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Skye O'Malley

Skye O'Malley

Аннотация

    There has never been a woman like luscious, raven-haired, hot-tempered Skye O'Malley. She is the courageous seafaring captain of her own mighty fleet, and intelligent enough to win a battle of wits with Queen Elizabeth herself. Follow along as Skye O'Malley is swept up in a journey filled with romance and passion that takes her from glittering Ireland, to lush Algeria, to the heart of London in pursuit of a unique and eternal love…


Bertrice Small Skye O'Malley

    The first book in the Skye O'Malley series, 1980

PROLOGUE

    “What the hell do you mean she can have no more children?”
demanded Dubhdara O’Malley of his brother. The O’Malley,
chief of Clan O’Malley, was a big man, six-foot-four, arms
and legs like thick tree limbs; ruddy, sunburnt skin, snapping
blue eyes, and a mop of dark hair that was just getting a sprinkling
of silver. “You priests are always prating that the purpose of marriage
is to procreate. Well, I’ve done what the Church wanted, I’ve gotten
children on her, and not one of them a living son! Now you tell me
I must stop? But I don’t suppose you’ll be granting me an annulment
so I can wed with some fresh and healthy blood? Faugh! You make
me sick!”
    Father Seamus O’Malley, looking almost his brother’s twin
though not quite as dark of skin, viewed Dubhdara with genuine
sympathy and understanding. He knew how he felt, but there was
just no help for it. His sister-in-law couldn’t take another pregnancy.
The midwife had been quite certain about that. Another child would
take Lady O’Malley’s life. That would be outright murder.
    The priest drew a deep breath. “You’ve been married ten years,
brother, and in that time Peigi’s been pregnant ten times. She’s
miscarried three. This birth nearly killed her.”
    The O’Malley whirled, bitterness flooding his rugged face.
”Aye,” he said. “She’s miscarried thrice-and all boys too! The only
one of my sons she managed to birth lived barely long enough for
you to baptize, God assoil his wee soul. And what am I left with?
    Girls! Six girls! Five of whom are as plain of face as their mother.
Faugh! Damn! I thought surely this time…”
    He paced the room angrily, caring nothing that his harsh words
were overheard by the woman who lay, half dead and weeping with
bitter disappointment, in the next room. She had prayed so hard for
a son. She had made a novena every month of her confinement. She
had fasted and sacrificed, giving to those less fortunate than herself.
And what was the result of her piety? Another girl, and the knowl-
edge that she would now never be able to bear her husband a son.
    Unknowing and uncaring, Dubhdara O’Malley raged on and on.
”Why could she not give me sons, Seamus? Why? I’ve gotten a
brace of healthy lads on lasses about the countryside, but my own
wife can give me nothing but girls! I wish to God she had died and
the female brat with her!”
    “God forgive you, Dubhdara!” exclaimed Seamus O’Malley,
shocked to his soul.
    O’Malley shrugged. “At least I might start anew, but wait and
see, Seamus! You wait! She’ll outlive me yet! No! I’ll not stop
trying. I must have a legitimate son! I must!”
    “You get Peigi with child again, Dubh, and she dies, I’ll have
the Church on you! It’d be deliberate murder, for I’ve warned you
what will happen if she conceives again. The midwife said she almost
bled to death. The wee lass she’s borne is healthy and strong though,
thanks be to God.”
    O’Malley made a derisive noise.
    “What will we baptize her, Dubh?” encouraged the priest.
    O’Malley thought a minute. “Call her Skye after the place from
which her mother came. Her oldest sister, Moire, can stand her
godmother.”
    “She needs a godfather too, brother.”
    “You be her godfather, Seamus. Six daughters is too many to
provide dowries for, so I intend Skye O’Malley for the Church. The
Church’ll take a smaller portion, and ‘tis fitting that the future nun’s
godfather be a priest.”
    Seamus O’Malley nodded, satisfied. It was high time his brother
singled out a daughter for the Church. But then the priest looked
closely at his new niece for the first time, and was quickly certain
that this was not the daughter Dubh would send to a convent. His
five older nieces were, as their father had said, plain as pikestaffs.
With their ordinary brown hair, their pale gray eyes, they were like
little sparrows.
    This child, however, was a bird of paradise. Her skin was gardenia-fair, her eyes a wonderful blue, like the waters off Kerry, and
she already had a thick headful of black curls like her father’s. “No, said Seamus O’Malley softly to himself, “you are definitely not
convent material, Skye O’Malley!”
    He smiled down at the babe. If she fulfilled her promise, her
beauty could be bartered for a powerful match. The Church would
be delighted to accept a less spectacular O’Malley, one whose dowry
could be enriched by sister Skye’s good fortune.
    On the following day, Skye O’Malley was baptized in the family
chapel. Her mother, still weak from childbirth, was not present, but
her father and five older sisters were. Moire, aged ten, and the eldest,
became Skye’s godmother. Looking on admiringly were Peigi, nine,
Bride, seven, Eibhlin, four, and Sine, eighteen months.
    When Seamus O’Malley poured the holy water on the child’s
head, Skye did not cry out as custom decreed, thus allowing the
Devil to depart her. Instead, to everyone’s shock, she made a sound
very much like a giggle, and for the first time Dubhdara O’Malley
looked at his new daughter with interest.
    “So,” he chuckled, his blue eyes narrowing with speculation,
”it’s not afraid of water, is it? Well, she’s a true O’Malley at any
rate. Maybe I’ll not be giving you to the Church after all, Skye
O’Malley. What do you think, brother Seamus?”
    The priest smiled back. “I think not, brother. Perhaps one of the
others will be better suited, and even has a true vocation. Time will
tell, Dubh. Time will tell.”
    The O’Malley took his new daughter from his brother and cradled
her in the crook of his big arm. With his startingly bright blue eyes,
shoulder-length black hair, and bushy black beard, he very much
resembled a pirate. Indeed, his sea-roving activities bordered on
piracy. However, his fierce appearance did not frighten his new
daughter at all. She gurgled contentedly before closing her eyes and
falling asleep.
    As the O’Malley left the chapel with his brother, his five older
daughters trailing in their wake, he did not relinquish his hold on
the infant. The bond between Skye and her father had been formed.
And when Peigi O’Malley’s milk refused to come in, he chose the
wet nurse himself-a healthy, pretty farmgirl whose bastard had
been strangled by its umbilical cord.
    Six months later Dubhdara O’Malley departed on a seagoing
expedition which would keep him away from Ireland for several
months. To his priestly brother’s outrage, he took baby Skye and
her wet nurse, Megi, with him. “You’re a disgrace to the family,
Dubhdara O’Malley! What the devil will people say about Megi?
And if that’s not bad enough, you’re endangering the child! I’ll not
have Skye harmed,” roared the doting uncle.
    The O’Malley laughed. “Stow your gab, Seamus! I’m not endangering Skye. She’s already gone sailing with me for a day or so.
She likes being on my ship. As to Megi, I would be endangering
Skye if I did not take her along. Megi’s milk is better for Skye than
a goat’s, which is the only alternative.”
    “And I suppose you’ll deny you’ve been fucking with Megi.”
    “No, I’ll not deny it. You know I like all the comforts.”
    The priest threw up his hands in despair. There was nothing he
could do with his brother. Dubh was the most carnal man he knew.
Well, one good thing would come of it. At least poor Peigi would
be safe from her husband’s lust for the time being.
    In the summer of 1541 the O’Malley of Innisfana sailed out of
his stronghold on Innisfana Island, into the western seas. It was the
first of Skye’s many voyages. She took her first tottering steps on
the heaving deck of her father’s ship. Her small baby teeth cut marks
into the ship’s wheel. While her wet nurse, Megi, cowered in her
bunk, fighting seasickness and praying she wouldn’t drown, Skye
O’Malley clapped her fat baby hands and laughed at the storms.
    The baby became a toddler, and the toddler a little girl. Dubhdara
O’Malley was the lord of the seas around Ireland. He had many
ships and several hundred men who answered only to him. Skye
soon became his acknowledged heir and a favorite among the rough
sailors. She was spoiled and cosseted by them all. She barely knew
her mother and sisters, and had no time or patience for them and
their silly lives.
    In the spring of 1551 Skye’s mother died. Soon, her uncle Seamus
urged that Skye stay home and learn some woman’s ways, to sustain
her in marriage. As the priest pointed out to his brother, Skye’s
husband was more likely to appreciate a wife who could run his
home than one who could navigate a ship through the fog. Reluc-
tantly, O’Malley sent Skye home to Innisfana to learn how to be a
lady.
    Angry at being taken from her beloved sea, Skye set about making
her older, married sisters’ lives miserable. She quickly learned,
however, that Dubhdara O’Malley’s mind was made up. She must
learn womanly arts. So, as her father wished, Skye set about making
a good job of it. When her next oldest sister, Sine, was married a
few months later, Skye had become accomplished in the household
arts and was scheduled to be wed next.
    But though Skye had learned the womanly arts, she had not
become a biddable female. Not Skye O’Malley!

PART I

Ireland

Chapter 1

    It was a perfect early summer day in the year 1555. Innisfana
Island, its great green cliffs tumbling into the deep and spar-
kling blue sea, shone clear at the mouth of O’Malley Bay.
English weather, the Irish inhabitants of the region called it,
and it was nearly the only English thing they approved of. There
was a slight breeze, and in the skies above the island the gulls and
terns soared and swooped, their eerie skrees the only counterpoint
to the breaking surf.
    Standing tall against the horizon was O’Malley Castle, a typical
tower house of dark gray stone. Rising several stories high, it com-
manded a view of the sea from all its windows. It had a wide moat,
and beyond that moat was-of all things-a rose garden, planted
by the late Lady O’Malley. After her death, now four years past,
the new Lady O’Malley kept the garden up. Now in full bloom, it
was a riot of yellows, pinks, reds, and whites, a perfect background
for the wedding of the youngest daughter.
    Inside the tower house, in the main hall, the five older daughters
of the O’Malley family sat happily gossiping with their pretty step-mother while they sewed and embroidered the bride’s trousseau. It
had been a long time since they had all been together. Now, each
had her own home, and they all met only on special occasions.
    They were as similar now as they had been as children. Medium-
tall, they all ran to partridge plump. It was the kind of comfortable
figure that kept a man warm on a cold night. Each was fair-skinned with soft peach-colored cheeks, serious gray eyes, and long, straight,
light-brown hair. None was beautiful, but none was ugly, either.
    The eldest, Moire, was twenty-five, and had been married for
twelve years. She was mother to nine living children, seven sons.
Moire stood high in her father’s favor. Peigi, at twenty-three, had
been married ten years and was mother to nine sons. Peigi stood
even higher in her father’s favor. Bride, twenty-one, had been mar-
ried eight years, and had only four children, two of whom were
boys. Dubhdara tolerated Bride, and constantly exhorted her to
greater productivity. “You’re more like your mother than the others,”
he would say ominously.
    Eibhlin, eighteen, was the only one with a religious calling. She
had been such a quiet little thing that they hadn’t even suspected her
piety until the boy to whom she was to be wed succumbed to an
attack of measles the year Eibhlin was twelve. As O’Malley con-
sidered a possible replacement bridegroom for his fourth daughter*
Eibhlin begged to be allowed to enter a convent. She genuinely
desired that life. Because her uncle Seamus, now bishop of Muirisk,
was present for the talk, Dubhdara O’Malley was forced to give his
consent. Eibhlin entered her convent at thirteen, and had just recently
taken final vows.
    Sine O’Malley Butler was sixteen, wed three years, and the
mother of one boy. She was eight months pregnant but she would
not have missed Skye’s wedding.
    The married sisters were dressed in simply cut, full-skirted silk
dresses with bell sleeves and low, scooped necklines. Moire was in
a deep, rich blue, Peigi in scarlet, Bride in violet, and Sine in golden
yellow. The lacy frill of their chemises peeked elegantly up through
the low bodices.
    Eibhlin struck the only somber note. Her all-covering black linen
gown was relieved only by a severe white starched rectangular bib,
in which was centered an ebony, silver-banded crucifix. About her
waist the nun wore a twisted silk rope, also black, which hung in
two plaits to the hem of her gown. One plait, knotted into three
knots, symbolized the Trinity. The other, knotted in the same man-
ner, symbolized the estates of poverty, chastity, and obedience. By
way of vivid contrast, her sisters wore chains of wrought gold or
silver about their waists, and each woman had attached to her chain
a rosary, a needlecase, a mirror, or simply a set of household keys.
    Because this was an informal home garthering, the married sisters
wore their hair loose, parted in the center. Sine and Peigi had added
pretty arched linen caps. And of course Eibhlin, whose hair had
been cut when she took her vows, wore starched and pleated white
wings over her white wimple.
    Presiding over this gathering was Dubhdara O’Malley’s second
wife. Anne was the same age as her stepdaughter, Eibhlin, and a
pregnant with her fourth child as was her stepdaughter, Sine. Anne
was a pretty woman, with chestnut-brown curls, merry brown eyes,
and a sweet, sensible nature. Anne’s silk gown was of a deep win‹
shade, and fashioned identically to her stepdaughters’ gowns. But
over her ruffled bodice Anne wore a double strand of creamy baroque
pearls. None of the O’Malley daughters had resented their father’:
marriage to Anne and everyone liked her enormously. One could
not help liking Anne.
    For nine years after Skye’s birth Dubhdara O’Malley had obeyed
his priest brother’s edict, and stayed out of his wife’s bed. He really
did not wish to kill Peigi. Free of yearly pregnancies, Peigi regained
her strength and even began to bloom. Then, one night, Dubhdara
O’Malley had arrived home from a long voyage. It was late. He had
no current mistress, and there wasn’t a servant girl in sight. He had
gotten drunk and sought his wife’s bed. Nine months later, Peigi
O’Malley died giving birth to the long-awaited son, born September
29th and baptized Michael. The little boy was now almost six.
    Within an almost indecently short time O’Malley had taken his
second wife, a girl of thirteen. Nine months from their wedding day
Anne had birthed Brian; a year later, Shane; and in another year,
Shamus. Unlike her meek predecessor, Anne O’Malley possessed
good health and high spirits. This child she carried was to be the
last, she told her husband firmly. It would also, she assured him,
be a boy. Five sons should give him the immortality he craved.
    O’Malley had laughed and slapped her playfully on the backside.
His daughters took this to mean that he was either in his dotage or
growing mellow with age. Had their own mother ever made such
a statement she would have been beaten black and blue. But then,
Anne O’Malley was the mother of sons.
    Moire looked up from her embroidery to gaze with pleasure about
the hall. It had never looked so nice in their mother’s time for she,
poor soul, had spent much of her life in her own rooms.
    The stone floors were always well swept now, the rushes changed
weekly. The oak trestles were polished to a mellow golden hue,
reflecting the great silver candlesticks with their pure beeswax tapers.
The big brass andirons were filled with enormous oak logs, ready
to be lit when the evening arrived. Behind the high board, promi-
nently displayed, hung a large new tapestry depicting Saint Brendan
the Monk on a sky-blue background, guiding his ship across the
western seas. Anne had designed it, and had been working on it
almost every evening. of her married life. It had been a labor of love, for the second Lady O’Malley adored not only her bluff, big husband,
but their sons and their home as well.
    Moire’s eyes lit upon several big colorful porcelain bowls filled
with roses. Their pungent, spicy scent gave the room a wonderful
exotic smell. Moire wrinkled her nose with pleasure and said to
Anne, “The bowls are new?”
    “Aye,” came the reply. “Your father brought them back from his
last voyage. He is so good to me, Moire.”
    “And why not?” demanded Moire. “You are good to him, Anne.”
    “Where is Skye?” interrupted Peigi.
    “Out riding with young Dom. I am surprised at your father in
pursuing this betrothal. They do not suit at all.”
    “They were promised in the cradle,” explained Moire. “It wasn’t
easy for Da to find husbands for us all, for we’ve none of us large
dowries. Skye’s marrying the heir to the Ballyhennessey O’Flaherty’s
is the best match of us all.”
    Anne shook her head. “I fear this match. Your sister is a very
independent girl.”
    “And it’s all Da’s fault for he has spoiled her terribly,” said Peigi.
”She should have been married off two years ago at thirteen, like
the rest of us. But no, Skye did not want it. He lets her have her
way all the time!”
    “That’s not so, Peigi,” Eibhlin chided her sister. “Anne is correct
when she says that Skye and Dom do not suit. Skye is not like us
in temperament. We favor our mother while she favors Da. Dom
is simply neither strong enough nor sensitive enough to be Skye’s
husband.”
    “Hoity-toity, sister,” said Peigi sourly. “It amazes me how much
the wee nun knows about human nature.”
    “Indeed and I do,” replied Eibhlin calmly, “for whom do you
think the poor women of my district pour out their unhappiness to,
Peigi? Certainly not the priest! He tells them it is their Christian duty
to be abused by their menfolk! And then he adds to their guilt by
giving them a penance.”
    The sisters look shocked, and Anne broke the tension by laughing,
”You’re more a rebel than a holy woman, stepdaughter.”
    Eibhlin sighed. “You speak the truth, Anne, and it troubles me
greatly. But though I try I cannot seem to change.”
    Anne O’Malley leaned over and fondly patted her stepdaughter
on the hand. “Being a woman is never, ever easy,” she said wisely,
”no matter what role we chose to play in life.”
    The two young women smiled fondly at each other with complete
understanding. Then everyone looked startled as they heard shouting in the entry hall below them. As the noise came toward them up the
steps the O’Malley sisters glanced knowingly at each other. They
recognized the voices of Dom O’Flaherty and their sister, Skye.
    As the two burst into the main hall, Anne O’Malley was again
struck by the beauty of the two young people. She had never seen
two more physically perfect people, and perhaps this was why her
husband insisted on the match. Anne shivered with apprehension.
    Dom O’Flaherty threw his riding gloves on a table. At eighteen
he was of medium height, slender, with beautifully shaped arms,
hands, and legs. Having inherited his French grandmother’s color-
ing, he had glorious, close-cropped, curly golden hair, and sky-blue
eyes. He affected a tailored short beard that hugged the perfectly
sculpted sides of his face and ended in a softly rounded point.
Because he was angry, however, his fair skin was now an unattrac-
tive, mottled red. His handsome face with its long, straight nose and
narrow lips was contorted with rage.
    “It’s indecent!” he shouted at Skye. “It’s indecent and immodest
for a maiden to ride astride a beast! My God, Skye! That horse of
yours! When we’re married I will see that you’re more suitably
mounted upon a palfrey. What ever possessed your father to let you
ride mat big, black brute, I’ll never know!”
    “You lost, Dom,” came the infuriatingly cool reply. “You lost
the race to me, and as you always did when we were children, you
try to retaliate by clouding the issue. Well, let me tell you what you
can do with your bloody palfrey!”
    “Skye!” Anne O’Malley’s voice was sharp with warning.
    The girl looked to her stepmother, then laughed. “Oh, all right,
Annie,” she acquiesed prettily, “I will try to behave myself. But,
Dom O’Flaherty… hear me well. Finn is my horse. I have raised
him from a colt, and I love him. If we’re to be happily married, you
must accept that, for I have no intention of exchanging him for a
rocking horse just to soothe your male pride.”
    And while her bridegroom fumed, Skye signaled to a servant to
bring some wine. As if in afterthought, she ordered some for Dom
as well. Flinging himself into a chair, he glowered at her, but all
the while his eyes roamed her body and he thought how beautiful
she was in her dark-green silk riding habit. The skirt was divided,
and the neckline open, plunging into the valley of her young breasts.
Tiny beads of moisture had gathered on her chest and the sight
excited him. He realized that he longed to possess this lovely young
woman.
    At fifteen Skye O’Malley was well on the way to fulfilling the
promise of unequaled beauty that she had shown at birth. She stood
every bit as tall as her betrothed. Like him, she was beautifully proportioned, with a slim waist that moved into softly rounded hips.
Her breasts were small but full. She had a heart-shaped face. Her
eyes were still the color of the seas off the Kerry coast, sometimes
pure blue, sometimes dark, sometimes azure with a faint hint of
green. They were fringed in thick ebony lashes that brushed tender
pink cheeks. Her nose was slim, turning up just slightly at the tip.
And if you looked carefully you could see a few soft, golden freckles
across the bridge of her nose. The red mouth was surprisingly se-
ductive with a full lower lip, and when she laughed she revealed
small, perfect white teeth. Her skin was the color of cream and
seemed even fairer by the contrasting mass of blue-black hair that
tumbled about her shoulders.
    She excited Dom very much, although he, it seemed, did not
interest her. She far preferred galloping that great black stallion of
hers at breakneck speed about the countryside, or sailing off with
her father on some piratical adventure. The realization was quite a
shock to his pride.
    Dom O’Flaherty was not used to indifference from the fair sex.
Women ordinarily made fools of themselves over him, and he was
very proud of his sexual prowess.
    Dom tried to console himself with the thought that once he bedded
her she would soon be tamed. Hot-tempered virgins usually turned
out to be passionate lovers. He licked his thin lips in anticipation,
and quaffed his. goblet of wine. He was not aware that his betrothed
was eying him with disgust. Dom O’Flaherty would run to fat in his
middle years, Skye decided.
    Again from the entry below came the noises of arrival. Anne
O’Malley rose to her feet with a smile. “Your father is back,” she
said, “and it sounds like he brings guests.”
    Two large wolfhounds, several setters, and a large terrier all
bounded into the hall. One of the wolfhounds trotted up to Anne
and dropped two small velvet bags at her feet. Bending, Lady
O’Malley picked up the bags and, loosening the strings, poured the
contents of one bag into her cupped hand. She stared at the sapphire-
and-diamond necklace that nestled in her palm. “Holy Mary!” she
gasped.
    Dubhdara O’Malley chuckled with pleasure from the doorway.
”Then you like it, lovey? There’s earbobs, and a ring to match in
the other.”
    “Like it? Oh, Dubh, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever owned!
Where…?
    “Portuguese galleon got itself blown off course and then wrecked
aways up the coast. We were just in time to save the captain from
the scavengers. He was most grateful.”
    Anne said no more, but she read between the lines. It was obvious
that her husband and his crew had battled coastal wreckers for pos-
session of the damaged galleon. The O’Malleys had been pirates for
centuries. It was their way of life. Undoubtedly the captain of the
unfortunate ship and the survivors among his crew were now housed
in the dungeons below, where they would spend the next several
months awaiting ransom. Anne shuddered and reminded herself that
such thoughts were not her concern.
    “And where’s my wee lass?” demanded the O’Malley.
    “Here, Da.” Skye rose from her chair and came forward.
    Seeing her garb, he frowned with disapproval. “Still riding
astride, poppet?”
    “Don’t scold me, Da,” she wheedled him prettily. “It was you
who taught me, and I simply can’t gallop Finn sitting sideways. It’s
most unnatural.”
    The O’Malley cocked an eyebrow. “Must you gallop him?
Wouldn’t a nice trot do you? You must think of the babes you’re
going to bear Dom now, poppet.”
    She ignored his last remark. “Have you ever tried to trot with
one leg slung over a pommel, Da? The last time I tried it I ended
up with bruises all over my-“
    “Skye! We’ve guests!”
    For the first time her attention was drawn to the man by his side.
    “My Lord,” she heard her father say, “this is my youngest daugh-
ter, Skye, who will shortly be the bride of young O’Flaherty. Skye,
this is Niall, Lord Burke, the MacWilliam’s heir.”
    “Niall an iarain, Niall of the Iron,” she said softly. This was a
famous man, the secret dream lover of half the maidens in Ireland.
    “I see my reputation precedes me, my lady Skye.”
    “It is an open secret that you are Captain Revenge, and that you
conduct those daring raids against the English who live in the Dublin
Pale. Of course, no one would dare accuse you of this.”
    “Yet you, my lady, do not fear me,” he murmured, holding her
fast with his gaze until she blushed.
    The voice was deep and sure, but as smooth as fine velvet. She
shivered. She raised her eyes to his. They were a silvery gray, and
she imagined that in anger they would be colder than the far northern
sea, but in the heat of passion they would be fiery warm like rich
wine. Guilty color flooded her cheeks at these immodest thoughts.
The gray eyes twinkled infuriatingly, as if reading her mind.
    He towered over her by a good eight inches. His smoothly shaven
face had been tanned by the outdoors. The short-cropped hair was
as midnight dark as her own.
    Raising her hand, he kissed it. It was all she could do not to
snatch it away, for his lips burned her flesh like a brand. Sweet
Mary, she thought, he’s so much more sophisticated than Dom, yet
he’s only ten years older than I am.
    “My lord, welcome to Innisfana,” she murmured politely. Dear
God! Was that husky, breathless voice hers? And why was Anne
staring at her so strangely?
    Her father’s voice brought her back to reality. “These are for your
dowry, poppet,” he said, handing her a marvelous collection of
rubies set in gold. They were a necklace, earrings, bracelets, a ring,
and a hair ornament. Everyone exclaimed, and Dom O’Flaherty
congratulated himself as though he had been personally responsible
for choosing his bride.
    Skye clutched the jewelry to her. Thanking her father, she left
the hall. Damn! thought Anne O’Malley. She has been attracted to
Lord Burke. And why not? Now why couldn’t Dubh have betrothed
her to a strong, fierce man like Lord Burke instead of that vain boy,
O’Flaherty?
    Skye walked up the stairs to her chamber with what she hoped
was great dignity. She was quite surprised that she could move at
all, for her legs were shaking terribly. She was very confused, and
not just a little frightened by her reaction to Lord Burke. She hoped
she hadn’t behaved like a green maid, but never had she had this
kind of a reaction to a man.
    She had never seen Niall Burke before, though his romantic and
military escapades were legend. As she had dared to say aloud
minutes before, he was known to some as the famous Captain Re-
venge, who caused havoc for the English and their Irish allies when-
ever he felt that their policies were not serving Ireland.
    Captain Revenge exacted a high penalty from English overlords
who dealt unfairly with their native Irish underlings. Once, in an
escapade later to have all of Ireland laughing up its sleeve, Captain
Revenge had made love to the daughter of an important English
nobleman who had estates in Ireland. Having learned the layout of
her father’s castle from the love-besotted girl, Captain Revenge
ransacked the castle’s treasure room and used the nobleman’s store
to pay the taxes of several impoverished Irish families. The English
accepted the money and rendered receipts. When the deception was
uncovered, it was too late for anything to be done, and the English
fumed with impotent rage. Certainly they suspected the connection
between Captain Revenge and Niall, Lord Burke. But what could
anyone do? London’s policy was that the overload of Mid-Connaught
was not to be antagonized. He was, after all, an ally-an ally to the
    English being anybody not openly waging war against England. And
too, they asked themselves, what possible real damage could one
high-spirited young man do?
    He was indeed a fascinating man, thought Skye, and when their
eyes met there had been a moment of deep recognition.
    Safe in her room, she watched as Molly, her maid, prepared her
bath. Molly thought the lady Skye bathed too much, but Molly had
to admit that her mistress smelted better than anyone she knew. She
took the riding clothes from the girl and, brushing them, put them
in the wardrobe. Skye divested herself of her undergarments, pinned
her long hair up, and climbed into the tub.
    The warm water felt good. Slowly Skye rubbed the cake of scented
soap between her hands, then washed her face. Niall Burke. Niall
Burke. Her mind repeated his name like a litany. He was so tall.
He had made her feel petite, which she most certainly was not. He
had been dressed in the English fashion, with elegant parti-colored
hose and matching green pantaloons to the knee. She imagined the
rippling muscles beneath the green velvet doublet. She suddenly
wondered what it would feel like to be crushed against that broad
chest, and to her shame the little nipples on her small breasts hard-
ened, thrusting above the water.
    What on earth was the matter with her? She had never had thoughts
like these before. She knew so little about what went on between
men and women, and Dom had certainly never inspired her. In fact,
for all his good looks, Dom repelled her.
    Molly took the soap from Skye, finished washing her, and dried
her off with a linen towel. She had barely finished wrapping the girl
in a silken chamber robe when a knock sounded on the door. Molly
opened it, bobbed a flirtatious curtsey, and admitted Dom O’Flaherty.
    He sauntered in with a lascivious look to his bride-to-be, whose
young body was well outlined by the robe. “I have to leave you for
a few days, Skye. Sir Murrough has sent word that I am needed.
I will be back in time for our wedding.”
    Skye’s heart soared. He would be gone, and Lord Burke would
be here! “Go with God, Dom,” she said sweetly.
    For a moment there was an awkward silence, then Dom reached
out and pulled his betrothed into his arms. “No kiss, lovey? You
would send me on my way without the least sign of affection?”
    “We’re not wed yet, Dom. I don’t have to kiss you.”
    “Don’t have to?” he exploded. “Christ, Skye, don’t be such a
little prude! You’ll have to do more than kiss me in a few days’
time!” Damn, but she was a sweet armful, all perfumed and warm
from the bath. He could feel his desire growing. He sought for her
mouth, but she squirmed away.
    “No!”
    His blue eyes narrowed in anger, but then he laughed. “All right,
lovey. But in a short time I’ll have you begging for my kisses.” He
mocked her a bow, then turned and left the room. She shuddered.
    “Oh!” squealed Molly. “He’s a lusty one to be sure, mistress!
You’ll have good bedsport with him, and that’s lucky in a husband!”
    “Be quiet, you little fool!” snapped Skye. “Instead of drooling
over my betrothed, fetch my new burgundy velvet gown. I intend
wearing it tonight with the rubies Da gave me.”
    Molly scurried to obey. Skye O’Malley was a better mistress than
most, rarely cruel, but not above administering a slap now and then.
The maid laced her mistress into a little beribboned busk that pushed
her pretty breasts up so that they seemed almost to spill from her
pale-pink underblouse. The nearly transparent sleeves were striped
in gold. Carefully Skye drew her stockings up her shapely legs.
They were pink silk, embroidered with a flowering vine of gold
thread, and had been made in Paris. Several petticoats followed, and
then the dress. A beautiful creation of the finest, softest velvet, it
was a shimmering, jewel-red, with a full, flowing skirt. Slashed
sleeves revealed the pink-and-gold-striped sleeves of the under-
blouse.
    Skye now sat, careful not to wrinkle her skirts, before her precious
mirror while Molly brushed her dark hair until it shone with bluish
lights. She was not allowed to bind it up until after her marriage.
This had been a source of great frustration to Skye, especially at
sea, but her father had been very firm about it. She might braid it,
but the braids must hang long.
    “No O’Malley maiden puts her hair up until she weds,” he stated,
and there was no point in arguing.
    Looking at herself in the mirror, however, she had to admit that
her long, wavy hair was beautiful. Especially now, as Molly placed
a little gold lace cap with a tiny veil on her head. Skye clasped the
ruby necklace about her throat and studied the effect. The great
stones glittered almost savagely against the creamy softness of her
bare chest, and when she caught her breath she noted with surprise
mat her breasts swelled provocatively beneath the glittering rubies.
The jeweled hair ornament was to be put aside until she wore her
hair up, but she slipped on the earrings, bracelet, and ring. Sliding
her feet into red velvet shoes, she stood.
    “Lor’, mistress,” breathed Molly reverently. “I never seen you
look so beautiful! What a pity Master Dom’s not here now to see
you. You could drive a man to madness!”
    Skye laughed, pleased. “Do you really think so, Molly?” Secretly
she was wondering whether Lord Burke could be driven to madness.
    Her insides fluttered with fearful, delicious anticipation. She almost
flew out the door, bumping into her pretty stepmother as she did so.
    “Gracious, Skye,” laughed Anne O’Malley. “If you would impress the hall, then you must not rush so. Make a grand
entrance… slowly gliding… thusly, my love.” She demonstrated
prettily.
    “Your pardon, Anne. I did not hurt you, did I?
    “No, love, but stop so I may look at you. Dear heaven; how
lovely you are, and not yet grown. If young Dom could but see you
now…”
    Skye made a face. “I don’t want to marry him, Anne!” The words
tumbled out all by themselves.
    Anne O’Malley was suddenly serious and fully sympathetic. “I
know, love. I know, and I do understand.”
    “Please, Anne, please speak to Da. He adores you, and he’ll
listen to you. He’d do anything for you!”
    “Oh, Skye, I’ll try. You know I will. But it will do no good.
Your father is a man of his word, and he has given his word on this
marriage. You’re the last of his girls, and he wants you well settled.
Young O’FIaherty is a very good match for an O’Malley of Innisfana.”
    “I hate him!” came the whispered reply. “He’s always undressing
me with his eyes.”
    “Perhaps it will be different when you’re wed,” soothed Anne,
though in her heart she knew it wouldn’t. “Maidens are often fearful
of the unknown. But really, there is no cause for alarm, my love.
Tomorrow I will come and explain it all to you, Skye.”
    “Speak to Da, Anne! Please, promise me you will!”
    “I will, Skye. I promise I will.”
    The two women moved down the steps to the main hall of the
castle, and all the while Anne was aware that Niall Burke’s eyes
were fastened to her beautiful stepdaughter. At the bottom of the
steps he was there, tucking Skye’s small hand in his arm, wordlessly
sweeping her away while Anne watched helplessly. No one else saw
the dangerous, hopeless attraction between the two. She must speak
to Dubhdara!
    The floor beneath Skye’s feet seemed to have disappeared. She
was floating. Shyly she glanced down at the hand covering hers. It
was big, and square, and brown. It was magically warm, and she
could feel the strength hidden deep within it. Her heart was pounding.
Why did he affect her this way?
    They walked over to the great fireplace, which was flanked by
enormous stone lions. It was red with the oak logs that now burned
merrily with an occasional crackle and snap. They stopped and observed the leaping flames for a moment. They did not look at each other, but merely stood side by side.
    Finally he spoke. “Why do you tremble when I touch you?”
    “I am not used to the attentions of men,” she answered him
breathlessly.
    Turning her so that she faced him, he looked down at her. “I do
not understand that, Skye O’Malley, for you are outrageously fair.
Has no man, even your betrothed, whispered sweet words of love
into your little shell ear?”
    “No.” Her cheeks were softly pink now, and her voice was so
low that he had to bend to hear her.
    Niall Burke was enchanted. He felt something strange sweeping
over him, possessing him, rushing him onward to something his
inner voice warned against. “Look at me, sweetheart,” he com-
manded her. “I promise not to bite you, though God knows you’re
a tempting morsel.”
    Shyly she raised her blue eyes to his silvery gray ones, and for
a moment Skye felt as if she were drowning. She realized he felt
it too! Neither could tear their gaze away. They were suspended in
time, their souls flowing back and forth between their bodies, twining
into one perfect being.
    A great guffaw of laughter from the other side of the hall broke
the spell. With shock, Niall swore, “Christ! What is it you do to
me, little witch?” He was astounded by himself. “Turn your eyes
from me, Skye darling, before I shame us both.” He signaled a
servant bearing a tray of wine goblets and, snatching two, gave one
to Skye. He gulped down the other, welcoming the burning sensation
that spread through his stomach. It gave him something to concen-
trate on, to prevent himself from carrying this girl away from the
hall forever.
    When dinner was announced, Lord Burke, as the highest-ranking
guest, was seated next to the bride-to-be. He was artful enough to
hide his troubled emotions, but the meal tasted like sawdust to him.
He was a man of the world, experienced beyond most, but the girl
had affected him as no other female had ever done. He admitted to
himself that he desperately wanted to bed the wench, but there was
a great deal more to it than that, something he had never felt before.
It had all come on him so quickly that be couldn’t understand it
    Niall Burke was the only son of Rory Burke, the MacWilliam of
Middle Connaught. The MacWilliam had almost despaired of ever
having an heir. All three of his wives had died in childbirth. The
last of them, Maerid O’Brien, had given him his only child. From
the moment of his birth Niall had been a strong and healthy lad, but
the MacWilliam anxiously protected him.
    His wet nurse ate at the MacWilliam’s table so that the lord of
Mid-Connaught could oversee her diet. The baby’s nursery was kept
well warmed in the winter and dry in the damp weather. No child
had ever been so well taken care of. Even his sleep was overseen
by a night nurse who sat first by his cradle, and later by his bedside,
monitoring his every bream.
    Despite it all, the boy flourished. Convinced that he had a lively
heir, the MacWilliam finally eased his stranglehold. Intelligent, Niall
was educated first by the priests and then sent to England for polish
at Cambridge. In sports there was no one to touch him, and because
he could not be bested in any field, he was called Ironman.
    He could run faster than any man in Ireland, was unbeaten in
wrestling from the time he was twelve, was both an excellent swords-
man and an excellent falconer. He swam as though bom to water,
rode like a centaur, and could follow a stag’s trail better than most
hounds.
    Niall proved a lusty animal between the ages of fourteen and
sixteen. There wasn’t a serving wench in his father’s castle, or a
girl in the surrounding countryside, who was safe from his attentions.
Gradually, however, he calmed down and became more discerning.
    Rory Burke adored his only son. And in the number of Niall’s
bastards scattered about the countryside, the father saw a resurgence
of his branch of the Burke family.
    Rory now wanted his heir safely wed to a suitable young woman.
Niall, however, had preferred to remain free.
    But today had changed that. He had fallen instantly in love with
Skye O’Malley. Never having been denied anything in his entire
life, Niall fully expected to have her.
    On Niall’s right sat Eibhlin O’Malley, and throughout dinner he
devoted himself to the nun, much to Eibhlin’s secret amusement.
Like her perceptive stepmother, she had seen the sudden, powerful
attraction between Skye and Lord Burke. She pitied them both.
    After dinner, O’Malley suggested that Skye show the O’Malley
rose garden to Lord Burke. It wasn’t an unusual request, for Dubhdara was proud of his youngest daughter’s beauty, wit, and manners.
He enjoyed impressing his guests with her. Anne could only hope
to God that Lord Burke remembered Skye was to be wed in a few
days.
    Niall and Skye walked slowly from the hall, down the steps to
the entry, and across the lowered drawbridge. Neither spoke. The
mauve and golden twilight of the early Irish summer gave more than
enough light. The air was cool, with an occasional slight breeze that
carried to them the sensuous fragrance of the roses.
    “My mother planned this garden for years,” murmured Skye.
    “She loved roses. It was the one thing Da indulged her in. He had
bushes brought in from all over the world. It’s a beautiful garden,
isn’t it?”
    “It is most charming,” replied Lord Burke gravely.
    “Thank you.”
    They walked a bit farther, in silence once more. As they came
to the end of the roses, Skye turned to go back to the castle, but
Lord Burke touched her shoulder and she stopped, her face upturned.
His strong arms wrapped about her. A flame of fierce joy shot
through her. She had known this would happen! She had wanted it
to happen! His dark head dipped, and Skye O’Malley’s lips parted
slightly like an opening rosebud as she received her very first kiss.
    To her great surprise his lips were soft. She hadn’t expected that
in a man. Then he was drawing her even closer, and the mouth on
hers became demanding. Instinctively she answered that demand,
freeing her arms and sliding them around his neck so that their bodies
touched. For a brief moment she was floating. Then suddenly,
abruptly, he released her mouth. His eyes were dark with passion.
Looking down on her, he muttered huskily, “I knew it! I knew it
would be this way with you!”
    For the briefest moment reason returned, and she began to trem-
ble. Concern filled his eyes and, catching her face between his thumb
and forefinger, he whispered, “No, sweetheart! Don’t regret, or be
afraid of me. God, not that! I could not bear it!”
    “I… I don’t understand,” she whispered. “I don’t understand 
what is happening to me.”
    ‘To us, sweetheart! It’s happening to me too, Skye! I barely know
you, but I’m in love with you. I have never been in love before,
Skye, but I know that I am in love with you.”
    “No!” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “You must not say these
things to me, my lord. In a few days’ time I am to wed with Dom
O’Flaherty.”
    “But you don’t love him, Skye!”
    “My lord Burke! You know the way of these things. I have been
betrothed since the cradle.”
    “I will speak to your father at once, sweetheart. You must not
marry young O’Flaherty!”
    She looked at him wonderingly. “Are you not contracted, my
lord?’
    “She died before we could be wed. I did not even know her.
Come, sweetheart, I would kiss you again.” His mouth swooped
down, and Skye gave a small cry of joy as she yielded herself wholly
to him.
    It was utter madness, yet he loved her! This great and famous man loved her! And dear God! she loved him. She, the level-headed
Skye, had fallen in love at first sight. She could feel his powerful
body restraining itself in its desire, and she loved him the more, for
if he tried to take her now she would give herself gladly, and he
must surely know it.
    Reluctantly he loosed her, his eyes warm and caressing. “Skye
sweet Skye! How you intoxicate me, my love! Come, sweetheart
Let us return before I lose my head.” He took her hand and led he
slowly back to the castle.
    Anne O’Malley watched them enter the hall, and silently she
despaired. Skye’s cheeks were flushed, her lips softly bruised with
recent kisses, her eyes dreamy with anticipation. Anne rose from
her chair. She had to talk with her husband! Suddenly a pain tore
through her belly, her waters broke, soaking her stockings, shoes,
and her petticoats. “The baby!” she cried, doubling over clutching
her swollen middle. Instantly she was surrounded by the women.
Dubhdara O’Malley shouldered his way through the crowd and,
picking up his wife, carried her out of the hall and upstairs to their
bedchamber.
    No one could believe that a woman who had borne three children
so easily would have such a difficult labor with the fourth, but Anne
O’Malley struggled for two days. Eibhlin, trained in midwifery,
worked hard. But the child was large, and turned the wrong way.
    Four times the young nun turned the baby to the correct position,
and four times the infant reversed itself. Finally, in desperation,
Eibhlin turned the baby a fifth time and, finding its small shoulder,
gently grasped it and drew the child slowly down the birth canal.
After that, Anne was able to finish the job. As Anne had predicted,
it was a son. The boy weighed over ten pounds. He would be named
Conn.
    Dubhdara O’Malley came to his young wife’s bedside. They had
bathed her and put her between clean, lavender-scented sheets. She
had been given a nourishing drink of beef broth mixed with red wine
and herbs, which would stop the bleeding and help her sleep. She
was exhausted.
    The room emptied. O’Malley bent and kissed his wife’s cheek.
He looked somewhat older, for he had suffered untold agonies at
the possibility of losing this loving woman.
    “No more, Annie! I am happy to settle for five sons, and the
bonniest wife in Ireland! I don’t want to lose you, love.”
    She smiled weakly and patted his hand. Then suddenly she re-
membered her promise. “Skye…” she began weakly.
    For a moment he looked puzzled, then his brow cleared. “Skye’
Ah, yes! The wedding is scheduled for tomorrow. You’d not have it called off, eh love? Well, don’t worry, Annie. Skye will be wed
tomorrow, never fear. You just rest and get strong, and if you’re
awake before tomorrow evening I’ll send the bride and groom in to
visit you.”
    She tried to speak, tried to tell him that he must call it off, that
the wedding of Skye and Dom would be a terrible mistake. But the
herbs and exhaustion had taken effect. Anne struggled to speak, but
could not. Her eyes slowly closed and she couldn’t open them again.
Anne O’Malley had fallen into a deep, drug-induced sleep.

Chapter 2

    Dubhdara O’Malley stood looking down at his sleeping daugh-
ter. It shocked even him to realize how beautiful Skye really
was, and he wished he had the name and the fortune to assure
her a nobler husband than young O’Flaherty.
    He bore no love for the English, but he knew mat their royal
court was at this moment the center of the earth, and he thought how
Skye would shine there.
    Still, he hadn’t done badly by her. Her husband would be the
next chief of the Ballyhennessey O’Flahertys, and Skye would be
mother to the chief after Dom. He had her safely settled. He’d miss
her, though. Well, he chuckled to himself, why not admit he had
a special place in his heart for the lass? She was pure O’Malley.
Himself in female form, and like none of his other children.
    For a few minutes more he watched her in silent wonder, and
men he gently shook her by the shoulder. “Wake up, Skye! Wake
up, lassie.”
    She resisted, having no desire to be yanked from the dream in
which she and Niall were kissing. He persisted, however, and finally
she opened her eyes a bit. “Da? What’s the matter?”
    “Annie’s been delivered of a fine, healthy son, poppet. But she’s
fair worn with the effort. Still, she doesn’t want your marriage
postponed. The wedding feast will go on as scheduled, but you and
Dom are to be married in an hour in the family chapel. Get up, Skye
lass! This is your wedding day!”
    She was instantly awake. “No, Da! No! Anne promise!-“
    “It’s all right, love,” he interrupted. “It’s all right with Anne.
    She’s sorry to miss the festivities, but she knows that, with a castle
full of guests, we couldn’t postpone it.”
    Skye sat up, her long dark hair tumbling about her white shoul-
ders. Her eyes were enormous and deep blue in her heart-shaped
face. He shifted his eyes uncomfortably from the perfection of her
small breasts, visible through the thin lawn of her shift. “Da! Listen
to me, please! I do not want to marry Dom O’Flaherty! Oh, why
won’t you listen to me?!”
    Dubhdara O’Malley sat down on the edge of his favorite child’s
bed. “Now, poppet, we’ve been over this before. Of course you’re
going to marry Dom. He’s a fine young man, and it’s a good match
for you. These bridal nerves are natural, but you must not give way.”
    Why didn’t he understand? “No, please, Da! No! I hate Dom! I
cannot… I will not marry him!” There was an hysterical edge to
her voice.
    “Skye!” His voice had become stern. “Enough, now! I have post-
poned this wedding for two years in hopes you would outgrow your
willfulness, but no more, poppet! You’ve no reason to cry off, no
religious calling, only silly maiden fears that will have vanished by
this time tomorrow.” He stood up. “Make yourself beautiful for
Dom, poppet.” And he left her.
    Skye began to weep, a combination of frustration, anger, and
fear. Great, gulping sobs of anguish poured hot and salty from her
eyes until they were almost swollen shut. Molly, finding her young
mistress in this shocking state, turned about and sought the lady
Eibhlin. The young nun came instantly and, taking her younger sister
into her loving arms, tried to soothe her. When the sobs had finally
abated, Eibhlin laid her sister back on her pillows and mixed some
herbs in a goblet of wine that she made Skye drink. The medication
would soothe her. Eibhlin had seen cases of bridal nerves before.
    Next the nun took soft pads of linen soaked in rose water, and
lay them on Skye’s closed eyes.
    “It will take the swelling down,” she told Molly. “We’ll let her
rest for half an hour, then dress her for the wedding.”
    Very soon thereafter, Skye O’Malley stood beside Dom O’Flaherty
in the castle’s candlelit chapel and was wed. All the guests agreed
that there had never been a more beautiful bride. Her gown was of
creamy white satin with a deep, square neck edged in a wide ruffle
of silver lace. The low neckline gave the groom a fine view of her
breasts, and Dom O’Flaherty licked his lips in anticipation at the
sight of small, pink nipples.
    As the elderly priest intoned the ancient Latin words of the cer-
emony over them, the bridegroom thought lasciviously of how he
would pillow his head tonight on those soft breasts. When she raised her hand to receive the marriage ring, Dom noted the richness of
her gown for the first time. The sleeves were slashed, the inserts
filled with silver lace. This lace also edged the wrists. Her beautiful
Mack hair was unbound, in recognition of her innocence, and topped
by a simple wreath of sweetly scented white flowers.
    She was whiter than her gown, and had Dom bothered to look
closer, he would have seen the helpless, trapped look in her eyes.
The drug given her by her sister forced her to comply with the farce.
Her responses were so low that they could barely be heard, and she
moved like a puppet. Her family assumed it was bridal nerves.
    They were pronounced man and wife. They turned to face their
families and, at that moment, the chapel doors were flung open,
revealing Niall Burke, his face anguished, his eyes stark with a pain
that only she could understand. Skye simply wanted to die.
    “Kiss the bride! Kiss the bride!” came the ribald shouts.
    Dom O’Flaherty turned Skye so that she faced him. “Now,” he
said triumphantly, “you belong to me!” His mouth found hers. He
forced his tongue between her soft lips and into her mouth. Around
them came the crude cries of encouragement. The tongue was soft,
and demanding. Seeking to escape this horror, Skye fainted.
    “Ho!” shouted Dubhdara O’Malley, well pleased. “Here’s fine
proof of my lass’s innocence! Her first kiss and she swoons! Loosen
her laces, lad. You’re no stranger to women’s clothes, or so I’m
told.”
    While the laughter that greeted O’Malley’s sally echoed around
the chapel, Dom O’Flaherty picked up his bride and carried her from
the room. Helplessly Niall Burke watched as the unconscious Skye
was borne back to her room. He wanted to hit the smug young man
who cradled Skye in his arms with such obvious pride of ownership.
    For the first time in his life, the heir to one of the most powerful
families in Ireland had been thwarted. For the last three days Niall
had tried unsuccessfully to see the O’Malley, but Dubhdara had been
unavailable to his guests because of his young wife’s lying in. Under
the circumstances, Niall hadn’t expected them to marry Skye off so
quickly. He had thought he had time to speak with the O’Malley.
Though the situation would have been embarrassing, there would
have been no real disgrace in O’Malley exchanging the heir to Ballyhennessey for the heir to the MacWilliam of Mayo.
    Niall pushed, along with the family, into the bedchamber. Dom
laid his burden upon the bed. With nimble fingers the bridegroom
loosened the girl’s laces. Momentarily forgetful of his audience,
Dom caressed the soft, creamy swell of Skye’s breast. The hunger
in his pale-blue eyes was unmistakable, and Niall felt a murderous
rage well up in him.
    “Now, now, my son, we’ll have none of that until tonight,”
chuckled O’Malley. “Your bride’s got to be able to stand for all the
toasts that’ll be drunk at the feast, and she’ll be in no condition if
you have her now.”
    O’Flaherty flushed amid the leers and snickers. Then Eibhlin
pushed through the crowd to Skye’s side and, kneeling, began to
rub the girl’s wrists. “Molly-the wine, please. And a burnt feather.
Da, it would help if all these people left. You too, brother Dom.
If Skye is to be up to enjoy her own wedding feast, she must rest
now.”
    The room slowly emptied, and Eibhlin and Molly raised Skye up.
First the feather was burnt and waved beneath her nose, then the
drugged wine was forced between her lips. Skye coughed, choked,
and opened her eyes. “You fainted,” said the nun drily.
    “He… he put his tongue in my mouth, Eibhlin,” said Skye,
visibly shocked. “He… he said that I belong to him.”
    “You do.”
    ‘No! Never to Dom O’Flaherty! Never to any man!”
    Eibhlin turned. “You may leave us,” she told the reluctant Molly.
Then Eibhlin said quietly, “It’s Niall Burke, isn’t it, Skye? Dear
Lord, he didn’t take your virginity?”
    Miserably, Skye shook her head. “He wanted to wed with me,
Eibhlin. He was to speak with Da.”
    “But he didn’t, or if he did Da said no. You’re married to Dom
O’Flaherty, Skye. You must face it. It is your duty to be a good
wife to him. He loves you and he is your lord in the eyes of the
Church.”
    “I cannot, Eibhlin! I simply cannot! I hate Dom, and I can’t bear
his touch.”
    “Some women are like that, Skye. Perhaps you are one.”
    “No! When Niall Burke kissed me it was perfect! I wanted him!
The way a woman wants a man… in marriage. But I don’t feel mat
way about Dom.”
    “Go to sleep, little one,” said the nun soothingly. “In a few hours’
time you must hostess your wedding feast.”
    Sighing, Skye lay back. The herbs were doing their work, and
suddenly she fell asleep, her face still wet with tears. Eibhlin shook
her head. What on earth possessed Da to insist on this marriage,
knowing Skye was so against it? He had always indulged his young-
est daughter, adoring her lavish beauty, delighting in her love of the
sea. He had never before forced her into something.
    Eibhlin speculated. Perhaps their father wanted the last of Peigi
O’Malley’s daughters out of his house so that he could be free to
enjoy his second wife, and his five sons. At any rate, though she would never admit it to Skye, the nun shared her sister’s dislike of
O’Flaherty. He was stubborn, far too vain, and for all his fine
education, woefully ignorant. Eibhlin sighed. There was simply no
help for it. It was a man’s world, and a decent woman was either
a wife or a nun. Perhaps, she thought wistfully, it would be different
someday. Eibhlin went back to the chapel to pray for her sister.
There was nothing else she could do.
    When Skye awoke several hours later, the terrible reality of her
situation swept over her once more. Her knowledge of men was
limited, but she instinctively understood that her husband was the
sort of man who preyed on the weak and helpless. Dom liked win-
ning. She must not let him know how upset she was.
    Slowly she rose from the bed, feeling just slightly dizzy, and
bathed her face in rose water. Still unlaced, she breathed deeply,
clearing her head. She whirled at the sound of the door behind her,
furious that her privacy was to be so quickly disturbed. “How dare
you enter my chamber!”
    He smiled lazily. “You forget, Skye pet, that I have the right to
enter your chamber whenever I choose to do so. I am your husband.”
    She shivered. “I forget nothing, Dom,” she bravely answered.
He moved toward her, and her courage cracked. “Don’t come near
me!” She backed away from him, but he kept on until she felt the
edge of the bed against the backs of her legs. The look in his eyes
terrified her, and she had to force herself to stand straight, to look
directly at him. She could hear the sound of her own heart drumming
in her ears.
    “Your maiden shyness pleases me-to a point, Skye.” His hand
caressed her cheek, slid down her neck to her shoulder, then gripped
the soft flesh. “I am your husband and I will brook no disobedience
from you. Your father has spoiled you badly, but I will not. I will
school you as I do the bitches in my kennel, and you will do your
duty by me. When you err, I shall punish you. Do you understand
me, Skye?”
    “Yes, Dom.” Her eyes were lowered in apparent compliance, but
really to hide her smoldering hatred.
    “Good,” he said, his voice softening a little. “Now come here to
me, pet.” He took her chin between his fingers and forced her head
up. His wet mouth ground on hers, and his tongue forced itself
between her clenched teeth. She shivered with revulsion. The wet
lips were on her throat. He pushed her onto the bed and, atop her,
pulled down her gown, exposing the small, perfect breasts. His
mouth opened to capture a little pink nipple, and she screamed.
    He stopped, raised his eyes, and looked down on her. “Please
Dom, we must face our guests.” Groaning with frustration, he stood up slowly and, giving her a venomous look, stumbled from the
room.
    Outside in the hallway he stopped a moment to catch his breath,
to massage the ache in his groin. She was right, damn her! He didn’t
dare take her until tonight, but he needed to cool the fire in his loins!
At that moment his wife’s buxom maid came around the corner.
    Dom O’Flaherty’s blue eyes narrowed speculatively, and a quick
winning smile lit his features. Molly stopped, eyed him, and instantly
ascertained his need. Wordlessly she took his hand and led him
around the corner into a darkened alcove. She loosened his codpiece,
and gasped with delight. “Oh, my Lord! You’ll more than do!” Her
arms slid up around his neck and she whispered excitedly, “Give
us a kiss, love.” He bent to find her mouth, all the while fumbling
to raise her petticoats. He backed her up against the stone castle
wall, and Molly wrapped her legs about his waist. Clasping the
plump cheeks of her buttocks in his hands, Dom O’Flaherty buried
himself deep in the servant girl’s willing warmth. He worked himself
back and forth, not caring that he was banging her head against the
wall. She moaned, half with pleasure and half with pain. He obtained
his release quickly. Molly was set back down on her feet and,
straightening his garments, O’Flaherty left her without so much as
a word or a glance. Molly slipped to the floor, whimpering.
    Skye, who seldom prayed outside church, was thanking every
saint in the calendar for her temporary reprieve. Tonight there would
be no reprieve. She would be forced to submit to whatever it was
men did with women. She had some vague ideas, but her sisters had
never discussed sex, and Anne had not gotten around to enlightening
her. She was going to be at Dom’s mercy.
    She took her brush and removed the tangles from her hair. Then,
smoothing the wrinkles from her wedding gown, Skye opened the
door and left her room. Dom appeared from the darkness and, arm
in arm, they descended into the hall below to greet their guests.
    The festivities had begun without them, and a cry went up as they
entered. Dubhdara O’Malley, already half drunk, lurched forward
and escorted his daughter and her new husband to the high board.
Skye was horrified to find herself with her husband on her right and
Lord Burke on her left.
    “Good evening, Mistress O’Flaherty. My best wishes on your
future happiness,” he said formally.
    “Thank you, my lord,” she answered. She dared not look at him
lest she begin to weep again, but her hand shook as she reached for
her goblet. Noting this, his heart contracted painfully.
    The O’Malley of Innisfana had spared no expense. Huge bowls
of raw oysters, platters of prawns and shrimp boiled in white wine and herbs, were set on all the tables. Whole sea trout broiled and
stuffed, first with salmon then with smaller fresh-water trout, and
finally with small shellfish, were placed at intervals on the tables.
The bridegroom stuffed himself with raw oysters, loudly reminding
everyone of their aphrodisiac quality.
    The next course consisted of whole swans, capons in a lemon-
ginger sauce, larded ducks, plump golden broiled pigeons, whole
baby lambs, sides of half-cooked beef dripping their fat and bloody
juices, potted rabbits, small pasties of minced meats, bowls of new
lettuces and small green onions in vinegar, silver trenchers of bread
and crocks of sweet butter. No one went thirsty, for silver pitchers
of wine, both red and white, and earthenware pitchers of ale were
placed on all the tables and kept filled.
    The last course consisted of shaped jellies in all colors, custards,
fruit pies, wheels of sharp cheeses, sweet cherries from France, and
oranges from Spain. The chef, hired for the occasion, had done
himself splendid credit with a magnificent marzipan confection. Its
top decoration depicted a married couple, the bridegroom’s codpiece
conspicuously large, the bride with a coy smile upon her face, her
eyes fixed on the bulge.
    Toast after toast was drunk. Some were ribald, some thoughtful.
Finally Dom O’Flaherty turned to his bride. “Go prepare yourself
for me, pet. I am well fed by your father’s gracious bounty. Now
I would feast on your sweet flesh.”
    Her cheeks reddened and she shivered. “I must bathe,” she an-
swered. “There was no time this morning.”
    “How long?”
    “An hour.”
    “Half, Skye. I will be denied no longer.”
    She stood, and immediately a shout went up. Gathering her skirts
up, Skye fled the hall followed by her sisters and, behind them, a
group of laughing young men. If they caught the bride or any of her
maids, they would be allowed a kiss as forfeit. With incredible
swiftness the O’Malley sisters gained Skye’s chamber-where the
young couple would spend their wedding night-and slammed the
door, successfully shutting out the young men.
    Before the fireplace a small steaming tub of water stood ready.
    Skye looked gratefully to her servant. “Bless you, Molly, you
anticipated me.”
    “Knew you didn’t have time before,” replied the maid, helping
Skye undress. The sisters busied themselves putting Skye’s beautiful
gown away and straightening the chamber. Sine took the warming
pan and ran it smoothly beneath the bedcovers. “Nothing cools a
man’s ardor like cold sheets,” she observed.
    Skye kept her mind on her bath. If she allowed herself to think
of what was coming she would go to pieces. She glanced about her
bedchamber. Aside from the flowering branches placed there in
keeping with the old pagan fertility ritual, it seemed the same. The
large black oak bedstead, hung with azure blue velvet, had been
freshly made with fine linen sheets redolent of lavender. The tall
matching armoire was now empty, of course, her clothing having
been packed for transport to her new home. She washed quickly,
stepping out of her tub into a warmed towel. Her lovely body was
rosy from the heat of the water. Molly quickly dried her and lavishly
applied scented powder with a lamb’s wool puff. The sisters sneezed.
as the excess filled the air.
    “Open the window a bit,” commanded Moire. “And fetch the silk
robe, Molly.”
    Skye flushed. “Oh, no, Moire!,Not that, for pity’s sake.”
    “Skye!” Moire’s voice was sharp. “It’s an O’Malley family cus-
tom, and we have all followed it. Lord, sister, you’re the fairest of
us all. There’s nothing for you to be ashamed of, lass.”
    “But for all those leering men to see me naked!”
    “We O’Malleys are proud to show we come to our husbands
unblemished. You will follow the custom as we all have.” The silk
robe was loosely wrapped around the bride, and then Moire said,
”Peigi, unbolt the door. I hear the men coming.”
    Peigi had no sooner stepped back from the door when it burst
open and the laughing guests poured into the little room. Dom
O’Flaherty had already been partially disrobed by his friends. Dubhdara
    O’Malley stepped up to his youngest daughter. He was very
drunk, but he could yet play his part.
    He held his hand up for silence, and the room quieted. “This is
the last of me daughters to be wed. As with all my girls. I am proud
to show that she comes unblemished, and free of pock marks, to her
bridegroom.” He nodded to Moire and Peigi, who drew the simple
robe from Skye and let it slip to the floor. The girl was now com-
pletely naked. As she turned, the sisters held up Skye’s long dark
tresses to show the assembled guests that nothing was hidden beneath
her hair. In the candlelight, her beautiful body glowed like mother-
of-pearl.
    An audible sigh rippled through the room as the men and women
admired and envied the young virgin’s perfection. The bridegroom
was visibly affected. Skye was exquisite, with her small, pink-tipped
breasts, her slim, long legs ending in slender, high-arched feet.
    Suddenly the guests were thrown into shock as Niall Burke pushed
forward, boldly allowed his silver eyes to slide over the bride, and announced, “O’Malley! As your overlord I claim the droit du seigneur of this woman.”
    The master of Innisfana swallowed hard. “A poor jest, my lord,”
he replied, now very sober. He was hoping to God that Burke was
only drunk, but he knew Burke wasn’t. “My daughter’s no peasant
wench,” he stated firmly.
    Lord Burke drew himself up to his full imposing height. His
proud glance swept the room. “I am your overlord, Dubhdara
O’Malley. You swore obedience to me on my tenth birthday. It was
by my most generous hand that you received this barony of Innisfana.
Our laws demand that you comply with my request.”
    “No!” shouted Dom. “She’s mine! Mine! And I am not your
vassal.”
    Lord Burke looked scornfully at the younger man. “I will remind
you, O’Flaherty, that your family owes obedience to my father-
whose deputy I am. I claim the droit du seigneur of your bride. Will
either of you gentlemen endanger your families and insult me over
a girl’s maidenhead? Besides, O’Flaherty, when I am finished
schooling her she’ll be much more to your taste. You are not, I
understand, very good with virgins.”
    There was a sharp intake of breath around the room. Dubhdara
O’Malley shifted uncomfortably. Then suddenly it came to him that
the final decision rested with his new son-in-law. “I yield to you,
my lord,” he said quickly, nearly sighing with relief.
    The complete silence in the hot little room was finally broken by
Dom’s voice. “I’ll pay a penalty, my lord,” said Dom. “You have
but to name it.”
    Niall Burke eyed Dom arrogantly, then drawled, “Your life, or
the wench’s maidenhead.”
    A gasp went up. This was high drama, the sort of thing that
would be spoken of for years to come in both the halls and hovels
of Ireland. Why was Lord Burke so intent on having the bride? To
be sure, she was a lovely creature, but it was very rare for an overlord
to claim the droit du seigneur of a vassal’s bride.
    Dom O’Flaherty whitened, then reddened, with fear and helpless
rage. His eyes swept over Skye, then back to Lord Burke. He pictured
them locked in an embrace. Damn the bastard! thought Dom. He’s
got me trapped! At last he said savagely, “I yield. And damn you
to hell, my lord Burke!” Turning, he stamped from the chamber,
followed quickly by the O’Malley and the rest of the guests.
    Niall Burke walked slowly to the door of the room and, shutting
it, slammed the bolt home. Turning back, he looked at Skye.
Throughout the whole exchange, she had remained as silent and still as a hiding rabbit. “I do mean to take you,” he said quietly.
    Her eyes were enormous, blue-green against her white face. “I
know,” she answered softly. “You’ll have to tell me what to do. No
one has ever told me what is required, and I am very ignorant. Anne
didn’t have time to explain,” she finished helplessly.
    A warm smile lit his features, and he was suddenly her Niall
again. “I think, sweetheart,” he said in a kindly voice, “that the first
thing would be to get you into bed. You look chilled.” With a
sweeping movement he pulled the covers back and, scooping her
up, gently tucked her beneath the down coverlet.
    “Kiss me, Niall.” It was a simple request, and it was also the
first time she had called him by his name.
    “I have every intention of doing just that, Skye. Give me but a
moment to divest myself of my clothes.”
    “Please, now!”
    Had she been anyone else he would have made a ribald jest. She
was so intense. So urgent. Instead he bent, kissed the lips she offered.
It was a sweet kiss, and they were both loath to stop, but finally she
drew away. “I had to be sure it would be as lovely with you this
time as it was the last. When Dom kissed me today I wanted to die
because he revolted me so.”
    “And is it still as lovely, my darling?” His silvery eyes caressed
her warmly.
    “Yes, Niall. It is still lovely.”
    Thoughtfully, without haste, he removed his clothes and approached the bed. “Have you ever seen a man naked before, Skye?
The firelight from the small corner fireplace flickered across his bare
body.
    “Only the top part. The sailors often strip their shirts off when
it gets too hot. I’ve seen bare feet, and part of the leg too.” Her
eyes slowly traveled the length of him, lingering a moment on his
sex, then blushingly moving upward.
    He grinned mischievously at her. “I trust I meet with your com-
plete approval, sweetheart,” he teased, climbing into bed with her.
    Her heart-shaped face was very serious. “I don’t understand how
it works.”
    “Let me worry about that,” he answered. Taking her into his
arms, he rolled her beneath him. “Ah, Skye! Sweet Skye! I have
dared much for you, my darling.” His mouth found hers again, but
this time it was different. His lips teased, playing lightly across her
mouth, her fluttering eyelids, her forehead, cheeks, chin, and lastly 
the tip of her nose.
    The shock of his sweet assault left her slightly breathless, and
she was certainly not ready for the warm hand that gently cupped her breast. “Oh!” Then, “Oh, Niall, I am sorry I am so small,” she
apologized shyly, unable to meet his warm gaze.
    “You are perfection, Skye. See how sweetly your breast nestles
into my hand? It is like a little white dove.” He bent his dark head
and kissed the pink peak, pleased that it hardened almost immediately
beneath his lips.
    Gently he pressed her back among the pillows, lightly straddling
her. His warm mouth now pressed kisses all across her trembling
breasts, taking pleasure in her rapid rise to passion. Her beautiful
hair billowed shining and dark across the white linen pillows. Head
thrown back to reveal the slender column of her throat, she tempted
the warm lips to leave a string of burning kisses down the quivering
flesh.
    His big hands slipped over her torso, enjoying the silken skin.
Suddenly Skye was afire, and she moaned helplessly, frightened.
Her body felt liquid. She was languid, yet filled with a great strength
at the same time. His voice murmured soft and reassuring words of
love.
    Still she gasped softly, surprised as his fingers gently explored
her, probing tenderly, forcing the tension from her body. Then she
became aware of a new touch, that of his manhood, hard against
her soft leg. Gently his knee nudged her thighs apart. The pulsing
root of him touched the tip of her womanhood, and in a sweet haze
of fear and desire she heard him say, “It will hurt you just once,
Skye. After that there will never be pain again, my love.”
    “Yes! Yes! Oh, please, yes!” she panted, not even knowing what
it was that she sought, but desperately wanting it. A deep, burning
pain quickly receded, leaving her filled with a wonderful, throbbing
warmth. His silvery eyes met her blue ones, and passion mirrored
passion as he loved her. For a moment they hung suspended in time
and then she cried out her pleasure as his hardness broke, filling her
with his creamy juices.
    After a few breathless minutes he rolled away and cradled her in
his arms. He stroked her hair, marveling at its soft density. When
he spoke again his velvety voice held the faintest hint of a tremor.
”Thank you, Skye, my little love. Thank you for the most precious
gift a man can receive from a maiden.”
    She moved so that she could see his face, her new womanhood
making her brave. “I have waited all my life for you, Niall Burke.
Do not leave me now, for I should sooner be your leman than Dom
O’Flaherty’s wife. I would go where you go.”
    He sighed. “I cannot let you go now, Skye. We will get your
marriage annulled based on your adultery with me. I have no inten-
tion of returning you to O’Flaherty. We will leave for my father’s castle in the morning. Your husband is a vain peacock. A fat financial
settlement and a new and noble bride should soothe his swollen
pride.”
    “You will not leave me?” Her eyes were shining with happiness.
”Oh, Niall! I love you! I love you so much!”
    “God, sweetheart, I adore you!” He kissed her hard. “I love you
too, my darling. I love you!”
    Their bodies melted together once more. Skye was completely
overwhelmed by these new and delicious stormy sensations sweeping
over her. Her body responded to his every touch, eagerly seeking
each new thrill.
    He lay on his back and, lifting her, lay her atop him. Her blushes
delighted him. Shyly she hid her face in his shoulder. He chuckled.
”Nay, sweetheart, now you must love me.”
    “But Niall, I don’t know how,” she protested.
    ‘Touch me, Skye. It’s the best start.”
    She sat up, her legs on either side of his torso. She couldn’t quite
meet his gaze yet. Shyly she touched his chest with a trembling
hand. The dark mat of hair was soft, his skin smooth and warm.
Her hand moved to his shoulder, then down his well-muscled sword
arm. In a sudden bold move she leaned forward and brushed his
cheek with her breast. Niall softly caught his breath and waited for
her next move. Slowly she rubbed his face and then a hard little
nipple was against his lips. It was now Skye’s turn to gasp as she
found the taut little peak in the warmness of his mouth. His tongue
teased it, sending darts of fire through her. She wriggled, eyes half
closed.
    His arms came up around her, and she once more found herself
on her back. He caught her hand and drew it down to his manhood.
Unbidden she caressed him with devastating effect. He groaned into
the dark and tangled night of her hair. The clean, heathery smell of
her soap, the warm woman scent of her body maddened him. Again
he slid his great sword into her sweet sheath.
    Sighing, she took as much of him to herself as she could. Her
arms held him as tightly as his held her.
    “Put your legs about me, my darling. I cannot have enough of
you.” His voice was strange, fierce and husky. Obeying, she cried
out softly as she felt him drive deeper into her soft body. The world
about her exploded into a whirlpool of pleasure upon pleasure. It
could get no better, and yet it did-with each smooth thrust.
    “Niall! Oh, Niall, I die!” she finally sobbed, seemingly unable
to bear any more. He was experienced enough to control their spiraling rise, but he could not stop loving her. “Just a little more,
Skye. Ah, God! You’re so sweet! I don’t want to stop!” he muttered thickly. “No! No! Don’t stop! Please, no!” she whispered back
frantically. She did not want to leave this marvelous world. Deeper!
Deeper! Faster! Faster! They were lost in each other. As they climaxed together she gave a long wail, half in joy, half in sorrow.
    Gathering her to him, he crooned low, “Ah, Skye! Sweet Skye!
You are perfection, my little love. Pure perfection! I love you so,
sweetheart.”
    Her blue-green eyes were heavy with exhaustion, but they shone
with love. “Give me a son, Niall!” she whispered fiercely.
    Tenderly he stroked her cheek. “In time, my darling. In time.
Now sleep, Skye, my love. In the morning we will face the world
with the shocking news mat we would be together. We will need
to be well rested to meet the uproar that’s sure to follow.”
    “You meant it when you said you wouldn’t leave me?” Her voice
trembled.
    “Aye, sweetheart! Only the devil himself can separate us now,
Skye.”
    “I’d go with you into Hell itself, Niall,” she answered passion-
ately.
    At last, enclosed in each other’s arms, they fell asleep, trusting
the power of their love.

Chapter 3

    In the gray half-light before dawn Niall Burke and Skye lay
sleeping. Heart hammering, the little pot boy crawled through
the unshuttered window and for a brief moment stared quite
openmouthed at the two people lying on the bed. Both were
naked. The man was on his stomach, face down, his arm flung
across the woman. She was curled on her side. The pot boy, who
was rarely freed from his kitchen, thought the two were the most
beautiful sight he had ever seen. He felt saddened at what he must
do. The woman stirred in her sleep and, guiltily recalling his duty,
the boy tiptoed across the room. Softly sliding the bolt back, he
opened the door.
    Dubhdara O’Malley and three of his men-at-arms came silently
into the room. O’Malley nodded to his retainers. Niall Burke was
swiftly pulled off the bed, a cloth stuffed into his mouth. Then he was half-dragged, half-carried out of the room, the door shut softly
but firmly behind him. Fiercely Niall struggled against his captors,
who hustled him down into the main hall of the castle. He was not
afraid, for he knew that if it had been his life they sought he would
already be dead.
    “You’ll not yell, my lord?” O’Malley asked him when they en-
tered a room down the hall.
    Niall shook his head. His arms were freed and the gag was pulled
from his mouth. He took up the goblet of ale placed at his hand.
Drinking it, he began to dress in his clothes, which the little pot boy
had thoughtfully brought along. Niall Burke was furious, but arguing
with the O’Malley stark naked put him at a disadvantage. His an-
tagonist spoke first.
    “You will be on your way immediately, my lord. Young
O’Flaherty has spent an unhappy night, drinking and abusing Skye’s
maid. The sight of you now could drive him to rashness. I should
not like to answer to the MacWilliam if his heir were harmed.”
    Niall yanked on his boots. “I want Skye’s marriage annulled,
O’Malley! For three days I tried to get to you, to ask you to call off
this marriage. I love Skye, and she loves me. I want her to wife.
I’ll see that O’Flaherty is pacified with a new bride and a large bribe.
Why do you think I did what I did last night? To amuse myself,
man? I love your daughter, O’Malley, and I hope my action will
force O’Flaherty to give her up.”
    Dubhdara O’Malley looked amazed. “Laddie, laddie! If I have
nothing else in this world I have my good name and my good word.
The word of Dubhdara O’Malley has never been questioned because
it is as good as gold. I have never broken my word! I will not do
so now. Skye was betrothed to Dom as a child. Even if I had
postponed the marriage, your father would not permit you to marry
an O’Malley of Innisfana. For you, it will be an O’Neill, an
O’Donnell, or an O’Brien-daughters of the high aristocracy. Not
my little lass.”
    Niall’s silver eyes flashed. “She is fit to be a queen, O’Malley!”
    “Ah, laddie, you’ll get no argument from me on that account!
But my daughter is Dom O’Flaherty’s wife till death parts them.
You’ve exercised the droit du seigneur on the bride. There is nothing
else here for you. Go home. Leave me to mend the broken fences,
and my child’s broken heart.”
    “I will not leave without Skye, O’Malley! She comes with me!”
    The master of the castle barely nodded to his men. Niall Burke
was tapped lightly on his head, rendering him unconscious. “Carry
him to the boat, and tell Captain MacGuire to take him home.
    MacGuire’s to put this letter directly into the MacWilliam’s hand,
and await a reply,” O’Malley said tersely.
    O’Malley sat watching a moment as his most honored guest was
slung over the shoulder of one of his men and removed from the
hall. Then, without a backward glance, O’Malley returned to his
daughter’s bedchamber. He shook her awake gently’. “Skye, lass!
Wake up now.”
    Slowly her blue eyes opened, then widened in surprise. “Da?”
Her gaze quickly swept the room, and her voice became a frightened
whisper. “Niall?”
    “Gone, Skye. Niall Burke has gone home.”
    “No! He promised we would never be parted! He promised!”
    “Men frequently make promises in the heat of passion that they
have no intention of keeping,” said the O’Malley brutally. “Get up
and get dressed, daughter. You’ll go with Eibhlin to her convent on
Innishturk until Dom’s temper cools, and we’re sure you don’t carry
Burke’s bastard. I’ll send someone to help you dress.”
    “You’re lying to me, Da! What have you done with Niall?”
    “I’m not lying, Skye. Burke has gone home.”
    “Where’s Molly?”
    “She’s sick this morning,” O’Malley said as he left the room.
    Skye sat numbed. He had promised they would not be parted!
He had meant it! She knew he had meant it! Where was he? Had
they killed him? Oh, God, no! She began to tremble. No. Of course
they hadn’t killed him. Her father would not kill his overlord’s heir.
    Perhaps, said an evil voice in her head, perhaps he is telling you
the truth. After all, your experience with men is not great. Perhaps
the great lord’s heir has amused himself with you, and has now gone
back to his own. Her heart began to hammer fiercely, and for a
moment she thought she would faint. Then, from deep inside, Skye
called on the reservoir of strength she had built up over the years.
If she listened to doubt she would go mad. She must trust to her
intuition. Skye O’Malley would not give in to panic.
    Climbing from the bed, she walked naked across the chamber and
drew her clothing from a leather-bound trunk. She began to dress,
first pulling on her underclothes, then a skirtlike object. This garment
was a design of Skye’s own fashioning. O’Malley had objected to
his daughter wearing men’s clothing, but Skye had felt hampered
aboard ship by long skirts. So she had made her skirts into wide
pants that came below the knee. Beneath, she wore hose and knee-length leather boots. She had cut her chemises off at the waist,
hemmed them, and worn them beneath her silk shirts.
    Washed and dressed, her long black hair braided and affixed atop her head, she gathered up a dark plaid cloak and left the room. She
found a man-at-arms waiting, and directed him to fetch the small
trunk in her room and see it safely stowed in the waiting boat.
    Regally, she descended the stairs. Below, in the castle’s main
hall, her father, her sister Eibhlin, and Dom awaited her. Dom looked
terrible. His eyes were badly bloodshot and puffy, and his face was
marked with several scratches and bruises. She steeled herself for
the confrontation. “Good morning, Dom.” He eyed her angrily,
nodded, but said nothing. She shrugged, then turned to her father.
”I am ready to go, Da, but before I do I want to know the truth.
Niall would not have left me unless forced.”
    Dom O’Flaherty’s light-blue eyes widened, then narrowed. He
turned to his father-in-law. “What the hell treachery is this,
O’Malley? It’s bad enough that Burke demanded the droit du seigneur of my bride before the entire district. Now it appears she was
in collusion with him!” He whirled on Skye. “You little bitch! How
long has it been going on? How long have you been whoring with
Burke? I ought to beat you black and blue!”
    Skye eyed her husband coldly. Her voice was calm and level.
”I met Niall but a few days ago, Dom. Yes, we are in love. I do
not understand how it happened, but it did. I do not particularly like
you, Dom, but I would not have hurt or embarrassed you deliber-
ately. Niall Burke wants to marry me. Give me an annulment. You
don’t love me. Niall will arrange for you to have a new and noble
bride, and a fat financial settlement to soothe your wounded pride.”
    Dom looked as if she had lost her mind. “Have you given me a
half-wit to wife, O’Malley?” He turned on Skye. “Listen, you little
fool! The MacWilliam isn’t about to let his heir marry with the likes
of you. Niall Burke is a rake. He wanted only to fuck with you,
which I’ve no doubt he did quite well if his reputation is warranted.
It’s over! Now you’ll go with Eibhlin to Innishturk until I’m sure
Burke’s seed did not take root. When you come home to me, Skye,
you’ll be a proper wife-like me or no-and you’ll go no more
awhoring. Get out of my sight now, woman!”
    “Da!”
    “Obey your husband, Skye. He is your master now.”
    “Never!”
    Dom O’Flaherty leaped the distance between them and, grasping
Skye by the arm, slapped her brutally several times. Shocked, for
her father had never hit her, she could only try and protect herself
from his blows. “Whore! I warned you what would happen if you
disobeyed me!” He shook her hard. Furious and fearful both, Skye
pulled away angrily.
    “Whoreson!” she hissed. “Hit me again and I’ll stick a knife into
your black heart!”
    “Enough!” roared O’Malley, stepping between the two. “Enough,
Dom!” His voice was sharp. “Eibhlin, take your sister to the boat,
and go”
    Skye’s eyes were almost black in anger. “I’ll not forgive you for.
this, Da,” she said quietly. Shooting him a look of pure hatred, she
left the hall with her sister.
    Outside, the day was chill and gray. The wind whipped the
women’s cloaks about them as they hurried across the drawbridge
and through the rose garden. For a moment Skye stopped. Her eyes
softened and swam with tears. Plucking a red rose, she inhaled its
fragrance, sighed, and continued on her way, carefully picking her
way down the path that led from the cliff top to the damp beach
below. A sailboat and two of her father’s men waited on the beach.
She could see her trunk already in the boat. One of the men helped
Eibhlin into the little craft. Skye brushed aid aside, clambering up
into the craft and seating herself in the stern. She took a firm grip
on the tiller. While one sailor pushed the boat from the damp sand,
the other hoisted the sail.
    The sailor Connor grinned, nodded, and sat back when Skye took
the tiller. They’d be at Innishturk Island in a jig time, for no one
could sail a boat like Mistress Skye. The other sailor, newer to
O’Malley’s service, sat silently.
    Skye tacked the boat smartly across the castle’s sheltered cove
and nosed it into the open sea. The day was turning fair, and there
was a good breeze. The small boat skimmed across the deep blue
waves. Innishturk, but a few nautical miles away, was easily visible.
Skye carefully set her course to bring the craft in on the piece of
coast closest to Eibhlin’s convent.
    Eibhlin wanted desperately to talk to her, but Skye suddenly
looked older, and very forbidding. The young nun was suddenly
sad. What could she possibly say to cheer her sister? What did you
say to a woman forcibly married to one man when she deeply loved
another? Once again, Eibhlin felt the frustration of being a woman
in a man’s world. Again she asked herself why it was so.
    Then Eibhlin saw a terrible bruise beginning to form on Skye’s
left cheekbone. Silently the nun dipped her handkerchief in the icy
cold sea and, squeezing it out, wordlessly handed it to her sister.
A brief smile was her thanks, as Skye took the wet cloth and held
it to her injured face.
    Innishturk came closer, then closer, and soon the little boat was
scudding up onto the beach. Eibhlin was lifted out. In her element now, she commanded, “Bring Mistress Skye’s trunk, Connor. Padraic, you stay with the boat.”
    “Yes, Sister.” “Aye, Sister.”
    Skye swung herself over the side of the boat and dropped lightly
to the sand. She knew the way quite well, for she had often come
with her father to see Eibhlin. Silently she trudged up the path from
the beach. At the cliff top she undid a small wicket gate, and held
it open for her sister and the panting Connor. The gate swung shut,
and they were on the convent grounds.
    Ahead of them stood St. Bride’s of the Cliffs, built over one
hundred years before. The convent was built around a quadrangle,
the four towers of its corners rising stark against the sky. The dark
gray stones of the main building were weathered by the wind and
the sea. There were several outbuildings for the convent livestock,
a bakehouse and a washhouse. At the convent portal-a double
oaken door bounded in brass-they stopped.
    “Connor will have to wait here,” said Eibhlin. “I’ll send someone
to bring your trunk.”
    “I’ll wait with him,” said Skye quietly. “If I am to be cloistered
for a month I’d just as soon postpone my captivity.”
    Eibhlin did not argue. She pulled on the bell. When it was an-
swered by the portress, she entered hurriedly.
    Alone with Skye, Connor observed, “Strange place for a hon-
eymoon if you ask me.”
    “I didn’t!” snapped Skye, “but it’s as good a place as any when
you’re wed to the wrong man. Repeat that, you old gossip, and I’m
sure to be beaten for it.”
    “The O’Malley never laid a hand on you in your life, lass!”
    “No, he didn’t, but the little bastard he’s married me to did. The
bruise on my cheek is a mark of his affection.”
    Connor saw nothing wrong with a man occasionally giving his
woman a clout to keep her in line, but he was truly shocked mat a
bridegroom would beat his bride of one day. Mistress Skye was not
just any lass. She was special. Besides, he was related to her maid,
Molly, who’d barely survived her night with O’Flaherty. Better to
warn the young mistress.
    “I’d best say this straight out, lass, so’s you’ll be on your guard.
O’Flaherty took Molly to his bed last night. Fair killed her too.
Made her do all kinds of things no decent man would ask of a
woman. Then he beat her half to death and kicked her out. When
you’ve got to go back to him, be careful.”
    Skye’s face betrayed no emotion. “Will Molly be all right?”
    “Her bruises will heal.”
    ‘Tell her if she chooses not to serve me anymore I’ll understand.
If that is her decision she may remain at the castle to serve my
stepmother. Tell the lady Anne that I will need a stout serving woman
of middle years and plain countenance. If I am forced to return to
him, I would not expose another young girl to O’Flaherty.”
    The convent portal creaked open again and Eibhlin came forward,
escorted by two stout nuns. Skye bid Connor farewell, then followed
her sister through the door. Her trunk would be brought in by the
other nuns.
    The two sisters walked silently through the long hallway until
they came to a heavy oak door. Eibhlin rapped on the door. A voice
bid them enter, and they obeyed.
    Seated in a chair was one of the most beautiful women Skye had
ever seen. Her oval face was serene beneath the white wimple, with
its starched and pleated white wings. Her black habit was relieved
of its severity by a stiff white rectangle of a bib upon which rested
an ebony crucifix banded in silver, a silver lily on its face. Kneeling,
Eibhlin caught the aristocratic hand and kissed the silver-and-onyx
ring of office.
    “Rise, my daughter,” came a cool, cultivated voice.
    “Reverend Mother, may I present my sister, Skye. Skye, this is
the Reverend Mother Ethna.”
    “Thank you, Sister Eibhlin. You may return to your duties now.
Mistress Monahan from our village went into labor this morning,
and you have our permission to attend her.”
    Eibhlin bowed herself out, and the Reverend Mother Ethna waved
Skye to a chair. “Welcome to St. Bride’s of the Cliffs, Lady
O’Flaherty. Your father has already apprised us of the reason for
your visit. We will endeavor to make you as comfortable as pos-
sible.”
    “Thank you,” Skye said tonelessly.
    Quiet brown eyes surveyed Skye, and the nun appeared to be
debating with herself. Then she said, “I was Ethna O’Neill before
I took the veil. It was my niece to whom Lord Burke was betrothed.
She never knew him, but I did. He has a most winning way about
him.” A small smile played about the corners of her mouth.
    “We met but a short time ago,” said Skye, softening somewhat.
”I don’t know what happened to us, but we are in love. Da simply
would not listen. Niall wants to have my marriage annulled so we
may wed.”
    The nun shook her head. “Perhaps he can arrange it, or at least
get the proceedings started while you’re here.”
    “You’re the first person who’s not told me that the MacWilliam won’t let his heir marry with an O’Malley of Innisfana.”
    The Reverend Mother laughed. “Ah, these men and their pride!
Take heart, my daughter. The MacWilliam is a stern man, but he
loves his son. But tell me, child, have you no feeling for your young
husband?”
    “I do not love Dom, nor did I ever wish to wed with him. I
begged my father not to force me to it, even before I met Niall
Burke. In fact, I did not wish to wed at all until I met Niall. I do
not believe a woman should have to spend her life with someone
she dislikes.”
    “So,” chuckled the nun, “you’re a revolutionary like your sister,
Lady O’Flaherty.”
    “No. And please, I beg of you, Reverend Mother, do not call me
Lady O’Flaherty. I shall never acknowledge Dom’s name as mine.
I am Skye O’Malley!”
    “Very well, Skye O’Malley, we shall try to make your stay with
us as pleasant as possible.” The nun picked up a bell and rang it
sharply. It was instantly answered by a little novice. “Sister Feldelm,
this is Skye O’Malley, Sister Eibhlin’s sister. She is sheltering with
us for several weeks. The West Tower guest suite has been prepared
for her. Will you please escort her there?”
    “Yes, Reverend Mother,” said the novice, bobbing a curtsey.
”If you’ll come along with me, Mistress O’Malley.”
    “You are free to go wherever you chose on the grounds, Skye,
and the chapel and public rooms of the convent are open to you.
You need not keep to your rooms.”
    “Thank you.” Skye turned to follow Sister Feldelm.
    “My daughter, I shall pass on to you any information I receive.”
    Skye flashed her a small smile, then followed the novice out.
    How sad, thought the Reverend Mother. Another young woman
pushed into an unhappy marriage. She wondered what the Mac-
William would do. She knew what he would not do. He would not
let Niall have Skye, for he sought a better match for his heir. Damn
him and the others like him for the fools they were! Hadn’t they yet
learned that overbred wenches invariably proved to be bad breeders?
A good sturdy lass of less elegant lineage made a better wife.
    The Reverend Mother Ethna realized that beneath the gallant
defiance, Skye O’Malley was a frightened and desperate girl. If the
child was to be disappointed, best she learn it now so she might face
her grief with the nuns. In the time she was with them, they could,
with the grace of God, help her make peace with herself.
    Alone in her apartment Skye inspected her surroundings. There
were two rooms, a good-sized dayroom, and a small bedroom. Both had fireplaces. The bedroom fireplace was set into the corner. The
room held only a big oak bed with claret velvet hangings. There was
no room for any other furniture. The size of the bed amused and
puzzled Skye until it dawned on her that the convent probably relied
on the generosity of its friends to furnish its rooms. Giggling to
herself, she wondered what the nuns thought of the great bed. It
faced the one small window in the bedroom, and looked out over
the sea.
    The dayroom was a bright, pleasant room with windows on two
sides. They faced north, giving a far view of her home on Innisfana
Island, and west across the open sea into the setting sun. On the
east wall of the room was a large stone fireplace flanked by two
great carved winged angels. To the north of the fireplace was the
stout oak door that served as an entry.
    On the opposite side of the fireplace a small floor-to-ceiling book-
case had been built into the wall, matching a larger one that shared
the south wall with the paneled bedroom door. Before the lead paned
western windows was a polished oak refectory table with armchairs
at the head and foot. To one side of the fireplace was a settle and
on the other a comfortable chair. There was a large carved chest,
and in the space between the windows stood a little prie-dieu with
an embroidered cushion. Skye’s trunk had been placed in the bedroom, beneath the window.
    The convent’s benefactors had been more than generous. Heavy
claret-red velvet draperies hung from all the windows, and a large
Turkey carpet in reds and blues was spread across the floor, matching
a smaller one in the bedroom. Skye later learned that the O’Neills
had furnished the West Tower’s guest quarters when their own Ethna
became the head of St. Bride’s of the Cliffs.
    Skye’s days quickly took on a comfortable pattern. She rose early,
and attended mass in the convent’s chapel. She was not particularly
religious, but she prayed now that Niall would soon come for her.
Afterward she obtained her own breakfast from the kitchen and went
off by herself to walk across the convent grounds. A small sailboat
belonging to the order was placed at her disposal, and Skye spent
many hours sailing and fishing to pass the time. The convent soon
enjoyed a number of fresh seafood dinners courtesy of their young
guest.
    The main meal of the day was served at two in the afternoon,
and Skye ate it alone in her dayroom. The evening meal was served
after vespers, and sometimes Eibhlin joined her young sister. Oth-
erwise Skye was again alone.
    The convent had a surprisingly fine library, and the bookshelves in Skye’s dayroom were also well filled. On very wet days, she
read. Skye O’Malley was a well-educated woman for her day. She
could speak her native Gaelic as well as English, French, and Latin.
She could write, and though she might not sew as fine a seam as
her sisters did, her needlework was passable and she could knit.
    She knew how to run a household, understanding provisioning,
salting, conserving, preserving, soap-making, and perfume-making.
She knew the rudiments of brewing and household medicine. She
had been taught to keep accounts, for O’Malley firmly believed that
the only way to avoid being cheated by one’s own steward was to
do one’s own household accounts. And as if that were not enough,
Skye was one of the finest navigators her father had ever sailed with.
The O’Malley often joked that he thought his daughter could smell
out her ship’s destination.
    Though she saw the nuns as she moved through the uneventful
pattern of her days, Skye actually spent most of her time alone. The
order of St. Bride’s was not a cloistered one, nor was it a begging
order. The nuns were workers, devoted first to their God and second
to the poor. Some of the nuns were teachers and others gave medical
aid to the surrounding area. The rest farmed for the convent, cooked,
knitted, sewed, and did the farm and household chores.
    Skye adapted instantly, and entered into the spirit of the convent,
doing her share of fishing, snaring rabbits, and one day even bringing
down a young buck. The venison was a rare treat for the nuns.
    Skye needed that constant physical activity. Had she not worked
so hard she might never have slept. Why had Niall not communicated
with her? Surely he understood the anguish she was feeling. He
could not, she was sure, have made love to her with such exquisite
delicacy while intending to leave her forever.
    It might have eased her mind to know that Niall Burke suffered
no less than she did. He had clawed his way up through the swirling
darkness to discover himself trussed like a damned Christmas goose
on a cockle of a boat that was bouncing all over the ocean. The
bearded captain of the little boat gave him a wicked but sympathetic
grin.
    “So, you’re awake, me lord.”
    “Where the hell am I?” snarled Niall. “Unloose me at once!”
    The captain looked unhappy. “Ah, now, your worship, I can’t
do that. If I were to unloose you, and you became violent, which
I can see you’re sure to do, I’d be in terrible trouble. Take Lord
Burke home to the MacWilliam was what the O’Malley told me to
do, and that’s just what I’ll do.”
    “At least sit me up, man, and give me a dram. I’m cramped, my head feels like the little people are mining gold inside it, and I’m
not sure I won’t be seasick.”
    Captain MacGuire chuckled. “All right, lad. You don’t ask a
great deal of a man, and I’m no fool to make you any more uncom-
fortable than you already are.” Bending, he hauled Niall into a sitting
position, his back against the mast, and held a flask to his lips.
    Niall gratefully swallowed several gulps of the smoky, peat-
scented whiskey. It hit the pit of his stomach like a burning rock,
but almost immediately it began to spread its warmth through his
cramped, wet body. “So the O’Malley sent me home?” he said
thoughtfully.
    “Aye, me lord, and you’ve slept as peaceful as a babe most of
the way. We’re just about there.”
    Niall craned his neck and looked to the coast, but he was not a
sailor and the distant landscape looked all the same to him. “How
long?” he demanded.
    “A bit,” came the infuriatingly vague answer. “See that little point
over there? Once we’re around it you’re home. That’s where we’ll
land, and then I’ll walk you from there. I’ve a message to deliver
to the MacWilliam.”
    “Walk!” Niall exploded. “We’ll take the first available horses we
can find. The MacWilliam’s stronghold is a good stretch of the legs
from the sea, man. Do you ride?”
    “About as good as you sail, laddie.”
    “Then God help you, MacGuire! You’ll soon be as uncomfortable
as I am now!”
    When they finally reached shore the captain untied his passenger
and helped him from the boat. Niall Burke rubbed his wrists where
the ropes had chafed him. He was anxious to be home so he might
speak with his father. He clambered up the hillside from the beach.
    Without even looking to see if MacGuire was with him, Niall
strode quickly away, following a faint path. After about a half-hour
they came in view of a thatched roofed farmhouse. Next to the
farmhouse bloomed a kitchen garden of herbs, carrots, and other
root vegetables, cress, and a few bright flowers. The nearby fields,
well kept, were already colored with barley and rye. And in a pasture
just beyond the garden a dozen sleek horses grazed peacefully. There
was no sign of life, though MacGuire could have sworn he had seen
smoke coming from the chimney. “Ho! The house! ‘Tis Niall Burke,
and a friend.”
    After a long moment the farmhouse door swung open, and a big
man stepped out. He called back out into the house, “It’s all right,
Maeve. It’s his lordship.” The man came forward, a grin on his face, and clasped Niall’s hand in his own large bearlike paw. “Wel-
come, my lord! How may we serve you?”
    “I need two horses, Brian. This evil-looking fellow is Captain
MacGuire, one of the O’Malley’s men. He’ll return the horses to
you later.”
    “At once, my lord. If you’re not in too great a hurry, the wife
is just taking bread from the oven.”
    Niall Burke’s silvery eyes crinkled in appreciation. “Ah,” he
breathed. “Maeve’s bread with her own honey! Come on, MacGuire!
I’ve a treat for you, despite the fact that you’ve treated me badly.”
The captain in his wake, he burst through the door and swept up a
sparrow of a woman into his embrace. He held her high above him,
lowering her to smack kisses on both of her flushed cheeks while
she laughed and scolded him to put her down. “I’ve come for your
virtue-and your fine bread, Maeve love!” he teased, returning her
to her feet.
    She gave him a friendly whack, and said, “None of your naught-
iness now, Master Niall. Tis long past time you grew up. Come
along with you, and your friend too. Sit down. The bread’s just
from the oven.”
    They obeyed her and sat. Niall, turning to MacGuire, explained,
”Maeve was my nurse until I was seven. Then she deserted me to
wed with Brian. As a boy, I used to come here often, for she bakes
the best bread in the district. And for some reason her bees make
the best honey you’ve ever tasted.”
    “It’s the salt air,” said Maeve. “It gives the honey a wee bit of
a nip.”
    MacGuire shortly found that Lord Burke was no liar, and he said
to Maeve, “If you had a daughter who could bake half as well as
you do, mistress, I’d wed with her in a thrice.”
    Maeve flushed with pleasure. “If you return this way, Captain,
stop for a meal with us.”
    “Thank you, mistress, and I will!”
    “The horses are ready, my lord,” called Brian from the doorway.
    Niall Burke stood up, licking a drop of honey from his finger
like a small boy. “Let’s go, MacGuire. I’m anxious to be home!”
    The captain was surprised to see two fine, well-bred mounts
waiting. They mounted and, with a wave to Brian, rode off.
    “Your peasants must be prosperous to have any horses at all, let
alone such fine ones,” observed MacGuire as they cantered along.
    “These are our horses,” answered Burke. “We keep good horses
with several specially chosen families for just such purposes as these.
That way, we’re never stranded.” He then spurred his horse to a
gallop. “Come on, man,” he called to the captain, who was bouncing up and down on his mount, looking decidedly uncomfortable. “I’m
for home!”
    Niall Burke was to regret his haste. No sooner had he entered
into the MacWilliam’s presence than the O’Malley’s letter was
handed over to the great lord. MacGuire was sent off to be served
refreshment, and Niall stood impatiently while the MacWilliam, his
strong features darkening, skimmed over the parchment. Finally the
MacWilliam snorted and, looking angrily at his son, roared, “Well,
you arrogant puppy, I hope you have a helluva good explanation for
your conduct! Dubhdara O’Malley’s ships are vital to the defense
of this area, as is the goodwill of the Ballyhennessey O’Flahertys!”
    Niall, of course, had not read the letter. Caught off guard, he
blurted like a schoolboy. “I love her, Father! I love Skye O’Malley!
I tried to speak with O’Malley, and get him to call off the wedding.
But his wife went into labor before I could talk to him. She had a
hard birth. He was unavailable all that time, and they wed the girl
ahead of schedule, practically in secret.”
    “O’Malley wouldn’t have called off the match, you young fool!
It was made years ago. He was bound to it! And a damn good match
it was for his youngest lass. How dared you interfere?”
    “I love her, and she loves me. She detests the O’Flaherty bastard
they’ve wed her to! She always hated him, even before we met.”
    “And you felt that gave you the right to claim the droit du seigneur
of the bride? Jesus, man! If you were anyone else I’d kill you!
You’re lucky O’Malley has a sense of humor. The girl’s been sent
to her sister’s convent to be sure your night results in nothing worse
man embarrassment.”
    “I love her!” shouted Niall. “I want her marriage annulled so I
may wed her. There must be a bishop in this family.”
    “Over my dead body!” roared the MacWilliam. “O’Malley’s ships
are valuable to me. His wench is not. I’ll have no pirate wench
mothering my grandchildren! I’ve arranged for you to wed with
Darragh O’Neill, the younger sister to your late betrothed. She is
thirteen, and ripe for marriage. You’ll be joined in three weeks’
time.”
    “No!”
    “Yes! Listen, you young idiot, take O’Malley’s girl as a mistress
if you wish, but you cannot wed her. She already has a husband.
And from what I hear of him, once he takes her to bed, you’ll
become just a pretty memory to her.”
    “Go to Hell!” Niall Burke stormed out of his father’s study and
got gloriously drunk. The following day, his head feeling twice its
normal size, he was summoned back to his father.
    “This,” said the MacWilliam, “was brought for you this morning.
    I have taken the liberty of reading it, and can only say that O’Malley’s
daughter is wiser than you are. She obviously has more sense than
you do. Here.”
    Niall snatched the parchment and read it with shock.
    My lord Burke:
    I have retired with my sister to her convent of St. Bride’s
on Innishturk Island, where I shall pray to Our Lady that the
shameful night we spent together bears no unhallowed fruit.
What we did was wrong, and I can only hope and pray that
my husband will forgive me. I beg that you forget me, and
for the good of your soul enter into Christian marriage with
a good woman at the earliest possible moment. May God go
with you always.
    Skye, Lady O’Flaherty
    He wanted desperately to deny what he read. And, after all, he
had never seen her writing. Was it a forgery? The hand, however,
was sweetly rounded and feminine, and he recognized the imprint
on the wax seal as the one she wore on a ring. Perhaps they had
forced her to write this message. But he knew how stubborn Skye
was. They could have burned her feet with hot irons and she’d not
have written it, had she not wished to do so. Damn her! Damn her!
Was that all he meant to her? A shameful night? Damn her for the
fickle bitch she was! Anguished beyond anything he had ever known,
Niall blinked back his tears and said hoarsely, “I’ll marry Darragh
O’Neill.” Then he dropped the letter and strode from the room
without a backward glance.
    The MacWilliam waited a moment to be sure his son had gone,
then said, “You can come out now, Captain MacGuire. Go back and
tell the O’Malley that his strategy worked. My son will be wed in
three weeks’ time, and will give him no further trouble.”
    MacGuire bowed, nodded wordlessly, and departed.
    Alone, the MacWilliam felt a twinge of conscience. He loved his
son deeply, and hated denying him anything. Still, when given the
choice between an O’Neill and an O’Malley for his daughter-in-law,
there was only one choice the MacWilliam could make. Yes, Niall
would settle down quite nicely with Darragh O’Neill. By this time
next year he would have a grandson.

Chapter 4

    An especially nice tiling came of Skye’s stay at St. Bride’s.
Walking on the beach one day, she came across an injured
young wolfhound, not quite full grown. The poor creature
was half starved, its ribs plainly visible. Its fur was so filthy
and matted with salt that it was difficult to tell the dog’s true color.
Its leg had been caught in a rock crevice. Hearing the weak bark,
Skye ran to the dog, who looked up at her hopefully and thumped
his long tail in a friendly fashion.
    “Ah, poor beastie,” murmured Skye sympathetically, and set
about freeing the dog. Carefully she removed the small rocks about
the animal’s leg. And then, as gently as she could, she drew the leg
from its prison. The dog winced, but did not growl. Skye patted
him. “There, love, come along now and let’s find some food for
you.” The dog fought his way to his feet and limped, stumbling a
little, after her.
    The nuns were as sympathetic as Skye had been, and allowed the
dog into the convent. His origin and owner remained a mystery. The
island peasants would not dare claim the royal canine. Peasants kept
only working dogs, such as terriers, mastiffs, and mongrels. The
Irish wolfhound, that great killer of wolves and other predators,
belonged to the ruling class, as did Irish setters.
    Skye named the dog Inis, after the favorite hound of Partholan,
an early settler in Ireland. Inis attached himself to her with a singular
devotion. He walked out with her in the mornings, sailed with her
in the convent’s little boat, and slept with her at night, spreading
his great lanky frame across the foot of her bed. Within a few weeks
he had regained his normal adult weight, one hundred sixty pounds,
and stood thirty-eight inches high. Bathed, his fur became a shining
silvery gray that reminded Skye of Niall’s eyes. Inis’s ears and the
feathers on his legs were black. The hound was Skye’s slave, his
soulful eyes lighting up with pleasure each time he looked at her.
    Skye needed the dog’s love, for Niall Burke appeared to have
forgotten her entirely. And then there came the day when her show
of blood arrived right on schedule. She wept into Inis’s soft neck,
her heartbreak complete.
    The Reverend Mother Ethna sent a message to the young O’Flaherty informing him that his wife was not pregnant and a week
later Dom arrived to claim his wife. The Reverend Mother personally
showed him into Skye’s apartment. “I would have come sooner,”
he said, smiling smugly, “but I was obliged to attend Niall Burke’s
wedding to Darragh O’Neill.”
    Skye fainted. When she came to she was lying on the settle. She
heard Dom speaking solicitously to the nun. “I did not realize the
news of Lord Burke’s marriage would so unsettle my lady.”
    “Did you not, my lord?” said Ethna O’Neill coolly.
    O’Flaherty smiled and, ignoring the nun’s sarcasm, continued.
”I realize it is unusual for a gentleman to spend the night in your
convent, but I really do not think my wife should be moved until
the shock wears off.”
    The Reverend Mother Ethna had decided she did not like Dom
O’Flaherty, but she did agree with him that Skye should not be
moved right now. She was forced to assure him that, though it was
unusual, it was not forbidden him to spend the night under St. Bride’s
roof. He was welcome. Dom thanked her politely, then asked if she
would take his wife’s hound, see that it was fed, and have it put in
the stables with his men and horses. Inis, who had taken an instant
dislike to Dom, was removed under protest.
    They were alone. Dom O’Flaherty walked to the settle and said
coldly, “I know you’ve recovered your swoon, Skye. Now get up
and greet your lord and master properly.”
    Slowly, she rose and placed a quick kiss on his mouth. He chuck-
led and with lightning swiftness pulled her close. She tensed and he
laughed. “Ah, yes. You don’t like me, do you, wife? How unfor-
tunate for you for you’ll soon be spreading yourself wide for my
pleasure, and my pleasure alone. And when I’m deep inside you I’ll
wipe all thought of Niall Burke from your mind!” His mouth ground
down on hers, and she beat her clenched fists against his chest. Then
suddenly she was rescued by a knock on the door. Dom smothered
a curse and called out sharply, “Come in!”
    Two nuns, each laden down with a tray of steaming food, hurried
in, their eyes lowered. Placing their trays on the great refectory
table, they hurried out as quickly.
    Skye pulled from her husband’s grasp. “How thoughtful!” she
exclaimed brightly. “We have been sent supper.”
    “I’ve no appetite for food yet,” he said in a surly tone.
    She raised the cover of a dish. “Look! Boiled shrimp! And here’s
a lovely capon, and a small joint of mutton! If we don’t eat it now,
it will get cold.”
    “Let it!” He came swiftly up behind her and loosened her laces,
sliding his hands around to cup her breasts. “This is what I’m hungry for, Skye,” be said, squeezing her flesh. “The food will wait. Your
laces are loosened. Go into the bedroom, finish undressing, and wait
for me in the bed.”
    She closed her eyes to squeeze back tears. “Oh, Dom!” she
pleaded. “Not here! I’ll do whatever you want me to, but not here
in this holy house. Not here!”
    “I hadn’t considered it that way,” he said thoughtfully, “but the
idea of fucking you in a convent appeals to me. Shall we pretend
you’re a young nun about to be ravaged by a Viking chief?” She
blanched at his sacrilege, and he snarled, “Quickly, Skye! I’m hot
for you-having been denied my marital rights for over a month!”
He punctuated his words with a light slap to her cheek.
    She wanted to fight him, but she had been so badly broken by
the news of Niall’s marriage that she couldn’t find the spirit. She
fled into the bedroom and, with shaking fingers, pulled her clothes
off and climbed into the big bed. A moment later, Dom entered the
room, drinking from a goblet of wine. Placing the goblet on the
nightstand, he undressed swiftly, letting his clothes fall where they
dropped. When he turned to enter the bed she bit back a cry of
terror. Niall had been a big man, but Skye’s husband was unnaturally
large, enormous. Seeing her fear, he chuckled. “The wenches in
Paris call me Le Taureau! Do you know what that means?”
    Terrified, she nodded. “The bull.” Her voice was a whisper.
    “Aye, the bull!” he said proudly. “And I am, wife! Now spread
yourself wide. I’ve got something for you!” He tore back the covers
she clutched to her breasts. The sight of her naked body inflamed
his lust, and he flung himself on her.
    Skye managed to gasp, “But Dom! I am not ready!”
    He raised himself above her, and gazed down at her. “You’re not
ready?” His look was incredulous. Had he not been so astounded
he might have hit her. “You do not have to be ready, Skye. I am!”
    And she felt herself being ripped asunder by his monster sex.
Before she could cry out, his hand clapped over her mouth. He
pushed himself into her, muttering all the while, “You’re tight as
a drum, woman! Burke’s cock must be no bigger than a worm, to
have left you so tight!” He grunted his pleasure while, beneath him,
her eyes reflected pain and fright. She tried to lie still, hoping to
ease the pain, but she couldn’t. She writhed in an effort to escape
him, and mistaking her actions for growing passion, he laughed.
”I knew it! Beneath all the ladylike manners you’ve the makings of
a good whore! I’m a lucky man!” And he drove deeper and harder
into her. “Don’t fear, lovey,” he panted, “I’ll teach you many a
good trick to please us both!” Then, with a growl of pleasure, he
collapsed.
    For a moment they lay sandwiched together, then O’Flaherty got
up and, returning to the dayroom, poured himself more wine. Skye
felt tears gushing down her cheeks, but she made no sound for fear
of angering him. She heard him lifting the covers of the dishes,
sampling the food. He didn’t think to offer her any.
    Coming back into the small bedroom, clutching a chicken leg,
Dom sat on the side of the bed. He patted her backside. Skye feigned
sleep, hoping he would leave her in peace. She heard the sound of
his slow, methodical munching, and then the leg bone hit the floor.
”Spread yourself!”
    Resistance was useless. She was his wife, his chattel. She obeyed
and was once again subjected to pain and degradation. When he was
through this time he rolled off her and fell asleep on his back, snoring
contentedly. Skye waited until she was sure he slept soundly, then
crept from the bed. She could barely walk, but she would have
crawled on her hands and knees to get out of that room.
    Gaining the dayroom she shakily poured herself some wine, spill-
ing half on the table. Adding some more wood to the fire, she
collapsed into the large chair.
    Niall! His gentle hands, his loving mouth! He had sought to please
her while teaching her to please him. Damn him! Damn him! She
had been betrayed. They had all been right. The great lord’s heir
had only been amusing himself with her, and his lust for her in-
nocence was no less foul than Dom’s lust to subdue her. A hand
dropped on her shoulder, and she started, looking up with dread.
    “I woke, and you were gone,” he said plaintively. “You’re weep-
ing! Still sad I’m not Niall, eh?” She wiped at the tears guiltily,
quickly shaking her head, and his tone softened a bit. “I probably
hurt you,” he said matter-of-factly. “Well, don’t worry, Skye. It’ll
get easier with use, and you’ll soon stretch to take my bulk. Come
on, lovey. Let’s fuck a bit more, for if you can’t sleep then I’ve not
used you enough. Besides,” he chuckled lasciviously, “you’re a far
sweeter piece than I thought you would be.”
    All the rest of the night, while she endured her husband’s em-
braces, she hated Niall Burke with a growing fury, and considered
how she would revenge herself on him one day. Oh, yes, he would
pay for her broken dreams.
    And a similar scene was being enacted miles away, at the strong-hold of the
    MacWilliam.
    Darragh O’Neill Burke had been destined for the Church since
her birth. Her eldest sister had been betrothed and eventually wed
to an O’Connell. Her middle sister had been betrothed to Niall Burke.
But Ceit had died suddenly last winter, and Darragh, who had been in her beloved St. Mary’s convent since the age of five, was brought
home to take her middle sister’s place in the marriage bed.
    It was a particularly tragic choice, for Darragh O’Neill had a true
religious vocation. When it was decided that she would replace her
sister, Darragh was two days from taking her final vows. Her father
and his troupe of men had arrived with much noise and shouting,
just in time to prevent Darragh’s blond hair from being shorn. O’Neill
had waived the return of Darragh’s dowry from the religious order,
knowing that mis would make Darragh’s mother superior more easily
amenable to his change of plan. He lost nothing by it, as the money
had been paid in full eight years prior, just as Ceit’s dowry had been
paid to the MacWilliams at the time of her betrothal.
    The mother superior explained the change to the horrified young
nun, saying smoothly that God and Our Lady had quite obviously
made other plans for Darragh. Darragh must accept God’s will with
good grace. She would leave the convent immediately and wed Lord
Burke. Weeping bitterly, the girl obeyed.
    Thus Niall Burke was greeted on his wedding day by a pale girl
whose red-rimmed eyes gave evidence of much weeping. As he had
not been fully informed of her religious commitment, he was annoyed
that she should face the marriage with so little enthusiasm.
    Later that evening, when the bride and groom went to bed, Dar-
ragh fainted at the sight of her naked husband. Niall gently elicited
an explanation from Darragh. Touched, he gently stroked the pale
blond hair. “I think that, under the circumstances, there’s no need
for us to hurry the physical side of our marriage,” he said quietly.
”Let us take time to know one another better.”
    The truth of the matter was that Niall had no taste for raping
unwilling virgins. And he cursed both their fathers for their blind
stupidity. The girl had a deep religious commitment, and he ques-
tioned whether she would ever get over that. He laughed bitterly.
They had torn him from the woman he loved, who would gladly
have given him sons, because his father didn’t think her highborn
enough! And in her place they had given him a dedicated nun! It
was too funny, and he would have laughed again had he not become
aware that his new wife still seemed troubled.
    “What will people say if the sheets have no bloody stain tomor-
row?”
    He chuckled. “Ah, Darragh Burke, ‘tis truly innocent you are.
Many a lass has played at carnal games before marriage, yet flown
the bloody sheet the morning after her wedding. Move over, lass,
and I’ll show you.”
    Wide-eyed, she watched with amazement as he took the fruit knife from the bowl by the bed and pricked the inside of his thigh.
A small trickle of blood flowed forth, staining the sheets. Darragh’s
virtue was thus proved while her husband’s honor was saved and
his prowess attested to.
    It had been now two weeks since their wedding night. Darragh
reasoned that her virginity had been saved forever, and as she had
long ago dedicated that precious gift to God, she had no intention
of giving it to Niall. She would keep his house, but that was all.
Niall’s kindness on their wedding night seemed a weakness she could
continue to exploit.
    Once again, as he had every night since their wedding, Niall
gently tried to make love to his wife. Darragh’s inexperience pre-
vented her knowing how patient her husband really was. She was
determined that he would not succeed, but he was equally determined
he would. If he must be married to this girl then she would mother
his children. Now Darragh informed him that she would be his bride
in name only. Her virginity belonged to God.
    “You cannot force me as you did poor Skye O’Malley, my lord.
I can but imagine the poor woman’s shame!” she finished right-
eously.
    At the mention of Skye’s name Niall’s head whirled, and he
stared with revulsion at the cold, pious, feelingless creature they had
wedded him to. A tiny, fair-skinned, flat-chested girl with watery
blue eyes, white-blond hair, and a prim mouth was his wife. The
comparison between her and Skye with her gardenia skin, flowing
blue-black hair, and blue-green eyes was ludicrous! Skye, with her
sweetly rounded small breasts, rosebud mouth, and innocently eager
passion. Skye! Dom O’Flaherty’s willing wife… who had given
Niall a night of bliss only to destroy his happiness almost imme-
diately with a cold letter. He groaned. Skye would soon give Dom
sons! And so, he decided with growing anger, would Darragh
O’Neill Burke give her husband sons.
    Seeing the grim purpose in his silvery eyes, Darragh fell to her
knees clutching her rosary beads, her lips moving silently in prayer.
Niall angrily snatched away the beads and, pulling Darragh to her
feet, ripped the white linen nightgown from her. Catching her in his
arms, he kissed her deeply, forcing the narrow lips open. She fought
him, clawing at him with surprisingly sharp nails, squirming wildly.
Darragh truly believed that God would strike her husband with a
bolt of lightning for his impudence, and she prayed it would kill
him. As they fell back onto the bed and she felt his great manhood
penetrate her maidenhead, Darragh called on every saint in the cal-
endar to avenge her. But soon she was moaning at him to continue, her skinny legs wrapping around him, her lean hips finding the
rhythm and moving with it.
    Afterward he felt disgusted with himself, and with her as well.
He had never in his life forced a woman, but she had driven him
to it with her denial of him, and the mention of his beloved, treach-
erous Skye.
    Women! They were all alike. They said one thing, meant another.
Beside him, his wife sniveled and complained, “You hurt me! You
hurt me!”
    “It always hurts the first time, Darragh. It’ll get better now.”
    “You’re never going to do that to me again. Never!”
    “There’ll be no immaculate conceptions in this family, wife, and
besides, you enjoyed it. I know when a woman likes it, my dear.
And like it or not, it’s your duty to give me sons. You might even
admit to liking it eventually. There’s nothing wrong with a woman
taking pleasure with her husband.”
    “Never!” she spat at him as he pulled her back into his arms. His
big hand stroked her tense body soothingly. “I’ll endure it, for it is
obviously God’s will, but I’ll hate it every time you stick that awful
thing inside me.”
    “Have it your own way, my dear,” he said. “Just remember that
I was no more anxious for this marriage than you were. I would just
as soon you stayed in your convent.” And he thrust into her again,
making her cry out. “Give me a couple of sons, Darragh, and I’ll
leave you in peace forever.”
    And down the coast, across the water on Innishturk Island, Dom
O’Flaherty bent over his beautiful wife, pumping smoothly. Skye
was too sensuous a woman to deny her body its release. She let
herself begin to fall away into a lovely world of sweet sensations,
and then she heard her husband moan. He collapsed atop her. She
had not reached her own heaven, but he didn’t care. Niall had cared.
She turned her head away from Dom, a tear sliding unchecked down
her cheek. Damn Niall. Would he never stop haunting her?

Chapters 5

    The MacWilliam had commanded that his vassals keep the
twelve days of Christmas with him. They came from all over
Mid-Connaught, including Dom O’Flaherty and his bride of
several months.
    The hospitality was lavish, for unlike his less powerful neighbors,
the MacWilliam’s tower house had sprouted three additional inter-
connected towers over the years. Consequently he now owned a fine
stone castle, built along Norman lines around a gardened and cobbled
quadrangle. His guests were housed quite comfortably. Although
Skye’s father’s tower house was most comfortable and very well
furnished, the MacWilliam’s large castle was lavish by comparison.
    There were four O’Flahertys partaking of their overlord’s gen-
erosity. Dom’s father, Gilladubh, and his younger sister, Claire, had
come with Dom and Skye. Skye frankly hoped that they could find
a husband for Claire O’Flaherty, though neither Claire’s father nor
her brother seemed to realize that, at fourteen, Claire was practically
an old maid.
    The girl was pretty enough, with thick, flaxen braids, Dom’s
pale-blue eyes, and a pink-cheeked complexion. But there was some-
thing sly about her, something Skye did not like. On the one or two
occasions Skye had attempted to correct the girl for minor faults,
Claire had complained to both her father and her brother, and Skye
had been told to leave her be. Behind the doting men’s backs, Claire
had smiled smugly at her sister-in-law. But Skye had had some
measure of revenge when she caught Claire helping herself to Skye’s
jewelry. Boxing the girl’s ears soundly-which gave Skye great
pleasure-she warned her that if she stole again she would have
Claire’s head shaved.
    “And if you complain to either Dom or your father, dear sister,”
Skye’s voice dripped sweetness, “you’ll be bald for a year.”
    Claire O’Flaherty needed no further warning. The fierce look in
Skye’s eye convinced her that her brother’s wife was not the soft
fool she had originally thought she was. From that moment on the
two women maintained a wary truce. Now Skye was determined to
marry the girl off as quickly as possible, to get her out of her house.
    Skye had known that Niall would be at the Christmas gathering.
    She soon learned that he was to be their host, as his father was
suffering with gout. If Niall expected to find her heartbroken, she
would soon disabuse him of that notion. In the six months since
Dom had taken her from St. Bride’s she had made a kind of peace
with herself. She did not love her husband nor did she ever believe
she would, but she played the obedient wife.
    Her mother-in-law was long dead, and the running of the
O’Flaherty household was left entirely in her hands. Claire seemed
not to care, or even have the necessary knowledge. Skye did her job
well, which pleased her father-in-law. Gilladubh O’Flaherty was an
older version of Dom, a pompous lecher with a penchant for fine
wines and good whiskey. Skye soon learned to avoid his quick
hands, once going so far as to brandish a candlestick at him and
threaten to expose his outrageous behavior.
    Sitting on the MacWilliam’s fine guest bed in her petticoats and
beribboned busk, she brushed her hair with angry, vicious strokes.
Tonight Skye O’Malley would be as beautiful as she could make
herself, and she would hold her head up before the arrogant Burkes
and O’Neills. It was her good fortune to own a more magnificent
wardrobe than most women did, for her father had always delighted
in showing off her beauty.
    Mag, her tiring woman, brought her gown and laid it carefully
across the foot of the bed. She held a small round mirror for her
mistress, and Skye skillfully outlined her eyes with kohl and put just
the tiniest bit of red to her cheeks, giving her fair skin a faint, healthy
blush. Her shining dark hair was smoothly parted in the center,
carefully tucked into dainty gold wire cauls, then pinned on either
side of her head. Lastly Skye applied to the deep valley between her
breasts, to her wrists, to the base of her throat, and to the back and
sides of her neck, a rare perfume made especially for her of musk
and attar of roses. Let him smell the scent of roses on her! Let him
remember, and know she cared not!
    Skye stood up, and Mag hurried to help her mistress into her
gown. The tiring woman quickly laced the dress and then stood back
to survey her lady. A toothless smile split her weathered face. “Aye,
you’ll break his fickle heart, my lady! One look at you in this gown,
and he’ll wish he’d stood up to that old devil, his father!”
    “Is Lady Burke so displeasing to the eye then, Mag?” asked Skye
with feigned disinterest.
    Mag cackled with laughter, and hugged herself. “Nay, lady, she’s
pretty enough. It’s just that you’re so wickedly fair.”
    Skye smiled a little cat’s smile. “Get my jewel case, you old
crone!” she ordered affectionately and, when the woman hurried to
obey, snatched up the mirror. Holding it away from herself, she studied her reflection. The gown of deep-blue velvet was beautiful,
and its low, square neckline revealed her snow-white breasts. The
bodice flowed into a full skirt, parting in the center to reveal a
Persian blue underskirt of heavy satin, embroidered in gold and
silver thread. Her shoes matched her gown, but her stockings were
pure silk, and matched the underskirt right down to the embroidery.
Skye twirled slightly, and was pleased to see that the stockings
would show to great advantage during the dancing.
    Mag held open the jewel case and Skye lifted out a sapphire
necklace, the large square stones interspersed with round gold me-
dallions, twelve in all, each representing a sign of the zodiac. At
the bottom of the necklace a large pink pearl teardrop hung pro-
vocatively between her breasts. There were sapphires in her ears and
she wore three rings, a sapphire, an emerald, and a large baroque
pearl.
    Dom strode into the room and asked jealously, “Are you dressing
to please Niall Burke, Skye?”
    “Rather to please you, my lord,” she said smoothly, “but if my
gown displeases you I will change to whatever gives you pleasure.”
    He eyed her carefully. He knew there wouldn’t be a woman at
tonight’s banquet to compare with her. She would be the fairest
creature in the hall. And she belonged to him! He would be the envy
of every man there. Roughly he pulled her into his arms and buried
his face in the warm scented cleft between her breasts.
    “Don’t!” Her voice was sharp. Familiarity had removed her fear
of him, and now only a veiled contempt remained. “Don’t, Dom.
You’ll put me in disarray.” He stepped away from her. “How handsome you look,” she quickly noted. “Your sky-blue velvet goes quite
well with my deep blue.”
    “Day and midnight,” he said, offering her his arm.
    She laughed. “Careful, my lord, you verge on the poetical. Your
fine Paris education may have not gone for nought after all.”
    The banquet hall of the MacWilliam’s castle was a great room
with heavy beamed ceilings and four fireplaces. They blazed now
with giant-sized logs. Tall narrow windows gave views of the snow-
covered countryside, the plainness of the hills and fields broken at
intervals by large stands of black, bare trees. To the west the hills
were stained orange-red with the sunset. The room was crowded
with elegantly dressed guests. Servants scurried to and fro with trays
of wine, amid a low steady hum of voices.
    As they entered the hall the majordomo announced them and Skye
felt the eyes of the entire room on them. The story of her wedding
night was yet spoken of throughout the district, and now the nobility of Mid-Connaught watched to see the first meeting of the O’Flahertys
and the Burkes since that fateful day of last May. The gossips had
to admit that Skye and Dom were an outrageously handsome couple.
    Skye and Dom moved with a stately slow pace as they proceeded
down the length of the hall to greet their host and hostess, Niall and
Darragh. Skye kept her head high, her face expressionless, her glance
at a point just above the top of Niall’s head. For a brief instant she
gave in to her curiosity and glanced at his face. His silver-gray eyes
were ice, and sent a wave of bitter coldness sweeping over her to
penetrate the very core of her heart.
    She was puzzled. She had expected a smug smile, certainly not
this disdain. She was discomfited by his attitude, but a quick glimpse
of the tiny woman at his side restored her confidence. She felt joy
surge through her with the knowledge that Darragh Burke was, for
all her noble breeding, no beauty.
    They had reached the dais now, and Skye looked past Niall and
his wife to where the MacWilliam sat, his painful leg cushioned
upon a stool. She flashed Niall’s father a brilliant smile, her even
little teeth almost blinding in their whiteness. The old man let his
glance sweep over her, and it gave her great pleasure to see the
regret in his eyes. Now they both knew that he had made a mistake.
She swept him a graceful curtsey. “My lord.”
    It amused him to realize how quickly she had read his thoughts.
He enjoyed a worthy adversary, and she would make one. If he had
been twenty years younger he would have made an attempt to bed
her himself. “My friend, Gilly O’Flaherty, tells me you’re a good
wife to his boy,” growled the MacWilliam.
    “I am,” she answered him coolly.
    “I thought you were happiest being a pirate wench.”
    “I am that too, when I can, my lord.”
    “And are you good at that too, Lady O’Flaherty?”
    “I’m good at whatever I set my mind to, my lord.”
    He chuckled. “Welcome to you, and to your husband,” and then
his eyes crinkled wickedly. “Undoubtedly you both remember my
son. Niall.”
    She felt Dom stiffen beside her, and she squeezed his hand re-
assuringly. They would not even acknowledge the insult. Dom’s
good manners asserted themselves with the knowledge his wife stood
by him. The two men bowed curtly to each other.
    Then Niall’s eyes raked her cruelly. “I see you’re already with
child, Lady O’Flaherty,” he said loudly.
    “Aye, my lord. Wed seven months, and six months gone with
child. The women of my family are known to be prolific breeders.”
    She spoke as loudly as he had. Then she turned and insolently eyed
Darragh Burke. “I see your own bride of half a year is not yet as
fortunate as I. Are you, my dear?”
    Darragh flushed. Her “nay” was audible to all. Skye smiled
sweetly, curtseyed again and, taking her husband’s arm, turned
away. Behind her she heard the MacWilliam chuckle.
    Skye allowed Dom to seat her by the fire. She stared into the
leaping flames as he went in search of some mulled wine. She was
almost shaking with suppressed fury. How could Niall behave in
such a fashion?! He had shamed her before the entire county on her
wedding night, left her after making extravagant promises he never
intended keeping, and now he pretended that he had been the injured
party! The bastard! A goblet was shoved into her hand and she
gulped a mouthful of wine to calm herself.
    “You were magnificent!” she heard her husband say. “By God,
you showed Niall Burke, and in front of all Connaught too! Not that
I think it would be easy to get that skinny, overbred O’Neill wench
pregnant. I don’t even envy him the task,” he laughed.
    “Shut up, you overblown fool!” she hissed at him through gritted
teeth. God, why were all men such idiots? “I don’t give a tinker’s
damn for Niall Burke, but I’d not insult the MacWilliam’s hospi-
tality, so try not to be too obvious in your glee, husband.”
    Dom looked at her strangely, but before he could say another
word Anne O’Malley came to greet them. She sent Dom off to join
his friends, then settled herself comfortably and looked at her step-daughter.
    “Was it wise to insult Niall Burke and his wife?” she
asked.
    “Was it wise for him to insult me?” Skye snapped.
    “You still love him.”
    “I hate him! For pity’s sake, Anne, speak of something else. The
babe has a tendency to make me weepy, and I’d rather not be
misunderstood.”
    “Of course,” said Anne O’Malley sagely. “It would hardly do for
Niall Burke to think you weep for him.”
    “I never realized before what a bitch you can be, stepmother,”
said Skye evenly.
    Anne laughed. “Oh, the babe does make you testy, doesn’t it?”
    “He,” said Skye. “Dom and his father are convinced it’s a lad,
and they will accept nothing less.”
    “Oh, I see. And how goes it with you otherwise?”
    “Quite well, actually, Anne. Da did me a great service in wedding
me to Dom. Not only have I gained a lecher for a husband, I also
have one for a father-in-law. My husband’s sister is a common bitch not averse to stealing my possessions when she can, and whining
to her father and brother when she’s caught. It’s a charming new
family I have. I am most grateful to Da.
    “My new home is in a shocking state of disrepair, and despite
the fine dowry Da gave me, I am told that no money can be found
to put it to rights. Half the household items I brought to O’Flaherty
House, the silver bowls and candlesticks in particular, are myste-
riously missing. In short, I am the mistress of a dung heap peopled
by a vain and randy old cock, a vain and randy young cock, and a
flighty hen.”
    Anne was shocked. “Do you want to come home until the child
is bom, Skye?” Sweet Mary! She couldn’t let Skye have her baby
in that place!
    “God, yes! I do want to come home, but they’ll not let me for
the next O’Flaherty must be born in his own home, Anne. I would
appreciate it, however, if you could arrange for Eibhlin to come to
me immediately after Candlemass. Though the child isn’t due until
early spring, a late-winter storm at the wrong time could delay her.
and I would be frightened if she were unable to reach me in time.
Besides,” Skye smiled wryly, “I need the company. Claire is none,
and neither she, nor Mag, nor our old cook knows about birthing
a child.”
    Anne was now very upset. “What of the other women in your
household? The maids? The laundresses? Is there no midwife in your
village?”
    “The few women we can get to work for us come from our nearby
village each day and return to their homes at night. They love their
children, and no family would allow their daughters in my house
because of Dom and his father. They will work O’Flaherty lands,
and pay O’Flaherty taxes, and fight for the O’Flahertys, but too
many of their girls have been abused by the O’Flaherty men for
them to allow their daughters in our house. Even so, Dom and Gilly
have had their share of the poor creatures. They go out on horseback
and hunt them down while the girls are working in the fields! The
O’Flahertys’ reputation is so bad that even Claire has no tiring
woman of her own.”
    “I knew it was all wrong from the beginning,” said Anne. “I knew
it!”
    “Then why didn’t you speak to Da as you promised me, Anne?
You encouraged him to wed me off the very morning of Conn’s
birth!”
    “No, no, Skye! That’s not so at all! I tried to tell your father right
after Conn was bom, but they’d given me herbs in wine to make me sleep, and your father misunderstood me. When I finally awoke
two days later, you were wed, and had already been sent to St.
Bride’s.”
    “Then you did not betray me to get me out of the house?”
    “You foolish goose! Whatever made you think such a thing? Once
you were firmly wed there was nothing I could do. I only wish your
father had waited. Even though he was firmly set on the match,
perhaps I could have prevented the afterward.”
    “No,” said Skye softly. “At least with Niall Burke I learned that
love can be sweet-not true, but sweet. Had it not been for him,
I might have gone my whole life believing all men were animals.”
    “Some men are more vigorous in bed than others, Skye.”
    “Dom is a pig,” was the flat reply.
    “Why do you hate Niall if you’re grateful to him?”
    Skye’s eyes blazed blue fire, and her voice was rock hard. “Be-
cause be betrayed me! Because he swore he loved me! Because he
promised to have my marriage annulled, to wed with me. Instead
he crept from my side before the dawn without even so much as a
good-bye kiss and rode merrily home to wed his high O’Neill! I will
never forgive him for that, Anne! Never.r
    In the silence that followed, Anne O’Malley struggled terribly
with her conscience. She knew the full truth. Finally she decided
that silence was the best policy. To tell Skye the truth now would
do nothing more than hurt and anger her further. Nothing could be
changed now. Skye was wed, and pregnant with her husband’s child.
Niall Burke was wed. If either of them learned now of the deception
that had been practiced on them it would only cause greater unhappiness.
    Who knew what those two strong-willed, passionate people
would do if they ever learned the truth?
    Anne was saved from further talk by the announcement that dinner
was served. Once in the banquet hall they separated, for in deference
to the O’Malley’s value to the MacWilliam, O’Malley and his wife
were seated higher up on the board than Skye and Dom, who were
seated much below the salt. Dom, however, cared not one whit, for
thanks to his wife’s beauty and wit, he was very much the center
of a gay group of young people, some of whom were well-endowed
wenches with bold eyes. He anticipated a pleasant Twelve Days of
Christmas.
    And Skye sparkled, determined to show Niall how indifferent she
was. It seemed to those who sat in the more favored places at the
table that those below the salt were having a far better time than
those above it. There was simply no denying that young Lady
O’Flaherty was a delightful and charming beauty.
    Skye ate carefully, taking of the first course only a thin slice of fresh salmon, and of the second only the wing of a lemoned capon.
She ate two small pieces of newly baked brown bread, liberally
spreading the butter across it with her thumb. Around her, the other
guests gorged themselves on dish after dish, but Skye was revolted
by the overrich menu. When the sweet was served she enjoyed a
small tart of dried peaches, licking the clotted cream from about her
mouth like a child. Watching her from the high board, Niall longed
to kiss that mouth as much as he longed to strangle her for her
perfidy.
    As the meal drew to a close, more of those seated above the salt
began drifting farther down the table to cluster about Skye. Occa-
sionally great bursts of laughter issued forth from the group. When
the dancing began Skye refused all but the least strenuous dances,
but even so she never lacked for partners. She moved proudly, and
with much grace, her gown showing to great advantage. Her blue
eyes sparkled, and her smile flashed again and again.
    At the high board Niall Burke sprawled in his chair, glowering,
his big hand clutching his jewel-studded goblet so hard it was a
wonder the stem was not bent. His silver-gray eyes, pantherlike,
half closed, followed her wherever she went. Occasionally he took
great gulps of the dark red wine, emptying and refilling his cup
several times. She was beautiful, damn her, and even in her present
state outrageously desirable.
    “Young Lady O’Flaherty is most popular,” ventured Darragh.
    “Aye,” he growled, suddenly standing up and striding away from
his wife to join the dancers. The young man partnering Skye suddenly
felt a hard hand on his shoulder. Looking up to see his scowling,
black-browed host, the young man quickly stepped aside. Niall
clamped an arm about her waist and took one of her hands in his.
Her smile faltered, but she never missed a step.
    “Should you be dancing?”
    “I am expecting a child, my lord. I am not mortally ill with a
wasting sickness.”
    “You’ve changed, Skye.”
    “Nay, my lord. I have simply learned not to put my faith in pillow
talk.”
    They separated, and she wove in and out of the figure, meeting
him again on the other side.
    “I find it hard,” he said, “to understand the workings of a fickle
woman’s mind. You behave as though I rejected you instead of the
other way around.”
    “You betrayed me. You left me without even a good-bye, and
hurried home to wed and bed your ‘dead’ fiancee! I had no chance
to reject you, but I do now!”
    “I was not betrothed to Darragh O’Neill until after your marriage,
Skye. It was her dead sister, Ceit, who was to be my wife.”
    Again they were separated by the figure. When they met again,
he said, “I would never have wed Darragh had it not been for your
letter.”
    Skye stopped dead. “What letter?” she demanded of him.
    One look at her face told Niall Burke that something was very
wrong, but they were in a roomful of people, some of whom were
eying them with speculative curiosity. “But of course you’re ex-
hausted, in your condition, Lady O’Flaherty. Allow me to escort
you to a seat, and get you some chilled wine,” he said loudly, leading
her from the floor. He found her a seat within a windowed alcove.
Though they were plainly visible to the entire room, they had the
privacy to talk without being overheard. Niall snatched two goblets
of wine from a passing valet, and handed her one.
    Understanding the need for deception, she leaned back with half-
closed eyes feigning exhaustion. Her heart was hammering, not from
weariness but from the sudden realization that they had probably
been tricked. “What letter?” she asked again.
    “I did not leave you willingly, Skye. Your father sent a little lad
up the vine outside your window, and the boy opened your bed-chamber door to the O’Malley and his men. I was gagged, and taken
from the room. I explained our plight to your father, but he would
not listen. Rather he had me knocked unconscious, and taken home
by one Captain MacGuire. The next day I was given a letter in which
you repudiated our relationship. For God’s sake, Skye, the handwriting was feminine, and I recognized the seal as the one on your
own ring.”
    “We all have these rings, Niall. All my sisters, even Eibhlin.”
    “I did not know,” he sighed deeply. “It would seem, my love,
that those two old spiders, our fathers, have gotten their way by foul
means. Damn them both!”
    “Do you love her, Niall?”
    “No. She was to be a nun, and in her heart she still is. She spends
more time on her knees than in our bed.”
    “I’m glad!” she said fiercely, and he understood.
    “The child-?”
    “Is Dom’s. There is no doubt, Niall. I swear it! Do you think I
would be here if it were not?”
    “Have you learned to love him then?”
    “I will never love him, but I am his wife as you are Darragh’s
husband,” she said quietly. “And now, my lord, bid me good night,
for we are fast becoming the center of curiosity in the hall and I see
Dom coming.”
    “I will find another opportunity to speak with you,” he said. He
did not leave her side, but stood waiting until Dom joined them.
”Your wife is fatigued from the dancing, O’Flaherty. You must take
good care of her since she carries your heir. You’re very fortunate
in that respect.”
    Dom, taken off guard, was speechless. Niall bent over Skye’s
hand, briefly but tenderly kissing it. “Good night, Lady O’Flaherty.”
Then he was gone across the floor to rejoin the dancers.
    “Will you escort me to our room, Dom? I am very tired.” She
fought to keep her voice flat. Dom must not know! Not even suspect!
    “Of course, my love,” he answered, his voice sweet. Helping her
up, he walked her slowly from the hall. When they had gained their
room she asked him to call her maid. “Nay, love, I’ll maid you
myself, Skye.” His voice had become soft and caressing. It was a
dangerous sign. “There wasn’t a woman tonight who could compare
with you,” he murmured. “Every man envied me my beautiful wife.
Every one of them imagined what it would be like to stick himself
in you, but I’m the only one who can do that, Skye, aren’t I?” He
had her bodice unlaced now, and drew it off. His fingers swiftly
drew her gown and her petticoats down and off. Then her chemise,
and finally she stood naked and shivering in her embroidered stock-
ings with their gold ribbon and silk rosette garters. Slowly he let his
eyes wander over the new fullness of her breasts, and the sweet
swelling of her belly. His hand caressed the living roundness, and
Skye, barely breathing, prayed he would be satisfied by this show
of ownership.
    “Kneel on the edge of the bed, Skye.”
    She shivered. “Dom, please! It’s not good for the child.”
    “Kneel, you little bitch! Or do you want me to believe what my
eyes told me when I looked across the hall tonight to see the fine
Lord Burke bending solicitously over my wife, ogling her tits? And
you! You encouraged him!”
    “No! I didn’t!” Every muscle in her body tensed. Then, sighing,
she knelt on the edge of the bed, her knees drawn up beneath her.
Her hands were clenched into tight balls. There was no fighting him.
Resistance brought further punishment.
    He looked down at her, so meek, so obedient. He was angry with
her, and tempted to sodomize her, for he knew how she hated that
particular degradation. But he feared for the child. It was his son,
and it bound her irrevocably to him. Without the child she might
run to Niall Burke and become his leman, making the O’Flahertys
the laughingstock of all Connaught.
    He did no more than loosen his codpiece and his organ, swollen
already, burst forth. He saw her shiver again, and the feeling of power her fear gave him aroused him further, He easily found his
way inside her, sliding his hands beneath her breasts to play with
the very sensitive nipples while he moved himself with long smooth
strokes. “Your hound does it mis way to the bitches in my kennel.
I’ve watched him many a time,” he murmured, biting the back of
her neck. She said nothing. To her relief he was finished quickly.
”I’m going back to the hall now,” he said. “Get some rest, Skye.”
Fastening his clothes, he was gone.
    For a few moments she lay quietly, her face wet with silent tears.
Then she stood and, removing her stockings, wrapped herself in a
soft woolen robe before lying down again. If she could have boiled
her body she would have done so, but even that would not rid her
of the memory of his touch, the smell of his lust on her skin.
    She could not stop the tears from flowing. It had all been too
much. Learning that her father and the MacWilliam had conspired
to keep Niall from her had come close to breaking her heart all over
again. It had been easier when she could simply hate Niall. Ex-
hausted, she slept.
    The sudden sound of the door latch rasping woke her and she
tensed. Dom was back, and probably drunk. She lay quietly, hoping
he would believe she was sleeping.
    “Skye,” came the soft whisper.
    “Niall!” She sat up. “Are you mad? In God’s name go quickly
before Dom returns! Please, my lord!”
    He shut the door quietly and drew the bolt closed. “Dom is lying
in the hall in a drunken stupor with his friends. My page is watching.
Should Dom awaken the lad will warn us long before he can get
here.” Dearest Heaven, she was beautiful, her black cloud of hair
swirling about her shoulders, her eyes enormous and dark with con-
cern. Niall sat on the edge of the bed and drew her into his arms.
”You’ve been weeping.” It was a statement.
    “It was easier when I thought you’d betrayed me,” she said softly,
believing he would understand.
    “For me also, my darling.” He reached out and caressed her dark
hair.
    “Your wife-T She had to ask.
    “Is keeping one of her interminable vigils in the chapel. She does
it to avoid me, but I care not. Bedding her is like bedding a dead
thing.”
    “Oh, Niall…” Her voice broke, and she buried her face in his
shoulder.
    “Skye! Ah, love, don’t weep! Damn, Skye, you’ll break my
heart!” His mouth gently found hers. Sighing deeply, she slid her
arms about his neck, and gave herself over into his keeping. His hand found the swell of her breast, and it seemed so natural, so
right. She pulled her lips away from him long enough to whisper,
”Yes, Niall! Oh, please love me!” Then her mouth fused fiercely
to his again, and she was lost in a burst of searing passion that swept
over her body instantly, nearly rendering her unconscious.
    His hand gently caressed the ripening mound. “I wish to Heaven
he were mine,” he muttered huskily. “God! You’re so beautiful with
the babe growing in you, like one of the old Celtic fertility god-
desses.”
    “I prayed so hard,” she whispered. “When I was at St. Bride’s
I prayed you’d gotten me with child. How I wept when I found it
wasn’t so. Eibhlin says they feared for my sanity. Then Dom
came…” her voice trailed off.
    “I’ll kill him,” Niall said quietly.
    “And what of your poor wife? Would you kill her also? What
harm has that unfortunate creature done to either of us? You say she
was to be a nun, and from what you tell me she had a true vocation.
Has she not been harmed as deeply as we?” Skye drew a deep breath
and pulled away from him, her blue eyes intent. “Niall! Oh, Niall,
my love! We are inescapably wed to other people. There is no hope
for us. I love you, Niall, but when I return to Ballyhennessey I want
never to set eyes on you again. I cannot see you and keep my love
for you from the world. Dom is already suspicious. I want no trouble
between the two of you, for he is foolish and apt to be treacherous.
I am not so innocent as to beg that you forget me. We will not
forget, either of us, but we must part.”
    He pulled her back into his arms. “I cannot bear to lose you
again,” he said brokenly.
    “Oh, my love, you never really had me,” she answered sadly.
    For a few minutes longer they clung to each other, unwilling for
the bittersweet interlude to end. Then, kissing her tenderly, he laid
her back against the pillows. “I’ll find other times during this visit
when we can talk,” he said. “Promise me one thing, though. Promise
me you’ll ask my help should you ever need it. I will not rest easy
if you do not give me your word, Skye, and swear to it. I’ll not
have O’Flaherty mistreating you.”
    “I do not fear Dom. As long as I play the beautiful and docile
wife for him in public, his vanity is fed enough.” She would not tell
him the truth, tell him of her husband’s degrading ways in their bed,
for it would only infuriate Niall and there was nothing he could do
about it. “Sit with me but a moment longer,” she begged. Smiling,
he took her hand. She closed her eyes. Soon she was asleep. Gently
drawing the featherbedding over her, he unbolted the door and
slipped from the room.
    Making his way back to the banquet hall, Niall dismissed his
page for the night. Then, turning to seek his own quarters, he almost
collided with a young squire. “Your pardon, my lord, but the
MacWilliam would see you.” Niall nodded and immediately sought
the old man’s rooms.
    He found his father sitting up in bed, a nightcap upon his leonine
head. His gouty foot was freshly bound, and he held a goblet in his
hand. Niall bent and sniffed the cup. “I thought malmsey was bad
for your foot,” he noted.
    “That quack of a doctor tells me everything is bad for my foot.
I suppose if I could still fuck he’d tell me that was bad for my foot
also,” was the flinty retort. The MacWilliam paused. “I would say
that the beauteous young Lady O’Flaherty is bad for more than your
foot, Niall, my son.”
    The two men eyed each other, and the MacWilliam sighed. “I
was wrong to force you into marriage with the O’Neill lass. I can
see O’Malley’s girl would have made you a better wife. Christ! Wed
seven months, and already with child! And she carries the babe well.
What a breeder! She’ll give O’Flaherty a houseful of sons, and still
have a waist a man could span with his two hands. And what a
beauty… that hair, and those Kerry-blue eyes, and those marvelous
tits! Damme, I wish I weren’t so old!”
    Niall laughed, but his father now continued in a more serious
tone. “Keep away from her, Niall. O’Flaherty won’t wear the horns
of a cuckold gracefully. He’d kill you if he catches you with his
wife. I know you were with her in her bedchamber tonight while
her husband lay drunk in the hall. Be careful, lad! You’re my only
son, my heir, and I love you. Until you get a legitimate son, we’re
not safe.”
    “Rest easy, Father. Skye and I but talked. If we had done it in
public the gossips would have had a field day.”
    “You talked?! God’s nightshirt! If I were twenty years younger
and alone with that beauty, it would not have been talking I’d have
been doing!”
    Again Niall laughed. “Come, Father, she’s six months gone with
child.”
    “There are ways, boy.”
    “I know, and perhaps if the child were mine-but it’s not. Be-
sides,” and here Niall eyed his father firmly, “finding out the trick
that you and O’Malley played to separate us has made Skye very
vulnerable. I would not hurt her further. I love her.”
    “If she lost the babe then she’d be free of O’Flaherty,” said the
old man slyly. “His wife, yes, but free to come to you… and she would. I’d recognize any bastards she gave you as my heirs, for I
strongly doubt the O’Neill girl will ever conceive.”
    “Don’t tempt me, Father. If you think Skye worthy to bear our
heirs, then surely she is worthy of our name as well. You see her
as nothing but a brood mare who will secure our immortality, but
I love Skye. I have never wanted any woman but her for my wife.”
He took a deep, ragged breath. “But O’Flaherty is strong and healthy.
He will probably live forever. She and I have no hope.”
    “His death could be arranged… but you’re too noble for your
own good, Niall! Love has made you a weakling. If you don’t mean
to claim the woman for your own, then keep away from her else her
husband kills you in a fit of jealous rage,” growled the old man.
    “Or I kill him,” mused Lord Burke quietly.

Chapter 6

    Skye’s son, Ewan, was born in early spring. Eibhlin helped
deliver her new nephew, having come to the O’Flahertys’
immediately after Twelfth Night. Eibhlin was shocked by the
poverty of the O’Flahertys’ tower house. Anne had, of course,
repeated Skye’s descriptions of her home, but the nun had assumed
that Skye’s bitter disappointment over her marriage caused her to
exaggerate. Now she saw that everything Anne had reported was
dismayingly true.
    The masonry of the tower house was in poor repair and there
were drafts everywhere. The floors were covered by nothing except
dirty, much-used rushes. The few wall hangings were threadbare
and virtually useless for warmth, let alone comfort. The furniture
was sparse as well. Eibhlin was puzzled. She knew that her father
and stepmother had sent a number of fine pieces along to Skye, but
when she questioned her younger sister all she got was a mumbled
answer about Gilly and Dom and their endless debts.
    Having her sister with her made it a happy winter for Skye.
Ewan’s birth was a relaxed and easy one, and Eibhlin left four weeks
afterward. She returned within several months to aid her sister once
again, for Skye’s second son, Murrough, was separated from his
brother by but ten months.
    Murrough made his entry into the world during a brutal midwinter storm. Fortunately this birth was also an easy one, for Eibhlin had
other factors beside the baby to contend with. The strong winds had
blown so hard that the floors of O’Flaherty House were covered
with half an inch of snow in some places. It had blown through
cracked walls and the sheepskin-covered windows. The fires had
gone out several times, and Eibhlin had been hard-pressed to keep
her sister and the newborn boy warm and dry. Eibhlin was angry.
She was ashamed that her sister should live this way. Skye’s dowry
gone to pay gaming debts, or for wine, or to buy gifts for the women
Dom and his father amused themselves with. Eibhlin made herself
a vow: Skye would have no more babes, especially so quickly, until
Dom grew up and took his responsibilities seriously.
    “Ten months between babes is too soon,” she scolded. “Now you
must rest at least a year or two before conceiving again.”
    ‘Tell Dom,” said Skye weakly. “He’ll be on me within the month.
Despite his whores, he harbors a constant lust for me. Besides, I
thought I could not conceive as long as I nursed Ewan.”
    “An old wives’ tale that has done more harm than you can imag-
ine,” replied Eibhlin. “And I shall talk to Dom myself. Then I’ll
give you the recipe for a potion that will prevent conception.”
    “Eibhlin!” Skye was both amused and shocked. “And you a nun!
How on earth do you know such things?”
    “I have as much knowledge as a doctor,” replied Eibhlin. “More
perhaps, since I have also learned midwifery and herbal medicine
from the old ones. Doctors scorn these things, but they are wrong
to do so. I can tell you several ways to prevent conception.”
    “But does not the Church forbid such wicked practices, my sis-
ter?”
    The nun answered forcefully, “The Church has not seen innocent
babes dying of starvation because there are too many mouths in the
family to feed. They have not seen little children and their sickly
mothers freezing to death, blue with the cold, because there are not
enough blankets or clothes in the hovels they call houses-not even
food or wood for warmth! What do the well-fed priests and bishops,
snug in their stone houses on this snowy night, know of these poor
souls and their endless torments?
    “I help where I can, Skye. For those innocent and superstitious
poor I offer a ‘tonic’ to help them regain their strength after the
ordeal of several births. They know not what I give them. If they
did, they would not take it because they truly believe the Church’s
threat of eternal damnation. You, sister, are not so foolish.”
    “No, Eibhlin, I am not. And I want no more of Dom’s children.
I will not be made old before my time, nor shall I nurse this child knowing what I do now. One of Dom’s women gave birth but a
month ago. She has breasts like udders, and it will amuse me to
have her nurse both Dom’s’ son and his bastard. She can live in the
nursery with both boys and have Ewan’s wet nurse for company.”
    “You’ve grown hard, Skye.”
    “If I were not, Eibhlin, I should not be able to survive in this
house. You have been here enough to know what the O’Flahertys
are like.”
    The nun nodded. “Have you had any luck in finding a husband
for Claire?”
    “None, and I’m not likely to unless I can convince Da to dower
her. Gilly and Dom have gambled away the dowry left to Claire by
her mother. There’s nothing left. And if I didn’t know better, I
would swear she was a half-wit, for she cares not. The few young
men who have come calling have been met with indifference. One
is too fat, another too lean. This one is a buffoon, but that one lacks
a sense of humor. One is too ardent in his wooing, and another has
no blood in his veins. I don’t understand her at all! She has no
religious vocation, no passion for anyone so far as I can see. Nor
does she seem to desire to control her own life, as I did. She cares
for nothing.”
    “Perhaps she is merely content to stay with her father and brother.
Some women are like that.”
    Skye looked candidly at her sister. “Do you really think Claire
O’Flaherty is like that, Eibhlin?”
    “No,” came the quick reply. “She’s a sly and secretive girl for
all she looks like an angel. There is something…” and here Eibhlin
hesitated, loath to criticize yet genuinely concerned. ‘There is some-
thing unwholesome about Claire,” she finally finished.
    Skye agreed. But there seemed nothing she could do with Claire
unless she could find a husband for her. What bothered Skye most
was that Claire always appeared to be laughing at her, hugging some
secret to herself that she would not share with anyone else, least of
all Skye.
    Eibhlin soon left to return to St. Bride’s, but she talked to Dom
first. He said later, “Since your sister tells me your health will suffer
if I get another son on you, you can hardly complain if I seek
diversion elsewhere.”
    “Have I ever complained before?” she asked him, amused, hiding
her delight in the knowledge that she would be spared.
    “Nay, you’re a good lass, and you’ve given me two fine boys.”
    Skye smiled sweetly, and bit her tongue to keep from laughing.
Dom saw her only as a credit to himself. She had become, he thought, exactly what he’d always wished her to be-a gracious
chatelaine and a good breeder. He was willing to be generous now,
to leave her alone for the time being.
    Her life now took on a sameness, giving her the peace she craved.
She worked to run the estate so that it supported them all and still
paid the MacWilliam his annual tribute as their overlord. Neither
Dom nor his father cared what she did as long as they had the time
and the wherewithal to pursue their own pleasures.
    She drove her peasants hard, though she was fair. Used to the
laxity of the O’Flahertys, they had gotten out of hand. At first they
resented her, but when winter came and the peasants found them-
selves warm, dry, and well fed for the first time in years, they
blessed their lady. She had managed the miracle of preparing them
for winter.
    Then Ewan was past two, and Murrough sixteen months, and one
day Skye realized that in all those sixteen months Dom still hadn’t
come near her. Silently she blessed the woman or women who were
keeping her husband amused. And it came to her that it had been
many months since she had heard any gossip linking Dom with any
particular woman. It was a disquieting thought.
    It was June again, and Skye was eighteen. The weather was
unusually sunny and warm for Ireland. Her healthy, fully healed
young body was beginning to crave loving once again, even Dom’s.
Though they had been invited twice more to spend Twelfth Night
with the MacWilliam, she had kept to Ballyhennessey, using her
pregnancy as an excuse not to travel, and playing ill the second time.
    She dared not see Niall again, although both her mind and her
body craved him with a desperation that almost tore her apart. With
the knowledge imparted to her by Eibhlin, she might easily have
become his mistress, with no one the wiser. The temptation had
been fierce, but she held herself in too high a regard to be anything
less than his cherished wife.
    Dom and his father had attended the Twelfth Night revelries.
Skye had insisted that they go to the MacWilliam’s castle, leaving
her behind with her babes. Though she had impressed upon the two
men the importance of every opportunity in finding Claire a husband,
they had returned both times to say that no suitable husband could
be found. Skye could not understand it. Thanks to Dubhdara
O’Malley, Claire now had a respectable dowry that neither her father
nor her brother could steal. Either the girl was being too fussy, or
else there was someone in Claire’s life whom she knew was not
suitable, but foolishly sought after anyway. Skye was determined
to find out what was going on. for Claire O’Flaherty was seventeen now and Skye did not want to have her with them the rest of their
days.
    Skye picked her time carefully, choosing an evening, after the
meal, when both Gilly and Dom had disappeared. She had seen
Claire head for her own rooms at the very top of the tower house.
Skye had never been there before. She had never been asked, and
there had never before been a reason to violate Claire’s privacy.
    When the house had quieted, she slowly climbed the stairs to her
sister-in-law’s apartment. Entering the dayroom, Skye was shocked
to find many of her long-missing dowry items. The windows were
hung with the French velvets she had planned to use in her own
chambers. The small polished oak sideboard Dubhdara and Anne
had had made particularly for her stood against one wall. On it was
her small silver tray with her hand-blown Venetian goblets and
decanters! “God’s nightshirt!” she swore under her breath. “I’ll skin
the sly bitch!” Dear God! There were her silver bowls and candle-
sticks! Stunned, then furious, Skye was about to storm off to seek
out her husband and demand an explanation when she heard laughter
and the murmur of voices-one very definitely masculine-from the
bedchamber above.
    So, she thought, Mistress Claire does have a lover! Well, whoever
he is he’ll soon find he has himself a new wife, unless, God forbid,
he already has one. Serf or lord, she’ll wed him! Silently Skye crept
up the stairs, reaching the little landing, then neared the bedcham-
ber’s half-open door. The closer she got the more vividly she heard
the sounds of vigorous lovemaking. Reaching the door, she peeked
into the room.
    What she saw confirmed her suspicions. Claire and a man, both
naked, were intertwined. Color flooded Skye’s face at the sight of
Claire’s long, white legs wrapped tightly about her lover. He brutually rammed himself into the writhing, straining woman. Claire
began to moan.
    “Harder, Dom! Harder! Yes, yes, brother darling! It’s so good!
So good!”
    Skye felt the first wave of nausea sweep over her as she clung
to the door. Dom! Claire’s lover was Dom! Her own brother! Slowly
Skye slipped to the floor, still clutching the door, faint with the
sight.
    “Whore!” Dom growled. “What a little whore you are, sweet
sister mine. Shall I fuck you until you can’t stand up? I’ve done it
before, haven’t I? Tonight, however, it pleases me to fuck you till
you beg me for mercy, and then you’ll pleasure me in a hundred
other ways I can invent!”
    “Yes, yes…” breathed Claire. “Whatever you want, my darling!
I’ll do whatever you want! Oh, Dom, don’t I always?”
    Still on her knees, Skye was frozen with both horror and terror.
    “On your hands and knees, bitch!”
    Claire scrambled to obey, and was quickly and cruelly sodomized
by her brother. Skye felt the bitter taste of bile rise in her constricted
throat as Claire panted, “Hurt me, Dom! Yes! Hurt me!”
    Still Dom did not spend. Now he lay his sister on her back and,
straddling her, put himself into her open, eager mouth. Skye closed
her eyes to blot out the sight, but she could not close her ears to the
throaty, gobbling noises made by Claire, or the groans of pleasure
made by Dom. Unable to contain herself, Skye sobbed aloud.
    Claire shrieked, “Oh, my God! There’s someone here! Someone
has seen us!”
    Dom leapt from the bed and, yanking the door fully open, caught
sight of his half-fainting wife. “Well, well,” he murmured nastily,
”what have we here? It’s my sweet wife.”
    Claire’s eyes narrowed. “Bitch! How dare you spy on me!” she
shrieked.
    “I wasn’t s-spying.” Skye’s voice was shaking. “I came to t-talk
to you about getting m-married.”
    Dom began to laugh uproariously, but a look from his sister
quieted him. “Married?! Why on earth would I want to marry, you
ninny?” rasped Claire. “The only man I’ve ever loved is Dom, and
I don’t ever intend leaving him. He’s mine! The only reason he
married you was for the money, and to get heirs. He’s got both now,
and we don’t need you at all, except to run the estate for us. So get
out of here, and don’t ever come back again snooping and spying!”
    Skye turned to flee but Dom’s big hand grasped her shoulder.
His other hand slid around to squeeze her breast and as the nipple
hardened he laughed softly. “It’s been a long time, Skye.”
    She tried to pull away. Claire snarled from the bed, “Leave her
be, brother! You don’t need her as long as you have me!”
    “Be quiet, bitch! She has pleasured me too, and now I think I
would have you both at the same time.”
    “No!” wailed Skye, struggling to reach the door, but his arms
closed about her and Claire, a sudden vicious look in her pale-blue
eyes, reached out and ripped Skye’s gown from her. As her sister-
in-law’s body became more visible, Claire’s gaze softened, becom-
ing almost dreamy, and she reached out again, this time to caress
Skye’s body. Skye shrank from her touch, sick with revulsion. Claire
laughed nastily. “Let me have her first, brother. Let me prepare her
for you, please! You can watch while I love her. Remember how
you loved watching me and the little maid I once had?”
    “No, Dom! Oh, God, no!”
    Dom smiled sweetly at his sister, his eyes bright with memory.
Then he nodded. “I’ll watch, but when I’m ready, Claire, you must
give over. Promise me now? No teasing like you did with little
Sorcha.”
    “Yes, darling,” Claire purred, and then with Dom’s aid they tied
the struggling Skye’s arms to the bedposts.
    Claire straddled her victim and, holding Skye’s head between her
hands, she kissed her slowly, and wetly. Skye seemed faint and,
laughing, Claire began leisurely to explore the shrinking flesh. The
degradation she was inflicting added to her enjoyment. Taking
Skye’s nipples between her thumb and forefinger, she rolled them
gently before bending and sucking on them. Bound though she was,
Skye fought to escape, but her helplessness only stimulated her
antagonist/
    Slowly Claire slid her lush body down Skye’s until their breasts
and bellies met. Then she rotated her pelvis and mons veneris against
Skye’s, murmuring vilely, “Don’t tell me that, with all the sisters
you have, you’ve not done a bit of girl-fucking in your time. And
remember-while we pleasure each other, Dom is watching us and
readying himself for both of us, big bull that he is. Don’t fight me,
sister, for now that you know about Dom and me there’s no reason
we cannot share him and enjoy each other all the time.”
    Skye turned her head away, ashamed of what was happening to
her and confused by the stirrings of desire she was beginning to feel.
Claire thrust and moaned against Skye’s helpless body with increas-
ing fervor until suddenly Dom pulled her away and, mounting his
wife, thrust into her.
    Skye screamed, which only seemed to madden him. Claire was
now kneeling within Skye’s view, slack-mouthed with lust as she
watched her brother use his wife. When Dom had sated himself with
Skye he rolled off her and loosened her bonds. He pushed her away,
pulled his sister over, and mounted her next, Skye curled into a
tight, protective ball, and sobbed. She had never felt so fouled in
her entire life. She knew that if anyone so much as touched her
again, she would kill.
    Strengthened by this realization, she marshaled her courage and
crawled off the bed. Stumbling across the room, she reached the
door. Dom and his sister had finished by this time and Claire saw
her. She cried out, “She’s escaping, Dom! Get her back! I want her
again!”
    Dom lurched off the bed and lunged for his wife. Skye had now
wrenched the door open. As he reached out for her, Skye sidestepped
him. Dom stumbled through the door, lost his balance, and fell screaming headlong down the flight of stone steps leading to his
sister’s day chamber.
    There was a stunned silence. He lay still, twisted grotesquely.
Claire leaped from the bed and stood gazing down into the room
below. Then she turned on Skye and howled, “You’ve killed him!
You’ve killed Dom!”
    Holy Mother forgive me, thought Skye, but I hope so! Then as
relief brought strength sweeping over her, she turned on Claire and
furiously slapped her, leaving the imprint of her hand on the girl’s
face. “Shut up, you vicious little bitch! Shut up!”
    “We must get help,” whimpered Claire.
    “Not yet.”
    “You do want him dead,” came the horrified accusation.
    “I’ll not deny it,” said Skye flatly, and Claire shrank away from
her. “But before we can get help we must all dress. How will it look
to the servants to find the three of us mother naked? I’ll not put that
scandal on my sons. Get dressed! Then go and fetch me some clothes
from my room. Quickly!”
    The procedure seemed to take forever, but at last both women
were dressed. Struggling together, they forced Dom into his clothes.
To Skye’s sorrow, he was still breathing.
    “Now,” said Skye, “rouse the house.”
    “What will I tell them?” quavered Claire.
    “That Dom has had an accident. I will handle the rest. Go, now!”
    Claire fled, shrieking loudly enough to rouse the entire household,
and quickly the room was filled with babbling servants. Skye calmly
directed the removal of her injured husband to his own rooms. The
family’s surgeon was sent for and arrived as the dawn was breaking.
    Dom lived, but it would have been better if he had died. His
spine was broken in two places. He was paralyzed from the waist
down. He would not walk, or function as a man, ever again.
    Skye thanked the surgeon, paid his fee, and sent him away. Then
she took on the O’Flahertys. Gilly blustered at her. “Claire says
you’re responsible for my son’s condition.”
    “Your son is responsible for his own condition,” replied Skye
coldly. “Last night after the meal was finished and I had seen to my
household duties, I went to your daughter’s rooms to speak to her
about arranging a marriage. I found her and your precious son fuck-
ing merrily! And it was not the first time they had engaged in
mis… incest! When I tried to flee from them they ripped my clothes
from me, and used me vilely! Both of them! I tried to escape again
and Dom lunged at me. When I stepped aside he fell through the
open door and down the stairs. I’m only sorry he didn’t break his
damned neck! It would have saved me the trouble of caring for him.
    If you still believe that I have wronged your son, Gilly, then we
will take our case and place it before the MacWilliam.”
    “Yes!” sobbed Claire. “For once in your life, Father, take the
initiative! Dom will spend the rest of his life half a man because of
her! She deserves to be punished!”
    Skye drew herself up proudly and looked down upon the vengeful
Claire. “Yes, Claire,” she purred. “Take your case to the Mac-
William. Do! And then be prepared either to prove your virginity
before the midwives’ panel or name your lover! Who will you say
it is, Claire? One of the serfs? I think not. You’re far too proud a
bitch to admit to fucking with a serf. Who then? There is no one
else! No one ever comes to visit you. No one! Perhaps you could
claim the Devil for your lover. In a sense, you’d be speaking the
truth.”
    Skye’s father-in-law looked suddenly old, and defeated. Claire
wept helplessly. Skye’s next words held a finality. “I am going home
to Innisfana,” she announced. “And I am taking my sons with me.
I will not be back. Since Claire loves her brother so deeply she will
remain here to care for him for the rest of his life. I will see that
Da withdraws her dowry. She has no chance of a decent marriage
without it, and I would not, knowing what I do now, see her wed
with some poor unsuspecting lad. She will be fed and clothed at my
expense, or she may go with what she has. The choice is hers.
    “Frang the bailiff will run the estate for me, and answer to me
alone. This is, after all, to be Ewan’s inheritance someday and I
want it turned over to him in good condition.
    “Gilly, you will be taken care of, but my father’s lawyers will
shortly have a paper for you to sign that will prevent you from
gambling away any part of the estate. Mark me well, Gilly. I will
not pay for your wines, your women, or your gambling debts!”
    “Father! Are you going to let her do this to us!?”
    Gilly stared straight ahead and Skye smiled triumphantly. “Yes,
Claire, he is! He knows the alternative. I will bring my case before
the MacWilliam-and before the Church! If I do I will accuse you
not only of incest with your brother, but of witchcraft as well! You
deserve to bum for what you’ve been doing!”
    “I love him!” Claire screamed.
    “You were his sister!”
    “I loved him,” Claire repeated, “From the time we first bedded
when I was but a maid of eleven. I was the only woman who ever
really satisfied Dom.”
    Skye looked pityingly at Claire. “In the years that Dom has left
we will see how much you really love him.”
    In the morning Skye bid her husband an unemotional farewell.
    “I hope you enjoyed what you and your sister did the other night,
for the memory of it will have to last you a lifetime!”
    “Bitch!” he snarled at her. “What kind of a woman are you to
leave me?”
    “A better woman than you ever knew or appreciated, Dom. Your
conduct with your sister has wiped free any obligation on my part
toward you. Farewell.”
    He struggled to rise. “Bitch! Come back! I command you, Skye!
Come back!”
    She never turned back. His voice, alternating between curses,
threats, and pleas, followed her until the sound became quite un-
intelligible and finally faded altogether.
    Skye rode away from the O’Flaherty house, Ewan before her on
her saddle. Behind her were the carts carrying her younger son, the
two nurses, and her household goods.
    But when Skye reached lnnisfana several days later there was no
peaceful haven there. Dubhdara O’Malley lay dying, having been
badly injured by a falling mast in a storm as he was bringing his
ship home. A stubborn man, he had refused to die until he reached
his home, and until he had seen his youngest daughter. The mes-
senger he sent to Skye had found her as she took ship for lnnisfana
Island.
    She was barely in time to bid her father a final farewell. Tearful,
she kissed his cold and sweating brow. “I’m back for good, Da.”
    He nodded. Explanations were unimportant now. “Your brothers
are too young for the ships yet,” he gasped weakly. “You’ve got to
take charge for me.”
    It never crossed her mind that he was thrusting a huge respon-
sibility upon her. She answered simply, “I will.”
    “You’re the best of them, lassie. Even the boys.”
    “Oh, Da,” she whispered. “Oh, Da, I do love you!”
    “Skye, lass, this time follow your heart,” were Dubhdara
O’Malley’s last words to his favorite child. He died a few minutes
later, holding her hand.
    Her beautiful blue eyes overflowing, she looked wordlessly to
her uncle Seamus. “I heard him,” he said, “and I’ll uphold your
rights, Skye. You’re the new O’Malley, and may God be with you
for you’ll be needing all the help you can get.”
    Skye looked to her stepmother. “I heard him, and I trust you,”
said Anne. “You’ll do right by us all. Besides, it’s your full brother
Michael who is the next male in line, not my lads.”
    “In this family,” answered Skye, “it’s not necessarily the eldest,
but the most competent. At least two of your boys show more promise than Michael. He’s most like my mother, lord help him.
He’s more likely to follow Our Lord Christ than the sea. Am I not
right, Uncle?”
    Seamus O’Malley nodded. “He’d asked me to talk with Dubh.
He wants to enter St. Padraic’s and become a priest.”
    Skye turned to Anne. “You see. It rests with Brian and Shane
now.”
    As quickly as the family of the O’Malley chief could be assem-
bled, they determined the length of the wake and the date of the
funeral. With Seamus O’Malley and Anne to back her, Skye was
reluctantly recognized as the new O’Malley by her brothers-in-law
and her very shocked sisters. Her clansmen and vassals came quickly,
almost joyfully, to pay their homage to Skye, the new O’Malley.
    The next step was a journey to the MacWilliam’s stronghold to
pledge him her fealty. Only Anne, Eibhlin, and her uncle knew the
truth behind her leaving her husband. All three were horrified, but
swore to keep the secret. Seamus O’Malley added to his niece’s
mystique by claiming that she had returned home because of a dream
in which her father called her from over the waves. The men who
had sailed with her father and with her when she was a child cir-
culated once again the old tales of her bravery and skill. The
MacWilliam would have been hard pressed indeed to deny Skye her
inheritance.
    She rode into his stronghold with all her captains escorting her.
Niall Burke watched her arrival from one of the towers of the castle,
and wondered what would happen between them now. She rode
astride, as she had in the old days, and upon the black stallion, Finn.
She was dressed in Lincoln green hose, over which she wore high
brown cordoba leather boots, and a mid-thigh-length doeskin jerkin
with silver buttons. Beneath the jerkin was a cream-colored silk shirt
with small pearl buttons. Her glorious blue-black hair was parted
in the center and twisted into a smooth coil at the nape of her neck.
Her gardenia skin was a little flushed. Upon her left hand he could
see a blue flash, and knew she wore the great sapphire ring that had
been her father’s seal of office.
    He descended from the tower, and strode swiftly to his own
quarters. To his surprise Darragh was waiting for him. The three
years of their marriage had been a bad joke, and he rarely saw her,
let alone cohabited with her. It was obvious that she would never
conceive him a child. She had never come to him willingly, and
each time he had taken her it had been a battle in which she yielded
to the flesh and then did penance for her weakness. She had had
coarse brown robes made up for herself, robes that resembled those worn by her old religious order. She rarely bathed, believing it a
concession to the flesh. For over a year now she had spent her days
and nights in constant prayer. He no longer went near her. Her
personal habits disgusted him, and attempting to claim his rights
seemed now like raping a nun, a thing for which Niall Burke had
no taste.
    He greeted her courteously, and she replied, “Lady O’Flaherty
is here to see your father, Niall. Why has she come?”
    “Her father has died, Darragh, and it was his deathbed wish that
she take over his duties until her brothers are grown. She is now the
O’Malley, and she has come to pledge her fealty to her overlord.”
    “And what of her husband? I have been given to understand that 
she tried to murder him and then left him, taking his sons with her.
He lies paralyzed for life with only his loyal sister to care for him.”
    “Where did you obtain this information, Darragh?” He kept his
voice quiet and level.
    “I have a letter from the unfortunate Lady Claire O’Flaherty
begging me to intercede with the MacWilliam on her poor brother’s
behalf.”
    “I do not believe the tale, Darragh. I have never known Skye to
be anything but generous and thoughtful.”
    “Those are not the qualities that made the O’Malley leave her in
charge of his small empire,” noted Darragh shrewdly. It was an
unusually sensible observation for Darragh.
    “Skye would never harm anyone. I refuse to believe it!”
    “Of course you do not believe it. You lust after her, but for the
sake of your immortal soul you must not yield to her wiles, Niall!”,
    He laughed bitterly. “Whose wiles would you have me yield to
then, wife? Yours? Let me tell you something about Skye O’Malley,
my dear. The last time I saw her she told me she never wanted to
set eyes on me again because, through an awful quirk of fate, we
were wed to other people. I then said I would kill her husband. She
chided me, asking what I would do with my own wife, kill her also?
She said you had been as wronged as the rest of us were, and we
must all make the best of our situations. She would tempt neither 
herself nor me by seeing me again.”
    “Ah! The most wicked ones are always the most clever, Niall!
She has skillfully misled you into believing her virtuous. Beware
of her! Beware!” And with a strange look in her weak blue eyes,
Darragh turned and left him.
    Niall went about the business of changing his clothes. His father
had told him he wanted him there when the O’Malley swore her
fealty, for she must swear it not only to the MacWilliam, but also to his heir. He debated whether to be elegant or simple, finally
settling on black velvet because it was both.
    Entering the main hall of the castle, he was surprised to find that
Skye had not changed from her riding clothes. Her captains at her
back, she knelt. Placing her hands in the old and gnarled ones of
the MacWilliam, and then into Niall’s warm firm grasp, she twice
swore her loyalty to the Burkes, then rose gracefully to accept their
kiss of peace. Lord Burke noted the pride and love flowing from the
eyes of the rough-looking O’Malley captains. That they adored her
was obvious, and he was reassured to know that she would sail with
such devoted men.
    Then suddenly, to everyone’s shock and embarrassment, Darragh
appeared in their midst, her nun’s robes swirling about her, and cried
out, “My lord the MacWilliam, on behalf of the O’Flahertys of
Ballyhennessey I cry for judgment against this evil woman! Oh,
wicked whore of Babylon, your days of evil are numbered! The Lord
God will strike thee down with fire and the sword!”
    Skye looked swiftly to Niall, her eyes filled with pity.
    “Clear the hall, dammit!” shouted the MacWilliam, red-faced and
very angry. When all but the four of them had gone, the old man
turned on Darragh. “I hope, madam, that you have a bloody fine
explanation for this intrusion, and for your unwanted charges!”
    “No longer ‘madam,’ sir, but Sister Mary Penitent. That was to
have been my name before you stole me from my convent, and
forced me into carnal bondage with your son. It will soon be my
name again, for I will no longer remain here, but return to St.
Mary’s. Before I go, however, I will right a great wrong done by
this wicked woman. First, she deliberately crippled her husband.
Then she willfully deserted him, stealing both his sons and his
money. She must be punished! God demands it!”
    “What the hell nonsense is this?” roared the MacWilliam.
    “She claims to have a letter from Claire O’Flaherty,” said Niall
quietly to his father.
    “The lying, deceitful bitch!” said Skye furiously, and the
MacWilliam and his son grinned at each other.
    “All right, O’Malley, what’s your explanation?” demanded the
old man.
    Skye glanced scornfully at Darragh. “Is she strong enough to hear
the truth of this? It’s not very pretty.”
    “Speak, O’Malley,” commanded the MacWilliam.
    “Claire O’Flaherty lies, my lord. I caught her and her brother,
my husband, in incest.” Skye outlined the story, concluding; “When
I dodged him, he fell down a flight of stairs.”
    Darragh Burke, who had turned white at the mention of the word
”incest,” gave a moan of horror and fell to the floor in a faint. The
MacWilliam and his son glanced briefly at her, then returned their
attentions to Skye.
    “The surgeon said Dom will never walk again. Under the cir-
cumstances, I feel no obligation to him. The estate was in a ruinous
condition when I married Dom. Your annual tributes had not been
paid in three years, but it is all paid up now, thanks to me. The
O’Flaherty lands are again prosperous because of my skillful man-
agement. This, despite Dom’s having gambled and whored away
my dowry. Claire O’Flaherty owes me for every mouthful of food
she consumes, every drop she drinks, the very clothes on her back..
She might have been safely wed, but for her own crimes. It was her
choice to remain at Ballyhennessey and commit incest with her
brother rather than wed her own man. When Dom was injured I told
her she could stay and nurse him or go, as she pleased.” Skye looked
hard at the MacWilliam. “If you feel her charges have merit, my
lord, I will abide by your decision.”
    The old man reached out and gently stroked Skye’s beautiful hair.
”There is no merit in her charges, O’Malley,” he said gruffly. “If
she will not accept my decision in this matter, then I shall turn her
over to the Church. They will deal with the wench far more harshly
than you or I would.” He smiled at Skye. “Now, lass, will you
accept my hospitality for a few days’ time? You’ve come through
a hard time and you’ve great responsibility ahead of you.”
    She smiled back at him, and he thought again how extraordinarily
beautiful she was. For the briefest moment he regretted his age and
his infirmities. He envied his son this beautiful woman who would
undoubtedly become his mistress.
    “I will accept your kindness, my lord, but only for a day. You’re
right in that I am now laden with responsibilities. My father’s entire
fleet stands awaiting my orders, and they must remain idle until I
have studied his books. My eldest brother prefers the Church to the
sea, and though I will train him in my father’s ways, for boys are
known to be fickle creatures with changeable minds, I doubt that
Michael will change. Therefore it will be my half-brother, Brian,
who’s most likely to become the next O’Malley. He is but six now.
It will be at least ten years before he can take over his duties. Then,
too, there are my own two sons to raise.”
    “Stop, lassie!” said the MacWilliam. “You’re exhausting me. It’s
too much for a woman to take on, and I wonder at your father, God
assoil him.”
    Skye looked at the old man proudly. “My father knew I would
not fail him. He might have chosen any of my sister’s husbands, or even my uncle Seamus, but he chose me. I am the O’Malley!” Then
her look softened, and her eyes, which had been a deep purple-blue,
lightened to a clear blue-green. ‘Tonight, however, I shall be just
Skye O’Malley, and your most grateful guest.” She turned without
another word and walked from the room.
    The Mac William bellowed for a servant, who quickly removed
the still unconscious Darragh. “If you mean to have the O’Malley
lass,” he said to Niall, “you had best tame her quickly, my son. This
is no milk-and-water wench, but a full-blown woman. Once she gets
the bit of power into her teeth, you’ll not easily get a bridle on her.
I’ll see if I can start annulment proceedings on your marriage, for
the O’Neill girl belongs back in her convent. As to O’Flaherty, the
health of a cripple is precarious at best. I trust you’re not too noble
to object if we assist him now to a better life… discreetly, of
course.”
    Niall shook his head without hesitation. “May I speak to Skye
of marriage?”
    The old man grinned wickedly. “If ‘twill aid you in your wooing,
yes, and I imagine you’ll need all the help you can get. She’s a
strong-minded woman.”
    Niall grinned back as he strode from the hall and headed for
Skye’s chambers. His heart was singing. She was his! They would
finally be together, and they would make marvelous love, and she
would bear him strong sons and beautiful daughters, and they would
be happy. He burst into her room, startling Mag, and a half-clothed
Skye.
    “My father’s starting the annulment proceedings, my love. We
can soon be wed!”
    He reached out for her, but she eluded him. “Mag! Get out! I’ll
call you.” Then, “Don’t touch me, Niall! I cannot bear to be touched.
I told you what they did to me. I never want to be touched again!
I am happy you’re to be free of Darragh O’Neill; but find yourself
another wife, my lord. My husband lives, and even if he did not,
I would not remarry. I will never again put myself at a man’s mercy.”
She shuddered deeply.
    He was stunned. This was not the girl he had known. “Skye, my
love,” he began gently, “I know they have hurt you; but / never hurt
you. Remember how it was with us? It was sweetness beyond mea-
sure. Come, love,” and he held out his hand to her, “come let me
love you, and wipe away the unhappy memories.”
    “Niall!” Her eyes filled with tears. “Please understand. I cannot
even bear for Mag to touch me. My own good Mag. I bore Dom’s
brutal lovemaking for three years. Even then I remembered how it
had been with us, and I prayed that someday we could be together.
    There was no obscenity that Dom forced upon me that spoiled you
for me, not ever. Not until the night he and his vile sister…” She
could not go on.
    He finished it quietly for her. “Until the night they both raped
you.”
    “Aye,” she said, and was silent once more.
    “I do understand,” he said as his deep voice, soothing and tenderly
warm, sought to reassure and comfort her. “The wounds are still too
new and I, in my happiness, have foolishly assumed you would
share my joy at the prospect of our being together again. Forgive
me, my love. You have suffered two wicked shocks, and now you’re
burdened with an awesome responsibility. You’ll need time to adjust,
and you shall have it, sweetheart!”
    Her lashes were silken smudges against her pale skin. A great
wave of pity washed over him as two crystalline tears slipped from
beneath her closed eyelids and down her cheeks. He wanted to reach
out, enfold her in his arms, comfort her, wipe away completely all
the terrible hurt. But he stood with clenched fists and fought to
maintain a rigid control on himself lest he frighten her, and risk
losing her forever.
    Finally she spoke. “I love you, Niall. I have never loved anyone
else.”
    “I know Skye,” he answered quietly, “and that is why I will
wait.”
    “What?!” Her wet jewel eyes flew open.
    “Yes, my precious love. Wait. In time the terror will fade, and
when it does I will be here, Skye. Be it a month from now, or a
year. Or ten years.”
    “You need an heir, Niall. Your father wants one so very much.”
    “You’ll give me one someday, my love.”
    “You’re mad.” But a small smile played at the corners of her
mouth.
    “Not mad, my darling, simply in love with a wild and sweet
vixen who will eventually come home to me again.”
    Suddenly she held out her hand to him. He grasped it, and felt
her tremble, but she did not pull away. “Give me time, Niall. I will
come back to you! I know now that I will! Just give me time.”
    A wonderful warm smile lit his face, turning his mouth up at the
edges, crinkling his silvery eyes at the corners. “Madam, I offer you
whatever time you need, for I have surely never known anything
better worth waiting for than you.” He bowed low over her slim
hand, his cool lips gently brushing her skin, sending a small shiver-
was it revulsion, or was it desire?-rippling through her. Then,
straightening, he turned and left her chambers.
    Skye stood frozen, barely breathing. He loved her! Despite it all,
he still loved her! He was willing to wait! And now, as she felt the
blood begin to course through her veins, wanning her as she had
not been warmed since that terrible night, she knew it would be all
right. The horrible memories were fresh, but she would heal even-
tually. And when she did, Niall would be waiting!
    On the following day the O’Malley thanked her overlord for his
hospitality and, after a short ride to the coast, sailed home to Innisfana Island.
    Within the month word came to the MacWilliam that
the transition from the old to the new O’Malley had been made
smoothly, and that the fleet was sailing once again.
    So Niall Burke waited. The healing process had begun for Skye,
and when it was complete they would be together forever. He would
not go to her before then. There was plenty of time.

Chapter 7

    A year passed, and Dom died. His death, though sudden, was
not unexpected. With the loss of his legs he had lost the will
to live. Claire O’Flaherty disappeared shortly after the visit
of an English cousin, and only Gilly remained at Ballyhennessey, a sad shadow of his former self, content to spend his days
and nights in a drunken haze. The estate was well managed by Frang,
the bailiff.
    The small, prosperous trading empire of the O’Malleys grew more
prosperous through Skye’s skillful handling, and the MacWilliam
was forced to admit that Dubhdara O’Malley had known exactly
what he was doing when he had placed his daughter in charge. How
she would behave in wartime was another matter, and he had yet
to call upon her for that.
    At nine, Michael O’Malley was more a priest than child, his
calling so obvious that Skye finally sent him to school at the mon-
astery of St. Brendan’s, preparatory to his entering the priesthood
at sixteen. He would not take his final vows until he was twenty,
by which time his two oldest half-brothers would have wed and
probably produced heirs.
    Brian and Shane, at seven and a half and six and a half, had
begun the process of learning about the sea, about ships, and about
their late father’s half-legal, half-illegal methods of doing business.
    Brian was assigned to a ship named Western Wind, and Shane went
aboard the North Star. Neither ship would ever be out when the
other was also out, and occasionally the boys were at home at the
same time, which gave Skye a chance to see her half-brothers work-
ing together, and to evaluate them as they grew. Each was a true
O’Malley, taking to the sea as to an old and respected friend. Skye
wished her father could have seen them, for he would have been
proud.
    With the aid of Bishop O’Malley, and the donation of a fine
manor to the Church, Niall Burke was finally given an annulment
from his wife Darragh O’Neill, and she happily returned to her
convent, where she quickly took final vows. On his son’s behalf,
the MacWilliam sent to Seamus O’Malley and formally requested
his niece’s hand in marriage. With her permission, the negotiations
would begin at once.
    “I don’t know now,” said Skye mischievously.
    “Christ’s bones!” roared the bishop, for a moment so like his late
brother that his niece burst into laughter. Looking very aggrieved,
the bishop demanded, “What do you mean, you don’t know now?
From the moment Niall Burke looked at you nothing would do but
that you have him! Now you can, and you don’t know if you will? 
God Almighty woman! Make up your mind!” His plump face was
red, and his blue eyes almost black with anger.
    Skye’s laughter died in her throat. Kneeling, she leaned her silky
head against the prelate’s knee. “It isn’t because I don’t love Niall,
Uncle. I do. He is the only man for me, and he always will be. But
I am no longer a girl whose only interest is her man and their babes.
Perhaps I never really was.”
    “Beware, lassie,” warned Seamus O’Malley. ‘This is the
MacWilliam and his heir that we deal with. They are your overlords.”
    “Let them beware also!” shot back Skye. “/ am the O’Malley!”
    Seamus O’Malley mastered his temper. “What is it you want,
Niece? Specifically.”
    “My marriage must not affect my status as the O’Malley, and
neither must my husband or my father-in-law interfere with that.
The responsibility for the clan remains mine until I see fit to pass
it on to one of my brothers. Da wanted it that way. I will not have
the Burkes dabbling greedy fingers into the O’Malley coffers!
    “I will come to them with a dowry worthy of a princess, but that
is all they will receive. I want no interference by the Burkes into
O’Malley affairs.”
    The bishop nodded. “Tis shrewd you are, Niece, but I don’t
know if we can get the MacWilliam to swallow such a big pill. He’s
a sly old man.”
    “Come, Uncle, you’re a brilliant negotiator. Did you not arrange
with your ‘friends’ in Rome for Niall’s annulment. We both know
the reason the MacWilliam seeks me for his son is not my bonnie
blue eyes or my pretty tits. He looks to our ships, but they are not
mine to give. They belong to my half-brothers, and I will not cheat
my father’s sons out of their inheritance even to gain my own hap-
piness. I offer that wicked old man a bigger dowry than any of his
’better-bred’ wenches, and I also offer him something even better
than money, for I am a proven breeder of sons! Tempt him with
that! For all his cleverness he has but one heir. I will give him half
a dozen more.”
    The bishop laughed. “You’re a very naughty wench, Niece. Your
attitude toward the holy sacrament of matrimony is really quite
shocking. I am tempted to pile you with penances.”
    “I will accept them gladly, Uncle, if Niall Burke truly loves me.”
She became deadly serious now. “This is what I must know. The
last time he accepted his father’s will too easily, and did not fight
for me. Now he must battle the MacWilliam to prove his love.”
    “And if the MacWilliam refuses your terms?”
    “He won’t. But if he did then Niall would wed with me anyway
if he really loves me.”
    “Very well, Skye. ‘Twill be your way.”
    “Thank you, Uncle,” she replied meekly with downcast eyes, and
he chuckled and fondly whacked her backside.
    The MacWilliam angrily roared his outrage, but Seamus O’Malley
stood firm. Even after Skye wed with Lord Burke she was to remain
the O’Malley, and she was to retain complete control of O’Malley
affairs.
    “The O’Briens have a fine lass ripe for marriage,” said the
MacWilliam slyly.
    “The devil take her,” shouted Niall, and the bishop masked his
smile. “ Tis Skye I want, and Skye I’ll have even if I must slit your
scrawny throat!”
    The MacWilliam looked at his son with an injured air. “If you’re
that hot for her then you might as well have her. I hope you’ll
quickly breed me several grandsons before much more time has
passed. I am not growing any younger.”
    Seamus O’Malley returned to his niece, happy to tell her that her
terms had been accepted, and that Niall Burke had been willing to
fight for her. The O’Malleys were in a state of great excitement
because one of their own was to wed with Niall Burke. Yet Skye
remained calm throughout.
    “You must be made of ice,” remarked her sister Peigi. “He’s what
you’ve always wanted. And God knows his reputation with women would set an ordinary woman to fainting. You’ve already had a taste
of his lovemaking, so surely you must be excited to finally be
marrying him.”
    “I am, but we’re not wed yet, Peigi. I am fearful of rejoicing too
soon lest I awaken to find it all nought but a dream. If I remain quiet
and unobtrusive I will not attract the undue attention of those spirits
who might envy me my good fortune.”
    “God ha’ mercy, little sister, what unchristian nonsense is this?
Thank the Lord you do not run our business so foolishly.”
    Skye shook her head, but said nothing further. She knew that
even here in the heart of devout Christian Ireland, food and drink
were placed upon the doorsteps nightly in offering to the little people.
She knew that certain maidens of unblemished virtue were marked
as sacred, and the keeping of their virginity placed in the care of an
ancient Celtic demon who materialized to destroy the violator if the
girl’s innocence was threatened. She and the men of her fleet made
verbal obeisance to Mannanan MacLir, the ancient Irish sea god,
before each voyage.
    It had been almost eighteen months since she had seen Niall, and
she was somewhat frightened, for in all that time she had been free
of men’s demands. Her aversion to being touched had eased some-
what, and Mag could again bathe and dress her.
    As if sensing her fears from afar, Niall Burke came unannounced
to Innisfana Island. He found her in her mother’s rose garden clipping
some late blooms. For a few minutes he stood in the shadow of a
tree and watched her. He realized he had never seen her in a moment
of leisure. She was dressed in the Irish fashion, wearing a bright red
skirt of soft, lightweight wool. She had tucked it up, and he saw
that she was bare-legged and barefoot. Her blouse was of fine linen,
as white as many washings could make it. The sleeves were short,
and it was deep-necked, revealing her breasts when she bent to inhale
the sweet fragrances of the flowers. Her blue-black hair was loose
and billowed softly about her shoulders in the light breeze. She
carried a wide, nearly flat straw basket, half-filled with roses. Her
giant hound, Inis, walked slowly by her side.
    She was lovelier than he had remembered, and his heart beat a
little quicker when he realized that this beautiful woman had con-
sented to be his wife. The young innocent of fifteen was long gone.
He barely remembered her now, as this lovely creature of nineteen
quickened his blood. He let his eyes feast on her, enjoying the soft
pink in her cheeks, the way her lashes made a dark smudge against
her skin. Her slim figure moved with such grace. It gave him pleasure
just to watch her.
    After a little longer, he stepped from behind the tree and the big hound stiffened, his hackles rising. Inis growled low in warning.
    “I am glad to see you so well guarded, Skye.”
    “Put your hand out, Niall, so Inis may get your scent.” She patted
the dog. “Friend, Inis. Niall is a friend.”
    Lord Burke suffered himself to be thoroughly sniffed. He patted
the animal, speaking reassuringly to him, receiving first a long
searching look from the liquid amber eyes, and then finally a wet,
cold nose pushed into his palm.
    “He likes you!”
    “And if he hadn’t?”
    “You might have had difficulty claiming your rights once we’re
wed, my lord,” she said mischievously.
    She sobered suddenly, and he did too. Then he held out his arms
to her and, without a moment’s hesitation, she walked into them.
His arms closed securely about her, and she stood quietly listening
to the rapid beat of his heart just beneath her cheek.
    “I love you, lass,” he said quietly.
    “And I love you, my lord Burke. I would seal that love with a
kiss,” she said softly, raising her head. His mouth gently found hers.
At the first touch of his lips she panicked, but his big hand caressed
her hair and he murmured against her mouth, “No, love, it’s Niall,
and I love you.” With a sigh she gave herself up to him, and when
he released her at last, her eyes were shining with joy.
    “Is it all right now, sweetheart?” he asked, already knowing the
answer.
    “Yes, my lord. For a moment… but it quickly passed.”
    “I will always be gentle with you, Skye.”
    “I know.” She smiled happily. “How long were you watching
me?”
    “A few minutes. You’re a charming sight barefoot, and clipping
roses.”
    “But hardly dignified,” she blushed. “As the O’Malley, I should
have sailed out to meet you, my betrothed husband.”
    “Leave the O’Malley at sea, my love. I prefer shoeless lasses,
especially the one now in my arms. Besides, you did not know I
was coming. And but a day behind me is himself, anxious that your
uncle perform the betrothal ceremony here in two days’ time, and
that we sign the contracts. Would that please you, pet?”
    “Oh, Niall! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
    “And then,” he continued, “we can be wed in three weeks’ time
after the banns are all read.”
    “Yes!” Then her face fell. “No. It cannot be in three weeks’ time.
Damn! I must go to Algiers, and we sail in a week.”
    *To Algiers? Why?”
    “It has been suggested that we set up a trading post in Algiers,
and I cannot give my approval unless I have investigated the situation
myself. I must not waste O’Malley gold, or O’Malley resources.”
    “Why must you leave next week? Can’t you go another time?”
She could hear the irritation in his voice.
    “Oh, Niall, I am sorry. In order to gain a trading license in Algiers
we must have permission from the Dey, who represents the Sublime
Porte in Constantinople. Without the Dey’s approval we cannot trade
safely in the Mediterranean.”
    “Why not simply bribe him?”
    Skye laughed. “We are going to, but the Turks do things differ-
ently than we do. We are rather straightforward, whereas they de-
mand grace and elegance, even in their business dealings. When the
Dey learned that the head of the O’Malley company was a woman
he demanded to meet me. My representatives dared not refuse him.
So I must go or else risk insulting the Dey. To insult the Dey is to
insult the Sultan. In that case we would not get the trading permit.
Worse, our ships would be marked as fair game by the Barbary
pirates who sail out of Algiers under the Dey’s supervision. We
would be ruined. I have to go. The appointment is set.”
    “How long?”
    “At least three months.”
    “Three months? Dammit, Skye, it’s too long to be separated from
you!”
    Her eyes lit up. “Come with me, Niall! Sail with me to Algiers!
I know we must allow our families the privilege of marrying us off
with pomp and fuss. But once we’re betrothed and pledged to wed,
no one will think to mind if you accompany me. We can have our
church wedding when we get home. Come with me, my love! Oh,
please come with me!”
    It was a wild, impractical idea, and he almost said no. Then he
thought of the long days and longer nights ahead. Niall Burke took
a deep breath and said, “Yes, Skye, my love. I’ll sail with you,
though I must be mad to do so.”
    With a cry of joy she flung herself into his arms.
    Several days later, in the same chapel that had seen Skye’s baptism
and ill-fated marriage to Dom O’Flaherty, her betrothal to Niall
Burke was celebrated. She regretted the absence of her father at the
moment of her greatest happiness, but the MacWilliam’s open joy
eased her sorrow.
    The ceremony was barely over when Skye left her husband-to-be
and their guests in the care of her sisters, so that she could oversee
the preparation of her ships. They would sail in a fleet of nine ships.
Skye’s flagship was the Faoileag (the Seagull). With her would be her father’s ship the Righ A’Mhara (King of the Sea); Anne’s ship
the Ban-righ A’Ceo (Queen of the Mist), which had been a wedding
gift from her late husband; and the six ships belonging to Skye and
her sisters. These were known as the six Daughters for each was
named a “Daughter of…” They were Inghean A-Sian (Daughter
of the Storm); Inghean A’Ceo (Daughter of the Mist); IngheanA’Mhara (Daughter of the Sea); Inghean A’Ear (Daughter of the
East); Inghean A’lar (Daughter of the West); and the Inghean A’Ay
(Daughter of the Island).
    Each ship was carefully prepared and provisioned, and the crews
were handpicked by Skye. She wished to make a good impression
on the Dey. Permission to trade with Algiers meant untold wealth.
    Thus it was that, one week from the day of his betrothal, Niall
Burke found himself standing on the quarterdeck of a ship as it sailed
south out of O’Malley Bay into the rolling blue Atlantic Ocean. He
was not a sailor by nature, and had no special feeling for the sea.
Nevertheless the weather was tolerable and he quickly found his sea
legs. What he could not find as easily was an end to his amazement-
for Skye O’Malley in command on the sea was completely different
from the woman he knew and loved.
    She was amazingly competent, highly knowledgeable in areas of
which he had little or no understanding. The men about her did her
bidding unquestioningly, and listened to her with open respect. Had
she not been his sweet Skye in the privacy of her cabin, Niall would
have been genuinely frightened of the Amazon who commanded this
small fleet. Fortunately, Niall Burke had a sense of humor, and he
quickly realized he was going to need it.
    Though he shared the captain’s quarters with her, he slept alone
in a single bunk in a small side cabin with the wolfhound Inis as his
companion. The great dog had attached himself to Niall with a
singular devotion that delighted Skye, for Inis had hated Dom. Lord
Burke amused himself by training the dog. It was intelligent, but
lacked manners. Niall also spent a good deal of time in the company
of the same Captain MacGuire who had returned him to the
MacWilliam several years back.
    It was MacGuire who began to teach Niall the rudiments of sea-
manship, for as he succinctly put it, “The O’Malleys are all half
fish, and if you’re to wed one, you’d best understand why they love
the sea even if you don’t.” Niall Burke listened, learned, and began
to have great admiration for those who made the sea their life.
    He spent the evenings with Skye, though she would not share her
bed with him. “I am not a passenger on this voyage,” she told him.
”If I were needed in the night, and we…” Her blue eyes twinkled,
and he laughed in spite of his disappointment. To reward his patience she flung herself into his arms and kissed him ardently, her soft
breasts pressing provocatively against his pounding heart, her little
tongue darting teasingly about his mouth. Niall pushed her back,
and kicking her legs from beneath her, they fell to the big captain’s
bed. Skye felt her shirt buttons opening as if by magic, and his
mouth burned into the soft flesh of her breasts, nuzzling against a
suddenly hard nipple, sucking until the throb between her legs was
almost unbearable.
    Then he lifted his head, and his silvery eyes stared down at her
with tolerant amusement. “You’re captain of this ship, Skye, but I
will, if you don’t mind, be captain in our bedchamber. If you tease
me like that again, I’ll have you on your back before you can say
’Sail ho!’ Do you understand me, sweetheart?” “Aye, Captain,” she answered, and he was flattered to see the
admiration in her eyes.
    The weather remained miraculously fair as the Seagull and her
sister ships sailed farther south, avoiding the treacherous Bay of
Biscay entirely by the simple maneuver of keeping far enough out
to sea. They now sailed shoreward, rounding Cape St. Vincent,
ploughing across the Gulf of Cadiz, and through the Straits of Gi-
braltar into the Mediterranean.
    They were but a few days out of Algiers when a freak storm
struck the O’Malley fleet, scattering it haphazardly. The wind and
waves were tremendous. The heavy rains soaked into the decks and
through into the below-decks area. Just when they thought them-
selves safe, the storm having died, the boom of a cannon brought
them face to face with Barbary pirates.
    The pendant sent them by the Dey to insure their safe journey
had been ripped away in the storm, and they were under attack by
two ships. There was no choice but to fight. Skye’s men were
delighted. Laughingly they broke out the weapons and turned with
relish to meet the enemy. The grappling hooks flew, and the Seagull
found herself pinioned against a pirate ship. Below decks, her gun
crews worked frantically to sink the fast-closing second ship while,
above deck, Skye, sword in hand, led her men in defense of her
ship.
    Horrified, admiring her courage but scared to death for her, Lord
Burke grabbed his own sword, but MacGuire held him back. “She’s
doing fine, laddie. Stay with me. You go to her now, and she’ll be
more concerned for your safety than for her ship’s. She doesn’t need
you. If she does we’ll go, but for now we’ll just defend this area
from the mangy infidels.” And clay pipe still clenched between his
teeth, he leaped forward to engage a burly, bearded, turbaned ruffian
who was attempting to gain the quarterdeck. Knowing MacGuire was right, Niall joined in the fight to keep the quarterdeck free.
    The Seagull’s gun crew succeeded in sinking the second enemy
ship, and a great shout of triumph went up from the O’Malley men.
With renewed vigor they began to force the invaders from their decks
and off their ship. The grappling hooks were disengaged and, slowly,
a border of water began to appear between the two ships. The pirates
fled back to their own vessel.
    What happened next was never quite clear in the minds of the
sailors who lived through it. A freak wave-a remnant of the recent
storm-hit the ship sharply, broadside, and Niall Burke found him-
self pitched overboard into the sea. He heard Skye scream his name,
and then Inis hit the water near him and swam to his side. He could
see a boat being quickly lowered, and he knew it would be only a
matter of minutes before he and the dog were safely back aboard
the Seagull.
    On the ship above, Skye raved in a manner previously unknown
to her crew. “Jesu! Jesu! You idiots, hurry! Lower the boat before
he drowns! If either he or the dog is drowned I’ll keelhaul the lot
of you all the way back to Ireland!”
    The boat hit the water and was swiftly rowed toward Lord Burke
and Inis, both of whom were treading water. Skye leaned from the
quarterdeck, frantically directing the rescue. In the foaming sea
Niall’s dark head bobbed next to Inis’ silvery black one. Intent on
the rescue, they all forgot about the pirates. The pirate captain and
his crew had been staring, amazed, and now the captain nodded to
one of his seaman.
    The pirate was swung swiftly across the gap between the two
ships. Grasping Skye firmly about the waist, the man lifted her from
the deck of the Seagull, and the two of them swung back to the
pirate ship.
    She turned on him with a shriek of fury, nails clawing, but her
captor laughed, his teeth white against his tanned face and black
beard. As she struggled with the man, she heard her own crew
shouting, but the pirates were now breaking out muskets and shooting
down into the water in an attempt to hinder the rescue of Lord Burke.
The rescue boat finally reached Niall, and he and the dog were
hauled into it.
    “Thank God,” sobbed Skye. She heard Niall call her name and,
taking her captor unawares for a moment, she fought free and
shrieked, “Niall! Niall!”
    He stood up in the boat and shouted desperately, “We’re coming,
beloved! We’re coming to get you!”
    There was a sharp crack of a musket, and a bright blossom of
scarlet burst from Lord Burke’s chest. Skye stared in horror, then screamed endlessly as she watched him fall into the little boat. “I’ve
killed him! Oh, sweet Christ! I’ve killed him!” And with a moan
of anguish she slid down into the darkness that rose to free her of
her pain.

PART II

Algiers

Chapter 8

    The garden of Khalid el Bey had been designed to be a haven
of perfect peace. Rectangular in shape, it lay directly behind
the Bey’s villa, a two-story marble building high atop the city
of Algiers. The view from both garden and villa was mag-
nificent, allowing a panoramic vista of the city below with its recently
built Turkish fort-called the Casbah-and the blue Mediterranean
lapping at its feet.
    There were orange and lemon trees in the garden as well as tall,
full pines, and roses of every imaginable color. A T-shaped pool,
its longer bar interspersed with spraying fountains, ran the length
of the garden. The paths held carefully raked light gravel, and small
white marble benches were placed at intervals along them. There
were three distinct sounds in the garden of Khalid el Bey. The
tinkling of fountains, bird songs, and the murmur of the breeze in
the pines. Occasionally, the buzzing of a bee intruded itself.
    The only human inhabitant of the garden at this moment was a
beautiful young woman who lay dozing on a portable chaise longue.
She wore a simple pale-blue caftan, and her slim feet were shod in
gold leather sandals. Her skin was very fair with the faintest blush
of pink on her cheeks, her eyelids softly shadowed in blue kohl. Her
thick blue-black hair lay curling in gentle disarray about her shoul-
ders.
    Khalid el Bey, who had come into the garden from the villa,
stood silently watching the woman. He was a tall man in early middle years, his dark hair just beginning to silver slightly at the sides. His
skin bore a faint golden tint, which set off his short, black beard.
His amber-gold eyes were fringed in long, thick, dark lashes, unusual
in a man but most attractive. Khalid el Bey was neither fat nor thin,
but possessed a firm, well-muscled body which he exercised regu-
larly. His face was oval, the eyes set well apart, the nose long and
aristocratic, the lips thin but still sensuous.
    Now, as he stood gazing quietly down on the lovely woman in
his garden, he knew that his instincts had been correct. She was
indeed a great beauty-though when she had been brought to him
two months before, one would not have known it. She had been thin
then, her hair matted and lank. And she had been suffering from
shock. Still, he had seen a valuable jewel beneath the filth, and
despite Yasmin’s objections had bought her for his House of Felicity.
    She had healed slowly. He himself had spooned nourishing
chicken broth between her cracked lips during that first week. His
gentleness had communicated itself to her, and it was to him that
she first spoke.
    “Who are you?”
    “My name is Khalid el Bey.”
    “Where am I?”
    “You are at my house in the city of Algiers.”
    She became silent again. After a moment she ventured, “How
came I here?”
    “You were brought to me by Capitan Rais el Abdul. Tell me
now, my beauty, what is your name?”
    “My name is Skye,” she answered him.
    “And where do you come from?” he probed.
    Her enormous sapphire-blue eyes seemed bewildered, then filled
with tears. “I don’t know,” she sobbed, “I don’t know where I come
from. Surely this Capitan Rais el Abdul must know.”
    Khalid el Bey shook his head. “No. You were transferred to his
ship from another. The first vessel was just going out on a voyage
and hailed the Capitan, who was homeward bound.” Then seeing
the fear in her eyes he spoke soothingly. “Do not be frightened,
beautiful Skye, I am sure your memory will return soon. We know
you are European, for we are speaking French, though your accent
is not that of a native Frenchwoman. Rest now. We will talk again.”
    But her memory still had not returned. His Moorish physician
had examined her throughly. Her age was between eighteen and
twenty. She was not a virgin. In fact, she had borne more than one
child. She was free of disease, and had all her teeth. Because the
physician could find no evidence of a head injury, he concluded that the memory loss was due to some terrible emotional shock, and that
her mind refused to remember.
    Her beautiful blue eyes, which changed from sapphire to blue-
green as her moods changed, opened now and looked at him.
    “My lord Khalid.”
    He smiled. “How are you feeling, my beautiful one?” Sitting
down beside her, he caressed her dark hair.
    “I am ever so much better, my lord.”
    “We must talk now, Skye.”
    “Of what, my lord?”
    “You know that my name is Khalid el Bey. But I have another
name, Skye. I am called the Whoremaster of Algiers. I own many
houses filled with beautiful women whose very reason for existence
is to please the men who come to visit them. I own the women-
as I own you.”
    “You do?!” She was incredulous. “You own me?”
    “Yes, Capitan Rais el Abdul bought you from the fust Capitan,
and men he sold you to me.”
    “Why did you buy me?”
    He smiled. Her memory loss had affected so many areas, in-
cluding her knowledge of worldly things. “I bought you, Skye,
because I intend to train you to be the finest courtesan Algiers has
ever known. Then I will place you in my best house, which is called
Felicity.”
    “What must I do, my lord?” “Do you remember nothing of lovemaking?” he shook her head.
He sighed. “I will have to have Yasmin instruct you in certain
matters. Then I will personally instruct you. We will begin tomor-
row, for the doctor has assured me that you are well enough.”
    “Yasmin does not like me, my lord Khalid.”
    “Yasmin is a slave, like you, Skye. She will do as she is told.
If she should distress you in any way you will tell me.”
    “Yes, my lord Khalid. And thank you,” she said softly. “I will
endeavor to learn well so you will be pleased.”
    He mused later on her answer. If, as he suspected, she was a
highborn European, then she was also a Christian. Yet the loss of
memory had left her free of both her religion and its ethics. If he
could introduce her to the physical delights of lovemaking and make
it pleasant for her, he could make her the most famous courtesan
since Aspasia. It was a magnificent challenge, and one he was
looking forward to with great enthusiasm.
    That evening when Khalid el Bey had finished his meal, he dis-
missed bis “laves and, giving orders to his majordomo regarding his
bed partner of the evening, welcomed the woman who oversaw his most famous brothel. When Yasmin sat opposite him he marveled
at her beauty. He knew she was close to forty. Still, she was a
Circassian, and they were famed as the most beautiful slaves in the
world. He had purchased her over twenty years before from a breed-
ing farm. She had been the first of his special women. Thanks to
her, he had been able to place his business above his competitors.
    Brothels in Algiers, for the most part, had been confined to the
waterfront and served sailors of all nations. The wealthy residents
of the city had private harems, and needed no such services. But the
flesh peddlers of the city had overlooked one important market.
Algiers, being the chief city on the north African coast, entertained
many wealthy visitors. These had no women available to them.
Khalid el Bey was the fust to meet that need, and he became famous
doing so.
    The women in his House of Felicity were the most beautiful, the
most skilled, and the most entertaining in all of Algiers. There were
no two alike, for Khalid el Bey especially prided himself on offering
variety. Though others had tried to imitate him, they had all failed
miserably, leaving him with the undisputed title of “the Whore-
master.” Not only did he own the House of Felicity, he now also
possessed full or part interest in almost every house of prostitution
in the city.
    He was admired and respected by the other businessmen for,
though very shrewd, he was scrupulously honest. Still, few men
really knew the man, and his origins were a mystery. Though many
thought him a Moor, he was actually Spanish. He had been born
Diego Indio Goya del Fuentes near the city of Granada, the second
son of an old and noble family. He was well educated for his time,
and might have gone on to marry and lead the circumspect life of
a sixteenth-century Spanish nobleman. Then fate, in the guise of a
beautiful Moorish girl named Noor, had intervened in the young
man’s life. They had been desperately in love, but Noor had been
as firm in her faith, Islam, as any devout Christian was in his.
    Diego Goya del Fuentes had long been betrothed. Now his sisters
took malicious delight in teasing his fiancee about Noor. The fiancee,
a prim, religious girl, felt it her moral duty to inform the Inquisition
of the existence of the Moorish maiden. On the day that Noor was
burned at the stake as a heretic, Diego stood helpless on the edge
of the city square, his hooded face wet with tears, watching as the
gentlest, kindest person he had ever known was burned to death.
She was tortured cruelly, yet as the flames licked her graceful body,
her sweet voice lifted in a song of praise to her god, Allah. That
day, Diego Goya del Fuentes disappeared from Spain forever.
    He wandered for several years through Europe and the Middle
    East, finally settling in the city of Algiers. He changed his name to
Khalid, the title “el Bey” being his by virtue of a journey to the holy
cities of Mecca and Medina. He converted to Islam in honor of
Noor’s memory, though he felt no strong religious leaning.
    His feelings for women were ambiguous. On one hand, he re-
membered his lost love and her gentle sweet ways. On the other,
he recalled his sisters’ malice, and the cruelty and ignorance of his
fiancee. Perhaps this explained why, though he enslaved women
into the profession of prostitution, he was a kind and good master.
    Skye had touched him as no woman had since Noor. Her help-
lessness appealed to him, and this was why he now carefully in-
structed Yasmin about her care. But Yasmin argued, “Why do you
fuss so over this one girl, my lord? She is like a thousand others.”
The Circassian voice was spiteful, and Khalid el Bey hid a smile.
Yasmin had been in love with him for years but he felt no more for
her than he had for the others. No woman had claimed his heart
since Noor.
    “Skye is like a child now,” he explained patiently. “Although she
recalls some things, her loss of memory has wiped out all carnal
knowledge. She knows nothing and has no prejudices. If we handle
her carefully, we may mold her as we desire.” He cleverly empha-
sized the we, and Yasmin leaned forward eagerly.
    “This would really please you, my lord?”
    “Yes, Yasmin, it would. Skye is not simply a pretty face or body.
I sense a good mind behind those lovely blue eyes, and that is what
her specialty shall be. Like the courtesans of ancient Athens Skye
shall entertain the gentlemen with a skilled body and with her in-
telligence as well. She will not be used for those of our clientele
whose tastes run to the bizarre, but rather for elegant men, men of
culture-such as the Ottoman commandant of the Casbah. Or perhaps the sea captains who come to us from the Italian states, France,
or England. Together, Yasmin, you and I will make Skye an intriguing, exciting, much-sought-after woman.”
    “I will do my part, my lord Khalid. I will teach her all I know.
Even certain things I have kept from the others. Skye shall be unique,
and she shall be perfection.”
    He smiled his wonderful smile at her. “You have always exceeded
my faith in you, since the very beginning, Yasmin. Thank you.” He
twice clapped his hands sharply, then sent the answering slave for
coffee. Turning back to the woman, he asked, “The women now in
the House of Felicity are satisfactory?”
    “Except two. The English girl, Sweet Rose, has fallen in love
with one of her gentlemen, and consequently is balking at her job.
    With your permission I can correct that, for the gentleman involved
wants to buy her and add her to his harem.”
    “Sell, but accept only the highest price for her. After all, we’re
losing a good investment. What of the other girl?”
    ‘The gypsy Rhia is not adjusting, my lord. I think I must rec-
ommend severe punishment in her case.”
    “Why?”
    “I sent her along with two other girls to a party of half a dozen
young Turkish officers. They had requested they be allowed to play
the rape game. We assigned them to the Suite of Clouds. It was
arranged that, as the girls sat at their leisure, the Turks would break
in and ravish them. It is a harmless game, and the officers involved
are regular customers of ours, all highly recommended. While the
other two girls fell in with the spirit of the game, shrieking and
protesting prettily before yielding, Rhia screamed in earnest and
fought wildly, severely scratching two of our guests about the face.
Naturally they subdued her, and I am pleased to say that all six of
them enjoyed her despite her protests. But the other girls, of course,
felt slighted. They were angry that she should draw all the attention
to herself in such a fashion. The officers complained, too, that
afterward she wept as one demented. I finally had to remove her
from their presence, and send in another girl.”
    “Has she ever before partaken of this sort of fantasy, Yasmin?”
    “No. She was, of course, half wild when she came to us. But
she’s been treated well and has done very well with the gentlemen
individually. I believed her ready for this sort of thing.”
    “What is her specialty?”
    “Oral gratification, my lord, and I understand she is quite good
at it.”
    Khalid el Bey thought a moment. “She was probably raped some-
time in her life. The fantasy in which you placed her brought back
the memory and hence her terror. Do not put her in such a situation
again. Let her do what she is good at.”
    “You are too soft, my lord. Rhia offended our guests. When they
ask, what shall I tell them has been done?”
    “Do not wait for them to ask. Send a message to the two who
were scratched that the matter has been taken care of, and offer them
each an evening of pleasure at our expense.”
    “It shall be as my lord has said,” answered Yasmin.
    Khalid el Bey rose from the cushions and helped the Circassian
to rise. “You must return now, I know,” he said quietly, gently
dismissing her. “You will come tomorrow and begin your instruction
of Skye.”
    “As my lord commands,” she said, bowing out of the room.
    He almost sighed his relief. She was beautiful and loyal, but of
late she had become clinging and presumptuous of their long as-
sociation. He wasn’t quite sure what he would do about her. To free
her would only give her ideas above her situation, for she was a
slave, born of slave parents. He smiled, thinking back to those many
years ago when he had gone to a Circassian breeding farm with an
Egyptian friend. His friend was a slave merchant in Alexandria, a
connoisseur of beautiful young men and women, who preferred
buying directly from the breeder so he might have the best selection.
    The owners of the farm had paraded before their valued customer
and his guest a variety of exquisite virgins and youths. Yasmin had
been among them, and Khalid’s friend remarked on her, saying that
they had shown her to him in his two previous visits.
    “Alas,” sighed their host, “she is lovelier than an April morning,
but I cannot seem to sell her. I have just about decided to breed her
with our best stud.”
    “What are her bloodlines?” asked Khalid’s friend.
    “Pythias out of Iris,” came the reply.
    “Whew!” exclaimed the Alexandrian admiringly.
    Khalid el Bey had no idea what they were talking about, but there
was something touching about the little slave girl. “What is her
age?” he asked.
    “Fifteen,” came the reply.
    “A bit old. Is she a virgin?”
    “Sir!” The farm owner was indignant.
    Khalid el Bey laughed. “I will take her, my friend. I simply wish
to know what it is I am buying.”
    An outrageous price was named which Khalid el Bey scoffed at,
reminding the slave breeder of the girl’s age and the possibility of
her being barren if he bred her rather than sold her. They haggled
back and forth until finally a price was agreed upon that suited
Khalid el Bey but, according to the merchant, impoverished him.
The money was exchanged, and Khalid el Bey found himself the
owner of a beautiful Circassian slave girl with long blond hair and
Nile green eyes.
    When they returned to Alexandria he set about introducing her
to the joys of physical love. She had been taught its many arts but
had never used them. She knew the human body and its sensitive
areas well. Her skillful fingers could bring an impotent man to a
firm and long-lasting erection. She could sing while accompanying
herself on the lute. She danced well. And after several weeks in
Khalid el Bey’s bed, she found that she performed very well there
too.
    Then one night Khalid el Bey had several guests in for the eve-
ning, and when the meal was done she danced for the company.
Afterward he sent her to her room, telling her that perhaps one or
two of his guests might visit her and if they did she was to please
them for that would please him. In fact four of Khalid el Bey’s
guests came to her spacious quarters that night, and with each she
was soft and charming and skilled. They left singing her praises,
and Khalid el Bey rewarded his slave girl with a strand of coral
beads. The next night and the night after and almost every other
night after that, Yasmin pleasured her master’s friends. Then another
girl, Alyia, joined their household. Where Yasmin was fair, Alyia
had skin like a dusky rose, thick and waving hair the color of a
raven’s wing, enormous brown eyes, and a pouting red mouth. To
Yasmin’s fury, Alyia shared their master’s bed for several weeks.
But then she too joined the Circassian in entertaining Khalid el Bey’s
friends.
    Several months later, Khalid el Bey left his two women in the
hands of his friend, the slave merchant. He made a quick trip, and
returned several weeks later with two more girls. He moved them
all to the city of Algiers.
    They were installed in a small, beautifully appointed house, and
every night Khalid el Bey’s women entertained a variety of guests
ranging from wealthy visitors to Turkish officers of the Imperial
Ottoman Army who were stationed in Algiers. Within a year Khalid
el Bey owned twenty beautiful women and a larger house. At the
end of two years he owned fifty beautiful women who lived in two
houses, and he had begun the construction of his present villa. When
the third year drew to a close the villa was finished, and Khalid el
Bey was the undisputed Whoremaster of Algiers. Two things were
constant. Yasmin remained the head of Khalid el Bey’s women,
gradually becoming less of a courtesan and more of an administrator
and manager. And, there was not a girl who entered Khalid el Bey’s
service who was not first tried by him. It gave each of them a close
touch with their master, for during the time they served him per-
sonally he loved and cherished them. He had never used force to
bend a women to his will. Consequently his women all adored him.
    With Skye he saw his greatest challenge. With the proper training
she could become the finest whore he’d ever owned. Unlike the
others, who all cherished the secret dream of being bought and
married by one of their customers, Skye would have no such hopes
as she had no knowledge of marriage. And if, as he hoped, she
proved totally uninhibited, she could be taught some more exotic
forms of lovemaking that would command a very high price.
    The more he thought of her the more curious he became. Many times he had observed her secretly in the bath and in her bedchamber.
Her figure was as lovely as her coloring, but it was her skin that
intrigued him. It was flawless. Utterly flawless. Smooth, beautiful
skin the color of rich cream, or was it old ivory silk? He longed to
touch it with his sensitive fingers, his lips. Would it be soft? Yes,
undoubtedly it would be soft. Would it be soft and warm beneath
his mouth, or would it be cool and smooth? He shivered in antici-
pation. Although he enjoyed his women, it had been a long time
since he had actually looked forward to one, and it would be several
weeks until he could even consider sampling Skye’s charms. He
sighed, and went to his bedchamber. Perhaps the little houri who
was to be his partner tonight could ease some of his longings.
    At midmorning on the following day Yasmin began Skye’s les-
sons in love. She looked with dislike on the young woman she
intuitively knew to be the most serious rival she had ever had for
Khalid’s affections. Still, she reasoned, the sooner Skye was taught
what she needed to know, the sooner she’d be out of Khalid’s villa.
And Skye must be taught well, for then Khalid would be pleased.
    “Disrobe for me,” commanded Yasmin, and when Skye quickly
complied, her caftan dropping to the floor, Yasmin scolded, “No!
No! You show all the sensuousness of a donkey! Let me show you.”
And her fingers undid the frog closings on her pink caftan as grace-
fully as if she’d been playing a musical instrument. Turning, she
gently shrugged the garment from her shoulders, exposing her
smooth fair skin. Slowly, slowly, she allowed the garment to slide
downward, revealing the line of her back, her plump round buttocks,
her legs. Then she turned to face Skye. Her breasts were big, but
firm. Sliding to her knees, her head bent to touch the floor and she
murmured huskily, “As my lord commands.”
    Then suddenly Yasmin stood up briskly and said matter-of-factly,
”That is how to disrobe properly. You try it.”
    Quietly Skye picked up her robe and dressed. Then, imitating
exactly and with equal skill Yasmin’s movements, she removed the
caftan again. Sinking to the floor at last, her dark head bowed, her
soft voice clear and sweet, she said, “Is that what you want?”
    “Yes,” came the terse reply. “It is fortunate you learn quickly.
    “We will now discuss perfumes. Sit down. No, don’t bother
dressing. I must show you the proper places to anoint yourself. A
woman’s body is a work of art, but in order to remain a masterpiece
you must work at it constantly.” She reached into the basket by her
side and then handed Skye some green leaves. “Mint. Chew them.
Your breath should always be fragrant and your teeth clean. All of
our women are perfection. That is what makes them famous, and
justly so. We are not common street trulls to be had for a few sequins.” Yasmin carefully laid out several bottles on the carpet.
”Musk, ambergris, attar of roses. All of our perfumes have one of
these as a base.” She uncorked them and held each out so Skye
might smell. “Which do you prefer?”
    “The roses.”
    “Good! I would have chosen that one for you myself. Though
my lord Khalid tells me that you are not a virgin, there is an air of
innocence about you that we will concentrate upon. It appeals to
many men. I will use the attar of roses to demonstrate.” She stood
up and, taking the stopper between her thumb and forefinger, stroked
it generously between the deep valley of her breasts. Carefully lifting
each of the heavy globes, she perfumed beneath them. Next the
stopper touched the base of her throat, the back of her neck, the soft
spots behind her ears. Then came her wrists, beneath her arms, and
in the blue-veined hollows of her inner arm. Yasmin dipped the
stopper again and touched it to her navel, the backs of her legs, her
ankles, the arches of her feet, and her Venus mound. “You must go
lightly here,” she explained, “for men sometimes enjoy the sweet
taste of a woman, and that should not be overwhelmed by another
scent.”
    Skye appeared puzzled, and Yasmin gazed at her enviously. “You
really don’t remember, do you?” she said. “Allah, how I envy you!
It will be like the first time again for you, but without the pain of
virginity.” Then catching herself, she handed Skye the attar of roses
and said brusquely, “Let me see you do it now.”
    Carefully Skye imitated her teacher, and when she had finished
she looked expectantly toward Yasmin.
    “You have forgotten one area,” said Yasmin, taking the bottle
stopper from her student. Cupping one of Skye’s breasts, she dotted
the scent beneath it.
    “Don’t!”
    To the older woman’s surprise, Skye’s face was drained of color,
her body stiff. Her eyes held horror. Yasmin was genuinely fright-
ened. “What is it, Skye?! Are you all right?”
    Slowly the fear drained from the younger woman’s eyes, and she
said, bewildered, “I don’t believe I like being touched by another
woman.”
    “What do you remember, Skye?”
    “Nothing. I remember nothing, but when you touched me…”
She shivered with genuine revulsion.
    Yasmin was concerned. What if Skye didn’t like being touched
by men either? She could hardly be a successful whore then, and
Khalid el Bey’s investment would be lost. Normally Yasmin would
not have introduced the subject of male anatomy until a later lesson, but she felt she must know before she went any further. If the girl
was emotionally unstable she should be disposed of now. Yasmin
clapped her hands and said to the answering slave girl, “Fetch my
new eunuch, Ali.”
    Then, turning to Skye, she said, “There are two ways to geld a
male. If it is done when they are young, all is removed. But the
mortality rate is high. The other way is to remove the male’s seed
sac, but leave the rod. We buy only that kind of eunuch, for they
are better-natured. They are also invaluable in teaching our girls the
things they must learn about a man’s body. Ah, Ali, come in! Come
in! Skye, this is Ali. Is he not beautiful?”
    The young man flushed. Skye let her eyes slide over him. He
was indeed good-looking, tall, with softly golden skin, dark curly
hair, and liquid brown eyes. “He is gorgeous, Yasmin. You are
indeed fortunate.”
    Yasmin smiled smugly, then said sharply to the man, “Ali, dis-
robe!” She looked quickly to see the effect this would have on Skye.
Would she faint? Was she fearful? The eunuch undid his long robe
and, removing it, laid it carefully on a chair. Then he stood straight,
awaiting further instruction. Yasmin glanced toward Skye. “What
do you think of him?”
    The younger woman looked puzzled. “As I have said, Yasmin,
he is gorgeous.”
    “His nakedness does not offend you, or frighten you?”
    “No, should it?”
    “No, but some women are fearful nonetheless. Now, Skye, I want
you to go to Ali, put your arms about him, and press your body to
his.”
    Skye did as Yasmin commanded, sliding her arms around the
eunuch’s neck, rubbing instinctively in a very provocative way
against the young man’s soft body. He shuddered, nuzzled her ear,
squeezed one of her buttocks, then cupped a breast in his hand. Her
eyes grew dark with desire, and she swayed slightly.
    “Mistress!” Ali’s voice was pleading, and Yasmin laughed. She
had learned what she needed to know. Skye might dislike a woman’s
touch but she enjoyed a man’s. The lessons could continue. Without
giving Ali another thought, she dismissed him. He fled, gathering
his robe.
    “What a funny creature,” Skye observed. “Didn’t he like me?”
    Yasmin laughed again. “He liked you very much, and had you
been alone he might have made love to you. I will allow him to do
so when you have more knowledge. We use these young eunuchs
for that purpose, as we can hardly practice technique on our gentlemen.” She looked candidly at Skye. “You’re a good student, but
that is all we will do today. I will come tomorrow at the same time.”
    After Yasmin had dressed and gone, Skye sat quietly for a few
minutes. Then her hands crept upward to cup her own breasts. Gently
she caressed her body and was amazed to see her nipples harden.
She thought about what it would be like to have a man stroke her,
and felt a tingling between her legs. It was all so pleasurable. What
other lovely things had her cursed memory wiped away? Sighing,
she stretched naked on the cushions and fell asleep.
    That evening Khalid el Bey sent for Skye. She was fresh from
the baths and had just finished perfuming herself. Sliding a light-weight wisteria-colored silk caftan over her body, she ran barefoot
through the short, carpeted hallway that separated her room from
his apartments.
    “How lovely you are!” he said as she entered the room. He noted
the sheen of her skin and the way her midnight-colored hair curled
in damp tendrils about her face. “Yasmin tells me your lessons went
well. She feels you have a talent and will progress quickly. She is
pleased with you, and therefore I am pleased.”
    Her face became radiant. “I want to please you, my lord Khalid!
Without you I should be nothing.”
    His big hand cupped her chin, and his dark eyes looked into her
blue ones. “I do not think so, my little lost bird. I do not think so.”
Then smiling, he asked gently, “What have you learned?”
    “Just perfuming, and the proper way to disrobe before a gentle-
man.”
    “Disrobe for me,” he commanded, sitting cross-legged amid the
colorful cushions. “Pretend I am to be your gentleman.”
    She stood very still before him. Her fingers hardly seemed to
touch the tiny pearl buttons of her robe before it opened. He had not
but the barest glimpse of her breasts when she twirled gracefully.
The silken robe slid with agonizing slowness down the long line of
her back and over the perfect twin moons of her buttocks. She turned
to face him, her eyes modestly lowered. Sinking to the floor, she
said softly but clearly, “As my lord commands.”
    For a moment he stared at the gleaming dark head that touched
his slipper. He was amazed not only by her easy skill, but by his
own reaction to it. Beneath his brocaded robe he was swollen and
aching, and he couldn’t quite believe it. He had always maintained
a perfect control over his body.
    She raised her head, and their eyes met. “Do I please you, my
lord?” she asked innocently.
    “Very much,” he murmured huskily. Don’t! Don’t! his saner self warned him, but he heard himself saying, “Sit next to me, Skye.”
And when she nestled in the curve of his arm he bent over her and
touched her lips. They parted easily beneath his, and he drew her
scented breath into his own mouth. His tongue sought for hers, found
it and they caressed one another with burning softness until he be-
came aware of her hands seeking his, and placing them on her naked
body.
    ‘Touch me, my lord Khalid!” she whispered urgently. “Please,please touch me!”
    Fighting to control himself, he allowed his hands to slide over
her body. He had never felt such a desire in himself for any woman.
Her skin was softer than anything he had ever known, and when she
moaned with undisguised pleasure he trembled. He slipped his own
robe off. You must not! She is unschooled! You will ruin everything!
warned his saner self, but his lips slid down the pure pillar of her
throat, and his hungry mouth captured a taut nipple, sucking pas-
sionately on it until, with an angry half-cry of desperation, he yielded
to his own desires.
    Swinging himself over her burning body, he impatiently parted
her thighs and thrust himself into the welcoming warmth of her. She
sighed and with a deeply rooted feminine instinct, she wrapped
herself about him and moved her lush body to match his frantic
rhythm. Her slender fingers slid down his long, smooth back, knead-
ing his muscled buttocks until he whimpered with pleasure. Within
her own body she felt a tingling tenseness that built with unbelievable
intensity until, cresting, it burst over her like a giant wave lifting
her high and then dashing her down into a swirling darkness.
    “Skye! Skye! Ah, my beautiful beloved,” he murmured against
her ear. He caressed her gently.
    “I did not remember until now how beautiful making love could
be,” she whispered.
    “Do you remember anything else?” he questioned hastily.
    “No. Only that I have done before what we just did, and that it
was good.”
    “I should not have taken you,” he said. “What if I had frightened
you?”
    “You did not frighten me, my lord Khalid, but perhaps I dis-
pleased you with my lack of skill.”
    He laughed weakly. “No, Skye, you did not displease me. It is
true you lack the skill of a trained courtesan, but this same lack of
skills has given me a very pleasurable time.”
    “Must I continue my lessons with Yasmin, my lord?”
    “Yes. Your innocence has charm, my beloved, but there is no harm in your learning our ways. You will learn to pleasure your
gentlemen in a variety of ways. It is your duty as a woman to be
knowledgeable in the arts of love, and as Yasmin teaches you, you
will show me.”
    She lay on her back breathing quietly and evenly. He lay on his
side so he might gaze down at her. His fingers traced a delicate
pattern down her breasts and torso. Shivering, she raised her blue
eyes to him. Bending down, he kissed her mouth with great tender-
ness, then her eyelids. “Go to sleep, Skye, and sleep in the knowl-
edge that I will watch over you.”
    Her eyes closed. He again wondered who she was and where she
had come from. A noblewoman without a doubt, but from where?
Her coloring ruled out the far north, and he did not believe her to
be either Spanish or French. When she had first regained conscious-
ness he had spoken to her in French and she had answered him, but
he knew her accent was not native to France. Could she be English,
or one of the Celtic races? Unless she regained her memory, they
were unlikely ever to know.
    Khalid el Bey was not sure he wanted to know. Somehow this
beautiful creature had insinuated herself into his heart. It had been
a long, long time since he had felt more than just sexual satisfaction
with a woman, but with Skye he suddenly felt something he had
long believed himself immune to. That feeling was a longing for a
real home, and it took a wife and children to make such a home.
    He smiled at his fantasies. Surely he was getting old, for the first
sign of age in a man like him was the longing for rest. He gazed
again at the woman by his side. Was it possible? Did he really love
her? What if he married her, and she later regained her memory?
But that was unlikely. She would not regain her memory, or so his
physician said, unless faced with the very thing that had shocked
her in the first place.
    Still, he would not move swiftly. He would allow Skye to continue
her lessons. It could do no harm. And later he would make a decision
about their future. He closed his eyes, sighed, and fell asleep.

Chapter 9

    Yasmin was shocked. “You took an unskilled woman to your
bed? What on earth possessed you, my lord Khalid?”
    He turned on her. “You presume on our long association,
Yasmin. Skye belongs to me, and I will do with her as I
choose. I do not need your approval.”
    “I only meant-“
    “You are an insolent slave,” he said cuttingly. “I have rarely
found it necessary to use the whip, but you tempt me now, Yasmin.
You tempt me greatly.”
    She had gone very white. Flinging herself to the floor, she im-
plored his forgiveness. “Get up,” came the cold reply. “You will
continue Skye’s lessons, Yasmin, and if I should ever hear of your
mistreating her in any way, I will sell you. Go now!”
    The Circassian scrambled to her feet and fled the room. Her heart
was thundering. In all their years together he had never spoken to
her that way. Yasmin was deeply frightened. Was he in love? Allah
forbid! The worm of jealousy gnawed at her heart, and Yasmin
began to hate the woman called Skye with an impotent fury.
    She dared not act openly against her yet, but once Khalid sent
Skye into the House of Felicity, she would be at Yasmin’s mercy.
Yasmin thought with pleasure of a Syrian merchant who visited them
twice yearly, and whose delight was in watching two women perform
before he took them both. Knowing Skye’s revulsion at another
woman’s touch, Yasmin intended to punish her by forcing her to
participate in such a show. For now, however, Yasmin would bide
her time.
    She smiled at Skye as she entered her room and bid her good
day. “Today,” she said, “we will review yesterday’s lessons, and
go on to the study of anatomy, both male and female.”
    Skye nodded. Annoyed by her poise, Yasmin sought to shock
her. ‘Tomorrow I will bring a girl from the House of Felicity with
me, and she and Ali will begin to demonstrate to you the various
positions of love.” She stared hard at the younger woman.
    “That should be very interesting,” replied Skye with infuriating
calm. “I would learn quickly and well so I may please my lord
Khalid.”
    Yasmin had to bite her lip to keep from shrieking. Skye’s lack
of emotion was totally unnerving. Would she be one of those cold
creatures who felt nothing at the height of passion? If that was the
case then she would have to be taught to simulate emotion, for
nothing frustrated or angered a man more than an unresponsive
female. Yasmin realized that it might be harder to train Skye than
she had previously thought. But train her she would, and when she
was through Skye would be the most magnificent creature ever to
grace the House of Felicity. Then Khalid would realize Yasmin’s
great value to him, and finally make her his first wife. She had
waited so long for an opportunity like this, doing his bidding unquestioningly all these years, seeing to his interests.
    Catching herself, she ceased daydreaming, called for her eunuch,
Ali, and threw off her silken robe. “A thorough knowledge of both
the male and female body is essential, Skye,” said the naked Yasmin.
”With small-breasted women such as yourself, the breasts are usually
very sensitive, and most women are highly sensitive on the little
button that lies hidden beneath the Venus mound. Demonstrate,
Ali!”
    Yasmin lay among the pillows, the young eunuch propped on his
side next to her. Fascinated, Skye watched as he caressed the soft
globes of Yasmin’s breasts, using both his hands and his mouth. He
worked slowly and as Yasmin’s breasts became harder and firmer,
a small moan escaped her. Ali shot Skye a small triumphant smile,
which his partner missed. One hand moved lower to Yasmin’s Venus
mound. A finger probed delicately, rubbing gently, and another soft
cry escaped the writhing woman.
    Ali bent his head to touch with his tongue where his finger had
lately been. The woman beneath him cried aloud her passion, and
suddenly Skye closed her eyes and shuddered. In her mind’s eye she
saw a blond man and a blond woman intertwined together on a bed.
It was evil! Her mind strained to remember, but she could not quite
do so, and then a shriek of pleasure from Yasmin brought her back
to the scene before her.
    The older woman lay panting, her lush body covered with a fine
sheen of perspiration. The eunuch lay on his back, his eyes closed.
Gradually Yasmin regained her composure. Finally she spoke. “You
have now seen one way in which a woman’s body can give pleasure
and be pleasured, though of course it is more important that you
give pleasure. I will demonstrate mat shortly, but first I want Ali
to caress you as he has just caressed me. It is necessary that I see
how you react in such a situation. Exchange places with me.”
    For the second time Skye felt uncomfortable. When Khalid el
Bey had made love to her the other night it had been right, but she didn’t want the sly Ali with his obviously knowing hands and mouth
touching her, and with sudden defiance she said so. Startled at first,
Yasrhin was speechless, but she quickly regained her voice.
    “I did not ask you whether you wished to do this thing. I have
commanded you to obey me. How dare you even contemplate dis-
obeying me? Our lord Khalid has put you in my charge, and if you
disobey me I shall have you beaten.”
    “You do not dare to mark me,” shot back Skye. “You are a slave
as I am, and my lord Khalid would punish you greatly should you
destroy my value!”
    Yasmin smiled nastily. “It will not destroy your beauty should
I have Ali beat the soles of your feet. The bastinado is an extremely
painful but effective punishment for fractious slaves.”
    Skye paled, but said evenly, “I will not allow that creature of
yours to touch me, and if you hurt me I shall tell my lord Khalid
of your cruelty.”
    “What cruelty do you speak of, my lovely Skye?” Khalid el Bey
stood in the door a moment before entering it. With inborn instinct
Skye flung herself into his arms. “I won’t do it, my lord! Please
don’t make me! Please!” His eyes softened, his arms tightened pro-
tectively about her, and he dropped a kiss on the top of her dark
head.
    Yasmin made an exasperated noise. “You tell me to train her in
the arts of love, and when she will not obey me you condone it!”
    “I will not allow Ali to touch me in that way!”
    “I cannot gauge your sensuality if I cannot see it!”
    Khalid el Bey hid a smile and said to Skye, “Will you allow me
to caress you so Yasmin may learn what she needs to know?”
    “Yes.” It was said softly. Without another word he slid her caftan
from her body and drew her down amid the cushions. His hands
were incredibly gentle as they cupped and caressed her sweetly
rounded little breasts, and she sighed with delight as he teasingly
skimmed the soft, smooth skin with his skilled fingers. A warm hand
fondled her belly and slid downward to touch that most sensitive of
spots. She cried out her pleasure, and his mouth quickly covered
hers in a burning kiss. As the pleasure faded slowly away, she
opened her eyes to find him staring down at her, a strangely tender
expression lighting his amber eyes. Then he turned his head, and
she was struck by the hawklike beauty of his profile.
    “Do you know now what you must, Yasmin?”
    The older woman was very still, her green eyes huge and almost
black in her pale face.
    “She responds well to a man’s touch, does she not, Yasmin?”
    ‘To your touch, my lord Khalid,” came the reply.
    “From this moment on, Yasmin, you will not force Skye to any-
thing she chooses not to do. You will teach her all you know, and
she will practice her skills on me alone. Only I will correct or chastise
her. Do you understand?”
    “Yes, my lord.” The woman shot Skye a look of pure hatred.
    “Then that will be all for today.” Yasmin and Ali were dismissed.
Khalid stood up and, holding out his hand to Skye, said, “Dress
yourself, my sweet. In the garden there is a rose called ‘Love’s
Delight’ that has just come into bloom today. I would show it to
you.”
    They were alone. Skye drew on her caftan slowly. She slipped
on her sandals. His deep voice cut the silence surrounding them.
”What was it about your lessons today that disturbed you, my Skye?”
    “When I saw Ali making love to Yasmin,” she said, “I became
uncomfortable, my lord. It was as if I had seen… something like
that before, and it was evil. Yet I could not really remember. It
frightened me. The eunuch, despite his state, was so sure of his
power over Yasmin. He smiled at me in such an arrogant way, and
I knew then that I could not bear it if he touched me. Have I
displeased you, my lord Khalid?”
    He put an arm about her. “No, Skye, you have not displeased
me. Whatever you may have been in your former life, you were
certainly not a wanton, and that pleases me. I think, perhaps, that
I shall have to change my plans for you. Come now, and see the
roses.”
    “You will not send me away?” Her voice was frightened.
    “No,” he held her by the shoulders and looked down into her
upturned face. “I shall not send you away, my little lost love.” And
again she was puzzled by the tender look in his eyes.
    Alone in the night, Khalid el Bey paced the rooftop terrace of his
house. The sky above was black silk, relieved only by the crystal
blue stars. The air was still, yet it was perfumed by the sweet scent
of night-blooming nicotiana. It had become obvious to him that he
couldn’t make Skye a courtesan. Though her memory was buried,
a strong moral sense remained. He would send a note to Yasmin
tomorrow morning, stopping Skye’s lessons. Whatever he felt she
needed to learn he would teach her himself.
    He had to admit to himself now that he was in love with Skye.
Her revulsion toward Ali today was only a part of it. The truth was
that Khalid el Bey did not want her in the House of Felicity pleasuring
a different lover every night. He wanted her in his own house, loving
him, and bearing his children. Yes, he loved her enough to honor
her by making her his wife. He felt like a boy again, and for the
first time since his love for Noor, he felt hope. Perhaps, he thought wryly, there was a god in the heavens, after all. At peace with
himself, he descended the steps to his own quarters.
    To his surprise, Skye was asleep on the cushions by his couch.
For a brief moment he watched her, then he bent and dropped a kiss
on her cheek. She stirred, opened her magnificent sapphire eyes,
and sat up.
    “I am afraid,” she said in a rush, “I have angered you. And if
you send me away-“ she stopped, trying to gather her thoughts.
”You are all I have, my lord Khalid. I remember nothing before
you, and if you send me away I shall die!”
    Tenderly he gathered her into his arms. “I have spent many hours
alone with the night, my sweet Skye, and I have realized something.
I have decided that there is only one fate for you.” She trembled
against him, and he stroked her reassuringly. “Your fate is to be my
wife, beloved. I will love you, care for you, and protect you, my
Skye. I have never before wanted a wife, and it has been many years
since I really loved a woman. It has been my custom to make love,
but not give my heart. Do you understand the difference?”
    “Yes,” she whispered. “You enjoyed their bodies, but not nec-
essarily the women themselves.”
    He smiled in the semidarkness of the room. “You are wise, my
Skye. Now, love, tell me if you are still afraid.”
    “No.”
    “And are you pleased with my plans for your future? Will you
be happy to be my wife?” “Yes.”
    “Sweet Skye, I… I love you, and I want you to be happy. If the
thought of marriage to me displeases you, you must tell me so, for
I would not have you be unhappy.”
    “You do me great honor,” she said softly, “but I am not certain
I love you, my lord. Surely you deserve a wife who loves you.”
    “The love will come, sweetness. I want you safe.”
    She raised her face to him. “Then gladly shall I be your wife, my
lord!” Her blue eyes were shining with trust and even, he thought,
a little happiness. “I promise to make you happy,” she told him
shyly.
    “You already make me happy,” he told her, and then his mouth
sought hers, tasting and giving the sweet sensual delights she seemed
to crave from him. His hands caressed the small globes of her breasts,
and then his tongue was torturing the pink nipples to a peak of
excitement, circling round and round the sweetly sensitive flesh until
her breathing became ragged. He lowered her to the cushions and
his hands gently spread her thighs. Tenderly he entered her, taking her there on the floor, delighting in her sigh of pleasure as his pulsing
shaft thrust deep.
    Her soft hands began stroking his back, sliding slowly down its
length to cup and fondle his round buttocks. “Khalid! Oh, my
Khalid!” she whispered with a hot little breath against his ear. He
shivered. “Love me, my lord! Oh, love me well, my lord!” She
exhorted him and, catching his rhythm, she moved with him until
both of them were lost in the wildly spinning vortex of their shared
passion.
    So great was the desire they aroused in each other that Skye
fainted and Khalid, to his amazement, came close to losing con-
sciousness himself. As his seed thundered into her hidden valley he
shook fiercely with the intensity of his passion. Drained, he rolled
from her and gathered her into his arms, raining kisses on her beau-
tiful face. “Oh God, I adore you! I adore you!” he murmured over
and over again, and as she slowly climbed from the darkness she
heard someone’s voice worshiping her. “Niall,” she murmured
softly. “Niall!”
    Khalid stiffened. “Skye, sweetness,” he said gently, “Skye, open
your eyes.” And when she obeyed he said, “Who is Niall, my
beloved?”
    Immediately her eyes became clouded and confused. “Niall?” she
asked, puzzled. “I know no Niall.”
    He sighed. Whoever Niall was, Khalid envied him very much.
Skye must have loved Niall. Still-it was he, Khalid, who now
possessed her, and he would not lose her, as mis Niall had done.
”Sleep, my love,” he said cradling her against his chest. And slowly
her breathing became even and regular.
    He lay awake most of the night struggling with himself. Was it
possible that she was regaining her memory, or was the outcry just
a fluke, never to be repeated? The doctor had said that Skye would
not find herself again unless faced with the identical situation that
had caused her trauma, and the chances of that happening were so
remote as to be impossible. There was no danger of her recovering.
He would marry her! Was he not entitled to some happiness? He
wanted her, and he wanted the children of her loins.
    He rose with the first light, and left her sleeping. In his dayroom
his body servant lay sleeping before the door. Gently, Khalid nudged
him with a slippered foot. When the slave’s eyes flew open, Khalid
said, “Fetch my secretary immediately. I will be in the library.”
Stumbling to his feet, the slave hurried off. Drawing his white robe
about him, Khalid el Bey went to his library to await the secretary.
He arrived a few minutes later, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
    “I am sorry to bring you from your bed so early, Jean, but there
are some urgent matters.” The secretary nodded, sat, and took up
his pen. A French captive, Jean gave thanks for his monastery ed-
ucation because it made him useful as a secretary. Otherwise, he
would now be in the mines like so many others.
    Khalid el Bey spoke. “Draw up manumission papers for the slave
girl known as Skye. I want her legally free. Then draw up a marriage
contract between the freedwoman known as Skye, and myself. Her
bride’s price shall be this house, the estate, and twenty-five thousand
gold dinars. Consult the mullah for the exact wording.
    “Then,” he continued, “send for the astrologer, Osman. I wish
a consultation today. Wait! Before anything you must send a message
to the Lady Yasmin telling her that all lessons are postponed until
further notice. Say nothing else. That should get you started. I will
return later.”
    As Khalid el Bey left, Jean heard him order a waiting slave, “See
that Jean is sent breakfast immediately,” and the little Frenchman
marveled that his master was so thoughtful. This was not the first
time, either. The bey’s good manners had won his secretary’s loyalty
from the very first.
    Jean wondered what was in his master’s mind. He could have
any woman without marriage. Why marriage? And Yasmin would
be very angry. But Jean’s Gallic logic was on the side of his lord’s
decision. It was time he settled down and had children. And besides,
the lady Skye was the fairest woman Jean had seen in years.
    Khalid el Bey returned to his bedchamber. Skye was gone, and
he knew she had returned to her own chambers. Following her there,
he heard giggles coming from the bathing room and found Skye and
the pretty twin Ethiopian slave girls all splashing about the scented
pool. He watched for a moment, struck by the vivid contrast of their
wet bodies-ivory and ebony, sleek and shining.
    Skye saw him first and, swimming over to the shallow end of the
pool, came partway up the steps and held out her hand in invitation.
She was like a goddess standing there in her nude young beauty,
and he could feel his desire rising. He held his arms out and the two
slave girls scrambled from the pool to remove his robe. Nude, his
desire became visible to all. Skye’s blue eyes twinkled and, throwing
him a saucy look, she dove back into the pool, giving him a delicious
view of her sleek flanks. “Leave us!” he growled to the two girls,
and dove after Skye.
    He was amazed to find what a strong swimmer she was. She
laughed mischievously at him and dove beneath the water to emerge
in midpool. His own laughter sounded now. “Where in the name
of the seven djins did you learn to swim like that, you vixen?”
    Her blue-green eyes widened innocently, and she shrugged.
”Alas, my lord Khalid. I know not. Are you not afraid to take such
a wife to your bosom? Who knows what else I may know?”
    He swam over to her and, gently, with a restrained passion that
she instantly sensed, he took her face between his thumb and fore-
finger. His golden amber eyes regarded her gravely. “I am not afraid
to take such a wife to my bosom, Skye. Whatever surprises are in
store for us will only serve to make our life more piquant. I love
you, my little lost one. I love you!”
    Slim white arms slid up around him. Her small round breasts
pressed against the dark furred mat of his chest as she offered him
her lips. “Khalid, be sure, I would not hurt so good a man. You are
all I know, and I should be lost without you, but is that enough for
you? I can offer only myself, and I do not even know very much
about who I am.”
    “What is between us is good, Skye. Your lovely body responds
well to mine. We like each other, and more couples than not have
started life together with less. Do not fear, my love. You do not
cheat me. It is a good bargain we make between us. Your concern
for me does you credit. But now, my beautiful one,” he swept her
up in his arms, “I want to make love to you again.”
    She wiggled, wet and protesting, against him. “It is morning!”
    “A most delightful time,” he agreed, laying her on the sun-
warmed tiles that surrounded the pool. He straddled her.
    “Someone will see us, Khalid,” she protested.
    “No one would dare to disturb us,” he growled. His staff was
hard and seeking against her thighs. “I want you, Skye. I want your
tempting little body. I want you hot and sweet and yielding beneath
me,” he whispered against her ear. She shivered deliciously as his
tongue explored her ear, and shivered again as he moved downward
along the scented length of her neck, biting gently at her silken
shoulder. Skye soon forgot the bright sunshine. Khalid’s hands were
on her hips, stroking and stroking the fires of her passions. He
suckled at her breasts, drawing a cry of pleasure. “Open your legs
for me, now, my love,” he murmured. “That’s it, my darling, take
me into your fiery sweetness. Ahh… Skye, your little honey-oven
is made for me! Hold me tightly, my love! Ahhh!”
    His words aroused her greatly. His hands never stopped loving
her body, and when his great rod entered into her she felt filled to
overflowing with him. His body movement was strong and rhythmic,
each stroke bringing her nearer and nearer to sweet oblivion. She
climbed higher and higher. Then she was caught in a jeweled whirl-
pool, and she heard a long soft woman’s cry mingled with a great
masculine sob.
    Her next conscious thought was that the sun was hot on her face,
and she heard water lapping against the tiled sides of the pool. She
opened her eyes, and looked about. He lay on his back, eyes closed,
but his voice brought a furious blush to her cheeks. “You were made
to pleasure a man,” he said, “and I am grateful that that man is me.
After we have breakfast, I shall see Osman the astrologer, and he
will tell me what day this week is most favorable for our marriage.
I am having Jean draw up papers freeing you, Skye.”
    She pressed herself into the curve of his arm. “Oh, my Khalid,
you are so kind to me! I swear I shall make you a good wife!”
    He smiled and caressed her. “I know you will, my love,” he
answered her.
    They breakfasted on yogurt, green figs, and boiling-hot Turkish
coffee. Afterward Skye returned to her own apartments, and Khalid
el Bey welcomed Osman, who greeted him by saying, “So, my old
friend! You have finally fallen in love again.”
    Khalid laughed. “I have no secrets from you, do I, Osman?”
    “The stars tell me all, my lord. And they tell me some things
about your love that you might be interested in knowing. She comes
from a green and misty land to the north, a land peopled by strong
spirits and great psychic forces. She was born beneath the sign of
the ram which, like all fire signs, is a strong and passionate one.”
    Khalid el Bey leaned forward eagerly. “How can you know all
this, Osman?”
    “Because, my lord, such a woman has recently appeared in your.
own chart.”
    “I want to marry her.”
    “I cannot stop you, my lord.”
    “You do not sound enthusiastic, Osman. What is it you are not.
telling me?”
    “She will not remain with you, Khalid. It is not her fate. Her fate ‘
is back among her own people, and so it. is written in the stars. There
are many men in her life, but she will always steer her own course,
rule her own destiny. One man in particular stands out in her life.
Their paths have crossed before and will most assuredly cross again.
It is with this man that she shares her soul, my friend, not with you.
Can you not just enjoy her while she is with you? Why must it be
marriage?”
    He was shaken. The astrologer had always been accurate. “Will
it make any difference if I marry her?”
    “No, my lord, it will not.”
    “Then I shall marry her. For I love her above all women, and
would place her above all women.”
    “And when she leaves you, will you let her go?”
    “She will not leave me, Osman. She will not leave me because
of the children she will give me. She is not a woman who would
abandon her babes. She will give me children, won’t she?”
    “I cannot be sure, my lord. She will be mother to several children,
but without a comparison of her exact birthday and yours, I cannot
tell you for certain.”
    “She will bear me sons!” he said positively, and Osman smiled
faintly.
    Still, he was concerned for his friend. The woman brought a
confusion into Khalid el Bey’s chart. There was a dark area now
that Osman could not fathom, and it worried him. Still, if his friend
insisted on marrying her, then at least he would pick the best day.
He scanned his charts carefully, made swift new calculations, and
finally pronounced, “Saturday, at moonrise, you will take her as
your wife.”
    “Thank you, my friend. You will come, of course, and celebrate
with us.”
    “Yes, I shall come. Is it to be a large celebration, Khalid?”
    “No, Osman. Just a half-dozen or so are to be invited-my banker,
the head of the merchant’s guild, the mullah, the Turkish comman-
dant, and my secretary, Jean.”
    “What of Yasmin?”
    “I think not.”
    “Yasmin loves you, Khalid.”
    “Yasmin thinks she loves me, Osman, and therefore she will
accept my plans because of her belief in me. Besides, she will have
no further contact with Skye. I cannot allow my wife to associate
with a whore.”
    Osman had to laugh. “There, my friend Khalid, speaks both the
Spaniard and the Moslem in you.” He stood up. “Until Saturday,
my lord Bey, and I wish you luck with Yasmin.”
    Khalid el Bey sat pondering for a few moments after Osman had
left. The astrologer was right. Yasmin would have to be dealt with,
and the sooner the better. Rising, he called for his horses and, in
the silent midafternoon heat, he rode down to the heart of the city,
to the House of Felicity.
    The building in which this famous brothel was housed was built
around a planted courtyard that had a spraying fountain at its center.
The side of the house facing the streets was white and devoid of
windows or any decoration save the double-doored entry of black-
ened oak with polished brass studs. Guarding the doors were two
huge black giants in scarlet satin pantaloons with cloth-of-gold
sashes, turbans, and ridiculously turned-up shoes. Their large bare
chests and muscular arms were oiled so that they gleamed in either sun or torchlight. They smiled broadly with flashing white teeth as
their master rode past them into the courtyard.
    Khalid el Bey dismounted, tossing the reins to a pretty young girl
of ten who smiled at him in an adult and provocative fashion. Both
her feet and her budding breasts were bare, and she wore only white
gauze pantaloons that revealed her round little buttocks. A clever
innovation, he thought, for many of his Berber clients liked prepubescent girls best of all.
    For a minute he stood and looked about the courtyard with a
proprietary air. Everything was in perfect order. He was pleased.
The brick walks were well swept, the shrubs well trimmed, the
flower beds colorful and fragrant.
    “My lord Khalid, you honor us!” Yasmin swept down the steps
to greet him, her black-and-gold silk caftan billowing. An odor of
musk was strong about her, and he could see her vermilion-tinted
nipples through the sheer silk. Her golden hair was plaited with
black pearls, and behind one ear was a creamy gardenia. It contin-
ually amazed him that she always knew of the arrival of an important
guest, and was instantly there to greet him.
    “My dear Yasmin, you are as lovely as ever.” He chuckled in-
wardly as she bridled with pleasure. “Come. I wish to talk with
you.” He led the way to her apartments, waiting patiently as she
served him coffee and small honeyed almond cakes.
    At length she asked, “How is Skye?”
    “That is what I have come to discuss with you,” he answered.
”I have decided she is quite unsuited for this sort of life.”
    “Praise Allah! You have come to your senses!”
    He smiled faintly. “You do not like Skye, do you?”
    “No!”
    “Then you shall not be burdened with her any longer, Yasmin.”
    “You have sold her?”
    “No. I am taking her to wife. The chief mullah of Algiers will
join us on Saturday evening at moonrise.”
    Yasmin’s face crumbled. Then, recovering herself as quickly as
she could, she laughed weakly. “You jest, my lord. Gracious-how
you startled me! Ha! Ha!”
    “I do not jest,” he said quietly. “Skye is to be my wife.”
    “She is a slaver?”
    “No, she is not. I have freed her. She was never meant to be a
slave, Yasmin.”
    “And I was?”
    “You were bom a slave of slave parents, of slave ancestors. It
is your fate.”
    “I love you! Does she love you? How can she? She barely knows you. But I know you, Khalid, and I know what pleases you. Let
me!” and she fell groveling at his feet.
    He looked down at her with genuine pity. Poor Yasmin with all
her clever Mideastern sexual arts for pleasing a man. Yes, he had
enjoyed them once, but they had also bored him to death. The
Mideastern mode of loving was debasing to the woman. She was
taught to please her master, who lay there, a nonparticipant except
for the automatic ejaculation of his seed. It was up to the woman
to please. The responsibility for his pleasure rested with her, and
if she failed… the bastinado awaited.
    How much better, he thought, the European way, where the man
was in charge, his masculinity ruling and subduing his woman, her
climax the most marvelous act of submission. It delighted the senses
and soothed the male pride.
    “I love Skye,” he said, “the decision was mine. And you, my
most beautiful and valued slave, have no right to question me.”
    “What will happen to me?” she whimpered.
    “Nothing. You will continue your duties as before.” After a pause
he asked, “Would you like your freedom, Yasmin? Then I should
pay you for the duties you now perform for me.”
    Yasmin was horrified. Her very slavery bound her to Khalid el
Bey. Without it he could cast her off at any time, and now he
probably would.
    “Oh, no! No! No, my lord! I do not want my freedom.”
    “Very well then, my dear, it shall be as you decree. Now, get
up, Yasmin, and see me out.” He rose. Taking her arm, he raised
her up. “You really are invaluable to me, my dear,” he said in a
kindly fashion, and though she knew it to be a tossed bone, she was
somewhat soothed.
    “When may I come and wish the lady Skye happiness?”
    “I would prefer you didn’t, Yasmin. Like any sensible man, I
would prefer to keep my wife away from my business. And you,
my dear, are a part of that business.”
    “I understand, my lord Khalid,” she said smoothly, and thought
bitterly to herself: Yes, I understand completely. You do not want
your precious wife associating with a whore! And I am a whore!
    They walked out into the sunlit courtyard, and the little girl
brought Khalid’s horse to him. The Whoremaster of Algiers chucked
the child underneath the chin, then slipped her a silver piece. “A
nice touch, Yasmin,” he complimented her. Then, mounting the
prancing animal, Khalid el Bey rode away.

Chapter 10

    In the next few days the preparations for Khalid el Bey’s
wedding were made. The few invitations were issued, the
feast and entertainment were planned, and the bridal chamber
was decorated. Since Skye’s memory loss prevented her from
having any religious preference, and since she had been a practicing
Moslem since coming under Khalid el Bey’s protection, the chief
mullah of Algiers found no impediment to the marriage.
    On the afternoon of the nuptials six virgins from the House of
Felicity arrived at Khalid el Bey’s estate and were housed in the
women’s quarters. Unlike the Turks, who separated the sexes at a
wedding, the inhabitants of Algiers were less formal. Although it
was not necessary for the bride to be in attendance at the religious
ceremony, which would be performed at the neighborhood mosque,
she and other women were invited to the feast. For what was a
celebration without soft and fragrant femininity?
    The little French secretary, Jean, had been given his freedom in
honor of his master’s wedding. Jean had, however, elected to remain
in Khalid’s employ rather than return to his native land. He and the
other guests were to be gifted with feminine companionship for the
evening. Khalid and Skye looked over the girls and decided the
pairing. “I think,” he said, “the pretty plump little Provencale with
the black-cherry eyes will do quite nicely for the mullah. He is yet
a young man, but inclined to be overserious and weighed down by
the importance of his position.”
    “Has he no wife to ease his travail?”
    “No, Skye, he has not, although I know he is not a celibate.”
    “Then the choice is an excellent one, my lord, for should she
insinuate herself into his affections she will make him supremely
happy. I see beneath the youth and sensuality a proper housewife
and mother.”
    Khalid chuckled. “Bravo, my Skye! I see that also, and should
God will that it be so, think how grateful the mullah will be to me
when his first son is bom! Now… for the head of the merchant’s
guild, and for my banker, the delicious blondes. Each of these
gentlemen is well into middle life. Each has a carping wife and a
houseful of greedy, brawling children and relatives. What is needed here is simple, and quite physical. Maidens whose light-colored eyes
with admiration easily, with big, soft breasts, and feather heads,
ho have only one desire, to please the master.”
    Skye examined the two girls. They were fluffy creatures who
would amply fill the bill. “What of Osman and Jean?” she asked.
    “The petite creature with the soft hazel eyes and thick, chestnut-
)lored hair comes from his own Brittany. They will be quite a
surprise for each other.”
    “Oh, Khalid, how kind of you. The girl looks frightened, but
tan will reassure her nicely, and I will be delighted to have a friend the house.”
    “Yes, she will be a friend for you. I hadn’t thought of that.”
    “Let me guess the others, Khalid! The sweet-faced, grave-looking
girl is for Osman!”
    “Yes,” his eyes were amused.
    ‘Then that leaves that rather fierce-looking creature for the Turkish commandant. God, Khalid! She looks like she could devour a
ian. Is that a wise choice?”
    “My love, there are many things you don’t remember about human
nature. The commandant of the Casbah fortress is a regular patron of the House of Felicity. His taste in women is, ah, somewhat
sophisticated. Easy conquest bores him. He enjoys a woman who
fights him. The girl I have chosen for him is half-Moorish, half-
berber. She is a wild little savage, and should delight him greatly.
Now, my love, see that these maidens are bathed and clothed in time
for the feast. The next time I see you, my sweet Skye, you will be
my wife.” His golden amber eyes warmed her. His mouth brushed
hers tenderly, and quickly he turned and was gone.
    She sighed. He was so good to her. And she still worried that
she should not be marrying him. Something deep inside her nagged her, yet try as she might, she could not understand what it was.
sometimes in her dreams there was a man, always the same man,
butt she could never see him clearly, she could only sense him crying
out to her. It made no sense.
    Sighing, she clapped her hands and the slaves came running. She
gave orders for the six girls to be bathed and perfumed. Then she
went about choosing their garments from the vast wardrobe in the
rem quarters.
    For the mullah’s golden-skinned dark-haired Provengale it would apricot silk pantaloons, a gold-embroidered sash, and a boleronged in little gold beads. Because of the heat and the lateness of the feast, she could forego the gauze blouses. The choice for the
two blondes was simple: baby pink for both. For the Breton girl with
her chestnut hair and hazel eyes, apple green was perfect. For the girl chosen for Osman, a sky blue would set off her dark-blond hair.
Lastly, she chose flame-colored silks for the Turk’s maiden. Handing
the clothing to the servants, she gave orders for their distribution
and returned to her own quarters to bathe and change into her own
wedding garments.
    At moonrise exactly, the chief mullah of Algiers performed the
simple ceremony uniting Khalid el Bey in marriage with Skye, who
became known from that moment as Skye muna el Khalid-Skye,
the desired of Khalid. Then the groom and his guests returned to his
house through the winding lantern-lit streets of the upper city, led
by dancing, cavorting musicians whose reedy pipes and thumping
drums pierced the dark velvet of the night.
    The groom wore white silk pantaloons with silver-and-deep-blue-
embroidered bands that stopped at the knee. His feet were shod in
silver-colored leather boots. His shirt was also of white silk, open
at the neck, with full sleeves and tight cuffs, over which he wore
a white vest, embroidered in silver and blue. It was all topped by
a long white satin cape lined in dark blue. His dark head was bare,
his short black beard had been well barbered.
    Behind the closed shutters along his route, maidens and matrons
alike peeped out and sighed with longing. The legendary Whore-
master of Algiers was a fairy-tale prince.
    Behind Khalid el Bey walked the Turkish commandant of the
Casbah fortress, Capitan Jamil. As tall as the bey, he was heavier
set, and to the spying female eyes that watched, as sinisterly handsome as the bey was kindly. His face was long, as was.his nose.
His eyes were black and unfathomable, his mouth thin and cruel
below a slim mustache. He was known to be cruel, even brutal, in
his handling of fractious prisoners. Now, however, he strode along
with his host and the other guests, chatting amiably.
    “I understand your bride is a captive.”
    “Was,” came the reply, “I bought her. Now she is legally free.
And my wife.”
    “I had heard you were training her for the House of Felicity. She
must be quite good at whatever she does if you have decided to
marry her.”
    Khalid el Bey laughed lightly but he burned inwardly. “Skye has
no memory of her past,” he said. “At first I thought that to train a
women such as she might prove amusing. But she is actually far too
innocent for such a life. I had been considering marrying and siring
sons for some time now. But what respectable father would allow
his daughter to wed the great Whoremaster? Skye is obviously of
the upper class, wherever she comes from, and she is beautiful. Is
that not an ideal choice for my purposes?”
    “I am eager to meet your bride. Khalid.”
    They had reached the house now, and entered through the wide
doors into the square hall where the bey’s majordomo awaited.
’Felicitations, my lord! Long life and many sons!” he cried, ushering
hem through into the banquet hall. Waiting slaves took the men’s
cloaks, and brought silver-chased basins of rose water and soft linen
towels so they might bathe their hands and faces. Refreshed, they
;at down upon the large plump cushions strewn about the table.
    “Gentlemen,” said Khalid el Bey, sitting at the head of the table,
it gives me great pleasure that you are here to share this moment
with me. I would share my happiness with you, and so I present, to each of you, for your many nights of pleasure, a virgin who has
been trained in my own House of Felicity.” He clapped his hands
and the six girls, all dressed in their butterfly colors, entered and
moved swiftly to the gentlemen for whom they were intended.
    “By Allah!” swore Capitan Jamil, “you do things with style,
Khalid! Even in Constantinople I never saw such a display of elegant
manners. I shall write the Sultan tomorrow telling him.”
    “Many thanks,” said Khalid carelessly. He was more pleased by
he reactions of his other guests. The head of the merchant’s guild
and the banker were pleasantly overcome by the two little blondes.
And Jean was rendered momentarily speechless by the pretty girl
who shyly greeted him not only in his own tongue, but in the dialect
peculiar to Brittany alone. The chief mullah actually had a smile on
lis face-the first time Khalid had ever seen that phenomenon! And
Osman was obviously quite taken by his maiden.
    Capitan Jamil paused in his careful inspection of his “gift” to
unquire, “And your bride, Khalid? Where is she?”
    As if in answer, the banquet-hall doors opened and four black
laves in red silk breechcloths entered bearing a litter. They carefully
set it down and the majordomo handed out the veiled occupant and
led her forward to sit by the bey.
    Her fine silk pantaloons were the soft lavender of early wisteria,
but low. A wide band of deep violet flowers on a gold background
rose to just below her navel. She wore gold slippers embroidered
with pearl violets. Her sleeveless bodice was violet velvet trimmed In gold braid with floral embroidery done in gold and seed pearls.
he wore thin gold bracelets. A single long rope of pearls dangled
from her neck, and great matching pearl tears bobbed in her ears.
Her midnight-black hair was loose, and spinkled with gold dust. A
small mauve veil obscured her face below those marvelous eyes
shadowed in blue kohl.
    “Gentlemen, my wife, the lady Skye muna el Khalid,” said Khalid
 Bey as he reached up and undid her veil.
    They were momentarily stunned into silence. Everything about
her-her flawless skin, her dark blue eyes, the full red lips, the
delicate, slightly upturned nose-everything was exquisite. Finally
the banker found his voice.
    “Khalid, my friend, I have four wives. If you put all of their
beauty together, it would not equal half of your wife’s loveliness.
You are a most damnably fortunate man!”
    Khalid el Bey laughed happily. ‘Thank you. Memhet! Your praise
is received with joy.”
    Now the servants began bringing in steaming dishes; the gold
goblets were filled with icy juices; musicians played discreetly from
behind a carved screen. A whole baby lamb had been roasted, and
was served now on a mixture of saffroned rice with onions, green
peppers, and tomatoes. There were bowls of yogurt, purple, green,
and black olives, and shelled pistachio nuts. The slaves passed hot
loaves of bread, and placed upon each guest’s plate a small whole
roasted pigeon in a nest of watercress. As the fermented fruit juices
began to relax the guests they became a bit noisier and freer, the
men feeding choice morsels from their lips to the lips of their giggling
companions.
    The mullah sat on Khalid’s right, Skye on her husband’s left.
Next to her sat Capitan Jamil, who had been unable to take his eyes
off the bride. “What a pity,” he murmured softly so that only she
might hear him, “that Khalid decided to keep you for himself, my
lovely. He could have made a fortune selling your charms. I would
have paid a king’s ransom to possess you first. Still, it is good to
know the great Whoremaster of Algiers has a weakness.”
    A hot flush stole up her neck and cheeks but she said nothing.
He laughed low. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever
seen, bride of Khalid el Bey. Your skin glows like mother-of-pearl.
I shall dream for many nights of your long legs and perfect little
breasts, which are like tender fruits. How I hunger to taste of those
sweet young fruits.” He leaned close to her as he reached for a
handful of olives and his upper arm deliberately rubbed against her.
    “How dare you accost me in such a manner!” she hissed angrily.
”Have you no respect for my husband, who is your host? Or are
Turks totally without honor?”
    He drew his breath in sharply. “Someday, my beauty, I shall have
you completely at my mercy. And when I do you will pay dearly
for that insult.”
    To his annoyance, Skye did not appear frightened. She merely
signaled the servants to clear the table and serve the next course.
The coffeemaker, kneeling at his little table, began to grind the beans
and boil the water. The slaves placed upon the board colored crystal bowls filled with figs, raisins, oranges, green grapes, candied dates,
and rose petals. Silver plates of small honeyed cakes, with matching
tiny bowls of sugared almonds, were put before each guest. Goblets
rere refilled with sweet liquid fruit sherbet chilled by snow brought
from the nearby Atlas Mountains. The bey leaned over to kiss his
rife. “You have planned everything perfectly, my Skye. It is as if
you had been born to the duties of the chatelaine.”
    “Perhaps I was,” she answered him softly.
    The entertainment began. There were wrestlers, then jugglers,
then an Egyptian fakir who made things appear and disappear. Lastly
came the dancers. There were at least half a dozen of them to begin
nth, but in time only one very voluptuous creature remained, her
senuous body writhing passionately and more suggestively with each
moveraent. Skye became aware of the silence that had overtaken her
guests. Their chatter was gone, and the only sound in the room was
the music-the insistent whine of the pipes, the heavy beat of the
rums, the brass tals upon the dancer’s fingers teasing their challenge the musicians. Skye glanced about her and saw that some of the
redding guests had gone into the garden. Still others had begun to
rake love right there on the cushions. Blushing, she turned to her
husband. With twinkling eyes, he stood and drew her up beside him.
    “I believe,” he said, “the time is ripe for us to make our escape.
tome, my love!”
    “Where are we to go, Khalid?”
    ‘To a secret little villa that I own along the seacoast. We shall
send our honeymoon there, free of friends and business.” He hurried
her out into the cool night, stopping only to retrieve his cloak and place one of mauve silk, lined in rabbit fur, about her. Before the
house stood a great white stallion. Khalid el Bey leapt onto its back
and, reaching down, lifted his bride and placed her before him on
the saddle.
    They rode down into the city and then to the sea, where they
followed the beach for several miles. The moon dappled the water.
Looking up into the velvety heavens, Skye caught her breath. The
stars seemed so big, so near, and she was tempted to reach out and
-asp a handful. Nestling in Khalid’s arms, her head against his
heart, she felt its sure and steady beat. As they rode she became
aware of a familiarity about the roar of the sea and the salty smell
the cool damp air. For some reason these sensations soothed her,
though she had no idea why they did. Khalid was silent, and she
dared not speak lest she break the spell.
    Finally he turned the white stallion from the beach, and she could
see the black outline of a building on one of the bills overlooking
the sea. As they came closer, Skye saw that it was a large round kiosk, There was a pleasant air about it. Large brass lanterns with
hand-blown Venetian globes, their beeswax candles twinking a welcome, hung on either side of the silk-draped entrance.
    Khalid el Bey drew rein on his horse, gently deposited his wife
on the lawn, and dismounted. “Welcome, my beloved! Welcome
to the ‘Pearl Kiosk.’ There are three rooms within-our bedchamber,
a bath, and a dayroom. It belongs to you now, Skye, for it is my
wedding gift to you.”
    She was astounded. His bride’s price to her had been over-
generous, and now he gifted her with even more. She felt quite
humble in the light of such great love. Skye suddenly felt her heart
contract painfully. Looking up at him, she said, “Khalid, I do care
for you, you know. Were you a poor man I should still feel this
way, for it is your love for me that warms my heart and soothes my
spirit, not the gifts you give me, though I am grateful for them.”
    “It is for just mat reason that I enjoy giving you things,” he
answered her. “You are not a greedy little creature. Come now,
sweetness, let us go in, for the night grows cool. Are you not the
least bit curious to see your new gift?”
    The doorway of the Pearl Kiosk was hung with multicolored
diaphanous silks and in the entry hall was a long, narrow reflecting
pool. Looking up, Skye caught her breath, for in the roof above the
pool was a glass ceiling that matched the pool in size and shape.
Therefore, the still surface of the pool now appeared to be filled
with twinkling stars. The foyer was lit by gold and crystal lamps
similar to those on the front of the building.
    They first moved through a doorway on their left, where Skye
found a beautiful dayroom with a fireplace that blazed merrily, taking
the dampness from the air. The floor was lush with thick rugs.
Colored glass lamps hung on thin chains from the gilded and beamed
ceiling. Overstuffed furniture and pillows were covered in the finest
silks and velvets, the colors like jewels-ruby, sapphire, emerald,
amethyst, and topaz. The windows that faced the landside were small
hand-blown rounds of pale-amber glass. There were low tables of
inlaid mosaic tile and great brass bowls filled with red and yellow
tulips. One small wall had a built-in bookcase filled with leather-
bound volumes, the sight of which brought a glad cry to her lips.
    “So,” chuckled Khalid el Bey, “my good secretary, Jean, was not
wrong. You can read. In what languages, my beloved?”
    She looked a trifle shamefaced. “Jean seemed so horrified that
I could read that I did not wish you to know. I wandered into your
library one day and, seeing the books, I picked one up and opened
it. It was French. I find that I am also able to read Spanish, Italian,
Latin, and the language Jean calls English.” She hung her head and said hesitantly, “I appear to possess another rather unfeminine trait.
It seems I also write.”
    Khalid el Bey burst into laughter. “Marvelous, my Skye! Simply
marvelous! It seems that you are a very intelligent woman, and while
most men might be shocked to find themselves with such a wife,
I am not. The ways of Allah are indeed mysterious. I originally
intended to make you my most famous whore, but now I find you
are educated, so, beloved, I shall instead make you my partner!
When we return to the city I shall teach you myself, and Jean will
aid me. Should anything ever happen to me, no one will ever be
able to cheat you.” He swept her into his arms and kissed her soundly.
”What a delight you are, Skye!” he chuckled, and she felt warm and
safe and very much loved. His amber-gold eyes twinkled. “We have
yet to see our nuptial chamber,” he murmured, carrying her from
the richly appointed dayroom across the foyer. He pushed open the
carved and gilded double doors.
    The room into which they now entered had walls painted to
resemble an oasis, with graceful palms, the mysterious desert dunes
beyond, and above, on the ceiling, the wonderful black velvet North
African sky had been recreated, complete with twinkling stars done
in gold luminescent paint. Skye would discover that in the sunlight
the false night sky was actually bright blue and that the stars were
not visible at all. To continue the illusion, the rugs were of thick
gold and cream wool, large potted green palms were placed stra-
tegically around the room, and the bed was partially draped to re-
semble a tent canopy. The room was very softly lit by tall lamps
that resembled lotus flowers and burned scented oils.
    Without a word he slid the sleeveless violet bodice from her.
Then his hands pushed the pantaloons over her hips and, when she
had stepped from mem and pushed the little mass of silk away with
her foot, he slid to his knees. She stood still while his elegant hands
fondled her breasts. Then, moving to grasp her by the waist, he
covered her torso in hot kisses. She caught at his head and pressed
it against her wildly fluttering belly. The time for words was long
past. For a moment he simply knelt there enjoying the silken feel
of her wonderful skin, then swiftly standing he stripped off his own
clothes and they walked to the bed.
    It was the beginning of an incredible week. Skye had never been
loved so tenderly, so passionately, so expertly, so completely. There
was not a part of her he did not explore and worship, and he en-
couraged her to do the same with his body. Gradually she lost her
shyness, became bold and caressed him in subtle ways that left him
moaning. They made love in the early hours of the dawn, in the heat
of the afternoon, in the dark of night. They swam naked in the foaming azure sea. They hunted antelope from horseback with their
hunting cats, beautifully trained panthers, loping by their sides.
Another discovery had been made by then-Skye could ride astride
quite expertly. Once again he gifted her, this time with an exquisite
golden Arab mare.
    In the time they spent at the Pearl Kiosk they were provided for
and waited on by an army of invisible servants who saw to every
need. Delicious meals magically appeared, as did fresh clothes.
When they desired to hunt, their horses and cats awaited them at the
Kiosk front. Hot, scented baths were ready upon their return. Every-
thing was done to make this time together perfect.
    On the night before their return she lay half awake, exhausted by
their lovemaking, content to listen to Khalid’s even breathing. Sud-
denly she was aware that she had never been so happy. He surrounded
her with love, security, everything she could want. Why was it,
then, that she could still not give him her heart?
    They rode back into the city of Algiers on the following morning.
They were dressed identically in white. The sleek black panthers
were by their sides, leashed, but nonetheless causing a stir as they
moved through the crowded streets of the lower city. That same day,
when they had resettled themselves, Khalid el Bey took his wife into
the library where Jean sat working.
    “Ho, Jean! I bring you a pupil.”
    The little Frenchman looked up with a smile. “Welcome home,
my lord Khalid! Welcome home, my lady Skye! Who is to be my
pupil, and in what?”
    “I want you to teach the lady Skye the intricacies of my business.
Should something ever happen to me she would be helpless without
a thorough knowledge of it. Since she can already read, write, and
speak in four languages it should not prove difficult as long as she
can grasp simple mathematics.”
    “What are mathematics?” asked Skye.
    “Here, mistress,” Jean wrote a simple sum on a parchment. “If
you take one hundred dinars and add to them another fifty dinars
you have-“
    “One hundred and fifty dinars.” replied Skye, “and by the same
token if you have one hundred and fifty dinars and take or subtract
from them seventy-five dinars you will have remaining seventy-
five.”
    The two men looked at each other in complete surprise, and Skye
said, “Is that not correct, Khalid? Have I made an error?”
    “No, my Skye, you have not made an error. You are quick and
quite correct, is she not, Jean?”
    “Indeed, my lord. Indeed!”
    The bey laughed. “I think I leave you in good hands, my love.
Do not be too hard on my good Jean, for he is invaluable to me.”
Khalid walked from the room, laughing softly to himself.
    Skye seated herself demurely at the library table, looked expec-
tantly at Jean, who was suddenly a little fearful that he had that
rarest of creatures on his hands-an intelligent woman. Drawing a
deep breath, he plunged into the business at hand.
    For the next few weeks Skye spent most of her days with Khalid
and Jean, closeted in the library, and she suddenly understood the
true nature of her husband’s business. She was shocked for a while.
Then, realizing that Khalid had not invented prostitution, she ac-
cepted it.
    She quickly understood that each house Khalid owned had to be
treated as a separate entity. Those located on the waterfront, serving
sailors of all nations, were provisioned far differently from the House
of Felicity. The waterfront brothels served only beer, but in the
House of Felicity and its two sister houses, the menu was quite
varied. Even the women varied with the different establishments.
On the waterfront, pretty but sturdy peasant girls were the choice,
girls who might easily service two dozen men a day without ill
effect.
    Young women bought for Khalid’s more elegant brothels were
all beauties carefully schooled in proper Arabic and French so they
might converse well. They were also taught good manners, hygiene,
and elegant ways of dressing. Their sexual skills were excellent.
The men who bought their company bought it for an entire evening.
    All of Khalid el Bey’s waterfront brothels worked their women
five days a week and allowed them rest for two days. This neces-
sitated keeping records on who was working and who was not. Each
of these women received a hundredth portion of the fee collected
for her services each night, and at the end of five years was given
her freedom and the monies accrued. Most married and settled down.
Some, however, took to the streets and were quickly lost. Others
hired themselves out to lesser brothels and quickly found themselves
overworked and disease-ridden. Most brothel keepers were not as
careful with their women as Khalid el Bey, who kept two Moorish
doctors on his staff and had his women checked weekly for the pox.
    All of this meant voluminous records, and Skye found herself
becoming very interested in her husband’s business dealings. His
brothels involved not only the care and well-being of people and
property but the provisioning of those people and the upkeep of the
oroperty.
    Problems were tripled in the more elegant brothels, for the women
here had to be exquisitely clothed and jeweled. They needed oil baths and wore only the finest perfumes. But despite his vast outlay,
Khalid el Bey was a rich man. Profits far exceeded expenses. And
these profits had to be invested.
    This was the thing that interested Skye the most, the investment
of her husband’s funds. Some of the money was placed with a
goldsmith, Judah ben Simon. Some of it had been put into portable
wealth such as loose gem stones. The rest was invested with the
adventure ships belonging to an Englishman called Robert Small.
It was shortly after their return from the Pearl Kiosk that Skye met
this bluff sea captain.
    One night as she and Khalid sat listening to love songs sung by
a sweet-voiced slave girl, an uproar ensued from the courtyard of
the house. Her husband leaped to his feet laughing and Skye could
hear a booming voice saying, “Now, laddie, your master may be
a-laying,with one qf his fancy pieces, but believe me, he’ll stop to
see me. Out of my way! Damme, Khalid, you old Moor. Where are
you?” The door to the chamber flew open and’ a tiny-legged man
strode into the room.
    He was a most fantastic sight. His colorful clothes included puffed
and slashed red velvet breeches, black silk stockings, a red velvet
doublet embroidered in gold and silver thread, a long cape, and a
flat hat with an egret plume. On a tall man the clothing might not
have been so fantastic, but Robert Small stood only five feet tall.
Powerfully built, he had sandy-brown hair and his eyes were a
snapping blue. His round, weathered face was mischievous and
kindly while also being the homeliest Skye had ever seen. The little
man was as freckled as a thrush’s egg. “Ha! There you be, Khalid,
and as usual you’ve got some rare beauty by your side.”
    “Robbie, you’re a wicked old man, and so I’ve no compunction
in springing this surprise on you. The ‘rare beauty’ is my wife!”
    “God assoil my soul, Khalid el Bey! True?” The bey nodded, and
the Englishman bowed low to Skye. “My humblest apologies,
madam. I hope you’ll not think ill of me.” Then, realizing he’d
spoken English, he said, “Khalid. I know not what language your
lady speaks. You’ll tell her for me?”
    ‘There is no need, sir,” said Skye sweetly. “I fully comprehend
you, and am not in the least offended. It’s quite natural you should
think me a whore, considering the nature of my husband’s business.
Now, however, you will excuse me, for I imagine you’ve much to
talk about with my lord.” She rose gracefully and, smiling mis-
chievously, left the room.
    The little Englishman chuckled. “How,” he asked, “did a renegade
Spaniard-tumed-Arab end up with an Irish wife?”
    “Irish? Skye is Irish?”
    “God almighty, man! Didn’t she tell you?”
    “She doesn’t know, my old friend. Several months ago I bought
myself a rather bedraggled and frightened waif from a corsair captain.
He had gotten her from an outbound captain who claimed to have
captured her in a skirmish. He knew nothing of her history. When
Skye regained her full senses she had no memory excepting her
name.”
    “And so you married her! Lord, man, you’re a romantic at heart.”
    “Wrong!” Khalid el Bey poured the Englishman a tiny cup of
sweet Turkish coffee. “I had intended to make her the finest and
most expensive whore the world had ever seen.”
    Robert Small sucked his breath in sharply. “Did you indeed,
laddie? And pray tell what stopped you?”
    “I fell in love with her, my friend. Not with just her face and
luscious body, but with the woman I began to see emerging. She
is without guile, and generous as well. She is also the least greedy
female I have ever known, and when she looks at me with those
marvelous blue eyes of hers I am lost, Robbie! Very soon, the
thought of anyone other than myself touching her enraged me. I
found that I wanted children and a loving wife, like a normal man.”
    “God help you, then, my friend, for you have a weakness now,
and your enemies will use it against you. As long as the great
Whoremaster of Algiers showed no vulnerability he was inviolable.”
    “Don’t fret, Robbie, I have no enemies. Even my women respect
me.”
    “Don’t be a fool, Khalid!” It was said sharply. “All wealthy and
powerful men have enemies. Look closely to yourself and to that
beauty you’ve married.”
    For a few minutes the two men sat silently sipping their coffee,
then Robert Small spoke. “I’ve made you richer again, Khalid. The
ships we sent to the New World have returned laden with precious
metals, jewels, and furs. The ones that traveled south returned with
spices, slaves, and gemstones. I have, as usual, saved the cream of
the female slaves for you to see.”
    Khalid el Bey was all business now. “Did we lose any ships or
men?”
    “No ships, but three men were lost on the Swan, off the Horn.
It was a particularly bad storm, the captain tells me, but he didn’t
lose one slave.”
    “Good! And you, Robbie, how was your voyage?”
    The captain chuckled and stretched his short frame out on the
pillows, his hands behind his head. “Ah, Khalid, I wish you’d been
with me. How often you’ve warned me of men’s greed, and the
vulnerability that greed brings in. And you were right! I found us a mine manager in the Spanish Americas who is a younger son with
no hope other than to end his days a rum-soaked wreck. His oldest
brother, their father’s heir, married the girl he loved, and then ar-
ranged for him to be sent from Spain. He burns for vengeance, and
so he has agreed to help us obtain six shiploads of gold for a per-
centage and passage back to Europe. It was a cheap price to pay,
Khalid. We filled three ships this trip, and I’ve already sent three
other ships.”
    “And how did this young don cover the theft? And how can we
be sure he’ll not betray us?”
    “The first theft was covered by causing a mine to cave in. It’ll
take months to clear it out, by which time we’ll have returned for
the second load from the other mine. It will not matter if the Spaniards
learn then that they have been robbed, for we’ll be all long gone by
that time. The young don has a half-Spanish, half-Indian mistress
he intends to marry and take to Paris with him. He can live quite
well on what we pay him.
    “The mines he oversees give up the purest gold I’ve ever seen,
Khalid! The other ships in our fleet have carried back the finest furs
imaginable, along with basketsful of turquoise, coral, jade, ame-
thyst, emeralds, and topaz. I have, as usual, saved a choice selection
of furs and gems for you, along with some excellent Indian pearls
and spices from the Southern fleet. Everything else has been disposed
of through our regular channels, and your monies are already with
your banker.”
    “You are generous, Robbie, and quite thorough, as always. Per-
haps you will allow me to do a little something for you now. Your
ship was sighted by friends of mine this morning, and I knew you
would be with me by evening. Go to the House of Felicity, and you
will find a surprise waiting for you.”
    The Englishman grinned delightedly. “Ah, Khalid, you didn’t
have to go to any trouble.”
    The Whoremaster of Algiers grinned back, “She’s quite to your
liking, Robbie. Go along now so I may rejoin my own lady.”
    The captain scrambled to his feet. “If my surprise is that good
I’ll not be seeing you for several days, Khalid,” and he was quickly
gone.
    Khalid el Bey stretched his long body in a catlike movement and
called, “Skye!” She appeared immediately from behind a wall hang-
ing, and sat down next to him. “You heard,” said her husband.
    “Yes, my lord. If this story is true then you are indeed fortunate
to have such a partner.”
    “You can trust Robert Small with your life, my Skye. He is the most honest man I know. He has never cheated me. It is simply not
in his nature.”
    “What awaits him at the House of Felicity? Have you found him
some petite creature to soothe and comfort him?”
    Khalid laughed. “No! Though Robbie is a bit of a man, he likes
big, tall women. The maiden awaiting him stands six feet and has
breasts like summer melons. I’ve been given to understand that
Robbie’s rod is as big as any man’s, so they will both enjoy them-
selves.”
    They laughed together, imagining the little man and his Amazon
mistress locked in sweet combat. Then as easily as they had begun
to laugh they stopped, and she was in his arms again. He kissed her
until she ached for him. His hands slid beneath her sheer pale-blue
silk caftan, his long fingers teasing her nipples until she whimpered.
    “Look at me, Skye,” he commanded softly, and she struggled to
raise her heavy-lidded eyes to him. “You are my wife, beloved, and
I love you.”
    Now, for the first time, she looked deep into his warm amber
eyes and realized mat she felt deeply toward Khalid. With this
startling realization, the heartache that had assailed her continually
ever since she’d awakened to her new life in Algiers seemed to
dissolve, leaving her feeling as light as a feather. She loved! This
was what love was, and she could remember it! Her eyes filled with
happy tears and she said wonderingly, “Oh, Khalid! I love you, too!
I do! I know that now!” And pulling his dark head down to hers,
she kissed him deeply. He, feeling her certain, unwavering love,
found his passion bursting into an unquenchable flame.
    Beneath his eager touch the silk of her robe tore away and bis
hands and mouth began their worshipful adoration of her. He loos-
ened her lovely dark hair and spread it over the apricot velvet pillows.
Then his long fingers gently traced her high cheekbones, moving
down the fine line of her jaw to capture her small chin.
    ‘Tell me again, Skye,” he said softly.
    Her sapphire eyes caught his amber-gold ones and held them
unwaveringly. “I love you, my lord Khalid.” she said firmly. “I love
you!” Then she kissed him again, her little tongue teasing his mouth.
He could feel her small round breasts rubbing against his chest and,
unable to refuse the invitation, he lowered his head and nibbled on
the hard, quivering nipples. His tongue pushed into her little navel
and she eagerly thrust her torso toward him. He moved lower yet,
his mouth seeking that most secret core. Tasting her seashell-like
fragrance, his tongue darted like wildfire over the moist dark pink
flesh. She whimpered, half in agony, half in ecstasy, her fingers catching at the dark hair of his head as he relentlessly pushed her
beyond endurance. Amazingly, she did not shatter into a thousand
pieces. She soared higher than she had ever done before. Then with
great tenderness he kissed the soft inside of her thighs, pulled himself
up over her, and gently took her.
    Skye was frantic with unfulfilled passion. She had never known
such love as this. Or had she? Her mind whirled in confusion, but
Khalid’s warm body soon overcame that. What difference did it
make if she had loved before? Khalid was her husband. He loved
her, and she loved him. Why should she torture herself with vague,
flickering memories? All that mattered was now.
    “Skye! Skye! Come with me, my darling! Now! Now!”
    She met his ardor with her own, soaring as he did. Afterward,
as she lay sated, she said quietly, “I want a child, Khalid.”
    He smiled in the darkness. This was further proof of her love.
”I shall endeavor, my love, to give you everything you want-
especially children.”
    Suddenly she laughed happily and, propping herself up on an
elbow, looked down into his golden eyes. “I love you, and am loved
in return,” she said. “Whatever has been before in my life can matter
little in the light of this love. If it were important, then surely I
should have remembered it all by now. I know who I am. I am
Skye, the beloved wife of Khalid el Bey, the great Whoremaster of
Algiers.”

Chapter 11

    Niall Burke lay weakly back upon the scented linen pillows
and, focusing his silvery eyes clearly for the first time in
weeks, gazed out at the distant blue mountains. The landscape
outside his window was a riot of lush vegetation. Pink and
red hibiscus, cloyingly sweet gardenias, spicy roses, and crisp lav-
ender were all growing in a wild mass that spread upward from the
gardens to the flowering vines that clung to the villa wall. It was
all so vibrant.
    Now, totally immersed in the sights and smells, the shrieking of
the darting parrots, Niall knew he would live. And fervently he
wished he were dead.
    The carved oak door of his room opened then, admitting a young
girl whose big eyes lit up at the sight of him.
    “Ah, Senor Niall. At last you are fully awake. I am Constanza
Maria Alcudia Cuidadela. My papa is the governor of this island,
and you are in his house.” She put a tray on the nearby table.
    Feeling like a fool, Niall was forced to ask, “What island is this?”
    The girl blushed in pretty pink confusion. “Oh, senor, forgive
me! You are on the island of Mallorca.”
    “How did I come to be here?”
    “You were brought to us from the fleet in which you traveled by
a Captain MacGuire. He explained you are a great lord.”
    Niall forced back a small smile. “Is MacGuire still here, Senorita
Constanza?”
    “Si, Senor Niall. Although the rest of your fleet sailed weeks
ago, he refused to leave you. He said his mistress would not forgive
him if he did. Would you like to see him?”
    Niall nodded and the girl pulled the embroidered bellpull by his
bed. “Fetch the Irish captain at once, Ana,” she instructed the an-
swering servant, then moved to straighten Niall’s pillows. She wore
a rose fragrance, which caused a sharp pain to tear through Niall.
Constanza poured something from the frosty majollica pitcher into
a silver goblet.
    “It is the juice of the oranges from our garden,” she said. “Drink
it. It will give you strength.” She gracefully handed the goblet to
him, then sat and drew a small embroidery frame from a hidden
pocket in her gown and began to stitch.
    He drank, and was pleasantly surprised by the cool, tart sweetness
that slid down his parched throat. He studied the seated girl over the
goblet. She was, he decided, about fifteen, and very lovely. She was
quite petite, with a tiny waist and generous breasts. Her skin was
a pale golden shade, her hair a darker gold, and her eyes were the
color of purple pansies.
    He let his eyes wander about the room. It was spacious and
pleasant with white walls and a red tile floor. On one wall was a
large dark wood armoire with intricately carved doors, and a long
walnut table stood before the French doors opposite his silk-draped
bed. There were two chairs by the table and an embroidered chaise
Iongue by the bed.
    “Is the juice good, Senor Niall? May I pour you more?”
    “Thank you,” he answered politely. Dammit to hell, where was
MacGuire? As if in answer to his silent summons, the door flew
open to admit the captain and Inis. With a joyous bark, the dog
leaped onto the bed and lay down beside Niall, his tail thumping
happily.
    “So, lad, you’ve decided to remain among the living! Praise be
to God!”
    “Skye? Where is she?” MacGuire looked most uncomfortable.
    Sighing, he admitted, “We
don’t know where the O’Malley is, my lord. When the infidels shot
you down our first concern was to get you safely aboard. We knew
they couldn’t outrun us. But no sooner had we gotten you back to
the ship man a damned rain squall hit, and we lost the bastards in
a fog bank. We were nearer Mallorca, and so we brought you here.
The rest went on to Algiers, but alas, sir, no trace has been found
yet of the O’Malley.”
    For a moment, all was silence. Then Niall said, fiercely and
simply, “I’ll find her! I’ll find her!” And he swung his legs over the
edge of the bed trying to rise. Inis whined.
    Constanza Alcudia Cuidadela rose swiftly and sped to his side.
”No, No! Senor Niall. You will reopen your wound. It is still not
totally healed.” She slipped an arm about his back and gently forced
him back to the bed. “Fetch my papa immediately,” she hissed
angrily at the stricken captain. “Ana, help me get the senor back
into bed.” She fussed about him like a little mother hen, puffing
the pillows and smoothing the coverlet, and despite his anxiety he
was amused by this little creature whose concern for him was so
touching. “For shame, senor!” she scolded. “Ana and I have worked
so hard to make you well! Why do you allow your captain to agitate
you? If you cannot remain calm then I will not let him in to see you
again.”
    He realized then that, although he was speaking Spanish with
her, he had spoken Gaelic with MacGuire. She hadn’tunderstood.
He felt suddenly weak, but wanted her to understand. “My betrothed
wife was kidnapped when I was injured,” he said. “MacGuire tells
me she has not yet been found.” It was several moments before she
spoke.
    “You love her very much, Senor Niall?”
    “Yes, Senorita Constanza,” he replied gently. “I love her very
much.”
    “Then I shall make a novena to the Holy Virgin that she is found
soon,” the girl said gravely, and Niall thought again how sweet the
child was.
    MacGuire quickly returned bringing an older gentleman with him.
The man was of medium height with a short, dark, tailored beard,
dark hair, and the coldest black eyes Niall had ever seen. He was
dressed richly but soberly, his short velvet cape edged in a wide
band of deep brown fur.
    “Lord Burke,” the voice was as cold as the eyes. “I am the Conde
    Francisco Cuidadela, and I am happy to see you conscious at last.
Captain MacGuire tells me, however, that you are agitated about
your betrothed. It is best that you hear the truth now.”
    “Papa!” the girl’s voice was pleading. “Senor Niall is not yet
strong enough.”
    “Silence, Constanza! How dare you presume to advise me? You
will come to me after vespers for punishment, and then you are to
spend the night in the chapel meditating on filial respect and obe-
dience.”
    The girl hung her head, beaten. “Yes, Papa,” she whispered.
    “Your betrothed wife is lost to you forever, Lord Burke, and the
sooner you are able to accept this the better off you will be. Should
she be found you could not possibly want her back. If she is alive,
she has by now been defiled by the infidel, and no decent Catholic
could live with that.”
    “No!”
    “Be reasonable, Lord Burke. Captain MacGuire tells me the lady
was a widow. Without the protection of virginity-for purity brings
a very high price among the infidels-she was probably raped by
at least the captain and officers of the ship that kidnapped her. If
she survived that and was beautiful, then rest assured that she was
sold into slavery. If she is still alive, she now graces some pasha’s
bed. It is not possible mat you could want a woman like that back,
even if she could be found. Under these circumstances, the holy
Church would not hold you to your betrothal. The lady is as lost to
you as if she were dead, and in all likelihood she is dead.”
    “Get out!”
    The Conde bowed from the waist. “Your grief is understandable,
Lord Burke. I shall leave you to it. You will soon see the wisdom
of my words. Come, Constanza!” And he swept from the room, his
daughter meekly behind him.
    Niall Burke watched the door close behind the Conde and his
daughter. For a moment the silence hung heavy in the room, then
he said grimly, “All right MacGuire, talk! I’m no child to be whee-
dled, and if I’ve lived this long, you can bloody well be sure I’m
going to survive. Where is the O’Malley fleet, and what’s this non-
sense about Skye being lost forever, and how the hell long have I
been here anyway? Speak up, man, or I’ll tear the tongue from your
head!”
    “You’ve been ill six weeks, my lord.”
    “Jesu!” swore Niall.
    “The fleet went directly to Algiers and we were able to obtain
an immediate audience with the Dey. He was most sympathetic and
sent to every slave merchant in the city, offering a king’s ransom for the O’Malley’s return, or at least information leading to her
return. It was like hollering down a rabbit hole, my lord-not even
an echo. The Dey came to the same conclusion the Conde has. She
never reached Algiers alive. What other answer is there?” Here his
voice broke, and he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
    In truth, MacGuire was more distressed by something he dared
not tell the seriously ill Lord Burke. It seemed that there was one
other possibility about the O’Malley’s fate. The Dey had told him
that Skye might have reached Algiers alive and then been sold pri-
vately. Private sale of captives was strictly illegal because it cheated
several people, including the Dey himself, of their shares in the
purchase price. But private sales were managed, especially sales of
beautiful women. MacGuire reasoned that, if this had happened to
Skye, then the Dey would not be able to trace her.
    “I don’t want to believe it, my lord, but if Mistress Skye is alive
then where is she?”
    Niall Burke was stunned. Skye dead? No! Not Skye. Not his
vibrant Skye with her Kerry-blue eyes and her proud spirit. No! His
shoulders began to shake as the dry sobs took hold and racked him
mercilessly. Stumbling from the bed, he lurched across the room,
through the French doors and out onto the terrace. All around him
everything throbbed with life and they said his Skye was dead!
Clutching the cool marble balustrade, he howled his frustration and
anger at the unfairness of it all, howled and shouted until his voice
was so hoarse that he made no sounds at all.
    He felt an arm about him, heard a soft voice making soothing
sounds he could not comprehend, allowed himself to be led back
inside where he barely reached the bed before he collapsed, uncon-
scious. Constanza Cuidadela shook her head as she drew the covers
over him. She felt his forehead.
    “The fever is back, Captain MacGuire. You must sit with him
tonight for my father will not excuse me from my punishment. I will
tell you what to do.”
    MacGuire nodded. “He’s not an easy man, your father.”
    The girl did not reply. She went quietly about her business, caring
for the unconscious Niall. Smoothing the pillows first, she next
tucked the sheets about her patient and, finally, placed the frosted
pitcher on the bedside table.
    “You can do very little, Captain, except to keep him as quiet and
as comfortable as possible. Ana will bring a basin of scented water
shortly, and she’ll come again during the night.” The vespers bells
began to toll, and Constanza said, “I must go. When the fever breaks,
change his nightshirt and the sheets. Ana will help.” And then she
was gone.
    MacGuire tended Niall throughout the night. Strangely, Niall was
not restless, but lay ominously quiet as the burning fever consumed
his big body. Diligently the O’Malley captain cared for his charge,
bathing his forehead regularly with the cool, scented water, gently
forcing the sweet juice down his throat. During the night, the servant
woman, Ana, appeared regularly, bringing fresh water and juice for
the sick man. Once she brought a tray for MacGuire with a small
cold chicken, bread, fruit, and a carafe of sweet golden wine.
    As she silently placed his tray on the long walnut table, MacGuire
asked, “How is the lass?”
    Ana’s black eyes blazed. “She prays in the chapel for your master,
senor,” she said tersely. Then she left.
    MacGuire ate hungrily, drank half the carafe, and returned to
Niall’s bedside. Toward dawn he dozed in his chair only to be
startled awake by a great cry of anguish. Lord Burke sat straight up
in the bed, his eyes tightly shut, the tears pouring down his face.
He sobbed bitterly, “Skye! Skye! Don’t leave me, beloved! Come
back! Come back!”
    MacGuire was immobilized for a moment by the terrible anguish.
Then he reached out and shook the weeping man gently. “My lord!
My lord! It’s only a bad dream.”
    Gradually Niall quieted, and finally he lay back. His forehead
was cool to the touch. Relieved, MacGuire struggled to change his
sleeping friend’s damp nightshirt.
    After the first mass of the new day, Constanza appeared to check
on her patient. Ana was with her. Constanza praised the worn cap-
tain. “You have done well, Captain MacGuire. Go and rest. I will
tend to Senor Niall now.”
    “But you had no rest either, lass,” protested MacGuire. “You
must sleep. He’s out of danger now. A servant can keep watch.”
He put a fatherly arm about her to lead her toward the door, and
was shocked when she winced. A thin red line began to show through
the sleeve of her gown, and the captain’s eyes widened.
    “Aye!” snapped Ana. “The Conde beat my sweet Constanza last
night.”
    “Ana!” The girl was flushed with shame. “He is my father, and
it is a father’s duty to chastise an erring child. I challenged his
authority. I was wrong.”
    “She is a saint, my nina. The Conde enjoys hurting her!”
    “Ana! Please! If you are overheard he will send you away, and
you are all I have.”
    The serving woman compressed her lips tightly, sighed, and nod-
ded. MacGuire spoke again. “Has the Conde gone to his duties as
the island’s governor?” The women nodded. “Then, Senorita Constanza, I shall strike a bargain with you. I shall keep watch over
Lord Burke until the afternoon siesta while you sleep upon the chaise
longue. When afternoon comes, I shall go to my own rooms.”
    Ana smiled broadly. The captain was muy simpatico to her Constanza.
    Therefore, to Ana, he was a good man, a man to be trusted.
A few minutes later she left the young girl sleeping comfortably,
MacGuire guarding both Constanza and Niall.
    In the late afternoon when the long mauve shadows were begin-
ning to form and the midday heat to abate, Niall Burke opened his
silvery eyes again. He instantly remembered where he was and the
circumstances that had brought him here. A great burst of sadness
washed through him, and he sighed deeply.
    “How do you feel, Senor Niall?”
    He looked to the slim girl. “Like the very devil, nina, but I seem
to be alive, so I’d best get on with this business of living.”
    “Was she very beautiful, your betrothed?” The directness of the
question was like salt in an open wound, and he winced. Drawing
a deep breath, he replied, “She was the loveliest creature imaginable,
nina. Her hair was like a black storm cloud. Her skin was like a
gardenia flower in texture and color, and her eyes were the wonderful
deep blue of the seas off Ireland. She was kind yet proud. And not
only was she my dearest love, she was also my best friend, and I
shall miss her for all the days of my life.”
    Constanza’s eyes were bright with tears. “I can only hope,” she
said softly, “that someday a man will love me like that.”
    “I can see no reason why one wouldn’t, nina. I cannot understand
why you are not already married. How old are you?”
    “Fifteen, Senor Niall.”
    “And have not half the eligible young dons on this island already
sued your father for your hand? Or are they all blind?”
    She smiled shyly, then blushed. “There will be no offer for me,
Senor Niall,” she said sadly. “My father long ago destroyed any
chances of marrying I might have had. Last night when he told you
about your betrothed you undoubtedly thought him harsh, but your
plight brought back to him something he would much rather forget.
    “Almost sixteen years ago the Moorish pirates raided this island,
and when they left they took my mother as one of their captives.
My father had been deeply in love with her, and he was frantic. He
was able to ransom her six weeks later.
    “I was born six months later. Though she swore before the priest
and on every saint in the calendar, even on the Holy Mother’s name,
that the pirates had not touched her, my father could not bring himself
to really believe her. Not ever. As she grew bigger with her preg-
nancy, he grew more distant toward her. She adored him, and it broke her heart. She lived just long enough to give me life, and then
she died like a snuffed-out candle.
    “The irony is that I look like her. Every day of my life I have
been a living reproach to my father. In turn, he has held me responsible for my mother’s death and he has cast enough doubt on
my paternity that no decent family on Mallorca would allow their
son to offer for me.
    “I am his child, though. That is certain. Ana was my mother’s
servant before she was my nurse. She came with my mother from
Castile when Mother was married to Father. She was with her the
entire time Mother was kidnapped, and she swears to me that my
mother knew no man but my father.”
    Suddenly Constanza stopped. She blushed beet-red. Realizing the
cause of her embarrassment, Niall Burke said quietly, “Don’t regret
your words, nina. I have always been the kind of man to whom
women talk. I understand now your father’s words. He is a harsh
man, but he meant to tell me the truth.”
    The girl knelt by his bedside, her lovely oval face turned up to
him. “I am so sorry, Senor Niall. I know how sad the loss of your
betrothed wife is to you, but God has willed that you live. We will
both pray for your Skye’s immortal soul, but you must also promise
me that you will now get well.”
    Niall Burke was touched by her honest concern. He put his big
hand over her small one. “Very well, Constanzita, I promise, but
you must promise to help me. Will you?”
    The hand beneath his trembled slightly, and she flushed a most
becoming pink as her dark-gold lashes brushed her cheeks. “If you
wish it,” she said low.
    “I wish it,” he answered, releasing her hand.
    In the next few weeks he grew stronger. The fever finally left his
body, and his appetite increased. Eventually he was able to leave
his bed and walk about his room. Then came the day that he ventured
into the gardens. That afternoon was the happiest time he could
remember in many weeks. He and Constanza, chaperoned by Ana,
sat on the grass and picnicked on small meat pastries, juicy green
grapes, and a delicate rose wine. Niall told them stories of his
boyhood in Ireland, and for the first time he heard Constanza laugh,
a sweet trill of genuine mirth, as he told them a particularly amusing
story about his youthful hijinks. He began to sleep again at night,
and the nightmares of seeing Skye struggling in the grasp of the
Barbary pirates began to fade away.
    The O’Malley’s fleet put into Mallorca’s capital city of Palma
again. They had spent several months in Algiers seeking their mis-
tress, but in the end they had had to leave without even any information. The Dey, however, had given the O’Malley family rich
concessions in hopes of placating them. It seemed there was no hope
of finding the O’Malley alive. The Irish ships would sail home
shortly under the leadership of Captain MacGuire. Niall, however,
was still not considered strong enough for the voyage.
    Niall entrusted Inis to MacGuire and gave the captain a lengthy
letter to his father, pouring out his grief and closing with the ad-
monition, “Make no contracts for me. I will, in time, do my duty
by the family.” Then, with a strange sense of loss, Niall Burke bid
the O’Malley fleet farewell, watching from the terrace of the Conde’s
garden as the ships sailed out to sea.
    Niall saw little of his host and was glad, for the cold Spanish don was not a man whose company Niall enjoyed.
    One day Constanza suggested that he might feel up to riding, and.
he delightedly agreed. That afternoon he found himself upon a spir-
ited roan red Arabian stallion, cantering through a field of colorful
windflowers and anemones. Constanza rode with him, mounted on
an elegant little white Arabian mare. She was a fine horsewoman
with a good sure seat and gentle but firm hands.
    In the heat of the afternoon they stopped in a meadow above the
sea to rest their horses and eat the light luncheon Ana had packed.
Constanza lay a little white cloth over the grass and set out their
luncheon of crusty bread, soft ripe cheese, peaches, pears, and white
wine. Niall unsaddled the horses so that they could rest. A tall, leafy
tree shaded them all, and the air was heavy with the scent of wild
thyme.
    They ate in silence. After the meal Constanza spoke, “Soon you
will leave us. Where will you go? Back to your Ireland?”
    A small shadow flitted across his face. “Not right away, nina.
I shall travel for a bit before I go back. But go back I must, for I
am my father’s only heir. My first marriage was annulled. My second
never made.”
    “You will find happiness, Senor Niall. I pray every night to the
Blessed Mother for you.”
    He cupped her face with a warm hand. “What a sweet creature
you are, my Constanzita.”
    She blushed and pressed her cheek against his hand. Suddenly
he wanted to kiss her, and he did. Pulling the girl into his arms, he
bent his head down-found her mouth. She was trembling wildly,
but she did not struggle. Emboldened, he gently parted her lips and
plunged into the sweet cavern, seeking, finding, stroking the girl’s
satiny tongue with his own. One arm held her fast as a hand sought
her full, young breasts.
    Constanza tore her head away, gasping for air. Frantically she sought his hands. But it wasn’t Niall she feared, it was herself. Niall
Burke was a gentleman, and one word from her would halt him, yet
she could not bring herself to say the word. No man had ever before
kissed or touched her as he was doing. Her heart was pounding and
she feared it might burst. Yet she did not stop him. His mouth was
again on hers, tenderly searing her soul with a passion she had never
even suspected she could feel. His fingers were undoing the laces
of her bodice, gently pulling down her chemise.
    Niall was amazed by the girl’s easy acquiescence. He was positive
she was innocent, yet she seemed to welcome his advances. He felt
a momentary guilt but pushed it away. Skye was dead, he was alive,
and Constanza Cuidadela was fresh and sweet. His eyes feasted on
her young breasts, beautiful golden orbs, their proud dark-coral
nipples tight like unopened rosebuds. Almost reverently, he caressed
and kissed them, delighting in her soft cry. Constanza felt an unfamiliar tightness building within her. It
frightened her a little. She did not want him to stop, but suddenly
he did.
    “You are a virgin, aren’t you, nina?” Her blush gave him his
answer. “I will not dishonor you, Constanza,” he told her gravely.
”It would not be right if I spoiled you for your future husband,
especially after your kindness to me. I had no right to do what I
have just done. For that I ask your forgiveness and your understand-
ing.”
    Constanza sat very still, making no attempt to cover herself. In
the meadow the roan stallion screamed defiantly and brutally
mounted the white mare, biting her silken neck and thrusting his
great organ into her. Constanza rose and deftly shed the rest of her
clothes. They lay in a colorful heap about her trim ankles. She
looked at Niall proudly.
    “I want you to do to me what your stallion does to my mare,”
she said softly.
    Niall Burke felt the aching hardness in his groin. It would take
a saint to refuse such an invitation, and he was no saint. Still, he
was no rake, either. Then the idea was bom in him. Why not? he
thought. I will have to sooner or later. And so he said, “Will you
be my wife, Constanzita?” “Yes,” she answered. He stood up, towering over her, and slowly
pulled off his own clothes. She watched him, curious. Having no
brothers, she had no certain knowledge of male anatomy. Before her
amazed eyes his masculinity rose proudly like a battle flag. He took
her hand, saying tenderly, ‘Touch it, nina. I promise it won’t bite
you… though it will love you well.”
    Her small hand closed about him, gently, virginally curious. He held his breath, afraid of frightening her. Her warm little hand
cradled him, fondling him with innocent expertise, and he could not
restrain an intense groan. Startled, she let go.
    “I have hurt you!”
    “Nay, lovey, you pleasure me beyond all,” and he drew her into
his arms and kissed her again. Her round breasts, hard now with her
mounting passion, rubbed against his dark furred chest until the little
nipples were raw with desire. Her torso pressed tightly against him
like burning silk, trembling weakly as her legs began to give way.
But her voice was low and strong.
    “Take me, my Niall. Take me like the stallion took my mare!”
    He lowered her to the ground, then knelt beside her. Her violet
eyes were wide with wonder as he bent his head to catch a little
nipple in his mouth. Slowly he sucked on it, watching with narrowed
silver eyes as her breath came in short little gasps and her hips began
to twitch. A caressing hand moved down her fevered body, and she
jumped as he touched that most secret of places. His finger pushed
through the soft defensive folds, rubbing insistently, and Constanza
thought she was going to faint.
    Her heart was leaping about wildly, and she was being buffeted
by a great storm of new feelings, the like of which she’d never
known. Her belly ached, and between her legs where his hand teased
she ached in a different way. When he gently put his long finger
into her she was relieved, but when he withdrew, the ache was worse
and she whimpered.
    “All right, lovey,” he said softly, “I will make it better now,”
and he mounted her, parting her trembling thighs, and slowly entered
her. She opened herself to him like a flower. Her eyes never left his
face even when he reached her tight, little virgin shield and pierced
it, swiftly, so as to give her less hurt.
    Constanza felt the slow, burning pain spread quickly up her, and
she cried out. His lips covered her protest, his tongue probing her
mouth, matching the rhythm of his throbbing spear. Something won-
derful was happening to her, and she eagerly thrust her hips upward
to meet his fierce downward thrusts. The pain was gone, and she
was soaring like a bird in flight. Her little hands grasped his tight
buttocks to bring him closer, and at the moment of her climax she
tore her head away from him, shrieking her joy. Then she fainted.
    Niall Burke lay panting in astounded exhaustion. Never had he
experienced such passion in a virgin, and she had certainly been a
virgin, as the blood on her thighs attested. Now she lay drained and
unconscious. He studied her for a moment, this girl who would be
his wife. She was certainly lovely, and although he wasn’t entirely
sure he liked her excessive passion she would certainly be a better bedsport than poor Darragh had been. The MacWilliam might be
angered momentarily by a surprise bride, but if Niall was lucky he
would bring her home to Ireland with a babe in her belly or at her
breast. In that case, all would be forgiven.
    She was barely breathing, and he pulled her into his arms to warm
her, to awaken her. Her eyelids fluttered as she began her slow
return to consciousness. He held her close, murmuring soft little
words of endearment, and as her eyes opened to focus on his face,
she blushed furiously.
    “Oh, Niall, what must you think of me? But, oh, it was won-
derful!”
    He laughed. “What I think, nina, is that I am a very lucky man.
You were quite magnificent. How do you feel, lovey?”
    “I flew, Niall! I really flew! I feel so happy now, and I want to
do it again!”
    He chuckled. “We shall fly together again, lovey, but I think
perhaps it would be best now if we returned to Palma. I must ask
your father’s permission to marry you.” He stood up and began to
pull his clothes on, but it was not easy to concentrate when Constanza
lay naked at his feet on her bed of meadow flowers and soft green
grass. He finally managed to return some measure of order to his
garb and, holding out his hand, he said, “Come, madam, and I will
maid you.”
    She stood, and he was again enchanted by the perfection of her
slim body. Slowly she pulled on her undergarments, then the dress
skirt, and lastly the dress top which he laced for her, first cupping
the sweet round breasts and fondling them. Leaning back against
him, she murmured contently.
    He spanked her bottom fondly. “Pack the luncheon basket, nina,
while I catch the horses and saddle them up.”
    They returned to Palma in the late afternoon. One look at Con-
stanza’s face brought a cry of joy from Ana. As Niall dismounted
his horse the older woman grasped his hands and kissed them.
”Gracias, Senor Niall! My Constanza will make you a good wife,
I swear it!”
    “Then you think the Conde will give his consent, Ana?”
    A crafty look came into the woman’s eyes. “He will at first refuse
you, for he has never forgiven my nina’s birth. If, however, you
tell him that you have dishonored his daughter then he will quickly
consent, for he fears scandal more than anything else.”
    “In that case, Ana, I shall speak to him at once,” smiled Niall.
    “He is in his library now, my lord.”
    Niall bent down and brushed Constanza’s lips. “For luck, Constanzita,” he said, and was gone.
    “Aiiieee, my nina! You have at last found a man, and what a
man! He will keep your belly filled for years to come. It is what I
have prayed for, nina. Someone to take you from the Conde, and
his bitterness. Now you will have a good life, a normal life.” She
hugged the girl hard. Then, catching herself, she gasped, “In my
happiness I have forgotten you, my Constanza. You are all right?
He was gentle?”
    “He was gentle, nurse, but I am sore and could use a bath.”
    “At once, nina! At once!”
    And while Constanza bathed herself in a warm, scented tub, Niall
Burke sprawled his long frame in a rather uncomfortable chair in
the Conde’s library. In his big hand he twirled the stem of a small
wine glass. The Conde stared coldly at his guest.
    “You are vastly improved in health, Lord Burke.” It was more
a statement than a question. “I expect you will soon, leave jus.”
    Niall nodded. “Soon, my lord, and when I go there is something
I would take with me from Mallorca.”
    “A souvenir of sorts, Lord Burke?”
    Niall could not resist a chuckle. “Of sorts,” he said. “I wish to
marry Constanza. I am formally applying to you for her hand.”
    The Conde’s facial expression never wavered. “It is impossible,
Lord Burke.”
    “She is previously contracted?”
    “No.”
    “She is ill with some fatal sickness?”
    “No.”
    “Then why do you refuse me? I am the only son and heir of a
wealthy and noble man. In my country, my lineage is equal to your
own. You would have grandchildren. And, as my wife, your daugh-
ter would lack for nothing.”
    “I do not have to explain myself to you, Lord Burke. I am Con-
stanza’s father, and I have refused your suit. My word is all that
counts.”
    Niall drew a deep breath. “Is the reason for your refusal the fact
that you doubt your daughter’s paternity?”
    Francisco Cuidadela grew white. “You are impertinent, Lord
Burke. Leave me! I do not choose to discuss it.”
    Niall’s silvery eyes narrowed. “Let me tell you how I spent my
afternoon, Conde. I spent it enjoying your daughter’s favors. She
gave herself to me quite willingly, and I am pleased to say that she
was a virgin. At this very moment my seed could be rooting in her
fertile womb. You deliberately destroyed her chances of marriage
here on Mallorca. Now not even a convent will have her. How will
you face your friends when she grows big with my child? You are the last of your line, Conde, and your late wife’s family is also long
gone. There is no place you can send Constanza to hide her shame.
Already I hear the laughter of your friends. And if King Philip should
hear of this scandal you might find yourself rapidly replaced as
governor here.
    “On the other hand, if you accept my suit you will be envied your
cleverness for catching such a fine prize as myself. But, of course,
the decision is yours.”
    Francisco Cuidadela had gone from white to red and back to white
again as Niall talked. Now the Conde made a strangled sound.
    “Does that mean you accept, my lord?” asked Niall politely.
    The older man nodded weakly, and Niall smiled, satisfied. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we shall see the bishop and arrange for the first
of the banns to be posted. Have your secretary bring me a copy of
the marriage contract in the morning. I trust that Constanza’s dowry
will be quite ample, as she is your only child. Not that I care,” he
said, “but my father will expect it.”
    The Conde sent him a black look. Chuckling softly, Niall left the
library. It was done. Once again he was betrothed, and he hoped
mat, this time, the union would produce children.
    Constanza was not Skye, nor would she ever take Skye’s place
in his heart. He laughed ruefully. He had never loved anyone but
Skye. Why had fate been so cruel as to separate them just when they
were so near to marriage? “Skye,” he whispered her name softly.
”Skye O’Malley, my love.” He tasted the words on his tongue. No,
she couldn’t be dead! Would not her spirit have come to him, and
wouldn’t he have felt it if she were? Must he accept that she was
dead when he truly could not believe it was so?
    No, he would never love Constanza as he had loved Skye, but
Constanza was sweet and good and deserved, his full attention. She
would have it too, he vowed; but when he closed his eyes to conjure
up her oval face with its violet eyes and halo of golden curls he
instead saw a cloud of black hair framing a heart-shaped face with
laughing blue eyes and a soft red mouth.
    “Dammit, Skye O’Malley,” he swore. “I cannot help it that I am
alive, and you are… are… Leave me in peace, my darling, to find
some kind of happiness!”
    He found Constanza and announced, “Your father has consented
to our marriage, lovey. Tomorrow we shall have the bishop read the
first banns at mass, and the contracts shall be signed.”
    “I cannot believe it,” she breathed, her eyes shining. “How did
you convince him?”
    “I told him how we spent the afternoon,” said Niall drily.
    Constanza swayed. “Oh! He will beat me!”
    Seeing her white face left no doubt in his mind that she did not
exaggerate. “Has he beaten you before, lovey?”
    “Of course. He is my papa. He is never an easy man, Niall, but
knowing that I gave myself to you willingly will infuriate him. I am
truly afraid.”
    “Don’t be frightened, Constanzita. I will not allow anyone, even
your father, to harm you.”
    With a contented sigh she nestled into his arms, and he felt better
than he had in a long time. She loved him, she needed him, and it
would be good between them.
    The marriage contracts were signed the following morning and
the first banns were read at the Palma cathedral’s noon mass. By
nightfall felicitations were pouring into the governor’s villa from all
the best families on the island. The Conde was particularly pleased
when one of his friends who had spent time in London and Dublin
congratulated him on obtaining such a fine catch for Constanza.
    “Lord Burke’s father is quite wealthy, my dear Francisco, and
dotes on his only son as you have doted on Constanza. What a fine
match! But then, you were always a shrewd devil, eh?” The two
men chuckled conspiratorially, and the Conde began to feel that
perhaps he had the upper hand after all. This tempered his unfriendly
feelings toward Niall.
    The banns were read twice again within the month and then on
a bright winter’s morning several days after the Twelfth Night feast
had ended, Constanza Maria Theresa Floreal Alcudia Cuidadela was
joined in holy matrimony to Lord Niall Sean Burke. The bishop of
Mallorca performed the ceremony.
    The sun streamed through the stained-glass windows of the ca-
thedral, making beautiful wavy patterns on the pale-gray stone floors.
The bride was preceded by six little girls in pale-pink silk dresses
over miniature farthingales with short puffed sleeves, wreaths of
rosebuds in their unbound hair. The children carried gilt baskets of
flower petals which they strewed about lavishly.
    Constanza clung to her father’s arm, a vision so exquisitely ethe-
real that an audible sigh rose collectively from the guests. Her gown
was a heavy white silk brocade overskirt on a cloth-of-silver un-
derskirt. The upper sleeves of the gown were large puffs of white
brocade, slashed to show the silver interior. The sleeves were edged
in lace just below the elbow. The lower sleeves were thin white silk
that clung tightly to the arm and ended in cuffs of lace. The white
brocade bodice was tight, and began just above the swell of the
bride’s ample bosom. Modesty was preserved by a transparent silk
chiffon insert that had a dainty, virginal, round lace collar.
    Constanza’s golden hair was unbound and topped by a wreath of white rosebuds attached by small pearl pins to a sheer cloud of lace
that floated about her. In one hand she carried a bouquet of gardenias
and about her slender neck was a single strand of pearls.
    The groom, awaiting her at the altar, was equally elegant. His
silk hose were red-and-gold-striped, his upper legs covered by puffed
and slashed breeches of claret-red velvet. His short, high-collared
doublet was of matching silk and open at the front to show an
embroidered white silk undershirt ruffled at the wrists. Covering his
doublet was an embroidered overjerkin of claret-red velvet, studded
with freshwater pearls and gold beads. His rakish velvet cap was
tilted to show its heavily jeweled underside, and a pink plume
drooped from it. His shoes, tanned from the hide of an unborn calf,
were gilded a pale gold.
    Sword and dagger were de rigueur, and both of Niall’s blades
were of the finest Toledo steel. The hilts, however, were gold, and
heavily jeweled in diamonds and rubies. Encircling his neck and
spilling down onto his chest was a heavy gold chain with a large
gold, diamond, and ruby medallion depicting a raised winged grif-
fon.
    The women eyed his broad chest and well-turned legs and sighed
behind their fans. How on earth, they wondered, did that meek little
milksop catch such a man? It was said that the couple would remain
on Mallorca for several months before journeying to London and the
court of the young new English queen, Elizabeth. Perhaps in that
time they might have the opportunity to offer their charms to the
handsome Lord Burke? They would show him what an error it was
to wed in haste.
    The ceremony ended, and with the bishop’s permission Niall
tenderly brushed the lips of his bride. Her shining eyes and sweet
blush told him how happy she was. Smiling, he tucked her small
hand in his arm and swept her down the aisle of the cathedral, back
across the square, and into the governor’s villa. Soon they were
greeting their guests.
    The Conde had spared no expense in the preparation of his only
child’s bridal feast. The tables groaned with sides of beef, whole
young roasted lambs and kids, larded ducks, whole swans in aspic,
lemoned and gingered capons. There were pigeon and lark pies with
their flaky crusts steaming, and huge bowls of paella, red lobster
bits and green olives showing brilliantly against the saffroned yellow
rice. There were platters of boiled shrimp in white wine and herbs,
a tub of raw oysters, platters of new green scallions, and tiny red
love apples. Great loaves of white bread, both lean and long and fat
and round, had been placed at intervals down the board. One whole
table had been set aside for sweets. There were plates of molded jellies in red, green, and gold, dishes of sugared almonds, cakes,
marzipan fruit tarts, and silver bowls of black raisins, purple figs,
green and white grapes, and Seville oranges. Deep-red and golden
wines and heady beer flowed from the villa fountains.
    The musicians played lively tunes as they moved among the
guests. At the head table Niall and Constanza sat in the place of
honor receiving congratulations. Neither missed the admiring looks
cast the groom’s way by many of the ladies, and the bride’s purple-
pansy eyes darkened jealously.
    “You look like an outraged kitten,” he observed in an amused
tone.
    “I was thinking,” she replied, “that the marquesa, for all her low
decolletage and painted face, is at least ten years your senior.”
    Niall gave a whoop of laughter and kissed her soundly. “Oh,
nina, what a sharp little tongue you have.” Then his eyes caressed
her, and he said, “Soon I shall teach you to use that naughty tongue
in a sweeter pursuit,” and Constanza felt a strong warmth sweep
over her. Since that afternoon in the meadow he had not known her
intimately. His behavior had been that of any proper gentleman with
his betrothed. It had made her a little afraid, especially after her
monthly show of blood had arrived on time. Perhaps he regretted
his proposal but was too well mannered to withdraw it? Now, how-
ever, his eyes told her that she had been foolish to be afraid. As the
relief flooded through her she felt quite giddy.
    The afternoon lengthened and became evening. Finally Ana was
at her elbow, whispering, and Constanza rose discreetly and left the
courtyard. “Come in an hour, my lord,” said the servant woman
softly, and Niall acknowledged the message with a faint nod. Shortly
afterward the Conde slipped into the seat nearest him.
    “I did not mention it before, but Constanza’s maternal grand-
mother was English. Part of her dowry was a house on the Strand
in London. It is not large, nor elegant, but it has been kept in good
repair. It came to me through Constanza’s mother, and I have made
it a part of your wife’s dowry. My London agent has already informed
the tenants that they must leave. The house will be staffed and ready
for you when you reach London.”
    “My thanks, Don Francisco. The Burkes have long considered
the value of a London house, and the Strand is an excellent location.”
He glanced about the festive courtyard. “My gratitude also for this
day. It has made Constanza so happy.”
    “She is my daughter, Don Niall. Oh, I know that old gypsy witch,
Ana, has convinced Constanza that I doubt her paternity and believe
she killed her mother, but it is not so. Constanza was born with a
heart-shaped mole on her right buttock. I have the identical mole, as do my brother, Jamie, our father, and our late grandfather. So
did my two sisters. Any doubts I might have entertained were erad-
icated the moment I first saw my daughter.
    “As to Contanza’s mother, Maria Theresa was as frail as she was
proud. The agony of being held all those weeks in the licentious
clutches of the Moors shamed her as greatly as it shamed me. She
died because she could not bear to be whispered about for the rest
of her life. How could a simple peasant like Ana understand some-
thing like that?”
    He sighed. “Be good to my Constanza, Don Niall. She is so much
like her mother. When you take her away, it will be like losing
Maria Theresa again.” He then rose quickly, and joined a group of
his friends on the other side of the courtyard.
    Niall was astounded by these revelations, and the brief glimpse
he had just had into the Conde’s soul. No wonder he had been so
generous with Constanza’s dowry. It included an estate in Spain,
the villa here on Mallorca, an enormous settlement in gold with the
promise of more to come when the Conde died, and now a London
house. He smiled to himself. The MacWilliam would be quite
pleased, for Niall was certainly bringing home an heiress.
    A servant refilled his goblet, and he watched the gypsy dancers
with a growing feeling of peace. Quaffing down the cup, he rose
and went to his room where he found his manservant waiting with
a steaming tub. Silently, he bathed, sniffing appreciatively at the
sandalwood soap. Standing up, he sluiced water down his body, and
was carefully dried.
    “Where is my lady?”
    “She awaits my lord in the bedchamber next to his own.”
    ‘Tell Ana I am coming. Tell her to leave my wife. You are
dismissed for the night.”
    “Si, my lord.”
    Niall examined his naked body in the pier glass and was pleased
by what he saw. His illness and idleness hadn’t put any flab on him.
He turned, picked up a small object from out of a drawer, and entered
the scented candlelit chamber where Constanza lay beneath the cov-
erlet of their bed. Her eyes widened at the sight of him.
    “I sleep this way,” he said by way of explanation.
    “So do I, but Ana made me put on a nightdress. She said it was
expected tonight.”
    “Shall we shock Mallorcan society, nina?” he asked mischie-
vously. “Stand up quickly,” he commanded, and when she obeyed
he tore the dainty lawn gown from her body and tossed the pieces
across the room. “And now, to assure my honor and proclaim your
purity to all…” He held his hand over the bed and tightly closed his fist. Blood splattered the sheets in the center. Constanza shrieked,
and Niall laughed. “Perfect, my love! Now the wedding guests will
believe your maidenhead successfully breeched.” He wiped his hand
clean of blood and tossed the linen towel in the fire. “It was a piglet’s
bladder filled with chicken blood,” he explained. “Your Ana gave
it to me this morning.”
    “Oh,” she answered wide-eyed. “I never thought…” her voice
trailed off.
    He laughed. “Neither did I, but your Ana, bless her, did. I am
glad she’s coming with us. Now, you tempting little piece, come
here to me! This last month I’ve gone half mad remembering our
afternoon in the meadow.”
    “Oh, I have too!” she confessed. He picked her up and put her
gently on the bed. Then he joined her. “Is that very shocking, Niall?”
    “Hell, no, lovey! I’d rather you were eager for me than cold and
retiring.” He pulled her into his arms almost roughly and her belly
fluttered in anticipation. How many times had she dreamed of that
afternoon, Seeing the red stallion thrusting his big penis into the
quivering little white mare, and then seeing Niall looming above
her, lowering his body onto hers, thrusting his own great penis into
her. There had been days when she had writhed on her bed with the
memory half a dozen times.
    Now as he buried his face in her warm breasts, she sighed. Her
golden orbs grew hard as his mouth drank first from one and then
from the other. His tongue circled the nipples again and again until
she begged him to take her. He laughed. Niall had recognized the
wanton in her, and now he was curious to see how far he might drive
her.
    His warm tongue licked her soft, fragrant skin, moving downward
from her navel, stopping, then moving up each leg from the knee,
stopping again. She thrashed wildly, her blond hair tangling. Fascinated,
    Niall let his lips and eyes wander to the soft defenses of her
womanhood. With gentle fingers he parted the plump folds to stare
in fascination as her tender little button grew stiff and throbbing.
His mouth fastened about it, and tasted its sweetness.
    “Ohhh, dear God, don’t stop! Please don’t stop!”
    Twice she climaxed under the ministrations of his demanding
mouth. At last, unable to bear much more himself, he drove his root
into her warm and fertile body. She cried out her pleasure, wrapping
her legs tightly around him, moving fiercely with his rhythm, claw-
ing at his back in her passion as he emptied himself into her.
    Rolling off her, he saw that she was in a semiconscious state. He
gathered her into his arms gently so that her return would be a warm
and safe one. He was delighted with this marvelous, passionate creature to whom he was wed. It was almost too good to be true,
and yet it was true. He had found the perfect mate, the woman from
whose loins the next generation of Burkes would spring. Constanza
stirred faintly in his arms. “Good-bye, Skye, my dear true love,”
Niall whispered softly, and turned to face his new young wife.

Chapter 12

    The wife of Khalid el Bey was the most famous woman in
the city of Algiers. Three nights each week she presided,
unveiled, over her husband’s banquet table. The all-male
guests were shocked at first, but they quickly recovered, for
he lady Skye was charming, witty, and gently spoken. It was said
hat she knew as much about running her husband’s businesses as
he did, but no man gave that rumor serious consideration, for it was
too absurd. Allah had fashioned women for man’s pleasure, and for
birth, but nothing else.
    All envied Khalid el Bey his beautiful wife, but none envied him
more than Jamil, the captain of the Casbah fort. The Turkish soldier
had quite a respectable harem, for be was known to be sexually
insatiable. Favors from Captain Jamil were easily bought simply by
›resenting him with a beautiful, skilled slave. Still, Jamil lusted
after Skye, desperate to possess her. She had intrigued him greatly
by refusing his overtures. He bribed the women of Skye’s household
to smuggle in gifts of jewels, flowers, and comfits. All were returned, their wrapping not even opened. Furious, he managed to
separate her from her guests on two occasions, only to be rebuffed,
even insulted. Never in his life had Jamil been refused so strongly,
and the insult rankled. He was determined to possess Skye.
    Tonight he lay sprawled on a couch in the House of Felicity,
watching with Yasmin through a two-way mirror. On the other side
of the mirror was one of the city’s most respected merchants, who
lay naked and tied while two lovely young girls serviced him. One
crouched over his head, her plump little pussy rubbing against his
open mouth, while the other sucked frantically on the merchant’s
mall, flaccid manhood. Finally, as their simultaneous efforts resulted in success, the girl at the lower end mounted the man and
ode him to glory.
Jamil laughed heartily. “Poor darlings, he’s not worth their effort.
    Send them both to me later and I’ll reward them with a real workout.”
    “I thought you intended spending the night with me,” she pouted.
”I do not give my favors to just anyone.”
    “Would you deny me an appetizer before a gourmet meal?” he ‘
flattered her.
    Yasmin almost purred. She enjoyed Jamil. He was the best lover
she’d ever had-next to Khalid. Khalid, damn him, had ceased his
visits since falling in love with Skye. A look of anger flashed across
her beautiful face. Jamil caught it instantly.
    “What is it, my pet?” he queried. “You have been increasingly
irritable of late. Tell Jamil, and he will make it better.”
    She hesitated before admitting. “It is my lord Khalid. He is so
changed. I do not know him anymore, and it is all the fault of his
wife.”
    “She is quite beautiful,” he said wickedly. “But of course, I do
not know her.”
    “I wish to Allah she were dead! Then my lord Khalid would come
to me again.”
    “Perhaps,” he mused, “it could be arranged, my dear.” He con-
tinued smoothly despite her startled look. “Of course, I should expect
certain remunerations from you for my help. But what difference
should the death of one woman make to anyone? Especially a woman
with no memory, no powerful connections.”
    Yasmin was fascinated in spite of herself. “But, how?” she asked.
    “If I wanted someone dead I should chose the time and place
carefully, and then I should wield the blade myself. The fewer people
involved the better, would you not say? Who would suspect you if
we were seen to enter your chambers together on the night in ques-
tion?”
    “When, Jamil? When?”
    He smiled. Tomorrow night, my dear Yasmin. The sooner the
better. I shall send a message to Khalid el Bey asking that he meet
me at the Casbah fort. Afterward I shall simply deny that I sent any
message. You and I shall be seen entering your rooms. I shall stay
the night. You will slip out and walk to Khalid el Bey’s house. Enter
through the garden. The lady Skye should be alone, possibly even
sleeping. Strike quickly, check to be sure you have succeeded, then
leave.”
    “Why are you so willing to help me?” she asked, suddenly sus-
picious.
    “We are friends, Yasmin. Khalid’s woman means nothing to me,
but you do. If my plan seems harsh, my dear, you need not act on
it. The choice is yours.”
    “No! You are, as always, Jamil, direct and to the point. I will
do it!”
    The captain smiled toothily as Yasmin rose. She said, “I will
send the two girls you desire to the baths and then to you. From this
night on, anything you want in the House of Felicity is yours.”
    Jamil could not believe either his luck or Yasmin’s gullibility.
He’would have to work quickly now. The slave-spy he had placed
in Khalid el Bey’s house would have to be informed and instructed
in two tasks. The first would be to give the bey a sleeping draught
in his wine so that he would retire early. Then the slave would tell
Skye that a man claiming to know something of her past was at the
front gate asking to see her. This would keep Skye out of the house
while Yasmin entered the darkened sleeping chamber. She would
kill the bey believing it was Skye.
    He chuckled wickedly, well pleased with himself. His spy would
be a tongueless mute soon after the murder and could not implicate
him. In fact, he would see the hapless creature sold off. As to
Yasmin… well, the penalty for murder was rather severe. A killer
was tortured first and then thrown from the city walls onto the iron
spikes that studded the walls. Sometimes a prisoner could linger for
several days… Strangely, the women were the longest-lived. It would
be interesting to see how long Yasmin would last.
    Naturally, Jamil would offer his strong arm and protection to the
grieving widow. The grieving rich and beautiful young widow, he
amended his thoughts. An idea struck him. Perhaps he would marry
Skye. He need not remain the Sultan’s captain-governor of the Casbah fort forever. He could as easily retire here in Algiers as anywhere
else. Besides, Skye would need someone to run Khalid el Bey’s
various business interests. Jamil had never had a wife, but with the
bey’s wealth in his pocket he could afford four wives as well as a
fine harem. With unlimited money a man might have anything he
desired. Jamil sighed, musing on the pleasure and wealth Khalid el
Bey’s death would bring him. To be sure, he would be losing a good
and interesting friend, but that could not be helped.
    His thoughts were interrupted by the entry of the two girls who
had earlier entertained the merchant. Giggling nervously, for they
knew his reputation, they knelt submissively at his feet.
    “How may we serve you, lord?” they chorused.
    He viewed them through cruelly narrowed eyes. “Let us begin
with the same exercise you performed earlier on your merchant
client,” he said. “We will progress slowly and inventively from
there.”
    And across the city, Skye lay awake hugging her happy secret to herself. There was no doubt now. She was with child, and oh!
how happy Khalid would be when she cold him! They had entertained
earlier, and then he had gone off on his customary nighttime rounds
of his houses. When he came back she would surprise him with the
news. Smiling, she imagined the look on his face. She folded her
hands protectively across her belly. It was much too early to feel
any life, but she tried to imagine what the son of Khalid el Bey
would look like.
    Hearing his step, she rose and ran to greet him. His strong arms
wrapped about her, and he kissed her very thoroughly. His mouth
inflamed her, and when his hands slipped beneath her gauze gown
to caress her trembling body she almost forgot what she had waited
to tell him.
    “Khalid! Stop! I have news.”
    “Yes, my love,” he murmured, pulling her robe open to nuzzle
at her pretty breasts. His mouth closed over a pointed nipple; he
sucked hard on it, and she almost fainted. It was no use. She wanted
him as much as he wanted her. Her news would wait. She swayed
against him and he picked her up and carried her to the bed. Some-
where along the way their garments were shed.
    He put her down on the middle of the mattress, positioning her
body carefully. Then he straddled her just as deliberately, his hairy,
well-muscled legs lying outside her smooth ones. Sitting back on
his haunches, his heels against his tight buttocks, he reached out his
hands to play with her. One moved forward to pinch gently at her
sensitive little nipples, the other moved behind him to tickle the soft
throbbing flesh of her sweet cleft.
    Skye’s eyes narrowed like a cat’s and she murmured her pleasure.
”So, my lord husband, you would tease me. Two can play at the
same game.” And she cupped the sac of his manhood in her right
hand, rolling his balls with a provocative rhythm while her left hand
stroked his rod with equal expertise. She elicited a groan of delight
from him.
    For several minutes they continued to caress each other until both
had reached a peak of excitement that offered only one satisfaction.
Skye enjoyed pleasuring Khalid as much as he enjoyed pleasuring
her. As always, she felt a thrill of excitement as she watched him
grow big and hard for her.
    The bey watched his wife’s growing passion with delight. She
was so beautifully natural, so unlike all the skilled whores he owned.
To have such a wife was a blessing for which he was deeply grateful.
He swung off her body now and said, “Let me play the great desert
stallion tonight, my Skye. Roll over, and be my little wild mare.”
    She knelt, her head resting on her arms, her white bottom facing him, ready. Kneeling, he gently inserted himself into her. Then one
hand moved to squeeze and fondle her hanging breasts while, with
the other, he did something he’d never done with her before. As she
approached her climax, he pushed a finger into her anal orifice and
sent her into such a frenzied climax that for one brief and terrifying
moment he thought he’d done her some awful damage. Then, realizing that she had only fainted, he took his own release. It was a
greater climax than usual because of his relief.
    Afterward she lay relaxed in his arms and sighed with pleasure.
”I was worrying,” she said, “that our lovemaking would not be as
much fun now, but I see that it can continue to be just as delicious.”
    “Why should anything be different, my love?”
    “Because, my lord and husband, you are to be a father next
spring. Is that not wonderful?”
    The bedchamber was plunged into deep silence. Slowly then,
awareness began to grow, and his face took on a brilliant glow. He
caught her to him.
    “You’re sure?” he cried, tearfully, hugging her to him fiercely.
    “Yes! Yes!” she gasped, laughing and crying at the same time.
    “Oh my Skye! No one has ever given me a greater gift than you
have given me in yourself. And now you will give me a child, too.
It is too much, my love. Far too much. Thank you, thank you!” And
he wept, still holding tightly to her.
    Skye cradled Khalid to her breasts crooning to him. This won-
derful man who had rescued her from God only knew what horrors,
who loved her, had made her his wife and given her a wonderful
life was thanking her! She wept with him and her heart swelled with
joy.
    “I love you! Khalid! Whoever I might have been I cannot re-
member, but I rejoice in the woman I am now for I am your woman.
It is I who should thank you.”
    Silence again descended upon the room as the two lovers joined
once more, tenderly, and Khalid bent to kiss Skye’s faintly rounded
belly. Then they slept, entwined together on the bed, until long after
dawn.
    It was Skye who rose first to greet the new day. Looking down
upon the sleeping Khalid, she let the great love she felt for him
sweep over her, leaving her teary. She noted every inch of him. The
light sprinkling of silver gray that had begun to touch his dark, wavy
hair. The faint scar on his left shoulder left by a wild Bedouin girl’s
dagger. The almost boyish look he had when he was asleep. Her
blue-green eyes traveled the length of him. Then, shivering, she
began to feel as if she were committing his face and body to memory.
Shrugging the feeling away, she went to her bath.
    Skye would always remember that the day progressed with an
easy familiarity that offered no hint of the things to come. She
worked with Master Jean on the books of the trading vessels, amazed
that Captain Small had done so well. He was due again in Algiers
any day now. They had recently received word of his arrival in
London, where he had disposed of the last of the Spanish gold. She
was looking forward to seeing Captain Small again, knowing how
delighted he would be at her happy news.
    After the midafternoon prayers, Jean’s Marie brought them a light
repast and the news that the bey had gone on his daily inspection
rounds early as he wished to spend the entire evening with his wife.
Skye blushed happily, then said, “My good Jean, you and your
Marie have been true friends to my lord Khalid and me. I shall
therefore share with you a secret known only to my husband. I am
to have a child in the spring.”
    Marie cried, “Oh, madam! So am I! Is it not wonderful!?”
    Delighted, the two women sat together and chatted happily while
Jean chuckled with amusement. Following his ex-master’s lead, he
had, soon after acquiring Marie, legally freed her and then married
her. He had learned that she came from a seacoast village located
in Southern Brittany near Poitou. It was only rarely that Barbary
pirates attacked the region, but on one of those infrequent raids, the
fourteen-year-old Marie, a postulant at a local convent, was carried
off. The pirate captain had stripped her habit off himself, but when
he saw how attractive and how young she was, he locked her in a
small cabin with several straw pallets, a bucket, and a tiny barred
porthole. Two other pretty young girls quickly joined her, one her
own cousin, Celestine.
    The three naked girls clung to each other, terrified, through a
long night. On the deck above their little prison, the anguished
screams, pleadings, and sobbings continued throughout the night as
the village women who were unfortunate enough to be married and
older, or virgin but not pretty enough, were repeatedly raped and
sodomized. At least two girls committed suicide by leaping over-
board. Several died of abuse including a ten-year-old girl whose
mother was strangled when she tried to knife one of the men attacking
her daughter. Finally, toward dawn, the weeping survivors were all
herded into an open pen on deck where they stayed for the remainder
of the voyage-burned by the sun during the day, cold and wet in
the night, and easily accessible to any sailor seeking sport.
    In their tiny cabin Marie and her two companions were little better
off. The heat during the day made the room an unbearable oven and
the damp night air chilled them to the bone. This, coupled with the
stink of the one bucket they had for relieving themselves, left them weak and listless. The bucket was emptied every other day. Food
was shoved through the grate in the door twice daily. They often
had a steaming bowl of a surprisingly tasty concoction of peppercom-
and herb-flavored gravy with tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and a
tough, stringy meat that Marie suspected was goat. They had no
utensils, but ate with their fingers and the small piece of bread
allotted each. A pitcher of water went with the meal, and they quickly
learned to conserve it.
    When their ship reached Algiers the girls crowded together by
the tiny porthole watching as their female relatives and friends were
taken off the ship. Then from the bowels of the ship, the village
men were brought up, filthy, their newly grown beards matted and
lice-ridden. They too were quickly driven off the ship. As the three
wondered what was to become of them the cabin door opened and
the captain entered carrying something over his arm. Carelessly he
flung them each a garment.
    “Put ‘em on,” he commanded in rough-accented French, and
when they obeyed he handed them each a heavy veil. “Pin it to your
hoods and follow me,” he said. “Open your yaps once, and I’ll turn
the lot of you over to my crew. They’d like that.”
    Frightened, they scurried after him up to the deck and down the
gangway. On the dock was a large, closed litter.
    “Get in,” snarled their captor, and they quickly obeyed. “You’re
going to the baths to be cleaned and prettied up,” he explained. “Do
whatever they tell you to do. You’ll be sold at auction tonight. Be
thankful Allah gave you beauty with your purity or you could have
ended up like the others in your village.” He yanked the curtains
shut and the litter began to move.
    Celestine looked to her cousin Marie. “Shall we kill ourselves?”
she whispered fearfully.
    “Non, non, cherie,” scolded Marie. “We will pretend to meekly
accept our fates, and perhaps later we can escape.”
    “But if we are sold we shall be separated,” wailed Renee. She
had been the village innkeeper’s only child, and was terribly spoiled,
having been raised knowing that her dowry was the largest of any
girl’s for fifty miles around. “How could you, a nun, suggest we
yield to the infidel?”
    “I am not a nun, Renee. I was a postulant for one short month.
I do know, however, that God has forbidden us to suicide. Whatever
I must endure in His name I shall. We are not in Tour de la Mer
any longer, and it is unlikely we’ll ever see it again.”
    At the baths the girls were scrubbed, massaged, bathed, denuded
of body hair, creamed, and perfumed. Their long beautiful hair was
washed, dried, and brushed until it shone. Marie’s rich chestnut curls were appreciated, but the blond locks of Renee and Celestine
made them far more valuable. They were garbed in transparent silks
and fed a light meal of capon breast and sweet fruit sherbet.
    Promptly at moonrise the auction began. As they watched, Marie
felt a soft languor steal over her, and realized they had been drugged
to insure their cooperation. Helplessly she watched as Renee was
sold to a fat black Sudanese merchant whose delight as he bore her
off was evident. Renee opened her mouth to scream, but no sound
came forth. Only her terrified blue eyes told of her fear.
    Girl after girl was sold, and then it was Marie’s turn. Khalid el
Bey quickly bought her, and because he looked kind she begged him
to buy Celestine too. The bey was agreeable, but the eunuch who
ran the harem of the captain-governor had marked Celestine for his
master. Khalid el Bey was forced by etiquette to withdraw from the
bidding for Celestine.
    Marie was placed in the House of Felicity and trained as a cour-
tesan. But when the time came for her to make her debut Khalid el
Bey chose her to be a gift to Jean.
    Celestine was not as fortunate. Her initial resistance to Jamil
assured her immediate success with him. But the naive young girl
fell in love with the cruel captain-governor, which made his interest
wane. When he instructed his eunuch to sell the French girl off,
Celestine committed suicide by leaping from the roof of one of the
Casbah towers.
    Marie had been devastated by her cousin’s tragic death. It seemed
especially sad in light of her own good fortune. Jean’s strong love
had supported Marie through the worst of it. But the captain-governor
had made a bitter enemy in the young Breton girl. Marie did not
know how, but she was determined to have her revenge.
    Thoughts of vendetta, however, were far from Marie’s mind on
this day. She was delighted to know that her mistress was also
pregnant. “I can deliver both our babies,” she told Skye proudly.
”My mother was the finest midwife in three villages, and I helped
her many times.”
    “The doctor tells me,” said Skye, “that I have borne more than
one child, but of course I do not remember,” she sighed. “I wonder
about those children. Are they alive? Are they boys or girls? How
old are they?”
    “Madam must not fret,” chided Marie.
    Skye smiled sadly at the girl who, though several years younger
than she, still attempted to mother her. “I cannot help but wonder
if my children miss and mourn their mother,” she said. Tears filled
Marie’s hazel eyes and Skye felt guilty and hugged the girl. “Now
I’ve made you sad, and I did not mean to do so. I have heard that pregnant women are subject to emotional vagaries. Is it not true?
I grow morbid, and you weep.” She made a face at herself, and
Marie laughed through her tears.
    Skye smiled back, then asked, “Master Jean, are we through for
the day? If so, Marie and I shall spend the rest of the afternoon
luxuriating in the bath.”
    The bey’s secretary nodded. As Khalid el Bey was a good, kind,
and gentle man, so was his wife a great lady, and Jean was grateful
that she extended her friendship to his wife. “Go along, my lady.
You have gotten so far ahead of me with the accounts that it will
take me at least two days to catch up.” He smiled with contentment
as the two women left him. Life was good here in the bey’s house-
hold.
    In the early evening before the meal was served, Captain Robert
Small arrived at the bey’s home, laden with gifts for Skye, shouting
lusty greetings. Khalid delighted in the bluff seaman’s thoughtfulness, but Skye was truly touched by the care that had so obviously
gone into Small’s choice of gifts. There were several bolts of fine
China silk, rare spices, and a long strand of pearls from the East
Indies. From the New World Captain Small had brought an intri-
cately carved box of solid gold, lined in white velvet, containing
the most magnificent necklace, bracelet, and earrings of Colombian
emeralds that Khalid el Bey had ever seen. The emeralds, set in
gold, glittered with a blue fire found in only the finest stones. “They
reminded me of your eyes,” muttered the captain, flushing with the
words.
    “Why, Robbie,” smiled Skye, “how observant you are, and how
very, very generous.” She bent and kissed his ruddy cheek. “My
thanks.”
    “You’ll eat with us,” said Khalid. It was not a question. Skye
left to inform the cook.
    The seaman settled himself on a comfortable divan. “I need not
ask, Khalid, for I see the married life suits you well.”
    “Very well, Robbie. Do you think fatherhood will suit me also?”
    “She isn’t!” A look of sheer delight crossed the Englishman’s
face as the bey nodded. “She is! By God, Khalid, you dog! My next
trip back I’ll have a fine gift for your son!”
    “Or my daughter.”
    “Nay, man, a brace of lads first, then a lass to spoil is always
best. Do it that way.”
    Khalid laughed heartily. “The deed is already done, my friend.
We must take what Allah offers, and be grateful.”
    The dinner arrived quickly, and Robert Small lowered himself
to the table amid the pillows. Skye sat at one end directing the servants. There was a whole leg of baby lamb rubbed with garlic
and stuck with sprigs of rosemary set upon a nest of greens and
surrounded by tiny roasted white onions. A white bowl held small
green artichokes in olive oil and red wine vinegar. Another bowl
was filled with fluffy white rice mixed with sesame seeds, sliced
black olives, green peppers, and sauteed onions. There were flat
dishes of boiled eggs, purple and brown olives, strips of red pimiento,
and tender green scallions. A basket of round, flat loaves of warm
bread and a silver dish of sweet butter completed the main course
of this simple family meal. Discreetly attentive slaves kept the three
crystal goblets filled with subtly spiced fresh pomegranate juice.
    The main course finished, the slaves removed the plates and
brought in silver bowls of warm, scented water and tiny linen towels.
Desert consisted of a huge platter of fresh fruits, golden brown dates,
round Seville oranges, great black figs, bunches of purple and green
grapes, sweet red cherries, and both green and golden pears. A
filigreed basket was passed, containing tiny pastry horns filled with
a mixture of chopped almonds and honey. Skye brewed the dark rich
Turkish coffee.
    Afterward, hot steaming towels were offered to cleanse sticky
fingers, and water pipes were brought to the gentlemen. Two pretty
young girls played and sang softly in the background while the men
smoked and talked. Skye noticed that Khalid seemed sleepier than
usual, and she teased him. “It is I who should be tired now. my
lord, not you.”
    Stifling a yawn, he chuckled. “Impending fatherhood is exhaust-
ing, my love. I cannot keep my eyes open. I am going to retire now
before I fall asleep here. Robbie, stay. Skye has many questions to
ask you, I know, and I have not given her a chance.” He rose. Skye
rose and stood within the curve of his arm.
    “You do not mind if I remain for a bit?”
    “No, my Skye. Fill your lovely head with all the things you need
to know.” He kissed her tenderly. “Allah, how fair you are! The
white silk caftan and gold embroidery sets off Robbie’s emeralds
very well. The blue flame in their centers does indeed match your
beautiful eyes.” He kissed her again. “Don’t wake me when you
come to bed, my love. I’ll sleep through the night.”
    She kissed him back. “Sleep well, my darling. I love you!”
    He smiled happily at her, touching her cheek in a tender and
familiar gesture. Bidding Robert Small a good night, Khalid left the
room.
    “You’ve been good for him,” remarked the Englishman.
    “He is good for me,” she answered.
    “You’ve had no return of memory, lass? Not even a glimpse?*’
    “No, Robbie, nothing. Sometimes a sound or sight has a familiar
ring to it, but it is never anything I can put my finger on. And now
I don’t really care. I am happy as Khalid el Bey’s wife. I love him
dearly.”
    They sat talking for some time. At the back of the garden the
little wicket gate creaked open to admit a dark, hooded figure.
Slowly, carefully, Yasmin made her way across the garden, keeping
well into the shadows. She saw two figures talking in the salon. One
was garbed in white. It had to be Khalid. He had worn white that
afternoon, while making his rounds. She heard a hearty laugh, and
recognized it as Captain Small’s. The captain and Khalid were talking
and would probably visit for some time.
    Yasmin wondered if she should wait until Khalid had gone to
bed. The idea of disposing of Skye under Khalid’s very nose was
tempting. Yasmin wanted her master back, but she hadn’t forgiven
him for marrying Skye.
    She crept on past the salon, keeping far enough away to avoid
the lights. She heard the low murmur of voices, but could make out
nothing of the conversation. No matter, she thought. Slipping into
the villa through a long French window, she made her way up the
darkened back staircase of the house to the main bedchamber. The
door was open and she stood still for a moment, letting her eyes
adjust to the dark room.
    Yasmin knew the room well. Looking toward the bed, she ob-
served the sheet-swathed figure. She hesitated no longer than a
second. Moving purposely across the room, she plunged her dagger
again and again into the sleeping figure who groaned once, then lay
still. Unbridled joy surged through Yasmin. Dead! Dead! Her rival!
Her enemy! Skye was dead! She wanted to scream her happiness.
    Then behind her someone did scream, a long piercing wail of
terror. Whirling, Yasmin faced a slave woman who was clutching
at a crystal carafe of water. The carafe slid from the woman’s hands.
Yasmin stood stock still watching the crystal shatter on the tiles, the
water mixing with it, spewing a rainbow of shattered droplets across
the floor and rugs. Yasmin could not move. She stood frozen as the
woman’s screams echoed throughout the house.
    At the sound of running feet, Yasmin shook herself back into
action. Moving to the door, she shoved the slave woman aside and
tried to flee, but the servant clung to her arm screaming, “Murder!
Murder! She has killed the master!”
    Allah! What was the woman screaming about? Yasmin wondered.
Khalid was downstairs. She had killed Skye. Yasmin yanked her
arm free and turned to run. Bumping into another body, she tried
to push by, but her shocked eyes locked onto Skye’s.
    “Allah! No!” Yasmin gasped.
    “She killed the master!” wailed the slave woman again.
    “Yasmin! What has happened?” asked Skye fearfully.
    Yasmin turned from Skye and stumbled back across the room to
the figure on the bed. With icy fingers she pulled the sheet back.
Seeing the cold, stiffening form of Khalid el Bey, Yasmin moaned
with a pain so great she couldn’t truly feel it all. Her fingers tightened
again about the dagger. She whispered her anguish. “Forgive me,
Skye!” and swiftly drove the dagger between her own breasts. Yas-
min crumpled to the floor.
    Skye knelt on one side of the woman, while Captain Small knelt
on the other. Yasmin’s ragged breathing was the only sound.
    “Why?” whispered Skye. “Why, Yasmin? You loved him!”
    The dying woman’s eyes were glazing already. “Forgive me.”
    Skye swallowed the bitter hatred rising in her throat. This woman
had just stolen her very life from her, and now begged forgiveness.
She wanted to shout, no!, but then she heard Robert Small say
quietly, “Come lass.” Knowing what he wanted, she said softly,
”I forgive you, Yasmin.”
    Yasmin sighed. Gathering the last of her strength, she said, “I
thought it was you. Jamil p-planned it, but it was all for him, wasn’t
it? Jamil wants you. Beware of him.” Then, as if a candle had been
blown out, the life fled from her eyes and Yasmin was gone.
    Skye stood. The room was bright now, lit by the lamps held by
all the household slaves who stood clustered in tight little groups,
some of the women beginning to sob. Skye stared at them, fighting
to retain her control. She must not go to pieces now. as she had
obviously done when she lost her memory. She owed Khalid mat
much, for he must be revenged. The Turkish captain-governor could
not kill her husband and escape judgment. Who had heard Yasmin’s
confession? Only she and Captain Small had been close enough to
hear the painfully whispered words. The next nearest people had
been Jean and Marie. The slaves had all been afraid of coming too
close.
    Stepping over Yasmin’s body, Skye moved to the bed and sat
next to the still form of her husband. There was virtually no blood
to be seen. By some twist of fate the dagger had pierced only vital
organs, but no arteries. “I would be with my lord,” she said quietly,
and she heard the shuffle of feet and men the closing door.
    Alone, she wept her terrible grief in silent pain, rocking back and
forth, holding herself, as if that would prevent her from shattering.
Her head ached and waves of pain and nausea began to rack her.
    Suddenly she heard Robert Small commanding, “Voice it, lass!
    Voice your pain or else it will kill both you and his babe. Is that
what you want? If so, take Yasmin’s escape, for it’s quicker.”
    She saw the Englishman standing by the door. He had never left
her. Now, crossing the room in three strides, he grasped her by the
shoulders and shook her. “Damn it, lass! Cry! Scream! Curse the
heavens, but in God’s name get it out!”
    She sobbed softly once, then stopped. He hit her hard several
times, and suddenly her resistance broke. Opening her mouth, Skye
wailed her grief with such loud and terrible cries that they echoed
throughout the house. The slave women, grieving softly until then,
joined in their mistress’s tragic lamentation and soon the whole house
rang with grief. Shortly the sounds echoed through the entire neigh-
borhood. People began to gather, and it was not long before everyone
knew that Khalid el Bey had been murdered by his jealous slave
woman, Yasmin.
    Slowly Skye’s grief eased. Looking a final time on her beloved
husband, she bent and kissed his cold lips. Then, supported by
Robert Small, she left the room and walked downstairs to the bey’s
library. “Get Jean and Marie for me, Robbie. I must be revenged,
and I will need help.”
    When the four of them were gathered together in private, Skye
quietly repeated Yasmin’s dying words to Jean and Marie. The
Frenchman was shocked, but his wife sniffed, “I would put nothing
past that evil Turk. Look how he killed my little cousine, Celestine.
He has no real heart, that one!” She began to weep. “He claimed
to be the master’s best friend, and yet he killed him without a second
thought because he wished to possess Madam!” Jean comforted his
wife as best he could.
    “We will both be revenged, Marie,” said Skye, “but before we
can be, we must lull Jamil into a sense of security. He must not
even suspect that we know he is responsible for my lord’s murder.
Let him feel safe-and then we will strike!”
    “You cannot revenge yourself on the Sultan’s governor and re-
main safely in Algiers,” said Robert Small firmly. “The dey would
be forced to punish you in the Sultan’s name.”
    “I cannot remain here under any circumstances, Robbie. The
memories I have of Khalid and our life together would break my
heart. And though I am capable of running the House of Felicity,
who would do business with a woman? Sell everything here in
Algiers, but do it secretly. Have the money transported to our Lon-
don goldsmith.”
    “The house also?” asked Jean.
    “The house, the seaside kiosk, sell all.”
    “What of the slaves?”
    “Prepare papers of manumission for them all. I shall give each
of them the price he or she is worth in order that they may all get
started in another life. Those who wish to come with me may do
so, but no one is to be told until we are ready to leave. I hope, Jean,
that you and Marie will come with me. But if you choose to return
to Brittany I will understand.”
    “There is nothing for us in Brittany, my lady. Our families are
gone. Marie’s entire village is gone. We would rather stay with you,
for we love you as we loved the bey.”
    “Thank you,” said Skye. “I would have been lost without you
both.”
    There was a scratching at the door, and when Skye called out,
”Enter,” a slave came in to announce that the captain-governor was
on his way up the driveway.
    “Hold him off for a few minutes,” she told Jean. He left the room
immediately. “Robbie, you go too. I shall go upstairs through the
secret passage here in the library. Marie, quickly!”
    Skye drew two leather-bound volumes from a shelf and, reaching
into that former space, pulled at a hidden lever. The bookcase swung
open to reveal an interior staircase. “Shut it behind us, Robbie,” she
said, handing him the books. Then the two women were gone. They
hurried up the stairs, which opened out into Skye’s old room.
    “I cannot ever go back in there,” she told Marie, referring to the
bedchamber she had shared with Khalid. She quickly stripped off
her white silk caftan. “Get me the azure gauze chamber robe, Marie.”
Marie fetched the gown, smiled with appreciation of Skye’s strategy.
    The captain-governor will be so blinded by lust,” she remarked
as Skye dressed, “that he will believe whatever you tell him,
madam.”
    Skye nodded. “I must not rouse his suspicions,” she said, “and
I need time. Send my women to me, Marie. The captain-governor
will expect to find the grieving widow surrounded by her weeping
handmaidens, and I must not disappoint him.” A look of physical
pain crossed her face, and suddenly she began to weep uncontrol-
lably, her sobs interspersed with bursts of hysterical laughter. “Oh,
God, Marie! It is too macabre! How Khalid would appreciate the
role I play.”
    Marie looked stricken, and the tears spilled from her eyes as she
fled the room to do her mistress’s bidding. Skye flung herself on
the divan, weeping soundlessly now. Khalid, oh, Khalid, she thought
desperately. Please God, please! Let me wake and find him sleeping
safely next to me! But she knew in her heart that her prayers were useless. He was dead, and lost to her. She heard the door open
softly, and then her women were clustering about her like bright
little butterflies, sobbing and clucking with sympathy. Skye didn’t
even look up. She wept harder and soon she heard Marie’s cry of
protest.
    “My lord Jamil! You cannot enter my lady’s chamber! Her grief
is too terrible to behold!”
    “I was Khalid el Bey’s best friend,” boomed the captain-gover-
nor’s deep voice.
    Allah curse him! thought Skye fiercely.
    “It is my duty to comfort his widow. Step aside! Khalid would
have done the same for me.”
    Allah strike him down this instant, for I do not think I can face
him without betraying my feelings, Skye silently shrieked. But she
breathed deeply and calmed herself. Khalid would be avenged.
    The door opened again, and she knew Jamil had entered. There
was a flutter and she realized that her maidens had gone, leaving
her alone with him. She sobbed piteously.
    “Skye, my dear, I am so sorry.”
    She sobbed louder, fighting not to wince when she felt his arms
about her. One hand imperiously forced her head up, and he stared
into her eyes. He was somewhat taken aback by the depth of her
grief, but he spoke nonetheless.
    “Don’t fear, beautiful Skye. I will take care of you as did Khalid.”
Allah, the emeralds she was wearing were worth a king’s ransom!
    “I am s-so alone now, Jamil.”
    “I will take care of you,” he repeated, his eyes straying to her
breasts. They seemed fuller than he had noticed before. Damn! He
wished he could take her now, but it would hardly do to fuck the
widow when her husband’s corpse lay still warm in the next room.
There would be plenty of time for that later on. If he acted too soon
he chanced losing the juicy plum of her wealth.
    She pressed against him, weeping afresh, soaking his silken shirt,
half swooning into his arms. By the teats of Fatima she was a rare
beauty! He could hear the ragged sound of his own breathing as his
hot eyes devoured her lush body. He didn’t want to release her, but
he could hardly go on holding a half-conscious woman. Standing
up, he carried her back to the sleeping couch and gently deposited
her there.
    Look your fill, you murdering bastard, she thought as she watched
him through slitted eyes. Dream your lust-filled dreams for dreams
are all you’ll ever have of me.
    Finally Jamil sighed reluctantly, and left the room. She lay quietly until Marie joined her, saying drily, “The household has been threat-
ened with severe punishment unless you are properly cared for,
madam.”
    Skye sat up. “The presumption of the man! He says he will care
for me as did my lord Khalid! When he touched me it was all I could
do not to vomit! Oh, Marie! Where is the justice in this world? Why
should a man as kind and good as my lord Khalid die, and one as
evil as Jamil live?”
    The Frenchwoman’s eyes again filled with tears. “Helas, madam!
Would I could answer you. but I cannot.”
    Faithful Marie remained by Skye’s side all night. Neither really
slept. Arrangements for the bey’s funeral were completed in the
morning, for the day was Thursday and unless he was buried by the
sabbath sundown there could be no funeral until Saturday. The body
was first washed, then wrapped in a seamless white shroud. The
shroud had been dipped in Mecca’s sacred Zamzam well when Khalid
el Bey made his pilgrimage to the holy city.
    Led by the captain-governor and the bey’s beautiful tragic widow
who was garbed entirely in white, a thin mourning band around her
head, the funeral procession made its way from the villa through the
city to the cemetery, following a careful ritual of lamentations by
the women and readings from the Koran by the men.
    The bey’s tomb, a small, domed white marble building, over-
looked the harbor. Carefully the body was laid to rest on its side,
facing the holy city, and final prayers for his safe arrival in Paradise
were said by the young mullah who had married them. Skye had
allowed Yasmin to be buried honorably, and her shrouded body was
placed at her master’s feet in hopes mat she would serve him better
in Paradise. In her grief, Skye attempted to remain in the tomb with
her husband and had to be carried out.
    With sundown, Skye was safe from Jamil for twenty-four hours,
and in those twenty-four hours Jean worked feverishly with Robert
Small and Simon ben Judah to put the bey’s affairs in order. The
goldsmith, whose own sabbath followed the Moslem one, knew of
several prospective buyers for the bey’s business. They could not
be approached, however, until Sunday, the first day of the week.
    On Saturday morning a slave was dispatched to the Casbah fort,
bearing a message for the captain-governor. Jamil read the neatly
written words twice, as if seeking a hidden meaning.
    “My lord Jamil. I am deeply appreciative of your kindness to me.
For the next thirty days I shall be secluded in deepest mourning,
and will receive no visitors. I know you will honor my grief.” It
was signed, “the lady Skye, widow to Khalid el Bey.”
    Jamil gritted his teem with annoyed frustration. He was aware mat he could hardly propose marriage to a newly widowed woman,
but he had hoped to sweep her off her feet, thus preventing any other
suitors from courting her. Then a thought struck him, and he smiled.
The thirty days could easily work to his advantage. Skye was young
and used to regular lovemaking. After a month of abstinence, she
should succumb quickly. He smilingly dictated a proper reply to her
letter.
    “Lady Skye. Your period of mourning will be honored, though
reluctantly. I shall call upon you thirty-one days from this date.” It
was signed: “Jamil, Captain-Governor of the Casbah Fortress.”
    Skye read the message and chuckled with delight. She could sense
the pent-up frustration, and was pleased to hurt him even in this
small way. Within a month Khalid el Bey’s affairs in Algiers would
be settled, and she would have made good her escape.
    And as if Khalid’s spirit watched over her, the days sped smoothly
by and everything proceeded toward the sale of the bey’s interests.
Simon ben Judah explained smoothly to prospective buyers that there
were those less reputable than they who might wish to cheat a young
widow, so it was best that negotiations remain strictly secret. Since
none of those involved wished others to know of the bidding, the
secret was kept. When a bargain was finally struck, Skye found
herself twice as rich as Khalid el Bey had left her. The monies, all
in gold coin, were transferred to London. Both the villa and the
seaside kiosk were sold to Osman the astrologer.
    Osman was one of the few people she saw during her mourning.
He had come one afternoon to tell her that he wanted the house and
kiosk for himself and his beautiful slave woman, the same girl Khalid
el Bey had given him. She sold to him readily, happy that someone
she knew and liked would live in happiness in the places where she
had been so happy. She and Osman sat in the villa garden and she
served him Turkish coffee and small honey cakes.
    “You are with child,” he said quietly.
    “Yes,” she answered, not in the least surprised. “I had told Khalid
the night before he… He was very happy.”
    “You made him very happy, Skye. You were his joy. I warned
him, however, that your fate was not with him. It is back among,
your own people, and you will soon begin that journey back.”
    “Oh, Osman! Did I cause Khalid’s death?”
    “No, my dear, you did not, and you must never blame yourself.
Khalid el Bey played out his fate as it had been planned since the
beginning of time. Now you must play out yours.”
    “Who am I, Osman?”
    “I do not know, Skye, but I will tell you what I do know, what
I told your husband before he married you. You were born under the sign of the ram. Your homeland is a green and misty place
peopled by strong spirits and psychic forces. You will always control
your own destiny, Skye, and you will eventually be reunited with
your true mate.”
    “Khalid el Bey was my true mate!” she snapped angrily.
    “No, Skye, he was not. He loved you deeply, never doubt it. And
I know that you loved him, but there is another man, a stronger
force in your life. He was with you before, and will return to you
in time. Follow your instincts, my dear. They will never fail you.”
    “And my child?”
    “Will be born safely, Skye, and live to a ripe old age, as will
you.”
    “Thank you, Osman. I will always have my memories of Khalid
el Bey, but to have his child is a far dearer thing. Thank you for the
reassurance.”
    The astrologer stood up. “I will go now, my dear, and I shall bid
you a final farewell now. Since I was away from the city when
Khalid died, it is understandable that I pay my condolences now.
If, however, the man who watches this villa so carefully for the
captain-governor should see me here again it will certainly seem
curious, and it will arouse suspicions, so I will not return.”
    “Jamil has set men to watch my house?” she exclaimed. “How
dare he! The arrogance of the man!”
    Osman laughed. “My dear, he fancies himself in Khalid el Bey’s
place and wishes to discourage any other suitors.”
    “I would sooner wed a snake.”
    “That will not be necessary,” replied the astrologer drily. “You
will easily escape him. He suspects nothing. When do you leave?”
    “In two nights. It will be the dark of the moon.”
    “Good, but be careful. What of your slaves?”
    “I have freed them, and will give them money to start a new life.
Jean and Marie will come with me.”
    ‘Tell the others that I will employ any who choose to stay. Ask
those who prefer to go to remain here until I come to take possession
of the house in six days. If they go about their business as usual,
the captain-governor’s spies will suspect nothing. That will give you
a four-day start. It should be enough to get you out into the western
sea, and pursuit is virtually impossible then.”
    “Oh, Osman, how can I thank you?”
    He smiled at her. “By playing out your part as Allah has foretold
it, my dear.”
    She walked with him back into the house, bidding him a final
farewell in the atrium. Taking his hand, she pressed it to her lips
and forehead. “Saalam, Osman, my friend.”
    “Saalam, Skye, my daughter. Allah go with you.”
    During the next few days Skye’s emotions fluctuated wildly. She
was frightened by the unknown awaiting her in the foreign-sounding
town of London. She was elated by the fact she was outwitting
Jamil, though frustrated that she could not inflict a terrible injury
on him in retaliation for Khalid’s murder. She was happy and relieved
that Jean, Marie, and Captain Small would be with her, but sad to
leave such good friends as Osman.
    Then the night of her departure arrived, and she stood with Marie
making a final inventory of the few things she would take with her.
Most of her clothing would, of course, remain. This wardrobe was
hardly suitable to a life in England. She would, however, take some
caftans with her to be worn in the privacy of her bedchamber. The
flowing loose robes would be comfortable as her pregnancy went
on. The loose gemstones Khalid had kept, as well as her marvelous
jewelry, were all sewn into the garments for safe transportation. She
would take her wonderful gold brushes and combs, her crystal per-
fume bottles filled with rare and costly essences, and other things
of a sentimental and personal nature. They were all packed carefully
in carved cedarwood chests and passed quietly from servant to ser-
vant and finally to the silent English seaman who waited in the dark
outside the villa’s garden gate. Unaware of the little wicket gate,
Jamil had no one watching it.
    Skye climbed to the roof of the house and gazed for one final
time over the city of Algiers. Below her, the night lights twinkled,
and she heard, faintly, the murmur of life as it brawled and sobbed
and laughed. Above her, the velvet heavens gleamed black, and she
stared deeply into them as if trying to pierce through the darkness.
    “Oh, Khalid!” she sighed, then jumped, startled by the sound of
her own voice. She had not cried since the day they had buried him,
but now she wept without restraint. She stood in the center of the
roof terrace, her face upturned to the skies, letting her grief pour
over her. And when she had finished she said softly, ‘I shall never
grieve so deeply for you again, Khalid, my love. I have my mem-
ories, and I have our child, whom I regret will never know you.
Now, Khalid, I must leave our home, and I hope you will wish me
Godspeed. I wish you the same.” She stood quietly, and a great
peace flooded through her and she knew that he approved of what
she was doing. “Thank you, my love,” she said. Glancing around
the terrace a final time, she descended to the ground floor of the
house where the servants all waited to bid her good-bye.
    She spoke quietly to each in turn, and they thanked her for their
freedom and the money she had given them. For now, they had all
deckled to remain in Osman’s employ. Her farewells over, she joined
    Jean and Marie and walked through the gardens and then through
the little back gate.
    By prearrangement, a closed litter awaited them. Entering it, they
sat wordless, each wrapped in his own thoughts. The bearers made
their way down into the city and to the docks. Captain Small awaited
them, and no sooner were they aboard his vessel, the Mermaid, than
the gangway and anchor were raised. While the first mate saw the
ship underway, Robert Small escorted his passengers to their quar-
ters.
    Skye could not remember her arrival in Algiers, but she would
always remember her departure. On a hill overlooking the harbor
she could pick out the spot where her husband’s tomb stood. Loom-
ing above the city she saw the sinister towers of the Casbah. Marie
smiled grimly.
    “We are well revenged, madam. This morning I sent the captain-
governor a plate of sweetmeats in your name. I made them myself.
One of the ingredients was an herb that will render the evil Jamil
impotent for all time. He will never hurt another woman with his
lust again.”
    “Marie! It is perfect! Imagine his shock, and then his shame! Oh,
how I wish I might be there to see his agony!”
    The two women stood watching in silence as the lights of the city
disappeared in the distance. Then Marie put an arm about Skye and
led her to her cabin where, for the first time in weeks, she slept
soundly. With the tension gone from her life Skye suddenly began
to behave like the pregnant woman she was. She developed peculiari-
ties of appetite and was frequently sleepy. She became queasy and
then seasick when the ship hit rough weather off the Bay of Biscay.
    Marie and Jean sat with Captain Small one evening discussing
Skye’s welfare. They all agreed that London was not the place for
a delicate expectant mother.
    “It is your country,” said Marie to the little Englishman. “Where
would be a good place for Madam to have her accouchement?”
    “There are many pleasant places near London,” replied Captain
Small, “but I would prefer she was someplace far from the city. It’s
not just the child we must worry about. The lady Skye has had the
severe shock of her husband’s murder. She ought to be in a quiet
place. I have set course for my own home port, the town of Bideford
in Devon. I own a fine big house several miles outside the town.
My sister, Cecily, lives there. She will welcome you all, and adore
taking care of the lady Skye. After the babe is born your mistress
may continue on to London. But perhaps by then she will not wish
to go.”
    Thus it was that the Mermaid rounded Hartland Point on a fine
    October morning to sail into Barnstable Bay and then a little way
up the River Torridge to Bideford. As Skye stood at the ship’s rail.
watching the undulating woodland scenery that sloped down to the
riverbank, she saw with sure instinct that this was a safe haven.
Robert Small had been right. It was here that she would have her
baby in safety. Whatever else came afterward, she would find the
courage to face it.
    As Osman had said, Skye was following her destiny.

PART III

England

Chapter 13

    The little town of Bideford, small though it was, was one of
the most prosperous seaports in England. Under the personal
protection of the great de Grenville family, Bideford was just
entering the period of its greatest prosperity when Skye arrived
there.
    Set on the side of a long hill backed by a vast woodland, it sloped
downward to the river Torridge. Bideford, surrounded by rolling
hills, woodlands, fertile meadows, and orchards full of ripening
apples, was a most charming, colorful English town.
    Although it was a seaport town, it was not situated directly on
Barnstable Bay. In order to reach Bideford, one had to cross the
estuary, avoiding the dangerous bar that stretched across its mouth.
The estuary was situated almost midway between Hartland Point and
the Rock of Death. Facing the bar estuary, some twenty miles away,
was Lundy Island. Its rocky, cloud-capped hills made Lundy Island
a favorite haunt of Devon pirates and smugglers and their counter-
parts from all over the world.
    Safely across the bar and into the estuary, which flowed upland,
was the village of Appledore. At Appledore, the estuary forked,
becoming the Taw River to the left and the Torridge River to the
right. Now the countryside became lush with rich meadowland and
fruit orchards. A few miles up from Appledore the river reached
fertile, green Bideford. It was here, in the Bideford hills, that Robert
Small had his house, Wren Court.
    Captain Small had made arrangements to be met at the dock when
he and Skye and the French couple disembarked, and the four rode
through the town and up the hills on two chestnut and two gray
mounts. The little party made a delightful picture riding against the
trees, trotting up the bright green hills.
    As they approached Wren Court, Skye cried, “Oh, Robbie! Why
have you never told me what a beautiful estate you owned?” She
reined in her chestnut mare at the crest of a hill, and sat gazing
rapturously at the red brick manse. Jean and Marie pulled up beside
her, and Robbie was forced to stop with them.
    He blushed. “It’s been in the family-the land at least-since the
time of Henry V. Wren Court itself was built during the reign of
Henry VII. That’s why the house is shaped like an ‘H’.”
    Skye turned her brilliant blue eyes on him laughingly. “You’re
far too modest, Robbie. I wasn’t expecting anything so lovely.”
    “The family is landed gentry, Skye. There’s always one or more
of us standing for Parliament. Unfortunately, I never married and
got myself an heir, and my sister Cecily was widowed before she
could have children. I suppose I’ll leave Wren Court to a family of
distant cousins.” He sighed, then shook his reins and the gray gelding
bolted for home, the other three mounts racing close behind.
    The house was exquisite, a small and perfect jewel of mellowed
red brick, covered in places with shining dark ivy and surrounded
by green lawn. The crossbar of the “H” was two stories high, the
sides were each three stories high. Skye would later find that this
two-story section contained a long and light entry foyer on the ground
floor. This foyer had two sweeping staircases on either side, both
of which led to the second-floor open picture gallery. As the entire
second floor was open, the first and second stories together made
a huge two-tiered room. The wings of the main floor, to either side
of the entry, were the kitchens and dining rooms. The second floor,
beyond the gallery, was given over to the library and salons and the
entire third floor to bedrooms.
    As they rode up the gravel drive, Skye was further enchanted by
the streams of sunlight catching the many leaded windows, and the
profusion of late roses perfuming the air. Above the circled doorway
was the family’s red-and-gold coat of arms. As they reached the
house, four grooms came running to take the horses, and Robert
Small carefully lifted Skye down from her saddle.
    A small, plump woman with snapping blue eyes, silver hair, and
rosy cheeks appeared in the doorway. “So, you’re finally back,
Robbie! Is this Mistress Goya del Fuentes?” And without waiting
for an answer, she held out her arms to Skye. “You poor dear! Well, you’re safe now, and we’ll take good care of you and the child.
Come inside now!”
    Dame Cecily swept Skye and Jean and Marie into the house to
a small receiving room where a cheerful fire blazed. “Sit down, all
of you. Why Robert made a lass in your condition ride from town
I’ll never know. A cart would have been slower but safer. No matter,
you’re here and well. Robert! See what’s keeping that shiftless
Martha! There should be wine and biscuits ready for four tired
travelers!”
    “Oh, please Dame Cecily, you must call me Skye. Mistress Goya
del Fuentes is such a large mouthful.”
    “Thank you, child. Now, I am a plainspoken woman, so I am
going to say what I have to now and then we will know where we
stand with each other.” Dame Cecily nodded to Jean and Marie,
who were seated on a couch to the right of the fireplace, listening
attentively.
    “I know I may speak before your servants, as they are also your
friends and Robbie has written to me about them.”
    Skye nodded. Dame Cecily took a deep bream. “My brother has
told me something of your history. Poor lamb! How terrible to
remember nothing of your life until a year ago. I do not approve of
your late husband’s business, but I can see you are a lady bom.
That’s plain. And Robert has always spoken highly of Khalid el
Bey. That, my dear, is good enough for me. I welcome you to
England with all my heart. Our home is yours as long as you wish
it. Forever if you like.”
    Skye felt tears prick her eyelids. “Thank you, Dame Cecily!
Thank you with all my heart! Not just for myself, but for my servants
too.”
    “Lord bless me, child, I almost forgot! Robert, I had the old
cottage at the end of the garden cleaned and refurbished for you,”
she said, nodding to the French couple. “I thought you might prefer
your privacy.”
    Jean and Marie were deeply touched. The cottage given them
sent Marie into joyful delirium. It, too, was of soft red brick, with
a newly thatched roof and small leaded windows. There were two
rooms in the cottage. The first was a large chamber with a big stone
fireplace, the other a small bedchamber with a fine varnished oak
bedstead. The entire cottage was furnished in sturdy carved oak
furniture. The stone floors had been scrubbed and swept. There were
late hollyhocks and michaelmas daisies growing outside by the door.
Dame Cecily, it appeared, had thought of everything. A small book-
lined room off the library was set aside for Jean to work in. It had
an entry into the garden.
    Skye was thrilled to see her two servants so well provided for.
She could not thank Dame Cecily enough, but the Englishwoman
brushed her gratitude aside, her blue eyes twinkling. “No need,
child. What are friends for, may I ask?” And she then led Skye back
to the main house and upstairs. Skye’s apartments took up the southwest comer of the second floor. The sitting room had a large gray
stone fireplace with a carved mantel. The two large windows, dia-
mond-shaped and lead-paned, were hung with deep-blue velvet draperies.
    A deep bay window looked south over a rose garden, now in
late bloom. The wide, polished oak floorboards were laid with thick
red-and-blue Turkey carpets.
    At the far end of the room on either side of the fireplace were
arched and paneled doors, both of which led to the bedchamber.
Here were windows facing both south and west, which made the
room sunny and bright all year long, particularly in the winter. The
fireplace here, which backed up to the one in the sitting room, had
a pretty tiled border. The draperies here were of rose Velvet and
matched the bed hangings and bedspread. Here again was a fine
Turkey carpet, this one in blues and golds.
    Off the bedchamber was a small dressing room. The furniture
everywhere was of fine carved oak. There were bowls of fresh
flowers in all three rooms. Skye was sure she would be happy here.
    Dame Cecily drew forward an apple-cheeked young girl. “This
is Daisy, my dear, I’ve chosen her to look after you.”
    The girl smiled a friendly, gap-toothed smile, and bobbed Skye
a curtsey. “I’m glad to serve you, mum.”
    Skye smiled back. “Thank you, Daisy. I’ve been at sea for several
weeks now, and more than anything I long for a bath. Could that
be arranged?”
    “Yes, mum! Let me get your boots off, and while you rest a bit
I’ll see to setting up the bam.”
    Dame Cecily smiled approvingly. “I leave you in good hands,
Skye. Daisy will show you to the hall in time for dinner.”
    Less than an hour later Skye luxuriated in a hot tub set before
her bedroom fireplace. A pretty curved screen had been drawn about
the bathing area. The oak tub was deep, and she sank gratefully into
the warmth, feeling the weeks at sea ease away. The air was fragrant
with the scent of damask rose soap. Daisy moved quietly around the
room, unpacking Skye’s trunks, setting out fresh clothes. Skye had
been amazed to find in her cabin aboard the Mermaid two trunks
filled with the latest English fashions. Robbie had laughed, saying,
”Algiers is an international port. One can find anything in Algiers.”
    Daisy came behind the screen and, chatting cheerfully, picked
up the soap and began to wash Skye’s hair. “Ah now, mum, we’ll soon have your crowning glory free of that sticky sea salt. Lord!
What a fine color it is!” She scrubbed the dark thick mass, working
up a good lather, then rinsed it free and pinned the damp curls on
top of Skye’s head.
    Skye stepped from the tub and Daisy wrapped her in a warm
towel. Once dried, she stood before the pier glass examining her
figure. Her breasts were certainly fuller than before, and she was
beginning to notice a slight rounding of her belly. Khalid’s child.
What would he look like? Would he have his father’s dark hair and
golden eyes? Oh, Khalid, I miss you so!
    Silently she stepped into her undergarments and let the little maid
slip a dark-blue silk gown over her. It was a simple but elegant
gown, befitting her station as a wealthy merchant’s widow. The only
jewelry she wore were the rings given her by Khalid, a sapphire and
her gold wedding band. Her hair was brushed dry, carefully plaited,
and then wound about her head in a crown effect. Upon it she wore
a soft white lawn cap.
    The household was small, consisting only of Skye and Robert
and Cecily Small, so the evening meal was a simple one. Jean and
Marie preferred to remain in their cottage. Skye couldn’t blame
them, for this was the first time in their married lives that they would
actually be alone. How she envied them! She shook herself. Khalid
el Bey was dead, and she would have to go on with her life.
    Robert Small had created an identity for her mat would satisfy
curiosities. She would admit to being Irish-born, and the absence
of a maiden name and past would be explained in this fashion: She
had been brought as a child to a small French Christian convent in
Algiers by a sea captain who claimed that her parents, passengers
on his ship, had died on board. Since they had paid for their passage
in advance, in gold, the sea captain did not know their names. The
child, who seemed to be about five, and who called herself Skye,
was raised by nuns in the Algiers convent. When the young orphan
was sixteen she had been seen by Senor Goya del Fuentes while
praying in the church. He had applied to the nuns for her hand, and
his suit had been accepted. He had been a wealthy merchant and a
respected man. When he had died suddenly, the young widow could
not bear to remain in Algiers. Since her late husband owned a house
in London, she decided to settle in England. Robert Small, as her
late husband’s partner, had taken the lady under his protection.
    Of course, Dame Cecily knew Skye’s real story, but she agreed
with her brother that the less spectacular history he had invented was
a better one.
    Skye’s arrival with her two servants and her resettlement at Wren
Court was accepted easily by the Smalls’ friends and their few relations. The servants, gossiping from house to house, were sym-
pathetic to the beautiful, pregnant widow. Skye was modest and
kind, a true lady, even if she was a papist. The memory of Mary
Tudor was still too fresh for the people of England to be very tolerant
toward Catholicism.
    It was almost Christmas before the first frost arrived and that
caused the people of Devon to mutter about a hard winter to come.
Skye had confided the secret of her memory loss to the local priest.
Elderly, kindly Father Paul retaught her the tenets of her religion.
Though it evoked no memories, it was strangely comforting. Skye
did this because she knew that never to attend church in a Christian
land would promote suspicion. It seemed that everyone needed a
label, and even a papist label was more respectable than none.
    Shortly after Candlemas in February, Marie gave birth to a fine
big boy who was baptized Henri. Skye had embroidered some little
gowns for the child. She loved sitting in Marie’s cottage near the
fire, watching while Marie nursed her son. Her own babe was strong
and kicked vigorously, to her discomfort and her joy. She had de-
cided to call him James, which was the English equivalent of Khalid
el Bey’s Spanish name, Diego. As her time drew near she was eager
for the baby’s birth.
    On the fifth of April, Dame Cecily hadn’t even time to summon
a midwife before Skye’s child was bom. Marie handled everything,
and the birth was a quick and easy one. No sooner had the child slid
from between its mother’s legs and given its first cry than Skye
slipped into unconsciousness.
    Handing the squalling infant to Dame Cecily, Marie whispered,
”My poor mistress! Ah, well, it’s God’s will.”
    When Skye opened her eyes she found herself in a clean night-
gown, her long hair freshly brushed and braided. “Give me my son,”
she whispered to Dame Cecily.
    “It’s a wee girlie you’ve birthed, my dear, and never have I seen
a prettier child.” She placed the sleeping infant in Skye’s arms.
    Skye looked down at her baby. It was a lovely little creature with
a mop of damp dark hair, long dark eyelashes, pink-tinted cheeks,
and a red bow of a mouth. The skin was as fair as Skye’s own. “A
daughter,” she said softly, “I didn’t expect a daughter.”
    “What will you name her, my dear?” inquired Dame Cecily
gently.
    Skye gazed out the windows opposite her bed. In the garden
beyond, the spring flowers were all in bloom, and a willow tree
drooped its newly sprouted yellow green leaves by a small pond.
”I shall call her Willow,” she said. “It is fitting that Khalid el Bey’s
daughter be named after the tree of mourning.”
    Willow, though she had been born in sorrow, was a child of
gladness. Everyone in the house adored the infant, from her mother
to the lowliest little maid. All tried to make her smile.
    When Willow was five months old, Skye decided it was time to
go to London. Robert Small had made only one brief trip away,
down the coast of Africa, in the ten months since he had brought
Skye to his home. Though it had pleased his sister to have him
home, he itched to take the Mermaid off on a good long voyage.
First, however, he had to go to London and see if Lord de Grenville
could obtain letters giving him royal patronage. Skye was prepared
to invest in this latest venture, and she, too, desired to go to London.
    The Mermaid was berthed in Plymouth on the channel side of
Devon. Jean would go to London with Skye, but Marie would remain at Wren Court caring for both babies. She had already taken
over the nursing of Willow, her large peasant breasts producing more
than enough milk for the two children. To Dame Cecily’s relief,
Skye considered the mild air of Devon more salubrious for her
daughter than the climate of London. Dame Cecily could not have
been happier. Skye had become the daughter she had never had, and
Willow her grandchild. It pained her to part with one, but to part
with both would have broken her heart.
    Skye was feeling the pain of separation as well. “Oh, I wish you
would come with me, Dame Cecily! I have so much to do, and your
help would be invaluable. Heaven only knows what condition the
house is in, and I shall probably have to refurnish it. Promise me
that when it is done, you’ll come up to London with Marie and the
children.”
    “Of course I will, my child. Lord bless me. I’ve not been to
Londontown since I was a girl and that’s thirty years past! I believe
I’ve a hankering to go again, and I’ll come when you’ve got your
house in order.”
    They rode out from Wren Court on a bright, early autumn morning.
    Skye had lingered with Willow, loam to leave the baby. Finally
Robbie had shouted at her in exasperation, “Dammit, lass! The
sooner you get to London, the sooner she can be with you again!”
Skye kissed her daughter and, mounting her horse, rode off. The
countryside through which they traveled was hilly. They rode by
grain fields ready for harvesting, meadows of sheep and Devon
cattle, and thriving orchards. Ahead of them the flat granite tableland
of Dartmoor thrust up from the rolling hills, and it was there in an
inn called The Rose and Anchor that they spent the night.
    When they had arrived the inn was empty, so Robbie decided
they could eat in the taproom. But as the meal was served, a party
of riders arrived and trooped noisily into the inn.
    “Damn,” muttered Robbie irritably, “I wish I’d asked for a private
room. They’re noblemen, and if they get rowdy we’re in for it.”
    Suddenly a voice boomed across the room and a man detached
himself from the crowd. “Robert Small! Is that you, you old sea
trout?”
    Robbie’s eyes lit up, and he quickly stood. “My lord de Grenville!
It is good to see you. Join us in a cup of wine.”
    De Grenville had reached the table. “Your manners, Robbie,” he
chided. “You’ve not introduced the lady to me yet.”
    The sea captain flushed. “Your pardon, Skye. May I present Lord
Richard de Grenville. My lord, this is Senora Goya del Fuentes. the
widow of my late Algerian business associate. I am escorting her,
and her secretary, Jean Morlaix, to her house in London.”
    Skye slowly extended her hand and de Grenville kissed it. “My
lord.”
    “Madam. A pleasure, I assure you. I find it most reprehensible
of Robbie to have such extraordinary luck.”
    “Luck, my lord?”
    ‘To be escorting quite the loveliest woman I’ve ever seen to
London.”
    Skye laughed as she blushed. “My lord de Grenville. I fear you’ll
quite overwhelm me with your flattery. Please, do sit down and join
us.”
    “You’re not Spanish,” he observed as he seated himself.
    “No, I am Irish.”
    De Grenville poured himself a goblet of wine. “I thought so.
Most outrageously beautiful women in the world. Tell me, madam,
how do you find England? Is this your first trip here?”
    “Yes, it is, and I find England a joy, sir. I have been living at
Robbie’s home for close to a year now.”
    “Skye was enciente with her husband’s child when we first ar-
rived,” Robbie explained hastily lest de Grenville misunderstand.
    “A son or a daughter, madam?”
    “A daughter. Her name is Willow. I have left her at Wren Court
with Dame Cecily and her wet nurse. I know not in what condition
I will find my husband’s house, so until I have time to refurbish it,
she is best left in Devon.”
    Across the room, where de Grenville’s party of friends were
sprawled about a table, one man, lean, blond and arrogantly handsome, stared boldly at Skye. She was incensed when he caught her
eye and then raised an elegant eyebrow in a manner that could have
but one meaning. It was as plain a request as though he had spoken
aloud, and just as insulting. Angrily she turned away, tossing her
head, and listened once more to what de Grenville was saying.
    “Very wise, madam. London is not a town for tender creatures.”
    “So I have heard, my lord,” replied Skye. Then, ‘Tell me, sir,
who is the gentleman in your party who stares at me so rudely? The
one with the face of an angel.”
    De Grenville didn’t even bother turning around. Her description
was enough. “Lord Southwood, madam, the Earl of Lynmouth.”
    “Robbie, please escort me to my room and arrange to have a tray
sent up. The Earl makes me exceedingly uncomfortable. He gazes
at me as he would a tray of sweetmeats.” She stood, casually brushing
her long riding skirt free of crumbs. “My lord de Grenville. I bid
you good night.” She held out her slim hand and he kissed it.
”Madam. I hope we will meet in London. Now, allow me to escort
both you and Robbie past your ardent admirer.”
    But it wasn’t to be that easy. As they neared the taproom door,
the Earl of Lynmouth moved to block their way.
    De Grenville grinned. “Give over, Southwood. The lady is leav-
ing.”
    “Not before we’re introduced, my dear Dickon. You simply can-
not hoard all the beauties to yourself.”
    De Grenville shrugged. “Senora Goya del Fuentes, Lord Geoffrey
Southwood. Now, Geoff, let us pass.”
    “Senora, will you share a goblet of wine with me?”
    “No, sir. I will not,” snapped Skye. She pushed past him and left
the taproom, Robbie in her wake.
    De Grenville laughed softly. “Geoff, you’ve been quite properly
bested, I do believe.”
    Lord Southwood went white about the corners of his mouth.
”Who is she, Dickon?”
. “The widow of Captain Small’s business partner.”
    “She’s not Spanish.”
    “Her husband was. She’s Irish.”
    “She’s magnificent. I intend having her,” said Southwood.
    “I have heard that your taste runs to women unable to protect
themselves, Geoff. Senora Goya del Fuentes is a very wealthy
woman. You won’t be able to bully her, and she’ll not be bowled
over by a few baubles or a cheap gown. I wager she’ll send you
packing.”
    “How much will you wager, Richard?”
    De Grenville let a slow smile spread over his face. Southwood
had a magnificent stud stallion that de Grenville coveted. “One year’s
time, Geoff. At the end of that time you’ll turn over your stud,
Dragon’s Fire, to me.”
    “Six months, Dickon, at which time you’ll turn over to me your
magnificently outfitted river barge.”
    De Grenville winced. His barge was the most elegant on the river,
and even the Queen coveted it. Still, he reasoned, the beautiful
Senora Goya del Fuentes was no lightskirt and she had obviously
detested Southwood on sight. It was unlikely that she would suc-
cumb, and besides he wanted that stallion very much.
    “Done!” he said decisively. “Your stallion against my barge. The
time period to be six months from this day.” He held out his hand
and Southwood shook it firmly.
    “Try not to damage my barge this autumn, Dickon,” Southwood
said mockingly. “Come spring, I shall want to take my new mistress
cruising on the river.”
    “I won’t, Geoff. And you see that my stallion is well cared for
and not overbred?”
    The two men parted then, each secure in the knowledge that he
would soon possess a coveted new toy.
    Geoffrey Southwood did not know what intrigued him the most-
the lovely widow’s beauty, her air of breeding, or her dislike of
him. He would enjoy the challenge of seducing and taming her. And
he would be the envy of London for owning such a fine mistress.
By fair means or foul, Southwood vowed he would have her.

Chapter 14

    Skye’s house was located on the Strand on the Green in the
village of Chiswick outside of the city of London. The last
building in the row, it was much less pretentious than its
neighbors. Farther down the line were the palaces of such
great lords as Salisbury and Worcester, and the bishop of Durham.
They had sailed from Plymouth up the coast into the mouth of
the Thames. There the Mermaid had anchored in the Pool awaiting
her chance to dock in London. Skye, Jean Morlaix, and Robert Small
had disembarked and ridden ahead. It would be several weeks before
the Mermaid was assigned a wharf space, and Robert Small trusted
his reliable first mate to oversee the ship in his absence.
    Skirting.the main portion of the city, they soon arrived at Chis-
wick. It was a small and charming village with an excellent inn, the
Swan, on the far side of its green. Here they stopped to refresh
themselves with cups of freshly pressed cider, warm newly baked
bread covered with pink ham, and a sharp, pale, golden cheese.
    Skye was ravenous and ate eagerly, much to the beaming approval
of the fat innkeeper. He poured her another foaming goblet of cider.
    “Be you passing through?” he queried.
    Skye sent him a blinding smile that quite stunned him. “No,” she
said, “I own a house here, Master Innkeeper, and I’ve come to live
in it.”
    “Which ‘ouse is that, madam? I thought I knew all the great lords
and their families. I grew up here, you see. Ever since there’s been
an inn in Chiswick, there ‘ave been Monypennys in Chiswick. In
fact,” and here he chuckled, his fat belly heaving with mirth, “no
one ‘as ever been quite sure which came first, the Swan or the
Monypennys! Aha! Ha! Ha!”
    Jean and Captain Small looked askance but Skye giggled, thus
increasing the innkeeper’s approval of her. “I am Senora Goya del
Fuentes, Master Monypenny. The house I own is ‘Greenwood,’ the
last one on the Strand. It belonged to my late husband.”
    “You’re Spanish?” his voice was now edged in disapproval.
    “My husband was. I am Irish.”
    “Almost as bad,” came the reply.
    “Mon Dieuf Quel cochon!” muttered Jean.
    “Master Monypenny! I will thank you to keep a civil tongue in
your head. Senora Goya del Fuentes is a good and gentle lady, and
not to be abused while under my protection.” Robert Small’s hand
was on his sword.
    The big innkeeper looked down at the little sea captain. “Lord
bless me!” he began to chuckle. “She must be a fine lady that the
ant would challenge the sparrow! My apologies, ma’am. It’s just
that the memory of Bloody Mary and her Spanish husband dies
hard.”
    “Bloody Mary?”
    “The late Queen. Her that was married to Philip of Spain. Young
Queen Bess’s half-sister.”
    “Oh, yes, of course. Master Monypenny. Now I understand,”
said Skye. She had heard the story of the sad daughter of Catherine
of Aragon from Dame Cecily. “Well, I promise you I am nothing
like Bloody Mary. My daughter and I have no family left anywhere
that we know of, and so we have come to England to make a new
life. English hospitality is famous worldwide.”
    The innkeeper ruffled with pride. “And so it should be, ma’am.
So it should be. You’ll be quite happy here upon the Strand. Now,
if I may involve myself in your business for a moment… You say
your house is the last one in the row. Tsk! The last tenants left it
in shameful condition, and if you’ll allow me, ma’am, I’ll have rooms for you and your party set aside. The plain fact is that your
house is not habitable.”
    “Robbie! Was the agent not notified to prepare the house for me?”
    “He was, Skye.”
    The innkeeper shook his head dolefully. “That would be Mr.
Taylor, wouldn’t it? He’s a bad ‘un, but how were you to know
that?”
    “Bad? In what way, Master Monypenny?” asked Robert Small.
    “He’s been renting the house out to youngbloods for their-oh,
dalliances, you might say. Charges ‘em twice what you asks for the
house, pockets the overage, and then collects his commission too.”
    “And how do you know that?”
    “He’s in the habit of taking a drink here now and then. But he
can’t hold his liquor. More than two pints and he begins to talk.
One night during the late Queen’s reign he bragged about how he
was cheating the Spaniard who owned the house.”
    “We had best go and check the house, Robbie.” The sea captain
nodded. “I should be grateful, Master Monypenny, if you would set
aside rooms for us, as well as a private dining room. I shall require
a bath upon our return.”
    “At once, ma’am!”
    Remounting their horses, they rode across the green and down
Riversedge Street. Skye was impressed by the great houses that lined
the waterside. As they neared the end of the street the buildings
became less grand, however, the last three being an elegant mansion,
a small palace, and finally a charming house of mellowed pink brick.
It was set within a private green park. The gates showed rust, and
hung loosely open. Robert Small pursed his lips. Pushing open the
gates, he led the way into the grounds.
    The park was overgrown and unkempt, the woodland filled with
brambles, the lawns waist-high in weeds. When they reached the
house they found several windows broken and the front door hanging
open on broken hinges.
    “Master Taylor is going to have a lot to answer for,” growled
Robbie. “Where the hell is the gatekeeper? He should be guarding
the premises. Jean, didn’t you pay wages last year for a year’s
gatekeeping service?”
    “Oui, Captain, I did, but the monies were forwarded to Master
Taylor, the agent.”
    “It’s neither here nor there now,” said Skye. “The damage is
done. Let us see if the inside has fared as badly.”
    The three entered the house and gasped with shock as they moved
from room to room on the main floor. Then Robert Small ran quickly upstairs inspecting the second and third floors. His face was a thun-
dercloud when he descended again.
    “Stripped!” he roared. “There isn’t a stick of furniture in the
entire house! Nor draperies, rugs, linens, or plate! You’ve been
robbed! The dirty bastard has taken everything!”
    “Master Monypenny knew whereof he spoke,” observed Skye
drily. “I won’t be played for a fool, Robbie. Master Taylor must be
caught and prosecuted. I imagine, however, that the furnishings are
long gone. You were in the house several times, Robbie. Do you
recall seeing anything of great value?”
    “Just the usual household furnishings.”
    ‘Then they’re easily replaced. Thank heavens, Marie and the
children remained in Devon. Come, Jean, Robbie. Back to the Swan.
I am tired and want a bath, and nothing can be done here until
tomorrow.”
    On the following morning Skye rode into the city of London. She
visited the cabinetmaker, the draper, the silversmith, the brass and
iron mongers. At each stop she said the same thing. “Deliver my
order within the week, and I’ll pay you a handsome bonus.” Then
she paid in full for the work contracted or items chosen.
    At the Swan she interviewed applicants for her household staff
and with Master Monypenny’s aid, employed a Mistress Burnside
as her housekeeper, half a dozen housemaids and footmen, a Master
Walters for her majordomo, and his wife for her cook. There were
four kitchen girls hired, as well as a pot boy. Mistress Burnside had
a widowed sister who, with her two plain daughters, would be the
household laundresses. The out-of-house staff consisted of a head
gardener and head groom, each who had two assistants, and a gate-
keeper. Skye would soon need a nursery staff to look after Willow,
and this would consist of a laundress, a nursemaid, and one assistant.
Compared to the great houses on the Strand, hers would be a very
modest household.
    Skye had inspected her house thoroughly by her second day in
London. Below the main level of the house was a large kitchen that
opened out into a small vegetable patch and herb garden. There were
two fireplaces in the kitchen, both with brick ovens. One would take
a whole side of beef. The other, smaller one, was well suited to pots
and bread-baking. Off to one side of the kitchen was a cool, stone
buttery, and off to the other was a scullery. There was a long servants’
hall with a fireplace and quarters for some of the servants.
    The housekeeper had a private bedchamber, as did the majordomo
and his wife, the cook. The four kitchen maids shared a room, and
the laundress and her two daughters shared one. A small alcove set
into the chimney wall was padded with a plump pallet and assigned to the little pot boy who was considered too young to be housed
with the other male servants. The six housemaids would sleep in
attic rooms set aside for them. The six footmen, three grooms, and
two undergardeners were housed in the stable loft. The head garden-
er and his wife would live in a tiny cottage hidden in the little garden
and the gatekeeper and his wife in the little gatehouse. Jean and
Marie were given an apartment of their own in one wing of the
house. Marie would continue in her duties as Skye’s chief tiring
woman while the nursery staff watched over both Willow and Henri.
The nursery staff would, of course, sleep in the nursery.
    On the main floor of the house there was a large formal dining
hall, a small family dining room, a reception room, and the apartment
set aside for Jean and his wife. The second floor consisted of a
library, a smaller room for Jean’s work, and two big reception rooms
that could be opened into one large room for dancing. The third
floor of the house held Skye’s bedchamber, dayroom, and dressing
room, besides two guest chambers and the nursery apartments.
    The house was built near the river’s edge, but set back enough
to allow for a rear garden, the walls of which rose up from the water.
Skye had her own private quai. This was a distinct advantage, for
it allowed Skye her own barge. She immediately commissioned one
built, and, shortly thereafter, a bargeman was added to the staff.
Everyone in the house was delighted by this, for river travel was
often preferable to land, especially so in times of unrest.
    The tradesmen with whom Skye did business were eager for the
bonuses promised. Within the week the house was filled with all
the things she had ordered. Everything was of the best quality. Skye
had warned the tradesmen that she would not accept shoddy goods.
She was not aware that many of the goods had been made for others.

    Merchants had sent her things that other customers would now have
to wait several months for.
    She hurried from room to room, directing the hanging of drap-
eries, tapestries, and pictures, the placement of furniture. The rooms
began to take on life and, finally contented, Skye walked slowly
throughout her house. It was well after midnight, and the exhausted
servants had long since sought their beds. She entered each room
and looked about with satisfaction.
    The oak furniture gleamed with a polish that only hand rubbing
and pure beeswax could give it. Upon the dark wide floorboards
were thick Turkey carpets. The use of carpets was unusual. Many
homes, even those of the wealthy, still used rushes mixed with herbs
upon the floors. There were colorful tapestries and paintings through-
out the house, for Captain Small was clever at ferreting out those
noble but impoverished families who were willing to discreetly sell such items. Heavy draperies in velvet and silk hung from the leaded
casement windows. Brass sconces adorned the paneled walls. Silver
twinkled on the sideboards. The scene was one of elegance and
wealth.
    As Skye departed each room she snuffed out the beeswax candles
carefully. She would not allow fat or tallow in the house, even in
the servants quarters, for she disliked the smell. There were porce-
lain bowls of potpourri in all the rooms. The river was known, after
all, to stink occasionally.
    She entered her apartment and found Daisy, who had arrived
several days ago, dozing by the fire. The girl jumped when she saw
her mistress.
    “Daisy, you didn’t have to wait up. But since you’re here, unlace
me, and then off to bed with you.”
    “I don’t mind, mistress,” said Daisy as she undid Skye’s gown
and helped her out of her petticoats. She wisked the clothing into
the dressing room and soon was back dipping water from the fireplace
kettle into an earthenware pitcher. “Are you sure you don’t need me
further, ma’am?”
    “No, Daisy. Go to bed.”
    The little maid was quickly gone. Skye sat down wearily and
carefully rolled off her gossamer stockings. Naked, she walked
across her room and had a leisurely wash with her favorite damask
rose soap. Sliding into an embroidered pale-blue silk caftan, she
extinguished the candles and went to sit in her bedroom window
seat, facing the river.
    The moon silvered the water. She could see a barge pull into the
quai two houses down. Two figures, a man and a woman, climbed
out of the boat and went slowly up the steps to the garden. At the
top of the stairway they kissed for a long moment. Then the gentle-
man picked up the lady and they were lost to view. Sighing, she
sought her bed, and slept badly. The memory of the romantic scene
she had watched bumed into her and made her ache. Skye was
twenty years old, and for the first time since Khalid’s death over a
year ago, she deeply wanted a man to love her. She rose, weeping
softly, and took a bottle of blackberry brandy from her dayroom
sideboard. She then crawled back into the window seat and drank
herself to sleep.
    Next door, the owner of the small riverside palace was also wake-
ful. The Earl of Lynmouth paced his bedroom floor excitedly,
scarcely able to believe his good fortune. Not only was his new
neighbor the beautiful Senora Goya del Fuentes, but he had found
a way to victory over de Grenville. He chuckled. He would pay his
respects to the lady, but if she had not willingly succumbed by
    Twelfth Night, then he would blackmail her into submission.
    The Earl of Lynmouth entertained lavishly, and his parties were
famous. He had recently come up to London to see that his house
was properly prepared for Christmas and Twelfth Night. The Queen
herself would be attending several seasonal festivities, including his
Twelfth Night masque. Geoffrey had been quite astounded to find
mat the beautiful Mistress Goya del Fuentes was the owner of the
little jewel of a house at the end of the Strand, and had watched
with interest as the house was refurbished. A connoisseur, he noted
her choices with an approving eye as the tradesmen lugged their
merchandise into her house.
    Now the time had come for him to make his first move to capture
the lady. He would woo her gently at first, and then if necessary he
would threaten her with exposure. Through a fantastic piece of luck,
he had discovered her true history. He owned a one-third share in
a ship that traded in the Mideast, and when it had returned recently
to London he had gone aboard to see to his interests. Through the
bow window of the master’s cabin he had seen Robert Small. He
asked his Captain Browne, “Do you know who that man is on the
next ship?”
    “Aye, my lord. That be Captain Robert Small of Bideford in
Devon. The Mermaid is his ship.”
    Captain Browne drew in on his pipe, then gently puffed out a
curl of blue smoke. “Robbie Small is a lucky devil, my lord. He
needn’t go off to sea at all, for he’s a wealthy man and was born
of gentry, too. But the sea’s a wanton bitch, and when she gets in
your blood it’s hard to rid yourself of her.”
    “Was he born to wealth?” prodded the Earl gently.
    “No. The family fortunes were pretty low until he went into
partnership with the great Whoremaster of Algiers, Khalid el Bey.
How they met I don’t know, but they somehow became friends and
the bey backed Robbie in several ventures. Finally when he was on
his feet, they became equal partners. And so they remained for over
ten years.”
    “What happened then?”
    “The bey was killed a year and a half ago, murdered by one of
his women. Bless me! He ran the finest cathouses in the East, he
did. The most famous of them was called the House of Felicity, and
the woman who ran it for him finally did him in. They say she was
jealous of his young wife, and thought it was the wife she was
stabbing. At any rate, the young widow soon disappeared and it was
discovered that she had sold everything her husband owned. The
captain-governor of the Casbah fortress went wild with rage. He’d
had his eye on the young widow. God help Robbie Small if he ever sets foot in Algiers again, for the Casbah captain knows Small helped
the lady Skye leave Algiers.”
    Geoffrey Southwood felt his heart lurch wildly. “Skye?” he asked.
    “The bey’s wife. Her name was Skye muna el Khalid. She herself
is another wild tale. More wine, sir?”
    “Tell me!”
    And so Captain Browne told him all he had heard about Skye,
which was a great deal indeed. And when Geoffrey left the ship,
he was elated. His coach clattered back through the noisy city streets
and he began to plot.
    It was her! There could be no mistake! And he had her, for there
was a child. The bey’s child? Probably. Robert Small did not act
like her lover. She would probably do anything to protect her child,
for the child’s future would be determined by its family’s reputation.
As long as she was the respectable young widow, all would be well.
She would not want her true story known, for her own sake and for
the child’s. Yes… Geoffrey had her!
    Geoffrey Southwood was a wealthy man. Although he seldom
discussed it, his paternal grandmother had been a rich merchant’s
daughter. Over the past few centuries many noble families had mar-
ried into the monied middle class to increase their finances. The
Southwood family understood that money was power. They were
not an important family, but their title was an ancient one, earned
on the field at the Battle of Hastings.
    The first Earl of Lynmouth had been Geoffroi de Sudbois, the
third son of a noble Norman family. He had joined Duke William’s
invasion of England in hopes of winning a place for himself and his
descendants, for there was nothing for him in his native France. His
oldest brother was his father’s undisputed heir and had three sons
of his own. The next de Sudbois brother had opted for the religious
life, and was already the valued right hand of his prior. The Duke
of Normandy’s invasion of England was a godsend to Geoffroi de
Sudbois, for it offered him a chance to make a place for himself.
    His father gave him war-horses and their equipage, along with
a small velvet bag of gold. When Geoffroi’s oldest brother protested,
his father said, “As long as I live, what is mine shall be disposed
of as I choose. When I am gone, and it is yours, you may dispose
of it your way. Do not be greedy, Gilles. Your brother cannot
succeed unless he is properly equipped and mounted. Do you want
him to always have nothing? To be constantly coming back here
coveting your position, his mere presence a threat to your boys? It
will be better for all if he makes a place for himself in England.”
    The eldest de Sudbois son understood his father’s point, and even
pressed upon his surprised brother a fat purse of silver marks. This purse proved the means by which he recruited himself a small troop
of cavalry. Those who joined him supplied their own horses, mail,
and weapons. He paid them one silver mark upon debarkation for
England. What booty they could take in battle was theirs to keep.
and there was always a chance to win oneself land and even a title.
    The young Seigneur de Sudbois and his thirty-five men made an
impressive addition to Duke William’s invading army. Even more
impressive was the soldier that de Sudbois proved himself to be. He
managed to fight near his Duke twice, once even preventing a direct
attack upon his overlord. Toward the end of one day, he found
himself in.on the kill of the English King, Harold.
    Duke William of Normandy had seen enough of the young lord-
ling to be both amused and impressed. “He’s a valuable man,”
observed the Duke, “and God knows he’s worked hard enough to
win a bit of this land for himself. I’ll give him something down in
the south, toward the west If he can take the land and hold it, it’s
his.”
    Geoffroi de Sudbois took and held the little earldom of Lynmouth.
He ruthlessly slew the Saxon lord of the holding and all his kin,
with the exception of the Saxon’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Gwyneth.
    He raped her upon the hall’s long table and, when the girl was
proved a virgin, he sent for a priest and wed her instantly. The
practical Gwyneth cleaved to her new lord and dutifully sired the
next generation. Within a hundred years de Sudbois was anglecized
to Southwood, but through the many generations the ruthlessness
of the original Norman Geoffroi de Sudbois and the determination
of his Saxon wife remained strong traits, even down to the sixteenth-
century Geoffrey Southwood.
    This Earl of Lynmouth was twenty-eight years old. Six feet tall,
he had dark-blond hair, lime-green eyes, and, as Skye had observed,
the face of an angel. It was a beautiful face, yet an entirely masculine
one. Oval, the forehead was broad, the cheekbones high, the nose
long and slim, the mouth sensuous, the chin slightly pointed. His
fair skin was tanned, and because his face had no flaws, he kept it
smooth-shaven. His wavy hair was cut short. His body was the lean
one of a man used to regular exercise.
    He had been married twice. At twelve he had wed a neighboring
eight-year-old heiress. She died two years later of smallpox, along
with her parents. This left him considerably richer, having inherited
money, lands, and the barony of Lynton. Sexually active, he had
mourned his wife for the shortest time possible and then wed again.
The second wife was five years his senior, painfully plain but very
wealthy. An orphaned heiress, her guardians had thought themselves
stuck with the poor girl until Geoffrey Southwood’s father offered for her for his son. Mary Bowen was of an old and noble family.
More important, her lands adjoined those of the Earl of Lynmouth’s.
    On her wedding day, the poor plain bride showed herself enam-
ored of her handsome bridegroom, and grateful to have been rescued
from the shame of spinsterhood. On her wedding night, however,
her opinion changed. Her shrieks could be heard all over the castle
as Geoffrey Southwood battered his way through her maidenhead
and impregnated her. During the next six years she delivered a child
every ten months. All but the first were daughters, and each was as
plain as her mother. In disgust, Geoffrey finally stopped visiting his
wife’s bed. His seven plain daughters were more than enough for
one man to dower.
    Mary Bowen Southwood was more than content to remain in
Devon. She feared her husband. After the horror of her wedding
night she had learned to lay quietly during their mating, occasionally
even simulating the response expected of her. When it was first
apparent that she was pregnant, he had treated her in a kindly fashion.
She was glad to have pleased him, especially when Henry was born.
But then had come Mary, Elizabeth, and Catherine. The week after
little Phillipa’s birth he had been so furious that he slapped her,
shouting that she had done it deliberately, that she’d give him a son
next time or he would know the reason why. She had learned fear
in her subsequent pregnancies. Susan was born next. Geoffrey was
in London. Frightened but dutiful, she sent him word. A six months’
silence followed. When he finally arrived home he handed down
one final ultimatum. “Produce another son, madam, or you’ll spend
the rest of your life here in Devon with your brood of daughters.”
    “What of Henry?” she dared to ask.
    “Henry goes to the Shrewsburys’ household,” he said flatly.
    When the twins, Gwyneth and Joan, were bom, the Countess
found herself and all of her daughters moved from Lynmouth Castle
to Lynton Court. Geoffrey Southwood had had enough.
    From that time on he saw his wife and family once yearly, at
Michaelmas, when he arrived to hand over the money needed to run
their little household for the following year. He refused to make
matches for his daughters, on the premise that they were all like
their mother and he would not be responsible for other men’s dis-
appointment when the girls produced a string of daughters, as their
mother had done.
    Mary Southwood was frankly relieved to be rid of her husband,
but she worried over her girls. Through personal sacrifice and great
frugality she managed to save half of what he gave her each year.
Added to a small, secret hoard left her by her late guardians, she
slowly built up small dowries for her daughters. She taught them the arts of housewifery. There would be no grand matches, but she
would get them all settled. Eventually fate helped her out when
Geoffrey Southwood stopped even his yearly visit, delegating that
chore to his majordomo.
    The “Angel” Earl, as he was known, spent his time following
the Court. The young Queen Elizabeth enjoyed his elegant beauty
and sharp wit. Even more, she appreciated his astute knowledge of
business and overseas trade. Trade was where England’s future lay,
and the educated Queen needed all the advice about it she could
obtain. Elizabeth had already demonstrated herself to be a working
monarch, and nothing escaped her sharp eyes or ears. Geoffrey
Southwood might have an appetite for the ladies, but he deliberately
went out of his way to avoid her maids-of-honor, and his respect
for her was much appreciated by the vain young Queen. Best of all,
Geoffrey came to Court without the encumbrance of a wife, and was
therefore free to play one of Elizabeth’s gallants.
    The next day dawned bright and blue, as perfect an October day
as one could wish for. Skye spent the morning indoors overseeing
her household, which was finally beginning to run smoothly, then
working with Jean and Robert Small in setting up a new trading
company. Later she eagerly snatched up her flower basket and garden
shears and escaped to the beckoning outdoors.
    The gardener and his assistants had done miracles in a few short
weeks. Gone were the waist-high weeds and brambles. Brick walks
had been discovered beneath the overgrowth, as well as small re-
flecting pools and rose bushes. Pruning had brought forth an abun-
dance of late blooms, which Skye now clipped. “Damn!” she swore
suddenly, jabbing her thumb on a thorn, then popping it into her
mouth to soothe it.
    A deep, amused masculine chuckle sent her whirling about. To
her anger and embarrassment, the handsome Earl of Lynmouth was
sitting on the medium-high wall separating her house from the next.
He leaped down gracefully and took her hand. “Just a prick, my
pet,” he said.
    Skye snatched back her hand furiously. “What were you doing
on my wall?” she demanded.
    “I live on the other side of it,” he answered smoothly. “In fact,
my pet, you and I own the wall in common. The building next to
yours is Lynmouth House. It was built by my grandfather, who also
built this charming little house for his mistress, a goldsmith’s daugh-
ter.”
    “Oh,” said Skye coldly, shocked. “How very interesting, my
lord. Now… if you will please leave?” she managed.
    Geoffrey Southwood smiled ruefully, and Skye noticed that the corners of his strangely green eyes were crinkled with laugh lines.
”Now, Mistress Goya del Fuentes,” he said. “I realize that we got
off on the wrong foot, and I will apologize now for having stared
so rudely at you at the Rose and Anchor. Surely, however, you will
not be too hard on me? I cannot be the first man who has ever been
stunned by your extravagant beauty, now can I?”
    Skye flushed. Damn the man! He really was charming. And if
they were neighbors, she could hardly continue to snub him. The
corners of her mouth turned up in a small smile. “Very well, my
lord. I accept your apology.”
    “And you will join me for a late supper?”
    Skye laughed. “You are really incorrigible, Lord Southwood.”
    “Geoffrey,” he corrected.
    “You are still incorrigible, Geoffrey,” she sighed, “and my name
is Skye.”
    “A most unusual name. How did you come by it?”
    “I don’t know. My parents both died when I was young, and the
nuns who raised me could never tell me.” It was said so naturally
that he was thrown. Perhaps she wasn’t the Whoremaster of Algiers’
widow after all. “And was Geoffrey your father’s name?” she was
asking.
    “No. He was Robert. Geoffrey was the first of the Southwoods.
He came from Normandy with Duke William almost five hundred
years ago.”
    “How wonderful to know the history of one’s family,” she said
wistfully.
    “You haven’t yet told me you will dine with me tonight,” he said. Skye bit her lip. “I don’t know,” she murmured. “I really don’t
think I should.”
    “I realize it’s a bit unorthodox, asking you to dine late, but I must
attend the Queen at Greenwich, and she’ll not let me go till late.”
    “Then perhaps we should dine on another day when you have
more time,” she replied.
    “Have pity on me, fair Skye. I dance constant attendance on Her
Majesty, and it is only rarely that I have any time. My chef is an
artist, but cooking for one is little challenge. Unless I provide him
with a guest soon I shall lose him. And how can I give my famous
Twelfth Night revel without a chef? So you really can’t refuse me,
can you?”
    She had to laugh. He seemed so boyish, and so very handsome
in the open-necked cream silk shirt. He was not at all the arrogant
nobleman who had accosted her several weeks before. “I should
not,” she said, “but I will. I would not like to be held responsible
by all of London for the defection of your chef.”
    “I will come for you myself,” he replied. Then he caught her
hand to his lips and brushed it lightly. “You’ve made me the happiest
of men tonight!” Grasping at a heavy vine growing against the wall,
he pulled himself up and quickly disappeared over the top.
    Shrugging, Skye picked up her flower basket and returned to the
house. If she was to be ready when he came this evening, she had
a great deal to do. She stopped, and told herself that this was just
a simple dinner, not a romantic liaison.
    Robert Small emerged just then from the library. “Well, lass,
we’re done now. May I treat you to dinner at the Swan tavern up
the river?”
    “Oh, Robbie. I’m having dinner with Lord Southwood. He is,
it seems, my neighbor.”
    “That knave! Christ’s toenail, Skye, are you mad?”
    “Now, Robbie, he has apologized for his rudeness. I have no
friends here in London, and you’ll soon be off again. I must start
somewhere.”
    “He has a wife,” stated Robert Small flatly.
    “I suspected so, but I do not seek a romantic entanglement with
Geoffrey.”
    Robert Small’s bushy gray-black eyebrows shot up. “Geoffrey,
is it? Well, my lass, so you’ll know a bit about the man, attend me.
His first wife died when she was a child. His second wife is a woman
of no beauty, but much wealth. She’s borne him one son and seven
daughters, and for her perfidy she and her daughters are exiled to
Lynton Court, her childhood home. He sends his steward each Mi-
chaelmas to pay the servants there for the year. Cold bastard, I’d
say. He’s rich, though. At least we don’t have to worry about him
being after your money.”
    His dour concern over fortune-hunting men made her laugh. She
ruffled his thinning hair. “Dear Robbie, you’re a good watchdog,
and I thank you. You and Dame Cecily and Willow are my entire
family. I promise to be very careful in my relationship with Lord
Southwood, but it’s only a late supper.”
    “I’ll stay the night, Skye. It’s best you have a man in the house.”
    “Thank you, Robbie. Now, I’d best prepare myself,” and giving
him a quick kiss on the cheek she ran upstairs to her own apartment.
”Daisy!” she called. “Have a footman set up my bath and lay out
the peacock-blue velvet gown with the gold thread flowered under-
skirt.”
    As the footmen lugged the buckets of steaming water up the back
stairs from the kitchen, Skye sat at her dressing table sliding neck-
laces through her slender fingers. She decided upon a double strand
of perfectly matched pale-pink pearls from which hung a teardrop diamond of slightly deeper pink. The necklace had been Khalid’s
gift. It no longer hurt quite so much to think about Khalid.
    The footmen departed and she undressed slowly. Daisy took each
garment, and Skye reached for some tortoiseshell hairpins and se-
cured her dark hair. It would not be necessary to wash it tonight,
as she had done so yesterday in a mixture of fresh rainwater and
essence of roses. Now she walked naked across the room and poured
some of the same rose essence into her tub. Daisy averted her brown
eyes. She could simply not get used to her mistress’s habit of bathing
regularly, let alone bathing naked. The young woman liked her
mistress, however, and so she bore with her eccentricities.
    Skye chuckled. “You can open your eyes now, Daisy. I’m safely
in the tub.”
    “Oh, mum, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
    “Haven’t you ever looked at yourself, Daisy? Women have very
lovely bodies, but men are never quite so pretty.”
    “Oh, mum! How you talk! Look at myself indeed! If me mother
had ever caught me doing such a thing she’d have beat me black
and blue.”
    Skye smiled to herself and wondered why the English-no, she
amended-why the Europeans were so afraid of their bodies. Then
she laughed at herself for, though she could not remember it, she
too was European. But she couldn’t imagine herself bathing only
a few times a year, and then in a cotton shift!
    She picked up the damask rose soap, built up a rich lather, and
washed her face. She lathered the rest of her lithe body, slowly and
thoroughly, summoning an almost unbearably sensuous feeling.
Good Lord, she thought, as she watched the nipples of her breasts
harden, I’m alive again, and I want a man to love. She blushed with
the memory of how Geoffrey Southwood had looked at her this
afternoon.
    Stepping hastily from the tub, she took the big warmed towel
from Daisy and began to dry herself. “Bring me a light wool caftan,”
she said. “It’s too early to dress yet. I’ll sleep for a bit.”
    Slipping on the caftan, she added, “Leave the tub till later, I’ll
rest now, and ring when I want you. Go get your dinner.” The little
maid curtseyed and left the room.
    Skye lay upon her bed, drawing a fur robe over herself. Geoffrey
Southwood had a finely turned leg, she thought, and those lime-
green eyes had undoubtedly melted many a heart. She was much
too vulnerable to be having dinner with him. Oh, why had she
accepted the invitation? She was lonely. Perhaps that was why.
Khalid had been dead almost two years, and suddenly she was again
aware of the fact that she was a woman, a woman who, up until her husband’s death, had been well loved. She would have to be very
careful lest she present the Earl of Lynmouth with the wrong impres-
sion of herself. She drifted into a light sleep and awakened at Daisy’s
touch.
    “The Earl of Lynmouth’s footman is below, mum. His lordship
will be here in half an hour.”
    Skye stretched languidly. “Fetch me a basin of rose water, Daisy.
Is my gown ready?”
    “Yes, mum.”
    Skye bathed her face, hands, and neck, having shed the caftan.
With averted eyes Daisy handed her mistress her silk undergarments,
lacing the little boned busk up tightly, smoothing down the several
petticoats, the last one threaded through with blue ribbons, as was
her silk underblouse. Skye slipped on her new knitted silk stockings
which were of the palest blue with a tiny silver thread vine pattern.
Her garters were also blue with deep pink rosettes.
    Daisy carefully slipped the gold-threaded underskirt over Skye’s
head, and laced it up. Lastly came the beautiful peacock-blue velvet
gown, split to show the embroidered underskirt. The puffed sleeves
were slashed to reveal a soft creamy sheer silk underblouse. Skye
slipped on her blue satin slippers and stood before the pier glass,
a faint smile on her lips. She slid the pearls around her neck, watch-
ing with fascination as the pink diamond nestled in the deep valley
between her breasts. Yes, it was perfect.
    Daisy held up a tray of rings, but Skye selected only a large
baroque pearl and placed it on her right hand. She held out her hands
and was pleased with the simple effect the single ring created. Her
hands were especially beautiful, slender with long, well-shaped fin-
gers, the nails delicately rounded and buffed to a healthy pink.
    She gazed at her image again. I am beautiful, she thought. Then
she laughed softly.
    “His lordship is here, mum,” said Daisy. “The footman has just
come up with word.”
    “Have the footman tell his lordship I shall be down directly, and
escort him into the small receiving room. Have Walter pour him
some wine.”
    Daisy curtseyed. “Yes, mum.”
    Skye moved slowly to her dressing table and reached for her scent
bottle. She daubed the rose fragrance on all the available pulse
points, remembering Yasmin as she did. Dear God, she thought, if
there is a Paradise, please don’t let Yasmin be Khalid’s houri. I
forgave her for the sake of both our immortal souls, but I couldn’t
bear it if she was with him when I can’t be. The tears sprang to her
eyes, and she quickly snatched up a lace-edged handkerchief. Then, fixing a little smile on her lips, she left to join the Earl of Lynmouth.
    Geoffrey Southwood had declined both a seat in the receiving room and the wine. With undisguised admiration he now watched as Skye descended the staircase. Reaching the bottom, she swept him an elegant curtsey. “Good evening, my lord Southwood.” He admired her lovely breasts which momentarily swelled over her seemingly modest square neckline.
    “And a good even’ to you, Senora Goya del Fuentes. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve arranged for the door in our garden wall to be opened. I assume you won’t object to a stroll in the gardens.”
    “No, I don’t mind a stroll.”
    He offered her his arm, and they moved through the house and
out into the evening. The air was mild, and the night sky clear. His
slim hand covered hers, and as they walked he said quietly, “Are
you aware of how beautiful you are? There isn’t a woman at Court
who compares with you.”
    “Even the Queen?” she teased.
    “Her Majesty is in a class by herself, my pet. No one compares
with Elizabeth Tudor.”
    “Bravo, my lord Earl! The perfect courtier’s reply,” she mocked
mischievously.
    “I am the perfect courtier, Skye, for only by the Queen’s favor
can an ambitious man progress.”
    “You are titled, intelligent, and wealthy,” she said. “Why should
it matter to you if the Queen favors you?”
    The question pleased him, for it showed she had intelligence.
Oddly enough, he liked intelligent women. “The Southwoods have
never been important in the history of England, Skye. We won our
lands with William the Conqueror and our title with Richard, Coeur
de Lion, in the Holy Land. That particular Southwood, upon re-
turning to England, advised his family to remain in Devon and not
go gadding about. We’ve taken his advice. Nevertheless, probably
thanks to my merchant antecedents, I seem to be an ambitious sort,
and Court is the place for ambitious men. The Queen has need of
them.”
    “And what of ambitious women, Geoffrey?”
    He smiled as they walked through the wall gate into his garden.
”What are your ambitions, my pet? If you seek a titled lover, then
I’m your man.”
    She ignored the remark. “I’ve just formed a trading company with
Robert Small. It would help if I had a royal charter. Help me get
it, and I’ll give you a two-percent interest in it.”
    The Earl of Lynmouth was astounded. “By God, sweetheart, you are ambitious!” he laughed. “I’m not sure if I’m shocked or simply
amazed.”
    Skye was as surprised at herself as was Southwood. Where in
Heaven’s name had that idea come from, and where had she gotten
the nerve to suggest such a thing? Having ventured it, however, she
decided to follow it through. “Well, my lord,” she said coolly.
”What say you?”
    She was serious, thought Southwood, amused. They had reached
Lynmouth House by now, and he escorted her up the steps of the
marble terrace into a small room with a lovely bow window that
overlooked the river and the gardens. A candlelit table had been set
up in the bow.
    “Let us have some wine,” he said, pouring a Burgundy and hand-
ing her a goblet. “Now, mistress, what guarantee do you give me
that I’ll see a return on my investment?”
    “Captain Small was my husband’s partner in Algiers. Kha-
Diego financed him, and our secretary, Jean Morlaix, kept the rec-
ords. It was up to Robert to handle the rest of it, and he did. He was
my husband’s partner for ten years. Nothing has changed. The Goya
del Fuentes money will finance him. Jean Morlaix remained in my
employ after Diego’s death. I do not need a royal charter, but it
would help enormously. What do you risk, my lord? Neither gold
nor prestige. You waste more money gambling. If you would prefer,
set a price upon your aid and I will pay you. Then you risk nothing,”
she finished scornfully.
    “Ah vixen,” he chuckled, “so you would shame me into it, eh?
You’re a damned hard bargainer, but I’ll see what I can do. After
all, a two-percent share in a good trading company is not to be
overlooked.”
    Inwardly she heaved a sigh of relief and, with a casual air, sipped
at her wine. His mouth twitched with suppressed amusement, for
Geoffrey Southwood could appreciate a jest on himself better than
most men. She had outbluffed him, the little devil. What a woman
she was, he thought to himself. The thought of her in his bed sent
shivers down his spine. For now, however, he would be a gentleman,
for to move too quickly with this lady could cost him de Grenville’s
barge as well as the beauty herself.
    The footmen began serving the meal, which began with a silver
bowl of cold, raw oysters. Skye happily cracked open the shells and
swallowed half a dozen luscious, icy oysters. Southwood ate two
to her every one. The next course was bright yellow mussels in white
wine with a Dijon mustard sauce, thin slices of Dover sole on a bed
of crisp watercress, accompanied by very thin slices of lemons imported from the south of France, and tiny pink shrimp broiled in
herb butter. Skye ate sparingly but tasted of everything. The Earl
had been quite right-his chef was a mqwter.
    The second course cleared away, the third was set on the side-
board. Three ribs of juicy beef with horseradish sauce and a large
plump pink ham vied for attention alongside a platter of small quail,
roasted golden and stuffed with fruit. Salad of new lettuces, venison
slices in red wine, and a rabbit pastry rounded out the third course.
    Skye directed a footman to serve her one of the quail, some ham,
a slice of rabbit pie, and a dish of salad. The Earl, who sampled
everything, looked on approvingly. “I like a woman who enjoys her
food,” he grinned, his green eyes bright.
    “But keeps her figure,” she shot back.
    “Aye. A pretty woman is far more pleasant to gaze upon, sweet-
heart.”
    “Is your wife a pretty woman?”
    “Mary? Not really. She’s too tiny, like a Spanish dwarf. Her hair
is no real color, her eyes a pale brown, her complexion, sallow. Was
your husband handsome?”
    “Aye,” she said softly. “He was very handsome. But more im-
portant, he was kind and good.”
    “How long have you been widowed?”
    “Two years now.”
    “You should think of remarrying, Skye. You’re far too lovely to
remain alone.”
    “I know few people here, my lord. And besides, there is no one
who could take my lord’s place.”
    “If you don’t have friends in England,” he ventured, “why did
you leave Algiers?”
    “The Turkish governor decided I should make him an admirable
wife. Since I did not choose to marry him, it became necessary to
leave. None of my lord’s real friends would have dared to protect
me. I was helpless against that powerful beast, but he got nothing
of my lord’s, neither his widow nor his wealth! I shall build that
wealth and make it even greater. My little Willow will be very
wealthy.”
    He smiled slowly at her. “You are an ambitious wench, sweet-
heart, but damme if I don’t approve! The Queen is ambitious too,
and though some men may be fearful of such women, I’m not.”
    The last course was offered then, ripe pears covered with me-
ringue and baked to a faint golden brown, thin sugar wafers, and
a clear sweet wine. The Earl apologized for the simplicity of the
dessert. As there were only two diners, he had suggested to his chef
that he limit the sweets.
    When she had spooned up the last of her dessert, Skye sat back
in her chair, her sapphire eyes half closed, and smiled. Southwood
laughed. “You look like a well-fed cat.”
    “I am, my lord, and I must have the recipe for the quail stuffing.
It was delicious.”
    “It’s yours. But come, sweetheart, up with you! We’ll walk in
the gardens by the river to settle our meal.”
    He escorted her outside after first dropping his black velvet cloak
about her. The night had turned chilly. The full moon silvered every-
thing, and a faint mist was beginning to rise from the Thames. They
walked in silence, watching as a brightly lit barge went by, hearing
laughter drift across the water. A steady measured beat of oars and
a single lantern announced the approach of the enterprising waterman
who offered taxi service to those who wanted to go up- or downriver.
They stood watching the moonlit water, and after a while Geoffrey
said softly, “I would not offend you, but I would kiss you.”
    “No one but my husband has ever kissed me,” she whispered.
    “He’s gone, sweetheart,” was the hoarse reply. And tipping her
pale face firmly toward him, he touched his warm mouth to hers.
He kissed her gently, but she could sense the desire that he held
firmly in check. The tip of his tongue licked at the edges of her
mouth, sending a shiver through her, awakening the long unsatisfied
passions. He held her tightly, his masculine scent assaulting her
senses. She began to relax within the circle of his arms. He was as
big and tall as Khalid had been, and very male.
    Then, gently, as suddenly as he had kissed her, he released her
and whispered softly, “I will take you home, sweetheart, lest I do
something that would lose me your friendship.” And without another
word he took her arm and walked with her, back through the wall
gate, across her gardens, and into her house.
    In the moonlit library she gazed openly at him and her musical
voice said firmly but softly, “Kiss me just once more, Geoffrey.”
A quick smile touched his mouth, and then he bent to meet her lips
again. This time he allowed his passions a looser rein and the pres-
sure of his mouth forced her lips apart. His tongue ran swiftly along
her teeth, pushing through, finding her silken tongue and caressing
it with his own.
    To Skye’s shock, her own passions rose swiftly, fiercely from
deep within her. Her tongue fenced skillfully with his, and she
quivered at the fire and ice racing through her veins. His big hands
caught her face and he kissed her again, this time very tenderly.
Then his smooth fingers trailed down her slender neck to drift along
the swelling tops of her breasts, and she moaned softly.
    “No, sweetheart,” he said quietly. “There’s no honor in taking a vulnerable woman, and you are very vulnerable right now.” And
silently he disappeared through the French doors, and she was alone.
    Skye stood very still, rigid with shock. She had nearly thrown
herself at him, and had he not been the gentleman he was…Shivering,
she made her way upstairs. Once within the safety of her room, she
stood for a bit clutching Geoffrey’s cloak about her. It carried the
scent of orris root, and she buried her face within the sable collar
trying to quiet her pounding heart.
    “Are you all right, mum?”
    She started. “Daisy? You needn’t have waited up for me.”
    “And who would help you with your gown, I should like to
know?” Daisy drew the cloak from Skye. “His lordship’s?” Skye
nodded. “Ha, ain’t he the gallant one!”
    “Yes. He is,” said Skye, a little regretfully.
    Daisy prattled on as she helped her mistress disrobe. “They say
he’s left a trail of broken hearts from here to Devon. Highborn or
low, they all loves the ‘Angel Earl’.” She looked slyly at her mis-
tress’s flushed cheeks. “They say he’s a grand lover, and Lord knows
you have no husband to answer to, mum.”
    “Shame, Daisy!” Skye broke away from her reverie long enough
to remember how young her maid was. “You take on London man-
ners and morals too quickly. I think it not wise of you. Beware lest
I send you back to Devon!”
    “Oh, mum. I meant no harm! But with him so handsome and ye
so bonny…” she trailed off, her head hanging lower and lower,
with such a woebegone expression that Skye almost laughed. She
sent Daisy off to her bed, cautioning her to think on her sins.
    Grateful to be alone, Skye slowly washed her face and hands and
cleaned her teeth. Sliding a simple mauve silk nightgown over her
naked form, she climbed into bed. Dear God, how she had responded
to the Earl’s kisses! And he had known it! She trembled. What kind
of a woman was she to respond so fervently? She began to weep
softly, ashamed of her wantonness, ashamed of her inability to re-
main faithful to the memory of her beloved husband. When at last
she fell asleep, it was an exhausted and restless sleep.
    The next day, as Skye sat hollow-eyed, sipping Turkish coffee
in the library with Robert Small, there arrived a messenger in the
green-and-white livery of the Earl of Lynmouth. He flourished a
bow and presented her with an exquisitely carved rectangular ebony
box. The captain raised an inquisitive eyebrow as Skye accepted the
box and lifted the lid. On the red velvet lining lay one perfect carved
ivory rose, its stem and leaves wrought from green gold. Beneath
it was a folded sheet of vellum. It read: “In memory of a perfect evening. Geoffrey.” A pink flush rose in her cheeks, but she said merely, “Convey my deepest thanks to Lord Southwood.” The footman bowed himself from the library.
    “So,” remarked the captain, when they were alone again, “the evening went well. I would not have believed it, judging by your woebegone expression, Skye. Perhaps the gift is by way of an apology?”
    “You needn’t worry, Robbie.” She handed him the Earl’s note.
    Perusing it, he looked back up at her. “Then what is it, lass? Why are you so troubled?”
    “Oh, Robbie! He asked if he might kiss me, and-I let him!”
    “And you found it distasteful?”
    “Nooo,” she wailed. “Oh, Robbie! I liked it, that’s what’s wrong. And worse, I wanted him to make love to me! How could I? Whatkind of wanton am I?”
    “Christ’s blessed nightshirt!” roared the little man. He thought a moment, his head in his hands, and then he began. “Listen to me,Skye. I sometimes forget that damned memory of yours still hasgaps in it. Khalid has been dead for two years, and it is time you found yourself another man. You’re not expected to remain true to his memory forever. There is nothing wrong in what you felt. God Almighty, you’re a beautiful young woman, lass, and it’s natural you responded to the Earl. He’s a handsome devil. Try your wings with him if he attracts you. But remember this-he’s a married man. Don’t get hurt.”
    “Oh, Robbie, how could you even suggest such a thing? My lord Khalid-“
    “Khalid is dead, Skye! He would be the first one to tell you to go on with your life. He wouldn’t want you to bury yourself along with him.”
    “But Robbie, I don’t love Lord Southwood.”
    “Lord, lass, I should hope not. He’s married.”
    “But I still want him to make love to me.”
    He began to laugh. “What you feel for the Earl is desire, lust, passion. Sometimes those feelings go along with love, but more often not. The churches would like us to feel guilty about such emotions, but don’t you do it! Those feelings are human nature. You won’t have them with every man you meet, so don’t fret.” He put a friendly arm about her. “Skye, lass. I know I’m many years older, but if having the protection of marriage and my name would make you feel safe, I’d gladly marry you. I’d ask nothing of you.
    It would be in name only.”
    She was stunned. “Why, Robbie, how kind you are. You always have been, since our first meeting. What a good man you are!
Thank you, but I must stand on my own two feet. I somehow feel
that Khalid would want me to be strong and independent.”
    “Aye, lass. I think he would, but should you ever change your
mind, the offer stands open. Remember that.”
    She bent and kissed his cheek. “I do love you, Robbie, but not
the way a woman loves a man. I could not marry you, even for
safety’s sake, but never stop being my friend.”
    “I won’t, lass. I won’t,” he said quietly, thinking, I owe Kha-
lid more than I can ever repay, and watching over you is such a
small thing. Lord God, let her find happiness, the fierce man
prayed.

Chapter 15

    Ever since Elizabeth Tudor had ascended the throne of
England, the Earl of Lynmouth had held a masqued ball on
Twelfth Night. Not the first year, however, for Queen
Mary had died on the morning of November 17, 1558, and
Twelfth Night had been only seven weeks later. The Court was
still in mourning for her.
    This year would be the third time the Earl’s fete would be held,
and invitations were eagerly sought. Skye received her invitation on
the morning of New Year’s Day. Geoffrey Southwood came calling
and planned to deliver it himself. She had not seen him since that
mid-November night, but she had dreamed of his kisses ever since.
She hurried from her own apartments, where she had dressed, to the
second-floor receiving room. Her burgundy velvet gown was offset
by exquisite, delicate ecru lace along the sleeves. The square
neckline was low, and bordered by the same lace. A little above it
dangled a necklace of small rubies and pearls. Her midnight hair was
parted in the center and fell in soft curls, Italian fashion, about her
shoulders. It gave her a charmingly youthful appearance.
    “My lord Earl! A happy New Year to you,” she cried gaily,
sweeping into the richly furnished receiving room. Dear Heaven, he
was so incredibly handsome, dressed all in black velvet trimmed
with sable, wearing a great heavy gold pendant about his neck.
    “Mistress Goya del Fuentes, a happy year to you also.” His
gleaming green eyes swept over her. Christ’s bones, she was
beautiful! “I have brought you a small gift,” he said.
    She colored becomingly. “My lord, it is not necessary, and I have
nothing for you.”
    “I will take a kiss, sweetheart, for one of your kisses is worth
more than anything else.”
    “Oh!” Before she could protest he swept her masterfully into his
arms, and took possession of her lips. The blood sang, roared, and
pounded in her ears and she matched him kiss for kiss until they
were both breathless. Her breasts began to swell with longing, the
nipples chafing against her silk chemise. His mouth scorched down
the side of her neck to her shoulder, then across the tops of her
breasts, which threatened to burst the confines of the burgundy gown.
    “I want to make love to you,” he said softly.
    “I know,” she answered breathlessly, “but I need more time. I
have known no man but my late husband, and I am confused. And
afraid.”
    “I won’t force you, sweetheart. Rape holds no charm for me.”
He led her to the brocade settle and they sat together. He drew a
small jeweler’s box from his left pocket. “I have been on constant
call to Her Majesty,” he explained. “We kept Christmas at Hampton
Court, but the Queen is now at Whitehall, and I was able to get
away for a while. I have bought these because I thought they matched
your eyes.”
    Skye took the proffered box. She opened it without taking her
eyes from him. Inside the box were a pair of round sapphire earrings
that dangled from two tiny gold beads. She lifted one up to the bright
morning sunlight and, like a prism, it caught the light and twinkled
a rainbow back at her. The sapphires were among the finest she’d
ever seen, and certainly Indian.
    “My lord, I cannot. They are far too valuable,” she sighed regretfully.
    “Geoffrey, sweetheart, and I beg you not to be silly. What harm
is there in two friends exchanging gifts on New Year’s Day?”
    “But I have nothing for you,” she protested again.
    “Nothing? Have you not given me the hope that someday we
might share love between us? And your sweet kisses are far more
precious to me than jewels. Come, love, let me fasten the sapphires
into your little ears.” His hands brushed her curls back, making her
shiver, and he carefully set the earrings in their places. “Perfection,”
he said.
    Skye faced the pier glass, turning this way and that to admire the
sparkling, richly blue stones. “Damn you,” she said softly, “they’re
beautiful-and I love them!”
    He chuckled. “I’m happy to see you exhibit even the tiniest bit
of greed, sweet Skye. Now, love, I’ve something else for you before I go. An invitation to my Twelfth Night masque. Will you come?
Perhaps Captain Small will escort you? The Queen will be there.
I have not yet broached the subject of a royal charter for your trading
company, but I shall do so before the ball, and I will endeavor to
present you to Her Majesty that evening.”
    “Oh, Geoffrey, how lovely! Of course I shall come, and Robbie
shall be my escort, though I doubt I can get him into anything overly
elegant. Robbie takes no pleasure in lavish dressing.”
    He nodded, satisfied. “I must get back to Whitehall now, sweet-
heart.” He rose and she moved toward him. He towered over her,
making Skye feel very small as she gazed up at him. His long fingers
trailed smoothly over her upturned face. “I’m a patient man as long
as the prize is worth the wait, my pet.”
    “I could disappoint you, Geoffrey,” she frowned up at him, her
face intent.
    “I think not, Skye. I think not.” He brushed her lips lightly with
his. “What would you like for Twelfth Night?”
    “My lord! You must not spoil me!”
    “Sweetheart, I’ve not even begun to, but I shall. Until Twelfth
Night.” She hadn’t time to reply before he nodded and, turning, left
the room without another word.
    Geoffrey Southwood strode down to the river bank and hailed a
waterman to take him the short distance back to the palace. “White-
hall,” he said, climbing into the little boat and seating himself.
    “Aye, me lord,” the waterman said as he pushed off into the
stream. “I’m going to enjoy de Grenville’s barge very much,” the
Earl said softly to himself. Then he grew somber. It was no longer
a game. To his surprise, his heart had become deeply involved. He
had not been entirely truthful in letting Skye believe that the Queen
had kept him at Hampton Court. There had been several occasions
over the past few weeks when he might have returned home. But
he had chosen not to because he had wanted time to think.
    She had been so very vulnerable that November night, and he
could have taken her easily. She was young. She had known a great
love. Widowed two years, she was now obviously ready for a man.
His bet with de Grenville might have been won then and there. But
she had trembled faintly in his arms, and somehow he couldn’t
dishonor her. Geoffrey was amazed at himself, for he had never
been soft, or overly concerned with the feelings of others.
    When he had returned to his house that night he had found a
plump little maid bringing wood to his bedchamber. His green eyes
narrowed speculatively for desire rode him fiercely. He slid an arm
about her little waist, and she giggled.
    “What’s your name, lass?”
    “Poll, m’lud.”
    “How old are you?”
    “Thirteen, St. Thomas’s Day past, m’lud.”
    “Are you willing?”
    “Aye, sir.”
    “Are you a virgin?”
    “Nay, sir,” she said as she shed her blouse, revealing breasts
generous for one so young. Her skirts and petticoats rapidly fol-
lowed, and she was naked.
    There were no preliminaries. He loosened his codpiece and, pull-
ing her to the bed, pushed her down and fell on her. He pumped
into her methodically until she cried her pleasure. The ache in his
manhood was finally soothed. Rolling off her, he lay quietly for a
moment and then rose from the bed. Drawing a gold piece from his
purse, he gave it to her. “Run along now. Poll.” The girl gathered
up her garments and, giving him a saucy smile, ran from the bedroom.
    He sighed now with the memory. He had been physically ap-
peased, but by no means satisfied. It was Skye he had wanted. There
was an innocence about her, though she had been married, widowed,
and was a mother. That innocence made him want to love Skye, not
betray her.
    There was no doubt about it, the Earl of Lynmouth was feeling
the pangs of real love for the first time in his life.
    Robert Small was not thrilled by the invitation to the masque.
”Dammit, Skye, I’m no gallant to be escorting you.”
    “Now, Robbie, stop grumbling. Geoffrey suggested it himself,
though I warned him you’d fuss. The Queen will be there, and he
has promised to present us.”
    His weathered face softened a little. “Well, I’d like to meet Young
Bess, I would. What must I wear?”
    “Nothing overly ornate. I promise. I have decided to go as
’Night.’ Your costume will match mine. I’ll have them done, so you
need go only for one or two fittings with the tailor.”
    “Very well, poppet. I can’t let you go alone else those elegant
Court popinjays overwhelm you.”
    She kept her word, and on the night of the masque Robert Small
found himself dressed quite simply though very elegantly indeed in
a black velvet doublet sewn with tiny silver brilliants, and edged in
silver lace at the neck and sleeves. The short round black breeches
were lined in stiff horsehair to puff them out. He wore black silk
stockings and thick-soled black leather shoes with silver rosettes.
His short cape was also of black velvet, lined in cloth of silver and
trimmed in sable.
    Skye presented him with a beautiful golden sword, its handle
sprinkled with small sapphires, rubies, and diamonds. To her vast
amusement he swaggered before the receiving-room pier glass, a
little smile playing across his lips.
    “Do you think you might crow?” she teased.
    He reddened. “Ah, give over, Skye. But damned if I don’t look
as good as any dandy.”
    “You do. I only wish Dame Cecily could see you.”
    “Thank God she can’t! I’d never hear the end of it. She’s always
trying to rig me out for some party or other, but I’ve avoided her
so far. Now don’t you tell on me.”
    Skye laughed. “All right, Robbie I’ll keep this a secret.”
    He sighed, turned from the mirror, then eyed her critically. “Isn’t
your neckline a bit low?”
    “No, Robbie, it isn’t,” she said softly, “it’s the height of fashion.
Now let me have the mirror, if you can tear yourself away.” He
sniffed in mock offense and she stuck her tongue out at him.
    “I’ll see the coach is ready, Mistress Peacock,” he said, striding
grandly from the room.
    Skye stood quietly gazing at her image. Her black velvet dress
was magnificent, and she knew she should eclipse every woman at
the masque. The low, square neckline was unrelieved by any lace
at all, but offered a very daring show of white breasts instead. The
sleeves, full to just below the elbow, were slashed to show silver
lace inserts. The silver lace was repeated at her wrists. The black
velvet bell-shaped skirt parted to reveal a black brocade underskirt
which had moons, stars, planets, and comets embroidered on it in
silver, pearls, and diamonds. Her black silk stockings with their
silver lace rosette garters were sewn with tiny diamond brilliants,
as were her narrow, pointed, high-heeled black silk shoes.
    Her hair, parted in the center, was arranged in a soft chignon at
the nape of her neck. This new French fashion would also set her
apart from the other women at the masque. They would still be
wearing their hair puffed out at each side. Her pearl-and-diamond
hair ornaments were shaped like stars and tiny crescent moons.
    Her necklace was a magnificently opulent display of blue-white
diamonds. There was a matching bracelet. And in her ears were
pear-shaped diamonds that fell from baroque pearls. On the fingers
of her left hand she wore rings set with a great flashing round
diamond, a heart-shaped ruby, and a sapphire. On her right hand
was a large, irregularly shaped baroque pearl, and a square-cut em-
erald.
    Her eyes were highlighted with just a touch of blue kohl, but her
cheeks were pink with excitement and needed no artifice. Her perfume had been made this past summer from the damask roses at
Wren Court, and sent up to London by Dame Cecily at Christmas.
Her mirror told her she was perfection, and for the first time in
months Skye felt completely confident despite the fact that tonight,
when she arrived at the Earl’s house, she would be entering a new
and alien world.
    “Ready, lass?”
    She whirled around and, picking up her silver mask, said brightly,
”I’m ready, Robbie.” He carefully draped a sable-lined and -trimmed
long cape about her shoulders, and descending the stairs together
they walked swiftly from the house to the coach. “How silly,” re-
marked Skye, “when I live so nearby to have to take my coach.”
    “You could hardly walk. That wouldn’t make a grand entrance
at all, now would it? The beautiful, mysterious, Senora Goya del
Fuentes should make a good first impression. I can guarantee that
within the next half-hour every noble popinjay at Court will be
falling over himself to meet you.”
    “Oh, Robbie,” she laughed, “you sound like a suspicious father.”
    The coach quickly reached the gates of Lynmouth House and
drove up the drive to the brightly lit palace. Arriving at the front
door Skye became aware, for the first time, of the grandeur of the
building. The dark-red brick palace stood four stories high, towering
over the river and its own beautiful, carefully designed gardens.
Built early in the reign of Henry VIII, it had all the sprawling,
boisterous magnificence of the monarch himself. It was considered
a perfect example of Tudor architecture. Footmen in the azure and
gold colors of the Southwood family ran to open the carriage door
and help the occupants out. Skye took Robbie’s arm and entered the
big marble foyer where a footman hurried forward to take Skye’s
cloak. Several women guests were standing nearby and as her gown
was revealed, they gasped. The corners of her mouth twitched, but
she feigned indifference. Slipping her hand through Robbie’s arm
again, they began to ascend the wide staircase.
    “Well done, lass,” he murmured softly, and she winked mis-
chievously at him. They gained the landing and stood in the wide
arch to the ballroom, waiting until the majordomo asked, “Names,
please?”
    “Sir Robert Small, and Senora Goya del Fuentes.”
    Skye’s dark feathery eyebrows shot up. Sir Robert, indeed. Once
again, Robbie had managed to surprise her.
    “Sir Robert Small, and Senora Goya del Fuentes,” called out the
majordomo, and suddenly the room became quiet and they faced a
sea of upturned faces. Slowly, the two black-clad figures descended
the three wide steps. Geoffrey Southwood, resplendent in white and gold, came forward to take Skye’s hands and kiss them. She felt a
delicious tingle race through her.
    “Damme, madam, you outshine every woman here! Good evening, Sir Robert, I see you decided to use your title tonight.”
    “I would do honor to your revels, m’lord. I thank you for including
me.”
    “May I steal Skye from you, sir?”
    “But of course, m’lord. I see de Grenville across the room, and
I’ve been wanting to talk to him.” Robbie bowed and walked away
from them, his carriage erect and proud.
    “The dancing won’t begin until the Queen arrives,” he said. “Walk
with me now, and I’ll show you some of my house.”
    “But your guests-“
    “-are far too busy eating, drinking, and gossiping to notice my
absence. Besides, if another man stares at you, I’m apt to find myself
involved in a duel. Come, madam. I want you to myself.” And
allowing her no further protest, he led her from the ballroom and
through a small door. “The picture gallery,” he announced, “com-
plete with a full complement of Southwood portraits.”
    “I would have expected them to hang at your seat in Devon,” she
remarked.
    “They do when I’m there. These family paintings have traveled
between London and Devon as often as I have. An eccentricity of
mine.” For a moment they walked in silence, and then they stopped.
He said simply, “Skye.” And there was such longing in his voice
that she thrilled.
    Looking shyly up at him, she wondered at the intense passion in
his lime-green eyes. Her palms flattened against his broad chest as
though she would hold him off. “Say nothing, my darling,” he
commanded her, and brushed her lips with his.
    “Geoffrey!” she whispered frantically.
    His mouth moved gently over her face, down the side of her neck,
across the tops of her breasts. He buried his face in the deep scented
valley and felt her heart jumping erratically beneath his mouth. “Let
me love you, Skye. Dear God, how I ache for wanting you, sweet-
heart.” They stood together like that, the black figure and the gold-
and-white one, not moving.
    .There was a discreet scratching at the door, and Southwood in-
stantly stepped back. “Enter!”
    The door swung open, “My lord, the Queen’s barge has been
sighted but a few minutes from here,” announced the footman.
    “Very good.” The footman discreetly withdrew. “I must go to
welcome Her Majesty. I’ll take you back to Robbie, my darling, and
we’ll talk again later.”
    With Robbie on one side of her and Richard de Grenville on the
other, Skye joined the other guests in the garden near the dock,
awaiting the arrival of the Queen.
    “Damme, if you’re not a succulent sight,” said de Grenville.
    “Thank you, m’lord.”
    “Getting mighty close with old Geoff, aren’t you?” remarked de
Grenville. “From the way he behaved at the Rose and Anchor I’d
have thought you’d have not spoken to him again.”
    “Geoffrey apologized very prettily for his behavior, m’lord de
Grenville.”
    “You know, of course, that he’s married,” de Grenville pressed.
    “My lord, what exactly is it you seek to tell me?” Skye asked
firmly.
    De Grenville was discomfited. It would hardly be gentlemanly
or sporting to tell her of the wager he and Southwood had entered
into. “I simply do not wish you to be hurt, my dear, and Geoff is
known to be a bit of a rake,” he said innocently.
    “You’re most kind, m’lord,” she said coolly.
    Trying to regain the lost ground, he changed the subject. “Ah,
Young Bess herself! Look, my dear Skye, the Queen comes.”
    They stood looking out over the garden, across the colorful sea
of guests. The Queen’s barge had docked and now the Earl of
Lynmouth was handing his royal guest out. For a brief moment
Elizabeth stood viewing her subjects. Then a small cheer rippled
across the garden. The young Queen was just twenty-seven, and
even from a distance Skye could see that she was lovely. Tall for
a woman and with an angular slenderness, she, like Skye, had chosen
to wear her hair differently than current fashion dictated. Parted in
the center, it fell in long, red-gold waves down her back. It was
dressed with many strings of pearls. The Queen had chosen to rep-
resent “Springtime” and was gowned in apple-green brocade, heavily
encrusted with gold embroidery and diamonds. Her beautyful long
aristocratic fingers sparkled with rings. Her almond-shaped eyes
glittered like the finest jet and her smile was merry.
    Lord Southwood led his honored guest through the garden,
through the lines of bowing and curtseying courtiers, and into the
ballroom. The ballroom, like the gallery across the hall, extended
the length of the house. The Queen seated herself on a small throne
set upon a raised dais, and one by one the guests approached her
to present themselves. Southwood stood near her throne.
    Escorted by both Robbie and de Grenville, Skye was brought
before the Queen.
    “De Grenville, you rogue! ‘Tis good to see you,” smiled Eliza-
beth. “I was not aware you were up from Devon.”
    “Just today, Majesty,” said de Grenville, kissing her hand.
”Would I miss Southwood’s fete? And a chance to gaze upon En-
gland’s fairest?”
    Elizabeth dimpled prettily. “And who would you present to me,
Dickon?”
    “First, Majesty, an old friend and Devon neighbor, Sir Robert
Small, captain of the Mermaid.”
    Robert Small knelt reverently and kissed the Queen’s hand.
”Madam,” he began, but his eyes filled with tears and he could not
go on.
    “Why, sir. what honor you do me,” said Elizabeth kindly.
    “All England thanks God for Your Majesty,” said Robert Small,
somewhat recovered.
    “All England should thank God for stout seamen like yourself,
Sir Robert,” replied the Queen. “You are our future.” Elizabeth’s
gray-black eyes then flitted over Skye.
    “Mistress Goya del Fuentes, Majesty,” said Geoffrey, from the
Queen’s left.
    Skye’s curtsey was graceful.
    “The lady from Algiers?”
    “Yes, Majesty,” answered Skye, her eyes modestly lowered.
    “I understand your late husband was a merchant prince there.”
    “Yes, Majesty.” Skye looked up, gazing directly at the Queen.
    “You and Sir Robert are business partners? A bit unusual for a
woman, is it not?” “As unusual as it is for a woman to be Queen in her own right,
Majesty. But I have never believed that being a woman meant one
lacked intelligence. Certainly Your Majesty has disproven that no-
tion.” The deep-blue eyes held the grayish black ones.
    Elizabeth Tudor’s eyes narrowed a moment as she studied Skye.
Then she laughed. “You desire a charter of me,” she said. “We will
talk on it soon.” Turning to Southwood, she said girlishly, “My feet
itch, m’lord. Let us begin dancing.”
    Dismissed, Skye swept the Queen another curtsey, and moved
away swiftly on the arms of her two gallants, her black skirts bil-
lowing.
    “By God,” said de Grenville admiringly, “the Queen likes you.
She likes damn few women, Skye. What’s this about a charter?”
    “Robbie and I have formed our own trading company, m’lord,
and Lord Southwood is aiding us in obtaining a royal charter.”
    Damn the man! thought de Grenville. So that’s how he got to
her. I must think hard on this or I may yet lose my barge. He was
about to ask her to dance when Lord Southwood, having opened the
ball with the Queen, approached them and claimed her. Eyes sparkling, Skye gave him her hand, and they moved off into the figure
leaving Robert and de Grenville by the door.
    “He seems quite taken with her, Robbie,” de Grenville murmured
pensively.
    “Aye,” replied the captain, “and I’m afraid she with him.”
    “Lord and Lady Burke,” intoned the majordomo.
    “Who are they, Dickon?” asked Robbie.
    “Southwood’s neighbors on the other side. He’s some Irish chief-
tain’s heir. I suppose Geoffrey felt bound to ask them.”
    The Earl slid an arm tightly about her as they danced the intricate
figure. “If one more of those fops leers at you.” he muttered between
gritted teeth, “I shall resort to my sword.”
    Her laughter bubbled up soft, warm, and rich. “La, Geoffrey,”
she teased, “surely you’re not jealous.”
    “Yes, I’m jealous, and we’ll discuss it later, sweetheart, rest
assured.” Skye laughed, delighted.
    She was having the most wonderful time of her life. The handsome
Earl was outrageously attentive, and there wasn’t a man here who
hadn’t complimented her. She danced every dance, ate supper sur-
rounded by half a dozen gentlemen besides de Grenville and Robbie,
and drank just enough sweet wine to add to her gaiety. At midnight
everyone unmasked to delighted shouts, though most had long ago
identified their friends beneath the ornate masks.
    Across the ballroom, Niall Burke stared in rigid shock at the
beautiful woman in the magnificent diamonds and black velvet who
stood directly across the room from him, laughing up at the Earl of
Lynmouth. It couldn’t be! It simply could not be! Skye was dead!
They had all explained that she was dead, told him and told him
until he’d had no choice but to accept it.
    “By God,” he heard the man next to him saying. “Southwood
was always a lucky devil. If Senora Goya del Fuentes isn’t already
his mistress then she soon will be, judging by the looks passing
between them.”
    “She’s lived in the East,” another man chimed in, “and I imagine
she knows some of the things those harem girls know. God, I
wonder…”
    “Don’t be a young fool, Hugh! Southwood has marked her for
himself as plainly as if he’d put a brand on her forehead. If he
catches you sniffing around her he’ll skewer you without a second
thought.”
    The two men moved away, leaving Niall Burke to his whirling
thoughts. How could two women look so alike? Somehow he must
meet this Senora Goya del Fuentes, but who did he know who could
introduce mem?
    “Will you dance with me, Niall?”
    “What? Constanzita, love-what is it?”
    Constanza laughed, shaking her dark gold curls. “How can any-
one daydream in the midst of all this revelry?” she asked.
    “I’m sorry, my dear. I was admiring the lady across the room in
the black velvet costume. She looks quite familiar.”
    “Senora Goya del Fuentes? Perhaps you do know her. Though
her husband was a Spaniard, she is Irish.”
    He thought he might be sick, but he gripped his emotions. “How
do you know that, Constanza?”
    “She owns Greenwood, the house on the other side of this one,
the last one in the row. Our bargeman and hers are brothers. The
maids and the bargemen gossip, and I hear things from my tiring
woman. They say the Earl is mad for her.”
    “A lady does not listen to servant’s gossip,” he cut her off curtly.
”I wish to go home now.”
    She was hurt, and protested, “But it’s just after midnight. Even
the Queen is still here. It would be rude to leave before the Queen
herself leaves.”
    “I am not well, Constanza,” he said sharply, “and I wish to leave.”
    Instantly contrite, she reached up to feel his forehead. “You do
feel warm, my love. We will make our apologies to Lord South wood,
but say that I am ill. He will understand that better.”
    They moved across the room and approached the Earl of Lyn-
mouth, who was gazing down at Skye, his white velvet-clad arm
around her midnight velvet shoulders. They made an extraordinarily
handsome couple. Southwood smiled as they approached.
    “My lord Burke, I hope you and your lovely lady are enjoying
yourselves.” Geoffrey smiled graciously. “Allow me to present our
new neighbor, Senora Goya del Fuentes. Skye. Sweetheart, Lord
and Lady Burke own the house on the other side of me.”
    “Also built by your grandfather for a belle amie?” she teased
him.
    The Earl laughed. He was so intent on Skye that he did not notice
Niall Burke’s stunned look. Her voice! It was her voice! Her name
and her voice.
    “Lord and Lady Burke. I am delighted to meet you,” she looked
straight at Niall without a flicker of recognition. Her voice reflected
only politeness. Niall Burke thought he was surely going mad. Mas-
tering his fear and anguish, he said, “You’ll forgive us, my lord,
if we leave early. Constanza complains of one of her violent head-
aches.”
    “I am sorry,” replied the Earl, immediately sympathetic.
    “Have you tried infusing witchhazel bark in warm water, then soaking a soft linen cloth in it and putting it on your forehead, Lady
Burke?”
    “Why thank you, Senora Goya del Fuentes, I have not heard of
that but I shall try it.” murmured Constanza. Feeling Niall’s grip on
her arm becoming insistent, she curtseyed and turned away.
    “What a strange man,” said Skye. watching the Burkes’ retreating
backs. “He stared so intently at me.”
    Geoffrey laughed. “I wonder why. Could it be because you’re
the most beautiful woman here?” He lowered his voice. “Sweetheart,
you know what I want to say to you.”
    “Yes,” she replied softly, her cheeks growing hot.
    “If I come to you tonight, my darling…”
    “I know I’m behaving like a damned coy maid,” she answered
him, “but no man had ever loved me but my dearest lord. I don’t
know if I could let you, Geoffrey. I want you, but I’m afraid. Can
you understand?”
    “When the Queen leaves,” he said quietly, “go home and wait
for me. We will talk, Skye. I love you, and what is between us must
be resolved. You feel that, too, don’t you?”
    She nodded at him, her eyes huge and deepest blue. He smiled
reassuringly at her, and the icy fear she had felt deep inside her
dissolved in a quick, warm glow. He loved her! He had said so
plainly!
    Her soaring thoughts were interrupted as de Grenville arrived.
”The Queen would speak with you, Mistress Skye. Allow me to
escort you,” he offered.
    “We shall both escort you, my love,” said the Earl firmly.
    As they reached Elizabeth, the Queen ordered her page to bring
a stool for Skye. Then she waved the two gallants away without a
word, her beautiful hands gesturing imperiously. “You’re popular
with the gentlemen, mistress,” Elizabeth commented as the two men
moved away.
    Skye laughed. “My lord de Grenville is an old friend of my
business partner, Sir Robert Small. Like Robbie, he feels he must
protect me.”
    “And that rogue, Southwood?”
    “The Earl does not feel… protective toward me,” Skye twinkled
and Elizabeth laughed, the deep gray eyes bright.
    “An understatement, mistress!” she chuckled. “A woman of wit,
I see. I like that! Tell me of yourself now. How did you come to
be Sir Robert Small’s partner?”
    “Of myself there is little to tell, Majesty. I am Irish, or so I have
been told. I was left in a convent in Algiers at a very young age and
I know nothing about my background. Several years ago I was wed to a wealthy Spanish merchant of that city. Robbie was his partner.
When my lord died two years ago I was forced to flee Algiers
because a Turkish governor had plans to force me into his harem.
Robbie rescued me and my husband’s French secretary, Jean Marlaix, and his wife Marie. She and I were both with child when we
fled. My daughter was born here in England, for which I thank
God.”
    “So you arrived here a poor widow, and Sir Robert Small took
you in?”
    “Poor? Oh, no, madam! I had, by Moslem law, one month to
mourn my husband. During that time I secretly arranged for the sale
of all my husband’s goods and properties and I had the monies
transferred to England. Oh, no, madam! My daughter and I are
hardly penniless.”
    “ Ton my soul, mistress, you are a cool one. I like that. Indeed
I do. So you have gone into business with Sir Robert Small, have
you? Good! I like an intelligent woman, one who uses her brain as
well as her body. Are you at all educated? You must be.”
    “Yes, Majesty. I speak and read English, French, Italian, Spanish,
and Latin. I can write and am competent with figures.”
    “Very well, mistress. I am impressed with what I see and hear.
Cecil will arrange an appointment with you and Sir Robert. We will
all talk. I think perhaps a royal charter will be forthcoming.”
    Skye rose and curtseyed deeply. “Majesty, I am most grateful.”
    Elizabeth stood. Instantly the Earl of Lynmouth appeared by her
side.
    “Southwood, I am weary. It has been a busy holiday season.
Escort me to my barge.”
    The Queen and her escort moved between the bowing and curt-
seying guests, a path to the door opening before them. Robert and
de Grenville took possession of Skye once more.
    “Will you stay, Skye lass?”
    “No, Robbie, I am tired. I have already bid Geoffrey good night.
Please escort me to my coach. But you remain if you like.”
    “I’ll go. I’m longing for a good pint and a warm wench. The
atmosphere here is too rarefied to suit me. De Grenville, will you
join me?”
    “Aye,” came the smiling reply.
    ‘Take my coach,” offered Skye.
    “Ah, lass, bless your generosity.”
    They left her safe inside her house, and drove off. Skye handed
her cloak to Walters, her majordomo. “Lock up,” she said, “Captain
Small will not be back tonight.”
    “Very well, madam.”
    Skye hurried up the stairs to her apartment, where Daisy awaited
her.
    “Oh, mum, did you see her? Did you see Young Bess? We
watched her barge from the top of the house!”
    “Yes, Daisy, I met the Queen. We spoke twice this evening, and
I shall see her again.”
    Daisy’s eyes were round with excitement. “Is she pretty, close
up?”
    “Yes, Daisy, she is very pretty, with lovely fair skin and red-gold
hair and bright gray eyes.”
    “Oh, mum, when I tell me mother back in Devon that I saw the
Queen’s barge, and that my mistress even spoke to her! She’ll be
so proud!”
    Skye smiled. ‘Tomorrow I shall tell you what the Queen wore
tonight, but for now help me get ready for bed.”
    Obediently Daisy went to work, unlacing her mistress’s gown,
helping her disrobe. The beautiful velvet gown was brushed carefully
and hung back in the wardrobe. Silken undergarments were gathered
up to be given to the laundress. Skye slipped into a pale-pink silk
gown with a deep V neckline secured by tiny pearl buttons. The
long full sleeves floated, the skirt clung.
    Daisy brought a silver basin of warmed rose water, and Skye
washed her face and hands and cleaned her teeth. “Shall I brush your
hair, mum?”
    “Nay, Daisy, I’ll do it. It’s late. Go to bed.”
    Daisy curtseyed. “Good night then, mum.”
    “Good night, Daisy.”
    The door closed behind the little maid, and Skye sat down at her
dressing table. Slowly she removed the diamond and pearl ornaments
and drew the gold and tortoiseshell pins from her hair. It tumbled
down, a night-dark cloud. Picking up her brush, she vigorously
brushed the tangles out, all the while wondering if Geoffrey would
come… and if she really wanted him to. What would happen if he
did come?
    She laughed. What would happen, indeed! She would become
his mistress, of course. She frowned. Was that what she wanted?
To become some nobleman’s mistress? Oh, damn! She was burning
for a man’s caress, the hardness of a man’s body on hers. Might she
not have a discreet affair and let it go at that? Surely he would
understand her desire for privacy. If he did not, then she would stop
the affair.
    The sound of something scraping against her window startled her.
She ran to the window and looked out, then quickly jumped back.
Pebbles were being thrown at the window! She laughed and flung the casements wide. Below stood the Earl of Lynmouth, still in his
white and gold costume, grinning impudently up at her. “I’m coming
up,” he whispered, loudly enough for her to hear. “Leave the win-
dows open, Skye.”
    “But how,” she began, and gasped as he reached out and grasped
at a thick vine growing up the bricked side of the house. He swung
himself up and began climbing. She watched, holding her breath,
until he was safely on the sill.
    “Good evening, sweetheart,” he drawled lazily, vaulting lightly
into the room. In one fluid motion he drew the casements shut behind
him and pulled her into his arms. “Skye!” His voice was husky with
emotion. His hands reached up to tangle themselves in her hair. Her
deep blue eyes grew wide and her breath caught in her throat. She
could not speak. “Sweet, sweet Skye,” he whispered, and then his
mouth took full and complete possession of hers. Geoffrey kissed
her passionately, deeply, the kiss vibrating through her. Thrill after
thrill rippled through her as his lips gently persuaded hers to open,
allowing his silken tongue to rove unchecked, to meet and subdue
hers. “Skye, sweet, sweet Skye,” he murmured against the softness
of her neck, her final defenses weakening. She shivered deliciously.
    His Fingers undid the little pearl buttons at the deep V of her
gown. One arm held tightly about her slender waist. His other hand
sought one firm and perfect breast,, cupping it, fondling it, his eager
mouth seeking the tightly closed flower of her nipple. The warm
mouth closed over its quivering prisoner, his tongue expertly encir-
cling it again and again until she thought she could stand no more
and whimpered a small protest. In response he lifted his swooning
treasure up and carried her to the bed. There he resumed delightful
loveplay concentrating mis time on her other breast.
    Her body was now helpless to the passion he was igniting in her,
yet her mind rebelled at the thought of seduction. Desperate, she
tried to stop him, finally finding her voice.
    “Geoffrey, no! Oh, please no!” For a moment he didn’t hear her
and she cried out softly again, this time twining her slender fingers
in his hair and pulling. “Geoffrey! Oh, Geoffrey, please no!”
    Slowly, reluctantly, he raised his head from the warm bounty of
her breasts. His lime-green eyes were glazed and heavy with passion.
”Tell me, Skye,” he said quietly, “tell me.”
    She gazed at him helplessly, all the logical reasons for stopping
now whirling out of her reach. Their eyes locked, and he said quietly,
”You’re shy of this for you’ve always been a virtuous woman. I
know that. I cannot wish away my wife. If I could I would do so.
I love you, and I sense beneath the respectable widow a naughty
little sensualist who hungers for me as much as I hunger for her.”
    She flushed. “What is so wrong in our pleasuring each other?” She
sighed, still trying to find words. He was so damnably persuasive.
Then Geoffrey Southwood reached out and, taking her hand, drew
it to his codpiece. Beneath her fingers she felt the hard throb of him.
    “Oh, Geoffrey!”
    “I won’t beg, Skye.” He had the weapon to force her, but some-
how he couldn’t bring himself to use it. He wanted to win her fairly
for the victory would be so much sweeter. I do love her! he thought
exultantly. Oh, my love, let me have the precious gift of you! And
as if she had heard his silent plea, she sobbed, “Oh, Geoffrey, yes!
Yes! Yes! Yes!”
    He pulled her from the bed and gently drew her gown away. To
his surprised delight, she reached out and, with trembling fingers,
undid his ruffled shirt. Together they drew his breeches and hose
off, and then fell back upon the bed. He wanted to take her then and
there, but getting a mighty hold on himself, he held back. She was
not to be used quickly. Her surrender would be so much better for
the waiting.
    She lay shyly, half afraid and confused, almost as though she
were a maid once more. The Earl moved downward upon the bed
and grasping her right foot began kissing it-the top, each toe, the
arch, and the heel. His lips moved oh so slowly to her ankle, and
up her leg to the shapely calf, her dimpled knee, her long silken
thigh. Moving downward again, he performed his tender ministra-
tions on her left foot and leg.
    Returning to her lips, he nibbled at them briefly, leaving her
gasping before finding again the sensual warmth of her breasts. Once
more he sucked eagerly on the ripe fruit, tempting them to tiny
aching peaks, making them tingle with anticipation. Her beautiful
body was an unexplored land and he didn’t want to miss a single
inch of it.
    How firm her waist was. He nuzzled the curves of it, feeling the
warm smoothness against his cheek. His hands held her firmly about
the hips as his lips slipped across the silken flesh of her belly. His
tongue probed teasingly into her little navel, then slid lower, seeking
the very core of her. Gently he parted the lips of her vulva. It was
already half open, the coral-red flower of womanhood wet and pout-
ing with desire. Bending his head he kissed it, tasting the sweet-salt
taste of her. She gasped her shock, her fingers twined tightly in his
dark-blond hair, and her body arced to meet his mouth.
    Smiling his pleasure, he lifted his head up and said quietly, “Not
yet, sweetheart. It’s much too soon yet.”
    “Please,” she pleaded. Her excitement was so great that she
thought she would die if it weren’t satisfied.
    “Not yet, Skye,” he repeated. “I will teach you to enjoy the
anticipation, to prolong the pleasures.” He turned her over gently
and she felt him licking her back, her shoulders, her buttocks, her
legs. Slowly, rhythmically, his knowing tongue stroked her smooth
skin, increasing her fever. Her arms lay above her head and she
clawed at the sheets, digging fiercely into the mattress. Then, sud-
denly, he laid his naked body on top of her and rubbed his great
organ between the cheeks of her bottom.
    Now she fought him, catching him unawares, and throwing him
off her, rolling onto her back, hissing angrily, “Bastard! You’re no
angel but a devil! No more!”
    Laughing, he pinned her down and kissed her until she couldn’t
breathe. Then he raised her legs and, drawing them over his shoul-
ders, buried his face between them. His tongue found her honey,
and he used her furiously until she came, his mouth forcing her
climax.
    “Damn you! Damn you!” she cried, weeping in frustration for
she still was not satisfied.
    “Look at me, my hot little bitch!”
    She squeezed her eyes tightly closed. “No!”
    “Look at me, Skye!”
    At the cruel sharp note in his voice she opened her sapphire eyes
and looked into his green ones. “I’ve fallen in love with you, bitch,
and I’ll not take you like a whore.” He rubbed his big blue-veined
organ against her belly. “This is what you want, isn’t it?”
    “Yes!”
    “You’ll have it in good time, Skye. In fact… I’ll give it to you
now.” He spread her wide. “All of it, sweetheart!” He drove deeply,
enjoying her gasp, the incredulous look on her face.
    He was huge and he filled her to overflowing, pushing upward
to touch at her very womb as he moved his great shaft skillfully,
drawing it nearly all the way out, then thrusting home again. For
a moment Skye thought she would be torn asunder, but her body
stretched to receive him, almost devouring him in her desperate
hunger. She clawed at his back and he caught her arms and pinioned
them above her head. She bit into his shoulder, drawing blood, then
licked furiously at the wound. He slapped her very lightly, cursing
softly at her sharp little teeth.
    The pleasure and the pain mingled about and within her. She had
known great love, but never had she known such passion. It con-
sumed her, leaving room for nothing else. Onward he drove her,
and she reached peak after peak, believing each time that it was not
possible to go any further, yet cresting higher and higher. Behind
her closed eyelids the world exploded into a rainbow of shattered glass. She felt the contractions of an orgasm so great that she be-
lieved death was about to overtake her. Over and over and over
again her body shuddered with the force of her passion.
    He had joined her in ecstasy, climax for climax, then slowly he
regained his senses and managed to roll off her body. For a moment
he could but stare at her. She was white and barely breathing. Sitting
up, he tenderly gathered her into his arms. She was cold and he
strove to warm her. No woman had ever driven him as far as she
had done. No woman had ever satisfied him as much as she, and
no woman had ever given of herself as fully as she.
    Yes, he loved her. And de Grenville could keep his damned
barge. He had no intention of jeopardizing his love over an insane
bet. Why had he made the damned bet? If Dickon dared breathe a
word of their foolishness, he’d call him out.
    She stirred in his arms, and slowly her beautiful blue eyes flut-
tered open again. She searched his face fearfully for a sign of
reassurance. He gently smoothed her tangled dark hair from her
forehead and said simply, “Don’t ever leave me, Skye.”
    “I won’t, Geoffrey.”
    For Geoffrey Southwood this was the first love he had felt since
his pretty, young mother had died in another futile attempt at child-
bearing, when Geoffrey was still quite young. His father’s only son,
Geoffrey had been born just ten months after his parents’ wedding
day. His mother next produced a daughter, Geoffrey’s only full
sister, Catherine, who was married now and living in Cornwall. His
stepmother had birthed his two half-sisters, one of whom was now
wed to a Worcestershire baron, the other to a wealthy Devon squire.
She had died, along with a stillborn son. His father had not married
again.
    His father had been proud of Geoffrey, but had forbidden what
he considered soft treatment for his son. At seven, Geoffrey had left
his own home to grow up in the household of the Earl of Shrewsbury,
as his own son was now doing. He lived with half a dozen other
young nobles, learning manners, morals, politics, and the business
of being a great lord, but there was no room for love in that life.
It was three years before he saw his home again and then he was
allowed but a single month’s visit. Only his youngest half-sister,
Elizabeth, was still at home, the two older girls already having been
settled in other noble households to learn the business of becoming
successful wives and mothers. Though Beth had admired the elegant
and polished ten-year-old boy, young Geoffrey was far too puffed
up by his own importance to pay the little girl much attention.
    The following year when he returned for his month, Beth was
gone. The next year he was twelve, and married the little heiress whose life had meant so little to Geoffrey and whose untimely death
left him wealthy in his own right. Both his mother and stepmother
had died. He scarcely knew his sisters, his father had flatly dis-
couraged affection, and his mousy, unimaginative wife was not to
his taste and never had been. This mysterious and beautiful woman
who lay by his side had given him more than any other person. It
was perhaps not so surprising, then, that he was falling in love with
her with an innocence extraordinary in a worldly man.
    He wrapped an arm about her and she nestled close, her thoughts
beginning to reassemble. Her beloved Khalid had given her much
joy, but she admitted to herself that she had never known such
passion as this. It was frightening, yet it was magnificent. Their
bodies seemed to have been created expressly for one another.
    That Geoffrey had wanted more than a one-night affair with her
had been obvious from the first. He said he loved her, and she was
beginning to believe it. Too, Skye was not foolish. She knew she
was a stranger in a country foreign to all she had known in Algiers.
And when Robbie left, as he soon would, she would be without a
man’s protection. Her business had to be run here, not from Devon.
If she intended staying in London then she must have a protector.
    She should marry again, but after Khalid el Bey, who would suit
her? She was too exotic and, she believed, too well-born, to wed
with a mere London merchant. On the other hand, she was not
sufficiently high bom for a lord. Since Geoffrey was married, there
seemed only one course open to her. Though she shrank from it,
she knew she must take it. To cap the argument, there was also
Willow to think of.
    It would not be so awful. Geoffrey was handsome, and in love
with her. He would treat her well, and since she need not rely on
him for financial support she would retain a great measure of in-
dependence. This would set her above other men’s mistresses. And
as his acknowledged mistress she would be safe from other men,
for no man in his right mind would dare approach the Earl of Lyn-
mouth’s woman!
    Geoffrey’s breathing had become quite regular. How handsome
he was in sleep, very much the Angel Earl of his nickname once
sleep took the cynical and faintly arrogant look from his face. There
was an almost vulnerable look, though he was indeed a strong personality. She let her eyes wander from his face to his wide shoulders
and broad chest, down to his narrow waist and slim hips. His legs
were long, shapely, and covered with a fine pale golden down. His
feet were slender, high-arched, the nails neatly pared. Her eyes
wandered upward again to his sex, limp now and settled cozily in
its nest of soft blond hair. It looked so sweet and harmless now, yet a short while ago it had been a great, blue-veined beast driving her
to pleasures she hadn’t known existed. She wanted to reach out and
touch him.
    “I trust it all meets with your approval, sweetheart.”
    She started and color flooded her face. She gasped.
    He chuckled, then opened his lime-colored eyes and, reaching
up, pulled her down into his arms. “So, witch, you were taking
inventory of me. I ask, does it meet with your approval?” Kissing
her ear, he ran his tongue around it, then thrust in and tickled her.
    She squirmed, shivering deliciously. “Stop it, Geoffrey! Yes!
Yes! Your assets certainly do meet with my approval.”
    He cupped a breast in his hand, rubbing the nipple. “The Queen
will be resting for the next few days, so I am free. I want to take
you away somewhere and spend all my time making love to you.”
    “Yes!” she replied, slightly surprised at herself.
    He chuckled again. “How flattering you are, and how honest. I
approve, sweetheart. I know of an inn about half a day’s ride up the
river. It’s small and elegant, and the food is excellent. I am well
known to the landlord.”
    “Do you take all your mistresses there?” she said more sharply
than she would have wished.
    ‘i have never taken any woman there,” he said softly, understanding her. “It is my own special place when I wish to escape the
trials of being who I am. I thought we would go there and see if,
after spending several days with me, you would like to become my
mistress. That way, if you decide against it, our liaison will remain
our secret. Though it would please me to shout our love to the world,
I would not embarrass you publicly.”
    “Geoffrey. I am so sorry I spoke in haste. And I thank you for
being so considerate.”
    “Sweetheart. I have had several mistresses in my day, but you’ve
been a wife. It’s hard for you, I know, to reconcile yourself to this
position.” He took her face in one hand and kissed her tenderly.
”God, you’ve got the sweetest mouth!”
    She felt herself growing languid again and she leaned back. Sigh-
ing happily, her deep blue eyes warm, she said, “Damn you, Geof-
frey. What is it you do to me that one kiss renders me weak-and
wanton besides.”
    “What do you do to me, Skye, that renders me insatiable?”
    Quickly they were in each other’s arms again, their mouths and
tongues and hands devouring each other. Bodies entwined, they
kissed until their mouths were bruised and both were breathless.
Already aroused, his manhood beat against her thigh. Reaching
down, she caressed him with teasing fingers, reaching out to cup the soft pouch beneath his shaft, running a sure finger firmly beneath
it, hearing his gasp of surprised pleasure.
    There was no excruciating waiting this time. She parted her thighs
easily and he slid into her warmth. Confident now, she tightened
her vaginal muscles about him as Yasmin had taught her. “Jesus!”
he cried out softly as the wave of pleasure overpowered him. He
drew back to thrust deeper yet, and again she tightened around him.
”Stop, witch!” he begged. “It’s the most delightful torture I’ve en-
dured, but stop before I die. I want to pleasure you, too!”
    Her arms were tight about him and as she loosened her grip on
him he began to murmur softly to her, “Little witch, I knew that
beneath the ladylike demeanor there was a passionate wanton, Open
yourself to me, my darling. God, how warm and sweet you are!
How your little honey oven burns for me-pleasures me-loves me!”
He moved rhythmically with long, smooth strokes, each thrust seem-
ing to go deeper than the one before. She could feel herself opening
wide to receive him, taking him all, wanting even more. Oh, God,
she wanted more! Sobbing, she felt her climax bearing down on her
like a great wind, slamming into her with such force that she fainted,
hearing as she slid away into the dark warmth his cry of pleasure.
    Her first awareness was the kisses he was covering her face with.
Dear God, she thought, that he can rouse me to such heights! She
opened her eyes and smiled tremulously at him, her eyes brilliant
with tears. He smiled back and ran a slim finger tenderly down her
nose. “You’ve bewitched me, my blue-eyed love. Tomorrow after-
noon we shall ride upriver to the Ducks and Drake. For several days
we shall do nothing other, than make love in a beautiful room that
overlooks the river, and eat and drink sweet wine. I shall bind you
to me so you’ll never want to leave me, sweetheart. Never!” His
mouth closed over hers again, kissing her deeply. Then he loosed
her and rose from the bed. He drew on his clothing quickly and
smiled down at her. “We had best keep our liaison a secret for now,
sweetheart.” His green eyes glittered. “Though you’ve probably not
made up your mind about me yet, I’ve made up my mind about you.
I mean to have you, sweetheart!” He bent again and placed a firm,
light kiss on her forehead. “Sleep well, my darling. I’ve no doubt
I’ve fair worn you out.” He walked across the room, lifted a tapestry
hanging on the wall, and pressed a panel. A door swung open.
    Skye gasped. “Where,” she demanded, “does that passage lead?”
    ‘To my house,” he replied, a hint of laughter in his voice. “Re-
member-my grandfather built this house for his mistress.”
    “Then there was no need to climb up to my window?”
    “No, sweetheart, but I did think it was most romantic, didn’t
you?”
    She began to laugh. “Geoffrey. I’m not so sure you’re not a
madman!”
    He grinned. Then, blowing her a kiss, he disappeared through
the passage and the door swung shut behind him.
    “What manner of man have I involved myself with?” she said
softly aloud. A damned interesting one, the voice in her head an-
swered, and she laughed into the darkness.

Chapter 16

    The following morning, Skye sent Daisy to find Robert Small.
The little captain had rolled in, a good hour past dawn, much
the worse for wear. When he finally made an appearance,
rumpled and red-eyed, Skye winced. “Oh, Robbie, how many
pints did you drink?”
    He gave her a weak grin, “It wasn’t the pints so much as the
wenches. They were twins, and just sixteen. Ah, youth!”
    “Did your friend de Grenville survive?”
    “Barely. Thank God we had your carriage. I left him in the care
of his majordomo. For a Devon sailor, though, he has a mighty
weak stomach.”
    Skye bit back the laughter bubbling in her throat. It would have
been unkind. “I’m going away for a few days,” she said quietly.
Though this is a secret, I will be upriver at an inn called the Ducks
and Drake. Should there be an emergency you’ll know where to find
me.”
    “You’ll not be alone.” It was a statement.
    “No, I’ll not be alone, Robbie.”
    Robbie sighed. “Skye, lass, I’ll not have you hurt. Southwood
is such a cold bastard.”
    “Not with me, Robbie. Besides, though this will sound terrible,
do not love him. I doubt I shall ever love anyone again. Khalid
is too strong in my memory. But I do like Lord Southwood. And
Rlobbie, you know that I must have a powerful protector. Come
spring, you’ll be off again, and be gone for months. I am a woman
done. I have no family but my daughter. My whole life began with
Khalid. I have no past. With the Queen’s charter, our business should
flourish and with the Earl’s protection I will be free to run it, and
free from the bothersome advances of other men.”
    “But the price, Skye.”
    “Being Southwood’s acknowledged mistress?” she laughed.
”What else is there for me? Marriage? With whom? And you know
that I need wealth to give me the power and respectability that will
secure Willow’s future. I loved Khalid and I was proud of him, but
what future would my daughter have if it were known here that her
father was the great Whoremaster of Algiers? No, Robbie, the price
is not greater than the rewards. The Earl of Lynmouth has never had
an acknowledged mistress of my stature, and I don’t expect him to
replace me soon. When Willow is grown she will be an heiress with
a powerful ‘uncle.’ I shall be able to make a good match for her.”
    Robbie shrugged. “You’ve thought it all out, I see, as usual.
There’s no arguing with a logical woman. Should I wish you hap-
piness, then?”
    “He loves me, Robbie. It’s not just that he’s said it. He means
it. A woman knows when she’s being lied to, Robbie, and I hope
I’m not easy to fool.”
    “Ah, lass. I only want you happy.”
    “I know, Robbie. Don’t fret. I’m not unhappy.”
    He patted her hand awkwardly, and she bent and kissed his ruddy
cheek. “Oh, Robbie, what would I do without you? You’re my best
friend!”
    In the early afternoon Robbie stood in the doorway and watched
sadly as she rode off down the drive of Greenwood, keeping her red
horse to a slow trot. Earlier he had gone down to the Thames and
arranged for a waterman to take her little trunk upriver to the Ducks
and Drakes. He sighed. He wished he were happier about the liaison.
    Skye had been radiant when she departed. She wasn’t worried
and enjoyed herself very much. Dressed quite elegantly in a black
velvet riding habit, ecru lace at the sleeves and a froth of lace
bubbling up at the neckline as well, she cut a superb figure. Her
cloak was made up of alternating bands of sable fur and black velvet
with heavy carved gold frog closings. The attached hood was edged
in the same dark sable, and made a perfect contrast to her creamy
complexion. Her black boots were of the finest Spanish leather, her
cream-colored scented gloves of French kid. Her big red gelding
adored her with a singular devotion.
    As Skye had explained to Robbie, she and the Earl would meet
a mile or so from the Strand, on the river road. They were less likely
to be seen together at that point. The afternoon was cold and clear,
and Skye fought the urge to set her horse acantering. Since noon
was the dinner hour, few people were out. She had ridden for some
minutes when she heard the steady beat of hooves behind her and turned to see a tall man riding a large black stallion.
    “Senora Goya del Fuentes, I bid you a good day.”
    “Sir?”
    “Niall, Lord Burke. We met last night at the Earl of Lynmouth’s
gala.”
    Her gaze swept over the tall dark man with the silvery eyes. He
was really quite attractive, she thought, but he looked disapproving
of her. and Skye found herself growing annoyed.
    “Oh, yes, of course. How is your wife’s headache, my lord?”
    “Gone, thank you.” He moved his horse next to hers. “Do you
generally ride unescorted, madam? A dangerous practice, I would
say.”
    “I am meeting someone just a short ways away, my lord. I scarce-
ly thought a groom necessary,” she dismissed his question. How
dared he criticize her! But Lord Burke was not easily dismissed.
    “I understand you were raised in Algiers.” The silvery eyes looked
at her searchingly.
    “Yes, my lord, I was.”
    “Your parents were Irish?”
    “So I was told, my lord.”
    “Didn’t you know them?” He was incredulous.
    “I do not remember them, my lord. I was brought by a sea captain
to the convent of St. Mary and placed in the care of the nuns there.”
    “Your name is unusual,” he noted, after a moment.
    “It was what I called myself when I arrived there, though the
nuns added Mary to it, thinking Skye not quite Christian.” Now why
dad she embroidered her tale? What did it matter if her name was
Skye? Damn the man! Why didn’t he go about his business? She
was almost sure that Geoffrey was around the next bend in the road.
She flashed Burke a sweet smile. “I must go now, sir. My friend
will be waiting.” And before he could protest she put spurs to her
horse and was gone.
    He could not make a display by following her, so he was forced
to continue at a sedate trot. As he rounded the curve in the road,
he saw her moving away accompanied by a man on a big chestnut
stallion. It was likely Lord Southwood, thought Niall bitterly, re-
membering the gossip he had overheard last night.
    Now Niall was more confused than ever. She looked and spoke
like Skye O’Malley. Even her name was the same. It had to be his
Skye and yet… He shook his head. She gave no sign of recognizing
him.
    Then it struck him that perhaps she had survived after all, but
had been despoiled by her captors, incarcerated in a harem, and was ashamed to face him. Maybe she was putting on an act for his
benefit? Ah then, said his saner self, how pray tell did she escape
captivity? And there was a child, too. And Captain Sir Robert Small,
a most reputable man, not only supported her story, but appeared
to be her protector.
    Then another thought struck him. A sea captain had left her in
Algiers. Had it been Dubhdara himself? Was it possible she was one
of the old man’s bastards? God knows he’d had enough of them.
The old satyr had never denied his urges. But if Dubhdara had done
that, the question was, why?
    Sighing, Niall turned his horse back toward the Strand. He had
been on his way home when he saw her riding out from her house,
and he followed her in order to speak with her. He was being foolish.
It was just a coincidence of names and looks. He had a wife who
loved him and his Skye was dead. He had to believe that. Otherwise
he might well go mad.
    The Earl of Lynmouth and Skye rode happily together. Geoffrey
Southwood was wildly in love for the only time in his life, and he
was now to have three lovely days alone with his beloved.
    “You’re beautiful,” he growled, and she laughed happily, throw-
ing back her head so that her hood fell off, exposing her face and
the pure white pillar of her neck. He wanted to stop, pull her from
her horse, and cover that smooth creamy throat with his kisses.
”How is it,” he continued, “that you are as fair in sunlight as in
moonlight? Do you know you’ve bewitched me, Senora Goya del
Fuentes?”
    She colored becomingly, her lashes making charcoal smudges
against her pink cheeks. “My lord, you make me feel shy of you.”
    “Why, Skye! Didn’t anyone ever pay you outrageous compli-
ments?”
    “My husband.” It was stated simply.
    “Sweetheart, sweetheart. I am sorry! Would you rather we went
back?”
    “No, Geoffrey. I don’t want to go back.”
    He breathed a sigh of relief and cursed himself for a fool. This
was only her first adventure, and she was hesitant. Reaching out,
he took her hand and silently they rode on together. All about them
the English January day was magnificent-the sky a cloudless bright
blue, the sun a sharp piercing yellow, the air cold, crisp, and in-
vigorating. Their own warm breath and the horses’ heaving breaths
made tiny clouds. The Thames River valley rolled gently, on and
on. The lovers seemed entirely alone in the world, like Adam and
Eve.
    Skye rode quietly with her thoughts. She liked this man, though
she doubted she would ever love him or any other man again. Love
was both a passion and a pain. She didn’t think she could bear
another loss like the loss of Khalid. If she simply enjoyed Geoffrey’s
company and his lovemaking, she would be safe from hurt.
    As the January sun began to sink away they came to a charming
small inn set upon the river bank. It was separated from the road
by a low stone wall that opened into a brick courtyard. Upon either
side of the entry hung an oval sign depicting a drake surrounded by
several ducks. The building was whitewashed and half-timbered,
with a thatched roof and lead-paned bow windows that had win-
dow boxes filled with holly and ivy. From the great brick center
chimney rose a curl of gray-blue smoke. As they clattered up to the
inn door an ostler ran out from the stable to take their horses.
Geoffrey’s hands lingered on Skye’s waist as he lifted her from her
horse, and she felt her skin tingling against her silk undergarments.
Taking her hand firmly in his, he led her into the inn.
    “My lord Southwood!” A tall, moon-faced man came forward.
”Welcome, my lord, my lady. We received your message this morn-
ing, my lord, and your room is ready. There will be no other guests
for the duration of your stay.”
    “My thanks, Master Parker. I think we will have dinner as soon
as it can be made ready. It’s been a cold ride.”
    “Very good, my lord! Rose! Where is that lass? Rose!”
    “Here, Dad!”
    “Escort my lord Southwood and his lady to their room, girl.”
    Rose, a very buxom young lady whose ample bosom threatened
to overflow its blouse, bobbed a curtsey, and smiled saucily at the
Earl. “This way, m’lord, madam,” she said, leading them not up-
stairs but down a short sunlit hallway and into a small wing off the
main inn building. The door swung open to reveal a charming white
room with a bowed window, large fireplace, and big carved oak bed
with heavy green and white linen hangings. Dark beams timbered
the walls and ceiling. On one side of the fireplace was a round
polished table holding a brown glazed earthenware bowl filled with
pine boughs. There were two matching chairs. At the foot of the
bed was a blanket chest. There was a seat built into the window,
with plump cushions of the same homespun green and white linen
as the bed hangings.
    Rose touched a brand to the perfectly laid fire and it blazed up
instantly. “Your trunks are on either side of the bed, m’lord,” she
said. “Can I bring you anything?”
    Geoffrey looked to Skye. “Sweetheart?”
    The little maid almost sighed her envy of the beautiful lady. “A
bath,” pleaded Skye. “I can smell nothing but horses.”
    He smiled down on her, then turned to Rose. “Will you see to
it, love?” His big hand cupped the girl’s face, and he looked down
into her bovine brown eyes.
    Rose nearly fainted. “A-aye, m’lord. A b-bath. At once!”
    He dropped his hand and she spun about and fled. He laughed
softly, and Skye chided him, “Oh, Geoffrey, what a wicked man
you are.”
    He grinned at her. “I suppose I am,” he admitted. Then “I’ll bathe
with you. I stink of horses too.” Reaching out, he pulled her into
his arms, pushed her hood off, and loosened her hair so that it
tumbled down her back in a shining black mass. One strong arm
pressed her tightly against him. The other hand caressed her silken
hair. She could feel herself growing weak with his touch, and fought
to control her emotions. His green eyes mocked her efforts, and for
a moment she became angry and struggled to escape him. He released
her instantly.
    “I’ll never force you, Skye,” he said aloud. The thought lay
between them: because I don’t have to.
    There was a scratching at the door and then a sturdy boy lugged
in a small round oak tub. Several other boys carried in buckets of
water. Rose ordered the tub placed before the fire, and set a carved
screen about it. When the tub was filled and the male servants gone,
she asked, “Shall I stay and help you, madam?”
    “Thank you, Rose. I should appreciate it.” Her blue eyes twinkled
wickedly. “Sorry, Geoffrey, but the tub is much too small for us
both, as you can see. You will have to bathe after me.” It was a
small but delicious revenge, and she was hard pressed not to laugh.
She slipped behind the modesty of the screen and slowly removed
each garment.
    Sitting on the bed, he watched through narrowed eyes as first her
velvet riding habit and then her perfumed, silken undergarments
were handed over the screen to the solicitous Rose. Soon he heard
the water splashing gently as she lowered herself into the tub.
    “Will you need help, madam?”
    “No, Rose. I can wash myself.”
    “I’ll take your riding habit and cloak to be brushed, ma’am, and
your underclothing to be washed. Then I’ll come back.”
    “Don’t bother, I will care for my lady,” said the Earl as he
escorted the servant girl to the door and firmly thrust her out. To
sweeten the rebuff he slipped a gold piece down her front and,
patting her backside, sent her on her way. The door was shut, the
bolt slammed home. “And now, madam!” He strode across the room and yanked the carved screen aside. She sat covered by suds, her
dark hair loosely pinned on top of her head. She looked up at him
mockingly.
    “My lord?”
    He stripped off his clothes, letting them lie where they fell, and
strode purposefully toward the tub.
    “No!” she shrieked, “you’ll flood the room!”
    He grinned wickedly. “Then get out and let me bathe.”
    “I am not through!”
    “But I am ready!”
    “Oh, damn you, Southwood! Hand me a towel.”
    He held it just out of her reach so that she was forced to stand
in order to get it. The suds sluiced down her lush form, and Geoffrey
Southwood drew in his breath sharply. The beast in him stirred.
Clinging to an end of the towel as she grabbed it he pulled her over
and kissed her. Her small full breasts, wet and warm, pushed de-
mandingly at his chest.
    “Skye, oh sweet Skye!” His voice was rough with longing. Then
suddenly he felt the ground give way beneath him and he landed
rudely in the warm, scented tub. She was laughing uproariously, the
red mouth wide and luscious.
    “There, Master Lecher! Cool your heels, and wash the stink of
the road from your handsome body! Geoffrey! Geoffrey! How ac-
customed you must be to getting your way with women! Shame, my
lord! Fie! We barely arrive and you ogle the maidservant. Then you
kiss me, ogle the wench again, and pat her backside! Yes! I saw it!
Then attempt to climb into my tub for another kiss and a cuddle.
No, my lord! If you would have me as your own then I will demand
fidelity. Are you capable of fidelity, Geoffrey Southwood?”
    For the briefest instant he was angry. Angry with this nameless
female, the Whoremaster of Algiers’ woman. How dare she impose
conditions on him? But as he gazed at her he felt the anger dissolve.
She was right. She wasn’t some common trull to love or ignore as
the spirit moved him.
    “Touche, sweetheart,” he admitted ruefully.
    “I’ll teach you manners yet, Southwood.” she said mischievously.
    “Scrub my back,” he shot back and, laughing, she complied.
    She had decided in the early hours of the dawn that if she was
to become his mistress it must be on her terms. She would not be
one of many. She must be his only love. She would give to him
affection and respect, but in return he must give her the same. And
as she would be loyal and faithful to him, so must he be to her. She
had, just now, won their first battle.
    They ate in their room by the fireplace. It was a simple but very tasty meal of boiled lobsters, artichokes in oil and vinegar, newly
baked bread with sweet butter, whole apples baked in pastry with
colored sugar sprinkled over them accompanied by clotted cream,
sharp cheese, and a pitcher of white wine.
    Afterward they lay back against the plump goose-down pillows
on the lavender-scented bed and, holding hands, fell asleep. Skye
woke to watch the firelight dancing against the wall. Instinctively
she knew he was awake too. Turning, she lay her head against his
heart.
    “What a wench you are,” he said softly, and stroked her hair.
”I’ve fallen in love with you, Skye. You know that, don’t you? I’ve
never loved before, sweetheart, but as God as my witness I do love
you.”
    They made love tenderly, lingeringly, then slept, awakened, and
made love twice more. As Geoffrey had promised her, the next three
days were spent in an orgy of love making, eating, and drinking.
And even if they had wished to change the program they would not
have been able to do so, for they awoke that first morning to find
a January snowstorm swirling about them.
    As gleeful as children, they piled wood upon the fire and then
snuggled naked beneath the down coverlets just before Rose arrived
with a breakfast of hard-cooked eggs, thick slices of country ham,
bread, cheese, and nut-brown ale. It snowed all that day and they
never stirred from their bed except to feed either the fire or them-
selves. Skye could not believe how often and easily he aroused her,
fulfilled her, loved her. Each time she thought surely it could not
happen again, and yet it did.
    On the second day the snow stopped and the sun shone again.
They dressed and played outdoors in the snow like youngsters, much
to the amusement of Master Parker and his wife. But Rose was
outraged. It was unthinkable for the gentry to behave in such a
fashion! Especially such a handsome, romantic gentleman as the
Earl.
    Skye’s cheeks were red with the cold and she shrieked with mock
terror as the Earl pelted her with snowballs. She got back at him by
teasing him into position beneath the roof and then sending a well-
aimed snowball into the piled-up snow on the edge. It tumbled down
over him like an avalanche, leaving him sputtering his surprise.
    That night they sat before the fire, Skye in her simple white caftan
and Geoffrey in a green velvet robe. They roasted chestnuts in the
coals of their fire, picking the sweet, hot meats from the shells,
burning their fingers in the process. He found a lute in the common
room of the inn and brought it back to their little room. To her surprise he played and sang quite well. He sang her several naughty
ditties that left her weak with laughter, and when he saw that she
was helpless he put the lute down and pounced on her. Giggling,
she fought him off, tickling him mercilessly until he too was helpless
with mirth.
    They lay panting upon the bed, and then suddenly he was kissing
her frantically. “Skye! Skye! Dammit, woman, love me a little!”
    “But Geoffrey,” she protested, “I do!”
    “No, sweetheart, you love what I do to your passions but you
feel nothing for me. You’re so fair, so charming, so intelligent! I
thought it was enough, but it isn’t enough. I want you to care as I
care.”
    “Oh, Geoffrey!” There was genuine regret in her voice. “I don’t
know if I shall ever love again. It hurts so damned much to love.
I like you, and I had thought we would be friends. It’s more than
most men have with their mistresses.”
    “You’re not just any woman, my love! I want more of you, Skye,
than most men have of their mistresses.”
    “You have no right!” she shouted at him. “You do not take me,
I give myself freely! Because I want to, and only because I do want
to.” She was kneeling on the bed, her hair swirling about her sleek,
beautiful shoulders. “I will be no man’s toy! Understand that, my
lord Earl.”
    Her sapphire eyes flashed blue fire, her creamy skin was rosy
with emotion. At that moment she was the most beautiful thing he’d
ever seen. Still, he was furious at her. He was Geoffrey Reginald
Michael Arthur Henry Southwood, the seventh Earl of Lynmouth,
and she was only a nameless woman without a past. He was the
”Angel Earl,” the man for whom all women pined. She was the first
to have the gift of his true love. And he would have hers!
    His voice was dangerously low and tinged with scorn. “I’ll not
beg you, Skye. But if you cannot learn to love again and yet you
still give your body, then you’re no better than a common whore.”
    She went white with shock, her eyes huge. Lashing out, she hit
a blow to his cheek which left the red imprint of her fingers. Instantly
he struck back, matching her blow. Then flinging himself on her,
he pinned her beneath him.
    “Your husband is dead! Can’t you understand?”
    Struggling wildly, she screamed at him. “Don’t speak of him!
Don’t you dare to speak of him! He was kind and wise and good,
and I loved him! Do you hear? I loved him! I loved him as I shall
never love anyone else!”
    “Instead,” he raged at her, “you’ll make a mockery of his love by behaving like a whore! You’ll lock your heart away while sat-
isfying the lusts of your body. Very well, sweetheart, if you wish
to be a whore I’ll show you how!”
    His hands went to the neck of her caftan and with several quick
motions he tore the silk garment from her easily. He squeezed her
breasts, his knee jammed brutally between her thighs.
    “No! Geoffrey!”
    His lime-green eyes glittered in the firelight, and he bent to capture,
her mouth. She turned her head aside quickly and he lost his balance.
He fell into the pillows. She scrambled from beneath him, her feet
finding the floor. She fled across the room. But reaching the door,
she realized the hopelessness of her situation. She was stark naked,
and could hardly escape.
    She faced him as he lazily stalked her across the room. “Geoffrey,
please.” She held out her hands in supplication. His eyes were pitiless
as his body pressed hard into hers. She felt the wall behind her.
    “Whores,” he said tonelessly, “are often taken in alleys, standing
up, their backs to the wall.” Forcing her thighs open, he ordered,
”Put your arms about me, whore! Wrap your legs about my waist
and see how the other members of your sisterhood behave!”
    She fought him wildly now, trying to twist her body away from
him, struggling, clawing at his eyes. He slapped her and she burst
into tears, tears of shame, tears of fright. “Please,” she whimpered,
”please not like this.”
    Her tears stopped him and he suddenly stepped away. She crum-
bled toward the floor and he caught her and carried her to the bed,
cradling her against his chest as he sat down. “Damn you, Skye!
Damn you for the heartless, blue-eyed bitch you are. I only want
you to love me.”
    “It hurts to love,” she sobbed, “I don’t want to be hurt again.”
    “Sweetheart, living hurts, and loving is part of living, as is death.”
His anger had disappeared in the face of her obvious pain. “Skye,
my darling, love me as I love you.”
    She began to cry harder. She wept for the woman she could not
remember, for Khalid el Bey, that tender and noble man. She was
so very tired.
    “Love me, my darling,” he whispered tenderly. “Let your heart
soften again. Oh Skye, I would set you above all women, even my
wife. Love me, sweetheart!”
    She had built a wall about her heart and now she felt that wall
being breached, piece by piece.
    “You’re no wanton, to lie with me simply for pleasure. You do
feel, though you won’t admit it. Don’t you, my darling?”
    She looked up at him, her eyes streaming. “Yes,” she whispered,
so low that he had to bend to hear her.
    “You will not betray the love you felt for your husband if you
love me, Skye. That you can-and must-love again is a tribute to
the love you shared with your husband. Now share your love with
me, my darling.”
    There was a long silence. At last he heard her say softly, “Yes,
Geoffrey.”
    With infinite care he lay her upon their bed and gently kissed the
tears on her cheeks, moving down her throat, her chest, her exquisite
breasts. He worshiped at the shrine of their perfection, nursing on
each nipple. Protectively she enfolded him in her embrace, cradling
him, and, exhausted, they fell asleep.
    In the gray-white light of the January dawn she awoke to find
that he had thrust gently into her. The hardness within her seemed
natural and good. “I do love you,” she said quietly, and slowly he
began the primitive rhythm that would culminate in searing passion
for them both. She moved with him, savoring the sweetness of him,
and suddenly she knew that all the barriers had crumbled away. She
loved this tender and arrogant lord who sought to possess her so
completely. She loved him. He would never know, of course, for
men never did, that though she loved him there would always be
a secret part of her that belonged to her alone. But she loved him,
of that she was sure.
    Their rhythm quickened and then the blazing white light of the
dawn blended with the pulsing golden light in her mind as he brought
her twice to perfect fulfillment. She cried his name and felt his strong
arms about her, heard his voice soothing her, his lips kissing away
the salty tears she hadn’t even been aware of shedding.
    “You are mine, and I am yours,” she said finally, easily.
    “Aye, sweetheart,” he answered. “We belong together, and we
will be together. In the spring I shall beg leave from the Queen and
take you down into Devon to my home.”
    “But your wife-“
    “Mary and her daughters do not live at Lynmouth,” he said. “It
is you who shall be its mistress.”
    That afternoon they left their secret sanctuary at the Ducks and
Drake and rode back to London. The day was cold and windy and
overcast, and threatened snow again, but they were happy.
- “I want you to move into my house,” he said as they rode. “The
apartment next to mine is for the Countess of Lynmouth, and we
will redo it for you.”
    “I don’t know, Geoffrey. I have my own home, and I plan to bring my daughter up from Devon soon. I haven’t seen her in several
months. She should be in her own house, not in yours.”
    “Then keep Greenwood, darling, but let me redo those rooms for
you. You can travel easily between the two houses using the un-
derground passage beneath the garden. You can be with your little
girl during the day, and with me in the evenings.”
    “Very well, Geoffrey, as long as I may keep my own home. But
until the rooms are redone I will remain at Greenwood. Will you
dine with me this evening?”
    “I will, sweetheart, but first I must return to Court and pay my
respects to Her Majesty.”
    Soon they turned their horses into Greenwood’s driveway.
    “Welcome home, ma’am,” called the gatekeeper.
    Skye threw him a smile and waved. Approaching the house, Skye
was pleased to see a groom hurry from her stables. As they reined
in their horses the Earl dismounted and lifted her down from her
horse. His arms remained wrapped around her and, flushing prettily,
she looked up at him.
    “Do you love me, Skye?” he demanded softly.
    “I love you, Geoffrey,” she answered, her bright blue eyes never
wavering from his.
    “And will you be my lady fair, sweetheart?”
    “Yes! Oh, yes!”
    He bent and kissed her lingeringly, lovingly. “I’ll send word
when I can come this evening,” he said. Mounting his stallion again,
he cantered off down the drive.
    She entered the house dreamily.
    “So you’re back, and looking as dewy-eyed as any foolish maid.”
    “Good day to you, Robbie.” She smiled sweetly at him. “Come
have a glass of wine with me.”
    “Wine, is it?” he grumbled, following her upstairs to the little
salon.
    “Yes, wine! Wine to celebrate the fact that I’m in love! Oh,
Robbie, I’m in love again! I never thought I would be able to love
after I lost Khalid, but I love Geoffrey!”
    Lord have mercy, thought the sea captain as Skye, humming a
tuneless ditty, poured out generous portions of ruby-red wine for the
two of them. Robbie sat slumped in a chair, his gaze on the floor.
How can I tell her what de Grenville told me while in his cups lastnight? he thought. How can I tell her that Southwood seeks to makeher his mistress in order to satisfy a bet? Now the bastard’s goneand captured her heart. Damn! I’d rather be in the middle of aSouth Atlantic hurricane! He raised his eyes slowly.
    She raised her goblet high. ‘To my Lord Southwood! Long life!”
she toasted.
    Robbie raised his goblet lifelessly. “Aye,” he answered tone-
lessly. Christ! She’s so happy! I haven’t seen her happy since Khalid
died. Ah, hell! It’s too late for me to save her from him. Let her find
out on her own. Let her be happy for now. He gulped down his wine
and sat back against the velvet cushions.
    “I’ve news too,” he said. “We’re to see the Queen and Cecil the
day after Candlemas. We’d best have that first voyage mapped out
by then.”
    She was suddenly all business. “Have you decided where? And
what?”
    “Jewels and spices. In case of shipwreck,” he crossed himself,
”at least we can save half the cargo. We’ll go down and around the
Horn into the Indian Ocean, across to the Spice Islands, for a cargo
of pepper, clove, nutmeg, mace, and ginger. Then on to Burma for
rubies, for the best rubies come down to Rangoon from Mogok in
the central part of the country. In India we’ll take on cardamom,
diamonds from the Golconda, and pearls. In Ceylon there’s cinna-
mon and sapphires to be had.”
    “Be sure,” said Skye, “to buy only the Kashmir blue sapphires.
Khalid always believed their color was the best.”
    “I know. It’s going to be a long voyage, lass. I may not be back
for a year or even two, depending on conditions.”
    She smiled at him affectionately. “You look forward to it, Robbie,
don’t deny it. You’ve been landlocked for almost two years now
and your feet itch to walk a deck. It’s all right, my dear, I understand,
and it’s time for you to go. I am so grateful to you for your friendship,
but I am myself again at last, and I must build my own life.”
    “I know, lass, but I don’t want you hurt, or taken advantage of
by anyone. That damned trick memory of yours worries me. In many
ways you’re still an innocent.”
    “I have Geoffrey now, Robbie.”
    “Rely only on yourself, Skye! Love Southwood if you must, but
put your trust in no man!”
    “Robbie! How cynical you are!”
    “Not cynical. Truthful.”
    There was a scratching at the door, and Skye called out, “Enter.”
    A footman brought in a piece of paper on a small silver tray.
Skye took the folded parchment and opened it. “Damn!” she said.
    “What is it?”
    “Geoffrey has been called away.” She turned to the footman.
”How was this delivered?”
    “One of the Earl’s grooms, mistress.”
    “You may go.”
    The servant turned and left.
    “What does he say, Skye?”
    “Very little,” she said, frowning. “Just that there’s a problem in
Devon.”
    “You could probably use a good night’s sleep,” remarked Robbie
wryly, and she laughed at his irreverence.
    “Considering your reputation as a swordsman, this is surely a
case of the pot calling the saucepan black,” she teased.
    He guffawed heartily.
    The days sped by. She heard nothing from Geoffrey. And then
came the day of her appointment with Cecil and the Queen. She
dressed elegantly but soberly. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Her
Majesty’s chief advisor, was not a man to be swayed by a show of
bosom. Her gown was dark-blue velvet, its severity relieved by a
small white lace ruff at the neck. The sleeves were slashed and edged
with gold, her white silk underblouse showing through the openings.
She wore a gold chain interspersed at intervals with small flat plaques
of carved white coral roses. Her shining hair was parted in the center
and drawn into an elegant chignon at the nape of her neck.
    The river was frozen solid, so they went to Greenwich in Skye’s
coach. Cecil awaited them in a book-lined room. He wasted no time
but came directly to the point. “If we grant you a royal charter, what
does Her Majesty gain?”
    “A quarter share in the cargo, an accurate map of the area-for
we’re carrying two cartographers on each vessel-and of course
we’re available to do any errands Her Majesty may require along
our route,” replied Robert Small.
    “How many ships?”
    “Eight.”
    “That will be the number going. How many will you bring back?”
    “Six at the minimum.”
    “You overestimate, I think, Captain Small,” snapped Cecil.
    “No, my lord. I don’t. Barring a typhoon, I will actually return
with all eight. But a serious storm could lose me one or two.”
    “What of pirates, or mutiny?”
    “My lord, every captain in my fleet has been with me for several
years, as have all my ships’ crews. These men are used to working
together under both good and bad conditions. They are a loyal and
disciplined lot, unlike most crews. They’ll bring their ships through
Hell if necessary, but they’ll bring them home to England.”
    Cecil smiled thinly. “Your confidence is commendable, sir. I shall look forward to being amazed.” He turned to Skye. “And
where, madam, do you come into this?”
    “I finance it,” said Skye quietly.
    “You must have great confidence in Captain Small,” said Cecil
drily.
    “I do, sir. He was my husband’s partner for some years, and
never failed him once.”
    “And your husband was…?”
    “Don Diego Indio Goya del Fuentes, a Spanish merchant of Al-
giers.”
    “The Spanish ambassador claims never to have heard of him,
madam.”
    “I would hardly think the Spanish ambassador to the English
Court would be well acquainted with the residents of Algiers, my
lord,” said Skye coolly.
    “Perhaps not, madam. I merely mention it in passing. It is my
duty to protect my Queen.”
    “If you feel, my lord Cecil, that this venture is a danger to your
Queen, or would bring some discredit upon her, then I shall withdraw
my request for a charter, and you must rule against us with Her
Majesty. However, to do so casts doubt upon not only my hon-
or, but on Sir Robert’s as well. I am but newly come from Algiers,
but Captain Small has always been a loyal and good servant of En-
gland.”
    “Madam, you misunderstand me. I merely said that King Phillip’s
man knew not of your late husband’s family.”
    “Why should he? My husband’s family came to Algiers several
generations back. The original Goya del Fuentes was, I believe, a
younger son. There is still a branch of the family in Spain-near
Granada or Seville. I can never remember which.”
    Cecil sighed, exasperated, and Robbie hid a smile. Skye was
doing a fine job of confusing the chancellor. It relieved him to see
her fast thinking. Now he need not fear leaving her when he went
back to sea.
    “Really, my lord,” Skye allowed a slightly annoyed tone to creep
into her voice, “what it is that bothers you I cannot imagine. I ask
for nothing other than Her Majesty’s sponsorship. In return I offer
her a quarter share of the profits, the latest mapping of the area, and
my ships will be bringing to the peoples of the East word of our
Queen’s greatness. This hardly seems to me a suspicious undertak-
ing.”
    “Dammit, madam, you deliberately twist my words!” roared Cecil.
    “Do I indeed, sir? Pray then, enlighten me as to exactly what it
is you do mean.”
    A burst of tinkling laughter interrupted them, and from a shadowy
recess in the room the Queen quickly appeared.
    “Do not mind Cecil, Mistress Goya del Fuentes. He is overcau-
tious of our welfare, and we are appreciative of his efforts. Although
we might do without any other of our servants, we could not do
without him. Come, my friend, you need not know the lady’s pedi-
gree in order to do business with her. Our treasury is not so full that
we cannot use the profits from this voyage, and it costs us nothing
more than our goodwill. Captain Small’s record speaks for itself.”
    “Very well, my lady Queen. I will see the charter is granted if
you so desire.”
    “I do, my lord Cecil. Work out the pertinent details with Captain
Small. Mistress Goya del Fuentes will come and have a glass of
wine with us.” The Queen strode from the room and Skye, after
curtseying to Cecil, followed her.
    As the door closed upon the women the chancellor remarked,
”She’s a beautiful woman, Sir Robert, and she has a brain. Her
Majesty approves of intelligent women.”
    “She is the daughter I never had,” replied Robbie.
    “Indeed,” murmured Cecil. “Then are you aware that she spent
several days and nights in mid-January with Lord Southwood at the
Thameside inn called the Ducks and Drake?”
    “I am,” said Robbie, his anger beginning to rise. “You seem to
be keeping a rather close watch on an unimportant and harmless
young woman, my lord.”
    “A woman of Irish descent who was wed to a Spaniard… both
traditional enemies of England,” Cecil observed drily.
    “And is Lord Southwood also under suspicion?” snapped the
captain.
    “Only to the extent that a valuable servant of the Queen might
be subverted.”
    Robert Small was on his feet. “By God, sir! I’ll hear no further
slander against Skye! She has suffered greatly, and yet remains a
sweet and good lady. There is not a devious or disloyal tendency
in her, I assure you.”
    “Sit down, sit down, Captain Small. Our own investigations have
borne out your words. I would, however, like your personal thoughts
about her relationship with Lord Southwood. You need divulge no
confidence, of course, but the Earl is a valuable man to the Queen.”
    “He claims to be in love with her,” answered Robbie, “and God
help her, for she’s in love with him.”
    “Curious,” said Cecil. “It is not the Earl’s custom to take women
seriously. Then perhaps he really is in love with her?”
    Far away, at that very moment, the gentleman in question was
raging violently at his pale and cowering wife. Geoffrey Southwood
had rarely felt such overpowering fury. “Bitch! Bitch!” he shouted
at her. “You’ve killed my only legitimate son! Christ’s body, how
could you be so stupid? You knew there was smallpox about, and
yet you wrote to the Countess of Shrewsbury and asked to have
Henry sent home for Twelfth Night. Without my permission. As
God is my witness, Mary, I could kill you!”
    “Then why don’t you, Geoffrey?” she baited him. “You hate me,
and our daughters! Why not kill us all?”
    Her hysterical outburst calmed him somewhat. He eyed her
coldly. “I am going to divorce you, Mary. I should have done so
years ago.”
    “You have no grounds to do such a thing.”
    “I have all the grounds I need, Mary. You produce nothing but
daughters. The one son you bore me you wantonly killed. You
refused to hostess my friends, yet you hoard the household monies
I send you to dower your daughters despite the fact I have forbidden
them to wed. I have grounds, Mary, but if needs be I’ll produce
half a dozen men who’ll claim intimate knowledge of you.”
    She went white with shock. “You truly are a bastard, Geoffrey,”
she whispered, horrified.
    He hit her a blow that sent her to her knees.
    “A bastard!” she repeated. He turned and left. They were the last
words she ever spoke to her husband. By nightfall Mary Southwood
lay ill of smallpox herself, as did every one of her daughters. She
died several days later. Mary, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Phillipa
joined her. Only the three youngest girls, Susan and twins Gwyneth
and Joan, survived. The Earl was saved because he had had a light
case of smallpox as a child.
    The Countess and her daughters were buried with a bare minimum
of ceremony, the bell in Lynmouth Church dutifully tolling their
passing as the carts carried their coffins to the family cemetery.
Geoffrey told his three daughters of their mother’s and sisters’ deaths.
They were so young, only four and five, that he was not sure they
really understood him. Looking at them closely for the first time,
he decided that they were really somewhat comely. Leaving detailed
instructions as to their convalescence, he departed Devon for Court.
    He had been in Devon for over two months, and spring had come
to England. The Court had left Greenwich and was now at Nonesuch.
The Earl of Lynmouth was welcomed back warmly, particularly by the ladies, for news of his loss had preceded him. Anxious to see
Skye, he fretted until he could get to London. He could not go until
the Queen gave her permission. He waited for the right moment to
beg that permission.
    In London Robbie prepared to take his leave of Skye. The Mer-maid and her fellow ships waited now, fully provisioned, in the
Pool. He had put off his departure until the last possible moment,
for Skye was quite easily upset of late, the least little thing sending
her into tears. He had sent to Devon for his sister, Marie, and the
two children. The sight of Willow, now almost two, had cheered
her somewhat.
    He knew what distressed her. It was Southwood’s apparent de-
sertion. Since the Earl had returned with her from their tryst in
January there had been no word from him other than the cryptic
message that he was needed in Devon. Robert Small told himself
once more that the man was a bastard, plain and simple. Seeing
Skye grow so pale and listless, he silently cursed the Earl and be-
moaned the fact that there was nothing he could do to cheer her.
    Finally Robert Small could delay no longer. On the night before
he sailed Skye arranged a small dinner party for him at her house.
De Grenville was their guest, dining with Skye, Robbie, Dame
Cecily, Jean, and Marie. De Grenville intended to sail with Robbie
as far as the Channel. The meal was delicious, but Skye only picked
at the food. Her merriment was forced. At least, she thought sourly,
Southwood had done her one good turn by arranging an introduction
to the Queen, thereby helping them obtain a royal charter. As to
love… it was all either passion or pain.
    De Grenville was soon in his cups, and he leered at Skye in a
friendly fashion. “For a learned and modest woman you cost me
dearly, Mistress Skye. Now that the Earl of Lynmouth is back at
Court I suppose he’ll be taking my barge.”
    He was back! And he’d never even sent her word! “Why should
he take your barge, Dickon?” she asked absently.
    Robert Small suddenly came to life. “That’s no story for Skye’s
ears, Dickon!” he protested, kicking his friend beneath the table.
    But de Grenville paid him no heed. His hostess’s rich wine had
fuzzed his wits. “Why shouldn’t she know, Robbie? When I turn
my barge over to Geoff it will be all over Court. Don’t know why
I bet him anyway, but I did want that stallion.”
    Skye felt a premonition of disaster run through her. “What bet
is this, Dickon?”
    “Enough, de Grenville!” cried Robert Small desperately, glancing
toward his sister and Marie.
    “No, Robbie,” snapped Skye. “I believe I should hear what Dickon has to say. Pray, sir. enlighten me as to what you and my
lord Earl wagered.”
    “I bet my barge against his prize stud stallion that he couldn’t
make you his mistress within a six-month period. Looked like such
a sure thing. You certainly cut him dead at the inn in Dartmour.
Didn’t think he was your type at all. But then, my father always
said women were a fickle lot and not to be trusted.”
    Cecily and Marie both gasped. The Gallic Jean shrugged philo-
sophically. But Robbie, who knew her best of all, held his breath
in anticipation of the explosion that immediately followed.
    “The bastard!” she raged. “The damned bastard! I could kill him!
I will kill him! No, I won’t-I shall do to him what Marie did to
Captain Jamil!” Bursting into tears, she picked up her skirts and fled
the room.
    Marie and Cecily rose to follow her-, but Robbie stayed them with
a gesture and went after her himself. He saw her running across the
terrace, down into the garden. His short legs pumping hard, he ran
after her calling, “Skye, lass! Wait for me, Skye!” She stopped, but
her back remained toward him. As he reached her he could see her
shoulders shaking. He walked around her and gathered her into his
arms. She wept wildly. “Oh, lass, I am so sorry. But don’t waste
your tears on him. He’s not worth it, Skye. He’s not worth any
grief.”
    “I l-l-love him, Robbie.” she sobbed, “I l-l-love the bastard!”
    He sighed. He was going to have to hurt her further, but there
was no help for it. Best she know the worst from him than have
some ass like de Grenville tell her. He drew her over to a carved
stone bench and they sat down.
    “I want you to hear this from me, Skye. Southwood’s only son
and his wife and four of his daughters are dead of the smallpox.
That’s what sent him down into Devon in January. De Grenville
tells me the rumors at Court are that the Queen has already picked
out an heiress for him, and Geoffrey Southwood would never say
no to a wealthy match. And now that he no longer has a son, it is
imperative that he remarry. The sooner the better, I would say, for
with a new wife he’ll have little time for you, lass.”
    She raised her face to him and he thought as he had thought a
hundred times or more, that she was the most beautiful woman he
had ever known. Tonight when he left her he would visit a sweet
young whore of his acquaintance, but on the long nights at sea it
would be Skye he thought of, not little Sally. It would be Skye’s
face that he would easily recall to mind, the young prostitute’s fading
from memory within an hour of their parting.
    “You understand what I’m saying to you, Skye?” He looked anxiously into her wet sapphire eyes. “You understand that in all
likelihood it’s finished with Southwood.”
    She sighed. “I am carrying his child, Robbie. In six months’
time, more or less, I shall present the seventh Earl of Lynmouth
with a child, and I pray God it’s a son! And I also pray that his rich,
new wife does precisely what his last rich wife did-deliver girls!”
    “Marry me, Skye.”
    “You are prejudiced, Robbie,” she smiled wanly. “Take me back
inside and I’ll bid de Grenville goodnight. What time do you sail
tomorrow?”
    “We catch the midday tide. I’ll come in the morning to bid you
farewell.”
    They walked back through the garden and into the house. De
Grenville had fallen asleep in his chair.
    “il est un cochon,” muttered Marie.
    “No,” said Skye.
    “He hurt you, mignon.”
    Skye shrugged. “Better I heard it from him than from a stranger,
Marie. Alas, our good wine does not agree with him.”
    Suddenly the small dining-room door was flung open and Skye’s
bargeman stumbled into the room beside her majordomo, Walters,
who gasped, “Madam, the Queen comes!”
    “What!?”
    The bargeman spoke up. “The Queen, mistress! She’s almost
here! She sent a messenger ahead of her on the river.”
    “My God, I’m not dressed properly to receive her! Quick, Marie!”
And she raced upstairs to her own apartment, calling to Daisy as
she ran. “Fetch the burgundy-colored silk with the gold-and-cream-
stripped underskirt. The rubies! My gold ribbons! Marie, go back
downstairs and have Walters clear the dining room. I’ll want ham,
cheeses, fruits, thin sugar wafers, and wines. Have them set on the
sideboards in the banquet room. Wake de Grenville and have Robbie
sober him!”
    Marie turned and ran from the room while the maids fluttered
about Skye. She quickly changed her clothes. “Hawise, watch the
window! Sing out the second you see the Queen’s barge!”
    A few minutes later, as Skye smoothed the wrinkles from the
elegant silk gown, Hawise called, ‘The Queen’s barge is rounding
the bend, ma’am!” Skye flew from the room and down the stairs.
Catching Robbie and de Grenville by the hands, the trio sped across
the terrace, down another garden, and reached the barge landing
moments before the Queen’s boat bumped it. The two men stepped
forward to aid Elizabeth as she disembarked, while Skye swept the monarch a magnificent curtsey, her wine-colored skirts billowing
gracefully, her dark head lowered in perfect submission.
    The young Queen eyed her hostess approvingly. “Rise, Mistress
Goya del Fuentes. Ton my soul, you make the most elegant and
graceful curtsey I’ve ever seen!”
    Standing, Skye thanked the Queen with a smile and Elizabeth
said, “We hope you’ll forgive us this unorthodox visit, but it was
brought to our attention that Sir Robert sails tomorrow. We could
not allow him to leave on such a lengthy voyage without giving him
our good wishes.”
    Robbie flushed with obvious pleasure. “Majesty, I am over-
whelmed by your kindness.”
    “Madam,” said Skye, “will you take refreshment?”
    “Thank you, mistress. Sir Robert, de Grenville, you may escort
me. Southwood, take Mistress Goya del Fuentes and Mistress Knol-
lys.”
    The Queen moved off, leaving Skye stricken. Here was Geoffrey
stepping up from the Queen’s barge, handing out a ravishing lovely
red-headed girl.
    “Skye, may I present the Queen’s cousin Lettice, this is Mistress
Goya del Fuentes.”
    Lettice Knollys smiled in a friendly fashion, her pale skin glowing
and youthful. “We’re of an age,” she said. “May I call you Skye,
and you call me Lettice?”
    “But of course,” Skye answered. God in Heaven, was this girl
the rich match the Queen proposed for Geoffrey?
    “It’s good to see you, Skye,” the Earl of Lynmouth murmured
softly as he escorted both women up the garden to the house. Behind
them the other half-dozen barges that had escorted the Queen were
unloading their passengers.
    “What a charming house you have,” remarked Lettice. “I have
always wanted a small house on the Strand. You do not come to
Court, do you?”
    “There is no need. And besides, I am not of the nobility. If the
Queen invited me, however, I would, of course, obey.”
    They had reached the house now, and as they entered, Southwood
said quietly, “Lettice, I must speak with Skye. Keep the Queen
occupied for me.” Before Skye had time to protest he had whisked
her into the library and shut the door firmly.
    “I cannot leave my guests! The Queen will notice!” she protested.
    “Madam, I have been parted from you for three months now.
Have you no warmer welcome for me?”
    “Sir, you presume a great deal! I do, however offer you my deepest sympathy on the loss of your wife and children.”
    “You knew? How?”
    “De Grenville told me earlier this evening.” She turned and
walked a little ways from him. “I understand I am also to wish you
felicitations on an upcoming marriage. Is it Mistress Knollys? And
will you honeymoon on your barge?”
    “I don’t own a barge.”
    “Why, sir,” she said scathingly, “did you not win de Grenville’s
barge? I understood the wager was his barge against your stallion.
He is quite distressed by the loss of the animal.”
    “Damn de Grenville for a fool!” swore the Earl. “Sweetheart,
listen to me! The bet was made when you snubbed me, on the first
day we ever met. I had no intention of collecting on it. It had nothing
to do with our falling in love later on. I intended to tell Dickon so,
but I forgot it when I was summoned to Devon. That worthless bitch
I married had brought my son, Henry, home when there was smallpox
in the village. He came home only to die! That she and four of her
girls perished as well is only God’s judgment. Then it was touch
and go with the three youngest. I stayed on until they were well.
I am not entirely heartless, Skye. They’re but four and five.”
    “You might have written me!”“Frankly it did not occur to me. I am not a man of words, Skye.
The pox swept through my estates like wildfire, and I was kept
damned busy. My bailiff died, among others, and until I could
replace him I did his work.”
    “You’ve been back at Court for a while, my lord! You might
have sent me a message. A posy of flowers. Something! But you
were too busy finding an heiress to replace your dead wife! I hate
you, Geoffrey! I will never forgive you! You used me like a common
trollop! You lied to me!” Angrily she turned away so he might not
see the tears springing into her eyes. “I was warned that you were
the biggest bastard in London, but God help me I would not believe
it!”
    “You’re right,” he admitted. “I have spent the time since my
return to Court arranging my next marriage.” Her shoulders shook,
and his ears caught a muffled sob. “The lady I wish to make the
next Countess of Lynmouth is one of the most beautiful women in
London. She is wealthy, so I need not fear that she seeks my money.
Her manners are flawless and she is an excellent hostess, able to
deal graciously with those of high and low estate. She is the perfect
mate for me.”
    His voice was filled with such love and admiration that each word
he spoke was like a great knife thrust in to her heart.
    “There was only one problem that might have prevented the
match,” he continued, “so it was necessary that I convince the Queen
that, despite this impediment, I would have no other woman to
wife.”
    “I-I-I am not interested, my lord Earl.” Turning, she tried to push
past him, but he held her fast. Her face was pressed against the
velvet of his doublet. “I must return to my guests,” she pleaded.
    He ignored her. “The lady in question is not English. She claims
to be an Irish orphan who wed a Spanish merchant and was then
widowed. So I have represented her to the Queen. I know, however,
that the story is not true. She was a captive slave of unknown
background who was fortunate enough to catch the eye of the great
Whoremaster of Algiers. He took her under his protection, and when
he was murdered she fled Algiers with his wealth. But I love her,
and I want her for my wife. I have convinced the Queen of the
wisdom of my choice. She has given me her permission for us to
wed.”
    Skye pulled away from the Earl, and when she looked up at him
her eyes were blazing blue fire.
    “I do not know how you have obtained your information. Though
your facts are correct you know nothing at all! Yes, I was brought
as a captive to Khalid el Bey-that was his name, my lord Earl. I
had no memory of who I was or where I had come from, but he
didn’t care. He might have made me a whore in one of his houses,
or he might have made me his concubine. He did neither. I was
indeed under his protection. But, my lord Earl, I was also his wife!
Are you so narrow-minded that you believe a marriage doesn’t exist
unless it is celebrated by a Christian priest? The chief mullah of
Algiers wed me to my lord Khalid! I was well and truly married!”
    She was pacing back and forth now, her burgundy silk skirts
swishing angrily. Her hair had come loose, and as she turned to face
him again it swung fiercely with her. “My daughter, sir, bears her
father’s Christian surname, for he was a Spaniard by birth, driven
from that cursed land by the cruelty of the Inquisition. I expect, my
lord, that even you can understand that! You will find in the baptis-
mal registry of St. Mary’s Church in Bideford the name of Mary
Willow Goya del Fuentes!
    “I could not wed with you, my lord! It would be grossly unfair
to mingle my unknown blood and tainted body with such as yours.
I fully understand the great honor you do me, but no!” And pushing
past him, she fled the room.
    Geoffrey Southwood stood stunned and disbelieving as Robert
Small entered the room and closed the door behind him.
    “What the hell did you do to her?” growled the little captain.
    “I asked her to marry me.”
    “Why?”
    “Because I love her!” shouted the Earl. “I told her I knew the
truth of her past, and it mattered not. I even have the Queen’s
permission.”
    “Laddie, laddie, you’re a fool. Did she tell you that she has no
memory prior to her life in Algiers?”
    “Yes.”
    “Listen to me, my lord. I am old enough to be your father, and
I’ll speak to you as one. Her husband was my best friend in all this
world. He was bom the second son of an old and noble family, but
fate decreed that he live a life far different than that for which he
believed himself intended. Whatever his profession, he was a true
gentleman in every sense.
    “You love Skye. So did he, with all his heart. She was his joy,
his pride, and he wanted nothing more than to spend his life with
her and the children they wanted to have. He had just learned, before;
he was murdered, that he was to be a father, and his happiness came j
close to making me weep.” Robbie breathed deeply and turned to
sit. Southwood sat across from him. “I invented Skye’s background
in order to protect her and the child. Now, Geoffrey lad, I will help
you to bring Skye around, for the stubborn wench loves you and
has sighed and wept enough over you these last few months. I don’t
suppose she told you she’s with child?”
    “Oh my God!” the Earl whispered.
    “No?” said Robbie drily. “Well, she is angry with you. Well, we
must be firm then. I have just the way to settle this, but you must
go along with me in all I say. Agreed?” Southwood slowly nodded.
”Come along then, lad, and I’ll show you how to neatly trap a
vixen.”
    They came back out to the large salon where Skye and the Queen
were holding court together, surrounded by a laughing group of
courtiers. They worked their way forward carefully until they were
next to the young Queen. Elizabeth was looking especially lovely,
her glorious red-gold hair a mass of long, loose ringlets, her smoky
eyes sparkling. Her gown was of apple-green silk embroidered heav-
ily with gold, small pearls, and topaz.
    “Is the guest of honor finally among us?” said the Queen, laugh-
ing. “Pray, sir, where have you and my lord Southwood been?”
    “Settling the details of the match that’s so dear to your kind
Majesty’s heart. As Mistress Goya del Fuentes’ parentis in absentia,
it was my duty. Now, madam, with your gracious permission I shall
delay my departure by one day in order to give the bride away. Can your Majesty persuade the archbishop to waive the banns and wed
the happy couple tomorrow?”
    Stunned, Skye began to speak, but the Queen clapped her hands
with delight. “Sir Robert, it’s an excellent idea! Yes! Yes! The
wedding shall be tomorrow at Greenwich. You shall give the bride
away, and I shall hostess the wedding party!”
    “Majesty, we are honored,” said the Earl, placing a firm arm
about Skye. “Are we not, sweetheart?”
    “Aye, my lord,” said Skye loudly and sweetly. Then, while every-
one chattered excitedly about them, she hissed, “I’d sooner have the
pox than marry you!”
    “Come, everyone,” cried the Queen. “If Mistress Goya del
Fuentes is to be ready to wed at one o’clock tomorrow then we must
leave her now. Away to Greenwich!” She turned to Skye. “My dear,
you’re a delightful hostess. We have enjoyed ourselves so much.
You shall be a credit to the Southwood family, I know. Lynmouth
will escort me home. Hie yourself to bed and rest. I should imagine
you’ll get little sleep tomorrow night if your betrothed’s reputation
is fairly earned.” Chuckling, the Queen departed for her barge.
    Skye rounded on Robbie furiously. “I’ll not marry him, do you
hear? I’ll not marry him!”
    “Indeed you will, Skye lass,” said Robert Small with infuriating
calm. “Be sensible, my dear. He knows the truth of your past, and
yet he loves you and wants to marry you. Think, Skye! You’ll be
the Countess of Lynmouth. And think of the child you’re carrying.
Refuse Lynmouth and no one will believe the baby is his, for what
woman in her right mind would not marry her child’s father? Then
the question will be asked whose child is it. And since you have not
socialized with anyone it will be aasumed that you coupled with a
groom or a footman. The child is lowborn, people will say. Then
what will happen to Willow?” With every word he uttered she felt
more and more trapped. “I’ll go happily off to sea now, knowing
you’re safe, loved, and cared for, Skye.” he finished.
    “Damn you, Robbie! If Khalid knew what you’d done-“
    “He’d fully approve, Skye, and you know it,” snapped the gruff
little man. “Come along now. The Queen is right, and you need
your sleep tonight. Tell Daisy what gown you’d wear tomorrow so
the maids may freshen it.”
    “I will chose nothing!” she said stubbornly.
    “Then I will, my dear. Come along now, lass.” He took her hand
and walked her upstairs to her apartment. “Daisy, girl, to me,” he
called, and the buxom maid appeared.
    “Sir?”
    “Your mistress is to be wed at one tomorrow to the Earl of Lynmouth. What in her wardrobe is suitable for a wedding gown?”
    Daisy’s brown eyes grew round with awe and delight. “Oh, sir!
    Oh, ma’am! How wonderful!”
    Skye turned away sulkily and stamped into her bedchamber, where she threw herself on the bed. Daisy looked questioningly at Robert Small.
    “Don’t fret, girl,” the captain reassured her. “Your mistress is simply in a mood. Let’s have a look at her wardrobe.” Daisy led the way to Skye’s dressing room. Robert Small’s mouth fell open. “Sweet Jesus!” he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen so many fine feathers in my entire life.”
    Daisy giggled. “These are only the ones suitable for a wedding, sir. The simpler things are hung in another room.” Robert Small shook his head, then began to study the gowns. White was ruled out, for Skye was a widow. And somehow a bright color seemed inappropriate. Then his eye was caught by a rich, heavy, candlelight-colored satin. “Let’s see that one.” Daisy drew the gown forth and held it out for his inspection. The simple bodice was cut low and embroidered in seed pearls. The puffed sleeves, which ended just below the elbow, were slashed and the openings filled in with a fine cream-colored lace. Below the elbow the sleeves hugged the arm in alternating bands of satin and lace. The wrists were ruffled by a wide band of lace. The underskirt was embroidered with delicate seed pearls and tiny diamond flowers. The dress had a small, starched, heart-shaped lace collar edged in tiny diamonds that rose up behind the neck. The underskirt was a graceful bell shape.
    “Aye, Daisy, my girl! This will more than do! See it’s pressed and ready by ten in the morning. Your mistress is being married in the Queen’s own chapel at Greenwich, and the Queen is giving the bridal feast afterward. They’ll also be spending the night there.” “Oh… sweet Mary, sir! Will I be allowed to go? My mistress will be needing me, I’m sure.”
    “Aye, girl, you’ll go.”
    The little maid nearly swooned in her ecstasy. “Lord, sir! Wait till me old mother hears that I’m maid to the Countess of Lynmouth! She’ll be so proud! Oh, sir! You don’t think Mistress Skye will want someone else, do you? I’m nothing but a simple Devon girl.” “Your mistress will want you, Daisy, never fear. See to the dress now, and have a scented bath ready for your lady at dawn. Wash her hair, too.”
    “Yes, sir.” Gathering up the beautiful gown, Daisy left Robert alone. He walked back to the bedroom.
    “Are you finished sulking, lass?” he asked.
    “I never sulk!” she snapped, sitting up. “I simply dislike having my life settled for me by other people. Do I have no choice in this?!” “No, lass, not this time. You’re angry with Southwood, and so you seek to spite him by making his son a bastard. Yes, I do believe it’s a boy you carry. But the Earl has suffered enough, being caught in a loveless marriage, having his heir die. Without even knowing that his potent seed has already taken root in your fertile womb, he offers you marriage. It’s hardly an insult, my dear.” “And what of my wealth? Is it to be poured into the Lynmouth coffers along with that of his first two wives? No! No! I won’t be left helpless and dependent like poor Mary!”
    Robert Small smiled a slow smile. “So that’s what’s bothering you, lass.”
    “Part of it,” she admitted.
    “Don’t fret, Skye lass, I’m not about to leave you helpless. The Earl directed me to have a marriage contract drawn up tonight, which he’ll sign in the morning. You’ll have to give him a good dowry, Skye, but the bulk of your wealth will remain in your hands. This house will remain in your hands, and I’ve made you my heiress, providing that if anything happens to me you’ll care for Cecily. That way you’ll have plenty for Willow.”
    “Robbie! Oh, Robbie!” she began to weep softly. Embarrassed, he clumsily put his arms about her. “Give over, lass,” he muttered gruffly. “For pity’s sake don’t cry all over me. I like it better when you scream. Who else could I leave Wren Court to, Skye? You’re the daughter I never had, lass, and you’re as dear to me as if you were my own.”
    “Thank you, Robbie. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.” She wiped her eyes and Robbie tried to muffle a sniff. “Now listen to me, Skye. We’re giving Southwood twenty-five thousand gold crowns for dowry, and of course you come with your clothing, plate, and jewelry. All the rest of your wealth, the money Khalid left, the shares in our partnership, this house, and Wren Court remain exclusively yours. He can’t take them, so you are free and independent.”
    “Will he sign such a contract, Robbie?”
    “He’ll sign, lass. The Queen would have his head if he refused, for Young Bess is very much her own woman, like you.” He patted her shoulder. “It’s very late, Skye, well past midnight. Rest now, my dear. I will see you in the morning.”
    “Which gown did you choose, Robbie?”
    “The creamy satin with the pearl and diamond embroidery,” he answered, smiling.
    “It’s the one I’d choose, were I interested in this marriage.”
    He chuckled. “Sleep well, Mistress Goya del Fuentes. Tomorrow night you’ll be Lady Southwood, Countess of Lynmouth. Not bad for such an ugly wench.” He ducked the pillow she threw at him as he strode from the room, laughing merrily.

Chapter 17

    Skye’s wedding morning was a rainy spring day. She stretched in a leisurely fashion, dimly aware of activity about her, then suddenly sat straight up in bed. She was being married in a few hours, and there was so much to be done! A steaming tub was already waiting before the fireplace.
    “Good morning, m’lady,” chorused Daisy and the two undermaids, bobbing “Not ‘my lady’ yet, Daisy,” said Skye sharply. The two maidservants giggled, then gasped, their faces reddening as Skye rose from her bed, drew off her gown, and walked naked across the room. Daisy, who was used to her mistress’s eccentricities with regard to nudity in the bath, smirked smugly at the red-faced underlings and helped Skye up the two steps and into the big tub. Skye sunk gratefully into the bath. The sweet-smelling oily water caressed her skin and lapped about her shoulders. Daisy drew a screen about the tub, leaving her mistress to a few moments of privacy, while she guided the undermaids in the laying out of the bride’s clothing.
    So, thought Skye, today is my wedding day. How different it is from the joyous day that I wed you, Khalid. Oh, my dearest lord, how I loved you. But you are gone, Khalid, and this strange English lord has caught at my heart. I may be wealthy, dear Khalid, but the honest truth is that the widow of an Algerian “merchant” is scarcely on a social footing with a belted Earl. Yet, he would make me his Countess. It’s not simply to get me in his bed, for I have already been there. He claims to love me, yet he left me without a word for weeks. Dare I trust him? Or will he break my heart? Oh, God, I wish I could know. I want to be loved, but even more I want to be safe again.
    “Mistress,” scolded Daisy, “you’ve not yet begun to wash.” Daisy took up the soft cloth herself and began to scrub her mistress. Skye continued to muse silently as Daisy moved on to wash her mistress’s hair. Daisy’s chatter caused Skye to lose her train of thought and she exploded. Relenting at the hurt look on Daisy’s face, Skye confided, “I’ve wakened with a terrible headache, Daisy, and I don’t want it later on at Greenwich.”
    Daisy became concerned. “Ah, m’lady, I’ll have an herbal draught made up at once. Hawise,” she turned to one of the serving maids, “ask Dame Cecily to please make up an herbal tea for m’lady’s headache.”
    Skye left her tub wrapped in a large warmed bathsheet and, seated by the fire, endured Daisy’s further ministrations. Her hair was rubbed free of excess water, brushed and brushed and brushed again until it was dry, then rubbed with a piece of silk until it shone with deep blue-gold lights. Meanwhile, the second of the undermaids knelt paring her mistress’s toenails.
    “What I really need is something to eat,” declared Skye. “Bring me bread, meat, and wine. I’m starving. See to it, Daisy. Jane, either the Earl will like my feet or he won’t.” She stood up and the bathsheet dropped. Daisy wrapped her mistress in a loose pink silk robe, then hurried off to see to the food. Picking up her pedicure equipment, Jane departed as well. Skye sighed with open relief. It was so lovely to be alone. But the sound of chuckling spun her around.
    “Geoffrey!”
    “Good morrow, wife.” He stood before the tapestry that hid the secret passage door.
    “Not quite yet, my lord,” she answered sharply. “How long have you been standing there?”
    “Long enough to be reminded what a magnificent creature you are, madam,” he drawled lazily, his green eyes sweeping boldly over her.
    A flush stained her entire body, and she shook her cloud of hair. Did he really love her, or was it only lust to possess her? She determined to try and find out now. He could cry off when she had finished, but that was better than being owned by a man who had no real feelings for her. Walking deliberately to the door, she locked it and then said firmly, “Sit down, my lord. Will you take some wine?” He nodded, and she poured him a small goblet from her sideboard supply.
    “Well, madam,” he demanded after accepting the goblet and leaning back. “What is it?”
    She drew a deep breath. “How brave you are to wed with me, my lord, but are you sure you really want to take to wife the widow of one of the most notorious men in the history of Algiers? I remind you that I recall nothing whatever prior to my life with Khalid el Bey. He made me what I am. God only knows what tainted blood flows in my veins. My mother might have been mad and my father a murderer. Think carefully, my lord. Is this the sort of woman you would take to wife?”
    “Why, Skye,” he drawled, “are you trying to discourage me?” She shook her head. He continued. “Did Khalid el Bey teach you to read and write?”
    “No,” she answered. “I already knew.”
    “What else did you know, my love?”
    “Different languages, mathematics,” she said slowly. “The knowledge was just there… though I don’t remember acquiring it.” “You’ve hardly a peasant’s look,” he observed, “and you’ve been damnably well educated for a man, astoundingly for a woman. From the moment we first met I knew that we should be more to each other than simply friends.
    “I wanted to know more about you and I inquired of a sea captain of my acquaintance, one who knew Robert Small and of his association with Khalid el Bey. The captain left Algiers several days after you and Small did. The story of your flight from the Turk was on every tongue in the city, particularly because your loss was said to have rendered the unfortunate man impotent.” Skye choked back her laughter with the confirmation of her revenge on Jamil. But she didn’t know whether to be angry at Geoffrey Southwood for this invasion of her privacy, or flattered that he had been so deeply interested in her. She was, above all, pleased to know that Geoffrey wanted her even though he knew of her past. “You’ve signed the marriage contract?” she asked him coolly. “Aye. Your dowry is most generous, my love. With your permission I shall put it in trust for our first son. I don’t need it,” he countered. It was her move.
    One winged dark eyebrow raised slightly. “You read the contract, didn’t you? My wealth remains mine.”
    “Of course, my dear. I will dower any children we have. I know you’ll want to provide for Willow. But if you had not a pennypiece, Skye, I’d have gladly dowered your daughter.”
    “Yet, it was said that you refused to dower your own.” “They were Mary’s brats,” he replied bitterly. “Little brown wrens like their mother, obviously capable of bearing only daughters. The three who survived the pox, however, seem to have something of me in them. They’ll be good company for Willow, and since I can see from the mutinous expression in your eyes that you’ll give me trouble unless I dower my daughters, I promise to do so.” “I shall be a good mother to your children, Geoffrey.” “I know that, Skye.” He rose and moved toward her, the longing in his eyes almost too painful to behold, but she held him at arm’s length.
    “Not yet, Geoffrey. Please, not yet.”
    “You have not forgiven me then.” It was a statement. “I can understand your not writing to me from Devon. It must have been terrible for you there. Yet when you returned you sent no word, and I had to learn from de Grenville of your misfortunes. And he said the Queen was arranging a match for you with an heiress. What was I to think?”
    “You might have trusted me, Skye.”
    “How could you expect my trust after I learned of the infamous wager that you made with Dickon?”
    “Damn, Skye. I never meant to collect from him! Surely you see that the wager happened before you and I truly met.” “Your reputation preceded you, my lord. Geoffrey Southwood, the Angel Earl, the great cocksman, and breaker of hearts.” “Enough, dammit. Woman, you argue with too much logic. I love you, Skye. I will always love you. In a few short hours we are to be wed. Let us forget what is past and begin afresh. We are well matched, madam.” He held out his hand to her then. Slowly, after a long, agonized wait, she took it.
    “One question,” he said, “and I shall never ask this question again. Did you love him?”
    “Yes,” she replied gravely. “I loved him. I awoke from some unremembered horror to find safety with him. He gave me a name, an identity, a reason for living. He was my husband, he was my lover, he was my best friend. I will never forget him.” She continued after a silence. “I find it strange to say this, but though Khalid el Bey will always hold a claim on a part of my heart, I love you also, Geoffrey. Why else would I have been so angry and so hurt?” The lime-green eyes regarded her now with hope as well as longing.
    “Then I am forgiven, Skye?”
    The smile she offered was tremulous. “Perhaps, my lord,” she said mischievously.
    “Madam, you try my patience,” he growled, but his lips twitched at the corners and his eyes were bright with both relief and mirth. “You had best cultivate patience, my lord, for I will be no meek wife, Geoffrey. I will be an equal partner with you in this marriage. Equal in all things.”
    She was more trusting now, and immediately he took advantage. Pulling her toward him, he wrapped both his arms about her, then bent to find her lips. A delicious tremor shot through her and she sighed deeply. “Madam,” he said, kissing the comers of her mouth, her eyelids, the tip of her nose, “it’s a cool, wet day, and were we not to be wed in just a few hours I should take you to bed right now.”
    “Do you require several hours, my lord?” Her face was a study in innocence.
    “Vixen!” he murmured huskily, burying his face in the scented tangle of her hair. She felt his kisses burning into the satiny skin of her neck. With a low moan she threw her head back and his lips devoured her throat, setting her pulse to racing. “Beware, madam. Tonight I shall seek revenge for your sharp tongue. But today when you enter the Queen’s chapel, you will look chaste, not newly tumbled.” He loosed her slowly and she swayed unsteadily. He laughed softly and, turning, departed through the secret door behind the tapestry.
    Skye stood trembling. Dear God, how he could arouse her. And he knew it. She became aware of pounding at the door. “Mistress Skye! Mistress Skye! Are you all right?” She flew to the door and opened it to find Daisy, Hawise. and Jane standing there with anxious faces.
    “I wanted to be alone,” she conjured as best she could. They gave her funny looks, then continued into the room bearing a breakfast, which was placed on a small table. Two footmen followed and removed the tub. Jane folded the screen and put it away while Daisy and Hawise drew the breakfast table and a chair up near the fire.
    “Cook says you are to eat everything. Knowing how you’ve picked at your food lately, and you’ll not eat much later,” said Daisy. “Also, it will be hours before the bridal feast.”
    Skye sat down and, lifting the cover on the largest dish, found two perfectly poached eggs in a light cream sauce of sherry and dill. A small platter held several thin slices of pink ham, and wrapped inside a napkin set in a basket were several slices of steaming hot bread. Two crocks held butter and honey, and there was a carafe of deep red wine. She was suddenly ravenous.
    “Tell Cook she is to be commended on the menu, Hawise. I shall eat it all! Daisy, my jewel case, please. I must pick out my jewelry while eating. Jane, find the gown I had made up for Dame Cecily and bring it to her. Then fetch Willow and her nurse.” The two undermaids hurried off and Daisy brought Skye’s huge jewel box. Skye pursed her red lips, considering. Simple pearls were too dull, diamonds too harsh. What was needed was some color! Her fingers sifted impatiently through the many necklaces until she located what she sought. She smiled, quite satisfied with the turquoise necklace. Each polished oval turquoise was surrounded by alternating translucent pearls and fiery diamonds. There were matching earbobs, and two hair ornaments shaped like butterflies. “These,” she said, handing them to Daisy. “Now for rings… a turquoise for luck, a pink pearl for constancy, and a sapphire to match my bonnie blue eyes.”
    Daisy giggled. Setting aside the chosen pieces, she removed the large case. “I’ve a message for you from Captain Small, m’lady. He says though the river’s calm, it would be best to go to Greenwich in the carriage. The rain is quite heavy.”
    “Very well, Daisy. Ah, here’s my little love,” cried Skye happily as her bedchamber door opened to admit Willow and her nurse. “Mama! Mama!” the child cried, running into Skye’s open arms. “Smell good! Willow likes,” she said, burying her little face in her mother’s neck.
    Skye swept the baby up and cuddled her in her lap. ‘Today, my poppet,” she said, “I have a fine present for you. I shall bring you home a papa. Would you like that, Willow?”
    “No!” said the baby stoutly. “No new papa! Want Uncle Robbie!” Skye chuckled. “So it’s Uncle Robbie who has captured your heart, my darling. You’ve good taste. But you’ll soon love your new papa too and he’ll love you.”
    Willow pouted, her little rosebud mouth set in disapproval. The thick dark lashes that fringed her golden eyes-eyes like her father’s-swept down to brush her pink cheeks, then swept upward in such a flirtatious adult manner that Skye caught her breath with surprise.
    “Will my new papa bring Willow presents?” she asked slyly.
    “Indeed he will, greedy one,” replied her mother, amused.
    “What?” The question was an imperious demand. “I don’t know, my pet. Perhaps a new gown, or a necklace, or a wee basket of sweetmeats.”
    “Maybe I’ll like my new papa,” said Willow thoughtfully. “Do you like him, Mama?”
    Skye laughed. “Yes, poppet, I like him very much. Now give Mama a kiss and run off to play with Maudie. If you are very good I’ll bring you something from Greenwich Palace.” Willow kissed her mother and then trotted happily off with her nurse. Skye finished up the last of her meal as the mantel clock struck half past eleven.
    “Oh, Lord! You must leave here by noon if you’re to reach Greenwich on time,” exclaimed Daisy. “You, Jane, Hawise! Bring the mistress’s clothes.” She handed Skye a pair of cream-colored stockings so finely knitted they seemed spun of cobwebs. Skye slid them on carefully. Beaming, Daisy handed her the garters with silver lace rosettes, each flower center a tiny freshwater pearl. Skye’s undergarments were pure silk. A small-boned corset made her small waist even tinier. Her farthingale was a modified one, for Skye had no wish to look like a merchant ship under sail. Before putting it on, she sat quietly while Daisy did her hair.
    It was brushed once again, then parted in the center and drawn back over her ears. Daisy fashioned the thick, silken mass into an elegant and graceful chignon that centered on the nape of Skye’s neck. The butterfly ornaments were secured, one in the front, one on the right side of her head. As a finishing touch Daisy carefully set two perfect pink rosebuds into the chignon.
    Skye sat and stared at her image. A flawless-faced woman stared back at her. Is that me? she thought. And for the first time in many months she began to wonder who she really was. Who had she been before Khalid el Bey had found her? Suddenly she desperately wanted her own identity back.
    “Madam,” Daisy’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “We must hurry!”
    Skye nodded and stood. On went the farthingale, and then it was time for the gown. Chattering excitedly, Jane and Hawise fastened it up. Skye smoothed the skirt and stepped in front of her pier glass. A slow smile lit her features. She was well satisfied. She looked every inch the Countess of Lynmouth. Geoffrey would have every reason to be proud of her.
    “Oh, my lady,” breathed Daisy reverently, “you’re beautiful!”
    “Thank you, Daisy. Now my cloak, lest the rain spoil my gown.” A deep-blue velvet cape was draped about her shoulders, and Skye left her apartments to descend the staircase. Robbie and Dame Cecily awaited her and she swept them both a low curtsey. “How magnificent you both look!” Truly she’d never seen either of them looking better.
    Dame Cecily’s gown was of elegant black silk with an underskirt of cloth of silver. She had a white lace ruff at her neck and lace ruffles at her wrists. On her silver hair she wore a peaked cap of stiff black silk edged in silver lace. Upon her ample bosom rested a silver chain with a heart-shaped pendant cut from turquoise. Dame Cecily’s light-blue eyes twinkled with pleasure. “My dear Skye, how can I thank you for this beautiful gown? And an ermine cloak! I was despairing over what to wear to Greenwich, and on such short of notice too!”
    Skye was pleased by the older woman’s evident delight. “I had the ensemble made for your birthday next month,” she confessed. “Now I must find you another gift.”
    “Dear child! This is more than enough, and what matter that you’ve presented it to me a wee bit early? This is the perfect occasion to wear such a fine gown.”
    “Nevertheless you’ll have a gift on your birthday too,” vowed Skye.
    “Is there no compliment for me then, lass?” complained the little captain.
    “Why Robbie, you know you’re the prettiest of us all,” teased Skye.
    “Hummph!” said Robbie, but a small smile played about his mouth, and he preened without knowing he did so. Skye hadn’t seen him so magnificently attired since the night she had first met him. Like his sister, he was garbed in black, but where she wore silk he wore velvet, the doublet heavily embroidered with gold thread, aquamarines, pearls, and rubies. The sword at his side had a goldfiligreed hilt with a large ruby knob. “Let us go, lass,” said Robbie as he heard the coach draw up before the house. When the front door was opened the wind blew their capes wildly about them and rain thrust its way into the house, wetting the marble floor. Without a word the tallest of the footmen swept Skye up and carried her out through the tempest to the safety of her carriage. A flustered Dame Cecily and blushing Daisy were also deposited carefully. Robert Small climbed in under his own steam.
    The trip to Greenwich was a relatively easy one, for the roads had been emptied by the ferocity of the storm. The rain drove against the brightly painted coach, pouring down the windows in sheets. It was impossible to see out. Skye felt a surge of pity for her coachman, high up on the box, muffled against the weather but still prey to it. Even worse off were the footmen who clung behind the vehicle, the rain pouring down over them.
    Inside the coach, Skye clung to Robert Small’s hand. She had not been frightened when she married Khalid el Bey, but now she was a little afraid. Added to her trepidation was the realization that she would soon have to tell Geoffrey of the child. She could well imagine his joy, but then what if it was not a son? Would he one day attempt to banish her, as he had poor Mary Bowen? She felt her spine stiffen. She would never allow him to treat her in such a fashion. And if he ever tried, she would appeal to the Queen. The coach slowed to a clattering halt at Greenwich, and the ladies were carried into the palace by the Queen’s own guards. Greenwich Palace, much beloved of Henry VIII, was built along the river for a seemingly endless distance and stood three stories tall. A palace official escorted them to a small room next to the chapel where they might freshen themselves and repair any damage to their clothing. Daisy helped Skye and Dame Cecily off with their cloaks. The hood of Skye’s cloak had protected her head, so there was little to do. Dame Cecily drew a small lace-edged square from a hidden pocket in her gown and pressed it upon Skye. “For luck, my dear, and I wish you great happiness,” she said tearfully, kissing the younger woman. Then Dame Cecily disappeared into the chapel, Daisy following behind.
    Suddenly everything was moving too quickly. Robbie was there, leading her through the door, into the chapel, and up the aisle. The room was packed. Skye didn’t know most of them, although she spied de Grenville, Lettice Knollys, the Queen, and Lord Dudley, who was rumored to be her lover. Even Lord and Lady Burke were there.
    Geoffrey stood waiting before the altar, resplendent in huntergreen velvet. Matthew Parker, the archbishop of Canterbury, waited behind Geoffrey.
    Slowly she and her beloved Robbie moved up the aisle. Skye felt as if her legs were encased in glue. Ahead of her, Geoffrey Southwood radiated approval of her attire. His eyes smiled encouragingly. They stopped, and Robbie firmly placed Skye’s hand into Geoffrey’s large paw. Geoffrey’s warmth transmitted itself to her. He gently squeezed her hand and she drew a deep breath of relief. It was going to be all right.
    The archbishop droned through the service, and, as they knelt, their heads close together, Geoffrey whispered softly to her, “Courage, my love.” She felt a stab of love for him race through her. The unease she had felt at the sight of the hot, crowded candlelit chapel was slowly being dispelled by his love. Matthew Parker pronounced them man and wife and, turning them about, presented the newly wedded couple to the assembled congregation. They smiled happily into the sea of faces mat all smiled back at them… all but one. Why was Lord Burke’s face so dark with anger? He was such a strange man, and why was he here at all? She turned away and curtseyed low to Queen Elizabeth, who was magnificently attired in purest white silk sewn with gold thread, diamonds, and palest blue aquamarine. Her Majesty spoke graciously. “Rise my lady Southwood, Countess of Lynmouth. We are pleased to have you at Court, and welcome you right heartily.” “Majesty, how can I thank you for your kindness? It is all so much.”
    “You may show your gratitude, my dear Skye, by being a good and faithful wife to your lord, and by cleaving to him only,” replied the young Queen primly.
    “I shall, Majesty,” replied Skye, fervently kissing the hand Elizabeth extended.
    “That will be a terrible blow to all the eager gallants,” murmured Lord Dudley softly to Lettice Knollys. She swallowed back her laughter with much effort.
    “And now,” cried the Queen gaily, “let us away to the bridal feast! Let the Earl and Countess of Lynmouth lead the way to the Great Hall!”
    Skye sent Geoffrey a startled look. Taking her arm, he reassured her, “I know the way, my love.” Accompanied by capering musicians who played on reedy pipes, lutes, and drums, the couple led the Queen and her court into the Great Hall of Greenwich Palace. Outside, the rain beat fiercely against the tall ornate windows, but inside, the great hearths burned cheerfully with enormous oak logs. The head table accommodated the bridal couple, the Queen, Lord Dudley, and Captain Sir Robert Small and his sister, who had acted as the orphaned bride’s parents. The rest of the Court knew their places, many from habit, and found them now either along the length of the T-shaped head table or at smaller tables set up along the walls.
    The servants placed an enormous salt cellar upon the main table. Two standing winged silver griffons and two standing gold lions together held up a carved coral seashell filled with salt. The goblets were pale-pink blown Venetian glass, the Queen’s crest carved upon an oval piece of garnet and affixed to each. Golden plates were placed before those at the head table. The other guests seated above the salt had to be satisfied with silver, and those below the salt with simple crockery.
    A parade of liveried servants began the circulation of an enormous feast. The first course consisted of the usual bowls of icy cold raw oysters, mussels and scallops broiled with herbs and butter, tiny prawns in white wine, thinly sliced salmon on a bed of young watercress, whole sea trout, and great loaves of both brown and white bread. The next course offered sides of beef, whole roast red roe deer, legs of lamb. A whole great boar with wicked curved tusks rested upon a huge silver platter which had to be carried in by four footmen. There were small, sweet roast suckling pigs with apples in their mouths, gingered capons, big pink hams, swans stuffed with fruit, geese, roast pheasants and peacocks served with their full colorful plumage, larded ducks, steaming pies made with lark, pigeon, dove, sparrow, and rabbit. There were bowls of new lettuce, scallions, radishes, and artichokes. The servants kept everyone’s goblets full to the brim with a deep red heady Burgundy. Skye ate little, disliking huge feasts where the menus were far too heavy. A few oysters, a capon wing, a thin slice of suckling pig, and some lettuce satisfied her. She noted thankfully that Geoffrey was as abstemious as she, choosing oysters, a small slice each of the beef and the goose, an artichoke, and some bread and butter. The last course of sweets and subtleties arrived with a profusion of colorful molded jellies, fruit pies, plum cakes, early strawberries with bowls of clotted cream, early cherries from France, oranges from Spain, and wheels of Cheshire cheese. There was, of course, an enormous sugar-iced wedding cake. To Skye’s great relief, the cake did not have the usual marzipan bride and groom figures with their overly endowed sexual organs and breasts. Instead, the cake top was decorated by a small bouquet of tiny white roses and blue forget-me-nots, all tied with silver ribbons. Somehow Skye knew this was the Queen’s touch, and she leaned across Lord Dudley and thanked her.
    The Queen smiled quietly. “He loves you very much, Skye. I have not seen such true love and devotion in all my life. How I wish I might have such a love to help me sustain my great burdens.” “Why surely you can, madam!” said Skye. “There are any number of gentlemen willing to lay their hearts at your feet.” The Queen smiled again, sadly this time. How innocent the new Countess of Lynmouth was! How sheltered she must have been before coming to England. “There are many men willing to lay their hearts at my feet, Skye, but none really loves me. They seek my crown, or a part of it. They do not want Elizabeth. A queen who rules in her own right has no true love. She is wed to her country. That is the harshest to serve of all lords.”
    “Oh, madam!” Skye’s eyes filled with tears.
    The young Queen gently brushed a tear from the bride’s cheek. “Why, my lady Southwood, what a soft heart you have. But weep not for me. I knew my fate a long time ago. I accepted it, and I wanted it.” Then thoughtfully she said, “I think, my kind-hearted little Countess, that I shall call upon you to serve as one of my ladies. An honest, open heart is a rare thing at Court.” Skye shortly found out how right the Queen was. After the tiny cordial glasses of spiced hippocras wine and thin sugar wafers that officially ended a banquet were served, the dancing began at the other end of the hall. The bride danced first with her new husband, then with Lord Dudley. After that she was prey to all the gentlemen. Several were forward enough to suggest assignations while staring boldly down her dress. Skye was shocked. The morals of the Islamic world she remembered had been quite strict. Here at Greenwich they appeared to be lax indeed.
    She soon found herself partnered by the scowling Lord Burke. Did the man never smile? “My felicitations, madam. You have done quite well for yourself.” His tone was most insulting, and she found herself once again infuriated by the man. She fixed him with a level gaze and asked, “Why, my lord, are you so hostile to me? Have I done you some injury of which I am not aware? Pray speak, sir, that I may correct whatever fault it is that offends you.” Wordlessly he drew her from the dance floor and led her to the table where refreshments were being served. His silver eyes probed her face, never looking away. Suddenly he asked, “Have you ever heard of the O’Malleys of Innisfana Island, madam?” She thought a moment, then replied, “I am sorry, Lord Burke, but I have not. Is it important to you?”
    “No,” he said roughly. “It is of no account, madam.” But he appeared almost distraught. Why? she asked herself. Dame Cecily bustled up just then. “It’s time you got ready for bed, my dear. Here are Mistress Lettice and some of the Queen’s ladies to help you.”
    “Lady Southwood.” Lord Burke bowed curtly over her hand.
    Then he turned and walked away.
    Skye and her female companions left the hall discreetly. “Her Majesty,” confided Lettice Knollys, “has given you an apartment in a quiet part of the palace. You’ll be quite private. How I envy you this night! Southwood is said to be a magnificent lover!” “Lettice!” scolded another of the Queen’s ladies, “if Her Majesty should hear such loose talk, you’ll be sent down to the country.” The Queen’s red-haired cousin tossed her beautiful head. “The Queen would sell her soul to be the bride this night if Lord Dudley were the groom.”
    “Lettice!” cried several scandalized voices, “you speak treason!” but Lettice Knollys simply laughed. “Ah, here we are, Skye,” she announced as she paused before a door.
    The guards flung open the door, and the chattering women entered into a prettily furnished bedchamber where Daisy awaited her mistress along with two palace maids.
    The large oak bedstead held up ornately twisted bedposts which were hung with pink velvet hangings. To the left of the bed, casement windows looked out toward the rain-swept river. To the right of the bed was a large stone fireplace, now blazing with enough warmth to have removed all dampness from the room and rendered it cozy. Daisy and her two assistants set to work immediately disrobing the bride. Wearing only a single petticoat and her underblouse, Skye bathed in rosewater from a silver basin. Then her hair was taken down and brushed until it gleamed. The blue-gold lights were the envy of most of the women in the room. Now Daisy brought forth the nightgown, the two undermaids removed the last of the bride’s clothing, and the nightgown slid down and over her. The Queen’s ladies gasped in shock and envy, for the nightgown clung to Skye as if it had been painted on her. It was made of pure white silk, the bodice forming a deep V, the sleeves wide like butterfly wings, the skirt a mass of tiny pleats.
    “God’s blood!” Lettice Knollys voiced all their thoughts. “That gown will not be long on you, my dear Skye.”
    “But will he leave it in one piece?” murmured one woman. The rest of the ladies giggled.
    Skye blushed and then laughed nervously. “It is said to be a copy of one worn by the Pope’s mistress.”
    “Hurry,” called one of the women, “I can hear them coming.” They helped her into bed, plumping the fat lace-edged pillows behind her back and smoothing the down-filled satin coverlet. She felt very foolish, the center of all this attention in what should have been a private moment. She remembered how she and Khalid el Bey had slipped away from their guests on their wedding night to ride down the moonlit beach to the Pearl Kiosk. But she was not in Algeria, she was in England. It was not Khalid el Bey she eagerly awaited, but Geoffrey Southwood.
    The door burst open, admitting a laughing crowd of men and women. Geoffrey Southwood was pushed forward. He was barechested, “We’ve half undressed him, madam,” said Lord Dudley with a drunken grin. His arm was around the Queen in a proprietary manner, and Elizabeth was flushed and looking very pretty. “I shall finish the job myself,” said Lord Southwood firmly. “For the Countess and myself, I bid you all a good night.” “Come, everyone,” the Queen called, throwing the newlyweds a sympathetic look. “I have not yet tired of dancing.” The courtiers and servants all filed out and the Earl shut the door behind them and threw the bolt hard. Wordlessly he stripped off the rest of his clothing and blew out the candles. The firelight played on his lean frame and golden hair. He turned and held out a hand to her. “Come to me, Skye.”
    She rose from the bed and walked toward him. A slow smile lit his face. He took in the full effect of her gown and the grin grew. The tiny skirt pleats undulated to show her long legs, and when she stood before him he quietly hooked his hands on either side of the neckline and tore the gown away. Laughing, she flung her arms about him. He could feel his passion flame and, taking her face in his hands, he pressed a kiss upon her half-opened lips. “I love you, Skye,” he murmured huskily.
    “And I love you, my lord,” she answered, her deep blue eyes shining.
    His hands slid slowly from her perfect shoulders down her smooth, long, fair back, until he could cup and gently squeeze each sweetly rounded buttock. “I have missed you so,” he sighed, softly bending his head to capture a taut nipple in his warm mouth. Teasingly his tongue encircled it again and again until he felt her quiver. Sliding to his knees, his mouth moved with maddening slowness downward until at last his probing tongue slipped between the pouting lips of her woman’s center. She whimpered, “Please!” He raised his head and gazed at her. “Please what, Skye?” “Please!” she repeated, and pulling away from him, fled to the bed and flung herself upon it. Laughing softly, he joined her, pinioning her beneath him. “Do you want me, my wanton little wife?” he teased. “No, Skye, don’t turn your head away from me. I want to see your lovely face when I take you. Ah, sweetheart, there’s nothing wrong in wanting this. Tell me, love! Tell me!”
    “Yes! Yes! Yes!” she half sobbed, and he filled her full, his own excitement mounting as her beautiful eyes told him all the things she was even now too shy to say aloud. He was incredibly gentle, and this very gentleness roused her wildly. Her passion again acted as a spur to his own desire until it exploded within her as hers exploded.
    They lay exhausted and then he pulled her into his arms, caressing her soft hair, her trembling body. “Ah, love,” he murmured low, “now we have officially sealed the bargain we made today before the archbishop. I love you, Skye, and I shall always make you happy. I swear it!”
    She turned in his arms so that she faced him, and said quietly, “Your child already grows in my womb.”
    “Thank you, my darling,” he answered. Puzzled by his lack of surprise, she realized that he must have guessed her secret. “Geoffrey-you knew? Is that why you asked me to marry you?” He could see the hurt mounting in her eyes. “I am no bitch to be bred!” she cried furiously.
    “I did not know until after I had asked you,” he said quickly. “Robbie told you,” she accused. “Damn him for a meddling old woman!”
    “Aye, he told me. I was close to either strangling you, or beating you black and blue. You are the most stubborn, wayward witch I’ve ever met, Skye Southwood! The child you carry is both yours and mine, and I want it! You’ve no right to deny it me simply because your pride fears I might love our child more than I love you! I will love the babe, but I shall never love anyone or anything as I love you, Skye. Whatever I had to do to get you to marry me I would do again!”
    She was stunned by the intensity of his voice, and unable to find the words of reply. She heard him begin to chuckle softly, and the chuckle grew until the chamber was filled by the sound of his laughter. “So!” he crowed. “I’ve finally rendered you speechless, you overproud, overtalkative Irish wench! Mayhap now you will finally admit to my mastery over you. Surely no one has ever rendered you speechless before now.”
    The angry reply died on her lips at the sight of his bright limegreen eyes, which were tender and full with love.
    “I have a terrible temper,” she said in a small voice.
    “Aye,” he agreed gravely, “you do.”
    “I do not like injustice of any kind.”
    “Nor do I, my love. Nevertheless, it is not a perfect world we live in, as you well know. And there are no perfect humans living in it, as you also know.”
    “I will not be chattel, Geoffrey. I have guided my own destiny too long.”
    “Were you so independent with Khalid el Bey, my darling? I cannot imagine the wife of a Moorish gentleman being given such great freedom.”
    What a strange conversation to be having on my wedding night, she thought. Here I am lying naked in my second husband’s arms calmly discussing my previous lord! “Khalid,” she said slowly, “respected my intelligence. It was he, along with his secretary, who taught me how to run his business and handle his investments. He used to jest that if anything happened to him I should surprise everyone by being able to take care of his interests.”
    Geoffrey Southwood mused on his wife’s words. He had, since meeting Skye, thoroughly investigated the reputation of Khalid el Bey. It had not been easy, for the distance between Algiers and England was great, but his curiosity had been piqued by this man of notorious repute who had taken in and then lost his heart to a nameless lost waif. What he had learned had surprised Geoffrey. Despite his rather unsavory business, Khalid el Bey was considered a gentleman. He was noted for his honesty, his charitable nature, and his charm.
    It was this last that gave Geoffrey Southwood the most difficulty. It had never mattered to him whether his woman of the moment had had other men; but Skye was different-and she was his wife. Was she already comparing her two husbands? It fretted him, and unwittingly he crushed her to him.
    “Geoffrey!”
    His mouth savaged hers, blazing a burning trail down her neck and across her breasts. “Do you compare me to Khalid el Bey, Skye?” he asked fiercely.
    She understood instantly. He had never really been secure in a woman’s love. Her heart went out to him. “Oh Geoffrey,” she said softly, wrapping her arms around him. “There is no comparison. Khalid was Khalid and you are you. I loved him for what he was as I love you for what you are.” She raised his head and kissed his mouth sweetly. “I love you, my lord Southwood, but sometimes you play the fool.”
    And he did feel very foolish.
    “Is this how you would spend our wedding night, my lord?” she asked teasingly. “Now that we have discussed my first husband, shall we speak of the many ladies who have graced your bed, sir?” “Madam,” he growled, trying to gather the remaining shreds of his dignity, and then he heard her muffled giggles. “Oh, witch,” he laughed, “would anyone believe such a conversation between two lovers who are newly married?” Then he covered her face with kisses, and she sighed happily, which only made him laugh again. “I shall not be able to hide my condition much longer, Geoffrey,” she said thoughtfully, “and the Queen has asked that I join her ladies.”
    “When is the babe due. my love?”
    “In early autumn, after the harvest.”
    “Do you feel all right?” he asked anxiously.
    “Sometimes in the evenings I feel queasy,” she admitted. “It’s the smell of roasting meat that does it to me, though tonight, thank God, I was not so distressed.”
    “I want you in Devon as soon as possible,” he said. “We will hide your condition a month and then you must go.” “It would be better if I went in two or three,” she said. “To admit my pregnancy in less than two months’ time would be to bring the Queen’s anger down upon us. She is a very moral lady, Geoffrey. Besides, it will be safer for me to travel later than now. We can avoid following the Court for a month or so, for Her Majesty will not deny us a honeymoon. Then, when we do return to the Queen’s service, I shall feign sickness. Everyone will be praising your virility long before we make our joyful announcement. Then, if you wish to escort me to Devon, it will be permitted and we will offend no one.”
    “I begin to see,” said the Earl of Lynmouth, “why Khalid el Bey trusted your judgment. To find such a clever mind lodged in such a beautiful body is astounding.”
    “I trust you mean to flatter me, my lord,” she said drily.
    “Yes, witch. I mean to flatter you!” And tumbling her back amid the plump feather pillows of their bed, he kissed and tickled her until her happy laughter could be heard as far away as the ballroom.

Chapter 18

    Niall Burke slouched deep in a large chair in the study of his London house, staring out as the gray dawn rose over the dark and rainy river. A fire crackled merrily in the large fireplace, but the big Irishman scowled blackly, ignoring its warmth. He clutched in his clenched fist a large goblet from which the odor of spiced red wine rose. Around the house the sou’wester that had dampened Lord Southwood’s wedding was roaring itself out. A blast rattled the windows, and Burke glowered again. The wedding of Mistress Goya del Fuentes and the Earl of Lynmouth had been hell for Niall. He and Constanza stood with the rest of the Court watching as the most beautiful bride he’d ever seen was married to a very handsome groom. It had been torture. For, in his mind, he saw again the candlelit chapel of the O’Malley tower house, and a hollow-eyed, frightened young bride whose face was whiter than her gown. He remembered how he had flung open the chapel doors only a moment too late, how she had fainted upon seeing him, how he had outrageously demanded the droit du seigneur. Most of all, he remembered how sweetly she had yielded.
    “Skye!” he whispered softly, saying her name aloud for the first time in many months. “Oh, Skye, how I love you!” He was so painfully confused, and the new Countess of Lynmouth was responsible. She was his Skye’s identical twin. He ached with longing for her, yet he was ashamed. Upstairs slept his sweet and faithful young wife, alone in their bed while he sulked downstairs, lusting in his heart for another woman, a dead woman, and another man’s wife.
    Damn the Countess of Lynmouth, he thought bitterly, reaching for the decanter. What he should be thinking of was an heir, not a dead woman. He had been married to Constanza for almost two years now, and there had been no sign of a child. Had he not scattered his share of bastards about, he might be worried about himself, but obviously the fault lay with Constanza. He had wanted to return home to Ireland with both a wife and a child. The MacWilliam was growing old, and the reassurance of another heir would cheer the elderly man greatly.
    They had lingered on Mallorca for several months after their marriage, then begun a leisurely wedding journey through Mediterranean Spain, to Provence in France, and up to Paris. They had stayed the winter in Paris-a happy, gay time in which he had fully initiated her into the sensual world of lovemaking and she had proved an eager pupil. Sometimes he wondered if perhaps she wasn’t too eager. Had he not been certain of her virginity when they had first made love, he would have had his doubts about Constanza’s character, for her enthusiasm was, he thought, unseemly. Then he cursed himself for a fool. How many men mounted cringing, cold women who lay like stone beneath them “doing their duty” while they said the rosaries to themselves, hating what was being done to them? Constanza enjoyed their lovemaking. He ought to be glad. He would go to her now. He would slip into her bedchamber and she would be warm and fragrant with sleep. He would kiss her awake, then take her slowly, savoring her passion. She would whimper with pleasure and claw at his back. He made to rise but a wave of dizziness overcame him and he fell back. The room seemed overwarm. He sipped again at his wine, and suddenly he was so tired. His eyes closed, the heavy goblet fell from his grasp to the rug. and a small snore issued from his open mouth. Niall Burke slept a deep drunken sleep.
    A few minutes later the library door opened softly and very slowly. Constanza Burke and Ana looked into the room. A look of annoyance crossed young Lady Burke’s face and her pansy-purple eyes narrowed in anger. “He is drunk again,” she snapped. He has been drinking all night. In the name of all that is holy. Ana, what manner of man is he?”
    “He is unhappy, nina. Perhaps it is the lack of child that makes him so.”
    “Can he sire one on me in this condition?” she snapped. Then her voice softened. “Ana, fetch my cloak.”
    “Nina! No, no! Not again!”
    “Ana, I burn! I must or I shall die.”
    “I will soothe it, nina.”
    “It is not enough, Ana! I must have a man! I must! If you won’t fetch my cloak I shall go without it and my white nightgown will be a beacon to the entire household.”
    With a sob Ana went for the dark, enveloping cape. Constanza walked across the room and stood looking down at her husband. Why had he drunk himself into a stupor? This had begun only recently. When they first came to London all had been well, but in the last few months he had changed, quite suddenly, and for no apparent reason. Now he often drank himself into a stupor. Perhaps if he hadn’t changed, she herself wouldn’t have changed. But Constanza knew this wasn’t so.
    It had all begun so insidiously. One night, in an excess of passion, he had taken her four times. But when finally he lay contented and happy, she lay awake and yearning. It was not that he had not satisfied her. He had. Each time had been better than the last. But suddenly it was not enough. And it never was enough anymore. She had grown edgy with her constant longings.
    Then, one day, their head groom had been helping her to mount her mare and his hand slid up her leg farther than it should have. She said nothing and the hand moved higher yet until it was stroking the soft, wet place between her thighs, bringing her to a swift, delightful climax. The hand was slowly withdrawn and, without a word spoken between them, Constanza rode out from the stables with the head groom, his face impassive, riding at her side. When they returned an hour later he lifted her down from her horse and carried her into the darkened stable loft. Constanza had been driven half mad by the friction of her saddle and the motion of her horse against her already inflamed body. She offered no objections when the head groom pushed her skirts up to her waist. He stared down at her for a moment.
    “So it’s true, then,” he whispered wonderingly.
    “What?”
    “Ladies pluck their cunny hair,” he answered. Then he dropped on top of her. What Harry lacked in skill he made up for with vigor, pumping against her until he had fulfilled her twice. Afterward she felt guilty and ashamed, but as her needs far outweighed her guilt the interludes with Harry became a regular part of her life. At Court she was ogled by several young bucks, but instinct told her to be wary.
    Sometime later, she had lost a little of that wariness and agreed to an assignation with Lord Basingstoke, an older gentleman who seemed pleased to believe he had seduced a bride. But even having two lovers was not enough for Constanza any longer. Her lust was a sickness she could not rid herself of, and soon she did not even wonder at herself anymore. She was careful, however, that no one knew her terrible secret. She was not a wicked woman, and she loved her husband. But she would not, could not, stop. Constanza did not hear Ana return. She looked up only when the heavy velvet cloak was dropped over her shoulders.
    “M’lord?” asked Ana.
    “Leave him,” she answered quietly. “He is sleeping soundly, and in any case I will not be long.”
    “Nina, please. I beg of you.”
    “Ana! I cannot help myself.” And so saying, Constanza Burke swept from the library and out of her house through a little-used side door. In the half-light of the early morning she made her way to the stables and the room in the loft where Harry slept. With a proprietary air she opened the door and, looking in, saw a naked Harry sleeping with an equally naked Polly, one of the kitchen maids. For a few moments she watched them, fascinated, then Polly opened her eyes and stared at her mistress, horrified. Constanza smiled and put a warning finger to her lips. Shrugging off the cloak, she stripped her white silk nightgown from her lush body and climbed into bed on the other side of Harry.
    Polly lay stiff and frozen next to the groom. Suddenly her mistress’s face was over hers, looking down at the frightened girl. “Suck him.” came the soft command. ‘Together we can drive him mad. What a bull he’ll be then.”
    Polly scrambled to obey her mistress, no longer afraid. And while she eagerly did her part Constanza’s little tongue darted into and around Harry’s ear. The sleeping man stirred. Polly worked feverishly while Constanza blew softly into the groom’s ear. Harry groaned as his loins were filled with a fierce burning, and he opened his eyes, amazed by the sight that greeted him. His mighty shaft grew until Polly could hold it no longer and fell back. The groom was quickly atop her, ramming fiercely. Constanza watched, her slim fingers playing with herself until suddenly she felt Harry’s eyes upon her and looked up to meet his lascivious grin. He had not spent himself yet, though Polly lay gasping her pleasure beneath him. Rolling off the girl, he pulled Constanza beneath him and teasingly moved himself against her engorged and throbbing sex. Constanza whimpered and strained her body upward. But he denied her. Instead, and with a refinement that shattered her, he rubbed himself over her entire body until she was begging him to take her. With a wink at Polly, Harry jammed himself forcefully into Constanza and moved swiftly back and forth until he finally wrung from her a series of cries.
    Afterward, as the three of them lay side by side, Polly ventured shyly, “My friend Claro would never believe this-and her a popular madam with her own place. But if you wasn’t the mistress, I’d introduce you to Claro. She could sure use a girl like you.”
    Harry laughed at the outrageous idea, but later, when she had returned to her own bed, Constanza thought the idea over. Perhaps it was the answer to her problem. When the yearning overcame her she could sneak off to the whore’s house and indulge herself. She would be masked, but that would add a certain piquancy to her performance. Suddenly the horror of what she was thinking swept over her and she scrambled from her bed to kneel at her prie-dieu. “Holy Mother,” she fervently prayed, “let me not do this terrible thing. Wipe my mind clean of such thoughts. I beg thee!” Then her eyes strayed to the exquisite leather-bound book that lay on the table by her bed. It had been a gift from her lover, Lord Basingstoke, and had been brought to England by a Portuguese sea captain who had obtained it in India. Constanza rose from her knees and, sitting back on the bed, opened the book. Inside were pages and pages with beautiful and colorful illustrations of men, women, and animals performing a wide range of sexual acts, from the most pristine to the most perverted. Mesmerized, she slowly turned the pages. Her breathing had quickened and, despite her recent activity, she felt her need growing again.
    Ringing for her maid, she ordered her bath and asked that her riding clothes be laid out. By the time she approached the stables the fires of her desires were growing again. She stood quietly while Harry saw to the saddling of their mounts, but the impatient tapping of her riding crop against her boot told him that her passions were riding high once more. He sighed. Her fires seemed unquenchable, though God knew he tried. There had never been a woman he couldn’t satisfy but, by Heaven, the mistress was a rare one. They rode sedately from the house along the river road to a secluded thicket where they tethered the horses. He took her on the mossy ground, his excitement heightened by the foul words she whispered breathily in his ear. As always, he was amazed by the capacity for pure lust in this madonna-faced woman. Later, as they rode on, she said in her soft, slightly accented voice, “I want to meet Polly’s friend, Claro.”
    “Woman, you’re mad!” he exclaimed. “I’m amazed that your husband hasn’t found out about you cuckolding him with me and Lord Basingstoke. Are you looking to get caught?” “Let me worry about Niall. I want to meet the whore. If you won’t arrange it with Polly then I must do so.”
    “If having a hundred cocks up your hot little cunt will help you, Connie, then I’ll speak to Poll. ‘Tis a sickness with you, I know that. There was a girl in my village in Hereford like you. She just couldn’t get enough.”
    “What happened to her, Harry?”
    “She died of the pox,” he answered matter-of-factly. “What would you expect?”
    Several days later, with Niall Burke off hunting with friends for a week in Hampshire, Constanza Burke and Harry rode into London. She fully expected to be led into a dank slum, so she was pleasantly surprised to find herself before a small well-kept house on the London Bridge itself.
    The house was whitewashed and half-timbered, and each of the three stories extended out over the other, making it look a bit like a cake. One side of the house faced the street-the bridge actually was a street-while another side looked down onto the river traffic. This was a source of continuing delight to the bargemen, who enjoyed ogling and joking with the scantily clad women who sat fanning themselves in their windows on hot summer afternoons. “I’ll wait for you,” Harry said, helping her dismount. She drew her hood up and knocked at the door. A little maidservant opened it almost immediately and Constanza quickly entered and followed the girl down a short hallway to a pleasant sunny room with a bay window overlooking the river.
    An attractive blonde with sky-blue eyes awaited her, and when the servant girl had left, the woman spoke in a husky voice. “Good afternoon, my lady. I am Claro. Polly said you wished to see me. Now you do, so how may I serve you?”
    Constanza felt suddenly shy and, turning away, mumbled, “I have made a mistake in coming here.”
    Claro laughed breathily. “No, my dear. Poll has told me all about you. You have an itch that needs constant scratching, and you would join me on occasion. Please don’t be embarrassed. I should be delighted to have you with me. You’ll stay masked whenever here, and no one will ever know your real identity. Is it a bargain, my dear?”
    “You don’t even know fully what I look like,” said Constanza.
    “How can you be sure I’ll be a success?”
    “My dear,” was the devastating reply, “as long as you will give the gentlemen a good jogging, it matters not if you’re as ugly as sin itself. Remember that no one will ever see your face. I’ve half a dozen pretty lasses for those who like beauty with their play.” “What about the money?” asked Constanza.
    “We’ll split your earnings fifty-fifty,” came the reply.
    “No! I want none of it! Oh, God! Why did I come here?” Claro laughed, then put a friendly arm about Constanza. “Don’t be frightened, lovey. Being a whore takes getting used to, but you’ll do beautifully.” She sat Constanza down, gave her a small glass of a restorative cordial, then sat opposite her. “D’you think I was born a lightskirt then? My father was a nobleman with lands, but I ran off with my cousin and when he’d filled my belly, he left me. I couldn’t go home. What else could I do?”
    “You had a baby?” Constanza’s purple eyes were wide with surprise. “No,” laughed Claro, “I wasn’t so innocent that I didn’t know how to get rid of the brat.”
    Constanza felt sick, and swallowed hard. Oblivious, Claro continued. “Your using a mask will certainly be enticing, but I wish you also had a specialty that would set you apart. A mask is not enough.”
    Constanza stared at her hostess, her fear suddenly gone. Claro was, she realized with surprise, simply a business woman. The cordial was beginning to work, and now Constanza had a wicked idea. “I have a book,” she said.
    “A book?”
    “A book from the East, full of beautiful pictures of men and women, and some with animals. What if I offered each man who comes to me the opportunity to chose a page and duplicate that page?”
    Claro’s baby-blue eyes widened. “God’s toenail! You’ve a quick mind for this, my dear. It’s perfect! Now, when will you come to us?”
    ‘Tonight,” answered Constanza. “My lord is away for several days, and the truth is that I bum.”
    “Do not bother returning home now, my dear. Send your groom back for your book while you rest here,” purred Claro. She rang a small silver bell and said to the little servant girl, ‘Take Madam to the Rose Room.”
    Wordlessly Constanza followed the maid out the door. As the door closed on the two, Claro spun about, hugging herself with glee. “Oh, Dom!” she said softly to the air above her. “Oh, my darling brother, at last I have a means of vengeance on Niall Burke for you! That milk-faced girl is his wife. His wife! And I’ll make the fine Lord Burke’s wife the most infamous whore in London! That, added to the death of your late bitch wife Skye, should destroy him for good!” And Claire O’Flaherty laughed wildly.
    So it began. Soon gentlemen of the Court were circulating stories of the “Book Lady” who occasionally entertained at the house of the nobility’s favorite whore, Claro. The Book Lady performed the most unspeakable and delicious of perversions. The Book Lady’s lust was inexhaustible. That she was a lady was evident, but who she was was a favorite guessing game of the men who frequented Claro’s house, and Elizabeth Tudor’s Court.
    And Constanza Burke, living her secret life, had never been happier. She had her husband, and Lord Basingstoke, and Harry the groom, and a host of noble lovers. Who would ever suspect that the innocent-looking Lady Burke of Elizabeth’s Court was the wicked Book Lady?
    Luck rode with her, for Niall Burke was lost in his personal world of sad memories and was hardly aware of his wife any longer. Had the Countess of Lynmouth not looked so much like his Skye, he would have gone on with his life. But now, seeing her frequently, his wounds bled again and again. What a fine joke fate had played on him, and he laughed bitterly and drank deeply of his wine. One evening his wife’s personal servant, Ana, entered his library and curtseyed before him. “My lord, I must speak with you.” Ana was in a most difficult position. She could not allow her beloved child to go on as she was, yet to expose her sins to her husband would be worse. Ana believed that if she could force Lord Burke from his depression, perhaps he would again become a loving husband. Constanza would then cease her wicked adventures before it was too late.
    “”Well, Ana, what is it?”
    “My lord, my nina is not happy, and it is because you are not happy.” His black look made her falter, but summoning her courage, she continued. “You’ve been neglecting Constanza, my lord, and you know that I speak the truth. Why can it not be as it once was between you? Surely you don’t love her any less.” He sighed. The old woman was a busybody, but she spoke honestly and he knew it. “We Irish are subject to black moods, Ana, and Constanza must get used to that. She’s a good little lass.” “Why do you not go home to Ireland, my lord?”
    “I will not return until I can return with my wife and my son.” “There is little chance of that if you see my mistress so infrequently,” snapped Ana tartly.
    “Peace, woman!” shouted Niall Burke. “For the moment the mood is upon me, and I must bear it until it passes. Your mistress has had two years to produce an heir, and I’ve seen no sign of a son or daughter. She has not complained to me of neglect, and seems well enough entertained these days. Christ, she’s in the house less than I am!”
    “And don’t you wonder where she goes?”
    Niall Burke’s silver eyes narrowed. “What are you saying, woman?” he asked ominously.
    A wave of fear rushed on Ana, almost suffocating her. “Nothing, my lord, nothing!” she gasped and quickly backed out of the room. Oh God! She had almost given it away. Leaning against the wall, she wept silently, the hot, salty tears stinging her eyes and swelling them. Ana was not young anymore. Going through this awful fear again was surely a curse.
    She remembered back eighteen years ago to when she and Constanza’s beautiful mother had been carried off by Moorish pirates. When they had finally been returned, she had sworn an oath that her mistress’s virtue was untouched. Under the circumstances, she hoped God would forgive her the lie. The lady Maria had already been pregnant with her husband’s child when they were abducted, and to have told the truth would have left open to question the validity of the child’s heritage. In the end, the Conde questioned it anyway. Still, to protect the girl she had raised, Ana had lied. Since all the others who had been caught in the raid had disappeared into the slave markets of the East, no one questioned her story. But Ana would always remember it vividly. The pirates had struck after sunset, using the darkness to creep up upon the Conde’s summer villa located in a remote part of the island. The entire village had been lined up for inspection. The children, the young girls, the youths, women of childbearing age, and healthy, strong-looking men were herded onto the pirate vessel. The remaining unfortunates were quickly slaughtered. At the villa the procedure was similar but the young Condesa and her duenna were treated gently, and locked aboard the ship in a small cabin furnished with only a Turkish couch, a low table, and some floor pillows. The ship had been underway for several hours before anyone bothered with them. Then the door burst open and the ship’s captain swaggered in. The three men at his back leaped forward and tore the clothes off the shrieking young Condesa. Ana attempted to shield her mistress from the lustful stares of the four men, but the captain dealt her a fierce blow that sent her reeling to the floor. Stunned, she could only watch in horror as the handsome Moor scrutinized her naked mistress. He walked about her slowly, squeezed a buttock, hefted a pear-shaped breast as if testing its weight, felt the soft texture of the silvery blond hair. He made a comment to his three companions in their guttural language and they laughed. The Moorish captain bent and dragged Ana up by her hair. “Is your mistress a virgin?” he asked her in flawless Spanish.
    “No,” gasped Ana. “She is the wife of a wealthy and powerful lord, the royal governor of these islands. He will pay a fortune for her safe return.”
    The men laughed uproariously. The Moorish captain said, “Some fat pasha will pay a hell of a lot more to have your mistress in his harem than her stiff-necked husband will pay for her return. And since she’s no virgin we may enjoy her first.”
    The two women’s eyes widened and Ana screamed, “No! I beg of you, captain, take me-but leave my mistress untouched!” “Why. wench,” laughed the Moor, “did you think we wouldn’t have you too? Hey, Ali, this one’s eager for a little loving! Do your duty well by her!”
    What had followed was a nightmare Ana could never quite forget. That she was raped several times was of no importance, to Ana’s mind, for she was a peasant and such things, though distasteful, happened to peasants with great regularity. Her position on the floor, however, gave her a clear view of the lady Maria, who had been thrown on the couch above.
    At first the Condesa had struggled and screamed as the handsome Moorish captain rammed himself in and out of her. But her cries soon became cries of passion rather than shame as the captain, inflamed by her blond beauty, prolonged his performance. At last he could no longer contain himself, and poured himself into her. His place was quickly taken by one of his men, and then another, and finally the last.
    Ana listened with horror as Maria exhorted each man to greater efforts, begging for more when one was spent and another took his place. The captain and his three officers quickly left Ana in peace so that they might spend the night in a long debauch with the young Condesa. Ana could not believe either her eyes or her ears. What had happened to her child to turn her from a sweet girl to this… this terrible woman?
    When at last the four men stumbled wearily from the little cabin, Ana crept over to where Maria lay. The Condesa’s body was wet with sweat and semen, the hollows beneath her purple eyes dark with exhaustion. She beamed her sweet smile at Ana. “Ah, sweet body of Christ, my dear Ana, I have not been so well fucked since we left Castile.”
    “Nina, you are mad! You were a virgin on your wedding night!
    I myself saw the blood on your sheets.”
    Maria laughed her tinkling laughter. “Chicken’s blood,” she said. “The Conde would not have known a virgin if he’d had one. On our wedding night he was hot to possess me, and I pretended to be shyly reluctant. It took him two hours to get my nightgown off.” She laughed again. “And when I finally let him take me I shrieked and struggled. When I pretended to shove him away, I broke the small bladder of chicken’s blood I had secreted for the occasion, then I pretended to faint. There, however, I overdid it. The Conde, alas, is not a particularly vigorous lover, and since our wedding night he handles me with such delicacy that it is like being fucked with a feather. I have been wild with desire for months now, but I dare not take a lover. There are no secrets on Mallorca.”
    “My dearest,” begged Ana, “what is it you tell me? That you were not pure when you married the Conde? It is not so! I, myself, watched over you! When could you have had time to deceive me? When? You studied, made your devotion regularly, gardened, and rode. All decent pursuits!”
    “Ana, Ana, what an innocent you are,” said Maria. “My guardians left us alone in that jewel of a house. Though our bills were paid they never appeared from one year to the next. I was easy prey for those who liked to deflower innocents.”
    “Who, nina? Who?”
    “Our good priest for one, my Ana. I was six when he first took me on his lap and slipped his hand up my gown to touch my sex. I was eleven when he finally took my virginity in the confessional. You sleep soundly, my old duenna. After that I chose my own lovers from among the gardeners, the grooms, my tutor, and the gypsies who camped on our lands several times every year. It was their old queen who gave me the chicken’s blood in the bladder. I need loving, Ana. I must have it! I almost lost my mind these past months, but God, what lovers the Moors are!”
    Poor Ana was overcome. She had raised this girl from birth, and believed she knew her well. How could something so pure and freshlooking be so filled with evil? Dear Holy Mother, how could she not have seen it? Then her great love for Marie overcame her abhorrence. “Nina,” she said quietly, “we are in grave danger. These Moors mean to sell you into a harem. You would not like being confined, or sharing one man with a hundred other women. If you tried to deceive your master you would first be terribly tortured and then killed.”
    “Do not fear, Ana,” came the confident reply. “The Moors will not sell me. They will ransom us back to my lord husband.” “Nina, how can you be sure?”
    “I am with child, Ana. I will bear the Conde a child next year. They cannot sell a pregnant woman. I should make some lovely houri with a big belly! I have told Captain Hamid this, and have agreed to service him and his crew for the term of our stay with him.
    “Maria!”
    The young Condesa laughed. “Do not scold me, dear duenna. I’ll wear them out before they wear me out. Besides, soon I shall be too fat with my baby. And once the child is born all I will have again will be my husband.” She sighed bleakly.
    The beautiful Condesa calmly accepted the role of ship’s whore and was available at any hour of the day or night. Ana could only watch helplessly, and pray that their ransom would be paid quickly. When it was, and they were returned to Palma, Ana watched with amazement as her mistress, how pale and demure as befitted a young Spanish matron of noble blood, fell fainting into her anxious husband’s arms. Soon, under the stern eyes of the Archbishop of Mallorca and the Conde, Ana swore on the holy relics kept in the Palma cathedral that her mistress had remained untouched by the Moors during the period of her captivity. This extraordinary restraint was due to their respect for her impending motherhood. But the Conde was suspicious. Even when Constanza was born six months later, a fat full-term baby, he still doubted. Ana never knew why. for Maria had never given the Conde any reason to doubt her. Ana liked to believe that Maria had died of a broken heart, brought on by the Conde’s distrust. In reality she died of the complications of childbirth. The greatest of these complications was a massive dose of venereal disease. The doctor, used to his fine and elegant lady patients, never even identified the pox as the true cause of Maria’s death. And the Conde believed she had died of shame at having been held captive by infidels.
    It came to Ana now that her Maria had been an evil creature who had passed on her devil’s seed to the innocent Constanza. Now Constanza was tainted too, and there was nothing Ana could do about it. Sooner or later Lord Burke would find out the double life his wife was leading, and when that happened… Ana shuddered and an icy sense of disaster surrounded her.
    Ana’s complaints had roused Niall from his black mood. He saw mat he could not rest until he knew the truth about the new Countess of Lynmouth. There was only one man who could tell him. The fierce storm that had torn through England had delayed the sailing of Robert Small’s fleet. Despite careful precautions, several ships had been damaged and it would take some weeks to repair them. The Devon captain was therefore still in London, and Lord Burke sought him out, finding him at the King’s Head Inn. The two men exchanged pleasantries and then Niall seated himself opposite the captain and said straightforwardly, “I need your help in unraveling a mystery, sir.”
    Robert Small sipped his ale and regarded the Irishman quietly.
    He replied, “If it’s in my power, m’lord.”
    “Several years ago,” began Niall, “I fell in love with a young girl. She was already betrothed, and my father did not think her highborn enough for me. She was wed to another man and bore her husband two sons before being widowed. My own marriage had been a farce, and was annulled by the Church. My father then agreed to a marriage between the lady and myself. Not only had she proven herself a good breeder, but she was wealthy by then. We were formally betrothed, but before we could wed, it was important to my lady’s family interests that she make a sea voyage. I joined her on that voyage.”
    Robert Small felt an eerie sense of premonition creep over him. “We had almost reached our destination when we were attacked by pirates. In the last moments of the battle one of those devils kidnaped my lady.”
    Robert Small felt a trickle of nervous sweat roll down his back. His stomach, full with a rich dinner and stout English ale, began to roll. Dear Christ, what was Lord Burke after? “What is it you want of me, my lord?” he asked abruptly.
    “The truth, Captain. You brought to England a woman known as Senora Goya del Fuentes, the widow of your dead partner, allegedly raised in a convent in Algiers. I might have accepted that story except that the lady is the identical twin of my lost betrothed. Identical! Yet when I questioned her she seemed honestly to have no knowledge of Ireland or the O’Malley family.” He paused. “At the bedding of the Earl and Countess of Lynmouth, Lady Southwood’s gown slipped and I saw a tiny mole at the crest of her right breast. The possibility of two women who look so alike and bear the same name, I must reluctantly accept. But that two unrelated, coincidentally identical women should have the same mole I do not think possible. I believe the Countess of Lynmouth is the lost Skye O’Malley, and I think you know the truth of this matter. Why will she not acknowledge me or her past?”
    “Because, my lord, she has no memory of anything prior to Algiers,” said Robert Small calmly. “The only thing she was ever able to tell us was her name. Later on, she realized she was able to speak, read, and write in several languages. She had a strong sense of values, acquired somehow, but who she was and where she came from is all unknown, though I, of course, recognized her accent as Irish.
    “The doctors explained that she suffered a shock, something so painful that her mind chose to blot everything out rather than face the terrible event-whatever that was.”
    “My God,” Niall Burke was white-faced. “Tell me. Captain, was she truly married to a Spanish merchant, or is her child the result of rape?”
    Robert Small hid a smile. North Africa was hardly a safe world, especially for women, but it wasn’t much different here. Why did all Christian Europeans think of Moslems as sex-crazed fiends?
    “Willow is the result of a great love,” he said. “Skye was indeed wed to my Algerian business partner. His name was Khalid el Bey, and it was he who rescued Skye. He adored her and she him. When he was murdered it almost destroyed her, and I brought her to England to escape the advances of the Turkish governor who was behind Khalid’s death. She met Lord Southwood, and they fell in love.
    “Now, my lord Burke, I have told you all I know, and I would appreciate it if you would return the favor. Who is she? Where is her home? You say she bore her first husband children? Are they living?”
    “Her name is Skye O’Malley. Her first husband, may his soul burn for all eternity, was Dom O’Flaherty. He gave her two sons, both living. Her father was Dubhdara O’Malley.” Here Robert Small whistled softly through his teem, for what seaman had not heard of the great Irish pirate-merchant, Dubhdara O’Malley? “On his death,” finished Niall, “she was made the O’Malley of Innisfana, pending the majority and aptitude of one of her half-brothers.” “How have they fared without her?” asked Robert Small. “Her uncle, the Bishop of Connaught. has taken charge-much to my father’s annoyance,” smiled Niall. “When Skye disappeared the MacWilliam, my father, thought to avail himself of the O’Malley interests. But the O’Malleys have always been independent, for all they do owe us fealty.”
    The two men sat in companionable silence for a few moments, men Robert Small sighed, “Weil, my lord Burke, what do you intend to do with this knowledge? I must warn you that Skye should have no shocks now. She is with child.”
    “But she’s just w e d…!” Then Niall Burke flushed and finished weakly, “Oh.”
    Robbie chuckled softly. “She’s a beautiful woman.” “What am I to do now, sir? I can hardly tell the Countess mat she is my lost betrothed wife.”
    “Why not tell Southwood about her background, my lord? Leaving out, of course, your personal involvement witb her,” suggested Robert Small. “Geoffrey should know. Then write to the Countess’s uncle and explain the situation. It is only decent that her family know she is alive. Geoffrey Southwood loves Skye dearly, and after their child is born I am sure he’ll want her to know of her past. Perhaps knowledge of it will bring her memory back.” Niall Burke was thoughtful, then said, “Be there, Robert. Help me tell him. I’m in a difficult position.”
    “I understand.” Robert Small debated with himself for a moment, men asked, “Tell me, my lord Burke, do you love her still?” “Yes,” said Niall Burke without hesitation, “I still love her. I have never stopped loving her, though God knows I have tried. The memory of her has haunted my every hour, waking and sleeping.”
    “And your wife?”
    “Constanza is my wife, Robert. I may have done her a great disservice by marrying her, but until death parts us she is my wife, as Skye is Lord Southwood’s.”
    “I am relieved to know that you are a sensible man, my lord. You see, Skye is the child that neither my sister nor I ever had. We love her dearly, and would not see her hurt. She remembers nothing before she awoke in Khalid’s house, and she obviously does not remember you. I will arrange for us to see the Earl immediately, for the repairs to my fleet will be completed soon and I must sail when they are. This storm has delayed me long enough.” Robert Small was as good as his word. Within the hour he sent a note to the Earl of Lynmouth that read, “Imperative I see you alone, without Skye’s knowledge, immediately. Meet me aboard my ship tonight at ten.”
    Geoffrey Southwood, raising an elegant blond eyebrow at the cryptic message, made an excuse to his bride and rode off, promising a swift return. Arriving at the docks, he was escorted aboard the Mermaid to the captain’s cabin, where he was surprised to find the Irishman, Burke, waiting with Robert Small.
    Geoffrey flung his cloak to the little cabin boy and, nodding to both men, sprawled his long frame into a chair. “Well, Robbie, what’s so important that you would take me from my bride on my honeymoon?”
    “Have some wine, my lord,” said Robbie. “You know Lord Burke?”
    “We’ve met. The Burgundy, Robbie.”
    Robert Small poured wine for himself and his guests, and when the cabin boy had served the goblets, Robbie instructed him, “Stand watch outside, my lad. We’re not to be disturbed unless the ship is sinking. Do you ken?”
    The boy grinned. “Aye, sir!” he said, and closed the door behind him.
    Robert Small sat back and drew a long deep breath. “Geoffrey, I’ve news that should make you happy, but it is of a very delicate nature. For several months Lord Burke has been quite confused by Skye’s name and appearance. When you were bedded at Greenwich several nights ago he saw a mole on Skye’s… um, Skye’s… Skye’s person!” he gasped, as Southwood’s green eyes darkened.
    “The tiny star?” Geoffrey asked softly.
    “The very same,” answered Niall.
    “You’ve big eyes, Irishman,” said the Earl, his voice soft with warning.
    Niall bit back a hot-tempered reply. Damn the arrogant, possessive English bastard! Robert quickly resumed. “When Lord Burke saw the mark on Skye he was able to make a positive identification, although he was still quite confused as to why Skye did not acknowledge knowing him. He has mentioned names and places to her and is convinced that she has no knowledge of them. So he came to me this afternoon.”
    “And?” Geoffrey Southwood’s voice was icy.
    “She is Skye O’Malley,” said Niall Burke. “The O’Malley of Innisfana, herself, and vassal to my father, who is the MacWilliam. Skye O’Malley disappeared several years ago off the North African coast and was presumed dead. Robert Small has explained her loss of memory to me. I felt, my lord, that you should know her true identity, but the captain and I were fearful of disclosing these facts to Skye herself.”
    Geoffrey Southwood’s eyes narrowed just slightly at Niall Burke’s familiar use of his wife’s name. ‘Tell me of my wife’s family,” he said pointedly.
    “Both her parents are dead, her father just a year before she was lost. She had a stepmother and uncle of whom she is quite fond, five older sisters, a younger brother, four younger half-brothers, and two sons by her first marriage. He’s dead, my lord,” Niall finished quickly, seeing the Earl go white about the lips.
    “Did she love him?”
    “Certainly not! He was a bastard who delighted in mistreating her. He was dead before she left Ireland, proving that there is a God in Heaven.”
    Geoffrey Southwood’s eyes narrowed further and glittered dangerously at the impassioned tone in Lord Burke’s voice.” And what, my lord, was your connection with my wife?”
    “We grew up together,” said Niall. The lie slipped coolly off his tongue. “Her father was the O’Malley of Innisfana, her mother, Margaret McLeod, of the isle of Skye. When Dubhdara O’Malley died he made Skye his heiress until one of her brothers was old enough and showed an aptitude for the family seafaring business. Skye had always been her father’s favorite, and had her father not finally sired some sons it probably would all have gone to her anyway. After the O’Malley died she swore her fealty to my father, as had all the O’Malley chiefs before her.”
    “And what was she doing on a ship off the North African coast?” demanded the Earl.
    “The O’Malleys have been great sea rovers for centuries. Her trading fleet had made inquiries of the Algerian government with regard to beginning trade. When the Dey of Algiers learned that the O’Malley chief was a woman he insisted on meeting her before he would continue their negotiations. Representing my father, I accompanied her on that voyage. A severe storm tore the Dey’s protective pendant from our mast, and when the storm ended we fought a sea battle with Barbary pirates. They didn’t know mat we were under the Dey’s protection. We had almost succeeded in driving them off when one pirate swung across the gap between the ships and carried off the O’Malley. Before we could retrieve her a fog bank separated the ships. I had been severely injured, and was taken to the island of Mallorca. The rest of the O’Malley fleet sought for Skye, with the Dey’s aid, but no trace of her was found.”
    “And that,” explained Robert Small, “was because she wasn’t channeled through a regular slave market, but disposed of in a private sale.”
    “Her family should be notified, Southwood. With your permission I should like to write to her uncle, who is the Bishop of Connaught. Captain Small and I thought that perhaps, after your child is born, you would tell her.”
    “Lord Burke is a gentleman, Geoffrey,” said Robbie apologetically, “but since he was all for rushing to your house and telling Skye of her past, I found it necessary to explain her delicate condition to him.”
    “I congratulate you on your good fortune,” said Niall feelingly.
    “I understand you lost your only son recently.”
    “Thank you,” said Geoffrey, softening a little.
    Robert Small heaved a sigh of relief. They weren’t going to kill each other. “Well, gentlemen, we all have Skye’s interests at heart,” he said. “We’ve agreed then that Lord Burke will inform the O’Malleys of this happy turn of events, but that Skye will not be told until after the birth of her child.”
    The two young men nodded their assent, and Robbie raised his goblet. “To Skye and her happiness!” he declared. Geoffrey Southwood smiled for the first time since entering the cabin, his green eyes meeting Niall’s silver ones. “That’s an easy toast,” he said, and Niall Burke smiled back, raising his own goblet. Suddenly, from outside the cabin there arose a small uproar. The piping voice of the little cabin boy was heard protesting in concert with a deep masculine voice. Southwood cocked his head. “Sounds like de Grenville,” he said. The words had hardly left his mouth when the door burst open to admit that gentleman. The little cabin boy was close to tears and clung valiantly to the nobleman’s doublet. “I told him he couldn’t come in, Captain! I told him!” “That’s all right, lad,” said Robert Small in a kindly tone. “I can see you’ve done your best, but in this instance you’ve been outgunned. Go back and guard my door again. You did well.” The boy wiped tears away with his sleeve. Saying “Aye, s-sir,” he took up his post again.
    Robert Small turned coolly to de Grenville. “Well, Dickon, what is so important that you forced your way in here?” De Grenville shook his flowing lace cuffs free of imaginary wrinkles. “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you, Robbie! Hello, Southwood… Burke. Mayhap you gentlemen will join us.” He turned again to the captain. “Robbie, fate smiled on you when it delayed your sailing. I’ve been sent word that the ‘Book Lady’ is to perform at Claro’s tonight, and I’ve obtained time in her bed for both of us!”
    “The ‘Book Lady’?’ the Earl interrupted.
    “Ah, Geoff, you’ve been so busy in the wooing of your new wife that you’ve missed this delicious phenomenon. She’s just appeared at Claro’s in the last few months. They say she’s a bored noblewoman, but she’s always masked so who’s to know for certain? Her manners are flawless, and she speaks like a noblewoman, so the gossip may be right.”
    “Perhaps she’s just a good actress,” suggested the Earl. “I think she’s well bred. Her bone structure and skin texture are fine,” replied de Grenville.
    “Why do they call her the ‘Book Lady’?” asked Niall Burke. “Ahhh,” breathed de Grenville again, “there’s the fascinating part. Let’s face it, gentlemen, a whore’s a whore, but the Book Lady is an artist. She’s got a naughty book from the Far East, filled with the most gorgeous illustrations of people fucking. If you desire, you pick a page and she’ll duplicate it with you. They say she’s expert in all she does, and she certainly loves her work. There’s been talk of her and Claro having a contest to see who can fuck the most men in a twenty-four-hour period. By God, Robbie! We’ve a good time ahead of us tonight! Southwood! Burke! Will you join us?” “No, Dickon, not I. What man married to my Skye would seek other entertainment?”
    A hot pain pierced Niall.
    “What excuse did you use to Skye when you came here?” asked Robert Small.
    “That I’d a surprise for her,” answered the Earl, “and I do.” He drew forth from his doublet a large sapphire teardrop on a delicate gold chain. “D’you think she’ll like it?”
    “A Ceylon blue! God, what a beauty!” ejaculated de Grenville.
    “Aye, Skye will like it,” said Robert Small. “It matches her eyes.”
    ‘That’s just what I thought,” remarked the Earl, grinning, and again Niall winced.
    Geoffrey Southwood stood and picked up his cloak. “Thank you, Robbie, and you, too, my lord Burke. Robbie, be sure you come to say good-bye to Skye before you sail.”
    “I will,” promised the captain. Then he and the other two walked to the gangplank with the Earl.
    At its foot waited a sailor holding Southwood’s chestnut stallion. After mounting, Southwood waved to Robert and rode off in the direction of the Strand. Lord de Grenville turned to his two companions. “Well, gentlemen, are you for Claro’s with me?” Robert Small nodded. “I could use an entertaining memory to warm me on the long and lonely nights of this voyage. Aye, Dickon, I’m with you. And you, Lord Burke? Claro has some of the loveliest pox-free girls in London.”
    Niall considered a moment. “Aye, I’ll join you. I don’t think, however, that I’m up to your Book Lady. I’ll happily settle for a pretty lass who fucks well.”
    De Grenville signaled his coach and the three men climbed in and were off. “Claro will fix you up right enough,” prophesied de Grenville. And Claire O’Flaherty, seeing the three men coming through her front door, panicked until she realized that, although she’d been a guest in the MacWilliam’s castle, she’d never met Niall Burke. As the daughter of a minor and impoverished vassal, Claire had not been considered important enough to merit the heir’s attention. So he would not know her. But Constanza must be warned. Claire ran lightly up the stairs to the beautiful room that showcased her star attraction. Constanza, having just arrived, was alone. She was rouging her nipples when Claire burst in. “Your husband’s here,” announced Claire, “but I don’t believe he’s come for you. He’s not angry or upset at all. He’s with friends.” “Who?”
    “Lord de Grenville and Sir Robert Small.”
    Constanza checked a small book open on her bedside table. “De Grenville and one guest are scheduled with me for the entire night,” she said. “Rose took the appointment. De Grenville said something to Rose about his friend going off on a long sea voyage.” “Then it must be Sir Robert,” said Claire, giddy with relief. “But if Rose got it wrong then I’ll send her up here and you get out fast. I’ll make your excuses. Unless, of course, you’d like your husband to know?” She glanced slyly at Constanza.
    “And spoil my fun?” laughed Constanza nervously. “Never!”
    Claire slipped from the room and, with much show, descended the staircase. Her blond hair was piled high. Her sky-blue eyes sparkled with malice. Her skin was very white except for the cheeks, which had been reddened with pomade. Her nipples were rouged. She wore a deep-blue gown so entirely transparent that her body was plainly visible. She was adorned with ropes of pearls. “Lord de Grenville,” her feline, husky voice purred. “Welcome! Welcome to you and your guests. I recognize you, Sir Robert, but the other gentleman is a stranger.”
    “Niall, Lord Burke, Claro. He’s looking for a bouncing lass and some good bedsport.”
    “I shall see to him myself,” smiled Claro broadly. The thought of bedding the man who had loved Skye O’Malley was simply too tempting.
    “By God!” muttered de Grenville enviously. “I’ve been trying for months to pry those plump white thighs apart, and she’d have none of me. You merely walk through the door and she’s at your feet!” Niall eyed Claro dispassionately. Yes, she would do quite nicely. In his depression over Skye he had been disinclined to seek his wife’s bed for several weeks, and yet he needed a woman to vent his frustration upon. This one would do quite nicely. With her big, pillowy, white breasts and avid, wet red mouth, she was totally unlike his dainty, gentle little Constanza. He smiled boldly at her, a smile that did not reach his cold silvery eyes, Claire noticed. She could feel the suppressed violence in Niall as he slipped a hard arm about her, and she shivered with delight. Maybe this time, for the first time since that last wonderful time with Dom, she would feel something.
    She smiled coyly up at him. “Come on, lovey,” she said in that husky voice. Taking him by the hand, she led him up the stairs to her room. The door had barely closed behind them when he was pulling her into his arms and kissing her with a brutality that left her breathless. She heard the sheer gown rip, and felt the cool anon her skin. He picked her up, tossed her on the bed, pulled his own clothes off, and flung himself on her. He plunged into her without ceremony and she gasped with the pain he was inflicting on her in his desperate rutting. He was even bigger than Dom had been. Thrusting her hips to meet him, she felt her climax building. Yes, it was the first time since Dom that she had felt any satisfaction from a coupling. And, to her great surprise, he delayed his own pleasure until she had had hers. No man had ever done that for Claire. The release was a purely physical one for Niall. The woman beneath him was a coarse creature, but she served her purpose and he had to admit she moved well. He had thought to take her once and leave, but now he decided to spend the night, as she apparently expected him to do. Why not? “You’re a good tumble.” He grinned and laughed when she shot back, “So are you, Niall Burke!” He hoped de Grenville and Robert Small were having as good a time as he was.
    They were. The room in which Claro showcased her most famous whore was not used by anyone else. It had been decorated at great expense. In an age when glass was a rare and almost prohibitively expensive thing, the Book Lady’s room had a great mirror built into its ceiling and two large standing mirrors in gilt frames on either side of the bed. The bed was enormous, with ruby velvet hangings, large fat pillows, and a red fox coverlet. Before the great fireplace was an Oriental type of couch, set low to the ground and covered with pillows. Next to the bed was a walnut bookstand upon which rested the famous book. Over the fireplace were hung dainty silver chains with gold wristlets, and next to the fireplace stood a tall white vase with a supply of hazel switches. Heavy red velvet brocade drapes shielded the windows. The floor was covered by a thick blue and red carpet from Turkey.
    The three occupants of the room were all naked, poring over the book of love. The woman sat between them on the large bed, each man absently fondling a firm golden breast. “Impossible!” muttered Robert Small, studying the picture. “Not at all, Captain,” came back the breathy answer. “It simply takes a bit of time and some patience. Would you like to try it?”
    Robert Small looked at the petite golden-skinned creature and was rather shocked by what he saw. The woman was lust incarnate. Constanza pressed herself against him and, reaching down, fondled his sex. “Such a great weapon for such a little man,” she murmured. “Can you wield your sword well, Captain?”
    “Aye,” he growled as he kissed her open mouth. “Come on, de Grenville, let’s teach this hot little minx a good lesson!” De Grenville’s eyes glittered as he pressed against Constanza from behind. “Damme, Robbie, it’s going to be a good evening! Geoff will be sorry he didn’t join us!”
    At that moment the Earl of Lynmouth, having reached his home, entered his bedchamber and found his wife lying on the bed, asleep.
    His valet entered silently behind him and closed the door. Geoffrey Southwood looked tenderly at the picture she made. She was wearing a demure white silk nightgown. The deeply scooped neckline offered him a generous view of her pretty breasts. Smiling, he drew off his clothes. Geoffrey bathed in the warm water set out by his valet, then waved away the white silk nightshirt offered him. Placing the sapphire on the bedside table, he said pointedly, “Good night, Will.” The valet chuckled as he left the room. Marriage had not paled Lord Southwood’s appetite!
    For a few moments Geoffrey watched Skye in sleep. She was so outrageously lovely that his breath caught in his throat. What he had learned tonight was astounding in one sense, yet not truly surprising. It had always been obvious that Skye was a lady as well as an educated woman. Now that he knew her to be the mother of two sons as well as the adorable Willow, Geoffrey was greatly encouraged. Surely the child she now carried beneath her heart was his son and heir, and not another daughter.
    Suddenly he became aware of his great need for her and, gently rolling her over on her back, he kissed her mouth. She murmured and stretched. Pulling her gown down over her shoulders, he bared her to the waist. Then, with a shrug, he pulled the gown off entirely. The sight of her slim body, the belly just beginning to round, roused him painfully, the desire slamming into him sharply. He buried his face in the valley between her breasts and murmured her name. Her arms were quickly about him. “Geoffrey, my love. I fell asleep waiting for you.”
    “I’ve been watching you sleep and, God help me, even in sleep you rouse me, my love.” His mouth was closing over hers, his tongue exploring the roof of her mouth, then flicking downward to tease at her sensitive breasts. She caught at one of his hands and pulled it downward to the sweet core of her. She rubbed against him and he felt the wetness of her.
    “You see, my darling, what a shameless creature I am. I desire you too!” Then catching his tumescence in her hand, she guided him to her and sighed with pleasure when he thrust deep. “Witch,” he muttered, “wives are not supposed to enjoy their husband’s attentions so much.”
    “I shall say my prayers then,” she teased, wriggling provocatively beneath him.
    “You must say them to Venus, the goddess of love,” he growled. He redoubled his efforts and soon she was crying out. Satisfied that he had mastered her, he took his own release. Niall Burke might play the old family friend all he wished, but Geoffrey Southwood knew a man in love when he saw one. Skye, however, was his alone, and he would never let her go.
    Recovered, she leaned over him and demanded, “Where is my surprise?”
    Muttering about greedy women, he reached over to the bedside table and dangled the gift before her.
    Skye gasped. “Oh, Geoffrey, it’s magnificent!” She sat cross legged before him and slipped it over her neck. It dangled provocatively between her small impudent breasts as he had known it would. “And you went out especially tonight to get it for me. Thank you, my darling!”
    And looking at her sitting there, the delight of a child on her face, he vowed again that no one would ever take her from him. She might be the head of a large Irish family, but they had managed these last few years and they’d have to continue to manage without her. She was his wife! His!
    “Geoffrey, you look so fierce. Have I displeased you somehow?” “Nay, sweet,” he reassured her smilingly. “I was just thinking how very much I love you.”
    She crept into his arms and put her dark head against his shoulder. “And I love you, my darling. Oh, Geoffrey, I am such a terrible woman! I cannot help but think how lucky we are mat Mary died.” “D’you think I would have let you go? Never! From the moment I first saw you in Dartmoor I meant you to be mine. I will never let you go, Skye! You belong to me!” And men his mourn was taking fierce, harsh possession of hers, and she was meeting his passion with her own, matching him kiss for kiss, caress for caress, until they were again joined in the blazing union so familiar by now, yet never the same. It left them both weak and breathing hard. Afterward he gently scolded her. “We cannot go on like this, my angel. We must be careful of the baby.”
    “I know,” she answered softly, “but Heaven help me, Geoffrey.
    I love you so, and I love it when you make love to me.” He smiled in the dimness of the room and, pulling her close, sighed, “Go to sleep, my naughty little wife. Too soon we must return to Court to serve the Queen. Then you’ll have to curb your appetite, for the Queen allows her servants very little time to themselves.” She nestled next to him. “I’ll find time, Southwood. Never fear!”

Chapter 19

    ‘Hurry, milady,” scolded Daisy. “You know how the Queen i dislikes it when her ladies are late to vespers.”
    “None of the Queen’s other ladies are about to give birth,” grumbled Skye. “Let any of the others become pregnant and they’re sent home to the country immediately. But not I! Oh no! The Queen must have her ‘dearest Skye’ near her. I wonder if she will allow me the time to birth my son?”
    “Remember, milady,” cautioned Daisy, “that you’re not supposed to give birth for another two months. Keep it in your mind, ma’am.” Skye laughed ruefully. ‘Thank God it’s not really that long! If I don’t have this child soon I think I shall burst.” She smoothed her gown over her protruding belly. “There! I am finally presentable. Give me my pomander, girl.” Catching it up, Skye hurried from her apartment and through the maze of palace corridors to the chapel.
    She could hear the sweet, fluting voices of the choirboys singing:
    “Therefore we before Him bending, this great sacrament revere.” Avoiding Geoffrey’s little frown, she slipped into the pew beside him.
    “I couldn’t wake up,” she whispered.
    He took her hand and squeezed it. “You should be down in Devon,” he whispered back, and she nodded.
    The service was brief. The Court then trooped gaily off to the dancing, which would be followed by supper. Elizabeth’s sharp dark eyes scrutinized her favorite lady as they all moved through the halls, and she thought, So Southwood tasted of forbidden fruit before his last wife died. I wonder what they would have done if she hadn’t died? Then the memory of Robert Dudley’s dead wife, Amy, assailed her. Elizabeth tried to push it away. But this time, as had happened before, she could not banish the thoughts. Amy Dudley haunted Elizabeth Tudor. The Queen was a person of strong and certain morals, and she knew that she had coveted another woman’s husband. Now that other woman was dead, dead under distinctly mysterious circumstances, and the Queen wondered what the truth of the matter really was. It was not the first time she had wondered. She did not believe, as many others did, that Robert Dudley had had his wife murdered by a hired killer. Elizabeth knew Dudley too well. His lust to be King of England was great and consuming. All he had had to do was wait, just a little time, until Amy died a natural death. She had been mortally ill. No purpose would have been served by killing her and, thus, casting suspicion upon himself. No, Robert had not ordered Amy’s death.
    But there were two other possibilities. One was that her dear Cecil or someone else who did not want to see Dudley become her husband and their King had arranged Amy’s death, well aware of the furor a suspicious death would cause. The other possibility was that poor little Amy, in revenge against Elizabeth for stealing her husband’s love or else in despair over her doctor’s grim verdict, had thrown herself down the staircase, knowing that this unhallowed death would destroy Robert and Elizabeth’s chances of marriage. Could someone love a man as deeply as Amy Dudley had loved Robert, and one day come to hate him with equal passion? Elizabeth wondered whether this could be. Oh! If only Amy had died a natural death! Sometimes Elizabeth felt actually responsible. It wasn’t fair! Angrily, she managed to put the subject from her mind and looked again at the Countess of Lynmouth.
    I really should let Skye go home to Devon, she mused, but there are so few women who amuse me. Perhaps in a week or so, she considered.
    The Queen also noted how radiant the Countess of Lynmouth was. Her gown was of mulberry-colored silk, cut low to reveal her very full breasts. There was an attempt at modesty in the soft creamy lace tucked into the bodice. The same lace overflowed the sleeves. Skye’s dark hair was styled severely, drawn into a chignon at the nape of her slender neck, and tucked into a net of very thin gold wires. The long double rope of pearls she wore about her throat were a source of envy to every woman in the room, including Elizabeth. Skye did not join in the dancing, remaining instead on her footstool by the Queen’s chair. She watched the others dance, and was content. The Queen loved dancing and scarcely sat at all during the entire evening. When he was not partnering Her Majesty, Lord Dudley stood by her throne. At one point his hand dropped to Skye’s bare shoulder. She froze. Dudley laughed softly. “I’ve heard Southwood brag of the fineness of your skin.” His long, elegant fingers moved slowly downward to the swell of her breasts. He stroked her lightly, casually. “He does not lie,” drawled Dudley insolently. Slowly, he drew his hand away. “You play a dangerous game, my lord,” said Skye in a low, furious voice. Skye studied the Queen’s favorite without bothering to conceal her scorn. He was a handsome enough man, if one were drawn to his type, she considered. He was tall and elegantly slender, and always dressed himself with foppish care. His long, aristocratic face and slender hands enhanced h i s… well, elegance. She had to admit it. He was not an easy man to overlook, even among the welldressed courtiers. But Dudley did have one flaw, as though nature, having designed him so well, could not bear to endow a mere mortal with everything. His dark red hair, his mustache, and his very short, carefully clipped beard were all very sparse.
    His dark eyes were slightly hooded and he never managed to look one directly in the eye. By contrast, however, his words were brutally straightforward.
    “I enjoy the game I play, my dear, and I shall win it,” he said sharply. His eyes now held a mocking expression. “You’d like to slap my face, wouldn’t you, Lady Southwood? But you can hardly slap your King, can you?”
    “You’re not the King yet, Lord Dudley!” Skye was shocked by the man’s boldness.
    “But I will be, my dear, never fear. Bess must wed and produce heirs for England. The council would far prefer a good, solid Englishman to some mincing foreigner. Would you like to be the King’s mistress, m’dear?”
    “You’re insufferable,” Skye raged, struggling to her feet. “And, my lord, you are insulting!” Finally standing and balancing herself, she walked slowly away with as much dignity as she could muster. Finding an empty chair in the card room, she sat down and joined the game. She was very angry, and played with a fierce concentration. She had never liked Robert Dudley, finding him overly ambitious. and arrogant to boot. Given free access to the Queen’s apartments, he came and went at will, particularly when the women were likely to be in states of undress. His eye was bold, and when the young, love-besotted Queen was not looking, his hands were even bolder. Skye was shocked that he would so lewdly approach a woman in her condition. She prayed that Elizabeth would not choose him for a husband. She smiled. The young Queen was sharper and a great deal wiser than those around her gave her credit for. If only love would not cloud her judgment.
    The pile of gold coins before her grew higher, and then de Grenville was leaning over her asking, “May I escort you in to supper, Skye?” Her anger cooled, Skye gave him a bright smile and stuffed her winnings into the little silk pouch that hung from her waist. She excused herself from the card table, to the relief of the other players. “Aye, Dickon, I am famished!” she said. “Where is Southwood?”
    “With the Queen. I’ve news of Robbie.”
    “Oh, Dickon, tell me! Is he all right?”
    “A small merchant fleet that’s just put into London hailed him on the Indian Ocean side of Cape Horn. His entire fleet was intact-and so was Robbie. I’ve letters for you which I’ll bring around tomorrow.”
    They had reached the dining room. Courtiers in full, colorful finery were milling about, chatting and helping themselves from the vast buffet. “I shall eat nothing but Colchester oysters,” announced Skye, piling her plate high.
    “The outrageous vagaries of breeding women,” teased de Grenville. “I don’t know how on earth you would know about that, Dickon,” Skye teased in return. “The moment your wife shows sign of being with child, you banish the poor woman to Devon.” “For her own good, Skye. And of course, the child’s health as well,” he responded piously.
    “Nonsense! It’s so you can wench in the best brothels in London without suffering a guilty conscience.” Skye laughed, speared an oyster, and swallowed it whole.
    De Grenville reddened. “You’re too forward for a woman,” he muttered, “and far too beautiful for a lady about to give birth.” “And if I weren’t pregnant would you be trying to make love to me, Dickon?”
    ‘Tor God’s sake, Skye!” protested de Grenville.
    “Just asking, Dickon. You see, I love Geoffrey. I would like to have you for a friend, as would my husband. It would distress me to have to be constantly fending you off. Beauty does not necessarily mean a loose moral character. Did you know that?” “Any man attempting to toy with Geoffrey Southwood’s wife would be suicidal,” muttered de Grenville. “For my health’s sake, Skye, I think of you as I do my own dear sisters.” Skye patted his arm in a kindly fashion. “I am very relieved to hear that, Dickon,” she twinkled up at him.
    “Whore!” The outraged shout accompanied by a sharp crack brought instant silence to the room. Skye and de Grenville turned, startled, in the direction of the uproar. Everyone was staring toward a corner of the room where Lionel, Lord Basingstoke, stood towering over a beautiful golden-haired woman who cowered on her knees, clutching her bruised cheek. The nobleman was in a high rage, his face as red as his velvet doublet. The veins on his neck bulged and his pale eyes glittered with fury. Raising his hand he struck the woman again and repeated, “Whore!”
    Several gentlemen dashed forward and restrained the apoplectic man. “My God!” someone hissed. “That’s Lady Burke, the Irishman’s wife.” The woman was weeping softly. Lord, thought Skye, she’s absolutely beautiful. Then, almost before she realized what she was doing, Skye pushed through the crowd to the sobbing woman. Leaning down, Skye put a tender arm about her and helped her up. ‘There, my dear. By tomorrow there will be something else to gossip about, and this will be entirely forgotten,” Skye said gently. Constanza threw her a grateful look.
    “Christ’s blood, Lady Southwood!” cried Lord Basingstoke, “Don’t touch her! She is foulness beyond measure! No decent woman should even speak her name.”
    “Fie, my lord!” Skye’s voice rang out. “You abuse a lady, and you dare do it in the Queen’s presence!”
    “That she dares to show herself to the Queen is an outrage in itself!” shouted Basingstoke. “The most evil of whores in the presence of the most innocent and virtuous of women!”
    “You make a great deal of noise, my lord,” said Skye wearily.
    “I’ve yet to hear what causes your outrage.”
    “And I should be interested too, sir.” Niall Burke pushed his way forward. Pulling one of his gloves from his doublet, he struck Lord Basingstoke across the cheek. “You are challenged, my lord. Where? And when?”
    “No. Irishman. She’s not worm it. I’ll not have your death on my conscience, nor will I be killed for such as she! God Almighty, man! Can you really be so blind? Constanza has been my mistress for months. Yes, she’s been cuckolding you, but far worse, she’s been cuckolding me also. And not with just one man, but with any man who had the gold to buy her!” Basingstoke wrenched Constanza from Skye’s protective grasp. Holding her hand high, he declared in his booming voice, “Gentlemen! I give you the Book Lady! Madame Claro’s most famous attraction! The busiest cunt in Londontown!*’ A collective gasp rose from the assembled court, the women shocked yet titillated, the gentlemen pressing forward for a closer view. Constanza’s violet eyes widened in horror at the knowing, leering looks. Trembling uncontrollably, she fainted. “My lord Basingstoke!” A path opened instantly through the jostling crowd, and the Queen moved regally forward. “My lord Basingstoke,” she repeated. “These are appalling charges. Where is your proof?”
    “I have proof, ma’am, but I should not like to present it publicly.” “Sir! You saw fit to begin this affair publicly, so that is how we will air it. Speak or else tender your apologies to Lord Burke without delay.”
    “Madam, as you will.” Basingstoke sighed, and then began. “Several months ago I made Lady Burke my mistress. After a time I gave her as a token of my affection and admiration a rare book of… of pictures. Pictures of… a h… lovemaking.” A snicker ran through the crowd but was silenced by the Queen’s quick frown. Basingstoke continued, “I soon began to hear stories of a new attraction at Madame Claro’s, a woman they called the Book Lady, and several weeks ago I heard of a contest to be held at Claro’s. It was to be a battle between Claro herself and the Book Lady, a contest… forgive me, Majesty, for my bluntness, over who could fuck the most men within a day-and-night period. The wagering was great, and as there was to be no charge for entry to Claro’s that day I went with friends to observe the fun. My God, ma’am! The men were coming and going out of the women’s rooms so quickly it would make your head spin! A tally was called as each man left. Observers were permitted, for a gold piece, to stand at the doors of each bedchamber. I decided to watch. Imagine my shock in discovering that the infamous Book Lady was my own mistress!” “And just how did you discover it, Lord Basingstoke?” demanded the Queen. She had no choice but to hear the whole story. “Constanza has an unusual identifying mark. Also, my book was open on a bookstand next to the bed. I have been promised that there are no two in existence.”
    Elizabeth Tudor pursed her lips thoughtfully. This was the worse scandal to occur at her Court since she had become Queen. “I want the men who have visited the Book Lady to step forward,” she said. “Come, gentlemen! I’ll wager you weren’t so shy with the whores at Claro’s!” And Elizabeth’s eyes widened at the number of men who finally stepped forward. “Bless my soul, sirs, I thought you were kept well busy chasing my maids of honor,” she remarked sourly to the large group of shamefaced courtiers. Choosing ten, she dismissed the rest. “Have you all seen the lady’s birthmark?” They nodded solemnly. “Very well then, gentlemen. Each of you is to step up to Lord Burke, and whisper to him the description of that mark.”
    Niall Burke stood rocklike, his face an icy and impenetrable mask as, one by one, the ten embarrassed men moved up, whispered, and then slipped away, disappearing into the crowd as quickly as they could.
    “You also, Basingstoke,” commanded the Queen. When Constanza’s accuser had finally stepped back Elizabeth asked, “Very well, Lord Burke, do these men speak the truth?” “Aye, madam, they do, to my everlasting shame.” Constanza had revived and, cradled in Skye’s arms, moaned as if in terrible pain. Niall sent her a bitter yet pitying look. “Do you wish to withdraw your challenge, Lord Burke?” asked the Queen in a softer tone than she had used during the awful interrogation.
    “No, madam. Lord Basingstoke, for all his fine outrage, is nevertheless responsible for being the first to debauch my wife and bring dishonor upon my name. I will not withdraw my challenge.” “Very well, sir, we will settle this matter here and now. Lord Dudley, will you see to it? The ballroom will do. See to the seconds.” “I will act as Lord Burke’s second,” Geoffrey Southwood stepped forward.
    Skye gave a little cry of distress and the Queen reached over and patted her. “No danger, my dearest Skye, I promise. Sirs, this will not be a fight to the death. Do you both understand what I say? Honor must be served, but that is all!”
    Lord Dudley chose a reluctant second for Basingstoke from among the men who had admitted to visiting the Book Lady. “Birds of a feather,” he quipped, receiving contemptuous looks in return for his humor. The others knew that he had been a visitor to the lady involved, but had not dared admit it before the Queen. The paneled ballroom was quickly cleared of chairs and tables, and the musicians in the gallery above were dismissed. Skye helped Constanza Burke to her feet and led her to stand by the Queen. Elizabeth would not even look at the distraught woman, but said quietly, without moving, “From tonight, my lady Burke, you are banned from this Court.” Constanza bowed her head. The combatants stood at either end of the room. Having shed their elegant and ornate doublets, they stood in shirts open at the neck. With an air of great self-importance, Dudley bustled back and forth between the two groups. Whip-thin rapiers, made of the finest Toledo steel, were brought forth, tested, and chosen by the seconds. “What a pity you can’t kill the pompous bastard, Niall,” Geoffrey Southwood murmured.
    “God’s will be done,” said Niall Burke in a low voice as he very loosely attached to his sword the protective tip ordered by the Queen. “A-men,” answered the Earl piously, pretending to inspect the tip.
    “More lights!” commanded the Queen, and fresh tapers were brought.
    “The gentlemen and their seconds forward, please,” commanded Dudley. “Now, sirrahs, this is a combat to satisfy honor. Honor will be satisfied when one of the combatants is totally disarmed and helpless. Is that understood?” The participants nodded. “Seconds to neutral corners, please. Gentlemen, en garde!”
    So began an exquisite ballet of courtly battle technique. The combatants were fairly evenly matched. Basingstoke was not quite as tall as Niall, but he was heavier. They circled each other slowly, engaged in a brief flurry, separated quickly. Each was guaging the other, testing for strengths, seeking weaknesses. The courtiers leaned avidly forward, fascinated, silently egging the combatants onward. The young Queen stood quietly, only the faint quivering of her long, elegant hands betraying her nervousness. She was frankly disgusted by the beauteous Lady Burke’s disgraceful behavior, but at the same time thrilled by the sight of two stalwart men brought to battle by that very behavior. If only men would fight over her like mat, thought Elizabeth.
    Constanza Burke watched with a sense of growing desperation.
    What would Niall do to her? Probably kill her. God knew she deserved it. Why did she have this awful sickness? What drove her to these terrible acts of perversion? She wept softly. Skye, Countess of Lynmouth, watched the battle nervously. Thank God the Queen had ordered the protective tips. If Geoffrey had to fight he wouldn’t be injured. Why had he volunteered to second Lord Burke? She hadn’t been aware of any friendship between them. Still, he was their neighbor on the Strand. And she felt a deep pity for both the Irishman and his unfortunate wife. Khalid had told her about women like Constanza Burke, women who could not get enough loving. Skye knew that Lady Burke was not wicked, but sick. She suddenly felt tired. When this was over she would beg the Queen’s leave to go home for her lying-in.
    Niall Burke circled his opponent, parrying a vicious thrust. Leaping forward, he executed a quick riposte. His eye checked the protective tip on his sword. It was loose, and would soon be off. He pressed his attack hard, the anger burning coldly and deeply within him.
    Lionel Basingstoke, valiantly defending himself, knew he had made a terrible mistake in allowing his pride and his temper to overrule his sense. He had seen the loose tip on his opponent’s sword and he fully realized Lord Burke’s intent. He was going to die. And over a worthless tramp. Why had he not simply given her the beating she deserved and left her to pursue her lusts? His body grew wet with fear and anger.
    The two men battled back and forth until, older and heavier, Basingstoke began to tire. In a moment of rashness he again allowed his temper the upper hand and, yanking the protective tip from his sword, snarled at Niall, “All right, you damned Irish cuckold, let’s end this now!”
    Niall’s silver eyes narrowed speculatively, and then he grinned, savagely, wolfishly. The idiot Englishman had made the first move, and now he could kill him without any qualms. Flicking the tip off his own blade, he replied, “I hope you’ve a legitimate heir, you stinking English pig, for if you’ve not your line ends now!” And he lunged forward, slipping easily beneath his opponent’s guard to bury his blade in Basingstoke’s chest.
    A look of complete surprise crossed the Englishman’s face and then he fell forward. As he fell, his own blade flew upward, opening a small but very bloody flesh wound on the Irishman’s chest. It blossomed scarlet on Lord Burke’s white silk shirtfront.
    An unearthly shriek shattered the utter silence. The Court turned, expecting to see Constanza Burke’s hysteria. But it was the Countess of Lynmouth who stood rigid, her eyes staring inward at some nameless terror. She screamed once again, then cried, “I’ve killed him!” She wept piteously. “Oh, sweet Christ, I’ve killed him!” A spasm of pain crossed her face and suddenly her gaze returned to the scene before her. Clutching at her belly, she fainted, sliding slowly to the floor in a crumpled heap.
    In the uproar and confusion that followed, both Geoffrey Southwood and Niall Burke leaped forward to catch her, but the Earl was first to his wife’s side, shooting Burke a venomous look. Cradling Skye in his arms, he pushed past the babbling courtiers and carried her through the palace and down to the river bank where his barge was docked.
    “The Countess is going into labor,” he told his bargemen. “Row for home and row as you’ve never rowed before! A gold rose noble to each of you for getting us there safely.”
    The cool air revived Skye as they pulled away from the river bank. Her eyes opened. “Geoffrey?”
    “I am here, my darling. How do you feel?”
    “The baby’s coming.”
    “I know. You clutched at your belly and then you fainted. Damned provident, this duel. People will believe it brought on the premature birth of our son.” He glanced anxiously at her.
    “I remember, Geoffrey. I remember everything!” she breathed. He sighed. “I know, Skye,” he answered her quietly. “I saw the look on your face before you fainted. What brought it all back, my darling? Burke’s injury?”
    “Yes! The pirates shot at the jollyboat and wounded Niall. His shirt was so bloody I thought he’d been killed. When he was wounded again now it all came back to me. He is all right, isn’t he?” The Earl nodded. She fell silent, a pensive look on her face. “I love you, Skye.”
    The heart-shaped face tipped up, and the sapphire-blue eyes looked unwaveringly into his. “And I love you, Geoffrey, my darling. I do!”
    He held her close. Of course she loved him. She was in pain now, in labor with his child, a child conceived in a moment of love, conceived when Niall Burke had been wiped out of her memory. But when the child was birthed, and she had time to think clearly, would she love him then?
    Skye lay quietly in his arms, her mind whirling. O’Malley! She was Skye O’Malley! The O’Malley of lnnisfana! She had two sons, Ewan and Murrough! Oh God! Who had looked after her boys all this time? Anne! Surely Anne would have looked after them, and Michael, and her half-brothers too. Lord! Who had cared for the O’Malley shipping interests? She would ask Geoffrey, for surely he knew. It seemed he knew her identity. And she would be interested in knowing how long he had known it!
    She felt the pain beginning deep within her, so deep that her toestensed. She let it sweep upward. Breathing deeply into it took the edge off of it. Skye wasn’t even aware that she was clutching her husband tightly, but Geoffrey relished the fierce grip that almost rendered his elegant hand pulp.
    “My sons?’ she said. “What has happened to my sons?”
    “They’re safe with your stepmother.”
    “And the family?”
    “Your uncle took care of them, and the O’Malley interests. He’s now Bishop of Connaught.”
    “How long have you known my identity?”
    “A few months. Lord Burke went to Robbie just after our wedding. At the bedding ceremony he noticed that very fetching little star on your breast. I was curious that, having been like a brother to you all your life, he would know of such a mark.” “I am curious too,” said Skye, and though he knew she lied, he loved her all the more for loving him enough to try and protect him. “I am more curious,” she continued, “that he was not suspicious of my identity prior to seeing my birthmark. Surely I have not changed so greatly.”
    “Senora Goya del Fuentes didn’t react to his hints. And though she looked like Skye O’Malley, her credentials were impeccable. He has since told me he thought you were one of your father’s byblows.” Another wave of pain swept over Skye, but she giggled despite it, and Geoffrey was forced to laugh too. “It would have been just like Da to leave a bastard daughter in a convent in Algiers. How did he account for the name being the same?” The pain receded. “He couldn’t, and that almost drove him mad. There was simply no explanation.”
    “Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “I imagine it would have driven him mad. Niall was always an impatient man.”
    “He’s in love with you, Skye.”
    “I know, Geoffrey.”
    “And you?” He knew he shouldn’t ask her, not now, but he couldn’t stop himself.
    “Geoffrey, my dearest husband, I am yours and I want to be. When I have finished this business of birthing our son I shall tell you all about Niall Burke, and Skye O’Malley. And when I have finished my tale I shall still be yours because I choose to be.”
    It was what he wanted to hear, or was it? Still, he had to be content with it for now. They both fell silent, listening to the slapslap of the oars against the water as their barge knifed through the river down to Lynmouth House. The pains were coming more frequently now, and with the knowledge that this was her fourth child, the Earl despaired of reaching home in time. Suddenly Skye groaned, and cried out sharply.
    “My love, what is it?” He felt so damned helpless. “The child is being born, Geoffrey! I can wait no longer. You must help me birth it!”
    “My God, Skye! In the barge?”
    She managed a chuckle. “Tell your son!”
    “What do I do?” He was sweating, but this was his child, and he’d manage.
    “First, draw the drapes and bring in the lantern,” suggested Skye, and when he had accomplished these two simple tasks she said, “Help push my gown up.” That done, she inched her silken undergarments off, and he stared at the swollen, blue-veined belly that would soon be emptied of their child. Suddenly a flood of water spewed forth from her body, wetting the seat cushions. She arched as another pain began to push the child from her body. “Geoffrey!” she gasped through gritted teeth. “I can feel the head.
    Look! Look!”
    Fearfully he forced his eyes downward. “My God!” he whispered, awestruck, as the child began to emerge from her body. “What do I do, Skye?”
    ‘Turn the child slowly as he comes forth, Geoffrey. Be very careful not to drop him for he’ll be slippery with the birthing blood. Ahhhh, Jesus! Mary!” Another pain racked her.
    Quickly he rolled up the sleeves of his silk shirt, his bejeweled doublet having been left behind at Greenwich. Skye groaned again, and her convulsion pushed the child’s shoulders forth. Leaning forward, Geoffrey wiped the beads of perspiration from her forehead with his handkerchief. “You are magnificent, madam, and I love you,” he said admiringly. Then he gently turned the child, and saw the baby’s tight little face, wiping the blood from it with the same handkerchief that had wiped its mother’s face. The baby’s eyes opened, looked dispassionately at its father, a disturbing, strangely familiar look, and then slipped forth fully born into the Earl’s waiting hands with a howl of pure outrage. One swift look told the Earl what he wanted to know. “A son!” he exulted. “You’ve given me a son, Skye!”
    “Of course I have,” she said weakly. “Did I not promise you one?”
    “The cord? We’ve nothing to cut it with’
    “It’ll wait,” she said, and then fainted.
    The Earl’s bargemen, hearing the newly born infant’s cry, and his lordship’s shout, grinned at each other and put their backs into their work. Shortly afterward they reached their dock at Lynmouth House and, to their surprise, found Daisy, Dame Cecily, and the midwife waiting for them.
    “Lord Burke rode in with Daisy but a few minutes ago to tell us you were coming,” said Dame Cecily. “Is Skye all right? Is she in labor?”
    “The child is born!” exulted Geoffrey, when he heard their voices.
    “I have a son!”
    Entering the barge, the midwife finished the job by cutting the cord and wiping the newborn free of birthing blood. She wrapped him in a clean swaddling cloth, and handed him up to Daisy. Skye had regained consciousness, and she groaned as another, weaker pain cut through her.
    “You’ve not yet borne the afterbirth, my lady. Let me help you.” The midwife pressed down hard on Skye’s belly, and with one quick pain the afterbirth slipped out onto a linen towel spread by the efficient midwife. Quickly the woman cleansed her patient free of all evidence of her recent travail, then signaled to the litterbearers. The Earl carefully lifted his wife from the barge, and tenderly placed her on pillows in the litter. Skye held out her arms. “Give me my son.”
    Geoffrey took the baby from Daisy, and placed him in his mother’s arms. Alert, but quiet now, the child returned his mother’s scrutiny. His small round head was covered with soft, damp blond curls, his eyes were a deep sapphire blue, and his features were his father’s. Skye smiled happily. “Oh, Geoffrey, I have indeed given you a son! He’s you in miniature. I’ll wager his eyes turn green within the year.”
    Mother and child were escorted to the house and tucked carefully into bed. The midwife handed Skye a goblet of wine into which she’d mixed herbs. “This will help you sleep, madam, and will also help rebuild the blood you’ve lost.” Skye obediently drank it down and Geoffrey, sitting down next to the bed, took his wife’s hand. Her beautiful blue eyes were heavy with weariness, but the warmth of his strong grasp communicated to her all the love that he felt for her. She sighed, contented. Geoffrey Southwood smiled tenderly at her. “Go to sleep, my love,” he said, and when her eyelids finally closed he left her sleeping under the watchful eyes of Daisy, their slumbering son in his cradle by his mother’s bed.
    The Earl of Lynmouth walked next door to his own apartment. Wordlessly he stripped his bloodstained clothing off and climbed into the steaming tub his body servant had prepared. He scrubbed himself down and then, climbing out, dried himself off. His valet then wrapped him in a long, warm gown and, murmuring congratulations, left his master alone.
    Geoffrey Southwood poured himself a goblet of pale golden wine and sat before the blazing fire. The child was safely born. He had a healthy, lusty son, an heir. But did he still have a loving wife? She had refused to discuss Niall Burke with him, which led Geoffrey to believe that she had once loved him. Now that her memory had returned, would she love Burke again? “When I am finished with this business of birthing our son I will tell you of Niall Burke,” she had said. “I am yours because I choose to be,” she had also said. Damn her proud and independent Irish spirit! Then he chuckled ruefully. It was this very independence that made her different from other women, that made her Skye.
    Draining his goblet, Geoffrey climbed into his chilly, empty bed, then lay tossing restlessly. He dozed, then awoke with a start. This was the first night since their marriage that he’d been without her, for even in these last weeks of her pregnancy he’d slept with her, in her bedchamber, snoring contentedly against her warmth. / must be getting old, he thought with a touch of humor. These sheets were cold and musty with lack of use, and there were lumps in his fine mattress.
    “God’s blood!” he said, suddenly leaping up. “I will not sleep here a minute longer!” And padding barefoot across the cold floor to the door that connected his room with hers, he stomped in. Poor Daisy was horrified, having never seen her master in his nightshirt. Skye, sitting propped up with pillows behind her, the child at her breast, bit her lip with suppressed mirth. “My lord, have you come to see our wee Robin?” The baby made a murmur of distinct annoyance as his mother’s voice disturbed his concentration. “I’m cold,” announced the Earl pettishly.
    Skye’s eyes twinkled. “I have never seen the sense,” she said, “in a man sleeping apart from his wife simply because she has just borne a child.” With her free hand she flung the bedcovers back in invitation. “Climb in, Geoffrey. I am cold too without you.” Scandalized, Daisy pursed her lips together, but the Earl and Countess of Lynmouth simply giggled like two naughty children, and snuggled close. Then Geoffrey turned his attention to the tiny golden-haired infant who rooted noisily at his mother’s breast, his tiny fingers kneading her.
    “He’s working hard enough at it,” observed the Earl. “My milk won’t be in for a day or two. All he’s getting now is a watery liquid,” said Skye.
    “Is that natural?” He was instantly concerned. “Should we have a wet nurse for him?”
    She laughed. “With all the children you had, you should know more, my love. My present condition is quite natural. I shall get a wet nurse for Robin in about a month, but during the time it takes me to recover from this birth I shall have the pleasure of giving my child suck.”
    “So you already decided upon his name, have you? All by yourself?” “I have,” she replied, unconcerned. “He is Robert Geoffrey James Henry Southwood. Robert for my dearest Robbie, Geoffrey for you, James for my uncle Seamus, and Henry in honor of both the late king, and Robin’s dead half-brother. His godparents will be the Queen and Lord Dudley. He will be vain enough to believe I have named the child for him in order to please the Queen. He should therefore prove an excellent godfather to Robin in an effort to impress the Queen.”
    Geoffrey Southwood chuckled admiringly. “By God you’re a wickedly clever minx, my dear. The Queen and Lord Dudley! I don’t believe anyone has yet given them a godchild, not both of mem together. What a stroke of genius! I most assuredly approve.” Warmed by her ripe body, he was beginning to feel expansive. Noting it, Skye smiled. “Daisy, put Robin back to bed. Then you may watch over him the rest of the night please.” “Aye, madam.” Daisy took the child. Her flush went unnoticed as her mistress drew the bed draperies, thus making a private little world for herself and the Earl.
    Geoffrey Southwood’s eyes were bright with love and admiration.
    “I was so damned lonely for you,” he said.
    “And I for you. If you’d not come into my bed I should have called for you.”
    “Would you?” He was as pleased as a child, his green eyes lighting up.
    “Aye, I would. Now go to sleep, my darling. ‘Twas a brave thing you did delivering Robin. Thank you, my love.” She nestled next to him and, sighing happily, he put a protective arm about her. Within a few minutes he was sleeping soundly, his slow regular breathing a comforting sound.
    Now it was Skye who lay awake. How strange it was that this elegant, assured man to whom she was married could suffer such terrible pangs of insecurity. How hard it must have been for him these last few weeks-knowing the truth of her identity, unable to tell her yet fearful she would learn of it. Fearful because of Niall Burke.
    For the first time since her memory had returned those few short, yet somehow long hours ago, she thought of him. There were touches of silver at his temples that had not been mere Tour years ago. In the morning Geoffrey would want to know about Niall and what was she to tell him? Should she lie? She knew Niall still loved her. Now she understood those searching looks he had given her, the intense questioning. If she chose to lie she knew she could ask Niall for his help. He’d not like it, but he’d help if she asked him to. She moved restlessly, and Geoffrey’s protective arm slipped loose. He sighed and turned on his other side, away from her. She couldn’t lie to Geoffrey. She couldn’t! The truth might be softened, but an outright lie could bring disaster. She had no wish to hurt Geoffrey. She loved him. But did she not also love Niall? Hadn’t her memory fled because he was the most important being in her life? Her mind had gone blank rather than accept Niall’s death. Four years ago. Four long years. And in that time so much had happened. Khalid el Bey, her beloved second husband. Could she love him any less because her memory of Niall had returned? No. He would always have a place in her secret heart. And their daughter, Willow, with Khalid’s black lashes and golden lion eyes was the living proof of that love.
    And Geoffrey. She loved him also as he loved her. Their love had grown into something wonderful. Could she walk away from him now?
    And Niall. What of him? Long ago, and far away in what almost seemed another life, they had shared one ecstatic night of blinding passion. They had tried to build a life together based on that night, but fate continued to separate them. He had a wife now, a wife who obviously needed him desperately. As she had a husband. But she loved him still. Yet she loved Geoffrey. It was madness! How could a woman love two men at the same time? “Damn!” she swore softly to herself.
    “Tell me,” Geoffrey’s calm voice commanded.
    Skye gave up all thought of lying and answered simply, “I was betrothed to him after my first husband died. I thought you were asleep.”
    “How can I sleep with you tossing so, my darling? Did you love him?”
    “Yes.”
    “Do you love him now that your memory has returned?”
    “I love you,” she said.
    He smiled in the darkness. “But do you love him?” Geoffrey persisted.
    “No!” she said quickly.
    He frowned slightly at the too-quick denial. Was she lying to protect his feelings or to hide something from him? “Did he ever know you?”
    “Geoffrey!” Damn!
    “Did he?”
    Oh Lord, help her not to rouse his suspicions. “No,” she said with what she hoped was just the right tinge of righteous annoyance. “He never knew me.” She felt him relax, and said a quick prayer of thanks. Now, the tension gone, she was suddenly exhausted. “I am tired,” she yawned.
    Once more he enfolded her in his protective clasp. “Go to sleep, my dearest wife,” he said. “Go to sleep.”
    In the house to the right of them, however, the master and mistress were far from sleep. In the uproar that had followed the duel the Queen had instructed the Burkes be brought to her. “My lord,” she addressed herself to Niall, her dark eyes very large and angry. “I have already told your wife that she is no longer welcome at this Court. As for you-you deliberately disobeyed my orders and killed Lord Basingstoke. For that I could have you beheaded. Do you realize that?” In her dancing costume of pale green watered silk, ecru lace at the neck and sleeves, Elizabeth ought to have appeared young and mild. But this was Elizabeth at the angriest Niall had ever seen her, and the frivolous dancing gown was obscured by her flaming red-gold hair and snapping dark eyes. In this rage, Elizabeth flamed as hotly as her father, the infamous Henry the Eighth. She continued. “We understand mat you were sorely provoked, Lord Burke. Nonetheless are also banished from Court, and from England for the period of one year. Your wife, however, is never to set foot in my realm again. We give you one month in which to prepare for your departure.”
    “The woman called Claro?” Niall asked in an unwavering voice.
    “I beg Your Majesty’s permission to deal personally with her.” “We do not wish to hear of it, my lord,” said the Queen slowly and with particular meaning, “lest we be forced to review our clemency to you.”
    ‘That is understood, madam.”
    “Farewell, then, my lord Burke,” said Elizabeth, extending him her hand. He kissed it. Elizabeth pointedly ignored the subdued Constanza, as she had ignored her throughout the interview.
    Niall Burke slowly released the beautiful, bejeweled hand. “You are ever gracious, Majesty.” Grasping his wife’s arm, he led her through a side door, down a maze of corridors, and out into the courtyard to their carriage. He pushed her up into the coach, and shouted to the liveried servant on the box, “Home!” Then he climbed in and sat opposite her. The vehicle lurched forward. Niall Burke sat back in his seat and looked at his wife. “Amazing,” he said after a long while. “Simply amazing! Despite the fact that you are obviously the biggest whore in Christendom, you look like an angel.” Her violet eyes wide, she cowered from his brutal appraisal. “What’s this, Constanzita? Shyness? Why shy with me when you are as familiar with every man in London?”
    “What are you going to do with me?” she asked him, finding her voice and unable to bear the strain any longer.
    “What the hell can I do with you?” he countered. “You are my wife, may God have mercy on me. I must surely be cursed. My first wife was a religious fanatic who couldn’t bear any man’s touch and my second turns out to be a notorious whore who encourages every man’s touch! The one woman in the world I ever truly wanted loses her memory and marries another!”
    Constanza Burke relaxed just a little. For a moment she was free of his searing contempt. “What do you mean the only woman you ever really wanted?”
    He looked coldly at her. “The Countess of Lynmouth is Skye O’Malley. She did not die, as your father assured me she must have done, but she did lose her memory.” He gave her a brief explanation of what had happened.
    “Is that why you’ve been so unhappy and preoccupied these last few months?”
    “That is why,” he said, “and how fortuitous for you, my dear.
    It made it so much easier for you to play the whore.” She wondered if his own sorrow might make him receptive to her anguish. “Please try and understand. I cannot help this terrible need, Niall. I truly can’t.”
    “I know it, Constanza, and that is why I must do what I must do.
    We are banished from England and we must go home to Ireland. I cannot have you running about the countryside bringing further shame upon my name. You’ll be confined to your apartment in my father’s castle. You’ll never leave them, my dear, and you’ll have a warder of my choosing who will never leave your side except when I bed you. And I’ll do that often, my dear, for since I am forced to remain shackled to you to prevent my name from becoming a joke, I must therefore breed my legitimate heirs on your well-used body.” “Especially since you can’t breed them on the fine Lady Southwood!” she snapped back. Realizing her folly too late, she was unable to escape the blow he aimed at her. The sound of it echoed inside the carriage, and her head swam with the force of it. She felt his hand cruelly locking itself into her hair, and her neck snapped back as he yanked her about to face him. His silver eyes were narrowed. His harsh voice ripped into her like shards of ragged glass.
    “Listen well, my dear, to what I have to say. I could take you home now and beat you to death. I could strangle you and dump you in the Thames, and no one would care, not even me. Nothing would be said for your actions have merited death. “But you are my wife. And though I am forced to confine you, as the only way of assuring your faithfulness, I will get my sons on you, and you will live in luxury. But never,” and he yanked her hair harshly, “never do I want to hear her name on your lips! Do you understand me, Constanza?”
    “Y-yes!”
    “Yes, what?”
    “Yes, my lord.”
    “Very good, my dear. I am pleased.” Letting her go, he pushed her back into her seat. Lowering the coach window, he called to his driver to stop. “My horse is tied to the back of the coach,” he told Constanza. “I am returning to the palace for the Countess’s tiring woman, and then I am riding to Lynmouth House to warn them that the Countess is in labor with her child. I will see you at home later.”, She nodded dumbly, but he was already gone. A moment later two footmen climbed into the coach, and sat opposite her. “Master says we’re to guard you as you’ve not been yourself,” said the older one dourly. She ignored them, looking after Niall as he galloped off.
    Despite the lateness of the hour and the empty streets, the trip to the Strand seemed to take forever. The footmen had been eating onions, and the already fetid air in the closed coach was unbearable quite quickly: Constanza was becoming paler by the moment, her mind bursting with all Niall had said.
    In Ireland she would be incarcerated-for the rest of her life. She was to be a brood mare. The thought repelled and excited her at the same time. Shifting nervously in her seat, she boldly eyed the younger of the two footmen whose eyes were glued to her full breasts. The boy flushed guiltily, turning even redder as Constanza’s pointed little tongue swiftly licked around her pink lips. The familiar longing now began. Imprisoned! Watched over constantly! She would go mad! Somehow Ana would have to help her to escape Niall. But right now, Constanza had to satisfy her hunger. Who knew when she would get another chance?
    “Stop the coach!” she commanded imperiously. “You!” Her accusing finger pointed at the older of the two footmen. “You stink of onions! Ride up top. I am close to fainting.”
    Accustomed to obeying orders, the man called to the driver to stop and scrambled up the coach’s side to join the driver. As the vehicle began to move again Constanza wordlessly fell to her knees before the remaining footman, fumbled with his livery and, bending her head, took his organ into her mouth. The boy could only gasp with surprise as his mistress’s insistent lips and tongue drove him. When he thought his delight could be no greater, she rose and, lifting her skirts, impaled herself on him. The footman swiftly tore her bodice open and pushed his face into her breasts. He kissed, sucked, and bit on them, prodding her to frenzy as she jogged up and down on him. She spent twice, then, when she was weak and lan