Chapter Nine: Mary's Final Choice

"All right, my lovelies. Hand over everything you've got!"

"We don't have anything, sir." Stout and stern Matilda was the very picture of dignity as she emerged from the carriage. She held her head up high, alert and unintimidated. But the lovely young woman who climbed out after her looked dazed and a bit lost, rubbing her eyes as if she had been sleeping.

"Ah, yes. Now that's what we're after." The leader of the highwaymen gave an evil laugh and pulled the golden-haired beauty into his arms. "Give us a kiss, my dearie."

"No!" Mary Stuart recoiled in horror at the pawing hands and leering faces all around her. The whole scene was so unreal, as if she were still asleep and dreaming. The Queen of Scots had no army and no escort to protect her. And she didn't dare reveal her true identity. "Good friends, have mercy," she squeaked, forcing a smile. "May it please you, I am but a poor maidservant, traveling with my aunt to Bolton Castle. We are both under the protection of Lord and Lady Scroop."

"Ha!" laughed the filthy, unshaven highwayman. "Those are the same folks who ordered us to attack your carriage. They said that Queen Elizabeth herself would reward us if we would get rid of the green-eyed trollop with the yellow hair."

"That's a lie!" Mary kicked out at the greasy-haired bandit, sick to her stomach at the thought that her royal cousin would ever betray her in such a base fashion. Her anger was so great that it overcame her timid outlook and gentle nature. She landed her kick with surprising force in the man's groin.

"Kill them!" The leader doubled over in agony, but he came up quickly waving a long knife. "Kill the Queen of – urk!" With a choked sound, the bandit fell over dead, a black arrow protruding from his dirty throat.

"Devils and thieves!" cried loyal Matilda. The head housekeeper had climbed down from the carriage with a dignified bearing, but with a large cast-iron skillet hidden in the folds of her cloak. The moment Mary kicked the leader the head housekeeper sailed into the thick of the thieves, swinging her weapon until they scattered into the night.

"Who shot that arrow?" Mary asked, holding her sides and panting from exertion. She had never taken well to violence, however necessary. She was trembling from head to toe.

"I shot the man down," said a deep male voice. Captain Hawk came striding up into the clearing where the coach had been stopped by a fallen log. When he saw Mary's pale but determined features, and red-faced Matilda still holding the skillet, he smiled. "I learned of the Scroops' treachery this morning. I was afraid I might be too late. But I see I didn't need to worry about two such valiant fighters."

"We did what we had to do." Mary felt no desire to rejoice. When the darkly handsome Hawk came towards her, she actually tried to push him away. But then he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. At first she held herself stiffly, hands on his chest, resisting the heat surging between them.

"Do you think a commoner's kiss is beneath you . . . Your Majesty?" Hawk looked at her in the moonlight. His dark blue eyes were serious, yet his mouth wore a devilish half-smile.

"I have never been lucky in love, Captain." Mary told him bluntly. "I will not see another innocent man suffer for my sake. You deserve true happiness, Jack. You deserve a lady with a better future, and a more ample fortune."

"You are my future," Captain Hawk growled. "Though you be called Mary Little or Mary Queen of Scots, though we live a lifetime or be hung next week, I am yours. Now kiss me."

"Oh, my love," Mary sighed. Hawk kissed her again, and this time she responded willingly and with ardent passion. Though she could resist all temptations of power and royalty, Mary Stuart had never been able to close her heart to love.

"Your Majesty, this is madness!" Matilda's harsh voice recalled the Queen of Scots from her rapturous oblivion. "We have no reason to trust this man. You are still a prisoner of my lord and lady Scroop!"

Mary frowned, looking over her shoulder. "Would you have me return to certain death at the hands of those two vultures? Elizabeth may not want me dead, but they do."

Matilda folded her arms. "If you run away with this scoundrel, you break your own word of honor. You'll be hunted down. And what's to stop him from turning you over to Elizabeth later on? Better to stay with the people you know, I think."

Doubt assailed the Queen of Scots. "I don't want to get Matilda into trouble," she said, looking up at her gallant and devoted lover.

"If you go back to Bolton Castle, I may not be able to rescue you a second time," the Hawk said gently. "You must decide, gentle queen."

"Men will let you down, they always do!" Matilda pleaded. Though she was a proud and stubborn woman, the hefty housekeeper had tears in her eyes. "Please, Your Majesty, come home with me. We'll write to Elizabeth! We'll tell her you deserve better treatment! You can't take the chance. . ."

"Dear Matilda, no one tells a queen what do," Mary said gently. She reached out to the housekeeper, putting her arms around her like a mother comforting a child. "There's no way you can stop me, you know. All my life I've been the worst sort of female, gambling on love even when I knew there was no hope. The truth is my cousin Elizabeth was right from the beginning. I should never have been a queen. I never have ruled the men in my life. Instead love rules me. But to choose between a few days of happiness with Captain Hawk and years and years of dreary captivity . . . well, that's no choice at all. Let Elizabeth have the palaces and the power. All I want is peace and quiet and a man of my own."

"Well said, my pretty cousin!" Just then Queen Elizabeth came striding into the moonlit clearing, wearing a man's riding outfit and accompanied by her friend Robert Dudley. Both of them were spattered with mud and had obviously been riding hard all day, but Elizabeth looked fresh and energetic while her spoiled male lover looked ready to drop.

"Your Majesty!" Mary's cheeks turned pink with surprise. She saw Hawk and Matilda both go down on their knees, for Elizabeth truly was their queen. "Where did you . . . how did you . . . why did you order the vile Scroops to murder me?"

"I never gave that order," Elizabeth Tudor stated firmly, drawing a slim flask of brandy from her leather riding boot. "The wretched Scroops misunderstood a suggestion I made, about finding a way to replace you with a double so that you might slip off to live quietly somewhere in the country. Now do have a drink, Cousin Mary. You look as though you could use it!"

"Then the enchanted sapphire was never meant for the Queen of Scots at all," Captain Hawkins said, as a confused and bewildered Mary drank deeply from her rival's flask.

"Quite correct," Elizabeth acknowledged. "On our way here, my men and I captured the common slut you pinned with the blue jewel just last night. She'll do nicely, I think. She's lazy, weak-willed and loves to be waited on . . . just the type to enjoy lazing away the rest of her days in a nice, cozy castle."

"Oh, but you mustn't punish poor Abby Norton," Mary blurted out, her cheeks flushed. "She's just a poor servant girl . . ."

"Silence!" Queen Elizabeth thundered. "We choose to show mercy to you, cousin. And that is all that concerns you."

"Yes, Your Majesty." Mary felt a bit weak in the knees, both from the brandy and from all that had happened to her. She stumbled, but the attentive Hawk immediately steadied her.

"We were attacked by highwaymen hired by the Scroops," Captain Hawkins smoothly put in, his arm around Mary's waist. "This part of the country might not be safe for us to settle in. Now I have a small estate in far off Devonshire . . ."

"Yes, yes, I checked into your background thoroughly." Queen Elizabeth impatiently waved her hand. "Cousin Mary, do you promise to marry this brave man and live quietly in the country with him, renouncing your former life and taking on a new identity as Lady Mary Hawkins?"

"I do, Your Majesty." Mary smiled radiantly at her captain.

"And Hawkins, do you promise to keep a close eye on my pretty little cousin? I expect you to make her happy, mind, but I also need someone to keep her out of trouble!"

"All that sounds like too big a job for just one man, Your Majesty," the Hawk objected.

"What do you mean, sir? Do you want my cousin or not?"

"More than anything in the world," the captain said, exchanging a very intimate look with his golden-haired Mary.

But it was Mary herself who put things in a practical light. "What the captain means, Your Majesty, is that I will need some help in adjusting to my new station in life. If only there were some loyal, hard-working woman I could bring with me as a companion, someone who could teach me and guide me in household tasks, and be both a servant and a friend, someone as dear to me as my own mother . . ."

"Very well, very well, take the Scroops' head housekeeper Matilda!" Elizabeth tried to look scornful and impatient as the one-time Queen of Scots hugged her servant woman, the two of them actually shedding tears of joy.

"It appears Mary Stuart is no longer a threat to Your Majesty," Robert Dudley whispered in her ear.

"No indeed," the Queen of England replied, with a sly and knowing smile that was somehow both triumphant yet sad. "The true Queen of Scots will now disappear from history forever. Any woman can live without power, it seems, but few know what it means to live without love."

A/N: The story ends here – but with Matilda to look after them, Mary and the Hawk are sure to live happily after. Please let me know if you enjoyed this historical romance and if there are other periods in English history you enjoy!