The short story below takes place a few years before events in Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, when Rob Jaffrey is just starting his studies at Cambridge and Rosamond Appleton, at sixteen, is being educated by her foster mother, Lady Appleton, at Leigh Abbey in Kent.

 

 

 

 

Any Means Short of Murder

(a short story featuring Rosamond Appleton and Rob Jaffrey)

 

                                                                                                                         by                                                             

 

Kathy Lynn Emerson

© 2009

originally published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

 

 

 

England, 1579

 

       “The aim is to send the ball into the opponent’s goal by any means short of murder,” Bancroft said, slinging an arm around Rob Jaffrey’s shoulders.

       “Aye,” Needham agreed. “The honor of Cambridge is at stake. We cannot let the townsmen of Chesterton defeat us.”

       “But there must be rules,” Rob objected. “Every game has rules.”

       In company with more than two dozen other young scholars from the university, the three of them swaggered along the Huntingdon Way. The frost-hardened land, some of it still covered in white from recent heavy snowfalls, was almost level. Rob had a clear view of the open fields and fenlands ahead and of the village itself near the river. He’d been told it contained fewer than a hundred hearths, but every man, woman, and child seemed to have turned out for the football match. Most waited at a distance, bundled in woolen cloaks against the cold, but a few had ventured ahead to gawk at the competition.

       “There are no rules,” Bancroft said. “When the first team reaches the goal, the game ends.”

       “That one is ours—the gravel pit by the castle.” Needham pointed to an ancient structure in the distance, then swung around to gesture the other way. “They will be trying for that stand of trees on the road to Histon.”

       The two points were widely separated—more than a mile apart. “Do you mean to say that our players will have to take the ball straight through the village?”

       At Rob’s look of consternation, Needham grinned. “Have no fear. The good folk of Chesterton will have prudently barricaded their houses and shops.”

       “They’d have done better to lock up their daughters,” Bancroft muttered.

       Rob followed his gaze to a small group of villagers standing by the roadside. Among them were several pretty young women, one of them great with child. She stared back at him before turning to whisper to her companions. Rob had a feeling her comments were not complimentary.

       Needham guffawed. “About to whelp, that one is. She’ll not be playing today.”

       “Do you mean to say that the women join in?” Rob could not hide his astonishment. There were no football matches between parishes in the part of Kent where he’d been raised, but he could well imagine that if there were, his sisters and Rosamond and the other girls in Lady Appleton’s care at Leigh Abbey would clamor to participate. Rosamond in particular did not like to be left out of anything.

       “Not here,” Needham said, “but I have heard they do so in some of the northern parishes. I vow I’d like to see that. Where we throw off our gowns and doublets at the start of a match, I warrant females would be wont to dispense with petticoats and kilt up their skirts, as well!”

       They’d reached the crowd of villagers now. One man produced the ball, a bladder covered with leather. He identified himself as Thomas Prescott, the village constable. He duly warned one and all against the use of excessive violence but he accompanied the words with a knowing wink.

       Rob expected the game to be vicious. He knew that repeated kicks to his shins would likely make it difficult for him to walk the next day. He’d be exhausted, too. The midday sun was high above them now, but his fellows had warned that it might well be dark before anyone achieved victory. Still, it did not appear that more than brute strength and determination were needed to win and he had both in abundance.

       In the last year Rob had grown into his feet. He was tall for his age and brawny and there was little that frightened him. He’d earned the right to matriculate at Cambridge with scholarship. Now he meant to secure the good will of his fellow students by a show of physical prowess.

       Prescott threw the ball high. As it fell, both teams scrambled for possession. Long minutes passed before it reappeared from beneath the writhing mass of bodies. Cambridge had possession.

       Rob lost all track of time after that. He was soon covered in mud and snow, his clothes dripping. His leather-soled shoes slipped repeatedly on the icy, uneven ground. He lost count of the number of times he was kicked.

       None of the aches or pains or bruises mattered when Cambridge players entered the high street of Chesterton. Rob was dimly aware of passing a church and a manor house, but his attention was fixed on the castle ahead. He could almost taste victory. It would be celebrated with loud hurrahs and guns firing, or so Needham and Bancroft had assured him. Both were still beside him. The three of them had bowled over countless opposing players, clearing the way for the Cambridge man with the ball.

       Without warning, several Chesterton men slipped out of a side street and came at them from behind. No rules, Rob remembered, and turned to meet the ambush with gleeful enthusiasm. The excitement of impending victory made him cocky. Too late, he saw that one of the newcomers wielded a cudgel.

       The first blow struck the side of Rob’s head, felling him. He was conscious long enough to know that his two friends had also been attacked. Then more blows landed, from both fists and solid English oak, and blackness descended upon him.

 

* * *

 

       “Because I do not want to!”

       The voice was petulant, annoyed, and very familiar. Rosamond, the light of Rob’s life and the bane of his existence. He’d adored her ever since she’d come to Leigh Abbey as a child to be fostered by Lady Appleton.

       He tried to turn his head toward her but a shaft of pain forced him to lie still. He thought about opening his eyes but decided that required too much effort. It hurt to think, too, but he forced himself. If Rosamond was nearby, he must be home, but that wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He’d been at Cambridge. Hadn’t he?

       Struggling to recall made the throbbing in his head worse, but a glimmer of a memory came to him. “Who won the match?” he asked in a voice that sounded rusty with disuse. Then he sank into unconsciousness once more.

 

* * *

 

       The next time he woke, things were clearer and much less painful. He was at Leigh Abbey, and the room—a sumptuous bedchamber once occupied by Lady Appleton’s titled sister-in-law—was full of familiar faces. His mother, Jennet Jaffrey, Lady Appleton’s housekeeper and long-time friend, hovered near the head of the bed. Lady Appleton herself was busy at a table with mortar and pestle. She was an expert herbalist. No matter how bad her elixirs might taste or smell, Rob would trust her knowledge over that of any physician in the land. And there, standing by the window, was Rosamond.

       As if she felt his eyes upon her, she turned his way, a scowl marring her otherwise pleasant features. “He’s awake.”

       “Oh, my poor, dear boy,” his mother murmured, taking his hand. “You have been sore injured.”

       “We feared for your life,” Lady Appleton informed him in her brusque, no-nonsense way. “It is good to have you back.”

       Rosamond said nothing, nor did she come near. It was not until much later, after the two older women had left the chamber, that she spoke to him.

       “Fool!”

       “Good day to you, too, Mistress Rosamond.”

       “What were you thinking to take part in such a fray?”

       “It is a game, Rosamond. My injury was an accident.” In truth, he did not remember being hurt. He could not even recall playing in the match. The last clear memory he had was of walking toward Chesterton.

       “Indeed, it was not. You were set upon by louts from the town. They almost killed you.”

       “Bancroft? Needham?”

       “Your friends? Better off than you!” She’d reached his bedside now and stood with hands on hips to glare down at him. “They yelled for help and ran off the ruffians who did this to you, for all the good it would have done had you died.”

       “Well, I did not.” He felt as peevish as she sounded. “How did I come to be here.”

       “We brought you by cart. Insensible.” Of a sudden, she burst into tears.

       Rob gaped at her. Rosamond did not cry. She ranted. She raved. She even screamed sometimes. He did not think he had ever seen her weep.

       “You have been lying here for nigh unto two months, Rob Jaffrey. We began to despair that you would ever wake.”

       “Two months!” No wonder he felt weak! He looked down at himself. He was naught but skin and bones. They’d forced liquids down his throat, he supposed, enough to keep him alive.

       He tried to sit up. His head spun, but he managed . . . after Rosamond came to his assistance. She smelled sweet. Gillyflowers, he thought. If two months had passed, it must be spring.

       The football match had been played on Shrove Tuesday, the traditional time for festivities—feasts, masques, cockfights, and football matches—before the beginning of Lent. This year it had fallen on the third day of March. It must be May now.

       He looked past Rosamond’s shoulder and through the window. “Why is there still snow on the ground?”

       His mother, returning with a bowl of thick broth, overheard the question. Rosamond quickly stepped aside to let her through. The rich aromas of onions and stewed beef made his mouth water.

       “It has been a year of omens,” Jennet Jaffrey muttered, spooning the first portion into his mouth. “Signs and portents.”

       He swallowed ambrosia. “What signs and portents?”

       “You must have seen some of them for yourself, even at Cambridge.” Another spoonful prevented any reply. “There was a solar eclipse. Most frightening it was. And before that, the Thames flooded. Back in February that was. They say fishes were left behind on the floor of Westminster Hall by the flood waters. Then the very next night, there was an eclipse of the moon and then a four-day snowfall that left deep drifts throughout the land. Many people and cattle were lost.”

       “I recall a storm a week or two before Shrovetide, but that cannot be the same snow still on the ground.” He gestured toward the window, wincing when sudden pain lanced through his arm and ribs.

       “Indeed it is not.” Jennet pressed another portion of broth upon him. “That fell but two days ago. Most unnatural it was. A five hour fall that left snow a foot deep from here to London.”

       “Mayhap it is a good omen.” Rob quickly pressed his lips together, lest he eat too much and become ill.

       Jennet sniffed back tears. There were more lines than he remembered in her face. Had worry over him done that to her? Rob reached out and patted  her hand. “I am better now, Mother. Soon I will be completely well.”

       “You were sore hurt,” she whispered, setting the bowl of broth aside to free the other hand to brush a lock of hair off his brow. “Your head was broken and bones, as well. Bringing you here was a risk in itself, but the physician who tended you in Cambridge had already given you up for dead.”

       “I do not remember what happened.”

       “Just as well.”

       “It isn’t unusual for fights to break out during football matches.”           

       “The game should be banned! Let young men take up archery instead, which may at least be used for the defense of the realm.”

       “The Vice Chancellor has restricted future play to university grounds,” Rosamond put in. “Your mother thinks he should have forbidden such sports entirely.”

       “It is scarce the game’s fault!”

       “Then why were you set upon? You had never been in Chesterton before.”

       Rob’s head began to pound again. He sank back against the bolster and closed his eyes. “I have no notion, Mother. Perhaps you are right and the eclipse was to blame.”

 

* * *

 

       In succeeding days, Rob slowly regained his strength. Daily visits from his mother, his father—Mark Jaffrey, steward at Leigh Abbey—and Rosamond helped. Especially Rosamond.

       She was the only one who wanted to know about his time at Cambridge before the match. He’d entered Christ’s College the previous Michaelmas as a sizar, the lowest of the scholars, performing menial tasks like bed making, chamber sweeping, water carrying, and serving at table in return for his tuition, room, and board. He had been glad to exchange work for the chance to study. It was not every day that the son of two servants had such an opportunity.

       “I am envious,” Rosamond declared.

       “You’d hate sweeping chambers!”

       She stuck her tongue out at him. Sitting tailor-fashion on the foot of his bed, her skirts tucked under her knees, Rob thought she was the best medicine he could have had.  When she was with him, he forgot his remaining aches and pains.

       But something was troubling her. He could see it in her face when she left off teasing him. He thought she might voluntarily unburden herself, but for once she seemed intent on putting him first. She so skillfully deflected any question that touched on her problems that days passed before Rob realized what she was doing.

       Finally, he’d had enough of her selflessness. “What is it you do not want to do?”

       She heaved a deep sigh that thrust her bosom forward. Rob had to force himself to focus on her words.

       “My mother and step-father have selected a husband for me.”

       Ice gripped Rob’s vitals. He did not want to imagine Rosamond married. “Who?”

       “His name scarce matters. He is wealthy and heir to a title.”

       “Have you taken a dislike to him?”

       “I have not met him, nor do I intend to.”

       He breathed again. “Then why so gloomy?”

       “They will not stop. I have reminded them that I must agree to any marriage and told them that I do not, but they persist in sending letters. Before you know it, they will descend upon me in person. They will not let me be.”

       “Lady Appleton told you years ago that you could not be forced to wed.”

       Rob knew most of the story. Rosamond was a merrybegot, the illegitimate daughter of Lady Appleton’s late husband, Sir Robert, after whom Rob himself had been named. Lady Appleton had never held that against her. In fact, Rosamond was Lady Appleton’s heir. Furthermore, when she married, she would come into a small fortune set aside from her father’s estate.

       “It is all very well to say I will not wed,” Rosamond grumbled, “but as long as no one believes me they will keep at me to fall in with their plans. I am tired of the lectures on my duties as a daughter. They’ll not stop. They will only get worse.” A calculating look came into her eyes. “Unless . . . .”

 

* * *

 

       “Are you sure about this, Rosamond?”

       Rob had doubts enough for them both. In truth, he was not quite sure how he had come to be here in a strange church and standing in front of a curate he had never met before. Rosamond had twisted him around her little finger, as always.

       “I know what I am doing,” she whispered. “Just as I did last night.”

       Rob felt heat rise in his cheeks. She had come to his bed. They had exchanged private vows and sealed them with consummation. By some lights, they were already wed.

       He lowered his voice. “If we go through with this, become legally bound, it will give me complete control of your fortune. Are you certain you trust me?”

       “You love me.” There was utter confidence in her tone. “You will always strive to make me happy.”

       In other words, she was sure he’d let her make all the decisions. Rob sighed. She likely had the right of it. What did it matter that he was simply the best alternative she could think of to avoid a betrothal to the man her mother had selected? He’d always loved her. This way they would be together. They’d be bound to each other for the rest of their lives.

       He scarce heard the mumbled words of the marriage ceremony. His heart pounded too loudly. But he made the required replies and heard Rosamond do the same. Then they were out in the sunlight, on the church porch with the beaming curate beside them.

       The sound of approaching hoof beats brought a smug smile to Rosamond’s face. “They are too late to stop us.”

       Dreading the confrontation to come, Rob squared his shoulders and turned to face the riders. Lady Appleton? His parents? It would not have surprised him to see Rosamond’s mother and step-father, all the way from Cornwall, but the two horsemen who hove into view did not look familiar. Indeed, it was impossible to recognize their faces, for they wore wide-brimmed hats, pulled low, and scarves wrapped around the lower part of their faces. Rob’s eyes widened as one of them raised a pistol.

       He reacted instinctively, wrapping his arms around Rosamond and bearing her to the floor of the porch, shielding her body with his own. He landed hard, the breath knocked out of him. His left elbow struck stone and he lost sensation in the entire arm.

       An instant later, Rob heard the explosion as the gun fired. The horses thundered past. As the sound of hooves against hard-packed road faded away, he said a silent prayer of thanks and opened his eyes.

       The first thing he saw was Rosamond’s face, turned slightly to the side. The second was the pulse at her throat, fluttering rapidly. He could feel the rise and fall of her breathing beneath him and knew she was safe, but her gaze was fixed, her expression one of horror, as she stared at her outflung arm. The sleeve was spattered with red.

       Dreading what he would see, Rob levered himself upright, wincing at the pain in his newly healed ribs. It took only a moment to locate the source of the blood. The marksman had not missed, after all. The bullet had struck the curate. He lay unmoving but a few feet away.  

       The sound of more horses approaching sent a wave of panic through Rob. They were coming back! “Hurry!” He hauled Rosamond to her feet. “Into the church.”

       He had some notion it would provide sanctuary, though why murderers should honor that tradition he did not know.

       Rosamond resisted, pulling free to run straight toward the riders. “Murder!” she cried, grasping the bridle of Lady Appleton’s mount. “There has been murder done here!”

       Rob’s father, Mark Jaffrey, and Master Nick Baldwin rode beside Rosamond’s foster mother. Master Baldwin, Rob remembered, was a justice of the peace.

       “They went that way.” He pointed. “Two men in plain clothing mounted on bays. One had a pistol.”

       “How long ago?” Baldwin asked.

       “A few minutes. No more.”

       “They are armed and you are not,” Lady Appleton called after Master Baldwin as he rode off. “Have a care for yourself!”

       Rob’s father, torn between going with Baldwin and staying where he was, caught Rob’s eye. “Are you wed, lad?”

       “Aye.”

       “And consummated, too,” Rosamond announced, “so it is no good trying to undo what is done.”

       “Rob is too young to wed without permission,” Mark said.

       “But I am not,” Rosamond answered back. “It is done, I tell you. I could even now be increasing.”

       Embarrassed by her bold speaking, Rob dropped his gaze and found himself staring at the dead man. “The curate,” he mumbled. “He was shot before our very eyes. Why would someone want to kill a churchman?”

       “I can think of one or two I’d gladly dispose of,” Lady Appleton muttered, but she urged her horse forward to the church steps. She dismounted directly from her sidesaddle onto the porch and circled the body, inspecting it from every angle before declaring that he was, indeed, quite dead.

 

* * *

 

       “You cannot keep me prisoner here!” Rosamond blurted out the words the moment the door opened to admit Lady Appleton, the woman she had called “Mama” for more than a decade.

       As soon as they had returned to Leigh Abbey, Rosamond had been whisked off to her own quarters. Rob had been sent to his parents’ lodgings on the other side of the courtyard.

       “That is true,” Lady Appleton said. “I can, however, demand your respect. I have things to tell you, Rosamond. Do me the courtesy to listen.”

       “Oh, very well. Speak your piece.” Rosamond flounced across the bedchamber and flung herself down on her stomach on the bed, burying her head in her arms. “I am listening.”

       “You have entered into what most would call a misalliance.”

       Rosamond bit back a retort. Everyone at Leigh Abbey seemed to agree that the daughter of a knight, even an illegitimate daughter, should not lower herself to marry the son of a mere steward.

       “In the old days, your union would have been forbidden by the laws of spiritual affinity.”

       Still silent, Rosamond frowned. It took her a moment to work that out—her father had been Rob’s godfather. Well, there was no such prohibition now, and the way she’d heard it, back before King Henry broke with Rome a Papal dispensation could always be had for ready money.  

       “You have succeeded in thwarting your mother’s plans for you,” Lady Appleton continued. “You cannot now be forced to marry anyone else.”

       Face still safely hidden, Rosamond grinned.

       “Do not think, however, that you have done well. Jennet, my dearest, oldest friend, lies gravely ill, struck down at the news that her son had run off with the daughter of the house. Are you pleased about that, I wonder? You two have often been at odds.”

       “I did not mean her any harm,” Rosamond muttered, her smile fading.

       “No, I suppose not. It was simple thoughtlessness on your part. I do not know why I should be surprised by your actions. You have always been headstrong and impulsive.”

       “If I am such a disappointment to you, I will take myself off. Rob and I can make our own way in the world, now that I have control of my fortune.”

       “As to that, I fear you do not.”

       Rosamond sat up. “I know that under the law Rob controls my goods and chattels, but—”

       “It is a bit more complicated than you think.” Lady Appleton’s tone was rueful. “Rob is not yet of legal age to manage his own affairs. If you were married in truth, his father would be the one in charge of your inheritance.”

       Eyes narrowing, Rosamond stared at her. “What do you mean if we were married? We are married. We were duly wed by the curate before he was killed. It is wrong for man to put asunder those God has joined together,” she added, affecting prim piety.

        “And there, you see, lies the problem. At my request our local vicar made inquiries about this curate of yours. It turns out that he was not a clergyman at all, nor did he have the authority to perform marriages. There will no doubt be a great scandal over the matter, for you were not the first couple he deceived.”

       “Why would anyone do such a thing?”

       “You paid him, did you not, to perform the ceremony?”

       “An angel.” The gold coin had a value of ten shillings.

       “That is much more than any honest preacher would charge.”

       Chagrin at being duped had Rosamond off the bed and pacing, but she was not yet defeated. “Private vows are just as binding. Rob and I said those as well.”

       “So you did, more’s the pity.”

       Rosamond turned to stare at her. “Our marriage cannot be dissolved.”

       “And that leaves you in an awkward position.” Lady Appleton sighed deeply. “The marriage cannot be dissolved, as you say, but under the law you are not wed. That leaves your inheritance as it was, under my control.”

       “No!”

       “Do you love him, Rosamond? Is that why you wed?”

       “I wished to be free!” She shouted the words.         

       “You were free.”

       “Not to live as I pleased. Not free of Mother’s nagging or your rules.”

       “And now you are a wife, no better than Rob Jaffrey’s chattel. Only widows control their own property.”

       “Rob loves me. He’ll never make me do anything I do not want to do.”

       “And you, Rosamond? Do you care for him?”

       “I . . . I am fond of him.”

       Lady Appleton’s eyes locked on Rosamond’s in a long, hard stare. “Rob must return to Cambridge. He is a promising scholar. He should be allowed to complete his studies there.”

       “If that is what he wants, I have no objection.” Rosamond told herself she did not care, as long as she was allowed to go her own way.

       Lady Appleton gave a curt nod. “I will speak with the vicar. He can marry you here, at St. Cuthburga in Eastwold, after which Rob will go straight back to Christ’s College.”

       Lady Appleton was halfway to the door before Rosamond remembered that another question had been preying on her mind. “Wait! That curate—have the authorities discovered who killed him?” Nick Baldwin had ridden hard, but he’d been too late to catch even a glimpse of the fleeing men.

       “Doubtless someone else he’d duped. The fellow performed at least a dozen false marriages in that church, and others before in different places.” She shrugged. “I cannot say that the death of a fraud and swindler is a matter that concerns me overmuch.”

 

* * *

 

       After the ceremony at St. Cuthberga’s, Rob returned to Cambridge. He seemed glad to go. Rosamond sulked. Rob’s sisters were no longer speaking to her, even though their mother was back on her feet again. Another of Rosamond’s companions had left Leigh Abbey before her marriage and when news of the misalliance leaked out the family of the fourth girl Lady Appleton had been educating demanded she return at once to London. She was to leave in two days’ time.

       “I will be alone and friendless when she’s gone,” Rosamond complained to Lady Appleton.

       That worthy did not even look up from her herbal. “I do not lack sympathy, Rosamond, but you brought this on yourself.”

       Dissatisfied with that response, Rosamond left the house and walked to the village of Eastwold, a mile and a half way. As she’d hoped, the vicar’s wife was more than willing to listen to her woes.

       “You have aroused interest far and wide,” she confided in Rosamond. “My maid tells me that a stranger was in Eastwold only yesterday, asking about your new husband.” She gave Rosamond an encouraging smile, clearly hoping to become the recipient of new confidences.

       Rosamond only frowned. She had no idea why anyone would be curious about Rob. And if they were, why come to Eastwold? They should be looking for him at Cambridge. Still mulling over this small mystery, she left the vicar’s house and headed back toward Leigh Abbey.

       The village of Eastwold was a tiny place, consisting of the church, a smithy, two water mills, an alehouse, a petty school funded by Lady Appleton, and a dozen houses with gardens. The two hundred or so residents, most of them yeomen farmers, went to Dover if they needed anything other than the services provided by a blacksmith, brewer, miller, carpenter, schoolmaster, and vicar.

       Rosamond had just passed the forge when she heard the rush of footsteps behind her. She turned expecting to see the blacksmith’s wife—Rob’s aunt. Panic gripped her at the sight of a man with a cudgel. His dark eyes burning with hatred, he swung it at her. Rosamond threw herself sideways, into a field, narrowly escaping a blow that could easily have cracked her skull.

       The wind knocked out of her by the force with which she hit the ground, Rosamond could not draw breath enough to scream. Panting, she scrambled to her feet and took off running, stumbling over the uneven ground but determined to reach the safety of the smithy’s house. She glanced over her shoulder as she fled.

       The man had not come after her. He watched her flee for a moment longer and then stalked off toward his horse. The bay was tethered to a nearby tree.

       Rosamond skidded to a halt. A bay? Just like the horses ridden by the men who’d killed the curate? She shaded her eyes, trying to get a better look at her attacker, but he was already riding away. She was left with only the impression of a lantern jaw and her memory of those terrifying eyes.

       When she had hired two stout village lads to escort her, Rosamond went home. If the stranger was waiting along the way, intending to ambush her a second time, she saw no sign of him. The only person she encountered was a farmer driving a herd of milch cows.

       Lady Appleton heard of the incident the next day. “I think it best that you go to stay with your mother and stepfather for a time,” she said. “How fortunate that you will be able to travel as far as London in the company of a friend.”

       Rosamond started to object, then thought better of it. She’d had an idea.

 

* * *

 

       A week later, the maid she’d hired in London attesting to Rosamond’s respectability, she bespoke a room at the best inn in Cambridge and sent word to Rob that she’d arrived. He lost no time obeying her summons, but he brought two friends with him, Bancroft and Needham, and he did not look pleased to see her.

       He was even less happy when she told him about the attack on her and her conclusion that the man with the lantern jaw and burning black eyes had also killed the curate who’d married them. “And as he was asking questions about you in Eastwold, he must know by now that you are a scholar at Christ’s College,” she concluded.

       For a long moment the three young men just stared at her. In their identical black robes and caps, they looked much alike. That was the idea, she supposed—make them all fit into the same mold. How dull!

       “How can these events be connected?” Rob finally asked. “And why would anyone wish to harm either one of us?”

       “The man rode a bay horse.”

       “Not uncommon,” one of Rob’s friends put in. Bancroft.

       Rosamond frowned at him. He did not look well. Mayhap hearing about murder upset him. Dismissing the fellow as a person of no account, Rosamond concentrated on Rob. Somehow, she had to make him see that he was in danger, even if she could not fathom the reason why.

       “You have been at the center of three violent events in the last few months,” Rosamond said in what she hoped was a reasonable tone of voice. “First you were attacked and beaten—with a cudgel—during a sporting event. Second you were standing next to a man who was shot by a villain riding a bay. Third, a man, with a cudgel, riding a bay horse, attacked me after asking questions about you. These three things are linked together, Rob. You cannot deny it.”

       Bancroft’s skin color went from pasty white to an interesting shade of green, but Needham watched their debate as if he were a spectator at a tennis match. His head swiveled back and forth between them, eyes alight with interest.

       “All the more reason for you to go straight back to Leigh Abbey, or on to Cornwall.” Rob’s face was set in a mulish expression. “It is not safe for you here.”

       “Nor is it safe for you.”

       “You were the one attacked.”

       “You were attacked first!” Faces only inches apart, hands fisted on hips, they were mirror images of each other. 

       “I am your husband, Rosamond. You will do as I say!”

       “Hah! You have no power over me. I have my own money.” Each of them had generous allowances and she had jewelry she could sell if she had to. “One way or another, I intend to stay in Cambridge until I find the answers I am looking for. I will hire henchmen to guard me, but I will not go away.”

       The staring match continued for a full minute longer before Rob abruptly capitulated. “Four henchmen. Two to be posted outside this door at night and all four to go with you if you venture out into the streets.”

       “Agreed. I am not so foolish as to put my own life at risk.” Impulsively, she caught his face in her hands and pulled him to her to deliver a smacking kiss. “Now tell me—what will you do to protect yourself?”

       “I have friends to look out for me.”

       Rosamond snorted. With that weak stomach, Bancroft would be useless. Needham was a strapping fellow, but he seemed far too easy-going to be of much help.

       “They rescued me during that first attack,” Rob reminded her.

       “Then let us hope they remember more of it than you do.” She gestured toward a bench. “Sit down, gentlemen, and tell me everything you can recall. In particular, I wish to know the appearance of the fellow with the cudgel.”

       “We were too busy fighting for our lives to pay attention,” Bancroft said quickly.

       “Not so,” Needham objected. “She’s right, you know, Jaffrey. The fellow did have a lantern jaw.”

       “I am certain you are wrong,” Bancroft said. “I’d have remembered.”

       “I will discover the truth soon enough,” Rosamond told them. “As soon as I have hired my henchmen, I intend to pay a visit to Chesterton.” She cut short Rob’s objections by touching her finger to his lips and holding his gaze. “It is safer for me to go. Most people hesitate to attack a woman. Besides, I mean to go directly to the constable with my complaint. I will have the law on my side.”

       “But you do not know the name of the man with the cudgel,” Bancroft objected. “How do you expect to identify him?”

       “I anticipate no difficulty.” Rosamond’s confident smile underscored her words. “After all, how many lantern-jawed men with black eyes and bay horses can there possibly be in one small village?”

 

* * *

 

       “Half the villagers own bays,” Constable Thomas Prescott said. 

       And during the brief time Rosamond had been in Chesterton, she had seen at least a half dozen men with lantern-shaped jaws. She’d ridden close enough to two of them to see that they also had dark eyes, although neither had appeared to recognize her. They’d stared at her with nothing more threatening than mild curiosity.

       “The man I seek would have been absent from the village on two occasions.” She gave Prescott the dates of the curate’s death and the attack on her in Eastwold and had the satisfaction of seeing his expression harden. “A name if you please.”

       “Glover by name and glover by trade.”

       “Will you escort me to him?”

       “I do not know which Glover you seek, mistress. There are four sons.”

       “I believe I will know him when I see him.”

       Reluctantly, Prescott led the way south from the middle of the high street to the parallel Water Street, beside the river. “The glover’s family lives above his shop. It would be best to speak with them there.”

       “Agreed.”

       “A moment, then.” He left her standing in the street with her henchmen while he made arrangements, returning a few minutes later to escort her up an outside stair. When her guards started to follow, Prescott stopped them. “There is not enough room for everyone. Remain here.”

       Rosamond tried to object, but Prescott had taken charge. He propelled her into the living quarters ahead of him. Of a sudden, Rosamond found herself facing five lantern-jawed stalwarts, the father as sturdy as the sons, with only the village constable at her back.

       She swallowed hard as her gaze roved over their faces. Her breath caught when she recognized the black eyes she’d last seen in Eastwold.

       They still brimmed with hatred.

 

* * *

 

       “A more self-reliant female than your lady wife I have never seen.” Bancroft sprawled on the window seat, idly watching the ostlers come and go in the courtyard below. “You need have no fear on her account.”

       “I should have insisted she let me to go instead.” Rob stopped pacing long enough to scowl at his friend. Rosamond had left the inn early that morning and had not returned by the time he and his friends arrived to meet her, as they’d arranged the previous day, at three of the clock. “I dare delay no longer. I must go to Chesterton and find her. Are you with me?”

       “That would be foolish,” Bancroft objected.

       “Why?” Suddenly beset by a terrible suspicion, Rob caught the other scholar by the neck of his gown and hauled him to his feet. “What haven’t you told me? Do you know something of this lantern-jawed man?”

       Bancroft tried to deny it, but Rob saw through the lie. In disgust, he shoved him away. “I’m going.”

       “Wait,” Needham called after him. “We’ll come with you.”

       “I cannot!” Bancroft yelped.

       Slowly, Rob turned. Fixing the other scholar with a steely gaze, he spoke in a tone that warned of dire retribution should he detect another lie. “What are you afraid of, Bancroft?”

       “They’ll kill you if you go there, Jaffrey. And if they do not, they will kill me!”

       This time it was Needham who grabbed Bancroft and shook him. “A woman’s life is at stake. Speak, or I’ll kill you myself.”

       “He cannot speak if you do not loosen your grip.” Rob’s hands clenched and unclenched, so great was his desire to strangle the truth out of Bancroft himself. But even greater was his need to find out what Bancroft knew.

       “Do you remember the girl we saw that day?” Bancroft’s voice was a hoarse croak. “The one great with child?”

       “On Shrove Tuesday?” Rob frowned as a vague recollection came to him. He had seen such a young woman in the crowd.

       “She was not married. She’d coupled with a Cambridge scholar and everyone in the village knew it . . . including her brothers.”

       “She looked right at Rob,” Needham said.

       Rob’s innards twisted. “A look? Do you mean to say that was enough to make them think I was the father?”

       “She was trying to protect her lover, to cast the blame elsewhere.”

       “You?”

       A picture of misery, Bancroft nodded.

       “Then let us go to that girl at once and straighten out the matter. She knows I am not the one who—”

       “She’s dead. She died in childbed. And she never told anyone she lied about you. The men who attacked us on Shrove Tuesday might have been content to maim you, but after she died, when they heard you had survived and were about to marry a rich heiress—”

       “They came after me and shot the curate by mistake.”

       “If your wife is right about the bay horses, I fear so. Two of the brothers ride bays. And failing to kill you, they must have decided to seek revenge for the death of their sister by killing someone you care for.”

       Rob felt every bit of warmth leech from his body. Without waiting to see if either Bancroft or Needham followed, he raced out of the inn and along the Huntingdon Way toward Chesterton.

 

* * *

 

       When Rob and his friends burst into the glover’s upstairs room they found Rosamond sitting at ease with the women of the family, a mug of ale at her elbow and a baby in her lap. She was only slightly surprised by their abrupt arrival. At a gesture from her, her four hired henchmen replaced knives in scabbards and stepped back.

       “You will be pleased to know that matter of the false clergyman’s death has been resolved.” She spoke in a low voice so as not to wake the sleeping child. “One of the glover’s sons has confessed to the crime, although I believe the shooting may yet be ruled an accident. After all, he did not intend to kill the curate.”

       “He tried to kill me. And he tried to kill you.”

       Rosamond ignored Rob’s protest, her attention shifting to his two companions. “Henry Glover has acknowledged his guilt, but he would never have sought revenge at all had someone not meddled with his sister. Which one of you fathered this child and what do you intend to do about it?”

       Her gaze flicked from Bancroft to Needham and back again. It skipped over Rob. He had not yet matriculated at Cambridge when the child was conceived. Under her intense scrutiny, Bancroft began to sweat.

       “The child is mine,” he whispered. “Let me live and I will provide for him.”

       “You will provide for her.”

       “I will. But . . . but I have to be alive to do so.”

       “Not necessarily, Master Bancroft, but you will remain in good health as long as you make a settlement on the child, in writing and witnessed by the local authorities.”

       “But—”

       “No arguments, Master Bancroft.” Rosamond smiled sweetly, certain she had his measure. “To persuade you to do the right thing by a merrybegot like myself, I am prepared to use any means short of murder.”

      

 

 

 

~

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