The Gift (Crown's Spies #3) by Julie Garwood

Prologue

England, 1802

It was only a matter of time before the wedding guests killed one another.

Baron Oliver Lawrence had taken every precaution, of course, for it was his castle King George had chosen for the ceremony. He was acting as host until the king of England arrived, a duty he embraced with as much joy as he would a three-day flogging; but the order had come from the king himself, and Lawrence, ever loyal and obedient, had immediately complied. Both the Winchester family and the St. James rebels had protested his selection most vehemently. Their noise was all for naught, however, for the king was determined to have his way. Baron Lawrence understood the reason behind the decree. Unfortunately, he was the only man in England still on speaking terms with both the bride's and the groom's families.

The baron wouldn't be able to boast about that fact much longer. He believed his time on the sweet earth could well be measured in heartbeats. Because the ceremony was to take place on neutral ground, the king actually believed the gathering would behave. Lawrence knew better.

The men surrounding him were in a killing mood. One word given in the wrong tone of voice, one action perceived to be the least bit threatening could well become the spark needed to ignite the bloodbath. God only knew they were itching to get at one another. The looks on their faces said as much.

The bishop, dressed in ceremonial whites, sat in a high-backed chair between the two feuding families. He looked neither to the left, where the Winchesters were sequestered, nor to the right, where the St. James warriors were stationed, but stared straight ahead. To pass the time the clergyman drummed his fingertips on the wooden arm of his chair. He looked as though he'd just eaten a fair portion of sour fish. He let out a high-pitched sigh every now and then, a sound the baron thought was remarkably like the whinny of a cranky old horse, then let the damning silence envelop the great hall again.

Lawrence shook his head in despair. He knew he wouldn't get any help from the bishop when the real trouble broke out. Both the bride and the groom waited in separate chambers above the stairs. Only after the king had arrived would they be led, or dragged, into the hall. God help the two of them then, for all hell would surely break loose.

It was a sorry day indeed. Lawrence had actually had to post his own contingent of guards betwixt the king's knights along the perimeter of the hall just as an added deterrent. Such an action at a wedding was unheard of, yet it was just as unheard of for the guests to come to the ceremony armed for battle. The Winchesters were so loaded down with weapons they could barely move about. Their insolence was shameful, their loyalty more than suspect. Still, Lawrence was hard put to condemn the men completely. It was true that even he found it a challenge to blindly obey his leader. The king was, after all, as daft as a duck.

Everyone in England knew he had lost his mind, yet no one dared speak the fact aloud. They'd lose their tongues, or worse, for daring to tell the truth. The marriage about to take place was more than ample testimony to any doubting Thomases left in the ton that their leader had gone around the bend. The king had told Lawrence he was determined to have everyone in his kingdom get along. The baron didn't have an easy answer to that childlike expectation.

But for all of his madness, George was their king, and damn it all, thought Lawrence, the wedding guests should show a little respect. Their outrageous conduct shouldn't be tolerated. Why, two of the seasoned Winchester uncles were blatantly fondling the hilts of their swords in obvious anticipation of the bloodletting. The St. James warriors immediately noticed and retaliated by taking a unified step forward. They didn't touch their weapons, though, and in truth most of the St. James's men weren't even armed. They smiled instead. Lawrence thought that action was just as telling.

The Winchesters outnumbered the St. James clan six to one. That didn't give them the advantage, however. The St. James men were a much meaner lot. The stories about their escapades were legendary. They were known to tear a man's eyes out just for squinting; they liked to kick an opponent in his groin for the fun of hearing him howl; and God only knew what they did to their enemies. The possibilities were simply too appalling to think about.

A commotion coming from the courtyard turned Lawrence's attention. The king's personal assistant, a dour-faced man by the name of Sir Roland Hugo, rushed up the steps. He was dressed in festive garb, but the colorful red hose and white tunic made his imposing bulk all the more rotund-looking. Lawrence thought Hugo resembled a plump rooster. Because he was his good friend, he kept that unkind opinion to himself.

The two men quickly embraced. Then Hugo took a step back. In a hushed tone he said, "I rode ahead the last league. The king will be here in just a few more minutes."

"Thank God for that," Lawrence replied, his relief visible. He mopped at the beads of sweat on his brow with his linen handkerchief.

Hugo glanced over Lawrence's shoulder, then shook his head. "It's as quiet as a tomb in your hall," he whispered. "Have you had a time of it keeping the wedding guests amused?"

Lawrence looked incredulous. "Amused? Hugo, nothing short of a human sacrifice could keep those barbarians amused."

"I can see your sense of humor has helped you through this atrocity," his friend replied.

"I'm not jesting," the baron snapped. "You'll quit your smile, too, Hugo, when you realize how volatile the situation has become. The Winchesters didn't come bearing gifts, my friend. They're armed for battle. Yes, they are," he rushed on when his friend shook his head in apparent disbelief. "I tried to persuade them to leave their arsenal outside, but they wouldn't hear of it. They aren't in an accommodating mood."

"We'll see about that," Hugo muttered. "The soldiers riding escort with our king will disarm them in little time. I'll be damned if I allow our overlord to walk into such a threatening arena. This is a wedding, not a battlefield."

Hugo proved to be as good as his threat. The Winchesters piled their weapons in the corner of the great hall when they were confronted with the order by the infuriated king's assistant. The demand was backed up by some forty loyal soldiers who'd taken up their positions in a circle around the guests. Even the St. James rascals handed over their few weapons, but only after Hugo ordered arrows put to the soldiers' bows.

If he lived to tell the tale, no one was ever going to believe him, Lawrence decided. Thankfully, King George had no idea what extreme measures had been taken to secure his protection.

When the king of England walked into the great hall the soldiers immediately lowered their bows, though their arrows remained securely nocked for a quick kill if the need arose.

The bishop rallied out of the chair, bowed formally to his king, and then motioned for him to take his seat.

Two of the king's barristers, their arms laden with documents, trailed in the king's wake. Lawrence waited until his leader was seated, then hurried over to kneel before him. He spoke his pledge of loyalty in a loud, booming voice, hoping his words would shame the guests into showing like consideration.

The king leaned forward, his big hands braced on his knees. "Your patriot king is pleased with you, Baron Lawrence. I am your patriot king, champion of all the people, am I not?"

Lawrence was prepared for that question. The king had taken to calling himself by that name years before, and he liked to hear affirmation whenever possible.

"Yes, my lord, you are my patriot king, champion of all the people."

"That's a good lad," the king whispered. He reached out and patted the top of Lawrence's balding head. The baron blushed in embarrassment. The king was treating him like a young squire. Worse, the baron was beginning to feel like one.

"Stand now, Baron Lawrence, and help me oversee this important occasion," the king ordered.

Lawrence immediately did as he was told. When he got a close look at his leader he had to force himself not to show any outward reaction. He was stunned by the king's deteriorating appearance. George had been a handsome figure in his younger days. Age hadn't been kind to him. His jowls were fuller, his wrinkles deeper, and there were full bags of fatigue under his eyes. He wore a pure white wig, the ends rolled up on the sides, but the color made his complexion look all the more shallow.

The king smiled up at his vassal in innocent expectation.

Lawrence smiled back. There was such kindness, such sincerity in his leader's expression. The baron was suddenly outraged on his behalf. For so many years, before his illness had made him confused, George had been far more than just an able king. His attitude toward his subjects was that of a benevolent father watching over his children. He deserved better than he was getting.

The baron moved to the king's side, then turned to look at the group of men he thought of as infidels. His voice shook with fury when he commanded, "Kneel!"

They knelt.

Hugo was staring at Lawrence with the most amazed expression on his face. He obviously hadn't realized his friend could be so forceful. As to that, Lawrence had to admit that until that moment he hadn't known he had it in him either.

The king was pleased with the united show of loyalty, and that was all that mattered. "Baron?" he said with a glance in Lawrence's direction. "Go and fetch the bride and groom. The hour grows late, and there is much to be done."

As Lawrence was bowing in answer to that command the king turned in his chair and looked up at Sir Hugo. "Where are all the ladies? I daresay I don't see a single lady in evidence. Why is that, Hugo?"

Hugo didn't want to tell the king the truth, that the men in attendance hadn't brought their women along because they were set on war, not merriment. Such honesty would only injure his king's tender feelings.

"Yes, my patriot king," Hugo blurted out. "I have also noticed the lack of ladies."

"But why is that?" the king persisted.

Hugo's mind emptied of all plausible explanations to give for the oddity. In desperation he called out to his friend. "Why is that, Lawrence?"

The baron had just reached the entrance. He caught the edge of panic in his friend's tone and immediately turned around. "The journey here would have been too difficult for such… frail ladies," he explained.

He almost choked on his words. The lie was outrageous, of course, for anyone who had ever met any of the Winchester women knew they were about as frail as jackals. King George's memory wasn't up to snuff, however, because his quick nod indicated he was appeased by the explanation.

The baron paused to glare at the Winchesters. It was their conduct, after all, that had forced the lie in the first place. He then continued on his errand.

The groom was the first to answer the summons. As soon as the tall, lanky marquess of St. James entered the hall a wide path was made for him.

The groom strolled into the hall like a mighty warrior ready to inspect his subjects. If he'd been homely, Lawrence would have thought of him as a young, arrogant Genghis Khan. The marquess was anything but homely, however. He had been gifted with dark, auburn-colored hair and clear green eyes. His face was thin, angular, his nose already broken in a fight he had, of course, won. The slight bump on the bridge made his profile look less pretty and more ruggedly handsome.

Nathan, as he was called by his immediate family, was one of the youngest noblemen in the kingdom. He was just a scant day over fourteen years. His father, the powerful earl of Wakersfield, was out of the country on an important assignment for his government and therefore couldn't stand beside his son during the ceremony. In fact, the earl had no idea the marriage was taking place. The baron knew he was going to be furious when he heard the news. The earl was a most unpleasant man under usual conditions, and when provoked he could be as vindictive and evil as Satan. He was known to be as mean as all the St. James relatives put together. Lawrence supposed that was the reason they all looked up to him for guidance on important matters.

Yet while Lawrence thoroughly disliked the earl, he couldn't help but like Nathan. He'd been in the boy's company several times, noticed on each occasion that Nathan listened to the views the others had to give, and then did what he felt was best. He was just fourteen, yes, but he had already become his own man. Lawrence respected him. He felt a little sorry for him, too, for in all their visits together Lawrence had never once seen him smile. He thought that was a pity.

The St. James clan never called the marquess by his given name, though. They referred to him simply as "boy," for in their eyes he had still to prove his worth to them. There were tests he would have to conquer first. The relatives didn't doubt the lad's eventual success. They believed he was a natural leader, knew from his size that he would be a giant of a man, and hoped, above all other considerations, that he would develop a streak as mean as their own. He was family, after all, and there were certain responsibilities that would fall on his shoulders.

The marquess kept his gaze directed on the king of England as he made his way over to stand in front of him. The baron watched him closely. He knew Nathan had been instructed by his uncles not to kneel before his king unless commanded to do so.

Nathan ignored their instructions. He knelt on one knee, bowed his head, and stated his pledge of loyalty in a firm voice. When the king asked him if he was his patriot king, a hint of a smile softened the boy's expression.

"Aye, my lord," Nathan answered. "You are my patriot king."

The baron's admiration for the marquess increased tenfold. He could see from the king's smile that he was also pleased. Nathan's relatives weren't. Their scowls were hot enough to set fires. The Winchesters couldn't have been happier. They snickered in glee.

Nathan suddenly bounded to his feet in one fluid motion. He turned to stare at the Winchesters for a long, silent moment, and the look on his face, as cold as frost, seemed to chill the insolence right out of the men. The marquess didn't turn back to the king until most of the Winchesters were intently staring at the floor. The St. James men couldn't help but grunt their approval.

The lad wasn't paying any attention to his relatives. He stood with his legs braced apart, his hands clasped behind his back, and stared straight ahead. His expression showed only boredom.

Lawrence walked directly in front of Nathan so that he could nod to him. He wanted Nathan to know how much his conduct had pleased him.

Nathan responded by giving the baron a quick nod of his own. Lawrence hid his smile. The boy's arrogance warmed his heart. He had stood up to his relatives, ignoring the dire consequences that were sure to come, and had done the right thing. Lawrence felt very like a proud father—an odd reaction to be sure, for the baron had never married and had no children to call his own.