A determined sister . . .Madeleine Vernon's dreams should be filled with elegant gowns and marriageable men. Instead, she dreams of avenging her brother's death. But when she's captured by the queen's men, she's forced to become a spy by her mysterious yet undeniably attractive captor.
A rakish spy . . .
After years of working for his father in Queen Elizabeth's service, Nicholas Ryder is close to going his own way. But now he's got a feisty beauty he must protect or risk her execution as a traitor to the crown. She's a distraction he can't afford, but he also can't stop thinking about her.
A dangerous lie . . .It is Nicholas's job to foil plots against Elizabeth, and he sends Maddy into a household of suspected traitors to garner what information she can. As the line between captor and prisoner blurs, deceit, betrayal, and desire become a perilous mix. Ultimately, Nicholas must decide whether duty to the queen is more important than winning Maddy's heart.
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)|
Read an Excerpt
She charged into battle with the zeal of one who demands justice and will accept nothing less.
They had been riding all afternoon on the old Stanegate Highway, from Carlisle east toward Naworth Castle, where the rebels were mustering. There were five of them besides herself — two friends she had persuaded to join the fight and three others they had picked up along the way. It was a frigid February day, piercing deep to the bone with an unforgiving cold. When the beacons came into view at last, their flames a call to battle, she glanced at her companions triumphantly.
They scarcely had time to give their mounts a rest and let them graze and drink before the order was given to move out. She kept the bright red banners, adorned with white gryphons, in view, and hoped her friends were close by. A fellow riding alongside her leaned in and said, "What about the reinforcements?"
At a loss, she said, "What reinforcements?"
He glanced around, as though fearful of being overheard. No chance of that, in the din of hundreds of men mustering for battle. "Word is, more than a thousand Scots are supposed to be joining up with us. Far as I can tell, they're not here."
She shrugged. Why did they require more men? There were infantry and horsemen as far as the eye could see, though they looked like a ragtag lot. Nobody in mail or armor. She rode on, keeping her eyes on the banners ahead, from time to time searching the crowd for her friends. But to no avail.
They could see the queen's forces in the distance. It was almost as though they wished to sneak past. No judge of the difference between brilliant or foolhardy military strategies, she accepted chasing after an enemy who clearly did not wish to engage as part of a plan. Lord Dacre was their commander, and in her vengeful fervor she would follow him anywhere. On his orders, they gave chase until finally, circling ahead of the queen's southern army, they lay in wait near the Gelt River where Hell Beck joined it.
In mere moments, her belief that justice would triumph shattered.
Hundreds of horsemen at the rear of the queen's army began a vicious attack, pushing Dacre's troops out onto the heath. She dismounted, electing to take her chances as one of the infantry. Within minutes, mayhem ensued. Mounted troops wielding lances made short work of the men, most of whom carried nothing more than dirks. A lucky few were armed with pikes. Arrows flew, and she ducked every time she saw a bow raised. But before long, the smoke from the harquebuses was so thick, she could see nothing, nor could she hear anything other than the screams and shouts of both the rebels and queen's men. What a fool she'd been, expecting an orderly military action. She'd gotten chaos instead.
Their footmen broke through and tore into the rebels with pikes, and cavalrymen attacked with lances. She looked on helplessly as men around her were run through with rapiers or felled by blows to the head. The darkness helped to mask the grievous wounds, but when she dropped to the ground to avoid a hit, a nearby cry for help pierced the frigid air. Crawling in the direction of the sound, she located the injured man. With blood foaming at his open mouth, he tried to speak.
"Finish me." Though the words were garbled, his meaning was clear. Knowing she couldn't do what he required, she began backing away. "Pray, help me," he said, a note of desperation in his voice. Feeling cowardly, she continued to edge away, and when it seemed safe, sprang to her feet and lunged onward. She was too fired up — and apparently too brainless — to sense the inevitability of the outcome, or even the extreme peril she was in.
Having removed her travel cloak, she shivered in her thin shirt and doublet. Neither did much to ward off the bone-chilling cold. Ahead, mist rose from the river like a curtain of gauze. She tripped over more than one lifeless body, both human and beast. Shouts of command and cries of the wounded were muted in the dense air. Clutching the handle of a dirk that had belonged to her brother, she longed for the chance to put it to use. If she could surprise one of the queen's men, catch one of them unawares ... a life for her brother's life. That was all she wanted.
The wind rose, clearing the smoke. Glimpsing an opening, she plunged forward, straight toward a giant of a man wearing the queen's badge and without a weapon to hand. She was ready for him. With an upward thrust, she aimed for his heart. But with one step back, he was out of reach. She was stabbing at the air. He brought a beefy fist down on her wrist and knocked the dirk out of her hand, then gave a low chuckle before grasping the back of her doublet and hoisting her a few feet off the ground. "God's wounds, you're no bigger than a wench," he said.
"Because she is a wench, fool," a second man said, stepping out of the darkness. This one wore a short beard. Or perhaps it was only stubble — she couldn't tell in the dark. He reached down and picked up her dagger.
"We could have some fun with her, I'll warrant," the giant said. He still held her aloft as though she weighed no more than a cloth doll. While he mulled it over, she kicked him in the groin, as hard as she could while swaying in the air. He doubled over and dropped her, and the second man laughed. She leaped to her feet and ran.
Unfortunately, she managed only a few steps before an arm hard as stone and every bit as unyielding wrapped around her. It was the bearded man. The terror, the panic, all the unacknowledged dread she'd been holding inside now burst out in one long, agonized plea. "Let me go, I beg you. I have a family to look after."
He snorted. "A bit late to think of that, is it not?" He ordered the giant to bind her hands behind her back, and they dragged her, one on each side, to an area where prisoners were being held, and dumped her to the cold ground. But not before they'd spotted the scabbard tied at her waist and relieved her of it.
The next day they marched to Carlisle Castle, and she, Madeleine Vernon, daughter of Philip and Blanche Vernon of Carlisle and sister of the executed Robert, found herself thrown into a dank, stinking cell, fit only for murderers, thieves, and rebels.
* * *
The days slipped by in a shadowy nightmare. Maddy had not even a pallet, only a meager pile of straw to lie on, and a thin woolen blanket for cover. It provided little warmth but was better than nothing. Though her ankles had been chained when they arrived here, the chains had been removed, thank the Blessed Virgin. They had caused her to stumble on the crumbling, narrow steps that led to the cells, twisting her right ankle, and each time she rose to pace her cell it burned with pain.
Among the other prisoners she'd not seen either of her friends who had accompanied her to join up with Leonard Dacre. They were neighbors, a brother and sister, Ann and Charles Dodd. Fear that they might have been killed in the battle gnawed at her while she was awake and allowed her only a restless sleep. If I was responsible for their deaths ... better to have lost my own life.
At the end of each day, she'd been setting aside a stalk of straw to keep track of how long she'd been held prisoner. Six stalks now lay in the little pile, and she wondered how much longer it would be before she was summoned for questioning. She was frightened, of course, but ironically, she didn't like being ignored. Left to rot in a cell forever seemed worse than any torture they could subject her to, although she would no doubt change her mind, if that came to pass. The cell was reasonably clean, if she overlooked the stink of urine and feces. Even if the place were scrubbed down with boiling water and lye, the smell would linger. The straw was fresh — there were no bugs in it, and it smelled clean — and despite the dripping water pooling in one corner, she might have been held in far worse conditions.
The jailer, who was appropriately called Wolf, brought her breakfast — the usual hard crust of bread and thin porridge — and then thrust a bucket of water at her, hard enough that most of it splashed onto the floor. "Wash yourself. The master wants to see you." Though curious, Maddy knew he would ignore her questions. Better to keep silent. Hastily, she broke her fast and afterward washed her face in the meager amount of water left in the pail and dried it on her shirt. At least the water was warm, which surprised her.
Very soon thereafter, Wolf returned to deliver her to his master.
* * *
Nicholas Ryder sat at his desk awaiting the prisoner. The one they intended to put to work to further their cause. His father's and the queen's. Not his. The brawny jailer, Wolf, pushed the lass forward. A more bedraggled woman he'd not seen in his thirty years. Nor smelled. God's blood, had they not allowed her to wash in the week they'd held her captive?
After a cursory look at her, Nicholas dismissed Wolf and glanced down at the papers he'd been studying before she entered the room. They provided him with the bare facts. Name: Margaret Vernon. Age: Unknown, but probably mid-twenties. Unmarried with no issue. Daughter of the late Philip Vernon, a Catholic, but never a trouble-maker, and one Blanche Vernon, a deceased French woman. Sister of the recently executed — for his part in the northern rebellion — Robert Vernon.
A flash of movement made him raise his eyes. He would not tolerate an attempt to escape. There were other female captives whose services they could draw upon. It did not have to be this one. But she was quite still, save for a quick swipe of the back of her hand over her face. When he looked a little closer, he could see a trail of tears carving a path through the grime on her cheeks. She was weeping, then. That bode well for coming to terms swiftly.
"You are Margaret Vernon?"
"My Christian name is Madeleine, spelled in the French way."
Fools. He made the correction with his quill. "And your age, Mistress Vernon?"
"I am three and twenty."
"And you are the daughter of the late Philip and Blanche Vernon of Carlisle, and sister of Robert, lately executed?"
She winced but remained silent. Nicholas took the opportunity to study her. Not only was she filthy, but she was still dressed in a man's hose and doublet, the clothes she'd been wearing when they'd captured her. Her hair looked like a serpent's nest. Like Medusa. No wonder she stank.
"Pray answer the question, mistress."
"Aye." Now his captive was weeping in earnest, and for the first time Nicholas noticed she was balancing on one foot, her face racked with pain. Obviously, the lass had been injured.
"You are not well." He hauled his chair from behind his desk and set it down near her, then circled her waist with his arm. "Allow me to help you." God's breath, her smell nearly made him gag. After she was seated, he rose and strode to the door, yanking it open. A guard stood watch outside. "Find Joan and bring her to me."
"Master?" Joan said when she entered the room. He'd been standing at the windows, surveying the sere winter landscape. The cold had been bitter and relentless. The windows were frosted over every morning, and when he roused himself at sunrise, he had to poke through a thin film of ice in the ewer before he could pour any water.
He could hear the question in Joan's voice. Why was he standing with his back exposed to a prisoner? The answer was simple. Because he did not care to look at Mistress Madeleine Vernon. Her countenance bore an odd mix of vulnerability and strength, and he didn't like seeing what had been done to her. Her actions had been rash and foolhardy, but he was awed by her courage.
"Pray escort Mistress Vernon to one of the chambers and help her wash. I cannot have her stinking and miserable while I am questioning her. Make sure the fire is stoked and the room warmed first. While you are waiting, give her some cheese and bread and hot wine. And God's mercy, find her some clean apparel. Fit for a female."
"Aye, Master Ryder." With Joan's help, the prisoner limped slowly to the door.
"How were you injured, mistress?" Nicholas asked.
She glared at him defiantly but did not answer.
He nodded at Joan. "Take her. And do not return her until she is clean, fed, and clothed in something that does not reek."
The door slammed shut behind them. Nicholas unleashed a sigh. So this was not to be swiftly done after all.CHAPTER 2
The servant, called Joan, led Maddy back to her captor. This time the woman didn't hold on to her. She must have decided Maddy wouldn't try to escape, since she hadn't shown any signs of doing so while eating, bathing, or dressing. Her pace was slow due to her sore and swollen ankle, but Joan was patient and did not try to hurry her along.
Maddy sighed with relief when she saw that a settle had been brought in and placed before the table, evidently for her benefit. For the moment, she was alone in the chamber, dark save for the fire burning in the hearth and the meager light slanting in through the arrow slits. Free of the hunger pangs that had plagued her for days, her mind felt clear and sharp. She'd been able to think about the questioning she must submit to and had devised a strategy. Her interrogator had revealed various facts he knew about her; perhaps she could bargain with him. A pardon in exchange for information, though if indeed she'd committed treason — and Maddy was reasonably sure she had — she would be lucky to obtain one. As far as she knew, nobody had yet been pardoned for taking part in the rebellion that had occurred last November, the debacle that had forced her onto the path that had ended here at Carlisle Castle. Indeed, punishment had been meted out using martial law, which granted the queen limitless powers during wartimes. Maddy's brother had been hanged within a month, without even a trial. He and scores of others. Where was the justice in that?
But she was no outlaw, merely a woman with a grievance. Her strategy was to plead her case as the sole protector of her sister-in-law and niece and nephews. Not only had they lost a brother, husband, and father, but their land and most of their goods had been confiscated. Maddy's family needed her, and it was her duty to care for them.
The door opened and in strode her captor. Master Ryder, as Joan had called him. He was a tall, imposing figure. She had already taken note of his clear, green eyes, and had she felt more herself, she would have found him quite attractive.
He nodded at Maddy before taking a seat behind the big oak table, which, thank Our Blessed Lady, was pushed close to the hearth. Carlisle Castle was a cold, damp fortress, not fit for human habitation, in her opinion.
"You look ..." His voice tapered off. "Did you eat something?"
"I did, sir. I am most grateful for the food and drink and the clean clothing. And even more so for the chance to bathe." She glanced down at her plain bodice and skirts. Nothing fancy, but warm and serviceable, and not that far removed from her usual attire. He was being kind, the better to induce her to talk. She understood that, but for now she would behave in an appropriately obliging manner, even though she knew his kindness was simply a means to an end.
His gaze was fixed on Maddy's face. "Will you talk to me now?"
She inclined her head, very slightly.
"Tell me how you were injured. You are limping."
Maddy smiled sheepishly. "I twisted my ankle when I was descending the stairs to the cells. Clumsy of me, but in my defense, the steps are crumbling away to nothing, and even without shackles on my ankles they would have been difficult to manage."
He made no answer, merely studied her. A massive log on the hearth split apart, shooting sparks up the chimney. After a time he said, "It should have healed by now, since it cannot have been put to much use this week. We shall have a physician look at it."
"Do not trouble yourself, sir."
"It is no trouble. There are several residing in the town." He took up his papers and examined them.
She waited mere seconds, then said, "May I know your name, sir?" "Ryder. Nicholas Ryder."
He set his papers down and pinched between his brows, as though he had a headache. "Perhaps the most efficient way to approach this is for you to tell me how and why you became involved in Leonard Dacre's raid." He leaned back in his chair and waited.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mistress Spy"
Copyright © 2018 Pamela Mingle.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.