Excerpt: The Charmer

Book 1 : The Assassins Guild

The Charmer (Assassins Guild) by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

Hampshire, November 1598

Orlando Holt had never killed a woman before. He’d assassinated a bear tamer, a viscount, three French noblemen and two Spanish ones, a knight, a painter, a physician, an acrobat in Cathay, and five apothecaries. He had nothing against apothecaries, but he’d come across a disproportionate number during his three-year tenure in Lord Oxley’s Assassins Guild. All the apothecaries, and every other target, had been men and thoroughly deserving of the Guild’s  justice.

Lady Lynden would be his first woman.

He watched her from his hiding place behind a yew bush, the only shrubbery in the walled garden with enough leaves to hide him. Aside from the dozen densely foliated trees lined up against the brick wall where Lady Lynden worked, most of the garden was bare. A few rust-red leaves clung stubbornly to the roses and other shrubs here or there but they were rare. In contrast, the green leaves of the dozen trees seemed lush and vibrant, and quite out of place amid the autumnal landscape. Unfortunately, he was too far away to use them as cover. Thank God for the yew.

That was the problem with autumn. It was better than winter for shadowing a potential target—less chance of freezing his balls off—but the warmer months offered more places to hide. If he were really lucky, village women would shed their clothing in the summer and paddle in a nearby stream when they did the washing.

He didn’t think Lady Lynden would go in search of the nearest body of water and take a dip in her underthings. She was a she-man, as his brother used to call women who wore masculine clothes or liked to do a man’s work. Orlando couldn’t see Lady Lynden’s face from where he squatted, but he noticed the loose calf-length farmer’s trousers, the woolen jerkin and the wide-brimmed farmer’s hat, all in dark colors for mourning. She’d rolled the sleeves of her shirt up to the elbows, revealing tanned forearms, and by the way she dragged around a large pail filled with what looked to be soil, he knew she was no delicate flower used to a life of embroidery.

Yet Lady Lynden was a noblewoman. According to Hughe, she was the widow of a baron who had returned home to live in the manor owned by her country gentleman father. She wasn’t supposed to be this she-man doing heavy garden work. He knew it was Susanna Lynden because Hughe’s client had said she’d be working in the walled garden at Stoneleigh without the aid of a gardener or other servants.

She straightened suddenly and looked around as if she could sense him watching. But he was too well hidden, despite crouching no more than a few feet from her. She sighed and removed her gardening gloves and hat.

Orlando almost overbalanced in surprise. He took it all back. Lady Lynden was no she-man. She was a beauty. Hair of the fairest gold, braided and pinned to her head, creamy skin, an oval face with delicate features, and large eyes. He couldn’t see their color from where he hid, but he’d wager they were blue to go with her pale hair and skin. Where her forearms were brown, her face was as English as the queen’s.

Yet a description of her individual parts didn’t do her justice. She was extraordinary. Her face captivated him, rooting his feet to the muddy earth, and he couldn’t stop staring. It had been a long time since he’d seen a woman as achingly beautiful as Lady Lynden, yet here she was in a Hampshire backwater dragging pails of earth around, dressed in men’s clothes.

And he was supposed to kill her.

He passed a finger over his upper lip just as his target wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. She glanced around then pressed her hands to the small of her back and rubbed. So the hard work was not to her liking after all. What about the clothes? Did she dress like a man because she wanted to or because it was practical?

Orlando watched as she picked up a trowel and began digging through the dirt in the pail, turning it over. A few minutes later, while her back was turned, he crept quietly away through the ivy-clad arch and out of the walled garden.

He had never killed a woman before, and he wasn’t about to start. Not without being absolutely certain she was the murderer Hughe’s client claimed her to be. Hughe himself had said the job probably wouldn’t be the quick in-and-out that Orlando preferred and that a thorough investigation was needed. That meant doing something Orlando had hoped to avoid, staying.

He raced to the nearby woods and retrieved his pack from the inside of a hollow log where he’d left it. He didn’t need to change clothes and he wasn’t hungry, having dined at the village inn before coming to Stoneleigh, so he slung the pack over his shoulder. A few minutes later, he was once more leaving the woods and heading for Stoneleigh. This time he didn’t creep. He whistled. Loudly.

As expected, Lady Lynden came to the arch of the walled garden to investigate. “Lo?” she called out. “Who is it?”

“Madam, my humble apologies.” He removed his hat and bowed low, sweeping the brim across the gravel path. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“You didn’t startle me. I simply came to see who whistles out of tune near my garden.” Her voice was like honeyed wine, sweet and thick, but with a hard, flat edge.

“Out of tune? Dear lady, you wound me.”

She rolled her eyes, and he was pleased to see he’d been right. They were as blue as a bright summer sky.

“Why are you smiling at me like that?” she snapped, stamping one hand on her hip. The other was tucked behind her back.

“I can’t help it. You’re a vision of beauty, a balm for my travel-weary eyes.”

She didn’t blush or smile coyly or do any of the things ladies did when paid a compliment. She merely scowled, scrunching her pretty little nose up as if she found his words, or his presence, distasteful. “You do not put balm on eyes, young man, unless you wish to go blind.”

“Young man? I suspect I am older than you.” Lady Lynden was four and twenty and already a widow twice over. Orlando was four years her senior, yet he knew when he smiled his dimples gave him the appearance of youth. Those bloody dents in his cheeks were the object of much teasing ever since he’d reached manhood. The only consolation was that women of all ages seemed to take joy in them.

Lady Lynden revealed the hand previously hidden behind her back. It clutched a rather vicious looking short-handled gardening fork. “I asked who you are,” she said. “Answer me.”

He held up his hands. His pack slipped down his arm and hung in the crook of his elbow. He wasn’t in any danger from the shrew. She might be stronger than the average woman thanks to her gardening, but he was larger and had been trained by Hughe. Women were no match for him.

“Orlando Holt at your service.” He bowed again. When he straightened, she was still scowling. It didn’t make her any less beautiful. “I was hoping you could give me work, madam.”

She lowered her weapon and her stance relaxed. “No, I’m sorry, Mr. Holt. There’s no work available here. Try up at Sutton Hall over the fields.” There was no flutter of her lashes or wistfulness in her voice when she spoke of her previous home. She had given it up and moved back to her father’s neighboring house of Stoneleigh when her second husband died and Sutton Hall had passed to his heir, a cousin. That had been a year ago and she was still at Stoneleigh and still unwed. Orlando wondered when her father would find her husband number three.

“I was at Sutton Hall earlier,” he said. “There’s no work for me there either.” He held his breath. Waited. But his lie seemed to slip by unnoticed. She merely shrugged and turned to go. “Wait!” He caught her arm but dropped it when she tried to jerk herself free with such force that he probably bruised her. He cursed under his breath. He hadn’t let go when he should have. Instinct had made him hang on. Instinct and training.

Lady Lynden’s eyes narrowed and if it wasn’t for the slight tremble of her hands, he would have thought her unafraid. “I told you. There’s no work here.”

He nodded at her garden fork. “Then why is the lady of the house doing men’s work and dressed in men’s clothes?”

“Who says I’m the lady of the house?”

He liked the way she tilted her pointy little chin and the way anger made her eyes grow darker, like the Mediterranean Sea in the late afternoon. He smiled again because he couldn’t help himself. She was a shrew, and he enjoyed a challenge.

Pity she was a potential murderess and not a candidate for keeping him warm at night. Although there were no Guild rules stipulating the former precluded the latter, Orlando like to think even he had enough moral conviction to stay out of her bed.

“You speak like a lady,” Orlando said, hefting his pack up onto his shoulder, “walk like a lady and have the bearing of a lady. In my book, if a rose looks and smells like a rose, it probably is a rose.”

One side of her mouth lifted in a sardonic smile. “In that case…” She pointed the fork at his face and scanned it down his length to his muddy boots. “You look like a vagrant…” She sniffed the air and pulled a face. “…and smell like a vagrant.”

He sniffed his armpit. The stink wasn’t that bad considering he’d been traveling for three days. “I am not a vagrant. I am, however, in need of good, honest work. Garden work,” he added. “I’m a gardener.”

She raised both brows. “Really?”

He nodded. “I was most recently employed at Collier Dean, a grand house in Sussex. You’ve probably heard of it.”

“I haven’t. Do you have a letter of recommendation?”

“No, alas. I didn’t think to get one before I left.”

“That was foolish.”

“What can I say? I’m a fool.” He grinned and received a frown in return.

“Why did you leave?”

“I’m traveling to Salisbury to visit my sister.”

“You’re from Salisbury? That explains the accent.”

His accent was a London one, but she seemed to know no better and he saw no reason to enlighten her. “I thought it time I visited her, but I ran out of money. I used my last coins dining at The Plough in the village.” Lie upon lie upon lie, all smoothly spoken. He was an expert at them, as were all the members of Hughe’s band, past and present. It was vital for survival to be able to act in any role at any moment with no preparation.

“What type of garden work did you do at Collier Dean?”

“Digging, weeding, pruning.” What else did gardeners do? There wasn’t much call for it working in The Assassins Guild or at his family’s London house. They had a small garden to service their kitchen, but it consisted of a few herbs and such. Certainly nothing like the exotic trees he’d seen backed up against her garden wall. He shrugged. “Whatever was required of me.”

“You weren’t head gardener then?”

“Head, body, hands and feet.” She didn’t even crack a smile, so he forged on. “I was under the direction of the lady of the house, a keen gardener like you, madam.”

“Did she grow oranges?”

“What?”

“Oranges. Did she grow them?”

“Uh, no.” Only a madman would try to grow oranges in England. They were a fruit more suited to warmer climes like Spain. Surely they weren’t the trees he saw in her garden. Why would she want to grow them when she could have perfectly good English fruit trees like cherry or apple?

“Then you are of no use to me,” she said. “Not that I need a gardener.”

He thought it best to keep his mouth shut. Lady Lynden didn’t look like she would appreciate him pointing out that her hands were covered in hard calluses and she had dirt smudged on her forehead, or that the pails of soil looked much too heavy for her to drag around. This last he could not admit to having witnessed anyway.

“I’m very busy. Good day, Mr. Holt.” She marched off, giving him a fine view of her shapely calves. When she reached the far wall and the dark green leafy trees, she turned around. A flicker of either surprise or irritation crossed her face before she waved him off, as imperial as any queen. “Try Cowdrey Farm,” she called back. “It’s quite a walk to the west, but Farmer Cowdrey will have work for a strong lad like yourself.”

“I’m eight and twenty, not a lad. And I’m a gardener, not a farmer, but thanks anyway.”

She turned her back to him once more but not before he heard her muttering, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“I’m not a beggar either. Or a vagrant.” I’m an assassinAnd a bloody good one.

He trudged back along the gravel drive to the road leading into the village. Lady Lynden might have been the most beautiful woman Orlando had ever seen, but she was as prickly as a hawthorn. Ordinarily he would avoid shrews like her but not this time. He had to thoroughly investigate the claims against her and if she were guilty, then he would have to assassinate her.

Women who went about murdering their husbands could not be allowed to escape justice.

***

Susanna Lynden sat on the ground under her largest orange tree and watched the retreating back of Orlando Holt through the garden arch. It was a broad back attached to the sort of shoulders that would be useful for hoeing garden beds and for sinking one’s teeth into if she felt so inclined. Which she absolutely did not. She was not ready to take a lover, and she suspected Orlando Holt would make a terrible one anyway, or terrible for her at least. Too handsome for his own good, and certainly too charming. Men like him never stayed true to their women, and she’d had enough of straying men.

Good lord, she must be lonelier than she thought. She’d met Holt only briefly, yet her mind had stripped him naked. Perhaps it was time she got a lover. How did a gentlewoman go about obtaining one? Nail a handbill to the post outside The Plough announcing the vacancy? She threw her head back and laughed, startling a yellow butterfly perched on a leaf.

No, there would be no lover for her, or a gardener. Not even a laborer. Pity, because Holt would have been perfect with his experience and his size. She’d be lucky if she could afford the wages of the three servants they currently kept as well as food enough to feed them, her father and herself. The little money they had needed to stretch until she’d found a city shopkeeper to stock her marmalades and succades. Finding someone was taking longer than she expected.

She drove her fork into the soft earth and pushed herself to her feet. Her head touched one of the low-hanging green oranges, and she ducked out from under the canopy. She slapped on her hat and stood back to survey her oldest and strongest tree. Its leaves were a healthy green and the fruits almost the same color. They would turn orange soon and need protecting from the winter. Already the air felt chilly even when the sun was out.

How cold would it get this year? She’d only lost one tree last winter, but the others had dropped most of their fruit. She hadn’t been able to give them the full attention they needed while living up at the Hall and her father hadn’t the strength to do what was necessary to protect all of them from frost. This year she’d wanted to try a new housing technique for ensuring their safe wintering, but time was growing short along with the days, and there was still so much to be done. The temporary and somewhat flimsy shelter would have to do for now.

She picked up her pruning knife and lopped off the straggling branches to make it easier to cover the trees. It grew more and more difficult to reach the higher ones and soon, her arms and neck ached. She removed her gloves and massaged her shoulder.

“Those trousers really don’t suit you, Susanna.”

She ground her back teeth together then turned around with what she hoped was a genteel smile on her face for her late husband’s cousin. She had to remind herself that he meant well, but it didn’t make his stupidity any less, well, stupid. “I find skirts too restricting in the garden.”

Jeffrey—Lord Lynden—squinted and stretched his neck. With the high collar and his chin resting on the stiff ruff, his neck appeared unnaturally long. “Is that dirt on your forehead?”

“Probably. I find I can’t escape the stuff out here.”

“I suppose not.” He indicated the pruning knife. “What are you doing with that?”

“Pruning.”

“And what’s in the pails?”

“Dung from Cowdrey Farm’s cows mixed with soil.”

He pulled a face. “It looks like hard work.”

“I can manage, and I enjoy being out here with my orange trees.” It was true, she did like gardening, but she could certainly use some help. Not that she would tell Jeffrey she couldn’t afford a laborer. Any mention of money, or her lack of it, would only bring up the topic of her marrying again, something she wished to avoid. With Farmer Cowdrey having asked her countless times already, she was becoming an expert in avoiding the subject altogether. And avoid it she must. Two disastrous marriages had proved to her it wasn’t a state she wanted to enter into again, ever.

“I can provide one of my gardeners to help you if you like,” Jeffrey said.

He’d never offered her staff before. Considering he loathed spending money on things that didn’t directly improve his own estate, it was quite a generous offer. What did he want in return? “Thank you, but I can manage.”

He regarded her closely, still frowning. Jeffrey was always frowning it seemed, so unlike her late husband, his older cousin. Phillip had been dark-haired and silver-tongued, a combination that meant everyone liked him, particularly women. Jeffrey was more serious, hardly ever laughing with abandon as Phillip used to do, and flirting wasn’t an art he’d mastered. Most of the village women crossed the road to avoid speaking with him.

Susanna knelt down on the ground and dug through the fertile mix of dung and earth in the pail.

“That reeks,” Jeffrey said. “Must you do it now?”

“I have to put it around the trees.”

“This moment?”

“I can think of no better one.” She stood and eyed the nearest tree several feet away. Her lower back ached just thinking about moving the pail and digging through the dung and soil. “Would you mind dragging the pail over there?”

“Me?”

She turned to look at him and almost burst out laughing. He had his wrist pressed to his nose, the white lace cuff trailing over his mouth and chin like a snowy beard. “I see no one else here.”

Half his face may have been covered, but it didn’t hide the disgust in his eyes. “This is why you need a man to help you.”

She refrained, just, from pointing out that he was a man.

“What about your servants?” he went on. “Can’t one of them help?”

“They’re busy and too aged for this type of work in addition to their usual duties.”

“You should replace them with more able-bodied ones.” He took a step back and she sighed. It seemed Jeffrey was like his cousin in one respect. Neither liked to get their soft white hands dirty.

“Jeffrey, why have you come here?”

“To offer you the use of one of my men for your garden.”

He’d come just for that? Surely not. “No, thank you.”

“You won’t need to pay me.”

“No.”

“But you can’t do this on your own! Look at you. Your knees are dirty and your skin is brown!” He sniffed. “And that smell. It’s disgusting and unseemly. A woman of your station should be inside sewing, not mucking about in filth. Admit it, Susanna, you’re in over your head with those orange trees. I don’t know why you care about them so much. They take up all your time since you came back here. You should have left them to die after your mother’s passing.” He must have known he’d over-stepped because he had the decency to flush and look away. He knew how much Susanna had loved her mother. The trees were her legacy. She would not let them wither.

“Thank you for your concern,” she said carefully lest the wave of emotion washing through her burst out. “But I do not want your help.”

He pursed his thin lips so that they disappeared entirely. “Susanna,” he finally said on a sigh. “Why do you thwart me so when all I want is to care for you? As my cousin, it’s the least I can do. Allow my man to help.” His gaze darted away and wandered around the garden, avoiding her. “He’s new to my employ but trustworthy. And very strong, very capable. He’ll do whatever you ask of him. I highly recommend him to you.”

Why was he insisting? What could possibly be in it for Jeffrey? He wasn’t a terrible person, but he never did anything out of the goodness of his heart. If it had been anyone else, she would have thought he was trying to woo her. However being her cousin by marriage meant a union between them was unthinkable as well as illegal. Perhaps he needed her to act as lady of Sutton Hall for some important visitors.

Like his cousin before him, Jeffrey planned on putting Sutton Hall on the map, or at least the map used by the nobility with influence at court. Being a baron wasn’t enough for Jeffrey. He wanted to be noticed, and that meant having the right people visit and ensuring they were entertained during their stay. Phillip had been a natural host, charming and witty, attentive but not sycophantic. Jeffrey would have a more difficult time of it. He plodded through conversations, failing to grasp subtle changes in moods or clever retorts. He needed a friend to guide him through prickly political and social situations with high ranking guests, which was why Susanna would be a terrible hostess. She’d learned from her two marriages that being the perfect gentleman’s wife didn’t come easily to her. She preferred her garden to the ballroom and tending the orange trees to indulging the whims of fat noblemen.

“Susanna, please, I insist. I beg of you to accept my offer to help.”

Insist? Beg? Rather strong words for a simple offer. She shook her head and grabbed the edges of the pail and dragged it along the path.

“Whoa, mistress, stop,” a vaguely familiar voice said from behind her. Before she could turn around, big brown hands grasped the pail and lifted it. Lifted it! She looked up, straight into the blue eyes of Orlando Holt.

“Where do you want it?” He gave her a smile and a dimple appeared in each cheek. Now that he was closer she could see that he was indeed older than she first thought. Those dimples made him look impish, as if he’d been caught stealing from a plate of sweetmeats. She had the ridiculous urge to press her smallest finger into them.

“Lady Lynden?” he prompted. His smile widened. The man knew what she was thinking. She was certain of it. Curse him.

“Over there,” she said, pointing to the nearest tree. She watched as he carried the full pail to the tree. He wore only a jerkin over his shirt, like her, but where her clothes were big and loose, his jerkin stretched tautly over his shoulders and across his back.

“Who is that?” Jeffrey said, coming up beside her. “A new servant?”

“A vagrant,” she said and bit back a laugh. Holt had emphatically argued with her over the point only a little while ago. She couldn’t deny sparring with him had made her feel more alive than she had felt in months. Odd how such a simple exchange with a stranger could do that. She must be more desperate than she thought for witty company. It certainly wasn’t the handsome and charming male company she missed—she’d had enough of that from her two husbands to last a lifetime.

“My name is Orlando Holt,” Holt said, rejoining them. A few strands of his blond hair had flopped over his forehead but otherwise he showed no signs of exertion. He nodded at Jeffrey in greeting. “I’m a servant here.”

“You most certainly are not!” she snapped.

He grinned again. Good lord, did he ever not smile? “I am. Mr. Farley has added me to his staff.”

“You spoke to my father after I told you to leave?” The insolent, devious…vagrant! “Go back inside and tell him you’ll not accept his offer.” When he didn’t move, she took a step closer, but that was a mistake because it only emphasized how much bigger than her he was. She came up to the middle of his chest.

“I have offered my services and your father has agreed to my terms,” he said, his eyes sparkling with humor. “He is the master of Stoneleigh, is he not?” It wasn’t a question that required an answer. The slippery eel knew that. “Besides, I need the work.” He held up his hand to stop her, as if he were the master and she the servant. She was so shocked she didn’t know what to say. “Cowdrey Farm is too far away and I’m a gardener, not a farm hand.”

“Ha!” she managed, annoyed that he’d predicted her argument.

He forked an eyebrow at her and looked like he would say something more but Jeffrey spoke first. “You should have come to Sutton Hall. There is plenty of gardening work.”

“There is?” It was her turn to lift a questioning brow. Holt kept on smiling, not in the least disturbed that he’d been caught out in his earlier lie. Had he been to Sutton Hall at all? He said nothing and she turned to Jeffrey. She could only confront one liar at a time. “Then why were you offering me one of your gardeners if there is so much to do up there?”

Jeffrey blushed to the roots of his bright hair. “Uh…I… ”

“So you are the master of Sutton Hall?” Holt asked when Jeffrey failed to complete his sentence.

Jeffrey adjusted his black velvet cloak so it draped more elegantly over his left shoulder, and thrust his chin out. “I’ll ask the questions, not you. But I’ll have you know that I am Lord Lynden. I am also Lady Lynden’s cousin.”

“By marriage,” she added.

“And so it should be I who provides her with a man to help in the garden. Be off.” Jeffrey flicked his long fingers toward the arch. “Tell Mr. Farley you’ve changed your mind and cannot work here. Susanna,” he said, turning to her, “do not trust this stranger. His methods are underhanded and his manner impertinent. Take my man instead. Indeed, let me speak to your father this instant.”

She caught Jeffrey’s arm before he could move off. “Thank you, but there’s no need to drag Father into this. Since he has already employed Mr. Holt here, I must accept. Thank you for your offer, it was kindly done.” And insistently. Very. She was glad to be able to refuse without qualms. She didn’t want to find out what strings Jeffrey had attached to his proposal.

“You’re going to accept this vagrant?” he spluttered.

“I have no choice. Father is the master of Stoneleigh.”

He stared wide-eyed at her. The yellow flecks in his eyes glinted in the afternoon sun that had finally wrestled the clouds aside. “I never thought to see you give in so easily, Susanna.” He made a miffed sound through his nose, bowed perfunctorily, and walked out of the walled garden. She went to the arch and was relieved to see him gather up the reins of his horse and ride down the long drive to the road.

“So,” Holt said, standing with his feet apart as if he’d planted himself there, “what do you want me to do next? We have some time before sunset.”

“You, Mr. Holt,” she said, pointing at him, “should not get too comfortable. I’m going to see my father and insist he withdraw his offer. You lied about asking for work up at Sutton Hall, did you not?”

“No lie, m’lady. The steward shooed me away. If he lied about the lack of work because he didn’t want a stranger on the premises, I cannot be held to blame.”

“Well, I refuse to have someone so … so … presumptuous working alongside me.”

“Presumptuous? I simply saw a job that needed doing and offered my services to do it.”

“Mr. Holt, perhaps it isn’t clear to you, but we cannot pay you.” She wasn’t embarrassed to admit it. One glance at the partially patched-up house and the sorry state of the outbuildings would tell him money was scarce.

“I only require food and a roof over my head,” he said. “Do you have a barn?”

“The roof leaks.”

“The stables?”

“There’s no room.” It was filled with crates of jars and equipment for making their marmalades and succades. Silver needed her space along with the small cart and tack.

“A spare closet in the big house?”

“You get above yourself, Mr. Holt,” she shot back over her shoulder as she passed under the arch.

His chuckle followed her all the way to the house.

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