Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (19 page)

‘Words are not needed,’ she whispered.

‘Cicely, you do know my honesty in this?’

‘Of course. You do not hide pages from me now.’

He smiled. ‘No, you see me as I am.’

‘And you see my honesty too?’

His hand rested lovingly against her cheek. ‘You have never been dishonest, Cicely.’

‘Nor have you. Not really. You simply did not tell me what you felt. There is a difference.’

‘My words turned upon me again?’

‘Yes, because I will not have you blame yourself for everything. You had done nothing wrong when I realized what my love for you really was, you merely confronted me with it. I did not run then, nor do I now.’

He caught her hand to lead her into the bedchamber where he always slept alone. There she turned to him, and pushed his robe gently from his shoulders. As it fell away, she did not see his imperfection, only that he had no fault at all. No fault at all. She slipped on to the bed and laid her head back where she knew his had been, and then she held out her hand. ‘Come to me,’ she whispered.

He took her hand and joined her, leaning over so that his heavy hair fell forward. His eyes shone with love. ‘Cicely, you are a maid. I do not wish to hurt you.’

‘You will not, I know it, but should that be, I will welcome it.’

He lowered his lips to hers again, gathering her to him in a kiss that seared them both. He caressed her breasts, stroked her nipples, kissed them, ran his tongue over them, and sucked upon them until her delight was almost too much. His hand moved gently to her most feminine places, exploring that which had never been explored before. He was no untried boy, but a man who knew well how to give her all the pleasure she could seek.

She was adrift in the gratification he gave so tenderly, and when his kisses moved down to her thighs and then between them, she cried with happiness. Oh, the things she learned in those minutes, the things he taught her about her own body, things she had not imagined could be so. He took her to peaks of pleasure, and kept her there, showing her the secrets of her own flesh, as well as his own.

There were no boundaries. She covered him with kisses too, and ever more intimate caresses. She discovered that her instincts did not fail her, and she knew how to pleasure him too. There were things she did to him that made him arch with rich enjoyment, especially when she no longer resisted the temptation to explore his masculinity. Never had she believed she would go so far, or want to so very much. She adored his maleness, kissed it, tasted it, hid her face against it, until at last he could endure no more.

He pushed her gently on to her back, parted her thighs, and moved over her. There he paused, his hips lowered between her legs, their final joining yet to be accomplished. He smiled down at her flushed face and darkened eyes. ‘Do you need to know again how I love you?’

‘Do you need to know how much I worship you?’ she whispered. Could she have wished for a more exquisite initiation than this? She gazed up at his face, the face of her king, her uncle and her lover, and was filled with every sweet emotion it was possible to imagine. ‘Love me now,’ she said softly.

Slowly, so slowly, he pushed forward. She felt his heat press against her, felt how he eased himself against her body’s gentle resistance. Her senses were jubilant, liberated by his love and her own cravings. And
he
was the one with whom she shared it all. There was no echo now of this being a sin, no shadow to darken her happiness.

She gasped as her body accepted him and at last he was fully inside her. She moved against him, weeping as a torrent of joy undulated through her. Never could she have anticipated such a sweet torment.

He withdrew a little, and then returned, then he did it again, slow voluptuous strokes that imparted something akin to ecstasy. Even now he thought of her, taking his time, allowing her to do as she wished as well. There was no selfishness, only love. He was her first lover, and he would not spoil anything. It would be as wonderful an initiation as he could make it, because he wanted her to remember these moments as enchantment. But at last he could resist no more. His need became too imperative. But he carried her with him as he came.

She felt him pulsing inside her, and it was exquisite. Control abandoned her as a welter of unutterable gratification swept her away. Had she been able to melt into his flesh she would. The passion was almost brutal in its demands, and her fingernails dug into him as she willed it never to stop. But it had to stop. Not quickly, but fading away into gentle waves until she was so relaxed and drowsy that she could not do anything except hold him.

She felt his lips upon hers again, gentle, stirring and filled with tenderness. How could this be a sin? How could something so unutterably radiant be wrong? This man meant the entire world to her, and it did not matter that he was her uncle. It just did not matter.

He moved from her at last, and lay on his back beside her, as drained as she by the power of their lovemaking. She nestled close, her head upon his chest. His arm was around her, and he rested his cheek against her hair. ‘Now we have tempted Providence,’ he said softly.

‘We defy it.’

He smiled and closed his eyes. ‘I wish I could regret it.’

‘Do not ever regret it! Ever.’ She scrambled to sit up. ‘I am so happy at this moment,’ she whispered, tears springing to her eyes. ‘You have made the sweetest love to me, and shown me more delight in one night than most women will know in a lifetime.’

‘And so you cry?’ He smiled. Oh, such a smile, for it made love to her again.

She tried to return it, but her lips shook.

‘What is it?’ he asked, reaching up to push a lock of her hair behind her ear.

‘We should be able to love each other openly, not hide away like this.’

His smile deepened. ‘Cicely, I do not think I would
ever
choose to do before the world what we have just done.’

She had to smile as well. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘Yes, but we cannot be open. For so many reasons. But I want you to know that I
do
wish you to be my queen. There is nothing in which I would exult more. With you I would be complete at last, and no queen would ever have been more cherished by her king.’ He was silent for a long moment, and then added, ‘I will not take any other wife.’

She was shocked. ‘Not take a wife? But you must have an heir.’

‘I have one. Jack de la Pole.’

‘But he is not your son, not
your
blood, only the blood of your sister.’

‘Cicely, do you really imagine I could take anyone else to my bed now? I have broken almost every rule I hold dear and defied my deepest conscience because I need
you.
No one else can ever be to me what you are now. I know what I do, and will not swerve from my decision. My loyalty is to you alone, and if that means keeping myself only to you, then so be it.’

‘You cannot. You
must
have an heir of your own body. You know you must.’

He shook his head. ‘No, Cicely. Some things are more important.’

‘Then I wish we did not love, because I am now between you and your dynasty.’

‘But we do love, sweetheart, and it can never be otherwise.’

Her tears would not go away. ‘I am your curse.’

‘My
curse
?
Jesu, Cicely, you are the only thing that is good in my life!’ He sat up to take her chin between his fingers and kiss her fiercely on the lips. ‘Do you not see how I need you? How I cannot do without you? If I took another wife, I would betray her every night with you.’

She gazed at him through a mist of tears. ‘I love you so much, Richard.’ She put her lips to his, and closed her eyes, for the feeling was too much.

He drew her back down to the bed and gathered her into his warm embrace again. She slid her arms lovingly around his waist, and touched his back. His twisted back. ‘Please tell me the pain does not get worse.’

‘After all that had been said between us, would you have me lie to you
now
?
It does get worse, but slowly. I can manage.’

‘Would that I could take it away and make you straight again.’

He smiled. ‘Oh, tonight you have, believe me.’

So great was her love that she would have allowed him to steal her soul. There was no question of it, no hesitation to mar the perfection of emotion he had aroused in her. She drew even closer to him, enjoying the beat of his heart, the leanness of his body, the scent of him. He was real. This was not another of her foolish dreams. She had lain with him, and he had made it sublime for her. The Bible said they sinned. But they did not.

‘Cicely . . .’

She drew away, knowing by his voice that he did not wish to say what he was about to.

He took her hand. ‘Sweetheart, we should think carefully of what we do, not only because I am your uncle, because even if I were not, I have still taken your innocence and there might be proof of it nine months hence. What then?’

‘The lover in me would exult,’ she said quietly.

He smiled a little. ‘I would take care of you, you do know that? Maybe I cannot make you my wife, or—for your sake—acknowledge the child, but I will see you do not lack for anything.’

‘The only thing I do not wish to lack is you. If you are in my life I do not care about anything else.’

But then he remembered John. ‘Oh, dear God, John.’ He got up from the bed and went to the window, an unprotected figure as the light of the moon fell over him. ‘I speak of wanting you as my wife, when you are to be
his
wife. I have given him my
fatherly
permission, and now I have made a cuckold of him even before the event.’


I cannot have you, Richard, but I know that you wish it were otherwise. I will not hurt John. I will marry him and be a good wife.’

‘Will you then stay away from court? From me? Because you will have to if you are to be a good wife to my son and I a father to him. You and I will
never
be able to stay apart, and we both know it.’ He pressed his lips together bitterly. ‘How can I ever be a good father to him anyway after this?’

‘You
are
a good father. What has happened here tonight is
my
fault. I came here because I could not allow us to part without having taken this one chance to be together as we need to be. Would you wish us not to have made love? This is not a battle stratagem, for which you must consider every possibility, it is love, which will not conform to military rules.’

‘Cicely—’

‘Please.’ Fresh tears pricked her eyes.

His eyes were tender. ‘You have me in your power, Cicely. I will do whatever you wish of me, you have only to ask.’

‘Then come to me and hold me close again. Let the devil take the consequences.’ She took his hand.

He smoothed her fingers with his thumb. ‘Know always that I love you, Cicely.’

‘Kiss me, for I will not waste another moment speaking of things that are in the lap of the gods. We only have tonight.’

Their eyes met for a moment, their thoughts upon the same thing. ‘I
will
return after defeating the Tudor,’ he said.

‘I know.’

The words were hollow, and they both knew it. There was no guarantee of anything, especially when there were possible traitors near him.

She would not cry again, she thought, and smiled again. ‘Make love to me, Richard, for I can never have enough of you.’

Chapter Twenty-One

The next morning,
as storm clouds scudded low over the land, a small group of swift horses and palfreys was gathered in the courtyard. Nearby waited a small detachment of men-at-arms, no more than twelve in all, their livery and leopards’ head banners asserting their allegiance to be to Jack de la Pole.

There were no other colours, nothing that would identify John of Gloucester or Cicely’s ten-year-old cousin, Edward, Earl of Warwick, attainted son of the dead Duke of Clarence. The story had been put about that Cicely and Bess were to go to Sheen, to be with their mother, and that their little cousin Warwick would be with them.

Jack, usually so carefree, was grim-faced and angry, snapping at a groom who had trouble controlling his famous white horse, which had to be seen at least for the first portion of the journey. Going to Sheriff Hutton was as little to Jack’s liking as to John’s, for they did not relish the safety of the north when Richard was under threat. Jack was fiercely courageous, acutely perceptive and infinitely thoughtful, and he longed to do battle with Henry Tudor, as he had been heard to protest loudly to the king.

‘Uncle, I cannot skulk like a fox in a hole while you defend your realm! I should be at your side, and so should your son!’

Richard’s response had been to the point. ‘Well, skulk you shall, my lord of Lincoln, because England would not benefit from the forfeit of
both
our lives. You are also no stranger to Sheriff Hutton, because the Council of the North is centred there and
you
are its principal member. And I want you safe for the future. Do you understand?’

‘But—’

‘Sweet Jesu, why will no one simply do as I command? I know you are all loyal, but as God is my witness you make it hard for me! I have endured enough from John, who all but tugs my hem to change my mind. And Francis, who almost weeps because I wish him to go to the south of the country to guard it for me. And now you. Jack, you will
all
do as I say, and like it!’

There the matter had ended, and Jack bowed to his uncle’s authority, but with as bad a grace as John had before him.

Cicely waited quietly with Bess, who had managed to remain composed and dignified since finally confessing everything to the man who wanted to hear it least. Cicely’s heart was heavy, because after today she too would be far away from Richard, without any hope at all of seeing him, happening upon him, or even hearing him in another room. She would not be able to watch him toy with his rings while someone read a document to him, or close his eyes as he listened to sweet music. Or kneel, head bowed, at Mass. She . . . would not see him at
all
.

She had not been alone with him since last night, but the kisses they had shared still warmed her. She had those hours with him that no one could ever take away. Her body still treasured him, still needed him. She would never again be the same. Never again sweet, innocent Cicely, because she had been exposed to the full force of a powerful love that would be with her for all time. Richard Plantagenet, King of England, that matchless man, was her lover. She tried to think only of his victory against Henry Tudor, and the time when he would send for them all again. It was the only comfort she could have.

There was a bustle of activity from a nearby doorway and Richard appeared, accompanied by Robert Percy and John Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Behind them came Norfolk’s son, the Earl of Surrey. The old duke was pleading with the king, and as they approached the waiting company Richard’s answer carried clearly.

‘Very well, I will give no further argument, my lord, you may do as you wish. The cannon at the Tower are at your disposal. I will send word to Brackenbury this very day.’

‘Richard, I will put them to good use, maybe even blast the Tudor’s miserable Welsh head from his scrawny neck!’ The duke roared with laughter at his own words, slapping his great hand on Richard’s shoulder with the rough camaraderie of a long and trusting friendship.

Richard smiled and then inclined his head to both men before coming over to the waiting group to say his farewells.

Cicely watched him, loving him so much that she knew the coming few minutes would be perhaps the most difficult of her life. To go from him when she had so recently truly found him.

He did not meet her eyes as he smiled at them all. ‘I bid you Godspeed for a safe journey and will await word of your timely arrival in Sheriff Hutton. I trust you know what you must do, Jack?’

The Earl of Lincoln knelt before the king and pressed his hand to his forehead. ‘I do, Your Grace. As few as possible shall know of our journey or its destination, but they had better take care of Héraut!’

‘You have my word. Your horse will not come to harm, and will be returned to you in due course.’

Jack looked earnestly into Richard’s face again, determined to try one last time to make him change his mind. ‘Sire, will you not reconsider? Let me ride by your side against the enemy!’

‘Jack, as you are my dear sister’s son I will ignore your continual requests, but my mind stays firm. If the tide should turn against me, I shall at least have the knowledge that York may continue through you . . . through all of you.’

Jack stood dejectedly and bowed low to the uncle he idolized. There was only ten years between them, but the difference was great. Richard was collected and hard to read, his nephew wore valour and brilliance on his sleeve.

John went next to kneel at his father’s feet, bringing the boy Warwick with him. ‘Father, my heart is heavy at this leave-taking.’

‘My dearest son, my love for you knows no bounds and I would be proud indeed to have you ride into battle at my side, but this is not to be. You must be as safe as Jack here, and for the same reasons.’

With a heavy heart John went to where his horse waited. Jack remained where he was, and Cicely thought that even now he deliberated whether to press the king yet again.

Richard stepped to his brother Clarence’s son and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. ‘As I loved my brother George, your father, so I love you too. May God watch over you.’ He raised the boy, who immediately went to stand with Jack, whom he followed like a puppy.

Richard looked at last at his nieces, who came forward together to kneel side by side. ‘I trust I will have your prayers, ladies?’

Cicely could not answer, the moment was too affecting, and seemed so very final. He had not changed his mind about anything. She would have to go away from him, and it felt as if he cut her in half.

Bess looked at him. ‘You will always have my prayers,’ she said in a shaking voice. ‘And you will always have my love.’

‘I know, Bess.’

‘I cannot tell you how much I hope for your victory in the coming weeks. I will call upon God’s protection for you.’

‘Thank you, Bess.’ He stretched his hand down, but she pulled swiftly away and rose without his permission. She looked one last time into his eyes and then hurried away to the waiting palfreys, where the new maid, Mary Kymbe, waited, cloaked against the wind, her soft brown hair aflutter.

Now only Cicely was left, kneeling before Richard, wanting to embrace him as she had before, to kiss his lips and feel his love for her. But she knelt there, giving nothing away when she longed to give her whole self.

‘Cicely?’ Her name was a caress on his lips.

She raised her eyes, and drank the love in his gaze. ‘Be safe,’ she whispered. ‘Be safe for me, for I cannot bear to go from you.’

He bent so that only she would hear. ‘I do not want you to go, Cicely, for I want more than anything to keep you here with me. I want to fall asleep at night in your arms, and wake up in them in the morning. I want to make love to you, only to you, sure in the solace that your love is only for me. How can I say more of what is in my heart? You shine in my darkness, and I want to reach for you. Whatever happens, always remember what I have said to you today, for it is an expression of the great truth of my life. There are many
un
truths, but truths as well, and
this
truth surpasses them all. You and I are not supposed to be like this, but we are, and nothing can change it. Take my love with you, and always keep it close, for it can never belong to another.’

She wept unashamedly, so moved she could not rise when he indicated. He put his hand out. ‘Come, let me help you.’

His fingers were strong and firm, and she clung to them as she found her tongue at last. ‘May a fond niece hug her favourite uncle farewell? As she would once have done?’ she whispered.

She saw there were tears in his eyes. ‘Yes, Cicely, she can.’

She flung her arms around his neck and held him tightly, burying her face in his dark hair, against his neck. ‘Every night when I go to sleep, I will think of you,’ she whispered. ‘I will make love with you and adore you, and I will be with you when you ride against Henry Tudor.’

He held her close but knew that to let the moment hang would draw unwelcome attention, and so he released her. ‘I am a fortunate uncle to be held in such regard,’ he said lightly, intending to be heard. She felt Robert Percy’s eyes upon her again, and this time sensed his dawning understanding. But he looked away again, and she knew he would never speak of it.

Richard turned to Jack. ‘Take good care of her for me.’

‘I will.’ But Jack’s glance moved to Cicely and then back to Richard, and she knew he too had observed.

She was hardly aware of walking to her palfrey, or of the party riding towards the barbican. She looked back, oh, how she looked back, for that last glimpse, that final moment before she could not see him anymore.

Take my love with you, and always keep it close, for it can never belong to another. . . .

From the black shadows of the gatehouse the small cavalcade destined for the north emerged into the dull daylight, where the wind blew across the hillside and a group of travel-stained horsemen gave way for them to cross the drawbridge. With a huge effort, Cicely drew herself up, determined to show pride and dignity, for she recognized the thin, shrewd face of Margaret’s husband, Lord Stanley, the banners above his head bright with the silver buck’s head of his cognizance. He swore allegiance to Richard, but the veil over his shifty eyes was to hide his treachery; she could sense it as surely as if ‘Iscariot’ had been branded into his forehead. She sat decorously on her mount, her back straight, looking straight ahead. She would
not
acknowledge him, not the man who was Henry Tudor’s stepfather!

Bess instinctively did the same, and the sisters rode past Stanley together, heads held high, their Yorkist pride and disdain there for all to see.

But the unexpected encounter with Lord Stanley was an unfortunate stroke, because Richard’s small party knew its departure had already been noted by someone who was most likely in the wrong quarter, and the chances of being followed had now increased tenfold.

Only when they were riding south through the narrow streets of Nottingham did Bess speak of the king. ‘You have no idea how I envy you, Cicely. His affection for you is so freely given. You can hold him and allow your fondness be known to one and all, whereas I . . .’ She gave a mocking laugh. ‘I ruined what little I had, and can never be close to him again.’

Cicely stared at her palfrey’s ears, so culpable that she did not dare to look at her sister. She could hear his voice again.
Take my love with you, and always keep it close, for it can never belong to another.
The tears flowed. Her shoulders shook and great sobs were dragged into the open air. She could not stem them, and Bess could not soothe her. Poor Mary Kymbe, so new to her place, did not know what to do, except sit on her pony and stretch out a nervous hand which she immediately withdrew again, as if she had presumed upon her position.

John turned his horse back. ‘Cicely? What ails you?’

‘We have left him,’ she wept. ‘He needs us all but we have left him.’

‘It is
his
command, sweeting, not our wish.’ John put his gauntleted hand on her arm.

They were passing beneath the city gate, where the shadows deepened, and he was his father’s son again. She gazed at him through a blur of hot tears. She was untrue to him because of his father, and she could not bear it. ‘I do not deserve your love, John.’ She fumbled with her glove, meaning to return the ring.

He was dismayed. ‘No! Never say that! What is wrong, Cicely? Please tell me.’

‘I cannot.’

He did not understand. ‘If you will not tell me, I cannot hope to offer you comfort. But I still worship you, no matter what. Keep the ring. Spurn me if you must, but keep the ring.’

She swayed in the saddle, trying to hold on to what remained of her fortitude. She heard John’s anxious calls, and Bess’s, but the last voice she heard was Richard’s
. Take my love with you, and always keep it close, for it can never belong to another. . . .

It was Jack who took her up on Héraut, although she hardly knew it. She was adrift in the grief of leaving Richard, and could only hide her face against her cousin’s broad shoulder. His arm was around her waist, strong and steady, and although he did not speak, she was glad of him. It could not be John, not now, when guilt was all she had.

John led her palfrey and was clearly upset by her, to him, strange behaviour. He could not know how she had failed him, but nothing would have made her behave differently towards Richard. The love was simply too powerful. So much had happened to her, so much had changed . . . and was more exquisite, yet more filled with torment than she would ever have believed.

They rode south as planned, the men-at-arms following, Jack’s leopards’ head banners on display, making certain that no one they passed would be in any doubt what party they were. Into the forest they went, following a little-used track that wound between the wet, whispering trees. Suddenly another group of riders appeared ahead, waiting by a small bridge over a stream. They were clad as Richard’s party, and all but one mounted on similar horses. The one stood with a dark bay mount that would not draw particular attention, and he and Jack exchanged steeds.

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