The maiden and the mercenary
Publication: Harlequin/Mills and Boon (December 2020)
Keep your friends close…
But your enemies closer?
In order to find a legendary treasure map, mercenary Louve of Mei Solis must infiltrate his enemy’s fortress under the guise of a servant. There, Louve meets beautiful maiden Biedeluue, a fellow servant with her own hidden agenda…to save her sister from the malevolent Lord’s clutches! Their high-stakes missions may be at odds with one other, but their attraction cannot be denied even in this most dangerous of situations…
So you see, not all simply trysts, drunken madness, and broken goblets. Definitely spying, espionage, kidnapping, and rescues needing to be made! - Insatiable Readers Blogspot
Biedeluue wiped the back of her hand against her mouth and concentrated on the tower of goblets stacked on the well-worn table before her. The chanting crowd around her and her challenger jostled for a closer position and she shoved back.
‘These hips of mine aren’t moving for anyone!’ She brandished the goblet in her hand and they all stepped merrily aside.
‘I’ll move your hips!’
Galen winked one eye, then the other much more slowly. Ah, not winking, but trying to focus through the haze of ale, like her.
‘Attempting to move my hips when drunken is how you first fell to misfortune, Galen.’ She pointed somewhere in the vicinity of his stack. ‘Now, let’s see how you apply yourself with smaller…goblets.’
‘As if he could be so fortunate!’ shouted Tess, from the baking ovens.
Someone clapped and everyone from the wafer maker to the cup bearer howled. The kitchens were normally bustling, but now, even the doorways were crammed with field people. The kitchens were as large as kingdoms, but even so, she heard a crash to her right as the crowd moved and several heads whipped around to see the destruction.
She didn’t, however, any quick movement was ill advised. How many gulps of ale had she had? She’d stopped counting after twenty, trusting the betting crowd had their own vested interest to keep track of the game.
It was up to her to stack the goblets for each gulp of ale. She narrowed her eyes at the wavering mound. Ten…twenty? Oh, maybe twenty-five gulps of ale.
Which meant Galen, the challenger, had also had twenty-five…no, he’d just thrown back another and grabbed a goblet to stack on top of the tower he’d made.
Damn him, his height and those arms that were twice as tall and…twice as many as he had before. Four arms? An unfair advantage to be sure!
‘No helping!’ she called out as Henry sneaked a supporting hand to Galen’s back when he staggered backwards.
Henry lifted both his hands and she nodded her head at him in satisfaction. A mistake, which she fixed by widening her stance.
If Galen fell, she won. If Galen toppled his goblets before her, she won. And if she won, she got…she got…
She’d win! She liked that part the best.
Right now she needed to win. It was important because she wasn’t winning at anything else and there was more at stake here.
A roiling wave to her stomach as her thoughts darkened. She blinked hard, peering at the raucous crowd and the goblets she had stupidly assembled entirely too high. She needed to put another on the top.
An easy task. All the tasks were easy. Stack the goblets, drink the drink and beat the brewer Galen, who reportedly hadn’t lost a game of drink since he was a babe.
That was a bet she could win because she hadn’t lost a game of drink since she was a babe and she was older than Galen. In fact, she was older than most of the servants in the Warstone kitchens. The only ones older than her were the ones already with babies and who lived in the village outside the fortress.
She was old enough for a husband and family of her own, too, but had been avoiding any such connections. Entirely because of the village men who’d enjoyed manipulating a girl whose father had abandoned her, her four siblings and their weakened mother.
Though she couldn’t imagine a family of her own, the one she had she’d do anything for. By the time she could, Biedeluue, after hours in the fields, helped her mother cook, clean, and cuddle away the pain of scrapes and bruises of her siblings. When that wasn’t enough, she had left to earn coin and only returned to give her mother and siblings what she could to ease her family’s struggles.
All her siblings, save for one, were still in their village outside Lyon. And though she travelled to work, they still never left her in peace. They still needed her and she did what she could for them.
So when she received that scrap of parchment from the youngest, Margery, the one not at home, that she was in danger and to send their brothers immediately, Biedeluue didn’t hesitate to rush to her aid, just as she’d always done before.
Because out of all the hardships she’d had to endure to save her family…the fact she couldn’t save Margery from a worse fate pained most of all. Margery who always had to be protected because, when times became truly hard, the village men didn’t stop at just Biedeluue.
What had happened to Margery now? That message. Hastily scrawled so that Biedeluue could barely read it. Not even signed, but she knew who’d written it because of one distinctive loop. Always the beautiful loops in the writing even if the message was terrifying.
However, after asking for work and gaining the trust of the servants, she didn’t know how to aid her sister who was trapped here in this Warstone fortress. Bied had now been here for a fortnight and still hadn’t seen or spoken to her sister. Wasn’t even certain she was held captive because no matter whom she asked, no one knew a woman named Margery. No one…
What if she wasn’t here? She must be. This was Ian of Warstone’s personal fortress. One Bied recognised from the overt wealth, intimidation and malice in every stone and floorboard. She’d never met that man whom her sister had been overjoyed to have captured the attention of, but everything Margery had told her in that letter gave her goose pimples and not the good kind.
No, regrettably, her sister must be here. The chambermaid let slip that if the mistress kept weeping no amount of cold water would ever get her swollen lavender eyes lovely again.
Lavender eyes. Margery was the only one of her siblings to have eyes that colour. Her sister. Trapped and fearful. So close and… Mustn’t think dark thoughts. Mustn’t…
Biedeluue swallowed hard, tasting the ale and her worry.
‘If you’re wanting to spew,’ Henry said, ‘there’s a goblet right in your hand.’
‘Or a…few…in front of you.’ Galen belched.
She narrowed her eyes. Galen needed to fall and soon. Except… Swinging her attention back to the tower in front of her, she saw that the goblets hadn’t got smaller in her reverie. There was over a…a lot of them…and she still had one in her hand.
Where had that come from?
‘I have been sent on many missions before,’ Louve of Mei Solis said, ‘but this is by far the most foolish one yet.’
‘At least you said foolish and not dangerous,’ Balthus of Warstone said, ‘that lends hope.’
Louve loosened his hands on the reins, but the horse beneath him pawed the earth. No doubt it felt the unease from him and his men. It was the wait weighing on them. It was the fact by going forward, some would be killed.
And this was one of the easier of days after hard travel gathering men and supplies which took far longer than it should so by the time they investigated the area they were plagued by rain and frost. Now, they were supposed to penetrate an impenetrable fortress and procure either information which would end wars or capture the man who held such important secrets.
Given the fortress and a certain man were surrounded by hundreds of well-trained warriors, the task was not a simple one.
‘When I said foolish, didn’t that imply the mission was dangerous?’ Louve said.
Balthus shrugged. ‘How am I to interpret your vague and insouciant descriptions? We’ve known each other less than a month. Even that has been too much.’
Louve ignored the insult. Balthus had made it obvious since the beginning of this journey from Troyes he didn’t want Louve’s company. In that, he was exactly like the rest of his family. ‘I learnt vague from your brother Reynold.’
‘Whom, in my entire life, I have spent less time with than you.’
Louve could hear both the accusation and the curiosity in Balthus’s voice. Even if he had a lifetime, he couldn’t describe Reynold, one of the four brothers of the Warstone family, and the man who’d hired him as a mercenary. Over the years, Reynold had become a friend to Louve, though Reynold continued to deny it.
The fact he could even call such a man friend was an irony, since Reynold of Warstone was an enemy of his only other friend, Nicholas of Mei Solis. Also, the Warstones were secretly undermining the King of England. An act Louve couldn’t fathom given he wasn’t from nobility or familiar with the intrigues of court.
Intrigues which had led him here on the same mission that Reynold had borne his entire life. To stop the Warstone family from gaining the power they so hungrily garnered. Their wealth, their reach already could cripple monarchs, and still they weren’t satisfied. They were also…evil.
Husband against wife. Brothers raised separately. The Warstones only combined against kingdoms. Then Reynold had broken ranks, turned on them all.
Somehow Louve, of no noble blood, whose skills were more with ledgers than daggers, was in the middle of it all.