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At The King's Command

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«At The King's Command» - Сьюзен Виггс

Frustrated by his own failures at matrimony, King Henry VIII punishes an insolent nobleman by commanding him to marry the vagabond woman caught stealing his horse. Stephen de Lacey is a cold and bitter widower, long accustomed to the sovereign's capricious and malicious whims. He regards his new bride as utterly inconvenient…though undeniably fetching.But Juliana Romanov is no ordinary thief—she is a Russian princess forced into hiding by the traitorous cabal who slaughtered her family. One day she hopes to return to Muscovy to seek vengeance.What begins as a mockery of a marriage ultimately blossoms into deepest love.
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Praise for the novels of #1 New York Times bestselling author SUSAN WIGGS

Praise for the novels of #1 New York Times bestselling author


“Wiggs is one of our best observers of stories of the heart. Maybe that is because she knows how to capture emotion on virtually every page of every book.”

—Salem Statesman-Journal

“A bold, humorous and poignant romance that fulfills every woman’s dreams.”

—Christina Dodd on Enchanted Afternoon

“[Wiggs] has created a quiet page-turner that will hold readers spellbound as the relationships, characters and story unfold. Fans of historical romances will naturally flock to this skillfully executed trilogy, and general women’s fiction readers should find this story enchanting as well.”

—Publishers Weekly on The Firebrand

“The Charm School draws readers in with delightful characters, engaging dialogue, humor, emotion and sizzling sensuality.”

—Costa Mesa Sunday Times

“Susan Wiggs delves deeply into her characters’ hearts and motivations to touch our own.”

—Romantic Times BOOKreviews on The Mistress

“An inspiring story that will touch your heart.”

—Oakland Press on The Horsemaster’s Daughter

“[A] delightful romp…With its lively prose, well-developed conflict and passionate characters, this enjoyable, poignant tale is certain to enchant.”

—Publishers Weekly on Halfway to Heaven

“[A] lovely, moving novel with an engaging heroine…Wiggs’s talent is reflected in her thoroughly believable characters as well as the way she recognizes the importance of family by blood or other ties. Readers who like Nora Roberts and Susan Elizabeth Phillips will enjoy Wiggs’s latest. Highly recommended.”

—Library Journal [starred review] on Just Breathe

“Tender and heartbreaking…a beautiful novel.”

—Luanne Rice on Just Breathe

“Delightful and wise, Wiggs’s latest shines.”

—Publishers Weekly on Dockside

“Another excellent title to [add to] her already outstanding body of work.”

—Booklist on Table for Five [starred review]

“With the ease of a master, Wiggs introduces complicated, flesh-and-blood characters into her idyllic but identifiable small-town setting, sets in motion a refreshingly honest romance, resolves old issues and even finds room for a little mystery.”

—Publishers Weekly on The Winter Lodge

[starred review, a PW Best Book of 2007]

“A human and multilayered story exploring duty to both country and family.”

—Nora Roberts on The Ocean Between Us

At the King’s Command

At the King’s Command

Susan Wiggs

This book is for Joyce Bell—

friend, fellow writer, voice of reason,

ear at the other end of the phone

and all-around fairy godmother.


I owe a debt of gratitude to Joyce Bell, Betty Gyenes and Barbara Dawson Smith for their frequent and patient readings of the book in progress.

Glory is like a circle in the water, Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself, Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.

—William Shakespeare



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen


Author’s Note


December 1533

The gypsy was hiding something. Juliana was sure of it. Even in the dimness of the barn, illuminated only by a wick burning in an oil-filled horn, she could see Zara’s eyes dart nervously, her big-knuckled hands dive for cover in the layers of her tattered skirts.

“Oh, come, Zara,” Juliana prompted. “You promised to read my future.”

Zara’s fingers came up to toy with her necklace of coins. “The hour is late. You should go back to the house. If your mother knew you’d sneaked out to consort with gypsies, she would beat you raw and turn us out in the snow to freeze.”

Juliana fingered the garnet buttons on her cloak. “Mama will never find out. She never comes to the nursery at night.” Juliana wrinkled her nose. “Besides, I shouldn’t have to sleep in the nursery anymore. I’m getting too old for Misha’s silly pranks and Boris’s night frights.”

Zara’s hand, large and heavy and smelling faintly of sheep fat, cradled Juliana’s cheek with a gentleness the girl had never felt from her mother.

“Fourteen is not so old,” Zara whispered.

Juliana peered at her through the dusty air, misted from the breath of the horses stabled in the back of the barn. The sweet, earthy smell of hay and animals drifted around her and insulated the small space from the blustering cold outside.

“Old enough to be betrothed.” Juliana placed her hands upon her knees, the sable lining of her cloak soft beneath her palms. “Is that why you won’t tell my fortune? Is Alexei Shuisky…Is he someone I can love?”

She thought of Alexei, a black-haired, fair-skinned stranger who had arrived only yesterday to settle the betrothal arrangements with her father. She had met him but once, for the house was vast and like everyone else, Alexei seemed to think she belonged in the nursery.

“After we are wed, will he beat me?” Juliana asked recklessly. “Take a new wife and send me to a nunnery? Grand Prince Vasily did exactly that. Perhaps it’s all the fashion now.”

Zara’s lips parted in the beginnings of a smile, yet worry haunted her dark eyes. Gaps showed where she had sacrificed a tooth for each child she had borne. Her brood, now seven strong, slept upon straw and rough blankets in an empty stall. Her husband, Chavula, and her uncle Laszlo were presently out checking the traps for rabbits for the pot.

A feeling of comfort and belonging settled over Juliana. It was rare for a band of gypsies to travel this far north, yet each winter they came to Novgorod, high in the forested heartland northwest of Moscow. Juliana’s father, Gregor Romanov, allowed the small tribe to shelter on his huge estate during the cold months.

The privilege was not lightly extended. At the age of three, Juliana had gotten lost in the thick, river-fed forest. Her father had mounted a frantic search. Hope dwindled as the cold northern darkness fell, and then a stranger had appeared.

Dressed in the bright breeches and beribboned blouse of a Carpathian, he had helped himself to a leash of three windhounds from Gregor’s kennel. Searching tirelessly with the huge, fleet dogs, he had located Juliana huddled and weeping by an icy stream.

She remembered little of the incident, but she would never forget the ecstatic barking of the windhounds or Laszlo’s wonderfully fierce face and the strength in his arms as he had lifted her up to carry her home.

Since that day, she had felt drawn to these mysterious, nomadic people. Her veins coursing with royal blood, she had been groomed from the cradle to be the wife of a powerful boyar. She was not even supposed to notice gypsies, much less associate with them. The fact that they were forbidden to her only made their secret meetings more delicious.

“Well?” she prompted Zara. “Have you seen such a vision of Alexei?”

“You know my visions are not so clear, nor so obvious.”

“Then what?” Impatient, Juliana yanked a silver button off her hood. “Here, this is worth at least a hundred kopeks.” Zara’s hand closed around the bauble, and Juliana smiled slyly. “Ah. Does that help you see more clearly?”

Zara dropped the button into her bodice. “You Gaje,” she said good-naturedly. “You’re all so easily gulled.”

Juliana laughed, the button no more valuable to her than a stick of kindling. Her family’s wealth was a fact she accepted as readily as she had accepted her father’s long absences in the service of Vasily III, grand prince of the neighboring city-state, Moscow.

The thought sobered her. A few weeks earlier, Vasily had died. He had left his son Ivan, a mere three years old, on the throne and his council of boyars quarreling bitterly amongst themselves.

Lately, Papa stayed locked in his study, writing frantic missives to allies in other cities. He was worried about the ruthless nobles who had begun to clamor for the power to rule now that the prince was dead.

Shaking off the image of her father’s troubled eyes, his drawn face, she held out her hand, palm up. “Hold nothing back this time. ‘Long life and happiness’ might satisfy the superstitious Gaje, but I want the truth.”

Zara reluctantly turned Juliana’s palm toward the flickering light of the lamp. “Some matters are better left unknown.”

“I’m not afraid.”

Zara’s eyes locked with Juliana’s, veiled pools of black confronting clear emerald green. “It is good to be fearless, Juliana.” Zara’s nail, edged with ancient dirt, traced a sinuous unbroken line across Juliana’s palm. Then the gypsy looked at the large brooch Juliana wore pinned at her shoulder.

The thin flame from the lamp gave the ruby a glow of life, making the precious jewel appear depthless in its cruciform setting of gold and pearls.

Zara’s eyes glazed and her cheek—the one marked so wonderfully with a star—seemed to droop slightly. Without moving, she appeared to slip away, deep into a secret realm of intuition and imagination.

“I see three strong women.” Zara spoke slowly, her Romany accent thickening. “Three lives entwined.”

Juliana frowned. Three women? She was her father’s only daughter, though she had innumerable Romanov cousins in Moscow.

“Their fates are flung like seeds to the four winds,” Zara continued, still staring at the heart of the jewel, and always her fingers stroked and circled, discovering the unique topography of Juliana’s hand.

Zara touched a delicate curved line.

“The first will travel far.” Her blunt finger continued, edging along until it encountered a broken line. “The second will douse the flames of hatred.”

Zara’s finger circled back, finding the point where the three main lines converged. “The third will heal old wounds.”

A chill slid up Juliana’s back. “I don’t understand,” she whispered, fighting the urge to snatch back her hand. Outside, the wind rattled through the bare trees, a lonely voice in a world of ice and darkness. “How can you see the destinies of two others in my palm?”

“Hush.” Zara clutched her hand tighter, closed her eyes, and began to sway as if to a melody only she could hear. “Destiny falls like a stone into still water. The circles flow ever outward, encompassing other lives, crossing invisible boundaries.”

In the distant kennels, the dogs added their voices to the howl of the wind. Zara winced at the sound. “I see blood and fire, loss and reunion, and a love so great that neither time nor death can destroy it.”

The harshly whispered words hung, suspended like dust motes, in the dimness. Juliana sat motionless, part of her perfectly aware that Zara was a practiced trickster who could no more see the future than could her brother’s favorite troika pony. Yet deep inside Juliana something moved and shifted, grew warm like an ember fanned by the breath of the wind. She sensed a bright magic in Zara’s words, and for all that they were but vague prophecies, they embedded themselves in her heart.

A love so great. Is that what she would find with Alexei? She had met him only once. He was handsome and youthful, merry eyed and ambitious. But love?

Questions crowded into her throat, but before she could speak, an owl hooted softly from the rafters of the barn.

“Bengui!” Zara dropped Juliana’s hand. Fear shone sleek in her eyes.

“What’s the matter?” Juliana asked. “Zara, what are you hiding?”

Zara shaped her fingers into a sign to ward off evil. “The owl sings to Bengui—to the devil.” Her voice trembled. “It is a clear portent of…”

“Of what?” Faintly, Juliana heard the drumbeat of hooves. Not so much heard it as felt the deep rhythm in the pit of her stomach. “Zara, it’s merely a barn owl. What could it possibly portend?”

“Death,” Zara said, jumping up and running to the stall where her children slept.

Juliana shivered. “That’s ridic—”

The barn door banged open. In a swirl of blowing snow, lit from behind by the icy glow of the moon, Laszlo entered. Behind him came Chavula, Zara’s husband. Both men’s swarthy faces appeared taut with terror.

Chavula spoke rapidly in the Romany tongue. Then he spied Juliana, and the color slid from his cheeks. “God!” he said in Russian. “Don’t let her see!”

Cold apprehension gripped Juliana. “What’s happening, Chavula?” She moved toward the door.

Laszlo stood in her way. “Do not go outside.”

Anger rushed up to join with her fear. “You have no right to order me about. Step aside.”

Juliana took advantage of his hesitation. She pushed past him and stepped out into the blustering snow.

The wind tore at her cloak. Swirling snowflakes pelted her face, and she squinted through the storm in the direction of the main house.

An eerie red glow lit the rambling mansion.

Juliana screamed.

The house was ablaze. Her family and all the servants were in danger. Her beloved windhounds and hunting dogs were confined to the kennels adjacent to the kitchen.

Laszlo yelled a command to Chavula. Lifting her skirts, Juliana raced toward the house. She felt Laszlo grab at her sleeve, but she shook him off.

She ran as if her feet had wings, skimming over the soft snow rather than sinking into the drifts. She saw flames lashing from the windows, heard the yelp of a dog and the whinny of a horse.

But the horses were all stabled for the night. The thought slid through her panicked mind, then disappeared like water through a sieve.

As she was crossing the broad lawn where snowclad bushes and arbors created soft hillocks, she heard heavy breathing behind her.

“Juliana, stop. I beg you.”

“No, Laszlo,” she called over her shoulder. “My family—” Papa. Mama. The boys and their nurse. Alexei. New urgency increased her speed.

Laszlo’s hand gripped the hood of her cloak. He hauled back, and the sudden motion caused her feet to fly out from under her. She hit the ground with a muffled thud, landing beneath a snow-draped weeping mulberry. A shower of snow half buried her.

She opened her mouth to scream. Laszlo’s hand, in a smelly leather mitten, clapped itself over her parted lips, and all she managed was a huff of frantic rage.

Pinning her to the ground with his own body, Laszlo spoke softly into her ear. “I am sorry, little Gaja, but I had to stop you. You do not know what is happening here.”

She wrenched away from his hand. “Then I must go and see—”

A series of loud pops punctuated the air.

“Gunfire!” Laszlo dragged her deeper into the cavelike shelter of the snow-covered mulberry. With a shaking hand, he parted the lower branches to reveal the front of the house.

Shock robbed Juliana of speech. She lay as motionless as a gilt icon. The flames were brighter now, fed by the high winter wind, roaring like giant tongues from the windows and casting bloodred shadows on the ground.

A group of horsemen rode up and down in front of the house. Their mounts were skittish, mist pluming from their distended nostrils and snow flying from beneath their hooves.

At the base of the stone staircase, a black shape lay on the ground.


Her mother’s voice. The edge of tormented agony was one Juliana had never heard before. Natalya Romanov flung herself upon the shape. Even as her cries keened with the sharpness of grief, a broad-shouldered man in a fur hat and black boots strode forward. His wicked curved sword flashed in the firelight.

Natalya Romanov’s screams stopped.

“Mama!” Juliana tried to scramble out from beneath the bush, but Laszlo held her fast.

“Be still,” he whispered. “There is nothing you can do.’

Nothing. Nothing to do but watch the murder of her family. She spied Alexei rushing to and fro, and for a moment hope crested inside her. Perhaps Alexei would save her brothers.

But as quickly as he had appeared, he faded from sight, surrounded by menacing attackers and roaring flames.

It was evil torture for Juliana to lie there, helpless, as if in the grip of the hideous nightmare. The assassins struck like a storm. They were no band of outlaws but soldiers, doubtless under the command of one of her father’s many rivals. Fyodor Glinsky from across the river—only the week before, the rival lord had called her father a traitor.

“Shield your eyes, little one,” Laszlo begged her.

She sobbed into her cold hands, but she would not look away. It was too late to help her loved ones, for the soldiers were swift. Their shadows loomed like demons on the fire-colored snow. In seconds she saw Mikhail’s throat slit, little Boris fly backward as a man shot him at close range. Servants were herded like cattle into the courtyard and stabbed. The dogs, loosed from the kennel, were slaughtered as they lunged at the invaders.

Her entire glittering world, once so full of opulent promise, shattered like a house of spun sugar.

Juliana’s mouth opened in a voiceless scream. Her hand closed convulsively around her pearl-and-ruby brooch. The priceless piece had been a gift from her father. The cruciform shape concealed a tiny stabbing dagger, but the weapon was useless against the swords and sabers and firing pieces of the soldiers.

The snap and hiss of the flames invaded the snow-insulated quiet of the night. Then a dog barked. Squinting, Juliana saw two men locked in a struggle. One of them was Alexei, she was sure of it! She closed her eyes and offered a brief, frantic prayer for his safety.

The baying of a dog caused her to open her eyes. One of the windhounds leaped out of the shadows and clamped its jaws around a booted leg. Juliana heard a muffled curse. “Be damned to hell!” As one man fell to the ground, she saw the stark outline of his cheek above a thick beard and felt a stab of awareness, but the feeling quickly dissolved into the eerie horror of blood and flame.

A blade flashed, met the animal’s shoulder. The dog sped yelping into the night.

Through a drumbeat of shock, Juliana heard male voices rolling across the lawn.

“…find the girl?”

“Not yet.”

“Devil take you. Look again. We can’t let a child of Gregor Romanov live.”

“I’m here,” Juliana called to them, but her voice was only a dry whisper. “Yes, I am here. Come for me!”

“Fool!” Laszlo covered her mouth again. “What will it serve to sacrifice yourself to these boyars, as well?”

Like the bitter winter wind, comprehension swept over Juliana. Boyars. Jealous, power-hungry nobles. They had killed her father, her family, her fiancé.

She remembered the whispered arguments between her parents. Over the fearful objections of her mother, Gregor had helped the grand prince draw up a new will on his deathbed, one that slashed the powers of the boyars. Now Juliana understood her mother’s fear. The nobles would murder even women and children to seize control of the realm.

“Search the outbuildings,” one of the soldiers called.

She turned her tortured gaze to Laszlo and whispered, “Help me.”

“We must hurry.” He dragged her from beneath the bush. “Keep low and to the shadows,” he said, taking her by the hand. They skirted the lawn, her neck prickling in anticipation of the sting of a razor-edged blade.

They reached the barn and slipped inside. Moonglow shone through gaps in the wood siding.

Zara, Chavula and the children were gone. Only the faint scent of burnt oil from the lamp lingered.

Yet in the crossties between the stalls stood Gregor’s two swiftest horses, bred for speed and endurance in the vast and distant steppes. The mounts had been saddled, and they stood with heads low, blowing softly into the chill air.

“Quickly, get on,” Laszlo said, cupping his linked hands to receive her booted foot.

A muffled explosion sounded. Juliana looked through the open door to see that part of the palace roof had caved in, shooting a plume of sparks into the night sky. The sudden rush of firelight outlined three figures jogging toward the barn.

“We’ll leave through the grazing pasture,” Laszlo said, shouldering open a door in the rear.

Juliana bent low over the neck of her mount and slapped the reins. Her mind retreated and cringed in agony. The winter darkness swallowed the two riders as they headed toward the river Volkhov. They skirted the earthwork ramparts and walls of the kremlin of Novgorod, its torchlit towers speeding past in a blur of light.

The snow-muffled thunder of hooves startled the sleepy tollman at the wooden Veliky Bridge, but Juliana and Laszlo had stormed across by the time he roused himself to demand payment.

They galloped through the small merchant district of the town. Dogs barked and someone shouted, but the riders paid no heed. Not until the road had diminished to a snow-covered track and the naked woods walled them on two sides did they slow their pace to a lope.

“Someone is following us,” Laszlo said.

Juliana whipped a glance over her shoulder. A narrow shadow slipped toward them.

Laszlo yanked a dagger from his sleeve.

“No!” Juliana said, dismounting in a billow of skirts and cloak. “It’s only Pavlo.” In moments the huge borzoya filled her arms. Pavlo was but a year old, her favorite and one she had been charged with training. She was not surprised the dog had caught up with them. The windhounds were bred to run with breathtaking speed, tirelessly, for miles, to exhaust a wolf so the hunters could bring it down.

“Pavlo.” She buried her face in the deep fur of the dog’s neck.

And smelled blood.

“He’s been hurt, Laszlo.” She plucked an image from the midst of her nightmare—a dog leaping, the slash of a blade, a forgotten curse followed by a pitiful animal yelp.

Laszlo was crouched in the path, examining something. “He’s left a trail of blood, Gaja. I am sorry, but we must leave him.”

Juliana struck away his sharp dagger. “Don’t you dare.” Her voice held a hardness, a note she had never heard before. It was the voice of a stranger, no longer a girl but a woman who had seen hell. “By God’s light, Laszlo, he’s all I have now.”

The gypsy muttered something in Romany. He found a strip of material and bound the wound in the dog’s shoulder. Moments later, they were on their way again.

Laszlo pushed ahead with unwavering purpose. Only when the silver thread of dawn glittered on the snowy horizon did Juliana ask the obvious question.

“Laszlo, where are we going?”

He hesitated, then cast his gaze west, away from the rising sun. “To a place I have heard of in the songs of my people. A place called England.”

England. It was but a vague idea in Juliana’s mind, a few words on the page of a book she had once read. A murky, misty land of barbarians. Her tutor, a glib and gifted man, had taught her the language so he could read her odd poems of adventure and virtue triumphant.

“But why so far?” she asked. “I should go to Alexei’s family in Moscow to tell them what befell their son.”

“No.” Laszlo spoke harshly, and the shadows hid his face. “It is too dangerous. The assassins could be neighbors, people you once trusted.”

Juliana shivered, thinking of Fyodor Glinsky and all her father’s rivals. “But…England,” she said in a dazed voice.

“If we stay here,” Laszlo said, “they will hunt you down and kill you. You heard them, little one. I dare not risk a journey to Moscow.”

Exhausted by loss, she closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. But in the darkness behind her eyelids she saw it again—death, blood, fire, all painted in the bright red hues of savagery.

Juliana forced her eyes open. The rising sun cast a ray of weak winter light on a dead snow-covered leaf that lay in the path.

Then she remembered the prophecy. Zara had whispered it to her only the night before, but an eternity had passed since then.

The first will travel far.


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