Lord of Mistrust – Elizabeth Keysian

MİSTRESS CHLOE EMMERSON couldn’t believe how well her plan to avoid marrying Lord Brooke was working. She’d outwitted her aunt and uncle, traveled unaccompanied all the way down from London and, very soon, she’d set eyes on her real mother for the first time. But as she marched down toward Southampton’s town quay, struggling to recall the directions, she felt a shiver of uncertainty. What if her mother refused to see her? What if she was shocked and disgusted by the boy’s garb Chloe was wearing? She’d bought the clothes from a street vendor— disguise had been the best way of ensuring she wouldn’t be accosted on the journey. And what if her mother refused to help her with Lord Brooke or, worse still, accused her of being an imposter? The heat of the late August day had silenced even the gulls and, not for the first time, Chloe missed the broad-brimmed straw hat she usually wore to protect her complexion. Harsh sunlight blazed off the whitewashed timber buildings lining the street, and stout stonework, centuries-old, reflected the heat back at her. She’d have freckles and a face as brown as a nut if she couldn’t resume her female attire soon. Her kirtle and lace-edged coif lay crushed in her bag, taunting her. They’d be as crumpled as winter leaves by the time she arrived at her destination. Now, where was that accursed street? It must be down here somewhere. An intimidating crowd of mariners lounged in front of the Red Lion tavern. Not confident enough of her disguise—her hose were particularly close-fitting—she slipped down a side street to avoid their stares. Towering warehouses offered temporary shade. A bevy of dock laborers had taken advantage of the shadows for a brief rest, and to quaff jugs of ale and eat their pasties. Chloe’s mouth watered at the smell of baked pastry—she’d made the final part of her journey to Southampton by boat, and there’d been no wayside taverns at which to stop for refreshment.

But her mother would welcome her, surely? Chloe was the daughter Mistress Patience Gage hadn’t seen since she was a tiny, toddling thing—it would be ungodly to beat her from the door without, at the very least, offering her a bite of bread and cheese. The gentle rumble of men’s voices and the clash and clatter of cargo being moved reached Chloe’s ears as she passed the warehouses, and she worried that her diversion had taken her too far out of her way. Her bag became heavier with every step, but she was meant to be a strapping young lad, so she tried to make it look like it weighed nothing. Consequently, she was exhausted by the time the dark swell of Southampton Water came into view, rippling and twinkling in the sunlight. A rush of fresh air swept up to meet her, and she hurried forward, desperately hoping she’d come to the right place. The waterfront was crowded with ancient stone buildings, some of which crumbled with age. A couple of these were festooned with scaffolding planks and ladders, supporting a team of masons chipping and chiseling away at the limestone. Ah—if only more of the London houses were built in stone! The one Chloe shared with Matthew and Philippa Emmerson, her uncle and aunt, boasted sloping floors and crooked windows— something one would never get in a stone-built house. Timber buildings were also a fire risk. Presumably, stone burned less fiercely than wood—if at all.

She thought back to the fortuitous, fire-related incident which had set her on the path to finding her real parents. A rook’s nest had fallen into and blocked the chimney. When the first puff of smoke billowed into the room, Aunt Philippa had screamed “Fire!” and scuttled toward the iron-bound chest in which she kept her most treasured belongings. The flames in the hearth had been rapidly doused, but not before Chloe saw her aunt retrieve a handful of documents and hide them under her apron. Chloe permitted herself a smile. Had it not been for that happy accident, she wouldn’t have embarked on this pilgrimage to find her real mother and, by so doing, her father, too. For only by locating her actual parents could she hope to escape a lifetime with the dismal Lord Brooke. Brooke had buried two wives already and was a dyed-in-the-wool Puritan who looked perpetually disapproving and wore the dreariest clothes imaginable. As she walked, Chloe struggled to banish his ugly image from her head. The man was a sin against nature.

No peer of the realm, with family and fortune behind him, should be a Bible-bashing, intolerant, miserly killjoy. He refused to divulge how he spent his leisure hours, which made conversation awkward. Little wonder his two wives had withered away after their children died—there would have been no joy left in their lives. Continuing down the broad road running alongside the quay, Chloe reached the ladders and wooden scaffolding protruding outward. They extended across the thoroughfare so she had to sidestep them. There was a creak above her, and one of the masons shouted, “Have a care below!” The shout froze Chloe in her tracks. A loud crash shook the ground, and she was suddenly surrounded by a cloud of choking grey dust. Immobilized with shock, she stood and stared as people dashed toward her, shouting. Why? What had she done? A glance over her shoulder revealed a large block of masonry lying smashed just where she’d been walking. Looking down, she saw slashes in her nether hose and specks of blood where stone splinters had grazed her legs.

There was no pain—she was too shocked to feel anything. The first of the concerned onlookers reached her. Firm hands bore her up, which was just as well, as her knees were shaking and weak. Her mind misted at the edges and she felt herself falling. But she never hit the ground. Chapter Two “ARE YOU ALL right, lad?” A voice gradually penetrated the dizzying darkness in Chloe’s head. Nay, she wasn’t all right. She’d almost been crushed to death by half a ton of rock, and she felt sick, and the world was spinning. And she’d swooned like a woman when she was meant to be a boy. In another instant, her cap would fall off, and her long hair would be exposed.

“Give him some air there.” A cultured male voice spoke close to her ear. Keeping her eyes tight shut, Chloe battled to marshal her senses lest she give herself away. If she failed, there would be questions asked—uncomfortable ones. What fate awaited a woman of nineteen summers who’d run away from home and now found herself surrounded by strangers in a town she didn’t know? She was lying on a cloth, laid atop the unforgiving cobbles. Her head, however, was cradled against something firm and warm, which moved when the male voice spoke again. “Goodwife Fairclough, here’s a groat. Pray fetch a jug of ale from the Red Lion. The boy will feel better for a drink.” Chloe heard the clink of coin, and felt the swish of the woman’s skirts as she departed.

As her senses rallied, horrid reality hit her. She was lying in the road with her head cradled in a man’s lap! Her face heating, she sat up, then swayed drunkenly as the world tilted. “Easy now. You’re safe. I’d advise no sudden movement, lest you make yourself worse. What’s your name, lad?” “Chl… Claude, sir.” She attempted a deeper tone. Pray God the fellow didn’t examine her too closely or suggest she remove her leather jerkin to cool down. That would reveal more of her figure than was safe. She risked a glance at her rescuer, a handsome gentleman, whose brilliant blue eyes contained a shrewd gleam.

He smiled, and she found herself admiring him. Despite the presence of a highcrowned hat, his skin was bronzed, and his hair, trimmed to just below his jaw, was the color of late summer wheat. Eager to avoid the curiosity in those eyes, she looked down and realized the cloth she was sitting on was the man’s cloak. It would be filthy with masonry dust and horse dung—as she would be, too, had he not protected her. Quite the gallant gentleman! She wriggled off and stood, handing the man his cloak. It was a splendid one, dark blue velvet with a woven silk braid—not the garment of a pauper. He must be a wealthy merchant, at the very least. “Forgive me, sir,” she managed. “I hope your cloak’s not too soiled.” “I don’t really need it in this heat.

Just wearing it from vanity, I suppose.” His eyes twinkled at her. “Sir Robert Mallory, your servant.” He bent his knee, making her an elaborate bow. It was at that point she discovered her very public collapse had gathered quite a crowd. This was the last thing she wanted, for the more attention she got, the sooner her subterfuge would be discovered. The people would think her a cutpurse or a cony-catcher, and throw her into the pillory, or find some other vile punishment. She felt her cheeks reddening. Time to make a speedy departure. “Here, let’s make you more comfortable.

You’ve had too much sun, lad, methinks. You don’t look like you’re used to it.” Before she could object, she’d been led over to a limestone mounting block and made to sit. At a frown from her companion, their audience melted away. Much to Chloe’s relief, the woman he’d referred to as Goodwife Fairclough then returned, bearing the pitcher of ale. Sir Robert untied his tankard from his belt, filled it, and offered it to her. She took a sip. The ale was warm but welcome. “There now, child, do you feel better?” Goodwife Fairclough wore an expression of kindly concern. “What a terrible thing to have happened—it could so nearly have proved fatal! Those masons shouldn’t be allowed to work over the streets like that.

They should block it off, if it’s dangerous, say I. I shouldn’t be surprised if some of them were French. Never did care for life nor limb, the French. A person is entitled to walk along the quay without having half the buildings fall upon their heads. What say you, Sir Robert?” “The lad has had a fortunate escape and will doubtless offer thanks to his Maker in a suitable fashion come Sunday.” Chloe grimaced. The man sounded just like the puritanical Lord Brooke. Only—there was a glint in his eyes that belied his words. No matter. She must be about her business.

Her fingers holding the tankard were all a-tremble— she’d not feel safe until she was beneath her mother’s roof. The place she sought could not be far away—if only she’d had longer to memorize the direction before returning the purloined letter to her aunt’s box. How long had Aunt Philippa intended to conceal the fact from her that she had a mother, who was not only alive but keen for news of her daughter? The story had always been that Chloe was an orphan, and she’d never questioned it until the day her aunt had raced to rescue those documents. The papers had, when Chloe stole a look at them, turned out to be letters from her birth mother, Aunt Philippa’s sister, Patience. “Claude. Claude!” Chloe was roused from her reverie by the grip on her elbow. “Are you quite well?” “His eyes look glassy.” Goodwife Fairclough leaned in, and Chloe received a waft of oniony breath on her face. “Mayhap we should seek a physician.” “Nay, nay.

” Chloe rallied quickly, drained her tankard, and thrust it into Sir Robert’s hand. A physician would want to examine her. That would never do. “I am well. I must be gone.” She stood and gazed back the way she’d come. “You have both been most kind, and I’m grateful. I have not far to go.” She attempted a smile. “Charming manners, Claude.

What say you, Goodwife Fairclough? Should I take him on as a page boy? He’s comely enough.” She felt her cheeks flush again. “I don’t need employment—just to reach my destination. Pray, don’t trouble yourselves.” She had no intention of letting Sir Robert escort her anywhere. “You can’t go on your own, not after the fright you’ve had. Or the ale, which is stronger than you think. I’ll see you to your door, and then be on my way.” “You have a good heart, sir.” Goodwife Fairclough beamed her approval, clapped Chloe on the shoulder, and left.

Chloe’s heart sank. If she was in woman’s garb, it might be a different matter strolling down the street with Sir Robert. They would make a fine pair—she with her long, chestnut locks and he with his deep chest and broad shoulders. To think she’d been lying with her head in his lap! God forbid her aunt and uncle should ever find out. And whatever would Lord Brooke say? Her mouth twisted. How she’d love to see Brooke’s face at the sight of her in boys’ clothing! “If that smile is aught to go by, you must be feeling better.” There was a teasing warmth in Sir Robert’s voice that made Chloe’s spine tingle. “Now, whither are we bound, young Claude? You’re not of French extraction are you, by the way? I wondered, because of the name. If so, please ignore Goody Fairclough’s robust opinions on foreign artisans—her views are based on neither fact nor experience.” He chuckled.

Shaking out his cloak, he tied it around his neck, checked that his sword was settled snugly in its scabbard and gazed at her expectantly. “Now, which way do we go?” What place could she name in Southampton without giving away her mother’s location? Her affairs were her own, and no matter how obliging—or handsome—Sir Robert Mallory might be, neither he nor anyone else need know her shameful history.

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