Excerpt from “Lord of Deception”
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Suffolk, England 1585
Alys Barchard glared at her cousin and waited for the blow to fall. Kate Aspinall was wearing that expression again—a jest was coming, and it would be at her expense. It always was.
“So, what think you to a wager?” Kate rested her elbows on the railing of the wooden platform that gave them a view across the knot garden.
A wager? A trap, more likely. Alys frowned. “But you know I have nothing to stake.” “Oh, don’t be such a dullard. What about your embroidered pocket, the one you finished
the other day? What use have you of that when you’ve naught to put in it?”
“It took me all spring to fashion.” Alys meant to wear her hanging pocket as often as possible, to show off her skills as a needlewoman. Not that any men were likely to take an interest in her, forever eclipsed by her beautiful, wealthy cousin.
Kate’s eyes narrowed. Aye, here came the pout, the spoiled-child face that usually preceded stinging words. Since the loss of her husband last year, Kate’s faults had magnified a hundredfold.
Nonetheless, sympathy curbed Alys’ tongue. “Very well. Let my pocket be my forfeit. What are we wagering on?” She’d have to ensure she won the wager.
The sulky look vanished. “It concerns a man.”
“Which man?” The only regular male visitors to Selwood Manor were Sir Thomas Kirlham and his friend, Richard Avery, neither of whom Alys liked.
“My new gardener.” Kate’s gaze roved across the garden.
Alys’ fingers tightened on the railing. “The one your steward picked out at the hiring a sennight since?”
“The very one. Is he not a sight to set the hardest heart a-racing?”
The new gardener was in full view, but hopefully out of earshot. He was crouched down, snipping some errant stems from a rosebush, his shirt clinging to a broad expanse of muscled back. His heels pressed against tight buttocks, clad in a dusty pair of hose.
Alys swallowed. “Mayhap.”
“Mayhap? Fie on you, Alys—you have milk in your veins, not blood. He’s the handsomest fellow I’ve seen in a twelvemonth. Do you not see how gracefully he moves?”
Of course, she saw, but she wasn’t prepared to own it. Any confidence shared with Kate became common knowledge in an instant. Besides, it mattered not if the man was good- looking—he was but a servant.
“So, you admire him. But what part does he play in our wager?”
Kate’s smile was sly. “My challenge is this, to see which of us can steal the first kiss from that desirable mouth.”
Kiss the gardener? Had Kate taken leave of her senses? The idea sent a shiver skittering up Alys’ backbone. A sinful shiver.
Kate grinned as the man got to his feet again and tilted her head towards Alys. “Look at those long legs. I’ll warrant he could sit a horse admirably. Of a certain, he would ride a woman just as well.”
By the rood! If she weren’t so beholden to Kate, she’d slap her face for such wickedness. The woman must be taken in hand soon, or she’d drag the great name of Aspinall down into that same mud the gardener now brushed from his hands.
As if sensing their perusal, he turned as he stood, and bent a dutiful knee. His brown eyes flickered over them before he politely averted his gaze. Was there a mocking tilt to that firm mouth? Alys shivered again.
“You’re playing the fool, Kate. I can’t be party to such impropriety. Let’s go within—the wind is biting.”
“What wind? You mean this light summer breeze? You will accept my wager.” Kate’s blue eyes were hard, determined.
A pox on the woman! After a brief hesitation, Alys bowed her head. Kate would kiss the fellow and win the precious embroidered pocket. She must concede defeat—it was the only way to maintain harmony at Selwood Manor.
But what if the gardener preferred to kiss her? No, she couldn’t ask him—not even a poor relation like herself would kiss a mere servant. No matter how desirable he looked.
“Very well, I accept. What shall your stake be?”
“I’ll give the rosary that belonged to our grandmother.”
Alys blanched. What need had she of a rosary? Their use had been banned, and anyone caught using one would be branded a traitor. Kate had offered her a wager she couldn’t win and staked an item she couldn’t accept. She might as well give her the pocket now, and be done with it.
Kate’s lips thinned in triumph. “I don’t think kissing him will be any hardship. But which of us will he choose, do you think? Me, with my golden curls and eyes of cornflower blue, or you, with your disapproving frown and eyes like a puddle on a stormy day? Ah, see how he lifts that water butt with barely a blink! I’ll warrant he could last the race and more besides.”
Something stirred in Alys’ belly. A vision of the handsome gardener, poised naked over her, slick with sweat, sprang into her mind’s eye and refused to be banished, no matter how hard she tried.
“I’m going back to the house.” Why did her voice sound hoarse? What manner of beast had Kate unleashed in her head?
“But our wager—”
“I care not for kisses from servants, however dark of eye or long of leg. You shall have my pocket. Only I beg you not to kiss him. ‘Tis most unseemly.”
“Odd’s blood, Alys, you sound like a Puritan. Are not young widows entitled to a little diversion? Ah, I know what baits you. You don’t want me to show interest in a man, for fear I might lie with him, and conceive a child to deprive you of your inheritance.”
Alys bit her tongue. Kate had been spending most of that inheritance this past year— Alys didn’t expect to have more than two Angels to rub together should her childless cousin die first. But if she spoke out any more than she already had, there was a risk of spiteful reprisals.
“Whatever pleases you.”
“So, you accept my terms? Shall I do it now, right in front of you?”
Before Alys could point out that several of their servants were currently in view, Kate had swept down from the viewing platform and crossed the parterre to the rose arbor, where the subject of their discussion labored. He rose to greet her, the lithe grace of his movements a refreshing change from the stocky villagers normally employed on the manor. Kate looked a mere child before him, and as she stretched on tiptoe towards him, he ducked his head to hear her. A lock of his long dark hair fell forward, shadowing his face and his slender-fingered hand hovered protectively by her elbow but did not touch her.
Groaning inwardly, Alys prepared to endure the shameful spectacle of her cousin making a fool of both herself and the gardener.
Smiling smugly, Kate returned to the platform, the gardener’s gaze apparently riveted by the sway of her hips. His expression was unfathomable—the only clue to what had passed between them was a touch of color on his high cheekbones.
“What did you say to him? Did he refuse to kiss you?” Alys let out a breath as hope kindled about the embroidered pocket.
Kate swept past her, heading towards the yew walk. “Don’t be so hasty, Coz. The game is all the better if it does not end straightway, the prize all the sweeter if not quickly won. You’ll just have to wait, and watch for me to fulfill my part of the bargain. If you wish to kiss him yourself, you must make your move.”
Alys’ fingers dug into her palms. She had tasks enough to do without having to dawdle around after the mercurial Kate, playing her games. Yet if she didn’t give her the requisite attention, life would be Purgatory for the next week at least.
She ran a finger over the platform’s rough handrail. Oh, what she would give to escape from this prison of hers. The only freedom she could hope for was by Kate’s death, or by her own marriage. Due to Kate’s jealousy, the latter was unlikely—and Kate was in robust good health. The vibrant colors of the gardens blurred before her eyes as her cousin disappeared in the direction of the back moat.
“What is it that saddens my lady so?”
Alys’ head snapped up. How could anyone approach so swiftly without making a sound? The gardener stood below the platform, looking up at her, his dark gaze too deep, too knowing.
She flushed. “Impertinent fellow! Who bade you speak?”
“I beg your forgiveness. I’ve been commanded to bring you a tussie-mussie by your cousin. I did not mean to pry.”
She accepted the little handful of lavender and sweet Williams in trembling fingers. The gardener had to reach up to offer his gift due to the platform’s height, but he was still too near for her liking. In close proximity, he grew in stature and disquieting beauty, like a spark springing to a flame.
She thanked him with cool courtesy. The urge to ask what else Kate had whispered was strong, but she mustn’t demean herself. The gift of the flowers was just part of Kate’s attempt to goad and confuse her.
He still stood below her. She felt his eyes on her face, an impertinence. Why could she not meet them?
“You may return to your work.” She rolled the flower stems vigorously between her hands. “We are expecting visitors, and they may wish to walk in the gardens.” Her voice sounded weak and shaky. This would not do at all—she should not be discomfited by a servant.
Silence grew between them, heavy as a millstone. She had just steeled herself to look into the dark eyes, to put the man in his place, when the stillness was broken by the clatter of hoofbeats in the lane, accompanied by the rattle of wheels.
He stiffened, his fingers clenching on the sun-warmed wood of the platform. “Who may your visitors be?”
She gazed down at his hands, browned from outdoor labor, smudged with dirt, and green-stained. Beautifully-shaped masculine hands, strong, purposeful, gentle. Too fine for a gardener.
“What business is it of yours who visits? I’ve a good mind to have you punished for your effrontery.” Lord! She hated how she sounded—she usually got on so well with all the staff. But this man was different. Disquieting.
The fingers removed themselves, and he backed away, head and shoulders bowed, a picture of apology. “Your forgiveness, lady, if I spoke out of turn. I just wanted to know the best flowers to pick for a table display—if ladies are visiting rather than gentlemen, I’d choose differently.”
A heavy step crunched on the gravel outside the walled garden. Alys’ heart thundered as the gate opened, revealing the menacing form of Sir Thomas Kirlham. She felt herself jerk like a child caught with his thumb in the cream pot.
“Oh!” She looked down, but the gardener had gone, as softly as he’d come, and a glance around revealed him exiting the garden by the other gate. Good. Her censure must have reminded him of his place. If he had any sense, he wouldn’t approach her again, regardless of Kate’s orders.
As she gathered her skirts and swept down from the platform to greet Sir Thomas, she vowed it would have to be Kate who kissed the alluring gardener, not her. Mistress Alys Barchard must never stoop so low, not even in defense of her embroidered pocket.