Part One: The River and the Road
Louisianax E. M. Caliban
For Richard: then, now and always
Connie Stone was only seventeen when the king came to Malmesbury.
The day had started so normally, if unexpectedly warm for April. Her father, the abbey town's carpenter, had sent her into the market on an errand, largely to get her out from beneath his feet while he worked, she suspected. She had dawdled in the market looking over the various stalls, fingering the fabrics, smelling the warm aroma of freshly baked bread and listening to the chatter of the townsfolk.
The bells had chimed the hours as she wandered in the hot sunshine, her time her own because her father was too busy to notice she had not returned from her invented errand. She had wandered amidst the winding streets of the old town that was the only home she had ever known, nodding greetings to familiar matrons of the town, and waving to old friends who leaned from their windows at her passing, exchanging titbits of gossip with girls she had known her whole life.
The day had been so ordinary, drenched in sunshine that presaged a smouldering summer, the heat crawling along her arms and down her back, bringing out the copper lights in her thick black hair. Just another delicious spring day on the fertile cusp of summer...
And then the cry had been heard "The king! The king comes!" and she had been swept along with so many amongst the dust and the early falling blossom to watch the great cavalcade sweep up the high street.
Standing in awe she watched as the sun glinted off glittering armour, off the brilliant gems that flashed about the throats and hands of the mounted nobles, and on the bridles and caparisons of the mighty war-horses. She had been dazzled by the sight, as was everyone in Malmesbury that day, who had not seen so great a show in living memory, for when did kings come here now?
Yet here, today, as Connie Stone would later attest through many a long year, was a king, and as dashing a one as anyone could ask to set eyes on at that. Edward, fourth of that name to be king of England, was self-evidently regal, even had he not been covered in a tabard bearing the royal arms, a glittering diadem about his auburn hair as he rode bare-headed in the sun in sight of his people, mailed fist upraised in greeting and accepting their acclamation. He was taller than all those who rode with him, his long face handsome and genially smiling, a twinkle in his eyes for any pretty girl who caught his notice and there were quite a few as he rode along the road, mostly thrust forward by knowing mothers who recognised the king's interest and doubtless knew of his reputation.
Connie Stone had no knowing mother to push her forward, but she felt herself convulsed in the seething movement of people anxious for a glimpse of the noble procession and for a brief moment looked up and felt the king's eyes upon her. Small, deep-set eyes that glittered merrily but had, she felt in that briefest of moments, little real warmth to them. She felt uneasy to find his eyes upon her, and the blood rushed to her face as she recognised in his scrutiny the desiring gaze she had seen in some young men of the town, but with little of their innocent admiration. His eyes held knowledge, a knowledge that made his glance cold and, she thought suddenly, rather sinister. She had never yet succumbed to any boy's importuning, but she saw in his face, beautiful and regal as it was, a grim purpose that would never be dissuaded by teasing words. He would take what he wanted, whom he wanted, and in that moment she felt sick that his eyes were upon her, for she knew that in that moment he wanted her.
But then he had ridden past, and his hungry eyes had sought other faces in the crowd, and Connie breathed a sigh of relief that he had passed. King he might be, but she was not one to throw away her honour on even a king if she did not love him. At seventeen it was surprising that she had not surrendered to someone already even more surprising that she was not married with a family of her own but somehow she had maintained her virtue, and she intended so to do until such time as someone worthy of her love should present himself to her. For all her humble blood, Connie Stone had a very decided opinion of the importance of her chastity, and the love in which she would offer it up to the man of her choosing, and no man not even a king could hope to relieve her of so much as a kiss if she did not wish it.
So much she swore at least, now those merry yet calculating eyes were no longer roaming over her and she could feel safe once more. She watched the procession winding its slow way along the high street, looking at the fluttering pennants and the badges of this noble house and that, and all the while the relentless sun beat down upon them all. The heat, now the streets were thronged with people and horses, was insufferable, and Connie sank back into the crowd, falling back through it to get away from the crush of bodies, and finally finding refuge under the shaded awning of the baker's shop front.
The noise was deafening: the clatter of horses' hooves, the wild cheering of the Malmesburians, the shouted commentary of those who knew the significance of all those badges and insisted on telling everyone to which noble they belonged.
Connie heard the names and squinted into the bright sunlight to see the men whose brave deeds in battle had enlivened many a day in her short life, but the shimmer of sunlight on polished mail hurt her eyes, and she retreated further into the shade of the baker's porch. Whoever all these men were, they would be gone again soon enough, so what did it matter to her who each one was? They were brave men, noble men, but they were only passing through the town on their way to another battle in the wars that had gone on for a generation already, and they would be gone in a day or two.
Connie lay in the meadows by the river. The day had turned into a gloriously sunny one, and she was anxious to be outside, and far away from the crowds of the town.
After the crush of the morning, watching the procession, she was glad to have returned home to the cool of the thick stone walls of her cottage on Gloucester Street, but she could not stay cooped up for long without irritating her father at his work, so it had been easy to persuade him to let her go out for the afternoon.
"Just don't go anywhere near the king or his men," William Stone had urged in a moment of genuine tenderness towards his irresponsible offspring. He might support this king's side in the long and bitter wars that had torn the country apart, but he also knew Edward IV's reputation with women, and he had no desire for a bastard in his house, even a king's bastard.
Connie had smiled warmly, the smile not quite reaching her thoughtful eyes. "Of course not, Father," she'd assured him, having no desire to find those deep-set, knowledgeable eyes upon her again.
She had slipped quickly down the passage at the bend in the road, out of sight in seconds of anyone who might be watching from the windows of The White Lion, where she had heard it said King Edward would rest that night. Doubling back through Burnivale and over the old stone clapper-bridge, she had been in a matter of minutes in the lush meadows beyond the river crossing.
Here, amidst the tall grass and the swathes of golden buttercups, she had set down her shawl as a blanket against the compacted earth, and now lay stretched out by the side of the river Avon, the hot sun beating down on her bare legs and scorching the back of her neck.
She looked idly into the slow-moving river, at the occasional pockets of tiny fish that clustered into the deep, almost still water by the curved bank, at the kingfisher perched on the upstanding branch over the river, its sharp eyes alert for movement, at the ducks lazily drifting past, squabbling listlessly in the heat. Great clouds of flies skittered across the surface of the water, but in the meadow they mercifully kept their distance.
It was peaceful here, a haven of sanctuary away from the dust and clutter of the town on a busy market day. Connie had been coming here with her friends since she was a small child, and now she often came alone, unburdened by responsibilities and chores as she so often was by the benefit of having younger siblings to take her place around the house.
It was a moderately-sized family, the Stones, but more than enough for her widowed father to cope with on his own. Connie had had four brothers, though two had been killed in the recent wars, fighting for the Yorkist cause. She felt a rush of pride and painful remembrance as she thought of Richard, her favourite elder brother, a tall, handsome, raven-haired young man of eighteen, who had ridden out on a borrowed horse to fight alongside the king's forces and had never returned from Towton. And William, the eldest, his father's heir, or would have been, if he had not lost his life on the same battlefield. Bloody Towton, they'd come to call it, and too many families had reason to call it the same.
Now there were but two remaining brothers: Edmund and Edward, twins a year younger than Connie, who squabbled constantly over who was the first born and therefore the legal heir, much to the disgust of their father, who thought them both unworthy of the business they would one day inherit. Connie knew well enough that if girls could inherit, she would be the one to do so, for she was the best-loved and most-indulged of her father's children.
And below them were two more daughters, Eleanor, a cheeky and irresponsible fourteen-year-old who modelled herself on her older sister and already showed signs of one day outstripping her for wildness and Cecily, the quiet, studious one who had set her heart already on a life in the church, even at the tender age of twelve. Eleanor might not like being lumbered with the household chores, but she bore it with a surprising grace, and Cecily was only too glad to be of help to anyone, so Connie found frequent opportunities to escape the house and lie in the sunshine as she did today.
Connie could never think of her mother without a fierce heat of loss that brought tears even now to her eyes. She had died soon after Cecily had been born, and Connie had been bewildered by the loss of her mother, and then angry with the crying baby whom she saw as the reason for her mother's death. It had taken many years before she had truly accepted Cecily, and understood that one could no more blame a baby for the death of its mother than one could blame the wind for stripping the trees in autumn. It was just something that happened, nobody's fault.
On such a day as today she kept such thoughts carefully under guard. It was too beautiful a day, the sun too deliciously warm, to allow thoughts of grief and bitterness to intrude, and Connie had long ago learned to shut out anything that threatened the natural ebullience of her good nature.
She trailed her fingers absently in the water, disturbing the tiny fish that scattered in all directions, and sending ripples across the river to the far bank where the kingfisher shot up in a flurry of electric blue to find a more peaceful spot to fish.
Her father had done well with his large brood of children. He was not the most demonstrative of men, but having three surviving daughters, all of whom were of an age to be married, was clearly a burden to his mind. What the loss of his two elder sons had done to him was anybody's guess, for he had never spoken of it. His eyes would cloud over whenever news of a battle came to Malmesbury, some distant bloody victory for the Yorkist army, and Connie knew they all knew that he was thinking of the mutilated bodies of his sons, buried in some unfamiliar field far from their home. Wondering perhaps what had happened to them, how they had died, whether they had been together at the end, though what consolation that might have given him or either of them Connie could scarcely imagine.
She still missed Richard, whom she had idolised, whom she most closely resembled with her dark hair and bright grey eyes. William she had never liked much, though she had of course expressed all the appropriate grief for the loss of the familys hope for the next generation. But it had been Richard's loss that had cast the longest shadow over her young life.
She sighed and flicked the cool water off her fingers. It did no good to mourn the dead, she thought, angry with herself for allowing such maudlin thoughts to disturb her on so lovely a day. It doesn't bring them back, and where they are they cannot know... She stopped herself before the blasphemous thought resolved itself in her head. She was supposed to believe that her brothers were in Heaven, and that from that exalted place they could see and know everything that happened on Earth, but it had never seemed to ring true to Connie, whose mind was too practical to allow of such superstitions. It wasn't that she did not believe at all, in God, in angels, in the dangers of allowing sin into one's life and the punishments that would await the sinner after death. She did, sometimes, believe in such things. She just chose also to believe that a lot of it didn't actually make much sense. She had wondered if such thoughts were blasphemy, or merely the product of an enquiring mind, and then decided not to worry too much about it. She intended to live a very long time before being put to the Judgement.
Across the rolling meadow she heard the peal of bells from the abbey announcing another hour. Two o'clock: the hottest part of the day. She rolled over onto her back and shielded her eyes against the brilliant sunshine. There was a gentle breeze ruffling the buttercups and it played against her arms, causing the hairs to stand on end. Hot as the sunshine was, there was still a hint of spring to the wind, and she knew if the sun went behind the clouds it would feel distinctly chilly.
She looked up into the clear blue of the sky. Barely a cloud in sight, and those few just wispy and insubstantial. No danger of being cold today. She sat up, hungry suddenly, an automatic response to the church bells marking the passage of time. Unwrapping the cloth bundle she had brought with her she reached out hungrily for the bread and broke the crust. The bread beneath the crisp surface was warm and light, good fresh bread and delicious to her hungry stomach, and she ate enthusiastically.
A hunk of cheese lay also in the cloth, sweating in the heat but still hard and full of flavour, softly smoked and wonderfully creamy. It contrasted nicely with the fluffy warmth of the bread, and made a satisfying lunch. She wrapped up the cloth bundle once more around the remains of her food and dipped her hands carefully into the river, drawing mouthfuls of cool water to her lips. In her haste to be gone from the house she had forgotten to draw a bottle of water from the well in the cellar, but the river water was clean enough and tasted pleasant.
She splashed more water onto her face and trickled it over her hot neck, running her wet fingers through her hair that burned with the sun's heat. Her skin was well accustomed to being out in all weathers, and she knew there was little danger of being burned, but the heat today was incredible, most unseasonal, in fact. But then it had been a bitter winter, and it was widely believed that presaged a hot summer, so perhaps it was just starting earlier than usual.
She lifted her arms above her head and stretched up her spine towards the sky, enjoying the heat on her arms and the pull of the muscles in her back. As she drew her arms back down she looked along the meadow in the direction of the town, hearing the jingling of harness in the quiet fields and wondering who could be travelling this way on horseback on so hot a day.
She drew in her breath sharply as she saw the rider, or more accurately as she saw the horse, a huge beast that was obviously a war-horse and one of some value. Even she could see that, inexpert as she was on the subject of horses, and it stood to reason that only a man of some wealth could own such an animal. She looked at the rider, squinting into the distance to make him out from the far side of the meadow. From this distance he seemed small, and in relation to the size of the horse that bore him he looked almost like a child. At this remove, all she could really see was the pale flesh of his face between the black of his hair and his clothing, but as he drew closer she could also make out the long white hands that held the bridle and she realised he was no child, but a youth of about her own age, slightly built, with a worried, pinched look on his face that sat ill with his youth.
Connie stared at him, puzzled and curious. He must be one of the king's men, she reasoned, but why was he not carousing with the others in the taverns in the town? Why would he choose to ride out into a quiet meadow instead on such a day? And dressed in black too. He must be stifling, she thought, and put her hand to her mouth to stop from giggling at the thought of a nobleman being so foolish as to wear black in the hot sunshine.
She crouched low amidst the tall grass, fearful suddenly that he might see her and come closer. The memory of the king's inquisitive eyes roaming over her brought sudden heat to her cheeks and a moment of panic went through her that this man had come in search of her, to bring her to King Edward...
But no, she thought with a sigh of relief, he had not noticed her. He had slipped from the back of the huge horse, a swift unfurling of limbs that was, she thought, quite the most graceful thing she'd ever seen, and tethered the animal to a tree so the horse could drink from the river and find some shade. She knew that where he had stopped the river was deep, caught up over the broken masonry of an old building that, so the stories ran, was where the monks of the abbey used to come to mortify their flesh in earlier centuries. They would stand in the freezing water, at the point where the river ran deepest and fastest, to purge themselves of unbidden lusts and desires, so it was said, though it was hard to imagine any of the current brotherhood of the abbey doing the same.
From the deep grass she watched him as he patted the neck of his horse and stroked its inky mane. Whoever he was, he obviously cared for his mount, and that thought endeared him to Connie, who hated the way some men beat their donkeys on market day when they dug in their hooves and refused to move a step further with their heavy burdens. It seemed strange to her that a man who was evidently of some status should show such compassion for a dumb animal as to bring it to shade and water, while he himself suffered the heat in heavy black velvet.
The man reached up and removed the black bonnet from his head, and as Connie watched, she saw his pale fingers run through his hair, which was virtually the same shade of coppery-ebony as her own. He reached his hands down into the water and splashed his face as she had done just moments before, and she understood the relief it brought him as he scooped the cold water up and threw it over his head and neck. He looked around him then, and Connie ducked down lower in the long grass, not wanting to be seen.
When she looked up a minute or two later, thinking it might again be safe, he had disappeared, and she frowned, looking at the horse tethered there patiently drinking, and wondered where the man had gone. She blushed to realise he was probably in the stand of trees attending to a call of nature, and then giggled to think of a nobleman coming all the way out into the meadow just to do that. Strange man, she thought.
She sat for a moment looking at the horse, at the grove of trees on the riverbank, trying to see a man in black amidst the dark shadows of the branches, and realising it was impossible, and then the thought impinged upon her mind that the river sounded more disturbed than it had before, the splashing of the moving current more pronounced somehow.
She lay down on her belly and craned her head out over the water, hidden by the tall grass and the reeds that clustered along the banks, and looked downriver towards the old well house. She gasped aloud, stuffing her hand into her mouth as she realised how loud the sound seemed in the quiet meadow, and her blush deepened in colour and extent, travelling like flame around her throat and fanning out in warm waves between her breasts.
He was in the river. He was naked in the river, she realised hotly, experiencing a shiver of something curious ripple over the hot panel of her back and sink into the pit of her spine.
She lowered her head still further and inched out over the water until she could feel the edge of the bank pressing into her stomach, her toes burrowing against the soft earth to keep her balance. Yes, he was naked in the river, no doubt about that. She watched in wide-eyed silence as he waded out into the deepest part of the river, the freezing water lapping at the white flesh of his chest and his tight, dark nipples. Even from this distance she could see the tautening of his face against the shock of the cold, but he continued on.
He sank suddenly beneath the inky surface of the water, and it was so unexpected and so decisive a movement that a sick feeling of panic passed over Connie Stone. What if he had come here to commit his body to the water, to kill himself? Even she knew that the king's army was on its way to a battle. What if, rather than contemplate the carnage, this young man had decided to end his life, knowing there was no other escape from the duty he faced?
She began to wriggle back onto the bank, preparing to run to him and try to rescue him from such a blasphemous end, and then she saw him come up again, his dark hair and white face running with cold water, his eyes closed, his lips parted in a gasp of shock at the frigid baptism. She sank back down, exhaling loudly and realising that while he had been under the water she had been holding her breath in terror for him.
She watched as he began to move in the cold water, his white arms skimming just below the surface, pulling himself further out into the river where the shade lost its grip and the water might be warmer. The sunlight caught his hair and she noticed how the sunlight brought out copper lights in it, as it did in her own hair. His white face beneath that mop of dark hair seemed all the paler for the contrast, and there was little colour in his face to offset the stark white. She could not see his eyes from this far away, but they seemed pale, grey or green perhaps, and his lips were thin and almost bloodless. He seemed fragile somehow in his pallor, though she could not help but notice how well-muscled those white arms were that moved below the water, the shoulders narrow but strong.
Connie wondered again how old he was. He was slender and pale and seemed delicate, moving elegantly in the cold water now, his face upturned to the sun, so that he seemed like a mere boy, but there was something so fixed, so serious in his face, as though he carried a great burden of responsibility on those slim shoulders, that he seemed far older. His pale chest, she recalled with a further flush of warmth, had been smooth, not grizzled like her father's, again suggesting his youth. She blushed to realise how closely she must have been paying attention to him to notice such a thing.
She watched him as he circled in the river, aware it was rude of her to be staring at him, to be watching him while he all unawares cooled off in the water. It seemed intrusive, but she could not tear her eyes away from the white limbs moving in the dark water, the droplets glittering on his shoulders and in his hair.
After only a few minutes she saw him striking out for the opposite bank in smooth easy strokes, and before she fully realised she ought to look away she saw him haul himself up by grasping at an overhanging branch and lift his body clear of the water. The shimmer of water droplets caught in the sunshine as they cascaded down his stark white body, and Connie saw more of him than she was quite prepared for. He was so very pale! She did not look away, but her mind made the comparison with her own dusky, sun-ripened flesh, and she shivered. If he was not so palpably alive, she would have thought him a corpse laid there on the opposite bank of the river, water running off his limbs.
He lay for a moment on his stomach on the bank, as though the exertion of lifting himself out of the water had been too much for him, and then he sat up and turned over, and for one terrifying moment Connie thought he had seen her, but he was merely looking across the river to his horse, his eyes dazzled by the sunlight. He stretched out his pale legs over the riverbank, dropping his toes back into the water and leaning back on straight arms, his chest thrust out to appreciate the sunshine.
Without meaning to be intrusive, but unable to look away, Connie's eyes followed the line of his pale, smooth body, from the taut shoulders, across the hairless chest, down across a stomach sculpted by muscles, and down... She swallowed hard. He wasn't entirely hairless then, she thought, seeing the tangle of dark hair between his legs and trying not to look at the long, slender flesh that lay softly between his thighs.
Now she knew she was being intrusive. Whoever he was, he did not deserve such shameless observation. Well, and who was he? She could not help but wonder, as she looked at him, who he was, and why he was here, when the rest of the king's army was drinking and feasting and probably whoring up in the town. A priest, perhaps, an ascetic? No, he had worn fine garments, a noble's garb, not a priest's. Curious. She continued to stare at him, though he was oblivious of her. Had he known he was being watched, she suspected he would not be so comfortable with his nakedness, and she wondered why she thought so. Perhaps that glance he had cast around the meadow before stripping off his clothes and getting into the water, as though he feared being seen.
Connie felt guilty heat slide down into the pit of her stomach. And here am I, she thought, invading his privacy, staring at him, seeing his nakedness, and he does not know. She realised it was not entirely guilt that fluttered inside her, but a frisson of pleasure at the situation. He would be mortified if she made herself known to him now, she thought mischievously. She wondered, though she felt her own colour rise to think of it, if he would flush guiltily to be caught, if some colour would run under that white skin of his. She almost stood up and put it to the test, but decided against it. A sudden memory of the king's lusty eyes looking over her came into her mind, and she realised that, far from reacting with guilt at being caught, this man was just as likely to react with anger at being spied on. He might attack her; he might do anything.
She shivered. Virgin she might still be, but she knew enough of what a man might do to a woman if he had a mind to, and she lay flat in the long grass, her stomach pressed close to the ground, trying to make herself invisible. She could not now get up and walk away. He would see her; he would know she had been spying on him. She had to stay here and hope he returned the way he had come.
After what felt like an hour, Connie heard voices drifting up the meadow from the direction of the town. She silently cursed her luck. If friends of hers came this way they would see her, they would announce her presence to the strange man on the far bank, and then she would be the one to start guiltily. She lay still, holding her breath, praying that whoever it was took the path around the far side of the marsh and did not see her.
As the voices came closer, she realised she did not recognise them, and they had a broad accent that was not local. She saw movement across the far side of the river and thought the pale young man was going to swim across the river to rejoin his friends, but instead she saw him move swiftly beyond the reed stands, hiding from them. She understood the allure of quiet time alone, and she smiled, suddenly sensing a kindred spirit in the mysterious nobleman.
The two men drew level with the old well building and the taller of them patted the flank of the black horse that stood there, its nose down to the water. "It's him alright," Connie heard him say. "He can't have gone far."
The other, older man, a dark drizzle of stubble smothering the lower part of his face, took a few paces into the longer grass surrounding the marshy patch in the middle of the meadow. "Dickon!" he bawled, his voice echoing in the silence.
Connie flinched at the noise, and saw a flash of white on the opposite bank as the man hidden there apparently did likewise. Dickon, she thought, with a smile. Richard. She'd called her own beloved brother that at times, though he had always hated it immensely. A stab of regret lanced at her, a remembrance of happy days long past that would never return.
"Dickon!" the man hollered again, this time on the edge of the riverbank and looking up-river towards where Connie hid in the tall grass. "By the Virgin," he cursed, turning back to his companion, "Edward will have my guts for purse-strings for losing him so soon."
Connie grinned, liking the mysterious stranger over the river all the more for his apparent wilfulness in giving his guardians the slip.
"He can't have gone far," said the taller man again, shrugging expressively. "He won't have come to much harm out here," he added, waving one hand around at the empty meadow. "If he's not back by dusk," he continued, his voice conciliatory and seemingly more amused by his friend's disappearance than alarmed by it, "we'll look again, but I'm sure he'll have found his way back to the town by then. You know Richard."
The older man growled, dissatisfied. He disliked being held responsible for so wilful a charge, especially in unfamiliar territory. The locals had seemed happy enough to see the king's party arrive that morning, but who knew how long that welcome would last when they realised what a hungry and sex-starved army would do to the town. He had enough worries keeping the king safe, without worrying about the rest of the family.
"Come, Ratcliffe," said the young man, putting an arm around the older man's broad shoulder. "Don't worry so. Dickon's no fool. He can look after himself, and he'll come back when he's ready."
Ratcliffe growled again, and stamped again to the edge of the river. He cast one final glance up- and down-river and then accepted the inevitable.
Connie watched the two men walk back the way they had come, and wondered. Two men to keep an eye on one... whoever the pale man was, he was clearly important. Rich, powerful, important: they seemed words at odds with the slender, pale youth she'd seen gliding through the slow-moving river. With the slender, pale youth who now slipped out from behind the sheltering reeds and settled himself again on the bank in the sunshine.
The sound of his laughter jolted her, rippling across the narrow strip of water, and she flattened herself against the ground again, thinking he had seen her. But no, his laughter was not aimed at her; it was aimed at nothing at all. It was just the un-self-conscious amusement of a young man who'd slipped the leash, and Connie found herself smiling with him. She knew that particular pleasure well enough, and the sound of his laughter was infectious, his voice musical and deeper than she had expected it to be. A man's laughter, not a boy's, she thought.
She risked another glance through the reeds and was struck by the difference his smile made to his face. He had looked so solemn, so world-weary almost, but now his youth made itself known in the twinkling of his eyes and the soft curves of his mouth and his cheekbones. Somehow she felt guiltier at witnessing his spontaneous burst of laughter than she had while gazing at his body, as though that was somehow even more intrusive, something seen even more rarely than his nakedness.
She wondered how long he would stay there. She knew she could not possibly leave her hiding place while he was still there, for he would see her clearly enough and might come after her. Her only chance to escape would be while he was crossing the river, and even then she'd have to be ready to run, and run fast, to stand a chance of getting past him before he could get himself out of the river and dressed and come in pursuit of her.
As she wondered what the time was she heard the church bell chime three o'clock. Only an hour! It hardly seemed possible that it had been barely an hour since she'd eaten, and then heard the jingling of his horse's harness. There was still plenty of time before she needed to be home at least, which was a relief. But what if he should still be here at dusk? What if the two men returned in search of him and instead found her? Three men, soldiers all, and a virgin in a meadow... that could not end well, she knew instinctively, and a moment of panic descended on her.
She forced herself to breathe. Whoever he was, this Dickon had clearly given his friends the slip, and had deliberately hidden from them when they came in search of him. It therefore made sense that he would be gone long before dusk, to avoid their coming to find him again. With luck, she might still be able to get home before supper was on the table.
There was nothing for it but to wait.
Connie awoke with a start, the grass of the riverbank tickling her face. The sun had disappeared behind a cloud and in the shade it was cool enough to bring gooseflesh to her arms. She lifted herself onto her elbows and looked across the river. The mysterious young man was no longer there. She felt a flicker of disappointment not to have seen him swim back across the river, or to have found out who he was.
"Looking for me?" asked a deep voice from behind her.
All the blood ran swiftly out of Connie's face and then back into it as she scrambled to her knees and turned around. The young man, dressed again in his rich black velvet, his bonnet set at a studious angle on his ebony hair, sat beside her, gazing at her with calm, faintly amused grey-green eyes, his thin lips almost straight but dimples of amusement puckering the flesh on either side of his mouth.
She opened her mouth but realised she could think of nothing to say, so shut it again. She blushed again, realising that she had been discovered, and that far from being embarrassed, the young man seemed to be amused by it. She looked at him and realised that she wasn't actually afraid of him, in spite of the isolated spot in which they found themselves, and the evident advantage he now had over her. It surprised her that she wasn't afraid, but she sensed nothing hostile in his look at all. Quite the reverse, in fact.
He smiled, gesturing with one long white finger to the open cloth bundle that had contained the remains of her lunch. "I'm afraid I finished your food," he confessed, and his voice was deep, musical and had an unfamiliar twang to it that she knew only from the two men who had come looking for him earlier in the day. "Swimming always makes one so hungry, don't you find?" His eyes glittered with amusement as she floundered for something to say, watching the blush steal across her face that spoke more pointedly than any words would have done. So she had been here earlier, she had seen... "I will of course repay you for your loss," he added.
She looked at him, baffled by his attention and incapable of speech. He sat there so formally, his legs crossed like a student, his sombre clothes and pallid skin adding weight to the impression, and yet there was such attentiveness in his alert eyes that she felt he was ready to pounce if she made any sudden move to escape him. Not that she intended to. It was too late for that.
"I won't hurt you," he said softly, sensing fear in her silence. A flush of shame crept across his cheekbones and he felt it burning his temples. He suddenly realised how this must look to her, and he was mortified. Of course, the kings army would be doing plenty of seducing and stealing of maidenheads this day, he doubted not, but not him. Never him. "I mean you no harm," he said slowly, each word deliberate, fixing her with an intense look and hoping she understood. A sudden flicker of anxiety went through him. Was she an idiot? A deaf-mute? Did she really not understand him? He felt even guiltier at teasing her, at stealing her food.
Connie looked at him and smiled slowly. The earnestness of his expression, the guilty blush of colour in his cheeks, the concerned look in his eyes, all conspired to strip away the last vestige of fear she felt. She knew she had nothing to fear from a man who could look so ashamed at frightening her. Her heart leapt suddenly in her chest as she remembered his naked body on the bank opposite, the guilty pleasure she had taken in looking at him unawares. She blushed, hating herself for it but unable to control the rush of blood to her face.
"You understand me?" he asked gently, reaching out one hand towards her and then seeming to think better of it.
She nodded with another soft smile.
He was now quite convinced she was a mute, if apparently not deaf. Poor girl. He wondered how long she had been aware of his presence, afraid to leave for fear of what he might do to her. He knew well enough what most of his men would have done in the same circumstance, and was glad it had been him and not one of them who had found her. The innocence in her was obvious, and it appealed to him. He wanted to help her keep it. Poor girl, she inspired all the most romantic, chivalrous notions in him because she seemed so vulnerable.
"I understand," she said finally.
He flinched at the sound of her voice, so unexpected given his thoughts of the last few minutes. And then he smiled, deeper this time, his lips parting as he realised she had only been afraid of him, and now apparently was no longer so. "What's your name?" he asked, his voice still gentle as though talking to a child.
"Connie," she said quietly.
"And I'm Richard," he told her, though he suspected she already knew that, as she could hardly have failed to have heard Ratcliffe bawling for him earlier.
"Dickon," she said softly, remembering what his friends had called him.
His jaw tightened ever so slightly and the friendly light dimmed momentarily in his eyes. "I prefer Richard," he said quietly but firmly.
"So did my brother," she replied without thinking. She looked up at him and they shared a shy smile.
"Did?" he asked after a long pause.
She looked up into his face and though she did not know him, she recognised the gentleness of his look, the compassion in his steady eyes, and her heart contracted. She felt her eyes blur with tears and looked down. "He was killed in the fighting," she said, her voice barely a whisper.
"I'm sorry." Meaningless, unbidden words of sympathy, but he felt them as he looked at her, at the wet shadows beneath her eyes and the tight lips pressed together as though they would tremble if she did not control them. "When?" He did not want to know, he did not want to ask, to cause her the pain of remembering, but he couldn't help himself.
The word sounded like a curse on her lips, and well it might. He had been too young to be at that battle, but he had heard so much of it afterwards that he sometimes felt he had been there. The blood, the carnage, the mindless slaughter in the snow
Hardened as he was to the thought of warfare, he had seen little enough of it thus far to remain unmoved by the tragedy of it. "I'm sorry," he said again.
"You didn't kill him," she said stiffly, recovering her composure and finding the hard spot in her that dealt with grief by pretending it didn't really exist. "You can have been no older than I when it happened. Why should you be sorry?"
"I'm..." He pressed his lips together, aware that another apology would only sound insulting.
They sat together in silence for a few moments longer, he watching her, she with her head bowed, in remembrance or anger he wasn't sure.
"I should leave you in peace," he said eventually, though he realised as soon as he said the words that he really didn't want to. "Or see you safely home," he suggested, though he didn't want to do that either.
"No, don't," she replied after a long moment's consideration, in which the memory of him swimming naked in the freezing water kept flickering back into embarrassing focus in her mind.
He watched her face closely, saw the blush creep up her face and felt fierce heat cross his own cheeks again as he realised what she must be thinking. She was undoubtedly a virgin, but she knew enough to be curious, and he sensed a yearning in her to find out more, coupled with a fear of admitting it to him. Should he take advantage of her? He was barely more experienced than she was, but he knew enough to want to take advantage, and to recognise that it would be wrong to do so.
He remembered his own first time: a shamefully remembered episode that Edward had laughingly pushed him into in an attempt to make a man of his little brother. And then the far more satisfying first night he had spent with Sarah, who had not laughed at him but gently encouraged him onwards until he had come to his pleasure without feeling ashamed and embarrassed...
Connie looked at him, watching the heat burn across his face and wondering what he thought of to make him blush so. If his thoughts were anything like her own, he was right to blush, but she realised she found it rather endearing, that a man who had presumably fought battles and shed blood, who had taken lives in anger, could be so delicate of feeling that he should blush to think of anything more tender.
"I should go," he said again, though the tone of his voice betrayed his desire to do quite the opposite.
"Don't," she said again, looking up into his face and wanting to touch him suddenly. Wanting him to touch her.
"If I stay..." He felt the hot blood in his face. And elsewhere. If I stay, he thought, I know I will do something I should not. He could feel her leaning closer to him though she had not moved, he could sense the timbre of her thoughts, he suspected she was remembering his naked body, and she seemed not to be repulsed by the memory.
"If you stay," she found herself saying softly, reaching out one hand to touch his sleeve, "it would please me." She could hardly believe the sound of her own voice. She, who had promised herself that no man, not even a king, would have her virtue until she should will it, and who even this morning had thought that day long off yet, making so blatant an offer to a complete stranger! The church bell clanging four o'clock made her recollect herself. Two hours ago she had first laid eyes on him, and now she was prepared to sacrifice herself to him? Impossible. Yet true.
She looked into his bright grey-green eyes and smiled. Yes, she thought, making the decision to cast aside her silly romantic hopes of a man worthy of her virtue. She was no longer a child to have such dreams. She sensed that he would not hurt her as so many others might. Stronger men, lustier men, would show little consideration for her innocence, her inexperience, but there was a gentleness in him that drew her inexorably to him.
"I cannot," he whispered, even as he took her hand in his and raised it to his lips in a chivalrous gesture that brought a cynical smile to his lips. "I should not take such advantage," he said. He meant it; at least, some part of him meant it, even if it wasn't the part in best control of him any longer. He was honourable, he was civil and courteous, he had been brought up to be a good knight, in the old traditions of chivalry and nobility. He had never been like the other men, paying lip service to such ideals while whoring their way across England in the train of the king's army. Never. Why now should the blood be pounding in his head, urging him on to this terrible act of desecration?
Terrible? Desecration? He looked at her, at the confusion in her face but the eagerness too, surmounting all else it seemed, and almost laughed aloud. She did not have the look of a woman facing something terrible, something indecorous or insulting. She was not afraid of him, he realised, and that thought sent a shiver of pleasure through him. She did not fear him. She was not offering herself because she was afraid, because she was alone in a remote meadow with him and she thought it her only way to get home. She was offering herself because she wanted to. Because she wanted him...
A desperate longing welled up in him, a desire to cling to her because she wanted him, because she seemed to desire him, and because she was not afraid and was not mocking him. For all her innocence, she reminded him of Sarah, of his young mistress at Middleham, who had gently brought him to manhood after the shock of the first time, brought him to the pleasure and the tender meaning of what it was to be a man, unlike that mocking whore of Edward's who had laughed at him as she all but raped him, revelling in her conquest. He knew which experience he wanted to repeat now, and sensed he would not be disappointed, that her innocence was unfeigned and it would be as it had been with Sarah.
"I should not," he murmured again, but it was a token protest and she seemed to know it.
Connie smiled boldly and reached up her free hand to touch his face. Her heart was thumping in her chest, the blood racing in her head, the glowing afterimage of his white body shimmering behind her eyelids every time she blinked. "You really should," she said with a giggle of nervous anticipation as his thin arms went suddenly around her shoulders and he drew her towards him without another word.
They lay together in the long grass afterwards, her nut-brown limbs entwined with his parchment-white ones, their black hair almost indistinguishable as it tangled together on the ground.
From further away than seemed possible, Connie heard the church clock chime the half hour. Thirty minutes to change my life, she thought, knowing that it was irreparably changed now. In the warm parenthesis of his arms, with his ragged breath tickling the back of her neck, she contemplated the sensations running under her skin, in her blood, and wriggled happily, pressing back against him and feeling his heat, the sticky pressure of him responding immediately to her touch. She laughed contentedly, knowing now what that stiff attention meant, and eager to feel it again now the fear of it hurting her had passed.
Richard smiled happily, burying his face into her hair and kissing the nape of her neck. He could taste the sweat on her skin, feel the shiver of arousal pass through her as his tongue tasted her. With the resilience of youth, he could feel his body responding again already, and he knew it would not be long before he was once more inside her, but for now he was content just to hold her close. The suddenness of the attraction between them, the natural honesty of it, had driven all other memories from his mind. True, she had not known enough of men to mock him for his inexperience, but still... she had, he sensed, completed what his mistress Sarah had begun in her own simple way, and he felt himself more truly a man now, and pleased with the state.
He pulled her closer to him, enjoying the soft cry that escaped her lips as she felt his body flame against hers in renewed ardour, enjoying the way she reached back to caress him even as he sank inside her, enjoying most of all the way her body opened to his so naturally, so trustingly, as though this was the hundredth such coupling between them, and not merely the second. Oh, if this was sin, no wonder it was preached against so vehemently. Nothing that felt this good could go unpunished, surely.
He decided that, for the moment, he would forget to care about his soul, and concentrate on the more urgent needs of his body.
Dusk was falling, and the chill in the air was pronounced after the unexpected heat of the day. Though he held her close, Richard could feel her shivering and knew he could no longer keep her warm. He was spent and exhausted and drowsy with pleasure, but freezing cold too.
"I should see you safely home," he said, gently disentangling his arms from hers and looking down at her as she folded herself up against the cold.
It was the first thing either of them had said since they had tumbled into each other's arms, and to Connie's ears it sounded horribly like a dismissal. Her throat felt dry and she could not speak.
He dressed silently beside her, adjusting his clothes and smoothing out the crumples in the velvet. His long white fingers picked strands of grass from the sleeves of his jacket. He felt the sudden distance between them and he hated it. "Connie," he said plaintively.
"You're right," she said, pulling herself together and seeking refuge in the cold place where grief and loss and anger lived. It had been beautiful, it had been tender and passionate and intimate between them, but it was over. An hour or two of pleasure in his arms, and now it was done. There would be time enough to worry over the consequences of this afternoon's foolish indulgence, time enough to see if she could pretend to innocence on her return home. It had felt like a great romantic adventure, and it had seemed as they strove together in the long grass as though she had been right to surrender to him, that he was truly the man she could have loved, could have honoured enough to make the sacrifice of her virtue worthwhile. But now it was cold, he was cold, and it was time to go home and try to forget.
He watched her as she pulled on her clothes in the gathering darkness. The isolation, the separation from her, made him feel faintly sick; the old horrors, the old fear returning. Not good enough, never good enough. She had the decency not to laugh at you, but she's still repelled now it's done and wants to be away. Young enough to still be hurt by such things, he felt something in him contract and falter. A bitter taste on his tongue; a flare of painful awareness of a moment passed by; the communion of passion between them spent and lost.
"Connie," he said again as she slipped on her shoes and made to stand up. "Not yet."
She looked at him across the dusk, unable now to entirely read his expression, but hearing the plea in his voice. Tears started to her eyes, remembering the slender limbs entwined with hers, how fragile he had seemed in the water, how young and tender, and how he had cried out at the height of his pleasure and trembled in her arms as though it had surprised him to feel something so intense.
"I must tell you," he said softly, "who I am."
It was not what she had expected and her voice was harsh with surprise. "Why?"
"Because..." he began, and then gave up. "In case..." No, better not to mention that possibility, better not to contemplate it, though he knew he probably ought to have done so much earlier, especially given how quickly his mistress at Middleham had proven his virility.
"What difference would it make?" she asked sadly. "You'll be gone in a day or two."
The tone of her voice made him irrationally hopeful, though he hated to hear the melancholy in her voice. "Does it sadden you," he asked softly, taking her hands in his, "that I must leave?"
She tried to shrug but realised she could not appear so off-hand. "I know you must."
"That does not answer my question."
"Yes, then, it does," she said fiercely. "It saddens me that you must leave," she said, caustically aping his accent. "It saddens me that you took the only thing I had to give, and now you will go." She knew it had not been like that, and she hated herself for accusing him unjustly.
He drew her closer, knowing that her anger was really just fear, and knowing that now was the time for fear. It was true, her accusation, though she had offered herself willingly, and they both knew it. He had still taken her virtue as if she was any common whore, and he any common soldier, and as if it didn't matter a damn to either of them. He knew the truth was very different, and so did she.
"Do you truly regret it?" he asked her gently, glad of the lengthening shadows that meant he could not see her face in case she should answer him yes.
"No," she breathed, and her voice trailed off into a sigh as she wrapped her arms about his neck, his very gentleness rousing her to a fever of desire again. Perhaps there was time yet, if they were quick...?
He laughed, sensing the sudden change in her, the flame of heat that rippled through her taut, clinging body. "And would have more, I warrant, if time permitted," he teased, taking the lobe of her ear between his teeth and nipping it.
"Yes," she admitted guilelessly, pushing her breasts against his chest and twining her hands in his hair. "Oh yes."
A distant clatter of spurred footsteps came to them across the meadow, along with the strident voice of Ratcliffe bawling 'Dickon' at the top of his voice.
Connie felt him flinch in her arms at the sound of it, and she kissed his thin, cool lips. "Richard," she corrected with a tender smile at him that she wondered if he could even see.
He rose to his feet, pulling her up with him and setting her down onto her feet. She was almost the same height as him, a mirror image of him as her skin shimmered in the fading light. "Tomorrow?" he asked simply, though he didn't even know if there would be time if Edward wanted an early start.
"Is dawn too soon?" she asked, knowing that to try to escape later in the day, when the rest of the household was awake, would be difficult.
"Dawn," he confirmed, pleased by her eagerness as it reflected his own. He lingered with his hand in her hair, unwilling to let her go.
"Dickon!" hollered Ratcliffe through the semi-darkness.
Richard, in a rare loss of self-control, swore. Connie giggled at the oath, as it sat so unnaturally on his lips, and he chuckled with her, sensing an instinctive understanding between them. "Dawn," he said again, kissing her lips one last time and turning away into the gloom to return to his friends.
"Where in the name of the Virgin did you get to all afternoon?" demanded Richard Ratcliffe as he saw the ghostly white face of Richard Duke of Gloucester shimmering towards him through the dusk. He knew he ought to speak with more respect, but he had known Richard too long, and they were too close for him to treat him any differently, except on the most formal of occasions.
"There's a woman in this somewhere, if you ask me," remarked Francis Lovell dryly, looking down at Richard with a grin all over his thin face. "By the Virgin, Dickon, you've never found yourself a mistress here already?" He clapped his friend on the shoulder, ignoring the thin-lipped grimace on the other man's white face. "Tell all, man."
Richard Plantagenet shrugged his narrow shoulders expressively. "If you think there's a woman in this, Frank, you're welcome to look for her, but you'll be wasting your time." The lie came easily to his lips in the dusk, but he felt the colour steal across his cheekbones and was grateful it was so late in the day.
"Yes, my lord," replied Lovell, his tone sarcastic and amused as always. He didn't really think there was a woman involved, not with Dickon, who was far too pious and far too focussed on warfare now that he'd had first blood on him. Still, it was unlike him to disappear for a whole afternoon without telling anyone where he was going, and he had undoubtedly been here this afternoon.
Richard untied his war-horse and stroked its nose softly. "Sorry to leave you so long, old friend," he murmured.
The animal snuffled softly, recognising its master's voice and the soft caress of his cool hands.
"Where are the horses stabled?" asked Richard, wrapping the reins loosely around his fingers and leading the horse out into the meadow.
"The abbey, my lord," said Lovell. "The men are camped in the fields around here and though there's not room in the town for all of us, rooms have been found in a couple of inns, and some families of the town have opened spare chambers to those who best deserve them."
Richard tried not to think of Connie, but he wondered if her family might have a spare room thrown open to a visitor... He dragged himself away from such thoughts. "The king?"
"At the sign of The White Lion, my lord."
Richard smiled. Edward would appreciate that, he thought. His own symbol in the field of battle; a sign of loyalty and courage and justice.
"We're all at a house in Abbey Row, my lord," continued Lovell as they walked back through the meadow. "Ratcliffe, myself and you, my lord."
"Quite a houseful for someone," remarked Richard, trying to keep his tone neutral, though again his thoughts flew to Connie.
"Old soldier, name of Boram," said Lovell. "Lives in the house with just one unmarried daughter to look after him, and is delighted at the prospect of three lusty young soldiers under his roof. I think he's hoping one of us will take the girl off his hands."
"Now, Frank, I hope you don't intend breaking the first law of hospitality," said Richard. He looked across at his friend through the gloom. "No seducing of host's family members."
Lovell laughed and clapped Richard heartily on the shoulder. "You've not yet seen the lovely Mistress Boram, I can safely assume," he remarked cynically.
"When you boys have quite finished trading insults," growled Ratcliffe, bringing up the rear and keeping a sharp eye on the darkness, his nerves always alert for danger to his royal charge, "I think we should repair at once to The White Lion and see if the king needs anything of us before we turn in for the evening."
Lovell bit his tongue, knowing all too well that the king would be too busy with the pretty daughters of the landlord of The White Lion to need anything of anyone. There was a man who cared not a damn for the first law of hospitality, and had probably abused it several times over already.
Richard sensed the atmosphere between his two friends, and knew the cause of it. Lovell was young and reckless enough to make his feelings known, and was often within a whisker of causing offence. Ratcliffe, the elder of the pair, took his loyalty to the crown and to the king more seriously and heartily disliked the lese majeste in which Lovell so blithely indulged. He had watched it play out for long enough to recognise that neither of them would change, but it was friendly enough between them despite the occasional friction. He had known Lovell most of his life and loved him like a brother, and if Ratcliffe behaved more like a surrogate father at times, Richard for one could forgive him that. The trio were devoted to each other, and they were rarely in anything like a bad humour with each other for long.
They walked through the fields, saw Richard's horse carefully stabled at the abbey, and returned to the town. There was quite a boisterous party in sway at The White Lion, a situation that did little to improve Ratcliffe's mood and sat ill with Richard's own. Excusing himself at the earliest opportunity, Richard stepped outside and stood against the wall of the ale-house.
The cool evening air blew in gently through the open gates of the abbey and funnelled powerfully along the narrow neck of Gloucester Street. Richard looked towards the sharp bend in the road, facing into the wind and feeling it lift the hair from his face. He closed his eyes for a moment and allowed his thoughts to return to the afternoon, to those brief yet fully-employed hours in the arms of the lovely girl called Connie. A deep sense of guiltless calm descended on him rare for one who worried so frequently about his sinful nature and a slow smile lit up his serious face. The last thing he had expected to find, in this ancient but unremarkable town on their way to what would hopefully prove to be the final battle of this long-drawn-out war, had been such tenderness and passion, but for all that it was unexpected, he found it pleased him enormously.
He had never had strong physical desires, at least not compared to other men of his age, and though he kept Sarah as his mistress at his estates in the north, she was the only woman he had ever had apart from that first shameful episode he did not like to think about. He had never felt the need to seek another. His brother Edward led the field in amatory pursuits, and it was the only thing in which Richard had never aspired to follow him. His early experiences had hardly inclined him to change his view either, for though he had known tenderness, even love of a sort, with Sarah, he had always had the shrinking feeling that it was his title, his position, that dazzled her eyes, his status she had fallen in love with, and not his person, and their whole relationship had been overshadowed by his first experience with a woman, something even now he could think of as nothing but an assault.
Sarah had seemed to love him for himself, on his own merits, but Sarah was an ignorant girl who was perhaps just obeying the whims of her lord out of fear or loyalty, rather than from love. He had never been entirely sure, though he could dismiss his fears when he was with her, and had found some comfort in her company that had yet never entirely put him at his ease.
And yet this girl, this Connie, did not even know who he was, and she had given herself to him in complete trust, so there was certainly no sense of duty to her master in what she had offered to him. Edward would have assumed her modesty was a sham, and her eagerness proof of it, but Richard knew that she had been untouched, that she knew enough to be afraid and yet had not feared him. She had known that, whoever he was, he was a stranger to her town, and would be gone in a day or two, yet still she had yielded to him the most precious gift in her possession.
His smile broadened, recalling the supple twining of her dark limbs around his so pale ones, the stark contrast of flesh on flesh, and the taste of her lips on his. For the first time in his life, he found himself hoping that Edward would find an excuse to dally here for the sake of some girl, something that ordinarily made Richard wince with embarrassment at his brother's cupidity. But this time, if Edward would delay their leaving, Richard would be most pleased at it. He wouldn't dare suggest a delay to his brother, knowing how Edward's mind worked. Edward would see a girl in any situation, even when there was none, and now that there actually was one, Richard had no intention of letting his brother become aware of it.
A dark shadow fell between his brows as he thought of Edward's eyes alighting upon Connie, wanting Connie. Having her too, whatever her protests, he thought grimly.
He opened his eyes and looked up and down the road. Apart from the appalling noise issuing from The White Lion behind him, the rest of the street was quiet. Tapers burned in a couple of windows but silence reigned but for the whistling of the wind. The abbey bells mournfully tolled the hour. He heard a gate creak and turned to look down the street again. A few doors beyond the bend, just visible from where he stood, he saw the silhouette of a young woman lift the latch of her front door and apply her shoulder gently, familiarly, to the stiff wood to open it. A bell jangled softly as she stepped over the threshold and she swore softly.
Richard's ears pricked up and he stared into the velvety darkness. In the briefest of glimpses, and knowing that he had unconsciously been looking for her on every street corner since his return from the meadows, he had thought he recognised Connie. Now, hearing that soft curse upon her lips, he was certain it was she, for it was the very curse he had uttered just before they parted.
He stared long and hard at the dark wood of the door, as if willing his eyes to be able to see through it. That she should be so close, so near, and yet he unable to go to her, was suddenly unbearable. He wanted her so much. Wanted her in desire, in lust, in the swift, deep penetration that had been theirs the second time, and yet also in the tremulous, stumbling fever that had been their first. And, he thought with a flicker of pride, the warm, tender familiarity that had been their third.
He pressed his hands back against the rough stonework of the tavern wall and gulped at the cool evening air. He had never been prey to such fierce desires before, had never understood the base hungers that drove other men, men like his brother. It wasn't that he had never had them at all, just that they had never possessed him the way they seemed to possess Edward. Edward could become irrational, reckless, even stupid, if led by his sexual appetite his marriage to the grasping Woodville had surely proven that, he thought sourly and Richard had almost despised him for it.
Yet now, absurdly here and now, in a market town in the middle of nowhere, when his thoughts should have been entirely focussed on the impending battle, only the second of his life, Richard had been given his first clue to how such an appetite, such a desire, could drive a man to stupidity, to recklessness. Some part of him, unchained from his reason and adrift from his common sense, wanted to march down the road, hammer on the door, and demand to see her, and it was only by rooting himself against the stonework behind him that he was able to control the urge to do something so foolish.
The door of The White Lion banged open, startling him from his reverie and quashing his mounting desire in an instant. The tall, lean figure of Francis Lovell slipped outside and took his old friend by the shoulders in a familiar hug. "How now, Dickon," he said heartily, "won't you come in and at least pretend to enjoy yourself?"
Richard smiled thinly. Through longest acquaintance, Francis was the one man on whose lips the name 'Dickon' didn't sound like a diminutive, an insult, and he could forgive it him. "I'm in no mood for drinking tonight, Frank," he confessed, his eyes still seeking in the darkness for some movement beyond the window of the house a few doors down the road.
"You rarely are," said Francis shrewdly, "but you're usually able to disguise it better than this. Where did you get to this afternoon?" he asked after a long pause, in which he closely watched his friend's face. He followed the line of his gaze but saw nothing remarkable: a row of sturdy, stone-built, cottages sitting a little back from the street, lights flickering in their windows. He felt Richard stiffen against the intrusive question. "You don't have to confess, but I had hoped if you would tell anyone, it might be me."
Richard turned to look at him. Though he spoke flippantly enough, Richard could hear the tiny hint of reproach in Francis' voice: Even me, your oldest friend, you will not trust with your secrets. A part of him might want to, to boast of his afternoon's prowess as other men did so naturally, but he knew that a salacious tale about the normally so staid and moral Richard would be too much for Lovell to suppress for long, and the thought of the others joking at his expense, however well-meaning it would be, appalled and disconcerted him. No, Frank, with this I cannot trust you, he thought, and you must forgive it me.
He wrapped one arm about the taller man's waist and drew him closer. "Forgive me, Frank, my secrecy. There's naught sinister in it, I can promise you that, but I must insist you drop this inquisition. I came to no harm, did I?"
"No," said Lovell thoughtfully, catching a familiar scent on the breeze and realising with a shock that it was emanating from his friend. So there was a woman in this after all. I'll be damned, he thought. Dickon, you devious dog, you do have some hot blood in you. He knew better than to tease him about it for all their long friendship, Richard's temper could still flare on certain subjects, and he had no wish to provoke him but he made a note to keep an eye on his friend while they were in Malmesbury and try to find out who the girl was.
If Richard was being so secretive about it, he was either ashamed of her or being over-protective, and though it was more likely, knowing Richard, to be the former, if it was the latter that must mean he had formed a deep, if very sudden, attachment. He recalled the secretive way Richard had seduced the girl Sarah at Middleham, the way he had kept that from everyone until Lovell had found him out, because he had been ashamed to admit his tastes ran to such low women. God help us all if Richards decided he's in love with some peasant, he thought, but again kept silent. "You seem contented," he remarked eventually, his tone studiously casual.
Richard stifled a desire to look at his friend, knowing that his face would probably confess too much. "I am contented," he admitted, though he had to steel himself not to smile, for fear his smile too would speak too eloquently. "We fought well at Barnet, and pray God this will be the last battle we have to fight for many a year. I trust that soon we will have finally done enough to rout our enemies, and to secure Edward's throne."
Lovell could not but admire Richard's self-control. He could smell a woman on him as clearly as anything, but he was evidently going to admit none of it. Instead he fell back into his habitual role of promoter-in-chief to his brothers glory. "The death of Lancaster's heir will be a source of particular pleasure to you," he ventured.
Richard turned to look at him then, unable to stop himself. In all this afternoon's frenzy of passion, he had not for the first time in many, many months spared a moment's thought for the prize he had personally set his heart on. Kill Lancaster's heir, claim his intended as his own bride, as should have been the case all along.
It had nearly broken his young heart when Anne Neville, his childhood companion, his sweet and tender friend, who knew him like no other, had been betrothed to Edward of Lancaster. He had thought her lost to him forever. But now, Edward was with the enemy forces, and Richard did not intend to let him escape with his life. With Edward dead, Anne could be his.
He wondered how deeply his feelings for Anne could really run if he could be so potently distracted by the charms of another... But no, it was different, what he felt for Anne, it was something he had known his whole life, it was comfortable and loving, but not passionate.
"The death of traitors is always a pleasure," he said coldly, refusing to allow himself to taint the pleasurable memories of this afternoon with feelings of guilt towards Anne, whom he had scarcely seen in months.
Lovell, who had known both Richard and Anne since their childhood together at Middleham, could have sworn aloud, but managed to bite his tongue. How could Richard be so cold now? Hed wanted Anne for his wife for years, since long before he'd even really known what having a wife meant. He wondered who this woman was, with whom Richard had spent the afternoon, who had it apparently in her power to drive all thoughts of his life-long love from his head. He was more determined than ever to find out.
"Of course, I do recognise there could be benefits to me personally if Lancaster is killed," said Richard dryly, understanding Lovell's silence.
Lovell blew a long breath out from between his teeth. "By God, you're a cold and cynical bastard," he said good-naturedly, knowing he was one of very few men who could have made such a comment to the young man standing beside him without incurring his wrath.
Richard permitted himself a small smile. "It has been said," he admitted with a shrug of his narrow shoulders. "I daresay my wife will find me so."
Lovell, aware of the scent of woman mingling with that of his friend, laughed shortly. "I'll warrant your wife will find you far from cold," he said, meaning his tone to be teasing, but realising as he said it how vulgar it sounded.
Richard's eyes swivelled round to look at him, and there was no mistaking the fire in them, chill as it was. "I'll not have you speak of Lady Anne in such terms," he said coldly, drawing away from his friend.
Lovell realised at once his mistake. Richard might not like attention drawn to his own occasional forays into sexual adventure, but to conflate those desires with Anne Neville was a step too far, even for one who had known him for years. Richard liked to believe, perhaps did believe, that his feelings for Anne were untainted by any impropriety. Lovell suspected that even when they were married and legally permitted to be lovers, it would be a remote and frigid union, a companionship of minds rather than bodies. "Forgive me," he said humbly, averting his eyes from the fierce ones of his friend.
Richard hesitated a moment, allowing Lovell to wallow in his disgrace for just long enough for it to start to worry him, and then slipped his arm around the taller man's waist once more. "I always forgive you, don't I, Frank?" he said softly.
"More often than I probably deserve," admitted Francis Lovell, deciding that if he was to uncover the identity of Richard's lover in Malmesbury, he was going to have to be very circumspect indeed.
"Come," said Richard more heartily. "I'm hungry. How is the food at this White Lion?"
Connie's heart was pounding as she raced home, tearing along the back streets and only slowing down as she drew level with the abbey, so as to have her breathing steady by the time she stepped over the threshold. She shouldered open the stiff door, cursing as the bell jangled, and smoothed down her hair before appearing in the front parlour of her father's house.
William Stone might raise an eyebrow at his daughter's returning home after dark but he knew better than to challenge her for it. For all her flighty ways, Connie was a good and honest girl, and he knew she could look after herself. Still, with the king's party in town, it worried him that she should stay out so late. The noise from The White Lion was audible from here, and he, along with all the other householders in town, had been questioned earlier as to whether he had room to take in some guests for a night or two. It had been a relief to shrug expressively, point at his four children, admit to a fifth out with friends, and regretfully confess that he had a houseful already. The last thing he needed, with three daughters of corruptible age in his care, was soldiers in the house, no matter how noble their blood might be.
Connie met his eye levelly, wondering if he would be able to tell how she had been changed this day, if somehow the marks of corruption would be visible upon her for all to see. Religious superstition, she thought, as her father barely gave her a second glance. Sin, especially so oft repeated a sin, she thought with an indulgent smile of recollection, should be stamped upon the face of the sinner, if you believed the churchmen, but clearly her father could not see it in her.
She breathed out thankfully as she walked past him into the kitchen. "Did I miss supper?" she asked, surprised at how normal her voice sounded.
"Of course you did," said her father dryly. Connie had little enough sense of time, despite the chiming of the abbey bells marking each quarter of each hour off for her benefit, and even less sense of responsibility towards her siblings, and these two character traits taken together ensured that she rarely returned home in time to help prepare the evening meal during the summer months. So long as the weather was good enough to keep her outside, she would be outside, and her family would just have to fend for itself without her. As the oldest female of the house, she ought to have been chastised, persuaded to greater responsibility, but William Stone had always had too great a soft spot for his wild daughter. "There's ham and cheese in the pantry," he reminded her, though she had already found it and was cutting herself a generous chunk of both. "I suppose it's pointless asking where you've been all afternoon?"
Connie filled her mouth with ham to buy herself some time. "Just by the river, Father," she said.
"You didn't see any of the king's men?"
She hesitated. "Some men came into the meadows, and I thought perhaps they were soldiers so I lay low in the long grass until they left. That's why I was so late returning, because I could still hear them nearby and did not want them to see me." It wasn't strictly a lie; it just wasn't the whole truth.
"You're sure they did not see you?" asked William anxiously. Stories were already filtering out around the town about the behaviour of some of those men who called themselves nobles, and it was worse than that of the common soldiery.
"Quite sure," she affirmed. "I had to hide until it was nearly dark before I could get away unseen, but I'm sure none of them noticed me."
"Good." William watched his daughter cramming her mouth with the succulent ham. "Anyone would think I starved you, child," he remarked wryly.
Connie looked up at him, grinned and started on the cheese. How could she possibly tell her father that she was ravenous because one of the king's men had stolen half her lunch? A man who had then proceeded to make her aware of another kind of hunger that she had hardly contemplated before today... She felt flustered heat spread around her neck and colour her face, though she willed it not to and prayed her father would not notice. "Where are the others?" she asked to distract his attention.
"I sent them to bed after supper. All the excitement of today had made them wilder than usual. I can only hope the king's party will move on soon."
Connie felt a knot in the pit of her stomach. I hope they don't, she thought hopelessly, knowing they would go when the king decided they would go. Her lover, her Richard, whoever he was, would have no choice but to obey his monarch. It was foolish to want him to stay, she knew, but she told herself that just one more day would suffice, just one more taste of that hungry, tender passion in his arms...
"They're causing a riot at The White Lion," said William, tidying away the food behind his oblivious daughter. "That's where the King's staying, so they say. God help Tom Tanner's daughters, if aught I hear of Edward's reputation be truth." He shuddered, thinking how easily it could have been his own daughters. "And his men all keen to follow his lead, I shouldn't wonder." He cast a long look at his eldest surviving child and gave silent thanks that her greatest interest in life seemed to be in filling her stomach. "There'll be a crop of bastards here at Candlemas, you mark my words," he said darkly.
Connie looked up and felt his eyes scrutinising her. Hot colour flooded her cheeks and she hoped he would think it maidenly virtue shocked by his outburst. "You have a low opinion of the king's men, Father," she ventured.
"I know soldiers," he replied bleakly. "And the nobler they are, the easier they turn a girl's head. Perhaps it would be best if you stayed in the house tomorrow. If the king's men are roaming the meadows it might not be safe..."
Connie wanted to scream at that thought. She had promised to meet Richard at dawn tomorrow; she had to be allowed out of the house. She wanted so much to see him again, that strange, pale, thin young man with the flashing eyes and the tender hands and... "Some of the girls and I have arranged a picnic for tomorrow," she said, as calmly as she could manage. "We'll be quite safe I'm sure, if we stay together."
William Stone was unconvinced. "A passel of girls in a meadow, all alone, yes, I'm sure you'll be quite safe," he said sarcastically. "No, Connie, not this time. I daren't risk anything happening to you."
"Some of the boys will be there too, they can defend us if aught happens, but I'm sure..."
"You're sure?" he said fiercely. "Do you know what rough soldiers could do to those soft lads you spend your time with? Do you know what they'd do to you and your friends?"
"No, Connie, I must insist. Ordinarily, you know I'd give you your own way, I find it hard to do aught else, God help me, but these men... If aught were to happen to you, I could never forgive myself. I know you hate being stuck indoors, but it's just until the king's party leaves town."
Connie felt hot tears fill her eyes, but a fierce determination burned in her heart at the same time. If I do not meet him at dawn tomorrow, I may never see him again, she thought desperately. I have to be there when he comes, as she somehow knew he would. Just one more day...
"Your promise, Connie," said William, knowing how disappointed she would be not to be allowed out, but knowing that she would honour a promise made to him, no matter how upsetting it was to her.
Connie knotted her fingers behind her back and promised, wondering just how many more sins she could commit this day before she was struck down.
There was a low mist clinging to the ground as Connie raced across the clapper-bridge and along the path through the meadows in the first light of day. Too late! There was nobody there. He had come, and waited, but had gone. Or perhaps he had never come at all, and she had slipped out of the house, knowing that she would be in serious trouble when she returned for disobeying a promise made to her father, for nothing.
She searched the stretch of the river from the old well where he had tethered his horse yesterday to the wide plain where the paths separated around the marshland. She looked for the spot by the bank where the flattened grass told its story plainly, and she blushed with remembered pleasure, and then stamped her foot angrily that she had risked so much to be here and he had not come.
A wild rush of tears came to her eyes, and she marvelled at herself to realise how much she had looked forward to seeing him again, how she had assured herself he would be there. Oh, how could she have been so foolish! Her father was right. Whoever Richard was, he had had what he wanted of her, and that was the end of it. Just a soldier's whim, a distraction for an hour or two; forgotten already.
But surely she could not have been so mistaken in him? He had hidden like a mischievous child in the reeds hiding from his friends, his guardians. He had seemed genuinely anxious not to worry or alarm her, both before and during the time they were intimate together. He had seemed genuinely sorry to part from her. Surely that could not all have been an act?
She sat down in the wet grass, uncertain whether to cry or to rail angrily. It hardly mattered now whether he came or not her punishment would be the same when she returned. Somehow it would have seemed bearable if she had done something worth being punished for...
She looked down the meadow in the direction of the town and thought her eyes were misgiving her in the dim light. She dashed away the tears and looked again, and then she got to her feet, and as he saw her he stepped up his pace and raised one hand to salute her. She raised her hand and a smile broke on her face. She was almost running as she met him, and threw herself at him, feeling the wiry strength of his arms slip around her waist and hold her against him, feeling the soft velvet of his tunic against her cheek.
"I thought you weren't coming," she said breathlessly.
"I thought I'd missed you," he said in the same moment.
They drew apart and smiled shyly at each other, remembrance and anticipation making them both blush.
Richard took her hands in his and drew them to his lips, then cupped her head in his hands and kissed her mouth. She put her hands in his hair and pulled him closer, hungrily opening her lips beneath his.
He chuckled happily at her eagerness and let himself surrender to it. All night he had been remembering the taste of her mouth, the smooth twining of her limbs around his, and had barely slept for the torment of wanting it again. And then to be summoned to the king at daybreak a summons he could hardly have ignored and to feel the minutes trickling away, making it less and less likely he would see her had driven him half mad with thwarted desire.
He had fled The White Lion as though a pack of dogs was after him when the meeting had been concluded, and all the time he had heard the echoing silence following the tolling of the church bells, mocking him it seemed. Ah, but here she was, and she evidently wanted him as much as he had wanted her.
He pulled her down into the soft grass in the shade of the elm trees, his hands running feverishly over her as though at any moment they might be dragged apart. But by whom? Nobody knew either of them was here. Who would come to disturb them at this hour? And yet still this urgent need, as though time was against them. The king's words, his brother's words, nagged at his mind. "We leave this afternoon." Time was against them, though he could not bear to tell her that yet.
He forced himself to calm down, to slow down. If he rushed her, even as clamorous and hungry as she was, he might hurt her, and that would never be right. He wanted this last day to be perfect, as though that could somehow soften the blow when it was ended.
"Connie, wait," he whispered, tasting her mouth over and over and trying not to listen to the lustful voice in his head that told him just to take her now and stop wasting precious time.
"Wait?" She looked at him, her hair tumbling around her hot face, her eyes flickering with sudden doubt. Why wait? What for?
"It doesn't have to be about just... this," he said raggedly, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out again slowly.
For a moment Connie looked hurt, but then she saw the rich flush in his face, saw the hammering of his heart and knew that he wanted her, knew that for whatever reason he was just trying to be chivalrous. She looked lower down his body and grinned. "Are you sure?" she teased, putting one hand to the swelling beneath his tunic and touching it almost reverently.
Richard moaned softly as her hand moved over his aroused flesh. He had never felt so much a prey to his physical needs as he did now, and though his mind rebelled against it, though his logic and his courtly training told him it was wrong to just give in to blind animal lust, his body was firmly in control of his thoughts again this morning it seemed. "I should tell you..." he began, but she moved her hand again and words failed him.
"Tell me afterwards," breathed Connie, straddling him and spreading out her skirts so that nothing could be seen by any chance passers-by that would provoke outrage, though it would be all too obvious what they were doing. "Tell me later." She leaned down over him and kissed him, her fingers snaking over the fabric of his leggings until she had him free of them. She cried out softly as the firm heat of him thrust up eagerly against her hand. "Much later," she said with a laugh.
She lay close to him, his body bowed about hers protectively, his arms about her pulling her back against his chest. She could feel his breathing on the back of her neck slowing to its normal pace, the deep shudder of pleasure spent. She trembled from the sharing of that pleasure, stared intently at the long pale fingers that twined with hers and felt the strange spasms echoing around her body. It had not been so strong yesterday, this feeling. They had found a new place today, a deeper union.
Richard felt at peace, the frantic pleasure that had lanced through him replaced by deep, satiated warmth, and a serenity of spirit that could not care for the sins his flesh had indulged in so eagerly. He held Connie's warm, trembling body in his arms and her very eagerness made him proud, the very honesty of her response to him proving that it was to him, to his body, to him as a man, that she had turned and sought her pleasure, not to the prince. He wanted to tell her now who he was, to surprise her all over again, but he feared too much that she would spring up and away if she heard those shocking words, would run from him because he had deceived her.
No, let this peace continue for as long as it could. He held her closer and kissed the back of her neck tenderly, surprised by the depth of feeling he felt towards her. Was it always like this when great tumults of passion were stirred? He had seen precious little evidence of that in the men around him, who took mistresses as casually as though they were ripe fruit, and who regretted the ending of their affairs with as much solemnity as if they were putting off a pair of worn-out pomaines. Once again, he felt very different from the men he knew, but here, now, strangely it no longer seemed to matter any longer.
"Who are you?" whispered Connie suddenly, her eyes fixed upon the jewelled rings on his slender fingers. She felt him flinch, and was sorry she had broken the silence. "That's what you wanted to tell me, wasn't it?"
"And you said it did not matter," he reminded her, terrified suddenly that if he told her the truth now she would be horrified. The great gulf of status would come crashing down between them and this peaceful sense of unity, of man and woman joined in love, would be gone.
"I know. I suppose it doesn't." She looked more intently at the rings on his fingers. "He's a rich man, I imagine," she mused softly.
"The lord you serve," she said, smoothing her fingertip over the jewels he wore.
"The lord I..." For a moment, all his ancient noble blood bristled to be thought a mere vassal, but then he smiled. She really had no idea who he was, and he realised that rather appealed to him. "Yes, yes, he's rich," he admitted.
"To give you such fine jewels, he must be. If he gives such beautiful things to his men, what must he reserve for himself?"
Richard was glad he was behind her and she could not see his face. He chewed his lip and did not answer.
"He's a noble then?"
"Does he serve the king?"
"As do we all," said Richard, kissing her neck, the amusement of the game he was playing making him hungry for her again.
"But which lord," she said, leaning back against his lips and feeling the mounting heat between them, "do you serve directly?"
"Why do you care?" His hands slid under the folds of her skirt and stroked her thighs.
"I don't," she laughed, as he rose up above her and settled himself within the welcoming arc of her thighs. She looked up into his pale face, flushed with desire across his high cheekbones, his eyes glittering hungrily. "You seemed so set on telling me, that's all. I thought he must be someone important."
He came into her with a soft grunt of pleasure, enjoying the way she opened up beneath him, her hips tilting to draw him deeper. "He is," he said, twining one hand in her hair and supporting himself above her with the other. "He's the king's brother."
Connie gasped aloud, whether from his revelation or from the sensation of his body entering hers he couldn't be sure.
Richard drew a deep breath and forced himself to slow down. The first time had been too frenzied, over too soon. He wanted to share something more with her this time. "What do you think to that?" he asked.
Connie smiled broadly up at him, her eyes twinkling with amusement. "Wonderful," she breathed, wriggling her hips back against the soft earth and feeling him sink closer to the core of her.
Richard laughed, realising she had thought his question an evaluation of their lovemaking. It hadn't been, but he liked her response all the more for its cheeky honesty. "I meant," he said, pulling her closer and trying to control the need to pursue his own pleasure, blindly, desperately, as desire engulfed his senses, "what do you think that my master is the king's brother?"
"Oh." Hot colour flooded Connie's face and then she realised how absurd it was to feel embarrassment about something so ordinary when she could feel his nakedness between her thighs and she felt no shame at that, and she laughed with him. "I'm very impressed at that too," she giggled.
"You dont ask me which brother," noted Richard after kissing her hungrily again.
"I don't need to."
Her answer startled him. "Why do you not?"
"It must be my lord Gloucester," she replied, twining her fingers in his hair and drawing him down onto her again, wanting to end his interrogation and have him concentrate instead on the need that raged inside her.
"Why must it?" he asked, his lips seeking succour of her ripe, walnut nipples.
"Because," she said simply, "a man as kind and good and gentle as you are could never serve a turncoat like my lord Clarence."
Richard sucked his breath in over his teeth. The shock of hearing her say something so boldly, so carelessly, struck him to the core. He felt a cold shiver run through him. If he had had any greater love for his brother, he would have been offended, but he knew his brother's character well enough to know she had it on the head. Still, to hear such an insult to any prince of the blood royal from an illiterate peasant! And yet the compliment rang in his ears too, and he decided to let the insult to his brother pass. She had a fair point, in any case. George was a turncoat, and would be again if the occasion suited him. Some of us are under no illusions on that score, he thought sourly.
Connie was looking up at him, her face rigid and pale with panic. Had she misjudged him? Did he in fact serve my lord Clarence? Oh Connie Stone, what have you done? His eyes looked cold for a moment and she wondered what on earth he was thinking, but then they softened again and a wry smile lit his face.
"Clarence has played traitor," said Richard, stroking the side of her face thoughtfully, holding aloof from her for a moment though he had in truth already forgiven her, "but we're all supposed to be friends again now, Connie, so it would be unwise to repeat such words as 'turncoat' while the king's men are here."
"I'm sorry if..."
He silenced her with a hungry kiss. "I have no great love for Clarence," he admitted, "but even I would be cautious to confess it in the king's hearing. You should be doubly careful. Now, enough talking." He sank down inside the warmth of her again with a low moan of pleasure.
Connie was too lost in relief at regaining his good favour to realise how familiarly this man had spoken of my lord Clarence. Clarence, Gloucester, what did it matter? Those lords could squabble amongst themselves until the end of the world if they wanted to. What mattered now was just this: the feel of her lover's arms around her, his cool lips on her skin, the hungry way he pulled her to him and said 'enough talking'.
Enough talking indeed, she thought, pushing her shoulders back into the long grass and lifting him deeper still into her with a cry of delight.
On the opposite bank of the river, Francis Lovell sat watching the lovers with a knowing smile on his face. I've found you out, Dickon, you gifted little liar, he thought with a grin. And now I've found you out, it won't take me long to find out who she is either.
He knew it was probably intrusive of him to watch his friend in such intimate moments, but if Richard had so far forgotten his royalty as to sport with peasants in the fields, Francis Lovell had not. At least, that was how he justified his spying. Somebody had to keep an eye on Richard. He might like to believe he was anonymous, but the reality was very different and this was just the kind of lonely terrain that would make an ambush or an assassination simple. Ratcliffe would be beside himself if he knew where his royal charge was, and with whom, but Lovell had no intention of telling him. He'd keep Richard's secrets to the grave if needs be, but he'd keep an eye on him for all that.
He was surprised at Richard though. Their conversation the night before had reinforced the coldness of his friend's nature, that unemotional way he had talked of marrying Anne Neville once her first betrothal was conveniently annulled by Edward of Lancaster's imminent demise. True, all the while he had had the whiff of a woman's scent on his clothing, and was obviously lying through his teeth, but still... What he had seen as Richard and the girl had met had been far from cold and unemotional. It had been passionate, and surprisingly tender, and though they had swiftly fallen down into the grass together and begun to make urgent love, there had been something gentle, innocent and rather touching about their first embrace.
Ah but Richard was young still, and younger than his years in matters of the heart apparently. He'd never spoken of it, but Lovell knew as did all Richard's intimate friends of how disastrous had been the king's attempt to make a man of his youngest brother by thrusting him into bed with one of his own mistresses. He had been brutalised by that experience for a long while, and had thrown himself into his studies, academic and martial, in order to forget that humiliation, and perhaps to pretend that he had no desire ever to attempt such a thing again.
Lovell, listening to the cries of passion coming to another frenzied conclusion from the opposite bank, grinned. Apparently that was one hurdle Richard had surmounted, and good for him, he thought. Man's got to have some blood in him.
He ducked down behind the trees as he saw Richard get up and go to the river, but he was only fetching water and returned to the girl's side without even looking up, oblivious to even the idea that he might have been observed. Lovell watched as the lovers sat together, she gently in his arms, her head resting against his chest, and though he could not hear what they said he could see they were talking freely together, comfortably as though no barrier was between them. I'll wager he hasn't told her who he is, he thought, and she has no idea.
How typical of Richard to keep his identity a secret, thought Lovell. As the youngest son he'd always had doubts about his value to his house, and though nobody could accuse Lady Cecily of any active disfavour towards any of her children, it was noted that she found the quiet, studious Richard a puzzle, compared to her shining Edward and boisterous George. Richard had grown up thinking himself less important than his brothers, whilst increasingly aware of his higher intellectual powers, and that disparity between his perceived worth and his sense of his own value had caused him constantly to distrust those who claimed to admire him. He recognised the courtier's glozening better than anyone else did, and it had made him cynical and cold. When anyone else would have been dazzling this peasant girl's eyes with rich titles and stories of fabulous wealth, Richard would play himself down, pretend to be other than what he was and secretly bask in the knowledge that she was drawn to him without being flattered by the great lord's attention.
Francis Lovell knew his old friend very well indeed. He didn't blame Richard for being as he was, and what harm did it do anyone? The girl was clearly happy with her lover, whoever she thought him to be, and Richard yes, there was the real shock Richard was happy. In all the years they'd known each other, Francis couldn't recall a single occasion when he'd heard Richard laugh like that before, so freely, so un-self-consciously. It was rather wonderful to realise that the stiff, formal young man could so far forget himself, even if Francis did feel a twinge of jealousy that it was with a girl, a nobody, and not with his oldest and dearest friend, that he felt so uninhibited.
He settled himself down in the grass and made himself as comfortable as he could. From the look and sound of things, those two could be there for quite some time yet.
"I thought you said," laughed Connie, as they fell apart in the grass, gasping for breath, "that it didn't just have to be about this."
Richard laughed with her, his heart pounding, his pulse racing. Thrice yesterday, God alone knows how many times today, he thought, with a flicker of pride unfamiliar to him, and each time better than the last. He pulled her to him and held her close, kissing her upturned face. Not even with Sarah had he known such a hunger, or such love. His body ached, his muscles stretched, his breath came unsteadily, but he had seldom felt so completely satisfied with his life. No, not seldom. Ever.
She coiled herself around him, feeling the taut muscles of his stomach settling as he regained his composure. She ran her fingers over his smooth, heaving chest, felt the hammering of his heart under the velvety skin. As she put her lips to his skin, he tasted of sweat and arousal, and his nipple tightened under the slow drawling of her inquisitive tongue.
She sighed heavily and snuggled against him. "Not that I'm complaining," she added with a contented giggle.
"I should hope not," murmured Richard, drowsy now with gratification and reasonably sure that his body had probably exhausted itself for today. Surely it had, he thought. Surely even his young, resilient, too-long-denied body wouldn't ask more of him after this.
"I wish this day might last forever," she said wistfully, and as she spoke a cold shiver passed over her and she clung closer to him.
She had not said it, but he felt the echo of her statement. 'For tomorrow you might be gone.' He wrapped his arms tighter about her, knowing that her fear was justified, that they had even less time than she imagined, and that somehow he would have to tell her before too much more time had elapsed. "I'll never forget this day," he promised.
"Nor I." She breathed in the warm scent of his skin and let her lips rest in the hollow of his shoulder. She longed to speak, to say more, to beg him to stay. Leave the army, leave my lord Gloucester's service, stay with me and let every day be as perfect as this one. In a moment she saw a kaleidoscope of images flash past her vision: of walking on his arm down the aisle of the abbey and out into the bright sunshine, of him taking her home his wife, of a brood of pale-faced, dark-haired little children crowding around their hearth...
"Don't." His voice was gentle, his fingers carefully wiping the tears from her face.
"I never felt this before," she said softly, unaware until she felt his fingers that she had even been weeping. "I never knew..." This, this was what she had waited for. This was the reason she had denied the local lads the kisses they wanted. She had wanted a man who could stir her, who could make her love him, knowing nothing about him but his name. She had thought it an impossible dream, but here he was. She did not know him, but everything in her turned to him like the flowers to the sun, instinctive, a reaction that had swept over her and caught her completely by surprise. And soon, tonight, perhaps tomorrow, he would be gone forever, and she thought her heart would burst with the pain of it.
"Nor I," he whispered, stroking her hair and realising that his fingers were trembling. "I never knew..." Anne Neville's thin, innocent face came to mind and he felt guilty that he could feel anything so deeply for anyone but her, but he could not deny it, even to himself. The vibrant pleasure of their coupling was still thrumming in his veins, he felt lazy and contented with the physical joy of it, and yet he felt so unutterably sad to realise it might be the last time.
He slid the gold and ruby ring off his little finger and silently pressed it into the palm of her hand, closing her fingers around it, and his around hers.
"You do not need to pay me," she said, her voice hurt by the very idea that he would think she expected something of him.
"I'm not." He hadn't meant it to seem like a payment. It was a gift, a memento. "I would never so demean what we have shared as to imagine I had a bill to settle with you," he said, his voice cracking with emotion despite the cold practicality of his words. "This is a gift to you, to keep or to sell as you choose. It is worth a goodly amount, if you find yourself in need..."
"I will never sell it," she said fiercely, looking into his face finally and realising that his eyes were glittering as wetly as were her own. "I will treasure it always, if I cannot..." She drew a deep breath and left the rest unspoken.
"I hope you will, but Connie, listen to me," he took her face between his hands and looked at her, suddenly so serious it was as if the sunlight had gone and great clouds hung over their heads, though the day had not changed, "if you should find yourself in need to sell it, do so, I pray you. Do not cling to it as a memorial to our love if its value as gold would serve you better."
She looked at him, bewildered, afraid, his words sounding a note of doom that sat uncomfortably in the aftermath of their tenderness, yet exhilarated, her heart thumping to realise he had said he loved her.
Could she really have no clue? Had it not even once occurred to her? He shook his head sadly, not wanting to shatter the mood of the day still further with cold practicalities, but feeling that he must. "Connie, what we have done... what we have shared has been sweet and precious and wonderful, and I hope you have no more regrets at it than do I."
She shook her head and tried to smile, but the fierce look on his face made her afraid to attempt levity when he seemed suddenly so serious.
"But it has also been reckless, and we should be lucky indeed if no punishment should fall upon us..."
She smiled then and shook her head again. "I don't believe such a thing is truly sinful, not when..." She bit her lip. It seemed wrong to say she loved him, wrong to put that pressure upon him when he seemed so weighed down by worry already, even though he had just said it and would, she sensed, be glad to hear her confirm that her feelings for him were as strong.
"I'm not talking of sins," he said, though for a moment his eyes clouded and he wondered what penance he ought to inflict upon himself for this two-day extravaganza of cupidity. "I'm talking about nature."
She still looked puzzled but a sticky heat crawled up her spine as she realised she knew what he was going to say next.
"We have indulged heedlessly, not to mention repeatedly," he continued, trying not to look at the bright blush that filled her cheeks as realisation dawned upon her. I'm not saying I regret a moment of it, I don't, I can't... But it may happen... it may come to pass that..." He felt his own cheeks flush, remembering Sarah as he had last seen her, her belly big with the evidence of their relationship.
"There might be a child," she said, so quietly that her voice was barely audible. She hadn't stopped to think of it before, hadn't wanted reality to intrude upon the beautiful passion of their meeting, the suddenness of the love she had felt for him, and he, perhaps, for her.
He looked hopelessly at her, feeling foolish and absurd now the thing had been spoken. "That ring is worth enough to keep you, to provide for..."
"I will never sell it," she said again. She leaned forward and kissed his mouth, feeling the cool lips respond to hers after the merest token of resistance. She clung to him, pulling him fiercely to her, recognising the tremulousness in him, the youth, the inexperience, and loving him for it more potently than if he had been dismissive and arrogant about the whole affair. They were both children again, touched by passion so suddenly and so deeply that it shook them to their very foundations, and she loved him for his own fear.
Richard held her tightly, feeling the silent sobs shake her body as she kissed him, her mouth trembling as she wrestled with desire and despair in the same breath. This would not be the roaring, frantic passion they had known yesterday, but a continuation of the deeply emotional bond he felt had grown between them in so short a space of time. This would be something more tender, more desperately sweet, a clinging coupling that would bring tears at the ending as well as laughter.
It would be the last time.
William Stone had been furious when he first realised Connie had slipped out of the house, but as the hours passed his anger had turned to worry and then to outright panic.
By the time he heard the front door bell jangle as she returned at noon, he wasn't sure whether to scream at her for disobeying him or pull her roughly into his arms and thank God she had returned safely.
One look at her face decided him, and he drew her silently to him, his arms going around her body and holding her as great, silent sobs racked her.
All she would say for a long time was 'I never knew', which made no sense at all to him, but though his first thought had been that she had been attacked, he quickly realised that she showed no signs of fear, and though she had returned looking a little dishevelled she did not exhibit any signs of rough or ill treatment. If anything, her desperate sobbing seemed to speak of great, heartbreaking sorrow, rather than anything more sinister, though what would have made her so desperately sad in the space of one day was beyond him.
He drew her onto the settle and soothed her as best he could, sending the other children scurrying to their bedrooms with a sharp bark of warning when they appeared around the staircase in curiosity. One of her hands was clutched tightly around something, but no amount of prising would loosen her fingers, so he let her be.
"Don't think too ill of me, Father," she said eventually, lifting her head and looking at him through eyes muddied with tears.
"Connie, what have you done?" he asked, though he knew as soon as he met her eyes what she was trying to confess to him. "Who is he?" His voice was calm, but his heart was pounding with anger, with grief, with a desire for revenge against whatever man could have hurt his daughter so deeply. "One of the king's men?" he prompted.
"One of my lord Gloucester's," she whispered, closing her fingers more tightly over the ring Richard had given her.
"Gloucester! I thought he and his men were of better reputation than most."
"He is," she said fiercely, her eyes glowing. "He's a noble, kind, gentle..." She dissolved into tears again as she thought of Richard's last tender farewell, of the regretful way he had told her he had to leave, of the gentle pressure of his lips on hers and the way his hand had lingered in her hair as though wanting to hold onto her forever instead of riding off to God knows what terrible fate awaited him on the battlefield.
"Very noble," sneered her father, "very kind, to leave you so upset and hurt. Did he force you?"
The very force of her denial made him feel sick, to realise how much he had secretly been hoping the answer might be yes, that he could direct all his fury at the unknown man. Better that he had forced her than that she had willingly gone to him: is that really what he thought? Is that really what you wanted for your daughter? For shame, Will Stone, he thought angrily.
"It wasn't like that," she said.
"Then why... Connie, what did he do to upset you so?"
Her shoulders shook with silent weeping once more and for a while she could not speak. "He's leaving," she said simply. "He's leaving and I love him and I wish he would stay." She broke down again, hopelessly, frighteningly overwhelmed by the intensity of this first, brief flare of love in her life. "I could have loved him for my whole life, I know it, if he could only have stayed."
William Stone shook his head sadly over the tempestuous conviction of youth. "You barely knew him," he said gently, though he knew she would not listen. "First love is painful, Connie, but the pain will pass. I promise."
"I'll never forget him," she said sullenly.
"Doubtless not, but the pain will pass." He took her in his arms as she collapsed into near-hysterical sobbing again. "Connie, my love, no man is worth such sorrow."
She stiffened, wanted to rebel, wanted to tell him that her Richard was worth that sorrow, that she would carry her love for him in her heart for the rest of her days, but she did not want to fight with him, and she knew he could never understand. She felt the smooth ruby in the palm of her hand and fresh tears came. Two days ago she had not cared a damn for love, had thought herself immune to it, above it, able to resist its coils. She had thought that the man she imagined inspiring her love could not exist, would never exist. Now, she was breaking her heart over losing him, and all she had to cling to was a memory of sweet, drowsy passion in the meadows, of his white flesh in the dark river, and this ring.
In that moment she began to pray. Let there be a child, she begged silently through her tears, pressing the ring deeply into the flesh of her hand. Please let me have a child, his child, to remember him by. She did not really want a child, she had never before imagined herself having one, and couldn't begin to imagine how she would get on with one, but in her desperation at losing Richard, at the fear of her father's words being true and the precious memories fading as the years passed, she prayed for a child. If she had his child, she could never forget. Never.
Connie's eyes glowed in her taut face as she stood by the roadside with the rest of the townsfolk. Her father had tried to stop her, tried to persuade her that seeing her lover again from a distance would be more painful than not to see him at all, but she would not listen. "I have to say goodbye," she said, hoping that he would not realise that she had spent the whole of the previous night praying for a miracle that would somehow keep the king's army here.
But no, no miracle had intervened, and judging by the teary eyes of not a few of the town's young women, she had not been the only one praying for it.
None of them, she thought, had reason to mourn as she did. In the grim certainty of youth, she was sure that nobody else's liaisons could have had anything like the meaning of her own. These girls would forget their soldiers, their nobles, even their king and she could tell by the ostentatiously self-satisfied grins of the two daughters of The White Lion's landlord who had had that particular pleasure but she would never forget her Richard.
The king's party was approaching now, and she felt again that horribly familiar pair of eyes roaming over her, just for a moment, and shuddered. Strange that to know now what he wanted of her only made him seem more repugnant than ever, and he the king!
She watched as the horsemen passed, the king's bodyguard moving slowly in the crush of people, and as she looked up again her heart lurched as she recognised the white boar standard of the Duke of Gloucester. Somewhere in the next rank of horsemen she would see his face, somewhere...
Her eyes met his suddenly and a jolt of familiar heat trickled down her back as she saw that he had seen her, recognised her, too. He seemed to try to slow his horse, but the press of the crowd was inexorable, and the weight of the army was behind him, pushing him on.
Connie pushed through the crowd, following the line of horsemen as they pressed on down the high street, her eyes riveted to his, desperate for the last possible glimpse of him before the road took him out of town and she would have to stay behind.
"Stand back there," barked a voice she half recognised, and looking up she saw the man she knew as Ratcliffe he who had come searching for Richard yesterday afternoon with his sword drawn defensively, blocking the approach of the seething crowd from getting too close to the huge war-horse on which Richard sat. "Make way for His Grace."
Richard smiled at her then, sadly it seemed, resignedly, as though the weight of the world were upon his slender shoulders again as it had been in that first moment she'd seen him, and he raised one hand to Ratcliffe's shoulder. "Let them be, my friend, they mean no harm," he said, his voice loud and clear enough to be heard even above the roaring crowds.
"But Your Grace..."
Connie watched as Richard's delicate white fingers dug into the shining mail on Ratcliffe's shoulder, and suddenly her heart seemed to stand still in her chest. The crowd swirled around her as she stopped moving, her knees trembling and unable to carry her further. She put her hands to her face in shock as the full realisation of what she had seen snapped into place in her mind. Richard's fingers on Ratcliffe's mailed shoulder, the brilliant gems glittering about his fingers, his face smiling wearily, that face she already seemed to know so well, but set in his ebony hair the shimmer of a silver coronet. Ratcliffe's words 'Make way for His Grace', and Richard's sad, over-burdened smile. A ducal coronet in her lover's hair. His Grace. Richard. Gloucester. Oh God.
Her knees went out from under her and it was only the weight of the crowd that kept her from falling to the paving stones and seriously injuring herself. She heard Richard's voice as from a great distance, demanding and getting a complete halt in the great flow of human and horse traffic, his voice calm, young, yet full of unquestionable authority. She saw the glitter of mail as Ratcliffe carved a way for his lord, saw a flash of red that she knew instantly was the other man from the day before, the one who had laughed and said Dickon could take care of himself.
And then Richard's face, swimming before hers, his grey-green eyes glittering with concern, his long hands outstretched to help her to her feet through the gaping faces and swarming bodies of the crowd. That sad smile again, begging forgiveness for his deception it seemed. She felt a flame of anger in her breast, but then she remembered all the passion and the love he had shown her and she could forgive him even so great a deception as this.
"Why did you not tell me?" she demanded as he lifted her to her feet and drew her slightly away from the crowd, making a show of giving air to a fainting woman, an act that made the crowd swoon back in admiration of the noble and considerate young duke.
He clicked his fingers and a page fell to his knees beside his master, offering himself as an impromptu stool for the distressed woman. Richard pushed her down to sit on the boy's back, absurd and self-conscious as she felt in the midst of all these staring people, scarlet flooding her face.
"I wanted you to know the man, not the title," he said, his lips close to her ear as he pretended to check her face for signs of injury. "Forgive my vanity."
"Vanity?" she hissed.
He clicked his fingers again and another page produced a skin of wine seemingly from nowhere, and proceeded to pour it into a goblet that moments before had been hanging from his belt.
Richard held the goblet himself to Connie's lips and the crowd sighed its appreciation of his chivalry, and excited whispers rippled through the gathered Malmesburians at one of their own being singled out for such attention. "Connie, forgive me," he urged, and suddenly she saw him again beyond the glittering splendour, beyond the imperious duke whose snapping fingers brought instant reactions from lesser mortals. Her Richard, her slender, pale Richard, the water from the river tumbling down his naked body, her Richard, his hands sliding over her skin, that ebullient, insistent part of him rising up again to fresh desire, his warm laughter as they lay together panting in the spring meadows.
"Richard," she murmured faintly, the crowd seeming to sway in and out of focus around her as the rush of memories threatened to break her heart all over again.
"Forgive me," he said once more, and the earnestness of his voice brought tears to her eyes.
"I loved you," she whispered, "I thought there might be a hope that..." She buried her face in her hands. Oh foolish, stupid hope, that he would leave the army and come back to her. How could he do that?
"I meant what I said," he said, lifting the goblet to her lips again to grant them just a little more time together. He could see Ratcliffe chafing to be gone, could see the king's bodyguard loitering a little further down the street, wondering what the delay was. "That I would never forget," he reminded her when she looked at him, seeming dazed. "I was but Richard to you, and I spoke from my heart when I said that. I will never forget what you have given me, the love you have shown me. It means more than I can express."
She looked at him, at the honesty of his soft smile and the gentle eyes, amidst the radiance of jewels and velvet and that incriminating band of silver upon his brow, and she returned his smile. "Nor shall I ever forget," she said tenderly, reaching out one hand to touch his face and then drawing it back as she saw the mailed figure of Ratcliffe loom into view, seeing a threat in even so simple and honest a gesture.
Richard took her hand in his and helped her to her feet. He bowed low over her hand and tenderly kissed it, his fingers coiling around hers and pointedly turning the ring on her finger so that the ruby glittered in the sunlight for a moment. He smiled proudly to recognise the gem and then turned it again so that only the plain gold band showed. "It well suits you," he said, "either way around."
Connie looked at him for a moment, unsure if she was reading too much into his words, but when she saw the ironic shimmer of amusement in his eyes she knew she had not been imagining it. He too had been remembering their long, passionate hours in the meadows. She saw the blush creep across his cheeks as he turned to the man in red velvet, whose dark eyes seemed all too knowing and familiar.
"Lovell, will you see Mistress..." His blush deepened as he realised he did not even know her name, and Connie had to weakly supply it, "Mistress Stone back to her home. Follow us on later, when you are assured she is recovered from her faint."
Lovell bowed deeply but his obsequiousness never quite travelled to his eyes, which continued to observe the pair closely. A pretty little show, staged perhaps for one last tender farewell, he thought cynically. But no, he realised, the shock on the girl's face had been genuine when she had seen her lover in all his finery. She had still had no idea.
"Mistress Stone," said Richard, his ringing voice carrying over the crowd, aware of what close attention it was paying to this spontaneous act of chivalry from the young duke, and finding he rather liked their simple admiration, "I trust you will not think too ill of me that I must leave you now. I may say that you are in hands I would trust no less than mine own, and you are quite safe with my honourable friend." There was an implied threat to Lovell there, though only he would have perceived it or understood its point.
Connie, sensing the spectacle of the occasion, dropped into a deep curtsey before him and looked up at him. She was so close to him that she could see the sculpted muscles of his thighs in his velvet leggings and her eyes irresistibly drifted a little higher. A flame of desire shot through her, an exquisite agony in knowing that it was too late now for that. She met his eyes and slowly, deliberately, ran her tongue along her lower lip, her eyes sparkling.
He drew her to her feet once more, bowing his head over her hand and kissing her fingers. "Beautiful harlot," he whispered fondly, for her ears only, and he was smiling impishly at her when he looked up once more. "I shall never forget you."
"My lord," said Connie, surprised at how strong her voice sounded while her heart was fluttering agonisingly in her chest at the thought that this was goodbye, this moment was the last she would have of him, forever, "I hope your stay in our town has been a pleasant one."
"Most pleasant," he assured her, and the listening crowd. "I shall always remember my time here fondly." He gave her one last, lingering look, clinging to her fingers until he felt sure the whispers would start up again, and then bowed again. "Lovell, look after Mistress Stone and join us as soon as you may." He threw himself into the saddle in one smooth movement and the crowd cheered him as he rode away.
He did not look back again, he dared not, but Connie watched him until he was out of sight beyond the dip of the hill down the road, and though her eyes filled with tears she held herself stiff and proud, determined not to humiliate him even now, pressing the ruby into the palm of her clenched hand. I will never forget you, she swore silently, her eyes aching with staring after him, afraid to blink lest she should miss a moment of his passing. I too will never forget.
"Mistress Stone." The warm voice of Francis Lovell found its way to her ears, and she blindly took his proffered arm. The feel of velvet under her fingertips made the tears spill from her eyes, and to his credit Lovell moved swiftly against the crowd, carving a path for his charge as efficiently as Ratcliffe had done with drawn sword.
They had reached the end of the high street and were turning left before Connie realised she hadn't told this man where she lived, and yet he had turned instinctively the correct way. She stopped dead and looked fiercely at him, challenging him to explain himself. How did you know where I lived? Did Richard know? Did he tell you about me? Did you laugh together about the foolish peasant who had no idea of the identity of her royal lover? Did he mock me?
Lovell saw the hectic colour in her cheeks, the sharp blaze of colour in her pale eyes, and knew a moment of great sadness for his friend. He could see suddenly why this girl had been attractive to him, and he could see too that peasant though she was she would have made Richard a good companion, a gentle, undemanding, loving mistress to whom he could turn when the pressures of his life became too great. And God knew, that was often enough, with everything Richard forced himself to undertake.
"Mistress Stone, my lord bade me see you safely to your door," he said gallantly, treating her with far more dignity than perhaps he might have done before he had seen the depth of tenderness with which Richard had himself treated her.
"I have no wish to go home, my lord," said Connie firmly.
"My lord would wish..."
"My lord is not here to have his wishes obeyed," she responded savagely, "my lord."
Such charming insolence appealed to Lovell and he smiled in spite of himself. "What would you wish then, Mistress?"
"I wish," she began tartly, though her voice dissolved as she realised the import of what she was saying, "to be left alone." God knows, that was the last thing she wished. I wish Richard would come back, I wish he was not who he was, I wish we could be in the meadow again and I oblivious of the truth. She put her hands to her face and sobbed brokenly.
"My lord would think ill of me if I left you alone in such a state," said Lovell warmly, taking her arm and propelling her across the road towards the green sward that lay between the castle wall and the abbey. In the shadow of the trees it was quiet and peaceful and cool, and Lovell took off his cloak and folded it upon the ground for her to sit on. He sat beside her, his long legs crossed and his head on one side as he looked at her while she wept for a moment, seemingly unaware of his presence.
He sat so still and so silently that she looked up with a shock to realise he was still there, and his posture struck her so vividly it was how Richard had first sat beside her, watching her, by the side of the river that she felt her eyes fill with tears again.
"You should rejoin my lord Gloucester," she said, his title sounding strange to her ears. He would never be my lord Gloucester to her; he would always just be Richard. Richard of the tender smile, of the world-weary eyes, of the gentle hands... She looked at Lovell, aware of his dark eyes watching her closely.
"Richard charged me with seeing you home," said Lovell gently, "and I shall not leave this town until I have seen that safely done. No matter how long it takes," he added, trying to look stern, but only succeeding in making himself look absurd it seemed, for she smiled in spite of her tears.
Richard. Not 'my lord'. Not 'His Grace'.
"You are a good friend of his, I think, my lord?"
"Francis," said Lovell, moved by the sorrow in her voice and the dark shadows under her eyes. This girl, no matter how recently she had met him, had clearly fallen desperately in love with Richard. For Richard's sake. No wonder Richard in his turn was smitten enough to risk another few hours in her arms while the king's army was preparing to leave.
She smiled weakly. "Francis."
"And yes," he continued more briskly, "in answer to your question, I am. I've known Richard since before he had any title other than brother."
"Then you would have no secrets," she continued, not wanting him to confirm her suspicions wondering whether out of sheer chivalry he would pretend to deny them but unable to resist asking.
"You might think so," said Lovell. He knew what she was trying to ask; she was transparent in her need to be assured she had not been wrong in her gentle opinion of her lover's courtesy.
"Then you will know what... what has passed between your lord and myself." She met his eyes, daring him to deny it.
Lovell met her gaze levelly, though his skin crawled under the calm grey eyes that seemed to look right into his soul. "I know of it," he confessed. He threw up one hand as he saw the angry colour flush across her face at the thought that she had been the topic of bawdy conversation between the old friends. "Not because he told me of it," he said hastily. "Life-long friends we may be, but you... you, he kept a secret. He uttered not one word."
She stared at him, wanting to believe it, wanting to hope that Richard was as noble and discreet as she had thought he was in those tender moments they had shared. He had not struck her as the kind of man who would brag or boast of his conquest, and she did not want to sully her memory with thoughts of such a thing.
Lovell squirmed. What was it about this girl that made him want to confess everything, to throw himself upon her mercy and hope that she forgave him? "Last night, I suspected, I knew, he had been with a woman, and his very secrecy, his utter denial of it, made me suspicious, and yes, a little jealous, that he could keep such a thing from me. God knows, he's not a man for salacious gossip, and even less likely to provide it, but... I thought I had better follow him and find out what was going on. Ratcliffe would've had my head if anything had happened to his precious charge, and since I was the only one who knew what was afoot, I took it upon myself to look after him..."
"Look after him!" Connie wasn't sure whether to be angry at his admission or to laugh at it for its very absurdity. "You admit you thought he was seeing a woman, and you thought he might need looking after!"
Lovell coloured in spite of himself. "Well, yes. No. It wasn't like that, as such. It's just..."
"You were spying on your friend," said Connie, fixing him with her cool eyes.
There was no denying it now, no matter how much he tried to dress it up in concern or anything else. "Yes."
"And you justified this to yourself by pretending that you were protecting him in case his enemies should rush out and attack him."
"They might have done," he interjected feebly.
"Indeed they might," she said, her tone witheringly sarcastic. "And he of course is completely unable to defend himself, this noble knight."
Lovell's eyes flared suddenly, his anger rising to realise he was being boxed into a corner by a mere peasant girl. "And how should he have defended himself, Mistress, while he was naked and drowsy from sating himself in your arms?" he asked coldly, and immediately regretted his tone as her face crumpled with the pain of such memories. He took a deep breath and exhaled raggedly before speaking again. "My actions were perhaps unworthy, but my words are reprehensible."
She had calmed down too, the flare of rage at being spied upon all but forgotten in the rush of memories his savage words had provoked. Perhaps Lovell had meant to keep an eye on his friend; perhaps he had been concerned for danger. Perhaps jealousy of a secret kept from him might have driven him to an act unworthy of him. But he had said it himself: Richard had not told him a thing. Richard had not spoken a word against her honour, no matter how great the temptation might have been to boast of his easy conquest.
"I forgive you your words," she said gently, meeting his eyes with a shy smile, "Francis." She looked more shrewdly at him. "Whether Richard will forgive you your actions is entirely his decision."
Lovell palpably squirmed again, and Connie knew in that moment that Richard was as yet unaware of his friend's spying on him, that he did not realise he had been observed while they... She blushed to recall what Lovell must have seen, must have heard, and looked away from him, smoothing her hair back behind her ears with nervous fingers.
Lovell saw with amazement that on one of those trembling fingers was a ring he knew well. "Where...?" He took her hand before he could stop himself, though he knew he did not need to see it more closely to be sure of the ring's identity. "He gave you this?" he asked incredulously.
"He did," she snapped, drawing her hand back defensively as though she feared he might take the ring away from her, believing she had stolen it.
"Do you know what that thing is worth?" Lovell was a rich man and often heedless of his wealth, but even he would baulk at the giving away of expensive gewgaws like that to the mistress of a mere day or two.
"I know what it is worth to me," she said gently, closing her other hand around it as though to protect it.
"I mean, do you know its value?" he pressed.
"I know its value to me," she echoed simply. "I have no wish to part with it."
"But that ring could feed you for..."
She lifted her hand and cut him off. "I neither know nor care what it might be worth in monetary terms to another," she said calmly, though her heart was beating fast to realise how shocked Lovell was by the generosity of Richard's gift. "To me it is invaluable, a reminder of something I cannot put a price upon, and that is an end of it."
Lovell admired her pride, and found her loyalty to a lover's gift touching, but wondered how long it would be before some unscrupulous market trader caught sight of it, recognised its value, and swindled her out of it for a fraction of its worth. "Then take care of it, Mistress, for others will surely know its price and will envy you it," he warned.
Her eyes softened. "I am no fool, my lord." She turned it around on her finger so the ruby was hidden in the palm of her hand. "Now it is just a plain band, such as any housewife might wear."
He did not like to point out to her that few housewives in any place, let alone an out-of-the-way country town like hers, would have antique gold in their wedding bands, but decided it would be picking a fight with her needlessly. He bowed his head in admiration of her ruse, and prayed it would be enough to keep it safe. He dreaded to think what she would do if she were to lose it, so much merit and significance had she loaded into it.
Poor, sweet girl, to lose her heart to a man who could never be hers! He felt for her, and he felt for Richard, whom he knew had been more deeply touched by this liaison than anyone might have realised or expected, least of all Richard himself. With any other man, he'd have congratulated him on his prowess, made some bawdy jokes at the girl's expense, and known that by the end of the day she'd be a distant memory, but he suspected it would not be so with Richard. Not over this girl. For whatever reason and who can fathom the machinations of love he had formed a deep attachment to her, and she to him. Who knew how long it would take either of them to forget?
"Mistress Stone," he said suddenly, taking her hands despite her cry of protest, "I know I should not dare to ask after the way I have spoken to you earlier, nor after the way I spied upon you, but I beg of you to consider me your friend, as I am Richard's. If there is ever anything I can do for you, I wish that you might consider you could ask it of me."
She almost laughed at his sudden rush of gallantry but then she sighed heavily. "Can you bring him back to me?" she asked, fresh tears welling up in her eyes.
"Anything but that," he admitted shamefacedly. "Ask me anything but that, dear lady, for that, I fear, is impossible."
She smiled at his effusive words, and the kindness she detected behind them.
"But in truth, dear Mistress Stone, and I call you dear, because I know you are dear to my friend, who is as dear to me as my own brother, and..." He floundered for a moment beneath his confusion. "If I can be of any assistance to you, on any matter, I pray you will remember my offer."
"And how should I find you, my lord, to ask your assistance?" she asked wryly.
"Ah." His face fell, and then brightened again. "When I come into my estates, when this last battle is done, I will not be so very far away, only in Oxfordshire," he said. "I shall send word when I am safely installed in my own lands, and you shall know then how to find me."
Connie laughed at the earnestness in his face, and the ridiculousness of his courtesy. She could not think of any reason why she should ever have need of his assistance, but since it pleased him so much to try to make amends for his harsh words and for his intrusion, she decided to let him have his way. "Very well, my lord, you may send such word, when you are in Oxfordshire," she said, gently mocking him, but only very gently, for she had decided that she liked him, for all his foolishness and his strangeness. She could understand why Richard should have so strong a friendship with such a man, why they should be the foil to each other. So close in age: the one so innocent, the other so worldly.
"Your promise, Mistress, to call upon me in any need," said Lovell earnestly. "I will keep you in Richard's memory, and he in yours, by being your mutual friend."
At that, her tears flowed again, and Connie could not speak to thank him for his kindness.
"And now, Mistress, please let me fulfil my vow to my lord, and deliver you safely to your home." He unfolded his legs and stood up, towering over her, his hands reaching down to draw her to her feet. He brushed down his cloak and pinned it about his shoulders once more.
She showed him the cut-through that brought them out almost opposite her cottage and they stood hesitantly at the gate together. She had already endured two painful farewells with Richard one privately in the meadow at noon, the other publicly in the street scarce an hour ago but to say goodbye to this new friend seemed like a shadowy echo of that earlier pain. For all his fine words, she doubted she would ever hear of or see Francis Lovell again, any more than she would see Richard again, and she stood tormented.
Her father spared her the trouble of finding the necessary words by flinging back the front door and marching up the step to the front gate. "Is this he?" he demanded, reaching out to grab poor Lovell by the shoulders.
Connie stared for a moment at the richly-clad figure of Francis Lovell dragged almost off his feet by her enraged father, before she thrust herself between them. "No, Father, this is not he," she said angrily, "and if it were he, do you think I should thank you for mishandling him so? Put him down!" she insisted.
William Stone mutely obeyed his daughter, though he continued to eye the finely-dressed stranger with undisguised fury.
Connie turned to Lovell with an apologetic smile, but Lovell had wisely decided not to take offence or cause a scene. "I thank you for ensuring my safe return home," she said gently, pressing his hands between hers, "and you may assure my lord Gloucester that no harm has befallen me."
Her father's eyes widened at mention of that name, and he clearly wished he had bothered to turn out with the rest of the townsfolk to see the afternoon's departure after all, if my lord Gloucester had singled out his daughter for some reason.
Connie could see he was palpably itching to ask her what on earth had happened, but he would not dream of so demeaning himself as to ask vulgar questions in front of strangers, so she deliberately kept Francis' hands in hers a moment longer. "And I thank you for your courtesy, my lord," she said, dropping into a delicate curtsey.
Lovell bowed deeply over her hands. "I will forever be at your service, Mistress Stone," he said warmly, his dark eyes appreciative of her. Fine, instinctive manners like that, she could easily pass for lesser gentry if she were dressed better, he thought, and wondered if it would be terribly inappropriate of him to send some good velvet to her so she might make herself a fine gown, by way of recompense for the embarrassment he had caused her by spying on her. God knows, he'd have enough grovelling to do with Richard when it came time to confess all to him. "If you ever need me..."
"I shall find you, my lord," she said sweetly.
"Then adieu, dear Mistress Stone," said Lovell with another flourishing bow. "Or rather, au revoir. Until the next time we meet," he explained under his breath, when she looked at him with puzzled eyes.
They shared a final smile and then he turned and marched swiftly off in the direction of the high street.
"Popinjay!" was her father's judgement. "I'm glad it wasn't him you threw your virtue away on," he added sourly, but instantly regretted his harsh words when he saw the look of crushed despair on his daughter's face. He opened his arms to her and held her against him. "There now, girl, it'll pass," he promised her, as she sobbed her heart out against his chest, "it'll pass."
[(c) August 2011]
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