Excerpt: The Rebel

Book 2 : The Assassins Guild

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

CHAPTER 1

Hampshire, July 1599

Lucy Cowdrey knew the man walking across the meadow barely ten feet from her was not a local. She’d made it her business to meet everyone in the village of Sutton Grange and surrounds in the two months since her arrival, and none looked like this man. He was broader across the chest and shoulders than most and very tall. Lucy couldn’t see much of his face, covered as it was by his wide-brimmed hat, but the little she did see was enough. No one in the little corner of Hampshire she now called home was as dark of complexion. His skin wasn’t Moorish, but it was certainly a deeper tone than sun alone could achieve. He was a stranger.

And he was trespassing on her brother’s land.

She knew she ought to confront him, but she was no fool. If he were there to steal cattle, she would not be able to stop such a large man. Perchance he was only passing through anyway.

Lucy gave him a wide berth, but kept him in her sights. He did not look up and went on his way without a nod or greeting in her direction. Not only was it odd, but it was impolite too. If she were a man with nothing to hide, she would have at least tipped her hat.

They passed each other with nothing but grass and wildflowers between them, yet she could not keep her gaze away. She watched him over her shoulder, and promptly stepped into a rabbit hole.

“God’s blood!” she cried as she fell onto her hands and knees.

Before she could right herself, two big hands gripped her arms and helped her to stand. The man had reached her remarkably quickly. “Are you hurt, ma’am?” He squatted and wrapped one of his big paws around her ankle and gently massaged. “Roll it for me.” His voice had the deep, rumbling quality of someone past youth but not yet into middle age. There was a rough, undefined edge to it, and the accent marked him as not from Hampshire.

She twirled her foot and almost lost her balance. She clutched at his shoulder to stop from falling to the ground again. Once had been embarrassing enough, but twice would be utterly humiliating.

His muscles rippled beneath her fingers. “Well?”

“It’s fine, thank you.”

He let go of her foot and stood. “Then I’ll be on my way.” He still hadn’t revealed his face to her. All she could see was his square jaw and firmly set mouth. The hat, a large straw one like farmers wore with a black feather tucked into the band, covered his eyes, nose and cheeks. He wore a jerkin over his shirt and a dusty pack slung on his shoulder, a rolled up blanket or cloak tucked beneath its strap. He was likely a laborer. He was dressed like one, and only the demanding physical nature of hard work could form such a magnificent figure. She’d seen it many times in the farm hands who’d come to her father’s farm in the north as scrawny lads and left it as brawny men.

None had been quite like this man, however. There was something about him, aside from his size, something altogether more powerful that had nothing to do with mere measurements. A man like that could easily harm a lone woman, but he had not. Indeed, he’d come to her aid.

It was that which gave her the courage to confront him.

“Are you going to the village?” she asked. Sutton Grange was only an hour’s walk past Stoneleigh, the estate where her friends the Holts lived. Lucy had just left them. The man would be off Cowdrey land and onto Stoneleigh’s once he passed the hedgerow.

“No.” He touched the brim of his hat in farewell and began to move off.

“A moment, if you please. May I ask you some questions?”

“Depends on the questions.”

She blinked. Why was he being unnecessarily defiant? If he had nothing to hide, he would gladly answer her. And remove his hat.

“Can you take off your hat, please, so I may see your face?”

“Is that one of the questions?”

“No, it is a request that you remove your hat.”

“No.”

No? What was wrong with this man that he’d refuse a simple request? “Why not?”

“I like my hat where it is.”

“That’s no reason not to remove it when speaking to a lady.”

Silence. Not even the leaves in the nearby wood rustled. Lucy’s nerves strained, but she was determined not to break the deadlock. The man may not think her a lady, and perhaps she wasn’t compared to the likes of Susanna Holt, but she was gently born. Well, perhaps not gently born, but certainly bred. Thanks to her father’s wealth, he’d been able to obtain a coat of arms and declare himself a gentleman. He’d sealed his new status by educating all of his three children, including Lucy, to a level where they could easily interact with their betters and show no country ignorance. The only thing her father lacked were the right connections to elevate Lucy and her brothers further still. Particularly after her engagement to Edmund Mallam ended so sourly.

“Is that all the questions you have of me, ma’am?” he asked. Lucy thought she heard a hint of amusement in his voice, but it could have been sarcasm, or just plain rudeness.

“No. You’re a stranger to these parts. I know everyone for several miles, from farm hand to lord of the manor, but I do not know you.”

“You have not seen my face,” he said. “How do you know I’m a stranger?”

“I can tell from the rest of you.” Her gaze swept down his body and back up again, settling on that impressive chest and shoulders. “There is no one built quite like you around here.” Her face heated, but the man couldn’t have seen with the hat over his eyes.

“Is that a reason to distrust me?”

“You are on my brother’s land. If any cattle go missing—”

“You think a lone man could steal even a single cow unseen in the middle of the day?”

She crossed her arms. He was insolent and rude. “You are a stranger to these parts and should be identified. We don’t want trouble.” Lord knew there’d been enough of it, all thanks to Lucy’s God-awful relatives. Because of them, she had not expected to be welcomed by the Holts, but it was clear from the first meeting that the pregnant Mistress Holt and her husband did not blame Lucy for her cousins’ actions. Even now, months later, she still couldn’t believe her own cousins—albeit ones she’d never met—had tried to murder the beautiful Mistress Holt and her charming husband. It seemed so unreal, like the sort of tale her older brothers told her as a child, right before one of them leapt out from behind a door and shouted, “Boo!”

But it wasn’t a tale, it had been very real. Thank God that rotten branch of the Cowdreys had been lopped off before it could do any damage. It was up to Lucy and her brother Henry to prove to the people of Sutton Grange that not all Cowdreys were alike. She was determined to prove it. Determined too that no harm should come to the Holts’ doorstep again.

“I’m an innocent traveler,” the man said, palm raised in surrender. “There’s no need to see my face because I haven’t caused any trouble. Nor will I. And if I did intend to, then don’t you think your insistence is a little foolish?”

“Are you calling me a fool?”

“I said a little foolish.”

“Is that a slight on my size?”

“No.” He thrust out his chin, but kept his hat brim down. “You have nothing to fear from me.”

“Then why not show your face?” If she were foolish before, then she was even more foolish to continue. So be it. He had proved he wouldn’t harm her, but that didn’t mean he was an innocent.

“Perhaps I’m ugly,” he said.

She stared at his mouth to see if it curved into a smile, but it did not. It remained grimly set. It was, however, a very handsome mouth with its perfect bow shape and full lower lip. “I doubt that.”

“You flatter me.” There was that amused tone again, the one that she couldn’t determine whether it was genuine or mocking.

“It was an observation, nothing more.”

“You think yourself observant? Then you will recognize me anywhere, hat or no.” He touched the brim again in farewell.

He had a point. She would know that powerful frame anywhere, and that mouth. “I think we’ve both wasted enough time in idle chatter,” she said. “Good day to you.”

She walked off, and his only response was a grunt that she couldn’t interpret. She did not look around to see if he left immediately or watched her departure, although she dearly wanted to. She headed home to the farm and was pleased to see Henry striding toward her as she neared the barn. She saw him so rarely of late. Brutus, her hound, barreled past him and greeted her with licks as she bent to pat him. His body fairly quivered with excitement.

“How’s your patient?” Henry asked.

“Susanna isn’t my patient, she’s Widow Dawson’s. I’m simply offering my support. She’s quite well, thank you.” Lucy looked up from Brutus and received a lick under her chin, then he bounded off toward the house, scattering hens and geese in all directions.

“Henry,” she said, walking arm in arm with her brother, “am I foolish?”

He burst out laughing, bending his knees and tilting backward so that he was in danger of tipping over. She jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow and he smothered the laugh, although one corner of his mouth betrayed him. “Is this a serious question?”

“Yes.”

“Do I have to answer it?”

“Yes.”

“With honesty?”

She put a hand on her hip.

He sighed. “Very well. As your older brother, I feel a burning desire to tell you that you’re the most dim-witted female I’ve ever met. But since we’re adults now, and I have no other company here but you and the servants, I suppose I’d better be honest and say no. You are not particularly foolish. Indeed, you’re one of the cleverest women I know.”

“Do you know many?”

His eyes twinkled. “London is teeming with them. Few write better than you, none play the virginals as well, and their knowledge of history is limited. You, my irritating little sister, are far too bright for your own good. If you weren’t you wouldn’t be asking me this question.”

Lucy narrowed her gaze at him. She hadn’t the slightest idea what he meant, but she suspected it was a compliment, and she wasn’t one to shrug those off, even from a brother.

He laughed again and removed his hat to run his hand through his blond hair. “What’s brought on such an odd question?” His gaze softened. “You haven’t been thinking about Mallam again, have you? You’re better off here without him.”

Very true. It was better to be far away where Edmund’s new wife and nasty tongue couldn’t destroy the last shred of dignity Lucy had left.

“Forget I said anything.” She strode toward Brutus and the kitchen entrance at the side of the house. Until the renovations were complete, everyone had to use the servants’ entrance. It had bothered her at first, until she’d seen that Susanna and Orlando almost always used their kitchen to come and go from Stoneleigh.

Lucy had been disappointed upon her arrival at Cowdrey Farm. Although all the buildings were sturdy and in excellent condition, the main house was a rather drab, rectangular building with few pleasing features. Lucy had suggested a new entrance be added at the front, directly in the center and jutting out several feet from the main wall to break up the flatness. Already it looked better, despite the network of scaffolding covering the upper level. Once the entrance and rooms above it were completed and the vines Lucy had planted along the walls on either side grew higher, it would be quite a lovely house. Not as large as their father’s in the north of the county, but something she would be proud to live in.

That’s if she got to stay. It would, of course, depend on whether Henry found himself a wife, and if that wife wanted a sister-in-law underfoot. There was also the chance Lucy might wed and move away, but with so few suitable men in the neighborhood, that outcome was not looking likely. Besides, after her experience with Edmund Mallam, she was not at all keen to venture down the matrimonial path.

Henry caught up to her and shortened his stride to keep apace. “Has Mistress Holt said something to upset you?”

“I’m not upset. And she is the kindest neighbor, Henry. If you visited the Holts more, you would know that.”

“How can I when I’m so busy here?” His harsh tone made her pause mid-step. Was he still bitter about being wrenched out of London and his legal studies to manage Cowdrey Farm for their father? She knew he had been at first, but surely not anymore. It was his inheritance ultimately, after all.

“So why the foolish question?” he asked, striding ahead.

She had to run to catch up. “That’s not at all amusing.”

“I couldn’t resist.” He took her by the elbow and gently halted her alongside the kitchen garden. The scent of pennyroyal was particularly strong, but not as delicious as the smell of roasting mutton from the kitchen itself. “Come, Lucy, tell me what’s wrong. It’s not like you to doubt your virtues like this.”

She patted his arm and gave him a reassuring smile. There were small lines around his eyes that she hadn’t noticed before, and shadows too that hadn’t been there before arriving at Cowdrey Farm. Henry was tired. Not surprising since a farm of Cowdrey’s size required a lot of work, and he had never been master of his own estate before. Cowdrey Farm had been an unexpected inheritance that their father had given to his second son to manage with the aim of bequeathing it to Henry outright upon his death, which, God willing, was many years away. Lucy’s oldest brother, Simon, would get the main family farm in its entirety. It was a neat arrangement, but Henry did not seem overly grateful. He’d grown up believing that, as second son, he could almost do as he pleased. And what pleased him was studying law at the Inns of Court in London.

“It’s nothing,” she told him. “Don’t worry. I met a man on my way back from Stoneleigh. He was harmless but ill-mannered. He got me thinking, that’s all.”

“Lucy, should I be worried about something?”

“No, of course not. It’s nothing. You know how we females get these things into our heads.”

He frowned fiercely. “You are not the typical female.”

She entered the house before he could question her further. She was determined to dismiss the stranger from her thoughts entirely. It was a beautiful day, and she wouldn’t let an upstart ruin it. After their midday meal, she would go for a walk and pick cress to use in a purgation for one of the maids who’d been up coughing all night. She needed to do something useful, helpful. Something worthy, to take her mind off the rude man with broad shoulders and a mouth that invited all sorts of sin.

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