“’Rissa!” Gwyndolyn hissed. “Are you coming, or not?”
“Oh, all right,” replied Marissa with a barely concealed sigh of exasperation. “I suppose someone has to keep you from getting into trouble. Although heaven only knows,” she muttered under her breath, “why it always has to be me.”
She slipped out of the narrow bed, shucked out of her nightdress and began to pull on clothes: chemise, blue walking dress, soft slippers. Gwyn helped her with the last of the dress’s hooks. Catching up a dark cloak from its peg on the wall near the foot of the bed, Marissa eyed her friend suspiciously.
“Are you wearing your best gown?” she demanded. “Gwyn…” Marissa stopped, speechless.
“Of course,” Gwyn replied loftily. “You couldn’t expect me to meet a boy dressed in rags, could you?”
“Meet a boy! Gwyn, you’re sneaking out to meet a boy?”
“Yes,” crowed Gwyn. “And guess what? He’s even bringing a friend for you.”
This news didn’t meet with the warm reception Gwyn might have expected. Marissa gaped at her friend. Her voice, when she could finally speak, came out strangled. “You’re mad, that’s all. It’s the only explanation.”
“Oh, don’t be such an old worry-puss. I haven’t been caught yet.”
“What about last week?” inquired Marissa in frosty tones. “If Sister Agatha hadn’t thought it funny…”
Gwyn waved away this triviality. “But she didn’t report me to Mother-Abbess,” she said reasonably. “So it doesn’t count.”
“And the week before that? Mother-Abbess had you in her office then, didn’t she?”
“Well, yes,” said Gwyn impatiently. “But only for being out of bed after curfew.”
Marissa sniffed. “If she’d found out you had the key to the sacramental wine cabinet tucked down your bodice…” She let this statement hang ominously in the air.
Gwyn grinned impishly, her red hair swirling about her face as she shook her head. “But she didn’t. And it was a marvelous party, you must admit. You drank your fair share, I dare say.”
Unable to contradict this damning indictment, Marissa maintained a studied silence. Perhaps it was the red hair, she thought. It seemed Gwyndolyn, whose upbringing had reportedly been as demure as her own, had developed a most inexplicable wild streak which could only be explained by the fiery red tresses. They must do something to the brain.
Gwyn reveled in breaking any rule she could find. And in most of her escapades she dragged Marissa along with her as a matter of course. ‘You need a bit of livening up,’ Gwyn had urged on numerous instances. Like tonight.
“Well, I’m going,” Gwyn declared. “And with any luck, I’ll get him to kiss me.”
This was, Marissa knew, Gwyn’s avowed mission in life—to achieve her first kiss. She had come to the Abbey of St. Marguerite from Invern where, so she reported, all the boys were repulsive, buck-toothed and smelling of pigs. If any had their doubts on this score—other girls from Invern had failed to confirm this low opinion of their men folk—they wisely maintained their own counsel.
At any rate, Gwyn was determined to find romance here in Kilbourne. Even in the chaste environs of the Abbey of St. Marguerite.
She must have arranged an assignation with one of the boys from St. Collin’s. Operated by an order of monastic warrior-monks, St. Collin’s lay only a few miles from the abbey. The monks trained an elite group of young men to be the rising military leaders of Kilbourne. On very rare—and very well-monitored—occasions, the boys of St. Collin’s and the young ladies of St. Marguerite’s were allowed meet for a cotillion. As St. Collin’s was the only available source of boys, so it must be the answer.
And he was bringing a friend for her. Great heavens! Marissa rolled her eyes.
“Where?” she finally asked, curiosity getting the better of her misgivings.
“On the lips, silly,” replied Gwyn triumphantly.
“No, goose. Where are you meeting this mysterious boy?”
“The note smuggled in to me,” Gwyn shivered deliciously at this bit of romantic intrigue, “said there’s a stand of elms about a mile east of the abbey, not far from the road. They’re going to wait for us there.”
“I still think you’re mad,” Marissa reported. “And I must be doubly so, to come with you.” She shrugged into her cloak and pulled the hood up so her face was almost completely obscured. “All right, let’s go before I come to my senses.”
Gwyn reached out and gave her best friend a hug. “You’re a brick, ‘Rissa,” she said. Then taking Marissa’s hand, she led the way out of the security of St. Marguerite’s and into the night.
At least they didn’t slide down bedsheets from a third-story window. Or shinny down a rickety trellis. Small mercies, Marissa supposed, should be counted when they could be. She eyed the stables warily. She wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Gwyn had decided to take a pair of horses from the small stable the Abbey maintained for riding lessons for the young ladies.
Eschewing equine transport in favor of feet, Gwyn led them stealthily through the shadow of the hedgerow lining the drive leading from the Abbey to the post road. Marissa breathed a sigh of relief as they reached the road. Being caught sneaking out would be bad enough. Being caught stealing horses as well would have spelled complete disgrace and disaster.
No shouts of discovery or pursuit rang out. In fact, the evening was still and peaceful. The silence was broken only by a particularly vocal set of frogs who croaked out greetings as the girls passed by, and by the sound of an owl off somewhere to their left. His muffled hoots brought a quick smile to Marissa’s lips. For some unknown reason she had decided she liked owls, although she had never met one face to face. Which was probably for the best, she opined. Then her foot connected with a rock on the path, and she staggered, muttering imprecations under her breath.
“You should have worn boots,” said Gwyn, indicating her own supple and fashionable kid boots. “Much more sensible than slippers.”
“I didn’t know,” Marissa pointed out through clenched teeth as she rubbed at her aching toes, “I was going for a stroll through the woods. In the dark. With no light!”
“Well, never mind. Look, the moon will be up soon. Oooh, and it’s going to be full. How romantic!” Gwyn gave a happy little sigh.
“Very nice,” said Marissa with considerably less enthusiasm.
“Oh, relax, ‘Rissa,” urged Gwyn. “It’ll be fun. Maybe the boy James is bringing for you will be cute too.”
“James?” inquired Marissa.
“James Randall duMont,” Gwyn reported. “His father is the Earl of Cormaine. Which means one day…”
“His oldest brother will be the Earl of Cormaine,” offered Marissa, taking just a tiny bit of malicious delight in the news. “I’ve heard of the family. He’s the youngest son, with three older brothers ahead of him in the line of succession.”
“Yes, but he’s still soooo handsome in his uniform…”
Marissa thought back to the last cotillion, some three months gone. She hadn’t noticed Gwyn with any one boy in particular. There had been a crowd of them around her, as usual; Sister Bernina had appeared ready to drive them off with a flaming sword. Of course they just seemed to naturally gravitate towards Gwyn. The red hair again, Marissa thought with just a touch of resentment. Boys didn’t notice girls with dark curls, no matter how soft and wavy those curls might be. They flocked to the cool blondes, or the exotic redheads. Brunettes were just—ordinary.
But that was getting away from the subject at hand, which seemed to be the charms of James Randall duMont. “I don’t remember him,” she admitted.
“Tall, broad shoulders, blond, with the biggest blue eyes that crinkle when he smiles. He smiled at me,” Gwyn said dreamily. “And I felt something go crashing…”
“I think that was me, running in to you,” Marissa told her repressively. “I remember—you stopped suddenly, and I couldn’t help but almost knock you over.”
“Our eyes met across the room,” Gwyn went on. “And…ack!” An enormous dark shape swooped past them, hooting lustily. Leaping back, Gwyn caromed into Marissa, whose attention had been focused on a particularly stubborn pebble which had managed to lodge itself in the toe of her slipper.
Marissa kept her balance, but it was a near thing. She decided perhaps she didn’t care for owls quite so much after all. And she wasn’t sure how she felt about Gwyn at the moment either. Dragging her out in the dead of night like this, with mad owls running about loose. All for some silly boy.
And for that elusive first real kiss. Cousins didn’t count, Gwyn had decreed. Marissa had tried to point out many a match had been made between cousins over the years, but Gwyn was having none of it. Cousins were just family; Gwyn wanted romance. She was certain when she got her first real kiss the stars would be jolted from their courses and angels would sing a chorus on a fluffy cloud overhead.
Marissa hadn’t had the heart to point out that if the stars were jolted from their courses, one would likely not be able to see those fluffy clouds, nor the angels perched upon them. She was just much too practical about these things. It was a curse sometimes.
Well, Marissa wished her joy of it. She had no such romantic illusions for herself. She didn’t often join in when the other girls began talking about boys. It wasn’t that she wasn’t interested—she was. Most definitely. It was just… well, just talking about it wasn’t going to do anything but leave a sense of longing impossible to fulfill. Her practical streak again. Living in a world of romantic daydreams in which a bold knight rescued one from an ogre or a dragon was just silly. It wasn’t going to happen. Not to her, at any rate.
And sequestered as they were in the Abbey, under the baleful eyes of the Sisters, the girls had little enough opportunity for contact with any boys. Much less for romance. How Gwyn had managed to arrange this assignation in the first place staggered the imagination.
“Hsst!” said Gwyn, coming to another abrupt halt. Fortunately Marissa had been more watchful this time, and managed to avoid another collision.
“Hsst?” Marissa stifled a giggle. “What does that mean?”
“I think,” Gwyn said doubtfully, “it’s rather like ‘hark’. Anyway, what I was trying to convey was that I think we’ve arrived. Over there—isn’t that a stand of elms?”
Marissa was about to protest it was too dratted dark to tell an elm from an alder, and even in the daylight she might have found it deuced difficult, and this wasn’t the time for natural history anyhow. Then the moon broke out from behind a concealing cloud. As promised, it was full, and it bathed the landscape in a pale golden glow. It was rather romantic, Marissa admitted to herself.
And those were elms. Weren’t they? She squinted, trying to get a better look. Yes, definitely elms. Nature walks with Sister Ophelia had not gone to waste after all.
A pair of horses placidly cropped grass at the edge of the copse. Under the elms two figures waited. James Randall duMont and outrider, as promised. Marissa wondered with a suppressed giggle if the friend had been dragged along as unwillingly as she. Poor boy, forced to serve as companion to some unknown girl. He probably imagined stooped shoulders, bad teeth and a squint in the offing. But there was no time for any further supposition, for Gwyn had broken into a near-trot now, and Marissa was hard-pressed to keep up.
Gwyn came to a halt before her victim with a swish of gown which displayed a tantalizing glimpse of perfectly-turned calf. “Hello, James,” she cooed, her voice low and husky. Marissa made a mental note to inquire later how long she had practiced her “Hello, James” until she had gotten it down just right.
But it had the desired effect. Breeding told: the youngest son of the Earl of Cormaine presented a sweeping bow, ending with a nice flourish. “Fair Gwyndolyn,” he said to her feet, “I have counted the hours until our meeting. And it was worth the wait.” He rose and eyed her appreciatively.
Marissa saw her friend shiver with delight. James took Gwyn’s arm and led her away. Her eyes were shining up at him. Marissa turned to face the other boy.
“Hello,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster, considering they were meeting illicitly in a stand of trees in the moonlight. “I’m ‘Rissa.”
He stood in the shadow, his face nearly masked in darkness. But as he regarded her, Marissa caught a glimpse of hazel eyes gleaming with interest.
“I must apologize for James,” the boy said. “I’m afraid he’s gone and neglected the introductions. His mind was otherwise occupied, I suppose. They generally call me Rob, but…” Whatever he had been about to say was cut short by a girlish squeal which came from the direction taken by Gwyn and James. James, thought Marissa, doesn’t stand a chance.
“Do you attend St. Collin’s too?” she inquired. “I don’t recall seeing you at the cotillion.”
“I do, but I missed the cotillion,” he said. “But now I’ve met you, I’ll be sure to come to the next one.” He grinned engagingly, teeth dazzlingly white in the moonlight. His face seemed very dark, as if he were deeply tanned or in perpetual shadow. But on seeing his smile Marissa felt something give a little lurch inside her. It suggested there was a particularly good secret only the two of them shared. It was such an intimate feeling that she was taken off guard. She shivered, even with the warmth of her cloak.
“Are you cold? I could lend you my cloak if you’d like…”
Marissa shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. She’d come on this little outing purely with the intent of keeping Gwyn from compromising herself. From the sounds emanating from the trees behind which Gwyn and James stood, she was failing miserably in her mission. And here was this boy, smiling at her and paying her compliments and offering up his cloak to keep her warm. Impossible! This wasn’t really happening, was it?
“No, I’m fine,” she lied, even as her brain screamed “Yes, yes, put your cloak and your arms around me!” She vigorously squelched those thoughts and made an effort to change conversational tracks. “How did you end up getting dragged out here on this adventure?”
Rob shrugged. “James put it ‘round he was sliding out to meet this marvelous girl, and he needed someone to come to keep her cute friend company. None of the fellows wanted to chance it—not the sneaking out, that’s all right. The ‘cute friend’ bit was the dicey part. They never are, are they? Except in this case, those other fellows lost out.” He grinned again, and Marissa felt her insides dissolve into a delicious gooey mass, all wonderfully sweet and sticky, like the jam and cream on a scone.
Rob went on. “The fellows all say I live on my instincts. Anyway, something told me I should come with James tonight. As always, they steered me right.”
Marissa told herself she should put a firm stop to this flow of complements. She was no siren like Gwyn. Oh, she reckoned she was attractive enough, but she lacked Gwyn’s glamour and exotic looks. She was just plain ordinary Marissa duBerry from Bremaine, only daughter of a minor baronet, with dark complexion and curls, gold-flecked brown eyes and a nose just a little bit tilted at the tip. But she somehow couldn’t find the words, or the will-power, to stop him.
“And how did you end up out here in the moonlight?” Rob asked.
Marissa grimaced. “I seem to be the one who gets elected to go along with Gwyn on her escapades and keep her out of trouble. Although,” she said, “I don’t seem to be making such a good job of it tonight.” Another delighted squeal issued from the direction of the trees and Marissa’s brow furrowed with sisterly concern.
“Don’t worry,” Rob assured her. “James is a good sort—he won’t do anything improper.”
Marissa rolled her eyes. “Trust me, James isn’t the one I’m worried about,” she confided. “Gwyn’s determined to get her first real kiss tonight, and…”
She broke off in mid-sentence. Her companion was choking. At first she thought he had succumbed to some kind of fit. Then she realized it was strangled laughter. And it was quite infectious. She began to giggle, which set him off even more. In short order they were both chortling hysterically. Marissa struggled to control herself, gave a final unladylike snort, and wiped her streaming eyes with a bit of excessively flowing sleeve.
Rob, she could see, was making a manful effort to keep from succumbing to laughter again. He glanced over at her, sputtered, and clutched his stomach. Finally they both subsided into mere snorts and giggles.
“Sorry, ‘Rissa,” Rob said apologetically. “I don’t know why, it just really struck me as funny. Especially because you’re so beastly frank about the whole thing.”
“One of my many faults,” Marissa informed him. “Too practical and too ready to speak out about things that really ought to be kept quiet.”
Rob gazed into her eyes. His eyes, she noted, glittered like a cat’s in the moonlight. “And are you too practical to allow me to kiss you?” he asked. “Because my instincts are telling me I should kiss you now, while I have the chance.” He smiled.
“Are they?” The words had been intended to come out as languid, sultry, seductive. Instead, they had been breathless, and just a bit hopeful. It was his dratted smile—how could she be expected to respond in a properly worldly manner when her insides were doing back flips like an acrobat at the Midsummer festival. And the nearness of him, as well. He… he smelled good, all leather and soap and sandalwood. It was just too much for a girl to have to cope with.
Regaining some semblance of control over her emotions, she tilted her face up towards his, lowering her lashes in the approved manner. And then one of his hands was on the small of her back, pulling her close, and the other was traveling through the silky darkness of her hair, and his lips were on hers and time stopped and mountains fell and waves crashed and angels sang.
Eventually a sound like thunder seeped through her deliciously oblivious brain. Marissa wondered wildly if it was her heart, for she was certain it was beating loudly enough to make such a racket. Then the warm pressure of Rob’s lips was gone from her own, and suddenly and as if by magic they were standing a yard apart. Marissa realized the sound she had heard was hoof beats on the dry ground. An urgent voice called “Rob! James!” and then another boy came into view, he and his horse both sweating from a hard ride.
“Garvan,” Rob said dryly, “you have the timing of the devil himself.”
“Bed check!” announced the newcomer. “If you don’t get back now, they’ll mark you as missing, and all hell will bust loose. I took an awful chance slipping out to warn you.”
James appeared from behind the trees, Gwyn at his side. She was trying rather unsuccessfully to straighten her bodice and fix her hair. Her lips were almost as red as her hair, and they were curved into a smile that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a cat left with an unguarded cream pitcher. Her tongue flicked out to run sensuously over them, and her eyes glinted wildly in the moonlight.
Rob turned back to Marissa. “I’m truly sorry to leave just as we were getting acquainted,” he said, “but I’m afraid we must.”
“I’m sorry too,” she breathed. Her voice seemed unnaturally husky, and her lips felt swollen from his kiss, and her heart was still pounding like the hooves of Garvan’s horse. “Will I see you again?”
She realized even as she uttered the words that she shouldn’t have. She had no claim on him. This was just a casual moonlight tryst, with no promises attached. Unplanned, unexpected, it was so surreal that Marissa was half-certain she was going to wake up in her bed and find she had dreamed the whole episode.
Rob was swinging up onto his horse. He looked down at her and his teeth flashed white against his dark skin as he beamed another grin her way. Marissa had been hoping against hope he’d give her one more smile before he rode off, to remember him by. And there it was, melting her like warm sunshine on an early snowfall. Those smiles, she decided, could become quite habit-forming.
“I’d like to see you again,” he said. He reached down to take her hand in his. “Perhaps the next time, we won’t be interrupted by some fool barging in.” He grinned again “I’ll look forward to that.”
Raising her hand, he brushed a kiss her palm and then released it. Marissa vowed not to wash that hand for at least the next five years. Rob wheeled his mount, gave a jaunty wave, and rode off into the night, following James. Garvan looked at the two girls--a bit enviously, Marissa thought. He shook his head and took off after the other boys.
Marissa watched them until Rob was out of view. She looked up to find Gwyn standing next to her, a knowing smile on her face. “Well?” she demanded.
“Very well,” Marissa answered, as an answering smile threatened to explode from her. “Very well indeed.” And with that, they began the walk back to the Abbey under the watchful gaze of the moon.
Keith W. Willis graduated (long ago) from Berry College with a degree in English Lit. He now lives in the scenic Hudson Valley/Adirondack region of NY with his wife Patty. They have one grown son, Matt, who actually thinks it’s pretty cool that Dad wrote a book.
Keith’s interests include camping, canoeing, and Scrabble. Keith began writing seriously in 2008, when the voices in his head got too annoying to ignore. When he’s not making up stories he manages a group of database content editors at a global information technology firm. Traitor Knight is his first published novel.
Saturday, February 20, 2016
“’Rissa!” Gwyndolyn hissed. “Are you coming, or not?”