She is one of the accursed Three Graces of Graydon—if she marries not for love, her betrothed will soon meet his end...
The Tudor king issues Lady Catherine Milton a most unusual command: seduce Scottish loyalist Ross Dunbar. The son of an ornery borderland laird, Dunbar would make an advantageous match, but King Henry cannot force him to wed. So Cate must ensnare him...
A rush of courtly parties and passionate nights in Dunbar's embrace leaves Cate breathless...and confused. She desires a proposal for the sake of propriety and politics, but she longs to be truly loved. Tortured loyalties are not hers alone—though Dunbar is enchanted by Cate, he cannot bind himself to England and abandon his people.
But when a pretender to the throne ignites a rebellion, the choice is made for them: to solidify northern alliances, Dunbar and Cate must wed. Suddenly Dunbar's death appears certain—either by his bride's curse or by a war he did not choose...
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She could not bear to be present for the kill.
It was not that Lady Catherine Milton was unduly squeamish, only that she could not stand to see such a noble stag pulled down by the hounds. He had given them a gallant run through open meadows and into the thick growth of the king's ancient hunting preserve known as the New Forest, eluding the hunt with cunning and bursts of supreme power. Now he was flagging. Soon the king and his courtiers would close in for the coup de grace.
Cate reined in her palfrey to a walk, allowing the others to pull away in their crashing pursuit along the narrow animal track. She had been at the laggard end of the crowd of courtiers, peers and their ladies for most of the afternoon. She could give the need to rest her mount as an excuse for dropping back. With luck, the worst of the bloody business would be over by the time she rejoined them.
She'd rather have avoided hunting altogether today, would have except for the king's invitation, which was as good as a command. Henry VII liked company during his efforts to supply venison for the hundreds that flocked to his tables, and had need of extra meat for the Christmas season, which was upon them. More than that, he was particularly concerned that the heiresses summoned to his court display themselves on horseback to prospective suitors. He had overcome the dread curse of the Three Graces to make an advantageous marriage this past summer for Cate's older sister, Isabel, and was determined to repeat the triumph twice more. Isabel was in the north of England with her husband and six-month-old Madeleine, King Henry's love child entrusted to their care, but their younger sibling rode with the others somewhere ahead. Marguerite would not be overly concerned if she noticed Cate had gone missing. This wasn't the first time she had fallen back at the end of a hunt.
The afternoon was drawing in, growing dark with lowering clouds. The feel of snow was sharp in the air. Cate would much have preferred to be sitting before a fireplace with embroidery in hand and a beaker of mulled cider close by. Though her upper body was warm enough under her ermine-lined cloak, the tip of her nose was half-frozen, and her feet and gloved fingers had little feeling. At least the end of the chase meant the return to Winchester Castle where, please God, a roaring fire and a hot meal awaited.
Abruptly, her gray mare threw up her head and curveted to the side. Cate tightened her knee on the horn of her sidesaddle, controlling the palfrey even as she glanced around. Fair Rosamond, dubbed Rosie within an hour after she was named, was not usually of a nervous habit. She must have sensed something she didn't like.
Nothing moved beyond the stirring of a light wind among the bare limbs of the great oaks, beeches and alders that meshed above the forest track. The thudding hoofbeats, calling voices and horns of the hunt that faded into the distance left behind an unnatural quiet. The scent of leaf mold, disturbed by their passage, shifted in the air along with a hint of damp moss and lichen.
Something else drifted toward Cate, as well, something rank, familiar and malodorous.
The boar burst from the underbrush. Squealing with rage at the invasion of its territory, it came straight at them. It kicked up dried leaves and dirt as its sharp hooves found purchase. Its small black eyes were narrowed and its snout lowered, while the gray evening light caught wicked gleams from the knife-sharp points of its curving tusks.
The mare whinnied in fright, rearing up on her haunches. The instant Rosie came down she leaped into a gallop and plunged into the deep woods.
The boar gave chase.
Cate could hear it snuffling and snorting behind them. Once, it gave a piercing squeal of pain or rage. She had no time to look back, but gripped the reins in one hand while leaning to grasp the mare's mane with the other. She let Rosie run, trusting her to escape the danger at their heels. Behind them, the thudding sounds of pursuit made the boar seem a veritable monster.
Limbs slapped at Cate, ripping her flowing skirt, snatching the hood from her head, catching her veil and tearing it free. She almost left the saddle a dozen times as Rosie leaped fallen logs, dodged around thickets, splashed twice through the same winding stream. Clinging like a burr to the mare, Cate ducked and weaved, heart pounding as she prayed in breathless phrases.
Her prayer seemed answered as they struck a beaten pathway and Rosie turned down it. It had some width, as if it might be used by foresters gathering wood for the king, or gamekeepers en route to the castle. The palfrey slowed, blowing, jolting into a trot.
Cate glanced back as she tried to catch her breath. The boar was not there, could no longer be seen or heard. They had cleared its part of the forest, or else it had lost interest and abandoned them. She closed her eyes an instant in thankfulness before facing forward again.
Her relief was short-lived. As the forest track curved, a large brush pile appeared ahead of her, barring the way. It stretched between two great oaks whose thick limbs overhung it.
Cate pulled up, frowning in consternation at the untidy heap of rotted logs and dead limbs. She'd half formed the intention of following the pathway in hope it would join the track taken by the hunt. To go over the brush pile seemed impossible; it was too high, wide and deep. She might go around it if she made a wide enough circuit, but would have to pick her way with care so she did not lose the pathway she was following. The New Forest belonged to the king, an expanse of many uncharted leagues where no one was allowed to live and few ventured except on royal business. Those who became lost in it were sometimes found too late, if at all.
A rustling noise overhead drew her attention. Directly above her, a man rose from where he had been lying along the thick width of a limb. Rough-haired, garbed in odds and ends of once fine raiment, he gave her a gap-toothed leer. Then he grasped a limb and dropped to the ground, landing on his feet in front of her. As Rosie backed and whinnied, trying to rear, he sprang to grab the mare's bridle and pull her head down.
Sick dread burgeoned inside Cate as she controlled Rosie to prevent more pressure on her tender mouth. Never go into the wood alone, she had been told again and again. Fearsome beings lived there, trolls and beasts with the faces of men who feasted on tender flesh. Or if not these, then lawless scoundrels who lived by their wits and what they could take from others.
From women, they wanted one thing. That was, of course, after they had taken everything else of value.
Cate wore a gold cross that had belonged to her mother, a ring of gold set with a ruby that had been a gift from Isabel, and, at her waist, an Italian poniard given to her by her first love, with silver filigree on its ebony hilt and a finely pointed steel blade. She would surrender no single treasure without a fight. Slipping her right hand inside her cloak, she grasped the hilt of the small knife, where it hung from her leather hunting girdle.
"Well, now. What have we here?"
The man's voice was layered with equal amounts of insolence and anticipation. He stood with his legs spread and gloating triumph beneath the grime that coated his face. From his accent, Cate judged him to be some petty noble, mayhap one removed from his holdings during the endless wars of recent years, or else a renegade from the defeated army of Richard III. He was no mere villein or cottager turned forest outlaw; he was too cocksure for that.
His purpose could not be good. Still, it would be foolish to show her alarm.
"Well met, sir," she said, her heart threatening to choke her even as she gave him her best smile. "I was with the king's hunt, but lost my way through misadventure. Could you direct me how best to rejoin it?"
"The king, is it?" he said, an avid gleam in his eyes as he stepped forward. "No doubt you are a favorite of Henry's, a lady sure to be missed."
His voice carried snide suggestion, as if she must be on terms of intimacy with the king. Cate cared no more for it than did Rosie, who blew through her nostrils as she tried to sidle away from the man's stench. Or no, it may have been from his followers, a dozen or more in number, who slipped from among the encroaching trees. They eased forward with weapons in hand, a few bows and arrows, the knives carried by all for eating and a scattering of age-blackened swords.
Who had they meant to take in this crude ambuscade? The king, mayhap, had he chanced to come this way? It would have been a dangerous undertaking, for Henry made no move without his yeoman guard. No, their quarry would have been any straggler.
Gathering her reins with a firmer one-handed grip, Cate lifted her chin. "A favorite of the queen, rather," she said in tart reproof. "Can you or can you not direct me?"
"I can do many a thing for you, milady, and better than any king, I'll warrant. Get you down and I'll be pleased to show you."
A shudder of revulsion moved down her spine at the loose-lipped grins and chuckles of the men who crowded closer around her. "I must not linger or I'll be caught by darkness," she answered in tones as icy as the clouds that hung low above the treetops.
"So you will, now. Too bad."
The threat and raw suggestion in his colorless eyes were mixed with overweening confidence. He thought she was cowed, his for the taking. His hand was lax on Rosie's bridle. His gaze rested on Cate's breasts beneath her cloak, giving her a squirming sensation like worms crawling over her skin.
If she was going to get away, it must be now.
Cate gave a high-pitched yell, tugging Rosie's head around. She prodded the mare with an urgent heel.
The outlaw leader lost his hold, but jumped up to fasten a hand on Cate's arm. She clung to her sidesaddle with thigh muscles clamped around its horn as Rosie backed and whinnied. A second outlaw ran forward to catch the bridle on the other side. The outlaw leader scrabbled with his feet in the dirt of the track, jerking at her, using his weight to bend her toward him.
It was too much. Cate gave a cry of angry despair as she felt her saddle girth slip, felt her knee slide free of its anchor.
Pain burst through her as she struck the ground. Her breath left her in a gasp so sharp it seemed to slice into her lungs. A red mist appeared at the edge of her vision.
The palfrey reared in terror, then broke the hold on her bridle and danced out of reach. Whinnying, shaking her head, she kicked up her heels and raced away, back down the track. The outlaw leader paid no heed, but leaned to catch Cate's arm in a numbing grip. He hauled her upright so fast she staggered, almost fell against him.
Her chest ached with the sudden return of air to her lungs. White-hot rage flashed over her. She did not pause to think or plan, but grasped her poniard's hilt again, snatching it from its scabbard. She threw back the edge of her cloak and struck with all her might.
The blade ripped through tattered velvet and soiled linen, found flesh and bone. Her assailant howled and reeled away, even as the knife point struck a rib, then tore free. Cate, sick yet exultant, skipped backward with her skirts trailing over the half-frozen ground.
The outlaw clapped a hand to his chest, lifted it to stare at the blood that stained it. His face twisted as he clenched his fingers into a fist and started after her. Two of his dirty band fell in behind him, followed by more, and yet more.
It was then that a great shout rang through the forest. Savage, full-throated and deep, it rose to a battle cry that lifted the hair on the back of Cate's neck and sent a chill spiraling through her. Wild-eyed and with her poniard still in her fist, she swung in the direction from whence it came.
He rode toward them at a hard, flying gallop, his plaid of blue and green shot with red billowing in the wind of his passage. His long dark hair rippled with waves beneath his bonnet and his face was set in deadly determination. The hilt of a great sword loomed at one shoulder, and the thighs that gripped his mount's sides were bare above knee boots crisscrossed by leather thongs. His mouth was open with a cry that sang of retribution, justice and the fierce, steel-hard joy of battle.
The Scotsman, Ross Dunbar.
Cate recognized the rider with a sudden, amazed acceleration of her heart.
All at court knew of the man, though none claimed to know him well. Women sighed as he passed with his plaid swinging against strong, well-formed legs, his bonnet at a proud angle on his head, broad shoulders squared in defiancé, and his eyes, blue as the lochs of his native land, set straight ahead. Men gave him a wide berth, for he had a coldly effective temper, little patience with fools and bleak disdain for Henry's court. There only as a pledge for the goodwill of his father, an irascible old border laird too fond of raiding across the line between Scotland and England, Ross Dunbar despised his enforced attendance upon Henry VII. He scorned to drink and dice with most of those he called Sassenachs, and named none among them friend. Few were willing to meet him on the practice yard, for when he unlimbered his great sword with its silver chasing, someone always suffered.
He had been with the hunt, Cate knew, for she had marked him among its leaders. How he had come to be on this track she could not think. Nor could she see what he, one man, hoped to do against outlaws armed to the teeth and careless of lives that were worth nothing if they were caught by the king's men.
"Each of her carefully researched novels evokes a long-ago time so beautifully that you are swept into every detail of her memorable story."-Romantic Times Book Reviews
"Jennifer Blake is a beloved writer of romance-the pride and care she takes in her creations shines through." -Romance Reviews Today
"Blake...has rightly earned the admiration and respect of her readers. They know there is a world of enjoyment waiting within the pages of her books." -A Romance Review
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