Chapter 1 Preview
He’s watching me.
I drop my gaze. I do not want to draw suspicion.
Trailing my fingers along a heavy wooden table, I envy the spread of plump juicy fruit, charred chickens, and dribbling greasy pork ribs, but cringe at the boar’s head—dead on a stick. The swine’s tongue hangs thick and dry between its tusks. I notice a small pitcher filled with red wine nearby. I’d like to sip on it or, better yet, toss it right in the face of His Majesty and the man standing next to him, the man making me feel uneasy.
I lift my chin as the other ladies do, although I’d like nothing better than to stuff some of what’s on this banquet table between my bosoms and legs to carry it out. This is enough food to feed an entire village. Sadly, it will be wasted and left to rot like our kingdom’s people.
My gaze wanders up again.
Damn! The tall, masked man in black standing next to His Royal Highness refuses to deflect his eyes from me. I look down at my golden dress, which matches my golden blonde hair, and my bosoms are heaving out of my chest. I wish Adelard had stolen something a little less revealing.
Slipping between chatty women who have caught the attention of drunken men in fine clothing, the sour smell of aged sweat stings my nostrils. I pinch my nose together at the stinky nobles while chuckling at their conversations.
They are all in a game and behaving like animals. The women bat their eyes and play coy, while the men purse fishy lips hoping to catch more than kiss. I wish they’d just come outright and say what they’re really after—a chase that ends with a doe bucking somewhere in a dark corner of the castle or outside up against a tree.
My blue eyes twitch as the man in black sways noticeably from the corner of my eye. I can’t help but turn my head to him completely. He’s broader in the shoulders than I’d originally noticed. His stance is straight and he holds his head high. He’s overtly confident, even cocky he seems. I believe he’s more than just another one of King Richard’s soldiers. He could be a knight, though he’s not dressed like one. Being in such close proximity to the king, it’s possible he could be something much more.
I wish I could see his face. The thin ribbons wrapped and tied around our heads cut only to show our eyes hardly convey a mask. We all wear masks, except the king, being it’s his party.
I study His Majesty’s surroundings. Soldiers, armed with swords, stand by though I believe it will be easy to get past them simply because I’m a woman. The king will likely expedite my proximity to him when the time is near. The bastard has already allowed at least a dozen women to fall into his lap, including girls that have been forced to take a seat on his knee for entertainment.
But the tall man with short, cropped black hair adjacent to the king worries me. He does not cease to watch me. I suspect he is becoming suspicious, but worse, I suspect he might be my tracker.
I’ve never beheld the man, my tracker, a supposed hunter and, rumored to be, master swordsman. His recent appointment to hunt me, the outlaw, and kill me has been decreed; though he is lucky we have not crossed paths—yet.
Villagers say my tracker is growing increasingly frustrated—threatening to take hostages and throw them into the dungeon where they will be tortured to gain information about my band of skilled bandits. The coarse, trimmed beard bristling along the man in black’s lower jaw certainly fits the description of the man charged to reel me in. If he should find me, I’m sure he would love to gut me—run me through.
I bite my lip to keep myself from laughing aloud.
I’m told if I should ever encounter the man tasked to track me, that I should run. They say he is a knight who wears no armor. His confidence in his skills with a sword proves he doesn’t need the iron shielding. From this distance, I can see a shred of muscle that reaches from behind his ear down down his neck and to the front of his collarbone. I do not doubt, it is the result of wielding a heavy sword.
I clamp down harder on my own mouth to keep ridiculous laughter from escaping. Unfortunately, I’m not a runner. I’m a fighter and no sword can match my bow.
I look to the man’s hip. There dangles a hefty blade of unusual making. The hilt appears to be red, as if the jewels embedded within have been stained with blood. I contemplate how many wives the man in black has left widowed with a slash of that sword.
He will not make a widow out of me, I chuckle to myself. Luckily, I have enough foresight and skill to kill him first, and I’m not married because I don’t have to be!
I look about the room to ensure I have an escape—I spy several. The front door where all the king’s guests have entered is well guarded and another door stands behind the king, although I don’t know where it ends. My final destination may be a window. If need be, I will pull at the banners hanging from each side, toss them over the ledge, and climb down to my good friend, Adelard, waiting with our horse. From there, we will ride back to the safety of the forest.
My eyes gloss over the king again, bringing the man in black to take notice. I gulp. He is quite a specimen. He behaves more like a guardian of sorts. If I should be struck down once I kill the king, at least I will die happily knowing I got the best of both men—one murdered for revenge and the other bested with embarrassment.
Oh no! The man in black bends to his side. He’s whispering in the king’s ear while he continues to keep his eye on me. He points his finger behind his back straight in my direction. Dear Lord, I hope I have not intrigued him.
My stomach churns. I might miss my chance to follow through on this deathly plot. Perhaps I should make my advance now?
Damn it! I knew it! The man in black comes my way.
As he approaches with long, bold strides, I feel for my dagger tucked into the long sleeve of my dress at the wrist. I look past the man coming towards me to the king and my heart sinks. If I cannot assassinate the king, I will at least execute this man. Tracker or not, he is someone of value to the king and once he’s dead, he’ll be of no further threat to the other outlaws.
“Excuse me, my lady,” he says with a smile. He bows and I curtsy as Adelard taught me to. “Forgive me, but I do not seem to know you.”
I feel for the bottom edge of my knife as I examine him from head to toe. He’s much taller than me, but the perfect height to stab! With a simple flick of my right wrist and a hard jab, the handle of my dagger will slip into my palm, allotting me the opportunity to quickly pierce the flesh of his belly. By jerking the sharp tip upward at an angle after penetrating the cavity of his soft torso, my dagger will slice through his bowel and he’ll die a slow, painful death.
The curves of my mouth float upward with such thoughts, though I really wish he’d go away.
His lashes flutter at my smile. Damn! Do not give yourself away.
“Should you know me?” I ask, wickedly.
He huffs and the wrinkle at his brow furrows deeper. “How did you arrive here? You do not sound or look as if you belong amongst this crowd.”
My heart paces and I allow my middle fingertip to trace the handle of the dagger. “I am the cousin… of…” I fumble to speak, completely forgetting whom I’m supposed to be related to. I’m apparently to be an out-of-towner rumored to arrive for an arranged marriage. Adelard forced me to practice this part at least a hundred times because I’ve never been good matching titles and names.
“I am the cousin of… De-el-la… Claaaa—”
The man smiles excitedly. “Lady Claire!”
My knees weaken when he places his hand behind my head, pulling me to him, speaking softly through my hair and into my ear. “I did not think you would be arriving for another week,” he whispers, his warm breath tickling its way into my ear canal.
He’s so close. His body heat is radiating.
So much for the stab to the abdomen. If I have to kill him, I’ll stab him right in the back!
He moves my hair from my ear as he continues whispering. “The king promised me a suitable and fair maiden. Even with that ribbon concealing your eyes, you are lovelier than I anticipated.”
Suitable? Fair? Lovely? I’d like to cut his prick off and see how suitable he’d think I am then. I’m sure he would no longer be suitable to any woman thereafter.
“Would you like to take a stroll outside?” he asks with hope in his voice.
No, I don’t want to take a stroll outside! I’d like for you to piss off so I can kill the king!
I tilt my head sideways to look at him. His brows are raised—weak with anticipation, but the man most certainly looks mischievous and dangerous. Nevertheless, I do believe he thinks I am this woman he’s apparently been waiting for.
I gulp. “I am not—”
“Am I being too forward with my future wife?” he asks.
Fine bristles of his hair lining his chiseled face brush against my cheek as he brings his face directly in front of mine to gaze into my eyes. In my twenty years of life, I don’t think I’ve ever had my face this close to a man’s besides my father’s before he was murdered by the king’s knights years ago.
The man in black dips his chin a little. The pungent smell of fine, fruity wine on his breath is overbearing. He stares blankly at me with deep green eyes that sparkle behind the slits of the black ribbon-turned-mask tied around his head. I am infuriated with the fact his eyes are quite chivalrous.
“Tis okay to be nervous,” he says, gripping my elbow and nudging me to follow him.
I stand my ground, unmoved.
“Come, my lady,” he says. “I will not bite.”
I look around. Guests are staring and beginning to gossip. I was not supposed to bring any attention to myself, thus I take a step in his direction.
As I follow my potential tracker, I look back at the king sitting gleefully on his throne. He’s staring at us. Perhaps, if I endure a few moments with the man in black, he’ll introduce me to His Royal Highness, allotting me the chance to stab the king—dead. As dead as the swine I reluctantly leave behind.
I am led out to a balcony where several people are about. My “suitor” seems disappointed. He rubs my fingers wrapped around his elbow with his palm. “We should go somewhere a bit quieter. I would very much like for us to speak in private. Would you mind accompanying me to the garden?”
He’s raised his hand to present a cobbled path leading towards a landscape filled with botanical life and flower buds glowing under the full moonlight. The garden is pretty, trimmed, and tamed, unlike the forest. If I was not a wanted fugitive with a reward on my head, I might be inclined to think I’m fortunate to be led by such a handsome man with wealth and status to a romantic garden outside of a royal castle.
I nod and his face brightens. The man has a very wide smile that competes with the stark white roses in the background, dazzling like the stars above.
Poor roses. It’s possible they will become stained a blood red should I have to slaughter this man out here, but I’ve always liked red roses better anyway.
The man leads me down the steps to a set of perfectly cut rectangular stones placed in a circular array. He gestures I sit, so I do as he requests. From the corner of my eye, I feel his gaze follow my face as I lower myself to sit on the stone. His gaze shifts towards my breasts and I cover my chest with a palm, feeling naked.
He flinches at my discomfort. “You will have to forgive me.”
I bite my lip. You’re in the king’s service. You don’t deserve forgiveness, I silently think.
“When I first saw you,” he continues, “I could not help but think we have met before. You look strangely familiar. By chance, do you have those same feelings?”
I shake my head, no.
“You do not talk much.” I shake my head again and he chuckles. “Would you prefer I remove my mask?”
I reach forward to stop him, as I don’t want to have to take off my mask, but he’s rather quick and slips the ribbon easily over and off his head.
A tingle runs through my chest like a cool breeze encapsulating me, causing my skin to tickle and gooseflesh to rise. I feel even more naked at the sight of him.
He does look familiar, but I’m not going to admit it.
“Perhaps, we should discard your mask, too,” he says, reaching for my face.
I clutch his fingers. They are long and strong, but I grip them.
“Ah!” he cries out in response to the tight squeeze of his knuckles pressed bone against bone and he cocks his head sideways.
Surprised at my strength? You should be.
I push his fingers back to him where he presses my hands flat and firm into his chest. My cheeks warm as I retract my hands and he smiles once more to reveal deep muscular trenches to the sides of his strong upward smile. I can only imagine the lean cuts of muscle he must have spread across the rest of his body.
I admit it will be a waste to kill such a fine-looking man. I feel worse as he takes my left hand and kisses my knuckles with warm, moist lips. He attempts to pull at my right hand, but I feel the weight of the knife there, so I jerk my hand back.
He sighs. “I am sorry. We are not married yet and, considering your family history, I am sure you are a most restrained and reserved type of lady. I heard you are the only family your father has left, which is why he has allowed you to become as old as you are without being married.”
I roll my eyes.
“I am not stating you are…mm…old,” he stutters. “I just mean most young ladies are already made wives by thirteen or fourteen, some even younger. A few young men are even made husbands by such an age, but my work in service to the king has left me no recourse to take a wife—until now.” He smiles again and I am forced to bite my lip for some strange reason. “I believe King Richard has finally taken pity on me, allowing me to marry. I shall reach my thirtieth year soon. I am glad he has found me a wife that is not so young.”
I huff. I want to kill him. Kill all of them! The thought of girls being plucked so young infuriates me. To avoid such savagery is one of the few benefits of having grown up as an outlaw among orphans.
Oh no, my face has given my thoughts away. He attempts another kiss at my left hand, which I pull back but he will not let go.
“Do not let my commitment to King Richard cause you fear.”
I’m not afraid! Do I look afraid?
He strokes my left hand with his thumb. “In all my years of service to the king, I have won many battles for him, captured and killed many an enemy and saved the king’s life several times over. He is frustrated, for I have not seized the leader of the band of outlaws, but the task will at least keep me home, here, in the kingdom. I am sure you have heard of the resistance residing in the forest?”
A chill runs down my spine—here sits my tracker with my hand in his. I attempt to pull my hand back once more.
“Do not fret,” he continues tugging my fingers into his lap. “I will be a good husband to you. I am close to capturing the leader and the king has promised me a small fortune for all my service.”
I don’t give a crap about fortune. I want my family back, you arse!
He runs the pad of his opposite thumb across my cheek. His finger is warm. My cheeks flush scarlet at his touch.
“I am sorry,” he says bashfully, “I have devoted too much of myself. Perhaps I should not have been so bold to discuss knightly things with such a fair lady. I am certain you are not interested in men’s business and bloody tales.”
I bat my eyes. Regretfully, I admit it’s not likely I will kill the king tonight, but perhaps I can escape with information. “I am interested.”
“Are you?” his face brightens.
I fake a smile back. “Genuinely.”
The man in black cocks his head again. “Lady Claire, I must admit, I am relieved. You are a breath of fresh air. I was hoping to choose a wife of my own, but the king would not have it. Sometimes, I deem he confuses me with being his brother, as we are so close in age, or even sometimes his father, as he has lacked one for most of his life. Arranging our marriage, I believe, was his way of rewarding me for pledging my loyalty to him for so many years.”
Not to mention, you’re also his number one marksman, executioner, and assassin!
“May I please remove your mask?” he inquires, reaching for my face, but I smack his hands. “Forgive me, Lady Claire,” he murmurs as he rubs the sting. I hope it hurts! He scratches his forehead. “My feelings have been in a quandary as of late. I was excited at the thought of taking a wife, then fearful of whom she might be, not having the choice for myself. It has vexed me for some time.” He examines me again with his sparkling green eyes. “Seeing you now, I must say I am most excited. I promise I will be a good husband. Fear not my behavior this evening. I may have appeared as unruly as the outlaws, or worse, untrustworthy. Will you pardon me for making so many untamed advances?”
“Sir Hale,” calls a king’s messenger from the balcony. “Our king has retired to his chambers and wishes to speak with you.”
Sir Hale. I recognize the infamous name.
He nods at the messenger and turns back to me. “This is something that will be commonplace. Tis likely we will live in the castle with the king once we are married. I will be at your beck and call, second only to the king, I promise.” The man is trying to sound cheerful, but it’s obvious he is distraught with the thought. “Will you meet me tomorrow? Meet me at the market after the morning bell tolls. I would love to take you on a tour of our beautiful countryside.”
I wish to laugh. In fact, it’s taking an enormous amount of energy to contain the urge. It’s I who should be giving the tour. No one knows these lands better than my gang of outlaws and me.
I grin, but he doesn’t stand to walk away. He is waiting for definitive confirmation. I believe my chance to assassinate the king, along with the significant time my gang and I have invested on this night, has been wasted. But another plot ruminates in the back of my mind. Perhaps I could get this man to reveal things to me, letting me in on everything he knows.
I force a heavy nod in agreement. Sir Hale kisses my hand again, but as he gets up to peer down at me—my soul ignites!
I don’t just recognize him, I remember him.
My mind shatters. I watch him turn away. He’s still smiling as his right hand caresses the handle of his sword at his hip. I am filled with a rush of emotions. My heart and mind are battling one another with such ferocity, my whole body feels alight and I want to tear off this stupid dress to reveal myself.
I will meet Sir Hale tomorrow and I will make sure I am privy to everything he knows because I know this man and this will not be the first time Sir Hale has aided me.
*End of Chapter 1*
by Dani Stowe