The Virgin's War - Laura Andersen

Fifteen-year-old Pippa Courtenay woke to the blazing sun of a late July day already smiling and practically floated out of bed—before promptly falling earthbound under the onslaught of humid heat. It hadn’t rained for three weeks and each day the temperatures seemed to climb higher. She would have to choose her clothing with care today if she didn’t want to melt before noon.

After the briefest hesitation, she threw caution to the wind and decided to forgo a petticoat entirely. No one would know she wasn’t wearing one beneath her striped blue silk kirtle. Over that she laced her lightest gown of white voile, delicately embroidered with jewel-toned flowers and vines so lifelike they appeared to twine around her as she walked. Her abundant honey-gold hair she plaited severely away from her face and off her neck, with the single black streak she’d had since birth painting a curve back from her right temple.

Then she tripped downstairs to Wynfield Mote’s hall, humming as she went. And when she entered the high-paneled lofty space, he was waiting for her as promised: Matthew Harrington.

Eighteen, tall, broad, brown-haired and brown-eyed, Matthew gave her one of his rare smiles. “Shall we?” he asked.

Considering the unusual heat of this summer, they had decided on a breakfast picnic while the air was still breathable rather than openly liquid. For the same reason, they had decided to walk rather than punish horses with a ride. Their route was instinctive—eastward to the old church.

Pippa talked at an unusually rapid pace even for her. The words spilled out in a rush and burble of delight, dancing from topic to topic. It was such a pleasure to have Matthew home. For the last year he had been deep in his studies at Balliol College, Oxford, but two days earlier had returned to visit his parents. Edward and Carrie Harrington had served the Courtenays for more than twenty years, and Matthew was as much a part of the family as her siblings.

Pippa loved her family. But her older sister, Lucette, had been moody and difficult the last few years and now spent a great deal of time in London—ostensibly studying with Dr. Dee but more practically avoiding their parents. Her two brothers were training seriously with their father this summer and riding back and forth often to Tiverton Castle. Stephen, two years older, still thought of Pippa as a child, but even her own twin, Kit, had little time to spend with her. Matthew, though, could always be counted on.

She didn’t set out to make the day momentous. She rarely set out to do anything—if Lucette invariably acted from principle, Pippa relied on instinct. Although most people found Matthew uncommunicative, with her he spoke freely. In and around and over her quicksilver voice, he told her wry stories about his college and tutors and fellow students, making her laugh in a manner no one else did. Not even Kit.

After the slow ramble, they reached the copse of beeches that looked down a hill onto the stone walls and spire of the old Norman church. She flung herself into the fragrant meadow grass at the trees’ edge and leaned back on her elbows, staring up at the sky. Matthew lowered himself more cautiously to sit beside her and deftly handled the domestic details of laying out breakfast: ripe strawberries, early apples, fresh bread, and soft cheese. They took their time eating, letting their stories slowly wind down into companionable silence.

Eyes closed, Pippa lay down in the sweet-smelling, sun-warmed grass.

“Princess Anne is coming to Wynfield soon?” Matthew asked.

“Next week.”

“And what trouble are the two of