by Cheryl Petterson

(Standard Year 2247)

Return to Valjiir Stories

Return to Valjiir Continum

Return to Part Three of Hotel California: A Cautionary Tale

Beautifully haunting music began to fill the theater. It was wistful, and Ruth immediately identified it as the Celtic strains of ancient Terra. It drew her in, and Kevin’s arms tightened around her in a warm embrace.

“Ah, the sounds of home,” he murmured, and a feeling of peace and contentment grew around her. She glanced over at Sulu and Jilla, who were staring at the screen, as entranced as she was. It showed a pastoral setting, gently rolling green hills, a cloudless blue sky, Terra’s yellow sun sparkling down on outcropping of white rocks and a merry, swift-flowing stream. There was a patch of meadow, fenced off by rough-hewn wood, cows and sheep grazing contentedly. A large, grand house of vaguely Tudor style stood in the background, a young woman in what looked to be a Victorian servant’s dress wandering in the field, her apron held up to create a basket of sorts, picking wild flowers. She brought each one to her face, inhaling the sweet fragrance, then carefully placed it in her apron. Her burgundy hair was done up in a soft pile of curls.

“This looks safe enough,” Sulu ventured.

Ruth started to express concerns to the contrary, but her objections seemed to float away into the music.

A horse and rider appeared, crossing the stream with an impressive leap. The creature, a beautiful bay, trotted up to the girl, the rider dismounting with the ease of long practice. “Good day to ya, Cassie,” the red-haired, young, obviously wealthy gentleman greeted her.

She gave a respectful curtsey. “Good day, m’lord,” she replied.

“M’lord?” Ruth repeated with a giggle. Kevin grinned at her.

“Sulu’s not the only one who gets to be suave and sophisticated,” he said smugly.

“If you’re running this one, I’ll bet I’m a stable boy – or worse,” the helmsman muttered.

“Lovely day, isn’t it?” the young lord remarked, shading his eyes and smiling down at her.

“That it is, sir,” Cassie replied.

“Come, walk with me,” the lord suggested.

“The Lady wants flowers for the dinner table,” the girl demurred.

Lord Connor grinned. “Then I’ll help you.” He turned to his horse, removing one of the saddle bags. A worried frown crossed Cassie’s features, but when the lord turned back to her, her expression was carefully neutral.

“Oh, she doesn’t like you, Kev,” Sulu joked.

“Maybe she’s just conscious of her lowly status,” the navigator returned with another grin. Ruth punched him on the arm.


The stable was dim, dappled patches of sunlight filtering in through the high windows. Several horses stood in their stalls, stamping and snorting, munching on the hay the young stable-hand pitched into their feed-boxes. He paused, leaning on the pitchfork, brushing his long dark hair out of his eyes. His clothing was simple, a pair of dark breeches over knee-high black boots, topped by a dingy, tan-colored shirt whose wide sleeves were held up above his elbows by coarse pieces of twine.

“What did I tell you?” Sulu frowned.

“I think you look quite handsome,” Jilla commented, and he smiled at her.

“Sexy, sweating laborers do have an appeal all their own,” Ruth quipped, then stuck her tongue out at Kevin’s scowl.

One of the horses, a lovely coal-black mare whinnied softly, and the stable-hand stepped over to it, patting its flank affectionately.

“I know, Sable,” he murmured. “I’ll take you out as soon as I’m able.”

The creature turned its head, rooting at his hand. He chuckled and moved to a large bushel of apples, picking one up and holding it out for the horse to take.

“There you go, girl. Eat hearty.”

Sable whickered softly and he patted her again, then returned to his chores.

“She wants a good ride, does she, Will?” a languid voice said from the stable door. “She’s not the only one.”

The stable-hand turned to the melodic, sultry voice.

“Your pardon, m’lady, I didn’t see you there,” he answered, immediately lowering his gaze.

Lady Meghan laughed. Her hair, a honey blonde, was elaborately coiffed, her large, violet eyes – an unusual color for the county – gleamed with smoky sensuality. Her deep green riding jacket was cinched tightly at her waist, the long appropriately bustled skirt a matching forest. Heavy emerald jewels adorned her slender neck and ears, a large cabochon of emerald on her delicate finger.

“I’d better be your damned sister,” Ruth growled at Kevin.

“Oh, but I’ve been watching you for quite a little while now,” the lady returned. She stepped out of the sunlit doorway. “Conner is out riding, but I expect you know that.”

“Yes, m’lady,” Will answered. “He took Tanner out over an hour ago.”

“That doesn’t leave us much time, does it?”

Will swallowed. It was dangerous, he was well aware of that. But refusing the junior lady of the manor was more so. And as long as he had her favor, it was unlikely she’d allow her husband…

“Shit!” Ruth grumbled.

… to dismiss him from his post. He’d worked hard, and the stable master was impressed with him. He’d been offered a waged position after his apprenticeship if Lord and Lady Shaunessy approved. And while bedding the wife of the Lord’s young son and heir wouldn’t gain him any favor with Connor, it would certainly guarantee that Meghan would put in more than a good word with her mother and father-in-law. And from what he’d seen of the politics of the manor, that might carry a great deal more weight than might otherwise have been expected.

The fact that he’d already tasted the lady’s heat – on more than one occasion – made the decision for him.

“As if you would’ve decided any other way,” Meghan murmured and Will flushed. The lady had an uncanny knack for knowing what he was thinking. He placed his pitchfork on the hard-packed dirt and Meghan laughed again as she took his hand and led him to the ladder that climbed into the hayloft.

“Okay, so maybe it’s not so safe,” Sulu said with a wide grin. Jilla was frowning, Ruth smirking and Kevin nearly snarling.

“Ya just can’t let me be the hero, can ya, boy-o,” he growled.

“Is it my fault your wife finds me irresistible?” Sulu returned.

“At least somebody in the audience does,” Ruth said, winking at him.

Jilla sighed.


Conner walked beside Cassie, making light conversation, all the while heading farther and farther away from the house and toward the dark line of the adjacent woods. He had a hard time keeping his eyes from her ample bosom, particularly when she knelt gracefully to pluck blossoms from their homes. He always made it a point to stand directly above her. Though there was no inappropriate flesh to be seen, the rise under her simple dress quickened his pulse. Periodically he would take the flowers she’d gathered, transferring them carefully to his saddlebag, letting his hand brush against her fingers, lingering just long enough so that she would know it was not accidental, yet, if she protested, he could claim that it was. She flushed, clearly aware of his intent, but made no objection. That made his heart pound even harder.

Suddenly the girl stopped. They were actually under the shade of the first few trees. She glanced back at the house in alarm. “M’lord, forgive me, I must be gettin’ back. The Lady will be lookin’ for her flowers.”

“Cass,” he said, letting his tone carry a charming petulance, “we’ve known each other since we were children. D’ya think you could be callin’ me by my first name?”

She lowered her eyes, which were a light shade of grey that would’ve been at home among the Good Folk. “I couldna be doin’ that, sir,” she returned. “T’wouldna be proper.”

“Isn’t Jilla’s accent a little more Scottish than Irish?” Ruth asked.

“She learned it from Scotty, what do you expect?” Sulu returned, grinning.

“But she is not Indiian,” Jilla put in. “Why do you think she is…”

“She looks just like you, hon – except for the redder hair and the Human skin,” Sulu pointed out.

“And the freckles,” Kevin added. “Every fair Irish lass has freckles.”

“My character doesn’t,” Ruth challenged.

“And it doesn’t look like you’re fair at all,” Riley retorted.

“Jealous?” Ruth flashed her perfect teeth.

“We’ll see,” Kevin muttered under his breath.

Conner stepped closer to her, his finger gently lifting her chin. “And if I say it’s proper, Cass?”

Her flush deepened, the light sprinkling of freckles on her fair skin all but disappearing. “You’re a married man, m’lord,” she whispered.

“No one need know, Cassie,” he murmured. “I know how to be discreet, and I’m sure you can be so as well.” His fingers stroked her cheek, moving slowly down to the material at her neck and back toward her ears.

“Hands off, Riley,” Sulu snarled.

She backed away. “Master Conner, I beg ye…!”

“Ah, that’s a start, Cass,” he returned, continuing his advance. “Now if ya can just drop the ‘master’…”

“Sir… no, I… m’lord, I….”

Her fragrance was all he could smell. The feel of her silken skin beneath his fingertips centered his desires, fixing them on her and her alone. He had been infatuated with the serving girl since he’d first begun to notice the fairer sex in the way of a man, but her own modesty as well as the clear disapproval of his father kept him from making any overtures. She was right. It was far from proper. And he’d managed to keep his thoughts to himself through his engagement to Meghan Breen and their society-page wedding, less than two years ago. But when Meghan proved far more interested in his wealth and status than in his needs, his eye had begun to wander.

At first it was the usual dalliances, for his own sense of propriety warned him against taking a servant in his father’s house, right under his wife’s nose.

“Which apparently doesn’t bother Meghan one little bit,” Kevin grumbled.

“But she’s not in the house,” Ruth smirked.

But as each one proved less and less satisfactory, he had begun to dwell more and more on Cassie’s lush figure, so well hidden by her clothing; her fair skin, the dark red hair that used to tumbled about her face in unruly curls when they’d been children playing on the lawn. Her quiet grace haunted him. Her soft, properly deferential voice filled his dreams, ones that often ended shamefully in an involuntary emission.

Sulu snorted, even as he punched the Irishman’s shoulder.

Kevin grinned wickedly. “Like you don’t know how that is,” he chuckled.

“Shut up, Riley.”

He wanted her desperately, even her continued denial sending only more fire to his senses.

He reached for her and she darted out of his grasp, the flowers in her apron spilling to the ground.

“Good for you, Cassie,” Sulu muttered.

“Cass, I won’t hurt you!” he called and she ran back toward the house.

He stomped his foot in frustration, then knelt to pick up the fallen blooms before stalking irritably back across the meadow.

Ruth laughed out loud, then softened it with a grin. “Don’t take it too hard, Kev,” she said. “Roy would’ve had to challenge you to a duel.”


Meghan fastened her coat, smoothing her hastily bunched skirt back down over her thighs. Will lay in the pile of hay on his back, his naked skin still covered in a fine sheen of sweat.

There were ‘oohs’ and ahhs’ from the audience, and even a few whistles. Ruth nudged Sulu with her elbow.

“Maybe you should take a bow,” she suggested.

She imagined the bits of straw that would be stuck to his skin and smirked. He’ll need a fine currying, just like any other stallion, she thought lasciviously, and shivered at the thought of the marks the rough comb would leave on his flesh. She got to her knees, brushing off her clothing, and felt him rising beside her. She laughed lightly as he began to pick short pieces of hay from her hair.

“You’re the soul of discretion, Will,” she said to him, “though I imagine your concern is less for me than for your own position, hmm?”

“I wouldn’t have there be gossip about you, m’lady,” he replied softly and she shivered. His voice always had that effect on her; had from the moment she’d first heard it. That had been near a year before, when the strong young man had first become apprenticed to Stable Master Kinney.

"And having you dismissed would be the last thing I’d want,” she agreed. She carefully checked her jewelry, panicking a little as she realized one of her earrings had been dislodged. She turned, starting to search for it, and Will held out a hand. She smiled, taking the jewelry from him, fastening it again to her earlobe. “Thank you, Will,” she murmured, then bent forward, giving him a lingering kiss. He smiled, then reached next to him to retrieve his pants and shirt.

“I’d best be getting back to work, m’lady,” he murmured, and as he began dressing, she didn’t even try to resist the urge to slap his shapely buttocks. He jumped a little, but made no protest. She sighed, watching him, and when he was presentable, she returned his favor by brushing the straw from his hair. He descended the short ladder first, then helped her as she climbed down. His hands at her waist made her shiver, and when they were again on solid ground, pressed herself against him.

“There’s a fox hunt tomorrow morn,” she whispered. “I'll be expecting you at the gazebo.”

“Yes, m’lady,” he answered, and though his tone was expressionless, she could feel the heat rising in him.

“Gods but we’re sluts!” Ruth stated, giggling.

Sulu frowned at her, his gaze darting to Jilla.

“Sorry, Jilla,” the Antari apologized.

She kissed him again, then turned and undulated out of the stable. She saw Conner’s horse grazing in the meadow and frowned. It wasn’t like him to leave Tanner unattended. She made out the figure of Cassie McDonald racing toward the house, and few moments later saw Conner himself returning from the woods. Her frown deepened, her large eyes narrowing. Clearly, she had to have a little chat with Miss McDonald.

“You’ve gotten the poor little wench into trouble now, Kev,” Sulu remarked.

Kevin seemed to take no notice of the comment.


Cassie managed to slow her escape to a respectful if somewhat out of breath stride as she entered the manor. She realized she’d dropped her flowers and that most of what she’d gathered was still in the young lord’s saddlebags when she saw the Lady Shaunessy approaching her. She curtseyed deeply, staying low to the floor until the Lady spoke to her.

“Well, Cassie, my girl, where are the flowers I sent you for?”

Cassie swallowed, trying to think of something to say that would not result in sever punishment for her, but would also spare the young master any awkward questions. She didn’t dare look up into the Lady’s aloof blue eyes.

“Hey, look, someone who isn’t us!” Ruth exclaimed.

“And she doesn’t even look like anyone we know – except maybe Kev’s mom,” Sulu added.

“I do not think this ‘Cassie’ or ‘Cass’ or whatever her true name is, is me,” Jilla said.

“Hon, ‘Cass’ is short for…” Sulu began, then sighed. “Never mind.”

“She never does,” Ruth chuckled.

“I beg your pardon, m’lady,” she stammered, “I was…”

“Cassie, you dropped these,” Conner’s voice said behind her. She turned her head to see him moving jauntily forward, his arms full of flowers. “I’m sorry Tanner reared and startled you,” he continued. “He must’ve seen a snake.” He grinned. It was a well-known horseman’s jest – everyone knew there were no snakes in the land.

“It was most kind of you to pick them up for the clumsy child,” his mother said, her tone managing to convey both approval of him and disapproval of the serving girl. “Cassie, get up and take them. Arrange them for the table.”

Cassie rose, accepting the flowers without looking at Conner. “Yes, m’lady,” she said with another curtsey, and hurried to the kitchen. As she trimmed and arranged the flowers, she could hear Conner’s conversation with his mother.

“Really, Conner, you shouldn’t make excuses for the girl,” the Lady Shaunessy was saying.

“But Tanner did startle her, Mother,” Conner returned. “She’s a good, decent, hard-working girl.”

“And you’re sweet on her, I know. No, don’t bother to deny it. A woman knows such things, even one who is your mother. Just see to it that no one else notices.”

Cassie could almost hear the twinkle in his eyes. “And how could a son even begin to hope to fool his mother?”

The lady laughed lightly. “Oh, but I do spoil you, my darlin’.” The accent she had tried for years to suppress gave her voice an affectionate lilt.

“No doubt why he loses at the tables so often,” came the sultry voice of Conner’s wife, the Lady Meghan. “Really, Conner, you shouldn’t leave Tanner all lathered up from your ride.”

“Most inconsiderate of you, when your father paid so much for the animal,” Lady Shaunessy added. “Take him to the stables, and as punishment for your behavior, you’ll give him a good rubdown yourself.”

Again, Cassie could hear his grin. She knew as well as the Lady Meghan that that was no punishment at all – Conner loved horses and relished any opportunity to work with them.

“And stable-hands?” Sulu grinned suggestively.

It was Riley’s turn to scowl and say, “Shut up.”

“Yes, Mother. At once.”

Cassie glanced back toward the manor’s foyer in time to see him kiss her hand, then do likewise with Lady Meghan – though she seemed much less charmed by it.

“Mother Shaunessy,” Lady Meghan began again, and the older woman winced. She hated being called that, and the Lady Meghan knew it. “Why did Conner leave Tanner in the meadow while he was at the woods?”

“I’m sure he was chasing the snake that frightened the beast,” the Lady said coolly. “Change for dinner, dear. Cook tells me it will be served within the hour.”

“Gwynneth took ill this morning,” Lady Meghan said. “Might I borrow Cassie’s aid?”

“Cassie!” the Lady called, and the girl quickly finished the arrangement and came back to the foyer, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Yes, m’lady?” she said, curtseying, then added a second to Conner’s wife. “Lady Meghan.”

“Meghan’s chamber-maid is unavailable,” Lady Shaunessy said. “You’ll help her dress.”

Another curtsey, another ‘Yes, m’lady,” and she followed Meghan up the staircase to the suite of rooms that were the private domain of the younger master.


No sooner had the door to the suite been closed than Meghan turned on the younger girl. She slapped her across the face, her violet eyes blazing.

“Is it Conner who takes me for a fool, girl, or just you?” she snapped. She noted in some annoyance that the servant didn’t even raise her hand to her cheek.

“I don’t think you a fool at all, m’lady,” the soft voice answered.

“What else would you call one who dallies with my husband in broad daylight?”

The girl’s grey eyes glanced at her in shocked dread for only a moment. “I do not, m’lady!” she protested.

Meghan slapped her again. “Don’t lie to me, slut! I saw you running from the woods – and Conner following like some dog in heat!”

“I – I was only gathering flowers, as Lady Shaunessy bid…” she began.

“So the old bat covers for you now, does she?”

Ruth snorted loudly. “Old bat?” she gasped. “Gee, I didn’t think she looked Vulcan.”

“That is most disrespectful,” Jilla admonished – but her voice held the barest touch of a Scottish brogue.

Meghan took the girl by the shoulders, shaking her hard. “I’ll tell you only once, you worthless creature! Stay away from Conner, or you’ll live to regret it!”

“M’lady, I swear to you, I havena…”

With a cry of rage, Meghan pushed the servant toward her dressing table. “Remove your clothing,” she ordered. “I’ll see for myself if he’s touched you.”

Cassie crumbled to the floor, the material of her skirt pooling around her. There were tears in her eyes. “Lady Meghan, please…”

“Do it,” was the cold command.

The girl flushed fiercely, but she only whispered, “Yes, m’lady,” and slowly began to unfasten the buttons along the front of her dress.

“Does she have to have another nude scene?” Sulu grumbled. His arms were already protectively around Jilla, whose head was bent in obvious embarrassment.

“I thought she said it wasn’t her,” Kevin returned, a wicked twinkle in his eye.

“You better find a way to stop this, and NOW!” Ruth threatened.

Meghan watched, compassionless, as the girl removed the dress. “The undergarments, too,” she ordered.

“You bastard!” Sulu hissed, lunging at Kevin.

“'Tis the will of the people, my lad,” the Irishman remarked, holding up his hands in a show of innocence.

When Cassie stood naked and trembling, her arms crossed over her breasts, Meghan harshly turned her around, examining her with a critical eye. “Hmmph!” she finally snorted, apparently satisfied. “See that you keep your unstained purity, child, or hell will only be the beginning of what there’ll be to pay.” She kicked the pile of clothing to her. “Get dressed, then do as your mistress commanded and help me change for dinner.”

“Yes, m’lady,” Cassis murmured, gathering up her clothing. Meghan sat down at the dressing table, removing her jewelry, and waited for the servant to attend her.

“You wanna see the will of the people?” Sulu snarled. “I’ll show you the will of the people!”


Conner walked Tanner to the stables, speaking soothingly to his favorite mount. He saw Will coming forward, reaching for the horse’s reins, and he smiled.

“No need, Will,” he said. “I’ll tend to him myself.”

“As you wish, m’lord,” Will returned.

Conner watched him as he turned back to his chores, his thwarted desire for Cassie finding a new focus. While his father didn’t approve of play with serving girls, he’d said often enough that lads were fair game. Men, he said, were both stronger and therefore better able to defend themselves should such advances be unwanted, and had no reputation to lose nor purity to be stained. They also had the advantage of not needing to be wooed.

“Then you can tend to me!” he called after the dark-haired lovely.

“Now that’s just playin’ dirty, lad,” Kevin protested.

“And not helping Jilla any,” Ruth added sternly.

“What’s good for the goose,” Sulu began smugly.

“Will get the gander a long night in an empty bed,” Ruth finished. “Cut it out, Roy. You know Jilla doesn’t understand. And it’s disgusting besides.”

Will turned slowly, his face a complete blank, though his eyes were veiled and his full lips hardened into a thin line. “Yes, Master Conner,” he said.

Abruptly Conner’s face burst into a wide smile. “Ah, I had ya goin’ for a minute there, did I not, lad?”

Will’s face softened in relief.

“You haven’t joked with me like that for years, Conner,” he said, moving quickly to share a warm friendly embrace.

Conner laughed, hugging back fiercely. “And how was I to know the filthy street urchin my Da saved from poverty would grow up to be such a striking young thing?”

They held each other’s shoulders, black eyes staring into blue, both filled with memory. Conner had been only eleven when he and his father had taken a trip into the city. There the Lord Shaunessy had caught a pick-pocket, one who couldn’t’ve been more than seven. The child was half-starved and begged for mercy. James Shaunessy was a kind and fair man, though rigid, and he undertook to have the boy taken in by a neighboring family. Will had learned the farrar’s trade there, and Conner had been a frequent visitor. Once, while he was still settling into his manhood, he had thought of exploring the options available to him with the growing boy, who he considered a friend despite their differences in standing. Will had responded with wary dread, and Conner hadn’t brought up the matter again, passing it off as a jest. In time, Will had come to be apprenticed to the Shaunessy stables in payment of his debt.

“Well, you gave me a right start, that’s the truth of it,” Will returned.

Conner ruffled the shorter man’s hair. “Then I beg your most humble forgiveness.” He smiled, and in order to make amends – and cover his not-quite-jesting reaction – offered, “Let’s give Tanner here his due together then, shall we, lad?”

“Yes, m’lord,” Will grinned.

“So make me out the pervert,” Kevin sighed.

“You’re a wealthy Victorian lord,” Sulu replied. “Isn’t that part of the definition?”

“Only if you’re in a Dickens novel.”

“And if it’s not true, why should you care?” Ruth put in sweetly. “Besides, it distracted Jilla, and that was the point.” She indicated the Indiian, who was frowning at the screen in puzzled disapproval.


Cassie helped the kitchen maids serve dinner, and she kept her eyes lowered, not wanting to look either at Lord Conner or Lady Meghan. Lord and Lady Shaunessy were their usual selves, the Lord clearly still in love with his wife of so many years. He’d had his share of affairs over the years, Cassie knew, but the Lady gave no indication either by word or deed that she knew of them. She had the distinctive grace and dark good looks of what was known as Black Irish, her blue eyes serene in a fair-skinned face, topped by black hair that was streaked with grey but which didn’t detract from her beauty. The Lord had more usual coloring, hair that was a dark gold with red highlights, and warm if piecing hazel eyes that could flash either gold or green.

“Bwana, again?” Ruth complained.

“You should’ve guessed that when his name was James,” Kevin grinned. “But who’s Lady Shaunessy?”

“She resembles someone I once knew,” Jilla put in tentatively. “But her features are not Asian, and her eyes are the wrong color.”

“Asian?” Sulu asked curiously.

“And here I was hoping these headsets were finally zeroing in on someone besides one of us,” Ruth frowned.

“Who is she, Jilla?”

“She looks like – but is not Jade Han,” the Indiian replied, a little more stridently than was usual for her.

“Sure, and I’m not Conner, and Sulu isn’t Will…” Kevin chuckled.

“And I’m certainly not that bitch Meghan,” Ruth replied.

Kevin remained tactfully silent, but Ruth smacked him anyway.

Lady Meghan was conspicuously attentive to her husband, and its oddity was commented on only by the frequent exchange of glances between the Lord and Lady. Conner reacted in wary surprise and Cassie only hoped his occasional glances at her went unnoticed by his wife.

“Cass, be a good girl and go to the stables and tell Master Kinney and Will to come to the house for their dinner,” Lord Shaunessy said as she and the other servants started to clear the table and bring the after-dinner tea and brandy. He rose, placing his napkin on the table. “Come, Conner, I have a business proposition to discuss with you.”

“Yes, Father,” Conner replied. He gave short bows to the women still seated. “Mother. Meghan,” he said, and he and his father left the table.

Cassie noted Lady Meghan’s sour look and hurried away before the woman could begin her usual tirade about the unfairness of being excluded from business discussions.


Will was standing next to the tack frame, polishing the saddle Tanner had worn. The bay’s coat gleamed. He and Conner had given the beautiful creature the very best of their attention, their interaction full of friendly jests. Will found himself very glad that the Shaunessys were such an honorable family. Conner’s joking sexual advance had rattled him; the young lord could indeed command the favor he had intimated, but he never had – unlike the brash young master at the Darby’s who had taken him in. When he closed his eyes, he could still see that wicked smile, the aristocratic features framed by the thick, dark curls, the eyes that somehow always seemed warm even when he was at his most cruel. There had been a time when Will had almost run, but Lord Darby had seen his son’s licentious behavior and had sent him to be apprenticed to one of the better business firms. Which, Will knew, had suited Master Noel well, for he hated country life.

Ruth scowled as Kevin burst into peals of laughter. “Not funny, Roy,” she growled at the man next to her.

Sulu was grinning. “That wasn’t me, Spike, swear to god.” He paused. “But it sure is funny.”

“Not to me.”

He put the thoughts away. There was no need to dwell on the past.

“Will,” came a soft voice from the stable door.

Will smiled to himself, turning. “You’re looking lovely today, Cass,” he said to the pretty serving girl.

She flushed, but a smile crept over her full, rose-colored lips. “Thank ye kindly, Will. The Lord bids you and Master Kinney to come for your dinner.”

He nodded, putting aside the cloth and polish he held. “I’ll wash straight away,” he returned. He left the stable, walking the few steps to the water pump that stood outside it. He gave the handle a few good thrusts, then stuck his hands under the spout.

“Let me help ya,” Cassie said, and grasped the handle herself, increasing the flow of water. She reached into the lye-soap pail hanging from the pump, bringing a small handful of it to the young man’s hands. Their eyes met as their fingers entwined, and when Will leaned forward to kiss her, she didn’t draw away. Their lips touched, their hands clasping each other’s. They only broke apart at a polite cough from behind them.

“That’s enough now, the two of ya,” Master Kinney said. His voice was stern, but his eyes danced with joviality.

“Your pardon, Master Kinney,” Cassie said, her blush increasing. Will only grinned and finished rinsing both his hands and hers. Then he worked the pump for the Stable Master to wash his own hands while Cassie dried hers on her apron.

“Come on, lad, ye must be hungry after such a fine day’s work,” Kinney said, clapping Will on the shoulder.

“That I am, sir,” Will answered, then Kinney turned again to Cassie.

“Will you be eatin’ with us today, lassie?”

“As I haven’t as yet, yes, I will, sir,” the girl replied.

“Ah, that’ll suit our young Will, won’t it, lad?”

“Very well, Master,” Will said, his eyes shining at Cassie. “Very well indeed.”

“Even as a stable boy he’s got the charm,” Kevin muttered.

“Yeah, but it’s Jilla. What did you expect?” Ruth replied.


The servant’s dinner was a much less formal affair. They all ate in the large kitchen, the girls had seats at the table used for preparing the meals, the men standing, leaning on counters and against cupboards. There was gossip and friendly ribbing, outrageous flirtation and quiet laughter. Will stood behind Cassie’s chair, occasionally reaching down to her plate to snatch a morsel of food. She’d slap his hand playfully and he’d suck on his fingers in feigned discomfort, his dark eyes smiling at her. There were not a few knowing, raised eyebrows and elbowed ribs over the exchanges, which made Cassie blush and Will grin merrily. He lingered when the rest of the large staff returned to their work, helping her clean the dishes used, and wiping the table and other surfaces, watching longingly as she swept the bare wood floor clean. It was near dusk when they finished, and as she went to replace the broom in the pantry, he stepped up behind her in the small enclosure.

“I love you, Cassie McDonald,” he whispered in her ear, his arms sliding around her waist. She turned in his embrace.

“And I you, Will Brady,” she returned softly. He kissed her, then brushed a stray curl from her face.

“That sounds familiar,” Ruth teased. Sulu smiled at her, putting his arm around Jilla. Jilla, of course, flushed.

“I’ve spoken to Master Kinney,” he said, “and he’s willing to speak for me when my apprenticeship is finished. If I get the position he’ll recommend, I can make a proper proposal. He even said he’d make room for us in the back of the stable until I can afford to build us our own cabin.”

“Oh, Will, t’would that the year was up!” Cassie sighed.

“Will the Lord approve, d’you think?”

“With the Lady Meghan so eager to be rid of me…” the girl began.

Will frowned. “Why is that?”

“She thinks I’m triflin’ with Master Conner,” Cassie confessed, then quickly looked up into his eyes. “I’m not, I swear it.”

“I trust you, Cass,” Will said, but his face was troubled.

Cassie reached up, touching his cheek. “What is it, my darlin’?”

It took a while for him to answer. “There’s – there’s something I have to tell you,” he admitted. “But not here, not now. Can you find some pretext to come to the stables tonight?”

“Will, what is it?” Her expression mirrored his.

“Tonight, Cass. Come after moonrise. I’ll be waiting.” He kissed her again, then ran his fingertip over her lower lip. “Sweeter than any wine,” he murmured, then turned and left the pantry and the house. Cassie watched him go, her own fingers going to her lips. She went to the back stairs and headed to finish the day’s work.


From the doorway to the dining room, Conner Shaunessy’s eyes hardened. An ugly sound came from his throat, and he turned, stalking resolutely back the way he’d come.

“Now don’t you be causin’ trouble, Kevin, me lad,” Sulu chuckled. But the Irishman didn’t respond, his eyes glittering in the light from the screen.


When the evening’s dessert was served, Cassie asked Lady Shaunessy if she might bring some of it to Master Kinney. The Lady smiled, calling her a considerate child, and gave her permission. Cassie hurriedly wrapped some of the sweetcake in a napkin and headed to the stables. The light from the lantern she lit bobbed over the meadow, the evening dew wetting the hem of her dress. The crickets stopped their chirping as she passed, only to resume when she was far enough away. The moon was rising in the east, nearly half-full. She didn’t notice the dim glow of another lantern being lit in the doorway of the house far behind her.

She delivered the cake to Master Kinney, who thanked her most kindly, and winked at her and inclined his head toward the small room Will slept in. She moved quickly, leaving the lantern on the dirt outside the planked wooden door.

“Will?” she whispered, and his arms came around her, pulling her into a passionate kiss. She let the embrace go on as long as she dared, then pulled away breathlessly.

“I’ve not much time,” she told him. “What have you to tell me?”

He took her hands, leading her to sit on his straw pallet. The dim light from the lantern filtered in through the slats of the door. He sat beside her, not letting go of her hands.

“I – I don’t know how to say it, Cass,” he began.

“The truth is always best, Will,” she replied simply.

He took a deep breath. “Aye… but not always easiest.” He bent his head for a moment, then straightened, looking her full in the face. “I – I’ve not been – faithful to ya, Cass.”

She inhaled sharply, then bit her lip, fighting the sudden tears. She swallowed, looking down at their clasped hands. “That’s the way of men,” she said bravely.

“Now we know that’s not Jilla,” Ruth remarked.

“Shut up, it’s your fault!” Kevin hissed.

“My, aren’t we touchy,” the Antari rejoined, and heard Sulu whispering.

“Never, hon, never.”

“It’s not by my free choice,” Will went on. “I – I can’t refuse her.”

“She has some hold on ya, Will?” Cassie murmured.

“That she does,” he replied, his voice both sad and dark. He took another long breath. “It’s the Lady Meghan.”

Cassie gasped, standing up, pulling her hands away from him. “That…! Will, how could ye?”

He too rose. “Where’s an option to tell her no, Cassie?” he groaned. “She’s my mistress as surely is Lady Shaunessy!”

“And Conner is my master, but…”

“No one has the right to demand a woman’s virtue,” Will returned earnestly. “”Tis not the case with a man.” Even in the weak light, she could see him blush. “And I have none to lose in any case.”

“Oh, Will…. But Lady Meghan?”

“She commands me, Cass. What am I to do?”

The tears filled her eyes. “What you must, I suppose.”

He took her hands again. “Please say it doesn’t change your feelings toward me,” he begged.

“How could it?” she whispered. “I’ve loved you, Will Brady, from the moment I first laid eyes on ya.”

“Cassie, my darlin’ I’m so sorry…” He again pulled her into his arms and she sobbed, burying her tears in his chest. Eventually they sat back down, Will leaning back, letting her cry against him. Then he turned her face up to him.

“Kiss me, Cassie,” he pleaded. “It’ll tell me if you still love me.”

With a silent cry, she pushed her mouth to his, crushing their lips together, knowing he would taste her tears. His fingers tangled in her hair, loosening it, sending it tumbling over her shoulders. They followed the soft waves down, beginning to move along her back and sides, caressing her in his anguish. She clung to him, and a heat began within her, a need to claim him from the memory of Meghan’s embrace, to put a mark on him that would remind him of it even when he was forced to the woman’s foul use.

“Hey, I’m not that foul!” Ruth protested, then realized none of her companions were listening to her.

Her hands slid beneath his shirt, his warm skin sending fire into her senses. He responded, his fingers moving to the fastening of her skirt.

“Take me, Will,” she whispered urgently. “Give me somethin’ to hold back the chill of knowin’ what you do with her!”

“Cass, there’s no time to do it proper…” he warned breathlessly.

“I won’t let her lay sole claim!” she cried. “You’re to be mine, Will, not hers!”

With a soft moan, Will turned to straddle her, bunching up her skirt and petticoat, exposing creamy thighs. He held the dress up, freeing himself from his breeches with the other hand.

“Cass, are you certain…” he rasped.

“Never more,” she gasped. “Take me, Will. Make me yours.” He lowered his head, kissing her again.


Conner’s blood grew hotter with each step as he silently followed Cassie to the stable. The embrace he’d seen in the kitchen pantry, haunted him, clouding his senses with insulted fury. The girl refused him, but rutted after Will, a laborer from the lowest class possible? It was unthinkable, unbearable, and he was determined to show the little bitch her place.

“Master Conner!” Kinney cried out as the young lord burst into the stable, clearly hoping his voice would carry to Will’s room. Conner’s face was livid in the yellow glow of the lantern he carried. He ignored the old Stable Master, barging straight to the young hand’s room. When he saw the embracing couple, he dropped the lantern and grasped Will by the hair, pulling him furiously away from Cassie’s body.

“Slut!” he roared. “You deny me then give your favor to him?!”

Cassie quickly sat up, desperately pushing her skirts down. “M’lord, forgive me, we are to be wed!” she gasped.

Conner’s eyes blazed at her. “You’d actually marry the likes of him? He’s nothing, girl, nothing but a bastard thief, a worthless rake and a foul sodomite!” He reached down, grabbing the girl’s wrist, pulling her harshly to her feet.

“My lord, I beg you, don’t take it out on her!” Will pleaded, rising from the dirt floor. “T’was me, I was seducing her…!”

Conner turned, striking a hard blow across the stable hand’s face.

“You have no leave to speak to me, Will Brady,” he snarled. “And this little wench is mine to do with as I please!”

“Please, m’lord, please…!” Cassie was crying.

Conner ignored her, dragging her behind him out of the room. He pushed past Kinney, hearing the older man’s warning of, “Don’t do it, laddie!” The lord pivoted, unsheathing the short sword at his hip. It gleamed in the dull light, stopping Will’s heedless charge. He met the stable hand’s fearful, furious gaze and smiled cruelly.

“If I had a blade, you bastard…” Sulu growled.

“Do you really want to try it, Will?” he asked, his voice deadly soft.

“Conner, we’re friends!” Will begged.

Conner snorted. “Friends? With a common peasant like you? Your delusions know no bounds.” He turned, the act an arrogant show of contempt, and continued out of the stable, Cassie firmly in his grip.


Will hurriedly adjusted his clothing, pushing his hair out of his eyes. He grabbed his boots, jamming them onto his feet.

“Will, lad, don’t ya be doin’ anything rash,” Kinney said worriedly. “Tis the lord’s prerogative…”

“Cassie’s virgin, Master,” Will answered from between gritted teeth. “I’ll not have her deflowered in such a way.”

“What can you do, boy?” Kinney cried. “He’ll kill you for sure!”

“I’ve other options,” Will replied, and grabbed the forgotten lantern, racing from the stable.

He crossed the meadow to the manor house at a full run, racing to the back of the house and the kitchen door. There he banged on it loudly until the cook answered with an irritated, “You’re disturbin’ the whole household boy!”

“Like that will do you any good,” Kevin snorted.

“Please, Mistress Abigail, I must speak to Lady Meghan!” Will said breathlessly. “Please, I beg you!”

Abigail frowned at him but a look of pity came into her eyes. “Aye, boy, I’ll see if she’ll come. Wait here.” She let him into the kitchen, and he paced as she moved to the main room of the house. Within a few minutes, Lady Meghan appeared, motioning Abigail to stay out. She was lovely, even in the simple dressing gown of deep purple, but Will didn’t notice.

“Can you not wait for the morning, Will?” she said, her voice cool sensuality.

“Please, m’lady,” Will rasped. “You must stop him, I beg you, you must stop him!”

“Stop him? Stop who?”

“The Lord Conner, m’lady! He’s taken Cassie, he intends to…”

“That little slut!” she snapped.

“No, Lady, she’s not, she’s pure, and…”

“And how would you know this, Will?” The violet eyes were hard and cold.

Will flushed. “We were to ask permission to wed when I’m no longer an apprentice,” he confessed.

“Were you now?”

“Meghan, please, he’s your husband, surely you can…”

“You overstep your station, boy,” she warned.

He swallowed, dropping his eyes. “Forgive me, m’lady. Do what you will with me, but please, please save Cassie from dishonor!”

Meghan stepped close to him. “What I will, hmm?” she murmured, her hand reaching out to caress his chest. “And I can trust you to hold to that, can I, Will?”

“Bitch!” hissed from both Kevin and Sulu. Ruth gave them both a wide, evil smile.

“Yes, m’lady,” he whispered hoarsely. Boldly she grasped his shirt, pulling him into a deliciously wicked kiss. She stepped back, drew a deep breath, then turned, her face the picture of shocked horror. “Mother Shaunessy, my Lord James!” she called, her voice urgent.

Will stayed where he was, hearing her hurried conversation with the Lord and Lady. The Lady looked worried and a little shamed, while Lord James’ face grew red.

“I’ve told the boy to keep away from the servants!” he thundered. He turned, calling for several of the house’s men to bring lanterns and mount a search of the grounds. The Lady followed him, asking for lenience for her son. Meghan watched them go about the business of organizing the search, then closed the kitchen door and turned back to Will.

“There, will that do?” she said the amusement in her tone clear.

Will went done on one knee, kissing her hand fervently.

“Thank you, m’lady, thank you!”

“And come tomorrow, I expect to have much to thank you for,” she chuckled.

Will couldn’t meet her gaze, but he nodded, then prayed God that Cassie would forgive him yet again.


Cassie was sobbing, her dress covered in the dried leaves and mud from the forest floor, her hair matted at the back of her neck. Conner had pulled her into the woods and thrown her down, heedless of her cries for mercy. He’d growled vile things at her, calling her ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ and had taken her virginity with brutal callousness. He stood over her now, panting as he did up his trousers.

“I’ll kill you for that,” Sulu muttered darkly, over Jilla’s soft weeping. Kevin only gave him a cold, triumphant smile.

“I’ll have you now, little bitch,” he snarled, “wherever and whenever I wish. Is that clear to you, slut?” When she didn’t answer, he pulled her harshly to her feet, slapping her with savage force. “I said, is that clear!?”

“Yes, m’lord,” she mumbled, tears streaking her face.

“Back to the house with you then, and mind you attend to your appearance before my family sees you.”

He strode away from her and she crumbled to her knees, covering her face with her hands. Her thighs were bruised and sticky with Conner’s fluid and her own maiden’s blood. She wept bitterly, certain that Will would spurn her. Finally her innate strength reasserted itself and she rose and stumbled through the moonlight towards the back door of the manor.


Conner saw the lighted lanterns coming toward the woods as he emerged from under the trees. He quickly ran a hand through his hair, making sure his clothing was straightened, then stepped quickly toward the lights.

“Conner!” his father’s voice thundered.

“Here, Father!” Conner called back and waited for the group of men to reach him.

“What have you done!?” James’ voice hissed at him.

“Done? Forgive me, Father, I was just out for some night air. I didn’t mean to worry anyone.”

His father’s eyes gleamed gold at him. “Where is she, Conner?”

Conner blinked. “She?”

“The wench, Cassie!”

“I’m sure I don’t know, sir. She isn’t in her room or attending to her chores?”

He kept the look of innocence on his face as he endured his father’s close scrutiny. “Your lady wife accuses you of liberties with the girl,” he said at last.

“Meghan? Why ever would she say such a thing?”

“Because I know what a creep you are,” Ruth answered the screen.

“Have you given her cause to think such a thing, boy?”

Conner flushed deliberately. “’Tis well known I favor the child,” he answered. “We’ve been friends since our childhood, but… it’s how I think of her, sir. Naught more than a childhood playmate.”

“Lying son of a bitch!” Sulu spat as the rest of the audience hissed.

James again studied him. “’Tis not a proper way to think, Conner.”

“I know that, Father, but… she’s such a good, sweet girl…” He shrugged.

“And you swear to me now, boy, there’s nothing more than that between you?” James asked.

“On my honor, sir,” Conner replied, his chin raised in absolute veracity.

“Except he has none,” Sulu snarled.

James grunted. “Well then, I suggest you go to Meghan and ease her fears. And perhaps, in the future, pay her a little more heed, hmm?” He leaned forward. “It’s been two years since you wed her, boy, and she’s not yet with child. That speaks ill of your devotion to your marital duty.”

“Like I’d welcome you after my fine stable boy,” Ruth sneered.

Conner’s lips quirked. “I’ll attend more diligently, Father,” he promised.


James clapped him on the shoulder.

“Very well, son. Get back to the house. And the next time you feel the need for the night air, tell someone – most notably your wife.”

“Yes, sir,” Conner said. When the older lord turned to dismiss the search, he smiled with grim satisfaction.


Cassie quickly washed at the water pump outside the kitchen, then coiled her hair into something approaching a bun at the back of her head. She slipped inside, nodding to Abigail and again headed up the back stairs only to find Lady Meghan waiting for her.

“Tell me, girl,” the Lady began coldly, “If I were to examine you again, what would I find?”

Cassie trembled, her eyes fixed firmly at her feet. She couldn’t bear another such humiliation, and the beating she was sure to receive once her stained innocence was revealed was inevitable. Better to confess it now.

“It’s no fault of yours, Cass!” Sulu cried.

“Forgive me, m’lady,” she whispered.

“Not that I blame him for taking what he wants,” Meghan continued with a short bark of a laugh. “It’s much more seemly than his actually trying to woo a little guttersnipe like you. Nor do I particularly want him in my bed.” She stared down at Cassie, and the girl could almost feel her cruelty. “But there is one I do want there, little bitch. And if you don’t interfere, I may choose to accept whatever lie Conner gives his father.” Her meaning was clear, and Cassie’s head jerked up.

“Will….” she managed.

Meghan laughed again. “Not as dumb as you look, child. That handsome stallion has told me he would have you as his wife.” She showed her teeth in a glittering parody of a smile. “But you won’t be accepting his suit, will you?”

Tears formed in Cassie’s grey eyes. “He’ll likely not be havin’ me now, m’lady,” she admitted hopelessly.

“But I will, I swear it!”

“See to it that he doesn’t and all just might be well,” Meghan returned. She grasped Cassie’s face, lifting her chin. “I think we’ve reached suitable accord, don’t you, sweet Cassie?”

The girl swallowed, fighting to keep the moisture from spilling from her eyes. “Yes, m’lady.”

“Good. Now get yourself cleaned up properly, girl. If we’re to refute Will’s outrageous claims, you have to at least appear fresh.”

Cassie managed a awkward curtsey, but turned after passing Meghan on the stairs. “Lady Meghan,” she said softly, “what will happen to Will?”

The woman laughed brightly. “Oh, I expect he’ll be beaten for telling tales, but no worse.” Her violet eyes gleaned. “I wouldn’t want him damaged before he repays the favor I’ve done him.”

“Favor?” Cassie asked warily.

“Don’t you know, girl? He came to me, begging me to stop Conner.” Her gaze traveled over the girl’s body. “A pity it was too late, hmm?”

Again the audience booed, and Jilla swore softly in Indiian under her breath, swallowing her tears.


Master Kinney undertook the unpleasant task of disciplining his apprentice. Seven sharp blows with a birch-wand on the boy’s back was penalty enough for the offense of wild imaginings, as the Lady Meghan had blushingly asserted must have been the case. She had apologized to Lord and Lady Shuanessy, and, of course, to Conner, for giving credence to the boy’s tales, though she told her husband with the look in her eyes that she knew too well the truth of the matter.

Jilla shuddered with each blow, her face ghostly white. Ruth sighed, pointing out that it was quite a small punishment. Sulu hissed in air, and Kevin sneered coldly.

As the days passed, it grew difficult for Cassie to finish her chores each day, as Conner demanded more and more of her attention. Will had tried to speak to her, and she had rebuffed him, always conscious of Lady Meghan’s eyes on him. That it was breaking his heart was plain, but there was little she could do about it. She was, as she’d sworn to do, refusing his suit, and though it left her empty and cold, she bore the loss in silence. There was no recourse for either of them.

Then came the morning when she was well and truly ill. It came as no surprise to her – she had missed her monthly curse a fortnight before. But she dreaded telling Conner, and dreaded more facing the Lady Meghan.


“You’re with child?!” Abigail said in horror when Cassie explained the reason for her lateness in arriving that morning.

“And what has the little slut done to deserve that?” Ruth said indignantly.

“The same thing you do with that worthless stable-boy,” Kevin returned with a sneer. “Which proves where the fault lies, I’ll wager.”

Cassie wrung her hands. “What am to do, Abby?”

“Do you know who the father is?” the cook demanded.

Cassie flushed. “I’ve only known one man,” she confessed.


“If only t’were so,” the girl whispered.

Abigail looked closely at her. “Child… was his tale not a falsehood, then?”

Cassie sunk to the floor in despair. “Lord Conner has taken me each day since then,” she sobbed. “Abby, what will become of me?”

The cook grasped her arm, gently but firmly. “You must tell Lady Shaunessy at once.”

Cassie stared at her in horror.

“She dotes on her only son,” Abigail explained. “Lady Meghan has given her no grandchildren. She’ll not want the child destroyed, no matter the mother.”

“Abby... I’m frightened.”

“As well you should be girl. Come. I’ll stand with ya.”

Cassie rose, dread and sorrow filling her every step as they both went to the study to give Lady Shaunessy the horrific news.

"She’ll not keep the bastard,” Ruth hissed. “Not if I have anything to say about it!”

Kevin was silent, torn between pride and fear.


“Are you certain of this, child?” the Lady Shaunessy asked sternly, though her blue eyes were more worried than angry.

“Yes, my Lady,” Cassie answered, her voice small.

“And certain my Conner is the father?” The Lady’s voice, this time, was sharper.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The older woman got up from her chair, pacing. “This will not do,” she murmured, more than half to herself. “He swore to his father he had not…” She stopped, turning swiftly. “Why didn’t you call him on his lie, girl?”

“I – I had only proof of my loss, my Lady, not of Lord Conner’s complicity.”

Lady Shaunessy’s eyes narrowed. “Was there another who could have been so accused?”

“Lady, the girl’s been hopin’ for a proper proposal from Will Brady,” Abigail put in. “It’s common knowledge among the servants, but…”

“Then how can you be sure…”

“Will’s never touched me, my Lady,” was Cassie’s quiet response.

“Not for lack of trying,” Kevin muttered.

“And he’ll swear to that?”

“He will.”

The Lady gave a curt nod. “You stay here, girl. We’ll get to the bottom of this. Abigail, fetch young Master Brady.” She turned and left the study, calling “James, where’s Conner?” as she did so.

Cassie stood where she was, her heart pounding. What would she do if Conner denied it, as she was sure he would? She would be dismissed, with no references, no one to turn to. She closed her eyes, praying to the God who had deserted her.


Will bit his lips, keeping the cry of anguished pleasure from escaping him. Lady Meghan’s nails had left sharp lines of reddening flesh on his chest, her sex grasping at his like a greedy infant at the breast. He lay beneath her, as he did now, all too frequently, her skirts bunched up, neatly covering their joining while she danced above him, writhing and grinding her nether regions down upon him.

Hoots and whistles filled the theater as Sulu grit his teeth and Ruth shuddered with erotic delight. Kevin’s snarls went unnoticed, as did Jilla’s tears.

“Will!” came Kinney’s hissing voice, “Lady Shaunessy is lookin’ for ya!”

“By God, that woman has the worst timing!” Meghan complained. She climbed off Will’s sweating body, sitting down petulantly in the hay next to him. “Tonight, the woods,” she ordered. “And this time don’t forget the blanket.”

“Yes, m’lady,” Will mumbled as he pulled up his breeches.

Jilla muttered something that might have been “now who is the slut?”

“She always has been,” Kevin replied.

As always, he preceded her down the ladder, lifting her from the final rung. She smiled at him, brushing hay from her skirt. She waited several minutes after the boy had left the stable to take her own meandering course back to the house. To her surprise, she saw Conner, hurrying across the meadow towards her.

“Meghan,” he said as soon as they were close, “I have something to tell you and I have no time for argument or discussion.”

“Of course, husband,” Meghan replied sweetly.

“First, is there any possibility that you are with child?”

Hiding her alarm, her hands went immediately to her stomach. “Why do you ask such a thing?”

“I said I have no time,” Conner snapped. “Is there?”

She blushed. “I was – waiting to …” she began.

“God be praised,” he breathed. Then he took a deep breath, staring into her eyes with steely resolve. “So is Cassie.”

“You bitch!” both Jilla and Ruth exclaimed at the same time.

“If you say the child is mine, I’ll deny Cassie’s is,” Conner added. “Is it a bargain, wife?”

“Conner, how can you suggest other…” Meghan stammered.

“I’m not a fool, Meghan, nor am I blind. Say it’s mine, I’ll repudiate the little slut and we’ll have done with it.” Meghan calculated quickly. With Conner expressing no surprise or alarm, it would be easy to put forth the pretense. She hadn’t yet mentioned her condition to the real father – and Will had no standing to object in any case. Conner’s bitch would be turned out, and with nothing to connect a scandal to Will, he’d be able to remain in his position.

“Under you, whore!” Jilla burst out furiously.

She smiled serenely. “My dearest husband, I have wondrous news,” she said. Conner smiled grimly, gave her a chaste kiss, then took her arm as they returned to the house together.


“You wished to see us, Mother, Father?” Conner said politely as he and Meghan joined his parents in the study. He gave Cassie a fond smile, and nodded to Will. Neither one looked at him, or at Meghan.

James Shaunessy frowned at his son. “There is matter before us of the utmost seriousness, Conner,” he said, “and I regret the necessity of bringing up such a distressing subject before your mother and your wife.” He gave an apologetic bow to the ladies. “I do beg your pardon, Meghan, my dear.” They both gave acknowledging nods and he continued to Conner, “But before I speak to you, I have a question for Master Brady.” He turned his stern gaze on the stable hand. “I’ll ask you this only once, boy, and I require your truthful answer, on your honor and mindful of the grace this family has shown you.”

“Yes, m’lord,” Will answered, and he glanced furtively at Cassie, the longing in his eyes plain.

“Have you knowledge of this girl, Will?”

Will swallowed, his eyes downcast. “No, m’lord,” he said quietly.

“That’s a lie!” Conner burst out. James held up a hand.

“Best make him believe it,” Ruth murmured. Beside her, Kevin nodded.

“You’ve never known her?” the Lord insisted.

“Not – not fully, m’lord, never,” Will replied.

“I saw them with my own eyes!” Conner protested. He gazed at Cassie. “I’m sorry, Cass, but you know it’s true.”

“How can he say that?" Jilla wailed.

“I – we were to ask permission to wed,” Will put in quickly, “And I have, I confess, taken some liberties, but… the – act – was never completed.” His eyes lifted to meet the Lord’s. “Tis true Lord Conner once caught us in an embrace, but there was no consummation between us.”

“Liar!” Conner shouted again.

“Conner, is it possible you were mistaken about what you saw?” Lady Shaunessy suggested gently.

“Forgive my crudeness, Mother, but his member was exposed,” Conner replied as though even thinking the word was distasteful.

“You bastard!” Sulu spat.

Meghan gasped and Conner helped her to a chair. “Father, must Meg be here for this?” he asked. “In her delicate condition…”

“Delicate condition?” Lady Shaunessy said, her blue eyes wide. “Oh, my dear, are you…?”

“With child, yes,” Meghan flushed. “I only learned it in the past week, and Conner and I wanted to wait for the proper moment to tell you.” She gazed at her husband with naked adoration and he smiled at her, bringing her hand to his lips for a warm, proud kiss.

“We’ll pull it off,” Kevin murmured to Ruth. “Just watch.”


Will had started in shock, and was very glad all attention was on Meghan. If she was truly pregnant, the child had to be his. She had complained over and over that Conner wasted all his fluids on Cassie, claiming her husband had not been in her bed for over two months. And with that realization, came another – the reason he had been called here, why Lord Shaunessy had asked if he’d known Cass. He swiftly glanced at her and saw her head was still lowered in shame, her face flushed. As if she’d felt his gaze on her, she slowly met his eyes, and her mouth moved in soundless syllables: “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” Jilla whispered.

Anger welled in Will’s heart. He knew what would happen. Conner would deny all knowledge, he would be blamed for Cassie’s bastard child. She would be turned out and God only knew what would happen to him. It was likely he’d put on the road as well…

And Cass and I can be together, he thought quickly. We can raise her child, and I swear to heaven I’ll love it like my own…

“Wait, my love,” Sulu said to Jilla. “There’s a way for us yet.”

He cleared his throat. “M’lord?” he said quietly.

James turned to him, anger evident in every line of his body. “What have you to say now, boy?”

“It’s possible – forgive me, sir, but I was, as Lord Conner has stated, prepared to…” He flushed. “Perhaps, if there were some – expulsion of seed, sir, before Lord Conner drew us apart….”

He heard Cassie’s sharp inhale and begged her forgiveness. I’m doing this for us, Cass, he told her silently. He also saw the murderous glare Meghan gave him, and he set his jaw.


“Conner?” James asked.

“It’s possible, Father,” Conner conceded with a dark look of his own.

“Then you have no objections if I dismiss both Master Brady and Miss McDonald?” the Lord said.

“None at all, sir,” Conner replied defiantly. This time, Meghan’s evil look was for her husband.

“Let me be clear, my son. Cassie names you the father. If there’s truth to it, you’ll be giving up all claim to the child.”

“It’s none of mine,” Conner returned archly.

“How can you speak such a lie!” Jilla burst out.

“My lord, how can you speak such a lie?” Cassie burst out. “You’ve taken me every day since…!”

“Quiet, slut!” Meghan spat, then fell back against the chair, as if about to faint.

“’Tis the truth, I swear to God…!” Cassie pleaded.

“Oh, but you are vile, Cass,” Conner countered, his green eyes bitter and sad. “And we’ve been friends for so long. How could you say such a thing? Just to protect your paramour? Do you think he cares for you if he’s not man enough to own up to…”

“Sumin tu, cata tu telmn’i Roshian!”

“Enough!” James said “I’m satisfied that I have the right of the matter.”

“My Lord, please, I swear to you…” Cassie begged.

James silenced her with but a look, and had a short, whispered conversation with Lady Shaunessy. Then he gave a short, brusque nod.

“Girl, you’ll be beaten for the lie,” he said to Cassie. She broke, dropping to her knees, sobbing. “And all good families of my acquaintance will know you for the deceitful whore you are. You’ll get no gainful employment anywhere in the county.” He turned to Will. “I am most disappointed in you, Will. After all the kindness I’ve done you, this is how you repay me. Your conduct is beyond reprehensible. Get out of my sight!”

Will bowed, trying desperately to catch Cassie’s eye, but left the study without acknowledgement from her.


“I’m sorry to see you go, laddie,” Kinney said as he helped Will place his meager belongings in an old saddlebag. “I tried to speak to the Lord about it all, but Conner held to his story. T’was naught I could do”

“I thank you kindly for your effort, Master,” Will replied. “You’ve always been good to me.”

“Where will you be goin’ lad?”

“I don’t rightly know.” A smile crossed Will’s careworn features. “But wherever it is, Cass’ll be with me.”

Kinney shook his head. “You’re a better man than I am to raise that turncoat’s bastard.”

“'Tis Cassie’s child, Master. That’s all that matters to me.”

The two men embraced. “God be with ye, Will,” Kinney said at last. “The horses’ll miss ye.”

“Be sure to give Sable her apples,” Will said.

Kinney grinned. “That I will, lad. That I will.”

Will looked past him, seeing Cassie in the stable doorway. She wore a patched dress that was clearly too big for her small frame, and carried a battered suitcase. He moved past the Stable Master and took the bag from her hand.

“Abigail was kind enough to give this to me,” Cassie said, her voice quiet. “Lady Meghan refused to allow me to take any of the clothing Lord Shaunessy had given me.”

“We need never speak of her again,” Will murmured. She was staring at the ground, and Will gently lifted her chin. Tears filled the soft grey eyes.

“Will, I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

“I’ll have none of that,” he murmured in reply. “It’s for the best, Cass. We’ll make do somehow.”

“But you’re givin’ up your own bairn…”

“To be rid of that witch, gladly,” he told her.

“Will you never think of it, never long to see it, never wonder how it fares with such an evil beginning…?”

“Cass,” Will returned gently, placing his hand on her belly. “This is the child I’ll think of, and long to see, and I’ll do everything I can to see he is not harmed by his evil beginning.”

“I’m damaged, Will,” Cassis insisted miserably. “How will you ever touch me without thinking of…”

“And will you not be thinking of Meghan when you touch me?”

Her eyes grew suddenly hard. “Never!”

He smiled at her. “And so t’will be with me.” He put his arms around her and kissed her. “Come on, my lass, we have a long day’s walk ahead of us.”

Sulu embraced Jilla, hushing her tears, ignoring Ruth’s furious grumbling.


The boy was so handsome as to be called beautiful, with raven curls and eyes of such a dark purple they could almost be black. James accepted that the hair color must have come from his wife’s side of the family, and though the eyes troubled him, he accepted that, too, as simply the vagaries of God’s will.

Lady Shaunessy could not bring herself to love the child. On his christening day, a note was hand-delivered to her just before they left for the church. She went to her study and read it alone.

Lady Shaunessy – I trust with all my heart that you and yours are well. But my conscience will not allow me to keep silent. I cannot see your family name besmirched, nor allow your fortunes to pass to one who is of no blood-relation to you, unless it is by your will, for I am mindful of the debt I owe to the kindness of your family. I am heartily sorry to say this to you, but the child your son claimed is mine. The Lady Meghan was my lover for over a year. We met most often in the hayloft. As proof of my claim, I earnestly entreat you to thoroughly search the Lady Meghan’s possessions. You will find that there is a particular jewel missing, an emerald earring. It will be found in the loft, my Lady, where she lost it during our last tryst. Master Kinney can vouch for my story, and I know you know him to be an honorable and truthful man. Rest assured that if it had not been at Lady Meghan’s command, he would have had none of it – nor would I. If this does not change your affection for the Lady Meghan’s child, I can hardly hold you blame, for I also love a child not of my blood with all my heart. I write this not to sway you, Lady Shaunessy, but simply to tell you the truth of it. And if you wish to know it, Cass gave birth to a lass with bright red-gold hair and eyes of the palest blue. Always your humble servant, William Brady.


The audience burst into cheers and catcalls of delighted approval. Ruth and Kevin glared at one another, and at Sulu and Jilla, who were snuggled together beside them. The strains of Celtic music began again, as she screen resolved first into the image of Meghan, her dark-haired child in her arms, her face bitter, leaving the manor house, with Lord and Lady Shaunessy standing in the doorway, looking both angry and resolved. Conner stood behind them, clearly cowed. In the foreground, a beautiful black mare grazed in the meadow. The image blurred, then came into focus again with a picture of Will and Cassie sitting in a bare but clean hovel, a red-haired child cradled in Cassie’s arms, with Will gently stroking the girl’s tiny fingers.

As the music faded and the screen went blank, Sulu seemed to shake himself, then blinked several times, glancing around the theater as if he didn’t quite know where he was. He gazed thoughtfully at Jilla, then shifted his glance to Kevin and Ruth.

He cleared his throat. “Didn’t quite turn out like you wanted, huh, Kev?” he ventured.

“Your fault,” the Irishman replied glumly. “You always have to be so damned noble.”

“And why was I the bitch?’ Ruth protested.

“Because Jilla has to play the innocent?” Sulu suggested. “At least nobody died in this one.”

Ruth humphed. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said.


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