A Dangerous Game
As Lady Justina Wincott's brutal guardian, Viscount Biddeford promises any disobedience from her will cost her son dearly. A pawn in his games of court treachery, the beautiful widow is forced to tempt secrets from his enemies and seduce allegiance from his friends. Yet even Biddeford's wrath won't make Justina sully the only man of honor she's ever known. . .
Sir Synclair has earned his honor in blood and muck. War taught him the way to victory is rarely clean--but the passion Justina sparks in him is not to be ignored. Never mind the predators who crave her beauty, or Biddeford's ruthless wiles; he will have her as his wife. And yet if he is to wed Justina, his fiercest battle may be with the lady herself. . .
Praise for the Novels of Mary Wine
"A wonderful summer read." --RT Reviews on My Fair Highlander
"Readers. . .will be glued to the passion, humor, escapades, and court intrigue till the very last page." --Publishers Weekly on Improper Seduction, starred review
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Whitehall Palace, October 1546
The Viscount Gregory Biddeford was considered to be a handsome man, but Justina saw only his ambition, which made him hideous in her way of thinking.
"You have made me wait upon you, madam."
He touched the tips of his fingers against each other, lightly tapping them together. "For a woman who has so much to lose, I think your tardiness a foolish lapse of attention to the matter of making certain that I am pleased with you ..."
His eyes narrowed. "In all that you do."
Justina suppressed the urge to cover herself. The viscount had not announced his entrance into her chamber, and she wore only a chemise. The fragile silk was translucent in places from the water that had dripped out of her freshly washed hair, making the thin fabric stick to her body. The viscount considered her curves with a flicker of lust in his eyes. However, she knew the man well enough to know that it would be simple to turn his attention away from her flesh in favor of reprimanding her for being bold enough to argue with him. The man's ego always reigned supreme over his lust.
"The Baron Ryppon is known for his dislike of being betrayed, my lord. You knew that he would not fail to unmask me once I had done your bidding and set his bride free during the night."
"You should have followed her out of the fortress. That solution was so simple, it could have been thought of by a child."
Justina had to force her temper down, which was surprising. Her time at Amber Hill seemed to have drained away some of her tolerance for the viscount's lashing tongue. The pompous ass always sent others to do his bidding while having no compassion for the difficulty of the tasks. He was dressed from head to toe in the latest fashions. Velvet sewn with pearls, bits of gold, and jewels was tailored to fit his frame precisely. Around his neck he wore the solid gold knight of the garter order with its Tudor rose medallions and depictions of St. George slaying the dragon. While she had been imprisoned on the borderland, the man who had sent her there had been busy visiting his tailor.
"If I had attempted to follow her, the guards would have been alerted to her escape. Once she was gone, I was trapped inside the walls until morning and could not escape being caught. The Baron Ryppon refused to allow me to leave once the deed was discovered."
Biddeford stepped closer, his gaze sliding down her body in a slow and insulting inspection. He reached out and touched her cheek, stroking his fingertips across her skin. A single shudder of distaste rippled across her in spite of her years of bowing to his will.
"Your time in that fortress weakened you, my sweet widow. Your feelings show on your face now." He leaned down, close enough that she felt his breath against her cheek. "That will never do."
He peered down the front of the gaping neckline of her chemise, his gaze drinking in the sight of her nude breasts and nipples. Justina jerked away, revulsion flowing through her in a thick stream.
Biddeford chuckled. "As I stated, you are weak. That body is mine to command, madam. I am your guardian, and you shall be obedient to my will."
She wanted to narrow her eyes, but showing her real emotion was a luxury that she could ill afford. Instead she lowered her eyelashes to conceal the bright flash of her rebellion. "I did as you said, my lord."
The viscount waved his hand. "Ryppon's bride is irrelevant now. Lord Oswald has been given his expected treat in the form of another girl I was forced to find because you failed to deliver Bridget Newbury as I instructed you to. You have failed me."
"I showed Bridget the way from Amber Hill. She was well away. Her escort failed you by not being able to get her to the coast."
The viscount waved his hand again, this time his motion more impatient. "I told you, madam, it is irrelevant. While you have been locked away on the borderland, much has happened here at court. The King will die very soon."
"You should not say anything of that nature. Only God knows such a thing." Justina snapped at him before thinking.
A deadly look entered Biddeford's eyes. "Have you taken leave of your senses, madam? Has it somehow escaped your notice that I am the guardian of your son and his future is entirely within my power to direct? Perhaps you require a demonstration of my control over your future. I will send for Brandon and have him brought to court. For certain there will be something I can think to do with such a pretty little boy."
"You promised me that you will leave my son in the country." Rage flashed through her too hot to ignore but still she fought to conceal it. "I have done much, too much, to earn that from you."
"You seem to have forgotten that my word is good only so long as you obey me, madam." Biddeford drew in a stiff breath. "You shall keep that tongue pleasant when addressing me, and you had better be grateful that your beauty still shines enough to be of use to me. I care not what you think, madam, no one does. You are a woman, a vessel used to please men, You will serve me, and anyone I direct you to, else I shall have your son be brought to court. As we both know, there are men who prefer boys to women."
The chamber was so silent, Justina could hear her own heart beating. Part of her would have liked to die rather than submit, but the memory of her son's sweet face kept her alive. She was his only hope, his one protector, no matter what it took to shelter him from the depravity of the man standing in front of her. The law favored the viscount in every way since her husband had named him the guardian of their son. She was naught but a widow and her own family was gone.
The viscount took her silence as agreement. "Better. At least you seem to be able to learn quickly. Now, dress yourself and attend to the Princess Mary. The ambassador from Portugal has been sitting beside her most of the day, and I want to know what the man is saying to her."
The door closed behind the man, and she heard his escort fall into step with him. Shivers began to move down her back and along her limbs.
She dare not refuse ...
A side door opened and two maids entered the chamber without a sound. The servants who lived in the palace were always wise enough to disappear when it was in their best interest, but they also heard everything, returning at precisely the moment they were needed. One knelt at her feet to help her into lace stockings secured with satin garters, while the other picked up a silver hairbrush and began pulling it through Justina's damp hair.
Anyone looking into the chamber might think her a lady being attended as her noble blood deserved, but in truth she was no better than any whore walking the dockside out of desperation, to earn enough coin to avoid seeing her children suffer. Just because she had finer clothing and a warm fire at hand did not change how she earned those comforts. The world seemed to hold little good for women. The most blessed gift she had ever received took every bit of her strength to protect.
Her son Brandon.
Justina allowed his face to surface from her memory while the maids continued to dress her. One of them picked up the pair of boy's britches she had used to escape from Baron Ryppon. The maid looked shocked, but Justina offered her no explanation for the male garments. For certain it was considered wrong for a female to wear such things as britches; the Church preached that it was unnatural for any woman to dress contrary to her gender. Only a woman possessed by the devil would do so. Those who liked to hunt witches often used the charge of wearing britches to help condemn their unfortunate prisoners.
Justina didn't plan to say even one prayer of repentance for the wearing of those boy's clothes. No one thought about stopping a young boy on the road. Every villager she had passed had taken little notice of her. They had assumed she was carrying a message and never thought she might be a woman who had bound her breasts to keep them from betraying her. She had even been tossed bread and cheese because the mare she rode was fine, and the woman who offered her the meal hoped that Justina would tell her master of the kindness. Perhaps send her a silver coin or two if she passed that way again.
Guilt did prick her for taking the food, but she had needed the strength to make it to Whitehall. She had to return and protect her son. What did it matter if she hated what she had become, so long as her child remained in the country, far removed from the depravity of court. Her own father was dead and that left her at the mercy of the guardian her husband's will named. The Viscount Biddeford was a relation of her husband and the man embodied the ideal of a noble family. He made sure that not one bit of silver went unaccounted for and that every person under his power did their share to advance his name and fortune.
He didn't care what method was needed, either. Justina refused to allow tears to gather in her eyes. Tears were a sign of weakness, and she wasn't the first woman who had been used to charm information out of a man by acting as his lover. As far as the viscount was concerned, her chastity had served its purpose when she wed a titled man, and whom she slept with now that she was widowed was something for him to direct. It shouldn't bother her, after all, she had never chosen her own lover, never laid down with a man she felt something more than even mild lust for. It shouldn't matter and yet, she discovered herself dwelling on it now. The viscount was correct about one thing; her time away from court had affected her. She wouldn't have thought that distance might cleanse her, scraping away the deceit and sin that felt as though it clung to her skin, but it had, because now she would have sworn that she could smell the stench of those around her who had blackened souls.
She turned and looked into an expensive and rare mirror. It was by far one of the finest things in the room, its surface showing her reflection with the help of the candlelight.
She was a beauty. As long as she could recall, she had been told that her complexion was flawless, creamy and smooth with lips that remained the color of spring berries without paint. Her nose was small and well shaped and her cheekbones high and slanted. She had a head of golden hair with a hint of red. Her father had delighted in her fair looks, clothing her in costly silk to show off her beauty. But he hadn't done it to celebrate her good fortune in being blessed with comely features; no, her sire had dangled her like a rare treat in front of men with bluer blood than his. Marriage offers had begun appearing on her father's desk by the time she was ten and before she saw her sixteenth natal day she was a wife. A coveted bride that her husband, the Baron Wincott, had delighted in parading through the court like a mare won from the auction block. He had lorded her possession over his friends, outlining every detail of their coupling without any concern for her tender modesty. Five of his fellow lords had been invited to the consummation of their union and the tears falling down her cheeks had not stopped her husband from stripping her bare in front of their lustful gazes. It had not been the only night her husband had allowed others to watch him using her. The baron was sick and depraved, and her married life had been one torrid night after the next, the only reprieve coming when she swelled with child and her husband sent her to the country because he found her round belly ugly.
No, she had no time for tears, or weakness, or admiring of her fair features. Her beauty was a curse and one that had brought her much suffering. Her life would have been far kinder if she were plain, for that would have seen her father wedding her to some quiet gentleman of modest means.
The maids brought her fine leather shoes that had been specially made for her feet. They had heels on them for dancing, and one maid fetched a silk ribbon with pearls dangling from the ends to tie each shoe with. Next came a farthingale. The slip was set with steel hoops that would hold out the skirts of her gown and keep the dress in its cone shape. A pair of stays was laced over her chest to raise and support her breasts. The maids lifted a heavy dress up and over her head. Justina raised her arms and the garment fell down in a flutter of brocade and velvet. The viscount made sure she was provided with the most recent fashions, and the gown was no exception. Set with a square neckline edged with costly velvet, the gown was constructed of brocade in hues of blue and silver to set off her blond hair. The neckline exposed the creamy swells of her breasts when the bodice was laced into position.
"A partlet, I believe."
One of the maids looked up and nibbled on her lip. "His lordship did not instruct us to dress you in a partlet, my lady."
The servant looked at the amount of flesh the gown exposed but still remained obedient to her employer's instructions. Justina was well accustomed to such but she had also learned long ago, when she had wiped her childbride's tears from her cheeks and refused to crumple at the feet of the men who felt they owned her, to be clever. She had discovered how to outthink the men around her because that was the only way that she, as a woman, might prevail.
"Yes, and you also heard the viscount tell me to attend the Princess Mary. Her highness is known for her modesty and does not tolerate ladies who do not recall that facet of her disposition. Without a partlet, I doubt I will attend her very long."
The servant's eyes widened with understanding. "Oh yes, you are very astute, my lady. The viscount will be pleased."
Pleased ... yes, that was what Justina needed. For the man to be satisfied with her. A ripple of something that felt very much like resentment went through her. The emotion surprised her because she had banished such feelings long ago. If she had not, she would have gone insane.
The Church would tell her that she deserved what Biddeford gave her for being so relieved when her husband died. She had been relieved and overjoyed and a hundred other emotions that had nothing to do with grief. But such elation had been short lived. The viscount had sent for her, and the moment she appeared at court, the man had begun directing her to use her cursed beauty to snare the secrets that he desired.
The maid returned with a simple over-partlet that was little more than a yoke, sewn at the shoulders with a collar. It fit perfectly on top of the dress and tied beneath her arms. The maid used pearl-topped pins to secure it at the center front of the neckline. Constructed of silk, the fabric covered her breasts up to her collarbones, leaving only a slim inch of skin on display where the two fronts met. It was set with a collar that had lace edging and more pearls.
"That should meet with her highness's approval." The maid had spoken before she thought, and ducked her chin when she realized that she had indeed uttered her thoughts without being asked for her opinion. She hurried to finish dressing her and Justina remained silent.
They were both caught in the net of rules that held them down. Just because she was addressed as a lady made little difference. She was a servant as sure as the woman fussing with her cuffs.
The other maid had dressed her hair and Justina moved to the door the moment they both stopped picking at the details of her dressing. At least going to attend the princess was not a horrible thing. She would save her hesitating for times when the viscount pointed her toward truly sordid things.
Brandon ... she thought of her son and her lips lifted with true joy. No one need know why she smiled.
Curan Ramsden, Lord Ryppon, stood on his front steps to watch his second in command take leave of the castle for the final time.
"I believe I shall miss Synclair. He's served me as a second in command very well, I shall be hard pressed to find anyone as skilled."
His wife, Bridget Newbury, drew a quick jerk from him because he had been so focused on the knight making ready to leave. His wife offered him a slight curving of her lips as she joined him. The minx enjoyed being able to sneak up on him.
"Synclair has performed his duty with honor. It is time for him to return to his family."
"That isn't where he is going." Bridget kept her voice low so that it would not carry. His wife was the model of submission except for when no one else might hear her.
Curan admitted to enjoying that facet of her personality quite well behind the closed door of their chamber.
"Synclair didn't say where he was going, and he owes me no telling of what is on his mind now that his time of service is finished."
His wife smothered a small sound of amusement. "You choose not to ask because we both know full well that he is going to pursue Lady Wincott.
"We do? I am not certain of any such thing."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Unexpected Pleasures"
Copyright © 2012 Mary Wine.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Mary Wine's "Unexpected Pleasures" is a wonderfull shorter story than her usual ones. She is a great writer and again, she has created a world of fiction which is romantice and full of intrigues. Again, I loved her characters Justina and Synclair! A wonderfull read! Can't wait for her next books!
Lady Justina Wincott has been under the thumb of her guardian, Viscount Biddeford, since she became a widow. She has played his games for way to long and is yearning for her freedom. Unfortunately she has her son to think of and Biddeford has threatened to bring him to court is he doesn’t obey. During a very tumultuous time (King Henry is on his deathbed) greed has become prominent in many men. Justina’s wealth has many men campaigning for her hand. The dashing Synclair only wants Justina, not her wealth. Justina’s guardian wants more land and money and will only let her go to the highest bidder, who at the moment is the conniving de Canis. Unexpected Pleasures is a standard historical romance. Fast read and filled with the alpha man trying to protect the meek woman but the evil foe stands in the way. I honestly felt that Synclair, who is supposed to be this dashing prince coming to save Justina, could have been in the same league as the brutal guardian Biddeford. He forced Justina to do a lot of things too and wouldn’t take no for an answer (because, obviously, a woman really doesn’t know what she wants.) This was not my cup of tea in the aspect that I just need more from my characters. I didn’t enjoy how they interacted with each other and I couldn’t fully connect with any of them. (Book was received from publisher for an honest review)
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