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If your brother finds out about this, I'll be lucky to walk away with my manhood, let alone my head," Thomas said.
The moon's pale light threw shadows on the walls of the shops that lined the street. Ominous movements to the right and left occasionally caught Christiana's attention, but she didn't fear footpads or nightwalkers tonight. Thomas Holland, one of the Queen's knights, rode alongside her, and the glow from his torch displayed his long sword. Christiana expected no challenges from anyone who might see them in the city out after the curfew.
"He will never know, I promise you. No one will," she reassured him.
Thomas worried with good reason. If her brother Morvan found out that Thomas had helped her sneak out of Westminster after dark, there would be hell to pay. She would take all of the blame on herself if they were discovered, though. After all, she could hardly get into any more trouble than she was in right now.
"This merchant you need to see must be rich, if he doesn't live above his shop," Thomas mused. "Not my business to pry, my lady, but this be a peculiar time to be visiting, and on the sly at that. I trust that it is not a lover I bring you to. The King himself will gut me if it is."
She would have laughed at his suggestion, except that her frantic emotions had left her too sick to enjoy the dreadful joke. "Not a lover, and I come now because it is the only time I can be sure of finding him at home," she said, hoping that he would not ask for more explanation. It had taken all of her guile to slip away for this clandestine visit, and she had none to spare for inventing another lie.
The last day had been one of the worst in her life, and one of the longest. Had it only been last evening that she had met with Queen Philippa and been told of the King's decision to accept a marriage offer for her? Every moment since had been an eternity of hellish panic and outrage.
She was not opposed to marriage. In fact, at eighteen she was past the age when most girls wed. But this offer had not come from Stephen Percy, the knight to whom she had given her heart. Nor had it been made by some other knight or lord, as befitted the daughter of Hugh Fitzwaryn and a girl from a family of ancient nobility.
Nay, King Edward had decided to marry her to David de Abyndon, whom she had never met.
A common merchant.
A common, old merchant, according to her guardian, Lady Idonia, who remembered buying silks from Master David the mercer in her youth.
It was the King's way of punishing her. Since her parents' deaths she had been his ward and lived at court with his eldest daughter, Isabele, and his young cousin Joan of Kent. When he had learned about Stephen, he must have flown into a rage to have taken such drastic revenge on her.
Stephen. Handsome, blond Stephen. Her heart ached for him. His secret attentions had brought the sun into her sheltered, lonely life. He was the first man to dare to pay court to her. Morvan had threatened to kill any man who wooed her before a betrothal. Her brother's size and skill at arms had proven a depressingly effective deterrent to a love match, just as her lack of a dowry had precluded one secured by property. Other girls at court had admirers, but not her. Until Stephen.
This marriage would be a harsh retribution for what had occurred on that bed before Idonia had found them together. And not one that she planned to accept. Nor would this old merchant want it when he learned how the King was using him.
She and Thomas followed the blond head of the apprentice whom they had woken from his bed in the mercer's shop. The young man had agreed to guide them to his master's house. He led them up the lane away from the Cheap and then over toward the Guildhall before stopping at a gate and rapping lightly. The heavy door swung back and a huge body filled it.
The gate guard held a torch in one massive hand. He was the tallest person Christiana had ever seen, and thick as a tree. Whitish blond hair flowed down his shoulders.
He spoke in a voice accented with the lilting tones of Sweden. "Andrew, is that you? What the hell are you doing here? The constables catch you out after curfew again . . ."
"These two came to the shop, Sieg. I had to show them the way, didn't I?"
The torch pointed out so that Sieg could scrutinize them. "He be expecting you, but I was told it was two men," he said warily. "Ja, well, follow me. I'll put you in the solar and tell him you are here."
Thomas turned to her. "I will go up with you," he whispered. "If anything happens . . ."
"I must do this alone. There is no danger for me here."
Thomas did not like it. "I see a courtyard beyond this gate. I will wait there. Be quick, and yell if you need me."
She followed the mountain called Sieg. Doors gave out on either side of a short passage, and she realized that this was a building with a gate cut into its bottom level. They crossed the courtyard and entered a hall set at right angles to the first. She caught the impression of benches and tables as they filed through, turning finally into yet another wing that faced the first across the courtyard. Here a narrow staircase led to a second level.
Sieg opened a door off the top landing and gestured. "You can wait here. Master David be abed, so it might take a while."
She raised a hand to halt him. "I didn't expect to disturb him. I can come another time."
"I was told to wake him when you came."
That was the second time that this man had suggested that they expected her. "I think that you've made a mistake . . ." she began, but Sieg was already out the door.
The solar was quite large, and a low fire burned in the hearth at one end. The furniture appeared as little more than heavy shadows in the moonlight filtering through a bank of pointed arched windows along the far wall. She strolled over to those windows and fingered the rippled glazing and lead tracery. Glass. Lots of it, and very expensive. This Master David had done well over the years selling his cloths and vanities.
It didn't surprise her. She knew that some of the London merchants were as rich as landed lords and that a few had even become lords through their wealth. The mayor of London was always treated like a peer of the realm at important court functions, and the families that supplied the aldermen had a very high status too. London's merchants, with their royal charter of freedoms, were a proud and influential group of men, jealous of their prerogatives and rights. Edward negotiated and consulted with London much as he did with his barons.
Sieg returned and built up the fire. He took a rush and lit several candles on a table nearby before he left. Christiana stayed near the windows, away from the light in her shadowed corner.
A door set in the wall beside the hearth opened, and a man walked through. He paused, looking around the chamber. His eyes found her shadow near the windows, and he walked forward a few steps.
The light from the hearth illuminated him. She took in the tall, lean frame, the golden brown hair, the planes of a handsome face.
Humiliation swept her. They had come to the wrong place!
"My lady?" The voice was a quiet baritone. A beautiful voice. Its very timbre pulled you in and made you want to listen to what it said even if it spoke nonsense.
She searched for the words to form an apology.
"You have something for me?" he encouraged.
Perhaps she could leave without this man knowing just who had made a fool of herself tonight.
"I am sorry. There has been a mistake," she said. "We seem to have come to the wrong house."
"Whom do you seek?"
"Master David the mercer."
"I am he."
"I think it is a different David. I was told that he is . . . older."
"I am David the mercer, and there is no other. If you have brought something for me . . ."
Christiana wanted to disappear. She would kill Idonia! Her kindly old merchant was a man of no more than thirty years.
He had stopped in mid-sentence, and she saw him realize that she was not whom he expected either. He took another few steps toward her. "Perhaps if you would tell me why you seek me . . ."
Young or old, it made no difference. She was here now and she would tell her story. This man would not like playing the fool for the King no matter what his age.
"My name is Christiana Fitzwaryn."
They stood in a long silence broken only by crackle of the new logs on the fire.
"You had only to send word and I would have come to you. In fact, I was told that the Queen would introduce us at the castle tomorrow," he finally said.
She knew then for sure that there had been no mistake.
"I wanted to speak with you privately."
His head tilted back a bit. "Then come and sit yourself, Lady Christiana, and say what you need to say."
Three good-sized chairs stood near the fire, all with backs and arms. Suppressing an instinct to bolt from the room, she took the middle one. It was too big for her, and even when she perched on the edge, her feet dangled. She felt the same way that she had last night with the Queen, like a child waiting to be chastised. She reached up and pushed down the hood of her cloak.
A movement beside her brought David de Abyndon into the chair on her left. He angled it away so that he faced her. Close here, in the glow of the fire, she could see him clearly.
Her eyes fell on expertly crafted brown high boots, and long, well-shaped legs in brown hose. Her gaze drifted up to a beautiful masculine hand, long-fingered and traced with elegant veins, resting on the front edge of the chair's arm. The red wool pourpoint was completely unadorned by embroidery or jewels, and yet, even in the dancing light of the fire, she could tell that the fabric and workmanship were of the best quality and very expensive. She paused a moment, studying the richly carved chair on which he sat and the birds and vines decorating it.
Finally, there was no place else to look but at his face.
Dark blue eyes the color of lapis lazuli examined her as closely as she did him. They seemed friendly enough eyes, even expressive eyes, but she found it disconcerting that she could not interpret the thoughts and reactions in them. What was reflected there? Amusement? Curiosity? Boredom? They were beautifully set under low arched brows, and the bones around them, indeed all of the bones of his face, looked perfectly formed and regularly fitted, as if some master craftsman of great skill had carefully chosen each one and placed it just so. A straight nose led to a straight wide mouth. Golden brown hair, full and a little shorter than this year's fashion, was parted at the center and feathered carelessly over his temples and down his chiseled cheeks and jaw to his shirt collar.
David de Abyndon, warden of the mercers' company and merchant of London, was a very handsome man. Almost beautiful, but a vague hardness around the eyes and mouth kept that from being so.
A shrewd scrutiny veiled his lapis eyes, and she suddenly felt very self-conscious. It had been impolite of her to examine him so obviously, of course, but he was older and should know better than to do the same.
"Don't you want to remove your cloak? It is warm here," that quiet voice asked.
The idea of removing her cloak unaccountably horrified her. She was sure that she would feel naked without it. In fact, she pulled it a bit closer in response.
His faint smile reappeared. It made him appear amiable, but revealed nothing.
She cleared her throat. "I was told that . . . that you were . . ."
"No doubt someone confused me with my dead master and partner, David Constantyn. The business was his before mine."
The silence stretched. He sat there calmly, watching her. She sensed an inexplicable presence emanating from him. The air around him possessed a tension or intensity that she couldn't define. She began to feel very uncomfortable. Then she remembered that she had come here to talk to him and that he was waiting patiently for her to do so.
"I need to speak with you about something very important."
"I am glad to hear it."
She glanced over, startled. "What?"
"I'm glad to hear that it is something important. I would not like to think that you traveled London's streets at night for something frivolous."
He was subtly either scolding her or teasing her. She couldn't tell which.
"I am not alone. A knight awaits in the courtyard," she said pointedly.
"It was kind of him to indulge you."
Not teasing. Scolding.
That annoyed her enough that she collected her thoughts quickly. She was beginning to think that she didn't like this man much. He made her feel very vulnerable. She sensed something proud and aloof in him too, and that annoyed her even further. She had been expecting an elderly man who would treat her with a certain deference because of their difference in degrees. There was absolutely no deference in this man.
"Master David, I have come to ask you to withdraw your offer of marriage."
He glanced to the fire, then his gaze returned to her. One lean, muscular leg crossed the other, and he settled comfortably back in his chair. An unreadable expression appeared in his eyes, and the faint smile formed again.
"Why would I want to do that, my lady?"
He didn't seem the least bit surprised or angry. Perhaps this meeting would go as planned after all.
"Master David, I am sure that you are the good and honorable man that the King assumes. But this offer was accepted without my consent."
He looked at her impassively. "And?"
"And?" she repeated, a little stunned.