Beatrice Knowles is a Maid of Honor, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s secret protectors. Known for her uncanny ability to manipulate men’s hearts, Beatrice has proven herself to be a valuable asset in the Queen’s court—or so she thinks. It has been three weeks since the Maids thwarted a plot to overthrow the Queen, and Beatrice is preparing to wed her betrothed, Lord Cavanaugh. However, her plans come to a crashing halt as rumors of a brewing Scottish rebellion spread among the court.
Beatrice’s new assignment is to infiltrate the visiting Scottish delegation using her subtle arts in persuasion. The mission seems simple enough, until the Queen pairs Beatrice with the worst of the lot—Alasdair MacLeod. Beatrice cannot help but think that the Queen is purposefully setting her up for failure. But Alasdair could be the key to unlocking the truth about the rebellion…and her heart. Caught in a web of ever-more-twisting lies, Beatrice must rise up among the Maids of Honor and prove what she’s known all along: in a court filled with deception and danger, love may be the deadliest weapon of all.
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Maid of Deception
There would be no tears on my wedding day. I would not allow it.
As the music from the Queen’s own orchestra filled Saint George’s Chapel, a perfect blend of viol and harpsichord to complement my perfect union with Lord Percival Andrew William Cavanaugh, I clasped the clammy hands of my fellow Maid of Honor Sophia Dee and smiled into her large, worried eyes.
“Hush, Sophia. All is well,” I said, giving her fine-boned fingers a light squeeze. She shivered despite the stifling heat of the chamber. “If you keep crying, you’ll draw attention to yourself.”
That caught the girl up short. The youngest of our group of royal spies, and the most uncertain, Sophia hated attention. Her eyes, if possible, got even bigger.
“But, Beatrice—you should b-be happy—”
“I am happy, Sophia,” I assured her. And, strangely enough, I was. For all my well-rehearsed sophistication, Lord Cavanaugh represented more than just my crowning achievement at court. Yes, of course, he was one of the richest men in the kingdom. And he was from a respected family whose reputation was not at daily risk from either a drunken father or a muddle-minded mother. And his ancestral home was not overrun by brawling foundling children.
And, perhaps most important, he had no idea whatsoever how desperately I needed this marriage.
But there was more to it than that. Lord Cavanaugh was gentle, fine, and soft-spoken, with a rich, drawling voice that I thrilled to hear. He was gracious and educated, in a court filled with rakes and curs more intent on the hunt than on conversation. He was devout, respectful at service and in court. He was polite to women of every station; he appeared to genuinely care for his mother.
And he loved me.
I saw it in his eyes, in his smile. In the way he nodded his approval as he took in my gowns and hair. I saw it as he watched others watching me. Though I’d worked very hard to ensure that I was perfect for him in every possible way, I still could not believe I had succeeded so well. . . . Lord Cavanaugh loved me. The rest meant nothing beside that truth.
“Babies with my husband will come in time, I am sure,” I said now, addressing Sophia’s current cause for distress. She’d seen—somehow—that my groom and I would have no children, and the shock of her vision was quite undoing her. Sophia, it should be said, had a gift of intuition that might well become the full-fledged Sight at any moment. But Sophia’s predictions were not always clear, and she was definitely wrong on this score. My marriage to Cavanaugh would be perfect. It had to be. “Today I am the most joyful woman alive.” Still, the tiniest thread of fear skated along my nerves.
Sophia raised a trembling chin and gave me a smile, looking like a frail raven-haired ghost in her gorgeous white silk gown. That gown had cost five pounds if it had cost a shilling, and it was embroidered with Italian lace. It would have taken a farmer a year just to earn enough to pay for a dress like that, but it was only one of a dozen gowns Sophia’s betrothed had gifted to her. I pondered that a moment. Had Cavanaugh given me any gifts of late? I’d been so busy with my duties to the Queen, I hadn’t much noticed.
“It’s almost time, Beatrice,” Anna Burgher chirped from the doorway.
We’d participated in the loud and boisterous procession from the Upper Ward of Windsor Castle down to Saint George’s Chapel, and then—just as I’d orchestrated it—my bridesmaids and I had slipped in here while Lord Cavanaugh had moved toward the front of the chapel, to give me a last opportunity to make sure I was completely prepared.
Now Anna was up on her toes, bouncing in her yellow satin skirts, her ginger mass of hair brutalized into a tight coil of braids. I smiled at the back of Anna’s head, imagining her eyes darting this way and that. She’d record every person in attendance of this, my most triumphant public appearance yet. We would spend hours poring over the lists she made, analyzing who was most appropriate to approach, to flatter, and to watch in the weeks following the wedding. The Queen’s birthday was coming up, and there would be time to cement alliances there.
Speaking of. “And Elizabeth? Has she arrived yet?”
“No! She must wish to do you proud, Beatrice,” Anna said staunchly, still scanning the chapel floor. “She will grace you like the Queen of the Fairies at exactly the perfect moment.”
I pursed my lips, the thread of doubt within me thickening to a coarser yarn. Elizabeth was many things, I knew. “Fairy Queen” was not among them. But she had blessed this union, taken pride in it as if it were her own. That was what mattered.
The music shifted in subtle counterpoint just then, and I straightened, casting a glance over my soft pink gown. Unlike the rumored splendor of the recent bridal ensemble worn by Mary, Queen of Scots—all white, if you can believe it—my gown’s skirts flowed down in rich, pale pink panels, parted at the front to reveal a luxurious swath of cream-colored satin, delicately picked out with golden thread. The skirts were attached above to a stiffly embroidered V-pointed bodice that featured a virtual garden of pink, gold, and brilliantly red roses, all of them swirling, twirling, and fanning out along a neckline cut to showcase my blushing porcelain skin—still modest enough, but an effective display of maidenly beauty. My lace sleeves were so fine as to be nearly sheer, ending in delicate cuffs edged, once more, in pink and gold. I was a vision of English sensibilities, from head to toe.
Everything was perfect.
“God’s bones, half of England is out there,” Meg Fellowes observed as she ducked into the doorway, tall and straight in her simple gown of dove-grey satin. I smiled, feeling uncharacteristically charitable toward our resident thief, which I never would have believed possible at the start of the summer. I’d even loaned her the dress she was now wearing. Of course, it was two seasons out of date, but Meg didn’t seem to mind. Probably didn’t know, either.
And she was no rival, that much was certain. Somewhere out in that audience was Meg’s special Spanish spy, Rafe de Martine. I’d watched her sneak glances at the boy since he’d entered the chapel, and now I felt something curiously empty in my chest, as though I’d gone too long since breaking my fast.
Anna, usually the smartest of our select company, was convinced that Meg was truly in love, though I couldn’t quite see the point of that. Rafe de Martine was a courtier, but he was Spanish. He was fine for a turn on the dance floor, or even a stolen kiss—or a dozen—behind a darkened tapestry, but nothing more. Rafe had wanted me first, of course, but I could never have given him what he wanted. So he’d turned to Meg.
It wasn’t as if he were going to tuck himself into a corner with Jane Morgan, after all. Her unkind cuts would have left him bleeding.
Still and all, the Queen would never approve a match between Meg and the Spaniard. And Meg, for her part, insisted she had no interest in marriage. This of course was utter folly, but the girl was still new to court. She would learn, I thought as I returned my attention to my gown. Marriage was not about love. I knew that, no matter how desperately glad I was that Cavanaugh loved me.
Marriage was about power.
“So who created this guest list, exactly?” Jane was the last to enter the chapel, and her flat voice interrupted my reverie. Our troupe’s official ruffian generally kept her mouth shut, which is how I preferred it. Still, my attention sharpened not at Jane’s wry words so much as Anna’s reaction to them. Even Sophia lifted a hand to her mouth, her eyes darting first to Anna and then to Jane, and then, resolutely, not to me.
I frowned at Jane’s profile as she turned to stare back out the doorway, but the girl’s grin wasn’t cruel or dark. Just amused. Irritation kindled along my nerves, and I steeled myself against it. I was the future Marchioness of Westmoreland, a future that would be arriving in a few short moments. I would be kind and patient. Even if it killed me.
“I created the guest list,” I said, then offered a careless wave of my hand. “And Cecil and Walsingham reviewed and approved it, of course.” As if there’d be any chance those two wouldn’t want to control every aspect of such a grand court event.
Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham were not just the Queen’s most powerful advisors, after all. They were instructors to a very special group of spies within the Queen’s court. The Maids of Honor comprised five young women from all stations of life. Anna and Jane, Sophia and now Meg—and, of course, me. Each of us with unique skills, selected by Queen Elizabeth herself to serve her in a very specific capacity. To be her eyes and ears—and sometimes mouth—and to ferret out secrets that no mere man could hope to uncover. I had been the first young woman chosen to head up this secret sect, a favor that had, I daresay, shocked Cecil and Walsingham. I had not been surprised, however.
The Queen and I had more history between us than Cecil and Walsingham could ever guess.
None of the other girls spoke, and I frowned into the silence. “And probably the Queen stuck her nose into the guest list, as she is ever wont to do. What of it? Who do you see?”
“The Queen?” Meg’s voice had a peculiar tone to it, but I never could tell what the Rat was thinking. “Well, that would do it.”
Irritation crested with a snap. “Who do you—”
“Oh, Beatrice, darling! You look lovely!” I glanced up, startled, then moved forward three quick paces to catch my mother as she stumbled into our little chamber, her breath smelling of honeyed mead and, more faintly, a light, sweet tang; a scent I’d come to know too well.
“Lady Knowles,” Jane said stoutly, and suddenly she was at my side, her strong arms around my mother as if she knew exactly what to do with a woman too muddled to stand upright. My cheeks burned with mortification. Today of all days!
“Beatrice, your father is coming!” Anna squeaked. I whipped my gaze back around toward the door. No! Not now, not with my mother in one of her states.
“He can’t see—he can’t see her like—” I swallowed the words, remembering discretion too late. I turned to the only maid who could possibly understand. “Oh, Anna!”
“Relax. We’ll take care of her,” Meg cut in smoothly. “You just smile like it’s your wedding day, and keep moving. Don’t let him stop to look and see anything.” She sounded like she was directing a play—or a battle. I’m not sure which comparison was more apt. In any event, she took up her place on the other side of my mother and nodded to Jane, two serious maids escorting the mother of the bride. “We’ll be back in a moment.”
“Or two,” Jane muttered, eyeing the woman now listing between them.
Then the pair of them was through the door as they clutched my mother, who’d begun to burble something about “beautiful.” She was the beautiful one, not me. Even with her eyes going glassy and her expression a little lost. My father had done this to her, I knew. Had killed her with a thousand cuts.
If only . . .
My jaw set. I had no time for “if only.” I just needed the woman to keep herself together for another quarter hour. I boosted myself up on my toes, using Anna’s shoulder as a brace, and watched Jane and Meg smoothly steer Mother into her place, even as their attention was captured by someone in the crowd. All three of them were staring, actually. Including my mother.
What in the world could have penetrated her fog?
“Beatrice! Now!” Anna breathed. I dashed back to the table to catch up my bouquet, and turned to receive Lord Bartholomew Edward Matthew Knowles with my face set into an expression of perfectly practiced ethereal joy.
My reward was swift and complete. “Beatrice, you are the most entrancing of women, and the grandest lady in all of England,” my father said, bowing with a flourish.
“And you, my father, are the most depraved lord in all of Christendom.”
“I own it.” He grinned at me with a smile that I knew—from long and occasionally bitter experience—had made women’s hearts melt for the past thirty years. “But say, Lord Cavanaugh is standing up like a strawman at the tilt. Think he’ll have the stamina to make it through the ceremony?”
Anger flashed through me even as my father turned my hand into the crook of his arm. “Lord Cavanaugh is a good man, Father, and will do far more for our fortunes than—” I hastily swallowed my ill-advised words. Control! “Than we have any right to ask.”
Father snorted, seeming not at all convinced, for someone who had heartily approved of this match. “Lord Cavanaugh will have a care around you, anyway, you can be sure of that,” he said, patting my hand as we moved back through the doorway.
His fingers grazed the ring I’d decided to wear next to my betrothal ring, and he glanced down at it now. I felt his fingers tighten as he recognized the bauble I’d recently received from Rafe and Meg. Oh, he recognized the ring all right, more the shame to him.
When Rafe had first arrived on our shores these several weeks past, the Spanish spy had carried with him a ring that his mother had retained as a “souvenir” of her own visit to the English court during the reign of old King Henry. Of course, the King hadn’t been old then, and neither had Rafe’s mother . . . nor my father. The nature of the “friendship” between Rafe’s mother and my father was not something I wanted to dwell upon, but thank heavens both Rafe and I had already been born by then. I could barely tolerate the arrogant young man as Meg’s suitor; I could not have stomached him as a half brother. Still, now I had another family heirloom back, a precious treasure reclaimed. And from the guilt-ridden look on his face, Father clearly knew I had discerned yet one more of his secrets.
Vindication swept through me like a cleansing fire. Look hard and long, you skirt-chasing ballywag. I was the one taking care of the family.
Father blinked and stared, like a bear stumbling out of his winter slumber. “But where . . . How . . .” He bristled at me. “Where in the bloody hell did you get—”
“The music is beginning!” Anna’s quick cry mobilized us, and she rushed into position behind Sophia, even as Jane and Meg hurried into place as well, both of them favoring me with knowing glances. What was going on with them? What had they seen?
There was no time, however, and we moved forward into the multicolored radiance of Saint George’s Chapel, the entire hall lit up with light pouring through the stained-glass windows, as if God himself were adding his illumination to my day.
I stepped into the long aisle and held my head high. It was total perfection, and all according to a plan I’d labored to bring to light for the past ten years. Finally I would be married. Finally I would be respected. Finally I would be . . .
We moved forward with the elegance due our rank and station in the Queen’s court, and I craned my neck this way and that, taking in the congregation that had filled Saint George’s to bursting. My gaze moved along one thick knot of admirers and over to another—many of them relatives of mine or my lord’s, but some who were nobles, even courtiers from other lands. There were Cecil and Walsingham, stiff in their proper garments. There was Rafe de Martine and the grinning band of Spaniards. There was even Lord Brighton, Sophia’s intended, who stood a bit nervously next to a serenely lovely woman.
And all of them were looking at me.
I nodded graciously in the midst of their open stares and bright eyes. I felt beautiful, suddenly, with my pink-gold dress, my blond hair piled up in an impossibly ornate coiffure pinned with pink roses and bits of white lace, my eyes and mouth touched delicately with careful paints. Within my chest my heart swelled until it seemed almost twice its proper size, the smile on my face now completely unabashed. I was getting married!
The whole of the court seemed to beam back at me, sharing in my joy. I glanced past a particularly gorgeous nobleman I didn’t recognize, in a blue silk doublet and a short cape. Despite myself I hesitated, favoring him with a nod even as my heart fluttered a bit in my breast at the roguish glint in his eye.
That glint seemed vaguely familiar, but surely I would have remembered this young man. He was tall and fierce, with the kind of arrogance that would make him a liability in any court, particularly ours. Had the Queen invited him? Elizabeth was always looking for ways to surround herself with new men. I shook myself, realizing I was staring, but I couldn’t quite tear my eyes away. Nerves, I decided.
Then the young man grinned back at me, his gaze dropping quite obviously to fix on the moderately deep V of my wedding gown as it plunged between my breasts. I knew that look. I knew that leer.
And I almost stumbled in my stride.
I wrenched my gaze away, grateful now for the near murderous grip my father had on my arm as I strode ahead, poleaxed.
This was what Meg and Jane had been grinning about, and why they’d been so eager to escort my mother into the chapel. This was what Anna and Sophia had known but had dared not tell me. This!
Alasdair MacLeod was at my wedding!
The boorish Scot had trampled into the refined English court not four weeks past, part of a grand onslaught of foreigners who’d come to pay court to the Queen. He’d seemed instantly out of place to me, for all his apparent high standing within the Scottish delegation, a bull among chickens—all brawny shoulders and roguish leers and rough manners and knowing grins. The Queen, with her usual perverse pettiness, had assigned me to fawn over Alasdair, of course, to see what secrets I might find out about his true intentions toward the English. As a result I’d been forced to dance with the hulking brute on far too many occasions, and he’d taken every opportunity to embarrass me, press me, hold me too close. The worst had been during a late summer wedding I’d been forced to attend with the oaf, wherein the Clod MacLeod had put both hands around my waist and drawn in a breath so deep it seemed as if he’d sought to distill my own essence within himself. Thank God he’d never tried to kiss me.
Still, had he tried, it would have been entertaining for me to disable him. I had my choice of methods too, one of a half dozen favorites I’d honed during my schooling as a spy. Each more painful than the previous.
There were some benefits to being a Maid of Honor, after all.
Still, whyever is he here? Weddings of commoners were open to all, true enough. But I was not a commoner.
And he had not been invited.
I stared ahead stonily, feeling the cur’s eyes scorch through my gown as I walked sedately toward my future husband, Lord Cavanaugh. My future respected, respectable, and very respectful husband.
The young Scotsman may have been heir to some hulking rock of a castle in the middle of the northern sea, but he was nothing next to Lord Cavanaugh. And he had no business being here. Especially . . . especially looking the way he did now.
This Alasdair had been bathed and shaven smooth, his thick beard now gone; his wild, unruly mane now trimmed and luxuriously thick, its dark blond curls draped carelessly over his sun-warmed face and fierce blue eyes. This Alasdair must have stolen his clothes, so fine were they, the blue and gold doublet undone just enough to show a snowy white tunic beneath, and the slightest glimpse of his broad, firm, powerful chest—
“Beatrice, you’re wounding me.”
I blinked up at my father’s words, and saw him now looking at me with genuine concern, all the anger that had lit his aristocratic features gone. We were at the front of the chapel. The minister was there and Lord Cavanaugh was there, looking handsome and perfect and holding my entire future in his hands. He was everything I wanted and needed, and as if in recognition of that fact, the chapel was finally quieting to allow the solemnity of our service to take place.
I smiled, my heart no longer bursting with joy as much as whirling in utter confusion, but I forced my expression into one of absolute bliss that I hoped would carry the day. My father seemed satisfied, and patted my hand before turning me forward.
To my right, Lord Cavanaugh eyed me with approval.
In front of me the minister lifted The Book of Common Prayer.
And behind me, somewhere in the knot of courtiers and noblemen, aunts and cousins, and neighbors and enemies and friends—stood Alasdair MacLeod.
I straightened my back and drew a deep breath, gratified at Lord Cavanaugh’s soft exhalation. He was staring at me now, taking in every detail of my gown. Good.
Alasdair MacLeod could go hang himself.
The minister began to speak, and I heard his words as if from far away. “. . . for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture . . .” I frowned, instantly recalling Sophia’s concerns. Would Lord Cavanaugh and I not have children? There must be a male heir, eventually. There had to be. I had only to look back at Queen Elizabeth’s own long and troubled history to explain why. How many lives had been changed irreparably, in houses grand and small, all for the want of a son?
A bit of murmuring struck up in the back of the chapel, but my eyes were trained on the minister, and on the play of light shining down from the stained-glass windows, rendering him into soft reds and greens and blues. He looked like something out of a dream landscape, holy and inviolate, and I finally began to relax.
“Into this holy union Lady Beatrice Elizabeth Catherine Knowles and Lord Percival Andrew William Cavanaugh now come to be joined. . . .”
Behind me the whispering grew louder, and even the minister looked up, his face flickering with shock. I stared at him as he kept speaking, my stomach slewing sideways as Lord Cavanaugh turned with a gasp that had nothing to do with my neckline and everything to do with what he saw coming up behind us, as relentless as a winter storm.
And still the minister pressed on, as if he could no more stop the sacred words than he could stop his own breath. “If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married,” he cried out, his voice sounding almost desperate to my ears, “speak now; or else for ever hold your peace!”
A moment of deafening silence passed, and then another, and the clutch of terror in my throat was only just coming undone when the sudden sharp, imperious crash of a staff striking the floor nearly turned my knees to water.
“This wedding shall not go forward!” came the voice, as loud, proud, and mighty as the wrath of God, and every bit as damning.
It was the Queen.