Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (18 page)

‘All I am saying is that I will never fail you. Never.’

‘I do not deserve you, Cicely,’ he whispered. ‘Believe me, it is best you go now. We should never be alone like this again.’

She could not go, not just yet. ‘Please, I ask one thing of you.’

‘Ask whatever you will.’ His voice shook.

‘One last kiss, to sustain me forever.’

‘Cicely . . .’

‘You cannot cast me away when my eyes are newly opened and my heart is newly bursting with this love. You cannot be so harsh.’

‘I do not cast you away, Cicely, I protect you.’

‘I do not want to be protected
from
you, I want to be
with
you, always, but I know I cannot. I know that if what has happened between us today were to be broadcast far and wide, it would destroy you. I love you too much for that, but I
will
have one small token, one unbroken kiss that I can always feel upon my lips, always be able to share with you again in my thoughts.’

‘Oh, Cicely,’ he breathed. ‘You do not know how you splinter what is left of my heart.’

‘Then kiss me. Let me understand, let me feel you close one last time. Must I go upon my knees to
implore
you?’ Her voice was an almost silent whisper.
‘Please.’
She moved closer, willing him to hold her again, kiss her again. He
must
grant her this small concession, this boon that would always mean everything.

She saw how he tried to resist, but his own feelings were too intense. He took her hand and drew her steadily towards him, holding her gaze as he did. ‘We both know better than this, Cicely.’

‘I do not care.’

She closed her eyes as his arms moved around her in that beloved way, only now it
was
intimate, and she wanted so very much more. If he was reluctant, he gave no sign. The kiss was sweet and true as his parted lips played with hers, teasing, arousing, yearning. He held her to him as if he would never let go, and she was vibrant with love, sinking weakly against him, so lost in desire and emotion that her existence centred only on him. His hair brushed her cheek, his livery collar was cold, his body lean and strong, his arousal tangible. It was a kiss that barely an hour before would have been unthinkable. She would not have believed anyone who foretold it. She knew it was wrong, forbidden, shocking and would be named by most to be unnatural, but she would not deny it. Ever.

He slid his hand to the nape of her neck again, twining his fingers in her hair as he had before. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back as his lips moved upon the pulse of her throat. She was so fortunate, so very fortunate. He, who was so enthralling and to whom she was so devoted, was in her arms, and she was as close to ecstasy as seemed possible.

Her hands roamed adoringly over his damaged back, and she kissed the rich cloth on the shoulder that was a little higher than the other. On this man the physical imperfection was astonishingly pleasing. He seemed so delicate, and yet was so strong, and his face . . . his face was so full of grace. She was kissing the lips she had looked at so often without understanding the wantonness of her feelings. Now she was with him as never before, and she did not want it to end.

If he had chosen to step further beyond the bounds in those moments, she would have stepped with him. There would be no hesitation, no second thought, no regret. She craved consummation, wanted to lie naked with him and give completely. She wanted him to fondle her breasts, to stroke her, love her, be inside her,
need
her as she needed him. Those feelings of suppressed emotion, of unnamed, undeniable desires, were now fully recognized for what they were: a need to love and be loved. She had known it of herself before today, but now,
now
it was tangible fact. At last she had a face to give to the lover she had only imagined before. This man was the reason she lived. No other would ever mean as much.

But this second kiss was to be as broken as the first, for they were interrupted by a knock upon the door. ‘Your Grace?’ Sir Robert Percy! They broke guiltily apart, and Richard ushered her behind a curtain and put his finger to his lips.

He paused to compose himself, and then called. ‘Enter!’

‘Your Grace, it seems the Lady Cicely has been missed.’ Robert looked curiously at Richard’s flushed face.

‘And what has that to do with me?’

Robert shifted uncomfortably. ‘Well, nothing, Your Grace.’ He could hardly point out that the king had called his second niece back when the first had left.

Richard indicated the apartment at large. ‘Do you see her, Robert? Perhaps I have her in a cupboard?’

‘No, Your Grace, I only wondered . . . if she had mentioned where she was going.’

‘I am not party to my niece’s plans, Robert. I am sure she will soon reappear.’ Richard waved his startled friend away, and the door closed quickly behind him.

Cicely emerged slowly from hiding. This was the only way it could ever be, for theirs was a love that was so secret and unacceptable that it must
never
be known to others. He spoke of protecting her, but she
had to protect him too.

‘I
must
go this time, must I not?’ she said. ‘I cannot try to delay the moment of parting?’ she said quietly.

He caught her hand, linking his fingers warmly between hers. ‘Wisdom demands it,’ he said gently.

‘Will you ever speak to me again? Send for me again?’

‘Of course I will speak to you, Cicely. Jesu, I could not endure without at least that consolation, but whether I will send for you as I have in the past . . . perhaps that is not a very good idea. How long could we resist temptation? How long before we do lie together? It is as well that in two days you will go to Sheriff Hutton, and then, well, who knows what lies ahead?’

She knew he was thinking of the inevitable invasion, and her fingers tightened between his. ‘Have faith in yourself, and you will triumph over Henry Tudor.’

‘On my own? Cicely, I do not know who will be at my side and who will have deserted me. Oh, I have good friends and supporters, but there are others who would stab me in the back at their first opportunity. I will fight with whatever I have.’

‘And you will not fail,’ she whispered, pressing his palm fervently to her lips.

He closed his eyes. ‘Please go, Cicely. Use the other door.’ He indicated a door she had never noticed before. ‘You are less likely to be seen that way. It was much used by your father for —’ He stopped.

‘For the same reason?’

Now he gave a reluctant smile. ‘I fear so.’

‘Let me stay a little longer. Just a little longer,’ she pleaded, wishing she was not suddenly so weak.

‘Please, Cicely, for we have no innocence now.’

‘Nor have we sinned,’ she said again.

‘Not fully, but we want to.’

She nodded. ‘Yes, we want to.’

This might be the very last moment she was ever alone with him, and she still found it impossible to simply go as he asked. Was that a sign of her foolish youth and inexperience? If it was, she needed to overcome it, but words and willpower had deserted her. The parting was such torment that all she could do was sink to her knees, wrap her arms tightly around his thighs and rest her cheek against him.

‘I will always love you,’ she whispered. ‘If you could look into my heart, you would see all you could ever wish to. I belong to you.’

‘And I to you, Cicely. And I to you.’ He ran his fingertips over her hair. ‘But now, as you love me, go before you unman me. I would not weep like a babe before you.’ He bent to help her to her feet.

Choking back a sob, she wrenched herself away and ran to the other door, dragged back the bolt on the door and ran out of the royal apartments into a maze of small passages she had never known existed. She found a corner where no one would come, and there gave in to sobs that racked her body. No one saw her, no one could ever know what had happened and could never happen again. Her heart was rending for the love that could never be openly acknowledged, and yet was so essential to her.

Her heart also broke because she betrayed John. And because of her, Richard had too. She was still a maiden, but not in her heart, which belonged to Richard and only to him. Now she knew too well how Bess felt. And how Anne felt too. It was a terrible thing to love so much and yet not be able to have the object of that love.

And how could she ever face John after this? Or Bess? She was unfaithful to them both, and did not know if she could ever conceal it. But even though her conscience twisted within her, she did not want to undo a single moment of being with Richard.

‘You
must
hide it, Cicely Plantagenet,’ she whispered. ‘Not for yourself, but for him.’

Slowly she regained her composure, and at last felt able to make her way back to the apartment she shared with Bess. She felt like Judas, because
she
was the niece who had Richard’s love, and it was a beloved secret that could never be given a voice. Except to him.

Chapter Twenty

It was a
day later, the eve of their departure for Sheriff Hutton, when she next saw John, who had been entrusted with preparations for the journey and had to deal with them alongside his obligations to his father. She was on the castle parapet, watching the army encampments in the distance as Richard’s forces gathered for whatever the coming days would bring. She could hardly bear to think of it, because he would be in such danger. He had ordered no more wearing of black, and so she was in fawn, a subtle colour that seemed suitable.

‘Your thoughts, my love?’

She turned quickly, and John smiled at her. She returned the smile. It was much easier than she had feared, because she did still love him, just not in quite the same way she had previously believed.

He came close, glanced around to see who was near, and then pulled her to him for a moment, brushing his lips to hers. Then he released her and was discreet once more. ‘One thing I look forward to at Sheriff Hutton is the chance to be with you more. It is the
only
thing to which I look forward, because as God is my witness, I want to be with my father.’

‘He would have you safe, John.’

‘I know.’ He leaned on the parapet and looked out over the city. ‘What were you so intent upon?’

‘I was wishing Henry Tudor had never been born.’

‘Ah. A worthy wish.’

She joined him, and they were shoulder to shoulder between the battlements. ‘Will Richard be betrayed, John?’

He did not answer.

‘I cannot bear to think of it.’

‘Do you think
I
can? And he is sending me away. I am his son and should fight at his side, to the very last breath. Instead I will be lolling at Sheriff Hutton, doing nothing at all.’

‘You will be staying alive, John, and that is all he wants of you.’

‘It is not enough for me. It shames me.’

She straightened in surprise. ‘Shames you? Oh, John, I had no idea that is how you felt.’

‘I do not always say what I think,’ he answered, straightening too.

‘Does he know?’

‘No. He has enough on his shoulders without my whining.’

He took a lock of her hair, parting the strands just as his father had done, and for a moment, only a moment, she was with Richard again.

John saw the nuance cross her face. ‘What is it?’

‘Sometimes you are so like him that . . .’

‘Yes?’

‘I do not know, it is simply . . . a great likeness.’

He looked at her. ‘I do not think it displeases you.’

‘What do you mean?’ A pang of alarm struck through her.

‘Simply that I know how high he rides in your esteem. Not in the same way as your sister’s, God be thanked, but you
do
favour him.’

She forced herself to meet his gaze without giving anything away. ‘How could I not? He has always been very kind, and I love him for it.’

‘I am told he’s desirable,’ John said wryly.

‘I did not say I found him desirable!’ she said quickly.

‘No, I know that.’ His hand rested reassuringly on her arm. ‘Please do not think I was suggesting anything, Cicely, for I was only going to say that he sleeps alone, as he has for some time now, the queen having been so frail. He could have any number of ladies of the court, but he takes no one. At least, I do not think he does, although I have already said I do suspect there is someone.’ He smiled, but then pressed his lips together. ‘There is a lot of pressure on him to find a new queen, but he has no stomach for it. He knows his advisers are at work. They seem to favour a Spanish princess who is known to desire a pious life, cloistered away in some religious house or other. Can you imagine such a sanctimonious slab of Iberian stone in my father’s bed? I certainly cannot. He needs a woman’s warmth and love, not her constant prayers.’

‘Yes.’

‘He could have any woman he chose — well, almost any — yet he does nothing about it. I do not understand him, but I certainly wish I knew his secret.’

‘You have me, sir. Surely you do not long for more?’ She teased, and hated herself for it.

‘I do not have
enough
of you, that is the problem. That is another reason to wish Henry Tudor had never drawn breath.’

She smiled, and caught his hand to kiss it. ‘I love you, John of Gloucester.’ It was not a lie.

‘And I love you, but already I must leave you. My father has a long list of tasks for me and I have yet to complete even half of them, but I saw you up here and was determined to spend some moments with you.’ He began to move away, but then paused. ‘I may not see you again before we leave tomorrow.’

‘But then we will be together.’

‘Yes.’ He looked at her for a moment, seeming on the point of saying something, but then he hurried away.

She remained where she was, feeling so full of guilt that it almost made her feel sick. Guilt. Because she loved where she should not, and must be dishonest about it.

Her heart was heavy as she left the battlements, and descended through the castle, but then, without warning, she saw Richard. He was coming towards her, accompanied by Francis and Robert.

Richard’s tread was as agitated as his voice was irritated. ‘So help me, Francis, if you mention Spanish princesses to me one more time, I will put my hands around your throat!’

‘But, Your Grace . . .’

‘Enough!’ Then Richard saw her, but continued to speak to Francis.

She sank into a curtsey, her skirts billowing. ‘Uncle.’

‘Cicely.’ He came forward to raise her, his hand resting beneath her elbow as it had numerous times before, but now the physical contact meant so much more to them both.

Her entire body seemed to lurch within, from her heart and breasts, to those places between her legs where she longed for him most. Those muscles now clenched with the sheer joy and excitement of being close to him again. She gazed at him, the longing almost intolerable, but he alone knew how she felt, because she had sufficient control over herself not to give the truth of it to anyone else.

‘I hope I find you well, Cicely?’ he enquired.

She smiled. ‘Yes, Uncle.’

‘I will miss your sweet company when you go to Sheriff Hutton.’

‘And I yours.’

They gazed at each other, and then he extended his hand for her to kiss, a signal that the meeting was at an end, but as she bent her lips to his skin, the emotion that gripped her was akin to torture because, unseen by the others, he squeezed her fingers.

She straightened again knowing her face was flushed, but it was not something she could help. Were her eyes too dark now? Did they tell tales upon her desire? Did they reveal to the entire world how much she loved this man whom unkind fate had made her uncle? Robert was looking at her. What was his expression? Had he realized something?

Richard inclined his head and walked on without looking back. But she did, she looked back until he and his companions had passed from her view. Even then she stood there, exulting because she could still feel the pressure of his hand and still bask in the warmth of his eyes.

The night before the departure for Sheriff Hutton was clear and starry. A shaft of moonlight slanted into the uncurtained bed where Cicely lay awake and Bess slept beside her.

She knew Richard was in the royal apartments, for there had been a meeting there late in the evening, but was he alone now? The warren of little passages that led up so secretly to his rooms was on her mind, for it offered another chance to go to him. He had told her that everything must end between them, but she knew he said it because he had to, not because he wanted to. And she had looked into his eyes again and seen his longing.

One thing alone kept her where she was, and that was the fear of his anger. If she went to him, would she test him too much? Would he lose patience, heed his conscience and send her away? She lay there, wanting so much, and daring so little. But then came the inconceivable possibility that she would ride from here in the morning and never see him again. What if he
was
to be bought and sold by those who professed to be his friends? What if he faced Henry Tudor and forfeited his life through treachery? What if that were to be the case, and she
had lain
here
instead of going to him?

Such a thing, no matter how unthinkable, was so stark and cruel that she sat up, her dark hair tumbling over the shoulders of her ivory-coloured night robe. She could not stay here, not when she loved so very much. If he was angry with her, then so be it, but at least she would have been true to herself. And to him. She needed to give him her love,
all
of it, and for that she was willing to risk his displeasure.

She slipped from the bed without disturbing Bess, and flung her dark cloak around herself, because it would hide the paleness of her night robe. She did not want to be seen as she made her way through the castle. Starlight pierced every window she passed, and her bare feet made no sound. She did not encounter anyone.

It was only when she saw the door through which she had left his apartments before that it occurred to her it might be bolted on the inside. To leave it otherwise would place him in danger of murder. All was quiet beyond it, and there was no light shining beneath. Was he alone? What if there was someone with him after all? What if he was not even there, but had been called away upon some duty or other?

She faced the door, her hand upon the cold iron of the latch. Was she about to ruin everything they had? Should she knock? Should she turn away? With sudden resolve she lifted the latch, and to her surprise the door gave way before her. The room beyond was silver with moonlight, and she could see the table scattered with documents in need of his signature and seal.

She went inside, glancing all around for him, and at last saw him standing at the window, outlined against the moonlight as he looked at the army campfires and torches beyond the city. He wore a loose, floor-length robe—black brocade, she thought—and he did not glance around, so she did not know if he was aware of her or not. But then he spoke.

‘One step more, Cicely, and our sin is as good as committed.’

He turned, his robe parting slightly. He wore nothing beneath. For a moment she saw all of him, his unequal shoulders, his irregular body, lean but not gaunt, pale, with dark hairs on his chest and loins. His loins . . . She had seen such things before, but this was different. This was
him,
and a quiver of new excitement stirred within her.

And so she took that one more step, and did it gladly. ‘I have come to be with you, however you will have me, because in the morning I will go away from you and—’ She broke off.

‘And you may never see me again?’ he finished for her.

‘Do not say it,’ she breathed.

He came closer and brushed against her as he stretched past to push the bolt across. She felt his warmth, and the scent of costmary on his robe and skin.

Her concern was his safety. ‘It should always be locked, for your protection.’

‘I do not wish to be protected from you, Cicely. That is the only reason it is open, because I hoped you would come. But it must be bolted now, because neither of us intends to do what is right.’ He unfastened her cloak and tossed it aside, so that she stood in her night robe, pale and ethereal in the moonlight.

‘But what we intend
is
right,’ she breathed, ‘because we love.’

‘Oh, Cicely, I pray you will not come to regret this. I pray you do not awaken one morning and hate me because I am your uncle and should still, even now, send you from me.’

She looked into his eyes, those tired but memorable grey eyes that seemed to know everything about her. ‘That will never happen,’ she said.

‘There could be . . . consequences.’

A child. Yes, she knew that. ‘Whatever the consequences of lying with you, I will not change. You have not allowed me to enter this without knowing what I do, or without knowing how you feel. You have laid bare your own conscience, but it makes not one whit of difference. You can never turn me from you. I love you so much, want you so much, that nothing else matters. Nothing. So do not try to reason with me, for it cannot be done. If I do not make love with you tonight, it will be something I will regret for the rest of my existence. And so will you. You are
all
that matters in my life. My feelings for you are
that
complete. You are a treasured gift that is within my grasp, and I intend to reach for you. We both know this is right. We know what is happening to us and we know its importance.’ She smiled gently. ‘We are already one, Richard, and it only remains that we consummate an established fact. I do not wish to give myself to any other man. It must be you, because you are love itself.’

She undid the throat ribbons that gathered the voluminous folds of her night robe and allowed the garment to fall about her feet. It was so right to show herself to him. This was not to be a
surrender
of her chastity, it was to be a giving of it, freely, lovingly, and without any vestige of guilt or wrongdoing. She moved to him, sliding her arms around his neck as she had before. ‘You do not seduce me or manipulate me now, for this is
my
doing,’ she whispered, pressing her body to his and reaching up to kiss his mouth.

He returned her desire, and almost lifted her from her feet with the force of his embrace. His mouth demanded so much, gave so much. He had called her his mirror, and so she was, reflecting and revealing, hiding nothing. His hands moved longingly over her, sometimes to her back, sometimes into her hair, sometimes to her buttocks as he held her against his aroused loins. Wildly ravishing sensations erupted through her because it was him. Richard.

She slipped her hands beneath the black brocade of his robe and explored him too, his distorted back, his waist, his hips, and she was so consumed with love and desire that her inner muscles did not cease their urgent response. Ripples of enticing pleasure danced through her, and enticed still more as he caressed her.

‘I love you, Cicely, so much that I . . .’ He drew back gently, taking her face in his hands. ‘That I have no words to describe my feelings at this moment.’

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