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Rebecca Clifton rested her aching back against a tree and bit into an apple without taking her gaze from the players on the green. A saucy riposte from the one disguised as a hag caused laughter to ripple through the crowd a few yards away. The happy entertainment brought back memories of her girlhood and a particular day she had passed at a boatyard, in Deptford, when she had accompanied her father to his current place of work. A master-carpenter, he had been employed by the Hurst Boatyard to work on a ship that Henry VIII had commissioned for his navy. It was a place they had visited every summer since she was eight years old, as it was then the boatyard was really busy. Then, as now, she had remained in the shadows, listening to a story unfold. Reminded of the guilty pleasure she had experienced as she'd watched Phillip Hurst, nicknamed Pip, the youngest of the Hurst brothers, wielding a hammer under her father's tutelage, a grim expression on his face. The muscles in his arms and back had rippled in the hot sun and perspiration had darkened his mane of flaxen hair.
Although naive to the ways of the world, even then she had considered him almost too handsome for his own good, with a silver tongue that he used to good advantage when he had a mind to do so. His honeyed words had set her heart aflutter and for weeks she had shyly followed his every move that summer ten years ago. Well, she smiled to herself ruefully, she had been young and impressionable then and those years were behind her.
But what was she doing letting her mind wander? She had missed the character's next sally which had raised another gale of laughter. She must concentrate because she had stayed behind to enjoy the entertainment. Life held too few of these pleasures to pass them up so lightly. The performance came to an end and the actors took their bow, their eyes scanning the crowd, smiling, as they were applauded enthusiastically. The actor who had played the hag caught her gaze and gave her a cheeky wink, which made her blush and look away, moving her attention to a youth who was doing the rounds with a hat. She dropped a coin into its depths, wishing she had more to give. Soon there would be more feastinganother roasted hog being on offer as well as other tasty morsels. But she was hesitant to remain here in Witney much longer. The sun was setting and she must return to Minster Draymore, a short distance away, before dark.
She had passed the church of St Mary on the very outskirts of the town when she heard her name being called. The voice was slightly breathless, as if its owner had been running. Her pulses quickened as a hand seized her shoulder and whirled her round. Sapphire-blue eyes outlined by kohl gazed down into hers. 'Becky Mortimer, by all that is holy, it is you!'
Terror fought with vague recognition, but she could not speak, and feared a recurrence of the nerves she had managed to conquer since her father's death. 'What is it, Becky? Is it that you do not know me?' The man before her removed the wig, revealing a thatch of damp, darkened flaxen hair. She watched, transfixed, as he thrust the wig beneath the cloak he carried over his arm and wiped the carmine from his lips with a rag he dragged from his sleeve. 'Do you recognise me now?' he asked softly.
'Pip Pip Hurst?' she managed to croak.
'Aye! When I saw you leaving I determined to make myself known to you.'
'I'm surprised you should recognise me after so long a time, I am much changed.'
'Indeed you are ' His blue eyes washed slowly over her face and then slid to her slender neck and throat before pausing a moment as they took in the swell of her bosom in the tight bodice. They skipped lower, scanning her narrow waist and the curve of her hips to finish their exploration at the sensible shoes protruding from beneath her grey skirts. 'You're very much a woman now.'
Rebecca drew herself up to her full height and said in a prim voice, 'It would be strange, indeed, if I were not, Master Hurst. After all, like you, I have seen twenty-four summers. Your appearance has certainly changed, although your habit of putting me to the blush remains!'
'Ha!' he laughed. Then the smile vanished. 'But you're not blushing and I have never forgotten that you were the prettiest maid I had ever seen.'
'You flatter me, just as you did then.'
'I spoke the truth.'
He sounded so sincere that her heart seemed to flip over as she recalled once more that distant memory, which now seemed like only yesterday. Pip's father's employees had taken time out from their work to eat their midday meal of bread and cheese and, as her father, Adam Mortimer, had also left the yard, they had called upon Pip to tell them a tale. The tension that had been so present in his features when under her father's eye had relaxed and he had become a different person as he began to spin a yarn.
'I remember that day when you told the men your own version of the ballad of Robin Hood, acting out the parts and putting on different voices,' she murmured. 'You caused much merriment and I kept praying that neither of our fathers would return before you had finished.'
'I am glad I amused you, because you were far too serious a child,' said Phillip, his blue eyes alight with remembrance.
'I thought I had cause to worry that day,' she retorted. 'You knew that the king was expected later and that tale had been banned. The nobility was convinced that it might encourage the commoners to take it into their heads to imitate Robin and his merry men by robbing the rich to feed the poor.'
Phillip shook his head at her. 'One can't prevent a good tale from being retold time and time again, Becky, but I recall you didn't approve of my ending.'
She felt the blood rise in her cheeks. 'You said I could be honest in my criticism.'
'So I did! Fool that I was, I convinced myself that you would be kind,' he said mournfully, his gaze holding hers as if he could read her thoughts.
She remembered how, back then, he could pierce her to the soul with one of his intense looks, causing all sensible thought to desert her. She had believed herself to be a plain mouse of a creature because her father was so critical of her appearance, and she had been in need of love and affection. 'My comments were fair,' she said stiffly.
Phillip's fair brows drew together above his fine nose and he folded his arms. 'You began by stammering out that you could find no fault with my skill as a storyteller, but then you added "as for the plot ending it was unbelievable."'
She bit her lip. 'YouYou looked at me as you do now and you barked at me "No, it isn't!"'
'And you squeaked "B-but it isn't true to life! I've listened to several of your tales and too often you wander into the realms of fantasy!"' Phillip mimicked her voice to perfection.
The roses in her cheeks deepened. 'I told the truth, never expecting that it would make you so angry,' she protested. 'I was shocked when you said that I would obviously prefer an unhappy ending and gave me an alternative one with Robin dead in a dungeon and Marion raped by the Sheriff of Nottingham.'
Phillip had the grace to apologise, but spoilt it by adding, 'But be honest, Becky, at the very least you'd have had Robin going off on another crusade and being killed in the fighting. Marion would have taken the veil and ended her days in a nunnery. You had no faith in our hero making her happy and providing for her at all!' His manner was teasing but, somehow, Becky was unable to respond in kind.
'It's my experience that there are few heroes in this life, but I will say you have an excellent memory,' she said tartly.
'I need it to remember my lines,' he riposted.
'And you have been fortunate to realise your dreams and live the life of a player; I remember how much you disliked the work of shipbuilding.'
He stared at her intently. 'Ah, yes, that was proper men's work, was it not? I remember how you used to blush and flutter your eyelashes at my brother Nicholas.'
'Of a surety I did not! It was just that I was more conscious of your brother because he had worked in the yard before he went travelling,' Rebecca replied, hotly, and, deciding it was time this conversation came to an end, she bid him good day and strode off.
'Be honest!' he called after her. 'You believed that being an explorer made him a hero. You were madly in love with him.'
'And what if I was?' she said recklessly, preferring him to believe such a thing, rather than that she had ever lusted after him.
He caught up with her and grabbed her arm. 'But you clearly married someone else! You didn't wait for him,' he said, indicating the band upon her wedding finger.
Rebecca sighed. 'That was because Giles asked me to marry him. Master Nicholas had no real interest in me, he had his own dreams to pursue. And if you don't mind, you are bruising my arm!' She pulled away.
A frowning Phillip slackened his grip. ''Tis a pity women can't be strolling players as well because you'd never forget your lines.'
'I do not know what you mean, Master Hurst. I have to reach Minster Draymore before dark. Good day to you, sir.' Rebecca moved away from him and put on a spurt as she walked along the path which now led on to open country.
'Perhaps I should remind you,' said Phillip as he caught up with her. Taking her by her upper arms, he brought her close to him. 'You said that being a player is not the stuff of which heroes are made.'
Her grey eyes did not flinch beneath his blazing blue ones. 'Well, I beg your pardon, Master Hurst, if you deem my words uncalled for at the time. As it was, I only had your best interests at heart, believe it or not! You are to be congratulated in making your dream come true. I remember seeing you perform before the king as you vowed you would that day, and I applauded you for your achievement.'
He looked surprised. 'When was that?'
'When my husband was still alive. My musician brother, Davy, saw to it that we were invited to the entertainment during the Christmas festivities at Greenwich Palace.'
'Why didn't you come and make yourself known to me?'
She could not bring herself to say that she had feared he might not remember her and that would have been too embarrassing. 'You had enough admiring women around you and I had no intention of joining their number,' she replied lightly.
He frowned. 'And no doubt your husband would not have approved. Do you still believe me a fool for becoming a player and deem I should be building ships for His Grace?'
'I don't remember ever saying you were a fool, but it is true that I consider boatbuilding a steadier and more secure occupation.'
'I wasn't looking for security then, but adventure. As it was, I had to wait until my father died before getting my wish,' said Phillip, releasing her. 'I suppose it was the same with you? Your father's death freed you to become the woman you are now.'
'Freedom has its price, Master Hurst.' She turned and walked away without waiting for his reply. She had known Pip Hurst had not immediately been able to have his wish because her friend, Lady Beth Raventon, had told her so. His eldest brother Christopher had inherited the family business after their father's death and he had insisted that his youngest brother finish his apprenticeship. His elder brother, Nicholas, had followed his own dream after inheriting a goodly sum of money from his godfather, which had enabled him to be financially independent of the family business. It was only seven years since Pip had been set free to do what he wished. This had happened shortly after her own father's death, which had resulted in her being reunited with her brother, Davy. Five years older than Becky, it was several years since she had seen him as he'd quarrelled with their father over Davy's refusal to complete his apprenticeship as a ship's carpenter. Desiring to pursue his musical talent, she learnt that his knowledge of carpentry had enabled him to earn a living whilst performing at fairs and the church on feast days, where he had been fortunate to find a patron, which had resulted in his eventually performing before the nobility.