Richmond Palace, London, the Court of King Henry VIII
Allegra Grimaldi was washing the last traces of deadly nightshade from her fingers when the Spanish Ambassador slipped into her privy chamber. Her stomach clenched with the soul-deep loathing his presence inspired. But, instinctive as breathing, she concealed it. Death and damnation had just walked through her door.
Hiding her terror behind a courtier’s glittering smile, she emptied her basin into the refuse pot.
“Returned from the journey so soon, Your Excellency?” Her hands shook as she hid the black nightshade among the innocent vials of fragrance on her work table. His return could mean only one thing—he had come for the poison he’d compelled her to make. Whenever he used it…however he used it…she would know herself a murderer.
“I could not bear to be parted from you.” Don Maximo Montoya’s teeth gleamed in his goatee as he circled the table, stalking her.
But I’d hoped to be free of you for longer.
Allegra willed her thudding heart to stone and braced for one of his possessive demonstrations. At the last instant, she turned her face away and barely extended her fingertips for his touch. A whiff of his signature ambergris fragrance drifted from his cape…a scent that churned her stomach.
Deftly he turned her hand, finding the frantic pulse that drummed against her wrist.
“Enough.” Sliding free, she crossed to her dressing table and sat with her back to him. Far better for her if he could not read her face. “Your Excellency, what have you learned?”
“A great deal, for good or ill.” The Spanish Ambassador stood where she’d left him, a lean crimson flame in the polished steel of her mirror. “The cardinal arrives from Rome within the hour, to begin his inquiries into the King’s Great Matter. Fortunately, the pope is skeptical of Henry’s motives for seeking this divorce.”
“Indeed?” Well, they were all skeptical—all the churchmen and learned minds the king had consulted. For twenty years he’d seemed contented enough, wedded to Queen Katherine of Aragon by his own free will, before this sudden concern for having married his brother’s widow.
“Indeed.” Removing his velvet cap to study it, Don Maximo smiled. “The cardinal fears a connection between this royal crisis of conscience and Henry’s lust for the Boleyn girl.”
“Then perhaps the cardinal will bring the marriage quickly to trial.” Allegra drew a coil of raven hair over her shoulder and deftly unbraided it. “The king will wait no longer for Rome to sanction his divorce.”
Carefully, she quelled a surge of pity for Henry’s aging Spanish queen. She could not afford to betray sympathy for the poor woman, shackled no less than Allegra herself to this cold and dismal country. All the same, Allegra prayed for her deliverance.
“To the contrary.” Don Maximo studied her through the mirror. “The pope has given orders to delay the marriage trial—indefinitely, if that is possible. While the pope remains a prisoner of the queen’s own nephew, he must avoid angering his captor.”
Then the pope and I have something in common. Both of them subject to the iron will of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles of Spain. As long as Henry Tudor persisted in this ill-timed effort to divorce his queen, Allegra must abide in this prison of her own devise.
Somewhere, God must be laughing at her dilemma—an Italian noblewoman condemned by the Church, now bound to serve a Spain whose narrow-minded bigotry and religious fanaticism she despised.
“’Twill not please our amorous king to hear it.” Keeping her voice light, she forced a shrug. She would not let slip that she’d hoped for an end to her exile. “I suppose nothing may be done before Twelfth Night.”
“Ah, but there you are mistaken.” Swift and deadly as an arrow, the Spanish Ambassador glided toward her. “I assigned you a certain task before I left…did I not, bella donna?”
Beautiful woman…belladonna…another name for the tincture of nightshade now concealed among her perfumes. Certain ladies touched a drop of the poison to their eyes to give them luster, but Allegra respected its darker qualities too well for such careless use.
“I have done your bidding…as always, Excellency.” The sour tang of guilt flooded her mouth, seasoned with the salt of bitterness. His utter lack of scruples made her the conscience for both of them—first to brew his poison, and then somehow to shield his victim. “For whom do you intend it?”
Don Maximo gathered her loosened tresses, lifting their weight to expose her nape—as if for the executioner’s axe.
She stared into the marble mask of her reflection, cold and unyielding as stone. When I am thus, no man can touch me.
Against her stark pallor, inky hair spilled down to cloak the gray wool of her working-gown. And only her eyes betrayed her hatred. God save her, how she abhorred him—this nemesis who stood closer than her own shadow—and the bitter choices she’d made that put him there.
Undeterred by her cold stare, the ambassador lifted the silver brush and drew it through her curls. “The Boleyns moved more quickly than I anticipated. One of them crossed the Channel with our cardinal. They’ll attempt to sway Rome with the Boleyn gold and their ties to the French. And we cannot tolerate their meddling, my pet.”
In the mirror, his silver eyes trapped hers. “Hence, the regrettable need for the command I gave you.”
The lightning charge of danger lifted the hair on her nape. Even here, seemingly alone in her privy chamber, this scheme was too perilous to speak aloud. At this court, the very walls had ears.
“Whom would you target?” She twisted away from his touch. “The cardinal? ’Tis utter madness! You’ll do nothing more than delay the outcome, and anger Henry in the bargain.”
“My dear Allegra.” His fingers dug into her shoulder. “A holy cardinal—how could you think it? I would not damage so much as a hair on his sacred head.”
Her lids fluttered down in relief. Poisoning God’s anointed churchman—never mind the rampant corruption riddling Rome these days—would send her soul plummeting to Hell surer than all the rest.
But if not the cardinal, then who?
Maximo had said he would poison the cup himself. At the time, she hadn’t even wanted to know his enemy. Now she was ignorant indeed—but not ignorant enough.
She would be as guilty as he of this monstrous sin. She, who’d sworn on her mother’s soul never to kill again. Somehow, she had to stop him.
“If not the cardinal,” she whispered, “can you mean to move directly against the Boleyns? They stand so high in his regard, Henry would take it as a strike against himself.”
“Indeed, I did consider Thomas Boleyn.” Unperturbed, Don Maximo drew the brush through her hair. “His ambition drives that family and thrusts his daughter at the queen’s throne. But Boleyn is brother-by-marriage to the Duke of Norfolk, who is equally ambitious.”
A breath of reprieve slipped between her lips. So Thomas Boleyn too was safe. “Then we cannot strike at him, lest Norfolk himself take up the mission.”
In the polished steel, she studied him. At a glance, they could have passed for kin. Hair as black as hers broke from a widow’s peak at his brow, framing elegant cheekbones and an ascetic nose. His raven’s wing goatee, barely frosted with the passing years, embraced a smile that waxed charming and ruthless.
And his hands, supple as serpents winding in her hair, were stained with the heart’s blood of the men and women he’d destroyed.
She could no longer tolerate his nearness. It struck her like this sometimes, a heave of revulsion for the monster she served.
“No more of this.” She thrust to her feet and slipped past him to stand with her back to the door. Freedom stood inches away—for everyone but her. “Don Maximo, whom have you chosen?”
Sliding the hairbrush through his fingers, the don looked down and smiled. He was toying with her now, to make her guess which man he doomed.
“Oh, come, apply your considerable wit to the matter, Allegra. Who—more than any other—jeopardizes our queen’s place at this court?”
Her heart sank like a stone as the dangerous realization struck.
“You are mad,” she whispered. “And your madness will destroy us both.”
“Nay, not both of us.” Precisely, he replaced her brush on the table. “For no man would dare to lay hands upon the Spanish Ambassador. I possess full diplomatic immunity, my dear.”
“How fortunate for you, Excellency.” Alarm and fear made her words knife-sharp as she flung them. “Alas that the mantle of diplomatic privilege does not cloak the ambassador’s mistress.”
That damnable label she would never embrace—though it was her disguise and protection at court—curdled like spoiled milk on her tongue. She smoothed unsteady hands over her skirt. “Half this court already considers me a witch, never mind that they all run to me for potions. Blame would be cast my way the moment she falls ill.”
“Then you must choose your moment carefully.”
Oh, this was worse than she’d feared. If she did it—broke her promise to her long-dead mother…if she killed Anne Boleyn, Henry Tudor’s great love—Allegra herself would be destroyed. Don Maximo would be the first to condemn her, if doing so cast the blame away from himself.
But if she did not…God and Mary save her, if she failed him.
On shaking legs, Allegra crossed to her work table and fumbled to unknot her apron. Standing with her back to her enemy, she struggled for composure. Somehow she must persuade him to alter his course.
“You swore never to force my hand, Ambassador. Our arrangement called for me to mix the potion, and you to do with it as you would.”
“I am altering our arrangement.”
And you can do nothing to prevent it. Too clearly, she heard what he did not say.
“The plot is too risky.” Struggling against panic, she feigned detachment. “You will be the immediate suspect, and diplomatic immunity will matter naught to Henry in the full flush of fury. You may not mind being shackled in the Tower of London while Spain begs for your life. But would Charles of Spain indeed champion you? Think, Excellency!”
She spun to face him. “The queen herself will disavow you, for she is too holy a woman to abide it, even if your action removes her rival. She will write to her nephew of her shock and disgust, and he will pitch his tune to hers.”
“True enough, if I were suspect.” Don Maximo shrugged. “But you underestimate Mistress Anne’s propensity to make enemies. Have you not heard the common folk crying out against the king’s Great Whore on the streets? She hardly dares show her face without the king and a full escort. The goodwives of London would stone her in a heartbeat…and the priests would bless them from the pulpit for doing it.”
“Seeing her stoned on the street is one thing.” She drew a shaking breath. “But poisoning her within these walls—without poisoning anyone else at table with her, including the king himself…”
“The Boleyn girl’s arrogance has won her few friends.” Idly, he drew his poniard and inspected the blade. “The Seymours loathe her and would fain replace her with one of their girls. Chancellor Wolsey would poison her himself, I have no doubt, to be rid of her. The Staffords, the Nevilles, the Poles—Katherine’s allies all. Any one of them could do it.”
“Aye, and any one of them would come to me for it.” Allegra swept a hand over the table with her laboratory apparatus, her perfumes and potions. “I would certainly be put to the question, at the very least. Are you so certain my loyalty to you would hold…under torture?”
Stillness gripped his slender frame. His eyes glittered as they fixed upon her. “That is what I purchased you for, is it not, Allegra? Not loyalty to me nor to Spain—nay, I am hardly so foolish. But what of your father, who resides in my keeping? What of your sisters…how old are they now? Ten, is it?”
She had goaded him too far, to make him voice the threat that held her—as if she could forget. Fear knifed through her, icy needles of dread prickling her skin. If he was adamant, she dared not defy him outright, for their sake.
“Ah, what were their names again…your two sweet sisters?” Gently, he tested the poniard’s cruel tip. “Come now, Allegra, say their names for me.”
She moistened dry lips to whisper. “Savaria…and Rosaria.”
“Ah, yes.” He smiled. “And your poor blind father—Alessandro, the bastard Borgia, the outcast of his mighty clan. Have you word from him recently?”
“You know that I have. Since his letters come to me only from your hand, as mine pass to him.”
“Well then.” With a practiced motion, he sheathed his blade. “You have your answer, as I have mine, yes? To keep them safe…why, yes, I do believe you would withhold my name, even under torture…for a considerable length of time. Is that not so, Allegra?”
“I would hold while I could.” She dared say nothing else. “But I am only human, Excellency. Even I would break in time. Henry’s questioners would see to it.”
“Then you had best ensure they do not take you without a dose of belladonna at hand, hmm? I trust you prepared enough for your own use, if need be.”
God love me, but death would be a mercy, to escape you. If only I could be certain it purchased their precious safety.
But that was a promise Don Maximo would never give her. She gripped her mother’s antique cross at her throat, touched with gentle fingers the hidden chamber that held her sisters’ miniatures like a holy relic lying against her heart. She cherished the memory of their innocence, their sweetness, the way they’d clung to her skirts and sobbed when she whispered goodbye. Allegra’s heart had broken that day.
Hellfire flickered in Maximo’s eyes as he watched her, intent as any lover. At times like this, she felt certain he hated her.
Futile it was, she knew it—but asked all the same.
“I appeal to you as a servant of Christ,” she whispered. “Have I not done enough for your cause? Not this as well, I pray you.”
“Then you would invoke God Himself to let this cup pass you by?” He clasped his hands, eyes burning like candles, ardent as the priest he’d once studied to become. “Cannot you see, we are about the Lord’s work here? The Boleyn whore is a heretic with Lutheran leanings. She would lead Henry astray from his Catholic wife, and lead all of England into sin and damnation. By preserving Henry’s marriage, we save thousands of souls from twisting in the fires of Hell.”
“Yet you would see my soul damned for it?” she flashed, driven to the edge of rebellion. “Santa Maria, I will not do this thing!”
“You’ll do as I bid you.” Don Maximo strode toward her, shoulder-cape billowing in his wake. His fingers clamped her chin when she would have spun away.
“You will do what I bought and paid for, Allegra Grimaldi, when I saved you from burning at the stake for your husband’s murder. I purchased the only living apprentice to the Hand of God, the finest assassin Europe has known in a hundred years. To think I purchased an assassin with a tender conscience—Madre de Dios!”
Even now, she could strike him down, slip out her hidden stiletto and plunge it into his black heart.
But he held the upper hand, as always. Let word of his death reach Spain, and her sisters would pay the price. The don had sworn they’d burn for witches, just as her mother had done.
No doubt he read it in her eyes. No man or woman strung a thought together that Maximo Montoya could not read, with the Devil’s own cunning.
Abruptly he released her, as though the feel of her repulsed him. “I will see the king’s heretic whore in her deathbed at your hand! Or know that your reluctance sent your father and sisters to theirs.”
Her brain shrieking with fear, she stood while he strode to the door. On the threshold, he pivoted.
“I trust we comprehend one another, Allegra?”
Sick to her stomach, she managed to nod.
“Very well then.” Plumed cap in hand, the Spanish Ambassador bowed. “See that it’s done quickly. I would regret having to speak of this again.”
Christmas night—and the roar of revelry from the great hall echoed through the palace. It crashed against her ears as Allegra hurried across the courtyard, cold searing her skin. She left the decorous silence of the queen’s prayer-wrapped chambers behind her.
The axis of court had tilted away from the barren Spanish Queen, leaving Katherine all but abandoned. Despise her as they would, they all revolved now around Anne Boleyn’s rising sun, following Henry’s besotted lead.
Her heart beat faster as she slipped into the great hall, past the indifferent eyes of the Yeomen Guards in their green-striped livery. She was nothing to them save another courtier en masque, and therein lay her safety.
She’d launched the only plan that might placate the don, without condemning the king’s mistress to an agonizing death. Haughty and a heretic though the girl might be, she’d done nothing to warrant such a fate. Still, the scheme was fraught with risk.
If she poisoned Anne Boleyn, she protected those she loved from Spanish reprisal. A short precious respite, holding no longer than the ambassador’s next demand.
But she had sworn never to use the killing arts, this unwelcome legacy of her Borgia blood. She’d promised on the soul of Ilaria Borgia, her sainted mother, gentle and pure—who had not deserved to burn.
For his part, Maximo had sworn never to force her hand. Today he’d broken his word, and upset their careful bargain.
And so—what can you do? His eyes had mocked her.
Well, he would learn what she could do.
Though time was short, she paused to survey the scene and opened her filigreed mirror as a ruse. Her eyes slid away from the reflection she loathed, white skin stark against black mask and carmine lips.
Her accursed beauty, the source of every evil that had ever befallen her. If God had ever loved her, He would have made her homely.
Instead, He’d cursed her with allure and drawn the eye of Conte Casimiro Grimaldi to an unwilling thirteen-year-old girl. Naïvely, she’d refused him. The conte had sworn to have her—and for certain, he’d found a way. Then all the rest had followed, inevitable as the moon’s wax and wane.
Yet it was she, and no other, who’d made these fatal choices. Grimly, she focused her wits on her mission.
Beneath the hammered beams entwined with ivy and fragrant pine, courtiers in rich brocades lingered over sweets and comfits. Inside a hearth massive enough to roast an ox entire, the Yule log burned. At the head table a kingly confection of marchpane and gingerbread depicted the palace’s red stone turrets.
The king’s chair stood empty. Anxiety nibbled at her nerves as she worried, for a fleeting moment, how she would manage to spy Anne Boleyn in this mayhem.
But Allegra should not have fretted. Even masked, the object of Henry Tudor’s obsession could not be overlooked. Surrounded by her retinue of sycophants, she’d crowned herself Queen of Beauty, mock gold gleaming against the sleek midnight luster of her hair. An emerald gown tailored in the French fashion encased her supple form. Gemstones glittered against her long throat as she tilted back her head, with a teasing smile for her admirers. Over the revel’s muted roar, the husky chime of her laughter beguiled.
As Allegra spied her target, the cold clarity of her training took over. Her heartbeat quickened, a current of energy crackling down her spine. She started to snap the mirror closed, but a flicker of motion in its surface riveted her.
Behind her, a score of masked men in forest garb erupted into the hall, their quivers bristling with arrows—Robin Hood and his band of thieves. Caution prickled through her when she saw the broad-shouldered bandit who led them, ruddy hair shining in the torchlight. With easy authority, he gestured a command to the musicians. They responded at once, striking up a popular peasant dance.
Jesting, the thieves spread out, each claiming a smiling lady. But not the towering gallant who was their leader. In the sliver of reflection from her mirror, he fixed her in his gaze.
The back of her neck, exposed beneath her coiled hair, tingled in warning. Her breath caught when he strode toward her.
A stir of awareness rippled through the hall, spreading outward in his wake. But Allegra needed no such clue to identify the charismatic lord the musicians had obeyed so readily. Senses sharpened to knife-edge alert, she held herself from flinching when a hand gripped her shoulder.
Pivoting smoothly to face him—for what else could she do?—she recalled barely in time that she must not curtsey. She dared not incur royal displeasure by unmasking the man behind the disguise: the majestic presence of King Henry VIII.
“Madame le Serpent, you are magnificent,” the king said, the Yule fire lighting his beard to copper. His blue eyes glinted as they swept her, from the hooded serpent rearing above her brow to the black-and-gold scales of her gown sweeping the flagstones. His gaze lingered on her white breasts, where they swelled above her tight stomacher.
Loathing churned her belly—her customary revulsion for any man’s lust, the hopeless terror that Casimiro Grimaldi and the Spanish Ambassador between them had honed to the sharpness of shattered glass. She swallowed the bitter taste of fear.
My flesh is stone—impermeable and unfeeling. Nothing any man does can touch me. She curved her painted lips in a smile she did not feel.
Santo Spirito, was she accursed in truth? Why under Heaven must Henry Tudor choose this of all nights to notice her? For three years she’d hidden among Katherine’s dwindling retinue, in the very shadow of the aging queen whom Henry seized every opportunity to avoid. Deploying every subterfuge to evade the king’s lustful eye, Allegra had trailed the court from castle to hunting lodge to royal progress, as little regarded as someone’s poor relation.
Until this very day, Henry Tudor had overlooked the Spanish Ambassador’s mistress. Now, on the one night she must escape detection, the king’s interest drew the gaze of the entire royal court to fix her like a magnet.
Reluctantly, she gathered her wits for the well-known charade enacted by every member of the household—from the queen to the newest page—during Henry’s frequent disguisings. For the king pouted like a child to be early unmasked.
“La, what brigand accosts me?” she said. “Shall I fear for my purse or my virtue?”
“Your purse is safe enough.” He grinned, white teeth flashing against tanned skin. Henry Tudor was a famously handsome man, and knew it. But he was no fool either. Behind the mask, his eyes narrowed.
“Italian, are you, my beauty? A member of the cardinal’s retinue—just in from Rome, aye?”
My God, hardly that! She must turn the conversation in the direction most likely to divest her of his presence. Feigning modesty, she lowered her eyes and dipped a curtsey.
“My lord, I attend your good Queen Katherine.”
Predictably, he stiffened, a cloud of royal displeasure darkening his sunny smile. Daring to hope, she forced a cool smile and glided aside, offering him a graceful escape.
To her dismay, he followed like a lad on leading strings, an edge of annoyance sharpening his tone. “Pious and meek then, like all her ladies, eh? Why aren’t you on your knees with the rest of them, keeping Christmas vigil in the chapel?”
“Perhaps I’m a heretic.” She glanced around to ensure no other overheard this dangerous suggestion. Anything to deflect his interest. “Good eve to you, and Happy Christmas.”
“Perhaps we should all be heretics.” He cut off her escape, damn the man. “What do you think of that, hey? Does Pope Clement hold the right to rule the Church of England?”
Aye, this was the question that consumed Henry these days, as the pope pondered the legitimacy of his Spanish marriage. The challenging light in his gaze cued her well enough how to answer.
“I rely upon your king to decide that, my lord. He is Defender of the Faith here in England.” Unable to avoid him, she raised her eyes to gauge the success of this gambit—and made her first mistake.
Meeting her gaze, his own kindled with interest. Alarm knifed through her as he captured her cold hands.
“Remarkable,” the king murmured. “Has anyone ever told you, signora, that your eyes are exactly the color of lilacs in bloom? Nay, wait, they’re darkening now—to violet.”
Swiftly, she dropped her lashes to sever that hazardous perusal. “They are not the fashionable color, my lord, for Mistress Anne’s eyes are midnight black.”
“Aye, so they are.” To her relief, he glanced toward the circle of admirers surrounding Anne Boleyn. In their midst, her throaty laugh rang out. A shadow of anger darkened his face. “Well, lady, our poet Sir Thomas Wyatt has penned sufficient sonnets to Mistress Anne’s eyes and lips and hands, has he not?” His callused hands tightened around hers. “Would you break a thief’s heart by denying him this dance?”
Trapped like a rabbit in a snare. Dismally, she knew the entire hall was watching them now. For they discerned sure enough what man he was, masked or no. Given no choice, she murmured her consent.
King Henry VIII lifted her ringed hand and kissed the knuckle-sized ruby that carried the bitter dregs of Anne Boleyn’s poison hidden in its heart.
Her own heart in her throat, she followed him into the dance.