Mary called out to the maid and getting no reply searched briefly through the downstairs rooms but found no sign of Christiane, and all the while she knew the stain was settling more tenaciously in Jacques’s velvet coat, and so at length she took a sponge herself and wet it in the washing basin in the kitchen, spreading out the coat upon the table near the window where there would be better light. The wind had risen outside and it whistled past the window glass and set the small panes rattling in their frosty wooden frame, but on the hearth the kitchen fire worked bravely to spread warmth, and Mary, who liked kitchens to begin with, felt quite comfortable. She would not wish the hardships of a servant’s life, but neither was she happy being idle, and in doing something useful now she gained some satisfaction. She’d begun to make some progress with the stain when she felt cold air at her back and, turning, saw the door had blown inward. Evidently Cook, for all the forcefulness of her departure, hadn’t pulled the door behind her hard enough to spring the latch. Mary set the sponge aside and crossed to where the door was swinging open on its hinges, letting in a chilling swirl of wind. For an instant, as she grasped the handle of the door to tug it closed again, she felt a stab of childish apprehension that there might be something hiding just behind it, some menacing creature from one of her fairy tales waiting to pounce, but of course it was only imagined. There was nothing behind the door. Nor was there anything lurking outside in the courtyard, and Mary relaxed with a smile as she swung the door to.

From directly behind her, a man’s arm reached forward, his bare hand completing the motion to slam the door all the way shut.

And he slid the bolt home.

* * *

Mary felt the scream swell in her throat, but it wouldn’t come out. Fear and panic had rendered her dumb. But not paralyzed. Wheeling, she felt the rough brush of the intruder’s sleeve on the skin of her cheek as he withdrew his arm again, standing too close to her, sprung as before from the shadows, from nowhere, his hard eyes as merciless as they had been in her nightmares last night.

“Do not strike me,” he warned. He spoke English, but not like an Englishman.

Mary had not even realized she’d lifted her hand to defend herself, but on the threat of his words she arrested the motion and let her hand fall to her side.

“And keep quiet.”

Her mouth had gone dryer than dust, but the galloping beat of her heart had apparently dislodged the lump in her throat and she knew that she could, if she’d wanted to, scream with a loudness to bring down the walls, but her wits, although all out of order, retained enough sense to know little would come of it. All she’d accomplish by calling for help would be to bring Jacques down to help her, and Jacques was no match for this man.

He was dressed as he had been last night, in the gray cloak and three-cornered hat, though the cloak was pushed back now to show a wool coat of a similar gray, trimmed with wine-dark red on the broad collar and cuffs, and not one but two sword belts that crossed at his chest. There was snow on his shoulder. She did not know why that should draw her attention, except it seemed vital she focus on something and she was not brave enough to shift her gaze the few inches to look at his face, even though she could feel he was looking at hers.

He asked, still in that accent that rolled its words thickly and yet seemed familiar somehow, “What’s your name?”

“Mary.” Why she had answered him that and not told him “Marie” she did not stop to analyze, counting it enough of an achievement she had answered him at all.

“Mary. Where is he?”

The snow on his shoulder was melting. It struck her as something impossible that this man, seemingly carved out of shadow and ice, could melt anything. It was the fire, of course, she thought, and her mind traveled an uneven course back in time to another fire, with both her brother and Sir Redmond Everard sitting before it, and Sir Redmond telling her of the man she knew as Jacques, whose affairs were of interest to King James. “This man is now sought by the English,” he’d told her, “and must be protected.”

Protected. She clung to that word and its purpose—her purpose—although she could not think of what she could do to fulfill it.

The last snowflake melted to nothing against the gray wool and she looked from the place it had been to the eyes of the tall man in front of her, and though she still heard the fear in her own voice she forced out the words, “Where is who?”

When her uncle’s vines froze in the winter, the first morning light turned the edge of the ice a pale blue, a reflection of cold sky that had not yet thawed to the sun. This man’s eyes were exactly like that, Mary thought. Like a hard, killing frost.

When he frowned she flinched backwards in spite of herself, but his frown wasn’t aimed at her. Angling his head to the side, he appeared to be listening. He hadn’t made a move to touch her, his mere presence proving force enough to hold her in her place, and even when he took a step aside now Mary didn’t feel that she had been released. She kept her back pressed to the bolted door, as she had done from the beginning, and she barely dared to breathe.

She heard, above the lower whistle of the wind and the stern rattle of the window glass, the slightly mismatched clopping of a team of horses from the street. The sound drew nearer till she fancied she could hear the heavy roll of wheels behind.

The man said curtly, “Come.” And still not touching her or needing to, he motioned her to walk before him from the kitchen into the front entry hall. The horses’ hooves and rolling wheels drew level with the house and stopped, and never had a silence felt more ominous.

Source: www_Novel12_Com