Authors: Virginia Henley
In a small voice Catherine said, “I’m afraid it isn’t.” She hesitated a moment then blurted, “I asked Chancellor Hyde not to allow Parliament to sanction her title.”
Charles was furious. Though the Queen seemed sweet and biddable in most things, in this she was determined to thwart him. He threw back the covers and set his long legs to the carpet. “Good night, madame,” he said coldly.
“Charles, where are you going?” she gasped piteously.
The King did not bother to reply. He thought his destination was patently obvious. He went out through the privy garden and took a shortcut to King’s Street which ran through the palace grounds. Barbara Palmer’s fashionable house was situated most conveniently. It was almost 2:30 in the morning, but he felt confident that she would welcome him with open arms.
Her household servants did not bat an eye as the King of England made his stealthy way up the stairs to milady’s chamber. Barbara was in bed, fortunately alone, but when she heard the familiar step she was awake instantly.
“Don’t get up, darling, I’ll join you in a moment,” Charles said, removing his coat.
Barbara threw aside the covers, lighted a dozen candles, and stood before him, her ample charms displayed in a pale lavender nightgown. His eyes darkened with desire, but she held up a forbidding hand. “Sire, we must talk.”
He sighed. She wouldn’t use a formal title unless she wished to
discuss something serious. “We’ll talk later, Babs, just looking at you has made me hard as marble.” He was on her in two long strides. His practiced, skillful hands pulled the straps of her nightgown from her shoulders, baring her heavy breasts to his heated gaze. He lifted one in his strong, brown hand and bent his mouth to the succulent, dark aureola. He knew he could rouse her to scalding passion in moments with his hands and mouth. She tossed her magnificent head of mahogany-colored hair and cupped his hardness with one knowing hand. As he groaned his need she placed her other hand on her own breast and deliberately pulled the nipple from his mouth. “We will talk now. Your marble rolling pin can wait till later. Charles, I heard something today that made me want to die!” she said dramatically. “There is a conspiracy afoot to make sure I never receive the title you have faithfully promised me!” She clutched the lavender gown to partially conceal her breasts.
“Barbara, you know I will do everything in my power to see you created Countess of Castlemaine,” he soothed. “Come to bed, your king needs your services.”
“Everything in your power!” she scorned. “Anyone would think that old man Hyde has more power than you. Get rid of him, Charles!”
“In a way Edward Hyde does have more power than I. He is my chancellor, Barbara, and the head of Parliament.”
“Well, if you intend to let everyone dictate to you, including your wife, I can clearly see your promises are just empty words.”
“Her Majesty does not dictate to me,” he said ironically, “but you, my love, fight me tooth and nail every chance you get. I swear ’tis so you can display how lovely you are when you are angered,” he said in a coaxing voice as he moved close and slid one strong hand up her arm to rest on her bare shoulder.
She flung his hand off. “I always allow you to take advantage of me. You think everything can be settled in bed,” she stormed.
“So most things can, love. Come, Barbara, you know your need is as great as mine.” His hand moved to cup her magnificent breast again and she moaned low in her throat. “No, no, noooo, Charles, not this time. When I think of the sacrifices I’ve made for you, my blood runs cold and now you won’t even take my part against them!”
“Sacrifices, Barbara?” he asked, thinking of the money, houses, and jewels he’d lavished on her.
“I’m the scandal of Whitehall—the whole court knows you’re at me in daylight hours as well as at night. I’ve sacrificed my reputation, I’ve sacrificed the goodwill of my husband.” She threw open the bedchamber door and cried dramatically, “Come with me to the nursery and I’ll show the other sacrifices I’ve suffered for you.”
“Barbara, be still! It would be cruel and thoughtless to waken the children at this hour.” He sighed deeply. “I wish you could find it in your heart to be generous toward me, Babs. I’ve just spent a miserable two hours with Her Majesty over you.”
“Have you?” She looked inordinately pleased, and went to pour herself a glass of white Rhenish wine. As she walked before the fire her luscious curves were silhouetted through the sheer nightgown and Charles bit down hard on his lip to prevent himself from seizing her and forcing compliance.
He said shrewdly, “You aren’t going to let me into your bed, are you?”
“Not until this matter is settled, Charles.”
He lifted her velvet bedgown in his long fingers. “Then for God’s sake put this on … you’re driving me mad!”
“Did you know that Her Majesty expressly forbade Hyde signing my title?” she demanded.
“Clarendon isn’t the sort of man who would let either Catherine or myself sway him from his duty,” explained Charles.
Barbara screamed, picked up a flacon of expensive perfume, and threw it against the wall. “Clarendon? Clarendon?” she screamed like a demented parrot. “So it’s true … you’ve given him an earldom while denying me my title!”
“I’ve denied you nothing, Barbara.”
She cried hysterically, drowning out his words. “I’ve been like a faithful wife to you and this is the thanks I get … cast aside like an old shoe!”
The King smiled cynically. “Wives are notoriously faithless and you’re no exception, and as for that last accusation about casting you aside, one glance will show you I’m ready, willing, and eager to make love to you the rest of the night. Trouble is, Barbara, I believe you derive more pleasure creating a scene and watching me beg than in lying with me.”
His words infuriated her. “You know that’s not true. I’m the most passionate woman you’ve ever made love to! I’m the only woman who can match your sensuality. I’m always eager to satisfy any new tastes for which you develop an appetite.”
“Yes, that is true,” he said wistfully, “but for eleven years I went hat in hand across Europe. My begging days are over, Barbara.” He donned his purple velvet coat and clapped his hat upon his head. “See an apothecary about these vapors, madame, I find them increasingly tiresome,” he warned. “I bid you good night, or rather good morning!”
uark Helford was faring no better than his monarch. After he left Her Majesty’s drawing room he made his way to the fashionable house he had rented in Tothill Street for Mistress Ann Ashley. He let himself in quietly then realized there was little need for quiet since she was not yet at home.
He made himself comfortable by removing his hat and coat and helped himself to a bottle of burgundy. He could not question her maid as she was nowhere to be found and so he sat back to wait with his feet propped up casually on a polished table.
After an hour and the burgundy had both disappeared he was spoiling for a fight. He opened a small drawer in the table and began to leaf through Ann’s bills. The muscle in his jaw clenched like iron as he found she had run up five hundred pounds in clothes and jewels this week alone.
She came in with her maid, saw the look on his face, and said quickly, “Leave us, Millie.”
Ruark Helford greeted her with neither word nor kiss, and she saw by his stance that he was in a very dangerous mood. She threw her fan, muff, mask, and cloak into a chair and began to undo her gown. She knew she must get him into bed as quickly as possible. She said breathlessly, “Ruark, darling, I thought you were with the
King tonight. If I’d been expecting you, I wouldn’t have dreamed of going to Elizabeth Hamilton’s supper party.”
Still holding the bills, he regarded her figure from head to foot and she babbled, “I needed a new gown, Ruark.”
He slanted an eyebrow. “One?”
“Well, three then … and I thought perhaps you’d like to make me a gift of the pearls as a sort of goodbye present.” She pouted prettily. “I wish you weren’t leaving for Cornwall, darling, I’ll simply die of loneliness.”
She had removed her gown and stood before him in her busk, a small corset which uplifted her breasts, and a pair of lace stockings with pink garters. She prayed the dishabille would divert him. It did not.
“Are there any more of these or is this the lot?” He casually waved the fistful of bills.
She approached him carefully. “You’ve spoiled me so much, my love, let me thank you in the way you love best.” She removed the busk and he glanced down at her small, pretty breasts and tiny waist. She stood on tiptoe and slid her arms up about his neck, bringing her bared breasts in contact with his wide chest.
He removed her arms from his neck and stepped away from her.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded, eyes blazing. “You act as if you don’t want me to touch you!”
“I don’t,” he said simply, “not until I’ve learned where you’ve been.”
“I told you I was at a supper party—”
“Ann, don’t insult my intelligence,” he warned. His eyes were so cold, she reached for a silk robe to cover her nakedness.
“You’ve been listening to gossip. There’s always someone at Court ready to run to you with lies.”
“The rumors link you with the King’s brother, James.” He said it flatly and awaited her denial. It came in a great rush of protest. She ran the gamut from anger to swearing before God, to the prettiest tears to which a man had ever been subjected. Finally she threw herself facedown upon the bed and waited for the mattress to dip, telling her she would be in his arms in another moment.
She waited in vain. Fear crept up her spine. She could never manipulate Ruark Helford the way she could other men. That’s what made him so damned attractive. His face was always dark, hard, and impossible to read. His mouth had a hint of the ruthless savage about it. It was the kind of mouth that made a woman die
for his kisses. She felt the danger in the room ready to explode, and it made her breasts tingle and the spot between her legs throbbed with the ache to have him fill her.
She cursed herself for a fool for flirting with James, Duke of York, before Ruark was out of the picture, but when he’d told her he was returning to Cornwall, her loss had been so great, so devastating, she had acted irrationally. Her loss wasn’t just financial— one rich man could always be replaced by another rich man—her loss was emotional and physical. She had allowed herself to fall in love with him and allowed herself to dream of marriage.
She could never quite believe her own good fortune in attracting the most virile, desirable male at Court. He could never be replaced by any other courtier save a royal one, and that was the reason she’d encouraged the King’s brother. She rolled over onto her back and temptingly stroked the sole of a lacy foot along her other leg. She asked breathlessly, “Are you going to punish me?” She needed his hands on her body, one way or another.
His hazel eyes darkened to deep brown and he half closed his eyelids to mask the pity in them. “You will be punished for your actions, my dearest Ann, but not by my hand.” He hesitated, then said quietly, “James has syphilis.”
Her eyes widened in fear and the blood drained from her face. Ruark silently picked up his coat and his wide-brimmed hat. “I’ll take care of the bills,” he said quietly, and took his leave.
Two tall, dark men walking from opposite directions came face-to-face in Birdcage Walk. Ruark Helford swept off his hat in deference to his king. Charles’s cynical voice drawled, “Nothing like a stroll in St. James Park at four o’clock in the morning.”
“No, Sire. ’Tis the only way to avoid the riffraff,” replied Helford sardonically.
“I’m rather fond of riffraff,” mused Charles.
Helford raised an eyebrow to mock himself, “I think we’re in the same boat, Sire.”
“Women!” snorted Charles. “Where the hell can a king get laid?” He lifted his head to see that the first faint rays of dawn lightened the sky. “A fast game of tennis until daylight? It’s the only sport we’ll get this night.”
Ruark bowed his acceptance. “If you don’t think we’ll get carted off to Bedlam with the rest of the lunatics.” His body screamed for action. He would have preferred being behind his ship’s wheel in a
storm, or riding a blooded stallion across the moors, but in a pinch a brutal game of tennis might rid him of his spleen.
They walked briskly through the park to the tennis courts, and as they passed the grassless alley where they played pall mall with wooden mallets, sending the ball through hoops fifteen feet from the ground, Charles said, “I’d prefer a game of pall mall but I don’t suppose we could round up eight other fools at this hour.”
Their play was so fast and furious they were soon shirtless. The two athletic, powerful men were so well matched it took two full hours of play to determine an even number of games won by each would have to be called a draw.
As the two companions donned their shirts and coats, Charles said, “Ruark is an Irish name isn’t it?”
Helford nodded. “My mother was Irish.”
“That gives me an idea, by God! I’ll put Barbara’s title through the Irish peerage since Clarendon refuses to sign it!”