Virginia henley unmask.., p.1
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       Virginia Henley - Unmasked, p.1

           Virginia Henley
Virginia Henley - Unmasked

  Signet, a division of Penguin Group

  Copyright 2005


  Nottingham Castle

  Summer 1644

  Robert Montgomery stood tall and proud in the castle's solar, looking down with interest at the small female beside him. Red gold tendrils peeped out from beneath her white lace headdress, and her dark lashes were modestly lowered to her cheeks. In the candlelight she reminded him of an image he'd re­cently seen in a painting. She has the face of an angel! He glanced at his father, Alex Greysteel Montgomery, Earl of Eglinton, and allowed most of his resentment to dis­solve. A month ago when he'd been informed of his betrothal to Elizabeth Cavendish, he'd balked at the idea, but his father had been adamant.

  "Do you not realize how high in the pecking order this girl is? Her father, William, is Viscount Mansfield of Nottingham, Baron Ogle, Baron Cavendish of Bolsover and Earl of Newcastle. He's also cousin to the Earl of Devonshire, who is considered equal to royalty. Fact is they've more money than the Royal Stuarts. If we turn down this match, it would toss away a dowry and estate of twenty thousand pounds."

  Robert knew immediately there was little chance of that. Greysteel Montgomery was an authoritarian wid­ower who ruled his own roost. Since Robert had no mother to fight his battles, he'd voiced his own protest. "I warrant that thirteen is too young to be betrothed, sir."

  "Not when Mistress Cavendish is only seven. A six-year age difference is perfect! There's a possibility she may inherit Bolsover Castle someday. It's a good match for them too. A Montgomery is as good as a Cavendish! Our Worksop holdings adjoin their prop­erties, and Newcastle inherited his mother's Ogle land/which runs parallel with ours in Northumber­land. That is what has prompted this offer. The king has summoned his nobles to Nottingham to plan war strategy. We can have the betrothal ceremony there and kill two crows with one stone."

  Lady Cavendish looked at her small daughter with

  love. I'm so relieved to get her settled. Robert Montgomery

  is such a noble, upright young man that I shall have no fear

  for Elizabeth's future if something should happen to me. She

  made a surreptitious sign of the cross. She knew her

  health was not robust—last winter she had almost

  died from pneumonia.

  She glanced at her husband, William, who smiled his encouragement. She knew he doted on the child and wanted only the best for her. She looked at the Earl of Eglinton. He's dark and dominant, but he exudes strength. Her glance moved to the younger Greysteel, who stood beside her daughter. He's cut from the same cloth. Elizabeth will have need of his strength.

  The future bride stood deep in thought, remember­ing the shocked look on her mother's face when she had insisted, "I can't be betrothed to Montgomery! I am going to marry Charles!"

  "That is impossible, Elizabeth. Charles will be King of England someday. He must marry a lady with royal blood because she will become the queen. Mont­gomery is noble and strong. I vow he will protect you and always keep you safe, my darling."

  Robert watched Nottingham Castle's chaplain step forward to perform the brief betrothal ceremony. He gave his consent gravely and then the chaplain put the question to Elizabeth. Before she answered, she raised her lashes and gave him a look of appraisal that made him feel somehow inadequate. He clenched his jaw and stared a challenge into eyes that were deep green. He straightened his shoulders, knowing they were broad and well muscled for his age, and when his be­trothed lowered her lashes in what seemed meek ac­quiescence, his confidence returned.

  The legal documents were duly signed and Lady Cavendish whisked her daughter off to bed with a protective arm about her, leaving the men to more im­portant matters of war and whiskey.

  The adolescent males riding through the acres of Nottingham Castle suddenly challenged one another to an impromptu race. Mounted on a massive bay gelding, swarthy Charles Stuart easily took the lead. The prince's startling physical maturity belied his fourteen years, making his twelve-year-old brother, James, and the Villiers brothers look like boys. Only Robert Montgomery, called Greysteel after his father, was a worthy challenger. Mounted on his sleek grey hunter, he pulled alongside Charles, and the young men exchanged a quick grin, acknowledging admira­tion for each other's horsemanship, as they left the rest to eat their dust.

  From out of nowhere, a small black mare streaked past them, flying on the wind. Astride was a female who looked far too young to even approach a horse, let alone ride one.

  "Who the devil is that?" Greysteel demanded in outrage.

  Prince Charles grinned ruefully. "Lizzy Cavendish, the Earl of Newcastle's youngest and your betrothed, I'm afraid. My governor is the finest horseman in En­gland and she's had the benefit of his instruction since before she could walk."

  Greysteel's thunderous brows lifted. "Her mount carries no weight—that's why it streaked past as if we were stopped."

  The girl's brother, Henry Cavendish, caught up with the prince and Montgomery. "She's an imp of Satan, a throwback to our great-grandmother Bess Hardwick. Father has spoiled her rotten. Frizzy Lizzy does and says whatever she pleases. She has most shocking manners, but Father laughs and encourages her."

  As the young men slowed to a canter, Charles spoke quietly. "You cannot criticize your father to me, Henry. When I display shocking manners he laughs and en­courages me too." The prince's father, King Charles, was a cold, remote, rigid man who believed in his di­vine right and would be obeyed at all costs. Courtly William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, had become Charles's savior six years ago when he'd been ap­pointed to the governorship of the royal heir. "He taught me equestrian skills, swordsmanship, and be­lieves I shouldn't be overstudious or too devout, for which I shall be eternally grateful." The earl also had taught Charles to speak courtly French, educated him to be gracious to his subjects and taught him that, to ladies especially, he could never be too civil or oblig­ing.

  When the young males reached the stables, they dismounted, happy to mingle with the Royalist sol­diers crowding the courtyard, rather than enter Not­tingham Castle, where the king's loyal nobles had been summoned to discuss strategy for the Civil War that was dividing England. Charles and Greysteel, far more interested in the soldiers' weapons than their uniforms, lusted to be in the men's places, ready to do battle for their country.

  King Charles had dismissed Parliament over a decade ago and ruled with royal absolutism. The Stu­art king and queen took part in High Church rituals, which both Protestants and Puritans viewed as dan­gerously papist. Angry Scots objected to a new English prayer book and signed a Covenant binding them to Presbyterianism, wholly at odds with the Anglican Church.

  "Allow me to introduce my father's cousin Colonel Charles Cavendish," Henry said with pride.

  “I understand you recruited all these men." And paid for them yourself! Charles could not hide his admi­ration.

  "It wasn't difficult, Your Highness. They volunteered."

  "Oh, please call me Charles, Colonel. Your magnifi­cent sword was acquired on your travels to Cairo, no doubt."

  The Cavalier officer smiled. "Come out onto the lawn and I'll let you try it."

  Charles arched a brow at Greysteel, who nodded eagerly. "If you'll furnish my friend Montgomery with a sword, I accept with pleasure, Colonel Cavendish."

  Lizzy marched into the castle hall oblivious of her muddy riding boots and trailing damp skirts. Her red gold curls were a tangle from her wild ride. She deftly sidestepped her governess and gazed up with interest at the men gathered about her father. "Have you de­cided on your strategy to whip the enemy yet?"

  As the gathering of men, which included His Royal Highness King Charles, Prince Rupert
of the Rhine, the Earl of Saint Albans, the Earl of Eglinton and her noble relative the Earl of Devonshire, stared down in consternation, her mother stepped forward with an apology on her lips. "Forgive this intrusion, gentle­men. I'm afraid Elizabeth is a throwback."

  Her father, the Earl of Newcastle, laughed and pointed to the portrait of his grandmother Bess Hard-wick, which decorated the mantel above the great fire­place.

  "I'm not a throwback!" The precocious child stamped her foot adamantly and glared daggers at the men. "A throwback is a little fish that's not worth keeping."

  "Elizabeth, it is because you have an uncanny re­semblance both in appearance and manner to your great-grandmother that we call you a throwback." He directed her gaze to the portrait. "There, do you see the likeness?"

  The onlookers didn't have long to wait for her reac­tion. "How could you, Father? She's old and ugly! I'd rather be a little fish than a cod's head like her!"

  The Earl of Devonshire glanced at the portrait. "Grandmother was a termagant and by the sound of things you haven't fallen far from the tree, Elizabeth."

  "Don't call me Elizabeth. I hate it! Mother, Grand­mamma and Great-grandmamma all had that horrid name. I've decided I shall have a beautiful name."

  "That's enough, Lizzy." Glancing apprehensively at the grim-faced Earl of Eglinton, her mother took her by the hand and put her in the care of the hovering governess with a speaking look that said, Try to control her.

  Maude clamped a firm hand to her charge's shoul­der and led her away. The moment they were alone she pinched her cruelly. "Upstairs to your room, Lady Lizzy."

  Tears sprang to Lizzy's eyes as she wrenched her­self away from Maude. "To hell with my room—I shall go and find Charles."

  She ran out into the garden and when she saw the sword fight on the lawn, the pinch was forgotten. She joined the group of watching boys, her emerald eyes alight with excitement. "Bravo, Charles! Beat the scurvy dog to his knees and slice him to ribbons!"

  Colonel Cavendish reprimanded her. "'Tis disre­spectful to call the prince by his first name."

  "Rubbish! I don't disrespect him. I love him."

  She watched with disappointment as the two dark youths fought to a draw and saluted each other with respect. "Charles, why didn't you skewer him?"

  Robert was stunned. Surely it was his betrothed's duty to champion him. The little devil's spawn makes no bones about her preference for Prince Charles.

  "I'm afraid skewering him is not so easy, Lady Eliz­abeth. I have the longer reach, but Greysteel has the greater staying power. It's the breadth of his shoul­ders, I warrant."

  "What sort of silly name is Greysteel?" she chal­lenged.

  Robert fought an impulse to smack her. "You are the rudest little girl I have ever encountered." His anger ticked up a notch when the hellion looked pleased.

  Henry agreed. "Her manners are shocking—I warned you."

  "Not soon enough," Greysteel said succinctly.

  "Do you call yourself Greysteel because your eyes are grey and you ride a grey horse?"

  "No, Elizabeth—"

  She butted in, "I no longer answer to Elizabeth." She stared down at a hybrid rose with dark crimson velvet petals. "I have decided my name shall be Velvet."

  Greysteel Montgomery mocked her by laughing out loud.

  Velvet's eyes narrowed. She balled up her fists, wanting to jab him in his solar plexus and knock him into the fishpond, but she didn't quite dare. He looked capable of beating her. "If you can call yourself Greysteel, I can call myself Velvet!"

  "She's spoiled and insufferable," Montgomery de­clared. "She needs to have her arse tanned."

  Charles smiled indulgently. "I think she is enchant­ing. She's not only beautiful; she says exactly what she thinks. A decade from now she will be a heartbreaker." He plucked the rose and presented it to her with a gal­lant bow. "I think Velvet an enchanting name. It suits you well, mistress."

  Greysteel looked at the prince as if he were a lu­natic. "She's been indulged to such a degree she's ru­ined for life."

  Charles's eyes twinkled. "You too express your opinions with frankness. I like that. I detest fawners and flatterers above all things."

  A shot rang out and the young males instantly lost all interest in the little redhead and tore pell-mell back to the soldiers, who were having target practice with the new firearms they had been issued. With envious eyes Charles and Greysteel watched the men load and fire, and each decided that before the day was over he would have his own pistol.

  The following day, William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, rode out alone with Prince Charles. "The king has given me the command of the royal forces in the north."

  "At your own expense, my lord," Charles said shrewdly.

  The earl waved that aside. "The Parliamentarians have demanded that the vast armory at Hull be trans­ferred to the Tower of London. Naturally, His Majesty has refused and my immediate mission will be to se­cure that arsenal."

  "I want to come with you, my lord,” Charles said eagerly.

  "Alas, no, Your Highness. I reluctantly pass your governorship to Lord Jermyn, Earl of Saint Albans."

  "I'm taller than most recruits and as strong," he protested.

  Newcastle, who understood the prince's hunger to do his part, held up his hand. "We are in sore need of arms, men and money. You are to go on a progress through Radnorshire, North Wales and Cheshire. Your popularity will draw recruits like a magnet. Each of us must go where he is most effective."

  "You are ever the diplomat, my lord. I suppose I must accede with grace, but damnation, I'd like to see battle!"

  "My cousin Charles has been put in charge of Not­tingham and Lincolnshire and will ride with Prince Rupert's cavalry."

  "I thank you both for so generously offering your services and your fortunes to the Crown. It is most selfless of you."

  The following day, Prince Charles, his brother James and the Villiers boys were leaving for Raglan with Lord Jermyn. Robert Montgomery was returning home to Worksop, where his father, the earl, was to re­cruit his own army. The two dark young men who had become friends said their good-byes in the castle courtyard.

  "Good-bye, Greysteel. I hope we meet again soon."

  "Godspeed, Charles. I hope our armies have a speedy victory." They grinned at one another with the confidence of youth, and Greysteel lowered his voice. "I hope it lasts long enough that you and I can ride into battle."

  "My own thought, exactly,” Charles agreed confi­dentially.

  High above them at her chamber window, Velvet Cavendish watched her betrothed and Prince Charles depart. The thought of war secretly terrified her. To banish her overwhelming fear she stuck out her chin and shouted, "It's not fair! I want to go to war! Why did I have to be born a girl?"

  Chapter 1


  Autumn 1657

  Captain Greysteel Montgomery came instantly alert the moment he awoke. War had sharpened his senses so that he knew immediately where he was, where his men were and whether danger threatened. He was a disciplinarian who demanded obedience and handled his men with total authority. He had a stark, dark countenance and fierce grey eyes, which could burn holes into any soldier who didn't give his all. Those who'd served under him in battle swore his name came from having guts of steel.

  He had joined the army at fifteen, fighting in his fa­ther's regiment until he'd been promoted to captain at twenty. Hardened by war, he had seen too much vio­lence, blood and death in his twenty-six years. He had fought many battles, tasting victory in some and bitter defeat in others, like Dunbar and Worcester.

  After the Parliamentarians had executed King Charles, Greysteel had sworn an oath to help restore the Crown of England to its rightful heir, his friend Charles II. Now only a few pockets of Royalist fighters remained. Most had decided it was a lost cause and ac­cepted Cromwell's rule to preserve their funds. His own father had decided that the Montgomery estates were more important than profitless loyalty to
an exiled king.

  The men Greysteel now commanded had been re­cruited in Northumberland. They were young, reck­less fighters and his greatest challenge was not leading them in battle, but controlling them when they were not engaged in combat. They were waiting, close to the Scottish Border, for an invasion force to land that Charles Stuart had gathered in Europe.

  Greysteel rolled up his blanket, impervious to the hard ground he'd slept on, and shattered the predawn silence.

  "A new day! Up and at it!" His voice rumbled like low thunder over his sleeping men, who roused in­stantly, removed their clothes and began racing to the river, making a deadly challenge of who'd reach the water first. As he stripped, Greysteel did a count of naked bodies before he started to run. He wasn't the first to submerge, but he was first to reach the far bank of the river and start back.

  Later, after the horses were watered and his men were wolfing down their first meal of the day, he moved among them, selecting half a dozen for guard duty.

  "I know it seems like our wait is endless, but when the Royalist mercenary forces arrive, our orders are to cross the Border with them to strengthen the Scots' revolt. If you see anyone, friend or foe, sound the alarm loud and clear."

  Greysteel knew his pubescent warriors' abundant sexual energy must be harnessed and channeled into activities that kept them at their physical peak without being lethal as they played a waiting game. Hunting, wrestling, racing and boulder throwing were favorite rough exercises. "Choose teams to practice close com­bat. Gashes and bloody noses are expected, but I will tolerate no more broken bones," he warned sternly.

  The exercise had been under way only long enough to get the men's blood high when the guard shouted, "Royalist soldiers!" Greysteel tore up the lookout hill to view for himself what was afoot. He saw a great force of mounted men closing in on them, and knew his guard had made a terrible mistake. He recognized General Monck's Coldstream Guards. Monck was Cromwell's military commander in Scotland.

  "Enemy upon us! Mount up! Prepare to attack!"

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