Lord Of Misrule.
On a beautiful May morn, the verges thick with dandelions and daisies, Polly Worth followed the lane to the blacksmith’s forge. Her thoughts danced ahead to seeing Henry, her fiancé, until hoof beats behind her, made her turn.
Polly’s blood ran cold, staring up into the cold blue eyes of a man on horse back.
“Squire Bulstrode.” Tipping her chin in the air, she carried on walking.
“Ah, Mistress Worth, have considered my proposal further.”
All color drained from her cheeks. “Squire Bulstrode, I am engaged to be married and yet you want me for your mistress. My answer is still no.”
The squire’s eyes glowed with lust, tracking over her full bosom and neat waist, watching her long brown plait sway against her bottom. A lean athletic man, his blonde hair cropped short, it was his manner, not looks, that was unpleasant.
“Polly you have much to learn. Both your father and your betrothed earn a living on my manor. If I let Cowper go from the forge… and with your father in poor health, should he be turned out of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Willow</st1:place></st1:City> Farm… what would become of your family?”
Polly gasped at his undisguised malice.
“I…I…” but she was saved from answering as they rounded the corner and the forge hove into sight.
Henry stood shading his eyes, watching for her; with biceps like iron and shoulders broad as an oak, sandy hair and kind eyes, he was undeniably the most handsome man in the village. Some even joked that if the young Queen <st1:State w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Victoria</st1:place></st1:State> was not newly betrothed, then a fine Englishman like Henry Cowper would have turned the Queen’s head.
“Remember,” Linden Bulstrode hissed, “Cowper’s livelihood is mine to take away. Tomorrow night, 8 o’clock, in the south orchard. Be there….”
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Polly Worth turned on her heel. She didn't bother to offer any other words she was so mad. It was a wonder there wasn't steam billowing from her ears.
How dare he threaten Henry's livelihood if she didn't meet him tomorrow night? Should she dare not to show? She nodded. Of course she should. Henry wouldn't want her to go through with whatever Squire Bulstrode had in store. In fact, he'd discourage her even if his livelihood was at stake. The man loved her that much. He could find a job somewhere else. Maybe they could start over in a new village. One where the likes of Squire Bulstrode wouldn't be around to dictate not only her life but that of many of the village's people.
As Polly continued walking, unaware of her surroundings, her arm was suddenly gripped by a calloused hand.
"Polly, what are you doing wandering the streets with a look bound to scare people if they crossed your path?"
Polly glanced up at Henry, then without warning wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. Her head rested against his shoulder, and his arms automatically encircled her waist.
"Just another run in with Squire Bulstrode."
"Again?" Henry asked, knowing the Squire had been pestering Polly for weeks now. "What's he want this time?"
"What do you mean again?" Polly enquired with a shaky voice. What did Henry know of her dealings with Linden Bulstrode? Did he know that the Squire wanted her?
"There's been talk Polly."
"What sort of talk?"
"That he wants to take you away from me. Is it true?"
Polly nodded. It was the only thing she could do. Knowing she couldn't lie to the man she loved more than life itself. Besides, lying wasn't in her nature. She'd always believed honesty was her best policy. Especially after everything that had happened between her parents.
"And?" Henry prompted, needing to know more.
"He wants me to meet him tomorrow night at eight. And if I don't he's going to do everything possible to ruin you."
Henry saw red. The thought of Polly alone with Squire Bulstrode was enough to make his blood boil. Temper in check, Henry escorted Polly from the market.
"You will go home."
"Of course. I was headed there anyway."
"And you will not meet with Squire Bulstrode."
"I had no intentions of doing so."
After a few moments, Henry tapped a finger to his forehead. "Where are you to meet Bulstrode?"
"Well, he said to meet him tonight at 8 o'clock in the south orchard."
"No Henry, you must not."
"Whatever do you mean?"
Stepping in front of him, hands placed on his broad chest. Henry wondered if Polly could feel his racing heart beneath the thin material. Brown hair was undone and resting in waves down her back. Green eyes the color of emeralds watched him.
"Henry, you cannot go to the orchard. Just let it go."
"How can I let it go? Squire Bulstrode is a bully. The only way to deal with him is to put him in his place. I assure you it won't take long."
With a pat on her round bottom, Henry sent her on her way. With every step, Polly would turn and glance back at him. Each time he would give her a big smile.
When finally Polly was out of sight, Henry set about with his plan. He knew what he needed to do. Now to get everything ready.
* * *
Polly wasn't about to let Henry face Squire Bulstrode alone. She would be there to discourage him from doing anything stupid. Because Henry didn't know the kind of man the Squire was. Where as she did. To the village people, he may seem the sweet, overly generous man. But when he was was alone with someone, he was every bit as ruthless as a dog with a juicy bone to get what he wanted.
After walking a few more moments, Polly finally arrived home. Just as she unlocked the front gate, she was surprised to see someone waiting for her. Since she rarely had visitors except for Squire Bulstrode who only came by to make demands.
She groaned. Just her luck it was him. What could he possibly want now, she thought, as she slammed the gate shut with such force. That the loud bang as the lock clicked into place reverberated over her quite property, scaring the birds out of the trees. They scattered wildly, their wings flapping double time making such a glorious spectable. And making her wish she could be that free.
"So are you going to show tomorrow night?" The annoying man of the hour asked with a raised brow.
"You wouldn't be here if you thought I was going to." Polly said, her tone seething. How dare he hold Henry's future over her as well are her father's health? Couldn't he respect her wishes? "So let's get to why you're here when my answer will still be no."
"Because my little mistress we were once good together and we can be again if you give me another chance."
Polly inhaled sharply. They had been good together. But those times were behind her. She was with Henry now, and he treated her like a princess. She couldn't afford to risk losing him even if it would protect his livelihood. Besides, he'd never forgive her for betraying him. Which was something she couldn't live with.
"I cannot be with you again."
"You mean you will not all for some man with a meaningless trade that can barely provide for the two of you."
"He doesn't have to. I have enough money for the both of us." She managed to say, as tears welled in her eyes when she thought of her situation and how she would protect Henry and her father without anyone learning the truth about her past relationship with Squire Bulstrode. "Please respect my decision and find someone else."
"It's not that easy. I want you. I've always wanted you. I was just too stupid to see that what I wanted was right in front of me this whole time."
Suddenly, a tear escaped, cascading down her left cheek and onto the smooth column of her neck. Why couldn't he have said that to her three years ago?
Strong arms enveloped her, and she rested her head on the chest that was as familiar as the sun bearing down on the side of her face that was facing it.
"Please don't cry Pol. Everything will be fine. Henry doesn't have to know."
She reared back in anger. How dare he? She couldn't hide anything from Henry. He knew her all too well, considering they'd only been together a year.
"As if he's not going to realise I'm not in bed with him every night like usual." She said scathingly, wanting to hurt him like he'd hurt her three years ago by walking away because of his parents disapproval of her. "Maybe you wouldn't realise my warm body wasn't beside you for just one night but Henry would."
Linden planted a chaste kiss upon her forehead before leaving. Polly remained rooted to the floor more confused than ever.
For three years, he'd avoided her. When Linden had refused to share their relationship with his parents, Polly had threatened to end it then and there. With her threat, Linden had given in.
Unfortunately telling his parents had not worked out as Polly had planned. His father, the previous Squire, had ordered the two of them to separate. A large sum of money had been given to Polly for her immediate departure from Linden's life.
Polly had staunchly refused. Declaring her love for Linden in front of both of his parents, Polly had waited for Linden to reciprocate but he'd sat there like a statue refusing to say a word.
Polly had walked out of the parlor, coins jangling in her purse, heartbroken. After two years with no companion Henry had arrived. With attention, and affection uncommon to Polly, Henry had wormed his way into her heart.
Now a year after their meeting, Linden decided to waltz back into her life with declarations of love. For months he'd been trying to plan a meeting. The idea was to give him time to express his regret. He wanted time to explain why he'd left her in the face of his parent's dissatisfaction.
Polly could not have cared less. She loved Henry now and no other.
A whistle was upon her lips as she gathered food to prepare the afternoon meal. The final touches complete, Polly set the table. Stepping outside the door, Polly yelled for her father. Even though in poor health he still directed the work at the forges. Today Henry was absent buying supplies in town and her father was on his own.
When her father didn't come to the sound of her voice, Polly yelled again. Fear raced through her body as her feet pounded the trail to the the forge.
"Father! Where are you?"
Rounding the corner of the forge, Polly's breath caught in her throat. There was her father--
Linden Bulstrode was coldly furious, not with Polly, but with himself. <O:p</O:p
His youthful dalliance with Polly had foundered on his father’s opposition to the match and he’d given way to the older man’s strictures, with pride keeping him silent. Since his father's death, he’d done much to reverse the clinging to the past that dogged the village and sent their best people elsewhere, expecting her gratitude to overcome her earlier disappointment in him. Henry Cowper and her father both clung to the past, the blacksmith following a trade rooted in the dark ages and the father using out-dated methods that made his holding subsistence level at best.<O:p</O:p
Now he’d mismanaged the whole affair with Polly and it was her fault—she always brought out the worst in him, making him revert to the old ways by her challenges. He was being unfair…and he knew it.<O:p</O:p
Henry would undoubtedly make their rendezvous in the orchard another confrontation. There’d been enough of them since they’d played together as boys. The strapping blacksmith had learnt to hide his bullyboy ways since then, but he’d revert soon enough in private…<O:p</O:p
The thought was a catalyst to a plan that washed the fury from Linden’s mind and eased his features into a smile. It might nudge the remainder of the village into his way of thinking and condemn Henry, her father and all the other fogies into the past, where they belonged.<O:p</O:p
Polly fought against her father’s strength. The old man might be ailing but he retained enough of the strength that had made him a feared bare-knuckle fighter to overcome her resistance. “Leave him go, lass. Squire Bulstrode needs to be shown and Henry is the man to do it.” The old man still used the old title. “He treated you badly in the past and now he has to pay.”<O:p</O:p
She tried to push past him and reach the door.<O:p</O:p
“No, lass. I want you to go to your room and stay there. You mustn’t interfere.”<O:p</O:p
Polly stood stubborn, willing him to give way, but he continued to push her towards her door, smiling at her resistance.<O:p</O:p
“Go in there and stay. The window’s too small since you’ve become a full grown woman.” She used to slip out of it in her teens and get up to more mischief than he knew about.<O:p</O:p
“All right,” she gave way. “I’ll go to my room, but you’re both wrong.” She had her own secrets.<O:p</O:p
“I’ll put the bar across the door,” her father warned.<O:p</O:p
“Do as you wish.” She shrugged her shoulders. It had been years since he’d last locked her in her room to enforce his words. Her window faced the path to the orchard and it wasn’t long before she saw him join Henry and head towards the rendezvous with the Squire.<O:p</O:p
Removing the window frame was the work of minutes, Linden had shown her how, and this made it possible for her to slip through and land gently on the turned earth of the garden bed. She’d have to tidy it on her way back in lest her secret be discovered, but she must hurry.<O:p</O:p
The moon had risen, bathing the orchard in silver light, turning the shadows beneath the trees black, but Linden stood exposed in the swale, his face lit by the moon.<O:p</O:p
“It’s the old team,” he mocked. “Which one will hold me this time? Is it your turn, Henry?”<O:p</O:p
“I need no one to best you.” Henry rumbled. “Did it often enough in the past.”<O:p</O:p
“Getting too big to need the old man?” Linden jibed, taunting the both of them. “But, you still brought him along.”<O:p</O:p
Henry rushed forward, head down, intent of crushing resistance.<O:p</O:p
Linden stood, curiously casual until the last second… and then his movement blurred in the uncertain light and Henry went flying over his head to crash full length on the untilled earth.<O:p</O:p
“Not all my studies were wasted,” the young Squire commented. “My Chinese history tutor was a Shaolin monk.” He turned his back on her father, standing oddly hipshot as he waited for Henry to rise.<O:p</O:p
What happened next shocked Polly into a half scream. Her father took three paces and threw a savage punch aimed at Linden’s kidneys. It never connected and her cry of alarm was unnecessary. Linden’s weight shifted from one leg to the other and he helped her father fall past him as he swiveled, taking her father’s arm with him to wrench the shoulder joint.
“I didn’t think you’d wait,” Linden said, stepping back from the two fallen men. “Now the others can see you for what you are. Relics of a past age, brainless bullyboys.”
Polly watched the other villagers emerge from the shadows and stand silent.
Linden felt no pride in humbling the two men, no bitterness for the past. His only satisfaction was the breaking of their influence on the others. The changes the village must make to survive an uncertain future might come a little easier now. Polly’s white face shone in the moonlight and he remembered her cry of warning, but now was not the time to approach her. He’d made too many mistakes already. She must come to him when she was ready…<O:p</O:p