The ladies of the palace called Nora Becket “mouse.” But beneath her shy, artless ways hid the heart of a lioness. A daring spy in Queen Mary's court, she risked her life to rescue the innocent from a terrible fate. Yet it was Nora who needed rescuing when cutthroats attacked her—and when Christian de Rivers, a lusty, sword-wielding rogue, swept her out of harm's way . . . and into his arms.
As magnificent and mesermizing as a hawk, Christian both frightened and excited Nora, even as he pursued her with a single-minded passion that left her longing to be caught. Yet soon she would discover that she had reason to be frightened. For the dashing nobleman had his own secrets to keep, his own enemies to rout—and his own brand of vengeance for a wide-eyed beauty whom he loved only too well. . . .
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Hatfield House, England, 1558
Nuns no longer went in fear of their lives, as they had in old King Harry’s time, and one had broken her journey to her convent at the royal manor of Hatfield. Her shaking, mittened hand closed the door of the Hatfield chapel. The nun tucked the hand back inside the sleeve of her habit and turned to face the central aisle. Hunched over with age, misshapen by a crooked shoulder, the old woman squinted at the only inhabitant of the chapel.
At the altar rail knelt a young woman dressed in satin with a black French hood set upon a waterfall of red-gold hair. The nun hobbled up the aisle and knelt beside the lady, then folded her mittened hands, enclosing a cross within them, and rested them on the rail. The red-haired woman kept her gaze on the cross before her. The nun bent her head in prayer, and Latin words filled the chapel. The nun sneezed and dropped her cross. Her quivering fingers unfolded as if to search for it.
In a whiplike movement, the young woman brought her white hand down over the hand of the nun. Long, tapered fingers gripped the old woman’s hand; they snatched at the mitten and pulled it off. Stripped of its covering, the nun’s hand lay still beneath the woman’s. It was larger than the one that held it prisoner. Smooth, golden skin stretched tight over long bones, and a signet ring of gold encircled the third finger.
The nun sneezed again, and the young woman laughed under her breath. “Serves you right, Lord Montfort. God punishes you for this disguising by giving you an ague.”
The nun straightened. The crooked shoulder righted itself, and the body seemed to grow and stretch. Christian de Rivers, Lord Montfort, son of the Earl of Vasterne, rubbed his itching nose and peered at the woman around the edge of his black veil.
“Your Highness,” he said. He dipped his head in an approximation of a bow, then sneezed again. “This habit is musty.”
Princess Elizabeth smirked at him before turning her gaze back to the altar. “What tidings of my sister?”
“The Queen is ofttimes mad and all the time dying.”
The princess sucked in a breath, but she said nothing.
Christian studied the altar rail. “She has given up the fantasy that she is with child and believes that the swelling is dropsy. But she swears Your Grace will never be queen, that you are—”
“A bastard. The fool. She can’t set aside our father’s will. If she does, the next heir is the Queen of Scots.”
Christian pulled the mitten back over his right hand. “The council argues constantly. A few favor the Queen of Scots; most uphold Your Grace’s right. All want to be rid of the Queen’s Spanish husband and this stupid war with France.”
The two black-veiled heads inclined toward each other as Christian detailed the latest maneuverings at court to the princess.
“And what of yourself?” Elizabeth asked. “Have you killed Luiz de Ateca yet?”
“Your Highness knows I cannot kill an envoy of the Queen’s royal husband.”
“I know you’re not supposed to,” Elizabeth said. “But you forget we’ve known each other since we were four, and convention never stopped you from doing as you please. Now tell me why you and de Ateca lust for each other’s blood.”
Christian wriggled his nose. “I refused Ateca something he wanted, Your Grace.”
Elizabeth turned to Christian and lifted her brows. Christian sighed when he saw that she wasn’t going to leave the topic.
“I denied him my … company.”
“My friendship, one might say.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “One might say, if one were a squeamish virgin maid. Oh, don’t close yourself up like a comfit box. I understand. But Christian, no duels with King Philip’s man. Ateca is dangerous, and I forbid you to risk your life any more than is necessary.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Somewhere a door banged closed, and Elizabeth’s head jerked up. She looked over her shoulder, then back at Christian.
“You must go. If you’re discovered, I lose my best intelligencer.”
Christian shrank into himself until he resumed the bent and quivering form of the old nun. “Have no fear, Your Grace. I’ve no wish for the Queen to discover that one of her Catholic lords is a heretic who serves her sister.”
“If she does, you’ll be lucky if you end up in the Tower. If she suspects you question the old religion, she’ll burn you at the stake. How many have died since Mary restored the laws against heresy? Several hundred, I trow.”
Christian grinned at the Princess. “Your Grace hasn’t heard the opinion of Lady Johanna and Lady Jane Dormer. I can’t be burned because my heart and soul are made of ice.”
A pale finger flicked the tip of Christian’s nose. “You will ever be my Lord of Misrule.”
He took her hand and kissed it. “I will ever be Your Highness’s servant. I pray for your safe delivery from your enemies, for England needs you. We are bankrupt, starved, and tortured. And our deliverance is in the hands of old King Harry’s daughter.”
“God make me deserving of the love of the people,” Elizabeth said.
“And may He protect Your Grace.”
Christian hobbled back down the aisle and out of the chapel. The princess turned back to the altar. Neither looked back.
Christian avoided an encounter with the princess’s guardian-gaoler by going directly to the stables for his mule. After giving the stable boy who’d cared for his animal a penny and a pat on the head, he lumbered down the road and off the grounds of the manor. It was a day of rare April sun and biting wind that turned his cheeks crimson. Having to sit in a hunched and skewed position, Christian was soon praying for sight of the fork in the road that would take him to London.
At last it appeared with its old stone marker, whose carving was so faded, it was impossible to read the signs. Christian slid off the mule, and looked around under the guise of inspecting the animal’s hooves. A squirrel grubbed in the dust of the road. It was the sole occupant of the highway, which was no more than a dirt track. To either side of it lay narrow strips of cultivated fields. Beyond them loomed the pale green line of saplings that marked the beginning of the forest.
Christian pulled himself upright, hauled at the reins, and dragged the mule across the fields and into the trees. Deeper and deeper he plunged into the forest until he came to an ancient oak twisted and gnarled with disease. He tied the mule to a half-dead branch, then, sneezing, tore at the nun’s headdress. It slid off to reveal luxuriant hair the color of an eagle’s feathers. He tossed the veil aside. Without looking up from untying the girdle at his waist, he spoke.
“Come out, my angels. Lucifer wants company.”
Rocks grew heads. Trees sprouted arms and legs. A thin stalk of a body dropped from the ancient oak. The owner of the body, one Inigo Culpepper, cutpurse and highwayman, hit the ground, rolled under the belly of the mule, and popped up to bow before Christian. He had staves for legs, hollow shoulders, and the movements of a frantic weasel.
Inigo pulled himself upright and grinned at Christian. “Liege.”
Christian ignored the man as he stepped free of his black skirts. Something was wrong, he knew, or else his band of cutthroats and wastrels—would not all be gathered around like this. Wearing only his hose, Christian turned as Anthony Now-Now, a man with the bulk of a castle drum tower, approached him, carrying his soft riding boots. Behind Anthony was Three-Tooth Poll, swishing over to Christian and holding out his voluminous lawn shirt.
“Oh, deary,” Poll said, licking her lips, “you do grow wide and long.” Her smile revealed the three teeth she’d managed to save during her life as a wandering peddler, thief, and whore.
Inigo swatted her hands from Christian’s bare shoulders. “Away with you, bawdy basket. You’ll not soil our lovely Kit with your poxy hands.”
“Sod you,” Poll said with a leer.
Inigo would have replied if not for the polar stare his liege gave him. He shut his mouth under the contemplation of a pair of eyes that looked as if someone had poured ice shards into purple ink.
“What are the lot of you doing clustered about like a heap of rotting fruit?” Christian asked. He didn’t wait for Inigo’s reply. “I see. Decided to make it easy on the constables and the hangman and let them catch you all at once.”
Inigo paled. Poll skittered away, and the giant Anthony hid behind the dead tree. Several fake beggars busied themselves gathering firewood.
“Now, liege,” Inigo said.
Christian shot his arms through the sleeves of his black doublet and fastened the silver buttons down the front. “If they catch you, I won’t bribe them again. I’ll dance at your execution and throw posies at your dead carcass.”
With the suddenness of a thunder crack Christian whirled around and snatched a belt and sword from the man standing in silence behind him.