Chapter One

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Suffolk, 1585

Alys' cousin Kate was the bane of her young life. Since the death of her husband a year past, which she seemed to regard as some kind of release, Kate had become both frivolous and spiteful. The look on her face at this very moment probably portended one of her tasteless jests, which were usually at Alys' expense. Behind the little group of gentlewomen gazing out across the knot garden, Alys winced and waited for the blow to fall.

Fortunately this time Kate's attention was directed elsewhere. "How do you like my latest acquisition?" she demanded of her ladies, "A decorative addition to the garden is it not?"

Everyone looked across the paths to the flowerbeds beyond trying to identify which rare or unusual bloom Kate was referring to. The only new thing Alys could see was one of the gardeners but surely Kate could not be referring to him in such a way?
Hannah Shawcross was the first to tire of guessing. "I see nothing different," she said eventually.
"Better I should say he rather than it," said Kate, her blue eyes twinkling with mischief, "Look yonder, amongst the roses."
Alys' face took on a pained "expression. Who, besides herself, would be the first to work out Kate's puzzle?
It was Mary. "You mean the gardener?" she gasped and all the ladies immediately focussed their eyes on the tall, dark-haired fellow moving amongst the flowers.
Alys groaned inwardly. This was typical of the way her cousin had been behaving lately, like the veriest harlot. Kate's antics were the reason Alys was forced to remain unmarried, for the attractive widow had driven any likely suitors away, either by shocking them or stealing them for herself.
The other women, as ever, had been hanging on Kate's every word, ready to be entertained, ready to flatter in return.
"Do you always choose your gardeners on account of their looks?" enquired Hannah, tilting her head to admire the man's handsome profile.
"Shame on you, Kate!" said Jennet, and the other ladies tittered.
"Nay, indeed!" exclaimed the young mistress of the house, "The steward did the hiring at the recent fair. 'Twas merely my good fortune that he picked so handsome a fellow."
"Alys stared down from the platform with narrowed eyes, pretending disinterest. Her beautiful cousin was, as ever, courting approval from the wards and distant relatives that made up her retinue of gentlewomen by making them laugh. Her remarks on the male members of her acquaintance always did the trick, being frank and oftimes crude.
This time, unusually, Kate was not exaggerating. The new gardener was a sight to set the hardest heart racing, although Alys liked to think herself above such foolishness. As the others ladies giggled and pointed, she gave the man a cursory perusal, took a deep breath and remarked, "Handsome is as handsome does."
"Fie on you Alys!" cried Kate, happy for the opportunity to give her cousin a set down, "You have milk in your veins, not blood! I declare-whatever the man does will be done handsomely. Do you not see how gracefully he moves? Ah!" The unwitting subject of their discussion had just crouched down to snip some errant stems from a trained rose, revealing a broad expanse of muscled back and powerful thigh.
"Look at those long legs!" Kate commanded, "I'll warrant he could sit a horse admirably. Mayhap he could ride "a woman just as well!"
There was an outburst of smothered gasps and shocked laughter from the ladies, which caused the gardener to turn his head. Seeing the group of five women apparently observing him from the elevated height of their wooden platform he rose to his feet and bent the knee to them. Immediately everyone was as straight-faced and haughty as became their station and a few cursory nods were sent in his direction. Alys simply stood and watched, pitying the poor fellow who was being discussed in such intimate detail. His brown eyes flickered over her face for a moment and he smiled faintly, then returned to his task.
The women relaxed once more and continued to gaze contentedly out over the complex knot garden and parterre, enjoying the summer sunlight. Alys spread her hands across the warm wood of the platform's parapet and drew a deep breath. She loved this garden, especially in the summer. That, at least, was one thing her cousin couldn't spoil for her. In the still air, you could hear almost everything going on around Selwood Manor. Alys' ears picked up the sound of a horse whinnying on its way to "the stables at the back of the house. The crunch of wheels over baked earth heralded the arrival of some visiting vehicle. From the direction of the old moat, the robust singing of the laundry-women could be heard even as far as the house.
She was desperate to escape the present company and wander through the gardens alone, enjoying the neatly ordered flowerbeds and the mingled scent of herbs. But she was the poor relation, bound to live on Kate's charity until such time as she was wed. Yet, perhaps because she enjoyed baiting her, Cousin Kate did not seem over-eager to marry her off. She sighed as she realised her cousin had not yet finished with the current subject.

"He looks very strong," Kate whispered to her ladies, "I'll warrant he could last the race and more besides!"

Alarmed by this impropriety, Alys was moved to say, "He's a gardener, Katharine- you shouldn't think of him in such a way!"

"It is precisely because he is a mere servant that I can speak of him thus," replied Kate haughtily, "I pay his wages so can say what I will of him."

"But not have your will of him," said Jennet with a giggle.

Kate tilted her pert little chin and her blue eyes flashed. "I could if I wished," she answered, "For I'll wager he would not say me nay!"

"A wager? I'm tempted," said Hannah, leaning her elbows on the parapet and shielding her eyes against the sun.

Kate clapped her delicate little hands together. "A wager it is!" she proclaimed, "What will you give me if I can steal a kiss, if not more, from our fine new gardener?"

"There's my new embroidered pocket," said Jennet, eagerly entering into the spirit of the dare.

"Now if you could bed him, that would be something! I would give you my chased gold locket...but then I know there is no real danger of losing it," Hannah remarked drily.

"Ha, a challenge! You know I cannot resist a challenge!"

"Is this not too wicked to even contemplate?" asked Mary uncertainly, "I am ill-inclined to encourage you."

"Nor I," added Alys, "You are a respectable widow with a great household to maintain; you will lose all the respect you have gained if you persist in such frivolity."

"Who bade you speak, Madam? Odds blood, Alys, you sound like one of those wretched Puritans who have so exasperated the Queen of late. Think you not that I deserve a little pleasure, bereft and lonely as I am?"

Alys turned away without giving an answer for she had none that would persuade her cousin. She could not fathom why Kate had changed so much since her husband's death. It was almost as if she had re-invented herself...perhaps to quell the pain of her loss? If only she were sure that was true but she sometimes wondered if there wasn't something else...Kate seemed so distracted at times.

"Methinks you forget yourself, Cousin," Kate continued testily, "I give you my protection and the shelter of my roof, yet ever you seek to rule me. You give yourself airs because you are my heir," she added, making the most of the pun, "But should I marry again I will not remain childless for long."

"True indeed, particularly if you carry on as you seem to intend," replied Alys, but under her breath.

Having delivered her reprimand, Kate had turned back to her companions. "I shall go forthwith," she declared, "And see what can be done."

The ladies all gasped and watched wide-eyed as Kate descended the steps from the platform down into the garden. A short walk through the gravel borders of the parterre brought her to the rose arbour, where the gardener stood to greet her, hanging his head submissively. Despite herself, Alys was drawn to watch the shameful spectacle of her cousin stretching up to whisper in the unfortunate fellow's ear. He ducked his head to hear her the better and a lock of his long dark hair fell forward, hiding his face. A slender-fingered hand hovered by Kate's elbow but did not touch her. Then she drew away and turned towards the watchers on the platform with a triumphant grin.

Alys sighed deeply as Kate pranced back towards them, her hips swaying suggestively beneath her gown. It was not jealousy she felt at her cousin's apparent conquest, more sheer embarrassment that she could behave so brazenly. She saw the gardener's gaze follow his mistress' departure but there was no expression in his eyes. The only clue to what had passed between them was the faint rosy hue on his high cheekbones. Alys decided not to wait for her gloating cousin's return but left the platform and hastened through the kitchen garden into the house, to find out if the earlier sounds of activity from the front had truly presaged a visitor.

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