The Falcon’s Bride

 

by

 

Dawn Thompson

 

 

Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages

Publisher: Love Spell (August 29, 2006 release)

ISBN: 0505526794

 

 

 

Cashel Cosgrove, County Meath, Ireland, December 1811

                

Chapter One


          Thea Barrington hugged herself for warmth before her bedchamber window.  Outside, unprecedented snow swirled about, falling and lifting, borne upon a fickle wind that hadn’t ceased to blow since she and her entourage arrived in County Meath.  It was a phenomenon seldom seen in the region, which never got more than a dusting usually, so she’d been told.  It had been a harsh and bitter winter at home in England as well that year.  It had even snowed in Cornwall, something that only happened every ten or twenty years.  Was it a sign, an omen of ill boding?  Under the circumstances, it certainly seemed so.

Thea shuddered, pulling her shawl closer about her shoulders.  Not even the blazing hearth fire could warm the turret cubicle, and to think that this cold, inhospitable place was soon to be her home.  How had she ever let them persuade her?

          “Fie, miss,” her abigail said. “Such a Friday face.  Why, you’d think you was headed for a funeral instead o’ a weddin’.”

          “The snow has covered our carriage tracks already,” Thea said, avoiding a direct reply.  “It’s as if the brougham never even passed this way—as if it didn’t exist.  Could it all be a dream, do you think?”

          “A dream, miss?”

          “I wish…”  Thea couldn’t finish the thought.  How could she expect the simple little maid to understand, when she didn’t herself? 

She should be ecstatic.  Nigel Cosgrove, the second son of the third earl of Ridgewood, just home from the Peninsula on half-pay, was the catch of the season.  He was tall, and handsome enough—a blue-eyed Adonis, with hair the color of burnished gold, and a nearly sterling reputation, except for that one unfortunate incident concerning the Covent Garden lightskirt.  But he couldn’t have killed her.  They wouldn’t have acquitted him otherwise...would they?  She pushed that to the back of her mind.  Again.

          “What is it ya’ wish, miss?” the abigail said, jogging her memory.

          “Nothing, Annie, I’m just tired.  It’s been a long journey, and I’d much rather take myself off to bed than face a formal dinner downstairs in that dreadful dining parlor.  Why, it’s so vast, I shall have to shout to make conversation, and if the fire won’t warm this little cell, I shudder to wonder how I will survive the meal down there without my chinchilla fur pelerine.”

          “You’ve got the pre-nuptial jitters, is all,” said Alice. “That’s what my mum calls it.  You’ve got ta go down.  You heard Mr. Cosgrove, her ladyship is anxious ta meet ya’.  Ya’ can’t be disappointin’ his mama.  No doubt she’s wore the cook out preparin’.”

          Well, I’m not all that anxious to meet her, Thea thought ruefully. If her ladyship was so anxious to make her acquaintance, why wasn’t she downstairs to welcome her  when they arrived?  By all accounts, Annabella Cosgrove, Countess Ridgewood, was a termagant of the first order, at least so went the tale.  Why else would she be exiled to such a horrid place, the most distant and desolate of all the earl’s properties, while he languished in Bath, with his mistress in style? 

          Thea almost laughed.  Her family was no better.  Hadn’t her mother cried off from making the journey feigning an attack of pleurisy, and stayed behind on their Cornwall estate?   Hadn’t her viscount father excused himself over “Crown business”, when everyone knew he was keeping a Drewry Lane doxy in Town, and couldn’t bear to miss her Christmas performance?  Oh, he would arrive in time to give the bride away, of course.  In the meanwhile, her brother James, older by one year, an architectural student under the tutelage of John Nash on Christmas recess, had been recruited to serve in his stead for proprieties sake.  This was the last thing James Barrington wanted, smelling of April and May himself, with a girl of his own left to fend for herself in Town over the holidays.  Were all marriages so fractured?  Would hers be the same, with no love to recommend it—at least on her part? She expected so.

          “What say you come away from that window, miss, and let me tuck some ribbons in your hair before ya’ go down?” the maid said, interrupting her thoughts.  They needed interrupting. Thea was becoming positively forlorn. “These pretty blue ones?” the maid chirped on. “They’ll look so fine against your black hair, and they match that frock just perfect.”

          Thea started to turn away from the diamond-shaped panes in their lead fretwork, an obvious addition to apertures that were scarcely wider than arrow slits, when movement below caught her attention.  Someone was walking across the courtyard.  Walking, in such a storm?  It was a woman, her gait more a stagger as she plowed through the heavily mounting snow that had already buried the well manicured grounds. 

Where had she come from?  There was nothing but rolling hills for miles in that desolate stretch, where the River Boyne wound its serpentine way through the valley.  The villages of Drogheda on the east and Slane on the west were each at least five miles distant, so she’d been told.  Even Oldbridge, the nearest hamlet, was a good two miles downstream.

The woman couldn’t have walked from any of them.  Not in such a storm.  The closest structure was the curious burial mound Nigel had pointed out on the way.   Newgrange, called Si An Bhru in the old days, he’d told her, a strange Megalithic passage tomb, where supposedly only once a year on the winter solstice, sunlight shining through the roof box lit up the chambers for seventeen minutes. A curious tourist attraction, but certainly no one lived there.  It had piqued her interest, however, and she made up her mind to be among those who would witness the phenomenon two days hence, weather permitting.  It didn’t seem likely now.

“There’s someone out there,” she said.

“Where, miss?The maid craned her neck for a view through the narrow window.

Thea pointed. “She’s coming here.  Never mind the ribbons, Alice.  I shall go down as I am.”

Without a second thought, Thea made her way below just as the heavy iron ring on the front door banged like thunder on the dented plate beneath it.  The sound echoed along the empty stone passageways.  It ran her through like a javelin.  James met her on the landing, and followed her down to the sound of raised voices funneling up the stairs.

A tall straight-laced butler was standing in the open doorway, his arm across the span barring a ragged looking woman from entering.  Snow making little whorls about his feet dusted his shoes and trousers legs, snapping in the wind.  The woman’s shawl and head scarf were caked white with it suggesting that she had been out in the storm for some time.

“Well, you cannot come in here, madam!” the butler said, opposing the woman who was pushing on the door from the other side. “Be off with ye’!  We don’t take in Gypsies.  Be off, I say!   Or I’ll call the lackeys to put ye’ off.”

“It’s not charity I’m beggin’,” the woman shouted over the wail of the wind. “Just ta warm me weary bones by your fire, and speak me piece.  There’s one inside who needs me…”

“None here needs the likes o’ you!” the butler assured her.  He seemed to be trying not to hurt her, but he was clearly out of patience.

Thea gasped, pattering toward the commotion.

“What the deuce?” her brother muttered sprinting along behind.

They had reached the Great Hall below, flooded now with others drawn there by the din, her fiancé among them.

“What seems to be the difficulty, Regis?Nigel Cosgrove said, his tall form alongside the vexed butler blocking Thea’s view.  She crept closer for a better look at the woman still begging admittance.

“This person, sir,” said the butler. “She refuses to leave.”

“My man has told you to depart,” Cosgrove said. “We do not admit your kind, and even if we did it would never be by way of the front door.  Be off, unless you’d rather I summon the guards from the Watch at Drogheda.”

Struggling with the wind in the doorway, he tried to close the door in the woman’s face, but the wind was too strong of a sudden.  The heavy gusts slamming against it seemed to have risen out of nowhere, and Thea stifled a gasp, laying a gentle hand upon her betrothed’s bottle green superfine coat sleeve.

“Nigel, please, she’s nearly frozen stiff!” she said, drawing his eyes. “What harm to let her warm herself beside the fire for a bit before she moves on?”

 “And have her rob us blind for our pains?” he said, incredulous.  “You do not know these Tinkers, my pet.  Like as not, the rest of her band lies in wait close by.  You have one in and you have the lot on your hands.  She knows the rules.  Bold as brass, these cheeky thieving Gypsies, bigod.”  The last was spoken through clenched teeth, as he wrestled with the heavy door and the woman’s remarkable strength.

“For me…?Thea persisted. “She’s old, and I see no others about.  How shall she best you—a poor frail shadow of a creature against a man of your stature, not to mention the servants at your command?  You could handle any situation that might arise in a trice.  Please, Nigel, ‘tis Christmastide.”

Nigel stared down at her, his face a study in exasperation.  The faint laugh lines that punctuated his thin lips deepened in a frown that took in his eyes as well, darkening the clear, sapphire blue to cold slate.

          “This is not England, Thea,” he said as though he were speaking to a child. That he was restraining himself was clearly evident.  He had a temper.  She’d seen it in action, but never directed at her.  Was she testing the waters, or tempting fate?  He didn’t give her the chance to decide.  “These creatures are like locusts,” he went on. “They swarm over the land, picking it clean as they go.  They know their place, but they stray from it with no compunction whatsoever, and it is up to us, their betters, to keep them in it.  You have only just arrived, puss.  You are not yet accustomed to our Irish ways.  You would do well not to interfere.”

          “I do not think any of that has one thing to do with Christian charity,” said Thea, defiant.  “That and that alone is my concern.  One would not turn a dog out on such a night.  Besides…I’ve heard tell that it’s bad luck to turn a Gypsy away without a token.”

          Nigel rolled his eyes.  He’d given over fighting with the heavy old door and the woman in the way.  Regis and several liveried footmen had come forward and laid hands upon her.

          “Please…for me?Thea said sweetly, hugging herself and dancing in place.  The biting wind was raw and bitter, tearing through the twilled silk frock that bared her arms and décolleté.  Already a dusting of white had blown through the open door spilling over the sill.  She had been cold before, but now she was fairly numb.

          Nigel glowered, spoiling his handsome face. “Very well,” he said, with a dramatic, arm-sweeping bow from the waist.  Waving the servants off, he said to the Gypsy, “Go ‘round to the servant’s entrance in back.  Regis, tell Cook to see she’s warmed and given bread and broth before she continues on her way.”  The last was said, while dosing the woman with a meaningful glare.  She turned with a nod, but Thea’s hand shot out and gripped her bony arm through the snow-caked shawl.

          “Through those drifts?” she said to her betrothed. “They are knee deep!” then to the woman, as she pulled her over the threshold extracting a collective gasp from the gathering. “Don’t be afraid, go with Regis.  He will see you’re cared for, won’t you, Regis?”

          The butler’s jaw dropped.  The Gypsy stared at her long and hard, her wrinkled lips twitching, her long gray hair straggling out from beneath the snow covered head scarf.  Thea took a chill not bred of the frosty night, staring into eyes that resembled a raven’s—small, shiny, and black.  They shone with approval.

          “I’m not the one who needs ta be afraid,” the woman said with a sly wink, her voice like gravel.  “’Tis you that needs ta hear me words, young miss.  Tis you I’ve come ta warn…”  She slid her hooded eyes the length of Nigel Cosgrove, standing arms-akimbo, the toe of his polished Hessian boot tapping the rhythm of his annoyance on the terrazzo underfoot.

          “That will be quite enough!” he said, slamming the door with a crack that echoed.  It had suddenly become quite manageable.  Dosing it, and then Thea with a withering glance, as if the whole unfortunate business were her fault, he took hold of the Gypsy and steered her toward the flabbergasted butler. “Deal with this at once, and have done!” he charged.  “My fiancée evidently has a soft spot in her heart for strays.  I am not so disposed.”

          The woman dug in her heels. “Not before I speak me piece!” she said.  “And there’s no need ta cross me palm with coin o’ the realm for it, neither…but it ain’t for the like o’ the rest o’ you lot, what I’ve got ta say …”  Wrenching free, she staggered back, cupped her wrinkled hands around her mouth, and whispered in Thea’s ear.

          The Gypsy’s breath was hot and foul, smelling of garlic, and the ghost of strong ale. Thea shuddered as it puffed against her skin, and at the words themselves.  The blood drained away from her hot cheeks, and she scarcely breathed. The only sound then was the thumping of her heart, and the wail of the wind outside, plaintive and forlorn, like a woman sobbing her sorrows in the night.

          The Gypsy had scarcely stopped speaking, when Nigel seized her arm, none too gently, and remanded her to the reluctant butler’s custody.

          “See her fed and send her off!” he gritted through clenched teeth, “before I change my mind entirely.  My patience is at low ebb, I warn you—one and all.”

          “Remember what I’ve told ya,” the woman said, as Regis led her away. Ya’ heed me words, young miss…”  She said more, but they were out of range, and Thea turned back to the others, perplexed.  While she didn’t understand the woman’s message, the urgency in its delivery was crystal clear.

          “So this is Theodosia,” a high-pitched female voice shrilled over the discordant murmur leaking from the servants gathered around.  The speaker stilled them with a hand gesture. 

          Nigel took a firm hold of Thea’s arm, his anger palpable.

          She sketched a curtsy. “Yes, my lady,” she said, “but I prefer to be called ‘Thea’, if you please.”

          Ummm,” said the countess, “how common.  Well, I do not please.  I shall address you as ‘Theodosia’. It is a fine name—a respectable name.  No need to cheapen it with a sobriquet.Then to Nigel as if she weren’t there, “She needs taking in hand.  She is not mistress of Cashel Cosgrove yet, m’boy.  See to it.  Now then!  If we are finished with theatrics for the moment, our supper grows cold.”

          The countess turned, jutting her elbow for Nigel to latch onto and lead her into the dining hall.  He obliged, and James, silent throughout the strange occurrence, seized Thea’s arm and inclined his dark head close.

          “Steady on, little sister,” he said in a stage whisper as they followed along behind. “Your cheeks are positively crimson.  Don’t let the old peahen get your goat.”

          “So much for good first impressions,” Thea said dourly. “She’s dreadful, isn’t she?”

          “Quite so, but you will charm her.”

          “I don’t think I want to, James.”

          “Stuff!  You’re not marrying the countess, Thea.  It’s Nigel that matters, and the chap’s quite smitten.”

          Smitten, yes, but not bowled over, Thea thought, monitoring Nigel’s bearing.  Granted, she’d overreached herself, but he hadn’t defended her in a gentlemanly fashion.  Instead, he had berated her before the servants—before his mother.  She glanced behind.  Regis and the Gypsy had disappeared in the shadows, and she drew a ragged breath feeling very alone all of a sudden. Even her brother was inclined to side with her betrothed. It did not bode well.

          “What was all that back there?James said, calling her back to the present.  “What set you off like that?  Surely you realize you were way out of line.”

          “I…I don’t know,” Thea admitted. “It seemed so heartless to evict the poor creature in such a storm.  That would never be the case at home.  I am not liking Ireland, James.” 

          Taradiddle!  You’ll get used to it.  Tis the winter that’s put you off; it’s heavenly in these parts in spring and summer.  The land hereabout is wild and beautiful then.  The hunting is top notch.  Edgar Farbershire bagged two awesome stags in the wood south of Drogheda last season—and the fox hunting! I shall be your perpetual gentleman guest, sister dear.”

          “Nigel stands to inherit Cashel Cosgrove,” Thea went on, scarcely having heard. “He means for us to live here meanwhile…”

          “Have you talked to him about your misgivings?James said, clouding.

          “I don’t know as I have misgivings exactly.  It’s just that…Oh, I know, he is the catch of the season amongst the crop of second sons in the offing.  He’s from one of the richest families in the ton, he’s handsome—everything a girl could want in a husband, but…”

“But you aren’t in love with him, is that it?”       

          “Father says that will come in time, you know how he wants this match.  The Cosgroves’ are high in the instep.  He means to tap that resource.  And Mother!  She has visions of following the drum, as it were, of coercing Father into buying a property hereabout, and setting up housekeeping as far from his doxy as she can range herself.  She thinks that will end the affair.  No!  I shan’t go into Mother.”

          “What’s come over you?James said, studying her.  How clear and violet his eyes were.  Were hers really as bright?  She hoped so.  Everyone always praised them, but Divine Providence had a way of favoring the male of the species before the female when it came to looks, and she’d always thought him handsome, and herself drab by comparison.

“Nothing,” she lied.  His look told her she hadn’t gotten away with it, and she sighed.  “All right,” she said. She had never been able to flummox him. “He could be more attentive, James, and I didn’t care for the way he embarrassed me in company just now.”

He laughed. “Is that all?  I was set to take you to task myself, and would have done if he hadn’t.  That independent streak of yours is legendary, sister dear.  It was refreshing when we were young, but we are not children now, and these are not accustomed to such…outspokenness in a young lady of quality.  All Irish aren’t bog-stomping muck savages.  The Irish aristocracy strives more diligently than we English to rise above a negative image. You needs must behave unless you fancy putting on your caps.  You’re one and twenty after all. You’ve had two seasons with no takers.  Is that because you are choosy to a fault?  Have you set your standards too high?  You’ll never convince me that you’ve been passed over because of your looks.”  Avoiding his gaze, Thea didn’t answer. “Well,” he went on, clearing his voice, “you aren’t likely to do better than Nigel Cosgrove now and everybody benefits.  You ought to thank your lucky stars that Father interceded. You were well on your way to becoming a proper spinster.” 

Thea supposed so, though she didn’t say it. James wouldn’t understand.  He was a man after all.  Men looked at such things differently.  Besides, how could she tell him that, while she longed for a man who would reverence and cherish her, she secretly fantasized giving her virtue to a man possessed of lusty passions that would awaken her own, like the heroes in the scandalous novels and poems she wasn’t supposed to be reading?  The gentlemen she’d met during her two failed Seasons either showed promise in one of those areas or the other, never both.  Nigel had come close to her hearts desire at home, when he was courting her and on his best behavior, but now…

They had nearly reached the dining hall, and the mere thought of sitting at table with the countess now was having its way with her resolve.  The way Nigel danced attendance—albeit with disdain—to his mother was nauseating.  He reminded her  of a trained bear she’d once seen at Astley’s Amphitheare, dancing along obedient as you please at the end of its chain with the slightest tug, but a dangerous killer once shot of it.  It was clear who ruled the roost.  He obviously resented it. Was this why he was so insufferable with everyone else?  She shuddered.

“You’re trembling,” James said. “You took a dreadful chill back there.  Shall I go up and fetch your shawl?”

“No, no, it’s just that…I do not relish facing the countess after…you know....”

Ummm, can’t say as I blame you, but it must be done. Enough now!  Bear up! You’ve got some serious fences to mend, my girl.”

“You’re a good brother, and a capital friend, James Barrington,” she murmured, squeezing his arm.

“And well I know it,” he said with a wink, before clouding suddenly. “Look here, what did that blasted Gypsy say to you?” he said. “You went absolutely white—like you’ve just done now.”

The dining hall arch loomed larger than life before her, and there wouldn’t have been time to tell it even if she were willing.   Instead, she laid a finger over her lips and put on her bravest face as he handed her over the threshold. 

The Gypsy’s cryptic message would have to wait.  She was still trying to sort it out herself.  She’d sensed something untoward the minute she saw the woman trudging through the snow from her chamber window, and the chill that riddled her now had nothing to do with the cold in the drafty old castle.

          “Never mind,” her brother agreed. “’Tisn’t important, it’s over.  You’ll never see the odious old crone again.”

          Entering into the drafty dining hall on her brother’s arm, Thea didn’t believe that for an instant.

 

 

 

 

 

© Dawn Thompson
All Rights Reserved
no portion may be used without
written permission

 

October 22, 2006

 

 

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