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A Dangerous Game
As Lady Justina Wincott’s brutal guardian, Viscount Biddeford promises any disobedience from her will cost her son dearly. A pawn in his games of court treachery, the beautiful widow is forced to tempt secrets from his enemies and seduce allegiance from his friends. Yet even Biddeford’s wrath won’t make Justina sully the only man of honor she’s ever known…
Sir Synclair has earned his honor in blood and muck. War taught him the way to victory is rarely clean—but the passion Justina sparks in him is not to be ignored. Never mind the predators who crave her beauty, or Biddeford’s ruthless wiles; he will have her as his wife. And yet if he is to wed Justina, his fiercest battle may be with the lady herself…
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Whitehall Palace, October 1546
The Viscount Gregory Biddeford was considered to be a handsome man, but Justina saw only his ambition, which made him hideous in her way of thinking.
“You have made me wait upon you, madam.”
He touched the tips of his fingers against each other, lightly tapping them together. “For a woman who has so much to lose, I think your tardiness a foolish lapse of attention to the matter of making certain that I am pleased with you…”
His eyes narrowed. “In all that you do.”
Justina suppressed the urge to cover herself. The viscount had not announced his entrance into her chamber, and she wore only a chemise. The fragile silk was translucent in places from the water that had dripped out of her freshly washed hair, making the thin fabric stick to her body. The viscount considered her curves with a flicker of lust in his eyes. However, she knew the man well enough to know that it would be simple to turn his attention away from her flesh in favor of reprimanding her for being bold enough to argue with him. The man’s ego always reigned supreme over his lust.
“The Baron Ryppon is known for his dislike of being betrayed, my lord. You knew that he would not fail to unmask me once I had done your bidding and set his bride free during the night.”
“You should have followed her out of the fortress. That solution was so simple, it could have been thought of by a child.”
Justina had to force her temper down, which was surprising. Her time at Amber Hill seemed to have drained away some of her tolerance for the viscount’s lashing tongue. The pompous ass always sent others to do his bidding while having no compassion for the difficulty of the tasks. He was dressed from head to toe in the latest fashions. Velvet sewn with pearls, bits of gold, and jewels was tailored to fit his frame precisely. Around his neck he wore the solid gold knight of the garter order with its Tudor rose medallions and depictions of St. George slaying the dragon. While she had been imprisoned on the borderland, the man who had sent her there had been busy visiting his tailor.
“If I had attempted to follow her, the guards would have been alerted to her escape. Once she was gone, I was trapped inside the walls until morning and could not escape being caught. The Baron Ryppon refused to allow me to leave once the deed was discovered.”
Biddeford stepped closer, his gaze sliding down her body in a slow and insulting inspection. He reached out and touched her cheek, stroking his fingertips across her skin. A single shudder of distaste rippled across her in spite of her years of bowing to his will.
“Your time in that fortress weakened you, my sweet widow. Your feelings show on your face now.” He leaned down, close enough that she felt his breath against her cheek. “That will never do.”
He peered down the front of the gaping neckline of her chemise, his gaze drinking in the sight of her nude breasts and nipples. Justina jerked away, revulsion flowing through her in a thick stream.
Biddeford chuckled. “As I stated, you are weak. That body is mine to command, madam. I am your guardian, and you shall be obedient to my will.”
She wanted to narrow her eyes, but showing her real emotion was a luxury that she could ill afford. Instead she lowered her eyelashes to conceal the bright flash of her rebellion. “I did as you said, my lord.”
The viscount waved his hand. “Ryppon’s bride is irrelevant now. Lord Oswald has been given his expected treat in the form of another girl I was forced to find because you failed to deliver Bridget Newbury as I instructed you to. You have failed me.”
“I showed Bridget the way from Amber Hill. She was well away. Her escort failed you by not being able to get her to the coast.”
The viscount waved his hand again, this time his motion more impatient. “I told you, madam, it is irrelevant. While you have been locked away on the borderland, much has happened here at court. The King will die very soon.”
“You should not say anything of that nature. Only God knows such a thing.” Justina snapped at him before thinking.
A deadly look entered Biddeford’s eyes. “Have you taken leave of your senses, madam? Has it somehow escaped your notice that I am the guardian of your son and his future is entirely within my power to direct? Perhaps you require a demonstration of my control over your future. I will send for Brandon and have him brought to court. For certain there will be something I can think to do with such a pretty little boy.”
“You promised me that you will leave my son in the country.” Rage flashed through her too hot to ignore but still she fought to conceal it. “I have done much, too much, to earn that from you.”
“You seem to have forgotten that my word is good only so long as you obey me, madam.” Biddeford drew in a stiff breath. “You shall keep that tongue pleasant when addressing me, and you had better be grateful that your beauty still shines enough to be of use to me. I care not what you think, madam, no one does. You are a woman, a vessel used to please men, You will serve me, and anyone I direct you to, else I shall have your son be brought to court. As we both know, there are men who prefer boys to women.”
The chamber was so silent, Justina could hear her own heart beating. Part of her would have liked to die rather than submit, but the memory of her son’s sweet face kept her alive. She was his only hope, his one protector, no matter what it took to shelter him from the depravity of the man standing in front of her. The law favored the viscount in every way since her husband had named him the guardian of their son. She was naught but a widow and her own family was gone.
The viscount took her silence as agreement. “Better. At least you seem to be able to learn quickly. Now, dress yourself and attend to the Princess Mary. The ambassador from Portugal has been sitting beside her most of the day, and I want to know what the man is saying to her.”
The door closed behind the man, and she heard his escort fall into step with him. Shivers began to move down her back and along her limbs.
She dare not refuse…
A side door opened and two maids entered the chamber without a sound. The servants who lived in the palace were always wise enough to disappear when it was in their best interest, but they also heard everything, returning at precisely the moment they were needed. One knelt at her feet to help her into lace stockings secured with satin garters, while the other picked up a silver hairbrush and began pulling it through Justina’s damp hair.
Anyone looking into the chamber might think her a lady being attended as her noble blood deserved, but in truth she was no better than any whore walking the dock- side out of desperation, to earn enough coin to avoid seeing her children suffer. Just because she had finer clothing and a warm fire at hand did not change how she earned those comforts. The world seemed to hold little good for women. The most blessed gift she had ever received took every bit of her strength to protect.
Her son Brandon.
Justina allowed his face to surface from her memory while the maids continued to dress her. One of them picked up the pair of boy’s britches she had used to escape from Baron Ryppon. The maid looked shocked, but Justina offered her no explanation for the male garments. For certain it was considered wrong for a female to wear such things as britches; the Church preached that it was unnatural for any woman to dress contrary to her gender. Only a woman possessed by the devil would do so. Those who liked to hunt witches often used the charge of wearing britches to help condemn their unfortunate prisoners.
Justina didn’t plan to say even one prayer of repentance for the wearing of those boy’s clothes. No one thought about stopping a young boy on the road. Every villager she had passed had taken little notice of her. They had assumed she was carrying a message and never thought she might be a woman who had bound her breasts to keep them from betraying her. She had even been tossed bread and cheese because the mare she rode was fine, and the woman who offered her the meal hoped that Justina would tell her master of the kindness. Perhaps send her a silver coin or two if she passed that way again.
Guilt did prick her for taking the food, but she had needed the strength to make it to Whitehall. She had to return and protect her son. What did it matter if she hated what she had become, so long as her child remained in the country, far removed from the depravity of court. Her own father was dead and that left her at the mercy of the guardian her husband’s will named. The Viscount Biddeford was a relation of her husband and the man embodied the ideal of a noble family. He made sure that not one bit of silver went unaccounted for and that every person under his power did their share to advance his name and fortune.
He didn’t care what method was needed, either. Justina refused to allow tears to gather in her eyes. Tears were a sign of weakness, and she wasn’t the first woman who had been used to charm information out of a man by acting as his lover. As far as the viscount was concerned, her chastity had served its purpose when she wed a titled man, and whom she slept with now that she was widowed was something for him to direct. It shouldn’t bother her, after all, she had never chosen her own lover, never laid down with a man she felt something more than even mild lust for. It shouldn’t matter and yet, she discovered herself dwelling on it now. The viscount was correct about one thing; her time away from court had affected her. She wouldn’t have thought that distance might cleanse her, scraping away the deceit and sin that felt as though it clung to her skin, but it had, because now she would have sworn that she could smell the stench of those around her who had blackened souls.