England, April 1667
“She’s here,” Alexander Fletcher said to the lanky rider beside him. “Would that I had declined the king’s request.” From his vantage point on the hill facing Drayton castle, he scowled through the misty rain at the coach halting before his door.
“At least she’ll be silent,” his neighbor Robert Cooke said. “She’d make a perfect wife.”
“To anyone but me.” Alex shifted in the saddle to conceal a sudden, ridiculous loneliness that banded his chest. Crushing the feeling, he studied the prize sent to him by King Charles II, noting that she alighted from the coach with no companion. One pale hand at her throat clutched a cloak that covered her from head to knees. She paused, and her upper body bent and shook with what looked like a bout of coughing.
Even at this distance, Alex sensed her desperation. Useless sympathy sparked, and died, within him. “She looks sickly. Perhaps ‘twas another reason fat Rochester made her cry off their betrothal after she became destitute.”
“Mmm. Ailing, poor, and mute.” Robert shook his head, causing the drop of rain on his hooked nose to fall. “And likely mindless from the fire. You have the luck.”
“‘Twasn’t luck that brought her to my doorstep.” Alex didn’t explain further. Despite what her father had done, there was no cause to invite malice toward her from others. He watched his cousin Elizabeth appear at the door to greet the woman. “Forsooth, I’ll rid myself of her without delay.”
Robert glanced at him. “You won’t act on the king’s suggestion?”
“‘Tis well you do not,” Robert said. “Taking a woman like that to wife—God knows she would cause you no end of trouble. And your pain over Mary’s death still runs deep.”
Alex was silent, his hands fisting around the slippery wet reins. Abruptly, he pivoted his horse toward the open fields. “Enough. We’ll check the north end for your runaway mare. But I’ll wager she’s returned to her stall by now.” He pressed in his heels. “Fly, Neos!”
In seconds Robert’s mount galloped beside his. Alex stared straight ahead and allowed the wind to whip back the hood of his cloak and the rain to slap the bitter past from his thoughts.
**Look for the next scene in On Silent Wings September 6.**