in my household. I hope you will let me keep him for a while longer."
    "He writes me that he is happy," Skye replied. "I see no reason to remove him from your care, Beth. He is a lucky little boy to be in such a fine house. I hope, however, I may see him while I am here at court. My visit is not to be a long one."
    "Send word whenever you want him," Elizabeth Clinton replied graciously.
    "Dearest Skye!” Every head in the room turned at the sound of Elizabeth Tudor's voice, and Skye swept the Queen a low and graceful curtsey. "We welcome you back to court, dearest Skye," the Queen said.
    "I am grateful that you have let me come, Majesty," returned Skye, rising as she spoke, and thinking Bess Tudor had aged little. She was still a handsome and elegant young woman.
    "Come into my privy chamber, Skye," Elizabeth said. "The rest of you are to wait here at my pleasure."
    The two women entered into the Queen's small private library, and Elizabeth Tudor sat down, motioning Skye into a chair opposite her.
    "You know why I am here, Majesty," Skye began.
    "Aye, I know. You wish me to confirm little Lord Padraic Burke's rights so that the English in Dublin Pale will not seize Burke lands now that there is no adult male Burke to defend them."
    Skye nodded.
    "You are willing to aid me in return?" the Queen demanded.
    "I have ever been Your Majesty's most loyal servant," was the reply.
    "Even when pirating my treasure ships," Elizabeth said drily.
    "That was never proven," Skye replied quickly.
    "Ha!" the Queen chuckled. "That handsome brute de Marisco saved your pretty neck that time, Skye, but I know it was you! It had a woman's fine hand about it. It was subtle, yet hurtful. Men are more blunt, dearest Skye." She fixed Skye a piercing look. "You are willing to go to Beaumont de Jaspre as the duc's bride?"
    "I am not willing, Majesty, but I will go. If you will guarantee my son's rights, I will go."
    "You understand that we will also expect you to listen, and pass on to us any interesting and pertinent tidbits you learn with regard to France, Spain, the Papal States, and the Holy Roman Empire?"
    "I understand, Majesty."
    The Queen nodded. "Then I will confirm your son's rights, madam. Cecil tells me that you wish your uncle, the old Bishop of Connaught, to be the boy's governor."
    "Aye, Majesty. He is a good man, and a wise one as well."
    "Very well," the Queen said. "I can find no reason to object. The Duc de Beaumont will be quite surprised to see the beauty that I am sending him. Too many state brides are a disappointment to the grooms."
    "Too many grooms are an equal disappointment to the brides," came the pert reply.
    The Queen chuckled again. "I remember when poor Anne of Cleves arrived as fourth wife to my father," she reminisced. "Anne was far plumper than her portrait would have had you believe, and nervousness had caused her fair skin to blotch. It was instant dislike on both parts, and my father was furious with his artist, Hans Holbein, who had painted the Princess of Cleves' portrait. Of course my father was no prize either, having grown fat and middle-aged, but he didn't see himself as such. He was plagued with gout in his right foot, and could be very irritable, especially when his foot hurt, which unfortunately it did on her arrival. She graciously gave him a quick divorce." The Queen smiled again at the memory, and then she said, "It is time for us to begin the dancing, dearest Skye. We will introduce you this evening to the duc's nephew, Edmond de Beaumont. He has come to escort you back to Beaumont de Jaspre. You will find him an interesting man."
    "I cannot leave London until Sir Robert Small has returned, Majesty. He is due back sometime this month from a most successful voyage. His advance ship is already in Plymouth, and I have had word that the spices he carries will enrich Your Majesty's coffers greatly."
    Elizabeth Tudor smiled. "You do not have to leave us until Sir Robert has returned, and you have had time to make your arrangements with him. I know the businesswoman that you are." She took Skye's arm in her own, and together they strolled from the Queen's privy chamber. "Come, ladies! Come, Dudley! My feet itch to dance, and it grows late."
    The Queen's party made their way through the corridors of Whitehall Palace to a large room with walls of linenfold paneling and a fine parquet floor. The musicians were already set up in a corner of the room upon a small raised platform. Elizabeth and her party passed through a line of bowing courtiers as they walked to a gilt throne set up at the end of the room. The Queen sat gracefully upon the red velvet cushion set upon the throne, and motioned Skye to one of the low maid-of-honor chairs by her side. The other women quickly found their seats, one being forced to stand behind the Queen's chair; and the courtiers began to come forward to pay their respects to the Queen. Some faces were familiar to Skye, others were not, and she paid little attention to the pageant about her. It bored her. Court usually bored her. Only when most of the courtiers had paid homage to the Queen and the majordomo called out, "Edmond, Petit Sieur de Beaumont," was her interest revived, and she looked up.
    Although her Kerry-blue eyes widened slightly, Skye gave no other sign of her surprise and shock, for the man coming toward her was one of the handsomest she had ever seen. He was also a dwarf. He was not misshapen like so many dwarfs, but rather well formed, and he was certainly dressed in the height of fashion. His doublet was made from cloth of gold, sewn all over with tiny golden brilliants and edged in gold lace at the neck and the sleeves. His short, round cloth-of-gold breeches were lined in stiff horsehair in order to puff them out fashionably. His stockings were gold silk, embroidered in gold brilliants and tiny black jet beads, and his flat-soled shoes were of gold leather with black rosettes. His short cape was of black velvet, lined in cloth of gold and trimmed in silver fox. At his waist hung a gold sword, proportioned to his size, and twinkling with rubies and diamonds.
    As he reached the foot of Elizabeth Tudor's throne he bowed smartly. "Majesty," he said in a deep voice, a rather large voice for one so small.
    "Welcome, Edmond de Beaumont," Elizabeth said. "I hope that you have been enjoying your stay here in England."
    "English hospitality is justly famous, Your Majesty," was the reply.
    "Lady Burke, come forward" the Queen commanded and Skye rose from her low seat, and came to stand next to the Queen's chair. "M'sieur de Beaumont, may I present to you Lady Skye Burke, who has agreed to go to Beaumont de Jaspre as your uncle's bride."
    Around them there was a hum of surprise.
    Skye curtseyed to Edmond de Beaumont, noting with some embarrassment that as she bowed low he was treated to a fine, indeed almost indecent view of her breasts. As she rose he said softly, "My uncle is a very, very fortunate man, Your Majesty." Skye blushed to the roots of her raven hair, yet as she raised her eyes to Edmond de Beaumont, she saw that though his face was polite and serious, his violet-colored eyes were laughing.
    "I can only hope your uncle is as charming as his nephew, M'sieur de Beaumont," she replied.
    "I do not think that charming is a word one would use in connection with Uncle Fabron," was the reply, and again the eyes were laughing at her.
    "Oh, dear!" Skye said without thinking, and she bit her lip in obvious worry.
    Edmond de Beaumont burst out laughing. "Are you always so honest, Lady Burke?" he asked.
    "Our dear Skye is most candid, is she not, Dudley?" remarked the Queen.
    "Indeed, Majesty," Dudley replied. "Lady Burke always says what she thinks. A most refreshing, and often stimulating trait, M'sieur de Beaumont."
    Skye shot Dudley a look of undisguised venom, which Edmond de Beaumont was quick to note. Now why, he wondered does the lady so obviously dislike the Earl of Leicester? Did he perhaps rebuff her? No, de Beaumont thought. She did not look like the type of woman who would chase after a popinjay like Lord Dudley.
    "You are to go with M'sieur de Beaumont, dearest Skye, for you will have many questions to ask him about your future home, I am sure," the Queen coyly simpered.
    Skye stepped from the Queen's side and accepted Edmond de Beaumont's outstretched hand. Together they turned, bowed to the Queen, and, turning again, moved through the crowded room. They made an almost comical sight for the petit sieur was only three feet four inches tall, and Skye stood five feet seven inches in her bare feet. No one, however, dared to laugh, for the Queen was a tyrant where good manners were concerned and this little man was her honored guest.
    "And do you have many questions to ask me, Lady Burke?"
    Skye paused a moment, and then said, "I suppose I shall, m'sieur. I am only now getting used to the idea of marriage with your uncle."
    Edmond de Beaumont led her to a quiet alcove with a window seat. She sat, and he helped himself to two goblets of chilled white wine from a serving man's tray. Handing her one, he sat facing her. "Do you not wish to marry my uncle?"
    "I do not have a real choice, m'sieur. I must obey the Queen."
    "Is there another gentleman that you prefer to my uncle?"
    "No, M'sieur de Beaumont, there is no one else. My husband is dead but two months, and I shall mourn Niall for the rest of my life."
    He drank deeply. He was relieved that there was no one else. It was possible that she would learn to love his uncle, and that they would be happy. God only knew that it would save him a great deal of difficulty. His cousin, Garnier de Beaumont, his uncle's only living child, was a half-wit; and so his uncle had made Edmond his heir. But if he became the Duc de Beaumont then he must marry, and what girl would have him? Oh, he was well enough favored, but he was tiny. How often he had been mocked by men and women alike because of his height. His size certainly did not affect his intelligence, but no one ever bothered to find that out about Edmond de Beaumont, because he stood only three feet four inches tall.
    This extravagantly beautiful woman, however, did not seem either amused or appalled by his size. She spoke to him plainly, and without guile. He looked up at her again, and said quietly, "I respect your grief, Lady Burke." Then to change the subject he asked, "Do you have children?"
    Her smile lit her whole face, and she said, "I have four living sons and two daughters."
    "They will like Beaumont de Jaspre," he assured her. "The climate is mild and pleasant most of the year, and your children will enjoy bathing in the sea."
    "My children will not be coming with me, m'sieur."
    "But why?" He was surprised, and now he understood the reason for the sadness that lurked deep in her fabulous blue-green eyes.
    "My eldest son, Ewan, must remain on his lands, m'sieur. His full brother, Murrough, is a page with the Earl of Lincoln's household, and must remain with the court if he is to earn lands and possibly a peerage of his own. My third son is the Earl of Lynmouth. He is the Queen's favorite page, the small boy who now stands on Her Majesty's right. As for my youngest son, Lord Burke, he is but two and a half months old. He, too, must stay on his lands, and he is much too tender to travel besides. My daughters are to remain here also. Willow is nine, and heiress to my business partner, Sir Robert Small. Deirdre is just sixteen months old, and, like her baby brother, too young to travel."
    "I do not understand, Lady Burke, why you agreed to this marriage," Edmond de Beaumont said. "I have been told that you arc outrageously wealthy in both monies and lands, and now you say you have children much too young to leave. Surely you are not one of those women who seek a great title?"
    "If the choice were truly mine, M'sieur de Beaumont, and your uncle the Holy Roman Emperor himself, I should not wed with him; but the choice is not mine. It is the Queen's will that I do so, and therefore I must."
    "Why?" He was distressed for her.
    "Because I am Irish, M'sieur de Beaumont, and the English have had a stranglehold on my homeland for several centuries now. I agreed to marry your uncle because if I did not, my infant son's lands would have been parceled out among the Anglo-Irish, those sycophants of the English monarchs.
    "I am a realist, M'sieur de Beaumont," Skye continued. "I could not hope to beat the English in a fair fight, for unfortunately the Irish are not a nation able to unite behind one ruler. If we were the English would not be in our homeland. My duty is to my children, and to the memories I have of their fathers. I am responsible for the lands of four families, as well as an enormous commercial interest and a fleet of vessels. Should I beggar myself and my children for an ideal? I think not."
    "Madame, I wonder if you are the right woman for my uncle."
    "Why?" She smiled at him. "Because I am outspoken, m'sieur?"
    "My uncle is used to a more complacent type of female," he smiled back, and she thought that he had a beautiful smile.
    "If you complain to the Queen that I am not suitable," she said in a more serious tone, "Elizabeth will wonder what I have done to incur your displeasure, m'sieur. That would endanger my infant son, Lord Burke. I promise you that I shall be exactly the type of wife your uncle seeks. They tell me that he is old, and not in good health. I vow to nurse him most tenderly."
    "Who on earth told you that my uncle is elderly, Lady Burke?" Edmond de Beaumont was surprised. "Uncle Fabron is but forty-five, and is in excellent health." He saw the shock upon her face. "My God, they have lied to you in order to gain your cooperation!"
    She was very pale, and he placed a surprisingly warm hand over her trembling, clenched ones. "Lord Burghley said that your uncle was an older man in ill health. That I should be home within a year or two at the most. Dear God, my babies! I shall never sec my babies again!"
    "This is infamous!" Edmond de Beaumont accepted the fact of arranged marriages, but this beautiful woman was being used in a terrible way. "I shall speak to the Queen myself," he said. "You cannot be made to leave your children like this!"
    "No!” Her blue eyes were huge and frightened. "M'sieur de Beaumont, you must not speak to anyone of this! You will do me no kindness, and I shall lose everything. I have accepted my lot, and so must you." She turned her hand so she might grasp his tiny one. "Please, m'sieur," she said.
    "Madam, I am already your devoted servant," he answered. "It will be as you wish. I would be your friend."
    "You already are, M'sieur de Beaumont, and since you are, I think you should call me Skye." She calmed herself now, assured by his gentleness and air of concern.
    "With pleasure, Skye, if you will call me Edmond."
    Across the room Robert Dudley sneered to the Queen, "Look how she simpers at the dwarf so sweetly. It sickens me! Is the duc a dwarf also? How amusing that would be, Bess! It would take two of them to equal one Geoffrey Southwood, or Niall Burke!" He laughed nastily.
    "Are you jealous, my lord?" Elizabeth Tudor's voice was sharp. "I thought you had gotten over your passion for Lady Burke. Do not try my patience, Robert. I have been most generous with you, and you will repay my kindness."
    "I adore you, Bess! You well know it, but you will not marry me. I am only a man, madam!"
    "Fie, Rob, lower your voice," the Queen chided. "Others are looking at us, and in answer to your question the Duc de Beaumont is not a dwarf. His nephew showed me his miniature, which was sent for his intended bride. He is a well-favored gentleman. Lady Burke should not be overly unhappy in Beaumont de Jaspre."
    "She will be out of the way," Dudley answered. "You do not fool me, Bess. I know you far too well. Lady Burke is in your subtle mind an enemy. By sending her to Beaumont de Jaspre you rid yourself of that particular enemy."
    "I also gain a spy against France, Spain, and the Papal States," the Queen said quietly. "I have no doubt that Lady Burke will hear many interesting things that she can pass on to us."
    "By God, Bess," Lord Dudley said admiringly. "You are totally ruthless!"
    The Queen smiled archly at the Earl of Leicester. "Dance with me, Rob," she said, "and we shall discuss what to give Lady Burke as a wedding gift."
    Skye and Edmond de Beaumont were watching the Queen and Lord Dudley capering merrily to a sprightly tune played by the musicians, when William Cecil came up to sit with them.
    "So you have made friends with the Petit Sieur de Beaumont, Lady Burke, and you, m'sieur, see the exquisite prize we are sending to your uncle. Do you think that he will be pleased?"
    "How could he not be, Lord Burghley?"
    "The Queen has decided that you will depart here at the end of April, Lady Burke. M'sieur de Beaumont will travel with you and your party to Beaumont de Jaspre."
    "The Queen has promised me that I may remain in England until Sir Robert has returned my lord. I will not go until then! What is all this indecent haste about? I will leave by mid-May. I must first have a trousseau made, for the gowns I have to wear here in England and Ireland will be totally unsuitable in a warmer climate. Would you have me arrive to wed the duc in my shift?"
    Edmond de Beaumont chuckled aloud at the look of discomfort upon the face of the Queen's Secretary of State and Lord Treasurer. "There is no great rush, Lord Burghley," he said. "After all, my uncle is in robust health, and the miniature I shall send him tomorrow of Lady Burke should increase his ardor. If we leave in mid-May as Skye suggests, we will be in Beaumont de Jaspre by June, a perfect time for a wedding, especially there."
    "Ah… yes, yes!" William Cecil began to edge nervously away.
    "You have been most kind my lord," Skye said sweetly, but her eyes were blazing with anger. "How fortunate I am that my husband-to-be is in such fine health."
    "Indeed, indeed, madam!" Lord Burghley murmured, and then turned and hurried off into the crowd.

    "You are no mean opponent," Edmond de Beaumont laughed.
    "What miniature?" Skye demanded.
    "Of you? I intended to paint it tonight," he answered her.
    "You are an artist?"
    "I do competent portraits," he said. "If you would give me but a few minutes I shall do a quick sketch of you for your miniature."
    "Would it be easier if I sat for the portrait, Edmond?"
    "You would be willing?" He was delighted.
    "I would be willing. Besides, your company is far preferable to that of the hangers-on here at court. I am sure that the Queen will excuse us if we ask her."
    Elizabeth Tudor was delighted, yet at the same time she felt irritated. She was relieved that Skye was accepting this marriage to the Duc de Beaumont so easily, but she wondered why. What were Skye's thoughts? She had become friendly quickly enough with the duc's charming dwarf nephew. Was she planning some sort of mischief? The Queen smiled brightly at Skye and Edmond de Beaumont.
    "Of course you may be excused, M'sieur de Beaumont. You also, dearest Skye. I hope that M'sieur has been able to answer your many questions."
    "Indeed, Majesty," Skye replied sweetly. "He is a veritable font of knowledge, and I am now most anxious to reach Beaumont de Jaspre."
    The Queen murmured politely and held out her hand for Edmond de Beaumont to kiss. He did so with exquisite grace and elegance, and Elizabeth remarked, "Gracious, sir, your lack of height does not seem to impede your manners. Such delicacy and style!"
    "Was it not you, madame, who once remarked that what a person is physically should not deter him in any way."
    The Queen laughed heartily. "You are welcome at my court at any time, M'sieur de Beaumont. I like men of beauty and wit, and although your beauty is small, your wit is great!"
    Skye curtseyed politely, and then she and Edmond de Beaumont made their way from the hall. When they had exited the overly hot and noisy room Skye asked, "Where are you taking me, m'sieur?"
    "I am housed here at Whitehall. My apartments are not far." He moved swiftly along, his short legs seeming to take greater strides than her own long ones. Finally he turned down a corridor and entered the second apartment on the left. Skye recognized the section of the palace as the one in which state visitors were housed.
    A swarthy man hurried forward as they entered the antechamber. "Good evening, M'sieur de Beaumont," he said.
    "Guy, this is Lady Burke, who is to marry my uncle. I am going to do her miniature tonight and ship it off to the duc tomorrow. Fetch my paints!"
    "My felicitations, madame," Guy said. "Your paints, m'sieur. At once!"
    "He has been with me since my childhood," Edmond de Beaumont said. "Sit over there, on that tapestried chair, Skye. Damn me, my dear, you are beautiful, aren't you? Your skin! I don't think I have the skill to capture its luminescence. When we get back to Beaumont de Jaspre I want to do a full portrait of you." He rattled on nonstop while Guy brought him his easel, a canvas, his paints and brushes. He was quickly and totally absorbed in what he was doing.
    "Would Madame enjoy some chilled wine?" Guy was at her elbow inquiring politely.
    "I should, thank you, Guy."
    The servant was quickly back with a delicate Venetian crystal goblet of a fruity pale-rose-colored wine. "It is m'sieur's favorite," he explained. "I think you will enjoy it, Madame la duchesse."
    Madame la duchesse! God's bones! Skye thought. I am to be Madame la Duchesse! Then she thought of how Cecil had lied to her about the duc's health. Well, there was nothing she could do about that now, but if the duc turned out to be a kind man she was going to try to bring her younger children to Beaumont de Jaspre. Ewan and Murrough were old enough to survive without her. Her poor O’Flaherty sons; they had had so little of her. She sighed. There was no help for it now. The others, however, she must have with her. True, Robin and Willow were already away from home for part of the year; but she had always been able to see them. Being sent to live in another country was a totally different thing.
    The Lynmouth holdings would be safe from plunder for their little earl was an Englishman. Richard de Grenville and Adam de Marisco would see to it for her. Uncle Seamus would have to oversee the Burke lands, and she would ask Elizabeth FitzGerald Clinton, the Countess of Lincoln, to help him. Beth was an Irish woman, and would understand her plight. It was a chance that would have to be taken, for Skye could not leave her babies. With the Queen's support and her strong family ties, she felt she could protect her children's wealth even from as far as Beaumont de Jaspre.
    How heartless of Cecil! He knew that the duc was relatively young, and healthy; and yet he had deliberately misled her into believing otherwise so she would agree to go and aid his mistress, the Queen by her sacrifice. It mattered not a whit to Cecil that Padraic was but newly born, and wee Deirdre yet an infant. He cruelly and selfishly tore her from her children simply in order to advance the Queen's political aims. I will never trust the English again, she thought. Yet there was her beloved Geoffrey, who had never hurt her, and Adam de Marisco and Robbie, and Dame Cecily.
    "God's nightshirt!" she swore.
    "You're frowning," Edmond de Beaumont said. "Don't frown, sweet Skye. Give me that little half-smile you have when you are deep in thought as you have been."
    She smiled at him. "Tell me about Beaumont de Jaspre," she said.
    "It's a fairyland," he answered. "It is no more than five miles in width, sandwiched in between Provence and the Languedoc. It extends inland a little over ten miles from the Mediterranean. We are fortunate that above our town of Villerose, the land plateaus until it reaches the mountains that are the border of the duchy. The plateau is fertile, and so between our fine crops and the sea we are quite self-sufficient. That is how we have managed to remain independent from the French, although they would like to gobble us up. France's Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, offered our duc her daughter, Marguérite, to wife."
    "And the duc asked the English queen for a wife instead? I find that hard to believe, Edmond. A French princess would have been quite a prize for your duc."
    "The offer was not genuine, and Uncle Fabron knew it. The Princesse de Valois is meant for Henri of Navarre."
    "What is your uncle like?" she asked.
    "He is a serious man, Skye. Bookish and learned. I will be frank with you; I think that he would have been happier as a religious man, rather than having the responsibility of a duchy such as ours. Still, he is a man who accepts his obligations well. You will be his third wife. The first, Marie de Breil, died after many years of stillbirths and miscarriages. The second, Blanche de Toulon, died giving birth to Garnier, the duc's son. It is a great pity that he, too, did not die, for he is a half-wit. My uncle has been widowed now for five years. Until recently he could not bring himself to wed again. That is why he made me his heir, but I have convinced him that a healthy male child of his own blood would serve the duchy better than the dwarf son of his younger brother."
    "You have no brothers?"
    "I have four very normal and, to me, very tall sisters." He laughed. "They are all older than I, and after I was born my parents felt they could not take the chance of having another such as myself. Consequently there are no other legitimate male de Beaumonts except my uncle Fabron, Garnier, and myself. My father died when I was twelve. That is why it is so important to me that my uncle remarry and have a son. If I inherit the duchy I must marry, and what woman would have such a fellow as myself? What kind of children would we produce?" He put down his paintbrush and came over to stand by her knee. "Dear, sweet Skye! You are our last hope!"
    She shivered. "Do not say that, Edmond! It frightens me to be the hope of survival for a duchy such as Beaumont de Jaspre."
    He smiled his incredibly sweet smile at her, and Skye thought what a pity it was that it could not be he whom she was to marry. Edmond might be small in stature, but he was kind and amusing, and obviously quite intelligent.
    "What are you thinking?" he asked her.
    "Honestly?"
    He nodded.
    "That I wish it were you I was to wed."
    He looked stunned for a moment, and then he said slowly, "Madam, never have I received such a magnificent compliment!" Then, taking both of her hands in his, he kissed them passionately. "I have not regretted my height in many years, Skye, but this night I do."
    "Then I have done you a disservice, Edmond, for I would not hurt you for the world."
    "You have not hurt me," he answered, his marvelous violet-colored eyes looking warmly into her Kerry-blue ones, and she knew he desired her. Then he quickly changed the subject back to his uncle. "What else would you like to know about the duc, Skye?"
    "What he looks like," she said with feminine curiosity.
    "He stands about two inches taller than you, his eyes are black, his hair the same."
    "He has not your beautiful coloring?" she said, disappointed.
    "No. His mother was Florentine, mine Castilian. I inherited her honey-colored hair and violet eyes. Uncle Fabron is more imposing than I am, for his features are regal whereas mine are soft." He turned and went back to his easel. "We have plenty of time to talk, Skye, but let me finish this miniature while we do. You must indulge my curiosity now. Who is this Sir Robert Small you will not leave England without seeing?"
    "Robbie?" She smiled broadly. "Robbie is one of the two best friends I have in this whole world! He is my business partner, a marvelous man, and I adore him! He has never married, and his sister, Dame Cecily, is a childless widow. My second husband was a Spaniard, and he died before my eldest daughter, Willow, our only child, was born. Robbie and his sister adopted her and made her their heiress. With all the bad feeling between England and Spain, it is better for my daughter that she have an English surname, be an Englishwoman. Although her parentage is no secret, little is thought of it because she is Willow Mary Small."
    "This Sir Robert? He is due back from a voyage shortly?" Edmond de Beaumont asked.
    "Aye. His advance ship arrived in Plymouth a short while ago, and Robbie could appear any time between today and the end of the month," she said happily.

***

    To Skye's surprise, Robbie appeared the very next morning, shouting her name as he entered Greenwood's paneled reception hall.
    "Skye lass! Dammit, Skye, where are you?" Sir Robert Small, sea captain and owner of Wren Court, an exquisite Devon house, stood with his legs spread wide, his homely, freckled face anticipatory.
    Skye's secretary, Jean Morlaix, came hurrying downstairs from the library where he had been working, a smile upon his usually serious features. "Good day to ye, Jean. How is your Marie, and the children?"
    "Very well, captain," Jean Morlaix greeted Robbie. "It was a good voyage, I trust?"
    "Splendid!" was the enthusiastic reply.
    "Robbie!" Skye stood at the top of the staircase's second landing. Her long black hair was tousled from sleep, her feet bare, her pale-blue quilted silk dressing gown open at the neck. With a glad cry she flew down the stairs and into his arms. "Oh, Robbie! You are home safe!"
    He hugged her lovingly. She was the daughter he might have had, had he ever taken the time to marry. Then he kissed her on both cheeks, asking as he did so, "Is Niall with you, lass?"
    Jean Morlaix stiffened, and Skye's smile faded. "Niall is dead, Robbie. He was murdered this past February by his first wife, the nun. That bitch, Claire O’Flaherty, insinuated herself into St. Mary's Convent, attached herself to poor, mad Darragh like a bloodsucking leech, and then tortured her with the idea that Niall was coming to reclaim her. Claire terrorized Darragh to the point that she was amenable even to murder to save herself. Darragh told the Mother Superior of her convent that she stabbed Niall several times, and there was a great deal of blood. Then she and Claire dragged his body to the beach, and the last thing Darragh remembers of the event is the waves lapping at Niall's body. When the Mother Superior and the other nuns hurried to the beach they found the tide fully in, and Niall's body gone."
    "Christ's body!" Robbie swore softly, and then his arms went back around her. For a moment she wept softly, moving her head into his shoulder for refuge, and his weathered, square hand stroked her dark hair comfortingly. "Ah, lass, ah lass, Robbie is here now, and I’ll make it all right! See if I don't, Skye lass."
    "The MacWilliam is gone also, Robbie," she said, regaining some control." I kept his death a secret, and came to England to gain the Queen's protection for my infant son, Padraic. She will confirm his title and his lands, but only for a price. I am to become the wife of the Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre. I must leave England by mid-May."
    "The Devil you say!" he cried. "This is some plot of William Cecil's, I vow. What of your children? Has that old spider thought of your children? Aye! I'll wager he has! He's thought what fine hostages they'll make. Would he separate a mother from her babies? Aye, he would to serve the Queen!"
    "Beaumont de Jaspre is at the moment of vital interest to England, Robbie, and the duc requested that the Queen send him a wife. I am the bride they have chosen. I must go," Skye sobbed.
    "It's indecent!" Robbie raged. "You’ve not even had the proper time to mourn Niall decently. I don't like it. I don't like it one bit! What is this duc fellow like, tell me? Does the Queen know the sort of man she's sending you to wed with? She's as quick to send you off to marry as she is to sidestep the issue of marriage herself."
    "I met the duc's nephew only last night at Whitehall, Robbie." She slipped from his protective embrace and took him by the hand. "Come upstairs with me, and we will have something to eat. I have not eaten yet, and I’m ravenous."
    He followed along next to her. "Aye, I’m famished myself. I came directly from the Pool, I was so anxious to see you. The captain of the Royal Harry sent a small sailing vessel out of Plymouth to intercept my Mermaid, to tell me to dock here in London, as you were at Greenwood. Aye, I could eat something."
    "Beef," she tempted him. "A nice haunch of juicy rare beef?"
    Robert Small's kindly blue eyes grew soft with longing. "Do you know how long it's been since I tasted beef?" he said.
    "Aye, Robbie, I know. Salted meat and hardtack filled with weevils no matter how carefully it's stored is what you've had to eat these last months."
    They had reached her apartments, and Daisy came forward smiling as they entered. "Welcome home, Captain Small," she said.
    Sliding an arm about her waist Robbie gave the girl a smack on her rosy cheek. "Daisy, my girl, you're as pretty as ever!"
    Daisy giggled. "Thank you, sir," she said, dodging his hand that made to swat at her bottom. "Sir!"
    Robbie chuckled. "I've missed that too, Skye lass," he said.
    Skye laughed, not in the least shocked, for Robbie had a prodigious appetite where women were concerned. It was probably the reason he had never married. No one woman could satisfy him for long. Which was just as well, for big or little; fair or dark, blondes, brunettes, and redheads; Robbie adored them all.
    "Captain Small and I would like some breakfast, Daisy. And see that cook roasts a bit of beef for the captain."
    "Yes, m'lady." Daisy curtseyed and hurried from the room.
    "Come sit by the fire, Robbie," Skye invited, seating herself in a tapestried wing chair. "The mornings still have a chill to them."
    "What is the duc's nephew like?" he demanded, not losing sight of the subject as he settled himself in the matching chair opposite her. In the fireplace a good oak blaze crackled warmly, taking the dampness from the riverview room.
    "Edmond de Beaumont is a dwarf," she said.
    "Is the duc?"
    "Nay. Edmond says his uncle is at least a couple inches taller than I am. You will like Edmond, Robbie, when you meet him at dinner this evening. He is an amusing, intelligent man."
    "You like him." It was a statement.
    "Aye, I like him. He is as outraged as you were that I am forced to leave my babies behind. He offered to speak to the Queen for me."
    "You forbade him, I trust?"
    "Of course," Skye replied. "He says that his uncle is a serious and bookish man."
    "The duc has no children?" Robbie asked.
    "One, a boy of five, but the child is a half-wit, and the duc has made Edmond his heir until he has a son of his own."
    "So you're being sent to play the brood mare to this duc's stallion in hopes that you'll give him children. I don't like it!"
    "Actually, I don't think the Queen cares one way or another whether I give the duc children. She is more interested in the bits and pieces of information I may pick up from France, Spain, and the Papal States to send back to her. I am to be Elizabeth Tudor's ears."
    He nodded. "I see now why they are sending you. A young girl would be apt to fall in love with her husband, and become totally engrossed in having and raising a family. No use at all to the Queen and Cecil. You, however, are more mature, and you'll keep your mind on the Queen's business."
    "Aye, Robbie," she teased him. "I am to shortly celebrate my twenty-ninth birthday. I am most mature."
    He smiled at her, then sobered. "You know what I mean," he said. "You have experienced great love in your life, not just once, but three times. You are barely widowed, and not apt to fall in love easily again. Your duke doesn't sound like the sort of man who will go out of his way to capture your heart. He marries to beget children. You will therefore have the time to serve the Queen, which is exactly what Elizabeth Tudor and William Cecil have in mind. I don't like it, Skye. It could be very dangerous, my lass."
    "I have no intention of going out of my way for the Queen, Robbie. This marriage is not to my liking. Once again the Queen has betrayed my loyalty and my friendship. I am cornered like an animal, as she knew I would be when she approved Lord Burghley's plan. But I had no choice but go to her for aid. I am a woman alone. I chose the strongest ally, even if I can't trust her entirely.''
    Robert Small nodded. Skye had done the best she could in a very difficult situation. He knew that no one, not even a man, could have done better. I’m coming with you," he said.
    "What?" Her blue eyes were wide with surprise.
    "I’m coming with you," he repeated. "Listen to me, lass. I will make Beaumont de Jaspre my home port on the Mediterranean, for the time being, the way I did in Algiers. There is plenty of trading to be done along the North African coast, in Spain, why, in Istanbul itself! I don't want you cut off from everyone you love; at least not until I know what kind of man this is, and if you'll be happy."
    "Robbie, I thank you," Skye said, and her eyes were damp. "I was so afraid, and until now I did not even dare admit it to myself."
    "Ye're only human," he muttered gruffly, and she hid a smile.
    "I saw Adam de Marisco before I came to London," Skye said.
    He noted the brief, sad look that filled her eyes for a moment. "Have you told him of your impending marriage?"
    "No."
    “Tell him. He may want to see you before you leave England. Be fair, Skye."
    "I can't hurt him anymore, Robbie. We cannot see each other that we don't end up in bed. I love him as a friend, and I would be happy to be his wife; but Adam says no. He says it isn't enough for me even if I don't know it. He also told me that he will not be my lover."
    "You'll break his heart, Skye, if you don't tell him. Let him make the choice of coming up to London or not; but at least tell him. You can't go off to some Mediterranean duchy for God knows how long without telling him!"
    "Very well. I will write him this morning, and send one of the grooms to Lynmouth. They'll see it gets to him from there."
    The door to Skye's dayroom opened, and Daisy entered followed by several maidservants laden down with trays of food and pitchers of drink, which were placed on an oaken sideboard. "Set that round table between the chairs," Daisy directed, and when it was done, she spread a fine linen cloth on it herself. Next came the plates, highly polished pewter rounds and matching goblets as well as heavy linen napkins. From a long narrow black leather case Daisy took two twin-pronged gold forks, the newest invention from Florence, and placed one by each plate.
    "I’ve used these before," Robbie noted. "You spear the food with them."
    "Aye," Skye answered him. They're very handy, and help to keep the fingers clean."
    “Wine or ale, captain?" Daisy demanded.
    "Nut-brown ale?" he asked, and his eyes sparkled.
    "Yes, sir!"
    "I’ve not had ale in months, Daisy lass. Pour away!"
    Daisy poured the ale into the pewter goblet from a frosty, blue earthenware pitcher, then went to the sideboard for a platter that held a thick slab of rare beef, swimming in its own juices. Taking his fork, she lifted the beef from the platter onto his own plate, then replaced the fork on his plate and handed him a knife. "Cook says you're to eat every morsel of that beef, Captain."
    With a quick glance of apology at Skye, Robbie crossed himself in blessing and fell upon the beef, cutting a wedge, popping it in his mouth, chewing it down, a beatific smile lighting his rugged features as he did so.
    In the middle of the table Daisy placed stone crocks of sweet butter and honey, and a small cutting board with a fresh, steaming loaf of bread. Next came a bowl of Valencia oranges from Spain. Daisy served her mistress from a small serving dish, spooning onto Skye's plate a fluffy mixture of eggs and tiny bits of ham and green onion.
    "Wine, m'lady?"
    The white, please," said Skye, crossing herself. Then she took up a forkful of the eggs.
    Their mistress and her guest fed, the servants withdrew. Skye and Robbie ate in silence for the next few minutes. Then as Robbie mopped a piece of bread about his plate, sopping up the beef juices, she said, "Edmond gave me a miniature of the duc. Would you like to see it?"
    "Aye," came the reply. "Is he plain or fair?"
    "If he smiled perhaps he would be fair. He is certainly not plain." She rose from the table and moved into her bedchamber. Returning, she handed him a small oval edged in gold studded with pearls. Robert Small took the miniature from her and stared down at it. The man pictured was clean-shaven; his skin bronzed by his climate. He had a high forehead and a square jaw. His nose was long and aquiline, the nostrils flaring slightly. His mouth was large, the lips thin. His black eyes were almond-shaped and tipped up just the tiniest bit at the corners. His black hair was cut short, and was curly. He looked at the viewer directly, his face impersonal and cold.
    Robert Small did not like what he saw. There was a hint of cruelty in the man's mouth; a touch of overbearing pride in the way he held his head. He would not be an easy man. He did not look to be a man whose heart could be softened by a sweet smile or a gentle hand; and he was certainly not the type of man to be given a beautiful wife. More than likely he would be insanely jealous of any other man who looked upon his bride. Damn Elizabeth Tudor, Robbie thought. She was undoubtedly one of the finest rulers England had ever had for all she was a woman; but she had no heart. That was her greatest failing. She used people, playing with them as a child plays with her toys, moving her subjects this way and that way to suit her own convenience, without thought for their happiness or well-being. It saddened him doubly; once for the Queen herself, for she was basically a good woman, and secondly for Skye, whom he loved with all his heart. She was like his own daughter for all she had been born an O'Malley, and he didn't want to see her hurt.
    "Well?" She looked directly at him, and he quickly masked his thoughts.
    "You're right," he said. "The duc would be fair if he smiled. As it is, he looks stem, but then perhaps he was nervous posing for his bride. You'll undoubtedly bring a smile to his lips when he meets you."
    "There's something about his eyes that frightens me," she said quietly.
    "Nonsense," Robbie replied with bluff reassurance. "Don't form any opinions, lass, until you've met the gentleman."
    "It makes no difference," she said. "I must wed him, like him or no."
    Before they might continue their conversation the door to Skye's apartments opened, and the young Earl of Lynmouth ran into the room. "Mama!" He flung himself into her arms.
    "Robin! Oh, my dearest Robin!" Then she began to cry.
    "Mama!" Robin Southwood's voice held an amused note that reminded Skye of his late father, Geoffrey, and she wept all the more. "God's bones, Uncle Robbie!" said the boy. "I think I had best leave."
    "Don't you dare!" Skye wiped her eyes on her handkerchief, hastily retrieved from her dressing-gown pocket. "It is just that I am so very glad to see you, Robin, and you look and sound more like your rather each day." She held him at arm's length. "You have grown taller. Are you happy at court, Robin? I was so proud of you last night. But you are so young to be a page. Are you sure that you wouldn't rather live at Lynmouth, my love? Or perhaps you will come with me to Beaumont de Jaspre."
    "Beaumont de Jaspre? Where is that, Mama? Why on earth are you going to a place called Beaumont de Jaspre?" Robin had been out of the room when the Queen had briefly announced Skye's betrothal the previous evening. He had been sent to fetch Her Majesty's pomander.
    "I can see that the court gossip has not caught up with you, Robin. The Queen is sending me to Beaumont de Jaspre, which is a small duchy between Provence and the Languedoc. I am to be bride to its duc."
    "That is outrageous!" The boy's small face was a mask of stunned anger. "My stepfather is barely cold in his grave, and she asks you to marry with another? Surely you have misunderstood her, Mama. The Queen would not do such a thing to you. She wouldn't!"
    Skye could not destroy his faith in Elizabeth Tudor. He was an Englishman, and not just any Englishman. Despite his youth, he was one of England's premier noblemen. But his title and all his wealth would amount to nothing if he did not give his complete loyalty to the Crown, and Skye understood that. "Robin," she said quietly as she drew him toward her, "the Queen needs my help very badly. She must have a safe haven for English ships in the Mediterranean, and Beaumont de Jaspre will provide that haven. She must have a listening post into France and Spain, and again Beaumont de Jaspre will provide her with it. All the duc requires of England in return is a wife. It is the Queen's decision that I be that wife, and I am proud that she trusts me to aid her, even though I am Irish," Skye said wryly. "Niall would be proud of me, as would your father, and Willow's, too."
    "I had not thought about it that way, Mama," he said, but his lime-green eyes filled with tears, and his small lower lip trembled. "Will I ever see you again, Mama?"
    "Oh, Robin!" She hugged him quickly. "I have only to get settled, and then you will come to me. You, and Willow, and Deirdre, and your new baby brother, Padraic. Even Murrough and Ewan, if they want to come also!"
    "When do you go, Mama?" His little voice quavered slightly.
    "Within the month, Robin." She kissed him soundly, once on each cheek. "Come now, my little love, I've been in Ireland since last autumn, and you didn't miss me at all, I vow! You are having far too much fun with the court, my lord of Lynmouth!"
    A small smile touched his lips, and he looked up at her with a look so like his father's that Skye's heart almost broke with the rush of memories. "Perhaps, madam," he allowed, and she laughed.
    "You are a villain," she teased him, "and you grow more like Geoffrey every day."
    "Robin Southwood!" Willow stood in the dayroom door, her small foot impatiently tapping. "How long have you been in our mother's house and not come to bid me good day?!"
    Robin pulled from his mother's embrace and, turning, made his half-sister a most elegant leg, sweeping his small dark green velvet cap with its pheasant's feather from his blond head as he did so. "Your servant, Mistress Small," he said as he bowed low.
    Willow curtseyed prettily, spreading the skirts of her rose-pink velvet gown as she did so. "Good day to you, my lord Earl," she said.
    Then with a giggle and a whoop the two children were hugging each other as their mother smiled happily at their antics.
    "Is there room for me, too?" a slightly deeper voice inquired.
    Skye turned to see a tall, dark-haired boy standing in her doorway. "Murrough!"
    "Good morning, Mama." He came forward and kissed her. "Lady Clinton has released me from my duties as long as you are in London with the court. I hope that will be all right." He looked anxiously at her. Thank God, she thought guiltily, there was nothing of his father about him.
    "Dearest Murrough, I am delighted, and so grateful to Elizabeth Clinton for letting you come!" Skye hugged her second eldest son. "You have grown thin. Are you eating properly? I know how it is with pages. You are always so busy there isn't enough time to eat or to sleep."
    He grinned down at her. "Yes, I am eating, but I have grown four inches in the last year, Mama. I guess now that my meals have to go further I need to eat even more if I am to satisfy you. How is Ewan?"
    "He's fine," she replied. Then, "You miss him, don't you?"
    "Aye, I miss him, and Ireland, too."
    "You understand why you must stay here, Murrough?"
    "Aye, Mama, I understand. I am landless, and even if you settle monies on me, a man without his own land is nothing."
    "There is Joan Southwood to think of too, Murrough. She deserves her own home."
    "How is she?" he asked.
    "Growing quite lovely, Murrough. Her hair has become a beautiful golden brown, and reaches to her hips; and her eyes have just a hint of Geoffrey's green in them. They are quite a delicious hazel color. She is, of course, as sweet-natured as ever, and works quite diligently on the items of her trousseau she believes you will appreciate. She is half through a large tapestry depicting a knight slaying a dragon. Anne says she is a very accomplished needlewoman. She is going to make you a fine wife."
    "I know, Mother, and I thank you for making me such a good match. Joan is a good girl, and will suit me admirably. I’ll win her, and the children we will have someday, fair lands in the Queen's service. See if I don't!"
    "I know that you will, Murrough." Skye gave him another hug. "You know of my impending marriage?"
    "Aye. Is it what you want?"
    "No, but I have no choice. I must protect your half-brother's lands, and the Anglo-Irish in the Dublin Pale eye the Burke lands like ravenous wolves. I needed a favor from the Queen, and royalty never gives from the heart."
    He nodded in understanding. Murrough O’Flaherty was twelve years old. He had been two when his mother disappeared, and six when he had been reunited with her again. He was nine when his stepfather, Geoffrey Southwood, the Earl of Lynmouth, had died, and ten when he had been sent into service as a page with the Earl and Countess of Lincoln's household. Of necessity he had grown to maturity quickly. He knew that with his mother's money he should never want for the material things in life, but he also knew that if he was to win his own lands, and, he hoped, a title, it must be in the service of England's Queen. He comprehended, perhaps better than any of his brothers and sisters, his mother's difficult position.
    "Do you want me with you?" he asked her half hopefully, for he loved her dearly.
    Skye's eyes filled with quick tears, which she rapidly blinked away. "Thank you, Murrough," she said. "When I am settled I will want you to visit me, and meet your new stepfather, but I will not spoil the progress you have made here at court." She touched his cheek gently in a maternal gesture of gratitude. "Go and speak with your brother and sister now, my knight errant."
    He moved off, and Robbie, who had been sitting opposite her the entire time, sniffed loudly. "They're a fine litter, your children," he muttered.
    "Go see Dame Cecily now," she scolded him. "She is probably up and wondering where you are."
    "When is Edmond de Beaumont coming?"
    "He's been asked for seven. I think I shall have the children, too. There are no other guests. Just you, your sister, and myself."
    He nodded. "We'll not be late? I have some business to see to this evening."
    Skye laughed. "We'll not be late," she said, knowing that his evening "business" was with a whorehouse.
    "The beef was good," he said, rising, and then ambled out of her dayroom, patting the children's heads as he went.
    "Who wants to go riding with me?" Skye demanded of her children, and they all noisily assented. "Go and change then," she ordered them. "I shall be ready in fifteen minutes, and anyone who's not won't go!"
    The two boys and the girl scattered out the door of her apartments, and Skye called to Daisy.

***

    It was one of those rare, very warm April days in England. There was not a cloud in the flawless blue sky, and the sun shone with a clear yellow light. The flowering trees were all in bloom, the meadows bright green with new growth. Skye and her children rode along the river, enjoying their time together. Afterward they picnicked in the garden behind Greenwood House, watching the river traffic as it passed them by, the children gorging themselves with meat pastries, early wild strawberries, and watered wine. Stuffed and sleepy, they lay upon their backs, talking and blowing at the bumblebees and butterflies who ventured near them. As the afternoon lengthened they all fell asleep in the soft, warm air. It was there Daisy found them; Skye, her arms spread wide and protective about her two sons, Willow sleeping across her mother's lap.
    For a moment Skye's faithful tiring woman gazed upon her mistress and the three children. They looked so peaceful that it seemed a shame to awaken them. A tear, and then another slid down Daisy's honest English face as she thought of the exile that she and Skye were facing. It wasn't fair of the Queen to send them away, send her lady who was always such a good mother from her children, but then what would the childless Elizabeth Tudor know of maternal feelings. The tears poured freely down Daisy's face now, and she wept for herself as well. What would happen now between herself and Bran Kelly? He had been close, she knew, to declaring himself. She wondered if she would ever see him again.
    "You don't have to come with me to Beaumont de Jaspre, Daisy," said Skye, looking up at her servant, seeing the tears and knowing why Daisy wept.
    Daisy plumped herself down in the grass next to her mistress. "And who would take care of you, m'lady, if I stayed behind?"
    "It is several weeks before I leave. You could train a clever lass in that time."
    "It wouldn't be the same, m'lady."
    "No, Daisy, it wouldn't, but I'd not have you unhappy. You have been my friend as well as my servant."
    "That's part of it, m'lady. You're going to a strange place, to a strange man, and who knows what you'll find in this Beaumont de Jaspre. You'll need me! I couldn't leave you, m'lady, I couldn't!"
    In her heart Skye was relieved. As it was, she was dreading the journey she must make, and knowing that Daisy was going with her made it a lot easier. "Will it help if I tell you that Captain Kelly will be frequently in Beaumont de Jaspre?"
    Daisy's face lit up, and she smiled her gap-toothed smile. "Yes, m'lady, it helps a great deal!" she said happily, then added, "Oh, m'lady! I came to tell you it is time for you and the children to return to the house and dress for dinner. M'sieur de Beaumont will be arriving soon."
    The sound of the adult voices had awakened the three children, and they stirred, each sitting up and stretching wide. "Come, poppets," Skye said, moving Willow from her lap and standing up. "Our guest will soon be arriving, and we must be dressed and ready to receive him."
    Daisy and the three children scrambled up, and together the five gathered up the picnic things, then made their way back through the garden to the house.
    "You will all take baths," Skye commanded her children.
    "Yes, Mama," Willow replied dutifully, but Murrough and Robin groaned loudly, rolling their eyes at each other in mock horror.
    Skye ignored them, and with Daisy moved upstairs to her own apartments, where the two undermaids already had her oaken tub filled with steaming water, fragrant with bath oil of damask rose, her personal fragrance. The tub had been set before the bedroom fireplace, where a cheerful blaze now burned. While their mistress stood quietly the undermaids removed her clothing and riding boots, then hurried off with the garments to clean and freshen them. Daisy helped Skye up the small ladder and into her tub, pinning her mistress's hair up quickly.
    "You want a few minutes to soak, I can tell," Daisy said.
    Skye nodded. "I’ll call," she replied. "Don't let me daydream too long." She sunk deep into the water, seating herself on the little stool placed within the tub, so she might relax in hot water up to her neck. She had dictated a quick note to Adam de Marisco that morning before she went riding with the children, telling him that the Queen had made a political marriage for her and that she would be leaving England very soon. "Tell him," she said to Jean Morlaix, "tell him that I want to see him, that he must come to London." The letter had been off immediately by one of the Lynmouth grooms, and sitting now in her scented tub, Skye wondered whether Adam would come to her. Robbie was right, of course. She couldn't leave England without seeing him a final time.
    Dearest Adam! Adam who wouldn't marry her for fear he might ruin her life by taking her from some great new love she was going to find. She almost laughed aloud at the thought. From the looks of the duc he did not fit that description. How much better off she would have been if Adam had wed with her, before she had gone to Cecil. At least Adam was her friend and her confidant, her sometime lover, and she enjoyed being with him. She had been vulnerable when she had appealed to Lord Burghley, and he had used that vulnerability against her. It was the very thing Adam had feared. She sighed. The die was cast, and for all intents and purposes she was on her way to Beaumont de Jaspre.
    "Daisy!" she called, drawing herself out of her reverie.
    "I’m here, m'lady," came the reply as Daisy hurried in to help bathe her mistress. "I've laid out a black velvet gown, m'lady. The one with the black and silver brocade underskirt."
    Skye nodded, not particularly interested in her clothing at this moment; she could trust Daisy to see that she looked her best. Dressing was no longer any fun. When she had had Khalid and Geoffrey and Niall to dress for, then she had cared. Her bath finished, she climbed from the tub and stood quietly while Daisy dried and powdered her. Automatically Skye put on her undergarments, her black silk underblouse, and her black silk stockings, which she fastened with elegant silver-ribboned garters. Silently she slipped her feet into plain black silk shoes with silver rosettes. Then came the underskirt and, finally, the dress with its slashed sleeves showing matching brocade.
    "Jewelry?" Daisy asked.
    "Pearls," her mistress replied. "Pink pearls. That long double-strand necklace, the matching earrings, and the hair ornaments."
    "Very good, m'lady." Daisy hurried to get the jewel case containing these treasures and, coming back with it, she reverently lifted each piece from the red morocco leather case lined in palest blue silk, and handed it to her mistress.
    Skye looped the necklace over her head, and the pearls settled down upon her chest coming just above her deep cleavage. Her earbobs, fat pink pearls, hung from her ears on thin gold wires. While Skye saw to her jewelry, Daisy busied herself brushing out her mistress's long blue-black hair and styling it into the soft French chignon that Skye favored. She then affixed to the heavy, silky mane the pink pearl and gold hair ornaments that matched Skye's necklace and earrings.
    "Rings?" Daisy held out another open jewel case.
    Skye pondered the selection, picking up several rings and discarding them as quickly. She finally settled on a heart-shaped ruby, a black pearl, and a large round diamond. 'These will do," she murmured, pushing them onto her slender fingers. Then, reaching for her scent bottle, she daubed her rose fragrance between her breasts, at her wrists, and behind her ears. Had she been dressing for a lover, she would have spent far more time perfuming herself, and Daisy knew it. 'There," Skye said, and she stood up. "I am ready, and our guest has not yet arrived. I shall go downstairs to await him, Daisy. Will you see to the children?"
    As she descended the stairs, however, Edmond de Beaumont was coming through the door. He was beautifully attired in green velvet. "Madam," he called to her, "you are even fairer today, if such a thing is possible!" he caught her hand up and kissed it.
    "Welcome, Edmond!" she returned his greeting, and led him into her reception salon where, to her surprise, Robbie was already waiting. The sea captain turned, his glance closed and thoughtful. "Why, Robbie," Skye said, "I didn't know that you were down already. Edmond de Beaumont, my dearest friend, and my business partner, Sir Robert Small. Robbie, this is the Petit Sieur de Beaumont, Edmond de Beaumont."
    The two men greeted each other cautiously, and then Edmond said, 'Thank heavens! When you mentioned this man, Skye, I feared that he might be your lover."
    "My lover?" Her first thought was to be offended-and angry. She didn't need this sort of thing! Her lover, indeed! Then, suddenly, she saw the humor in the situation, and she giggled. The situation was made even funnier to her mind by Robbie, who, having recovered from his initial shock at Edmond de Beaumont's words, began to roar with outrage.
    "Christ's bones! That's a filthy French thought if I ever heard one! Has the Queen given you to a froggie then, Skye? I'll not have it! Her lover?" His hand went to his sword. "You've been insulted, and so have I!"
    "No, Robbie!" Skye cautioned.
    Edmond de Beaumont had quickly realized his mistake, but he was a proud young man, and Robert Small's furious tone had begun to offend him. It was up to her to defuse the situation. Reaching out, she touched Robbie's hand in a gesture of conciliation. "Edmond meant no harm, Robbie." Then she turned to the younger man. "I was not aware that you misunderstood the situation, m'sieur." Her tone was cool.
    "You said he was your cher ami, madame," was the reply.
    "I said he was one of the two best friends that I had in this world, Edmond." She bit her lip to keep from laughing. "God only knows what you will think when you meet Adam de Marisco, my other friend."
    "I will think him a very lucky man, madame, and I beg that you forgive me. You also, Sir Robert. In Beaumont de Jaspre a woman is not a friend. She is a wife, a mistress, a mother, or a servant. You understand what I am saying?" He looked very anxious.
    Robert Small shook his head. "You can't do this, Skye. Even for the Burke lands, you can't marry this duc. You hear his nephew. They have no respect for a woman's intelligence in this place. You will be a thing to this man, an animal to be bred, no more. I can't allow you to destroy yourself in this manner."
    "Robbie, I must obey the Queen! I cannot fight off the Anglo-Irish and their English friends. I need a strong ally, and Elizabeth Tudor is that ally. Her price is high, but pay it I must. If I balk now she will destroy me entirely. It will be all right, you will see. The duc and I shall come to a comfortable arrangement between us."
    Robert Small looked to Edmond de Beaumont, but now the young man's face was smooth and devoid of emotion. "Well, M'sieur de Beaumont," Robbie demanded, "will Skye be able to come to an agreement with your uncle, or will it be as I have said?"
    "My uncle is an old-fashioned man, Sir Robert, but he has a good mind. He is intelligent, and although Lady Burke's independence will come as a bit of a shock to him, he will come to understand that this is the way she is, and I think he will even enjoy it. His first wife was a distant cousin from Florence, and a very timid lady. My uncle's second wife was the daughter of a neighboring nobleman. She was a vapid little thing, really more a child than a woman.
    "You, Skye, are far different from either of those ladies. Be patient with Uncle Fabron. It will take you a little time, but I know that you will win him over, and he will appreciate your intelligence as well as your beauty. You are the perfect wife for him. You must not be concerned, for I live at the castle and I will always be there to be your friend."
    "I’ll be there also," Robbie said. "Be warned, M'sieur de Beaumont, that I will be making my home in Beaumont de Jaspre until I am sure that Skye is safe and happy." He put his arm about her. "This is the daughter I never had, and she is most dear to me and to my sister. Her eldest daughter is my heiress. For all our lack of blood ties, she is my family, and I will not have her hurt!"
    Edmond de Beaumont could not help the admiring look that crept into his violet eyes. He had not doubted from the moment he had first seen Skye that she was a woman that men loved, but that she could command such loyalty was indeed impressive. "You may trust me, Sir Robert," he said. "Skye will be happy in Beaumont de Jaspre. I promise it."
    The doors to the salon opened, and Dame Cecily and the children entered. Edmond de Beaumont noted the proud, loving look on Skye's face, but remembering her manners, she introduced him to Sir Robert's sister before drawing her children forward to meet him. Dame Cecily, warned to his size, greeted him courteously before turning to her brother, saying, "I heard you roaring like a lion all the way to the second landing, Robert. I hope that you are not giving M'sieur de Beaumont a bad impression of England and the English."
    "On the contrary, madam," Edmond de Beaumont quickly interjected. "Your brother has given me the very best possible impression of the English."
    "I want you to meet my children, Edmond," Skye now said. 'This," she gestured gracefully with her hand to a tall boy who looked so very much like her, "is my son, Murrough O’Flaherty."
    The boy, dressed elegantly in black velvet, white silk, and lace, bowed beautifully, a lock of his hair falling across his forehead as he lowered his head. "M'sieur de Beaumont, I am pleased to greet you," he said in a voice that Edmond could hear was but newly changed.
    "And I you, sir," Edmond replied courteously.
    "My daughter, Willow," Skye said, and Willow, gowned in red velvet, curtseyed prettily.
    Edmond de Beaumont bowed in return. "Mademoiselle Willow."
    "My son, Robin, the Earl of Lynmouth," Skye said.
    "M'sieur de Beaumont."
    Edmond looked at the slender boy in sky-blue velvet and exquisitely done lace. His features were incredibly beautiful, if slightly arrogant. The boy had dark blond hair and unusual lime-green eyes. He was obviously his father's son. "My lord Earl," Edmond de Beaumont said politely, and then turned to Skye. "You have fine children, madam, if these three are an example. I only wish my uncle could see them."
    "Should our mother's marriage to your uncle prove a felicitous union," Murrough O’Flaherty said, "then your uncle will meet us all, m'sieur. Our duties here in England can spare us for a short time."
    Edmond de Beaumont was amused. The older boy was obviously spokesman for his younger brother and sister, despite the disparity in their ranks. The children were obviously disapproving of their mother's marriage, and who could blame them. "I hope you will come to Beaumont de Jaspre soon," he said. "You will like our small country. The weather is like summer most of the year round, and the sea bathing most delightful."
    "I have never bathed in the sea," Willow said.
    "Ah, mademoiselle," said Edmond de Beaumont, looking up at her, "I shall take you myself when you come. Our sea is the blue of your English sky, and as clear as crystal. The water is warm, and the sea bottom golden sand. Can you swim?"
    Willow shook her head.
    "Then I shall teach you, mademoiselle! Would you like that?"
    "Oh, yes, m'sieur!" Willow's face was pink with pleasure, and Edmond noted to himself that she, too, must favor her father.
    "Will you teach me to swim, too?" Robin asked.
    "Indeed, my lord, it would be my pleasure," Edmond replied.
    "I know how," Murrough said loftily. "My brother and I learned early. We are a seafaring family, m'sieur."
    "Can you sail, sir?" Edmond de Beaumont demanded.
    "l can."
    "Then you, also, will enjoy Beaumont de Jaspre. The sea about us makes for excellent sailing."
    "Perhaps, m'sieur, but I doubt that your waters can equal our fine Irish seas."
    "Murrough!" Skye was somewhat shocked by her elder son's intractable attitude. "Please tender your apologies to M'sieur de Beaumont."
    "For what?" The boy looked surprised. "Our Irish seas are true seas, worthy of our seafaring talents. I have been told that the Mediterranean is naught but a placid Turkish lake."
    Edmond de Beaumont laughed heartily. "Indeed the Turks seem to think so, young Murrough O’Flaherty; but would you not enjoy going Turk-hunting in your own ship someday?"
    Murrough's face lit up with a smile. "Indeed, m'sieur, I would!"
    "Then perhaps you will use Beaumont de Jaspre's fine harbor facilities for your home base. After all, young Murrough, your mother will be our duchesse."
    The boy nodded. "It is a good deep-water harbor, m'sieur?"
    "It is."
    Murrough smiled again. "Then perhaps I shall not find your Beaumont de Jaspre such a dull place after all, m'sieur."
    Skye looked in annoyance at her elder son. "I don't know what has gotten into him," she said to Edmond.
    "Growing pains, I suspect, plus the fart that he really doesn't like to see you leave England," Edmond remarked.
    "He is very protective of me," she said softly. "How funny it is that my son should be so."
    Murrough had moved away from them now, settling himself with his younger siblings. Robbie and Dame Cecily were having a cozy chat by the fireplace. Skye sat herself down in a black oak chair with a tapestried seat and back. Edmond de Beaumont sat by her side.
    "I do not think it strange that your son is protective of you," he said. "I find it charming and very touching."
    "I am going to miss my children, Edmond. This is what makes it hard for me to go willingly to your uncle."

    "It will only be for a short while," he reassured her. "You have been separated from them before. My uncle loves children, and will welcome yours. You will give him children of his own, too. You are a healthy, beautiful woman, and he needs you very much. Let me take you to Beaumont de Jaspre, to a man who will love and cherish you. My Uncle Fabron needs you, Skye. He truly needs you!"
    She sighed. "We will travel on my own ship," she said, "and the Queen must give us an escort to get us safely past the Barbary pirates."
    "And we leave?" He cocked his handsome head to one side.
    "Will the beginning of May suit, m'sieur?" There was a small smile upon her beautiful face.
    "You will not regret your decision to come to Beaumont de Jaspre, Skye!" he said fervently.
    "I hope not, Edmond," she said quietly. "I hope not."

Chapter 3

    Adam de Marisco had read Skye's message, and his first thought was to refuse her. Another meeting between them was sure to result in one of their passionate couplings. He had never known a woman who was so sexually attuned to him. To even think about her was to want her unbearably.
    "Damn!" he growled softly. He loved her so terribly, but he had always known that he would never have her permanently. His small kingdom, this island of Lundy, was all he had ever really claimed. Oh, he had had his time in the outside world. His lovely mother was a Frenchwoman, and he had spent many years at the elegant French court, but in the end he had returned to this small, lonely rock that was his heritage, and his inheritance.
    He had known for many years that his seed was barren, the result of a childhood fever, and so he had never married. He enjoyed women, but until he had met Skye O'Malley there had never been one he wanted to keep; but he wasn't enough for her. Oh, sexually he was more than her equal, and his family tree was as noble as hers, but he was a simple man, an island lord, a man of no power or influence. He might have been. He had the wealth necessary for both power and influence; but he had chosen to avoid such responsibilities. Court intrigues were simply not in his nature; not that they were in hers, but she was a beautiful woman, a woman who had had several husbands of wealth and stature. That was her right. It never occurred to Adam de Marisco that Skye would have been happier living a quiet life. He loved her too deeply to see clearly.
    In the end, however, his great love for her won out over his common sense. He traveled to London to bid her farewell. It was very likely that they would never see each other again. He would return to Lundy, and she would travel on to a small Mediterranean duchy where she would undoubtedly live out her life, the wife of a wealthy lordling who would be welcome at both the French and the English courts. His big heart leapt in his chest as he entered Greenwood and she flung herself into his arms in greeting. With a helpless groan he buried his face in her hair, her glorious perfumed hair.
    "Adam! Oh, my darling Adam! I knew that you would come. I told Robbie that you would!" She snuggled into his arms.
    "When do you leave?" he asked her, dreading the answer.
    "A few days." She squirmed from his bearlike grasp and looked up at him. "Don't I get a kiss?" she demanded.
    "Yes," he said slowly as all his good intentions and his willpower disappeared. "Yes, I think you most certainly do get a kiss," and then his shaggy head dipped downward, his mouth found hers, and he mercilessly took possession of it. Her lips softened beneath his, parting just slightly, enough to pleasure, enough to tempt him onward. "Witch," he muttered against her mouth. "How is it you can wreak this mayhem with me?" His big hand gently caressed her upturned face.
    "I’m so glad that you came," she answered him. "I don't think I could have borne to go away and never see you again." Then quick tears came to her eyes. "Oh, Adam! Why are you so stubborn? I have been bartered into a marriage with a stranger! If only you had married me I should not be forced from my homeland and my children!"
    "What could I offer you, Skye? Lundy?" He laughed harshly. "I once told you that I was not a star catcher, and you were a bright and brilliant star. How could I pen up a star, Skye? You have always deserved more than I could give you."
    "I don't need things, Adam. You could have given me the one thing in this world that I need. You could have given me love, my darling."
    "But you could not have given me the same in return, Skye," he said seriously. "We have been over this a hundred times, and it always comes to the same thing. I love you as I have never loved another woman in my life, and you love me. You do not, however, love me as a woman should love a man. You love me as a friend, and that is not enough, little girl! I have my pride too, Skye O'Malley."
    "You're too much of a romantic, Adam. You will not have me because I love you as a friend, but you will stand by while I am sent away to marry a virtual stranger who from the looks of him never loved anyone! Somehow your logic escapes me, Adam."
    He chuckled. "If this duc of yours turns out to be the great love of your life, Skye, you will thank me."
    “I think instead I shall make you regret your foolishness," she said ominously, her slender hands slipping beneath his doublet to rub against his silk-covered chest. "Shall I make you regret your decision, Adam?" He could feel the warmth of her palms through the fabric of his shirt. "Will you be my lover just this once more?" she whispered boldly, standing on her toes so she might kiss him in the sensitive spot just beneath his ear. She could feel his mighty heart pounding beneath her hands.
    "You're a betrothed woman," he protested faintly, but his hands were already pulling her closer to him.
    She nibbled upon his earlobe. "I may never see you again, my darling," she said low, and then she ran her little pointed tongue around the inner shell of his ear.
    "Why are you doing this?" It was his last defense.
    "Because in four days I am sailing to a place I don't know, I will marry a man I don't know, and then I will get into bed with him and he will mate with me like some animal, for that is all he wants of me, Adam. Heirs! Heirs for his tiny duchy. And for my body, my healthy and proven fertile body, he will give England a safe harbor on the Mediterranean, and a listening post at France's back door. For my part, I have the Queen of England's word that she will not allow her Anglo-Irish lords-or anyone else, for that matter-to pillage my Burke son's lands. This is not a love match, Adam. It is a business arrangement, and so before I leave all that is familiar and dear to me I want a little loving, a little tenderness, a little caring with someone that I care for, Adam de Marisco."
    "Damn you, Skye," he said softly, then enfolded her back into his arms. She sighed with such obvious relief that he laughed gently, and smoothed her dark hair. "I’ve never known such an honest woman as you are, my darling. Sometimes it can be a little bit frightening."
    Edmond de Beaumont, watching all of this from behind the bannisters on the second-floor landing of Skye's house, could not quite make out the words said between the two people below. What was obvious was that the giant of a man was deeply in love with Lady Burke, and she cared for him also. As the young Earl of Lynmouth came abreast of him Edmond asked the boy, "Who is that man with your mama, Robin?"
    Robin Southwood looked to the main floor of the house, and a smile lit his beautiful features. Ignoring the Petit Sieur de Beaumont, he ran downstairs, calling, "Uncle Adam! What are you doing in London?" Pure delight was written all over his young face.
    Edmond de Beaumont hurried after the boy in time to hear the giant reply in a thunder-deep voice as he swept the lad up into an embrace, "I have come to bid your mother a safe voyage, my lord Earl. Have you come from your duties at court to do the same?"
    "We have been here almost a whole month, Uncle Adam. Willow and Murrough and me! We have gone riding with Mother, and we have gone on picnics, and we have shopped and seen the dressmaker. Mother's having all new gowns made, for the climate in Beaumont de Jaspre is warm almost year round. Edmond says so."
    "And who is Edmond, my lord Earl?"
    "I am Edmond de Beaumont," a voice replied, and Adam de Marisco looked about, puzzled. He could see no one.
    "I am down here, m'sieur," the voice came again, and Adam de Marisco looked down. "I am Edmond de Beaumont, Petit Sieur de Beaumont," he repeated.
    Adam was astounded. "Is this the man you are to marry?" he demanded, his voice tight.
    "No, Adam, this is his nephew, sent to escort me to Beaumont de Jaspre."
    "Is the duc as he?" Adam was considering throttling William Cecil.
    "I, m'sieur, am an accident of birth," Edmond said. "My uncle is quite as other people, I assure you."
    "Edmond, this is Adam de Marisco, the lord of Lundy Island. Remember that I told you I had two best friends in this world? Well, this is the other."
    Adam de Marisco looked down at Edmond de Beaumont, and then he bent and lifted the dwarf up, balancing him so that he sat in the curve of his muscled arm so that they were eye to eye. This is how two men should speak, m'sieur," he said.
    "Agreed, my lord giant! How tall are you?"
    "I stand six feet, six inches," replied Adam.
    "Then you are nearly twice my size, for I stand but three feet four inches."
    Skye stood amazed as Adam walked calmly off holding Edmond de Beaumont upon his arm, the two men now talking in earnest.
    "What an excellent way for them to speak," Robin observed. "How clever of Uncle Adam to think of it!"
    Skye smiled to herself. It was clever of Adam, but then he had always had the knack of putting people at their ease. Elizabeth Tudor's court had really lost a valuable courtier in him, though he preferred his island home to London, and she could not blame him at all.
    When Edmond de Beaumont had returned to Whitehall, Robbie gone off prowling the seamier sections of London, and Dame Cecily and the children settled themselves for the night; then and only then did Skye and Adam come together again. She had ordered her cook to prepare a supper for two, choosing the menu herself, for Adam was somewhat of a gourmet due to his days in France. They would begin with mussels in a white wine broth and thin-sliced Dover sole with carved lemon wedges; followed with a second course that was simplicity itself, boned breast of capon upon a bed of watercress with a delicate gravy of champignons and white wine, a salad of new lettuces and radishes, freshly baked bread and newly churned sweet butter; and, lastly, fresh strawberries with thick, clotted Devon cream. It was a plain meal, but one that Skye knew would delight Adam.
    Her mode of dress would also delight him, for she was wearing one of her Algerian caftans; a rose-colored silk garment with wide, long sleeves and an open neckline with tiny pearl buttons that moved downward from just below her breasts. Her slippers were delightful confections of matching silk, heel-less with turned-up toes. Her hair was loose, freshly washed, and sun-dried that afternoon. She wore no jewelry.
    "I don't know why you didn't marry the lord of Lundy," Daisy remarked to her mistress.
    "Because he wouldn't have me," Skye replied.
    "Go on with yese, m'lady!" Daisy was astounded. "Ye're running with me."
    "No, I’m not, Daisy. He thinks that I should have a great and powerful lord for a husband, not a simple island chieftain."
    "Then he's a fool," Daisy said bluntly as a knock sounded at Skye's bedchamber door.
    "Open the door, Daisy," her mistress commanded, "and then you may retire for the evening. The supper is safe on the sideboard, and I’ll not need you for anything else tonight."
    Daisy curtseyed and opened the door to admit Adam de Marisco. "Good evening, rn'lord," she said brightly, curtseying again, and then she was gone, closing the door behind her.
    "You're beautiful," he sajd quietly, his smoky blue eyes devouring her with love.
    She smiled back at him. '“I’ve had my cook prepare you a delicious gourmet meal."
    "You're the only thing I want tonight, Skye." He reached out for her, but she easily sidestepped him.
    "Would you offend my cook?" Her blue eyes were dancing with merriment. "If you leave this marvelous supper untouched you will cause a scandal, for my household will ask why, when I went to the trouble to have a supper prepared for us, we did not eat it."
    "One kiss, you Irish witch," he said.
    "One kiss and I am lost, you villain! I see I must treat you like my children. You cannot play, Adam, until you have eaten your supper." She attempted to look stern, and he laughed.
    "Very well, I shall eat."
    Settling himself in one of the two chairs that had been placed on either end of the small rectangular oak table, he waited as Skye served him a plate of steaming mussels and poured him a goblet of pale golden wine. She seated herself, and silently they ate the first course. Clearing the table, she offered the second and he hummed his approval.
    “Your cook had a French teacher, Skye lass. I’ve not tasted this dish since I was last in Paris. The mushrooms are exquisitely fresh, and the wine sauce as delicate as any I've ever tasted. I will tender my compliments in the morning."
    She smiled at his pleasure, but ate little. They were going to make love soon, she knew, despite the fact that he had sworn never again to be her lover. As she absently nibbled on a radish, she wondered why it was she did not love him with the passionate and all-consuming love that she had felt for her last three husbands. They too had been her friends. They too had been as skilled and as tender as Adam was at lovemaking. Geoffrey and Niall and Khalid had all been vital, interesting, ambitious men. Adam was certainly vital and interesting. But he was not ambitious. He was content to sit upon his island, and that was not enough for her. For all her desire for a quiet life Skye knew that she was never happier than when she was in the midst of things. Adam, however, wanted peace, and if the price of his peace was to sit upon Lundy growing old, never having a true and abiding love, then he would pay that price. She wondered why he had insulated himself so. It was not the decision of an intelligent man, and Adam de Marisco was an extremely intelligent man.
    Suddenly she was aware that he was staring at her, and she raised her eyes to his, a guilty blush coloring her cheeks. His smoky blue eyes were very serious, and for a brief moment she wondered if he could have been reading her thoughts. "I was just thinking,'' she said lamely.
    "About me? About us?"
    "Yes."
    "And have you decided that perhaps it is not a good idea that we be lovers again, Skye?"
    "No, I have decided that there is a mystery about you, Adam. I know now what it is that keeps me from loving you with all my being. You don't love me enough to fight for me, Adam."
    He looked stunned. "That's not so, Skye!"
    "Yes, Adam, it is. You say you love me, but that you cannot marry me because I deserve a powerful man for a husband, and you are a simple island chieftain. Well, Adam de Marisco, money buys power, and we both have gold enough to spare. You say that you cannot wed with me because one day I might meet the great love of my life, and stay with you out of misguided loyalty, making myself unhappy, which you could not bear. With the exception of my first husband I have loved completely and well all my other husbands. None was ever slow to take me to wife for fear I might meet someone else later on in my life. They wanted me enough to overcome all obstacles. Yet you will not take such a chance.
    "In a few short days I will leave England for what Cecil promised me would be a short-lived marriage to an ill man. The Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre is not, however, either elderly or ill. According to his nephew, he is a healthy man in early middle life. I may never see cither you or my own Ireland again, and believe me, Adam, this marriage is not a love match." She stood up and, moving to the sideboard, opened a drawer and took out a miniature. "Here," she said, handing him the tiny painting. "Look upon the face of my betrothed, and tell me if that looks like a man who will be a great love to me. It is a cold face, Adam, and his eyes frighten me. His nephew's reassurances are not encouraging, although Edmond seems to have a genuine affection for the duc.
    "So I must go to the powerful husband you felt best for me, my darling, but before I go we will have a glorious few days. We deserve it, Adam, and perhaps in that time you will tell me why you have not loved me enough to fight for me, which, my dearest, is why I have never been able to love you completely. You lack ambition, Adam, and I wonder why."
    "And do you intend to punish me for it?" he queried her.
    "No, Adam. I intend to love you as I have always loved you. Perhaps not enough to satisfy your vanity, but then you have not given completely of yourself, either. One gets out of a relationship what one puts into it."
    "Put this thing away," he said sharply, handing her the miniature back.
    She took it from him and replaced it in the drawer of the sideboard. A tiny smile touched the corners of her mouth. She had at last reached him. True, it was too late now for them to do anything about being married. That opportunity was gone, and she would keep her word to Elizabeth Tudor; but if she had roused Adam enough then perhaps he might find someone to really love. She hated the thought of his being alone, even though she knew it would take a very special girl to love Adam de Marisco, and to live with him on Lundy.
    Coming back to the table, Skye brought with her a basket of early strawberries and bowls of clotted cream and sugar set upon a silver tray. Setting them down, she plucked a large berry from the basket, dipped it in the sugar, swirled it in the thick cream, and popped it into her mouth, neatly detaching the stem and leaves. He grinned at her, relieved. Then, standing up, he said, "Later!"
    "Lecher," she purred at him, holding her ground.
    His smoky blue eyes narrowed with contemplation, and then, reaching out, he slowly began to unbutton her rose-colored caftan, his big fingers surprisingly nimble with the tiny pearl buttons. Skye started unbuttoning the silver buttons on his padded dark blue velvet doublet. He unbuttoned her to the navel and slid his hands inside the gown to fondle her breasts, delighting in her nipples, which hardened at his gentle touch, thrusting forward like thorns on a rose, to push against his palms. She pushed his doublet off, and loosened his shirt at the neckband. It opened easily beneath her touch, baring him to the waist. Playfully her slender fingers marched up his chest through the dark mat of hair, to clasp themselves about his neck.
    His hands slid upward to work her caftan off her shoulders. It fell with a silken hiss to her ankles, leaving her nude. His hands moved to tangle themselves in the heavy, raven mass of her hair, drawing her head to him so he might kiss her. He hesitated just a second, long enough to see her gorgeous eyes close, the thick dark lashes fluttering like dragonflies upon the soft pink of her cheeks. Only then did his sensuous mouth begin a delicate exploration of hers.
    He kissed her as if it were the very first time, tenderly tasting her lips, sending delightful shivers of anticipation up and down her spine. He felt her response, and exerted more pressure upon her mouth, gently forcing it open. His tongue plunged into that sweet cavern to dance a mad caper with hers until suddenly they were stroking each other with sensuous abandon. Their passions flamed simultaneously as he tore his mouth away from hers, and began kissing her closed eyes, her cheekbones, the corners of her mouth, her determined chin, the elegant tip of her nose, with hungry ardor while she moved her hands to pull frantically at his shirt, to loosen his breeches.
    "Sweet Skye," he murmured softly, "sweet, sweet Skye." She succeeded with his shirt, but before she could entangle him in his half-loosened breeches he swept her up in his arms and carried her to the bed. "Nay, my love, I can do that faster, and a great deal more easily than you can," he gently admonished her.
    “Then do it, dammit, Adam. I am not ashamed to admit that I want you, and I want you now!"
    He threw his great leonine head back and laughed with pure delight. "God's nightshirt, Skye, you're an incredible woman! You want me, and you tell me so! Well, my blue-eyed Celtic witch, I want you also, and I suddenly find that I want you for all times, not just a few nights! What have I done to us in my pride, Skye?"
    She reached up and drew his big body down to hers. "Later," she soothed him, "we will speak on it later, my darling."
    He didn't argue. His hands were sliding down her long torso, molding themselves along her waist, filling themselves with her hips, caressing her long legs. She kissed his face ardently, and he groaned with the total pleasure that was beginning to envelope them. She lay upon her back, and he said in a quiet voice, "I don't want you to do anything, sweet Skye, but let me love you. Let me adore the perfection of your beautiful body. For tonight at least, you belong to me!"
    He lowered his head, and with his hot tongue began an encirclement of her nipple. Around and around and around until she began to whimper deep within her throat, and he took the entire nipple in his mouth, sucking hard, sending a knife-sharp pulse of rapture through her body. He began again, this time with the other nipple, and when he felt her trembling like a small, wild thing beneath him he ceased the torture, moving his large body down the bed.
    Taking one of her slender feet in his hands, he kissed it then began licking it sensuously, his tongue thrusting between the toes, slipping along the outside curve of the arch. His hungry mouth kissed, his tongue lapped tenderly in the hollows of her ankle, and when he reached her knee he began again with the other foot. Pulling himself back up level with her, he licked her chest and quivering breasts; his tongue slid easily over her torso, not missing an inch of skin as he moved along. He turned her over, and she felt the warm wetness against her shoulders, along her spine, the curve of her waist, the mounds of her bottom, the length of her legs, the soles of her feet.
    "Dear Jesu, Adam," she gasped, "stop! You will drive me mad!"
    He rolled her onto her back again. "Then we shall be mad together, sweet Skye," he said, and lowered his head once more, this time his tongue snaking out to touch her in her most sensitive place.
    "Ohh, yes," she breathed as she began to flame wildly beneath his impassioned touch, her beautiful body twisting under his hungry mouth.
    He felt as if he would burst with his desire as he tasted and breathed the musky sweetness of her. Finally he could no longer control his own passions, and raising his head, he drew himself up, swinging over her to thrust within her honied sheath. Like some unearthly creature, she wrapped herself about him, moaning wildly, pushing her hips up to meet his frantic rhythm. A soft scream told him that she was near her release and mercilessly he pushed her to the brink only to force her back. She cursed him furiously, and he laughed softly, admonishing her, "You hurry too much."
    "I hate you!" she gasped.
    "You want me," he countered, "and I want you. I have always tried to teach you patience in pleasure."
    "Give me release!" she begged.
    In answer he drove deep into her, forcing her body into the mattress with each downward plunge of his hips. She had been grasping him tightly with her hands, but now his subtle torture sent her sharp nails clawing down his back. "Bitch!" he groaned, and then he took her mouth in a savage kiss, forcing her lips apart to catch her tongue, which he proceeded to suck fiercely.
    Skye thought she would die in that very minute. Her love juices released themselves in a hot, wild rush, crowning the head of his throbbing manhood, which liberated its own salute to her in the same instant. They shuddered together, lost in a world of white-hot desire that drained them, leaving them weakened and only half-conscious.
    He rolled off her, and instinctively she sought for the comfort of his embrace. His strong arms tightened about her as her head fitted itself into the hollow of his shoulder. His breathing was ragged, hers came in soft pants. His big hand began to stroke her, gentle, long touches that soothed them both. He sighed, and then began, "You know that I am unable to have children. As a young boy I suffered a severe fever that burned the life from my seed. Praise God it never destroyed my enjoyment of the fair sex, but I cannot give a woman a child.
    "I learned my fate when I was twenty, and had already fallen in love with a girl I sought to marry. I might have said nothing, and let her believe that it was she who could not conceive; but instead I was honest with her and her family. Her father said he would rather she enter a convent than be childless. My love said that if I could not be a real man she didn't want me." He sighed again. "Her father was a down-at-the-heels French count. She was his eighth child, fifth daughter. Her dowry so small that not even a religious order would have her, as they later found. I loved her back then, Skye. I do not love her now, and yet I can still hear her voice, condemning me for my lack of manhood, for my inability to father a son on her or any other woman.
    "I left France then, and returned to Lundy. I had been its lord since I was ten, when my father had died. My mother returned to France with me and my two younger sisters a year after his death. She remarried when I was twelve, and gave her new husband several children. After my betrothal was broken Lundy was my refuge, and no one there knew or cared about my inability.
    "I am known as the lusty lord of Lundy for my prodigious appetite for women. Several have even claimed their bastards are mine, and I have paid them off, glad to have my prowess attested to; but I know the truth. Then you came into my life, Skye, and I loved again; but I never admitted it to you. I have never admitted it aloud even to myself, not until now.
    "I have always called you a star, a bright and shining star, and so you are, my darling. In wealth we are equal, in lands you far surpass me, but it matters not, for you know I care little for such things. You have given children to each of your husbands, Skye, and perhaps that is what bothered me. If you wed with me you could have no other child. I could not do that to you."
    "You were afraid I would scorn you?" she answered him. "Yet on two occasions I have asked you to marry me, Adam, and I have known for some time that your seed was barren."
    "Ah," he answered her, "if you had wed me after Geoffrey had died then you would have once again been separated from Niall Burke. You would not have had your little Deirdre and your infant son, Padraic. I will wager, my love, you don't regret those two innocents."
    "No, I don't regret them, Adam; but I wonder if the fates ever really meant for me to be wed to Niall. For years everything had conspired to keep us apart. If I had not wed him, then Claire O’Flaherty would not have revenged herself upon him, for there would have been no need. Now he is dead, and because I must protect those two Burke children I have accepted marriage to a man I don't even know. How much simpler had you wed me, my darling, my dearest, dearest Adam. I could love you; really love you had you cared enough to fight for me. You feared getting hurt again more than you wanted me as your wife.''
    "And if I suddenly changed my mind, Skye, would you marry me?"
    "I would have, Adam, but it is too late now. I cannot break my word to the Queen. We have an agreement for better or worse, and I will keep my part of that agreement as long as Elizabeth Tudor keeps faith with me. Had my marriage to you been a fact, and had I then gone to Cecil, the Burke lands might have been safe by virtue of my strong new husband. I, however, went helpless to the Queen, and she took the opportunity to use me for her own ends. Cecil knows that my word is my bond."
    "How I love you," he whispered against her hair, "and what a fool I have been, my sweet Skye."
    "We have the next few days, Adam, and when I am gone I want you to find yourself another woman to love. If that French girl had really loved you, your barren seed would not have bothered her. She was not worthy of you Adam, but somewhere there is a girl or a woman who is. Someone who will love you for yourself, not for what you can or cannot give her. Do not be afraid to seek that woman out, my darling!
    "When Khalid el Bey died, I told Robbie I should never love again. That loving only led to pain. But without the pain, Adam, how can one know, or enjoy, the sweetness? There may be pain in your search, but when you find your love it will be all the better for the pain."
    He hugged her close, and she snuggled deeper into his big shoulder, not seeing the tears in his smoky blue eyes as he turned his head away from her. He knew that she was right and, having unburdened himself to her, he felt better than he had in years. Still, with the unburdening came the terrible knowledge that he loved her deeply; perhaps too deeply to ever love another woman again. Only time would tell the answer, but at least they had the next few days to be together, to love each other, to make memories to carry them through the long years he envisioned ahead.

    For two days and two nights they stayed within her rooms, talking, and loving, and even fighting a bit over what she termed his monumentally stubborn nature and he termed her Irish pig-headedness. The children joined them in the afternoons to chatter and play their games, though only young Murrough O’Flaherty understood the relationship between his mother and Adam de Marisco.
    "Why didn't you marry him?" he asked his mother in a private moment, when Robin and Willow were totally engrossed in some tale that Adam was telling them.
    "Because he didn't ask me in rime," she answered.
    Murrough nodded. "I don't suppose you could get the Queen to change her mind, Mother? Then you could stay here, and we should not lose you to some strange land, and a man whom we do not know. Could you ask Her Majesty? She admires you very much."
    Skye hugged her son lightly. "I wish it were possible, my love, but it is not. The duc has been sent word of my coming as well as my miniature. He would be greatly offended if a substitute bride were sent."
    "We could say you died," Murrough suggested hopefully.
    "I do not think that M'sieur de Beaumont would lie to his uncle, my love. I am afraid I must go." She patted Murrough. "It will be all right, my son. It will be all right."

***

    They went to court the next day, an unusually hot one for early May, and Skye wore one of her new gowns, a beautiful dress made just for Beaumont de Jaspre. It was a lime-green-colored silk, its underskirt embroidered with gold thread flowers and butterflies; the sleeves sheer and full to just below the elbow, her forearms bare; the neckline extremely low in the French fashion. Several gentlemen of the court gaped quite openly as she glided by them flanked by Adam de Marisco and Sir Robert Small.
    "'Tis my emeralds, no doubt, that fascinate them," she teased her escorts, and both men chuckled in spite of themselves.
    "Ah, now," Robbie countered, "and I was thinking that it was the roses in your hair."
    Garbed in red velvet and cloth of gold, the Queen awaited them. Her long, graceful hands were outstreched in welcome. "Dearest Skye!" Her smile was friendly. "So you come to bid us farewell." Her gaze swept Skye appraisingly. "I know the duc will appreciate our generosity in sending him one of this nation's most beautiful women to wife."
    "Your Majesty is most gracious," Skye answered, her eyes modestly lowered.
    "Yes," Elizabeth purred in subtle warning. "I am my father's daughter in many ways." She smiled again. "You will be pleased to know, dear Skye, that I have confirmed your son's rights, and appointed his grand-uncle, the Bishop of Connaught, as his guardian in your absence." She lowered her voice. "You need have no fear, dearest Skye. The English and the Anglo-Irish in the Dublin Pale have been warned that any breach of my sworn word to you will be considered by me as a personal affront. As to your own wild Irish neighbors, your uncle will have to contend with them."
    Thank you, Majesty," she replied. "I am grateful to you, and I will do my part."
    "And we all envy the duc," Lord Dudley murmured, "for I can vouch that Lady Burke knows how to please a man well."
    "Why is it, Lord Dudley," Skye asked sweetly, "that your bravery only comes to the fore when you are surrounded by others? Since you have certainly never pleased me I cannot know how it is you know that I please a man well."
    Robbie and Adam dropped their hands from their swords. They did not need to protect Skye in this instance. She fought Dudley far better with words than they could have with swords. While the Queen and the courtiers about them chuckled at the pompous Earl of Leicester's discomfort, Skye said in honied tones, Your Majesty knows my two sons, Murrough O’Flaherty and Robin Southwood; but I have brought my daughter, Willow, to greet you."
    Elizabeth Tudor turned a kindly glance upon Willow, totally adorable in a burgundy-colored silk gown. Willow curtseyed gracefully, gaining further approval from the Queen. "How old are you, my child?" she demanded.
    "I have just had my ninth birthday, Your Majesty," Willow replied.
    "And what do you study? You do study?"
    "Aye, madam. I study French, Latin, and Greek, as well as mathematics, music, and philosophy. Mama says I must begin Italian and Spanish as well this year; I will one day have a great estate to administer."
    The Queen was amused as well as pleased. Had she a daughter of her own she would fully approve such a curriculum. "Can you dance?" she asked Willow.
    "Aye, madam. The dancing master comes at eight in the morning four days weekly."
    "And the wifely arts, Mistress Willow? Do you learn those also?"
    "Aye," replied Willow, "I like them, although I love gardening best."
    "You are a good child, I can see," the Queen said. "Perhaps in another year or two your mama will allow you to come to court as one of my maids of honor. Would you like that, Mistress Willow?"
    Willow's golden eyes grew round with delight, and she looked to her mother. "Oh, Mother, may I?" she asked.
    "In a year or two," Skye answered, "if the Queen still has need of you, Willow, you may certainly come. Now please thank the Queen for her kindness."
    "Oh, thank you, madam," Willow said fervently, curtseying again.
    "You are fortunate to have such a good little maid for a daughter," Elizabeth remarked.
    “I am fortunate in all my children," Skye replied, "even the babes I must leave behind."
    The Queen had the good grace to look momentarily uncomfortable, but then she recovered quickly. "You will take the Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre our personal greetings, dear Skye, and you will tell him that England is grateful for the safety of his harbors. As to the rest, I know that I may rely upon you." It was a dismissal, and it was a warning.
    Skye curtseyed low, and at least two of the gentlemen standing near the Queen almost fell over in their efforts to gaze at her almost bare breasts.
    "Have you really known her, Dudley?" one courtier asked.
    "She's as hot and juicy a piece as you could imagine in your wildest fantasies," Dudley replied low. "I had her right after her husband, the Earl of Southwood, died. He'd always kept her well serviced, and she could hardly wait for me to put it in her. Oh, yes, my friend, I know Skye O'Malley well."
    "What a shame the Queen is sending her away," the courtier said.
    Dudley chuckled. "Bess knows Skye will make the duc a happy man, and a happy man is a grateful man, grateful to the England who gives him this delicious sugarplum to eat up."
    The two men snickered lewdly, but by then Skye and her escort had already left the Queen's reception room.
    "When is the next tide?" Skye asked Robbie.
    "About six this evening," he replied.
    "It doesn't give us much time, does it? Well, let's get back to Greenwood, my loves, so that I may change."
    They hurried through the corridors of Whitehall Palace to the Old Palace Stairs, the public landing on the river, and there Skye's barge awaited them. The barge sped down the river to Greenwood, and Skye flew into the house to change her clothing. The under-maids hurriedly packed her beautiful gown away, and the last of the trunks was sent on to the Pool, where Skye's own flagship, the Seagull, awaited her arrival. Edmond de Beaumont was already aboard the ship and waiting, having taken his leave of the Queen the night before.
    Skye dressed in the clothes she habitually wore aboard ship; a split-legged skirt of light, black wool, natural-colored woollen stockings and dark leather boots, a cream-colored silk shirt, and a wide leather belt with a silver buckle. Her black hair was twisted into one thick braid, a simple hairstyle that would not blow into her eyes. Adam had sat watching her as she dressed, handing her her garments in Daisy's place, as the maid had been sent on ahead.
    "Don't come with me to the ship," Skye said to him. "I don't think I can bear to see you receding as the ship sails off."
    He nodded, understanding and silently agreeing. Best that their good-byes be said in private. “I’ll take Murrough and Robin back to Whitehall, and then tomorrow, I’ll see Dame Cecily and Willow safely back to Devon," he said.
    "Will you keep an eye on the children for me, Adam? Not just here in England, but in Ireland as well. My brother, Michael, is a good man, but he's a priest, and Uncle Seamus is elderly, far too elderly even to take on the responsibilities he has now. My son, Ewan, can use the strong influence of a real man." She flung herself against his broad chest. "My babies!" she wept. "It's so hard to leave the others, but my babies are too young even to know me. Please look out for them, Adam. I can trust you!"
    "You will write to me," he said. It was more a statement than a question.
    "I will write to you," she answered.
    "I will pray for you also," he said quietly, and she looked up at him, startled. He laughed. "I know men don't speak a great deal about God, Skye, but I believe, and I do pray."
    Tears moistened her eyes again. "I will pray for you also, my darling. I will pray that you find a woman to love and to keep!"
    He smiled down at her, and then his lips met hers in a kiss of incredible sweetness. Their mouths melted into one another until there was no beginning and, seemingly, no end. She wanted the kiss to go on forever, for his touch had transported her beyond the world she knew and into a realm of light and love so pure that she knew nothing would ever be the same again for either of them.
    She protested when he reluctantly lifted his head from hers. His arm fell from about her waist, and he touched her cheek lightly with his fingers. "Farewell, Skye O'Malley. Farewell until we meet again." Then Adam de Marisco turned and left her.
    For a moment Skye stood rooted to the floor, filled with a feeling of such terrible loss that she thought her heart would surely break. If he had been a fool then she had been a bigger one. She should have insisted that he marry her! Now it was too late.
    "Mother?"
    She started at the sound of the voice and, looking down, saw her sons standing before her. "Murrough, Robin," she said.
    "We came to bid you farewell, Mother," Murrough said. "Lord de Marisco is going to take us back to Whitehall now."
    She bent down and hugged her elder son. Then, straightening, she took his face in her hand. "I am proud of you, Murrough O’Flaherty," she said. "You are a good lad, and I love you. Remember what we have spoken of, and act accordingly. Only you can win your lands, my son. I know you will make me proud." Then she kissed him quickly and stepped back, releasing him.
    Murrough's eyes were damp, but he manfully forced back his tears. "I will make you proud, Mother, and when you are settled you will let me come to you?"
    "You will all come to see me," she promised, and then she turned to her younger son.
    Robin flung himself into her arms, and although he was silent, his little shoulders shook. Skye waited until he had composed himself. Robin, like his father, had great dignity. Finally he looked up at her, and his mouth trembled as he said, "My father would not like this, Mother. He would not approve of what the Queen has done, sending you from your children."
    "No, Robin," she admitted. "Geoffrey would not like what the Queen has done, but he would accept her decision and abide by it, for your papa was in all things the Queen's most loyal servant. Whatever your feelings in this matter, I expect you to do what your papa would have done. He would have accepted the Queen's choice, and so must you. He would have accepted it with good grace, and you must do the same." She smoothed his wavy, dark blond hair gently. "Will you come to visit me, my lord Earl, once I am settled?"
    "If the Queen will allow it, Mother," he answered, and she smiled and kissed him tenderly.
    "As I am proud of your brother, so I am also proud of you, Robin. You arc the youngest page at court, and the Queen says you are the best of her pages, despite your youth. Continue to add lustre to the Southwood family name, my son."
    She took the boys by the hands and walked with them to the door of her antechamber. Then, quickly kissing each of them again, she bade them farewell and thrust them from the room. As the door closed behind them Skye put her back to it and stuffed her fist into her mouth to prevent her cries from being heard by her sons. They had both been so brave and she must not destroy their confidence in themselves, or in her. Inwardly she cursed Elizabeth Tudor for her cruelty in sending her so far away. The woman had no heart. The tears poured down her face in a steady, salty stream, and when Robbie knocked, she did not hear him at first.
    "Skye, lass!" His voice cut into her sorrow.
    Turning, she fumbled to open the door, and when he pushed into the room she fell against his chest, weeping. "It's too much, Robbie!" she cried. "I don't think I can do it! I don't think I can!"
    He held her and made soothing noises, for that was all she really wanted. She would go to Beaumont de Jaspre because she had promised the Queen. Skye O'Malley had never been known to go back on her word, and she wouldn't now for all her sorrow at parting from her children. When he had decided that she had wept enough, he said sharply, "Are you forgetting Willow, Skye lass? Will you go to her your eyes all puffy with evidence of weeping? She's not a babe to gull, you know."
    Skye drew in a deep breath, and then she shuddered against him and pulled away. "I’m sorry, Robbie," she said quietly, "but dammit, I love my sons!"
    "I know, lass," he said, and taking her by the hand, he led her back into her bedchamber. Pouring some cool water from a silver pitcher into the matching basin, he pointed to it. "Wash your face, lass. Willow and Cecily are waiting to bid us good-bye in the library. God's foot, she's like Khalid! She's always asking about cargo, and the bills of lading for them. She's more your heir than any of the boys, and that's for certain!"
    "She's your pet," Skye accused him, and she bent to wash the evidence of tears from her face.
    That she is," Robbie chuckled indulgently, and Skye was forced to laugh, which made her feel better.
    She took the linen towel that he handed her, and dried both her face and her hands. "I am ready," she said. "I don't feel so badly about Willow, for she is safe with your sister, but when I thought of my two little boys at court, with no one to protect them…" she sighed.
    "Adam will protect them. He told me before he left that he will spend his time going between Devon, the court, and Ireland, checking on your children while you are away. He's a good man, and why you didn't marry him is beyond me."
    Why was it that everyone always assumed, Adam included, that she wouldn't have him? "He wouldn't have me, dammit!" she swore at Robbie. "It's twice he's turned me down because of some misguided notion. Now he's decided that he does love me, that he does want me, and it's too bloody late!"
    He looked at her, astounded. The Devil you say, Skye lass!"
    "Let's go, Robbie," she said. "It isn't polite to keep a duc waiting," and she stamped from the room, gazing quickly about it for one last time. Who knew when she would see her London house again. Right now, all she wanted was to go before the leaving killed her with sorrow.
    In the library Dame Cecily and Willow awaited Skye. Willow ran to her mother as she entered the room, hugging her hard, and saying, "I shall miss you, Mama. When will I see you again?"
    "Once I am settled I shall ask the duc if you and your brothers can come. Will you like that, my darling?"
    "I will be able to come back to England to be a maid of honor to the Queen, won't I, Mama?" Willow looked very anxious, and Skye realized how glamorous and exciting the court must seem to a young girl.
    "If you continue to do all the things you should, Willow, then I see no reason why you cannot go to court in a few years' time. I must have good reports from Dame Cecily, though, and you must make me proud when you come to Beaumont de Jaspre."
    "Oh, I will, Mama! I promise you I shall be very good, and I shall study my lessons hard! When I go to court someday I shall outshine the Queen herself!"
    "It is not very wise to outshine Elizabeth Tudor, Willow. That lesson your Mama has learned." Skye gave Robbie and Dame Cecily a wry smile, and then said, "Come now, Willow, and bid me farewell. It grows late, and we cannot miss the tide." She bent down and enfolded her daughter in her arms. Khalid's daughter. Except this winter and the winter she had been in the Tower, she had never been separated from Khalid's daughter. Suddenly it was like losing him all over again, and she began to feel teary once more. She quickly regained control over her errant emotions, and kissed her daughter twice, once on each cheek. "Adieu, my dearest daughter," she said softly.
    "Farewell, Mama. Go in safety with God's blessing." Willow kissed her mother upon the lips, and then quickly turned away before her mother might see her tears. She knew full well how Skye felt about leaving her children, and she understood why she did it. I will never be that vulnerable when I am grown up, Willow thought with the easy confidence of youth.
    Dame Cecily and Skye hugged each other, and the older woman did not bother to hide her feelings. Big tears ran down her plump, apple cheeks, and she fumbled irritably for her handkerchief. "I shall miss you, my dear," she sniffled, "but I will take good care of Willow for you, Skye. That I can promise you."
    "I know you will look after Willow with love," Skye replied. "What would she or I ever do without you, Dame Cecily? You have been like a mother to me and a grandmother to Willow from the first. I shall miss you also!" She hugged the old lady, comforting her with the promise, "You must come with Willow when Robbie brings her to Beaumont de Jaspre. Edmond tells me it is a lovely country, all flowers and sunshine."
    “Well," Dame Cecily said with a small sniffle, "I've never been one to travel, and I’ve never been outside of England. Lord bless me, I’ve only been to Plymouth and London in my time; but I might very well come with Willow. I’m not so old yet that I’m to be frightened by something new!"
    Skye gave her old friend another hug. "Then come with Willow when she comes!" she said.
    "Skye lass, it's growing late now," Robbie admonished.
    The two women hugged a final time, and then Skye caught her daughter to her once more. "Be good, my little love," she said, and then releasing Willow, she almost ran out the door.
    They hurried through the gardens of Greenwood House down to the private landing where Skye's barge awaited them. The glory of the day had not abated one bit, even now in the late afternoon. The flowering trees scented the air, and already blossoms were beginning to fall, drifting like bits of pink and white silk along the river's green edge. She looked back only once, and then the tears filled her eyes so quickly she couldn't really see. Turning, she climbed into her barge. It was better that way. There were so many memories. Memories of her first trip to London, of Geoffrey, of their falling in love, of Lynmouth House right next to Greenwood, of Niall, and of Robin's birth upon this very river, in this very barge. She had not felt this way since she had fled Algiers. It was as if one door was closing firmly upon her, and although another door loomed open and inviting, through it was the unknown. The unknown had always frightened her.
    The river traffic was light at the moment. Business was done for the day, and it was yet too early for the pleasures of the evening to begin. Independent watermen looking for fares to take from one landing of the city to another poled about the river calling out to likely-looking customers along the river banks. They entered the London Pool, and Skye's bargeman steered them skillfully through the many merchantmen and galleons moored or awaiting departure. Her heart quickened as she saw the Seagull and the Mermaid, next to each other.
    "The Queen did provide us with a strong escort, didn't she, Robbie?" Skye queried him.
    "Aye, lass. We'll be traveling with a total of ten ships. The escort is led and commanded by a young gentleman from Devon named Francis Drake. He's a competent seaman, but God help the Moors if they attack us. He's the fiercest fighter I’ve ever known. If he doesn't manage to get himself killed he'll one day amount to something, I’ve not a doubt."
    The river barge bobbed and bumped itself against the Seagull, and Skye stood up, calling out, "Ahoy, Seagull! Where are you, MacGuire? Kelly? I’m coming aboard." She grasped at the rope ladder hanging from the side of the ship, and climbed up to the main deck of the vessel. Clambering over the ship's rail she looked back down into the barge. "Go on to your ship, Robbie. We’ve no time to visit now, the tide's about to turn."
    "Aye, lass. I’ll see you later," he said, and then the barge moved off across the space of water separating the two ships.
    "So there you are at last, Skye O’Malley." Sean MacGuire stood before her on his sturdy sea legs.
    "Good afternoon to you, MacGuire," Skye said. "Thank you for bringing Seagull safely to me."
    "Ye're so grateful that you've put another captain aboard," he complained to her.
    "Bran Kelly is merely an extra man, MacGuire. If you're annoyed, he's just as annoyed. I took him from his own command to sail with me on Seagull. I'm going into an unknown situation in Beaumont de Jaspre, MacGuire. I want my own people about me. You understand that."
    "Aye," he grudgingly gave in to her. "I don't know why you have to run off and marry some foreigner anyways, Mistress Skye."
    "I made a bargain with the Queen, MacGuire."
    "She's not our Queen."
    Skye snorted her impatience. "Ireland has no queen, MacGuire! It has no king. What it has is a thousand lordlings, a thousand cocks, each on its own dung heap, crowing its own song. Do you know the song those cocks sing, MacGuire? They sing of freedom from England and the English, but not one of those cocks would give up his rights to another man so that Ireland could be united under one Irish king, so we might drive the English from our homeland and be ruled by an Irish king. No, my old friend, they sing, they get drunk, they weep of the grand, great days of yore, but in the end they do nothing except make widows and orphans. Is it a wonder the English abuse us?
    "Well, if that's the way it's to be, then I must think of my own first. England rules Ireland, and I'll not lose the Burke lands over a dream. The price of the Queen's protection is that I marry this duc, and I will marry him! I will marry him lest Niall and the old Mac-William rise from their graves to haunt me for losing what the Burkes have fought and died over for a thousand years. Now you nosy old man, that's the last I’ll speak on it!"
    He grinned wickedly at her, and drawing his pipe from his pocket, he lit it. "You needn't get huffy, Skye O'Malley. I remember you when you were wearing nappies and crawling about the decks of yer father's ship, may God assoil his noble soul."
    "Are we sailing on this tide or not?" she demanded, attempting to regain her dignity. It was damned well time MacGuire retired, but she knew he'd die aboard his ship one day, as her father had done.
    "If ye weren't so busy talking, lass, you'd see that we've already weighed anchor, and are underway." He chuckled at her chagrin. "You'll find that pretty piece that serves you, as well as the little foreign lord, waiting you in your dayroom."
    "Where's Kelly?"
    "Sleeping. It's agreed between us that I’ll captain the ship during the day and he at night."
    She nodded. "A wise decision, considering we've got to avoid the French, the Spanish, and the Barbary pirates."
    "We'll get there safe and sound, Mistress Skye," he said, puffing comfortably on his pipe.
    By evening they had rounded Margate Head and were out into the Strait of Dover. The next morning they were in the English Channel, where a light but steady breeze and a spring rain and fog protected them and their escort from detection by any foreign vessels. Several days later the gray weather left them, and they sailed briskly across the Bay of Biscay under bright blue skies. They were far enough out to sea to avoid coastal vessels. Rounding Cape Finisterre brought them into the Atlantic Ocean. The weather had been magnificent, and Skye was reminded of her first voyage to the Mediterranean. Ten years ago. Had it really been ten years ago? She gazed out over the dark blue sea to the cliffs of Cape St. Vincent rising steep and red-brown above the water. Khalid. Geoffrey. Niall. She shook her head. All gone. She seemed fated to be alone. Perhaps the duc would change her luck.
    Seagull, Mermaid, and their escort sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea, swinging north once more as they set a course for Beaumont de Jaspre. Several times now they sighted other vessels, but the size of their escort discouraged any unfriendly encounters. As they drew nearer to Beaumont de Jaspre Skye thought that she would even welcome an encounter with Barbary pirates. Anything to stave off the inevitable: her arrival-and her marriage to a total stranger.

***

    "We should be docking in Villerose in less than a half an hour, Mistress Skye," Bran Kelly told her, coming into the dayroom where she was writing a letter to Willow describing the voyage.
    "Thank you, Bran," she replied quietly, and then turned to address the man across the room. "Well, Edmond, I have brought you safely home, haven't I?" Her tone was affectionate and amused.
    "I admit I do not like sea travel," he said, "but this voyage has been magnificent, Skye! It would have been quicker if we had crossed the English Channel and driven across France, however."
    "Quicker if the French allowed Elizabeth Tudor's emissary free access to their roads and inns. Do you think they would have, Edmond?"
    He chuckled and hopped down from the window seat in the stern window, where he had been sitting. "Stand up, Skye, and let me have a good look at you."
    Finished with the letter, she pushed it aside and stood up. She wore an exquisite gown of delicate lilac-colored silk, styled in the Italian manner. The skirt was full, over several starched petticoats, the underskirt embroidered in silver thread and pink glass beads showing a design of windflowers and dainty, fluttering moths. The sleeves of the gown were full to the midam, and slashed to show a lilac and silver-striped fabric beneath. The neckline was low and draped with a soft lilac silk-kerchief added for modesty's sake. About her neck Skye had chosen to wear a dainty necklace of small pearls and amethysts set in gold, and from her ears bobbed pearls falling from amethyst studs. Her hair was parted in the center and drawn back over her small ears into a full chignon that had been dressed with purple silk Parma violets and white silk rosebuds.
    "You are incredibly beautiful," Edmond de Beaumont said quietly. "How can my uncle fail to love you, Skye? You are love incarnate!"
    "You are extravagant in your praise, Edmond. Remember you have told me that your uncle is a reserved man. Perhaps I shall shock him rather than please him. I have never liked arranged marriages for just this reason. My first marriage was arranged when I was in the cradle, and it was a disaster from the outset. It is better that people get to know one another. Still, I am older than when I was first married, and your uncle has known sorrow also. Perhaps we can console each other, and be happy in the bargain."
    "I know it can be so," he said fervently. "Be patient with him, Skye. If anyone can reach him you can."
    What a strange remark, she thought, but before she could ask him exactly what he meant, Captain MacGuire was entering the cabin to announce, "Well, we're here, and there's a pretty fancy carriage on the dock, which I suspect is your betrothed's. He'll probably come aboard as soon as we're moored securely."
    She panicked. "Where is Robbie? I must speak to Robbie before I leave the ship!"
    "Easy, lass," MacGuire soothed her. "I'll have Mermaid signaled immediately. You're as fretful as a virgin going to the marriage bed for the first time."
    "MacGuire!" she shouted at him, outraged.
    The old seaman chuckled and, turning about, left the day room.
    "You mustn't be fearful, Skye," Edmond de Beaumont said. "My uncle is the kindest man alive. You have nothing to fear from him."
    She drew a deep breath, dispelling some of her panic. "I don't know what came over me," she said. "I am behaving like a green girl."
    "I shall go ashore," Edmond de Beaumont said, "and greet my uncle. Then I shall bring him back to introduce him to you. It will be far more private if you meet here for the first time, than if you meet on the dock or at the palace." He gave her a quick smile and then hurried out, his short legs pumping eagerly.
    She was alone. For how long? she wondered. In a few minutes he would walk through the cabin door, and she would no longer be free. She did not delude herself that this would be like any of her other marriages. Lord Burghley had sworn that the duc would sign the marriage contracts that left her her own mistress, but then Lord Burghley had also sworn that the duc was old and ill, which his nephew had most certainly attested he was not. Edmond had signed the contracts for his uncle in England, but Fabron de Beaumont must ratify them. She would insist he do so before she wed him! It was the only way. She could not after all these years find herself at anyone else's mercy. It was bad enough to be wedding a stranger.
    The door to her dayroom opened and Robbie came in. "It looks a fair place, Skye lass," he said.
    She nodded.
    "MacGuire signaled you wanted to see me."
    "You'll not leave me, Robbie?" Her voice was anxious.
    "I’ll not leave you, Skye. You're my lass. I’ll be here whenever you want me." He reached out and took her hands in his. They were cold despite the warmth of the day. "He'll love you, and perhaps you'll love him."
    "I don't know why I’m so nervous. I'm a grown woman with four marriages behind me. I’ve six children!" She whirled, and her gown whirled with her. "God's nightshirt!" she swore, using the Queen's favorite oath. "What is the matter with me?"
    "Nothing," he said. "Nothing that won't be solved by your meeting the duc and getting to know him."
    “There's no time. We are to be married immediately. Edmond told me that that was the agreement; but Robbie, you must stand behind me. I won't marry the man until he ratifies the marriage contracts agreeing that what is mine remains mine. I won't even get off Seagull until that is settled. You'll help me?"
    "I will handle it for you, my dear," he said. "Let me do it. These Mediterranean types are not your Englishman."
    "Oh, yes, Robbie! Please take care of it for me!"
    A knock sounded at the cabin door. Skye froze, but Robbie said in a loud voice, "Enter!"
    The door opened, and Edmond de Beaumont entered, followed by another gentleman. Fabron de Beaumont's almond-shaped eyes widened just slightly, but other than that he showed no emotion; his expression remained unsmiling. He was exactly as Edmond had painted him; a serious, aristocratic man of medium height with fierce dark eyes and severely cropped, curly black hair. It worried Skye that she could see no emotion in those eyes, but then perhaps he was as nervous of her as she was of him. If Edmond had been flattering at all to his uncle, it was only in the fact that he had softened the duc's sharp features; the long, narrow nose, the large, thin mouth, the very square jaw. For a long moment there was silence in the room, and then Edmond spoke.
    "Lady Burke, may I present to you my uncle, the Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre."
    Skye curtseyed gracefully.
    "Uncle Fabron, may I present to you Lady Burke, your betrothed."
    "Welcome to Beaumont de Jaspre, madame," the duc said. His voice was deep, but musical in tone.
    "Thank you, monseigneur," was her reply.
    "Uncle, this is Sir Robert Small, Lady Burke's business partner."
    Fabron de Beaumont raised an elegant eyebrow. "My nephew tells me that you are a woman of commerce, madame. Is it true?"
    "Yes, monseigneur." Skye looked to Robbie.
    Clearing his throat, he said, 'There is the matter of the ratification of the marriage contracts, M'sieur le Duc."
    "I must read them first," was the reply.
    “Then I will get them," Robbie said quietly. 'The Queen has forbidden Lady Burke to leave her vessel until the contracts have your signature. Until then she must remain on what is technically English soil."
    "But the marriage ceremony is set for this evening," the duc protested.
    There is nothing unusual about the contracts, M'sieur le Duc. Lady Burke brings you a very generous dowry, but the contracts permit her to keep her own wealth and to continue to administer her lands and those of her children."
    "But that is outrageous!"
    "Nonetheless, M'sieur le Duc, that is what the contracts say. Englishwomen are perhaps more independent than other women, but certainly that is why you wanted a wife from Bess Tudor's court." Robbie smiled in a man-to-man fashion at the duc. "Your nephew saw nothing unusual in Lady Burke's request when Lord Burghley explained it to him. He signed believing you would agree with him. Lady Burke's dowry is very generous."
    "Do you believe yourself capable of administering such wealth, madame?" The duc looked closely at Skye.
    "I have been my own mistress in such things, monseigneur, since my father's death. It was he who put me in charge of his fleets and his wealth until my brothers were old enough to manage. At their request I still manage both my family's ships and their monies."
    "And what else do you manage, madame?"
    "The estates of my young son, the Earl of Lynmouth, and of my eldest son, Ewan O’Flaherty, although Ewan will be old enough in another two years to manage on his own. Then there are the estates of my youngest son, Padraic, in Ireland; and my daughter, Willow's, wealth from her father, my second husband. Then, too, there is my own wealth, monseigneur, from commercial enterprises in which I am engaged with Sir Robert."
    "You take a great deal upon such beautiful shoulders, madame," he noted.
    "Nonetheless I am capable of it, monseigneur," she countered.
    "A woman's first duty is to give her husband heirs and to raise those children."
    "You will not find me lacking there, monseigneur. I have given children to all of my husbands-five sons, of whom four are living, and two daughters."
    He nodded. "And would you indeed refuse to marry me if I refuse to sign and ratify this marriage contract?"
    "Yes, monseigneur, I would," Skye answered, and she lifted her chin slightly as she said the words.
    "You are a woman of strong character, I can see," the duc replied, "but that can be a good trait in a woman if you pass it on to our sons. I trust you will do so, madame." There was just the faintest hint of amusement in his voice.
    "I will try," she answered him in as serious a tone.
    “Then there is nothing for it but I must sign the contracts," he answered, taking them from Robbie. Edmond de Beaumont quickly handed his uncle an inked quill from Skye's desk, and the duc as quickly wrote his signature at the assigned place.
    Skye then came forward to place her own signature upon the documents. She had refused to sign them in England, protesting that until the duc himself agreed to her demands her signature was not necessary.
    "You sign yourself Skye O’Malley, madame," the duc noted.
    "It is simpler, monseigneur, that I use my maiden name. I have had four husbands, and all their names added to my own would make another document." She looked up at him with her marvelous Kerry-blue eyes, and the duc allowed himself a small smile.
    "Now that the formalities are over, madame, will you allow me to escort you to your new home?" He held out his hand to her, and after a small hesitation she placed her hand in his. His grasp was firm. "I have planned that we be married immediately," he told her as he led her from the ship and up to his carriage. Nervously she looked about to see that Robbie was coming, too. Noting it, he asked, "Are you afraid of me, madame? Your eyes constantly seek out M'sieur Robert."
    "I have never married a stranger before," she said quietly.
    He nodded. "A difficult position for you, I can see, but I have never married a woman that I knew. It didn't really matter, madame. They, like you, came to me for but one purpose, to give me heirs. Pastor Lichault says the Bible claims that ‘whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favor of the Lord.' King David wrote in his psalms 'Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are the children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed.' I, however, am ashamed, madam. I have but one living child, a babbling, drooling idiot who can barely hold his own head up at the age of five. The rest of my children either died in their mothers' wombs or shortly after birth. I want children! I need heirs!"
    "You have a fine heir in your nephew, monseigneur," she said.
    "Yes, Edmond is a good man, but he will not marry for fear of bearing children like himself, and what normal maiden would allow herself to be possessed by the monster my nephew is?
    "If I die without heirs the French will take my duchy, and Beaumont de Jaspre will cease to exist. There have been ducs de Beaumont de Jaspre since the days of the great Charlemagne. That is why I have agreed to remarry. I asked the Queen of England for a noble wife because I felt I needed new blood for my line. Procreation is, after all, the prime motive for marriage."
    "So we are taught by Holy Mother Church," Skye replied.
    "Are you of the old Church?" he demanded. "I would have thought that you were of the new faith coming from the Tudor court."
    "I am not English, monseigneur, I am Irish. I am of the one true Church. The Queen, however, is tolerant of all faiths. I am sure that I was sent to you because the Queen assumed you, also, would be of the true faith."
    "I was born to the old faith," he said.
    "Your nephew said nothing to me of your religion," Skye replied.
    "When he left Beaumont de Jaspre, madame, I still practiced that ancient faith, although I had become interested in the teachings of Pastor Andre Lichault. While Edmond was away, however, I became convinced that Pastor Lichault was correct in his teachings, and I converted to his faith. You, too, will convert when you have been taught."
    "And have your people converted to the teachings of your Pastor Lichault, monseigneur?"
    He frowned. 'They persist in clinging to their old faith. It is wrong, though! I have driven their priests out, and I have torn down the painted and gilded idols that they persist in worshiping. Still they resist me, but I will overcome them, for I am their lord and their master!"
    The duc's carriage had moved away from the docks, and through the window of the coach Skye could see Edmond and Robbie following them on horses. She breathed a sigh of relief. She was appalled to find that the duc was not only a Huguenot, but a bit of a fanatic as well.
    "Is it not better, monseigneur, that a people have a faith than not have a faith? As long as your people are God-fearing and hardworking souls, does it make any difference how they worship God?" she said.
    "Yes!" He looked earnestly at her. "You are very beautiful, madame, but you are only a woman. How can you possibly understand?"
    "My other husbands have always said that I was an understanding woman, monseigneur. Perhaps I will not comprehend, but how will you know unless you confide in me?" She gave him a small smile to encourage him. She must keep the lines of communication open between them else this marriage be doomed before it even began.
    He leaned forward and began to speak. "The Catholic Church has become corrupt, madame. They no longer administer to the needs of their flock. They sell indulgences and absolutions! They own vast tracts of land. They engage in commerce and act as patrons to worthless artists! They are as venal and as lustful as the worst of men! They have lost sight of God!
    "Pastor Lichault was once one of them, but in a vision he saw the light. Now he strives to bring that light to others. My people do not listen now, but in the end they will. The only way we will escape the fires of Hell and damnation is to live simply, to pray, to scourge ourselves free of the opulent trappings with which we have surrounded ourselves!"
    Skye was astounded by the duc's outburst and his next words sent a chill through her. "You must join me in my endeavors, madame. As your husband I command it! Only when we are both free of sin will God reward us with the children that I so desperately want."
    This was hardly what she had expected, and she suspected that even the very Protestant Lord Burghley had known nothing about the duc's sudden conversion, either. The man was unstable, and would not make a reliable ally for England. She had been sacrificed to a madman!
    "You say nothing, madame."
    She chose her words carefully. "I am a daughter of the one true Church, monseigneur. My uncle is a bishop. I have read and studied the teachings of Martin Luther, but I prefer to remain as I have always been although I am more liberal than many of my faith. I have friends who have chosen to follow the new faith, and if they are happy then I am happy for them, but I cannot convert."
    "Your gown is much too immodest," he said, ignoring her words. "Are all your gowns so low in the neckline?"
    "It is the fashion, monseigneur."
    "After today you will not wear such garments. They were made to entice, and to lure a man into lust. I will send the castle seamstress to you tomorrow, and when she has taken your measurements she will make you more suitable garments."
    "I choose my own clothes, monseigneur," Skye said sharply. "Whatever the fashion, I am, and always have been, a faithful wife. I do not flaunt my charms before other men."
    "You would disobey me, madame?" His look was black.
    "No, monseigneur, I would simply overrule you in an area in which you are not competent to judge."
    "But the sight of so much beauty is distracting, madame!"
    "I do not flaunt my beauty. If you are distracted then the fault is within you, monseigneur. It is not with me."
    "You are right," he whispered, and obviously shaken by the truth of her words, he withdrew into himself.
    Skye turned to look out the window of the coach at the beautiful little town of Villerose. Her conversation with the duc had disturbed her greatly. He was obviously not a man of strong character if in his nephew's absence he had been led astray by this Pastor Lichault. At least his people resisted this attempt to force them from the true Church. He may think he has driven the priests out, Skye thought, but I will wager that they are still here. I will have to find one. She focused her eyes upon the town.
    It was a lovely place, and to her immense delight each building was painted pink and roofed in red tile. The streets were cobbled but not overly narrow, and flowers grew everywhere, in gardens, in windowboxes, hanging from pots and balconies. "Why are the buildings all pink?" she asked the duc.
    "It was the favorite color of one of my ancestors. Villerose has been pink for over three hundred years now." He fell silent again, and Skye turned back to the window.
    The town seemed filled with small squares, each with its own fountain sending forth a spray of crystal-clear water into the hot afternoon. There were children everywhere, healthy, well-fed boys and girls, running and playing about the houses and fountains. The duchy of Beaumont de Jaspre was obviously a happy and prosperous place, Skye decided as they passed well-filled, busy shops and small open-air markets. It was everything that Edmond had promised her with one exception: the duc. How could she marry this intense, fanatical man? But she knew she must.
    The coach wound its way upward through the cobbled streets until it reached the castle, perched upon the crest of a hill above the town, overlooking the blue sea. Like the town, the castle was of pink stone, its tower roofs tiled in red. A wide moat filled with pink and white waterlilies surrounded the building. The carriage drove across the lowered drawbridge into the courtyard, and Skye was further enchanted. In the courtyard's center was a square tiled pool that was edged with a flowerbed filled with brightly colored blooms. At one end of the fountain, a mischievous bronze cupid rode a bronze dolphin from whose open mouth poured a clear stream of water.
    "How lovely!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together.
    "I am pleased that you like it," the duc answered. The intensity was gone, and she felt more comfortable with him.
    The vehicle stopped and a footman hurried to help them out. Edmond and Robbie were dismounting their horses. They both hurried over to the carriage as Skye exited it.
    "Well," Edmond demanded, "what do you think of Beaumont de Jaspre, chérie?”
    "It's beautiful, Edmond," she said, but Robbie noticed her lack of enthusiasm and drew her away from the duc.
    "What is the matter?"
    "He's a Huguenot, Robbie. Newly converted by a Pastor Lichault, and quite the fanatic about it. He claims to have driven the priests from his duchy, and he wants to change my wardrobe to something more modest." Speaking about it, Skye didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.
    "God's foot!" swore Robbie, who although a member of the Church of England, was a tolerant man.
    "Come, madame." The duc was at her side again. "You will want to refresh yourself before we are married. Will a half an hour suit you?"
    "So soon? Could we not wait a few days, monseigneur, so that we might get to know one another?"
    "Are you able to receive a man now, madame?" he demanded quite bluntly.
    Skye blushed at his indelicacy, and whispered, "Yes."
    “Then there is no need for us to wait. You know my feelings on the matter, as we have already discussed them in the coach." He took her arm. "Come now. You will see M'sieur Robert Small and Edmond at the ceremony."
    There was nothing for it but to follow him, though behind her she heard Robbie growl a low protest. She dared not turn but kept walking, allowing the duc to lead her into the castle. "Your maid should already be here, madame." he said, moving through the main hall of the castle. The walls were hung with many beautiful crimson, azure and gold silk banners, some of which Skye could sec were very old. She followed him as he hurried two flights up a wide staircase with magnificently carved bannisters and then down a corridor lit by windows that faced onto the courtyard now bright with the late-afternoon sunlight. He stopped before a pair of doors shaped like upside down LPs, and knocked. The door opened to reveal Daisy.
    "Welcome, my lady, m'lord," Daisy said.
    "Does your maid not speak French?" the duc demanded.
    "She is a simple English country girl, monseigneur, but she is a fine tiring woman, and has been with me for many years." Skye turned to Daisy, saying, "Daisy, this is the duc." She then said to the duc, speaking French this time, "Monseigneur, this is my maid, Daisy, whom you would call Marguérite in your tongue."
    Daisy bobbed a pretty curtsey, and smiled her gap-toothed smile.
    The duc barely nodded. "I will come back for you in a few minutes," he said. "You will be a beautiful bride, madame. And because you are so beautiful, and I believe that there is no real malice in you, I will be patient with your rather hoydenish and independent ways." He bowed curdy, and left her standing there surprised.
    Daisy pulled her mistress into the room. "Come in, m'lady! Lord bless me, it's lovely here, it is! I ain't never seen such flowers! Isn't the town simply adorable, all pinklike?" Daisy was full of enthusiasm. "Maybe it won't be so bad living here after all."
    "Is there some water, Daisy? I must refresh myself before the duc comes back. We are to be married immediately."
    "Ohh." Daisy's eyes widened. "He's that anxious, is he?" She giggled with delight. "He's a fine-looking man, m'lady. He might even be called handsome if he'd just smile, but you'll have him smiling soon enough." She hurried off to fetch the water.
    Skye looked about her. She was in a square room with pale-gray stone walls. There were fireplaces on either side of the room, their enormous narrow mantels held up by seated golden marble lions with green jasper eyes. The walls were hung with exquisite silk tapestries all depicting tales of knights and maidens and dragons in colorful and bright threads. Each tapestry was beautifully done, and Skye wondered if some past Duchess of Beaumont had lovingly stitched them. She also wondered if that long-dead duchess had loved her husband.
    The room had no windows. In its center was a long oak refectory table with a silver bowl filled with peach-colored roses upon it. Their fragrance perfumed the room. The rest of the furnishings consisted of several straight-back, carved chairs with velvet cushions, strategically placed. There was a door opposite her, and another beside one of the fireplaces, through which Daisy had disappeared.
    She now reappeared carrying a golden basin. "Oh, m'lady, come just through the other door, please, into your bedchamber.''
    Skye walked across the room, and opened the door. "I’m sorry, Daisy. I’m daydreaming, it seems.''
    Daisy hurried into the room behind her mistress. "And why not?" she demanded. "You're about to be married, and this is a beautiful place!"
    Skye looked around the bedchamber. It was a tower room and round in shape. There were windows directly before her that extended to the floor, opening onto a small balcony. She could see the sea through them. To her left was a huge carved bed with a linenfold paneled headboard, draped in plain dark green velvet. Opposite the bed was a small fireplace. There was but one candle-stand beside the bed, holding a golden candlestick with a fine beeswax taper. There was a low-backed stool with a tapestry cushion at one side of the fireplace.
    "It's not very large for the duchess's chambers," she noted.
    'The duc's is next door, m'lady. See the little door on the other side of the bed? That goes into his chambers. There's also a dressing room off the antechamber."
    Daisy put the basin down on the candlestand, and Skye rinsed her hands and her face quickly. Daisy had scented the water with her mistress's rose fragrance. Skye was very quiet, and Daisy could not help noticing.
    "I wouldn't think you'd have bridal nerves after all these years," she remarked.
    Skye laughed weakly. "It's all very different this time, Daisy. I don't know the duc, and our conversation in the coach as we came from the port was not reassuring. He is a Huguenot, and a fanatic at that. He wants children desperately, but I do not know if I can give them to him. He frightens me a little."
    Daisy looked shrewdly at her mistress. "Ye're taking the potion that yer sister, Eibhlin, gave you, aren't you?"
    Skye nodded. "I intend to go on taking it until the duc and I can come to some sort of arrangement. I don't plan to be his brood mare, locked up in this fairy-tale castle forever." She took the creamy linen towel that Daisy handed her, and dried her face and hands. Then, as an afterthought, she pulled the kerchief from her neckline in a gesture of defiance.
    They heard the knock on the antechamber door at the same time, and Daisy hurried to open it. Edmond de Beaumont hurried in, his handsome face distressed.
    "I did not know," he said. "As the good God is my judge, Skye, I did not know he had become a Huguenot. I didn't even know he was contemplating it. That damned Lichault! He waited until I was gone, and then, like the snake in the Garden of Eden, he wormed his way deep into my uncle's confidence. God, he is an evil creature!"
    "Your uncle says he has driven the priests from Beaumont de Jaspre. Is it true?"
    "He thinks he has, but Père Henri has already come to see me. He was the family chaplain. He says he understands the difficult position you, the niece of a bishop, must find yourself in, but you are not to fear for your immortal soul. He gives you a dispensation to wed my uncle in this new faith, knowing that eventually you will overcome that man Lichault and bring my uncle back to the true Church."
    Skye nodded, but inwardly she was amused. Her religion was a private thing, although she had been baptized a Catholic. Her second husband had wed her in the Moslem faith, her third in the Church of England. That she had loved them both made the difference. But she did not like the duc telling her what she was going to do, and what she was going to be. If this religion of his was really that way, she would cling like a barnacle to her own faith and let the good local priests think she was devout. It couldn't hurt her reputation, and if she could wean the duc from his obviously unpleasant faith, she might be able to learn to care for him in time. Beneath the stern façade she had detected small flashes of humor. She wondered again what he looked like when he smiled.
    Another knock sounded upon the door, and this time it was the duc who entered. He carried with him a nosegay of fragrant orange blossoms, white freesias, and tiny white rosebuds, tied with lilac-colored silk ribbons. With an elegant bow he handed the flowers to her. "For you, madame. Pastor Lichault says such things are the Devil's enticements, but I believe that women appreciate such small vanities, especially on their wedding day." He held out his arm to her, and with a return curtsey she took it.
    "Will you allow Daisy to see the ceremony, monseigneur? It would mean a great deal to us both."
    "Of course!" He was pleased to note that she had deferred to him in this matter.
    The duc led the way to the family chapel, where Robbie, Sean MacGuire and Bran Kelly already awaited them. Edmond de Beaumont drew in his breath sharply as they entered.
    "What has happened here?" he demanded furiously. "Where are the tapestries, Uncle? Where are the beautiful altar cloths? The candles? The crucifix? The paintings? Where is the tabernacle?"
    The chapel was indeed bare and plain with its simple wooden altar. There was no vigil light. The only light was from its windows, magnificent arches of red, blue, gold, and green stained glass.
    "Those fripperies were but trappings of the Devil, Edmond. It was my decision to remove them."
    “To where? There were pieces in this chapel that go back almost a thousand years! They belong to this family and to the Church!"
    "Pastor Lichault would have destroyed them, Edmond, but I had them packed away. I do not want them any longer. Now be silent, nephew, else you spoil my wedding day." The duc nodded to a man who stood by the altar, and immediately the servant ran out through the sacristy to return a moment later with another man.
    He has the look of a cadaver, Skye thought. He was very tall, and very thin, and his face was long with narrow lips, a strangely large nose, and eyes that burned with the fervor of a martyr. He was garbed totally in black, and his rather spare, gray hair stuck out from beneath his square black hat at funny angles. As they approached him Skye could see that his fingernails were dirty, and as they came still closer she noted that he smelled terrible and that there was a ring of dirt around his neck.
    "Behold the bride!" the stranger said in a voice that was surprisingly masterful and compelling for such an unattractive man. Then he smiled, showing yellowed teeth, some of which were broken.
    The duc returned the smile. "Pastor, I would present to you my new duchesse, Skye." It was the first time he had said her name, and she was surprised that he remembered it, since he had kept calling her madame.
    Pastor Lichault chortled. "Ah, Fabron, my son, she is not yet your duchesse, not until I have made her so!" He smiled again. This time his eyes fastened upon Skye, and she fought back the urge to shiver as she saw the man mentally undress her, licking his lips as he obviously liked what his imagination showed him. "Well, let us get on with it then," he said briskly. "Will you take this woman to wife, Fabron?"
    "I will," the duc said.
    "Will you take this man to husband, Skye? Will you accept him as your master?"
    "I take him as my husband," Skye said, and the pastor glared at her.
    "You are then man and wife," the pastor finally said grudgingly.
    If Skye was horrified with this brief display then so were those who witnessed it. Bran Kelly turned to Robbie and said softly, "If that's a marriage ceremony then I'm a Muslim. Do you think it's legal, or is our lady being gulled?"
    Robbie shook his head. "I don't know. I suppose if it's all right with the duc then it's legal here."
    "It would not be legal in the eyes of the true Church," Edmond de Beaumont said in a low, angry voice, and Sean MacGuire nodded his agreement. "I do not know what has come over my uncle," Edmond finished.
    "Come, madame." The duc had taken her hand, and was turning her about. "I have had a light supper set up in the hall to celebrate our nuptials."
    "Uncle, you have not given Skye a ring. Where is her wedding ring?"
    "There is no need for one, Edmond. We have been united according to God's law in the presence of witnesses. Pastor Lichault believes that wedding rings are a worldly and ostentatious show. I have donated the gold I would have spent on such a ring to him for use among the poor."
    "And will you share your happiness with our people as is customary, Uncle? Will there be feasting and dancing for our people this night in Beaumont?"
    "Such extravagances are wasteful and unnecessary, Edmond. A marriage is a part of God's law, and there is no cause for undue celebration because one keeps God's law as is expected of him."
    "Another of Pastor Lichault's gems?" Edmond de Beaumont remarked sarcastically.
    "You will apologize at once, nephew!"
    "Never! The man is a charlatan!"
    "Edmond," Skye pleaded. "For my sake, please." She didn't want this appalling day marred any more than it already had been.
    "Very well, chérie, for you, but only for you," Edmond replied, smiling sweetly at her. "I regret my hasty words, Pastor."
    "Already," the pastor oozed, "our new duchesse exerts a salubrious influence upon this family. It is a good sign," and he smiled his yellow-toothed smile at them all.
    The duc led them into the main hall of the castle with its marvelous silk banners and tall windows now red with the sunset. There were two enormous fireplaces in the hall, but neither was lit this night; rather, they had been banked with flowering branches. Daisy had already disappeared, it not being seemly that she eat with her mistress, and so only Skye, the duc, Edmond, Robbie, Sean MacGuire, Bran Kelly, and the pastor sat at the high board. The duc sat to Skye's right, Robbie to her left. The pastor was on the duc's right, and next to him sat Edmond de Beaumont. Bran Kelly was on the other side of Robbie, and on Bran's left was Captain MacGuire.
    Immediately the servants in the duc's azure and silver livery began to pour the lovely rose-colored wine that Edmond had told her was a favorite in Beaumont de Jaspre. An enormous mullet complete with its eyes, set upon a bed of greenery and surrounded with whole carved lemons, was presented as the first course. Skye declined the fish. Her stomach was churning nervously at the thought of what awaited her. She had never been to bed with a stranger, a man she had only just met. No! she amended the thought, and a small smile turned up the corners of her mouth. There was Adam!
    She remembered back to the first time she had gone to bed with Adam de Marisco. She had come to Lundy to enlist his help, offering him two percent of her profit if he would aid her. He had asked instead for one percent of the profit-and a night with her. She had been horrified, but had agreed, for she needed his help. Without it she could not triumph over Elizabeth Tudor, who had insulted her unforgivably. But with Adam it had been different. He had been teasing and amusing from the beginning, and although she had been hesitant, she had not been afraid.
    She glanced almost fearfully at the stern man by her side. He had not kissed her at the conclusion of their brief marriage ceremony, and although he apparently knew her name, he had only called her by it once.
    The servants were now offering capon in gingered lemon sauce, baby lamb, artichokes in olive oil and tarragon vinegar, new peas, and fresh bread. Skye nibbled absently.
    "Are you ill?" The duc put his hand on hers.
    She started, and looked up at him. His eyes were void of any emotion although his voice was kindly. "I am probably tired," she answered. "It has been a long trip."
    "Go prepare yourself for bed then, madame," he said quietly. "I will come to you shortly."
    She nodded and then, leaning over, said to Robbie, "I am going to retire now."
    "I won't leave you, lass. Remember that I promised you. Tomorrow I shall spend the day looking for a house. Send to me when you want me." He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
    With a sad little sigh she returned the kiss, and then rose and left the hall as discreetly as possible. How bleak this marriage already was, she thought, thinking of the gaiety of her previous nuptials. She easily found her way back to her apartment, where Daisy had prepared a bath for her.
    "You've not had a freshwater bath in several weeks, m'lady," Daisy said, "and I know how you like yer bath."
    "I can't tarry tonight," she replied.
    "Nay," Daisy said in agreement. "I've laid out the dusky-rose silk gown for you to wear."
    "No," Skye said. 'The duc is a conservative man. Perhaps it would be better if my nightclothes were more modest until we get to know one another better. Put the rose away and get the pale-blue silk."
    Skye allowed Daisy to strip her of her garments, and then while her faithful tiring woman put her gown away and sought the simpler nightrail, she quickly bathed, enjoying the soft warm water scented with damask rose oil and her damask rose soap that lathered so richly. The feel of the satin suds on her skin was almost sensual. She had, thanks to a surprise rainstorm the previous afternoon, been able to wash her long dark hair on the ship before they arrived at Beaumont de Jaspre. Clean hair always made her feel better. Rinsing herself off, she climbed from the tub. Then she took the large bath sheet that Daisy had laid out for her and dried herself off.
    Daisy quickly powdered her lady, and then slipped the blue gown over her head. It slid down Skye's lithe body with a hiss. It was a simple gown with long, full sleeves banded at the wrists with silk ribbon. Its neckline was low and scooped, but it was far more modest than the sheer rose-colored silk gown Daisy had originally chosen. That creation would have clung to her lush form as if it had been painted on, not at all like this full gown, which discreetly hid her shape.
    At Daisy's sharp command two serving men entered the room and carried the little wooden tub from the bedchamber.
    "How on earth did you get them to do that?" asked Skye, knowing full well that her Devon-born servant didn't speak a word of French.
    "Well, m'lady, it's not so much the knowing of the words as it is the tone of voice you use, and your hand signals. Don't worry about me. I'll get on just fine. The words ain't so hard to learn. I'll be gabbing away in their own language in no time at all."
    "Oh, Daisy!" Skye hugged the girl. "I probably shouldn't have let you come along with me. You and Bran should be married now, and starting your own family."
    "Plenty of time for that," Daisy replied tardy. "You're going to need me, m'lady. I can see that."
    The little door on the other side of the bed opened, and the duc, in a white nightshirt, entered the room. Daisy bobbed her mistress a quick curtsey and then one to the duc, and hurried from the room.
    "You are not in bed," he said. "In Beaumont de Jaspre it is customary for a bride to await her husband in their nuptial bed."
    "I wanted a bath," she said. "I have not had a freshwater bath in weeks."
    "Pastor Lichault says bathing is a vanity."
    "Then surely he must be the most humble of men," Skye replied sharply. "One cannot be in the same room with him without smelling his body odor. It is distasteful. I have never particularly equated dirt with godliness."
    "I would be inclined to agree with you, madame," he said.
    There it was again, she thought. That faint touch of humor in his voice. He walked around to where she was standing and very gently began removing the pins from her hair, which Daisy had not gotten around to doing. Carefully he placed the pins on the mantel of the small fireplace, which, like those in the Great Hall, was banked in flowers. Her long hair tumbled down, and he ran his hands through it admiringly. Skye stood very still. He worried her yet, for although he was obviously attracted to her, she could see or feel no passion in him or his actions.
    "You have beautiful hair," he said quietly. "A woman's hair is her glory." He then turned her so that her back was to him, and to her surprise, he pushed her gown from her shoulders, baring her to the waist. Gently he cupped her small, full breasts briefly caressing them. "And so is her bosom. You have a lovely bosom, madame. I will enjoy seeing our children suckle upon those beautiful breasts, for that is why God gave them to you." Calmly he drew her gown back up again and, taking her by the hand, led her to the bed. "Now, madame, I want you to lie face down upon the bed," he said.
    She gasped and turned large frightened eyes to him. Her heart began to pound with certain, terrible memories. "Surely monseigneur, you are not going to make love to me in the Greek fashion?"
    "How do you 'know of such things?" he thundered angrily, grasping her upper arms so hard that she knew she would be bruised come morning. "What kind of a woman has England sent me? No respectable woman should know of such abomination! Answer me, madame!" His black eyes blazed his outraged fury.
    "My first husband," she cried, trying to loosen his grasp on her tender flesh. "He loved to humiliate me by doing… doing that."
    "You did not like it?" His gaze searched her face anxiously.
    "It disgusted me," she replied honestly.
    He loosed his grip on her. "So it should have, madame, for God forbids such wickedness. You need not fear that I practice such depravity. However, you must trust me when I ask you to lie face down upon the bed, and you must obey me, madame, for I am your lord and master in both God's eyes and man's."
    Skye was distressed. He had assured her that he did not practice Dom's particular perversion, yet why did he want her to lie face down upon the bed? The silence hung heavy between them. She wasn't going to find out standing here, and surely he wasn't going to harm her after he had said he wouldn't. With a sigh she lay down upon the bed.
    "Move into the center, madame," came the command, and she obeyed him.
    He took her left wrist, and she felt him sliding something about it, something soft and yet strong. As she moved her head to look he moved around the bed to grasp her right arm and bind it as well to the carved posts of the bed with a woven silken cord.
    She gasped again, this time with shock. "Monseigneur!" she cried, "what are you doing?" Her fear was beginning to rise again. She struggled to control it, trying to draw a calming breath. His actions, however, were not reassuring.
    He was now spreading her legs and binding them also to the lower posts of the bed. "I am binding you to the bed, madame. I would have thought that that was obvious to you." He had finished, and moving up by her head, he pulled the pillows from beneath it. Then lifting her with a surprisingly strong hand, he stuffed the pillows beneath her belly so that her hips were well elevated.
    "Why are you doing this?" Her voice bordered on the hysterical. Dear Heaven, what terrible perversion was he going to practice upon her helpless form? If he killed her what would happen to her children?
    "Because," he said, as he carefully raised her silk nightgown up, fully exposing her buttocks and legs, "I am going to beat you."
    "What?!" Her voice was a shriek. He was a madman!
    "I am going to beat you," he repeated calmly.
    "But why? What have I done? We do not even know each other! How can I have displeased you so in the short time since I arrived that you would do something so awful as to beat me?!"
    Fabron de Beaumont sat by her side, and in a calm voice began to explain. "My beautiful bride," he said in a voice laced with patience, "you are a woman, and women are weak vessels who must be constantly corrected in order to give them true strength. Pastor Lichault advocates the daily beating of a wife until she conforms perfectly, instantly, and without questions to her husband's will. He and I spoke at great length tonight before I came to you. He feels that you are much too independent a woman at present to make me a dutiful wife. Nonetheless we are now wed, and so he felt that I must begin on this our wedding night a program of correction so that I may mold you into the kind of woman that my wife should be. If you are to bear my children you must raise them as I desire, without question, and with instant obedience. Women are inferior to men, and yet you have dared to raise yourself above your humble station, to put yourself on a level with men. You are overproud, Skye, but I am going to save you from yourself. This I promise you."
    She was horrified. "How can you judge me so quickly, my lord Fabron?" she asked him pleadingly. "If women are so inferior then why has God chosen a queen for England, a queen who reigns without the aid of a husband? And what of France's Catherine de Medici, a queen mother who has reigned for her minor children with God's blessing?"
    "You ask too many questions, Skye," he said. “That is one way I am able to judge you. Women should not ask questions, for Pastor Lichault says they were born to obey without question. As to those two queens you have mentioned, who is to say that it is God who keeps them in power? More likely it is the Devil!"
    "Monseigneur, I beg of you, do not beat me!" Skye was becoming extremely frightened. Was her husband a madman? Did he really believe the foolish nonsense that he had been spouting? Pastor Lichault was obviously one of those awful Calvinists who believed that any joy in living was sinful. They were such fools, the Calvinists. She had known some in England, and they were as dangerous as the fanatics among the Catholics. She shuddered with her fright.
    "Madame, I do this for your own good. In time, when you have been properly schooled and seen the errors of your past attitude, you will be grateful to me for my perseverance."
    "H-how long will you continue to do this?" her voice was shaking. Dear God, she prayed silently, don't let him kill me in his zeal. Let me live to win him over for both our sakes, and the sake of my children.
    "When the day comes, my dear, that you admit to your faults, admit that a woman is incapable of running a business-and I suspect that your business partner does it all for you, despite your claim; when the day comes that you admit that you are not suited to running the vast estates that you claim to run, and entrust such things to me, then I will know that you have become the kind of wife I seek, and want. Until that time I will beat you each night before we retire."
    He stood up and moved where she could not see him, only to return a moment later. In his hand he now had a birch switch the thickness of her finger. He placed it before her lips and commanded her, "You will kiss the rod of correction, madame. When I am through you will kiss it again and remember to thank me for your punishment."
    Skye turned her head aside. In this she would defy him. It mattered not what she did, he was going to hurt her anyway. At least she would not grovel.
    His voice grew cold with anger. "I had meant to go easily with you tonight," he said, "but I can see that the pastor is right. You are arrogant beyond reason. You will be given the full measure of your punishment."
    She tried a last time. "Monseigneur, I beg you do not do this. If you do I shall complain to my queen who sent me here! She will not be pleased to learn that you are abusing me."
    "You will complain to no one, madame. It is my right as your husband to chastise you. Even your corrupt church will not deny me that right! You wished to get to know me better, and I am granting you that privilege. For the next month you will not leave these rooms, and I shall leave them only when necessary. I intend mating with you as often as possible in that time so that you will bear me a child as quickly as possible. I need an heir! We will spend the next month mating, and struggling through prayer and punishment to change your behavior." He raised the switch and brought it down sharply upon her bare buttocks.
    Skye screamed with surprise. She had not been expecting the blow so soon, and he gave her no time to recover. His arm rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell again in ceaseless motion as he began to beat her in earnest. She cried out again and again with pain as the switch cut sharply and cruelly into her tender bottom.
    This was a nightmare! It could not be happening! "Please," she wept, "please, monseigneur, I beg you! Stop! Stop!" Skye felt very ashamed of herself to beg, but she could not stand the awful pain.
    His answer was to lash her harder, this time cutting into her legs. She felt the warm trickle of blood as he broke the skin. Skye struggled against her silken bonds, but she could not escape him, and the pillows he had placed beneath her had only served to raise her hips up higher so he might get at them easier. His arm did not seem to tire easily of the punishment; rather, he seemed to be gaining strength from her struggles.
    "Bitch!" he hissed at her, and he cut viciously at her writhing bottom. "Admit to your faults! Admit that you are nothing! That man is the master! Admit that you are mindless softness made only for man's pleasure, the cracked vessel for the spilling of his seed! A beast to bear his sons! It is God's law, and you defy that law!"
    "No! No!" she sobbed as the switch laid white-hot pain upon white-hot pain. "Women are not beasts! They have minds, too!"
    "You are stubborn," he again hissed at her, his arm never flagging in its punishment of her helpless flesh, "but in the end I will prevail, and I will save you from the snares of the Devil, who has so obviously gained possession of your soul!"
    She could not stand much more of this torture, and her mind began to drift away into a blessed and quiet darkness. She no longer felt the switch's heat, or heard the duc's voice. Adam, she cried out within her mind, and then she felt him loving her as he had so often loved her. She struggled to open her eyes, feeling her desire for him rising, wanting to see his dear face, to feel his caress.
    Her black lashes fluttered against her pale cheeks, and she finally managed to raise them to unveil her eyes. To her horror, it was the duc who was upon her, preparing to insert his long, swollen male organ within her helpless body. "No!" she shrieked, seeking to force him off her, but though she was now lying upon her back, her buttocks burning like fire beneath her, to her dismay her arms were still bound to the bedposts.
    He seemed not to notice her resistance. Instead he moaned with open desire, pushing her nightgown up to her neck and fumbling with her breasts again. "Beautiful, beautiful," he murmured, "such beautiful little tits!" He lowered his head and sucked each one in turn, then rolled the tight nipples between his thumb and his forefinger, pinching them gently again and again until she thought she would scream. His hand roamed over her belly, fondling it, murmuring of the babes she would give him, and then, despite her protests, he was pushing himself into her. He thrust deeply, moving rhythmically as he muttered, "Fuck! You were made to be fucked, Skye! Ah, God! You were born to be fucked!"
    She stared at him with horror. She could have been a dead body for all he cared! It made no difference to him whether she was conscious or unconscious as long as he could feel, and touch, and fuck her. What was worse for her was the terrible realization that she felt nothing herself. She, the most passionate and sensuous of women, felt nothing except an awful invasion of her mind and her soul and her body.
    The man atop her shuddered with his own release, and then fell over to one side. Within minutes he was snoring and she lay next to him, numb with shock and with shame. Even with Dom, God assoil his black soul, it had never been so dreadful. Dom, for all of his crudity, had loved her in his own fashion, had been proud of her, and jealous of her. This man wanted nothing but to break her, to possess her very soul, to make her a mindless creature fit for nothing more than bearing babies until she finally died of too many children in too few years. She had seen it happen to other women. It might even have happened to her with Dom had she not had her sister, Eibhlin, to help her.
    He had not taken the time to unbind her arms before he had fallen asleep, and so she lay uncomfortable and chilled as the night slowly progressed. Her bottom and the tender backs of her thighs ached with the beating that he had given her. She could feel the welts that had been raised on her skin burning like hot embers. Never before had she been subjected to such treatment. Her mind rebeled at the words that he had thrown at her this night. So he believed his warped pastor. He believed that women were nothing but mindless softness. Her bridegroom was in for a shock when he learned that this woman was rock-hard!
    She wondered if he would eventually untie her, or if he intended to keep her bound to the bed for the entire month. Was Fabron de Beaumont truly mad, or was he simply a crazed fanatic? Had he been like this with his other wives? No. It was not possible. She did not think that Edmond had lied to her, and he had always spoken of his uncle with genuine affection. No. The duc was obviously not a strong man, and had somehow come under the influence of this terrible creature, Pastor Lichault. Perhaps he felt guilt for the deaths of his two previous wives. Or perhaps he had secretly wanted to be a priest, as Edmond had suggested, and he could not because of his family obligations. The Huguenot had seen the duc's weaknesses and wielded his evil influence upon Fabron when he was bereft of all his family. But it could not, must not continue! Skye knew she could not stand many more beatings like the one the duc had administered to her this night.
    God's foot, but he was a cold man! Her genuine, piteous cries should have wrung his heart, but instead they had only driven him to apply his switch harder. She shuddered, remembering how terribly it had hurt. Then afterward, when she lay barely conscious, to have taken her body, uncaring of how she felt, of whether he gave her pleasure as well as took it! Suddenly a picture of women in war came to her mind, and she realized for all that the duc was her husband, she had been raped. She shuddered again. The man was a monster!
    "Are you cold?" His voice, calm now, asked her.
    "You have not untied me, monseigneur."
    "Forgive me, madame." He was solicitous, and reaching up, he loosened her bonds. Then he drew her into his arms and began stroking her breasts through her nightgown. "I find that I cannot get enough of you." He pushed up her nightgown again and mounted her. Skye stiffened and he noticed. "You do not like it when I fuck you?" he asked.
    "No," she answered, honestly not caring if she hurt him. Men were vain about such things.
    "Good," he said. "It is not meant that a woman gain pleasure from a man's labor. It is the man's pleasure that is paramount." He thrust into her again and again until he once more spilled his seed. Then the duc slept again.
    Thank God, thought Skye, that I have taken Eibhlin's potion. I'll not give this beast children! I am not certain that this family should be perpetuated. They produce dwarfs, idiots, and madmen. Better the French come and take the duchy.
    I will write to the Queen, she vowed. No, I will write to Lord Burghley! I will explain to him how it is. This marriage is not valid in the eyes of my own Church, and I suspect it is also invalid in the eyes of the Church of England. I must lull the duc into thinking that I am becoming more biddable so that I can speak with Robbie. Bess Tudor has asked many hard things of me, but even she will be shocked to learn of my plight, I know. She will not make me stay here. She cannot!
    Skye turned onto her side, away from her new husband who was snoring once again, and gingerly felt the weals he had raised on her skin. She would be revenged for each welt that he had marked on her flesh. That she promised herself. She had no intention of allowing him to further abuse her, even if she had to slit his throat. She could do it, too. Right now he lay helpless next to her, convinced of his own superiority, unbelieving that a woman could wield the power of life and death over any man. She smiled softly in the darkness. Fabron de Beaumont would very shortly learn, much to his distress, what it was like to have Skye O'Malley for an enemy. She didn't think that he was going to like it. Smiling, Skye fell asleep.

PART 2

BEAUMONT DE JASPRE

Chapter 4

    Fabron de Beaumont awoke with a start and stared into the blue-green eyes of his bride of less than a day. She was nude and sat comfortably upon his chest, pressing a small but lethal fruit knife against the hollow of his throat. His heart began to pump frantically.
    "Do not move, monseigneur," Skye said pleasantly, "else my hand slip; and do not make the mistake of thinking I will not kill you, for if you move I will."
    He swallowed hard, and she saw with a certain grim satisfaction the pulse leaping erratically in his throat. "Why?" he said.
    "You asked the Queen of England for a wife, monseigneur, and she graciously supplied you with one. I must assume that you knew the women of my region are proud and independent ladies. Even the women of France are enlightened in this day and age.
    "I am not a creature to be beaten into obedience. I am a woman, monseigneur. I am a woman of intelligence, and wealth, and family. If you should ever raise your hand to me again without just cause I will kill you without hesitation. I will be a good wife to you, and if God wills it I will bear you children. I will not, however, convert to your Huguenot faith. I am not the best of Catholics, but I prefer my faith over others, and I have always granted that others have a right to their own beliefs."
    She looked piercingly at him. "Do you understand me, monseigneur? There will be no more beatings!”
    "And if I refuse to agree, you arrogant bitch, what then?" he demanded, his own dark eyes blazing with outrage and anger.
    "I will kill you now where you lie, monseigneur," she said coldly. "My body is scarred with your marks. I have but to show them to your nephew, and to Père Henri.
    "I will claim that as a good daughter of the Church I knew your pastor had no real authority to wed us, and that although I begged and pleaded with you to call back Père Henri to marry us in the only true faith, you would not have it." She smiled sweetly down at him. "Then I will claim that I could not live in sin with you, having always been a respectable married woman-and monseigneur, my reputation has always been spotless. But you forced yourself upon me, and when I tried to protect my virtue you beat me mercilessly. Having been subjected to a night of your carnal lust and unnatural desires, I did the only thing a good daughter of the Church could have done when you came at me again, threatening my very soul with your wicked perversions. I killed you." She looked down on him dispassionately. "Do you really think that the Church, or your good nephew, will hold me responsible for an act committed in a moment of terror?"
    Skye had the upper hand now, and she knew it. She had quickly ascertained the duc was no fool. He would therefore not want a scandal. "The choice as to whether you live or die is up to you, monseigneur. Make it now!" she said, her gaze icy.
    "How do you know that you can trust me, madame?" he asked her, unable to keep his eyes from her beautiful breasts. "I could agree, and then when you are off my chest, your knife put away, renege on our agreement. An agreement made under such duress can scarcely be legal."
    "You are, so your nephew claims, an honorable man. I must assume that honor extends to a mere woman as well as to your fellow man."
    He nodded, rather surprised by her logic. "Very well, madame, I agree. I will not beat you again, but understand that any children you give me will be brought up in my faith, and not yours. I will not allow you to taint my sons with the great harlot Rome."
    "I agree," she said without hesitation, knowing that if she decided to bear his children she would be able to teach them love despite Pastor Lichault. She swung lightly off him and lay the fruit knife upon the candlestand. Then, sitting back against the pillows, she drew the finely embroidered linen sheets up to cover her bosom. The simple show of modesty rather intrigued him.

    He sat up and looked at her. "You are a formidable woman, madame."
    "My name is Skye," she said quietly. "You have said it but once since we first met yesterday. Can you not call me by my name in the privacy of our chambers at least?"
    "You have only used my name once also, Skye."
    "It is an unusual name, Fabron," she answered him.
    "It is peculiar to this region," he said. "It is a family name. From the beginning of time there have always been Fabrons in the de Beaumont family."
    There was a long silence between them, and then she asked, "Why do you dislike women so much?"
    He thought a moment, then said, "I didn't realize that I did until just now." He sighed. "I suppose I resent the fact that I could not become a priest in my youth, as I wanted to. I was my father's eldest legitimate son. Edmond's father was my only full brother, although my father populated the region with his bastards. One of those bastards was even the son of a young noblewoman. He had few scruples, my father. He was a very carnal man. He was also a very strong-willed one. Eldest sons inherited, and only death was an accepted excuse for shirking one's responsibilities.
    "My first wife suffered many years trying to give me a child. Poor Marie. With each miscarriage or stillbirth she became more determined to give me a live son. Such a sweet woman. She died trying, and I believed that God was punishing me for not having followed my conscience. When my second wife, Blanche, finally gave birth to that drooling idiot who is called my son, and then died also, I was certain that God was punishing me.
    "When I met Pastor Lichault and confided in him he assured me that the loss of these two women had satisfied God's anger. He says that you are a healthy, vigorous woman who will easily give me children if I can but curb your wicked spirit, which is an affront to God."
    "I cannot agree with the pastor," Skye said quietly. "A woman is best handled with love and kindness. Like a flower, she will grow and flourish with a man's love. Unkindness will only make her vengeful and bitter. Besides, if you expect the kind of son who can rule this duchy, it is a strong woman who must bear him for you."
    "Did you love the other men you were married to, Skye?" he asked her curiously. "Did they not object to your strong will?"
    "I loved three of them," she said. "Each was a different man, and yet each possessed a great capacity to love. Yes, I loved them, and they loved me. None ever objected to my ways." Her face was alight with her memories, and he caught his breath in wonder at how incredibly beautiful she was.
    Leaning over and taking her hand, he turned it and kissed the palm. Her eyes regarded him seriously. She felt nothing for him, although she knew he was trying, and so she felt that she must try also. There was no other choice. She withdrew her hand from his and, reaching out, touched his cheek. He looked back at her, his glance equally serious and unsmiling.
    "I know that the Bible says it is wrong for a man and a woman to show themselves as God created them, but at this moment I wish for nothing more than to see you naked. Will you grant me that wish, Skye?"
    Drawing the covers off, she rose from the bed. "I am sure," she said, "that it is Pastor Lichault who has told you this, Fabron, but I believe he is wrong. The Bible says that we were created in God's image, and if that be so, how can it be wrong to admire what God hath wrought, what God is?" She turned slowly so he might have a full and complete view of her body.
    He almost wept at her beauty; the small perfect breasts, the graceful line of her buttocks and legs, the slender grace of her waist, the long line of her back, her shapely arms. Everything was perfection, but for the marks of his rod on her skin. They would fade, but seeing them, he felt guilty. "You cannot be real," he said. "The pastor is right! Women are an invention of the Devil! Cover yourself, madame!"
    In answer she flung herself upon the bed next to him. "No, Fabron," she said firmly. She had made up her mind to fight the ignorance and superstition of the Huguenot. She was the duc's wife now, and she was not going to allow Pastor Lichault either to rule or destroy her marriage. "The Bible tells us that woman was created by God from the rib of Adam, the first man."
    "How do you know this? Who told it to you?"
    "No one told me, Fabron. The Bible has been translated into English, and I have seen it, and read it with my own eyes."
    "Your wicked Church forbids that you know what is in the Bible," was his answer.
    "The Church forbids many things, Fabron, and I do not always agree with them." She smiled a small smile at him. "I told you that I was not the best of Catholics. The Bible was translated, and I wanted to read what it said. I did."
    "Do you always do what you want, madame?" His black eyes were stern, but the little hint of humor was there in his voice again.
    "The choice is not always mine, Fabron, but when it is I usually choose to please myself, yes." What a strange man he was, Skye thought. He was tortured and guilt-ridden, and he had been cruel to her, yet she felt sorry for him.
    Their eyes met, and then he reached out his hand and smoothed it down the curve of her hip. "It is wrong surely to make love in the daylight," he said low, and she saw he wanted her.
    "Has Pastor Lichault said it?" she gently teased, watching him from beneath hooded lids.
    "The subject has never come up, Skye. I have never read it was so in the Bible, have you?"
    "No, monseigneur, I have not."
    His hand moved to fondle her buttock. "Have you ever before made love in the daylight?" he asked.
    "Yes," she answered him. She could see how very roused he was by her body, by their conversation, by the picture in his mind that their talk had aroused. With a sob he was pushing her back against the pillows to fumble with her breasts, all the while murmuring, "Surely such pleasure must be wrong! We should not do this thing. We should not!" Yet he was possessing her quickly, before she was even ready for him, moistening his fingers in his mouth and rubbing them against her cleft, pushing eagerly into her to satisfy his own desires.
    Skye closed her eyes, and let him have his way as he sobbed and thrust atop her. At least, she thought relieved, he is capable of functioning without cruelty. In time I will teach him to give me pleasure too if I can but free him from his fears. How odd, she thought. For the first time in my life it is I, and not the man, who is in charge of the lovemaking.
    Then with a wild cry the duc collapsed, sated with his lust. Although she was not yet ready to forgive him his brutality she felt strangely sympathetic toward him. He was really quite a sad man, a weak man filled with fears and prejudices. He was susceptible, however, to strength in others, and she was strong. Until now there had only been Pastor Lichault to influence him, but she would overcome that unpleasant creature, for if she did not she would find life with her new husband a living hell; and she could certainly not bring her children into such an atmosphere.

***

    For many days Skye and Fabron remained alone together within her chambers. They spoke at length and as she listened she learned much about her new husband. There had never, she decided, been any real love in his life, and he was suffering greatly from its lack. The only person who had ever given him honest affection, it seemed, was Edmond, his nephew. His mother, a distant cousin of France's queen mother, Catherine de Medici, had been a cold and correct woman who, having borne her two children, left them to the casual care of others. His father had been a stern man of high principles and lusty appetites who had never once made an affectionate gesture toward either of his sons, being far too busy running the duchy-and pursuing the ladies, which he did equally well.
    The only person who had ever offered Fabron warmth and affection was the castle priest, Père Henri, and perhaps from this had come his desire to join the Church, to emulate the man whom he most admired. His father, of course, would not hear of it, and Fabron de Beaumont had grown bitter. Père Henri had understood both parties, and had tried to mediate between father and son. If it was God's will that Fabron de Beaumont be a priest he would have been born the younger son, Père Henri insisted, hoping to satisfy both men, but this argument wore thin and grew more suspect with each miscarriage of Fabron de Beaumont's wives and their deaths. Then his father died, and there was no escape from his responsibilities. His younger brother was dead, injured in a tournament, and his only legitimate male relation was his dwarf nephew. He was forced to take another wife.
    While Fabron awaited his bride Pastor Lichault had begun to work his evil upon the easily susceptible duc. Yes, the cleric had agreed with the guilt-ridden man, the past was indeed God's judgment upon him for not having followed his conscience, but now God was sending him a new wife. It was time for a fresh start. A new wife, a new faith. The pastor spoke with authority and quoted the Bible with apparent knowledge. Desperate to succeed with this new wife where he had failed with his others, the duc was swayed from the faith of his fathers, and with the zeal of all converts he embraced his new faith with passion.
    Now his beautiful new wife had introduced a strong element of doubt into his mind. She was all the things that the pastor had said a woman shouldn't be; she was totally different from any woman he had ever known; and yet after almost three weeks of marriage to Skye he believed that for the first time in his life he might be falling in love. Skye! It was an outrageous name, but he was already used to it and liked it. She had been named after the island from which her mother had come, Skye had told him. Strange, it suited her. She was not a Marie or a Jeanne or a Renée.
    She was beautiful, and willful; and gentle and independent; and tender and intelligent. She was, in fact, all the things he had never before even considered in a wife except perhaps beautiful. She had yet to refuse him her body, although his two previous wives had always been seeking excuses to avoid their wifely duties, and then when he had finished with them they had moved quickly away from him. Skye always snuggled next to him, or held him within her own arms. He found he liked that in particular, pillowing his head upon her soft breasts, breathing the marvelous rose fragrance of her. She was cleaner and sweeter than any woman he had ever known.
    One night she said to him as he lay sated with pleasure, "Do you know, Fabron, that you have never kissed me?"
    He was startled, for he had never been one for that kind of closeness. Nonetheless he suddenly wanted to please her, to give back some of the kindness she was bestowing upon him despite their wretched beginning; a beginning he winced at when he remembered it. "Would it please you if I kissed you, Skye?" he asked her anxiously.
    "Yes," she said softly, "it would please me greatly, mm mari."
    Raising himself upon one elbow, he bent his head down and touched his lips gently to hers, drawing away as quickly as though he had been burned. With a soft laugh Skye drew his head back down with her hands, and pressed her mouth to his ardently. Fabron de Beaumont felt a delicious weakness race through his veins, felt his flaccid manhood tingle and stir to life again.
    "That, monseigneur," she said as she released her hold on him and drew her mouth from his, "that is a kiss. Not altogether an unpleasant thing, is it?"
    "Are you mocking me, madame?" he demanded, but his dark eyes belied the sternness of his tone.
    "Perhaps a little," she replied. "Laughter goes with love, mon mari.”
    "You lack respect for me, madame," he said, "and I must claim a forfeit for this absence of decorum." Then he was kissing her, sweeping her into his arms, his lips seeking her sweetness with a gentle strength that quite surprised her. For the first time since their marriage a tiny tingle of desire stirred within Skye. Perhaps, she thought, there is hope for us after all.
    He held her lightly against him, and she knew that he gained tremendous pleasure from the proximity of her body, the warmth and the silkiness of her smooth perfumed flesh. "Do you like it when I caress you?" he asked her hesitantly.
    "Yes," she whispered to him.
    "Do you like it when I kiss and caress your lovely breasts?"
    "Yes, mon mari, I like it very much," was her soft answer.
    "I want you to like it," he said in what Skye thought was a shy voice. "I want you to like it when I make love to you."
    "Oh, Fabron," Skye said, touched and pleased that she was beginning to get through to him. "When you are gentle and tender with me I, too, find pleasure. Should we both not find pleasure in each other?"
    "Pastor Lichault says-"
    Her hand stopped his mouth. "What does a priest, a priest of any faith, know of passion between a man and his wife, Fabron? I believe that God gave a man his wife not only for companionship and the procreation of his children, but for pleasure as well. I believe that God gave woman her husband for the same reasons. Love me, and I will love you in return. Where is the wrong in that, mon mari?"
    Kissing her hand, he removed it from his lips, and said, "You make it all seem so simple, Skye."
    "It is simple, Fabron. Love me, and I will love you back."
    He made love to her then, made love to her as he had not made love to her before. He was tender and considerate. He sought to please her for the first time, and was surprised to find that her pleasure excited him greatly. When she attained the top of the mountain he realized that all the other times she had only pretended in order to please him. It was then he knew that he loved this beautiful woman who, despite his bestial treatment of her that first night, had sought to make their marriage work. u Je t'aime, Skye," he murmured in her ear, and she held him close, knowing now that they had a chance to succeed in their marriage.

***

    Their idyll was soon over, however. The next morning they sat at a small table that Daisy set up each day in the window of the bedchamber, eating their simple meal of sweet ripe peaches, fresh bread warm from the oven, salt brie, and watered wine. The long windows stood open, and along the stone balustrade blood-red roses grew over the pink stone. Above them the sky was a cloudless blue, below the sea was a sunlit blue-green. A small black and yellow songbird that had taken to visiting them perched himself amid the roses and sang a song before fluttering to their table to eat crumbs from Skye's hand. Husband and wife smiled at each other.
    "How can you do that?" he asked her, intrigued as he always was by her ability to charm the bird.
    "The bird knows that it has nothing to fear from me," she said softly. "If you love a wild creature it senses your love."
    "More than likely it is witchcraft!" thundered a voice from the center of the room. Startled, the bird fled.
    "M'lady, monseigneur, I tried to keep him out, but he pushed me aside," Daisy said indignantly. It was said in French, but Daisy quickly switched to English. "Beware, m'lady! The old devil's been fuming for days over the duc's neglect of him."
    "You presume upon my friendship for you, Pastor, that you would intrude upon the privacy of myself and my duchesse," Fabron de Beaumont said sternly.
    Pastor Lichault strode to the table. Skye wrinkled her nose. Did the man never bathe? He smelled as if he slept with the goats. "I come for the good of your immortal soul, Fabron, my son! Since the night I joined you under God's holy law with this woman you have not come to me. You have neglected your spiritual duties, and God is displeased! He will take his vengence, and this woman will abort your seed as did your other wives. Down upon your knees, both of you! Beg God's forgiveness before it is too late!"
    The duc looked suddenly uncertain and frightened; Skye was furious and she leapt to her feet. "You wicked man!" she shouted at the pastor. "It is you who should fall upon your knees and beg God's forgiveness for your distorted, terrible teachings!"
    "Whore!" The pastor pointed a bony finger at Skye. "Look at her, Fabron, my son! Look how she flaunts her body like a common harlot of Babylon!" His eyes fastened upon her breasts, and he unconsciously licked his lips. Skye was wearing the sheer, rose-colored silk gown she had refused to wear the night of her wedding to the duc.
    "You are looking hard enough," she accused the pastor, "and the thoughts I see lurking behind your evil eyes are hardly those of a holy man!" She was very angry now.
    "You have neglected your duties by this woman," the pastor cried. "Her skin is unmarked. You have not beaten her each day as I told you you must, and she is more unbridled than when she came to you. If you will not follow God's will, then I must do it for you, for the sake of your immortal soul!" Reaching out, the pastor grasped at Skye with surprisingly strong fingers, and tearing her gown from her, he began to beat her with his hands about the face and head. Skye screamed and struggled to escape his hold.
    With a roar of outrage Fabron de Beaumont leapt at the Huguenot pastor and dragged him off of Skye. Furiously he began to pummel the man with knotted fists as Daisy ran to aid her shaking mistress. "You devil's spawn," the duc snarled at the pastor, who had suddenly become a sniveling, cringing creature. "You lured me from my faith, and almost destroyed my marriage before it even began. Were my new duchesse not a woman of strength and character, I should have destroyed her that first night. God forgive me for the weakling I have been, but am no more!"
    Then with one sweeping motion Fabron de Beaumont lifted Pastor Lichault bodily into the air and flung him over the balcony. With horror they heard his death scream as he hurtled through the air, then all was silent. Skye and Daisy ran to the balcony and, looking over, saw that he was quite dead upon the rocks below, his neck twisted at a grotesque angle, blood streaming from his nose and mouth.
    Turning back to calm her angry husband, Skye saw that Fabron stood, his knees buckling, his eyes bulging from his head, his hands moving frantically from his throat to his head as he struggled to breathe, to speak. Then with a gasping, frantic cry he collapsed onto the floor.
    "Get the physician!" Skye commanded Daisy as she knelt by the duc's side. "Get Edmond also-and hurry, Daisy!"
    Daisy sped from the room, her legs moving automatically, for she was partially in shock from the events of the last few minutes. Behind her Skye checked to see if Fabron de Beaumont was still alive. He was; his barely noticeable breathing and a faint pulse throbbing in his neck were the only real evidence of his survival. "Oh, Fabron," she said, "I am so sorry! Please don't die, monseigneur. Get well for me, and I shall make you so happy." Skye took his head in her lap, stroking it as she sat quietly waiting. There was nothing else she could do to aid him. He was so still and so white now, and her heart went out to him. She did not know if she would ever love this strange man, but he obviously loved her. Loved her enough to come to her defense against the pastor. She felt no loss over that one's death. He was an evil man who brought only fear and unhappiness to those whose lives he had touched with his withering hand.
    "Chérie!” Edmond de Beaumont was suddenly there by her side. "What has happened?"
    "Madame la Duchesse." It was the physician. "I will take over now." He looked at Daisy. "Help me, girl. We will move him to the bed, where I may examine him more closely." Together the two lifted the limp man over to the bed, still tumbled from the night before.
    "What has happened?" Edmond repeated, seating Skye back down in a chair. His eyes lit admiringly on her breasts, the nakedness of which she was totally unaware. Then walking to the bed, he picked up a gossamer knit shawl and draped it over her shoulders.
    "Fabron had a terrible argument with the pastor, and became so angry that he threw Pastor Lichault over the balcony. Don't bother to look. He's dead. Then your uncle had some kind of attack." She shivered. "Get Père Henri, Daisy. I’m sure Edmond knows where he has been hiding."
    "The room at the top of the old north tower," Edmond said.
    Within a few minutes the priest joined them. It was the first time Skye had seen him, and she liked what she saw. Père Henri was a small man in early old age. Still, he possessed a full head of wavy white hair and kindly warm brown eyes. Although his features were very aristocratic, his speech was that of a less educated and privileged man. He was, she suspected, some lord's by-blow on a peasant girl. With the devotion to duty that had made him loved among the castle folk, he hurried to the duc's side and blessed him. Then, looking to the doctor, he asked, "Well, Mathieu, will he live?"
    "Possibly, mon père. He has suffered an apoplectic fit. Its severity I cannot tell until he returns to consciousness."
    The priest nodded and then moved across the room to Skye and Edmond. "How did this terrible thing happen, Edmond?" he asked.
    Quickly Edmond de Beaumont told Père Henri what he knew, and when he had finished the priest put a gentle hand upon Skye's head and blessed her, finishing with the words, "And the Church welcomes you to Beaumont de Jaspre, too, Madame la Duchesse. Now, my daughter, you will tell me the rest of it, from the beginning, from the night when you were joined with Fabron in matrimony."
    "You must marry us, mon père," Skye whispered. "That creature who called himself a man of God was not fit to do so."
    "For the time being, my daughter, you must not worry. The signatures on the betrothal agreement between you and the duc make your marriage legal in the eyes of the laws of this duchy. When the duc is able, we will, however, bestow the Church's approval on your actions." He patted her hand, and repeated as he sat down opposite her, "Now, tell me everything."
    She told them of the horrors of her wedding night, of how she had been trying these last three weeks to make a better thing of their marriage. Then she went on to tell them of how the pastor had burst in on them this morning, of the terrible things he had said, of how he had begun beating her-and of how the duc had gone to her defense. The duc had repented his lapse from the true Church, Skye assured Père Henri.
    "You are to be commended, my daughter," Père Henri said when she had finished. "Fabron was a disturbed and confused man. You showed true Christian patience in your efforts to win him over and to bring him back to Holy Mother Church. In the end, despite this tragedy those efforts were rewarded, praise God. Will you keep a vigil with me tonight in the chapel for your husband's recovery, my daughter?"
    She nodded, and he patted her hand again with approval. She looked at Edmond de Beaumont, whose violet eyes were filled with admiration for her, and asked him, "Will you see that the chapel is restored before tonight, Edmond?" She turned again to the priest. "Will you purify and rebless the sanctity of the chapel, mon père, before we begin our prayers?"
    Both men looked upon Skye with great approval, and she felt a twinge of guilt. She had not been this religious in years, she thought uncomfortably. She certainly did not want to mislead the two, and yet this was how she felt right now. The duc needed her prayers. Surely God would hear the prayers of even a less-than-perfect Catholic. "I am no saint, gentlemen," she said to salve her guilt. "Please do not attribute to me virtues which I do not possess, lest you later be very disappointed."
    Across the room the duc moaned, and Skye hurried to her husband's side. But although he was restless, he was still in an unconscious state. "I am here, Fabron," she said softly, and he quieted.
    For the next few days the duc hovered between consciousness and unconsciousness. Skye found herself suddenly in control of the duchy, and the responsibility helped to assuage her worry. With the death of Pastor Lichault the people were able to return freely to their own Catholic faith.
    The inhabitants of Beaumont de Jaspre believed that their ancestors had come to Christianity through the efforts of the early disciples who wandered the Mediterranean converting the people. The Beaumontese were devout and simple people who had delighted in their beautiful churches and the many religious festivals they celebrated. Pastor Lichault's stern Calvinistic coldness, his lack of joy, his constant harping upon sin and damnation had angered them as well as frightened them. They welcomed back their priests and the mass joyfully, and did not mourn the pastor despite their clerics' admonitions to forgive.
    Then the duc regained consciousness, but he could not move below the waist and he was unable to speak. "In time perhaps," his physician said, but a month passed and there was no improvement. A second month went by, and a representative from the French court arrived. The duc, he said, would obviously not recover. His only child was not fit to rule. Was the duchesse enceinte? Skye was forced to admit that she was not. M'sieur Edmond could not possibly inherit because of his disability. There was nothing for it but France take over the duchy. The French King's envoy suddenly found himself imprisoned within his apartments.
    “There has to be another way," Skye said as she met with Robbie, Edmond, and Père Henri. "We cannot allow the French to take Beaumont de Jaspre. Is there no other relative who might rule?" She looked to Edmond. "Surely there is someone."
    “There is Nicolas St. Adrian," Edmond said slowly.
    “The duc would not hear of it," Père Henri protested.
    "He has no choice. It is either Nicolas or the French, mon père"
    "Who is Nicolas St. Adrian?" Skye demanded.
    "He is the duc's very noble bastard brother," Père Henri replied. "A baron if I remember correctly."
    "St. Adrian is not a Beaumontese name," Skye noted.
    "It is not, madame," the priest answered. "Many years ago your husband's father fell in love with the only child of an elderly and impoverished noble family in Poitou. Emilie St. Adrian was the love of Giles de Beaumont's life; and the fact that he already had a wife did not prevent him from seducing the innocent girl. When she told him she was with child, expecting him to do the right thing and marry her, he was forced to confess to his deception. She refused ever to see him again, an art that her elderly father fully approved. When she delivered a healthy son, Giles de Beaumont attempted to contribute to the boy's support, but neither of the St. Adrians would hear of it. Everything he sent to the boy was returned unopened. Emilie's old father legally adopted the child, giving him the St. Adrian name, making him his heir, although he was heir to little, God knew.
    "Nicolas St. Adrian is some six years younger than your husband. His mother and grandfather somehow arranged to have him educated, the Lord only knows how, and were it not for his lack of money he might have had a brilliant career at court. As it is, he lives alone in his tumble-down castle, helping his peasants to scratch a bare living from his small estate. Both his grandfather and mother are long dead. He has no wife, as he cannot afford one, and he has not the means to go to court and catch himself a wealthy widow who would marry him for his handsome face."
    "He must be sent for," Skye said quietly. "There is no other choice. Under the circumstances, I do not understand why Fabron did not make him his heir long ago."
    "Madame," the priest said, "the duc is a rigid man. To his way of thinking, his half-brother was a bastard, a creature of no account. The fact that Nicolas St. Adrian lives in Poitou made it easier to enforce that idea within his own mind. I suspect he resented his half-brother. Duc Giles was frequently heard to bemoan Nicolas's loss, for he had frequent reports, through a friend, of the boy's progress, and Nicolas was everything he really wanted in a son. God's justice is often fitting, but how hard it must have been on Fabron to hear that. Duc Giles's attitude did not bother Edmond's father, Gabriel, but it did bother Fabron. He was a sensitive boy, although he hid it well."
    "I will speak to my husband," Skye said. "You do see that we have no choice in this, mon père? It is either Nicolas St. Adrian or France."
    The priest nodded. "Nonetheless the final decision must rest with the duc."
    "Very well," Skye said, and together she and Père Henri made their way to the duc's bedchamber.
    Fabron de Beaumont lay pale, his dark eyes closed, tucked carefully into his own dark-red-velvet-draped bed. The white linen sheets with their embroidered lace borders were folded neatly back over the light wool coverlet. He was clean and fresh, for Skye had insisted that he be kept that way. Hearing them enter the room, he opened his eyes, and at the sight of Skye they filled with undisguised love. Since his return to consciousness he had shown puppylike devotion to her, and she had been unable to deny him her affection, an affection for which he was obviously and childishly grateful.
    She bent and kissed him. "Good afternoon, mon mari. Père Henri and I have come to discuss something with you that is of great importance to your family."
    He nodded, and gestured with a weak arm that she sit by his side, which Skye did. Père Henri stood by her in the duc's view.
    "Fabron, the French want the duchy," Skye said quietly.
    His dark eyes flashed, and he made frustrated noises in the back of his throat.
    She put a gentling hand on his arm. "I know," she said. "It must not happen, and if it is at all possible we will prevent it, but we need your permission." He nodded, and she continued, "I am not with child, and it is very likely now that you will never be able to give me a child. I need not discuss Garnier with you. His problem is obvious, and poor Edmond is unsuitable. You have only one choice-your half-brother, Nicolas St. Adrian."
    Fabron de Beaumont's eyes flashed angrily, and he shook his head vehemently in the negative, but Skye was not deterred.
    "You have no alternative, Fabron," she said patiently. "You either turn the duchy over to your half-brother, or you turn it over to the French. In these last days while you have been ill I have spent much time reading the history of your family. It is a proud history, a noble and a very long history. Beaumont de Jaspre has been in existence and ruled by your family since 770. Nicolas St. Adrian is, for all the circumstances of his birth, a de Beaumont. He cannot be blamed for the plain fact that your father, a married man, seduced his young and inexperienced mother. Emilie St. Adrian was of good family, as good as your own.
    "I cannot fight the French, Fabron. Despite the fact that Queen Elizabeth sent me to you as a bride, there will be no help from England. You and I both know that I was sent in exchange for your opening your ports to English vessels. It was a marriage of convenience. Had I your child, or the hope of your child, I should fight the French with my last breath, but if you do not name your half-brother your heir, and ask him to come to you immediately, the French will have your lands before the year is out. That is the plain truth, and Père Henri will tell you I do not exaggerate. He was with me and Edmond when we were forced to listen to the arrogant demands of the French envoy. We have detained that envoy until Nicolas St. Adrian can reach us. He is our only hope, Fabron. You must agree!
    "If you do not you will put us all at the mercy of France- myself, your unfortunate son, and Edmond. What will happen to me, Fabron, if a French overlord arrives? Who will care for poor little Garnier? Will Edmond be forced to make his own way? As what? Perhaps both he and Garnier can find employment with a traveling fair. My beauty will, of course, guarantee me a protector, and perhaps I can take care of them. Unless, of course, my protector is jealous or not generous enough to support the others."
    "Ma fille!" chided a shocked Père Henri, "you are too harsh."
    "No, mon père, I am truthful. You look at me and see a beautiful woman, but you do not know that fate has often dealt harshly with me, and I have survived because I look at life honestly. I have never fooled myself, and I will not fool my husband. We are lost if he cannot overcome his stubborn pride, and agree to make his half-brother his heir." She reached out and gently smoothed the duc's brow. "I am sorry, Fabron," she said, "but you must agree, and despite the weakness in your hand you must sign the document making Baron St. Adrian your heir."
    He sighed deeply, and she could swear that she saw tears lurking deep within his dark eyes, but then he nodded resignedly.
    "You agree?" The priest leaned forward, and said, “You will agree to allow your half-brother, Nicolas St. Adrian, to come to Beaumont de Jaspre as your heir?"
    Fabron de Beaumont nodded his head decisively in the affirmative.
    "Very well, my son," he said. "I will send for Nicolas St. Adrian as soon as I can have the scribe draw up the papers. It will be immediately!"
    Fabron de Beaumont sighed again, and his sad, dark eyes closed wearily. Skye arose, and kissing him gently once more, she stole from the room with Père Henri.
    "You must send one of your priests," she said thoughtfully. "I do not think the French will suspect that we send to the bastard line of the family for aid, but it is wise never to underestimate one's enemy. If Edmond should go, his absence would be noted.
    *We must send to the Pope also. Catherine de Medici is a devout woman for all she is an ambitious one, and her son will listen to her. The French have too much trouble in the west now to argue with the Pope. If the Holy Father will confirm Nicolas St. Adrian's rights to the duchy of Beaumont de Jaspre then France dare not dispute the claim, and Beaumont de Jaspre is safe. Be sure our messenger to Rome carries rich gifts. I will send him in my own ship with Captain Kelly."
    "Madame," Père Henri said, his tone suddenly a very respectful one, "I am astounded at your foresight."
    Skye laughed. "I play the game well, mon père, do I not?" she said. "You cannot live at a Tudor court and survive without learning to be the perfect courtier. No one ever expects a woman to be responsible, but I have had the responsibility for not only myself and my children, but for vast estates and several great fortunes, beginning when I was sixteen. It is simply a matter of organization."
    "No," the priest said quietly. "Not all women could do what you do, madame."
    Skye laughed again. "I am not like all women," she said.
    Before nightfall the messenger had been dispatched to the Pope in Rome, sailing aboard Seagull in Captain Kelly's care. He carried with him a letter from Madame la Duchesse de Beaumont de Jaspre, and one from Père Henri. He would also bring to the prelate in Rome a pair of magnificent golden candlesticks adorned with silver gilt vines and leaves and enameled pink and white flowers. The base of each candlestick was studded with rubies and diamonds. Skye smiled to herself as she personally packed these treasures in red velvet cloth bags, and then into a carved ivory box. The Dowager Queen of France was in her heart a merchant's daughter, and known for her parsimony. If Catherine de Medici thought to present her own case to the Holy Father, she would not send anything to compare with Skye's gift to the papacy.
    The following morning the other messenger, this one a young priest from a wealthy Beaumont family who knew how to ride a horse well and handle a sword if necessary, left for the castle of Nicolas St. Adrian in Poitou. They had but to wait.
    To Skye's enormous surprise both her messengers returned within less than a month's time. The one who had gone to Rome had had an incredible piece of luck. As he and Bran Kelly had waited at the Pope's court with hundreds of other supplicants who sought to catch the Holy Father's attention, the Pope had passed through the room and heard Bran's voice. He had stopped and, looking at Bran, said, "My son, you have the sound of Ireland in your voice. I once had a secretary from that land. Am I correct?"
    Stunned at being addressed by the Pope himself, Bran could only nod. The Pope smiled. In a court filled with the world-weary he was touched by the big Irishman's awe. "Have this young man brought to me immediately," the Pope said. "I would speak with him." Bran and his fellow messenger, Père Claude, were hurried into the Pope's private chambers where the prelate graciously held out his hand so they might kiss his ring of office. The formalities over, he sat, and asked, "Now what may I do for you, my Irish friend?"
    In his slow and careful French Bran Kelly explained his mission. His mistress, Irish like himself, had been but recently wed with Fabron, Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre. Regretfully the duc had suffered an apoplectic fit shortly after the marriage. Now France was demanding that the duchy be turned over to them. The duc, however, chose to bestow his lands and his title upon his noble bastard half-brother, Baron Nicolas St. Adrian, a good and righteous man. He had sent Père Claude and Bran Kelly to ask that the Pope confirm that claim. Here Père Claude proffered the carved ivory box, which was eagerly taken up by one of the Pope's secretaries.
    There was a deep and very significant silence when the contents of the box were disclosed. A sensual smile upon his lips, the Pope fingered the workmanship on the candlesticks. He was thinking that Catherine de Medici was far too sure of herself. She believed the Pope to be in her pocket by virtue of their shared nationality. He turned to his chief secretary, and asked in a low voice, "Where is this Beaumont de Jaspre?"
    "It is a very small holding on the Mediterranean Sea between the Languedoc and Provence," the secretary said. "The Beaumonts have ruled there since the days of Charlemagne. Although they recognize France as their overlord, they have always been an independent holding."
    The Pope nodded. So Catherine de Medici wanted this tiny duchy, and the duc was certainly in a difficult position. Without the Pope's approval of the validity of Nicolas St. Adrian's claim, France would, he knew, take the lands by force. Perhaps it was better for now that France not have the duchy. Perhaps it was better that France's Dowager Queen be reminded that the papacy was not her personal toy, to be used at her convenience.
    The Pope smiled at the two kneeling men from Beaumont de Jaspre. "I will confirm the rights of Nicolas St. Adrian's claim to Beaumont de Jaspre, as this is what your duc desires," he said. "Cavelli!" he looked to his chief secretary. "You will draw up the papers; three copies. One for the Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre, one for Queen Catherine of France, and one for us. You will see it is done today. These men must get back to their master. Time is obviously most important here."
    "Holy Father, how can we thank you," Père Claude said. "My master and his people will ever be in your debt."
    The Pope smiled again, fingering the candlesticks lovingly. It was little enough to do for such munificence.
    "We will be happy to take the papal messenger with us as far as Beaumont de Jaspre, Holy Father," Bran Kelly said, "and we will supply him with a fine horse and a purse to continue his journey to France."
    The Pope was pleased. This would save him the expense of the man's trip, and the French would have to send him back at their own expense. 'Thank you, my son," he said. "Now let me bless you." Bran Kelly lowered his head, hiding a smile as he did so. These Italians were so predictably greedy. By making his offer to pay for the papal messenger he had assured that the man would be dispatched today, and, as the Pope had said, time was important.
    They arrived back in Beaumont de Jaspre just three weeks after they had left, and the papal messenger was on his way to Catherine de Medici the following day.
    Several days later, Skye's second messenger returned from Poitou bringing with him, to everyone's surprise, Nicolas St. Adrian. They had expected their messenger to bring an answer from the gentleman, but certainly not the man himself.
    Skye was caught unawares as Edmond hurried into her chambers, his short little legs pumping in their haste. "He is here, chérie! The bastard himself! By God! He did not waste much time, did he? He's come with the messenger-no escort, no retinue. It would appear that the heir is most eager."
    "God's foot, Edmond! Could that silly priest have not at least sent a messenger ahead to warn us? Daisy! The sea-green silk gown! Damn, my hair is a disgrace in this heat!" She smiled at Edmond. "Well, my friend, what is he like? Is he a de Beaumont in face and form?"
    "Chérie, I am not sure Uncle Fabron is going to approve. The bastard is a tall man, and his limbs are well formed and pleasing to the eye. His skin is fair, his eyes… his eyes, chérie, are green, the green of a forest pond, sometimes dark, sometimes light, depending upon the sunlight. His hair is the rich red-brown of my horse's hide. As to his features, they are strong. The shape of his face is an oval, his forehead is high and his nose is definitely the de Beaumont nose; but his eyes are not ours, and neither are his high cheekbones or narrow chin. It is a very sculpted face of angles and planes. All in all, I would say he is a very handsome man, and he looks like a strong one, too. I do not think that this new blood is going to hurt our family."
    "Have you spoken with him?" Daisy was helping her into the bodice of the sea-green gown. Edmond de Beaumont let his eyes roll suggestively as he leered teasingly at her dishabille, and Skye swatted at him with affection.
    "I have not spoken with him, chérie, " he replied to her question. "I felt it was your place to welcome him to Beaumont first. He cannot expect instant greeting, as he has come upon us unannounced." As Daisy finished fastening the bodice, he handed Skye the skirt to her gown. She pulled it over her head and it fell over the several petticoats that she was wearing.
    "Hurry, Daisy," Skye instructed her tiring woman. "We should not keep Baron St. Adrian waiting."
    "He will think it well worth the wait, chérie, when he sees you," Edmond murmured softly, his eyes sweeping her with admiration.
    The gown was lovely with its softly flowing full skirts and sleeves that came to just below her elbows, full and fashioned as if they were pushed up slightly, leaving her soft forearms bare. The dress's neckline was very low and scooped and her breasts swelled provocatively with each breath she took. The fitted bodice was embroidered in a swirling pattern of small, sparkling diamantes and pearls. Around her neck Skye fastened several matched strands of creamy pearls to correspond with the pearls in her ears. Daisy then pinned pale-pink camellias to the base of her mistress's chignon, and Skye was ready.
    She walked to the door between her room and the duc's and entered her husband's room. "Your half-brother has arrived, Fabron," she said. "I am going to greet him now with Edmond. Will you see him tonight?"
    The duc shook his head vigorously in the negative.
    "You will see him?" she pressed.
    Fabron de Beaumont lay very still, feigning sudden sleep.
    Skye was not fooled. "You must eventually see him, monseigneur," she said quietly. Then she bent and kissed him on the forehead. "Good night, Fabron," she said, and then she was gone.
    Fabron de Beaumont felt the tears slide down his face quite unchecked. His body had betrayed him, but his mind was still clear and quite active.
    Skye and Edmond hurried to the Great Hall of the castle, where they knew Nicolas St. Adrian was awaiting them.
    He was a magnificently handsome man with a broad chest that narrowed V-like into his slim waist. His dress was simple: worn, high leather boots, the short, dark trunk hose showing a shapely thigh above them; a doeskin jerkin over an open-necked white silk shirt. Watching them as they entered the hall, his green eyes never betrayed a thought although his mind was full of them. The dwarf was the nephew. What a pity, for he was certainly well favored despite his height. Nicolas wondered if Edmond de Beaumont resented him, but that he would soon know. They had reached him now, and the duchesse-was she real?!-curtseyed gracefully.
    "Welcome to Beaumont de Jaspre, M'sieur le Baron," Skye said in her musical voice. "We are most grateful that you have come."
    Reaching out his hand, he raised her up, and their eyes met for the first time. Her blue-green ones widened just slightly, and he knew that she was feeling the same thing that he was. Never in his life had he seen a more beautiful woman than this ravishing creature who now stood before him. In an instant he knew that he wanted her, and knew that she wanted him, too. "Madame," he said, "it is I who am grateful to you, for I understand from Père Michel that it is you who suggested I be made my half-brother's heir, despite my unfortunate lack of the Beaumont name."
    “'That oversight was hardly your fault, M'sieur le Baron," she answered him. "Now may I present to you your nephew, Edmond, who is known as the Petit Sieur de Beaumont."
    Edmond bowed smartly. "If Skye is glad you are here, Uncle, then I am twice as glad!"
    "You do not wish to be Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre, Edmond?" Nicolas St. Adrian looked closely at the tiny man.
    "No, I most certainly do not!" Edmond was most emphatic. "Look at me, Uncle. I am a dwarf, an accident of nature. Even if there were a girl who would wed with me, what guarantee do I have of producing normal children? Never in the history of this family has there been a dwarf, but I have learned that in my Castilian mother's family there were several over the years. I cannot marry, and therefore cannot produce another generation for Beaumont de Jaspre. You, however, can, and from what I see, Uncle, you will have no lack of applicants for your hand!"
    Nicolas St. Adrian laughed. He had never found a woman whom he wanted to marry, but perhaps it was his lack of wealth that had prevented him even thinking of such a thing. Now, it occurred to him that he was a very eligible partie!
    "You must be tired after your long journey, M'sieur le Baron," Skye said. "We were not expecting you so soon, and I fear you will think our hospitality poor, but I must ask you to rest here with some of our good Beaumont wine while I see to your apartments."
    "Stay, and serve my new uncle," Edmond said. "I will see to the servants. I know the rooms to prepare."
    "Yes, madame," Nicolas St. Adrian said. "I would learn of my half-brother, and this situation with the French. I am, after all, a Frenchman, and I have sworn an oath to serve the king. I can do nothing that would compromise my honor."
    Edmond de Beaumont hid a smile as he left Skye and his new uncle. He was some ten years younger than Nicolas St. Adrian, but in many ways he felt older. How innocent M'sieur le Baron was. Edmond did not believe for one moment that Nicolas was going to give up this magnificence, this title and the wealth involved simply because it might offend the French Charles.
    Back in the Great Hall, Skye poured Nicolas a silver goblet of Beaumont's fine rose-colored wine, and handing it to him gestured him to a seat. Taking her own goblet, she sat opposite him and raised the silvery vessel: "To you, Nicolas St. Adrian. May you be a good duc for Beaumont de Jaspre."
    "I should far rather drink to your marvelous sea-blue eyes, madame," was the disconcerting reply. His own green eyes raked her boldly.
    "You wished to know of your half-brother," she answered him coolly, but her pulses were racing and her stomach was fluttering wildly. She had not had this sort of a reaction to a man since she was a maid of fifteen and had met Niall Burke for the first time. She must regain control of herself, for she was a respectable married woman and her poor husband lay ill to death within this very castle.
    He could see the turmoil within her, although she sought very hard to conceal it. He caught her gaze with his, daring her without words to play the coward and look away. "Yes," he answered her. 'Tell me of my brother's illness, madame."
    She blushed charmingly, but to her credit she was brave and did not glance away. "I am your brother's third wife," Skye said. "We were married three months ago, but he suffered an apoplectic fit several weeks afterward, and I was not with child.
    “The Dowager Queen Catherine de Medici would like to absorb Beaumont de Jaspre into France. Without a male heir we could lose our independence. Your half-brother prefers that you inherit. If you agree, you will be invested as Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre in St. Paul's Cathedral next week. Understand that my husband's wealth will remain his while he lives, although you will be given a most generous allowance. You must also agree to care for his son, Garnier, and your nephew, Edmond, after Fabron's death."
    "And you, madame? What will happen to you after my brother's death?" His intense gaze caressed her face boldly, causing her to blush again. "Should I not also take care of you?" The words said one thing, his eyes said another.
    Skye drew in a deep breath to clear her head, which was whirling. She didn't know how much longer she could sit quietly speaking with this man. He was having the most devastating effect upon her. She could see the steady beat of a pulse at the base of his throat. She wanted to kiss that pulse, to fondle him, to touch his chestnut-colored hair to see if it was actually as silky as it looked. God's bones, she thought, furious with herself, what in Hell is the matter with me? I am behaving like a bitch in heat!
    “There is no need to fret for me, M'sieur le Baron," she finally managed to say. How calm her voice sounded, she thought, pleased. "I am a wealthy woman in my own right. When the sad day comes that I am widowed once more, I will return to my own land. My marriage to your brother was a political one. I have left behind small children to whom I long to return, for I miss them greatly."
    Sacre bleu! he thought silently. She is exquisite. That skin is totally flawless. Is it as soft as it appears? Mon Dieu, but I want to kiss that adorable mouth! "Perhaps, madame, your Queen will contract another political match for you," he said provocatively.
    "God's foot, I hope not!" Skye said with feeling.
    He laughed. He couldn't help it, for she was so positive in her feelings. His green eyes had lightened with his amusement, and he asked, “This marriage was not to your liking, madame?"
    "For my Queen and your brother it was convenient, M'sieur le Baron. For me it was a necessity, for I am Irish and I needed a favor from Bess Tudor. This marriage was her price, and I willingly paid it."
    "What favor did you need, madame? Was it for a lover perhaps?"
    "No, M'sieur le Baron, it was not for a lover. It was for my infant son who with the murder of his father became Lord Burke, and the possessor of great land holdings. Without the Queen's protection his holdings would have been gobbled up by others.'' How dare he presume I would plead for a lover? Skye fumed silently.
    "Did you love your late husband?"
    "Yes, M'sieur le Baron, I did." Her voice was sharp.
    He leaned over, and taking her hand in his kissed it, his eyes all the while never leaving hers. "I apologize, madame," he said, "for my rudeness." He did not let go of her hand.
    Dear God, Skye thought, as pure desire coursed through her veins, I want this man, and I don't even know him! She rose to her feet, hoping that her shaking legs would not betray her. "I cannot imagine what is keeping Edmond," she said. "I had best go and see to your quarters myself, M'sieur le Baron."
    He rose too, thinking to himself, I must possess her, not just for tonight, but for always! I have found the one woman that I can marry at last, and I shall not let her escape me. "Thank you, madame," he answered her gravely.
    He was still holding her hand, and it did not appear as if he intended to let it go.
    "M'sieur le Baron," she whispered, tugging to free herself.
    "I think, madame, that you will have to call me Nicolas. After all, we are related… by marriage." He raised her hand to his mouth once more, his lips lingering slightly longer than was respectable before he finally released her.
    Skye thought she was going to faint. She could have sworn he nibbled at her knuckles with his teeth. The sexual tension between her and this man was simply incredible, and she was frankly embarrassed. She hurried from the hall, feeling his eyes on her back as she went. Skye remembered the love that she had felt for Niall Burke when she had first met him all those years ago. She remembered the passion she had first felt for Geoffrey and, when he had won her over, the great love that bloomed between them. What she now felt was akin to both those old feelings, yet it was not like either of them.
    With supreme self-control she put it firmly from her, and went directly to her husband's chambers. He had just been fed, and Daisy, who had volunteered to help the duc's serving man when she could, was gently wiping Fabron's hands and lips with a soft cloth that she dipped in rosewater. As she worked she chatted away at the duc, and Skye could see that he was interested and amused in what she had to say. Daisy's French had improved incredibly in the few months that they had been here. She had, it seemed, an ear for languages. Now she was telling the duc of Devon, her home, but the duc's eyes strayed from Daisy as Skye entered the room.
    "Good evening, mon mari," Skye greeted him. "I have come back to tell you of your half-brother."
    Fabron de Beaumont frowned and shook his head in the negative.
    Skye laughed gently. uNon, non!” she scolded him. "You must listen to me, Fabron. Nicolas St. Adrian is a handsome young man, and even I can see that Beaumont de Jaspre is fortunate to have him to rely on in our hour of need. You will like him, Fabron." She smiled at him encouragingly. "Tomorrow morning I intend to bring him to meet you."
    Again he shook his head in the negative, but Skye overruled him sympathetically. "Fabron, if you do not see him people will say you do not approve of him, that you do not want this at all, and then the French will overrun us. You have signed all the documents." She did not tell him of the Pope's support. "Despite the fart that he was born on the far side of the blanket, he is your brother and he is of gentle birth. I see great intelligence in his face."
    Fabron de Beaumont sighed deeply and grimaced at her, but then with a slow gesture he reached out and sought her hand. His grip was weak, but she knew it was his only way of saying that he accepted her advice in this matter.
    "Thank you, monseigneur," she said. "I understand how difficult this is for you, but it is best for your duchy." Then she smiled. "I must hurry now, for our guest has yet to be fed. He came upon us so unexpectedly. We must not, however, have him think that our hospitality is lacking. This time I really bid you goodnight."
    Fabron de Beaumont watched his wife glide gracefully from the room. Trapped in a body that could no longer function, he had never felt more frustrated in his entire life. To be struck down just when he had begun to find happiness with her was unbearable. Nothing had ever prepared him for such misery, and he did not understand it.
    Daisy hurried after her mistress. "I only hope those two silly girls I am trying to train to help me have prepared your bath as I instructed them, m'lady."
    "Marie and Violette seem willing maids, Daisy. I am sure they will learn under your tutelage."
    "Flighty is what they are, m'lady, but then I have no choice. I thought no one could be as foolish as Agnes and Jane back in England, but these two!" Daisy rolled her eyes heavenward, and Skye had to laugh. Although several years younger than her mistress, Daisy had been in service with Skye for over seven years now, and was protective and jealous of her position. "What shall you wear this evening, m'lady?" she asked.
    "This dress will be quite suitable, Daisy. I have hardly worn it today. I must bathe, however. The day has been hot. I fear a storm soon. There has been thunder in the hills all afternoon."
    As they entered Skye's bedchamber Marie and Violette curtseyed prettily, then hurried to help their duchesse disrobe. Daisy critically checked the bathwater to see that its temperature was just right for her lady, and the bath oil mixed properly. Finding everything in order, Daisy removed the pink camellias from Skye's hair, pulled out the tortoiseshell pins that held the heavy chignon, and brushed the mane free of tangles. Daisy would allow no one to touch Skye's hair but herself. Satisfied that the hair was silky smooth, the tiring woman carefully pinned it atop Skye's head and helped her mistress remove her chemise.
    Skye climbed into the oaken tub that she had brought from England, and settled herself in the warm water. It was just the perfect temperature. Skye wrinkled her nose with pleasure at the damask rose scent permeating the room. How she loved that smell! "Let me soak for a bit," she told Daisy, who, knowing her mistress's moods, left the bedchamber shooing the two giggling undermaids ahead of her.
    The long windows that opened onto her balcony were open, and she could see the vivid sunset coloring the sea and sky. The colors had the deep intensity of early autumn, and streaked the sea with molten gold. Clinging to the vine outside her windows, a wild canary sang an impassioned song, and Skye's mind, free this last half-hour from thought of her husband's half-brother, was suddenly and inexplicably filled with him again. She was very much disturbed by the way that she had felt toward this man, for he was a stranger. Worse, she sensed that he knew how she felt, and it made her position difficult. What must Nicolas St. Adrian think of her? At least she had done nothing, said nothing, that could be misunderstood. Skye could satisfy herself that she had acted the perfect chatelaine before her husband's half-brother, whatever her confused mind and turbulent feelings.
    It was the heat, and her wild Celtic imagination, she decided, relieved. It had been a wretchedly hot and still day, and she had not slept well since Fabron's fit. She worried about him as she might worry about one of her children, keeping one car alert even when she was sleeping. She felt so terribly sorry for her husband. Their marriage had hardly begun under auspicious circumstances, thanks to the evil influence of the now dead Pastor Lichault. Had her life been more sheltered, she might not have been as tolerant and forgiving of him as she was; but she had quickly seen how tortured a man he was, and Skye O'Malley had a generous heart.
    The physician had told her that he would not live very long, for his fit had been a severe one and his bodily signs certainly were not good. She could afford to be generous. She would be a good wife to Fabron de Beaumont for as long as he lived. As to Nicolas St. Adrian, her strange reaction to him had been a case of nerves. She had been without a man for longer periods of time before, and she had certainly not played the wanton then. She was not going to do so now!
    "Daisy!" she called loudly. "Daisy, come scrub my back!"

Chapter 5

    Nicolas St. Adrian had come unexpectedly to the castle of Beaumont de Jaspre. Therefore, his hostess warned him he could not expect an elegant supper. Thinking with amusement that a haunch of venison and a loaf of brown bread was a feast at his castle, he watched with pleasure as the "simple" supper was served. Robbie having gone east on a short trading voyage, there were but three of them at the high board this evening: Nicolas, Edmond, and the exquisite duchesse. The Baron had thought that she might avoid him at the evening meal, but no, to his great elation, she had come, cool and elegant, not quite meeting his eyes. He was certain now that she felt as he did!
    The heavy silver wine goblets studded with the duchy's native green Jasperstone were filled with fragrant, dark red wine. There were three dishes offered as a first course: plump steamed mussels in their black shells served with a Dijon mustard sauce, pieces of baby octopus in olive oil seasoned with garlic, parsley, and fennel, and a silver platter of hard-cooked eggs sprinkled with the young leaves of summer savory and pungent black peppercorns. The second course consisted of the whole leg of a baby lamb stuck with tiny sprigs of rosemary and roasted with small onions and carrots; a large rabbit pie; tiny larks wrapped in pastry and baked to a delicate golden brown. Each lark had been stuffed with a mixture of chopped oranges and green grapes. There was also a fat capon that had been prepared with a rich brown sauce flavored with tarragon, and salad of young lettuce, radishes, black olives, and artichoke hearts dressed in olive oil and red wine vinegar, and a large bowl of saffroned rice. For desert clary leaves were dipped in cream, fried, and eaten with orange sauce. There was also a large bowl of fresh fruits. Throughout the meal the wine goblets were never empty.
    They all ate heartily, Edmond remarking that despite his monster appetite he remained tiny, and teasing Skye by saying that no matter how Madame la Duchesse stuffed her pretty self she remained slender. He then noted that his new uncle was no mean trencherman.
    Nicolas smiled, admitting it was the truth. "I am the last of the St. Adrians," he said honestly. "My castle is tumbling down, and not only has my larder been bare, but my purse as well. Your simple meal, madame, is a feast to me. Beaumont de Jaspre is another feast of sorts."
    "Then that is why you came to us so quickly," Skye said. "We expected you later, and with a great retinue."
    Nicolas chuckled, a rich, warm sound that sent chills up and down her spine. "Alas, madame, I have no retinue, for one must pay retainers, and there was no money. Even my peasants thought me a poor lord. They were forever scolding me about regaining the lost honor of the St. Adrians. I must go to court, they insisted, but how could I explain to them that at court one needs gold, that being Baron St. Adrian is not quite enough. They are such simple, good people. I hope that I will be allowed to siphon some of the bounty of Beaumont de Jaspre back to Poitou to rebuild St. Adrian. It will make a fine inheritance for a second son."
    “Then," she said, "you have decided to accept your half-brother's offer?"
    "Yes, but under certain conditions of my own, madame. Firstly I will not war with France, to whom I am a sworn vassal."
    "You need not," Skye said. "Before we sent to St. Adrian for you, M'sieur le Baron, we also sent to the Pope that he might uphold your claim. Several days before you arrived my messengers returned bringing the Pope's approval of my husband's wishes. Another messenger was sent from the Pope to Paris. On the day of your investiture you will swear an allegiance to France, as have all Ducs de Beaumont de Jaspre before you. You will swear it before Queen Catherine's messenger, whom we have been detaining here since he arrived." Her eyes twinkled at this last.
    "Indeed, have you, madame?" His voice was amused. She was quite a woman to so daringly brave the wrath and might of France.
    "Indeed, Nicolas, we have." It was the first time she had used his name, and it sent a shiver through him that he well concealed.
    "He has been housed most pleasantly," Edmond remarked. "He will have no cause for complaint with his mistress. We have even seen him supplied with the most attractive of maidservants."
    "Edmond, you haven't!" Skye was shocked. My God, what would Elizabeth Tudor think when she learned that Beaumont pimped for a French envoy!
    "Chérie! Can you think of a better way to keep an imprisoned man content and good-natured? I certainly can't. Queen Catherine's messenger will have no reason to protest our treatment of him when he returns to Paris."
    "I suspect that the hospitality of Beaumont de Jaspre will be most lauded," Nicolas laughed, and his green eyes were damp with his mirth.
    "You are both impossible," Skye scolded, but her blue eyes were dancing with merriment, and they both knew that she was not seriously angry.
    "Have you any treaties that I should know about, madame?"
    Skye looked to Edmond questioningly, and asked, "Other than the treaty made with England, Edmond?" He shook his head.
    "What treaty with England, madame?"
    "My husband has a treaty with England allowing English ships to stop here to provision and water on their way to and from the Levant and Istanbul." He raised an eyebrow, and she continued, "France and England are not at war with each other, M'sieur le Baron. I believe that even now they court each other."
    "So that was why you were sent to my half-brother. Your Queen uses beautiful women in the same way that Queen Catherine does, like chess pieces upon the great board of power; and my pious brother was more than willing to accept England's beautiful pawn." His voice was faintly scornful.
    Skye's blue-green eyes grew stormy with outrage, and when she spoke her voice was cutting. "Do you dare to judge me, M'sieur le Baron? What can you possibly know of the games of power, sitting in your tumble-down castle in the midst of the Poitou marshes? How easy it is to be righteous when you have nothing to lose! I, however, have learned that in order to survive one must play the game of life as those in power dictate.
    "I have six living children, M'sieur le Baron. I have buried four husbands. I am wealthy in my own right beyond your wildest imaginings! I most certainly did not need your uncle! But wealth, M'sieur le Baron, cannot protect you from royalty. I needed an ally, and Elizabeth Tudor is the strongest ally available in my part of the world. Should I have put my faith in French or Spanish aid? Bah! The French and the Spanish aid the Irish and the Scots only for their nuisance value against the English. Then they depart, leaving us to face Tudor wrath-which usually involves the taking of our lands and our gold.
    "I will not beggar my children for an ideal! Ideals cannot feed them, or clothe them, or protect them from wicked men. But I can, and I will! Now, M'sieur le Baron, I will bid you goodnight. It has been a long day for me." Standing, she swept regally from the room, leaving both men somewhat shaken by the passion of her outburst.
    Finally Nicolas St. Adrian spoke. "She is magnificent!" he said softly, and his green eyes, still full of her, gleamed thoughtfully.
    "She is like no other woman I have ever known," Edmond de Beaumont responded honestly. "She did not want to come to Beaumont de Jaspre. She had to leave her children behind, but her sense of duty, I sometimes think, is greater than a man's. She would not endanger the inheritance of her Burke son, and her Queen's price for protection of the boy's rights was this marriage, and so Skye came."
    "She had children by her other husbands?"
    "By all of them," Edmond answered. "That is one reason why my uncle was so pleased to have her. She has borne seven children, but lost only one, and him to an epidemic when he was an infant."
    "What happened to her husbands?"
    "The first died from injuries incurred in a fall," Edmond said. "The second and the last were murdered by women. And the third husband died in the same epidemic that killed their younger son. She did not wish to remarry. She said she felt she was ill luck to the men who loved her, and now she will lose my uncle, too."
    "Does she love your uncle?"
    Edmond shook his head. "There was no time for love to grow between them, but she is fond of him and will do her duty by him. Skye has been good for this family even in the short while she has been with us."
    For a while longer the two men sat in companionable silence, Nicolas absorbing the information Edmond had so freely given him. Finally he spoke. "You need not be afraid that I will not take care of you and little Garnier after your uncle is gone," he said. "I will uphold all the duties of a good Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre."
    "I never doubted it," Edmond replied, "but your first duty is to marry, Nicolas."
    "What?!” Nicolas's voice was mock stem. "Will you instruct your older uncle, little nephew?"
    "We need another heir for safety's sake, Uncle," the dwarf replied. "I can hardly satisfy that need."
    "Why not? Dwarfs are born of normal parents. Why cannot normal children be born of a dwarf parent?"
    "No," Edmond said seriously. "I will not pass on that weakness in my seed to another generation. I have watched with fear each time one of my sisters has borne a child. No, the ducs de Beaumont de Jaspre's line of descent must remain pure and untainted, Uncle."
    "Do you not enjoy the women?" Nicolas inquired curiously.
    Edmond grinned. "Indeed I do, Uncle! In fact," and he hopped down from his seat, "I intend to go into the town tonight to celebrate your arrival. I am much prized by the ladies, for they seem to enjoy sitting me upon their laps and petting me as they would a favored child. Then when they find out that I am as capable a rider as any tall man their delight usually knows no bounds. I am simply careful about spilling my seed where I should not." He winked broadly at Nicolas. "Will you come with me, Uncle? The hospitality of Villerose's taverns is legendary."
    "Not tonight, little nephew," Nicolas said with a smile. "I am weary from my long trip. Besides, I should not want to inhibit you," he teased. "With me along you would feel bound to set a good example for your elder, and then you should not have a great deal of fun."
    Edmond chuckled. "Not to fear, Uncle. As the good Père Henri will tell you, I am myself no matter-much to his distress, I might add. Very well then, I shall bid you a good evening. Do not wait up for me. Perhaps if it is a very good night I shall not come home at all!" Then he was gone from the hall, and Nicolas sat alone.
    He sat sipping at the dregs of his wine for what seemed a long time, but her beautiful face kept appearing in the bottom of his cup. Never in his life had he felt such an intense reaction to any woman. They had just met, he didn't know her, she was his brother's wife, and yet Nicolas St. Adrian knew that he loved Skye. Loved her and wanted her. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a servant yawn, and instantly he felt guilty. Rising from the table, he left the hall so the poor man, his duties finally over, might seek his bed.
    Back in his own apartments, he was delighted to find that the servant assigned to him had arranged a bath. A large oak tub had been placed before the fireplace in his antechamber. A small hot fire now burned, for it had begun to rain and the air was damp and chilly. The serving man, a thin, fussy fellow named Paul worked silently and efficiently, eager to please this new master who was of such importance. Quickly he stripped Nicolas down and, after helping him into the tub, began to gather up his clothes, clucking at their dusty and somewhat threadbare condition.
    "With M'sieur le Baron's permission," he said, "I shall have the tailor here tomorrow."
    "Alas," Nicolas said, amused, "I have no money, Paul. How will I pay the tailor?"
    "Madame la Duchesse will sec to it," came the simple reply. "You, M'sieur le Baron, are to be our new duc. Your clothing must not disgrace Beaumont de Jaspre. If you will permit me to observe, M'sieur le Baron, you have an elegant figure. Dressed properly, you will do us proud!"
    Nicolas hid his vast amusement as he accepted this compliment of sorts with a gracious nod. Having disposed of his new master's sad garments, Paul returned to begin the task of washing him. With skilled, quick hands he soaped and scrubbed Nicolas from his chestnut-red hair to his feet, observing all the while that it was a sad shame that Madame la Duchesse had not been married to such a fine figure of a young man as M'sieur le Baron. Such a good and beautiful lady deserved better than the Duc Fabron, God pity the poor soul. The duchy was vastly relieved that M'sieur le Baron had come into his inheritance early. Now he must find a wife as lovely as Madame la Duchesse.
    That will not be easy, Paul," replied Nicolas. "Indeed, I believe it will be impossible."
    "M'sieur le Baron is right, of course," Paul replied primly. “There has never been anyone like Madame la Duchesse in Beaumont de Jaspre. She is an angel in her devotion to the Duc Fabron, and it was her sweet and good example that led the duc back to the Church. How sad that she could not have borne the duc a healthy son before the onset of his illness." Paul helped his master from the tub, and began to towel him vigorously.
    Nicolas sniffed himself delightedly. "What is that soap you used?" he demanded.
    "Madame la Duchesse had it made up, M'sieur le Baron. It is scented with essence of clove. Madame says a man should not smell like a flower in bloom."
    Nicolas chuckled richly, and Paul allowed himself a small smile as he began to dry his master's hair, first using a linen towel, then a boar's bristle brush, and lastly a piece of fine silk. Nicolas's hair was soon soft and dry and shining, causing Paul to remark that M'sieur le Baron had a fine head of hair. Nicolas liked this chatty, stuffy servant who had been assigned to him. Paul now brought forth a fine silk nightshirt, but Nicolas refused it, saying:
    "I sleep in my skin, unless, of course, it is very cold." He could see that his servant was shocked, though he strove to hide it. Nicolas strode into his bedchamber, and Paul hurried to draw back the coverlet. He then wished M'sieur le Baron a good sleep as he covered his now comfortably bedded master.
    The room was quiet as Nicolas stretched himself out, enjoying the sensuous feel of the soft linen sheets scented with lavender. Closing his eyes, he sought sleep, but sleep would not come this night. With a smothered curse he finally climbed from the bed and walked to the long windows that overlooked the sea. Quietly he stepped a small way onto the balcony.
    Then in a flash of lightning he saw her standing with her back toward him on the next balcony. She had her face held up toward the mistlike rain that permeated the air. Her long dark hair hung free, and he could see the graceful line of her smooth throat. With a rashness he had never recognized in himself, he knew that he had to have her now!
    Stepping back into the room, he saw a small door by his bed and realized that it must lead to her room. Of course the door would be locked, but he put his hand on the knob nonetheless, feeling his heart accelerate as the handle turned. Looking through, he saw a narrow passageway that curved around the spiral of the tower next door. He left his own door open and walked through the passage and around the arc of the wall. Before him was another door, which he was certain would be barred to him. It was not. It swung open with a creak.
    Skye heard the squeaky noise, and came in from her balcony to see a barely noticed door in the wall by the small fireplace swing open. Before she could scream, Nicolas St. Adrian stepped into her bedchamber. Her very startled blue eyes swept his tall, nude form, and as her heart began to pound with excitement, she felt an ache of desire begin to swell within and knew why he had come. Suddenly reason returned, buffeting her weakening ethics, and she backed away from him, whispering, "No!"
    "Yes!" he said low. Reaching out he pulled her hard against him. "Yes" he said again, and he tipped her face up, his hand tangling into the mass of her soft black hair as he lowered his head to tenderly brush her cool lips with his burning ones. "Yes!" he murmured against her mouth, kissing her deeply now, ignoring her palms frantically pushing against his bare chest as his other arm wrapped itself about her waist, pressing her tightly against him.
    Skye felt an almost primitive joy taking hold of her as he kissed her. Gentle at first, his lips now coaxed a sweet response from hers, forcing her mouth open to plunge his tongue in to meet her own. They fenced with one another, and as they did the tongues became two spears of pure flame, scorching and blazing with the fires of untamed desire. She shuddered fiercely, and with a supreme effort of will tore her face from his, gasping, This is wrong, M'sieur le Baron! This is wrong! I beg you to stop. You must!"
    "Nicolas!" he said harshly, his green eyes blazing with gold lights. "My name is Nicolas! I want to hear you say it! I want to hear my name on your lips! Say it!"
    "Nicolas!" The word as she spoke it was a plea. "Nicolas, I beg you to stop!" Every fiber of her being was tingling, crying out to this stranger. Weakened, she fell back against his arm, her breasts rising and falling rapidly with the passion she sought so desperately to conceal from him. She could not do this thing! She must not!
    He cradled her tenderly in the curve of a strong arm. Looking down at her with his ardent green eyes, he deliberately held her captive with his intense glance. " I want you," he said simply, and then his hand hooked into the neckline of her gossamer nightgown tearing it easily, the two halves opening to reveal her small and perfect breasts, their little rose pink nipples thrusting up with a desire she could not hide. "Ah, si belle" he murmured reverently, his gaze softening, "si, si belle!" His free hand reached out to cup a breast, to rub the nipple gently with his thumb.
    Skye sobbed helplessly as her conscience warred with her desperate craving to be loved by this stranger. "Nicolas… Nicolas, I am a married woman!" Dear God, he must stop caressing her breasts! Every touch of his hand eroded her will, only made her yearn for more and more and more. Never had she betrayed a husband. " Nicolas!" Her voice was ragged, and the voice inside her head shrieked a different plea. Don't stop! Don't stop! Don't stop! it said.
    He didn't seem to hear her. His head dipped, kissing each dainty nipple, sending a tremendous shudder through her, and then he made the decision for them. Sweeping her up, he carried her to the bed, pulled the shredded, peach-colored night rail from her, laid her down, and then, lying next to her, drew her into his arms. "I adore you, Skye," he said in a low and tender voice, "and I believe that you feel the same way, though you strive bravely to deny it out of loyalty to my brother."
    Somehow it was easier to speak now that he was not assaulting her senses so wonderfully with his hands and his lips. "I do not know you," she said. "Until this afternoon I never laid eyes upon you. How dare you enter my bedroom and treat me as you might some common trull!? You will leave at once! Again I remind you that I am your brother's wife!" Her words were brave, but Nicolas knew better than to believe her.
    "Precious liar," he said, his tone warm and amused. "The moment our eyes met you felt the same passion I did. Why do you fight me, Skye? You do not love my brother."
    "He is my husband, Nicolas. If I cannot keep faith with him then I am worth nothing. I have been called many things in my lifetime, but a faithless wife is not one of them."
    "Do you love him?"
    "No," she said honestly. "Ours was a political alliance."
    "Will he recover from this illness, Skye, or will he soon die?"
    "He will die," she whispered. "Nicolas! Oh, Nicolas, why do you do this to me?"
    "Because I would bind you to me, Skye! Bind you so tightly that when Fabron is dead you will not run away back to your England, or Ireland. You have been mine from the moment that our eyes first met. I know it-and you know it!"
    Then before she might reply, might protest his possession, he was kissing her again, kissing lips that could not refuse him, murmuring tender endearments against her mouth. "Je t’aime! Je t'adore! Tu es ma belle amour, ma vie!" He covered her face with a hundred quick, little kisses, nuzzling in the tiny hollow below her ear, placing slow, hot kisses along the tense muscle of her neck, leaving a trail of long, hungry kisses from the little valley between neck and shoulder down along her arm.
    She was paralyzed by the intensity of the passion that he aroused in her. He had attracted her as Niall had first attracted her. Instantly. He kindled in her the same fiery hunger that Geoffrey had once kindled in her. In the next room Fabron de Beaumont, her dying husband, lay helpless. Skye's ethics battled with her emotions as Nicolas's lips began to tease the aching nipples of her taut breasts. His warm, moist mouth opened and closed again over one of those little nipples, nursing as strongly upon it as a hungry infant. She arced against him as the desire plunged down her body to center in her woman's core. Ethics lost the battle as she threaded her fingers through his thick, chestnut hair, moaning softly, pressing his head closer to her. "Nicolas! Nicolas!" she whispered breathlessly, pleading now for passion rather than against it.
    He swung over her, seating himself lightly on her long shapely legs. His hands began a delicate caressing of her body, sweeping up to gently knead her belly, to cup both of her breasts, to smooth over her shoulders and then down again along the curve of her waist and hips. It was like throwing wood on a fire, and her desire flamed for him, yet he did not stop. His hands were warm and loving, his fingers unbelievably sensitive as they sought out her pleasure points. Finally he took her two hands in his and drew them down to his fully aroused manhood. She shyly explored and stroked it, finding him quite long and thick. Her passion-heavy eyes forced themselves halfway open to see him, and she caught her breath at his size.
    "I want you to put me within you, Skye," he commanded her softly. "You do it, mon amour. Put my hardness within the honeyed sweetness of your luscious body."
    Her body languid with his loving, her will mesmerized by his insistent voice, she obeyed his command, a marvelous feeling of relief overcoming her as she slipped his pulsing weapon easily within her. With a groan of pleasure Nicolas pushed himself as deep inside her as he might go, stopping a moment to allow her right sheath to accept him in comfort. "Ah, ma doucette" he murmured in her ear, and then he began a slow, rhythmic thrusting, going deep, drawing his length almost fully out, driving back into her again, and then again and again until she swooned.
    He revived her with kisses and soft words, and she cried, "Ah, God, you are still within me!" and shuddered with the hot passion.
    "You are mine!" he said fiercely. "Whatever has been before is gone, and only we two, now and in this time, exist!" His lean hips ground down upon her again, and Skye found herself lost in a world where only desire existed, desire without end. He pulled her arms above her head controlling her totally while he dominated their pleasure. Beneath him she writhed, panting frantically, her head thrashing from side to side, desperately seeking her rapture; but he sensed every nuance of her mood and held her in firm check until it pleased him to give her release. A disciple of sensuality, Nicolas St. Adrian meant to be master of this beautiful woman. Finally seeing that she could take no more of his teasing, he bent to kiss her lips, thrusting his tongue into her mouth in perfect rhythm with his lower body which thrust into her frantic form.
    Her body arched sharply against him, and she sobbed a low cry that she could not contain. She felt as if she could soar like a gull, higher and higher, catching each new spiral of the wind until there was no beginning and no end. The feeling was like nothing she had ever experienced, but then with another cry she would tumble downward as quickly as she had soared up. Her beautiful body shook with each spasm, every tremor more violent than the one before until she felt as if she might be torn apart. She never felt him gain his own heaven, falling into a deep swoon as she found her own.
    He too came as close to fainting as he had ever come. Rolling off her, he lay upon his back, his body wet with perspiration, his breath coming in short gasps that finally slowed to normal. When his head had finally cleared, he raised himself up on an elbow and looked down at her. She was still unconscious. Gently he began to stroke her face with the back of his hand, murmuring softly, "Doucette, doucette! Je t’aime! Je t’aime!”
    She heard his impassioned voice, and knew that he hovered over her. How could she face him? Skye wondered. How could she excuse such wanton behavior on her part? Never had she behaved so with any man, allowing her body to control her mind.
    "Open your eyes, doucette," he said gently, but she heard the command in his tone.
    Ordinarily she would have rebelled at such a tone from anyone, but she felt weakened, drained and helpless before this man. She opened her eyes, and they slowly filled with tears that she was unable to control. Nicolas drew her back into his arms. "Cry!" he ordered her in a firm voice, and in his arms Skye wept out all the sadness that she had been bottling up since Elizabeth Tudor had sent her from England. Her piteous sobs were like a knife to his heart, and he tightened his arms about her, rubbing his face against her silken hair, murmuring soft, unintelligible sounds of comfort to her.
    Skye cried so much she thought she could cry no more, and then she cried further, until her eyes were swollen with the salt of her tears. She was so very aware of him; his heart beneath her ear beating quietly and steadily, the smooth firm skin of his chest, and the warm male scent of him. Finally her weeping eased, then ceased altogether. She nesded very still against him, not wanting to raise her eyes to him, not wanting to face him, and he understood.
    "You must not be ashamed, doucette," he said in a quiet voice. "When I first set eyes upon you I knew that this was to be the way of it between us."
    His certainty irritated her, but before she might reply, Daisy was knocking frantically at her door, and calling to her, "M'lady! M'lady!"
    Nicolas St. Adrian was quickly off the bed and gone, pulling the small door opposite her closed as he went. Not a moment too soon, Skye thought guiltily as she yanked the bedclothes smooth. The door between her bedchamber and her antechamber opened, and Daisy stuck her head in calling, "M'lady! Are you awake?"
    "Hmmm? What?" Skye murmured sleepily, keeping herself well hidden beneath the bedclothes, and praying Daisy wouldn't come far enough into the room to discover her mistress's torn night rail on the floor and her mistress quite naked beneath the coverlet.
    "'Tis the duc, m'lady! He's taken a turn for the worse."
    "Go and waken M'sieur le Baron," Skye commanded, "and then find Edmond as well."
    "Yes, m'lady." Daisy's head disappeared around the door, which was then pulled shut.
    Skye leapt from the bed and ran to the trunk at its foot, to draw forth another night garment, kicking the shredded ruins beneath her bed as she did so. She then found her light, quilted velvet dressing gown amid the rumple of the bedclothes, and put it on, too. Hurrying to her dressing table she ran the brush through her tangled hair so that it had some measure of order to it. Barefoot, she opened the door next to the head of her bed and hurried through into her husband's bedchamber.
    Père Henri was already there, as was the physician, Mathieu Dupont. She saw the priest administering the last rites to Fabron, and with huge eyes she looked at the doctor. "Docteur Dupont? What has happened to my husband?"
    "Alas, madame, I feared this. It is another fit, this one fatal. I was amazed that the first one did not kill him, and he has been having small ones ever since. This, however, is his death blow. There is no doubt."
    Skye moved to the side of her husband's bed. "I am here, mon mari," she said so he might hear.
    Fabron de Beaumont's dark eyes opened, and his mouth twitched in a soft smile. With great effort he reached out to take her hand, and his, shrunken and feather-light, was chill with impending death. Skye fought back the urge to pull away. Suddenly to everyone's great surprise, the duc spoke haltingly, "Nicolas…"
    "Where is M'sieur le Baron?" Skye demanded. "Fetch M'sieur le Baron!"
    "I am here," Nicolas came forward from the shadows, a dark green velvet dressing gown wrapped about him.
    For a long moment Fabron de Beaumont looked at his half-brother, and then he said, "It is good."
    Quick tears sprang to Skye's eyes, and her husband, glancing at her, spoke a final time. Fixing Nicolas with a pleading glance, he said, “Take care… the boy… my wife… Edmond."
    "I will care for them as tenderly as you would yourself, my brother," Nicolas vowed. “This I swear to you on the Blessed Virgin's love of her own family."
    Fabron de Beaumont smiled weakly a final time, and then his eyes closed as he slipped once more into unconsciousness. As the early sun crept over the duchy of Beaumont de Jaspre, Fabron, its forty-fifth duc, died peacefully in his bed, surrounded by his wife, his half-brother and heir, his nephew, who had been found in the arms of a plump barmaid, his priest, and his physician.
    Mathieu Dupont pronounced the Duc Fabron dead, and Père Henri fell to his knees in prayer. The rest joined him, and when he was through Skye spoke with quiet authority.
    "You must anoint M'sieur le Baron immediately, mon père. There is no time to lose. Beaumont de Jaspre must not be without a duc for even a day. Though there can be no celebration while we mourn my husband."
    The priest rose from his knees. "Madame la Duchesse is correct," he said. "It is not as if M'sieur le Baron were la Duc Fabron's son or nephew."
    "Or legitimate brother," Nicolas finished quietly.
    "Or legitimate brother," the priest echoed. "That is a fact, M'sieur le Baron, but you have His Holiness's blessing in this. No one will gainsay you your rights. Nonetheless I agree with Madame le Duchesse. I will anoint you as soon as you can dress." He smiled warmly at Nicolas. "There is no need to tempt the French needlessly, my son."
    Nicolas turned to Skye, his eyes suddenly soft. "You will come?" he said.
    "Of course, M'sieur le Baron," she answered. "Edmond and I will both come as your witnesses. In fact I think, mon père, that we should send for representatives of Beaumont's best families, even under these sad circumstances. It is not that I would make a festive occasion, but-"
    "Yes," the priest nodded. "The more witnesses the better."
    "I will see to it immediately," Edmond said. 'They will be in the castle chapel within the hour." He hurried from the room.
    "We must have a mass," Skye said. "Will you come to my apartments, mon père? I would make my confession."
    "Of course," Père Henri agreed, and then he turned to Nicolas. "Shall I also hear your confession, my son?"
    Again Nicolas looked at Skye, this time his glance unreadable. "Yes, mon père, I will also make my confession," he said after a long moment. It was the hardest thing she had ever done, for the memory of the previous night burned into her consciousness like a brand. She felt terribly guilty, and yet she did not feel one whit guilty. She could not deny that she had wanted Nicolas, but had he not sought her out she certainly could have controlled her turbulent emotions. All this she honestly told the priest, slow tears trickling down her face. "This is what comes of marrying for expediency's sake instead of true love, mon père, but what could I do? I had to protect my children!''
    The priest was silent for a few minutes while he thought over her confession. He had lived many years, and as a priest he had heard far worse than what she had just told him. He sighed and then said quietly, "You have indeed sinned, my daughter. There is no way around it. I can easily understand your weakness of the flesh in this particular incident, but you have broken one of God's laws, and so although I will give you absolution, I will also impose a penance upon you. For the next three nights you will keep a prayerful vigil with me in the chapel for the repose of your late husband's tortured soul."
    Skye raised her head and gazed into the priest's face. "Merci, mon père! Merci vraiment!” She was relieved, if not repentant.
    Her marvelous blue-green eyes shone like rain-washed jewels. As he blessed her Père Henri could not help thinking that if Beaumont de Jaspre's handsome young duc was anything like his late father- and judging from his quick seduction of Skye, he was-there could be a serious problem with these two living under the same roof. Blessed Virgin! There could even be a scandal! She was the most beautiful woman Père Henri had ever seen. What normal man could resist wanting her-indeed, taking her? He sighed, dreading the days ahead.
    Leaving Skye to dress for the hasty ceremony, he moved on to the chambers of Nicolas St. Adrian. Nicolas was already dressed in black velvet, Paul fussing about him. The serving man was shooed out, and Nicolas knelt to make his confession. He readily admitted his seduction of Skye, and in a voice that led the priest to believe he was not one bit sorry. "Do you not feel guilty, my son," Père Henri demanded, "for leading this virtuous woman into sin?"
    "I do not consider loving a woman to be a sin, mon père," came the disconcerting reply.
    "She was your brother's wife. You have committed adultery!" was the stern answer.
    "She was meant to belong to me," Nicolas returned stubbornly. "We will mourn the brother I did not know for one year's time, as is proper, and then, mon père, I intend to wed Skye."
    "You cannot!” The priest was thunderstruck. "She was your brother's wife! The Church forbids such things!"
    "Fabron de Beaumont was my half-brother, mon père. We never knew each other. A common father was our sole link, a link only acknowledged as a last resort. The Pope has upheld my tenuous claim to this duchy. I will ask him for a dispensation to wed my brother's widow. It is not an unusual request, and you know it."
    The priest sighed. What could he say? At least the new duc intended to make an honest woman of Skye. If God counted good intentions then perhaps it would be all right. "My son," he said, "I will grant you absolution, but I will also impose a penance upon you. In three days' time the Duc Fabron will be interred with his ancestors. For three nights following his burial you will keep a vigil with me in the chapel."
    "Agreed!" was the quick answer.
    Père Henri blessed Nicolas, and left to prepare for the mass and the anointing of the new duc. He smiled to himself as he went, thinking it was a fine penance he had imposed upon the lovers, particularly Nicolas. He knew human nature well enough to know that he was not going to keep them apart; but, and here he chuckled, he would give a new cathedral to see the look on Nicolas's face when he discovered that he could not bed Skye for the next six days.
    Madame la Duchesse de Beaumont de Jaspre shone like the sun at the simple anointing of the new duc. She wore a cream-colored satin dress in the manner of the English court. The underskirt of the gown was embroidered in gold thread with bumblebees, and the slashed sleeves of the dress shone with cloth of gold. Upon her head she wore for the first time the Beaumont ducal crown, a dainty gold headpiece set with diamonds and green jasperstone. About her neck was a simple gold cross. Despite her husband's death, she could not wear mourning. Mourning worn for the old duc would be considered ill fortune for the new duc.
    As each quickly invited guest arrived Skye explained the Duc Fabron's death early this morning. She then went on to say that Baron St. Adrian, Duc Fabron's half-brother, had both her late husband's and the Holy Father's blessing to inherit Beaumont de Jaspre. "We must anoint him immediately lest our more powerful neighbors seek to annex us," she explained.
    The half-dozen important families of Beaumont de Jaspre agreed with Madame la Duchesse. Nicolas St. Adrian must be installed officially, and quickly, before word of Fabron de Beaumont's death was bruited about. Nicolas St. Adrian, standing by Skye's side, was introduced to each family group, and the Beaumontese liked what they saw. He was young and healthy, and new stock; new blood for the duchy. They could go on another five hundred years with his descendants, which meant that theirs would also be safe.
    The sun poured through the long, narrow stained-glass windows of the chapel while upon the altar the beeswax candles flickered a delicate golden light. The reflections from the windows splashed blue and red, rose, azure, and green over the worshipers in the chapel. Nicolas St. Adrian was declared the rightful heir to the duchy by Père Henri, the Pope's approval to his claim being read to the assembled. Then the priest anointed with holy oil Nicolas's head, lips, and hands. The kneeling man was then crowned by his nephew, who firmly placed the golden ducal coronet upon his uncle's head, mischievously whispering as he did so, "Better you than me, mon brave!" Skye placed the ducal scepter with its ball of polished green jasperstone in Nicolas's hands, and the new duc arose and turned to face his subjects.
    "Vive, le Duc Nicolas!" Edmond and Skye said in unison.
    "Vive le Duc Nicolas!" replied the others in the chapel. "Vive le Duc! Vive le Duc!”
    A short, solemn mass was then offered for the repose of Fabron de Beaumont's soul. Afterward Skye invited all the guests into the Great Hall, where a toast was drunk to the new duc's health and long reign. Then the invited dispersed and returned to their own homes, and the mounted criers, dressed in the azure and silver livery of the de Beaumont family, made their way down into the town and to the four corners of the small duchy to announce the death of Fabron de Beaumont and the anointing of his half-brother, Baron St. Adrian, as the new duc.
    An official Beaumont de Jaspre messenger was sent in the company of France's newly released messenger to the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, and her son, King Charles. The royal messenger had been witness to Nicolas's investiture and afterward to his swearing fealty to France as Beaumont de Jaspre's duc. The duchy's messenger carried the written account of Fabron de Beaumont's death and his half-brother's constant loyalty to his overlord, Charles IXth.

***

    Nicolas St. Adrian's day was busy. By the time all the messengers had been dispatched, and he had arranged for his half-brother's body to lie in state in the tiny cathedral of St. Paul's beginning the following day, the afternoon had gone. "Where is Skye?" he asked Edmond as they sat eating the evening meal in the Great Hall.
    "I saw her just a while ago," Edmond said. "She wants to keep to her chambers for the moment. She said she would have Daisy bring her something to eat. She looks tired, and she told me that she must keep vigil for the next three nights in the chapel."
    Nicolas cursed softly under his breath as he realized the real punishment in Père Henri's penance. Then he chuckled to himself. It had been a long time since anyone had gainsayed him what he wanted. His gentle mother and his crusty old grandfather had spoiled him terribly in an effort to make up for his lack of a father and the social stigma attached to his birth. Well, she was worth the wait, but he would at least see her before she imprisoned herself in the chapel for the night.
    Anticipating such a move, however, Skye had already left for the family chapel when Nicolas arrived in her chambers. How could she concentrate on serious prayer and true meditation if all she could think of was his kisses? What had happened between them last night was wrong, was immoral, had indeed been a sin against God's laws. She was too much of a realist to say it would never happen again, that she would never lay in his arms weak with his loving; but for the next three nights she intended to put all her energy into relieving her guilt for having betrayed her dying husband. It mattered not that he had never known, would never know. If she could not keep faith with herself, then how could she keep faith with anyone else?
    Nicolas instinctively understood her mood, and kept from her, but when she emerged exhausted after the third long night of her vigil he was waiting outside the chapel. Wordlessly they looked at each other, and then he picked her up just as her trembling legs were about to give out, and carried her to her own rooms. She was already asleep when they got there, her head nestling on his shoulder, her breath coming as softly as a child's.
    With a little cry Daisy hurried forward as he entered the room. Marie and Violette gaped openmouthed, but were quickly brought back to their senses by Daisy's sharp command. "Hurry and open the mistress's bed, you useless things!" The two quickly obeyed, only to be shooed out when they had completed their task. Daisy looked at the new duc and sighed. She had been with Skye long enough to know the look of a man in love with her mistress, and Duc Nicolas was clearly a man in love.
    “I’ll care for her now," Daisy said, but Nicolas said in a firm, not-to-be-argued-with voice, "No, Daisy, I will take care of her. She'll sleep for a while, so send away those two silly creatures who help you. However, I would like you to busy yourself about the apartment until I need you."
    "She'll rest more comfortably, my lord, with her gown off," Daisy said helpfully.
    "I’ll do it," he answered, and Daisy retreated.
    Skye had worn very simple clothes to keep her vigil. Now Nicolas undid her black silk skirt and drew it off her. Turning her over, he undid the bodice and, turning her over, pulled it away also. Two white silk petticoats followed, along with her underblouse. Gently he removed the dainty jeweled garters that she wore to hold up her silk stockings, and then rolled the stockings down off her legs and feet. Daisy had already removed the shoes.
    Quickly he removed his own clothes and, getting into bed with her, drew the covers over them, to fall asleep holding her in his arms.
    He awoke several hours later to find her already awake and staring at him with huge distressed eyes. "How do you feel?" he asked her.
    "Still tired," she answered honestly.
    "Go back to sleep then," he said, drawing her down into the curve of his arm so that her head might rest on his shoulder. She lay her dark head upon him, but she did not sleep, and he knew it. "What is the matter, doucette?"
    Skye sighed. "I thought I had prayed it all away, but alas, I have not!" She was obviously very distressed.
    "What?" he asked.
    "My desire for you, Nicolas."
    "You will never stop wanting me, doucette, as I will never stop wanting you. Go back to sleep now, my angel. This afternoon we bury my half-brother and tonight I must begin my three nights of penance."
    "Père Henri has ordered you to pray three nights also?" He heard the laughter in her voice as she realized what the priest had done. He was glad, for it meant she still had a sense of humor. To be able to laugh was a good thing.
    When Skye awoke he was gone, and Daisy was bringing her a goblet of freshly squeezed fruit juice. "You'll have to hurry, m'lady," Daisy said, "for the old duc’s funeral procession is to begin soon."
    Skye arose and was dressed in the appropriate black. Descending to the courtyard, she found herself amid a small uproar. Little Garnier de Beaumont had been brought forth by his nurse to take his place in the procession. Skye had never seen her unfortunate stepson in the few months she had lived in Beaumont de Jaspre, but now she understood Fabron's desperate need and desire for an heir. The child was fat, and not totally in control of his limbs. His head was enlarged and his eyes were slanted in an odd fashion. The head lolled, as if it were too heavy for his neck. He did not talk, but rather made little animal noises that his old nurse pretended to understand completely.
    Now the old woman stood adamant, defending her baby's rights while both Nicolas and Edmond argued furiously with her. Skye listened a minute, and then, brushing the two men aside, said gently, "You cannot send the boy to his father's funeral, old nurse. Poor child, he does not understand, and all this anger is frightening him." She stroked the boy's cheek, smiling and speaking softly to him. "There, mon petit, everything is all right." She turned again to the nurse. "You know that he is not a normal child, nurse. He cannot, therefore, be expected to behave in a normal manner in this situation. Duc Nicolas has promised that he will care for this child as tenderly as if he were one of his own. Now take Garnier back to his own rooms, nurse." Skye then bent and kissed the child in a loving gesture.
    The old nurse nodded, satisfied. "Madame la Duchesse is kind, and she understands." Then the old woman took her charge by the hand and led him away.
    "Now, gentlemen, may we go?" Skye walked to her white palfrey and was helped up into the saddle by a groom.
    The funeral procession wound its way down the hill from the castle to the little Cathedral of St. Paul, Skye leading the way as Fabron de Beaumont's widow. When the service had concluded, and Fabron had been interred in his tomb beneath the marble main altar in the family's crypt, the packed cathedral emptied out and Nicolas St. Adrian, the new duc, led the procession back up the hill. One era had ended and another was beginning. The people of Beaumont de Jaspre were getting their first good look at their new duc, and they liked what they saw. As they made their way through the narrow winding streets of the town, languid, ripe-mouthed beauties with melting invitations in their dark sloe eyes leaned from their balconies to pelt their new lord with flowers. But he saw none of them. He was far too engrossed in the woman who rode at his side. He could not take his eyes from her.
    At one point she whispered over the roar of the crowds, "Do not look at me so, Nicolas. You will shame me."
    Seeing them together, Edmond de Beaumont wondered why he had not noticed it before. His new uncle was obviously hopelessly and completely in love. Now he understood all those questions about the English treaty, and knew why he himself was being sent back to England almost immediately with Captain Kelly. Nicolas St. Adrian wanted his brother's widow to be his wife. For the briefest moment Edmond was overcome by a feeling of terrible hopelessness. If he had only been born normal then perhaps Skye would have been his. Then he shrugged. What was, was. Besides, if she had that kind of love for him his height wouldn't matter. He looked at her now and saw the soft rose blush staining her cheeks as she gently scolded Nicolas. They were two of a kind, Edmond thought. Proud, passionate people who would do very well together. He considered himself fortunate to have her friendship, for never had he known anyone like Skye O'Malley. She was unique. There would be no festivities honoring Nicolas's possession of the duchy. The celebrations would come later when he married, and now the speculation began as to when and whom Nicolas would marry. Several important families had marriageable daughters, and in neighboring Provence and the Languedoc there were several noble families whose nubile offspring might make Nicolas St. Adrian an eligible partie. The new duc, however, appeared in no hurry to choose a wife.
    Edmond de Beaumont departed for England aboard Skye's own ship, Seagull, several days after the funeral. When she had asked him why he returned to the Tudor court he replied that she must ask Nicolas. She had wanted to leave with him, but knew that she must stay at least until the spring to officially mourn poor Fabron. It was the least she owed him.
    As Seagull sailed from Beaumont de Jaspre's main harbor Skye watched from her bedchamber balcony. For the first time since she had left England she was actually alone except for the faithful Daisy. Robbie, certain that she was settled, unaware of Fabron's death, wandered the eastern Mediterranean in his leisurely voyage to Istanbul. Now Bran was gone back to England, taking Edmond once more to Elizabeth Tudor's court.
    Nicolas came up behind her, slipping an arm about her waist, and drawing her back against him. "Do you wish you were with Edmond?'' he asked.
    "Yes," she answered honestly.
    "Do you have a lover you miss back in England, Skye?" She could hear the jealous note in his voice.
    "My children are there, and in Ireland," she said, sidestepping his query and realizing that she hadn't thought about Adam de Marisco in weeks. "When I was forced to leave him my youngest son was just over two months old. His little sister isn't even two years old, Nicolas. I have four other children as well. I miss them. Yes, I wish I were aboard Seagull on my way home."
    "I will never let you go," he said quietly.
    "Nicolas, you must." There was a note of quiet desperation in her tone.
    "Do you know why I have sent Edmond to England, Skye?"
    "No, he would not tell me. He said that I must ask you."
    "I sent him to your Queen to ask that you be given to me as my wife. I offer England the same terms my brother did, the ports of Beaumont de Jaspre."
    Skye shook her head and laughed ruefully. "I sent a letter to William Cecil asking to be allowed to come home now that Fabron is dead."
    "Which request do you think that your Queen will favor, doucette?0
    "Do not be cruel, Nicolas. We both know that your ports are of value to England."
    "You are of value to me!" His arm tightened, and he put his face in her hair near her ear. "Skye, sweet Skye! I love you! From the moment of our first meeting I have loved you. I want you for my wife. I want you for the mother of my sons and daughters. You feel much more for me than you did for my brother. I will teach you to love me, doucette! I need you so much!"
    "Do not seek to marry me, Nicolas," she begged. "When my beloved Niall was murdered I realized that I was ill luck to the men who have loved me, and wed me. Everyone dies in time, Nicolas, but these were young men! None were safe, even your half-brother Fabron, whom I did not love. It is as if I am not meant to have a husband. I would not want my ill luck to endanger you. Seek some young girl of good family to make your wife."
    "No. I want you." He turned her about, taking her face in his two hands, looking down into her blue-green eyes. "Doucette, I warn you I will not be denied. I could take you for my mistress and marry some other, but I do not want you for my mistress. I want you for my wife. I have made the decision, and you must abide by it." He kissed her upturned nose. "You will be my wife."
    Skye was outraged. I have made the decision, he had said. She took a deep breath. "Nicolas," she said calmly, "it is I who must make the decision as to whether or not to marry you. You will not control me! No man ever has. I am my own mistress. I have always been, and I will always be! If you can understand that then perhaps you will have come a little way toward understanding me. If you learn to understand me then perhaps we shall be friends. I am not so foolish as to deny that we are attracted to one another, but lovers should be friends."
    Nicolas chuckled indulgently, and sweeping her up into his strong arms, he walked across the room to dump her on the bed. Then he stood, legs spread, above her. "Doucette," he said, "how can one so wise be so innocent? No woman is her own mistress, even your own Queen. There is always someone to answer to, else Elizabeth of England would have married her horsemaster. You must answer to England's Queen, and she will give you to me without a second thought. Therefore you must answer to me." His green eyes twinkled. "I will expect a proper and obedient wife, Skye."
    She sat up, a look of outrage on her beautiful face. "A proper and obedient wife?!" She scrambled off the bed on its other side. "Why, you pompous, arrogant ass of a Frenchman! Answer to you? I’d sooner answer to the Devil himself! Elizabeth Tudor may give me to you as a wife, but you may live to regret it, Nicolas St. Adrian!''
    He grinned engagingly at her across the bed, and then flopped down upon the mattress. "Come to bed, d oucette," he said in a deceptively bland voice.
    "Ohhhhhh!'' she shrieked with frustration. "I do not believe that you have heard a word that I have said, Nicolas! You are totally and utterly impossible. I will not marry you!” Skye stamped her foot angrily to punctuate the point.
    Reaching up, he grasped her arm in an iron grip and yanked her down onto the bed atop him. "You, you stubborn jade, have not heard a word that I have said! I mean to make you my wife. My God, woman, you behave as if I had made you an indecent proposal!"
    "I have had enough of husbands!" she shouted at him. "It matters not if I fall in love or not, I always lose them too quickly to death, and it's worse when I love them."
    "Then you love me!" he shouted back at her, his face alight with pleasure.
    "I hate you! You are arrogant, stubborn, impossible, and totally devoid of understanding!"
    "You love me!" His face was just inches from hers.
    "No!" She squirmed to escape his grip.
    "You love me!" He rolled her over, and she was pinned quite helplessly beneath him.
    "Never!" Damn the man, Skye thought.
    "You love me" he said softly, and then his mouth was covering hers in a deep and passionate kiss.
    She struggled a moment beneath him, and then, realizing the futility of her position, she lay still. She would give him nothing. She had to convince him of her disinterest. She had to convince herself. She liked him. God's foot, it was more than like, but she couldn't, nay she must not give in to her own desires! She was bad luck for husbands, and then there were her children to get back to in England and Ireland.
    "Doucette, doucette," he whispered against her lips, and she shivered. "Aimes-moi, doucette. Aimes-moi!"
    Skye turned her head away from him, feeling quick tears starting to prick her eyelids. "Oh, you are a bad man, a wicked man," she said low. "How can you do this to me, Nicolas? You claim to love me yet you subject me to this terrible torture."
    "I only seek to make you listen to your own heart, Skye," he answered her, and his hands began to move on her breasts, stroking softly, subtly.
    She felt her breasts beginning to swell and grow taut with the sweet desire that he was able to rouse in her. Her nipples were tingling and sensitive, so sensitive that the silk of her night rail felt irritable against them. "I do not deny you arouse lust in me," she said in a desperate voice, "but that is not love!"
    "It is a beginning, doucette." His fingers were carefully undoing the tiny pearl buttons, and when he had bared her to the navel he pushed the fabric of her gown aside and bent to kiss her breasts.
    "Don't!" Her voice was ragged. Dear God, she would explode with the wanting.
    "Hush, my love," he said patiently. "Hush." Then he was kissing her again, warm and demanding kisses that left her weak and helpless to deny him any longer. She kissed him back with sweet, slow kisses, feeling his firm lips parting, the soft rush of breath from his mouth to hers, the velvet tip of his tongue exploring delicately within that delicious amorous cavern.
    His head moved back to her breasts, nuzzling at them, rubbing his rough cheek against their silken skin. He ran his tongue in the valley between the twin perfections and then moved on to teasingly encircle and softly lick at each nipple. A flutter of pleasure rippled through Skye, and she murmured low. Her arm extended to allow her to gently caress the back of his neck. Now it was his turn to murmur as her skillful fingers sent delighted shivers through his big frame.
    Skye moved both her hands to his chest and pulled his white silk shirt open, sliding her palms over his smooth skin up to his broad shoulders and down his long arms, pushing the shirt ahead of her. Then she wrapped her arms about his neck and pulled him down to her. As his chest descended upon her breasts and he felt the marvelous soft fullness of her, he groaned. "Ah, doucette, this is what you were made to do; to love a man, and in turn be loved by one."
    "You talk much about making love, Nicolas," she teased him, and he chuckled.
    "I will make you pay for that insult," he threatened.
    "Will you?" she goaded him. "What will you do to avenge yourself?"
    "Love you until you beg for mercy," he threatened.
    "I never beg for mercy, Nicolas," she said softly. "I am used to winning all my battles."
    He laughed at what he believed was her audacity. "Doucette, you are a woman, and women have no battles. Women are tender creatures, to be delicately nurtured. Women should be protected, loved, and adored. It is the way of the world."
    Skye pushed him away, and unprepared, he rolled onto his back. She sat up and, looking at him, said, "I think, Nicolas, that you have been too long in your Poitou marsh. Where on earth did you ever get such foolish ideas about women? Your ideas are a hundred, nay two hundred years out of date. In England a queen reigns in her own right. In France a queen mother is the power behind the throne, in fact the real power in France. Women are not mindless ninnies. If I were one, you would not be half as interested in me as you are.
    "You know nothing about me, Nicolas St. Adrian, and I know that unless you can accept the kind of woman that I am we shall be very unhappy together. You should not have been so quick to send to England for Elizabeth Tudor's permission to wed me. You may find that you do not like the woman I am, and I shall not change."
    He suddenly looked very confused, and Skye felt her heart go out to him. "Listen to me, Nicolas, and I shall tell you the sort of woman you have been lusting after." Then Skye proceeded to tell him of her marriages, her children, her personal wealth, her lands, her children's lands and wealth. She finished by telling him, "If my Queen commands me to wed with you, you are right, I must do so; but understand that though I give you a dowry, and Elizabeth will surely beggar me wedding me twice in a year, I retain and control my own wealth. Can you live with that, Nicolas? I will not marry you simply to play the docile mare to your randy stallion!''
    "My ideas of women come from my mother," he said slowly. "She was a gentle and trusting creature who needed looking after. My father broke her heart, and she never married. I think that my grandfather lived as long as he did simply because she needed caring for, and without a husband, who would do it? Had she not had a strong man in her life she would have been prey to others, as she was to my father. I was seventeen when she died. My grandfather died shortly afterward. I was a man, and could care for myself, and he believed his duty done."
    "Did you never go to court?" she asked him.
    “There was no money for such things. Manners, my letters, how to read, riding, how to fight, these things my mother, my grandfather, and my grandfather's old squire taught me."
    "What about young women? Surely, even though you were poor, you met the daughters of the neighboring nobility?"
    "When I was a child I played with the peasant children. When I grew old enough for social occasions I was not invited to the homes of our neighbors. First there was the stigma of my birth, and then there was the stigma of my poverty. My birth might have been overlooked, but my poverty, never! Many a noble bastard has gone on to great things, but none without wealth or the hope of it."
    She nodded, understanding his predicament. 'Tour grandfather taught you that women were sweet and mindless creatures meant for cherishing, and giving a man pleasure; but nothing more. Your gentle mother certainly did not give lie to his interpretation. I will wager she always had a very protective serving woman about her to fend off anything that your grandfather couldn't."
    "Berthe was with her until she died," he answered.
    "Nicolas, you know nothing about women," Skye said.
    "I know how to love them," he answered her. "Is that not enough? Perhaps I do not know women of my own class, but there are just as many kinds of women among peasants as among the nobility, and I have met and dealt with them all. Are noblewomen really so different, doucette?"
    "Noblewomen are taught to be freer than peasant women, mon brave. Now I will admit that not all of them take advantage of their opportunities as I have done, but many do. If you desire a docile and obedient wife who will never question you or your commands, then I must beg that you wed with a young and innocent girl, and certainly not with me. I am too set in my ways to change."
    "But I am not, doucette, for you see that I have far more to lose by not changing than you do." He reached up and wove his big hand into her long, black hair. "I love you, chérie" he said, softly drawing her halfway down to him.
    "Oh, Nicolas," she whispered, totally disarmed. Had he really listened to her, or was he simply blinded by his desire?
    "Help me to learn about you, Skye," he begged. "I cannot be happy without you, and I will not lose you." Pulling her all the way down for a moment, he gently kissed her lips. "Aimes-moi, doucette!"
    "I keep my own wealth, and I want my children here, at least those of them that can come to me. Especially my babies in Ireland, for my uncle and my brothers can hold the Burke lands now, but I cannot let my babies grow up not knowing their own mother. My eldest and his brothers can visit us, but their lives are in England and in Ireland. Willow must come! How she will love Beaumont, Nicolas!"
    Her face was radiant with the thought of her children, and he thought she must be a good mother to care as much as she did. "I will love your children," he promised her, "and we will also have our own."
    "And my wealth?" She would not let him escape.
    "It remains yours, doucette. I want you happy, and besides, I have never had much wealth. What would I do with it?"
    "You will learn these things, Nicolas," Skye told him. "The Beaumont coffers are full. Edmond will teach you, for he has a clever head with figures, and oversaw Fabron's wealth as well as the public funds. You must learn lest others less honest take advantage of you."
    "I will learn it all if it will please you," he said.
    "No, no," she fussed at him. "You must learn because you want to, because you want to be a good duc! It is important to Beaumont de Jaspre." She sighed. His own small holding in Poitou had been a poor one, and there had been no need for him to learn the many and varied things that overseeing a vast estate entailed. "Wealth is a great responsibility, Nicolas. The truly great lords understand that, and so must you. Do not be one of the foolish ones who think that wealth is only for personal gratification. First comes your family, but there will be times when the duchy must come before it for the good of everyone, including your family."
    "Doucette, you have convinced me that I have a great deal to learn, and I promise you that I shall learn it, but I do not wish to begin those lessons now. Now I wish to make love to you." His heavy-lidded green eyes were laughing down at her.
    "You would then give me lessons," she said teasingly, surprising him. "If you would do so, Nicolas, then you had best rise from my bed and take off your clothes. I have always found it damnably hard to make love in one's clothes." So saying, Skye swung herself off the bed and slipped off the demure pink night rail that he had already unbuttoned. When she turned back to face him he caught his breath with wonder and delight as her lush body was illumined by the moonlight streaming through the long windows and the firelight from the small hearth.
    No peasant girl of his acquaintance had had as magnificent a form as Skye. Her small breasts were set high on her chest and thrust impudently forward. Her slender waist curved enticingly, tempting a man to encircle it with his hands. Below it, her hips flared in womanly fashion and flowed into long, shapely legs and feet. He knew the feel of her incredibly soft skin and long thick hair. She was a most sensuous feast for a man, and he groaned low, his desire beginning to swell and pulse beneath his garments. Rising, he tore off his clothes, and then looking across the bed at her, he held out his hand.
    Skye let her blue eyes sweep over him as his had so boldly swept over her. Tall and fair-skinned, he was really quite handsome with his sleepy green eyes and his wavy red-brown hair, a recalcitrant lock falling boyishly over his forehead. Without his clothes she could see how long his legs were, and how surprisingly shapely for a man. She could also see how aroused he was, and she smiled mischievously as she stared directly at his open desire. Then she reached out, touched his hand, and climbed back into the bed.
    Stretching out her fingers, she teasingly caressed and fondled him as he stood by the side of the bed. He throbbed beneath her touch, and she laughed low; a provocative sound that sent a fierce stab of desire through him. He wanted nothing more than to bury himself within her, to make her beg, to make her cry aloud with her passion; but for the life of him he couldn't move. Her touch was mesmerizing him, sending waves of pure pleasure racing through him, forcing him to stand very still lest she stop. Skye trailed her long fingers up over his belly, and then down between his thighs and around his hips to squeeze his hard buttocks in her small, skillful hands. "Bitch!" he whispered.
    "Come to me, Nicolas," she said low. "It is you who began this fever in me. Do you now regret it, or do bold women frighten you?"
    It was an audacious challenge, and one that released him from her power. He flung himself atop her, pinioning her firmly beneath him. His hard thighs pressed down against her soft ones, his belly and chest flattened themselves on her as his mouth took hers in a ruthless kiss. Skye gasped, but quickly recovered and returned the kiss, her little tongue daring his to do battle. To her surprise and intense delight, he responded by giving her a sensuous tongue bath, his flicking spear moving like wildfire down her throat, across her breasts, down her navel, thighs, calves. Turning her over, he licked slowly up her legs, across her buttocks, up her backbone, and over her shoulders. Gently he nipped at the back of her neck, pushing her long black hair aside to nuzzle it.
    By the time he turned her again onto her back she was gasping with hot desire. It felt wonderful, and she wanted to give him some of the same pleasure she felt in return. "Let me love you, Nicolas," she begged him, attempting to sit up.
    "No, doucette," he whispered back. "You may be very good at the facts of business, my love, but I am even better at the facts of love. Tonight you will be loved, and loved, and loved again by me. Another time I will let you love me in return, but not tonight." His hands moved up to fondle her breasts, to tease at the little pink nipples, to kiss them, and nip gently at them, to lick them into hard little knobs of pleasure-pain.
    She let him have his way, her will to fight or argue totally lost beneath his skillful hands. She cared not what he did to her as long as he didn't stop the pure bliss that was invading her veins, replacing her blood. She felt him spread her legs, and then his kisses were sending gentle tremors through her as they touched the soft flesh on the inside of her thighs. Then he raised his head slightly and kissed the smooth woman's mont of her. Skye stuffed her fist in her mouth but it still did not entirely prevent the sound of her cries from coming to his ears as his tongue sought out and found the hidden sweetness of her. With wicked skill he ran his tongue down the moist rose-pink flesh, thrusting within the very entry to her. His tongue moved back upward and flicked teasingly at the tiny sensitive jewel of her womanhood.
    A starburst of delight exploded in Skye's brain and body. Reaching up, he pulled her fist from her mouth and heard her moans of rapture. Lowering his head again, he once more began the delicious torture, not stopping until her frantic little mewling sounds told him that he had driven her far enough. Swinging over her, he thrust himself deep inside her, pushing her once again to passion's brink, loving the feel of her nails as they dug sharply into his muscled shoulders. He was a master at lovemaking, and he knew it, but this time it was impossible for him to be patient. He wanted his release, and he knew that she did, too. With a shout of exultation he poured himself into her quivering, vibrating warmth.
    It was too much for her, and Skye, to his astonishment, began to weep. Nicolas gathered her into his arms, loving her all the more for the passion that could set her to weeping in the midst of their fulfillment. "Doucette, doucette," he murmured, pressing small kisses on her wet face, "doucette, mon amour, je t’ame! Je t’aime! Don't cry, my love! Ah, doucette, you will break my heart!" He held her hard and close, rocking her back and forth like a child.
    "I am so afraid," she sobbed. "I am so afraid, Nicolas! I don't want anything to happen to you, but if we wed it will! I just know it will. It does every time I love, and I cannot bear any more! I cannot!"
    "You do love me!" he breathed happily.
    "Yes-no-I don't know! All I know is that I don't want anything to happen to you!"
    They had to deal with her fear, and he was wise enough to know it. "We cannot marry for at least a year, doucette," he said. 'To mourn my brother any less time would be disrespectful. We cannot even announce our intentions before then. If nothing happens to me in that time, Skye, will you believe that nothing will? Surely there must have been some man in your life whom you cared for and who was not hurt by this phenomenon you believe in?"
    Skye stopped crying. There was Adam. Adam had never been really harmed for loving her, but then Adam had never been married to her. Some instinct warned her not to mention Adam, for she had seen that Nicolas could be jealous. There is no one," she said softly.
    Then I shall have the honor of being the man to destroy your dragon, doucette!" he said gaily. "Do not fear, ma chérie! I am a lucky man. I always have been. I was conceived a bastard, and my father might have disowned me, but my mother and my grandfather did not. They loved me and nurtured me. My grandfather even legitimatized me, allowing me to inherit his title, such as it was. My half-brother made me his heir, the Pope confirmed it, and now I am a duc. A wealthy duc! I shall be lucky in love, too! In a year's time I shall marry you, and we shall make beautiful children together, and we shall live happily ever after as they do in all the children's tales." He tipped her face up and looked down into her blue-green eyes. "Do you believe me, my beautiful doucette? Will you trust me to make everything all right?"
    She looked into his eyes, eyes that were filled with love for her, eyes that honestly believed the words he spoke. He was so sure of himself. He was so sure of his ability to make everything all right. She wanted to believe that he could, and why not, she thought. "I will trust you, Nicolas," she answered him. "Oh, my darling, I will trust you! Perhaps this time it will be all right."

***

    In the days that followed it seemed that she had made the right decision. Nicolas St. Adrian was a perfect lover, and he was also a man of his word. He worked very hard to understand the sort of woman that Skye was, and as he came to understand her he found he liked an independent woman. He began to admit to himself that as sweet as his mother had been, he had sometimes found her helplessness irritating and cloying. It had been an effort for her to choose between venison and rabbit pastry for her supper, and he wondered why his father had been attracted to her in the first place. He could only suppose that it was his pretty mother's innocence that had been so enticing. Skye, however, had no such difficulty reaching decisions. She was a woman who seemed to know exactly what she wanted, and how to get it. She was a woman who knew power and had dealt with it, and she quite fascinated him.
    To her immense delight, Skye found that as well as being a magnificent lover, Nicolas had an excellent mind. That he had never had the opportunity to learn the things she knew had not been his fault; and under her tutelage he began to acquire an excellent knowledge of finance, and trading, politics and government, courtly behavior and maneuvering that would stand him in good stead in the years to come. Skye enjoyed teaching so apt a pupil, and the days slipped by, turning into weeks, and gradually into months.
    In Beaumont de Jaspre Skye found herself living a life far different from any she had ever lived. Away from the mainstream of a powerful court and a powerful country, their fives were quiet and calm. The de Beaumonts had never had an important court like some of the larger city-states, but now with an elegant and gay young duc the livelier members of the little duchy's nobility began to congregate about the castle. It was quickly apparent to the young women among this group that Nicolas St. Adrian had chosen his duchesse. They accepted this with as good a grace as they could under the circumstances, but it did not prevent some of the bolder among them from flirting outrageously with the duc. Nicolas was flattered by their attention, but he had made his decision within the first hour of his arrival in Beaumont, and his heart remained true to Skye.
    As Christmas approached she began to grow sad once more. A year ago she had been pregnant with Padraic, and Niall had been alive. With their baby daughter, Deirdre, and the MacWilliam they had celebrated in the Great Hall at Burke Castle. Huge oak Yule logs were dragged into the hall to be burned in the enormous fireplaces. The hall itself was decked in garlands of pine and holly. There were great haunches of venison to eat, and casks of frozen cider into which red-hot pokers were plunged, the sweet liquor being drawn off a little at a time into the silver goblets. There was a minstrel who could sing all the stories of old, of the time when Ireland was free from England, and the land was peopled with giants and fairies, and great heroes and brave, beautiful women; of a time when grand and noble deeds were done, and love was always undying.
    Nicolas could see the sudden, drastic change in her mood, and intuitively sensed that she was thinking of another and happier time in her life. He half hoped that she was pregnant, so he might have an excuse to marry her now; but Skye had told him quite gravely when he had once mentioned it that they would not have children until after they were married. The positive way in which she spoke led him to believe that she practiced some forbidden sort of contraception, but he would not press her on it. She was not yet his wife, and he realized that she needed time; a time to grieve that had been denied her before and that he would not deny her now.
    Nicolas had a wonderful surprise for Skye, something that he knew would make her gay and happy once more. Each day he scanned the mouth of Villerose's harbor for the return of Bran Kelly's ship, which, he hoped, would bring Edmond, the Queen of England's blessing on his union with Skye, and the surprise. Three days before Christmas the Seagull sailed back to Beaumont de Jaspre's main harbor.
    Nicolas and Skye rode down the hill from the castle and through the town, a small coterie of guards escorting them. It was a perfect Mediterranean day, and she looked so very beautiful in the deep-blue silk riding dress, its sleeves lavishly trimmed in cream-colored lace, which dripped gracefully from just below her elbows, her lower arms being bare. Upon her hands she wore cream doeskin gloves embroidered in tiny freshwater pearls and gold thread. Although the sun was quite bright and it was a warm day, Skye had chosen not to wear any headdress. Instead, her long black hair was bound back only by an embroidered ribbon. She rode a white palfrey with a red leather saddle and a bridle that was hung with tinkling silver bells.
    The road wound down from the castle through the pink town with its balconies filled with their profusion of brightly colored blossoms, the millefloral scent perfuming the air around them. Upon some of the balconies hung cages of songbirds trilling happy tunes. It was all so beautiful that Skye wanted to cry. It would be so wonderful to have her children with her. How they would enjoy the days of golden sunshine and warm weather. She sighed, determined not to be sad and spoil Nicolas's mood. He was trying so hard to make her happy, and it was not his fault that he was unable to supply her with the one thing that she needed to complete her happiness. As they passed through the main square of the town the market-day crowds took up the delighted cry, "Vive le Duc! Vive Madame la Duchesse!" It was impossible not to smile, and wave a hand at these friendly people who were obviously so eager to love them.
    Ahead, the street opened into the harbor area. The docks of Beaumont de Jaspre were alive with ships unloading their goods from all over the Mediterranean and northern Europe. She could smell the fragrance of spices, the strong scent of uncured hides and fish all mingling into a smell particular to docks the world over. The vessels were flying flags from virtually every nation: England, Norway, France, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, Sweden, Algiers, Morocco, Portugal, Scotland. There were so many languages being spoken that when she tried to concentrate on one, her head began to spin.
    They were able to ride directly to Skye's ship, which had been given a preferred dockage near the open-air harbor market. She could see the O'Malley flag fluttering in the soft afternoon breeze around the ship's mast. On the open main deck she could see some of the crew moving about. They came to a stop before the gangway, and dismounting, Nicolas helped her from her saddle. Bran Kelly appeared from the main cabin, and calling out to him Skye waved. He flashed her a delighted grin and waved back. Skye hurried aboard.
    "Have you brought Edmond back?" she demanded.
    "Indeed, m'lady, I have, and a surprise from your duc that I hope will please you." Bran turned to Nicolas. "Now, sir?"
    Nicholas smiled. "Now," he said.
    "If you will come into the main cabin with me, m'lady," Bran said politely, and Skye, puzzled, followed as he opened the door and stepped back to allow her through first.
    Walking over the threshold, Skye suddenly stopped, and stared hard. Then without warning she burst into tears. Instantly she was surrounded by her children all laughing, shouting, and crying themselves. A small dark-haired little tot peered wide-eyed around Edmond de Beaumont's legs at her, and another, a fat blue-eyed baby boy, gazed seriously at her from his nurse's arms.
    "Are you not glad to see us, Mama?" the practical Willow demanded.
    Skye O'Malley stared at five of her six children, quite overcome with pure and total joy. She had everything! Speechless for a brief moment, she held out her arms to the children and the three older ones rushed to her, all talking at once. She hugged Murrough. God's nightshirt! He was taller than she was now. How had that happened in only seven months? She kissed Willow, her beautiful and treasured little daughter. Willow's checks were damp, but she smiled a blindingly radiant smile at her mother, and words were not necessary between the two. "Robin!" She finally found her voice, and gathering Geoffrey Southwood's son into her arms, she hugged him hard. Robin, usually very conscious of his position in life, did not complain, but kissed his mother's cheek enthusiastically.
    Skye stepped back and viewed her offspring delightedly. Then, turning, she looked at Nicolas. “Thank you," she said quietly. He smiled back at her, but said nothing. Words were unnecessary.
    "Chérie," Edmond de Beaumont said, "here is a little child who would greet you." Gently he drew Deirdre from her hiding place behind him.
    Kneeling, Skye held out her arms to the small girl, a soft smile touching the edges of her lips. Niall's daughter looked so very much like her. Deirdre Burke was indeed her mother in miniature, with her camellia-fair skin, a tumble of dark curls, and her blue-green eyes. Thumb in her rosebud mouth, she eyed Skye suspiciously.
    "Silly one!" Willow scolded her baby sister. This is our mama."
    Deirdre looked at Skye, then at Willow who nodded her head vigorously, then at Skye again. She took a hesitant step forward, then another, and, reaching out, Skye pulled her youngest daughter into her arms to kiss her on her fat cheeks. The little girl snuggled into her mother's embrace happily, and Skye almost wept. Deirdre was just two, and in the several months in which she had been separated from her mother, she had forgotten her entirely. She would never remember Niall, her father, and this fact did cause Skye to shed a few sad tears, especially when she looked up and saw her youngest child, Padraic, who was as much his father's image as Deirdre was her own.
    "You arc happy now, doucette?" He was standing by her side.
    Skye stood up holding Deirdre in her arms. "I am very happy, Nicolas. How can I thank you?"
    Deirdre looked at Nicolas. "Papa," she said in a definite voice.
    A huge grin spread over Nicolas's face. "Indeed I shall be," he said happily, "if the Queen of England has granted my request. Nephew Edmond? Am I to be a happy bridegroom?"
    “Indecd, my enthusiastic uncle, you are. You have England's blessing upon your union."
    "I thought you were already married, Mother." Murrough stepped protectively to his mother's side.
    Deirdre squirmed in her mother's arms, holding out her fat baby hands to Nicolas, who delightedly took her. Deirdre snuggled down into his arms, and coyly repeated, "Papa." Her look was one of supreme self-satisfaction, and if her older siblings were slightly embarrassed by her behavior she was not one bit concerned.
    Skye hid a smile at the older ones' discomfort. “The duc whom I wed seven months ago, Murrough, died shortly afterward. This gentleman is Nicolas St. Adrian, his heir, and Beaumont's new duc. He will be your stepfather come the spring, when my year of mourning is over."
    Murrough nodded, and then, turning to meet Nicolas's gaze, bowed politely. "How do you do, my lord?" he said.
    "I do very well-Murrough, is it?"
    "Yes, my lord. I am Murrough O’Flaherty."
    Skye reached out to draw her other two older children forward. "Nicolas, this is my son, Robin, the young Earl of Lynmouth, and my oldest daughter, Willow Small."
    "Welcome to Beaumont de Jaspre, children," Nicolas said.
    Willow curtseyed prettily, and Robin bowed gravely.
    "Are these all of your children, doucette?" Nicolas asked admiringly.
    "No, my eldest is not here. Why did Ewan not come?" she asked Murrough.
    "He did not feel it wise to leave Ballyhennessey at this time, Mother."
    "Has there been difficulty?" Skye looked worried, wondering about her oldest child, who would in three months' time be celebrating his fourteenth birthday.
    "Not really. The English are most respectful of the Earl of Lynmouth's older brother." Murrough chuckled and added, "Although it does infuriate Ewan to have to hide behind Robin's title. Still, Uncle Michael insists he do it. The problem has been with Ewan's neighbors, old Black Hugh Kenneally of Gillydown to be specific. He thought that because Ewan was barely weaned from his mother's teats, as he put it, he might take some of the lands of Ballyhennessey for himself."
    "What did Ewan do?" Skye's voice was tense.
    "Burned Black Hugh's fine house down about his ears, put his fields to the torch, and drove off his sheep. They were arguing about the sheep when I last heard. Ewan felt Black Hugh owed him some sort of fine for the inconvenience to which he'd been put. Black Hugh wanted his sheep back, feeling that having his house and fields burned was fair enough. I’ll wager that Ewan keeps at least half of the sheep!"
    "So he should," Skye said. ^ am glad that your brother did not hesitate to exact revenge upon Black Hugh. He must be strong else his other neighbors think him easy prey. As for hiding behind Robin's name, 'tis only his pride that makes him angry. What is important is that he retain his lands and his power. There is no shame in Ewan having the right family ties."
    "Even if they be English?" Murrough teased his mother.
    "If more Irish had learned to put the English to use," Skye said wryly, "we would not have half the troubles we have between us."
    Nicolas stood, amazed at the conversation between Skye and Murrough. He had been even more amazed to hear Skye's approval of her oldest son, Ewan's, actions. This tough and fierce side of her was not something that he had seen before. He had not even suspected she had such a side. Then he laughed at himself for a romantic fool. She had been telling him of her lands, of her wealth, of the lands and wealth she administered for others. She had to be strong to hold such power!
    "Are you still sure you would wed such an independent woman as myself, Nicolas," she gently teased him, and then put a soft hand on his arm.
    "The first moment I laid eyes on you, doucette, I knew that there was but one woman for me," he said quietly, "and you are she."
    Skye looked about the cabin of the ship at her children. "Let us go home, Nicolas," she said. "I seem to have everything that I need to be a happy woman now." Reaching out, she took her infant son from his red-cheeked Irish nurse and, turning, she walked through the door onto the deck and into the bright sunshine of the December afternoon, her children, Edmond, and Nicolas trailing in her wake.

Chapter 6

    The winter was a mild, sunny one, the rainy season coming only in February, and then giving way to a beautiful warm March when the hillsides filled with softly blowing red and blue windflowers. It had been a wonderful winter, and for the first time in many months Skye O'Malley and her children felt loved and safe. Beaumont de Jaspre was a happy place. The menace of France had subsided with the Pope's message to Queen Catherine, and Nicolas's unquestioned loyalty. There was no Elizabeth Tudor and her court to overshadow their happiness.
    It was the first time since Geoffrey's death and the early days of her reunion with Niall that they had all been together. She saw her two older sons gradually become boys again, dropping away the sophisticated courtier's veneer that they had worn on their arrival as easily as a snake sheds his skin. Nicolas took them hunting in the small range of mountains that served as one of Beaumont's borders. He took all the children swimming on a deserted beach below the castle. The boys were like young dolphins, splashing and diving. Willow, however, was content to paddle around the shore with her baby sister, Deirdre; and tiny Padraic crowed with delight when Nicolas took him by his little hands and floated him in the gentle sea. The baby wriggled with pleasure in the warm waters, his plump little arms and legs moving busily. Her children quite obviously approved of Nicolas St. Adrian, Elizabeth Tudor certainly approved of him, and Skye began to believe that she might even dare to love him.
    He assuredly adored her, and he seemed to genuinely care for her offspring. She could see that he was a man who loved children easily, and would do well with them. If only she were not plagued by that tiny nagging doubt that would not leave her in peace. She yet worried that if she married Nicolas he would be touched by the bad luck that seemed to strike at all of her husbands. Still, she had no choice. The wedding was set for the day after her one-year period of mourning was over. When he had told her that, she had blushingly protested his lack of decency, but Nicolas had laughed, saying that no one who had seen her would lack for understanding of his unseemly haste.
    Robin and Murrough intended to stay with their mother until midsummer, then return to court. The other three children would remain with Skye and Nicolas. Bran had sailed in early spring for Bideford to fetch Dame Cecily back for the wedding. Bran and Daisy were planning to marry shortly after Skye and Nicolas. Robbie had returned in midwinter from his voyage to Istanbul. He was very surprised by the turn of events that had made Skye a widow, and was now making her a bride again. Nonetheless he fully approved of Nicolas, and the two had become very good friends. He had never really warmed to Fabron de Beaumont, but liked his half-brother.
    It was too perfect, and she had known it. The messenger came a month before the scheduled wedding. They tried to protect her from him, Nicolas and Robbie both. Nicolas did not like the look of the dark man. To the young duc he was an infidel to be wary 'of, but Robbie knew better. The dark man came from Algiers.
    "Give me the message," the Devon sea captain demanded of the messenger in flawless Arabic. "I will see that she gets it."
    "I cannot do that, sir," was the polite reply.
    "Who has sent you?" was Robbie's next question.
    "I will only speak to Skye Muna el Khalid," was the answer, and then the thin man in the long white robes stood silent.
    "I’ll have him thrown in the dungeons beneath the castle," Nicolas said impatiently as Robbie translated the conversation.
    "It will do you no good," Robbie remarked. "You could pull his fingernails off with burning pincers and he would not say another word. The only way we will learn anything further is to get Skye so she may hear his message."
    Nicolas sighed. Some instinct warned him that this strange man was about to destroy his happiness. Nonetheless he had no choice. He sent a servant for Skye.
    Coming into the Great Hall, her eye instantly found the man in white, and she stopped, growing pale. She, too, had recognized the garments of Algiers, garments she had never again thought to see. "Who is this man?" she begged of Robbie.
    "We don't know, lass. He arrived here asking for you. He will say nothing of who he is, or who has sent him. He seems to speak only Arabic. Do you remember the language?"
    She nodded and then, drawing a deep breath, walked over to the man. "You wish to see me?"
    "You are Skye Muna el Khalid?"
    "I am she."
    The man in white bowed low and respectfully. "I am Haroun, the servant of Osman the astrologer," he said. "I bring you a message from my master."
    "Have you been offered refreshment, Haroun?" Skye asked. "You have traveled far if you come from Osman." Skye turned to one of the castle servants. "Bring cakes and fresh fruit juice," she commanded.
    "You are kind, lady," Haroun said. "Let me do my duty, and then I will gladly partake of your hospitality."
    "Speak then, Haroun, the servant of Osman."
    “The message my master sends to you is this. Your husband is not dead. He whom Osman once told you was your true mate lives. You must come to Algiers immediately so that my master may tell you the truth of this matter."
    He who is your true mate. The words rang frighteningly in her head as she collapsed in a dead faint. Nicolas's hand went to his dagger, but Robbie, who had understood Haroun's words, cried out, "No, lad! I don't think the messenger's news is bad. Here," and he bent to cradle Skye, "help me to revive her." He looked to a stunned servant. "You! Get wine!"
    "I did not mean to harm the lady," Haroun said worriedly to Robbie.
    "You've just shocked her, man," was the reply. "Did your master say to tell it that way?"
    "Yes, sir. I have but repeated the words given me by my master, Osman."
    "Osman is growing dotty," Robbie muttered as Nicolas took Skye from him and, lifting her into his arms, carried her to a nearby settle.
    Carefully he propped her up, rubbing her wrists, calling her name softly, almost frantically. A serving man ran up with a small goblet of wine, and gently Nicolas began to force some of the potent liquid down her throat. Skye coughed and then her eyes flew open.
    "He is alive!" she cried.
    "Who, ma doucette? Let me send the infidel away."
    "No!" She turned her face to the messenger, Haroun. "Is there any more message?" she almost begged him.
    "I have said it all, lady," he answered her, sorry to see the wonderful light go from her beautiful blue eyes.
    "How can I be sure you are who you say?" Skye demanded.
    “That's the first intelligent thing you've said," snapped Robbie, relieved. "What the hell is he talking about?"
    "Osman sends word that Niall is alive."
    "What? Are ye daft, lass?! Niall Burke was murdered by a crazy nun, and dumped in the sea. How the hell can he be alive, and how do you know that's what he means anyway? He who is your true mate? What kind of gobbledygook is that?"
    "When Khalid was murdered by Yasmin and Jamil, and I grieved for him, Osman told me that my future was with the man I had first loved, the man of my own homeland, Niall Burke." She turned to Haroun again. "Where is the proof you are who you say?" she demanded.
    "My master said if you asked for such proof I was to tell you what he once told you. Follow your instincts. They will never fail you," Haroun replied. "Play out your part as Allah has foretold."
    Skye grew pale again. "He is from Osman," she said with finality.
    "What kind of proof is that?" Robbie yelled.
    They are Osman's words to me before I left Algiers. Since he spoke them to me when I was alone, I must accept them as proof of Haroun's honesty. He could only have learned them from his master."
    Robbie snorted irritably. "You, Haroun, how did you know where to find Skye Muna el Khalid?"
    "A vessel belonging to this lady stopped in Algiers several weeks ago. I brought its captain to see my master, and my master asked this captain, an old man with a strange and unpronounceable name."
    "MacGuire?"
    "Aye, lady!" Haroun's dark face cracked in a small smile. "My master asked this man to take a message to you, but the old man said that you were not in your homeland, but rather in this place. I was therefore dispatched to fetch you to my master. He says that you must waste no time in coming to him, for the man who is your true mate is in danger."
    "Can we sail tonight?" Skye demanded of Robbie.
    "Aye, but I think you're crazy, lass. Let me go to Osman, and see what it is he has to say, if indeed it is really him. Have you forgotten Jamil? God, what Jamil would not give to wreak his revenge upon you, Skye. Algiers is too dangerous for you, lass."
    "No! I will go, Robbie! I must go!"
    Robbie looked at Haroun. "Is Captain Jamil still alive, man?"
    "He lives, sir, but at this time he is gone from the city to Istanbul to seek a cure for his illness. It will be safe for the lady. My master would not call her were it not safe."
    "We sail tonight!" Skye said in a voice that brooked no argument.
    Nicolas St. Adrian had stood by, looking from one to the other while they had spoken back and forth and to the dark Haroun. The quick language that they had used was not familiar to him, and he had not understood a word that they had said. He had known instinctively, however, that he was somehow about to lose Skye, and all his emotions gathered themselves to fight this. He could not, would not, let her go from him. "Tell me, doucettem" he begged her. “Tell me what this man has said, and why I feel you are about to go from me?"
    She had forgotten him! She had forgotten this gentle and tender man who loved her so deeply, who intended to make her his bride in a month's time. For the last few minutes it had been as if he had not existed, for the truth was that only Niall Burke existed for her. Her hands flew to her face in distress, and her beautiful sapphire eyes, dark in their sorrow, looked into his face. "I cannot marry you," she said softly. "My husband is alive. Haroun has brought me word from an old friend in Algiers that Niall is alive. Osman would not lie to me. I must go to Algiers, Nicolas. I must find Niall."
    "Do not leave me," he begged her.
    "I have no choice, Nicolas," she said low. "Niall is alive. I cannot wed another while my lawful husband lives."
    "Let Robert go," he said. "Let Robert go to find out if what this man says is true. Stay with me until he returns."
    "Aye!" Robbie chimed in. That's what I told her too, Nicolas, but she will not listen. As always she is stubborn!"
    "Niall is alive! Osman says he is in danger," she shouted at them. "I must go to him! I must, and I will. To send Robbie is to waste precious time. Wasted time could cost my Niall his life! If that happens I shall never forgive either of you. Never!"
    "Go then," he shouted back at her. "Go, but if this turns out to be a fantasy, promise me that you will return to me, doucette! At least give me that hope."
    "Osman would not lie to me," she said softly.
    "Promise me!"
    She looked into his face and saw that there were tears in his green eyes. "Oh, Nicolas, what have I done to you! You see! Did I not warn you, my darling? I destroy in one way or another the men who love me. It has ever been thus, and I do not know why it should be." She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "I promise that if this is a wild and futile chase I will return to you, my dear Nicolas, for surely no woman has ever been so fortunate in love as she is unlucky."
    "Let the children stay with me," he said. "You will return to me, I know it."
    "If I am not back by midsummer, or you have no word of me, you must send them all home, Nicolas. Padraic must be on his lands, and Murrough and Robin have their places at court. Then, too, you must choose another wife."
    "No!" His handsome face was anguished. "No," he repeated softly.
    "Yes," came the voice of Edmond de Beaumont, and the dwarf hopped down from the large chair where he had been sitting quite hidden. He had heard all, and now he spoke urgently to his uncle. "Have you forgotten why you were made Fabron de Beaumont's heir, Nicolas? Of all the eligible men in this family only you are whole, normal, able to father the next generation. For that, my Uncle, you will need a wife."
    "I have Skye," came the stubborn reply.
    "No longer, I think," Edmond de Beaumont said sadly. "It pains me also, Nicolas. Never in my lifetime has this castle been as happy as it has been since she came into it bringing her laughter and joy for life and love. We should, however, do Skye's memory a great disservice if we allow ourselves to fall back into the old and gloomy ways." His violet eyes brimmed with sympathy for his uncle. Of them all, he understood her loss best, for Edmond de Beaumont loved Skye, too. Looking at her now, he said, "Must you go, chérie?"
    "Yes, Edmond, I must go. If Osman says that Niall is alive, then Niall is alive. How, or where, or why I do not know, and I will not know until I see Osman."
    He nodded. “Then you must go, and you will go with our prayers."
    The children," Skye said, "I must tell the children." Without a further glance at either of them she turned and hurried from the hall.
    They stood watching her go, each man lost in his own thoughts. Robbie wondered if what she was about to do was foolhardy. How could Niall be alive? And if he was, how in Hell did Osman know about it? Still, and here he grimaced, he remembered Osman. He was an honorable man, and had been a true friend to Khalid el Bey.
    Seeing Skye go from the hall, Nicolas thought his heart would surely break. How could he lose her now, just before their wedding? Surely this was not happening! It was a bad dream from which he would shortly awaken. A sound, something like a sob, escaped his lips. It was no dream. It was a real and waking nightmare. He was about to lose to a dead man the only woman he had ever loved.
    In his agile mind Edmond de Beaumont cursed the twist of fate that had wrought this terrible situation. His uncle was shattered, grief-stricken at the loss of Skye. It was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to find a bride who would suit Nicolas St. Adrian now; but a bride would have to be found quickly else the menace of France arise again. The knowledge of Skye's affair with Nicolas prior to their marriage had kept the French at bay, for Skye might have been with child, a child who would have been the next heir to Beaumont de Jaspre. Now, however, Skye would be gone, and without a wife Nicolas would be prime target for a French assassination. If he were to die then Beaumont de Jaspre would fall like a ripe fruit into the lap of Queen Catherine.
    While the men behind her thought their thoughts Skye practically ran from the hall to find her children. By chance they were all gathered in the garden, and the older three, instantly seeing her distraught look, hurried toward her. Skye collapsed upon a marble bench, her white skin unusually pale. Reaching his mother first, Murrough sat next to her, putting an arm about her.
    "What is it, Mother?" he begged her, and then Robin and Willow were squeezing in on the other side of her.
    "Do you remember my speaking of my old friend, Osman the astrologer, in Algiers?" They all nodded, and Skye continued. "I have had a message from Osman, a strange and frightening, yet wonderful message. Osman begs me to come to Algiers, for he says that Niall is alive!"
    "It is possible," Murrough said thoughtfully, "although the odds are quite incredible, Mother."
    She was stunned by his words. "How is it possible, Murrough?" He was the first person who had not said she was mad to go, and she wondered why.
    "Remember the mad nun's words, Mother. She left Niall's body upon the beach for the sea to claim. Later, when the others went back to the beach, the tide had already come in, and they assumed the sea had taken Niall's lifeless body. We know that she stabbed him, but was he really dead? Did his lifeless body indeed wash out to sea? Mannanan MacLir usually returns the dead shells of those whose souls he has taken. Niall's body was never found, Mother. Therefore it is possible that he was not dead, but badly injured; and it is equally possible that he is alive today, and your friend, Osman, knows his whereabouts," Murrough concluded triumphantly.
    "God's bones!" Skye said, totally surprised by her son's reasoning. "You are a scholar, Murrough! You have a mind that reasons!" For a moment she forgot her own problems. "Is that what you want, my son? To be a scholar?"
    "I do for now," he said with a smile, thinking that he was only applying common sense to the situation and that this was a strange time for them to be having this little talk; but then if his mother was rushing off to Algiers to find Niall Burke, Heaven only knew when he would see her again.
    "Where would you study?" she demanded of him.
    "Merton College at Oxford," he answered her prompdy.
    "Your father studied in Paris," she said in one of her few references to Dom O’Flaherty, "for all the good it did him." Then she smiled at him. "When I return from Algiers I will see to it that you go to Oxford, Murrough. Of course it will mean that you and Joan must wait to wed. Will you mind that?"
    "Arrange it now," he said quietly. "You do not know how long it will take you to find Niall, and I cannot bear another year playing the popinjay of a page in the Earl of Lincoln's household. For Robin the court is a joy, as he is, for all his age, one of England's premier noblemen. I, however, am a different matter, Mother. Both of my parents are Irish, and there are some English who cannot abide anyone Irish."
    "Who has dared to mistreat you," she demanded angrily, but Murrough soothed his mother quickly.
    "No one would dare to mistreat me, Mother. I am the son of the Countess of Lynmouth, and brother to Lynmouth's earl. I am generous with my allowance, which always assures friends, and the Countess of Lincoln is Irish herself. No one short of a fool would mistreat Elizabeth FitzGerald's personal page. Still, there are tiny insults and sly innuendos that I must constantly face with good cheer, for if I lost my temper and fought I should be called a brawling Irishman. I do not like the court, Mother. I know that you have told me that I must make my way there in order to win my own lands for Joan; but Joan is like me, Mother. She is shy and gentle. She wishes no more than to be my wife someday, and to raise our children in a peaceful place.
    "I wish to study at Merton College. Then-and I think you will be amazed at my decision-I want to go to sea. Someday I hope to captain one of your ships, Mother. You have said that I will never lack for money, and that money will allow me to buy a fine house with a pretty garden where I can live with my family between voyages. Joan is almost three years younger than I am, and she is really yet a little girl. There is no hurry for us to wed, and we had hoped to wait until she was sixteen. That will give me six years in which to make my way in this world."
    Quiet Murrough, she thought. She had never seen this side of him before. He was really still a boy, and yet he seemed this minute like a young man. Skye was not sure she was ready to have a young man for a son. "Why have you not spoken to me before?" she asked him.
    "There was never any time," he said honestly, and she knew that to be true.
    "I will write to Lord Burghley tonight before I leave for Algiers," she said to him. "I will also write to the Countess of Lincoln, and to my secretary, Jean Morlaix. If it can be arranged you will be at Oxford in time for the Michaelmas term."
    Thank you, Mother," Murrough said, hugging her hard.
    "What about the rest of us?" Willow demanded. "If you go rushing off to Algiers what is to become of the rest of us?"
    "You will all remain here until midsummer," Skye said. "By that time I hope to know the many answers in the Niall puzzle. If he is alive, as Osman claims, then you will all leave for England and Ireland at that time. If, however, it turns out that Osman was mistaken, and I have been chasing after naught but a ghost, then only Murrough and Robin will return to England. You, Deirdre, and Padraic will remain here, and I shall return to marry with Nicolas, as we had planned."
    Willow nodded. "Poor Dame Cecily is certainly going to be mightily surprised when she finally arrives, Mother. She hates to travel, but she hates to travel upon the sea most of all."
    "You may go back through France," Skye promised. "You shall see Paris, and then you will have nought but a quick trip across the channel."
    "Paris!" Willow breathed. "Oh, Mama, you must give me my entire allowance for next year if I am to go to Paris!"
    "What?" teased Skye. "So you may spend it all?"
    "Every pennypiece!" Willow said almost reverently. "I shall buy laces, and embroidered laced gloves, and a silk dress."
    "And where will you wear them?" Robin mocked, a little unkindly. "Will you display your finery before the pigs and peasants of Devon?"
    Skye was about to scold her little son quite severely, but Willow was quite able to take care of herself. The Queen has asked me to be one of her maids of honor, my noble brat of a brother!" she said smugly.
    "She hasn't!"
    "She has," Willow said, a small, satisfied smile spreading over her face. "After all, Robin, if I am to find a noble husband I must go to court."
    "You have no great name," Robin protested. To win a great man you must have a great name."
    "I have something better," Willow replied.
    "What?" He looked at her disbelievingly.
    "I have gold," Willow said wisely. "I am a great heiress, and I possess a great deal of gold. I will have no lack of suitors for my hand once I am at court."
    Shocked, Skye could only gape at her daughter, but she quickly recovered and said, "I hope that you will marry for love as well as a great name, Willow."
    "Love," Willow replied with the certainty that only a ten-year-old could possess, "can be extremely hurtful. I should prefer a far more businesslike arrangement."
    "You had best seek love, my daughter," Skye remarked. "Once you marry your great wealth will belong to your husband, and if he does not love you but another, you will find you have made a very bad bargain. You could easily end up with nothing."
    "I shall retain my own wealth as you have, Mother," was the cool reply.
    "That is not usually the way of things in marriage, Willow. Had the men I married not loved me they would have never agreed to my demands. Best you seek love among the great names, my daughter." Then she laughed lightly. "At ten you are much too young to be discussing marriage. At least wait until I return to wed, Willow."
    "She must not come to court this year, Mother," Robin said worriedly. 'The Queen's maids of honor are always fair game for the lechers. She is much too young!"
    "Look who speaks of youth," Willow scoffed. "Her Majesty's youngest page; he who is three years younger than I am; he whom they call the Cherub!"
    “He who has been at court two years, and knows more than you do, Mistress Ignorance!" came back the quick reply.
    "Enough!" Skye ordered her quarreling offspring.
    "Robin is right," Murrough put in, and Willow sent her older brother a furious look.
    "I know he is," Skye said. "Willow is not going to court until she is at least thirteen."
    "Mother!" Willow protested.
    "If I allow her to go at all," Skye continued with a warning look at her daughter. Willow fell silent.
    "You will leave tonight?" Murrough asked.
    "Yes," Skye answered him. "Osman says that time is most important, and to linger here would only hurt poor Nicolas more. He is, as you may imagine, quite heartbroken."
    “You do not believe you will be returning to Beaumont de Jaspre, do you, Mother."
    "No, Murrough, I do not. I keep saying if Osman is correct, if he is right; but I know that he would not have sent for me if he were not certain." A sad little smile flitted across her beautiful face for just a brief moment. "I shall, of course, be staying in his house in Algiers." She looked at Willow. "It was your father's house once, my dearest, and I never thought to see it again. Dear God, the memories it will bring back to me! I do not know if I can bear it. Algiers! Never did I expect to be in Algiers again!"
    "What of the wicked Turk who sought to make you his wife?" Willow asked a bit fearfully. She had heard the story of Skye's flight many times, and until now it had been a romantic fairy tale in which her beautiful mother was the enchanted princess. This, however, was reality, and Willow was afraid for Skye.
    "He is in Istanbul, my love," Skye reassured her. "He cannot hurt me. Poor Jamil was never my match." Skye stood up from the bench. "Come, my loves. It is already late, and I must make other arrangements before I leave." She looked at her two Burke children, who lay sleeping in the grass with their nurse. "Be sure the bairns are well cared for," she implored her elder children, and they nodded their promise.
    When she arrived at her apartments Daisy was already packing for her. "You'll not be needing all these fancy clothes you've got," said the ever-practical Daisy. "I’ve the thought you won't want to stick out like a red silk banner, m'lady, and so I am packing only those outlandish garments you brought with you from Algiers years back. I hope that there's enough, for most of them are in England at Lynmouth."
    "If my stay is lengthy," Skye said, "I can have more made, but I expect that these few will do."
    "Is it really true that Lord Burke is alive, m'lady?" Daisy's eyes were wide.
    "So Osman's messenger has said."
    "Can you really trust this Osman?" Daisy was suspicious.
    Skye laughed. "Yes, he is trustworthy, Daisy."
    "What does a tiring woman wear in Algiers, m'lady? I have to know what to take for myself."
    "You cannot come, Daisy," Skye said.
    "Not come?" Daisy was scandalized. "Who will take care of you, I should like to know, if I don't come with you?!"
    "It is far too dangerous, Daisy. If I have to leave Algiers in a hurry the way I did last time, I should prefer not to have to worry about anyone else. It is easier if I am alone. Besides, I want you to remain and wait for Dame Cecily. She will be returning with Bran Kelly any day now. When they arrive you are to marry Captain Kelly, as you have planned. Père Henri tells me that you have completed your instruction, and are ready to become a good Catholic wife. I will not have you and Bran wait any longer on my account.
    "If I am not back by midsummer you and Dame Cecily will have to return with the children to England. You will go overland, and I am going to ask Bran Kelly to accompany you. The Burke children are to go on to Ireland. Robin will go back to court, Murrough to Oxford, and Willow home to Devon. You are also to go with the Smalls. I shall station Bran Kelly with you in Bideford until I return. God's bones, I’ve much to do before we sail!"
    While Daisy finished the packing Skye went to the small writing table in her anteroom and quickly began to write several letters. One went to Lord Burghley explaining the entire situation. She could not, she wrote, remain in Beaumont de Jaspre under such dubious circumstances. She was leaving immediately for Algiers to seek the truth of the matter. Their original bargain, she reminded Cecil, involved her marriage to Fabron de Beaumont. She had kept her part of the bargain, and she expected Elizabeth Tudor to keep her part. If Lord Burke was indeed alive, they would be returning to England before they went on to Ireland, and they would come to court to tell the Queen their adventures. If, on the other hand, Lord Burke was indeed dead and this but a flight of fancy, she would return to Beaumont de Jaspre to wed with Nicolas St. Adrian, and thus continue to serve the Crown. In view of her continued loyalty, Skye wrote, would Lord Burghley kindly arrange for her second son, Murrough O’Flaherty, to enter Merton College at Oxford in the Michaelmas term? It was his desire to study at this time, and not return as a page with the Countess of Lincoln's household. She closed assuring the Crown of her constant devotion, and tendering her good wishes for the Queen's upcoming birthday in September.
    Skye's second letter was sent to her uncle, the old Bishop of Connaught. In it she outlined all that had happened, her own plans, and her plans for the children. She begged him to watch over all of her offspring in the event she did not return. She then outlined what she wanted done with the O'Malley shipping interests, and how she wanted her children's wealth disbursed, and the children raised. She knew how much this letter was going to pain Seamus O'Malley, but she also knew the dangers involved in her trip to Algiers, and she wanted those she loved cared for in the event she should not return. This letter she closed by asking for her uncle's prayers.
    A letter was also sent to her stepmother, Anne, and one to her brother, Michael, the guardian of her eldest son, Ewan; a final missive went to the Countess of Lincoln, thanking her for her care of Murrough these last few years, and explaining his desire to go on to Oxford rather than remain with the court. At last she was finished, and as she arose from the writing table she felt as if a chapter in her life were closing. She wondered what the next chapter would bring her.

***

    Back in her bedchamber, Skye saw through the windows that the day was almost gone. Upon the bed were laid out her seagoing clothes, the double-legged skirt, the silk shirt, the hose and the undergarments. By the bed stood her high boots. Daisy, however, was nowhere in sight. With a sad sigh Skye began to pull off her own garments, not even bothering to pick them up as they fell to the floor. She stood only in her chemise when the door between her room and Nicolas's opened, and he entered her chamber.
    She wanted to weep at the pain she saw etched in his handsome face. Why was it that she was always giving such agony to those good men who did naught but love her. Why should her love bring such pain? Instinctively she held out her arms to him, wanting to comfort him somehow. "Oh, Nicolas," she murmured against his reddish hair. "Dear, dear Nicolas! I am so sorry, my love. I am so sorry!" Her arms closed about him, and she held him as she would hold a hurt child.
    He shuddered against her. "I don't want you to go," he said softly.
    "You know I have no choice. If Niall Burke is alive how can I stay with you, Nicolas? We could not marry. Our children would have no right to inherit Beaumont de Jaspre."
    "Do you love Niall Burke?" His voice was ragged.
    "I have loved him since I was fifteen," she cried.
    "Do you love me?"
    "You are asking me to choose, Nicolas, and the choice is not mine to make."
    "Do you love me?" he repeated.
    "I had begun to, Nicolas. Yes! I had begun to love you."
    "This is madness," he said to her. "How can your husband be alive after all this time? You go but to chase a dream, doucette!”
    "Perhaps," she allowed. "But if Osman has said he is alive, then he is alive. I do not know how, but if I did not go to find out the answer to this puzzle, Nicolas, I should always wonder. If Niall is indeed alive I cannot in good conscience marry you, for I should be committing a mortal sin."
    "You will come back to me," he said firmly, and he pulled back from her, looking with love into her face.
    Now it was Skye who wanted to cry. "Seek elsewhere for a bride, my love," she said softly. "It is unlikely that I will ever come back, Nicolas. I cannot ask you to wait for me. Every day that you remain unmarried you endanger your duchy, and you are the last hope of Beaumont de Jaspre. How your people love you! Since you came from your home in Poitou there has never been such gladness here. Find some sweet young girl to make your wife, the mother of the next generation."
    "No!" He was suddenly angry; frustrated that what he wanted so desperately was being torn from him. "I will only marry you, Skye. If I cannot have you then I want no woman. I shall go back to my holding in Poitou, and to Hell with Beaumont de Jaspre!"
    Skye became equally angry, and her hand flashed out to make very hard contact with his cheek. Stunned, he fell back, for she had put all her strength into the blow. "Coward!" she said furiously. "Is this how you keep your promise to Fabron de Beaumont who so generously bestowed his realm and his wealth upon you? You gave your half-brother a death-bed promise that you would rule this duchy and keep it safe from the French. You gave him your promise to care for Edmond and Garnier. Do you think a French overlord will care for them? They will be thrown into the streets to fend for themselves, if they are not driven from Beaumont entirely!"
    Her hand had left a bright red mark on his cheek, and rubbing that mark, Nicolas tried to explain. "I have never loved anyone before you," he said in a low voice. "How can I live without you?"
    "You think only of yourself, Nicolas," she said scornfully. "I told you once that wealth and power are a great responsibility, to be wielded carefully. I have been wielding both since I was scarcely more than a girl. There have been times when it has been hard for me not to yield to my own desires, but I have not, and you cannot! If you love me you will let me go, Nicolas, because you cannot keep me now. All the devils in Hell could not keep me here by your side now that I know my Niall is alive!"
    For a moment he closed his eyes, and she knew that he was fighting back the tears, as she struggled to contain her own sorrow. She must be strong, and she must instill in him some of that same strength. But she had not lied to him when she had said that she was beginning to love him. How could she not when he adored her so, and was so good both to her and the children? She had felt so safe with him.
    "I will never forget you, doucette," he said.
    "Nor I you, Nicolas," she answered him.
    "You are sure?" For the briefest moment his green eyes held a flicker of hope.
    "I must go," was her simple reply, and for an equally brief moment Skye wondered if she was totally mad. Then, regaining control of herself, she said brightly, "You will have a wonderful time, Nicolas. You are now a most eligible man of considerable wealth. Think of all the lovely girls available to you, but choose quickly lest the French be tempted to a rash art."
    He sighed deeply, and she almost screamed with the sadness in the sound. "What kind of a girl should I choose, doucette? After you, mon amour, how will I be content with anyone?"
    "I think, perhaps, a very young girl, Nicolas, but choose one with spirit, intelligence, and a sense of humor. Do not look for one who reminds you of me. Trust Edmond's judgment, for he is a very wise man and he loves you dearly. He will want you to be happy."
    Nicolas reached out for her, but Skye quickly sidestepped him. "Will you not kiss me good-bye, doucette?" he said softly.
    She glanced down at the gossamer of her chemise, and then shook her head. "Not as I am now, Nicolas." A small smile lit her eyes. "You are very wicked, mon brave, even to suggest it. Go now, and let me dress, for I shall be late if I do not hurry."
    With another deep sigh he turned and left her to dress. She knew how difficult the interview had been when her hands began to shake as she buttoned her shirt and fastened her skirt. He was such a good man, and she knew how deeply he was hurting, for in a strange way she was hurting, too.
    "It's almost time, m'lady." When had Daisy entered the room?
    "Where are the children?"
    "Waiting in the anteroom to say good-bye, m'lady." Daisy's honest eyes grew misty. "Are you sure I can't go with you, m'lady?"
    Skye hugged her tiring woman affectionately. "I am going to miss you terribly, Daisy," she said, "but it is much too dangerous for you to come with me. Besides, I shall need you to watch over the children until Dame Cecily arrives and you begin your return journey home."
    "I'll worry about you the whole time you're away, m'lady."
    "You concentrate on marrying Bran and making him a happy man," Skye counseled, and then before Daisy could become overly emotional Skye gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and hurried from the bedchamber into the anteroom where her children awaited her.
    "I wish I could go with you," Murrough said enthusiastically. "Algiers sounds so exciting, Mother."
    "Algiers is dangerous," Skye replied.
    "I should like to fight the infidel!" Robin said bravely.
    “The infidel would be enchanted by your blond hair and your fight eyes, my darling. He would geld you like a horse, and if you survived the operation you would become the plaything of some wealthy man with a taste for boys. Not exactly the fate for an Earl of Lynmouth. Stay home, my sons, so that I do not have to fret over you."
    "I far prefer to go home to England," Willow said primly.
    Skye smiled, faintly amused. "I am relieved, Willow, that you do not choose to seek adventure as your brothers do. You will be safer back in your own homes, my darlings. Murrough, I have written to both Lord Burghley and the Countess of Lincoln regarding Mer-ton College. I am sure they will comply with my wishes."
    “Thank you, Mother!" His blue eyes shone with delight and gratitude, and Skye felt great satisfaction to have pleased this second son of hers by such a small act. Murrough stepped forward and bent to kiss her. "Take care, Mother," he said. "This time I feel no sadness because I know that you but go to return to us."
    She hugged him hard. "Dearest Murrough," she murmured. "I do love you, my son."
    Murrough stepped back, rosy with a mixture of pleasure caused by her words and embarrassment at her public affection. "God speed," he said as he pulled away from her.
    "Murrough is right," Robin said. "I don't feel sad either, Mother. Find Niall, and then both of you come safely home to us." Robin put his arms about her neck and kissed her lovingly.
    "Are you sure I can't go to court while you're away, Mama?" Willow wheedled.
    Skye laughed. "No court," she said. "You will return to Devon with Dame Cecily, and continue with your lessons. You are not accomplished enough to go to court yet."
    Willow sighed dramatically. "I don't know why you persist in treating me like a child, Mama," she complained.
    "I would think the answer to that is obvious every time you look in the mirror," Murrough teased.
    "She spends all day before the mirror," Robin said wickedly.
    "Boys!" Willow huffed, and then she hugged her mother in farewell. "Don't be long, Mama. I miss you so when you're away from me."
    "I will return as fast as I can, my darling," Skye promised her daughter, then kissed her.
    The little Burke children slept with their nurse in the next room, and Skye slipped into their nursery to say a silent good-bye. They were far too young to understand her going or what it was she sought, but someday, she vowed, they would comprehend and, she hoped, bless her for what she was about to do. Her own eyes misted as she looked at them in sleep; Deirdre, so much like her, and Padraic, who grew more like his father with each passing day. She wanted him to know his father! It was for them as well as herself that she went off on what many would call a mad mission.
    "They are both beautiful and peaceful as they sleep so sweetly in their innocence," Edmond said quietly in the dimness of the room. "I would to God that you had been able to give the de Beaumonts such fine children."
    "The fates have willed it otherwise, dear friend," she answered him.
    He took her hand, and with a final glance at her babies they walked from the room. "You will let us know your position before another bride is chosen? If you can come back to us…" he trailed off.
    "I will get a message to you immediately," she said rather than argue with him.
    "You won't be back, will you?" he said.
    "I keep examining the messenger's words over and over again, Edmond," she replied, "but they are true. Osman would not lie."
    "Satisfy my curiosity, chérie. Just who is this Osman in whom you have so much faith? Can you really trust him? Was he that good a friend?"
    Skye paused a moment, wondering whether to tell him the truth. Why not? she thought. Perhaps it would help convince him. She drew a deep breath. "Edmond," she said, "Niall Burke and I were to be married after the death and mourning of my first husband. Before our nuptials could be celebrated, however, it was necessary for me to make a trip to Algiers. My trading company wished to do business with the Dey, and when he heard that the head of the O'Malleys was a woman he insisted upon seeing me. He had given us a pendant to put atop our mast that would guarantee us safe conduct through Barbary waters, but the pendant was lost in a storm and we found ourselves in a fight with pirates. We won, but I was taken from my flagship and Niall was shot as he attempted to rescue me. I believed him dead, and lost my memory as a consequence. Khalid el Bey, known as the Great Whoremaster of Algiers, bought me as a slave. He intended to train me for his finest brothel, the House of Felicity. Instead, he fell in love with me and married me.
    "When Khalid was murdered in a plot concocted by his evil friend, Capitan Jamil of the Casbah fortress, I was forced to flee Algiers. Jamil coveted me, and had decided to have both me and my lord Khalid's wealth. I was pregnant with Willow at the time, but it didn't slow me down, Edmond. With the help of Osman, who had been my husband's dearest friend, I converted Khalid's holdings into gold and fled Algiers with my personal servants via Robbie's ship several days before my period of mourning was to end.
    "Now do you understand why I trust Osman? If he calls me then I must go, Edmond. If he says that Niall is alive then he is, and I will find him! I must do this not only for myself, but for Deirdre and Padraic as well. They have a right to their father, and I have a right to my husband."
    "My God!" Edmond ejaculated. "You are amazing! You arc more than amazing! You are formidable!" He stopped and, moving in front of her, took her two hands in his tiny ones. "What you have told me, chérie, will remain between us. I see now why you trust this Osman, and…" he sighed sadly, "I understand now that you will not be back."
    "Find Nicolas someone quickly, Edmond. Do not let him mourn me until I become so idealized in his memory that no other woman could possibly satisfy him. Find him someone who will understand and be patient with his pain. Someone who will see what a fine man he is, and be willing to wait for him to heal. My instinct tells me it should be a young girl, not necessarily an heiress, or even an eldest daughter, but a girl who would be pleased for such a plum as the Duc de Beaumont de Jaspre to fall into her lap. Find him someone who will love him, Edmond."
    "Yes," was the resigned reply, "I will find someone who will love him, and eventually with God's good luck he will love her, too. Poor girl, I do not envy her her lot, for it will be a difficult one. Nicolas will not be easy to placate."
    They continued down into the lovely courtyard of the castle. Skye had decided to leave at twilight when Villerose's streets would be fairly empty. No announcement had been made of Skye's departure, and would not be until she was long gone. It would be most difficult to explain to the people, but explain they would have to eventually. Skye suggested to Edmond as they entered the courtyard that they wait as long as possible in order to protect Beaumont de Jaspre from the French, and give him an opportunity to look over the possible candidates for Nicolas's hand.
    "With my children here it is unlikely that anyone will notice me gone for a good week. The servants, of course, must be told to keep silent."
    Daisy was waiting with her mistress's cloak, and she wrapped it around Skye, pulling the hood up to disguise her lady from prying eyes. With trembling fingers Daisy fastened the heavy gold frog fasteners, and then stepped back. Her eyes were teary, and Skye gave her a quick hug, chiding, "None of that, Daisy. I’ll be back before you know it!"
    "God s-speed, m'lady!" came the quavering reply, and then Daisy turned and fled back into the castle.
    Skye watched her go, and then said, "Poor Daisy. We have never been parted since she came into my service. She even went into the Tower with me. Watch over her, Edmond, and see that she and the children get safely off at the proper time."
    He nodded, and then Skye saw Robbie and Nicolas coming toward her. The young duc had dressed himself in his finest clothes, and the dark green velvet was very flattering to his rich chestnut hair and his forest green eyes. About his neck was the heavy gold chain of Beaumont, its lion pendant lying on his chest.
    "How handsome you are," she said sincerely as he stopped in front of her.
    "How beautiful you are," he answered, looking down into her face, and Skye's heart contracted painfully. His hand gently pushed back her hood so he might have a last look at her, and then he bent his head and briefly and tenderly brushed her half-parted lips with his own. For a long, heart-stopping moment their eyes met, and then he gently drew the hood back up over her head. "Aw revoir, mon coeur," he said, and then turned and walked from the courtyard into the castle, never once looking back at her.
    "Go with him!" Skye begged Edmond.
    "Aye," Edmond said, and catching her hand up kissed it fervently. "God speed, chérie" he murmured, and then he too was gone after his young uncle.
    A silent servant helped Skye to mount her white palfrey while another aided Robbie. Then together they trotted their horses from the flowered courtyard and across the drawbridge. As they went Skye said in a sad, resigned voice, "I have been here just over one year, Robbie. How macabre! Where will I be a year from now, do you think? Will Niall and I be safely home in Ireland?"
    "Lord bless me, lass, who knows?!" He wasn't going to let her feel sorry for herself, and he could see the terrible emotional toll her farewell from Nicolas had taken. "One thing I can promise you, Skye. Wherever you are a year from now it will not have been a dull year, for you've never been a dull woman. By God! I do enjoy trying to keep up with you, my lass! 'Twill be one of two things for me: either I’ll never grow old following after you, Skye O'Malley; or I'll be old before my time!" He chuckled. "I can just see Cecily's face when she gets here and finds us gone. She's always said I make a fuss over nothing when it comes to your constant adventures, Skye lass. Now she'll see," he chortled wickedly. "Now she'll see!"

PART 3

NORTH AFRICA

Chapter 7

    Algiers shimmered in the midday heat. The sun glared off the deep-blue waters of the harbor and reflected back onto the white, white buildings of the city. Skye's ship, Seagull, was anchored a short distance out in the harbor. Robbie had no intention of allowing Skye ashore until he had made absolutely certain that Jamil was not in the city.
    "You're an old woman," she teased him as he climbed down the side of the ship into the small dinghy that would take him into the docks.
    "Ye're damned right, I am!" he shot back, not one bit intimidated. "Do you want to spend the rest of your days in slavery to Jamil, lass?"
    "I’d sooner be dead!"
    "Then I’ll just be on my way to find Osman," Robbie said with a chuckle. "Besides, ye're getting too old to be running around in diaphanous trousers and beaded tops."
    "Too old?!” She looked outraged. "I'm not yet-"
    "Yes, you are!" he laughed. "Not that you look it, Skye lass. Be patient, and I’ll not be long."
    She watched the small boat skitter across the waves and into the docks. Robbie would have no hard time finding Osman, for the famous astrologer had bought Khalid el Bey's house from Skye when she had fled Algiers over ten years ago. Robbie, who had been Khalid's business partner, was most familiar with the house. She could see it from here. Slowly she raised her eyes up to gaze on the house in which she had been so supremely happy. It stood elegant and proud atop a high hill overlooking the entire city. She wondered if the gardens were still as lovely. She would soon know.
    When Bran Kelly had returned to Devon for Dame Cecily, Robbie had allowed the young captain to take his own ship, the Mermaid, for he wanted the cargo he had traded for in Ottoman Turkey brought back to England. Consequently, it was Seagull that had brought them to Algiers, and old Sean MacGuire who had captained her. Now the senior captain of the O'Malley fleet kept his mistress company as she paced anxiously up and down the deck of her ship.
    "If he's to be found, ye'll find him," MacGuire said comfortingly.
    She nodded, but said nothing.
    After a while MacGuire, taking out his old pipe and putting it between his teeth, spoke again. "Niall Burke's a tough one, and that's for sure. I remember the cosh we gave him on the head to make him more manageable the morning after yer first marriage. If he had a headache he never said so."
    "If he's here," Skye said slowly, "I keep wondering how he got from a deserted beach on Ireland's west coast to North Africa."
    "Yer friend Osman is sure to know, m'lady Skye."
    "Yes, Osman…" She stared off again across the harbor to the white building upon the hill.
    Time. Time moved so slowly here in Algiers, she recalled. She hoped that Robbie would remember to hurry. The voyage from Beaumont de Jaspre had not been a long one, only a few days, but with each hour that had passed the last year had faded and her memories of Niall Burke become stronger. The how and why began to haunt her, and she grew more and more anxious to reach Algiers, to speak with Osman. Was it a hoax perpetrated by Jamil, or had Osman really sent for her?
    "You'd better change out of those clothes if you intend to be ready when he gets back," MacGuire said after what seemed a very long while.
    "There's time," she said, not even stopping her pacing.
    "Nay, m'lady, there's no time. Look!" He pointed out toward the docks. "There's Sir Robert's boat now making its return trip."
    "Holy Mother!" Skye ran to her cabin and, once inside, began with suddenly clumsy fingers to get out of her sea garb. If she really wanted to cause a stir all she needed to do was appear in the streets of Algiers unveiled and dressed as a sea captain. Opening the tiny trunk of clothes that Daisy had so carefully packed for her, she drew out an exquisite caftan of pale-mauve silk. The neckline was modestly high and embroidered in tiny purple glass beads that extended down from the round of the neck in a band two inches wide and six inches long. Such a band also ringed each of the wide sleeves. Sliding the caftan on, she then undid her long hair from the confining single braid in which she always dressed it when at sea. She brushed the dark mass free and fixed a band of mauve silk with the identical purple beading on her head to contain the hair and keep it from falling into her eyes.
    Makeup! Skye scrambled through the trunk, and there it was: a small ebony box containing little ivory pots of color, each set carefully in its own niche, and several sable brushes. The inside lid of the box was mirrored so she might see what she was doing no matter where she was. Skillfully she outlined her eyes with blue kohl and darkened her lashes. Neither her lips nor her cheeks needed the addition of color, for Skye had always been a healthy woman.
    Finished, she gazed into the mirror and her eyes widened in surprise, for staring back at her was a woman she thought she had left behind some ten years ago when she had escaped Algiers and the unwelcome advances of Capitan Jamil. It was uncanny, and not a little frightening, for the woman in the mirror did not look a day older than the nineteen-year-old girl she had been. True, her eyes were wiser, and her cheekbones etched more finely now, but other than that there was no change. Skye shivered, and then shaking off the feeling of déjà vu, she closed the makeup case with a snap, stood, replaced the ebony box in her trunk, and walked from the cabin.
    Robbie's small boat had already reached the Seagull, and he had just climbed to the deck when she exited her cabin. Stunned, he stood looking at her for a long minute. Then he shook his head in wonder. "How is it possible?" he said, the rest of his thought unspoken.
    "I had the same reaction," she answered him, and then, "You've seen Osman?"
    "Aye, and his palanquin is awaiting you. We've permission to bring Seagull into the docks. She's been given a preferred berth. It seems that old Osman's reputation has grown mightily in these past years. Half of Algiers doesn't make a move without him, and the rumor is that the Dey doesn't get off his couch without Osman's advice."
    "What did he tell you?" she begged anxiously.
    ''Nothing, Skye lass. It's you he wants to see."
    It took a very short time to bring Seagull into her berth on the busy waterfront of Algiers. Here there were ships and goods from every part of the known world. The air was fragrant and the noise was incredible, with many voices speaking many languages in an unending cacophony. By the time Skye's vessel had been made secure she had added a black silk yashmak to her costume. This long black cloak covered her from her head to toe, and her identity was further hidden by the mauve silk veil that was attached to the hood of the yashmak, and drawn across her face. She was the proper Muslim woman, garbed for the street and for travel.
    They were docked next to an Ottoman galley, and as the light wind blew Skye's veil aside to reveal her face for a moment there were whistles and ribald shouts from the men chained to the top tier of oars. Some of the words she understood, others she did not, but their meaning was clear. Her eyes clouded with distress, and she said with strong aversion in her voice, "God's nightshirt, I hate those damned galleys! To chain men to an oar rather than use the wind and the water by your own skill is disgusting. Find out if there are any English or Irishmen among them, MacGuire. They can sail home with us."
    "What about Scots or Welsh?"
    "Buy them," she said tersely. "I don't care from what part of our islands they come, I’ll not stand by and see them die in some sea battle, unable to escape because of their chains!"
    Sean MacGuire nodded. "How long will you be gone?" he demanded.
    "I don't know, but Robbie will be back to the ship as soon as we know anything. Give the men liberty in shifts, and tell them I want no trouble, nor do I want it known that I am in Algiers."
    "There's not a man aboard who'd betray you, m'lady," Sean MacGuire said feelingly.
    "Nonetheless you will remind them once again, MacGuire," Skye said sternly.
    "Aye, O'Malley," he said quietly, and she knew he had gotten her point.
    She nodded at him, her expression unreadable beneath her veil. Then she turned to debark. At the foot of the gangway a palanquin awaited, and as Skye stepped into it she felt as if she were stepping back in time, into a life that had ceased to exist for her with the death of her second husband, the fascinating Khalid el Bey. The vehicle was carved and gilded, and hung with silk curtains of azure blue, while inside it was upholstered in silken stripes of red and green and purple and gold, with pillows done in cloth of gold. She settled herself comfortably, and the draperies were drawn to hide the palanquin's occupant. Robbie was given a finely caparisoned horse to ride.
    The palanquin was carried by eight slaves, all coal-black and dressed in baggy scarlet pantaloons. Their feet, the soles of which were toughened by their work, were bare as were their chests. They were not, however, oiled, as was fashionable for blacks, nor did they wear jeweled collars about their necks to advertise their owner's wealth.
    As the procession left the docks and began to wend its way through the city, Skye was assailed by a thousand memories triggered by the sights she could just see through the gauzy draperies; by the sounds of the busy city; by the smells of the vendors' stalls. For a moment she lay back, and of all her experiences of this city the one she suddenly remembered was her return to Algiers from her wedding trip with Khalid. They had both been dressed all in white, and their sleek black hunting panthers, leashed but still impressive, had loped elegantly along by their sides. He had ridden his great white stallion, she a dainty golden mare with a long, white-blond mane and tail that he had given her. She sighed. How simple her life as his wife had been; but still she could not regret all the times since. Osman would have said that it was her fate.
    Osman. She visualized in her mind this man who had turned her world so topsy-turvy with a simple message. He had not, as she remembered, been a tall man; rather, he had been of medium height and build; really quite unimpressive a person until you looked into his eyes, for Osman's eyes saw what other people did not see. They saw beyond the everyday and into the heart and soul. They saw beyond today, and even, she had always suspected, past tomorrow. They were strange and yet wonderful golden-brown eyes that had always shone kindly upon her. Looking at Osman's bald head and bland moon-round face, few realized the power bebind those eyes. Khalid had seen it, and had always been the astrologer's friend.
    When she and Khalid had been married he had given each of the six men he had invited as wedding guests a slave girl. She remembered how she and Khalid had chosen each of the six girls to suit the personality of a guest. She had chosen for Osman a lovely dark-blond girl of French extraction named Alima. The astrologer had shortly afterward made Alima his wife, and she knew that they now had several children. It pleased her to think that Osman and Alima were happy, and they must be, for he had taken no other wives, and had no harem of concubines.
    Suddenly the palanquin was set down, the draperies drawn aside, and a hand extended to aid her in getting out; and as the hand drew her up she looked into the smiling face of Osman the astrologer.
    "Welcome, my daughter," he said, and looking into his eyes at that moment, she knew that her quest was not a vain one.
    "Osman," she began, but he put his hand up to stop her.
    "I know you are anxious, Skye, my daughter, but first I would settle you. A few more minutes will not matter now that you are here." He turned to Robbie, who had dismounted his horse. "Welcome again, Captain. It does my heart good to see you here." Then Osman led them both into his house, the house in which she had lived with Khalid.
    Skye let her eyes dart about the square entry hall, and it all looked the same as the night she had left it. For a brief second she expected to see Khalid come through from the gardens, his white robes swirling about his tall figure. She walked through the entry into the beautiful gardens beyond, and stood looking, feeling the tears fill her blue eyes, dimming her vision momentarily before spilling down her cheeks. The orange and lemon trees were larger, fuller; the pines taller. The T-shaped pool with its spraying fountains and border of roses was as lovely as ever. On one of the white marble benches near the house a woman sat surrounded by several children. Seeing Skye, she rose and came toward her.
    "My lady Skye? Is it truly you?" Alima, the wife of Osman, stood before her. Seeing Skye's tears, Alima put her arms about her mentor. "It has been as happy a house for Osman and me as it was for you and the lord Khalid. It is a good place, and I gladly welcome you back to it."

    The sudden sadness passed, and Skye drew away from Alima, saying, "When I learned I must return to Algiers I knew the first moments would be hard. It is over now, Alima, and I thank you for your gracious welcome."
    "Let me show you to the rooms I have set aside for you. They overlook this garden, for I know how much you loved it." With quiet assurance Alima led Skye back into the house and upstairs to two lovely airy rooms in a different wing of the house than she had lived in with Khalid. Already two silent slave girls were unpacking her small trunk. A third hurried forward bearing a silver basin filled with rosewater for the lady to wash away the dust of her travel. When Skye had done so Alima led her back downstairs into Osman's library, where the astrologer and Robbie waited for her. Having brought Skye to her husband, Alima quietly departed.
    Skye knew that Osman expected her to remain calm, and so she seated herself upon the floor cushions and patiently accepted a tiny cup of boiling Turkish coffee before looking expectantly toward him.
    The astrologer looked back calmly, his powerful gaze instilling in her a strange sense of peace. Then he began to speak. "In the city of Fez I have two nephews, the sons of my late sister, Lilitu, who was the wife of a vastly wealthy merchant. The elder of my nephews is named Kedar, and he inherited his father's wealth and business when my brother-in-law, Omar, died. Kedar was a man grown when my sister bore her younger son. His name is Hamal, and my sister died giving birth to the boy. Omar had recently been killed when a spirited new horse had thrown him and broken his neck. He had not, however, changed his will. He was awaiting the birth of his second child to do that, for had Hamal been a female, arrangements would have been different than if he were a male.
    "Kedar has always taken care of his little brother, but he has never offered to share their father's wealth. My elder nephew is a man of strong will and strong opinions. Three years ago, when Hamal was fifteen, Princess Turkhan, a daughter of Sultan Selim II, saw my young nephew. The royal princess is a most unusual woman. She came to Fez twelve years ago as wife to its wealthiest man. When he died she inherited everything, and because she is an Ottoman princess she is a law unto herself. Her father is obviously delighted to have her off his hands, and no one has control of her.
    "In Fez she is respected for her good words and her generosity to the poor. She is powerful by virtue of her family, and by virtue of her wealth. As you know, my daughter, this is an unusual thing in the Muslim world; but no one dares criticize her way of living, though it is most shocking. Princess Turkhan keeps a harem of men for her pleasure, as a man might keep a harem of women. Fez is a holy city, and the mullahs are appalled, but they can do nothing, for she is too important and too powerful. When she saw Hamal she wanted him, and after finding out who he was, she went to my elder nephew.
    "Kedar was within his rights, of course, but to this day I am shocked at what he did. He sold his younger brother to the princess-for a very fancy price, I might add. When he told me I was very angry, but, as he explained it to me, the boy is handsome and charming, though not particularly bright. Kedar did not believe that Hamal could ever take his place in the family business, and so he did what he believed was the best thing for him. As much as I disapproved of the act, I am forced to admit it was the wisest course for the boy. Princess Turkhan has adored him, cossetted him, and spoiled him from the beginning.
    Then several months ago the princess acquired a new male slave, a man who has resisted her from the moment she laid eyes upon him, and can only be kept under control by means of opiates. The princess is fascinated and intrigued by this man who will not have her. She will do anything to possess his body and soul, but to date she has been unsuccessful. Oh, she can force him, but it is not the same as his surrender to her love would be. My nephew, Hamal, says that she is making herself quite sick over the new slave.
    "I was interested by his story, and so out of curiosity I asked him to find out more about the man. At first the slave was loath to speak frankly with Hamal, who is Turkhan's favorite pet. Gradually, however, my nephew's honest sweetness won him over, and he confided that his name is Niall Burke."
    Skye gasped and grew white, but Osman held up a warning hand. He was not yet finished with his tale. With a shudder Skye fought to regain control of her turbulent emotions, while the words, He is alive, sang in her veins.
    "Niall Burke told Hamal that he was a nobleman in his own country, a place called Ireland. He told Hamal that he had a beautiful wife called Skye, and children. When I heard that, my daughter, I knew it was you. It could only be you, for who else would have so outrageous a name as Skye? I was going to send to Ireland for word of you, but then Haroun learned that you were but across the sea in Beaumont de Jaspre. That you had married its duc. Why did you marry another man when your husband was still alive?"
    "My husband was believed dead," Skye replied, grateful now to be allowed to speak. "He was thought murdered by a mad religious woman and his body thrown into the sea. I was sent by Queen Elizabeth to Beaumont as part of a political alliance."
    Osman nodded his bald head. "Niall Burke could only remember bits and pieces of what happened to him, my daughter. He remembered being attacked, but then his next memory is of being aboard a ship where he was nursed back to health before being put in the galleys to row. He manned an oar aboard a Barbary pirate ship for several months before he was seen here in Algiers by an enterprising slave merchant from Fez who thought the princess might be interested in him. He bought Niall Burke from the pirate ship and transported him back to Fez. The slave merchant's judgment was correct, for when Princess Turkhan saw your husband she bought him, and at the price the slaver wanted. Niall Burke has not proved the most tractable man, however. Princess Turkhan has tried everything to win him over, but he has resisted her. Now Hamal tells me his mistress has decided that she must have a child by Niall Burke. She has not ever allowed herself to become pregnant before. Her unwilling slave is resisting her more than ever, though, and the more he resists the more determined Turkhan becomes."
    "Did he not tell the princess who he was?" Skye asked. "Did he not tell her that he could pay a fabulous ransom to her?"
    "My daughter, you know that this is the East. When Khalid bought you do you think that he would have accepted ransom for you even had you known who you were? The princess bought your husband because she wanted him, not because she sought to make money. She is already incredibly wealthy. Even if you communicated with her, telling her the truth and offering to pay well for Niall Burke's return, she would refuse you, and she is legally within her rights.
    "No, you will have to go to Fez yourself, but my nephew, Hamal, will aid you. Hamal wants your husband out of the princess's life before this obsession she has drives her mad. But we have a complication. As I have said, my daughter, Lord Burke has persisted in defying Princess Turkhan. He simply will not yield, which only intrigues her further. Now, however, Hamal tells me he has begun to grow despondent. Because of my deep fondness for you, Skye, I have sent for you, for if Lord Burke is to escape Princess Turkhan he needs his hope renewed. There is only one way that that can be achieved, I believe."
    All of Skye's old instincts had begun to resurface as she listened to Osman speak. She was no longer Skye O'Malley, but rather she was Skye Mum el Khalid, one of the most famous women in Algiers. "If Hamal loves his princess so, Osman, why does he not simply rid himself of Niall? There is poison, a sharp knife in a dark garden, a pillow held over the face. There are any number of ways to rid oneself of a rival in the harem. Why has he not used one of them?" She was frankly suspicious.
    "Hamal is a gentle boy," Osman replied, "and he knows that Niall's death could destroy the princess, especially if it were proved he had a part in it. Turkhan would then lose both the men for whom she truly cares. Besides, my nephew honestly loves his princess. If, however, Niall were to escape, the princess would be enraged and her love would turn to hate for Niall. A woman scorned is a terrible thing, my daughter."
    Skye nodded. She certainly knew the truth of that statement. "Can you arrange for me to get to Fez?" she said. "I will, of course, take my own people with me. I do not need many, but if a rescue plan is to succeed I must have my own people about me."
    “There is only one way you can get to Fez, my daughter," Osman said. "Fez is a holy city, and foreigners, women in particular, are allowed nowhere near the city. Only you alone can travel there."
    Skye looked puzzled. "You say foreigners, especially women, are not allowed into Fez. How then in Heaven's name can I enter it?"
    "You can only enter Fez if you are a member of a household whose master is a native of the city. You will enter Fez with my other nephew, Kedar."
    "He will do this for you? How generous a man he must be!"
    "You misunderstand me, Skye, my daughter. Kedar is a religious man. He will not break the taboo of Fez, his native city, even for a family tie."
    “Then how?" she demanded.
    "You must be very brave, Skye, my daughter. What I am about to propose to you will not be to your liking; but it is the only way, I swear to you." Osman's wise face was troubled, and Skye felt an awful foreboding.
    "How?" she repeated.
    Osman sighed. "In two days' time my nephew Kedar arrives here in Algiers. He comes once a year to visit me, and to seek my advice on organizing his life for the following year. I must tell you, Skye, that he is a very sensual man; a connoisseur of beautiful women; a devotee of all that is voluptuous and erotic. When he arrives I would present him with a beautiful slave girl who I shall tell him is called Muna, which as you know means desire in our tongue."
    Robbie, who had been quietly listening, now burst out, "How in the name of the seven djinns is that supposed to help Skye get into Fez?" He looked first at Osman and then to Skye.
    Skye was very pale, and for a moment Robbie wasn't sure she was even breathing. Finally she said, "Do you know what it is you are asking me to do? Surely, Osman, there is a better way! You cannot ask this of me!"
    "I have told you the facts of the situation, my daughter. If there is another way then enlighten me, I beg you. I am appalled at what I must ask of you, but it is the only way. The knowledge that you are near can rally Lord Burke's flagging spirits and give him new courage. It is almost too late now."
    "What is it you two are talking about?" Robbie asked. "I can't understand a word of it!"
    "Fez is a holy city closed to foreigners, Robbie. Osman says the only way I can get into it to rescue Niall is to pretend I am a slave girl. He would present me to his nephew as such."
    "What?!"
    Skye almost laughed at the honest outrage on Robbie's very weathered English face. "I must pretend to be a slave," she repeated.
    "I heard you the first time!" Robbie roared. "It's out of the question! Do you know what you'll have to do if you're this Kedar's slave woman? Ye're not the type of woman a man buys to scrub his floors or cook his food! Are ye daft, Skye lass? Besides, so far all we have is someone's word that this man is Niall Burke. What if he isn't? What if this is someone who knows that Niall is dead, and is using his name?"
    "To what end, Robbie? Why would someone use Niall's name?"
    "To gain the opportunity of ransom, lass!"
    "It is rare a captive can be ransomed, Captain Small," Osman said quietly.
    "Perhaps he didn't know that," Robbie said, grasping for any reasonable explanation.
    "I considered the possibility that you might need proof of some sort," Osman said, "and so I asked Hamal to obtain it for me. The man who calls himself Niall Burke stands several inches over six feet in height. He has dark hair and silver eyes. He is lean and hard of body, according to Hamal, obviously a man who has kept himself in shape; and he bears the scars of a severe wound in the region of his belly."
    "It is Niall!" Skye cried, and her face was suffused with pure joy. "He is alive, Robbie! He is alive!"
    "All right," Robbie muttered, defeated. "I would have said it could be anyone until Osman mentioned the wound. It's Niall, all right, but he'll not be overly happy to find out that you've put yourself into the harem of some lusty Arab in order to reach Fez. And what happens when you do reach Fez? How in hell are you going to rescue a man penned in a harem when you're penned in a harem, too? Answer me that, Skye lass!"
    Skye looked to Osman. "Does your plan go beyond getting me to Fez, my old friend?"
    “The key is Hamal," Osman said. "Although he is the property of Princess Turkhan, she is so fond of him that he is allowed his freedom as if he were not a slave. As her favorite, he is not without influence. He comes and he goes as he pleases. He has the run of her home- and the run of his brother's home. This will allow him to help you, my daughter."
    "What is the quickest escape route, Osman?" Skye asked.
    “The river that runs through Fez empties into the Atlantic Ocean, my daughter, but it is not a navigable river. You will have to return the way you came, back here to Algiers. Hamal believes he knows a way, but it all depends on you making yourself indispensable to Kedar."
    "How do you and Hamal communicate, Osman?" Skye was curious, for she knew it was close to six hundred miles between Fez and Algiers.
    “The pigeons, my daughter," was the smiling reply. The birds are our messengers, and we use a code that I taught Hamal when he was a little boy. It amused him then, and it now amuses us that we may communicate without anyone knowing what we speak of, Skye. I was in Fez several months ago to teach briefly at the university. Hamal and I discussed much of this then, but I could not seek you until I had returned to Algiers. Had Jamil not departed for Istanbul, I should have come to you myself in Beaumont de Jaspre."
    "Did you arrange for Jamil's departure?" Skye looked closely at her old friend.
    Osman chuckled, and his dark eyes twinkled with glee. "It is strange," he said, admitting nothing, "that word of a cure for Jamil's impotence should come at this time."
    Skye grew serious once more.
    "Did you ever see Niall, Osman?" she asked.
    "No," he answered, sorry to disappoint her. "The princess does not know me, and it would not have been possible under the circumstances for me to enter her house. Hamal visited me at his brother's home, or at my quarters at the university."
    "You're determined to do this?" Robbie said, and Skye could hear the worried concern in his voice. '"Tis total madness, y’know."
    "Niall is alive," Skye answered him. "My husband, the father of my babies, is alive! Oh, Robbie, you of all people know what we have both been through over the years. I love him! I have always loved him and he has always loved me! When I learned that Darragh had killed him I was sick with anger and outrage that after all we had endured he should be taken from me again. I must free him from this bondage he is enmeshed in, just as he would free me. I will not be beaten, Robbie! Not in this!"
    Robert Small bowed his head in a private agony. He had no argument to offer, and as difficult as the situation was he knew that she was right. If they attempted to go through official channels it could take forever. More than likely the spoiled and determined Princess Turkhan would hide Niall, and they would be forced to accept defeat in the end. The Moroccan sultan was not about to offend the wealthy and powerful daughter of his overlord, the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. They would not jeopardize themselves over an infidel nobleman. “I’ll support you in any way that I can, Skye lass," Robbie said quietly, and he hugged her where she sat, tears running down his face.
    Skye's own beautiful blue eyes were wet with tears as she said huskily, "Thank you, Robbie! Thank you!"
    "It is decided, then?" Osman asked.
    "Yes," came the reply. "When your nephew arrives you will present him with a new slave girl named Muna. I wonder though, Osman. Am I not too old for this? I am not the girl I was ten years ago."
    "You look it," Osman said. "Does she not yet look a girl, Captain Small? Your face is youthful, and I suspect that, despite all your children, your body remains youthful also."
    Skye chuckled. "I have had four children since we last met, my old friend Osman. Although I am in better condition than many women my age, I am still not a girl of nineteen."
    "Fear not, my daughter. We will tell Kedar that you have had children. It will only serve to increase your value in his eyes. A Fasi is very much a family man."
    "What in the name of all that is holy is a Fasi?" Robbie demanded.
    "A Fasi is a native-born citizen of Fez, my friend. I am a Fasi although I have lived here in Algiers for more years than I ever lived in Fez."
    "How old do you intend to tell your nephew I am?" Skye asked.
    "How old are you now, my daughter?"
    "I am twenty-nine," she answered.
    "Ye're thirty," Robbie contradicted her bluntly.
    "Robbie!" Her face wore an outraged look. "A woman is always permitted to lie about her age."
    "Not when she's dealing with Osman, and taking her life in her hands," he snapped. "If I know my old friend he'll be wanting to plot your own chart now that you remember your past life."
    Osman's face broadened in a smile. "You are correct, Captain. When Skye was with us those ten years ago, and without her memory, I could only plot her chart to a certain degree, and by using my other powers. It was never totally accurate. Now I can do a complete horoscope, and I shall if she will but give me her birth-date."
    "I was born December 5th, 1540," Skye said, "and I shall not be thirty officially until December, Robbie!" She smiled smugly at him.
    Osman frowned. "I believed you born under the sign of the Ram," he said, and then his face relaxed. "Of course! Now I see it! You were conceived beneath the sign of the Ram! You are born under the sign of the Archer. Both are fire signs, my daughter. You are powerfully protected. Do you know the hour of your birth?"
    "I was born at nine minutes after nine o'clock in the evening," Skye answered.
    "I will work on your chart tonight," Osman said. "I must have all the knowledge I need before I send you forth to Fez." He turned to Robbie. "I will ask you to say your good-byes now, Captain. If Skye is to prepare for her role she will need time, and there is little time before Kedar arrives."
    "How will I know when to expert Skye and Niall?" Robbie asked.
    "Hamal will get a message to you. Remember that it will be almost two months before Skye reaches Fez. Then she will need time to make contact with Hamal, which will not be easy. It will be between three and four months, possibly more, before they can art, and return to Algiers. You will need to cultivate great patience, my friend."
    "Go back to Beaumont de Jaspre," Skye said. "Tell Nicolas that I will not be returning. Then see that the children are sent home immediately. There is no need to torture my poor Nicolas any further, and if all evidence of my residence in Villerose is wiped away, then perhaps he will seriously consider choosing a new bride. The children will go overland to the channel coast, for I have promised them a visit to Paris. Bran is to take them from France to England. I had intended that my Burke children be sent directly to Ireland, but I think that it is better that Bran meet with you when he has gotten them all safely to England. In case anything should happen to one of you, better I have the both of you as guardians. The Burke infants can stay with your sister at Wren Court, Robbie. They will be no trouble, as they have their own staff, and I will wager that Dame Cecily adores having them."
    "Let me stay at least until you leave for Fez," Robbie begged.
    "No," she answered. "If I am to convince Kedar that I am nothing more than a captive slave girl I must be totally cut off from my real life. It is going to be hard enough to be subservient, Robbie!" Her blue-green eyes were laughing at him now, and he guffawed loudly.
    "Aye," he said, "I suppose it is best I leave you alone to prepare for your role. It wouldn't do to have you telling this great merchant of Fez how to run his business. I don't think that that is quite what he's going to expect of you." Then he grew serious. “You'll take care of yourself, lass? You'll not take chances?"
    "I am taking a chance when I travel to Fez as Kedar's slave," she said softly. “There is no escaping the danger, Robbie, but I am mindful of it. I am not afraid." She leaned over and kissed him.
    No, she wasn't afraid, he could see it. Her belief that she could find Niall and escape back to safety shone like a silvery aura about her. Robert Small prayed silently that that faith be justified. She had so very much to lose.
    He rose slowly to his feet and drew her up. "All right, then," he said, "I’ll be on my way. Walk me to the door, and we'll say our farewells there." He turned. "Osman, my friend, will you come also?"
    "No, Captain. I will bid you farewell here. We will meet again, I know; and believe me that all will go well, my friend. May Allah watch over you."
    Robbie nodded. "I've never known you to be wrong, Osman," he said. "I know that I can trust you."
    Together Skye and Robbie walked to the main entry of Osman's house. There was really nothing left for them to discuss, so she simply hugged him, and said, 'Take care, my dearest friend."
    "It is you who should take care," he muttered, and then he held her close against him in a fatherly embrace. "I wish to Heaven you wouldn't do this thing," he said, "but I know that you must. God's bones, lass, come home safely!" Then he quickly released her, and was gone out the door. She was certain she had seen tears in his kindly eyes.
    With a sigh Skye turned from the door and walked back to Osman's study, where the astrologer awaited her. Wordlessly he handed her a tiny porcelain cup of newly made coffee. Slowly she sipped the burning, bitter liquid until at last she felt calm again. Sensing her recovery, Osman spoke.
    “There is no one among my slaves who knows who you are. We will therefore begin the charade now. You are Muna, a slave girl whom I have bought to give my nephew, the lord Kedar of Fez. You are a captive, but for beautiful captives like yourself there is no ransom. You were widowed a year ago, and were being sent by your family to marry a wealthy Florentine merchant. You have two babies, but your husband-to-be did not want you to bring your children to this new marriage.
    "Just as it entered the Mediterranean, your ship was captured by pirates who brought you to Algiers, where you were placed in a private bagnos. I bought you. You arrived today at the same time my old friend, Captain Small, arrived. I have returned your trunk, by the way, to your ship. I will see that you are clothed properly to entice my nephew." He thought a moment. "Have I forgotten anything, Muna?"
    "No, my lord Osman," she answered meekly.
    He smiled. "Very good, my daughter! Now, for the next two days you must immerse yourself in the character of Muna. Does my history of your past satisfy you?"
    "It is fine, my lord, but I would ask one question. You have still not told me how old I am to be."
    "Aiii!" Osman clapped his plump hand to his smooth forehead. Then he nodded at her with a small smile. "You can easily pass for twenty, my daughter. Your skin is so marvelously translucent it makes you seem much younger than your years. One other thing. You must have a potion that will prevent your conceiving a child by my nephew. Such a thing is unthinkable!"
    "I have my own potion, Osman, but you have sent it back to the ship along with my trunk," she laughed.
    "It works?"
    "I have never conceived a child while I took it," she answered him.
    "I will have it fetched immediately, then," he said. "There is no use switching potions if yours works. Return to your quarters now, my daughter, and I will send the seamstress to you. She will outfit you completely within the next two days. When Kedar arrives you will be ready for him."
    Skye rose from the silken cushions, bowed low to Osman, and left him. The next two days proved busy ones as the seamstress and her assistants sewed a lavish wardrobe for the beautiful slave girl Muna. In Osman's household only his wife, Alima, knew the truth about Muna. The two women spent most of their waking hours together in the garden, surrounded by Alima and Osman's children. Altogether there were seven of them: five mischievous little boys ranging in age from nine to two; and two little girls, one seven, and one an infant who had been born around the same time as Skye's son, Padraic. Alima refreshed Skye's memory on Eastern customs; any other gaps of knowledge would be put down to her status as a slave.
    "What is Kedar like?" she asked Alima.
    "I know little about him," came the reply. "Osman is a very jealous man, and does not allow even his male relatives into the women's part of the house. I have seen him, of course; Kedar is an attractive man, Muna. He stands a few inches taller than you, and is very powerfully built although he is not fat. He is as fair of skin as you are, for when he lifted his arms once and his robe fell open, I could see where the sun had not reached the whiteness of his skin. The first time I met him I was quite curious, and boldly lifted my eyes to his for just a second. He has eyes as powerful as his uncle, my husband. They are hazel in color, and his hair is a dark brown. His features are pleasant, the eyes well spaced, his face narrow, his nose very aquiline, his lips quite sensuous, as they are a bit wide."
    Skye nodded, satisfied. At least the man wasn't ugly. "Is he intelligent?" she said, wondering if Alima would know what she really meant.
    With her shrewd peasant soul, however, Alima understood. "Yes, he is intelligent and very clever. I also suspect he has some of his uncle's powers, although Osman has said nothing about it. He is very possessive of what is his, Muna, so if he decides you please him-and you must please him if you are to get to Fez-he will want to own you totally. Beware of him, for I believe he is a dangerous man."
    Again Skye nodded, and then she asked a final question. "What if he decides to sell me, Alima?"
    "Do not fear, Muna. Osman intends to ask him to resell you to him for my sake if Kedar should grow tired of you. Kedar cannot refuse that request."
    Alima's words reassured Skye considerably, particularly when late that very afternoon Kedar arrived. The two women watched from behind the latticed windows of an upper story as Osman greeted his nephew in the gardens of the house. Kedar moved with a sleek grace that reminded Skye of the panthers she and Khalid el Bey had kept for hunting. Kedar held his head high, and his step was at once light and very assured. The two men embraced, and then Osman, knowing that the two women watched, pushed back the hood of his nephew's white traveling robes.
    "Let me look at you, son of my beloved dead sister," he said, and Skye could see that the face in profile was arrogant, hawklike, and Arab.
    "It is good to see you again, my Uncle," Kedar replied, and Skye was struck by the very deep timbre of the man's voice. It was a voice used to giving orders, used to being obeyed.
    "Have you seen enough, Muna?" Alima whispered.
    "Yes."
    "Let us go then, for Osman will shortly send for you, and I would be certain your garb is perfection."
    Below them, Osman led Kedar into the cool interior of the house to a small salon. The two men settled themselves comfortably upon low, cushioned red velvet divans, and immediately a slave appeared with a silver basin filled with warmed rosewater and a soft linen towel. Kedar washed the dust of his travels from his face and his hands, and dried them carefully. His were the hands of an aristocrat, long and slender with well-tapered nails. When he had finished, and the slave had hurried off with the used towel and the basin, two other slaves entered the room. One carried a plate of gazelle horns, curved pastries made of flour, ground nuts, and honey. The other was the coffeemaker, who immediately set to work grinding beans and then brewing a dark and rich coffee. When he and his nephew had been served Osman waved them from the room, and sat chatting companionably with his nephew. At last, the courtesies all observed and the traveler made comfortable, Osman said, "You know that each year when you visit me I have a gift for you. This year it is something very, very special. Knowing how proud you are of your harem, my nephew, I have purchased an exquisite slave girl for you. It was not at all what I had in mind, Kedar, but I saw the woman by chance, and knew that she was perfect for your collection of rare and unusual beauties. I know that your good manners will force you to take my gift, but should, Allah forfend, the girl displease you, then allow me to buy her from you when you return to Fez."
    "If you like her so well, my Uncle, then why give her to me?"
    "You misunderstand, Kedar. I do not want her for myself, but she and my wife have become good companions in the short time she has been in my house. I would do it for Alima. I do not think, however, that you will want to sell her to me. She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen."
    "Is she European?"
    "Yes. English."
    "A blonde?" Kedar sounded interested.
    "No, a brunette. But what a brunette! Her skin is like a gardenia petal! Would you like to see her?"
    "Why not, and I thank you for such a delightful surprise, Uncle. As you know, I do not travel with any of my women, and I have been a month in coming from Fez."
    Osman clapped his hands, and instantly a slave appeared. "Fetch the slave girl Muna," he ordered, and the slave, nodding, bowed himself out of the room.
    "Muna," Kedar smiled. "You have named her Muna? She is that beautiful?"
    "I do not believe that a man can see her and not desire her," was Osman's reply.
    Kedar smiled, faintly amused. He had never known his uncle to be a particular connoisseur of female flesh. He could only assume that his aunt by marriage was a pretty woman, for he had never been allowed to see her unveiled; but he had seen her children and they were certainly attractive. Kedar believed that Alima was a Frenchwoman, but he had never asked, for it would have been considered too personal a question and extremely bad manners. He sipped at the dregs of his coffee and nodded at his uncle. "The woman must be memorable if she has impressed you," he remarked drily.
    Osman smiled an almost mischievous smile, and said, "You have but a moment to wait, nephew."
    The sound of his words had barely died when the door to the salon opened and Skye entered. Her head was lowered, and she had barely entered the room when she was on her knees, her head touching the floor in perfect obeisance. In that position Kedar could see little more of her than a rather charmingly rounded section of hip. Osman noted the easy frustration of his nephew, and said, "Rise, Muna." She stood quickly, silently, her head still lowered. "Raise your head up," Osman commanded, and Skye slowly, almost shyly lifted her head. Kedar caught his breath audibly as he gazed into a pair of magnificent blue-green eyes, and Osman smiled softly to himself. His nephew was hooked as easily as any foolish fish offered a delectable bit of bait. Truly his weakness was women. "This is your new master, Muna, the lord Kedar."
    "My lord," she whispered, and he was forced to lean closer to hear her. In doing so smelled the delicious fragrance of her rose perfume, which he instinctively knew suited her admirably. She was indeed a perfect rose.
    "Remove your garments," Osman commanded sharply, and Skye turned startled eyes to him, a slow blush suffusing her cheeks.
    "No, Uncle, it will not be necessary," Kedar said. His hand reached out to touch Skye's arm, his fingers caressing the satiny round of her shoulder. The woman is shy, and I would not force her. Later she will display to me her obviously bounteous charms. Is that not right, my beautiful Muna?" His fingers continued their caressing.
    "Yes, my lord," Skye said low, and then she trembled, unable to control the tiny ripple of fear that rolled over her. This was no fat and lazy merchant prince who could be easily led through his own lust by a beautiful woman. His hazel eyes were too much like Osman's eyes; knowing and seeking. Why had she ever agreed to this insane plan in the first place? It wasn't going to work; she was going to be caught like a bird in a net if she went to Fez as this man's slave! Then in her mind's eye Skye saw Niall, her beloved Niall; and taking a deep breath, she calmed this flight of nerves that had possessed her.
    "Send her to my quarters, Uncle," Kedar said, then added in a lower, more intimate voice to Skye, "I will not keep you waiting long, my beautiful Muna. Very soon you will be cured of your charming shyness toward me."
    "Go, Muna," came Osman's voice. She turned, and with a low bow toward each of them left the room.
    "She is exquisite," Kedar said quietly as the door closed behind Skye. "I suspect, my Uncle, that words alone will not adequately express my gratitude. Tell me, though, how it is she speaks our language if she is a recent captive?"
    The owner of the bagnos in which I saw her brought her from the ship that had taken her captive. Because she was so filthy and disreputable-looking she escaped being chosen by the Dey’s chief eunuch. The fool could not see her beauty beneath all the dirt and rebellion, but the bagnos owner could. She remained full of fight, however, and it took several months to calm her and train her in the simple rudiments of being a slave. I am afraid she is not greatly accomplished, but she was so beautiful I could not resist. The bagnos owner told me that she appears to be intelligent. He was only forced to discipline her twice, and he did go lightly with her. She has not been marked in any way at all, and she was quick to learn that unruly behavior would only bring on severe chastisement. It was while she was in the bagnos that she learned our language. I have discovered that she speaks several other European languages. She was obviously educated by her family, though why they bothered I do not know. She is only a woman."
    “True," Kedar replied, "but an intelligent woman, I have found, is usually far more intriguing than the women who can only spread their legs and prattle on about nothing. Her active mind will make her far more interesting, Uncle."
    "I bought her for her beautiful face and body," Osman said, sounding somewhat aggrieved.
    “Those I intend enjoying as soon as possible, my Uncle, but first I would bathe the dust of that long road between Fez and Algiers from my body."
    "Will you eat with me afterward, my nephew?"
    "Not tonight, Uncle. Tonight I intend to put to use the magnificent gift you have given me. I have been a full month without a woman. The whores in the roadside caravanserais are not even fit for camel drivers, and besides, they are all diseased. I never touch them."
    "You know your way to the baths, nephew. Alima has seen that the slaves are ready and awaiting your arrival. Enjoy! I shall speak with you tomorrow."
    "As always, Uncle, your hospitality is munificent," Kedar said, and then withdrew, hurrying down the hallway from the salon to the spacious baths that Osman had added on to the house soon after he had bought it. As his uncle had said, the slave girls who attended the bath were awaiting him, and they quickly had his clothes off. They were pretty black girls, and he knew them all. Merrily they joked back and forth with him as they soaped and scrubbed him down. Their hands were everywhere on his body, caressing and rubbing with practiced and seemingly detached skill. After all, it was their job to wash the master and his family, and anyone else they might be asked to wash. Still, knowing he was a passionate man, and that his forced abstinence had rendered him as randy as a stallion in a herd of mares in season, they teased him gently as his male organ responded to their tender touches. The lord Kedar had been known in the past to ease his hunger upon the humble bath girls, and they were hopeful.
    Today, however, they were doomed to disappointment. He grinned regretfully at them, and shook his head.
    "Ah," said the eldest of them, a full-figured girl named Nigera, "the lord Kedar would save his strength for the new slave girl, Muna. It is she who will feel the sting of his mighty lance this night."
    The others giggled behind their hands at Kedar's enthusiastic nod. "What do you know of the woman?" he asked, curious.
    "She arrived a little time ago," Nigera said. "She and the lady Alima became friends. Muna is a sweet woman and a courteous one, from what I have observed here in the bath. She comes with the mistress and her children."
    "She is very good with the children," observed another of the bath attendants. 'They say she had children in her old life. Sometimes I would catch her sighing over the lady Alima's youngest daughter, and there would be a sad look upon her face."
    The bath attendants had finished washing Kedar, and now they rinsed him off. Next they shaved several days' growth of beard from his face, for he preferred to be smooth-shaven, and then they scrubbed his wavy dark brown head clean. Finally they led him to the hot tub, where he would soak for a while relaxing his travel-weary muscles. He pondered their chatter. Muna was not a virgin, praise Allah, for he was in no mood to deflower a maiden tonight. He wanted a woman who knew what passion was all about. She might be reluctant, but coaxed firmly and gently, she would quickly succumb. His smile was rather predatory as he contemplated this delightful gift of his uncle's choosing.
    She had been dressed exquisitely but simply when she had come to the salon. Her full pantaloons had been a gossamer-sheer blush-colored silk shot through with silver threads. The ankle bands and the sewn-in hip band had been embroidered in pink glass beads and silver thread. The pantaloons had ridden just over the bottom of her hip bones, and she had been nude above, save a sleeveless, open bolero of blush-colored silk edged in silver trim which just barely clung to the soft swelling of her lovely bosom. He had very much wanted to see that bosom, but her charmingly modest blush when his uncle had ordered her to disrobe had frankly disarmed him. She had worn no jewelry, of course, having had no previous master to deck her with delicate baubles. She would, he suspected, cost him a fortune in jewelry, and he smiled to himself anticipating her delight and pleasure at the wonderful gifts he would give her. Her dark hair had been caught back with a pearl-embroidered pink ribbon, and he was looking forward to loosening it, and running his fingers through it.
    An ache in his groin told him that he was becoming aroused again. Cursing softly, he forced his mind away from his beautiful new slave, and silently began to recite verses from the Koran. It was an excellent discipline. No man should allow a woman to insinuate herself so deeply into his soul that he couldn't do without her. Several minutes later Nigera tapped him, saying, "It is time, my lord," and he rose from the pleasantly heated marble tub. He walked across the tiled floor of the bath and entered another bright and airy room, where he seated himself. Silently two slave girls pared the nails on both his hands and his feet. Then they trimmed his now dry hair. He walked to a massage bench and lay down, to give himself up to the ministrations of Nigera's supple fingers for the next hour. When she had finished massaging him thoroughly she helped him sit up and handed him a cup of boiling, sweet Turkish coffee. Gingerly he sipped the hot drink from the tiny eggshell cup. He felt refreshed and revived, and quite ready for a long evening of pleasurable sport with Muna.
    Standing, Kedar held out his arms as a comfortable loose caftan was wrapped about him. He slid his feet into the soft slippers that were offered him, and with a smile of thanks to the bath attendants he left the room and walked toward his own apartments. As he reached them the eunuch guarding the door flung it open at precisely the right moment, and Kedar walked through into a large room.
    It was a simple but elegant room with walls that were covered in black, red, and white tiles in a geometric pattern a quarter of the way up and whitewashed above. To the left of the door were three casement windows, the wall above the windows decorated in a fan-shaped pattern of designed plaster. The floor was cool red tile, but over a good portion of it was a fine, thick red, blue, and gold rug. On either side of the room were low, armless divans of red brocade with plump white pillows embroidered in gold thread. In the center was a footed brass brazier, and from the dark beamed ceiling hung a brass lamp with amber glass. Near the divans there were polished low, round ebony tables, upon which rested smaller decorated brass lamps with their amusingly curved mouths spouting wicks.
    Opposite the salon door was a large double couch curtained in red velvet and cloth of gold. Over the couch was a brocaded cloth of gold awning with wide red velvet stripes, and the walls around the high couch were hung in embroidered red velvet. The couch was covered in a matching brocaded velvet fabric with a busy geometric design upon it. Enormous feather and down cushions in multi-colored silks and velvets were piled upon it in the corners and along the back. A long red velvet cushion with silk tassels at each corner had been set upon the tiled step to the couch.
    She should have been awaiting him there, but she was not. Instead, she was sleeping upon the couch, within the curtained alcove. Tonight Kedar thought he would be indulgent, but he would teach her her proper place in his life. He was not an Ottoman to be ruled by his women. For a long moment he stood looking down at her, and then kneeling upon the cushions, he studied her at close range. His uncle had been right. She was indeed a beauty. He didn't need to touch her hair to know that it was soft. And her skin! Allah! Had there ever been such skin? Reaching out, he lifted back one side of her ridiculous little bolero, exposing her breast. For a long time he studied the flawless contours of that breast without even touching it. It had the most pleasing roundness to it, and yet the impudent way in which the small pink nipple tilted upward enchanted him. Here again there was no hurry to touch, for he could see with his sharp, knowledgeable eye that the skin was soft, smooth, and firm.
    It was then that Skye opened her eyes and caught him in her cool blue-green gaze for a brief moment before lowering her long black lashes in feigned modesty. A tiny smile played at the corners of Kedar's mouth. For a small second she had made him feel like a little boy discovered just as he was about to be naughty. The fact that she could do that on such short acquaintance delighted him. "You cannot blame me for contemplating your beauty, my fair Muna," he said in his deep voice. "You have already ravished me with your face and form."
    "It is not for me to say, my lord Kedar," she answered. "I am but your humble slave."
    "You recite the words perfectly," was his answer, "yet I do not think for one moment that you believe them."
    "I was not raised to be a slave, my lord Kedar."
    "Nonetheless you are an exquisite one, and I give thanks to the beneficent Allah who has given you to me, my fair Muna." He was pleased to see that captivity had not broken her spirit. Skye smiled inwardly to herself at his words. She had decided not to be overly meek with this man. It would quickly bore him. His next words caused her to start. "Disrobe for me now, Muna. I would see your beauty entirely rather than through the taunting diaphanous silk of your charming costume."
    Skye could not help the shiver that raced through her. This was the moment she had dreaded, for now there was no going back. Once again she wondered if she were mad in what she was attempting to do. Despite what Osman said, there were no guarantees that she would find Niall. What if he was dead by the time she arrived in Fez? Nothing was more fierce than a woman rejected by a man she desires, and Princess Turkhan was a powerful woman. A slave had no rights. He could be killed by his master simply because it amused his master to kill him. For a single second she contemplated racing from the room and begging Osman to stop this charade immediately, before it was too late. Then came the horrifying realization: It was already too late.
    Silently she slipped from the soft couch, turning to keep her back to him. With a motion so fluidly graceful that he wasn't even certain how she had accomplished it, Skye slipped the little bolero off and dropped it to the floor. Seated upon the couch now, Kedar admired the long line of her back. There was not a mark on her skin. It was as pristine as an unwritten parchment. Skye carefully loosened her pantaloons, and they puddled around her ankles before she stepped out of them. As she turned he had just a quick glimpse of her breasts and belly before she was kneeling before him, her dark head pressing into the wool carpet. "As my lord commands," she murmured at him.
    Ravish. The word entwined itself about his brain. He wanted to ravish her; to leap from his position upon the couch, press her back into the rug, and ravish her! Instead, he took several deep breaths to calm himself. He did not believe in hurrying a woman along passion's pathway, but he had to admit to himself that he had never before desired a woman as greatly as he did this one. Perhaps it was his abstinence on his journey; but Kedar knew it was not. He was not a man to neglect his harem, often sending for two or three women in a single night; but neither was he one of those weak fools who could not survive a day without shoving himself into a warm and willing woman. No. This one was different, and he was fascinated. "Stand up," he commanded her, and watched with pleasure as she gracefully rose from her obeisance.
    She, in turn, watched him from beneath lowered lashes as he stood and came down from the couch on the dais toward her. He stopped and then studied her in a slow and leisurely fashion, giving an occasional command which she obeyed silently. "Turn, Muna," and she could feel his eyes moving from her shoulders down to her buttocks, down her legs to her feet. "Turn again." His hazel eyes moved from her feet, up her legs, to her beautifully plump, pearl-smooth Venus mont. He could see that her cleft was fine, long, and deep, an indication, according to harem tradition, of a passionate woman. His eyes continued their inspection to her pleasingly rounded belly, to her lean, flat, and long torso, to her breasts. "Raise your arms," he commanded her. "Put them behind your head."
    This had the effect of raising her breasts upward so he might have a complete view of them. Skye had never felt more debased in her entire life as his glance fastened hungrily upon her round breasts. She wondered almost bitterly if he would ask her to open her mouth so he might inspect and count her teeth. She had never until now understood the awful and terrifying degradation of being a slave. Oh, she had legally been the slave of Khalid el Bey until he freed her before their marriage; but Khalid had never treated her like one. He had from the beginning been a man in love. Kedar was not a man in love. He was a man in lust; a man delighted with his new possession, as his careful inspection of her person indicated.
    Kedar, however, was not entirely insensitive to his slave. He saw the flush of embarrassment that stained her cheeks as she was silently forced to comply with his wishes. He saw the quickening of her heartbeat in the visible fluttering in her chest, a pounding pulse at the base of her slender throat. He noted that she was trembling ever so slightly, although she forced herself to stand grimly still. Yes, her spirit was still there, and he was glad! He would not break it, only tame it, but then a truly wild thing was never really completely tame. The pleasure at that particular thought washed over him like a soothing balm.
    Reaching out, he touched her for the first time. He touched her as he would touch one of his thoroughbred Arab mares to gentle it. His hand smoothed down from her shoulder to her buttock in a slow and easy motion. "Don't be afraid, my fair Muna," he said in his deep, velvet voice; but Skye couldn't restrain the fierce shudder that rolled over her, for the purr in his voice was that of a well-fed and powerful cat. One arm came strongly about her waist, and drawing her close to him he touched her lips gently with his. Then, to her surprise, he loosened her, and holding her lightly, cupped a breast firmly in his other hand. She raised her arm instinctively to fend him off, but he chided her in a mock-stern voice. "No, Muna, it is my right. You belong to me now. I will be patient, fair one, but you are no virgin to fear me." He pulled the silk band from her head, and her long black hair swirled loose.
    "I do not know you," she whispered. To her surprise, Skye found that she really was afraid of this man, and what was worse she did not know why.
    "It is no matter," he answered. "You are mine, you are beautiful, and I desire you." His thumb rubbed insistently against her hardened nipple, and Skye had to bite her lower lip to keep from screaming aloud. "You have marvelous breasts," he continued. "See how perfectly you fit my hand just to overflowing, Muna? I believe that you have the most perfect breasts I have ever seen." He smiled down at her. 'The bath girls say you are no maid, and they believe that you had children. Were you married, my fair one?"
    "Yes, my lord. I am a widow. I have two children, little boys who will now be orphaned, and left to the mercy of my late husband's family." Her head drooped sadly.
    "Did you nurse your sons, Muna?"
    "Only a little while, my lord. Then came the wet nurse, for women of my class are expected to attend court with their husbands. I could not do that and nurse my babies."
    So she was of that high a rank! Kedar was impressed, and very pleased. He quickly decided to have children by this exquisite slave woman, but already his passion for her was so great that he did not want her to waste her time nursing children when she might nurse him. His mother had nursed him until he was six, and he had developed a taste for breast milk that even today was not lost. The idea of being within Muna's fair body while he drank of her milk excited him tremendously, and without meaning to he crushed her tender breast in his hand. Skye cried out with pain, and Kedar, instantly remorseful, caressed her tenderly. "Forgive me, my fair Muna. I was quite lost in contemplation of your charms." He soothed her breasts, clucking worriedly, wondering aloud if he had bruised her soft skin.
    My God, Skye thought, I am naught to him except a possession! He feels nothing for me but the need to own me, to sate his bodily lusts.
    Kedar returned to a closer exploration of her body, moving his hand downward to rub across her fluttering belly. His touch was like fire against her skin, stroking seductively, sending tiny darts of fear through her. She wondered if Osman had known the kind of man his nephew really was when he had turned her over to Kedar. This was not a man to be satisfied with the mere taking of her body. He wanted far more than that. He wanted her. He wanted her soul and her mind as well as her body. Could she resist him? Already her treacherous body was beginning to stir under his touch.
    His fingers moved downward again, this time coming to rest atop her cleft. Gently he moved his hand back and forth, touching her ever so lightly but insistently. She couldn't let him do this to her, she thought frantically, but her legs seemed made of jelly; and then he demanded, 'Tell me about the first time, Muna? Was he gentle? Did you like it?"
    "My lord…" she stuttered her shyness at such an intimate question, and then she almost wept to remember Niall, to remember how it had been with him that first time.
    "Tell me!" he murmured against her ear, his tongue licking it softly, his fingers slipping deeper into her cleft to coax the honey down from the hidden recesses of her fevered body.
    "H-he was gentle," she whispered, "and yes, I liked it."
    "Was he a good lover, my fair Muna?"
    "My lord, I was a maid when I went to my husband. I have known but one man in my lifetime. How can I know the answer to such a question?" Her answer was certainly in keeping with the story Osman had concocted about her, and she must remember that story else Niall be lost.
    Kedar smiled, satisfied. It was what he had wanted to hear, as it meant that she had not played the wanton as so many of these married European women did. He was glad that her husband had been a kind and gentle lover, her only lover. It meant that she was not afraid of the act, and that was good. No matter if her husband had been a proficient lover, he, Kedar, was a better one. By dawn the beautiful Muna would have a strong comparison, and he knew that her late lord would suffer by that comparison.
    She was almost fainting against his strong arm, and so he lifted her up into his embrace. Walking to the velvet-draped couch in the alcove, he carefully placed her upon it. Her blue-green eyes heavy, she watched as he swiftly removed his white robe. Through thick lashes she peeped at him, quickly assessing his assets as he had assessed hers. He stood probably no more than three inches taller than she did, but he was powerfully built with a barrel chest, narrow waist, and sturdy legs. His body was pale and totally devoid of hair. His manhood, however, was totally out of proportion for a man under six feet. In its already half-roused state it was quite long, and she noted with trepidation that it was thick. The circumcised ruby knob of it reminded her of the head of a battering ram.
    He caught her look of fear, and coming down beside her upon the couch, he murmured again in her ear, "Do not fear, Muna. Your sweet sheath will accept all of me and weep for more, I promise you!" Then he was kissing her, his lips raining a hundred little kisses on her face, scorching at her temples, her closed eyelids, her sculpted cheekbones, her stubborn chin, and the corners of her trembling mouth. His two hands pinioned her lightly against the soft velvet-covered mattress. He was strong, and she knew he could break her should he decide that was what he wanted. He was kissing her now upon her lips, testing the texture of her mouth. The kisses demanded an answer that she knew she would have to give, and the only way she could do that was to abandon herself to total passion. Niall! her tortured heart cried out. Forgive me, my darling, but I must do this if I am to save you and bring you back to me, to our babes!
    Then she kissed Kedar, hesitantly at first, the kiss deepening with the increasing pressure of his lips. "Muna, Muna!" he spoke low against her mouth, and she shivered with the dark intensity of his voice. Gasping, she opened her lips to him as he ran his tongue quickly across them. Her breath came in little pants as his tongue licked the side of her face, then along her slender neck. Finding the palpitating hollow of her throat, he buried his lips there, growling, and she was again reminded of a sleek and savage cat. He terrified her. He was like an animal, possessive and totally sure of himself and his prowess. He reeked of his own masculinity. Then suddenly his tongue was entering her mouth, seeking delicately, probing gently.
    Skye moaned, trying to escape the building fury of his fierce passion, but he held her firmly now, refusing to accept any rejection on her part. It would be an endless battle between them, and the knowledge of that was an incredible aphrodisiac to Kedar. Her tongue struggled to escape his, but he caught at it and sucked upon that delectable morsel. His fingers now sought her cleft once more, and pushing two of them gently within her he moved his hand slowly back and forth until with a soft cry she had her first tiny orgasm. With a smile he drew his fingers out and, pressing one of them against her lips, said, "Taste, my fair Muna. Taste your own sweet honey." She obeyed him, sucking the salty sweetness from his finger, and then watching almost mesmerized as he sucked the second finger once she had finished. He then drew the two wet fingers between the valley of her breasts in a slow and seductive motion, his hazel eyes holding her blue-green ones with a forceful magnetism.
    "Tell me what pleases you," he demanded.
    Skye pretended confusion. "My lord," she said low, "I have been taught by the women in the bagnos that it is not what pleases me that matters, but rather, what pleases you. I have been told that it is the woman's duty to please her master, to ride him to pleasure. Is it not so?"
    "For some, perhaps," he answered, smiling, "but I believe a man is better served when he may conquer the woman beneath him. There will be times when it pleases me to let you ride me, fair Muna, but that is my decision. I will lead you in our lovemaking. You need not fear, my beautiful one, that you will displease me." His fingers then trailed back up between her breasts. "Tonight," he said, "I want to learn about you. I want to know what gives you pleasure, what excites you, how your luscious body responds to sensuousness. Tell me what your last lord did when you made love together."
    "We… we made love," she replied helplessly, deciding that lack of sophistication in this area was what would make him happiest.
    "He touched your body?"
    "Yes."
    "Your breasts? He rode you?"
    "Y-yes."
    "What else?" Kedar demanded.
    "What else is there, my lord?" Skye's blue-green eyes were guileless, but inside she was trembling again as she wondered where this line of questioning was leading. Was he a gentle man, or was he one of those who gained pleasure through pain?
    A slow, satisfied smile lit Kedar's features. "There is much, much more, my fair slave, than the little that you have described to me. I can open a whole new world to you, and I intend to!"
    In a corner of the divan rested a woven gold basket, square in shape and without a handle. Within the basket were several bottles carved from different-colored marbles and alabaster. Without even looking closely, Kedar reached out and drew forth a narrow-necked vessel with a silver and cork stopper. He opened it, and a strong fragrance, vaguely familiar, wafted out.
    "Musk rose," he said, seeing her curiosity. "It is a special lotion for the body. Turn onto your back and let me rub some on you."
    Skye rolled over and lay waiting tensely for his touch. When it came it was gentle yet strong. He had warmed the lotion in his hands so as not to shock her delicate skin, and his sure, long strokes swept up her back from her buttocks, kneading the muscles with a firm motion. His touch was strangely soothing, and she began to relax. What an odd man he was, she thought. Seeing his open lust, she had thought he would be quick to mount her and sate that desire. Instead, here he was massaging her with tender hands and making no effort to hurry her. Perhaps it would not be so dreadful to pretend to be his slave for the next few weeks until she found Niall, and with young Hamal formulated a plan for their escape from Fez.
    "Do you like this, Muna?" he whispered into her ear. Then he very gently nipped at the back of her neck, pushing her long hair aside first.
    "Yes, my lord, it is most pleasurable," she answered him.
    He laughed softly and resumed his massage, working now on each of her long legs, the firm thighs and calves, her slim feet. "I once had a slave girl from Cathay," he said, "who taught me that there is a particularly sensitive spot on the foot." His fingers dug into her foot, and suddenly Skye felt a stab of desire race through her. She gasped, surprised, and Kedar laughed again. "Yes, my fair Muna, right there." He moved on to her other leg and worked it as he had the first. 'Turn over now, beautiful one," he ordered, and she obeyed.
    "What happened to your slave girl from Cathay?" Skye asked.
    "She died under my lash," he said casually.
    "Why?" Skye was horrified.
    "I caught her betraying me with one of my guard. He was forced to watch while I beat her. Just before she lost consciousness for good, my head eunuch decapitated him. I then finished her punishment. No one takes what is mine!"
    "You killed her," Skye whispered. "Dear God!"
    He tipped the alabaster flask of pale-pink lotion into his hands, and then put aside the bottle to massage her breasts and her belly. "It should not concern you, beautiful Muna. I am normally a kind master, but you must understand that I could not allow one of my women to escape severe punishment for such unconscionable behavior."
    "Could you not have sold her off?"
    To whom? Who would want a faithless woman? Besides, I would not be shamed by the public knowledge that one to whom I had given the title of favorite had openly cuckolded me." He sat astride her hips, his supple hands smoothing the silky pink liquid over her soft belly, across her quivering breasts. His eyes, hazel green with small flickering gold pinpoints of light, bore into her blue-green ones. 'Tell me what you are feeling now, Muna?"
    Skye forced her thoughts from the unfortunate woman whom Kedar had so easily killed. She realized that without warning her body was beginning to feel restless and strangely hot beneath his hands. She shifted nervously. "I feel strange," she whispered. "Hot. A little…" she hesitated to give him any advantage. "A little frightened," she finished, unable to think of another word.
    "I don't want you to feel frightened," he said soothingly. "I want you only to feel pleasure." He leaned forward across her, and reached into the gold basket. Drawing out a small crystal flask from the container, he uncorked it. "Open your mouth," he commanded, and when she did he poured a small amount of clear, apricot-flavored liquid into it.
    Skye swallowed, and then asked softly, "What is it, my lord?"
    "Nothing to be afraid of, Muna. It will calm your fears and relax your body," he soothed, and then he dipped a long finger into the flask, rubbed the liquid upon one of her nipples, and, lowering his dark head, began to suck upon it.
    The shudder that ripped through her almost tore her apart. Her whole body was suddenly aflame, burning with the need to love and be loved. She moaned, arcing her body against his mouth, her hands sliding across his shoulders and back, her nails raking ever so lightly. His growl of laughter sent another shudder through her, and then he was releasing her nipple and drizzling some of the clear apricot fluid over her navel. Bending his dark head again, he lapped at the liquid with his tongue, following the wet line down her belly and pearly Venus mont into her cleft, which had opened like a pretty pink shell to his questing tongue. Like Cupid's arrow, his tongue darted quickly here and there, touching and teasing everything sensitive until Skye was writhing with the need to be possessed by him.
    There was another growl of laughter as he lifted his head once more. "Now," he said, "you must do the same to me, my beautiful slave." Lying back, he poured some of the liquid onto his own belly. "Come, Muna, and pleasure your master," was his command.
    Skye rolled slowly over onto her belly. Her entire body felt relaxed yet incredibly desperate for total sexual fulfillment. She shifted herself until her head was over his belly, and then she began to lick at him, moving lower and lower until she encountered his fast-stiffening manhood. She stopped for a brief moment, but his hand pushed her head forward and he said in a tense voice, 'Take me in your mouth, fair Muna!" She obeyed, part of her mind amazed at her easy compliance with his order, while the other part of her brain craved with a strange intensity to do the act. In the few seconds of clarity she had before tumbling into the sensual abyss Skye realized that both the lotion he had massaged her with and the apricot-flavored liquid were aphrodisiacs. Then without another thought for what she was doing, her only desire being for pleasure, she began to run her tongue around the ruby head of his great lance, to lick the length of him with slow and sweet strokes, to take him into the warm cavity of her mouth to nurse upon until she tasted the first salty drops of his juices. Then he wrapped his hand into her dark hair and, pulling her away, groaned, "Enough, houri! You will surely unman me if I allow you to continue."
    Skye whimpered a protest, but Kedar was now ready to couple with her, and he had no intention of being denied what he instinctively knew was going to be an incredible pleasure. Later he would teach her refinements to increase his pleasure; later he would allow her to suck him dry; but not this time. Rolling her onto her back, he mounted her and with one swift motion drove himself into her wet and waiting sheath. Her small cry of pleasure-pain only increased his desire. She was very tight, and he knew that his first assault had hurt her a little, but that would shortly change. With an easy and rhythmic motion he moved himself back and forth, watching through blazing, half-closed eyes her every reaction and listening with a fine-tuned ear to her little mewing cries. Skilled, he knew just how far he might drive her.
    Dear God, how full he fills me! she thought. At first Kedar's great weapon had hurt her, and for a small moment she had wanted to escape him. Then the initial tension flowed from her, and she opened herself to him. She could feel him touching the very walls of her passage, and her womb, and the fire he was fanning within her helpless body was threatening to consume her. "Yesss, yesss!" she urged him on in a husky voice. "Oh, don't stop, my lord! Please don't stop!" She was going to die, but she didn't care. She wanted to die! Then she felt herself shattering into a million tiny starbursts, and all was black.
    Kedar leaned back to watch the woman beneath him. She had reached her first peak, and had fainted away. He, however, was not yet ready to succumb to passion. He could wait. He was an unusual man, and he knew it, having the ability to sustain an erection for long periods of time. He took several deep, long breaths to clear his head while he enjoyed the soft throbbing of her body which enveloped his huge manhood. His hands reached out to fondle her round breasts, taking delight in the silkiness of her skin. Cruelly he pinched her pink nipples, and she moaned, but remained lost to him. He knew the pleasure that pain could occasionally bring, and wondered if she did, but he doubted it. She was delightfully innocent for a nonvirgin, and it was a marvelous combination that stimulated him. Pleasure through pain was another little refinement that they would eventually explore together, he thought with a small smile. Then her breathing told him that she was once again with him.
    "Open your beautiful eyes, Muna."
    Skye, still under the influence of the drugs he had given her, docilely obeyed his voice. Her will was sapped, but her awareness was intensely acute. "You are still within me, my lord," she whispered.
    "We have only begun, fair one," he said as he began again the very voluptuous movement that had driven her mad before. Her eyes began to slide shut, but his sharp voice snapped them open. "No!" he said. "This time you will look into my eyes while I take you, Muna."
    "I can't," she whispered.
    "You will!" came the unrelenting answer. Then he moved swiftly until she knew that she didn't want him to stop, but when her eyes began to close, he ceased the pleasure.
    "No," she whimpered, "don't stop, my lord!"
    "Open your eyes, Muna! I won't stop if you keep your lovely sea-blue eyes open."
    It was a terrible effort, but Skye managed to force her eyes to open, disclosing to him the desire within herself, and Kedar gave a soft, triumphant laugh. "Please," she begged as the sexual stimulants that he had fed her rendered her helpless to him, and to her own lust.
    Slowly he initiated the erotic motion she craved, and obedient to him, her eyes never left his. She felt as if she were drowning in his fiery gaze, knew that her soul was not even her own at this minute. Suddenly he ceased his movements, and she pleaded once more, "No, don't stop, my lord Kedar! Dont!"
    "In a moment, in a moment," he soothed her, "but first if I am to continue to give you this pleasure you must do something for me, fair Muna."
    "Anything!" she sobbed rashly, and he smiled cruelly down at her.
    "You will repeat after me," he said softly, "I am my lord Kedar's slave."
    "I am my lord Kedar's slave," she said quickly, looking eagerly to him for approval.
    He smiled again. "I exist solely for his pleasure."
    "No!" she whimpered, the part of her that was still herself rebelling at his words.
    "Say it! Say, I exist solely for his pleasure, or I shall withdraw from you." He thrust softly into her several times to entice her, and she moaned. "Say it!"
    "I… I exist… solely for his… pleasure."
    "Very good, my beautiful slave," he approved in his deep, purring voice, and then he gave her the pleasure she so desperately desired from him; his lean hips driving deeply against her until her senses exploded once more into fiery fragments of helpless passion. Then, to his surprise, his own love juices burst forth to flood the raging fire within her womb. With a gasp that was half from irritation he rolled from her, amazed to have lost his perfect control. She had beaten him without even realizing it, and he chuckled to himself. It had been a long time since he had enjoyed a woman so very much. By Allah, his uncle had chosen well! With a sigh of total contentment Kedar used the last of his strength to roll her inert body from the divan onto the cushion below where a proper houri belonged. He then stretched himself out, thoroughly satisfied, and quickly fell asleep.

Chapter 8

    “Muna!”
    Through the haziness of her barely conscious mind Skye heard the sharp command in Kedar's voice. She struggled to wake herself, but she was totally exhausted by the previous night's mental and physical battle with him. Still, she tried, for she dare not anger him or displease him before she had gotten to Fez. Shaking herself, she managed to keep her eyes open until they finally began to focus. Only then did she raise her head to him. "My lord?"
    He lay on the couch above her, stretched out on his side. His hazel eyes glittered though but half open, and again Skye was reminded of a sleek feline. "I desire you," he said. "Pleasure me!" He rolled onto his back, and his manhood thrust straight into the cool, early-morning air.
    God's bones! thought Skye irritably. Is the man never sated? She knew, however, what was expected of her. Hiding her annoyance, she pulled herself onto the couch by his feet. Her slender hands caressed his length as she moved herself up his hard body. His legs fell apart as her touch ignited his already inflamed passions, and Skye rose to swing herself over him, her fingers teasing at his nipples. With a groan his hands caught at her hips, and forced her down upon him. His quick penetration was almost painful, and she couldn't help the soft cry that escaped her lips.
    He didn't notice, or if he did it didn't matter to him. What mattered was his own gratification. "Ride me, beautiful Muna," he murmured huskily at her, his eyes closed with enjoyment. "I know that you European women ride upon horses, my exquisite one. Have you ever ridden astride?"
    "Yes, my lord," she answered him.
    "Ahhh," he almost purred, "then think of me as your horse, my beautiful slave. I am the stallion that you ride to the hunt! Ride me well lest I throw you!"
    Skye knew that her performance with him now would be the difference between going and staying. She had to please him, and please him so greatly that she became like a drug to him, a drug that he could not do without. "In my own land, my lord, I was a horsewoman without peer," she whispered back at him provocatively, and then she gripped him tightly between her silken thighs. Balancing herself with her hands on either side of his head she leaned forward, brushing her breasts across his lips while her hips began the love rhythm. She moved on him slowly, teasingly, with tantalizing motion, and Kedar suddenly felt he was not totally in control of the situation.
    "Lean back, Muna," he commanded her tensely.
    "As my lord wills," she answered softly, but there was a mocking tone to her voice that he did not fail to catch.
    The little bitch! he thought angrily. She dares to seek to best me in this battle. Reaching up, he grasped her two beautiful breasts in his hands and gently crushed her soft flesh over and over again, until she began to squirm and moan, losing the rhythm.
    Skye was furious at him. She sought to intrigue him, to rouse his passions, and he took it as an affront to his masculinity. She attempted to regain control of the situation by running her hands over his chest, but Kedar growled at her. "No, Muna! Domination is my right, not yours." He lifted her off him, and set her next to him.
    "I but sought to please you, my lord," she protested.
    "I forgive you," he said smoothly, and Skye seethed as he continued: "You are as my uncle has said, unschooled. I will enjoy teaching you how to be an obedient slave, my fair Muna. Lay on your belly now. I would relieve my lust for you." He pushed her gently over and, mounting her, effected a quick rear entry before she could even protest. He filled her sheath totally, moving smoothly to sate his own desires. He held her down with his hands on her hips, but other than that did not touch her. When his desire had burst within her he withdrew, leaving her aching with her lack of satisfaction.
    Skye shuddered with actual physical pain. Her own desire was high, and she did not know how to satisfy it. She knew that Kedar had done this to her deliberately, to teach her that he was the master and she the slave. With a frustrated sob she began to weep softly, unable to contain herself. Her cries brought her mercy, for his ego was instantly gratified by her tears.
    He rolled her onto her back again, and gently caressed her belly, but rather than ease her sexual tension the seductive motion only increased it. With a wicked smile he leaned across her to the gold basket and drew forth an object. "Here," he said, "this will ease your suffering, my beautiful Muna," and he pressed it into her hands.
    Skye opened her eyes, and then gasped with shock. "What is it?" she demanded of him, thrusting the thing from her.
    Kedar picked it up and looked upon it with a critical eye. "It has been made to exact specification," he said. "It is very prized by the women in my harem. I cannot, you will understand, pleasure them all at the same time." He let his eye move over the object again, and then said, "It is quite accurate in both size and shape, Muna. It is called a dildo. Take it in your hands, my beautiful slave, and use it. It will ease your distress."
    Skye looked upon the dildo as if it were a viper. As Kedar had said, it was shaped and sized as he was. It was carved of ivory, and complete in every detail from the circumcised head of the penis to the veins all the way down its length. At the base of the dildo had been inserted a polished wooden stick by which the user could grip it.
    “Take the ivory," he commanded her softly.
    "No!" She was horrified.
    “Take the ivory, Muna," he repeated, and she heard the menace in his voice.
    "Please," she pleaded, hoping that he would relent; but she realized that if he didn't she was going to have to obey him. She could not displease him. She had to get to Fez! She had to free Niall!
    He saw the weakening in her defiance. “Take the ivory," he said. "I want to watch you while you use it." His hand moved over her belly again, fanning the fires within her.
    Skye shuddered, and then she picked up the dildo with shaking fingers. She was terribly embarrassed. "I have never seen such a thing, let alone used one," she said. "I don't know where to begin, my lord."
    Kedar sat up facing her, his back to the velvet-covered wall, his legs crossed tailor-fashion. Leaning forward, he pushed a pillow beneath her hips. "Open your legs," he commanded her, and when she had complied he began to stroke and rub at the very core of her femininity. "You're very beautiful there," he murmured softly, his hazel eyes watching the movement of his hand on her moist sensitivity. "I possess many beautiful women in my harem, but I have never seen any woman as fair as you in so many ways. I would have all of you, my fair Muna."
    Skye shuddered again as his clever fingers stoked her fires. Her instinct was to flee from this man, this terrible man who indeed wanted all of her, even that which she had never given to any man. It was a dangerous game she had elected to play, and now there was no going back. His fingers were having the desired effect, and she moaned low in her passion. "Please, my lord, please take me," she begged him, knowing that he would refuse, would impress his iron will on her.
    "Use the ivory!" came the excited command. "Use the ivory!"
    "Please, my lord! Not that! You take me!" There was a frantic sound to her voice, and Kedar smiled to himself.
    "Use the ivory, Muna! I am the ivory, and I command it!" Allah! he thought. The sight of her sweet sex aroused and honied and eager inflamed him more than he had anticipated. Still, he would force her to his will lest she believe she could control and wheedle him at her desire.
    Drawing a deep breath, Skye thrust the ivory into her body, gasping as the smooth, cold length of it slid into her. Through her half-closed eyes she could see Kedar watching her with obvious enjoyment, his hazel eyes darting from her face to her hands as they worked the dildo. The ivory did nothing to ease her discomfort, but still she moaned and thrashed her head about, knowing he expected a good show. Kedar, however, was not entirely fooled. He could see that the dildo was not having the effect that he had hoped for, and so he leaned forward once again to tease the pink pearl of her womanhood. It was as if he had touched her with fire. Her hands fell from the ivory as she moaned in earnest this time, and Kedar took up where she had left off, one hand playing with her tiny jewel, the other working the ivory dildo. She quickly cried out her release, and he immediately withdrew the dildo from her.
    “There, beautiful Muna, that was not so terrible," he purred at her, fondling her quivering breasts. "Now I shall reward you, my exquisite, blue-eyed slave. You have been very good, beautiful Muna; very, very good." Kedar slid his hard body over Skye, and drove into her. “There, my pet, is that not better? I should not spoil you, but I cannot resist you at this moment."
    She had barely descended from the mountain only to have him once more force her back up it. She whimpered a small protest that made him laugh softly, and then his mouth was closing over hers in a searing kiss. Again the panic gripped her as she felt herself out of control, but Kedar was not aware of her fear. He parted her lips and sucked upon her tongue while his lean hips thrust again and again until they both reached perfection.
    He had swept her along with his own passion, and now she lay panting and drained. The fear had left her when he had released her. He lay next to her now, equally spent, his breathing ragged. Finally he said hoarsely, "Dear Allah, how you have destroyed me, Muna! Go now and leave me, exquisite slave. I would rest."
    Skye could barely drag herself from the couch, but she knew that she had to get out of the room. She needed to be by herself in order to recover her own strength. On shaking legs she slowly exited, having first gathered up her pantaloons and bolero and quickly dressed. Stumblingly she made her way back to the women's quarters in another wing of the house, and finding her own rooms, she fell across her bed, instantly asleep from the strain and shock. Sleep was the best medicine for her, thought Osman, who had been visiting his wife, and had seen Skye as she passed by Alima's rooms.
    The famous astrologer went to his library and, seating himself comfortably, began to contemplate the entire situation. He knew the kind of man that his nephew was, but he also knew that Skye was strong enough to survive Kedar's carnality. In the two days since Skye had arrived back in Algiers he had completely done her natal chart, as well as that of Niall Burke. Lord Burke's had been quite straightforward, but Skye's chart was amazing; according to his calculations, she had barely begun to live. It would not, however, be all to her liking; but then she had a strong and old soul. Skye O'Malley would survive, whatever the odds.
    Osman had also studied his nephew's natal chart quite carefully, for Kedar figured so importantly in this matter. Kedar was strong, and his stars were equally strong, but the influences controlling Skye's chart were far more powerful, and Osman knew that she would be able to control her own destiny even in his nephew's hands. A small smile played about the astrologer's mouth and crinkled the corners of his eyes. He imagined that right now the exhausted Skye was yet in shock after a night with Kedar. Osman had to admit that his nephew was the most sexual man he had ever known, and his capacity for women was legendary even in Fez. Still, once Skye recovered from her initial trauma and her survival instincts surfaced, she would be formidable. Osman felt almost sorry for Kedar. He knew that his nephew had never been in love, and he hoped that Skye would not arouse that emotion in him. He did not want to hurt him. It was difficult being torn between such a good friend as Skye and his family.
    Osman emptied his mind now of all thought, and relaxing his body, he began to meditate. Alima found him that way some time later in the morning. Gently she shook her husband, understanding what it was he did. The life came slowly back into the astrologer's eyes, and smiling up at his lovely wife, he said, "Kedar is awake, and wishes to know if I will eat the midday meal with him."
    Alima laughed and shook her head at him. "I don't know why I even bothered to come and get you," she said. "Couldn't you at least humor me by pretending that you don't know what I have to say before I even speak?"
    "You are too easy," he teased her back. "Your mind is like crystal to me. I know all where you are concerned, my love."
    "All?” Alima smiled provocatively at her husband.
    "Woman, your thoughts are much too immodest!" Osman pretended displeasure, but Alima was not one bit fooled.
    "It will be a long, hot afternoon, my husband, and I will wager that your nephew will not waste it idly."
    Osman chuckled, and then he asked, "How is Muna?"
    "At this moment her thoughts of you are not entirely kindly, my lord. She is in the baths. She would speak with you, she says, before Kedar calls her to him again."
    Osman nodded. "I can enter the women's quarters without any question since this is my house. When she is safely back in her own chamber, Alima, then send for me. We three will speak together. It is better you be with us, as there is no true privacy for us and your presence, my wife, will divert suspicion."
    Alima nodded. "I will arrange everything, my lord," she said, and then left him.
    Osman rose from the cushions and went to find Kedar. He was curious as to what his nephew had to say about the new slave girl, Muna. Kedar had bathed earlier, and now lay stretched out upon his couch while his personal body slave, a giant black named Dagan, massaged him. Seeing his uncle, he waved the slave away and pulled a length of cloth about his loins. Osman noted Kedar's powerful chest and muscled arms. He was in excellent physical condition, which, considering his appetites, Osman thought, was amazing. Youth, he decided, was obviously the key.
    "Uncle!" Kedar's greeting was enthusiastic. "How do I thank you for Muna? She is incredible, magnificent! I have not enjoyed a woman so in years!"
    "I am pleased to have given you such pleasure with so small a trifle as a slave girl, my nephew."
    Kedar grinned. "You were right, of course. She is quite unschooled, but she is intelligent, I can see, and will be easily trained despite the streak of stubbornness I find in her. Firmness is the key to managing a woman. Firmness and discipline. One should never be afraid to punish even a beautiful creature like Muna."
    "You did not punish her?" Osman tried to keep the nervousness from his voice. “The girl cost me a pretty penny, Kedar."
    "Allah, no!" Kedar laughed. "I'm afraid I grow weak with age, Uncle. I could not destroy that gorgeous skin she possesses. If Muna should ever become recalcitrant I shall have to think of a way to punish her without using the lash. No, but she sought to defy me a little last night, and I was forced to be quite firm. She responded well, and became quite pliant afterward."
    "Yes," Osman answered, "I suspect that reason will always overcome any outbursts on Muna's part. Tell me, nephew, how long will you be with me this trip? We had so little time to speak last night, so eager were you to have the slave girl. I understood, of course. Your trip from Fez was a long and lonely one."
    "I am no longer lonely," Kedar smiled. "I shall probably stay with you a good month or more, Uncle. I have a great deal of business to conduct while I am here in Algiers, and now that you have made me so comfortable I am in no hurry to depart."
    The two men chuckled companionably and, after a few more minutes of idle conversation, ate a light repast. Then Osman excused himself and hurried to the women's quarters. He found both his wife and Skye awaiting him in Skye's bedchamber. "Good day, my daughter," he said calmly.
    Skye glowered at Osman, and then a small smile touched her lips. "I cannot say that you did not warn me that he was a lustful man, Osman," she said, "but you did not tell me that he was built like a bull, and totally insatiable. I am exhausted, having been at his tender mercy this past night. Still, I know that it is the only way for me to reach Fez, to free my husband. Now, however, we must speak seriously."
    Osman nodded. "You have doubts, I know."
    "You are certain that your younger nephew, Hamal, will aid me in rescuing Niall? If the boy truly loves his princess perhaps he will have had second thoughts by now."
    "I am in constant touch with Hamal, Muna." He looked closely at her. "But if Hamal should change his mind, my daughter, what would you do? You would not, I know, leave your husband to languish in the princess's harem."
    "No, Osman, I would not. I should find a way."
    "I know," came the answer. "It is your fate to travel to Fez."
    "Is it my fate to return, Osman?" Skye's glance was a candid one.
    "You will see your green land again, my daughter," was his reply. "Now tell me what else it is that troubles you."
    "It is your nephew, Osman. He is a frighteningly possessive man. Will he allow me any measure of freedom or will I find myself walled up in his harem?"
    "I will speak to him, Muna. He has told me that he intends to stay a month here in Algiers. I will convince him of the need to allow you to move about the city, properly attired, of course."
    "He plans to stay a month? Osman, can you not convince him to spend less time here? You yourself said that every minute counts!"
    "He is just arrived yesterday, my daughter. I can hardly send him back today. I do not know what his business is, but I shall soon learn it. Perhaps then I may speed his affairs along, and you will return to Fez at an earlier date. Be patient, my daughter. You have yet to learn that everything will take place in its own time, and not a moment before."
    A knock sounded upon the door, and a slave girl put her head into the room. "The lord Kedar has sent his slave, Dagan, to bring Muna to him."
    Skye nodded. "I will come," she said, and the girl departed the room. Skye rose. "It is barely two hours after noon," she said, making a small moue with her mouth. "I did manage to get six hours' sleep. Heaven only knows how long it will have to last me!"
    "He will probably leave you this evening to have dinner with friends and conduct some business," Osman said reassuringly.
    "He will return though, old friend, and he will expect me to be eagerly awaiting him."
    "And you will," Osman said quietly.
    "Yes," Skye replied. "I will." Then she was gone from the room, and Alima looked to her husband with troubled eyes.
    "Will she be all right, my husband? We should ill repay the kindness of the late Khalid el Bey should we put her in any danger."
    "You are a gentle flower, my Alima," Osman said, "but for all her delicate looks Skye is tempered of as fine a steel as the Toledo blade. She cannot be broken or bent. She will survive, never fear."
    While Osman reassured his wife, Skye was following the huge Dagan through the house back to Kedar's chambers. The few hours' sleep and the steam of the bath had combined to give her a radiant glow. Her cheeks were flushed rose, and her eyes sparkled like a fine Ceylon sapphire. She wore a simple gauze caftan of turquoise blue, and her black hair had been braided into one thick plait and dressed with tiny freshwater pearls and silver lame ribbons.
    Kedar's eyes lit up at the sight of her. He reminded her of a panther contemplating its meal, and Skye suppressed a small shiver as she slipped to her knees, bent forward, and touched her forehead to his slipper. "Rise, Muna," he said, pulling her eagerly up to him. "Dear Allah, how is it possible that you are so radiant?" His mouth descended quickly upon hers, and Skye slid her arms about him, pressing her lush form against him. Kedar shuddered, and pulled away in surprise. "No woman has ever done that to me," he said, looking at her curiously.
    "I did not mean to displease you, my lord," she said meekly.
    "I know that, beautiful one. I am simply surprised at myself. I thought having sated myself upon your beautiful body just several hours ago I would be replete. No woman has ever touched me as you have, and I find, however, that I am not."
    "You have but to command me, my lord Kedar."
    A slow smile lit his features, and he turned to the black slave who stood awaiting his master's commands. "Well, Dagan, did my uncle not present me with a perfect jewel?"
    "Yes, master. The lord Osman was most generous."
    Kedar turned to Skye. "And you, my fair Muna. What do you think of Dagan? He has been with me for ten years now, and I trust him with my life."
    "I did not speak to the man, my lord, not knowing if it was permitted."
    Kedar laughed. "Dagan is not a man, my beautiful slave. He is a eunuch. I should not allow him near you were he not gelded." He turned to the slave. "Stay, Dagan. I want to give Muna the lesson I give all the women I take into my harem."
    The black man smiled broadly. "Yes, master!"
    Kedar gently began to unbutton the little pearl buttons that held together the halves of Skye's caftan. When they were all undone he pushed the gown off her shoulders, and it silently slid to the floor. She stood very still while his hands wandered casually over her breasts. "Each woman, my fair Muna, should have something to fear. Most of the women in my harem fear the lash should they displease me, but your skin is so incredibly lovely that I would never mark it. It was therefore necessary to devise a punishment that you would fear, and I have decided on the bastinado. Have you ever suffered this form of chastisement?"
    "No, my lord." She knew of the bastinado, of course, but never had Khalid used such cruelty.
    "Then you cannot be fearful of that which you do not know. I intend to give you a lesson in the bastinado now, my fair Muna. You will then understand and be afraid. You will also comprehend that if you should at any time displease me, you will be put to this discipline." Kedar turned to Dagan. "I will hold her," he said, and then he instructed Skye in a quiet voice. "I want you to lay upon your back on the floor and elevate your legs upon these pillows."
    Skye was terrified. "My lord," she pleaded with him, "please do not do this!"
    For a moment he was tender, gathering her into his arms and crooning to her. “There, my jewel, of course you are frightened, but I will not excuse you this lesson. Only when you have felt the pain can you be truly afraid. Only then will I have a deterrent to unruly behavior. Come, Muna, it will only be five strokes. Were I really punishing you it would be twenty or more, depending upon your offense." He drew her down to the rug, kneeling with her, positioning her with great care. Then he sat across her hips and, leaning forward, held her slender legs in a firm grasp. "Begin, Dagan," he commanded the black.
    The sharpness of the first blow caused her to cry out. Over Kedar's bowed head Dagan grinned cruelly down at her as he administered the second fierce blow. This time Skye shrieked in earnest. "Please, my lord Kedar! Please, no more! No more!" Kedar was, however, a man of his word, and the third, fourth, and fifth blows fell upon the tender, now burning soles of her feet, the pain so intense that Skye fainted, taking the only escape open to her.
    She was unconscious but a few moments, awakening to Kedar's purring voice. “There, my jewel, now you know the price of offending me, do you not?"
    "Yes, my lord," she managed to whisper.
    "Repeat the words I taught you last night, fair Muna."
    Skye shivered. She knew exactly what he wanted her to say, and every fiber of her being rebelled against saying those words. Still, she was now quite terrified of the bastinado, and realized that should she really displease him, he would not hesitate for a moment to use it again. She rolled onto her stomach, and from there into a kneeling position, her dark head touching the rug. "I am my lord Kedar's slave," she said low. "I exist solely for his pleasure."
    Above her, Kedar smiled, satisfied, and raised her up to face him. "You learn quickly, my jewel," he said approvingly. "I believe you will eventually become my favorite." Tenderly he brushed a tear from her cheek. “There now, fair Muna, there is naught to cry about. You please me mightily." He smiled down on her, and then drew her over to the awninged couch. She was shivering with shock, and he pulled her gently down upon the couch with him, wrapping his arms around her. "Dagan, fetch refreshments," he commanded his slave.
    Skye was suddenly very aware of her nudity. "Please, my lord, may I have my garment?"
    "Do not be embarrassed before Dagan, my jewel. It means nothing to him, and I prefer you like this for now." He kissed her lightly, absently caressing her breasts. "You are so beautiful," he murmured. "Your skin is so flawless, so perfect."
    They were words she was to hear over and over again during the next few weeks. She fascinated and consumed him with her beauty. He cared for nothing else. He rarely spoke to her on any subject of importance; his words being those of her master, her lover. Her days took on a pattern of sameness. She slept the morning away, went to him in early afternoon after visiting the baths, left in late afternoon, slept again, bathed, ate supper alone or with Alima, and sometimes Osman, then awaited Kedar's return from his business and social rounds late in the evening. She then spent the entire night with him, departing in early morning for her own rooms. As a lover, he was insatiable, and totally unlike any man she had ever known. He cared only for his own pleasure, and took her with great gusto at least three times each night, and very often as many as six. He never seemed to tire of exploring, caressing, and kissing her.
    Skye was frankly frightened of Kedar. He was a man of mercurial temperament, and she feared offending him. The threat of the bastinado was a real and terrifying one to her. Still, she sought ways in which to intrigue him, for she did not want him to grow bored with her. She found that quick changes of mood on her part interested him greatly; and so she was shy one moment, daring the next. She knew he particularly enjoyed her reactions to his lovemaking, and so even when he moved too quickly to arouse her she pretended great passion. It stroked his ego, and he rumbled his contentment like the great cat she pictured him. "You are perfection,'' he would murmur against her ear. "Sweet, honeyed perfection!" More often than not she would shiver at his words.

***

    The day before they left Algiers for Fez, Osman came to Skye's chambers in the women's quarters. He felt some guilt for the faint purple circles under her eyes, but there was a new air of determination about her that he had never seen before. "I have had word from Hamal, my daughter. He says you are to come ahead. Your Niall still lives."
    “Thank God!" Skye breathed fervently.
    "Skye," it was the first time he had called her by her own name in weeks. "I am quite frankly worried about your effect upon Kedar. If you had set out to enchant him-and I know you have not-you could not have done a better job of it. He can speak of nothing but you and your beauty when he is with me. If I did not know better I should say he is falling in love with you, and that, my daughter, must not happen! I knew his reputation, of course, but frankly, until now I was not fully aware of his appetites. I wonder if I have not set you too hard a task."
    "You have said it yourself, Osman. There is no other choice. Niall is alive, and I will not rest until I have freed him. How could I, knowing what I know, return to my former life? There is only one way to Fez for me, and I am already on that road. Why do you fret so? Have my stars changed suddenly, Osman?"
    "No, they have not changed. You will always attain your heart's desire, Skye, though the road to it be roughly paved, though you yourself may not even know what it is you want. In the end you will gain your goals. In this have you been singularly blessed."
    “Then tomorrow I leave for Fez," Skye said quietly.
    "Does he abuse you?" Osman flushed at the boldness of his own words to her, but he was truly distressed at the situation in which he had placed her. He had never seen his nephew so consumed by anything, let alone a woman. Then, too, Alima had mentioned that Skye had an occasional bruise, and marks on her body that might possibly indicate that Kedar was mistreating her.
    "Your nephew is enthusiastic in his wooing of me," Skye said wryly. "No, he has not actually hurt me, although he has threatened me with the bastinado should I misbehave. He illustrated that threat with a sample of that particular punishment. He does not, you see, want to mark my skin with a lash. His small lesson was a warning that my behavior should always be decorous. I will admit, Osman, that he frightens me."
    "Allah curse him! I shall speak to him this day, my daughter." Osman was angry, and his eyes blazed as Skye had never seen them blaze, for he had always been a gentle man toward her.
    "Osman!" Her voice was tight with warning. "You cannot tell him how to treat his possession, and you know it. You presented me to him as a gift, and you know that the only justice for a slave is that which the master gives. Right now Kedar, for all his fierceness, adores me, but he is not stupid. Interfere and he will wonder why. He might even grow jealous, and I dare not have that."
    Osman sighed, resigned. "You are correct, my daughter. I have allowed my paternal feelings for you to cloud my own judgment. Do not fear, Skye. Whatever happens I will get you out of Fez when you choose to leave. I will not permit you to languish in my nephew's harem. That is most certainly not your fate!"
    Skye gave him a mischievous smile that touched his heart. He had not seen her smile in some days now. "I should hope not, my old friend, although, quite frankly, I will welcome reaching Kedar's harem. Perhaps when he has all his women available to him again he will not use me so ffequently. I never thought to grow tired of lovemaking, Osman, but, dear Heaven, I have! Your nephew's prowess is surely unequaled for he can make love the entire night without ceasing, and seems not to suffer from the lack of sleep as I certainly do!"
    Osman shook his head sympathetically. "It is said that he had his first woman at the age of ten. My late sister was shocked, but her husband thought it a marvelous thing to have sired so randy an heir, especially since Kedar was his only child at the time."
    "Does Kedar have any children?" Skye asked. "He never speaks of his women, but then he rarely speaks with me at all except to command me to his will."
    "Although he has no wives, he does have several offspring, but unlike most Fasi men, he seems to care little for them. I don't even think that he could tell you their names, ages, or sex. He does not care for children, I believe." Osman decided it would be wise to say nothing of the fact that Kedar had confided in his uncle that he wished to have children by Muna. Skye had enough to worry about, and as long as she had her special potion she would not conceive. "You do have your special potion?" he asked her worriedly. "Do you have enough to last you several months, my daughter?"
    "I have just made a fresh batch. Kedar allowed me to go with Alima to the marketplace, and I was able to obtain the ingredients that I need. It looks and smells like a fragrance, and will be thought to be such, Osman.
    "It amused Kedar to let me visit the market. He loved the idea that I might wander at will and no one would know what a 'delicious morsel' I am, to quote him. No one can tell who I am when I am dressed in my yashmak and veiled. Kedar tells me the marketplaces in Fez are legendary."
    "You will enjoy them, my daughter. The merchant in you will delight at the variety of goods available. Remember to buy with an open hand. You are the favorite of the lord Kedar, and he will be generous with you. Buy gifts for the other women and children in the harem often, and you will quickly make friends."
    "I am not going to Fez to make friends, Osman."
    "Nonetheless you do not want to make enemies of any of Kedar's other women. Women can be vicious when jealous, my daughter. Have you so quickly forgotten Yasmin? Be charming and friendly, and above all be generous. You do not know when you will need a friend, even in Kedar's harem."
    "None of his women would dare to betray him, Osman. He is a man quick to punish an offense real or imagined. And no one will risk his lash for me, be I generous or not. He beat one of his favorites to death, you know. Still, I will take your advice and be friendly."
    "I will rest easier knowing that, Skye," was Osman's reply. He rose up from the divan as she did, and taking her hands in his said, "Go with Allah's blessing, my daughter. He will not fail to hear your prayers, for your mission is a just one. One bit of advice, and one only I give to you. Consider carefully before you act. Do not allow fear or enthusiasm to drive you to any rashness. You will survive!"
    She looked into his wonderful and mysterious eyes, and for a brief moment she felt swept away. She knew as she gazed into their depths that she would indeed survive, and something akin to exultation poured over her. She would succeed in her rescue of Niall! They would return home to Ireland, and happily raise their children as they grew old together! Skye found her voice. 'Thank you, Osman, my old friend. Thank you!" Putting her arms about his neck, she kissed him on the cheek.
    The astrologer actually blushed, but nonetheless he hugged her back. Then without another word he left her. "Farewell, my friend," she called after him, and Osman turned. The look in his eyes was a tender one. "Farewell, my daughter," he answered softly. As she watched him go Skye wondered if she should ever see him again after she departed Algiers tomorrow.

***

    Despite the fact that they were to leave for Fez in the very early morning, Kedar did not change his habits at all that night. If anything, his excitement over leaving Algiers increased his appetite for Skye… He loved to lie nude, propped up by the multicolored pillows, his legs spread, while she knelt between his limbs, her buttocks on her heels, her arms out for balance, her long dark hair loose about her. His hands would hold his penis up while she would administer to him with her mouth, her tongue, her little teeth. Soon he would have no need to brace his manhood, and she would obediently roll onto her back to receive him.
    When he had taken her three times that night she dared to beg him, "No more, my lord, else I cannot rise to leave for Fez."
    A growl of laughter was his answer, but he left her alone to sleep on the pillow below his couch until just before the dawn, when his foot prodded her awake. In a surprisingly thoughtful gesture, he said, "If you wish to bathe, Muna, go now and do so. There will be little chance for a civilized bath for the next month. Occasionally we may camp by a spring, but unless I can guarantee you total privacy you will not be able to avail yourself of it."
    Skye scrambled to her feet. "Thank you, my lord," she said, catching up her caftan and putting it about her as she hurried from the room lest he change his mind and his lust get the better of him.
    "Wait!"
    She turned, thinking, Dear God, not again.
    "I have a small gift for you," he said. "When you have bathed be sure to put it on." He held out an object.
    "Thank you, my lord," she said softly as she took it. "A bracelet. How lovely!"
    "No, an anklet. I had it specially made for you. Once you put it on it cannot be removed except it be cut off. Go now!"
    Skye left the room fingering the anklet as she went. It was a slender circle of pure gold, engraved with several Arabic letters and a delicate geometric pattern. Here and there amid the pattern was a tiny sapphire imbedded in the gold. It was really quite beautiful.
    Hurrying to her room, she awoke her own slave woman, Zada, and sent her off to instruct the bath woman Nigera and her helpers. Zada had been her first gift from Kedar. He had escorted her, properly garbed so that only the merest slit of her eyes showed, to the slave market to purchase a servant for her. He had thought to buy her a European woman so she would not be lonely. It had been a very kind gesture on his part, but Skye had insisted she preferred a young Arab girl. Had he insisted upon the European, she would have felt guilty leaving the woman in in Fez when she and Niall escaped. The Arab girl, however, would be reassigned a new mistress and no harm would be done.
    "They await you in the baths, mistress." Zada had returned.
    Skye nodded, and went off to bathe. When she returned Zada had laid out the garments in which she would travel. Silently she put on the long, cream-colored silk chemise, a pale-beige djellabah embroidered in brown silk thread and tiny topaz, and soft, brown kidskin slippers. The djellabah was hooded, and had long sleeves. Before Zada raised the hood and fastened the gold gauze veil across Skye's face, she brushed her mistress's long dark hair and dressed it with narrow gold ribbons in the single braid that Skye favored. "Go to my lord Kedar," Skye said, "and say that I beg his permission because of the heat of the day to put aside my yashmak."
    Zada obediently followed her mistress's instructions, and returned several minutes later to say, “The master says you must wear the yashmak as far as the cart. You may remove it before you enter the vehicle, but not until then."
    "Very well," Skye answered. "Fetch the lady Alima to me now, Zada. I would say my good-byes."
    Zada once more hurried out, returning several minutes later with Alima. Skye then dismissed the slave girl, telling her to see to her own last-minute preparations. "I think she spies for Dagan, who reports everything I do to Kedar," Skye said, amused.
    "He is so frighteningly possessive of you," Alima returned. "Must you go, my lady Skye?" Alima spoke French so that anyone listening would not understand her words.
    “There is no other way for me, Alima. If Osman were in the same position as my husband is, would you not try to aid him? How can I return to my home knowing that Niall is alive. How can I face our children with such knowledge on my conscience. Better they lose both of us than I return to them leaving their father behind in bondage."
    "You love him very much, don't you?"
    "Yes, Alima. I love Niall with every fiber of my being! I will not rest until we are safely together again."
    "Be careful, my lady Skye," Alima begged her. "Make no move unless you are absolutely certain that Kedar will not catch you. He is a very cruel man, as you already have learned."
    "Yes," Skye said, shuddering as she remembered the bastinado. "He is very cruel. Yet, Alima, he can also be kind. See the anklet that he had made for me? It is quite lovely." Skye handed the narrow golden circle to Alima. "You read Arabic. What has he written on it?"
    Alima took the anklet and studied it carefully. As her eyes moved across the Arabic script her face darkened. "He is a beast!" she muttered. "He makes a charming gesture, and then ruins it with his ego!"
    "What does it say?" Skye demanded.
    Alima looked up at Skye, and said quietly, "It says Muna, Property of Kedar."
    "I will not wear it!" Skye stormed.
    "You have no choice, my lady," Alima said sadly. "It is the bracelet of a privileged slave. Once you fasten the clasp about your ankle the only way you will be able to remove it is if a goldsmith saws it off." She handed Skye back the anklet.
    Skye's eyes were dark with anger, and she longed to throw the offending gold circle onto the nearest trash heap. She knew, however, that she dare not. Bending down, she fastened the bracelet about her right ankle. She knew the punishment for offending Kedar, and she had no wish to ever taste the bastinado again.
    As she rose up again her eyes met the sympathetic ones of Alima. "You are far braver than I could ever be," Osman's wife said.
    Skye shrugged. "As you have said, I have no choice."
    "Mistress, it is time to go." Zada had materialized from wherever she had been.
    "Get the yashmak then, Zada. Hurry! We must not keep the master waiting." She looked at Alima, and there was mischief in her blue-green eyes again. "You don't think she speaks French, do you?"
    Alima laughed. "Never. She's just a little Berber girl, one of too many daughters in her family. They sold her off. That's what she told Nigera." Then Alima's face grew serious and, stepping forward, she hugged Skye hard. "Be careful, my lady, and Allah go with you!"
    Skye hugged Osman's wife back. "I shall endeavor to be careful, Alima. Thank you for all your hospitality, and don't stop your prayers, I beg you. I shall need them!"
    Then Zada was busding about her, importantly pulling up the hood of the djellabah, fastening the veil about her face, helping her into a black silk yashmak whose hood fell to just below her eyebrows, and adding a second black silk veil.
    "You will smother me," Skye protested.
    "Dagan says the master insists you be properly veiled," was the prim reply.
    Skye gritted her teeth and grew silent. There was no arguing, for although she was Kedar's favorite concubine, she was as much a slave as Zada and Dagan. There was no appeal of the master's word. She stood quietly while the slave girl went about the job of thoroughly muffling her, and when Zada had finished Skye looked to Alima, merriment suddenly filling her eyes at the silliness of the situation. "I don't know who he thinks will see me between here and your courtyard that I must be so encased," Skye said in French.
    "It is simply another instance of his impressing his will upon you, my lady Skye," was the answer.
    "We must not keep the master waiting," Zada said.
    Skye and Alima embraced a final time, and then Skye followed her slave girl from the bedchamber, through the house that had once been hers, and into the main courtyard, where Kedar's vast caravan was nearly assembled. The Fasi merchant had brought a rich cargo to Algiers from the interior, and now he was returning with an equally lavish one. There were numerous pack animals, donkeys, and camels, all laden down with the goods. The train was to be escorted by a large group of armed and mounted mercenaries who had come from Fez with Kedar, and would now return with him.
    The caravan would travel at a brisk pace during the day, but at night they would stop and set up their tents in order to eat and rest the animals. They would travel approximately twenty miles each day, following the caravan track that led through a narrow piece of land that was bordered by the Adas Mountains. It was dangerous by virtue of the bandits who preyed upon poorly guarded caravans. Kedar had never lost so much as a camel in all his years of traveling the route, for he was willing to spend the monies necessary to hire enough guards to protect him and his goods. It was a poor economy, Kedar believed, to stint on protection only to lose a valuable cargo.
    Skye traveled in a covered cart drawn by two sturdy donkeys. The inside of the vehicle had been quilted in red silk and fitted with two dark blue pallets. Dagan drove while Skye was forced to remain within the cart with Zada. Her only escape from total boredom was the opportunity to look out through the gauze drapery veiling over the back of the cart. When she became tired of sight-seeing she could sleep. She had little in common with Zada, whose only concern in life seemed to be beautifying her mistress in order to retain Kedar's devotion so they both might get ahead in the harem. Zada often sat up front with Dagan, chatting for hours with him about Kedar's house in Fez.
    Dagan believed he saw the handwriting on the wall. Never in his ten years with his master had he seen Kedar so obsessed with anything, let alone a woman. This one, Dagan decided, could end up being Kedar's first and only wife. Consequently he took the time to make friends with the ambitious Zada. Best to have a friend in the future mistress's camp. Even Kedar might be softened and influenced by a wife.
    The trip gave Skye some respite from Kedar's possessive passion, for she only saw him for a short time each night. During the day he rode at the head of his caravan, his sharp hazel-colored eyes watching the hills around them and the trail ahead, never missing anything. He ate the midday meal with his men, although sometimes he would come by her cart afterward to see that all was well with his beautiful slave. He ate his evening meal alone, or with one of the senior men among his mercenaries. When the camp was quiet for the night, the fires burning in lonely splendor and the pickets alert and watchful, then would Kedar take his own pleasure.
    In a curtained-off portion of Kedar's tent they slept upon soft down and feather mattresses covered in scarlet velvet. Having eaten alone herself, and then washed in a small wooden tub as best she might, Skye was expected to await her master within the alcove. When he came he would take her twice, and then fall immediately into a deep sleep. For Skye it was a relief, for Kedar's only interest was in satisfying his natural and normal lust with these brief encounters. She might have been anyone, and his attitude gave her hope that his desire for her was now waning as they grew nearer Fez, and his large harem.

***

    When they were a week from their destination they met with another party of heavily guarded merchants coming from Fez and going to the coast. Most of the men were known to Kedar, and it was decided that they would eat together that night. Already several young kids had been butchered, and were roasting over the cookfires. They had met up with the other group in late afternoon, and so had stopped early, setting up their tents in an open place by a cold mountain stream. Skye was allowed to bathe in the stream, and she delightedly washed her long hair which, despite Zada's care and brushing, was filled with trail dust. Even the prissy Zada was pleased, and afterward brushed attar of roses into Skye's damp tresses.
    They returned the few feet to the tent to find Kedar awaiting them. His eyes swept over her, lighting with pleasure at the cloud-soft billow of her fragrant hair. "I want you to dance for my guests tonight," he said. "Do you know the Dance of the Veils?"
    "Yes, my lord." Skye was extremely surprised. He was always so strict about shielding her from other men's eyes, and yet he was now asking her to dance before his friends.
    "You will dance it then, my jewel, and wear your hair loose like it is now."
    "My lord, do you think it wise to display me before others?"
    "Are you questioning me, Muna?" His voice was suddenly menacing.
    "My lord, I only thought…" she began.
    " You thought? Slaves do not think, Muna. They obey, and although I have given you an order, you are attempting to defy me."
    "No, no, my lord! I would not disobey you, I swear it!" Skye was becoming frightened now, and she desperately attempted to placate him. He was in one of those moods where the least thing set him off.
    "I think, my jewel, that you need a lesson in deportment." Reaching out, he trailed his fingers in leisurely fashion down her cheek, but his eyes were cold with anger. "You have displeased me, Muna."
    Skye shuddered at his touch, and beside her she heard Zada suck in her breath. "Please, my lord!" she whispered, tears filling her eyes.
    "Dagan! Get the rods." His voice was toneless.
    Skye's heart began to hammer wildly, and she slid to her knees, reaching out to wrap herself about his legs. "Please, my lord, not the bastinado! I am my lord Kedar's slave. I exist solely for his pleasure! Please, my lord!" Her voice was frantic with pleading, but in her heart Skye hated Kedar with every fiber of her being. She wanted to take a knife and plunge it into his heart! That he could torture her so cruelly both mentally and physically was appalling to her. Niall! She silently cried out to him. Niall!
    Kedar shook himself loose of her clinging arms. She was pulled roughly to her feet, and her caftan ripped off, exposing her nudity beneath. Then she was once more slammed down on her back upon the floor of the tent. Two slaves were called to hold her shoulders and arms down, and a round ottoman piled with pillows was shoved against her to force her long legs upward. Two additional slaves were called to hold her legs steady, and Zada was ordered to sit across her mistress's hips to hold her down. Skye was already sobbing with terror, and being so successfully immobilized frightened her even more. "Pl-please, m-my lord!" she begged him once more.
    "Dagan, begin the punishment," came Kedar's cold voice.
    “Twenty strokes, my lord?" Dagan asked.
    Kedar debated for a moment with himself, and then he said, "Fifteen. I am of a mind to be merciful, and it is her first offense."
    "Please, no, my lord!" Skye was growing frantic now.
    Kedar nodded to Dagan and the rod descended. A piteous shriek sounded throughout the camp, followed by several others in fairly quick succession. When she fainted to elude the pain she was almost brutally revived, the bastinadoing stopped until she was fully conscious once more. Then it began again, and Skye felt the pain sweep from the burning soles of her tortured feet up her legs almost to her hips. Pinioned down, she still fought them, begging and pleading with Kedar for the mercy she knew he was not going to give her. Yet she continued to cry out to him in the vain hope that she could touch some cord within him. She struggled to stay conscious lest she offend him further and prolong her punishment
    Sitting astride her hips, Zada whispered to her the number of strokes. "Eleven. Twelve. Courage, mistress! Fourteen. Fifteen!"
    It was over. The hold on her arms, shoulders, and legs was re leased, and Zada arose. With a sob Skye curled herself into a tight ball upon the rug, and wept desperately. Suddenly with frightening awareness she realized that all about her was quiet. Slowly she raised her head. Dagan, Zada, and the other slaves were gone. Only Kedar remained, and the light in his eyes was unmistakable. Dear God, she thought horrified, he couldn't!
    "Do you know how much I want you. Muna." he whispered hoarsely. "Dear Allah, how I want you now!" He knelt by her side, fumbling eagerly for her lush breasts, and she knew that she dare not refuse him. Kedar pushed Skye onto her back again and, pulling his robes up, thrust quickly into her. He pounded against her all the while telling her how she excited him, how watching her being beaten had made his passion rise to the point where he could not deny himself her body. Then without warning he poured himself into her, and fell upon her breasts panting. They lay that way together for several long minutes, and then Kedar recovered himself. Standing up, he looked down at her and said, "You will dance for my guests tonight, Muna. See that you are ready when I call you to me."
    She nodded at him, her beautiful blue eyes still wet with her pain and her shame as he strode from the tent. Skye pulled herself up, crying out softly at the pain she felt in her feet, and then Zada was there to help her.
    "I have something that will take the pain away, mistress. Dagan brought it to me. He begs your forgiveness."
    "He enjoyed it, the brute!" Skye accused.
    "No, no, mistress! Dagan would be your friend," Zada assured her as she helped Skye into the privacy of the sleeping alcove.
    Skye glowered at the girl. Naturally Dagan would be her friend if he thought that Skye had Kedar's ear. Well, at least his eagerness to be friendly proved to Skye that her position with Kedar was a strong one.
    "How lord Kedar loves you!" Zada enthused.
    "In my country we do not beat the women we love," Skye muttered irritably.
    "Here, we do!" Zada grinned broadly at her. "And then to mate with you afterward! What a man he is! How I wish a man like that had carried me off before my family sold me, but then I am not beautiful like you, mistress. Lie back now and let me put the salve Dagan gave me on your poor feet."
    "Will it ease the pain? The lord Kedar commands that I dance this evening."
    "You will dance. Never fear, mistress. The master has given orders that you rest, and be fed the choicest part of the kid and other delicacies."
    “The veils, Zada. You will have to seek among my things for them."
    "The colors, mistress?"
    "Black. All black, the better to show off my skin; the black ones with the bits of gold thread shot through them, Zada."
    Zada nodded and then knelt to gently smooth the ointment that Dagan had told her to use over Skye's poor red feet. When she had finished, she covered Skye with a light wool coverlet and hurried off to find the veils. Suddenly exhausted, Skye quickly slipped into sleep.
    She rested for just over an hour, and then Zada was gently shaking her awake. The slave girl had brought her a plate filled with succulent pieces of roasted kid, small grilled onions and pieces of green pepper, freshly baked flat bread, and a goblet of icy mountain water flavored with orange syrup. Sitting up, Skye found she felt better. She was hungry, and the burning pain in her feet was greatly eased. She finished everything on the plate, and then Zada brought her a small dish of sweetmeats.
    "Dagan prepared these especially for you, mistress," she said.
    Skye looked at the plump, moist apricots filled with a mixture of chopped and honied nuts, and the colorful jellies that smelled of vanilla, cinnamon, and almond. They were beautiful, and looked absolutely delicious. Skye reached out and took a red jelly, which she popped into her mouth. 'This is marvelous," she said, quite pleased. 'Tell Dagan I thank him for such delicacies." She ate a second jelly, and then one of the apricots.
    "I will go and prepare your bath," Zada said.
    Skye lay back munching contentedly upon another apricot and several more jellies. How kind of Dagan to go to such trouble for her, for how, out here along this ancient camel track, he had managed to prepare such delights she couldn't imagine. Perhaps he was not the villain she had branded him. She was beginning to feel quite relaxed and filled with goodwill by the time that Zada returned.
    "I have prepared your bath, mistress," Zada said, "and afterward the master has ordered that Dagan massage your body."
    "If I get any more relaxed," Skye remarked, "I shall fall asleep."
    "It is the jellies, mistress."
    "What is in them?" Suddenly Skye wondered if this was some other nasty plot of Kedar's.
    “They are made with hashish, mistress. It comes from a plant, at least the tops of a plant. It won't hurt you. Our people have used it for many years, and it's only to make you feel good."
    "Eat one!" Skye commanded.
    "Oh, may I?" Zada's brown eyes were round with delight, and she quickly popped a green jelly into her mouth before Skye might change her mind. “Thank you, mistress!"
    Skye rose to her feet feeling somewhat dizzy, but her mind, though fuzzy, said, If Zada eats them they aren't poison.
    "No more now, my lady," Zada chided her. "Save them until just before you must dance. They will inspire you."
    Zada helped Skye into the small wooden tub, and Skye noted that tonight the water smelled of roses and musk. She sat quietly as the slave girl pinned up her long hair and gently washed her. Zada worked quickly, and then as quickly dried her mistress. Leading her back to the velvet mattress, she instructed Skye, "Lie upon your belly so Dagan may begin the massage."
    I don't want Dagan to massage me, Skye thought in the fuzzy recesses of her benumbed brain, but she couldn't seem to say it aloud. Then she felt the black's supple fingers upon her body, and she didn't care any longer.
    Dagan dug his long fingers into her soft flesh with a practiced skill. His clever hands smoothed over her skin with a firm but gentle touch. Up and down her back, her legs and buttocks, her shoulders and arms, her feet. Together he and Zada rolled Skye onto her back, and then Dagan massaged her belly and her breasts, the fronts of her legs and her feet, and shoulders, and arms. Through her foggy consciousness Skye protested, but the black seemed to consider touching her a job, perhaps even a boring job, and nothing more.
    When he had finished they let her rest a few minutes, and she floated deliciously through them. She had never felt more relaxed, more sensual. Her head finally cleared just as Zada said, "It is time to dress you, mistress," and helped Skye to her feet. The slave woman clasped a delicate gold chain made of tiny, flat, filigreed links just below Skye's hips. To it she attached three sheer silk veils on each side of Skye, a larger veil in back over her buttocks, and one the same size that hung to her ankles in front. Then, while Skye stood silently, Zada outlined her eyes in blue kohl and painted her nipples in carmine. Her whole body was tingling, and reeked of roses and musk. As Zada brushed her hair with a brush dipped in musk, she said, "Would you like another of the jellies, mistress? Best to have them now, for you will soon dance."
    Skye popped several more of the sweetmeats into her mouth, licking her fingers to remove the sticky residuc. The euphoria began to return, and Skye suddenly realized that whatever it was that they had put into the confections-hashish, Zada had called it- was most definitely responsible. Every movement she made now seemed exaggerated and sweeping. Zada fastened a small chain about Skye's neck, and to it she attached a veil that fell over her breasts and down past her waist. Another veil covered her shoulders and back, and an even longer one was placed across her face. Zada's lithe hands moved suggestively over Skye's body, fluffing and positioning the veils so they would float correctly.
    "You are so beautiful, mistress," she murmured. "You are like a goddess belonging to the old ones. Every man who sees you dance will want you. That is what the master desires, to be the envy of his friends. You must dance your best so that they all lust for you." Zada caressed Skye's breasts and belly and buttocks, her hands moving swiftly, and her words and her movements began to communicate themselves to Skye's blurred and confused mind.
    She felt a tingling between her legs, and her beautiful breasts began to almost ache with their tightness. Outside in the main portion of the tent she began to hear music, and with a sly smile Zada fitted her fingers with the four shiny brass tals. "Go," she whispered in Skye's ear. "Go, and drive them wild with your beauty and sensuality. Our lord Kedar will be pleased." Skye stepped out from behind the curtained alcove and walked across the tent to prostrate herself before Kedar.
    "Rise, Muna," he commanded her, his hazel eyes quickly taking in the black veils with their tiny golden stars. It was a perfect costume for her, her white limbs glowing mysteriously through the dark silk. 'This, my friends, is the magnificent gift that my uncle, the famous Osman, presented to me on my arrival in Algiers. She has easily become my favorite, even though there is a tiny streak of willfulness in her that needs curbing."
    "A little spice never hurt a tasty dish, Kedar," remarked a black-bearded man, and the other guests chuckled.
    "In that case, Hamid, it is fortunate I am fond of spicy food," Kedar replied, and the chuckles became guffaws of laughter.
    Skye let her misty eyes wander about the group that sat eating about a low table. There were seven or eight men, but she could not seem to concentrate upon them or upon much of anything else for that matter. She could still feel Zada's hands lightly brushing her, and rather than repel her the way a woman's touch always had, Skye felt sexually aroused and her passion seemed to be growing instead of fading.
    "Dance, Muna!" She heard the command in the murky recesses of her cloudy mind. "Dance for us, my jewel!"
    The three musicians began to play, and almost instantly the throb of the drum and the whine of the reed pipes began to communicate themselves to her. Skye began to dance slowly, her body weaving sensuously in time to the music. For some minutes she wove and bobbed across the floor in front of them, and then as the music began to increase in tempo she started to remove her veils.
    Kedar and his guests had been watching with mild interest, but now they eagerly leaned forward, fascinated. The six side veils were quickly disposed of, as was the long head veil, and her long hair swung out and floated free with her erotic motions. The music grew more intense as the back and breast veils were tossed aside. Only three veils remained, the two covering her lower limbs and her face veil. Arms outstretched, Skye danced, first thrusting her lush breasts forward, and then pushing out her hips in an obvious and suggestive movement. Around and around she twirled as the tempo of the music grew faster and faster. Kedar chuckled softly to himself as Skye removed the last three veils, for he noted that several of his guests had slipped their hands beneath their robes to discreetly ease their longings.
    Now Skye, totally nude, moved closer to Kedar and his guests. Teasingly she clanged the brass tals beneath their noses as she dipped and swooped, almost brushing several of them with her full, red-nippled breasts. She was lost in a hazy world of her own, and only the insistent beat of the drum, the nasal shriek of the reeds, and the erotic movement of her own hungry body held any meaning for her. The men who sat watching were filled with fierce lust for her, the ripe rose musk scent of her voluptuous body, the dance itself; but obedient to the tempo, Skye was aware of nothing but herself. As the music reached a wild crescendo Skye twirled in the final amorous and sexually impassioned movements of the dance before falling to the floor before Kedar, her beautiful body posed in a gesture of total submission to the master.
    Kedar's guests roared their approval, clapping and shouting, tossing gold coins and small jewels at her. With eyes wide Skye looked up at Kedar, who was beaming with approval at her. 'Take the tributes, my jewel. You have earned them this night."
    “They are not half worthy of her, Kedar," said the man named Hamid. "I do not expect you want to sell her, but should you ever grow tired of her I will pay you whatever you desire. She is indeed exquisite."
    Skye did not stay to hear any more, but quickly gathered up the tribute showered upon her by Kedar's friends, for to leave it would have been terribly insulting. Then she fled back across the tent floor to the alcove. Suddenly she felt depressed, as if she might cry. Dagan and Zada were awaiting her, the former grinning broadly, the latter chattering delightedly. She gave them each a gold coin, but as she did so Zada noted her sad face and looked quickly to Dagan.
    “The master will come soon to pleasure himself, and he will not be pleased to find her weeping," she hissed at the black eunuch.
    "Come, mistress," Dagan murmured soothingly, and drew her down upon the velvet mattress again. "Let me rub away the tension you have built up during your dance." He knelt and began to massage her feet, which had begun to ache once more. "Give her the sweetmeats, little fool!" he snapped at Zada. "We have not much time, and she must be eager and ready for the lord Kedar."
    "Here, dearest lady Muna," Zada said sweetly, "eat, and all will be well again, I promise you. Oh, how marvelous you were when you danced! We could both see how pleased the master is with you." Zada gently forced several small jellies into Skye's mouth, and then began to caress her breasts. As quickly as the depression had come upon her it began to slide away beneath the tender ministrations of the two slaves. Zada's hand brushed across Skye's belly, and Skye felt her own desires beginning to stir again. Beyond the curtained alcove Zada and Dagan could hear Kedar bidding his guests a jovial goodnight, and they hurried to prepare Skye for him.
    Zada leaned over and began to whisper softly and suggestively into Skye's ear. She knew that the hashish in the sugary confections Dagan had prepared had already loosened Skye's inhibitions once this evening. Now just a little bit of suggestion, and she would eagerly welcome the master. "Only a moment more, my lady Muna," she murmured, "and the lord Kedar will come to you." Zada fondled Skye's breasts gently. "Soon the master will fill you full with his fine big manhood. The pleasure will be magnificent, won't it? Allah, how I wish I might lie beneath him while he pumped himself into me! How fortunate you are, my lady Muna."
    "Yes," Skye breathed, "oh, yes! Quickly, Zada, remove the stain from my nipples. My lord Kedar loves to nurse upon my breasts, and I would not poison him." Skye was beginning to feel hot with her longing to be possessed by Kedar. God, how she wanted his bigness inside her, and she wanted it now! He was like a mighty stallion, his stamina being so great. With a smug smile of satisfaction Zada wiped Skye's nipples free of red stain. Skye was already writhing with anticipation. None of them heard Kedar enter the alcove.
    For a long moment he stood watching as his favorite black massaged and soothed Skye's feet; as Zada erased the last traces of red from Skye's lush breasts; as Skye herself moved upon the velvet mattress in love's rhythm. He could see that they had drugged her, and he smiled, amused. He liked it that his slaves were so eager to please him, but now he wanted them gone. He was already hard and aching beneath his robes. "Disrobe me!" he snapped, and both Zada and Dagan leapt to their feet to remove his few garments. "Find your own beds," he commanded them, and without even waiting to see them gone, he lay down next to Skye.
    "My lord," Skye said softly, turning to face him.
    He pulled her into his arms to kiss her, and she obediently opened her mouth to receive his tongue, sucking upon it in a most ardent and suggestive fashion. Her hips glued themself against him, and as he was unwilling to wait any longer to satisfy himself, he rolled her over and thrust into her. To his delight, she gave a soft shriek and climaxed immediately.
    "What a hot and wanton bitch you are, my jewel," he purred at her. "Did you enjoy displaying your bounteous charms tonight to my friends?"
    “There was no one for me but you, my lord Kedar," she panted beneath him. "No one!”
    "Ahh," he rumbled, "if I thought that you were lying to me, my fair Muna, I should kill you now, but I know that you are not." His big body moved hungrily and insistently upon her until she was moaning and pleading once more for release, a release it did not yet suit him to give her. For some time he used her, turning her body this way and that in order to enter her from different angles, offering pleasure one moment, pain the next. It was the pain that finally began to clear away the cobwebs of the drug, and Skye realized with shock and self-loathing that she had been encouraging Kedar in a most salacious and lascivious manner. She dared not cease at this point, for she was frankly terrified of offending him. She never again wanted to suffer the tortures of the bastinado as she had this afternoon, and so she continued to behave in a lewd and eager manner until with a grunt he released his seed into her. Then he rolled over and began to snore.
    Skye gave a soft sigh of relief. She was furious at herself for not having realized that she was being drugged. Now her mouth felt dry, but at least her heart rate was beginning to slow down from its fevered pitch of a few minutes ago. She rose from their bed, and went across the alcove to pour herself some freshly squeezed fruit juice. As she drank it thirstily, she vowed she would never be given hashish again. She would flatter Kedar into believing that it was an insult to him to feed her the stuff; she did not need such things to increase her ardor and natural passion for him. With a small giggle Skye drank another goblet of the fruit juice. Then, suddenly beginning to feel very relaxed, she returned to the mattress, where she quickly fell asleep.
    In the early morning as they sat eating sticky sweet figs, and drinking boiling, bitter coffee, Skye said slyly, "I am glad that you are not angry with Dagan and Zada, my lord. They only did it in their efforts to please you."
    "Did what, my jewel?" Kedar was instantly alert.
    "Fed me the hashish in an effort to stimulate my senses." She laughed a tinkling, light laugh. "As if I needed any other stimulation than your look, or touch, my lord; but then they did not mean to be offensive to your manhood. They only meant to please you." She licked her fingers delicately. "I will go and dress, my lord, so I do not keep the caravan waiting." With a sweet smile to him, Skye arose and began to pull on her clothing.
    "Dagan!" Kedar's voice was sharp, and Skye hid a smile. Her barb had obviously found its mark.
    "My lord?" Dagan appeared from the other side of the tent.
    "Did you feed Muna hashish last night?"
    "Yes, my lord. I made her the jellied confections so dearly loved by the ladies of your harem. Since she had earlier defied my master I hoped to make her more willing to dance. I would not allow her to disgrace you, my lord."
    "Your motives were good," Kedar said, "but never feed Muna any of your little potions again, Dagan. Giving her the drug implies that I am not man enough to inspire her. You did not mean that now, did you?” Kedar's voice had grown menacing.
    "No, no, my lord!" Dagan had felt Kedar's lash too often to court his anger now. He fell to his knees. "Pardon, my lord! I only sought to please you!"
    "Only the fact that we cannot tarry in this place saves both you and that busybody Zada from a beating. Be grateful for my mercy, and do not rouse my displeasure again."
    “Thank you, master, thank you!" Dagan babbled, backing from the alcove.
    Kedar turned to Skye. Her expression was bland and totally disinterested. Demurely she raised up the pale-blue hood of her djellabah. Walking over to her, he tipped her face up to him. “There, my jewel," he said quietly, "Dagan will not feed you any of his little tasties again, but if you had simply asked me, my fair Muna, I would have happily seen to it. It was not necessary to suggest any lack of masculinity on my part. You are beautiful, and I am discovering you are clever, but you cannot hope ever to deceive me." He lightly slapped her cheek with his riding glove, holding her sapphire eyes prisoner with his strange hazel ones. "You will remember that, my jewel, won't you?"
    "Yes, my lord," she said, refusing to flinch or lower her eyes to him.
    Kedar smiled. "Good!" he said. "Now put on your yashmak and get to the cart."
    "Yes, my lord."
    He watched her go, a half-smile on his face. She was quite a puzzle, his fair Muna. Woman incarnate, she could drive him to heights he had never before attained with any other, and yet he knew that he had seen only a part of her. She had been wonderfully uninhibited last night, but that had only been the drug. He had instantly sensed when she had become aware of herself again and withdrawn from him, although she had worked very hard to conceal it. There was far more to her than she had revealed to him, and as much as he had enjoyed her lack of inhibitions last night he wanted her to have those same feelings for him within her heart and soul.
    Kedar had inherited a little of his uncle's second sight, though he had never sought to develop it. Such development would have taken too much self-discipline, and he did not have the time to devote to it. Still, now and then he could accurately sense certain things or feelings in people or events. There was something special about Muna, his hidden senses told him, and he longed to know her secret. Then he laughed at himself for a fool. Muna was a totally exquisite creature whose sole reason for being was to give him pleasure. Allah had created her to be a houri on earth, and he, Kedar, was the fortunate man gifted with her. There was no more.
    Outside he could hear the activity of the camp almost ready to depart. He strode from the tent so they might strike it. Immediately several men swarmed in to dismantle the shelter while both Dagan and Zada hurried out with the tent's scant furnishings packed in small trunks. Walking over to the cart where Muna had already settled herself, Kedar climbed into the vehicle.
    Her eyes widened in surprise. "My lord?" she questioned him.
    Settling himself next to her, Kedar reached up and loosened one side of her veil, exposing her face. His hand then reached up to cup her head and draw her toward him. He saw the pulse in her slender throat leap, and then his mouth descended upon hers. His kiss was a searing one that demanded her surrender, and her lips softened beneath his. She was breathless when he released her.
    "See that your performance tonight outshines the one you offered me last night, my jewel," he said softly as he refastened her veil. Then he vaulted from the wagon, the gauze draperies fluttering lightly with his passage.

Chapter 9

    Before them the city of Fez nestled and clung to a cuplike valley, descending from Fez Eldjid, the newer town on the heights of the hills, to the crowded rabbit warrens that made up the most ancient part of the city at the bottom of the valley along the river. At first approach Skye could see only a long line of tall towers and walls surrounding the city, which was seemingly invisible behind the ramparts. She shivered, wondering if once she was behind that seemingly impenetrable barrier she would be able to escape.
    As they passed through a huge horseshoe gate into Fez Skye saw that, unlike the cities along the coast, Fez was a dour place. Its buildings were a dirty white with green tile roofs, and from the street the plainness of their walls was broken only by doors. There were no windows visible anywhere, and the facelessness of the structures was rather frightening. Throughout the city stands of trees-cypress, ilex, date palms, and various fruit trees-were welcome green islands dotting the hillsides that tumbled downward into the old city.
    Skye would quickly discover that though none of Fez's homes had windows on the street side, the beauty and luxury of their interiors were astounding. She would also find that the wealthy now built their homes in Fez Eldjid escaping the overcrowding of the old city where the magnificent Qarawiyin Mosque, the university where Osman had taught, and all the main bazaars and markets including the famous Quaisarya, the silk market, were also located. For now, however, all that mattered was the fact that she was in Fez, and somewhere in the city Niall Burke was held. She wondered how long it would be before Kedar's young brother, Hamal, would contact her.
    Kedar's home was a marvel of several connecting structures built around flowering and fountained courtyards and lush gardens. From the street it was as anonymous as all the other buildings around it, but once inside she found herself in a paradise of incredible beauty. The floors were all laid with small black and white tiles in a geometric pattern. Some of the floors were covered with thick, lush rugs in reds, blues, and golds, or blues, golds, and dark green. The walls were partially tiled in yellow, white, and black, and whitewashed above the tile except in the public rooms where the walls above the tiles had designs carved into their stone. The ceilings in all the rooms were painted magnificently in various colors, in incredible geometric patterns and designs.
    Dagan had escorted Skye and Zada to the women's quarters of the house, a separate wing consisting of baths, kitchens, gardens and terraces, salons, dormitorylike bedchambers, and private bedchambers.
    "How many women are there in the master's harem, Dagan?" Skye asked as they had hurried along behind him.
    "I am not certain of the correct number, my lady Muna, but it is over forty, I know."
    Two coal-black eunuchs pulled open a gilded wrought-iron double gate, allowing them entry into the harem area. Dagan brought them to the main salon, where at this time of day most of the women were settled chattering, sewing, playing musical instruments, or reading. At their entrance there was immediate silence and hostile eyes swung toward Skye, assessing her beauty and her worth to Kedar, and instantly classing her an enemy.
    Dagan grinned delightedly to discomfit them. 'The master sends you all his greetings upon his return, ladies. This lovely creature by my side is the lady Muna, a gift to our lord Kedar from his uncle in Algiers. She is in his favor."
    "Perhaps along the trail, where the only other choices were diseased nomad wenches, sheep, and camels," said a voluptuous blonde with almond-shaped black eyes. She looked insolently at Skye, and popped a small apricot into her mouth.
    "How do you keep your hair that color, my dear?" Skye asked in flawless Arabic. "In my own country I had a brace of hunting dogs with fur that same hue." Her look was bold and it dared the other woman to retaliate. In a harem of this size Skye knew that only the very strong survived.
    The blonde gasped and scrambled to her feet. "How dare you!" she shrieked as she leapt the small distance between Skye and herself, her fists upraised.
    Skye didn't wait. Hooking her fingers into the blonde's hair she grasped hard, and flung her opponent across the room. "How dare you!" she replied. "In my own land I am a great lady. Here I have found favor with my lord Kedar. We need not be friends, but you will treat me with the respect duc my station. I am not, like you, some peasant wench thrust into a better situation. You will remember that in the future."
    The blonde sprawled among a pile of pillows, arms and legs akimbo, her mouth open in complete surprise. The room was deathly still, and then there was a throaty, amused laugh as a tall, very elegant woman stepped forward from among a group of women. "Welcome to Fez," she said. "I am the lady Talitha, now only occasionally in our lord Kedar's favor, praise be to Allah." Talitha's skin was the color of molten gold, her black hair cut short so that it clung caplike to her skull in kinky curls. Her eyes were a wonderful shade of light green. With a smile she turned to Dagan. "Is she to have a private chamber?"
    "Yes, lady, and you will see that none of the others mark her. He is adoring of her flawless skin."
    "I shouldn't wonder," Talitha said. "Don't worry, Dagan, I will care for her as if she were my own child." She then turned her gaze upon the other women in the room. "You heard," she said in a suddenly hard voice. "Anyone who touches Muna will answer first to me and then to our lord Kedar. Frankly I don't believe any of you soft, overripe bitches are capable of taking on this one, but be warned nonetheless."
    "You will be safe now," Dagan said, and then he left Skye and Zada.
    "Come with me," Talitha said, and they followed her from the salon. “There is a lovely room available overlooking the mares' meadow and the mountains beyond the city walls."
    "Are you in charge of the harem?" Skye asked.
    "I have the honor and the burden of being Kedar's harem mistress," Talitha replied drily. "I was the first woman he ever bought. I have two daughters by him, but as his appetite has grown his need for me is less."
    "Do you love him?"
    "No, but I am grateful to him. I was born in a brothel in Rabat. My mother was a whore of Berber and Negro origin. My father was her French lover. I know that for certain because my mother did not enter the brothel until after my father left her, and she was already pregnant with me. She was a beautiful woman, and so she went to the finest brothel in Rabat and offered to sell herself to them if they would wait until she had borne her child. They gave her the gold on which to live comfortably until I was born, and then she joined them. I was raised there, and Kedar bought me from the brothel owner who felt that, at twenty, I was a bit too long in the tooth to satisfy his customers. I am therefore grateful to the master. I have a good home. My children are safe, and I am respected. Ah, here we are." She flung open a beautifully paneled wooden door, and they entered into a lovely bright room. "What about you, Muna?"
    "I am a captive," she said. "The lord Osman bought me to give to the lord Kedar."
    "For a captive you speak our language quite well," Talitha remarked.
    "I was in the bagnos for several months, and I fortunately have an ear for other tongues."
    "Were you ill that you were kept in the bagnos, or," here she cocked her head, "were you, as I suspect, loath to accept your portion."
    Skye laughed. "I needed convincing," she admitted. "You must understand, Talitha, that I am an Englishwoman, a respectable widow with children. The thought that I should never see my babies again, never return to my own land, was not only frightening but heartbreaking to me."
    "But now you accept your fate?" Talitha looked a little disbelieving.
    "What choice do I have?" Skye asked.
    "And our lord Kedar?"
    "He is different from any man I have ever known," Skye said slowly, not quite sure what it was Talitha wanted her to say.
    Talitha laughed. "He is a hard man, Muna, but believe me, there are worse masters. All Kedar demands is perfect obedience in his bed. The rest will be easy if you are not a gossip, for he hates those whose tongues wag incessantly.
    "You'll probably be spared his company for a while, however, as you have had him all to yourself these last two months. Kedar needs variety and, like a large honeybee, he will now begin to go from flower to flower until he is sated once more." She smiled mischievously at Skye. "I imagine you can use the rest, Muna. Our lord and master can be quite exhausting, and I don't believe I have ever known anyone who spent two solid months catering to him. It is indeed possible you are the first woman to be that long with him."
    "I will do whatever my lord commands me," Skye said sweetly.
    Talitha laughed once more. "You must be in Kedar's favor," she said, amused. "Well, we shall see! I will leave you and your servant now to rest," she ended and, turning, left the room.
    The door had no sooner closed behind her than Zada began to chatter busily. "What a fine room! Look at the view, my lady Muna. These carpets are very good, aren't they? Ohh, the couch is large, isn't it? I imagine the lord Kedar will visit you here, for you are in his favor. How fortunate we are to have such a rich master! We can be very happy here, but of course it would be wise for you to become pregnant as quickly as possible. Dagan says that the lord Kedar will probably marry you, and never before has he taken a wife. What an honor for you!"
    "Be silent, chatterbox!" Skye said. "Don't you realize that harem walls have ears! The lord Kedar is undoubtedly quite tired of me by now and, as the lady Talitha has said, will seek solace among the variety of his other women. You must expect nothing, Zada."
    "If he were bored, mistress, you would not have been given this fine chamber with its beautiful, thick rugs, silk hangings upon the wall, and a couch large enough for two people."
    Skye ignored her servant's babble and, changing the subject, said, "Find out where the baths are, and if I may bathe at any time I choose. It has been over a month since we left Algiers, and in all that time I have not had a decent wash. I want a bath as quickly as possible."
    "Of course, you must be perfection when our lord Kedar comes to you tonight."
    Her mistress ignored her remark, and Zada hurried from the room, full of importance and certainty. Skye frankly hoped that Talitha's assessment of the situation was the correct one, and that she would not be troubled by Kedar for several days at the very least. She looked about the room. The walls were tiled halfway up, as was the rest of the house, in lovely turquoise blue and pure white. Above them the wall was painted white, and the wooden moldings were stained a dark brown. The white ceiling had large, dark beams, and between each beam was painted a design of turquoise blue and black swirls and dots. The dark-stained wooden floor had a large thick carpet in shades of gold and white with a knotted white fringe. There were several small square carpets in turquoise and white beneath the windows, and two that were oval-shaped, one on either side of the large couch.
    The couch itself was a square set upon a gilded dais. It had a large feather and down mattress, and was covered in turquoise-and-gold-striped silk. There were wonderful large pillows, both plain and embroidered in several shades of rose, upon the couch. The room also had some nicely designed carved chairs, and two brass tray tables, one large, one small, as well as both hanging and portable lamps in ruby glass, brass, and copper.
    As Zada returned she was preceded by several eunuchs who brought in Skye's beautifully fitted trunks and, at Zada's instructions, set them about the room.
    All the eunuchs but one departed, and Zada introduced the one. 'This is Min'da, your personal eunuch, my lady Muna. You see, I told you that you were important to our lord Kedar," she finished smugly.
    Skye lightly slapped Zada's cheek. "You are overproud, Zada. I am blessed by Allah to have our lord Kedar's attention. May I always be able to please him. But if Allah should will it otherwise, then may I accept my portion as gracefully as I now accept what he has given me."
    The eunuch, a light-skinned Negro, half smiled. "You are indeed wise, my lady Muna. Dagan says that you will go far, and it may be that he is correct."
    Skye's eyes met those of the eunuch. He was his master's man, of that she was certain; and Zada would also be loyal to Kedar. She was truly alone. What if Hamal had decided at the last minute not to help her? What if Niall had finally pushed the princess beyond her endurance, and been killed during the month in which she had been traveling from Algiers to Fez? How could she get word to Osman, and even if she did how could he help her now? Skye was tired, dirty, and under emotional strain. Helpless tears filled her eyes and threatened to spill down her cheeks.
    "You, Zada!" Min'da snapped. "Help me to get your mistress to the baths. She is exhausted, and needs to be bathed and then allowed to rest." He put a strong arm about Skye. "Come now, my lady Muna, and let me help you."
    Skye sagged against the eunuch, relieved for the moment to have an excuse to put her worries from her mind. She did need a bath, and she did need to rest. From the first day she had met Kedar, over two months back, there had not been a night she hadn't been forced to cater to his whims, except for the few days when her link with the moon was broken and she was considered unclean. She let herself be led off, and within minutes was soaking and steaming all her worries and troubles away.
    Min'da was obviously well respected among the bath women, for they did not seem to resent either his presence or his quick orders regarding her comfort. "What is your fragrance?" he asked her quietly.
    "Damask rose," she said softly, and he nodded, his eyes approving.
    "It is the perfect fragrance for you. Few can wear its blend of sophistication and innocence well."
    The bath women exclaimed with delight over Skye's fair skin, fairer than that of any of the other harem women, they said. The Fasi aristocracy prized fair skin, in both men and women alike. They also were lavish in their praise of her hip-length black hair, which they washed gently, lathering a wonderful rose-scented soap into thick suds that gently removed the trail dust from her beautiful tresses. Twice they washed her hair, afterward rinsing it thoroughly, the final rinse a mixture of herbal vinegar and water for shine, the bath mistress said.
    Skye was beginning to feel relaxed. She had been washed, pumiced, and denuded of the little body hair they could find on her. Now, while two young slave girls dried and brushed her hair, she lay on her stomach and enjoyed an expert massage. A most soothing rose lotion was smoothed over her skin and rubbed into her body with long, firm strokes. She didn't even protest when they massaged her breasts and belly.
    Skye was but half awake when they stood her up, slipping a white gauze chamber robe over her now clean body. Min'da lifted her in his arms and carried her back from the baths to her room, setting her gently upon her large couch. "That was wonderful,'' she murmured at him, and he smiled down at her.
    "Are the tears gone now, lady Muna?"
    "Yes," she said and, closing her eyes, appeared to sleep. With a satisfied nod the eunuch left the room, giving instructions to Zada as he went.
    "Let her sleep for exactly six hours. I will be ready then with a meal for her, and the master will join her at the eleventh hour tonight. Do you understand?"
    "The lord Kedar will visit her tonight? Really?" Zada's eyes were round with satisfaction, and her smile was a trifle smug.
    "I have said it, woman," the eunuch snapped. "I do not say what I do not know or mean. Remember that in future. If we are to work together for lady Muna's eventual triumph over the rest of the women then you must obey my instructions and not question me, Zada. I have been in lord Kedar's harem for seven years now, and I know all there is to know, and more."
    "If you are so important, Min'da," Zada retorted, "then tell me why it is you have not succeeded with one of your charges before?"
    "I almost did two years ago," was the reply, "but the ungrateful wretch escaped my vigilance, and was caught cuckolding my lord Kedar with one of his guard. The little fool almost destroyed me and had it not been for Dagan's intervention, I, too, might have died. Dagan, however, convinced my lord Kedar that I was not to blame, and he spared me. I have been used on general duty in the harem ever since, but today Dagan once more gave me my own charge, the lady Muna. I will succeed with her, and if you follow my lead, Zada, you will also find yourself in a place of honor, as personal maid to our lord Kedar's only wife. You would like that, wouldn't you?"
    Zada nodded, now more respectful, but also still curious. "Why is Dagan so good to you?" she asked. "Why should he care if you succeed or not?"
    "Dagan is my brother," Min'da said, and then he haughtily stalked from the room.
    Skye had heard it all, and with Min'da's final words to Zada she again felt depressed. Min'da had obviously been the personal eunuch to the unfortunate girl from Cathay whom Kedar had beaten to death. Now given a second chance, he would be virtually impossible to elude, and if she could not evade his watchfulness how could she aid her beloved Niall? With a little sob Skye turned her face into one of the pillows and wept softly. Niall! she cried in her heart. My darling husband, where are you? Niall! Without even realizing it, she fell into a troubled sleep, a sleep made restless by faceless and frightening images that arose from the depths to haunt her; and while she fought against her tortured dreams Niall Burke fought against a nightmare of another kind.

***

    Skye would have been shocked by his appearance had she seen her husband now. Eight inches taller than his wife, his months in the galleys had hardened his elegant frame, giving him strong muscles where once there had only been their suggestion. Still, he was far too thin.
    His big nude body was spread wide upon a large couch, his long arms and legs manacled to prevent his escape. His midnight-colored hair was longer, and his silvery eyes were now the lackluster gray of dirty pewter. The elderly crone who served as his female eunuch had already fed him with the spiced drink that was always ordered for him before these sessions with Turkhan. At first he had refused to drink it, and spit it out when they forced it down his throat. There had been no admonishments on his behavior, but the next time a tube of sheep intestine was jammed down his throat into his stomach, and the liquid poured through it. The third time the cup was again handed to him, but the female eunuchs stood by ready to use the tubing should he prove difficult. Niall Burke had drunk down the potent liquid then, having no doubt in his mind that they would use force again if they had to.
    He was already beginning to feel the peculiar euphoria that began shortly after the liquid entered his body, and to his disgust his anxieties were once more melting away as his breathing began to grow slower and more shallow. He seemed to lose control of himself every time they pressed the goblet on him and induced him to drink, and he didn't understand it; but then as his inhibitions slid away he demanded petulantly of the eunuch, "Rabi, where are my sweets?"
    The old one cackled merrily. "So eager, so eager," she said. "You are always so eager for the comfits, Ashur. Open your mouth then, and I shall pop them in. You will like them tonight, for they arc your favorite-vanilla."
    Obediently Niall opened his mouth, and Rabi fed him the candies. The jellied squares with their bright jewel colors fascinated him. They tasted so good, sweet, and strongly vanilla-flavored. They had never had anything like them at home in Ireland. Ireland! Dear God, would he ever survive to get back there again? He had to survive! That was why he so docilely accepted the spiced drink and the sweets they fed him each time Princess Turkhan wanted him in her bed.
    In the beginning he had fought her like a madman, and they had chained him like an animal in her garden until he had regained some measure of sanity. He had welcomed his release from the Turkish galley where he had been incarcerated since his recovery from Darragh's attack. He had almost lost track of the time, for that was how it was when one's life was confined to a rower's bench. When, however, he had learned that he had been purchased to serve as a stud animal to an Eastern princess, he had gone wild. He had tried explaining to Turkhan, who spoke fluent French, their one common language, that he was an aristocrat in his own land; that he was willing to pay whatever ransom she desired; that he had a beautiful wife and two children he longed to return to in Ireland; that he was Lord Niall Burke.
    "I shall call you Ashur," had been her answer. "Do you know what Ashur means, my tall one? It means warlike one, and I can tell," here she ran her tiny hand slowly over his bulging biceps, "that you are indeed a fierce warrior."
    Nothing he had said had penetrated her brain, he decided, and so he began to explain again. Turkhan had waved her hand impatiently, saying, "I heard you the first time, Ashur, now you will hear me. I am not interested in purchasing captives for ransom. I am a wealthy woman, a connoisseur, a collector of beautiful things; and you are a beautiful thing. Never have I seen such blue eyes, my tall one. I suspect that you are a good lover, and I shall teach you to be an even better one, I promise you."
    "Never!” he spat angrily at her.
    Turkhan had laughed, a deep velvet sound, the sound of a woman used to getting her own way. "Do you know to whom you say never, Ashur? I think you do not or you would not be so bold. I will therefore forgive you your mistake, and tell you who I am. I am the daughter of Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire, defender of the true faith and overlord of this city."
    "I don't give a damn who your father is," Niall had shouted at her. "I won't be your stud, woman! I'm an Irishman, not a prize stallion!"
    Her eyes had narrowed with annoyance. "Whoever you were, my beautiful Ashur, you are no longer. Whatever was is no longer. Your only reality is what you are now, and that is Ashur, a slave in the harem of Princess Turkhan. Your goal is to please me, your mistress; and Ashur, you will please me, I can promise you. You will please me.n
    It gave Niall Burke small satisfaction to know that so far he had not really pleased her. She was beautiful, he had to admit. By any culture's standards she would have been considered beautiful. She was not a tall woman, standing barely over five feet in height; but she appeared taller, for she had a regal bearing along with long and slender arms and legs. She held her beautiful head high, her flame-colored hair cut straight across her forehead, hanging turned under just below her shoulders. She had an oval face with an aristocratic nose, a lush red mouth, and almond-shaped eyes fringed in thick black lashes that were the amber gold of a lioness. Her body was slim and lithe like a boy's, except for large, marvelous breasts that thrust proudly from her chest.
    He had learned in the year he had been imprisoned in her palace that she was a well-educated and an intelligent woman; but she was proud and stubborn, too. Despite his constant refusals, despite the fact that every time they made love she had to force him to do it, in spite of his atrocious behavior, she had made him her favorite along with the boy, Hamal, who had been in her harem some three years, and was genuinely in love with her.
    That was an interesting situation, Niall thought as he lay awaiting Turkhan. Hamal had told him that he had been born a free man also, but that his older brother, a wealthy merchant, had sold him to the princess. Hamal didn't seem to mind at all, as he cared for his mistress and she obviously cared for him. Niall smiled to himself. Whether Turkhan realized it or not, the boy manipulated her to. suit himself; but unfortunately, he had not been able to help Niall. The princess had determined that Niall was to father a child on her; but he was equally determined that she would not have his child. No son of his was going to be mothered and raised by her. Niall had rarely resorted to prayer in his entire lifetime, but he prayed now that the flame-haired bitch who held him captive would not conceive his child. So far his prayers had beeen heard.
    Only Skye had ever given him children, his darling little daughter, Deirdre, and his only son, Padraic. Dear God, the lad had barely been born when he had last ridden off from Burke Castle. What did the boy look like now, Niall wondered, and Deirdre, too. Had Skye mourned him long? Was she still mourning him? Had she remarried? She had never been a woman to be without a man for a long time. He wondered whose wife his wife was now? The thought of her with any other man maddened him beyond reason.
    Dear God, Claire O’Flaherty had had her revenge on them all! If he ever got free of Fez, he was going to search the she-witch out himself, and kill her once and for all. He could yet remember awakening aboard a rocking ship to find her standing over him, gloating. He hadn't understood why she was there, or even how she had gotten there, but he knew he was not dreaming. Before he had even had a chance to question her, he had slipped back into an unconscious state.
    "You look so fierce, my beautiful Ashur," Turkhan murmured as she slid onto the bed next to him. Her little white hands began to slide across his body, caressing and seeking the sensitive places that would arouse him. "What is it you think of, my beautiful one?"
    "I think of deceit, and of revenge, my Princess," he answered her.
    Turkhan shivered at the dark depths in his eyes. "I command you to think of passion instead," she said.
    Niall's harsh laughter rebounded off the walls. "It shall, of course, be as you command, my Princess," he answered her mockingly.
    "Oh, Ashur," Turkhan whispered, allowing her vulnerability to show for just a brief moment, "is it really so difficult to love me?" She lay her sleek head on his chest, and it occurred to Niall that he had been going about this thing all wrong.
    For months he had been fighting her, and it had gained him nothing. What a fool he had been! If he had appeared to give in to her demands from the start he might have gained her trust, and escaped months ago. Instead he had behaved like a violated virgin. What an idiot he was! Skye had always accused him of not seeing the overall picture, of being impulsive and heedless of the havoc his quick actions wrought.
    His mind snapped back to the present. Turkhan, having stimulated his manhood to erection, was preparing to mount him as she always did. "Unchain me, my Princess," he said quietly. "I think it is time I showed you how an Irishman makes love to his woman."
    She looked suspiciously at him. "What game is this you play with me, Ashur?"
    "Are you afraid, my Princess?" was his slightly mocking reply.
    Her pale skin flushed with the open challenge, and she licked her lips. For months she had been forced to compel his participation, and although he claimed to be the father of children, she could not conceive. She had filled him with opiates and hashish and other well-known aphrodisiacs to insure his potency. Perhaps the secret lay in his being willing.
    "Don't you want to feel my arms about you, Turkhan?" he murmured gently. "Unchain me, lass."
    The tone of his voice made her shiver openly, and Niall knew that he had won. Slowly Turkhan arose from the wide couch, walked across the room, and opened a small carved ebony box. Removing the key from the box, she returned to the couch and unlocked the four manacles that had held him prisoner. While she returned the key to its hiding place, Niall Burke sat up, rubbed his wrists, and swung his long legs over the bed. Every movement he made felt exaggerated to him. It was always so after they fed him with the jellies, and the goblet. Still, he realized that he suddenly felt very good. His big body was burning with desire, his erection was yet quite firm, and now as his blue eyes swept over the beautiful and petite creature standing before him he had but one thought: to couple with her. It was what she wanted, and right now it was what he wanted as well.
    Reaching out, he pulled her against him and bent low to find her lush mouth. "What an incredibly beautiful little bitch you are," he said against her lips as he pressed teasing kisses against them; and Turkhan shivered again, her mind half fearful, half thrilled that he was at last yielding himself to her. Niall lifted her tiny frame up in his arms, and set her gently on the soft feather and down mattress, then joined her.
    "Oh, love me, my beautiful Ashur!" she whispered frantically.
    "I will love you, my Princess, but there is no great hurry. I promised you that I would show you how the men of my land love their women." He leaned over her, his fingers brushing back her soft hair. "Do you want me, Turkhan?" he asked her.
    His gentle touch was destroying her, Turkhan thought, but she could not help herself from gasping, "Yes, Ashur! Allah, yes, I want you!" His satisfied growl of laughter frankly frightened her, but she dared not move lest she break the spell and he revert to the sullen and angry man that he had been until just a few minutes earlier.
    While she lay so still, her golden eyes lowered modestly, Niall took the opportunity to examine her closely. Her skin had the same texture and color of the milk-white roses that grew in her garden. He slid his hand across her flat belly, enjoying the softness, and heard her catch her breath. Niall smiled to himself. She was a hot little piece. He moved a hand up to fondle one of her big, cone-shaped breasts, rolling the large coral nipple between his thumb and his forefinger. Turkhan moaned, and catching his head in her two tiny hands, she drew it down to her breasts. He laughed at her impatience, but nonetheless took the offered nipple in his mouth to suck upon it, worrying it faintly with his teeth, and sending tiny darts of delight through her entire body.
    Turkhan couldn't believe the pleasure that Niall was giving her. She had never allowed any man to take the lead when making love with her, and yet she suddenly realized that she didn't want him any other way. Let Hamal, her little lamb, love her gently with tender touches and wailing Persian love songs. But Ashur! Allowed his own way, he was loving her with a fierceness she had never known, and she adored it!
    He had now transferred his attentions to her other breast, and when he had finished with it he began kissing, nipping, and licking at her skin. Turkhan almost screamed with rapture, especially when his head dipped to the V between her legs and he began nuzzling at the secret of her womanhood. No man had ever kissed her there, or loved with his mouth the tiny pearl of her femininity. She wasn't even sure that it was right, but she was now past caring and she didn't want him to stop. Something strange and frightening and yet wonderful was happening to her. She felt a sudden tightness, then a swelling, and then an incredible burst of pleasure unlike anything she had ever felt before-and it was only the beginning of the delight. She was suddenly beneath him and he was filling her full with his great and pulsing manhood. Turkhan almost swooned with bliss, for never had she lain beneath a man. She had been told that a woman mounted the man, as that was the only way he might obtain pleasure. It was an incredible and magnificent experience. He was driving deep and fast inside her, and she began to moan, her flame-colored tresses whipping around her thrashing head as she lost control and her world dissolved about her. Turkhan arced her body upward to meet his thrusts. Her long nails raked his back, leaving bloody weals across it as a primitive scream exploded from her throat only to be stifled by his brutal kiss, which was the last thing she remembered before plummeting down into the raging darkness.
    Regaining consciousness, she began to laugh softly with the irony. She had once told him pridefully that she should make a better lover of him than he was, but now Turkhan knew better. He had taken her where no man had ever taken her, and now she knew that all these years she had been only half a woman, that before Ashur they had all cheated her. She rubbed her kiss-bruised lips gingerly and, opening her eyes, looked directly at him.
    "Why didn't you tell me?" he demanded of her.
    "Because until just a little while ago, my beautiful Ashur, I did not know myself," she answered him candidly.
    He didn't believe her. "You grew up in a harem," he snorted scornfully, "surrounded by women, and you never knew the pleasure that can be between a man and a woman? They never told you?"
    "I was sent from my father's house when I was ten years old," she said quietly. "My mother was a Circassian dancer in my father's harem who just happened to catch his eye one time. That one time was enough to get her pregnant, but my mother was obviously not interesting enough to retain my father's favor. He never called her to his couch again, and she died giving birth to me. I was given to one of the other women to nurse, but once it was no longer necessary that I have milk to survive I was left to myself. I was nobody's child, Ashur. My grandmother, Khurrem, took an interest in me for a while, but as I grew they tell me I began to resemble Cyra Hafise, my father's grandmother who had been my grandmother's mortal enemy.
    "When I was almost ten years old my father needed monies for his fleet, and word was sent to all the great cities of his empire. Fez responded so generously that my father's curiosity was aroused. He was told that the largest contribution, indeed three quarters of what had come from the city, had been given by one Ali ibn Achmet. Further investigation revealed that Ali ibn Achmet was the city's wealthiest merchant, an old man who had never married, but was very devout and extremely loyal. At my grandmother's urging, my father decided to reward Ali ibn Achmet's generosity and loyalty by presenting him with an Ottoman princess for a wife.
    "The choice was left up to my grandmother, and she chose me, saying, 'Although you look like the cursed Cyra Hafise, you are my granddaughter, and more like me in your actions than any of the others. This is your chance, little Turkhan, and I shall give you the best piece of advice I can. Be soft-spoken, appear meek, but never let anyone own you. This includes your husband, my child. Let no man truly own you. Amass all the wealth you can, and when the old man we send you to dies, be sure he has named you his only heir. Do whatever you must to insure that inheritance, but gain it, for wealth is your guarantee of power, little Turkhan. Wealth, and your inviolate position as an Ottoman princess.'
    "That, my Ashur, is the only thing I learned in my father's harem. I learned nothing of love, or of women's ways; but I consider what my grandmother, Khurrem, taught me the most valuable lesson I have ever learned in life.
    "I never knew until tonight the real pleasure that can be between a man and a woman. This you have taught me, and if it never happens again at least I shall be content having known it once."
    My God, Niall thought, what a complex and sad woman she is. "It can happen again, Turkhan, and it will," he promised. "Shall I make it happen for you again, my Princess?" Leaning over her, he brushed her lips with his own, but all the while he was thinking that he had at last found a sure way to control her. A few nights of unending delights, and she would be his slave. Reaching out, he crushed one of her breasts in his hand while he murmured with hot breath in her small ear, "Answer me, Turkhan! Do you want the pleasure again?"
    "Yes!" she whispered urgently. "Yes, my Ashur! I want it!"
    Niall marveled afterward that he had not thought to cooperate with his captor before. For all her position and wealth and power, Turkhan was like any other woman in love. Niall knew that he would have to move very carefully else he arouse suspicion. Already young Hamal questioned his motives.
    "I do not understand this sudden turnabout," Hamal said. "For months you have battled with Turkhan to regain your freedom."
    "While you, our lovely mistress, and everyone else here has told me that regaining my freedom is an impossibility. I am a thickheaded Irishman, Hamal, but I now believe you all. If my life is to be here then I am better off cooperating, aren't I? Besides Turkhan is an exquisite woman, and I am a healthy man. I could resist her no longer."
    "What of your wife?" Hamal demanded. "Do you no longer think of her, Ashur?"
    He shrugged fatalistically. "Skye undoubtedly believes me dead, and has probably remarried. It has been almost two years now, and she would need a strong husband to protect Burke lands and my small son's inheritance. My father is an old man, and could not aid her." He lost heart once more, for his spoken thoughts could very well be the truth. She probably had remarried, and he was never going to return to her or to Ireland. Yet deep in his heart he still believed that Skye belonged to him, and to him alone!

***

    "You belong to me, and me alone," Kedar murmured against her mouth as she lay half conscious beneath him. He thrust his enormous lance hard into her quivering sheath, and she shuddered with shamed pleasure.
    Skye had hoped for a respite from Kedar's lust once they had reached Fez, but his ardor had only seemed to increase. She was the object of much speculation within his harem. Many were jealous of her, and more were fearful of her influence over their master. Skye would have laughed if the situation were not so absurd, and she would have been terribly lonely had it not been for Talitha. The beautiful harem mistress sensed that Muna did not enjoy being the exclusive object of the master's affection. Skye was also nervous because Hamal had yet to contact her, though surely he must know that she had arrived.
    "Open your eyes, my jewel, and ravish me with a look," Kedar commanded her, his passion spent.
    Skye slid back into the here and now, looking at him with her cool gaze. "You are a magnificent lover, my lord," she said honestly, and that was something else that was beginning to bother her. He was an incredible lover, and of late she had been genuinely responding to his lovemaking. She simply couldn't help it. Skye had experienced enough at thirty to know the difference between love and lust, but still it distressed her to give this man anything of her real self. She was prostituting herself in order to help Niall, but to enjoy it seemed wrong. She sighed deeply, and he mistook her motives as he usually did.
    "We will make love again this night, my fair Muna," he said in an amused and indulgent tone. "It pleases me that you are losing some of your shyness, and are becoming as insatiable for me as I am for you."
    She laughed lightly. "It is impossible not to want you, my lord," and she boldly caressed his cheek with a teasing hand.
    He caught her hand and, turning it palm up, placed a moist and burning kiss upon it. "You delight me, my jewel, and I would reward your behavior. Tell me what you would like?"
    Skye paused a moment as if in thought, and then said, "Would you allow Talitha and me to visit the bazaars in the old part of town, my lord? I have not spent my pin money since I arrived. The vendors who come to the harem do not bring with them a great variety of goods, and there has been nothing that I desired."
    What a delight she was, Kedar thought tolerandy, once more amused by the simplicity of her request. He was also feeling somewhat pleased with himself for his firm handling of this beautiful slave of his. She was responding perfectly these days, and had been worth every moment he had spent on her. He chuckled aloud. How feminine she was, wanting to shop the bazaars, and how intelligent not to waste her precious dinars on the cheap baubles and bangles the vendors brought into the harem to sell. More and more he considered the possibility of making her his wife. If only she would conceive a child. He turned his hazel eyes upon her.
    "So you would visit the bazaars, Muna? Very well, my jewel, but you and Talitha must be well veiled, and well guarded. I will have no one making free with either of you. You may go tomorrow."
    "Oh, thank you, my lord!" Skye wound herself around him, her beautiful arms entwining themselves about his neck, her breasts pressing suggestively against his smooth chest. Her pouting red lips invited his kiss, and while he tasted her mouth she reached down and fondled his manhood with clever hands until he was hard and eager again. Never interrupting their embrace, she moved herself over him, guiding his length into her warmth. Kedar pulled his mouth from hers and groaned with pleasure as she moved on him with a fierce rhythm. His big hands tangled themselves in her dark hair, and he muttered almost incoherently against her mouth. Skye slipped her arms about his middle, and lifted her legs to wrap them about him. Kedar gave a growl, shifted his weight, and pushed Skye back onto the pillows, taking control of their lovemaking once more as the pleasure began to build for them both.
    She tried to fight it back, but her body would not obey, and instead she soared upward. The feeling built and built until Skye believed she was going to burst with the burning bliss that raced through her veins. He was commanding her to tell him how much she wanted their passion, and terrified that he might stop, she said the words that she knew he wanted to hear, then felt more shamed than ever. Like boiling wine, the perfection poured over her, and somewhere in the timelessness she could hear his howl of victory. Her last thought then was that she must find Niall before it was too late; she must escape from this terrible man before he destroyed her completely.
    Afterward, as they lay together in the quiet, he said, "Never has any woman given of herself as you give to me, my jewel, and yet I cannot have enough of you. You are as much an aphrodisiac to me as the hashish and the opiates. I have never felt for another woman that which I feel for you."
    "You honor me, my lord," Skye replied softly, but her mind was wild with panic at the thought that he was falling in love with her, that he might attempt to make her his wife. He could do it even without her consent, for in Islam a wedding was held with just the consent of the bride's father or guardian. In the case of a slave, a master need only arrange it with the local iman. She tried to calm herself with the thought that Osman would have foreseen such a thing, and not put her in such a position. What a disaster it would be if Kedar married her, especially with her husband still living! No, Osman would have foreseen it, Skye reassured herself as Kedar pulled her into his arms and fell asleep.
    When she awoke the following morning she was alone, the imprint of his head on the pillow the only evidence that he had been there at all. She was no longer required to sleep on a cushion below him, and that, Talitha had told her, was quite an honor. No other woman in the harem save Muna and Talitha was accorded that honor. Skye stretched lazily, but her mind was already active with a hundred different thoughts. Today they would visit the old town with its bazaars, and hopefully she would have an opportunity to find out where the residence of Princess Turkhan was located.
    The door to her room swung open. "So," Talitha said with a merry chuckle, "you have wheedled a trip to the bazaars for us, my clever Muna. You must have indeed pleased Kedar last night. He came early to my chamber, smiling and purring like a well-fed panther, to tell me that I would accompany you. Tell me, Muna, what is your secret with him? In all the years I have known Kedar he has never been so expansive and so generous." She hefted a well-filled purse in her palm. "Gold dinars, Muna! A purse full of gold dinars from our lord and master to be used by us for our heart's delight. What do you do to him?"
    Skye sat up, her cheeks pink with her blushes as Talitha's frank gaze took in her nude beauty. Reaching for a cobweb-thin pink wool shawl, Skye said, "I am only his obedient slave, Talitha."
    Talitha's mouth quirked with amusement as Skye modestly pulled the shawl about her. "You are a strange one, Muna. There is an air of mystery about you. Perhaps it is that which fascinates Kedar so very much. At any rate, thank you for including me in your little adventure. We shall be the envy of the entire harem. Hurry and dress! I don't want to waste a minute of this day. It has been a long time since I last left this house, and I am eager to go."
    As Talitha hurried out, Zada came hurrying in with a tray of food. "Allah only knows when you'll eat again," she fussed at her mistress.
    "I am ravenous," Skye admitted.
    "I am not surprised," was the reply. 'The women of the harem say that the lord Kedar never stops his lovemaking during the entire night. I wonder that you can lift your head from the pillow this morning. Ohh, they are all so jealous of you, my lady Muna! He is going to make you his wife. They all say it is so. I knew that you would be successful with him!" She placed the tray upon the little table by the couch.
    Skye didn't bother to answer Zada, for she knew that anything she said would be repeated and embellished upon until her words were totally unrecognizable. Instead, she concentrated upon the meal that her slave woman had brought her. There was a lovely polychrome ceramic Fezware bowl in white, blue, and orange that was filled with peeled green figs. A matching plate held flat bread, hot and fresh from the oven, and there was a second bowl with a honeycomb in it. A silver goblet studded with lapis was filled with limewater. Skye ate hungrily, and when she had finished she rose, allowing Zada to wrap her in a gauze robe so she might walk to the baths. The slave woman followed carrying her mistress's special soaps and scents.
    Zada's black eyes darted back and forth as they moved through the harem. Fully aware of the envious gazes thrown at Skye, she puffed out her chest with pride as they moved quickly along, feeling enormously pleased with herself for having such an important and beautiful mistress. Already the servants of the other favored ones were beginning to come to her with little gifts and gossip. When the lady Muna became the lord Kedar's wife, his only wife, Zada would be the most influential serving woman in Kedar's harem. She smiled smugly to herself as they entered the bath, considering how fortunate she was.
    The baths were empty this early in the morning except for the bath attendants, who had been alerted that the lady Muna would be bathing and tumbled over themselves in their efforts to serve her lest the master's favorite be displeased. Skye silently allowed them to do their job, and when they had finished with her she thanked them each with a smile, then returned to her quarters with Zada to dress.
    "Do not deck me out like an idol," she snapped at Zada, who wanted to run bracelets up and down her arms, bering each of her slender fingers, and place a fillet dripping with small jewels on her head and forehead.
    "You are the chosen of the lord Kedar," Zada protested.
    "I am only my lord Kedar's humble slave," Skye insisted. "If you deck me out in every jewel he has given me you will draw attention to me, which would displease my master. A show of wealth will also encourage the merchants to charge me double, Zada. I would look like all the faceless women in a plain black yashmak."
    Zada sighed disappointedly, but allowed that the lady Muna was probably right, and dressed her as she desired. When she had finished Skye was as anonymous as every other black-garbed figure in the streets of Fez would be. The top of the yashmak fell just below her eyebrows, and her outdoor veil was securely pinned to it. Only the barest slit for her eyes was allowed. She could have been twenty, or eighty; the fairest woman alive, or the ugliest; but no one in the streets of the city would know it.
    "Are you ready, Muna?" Talitha's voice emerged from an equally well-swathed figure.
    Kedar had arranged for them to travel in a curtained litter, for it was unthinkable that his women walk to the bazaars. Skye couldn't resist peeping at the city from behind a corner of the curtains as they moved from Kedar's house at the top of the ravine, down the twisting, winding streets to the bottom where the markets of old Fez were located. She was enchanted by the one-arched bridges that spanned the river, a contribution of the Moors who had settled in Fez when driven from Spain. Skye noticed how crowded together the houses were as they descended lower and lower into the most ancient part of the city. It was also darker here, for it seemed almost impossible for the sun to find a place to slip between so it might shine. Finally Skye let the curtains fall back into place, and following Talitha's lead loosened her face veil.
    "What made you want to visit the bazaars?" Talitha asked.
    "I don't like being penned up," Skye said. "In my land women move about freely. I even ride horses. I cannot stay in that house all the time else I go mad. When our lord Kedar asked me last night what he might gift me with I begged him for a day at the bazaars. It means more to me than jewels could."
    "No wonder you fascinate him, Muna. You are so unusual for a woman."
    “There are other European women in our lord's harem," Skye said.
    "Yes," Talitha admitted. "We have girls from Provence, the Languedoc, Castile, Naples, and Genoa, but not one of them was from a noble family as you are. Two are merchant's daughters, but the rest are peasants, and all are used to obedience to higher authority, as are the women of the East. You, however, belonged to the higher authority, Muna."
    "I answered to my Queen," Skye said.
    "Not your king?"
    "England has no king. Our Queen is a virgin without spouse who rules in her own right."
    "Incredible!" Talitha exclaimed. "Such a thing would never be allowed here. A woman needs a man to answer to else she be unnatural."
    Skye almost laughed at Talitha's outrage. There were many who thought Elizabeth Tudor odd and unnatural. Before she might comment though, the litter was set down with a tiny bump and the curtains drawn aside. Quickly they refastened their veils as Min'da carefully helped them out. "I will escort you, and the litter will follow us," he said.
    Together Skye and Talitha began walking through the busy and noisy bazaars, starting first with the Quaisarya, the magnificent silk market. It was an incredible place, and Skye was at a loss as to where to look next. The stalls were filled to overflowing with a profusion of marvelous silks in a rainbow of jewel-bright colors. There were plain colors such as scarlet and emerald, topaz and sapphire and amethyst; and prints, deep purple with gold dots, crimson with silver, black and cream; and gauzes shot through with silver and gold; and silks in all colors sewn with freshwater pearls and jewel chips. It took a while for her to overcome the shock of so much beauty before she could intelligently choose and make her purchases. Finally she picked a rose-colored silk gauze shot through with silver, and a lovely blue-green that matched her eyes. These she would have the harem seamstresses sew into garments for her.
    Leaving the Quaisarya, they moved on down a narrow street, visiting the various shops inhabited by gold- and silversmiths. As they stood admiring bracelets in one of these, a handsome young man entered. He was as slender as a willow, of medium height with fair skin, dark, curly hair, and meltingly soft brown eyes.
    "My lord Hamal," the shopkeeper said, hurrying forward. "I have the earrings that you ordered ready for you."
    "Good day, Hamal," Talitha said.
    Skye's heart was hammering wildly. There could hardly be two Hamals of Talitha's acquaintance, and therefore this had to be Kedar's younger brother. She wanted to scream that she was Niall's wife, to ask if her husband were alive, but she dared not.
    "My lady Talitha, what do you here? I did not realize that my brother was in the habit of allowing his women to visit the bazaars, or has his harem finally revolted and strangled him?"
    Talitha laughed. "You grow more wicked each day, Hamal! Tell me that you are not truly happy with the princess."
    Hamal grinned boyishly. "I am happy, Talitha, although I doubt that when Kedar sold me to her he meant it to be so. Who is this shy creature hiding behind you?"
    “This is Muna, your brother's new favorite, and rumored to become his wife soon. We would not be here but that she pleases him so he allows her to visit the bazaars."
    Hamal's eyes flicked casually over Skye. "So Kedar finally thinks to take himself a wife. I cannot imagine my brother caught by that most tender of passions, yet if you say it then I must believe it. What is your secret, lady Muna? How did you capture my brother's cold heart?"
    "Pay no heed to Talitha, my lord," Skye said softly, "she but teases you with harem gossip. I am naught but my lord Kedar's humble slave. Nothing more."
    "Where do you come from, my lady? Your speech is that of my friend, Ashur, who is a favorite of my princess."
    “There are no men named Ashur in my land, my lord."
    Hamal smiled pleasantly. "Ashur is the name that my princess has given him. It means strong and warlike one. The name he bore in his own land was Niall Burke."
    “Then we are indeed from the same land, my lord Hamal. The name I bore in our homeland was Skye."
    "Excuse me, my lord," the goldsmith interrupted, "but are the earrings satisfactory?"
    "As always, Yusef," Hamal said graciously as he examined them. "Your work borders on genius. The earrings are perfect, and Princess Turkhan will love them." Reaching into his robes, he drew out his purse and paid for his purchase. Then he turned back to the two women. "We will meet again soon, my ladies," he said, and bowing, he went from the shop.
    It was all Skye could do not to run after him and beg for news of Niall. Obviously he was still alive, from what Hamal had said. At least she had that, and Hamal's promise that he would see her soon.
    "He is quite different from our lord Kedar," Skye remarked to Talitha.
    "Yes," Talitha said. "It is strange to think that they come from the same mother, and yet they do. If Kedar is fierce and strong, then Hamal is gentle and tender. Still, they are brothers."
    "Is lord Hamal married to a princess?" Skye asked innocently.
    Talitha laughed. "No. Kedar sold his brother to the princess when the boy was fifteen. It is an odd situation, Muna. The princess is the daughter of the Sultan in Istanbul, and as men keep a harem of women, she keeps one of men."
    Skye pretended to be shocked. "Why, Talitha, that is as outrageous to me as my Queen is to you!" she said.
    Talitha laughed again. "I suppose it is all in the eye of the beholder," she said good-naturedly. "Do you see anything that you like here?"
    "Yes," Skye said, and she bought a beautiful gold aigret holder with three perfect white feathers, the gold studded in small sapphires. "For my lord Kedar to thank him for this day," she said sweetly.
    They moved on to the street of the cobblers and spent a good deal of time trying on slippers of various styles, finally settling on several pairs each. When the voice of the muzzin sounded from the topmost pinnacle of the Qarawiyin Mosque they knew it was midday and, like everyone else in Fez, they fell to their knees facing east for the prayer period. Upon rising, both Skye and Talitha admitted to hunger, and Min'da purchased small hot lamb kebobs from a street vendor for them. They ate the kebobs greedily, licking the last bit of tasty grease from their fingers while Min'da bought water from another vendor for them to drink; and sweet dough balls deep fried and then dipped in honey and chopped almonds for a treat.
    For another hour or so they wandered happily through the open markets, and Skye was fascinated by everything she saw. Beneath gaily striped awnings sat the street merchants, their merchandise spread out before them for all to see. Farmers from the surrounding countryside came with their produce, the various fruits and vegetables piled high. Others had cages and pens of live animals and poultry for sale. There were rug merchants, copper and brass smiths with trays and bowls and lamps, leather goods from the tanners, and cloth merchants with their silks, cottons, velvets, wools, and gauzes blowing in the afternoon breeze. There were horse traders and slave merchants. Skye watched frightened and sad as a fair-skinned girl with long blond hair was sold to a fat man with the tiny eyes of a boar who pinched and prodded her mercilessly before finally making his purchase. Tears rolling down her face, the girl was led away.
    "Let us go back," Skye said quietly, her joy in this short day of freedom totally spoiled.
    "It is the way here," Talitha said. "Let that scene remind you how fortunate you are. We are among the privileged slaves. That poor girl was just bought by a local brothelkeeper."
    "How can you know that?" Skye was saddened even further for the blond girl.
    "I do not for sure, of course, but I recognize the breed from my younger days."
    "I can bear no more," Skye said, and turning, she climbed back into the litter.
    "So that is your weakness," Talitha remarked as she joined her and pulled the curtains shut. "Do not let the others in the harem see that you are so softhearted, Muna. They will use it against you. Nothing would please them more than to destroy you."
    "You do not want to destroy me, Talitha."
    "I do not seek to catch the lord Kedar's attention. I have had enough of that in my youth. I am content to rule his harem for him, and enjoy my daughters."
    As they returned to Kedar's home high above the old city, Skye took the opportunity to find out where the princess lived. Turkhan, it seemed, was no different from all the other wealthy people in Fez, having a large pink palace in the newer part of the city, but some distance from Kedar. They arrived back safely, and Min'da escorted them to the enclosure of the harem, which was surprisingly quiet and empty but for serving women and the children.
    "Ha!" Talitha said with wisdom born of long experience. "I will wager he is in the mares' meadow, Muna. Quickly, let us go to your room, and we shall see."
    Puzzled, Skye followed Talitha to her chamber, where they found Zada peering eagerly through the latticework. "What is it? What are you watching?" Skye demanded of her servant.
    Zada turned, her brown eyes large. "In the meadow below," she said low. "The master and his women."
    "You could have gone," Talitha said, amused. "It is not forbidden for pretty servants to join in the sport held in the mares' meadow, Zada."
    "I would not go unless I had my mistress's permission, lady Talitha."
    "What a loyal child she is," Talitha remarked, further amused. "Come, Muna, and see what games our lord Kedar plays today."
    They moved to the lattice-covered windows and looked down. Skye caught her breath in shock. Below her, the mares' meadow, a well-clipped green lawn dotted with trees, was filled with the women of Kedar's harem. All were naked and posed upon all fours. Their hair had been bound up, and to each woman's head was attached a curved polished brass headpiece from which flowed a horse's mane. A narrow gilt belt encircled each woman just below the belly, and at the base of their spines thrust forth a polished brass holder from which sprang a matching and stiffly arched horse's tail. Kedar was garbed in the same oudandish equipment, but as the women stood still as if mares browsing, he in his role of stallion moved among them, mounting them from the rear and thrusting into them. The women giggled as, finishing with one, he snorted and whinnied trumphantly as would a great stud stallion. He then moved on to another of his "mares," his erection still plainly eager.
    Skye turned away, embarrassed by the tableau below her.
    Talitha laughed softly. "You do not like his games, Muna? The eunuchs bet among themselves as to which woman will cause him to spill his seed."
    Before Skye might reply Dagan entered her room, saying, "I was given orders by my lord Kedar that you and the lady Talitha were to join him in the mares' meadow if you returned in time. I have brought your things." He placed two sets of manes and tails on a table.
    "Go and fetch a third for Zada," Talitha commanded, and with a grin Dagan left the room.
    "I can't," Skye protested.
    "If you refuse him it will be the bastinado, and afterward he will think up some particularly bestial delight to shame you with before the other women, Muna. Do not think because he considers making you his wife that he will be one bit more lenient with you. Kedar will not be disobeyed, and you know it."
    "He will use me before them all," Skye said low, and she began to tremble.
    "Yes," Talitha said, refusing to coddle her. "He will take you before them all, and if you cry and shake you will give the other women a weapon that they will delight in using against you. Like all men skilled in the sensual, Kedar enjoys occasional perversions. Show distaste for his little game in the mares' meadow, and those few women he owns who keep his interest only by their skill at perversion will think up delights that will have you screaming in your dreams for months to come."
    Skye drew a deep breath in, and said, "I will go, and I will somehow manage not to show my revulsion at the situation."
    "Good," Talitha encouraged her. "Remember you have what all those bitches wish they had. He cares for you. I even believe that if Kedar were capable of love, he would love you. Make him proud, and show them that you are his true mate!"
    His true mate. The words reminded her of Osman, that he had once believed that Niall was her true mate. Was Niall forced to submit to such degradation as Princess Turkhan's favorite as she was forced to here in Kedar's harem? Skye pushed the troubled thoughts from her mind. She had at last met Hamal, and she was confident that he would shortly contact her and arrange their-her and Niall's-escape from Fez. In the meantime she must concentrate on getting through the rest of the afternoon. Quickly she removed her clothing.
    Skye stood silent and still as Zada did up her hair, and Talitha's and helped them with the headpieces. She watched the other woman as she affixed the belt with the horse's tail, and then copied her by putting on her own. The mane and tail were a silky ebony black, and shone quite effectively against her gardenia-white skin.
    Mischievously Talitha tossed her golden mane, which complimented her own golden beauty. "Any eunuch who bets against you will lose his dinars," she remarked, "yet I wonder if Kedar can contain his lust until he is in you."
    "Hush!" Skye scolded her. Suddenly seeing the humorous side of the situation, she began to giggle.
    Talitha chuckled back at her. "I know just what you are thinking, Muna. You are aware that men can be fools, are you not?"
    "Yes," came the reply, "now be silent lest I disgrace myself with a fit of laughter down there, which I can assure you will be far worse than if I trembled and wept."
    Dagan returned with a headpiece and tail for Zada, who had torn off her clothing in her eagerness. They waited the few minutes it took the slave girl to prepare, and then followed Dagan downstairs and outside to the mares' meadow.
    "Go into the center of the meadow, and I will tell the master that you have come," Dagan whispered.
    The three women picked their way through the others, and reaching the center of the green lawn, they knelt down on all fours. Talitha had a rather bored look upon her face. She had done this Allah only knew how many times before, and it all seemed rather silly to her. Kedar visited her couch often enough to keep her from being totally frustrated, for she had been his first woman and he still found her rather attractive and exciting. She had never fawned over him like the others, and he found her elusiveness intriguing.
    Zada, on the other hand, was trembling with excitement at the thought that the master might honor her. She was not a virgin but it had been some time since she had had a man, although Dagan liked to fondle her, and push his supple fingers into her until she whimpered with pleasure. It wasn't the same, however, as having a real man's weapon shoved up inside you, Zada thought, and prayed that she would be fortunate.
    Skye simply knelt, resigned to the fact that Kedar meant to have her else they would not have been called to the meadow. At least the grass felt cool beneath her hands and knees.
    She heard a horse whinny near her, and then Zada gasped. Turning her head just slightly for a moment, Skye saw Kedar mounted upon her servant, pounding hard into her. Zada's face was a study in pure bliss, and Skye turned away, ashamed that women could be driven to welcome such degradation. With a moan that could only be described as rapturous Zada collapsed into the lawn, and Kedar moved on to enjoy Talitha. A small boy eunuch hurried along with the master, wiping the spendings from his encounter away with a soft cloth moistened in rosewater, finishing just as they reached Talitha. Kedar circled the kneeling woman, snorting and pawing. Talitha responded by pretending to shy away with a nervous little nicker. With a grin Kedar pounced upon her, thrusting quickly back and forth until she too collapsed with a little shriek. The little eunuch swiftly refreshed his master, and then Kedar's eyes swept to Skye.
    She braced herself discreetly for his assault. As with Talitha, he first circled her, and unable to help herself, Skye shifted nervously on the grass. Kedar snorted an equine warning and moved closer, nuzzling at her bottom, causing her to start warily. His big hands now closed over her hips, and she felt his hardness beginning to prod at her. She tensed, remembering her first husband, who had punished her when it pleased him by forcing her in the Greek fashion, but Kedar was not interested in loving her as he might a boy. With unerring skill he found her woman's passage, and drove deeply into her. Slowly he began to move back and forth within her, growing more excited as the moments passed. She knew she could not remain passive and please him, and so she began to tighten her vaginal muscles about him, teasingly nipping at him with the devil's bite. With a growl he pushed her down upon the grass, and bit at her neck. "Vixen," he murmured, and then his passion burst within her.
    They lay sandwiched together for some moments, and then he whispered in her ear, "I waited all afternoon for you to return so I might have you, my jewel. You have spoiled me for the others, you beautiful bitch. I am only satisfied by you."
    Her heart was still hammering wildly, but she knew that she was expected to respond to such ardor. "What a wonderful day you have given me, my lord. First the bazaars, and now your loving. I am the most fortunate of women!"
    "You do not mind that I have taken you before the others?"
    "I prefer that our love be between us alone, my lord, but I am not ashamed to show it before the others. You will, however, make them even more envious of me than they already are."
    He rolled off of her and, standing up, pulled her up with him. His arm was wrapped tightly about her waist, her breasts pushing against his side. She looked up at him, her sapphire eyes never wavering, and Kedar wanted to ravish her once more where they stood, she excited him so. "The day is not yet ended, my jewel," he murmured, and bent to kiss her slowly and tenderly. "I adore you, my fair Muna," he said low, and then, releasing her, called to the others, “The games are ended, my pets. Return to the harem, all of you but Talitha and Muna."
    The women began trooping back into the house while the young eunuch sponged down his master with rosewater, and Dagan and Min'da removed the trappings of the games from Talitha and Muna. They then loosed the women's hair, and after brushing it out, took a small portion of it from the center of their heads and braided it with a strand of small pearls. Kedar put an arm around both of his favorites, and they began to walk slowly back to his quarters. It seemed not to bother him that they were all nude.
    "You have both pleased me greatly of late," he said expansively, "and so I have a special treat for you. Today while you shopped in the bazaars I had a visit from my brother, Hamal. He brought with him an invitation to dinner at Princess Turkhan's palace. The princess, it seems, has become interested in expanding her own trading empire. Right now she sends her goods to the coast via the services of others, but Hamal has convinced her that she should save a great deal of money if she had her own caravans. I would not have thought that my brother had a head for business, but it seems that he may. He has told her that if she would send her own people to the coast to buy and sell then I am the best man to speak with about it.
    “Two days from now I am invited, and of course if I go for the evening meal then I am also invited to remain the night, for it would be too dangerous to travel the streets after dark. The invitation allows that I may bring two of my favorites with me to make my night a pleasant and happy one. I have chosen you two, Talitha and Muna."
    "My lord Kedar," Talitha quickly spoke up. "How generous you are!"
    Skye's heart was pounding wildly, but she controlled herself so she might speak her gratitude also. "My lord Kedar, we are unworthy of such pleasure. How can we thank you?"
    He stopped and, smiling down into her upturned face, said, "By giving me a preview tonight of the pleasures you will give me two nights from now. You and Talitha are perfectly matched with your white and gold skins. It would give me great pleasure to see you make love to each other before I take you both."
    For a moment Skye thought she had not heard him right, and then realizing that she had, the world began to crumble about her. She was tumbling back through the years to a time when she had surprised her first husband in an incestuous act with his sister Claire; and they had seen her; caught her and raped her. She had had a horror of any intimacy with a woman since then. It had been months in fact before she could even let her maid touch her. Now she was being faced with the thing in the world she feared most.
    Talitha saw her turn her white face, and sensed instantly that something was very wrong. "My lord Kedar," she said, "you know that I would not spoil your pleasure for the world, but I do not believe that Muna has ever made love with another woman. She is apt to be clumsy at first, unless, of course, you will excuse us for the next two days so I may school her to please you. It will be well worth the wait, I promise you," she tempted him, and then bent and bit at his shoulder in a provocative manner looking up teasingly at him from beneath her thick lashes. "Did the girl you took before you delighted me this afternoon please you? She is Muna's maidservant, and really quite mad for you, my lord. She would keep you amused this night, I vow."
    Kedar licked his lips in anticipation. He was disappointed, but he knew that Talitha was right. It would be better if Muna had some knowledge of what would be required of her, and the little Berber savage had been a hot piece. She might prove an enjoyable one-night diversion. "Very well," he growled, "but see you teach her well, Talitha." He gave them each an affectionate pat on their bare bottoms. "Go to your own quarters, and send the Berber girl to me."
    "Of course, my lord, immediately," Talitha murmured soothingly, and grasping Skye's hand firmly, she hurried her off before Kedar could change his mind.
    "I can't do it," Skye protested as they re-entered the harem. "I simply cannot do it!"
    "You do not have a choice, Muna. I saw how horrified you were, and so I rescued you before you did something foolish like refuse Kedar. I know it still chafes at you, having once been a free woman, but you are no longer free. Kedar has the power of life and death over you, and you know that he is not an easy man. If he desires that we make love together for his amusement, then you have no choice but to obey him. Do not worry. I will show you what to do, and it will not be so terrible, I promise you."
    "No," Skye said. "I would rather die."
    They had reached Skye's chamber, and Talitha pulled her into the room, commanding Zada as she did so, 'The master desires your company, fortunate one. Hurry lest you keep him waiting and displease him." With a little cry of delight Zada ran from the room, and Talitha turned back to Skye. "Have you gone mad?" she snapped at her. "If it pleased Kedar to kill you he would do it so painfully that your last hours would seem like years. Are your childish scruples worth that, Muna?"
    "Once," Skye said in a small, tight voice, "once long ago, a woman forced me, and I wanted to die for the shame."
    Talitha sighed. So that was it. Muna had been raped by a woman at one time in her life. "It won't be rape between us, Muna. It will be two friends seeking to give each other gentle pleasures, and nothing more. We are friends, aren't we?"
    "I cannot do it," Skye whispered.
    "You have to," was the equally adamant reply. "Come." Talitha put an arm about Skye, who instantly stiffened with alarm. "You will have to overcome your fears, at least to Kedar's eye. What we do means nothing, Muna. Please try."
    "What will it be?" Skye asked.
    "No more than a little kissing and caressing, Muna. Not really so awful. Let us sit down, and I will show you what is expected of us." She drew Skye over to a low divan, and together they sat down amid the brightly colored cushions. Gently Talitha began to caress Skye, and it was all Skye could do not to scream with her revulsion. It was not that she disliked Talitha, but the memory of Claire O’Flaherty's bestial abuse of her kept leaping to mind. She began to weep soundlessly, and seeing her tears, Talitha kissed them tenderly away. “There, my lovely friend, don't weep. It is not so awful, is it? Women are far more considerate lovers than men, Muna." She continued to speak gently to Skye for some minutes, all the while kissing and caressing her. Skye steeled herself against her embarrassment and distaste, finally admitting to herself that there simply was no other way. If she was to survive, if she and Niall were to escape safely from Fez, she must accept even this.
    Talitha now began to instruct her as to what she must do, and without further protest Skye obeyed her friend. Only when they lay stretched out together on the cushions and Talitha lowered her head to kiss Skye's Venus mont did Skye resist once more. "Oh, no, Talitha! Please not there!" Talitha pushed Skye's hands away, and with a sigh Skye ceased her outcry, forcing her mind to think only of Niall Burke.
    Finally Talitha said, “There! Now that was not so awful, and you were fine, Muna. Tomorrow we will practice a little more, and you must participate fully then."
    “Talitha, I can force myself to stay still when you kiss and touch me intimately; but I will not be aggressive with you. I cannot; it is not my nature. I think women loving women is an unnatural thing."
    "For some women it is the preferred way, Muna."

    "Not for me," Skye replied. "Not ever!"
    "You prefer Kedar?"
    "I prefer a man's touch."
    Talitha laughed at the way Skye had avoided her question, but held her peace. "Let us eat the evening meal together after we visit the baths," she said. "From the look in Kedar's eye your Zada will not be back until morning, and I will wager he shortly sends for others, too. You would think that his little games in the mares' meadow would exhaust him, but such things seem to increase his appetite rather than diminish it."
    It was a relief to Skye that after their initial session of lovemaking Talitha returned to her normal self. Uncomfortable as she was, she believed that now she had met and identified herself to young Hamal her stay in Fez would soon be at an end. Then she and Niall would be free, and returning to Ireland, to their children and a normal life. She wondered if she would see Niall when she visited Princess Turkhan's palace in two days. More than likely, he would remain incarcerated behind the harem walls, and she would be kept locked with Talitha in a guest apartment. They would be so close, and yet separated. "But not for long," Skye whispered to herself. "Not for long, my love."
    "What is it you say, Muna?" Talitha inquired of her.
    "What?" Skye was drawn sharply from her reverie.
    "You said something just now," Talitha repeated.
    "I did?" Skye shook her head. "I cannot remember," she said, "and so obviously it was not important. Not important at all."

Chapter 10

    Hamal led Niall Burke into the large gardens that were a part of Princess Turkhan's estate in Fez. The gardens were the only place where the two men might speak without being overheard. No one followed them to listen, for Hamal was the most trusted of the princess's slaves, and of late his companion had been far easier to manage. They strolled along a path of carefully raked marble chips, lined by tall, fragrant cedar trees. Ahead of them was a rose garden filled with brightly colored flowers. The sight of it reminded Niall of Skye, a thought he pushed from his mind. He could not afford to weaken now.
    "Did your wife ever speak of her friend in Algiers, Osman the astrologer?" Hamal asked him suddenly, and Niall stopped in mid-stride.
    "Yes," he said hesitantly. "Why do you ask me?"
    "Osman is my uncle, Ashur. Last year he came to Fez, which is his native city, in order to teach for a few months at the university. We spoke of you, and my uncle recognized who you were immediately. We decided then that you must be helped to escape. Do not cry out, my friend, but your wife is here in Fez. She is a brave woman, and from the moment she learned that you lived nothing would do but that she free you."
    "Where is she?" Niall's pulses were racing madly.
    "In the house of my brother, Kedar," Hamal said.
    "She has brought a ransom large enough to tempt the princess?"
    "Have you heard nothing we have told you these past months, Ashur? There is no ransom."
    "I do not understand then," Niall replied.

    "Your wife has come to Fez in order to encourage you in your escape from the princess. She could only enter the city as the member of a Fasi household so she and my uncle Osman devised a plan wherein she would pretend to be a slave girl and he would present her to my brother Kedar when he made his yearly visit to Algiers. This was done, and your wife came to Fez as a slave named Muna, in the harem of my brother Kedar."
    "Christ's bloody bones!" The oath exploded from Niall's mouth without warning, and Hamal looked nervously about him.
    "Be silent, Ashur!" he begged the big man. "Do you not realize the danger we are all in because of this plot? If Turkhan learns what I have done we will both die, never matter that she loves us. Think of your wife, too."
    "'Tis precisely what I am thinking of, Hamal, for I am no fool to believe that a man who would sell his own brother into slavery would bring my wife to Fez out of the goodness of his heart. Kedar is not in on this little game, is he?"
    "No," Hamal replied low. "He believes her a slave, and has used her as such. She has, in fact, become his favorite, and there is talk that he will make her his only wife. I had planned to wait a little while longer in hopes that he would grow bored with her, but he grows more enamored of her with every day that passes. We no longer have the luxury of time."
    “The little fool," he muttered low. "'Tis just the sort of thing that Skye would do to come after me." He smiled softly. "Wait until you see her, Hamal. She is the most beautiful woman ever created, and of even greater import is her spirit. Her spirit is unconquerable! She is a great and gallant lady, my Skye!"
    "She would have to have a strong spirit to survive with my brother. Kedar is not an easy man," Hamal replied. "I spoke with your Skye two days ago in the shop of Yusef the goldsmith. How beautiful she is, though, I could not tell. She was properly muffled in a black yashmak. We will see her and my brother tonight, Ashur."
    "What?!' Niall was surprised.
    Turkhan has decided to expand her trading empire, has asked my brother, Kedar, to come for the evening meal. He is allowed to bring with him two women, and I expect that your wife will be one of those women. They will stay the night, and then in the morning Kedar and the princess will discuss business."
    "Is there any chance that I can speak with her?" Niall's voice was hopeful.
    "No, Ashur, my friend, there is no hope that you may speak with one another. Turkhan would be furious should any lovely woman speak to you, and Kedar is a fiercely jealous man." He put a friendly hand upon Niall's arm. "You will have to be very brave, my friend. It will not be easy to sit calmly paying court to Turkhan while Kedar is cared for by your wife."
    "How can I possibly behave normally seeing my wife in the hands of your brother, Hamal?"
    "You have children, do you not, my friend? Think of them if you will not think of yourself and your wife. Would you orphan the babes who cannot remember you? Would you deny them both their parents? Your wife must bear you a great love to have dared this deception. How often have you told me of the insurmountable obstacles that you and your Skye overcame in order to be together? Before you destroy the small chance you have of being together once again think of what she has gone through for you, and do not let her sacrifice be a vain one, Ashur."
    Niall sighed. "Why are you helping me, Hamal? Is it merely so you may have Turkhan to yourself again?"
    Hamal smiled at the question. "You are the first serious rival I have had for Turkhan's affections, Ashur. None of the others mean anything to her. They are passing fancies, toys, simple amusements. You, however, are a different animal. I am not afraid of you, for I know that your heart is elsewhere and always will be, even if you are forced to spend the rest of your life among us. Were I certain that I might have rid myself of you by the usual harem means, I would have; but had any harm befallen you, I would have been under immediate suspicion. Though you know it not, I have twice saved your life. Turkhan's pretty pets are a jealous lot, my friend.
    "I love Turkhan, and I always have. Although Kedar does not know it, I went out of my way to bring myself to Turkhan's attention three years ago. In the beginning I saw becoming her favorite as a means to gain my own place in this world. Kedar would never have shared our father's wealth with me, and had I allowed him to see how really intelligent I am, he would have kept me beneath his thumb for all my days. I would have never been really free.
    "When I came to the princess I intended to work my way into her favor, and eventually gain control of her wealth for myself. I am, in truth, the product of my brother's upbringing. But I had had very little experience with women other than stolen kisses and fondlings of the slave girls in Kedar's house. I was a virgin when I arrived in Turkhan's bed; a fifteen-year-old boy who, despite his outward face of confidence, was in actuality quite terrified. What if I failed her, and she sent me from her forever?
    "She was nineteen then, and very experienced. Experienced enough to know that I was untutored. She was gentle and kind, Ashur. She taught me to make love as the Turks make love, and I began to gain skill and faith in myself. I also fell genuinely in love with Turkhan.
    "I still mean to have her wealth, and to run her trading empire. My time is almost near, Ashur, for when you leave her she will be devastated and turn to me for comfort. Then I will act, and become a free man once more, rid Turkhan of her harem, and make her my wife. That is how it should be. I will never take other women into my life, for she is all the woman I ever want, but I must be all the man she wants."
    Niall looked at Hamal with new respect. Until this moment he had believed him just a soft and kindhearted boy. Now he knew better, and it frankly surprised him. "How will you help us to escape?" he said, coming directly to the point.
    Hamal spoke in a controlled voice. "It will take a few more weeks to complete my arrangements, but I plan that Turkhan shall insist that Kedar escort her personally from here to Algiers through the Taza Corridor, so the princess may see the route herself and visit the port city. That is when you and your wife shall both escape, for I am certain neither the princess nor my brother will travel without their favorites."
    Niall could feel himself trembling with excitement. Hamal made it sound so simple, so easy. How could he wait a few more weeks? His heart beat erratically, and he drew several deep breaths to calm himself. "I think that I need some of Rabi's special brew," he said to Hamal. "I am as eager as a virgin for her bridegroom."
    "Yes," Hamal answered. "You must not betray us, Ashur, by any unduc show of enthusiasm. Let us return to the palace now, and seek out Rabi and her sherbets. They will soothe you, and take the edge from your excitement. We will speak again, and I will fill in all the details that you must know."
    Back within his own chambers, Niall eagerly downed the special fruit sherbet that old Rabi had made for him, his hands trembling as they clutched at the cup. Skye! Tonight he would see Skye! She knew that he lived, and she had, brave and bonny lass that she was, come to aid him. God's bones, how he loved her!
    Rabi noted his mood, and commented, "How excitable you are today, Ashur. What has made you so?"
    "Hamal tells me that his brother will be visiting the princess tonight, and that we are going to be allowed to have the evening meal with them. I am excited that my lady Turkhan trusts me enough to allow me such an honor. I am also curious to see the brother of my friend."
    Rabi cackled and, standing above him, stroked his dark hair in a motherly fashion. "Indeed, my handsome charge, you are being allowed a very special privilege. Not only will Hamal's brother be there, but his two beautiful favorites as well."
    “They cannot possibly rival my princess for beauty," Niall said quickly.
    Rabi cackled again, this time with delight. "You are falling in love with her, Ashur! It is good! It is good!" The old woman lowered her voice, and spoke confidentially. "Please her, and you will soon control her. Give her a child, and you will be master of this harem! Your fortune will be made, Ashur, and not even the gentle Hamal will surpass you in power!" She patted his arm, nodding wisely. "Rest now, my big one, and I will call you in time."
    He didn't argue, sleeping easily for several hours before Rabi woke him and hurried him off to the baths. There, he allowed the elderly women who served as bath attendants to wash him, all the while enduring the hostile stares of the other young men in the harem. Turkhan kept about twenty males in addition to Hamal and himself. Most were of Mid-eastern extraction, but the princess did have a red-haired Venetian, two Greeks, a blond and over-muscled young Swedish boy who, like Niall, had been taken from a galley, a surly Russian, and two slender blacks from the forests to the far south. That they were jealous of him was very apparent. Since Niall had arrived the princess had spent much time with him, at their expense. They refrained from any open action now because they had already tried once to teach this upstart his place, only to have been badly mauled by the infuriated Niall. They had also been whipped by their furious mistress, and threatened with being sold off. More subtle means had been blocked by Hamal who, after their second attempt at poisoning Niall, had threatened to tell Turkhan if it happened again. That would mean an excruciatingly painful death, and none was willing to risk that. So the men of the princess's harem vented their frustration on Niall through verbal means.
    "How does an Irishman fuck?" one of the Greeks said.
    "Like a pig," the other answered.
    "No, my friend. Pork is forbidden a true believer, and our fair princess is a true believer."
    "Then he must fuck like the dog he is," a dark-eyed Egyptian said.
    Niall smiled pleasantly at the group of men. "I thought that only Greeks fucked each other like the dogs they are," he said. "As for the rest of you," and he looked mockingly at them, "you've nothing left to fuck with, impotent eunuchs that you are. No wonder that Turkhan prefers only Hamal and myself. Hell, my infant son had a bigger pizzle than any of you have."
    "If it weren't for the potion that old witch gives you, Ashur, you wouldn't even be able to get it up," the Venetian snarled.
    "Rabi's potion but gives me extra strength to please my princess with, Ibrahim. Pity you'll never again have the chance." Then with another smile he walked out of the baths, leaving the others behind to fume with a rage they couldn't exhibit lest they anger their mistress. Staring after Niall admiringly, the old bath women chuckled with glee at the exchange.
    Rabi was awaiting him, and carefully rubbed musk oil into his sun-bronzed skin until it gleamed and shone with a rich color. Niall enjoyed sunning himself in the gardens, and the dark tan he had now achieved only made his marvelous silver-gray eyes more silvery. He walked and swam regularly, which had kept him from growing fat like several of the harem men who were content to loll about; but his big slender body was of late growing a trifle too lean, for his appetite had fallen off. Still, his bronze skin, dark hair, and silvery eyes combined with his basically sound body to insure his good looks.
    Rabi handed him balloon-legged white silk pantaloons, the ankles embroidered with three-inch bands of gold threads, small pearls, and rubies. About his waist was fitted a belt of gilt leather, six inches wide, its rectangular buckle studded with rubies. Niall's feet were shod in gold leather slippers with turned-up toes, and about his neck was hung a heavy gold chain with a heart-shaped pendant carved from a large dark red ruby that lay upon his bare chest. Upon both of his upper arms the old woman clasped wide gold arm bands. Niall felt somewhat ridiculous outfitted as he was, but he knew that it was the fashion here in Fez as much as horsehair padding was in the clothing of European men at the courts of England, Spain, and France. Sipping at the sweet grape sherbet that Rabi had given him, he wondered if Skye would laugh when she saw him, but then he considered what she would be wearing, and felt his anger rise for a moment only to slide away. There was nothing that he could do about it. Soon. Soon they would be together again, and all would be as it once had been.
    "You are the handsomest man I have ever seen," Rabi said admiringly as she brushed musk into Niall's dark, wavy hair.
    “They are a handsome pair," remarked Selwa, the female eunuch who attended to Hamal. "Look to my little lamb, Rabi. Is he not magnificent tonight?"
    Hamal grinned sheepishly as he burlesqued a twirl. He was as exquisitely garbed as Niall, but his pantaloons were of midnight blue silk, the ankle bands embroidered in silver and studded with tiny diamonds and sapphires. About his neck hung a silver chain with an incredibly opulent pendant, a quarter moon carved from a single enormous diamond with a long sapphire star hanging above it. His belt and his slippers were of silvered leather, both studded with sapphires and diamonds. Hamal was as fair of skin as Niall was bronzed with the sun, for Fasi men of the upper classes abhorred sun on their skins, thinking it a mark of the peasants.
    "Come, Ashur," Hamal said. "We cannot be late, as Kedar is always on time." He grinned mischievously at the two old women as they departed the chamber. "Have a delightful evening torturing the other women as to the failure of their charges," he teased Selwa and Rabi, and they chortled gleefully, indicating that was exactly what they intended to do.
    "Is she here?" Niall asked Hamal nervously.
    "Yes," was the short reply, "but you must remember, Ashur, that you can show no recognition of your wife. Whatever happens you must show nothing except devotion to Turkhan. My brother is very, very possessive of his Muna. Let him catch you in so much as a glance, and he will destroy you himself. If either of you betrays the other I can do nothing to help you, nor will I even attempt to aid you. If you will not think of yourself you must think of her."
    Niall nodded. "I understand, my friend, but you must promise not to be jealous of me tonight. I shall dedicate myself to the princess, and make her the happiest of women."
    "Do not hurt her, Ashur." Hamal's soft brown eyes were filled with concern.
    "How can I avoid hurting her, Hamal? If I am to succeed in our plan I must appear to be totally enamored of her. She must be completely certain of me, Hamal. Do not fret, my young friend. It has been my experience that women's hearts may be bruised, but they are seldom broken. She will appreciate you far more, having been betrayed by me."
    Hamal sighed with regret, but he knew that his companion spoke the truth. Better Ashur love Turkhan well before he made good his escape. Turkhan would be furious that something she desired did not after all desire her, but the time had come for him to make his move; his princess must begin to behave like the woman she was instead of a spoiled tyrant. She might be an Ottoman princess and have more freedom than any other woman save the Sultan's mother, but she was still a woman. Sultan Selim II was at fault for allowing Turkhan to remain unmarried. Hamal smiled to himself. He would soon change all of that.
    They had reached the dining chamber, a lovely rectangular room with half-tiled walls of sky blue and white, above which rose rough white-plaster walls. The dark ceiling beams were intricately carved, and the wide-beamed floors were covered in thick wool rugs woven in a medallion design of gold and deep blue on a dark red background. They entered the room by walking down two steps. Two low, polished ebony tables had been set directly opposite the entry, behind which lay a number of brightly colored cushions in silk, wool, and cotton. The room was lit by large wall torches that had been fitted into carved golden holders. In each corner of the room stood tall gold censers burning pungent incense, and in the center of each table was a low crystal vase filled with fragrant pink lilies.
    Turkhan had reached the room only a moment before the two men, and aiming, she cried out with delight at their costumes. "You are magnificent, both of you!" she purred with approval.
    "And you, my Princess," Niall murmured almost reverently, "fill my eyes with such incredible and flawless beauty that I am struck blind by the sight."
    Turkhan colored in surprise. "Why, Ashur," she said softly, "you are beginning to speak like a Persian poet."
    Hamal shifted uncomfortably. He thought that Turkhan was behaving like a young girl. She was almost simpering. Then he realized that he was jealous. Ashlar's very flattering remark had pleased her before he might even comment. He suddenly realized that Ashur had been not jesting when he warned him not to be jealous of him this evening.
    Turkhan did not notice her young favorite's quiet mood. "Let us seat ourselves before my guest and his women arrive," she said. Garbed in a cloth of silver djellabah whose deep V neckline and wide sleeves were embroidered with small black pearls and pink sapphires, she was looking quite beautiful this night. Her red-gold hair was dressed in two long narrow braids that were looped up on either side of her face, and a long cape of hair that had been dusted with diamond dust streamed down her back. From her dainty ears hung pink sapphires set in silver.
    "Are my brother's women to join us?" Hamal inquired curiously.
    "It did not seem fair that I deny him their company as I have yours, my lamb," Turkhan said.
    "Have you seen them?"
    Turkhan laughed. "How well you know me, Hamal. Yes, I watched them through the peephole in their quarters. Both are quite lovely. Tonight if you are very good, my darlings, we shall watch the unsuspecting Kedar as he makes love to his women. I am told that he is considered a highly skilled lover. Perhaps you will both learn something from him that will please me," she teased them.
    Niall felt a chill sweep over him. "You have a secret peephole in the guest quarters?" he asked.
    Turkhan laughed. "Of course I do. My grandmother Khurrem said that such things were invaluable when you wish to know more about a guest than they wish to reveal."
    Suddenly the princess's eunuch majordomo announced, "The lord Kedar, my Princess."
    Turkhan looked lazily up from beneath her thick black lashes as Kedar and his women entered the room. "You are welcome to my house, Kedar ibn Omar," she said. "Pray be seated so the meal may begin."
    "I am honored by your invitation, Highness. I hope that I may be of assistance to you." Kedar seated himself, and impatiently waved Skye and Talitha to their seats, one on either side of him.
    With a swift look Skye saw Niall on one side of the princess. Her heart leapt almost painfully within her chest, for he did not look well. Quickly she lowered her eyes lest anyone see her anger at the proprietary way in which Turkhan openly caressed Niall.
    "You would not be here in my house, Kedar, were I not sure that you could be of assistance to me," Turkhan said sharply. "Your brother has assured me that your knowledge of trading routes to the coast exceeds that of anyone else in Fez. Hamal has always been trustworthy."
    Kedar felt a surge of impotent anger sweep over him at her bold words. That a mere woman could speak to him in such a tone infuriated him. Ottoman princess or no, if he had her in his power for even a single night he would have her tamed and begging for mercy. Instead, he was forced to give a pleasant reply, but both Hamal and Turkhan had seen the quick anger that had flashed for a moment in his eyes. "I am pleased that my young brother is such a source of joy to you, Highness. I raised him myself."
    Turkhan smiled sweetly, but there was a triumphant look in her eyes that Kedar did not miss, and he ground his teeth in frustration. Seeing that her master was incensed, Talitha leaned forward, took the cup that had been placed before him, and held it to his lips. "Drink, my lord," she said, and then in a lower tone: "You cannot offend the princess, my lord. Calm yourself, I beg of you."
    Kedar turned to look at Talitha, and he nodded his agreement. He took the cup and drank a long draught of the icy and tart lemon water. "You are wise, Talitha," he said, "with a wisdom that matches your beauty." His hazel eyes scanned her, and the anger drained away. She was most beautiful this evening, and her costume extremely flattering, and pleasing to his eye. She was garbed all in sheer pale-gold silk. Her pantaloons were edged at the ankles in tiny sparkling topaz which matched the topaz sewn to her cloth-of-gold hip sash and her satin bolero. She wore a long-sleeved blouse with a soft open neckline that matched her see-through pantaloons. A headdress of gold chains and twinkling topaz formed a fitted cap over her short-cropped curb. She was everything that a woman should be, and Kedar was delighted with her, for he felt she brought honor upon him.
    A leg of baby lamb was brought out and offered to them. Next followed saffron rice, artichokes in olive oil and tarragon vinegar, haunch of young gazelle in raisin sauce, pigeon pie, capon with lemon, and new peas with small onions. A platter of sizzling kebobs made of kid, green peppers, and small onions was passed; and blue and white Fezware bowls of yogurt and purple and green olives were set upon each table.
    "You will forgive the simplicity of the meal," Turkhan said.
    "A well-cooked meal is never simple," Kedar replied, "and your cook prepares well." He opened his mouth to take the piece of lamb that Muna was feeding him. He was feeling expansive now and with the constant attentions of his women, at less of a disadvantage. He beamed benevolently at Muna. Her garb-or lack of it-was as pleasing to him as was the elegance of Talitha. Muna wore diaphanous blush-pink pantaloons with pearl ankle bands. Her hip sash was of pink and silver stripes, and above the waist she was nude. Her small, perfect breasts, their nipples stained with carmine, thrust forward proudly. Her waist-length hair was loose, held only with a narrow silver band at her forehead. For a moment Kedar's eyes lingered on Muna's breasts, and he thought of the pleasure she had given him over these last few months, of the pleasure she would give him this night.
    Skye's eyes again stole across the room to feast for a brief moment upon Niall. She knew that he must be feeling foolish in his Eastern dress, and she wished she could tell him how magnificent he appeared with his tanned chest. He looked thinner, and she wondered if he was getting enough to eat, then chided herself for a fool. If only he would look at her instead of paying such outrageous attention to the red-haired princess. Skye thought if her husband touched Turkhan with another intimate touch, or gave her one more secret smile, that she was going to throw herself across the room and strangle the smug bitch! Kedar's voice snapped her back to her role.
    "The princess sets a satisfactory table, but I should far rather feast upon your flesh, my jewel." His voice was husky with desire.
    She raised her sapphire eyes to him, and smiled a slow and seductive smile. "Would you shame me before that woman, my lord?" she murmured low. "I am for your pleasure only, and not the eyes of prying voyeurs, my lord." Her red mouth pouted adorably, and Kedar wanted her desperately. Her pure female fragrance wafted up at him, and he grew dizzy thinking of what it felt like to be deep inside of her.
    Niall Burke stared for a second at his wife, and ground his teeth silently as Kedar fondled her with a familiar hand. In his mind he had accepted what Skye had done in order to reach him, but accepting the fact was far different from watching the reality. Hamal's brother was an attractive man, and obviously a potent one. He openly handled Skye with the pleasure of a man who is fond of his favorite possession; and she seemed to enjoy it. She smiled seductively at him, and murmured in a low musical voice words that could not be distinguished. Niall wanted to leap the distance between himself and Kedar so he might stick a knife into the bastard's gullet.
    "You are deep in thought, Ashur," Turkhan's voice brought him back.
    "I dream of tonight, if I dare, my princess." He touched her face with the back of his hand, smoothing it over her soft skin.
    “Tonight," she whispered conspiratorially, "we shall spy upon our guest, the three of us, and then we shall all play together, my glorious one. I shall exceed your dreams, Ashur, my beloved."
    Boldly Niall leaned forward and kissed her upturned mouth quickly. "Your pardon, my Princess, but I could not resist."
    Turkhan laughed shakily, and tapped h