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The Gold Crucifix by Nickie Fleming
England, mid seventeenth century. When young Sarah finds out that innkeeper Amos Jennings is not her father, she feels uncertain and scared. Her problems grow bigger when she starts a job as housekeeper and gets involved with two men who both want her love: the earl of Linfield, and his younger brother Richard. To escape these problems, Sarah takes off to London to begin a new life as actress at His Majesty’s Theatre.
Richard cannot forget the young woman her met at his brother’s. He is determined to find Sarah and make her his own--even his wife, despite what his family thinks of it. But love never comes easy. Richard and Sarah will have to face many a storm--even the Great Fire of London--before they can become one.
It happened in the last bend of the lane, just before the clearing where the lawns and flower-beds of the manor became visible.
All at once Sarah heard the thundering of a horse in full gallop, and before she could even jump to safety, she was pushed off the road into the soft grass of the verge. She was so stunned she did not hear the curse of the horseman and how he pulled his mount to a standstill.
Slowly, she crawled to an upright position and immediately noticed the pain in her right knee. Neglecting the fact that her basket had fallen and its contents were shattered over the path--some of them trodden on--she started to rub her knee fiercely. Only then did she notice the man, who had turned his horse and who was now throwing disdainful looks in her direction.
Suddenly, she realized what danger she had barely escaped. This notion triggered a fit of anger, which became so violent she turned hot and enflamed. Returning his glances with eyes that shot fire, she snarled, "You fool! You could have hurt me!"
The look in his eyes remained cold, but the tone of his voice revealed a show of interest.
"In case you shouldn't know, let me warn you that you find yourself on private property," he said.
She refused to be intimidated and was quick to answer. "So right you are. But I am the housekeeper of the Grange…sir," and she put all her contempt into the word, "and I have every right to be here. I was walking alongside the road and you should have been more careful! The least you can do is offer your apologies to me, and if you're a gentleman, you will help me pick up my belongings."
~ * ~
Richard laughed. What a wench! Where in heaven's name had his brother found a woman like that? He had never suspected Walter to have an eye for fine flesh, but one could always be wrong…
His eyes examined the angry female from head to foot, slowly and deliberately, enjoying every single detail of her appearance. She had a slender and gracious figure with a high bosom and long legs; thick auburn hair reminding him of the paintings of Titian, and a delicate face with a perfectly shaped mouth and violet eyes which now almost turned purple. He knew at once his stay in the country would not be as dull as he had feared it would be.
He jumped of his horse and made a courtly bow. "My humble apologies, mistress."
~ * ~
Sarah raised her eyebrows. His close examination of her had not gone unnoticed and vexed her even more. She was quite suspicious towards his show of politeness right now. Still an inner feeling urged her to be cautious. He was, without any doubt, a nobleman, accustomed to being obeyed at every beck and call. And she should never forget that she was only a servant. "I accept your apologies, sir."
He smiled then began to collect the items that had fallen out of the basket. Nothing much had happened to most of them. Alas, the horse's hoofs had come down on the roll of cloth. The material was dirty and torn in places. He handed Sarah the basket and put the roll on top of it. "If this was to become a gown or a cape, I'm afraid you'll never wear it. It is totally ruined."
She bit her lip to avoid an angry reaction, and tried her best to hide her disappointment. "It's nothing. I'll buy new fabric."
"Of course not," he responded. "As this is entirely my fault, you will allow me to make it up to you. I'll ride into town and fetch something to replace it."
He studied her for another moment and commented: "A beautiful woman like you should wear silks and satins. Yes--I can already picture you in them!"
She had to make an effort to keep a restraint manner. "That won't be necessary," she said evenly. "A woman in my position has no need for fancy garments and certainly not in the expensive materials you are speaking of."
She deeply pitied the loss of her purchase but sensed the situation was getting out of hand. All she longed for now was to hasten back to the Grange and tidy up then forget about this arrogant stranger, who proposed to bring her presents. "I must go now, sir. A good evening to you," she said as she began to walk.
She had only walked a few paces when she felt a firm grip on her shoulder. "Not so fast, my pretty one," she heard a mocking voice. "Are you afraid of me? I believe we still have to settle a small matter."
She caught her breath and tried to free herself, alas in vain. His grip grew tighter. "Well?"
"Keep your hands of me!" she blurted out, forgetting her previous intentions.
He responded by clicking his tongue. "Mind your language, woman."
It was not said in an angry manner, but something cautioned her to be careful. She gained back her composure. "Please sir, let me go. I am expected at the Grange."
He smiled even broader and finally loosened his grip. "As it happens, so am I. I just hope my brother is in residence?"
Her surprise was total. Lord Linfield had never mentioned his younger brother coming for a visit. She wondered what he would think of it.
"You must be lord Richard Carey," she stated. "His Lordship knows nothing of your arrival, I'm sorry to say."
He again gave her a long, pensive look. "You have me at a disadvantage there, mistress. You seem to know who I am, but who are you?"
With lowered eyelids she answered quietly: "I am Sarah Jennings, and my father is the landlord of the White Raven. Lord Walter hired me as his housekeeper last summer."
"You look pretty young to me," he commented. "My brother must have a damned high opinion of your… capabilities."
She did not understand his insinuation, as she was still completely innocent and held Walter in high esteem. "I can perfectly master my duties, Lord Richard" she said, certain of her position and proud to fulfill all the duties asked of her in a perfect manner. "I was well trained by Mary Jameson, who was formerly the housekeeper of Vicar Flint. His Lordship wouldn't honor me with such a position if he suspected I was not ready for it."
"Oh, I am ready to trust Walter's decisions," he answered dryly. "Well then, mistress Jennings! Tonight I'll deliver you the prettiest cloth you've ever laid eyes on: gorgeous silk from Persia or China. What color do you prefer?"
She kept silent, although she found it hard not to answer. She would so much like to tell him what to do with his silk.
"No preference? It doesn't matter, I'll make my own choice. I am sure you will like it…Sarah. We should become friends, don't you think that possible?"
"I very much doubt it," she said, and walked away with all the dignity she could master.
Richard's loud laughter pursued her until she reached the house.