Trapped at the Altar
Somerset, England, September 1684
Ari . . . Ari, will you please stop climbing?” Ivor Chalfont stopped on the steep goat track leading up the sheer cliff from the river below. He looked in exasperation at the small figure climbing twenty yards ahead of him. He hadn’t a hope of catching her; he knew that from experience. Ariadne was small and lithe and astonishingly agile, particularly at climbing the towering cliffs, which sheltered their childhood home in a deep Somerset gorge. He glanced behind him. Far below, the River Wye sparkled in the warm late-summer sun, running peacefully between wide green banks. Cottages were clustered on either bank, smoke curling from chimneys. A few figures moved around, working in the neat gardens or fishing along the river. The sound of hammering rose in the quiet air from a man repairing a strut on the wooden bridge that spanned the river at its narrowest point. It was a peaceful, positively bucolic sight. On the surface. The reality was quite different, as Ivor well knew.
He cast his eyes upwards again. Ari was still climbing. She couldn’t really think she could escape the reality of the gorge, could she? But Ivor knew she wasn’t thinking that. She understood the facts of their life as well as he did.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, “Ariadne. Stop, now.”
Ariadne heard him, as, indeed, she’d heard his every other call. Those she’d ignored, too locked into her world of furious frustration to pay any heed, but now reason and logic took over, besides which, it was never wise to try Ivor’s patience too far. She stopped on the track, turned carefully to look down at him so many feet below, then sat down on a rocky outcrop to the side of the track, hugging her knees, watching as he began to climb up to her.
His shadow fell over her a few minutes later, blocking out the sun’s warmth. She raised her eyes to look up at him. Ivor stood with his hands on his hips, breathing easily despite the steep climb. He was a tall, well-built man, with the strong, muscular physique of one accustomed to physical labor and life in the outdoors. His deep-set eyes were the astonishing blue of the Aegean Sea, and they surveyed her upturned face from beneath well-shaped russet-brown eyebrows with a mixture of exasperation and wry comprehension.
“There are times, Ari, when I’d happily wring your neck,” he declared, kicking a stone out of the path before sitting down on a large rock.
“You and half the valley,” she returned, looking back down the track to the peaceful scene below. “The elders are ready to burn me at the stake.”
He gave a short crack of laughter. “Not that, exactly, but I wouldn’t put it past them to lock you up and starve you into submission.”
She shrugged slim shoulders beneath a thin white shirt through which the tones of her skin showed delicately pink. “They wouldn’t succeed.”
“Maybe not,” he agreed, lifting his face to the sun, letting it graze his closed eyelids. “But they’re mad as fire, Ariadne, and they don’t understand why, now, you’re refusing to honor the betrothal.”
“I give that for their anger.” She snapped her fingers contemptuously. “I’ll not marry you, Ivor. There’s no point in discussing it.”
Ivor sighed. Ariadne was as stubborn as a mule and always had been. But in this situation, all the obstinacy of a team of mules would not win the day for her. “You may now own half the valley, dear girl, but you are still subject to your grandfather’s will. Our marriage was willed by Lord Daunt before his death . . . for God’s sake, you agreed to the betrothal just a few days ago. Your grandfather’s will is sacrosanct; you know that as well as I do. You have lived by Daunt rules all your life. The elders will make the wedding happen one way or another.”
“Forcible marriage is illegal in the laws of the land.”
“In name, maybe, but not in practice. You have a duty to obey your grandfather’s will, and here in the valley that is the law. Since when,” he added, “did Daunt and Chalfont obey any laws but their own?”
“I’ll run away.”
“How? You have no money, no means of travel. You
would never get past the guards on horseback, and you could not bring Sphinx up this goat track. He would break a leg for sure.”
“You could help me.” She didn’t look at him as she said this.
“No,” he stated. “I could not. I would not if I could.”
“You could refuse to marry me.”
“No,” he repeated. “I could not. I would not if I could.”
Ariadne made no response, but a small sigh escaped her, and a little shiver ran across her shoulders. It wasn’t as if she had expected anything else. Ivor had much to gain from the marriage. If only her grandfather had not died so suddenly, just the day after the betrothal. With more time, she knew she could have persuaded him to release her from the engagement. She had always been able to win him over in the end, but it always took time and patience, and she’d agreed to the betrothal to buy herself that time. And then death had just crept in that night and taken him. His servant had found him dead in his bed, when the previous evening he had been hale and hearty, presiding over the Council meeting in his usual sharp and incisive fashion, celebrating his granddaughter’s betrothal with some of the finest wines in his cellar. Wines destined for the cellars of West Country gentry, liberated in the dark of the moon by Daunt raiders from the smugglers’ trains of pack mules going about their deliveries in the narrow Cornish lanes.
Ivor leaned across and took her hands from her lap, holding them in a tight grip. “Face it, Ari. Accept it. We
will be married this day week. As soon as Lord Daunt is in his grave, we will be wed.”
Her gray eyes held his deep blue ones in a fierce stare as she tried to free her hands. “You know that I love someone else, Ivor. I cannot marry you. It would be dishonest.”
He dropped her hands with a laugh as mirthless as before. “That’s rich, Ari, coming from one whose entire existence is based on deceit, on thievery, on piracy. Truth and morality mean nothing here in this valley. You were born into this life of dishonesty and trickery. We mock the laws of men and discount the imperatives of ownership. We take what we want, whether it’s ours or not. I will take you to wife, Ariadne Daunt. Your grandfather has willed it; my family has agreed to it. It is for us to unite the two families. You belong to me, not to that poet of yours, scribbling his nonsensical verse in the houses of the gentry.”
Ari’s gray eyes burned with an anger all the more fierce for being impotent. She knew she could not win this argument or, indeed, run from the bitter truth behind it. “The Daunts are of lineage as ancient and proud as any in the counties of Somerset, Devon, or Cornwall,” she retorted. “And my dower will be sufficient to overcome any minor moral scruples. Gabriel’s family will welcome me as a daughter; he has assured me of that.”
Ivor shook his head. “I wouldn’t be so certain. For one, do you really think your family elders would pay your dowry to the Fawcetts? Just hand it over, meek and mild, with their blessings on their precious niece? I had never thought you naïve, Ari.”
Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked them away. “Just leave me alone, Ivor. Go back down. I’m climbing to the top.”
He hesitated, then decided that she was best left alone for the moment. Maybe she was going to meet her precious poet and maybe she wasn’t. But she would not run away. Ari would never run when fighting was an option. She was a Daunt, born and bred.
He got up from his rock, dusting off his hands. “Very well. But you are expected at Council this evening before the feast for your grandfather’s wake. Make sure you’re there. We will both regret it if I have to come and find you.”
There was something about his tone, an authority he had never used with her before, that shook her. Realization slowly dawned. “They have made you my guardian?” It was barely a question; she knew the answer.
“Yes,” Ivor answered curtly. “Your grandfather is dead. Who better to watch over you than your future husband? I will see you at Council.” He turned from her and began the long scramble back to the valley.
Ariadne exhaled slowly. She shouldn’t have expected anything else. She knew the ways of the Daunt world—knew them but didn’t have to accept them. She watched Ivor’s retreating back. He was her friend, but she could never accept him as her governor. Her grandfather’s death had released her from the family’s control; she would not relinquish that independence now.
Rising, she turned her face to the cliff top, climbing steadily until she reached the tufted grass above, sprinkled
with daisies and the occasional pink. Grazing sheep ignored her unorthodox arrival in their midst, and a few cows regarded her with lazy bovine stares as she shook down her homespun skirt and kicked dirt from her shoes before starting across the field to a small spinney at the far side.
Gabriel Fawcett stood among the trees in the spinney, watching as Ariadne came across the field towards him. He held a small nosegay of late-summer roses from his mother’s garden and felt the customary surge of blood, the swift pounding of his heart, as she drew closer. Sometimes he wondered how it was physically possible for one body to contain so much passion, so much lust and love, as he felt for this girl. Ariadne Daunt was out of his experience, almost magical in her difference from anyone he had ever met before. She was not of his world, and sometimes he thought she was not of this world at all. But he knew that she was very much of this world. The very name of Daunt brought dread to all who heard it.
It had not always been so. They were one of the oldest families in Somerset and one of the wealthiest in both estates and fortune, until Charles I had lost his head and Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant Commonwealth had ruled the land with a dour fist. The Catholic Daunt family had raised their standard for King Charles and lost everything back on that cold January day in 1649 when the King had been beheaded. They had barely escaped with their lives, and they had been revenged ever since
upon all who they thought had betrayed them, on erstwhile friends and neighbors, indeed, on anyone who had bowed their heads beneath Cromwell’s yoke.
Outlaws, they had created their own land and their own laws in a valley of the River Wye, a place easily fortified and defended. And when it pleased them to create mayhem across the usually peaceful countryside, they did so. They terrorized the seaports of Devon and Cornwall, piracy and even the vile business of wrecking were not beneath them, and they amassed a fortune rumored to rival that of any of the great landed families of the realm.
And Gabriel Fawcett had fallen in love and lust with Lady Ariadne Daunt, the scion of one of the oldest and now the most loathed family in the West Country. And to his eternal astonishment, the lady loved him in return. It was an impossible match, an impossible relationship, and yet it was. An immutable, all-consuming fact, and as he watched her now, her light step springing across the mossy ground, her skirt hitched up to reveal slender ankles, her lovely long feet clad only in a pair of light slippers, he knew he would die for her if he had to.
He took a step out of the trees, and Ari saw him at once. She raised a hand in greeting and ran towards him, burying herself in his embrace. She felt the swift beat of his heart against her ear as she placed her head on his chest and inhaled the fresh rosemary scent of his linen.
“Oh, how I have missed you,” she murmured. “It has been such a dreadful time, Gabriel. I don’t know where to turn.”
He tilted her face and kissed her, his mouth hungry
for the taste of her. The nosegay was crushed between them, but he didn’t even notice the thorn pricking his finger as he held her tightly against him. At last, his hold slackened, and she drew herself upright. Her body was tiny, seemingly fragile, but he could feel the strength and suppleness of her form as she stood so close to him. And he could see the deep shadows lurking in the usually clear gray eyes, the lines of strain around her wide, generous mouth.
“What has happened, my love?”
Ariadne took a step away from him. It was easier to keep her thoughts straight when she wasn’t within the circle of his arms. “My grandfather, Lord Daunt, died three days ago.”
He frowned, unsure how to respond. Ari had rarely spoken of her grandfather, her guardian since her father’s death ten years ago. Indeed, she almost never spoke of her life in the valley.
“What does that mean for you?” he asked hesitantly.
She gave him a twisted smile. “It means, my dear, that I am to marry my second cousin, Ivor Chalfont, as a way of uniting the fortunes of the two families and finally ending the enmity between Chalfonts and Daunts . . . as if such a thing was ever a realistic possibility,” she added bitterly. “The two branches of the family have loathed each other since before the Crusades.”
An exaggeration, perhaps, she reflected, but it might just as well have been true given the depths of their hatred and rivalry.
“I . . . I don’t understand.” Gabriel’s eyes had an almost
hunted look as he gazed at her in shocked bemusement. The crushed roses slipped from his hand, and without thinking, he sucked at the bead of blood on his forefinger where the thorn had pricked him.
Ari bent to pick up one of the roses, a small white bud that had somehow escaped the massacre. She said dully, “Ivor grew up in the valley. We played together as children. We were betrothed first as infants and then formally a few days ago, as part of this plan to unite our two families.” She hesitated. Talking about her family never came easily to her, and she had tried instinctively to keep Gabriel untouched by her own history, as if in some way it would keep their love free of the taint of the valley.
But what did it matter now? After a moment, she continued, “Daunts are Catholic, Chalfonts are Protestant. My grandfather decided that if the two factions were joined as one tribe, then they would present a strong force to handle whichever political and religious faction finally ruled. The greater good of the united tribe would overcome individual family differences.” Her laugh was short and bitter. “So someone has to be sacrificed to this greater good, and that seems to be me.”
Gabriel shook his head as if to untangle his confusion. “But what of this . . . this cousin . . . Ivor? Is he not also to be sacrificed?”
She pushed the rosebud into a buttonhole on her shirt and said, “No, apparently, Ivor does not consider himself to be a sacrifice. He appears to find the idea a good one. It will benefit him, of course.” By marrying the heiress to the ill-gotten Daunt fortune, Ivor would become rich.
But was that what motivated him? Somehow Ariadne didn’t think it was as simple as that. Ivor had never been particularly predictable, and he rarely followed a simple path. It was one of the things she liked most about him. It had always made him a fun and exciting playmate in their childhood. She had never thought about what kind of husband he would make; the fact of that childhood betrothal hadn’t impinged upon her thoughts until the last two weeks, when it had become a concrete reality. But by then, she had met Gabriel Fawcett, and she had looked at the world beyond the valley, and that concrete reality had become an impossible one.
“My family will gladly welcome you,” Gabriel said with passion. “Ari, you must come with me now. We will protect you.”
She smiled, somewhat mistily. “They will destroy your family and everything you hold dear if you dared to do such a thing. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“But I cannot lose you, Ari . . . my love, I will die without you.”
She regarded him steadily. “No, you won’t. But you may well die with me. We will find another way, Gabriel. I will not lose you, but for the moment, I must at least seem to be compliant. The marriage is not to take place for a week. I will think of something between now and then.”
He looked at her in horror. “A week . . . just a week.”
“Yes, but don’t worry. A week is a long time to come up with an idea.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed the corner of his mouth. “I should go. If I’m missed, they’ll send out the dogs.”
She laughed shortly. “Yes, they do have them, but I meant it metaphorically. I don’t want to arouse suspicions.” Except that Ivor knew the truth. He didn’t need suspicions. But he wouldn’t betray her, surely?
And with a sickening feeling, Ariadne realized she was no longer sure of that. He had discovered her liaison by accident when she had climbed the cliff one day a few weeks earlier to visit the secret place where she and Gabriel left messages for each other. It had been raining, and most of the valley’s inhabitants were within doors, no one watching the track she habitually took up the cliff. The rain had made the path slippery, and she had been concentrating on watching her step on the treacherous shale, peering intently at the ground from beneath the thick hood of her cloak drawn low over her forehead. She hadn’t been aware of anyone following her until she had reached the cliff top and was lifting the flat stone that revealed a small indentation in the earth.
“What are you doing up here in such wretched weather?”
Ivor’s voice had startled her so much her heart had seemed to jump into her throat, and the folded sheet of parchment that she was taking out of the hole had fallen from her fingers. Ivor had bent swiftly and retrieved it before she could do so herself.
She could see again the intense, questioning blue eyes as he’d held the paper out to her, his voice unusually hard. “What is this?”
“Just a letter.” She had made to thrust it into the inside pocket of her cloak, but he had stayed her hand, his long
fingers curling around her wrist. Not painfully but firmly enough to mean business.
“Who from? Why would you be conducting a clandestine correspondence up here, Ari?”
She had shrugged with an assumption of carelessness. “I met someone on a walk a few weeks ago. We talked, enjoyed each other’s company, and when we want to meet again, we leave messages, under the stone here.”
“I see.” He had frowned. “May I ask who this person is?”
“I’m not sure it’s any of your business.” Her voice had been tart. “What I do, whom I see, and where I go are of no consequence to you, Ivor.”
“They are of consequence to your grandfather,” he had reminded her, still holding her wrist. “I rather think he would disapprove, don’t you?”
“Probably. Certainly, I would prefer it if you didn’t mention anything about this, Ivor.” She had heard the cajoling note in her voice and hoped she hadn’t sounded too desperate.
Ivor had shaken his head. “Why would I? But who is it, Ari? Just satisfy my curiosity that far.”
And because they were friends and she trusted him, thought of him as her closest friend and ally, she had told him all about Gabriel, about how they had met by chance in the spinney one afternoon, how they had seen each other regularly ever since . . . about the poetry he had written her. And Ivor had not shown any emotion at all. He had warned her to be careful and during the following weeks had inquired occasionally about her meetings with her poet, and she had confessed the deepening of
their relationship, talked about what it felt like to be in love . . . and Ivor had merely listened.
But perhaps he had been concealing his feelings.
Ari wondered now whether she had seen in Ivor’s reaction to her confession only the indifference she wanted to see. Perhaps she had allowed herself to be blind to his real response. Loyal friend though he had been throughout their growing, Ivor could well now feel that it was his duty, his right, even, to betray her to the Council. And they would see only one way to deal with the situation. They would simply remove the obstacle. Gabriel would be eliminated.
That was not a risk she could take, she realized, her thoughts suddenly clearing after the days of confused dismay. There was only one course of action that would protect Gabriel, whether Ivor betrayed her or not.
“What are you thinking?” Gabriel asked, alarmed by the bleak look on her face.
Her face was momentarily wiped clean of expression, and then she turned to him, holding out her hands in invitation. “That I don’t have to go right away,” she murmured. “And I want you so much, dearest. It feels an eternity since we were last together.”
With a little shudder of a sigh, Gabriel took her in his arms, burying his face in the mass of black curls clustering around her small head. He ran his hands over her body, lifting her against him, before sliding with her to the springy moss beneath the beech tree.