Her Christmas Knight
Publication: Harlequin/Mills and Boon (October 2017)
“By order of the English king,”
Alice of Swaffham searches London nobility for the traitor dealing information to the Scots. Little does she know that the mysterious spy she seeks is the man she once loved and thought she'd lost forever…
If Hugh of Shoebury felt unworthy of Alice before, as the Half-Thistle spy he can never claim her heart. Now he must fight to keep not only his dark secrets—and Alice—safe from a vengeful king…but also his burning longing for her at bay!
I would recommend this read not only for the season but anytime. I loved it. - Romancing the Book
October 1296, London
She wasn’t going to make it.
Heat prickled down her back. Her hands, clutching a seal to her chest, grew damp. Alice stopped running, pressed her back against the stone wall and let out a steadying breath.
She was going to make it. She had to. She had come too far. It was the labyrinth of passageways that was making her anxious. She didn’t know where she was going.
It was the dark...which was more heavy and cold than the stone she rested against.
How long had she been running? She should never have agreed to the game—never agreed to visiting Court in the first place.
As if she’d had a choice. King Edward needed gold and her family—wealthy wool merchants—were being heavily taxed for it. To soften the blow, the King often invited her family to Court. Beyond delighted, her father had always taken the trips alone. This time round, however, the King had formally invited her. And one could not avoid a direct royal command.
But she could have avoided the seal-seeking game. Noting that the King wasn’t in residence, she had tried to avoid the game. But someone had put her name in the bowl and it had been pulled. Then she and the others had been shoved into various darkened hallways to find a seal and solve the riddle.
Which should have been easy. Even if she didn’t know and couldn’t see where she was going, she’d thought she could depend on her ears to hear the lapping of the Thames or the running of the other seal seekers. But her ears had failed her. All was dead silent.
She rolled the seal in her hands, hoping the unusual shape would distract her from her thoughts. The seal was neither round nor square, and it was much too large for her hands, but it had to be the correct seal. She was sure that she’d understood the riddle: Find the door that holds the light.
A door couldn’t hold a light unless there was a light behind that illuminated it, and yet she had opened so many doors and there had been only more darkness.
Her breathing hitched. She mustn’t think about her fear of darkness. She must consider only the light and where she hadn’t been. If she concentrated on the riddle maybe she could forget the dark. Maybe.
Laughter. High-pitched and suddenly snuffed out.
Where had it come from? It had burst out and disappeared too quickly for her to tell. Was it the other seal seekers or someone hiding in the shadows?
She pushed away from the wall and walked to the left. She might be going in circles, but she had to move. The riddle had hinted at additional seals. The others might be ahead of her.
Not daring to run any more, she quickened her steps. If the other seekers were close and she slipped and the seal fell she would never find it again. But she couldn’t be too cautious. If she was quick enough she’d have the prize—she’d be out of the dark.
Another step and another—until the floor dropped.
She swiped at the dark with her hands and feet until the corridor curved into a staircase. Keeping a hand on the stone wall, she shuffled her way down until she found her way to a heavily latched illuminated door.
There were more sounds, too—murmurs and whispers of a crowd trying to be quiet. This was the door! She brushed her free hand against the smooth wood until she found the latch.
Other noises were reaching her ears—more laughter, and footsteps behind her. No time to waste. She placed the seal beside her feet, and used both hands to lift the latch. It held, as if someone on the other side was preventing it from opening. Did she dare call out?
No, the footsteps behind her were too close.
She jumped and used her body to press down on the handle. The latch broke free, but the clank echoed in the quiet corridor. The footsteps behind her changed direction.
No time to lose.
Grabbing the seal, she rushed into the too-bright room. Images of people and flames flickering in elaborate wall sconces distracted her. She collided with a wall wearing chainmail and started to fall backwards.
Thick arms wrapped around her waist and lifted her. Clutching the seal against her chest, she felt her feet leave the ground as she was pressed against the unmistakable curves of a trained warrior. Winded, and blinded by the sudden light, she felt his flat abdomen against her own, her breasts rubbing abrasively against interlocked steel, and still the warrior pulled her up...and up.
She was being held much too closely. She breathed in to catch her breath, to protest, and smelled leather and metal, and a scent that was this man’s alone. A scent that hovered on her memory...elusive, familiar. It filled her with such a sudden wanting that she clamped her mouth shut.
Images blazed in her mind. It couldn’t be him. It shouldn’t be him.
Another feeling assaulted her, more powerful than the embarrassment of being held too closely. It was even more deeply pitted in her stomach than her sudden inexplicable wanting.
She felt fear.
She blinked her eyes to focus and was caught by the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. No, not the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, because she’d seen these eyes before. Years ago. The fear went down her back all the way to her heels before it raced hot and fast to the top of her head.
She blinked again. No, these eyes were not the same—even though they were the crystal blue of a summer sky, so bright and too piercing to be real. These eyes had had that light taken from them. They were as clear and stunning a colour as to be almost impossible, but these eyes held something else—some darkness—as if an unseen storm was about to break.
Other features of this warrior were different, too. His blond hair did not wave around his shoulders, but was cut short, its curls tamed to just behind his ears. His skin was not pale from the clouds and mists of a small town, but was sun-baked. Underneath the torchlight his face was all hard, lean planes and too fierce for softness. There were lines, too, around his eyes—not from laughter, but from determination. His lips, which curved sensuously and were made for smiling, were instead turned down deeply.
None of this seeming harshness hid the sheer beauty of his features. No, this man’s perfection was marred by a nose that crooked a little to the left.
The seal slipped in her suddenly damp hands. She knew that nose. She had broken that nose. Reluctantly, against her will, she raised her eyes to his again. He was still studying her.
She felt permanently latched to him. She could not move even to let air into her lungs. Oh, she didn’t want to, but she knew those eyes. And they knew her. There was no confusion in their blue depths, there was only...waiting.
But he couldn’t be the man she knew. She hadn’t heard from him or seen him for more than six years. She’d thought him dead. She wanted him dead.
‘Hugh?’ The name escaped before she knew she still had a voice, and the corner of his lips lifted.
She knew that crooked smile. She knew that smile all too well.
The bright room blurred. Her body felt like a whirling spindle. She felt the instant tightening of his hands against her back and his body bracing itself against her sudden lack of strength.
She was fainting.
A sharp pain in her back, a sudden shove forward, and Hugh shifted to keep their balance. It was all she needed to break eye contact. The dizziness left; the room turned bright again.
They were surrounded by heavily perfumed people. The courtiers’ dress of—multiple colours along with the copious amounts of gold and silver—glinted and glared in the torchlight. They were all staring at her. Their mouths moved, but she couldn’t hear their words above the roaring in her ears.
She pushed away, but Hugh did not immediately release her. Instead he slowly lowered her to the ground. If possible, the chainmail was more abrasive and his body was harder than a stone wall. Her breasts tingled inside her chemise; swathed in her heavy skirts, her dangling legs entwined with his.
It was all too intimate, too heady. When her feet touched the floor it felt as if he’d dropped her from that imagined cliff.
Unsteady, she pressed her hand against his chest. Her body shook with the rise of his breath, the strong beat of his heart. Hugh’s hands returned to her sides, and they were all too familiar, too proprietorial. He didn’t have a right to such touch. He had refused her offer to have a right to such touch.
‘Release me,’ she said, not looking in his eyes.
He stepped away. The crowd moved into the space before her. Their voices finally reached her ears. The circular room was clanging and echoing with cries of protest, outrage, laughter, loud talk.
The courtiers stared and pointed at her chest. Embarrassment warmed her skin. Had the ribbons around her dress loosened as Hugh held her so tightly? Had she become undressed—here, in public, at Court?
She looked down, but nothing was indecent. The light green ribbon that wound round her chest and sleeves still held her blue linen dress together. She was intact; there was nothing to cause her shame.
And she still had the seal clutched to her body.
The seal. She had the seal.
How could she have forgotten the game? How long had she been held by Hugh, staring at him as if she...as if she wanted to see him again? Embarrassment did more than warm her skin. This time she knew she turned red. Something she couldn’t control. But what she could control was what she did about it.
Putting as much coldness into her features as possible, she looked up. He wasn’t there.