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The measures of the Branle started easily enough, the dancers moving in long circles. First they stepped a few light hops to the right, and then they moved back to the left, all the while holding hands. When the music changed to announce the Branle Charlotte, the dancers easily adapted to include the short pointed-toe kicks along with their steps. Then the Branle des Lavandières was signaled, and there was great laughing and cheers as partners broke apart and acted like washerwomen scolding each other, then clapped and hopped in a circle, all in time to the music. Every time the couples returned their hands to a clasp, I noted the slight change in both Lord Brighton and Lady Ariane. They glanced at each other, they smiled, and there seemed to be a quickening in the air around them.

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Then the music changed to a Gavotte. Great laughter rose up from the assembled crowd as the dancers quickly tried to move their feet to the hopping, skipping, twirling steps of
the new dance. I wasn’t so much concerned with their skill as with their enjoyment, and the Queen, who loved nothing more than a challenge, was of course the most extraordinary dancer of all. She fairly sparkled as the music wound toward its inexorable close, the point at which the dancers broke line again and returned to their partners, leaning in for the most chaste of kisses.

Except for Lord Brighton and Lady Ariane.

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In that precious, perfect moment the Queen broke away from Robert Dudley and swept her gaze right.
She
saw Sophia’s betrothed lift his lips from Lady Ariane’s, saw the flash of ardor between the them, the pure, spontaneous desire. I marked Elizabeth’s immediate understanding of the unplanned intimacy of that kiss, and the calculation in her eyes.

As a single, moneyed, and lovely female of the court, Lady Ariane was a greater problem than Sophia. Elizabeth needed her married off. And Sophia, well—she was a spy coming into a very intriguing and potentially valuable skill. At first her betrothal had probably seemed like a good idea to the Queen, as a means to secure Lord Brighton’s money and take a potentially troublesome girl off her hands, should Sophia’s gifts not manifest. Now, however, with the benefit of time and consideration, I suspected that perhaps such a betrothal was no longer as desirable.

And I had just given Elizabeth the ability to solve two problems at once, with her none the wiser to the real reasons behind my scheme.

Or so I hoped.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

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The music moved on to another dance, and the moment passed with only the most discerning members of the court understanding what had just transpired. Fortunately, Lord Brighton and Lady Ariane didn’t realize they had been discovered, both of them removing themselves from the dance floor and returning to stand at the edge of the crowd, now slightly farther apart than before. I narrowed my eyes in the shadows. It would do them no good.

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“A dance, my lady? Since that seems aught you Englishers are capable of doing to spend your time?”

I forced myself to stay still for just a moment more before turning to smile up at Alasdair MacLeod. He seemed . . . larger, somehow. More real than the men of the court whom I’d just so skillfully arranged on the dance floor like pawns upon a chessboard. And he stared down at me as if daring me to say no.

I found I did not want to say no. I gazed at him with equal challenge. “You are dismayed by the fact that we are far more civilized than you?”

Alasdair rolled his eyes. “Your country would be better served by having its men on the battleground, not walking around in circles.”

“Ah, but don’t you realize?” I said as I crossed in front of him. “More political decisions are made on the dancing floor than could ever be reached in battle.”
Like the decision I just orchestrated, in fact.
I took his proffered arm. “See? Even you deign to engage me here, while on the battleground we would be direst enemies.”

“Never that, my lady,” he said gruffly as he led me to the floor. The music settled into a sedate Pavane, and I welcomed the slow pace that allowed for conversation but not too much intimacy. Even having Alasdair’s hands hold me at arm’s length was disconcerting, but this was the man who’d lied about his actions in my own home. I had no qualms about presenting him a face that betrayed not one of my emotions. His next words, however, caught me off guard.

“So what game was this that you just enacted, showing Sophia’s betrothed in such a poor light?”

“Pray, what?” I arched a brow at him as we turned. “I surely don’t—”

“You cannot hide from me, my lady Beatrice,” Alasdair murmured, his quiet words effectively cutting me off. We were walking forward now, the measured steps taking us slowly around the floor. “I saw you huddled with your fellow maids, then the five of you spinning out like a scatter of birds. I tracked you through the crowd as you turned heads and hands to the floor, and then I saw you pause overlong with a most unusual couple.”

“Unusual?” I asked. “I should say they are well matched.”

“Well matched, aye, but for the fact that one of them is betrothed. And not to the other.”

I shrugged. “It was but a dance.”

“It was not ‘but a dance.’ ” We circled forward then. “You directed them like a general commanding troops into battle. They listened to you, even though you’re a mere wisp of a girl.”

“I beg your pardon—”

“And then you whisked away to watch the drama unfold, safe in the shadows. I knew exactly when you had achieved your goal.”

“I think you go too far,” I said, sharpness honing my words. How much did Alasdair know about me? There was clearly more to him than I had suspected if he had a hand in the secret meetings of the Lords of the Congregation. But how deep did his duplicity go? Was he merely being a flirtatious cad, or was he some cutthroat spy for Scotland
? I had to be more careful!

“And I think you are running out of lies, my lady,” Alasdair said lightly. The music stopped, but he did not loose my hand. “Pray walk with me awhile,” he said.

“I would rather dance.”

“And I would rather you walk, especially as, if I am not mistaken, your Queen is watching you with interest. She seems well pleased that you are following her directives to play up to the roguish emissary from the north, and she is wondering what you are learning from him. Do you not wish to curry her favor?”

I’d held my body quite still as he’d spoken, my feet moving only with the force of his stride. I would not look over to see if the Queen was staring at me, as he’d implied. She likely was. The Queen considered me first and foremost a tool to do her bidding, and she knew well how much I’d originally despised Alasdair MacLeod. Had that really been only a few short weeks ago, on the day I’d walked down the aisle of Saint George’s Chapel?

“Very well, then,” I said rigidly. “I could use some fresh air.”

“I believe it. This court reeks of English sweat and stale beer.”

“How pretty your phrasing,” I said through my teeth.

“And how honest,” Alasdair gibed back. But he was guiding me out of the Presence Chamber and down the long corridors, holding me close on his arm as if he were afraid I would bolt away like a startled deer. He didn’t slow until we’d crossed out onto the North Terrace, and the sudden icy breeze that sprang up to greet us took my breath away.

“Oh!” I exclaimed, instinctively drawing back. In response Alasdair released me only long enough to pull off his short cape and wrap it around me, before pulling me forward once more.

“The wind is not so strong in the lee of the walls,” he said. “And it does us both good to breathe freely once more.”

“I—thank you for your cape,” I managed. I was surrounded by the very essence of Alasdair MacLeod, the thick woolen cape far softer than I would have given him credit for, with its edges lined in a rich, silken fur. I had not noticed how luxurious his cape was until now, or how much it smelled like
him, leather and earth and open sky. I even caught the faintest hint of heather, and I drew it round me close.

“It is not all that I would give you, my lady,” Alasdair said. “And well I think you know it.” Then his lips twisted, his tone going hard. “Though of course, I overstep, knowing your disdain for me as you are ‘forced’ into enduring my ‘attentions’ so steadfastly against your will.”

Oh, go hang yourself.
“And yet here you are with me again.”

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He chuckled then, soft and sure. “And yet here I am.”

I glanced up at him, knowing I should launch into my own interrogation, to learn what deceits the Scot was weaving in our very midst.

But all I seemed to notice was that Alasdair’s body was strong and sturdy against the chilling breeze, his broad shoulders silhouetted against the starlight of the northern sky. That, and I seemed a little dizzy, all of a sudden, my breath coming a bit too fast. This was not good. This was not sensible. And yet I did not want to leave the shelter of Alasdair’s presence, didn’t want to break the spell, didn’t want to lose this moment quite yet.

He was watching me, and so I gave him my best smile. “Well. You speak of giving gifts, good sir, and yet I’ve only your cape for a short while. What else would you grant me, while you yet tarry here, before you are called back to hearth and home?” I’d tried to make my words arch and sophisticated, but instead I sounded breathless, and more than a little bereft.

If Alasdair noticed, he was unmoved. In fact, he was practically like a statue, as still and stoic as the walls that rose up
around us. I waited for him to say something, and I pulled his cape around me more tightly as a chill stole over me that had naught to do with the crisp night air. And still he stood, silent.

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So I waited.

And waited.

It should be noted, waiting is not my strong suit.

“Are you just going to stand there and say nothing?” I finally demanded, and Alasdair turned toward me then, crowding me into the stone corner, but still seeming impossibly far away.

“Aye,” he muttered. Then he cupped my face with his hands and brought his lips down to mine.

This was not the same kiss as what we’d shared in the center of the Marion Hall labyrinth, nor even the courtly kisses or impassioned embraces I’d experienced with far too many courtiers to count. This was the kiss of command, of power, and of being claimed. I felt the warning rise up within me even as my body seemed to go a little slewy in the knees, my heart pounding fiercely and my brain suddenly mute, giving me no idea of how to extricate myself from this madman’s arms.

And I found I didn’t want to know.

I sighed against him then, and felt Alasdair’s immediate response, his arms dropping to my shoulders to hug me fiercely close as his lips pressed more deeply against mine, his breath ragged and raw. I allowed this to go on a few moments more, only because of the Queen’s command that I chat up the Scotsman. Only for that reason alone.

The fact that my hands had found his arms and clung to them as his muscles bunched beneath the heavy embroidered sleeves was of no import whatsoever. The fact that my own legs had suddenly become so unbalanced that they required me to lean heavily against Alasdair just to remain standing, meant nothing either. And as for my breathing; well. I would have been a poor spy indeed were I not able to convince a man that I was entranced by his very person, completely swept away by the power of his kiss.

It was all tremendous practice for my courtly spying skills.

So of course I reached up and drew his head down so that he might kiss me more thoroughly.

Sometime later Alasdair lifted away from me. I found myself completely encircled by his strong arms, his cape pushed off my shoulders, still providing warmth but not as much as that which seemed to shimmer between us. He rested his forehead against mine, as if willing himself to pull more fully away, then breathed a tortured sigh. “What am I to do with you, my lady Beatrice?”

The answer that first sprang to mind was scandalous to the extreme, so I gave a slight shrug. “Well, you’ve kept me company through this dark night, so I suppose that is a beginning.”

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“But not an end.” He reached out and touched his finger to my chin, lifted it until my gaze met his. His eyes were dark and intense in the shadows, and I felt my nerves go tight with a sudden worry I could not name.

This was no longer a boy playing a game of flirtation but a young man who looked at me in a way Cavanaugh never
had—nor ever could. But was he also a traitor in our midst?

“What thoughts plague you now, sly one?” he asked, his eyes searching mine. “You are shaking.”

“I am cold,” I lied, pulling away roughly to resettle his cape. “I think we should return.”

“Of course,” Alasdair said. He turned me, his strong arm curling around me and sending another cascade of heat through my body. But before we’d crossed the threshold, I’d already slipped off his cape to hand it back to him, effectively changing from one persona—that which existed outside the strictures of the court—to another, the Beatrice who’d survived long years under the constant scrutiny of others, mindful that but a single false step would be her last.

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Alasdair caught the shifting of my mood, but rather than turning petulant, he merely grinned at me. “You would not last long outside this world of dalliance and deception, would you, my lady?” he asked.