Authors: Margaret Mallory
The guards shouted over someone’s lucky roll. Without looking to see who it was, Jamie tossed another penny on the table.
He liked the way she rode her horse, fearless at a
full gallop. He enjoyed the clever things she said at dinner—and that flash in her eyes when she teased him.
“Are you playing, Rayburn?”
He took the dice thrust in his face. As he rubbed the worn dice bones between his thumb and fingers, he thought of the smoothness
of Linnet’s skin.
How he was going to survive weeks in the same castle without falling into bed with her again, he did not know. He could only
pray Bedford would take a fast ship from France and relieve him of his duties here.
His squire appeared behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. Speaking in a low voice so as not to interrupt the game, Martin
said, “Sir James, a man has come to the castle asking for you.”
“Keep my money,” Jamie told the guards as he got up. “You’d win it anyway.”
Martin trailed behind him down the circular stone stairs.
“He says he is a friend of yours,” Martin said.
The lad sounded skeptical. As soon as Jamie stepped out onto the muddy ground outside the gate, he understood why.
He roared with laughter. “Owen Tudor, is that you beneath all that mud?”
“You know damned well it is,” Owen said, his even white teeth making a bright line in his dirt-streaked face.
Jamie’s hand made a wet smacking sound when he slapped his friend on the back. As he shook the mud off it, he said, “Did you
have a good night’s sleep with the pigs?”
“My horse stepped into a hole in the downpour. Next thing I knew, I was sitting on my arse in a puddle a
foot deep.” Owen wiped his face with his sleeve, which relieved his sleeve of more mud than his face. “ ’Tis lucky I didn’t
break my neck.”
“You’ve come to see the queen?”
“Aye,” Owen said. “Your father gave me a letter recommending me to her service.”
“Well, you can’t see her like that,” Jamie said, grinning. “I fear the maids will murder me if I bring you inside.”
He turned to his squire. “Martin, go fetch soap and towels. I am taking him to the river to get cleaned up.”
“But sir, the water is freezing.”
“This man survived the winter siege at Mieux,” Jamie said, slapping his friend on the back again, despite the mud. “He can
survive a dunking in the Thames in November.”
“I’ve not been this filthy since the siege,” Owen said with a laugh.
“Praise God you don’t smell as bad as you did then.”
“ ’Tis because I bathed in your family tub just last week,” Owen said. “With your pretty sisters washing my back.”
“Like hell they did,” Jamie said. “I expect my father locked the older girls in their bedchambers until he raised the drawbridge
“I never got closer to them than thirty feet,” Owen said with a grin. “By the by, your entire family threatens to come here
if you do not pay them a visit soon.”
“I am anxious to see them, too, but I cannot leave Windsor yet.”
“Your parents hinted they had something important to discuss with you.” Owen elbowed him. “Don’t suppose they’ve finally found
some poor girl to wed you, do you?”
They walked along the path by the river in companionable silence, looking for a good spot. The rain had stopped, but the path
was slippery with mud.
Jamie looked over his shoulder to be sure Martin had gone, before saying in a low voice, “Linnet is here.”
Owen turned to stare at him, the whites of his eyes showing against the mud. “Linnet? The same Linnet whose name no man dared
mention to you for five years?”
“The very one.”
After a long pause, Owen said, “Has she a husband now?”
Jamie shook his head.
“You bedding her yet?”
Jamie did not answer.
Owen laughed. “I can see you have, you devil.”
“Ha, I knew it!” Owen said. “You two could never keep your hands off each other.”
That was true enough, but it had been more than that for him back in Paris. Jamie stopped and looked out across the river.
He took a deep breath and told himself he would not let it happen again—and he did not mean just the bedding part.
“I have bad news for you, Jamie boy,” Owen said. “She seems to be the only one who will do for you. Instead of fighting against
it, why don’t you fight for her this time?”
Jamie snapped his head around and glared at Owen. “Aye, I said fight for her. But for God’s sake, Jamie, fight dirty this
time.” Owen raised his muddy fist in the air. “Fight hard. Fight to win.”
“As a Welshman, you may be willing to chain a woman to your hearth, but we English are more civilized.”
“I can see I shall have to speak plainly, since you are but a slow-witted Englishman,” Owen said, shaking his head. “Last
time, you left the field.”
“After what she did, how—”
“Ach!” Owen said, dismissing his objection with a wave. “The other man found you in bed with her, not the other way around.
What is your complaint?”
“She deceived me, scoffed at my good intentions, and made a fool of me.” Not to mention, ripping his heart from his chest.
“You know nothing about women! Your problem is that you feel you must be truthful,” Owen said. “Believe me, if I loved a woman
as you do—and do not even attempt to tell me you do not—I would find a way to keep her.”
Jamie put his weight behind a shove that sent Owen sliding down the slippery riverbank. Owen waved his arms wildly, trying
to catch his balance before his feet went out from under him and he disappeared over the bank.
“Enjoy the water!” Jamie shouted as he clapped the dirt from his hands. “Catch me a fish while you’re in there.”
He heard a muffled string of curses coming from below.
Now that was satisfying. He’d feel even better if he could find an excuse to throw a few punches.
Jamie turned to see Martin coming down the path with an armful of towels and went to meet him.
“Thank you, Mar—
” The air went out of him
as Owen grabbed him around the knees and slammed him to the ground.
Jamie lifted his head, blinking mud from his eyes. Muck oozed between his fingers.
“James, tell this lad it was all in good fun before I have to hurt him.”
Jamie turned to see Owen lying faceup with Martin’s foot on his chest. Better still, the point of Martin’s sword was at Owen’s
throat. The sight struck Jamie as so hilarious, he rolled over on his back, laughing.
Making the same mistake Owen had earlier, he wiped his face on his muddy sleeve. “Lord above, there is even grit between my
Martin saw that he had misjudged the threat and sheathed his sword. This was a mistake, however, because his foot was yet
on Owen’s chest. Owen sprang up, sending the lad flying backward.
That was when the mud fight began in earnest.
Linnet peeked around the door of the buttery. The queen’s back was to her, and she was peering intently at something out the
“Whatever are you doing here, Your Grace?” Linnet said.
The queen jumped back, looking like a dog caught dragging the family roast from the table.
“One of your ladies-in-waiting told me I’d find you here.” Linnet had thought the woman was jesting. “I came to ask if you
were ready to go to the hall for dinner.”
“You must see this,” the queen said, crooking her finger.
Linnet joined her at the window. It afforded an unobstructed view of the Thames, which ran along this side of the castle.
On the river’s edge, three men were shouting and tossing one another about in the mud.
“They strike each other with such violence that at first I feared they meant to kill each other,” the queen said without turning
away from the scene. “But amid the grunts and shouts, I hear them laugh.”
Linnet wondered just how long the queen had been watching. “Of all things…,” she murmured, then narrowed her eyes. “Is that…”
“Aye, your Sir James is one,” the queen said.
“He is not my Sir James.”
“The slighter one may be his squire,” the queen said. “But who is the third one?”
“I cannot tell with all the mud on him.”
Linnet’s mouth fell open as the men suddenly began stripping their clothes off. In contrast to the rest of their bodies, their
hindquarters looked remarkably clean and white as they ran toward the river. Judging by how they pushed and shoved one another,
this was a race. Linnet heard the splashes as the three hit the water.
“But it is winter!” the queen said, gripping the window ledge. “They could freeze to death.”
The queen was not concerned enough, however, to pry herself from the window to call for help.
“They are fine, I’m sure.” Linnet chuckled as the men splashed and dunked one another in the water.
“How lucky men are,” the queen said in a wistful voice. “To be so free…”
“Free, indeed,” Linnet murmured as the first two men
walked out of the water with no apparent concern for their nakedness.
The queen pretended to cover her eyes, but she was looking through her fingers. The laugh died in Linnet’s throat as Jamie
emerged, water streaming off his sleek, muscular frame. She sighed as he stopped to shake water from his long hair.
“Merciful God, is he not beautiful?” the queen whispered.
Truer words were never spoken. When Linnet tore her eyes away from Jamie to turn to the queen, she realized her friend had
not been speaking of Jamie. The queen’s hand was pressed to her chest, and she had eyes for none but the stranger. Linnet
took another look at the man, this time giving him a thorough perusal, head to… hhhm… toe. He had a fine build and a jaunty
air, but he was no Jamie Rayburn.
She shrugged. To each his own.
“Wait, I believe I do know who he is,” Linnet said. “ ’Tis Owen Tudor. He was one of the king’s squires of the body. Do you
“I am sure I have never laid eyes on him before,” the queen said in a soft voice.
This was not good. After Edmund Beaufort, the queen could afford no more entanglements. Linnet felt sad for her friend. After
three years of widowhood, the queen was a very lonely woman. And what was worse, she was full of romantic notions.
Everyone seemed to expect her to be content to mourn the glorious King Henry for the rest of her life. But she was young,
and she had already been a widow longer than she had been wed. Unfortunately, any relationship would
threaten the men vying for control of her son. The episode with Edmund Beaufort was proof of that.
As she observed the queen’s dreamy expression, Linnet felt a shiver of apprehension.
“Your Highness,” she said, touching her friend’s sleeve, “let us go to dinner now.”
innet’s spoonful of soup was halfway to her mouth when the three men strode through the entrance, filling the hall with a
burst of vibrant male energy. With their hair slicked back from their faces and their glowing good health, they drew every
eye in the room. Slowly, Linnet set her spoon back in her bowl without tasting her soup.
Jamie’s wet hair was black, which made his violet eyes all the more striking. When they met hers, the air crackled down the
length of the room between them. A high-pitched sound came from the back of her throat as the vision of him standing naked
on the riverbank, water streaming down his muscles and glistening on his skin, filled her head.
Desire darkened his eyes, as it did every time he looked at her. It would be so easy to be drawn into that burning passion
again, but she made herself remember Jamie’s regret after his passion was sated. No amount of pleasure was worth the pain
She broke the gaze. She would not be shamed by him. If lust was all he felt for her now, she would not have him.
Linnet devoted herself to cutting her venison as Jamie strode up to the high table with Owen. Then, recalling her
duty, she turned to glance at the queen. Saints above! The queen was staring at Owen with that dreamy expression again—right
here in the hall, in front of everyone.
“Your Grace, I beg forgiveness for interrupting your dinner,” Jamie said with a low bow. “I was unavoidably detained.”
Linnet choked on the piece of venison in her mouth. She shot another glance at the queen, but her friend appeared oblivious
to the absurdity of Jamie’s remark.
“With your permission, I wish to present my friend, Owen Tudor,” Jamie said, extending his arm toward Owen. “He served your
husband, our most dear and glorious King Henry.”
The queen blushed faintly as Owen gave her an elegant bow—no doubt she, too, was recalling the men’s recent naked state. Owen
rose from his bow with a broad smile that held frank appreciation, but not an ounce of awe.
The queen blinked at him, her mouth forming a perfect “O.”
“Your Grace,” Owen said in a deep, resonant voice. “If it pleases you, I ask your permission to give your steward a letter
recommending me to your service.”
While she waited for Queen Katherine to murmur politely and defer the request to her steward, Linnet set her mind to the matter
of Owen Tudor’s employment. Just what position would give the green-eyed Welshman the least contact with the queen? Falconer
might do. The queen hated hawking.
Better yet, “Keeper of the Royal Sheep.” Linnet smiled to herself as she pictured Owen on a very distant hillside. If the
queen owned no sheep, Linnet would suggest to the steward that he buy her some… on the Isle of Man.
Queen Katherine spoke, startling Linnet from her thoughts. “Would ‘Keeper of the Wardrobe’ suit you?” the queen asked in a
breathy voice. “I have need of a good man for that position.”
Good heavens! There could be no worse choice. For any high-ranking noblewoman, the purchase and maintenance of her household’s
clothes and jewelry consumed a great deal of time and money. But for a queen, these were formidable tasks, indeed. If the
queen wished to, she could spend countless hours with Owen.
This was a disaster in the making.
Linnet caught Jamie’s eye and mouthed,
When he drew his eyebrows together in a puzzled expression, she stamped her foot under the table in frustration.