Excerpt: The Mercenary's Price
: Historical Romance
April 1588, Windsor Castle, England
The Black and White masquerade ball celebrating the end of Easter at Windsor Castle wasn’t the worst ball Lady Eliza Harcourt had been to, despite being forced to attend by one of the most powerful men in England. The title of Worst firmly belonged to the mid-summer ball of seven years prior where she’d told the man she loved she wouldn’t marry him. That ball had been devastating.
Her Majesty’s Black and White masquerade ball could prove to be equally awful if Eliza wasn’t careful.
But Eliza was always careful. She’d carefully chosen her outfit for the evening according to the instructions written in lemon juice and slipped under her door the previous night, and she’d carefully avoided all consumption of the strong Rhenish wines—her nerves would have been shredded if she hadn’t. Now she was carefully watching and waiting. Not for the man who’d written the note but his delegate. Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster, wouldn’t undertake the job of squirreling Eliza to safety himself but she had no doubt he would only entrust the task to a man with both ability and cleverness in abundance.
She scanned the room for such a figure but it was impossible to determine faces beneath the half-masks, glittering costumes and feathered headdresses. Indeed, one gentleman dressed in black from head-to-toe looked much like any other. If it weren’t for the single black feather protruding from the white ones in her head-dress, Eliza too might be difficult for her savior to spot amongst the female revelers. White and black gowns abounded, as did feathers, and one could only imagine how Her Majesty would differentiate herself as she always managed to do. The queen had not yet arrived in the Presence Chamber. She would, of course, make a grand entry late in the evening when the Rhenish wine had culled the less stoic and ambitious of her guests.
“Madam, your plumes appear to have a traitor in their midst.”
Eliza jumped, sloshing wine over the side of her Venetian glass. The speaker, a tall man dressed in a black doublet with slashed sleeves to reveal the white silk lining, had come up beside her without her noticing. And he’d spoken the secret code. Despite anticipating it for the good part of two hours, she was startled nevertheless, particularly since the words were spoken by a familiar voice.
Horribly, terribly familiar.
“I, er…” She tightened her grip on the stem and cleared her throat. She had a part to play and a phrase to utter before she could succumb to the quivering that had overtaken her body. “Then I pray you’ll do me a great service and remove the offending feather and trample it with your fine and capable foot.” Good grief, saying the words out loud sounded even more ridiculous than when she’d read them.
For one brief, heart-stopping moment the gentleman’s lips flicked up to the lowest edges of his black half-mask in a faint smiles. It was a mouth she knew well. A mouth she’d studied endlessly for the better part of her adult life, a mouth she’d kissed once seven summers ago, and several more times since in her dreams. A mouth she must not stare at because she’d given up her claim to kiss it at that fateful mid-summer ball.
But staring at other parts of him was no less disturbing. Black silk hose clung to every contour of his muscled leg and his exquisitely tailored doublet molded perfectly to his athletic frame. She knew from experience that it required no padding at the shoulders. His physique seemed to have changed little in the last seven years but there was a hardness to his jaw that hadn’t been there on their parting. His hair was still coal-black but he wore it slightly longer and wisps of it curled like smoke around the small ruff at his throat. Then there were those blue, blue eyes peering back at her from behind the mask. They were a shade darker and definitely cooler. That was to be expected.
She swallowed past the lump in her throat and concentrated on stilling her heart which had been beating erratically all night but now skipped double-time.
He lifted a hand to her face, paused, then brushed her chin with his knuckles. The soft kid gloves warmed her skin and all the old feelings swelled within her again until she thought her chest might burst if she didn’t sever the connection. She stepped back and turned her head away. He gave a low sound, between a chuckle and a huff of breath, and plucked the black feather from her head-dress. Instead of trampling it beneath his shoe he tucked it inside a button hole. That too was part of the code. There was no doubting it, Thomas Blackstone was her protector from the Spaniards who would pay any price to capture her.
She silently cursed Fate, and then Sir Francis Walsingham who was the more likely of the two to have orchestrated the cruel maneuver.
“I was not expecting you,” she said, her wits once more gathered around her.
“Then I have the advantage of you it would seem,” Thomas said. “For once.”
“Are you implying that I ordinarily have the advantage over you?” An embarrassingly unladylike snort escaped her nose. “Never.”
One of his eyebrows forked above his mask. “You’ve changed.”
It was bait and she saw it dangling from the hook but she couldn’t help nibbling anyway. “Oh? In what way?”
“You weren’t always quite so argumentative. If you had been…” His gaze shifted to the left, away from her face. “Perhaps things would be different now.” His voice, sharp-edged, rumbled across the space between them. “You used to do whatever was asked of you. By certain people anyway.”
She felt the barb in her heart where it lodged and sent a throbbing ache through her. The pain was just as unique, just as fresh, as it had been seven years ago. It would seem from his words that it was for him too.
Perhaps… Perhaps it wasn’t too late to undo some of the damage she’d caused that mad summer night. Perhaps she could make amends. Perhaps he still had feelings for her.
It was awful timing but she had to know.
She glanced around at the glamorous nobles, the glittering room, and steeled herself against the insidious fear that had pounded away at her all night. There was no room for fear in her now. She was suddenly too full of other emotions. “You’re right. I have changed.” She placed a hand on his arm. Muscles and sinew tightened beneath her fingers. “I’m glad you’re back, Thomas. I’ve wanted to talk to you—.”
“You’ve done enough talking.” He snatched his arm away. “I have a job to do. For some reason the Spanish want you rather badly. I can’t think why.” He regarded her through narrowed eyes the shade of an icy lake.
Well. She clamped down on her tears. It would seem she’d read him wrongly. He no longer cared for her. There was no going back to those beautiful, innocent, hopeful days.
If she were being honest, she’d not really expected anything else. Thomas was a proud man. He would not expose himself to failure again.
“Why exactly are they seeking you?” he asked. “What could you possibly know that is of international importance?”
So Walsingham hadn’t told him about her visions. She wasn’t surprised. Very few people knew. Apart from the queen, Walsingham and a small circle of his spies, only Eliza’s mother and stepfather knew. Eliza had never told anyone that her occasional headaches brought on strange visions foretelling the future. Not even Thomas when he’d been her most intimate companion. But somehow, somewhere, the Spanish spies had learned of her secret and wanted her desperately, particularly since her latest vision foretold of a great sea battle with the loss of many Spanish ships. She had not yet told anyone where the battle would take place, but that was because she wasn’t certain of the location. Nevertheless, her vision had turned her from insignificant minor noblewoman to the most wanted person in England.
Lady Eliza, always the careful one who did her masters’ bidding, wished she’d never told her mother about the visions. Being the most wanted person in England was a vexing business.
“If Sir Francis hasn’t told you then it isn’t my place to say,” she said.
He pursed his lips. “You haven’t changed all that much then.”
“You’re still doing the bidding of others.”
She stiffened. “That is unfair.” And it was. She may be only twenty-four but she felt so much older and wiser than when she’d rejected Thomas seven years earlier. And infinitely stronger, where her own mind was concerned at least. “If Sir Francis deemed it unnecessary to inform you then I see no reason not to do the same. He knows what he’s doing.”
Thomas crossed his arms and glared down at her for a long time, his expression hidden by the mask and his eyes partially hooded. She gulped but stared back, taking in every piece of him all over again. And what she saw gouged a small hole in her heart. He wasn’t the same man anymore. He stood differently, carried himself with a self-assuredness that hadn’t always been there. And then there was that cool, distant regard about his mouth and eyes. The warm, considerate Thomas Blackstone who’d made her laugh was gone, replaced by this…empty man.
“What happened to you?” she heard herself whisper. “Where have you been?”
“Abroad.” He turned away and jerked his head for her to follow him. She did, her long, full skirts skimming the flagstones. Ahead, Thomas wove through the crowd of revelers already growing loud and boisterous. Eliza handed her glass to a passing liveried servant and dodged a gentleman with a black crow’s mask who suddenly lurched in her path. Thomas’s hand clamped down on the man’s shoulder, righted him, and not so gently pushed him back to his laughing companions. Eliza stared at the crow’s back, her eyes wide, and wondered if he was a Spanish spy. What of his friends? Any one of them could work for the Spanish. They paid well, she’d been told, and were devious.
But Thomas kept moving, never slowing his pace, and a sense of security enveloped her. She’d be safe with him.
She nodded a farewell at her mother standing with a group of ladies near the throne, its gold covered for the evening with twists of black silk festooned with white silk flowers. Her Majesty would enter from the right through the doorway leading to her private chamber. The crimson and gold velvet curtains that usually draped above and behind the throne had been replaced with bold black for the ball. Eliza’s mother—the Countess of Avondale—and her companions blended rather nicely with the marble statues of Goddesses gazing wistfully into the near distance. Their position beside the queen’s door was a coveted one and the ladies would not give it up to anyone younger or lower. It was designed to give them maximum exposure to the monarch and allow them to be the first to scurry after her and offer their assistance.
The Countess nodded back without a smile for her only child. Eliza’s mother hadn’t smiled in fifteen years, since her first husband died. Not that she’d loved him or their daughter. It was simply that life had become hard after his death. Within two years they were so poor they’d had to let go all but a handful of servants. The land steward had stolen most of the profits from his mistress and what was left of the estate had been sucked dry by the countess’s second husband, Lord Avondale, an impoverished earl of ancient and noble lineage. He’d wanted to catch the queen’s notice by building a grand residence and stocking the woods with deer. The two of them had been trying to catch her notice ever since, either through their house, their friends or their daughter. Unfortunately for them, Eliza wasn’t particularly good at playing the courtly game and had never shone like the other maidens. Not only had she failed to impress the queen but she’d failed to snare herself a wealthy and titled husband.
The most important word being ‘and’. Any future husband of their only child had to bring both money andnobility to the marriage bed.
Eliza had her share of matrimonial offers, of course. There had been the disgustingly rich son of the Master of the Company of Drapers, who hadn’t even had a knighthood to his name, or to his father’s. Then there’d been the eldest son and heir to the Earl of Penshurst who was even more destitute than Eliza thanks to his father having sunk all his money into a fleet of ships which had run aground off the coast of Newfoundland. And all the while there had been Thomas Blackstone, waiting. The Blackstones were comfortably off but not rich, titled but only of the rank of baron, and Thomas had merely been the second son. When he was done with waiting, Thomas had asked her to marry him. Lady Avondale had refused permission and Eliza, dutiful daughter, had refused Thomas. She’d hoped to persuade her mother in time, but after a while she knew there wasn’t enough time in the world to ever change her mother’s mind on the matter.
Lady Avondale hadn’t cared for Thomas then, just like she cared little now that her daughter was walking behind him out the door. She couldn’t know, thanks to his mask, but nor would she concern herself as to Eliza’s immediate future. She was probably glad to have her strange child with the unsociable gift of second sight taken off her hands, even if temporarily. Perhaps she was glad that Walsingham had a use for her since she could not marry her to a suitable gentleman.
Eliza felt no tug towards her mother’s bosom. There was no maternal instinct there and she’d not lived with her since she was a child, as was the way for the children of nobility. She felt far more tug towards Thomas Blackstone, striding through the crowded Presence Chamber in front of her.
Some of the anxiety she’d felt ever since learning that a Spanish spy had been caught in their midst dissipated like a drop of ink in a vast lake. The spy might have admitted to Walsingham that he knew about Eliza’s visions and had passed on the knowledge to his homeland, but she was going to be safe now that Thomas was here. He may still be angry with her after all these years but he would never allow her to be harmed. Never.
A small, dark-haired man cut in front of her, stopping her progress and her heart. Thomas kept moving ahead, unaware. “A dance, Madam?” He held out his hand. Every finger was covered with a gold ring and he wore a pearl drop earring in one ear. He smiled but it didn’t reach his dark eyes, beady behind his black mask.
Eliza froze. Had she detected a faint accent? Oh God, oh God. “I, er, that is—.”
“The lady does not wish to dance.” Thomas took her hand and pulled her close to his side. “Just keep walking,” he murmured, his palm at her back, steadying, reassuring.
She did and before long they passed through the double doors and onto the North Terrace, lit up with torches. The cool spring air soothed her heated face but she had no chance to relish it. Thomas’s pace didn’t slow and he still clasped her hand.
“Quickly,” he said.
“Where are we going?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there. Can you ride in that gown?”
“I think so. But what if I can’t?”
“Then you’ll need to remove it.”
“Remove—.” Deep male voices coming from behind stopped her protest. She couldn’t make out their words but she could determine the tone. They were agitated.
And they were after her.