A Knight in Shining Armor: Chapter 32

For Dougless the next three days were hell. Everyone in the Stafford household was very excited about Nicholas’s forthcoming marriage, and it was all anyone could talk of. The food, the clothes, who would be there, who from the Stafford household would get to go, and who would stay at home with Lady Margaret, were all topics of conversation. Huge carts were packed with the goods Nicholas and Kit would take with them to the Culpin estate, where the wedding would be held. With a feeling of doom, Dougless watched the preparations for the long visit. Nicholas and Kit were taking not only their clothes with them, but furniture and servants as well.

To Dougless it seemed that every item that was loaded onto the carts was a weight on her heart. She tried to talk to Nicholas. Tried and tried and tried. But he wouldn’t listen. Duty meant more to him than anything else in the world. He would not forsake his duty to his family for any reason on earth, not for love, not even to avoid the possibility of his own death.

On the night before the day Nicholas was to leave, Dougless felt the worst she ever had. Only the day Nicholas had returned to the sixteenth century and left her in the church was comparable.

At night, after the maid had helped her undress, she removed her thin, silky slip from her tote bag and put it on. With her borrowed robe about her, she went to Nicholas’s bedchamber.

Outside his room she put her hand to the door. She knew he was awake; she could feel it. Without knocking, she opened the door. He was sitting up in bed, the rough sheet covering his legs, leaving his chest and hard, flat stomach bare and exposed. He was drinking from a silver tankard, and he didn’t look up when she entered.

“We must talk,” she whispered. The room was silent except for the crackle of a fire and the sputter of candles.

“Nay, we have no more to say,” he answered. “We both must do what we must.”

“Nicholas,” she whispered, but he still didn’t look at her. She slipped the concealing robe from her. The nightgown she wore wasn’t outrageous by twentieth-century standards, but it was when compared to Elizabethan modes of dress. Its thin straps, low neck, and clinging fabric left nothing to the imagination.

She crawled across the bed to him, like a tigress on the stalk. “Nicholas,” she whispered. “Do not marry her.”

When she was near him, he looked at her—and the wine sloshed from his tankard. “What do you?” he asked hoarsely, his eyes at first shocked, then hot.

“Perhaps you’ll stay with me this night,” she said, drawing nearer to him.

Nicholas looked down the front of her nightgown, and when he put out a hand to touch her shoulder, his hand trembled.

“One night,” she whispered, moving her face close to his.

Nicholas reacted instantly. His arms were around her, his lips on hers; he was drinking of her, taking of her, as he’d wanted to do for so long. The fabric of her nightgown tore away as his hands and his lips were on her breasts, his face buried in them.

“This one night for your promise,” Dougless was saying, her head back. She was trying to remember what she had to do before Nicholas’s lips and hands drove all thoughts from her mind. “Swear to me,” she said.

“All that I have is yours. Do you not know that?” he said, his lips moving lower on her body, down her stomach. His hands were on her hips, his fingers digging into her flesh.

“Then do not go tomorrow,” she said. “This one night for tomorrow.”

Nicholas’s strong hands were lifting her hips up, and the remains of the gown were sliding farther down. “You may have all my tomorrows.”

“Nicholas, please.” Dougless was trying to remember what she meant to say, but Nicholas’s touch was making her unable to think. “Please, my love. I do not believe I will be here after tonight, so you must swear to me.”

After a moment Nicholas raised his head and looked up at her, up past her lovely body to her face. His mind was reeling with the sensations of touching this woman who had come to mean so much to him, but he was beginning to hear her. “What would you have me swear to you?” he asked in a low voice.

Dougless lifted her head. “I will spend tonight with you if you’ll swear not to marry Lettice after I’m gone,” she said evenly.

For a long moment Nicholas looked at her, his bare body poised over her half-nude body, and Dougless held her breath. She had not come to this decision easily, but she knew that, even if it meant losing Nicholas forever, she had to stop this marriage.

He rolled off of her and the bed in one smooth motion, pulled on a loose robe, then went to stand before the fire, his back to her. When he spoke, his voice was low and husky. “Do you think so little of me to believe I would risk the loss of you for one night’s pleasure? Do you think so little of yourself to sell yourself to me for a promise?”

His words were making Dougless feel very small. She pulled her torn gown up over her shoulders. “I couldn’t think of any other way,” she said as an excuse. “I’d do anything to stop your marriage.”

He turned to look at her, his eyes dark with emotion. “You have told me of your country and of your ways. Do you think yours is the only way? This marriage means naught to me, yet it means all to you.”

“I can’t have you risk your life for—”

His eyes blazed. “You risk our life for her!” he said angrily. “You tell me again and again that you cannot come to my bed. Yet you are here now, dressed as a . . . as a . . .”

Dougless pulled the sheet over her bare shoulders, feeling like a strumpet. “I only meant to try to get you to promise you wouldn’t marry her,” she said, feeling near to tears.

He went to the bed, looming over her. “What love is this you bear for me? You come creeping to my bed, appealing to me like a whore. Only you do not want gold, nay, you want me to dishonor my family, to put aside what means most to me.”

Dougless put her hands over her face. “Don’t, please. I can’t bear this. I never meant—”

He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled her hands away. “Do you have any idea how much I dread the morrow? That I dread the woman who I must make my wife? Were I free, were I in your time, I could freely choose where I love. But here and now, I cannot. Were I to marry you, I could not feed you. Kit would no longer give me a place to live, food to eat, clothes to—”

“Kit’s not like that. Surely there would be a way for us to live. You help Kit with the estates, so he’d not throw you out. He’d—”

Nicholas’s hands tightened on her wrists. “Can you not hear? Can you not understand? I must make this marriage.”

“No,” she whispered. “No.”

“You cannot stop what must be. You can only help me.”

“How? How can I help you? Can I stop an axman’s blade?”

“Aye,” he said. “You can. You can stay by me for always.”

“Always? While you live with another woman? Sleep with her? Make love to her?”

He released her hands. “So you do this,” he said, looking at her bare shoulders above the sheet. “You would take yourself from me for all eternity rather than see me with another woman?”

“No, that’s not it. It’s just that Lettice is evil. I’ve told you what she’ll do. Choose another woman.”

He gave a smile that had no mirth in it. “You would allow me another wife? Allow me to touch another woman when I cannot touch you? You are willing to stand to one side for the rest of our lives?”

Dougless swallowed. Could she live in the same house with him while he lived with another woman? What would she do, be a maiden aunt to Nicholas’s children? How would she feel when, each night, he went off to bed with another woman? And how long would he continue to love her if he couldn’t touch her? Were either of them strong enough for a platonic love?

“I don’t know,” she said softly. “I don’t know if I could stand by and see you with another woman. Nicholas, oh Nicholas, I don’t know what to do.”

He sat on the bed beside her and gathered her into his arms. “I will not risk losing you for a hundred women like Lettice. You are worth all to me. God has sent you to me, and I mean to hold you.”

She put her head on his chest, parting the robe so her cheek was on his skin. In spite of herself, tears came to her eyes. “I am frightened. Lettice is—”

“A mere woman. No more, no less. She possesses no great wisdom, no amulets of power. If you are by me, she can do me or my family no harm.”

“By you?” Her hand went under his robe, touching his skin. “Can I stay by you and not touch you?”

He moved her roaming fingers from inside his robe. “You are sure you will return if I . . .”

“Sure,” she answered firmly. “At least I think I’m sure.”

He held her fingers up and looked at them as a starving man might look at a feast. “It would be much to lose were we to try, would it not?”

“Yes,” she said, sadly. “Much, much too much.”

He dropped her hand. “You must go. I am a man, and you tempt me more than I can bear.”

Dougless knew she should go, but she hesitated. Once again she put her hand on Nicholas’s skin.

“Go!” he commanded.

Quickly, she rolled away from him, then ran from the room. She went back to Honoria’s room and slipped into bed, but she didn’t sleep.

Tomorrow the man she loved, no, more than loved, the man who meant so much that even time could not separate them, was leaving to marry another woman. What was she to do when Nicholas returned with his beautiful wife? (Dougless had heard so much of Lettice’s beauty that she would have hated the woman even if she knew nothing else about her.) Should she curtsy and congratulate her? Something like, “Hope you enjoy him. And I certainly hope he’s as good a lover with you as he was with me.”

Dougless had a vision of Nicholas and his pretty wife laughing together over some private joke. She saw Nicholas sweeping Lettice into his arms and carrying her off to the room they shared. Would they put their heads together over meals and smile at each other?

Dougless slammed her fist into the pillow, making Honoria stir. Men were such fools. They never saw past a pretty face. When a man asked about a woman, all he wanted to know was, was she pretty? No man ever asked if a woman had morals, whether she was honest, kind, did she like children or not? Dougless imagined a beautiful Lettice torturing a puppy in front of Nicholas, but Nicholas not noticing because dear, luscious Lettice had looked at him through fluttering lashes.

“Men!” Dougless muttered, but even as she said it, she didn’t mean it. Nicholas had not allowed himself to be seduced tonight because he was afraid he’d lose Dougless. If that wasn’t love, what was?

“Maybe he was saving himself for Lettice,” Dougless said into the pillow, and that’s when she began to cry.

The sun came up and still Dougless cried. It was as though she couldn’t stop. Honoria did everything she could to cheer Dougless up, but nothing worked.

Dougless could see, hear, think of nothing but Nicholas and the beautiful woman he was to marry. When Dougless thought of the hideous non-choices she had, she began to cry harder. She could stay in the sixteenth century and watch Nicholas with his wife, watch them talking together, watch while Lettice was given an honored place in the family as a son’s wife. Or she could threaten Nicholas that he had to give up his wife or she, Dougless, would leave the house. And if she left the Stafford household, what would she do? How could she earn her living in the sixteenth century? Drive a taxi? Maybe become an executive secretary? She was rather good with computers. She’d been in the Elizabethan age long enough to see how well a lone woman would fare without a man. She couldn’t so much as go two miles from the house without fear of being set upon by thieves.

And even if she could leave him, that would mean he’d be left in the hands of the scheming Lettice.

So what could she do if she couldn’t leave and she couldn’t stay? She could work harder at seducing Nicholas; then, after one lovely night of passion, she would be returned to the twentieth century. Without Nicholas. Alone. Never to see him again. She imagined herself at home in Maine, sitting by herself and thinking that she would give all she possessed to see Nicholas, to speak to him just one more time. By that time, she’d be so lonely she wouldn’t care if he were with a hundred women, if she could just see him one more time.

“Women’s lib doesn’t cover this situation,” she said through her tears. The ideal of equality for women said you weren’t supposed to put up with the man in your life having affairs, so she guessed she certainly wasn’t supposed to let him marry someone else.

It was all or nothing. To have Nicholas she had to share him; she’d have to share him physically, mentally, share him in every way possible. To leave him meant absolute, eternal loneliness for Dougless, and possibly death for Nicholas and his family.

Every thought made her cry harder. Days went by and still she cried. Honoria made sure that Dougless was dressed each day and she tried to see that she ate, but Dougless couldn’t eat. She didn’t care about eating or sleeping. Her mind was on Nicholas.

At first the other people in the Stafford household were sympathetic to Dougless’s tears. They knew why she cried. They had seen the way she and Nicholas looked at each other, the way they touched. Some of them sighed and remembered their first loves. They felt sorry for Dougless when Nicholas went off to be married, and they saw the way Dougless cried in heart-broken grief. But their sympathy wore thin when Dougless’s tears went on day after day after day. They became so annoyed that they began to ask themselves what use the woman was. Lady Margaret had given Dougless everything, but now Dougless was giving nothing in return. Where were the new games, the new songs the woman should be providing?

On the fourth day, Lady Margaret called Dougless to her.

Dougless, weak from fasting and endless tears, stood before Lady Margaret, her head down, her cheeks wet, her face swollen and red.

Lady Margaret was silent for a moment as she looked at Dougless’s bent head and heard the soft weeping. “Cease!” Lady Margaret commanded. “I am most tired of your tears.”

“I can’t,” Dougless said, hiccuping. “I can’t seem to stop.”

Lady Margaret grimaced. “Have you no spine? My son was a fool to believe himself to love you.”

“I agree. I’m not worthy of him.”

Sitting down, Lady Margaret contemplated Dougless’s bent head. She knew her younger son well enough to know that this woman’s tears would wrench his too-soft heart. Before he left, Nicholas was saying he could not do his duty and marry the Culpin woman. How would their marriage fare if he returned and found this strange red-haired wench crying for love of him? Lady Margaret had always been able to reason with Kit, but Nicholas, like his father, had a stubborn streak. She did not think Nicholas would do it, but what if he returned, saw the red-eyed face of this Dougless, and attempted to set his marriage aside?

Lady Margaret continued to look at the bent head before her. The woman must go from this house. Yet why did she hesitate in sending her away? For that matter, why had she allowed this woman into the Stafford house? At first Nicholas had been enraged that his mother had so trusted the oddly dressed, oddly spoken young woman enough to take an unknown tablet from her. Yet Lady Margaret had taken one look at the woman’s face and she had trusted her. Trusted her with her life.

Nicholas had been so angry after that. Lady Margaret smiled in memory. Nicholas had locked the girl in a filthy cell at the top of the house, and she’d stayed up there, eaten by fleas, while Lady Margaret had argued with her son over the girl’s fate. Nicholas had wanted to toss her into the road, and, in truth, Lady Margaret had known he was right. But something prevented her, something inside her, made her refuse to thrown the girl out.

It was Nicholas who had gone to get the girl. He had been “trying to reason” with his mother (“reason” is what he called his stubborn insistence that he was right) when, abruptly, he got up, left the room, and went to fetch the girl.

Lady Margaret smiled more broadly when she thought of the girl’s absurd story of being a princess from far off Lanconia. Lady Margaret hadn’t believed her for a moment, but the foolish story had given her a reason for keeping the girl near her, against Nicholas’s strenuous protests.

Those first days had been divine. The girl was lively and entertaining beyond all reasoning. Even her speech was amusing. And her actions never failed to delight, puzzle, and fascinate. The girl was stupid about so many things, such as dressing and even eating, yet she was very clever about some things. She knew more about medicine than any physician. She told curious stories about the moon and the stars and the earth being round. She had devised a short, wide chair that was stuffed with down and had fabric nailed over it. She called it an “easy chair” and had given it to Lady Margaret. She didn’t know it, but she had half the household rising early to hide in the gardens to watch her bathing in the fountain, using a marvelous foam on her hair and skin. In private Lady Margaret had inspected the wonders in her bag, had even used the little brush and something called toothpaste.

Oh, the girl was entertaining, all right. At one point, Lady Margaret had hoped she would never leave.

But then Nicholas had fallen in love with her. Lady Margaret had not at first cared. Young men often fell in love. At sixteen Kit had been in love with one of her ladies-in-waiting. Lady Margaret saw that the woman took Kit to bed and taught him a thing or two; then she’d sent Kit to the kitchens, where she knew a voluptuous servant girl was working. Within a week Kit had been “in love” with the serving wench.

Lady Margaret had had no such troubles with Nicholas. Nicholas had never needed an introduction to women. Over the years he had given his body freely, but never his heart.

She should have known that when Nicholas did give his heart, he would give it so completely that a hundred voluptuous serving girls would not be able to take it back. At first Lady Margaret had been glad when Nicholas had shown such extraordinary interest in this Dougless Montgomery. Lady Margaret had thought that when Nicholas returned with his bride, since Dougless loved him, the red-haired woman would not be tempted to leave the Stafford household. Lady Margaret would miss the girl’s humor and knowledge if she were gone.

But as the days progressed, Lady Margaret refused to see just how attached Nicholas was becoming to her. When at last Lady Margaret had really looked at her household, what she saw did not please her. Her youngest son loved the woman to the point of obsession. Her eldest son spoke of giving the girl great riches, and Kit’s future wife talked of little else except what Dougless said or did.

As did the rest of the household. “Dougless says children should not be swaddled.” “Dougless says the wound must be washed.” “Dougless says my husband had no right to beat me.” “Dougless says a woman should have control of her own money.” Dougless says, Dougless says, Lady Margaret thought. Who ran the Stafford household? Did the Staffords or this girl who lied about her relatives?

And now she stood before Lady Margaret weeping, weeping as she had done for days. Lady Margaret clenched her teeth when she thought of how the tears of this one woman were affecting everyone.

But worse, she knew that these tears would affect Nicholas. Nicholas who said he loved her, Nicholas who talked of breaking a betrothal because of this woman who had nothing, who was nothing. Yet this woman, to whom Lady Margaret had given so much, now threatened everything in her family. Were Nicholas to disavow his contract with the Culpin family . . . No, she did not like to think what could happen.

The red-haired woman must go.

Lady Margaret’s mouth set into a firm, hard line. “The runner has come from Lanconia. You are no princess. You are related to no one in the royal house. Who are you?”

“J-just a woman. No one special,” Dougless said, sniffing.

“We have given you all that our house has to offer, yet you have lied to us.”

“Yes, I have.” Dougless kept her head down, agreeing with everything. There was nothing anyone could say to her to make her feel worse. The marriage was to take place this morning. Today Nicholas would marry his beautiful Lettice.

Lady Margaret took a breath. “On the morrow you will leave us. You will take what clothes you came in, no more, and you will be sent forever from the Stafford house.”

It took a moment for Dougless to understand. She looked at Lady Margaret, blinking at her through tear-filled eyes. “Leave? But Nicholas wishes me to stay, to be here when he returns.”

“Do you think his wife will wish to see you? My foolish son has grown too attached to you. You do him harm.”

“I would never harm Nicholas. I came here to save him, not to hurt him.”

Lady Margaret glared at her. “From whence do you come? Where did you live before you came here?”

Dougless clamped her mouth shut. She could say nothing, absolutely nothing. If she told Lady Margaret the truth, Dougless’s life would be worth nothing, and there would never be a chance of her seeing Nicholas again. “I . . . I will provide entertainments,” Dougless said, her voice desperate. “I know more songs, more games. And I can tell you many more stories about America. I could tell you about airplanes and automobiles and—”

Lady Margaret put up her hand. “I weary of your amusements. I cannot feed and clothe you. Who are you? A peasant’s daughter?”

“My father teaches, and I teach too. Lady Margaret, you can’t throw me out. I have nowhere to go, and Nicholas needs me. I have to protect him as I protected Kit. I saved Kit’s life, remember? He offered me a house then. I’ll take it now.”

“You asked for your reward and received it. Due to you, my son works as a tradesman.”

“But—” Dougless put out her hands, pleading.

“You will go. We harbor no liars here.”

“I’ll wash dishes,” Dougless said, pleading. “I’ll be the family physician. I can’t do worse than the leeches. I’ll—”

“You will leave!” Lady Margaret half shouted, her eyes glistening like precious stones. “I will have you no longer in my house. My son asked to be released from his betrothal for you.”

“He did?” Dougless almost smiled. “He never told me.”

“You disarray my household. You bewitch my son till he does not know his duty. Be you glad I do not have a whip taken to you.”

“This is better? Sending me out there, into those . . . those people? Sending me away from Nicholas?”

Lady Margaret stood up, then turned her back on Dougless. “I will not argue with you. Say your farewells this day, and on the morrow you will be sent from my house. Now go. I do not wish to see you again.”

Numbly, Dougless turned and left the room. Not seeing anything, she made her way back to Honoria’s room. Honoria took one look at her face and guessed what was wrong.

“Lady Margaret has sent you away?” Honoria whispered.

Dougless nodded.

“Do you have a place to go? One who will take care of you?”

Dougless shook her head. “I will be leaving Nicholas to that evil woman.”

“Lady Lettice?” Honoria asked, puzzled. “The woman is cool perhaps, but I do not believe she is evil.”

“You don’t know her.”

“You do?”

“I know a great deal about her. I know what she’s going to do.”

Honoria had learned to ignore these odd remarks of Dougless’s. She thought perhaps that she didn’t want to know all there was to know about Dougless. “Where will you go?”

“I have no idea.”

“Do you have relatives?”

Dougless gave a weak smile. “Probably. I imagine there are some sixteenth-century Montgomerys about somewhere.”

“But you do not know them?”

“I only know Nicholas.” Nicholas who was by now, no doubt, married. She had thought she had choices, that she could choose to stay or go, but now it looked as though her fate had been decided for her. “I know Nicholas, and I know what will happen,” she said tiredly.

“You shall go to my family,” Honoria said firmly. “They will love your games and songs. They will care for you.”

Dougless managed a bit of a smile. “That’s very kind of you, but if I can’t stay with Nicholas, I don’t want to stay here at all.”

Honoria’s face whitened. “Suicide is against God.”

“God,” Dougless whispered and tears came to her eyes. “God did this to me, and now it’s all going wrong.” She closed her eyes. “Please,” she whispered, eyes closed. “Please, Nicholas, don’t marry her. I beg you, please.”

Concerned, Honoria went to Dougless and felt her forehead. “You are warm. This day you must remain in bed. You are ill.”

“I am past ill,” Dougless said as she allowed Honoria to push her down on the bed. She barely felt Honoria’s hands unfastening the front of her dress as she closed her eyes.

Hours later she opened her eyes to see a darkened room. She was in Honoria’s bed wearing only her linen gown, her hair down. Her pillow was wet, so she knew she had been crying while she slept.

“Nicholas,” she whispered. Married now. Married to the woman who would kill him, who would eventually kill all the Staffords. Dougless closed her eyes again. When she awoke next it was night outside and the room was very dark. Honoria was asleep beside her.

Something is wrong, Dougless thought. Very wrong. She remembered Lady Margaret telling her that she must leave the Stafford family, but there was something else.

“Nicholas,” she whispered. “Nicholas needs me.”

She got out of bed and went into the hall. All was quiet. Barefoot, she went down the stairs, her feet moving about under the dried river rushes on the floor. She went out the back toward the garden, following where instinct and some indefinable pull led her.

She went across the brick terrace, down the stairs, along the raised walk, then turned into the knot garden. There was only a quarter moon, so it was very dark, but she didn’t need to see, for she had an inner sight.

As she approached the garden, she heard the fountain splashing, the fountain where she had showered each morning until Nicholas left. She had not been outside since Nicholas rode away.

There, standing in the fountain, his body nude, covered in soap lather, was Nicholas.

Dougless didn’t think, and certainly used no reason. One minute she was outside the fountain, and the next she was in Nicholas’s wet arms, holding him, kissing him with all the desperation and fear that she felt.

Everything happened too suddenly for her to stop and think. She was in his arms; they were on the ground; she was nude. They came together with a clash of pent-up desire that made Dougless cry out. Nicholas, not gently, no, not gentle at all, bent her body backward over a stone bench and rammed into her with blinding force. Dougless held on to his shoulders, her nails digging into his skin, put her legs about his waist, and held on.

Fast, furious, frantic, they tore at each other. Their bodies, covered with sweat, stuck together as they rose and fell together, again, again, again.

When at last they finished, Nicholas put his strong hands under her and lifted her to meet his final deep, deep thrust. Dougless cried out as the world darkened and her body stiffened as she found release.

It was a while before she recovered herself and could see again, think again. Nicholas was grinning at her, his teeth white. Even in the darkness she could see his happiness.

But Dougless was beginning to think. “What have we done?” she whispered.

Nicholas unwrapped her legs from his body and pulled her to stand before him. “We have just begun.”

She was blinking at him, trying to make her mind work, because her body was trembling at the touch of him. The tips of her breasts were touching his chest and they were tingling. “Why are you here? Oh, God, Nicholas, what have we done?” She started to sit on the bench, but he pulled her into his arms.

“Later there will be time for words,” he said. “Now I will do what I have much wanted to do.”

“No,” she said as she pushed away from him. She was fumbling about for the remnants of her gown. “We have to talk now. There will be no time later. Nicholas!” Her voice was rising. “We will have no more time!”

He pulled her back into his arms. “You do still insist you will disappear? Here, look you, we have tasted—merely tasted—of one another, yet you do remain.”

How could she tell him? She collapsed on the bench, her head down. “I knew you were here. I felt you. And just as I knew you needed me, I know that this is our last night together.”

Nicholas didn’t speak, but after a moment he sat down on the bench beside her, very close, but their nude bodies were not touching. “I have always felt you,” he said softly. “This night you heard my call, but it has always been so with me. After I left I . . .” He paused. “I felt your tears. I could hear nothing but your weeping. I could not see Lettice for seeing you in your tears.”

Putting out his hand, he took hers. “I left the woman. I said naught, not even to Kit. I took my horse and rode. When I should have been saying vows, I was riding to you. It took until now to reach you.”

This is what she had wanted, but now that it was here, the enormity of what he’d done scared her. She looked at him. “What will happen now?”

“There will be . . . anger,” he said, “anger on both sides. Kit . . . My mother will . . .” He looked away.

Dougless could see how torn he was between duty and love. But now she wouldn’t be here to help him. She squeezed his hand. “You will not marry her even after I’m gone?”

He turned blazing eyes toward her. “You would leave me now?”

Tears came again to her eyes as she flung herself against him. “I would never leave you if I had a choice, but I don’t. Not now. Now there is no choice. I will go soon, I know it. I can feel it.”

He kissed her, then smoothed her hair back. “How much time?” he whispered.

“Dawn. No more. Nicholas, I—”

He silenced her with a kiss. “I would rather hours with you than a lifetime with another. Now, no more talk. Come, we will love away these hours.”

He stood up, then pulled her up beside him and led her into the still-running fountain, where he began to lather her with the last of her soft soap. “You left this behind,” he said, smiling at her.

Forget that this is the end, Dougless thought. Forget it. Time must stand still for this one night. “How did you kn-know I showered here?” she asked, her voice stumbling.

“I was one of those who watched.”

She stopped soaping herself, and Nicholas’s hands stilled at her look. “Watched? Who watched me?”

“All,” he said, grinning. “Did you not notice the men’s yawns? They rose most early to hide themselves.”

“Hide!” Her anger was rising. “And you were one of them? You allowed this? You let men spy on me?”

“Were I to have stopped you, I would have halted my own pleasure. It was a dilemma.”

“Dilemma! Why, you—!” She lunged at him.

Nicholas sidestepped, then caught her, pulling her close to him. He forgot about soaping her as he bent his head and began kissing her breasts, the water pouring down on top of them. “I have dreamed of this,” he said, “since my vision.”

“The shower,” she murmured. “The shower.” Her hands were entangled in his hair as his mouth moved lower and lower. He was on his knees before her. “Nicholas, my Nicholas.”

They made love again, as they had done before, in the water. For Nicholas it was a discovery of her body, but for Dougless, she had had weeks of remembering and wanting. Her hands were all over him, memorizing, remembering, finding new places she had not touched or tasted before.

By the time they finished, it was hours later. The water had stopped flowing, and Dougless guessed that whoever was turning the wheel was too tired to continue. She and Nicholas lay in each other’s arms on the sweet grass.

“We have to talk,” she said at last.

“Nay, do not.”

She snuggled closer to him. “I must. I wish with all my heart that I didn’t have to speak, but I must.”

“On the morrow, when the sun touches your hair, you will laugh at this. You are no woman from the future. You are here with me now. You will remain with me for all time.”

“I wish . . .” Her voice grew hoarse and she swallowed. Her hand was roaming over his body, touching him. The last time. The last time. “Nicholas, please,” she said. “Listen to me.”

“Aye, I will listen, then I will love you again.”

“When you left before, no one remembered you. It was as though you hadn’t existed. It was so horrible for me.” She buried her face in his shoulder. “You had come and gone, but no one remembered. It was as though I’d made you up.”

“I am most forgettable.”

She raised on her elbow to look at him, to touch his beard, his cheek, to caress his eyebrows, to kiss his eyelids. “I will never forget you.”

“Nor I, you.” He lifted a bit to kiss her lips, but when he wanted more, Dougless pulled away.

“The same may happen when I leave. I want you to be prepared if no one remembers me. Don’t . . . I don’t know what to say . . . Don’t make yourself crazy trying to make them remember.”

“No one will forget.”

“They probably will. What if the songs I taught you were remembered? It could ruin some very good Broadway shows in the twentieth century.” She tried to smile but didn’t quite make it. “I want you to swear some things to me.”

“I will not marry Lettice. I doubt now I will be asked again,” he said sarcastically.

“Good. Oh, very, very good. Now I won’t have to read about your execution.” She ran her fingertips over his neck. “Promise me you’ll take care of James. No more swaddling, and play with him sometimes.”

He kissed her fingertips and nodded.

“Take care of Honoria; she’s been so good to me.”

“I will find her the best of husbands.”

“Not the richest, the best. Promise?” When he nodded, she went on. “And anyone who’s delivering a baby has to wash his or her hands first. And you have to build Thornwyck Castle and leave records behind that show that you designed it. I want history to know.”

He was smiling at her. “Naught else? You will have to remain by my side to remind me of all this.”

“I would,” she whispered. “I would, but I cannot. May I have the miniature of you?”

“You may have my heart, my soul, my life.”

She clasped his head in her arms. “Nicholas, I can’t bear it.”

“There is naught bad to bear,” he said, kissing her arm, her shoulder, his lips traveling downward. “Perhaps Kit will give me a small estate, and we—”

She pulled away to look at him. “Wrap the miniature of you in oiled cloth, something that will protect it over the next four hundred years, and put it behind the . . . What’s the stone thing that holds up the beams?”

“A corbel.”

“At Thornwyck Castle you’ll make a corbel that’s a portrait of Kit. Wrap the miniature and put it behind the corbel. When I . . . when I return, I’ll go get it.”

He was kissing her breast.

“Did you hear me?”

“I heard all. James. Honoria. Midwives. Thornwyck. Kit’s face.” With each word, he punctuated it with a little sucking-kiss on her breast. “Now, my love,” he whispered, “come to me.”

He lifted her body and set her down on top of him, and Dougless forgot everything on earth except the touch of this man she loved so much. He stroked her hips, her breasts as they moved together. Up and down. Slowly at first, then building faster.

Nicholas rolled with her until she was on her back, and his passion rose as he entered her deeply, her body rising to meet his. They arched together, both with their heads back, then they collapsed, Nicholas on top of her, holding her very tightly.

“I love you,” he whispered. “I will love you for all time.”

Dougless clung to him, holding him as tightly as she could. “You will remember me? You won’t forget me?”

“Never,” he said. “Never will I forget you. Were I to die tomorrow, my soul would remember you.”

“Don’t speak of death. Speak only of life. With you I am alive. With you I am whole.”

“And I with you.” He rolled to one side and pulled her close to him. “Look, you. The sun comes up.”

“Nicholas, I’m afraid.”

He stroked her damp hair. “Afraid of being seen unclad? It is not something we have not seen before.”

“You!” she said, laughing. “I’ll never forgive you for not telling me.”

“I will have a lifetime in which to make you forgive me.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes. It will take a lifetime.”

He glanced at the lightening sky. “We must go. I must tell my mother what I have done. Kit will no doubt be here soon.”

“They will be very angry. And my part in this won’t help matters any.”

“You must go to Kit with me. I will be shameless. I will tell my brother he must give us a place to live in memory of your saving him.”

Dougless looked up at the sky, saw it was growing lighter by the minute. She could almost believe she was going to be able to stay with him. “We’ll live in a pretty little house somewhere,” she said, her words beginning to gain speed. “We’ll have only a few servants, fifty or so,” she said, smiling. “And we’ll have a dozen kids. I like kids. And we’ll educate them properly and teach them how to wash. Maybe we can invent a flush toilet.”

Nicholas chuckled. “You wash too much. My sons will not—”

“Our sons. I’m going to have to explain to you about women’s equality.”

He stood up, then pulled her into his arms. “Will this explaining take long?”

“About four hundred years,” she whispered.

“Then I will give you the time.”

“Yes,” she said, smiling. “Time. We will have all the time we need.”

He kissed her then, kissed her long and hard and deeply; then his kiss lightened. “Forever,” he whispered. “I will love you throughout time.”

One moment Dougless was in his arms, his lips on hers, and the next she was in the church at Ashburton, and outside a jet flew overhead.


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