Published: November 1994
Released from the sanctuary of a French convent, highborn, tempestuous Katherine FitzGerald sets sail for her beloved Ireland—only to find herself prisoner of the infamous pirate known to the Elizabethans as the Master of the Seas.
The pirate captain is Liam O’Neill, favored by Elizabeth the Queen. A hardened court player, he is determined to win the wilful Katherine while advancing his own secret causes. But now he must risk everything he cherishes in order to triumph at a very treacherous game—through heartbreaking deception…and by breaking all the rules.
The Game has begun…
“The steamy, sensual romance, intrigue-filled plot and charismatic characters will make THE GAME a favorite for readers of many genres.”
“A stunning tale of power and passion, set against a rich Elizabethan tapestry. Don’t Miss it.
“If you crave a rich, exciting, sensual love story then satisfy your urges with this masterpiece of historical romance.”
Normandie, January 1571
She had been forgotten.
Katherine knew that there was no other possible explanation for her having languished for almost six long years in the Abbé Saint Pierre-Eglise. Beneath her knees, the stone floor of the chapel was hard and as cold as ice. She murmured the prayers which she knew by heart but thought instead of the face that none of the letters she sent home to her father in Munster had been answered, not one. Finally in despair, last summer she had sent a missive to her stepmother, Eleanor. That, too, had failed to elicit a response.
Katherine choked on both fear and despair. It was prime, the beginning of a new day and although she prayed with the other sister of the convent, today was the day that her life must begin anew. Today was the day that she must gather up all of her courage—today she would confront the abbess about her situation.
She had no choice. She was eighteen, and growing older with every passing moment. Another year had concluded, and in a few more months Katherine would be nineteen. She could not grow old in this secluded convent. She could not! She wanted to live. She wanted a husband, a home of her own, children. She was of the age when by now, she should have already had one or two or even three sturdy babes tumbling about her skirts. Oh, God. How had they forgotten her very existence?
Six years ago she had been too numb with grief to care when Eleanor suggested, no, insisted, that she enter a convent. Her family had been in disarray after suffering tremendous losses in the Battle of Affane back home in southern Ireland. Three hundred of her father’s most loyal troops had been massacred by the forces of Tom Butler, the earl of Ormond, on the banks of the Blackwater River, and her father, the earl of Desmond himself, had been wounded and captured by Butler. But Katherine suffered more than just the defeat of her kinsmen and the capture of her father. For she had lost her betrothed that day.
Hugh Barry had been fatally wounded in the ghastly fray. Katherine had been betrothed to Hugh and from the cradle. The Barry’s were kinsmen, and she and Hugh had grown up together. Hugh being but a year older than she. He had been her childhood friend, her childhood sweetheart; he had bestowed her very first kiss on her. His death had destroyed her dreams, and with them, it seemed her future.
Numb with grief, Katherine had obeyed her stepmother, glad to have a reprieve in a faraway convent before another marriage could be arranged. Losing Hugh had been especially difficult for Katherine to bear because the year before Affane, her own dear mother had died. The earl of Desmond had been Joan FitzGerald’s third husband, and Katherine was their first and only child. Mother and daughter had been close. Katherine had yet to cease missing her.
But she had thought that a new marriage would be swiftly arranged, that she would spend but a year or two in the nunnery, and that she could be wed on fifteenth birthday as planned. Yet Eleanor had only written to her once, later that first year, explaining that she was with the earl, who was imprisoned in the Tower and awaiting the queen’s pardon. She had received no other word from her father or her stepmother in five and half endless years.
And the truth of the matter was that Katherine was afraid.
The prayers were finished. Katherine crossed herself, murmured “Amen,” and rose. She hung back, allowing the other ladies to file out ahead of her. They were all noblewomen like herself. Some were widowed, others were too poor to make marriages, or were one daughter too many for the family to bear. Silk and brocade gowns rustled as the ladies left the chapel. Outside it was frigidly cold, and Katherine gripped her worn, fur-lined mantle more closely to herself. She paused in the courtyard as the noblewomen entered the dining hall, where fresh breads and warm cakes, meats and cheese, and ale and wine, were being served.
“Will you do it?”
Katherine turned, shivering, more from her nervousness about what she had to do than from the cold. She faced her dear friend and only confidante, Juliet, who would leave the convent in February, in spite of the winter weather, for her guardian had ordered her home to Cornwall. “Yes.”
Juliet, startlingly fair of skin but dark-haired with a full rosebud mouth, looked Katherine directly in the eye. “Surely the abbess will give you permission to leave now. How can she refuse you yet another time?”
Katherine’s heart pounded harder. Immediately she took Juliet’s hand. “I’m afraid she will refuse my plea again,” she admitted. Katherine had already petitioned the abbess twice before for permission to go home. The abbess had refused, explaining that not only did Katherine not have her father’s permission; she had no escort, either.
Juliet smiled, “It would be wondrous to travel together. Oh, how I hope the abbess listens to your pleas and judges fairly!”
Katherine flinched. She was very desperate, but she was not hopeful. Although the abbess was kind and well intentioned, and generally of a soft nature, she was firm administrator, as she must be to oversee a nunnery filled with ladies entrusted to her care by rich and powerful families. But Katherine’s will had never been stronger. She must convince the abbess that she should return home now, even without her father’s permission. She had prepared her arguments. It was 1571. A new year. A time for new beginnings.
The two girls crossed the courtyard. Katherine too preoccupied to speak or even notice the bitter winter chill, while Juliet chatted about how happy she was finally to be going home to Thurlstone. The dining hall rang with laughter and good cheer as the ladies enjoyed their first meal of the day. The gems in their rings glinted as they gestured to one another. Servants, many of whom had come with the noblewomen to the nunnery from their homes, waited upon them so that they did not have to rise for any reason. Lady Montaignier, the countess of Surrigaud, had four small dogs panting with the expectation at her feet. Ruby brooches in the form of small ribbons adorned their curly-haired heads. Indeed, all of the ladies were so well dressed and so thoroughly bejeweled, so catered to, so pampered, that had a visitor not known he was at an abbey, he would have thought himself to be in some great noblewoman’s hall.
Katherine herself was one of the few exceptions. Her gowns were old and extensively mended. She had had nothing new since her fifteenth birthday—the year the funds she had arrived with had run out.
Fear slid over Katherine again. The abbess had been paid handsomely upon her arrival six years ago and had expected more funds to be forthcoming, as needed for Katherine’s upkeep. When Katherine’s pension was gone, the abbess had written Katherine’s father, but her subtle request for monies had been ignored. The earl had not bothered to respond to the abbess’s letter. Other, more direct requests had gone unanswered. Fortunately the abbess had generously allowed Katherine to remain at the convent despite the fact that she had no pension.
Katherine’s stomach churned. Whenever she thought about the earl’s failure to communicate with the abbess over the matter of her support, she grew terribly dismayed.
Knowing her father, Katherine assumed that he must be at war with the Butler’s again. It would be unlike Gerald to let the massacre of Affane go unavenged. He was too busy to think about his only daughter. Perhaps Eleanor was responsible for their ignoring her. She was but a few years older than Katherine, quite beautiful, and Gerald adored her. And she did not like Katherine.
Katherine’s apprehension grew. She knew her father would not be pleased to see her when she arrived at Askeaton Castle, unbidden and unexpected. Perhaps he’d even be angry if Eleanor had indeed whispered against her in his ear. However, Katherine was willing to risk his wrath for the sake of realizing her dreams. But first she must persuade the abbess to allow her to leave the nunnery without her father’s permission. It was a monumental task.
After the meal was done, Katherine and Juliet exchanged conspiratorial glances and separated. Katherine hurried not to the dorter where she slept, but to the antechamber where the abbess worked. Her anxiety increased. So much was at stake in the interview she would soon face. Katherine could not lose.
For she could not remain at the abbey any longer. She could not. Life was passing her by, and it was grossly unfair. This could not possibly be her fate. Her fate had to be something far more.
The abbess’s plump face registered worry and concern. “You wish to go home.” She sighed.
Katherine stood before the delicate mahogany secretaire where the mother superior was seated. “I cannot remain here. I am not suited for this life. I must return home, remind my father of my existence. Surely he will arrange a marriage for me.” Her gaze was direct but pleading. “Mother Superior, all I ever wanted is a husband and a home of my own and several children. I am already eighteen. In another few years no man will want me.”
The abbess doubted that. Katherine was an extraordinary beauty, in spite of her tall stature, with her perfectly oval face, her fine features and flawless ivory skin, her startling green eyes and dark wine red hair. She rose to her feet, the color returning to her cheeks. She was in a quandary. A terrible quandary. She studied Katherine. “My dear, you had a few years left, trust in that, before you are old and gray.”
Katherine began to protest.
The abbess lifted her hand, cutting her off. “I am well aware that you are not suited to this life. I have been aware of it almost from the first day you arrived here, a wild vixen of thirteen. I have no doubt now that you would be a superb wife. Clearly you are endowed by nature to bear many healthy sons. But what you ask in impossible. To send you hone without your father’s permission? I cannot do it!” But even as she spoke guilt twisted inside of her. For she knew Katherine would never receive her father’s permission to leave. And she also knew what awaited Katherine—and was terribly uneasy.
Katherine wet her lips. When she spoke, her tone was strained. “Do not misunderstand me. I am very grateful for the charity you have bestowed upon me in allowing me to remain here. I am unhappy, but I am so grateful. You have been nothing but kind to me.”
The abbess winced, but Katherine did not appear to notice.
“There is another reason for me to return to Ireland,” Katherine continued urgently. “I am afraid that something is amiss. How could my father forget to send my pension to you? It makes no sense. I must return. I beg you, Mother to learn why I have been forgotten like this. I cannot stay here. Perhaps my father needs me. Or—perhaps he is truly too busy to think of me at all.”
The abbess felt a deep pang of sympathy for her young charge. Gently, the older woman said, “If your father needed you, he would send for you, my dear.”
But the abbess did not know what else to say, or what to do, and she stroked her rosary, very worried. If ever there was a time to tell Katherine the truth, it was now, yet she had agreed to deceive her, for the girl’s own peace of mind. The abbess had had little choice, for it was either that or release Katherine unprotected and impoverished onto the streets. It had been wrong then, and it was still wrong now, to withhold all the facts from her. But now, even more, the abbess did not dare tell Katherine the truth. Fear prevented her from doing so, fear and some higher sense that Fate was at her mysterious work here.
“I have been here for five and half years,” Katherine implored. “I never dreamed when I arrived that I would not be sent home after a year or two. Please, I must leave. I know that once I am home, all will be well, that Father will immediately seek to rectify my circumstances.” Her gaze locked with the abbess’s. “I can return with Juliet. There will never be a better time.”
The abbess looked at her beautiful, intelligent, willful charge. “I would counsel most of my ladies to trust their fate to God,” she said slowly, “and they would heed me. But you would not.”
“I cannot obey you,” Katherine said softly. “Not if you order me to remain.”
And the abbess made up her mind. Not because Katherine had been unhappy for so many years, and it hurt her to see any of her ladies so distressed. Nor was it because if any woman deserved to live in the outside world, it was a woman like this. It was because she understood Katherine’s meaning exactly. She knew her charge too well. If the abbess denied her permission to leave, Katherine would run away. The abbess almost swooned in terror at the very notion. A woman like Katherine traveling alone and unprotected, dear God. She would wind up terribly abused, perhaps even a concubine in some Turkish lord’s harem. Their gazes held for a long moment. It was clear that Katherine would not take no for an answer. This, then, was the best and safest way.
She sighed. “I will allow you to leave, Katherine. But I must caution you. The world outside is not as it appears. You may return home only to be gravely disappointed. Perhaps your father will even send you back.”
“Oh, Mother, thank you!” Katherine was smiling widely, ignoring the thinly veiled warning. “Thank you for your concern, but he will not send me back, I promise you that!” Impulsively she embraced the abbess.
“Very well,” the abbess said. Beaming, Katherine thanked her again. After she was gone, the abbess returned to her desk, picked up her quill, and dipped it into an inkhorn. She no longer smiled. Her face was lined with worry. She was too soft. She should have refused her charge. But then Katherine would have run away, and the abbess would not allow that. The convent was not a prison, and the world was hardly a safe place.
The abbess trembled. It was not too late to tell Katherine some of the truth—or even all of it. Except…she did not dare. Like a puppet on a string, she must obey her own masters. And trust to a higher Fate.
Juliet’s guardian had sent six men to escort her home. With his men came a short letter in which Richard Hixley expressed some disapproval about the fact that Katherine would travel with his niece. It was not difficult for Katherine to understand why. Juliet was a rich English heiress, and Katherine was but an Irish one. This was not the first time she had encountered snobbery from the English. Some Englishmen considered the Irish naught but a race of savages.
It did not matter. What mattered was that she was finally going home, and in the past month, time had crept by at an infuriatingly slow pace. Katherine could not wait to set foot upon the fertile ground of southern Ireland. She could not wait to reach her home. Askeaton Castle, a stout stone fortress built in medieval times and set upon an island in the River Deel.
The convent was less than a half-day’s carriage ride from Cherbourg, where the small ship would cross the Channel in awaited them. The road to Cherbourg was not well used, and the hours again dragged by. But toward mooning the monotony of their short trip was broken. A group of traveling players passed them on the road. One of the men was darkly handsome, and quite bold and brazen. He only had eyes for Katherine. He wished to make her acquaintance, and did not seem willing to take “no” for an answer. Katherine tried to ignore him, but was flattered and bemused by his interest. Finally professing undying grief, making his talent for theatrics quite clear, he had doffed his plumed hat and he and troupe of players moved on.
The girls and their escorts arrived at the harbor and were quickly boarded onto the ship. The man in charge of their party, Sir William Redwood, advised them to remain within their cabin for the duration of the short Channel crossing. He informed them that they would set sail at first light the next morning and come abreast of Dover if the winds were favorable by the next night, or, at the outside, by dawn of the following day. Juliet thanked him prettily, and then the two girls were left alone in their cabin.
Katherine walked to a porthole and starred out at the dusky water of the bay. Twilight was creeping over the harbor. A star twinkled vaguely. She was trembling with elation. Home. Before it had been a dream. Soon it would be reality. She was on the precipice of a new beginning—and she could barely wait for the happy future that was surely hers.
Katherine had been sound asleep. Now she jerked up with a cry. She had been dreaming of the meadows in springtime in Munster. In her dreams, Hugh had been alive and she had been a young bride. She shook her head, to free herself of the foolish dream, noticing the bright sunlight streaming through the cabin’s single porthole. It was well past dawn from the look of it. They had set sail some time ago, but neither she nor Juliet had been awake or aware of it. Katherine was perplexed and faintly uneasy. What had caused her to awaken so abruptly? And what were the strange scratching noises above her head?
And then she heard a sound she had never heard before. A deafening boom. No one had to inform her as to what it was. She knew, instantly. It was a cannon.