Authors: Sandra Heath Wilson
‘Love?’ Bess’s eyes flickered. ‘It is a little soon for that, do you not think? His greetings I can gladly accept, but that is all.’
‘Nevertheless, he is eager for your first meeting and begs you to ride south at your earliest convenience. He will send a magnificent company of ladies and gentlemen to accompany you on your journey in a fashion as befits his future wife and her family.’
Bess looked at him. ‘I will ride south to meet the king, and my sister and cousin will ride with me. There is no one else here at Sheriff Hutton in whom you need be the slightest interested, and we do not know the whereabouts of either my cousin Lincoln or my cousin Warwick. They were briefly here but have long since departed. We believed my cousin Lincoln was at Bosworth. Now, I think this interview is at an end, for I intend, with my sister and cousin, to go to the chapel to pray for the soul of my uncle, King Richard.’
‘By your leave, my lady, before you go I wish to say something.’
‘A thorough search of the castle has been instigated, without your permission, and for that I seek forgiveness. I hope you understand the delicacy of my position. Although York and Lancaster will soon be united by marriage, at the moment there are many of Yorkist persuasion who are not friendly to the new king. Until we find Lincoln, we know not if he is to be trusted to swear allegiance to my nephew. The same goes for the Earl of Warwick, although he is, of course, a child. I
to search the castle because it may be that they both hide here unknown to you, of course.’
Cicely was forced into an unwilling admiration. This man had a smooth tongue and was well able to avoid offence.
Bess nodded. ‘You speak well, sir. Search as you please — you will not find anyone.’ She swept out in a rustle of bronze brocade, followed by Cicely and John. They spoke not a word, because there were guards at every corner, every doorway, every window.
The chapel lay across the courtyard by the gatehouse, and was deserted in the flood of moonlight that now softened everything. Candles burned on the altar, and the golden cross upon it shone richly. The spangled window behind the altar was pierced by the moon, shedding crimson, azure, green and gold upon the glittering richness of the holy vessels. Bess went to prostrate herself on the altar steps, but when Cicely went to her, she shook her head. ‘Leave me, Cissy, for I would pray alone.’
Cicely turned to John, who leaned against a pillar in that way so reminiscent of his father. He held out a hand, and as she slipped her fingers in his, he pulled her close and gave her a kiss that was at once passionate, anguished, loving and filled with sorrow. She would have needed to be fashioned from ice to resist, and so returned it with all the avidity of which she was capable at such a time. She wanted to help him, to give him all she could. Was it atonement? Maybe. Maybe.
He kissed her face, her eyes, her throat, savouring each caress, but her eyes were closed in shame, because it was Richard who held her. Richard, who had been so noble and yet was dead, his body desecrated, his resting place unworthy of his royal station. Unworthy of the great love in which he was held by so many.
At last John drew away. ‘Dear God, I need us to be together tonight.’
‘Then we will be.’
He looked at her. ‘Cicely, we cannot. Not under Willoughby’s nose. Nor Welles’ for that matter.’
‘Willoughby is a cruel man, but Welles is not, I think.’
‘If he and Margaret Beaufort share a mother, count upon it, he will be cruel, and do you really imagine he would be lenient if he found Richard Plantagenet’s son and niece together? Can you imagine how such a union might result? Any child would be dangerously close to the throne.’
Richard’s words of warning echoed inside her, the more so because they had already come true, and the child she carried was even closer to the throne than any she could have with John of Gloucester. Her baby was the child of Richard III and the grandchild of Edward IV. Illegitimate or not, a child of such blood would attract Yorkist sympathies. Especially a boy. She was afraid, for herself and her baby, and there was no one in whom she could confide. No one at all, except perhaps . . . She wished she could talk to Jack. Dashing Jack, who teased and flirted, but whom she knew to be a good friend. Yes, she could talk to him. But not John, whom she had let down so grievously.
Bess got up from the steps and came to them. ‘It chills my soul to think I must speak with courtesy to Richard’s murderer, but I will do it. I do not forget that Henry Tudor has gained support only because of his promise to marry me. I am important to him, and until he has me in his bed, he has to treat me—us—well.’
Cicely could not understand her sister’s abject surrender to fate. ‘Bess, I look at you now and see a craven submission that is unworthy of your blood. You are a Plantagenet, and should have the pride of your lineage!’
‘What would you have me do, Cissy? Refuse to marry Henry?’
‘That is the difference between us, Cicely. You have the sort of passion I do not. Oh, I still have the wrong passion for Richard, but that is different. You are more fiery in nature. Entirely. I admire your strength and honesty, for I have neither quality myself.’
Turning on her heel she left the chapel.
Later, at the witching hour itself, as owls screeched across the moor and in the depths of Galtres Forest, from whence night travellers could be guided by the distant lamp on the steeple of All Saints in York, Cicely slipped silently from her bed and drew on her robe. By the light of the solitary candle she could see Mary deeply asleep on her pallet against the wall, and the maid did not stir as her mistress crept from the room.
There were guards everywhere, but they were not alert, either dozing at their posts or talking among themselves, so that she was able to reach John’s room without being observed. His guards were asleep and snoring, which would not have pleased Willoughby and Sir John Welles if they learned of it. She tiptoed past them, and managed to turn the ring handle without making a sound. Then she went into the moonlit rooms beyond.
John’s apartment was in darkness, without even a candle, and she saw a page asleep on a board beneath the window. Her feet were silent upon the rushes, and then she held aside the heavy green velvet curtain that separated this outer room from the bedchamber beyond.
He knelt naked beside the bed in the shaft of light from the window, his face buried in his hands as he prayed for his father. His shoulders shook and his fair hair curled against his pale shoulders.
‘John?’ She said his name very softly, but he did not hear. She went closer. ‘John?’
He leapt to his feet with a start, but then relaxed as he saw who it was. ‘Jesu, Cicely, I thought—’ He gave a slight laugh. ‘I thought my time had come.’
She gazed at him, so strong and virile, so much the heir Richard had needed. ‘You are very handsome, my lord,’ she said softly, smiling.
‘I did not think you would really come here tonight.’
‘I said I would.’
‘But with so many guards . . .’
‘They are not as mindful of their duty as your father’s would have been. And I do not think Welles and Willoughby imagine we might creep around to each other’s rooms.’ She smiled again and went closer to him. ‘I could not stay away tonight when you need me so much. We need each other, I think, for we have lost someone we both prized above any other.’ She removed her robe and then untied the nightgown beneath. As it fell away, she stood naked before him in the moonlight.
He came to her, and they embraced, flesh to flesh for the first time. Memories and sensations moved through her, of that other body, that other man. Her arms tightened around John, and she stood on tiptoe to kiss him.
He did not taste of mint, there was salt on his lips, and his need rose strongly against her. He drew her to the bed and they lay down, kissing, caressing and whispering together. She so wanted him to be sure of her, to know she was his. Until she could no longer hide her guilty secret, and what she would say to him then she really did not know. But the time had not yet come. She was unable to fail him physically with Richard now, but Richard would always be in the deepest recesses of her heart.
John’s lovemaking was not as assured and skilled as his father’s, but hot and brimming with youth and passion. He thrust into her with a force that only just stopped short of causing her pain, but he was still exciting, still beloved. When he reached the peak of emotion, he did not think of her as Richard would have done. He was so impetuous, so tortured with loss to do anything except surrender to the force of his need. Afterwards, he knew he had not treated her as he should, and he rolled away and lay ashamedly with his back towards her.
‘Forgive me, Cicely, forgive me such selfishness. I . . . could not help myself.’
‘I know that.’ She leaned over him and kissed his shoulder. ‘I do not think tonight is a time for restraint, do you?’
He turned back to her. ‘You always know what to say, Cicely. You make things better simply by being here.’
‘I know — it is because I am far too ancient for my years,’ she teased.
He smiled. ‘I am callow, I know that.’
‘No, you are not. This is a terrible strain for us all, and we all cope in our own ways. I know that one day soon you will make love to me as sweetly as I could wish.’
He kissed her lips. ‘Do not pretend all is well, Cicely, because we do not know what Henry Tudor has in store.’
‘Maybe he is a man of his word?’ she ventured.
He snorted. ‘Swine will fly around York Minster before that is proved true!’
‘Do not speak of the future. We are here now, and I wish to lie with you again.’
‘Already? I do not know that I—’
‘You are a Plantagenet.’
He smiled. ‘So I am,’ he whispered, and pulled her close again.
But she still held Richard, and always would.
The cold grey of dawn stained the sky, all too soon, all too quickly. John slept at last as she left, passing guards that still slumbered on. She had almost reached the safety of her room when a tall figure suddenly barred her way. It was Welles, and she knew by his eyes that he was aware where she had been.
‘My guards are not as alert as they should be, I think,’ he said.
She did not answer, but looked at him with such pride and hauteur that he smiled. ‘You are indeed a ferocious kitten, Lady Cicely, and an impudent one. It does not please me that you have lain with John of Gloucester while you are in my charge, but I rather think it is a little late anyway to attempt safeguarding your chastity.’
She flushed. ‘That was not well said, sir.’
‘No, my lady, but I fancy it was accurate. You carry John of Gloucester’s child, do you not?’
Her breath caught. ‘Certainly not!’
He smiled again. ‘I am man of the world enough to interpret the signs, my lady. I saw how you protected your belly when I arrived. You
carry his child, unless you have given yourself to others as well?’
She raised her hand to strike him, but he caught her wrist. ‘Please, Lady Cicely, female temper has no place in this. I know where your loyalty lies, and that you hold me in contempt, and also my nephew.’
‘I hold all Lancastrians in contempt.’
‘For good measure? As you wish, but in spite of that I am not your enemy in this. You are with child, and if my nephew should discover it . . . well, a Yorkist child so close to both Richard III
Edward IV is not something to ease his spirit, if you understand my meaning.’
‘I am not with child,’ she insisted.
‘Deny it if you will, but soon it will be evident enough. You will not be permitted to marry John of Gloucester, you must know that.’
‘What would you have me do? Throw myself from the highest tower and thus spare your nephew any awkwardness? Well, I will
‘You present me with a very testing problem, my lady.’
‘Then be tested, sir.’
‘God spare me Plantagenet princesses with more pride than sense,’ he murmured, but then looked at her again. ‘I do not know how to help you, for you and I will never be on the same side, I fear, and how anyway can I protect you from your own folly? I will do what I can, as best I can, but ultimately, you have to face the consequences alone.’
‘I know that, sir.’ She made herself look at him. ‘But I must beg something important of you. Important to me, but no one else.’
‘I trust it is something I can do without putting my head on the next block?’
She held his eyes. ‘I wish you to say nothing to anyone about what you know of me. Apart from my maid, you are the only one who knows.’
‘The only one? Surely your sister at least must know?’
She shook her head. ‘No. Nor does John of Gloucester,’ she added.
The implication of this did not pass over his head. ‘So he is
She held her tongue.
‘If I keep your secret, Lady Cicely, will I be guilty of treason?’
The question startled her. ‘Treason? I . . . cannot think so.’
‘I have already pointed out the importance of your child to any Yorkist cause. The identity of its father is therefore of the utmost significance. My nephew has no option but to have you and your siblings declared legitimate again, and—’
‘Legitimate or not, I am with child outside marriage. It is a wedding band that will make the difference, and there will not be one.’
‘Who is he, my lady? Why has he not done right by you?’
She smiled. ‘He would have done all he could, sir, but he did not know, and I ask you to honour my request.’
not know? He is dead?’
She bit her lip. ‘Yes.’
He gazed intently at her. ‘My thoughts begin to take an uneasy path, my lady. Perchance the whispers concerned the wrong niece?’
She wanted to admit it, she wanted to shout out that she carried Richard’s baby, but she did not really know this man. He seemed so open and, yes, trustworthy, but he might well be Margaret Beaufort’s half-brother in far too many ways. ‘You should not stoop to listening to court gossip,’ she said.