House of Dreams
When Cassandra de Warenne's sister Tracey arranges a lavish party at their English estate, she invites Antonio de la Barca, a renowned professor of history. Cass isn't prepared for the intense and immediate attraction-an attraction that heralds something deeper, more powerful, and more perilous than she could ever imagine. For their families have been entwined for centuries, linked together by a history of horrendous heartbreak, bitter rivalry, and bloodshed that began 450 years ago, with one woman, Isabel, forsaken and betrayed by her family, her lover, and her friends. Intrigued by the prospect of unearthing more about this legend, Cassandra accepts an invitation to Antonio's ancestral home. But soon after she and her family arrive, Cassandra discovers that Isabel is a very real-and threatening-presence.
Who was Isabel, and what does she want today from Cassandra and her sister? And can Cassandra trust Antonio, a man who may be her only link to the past-and who may lead be the most dangerous man she has ever met?
East Sussex—July 18, 1543
Even in her skirts, she could run faster than her brother, Tom, who was only two years older than she. Laughing, Isabelle out distanced her ten-year-old brother, ignoring the cries of Lady Caroline. The surf broke at her feet. The Sussex coastline was green, idyllic, and beautiful, the hard packed beach covered with gleaming crushed shells, rushing the rolling dunes and the fertile, flowering Sussex hills. But Isabel had grown up in East Sussex, and although not immune to the beauty around East Sussex, and although not immune to the beauty around her, she ignored it, the way she ignored her nurse, who continued to call for her and her brother. Reaching the big dilapidated ball, straw poking from its broken hide, she seized it, the effort causing her to fly across the sand and land hard on her face, the ball clutched tightly in her arms.
A mouthful of sand did not disturb Isabel, who merely spit hard to rid herself of grit and grain. A moment later her brother was on top of her, landing there with an indignant whoop!, and they were shouting and laughing and screaming as they wrestled for the ball.
The breaking waves finally washed up over them and they both shrieked in unison, because even in the summer, the sea was so terribly cold. Overhead, gulls circled and cawed in bright, sunny summer skies, looking for their dinner.
“Isabel! Thomas! The two of you, ill-bred urchins, heed me this moment!” their furious cousin was shouting, her cries louder now.
There was something in her tone that caused Isabel to stop laughing, and as she sat up, covered in sand, her brother did the same. She saw from his suddenly puzzled expression that he had heard the note of alarm and panic in Lady Caroline’s voice as well. Isabel met his gaze. The were both vividly blue-eyed, but other wise, there was little resemblance between them, as Tom took after their father, the earl of Sussex, a big dark man, and Isabel their mother, the countess, who was slender, fair, and red-haired. She took his hand her heart lurching. “She is a popinjay,” she whispered. “Always so afraid, and taking to wing without ever a thought twice.”
Thomas stood and pulled her to her feet. His swarthy face was sober now. “She is undoubtedly distraught because we are late.’ He shared another, significant glance with her.
And Isabel’s heart lurched unpleasantly. Their parents had gone to court for the king’s wedding to Catherine Parr, his sixth wife, and were expected back that day. Just before her mischief and wild boyish ways. Isabel had promised to behave in the most exemplary manner befitting a Christian lady, and wrestling in the sand with her brother would not help her cause. She was afraid of another whipping. Fortunately, the earl hated the lash as much as his children did, and the punishment never lasted for very long.
"Do not worry,” Thomas advised, slipping his arm around her thin shoulders. “’Tis my fault this time, and I will advise his lordship of it.”
“No, do not,” Isabel said, aware of unshed tears suddenly filling her tone. “I do not want you to suffer the lash, too.”
“I do not mind,” Thomas said kindly. “’Tis easier for me because I am a man.”
Isabel had to give him a look. “Not yet, Sir Fool. You do not even have your spurs, so how can you be a grown man!”
They started down the beach, toward Lady Caroline, who was waving frantically at them. Isabel was certain now that their parents had returned to Romney Castle, and her steps slowed. “Father told me, as I am the heir, I am a man, no matter my age.” Thomas was firm. “And I must never forget that one day I will be early, one of the most important peers in the realm, thus I must always act accordingly to my station in this world.” He sighed then, heavily.
Isabel understood, and she squeezed his hand. “Do not ever regret your blessing, Tom. You could be no more than a baker’s brat. Instead, you are one of the most highborn.”
“No, I do not harbour regret,” he said promptly.
But Isabel knew him as well as she did herself, they were so very close. She knew he loved playing ball more than fencing with his master, that he preferred hawking to Latin and Greek and mathematics, and that he dearly despised the teachings of the likes of Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, and Seneca, which he claimed he could not fathom in the least. And Tom simply had no use for subjects that had become popular because of King Henry’s penchant for them—alchemy, astronomy, astrology. He did not know how lucky he was, Isabel thought wistfully. While he spoke three tongues, albeit not fluently, she was adept at pricking her thumbs while straining over her needlepoint. He rode astride while hawking; she falconed in the ladylike position of sidesaddle. What she would not give for a tutor who would enable her to stuffy four or five languages, add and subtract numbers with ease, decipher the treatises of philosophers from Ancient Greece and Rome—instead of learning by heart passages from the Bible and On the Instruction of a Christian Woman. The earl had been swift to state, many times, that a woman need only obey God and marry well, and Isabel’s education was based on that premise. She wondered what her father would say—and do—if he knew she frequently eavesdropped on her brother’s lessons and that she could work her way through a passage from Socrates.
“Lady Caroline appears more distraught than usual,” Tom said suddenly, wiping sweat from his brow. “What can be amiss?”
Isabel was wondering the very same thing, when suddenly she realized he was heavily flushed—and still sweating profusely, which was strange. And a few odd little spots that looked like blood pricks had broken out on his round cheeks. But before she could respond, Lady Caroline was swooping down upon them.
She was a plump widow of nineteen, huffing and puffing for breath. “The Lord have mercy on us all,” she wept.
Isabel faltered, realizing that whatever was happening, it was hardly so simple as her being caught by her powerful father in shared mischief with Tom. “Cousin Caroline, what transpires?” she managed, a whisper of dread.
“The earl has returned from court. Dear God, may He have mercy on us all!”
“Lady Caroline,” Tom snapped, “what has passed?"
Her gaze was wild and tear-filled. “Your mother is taken with the sweating sickness!” Caroline cried, her round face ashen.
And she pictured her beautiful, redheaded mother, Lady Margaret, as she had last seen her, just weeks ago, in purple brocade and flashing sapphires, a gold headdress hiding most of flamboyant hair, a warm, beautiful smile on her lips, and her newborn babe, Isabel’s infant sister, Catherine, named after the new queen, in her arms. She pictured her proud father beside them, beaming in spite of his desire for another son. And then other images flashed into her mid, of the houses in the village where the sickness had worked its journey of death. Of the shuttered windows and doors barred shut, of the required sign—wisps of straw and a white slash—marking every household where the sickness had struck.
“No,” Isabel said, suddenly reeling with dizziness and fear. “No, ‘tis a mistake!”
But it was not a mistake.
The sweating sickness had come at last to Romney.