Recklessly Yours - Book #3 in Her Majesty's Secret Servants Series
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Signet (December 6, 2011)
The Sutherland sisters lead ordinary lives-- until their childhood friend, now Queen of England , seeks their assistance in matters requiring the utmost discretion. Then they must become.
Her Majesty's Secret Servants
Holly has always been the reckless Sutherland sister, the one most likely to hitch up her skirts and gallop astride a powerful stallion. Holly's affinity for horses leads Queen Victoria to enlist her help when a prized Thoroughbred colt disappears. To catch the horse thief, Holly must put on her best manners and mingle with Ascot racing society. But her encounters with the dashing Colin Ashworth, Earl of Drayton, threaten her mission. She's powerfully attracted to him, but uncertain she can trust him…
When Colin's father, the duke, left for an extended trip, Colin became responsible for the family's vast estates and the people who live on them. And when a series of calamities struck and were blamed on a centuries-old curse involving the colt, Colin was forced to act. Now, as Holly's growing suspicions threaten to expose the truth about the stolen horse, Colin's head tells him to distance himself. But with his heart, body, and soul all recklessly clamoring for Holly, he finds her impossible to resist...
Windsor , England
A violent jolt clacked Holly Sutherland's teeth together and shocked her out of a fitful doze. Her eyes flew open, and she spied high stone walls and an open gate just before the brougham she'd traveled in throughout the night rolled to a halt on a cobbled drive.
The carriage listed as the footman stepped down from his perch on the rear footboard, but Holly swung the door open before he'd come round to assist her.
“Are we here?” She leaned out, eager to be free of the dim and confining carriage, just as eager to see what the next minutes held in store.
“We are, miss. Please wait while I set down the step.” Roger, a towering youth with a head of dark, wavy hair and the handsome features typical of many young footmen, unfolded the step and offered an arm to assist her down.
The sight that greeted her took her aback. The morning mist shrouded a grim, two-story edifice sporting several pairs of closed double doors; above them, a row of dingy windows struggled to reflect the first glimmers of dawn. A stale air of neglect hung over the place, lending it as much cheer as a prison.
Is that what it was? Had the queen sent for her because an inmate had escaped, and it would be Holly's task to track him down? The villain might be some deranged brute who had threatened England 's twenty-year-old monarch. There had been several attempts against Her Majesty's life in the two years since she had ascended to the throne. . . .
The notion should have frightened Holly, but, on the contrary, exhilaration raced up her spine. A weight in the reticule dangling from her wrist provided a heady boost in confidence that sent her chin inching upward. Could she pull the trigger of the repeating revolver she had brought along for added protection?
Most certainly, if it came down to protecting the queen's life, her own, or that of an innocent bystander. And if she held the weapon in two hands and braced her feet firmly, she could even aim it fairly straight.
Behind her, the gates whined and then clanged as a pair of guards pushed them shut. The stark sound sent her forward with a spring in her step, while over her shoulder she asked the footman, “Where is here, exactly? And how do we get in?” The doors all appeared to be locked up tight.
“We're at the Windsor Mews, miss. Her Majesty's stables. And not that way, miss. That is merely the carriage house.”
She stopped a few feet shy of the first set of doors, a ripple of disappointment dousing her excitement. Stables were rather less spine-tingling than a prison, though perhaps Victoria wished to supply her with a speedy mount on which to pursue her quarry.
Glancing up, she caught a glimpse through the mist of Windsor Castle 's Round Tower poised high above the landscape like a monarch on her dais. She regarded the seedy brick structure before her. “These mews are rather less grand than one would expect for England 's queen.”
“There are plans for new ones to be built later in the year,” he replied in a bored tone. “Now, if you'd follow me please.”
“Is the queen to meet me here?”
Of course he didn't answer. He had tolerated her questions long enough. His job was not to supply information, but simply to deliver her to her destination. “If you please, miss, follow me.”
They threaded their way through a maze of courtyards, stables, and outbuildings, Roger's steady pace prompting Holly to grit her teeth to keep from asking him to please hurry. Voices reached her ears, along with the clanging, clunking, and sweeping of the stable hands beginning their morning tasks. She rounded a corner into another enclosure, where a team of workers scurried back and forth carrying buckets, brushes, rakes, and armfuls of snaking tack. They seemed to have reached the very heart of the mews. The footman stopped before a heavy-looking door, reached into his pocket, and brought out a jangling set of keys.
She was surprised to step into a cozy room furnished with a faded but comfortable-looking settee and a small oak table and chairs; a cheery fire flickered in a small brick fireplace. The effect was of a slightly shabby retreat, the furniture too worn to remain in a drawing room but adequate enough to accommodate the queen's hunting parties.
“Her majesty's private salon, miss,” Roger explained, confirming Holly's guess. “Do make yourself comfortable, if you please.” With that, he turned on his heel and left her alone. She had no choice but to contain her impatience and wait.
It was all very puzzling. But even more puzzling had been the note Roger himself had delivered, only hours ago, to the Knightsbridge Readers' Emporium, the London bookshop owned jointly by Holly and her sisters.
||I need you—and only you. You must come to me at Windsor at once! Tell no one. Except your sisters, of course. But please make no delay!
She'd barely had time to comprehend the note's meaning—that, like her sisters Laurel and Ivy before her, she was being called to the service of her country—before she had found herself scurrying to pack a bag, bid her sisters goodbye, and board the waiting brougham. Without further explanation, she had been whisked out of the city and across a moonlit countryside.
A clatter of footsteps echoed in the hall. Just before the door swung wide, Holly jumped up from the settee. A petite figure swathed in a cape of sumptuous forest-green velvet swept through the doorway, and England 's queen flipped back her hood and stretched out her hands. “My dearest Holly, thank goodness you are here!”
They rushed to each other, and Holly found herself enfolded in an embrace that for several lovely seconds renewed every sweet facet of the friendship that had marked her childhood years.
Here before her stood the only real friend she and her sisters had known during their sheltered upbringing at Uncle Edward's country estate—and vice versa. As heir presumptive, little Princess Victoria had been allowed precious few influences beyond those of her mother and John Conroy, a man who early on had designs on controlling the throne Victoria would eventually occupy. At her mother's insistence, the common-born Sutherland sisters had been tolerated against John Conroy's advice only due to their father's military ties to Victoria 's father, the deceased Duke of Kent.
The past, with all of its childish secrets, promises, hopes, and dreams, flooded Holly's heart as she pressed her cheek to Victoria 's. They had been orphans together, the Sutherland sisters and this dear, lonely little girl. But as Victoria 's importance to England grew, Holly and her sisters were deemed less and less suitable to be her companions.
Now she was their queen and could acknowledge their friendship openly if she chose to, which she did not because of one imperative matter.
We will always be your friends . . . your secret servants if need be. Holly and her sisters had spoken those words to the child Victoria nearly a decade ago, on a sunny summer's day in Uncle Edward's rose garden. At the time, none of them could have guessed what that pledge would lead to. In the past year, Laurel, the eldest, and Ivy, Holly's twin, had each risked death in the service of their queen, though neither had quite explained to Victoria the dangers they had faced.
Risk, danger, fear . . . the vow had incurred all that and more for Laurel and Ivy. And now—oh, now it was Holly's turn to finally stray from the safety of everyday life and embark on her own adventure.
Did that frighten her, even just a little? Good heavens, yes. It was a sensation that made her feel alive, vibrant, important . . . .
Victoria 's arms came away, and Holly stepped back to gaze into her friend's face with a smile she could hardly restrain. “What is it you need me to do?”
Victoria rattled off her needs like items on a shopping list. “Prevent an international incident. Save the monarchy. Save me .”
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