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London, Friday 31, August 1666
Temperance kept a wary eye on her surroundings as she followed the link boy through the dark streets. It was nearly midnight, and the bustling daytime crowds had long since gone home. Normally she would never venture out so late, but business had been slow all summer. She could not afford to lose the potential sale at the end of this journey. She listened for threatening sounds in the shadows and kept a firm grip on the stout stick she held by her side. She maintained an equally firm hold on the carefully packed goods she carried in her other arm.
The link boy stopped abruptly, lifting his torch to illuminate the sign of the Dog and Bone tavern. Temperance was so startled by the snarling beast revealed in the flickering light she took an involuntary step backwards.
"Here you are," said the boy.
Temperance released a careful breath. After a second glance, she decided the sign was badly painted, not deliberately vicious. All the same, she wished her apprentice hadn't been taken sick that afternoon. If Isaac hadn't been near blind from the pain in his head, he could have come with her. His presence would have increased her status in the eyes of her potential customer.
She slipped the stick through a side opening in her skirts and hung it from a concealed belt. She took a coin from the pocket, which was also hidden beneath her skirts, and gave it to the link boy. Then she braced herself and pushed open the tavern door.
A thick fog of wine and tobacco fumes and too many closely packed bodies rushed out to greet her. Temperance stepped inside, realising at once that something unusual was happening. She'd anticipated the unpleasant smells. She hadn't expected to be presented with an impenetrable wall of male shoulders the moment she stepped over the threshold. The men were all looking at something she couldn't see, and blocking her from moving any further into the room. For an alarming moment she thought they might be watching a fight.
Her first instinct was to leave. She'd rather lose the sale than risk being caught up in a brawl. Then she realised the mood of the crowd was good humoured. She edged further into the room, trying to see what the men were looking at. She was tall enough to peer over the shoulders of most of those blocking her view, but the crowd was a couple of rows deep. Heads kept getting in her way. It was infuriating.
At last she tapped on the shoulder of one of the men. When he looked around, his eyes widened in surprise. She was about to ask him where the tavern keeper was, but he grinned and said, "Can't see, lass? I'll wager you'll take more pleasure in looking than most of us will. Come through." He stepped back so she could move in front of him.
Temperance hesitated for half a second. It wasn't sensible to let herself be hemmed in by a crowd of strangersbut curiosity got the better of her. With a murmur of thanks she accepted his offer. From her new position she could see all attention was focussed on a figure sitting near the unlit hearth. She'd just noticed he was holding a lute when he began to play. The crowd immediately fell silent.
At first Temperance couldn't believe it. What kind of musician could hold a tavern of drinking men in thrall at nearly midnight? But after a few moments the music reached out to her, drawing her in as surely as it held the rest of the audience. She craned to one side, trying to get a better look at him. She saw a head of black hair and the flash of a white shirt before someone got in her way.
Then he began to sing. To her astonishment, she felt goose bumps rise all over her body. His voice curled deep down inside her, stirring nameless urges so intimate and disturbing part of her wanted to run away and hide. The rest of her wanted to get a lot closer. Such a thing had never happened to her before. Half-angry at her inexplicable reaction, but unable to deny her compulsion to look at the singer, she pushed forward until she was at the front of the standing crowd.
She clutched her bundle against her chest and stared at the musician. His black hair nearly reached his shoulders. It glowed like a raven's wing in the candlelight, but it didn't look as if it had ever been tamed by a barber. he'd taken off his coat, and his white shirt was open at the neck. She was fascinated by the movement of his strong throat as he sang. Her fingertips tingled with the urge to touch him there. To explore beneath the plain white linen.
When she became aware of the improper nature of her thoughts she flushed and directed her attention elsewhere. It didn't help much. The soft linen revealed the breadth of his shoulders, and he'd pushed his sleeves back to his elbows. She watched the play of sinews in his forearm as his long fingers plucked the strings. He had clever hands, she thought dazedly, watching the swift surety with which his left hand moved over the neck of the lute. It was both exciting and unsettling to watch him play with such skill. The room seemed even hotter than it had a few moments ago.
He lifted his head and glanced around his audience. His dark brown eyes were set deep under black brows. He had a nose like a hawk, cheekbones to match and more than one day's growth of stubble on his strong jaw. His voice might hold the allure of a fallen angel, enticing her to commit all kinds of sinful folly, but he looked like a vagabond.
His gaze passed over her in the crowd then returned to focus upon her face. His eyes locked with hers. Temperance stood rooted to the spot. He had seen her. His dark eyes seemed to pierce straight to her heart. A hot wave of self-conscious awareness rolled over her.
Just for a second she thought she heard a slight hesitation in his supple voice. Then she was sure she'd imagined it, because he continued to sing with utter confidenceand his lips curved in a small, but unmistakeably arrogant smile.
That smile jarred her out of her stupefaction. No doubt he took it for granted he could turn a woman's knees weak with a simple song. He was surely a seducer and a vagabond who left broken hearts and lives behind him without a qualm. Temperance wrenched her gaze away from him, furious and embarrassed she'd fallen under his spell for even a few seconds. She gripped her bundle of goods so tightly her knuckles turned white.
She refused to look at the musician again, but she couldn't stop listening. It was an irritating, tormenting pleasure. She wanted to listen to him, she just didn't want to feed his arrogance by seeming to enjoy his song. She stared at the fireplace to one side of the musician and pretended she was indifferent to him. To her indignation a note of humour crept into his voice. Even though the taproom was full of people, she was certain he was singing to herand laughing at her. It was insufferable. She glared at the mantelpiece. In an effort to distract herself she focussed on a crack in the plaster of the chimney breast, allowing her eyes to follow it all the way up to the ceiling. The amusement in his voice grew more pronounced; even the lute seemed to be laughing at her as he plucked a lively, teasing melody from its strings.
She realised too late it must have looked as if she'd stuck her chin in the air in response to his initial amusement. Very slowly, by casual degrees, she allowed her gaze to drop until she was once more looking at the mantelpiece. She kept her eyes fixed straight ahead and hoped the song would soon come to an end. How many verses did it have? Was he even singing the same song he'd started with? Or had he slid seamlessly into another one so he could deliberately prolong her discomfort? She stopped looking at the mantelpiece and stared at him suspiciously.
The fellow had the gall to grin at her! His fingers didn't fluff a single note and his voice remained perfectly in tunebut he grinned at her!
How dare he! The urge to box his over-confident ears was almost too strong to resist. She imagined a discordant jangle and the pleasing sight of the dark-eyed vagabond wearing a necklace of lute strings and small fragments of wood around his cocksure neck.
A man beside her chuckled. "Jack Bow is singing for more than his supper now," he murmured. "Does he take your fancy, lass?You've surely taken his."
"No!"Temperance's denial emerged more forcefully than she'd intended. She saw several heads turn to look at her, and some men began to smile in an obnoxiously knowing way.
Her skin burned. She forgot her reason for coming to the tavern. All she wanted to do was remove herself from the mortifying situation at once. She was about to push through the crowd to the door when the musician ended the song with a flourish.
He was rewarded with applause and whistles. Several men called out to him, offering to buy him a drink. For a moment Temperance lost sight of him as the tavern patrons moved into new positions. She belatedly realised she wasn't the only woman in the roomthough at this hour of the night she was most likely the only respectable woman present. And she was only here because the plague that had devastated London the previous year had been so bad for business. The City was almost back to normal now, but if Temperance was to restore her shop to a sound footing she needed every sale she could make.
Where was the gentleman whose servant had roused her to wait on his master? She resisted the urge to glance in the direction of the singer and instead tried to locate the tavern keeper.
A door on the far side of the taproom crashed open. Temperance couldn't see who came out, but then an irritable voice shouted, "Where the hell's the draper I sent for?"
Temperance pushed her way towards her still-unseen customer. When she got closer she saw he'd just emerged from a private room that led off from the main taproom. He was a fashionably dressed young man, but his clothes were the worse for wear. He was also at least two inches shorter than Temperance.
He scowled at her when she stopped in front of him. "I want a draper, not an overgrown doxy," he said. Temperance swallowed an angry response. His appearance was at least as unappealing as hers. Worse, in fact. She might be unusually tall and no great beauty, but at least she was sober and well groomed and didn't wantonly insult strangers.
"I am the draper," she said coldly. "Your man said you want a length of linen and a length of muslin."
"You have them?" His red-rimmed eyes focussed on the bundle in her arms. "Show me." He stepped back into his private room and she had no choice but to follow.
She didn't particularly want to do business in public, nor did she relish the thought of being alone with this well-born loutbut when she entered the smaller chamber she saw he had a friend with him.
"Has that damned caterwauling finally stopped, Tredgold?"the other man demanded.
Temperance bristled with indignation at the insult to the musician. Caterwauling? The dark-eyed vagabond might be as arrogant as the devil, but he had the finest voice she'd ever heard, and his musicianship was remarkable.
"Give me the linen." Tredgold grabbed the bundle of goods from her arms and tore it open.
"Be careful!" Temperance protested, as the piece of muslin fell into a puddle of liquid on the floor.
Her customer ignored both her and the muslin. He shook out the length of linen and tossed it over his head. Temperance watched in disbelief as he stuck his arms out and swayed from side to side. Then he started to moan and groan.
His friend stared at him with an open mouth for several seconds, then clutched his head and cowered in his seat.
"Oh! Oh, I'm so scared. Oh, my poor heart! Oh, I'm dead!"At his last dramatic exclamation, he collapsed sideways, disappearing from view beneath the edge of the table.
Temperance's own heart thudded with alarm and confusion. For an instant she almost thought he really was dead, then she realised he had been sitting on a high-backed bench. he'd just fallen sideways on it. Now he was lying there, laughing like a lunatic.
"Do you think it will work?" Tredgold demanded. "The old goat might die of laughterbut not fear," his friend replied, sitting up again. "Whoever heard of a ghost with brown velvet arms? If you take off all your clothes and wrap the linen around you, you could pretend you've risen from the grave. That might work."
"Hmm." Tredgold threw the length of linen across the table where it soaked up some spilled wineand took off his coat. For a horrified moment Temperance thought he was going to disrobe further but, to her relief, he seemed content to experiment in his shirt sleeves and breeches. He wrapped the linen around himself in untidy folds.
"Give me the muslin, wench," he ordered, pointing at where it still lay on the floor.
Temperance handed it to him and hastily stepped back. He twisted it round his upper body and head and turned back to his companion.
"Now what do you think?" "I've never seen a corpse wrapped in pink,'said his friend, looking at the spreading wine stains on both the muslin and the linen.
"It's blood, of course!" Tredgold said impatiently. "Not that colour. you'll never frighten the old man to death in pink muslin."
"What are you trying to do?" Temperance asked. "Scare his grandfather into his grave," the friend said. "What?" "He's nearly ninety. Until he dies I can't claim my inheritance," Tredgold said as if he had a genuine grievance.
"You should be ashamed of yourself!" Temperance exploded. "I won't be party to such an evil scheme. Take off the linen at once!"
"I am taking it off," Tredgold snarled. "It's not going to work. I'll have to think of something else." He tossed the fabric on the floor, flung himself into a chair, and poured some more wine.
Temperance stared at the stained, crumpled cloth. She couldn't sell it to another customer now.
"You must pay for the goods you have spoiled," she said, trying to control her anger.
Tredgold laughed. "I'm not paying for those useless rags." "I did not bring you rags. I brought you lengths of fine linen and muslinas you requested," Temperance said. "It is you who have ruined them. You must pay for what you have played with and spoiled."
Tredgold raised his eyebrows superciliously, allowing his gaze to move up and down Temperance's body in an insulting assessment. Then he shrugged one shoulder. "Send your master to claim his dues," he said. He turned away from her, tilting his chair on to its back legs as he reached for the wine jug.
Temperance kicked the nearest chair leg as hard as she could. Tredgold crashed backwards with a shout of alarm. The wine jug flew into the air, its contents drenching Tredgold and splashing Temperance's skirt. It hit the edge of the table, then smashed to the floor.
Temperance stood over Tredgold as he blinked up at her. Her heart was pounding, but she was far too angry to be afraid.
"You will pay me," she said. "Get up and give me the money." Tredgold stared at her for a few seconds, then his dazed expression turned spiteful.
"You bitch!" he raged. "I'll teach you"
She took a step back, reaching through the slit in her skirt for her stick. She was taller than Tredgold, but under no illusion she could match his strength.
Tredgold disentangled himself from the chair and staggered to his feet. He was too dazed to move quickly. There was time for Temperance to flee, but it wasn't in her nature to run away. She cursed her decision to come to the tavern, but she held her stick by her side and kept her watchful attention on Tredgold and his friend.
Tredgold shook his head and winced. Then, without warning, he lunged towards her.