Excerpt: Scandal's Mistress
Book 2 : Lord Hawkesbury's Players
London: Autumn 1589
The White Swan Inn was the last place Leo, third Baron Warhurst, wanted to be on a Friday morning. He should have been at court, greasing the palms of the queen’s favorites, or better still, having a drink in the taproom. But no. Thanks to the mess created by his siblings, he had gone to the Gracechurch Street inn to speak to a seamstress. A bloody seamstress!
He climbed the steps up to the wooden stage at the back of the cobbled innyard and lifted the curtain to peer into the tiring house beyond. Inside, several chests, some opened, occupied most of the floor space. A row of stools dotted one wall and a central bench almost disappeared beneath piles of neatly folded costumes. A massive pair of wings made of feathers hung between two hooks, and what looked like a cauldron was slotted beneath the bench. The room was crowded but not chaotic. Someone kept it orderly. Whoever it was, they weren’t there.
Leo squeezed the bridge of his nose. God, he was tired. He’d traveled like the devil for a week to reach London and not been able to sleep since. And now the woman his brother had sent him to couldn’t be found. He was about to release the curtain when he heard the swish of lush fabric, velvet perhaps, coming from behind what appeared to be an unhinged door propped up in the middle of the tiring house.
“Damnation!” The voice, a woman’s, came from behind the door screen. With language like that, she must be the one he sought.
“Hail!” he called out. “Is someone here?”
A pale, heart-shaped face topped with a tall hat popped out from behind the door. “Oh! I didn’t know I had company.”
“I’m sorry to startle you,” he said.
“You didn’t. I’m simply surprised.”
He failed to see the difference and was about to say as much when she stepped out from behind the door and his words were sucked away along with his breath. She couldn’t be the seamstress. This lady wouldn’t have been out of place at court with her tall, slender frame, striking cheekbones, and imperial set to her shoulders.
“Madam, I am Lord Warhurst.” He bowed. She stepped forward and the swish of her crimson gown was soon drowned out by the drumming of his heartbeat in his ears. Her simple movement had caused the exposed flesh above her too-tight bodice to wobble most…ah, delightfully. “Perhaps you could step a little closer,” he said when she hesitated. “I would like to have a better look at your…face.”
She did, with hands firmly on her hips, and stopped directly in front of him. “My face is above my neck, my lord.”
He glanced up and got an icy blast from a pair of pale blue eyes. He bowed again, partly to hide his embarrassment and partly because it afforded him another view of her bounteous flesh. If God gave her a pair of luscious breasts like that, surely He meant for man to gaze upon them. Otherwise why create such low-cut gowns? But on second glance, the gown seemed a little too low-cut for this lady. Although exquisitely made from what he could see, and certainly beautifully—and expensively—embroidered in gold thread, it was a poor fit.
“If you are looking for the players then I’m afraid they’re not here,” she said. Although her glare was still cool, her mouth curved into an intriguing smile.
“You are all alone here, my lady?” He could have bitten off his tongue after the words tumbled out. He sounded like a villain assessing the likelihood of having his wicked way with a defenseless woman.
“Lady?” She blinked at him. Then looked down at her sleeves, the crimson velvet slashed to reveal the gold of the lining beneath.
He frowned. She had not seemed to grasp the crude yet unintentional meaning of his question. Thankfully. But…why was such a woman alone in the tiring house? What gentleman would allow his wife, sister, or daughter to fend for herself at, of all places, an inn—and a theatre at that? Guilt twisted his stomach at the similarity to his own situation but he cast it off. It was too late for guilt. Besides, his sister’s pregnancy was not his fault although it was a weight that had landed on Leo’s shoulders like a canker. He needed to remove it before any chance of restoring the honor of the Warhurst title was lost forever. Since the perpetrator of the problem had not been at home that morning, or last night, or the day before, Leo had come here on his brother’s suggestion.
“Madam, I am—”
“Mistaken.” Her laughter seemed to rise up from deep within her and burst forth like a sudden gust of air. He tried not to notice how the laugh made the flesh above her bodice jiggle.
“Quite, quite mistaken. I am not a gentlewoman. It must be this dress…” She caressed the velvet of her gown as if it were her lover’s skin. “It used to belong to Lady Dalrymple. She and I are of a height which will also suit Freddie, but the similarity does not extend to the chest area.” She smiled that smile again, the one that wasn’t quite a smile. This time it was accompanied by a wicked gleam in those clear eyes. “As you noticed.”
Whatever was she talking about? “Freddie?”
“Freddie Putney, the company’s boy actor. He plays the lead female roles.”
“And that gown once belonged to Lady Dalrymple?”
“As I said.” She looked at him as if he were a half-wit.
His limbs tensed. He had a bad feeling about this. “And you are wearing the gown because…”
“Because I’m adjusting it of course.” She shrugged and the gown slipped off one shoulder. He stared at the smooth, white skin and wondered if it felt like silk, because it certainly looked silken. She fixed the gown and he tried to focus on the conversation again.
What had she been saying? Adjusting it…adjusting…the gown! The bad feeling slammed into his gut with the force of a hammer blow. “You’re Alice Croft,” he said heavily.
“The seamstress for Lord Hawkesbury’s Players.” She nodded. “And you’re Lord Warhurst, brother to Robert Blakewell.”
“Half brother,” he said without thinking.
“What can I do for you, Lord Warhurst? I assume you’re looking for me since you know my name. Did Blake send you?” She didn’t seem in the least surprised or in any way alarmed by his presence or by the prospect of being sought. Women of her station usually lowered their eyes and spoke only when he asked a direct question of them. Unless they were whores or drunk. This woman certainly wasn’t a whore—readjusting the gown to cover her bare shoulder was proof of that—and she didn’t seem drunk. Most unlike another seamstress he’d had the misfortune to meet.
The slack-faced woman reeking of cheap wine had accosted him in the street years ago demanding Leo pay for the gown his late father had commissioned her to make for his mistress. The seamstress had threatened to tell Lady Warhurst about the other woman if Leo didn’t pay the debt. He’d told her she was welcome to speak to his mother since she already knew, as did the better half of London. The seamstress had scampered like a rat back to the gutter out of which she’d crawled. At least Alice Croft had all her teeth. And other…assets, besides.
“Blake did send me,” he said in an attempt to keep his thoughts on the task at hand. “He said I should seek you out and that I’d find you here.”
“As indeed you have.”
He cleared his throat. “I’ll have you know this goes against my better judgment.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You haven’t told me what ‘this’ is yet.” “If there was anyone else, I’d ask them first. I’d rather not involve someone else in our family dilemma but Blake assures me you’ll be discreet.”
She shook her head. A frown furrowed her pretty brow. “My lord, is this about making a gown for your mistress? Because if it is—”
“No!” He shouldn’t have come. Whatever was Blake thinking to send him to such a woman? How did he even know she could be trusted? He was wasting his time. Leo pulled back the curtain leading out to the stage.
“My lord, wait!” The seamstress placed a hand on his arm. There was no pressure, no attempt to halt his progress, yet he stopped anyway. There was something compelling in her touch, something far more forceful than mere strength. “If Blake sent you then it must have something to do with Lord Hawkesbury. And,” she cleared her throat, “and your sister.”
He half turned to see her and was struck once more by those eyes. Of the palest blue, they were almost colorless, and yet they seemed to see right into him. He recoiled. The bad feeling returned like a vengeful warrior. “You’re right,” he heard himself say. “I’ve come to ask you for help.”
“Help?” He focused on the tiny crease between her brows because he had the disturbing sensation that if he looked into her eyes anymore she might see too much.
“Yes. Help with the business between Lord Hawkesbury and my sister, as you said.”
“But how can I possibly be of service?”
“I have need of someone who is capable of finding out information. Blake suggested you because you are associated with Lord Hawkesbury’s Players, and they have a tendency to hear and see a great many things when in their patron’s presence. Well? What say you?”
Alice had been told many times in her twenty-six years that her curiosity would be her downfall. As a child she would sneak around the house listening to the adult conversations, or explore the narrow lanes near her home—the ones she was strictly told not to venture down. Not even a whipping from her father and a near escape from a brothel keeper seeking fresh girls could keep her curiosity and thirst for knowledge in check. Although she kept away from the worst of the lanes after that instance. Childish curiosity was one thing. Spying on Lord Hawkesbury, a peer of the realm, was entirely another.
“Why not ask one of the players?” she said.
Lord Warhurst gave her a rueful smile, one that sparked a gleam in his green eyes. She’d never seen eyes quite like them, bright one moment and fathomless the next but never revealing too much of what the man was thinking. They reminded her of the emeralds she’d once seen in a grand lady’s rings.
“The players were not recommended by my brother,” Lord Warhurst said. “You were.”
It had been only days since she’d last seen his brother the pirate, Robert Blakewell, and Blake’s bride-to-be, Minerva Peabody, who’d become Alice’s friend. Min had informed her that much had changed, including Blake ceasing his pursuit of Lord Hawkesbury over the relationship the earl had had with Lilly Blakewell. It seemed Lord Warhurst was taking up the reins dropped by his brother to save their sister’s honor. Yet it didn’t quite make sense. Why all this brotherly fuss over a simple affection? Why the forbidding presence of the brooding Baron Warhurst darkening her tiring house? And why did he need the help of a seamstress?
“My half brother and I don’t get along,” Lord Warhurst said, crossing his arms over a broad chest. “But I trust his judgment. If he thinks you would make a fair and discreet information gatherer, then I believe him. I also think you have the look about you of someone who would go unnoticed, something which will be of benefit in this endeavor.”
The old, familiar pang stabbed her in the ribs. She’d once thought it was jealousy of prettier girls, the sort who turned heads just by walking down the street. But she’d learned after Charles broke her heart that that wasn’t the case. Jealousy it might be, but it was the jealousy of a girl who simply wanted to be someone else, someone who would be noticed, not for her beauty but for…what? If she knew the answer she could perhaps make steps toward changing herself, but all she really knew for certain was that she didn’t want to be seamstress for Lord Hawkesbury’s Players day after day until her death. She might have been aware of the pang and all it implied, but it still hurt to have her plainness in looks and occupation pointed out so baldly.
“That is hardly a convincing argument,” she said, perhaps a little too caustically. He arched one eyebrow in question. “Telling me I’m too ordinary to be noticed.”
“I didn’t say ordinary, nor is that what I meant.” He rolled his eyes heavenward. “I simply was stating the fact that people do not always see those whose presence they take for granted.” His words were measured, careful.
“Like servants,” she said flatly.
He shrugged, as if what he’d said was nothing of importance. That she was nothing of importance. It was a wonder he had even deigned to speak to someone like her at all, let alone ask for help. Her throat burned as she swallowed back a tide of emotions, ones she thought she’d conquered.
“You must hate it,” she said with a lightness she certainly didn’t feel.
“Asking me for help. A seamstress.”
He opened his mouth but shut it again. His stare faltered and he looked away. It was all the answer she needed.
“Which means the task you require me to perform must be important,” she went on. A little voice within her warned her not to test this man, not to push him into a corner because he would fight. He was a baron and an imposing figure, standing well above her—and she was no sprite. Yet she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to find out as much as she could before she said yes. About the task, and the gentleman. That she would say yes was a certainty. She needed an intrigue to break up the endless tedium of her days. “Why do you want Lord Hawkesbury to marry your sister? Does she really love him so much that she would have her brother force him into marriage against his wishes? Or is there another reason? One more…scandalous?”
He lifted his gaze to hers without lifting his head and glared at her beneath long black lashes. The effect was devilish. So much for backing him into a corner. She hadn’t even budged him in the slightest. What she’d done was potentially far worse—awakened a beast with more anger boiling inside him than she could ever know.
“I think,” he finally said through a clenched jaw, “that my brother was mistaken. You are of no use to me. Good day.” He spun round and shoved the curtain all the way to the side.
“Wait! I can help you.” But he was already halfway across the stage and he didn’t look to be stopping. Not the reaction she’d expected. Hot outrage at her impertinence would have been better than this cool dismissal. But at least she now knew her assumption was correct—Lilly Blakewell was carrying Lord Hawkesbury’s unborn child.
“I know where Lord Hawkesbury will be tonight,” she called after him. She might as well have flung her words at a wall. He either didn’t hear them or didn’t care. He simply jumped off the stage and strode toward the arch leading out to Gracechurch Street.
Well. Good riddance. The man was rude. It was a miracle he’d even lowered himself to speak to her. Nevertheless she watched him go with a sinking heart. He and his family’s troubles had been a bump on her otherwise flat week. Now even that distraction was gone. She sighed and returned to the tiring house, letting the curtain fall back into place. There was no point dwelling on what might have happened if she hadn’t opened her mouth. There was still much to be done to prepare for the troupe’s transfer to the Rose.
Henslowe, the Rose Theatre’s owner, had given them permission to perform there on the days Lord Strange’s Men weren’t using it. The bigger crowds at the dedicated theatre would ensure more money for Lord Hawkesbury’s Players and for Alice’s father, their tiring house manager. But as his assistant and daughter, she would see none of it.
Moving to the Rose would simply be more of the same. Mending costumes, cleaning the tiring house, listening to the actors’ complaints and gossip. She looked down at the clothing bought from Lady Dalrymple. The ensemble of bodice, skirt, and overgown was several years out of fashion, but it was the most exquisite thing Alice had ever worn. The softness of the velvet, the vibrancy of the colors, and the workmanship that had gone into the embroidery were nothing like she’d seen before. She simply had to try it on.
Just for a few minutes she wanted to pretend she was someone else, someone important. A duchess or an heiress or even a wealthy merchant in her own right. Anything would be better than this…nothingness. The clothes had beckoned to her like a lover and she couldn’t resist. Besides, no one had seen. No one except Lord Warhurst, and she was not likely to see him again. She doubted he cared enough to tell her father or Roger Style, the company’s manager.
With another sigh, she removed the hat. She was about to step behind the door used as a screen for privacy when she heard the swish of the curtain opening behind her. She knew without turning around that Lord Warhurst had returned. She couldn’t say how she knew it, she just did. Perhaps it was his presence, so powerful that it surged ahead of him like a flood.
“Why do you want to help me?” he said.
She turned and shrugged. The ill-fitting sleeve slipped off her shoulder. She adjusted it but not before she saw Warhurst’s lips purse. In disapproval? Irritation? Or suppressed desire? “I liked your sister,” she said. “And your brother.”
His eyebrow forked again. “That may be the case but I doubt it is your sole reason. There must be more for you to risk your livelihood. I’m sure you are aware that Lord Hawkesbury could have you removed from his company if he discovers your involvement in this scheme.”
She nodded. “That’s why I want something from you in return.”
“Not quite.” She chewed the inside of her lip, thinking fast. Should she ask him? Would he agree? If she didn’t ask, she would never know his answer. And such an opportunity would never arise again, of that she was certain. She had to ask. She lifted her chin and stepped toward him, the better to gauge his reaction. But his only reaction was a lowering of his gaze again to her breasts bursting over the top of the bodice. She cleared her throat but refused to cover herself. Let him look. She wasn’t ashamed.
“I cannot take you on as my mistress.” He looked up, face flushed, eyes hooded.
His flush deepened. “I, er, isn’t that what you were asking of me?”
“No! Good lord, what sort of woman do you think I am?”
“I…I’m not entirely sure. To be honest, I’ve never encountered a woman such as yourself before.”
“That is quite obvious.”
He bowed. “My humble apologies, Mistress Croft.” He blinked rapidly and looked away, pretending to study a Roman shield leaning against the wall. An awkward silence ensued until she could stand it no longer.
“What I do want from you is your patronage, of sorts.”
That got his attention.
“So you do want money?” He said it without a hint of disapproval, as if he expected it, almost welcomed it. But what she wanted wasn’t quite as simple as an exchange of coins.
“I want you to establish me as a seamstress with a shop of my own in a respectable part of the city.”
“You want what?”
“In essence, you will be my patron, but only until such time that my earnings cover the rent. I have some money set aside to purchase the tools I need. You could also use your influence with certain merchants so that I can buy cloth and other materials at a good price. It would be to your benefit,” she said quickly when his mouth dropped open. “The more money that remains in my coffers, the faster I will be able to support myself and you can wash your hands of me. And there is one other thing.”
“I don’t doubt it,” he muttered.
“If you could send some elegant ladies of your acquaintance to my shop, I would be most grateful. You would benefit—”
“Yes, yes, so I see.” He shook his head and she thought she heard a low chuckle, but he didn’t smile so she couldn’t be sure. “First of all, Mistress Croft, you overestimate my influence in elegant circles. As you can see,” he stretched out his arms, “I am no gallant.”
“True, but your clothes are well made and suited to your…demeanor.”
He frowned. “Meaning?”
“They are serious.” She thought it wise not to mention she’d seen Puritans wear more cheerful clothing. There wasn’t a hint of embellishment in his doublet, even the buttons were covered in the same black material. No slashing, no embroidery, no pinking, and yet the doublet was silk and from what she could see, the tailoring superb. It fit him to perfection, without needing any padding across shoulders or chest. What lay beneath the clothing must also be perfection. The thought made her heart skip.
“I have seen your mother and sister,” she forged on, “and they are both women with exceptional fashion sense. If I provide them with some gowns, free of charge of course, to prove my skill then perhaps they could send their friends to me. You could give them the gowns as a gift.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “A reasonable plan. And my brother’s new bride would require something to wear for her wedding feast. Could you do it?”
“In a month or two I would imagine.”
If she started as soon as possible she should be able to make Min an outfit to rival the queen’s. “I should like to make her something special anyway. We have become friends of sorts.”
He nodded. “But I’m afraid you mistake my position in this city. I am rarely here and I do not know any merchants. As to renting a shop…” He drew in a breath. “I shall see what I can do.”
“I’m sure your brother knows many merchants from his privateering jaunts. Perhaps you could ask him.”
He acknowledged this with a curt nod. “You have a solid understanding of business, I see.”
“Then we have an agreement?”
“We do, on one condition. That you do not mention this to anyone. We shall rent the shop in your name and in no way will any transactions between us be known. I cannot afford for our connection to be discovered.”
“Because you don’t wish Lord Hawkesbury to know?”
He hesitated before saying, “Quite.”
She chewed her lip again. He wasn’t telling her the entire truth. Not that it mattered. The anonymity of her new patron suited her needs too. Her father knew she had some money set aside; she would simply inflate the amount when he asked how she could afford to set out on her own.
“Only my half brother will know,” he said, “but if pressed, he’ll say he does not.”
She was about to ask why when she realized she already knew the answer.
“He wishes to keep Min happy, and to do that he needs to ensure her plays are performed. Upsetting the patron of the company performing them would be a poor move. At least until she is able to sell them to another company.” The green eyes briefly flared and she thought she saw a flicker of surprise in them. Surprise that she could think for herself? The man grew more pompous by the minute. “Furthermore,” he went on as if she had not spoken, “I think it best that you do not give up your position here with Lord Hawkesbury’s Players until our task is complete.”
“Agreed. Shall we shake on it?” She held out her hand. He didn’t take it, didn’t even acknowledge it with so much as a glance.
“You do not wish to know how I want you to gather the relevant information before agreeing?”
“My lord, unless you are asking me to whore for you, I will do whatever is required.”
“What makes you think I am not asking you to whore for me?”
She shrugged and lowered her hand. “You seem far too prudish to ask that of any woman. Even a seamstress.”
He tilted his head back as if struck. Then, unexpectedly, he smiled. Just a slight lifting of the corners of his mouth at first, then a few twitches until finally a wide grin broke out, as if it had escaped despite his attempts to smother it. “I can assure you, Mistress Croft,” he said, capturing the grin once more and hiding it away, “that I am no prude.”
He picked up a fine lawn partlet from the top of a pile of clothes stacked on a closed chest. “Nor am I immune to your…charms.” His gaze dipped once more to her breasts and this time it was her turn to blush as heat prickled her throat, her face. He closed the space between them until he was so near she could smell him, a pleasing mix of fresh air and man.
“So I would appreciate it if you kept those charms covered when next we meet.” He tucked the edge of the partlet down the front of her bodice. His long finger grazed her skin, just above the nipple. She let out a breath and dared not draw in another as it would cause her chest to rise, bringing his finger closer.
Closer. Even though that was exactly what she suddenly, desperately wanted. For this man to touch her. Everywhere. The need throbbed within her like an ache. But some very deep part of her kept her from drawing the breath that could start something. Or stop it. Then his finger was gone, leaving the partlet covering the rapid rise and fall of her chest as she sucked in breath upon breath. Their gazes locked and heat flooded her, sliding through her like warm sunshine. She thought she understood this man from the moment he’d walked in with his conservative clothing and crisp aloofness. Now she knew she did not.
“You said you knew where Lord Hawkesbury would be tonight,” he said, voice low and rough.
“I…” She nodded and stepped away, out of reach of his powerful presence. “He’s commissioned a performance from the troupe to entertain his betrothed and her family at Hawkesbury Hall.”
His brows rose. “The Enderbys?”
She nodded. “I don’t usually attend private performances, but I can devise a reason for my presence tonight. I might be able to learn something, if you tell me what it is I need to look for.”
He blinked slowly. Then he straightened and put his hands behind his back. “Our task is to find out why Lord Hawkesbury is marrying Patience Enderby when neither he nor the girl wants the marriage.”
“He doesn’t love her?”
“He says not.”
“Nobles marry for reasons other than love all the time.”
He gave her a tight smile. “I am well aware of that.”
Alice knew Lord Warhurst wasn’t married, but was he betrothed to some influential heiress he didn’t love? What about his own heart’s desire? Did he even have one? A desire, not a heart—although she couldn’t be sure he possessed either.
“From what my half brother tells me,” Lord Warhurst said, “Hawkesbury is being forced into the union by the girl’s father, Lord Enderby.” He put a sneer into the name that was so slight she almost missed it. “From the little I know of Hawkesbury, it would take a shifting of the earth for him to agree to something he didn’t want to do. He lacks neither money nor power so it must be something else.”
“A secret. A very grave one.”
“Precisely.” He gave a nod, as if impressed that she had grasped the situation. “It is my understanding that the secret Lord Enderby possesses could harm Hawkesbury’s loved ones if discovered.”
“Who are his loved ones?”
“He has a sister and mother still living.”
Alice huffed out a breath. “You have a difficult task.”
“Learning the secret will not be easy, I grant you. But with your assistance, I believe we will prevail.”
She shook her head. He hadn’t quite understood her. “Discovering the secret is only one hurdle.”
When she paused he said, “Go on.”
“The more difficult problem will be ensuring the secret is no longer a threat to Lord Hawkesbury. You must somehow silence Enderby without letting the secret out.”
From the grim set of Lord Warhurst’s mouth, she knew he was aware of that fact, as he was no doubt aware that Hawkesbury would have already tried purchasing Lord Enderby’s silence with something other than a betrothal to his daughter.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we discover what Enderby knows,” he said.
Alice wasn’t so sure ignoring it before they even began was a good idea, but she didn’t say so. She was being paid to help discover the secret, not concern herself with events beyond that.
Lord Warhurst raised his hand to silence her. The clip-clop of hooves on the cobblestones echoed around the innyard. The rider called for an ostler and their brief exchange was followed by the sound of the horse being led away. The door to the taproom opened and a lively tune strummed on a lute drifted out to the tiring house along with the trickle of laughter and voices.
“I must go,” Lord Warhurst said. “It would be best if we weren’t seen together. There’s a small inn called the Golden Lion near St. Mary le Bow which is out of the way and not likely to be frequented by either Hawkesbury, Enderby, or your players. Do you know it?”
“No, but I’ll find it.”
“Good. Dine with me at midday there tomorrow.” It was an order and Warhurst seemed used to giving them, and having them obeyed. She nodded because it wasn’t in her interests to refuse him.
“Until midday then, my lord.”
He turned but paused at the curtain. “Thank you, Mistress Croft,” he said without fully facing her. His profile was strong with the hard lines of his jaw and straight nose. Alice felt the odd little flutter in the pit of her stomach again and tried very hard not to stare. “I appreciate your assistance,” he said. “I will ensure that your safety will not be jeopardized by anything I request of you.”
“Your words are noble, Lord Warhurst, but I assure you I am capable of taking care of myself.” She wasn’t sure why she said it. Perhaps it was a need to assert herself with a man who thought her so far beneath him he was almost too embarrassed to speak to her. He turned to her fully and his direct, unblinking gaze held hers. She swallowed.
“Nevertheless you are now working for me and I take my responsibility to those in my employ very seriously.”
“I am not one of your servants,” she tossed back.
His nostrils flared but he said nothing. He opened the curtain and walked away. She let out a long breath and slowly began to remove the costume, beginning with the lawn partlet he’d so deliberately and deliciously tucked into her bodice.