Left to her own devices, Clare lives in a world full of swords, stays and secrets. She's studied the English civil wars for decades and is continually fascinated by the fact that in the mid seventeenth century, our ancestors tore the kingdom apart. Whole families and communities were divided and dislocated for a radical idea that severed the head of God’s anointed monarch and promised to redefine the relationship between power and people. How a society can at any time hope to emerge from divisions and trauma is a recurring theme.
When the real world comes crashing in, she's an ex-journalist and current lawyer with plenty of published works on the legal industry and its nuances under her belt. She lives just outside London, is slowly renovating a seventeenth century home and has three young children. So far they remain largely impervious to all and any attempts to inspire a love for history, but all in good time!
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When the world turns upside down, how can you know who to trust and what to fight for?
Tara Villiers’ family was destroyed fighting for King Charles Stuart’s cause. She is clever and brave, and, forced alone into the murky world of treason, is crucial to any chance for the Restoration. She knows Gabriel Moore for her enemy. He betrayed their king, fought her brother and spent bloody years suppressing rebellion for Oliver Cromwell's protectorate.
Can she trust him now? And can she set him on a course that could lead them both to the scaffold?
With civil conflict still rolling across the land, Tara and Gabriel must decide anew what is worth fighting for and how to stay true to their own path.
Everything is on the line. For Tara, for Gabriel and for the whole country.
The Sealed Knot
When the world turns upside down, how can you know who to trust and what to fight for?
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CHAPTER 31. MASKS
“My little brother Henry has reported volumes on your husband’s courage, Madam, and now I see he must be an exceptionally brave man to abandon you in this steaming marketplace. Does he not realize that every man meanders a wedding party with love on his mind? Mrs Moore, if I am right?”
Tara nodded politely and looked up into clear blue, intelligent eyes. Richard Cromwell was blonde and fine boned, with a general air of delicacy not, reputedly, shared by his sisters. She silently cursed Gabriel for vanishing after the service had finished; this was certainly a treacherous sea to be bobbing about in alone, and Richard had the neat, pointed lines of a dogfish. “I have not yet given up Mr Moore for lost.”
“From what I hear, he would never allow himself to be at such a disadvantage. Quite the will for survival. But you look lost, if you don’t mind my saying.” He took a swig from his champagne glass and gave a sudden grin, still sharky but utterly devoid of lewd flirtation. “I haven’t seen you at court before, my Lady. Do you know many in this cream of English, nay, European society?”
Tara relaxed a little at that, letting her eyes dart over the gaudy crowds, grateful to talk about something other than her errant husband. The wedding of Mary Cromwell and the Viscount Fauconberg had attracted over 500 guests to the palace, all broiling like cuts of pink meat in the heat of the orangery; honey glazed in the golden light of early evening. Large porticoed doors had been opened onto the formal gardens but even those guests spilling slowly out into the gravel found no cooling relief. The sky was heavy with a darkness portending more thunderous downpours and the gravel was scattered with damaged rose petals,
Richard was right about one thing though: despite, perhaps, rather than because of the spectacle of love fulfilled, the atmosphere sizzled. Men strutted about like peacocks, gazing languidly at the trussed peahens around them. A nearby group of decaying gentlewomen peered superciliously at a younger company of girls, wrapped tightly in fine silks and flattery, frantically fanning themselves between giggles.
“No, Mr Cromwell, I don’t know anyone. Perhaps you would point out a few notable guests?”
“With pleasure… There, for instance, you’re looking at the most eligible and idle ladies of quality in the room, but I would recommend giving them a wide berth unless you have kind words for their war paint. They swallow only sycophants for sweetings.” Richard rolled his eyes, long lashes sweeping dramatically as he took a deep breath and ran a finger under his modest ruff to let the heat escape his embroidered velvet doublet.
“To the left is Lady Hampton; her only virtue is the hedge modesty, which stops a man climbing over only to land in her faults… On her right is Lady Somerley, her own face hung with toys and devices like the signs of a tavern to draw strangers. You’ll surely agree that her clothes sit like a saddle on a sow’s back… And there, at the centre of that storm of feminine charm, is the self-styled Lady Rich, otherwise known as my baby sister, Frances. She was widowed in February when her first husband died after only three months of marriage.”
Tara peered towards the girl, trying not to smile at his waspish summaries. “How sad.”
“Oh, don’t be sad, Mrs Moore! You must have heard the rumours of his vicious temperament. One might well ask why on earth father pressed on with the match but, in his limited defence, negotiations took so long that Rich was already ailing of consumption by the time of their nuptials and the settlement for dear Frances was substantial. She really couldn’t have done better.”
“I’ve heard rumours that one of your sisters is to marry Charles Stuart,” Tara said bluntly.
Richard snorted at the provocation. “My dear sisters will make worthy matches for any youth of ambition, but you’ll be waiting for hens to make holy water before father blesses a Stuart union.”
Unfazed, he scanned the crowds again and steered her gaze towards a short, uncomfortable-looking man with a surreptitious nod. “Look, there, John Russell will likely prove Frances’ second husband. He doesn’t look like much, does he? He’s said to be fantastically melancholic. Apparently he distinguished himself in Ireland. I have my doubts that a person of such small stature could contain a keen courage, but I’m no expert in military matters… Perhaps your husband would vouch for him?”
Tara shrugged; it was a wonder any man could distinguish himself amongst the reported brutality. Abstractly the question tugged again as to what exactly Gabriel had done to return so noteworthy, but she stamped on it, turning her attention back to the girl in question. Frances Rich looked too young to have had any husbands, let alone to be contemplating a second. Marriage was a fast-moving market.
“Is your own wife here?”
“Dorothy?” he asked unnecessarily, sipping at his champagne with an air of infinite weariness. “Somewhere… probably with one of the children. She is remarkably fecund, it must be said although, truth be told, her chief commendation is that she brings a man to repentance.”
Tara choked for a moment on the bubbles of her drink and cast her eyes about for a tactful change of subject. She nodded across the room in the direction of the Secretary of State, standing with the bride and her father. “There, I do recognise John Thurloe. Have you spoken with him yet?”
“Speak to Thurloe? Good God, no. Ten parish constables are not so tedious.”
Mary had one hand on Cromwell’s arm as she looked intently at the spymaster. No, it was not on the sleeve of his black doublet, Tara realised with a shock. Her pale arm was entwined under his; she was holding him up. The Lord Protector seemed smaller than she remembered, as if he had folded in on himself since she’d stood before him in Whitehall and they watched him a moment, each alone in their thoughts.
“I would say my sister has the patience of a saint,” muttered Richard dryly, “but just look at father: such is the root; such is the fruit. They both seem genuinely to like the man, even despite his championing this hopeless match with Yorkshire.”
“This wedding was Thurloe’s idea? I didn’t have him for a fairy godmother.”
Richard tilted his head, the corners of his eyes crinkling: “I’ll wager that when the clock strikes midnight you’ll not have Thomas Belasyse for a convincing Prince Charming either.”
“She doesn’t love him?” she asked, conscious of the naivety of the question when he smirked.
“We are not all so lucky as to marry for enduring passion, Mrs Moore.” Richard clinked her champagne glass in toast before continuing: “I believe your own match is quite unique in that regard. To hear father and his Major General raving not four weeks back, one could be left in no doubt as to the size of your husband’s balls.”
“I am extremely lucky,” she shrugged, eyes on Mary.
Richard snorted, looking back to the bride. “Anyway, enduring passion is not her concern. It is an enduring shame for Mary that she is neither masculine enough to be considered for succession nor feminine enough to pass for my oldest sister. That nose, poor thing; she never stood a chance. The exemplar, unparalleled Elizabeth is the apple of father’s eye. Such a shame she is too ill to be gazed upon with wondrous amazement this evening. Still, we must each of us accept our fates, I suppose, even when we are less than convincing.”
A cloud passed briefly over his brows until he took another generous gulp of champagne and rubbed his naked chin in renewed contemplation of the assembly, ready to resume the game. “Now then, who else is worthy of note? You’re basically looking at a rag-tag bunch now: those with enough ambition to keep up the glory of their own greatness, those with enough sense to be prominent ex royalists and those with enough debt to be avoiding the city streets at night.”
“Happen as I’d hoped his stock at court would’ve dwindled by now,” interrupted Viscount Fauconberg, gathering up Tara’s fingers for a moist but disinterested kiss as he shook his broad face in incredulity at Richard. “That sorner lost an entire fortune at the tables a week ago and took out his frustration beating on my good friend Danvers in a bawdy house. And now look at him, nothing but a shipwrack, boldly supping at my feast like a fly!”
“Oh Thomas, come aloft! Relax!” Richard gave a patient smile, holding his glass out for a refill as an impassive page passed by with an embossed bottle. “Have some compassion on your special day, man: gambling is an enchanting, itching disease. Besides, Danvers can look after himself and I’m quite sure that once Carlton’s devotion to profligacy is brought to father’s attention his days in the sun will be numbered. And ‘til then, well in court, as they say, every woman will have her wanton fit.”
“Or every dog his day,” corrected Tara primly.
A burst of laughter erupted behind her and the blushing groom started, turning to see Gabriel. At the sight, Fauconberg’s red face immediately transformed and he wiped a sweating palm on the seams of his breeches to clasp him, plump, rosy cheeks wobbling in anticipation of intimacy.
“At last! I am right pleased to meet you finally Lord Denby! You know of course there’s not a dinner party in polite society at which tales of your daring do are not whispered scandalously? And I suspect from the rugged look of you that you are equally revered amongst the sweaty, hardened hordes of men in your command.”
“I know little of polite society, Viscount Fauconberg” said Gabriel mildly, with a gracious nod to Richard. “I’m only recently returned.”
“But of course, fresh off the boat!” The Viscount’s jowls jiggled with his growing excitement, oblivious to his new brother-in-law taking eye-rolling leave. His gaze moistened as he took in the stature of his newly returned champion, and a pink tongue ran wet over his fat lips. “You are doubly welcome, sir! But my! Now I see you up close you truly bear the scars of a warrior. May I say sir that the scratch on your cheek rather suits your countenance? I am given to understand that the fighting was most terribly brutal?”
“Skirmishes and sieges,” replied Gabriel. His face was masked with polite blandness but Tara wondered that others always seemed so entirely impervious to the waves of tension that radiated from his body at the mention of Ireland. From his look of static awe, Fauconberg had never so much half-raised a sword in anger, let alone seen a battle.
“Happen you have a stomach of steel, sir, to seek the dastards out one by one.” Belasyse’ blank face split into a smile as the threads of his brain anchored him back to safer ground. “But you are not just a hero; you are a hunting man! How right marvellous! We are a man short for our trip to my father’s estate in Yorkshire next week. It’ll be a bloody event, mind; strong, powerful hunters satisfying their most base urges for flesh. You must bring your talents to bear on our little party! I trust I can count upon your company?”
“My Lord,” Gabriel demurred, pulling Tara into his arms without warning. In the sudden movement, she tripped on the hem of her skirts and twisted to grasp at the front of his jerkin, exclaiming as his hands ran possessively down her back and over her bottom. He laughed, eyes sparkling at her frowning glare and kissed her nose lightly, glancing back at Belasyse with an apologetic shrug. “We are newlyweds, my Lord. As tempting as the offer is, I fear my wife would be heartbroken if I abandoned her so soon and for so long to skewer wild northern beasts.”
“Nonsense, sir!” countered Belasye, pausing to wink suggestively if unconvincingly in Tara’s direction. “As I explained to Mary, we have a lifetime left to do duty by our women.”
As if finally remembering the reason for the current gathering, Belasye scanned the crowd until his gaze alighted on Mary Cromwell, now Mary Belasyse. She was still stuck firmly to the right-hand side of her father, now nodding seriously at a conversation with a sober and ancient puritan. The sparkle fell slightly from Belasye’s eyes.
He turned back to Gabriel and tried a different tack: “What say we move the party to the Weald? His Highness will indulge me, I’m sure. The hunting’s sublime and it’s a considerably shorter journey. No more than three nights away. It was the mad King Henry’s personal playground, you know. Some say his rabid ghost stomps through the night still, giant thighs and red beard quivering with excitement for the chase. On moonless nights one can still right hear the royal rechate, calling the hounds!”
“A few days in the Weald?” Gabriel released Tara without ceremony and bowed to their host, smiling graciously. “That I cannot refuse.”
The blush deepened in Belasyse’s cheeks and he returned a deep bow in acknowledgement. “I look forward to it.”
“Are you going to tell me what the Hell that was about?” Tara demanded as the wide Yorkshireman moved away with surprising agility through the listing crowd. “If we weren’t at that man’s wedding…”
“Don’t say it,” whispered Gabriel with a shudder, glancing over the bodies floating past and pulling her tightly towards him.
“I don’t know how you can be so flippant about it,” she started, noting out of the corner of her eye the tray of champagne glasses passing precariously close behind her back, on the arm of a distracted page. “You’ve just agreed to go and make camp with him in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t sound as though he expects to hunt stags.”
“Needs must.” He shrugged and his eyes narrowed when her frown remained, the hint of a pout on her lips. “Wait, can my loving wife be jealous?”
“No! I just think-” He cut off her flustered denial with a deep kiss, satisfied only when her body relaxed boneless into his arms. He pulled back reluctantly, his fingers spreading out across the nape of her neck as he nudged her head gently sideways to give him better access to her throat, and the spot under her ear that raised goose bumps across her chest, even in this heat.
“I would give all at this moment to attend to my duty with increased vigour,” he whispered, smiling as he watched a bright green light play on her pale skin, refracted from the emerald drops he’d found in Hannah Moore’s box.
“Not where I must witness it, I beg you.”
“My Lord Thurloe,” Gabriel’s voice above her shoulder recovered quicker than her wits, and Tara turned, willing solidity back into her legs and feeling back into her lips, which tingled pleasantly from the force of his attention.
“My Lord Denby, a pleasure to meet you finally. And might I say it is a joy to see you again, my Lady, and so soon upon our jaunt to the West Country. Might I also say that the green silk is extremely becoming on you. It is perhaps for the best that my Lord Denby here stakes such a public claim to your favours; your engagement was so hurried it would be easy to forget entirely that you are spoken for.”
His lips curled into something resembling a smile as his beady eyes ran along the bodice of her dress and up into Gabriel’s warning stare. Thurloe lifted his hand as though to run his fingers along the high curve of her breasts and Gabriel tensed. She sensed his muscles coiling as though he would strike like a snake the moment the Secretary of State tried to touch her, but after a moment Thurloe just shrugged and lowered his hand, scratching the persistent sore on the back of the other.
Someone cleared their throat, and she looked up almost gratefully at the interruption. “My Lord Latimer.”
Cloaked in his formal robes of office, the churchman landed like a black crow, complete with his customary air of self-importance and an utter indifference to the awkwardness. John Clifford was trotting dutifully behind but had been distracted by a passing plate of fancies. Latimer nodded at Gabriel and Tara, an action hampered somewhat by the stiff white ruff about his neck, but he addressed Thurloe directly. “What a pleasant surprise it is to find you here among the great and good. It has been a while since we last saw one another.”
“Since I last saw you, my Lord Latimer, or since you last saw me?” Thurloe asked with a polite tilt of his head.
It occurred to Tara, not for the first time, that for a spymaster, Thurloe was hampered by features that gave away everything of his internal monologue. Perhaps this explained his directness; there was little damage to be done in giving voice to the tale that everyone had already read plain as day on his face. His smile was little more than a thin lined grimace at the sight of Titus Latimer; he might as well have declaimed sonnets of distaste and mistrust aloud.
“A friendly eye only of course, my Lord.” Latimer smiled, waving in airy dismissal of the import of spying on colleagues and the implicit threat in the Secretary of State’s personal interest.
“Of course,” replied Thurloe. “As is mine.”
“But speaking of which, Thurloe, I must tell you with regret that I am unable to keep the servant boy you recommended.”
“Did he disappoint?” Thurloe enquired with an air of sickening sweetness, and Tara thought of Bulstrode Wortley back at Ham House, sending in his prurient reports on their own lives. She felt Gabriel’s fingers tighten on her elbow but he seemed distracted by a scene across the room.
“His head was full of Mercury,” started Latimer with an exaggerated shrug. “but he was as lazy as Saturn.”
A steward clapped officiously, denying Thurloe a response as he called order to the room. Red-faced and shiny with sweat, Clifford pulled up behind his master and the other guests reluctantly gathered back inside the orangery, out of the first cooling drops of rain. They sidled around one another, either for a better view of the stage at one end of the room or for the psychological safety of being near trusted companions. Tara peered fruitlessly towards whatever had caught Gabriel’s attention and when she looked back Thurloe was gone.
A hush descended and, path cleared, Cromwell himself took to a raised dais and tapped his fork against his glass, clearing his throat noisily: “Family, friends. Thank you for coming today in this intolerable heat, to bear witness as my daughter Mary becomes Lady Thomas Belasyse, Vicountess Fauconberg.”
The Lord Protector paused and looked around the silent room a moment before a ripple of polite applause encouraged him to continue and he drew a sleeve across the beads of sweat on his forehead. Watching his awkwardness, Tara wondered if he would feel his replacement in Mary’s life. She may not be his favourite child, but by the look of it she was his most devoted. Father for husband; it was every sensible woman’s destiny to trade one kind of protection and provision for another.
“Wait here,” Gabriel whispered into her ear and the hairs on the back of her neck bristled, feeling his departure with the tickling movement of air behind her.
In front, Cromwell continued with his prepared speech: “…And while you all are granting liberties, surely you will not deny me this, it being not only a Liberty but a Duty. I must bear my testimony to England, as I have done and do still, so long as God lets me live in this world.”
There was a sudden commotion at the rear of the orangery, a shuffling confusion and a muffled shout as a man was led bodily away through the grand entrance doors by two armed guards, one on either side. Tara started, heart pounding, but no one else seemed to move. Around her, every man and woman kept their eyes firmly forward on the Lord Protector as the doors clicked closed behind them.
“…Every man is to give an account to God of his actions, therefore he must in some measure be able to prove his own work. I have had a great deal of experience of Providence. I now present to you my testimony.”
Behind him, long curtains fell aside to reveal a large bucolic backdrop; the English countryside painted green and lush. From a small gallery overhead, a group of musicians began to play and from makeshift wings four players emerged to take centre stage. Clearly representing the seasons, they were implacably masked like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, save that their costumes were too bright and gaudy. They walked a formation of tight geometrical shapes and intricate patterns, each shimmering as they moved with silken leaves of greens and gold, save for Winter, who was draped in a sparkling cape of frost. Spring was giving an introductory verse and Tara shifted anxiously, unable to discern any sign of Gabriel. She lifted her chin a little higher, peering about an appreciative audience.
After the lengthy oratory of the opening set, the action brought about a shift of the elaborate scene. Green and pleasant England gave way to an apocalyptic wasteland of red fire and black stone, the painted trees now standing as stark as crucifixes. The players had also shed their leaves and returned as evil cavaliers, blue sashes about their breastplates to denote the royal allegiance. They were grotesquely comical with large noses and larger cocks, which bumped haphazardly into the scenery and lewdly into each other. The crowd welcomed the relief, shouting ‘boo!’ and tittering with self-congratulation at having ended the war on the right side.
The music picked up pace as the Lord of Misrule arrived, bacchanalian in his costume of wine flasks, and the cavaliers danced revels to their satanic deity. In the intense heat, their makeup slid slowly down their faces, an additional visual trick of decay no less effective for the fact it was unintended.
“Subtle,” murmured Tara sardonically, earning a sideways glance from Latimer. She stared back unabashed, a tickling tear of sweat dribbling down between her breasts. Gabriel, with his furnace-like torso encased in formal velvet, would surely be suffering. She felt a small, uncharitable sense of satisfaction. Leaving her alone with the churchman was hardly evidence of an enduring passion.
There was still no sign of him, but the mysterious Lord Carnage was surely somewhere here. Her father had made occasional reference to a senior Lord, someone close to Cromwell, who directed the rebels. Blurred features hovered at the furthest edges of her memory. It was as good a place to start as any, although discounting the Cromwells, Thurloe and Latimer, taking away the women and the youths, there must be around two hundred potential male options amongst the assembly.
She took a deep breath. Lord Carnage had directed her father and Eddie; he must know who she was. She had to stay visible, be accessible, invite his attention. She scanned the heads, hoping for some glimmer of recognition, some clue or signal among the blank faces. A field sign, she thought, remembering Gabriel’s frustrated dismissal of the leaves his men had carried to battle. With a burst of determination, she began to move slowly through the stifling heat of closely packed bodies.
Back at the front of the hall, the players had been re-cast as simple puritan folk stumbling with honest joy upon the safe haven of Cromwell’s court. A rather exalted concept of parliamentary order, she thought bitterly. The reality involved fixing at least one eye permanently over your shoulder. Then the bleak backdrops rolled entirely away to reveal Cromwell himself sitting on a raised throne.
“We are delivered from evil!” The puritans fell to their knees with gratitude and he delivered the epilogue as honouree and hero. The bodies closed in tighter to hear the Protector’s valedictory resolutions and she had to raise a hand to create space so that she could pass between the doublets and sleeves. The other hand went instinctively to the inside of her placket, to close protectively over the scrap of parchment she would deliver to Lord Carnage when she found him.
She patted along the inside of the silken folds of her skirt; stopping to explore the further regions. The blasted message wasn’t there. No holes in the seams. It can’t have disappeared into thin air. She took a deep gulp of air and shoved her hand back into the placket, offering under her breath a last chance for it to materialise without recrimination. Nausea swelled as her fingers swept again through the slippery fabric. Nothing. It was gone. She pushed more forcefully back through the crowd; the small wrapper must have fallen out. Frantically, she scanned the floor, but the bodies closed in tight and the path was blocked.
The saddlebags. Please God, let it be in the saddlebags. Did she actually remember placing the message inside her placket? Maybe not. It was hard to tell with the room spinning. There was still a chance that she’d left it with her horse and Rowley in the stables. Fool.
She turned to leave, brows furrowing slightly when she caught sudden sight of Gabriel through the mass of bodies, all applauding, exhaling, ebbing and flowing again with the end of the masque. He was ordinarily head and shoulders above a crowd, but his dark head was inclined towards a short blonde woman, slight and expensively dressed, with shiny ringlets neatly curled in the modern fashion. The woman laid a proprietary hand on his chest and he absent-mindedly spun a small signet ring sitting on her little finger. An unexpected seed of jealousy took root in her stomach as he smiled in response to something she said, laughter lines creasing the corners of his eyes.
“Well, that is unfortunate, my Lady. I see your husband has a fondness for low company.” A familiar voice whispered over her shoulder: “The Duchess of Albemarle is nothing if not vulgar. A proud, mincing peat and yet a washerwoman of low extraction. Heaven only knows how she lured General Monck away from his wife and family, but she clearly has a talent for it... Perhaps his attachment to her explains why he insisted on taking up the Scottish Commander in Chief position, all that way into the boorish north. She is quite unfit for a civilised puritan court.”
Tara looked directly at Richard as he swayed drunkenly, his now blood-shot eyes rolling about like a ship at storm trying to remember where she left her anchor. Her stomach lurched. “She’s not the only one.”
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