Hampton Court Palace
ord Darcy Blake, the third Earl of Chase, was not pleased. Not pleased with his mother, his servants, his country, his mistress, nor, at this moment, his king. But particularly, he was not pleased to be standing in an obscure hall of an obscure wing of Hampton Court Palace wearing a petticoat.
Bloody hell, if he’d known ten years ago, when he’d brought Charles back over from France, that he’d be wearing pink ruffles in a barely lit drawing room, he would have left the damn monarch to the Frogs. And if he had to stand another interminable moment in anyone or anything’s presence save a flask of spirits he was damn well going to tell the world to sod off.
Still, needs must. Kings called. And Chase men always answered… Always.
“You make a rather unattractive woman, Chase,” drawled Scott Winters, otherwise known to all his compatriots as the Earl of Ice.
Darcy narrowed his eyes, looked over his shoulder, and leveled his brother-in-arms with a ball-crushing stare. “Indeed? I thought you’d toss my skirts up at once.”
Winters laughed and pulled a flask from the full folds of his coat. Leaning back in the gilt chair just a few feet away, he angled his head to the side. “I believe you are confusing me with Rochester, Old Chap.”
“That walking bag of the French curse?” Darcy turned towards the long mirror propped against the pale painted wall. He looked like an idiot. “This is preposterous.”
The pink skirt hung from his narrow hips, but stopped a good several inches above his ankles, revealing his large silver boot buckles. The damn pink bodice wouldn’t even lace up in the back, and his shoulders seemed to explode out of the puffed sleeves.
A smile twitched at Winters’s lips. “Come now old man…pardon. Old girl. You look quite charming.”
Darcy snorted. God’s teeth, if ever he saw a woman such as himself, he’d turn tail and run. After his cock had withered in horror. Women were not meant to be built like soldiers. What in God’s name was Charles thinking? “This is madness—”
The door at the far end of the room swung open. The king strode into the room, dogs yapping at his buckle booted feet. His long red coat swung about his tall frame as he walked, and his black wig shone dully in the dim candlelight. Charles’s eyes, on the other hand, glowed sharply.
Darcy stepped forward and they both inclined their heads to the king, then waited. The Spaniels darted
about the room sniffing and licking. After a moment, they glanced at the king, circled up together, and plunked themselves into a giant circle of fur before the fire.
Although decadent as Bacchus, Charles bore a cunning intellect that inspired respect in the hearts of men. Not many kings forced into exile ever claimed their thrones, but Charles had grasped his with a bold fist and wild nature.
The king narrowed his eyes. “Madness, Chase? What could elicit such censure from your person?”
“Your Majesty, ’tis simply that I look nothing like a woman,” Darcy protested.
The king glanced Darcy up and down, his face expressionless save a glint of amusement in his eyes. “How true. And yet it amuses Us.”
Darcy cleared his throat while Winters coughed back a laugh. Gesturing to the too short gown then his face, which he knew bore his father’s rough stamp, he attempted reason. “This will never fool Warrington.”
Charles nodded as he crossed to stand before the great hearth blazing with fire. “It’s not meant to.”
“But Your Majesty—”
“Chase.” The king cut him short with a gesture of his hand. “We are not best pleased with you.”
Oh why had he bedded Richmond’s daughter? Why, oh Heavenly God, why? “What I mean to say, Sire, is that there must be better suited men…if not women to fulfill your purpose.”
The king looked back over his shoulder as he rested his hand on the marble mantle. “This is why We are king and you are earl. We have placed you in a frock for reasons of twofold.”
Chase held his breath, praying the king would divulge such reasons.
Winters laughed; a vastly irritating, self-satisfied sound. “Please do say we’re to parade him in St. James’s Park. I think he could turn a lovely trick.”
“Your silence at this moment, Winters, would be golden.” Darcy focused his attention on his king.
Charles smiled. A beatific, disgustingly amused smile. “As fascinating as Winters’s suggestion is, Our needs are far more practical. You are to play Beatrice in a court performance.”
“I beg your pardon, but there are countless young men who have portrayed women as a profession. Would it not be better to use their talents?”
The king narrowed his eyes to dark slits then looked from Winters to Darcy. “Since your friend, here, shall be aiding you by keeping an eye on the suspected conspirator Warrington while you learn the ways of a woman, We will be plain.” Charles smiled tightly. “We would hire an actor if We merely needed a moment’s entertainment, but We need something far more dangerous. You may have to prove a rose with thorns, Chase.”
The king pushed away from the hearth and eyed his ringed fingers. “Whispers are growing about a Puritan revolt against any traces of Catholicism in Our Court. We believe Warrington is somehow involved. And if so, We want no one to know that one of the members of Our cabinet may find himself at the bottom of the Thames, courtesy of king and country at Our command.”
“But his family was killed by the roundheads,” Darcy supplied.
The king stared back, his dark eyes cold. “Yes. They were, but he has been associating with the radical Protestant element as of late. Unfortunately, Warrington is quite vocal in his disapproval of Our lack of an heir and the possibility of Our brother James’s succession. We think he may be planning to seize the crown and give it to my bastard Monmouth when We are dead. The poor boy is easily led and We worry traitors will appeal to his vanity and secret longing to be Our heir.”
Warrington was an ass, but he was a good soldier and had so far proved himself capable in the House of Lords. Still, his father had been a rabid Protestant, though loyal to the Catholic-sympathetic crown.
Both Charles’s mother and brother James were Catholics. A dangerous thing in this land which hated Papists as much as they hated the plague. “I do not see my role in any of this.”
One of Charles’s spaniels trotted by his beribboned feet and he bent down, lifting the panting creature in his arms. “We have arranged a meeting with Amelia Fox this evening after her performance at the Peacock.”
“The actress?” asked Darcy.
“No, the Duchess of Kent,” quipped Winters.
Darcy threw Winters a withering stare.
Stroking the long eared dog, the king went on, “She is the other reason why We have specifically chosen you. Mrs. Fox and her brother Edward are the children of one of Cromwell’s most noted generals. We fear
they are both working for Warrington.”
Darcy looked from the king to Winters, not entirely sure he was following this. “So, I am to train with a possible traitor to catch a traitor?”
“Your intelligence is commendable, Lord Chase,” said the king. “But yes. With your talent for swaying the ladies, you will surmise along the way whether Mrs. Fox is indeed assisting Warrington. And your guise is that of a pupil. The court play is necessary to support your association with her.
If you discover the lady has played the traitor, London will lose one of its most charming jewels. But then again, one does not shine when one plots against the king.”
“Of course, Majesty,” said Darcy firmly. Charles could not afford to be merciful with traitors, not when his own father had been beheaded.
The king patted his little dog and then set it down. He raised a dark brow. “You are familiar with Mrs. Fox, of course.”
“I have read of her, though I have not seen her perform,” Darcy admitted. The rags published rave reviews of her performances and half the men at court had written odes to her eyes, hair, voice…her ears.
“She is a woman of singular talent.” Despite his suspicions, admiration warmed the king’s voice, and Darcy wondered just what kind of talent the woman had.
The king was notorious for his custom of making actresses into mistresses. But if she were a potential traitor, Darcy doubted even this liberal king would take her to his bed
Darcy fought back a sigh of resignation. He had no wish to involve himself with the female version of himself. Actors never stopped acting. He’d learned that long ago. Everyone had performed in entertainments on the continent to keep the exiled king amused. Darcy had proven himself quite the young thespian.
“Could I not introduce myself to Mrs. Fox as an admirer?” Darcy asked, desperate to be free of skirts. Surely, the king would not truly burden him with such an indignity.
Charles stared back blankly. “If you knew anything of Mrs. Fox you would know she is particularly suspicious of admirers and is reported for her selectivity. Even with your talents, We doubt you would make much ground with her.”
Darcy inclined his head.
“And besides”—the king smiled, a toothy, slightly frightening smile, as if savoring the words he was about to say—“We want you to act like a woman.” His voice tensed, and Darcy knew the king was thinking of Darcy’s affair with Richmond’s daughter…and countless other wives of the men at Court. “A ladylike, delicate flower".
Guest Post by Eva Devon
TEN TRUE THINGS ABOUT BEING AN AUTHOR: It’s not al Joan Wilder, baby! 1. Sometimes I forget to brush my hair. 2. I do not own pants except leggings (yes they’re pants!!!) or yoga pants. 3. 500 mgs of caffeine a day is not a problem. It’s a solution. 4. Imaginary people talk to me and talk to each other. Some are louder than others. 5. Facebook is work which is dangerous because it’s fun and its not writing books but I can convince myself that being on Facebook is fine because I’m NETWORKING! 6. You get caught writing sex scenes when working on airplanes or in cafes. People snicker. It’s ALWAYS a hot scene. 7. A blinking cursor can cause hypnosis. . .I’m convinced. 8. Most of the time, I’m convinced I’m a terrible writer except for when I’m sure I’m a goddess. 9. I have an addiction to period dramas on tv and film. And they’re research when I watch. . . See Number 5. for why this is problematic. 10. I get all sorts of happiness when I receive emails from readers!