Excerpt: Honor Bound
Book 1 : The Witchblade Chronicles
1583 – London, England
Lawrence Shawe burst through the apothecary shop’s door with far more vehemence than usual. Considering he never undertook any activity that required enthusiasm on his part, it was enough to distract Isabel from her herbs. She glanced up from the jar she’d been filling with dried juniper berries to glare at him but the look on his face dampened her temper. His cheeks were flushed and his hat sat lop-sided on his silver-streaked hair. He’d certainly exerted himself on this occasion. Indeed, he might even have been running.
“What is it, Lawrence?” Isabel asked. “What’s happened?”
“Someone tried to poison the queen.”
She dropped the handful of berries onto the workbench. “Dear God, how awful! Is she all right?”
Lawrence nodded and squeezed his finger and thumb into his eye sockets. When he drew them away again, he no longer looked exercised, just exhausted. His reddened eyelids sagged like old porch roofs over his blue eyes and even his clothes, usually so fastidiously tidy, had creases. Creased clothing equated to utter disarray in Lawrence’s book.
As physician to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Lawrence would take a poisoning attempt on her life very seriously. Any threat to her health was a direct threat to not only his career, but perhaps even his life if he failed to save her. As the only son of Isabel’s aged employer, she had a vested interest in Lawrence’s wellbeing, and therefore Her Majesty’s health too.
“Perfectly all right,” he said. “Lady Manningham, however, is quite ill.” He crossed the rush-covered floor of the small apothecary shop and stood beside her at the workbench. He picked up a berry and rolled it between his thumb and fingers until it crumbled. “Her Majesty’s Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber ate the poisoned sweetmeats intended for the queen.” He snorted out a laugh as he sniffed his fingers. “Silly woman. I’ve told her on numerous occasions her taste for sweet foods will be the death of her.”
Isabel didn’t think the joke terribly funny considering the circumstances. Nevertheless she breathed a sigh of relief over the queen’s condition. “Is there any remedy you require for Lady Manningham? You’re welcome to anything from the shop, of course. Your father would wish it.”
He sprinkled the crushed remnants of the berry onto the bench and dusted his hands. “How is Father today?” he asked.
“The same.” She sighed deeply and swept up the crumbs with her bare hands. “His limbs ache and he’s confined to his bed most of the time, but he still insists on personally greeting his favored clients.” She smiled. Old Man Shawe, as everyone affectionately called the apothecary, would rather die than give up his work entirely. Even so, his ill health meant Isabel now ran the shop and the Shawe household since Lawrence lived elsewhere. She dealt with customers and suppliers, servants and apprentices. She prepared remedies, dispensed advice and kept the accounts. Old Man Shawe was apothecary in name only—and a well-known name at that, bringing new clients from all over London—but she included him in all the decisions out of courtesy. It was the least she could do for the man who had helped her at a most desperate time.
“Have you been massaging a hot poultice of comfrey into his limbs?” Lawrence asked.
“Every morning and night.”
“Yes, but with vigorous strokes. Like this.” He took her arm and rubbed his thumb along her sleeve with far less pressure than was correct. “The massage itself can be more soothing than the poultice.” He used gentle, low tones as if speaking to one of his ill patients. She wondered if he spoke to the queen that way, in and out of bed. Or so the rumors went.
Isabel pursed her lips to stop the wicked smile threatening to betray her thoughts. “Yes, Lawrence,” she said, withdrawing her arm. “I am caring for your father as best as I can.”
“I didn’t mean… I’m sorry, I…” He blushed, turning his milky cheeks rosy, then tried to hide it by dipping his head. “Forgive my rudeness. I know you’re giving Father the utmost care. I wouldn’t entrust his health to anyone else.” He smiled an apology and at that moment Isabel could see why so many women found him attractive. He was only a little taller than her but still handsome for a man past his fortieth year. With his good looks, pleasant manner and a favored position at court, the widower was considered a catch by many women.
Isabel wasn’t one of them. She liked Lawrence well enough, but he meant nothing more to her than a friend and fellow scholar of medicines. And as her employer’s son, she was as much indebted to him as to his father.
“Forgive me?” he said, with a raise of his eyebrows.
“There is nothing to forgive.” She moved towards the door at the back of the shop which led to the rear storeroom and the stairs up to the living rooms. “Do you wish to see your father?”
“Yes but I can only spare a moment. There is much to be done at Whitehall.”
“Of course. Poor Lady Manningham. Has the villain been caught?”
“Not yet. Burghley and Walsingham are investigating.”
“I suppose you’re here because you need a tonic.”
“And to see your pleasant face.” Although his words were playful, he wasn’t smiling. In fact, his gaze had turned alarmingly tender.
Isabel laughed in an attempt to rescue them both from a potentially humiliating situation. “Then I’m sorry to disappoint, as I’m sure my face is hideously red from spending all morning beside a bubbling cauldron.”
He lifted one shoulder as if shrugging off the tension that had threatened to engulf them. “But still a pleasing sight, nevertheless.”
“You’re too charming for a humble apothecary’s assistant, Lawrence,” she chided. “Go use it on one of the ladies at court.”
He leaned back against the bench, smiling. The moment of tender seriousness had passed and Isabel wondered if perhaps she had imagined it.
“Not a single one of them can match you,” he said.
“Now I know you’re teasing me. There are many beautiful women at court. And some very eligible ones who I’m sure harbor a secret admiration for a handsome physician.”
“I’m not merely talking about external beauty, Isabel, although you certainly have that.”
She had been wrong. Laurence was merely attempting a different tactic. She quickly rounded the long counter which doubled as her workbench and scanned the earthen jars shelved above it. “If you tell me what was in the poison, I can provide you with something to counteract Lady Manningham’s discomfort,” she said, returning to a safe topic. “I assume she didn’t ingest a large dose, considering she is still alive.”
“Fortunately she merely nibbled on one of the poisoned sweetmeats. I left her in Doctor Lopes’s capable hands,” he said, referring to Her Majesty’s chief physician. “She’s taken a purgation but there is not a lot more to be done except perhaps a soothing tonic to settle her stomach. Ah, horehound.” He pointed to a labeled jar on the lower shelf.
Isabel unstopped it and carefully poured some of the liquid into a phial. “It should ease her pain somewhat.”
He took it and thanked her. “Add it to Whitehall’s account.”
“I’m sure your father would want me to give it to you without charge, particularly if it’s intended for Our Sovereign’s lady.”
“He would but I insist you charge the palace the full amount.”
Isabel reached under the counter and pulled out the accounts book. She dipped the quill in the ink and wrote down the quantity and price. “Now, was there anything else or would you like to see your father?”
“Ye-es.” He pocketed the phial. “Isabel.” He looked up and a sense of foreboding crept over her. “My real reason for coming here today was to warn you to be alert. Someone from Whitehall will probably want to ask you and Father some questions.”
The sense of foreboding turned to dread. She should have known that her past would one day find her. “What sort of questions? What has the poisoning got to do with us?”
“I could smell the poisons used in the sweetmeats.”
“Hemlock, henbane and monkshood. This is one of the few apothecary shops in London that sells all those ingredients.”
She tensed. “They all have legitimate purposes if used in their correct dosages. And we keep them in the locked storeroom. I’m the only one allowed to dispense them. Besides, there must be other apothecaries who sell those three herbs.”
“I know of only five.”
Isabel picked up the jar of horehound and tried to replace the stopper but it didn’t seem to fit no matter how hard she tried to force it. “Stupid thing,” she muttered, casting it aside.
Lawrence passed her another stopper. “I think this one belongs to that jar.” Concern made his angular features even sharper. “Don’t be nervous.”
“I’m not nervous,” she said, willing the hairs on the back of her neck to flatten.
“This has nothing to do with your father,” he said.
Papa. Poor, dear Papa, seven years in his grave and still unable to rest in peace. “I know.” But would the authorities agree? When they discovered her connection to him she would become their main suspect. And a capable investigator would surely discover it.
Well, she would just have to hope for an incapable one. “Papa was innocent.” The words slipped out from habit. It seemed she had been thinking them, if not saying them, every day for the last seven years.
Lawrence said nothing. Since his mother’s death, he was one of only two people in Isabel’s new life—as she thought of her years living in London—who knew her background. His silence was damning.
“I must see Father.” He caught both her hands in his. “Be careful what you tell the authorities when they come.”
“Of course,” she managed to whisper through her tight throat.
He left through the rear door and his footsteps retreated up the stairs to Old Man Shawe’s room. Too distracted to work, Isabel looked out the window at Bucklersbury Street and wondered what an official from Whitehall would look like. Whoever he might be, he would wear finer clothes than the merchants, tradesmen and servants going about their business in the muddy apothecary’s street. She was sure she would know him when she saw him.
It had begun to rain, scattering people forced to be out on such a bleak February day. Some retreated indoors while others sheltered beneath the overhanging upper stories of the grocery and apothecary shops lining the street. Isabel thought one or two might make use of her warm fire, but none entered. The rain would keep trade slow that afternoon but she didn’t mind. There was much to be done.
She pulled the rickety ladder out from the gap between two sets of shelves and picked up the jar of juniper berries from the workbench. The bottom two rungs groaned under her weight. It seemed Fox hadn’t got around to fixing them yet. She would have to have another word with him, and this time she would make sure he knew the consequences of avoiding his duties. If Fox couldn’t take orders from her instead of Old Man Shawe then he would have to seek an apprenticeship elsewhere.
She frowned at the layer of dust on the top shelf and considered wiping it off. But the jar grew heavy and since no one except herself and Fox would ever see the dust anyway, she decided to leave it. She heaved the jar up but there wasn’t enough space for it on the shelf. The entire row, every single jar, needed to be moved along. That meant returning the jar she held to the workbench, shifting the ladder down to the end then climbing back up and shuffling the other jars one by one then retrieving…
For a fleeting moment, she considered using her powers to move the jars, but she forced the instinct from her mind. She hadn’t used her witchcraft since that fateful day six years ago and she wasn’t about to start now.
With a sigh, she descended the ladder, resting the jar on her hip like a baby. The front door to the shop opened and she was about to call out to the customer that she would be only a moment, when he spoke first.
“Let me take that for you.”
She looked down into the face she hadn’t seen for six long years. And dropped the jar.
He caught it, although she suspected it was unwittingly done because someone who looked as shocked as he did couldn’t consciously work their body with such quick finesse. She should know. Her legs felt as stable as water and she gripped the ladder tighter to stop herself from falling. She certainly wouldn’t attempt the next rung yet. Making an ungainly descent in front of the man she hadn’t been able to banish from her dreams would be too horrible.
“Nick.” She was sure she said it out loud but she couldn’t hear it so she said it again. “Nick.” His name felt strange on her tongue.
“It is you,” he whispered, his dark gaze lifted up to her. As if his legs had grown weary, he sat down heavily on the stool provided for customers near the workbench. “Oh my God,” he said. “It is you.”
Taking very careful steps, she slowly descended the ladder. When her foot touched the second last rung, a loud crack shattered the thick silence. Isabel fell to the floor in an undignified heap just as her husband, Nicholas Merritt, rushed to her side.
“Isabel, are you all right?” He knelt and touched her shoulder.
For a brief moment the connection recalled shared memories—of affection, passion and finally of pain. It was this last that made her shake him off. That and her embarrassment.
“I’m well.” She got to her feet unaided and smoothed down her woolen gown wishing she could smooth away her erratic heartbeat as easily.
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” he asked. “You landed rather awkwardly.”
“I’m fine!” Good Lord, this was not the way their reunion was supposed to happen. It was supposed to involve her being perfectly serene and looking her prettiest, and Nick groveling.
He didn’t grovel. He didn’t say anything. He was so close she only had to reach out to touch his hair. The power of his presence, something she’d always found enthralling, sucked her in. She gripped the bench at her back to stop from flinging her arms around him and doing the groveling instead.
“Isabel.” He spoke so quietly she had to strain to hear him. “Christ!” he said with sudden vehemence. He dragged a hand through his hair but said nothing else.
She turned away because seeing the shock on his face made her feel more insecure than she had in a long time.
“Am I so awful that you cannot even look at me?” he demanded.
Her breath escaped in a whoosh and tears stung the back of her eyes. She must look at him. If she wanted to put him from her mind once and for all, she must first face him. She waited until her vision cleared, then slowly turned around.
He looked the same, and yet so different. He still had the boyish face she held so dear in her memory, and although he was yet to laugh, the twinkle in his eyes and the dimples in his cheeks were only a smile away.
But the boy had become a man since she’d last seen him. It was as if a sculptor had chiseled a little of the youthfulness away to reveal a harder, leaner and even more handsome face. A small furrow at the bridge of his straight nose and a few lines around his eyes and mouth only enhanced his new masculinity. There was power and intensity in his features and stance where before there had been only carefree frivolity.
She wondered if her appearance had altered as dramatically in the last six years. His expression gave no indication as he studied her. Under the scrutiny, Isabel resisted the urge to straighten her skirts and check that her cap hadn’t slipped in the fall.
“No,” she said at last when she felt certain her voice wouldn’t falter. “Not awful at all.” Far from it.
She marveled that he was still so tall, something she had not expected. She had thought he would not seem so big since she had grown up so much since leaving him. She had been wrong. He towered over her like a solid, impenetrable wall as he had always done.
They stood like two strangers, warily watching each other, until Isabel could stand it no longer.
“How did you know where to find me?” she asked.
He frowned at her. “I didn’t. I wasn’t looking for you. I just walked in…and here you are.” He sounded like a man awed by a wondrous magic trick.
Magic. The reminder of the vile thing behind their separation sliced through her like a knife.
Then his words sank in. He hadn’t been looking for her. The fact that his admission hurt meant time had healed nothing, and she had not changed as much as she thought.
“Yes,” she said. “Here I am.”
“They said you had gone to Cambridge,” he said. “I tore that city apart looking for you.” His voice rose from a flat monotone to a pitch that grated her raw nerves. “If I’d known you were in London…” He shook his head, still staring at her.
He had been searching for her. The ache in her heart lessened. “You wouldn’t have found me. I’m not Isabel Merritt here.”
“Camm?” he asked, referring to her maiden name.
“My God,” he said. “It’s really you.” His laugh was more of a maniacal bark.
Maybe he’d gone mad. Perhaps the scheme he’d become involved in after their marriage, the cause of his long absences, had affected his mind. She edged away from him.
“No!” He caught her face in his hands with a delicacy at odds with his tone. “Don’t move.” His skin felt rough on her cheeks but then he caressed her with his thumbs and she thought she had never felt anything so soft in her life.
“Isabel,” he murmured.
His gaze held hers and before she could sever the connection, he captured her mouth in a fierce kiss. Some distant part of her wanted to struggle but the rest of her wanted to drown in his soft lips and his warmth. It wasn’t like the kisses of old. They had always been passionate but never so powerful. It was as if every emotion he had experienced in the intervening years had surged to the surface and clashed in this single searing kiss.
His hand pressed against the back of her head, holding her in place, but he needn’t have bothered because she didn’t want to go anywhere. She had dreamed of this kiss for six years and she wasn’t going to end it yet. Not when it sent a rush of heat through her, nourishing her starved body, filling a hole she hadn’t known existed.
But after only a few short moments, he pulled away. “I’m sorry,” he said, breathing hard. “I shouldn’t have done that.” He ran a hand through his hair and turned away. “I wish I hadn’t.” Regret echoed through his hollow voice.
She hugged her arms over her chest to try and contain her shaking. That kiss had been a mistake. It had ignited something she had thought mastered. Something deep within her, a primal, timeless need.
“But I couldn’t help it,” he continued. “I mean, look at you! You’re here, you’re real, you’re not dead and I’ve been living in the same city as you this whole time!”
He had thought her dead? “Yes.”
His eyes narrowed. “Yes? Is that all you have to say to me after six years?”
His acrimony stung. “Yes,” she said again, because it truly was all she could think of saying. Her thoughts tumbled about and she couldn’t possibly form a coherent sentence from them.
He scoffed and strode to the door but didn’t open it. Instead, he stormed back, half turned, shook a finger at her then grunted and strode away again. With his back to her, he placed a hand against the wall and looked down at the floor. “Well, Wife, do I get an explanation? Are you going to tell me to my face this time that you have a lover?” His head turned to one side as if he couldn’t face what was on the other. “I suppose you have children—”
“No!” She took a step towards him but stopped. “There are no children and no lover. There never has been.” And never will be.
“Don’t lie to me, Isabel. You did enough of that in our first two years of marriage.”
“I have never lied to you!” She crossed the room and stood where he could see her. “Not once, Nick. Whereas you lied to me every time you went away. Every time you told me you had business in London, every time you wrote telling me you would be home soon and forever. So do not accuse me of lying because your conscience is hardly clear on that score.”
Nicholas had never seen Isabel look so angry, or so beautiful. It was quite a formidable combination and stirred something inside him. Her face may be flushed from her anger and the heat of the fire, and her hair had fallen out from the cap to brush against her cheek, but she was the most amazing woman he had ever set eyes on. Even more beautiful than he remembered, something he had not thought possible. Her upturned nose was still the same, the honey color of her hair unchanged and the slimness of her figure, but there was something about the way she had walked towards him just then and spoken her mind. The girl he had married wouldn’t have said it quite that way, used that tone, or moved with such determination. Nor would she have thrust out her chin, such an adorable chin too, or held his gaze.
As he looked away, too ashamed because she was right and he had lied to her over and over, he had to admit that the girl he married had changed. She had become a woman.
He turned back to her again, her words ringing in his ears. “No lover? But the Forster lad…” He remembered the name because he had searched Canterbury for her under Merritt, Camm and Forster thinking she might have taken her lover’s name.
“Forster? Your mean Jacob Forster? He was a nice boy, but hardly someone I would take to my bed.”
“How would I know what sort of man you’d take to your bed?”
“If you were around more you would.”
Nicholas had the sickening feeling that he was to blame for Isabel’s leaving all along. Even so, he had to persevere. Had to know, even if it meant heartache deeper than anything he’d ever experienced.
“They told me you and the Forster boy had run away to Canterbury together,” he said dully.
“Then they were wrong.”
“So it would seem.” He felt almost weak with relief. She had no lover.
“I suspect Jacob Forster and I had the unhappy coincidence of leaving Newport at the same time. I’m sorry you thought I left you for another man. I didn’t.” She thrust out her chin again, not sounding sorry at all.
Nicholas straightened. “Then why did you leave?”
She turned away and busied herself with the herbs laid out on the bench. Being an apothecary’s daughter, she had always been interested in medicines and herbal remedies, but he had never thought to find her working as a shop girl. Not the wife of Nicholas Merritt. Sir Nicholas now.
“There are too many reasons to go into here and now,” she said.
“Then when and where? I have a right to know what…what I did wrong. Was it my absences?”
She sprinkled some dried leaves into a mortar and crushed them with a pestle using far more force than necessary. No doubt the leaves gave off a powerful odor but he couldn’t distinguish it amidst the jumble of other pleasing scents emanating from the cauldron bubbling over the fire.
He was about to press her for an answer when the door at the rear of the shop opened and a man entered.
“Isabel, I—” The gentleman spotted Nicholas and stopped. “Forgive me, Sir, I’m sorry for interrupting.” He bowed and turned to Isabel, frowning at the tension in her face. “Are you all right?”
He must be someone of considerable wealth to have a pearl earring and velvet cloak, but what concerned Nicholas more was that he called his wife—his wife—by her first name. Not Mistress Camm or whatever, but Isabel. By rights, the only man alive who should be calling her that was himself.
“Perfectly fine,” she said, although anyone who knew her would detect the sharp edge to her voice and know that everything was far from fine.
“Is this man bothering you?” The gentleman drew himself up to his full height, still several inches shorter than Nicholas, and gave him a glare meant to convey superiority.
Nicholas had to applaud her friend for trying. With his soft hands and slight stature, he was clearly not used to being cast in the role of protector. He looked out of his depth trying to intimidate. But, more importantly, the dandy was prepared to do it. For Isabel. Nicholas knew what that compulsion felt like. He was prepared to do anything for her too. If only he knew what she wanted.
“He… I…,” she stuttered, her face slowly reddening. It seemed she wasn’t prepared to tell the newcomer that her husband had found her, or indeed that she had a husband. “We were just…”
“We were just discussing my terrible case of…” Nicholas searched for a suitable ailment.
“Flaccid erectus,” she said.
His eyes widened as he glared at her. She responded with a sly smile. “Not exactly flaccid,” he said, “more…crooked.”
“Whatever is wrong with your yard, be sure to listen to Isabel,” the gentleman said, relaxing his stance a little. “She’s one of the finest apothecaries in London. As physician to the queen, I employ her herbal remedies on occasion and have found them to be most beneficial. Your condition should clear up in no time if you follow her instructions. Good day, Sir. Isabel.” He nodded to them both then left the shop.
Isabel blew out a breath.
“Strange, I don’t seem to recall there ever being a problem with my yard in our relationship,” Nicholas said. “But I didn’t see your departure coming, so I might be wrong on that score too.”
She slumped back against the bench as if suddenly deflated. “Nick—” She broke off and rested her head in her hand.
He reached for her, but dropped his arm at the last moment. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This has been a trying time for us both.”
She nodded. “Let’s at least be civil to one another.”
“Of course. But tell me, who was that man?”
“Lawrence Shawe. My employer’s son. He’s a newly appointed physician to Her Majesty.”
“A little informal with his address, don’t you think?”
She glared at him. “What he calls me is not your concern. So what did you come here for? A remedy?”
“Remedy? Yes. Of course. I have…a sore throat.”
“A sore throat? Then why didn’t you say so when Lawrence was here? It might have saved you some embarrassment.”
Because Nicholas didn’t think of it then. “I wouldn’t be embarrassed if you hadn’t given me an erection problem.”
“It suited my mood at the time.” A faint smile played at her lips. It faded and she turned her back to him. He watched as she mixed three different powders together then packaged them up and handed it to him. “Dissolve this in a cup of red wine and gargle it three times a day. If the ailment continues then come and see me next week.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is Sunday. The shop won’t be open.”
He opened the door and left without turning back to look at her even though every part of him wanted to. As he walked down Bucklersbury Street he tried to sift through his emotions and set them aside so he could think clearly.
But the only clear thought he had was that he had found Isabel. After all his searching, he had uncovered her by pure chance. No, not chance. Not exactly. He almost laughed at the irony but there was nothing humorous about it. The very thing that had kept him away from her for long periods after their marriage was the same one that had brought him to her now. Spying.