Escaping her cruel stepmother, Rosamund Appleby dresses as a youth and heads for London…until she is halted in her tracks by Baron Alex Nilsson! Intrigued by this boy he suspects is really a wellborn young lady, Alex seeks to protect her as they journey together.
But when Alex, who trusts no woman, finds himself hastily and conveniently married to beautiful, courageous Rosamund, he doesn't know which is more dangerous: the enemies plotting his downfall or the seductive lure of a curvaceous woman in his bed….
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
They were coming!
With a rising panic, Rosamund Appleby gazed about her, searching for a place to hide. Her eyes alighted on the oak chest, carved with field mice and conies and curling tendrils of woodbine, and she hurried over to it. Bundling her faded brown homespun skirts about her thighs, she climbed inside the chest and hastily closed the lid. The slap, slap, slap of their leather-soled shoes on stone came nearer and nearer. Their voices grew louder. She buried herself amongst the garments in the chest and, scarcely breathing, prayed they would not find her.
'Where in the devil's name has she gone now?' demanded Rosamund's stepmother, Lady Monica Appleby. 'I checked her bedchamber and she was not there.'
'You frightened her, Mama. She fled like a rabbit with a ferret on its heels and has probably left the house.' William giggled. 'Edward said six months ago that she should be locked away. I know you agreed with him, so why did you wait until today?'
'Because her death, so close to her father's, could have roused suspicion. Whilst Sir James lived, I had to pretend to care about her well-being.'
Rosamund's eyes filled with tears when she thought of her father and her fists clenched at the memory of her stepmother's cruel duplicity. She wished she could spring out of the chest and tell her exactly what she thought of her but that would be foolish.
'Now time has passed since his very timely death, I must deal with her,' muttered Lady Monica. 'Especially since that woman's servant called here yesterday. I cannot risk Rosamund voicing her suspicions to her.'
'Who is this woman?' asked William.
'Lady Elizabeth Stanley. I knew her when I was a girl and I hated her even then. She's been staying at Lathom House after spending years going backwards and forwards between England and Europe, but hopefully she should be leaving for London soon. I told her messenger that her goddaughter was sick abed and could see no one. Her taking notice of Rosamund right now is extremely inconvenient. I can see her proving a nuisance.'
Rosamund stuffed a handful of linen into her mouth to stifle a gasp. She had been a child last time she had seen Lady Elizabeth and her memories of that period in her life were hazy. She had believed that her godmother had died of the same disease that had killed Rosamund's mother. If only she could speak to Lady Elizabeth, perhaps she could help her out of the terrible situation she was in.
'You should have sent her a message asking her to call and given her one of your potions,' said William with another of his irritating giggles.
Rosamund heard the sound of a slap and memories of past punishments caused her to shudder.
'That would not have served us, dolt,' snapped Lady Monica, sitting on the lid of the chest, so causing the wood to creak with the force of her weight. 'I'd have the whole of the Stanley family down on my head. Oh, why couldn't you have been born with your brother's wits?'
'That hurt!' wailed William.
'Well, think before you speak. At least I'll be able to mould the wife I have chosen for you into shape.'
'A wife for me!' babbled William. 'What's her name?'
'Bridget,' replied his mother. 'She is sixteen and the niece of a close kinsman of mine. You'll be meeting them soon.'
'You won't leave me alone with her, Mama?' William's voice was sharp with anxiety.
'Of course not,' she said in a soothing voice. 'There are questions her uncle and I need answers to from her. She'll need a close watch kept on her, but first we need to find Rosamund. If only Edward was here instead of in London. He would have been able to deal with this troublesome girl. As it is, he is obsessed with his campaign to be the next Lord Mayor of London and that will need a fortune to fund it. But enough of this talkwe must get on with our search.'
William said, 'Perhaps Rosamund has gone to the woodcutter's hut. You know how friendly she was with Joshua Wood.'
'If she has fled there in the hope of gaining his help, then she will be disappointed. He has gone, never to return. But you could be right about her visiting that hovel. We'll hasten in that direction. If we find her, then ' Lady Monica made a sound that sent a chill through her stepdaughter.
Rosamund waited until their footsteps had died away before pushing up the lid and casting aside the garments in the chest and climbing out. She felt heartsick, knowing that, with Joshua gone, she was utterly friendless. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she remembered two boys at swordplay. One of them was Joshua and the other her brother, Harry, who had drowned round about the same time as their mother's death. His clothes had been found by a river where he used to swim. Sometimes in her sleep, she had dark dreams of her mother crying out to save her and of Harry, warning her to run for her life as he was carried away before he was silenced. She would wake up, filled with fear and drenched in perspiration. Perhaps, once she was away from this place, the dreams would fade.
She dried her eyes on her sleeve and considered her situation. If she were to make her escape in her present guise, she would be too easily recognised. She picked up the white shirt that she had thrown to one side and remembered the time when she had dressed as a boy. Delving into the chest, she found a pair of hose, a russet doublet and a boy's hat with a feather in it. She gnawed on her nether lip. Did she dare? Last time she had donned these garments her stepmother had whipped her until she could scarcely stand. Rosamund's father had been away at the time and Lady Monica had warned her that if she dared to speak of it to her father then she would be punished more severely. She needed the devil beaten out of her for such sinful behaviour.
Rosamund wished she'd had the courage to talk to her father about wanting to have been born a boy, then he might have cared for her as much as he had for Harry. Instead, fear had guaranteed her silence. But what was she thinking of standing here, wasting time? She had to escape. She must change her clothes. There was naught so comfortable as a youth's nether garments for sitting astride a horse and riding hell for leather. Not that she'd had the opportunity to ride out alone since her father's death. There was only one problem about pretending to be a youth now. She gazed down at her breasts and attempted to flatten them with both hands and knew she would need binding.
Fortunately there was no one in sight as she passed, like a shadow, to the turret where her bedchamber was situated. It was the work of moments to find the binding she used for her monthly courses. She removed her clothes and bound her breasts before donning the shirt, padded brown hose and a green woollen doublet. Slipping off her shoes, she shoved her feet into a pair of stout boots before pulling on the feathered hat over the linen cap that confined her dark hair. Removing her winter cloak from a hook on the back of the door, she swung it round her shoulders and fastened its strings. Her heart was beating fast and, in her haste, she almost forgot Harry's short-sword that she had found hidden away in a chest several years ago. Although England was more settled and peaceful than in those early years after Henry VII had defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, it still did not do to go out unarmed.
She picked up her gloves and hurried downstairs, relieved that she could hear no sounds of activity coming from the kitchen. She left by the door that led into the yard and made her way to the stables. Her lips moved in silent prayer, hoping that the groom and stable boys were busy elsewhere.
To her relief the building was empty, but there was only one horse in the stalls and that was the oldest nag on the manor. Her spirits sank at the sight of Betsy, but she knew that she had no option but to saddle her up. She did so with hands that trembled.
Away from the house she found pleasure in the bite of the wind that whipped colour into her cheeks as she set out across the fields in the direction of Lathom House. Twenty-two years old and penniless, she could only pray that her godmother would help her. Fear and apprehension was a cold knot in her belly. Yet surely when she explained her situation, her godmother would understand her need for such a disguise?
Rosamund was still fretting about whether she would be turned away from Lathom's gates when a hedge loomed up. She groaned and had to back up Betsy. Taking a deep breath, she urged the horse towards the jump. They barely cleared the thicket of hazel. As they landed Rosamund sensed that the nag had caught a hoof on something. The beast landed awkwardly and one of Rosamund's feet came loose from the stirrup. The force of the jolt caused her to slip sideways. For several moments she dangled with her hands brushing the ground and then she managed to free her other foot. She fell into a patch of half-frozen muddy turf.
Pushing herself up, she spat out dirt before wiping her face with the back of her glove. Then she glanced back towards the hedge and saw a man stretched out on the ground. Her heart jerked inside her breast and, with knees that shook, she walked towards him.
His hat lay a few feet away and Rosamund picked it up before hunkering down beside him. She stared into the stranger's handsomely rugged face and with a sinking heart observed a swelling and an abrasion on his jaw where Betsy's hoof must have caught him a blow. To her relief his golden lashes lifted and a pair of penetrating tawny-brown eyes gazed into hers. She experienced the oddest sensation. Then his arm shot up and seized her by the throat and in one swift movement he rose to his feet, carrying her with him.
'Who are you?' he growled.
The hat fell from her fingers and, terrified, she clawed at that hand that threatened to cut off her breathing. She wanted to say, Are you mad? I can scarcely breathe, never mind speak.
As if he had read her thoughts, his fingers slackened a fraction. 'Answer my question!' he demanded.
But Rosamund could not get a word out, for fear still held her in its grip. She felt him fumble beneath her homespun cloak and a strangled gasp escaped her lips. Instinctively she kicked out at him. He swore in an unfamiliar tongue as he disarmed her. Her short-sword was thrust in his belt before he seized her dainty booted foot.
'I would not try that again if I were you,' he warned.
Alex was not in the best of moods. Not only had he failed to meet Lady Elizabeth at Lathom House, but he had also lost himself in the back lanes in his search for Appleby Manor. He had asked for directions from one of the guards, but obviously they had not been clear enough.
'Come, lad, speak!' he ordered, loosening his grip a fraction more.
Rosamund was not about to admit to being a woman to this barbaric stranger, whose voice held an inflection that, despite her fear of him, she found attractive. He was obviously a foreigner and perhaps that was the reason for his aggression. She blurted out the first name that came to mind. 'Joshua Wood!'
Alex flicked back a lock of flaxen hair and brought the youth's filthy face closer to his and rasped, 'I deem you deliberately rode me down, Master Wood.'
'No! You were out of sight behind the hedge so I could not see you,' she croaked, struggling to free her foot. 'If I was as suspicious of folk as you are, then I would want to know if you were hiding there to waylay me.'
'You flatter yourself that I should consider you important enough to wish to pounce on you.' His hand moved disturbingly from her foot to her knee and he hoisted her higher against him.
'That is true,' she stammered. 'II am b-but a simple woodcutter.'
Alex scrutinised the frightened face with its uncommon blue-violet eyes and long black lashes and he had the strangest feeling of familiarity. Abruptly he released his captive. 'You lie!'
'You brute,' she gasped, slumping on the ground and rubbing her throat.
'You will come with me,' he said, going over to his horse.
'What!' She sat up straight. 'Why should you believe I would want to go anywhere with you?' she said hoarsely. 'Your intention might be to kill me.'
Aye, you could be right. Keep that in mind, my fine lad, if you wish to see the end of this day. You deal honestly with me and I will free you when I have finished with you.' Alex took a coil of thin rope from his horse and strode over to her. 'I am looking for Appleby Manor. You will take me there.'
His words filled her with dismay. It would be disastrous for her to do what he said. Yet if she didn't, perhaps he would slit her throat. A squeak of fear escaped her. What could he want at Appleby Manor? Did he have aught to do with her stepmother's schemes? Surely he could not be the close kinsman she was expecting? He did not speak like a Scotsman. What was she to do? Suddenly she realised that there was only one thing she could do and that was to lead him astray.
'Why do you hesitate? Is it that you are not frightened enough?' growled Alex. He had met some effeminate young men in his time, but there was something different about this one. Perhaps Master Wood felt a need to prove to himself that he was a real man and that was why he had lied about being a woodcutter. To wield an axe, to chop down trees and slice trunks into planks needed strength.
'I would be mad not to be frightened of you,' said Rosamund, trying to control the tremor in her voice. Slowly she rose to her feet. 'But return my weapon to me and I will prove my courage by fighting with you.'
Alex's smile was grim. 'You are a brave but foolish young man to challenge me. Who are you really? I reckon your weapon is too good to belong to a woodcutter. It would fetch a goodly sum if placed on the market. No doubt you stole it. You could be part of a gang of ruffians out to act as a decoy and lead me into a trap.'
'I am no thief,' she said indignantly. 'Nor do I belong to a gang.'
'I have only your word for that,' said Alex calmly, unwinding the cord. 'We will be roped together so you cannot gallop off and warn the others that there's rich pickings on the way.'
Rosamund was aghast and backed away from him, only to slip in a patch of mud. He dragged her to her feet and, despite her struggles, he managed to tie one end of the cord to her wrist and the other he looped about his hand.
'You are quite mad,' she said in a shaken voice.
'If I am, then I have been driven mad.'
She had spoken those very words to her father once and he had sunk his head in his hands. She had stared in anguish, watching his shoulders shake before he had waved a hand at her in dismissal. She, too, had wept as she had left the room. She could not believe this stranger could have descended to the depths that she had and that caused her to spit out at him.
'You mock me! I do not like having my word doubted. It is you who are the thief. Return that short-sword to me at once. It belonged to my dead brother and it is all I have of him.'
The lad sounded so sincere that Alex almost believed him. But then he reminded himself that he had heard many a word spoken in so-called sincerity. 'I will return it at my convenience,' he said coldly.
Rosamund felt a familiar helplessness creep over her. She told herself that she must not give in to the lowness of spirits that had gripped her so often in the past. She remembered how she had managed to overcome those dark moods by riding out on her beautiful horse. The one that Edward, her elder stepbrother, had removed from the stable after her father's death. She had not been allowed beyond the gardens after that and there had been times when life was so utterly unbearable that she had given vent to her anger by smashing many ajar.