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An Abridged Excerpt From


Set in Restoration England

Sitting beside his mother, six-year-old William Longbourne grinned at the brawny waterman guiding their vessel along the Thames. "My mama and I are going to see the king!" he declared proudly.

Elissa sighed with exasperation. "Will, please keep silent and sit still!" she admonished, wishing she could temper his excitement until they safely reached the shore. As it was, he kept fidgeting and rocking the boat.

"I can see why the king'd want to meet your ma," the waterman observed, licking his lips as he leered at Elissa.

She tried to ignore the impertinent lout while keeping one eye on Will and studying the massive structures lining the river.

Mighty buildings dominated the north bank, each one seeming to demand homage to its magnificence and to render human beings insignificant. Behind these imposing edificies, a haze of coal smoke rose from the multitude of houses, as well as the industries that lay cheek-by-jowl among them.

She wondered what King Charles, restored to his throne at last, thought of the choking air or the filthy river. Perhaps he was too busy summoning busy widows with estates to manage to notice.

"You keep your weather eye open when ye're on the river, me lad," the churl said, "and you might see the king sooner than you think. He's often on the Thames, comin' and goin'."

"He is?" Will asked, looking around as if he expected to see His Majesty's boat drawing up alongside even as he spoke. "Coming and going where?"

"Ye're too young to know that," the man replied with a chortle before he hawked and spat into the river.

"Oh, look! Look!" Will cried suddenly, rising from his seat and pointing. "There he is! There is the king!"

He started to wave frantically, leaning precariously over the gunwale. "Your Majesty! Your Majesty!"

Flinging the edge of her cloak out of the way, Elissa lunged for Will before he fell over the side of the boat. She caught his jacket and pulled him backward.

"Keep him still or he'll be at the bottom of the river," the waterman muttered angrily as he steadied the vessel.

"Are you sure that's not the king?" Will asked, nodding at a boat that was moving toward them from a short distance away.

In that vessel there was indeed a most magnificently attired man. He was clad in a short jacket and full breeches of brilliant blue trimmed with riotous and colorful embroidery. He also wore a white shirt with a large, lacy jabot and long cuffs, and he sported a hat with the biggest, whitest plume Elissa had ever seen. Beneath the hat was long, curling hair - a wig, no doubt - as well as a rotund, decidedly average male face unencumbered by a mustache.

Despite his fine and costly attire, if he had no mustache, he could not be the king.

Beside this fashionable vision was another man, dressed all in black like a Puritan, with a plain hat and natural black hair that brushed his broad shoulders. This man sat with astonishing aplomb in the rocking boat, seemingly oblivious to the smells and sights around him, or to whatever his more animated companion was saying.

As they drew closer, Elissa also realized the simply dressed man was one of the most handsome she had ever seen, with a fine nose and strong, clean-shaven chin. Unlike the other fellow, there was shrewd intelligence in his dark, inscrutable eyes and a set to his jaw that told her that it would be risky to trifle with him.

Then the other vessel passed them, and her gaze met that of the arrogant man wearing black.

Elissa's heart began to beat strangely, and her body warmed as if this man she had never seen before was touching her. Intimately.

She had not felt this way since William Longbourne had started courting her seven years ago.

No, she silently amended, I have never felt this way before - and I should not be feeling this way now.

She was a respectable widow, not some...some hussy to be pleased by the smiles of strangers, no matter how handsome or intriguing they were, or how long it had been since she had been with a man.

With a bone-jarring bump, the waterman brought his vessel beside the slick, damp water stairs leading up a wharf. He then put his fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle.

"That'll bring soembody to take your baggage, mistress," he explained, nodding at the small, leather-covered, bossed box at Elissa's feet.

The rest of her baggage was being brought to her lawyer's home by one of her farm laborers, for Mr. Harding has graciously invited them to stay with him while they were in London.

Mr. Harding had also offered to accompany Elissa to Whitehall, in case the reason for the king's summons was what she feared.

"That will not be necessary," Elissa replied even as she noticed another set of stairs several yards away. The boat with the fashionable man and his handsome companion was putting in there.

The waterman ignored her and called to one of the men on the stairs, a tall, thin fellow who looked as if he hadn't washed since birth. "Oy, Mick! Take the fine lady's box here!"

The waterman lifted the box and shoved it into Mick's outstretched hands. Immediately, the dirty, ragged fellow turned and dashed up the steps.

With a cry of alarm, Elissa helped her son out of the boat, then took his hand and hurried up the stairs as fast as the crowd would let her. Panting, she looked around the unfamiliar, cluttered, and crowded street.

Nearby a fruit seller with a basket of oranges slung over his arm stood with a bevy of haggling women.

A group of well-to-do men discussing the price of candle wax marched past, while a collection of rough-looking seamen argued outside a tavern. Horse-drawn carts jostled for position as they rumbled along the cobbled street. Stray dogs barked and ran about underfoot, and the fishy, filthy smell of the Thames merged with coal smoke, offal, and perfume.

There wasn't a sign of Mick.

"Madam, do you require some assistance?"

At the sound of the aristocratic male voice, Elissa eagerly turned around - to find not the black-clad man and his overdressed companion, but another fellow, tilting rather oddly to one side and wearing garments of dark green velvet, as well as red-heeled shoes and a feathered, broad-brimmed hat. The explanation for the unusual angle of his stance came to her when she saw the wineskin he was attempting to hide behind his back.

Obviously accompanying him were two other men, similarly well dressed in petticoat breeches, short jackets, plumed hats, and curling wigs, and similarly smiling with every appearance of kind, if somewhat sodden, concern.

Yet when she looked at them closely, she saw the waterman's leer.

"No, we do not require any assistance," she replied, pulling Will closer.

"Oh, you cannot mean that," the first man said, stepping uncomfortably close to her. His wine-soaked breath made her want to gag. "You must allow us to help you. Otherwise, who knows what might happen to such a beauty in this wicked place?"

His friends likewise staggered closer.

"I thank you, but my son and I do not require any assistance," she repeated defiantly.

The man in green chuckled, and it was a decidedly unpleasant sound. "Gad, every woman requires a man now and then," he slurred, stepping closer.

What can I do? Elissa thought with something close to panic.

"To quote from the play I saw last week," the man in green murmured slyly, "'a flower blooms unexpectedly among the refuse and who shall pluck it out?'"

"Zounds, Sedley, if you must quote me, have the goodness to get it right," a deep, sardonic masculine voice declared nearby.

As if in answer to her silent prayer for help, the man wearing black from the other boat shoved his way past the fruit seller and his customers. He sauntered toward them, his sword drawn, yet held loosely in his hand as if he intended to do nothing more serious than clean his nails with it.

His round-faced colleague came bustling along behind him, smiling and nodding as if this were a meeting at a ball or something equally innocuous.

"'A rose blooms in the rubbish' is the proper line," the stranger from the boat continued, speaking to the man he had addressed as Sedley, "and I never said anything so crude as 'pluck it out.'"

He bowed toward Elissa, then turned toward Sedley's besotted companions. "Good day, Lord Buckhurst."

One of the other men grinned drunkenly and waved his mouchoir. The flimsy, perfumed square of linen fluttered about as if he were trying to wave away a pesky insect.

"And good day to you, too, Jermyn," the black-clad man continued. "Is my Lady Castlemaine out of sorts with you again, that you must accost women in the streets?"

"Odd's fish, 'tis the cavalier playwright himself," Jermyn replied with a sneer.

Elissa's eyes widened as she regarded her sardonic savior.

"You write plays?" Will asked with all the disappointed scorn a six-year-old could muster. "I thought you were going to fight him."

The cavalier playwright looked down at Will. "I am sorry to disappoint you, but there must not be duel." He raised his voice and spoke with apparent gravity. "These fine fellows are friends of the king, you see, and so must be treated with the utmost respect."

Elissa thought it was a good thing these alleged friends of the king could not see the wry mockery in the playwright's eyes.

The man dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whipser. "They are so drunk, it would hardly be fair."

The playwrither's round-faced friend grinned, his expression as delighted as if he, too, were six years old. "I assure you, my boy, this is quite the finest swordsman you're ever likely to meet. Truly, for him to fight them in their present state of inebriation would be most unchivalrous."

Wide-eyed with childish awe, Will nodded, looking at the cavalier, whose lips twisted up into a small - very small - smile.

"Yes, well, we must be on our way," Elissa said, trying to sound firm and decisive even though her heart pounded and her legs felt weak.

He swept his hat from his head and bowed elegantly. "I am Sir Richard Blythe. Your servant, madam."

His friend likewise pulled his hat from his head and attempted a gallant bow, only to drag his pristine plume through the muck in the street.

"Lord Cheddersby, at your service," he stammered as he straightened. Then he stared at his ruined headwear in dismay, his stunned expression eliciting a giggle from Will.

"Good day, gentlemen," she said, lifting her petticoat, overskirt and cloak up out of the dirt, preparing to leave.

"Haven't you heard of Sir Richard Blythe?" Lord Cheddersby demanded incredulously.

"Yes, I have."

Indeed, she knew all about Sir Richard Blythe. She had heard of his plays, with their sharp-tongued wives and supposedly clever mistresses, and their plots of adultery and deception.

"Good day, gentlemen," she repeated as she resolutely marched away.

* * *

A slightly breathless Fozbury Cheddersby came to stand beside Richard. He sighed rapturously. "Wasn't she beautiful?"

"Beautiful enough to have captured your fancy, I see," Richard replied coolly as he started to walk toward their original destination, Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre.

The shorter-legged Foz trotted to keep up with him. "Don't you think she's beautiful?"

"I seek something beyond pleasing features to determine whether a woman is truly beautiful."

And if this woman seemed to possess that something composed of spirit and intelligence and determination that made her worthy of his admiration, Richard would never say so to Foz.

Indeed, if he did, the information would likely throw poor old Foz into a spasm of shock.

"Do you suppose she's married?"

"Since she has a child with her who resembles her and a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand, we can assume she is."

"She could be a widow," Foz offered hopefully.

Richard halted. "Foz, if you are fascinated by that female, I suggest you refrain from pointing out such possibilities to potential rivals. Fortunately I have other, more important things with which to occupy my time. My new play is starting in less than an hour, and I have an audience with the king after that."

"Are you worried about what the king wants with you?"

"No," Richard lied. "I daresay he merely wishes me to compose an ode praising the latest woman to catch his fancy."

"It could be about your estate."

"If I thought that every time His Majesty summoned me to Whitehall, I would be prostrate with despair by now. He has had plenty of time to restore my property to me, and has not."

"You know why he cannot," Foz said, starting to pant. "It was sold by your uncle - quite legally, at the time. If Charles returns your estate to you as a reward for your faithful service in exile, he will have to compensate the new owner, and then other dispossessed noblemen will demand the same. The king cannot afford it."

"I want only what is rightfully mine. Blythe Hall and the land around it has been in my family for six hundred years. My uncles was able to sell it only because I was serving the king. Otherwise, I would have been able to prevent him from doing so."

"Perhaps Charles has persuaded the new owners to sell it to you," Foz suggested.

"I cannot afford to pay even a fraction of what it's worth."

"You could if you let me -"

"No, Foz."

"A mortgage - "

"I don't make that much from my writing."

"There would be the income from the estate."

Richard sniffed. "I imagine it's down to a pittance. The man who bought it died a few years ago and left it to his widow. An old woman can't run an estate properly."

"No, no, of course not," Foz agreed. He cocked his head to one side, reminding Richard of an inquisitive chicken. "Are you going to change before you go to Whitehall?"

"I see nothing wrong with my attire. Black suits me." "It looks as if you haven't bought new clothse since you got back from France," Foz muttered.

"But I do have quite the finest baldric you've ever seen, have I not?"

"You do," Foz agreed with a return to his customary good humor and an admiring glance at the finely worked leather swotd belt slung across Richard's broad chest. Indeed, it was a baldric any man would covet, as well as the excellent sword - and the skill with which Sir Richard Blythe wielded it.

For among King Charles's courtiers, Sir Richard Blythe was famous for many things, and writing was but one of them.

This is the second book in Margaret's Restoration series.
All are available in ebook format.

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