Excerpt: The Saint

Book 3 : The Assassins Guild

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

CHAPTER 1

Hampshire, July 1599

“He comes! He comes!” Jeffrey, Baron Lynden, tore his equine nose away from the parlor window where it had been pressed for the better part of an hour. He wiped off the smudge it left behind with the lace cuff of his sleeve then arranged himself by the fireplace, propping one padded shoulder against the mantel and crossing his ankles. The pose showed off his legs in all their slender perfection, not to mention the new yellow velvet shoes made by London’s finest shoemaker. They’d cost him a sum that could have fed a family from the village for an entire week.

His cousin Elizabeth Buckley suspected that was the reason he wore them now. To Jeffrey’s mind, having an earl come to dine was certainly an occasion worthy of yellow velvet shoes and a matching yellow and brown striped silk doublet. He’d even donned a pearl earring and matching broach. Not that Jeffrey needed a special reason to don extravagant attire. Elizabeth had seen him parade to the garderobe in Windsor Castle in a hat adorned with peacock feathers.

“Sit up straight, Arrabella,” he said to Elizabeth’s older sister.

Arrabella dutifully squared her shoulders, thrusting out her magnificent cleavage. It brought a smile to Jeffrey’s face. Not that Jeffrey was interested in Arrabella’s cleavage or any of her other virtues, of which there were many—one only had to ask her to be given a list. No, Arrabella’s cleavage was important to Jeffrey in the same way a mousetrap is of interest to a cat.

“Lift your chin,” he said, lifting his own chin. “Good girl. Now pout those pretty lips of yours. No, not like that, like this.” He puckered his lips and nodded as Arrabella did the same. “Place your hands in your lap like an obedient lady.”

He didn’t so much as flicker an eyelash in Elizabeth’s direction upon the word ‘obedient’, but she was in no doubt that it was meant as a slight on her character. Jeffrey had learned in the last few weeks spent in the Buckley girls’ company that they’d grown up since he last saw them. Grown and changed, and not just in looks. Elizabeth might appear the less troublesome of the two sisters with her unremarkable face and figure, but her tongue was sharper than Arrabella’s and her mind too quick for her plodding cousin.

Except when Arrabella was alone with Elizabeth. On those occasions Arrabella’s tongue could be as cutting as a knife, and her sweetness vanished like a mist in the sunshine.

“Good girl,” Jeffrey cooed to Arrabella in the same tone a master uses with his pet dog. “Lord Oxley cannot fail to notice you now.”

“She deserves an extra sweetmeat, don’t you think, Cousin?” Elizabeth passed the trencher to her sister.

Arrabella narrowed her eyes. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but stop it.”

Elizabeth returned the trencher to the table. Her mother, Janet Buckley, picked off an orange succade and popped it in her mouth. “Jeffrey, this is of no use,” she said around her sweet. “Arrabella is almost betrothed.”

“Almost is not always enough, Aunt,” he said. “She is not secure until the wedding night. Anyway, Lord Oxley is an earl and a wealthy one at that. If he showed an interest in her, she would be wise to disregard her affection for Lord Greville. In fact, I would insist upon it.”

Arrabella gasped. “You wouldn’t!”

Elizabeth blinked at her sister’s unexpected outburst. It would seem Arrabella’s true nature wasn’t completely buried beneath the mask of obedience and amiability. It also proved that she had feelings for Greville. The revelation was a surprise indeed.

“I am the head of this family,” Jeffrey reminded her with a preening stretch of his neck. “I’m sure your father, God rest his soul, would have wanted to see you rise to become a countess as much as I do.”

Elizabeth snorted, earning herself a glare from the other three. She shrugged off their rebuke. She doubted their father would have cared whom Arrabella married, as long as his eldest daughter was off his hands. Before Jeffrey’s unexpected inheritance of the Lynden title a mere year and a half ago, Arrabella had refused no less than three marriage proposals, and there’d been another three since. According to Arrabella, none of the suitors had been good enough. They were either too ugly, too short, too fat, too dull or too poor. The girls’ father had once promised both his daughters he wouldn’t force them to wed where their hearts weren’t engaged, but Elizabeth began to suspect he regretted making that promise as Arrabella grew more and more prickly.

Thank goodness for Lord Greville. He met each of Arrabella’s requirements, and at six and twenty, time was running out for her.

“Elizabeth.” The word dropped heavily from Jeffrey’s soft lips, perhaps because he’d not wanted to engage the troublesome sister at all. God knew it was probably easier for him to ignore her than talk to her. It was how she preferred it too. “Elizabeth, please try to be…” He waggled his fingers as he searched for the right word.

“Demure?” she offered.

He pointed at her. “Yes! Demure women are an asset to any social gathering.”

“Dutiful?”

“That too. Most certainly.”

“Diligent?”

“Um, I’m not sure…”

“Dull?”

“Do be quiet, Lizzie,” Arrabella bit off. She touched the pale golden hair at her temple which Elizabeth had helped pin in place that morning. She looked beautiful, as usual.

“Hands in your lap, Sis,” Elizabeth reminded her. “You wouldn’t want Lord Oxley to think you anything other than a demure, dutiful, dull-witted girl.”

“I am already betrothed,” Arrabella said through clenched teeth. Her temper was rising. A few more pushes, and she might even reveal her true nature in front of their cousin.

“But not to an earl,” Elizabeth pointed out.

Arrabella clicked her tongue. “How you vex me, Lizzie.”

Jeffrey sighed and sagged against the mantel. “He’ll be here any moment,” he muttered, defeated.

“Coy,” Janet suddenly said. She rolled her ample body forward in the chair and picked another sweetmeat off the trencher. Her eyes closed in ecstasy as the sugary sweetness hit her tongue. She sucked a moment then opened them again. “You should be coy, Elizabeth, like your sister.” She licked her stubby fingers. “A gentleman likes ladies who flirt and use their wit to amuse him rather than berate him.”

“I’ve never berated—”

“Shrews do not make happy wives.”

“Or husbands,” Jeffrey added.

Elizabeth appealed to her sister for help, but received only a self-satisfied smirk in response. She should have known better than to find an ally in that quarter. Arrabella’s greatest talent was in knowing who to side with, and in this argument, Elizabeth would most certainly be defeated.

“You think me a shrew, Mother?”

“I think you far too clever for a girl of twenty who’s yet to learn that the world can be cruel to her sex. You haven’t the prettiness of your sister, or her sweet nature.” She cleared her throat and did not meet anyone’s gaze.

Sweet? Good lord. Elizabeth thought about protesting at her mother’s outright lie, but remembered that Jeffrey—and the world at large—didn’t know Arrabella could be as brittle and cold as an icicle. Nor was she in the mood to educate him. No doubt her sister would falter at some stage during their summer stay at Sutton Hall, and he would eventually see the ice maiden underneath the smiles.

“As such,” Janet went on, “you must learn to at least be obedient. If you can’t do that, then simply bite your tongue. Otherwise you will be a spinster forever and tasked with looking after your dear old mother for the rest of her days.” She smiled triumphantly and Elizabeth had to admit, if only to herself, that her mother had won the battle with those final words.

It was wise not to disagree with Janet Buckley. She was always slow to rouse, but once she got started, she was difficult to stop. She resembled a large boulder in that respect. Difficult to leverage into position and push into the first roll, but after several more rolls, only an impenetrable barrier could stop her.

That impenetrable barrier entered the parlor in the form of a gentleman dressed in a crimson and black doublet, matching trunk hose that swelled at his hips and a hat festooned with glossy black feathers. He was tall with shapely legs and long fingers. It was difficult to tell how broad he was in the shoulders because of the ridiculous padding in his sleeves. Elizabeth dismissed him as a potential husband for Arrabella. Her sister preferred gentlemen who weren’t dandies. Elizabeth too had seen enough of them in London in the previous weeks to know that she hadn’t the patience for men who preened more than the ladies at court. He was, however, just the sort Jeffrey liked to dine with.

“My lord!” Jeffrey said, sweeping into a low bow.

Arrabella and Elizabeth both stood and curtsied to the earl, although Arrabella’s was considerably lower. Their mother struggled to haul herself out of her chair.

“Please, stay seated, dear lady,” Oxley said, striding into the room. He took Janet’s hand and kissed it.

She giggled like a girl, and her ruddy cheeks darkened with her blush. “Thank you for gracing us with your illustrious presence, my lord,” she said. “What a treat it is for me and my girls to dine with you today.”

Elizabeth was surprised her mother didn’t gag with so much sugary sweetness dripping from her lips.

“This is my aunt, Mistress Janet Buckley,” Jeffrey said. “And these are her daughters, my cousins. Arrabella is the elder, and Elizabeth the younger.”

Lord Oxley bowed to each in turn with an elaborate flourish of his hand. “Charming. Utterly charming. Tell me, Misstress Buckley, are you also related to Mistress Susanna Holt from Stoneleigh? She was married to a Lynden, was she not?”

“No relation, my lord. Her late husband was Jeffrey’s cousin on his father’s side. My sister was Jeffrey’s mother. An entirely separate branch of his family.”

“Families are so complicated!” Oxley declared with a toss of his head that made the feather plumes shimmer. “My own ancestral tree is so knotted and twisted that I must be re-introduced to my cousins every time I go to court. One or two branches were also prematurely lopped off.” He winked at Elizabeth’s mother and bent down to her level. “Found themselves supporting the Lancasters. Or was it the Yorks? I can never recall. Anyway, the removal of their heads from their bodies soon followed.” He slashed his finger across his throat and stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth.

Elizabeth cringed. She’d hoped to find an interesting and less sycophantic gentleman than she’d met during her brief London stay before returning to Hampshire, but alas, he was the dandiest of them all, and more ridiculous than even Jeffrey, which was both an amazing feat and a waste considering he was very handsome. His looks wouldn’t be enough to tempt Arrabella to swap her equally handsome and considerably smarter Lord Greville for this fop, even if he were an earl. It would seem Oxley was off the menu this dinnertime.

“Wasn’t there another gentleman with you?” Jeffrey asked, peering past Oxley. “I saw you riding in together just now. He seemed too well dressed to be a mere servant.”

“Ah, yes, my man Monk. I believe you—”

“Monk!” cried numerous voices, one of which was Elizabeth’s. Surely Oxley couldn’t mean Edward Monk. But it must be him. The name was an unusual one and the coincidence too great for it to be otherwise.

It was a name she’d not heard in five years. Five long years in which she’d wondered if she’d ever see him again. Wondered whether he’d changed or forgotten them. Wondered what he’d think of her now that she was older. Wondered if he’d recovered from Arrabella’s rejection, or whether he’d gone on to make something of himself as he’d declared he would. There were other things too that she hoped the years had wiped from his memory.

She sat. She had to. Her legs were too weak to hold her. Her heart hammered in her chest, its rhythm erratic. He was here. Here.

So, unfortunately, was Arrabella.

Elizabeth’s sister sat too, slowly, her hard gaze fixed on the wall ahead, her chin tilted up. Always defiantly priggish when it came to Edward Monk, ever since that day. That single, awful day that had damaged the sisters’ relationship forever.

And now he was here.

Elizabeth wasn’t sure their sisterly bond could survive meeting him again. She wasn’t sure she could survive it.

“Well,” said Oxley, standing with his hands on his hips. “That produced quite a reaction. I see Lynden is not the only one who knows Monk.”

Elizabeth’s mother cleared her throat and smiled. Elizabeth knew it to be false. “Mr. Monk lived in our village years ago.”

“You were neighbors?”

Her gaze slid to the left, not meeting his. “No.”

“Friends then.”

Nobody answered.

Oxley cleared his throat. A tactful man would not pursue the matter, but Oxley apparently lacked tact as well as sense. “Ah. Say no more. Feuds between gentlemen in small villages are not unusual.”

Arrabella shot to her feet. “Mr. Monk is not a gentleman.”

Elizabeth gripped the arms of her chair, digging her fingernails into the wood. If she let go, she feared she’d not be able to stop herself scratching her sister’s eyes out. It had been five years since she’d felt such burning anger toward Arrabella, but it would seem it hadn’t dissolved completely with time. Not where Edward was concerned.

“Forgive her, my lord,” Janet said, quickly. “She’s…tired after our long journey.”

Oxley held up his hands. “It’s quite all right. The journey from London is indeed arduous, even now in the summer when the roads are good. I can understand how it would tire your daughters and make them prone to outbursts. Of course my man Monk is a gentleman. I wouldn’t retain him otherwise.”

Arrabella opened her mouth, but Jeffrey got in first. “Arrabella!” He took her hand and Elizabeth saw her sister’s fingers whiten. He must have been squeezing hard. “Whatever is the matter with you, Cousin? This is not like you at all.”

To Oxley he said, “She’s usually very meek. A most pleasant female companion, not in the least prone to outbursts. Perhaps she’s not feeling well.”

Arrabella must have remembered herself. She pressed her hand to her temple and allowed Jeffrey to guide her to sit again. “Yes, I am tired. However, I am very much looking forward to dining with Lord Oxley. I’ve longed to meet him ever since you said he was joining us, Cousin.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes and caught Lord Oxley looking at her beneath lowered lashes. How odd that he should be watching her and not the scene being played out for his benefit by her sister and cousin. A small crease connected his eyebrows, but it was the only indication that he was trying to read her. Perhaps he’d realized that of all of them, she was likely to give him the most honest reaction to the surprising presence of Edward Monk. Perhaps he wasn’t such a fool after all. She blushed, although she wasn’t sure why, and his gaze flicked away.

“I didn’t know you retained Mr. Monk,” Jeffrey said to Oxley.

“I snapped him up when he left your employ last autumn,” the earl said. “You employed him?” Elizabeth’s mother said to Jeffrey.

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I didn’t think I needed to list all my past servants for you, Aunt,” he snipped. “Nor did I think you’d care. Why would you? The man was nobody when he lived in Upper Wayworth.”

Which begged the question, was he somebody now? If he dressed like a gentleman and was retained by a man of Oxley’s standing, then perhaps he had indeed risen as he’d once declared he would. Good for him. Elizabeth always knew he could do whatever he wanted if he set his mind to it.

“Monk proved to be useful to me and extremely capable at…things.” Jeffrey cleared his throat. “I’m sure he’s proving the same to you, Oxley.”

“He is most capable. I’m fortunate to have him since my other retainers have left me. Snatched from me by the most insidious of diseases.”

Janet gasped and pressed a hand to her bosom. “The plague?”

“Love.”

Elizabeth’s bark of laughter escaped despite her attempt to smother it by pressing her lips together. She received a glare from her mother and cousin as a result. Arrabella merely shook her head in disappointment.

Oxley either didn’t notice or pretended not to. “One of them wed a London girl, another married your very own Susanna from Stoneleigh, and just this week I lost a fellow who’d worked for me in the past.”

“To the Cowdrey girl?” Jeffrey asked. “I’d heard something of the matter. There was some trouble, wasn’t there?”

“All ended now, thankfully. I’ll tell you about it over dinner.”

“Will Mr. Monk be dining with us?” Janet asked.

Elizabeth couldn’t tell from her mother’s expression whether she wanted to hear a yay or nay to her question. She strongly suspected the latter.

“Of course,” Oxley said at the same time Jeffrey said “No.”

They looked at one another, but it was Jeffrey who quickly backed down under the earl’s unblinking stare.

“That is to say, er, yes, he is.”

Arrabella gasped. “But he’s only a—!”

“Arrabella!” Janet snapped.

The warning shake of her head made her eldest daughter swallow her protest. Elizabeth tried not to smile at the small victory. Her sister would not be allowed to stomp on Edward while the earl was present, and she couldn’t be happier about it. She tried to catch Oxley’s gaze, but failed. He was idly flicking dust off his doublet, apparently oblivious to the stir he’d created.

“He’ll be up after he sees to the horses,” Oxley said.

“Does Mr. Monk know we’re here?” Elizabeth asked.

“I believe he was informed that Lord Lynden returned from his travels accompanied by his favorite female cousins.”

He knew and yet he still wanted to dine with them? Either his heart was healed, or he thought he was more Arrabella’s equal now and worthy of her consideration. If the latter, he was in for a shock when he learned of her betrothal. Elizabeth couldn’t let him find out at the dinner table when Arrabella coolly mentioned that her future husband was a baron far, far above Edward. A thousand cracks of a whip across his back would hurt less—if he were indeed still enamored with her.

“Why don’t I fetch him?” Elizabeth said. “Will I find him in the stables, my lord?”

“Perhaps you ought to remain here,” Oxley said quickly. “I’m sure the steward will show him in to us when he’s seen to the horses.”

“Nonsense.”

The earl arched one lazy eyebrow. “Nonsense?” he echoed, his tone strained. It would seem he wasn’t used to being gainsaid. Not many gentlemen were, especially by women.

Well, he wasn’t Elizabeth’s master or a potential suitor. He mattered not a whit. She didn’t care in the least if she offended him. She only cared about warning Edward.

“I won’t be a moment.” She sailed off, glancing over her shoulder as she left. Both Jeffrey and her mother stared after her, mouths ajar.

Jeffrey’s snapped shut again and his face darkened. He wouldn’t berate her in front of their guest, but he would later. Elizabeth must remember to avoid him.

The last thing she heard before she was out of earshot was Janet apologizing to Lord Oxley. “She’s a very headstrong girl. I despair of her sometimes. I really do.”

“It’ll be difficult to find her a husband,” Jeffrey said.

“Indeed,” the earl said. “No man likes a viper for a wife, eh, Lynden?”

Elizabeth couldn’t get away fast enough. She wished she’d seen her sister’s response to the conversation, but then again, perhaps it was best that she didn’t. No doubt Arrabella sat there with her head bowed and her hands in her lap like a good girl. If Oxley was looking for a wife, she might very well catch the fop’s attention if she wasn’t careful. If Jeffrey saw even the flicker of interest in the earl’s gaze, he’d order her to discard Lord Greville as if he were last week’s rancid meat and focus on Oxley instead.

Elizabeth hurried out of the house and across the cobbled courtyard where pink-cheeked maids rushed back and forth with armfuls of linen or pails balanced in each hand. She passed by the extensive outbuildings and even more staff, sweating from the heat and their work. The stable block stood ahead, but Elizabeth paused to soak in the pretty view of the orchards, fields and valley beyond, and to gather her nerves. She wasn’t usually so anxious about meeting people, but this wasn’t just any person. This was the man she’d been in love with half her life. The man who’d hardly noticed her because her sister’s shadow was long, and he’d been unable to see past it.

Elizabeth might have appeared strong of mind, but she knew her heart was fragile where Edward Monk was concerned. She doubted it could withstand the blow if he proved to still be in love with Arrabella.

“Hail, madam!” someone called. Someone with a deep, commanding and wonderfully familiar voice. “Do you know where I can find Lord Lynden and his guests?”

She turned in the direction of the stables and saw Edward striding toward her. Her stomach flipped. Her heart danced. He was taller than she remembered and more powerfully built across the shoulders than he had been five years ago. The combination was quite simply magnificent. He wore a black hat and doublet, the buttons of which glinted in the sunlight. As he drew closer, she saw that they were silver and the clothes superbly tailored to fit his impressive form.

So he had some wealth now. He’d achieved what he’d set out to become all those years ago. I will better myself. He’d tossed the words at Arrabella in angry defiance after her rejection of his suit and they’d never heard from him again. Yet here he was, his promise made good.

Elizabeth felt a stirring of pride in her chest.

He was still handsome too, with his perfect teeth, square jaw and gray eyes. The years had hardened the lines of his face somewhat, and his eyes weren’t quite as soft. They were cooler, clearer, and focused entirely on her.

His gaze quickly swept over her from head to toe. If he recognized her, he gave no indication. She had changed in the last five years, so it wasn’t unexpected, particularly at a distance. He strode up to her, his hands loosely at his sides, his manner comfortable, assured. That was new too. There was none of the insecure suitor of the last time he’d been in their house. The youth of five and twenty had been replaced by a man of thirty. And he exuded power.

“Madam, are you all right?” He frowned. “You look a little pale. Would you like to sit down?”

“Hello, Edward.” To her surprise, her voice worked, although a small warble betrayed her nervousness.

His frown deepened. “Do I know you? Are you from the village?”

“It’s me. Elizabeth.”

He shrugged. “Elizabeth who?”

Just like that her stomach plunged. Her heart smashed into her ribs. She had changed in five years, but not so much that she was unrecognizable to someone who’d known her for the first fifteen of it. It would seem she really had made absolutely no impression on him. It was almost too much to take in, let alone bear.

She swallowed hard, determined to forge on, because that’s what she’d always done. She was not the timid fifteen year-old anymore, and she must let him see that. “I’m Elizabeth Buckley from—”

Shock rippled across his face. “Arrabella’s sister!”

Arrabella’s sister. His words sliced through her, cleaving her heart in two. She’d steeled herself for this reaction, yet it hurt far more than she’d ever thought it could. She’d spent five years attempting to distance herself from her sister’s side by making her own friends, having her own interests, and it all meant nothing.

She was still ‘Arrabella’s sister’ to the only person who mattered.

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