Excerpt: The Sinner

Book 4 : The Assassins Guild

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

CHAPTER 1

Sussex, spring 1599

Catherine, Lady Slade, wasn’t surprised by her husband’s death, despite his youthful age. After all, Stephen was fond of over-indulging at both table and bed, although not always their marital bed. What did surprise her was the manner in which he died. She expected a cuckolded husband to take offence eventually or mayhap a pheasant bone to choke him. Yet he’d been struck through the eye by an errant arrow during a hunt. It didn’t make sense. Not only were his retainers superb marksmen, but she’d been told Stephen had fallen back to fix a saddle strap that had worked loose. Someone would have had to turn around to shoot him from the front, implying a deliberate act of murder, but she knew his men loved him too much to have done that. Indeed, they’d not even seen it happen. Despite her protestations that something was amiss, the death had not been investigated.

Another thing that surprised Catherine—Cat—were the tears she shed for him at his funeral procession. They were genuine. Stephen, the second baron of Slade, hadn’t been a bad husband as husbands went. He made sure the drafty old stone house was fitted with warm tapestries and hangings, he gave her jewels on her birthday and pretty gowns to wear whenever he thought she needed one. Unfortunately, those trinkets and gowns came at a hefty cost—one her husband couldn’t afford.

It was one of life’s sureties that upon a man’s death, his creditors will come knocking before the day was over. His brother, the heir, couldn’t pay immediately, but he did manage to postpone them with promises of future repayment plus an additional sum. It had been a worrying time. It still was.

Cat was the only one who cried at Stephen’s funeral. John, the new baron, was too busy insuring the two mourners he’d paid to walk behind the coffin looked suitably overwrought. Considering it was one of the coldest, wettest days of a bleak spring, they had no difficulty in giving off an air of misery. Cat had suggested twenty mourners more appropriate for the most prominent personage of the valley, but John had thought two ample considering there was no way to pay them.

“Couldn’t he have been buried with a banner of arms?” she asked John as they walked side-by-side behind the coffin, huddled beneath a canopy carried by the household servants who were now thoroughly drenched. “He deserves that at least.”

“He deserves exactly what he’s getting.” Although he spoke quietly, Cat knew John was angry or frustrated or perhaps both. He’d hardly moved his lips. Ordinarily it was a sign that she should leave his presence, but this time she couldn’t. He would have to endure her, and she him. But for how long?

John, now the 3rd baron of Slade, was a tall, slender man with dark eyes and slick, black hair that skimmed his shoulders. That was the sum total of his virtues. His wet mouth rarely turned up in a smile and never in a laugh. He preferred silence and study to dancing, riding, hunting and, well, everything that required him to leave his desk. Although Stephen’s younger brother had always lived with them, he kept to himself. That was the way Cat preferred it. Until now. Now she wished she’d gotten to know him better. After all, he held her future in his hands.

“He did run up some debts,” she admitted, avoiding a muddy puddle only to brush up against old Doyle, one of the servants carrying the canopy who’d been with the family for years. He gave her a flat-lipped, sympathetic smile that she returned. “But a man ought to have a funeral befitting his status.” She cast her eye over the pitiful number of mourners, the plain coffin and the tattered banner of arms leading the procession. Her father-in-law, the first baron of Slade, had been sent off with forty-eight poor men and women dressed in black to follow the coffin, several mourners, two heralds of arms, a goodly sized banner of arms and four smaller bannerolls. It had been a grand affair that suited the magnificent figure her father-in-law had been. Her husband had cut an equally impressive figure, yet his own brother wouldn’t pay any more than he had to. It was a sorry sight.

“He emptied the baronial coffers and left me nothing but debt,” John went on haughtily. It was as if pointing out his brother’s lack of skill at managing the estate made him feel more superior. “If he wanted a grand funeral, he should have set some coin aside for it.”

“Now, John, that’s hardly fair. He may not have been much of a thinker—”

“He was as dull-witted as a hammer.”

“He was a good man.”

John merely grunted. He increased the length of his stride, whether on purpose or by accident, Cat couldn’t determine. She had to hurry to keep up or get drenched by the rain since the servants holding the canopy followed their new master and not their previous master’s widow.

Widow. The word slammed into her chest with all the force of a fist. She was a widow now, and a childless one at that. She was alone in the world with her own family gone, but luckily still young enough to remarry. Widows had certain rights, thankfully, and a lifelong income from her late husband’s estate, but Cat didn’t want to move out of Slade Hall until her cottage could be made ready. Hopefully her brother-in-law would allow her to stay until then.

“When can we speak about my future?” she asked, peering up at his stern, heavy-browed profile.

“Now.”

“Now? But Slade is getting buried as soon as we reach the church.”

“What better time to discuss it? I’d rather talk trade than listen to the old vicar drone on.”

Trade? Since when was her future a matter of commerce? Her pace slowed but John and the canopy did not. An icy drip fell off the canvas and trickled down her neck into her ruff. She shivered and hurried to catch up, stepping in a puddle that was deeper than it appeared. Water sloshed over the top of her ankle boots and thoroughly wet her hose. She wished she’d worn pattens.

“And don’t call him Slade anymore,” John said with an abrupt nod at the coffin winding its way ahead of them up the hill to St. Alban’s church. “I am now Lord Slade and you’ll address me appropriately.”

“I’m going to find it difficult to adjust.” She blinked back fresh tears and touched her gloved fingers to her tingling nose. “He may not have been the brightest star in the sky, but he was a good husband. A good man.”

“He was a lout and a poor baron. Look what he sank to.” He indicated the two pathetic mourners, the tattered banner, the small number of retainers and servants. Cat’s heart lurched. She should have insisted on something grander.

“You’d better adjust to life without him, and adjust quickly,” he went on. “You’ve got work to do.”

“Pardon? What sort of work?”

“Catching your next husband.”

She stumbled and put out a hand to John’s—Slade’s—arm to steady herself. He snatched it away almost as soon as she regained her footing. The man loathed being touched, something he’d made clear on her wedding day when she’d gone to kiss her new brother-in-law’s cheek only to have him lean out of the way.

“I’ve not even buried my last one!” she protested.

“We don’t have the luxury of time. The sooner we make it clear you’re available, the better.”

We?

Cat bit her lip and managed not to snap back at him. He wasn’t a man to trifle with. She had often argued with Stephen, and usually won, and was no stranger to speaking her mind, but something about John’s—Slade’s—countenance made her hold her tongue. He was in a dark mood today, more so than usual. Perhaps his brother’s death had affected him more than he let on. Her heart softened a little.

“It’s a shame you’re so plain and small,” he went on in that tight way he had of speaking. “I hear there’s a few earls on the hunt for a new wife, but you’re not up to their standards. It’ll have to be a baron or knight for you, at best.”

Well, of all the ill-mannered things to say to a woman, that was quite possibly the rudest! She may not be the prettiest woman or have been blessed with a comely figure, but she wasn’t ugly. Just plain. It hadn’t seemed to worry Stephen too much when he’d chosen her over several other women. Apparently he had admired her gentle nature and sensible manner. On the other hand, he had strayed from their bed. Frequently. A gentle nature and sensible manner apparently made for a good wife, but not lover.

“I have the Summer Cottage,” she said, more in an attempt to make herself feel better than remind John that she had an asset to bring to a marriage. “Indeed, I don’t have to find a new husband straight away. I can live there until I’m ready.” That way she could be out of John’s way and live her own peaceful life while she mourned her first husband and carefully chose her second.

He shook his head, spraying droplets of water from the ends of his oily black hair. “You can’t. Your charming yet stupid husband sold it.”

“He did what!”

“Don’t make me repeat it, Cat. The servants are listening.”

“But it was my mother’s! My dowry!”

“So? He sold it to pay off some such debt. I don’t know which one. The paperwork looks as if it were done by a five year-old. If only he’d employed a man of business who hadn’t cheated him, he wouldn’t have gotten himself buried so deep.”

The cottage…gone. The only link to her family sold off as if it were an excess apple from the orchard. Why had Slade never told her he’d sold it? He’d not once indicated he was in financial difficulty. The man she had trusted to have her best interests at heart had left her vulnerable and poor. John was right and yet he was not. Stephen was indeed foolish, but it seemed he possessed a heartless streak after all.

Cat would never cry over his death again. She would still miss him, like she missed a misplaced button or the sun on a day when she’d planned to go for a ride, but his loss was an irritation, nothing more. She wouldn’t mourn him to any great degree now.

“What am I to do?” she murmured. “My widow’s portion…?”

“Is worth nothing if the estate’s income is nothing,” John said, speaking with cool disinterest. “You’re to come with me to London and find yourself the best husband you can.” He looked at her chest. Admittedly her breasts were small, but did he have to wrinkle his nose like that? “I’m afraid you’ll have to call on some other womanly virtues. With no money and no connections, you’ll have to use what you can. I suggest you take the first offer that comes your way.”

Tears sprang to her eyes again, but she dashed them away with the back of her hand. “Why are you being so horrible?”

“I’m not being horrible, Cat, I’m being practical. I can’t afford to keep you. Since Stephen made no arrangements for you and I can’t send you back to your family, you’re now my burden. I want you to become someone else’s burden as soon as possible. Do you understand?”

She hated when he spoke to her as if she were a child. She was the same age as him! “Of course I understand,” she snapped. Forget being cautious and demure, this was important. “The fact that I am Lady Slade means nothing. You would rather see me sold off like the Summer Cottage than cost you a single shilling. I suppose if a cruel earl wishes to wed me, it doesn’t matter.”

“I doubt an earl would be interested, but I follow your gist and the answer is yes. You’re in no position to choose. Indeed, you should be thankful for any offers that come your way. If they do.”

She tried to voice her indignation but all that came out was a splutter. How could he be so cold? They were brother and sister in the eyes of the law and it was his moral duty to care for her. Did that mean nothing to him?

“Your father was too soft on you, Cat, and my brother too. It has made you a little too willful, if I am being honest. It’s time you learned some discipline. A hard husband will do you good.”

“And if I cannot find a husband at all?” she asked weakly. “Where will I go?”

“I hear the blacksmith needs a new wife to care for his children.”

“The smith! But I am Lady Slade! How dare you suggest—”

“Those sorts of airs will not do you any good as a smith’s wife.”

“John! Be reasonable. You cannot force me to wed anyone. It’s my own choice.”

“Of course it is.” The sly smile he gave her sent a chill sliding down her spine. “But if I throw you out of the house, where will you go without a husband? I’d wager even the blacksmith is better than starvation.”

She stopped and stared at his broad back as he began the ascent to the church. The servants all looked back at her with sorry expressions, but did not stop. She got wet, but she no longer cared. The rain was nothing. The cold was nothing. Her future was beginning to look much bleaker than she’d ever expected.

***

Cat was given an entire two months to mourn her husband, but that was only because the new Lord Slade couldn’t leave the estate while it teetered on the brink of ruin. Fortunately he kept to his study day and night and she hardly saw him. When he did emerge, usually in the late evening, he didn’t so much as nod at her in greeting as he passed through the great hall where she embroidered or sewed. It was as if she didn’t exist. She began to hope he’d forgotten about getting rid of her.

Everything changed in early June when he announced they were to leave in the morning for London. Indeed, it wasn’t Slade who announced it—he insisted she call him Slade now—but his liveried retainer, Mr. Hislop. Hislop had ventured into the village from parts unknown almost five years ago and had struck up a friendship with Slade, then merely John. They’d been inseparable since, and upon Stephen’s death, the new baron had raised Hislop to be his second in command in all estate matters. It was quite an honor for a man who didn’t divulge his past to anyone. He could have been born in a field or a gutter for all Cat knew. Slade must have known, however. Cat couldn’t imagine her shrewd, careful brother-in-law allowing just anyone to see his ledgers.

She had not liked Hislop when he lived in the village and she liked him less since he’d moved into the house. He slunk around, his footsteps making no sound on the stone floor. Cat would think she was alone, only to turn around and find he’d snuck up behind her. He would watch her too through slitty, golden eyes. Eyes that were intriguing upon first acquaintance, but cool and detached the longer one looked at them. He wore his red-gold hair and beard short, neat, not a strand out of place. The thin scar slicing through the hair on his chin seemed out of character. His clothes were always spotless, as if his manservant spent all night cleaning them. Perhaps the poor fellow did. It would take a brave man to say no to Mr. Hislop.

Cat certainly didn’t dare. She accepted his command with a demure nod of her head then went in search of her maid. They packed together, choosing only the best gowns and jewels Cat had left. Slade had sold off most of the lovely things Stephen had given her over the years. It was a shame. She finally had a use for them and they were gone. There’d been few occasions for finery at Slade Hall with Stephen preferring hunting and drinking with his retainers to entertaining other nobles. Court, however, was different. She was expected to be a bauble among other, shinier baubles. If she wanted to attract a good husband, or simply to have a choice, she needed to present herself in the best light. Otherwise it was the blacksmith for her.

***

Upon entering the Presence Chamber at Whitehall Palace, it became clear to Cat that she was not going to enjoy court life. She looked as glamorous as a sack of turnips next to the ladies with jewels in their hair, at their throat, on their fingers and covering much of their clothing too. Indeed, most of the lords glittered brighter than Cat with their gold earrings and rings. They must be wealthy indeed to afford such things. Even Slade had managed to find a doublet made of the finest silk with silver buttons down the front. She wondered where he’d found the coin to pay for it.

He nudged her in the back and she stumbled forward. “You have to greet Her Majesty first,” he murmured as he nodded at a gentleman and lady who blinked vacantly at him. Clearly they had no idea who he was, but were curious nonetheless.

“I know that,” Cat said. She tried to see through the throng of bodies, but couldn’t. She was much too short. In which direction was the queen?

Slade clicked his tongue. “Follow me. And try to look…” He scanned her from top to toe, taking in the widow’s hood covering her brown hair and black dress that lacked embellishments of any kind. He sighed. “Nevermind.”

Cat wanted to poke her tongue out at his back as he walked off, but there were too many people watching, some surreptitiously, others openly.

The press of bodies in the Presence Chamber wasn’t so beautiful up close as it was from the entrance. Indeed, there was a distinct stink in the air which an abundance of rose water dabbed on the skin couldn’t hide. The combination was cloying. Cat coughed through her curtsey to the aging queen, but managed to suppress it as she rose. The queen spoke a few words and offered sympathies upon the death of Cat’s husband. How remarkable that such an aged and illustrious personage remembered them. It had been some years since Cat had last been to court, and she hadn’t been particularly memorable then let alone now.

The presentation lasted only a moment before a new arrival was nudged forward by an older man, perhaps her father. Cat and Slade backed away and blended into the rest of the courtiers.

“Now what?” she asked him.

“Now we both have our own business to conduct.”

She caught his arm before he walked off. His jaw hardened and his lips pinched tighter as he jerked free. “You promised to point out the eligible gentlemen,” she said. “Please, Slade. Please help me.” She hated to beg, but she didn’t have a choice. She knew not a soul. Slade had at least some familiarity, albeit limited. As the second son of a minor baron, he’d been to court a few times in recent years. It was a few more times than Cat.

“I can spare you only a moment,” he muttered under his breath. He nodded at the stairs leading to the balcony that overlooked the Presence Chamber. “Come with me.”

He led the way up to the balcony where a number of lords and ladies stood in small groups. None paid Slade and Cat any attention as they found a position that gave them a good view over the audience below.

“That gentleman with the gray hair wearing the green doublet,” Slade said, indicating a fellow leaning against a pillar. “That’s Sir Henry Hamilton. He’s in need of a new wife and mother to his eight children.”

“Eight!” Cat peered down at the portly figure. “He looks quite aged.”

“He’s in his fifth decade.”

“That’s much too old.”

“The man in black and crimson beside him is the baron of Purcell. He’s currently out of favor with Her Majesty, but you shouldn’t let that put you off.”

“Why is he out of favor?”

“He’s Catholic.”

“But I’m not Catholic.”

“Convert. A good wife believes what her husband believes.”

“My husband cannot force me to believe the same as he,” she scoffed.

Slade snorted through his nose. “An attitude like that will not help you, Cat. Not here. Do you see the other young ladies?” He swept his hand in an arc to encompass the giggling girls nearby, the more accomplished ones down below, all of them richly adorned and beautiful. “They are your competition. Do you think a headstrong widow of no fortune and nothing to recommend her has a hope of securing a husband with them around?” He answered his own question with another derisive snort. “Pay attention.” He turned back to the balcony and continued to point out unmarried gentlemen. It took only a moment more.

“That’s all of them,” he announced, turning away, impatient to be off.

“But there’s so few!” Cat protested. And all of them were either aged, infirm, or both.

“That’s all of the ones here,” he said with bored indifference. “There will be others who don’t come to court. If you ask about, I’m sure you’ll learn who they are.”

She glanced at the girls huddled together as if sharing a secret. None took any notice of Cat or Slade. “Can you introduce me to some ladies of your acquaintance then?”

He cast his eye over the audience below. “I know no ladies here.”

She couldn’t tell from his tone whether that troubled him or not. After all, he must also be in search of a wife now that he’d gained the title. She was about to ask him if that were so when he moved away.

“My lord, wait!” She clutched his arm again but let go upon seeing the anger brewing in his dark eyes. “Where shall I meet you when it comes time to leave?”

“Make your own way back to the house. I don’t know how late I’ll be.”

“My own way! But I have no escort.”

“You’re hardly an innocent girl in need of protection. Besides, it’s not far.”

Indeed it wasn’t. Hislop had secured rooms for them in a house fronting Charing Cross since the palace was full and Slade wasn’t important enough to warrant accommodations within its walls. Still, a woman walking alone even that short distance at night was courting danger. Slade ought to have more care for her. She might not be legally under his protection, but he had a moral responsibility at the very least.

“I cannot believe your callousness,” she hissed. Her own rage had begun to build. She had largely suppressed it since Stephen’s death, not wishing to upset the man upon whose good will she relied upon, but there was only so much indignity she could endure. “Where is your gentlemanly honor? Your duty to your brother?”

But Slade wasn’t looking at her. His attention was fixed on something down below in the Presence Chamber. Cat followed his gaze to a gentleman standing near the entrance, hands arrogantly on hips, a sapphire blue cape around his shoulders and a hat that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a birdcage it sported so many long feathers shooting from the crown. The hat obscured his face, but not his figure. Even from a distance, Cat could see he was leaner than most of the men there, and considerably younger. Indeed, he moved into the Presence Chamber with an assured swagger and an air of superiority that only a youth possessed, and an important one at that.

Everyone seemed to know him. Gentlemen clapped him on the shoulder as he passed, ladies curtsied low or offered up simpering smiles. One of the more brazen ones stepped into his path and thrust out her considerable chest. He made a great show of bowing over her hand before kissing it. She cast a conceited smile at those around her and glowed with satisfaction.

Slowly conversations fell silent around him as he moved through the crowd to the queen. Even the girls near Cat stopped their giggling long enough to gasp and whisper.

“Lord Oxley is here,” one said, breathy.

“Look at his fine legs,” said her friend, giggling into her hand.

“I hear there are other fine things about him,” said another, leaning over the balcony to get a better look. “Things only a lover would know.”

That set off her friends again and they collapsed into snickers that would have had their mothers scolding them for unladylike behavior.

“Who is he?” Cat asked Slade.

“The Earl of Oxley.”

“And why is he such a curiosity?” The silver-gray feathers on Oxley’s hat, unlike any she’d seen before, shivered with each step far above the heads of everyone else. “Aside from his flamboyant hat, that is.”

“He’s a favorite of the queen, but he rarely attends court by all accounts.”

“I wonder why he’s here now.”

“A matter of business? To look for a wife? I don’t care.”

“He’s not married or betrothed? A man in his position?” How odd.

“He’s eccentric by all accounts and hasn’t chosen a bride yet. Don’t get your hopes up, Cat. He can command a bride worth a hundred times more than you.”

At least he hadn’t mentioned Cat’s plain looks again. It would seem her financial difficulty was more of an impediment in the marriage stakes.

“And a thousand times prettier.”

Or perhaps not.

The earl removed his cape with a spectacular flourish that seemed to amuse the queen. He threw the cape at her slippered feet and got down on one knee. Cat couldn’t hear their exchange, but it was clear that he was making a gift of the cape.

“What would Her Majesty do with a gentleman’s cape?” she asked.

“Do you not see the fastenings at the collar?” Slade asked. As he said it, the two large button-like fastenings flashed in the torchlight.

“Sapphires,” she said on a gasp.

“Oxley is as wealthy as the queen herself. Those baubles are probably spare ones he had lying about.”

Her Majesty leaned forward, her head slightly bent, listening to whatever Oxley was saying. She seemed to be hanging on his every word. Then she fell back, giggling behind her hands like a girl. Oxley bowed low once more and backed away. Cat tracked his movement to a group of overdressed dandies nearby and watched as he fell into raucous conversation with them.

“Oh do look up here,” pleaded one of the girls peering down at Oxley. “I want to see that divine face.”

As if he’d heard her, the earl tilted his head back and looked up. He scanned the scattering of people on the balcony, nodding at some and bowing elaborately to the group of girls which set their giggles off again. His gaze continued and slipped over Slade and Cat before flicking back again. Even from a distance Cat could see he wasn’t as young as she’d first thought. He had a strong jaw and finely chiseled nose and cheeks. His skin was browner than she expected, the hair blonder. The contrast had a warm, handsome effect. Even more mesmerizing was his mouth. It was full without being womanly, and curved into a wicked bow. When first he’d skimmed over them, he’d sported an arrogant smile, but it vanished upon the second inspection. Then there were his eyes. She may not have been able to see them well, but she’d wager they were a remarkable shade of blue. A man as beautiful as the earl of Oxley simply must have blue eyes. Whatever color, they were staring directly at her with an intensity that warmed her belly and further south. No man of such beauty had ever looked at her like that. Like he could see into her. Like he knew her.

He suddenly looked away, the inspection over. It had been as brief as it had been powerful. The effects of it, however, lingered long after he moved on. Cat’s heart beat strong in her chest, having momentarily stopped beneath his scrutiny. Her face heated, her limbs too. Indeed, she felt hot all over.

“He seemed to take an interest in you.” Slade sounded surprised, or perhaps just disbelieving. He frowned down at Oxley, now in conversation with the gentlemen and ladies crowding around him. “Come on.” He grabbed Cat’s elbow.

“Where are we going?” she asked, struggling to walk casually alongside him and not draw attention to the fact he was gripping her much too hard.

“To strike while the iron is hot and before the dozens of other desperate wenches get in before you.”

“My lord?”

They passed the girls who were now openly watching Cat with sneers on their painted mouths. “We’re going to meet the earl of Oxley, and you are going to charm him.”

Cat felt sick.

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