A few months ago we told you all about Serial Box, a company bringing readers awesome stories in ten to 16 installments, written by various authors. We totally loved Tremontaine, so we were super excited to receive an exclusive excerpt from Serial Box’s new serial Whitehall, available next month!
Whitehall is a scintillating tale featuring King Charles II of England, his beloved mistress Barbara and Charles’s betrothed, Portugeuse Princess Catherine. Written by Liz Duffy Adams, Delia Sherman, Barbara Samuel, Madeleine Robins, Sarah Smith, and Mary Robinette Kowal, the unlikely love triangle promises plenty of scandal and entertainment as Charles must honor his duty as king and Catherine must face the reality that kings keep mistresses. Barbara is cunning, and she has no intention of sharing her king — or relinquishing her hold on his heart.
Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, reclined naked in a luxuriously rumpled bed, lit by a single candle and a flood of moonlight. Her mass of chestnut hair, released from its usual ornate confinement, rioted across the linen bolster; one hand rested on her swelling belly. She was the very picture of satiated bliss, an English rose at the height of youthful bloom. Through half-closed eyes, she gazed across the room at the tall man who stood naked at the window, looking out at the midnight garden.
His thirty-two years sat lightly on him, though here and there on his moon-silvered skin, a scar gleamed, the kind got in war. His olive complexion, courtesy of his Italian grandfather, was far from the English pink-and-white ideal, and his long face, with its wide mouth and curling lips, was generally considered imposing but rather ugly. Barbara, however, found his every atom erotic. He was the brilliant Minotaur who did not rend her, dangerous as he might be to others. He was the King of England, and he was hers.
A church bell began to toll, and then another. Three spaniels, curled up together on the edges of the puddled curtains, woke and began howling. Startled, Barbara leaned up on one elbow, but before she could speak, there was a knock at the door.
“Be still,” he said to the dogs—who quieted, but came wriggling up to him to be soothed with a stroke and a tug on their ears—and then called out, “Enter!” A young page came in, looking as though he’d been rousted from sleep to bring the note he handed over with a little bow, quite unabashed at the nakedness. The king read, and nodded at the boy.
“Tell Lord Clarendon I’ll set off as soon as may be. Now back to bed with you, Will.”
The boy grinned and bowed again, and hurried out, not without a sidelong glance at Barbara, who was sitting bolt upright.
“What is it about?” she asked.
Charles II looked back at her from the window. “It seems I am about to be married.”
They looked at each other as the bells rolled on. She couldn’t read his face. She dropped her gaze and bit her lip. Then she threw back her shoulders and cast him a smile brimming with love, valor, and wry humor. The candlelight fell full upon her face; she knew when she was in her light as well as any actress might.
“Well, darling,” she said. “I hope you aren’t going to be fanatical about it.”
A risk, a calculated risk. He might take this moment to turn serious; Barbara never knew when that side of him might emerge. He stared at her, his dark eyes widening. Then he tipped his head back with a shouted laugh, and came striding back to her bed.
The candle guttered out with a hiss, a puddle of wax with a smoking wick, and Barbara woke curled with her back to Charles. While they had sported, the treacherous English weather had sent clouds scudding in to cover the moon, and now the day was dark, with a steady hissing rain. Turning, she saw him awake, one arm behind his head, gazing across the room at nothing.
She said, “Are the cares of married life oppressing your spirits already?”
He laughed shortly under his breath, then sobered. “Can’t help wondering what I’ve let myself in for. A pious little Infanta. Doesn’t even speak English.”
“So much the better. She’ll bring all that lovely Portuguese gold, and lovely little legitimate heirs—and you won’t even have to talk to her.”
She had meant to make him laugh again. But he reached out and palmed her belly, looking serious.
“You know I would legitimize your children if I could. Our children,” he corrected himself.
“They are legitimate,” Barbara said. “Legitimate little Palmers, with generous royal titles.”
“It’s both the most and the least I can do. Thank goodness your husband is the complacent sort.”
“He ought to be; he’s well rewarded.”
In fact, though she didn’t want Charles to know it, she worried that Roger’s complacency was growing threadbare. He’d been making discontented noises of late, bemoaning her absences and his equivocal position, though he should have known how it would be when he agreed to the arrangement.
As the only child of a viscount she might have looked higher for a husband. Sadly, the Villiers family fortunes had fallen during the years of Charles’s exile. They’d married her off to Roger—respectable enough, a wealthy lawyer—three years since, briskly if not brilliantly.
But Barbara was the beauty of the age, and not one to be satisfied with a dull country estate and a dull bookish husband. Roger should be honored that his wife had become the unofficial queen of a glittering court. In fact, he had been honored. Scarcely a year ago, the king had made him Baron of Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine. It was unfortunate that the title could only be inherited by Barbara’s children. It was rather too obviously Charles’s way of looking after his own, and left Roger torn between pride—after all, he was a Royalist, and it was something to be recognized by the king he’d championed—and humiliation. Which, to be fair, could not be comfortable.
But Roger’s hurt pride, she reminded herself, was an old worry. This morning, she must confront the more present worry of her lover’s new wife.
She cupped Charles’s hip as he turned to her, ran her thumb along the curve of the bone, smiled sleepily. No wife, she thought, could hold more sway over a man’s soul, heart, and bed than a mistress such as she. Surely a rich little foreign Papist was no real threat. And yet . . . there were those bells, quiet now, but still ringing in her head.
She said, “I daresay a wife will prove no more difficult to manage than a husband. Or a good deal easier, I should think.”
Charles bit the corner of his lip. “I believe she’s exceptionally good-natured. Trained up to be mild and biddable.”
“Unlike me?” Barbara teased. “Oh, you’re biddable enough for my taste,” he tossed back, “when you’re bid to do what you wanted at the first.”
She laughed, a low murmuring sound. Pulling her in closer, he went on talking, his breath warm on her neck. “She’s had a monstrous sheltered life. Raised among a pack of nuns, I understand. Never set foot out of Lisbon before. I don’t want to offer her any insult. Or shock her into fits, for that matter.”
Barbara shrugged. “Oh, well. Even in pious Portugal I don’t imagine they expect kings to be chaste.”
Charles went still.
Damn. She’d struck a wrong note.
He detached from her under the pretense of sitting up and reaching for the wine. He drank, then set the cup down again and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Curled near the foot, one of his dogs—she refused to learn their names, she would have banned them from her presence if Charles would go anywhere without them, the damnable, shedding, barking, slobbering creatures—raised her head. The other two, sleeping on the floor, sat up with a little scrabbling of claws and watched Charles attentively, ready to follow him.
Barbara reached out and touched his shoulder. “Going so early, my darling?”
“She’s landed at Portsmouth. I must go.”
She let her fingertips slide down his back. All of his scars were in front, of course. He wasn’t a man who hesitated. If he really wanted to go, he’d have been up and dressed by now.
She lay back again, letting the bedclothes fall away from her body. “Of course. Of course you must go. Poor thing, the weather off the coast has been vile; it must have been a nasty crossing. She’ll be as sick and bedraggled as a little wet . . .” She thought better of saying rat. “Well. I should think she’d be glad of a little time. As a woman. To look her best.” Such as it is, she thought but didn’t say. According to the Spanish ambassador, she was a dark, ugly, dwarfish creature, though he was undoubtedly prejudiced.
“And speak of the weather,” she went on, “only listen to the rain! The roads will be dreadful. Mud up to the horses’ knees, I should think. I hate to think of you struggling through it all the way to Portsmouth; it will take you days and days. You’ll get there just as soon and far fresher if you wait till it’s dry.”
At the word wait, Charles gave a little shake and sat up straighter, as though resisting temptation. “I know, I know,” she said hastily, “how can you wait? You’ll be as restless as a dog who hears the hunting horn, now you know your duty calls you to Portsmouth.”
He half turned his head. “Call me a dog, do you?” he said.
She heard the humor in his voice, but did not take up the joke. “After all, it’s not as though James weren’t already there to greet her and honor her and make her comfortable. And it’s not as though she’d expect you to be at the dock whenever the winds chose to deliver her—you’re the king, not an idler with nothing better to do than wait upon women! And . . .”
“And?” He turned right back around to look at her, and seeing her yawning, widened his eyes in mock offense.
The yawn turned into a laugh as she raised both arms above her head lazily, showing her breasts to advantage—naked, warm, and ripe. “Forgive me, darling, you don’t let a girl get much sleep!”
He reached out his hand to her.
“And,” she said, playfully capturing his hand in hers, “Tom Killigrew has a new comedy up this afternoon. He’ll be grieved if you miss it. Honestly, what are the odds? Why mire yourself on the road when you can ride dry and quick tomorrow? Or the next day?”
He growled, “Will you seduce me from my duty, wanton thing?” But she saw the look in his eyes, and knew she’d won. She let her heavy lids lower, and looked at him under her lashes with the most tender sincerity.
“Never, my dear, never. Even if I could.”
And he was back in her arms, his weight pressing her into the bed, and all was well. As he knew from her first pregnancy (with little Anne, safe with her nurse), Barbara’s swollen belly was no impediment to love. She kissed him, digging her fingers into his hair and taking advantage of his distraction to nudge the spaniel bitch off the bed with one foot.
I will not let her take him, she thought as his mouth moved warmly from her lips to her neck. The little Portuguese may have the title, she may have the rank and place and honors, she may have his marital duty and his royal heirs. But she won’t have his love. I swear I will hold that for my own.
Whitehall will be available in digital on May 11. And for more romantic reads, be sure to stop by our Everything Romance page!