Her Christmas Knight
Publication: October 2017 by Harlequin Historical
“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
An Unusual Historical Best Bets November 2017 - Wendy the Super Librarian
Another enchanting and romantic Christmas story, which I absolutely recommend. It's just so good! - Chicks Rogues & Scandals
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. The crowd had surrounded her and was pushing her forward. Digging her heels into the flooring, she struggled against the crowd until they suddenly opened before her. With a last shove she was released into a small opening.
She righted herself, running one hand down her crumpled dress, and turned to glare at the courtiers—but a glint of red and gold at the corner of her eye shocked her into stillness.
Disbelieving, she turned towards the red and gold of the King’s throne. It wasn’t empty. Instead there was a very tall, very thin, bearded man reposing on the ornately carved chair.
Fighting the instinct to hide, she dropped in a deep curtsey. King Edward had returned to the Tower of London and he was staring right at her.
‘Rise, my lady. It appears you have something of mine.’
She rose, her knees unsteady, her hands trembling. In fear of dropping it, she pressed the seal to her belly. King Edward barely glanced at it.
She was suddenly acutely aware of falling very short of Court decorum. Hair tangled from running, purple dress crumpled by the crowd, cheeks flushed with bewilderment. Even her mind was in disarray.
But none of this was fair. She’d neither seen nor heard any formal announcement of his arrival. Literally, she’d been in the dark.
As if conjured by its name, darkness swirled around her chaotic thoughts. Was she about to faint?
She raised her chin. Damn the dark and—if she could—damn the King, too, for making her feel inadequate. After all, it was his stupid game she’d been playing. What did he expect? And whoever had heard of a king taking so long to gaze upon someone’s appearance?
But he wasn’t looking at her appearance. He hadn’t noticed the crumpled silk or the tendrils of hair that strayed out behind the silver circlet around her head. The King hadn’t noticed her physical appearance. The King seemed to be assessing her.
She was going to faint.
‘Who are you?’ King Edward’s deep voice echoed in the unnaturally quiet room.
She desperately wished her mouth wasn’t so dry. ‘Alice of Fenton, sire.’
‘Yes, Your Majesty.’
He chuckled. ‘Well, it seems you have won a prize.’
Alice didn’t know how to answer. Despite the King’s laughter his brow remained furrowed, and it gave him a troubled look.
She chastised herself. Perhaps he could not rid himself of worry when there were such heavy matters to deal with in the north. But with such concerns, why was he bothering with a courtly game?
His chamberlain was suddenly on her right. In his hands was an elaborate ivory hunting horn. Even in the great glitter of Court the horn glimmered bright, its three bands of carved silver sparkling like stars. If this was her prize for such sport, every extravagance her sister had told her about Court was true.
She bowed her head. ‘Thank you, Your Majesty.’
He inclined his head, but looked beyond her shoulder. She would have looked, too, but the chamberlain was handing her the horn. His manner was overtly stiff, his arms barely extended. It forced her to bend low and forward to retrieve it, or look as if she was refusing the prize.
She was practically wrapped around him when she heard his message, whispered so softly only she could hear.
‘You will go to the antechamber when the third song starts.’
Startled at the words, she didn’t react as the chamberlain grabbed the seal, shoved the horn into her hand and disappeared.
When she looked up from the horn the King was gone. She had not acknowledged a king leaving the throne. What was wrong with her?
Courtiers swarmed around her, but her ears and eyes were numb to their excited chatter.
She heard music faintly in the background. Had she missed a song?
No, the chamberlain had just left, and the people around her were moving into a dance. It was the first song.
At the third song the King commanded a private meeting with her. Although the chamberlain had not said so, she knew this was not something to be repeated. Not that she would tell any of the people crowding around her to admire the horn. They were strangers all, and she had never felt that fact more than at this moment.
She tried to accept their congratulations, but mostly she waited for their interest to wane. It did so in very little time.
Soon she was left alone, while people danced, gossiped and flirted. She had never understood until now what it meant when it was said that people twittered. She watched people laugh too gaily and talk too loudly. If they would simply be quiet she could concentrate.
Two, she counted. She knew this song.
There wasn’t much time before she must reach the antechamber. Certainly not enough to collect her thoughts, which were now more crumpled than her dress. She didn’t know why she was being summoned, or why she had felt the King was measuring her.
Maybe by her winning she had caught his eye. The Queen had been dead for years and he had yet to remarry. Was that why he had been assessing her? Did he wonder if she’d make a suitable mistress? Her heart lurched. It was an honour, but one that she had never hoped for; she certainly hadn’t wanted to win the game that much.
She searched the crowd for bright golden hair. But she didn’t need her eyes to know that Hugh was not in the room. Her awareness of that man was something she had carried most of her life.
There was no one for her to confide in. She had thought herself lucky that she had an entire week without her family prodding her to dance with men they thought suitable. But right now she would have appreciated a familiar face. What good was it to have a large family if none of them were around when she needed them?
The second song was ending. It was time for her to go. She was too frightened to look around—too worried that people would see where she was going and know what would happen to her.
The guards at the door seemed reluctant. They only stepped slightly out of her way, and opened the door the merest slit. She was forced to turn sideways to fit through. She certainly wasn’t an honoured guest.
Once inside, she heard the door shut with a heavy metal clank. Immediately, the crowd and music were muffled. It was too late for her to realise that she had taken comfort in the noise and people.
The room was lit by tall, narrow stained-glass windows. The natural light was calmer than the glitter and torches of the throne room. The sun had not set, which surprised her. It seemed that more time had passed since she had started the game.
The walls were finely decorated with red fleur-de-lis. Dark green velvet draperies hung from an elaborately carved four-poster bed. The huge fireplace was not lit, but shone brilliant white from many cleanings. On the far wall was a small round nook that was overpowered by a large golden cross.
King Edward sat in the middle of the room, next to a rectangular table that was laden with fine pewter and food.
There were no guards, no nobles nor courtiers vying for his attention. They were alone, and this was not an antechamber but his bedroom.
It was not these facts that gave her pause. It was the feeling of the room. Fine refreshments on the table, the King sitting and enjoying a repast, drinking wine... It was all so private, so...personal.
He turned his head to her. Bedroom or not, she was still before a monarch. She gave another curtsey.
‘Come, there will be no formality here.’ He waved for her to sit across from him at the table.
She did, her eyes never leaving his. His face remained unreadable, his eyes shadowed.
‘Would you like some refreshment?’ he asked, his eyes resting on the horn she had laid in her lap.
‘No, thank you,’ she replied, as deferentially as she could. She wouldn’t be able to get anything down her throat even if she tried. She was surprised she was able to speak.
‘You are nervous,’ he said.
She hesitated. ‘I am.’
King Edward sighed. ‘It cannot be helped. I wondered how you would fair, being of the softer sex.’
She was being judged. Had she disappointed him by being nervous? She had every reason to be uneasy—even to fear him. He was one of the greatest rulers in the world. But she realised that her nervousness stemmed from something more than simply knowing his power.
She was in a situation she couldn’t comprehend. Why would a king come back from war to play a game, and why she was in his private counsel, alone with him in his bedroom?
‘My fear is for what is expected of me, Your Majesty, not necessarily at your august company,’ she said.
He set down his goblet and raised surprised eyes to hers.
Her answer had gone too far. She had practically challenged a monarch.
‘I did not mean—’ she began.
King Edward gave a low chuckle and shook his head. ‘No, do not recant your answer. I am pleased with your honesty and I am relieved that you have no fear of me but of what is expected of you.’
‘I did not say that I did not fear your company—simply that I fear what I am doing here more.’
He leaned back in his chair, his creased brow softening. ‘Ah, it is good to know that you are wise. It would be remiss of me to say you should not have fear.’
She boldly strode on. ‘What is expected of me, sire?’
He reached for the flagon of wine between them and gave it a swirl. The wine’s floral scent filled the air as he poured. His actions allowed her to watch him without his too knowing eyes staring back at her. Although he would not remember, she had been presented to him at Court when she was very young. He had changed much since she had last seen him. The shadows under his eyes and the cynical way he held his body told his age more than the grey of his beard.
‘How did you escape my guards?’ He set down the flagon.
It took her a moment to realise he was talking about the game. ‘I waited in the dark until they were occupied by the other players, Your Majesty.’
‘Although I am not pleased that my guards should be so easily distracted, it is good that you show both intelligence and patience,’ he said. ‘You will need both.’
She didn’t reply. Being the last of three daughters, she had learned patience. The King was weighing his words and she was still waiting for an answer to her question.
‘Did you enjoy finding the seal?’ He grabbed a loaf of bread and tore it. The crumbs scattered across the table.
‘I did, thank you.’
He chewed slowly. ‘You hold your prize as if I will take it back,’ he said. ‘I promise that it is yours, but I do desire you to place it on the table so that I may enjoy it in these last moments.’
Her eyes fell to the horn still clasped in her hand. She placed it on the table.
He set down the bread and pointed at the horn. ‘You have not looked at it closely, have you?’
There had been little opportunity for her to inspect her prize. She shook her head, fearing she would offend him.
‘Did you not find it odd that the prize is a hunting horn?’
‘No, Your Majesty, it is a fine prize.’ She glanced at it, and noticed that numerous pictures had been carved into the thick silver bands.
He picked up the horn and turned it in his hands. ‘There are many tales told here.’ He touched the smallest band by the mouth of the horn. ‘This is the resolution of the story, although how it is resolved makes little sense in comparison to the tales told by the first two bands.’
‘And those tales, sire?’ she asked.
The King seemed in little hurry for their meeting to be over. And if he thought he was putting her at ease by talking about a decorative horn he could not be more wrong. She felt tighter than the silver bands.
He gave a slight shrug. ‘It tells of kings warring and lovers being torn apart. It is a typical story for troubadours.’
‘And what is shown in the resolution that does not make sense?’ she asked.
‘We only see the lovers joined again, their arms cradling a child between them.’
‘And this does not make sense?’
He set the horn down and reached for his wine. The liquid sloshed against the sides of the blue glass. In the light streaming from the stained-glass windows the dark red colour looked like blood.
‘We do not see what happens to the kings. I have to admit I am biased, but there should be some balance between the two tales.’
She glanced at the perfect workmanship of the horn. ‘Perhaps a band is missing.’
‘Or the craftsman didn’t think what had happened to the kings of different countries was important enough to depict.’ He drained his goblet. ‘I want you to know that I do not hold to such a belief. I could not care less what happens to the lovers, or to individual people. There are greater risks than the lives of two people. How old are you?’
‘I have known twenty-two summers, Your Majesty.’
‘You are old enough for what I need of you. You showed cunning and care in pursuit of the seal and you live in the very town that plagues me the most. So, although you have no training for such a task, I am ordering you to take on a mission of the utmost importance.’
‘I do not understand.’
She shifted in the seat that was no longer comfortable. Her first instinct was to leave the room, but she could not rise without his permission. Maybe she should not have been so clever in the game-playing. But she was coming to realise that perhaps it hadn’t been a game.
‘I want you to know that what I speak of now is between us. If this information becomes public before your duty to me is accomplished, you and your family will be placed in this very tower—and not as guests.’
She wished now that she had taken his offer of wine. The liquid would have quenched her suddenly parched throat. She nodded her head to let him know she understood, although she didn’t, not fully.
‘No need to lose your courage now. I am not asking you to break any commandments with God.’
Her heart did not ease. Maybe she wouldn’t have to commit murder, but it was something grave. Something that was important enough to bring the King back to London. Something that he felt necessitated his making a threat to her family.
‘In any war, information is as important a part of winning as the ability with a sword,’ he continued. ‘Right now there are letters that are passing secrets from this very chamber to the usurpers in Scotland. For distinction, or for pride, all these letters are sealed with the impression of a half-thistle.’
She could not be following this conversation correctly. It was too private, too important. The King of England was telling her that he had a traitor in his court. And the traitor closed his treacherous letters with a seal. A true seal.
‘The seeking of the seal...the riddle,’ she said, ‘it wasn’t a game.’
‘No, it was a test. I thought that whoever was cunning enough to find and escape with a fake seal would be cunning enough to find a real one.’ He tapped the table and smiled. ‘And, in case you were wondering, none of those seekers were randomly chosen to play the game.’
She had to concentrate on his words and not on the image of her sisters locked in the Tower. ‘What is it that you want me to do?’ She forced the words from her lips.
‘I think it should be clear to one who has beaten my best guards and won a testing game. It is the reason the winner’s prize must be a hunting horn. I wish for the winner to be a hunter.’
She must be shaking her head, for the King raised his hand and nodded.
‘Yes, Alice of Fenton from Swaffham. I wish you to find the Half-Thistle Seal,’ he continued. ‘Whoever has this seal will be the traitor. We believe that this traitor is in your very town—might indeed be among the people you know.’
She stopped breathing. This couldn’t be happening to her. He couldn’t possibly mean what she thought he meant.
‘I wish you to become a spy,’ he finished.
Oh, spindles—he did.