‘A message?’ She searched his earnest eyes. ‘From . . . ?’
He nodded. ‘Oh, do not fear that your confidence will ever be betrayed, for I am a man of honour.’
‘I had already guessed that you knew,’ she answered. ‘And I am aware that Francis does as well.’
‘I trust your love is truly given, my lady, because it will surely destroy Richard if it is not.’
‘Never was love more truly given, Sir Robert. I would die before I failed him.’
He smiled. ‘Then I am charged to take you to him.’
she gasped, but then for some reason her glance fell upon the letter Jack had received. It was so fresh, so uncreased, and the seal was as bright and crisp as if it had only just been pressed with Richard’s ring. ‘He is not in Nottingham, is he?’
‘No, my lady, although no one but you and I know it. It is believed he is indisposed and confined to his apartments. In fact he and I left Nottingham at dusk yesterday, and we have used fast relay horses to come here. Eighty miles is a long way for horses that have not been so trained.’
‘Just the two of you?’
‘But he is the king! How could he put himself in such danger? He has so many enemies.’
‘He would rather face any number of hazards to be with you than stay where he is without you, even though it can only be for a few hours.’
‘Oh, Richard.’ Tears shimmered on her lashes. ‘Where is he now?’
‘But half an hour away to the south. There is an old hunting tower.’
‘I believe I know it . . . I have seen it above the trees.’ He was so near? How had she been so unaware? How had she not
‘Never did any man need his lady more.’
‘He is well?’ she asked quickly, alarm springing.
‘As well as could be expected. He is not ill, but he is under a great strain. It would be better for him if you were still in Nottingham, but that cannot be. And besides, there are . . . obstacles for you both.’
‘I am aware of that, Sir Robert. No one could be more aware.’ She had to take a deep breath to compose herself. ‘When may I see him?’
‘Are you still to stay behind when everyone else goes hawking?’
‘Yes.’ Jack must have told him.
‘Do you know which way they go?’
‘You are sure?’
She nodded. ‘Yes, perfectly sure. I think it probable they will stay overnight at one of the manors. I do not know which one. Jack is determined it is to be quite an outing, even without his white hobby. I wonder he does not wear white as well,’ she added.
a colour for Jack of Lincoln?’ Robert raised an eyebrow. ‘However, if everyone is to be away from Sheriff Hutton today, and if they know you do not like hawking, perhaps you and I could ride together? I am sure I will be regarded as a harmless escort.’
She smiled. ‘You are a gentleman, Sir Robert. The king would not send you to me if you were not.’
‘I am first and foremost his friend, Lady Cicely.’
‘And for that, I hold you in great respect.’ She smiled sadly. ‘If only I were not his niece . . .’
‘My lady, fate has dealt him so many blows that I wonder he does not break beneath it all. He is but human, and his life is filled with sorrow. Except for you, Lady Cicely, because you have warmed his heart again, and for that alone I am your most willing servant. No one deserves happiness more than he. He is the most loyal and supportive friend any man could have.’
She looked at him. ‘He
well? You would not deceive me?’
‘He is well, my lady, as you will soon see for yourself. The long ride caused him pain, but he was bathing when I left. Warm water eases the discomfort, although it does not banish it, of course.’
‘I . . . I cannot believe he is near.’
In the room behind them John laughed at something Jack said, and she lowered her eyes guiltily. She was making arrangements to go to Richard while John was in the same room. It shamed her, and yet she could only place his father first.
Robert saw. ‘It is not easy for you, I think.’
‘In the end, there is no choice. It will always be Richard. It can never be anyone else.’
She turned towards the room again and felt Jack’s eyes upon her. His fingers rapped quietly upon the king’s letter and he smiled. He knew.
The hunting tower
stood on a hillside, its parapets above the trees. When it was built there were not any trees, and those who stood on its roof would watch stag hunting across the valley below and the hills beyond. A brook trickled down the slope against its eastern walls, and everything was very quiet. There were no horses, no sounds. A curl of smoke rose from the chimney of one of the low outbuildings that clustered against the tower’s uphill wall, for there was a keeper and his wife who took care of everything no matter if there was hunting or not.
It was the middle of the afternoon and the air was very warm and still as Robert and Cicely rode up towards the tower. Harnesses jingled, and their mounts trod easily on the soft mossy track that wound among the trees.
Cicely’s heart was pounding with such hope and anticipation that it seemed set to burst. She too had bathed, and then chose a gown of honeysuckle gold silk that she hoped would brighten Richard’s heart. Her hair was free about her shoulders, without even a small cap to control it, and her skin was sweet with rose water.
When they were almost there, she glanced at Robert. ‘Please tell me I will not suddenly awaken and find myself back at Sheriff Hutton.’
‘It is real, my lady. He awaits you. This is no jest or deception. He has come all this way, risking much just for a little while with you.’
They reined in close to the brook, and he dismounted to help her down. Then he nodded at the doorway, which was reached up a flight of stone steps against the tower wall. The door stood open. ‘Go to him, Lady Cicely. You will be alone together, for the tower keeper and his wife are loyal and I will busy myself elsewhere.’
Cicely hesitated in an agony of breathless excitement. In a few moments now she would be with him again. With Richard. She caught up her skirts and mounted the steps. Her gown rustled, her hair moved in the light breeze and her heart thundered in her breast. She took a step inside, where the air was noticeably colder. Little warmth penetrated the thick stone walls. There were more steps, leading steeply up to the floor above. She climbed slowly now, her eyes upon the shadows ahead. At the top she found light from a single narrow window. It revealed a wooden-floored chamber with a beamed ceiling, a huge stone fireplace where the hearth was black with soot and ash, and shadowy furniture, chairs, a settle, a table . . . upon which she saw his hat and gauntlets.
‘One step more, sweet Cicely, and our sin is as good as committed,’ his voice said softly, and he emerged from the shadow beyond the fireplace.
There was not much light, but sufficient for her to see he was pale, marked by sleepless nights and the pressure of rumour, speculation, treachery and preparation for a foe who might not even come. He was not dressed as a king, but as a traveller, in leather doublet and hose beneath a simple sleeveless coat unadorned with fur or embroidery. He might have been any man, except that he had that touch of royalty, that demeanour and sophistication that marked him as highborn. His eyes were more tired, and his face drawn. That face, those lips, all so incredibly dear to her. ‘Oh, my love,’ she whispered, taking that one deliberate step again.
Then she ran to him and he held her tightly, his face buried in her hair as he breathed the scent of her. He could not have crushed her closer, drained her more of love than he did now. It was as if he could be renewed through her, could find again his strength and purpose, his will. He did not speak, did not caress or kiss her; he simply embraced her as life itself to him.
Her tears flowed as she moved her cheek against his hair. She wanted to sacrifice her own self if it would return him to his. He was so precious, so needed, so susceptible that her heart turned over with the incredible love she had for him. Now it was
fingers that sank into the warm hair at the nape of his neck, her fingers that coiled and stretched, twisted and twined, imparting the sweetness of her emotion, the completeness of her desire. His clothes, poor or not, still smelled of costmary, and it was a scent that pricked her nostrils, aroused sensations and worked its rich way through her body and limbs.
She kissed his hair. ‘I cannot believe you are here, that I can touch you again. I have missed you so much.’
At last he drew away. ‘I could not stay away. I need you, Cicely.’
‘You have my love,
of it, forever. No man can ever mean to me what you do.’ She took his face in her hands and moved her lips tenderly against his, savouring the caress as if it were the very first. Then she looked into his eyes. ‘You must be strong,’ she whispered. ‘Be strong for me, because I cannot live without you. Do not let your enemies win even before you face Tudor. He is a petty lordling, not worth the ground you tread upon.’
He smiled. ‘You are my courage, my sweet Cicely.’
are your courage. Never think that if I am not at your side you will falter. I
with you, every moment of every day. Richard, you are my lover and my king. I could not hold you in more regard if you were also a god. Can you not see why I love you? Why I would give my life for you? You are the anointed King of England, you have God and right on your side, and the people support you, but I see so much more. I love you for the man you are. I will always love you for that.’
‘You lift me, Cicely. Always you lift me.’
She smiled. ‘And you excite me. Do you know how difficult it is to stand here and not make love to you? I have
loved before as I do now, and I never will again. There is nothing that could ever be finer, greater, more inspiring or rewarding than what is between you and me. Tell me you know it too.’
‘You know I do.’ He put his hand to her cheek. ‘It has been intolerable without you.’
‘When must you go?’
‘In the morning. Neither Robert nor I can contemplate riding back today, it is just too much. I certainly cannot. We will leave at dawn, and reach Nottingham at nightfall.’ He smiled. ‘I will return to my apartments by a certain secret doorway. And sleep.’
‘Then we must make the most of now.’ She covered his face with foolish, loving kisses. ‘Give yourself to me again, Richard, for I need your physical love as you need mine. Oh, I believe I could kiss you forever.’
‘And if I could let you, Cicely, believe me I would.’
She smiled. He had brought her to life, and she could not imagine that life without him. ‘There was never such a king as you, Richard Plantagenet.’
‘That may or may not be a compliment.’
‘It is when I say it.’
‘Ah, then I am comforted.’ It already seemed his face had lightened. The terrible heaviness that had weighed upon him in those first seconds had been banished, simply because he was with her.
He took her hand and conducted her up to the room above. It was very much the same as the one they had left, except that it boasted a large posted bed that had clearly at one time graced the lord’s quarters at the castle.
She wondered if he had ever been here like this before. Maybe she somehow imparted the silent query, for he knew. ‘No, my lady, I have not.’
She gazed at him. ‘I really cannot exist without you,’ she said again.
He came to unlace her gown, and she shivered in the cool air as the honeysuckle brocade slipped to the rush-matted floor. Then he turned her to face him. ‘You
exist without me, Cicely.’
She shook her head. ‘No, for I would not wish to draw breath if you were not here.’ She remembered the poem, and recited it. ‘Did you write it?’ she asked then.
‘Yes. It was when I realized that Anne loved her first husband more than she did me. I had forgotten it.’
‘It is very beautiful.’
He smiled. ‘Such agony did not last long. A year later I would not have written it at all.’
‘Will you mind if I remember it?’
‘No, sweetheart, for I
write those words for you. It is yours, sweetheart. As am I.’
‘You are beautiful to me, Richard. No man can come close to you.’ She began to undress him, slowly, tantalizingly, kissing every portion of him, worshipping and caressing him. She stroked him, ran her gentle fingertips over his back, his shoulders, his chest, his waist, his loins. She knelt before him, holding him close, hiding her face against him, kissing him more. All of him. There was no part of him that was not precious to her. Nor was there any thought now of their close blood, of rules or sin, only that they were together again.
He bent to her, taking her hand and raising her to her feet. ‘Sweet Jesu, Cicely, would you have me part with what is yours before we even get to the bed?’
‘I would have you now, then again, and then again.’
‘After riding as I have today, I do not know how capable I am,’ he said, smiling.
‘You do not have to do anything. You have taught me well what to do.’
His eyes were amused. ‘I am that good a teacher?’
‘Oh yes, I think we can safely say you are.’
He remembered using the same phrase that night at the abbey. ‘Is there anything I have ever said that you do not recall?’
‘Not a word.’ She took his hand and led him to the bed. ‘Come, for we waste time and that is something we do not have.’
She lay down, and drew him with her. The joy of pressing their bodies together was infinite. His arms were around her, his lips were upon hers. She would taste him, smell him, and see him so clearly. He was hers, all hers, and she was so happy that she wept as he made love to her. He was passionate, tender, vulnerable, and so in need of her that she could not have cared more for him than she did there in the hunting tower.
She stretched her body up to him with pleasure as he moved within her, and she gazed up at his face as the final moments exploded from him. His eyes were closed, his dark chestnut hair tangled, his lips parted. What it was to see such a man at such a moment! His beauty almost fractured her heart, and when he sank into her arms again, she gathered him close. Dear God, how she loved him. It was an ache that engulfed her, and wrenched her heart from her body. Could she let him go again? Could she let him ride away, back to whatever fate awaited him? ‘No,’ she whispered to herself. ‘No, I will not part with you again.’
He raised his head. ‘We have to part,’ he said gently.
‘Take me back with you.’
‘Please, I beg you. Take me with you.’
‘No, sweetheart.’ He leaned up to push her hair from her damp forehead. ‘You have to stay here, and never speak of our meeting today. We knew how it would have to be.’ He kissed her on the lips, a long, sweet, gentle kiss that seemed to spread into her veins.
‘That does not ease my heart now,’ she whispered.
‘Nor does it ease mine, but at least I have held you again. It was too much to be there without you. I have been longing for a sight of you, a word with you, a touch. Oh, I have
ached to touch you . . .’
‘And I you.’ She pulled him into her arms again, and they lay there, wrapped in an intimacy neither of them wished to bring to an end. Just for this while they could forget and simply be themselves, lovers, sharing only one soul.
‘Cicely, if we were back now in the abbey, could you ever have envisaged we would be like this now?’
She closed her eyes as she moved her cheek against his hair. ‘I knew I had left childhood far behind. I was so affected by you, so drawn and caressed by your smiles and kind attention, that I knew I would never be the same again. You meant nothing wrong in what you did, you were simply being your own self, but I had never known such feelings before. I know now what you had aroused in me, but I did not know it then.’ She leaned up on an elbow to look down at him. ‘I also know that I will not leave you until morning.’
‘No. In this I will
obey you, Your Grace. You may be the King of England, Richard Plantagenet, but
rule here. Tonight we can go to sleep together and wake up together. Just this once.’
‘And how do you intend to explain your absence from Sheriff Hutton?’
‘Jack will know where I am and who I am with. He realized at Nottingham, and he is nothing if not accustomed to the intricacies of clandestine trysts.’ She put her hand to his cheek. ‘I
sleep at your side tonight, do you not understand that? I want to wrap my arms around you, rest my head against you, hear your gentle breathing. There must be one occasion when we see the morning light together, warm and close. When might there be another opportunity like this? Please, Richard, do not deny me.’
He smiled a little. ‘Staying here overnight is intended to recoup my strength, not vanquish it completely.’
‘It need only be sleep. It’s the being with you that matters. I need to be close to you like that. And you need to be with me. You cannot come here like this and not spend every moment with me.’
He drew her closer. ‘Once again I should send you away.’
‘But you will not.’
‘No, I will not.’
‘Let me love you. I vow you will not need to move a muscle.’
He laughed, a real laugh that transformed him. ‘Not even one? Then it may be a pointless exercise, my love!’
She laughed too. ‘Well, maybe just one. The most important one. This one . . .’ She slipped her hand down over his lean abdomen and into the dark hairs around his loins. Then she began to stroke him. ‘There, you see? It works very well.’
‘That is because it knows what I am thinking.’
They fell asleep in an embrace, but not before they had made love several times more. She did not want to sleep, just to hold him while
did. But his warmth lulled her, as did the mere fact that he was with her like this. The morning would come all too soon, but she would be here when it did, with him in her arms.
Sleep still enveloped them, and dawn had yet to come when Robert came to the tower. He carried a lighted lantern and stood at the bottom of the steps to call up. ‘It is time, Your Grace.’ He left the lantern on the steps, so that its light shone up to where they lay.