I’m pleased to share an excerpt of my romantic historical fiction novel, Traitor’s Knot. The full novel is available by Endeavour Press and sold through Amazon.
I hope you enjoy…
Warwick 1650The garrison men swarmed Warwick market. James watched as they examined every horse in the pens.
The meal-man appeared at his elbow. “Another robbery, they say.”
“Horses this time. Made the buggers walk eight miles back to the garrison with their saddles on their heads.”
“So I heard,” James said. He had wanted to keep the saddles, but the stitching gave them away as New Model Army. He pointed to the bags of barley stacked in the stall. “Give me three, mate.”
“Lean times,” James replied. He tossed the man a sixpence, then brought the inn’s wagon close to the stall to load the grain.
James hoisted the first bag over his shoulders and threw it in the wagon. A fine dust exhaled from the rough burlap. As he lifted the second sack, he caught sight of a slim woman in a faded blue skirt wending her way through the market stalls. Her dark hair gleamed against the whiteness of her coif. Unmindful of the grain slung over his shoulder, James admired her lithe grace. When she finally turned, he straightened in surprise. Elizabeth Seton.
A smile curled over his lips. Giving little mind to where the bag landed, he tossed it in the back. Leaning against the wagon, he watched her progress through the merchant stalls. When the grain merchant thumped him on the shoulder, he realised the man had been speaking to him.
“Forget not the last one. I won’t have Henry claiming I cheated him.”
“I won’t.” James kept the maid in view. Why not make her acquaintance? She wouldn’t recognise him since he had worn a scarf. Step to it, man.
James scooped up the last sack and then latched the wagon gate. Dusting off his hands, he turned around to find his view blocked by Lieutenant Hammond and a pair of dragoons. He smothered a groan, barely hiding his irritation. “Lieutenant. If you’ve come to lend me a hand, I fear ’tis too late, but thank you for your courtesy.” He tried to step around them, but Hammond moved to block his way.
“Are you in a hurry, ostler?”
James looked past Hammond but had lost sight of Elizabeth Seton. She couldn’t have gone far. “If you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend.”
“A few moments,” Hammond said. “I’m sure you can muck the stables another time.”
James clenched his jaw and considered the dragoons at Hammond’s side. The lieutenant would like nothing better than an opportunity to crow before his men. “What can I do for you?”
“How goes it at the inn?”
James shrugged. “Busy enough for a living. Come by for an ale later. The landlord brews Warwickshire’s best.”
Again he tried to move past, but this time Hammond halted him with his horse switch. “I haven’t come to discuss the merits of your innkeeper’s ale.”
James glanced down at the switch and wanted to twist it around the Roundhead’s neck. Though it galled him, James forced an even tone. “Pity.”
“The garrison is investigating another robbery,” Hammond said. “’Twas the work of the highwayman. Have you heard aught of it?”
James leaned against the wagon. “Aye, all of Warwick has. A patrol losing their horses, or did I hear an ill account?”
“You heard right.”
“How embarrassing,” James said. “I wish you joy of finding the villain. If the garrison is looking for new mounts, I may be able to help since the horse fair is not for another month. There are a couple of spritely cobs I can recommend.”
Hammond’s mouth curled down. “Did any strange horses pass through the stables this week?”
“Lieutenant, we run an inn. Strange horses arrive every week. Just the other day, we stood courtesy to a rather shady piebald gelding.”
Hammond slapped his switch against his thigh. “I don’t appreciate cheek, ostler.”
James smothered a grin and assumed a contrite expression. “Forgive me. What kind of horse are you searching for?”
“A dark horse, likely a black, with white markings.”
“Aye?” James allowed a trace of scepticism to creep into his tone. He scratched his head as though in doubt.
“Have you heard aught else?”
Over the past year, James had taken care to spread differing stories every chance he could. Henry’s inn proved the best place to ferment rumours. Few, when threatened, could recall the exact details of the encounter, and men believed anything they heard in a public house. “Naught but stories, though most agree that he rides a mahogany bay. Mind, I’ve also heard he favours a liver chestnut. ’Tis easy to mistake one for the other.” James shrugged. “Not sure that will help though. They say he steals the mounts he uses and discards them at will.” He paused for a fraction. Devil take my soul. “Perhaps, Lieutenant, you should be searching for garrison horses.”
An angry flush stained Hammond’s neck. The other dragoons averted their eyes and examined the cobbles. “You find this amusing, ostler?”
This constant reminder of his profession grated on him. “Do they not steal horses in London, Lieutenant? Question those who keep a straight face. You’ll have a better chance of finding them. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve pressing business elsewhere. But I’ll keep a sharp eye at the inn. With a ten-pound reward, I’m eager to collect.”
Hammond’s knuckles whitened. “You do that, ostler.” Straightening his coat, he glowered. “As will I.”
James watched them leave. What made him do that? He knew he played a dangerous game, but the man set his teeth on edge.
A pox on him. He had better ways to occupy his time.
James looked around the market for the maid. Such a comely woman would attract the attention of many. He should have no trouble finding her. Convincing the meal-man to mind his wagon, James settled his hat on his head and went off in search of the elusive Elizabeth Seton.
***People clogged the market, moving as slow as a herd of sheep and with as much purpose. Shrill cries of, “Wool, thirty-six shillings to the pound!” cut through the crowd. James scanned the square, looking for a dark-haired woman in a blue skirt. It was as though he searched for a chaff of barley in a stack of wheat.
James manoeuvred against the tide of people. Soot-faced urchins ran between the channels that opened in the crowd, jostling as they darted past. In an effort to avoid further collision, he nearly bumped into a matron, her basket loaded with packages.
She beamed a bright smile. “God save you, Master Hart.” Her free hand fluttered over her lace collar like a butterfly.
“And you, Mistress Boddington.” James tipped his hat to her. “I trust the family has fared the winter well.” The moment she lowered her eyes, James tried to steal a glance over her shoulder. At of the edge of his vision, he caught a flash of blue.
The woman bobbed her head. “With God’s grace. My daughter, Sibyl, has been a blessing. She has become such an adept housekeeper.”
James ignored the expectation in her tone. Sibyl Boddington was too timid for his taste. “Please give my compliments to your daughter. If you’ll excuse me.”
The matron opened her mouth to continue the conversation, but James managed to extricate himself into the safety of the crowd.
He quickened his pace. Where could she have gone? Taller than most, James commanded a better view of the market, but still he could not find her. How difficult could this be? He rolled his eyes at the irony. He, James Hart, once the best scoutmaster of the King’s army and famed for his ability to track a field mouse, could not find a slip of a maid in a Warwick market.
James made his way down Jury Street through the livestock market and pens of bleating lambs. Someone had forgotten to latch a crate properly, and a pair of fluttering chickens escaped from their coop. The butcher tossed a scrap of offal over his shoulder, and stray dogs darted in before they were beaten away.
Turning on Market Square, James paused to survey the haberdashers. Surely he would find her here, amongst the stalls of linens, laces and ribbons. Hats and coifs intermingled, and for a moment all he could see was a blur of white and grey. About to turn away, his eyes at last fell upon the one he sought.
Elizabeth Seton browsed the household stalls, strolling at her leisure. James walked towards her, his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. She hovered over a collection of linens, and her fingers brushed over the cloths, but she did not linger beyond a curious moment. James kept a discreet distance, ever narrowing the gap. One slim hand held her skirts, raising them slightly to avoid a muddy puddle before she continued on her way.
He halted his progress when she became rooted at the bookseller’s. While fancy ribbons and laces had not attracted her interest, a stack of pamphlets and chapbooks made the difference. She struck up a conversation with the bookseller, laughing at something he said. James rubbed his chin, engrossed. An unusual maid, he thought, and drew closer.
Leaning over the small collection, her head tilted to peer at the titles. Hair secured in a sedate knot, a wayward tendril escaped its constraint. The wind lifted and teased the stray lock, contrasting to the paleness of her nape. James fought the urge to reach out and twist the strand in his fingers.
He bent forward and addressed her in a low tone, “Are you looking to improve your mind, or to seek instruction?”
Elizabeth started in surprise. Her eyes widened, and for the first time, he realised how blue they were. Almost immediately they narrowed, as though she wasn’t sure how to respond to his boldness. He knew he was being forward, but he had never won a thing without pressing his advantage.
“I am looking for a book on good manners, sir. I would not expect you to recommend one.”
James grinned. Without looking away, he addressed the bookseller, who watched them. “Master Ward, would you be so kind as to introduce us?”
“I would,” the man said. “Only I haven’t made the maid’s acquaintance myself.”
Amusement flitted across her lips. “Elizabeth Seton,” she announced.
“Mistress Seton, may I present James Hart, ostler at the Chequer and Crowne,” the bookseller said, fulfilling his duty.
James swept his hat from his head. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Seton.” He rather liked saying her name.
“Master Hart.” Elizabeth canted her head and hesitated for a fraction. She looked at him openly and did not avert her eyes in modesty when he returned her gaze.
“You’re new to Warwick,” he said.
“How would you know this?”
“I know everyone here.”
“Not so,” she said. One brow arched ever so slightly. “You did not know me until this moment.”
James found her bewitching. “I stand corrected, Mistress Seton. Still, you are new to Warwick.”
Elizabeth’s head dipped.
“If I were to guess, I’d say you were Mistress Stanborowe’s niece. I’ve heard that Ellendale has a new resident.”
“Indeed, your information is correct.”
“Pray, allow me the privilege of calling on you.” James leaned against the stall and nearly sent a stack of books tumbling.
“My aunt values courtesy, and you, sir, are quite forward. I can only assume she would object.”
“I assure you, mistress, I am not an objectionable fellow,” he said. “Is that not right, Master Ward?”
“Quite true.” The man’s voice shook with laughter.
“There you have it,” James said. “If you can’t trust the word of a bookseller, all is lost.”
A small smile flitted at the corner of her mouth. James found the resulting dimple intriguing. “I must be leaving.” She picked up her purchase and prepared to depart. “God save you, sir, and good day.” She reached over to pay the bookseller, but Master Ward caught James’s warning frown and casually turned away.
“Are women from the south always so aloof?” James blurted, then cringed. Lagging wit—you can do better.
She halted in surprise. “How did you know I came from the south?”
“Far south, I would guess,” he said, grasping the first thing that came to mind.
“How do you suppose?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Naturally, by your speech.”
“Indeed? I could be from London,” Elizabeth replied.
“You are as likely from London as I from Scotland.”
Elizabeth gave up trying to attract the bookseller’s attention and laid her coin atop a pile of chapbooks. She clutched her purchase to her chest in preparation for her escape.
“I will make you a wager,” he said. “If I can guess where you came from, you’ll allow me to call on you.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“I’ll wish you good day and trouble you no more.” James offered his hand, but she ignored it. “Do we have an agreement?”
Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. She pursed her lips, and a hint of a dimple lurked at the corners. “Agreed.”
James smiled. He hadn’t forgotten what she had told the highwayman. “Let’s see—I’ll need one word from you.”
“Which one?” Elizabeth asked.
“Aye, the very one. Say it again.” He crossed his arms and waited. When she repeated it, he nodded. “’Tis perfectly clear. Your speech has a Dorset flavour.” For truth, she did have a lovely, soft way of speaking.
Elizabeth’s brow arched slightly. “Are you certain I am not from Hampshire?”
“Aye. Admit it, I’m correct.”
“Fine, then, but Dorset is quite large, and that does not prove your wit.”
“An exacting maid. No doubt you’ll want me to do better,” he said with a slow smile. “I’ll need another word from you, then. Two, if you please.”
“Truly? Which ones?” The breeze strengthened, and she brushed a tangled strand from her face. James caught the haunting scent of lavender.
With a smile, she repeated the words. The rosy bow of her mouth fascinated him.
“Unmistakable.” He grinned.
“I would lay my life upon it. ’Tis a Weymouth cast.”
“Truly impressive.” Elizabeth’s blue eyes narrowed. “Such a clever fellow to know this only by my speech. Would you not agree, Master Ward?”
This time the bookseller laughed out loud. “Quite so, Mistress Seton.”
“Thank you for your stimulating instruction, Master Hart. I find my time has grown short. Good day.” She nodded farewell to the bookseller and started to walk away.
“What of our wager?” James called out to her.
Elizabeth stopped to face him. “I’ll honour our wager at the time of my choosing. You didn’t stipulate otherwise.”
James chuckled. Damned captivating woman. He crossed his arms across his chest and watched as she walked away. With a last swish of her blue skirts, she melted into the crowd.
“Aren’t you going after her, James?” Master Ward leaned forward.
“Nay, not yet,” he smiled, savouring the anticipation. He dearly loved a challenge.
If you enjoyed this excerpt and would like to read more, Traitor’s Knot is available through Amazon.