Stormswept – Sabrina Jeffries, Deborah Martin

Juliana St. Albans gestured at the tall young man who stood stiff and sober before the crowded room. “Is that Rhys Vaughan?” He seemed different from the other Sons of Wales sitting in the basement of Gentlemen’s Bookshop in Carmarthen. “That can’t be him. He looks too quiet.” Her Welsh lady’s maid, Lettice Johnes, snorted. “For what? Did you expect a hard-drinking, hardboasting gambler like his late father, the squire?” Juliana swept her gaze around the room. “I expected none of this.” In her naiveté, she’d thought to find serious young men discussing politics in earnest voices . not this rabble of hotheads. “I don’t suppose you want to go home now?” Lettice sounded so hopeful that Juliana had to smile. “Not after I went to all the trouble of dressing like a poor Welsh servant to follow you here.” “I should never have told Morgan I would attend,” Lettice grumbled.

“And I shouldn’t have let you stay once you showed up. He won’t be happy about that.” “It’s not your fault. If your sweetheart wasn’t always so heedless of his surroundings when he courts you, I wouldn’t have overheard him mention the meeting.” And Rhys Vaughan’s part in it. “Pray God none of the Sons of Wales recognize you. They’ll think you a spy, and Lord only knows how they’ll react.” “No one will guess who I really am.” Juliana wore her simplest gown, a mob cap to cover her telltale red hair, and a Welsh shawl. It was the perfect disguise. “If your father finds out you were here consorting with ‘those dirty Welsh,’ he’ll give you a thrashing. You’d best leave before you get into trouble.

” A pox on Lettice for always trying to tell her how to behave! At twenty-one, Juliana wasn’t a child anymore. Why, most women were already married, bearing children, and running households. Surely she was old enough to attend a late-night meeting of Welsh radicals. “Will you stop haranguing me if I promise not to get caught?” Juliana snapped. “This meeting won’t be the ‘romantic’ Welsh poetry and history you fancy. It’ll be rough men waving their arms and shouting about politics.” “They’re not shouting now.” “They will be, once Rhys Vaughan starts to speak his piece.” Juliana glanced to where the squire’s son stood beside a burly shopkeeper, waiting for the meeting to begin. The men in the audience were scowling and making sarcastic comments as the squire’s son strove to ignore them.

“Why are they so hostile to him?” Juliana asked. “The young Mr. Vaughan has been away a long time at university and on the Grand Tour. Since his father loved to talk of how the English would save Wales, this lot is suspicious of the son.” “But children don’t always take after their parents.” “Aye. Heaven knows you’re nothing like yours.” Lettice flashed her a speculative glance. “You came just to see Mr. Vaughan, didn’t you?” Her maid was far too perceptive.

“Of course. I wanted to hear his lecture. He’s speaking about the Welsh language, isn’t he?” “Aye, but that’s not why you’re curious. After what your father did to the Vaughans, you want to see what the son is like. So what do you think of the man whose inheritance your father stole?” Juliana stiffened. “Papa didn’t steal Llynwydd. Squire Vaughan was a profligate man who lost his estate through his own recklessness. He shouldn’t have played cards at such high stakes if he hadn’t been prepared to lose.” “Perhaps. And perhaps your father shouldn’t have agreed to such high stakes.

A man’s estate is his life.” Lettice leaned closer. “Some claim the squire was drunk when he made that bet. And some claim your father cheated, in his eagerness to get a fine estate to use as your dowry.” Juliana winced. “I don’t care what the gossips say. Papa won that estate fairly.” “Then why deed it to you? Fathers don’t generally give their daughters ownership of their dowry properties, especially when the family’s finances are strained. He wants to protect Llynwydd from whoever might challenge his claim.” “That’s not true.

” Papa had only been trying to secure Llynwydd for her so Darcy couldn’t appropriate it for himself after Papa died. “But I’m sorry the squire’s son has no more inheritance now.” “Aye, and no father, either.” Guilt assailed Juliana. The squire had killed himself after losing his estate. And all because of what Papa had done to protect her. She’d come here hoping to find Mr. Vaughan to be as much a profligate as his father, someone she could despise. Instead, she found a sober fellow too serious for his age. And far too handsome.

He had an unblemished brow, a determined mouth, and the strong jaw of a man of character. He didn’t look much older than she, yet unlike other young men, he didn’t fidget or shift from foot to foot like an impatient heron. His regal reserve and arrogant stance obviously came from good breeding. Like Darcy, he exuded confidence. His neat clothing wasn’t extravagant, but it was certainly finer than that of the others. Yet he shockingly wore no wig. Like a common Welsh laborer, he kept his lustrous black hair tied back in a queue. And his eyes were all passion and fire . blue and wild and fierce, like the crashing waters of the Welsh sea. He must have sensed her watching him, for he turned his gaze to her.

She caught her breath, afraid he might see through her flimsy disguise. But when he gave her the barest half-smile and his gaze moved on, her breath whooshed out of her. He wasn’t at all like other men of rank she knew, who were cold and lackluster even when they smiled at her. Like King Arthur, Mr. Vaughan thrummed with power. Arthur had been Welsh, too, a scholar and not a warrior. She could almost envision Mr. Vaughan admonishing his knights to uphold the ideals of the realm. Oh bother! As usual, she was making everything romantic. Rhys Vaughan wasn’t an Arthur, and certainly not a king.

“There he is, the devil,” Lettice muttered. Juliana looked over to see Morgan Pennant coming down the row toward them. The handsome printer in his thirties always smelled of ink and paper. Men generally trailed after Lettice like lapdogs, but only Mr. Pennant had captured the maid’s affections. Unfortunately, his involvement with the Sons of Wales had forced her to keep her courtship secret. But she hadn’t been able to keep it from Juliana’s curious eyes. As Mr. Pennant sat down beside Lettice, he laid a proprietary hand on hers, then leaned forward to see who her companion was. When he caught sight of Juliana his smile faded, and he shot Lettice a quizzical glance.

“What’s she doing here? ’Tisn’t a place for an English girl.” “She followed me after she heard you invite me. You did say Mr. Vaughan would be talking about reviving the Welsh language.” Lettice shrugged. “Once she was here, I couldn’t send her home alone, could I?” “I don’t like it,” Mr. Pennant grumbled. Lettice patted his hand. “You needn’t fear that she’ll speak of it to anyone.” “I know.

” Mr. Pennant glanced over at Juliana, who was trying to look as innocent as possible. “I’m more concerned for her safety. You mustn’t let Vaughan know who she is.” “Certainly not,” Lettice said. The crowd’s gabbling increased as the shopkeeper stepped forward to the podium, and said in Welsh, “Today we are privileged to have with us Mr. Rhys Vaughan, son of our own Squire Vaughan.” “Aye,” called someone from the crowd, “the great Squire Vaughan.” The sarcastic tone drew laughter from the crowd. The shopkeeper went on, reciting Mr.

Vaughan’s affiliation with the Gwyneddigion Society, a well-known London group supporting Welsh causes, but the crowd grew only more hostile. Juliana couldn’t keep her eyes off Mr. Vaughan’s hardening features. The poor man! When he scanned the crowd, a dark scowl beetling his forehead, she waited until his eyes met hers again, then flashed him an encouraging smile. His eyes widened, then became unnervingly direct. As she continued to smile at him, some of the sternness left his face. He kept his gaze trained on her even as he took his place behind the podium. There, he laid out his notes and drew a deep breath. “Good day. I’m very pleased to be here.

” As low, angry mutters punctuated the tense silence, his expression grew grim. He surveyed the room, pausing at her, and once more, she gave him a reassuring smile. “I am a man without a country. As are all of you.” Rich and resonant as thunder in the mountains, his voice raised goose bumps on her skin. “And why is that?” He paused. “Not because England holds us captive to strange laws. And not even because the cloak of the English church sits poorly on our shoulders. Nay, we’re without a country because our language has been stolen.” A fervent energy lit his face as he warmed to his subject, and he shook a sheaf of legal papers.

“When you go to sell your cattle, what language is your bill of sale written in?” While he waited for an answer, she held her breath. Then a man called out, “English.” Mr. Vaughan smiled coldly. “Aye. And when you choose a book of verse from the lending library, what language is it written in, more often than not?” “English!” cried a few men in unison. They’d begun to sense his sincerity. Looks of concentration replaced their scowls. His voice hardened. “And when you stand before the Court of Quarter Sessions to defend yourself for breaking their laws, what language do they use to condemn you?” “English!” several shouted.

He nodded, waiting for the noise to subside. “English. Neither our mother tongue nor the tongue of our forefathers, but a bastard language thrust upon us against our will.” He scanned the room. “You may wonder why I talk of language at a political meeting. You may think it doesn’t matter what the squires and judges speak, as long as good, honest Welsh is still used in the streets.” He dropped his voice. “But how many Welsh in Carmarthen no longer speak their native tongue?” Leaning forward, he said in confidential tones, “I myself was sent to England, first to Eton and then to Oxford, because my father believed the English were our saviors and would give us a say in their government as long as we followed their rules and spoke their language.” He slammed his fist down on the podium. “By thunder, he was wrong! And he died because he believed in the English!” The ring of pain in his voice made Juliana wince.

But she wouldn’t shrink from the words of this fierce-eyed Welshman. He spoke the truth, even if it was painful to hear. “My father died,” Mr. Vaughan went on in a voice soft as a whisper, “because he’d lost his country . and his language.” Every man in the room hung on his words, emotion glistening in their eyes. “And when he wrote his dying words, do you know what language he wrote them in?” “English,” came the murmur from the crowd, following the ebb and flow of his voice as if they were one with him. “Aye. English.” He gripped the edges of the podium.

“How long before the Welsh tongue is a quaint memory, like the fading memory of Welsh conquests? How long before we are nothing more than an English county, with an English heart and an English soul?” Many in the crowd nodded. His voice rose to a clarion ring. “I say that a man without his own voice is a slave! I say that when the English take away the red dragon’s fiery tongue, they take away his power! ” He paused, his expression dark and earnest. “Will you let that happen, my countrymen?” “Nay!” the crowd cried as one. “Will you let them trample our identity into the dust?” “Nay!” They shook their fists. He smiled, his audience in the palm of his hand. When his next words came, they were quiet and more powerful than any ranting. “Then we must follow the example of our companions in America.” Several gasps pierced the air. Many in Wales sympathized with the colonists, but plenty also opposed their rebellion.

Juliana had heard her father argue many times that the American revolt would only end in a loss of men and wealth for everyone. Talking about it in glowing terms was seditious. Mr. Vaughan held up a pamphlet. “Some of you have heard of our countryman Richard Price, who writes on the American war. In his Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, he says the natural rights of men should prevail over English law.” He paused. “I agree with him. It’s time to found a Wales governed by all the people—not just a few squires.” That was met by stunned silence.

“The American Declaration of Independence states, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Yet here in England, Welshmen are far less than equal to their English lords.” “Aye!” cried voices from the crowd. “We, too, want equality!” he shouted. “Equality!” they shouted in return. Lettice rose. “And at what price? My grandfather fought the English, and he died for it. Thanks to him, my family lost everything. Is that what you and your friends want? Do you wish your wives and sisters and children to starve for the cause of equality, while you and your brave friends fight a futile battle?” When everyone gaped at her, Juliana waited for Mr. Vaughan to mock Lettice’s womanly concerns as Papa and Darcy would have done.

But Mr. Vaughan settled his disquieting gaze on Lettice and smiled. “I believe, Miss Johnes, that though it may cost some lives, this isn’t a futile battle. I believe we can succeed.” Lettice wasn’t appeased. “Every man thinks that, but many fail. Then we women are left holding the country together without our men!” Before Mr. Vaughan could answer, a voice piped up in back. “If ye need a man, Lettice, I’ll be glad to satisfy ye. Come by the shop anytime!” “You wouldn’t know what to do with me if you had me!” Lettice retorted.

“Never know until you try! ” called another raucous male voice. Mr. Pennant cast the man a vicious glance and half rose in his seat. Mr. Vaughan pounded the podium. “Enough!” The crowd quieted. “Miss Johnes asked a legitimate question. All I can say is, this cause will eventually bring better things for all of Wales, women and children included. And isn’t that worth the cost?” He held up the pamphlet. “Mr.

Price thinks that it is. But don’t take my word for it. You must read his essay yourself.” How smoothly Mr. Vaughan had led the conversation out of dangerous waters. A pity he hadn’t further addressed Lettice’s statements. Why weren’t women’s wishes considered whenever men went to fight for their causes? Mr. Vaughan drew several pamphlets from a box and waved them before the crowd. “Hitherto, Price’s essay has only been available in English, but I’ve translated it into Welsh. Here are printed copies, along with a work by Price’s friend Thomas Paine.

I’ve brought pamphlets for all.” The crowd nodded their approval. Political writings were rarely made available in Welsh, and certainly not writings on such controversial topics. Mr. Vaughan was already handing out pamphlets. “Take as many as you like,” he urged. “Read them. Think about them. Then think about your country. It’s time the Welsh understand why the colonists are fighting English oppression.

And why we should do so as well.” People grabbed at them, pushing and shoving to get copies. “There’s more in the front,” Mr. Vaughan declared. The disorderly crowd completely disintegrated as some people rushed forward to stuff their pockets with the pamphlets, while others gathered to whisper, cautious of approaching the seditious materials. Mr. Pennant neared the front as well. “I wonder how Mr. Vaughan managed this,” Lettice whispered to Juliana. “No local printer with any sense would have risked printing it.

” “Perhaps the owner of this bookshop has a connection to one in London? It couldn’t be Mr. Pennant. He’s going up to get one for himself.” “Hmm.” Lettice scowled. “That could also mean he’s trying to hide his involvement. And he’d certainly qualify. He’s local and he has no sense. He’s also well-acquainted with Mr. Vaughan, but I swear I’ll have his head if he did something so dangerous.

” Lettice set her shoulders. “I’m going to ask him. You stay here, all right? I’ll be back in a moment, and then we’ll leave.” Juliana nodded as Lettice slid into the aisle without waiting for an answer. Shrinking into her corner, Juliana watched people surge from their seats. Unfortunately, Mr. Vaughan was moving through the crowd toward her, shaking a hand here and speaking a word there. His frequent glances at her warned her of his intention to waylay her. She searched for Lettice, but the maid was arguing with Mr. Pennant at the far end of the room.

Dear heaven. Juliana had best avoid Mr. Vaughan. But as she reached the end of the aisle, he did, too, and blocked her exit. Clearing his throat, he thrust a pamphlet at her. “Would you like one?” She swallowed, waiting for him to notice the quality of her clothing and denounce her. But when he merely pressed the pamphlet upon her, she took it. As she did, his fingers brushed hers. The brief contact made her feel suddenly warm in the damp cold of the basement. Stuffing the pamphlet under her arm, she dropped her gaze.

“Th-thank you,” she said in Welsh, praying that her accent would pass muster. He flashed her a smile. “Would you tell Miss Johnes I’m sorry for the other men’s insulting remarks?” “Yes.” She tried to slide past him, but he caught her arm. “I hope you didn’t take offense.” “Of course not. But I must go home.” He released her, only to follow her down the aisle. “Why so soon? Miss Johnes is staying. Can’t you?” By that time, she’d reached the door.

She passed into a dimly lit hall and headed for the stairs, shaking her head. Once more he caught her arm. “Here now, I think you’ve been lying to me.” Her heart hammering in her chest, she lifted her face to his. He didn’t appear angry, but she couldn’t be sure in the faint light. “What do you mean?” “I think you did take offense at what the men said, else you wouldn’t run off so soon.” Relief flooded her and she forced a smile. “I promise their words gave me no offense. Now please excuse me—” She headed up the stairs, but he hurried to block her way once more, halting a step above her. “Then perhaps ’tis my speeches driving you off.

” “Oh, no! You were wonderful!” Then she groaned. That wasn’t the way to escape him. A blazing grin transformed his serious features. “Thank you.” Taking her hand, he rubbed his thumb over the knuckles, making her short of breath. He stared down at her hand, seemingly at a loss for words. But when she tried to pull free, he said, “You know, ’twas you who helped me speak so well. Everyone else seemed determined to dislike me, but every time you smiled, I felt welcomed. You had such sympathy in your expression that it emboldened me.” She blushed.

Papa always chastised her for being too familiar with people, but she couldn’t help it. Occasionally someone just captured her interest. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he went on, “what is your name?” “M-my name?” Her distress seemed to amuse him. “Yes, your name.” Dear heaven. She looked beyond him for Lettice, but the hallway in which they stood was empty. Everyone else was still inside. “Is it so difficult a question to answer?” She stared down at the tapered fingers that held fast to hers, like ropes mooring the ships at the docks of the Towy. How was she to set herself adrift of him? “I must go, sir.” A mock frown creased his forehead.

“ ‘Let her who was asked and refused him, beware!’ ” Her caution was momentarily forgotten. “Why, that’s Huw Morus’s ‘Praise of a Girl’!” “You know of Morus?” “Of course! ” Enthusiasm spilled into her voice. “He’s one of my favorite poets, and that’s my favorite poem by him. I have every line memorized. Let me think . what is the rest?” When she bit her lip in concentration, his voice dropped into an enticing rhythm, “ ‘Give a kiss and good grace / And pardon to trace, / And purity too, in your faultless face.’ ” “Oh . yes.” Too late, she remembered the words . and their inappropriateness.

The color rose in her cheeks. His thumb traced circles on the back of her hand. “I think he wrote the words just for you.” She tried for a light tone. “Hardly. Morus died before I was born.” He laughed. “For a servant, you’re quite a scholar.” Bother, she’d forgotten her role! And if she stood here like a goose much longer, letting him say such adorable things, she’d give everything away. “That shows how little you know about servants.

” “I know you have beautiful eyes, like rare emeralds winking in the sun. Poets write paeans to eyes like yours.” Why must he be as silvery-tongued as all those poets? “You shouldn’t say such things to me.” Now his fingers stroked her palm, sending strange shivers up her arms. “Why not? Have you a husband?” “Nay, but—” “A sweetheart?” She shook her head. Then seizing on the only thing she could think of, she said, “I’m not worthy of your attentions. Please, I must go.” But her words seemed only to hearten him. “Nonsense.” He descended to her step, putting him so close she could feel his warm breath on her forehead.

“I don’t care if you’re a servant. Since I have no estate, it scarcely matters. So perhaps I’m unworthy of you. At least you do honest labor, while I am still finding my place in the world.” His self-doubt tugged at her heart. “But you have found your place in the world, don’t you see? You show people the truth. That’s important.” Satisfaction glimmered in his eyes. “Do you find it important, my nameless friend?” His nearness was crumbling her resolve. “Yes.

” “You are my friend, aren’t you?” “Yes.” He drew her toward him. “Good, I can use a friend these days.” His eyes searched hers. “ ‘Give a heart that’s alight / With kindly delight, / Gentleness, faithfulness, and we’ll do right.’ ” Before she could even register the next verse of Morus’s poem, Mr. Vaughan was lowering his head. Then he pressed his mouth to hers. At first she was too shocked by the intimacy to move. No one had ever touched her like this.

No one had ever been permitted to touch her like this. It was the utmost affront to her dignity. And the utmost excitement of her life. Instinctively, she closed her eyes, wondering if Arthur had kissed Guinevere in this manner. But as Mr. Vaughan moved his lips over hers in a tantalizing rhythm, even those thoughts disintegrated. When she made a sound deep in her throat, he caught her about the waist, forcing her to clutch his shoulders to keep from falling. The movement brought her flush against him, her skirt crushed between them, and she felt sure he could hear her heart pound madly in her chest. He kept kissing her, scattering thrills through her body like a ploughman sowing seeds. His mouth was soft and coaxing at first, a mere breath against hers.

But as he prolonged the kiss, he shaped her mouth to his with more insistence until she went utterly limp. “My lady!” came a sharp voice in English. “Juliana! Stop that at once!” Hearing Lettice’s voice was like hearing the voice of God descend from the heavens. With a gasp, Juliana jerked back from Mr. Vaughan and turned a guilty face to Lettice, who had pushed through the crowd into the hall, followed by Mr. Pennant. Mr. Vaughan ignored them to smile at her. “At last I know your name.” Then Lettice was beside her.

“Come,” she said, pulling Juliana away from Mr. Vaughan. “We must go home.” “No, stay!” Mr. Vaughan called out. As Lettice dragged her up the steps, Juliana looked back at him regretfully. “I’m sorry, Mr. Vaughan. I told you I had to go.” Lettice paused at the top to shove Juliana behind her and glare down at him.

“You’re a fine man, and I wish you luck, but Juliana is not for you!” Mr. Vaughan’s eyes blazed as he took a step up. “Why not?” “It’s better to let the women leave,” Mr. Pennant said as Lettice thrust Juliana out the door and into the street. “I knew something dreadful would happen if I let you stay.” Lettice broke into a quick stride, still clasping Juliana’s arm. “You must not have told him who you were, or he wouldn’t have been putting his hands on you like that.” “I tried to get away from him, truly I did. But he was so . so . ” Wonderful. “He quoted Huw Morus to me. He quoted ‘Praise of a Girl.’ ” “Aye, I’ll bet he did. He’s smooth as a fine brandy, that one. But brandy also has a bite, and so does he. That squire’s son isn’t what you need.” Juliana tipped up her chin. “It was merely a kiss.” The only kiss she’d ever had, and it had stripped her youth from her in one clean swipe. “Juliana!” came a shout from behind them. Mr. Vaughan had broken free of Mr. Pennant. Instinctively Juliana turned, but Lettice yanked her forward. “Don’t look back. You’ll only encourage him.” Juliana choked off her protest. Lettice was right. Rhys Vaughan might speak like an angel and kiss like someone out of a Welsh myth, but the minute he found out who she was, he’d spurn her. Better to get the pain over with now, before she let herself hope too much. So when he called her name the second time, she kept walking and didn’t look back.

.

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