The court of King Henry VIII
Rosalind Llewellyn slid off her horse and immediately grabbed hold of the bridle. After a long day in the saddle, her legs seemed unable to meet the hardness of the ground and bowed like the branches of a willow tree. She glanced around the familiar royal stable yard and heaved a sigh. It was late evening, and everything was quiet. Despite her long absence, nothing had changed. Even the same horses’ heads were framed in the half-open stalls and the same voices called out to one another.
She glanced at her companion, Rhys Williams, who was busy removing their belongings from the packs and simultaneously inquiring as to where he should stable the horses. Rhys looked the same as well—if she discounted a certain grim set to his features when he looked at her.
“Can I help, Rhys?”
“No, my lady, why don’t you just stand there in the way instead?”
Rosalind threw him a cross look. “I’m too tired to argue with you, Rhys. Just tell me what to do and I’ll be glad to help.”
He doffed his cap at her, revealing the dark auburn of his hair. “Then perhaps my lady might move the bags behind the safety of the wall? I’d hate the horses to trip.”
“Or for any of my belongings to be crushed,” Rosalind muttered, as she gathered the first of the leather saddlebags and hefted it over the wall. Rhys cocked an eyebrow at her as she continued her task.
“You seem a little out of sorts, my lady.”
“Of course I am. I didn’t expect to come back to court. My cousin Jasper is perfectly capable of guarding the king. I’m not sure why I had to return at all.”
Rhys grinned at her as he led the first of the horses into one of the vacant stalls. “Coward.”
The smell of fresh grain and horse dung drifted back to Rosalind. She waited for him to return, her task forgotten, her hands planted on her hips. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
He took her horse’s bridle in his gloved hand. “You know.”
“Are you saying I didn’t want to return to court for a specific reason? You might remember that I almost died last time I was here.”
“Oh, I remember.” His smile faded. “I was right there beside you. You probably don’t remember that part, being as you were too busy making cow eyes at Christopher Ellis.”
“I was busy trying to kill the Vampire!”
He bowed. “As were we all. It didn’t stop you becoming involved with that soul-sucking Druid slayer, though, did it?”
He stomped off again and Rosalind could only stare helplessly at his broad back. It was true that she’d become intimately involved with Christopher, but Rhys knew perfectly well why that had happened. Between her Druid gods and the king, she had been caught very neatly in a sensual trap that she had still not managed to escape.
Rhys returned, his face severe. He picked up the heaviest of the bags and heaved it over the low stone wall. “The rest of your belongings should be here by the end of the week, if the carrier makes good time.”
“Thank you. I believe I have enough to clothe myself decently for at least a few days.” Rosalind touched his leather-clad arm. “Rhys, if you want to return to Wales, I would quite understand.”
He looked down at her, his hazel eyes full of wry amusement, his lilting voice lowered to a soft murmur. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
Rosalind sighed. “I’m trying to avoid hurting you.”
“Because you plan on taking up with the newly elevated Lord Christopher Ellis?”
Rosalind raised her chin. “Officially and spiritually I am still betrothed to him.” She frowned. “I can’t quite believe my grandfather has allowed the betrothal to continue, but there it is. As Lord Christopher’s betrothed, I am somewhat obliged to seek him out.”
“Obliged, eh?” Rhys flicked her nose. “Cariad, you can call it what you like, but I know you want him and that you don’t want me. I’ll try not to let it interfere with my job of protecting you.”
“I don’t know what I want anymore.” Rosalind groused and moved out of the way of an incoming horse and rider arrayed in the king’s livery. “Christopher hasn’t bothered to contact me and express an opinion as to our. . .situation.”
Rhys helped her over the stable wall, his hands firm on her waist. “He could hardly come prancing into your father’s stronghold, now, could he? He would’ve been killed on sight.”
“That’s true, I suppose, but… it would’ve been nice if he’d made the attempt. Or even just written me a letter!”
“And I thought you were deliberately lingering at home to avoid him and the king. Sometimes I’m glad I’m no longer one of your suitors. You have a somewhat bloodthirsty streak.” Rhys handed her the lightest bag, which contained her jewelry, coins and favorite silver dagger. “The position of your lover seems fraught with danger.”
“I can’t help that.” Rosalind took the well-worn path that wound up from the stables to the main wing of the palace. She glanced across at the ruined Roman bathhouse where she’d met with Christopher and the others on her last visit to court. Was he even here? She had no sense of him yet. In the last year, she’d perfected her barriers against him in anticipation of having to see him again, especially if he turned up on the opposite side of a fight.
The last time she’d seen Christopher it had been spring. She and Rhys had fled the court, intent on making it back to Wales before the king’s message about her betrothal to one of her family’s worst enemies reached her grandfather. They hadn’t made it in time, and Rosalind had endured her grandfather’s wrath on the subject for several weeks until he’d finally gone quiet and left her alone. That had worried her even more.
She straightened her shoulders and focused on the welcoming lights streaming out of the palace. She would talk to her cousin Jasper tomorrow and see what calamity had arisen that had made him write to her grandfather and insist she return to court. Both she and Christopher had suspected another Vampire plot was in the offing. The urgency the Vampire Council felt about defeating the rogue Vampire, Lady Celia Del Alonso, was quite out of character for them. It was almost as if Lady Celia had been seen as an obstacle. Or a distraction. As if there was a grander scheme afoot, or someone more powerful and likely to be even more successful in controlling or killing the king.
Rhys paused by the doorway into the maids of honors’ quarters and deposited her bags on the ground. “Your grandfather wrote to Queen Katherine to ask for permission for you to return to court. But, from what the stable boy just told me, I’m not certain if she is still in residence here.”
“Then where is she?”
“I’m not sure.” He grimaced. “Apparently, the king does not wish to gaze upon her visage. She reminds him of his lack of an heir.”
“That is so unfair.”
“I can’t help but agree. The queen is steadfast in her love for the king, but he seems to have moved on to other, more agreeable conquests. Life can be cruel sometimes.”
Unwilling to delve into the thorny subject of love with Rhys yet again, Rosalind rose on tiptoe to pat his cheek. “I’m sure I can prevail on someone to give me a bed. Thank you for coming back with me.”
His smile this time was definitely rueful. “I didn’t have much of a choice, did I? Your grandfather was most insistent that I accompany you.” He paused. “And I haven’t quite given up hope that Lord Christopher Ellis might come to regret your betrothal and send you back into my arms.”
He winked at her and disappeared into the darkness heading for the stable yard. Rosalind stared after him. Surely he hadn’t meant it? She’d done everything she could over the last few months to convince him that she was a lost cause. Whether she was reunited with Christopher or not, she couldn’t see herself turning to Rhys. He deserved more than that, deserved to be first with a woman rather than know he would always be second-best.
And he would be second-best. Rosalind closed her eyes and tried to imagine Christopher’s expression when he saw her. Would he be pleased or horrified? She couldn’t decide how she felt about seeing him again. All she knew was that he’d stolen her heart, her mind and her body, and she would never be the same again.
Christopher Ellis slowly opened his eyes and gazed around the Great Hall. He’d fallen asleep over his ale again, his face cushioned on the trestle table, his boots digging into the musty rushes that covered the floor. Something had woken him up, some sense of danger or premonition. Since tangling with the ancient Spanish Vampire last year, he’d learned to pay close attention to his instincts.
He sat up, his dagger already in his hand, and found himself staring at Elias Warner, the Vampire Council’s representative at court. Elias had the kind of golden looks that made the ladies of the court swoon over him. Christopher saw only the flatness of his silver eyes, the hint of the blood-sucking predator beneath the mask of humanity.
“Master Warner. Where have you been these past few months? Anyone might think you’ve been avoiding the court.”
A small smile twitched on Elias’s pale lips, displaying the tips of his fangs. “I’ve been busy, my lord.”
“I’m sure you have.” Christopher sat back and tried to look nonchalant. Elias wasn’t one for idle chatter. If he openly sought Christopher’s company, there was a reason. “How can I help you?”
Elias glanced around at the sleeping hordes and leaned closer. “I only wish to make a suggestion.”
Christopher raised his eyebrows. “About what?”
“Your continued safety.” Elias nodded. “The Vampire Council appreciates your recent actions toward those members of its community that it values most highly. The Council wishes you to continue to protect and value those individuals.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about, Elias. Of course, I protect your community. That has been my family’s job for centuries.”
Elias’s smile was not pleasant. “Indeed, we value the Ellis family enormously.” He hesitated. “And we would hate to have to dispense with the services of any single member of that family if he formed alliances that were not in our interest.”
Christopher stood up and checked that his sword was in place. He stepped over his drinking companion’s legs and headed toward the nearest door. “Are you talking about my ‘alliance’ with Rosalind Llewellyn?”
“I did not say that. But I understand that you are still betrothed to her.”
“That is so.”
“I do not understand why.”
Christopher shrugged. “Because neither my uncle, nor the Llewellyn family, has succeeded in petitioning the king for our release. The king has been rather preoccupied recently.”
“Indeed, he has.” Elias’s silver gaze flicked up to meet Christopher’s. “But perhaps your families approve of the connection after all.”
Christopher chuckled. “My uncle almost ran me through with his sword when he heard what had happened. I doubt he approves.”
“And yet, the Llewellyns have stayed their hand as well…” Elias sighed. “It seems as if you are tied to the Vampire slayer for good.”
Christopher tried to keep his voice bland. “At least for a while, until one of the families comes up with something to entice the king to break the betrothal.” A flicker of distaste crossed Elias’s face. “You don’t like her at all, do you?”
“On the contrary. But speaking from a practical standpoint, she is a dangerous woman.”
“She is indeed.” Christopher pictured Rosalind, her dark hair tangled in his fingers, her body and thoughts enmeshed with his as he made love to her again and again. Heat blossomed in his mind and in his groin, and he thrust her image away. Elias was far too perceptive for Christopher to drop his guard.
They’d reached the door of the Great Hall and Christopher pushed it open. The rush of night air was warm and scented with flowers. He breathed in deeply, allowed the fragrance to settle him and remove the taste of Rosalind from his senses. Something was different. Everything looked the same but, everything had changed. . . he turned back to Elias.
“Now that you have delivered your cryptic message, is there anything else you wanted to say before you disappear again?”
“I think I made myself clear, my lord. I wish you good fortune.” Elias bowed and was gone before Christopher had time to blink.
“Not clear at all,” Christopher muttered. Something was afoot and he had no idea what. He hated that, hated the way it added to the frustration already raging through him. He was at odds with his family, his Vampire allies and himself, and all because of Rosalind Llewellyn.
He looked around again. His mind was playing tricks on him. He could almost feel her in his arms, in his thoughts, even taste her. . .He shook his head to clear the strange sensation. Rosalind was safe in deepest Wales, surrounded by her family, and attended by Rhys Williams, who’d probably done his best to persuade her into his bed by now. Christopher slammed his hand against the oak door. And, more fool him, he had let her go, convinced she would return to him.
Christopher muttered an oath and decided to seek his bed. He had a demanding day filled with sporting activities planned for tomorrow, and needed to be up early to make the journey to Hampton Court to attend the king. He followed the ragged path that led along the side of the Great Hall, his dagger at the ready, his mind unsettled as he tried to puzzle through Elias’s ‘message.’
As he rounded the corner of the massive structure, a shadow leapt out at him and before he even realized it, he found himself in the midst of a fight. There were two men, and despite his best efforts, he couldn’t withstand the attentions of them both. He was soon slammed face-first against the wall, his dagger hand wrenched up against his spine and a blade at his throat.
He knew that voice, had trained alongside the man during his younger, more reckless years. “Sir Marcus Flavian.” They were of a similar age and ability, which was probably why Marcus had the sense to bring reinforcements.
“You remember me. Good.” Marcus shifted his stance and jerked Christopher’s wrist higher. “Then you will no doubt understand why I am here.”
Christopher said nothing as he focused on controlling the pain. Marcus laughed, the sound soft.
“You are required to present yourself at our next meeting and explain your actions.”
The challenge and summons wasn’t unexpected. Ever since his betrothal to Rosalind had become public, Christopher had been expecting the Cult of Mithras to command his appearance. The only surprise was that it had taken so long. He fought back a groan as Marcus twisted his arm again.
“You must have known we would want to question you about your association with the Llewellyn bitch.”
Fury rose in Christopher’s gut, and he kicked out, caught Marcus on the shin and off guard. He spun around and pushed away from the wall with all his strength. The other man made short work of helping Marcus recapture him, but Christopher didn’t care. As he was thrown back against the wall, he glared into Marcus’s calm grey eyes.
“I will answer to my superiors, not to you.”
“As you wish, but you will answer.” The blade of Marcus’s dagger flicked out and nicked Christopher’s cheek. “Someone will let you know when the meeting is.”
Christopher didn’t acknowledge either the blood now trickling down his face or the other man’s statement. There was nothing he could do to avoid the summons, and in truth, he didn’t want to. Thanks to his uncle, he’d had his fill of the Cult of Mithras years ago. Mayhap it was time for him to express his doubts in person.
He watched as Marcus bowed, his blond hair glinting in the moonlight, and then left with his companion. Christopher wiped absently at the blood trickling down his neck. He didn’t want any Vampires scenting an easy victim and coming to feast on him. With a groan, he flexed his fingers and hoped he’d still be able to use his right hand come the morning.
Things were definitely getting interesting. He sighed and went to look for his dagger, which he assumed had landed somewhere in the scrubby foliage. Strange that both Elias and Marcus Flavian had reappeared on the same night to warn him of the consequences of his actions.
And a pity that the only way to leave the Cult of Mithras, without dying of natural causes, was by execution.