Maid of Deception
Beatrice Knowles is a Maid of Honor, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s secret protectors. Known for her uncanny ability to manipulate men’s hearts, Beatrice has proven herself to be a valuable asset in the Queen’s court—or so she thinks. It has been three weeks since the Maids thwarted a plot to overthrow the Queen, and Beatrice is preparing to wed her betrothed, Lord Cavanaugh. However, her plans come to a crashing halt as rumors of a brewing Scottish rebellion spread among the court.
Beatrice’s new assignment is to infiltrate the visiting Scottish delegation using her subtle arts in persuasion. The mission seems simple enough, until the Queen pairs Beatrice with the worst of the lot—Alasdair MacLeod. Beatrice cannot help but think that the Queen is purposefully setting her up for failure. But Alasdair could be the key to unlocking the truth about the rebellion….and her own heart. Caught in a web of ever-more-twisting lies, Beatrice must rise up among the Maids of Honor and prove what she’s known all along: In a court filled with deception and danger, love may be the deadliest weapon of all.
Read an Excerpt
Windsor Castle, England
There would be no tears on my wedding day. I would not allow it.
As the music from the Queen’s own orchestra filled St. George’s Chapel, a perfect blend of viol and harpsichord to complement my perfect union with Lord Percival Andrew William Cavanaugh, I clasped the clammy hands of my fellow Maid of Honor Sophia Dee and smiled into her large, worried eyes.
“Hush, Sophia, all is well,” I said, giving her fine-boned fingers a light squeeze. She shivered despite the stifling heat of the chamber. “If you keep crying, you’ll draw attention to yourself.”
That caught the girl up short. The youngest of our group of royal spies, and the most uncertain, Sophia hated attention. Her eyes, if possible, got even bigger.
“But, Beatrice—you should b-be happy—”
“I am happy, Sophia,” I assured her. And, strangely enough, I was. For all my well-rehearsed sophistication, Lord Cavanaugh represented more than just my crowning achievement at court. Yes, of course, he was one of the richest men in the kingdom. And he was from a respected family, whose reputation was not at daily risk from either a drunken father or a muzzy-minded mother. And his ancestral home was not overrun by brawling foundling children.
And, perhaps most importantly, he had no idea whatsoever how desperately I needed this marriage.
But there was more to it than that. Lord Cavanaugh was gentle, fine and soft-spoken, with a rich, drawling voice that I thrilled to hear. He was gracious and educated, in a court filled with rakes and ingrates more intent on the hunt than on conversation. He was God-fearing, respectful at service and in court. He was polite to women of every station; he appeared to genuinely care for his mother.
And he loved me.
I saw it in his eyes, in his smile. In the way he nodded his approval as he took in my gowns and hair. I saw it as he watched others watching me. Though I’d worked very hard to ensure that I was perfect for him in every possible way, I still could not believe I had succeeded so well… Lord Cavanaugh loved me. The rest meant nothing beside that truth.
“Babies with my husband will come in time, I am sure,” I said now, addressing Sophia’s current cause for distress. She’d seen—somehow—that my groom and I would have no children, and the shock of her vision was quite undoing her. Sophia, it should be said, had a gift of intuition that might well become the full-fledged Sight any moment now. But Sophia’s predictions were not always clear, and she was definitely wrong on this score. My marriage to Cavanaugh would be perfect. It had to be. “Today I am the most joyful woman alive.” Still, the tiniest thread of fear skated along my nerves.
Sophia raised a trembling chin and gave me a smile, looking like a frail raven-haired ghost in her gorgeous white silk gown. That gown cost five pounds, if it cost a shilling, and it was embroidered with Italian lace. It would take a farmer a year just to earn enough to pay for a dress like that, but it was only one of a dozen gowns Sophia’s betrothed had gifted to her. I pondered that a moment. Had Cavanaugh given me any gifts of late? I’d been so busy with my duties to the Queen, I hadn’t much noticed.
“It’s almost time, Beatrice,” Anna Burgher chirped from the doorway.
We’d participated in the loud and boisterous procession from the Upper Ward of Windsor Castle down to St. George’s Chapel, and then—just as I’d orchestrated it—I and my bridesmaids had slipped in here while Lord Cavanaugh moved toward the front of the chapel, to give me a last opportunity to make sure I was completely prepared.
Now Anna was up on her toes, bouncing in her yellow satin skirts, her ginger mass of hair brutalized into a tight coil of braids. I smiled at the back of Anna’s head, imagining her eyes darting this way and that. She’d record every person in attendance of this, my most triumphant public appearance yet. We would spend hours poring over the lists she made, analyzing who was most appropriate to approach, to flatter, and to watch in the weeks following the wedding. The Queen’s birthday was coming up, and there would be time to cement alliances there.
Speaking of. “And Elizabeth? Has she arrived yet?”
“No! She must wish to do you proud, Beatrice,” Anna said staunchly, still scanning the chapel floor. “She will grace you like the Queen of the Fairies at exactly the perfect moment.”
I pursed my lips, the thread of doubt within me thickening to a coarser yarn. Elizabeth was many things, I knew from long experience. “Fairy Queen” was not among them. But she had blessed this union, taken pride in it as if it were her own. That was what mattered.
The music shifted in subtle counterpoint just then, and I straightened, casting a glance over my soft pink gown. Unlike the rumored splendor of Mary Queen of Scots’ recent bridal ensemble—all white, if you can believe it—my gown’s overskirts flowed down in rich, pale pink panels, parted at the front to reveal a luxurious swath of buttercream satin, delicately picked out with golden thread. The skirts were attached above to a stiffly embroidered vee-pointed bodice that featured a virtual garden of pink, gold and brilliantly red roses, all of them swirling, twirling and fanning out along a neckline cut to showcase my blushing, porcelain skin—still modest enough, but an effective display of maidenly beauty. My lace sleeves were so fine as to be nearly sheer, ending in delicate cuffs edged, once more, in pink and gold. I was a vision of English sensibilities, from tip to toe.
Everything was perfect.
“God’s Bones, half of England is out there,” Meg Fellowes observed as she ducked into the doorway, tall and straight in her simple gown of dove-grey satin. I smiled, feeling uncharacteristically charitable toward our resident thief, which I never would have believed possible at the start of the summer. I’d even loaned her the dress she was now wearing. Of course, it was two seasons out of date, but Meg didn’t seem to mind. Probably didn’t know, either.
And she was no rival, that much was certain. Somewhere out in that audience was Meg’s special Spanish spy, Rafe de Martine. I’d watched her sneak glances at the boy since he’d entered the chapel, and now felt something curiously empty in my chest, like I’d gone too long since breaking my fast.
Anna, usually the smartest of our select company, was convinced that Meg was truly in love, though I couldn’t quite see the point of that. Rafe de Martine was a courtier, but he was Spanish. He was fine for a turn on the dance floor, or even a stolen kiss—or a dozen—behind a darkened tapestry, but nothing more. Rafe had wanted me first, of course, but I could never have given him what he wanted. So he’d turned to Meg.
It wasn’t as if he was going to tuck himself into a corner with Jane Morgan after all. Her unkind cuts would have left him bleeding.
Still and all, the Queen would never approve a match between Meg and the Spaniard. And Meg, for her part, insisted she had no interest in marriage. This of course was utter folly, but the girl was still new to court. She would learn, I thought, as I returned my attention to my gown. Marriage was not about love. I knew that, no matter how desperately glad I was that Cavanaugh loved me.
Marriage was about power.