The Devil’s Mistress
To save her family from an ugly death, she must do the unthinkable. Infiltrate the court of King Henry VIII, poison the heretic Anne Boleyn before she becomes queen—and frame Anne’s bastard brother for the crime. Honest and principled, Sir Joscelin is the perfect pawn.
Allegra is clever, captivating…and her warning to Anne immediately rouses Joscelin’s suspicion. Sworn to protect his sister, and striving for recognition from the powerful father who disdains him, Joscelin has no choice but to put aside his attraction to the mysterious lady and gather evidence to see her burn for witchcraft.
To avert a disaster that will change the face of Europe, this stalwart soldier of incorruptible integrity and the fallen woman who breathes deception must learn to trust each other—and discover the one truth that could save them all.
This novel is riddled with perilous potions and poisons, intrigue and assignations, Tudor lust and liaisons, blackmail and betrayal, Renaissance revelry and revenge, and one seriously sexy Frenchman.
As she offered the goblet to Anne Boleyn, Allegra glimpsed a tumult at the edge of her vision: a large man in a russet doublet cursing as he shoved through the crowd. Her trained mind was scrambling for a defense before his hand locked around her wrist, halting the cup a breath from Mistress Anne’s fingers.
Damnation. Allegra pivoted toward him, ready words springing to her lips. Then her eyes locked with his, and her world tilted on its axis.
His eyes spat fire at her — green shot with topaz — piercing through a lifetime of cunning and artifice to reveal her secrets. Alone of the hundreds swirling through the banquet hall, this man wore no mask. His strong tanned features were open, square-jawed, handsome in the rugged way of an outdoor man. Creases fanned out from his eyes, as though he smiled easily — though he was hardly smiling now.
This one is no raw stripling, easy to mislead. Corpus Christi, can he suspect me?
Torchlight blazed in his beard and hair, the burnished hue of old copper. Yet his features weren’t arranged with a courtier’s careful pretense. Nay, this one burned with passion, like a form of fire.
God love her, only see his chest and shoulders, straining the cloth of his doublet! A fighting man for certain, fueled by suspicion — and yet…
He was a stranger, but she felt she’d always known him. Something within him speared like an arrow through her defenses and pierced her guarded heart.
“Santa Maria!” she heard herself say foolishly. “Can it be you?”
Did I merely dream of a man like you…a man with eyes of fire, strong and steadfast as steel? Or did my soul know yours in some past life — the man who would save me, protect me from myself and all my enemies?
But that was sheer folly. No man was ever to be trusted — no more than she could be trusted herself.
“Pardonnez,” he said harshly. “My sister takes wine from her servant’s hand alone.”
This was a new development! Mistress Anne herself looked surprised to hear it. But the words struck Allegra like a dash of icy water, and her scattered wits reassembled.
Deliberately, she released the goblet. It slipped from her fingers to roll on the floor. The bitter juice of bryony and wine spread across the flagstones in a garnet pool. If her target had swallowed even a mouthful, she would have suffered nausea and flux…but not death.
For it was no nightshade Allegra had poured in the lady’s cup. She’d merely poured a warning, unpleasant but hardly fatal — a caution against Spanish malice. Still, that would not save Allegra if her bearing roused suspicion now. They would say she’d tried to kill the lady and bungled it.
“I do beg your pardon. I sought only to assist Mistress Anne. You startled me, my lord.”
Though she knew well enough he was no lord. The cut of his cloth was too sober, his hand too callused where he gripped her wrist. His broadsword was plain dull steel, its hilt wrapped with leather and stained with use. But she spied his sole adornment — the silver B that dangled from a cord at his throat. And all at once, she knew him.
“Another Boleyn, is it?” Pinning a bright smile to her lips, she turned toward Mistress Anne — who was gaping at the strange tableau, as they all were. Any hope for subterfuge this night was shattered beyond repair.
But Anne Boleyn had not risen on the strength of charm and sensuality alone. A well-honed intellect lurked behind those black eyes, framed to advantage in a mask flashing with brilliants. In an instant she recovered, tilting back her head with a graceful laugh.
“So he claims, though I for one can scarcely comprehend it. My father, Thomas Boleyn — and a barefooted farm girl? ’Tis hardly a connection I would scramble to embrace.”
A spasm of anger knotted the newcomer’s jaw as he clenched his teeth over a sharp retort. But he kept his countenance, no less proud than his upstart sister. Allegra felt an unwilling pang of sympathy for this Boleyn male — even while he gripped her wrist and stared as though his eyes would burn her.
“What, no volley of heated words fired off in your mother’s defense?” Mistress Anne lifted an elegant brow. “Why, Joscelin, I profess myself surprised! Did you learn the art of discretion from the French?”
“Leave it,” the man gritted, with iron restraint. “It’s my sworn duty to protect you, sister. I have only your welfare at heart, and I’m sorry you do not care for it.”
“In that case, you are overzealous. Be assured, brother, that I’m well able to advance my own interests at this court.”
Forcing herself to calm, Allegra found the hovering servant gaping at the spectacle. Her discarded cup dangled in his grip. “You there!” She assumed the easy command of a countess. “Wine for our Queen of Beauty. But find a clean goblet, one that hasn’t been rolling on the floor.”
The lad scrambled to obey. Mistress Anne accepted the offering and drank, lifting her eyes to Heaven as if to say, “There, do you see how simple?”
But Allegra knew the Boleyn male had not forgotten the other cup, now borne away by the slow-witted servant, or the pool of wine at her feet. She turned her wrist in his grip and tugged lightly, but he held her — a confinement she could have broken, but not without revealing more of herself than she wished.
Instead, she merely arched her brows. “My lord, you are bruising my arm.”
To her relief, he released her at once, though the imprint of his grip still tingled.
For reasons she could not pin down, his gaze unsettled her. She could drown in those uncanny eyes — forest green shot with amber, clear as an angel’s conscience — looking straight through her, as though he could see no one else. He filled the space beside her, broad chest and shoulders narrowing to a horseman’s lean hips.
Her gaze skimmed his belted sword, the corded sinew of legs beneath his hose, his well-worn boots braced apart. But she flinched from the leather codpiece bulging between his thighs.
All men were dangerous, but this one vibrated with impulse barely held in check, like a stallion half-broken to the saddle. For the moment, she must coax him to the bit.
“Signora Grimaldi, I am told?” His voice rumbled from that cavernous chest, husky with a Frenchman’s accent.
“Alas, I am unmasked.” Who the Devil was he? She’d counted on discretion to disguise her. For this night, Anne Boleyn had eluded Spanish malice.
“I fear you have the advantage of me?” She dipped into a little curtsey.
“Somehow I doubt that,” he murmured, his eyes never leaving her. A little tremor rippled through her. “Sir Joscelin Henri Boleyn, at my lady’s service.”
Now I doubt that, my proud monsieur. If you serve your sister, you will never serve Spain.
Gravely she inclined her head, playing for time. Sir Joscelin must be some indigent bastard, newly come to court. Had he been there long, Allegra could not have failed to notice a man of his size and…physical impact.
Tucking his name away for later scrutiny, she glanced at Mistress Anne. Already the lady turned aside to quip with her courtiers.
“It appears I’ve interrupted a family reunion.” Allegra seized her moment to end this disastrous encounter. “I’ll bid you adieu, Sir Joscelin.”
When she spoke his name, his eyes deepened to molten gold.
“Family reunion?” A sardonic smile tugged at his lips. “I assure you, my sister welcomes the interruption. She’s full weary of hearing that she must be better guarded.”
As the musicians slid into the steady thrum of a passamezzo, Sir Joscelin Boleyn claimed her hand. A fresh tremor of alarm swept through her.
Allegra had never welcomed a man’s touch — her husband had cured her forever of that. Yet now a flicker of heat danced over her skin, pleasant against the December chill. Bracing as his distinctive fragrance — the spicy pine of outdoors, cut by the sharp tang of citrus.
“If you wish to ingratiate yourself with my sister, she’s grateful to be spared my presence. Believe me.” His eyes challenged her — as if he knew she didn’t give a damn for Boleyn favor. “I would speak with you, signora…and you’re a compelling dancer.”
So he must have been watching, even before she’d approached his sister. Every instinct she possessed whispered jeopardy.
“I fear I cannot remain, sir — ”
His fingers tightened, and a spear of unease lanced through her. He spoke softly, so only she could hear. “Either we speak privately, Signora Grimaldi, or we speak here…among these others.”
Trepidation tightened her chest, the sense of certain danger bumping up against an odd elation. Somehow, through no device she could determine, he suspected her.
Yielding to expedience and an unnerving sense of fate, she lowered her lashes. “Very well, Sir Joscelin. One dance, as you insist upon it.”
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.
Georgia Romance Writers Maggie Contest
Third Place (historical category)
Hearts Through History Romance Through the Ages Contest
First Place (Ancient/Medieval/Renaissance period)
Yellow Rose RWA Winter Rose Contest
River City Romance Writers Duel on the Delta Contest
First Place, Historical Category
The Romance Readers’ Connection
Date Published: Mar 02, 2011
Sir Joscelin Boleyn is the bastard son of Thomas Boleyn whose only dream is to be accepted by the father he never got to know. Joscelin is an accomplished knight, who is considered a hero in many places. Thomas Boleyn’s only concern is making sure that his daughter becomes Queen, and is willing to use and manipulate Joscelin in the process if needed.
Allegra Grimaldi is at the mercy of Maximo Montoya the Spanish Ambassador. She has been commissioned to do all the bidding for Montoya with his current mission being to kill Anne Boleyn, keeping the throne for the Spanish Queen Catherine of Aragon. For this he needs Allegra, but there is one problem in the way, Joscelin. All Allegra wants is to ensure the safety of her family, who is in the custody of Montoya, who uses them as leverage to make Allegra do whatever he wants.
Joscelin tries not to think of Allegra for after all she is another man’s mistress. She is also a supposed witch and possible husband murderer. However, he cannot seem to get the raven-haired beauty out of his thoughts. Despite her own attraction, Allegra warns Joscelin against his own attractions to her so that she can protect him. Allegra has only felt disgust in the arms of men, but it’s different with Joscelin.
At times you find yourself screaming for them to kiss, just so that some of the sexual tension can be relieved. Being that this is the debut for this author I was pleasantly surprised. I found myself wanting to go on Google to check and see if these people truly existed. However, at times the story seemed to be moving at a slow pace. Definitely looking forward to hearing more from this author and would recommend to anyone who loves historical romances.
Reviewed by LaTasha Taylor
Reviewed by LaTasha Taylor
Link to Review: http://www.theromancereadersconnection.com
A Fiendishly Bookish Review (Amazon)
Date Published: Mar 01, 2011
Diabolical Intrigue Takes Center Stage in “The Devil’s Mistress” by Laura Navarre
Diabolical machinations and the female condition at the Tudor Court are at the heart of Laura Navarre’s The Devil’s Mistress. In her play on history, Navarre selects the most turbulent and invigorating of times…Henry VIII’s reign, and the rise of the Boleyn’s. Navarre’s debut historical romance chronicles the path of one woman’s life to free herself from an untenable situation, to be reunited with her family, and perhaps finally allow herself to love. But even the most innocuous of desires can be almost impossible to achieve.
As the successor to Europe’s most fabled assassin, The Hand of God, Allegra Grimaldi has trained since childhood to follow in her father’s footsteps. She can either weave the most intoxicating perfume or craft a draught that will stop your heart and steal your breath.
Coerced into a vicious marriage at the tender age of 13 to Conte Casimiro Grimaldi and cowering under the shadow of her husband (and his fist), Allegra barely escapes the Inquisition in Italy shortly after her husband’s death. Agreeing to a devil’s bargain with the Ambassador of Spain who wishes to use her arcane talents at the court of Henry VIII, Allegra flees for England at Don Maximo Montoya’s side. She is only his willing puppet as long as he holds her beloved father and sisters hostage. But one day she vows to free her family and rid herself once and for all of his evil Excellency.
As Allegra becomes accustomed to Henry’s court, the rampant intrigues, and endless political machinations, she comes to the attention of Joscelin Boleyn, bastard son of Thomas, Lord Rochford. Newly arrived in England with some notoriety in France, Joscelin has escalated up the ranks of the French court by the skill of his blade alone. It also doesn’t hurt that his courtly manners are not lacking. He is instantly drawn to Allegra and begins his pursuit of her. But the don keeps Allegra on a short leash and under constant surveillance and though Allegra feels the pull of Joscelin, she will not allow herself to succumb.
The Devil’s Mistress is not a light romance, but woven thickly against the political backdrop of the Tudor Court and that brings a whole plethora of challenges when navigating a historical romance. Navarre spares little relief for her leads, especially Allegra who bears the burden of being trapped between the evil Don Maximo and the inevitable axe of the Inquisition. When Joscelin is manipulated by his father to use Allegra’s vulnerability to a visiting inquisitor, she finds herself enclosed on all sides.
The Devil’s Mistress’ underlying theme regarding the constraint of the female condition in the Middle Ages in its own way outshines Navarre’s attempt at romance between Joscelin and Allegra. Love, however fleeting between the two of them is a hefty obstacle to overcome-but possible. Navarre shows her readers those possibilities (as well as a few select breathlessly intimate scenes). The liaisons between them are filled with steamy sensuality and sexual discovery and that lends an assist to the overly political theme present at all times throughout the book.
By the last page of The Devil’s Mistress I felt a bit wrenched, but generally satisfied with the conclusion.
A Fiendishly Bookish Review (and one grumpy cat)
Reviewed by A Fiendishly Bookish Review
All About Romance
Date Published: Jul 10, 2010
Writing a historical romance set in the Tudor court is a task fraught with peril. Readers who are attracted to the setting will likely know the basics of the story, if not the details, and readers who know a historical era well can be notoriously unforgiving when authors tinker with the details too much. In her debut novel, Laura Navarre rises to the challenge, and does so with aplomb.
Allegra Grimaldi learned her trade at a young age. Her father trained her in the art of poisons, and now she lives in England under the dubious care and protection of Don Maximo, a Spanish diplomat. As a cover, Allegra is a perfumer to the ladies of the Tudor court, brewing scents and love potions.
Don Maximo is blackmailing Allegra into using her skills as a poisoner, and his target is Anne Boleyn, who threatens Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Allegra has no desire to kill anyone with her poisons, but she is terrified of what Don Maximo might do to her two younger sisters and her father.
Don Maximo pushes Allegra to poison Anne Boleyn, but Allegra can’t bring herself to kill. Instead, she plans to drop a small dose of a mild poison in Anne’s wine—just enough to make her ill for a day or two. As Allegra attempts to slip the tainted wine to Anne, she is caught by Joscelin Boleyn, Anne’s half-brother. Though he doesn’t know his sister well, Joscelin is protective of Anne, and the scheme is ruined. Joscelin, however, finds himself attracted to mysterious Allegra, who he sees as an outsider like himself. Though he senses that she’s up to no good, his curiosity is piqued, and he yearns to know more about her. These intrigues are merely the beginning of The Devil’s Mistress. From there, Navarre immerses us in the political gambits, scheming, and deception of the Tudor court.
Allegra’s conscience is part of her appeal. She has the ability to commit murder without being caught, but she isn’t willing to do so, even if it would mean freedom for her family. She’s a risk-taker in life and in love, and she’s willing to gamble her own well-being in order to preserve the lives and innocence of her sisters. She seems to have an innate grasp of court politics, and is able to use her wit and intellect to dig herself out of some messy situations.
I was skeptical of Joscelin Boleyn, the novel’s very fictional hero, at the outset. In less capable hands, the presence of this invented character in the midst of a very real (and very well-documented) royal court would have been a deal-breaker. By presenting him as an outsider at the Tudor court, as part of the Boleyn family but not part of their inner circle of espionage and deceit, Navarre made me believe that he could have existed.
The only minor criticism I have is that the dialogue does get a bit overwrought at times. Navarre is very conscientious about trying to capture the era in every way possible, and the use of old-fashioned colloquialisms is a part of her push for realism. For the most part, the dialogue is swift and witty, and it keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.
The love story between Allegra and Joscelin, while enjoyable, often takes a back seat to court politics. I felt that The Devil’s Mistress was the opposite of the stereotypical “wallpaper historical”—it was more of a historical novel with a strong romantic subplot and some steamy love scenes. While you could certainly escape into this book (and I did), readers looking for a mindless fluff read aren’t going to find it here. This is a fine debut, intelligently written, cleverly plotted, and well-researched, and I look forward to further novels of intrigue and romance from Laura Navarre.
— Nanette Donahue
Reviewed by All About Romance
Date Published: Jun 01, 2010
“Historical romance at its best in this intriguing, passionate novel full of political intrigue and betrayal,” Fresh Fiction Book Reviews.
Link to Review: http://freshfiction.com/review.php?id=25821
Robin Maxwell, award-winning author of THE SECRET DIARY OF ANNE BOLEYN
Date Published: Mar 26, 2010
Exciting and passionate…a damn good writer.
Link to Review: http://www.RobinMaxwell.com
Leigh Michaels, six-time RITA finalist, two-time Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice winner
Date Published: Mar 26, 2010
Utterly captivating and convincing, THE DEVIL’S MISTRESS sweeps the reader into the dark side of Tudor England, where danger lurks under the glitter of Henry VIII’s court.
Link to Review: http://www.LeighMichaels.com
Nancy Holder, New York Times bestselling author of the WICKED series
Date Published: Mar 26, 2010
Laura Navarre has wrought a riveting, dark novel of deadly intrigue at King Henry VIII’s poisonous Tudor court. England stands on the brink of war, and Allegra Grimaldi is inches away from death by burning for witchcraft. A passionate, desperate heroine squares off against a fierce, mistrusting knight who would rather die than face dishonor, and kill rather than permit injustice. This is a real page turner. I absolutely could not put this book down. Brava, Laura! More!
Link to Review: http://www.NancyHolder.com
Utterly captivating and convincing, THE DEVIL’S MISTRESS sweeps the reader into the dark side of Tudor England, where danger lurks under the glitter of Henry VIII’s court.
Reviewed by Leigh Michaels (bestselling author, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award Recipient)
Link to Review: http://www.leighmichaels.com