Richmond Palace, the Court of King Henry VIII, 1537
“Where is Jasper?” The golden-haired Vampire frowned and looked around the deserted bedchamber as he spoke.
“Why do you want to know, Vampire?”
Verity Llewellyn kept her dagger aimed at the man’s throat as she slowly backed away. Her heart was beating wildly against her embroidered bodice, but she was proud of herself for not screeching like a barn owl. The man had appeared behind her as she rifled through the contents of Jasper’s desk and almost startled her to death. She supposed she should be glad that he didn’t seem inclined to suck her blood, as she had completely failed to protect herself.
“I merely wished to speak to him, my lady.” The Vampire inclined his head. “Perhaps another time.”
“If this is Llewellyn business, you can speak to me,” Verity said far more bravely than she felt.
“Ah, of course. You must be Jasper’s sister, Lady Verity.” He swept off his cap and bowed low. “It is a pleasure to meet you, my lady. My name is Elias Warner. Perhaps Jasper has spoken of me?”
Verity studied the Vampire’s smooth face and captivating silver-gold eyes. He wore a green doublet and matching trunk and hose with colorful embroidery. A thick gold chain studded with emeralds hung around his neck. He appeared to be about thirty years of age, but she knew he might be much older. His lack of fear and faint amusement at her distrust made her feel vulnerable.
“Why would Jasper speak of you to me?”
Elias Warner considered her. “Because I am the representative of the Vampire Council at court and on occasion have had to dabble in Druid affairs.” His mouth curled with distaste. “Sometimes that is necessary in order to avoid disaster.” His gaze swept past her and focused on the ransacked desk. “Are you expecting Jasper back today?”
“I am not.” Immediately, Verity wanted to take the betraying words back and felt her cheeks heating. She wondered if the Vampire would be bold enough to ask her what she had been looking for among her brother’s private papers.
“Then I will leave you in peace.”
His smile was warmer this time. “Thank you for not trying to stab me.”
Verity glanced at the dagger she held in her fist and suddenly felt foolish. In her desire to hear what the enigmatic stranger had to say, she’d forgotten about her duty to slay Vampires. She lowered her arm. “You didn’t try to kill me either.”
“I have learned to respect the Llewellyn family’s fighting skills . . . and I might need your help in the future.”
Elias’s smile disappeared. “Indeed. Have you not noticed that Queen Jane is dying?”
With that, the Vampire dissolved and disappeared right in front of her. Verity let out a breath and leaned back against the desk. Her knees were shaking so badly she could hardly stand. In the two weeks since she’d arrived, she had wondered about the queen’s health, but Jasper did not seem to understand or appreciate her fears. In truth, her brother had made her feel quite stupid for suggesting there was anything wrong with the queen at all.
But that was hardly surprising, was it? Verity’s mouth twisted. She’d never been considered of much worth by her family. She’d failed in the only task they deemed acceptable for a woman—making a successful marriage and producing children. And now she had nothing but a heart full of regrets and a determination never to allow herself to be so stupid again.
With that in mind, she fought to steady her breathing and resumed her search of Jasper’s desk. She knew he kept a journal and she needed all the help she could get if she was to protect the king and queen. How strange that it had taken a visit from a Vampire to make her see how imperative it was for her to act.
She had written to her cousin Rosalind for advice as to what she should do. There was no guarantee her letter would be answered, as Verity had no address for Rosalind and had sent it via their mutual friend Rhys Williams. Rosalind had horrified the Druid community by marrying Christopher Ellis, a member of an ancient Druid-killing family, and their grandfather, John Llewellyn, had decreed that Rosalind was dead to them.
Verity shut one of the desk drawers with a bang. It was also possible that Rosalind’s husband wouldn’t allow his wife to get involved in Druid affairs. Husbands could be very controlling; Verity knew that all too well. She opened the final drawer and studied the two big leather-bound journals that she saw there. One was a book of devotions to the saints and the other apparently a ledger for household accounts.
With some effort, Verity took both books out of the drawer and opened up the first. She smiled as she revealed the hidden compartment carved out of the pages. In his choice of hiding places, her brother was as predictable as ever. She removed the small black journal and opened it to the first page. She even recognized the code he’d used. Every encounter Jasper had had with the Vampires in the last year had been recorded in meticulous detail.
Verity tucked the journal into her hanging pocket and tidied up the desk. At least this would help her understand her enemies better, and perhaps allow her to save the troubled queen.
Avebury Manor, England
“Rhys! Where are you?”
Rhys Williams stirred and half opened his eyes. Bemused, he stared up at the leafy fronds of the willow tree above his head and blinked at the brightness of the sun slanting through the green darkness. His tangled dreams of a black-haired Vampire faded as he registered the impatient tone of his best friend and fellow Vampire slayer, Rosalind Llewellyn.
No, not Llewellyn anymore—but Ellis. Even after all these years, her married name still sat uneasily on his tongue.
He sat up, knowing that if he didn’t attend to her she’d come and find him, and in her current condition that might be unwise. Her husband, Christopher, would not thank Rhys for exposing his precious wife to the blistering summer heat. Rhys left the blanket on the ground, pushed aside the heavy curtain of hanging branches, and headed back toward the tall, elegant manor house where Rosalind awaited him.
Despite his best efforts, his heart still beat harder when he saw her. Seven years had passed since she’d married the Druid slayer, and yet she seemed content to bear Christopher’s children and love him despite being disowned by her family. Rhys envied her ability to love, and still occasionally wished he had succeeded in gaining her loyalty for himself.
Rosalind shaded her eyes and smiled up at him. “Were you asleep?”
She tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and walked with him toward the kitchens. “Is your arm still giving you pain?”
“None at all. Because of your excellent care, I am more than ready to leave and go back to my duties.”
Rosalind shivered. “Promise me you’ll be more careful, Rhys. When you first arrived here, I thought you were going to lose that arm.”
He patted her hand. “I’ll be careful. It’s not every day a man walks into a Vampire ambush.”
She sighed. “I fear you are taking too many risks.”
His faint smile died. “You don’t need to worry about me, Rosalind. I’m more than capable of dealing with a few Vampires.”
“So I’ve heard. Your reputation as a slayer these days far exceeds my own.”
He held open the door that led into the back wing of the house. “Unlike you, I have nothing else to do with my time.”
Rosalind looked up at him, her expression concerned. “You could come and visit us more often.”
“Cariad”—the endearment slipped out before he could stop it—“I’m not supposed to visit you at all. Your grandfather has expressly forbidden it. I come when I can and I am very grateful for the care you have given me.”
Rosalind bit her lip and turned away from him. “I wish I could fight with you again. I’d keep you safe.”
Rhys opened the door into the large, homey kitchen and waited for Rosalind to walk past him. The smell of baking bread made his mouth water. “I don’t think Christopher would let you fight with me.”
“I surely would not.” A dark-haired man with startling blue eyes looked up from his perusal of the documents spread out on the table. His narrowed gaze passed over Rhys and came to rest on Rosalind. “You are carrying our child, my love.”
Rosalind sniffed and went to sit beside her husband. Rhys followed more slowly and took the bench seat on the opposite side of the oak table. His attention was caught by the king’s royal seal.
“What have we here?”
Christopher grinned at him. “We have finally been rewarded by King Henry for our part in the downfall of Anne Boleyn.” Christopher pushed a parchment adorned with numerous seals and signatures over to Rhys. “You will enjoy this.” He pretended to preen. “I have been made an earl.”
“Congratulations, my lord.” Rhys couldn’t help liking Christopher despite himself. Not only was the man a worthy opponent on the battlefield, but he had a good heart and all the skills of a diplomat, when he chose to use them.
Christopher handed him another document. “And you, my friend, have been created a baronet.”
“A what?” Rhys grabbed the thick parchment and began to struggle his way through the complex Latin phrases. Christopher pointed at a section halfway down the page and Rhys read his own name. He looked up at Christopher. “What exactly does that mean?”
“It means that you are now Sir Rhys Williams, and you have a title to pass down to your children.”
Rhys grimaced. “An English title.”
“An English title bestowed upon you by a Welsh king. I do not believe it would be wise to refuse such an honor,” Christopher said gently.
Rhys stared at his elaborately inscribed name. “It doesn’t sit well with me. My country has been destroyed by the English monarchy. What will they think of me at home if I come back with a title?”
“If they have any sense, they will see it as the advance in your family’s status that it undoubtedly is, and welcome your elevation.”
“Luckily, I have very little family, so I suppose I have no choice but to accept this honor and make the best of it.” Rhys sat back and contemplated his hosts. “Was that why you called me, Rosalind?”
She frowned at him. “That isn’t enough for you?” She shared a quick glance with Christopher. “Unfortunately, the other news isn’t so good. We’ve had a letter from court.”
While Anne Boleyn was alive, Rhys had visited the court infrequently, knowing Anne would exact vengeance on all those she believed had tricked her into giving up her quest to turn the king into a Vampire.
“No, although he is still there, looking out for the interests of the Vampire Council.”
“So who wrote to you?”
Rosalind handed him a letter. “This came addressed to you with my name underneath. Apparently Jasper has been wounded and has returned to Pembrokeshire.”
“Then who, in God’s name, is guarding the king?”
“His sister, Verity. She wrote to explain what had happened to Jasper and to ask for my help.”
“Little Verity Llewellyn?” Rhys shook his head. “What does she know about fighting Vampires? The last I heard of her she was getting married.”
“She was widowed, and she has come to court to serve the king and queen in any capacity necessary. She felt it was her duty. Verity is concerned that there is some dastardly plot afoot to destroy Queen Jane.”
“The queen is carrying the king’s child, isn’t she?”
Rosalind’s hand went to her own rounded belly. “She is. Verity insists that all is not well with her, and she fears Queen Jane will not live long enough to deliver her child.”
An uneasy feeling stirred in Rhys’s gut. “What does Verity want us to do?”
“She asks us to return to court and help her discover what ails the queen.”
Christopher stirred and put his hand over Rosalind’s. “Rosalind and I can’t leave the protection of the manor house and the stone circle. We have to think of Nicholas and the new babe that is coming.”
“I understand why Rosalind cannot go, but why must you stay?” Rhys asked.
“Because of Nicholas.” Christopher held Rhys’s gaze. “He needs to be protected at all times, Rhys; you know that. And while Rosalind is breeding, I am the only person who can take on that responsibility.”
Rhys let out a frustrated breath. Rosalind and Christopher’s six-year-old son was a delightfully normal child—apart from his abilities to sense the undead and communicate his thoughts directly to his parents. Despite his parents’ attempts to conceal Nicholas’s interesting powers, both the Druids and the Vampires were aware of him, and that was not good. Only the protection of the stone circle that surrounded the village and the manor house kept the Vampires at bay. Leaving Nicholas without the protection of at least one strong slayer could be disastrous.
Rhys straightened his spine. “So you think I should go and represent us all.”
“I don’t see what else we can do,” Christopher said, his frustrated expression mirroring Rhys’s. “You must know I would go with you if I could.”
Rhys turned to Rosalind. “But I’m not a Llewellyn. I have no special access to the king or the queen.”
“But Verity has.”
Rhys tossed the letter onto the table. “Verity should’ve stayed home, minding her own business. How does she think she can help? She has no training, and no ability to fight.”
He pictured Verity in his mind, her sweet face, her long blond hair and shy smile. They’d shared a childhood in the rambling Welsh manor house of Sir John Llewellyn, along with Rosalind and her siblings. The thought of Verity running into even the most inept of Vampires made his blood run cold. He smoothed the crumpled pages of the letter with his fingers and sighed.
“It seems as if I have no choice. Someone has to stop Verity Llewellyn from doing something foolish.”
Rosalind gave him a relieved smile. “I’m so glad you’ve decided to go. Verity will definitely appreciate your help.”
Rhys shoved a hand through his damp auburn hair and groaned. “My worry is that I’ll be so busy acting as her nursemaid that I’ll have no time to deal with this problem with the queen.”
Christopher gathered up the documents, separated them into two piles, and handed one to Rhys. “I’m sure you’ll do fine, Sir Rhys. With your new status you will be able to mingle more freely with the gentlemen of the court, and Verity is already established as one of the queen’s ladies.”
“And there is Elias Warner, of course.” Rhys stood. “He has been known to be helpful on occasion.”
“And very unhelpful at some times,” Christopher added.
Rhys studied Verity’s neat handwriting. She’d written in Welsh, which was as good as code, as most Englishmen couldn’t understand it. He tried to remember how long it was since he had seen her, how long since he’d returned to the only home he’d ever known.
“How old is Verity now?”
Rosalind looked up at him. “She is of a similar age to me, about five and twenty.”
“And she hasn’t married again?”
“Not all women wish to be married, Rhys. Mayhap she loved her first husband so desperately she has sworn never to have another.”
“And maybe she is just contrary, like most of the Llewellyn women,” Christopher murmured and grunted as his wife elbowed him in the ribs. “I’m certain she will be glad to see you, Rhys, and more than willing to learn anything you can teach her. I assume she wishes to remain at court only until Jasper is recovered.”
Rhys nodded and took his leave, the papers Christopher had given him tucked under his arm. He would study them further in his bedchamber. He went up the worn staircase to his rooms deep in thought. The notion of Verity being alone at court surrounded by such evil disturbed him.
He surveyed his meager possessions and packed them into his saddlebags. In his career as a Vampire slayer he’d learned not to become attached to possessions or to people. Apart from Rosalind—and where had that led him? He thrust that thought away and flexed his left arm. His wound had healed well and it was time for him to leave. Rosalind and Christopher’s happiness was hard for him to live with for long periods of time, although he would miss his godson, Nicholas.
Rhys started cleaning his weapons and stowing them in his pack. If he was lucky, he might be able to persuade Verity to go home straightaway and then deal quickly with the situation himself. He smiled as he gathered up his daggers to take down to the smithy for sharpening. Knowing how sweet and malleable Verity was, he didn’t anticipate much of a problem.