Cate Archer is a wanted woman. When her father is killed during peace negotiations with the young King Richard, Cate vows she will not rest until she sees her father’s murder avenged and his killer brought to his knees. She never imagined she would fall in love with the man sent to execute her death warrant.
Viscount Owen Grey has only one task—bring in the rebel leaders, dead or alive. His life’s duty is to the King’s Guard, and he has certain expectations to fulfill. Falling for his prisoner isn’t one of them. He understands her cause, but he cannot bring himself to risk his position and honor for an outlaw. Owen must choose between duty and his heart. The Guard is all he’s ever known. Does he stay true to his oath or find himself on the next most wanted list alongside his Cate?
MURDERING WASN’T FOR the faint of heart.
Cate Archer drew in a fervent breath, unable to calm her insides. She trusted her instincts without hesitation. The tingling sensation that sparked in her belly and quickly spread to her extremities — the breathtaking swirl of full-bodied titillation that consumed her with every draw of her bow — excited her beyond contestation.
Blood coursed through her veins with every pump of her heart. The tree limb on which she perched swayed gently in the breeze, rocking her softly in its plush canopy. She briefly entertained the thought of a short nap, if only she had the time. Rebel informants had given word of a band of nobles traveling the access road through Bedgebury forest, and there was no better opportunity than the present to end their merciless lives. With a little luck, and a few well aimed arrows, the party would be dead before sundown. Swift justice for those murdered at the hands of the King, her beloved father included.
Cate vowed she would not rest until the man who’d cut down her father saw the same fate. She took to the forest, paying particular attention to the access road cutting through the center of the trees. Any noble daring to pass would meet an early demise at the opposite end of her bow. There would be no tax collecting — nay, stealing — from her village.
It was the wait that was the hardest. Waiting for the most opportune moment to strike, or listening for a telling faint sound on the wind — a misstep by a nervous horse, perhaps, who knew of Cate’s presence long before its rider. Fighting the urge to stretch from her uncompromising position in the tree, Cate focused on her surroundings, recollecting the lessons her father had taught her throughout her twenty-three years. She would not fail him now.
Steady, straight, and true.
Gripping the shaft of her arrow between her teeth, Cate pulled the dark locks from her face, securing them atop her head with a bit of twine. From across the canopy, the sweet song of a dunnock fluttered through the trees. Cate answered the mock call with a resounding squawk, silencing the song bird. The signal had been given. Her men were ready.
Within moments, riders approached, edging closer to their deaths with every unsuspecting step. Three armed men circled a heavily laden man at the core of the traveling party. Bags weighted with goods and coins jingled as the rider adjusted himself in the saddle.
A tax collector. He would be the first to die.
After nocking her arrow, Cate silently drew her bow. One step, two steps closer and she would have a clear shot at the man’s heart. Holding her breath, she waited. Then, the bow string slipped from her fingers, whooshing past her cheek. It plunged deep into the chest of her target, and she cracked a smile.
She loaded her second arrow. The riders below scrambled in erratic circles, shouting orders and drawing weapons, readying to battle an enemy they could not see. Cate snickered, likening them to a disturbed ant hill. Chaotic disruption… how it thrilled her. The bow string snapped between the pads of her fingers, propelling the arrow toward her next target — a fat, balding man who could not decide whether he wanted on or off his mount. He fumbled in the saddle, unsure of his position in the fray. At impact, her second victim keeled to the side and fell motionless to the earthen floor.
Her men — her rebellious brothers-in-arms — stormed from all angles, cutting off all means of escape for the last two poor souls still fighting for life. Their gallant attempt to battle until the bitter end brought a pang of guilt to her gut, albeit brief.
As the third guard fell prey to her men, Cate breathed a heavy sigh. “Hold,” she called from the trees. She slung her bow across her back then leapt from limb to limb, descending from the tree with the grace and finesse of a woodland creature.
Boots to the ground, she stood statuesque and imposing, the soft hairs of her fur-lined armor fluttering with the breeze. Pulling a small dagger from her side, Cate approached the remaining guard.
The bloodied man, held firm by two burly monstrosities of leather and sweat, watched her approach with wary eyes. “A name. That is all I ask. Give me the name of the man who executed William the Archer of Kent, and I will spare your life, you shall have my word.”
The man tugged against the restraint. “And what is that worth… the word of a woman?” He spat at her feet.
“I grow weary of this hunt. A name.” She flashed the blade, rubbing the sharpened edge with her thumb.
“I am but a hired guard. I know naught of this executioner you speak of. Perhaps you should converse with the King. I’m sure he would be delighted to add your head to those residing on London Bridge. Perhaps next to this William of yours, eh?”
She clenched her jaw, her fingers tightening around the hilt of the dagger she palmed.
“Oh, did that cut to the quick, little girl? Does that make you want to hurt me?” The guard let out a haughty laugh.
She smiled, her lips curling to one side. “Very much.” He taunted her, even with the threat of death rapidly approaching. She took a step toward the brute then brought her knee up between the man’s legs, doubling him over in a fit of blubbering and forced gasps. The groaning guard sunk to his knees. Her attention turned to her men. “Colin. Fetch the tax collector’s sack.”
Releasing his hold on the guard, Colin hustled to the body of the tax collector and rummaged beneath the man’s bloodied cloak. Upon finding the goods, he tossed the pouch to Cate.
She judged its monetary value by the weight. Unjust taxes, most likely taken from those already too poor to pay. Families could barely make it through the harsh winters as it was, and without what little coin they had saved… many would surely starve. “Redistribute this.” Cate tossed the pouch back to Colin, who nodded in agreement. “Wallace,” she addressed another member of her ruffians, “kindly dispatch the exciseman of his head, will you?”
Wallace, a robust man with wild hair and hellish eyes, drew his sword but hesitated with his approach, heaving a sigh. “Cate, I love ye as if ye were me own bairn. I bounced ye on my knee and taught ye to fish the streams. I know walls won’t hold ye after what’s been done to yer da, but I promised him I would see to ye. Even if that means tromping ’round the brush. Do ye not think this is going a wee bit too far?” His Scottish brogue grew thick with concern when his eyes met hers.
“How can you even question it, Wallace? Your own kin hung from the gallows… do you not seek vengeance? I will not sit idly by while these nobles… these traitors… seek to slaughter the rest of us. This is my home. I will not allow it!”
Wallace scowled but did as Cate asked, removing head from neck in one fell swoop. “What would ye have me do with it, my Cate?” he asked, taking up the head by the hair, lifting it from the blood-sodden ground.
“It is but a gift for our dear, sweet king. Our new friend must deliver it post haste.”
The men made quick work of tying the guard to a horse. The tax collector’s severed head was secured safely between the guard’s hands in an unsuspecting sack. In a tangled mess of leather, sweat, and flesh, the guard was set loose to return to London with Cate’s gift.
“Give His Majesty my best regards.” She checked the tightness of the knots, making sure the guard wouldn’t be able to free himself.
“And from whom shall I say this gift is from?”
“Cate, the Archer’s daughter.”
“MY DEEPEST APOLOGIES. I do not know what went wrong,” the soldier sputtered, surrounded by the group of fellow guardsmen.
Robert Grey, Earl of Lancaster and Captain of the Guard, paced behind a desk towering with parchment and books. From beneath its cluttered surface, he retrieved a soiled sack. “This happened!” He plopped the sack amongst the papers, setting them to flight.
A reserved gasp spread through the room as the opening of the sack fell slack, revealing the sunken face of Henry de Burke, the latest tax collector to lose his head at the hands of the peasant rebels scattered throughout the English countryside.
Robert slammed his fist against the surface of the desk. “What if word of this were to reach the King?” His jaw clenched. “I cannot understand why these peasants have not yet been silenced.” Robert turned toward one of his men standing near the center of the room to address him. “You assured me the issue had been taken care of!”
“Yes, Captain. We thought it was under control, but more bands of peasants rise up as soon as we have captured the last.”
“They have weapons and skill. Do you think this was done with a pitchfork?” Robert casually waved a hand in the direction of Henry de Burke’s head.
“There is one group who has been particularly hard to quell. We’ve sent numerous guardsmen to flush them out, but they hide in Bedgebury forest. They prefer to seek out the Guard, Lord Lancaster, and those they protect. We are hard pressed to have the advantage. Eleven men have been killed in a fortnight.” The guardsman turned to his Captain. “We are losing.”
Robert closed his eyes, rubbing his temples with rigid fingers. “Word of this does not leave the room. If King Richard were to learn of your… failure, our heads would be rotting in the Thames alongside the rebel leaders.”
“What would you have us do?”
Robert’s men looked to him for guidance. Clearly, a new plan was needed. “Put a bounty on the heads of all rebel leaders still in resistance. I do not care of the amount. It will not be paid anyhow. Not so much as to seem… desperate, but enough to be irresistible to the scum of this city. Thomas…” Robert addressed a man seated near the back of the small corner room used as headquarters for the Guard. “Gather the King’s retinue. Bring me Harrison, Maddock, and Owen, and make haste.”
Thomas rose. “Yes, Captain. Erm…” He opened his mouth to continue, but paused before the words left his lips.
“What is it, Thomas?” Robert snapped.
“’Tis just, His Majesty gave Owen a royal pardon last month as requested, Captain, after the peasant revolt. His time in service is over, and he has returned to his estates in Banebridge.”
Crossing the room, Robert stopped short in front of Thomas. “I do not care if you have to go to hell to fetch him… bring me my son!”