Shanna – Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

NIGHT GRIPPED THE CITY with cold, misty darkness. The threat of winter was heavy in the air. Acrid smoke stung the nostrils and throat, for in every home fires were stirred and stoked against the seaborne chill that pierced to the bone. Low-hanging clouds dribbled fine droplets of moisture which mixed with the soot spewed forth from London’s towering chimneys before falling as a thin film that covered every surface. The miserable night masked the passage of a carriage that careened through the narrow streets as if it fled from some terrible disaster. It jolted and tottered precariously over the cobblestones, its high wheels sending mud and water splattering. In the calm that followed the coach’s passing, the murky liquid trickled slowly back to mirrored pools pocked with droplets or neatly patterned with ripples. The driver, ominously large and cloaked in black, hauled on the reins, hurling an oath down at the team of dapple-grays, but his voice was lost beneath the heavy thud of pounding hooves and the rattle of churning wheels. The din of the ride echoed in the chilling night until it seemed to come from every direction. The dark shape of the carriage flitted through dim pools of light cast from the flickering door lanterns of the baroque facades it passed. Grinning gargoyles stared down from high above where they squatted on stony eaves, thin runnels of rain dribbling from their carved granite mouths as if they hungered for the prey passing below their perches. Shanna Trahern pushed back into the plush, red velvet seats of the carriage to brace herself against the breakneck speed. She was little concerned with the murk beyond the leather shades, or, indeed, with anything but her own thoughts. She sat alone and silent. Her face was devoid of expression, yet now and then the lantern would swing with a jolting lurch of the carriage, and its weak light would catch the hard, brittle gleam in the depths of the blue-green eyes.

No man gazing into them now would have found a trace of warmth to cheer him or any hint of love to comfort his heart. The face, so stirringly beautiful and young, was dispassionate. Without the usual audience of male admirers in attendance, there was no need to portray a charming or gracious image, though it was rare indeed that Shanna Trahern exerted herself beyond a momentary whim. If it met her mood, she could enchant anyone, but now her eyes showed a stern determination that would have shriveled any but the most heroic spirit. “I am cursed,” the fair lips curled. “Were I heaven blessed, I would not be about this errand. What other woman must venture out upon the streets on a night such as this to ease the torment of her state?” Her mind raced along its well-traveled path. “What cruel twist of fate that I be born beneath the blighting branches of my father’s wealth? Would that I were poor and thus could know that a man wanted me for myself.” She sighed in introspection and let her mind probe once again her reasoning as if to find a flaw. Neither her beauty nor her father’s riches had aided her.

A three-year stint in the best schools in Europe and Britain had bored her to distraction. Those so-called ladies’ schools had dealt more with court manners, fashion, and the various tedious forms of needlework than with techniques of writing or dealing with numbers. There she had been pursued for her beauty and exposed to the insincerity of young roués seeking to extend their reputations at her expense. Many had felt the prick of her scorn then, disheartened, sulked away. When it became known that she was the daughter of Orlan Trahern, one of the richest men ever to frequent the marketplace, all those young men in needy circumstances came seeking her hand. She could abide these milksops no better than the rest and heartlessly dashed their dreams with words as painful as a dagger’s blade. Her disenchantment with men led to her father’s ultimatum. It had begun simply enough. On her return from Europe he had chided her for not finding a husband. “With all those eager young studs of the courts posturing about you, girl, you couldn’t even get yourself a man with a name to bring recognition to your children.

” His words had nipped at Shanna’s pride, bringing a rush of tears to her eyes. Heedless of her distress, her father had ranted on, setting the spur deeper. “Damn me, girl! What have I built my fortune for, if not for my own kin? But seen to your way, ’twill go no further than your grave. Blast it all, I want grandchildren! Are you set to be a spinster who rejects every man that comes courting? Your children could be powers at court if they have a title to aid them. They’ll need but two things to be successful in this world and accepted by royalty. I give them one—wealth—more than you can spend in a lifetime. You can gain them the other—a name no one would dare question, a name with a lineage so pure and fine ’twill need a good stock of common blood to strengthen it. Such a name can do as much to open doors as riches. But with no other name than Trahern, they’ll be little more than merchants.” His voice had sharpened in anger.

“ ’Tis my hell that I am given a daughter with the looks to choose among the bluest lines, one to make barons, earls, even dukes fawn and drool upon themselves for the want of her. But she dallies like some dreamy twit for a silver knight on a white charger who might match her own untouched purity.” Shanna’s folly had been in answering her father rashly and with heated words. They were soon engaged in a stormy exchange which had ended abruptly when he slammed down his brawny fist and dared her to speak further. His angry glare had burned into her. “You have a year to settle your fancies,” he roared. “Your period of grace ceases on your firstand-twentieth year, the day marking your birth. If you have not wed into a family of the aristocracy by then, I’ll name the next ready swain still young enough to get you with child as your husband. And if I must drag you to the altar in chains, you will obey!” Shanna had been stunned into incredulous silence at his crudity, but she knew with a sinking heart it was no jest. Orlan Trahern’s word was a promise never broken.

Her father continued in a somewhat subdued tone. “Since we are ever at odds these days, I will give you ease of my presence. Ralston sails for London on my business. You will go with him, and Pitney as well. I know you can bend Pitney around your little finger—you’ve done it ever since you were a child. But Ralston should be able to keep the two of you out of mischief and honest enough for what I want. You may take your maid Hergus as well. On the second of December next, your year is done, and you will return to Los Camellos with or without a spouse. And if ’tis none you’ve found, the matter shall be out of your hands.” Orlan Trahern had known a hard life as a youth.

At the age of twelve, he saw his father, a Welsh highwayman, hanged from a roadside tree for his crimes. His mother, reduced to working as a scullery maid, died just a few years later of the ague, weakened by years of overwork, meager food, and cold winter drafts. Orlan had buried her and had sworn he would make a better way for himself and his own. Remembering the gray oak where his father had swung, the lad had worked hard and wisely, careful to be scrupulously honest. His tongue was quick, as was his wit, and his mind was agile. He soon grasped the ways of money, rents, interest, investments, and, most of all, the calculated risk for high return. Young Trahern first borrowed money for his ventures but soon was using his own. Then others began to come to him for money. Anything his talents touched fattened his coffers, and he began to acquire country estates, townhouses, stately manors, and property. In return for notes redeemable by the Crown he had accepted a grant to a small, verdant isle of the Caribbean to which he immediately retreated to enjoy his riches and more leisurely manage the flow of wealth into his accounts.

His successes had earned him the title “Lord” Trahern from dirty-faced vendors and crafty merchants, for he was indeed the lord of the marketplace. Aristocrats used the title out of necessity when they went to him for loans, finding small comfort in having to beg him for moneys but considering him well beneath them they rejected him socially. Orlan yearned to be accepted as their peer, and it was difficult for him to accept that desire in himself. He was not a man to crawl, and he learned to pull the strings well on a man’s life. Now he tried to do it with his only child. The slights that he had received during the years spent accumulating his fortune were in a large part responsible for the rift that now made his beautiful daughter withdraw into herself. But Shanna was of the same temperament as her stubborn and forthright father. While Georgiana Trahern was alive, she had soothed the rifts and softened the arguments between her husband and child, but her passing five years previous had taken from them their mediator. Now there was no one who could gently dissuade the willful, elder Trahern or ply the daughter with her duties. Still, with Ralston to guarantee that she abided by her father’s demand, Shanna had known no opportunity to be anything but compliant to his wishes.

It had not taken her long after returning to England to become lost in a multitude of names that accompanied various odd and assorted titles, baron, earl, and the like. Dispassionately she could name the flaw in each suitor; an obtrusive nose on this one, a roving hand on that one, a twitching brow, a wheezing cough, a pompous pride. The sight of a threadbare blouse beneath a waistcoat or a rumpled and empty purse hanging from a belt abruptly cooled her to offers of marriage. Aware that a handsome dowry would accompany her and that she would eventually inherit a fortune large enough to stagger the wits of the most imaginative, the swains grew zealous and attentive, exceedingly considerate of her smallest desire, except the one she declared most often. They ignored her pleas to remove themselves from her presence and usually had to be assisted by Mister Pitney. Frequently among the courting bachelors quarrels broke out, resulting in blows, then brawls, and what had begun as a quiet social event or a simple outing often dissolved into ruins, with Shanna being safely escorted home by her guardian, Pitney. Some wooers were subtle and devious while others were bold and forceful. But in most she saw the desire for riches exceed desire for her. It seemed none cared for a wife who, with love in her heart, would share simple poverty but rather saw first the gold in her father’s hand. Then there was another sort who actively worked to get her into bed without the ceremony of marriage, usually for the simple reason they were already attached to a wife.

A count wanted her as his mistress and passionately vowed his devotion until his children, numbering six, interrupted his proposal. These encounters far outweighed the good and with each, Shanna was left with a little less to endear men to her. Not the least of her troubles was that her year in London had come near to being totally disastrous for mere existence’s sake. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle had let loose soldiers and sailors upon the city and a good lot of them, bolstered with the false courage of gin, had taken to thievery to survive, making the night treacherous for those who innocently wandered the streets. Shanna had, but only once, and that occasion had been enough to dissuade her from further venturings. But for the swift and capable strength of Pitney setting the miscreants to rout, she’d have been divested of her jewels and no doubt her virtue as well. In April she had been nearly trampled to death when escorted to the Temple of Peace to hear a concert of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. In truth, it was the fireworks that had caused the commotion, setting to blaze the rococo edifice, which the King had ordered built to celebrate the Treaty of Aix. In horror Shanna had watched as a young girl’s skirt caught aflame. The lass was hastily stripped to her stays and her gown trampled until the fire was put out.

A moment later Shanna herself escaped questionable injury when her escort of the evening seized her and dragged her to the ground. She might have believed his protestations that he was only seeking to save her from a wayward rocket if he had not loosened her own laces considerably in the process. The cannon’s blast was mild in comparison to Shanna’s rage and, heedless of the mob which surged around her, whether to ogle her half-clad bosom or to escape the flames she could not determine, Shanna drew back her hand and sent the viscount to his knees with a stinging slap. She had then stalked through the mass of people, regaining her carriage and some semblance of modesty. Pitney’s bulk had prevented the young lord from joining her, and Shanna had made the journey back to the townhouse alone. But that was all in the past now. What mattered was that her time of grace was almost gone, and she had failed to find an acceptable mate. However, she was a woman with a mind of her own. Like her father, Shanna Trahern could be shrewd and clever. This was one of those times which demanded all of her cunning.

And she was desperate enough to try anything to escape the fate the elder Trahern planned for her. Anything, that is, but fleeing altogether. Honesty prevailed when she admitted to herself that, despite their differences, she loved her father deeply. This very afternoon lagging hope had been rekindled when Pitney, a truly loyal friend, had brought long-awaited word to her. Even the ever-watchful Ralston had been taken care of. It was an exceptional turn of good fortune that he was called away in the early morning hours to investigate the damage to a Trahern merchant ship which had run aground near the Scottish coast. Since Ralston would be gone at least a week or perhaps more, Shanna felt confident she would have this matter behind her before he could return. Then if all went well, he would find the deed done and have no chance to set it awry. Confiding in Ralston would have been the same as informing Orlan Trahern himself, and Shanna had to take special care to insure that Mister Ralston was convinced of her sincerity and the validity of her actions. If her father ever suspicioned that she had been up to some chicanery, there would be more than his rage to contend with.

He would see his word carried out forthwith, and she had no desire to live with the consequence, whoever the fellow might be. Shanna grew anxious in the sheltered interior of the luxurious Briska, and the voice of the wheels as protection, she tested the name that was so new on her lips, so full of promise. “Ruark Beauchamp. Ruark Deverell Beauchamp.” No one could deny such a fine distinguished name, nor the aristocracy of the Beauchamps of London. A slight twinge of conscience invaded the moment as the carriage drew her ever closer to her moment of reckoning, but Shanna summoned her courage in defense of herself. “ ’Tis not wrong! ’Tis an arrangement to profit us both. The man will see his final days eased and be laid in an honorable grave in return for his temporary service. In two weeks, my year will be up.” Still, apprehension began to gnaw at the edge of her resolve as questions by the dozen flew at her like bats in the night.

Would this Ruark Beauchamp be sufficient for her cause? What if he were some hunchbacked, rotten-toothed beast of a man? Shanna set her jaw, lovely in any mood, with the willfulness of a Trahern and looked for a diversion to ease the multitude of fears which threatened to envelop her. Drawing aside the leather shade at the window, she peered out into the night. Shreds of fog had begun to seep into the streets, half masking the darkened dram shops and inns they now passed. It was a dreary night, but she could abide fog and dampness. It was storms she feared, lending little comfort and peace to her mind when they raged across the land. Letting the shade fall into place again, Shanna closed her eyes, finding no release for her tensions. In an effort to still the trembling that possessed her, she pressed her slender hands deep into a fur muff, clenching them tightly together. There was so much depending on this night. She could not expect everything to go well, and doubt thwarted her attempts at calm. Would this Ruark laugh at her? She had swayed the hearts of many men.

Why not his also? Would he deny her plea with a cruel jest? Shanna shook the qualms from her mind. She primed her weapons, arranging the daring décolletage of the red velvet gown she had chosen. She had never fully exercised her wiles, but she suspected a sane man could hardly refuse a full broadside of tears. Somewhere a bell tolled in the night. The wheels of the carriage thumped against the cobblestones, and Shanna’s heart seemed to match the rapid pace. Time hung motionless as uncertainty pecked at the outer limits of her mind, and somewhere deep inside she wondered what madness had spurred her to start this thing. An inward cry surfaced to consciousness. Why must it be like this? Had her father lost the sense and tenderness of love in his greed and desire for court acceptance? Was she only a useful pawn for some greater gambit? He had loved her mother deeply and had given no heed to the fact that Georgiana had been the daughter of a common smithy. Why must he then push his only child into a relationship she would abhor? It was not as if she had not tried. She had been constantly beset by suitors from the moment she arrived in London, but in all of them she saw flaws.

She disliked most those who came courting with a desire for riches exceeding a desire for her. Could her father not understand her longing for a husband of stature she could admire, as well as one she could love and respect? No voice gave the answers Shanna sought. There was only the steady drum of the horses’ hooves bringing her ever closer to her testing. The carriage eased its relentless pace and swung around a corner. Shanna heard Pitney’s voice ring out as they rumbled to a stop before the forbidding facade of Newgate gaol. Her breath seemed caught in her throat, and her heart beat a chaotic rhythm. The sound of Pitney’s footsteps falling heavily against the cobblestones reverberated within her head. Like a doomed prisoner, she waited until he opened the door and leaned in. Mister Pitney was a giant of a man, broad-shouldered, with a full wide face to match his size. A stringy thatch of tan hair was tied at the nape of his thick neck beneath a black tricorn.

At the age of fifty, he could best any two men younger or older than himself. His past was a mystery, and Shanna had never inquired into it, but she rather suspected it might rival her grandfather’s. Yet she had no concern for her safety with Pitney near. He was like a part of the family, though some might have termed his position one of a hired servant, for her father engaged him as her personal guard to see to her welfare whenever she went abroad. On Los Camellos he was independent of Orlan Trahern’s wealth and spent his time there carving and making furniture. The big man served the daughter as well as the father and was not inclined to rush to his employer’s ear with tales of her slightest infraction. He admired her on some matters, counseled her on others, and when Shanna felt a need to pour out her troubles, it was Pitney who most often comforted her. He had been her co-conspirator on other occasions that her father would not have approved of. “Your mind is set?” Pitney asked in a deep, rasping voice. “This is to be the way of it?” “Aye, Pitney,” she murmured quietly and, with more determination, “I will see it through.

” In the meager light cast by the carriage lanterns, his gray eyes met hers. His brow wore a worried frown. “Then you’d best make yourself ready.” Shanna set her mind and with cool deliberation pulled a heavy lace veil down over her face and adjusted the deep hood of her black velvet cloak so that it further obscured her identity and held her long, golden-veined tresses from view. Pitney led the way toward the main portal, and, following, Shanna fought an almost overwhelming urge to flee in the opposite direction. But she checked the impulse, reasoning that if this were madness, then marriage to a man she loathed would be hell. At their entry the turnkey struggled to his feet with an eagerness born of greed and came forward to greet her. He was a grotesquely fat man whose arms resembled battering rams. His legs were so immense he had to walk with his feet well apart, causing a rolling motion in his gait. Yet for all of his size, he was short, his height barely matching Shanna’s, which for a woman was more small than tall.

His wheezing breath, quickened with the exertion of rising from the chair, filled the room with an aroma of stale rum, leeks, and fish. Quickly Shanna pressed a perfumed handkerchief beneath her nose to ease the stomach-wrenching scent of the foul fumes. “Milady, I feared ye ’ad changed yer mind.” Mister Hicks chortled as he tried to take her hand to bestow a kiss upon it. Shanna held back a shiver of revulsion and pulled away before his lips could touch her fingers, pushing her hands safely into the fur muff. She could not decide which was worse, having to stand and abide the fetid stench that hung like an unseen cloud about him or bear the sickening feel of his mouth upon her hand. “I am here as I said I would be, Mister Hicks,” she replied sternly. The obnoxious odor got the better of her, and she again drew the lace kerchief from the muff to wave it in front of her veiled face. “Please—” she choked, “let me see the man, so we might get on with the arrangements.” The gaoler delayed a moment and stroked his chin thoughtfully, wondering if there might be more to gain from this than he was promised.

The only other time the lady had been to the prison was nearly two months prior, and she had been heavily disguised then, also. His curiosity was greatly piqued, but she had not elaborated on the reason she wanted to meet with a condemned man. The prospect of a weighty purse urged him on, and he had faithfully supplied the names of prisoners bound for the triple tree, giving them over to the hulking man at her side when he had come to fetch them. On her first visit Hicks had taken careful note of the ring on her finger and the subdued but rich cut of her clothes. It was not hard to surmise this was no pauper’s daughter. Aye, she had a fortune all right, and he was not above wheedling a greater portion of it than he had been pledged—if he could. And that was where the difficulty lay. He dared ask nothing of her when she was accompanied by her manservant, and the bloke seemed reluctant to leave her. Still, it seemed a shame that a woman who smelled as tempting and sweet as she, should waste any moment of her life talking to a doomed man. That fellow Beauchamp was a troublemaker, the worst prisoner he had ever led to a cell.

Hicks rubbed his fat cheek reflectively, recalling the man’s fist against it. What he wouldn’t give to see the damned rogue gelded. It would serve him right. But the knave was to die, and revenge would be had, though a slower end would be more to his liking. Mister Hicks heaved a heavy sigh, and then snorted abruptly. “We’ll ’ave to see to him in his cell.” The rotund gaoler snatched a ring of keys from a peg on the wall. “Been kept away from others ’e ’as. Likely ’e woulda ’ad the ’ole bloody lot of ’em rising agin us.” He lit a lantern as he chattered on.

“Why, took a fistful o’ redcoats to put ’im down an’ chain him when they caught him at the inn. Him bein’ a colonial and all, ’e’s liken to be ’alf savage, anyway.” If Hicks meant to put a fright into her, Shanna was having no part of it. She was calm now and knew what must be done to ease her own plight. Nothing would stand in her way after she had come this far. “Lead the way, master gaoler,” she directed firmly. “There’ll not be a farthing exchanged until I have decided for myself that Mister Beauchamp will meet my needs. My man Pitney will accompany us should there be any trouble.” The smile faded, and Hicks shrugged. Finding no other excuse to delay, he took up the lantern to light the way.

With his peculiar rolling gait, he preceded them from the dingy room, through the heavy iron doors leading to the main gaol then down a dimly lit corridor. Their foot-steps echoed on the stone steps while the lantern cast eerie, flickering shadows around them. An unearthly silence held the place, for most of the prisoners slept, but now and again a groan or muffled weeping could be heard. Water dripped from some unseen fount, and swift scurrying sounds in dark corners brought chills and a strange foreboding to Shanna. She shivered in apprehension and clutched her cloak tighter about her, feeling the wretchedness of the place. “How long has the man been kept here?” she inquired, glancing uneasily about her. It seemed impossible for anyone to long retain their sanity in a hole like this. “Nigh to three months, milady.” “Three months!” Shanna gasped. “But your note said he was only just condemned.

How is that?” Hicks snorted. “The magistrate didn’t rightly know what to do with the bloke, milady. Wid a name like Beauchamp, a fellow ’as to be bloody careful just ’oo ’e’s ’anging, even Lord ’Arry himself is a mite afeared of the Marquess Beauchamp. Ol’ ’Arry was reluctant, ye might say, but him being the magistrate, it were up to himself and no other. Then ’bout a week ago, ’e gave the word—’ang him.” Hicks’s weighty shoulders lifted then fell as if they were a burden too heavy for him. “I ’spect it’s cause the bloke’s from the colonies and as far as known, ’e’s no close kin to folks ’ere. Ol’ ’Arry instructed me to have the fellow ’anged quiet like with no fuss so these other Beauchamps and the Marquess wouldn’t learn o’ the deed. Being the clever man that I am, I figured when they give me to ’andle the matter on the sly that Mister Beauchamp be the one for ye.” Hicks paused before an iron door.

“Ye said ye wanted a man bound for the gallows, and I couldn’t give him over to ye until Ol’ ’Arry made up his mind to ’ang him.” “You’ve done well, Mister Hicks,” Shanna replied, a trifle more graciously. It was even better than she had hoped! Now as to the man’s appearance and consent . The gaoler thrust a key into a lock and pulled on a door which, with a loud creak of rusty hinges, yielded. Shanna exchanged a quick glance with Pitney, knowing the moment was at hand when she would either see an end to her plan or a beginning. Mister Hicks lifted the lantern to let more light into the small cell, and Shanna’s gaze settled on the man within. He was huddled on a narrow cot and clasped a ragged, threadbare blanket about his shoulders as meager protection against the chill. As the candle’s glow presented him, he stirred and covered his eyes as if they hurt. Where the sleeve was torn from his arm, Shanna saw an ugly bruise. His wrists were chafed raw where manacles had been.

Straggly black hair and a dark beard hid most of his features, and staring at him Shanna could not help but think of some fiendish creature which had crawled up from the bowels of the earth. A shudder ran through her as the worst of her fears seemed realized. The prisoner pushed himself up against the wall until he sat and shaded his eyes. “Damn it, Hicks,” he growled. “Can you not even let me enjoy my sleep?” “On yer feet, ye bloody cur!” Hicks reached out to prod him with the hardwood staff he carried, but when the prisoner obeyed, the turnkey hurriedly stepped back several paces. Shanna’s breath caught in her throat, for the lean frame unfolded until the man stood a full head taller than Mister Hicks. She could now see the wide shoulders and, beneath the open shirt, the lightly furred chest which tapered to a flat belly and narrow hips. “ ’Ere’s a liedy to see ye.” Hicks’s voice was noticeably less demanding than before. “And if ye has it to harm her, let me warn ye—” The prisoner strained to see into the blackness beyond the lantern.

“A lady? What madness do you practice, Hicks? Or perhaps some more subtle torture?” His voice came smooth and deep, pleasant to Shanna’s ears and bore no hint of a slur. It was easy flowing and less clipped than what she was accustomed to hearing in England. A man from the colonies, Hicks had said. That was, no doubt, the reason for the subtle qualities in his speech. Yet there was something else as well, an amused mockery that seemed to scorn everything about the gaol. Shanna held to the shadows for a moment longer as she carefully studied this Ruark Beauchamp. His garments were as ragged as the blanket, and she became acutely aware that they were gathered in places with string in an attempt to cover his slender torso. His breeches were torn nearly to the waist on one side, and the rough mending concealed little of the lithe line of his flank. A linen blouse, perhaps once white, was now mottled with filth and barely recognizable. It hung in tattered shreds from his shoulders and showed thinly fleshed ribs that were still well muscled despite his deprivation.

His hair was uneven and wildly tossed, yet his eyes filled with alert awareness as he attempted to make out her form. Failing that, he drew himself up and bowed formally to the blackness that shrouded her. A satirical tone was in his voice. “I beg your pardon, milady. My quarters have little to recommend them. Had I foreknowledge of your visit, I would have tidied up a bit. Of course,” he smiled and indicated his surroundings, “there’s not much to tidy up.” “Hold yer bloomin’ tongue!” Hicks interrupted officiously. “The liedy’s here on business, she is, and ye’ll show her all respect—or else.” He slapped his open palm suggestively with the club and chuckled at his cleverness.

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