I, Jane: In The Court of Henry VIII (14 page)

When Lucy came to help her dress, as she always did now, styling herself as something of a lady’s maid to the two Seymour daughters, Jane longed to tell her for what occasion she was dressing. How wonderful it might be to have a true friend! She could not quite imagine it. Nor did she entirely trust Lucy just yet.

As Lucy carefully brushed out Jane’s long, flax-colored hair and captured it in a delicate mesh caul, Jane wondered if Lucy could sense her secret plan. She felt her own pale face flush with guilty pleasure at the mere thought of William; how handsome he was, how tall, with a dazzling smile that held so much behind it. And yet her thoughts were her own, a treasure to be guarded when everyone around her assumed there was nothing behind her eyes or her compliant smile. That smile was her mother’s legacy to her. She knew what people thought of her, and she had no intention of changing their impressions. Not just yet.

There was too much freedom for her in their misperceptions.

At the appointed time, she tried to walk calmly downstairs, to
escape through the front door. That was a daunting goal when so many things might stop her. Her ruse prepared, she clutched a small, tooled, red leather prayer book in one hand and alabaster rosary beads in the other, gripping both tightly so she would not lose her courage. She had never done anything intentionally daring in her life, and this was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. She had meticulously thought through the plan in her sleepless hours the night before. Jane would not have long, she told herself, but in truth, beyond the explanation of a garden walk, no one would care.

Besides, everyone in the house was consumed with the presence of two such noble and important guests as Sir Anthony and Sir Francis. They were to remain at Wolf Hall for one more day. What key connections Lady Seymour could make before they left was her all-consuming and sole occupation.

Jane moved down the stairs onto the landing, pausing when she realized she had only a few minutes to make her way to the edge of the broad meadow and the stand of mulberry trees where they were to meet, or William would think she was not coming. If there never came another such time in her life, at least she would have today to do something dangerous. She reached the end of the steps, moved across the plank floor of the entrance hall, drew in a breath, turned the door handle, and…

“And where might you be off to, young miss?”

Her mother’s strident voice resonated like a bell in the vast, cool hollow of the pitched ceiling in the entrance hall. Jane cautiously exhaled.

“I was on my way to the garden to read, Mother,” she answered so sweetly that she surprised even herself.

“Well, I would like you to come brush out my hair first before I lie down.”

She had never once asked such a task of Jane. Lady Seymour had her own lady’s maid for such things. Jane looked up at her mother’s preoccupied expression, seeing there would be no dissuading her. Her heart sank.

“Might I beg my lady’s kind indulgence and offer up Mistress Hill to the task instead?”

To Jane’s surprise, it was Francis Bryan who suddenly stood in the open doorway at that moment, wearing a pleasant, unassuming smile, his elbow propped nonchalantly on the doorjamb. “I leave, as you know, on the morrow, and I had earlier bid my young kinswoman here to read to me and offer her thoughts on
The Imitation of Christ
so that I might share them at court. I am, you see, rather dismally lacking in scholarly knowledge, and the king would surely be impressed if I could converse about something for which his own grandmother felt a true passion.”

Margery studied him for a mark of sincerity. Jane knew the look well, and her heart began to race. She knew nothing about any such request, nor could she fathom why he was interceding on her behalf now.

“Truly, ’twould not be a kindness I would easily forget,” he casually pressed.

Jane waited silently, afraid to move or speak for fear of swaying her mother against the idea.

“Then by all means, good cousin, take her,” Margery finally said with a smile, “but do not think I shall forget the kindness you owe me in return.”

Francis smiled slyly. “I would never underestimate your memory, my lady.”

While well-placed and favored at court, Francis was something of a scoundrel, a man who favored personal enjoyment above all else,
and he knew that the Seymours knew it. He had already been ejected from court once by the devious and jealous Cardinal Wolsey several years earlier for untoward behavior. Yet he had won his way back to his post as Chief Gentleman of the Chamber by knowing how to play the game better than the calculating cardinal. Jane had heard her noble cousin never did anything without motive.

She wondered what his motive was now.

They walked together out into the warm summer sun then, and Jane squinted in the glare of the harsh, full daylight. But the warmth on her face and neck was soothing as she heard the soft trill of birds in the trees beside the stable and the hum of a circle of bees.

“Are you actually interested in my opinions on
The Imitation of Christ
?” she asked him when they were safely away from earshot.

“Not at all. But how else could you meet with young Master Dormer unless I pretended to be?” he asked with a wry smile.

Jane felt a burst of panic mixed with surprise. “How did you know?”

“Deductive reasoning, naturally. In all my years at court, I have become a student of human nature, observation being the most keen teacher. I am twenty-seven now, so I have had a bit of practice. You might say there are few subtleties lost upon me.”

“We only wanted to talk. He leaves for his estate in Buckinghamshire on the morrow.”

“So he does.” Francis was smiling more good-naturedly now, looking straight ahead, hands linked behind his back as they walked steadily from Wolf Hall.

“No one suspects I would ever do something daring.”

“And yet your dear mother seems always nearby enough so that you won’t.”

“She wanted only to disrupt me, not detain me. ’Tis a little game
of hers. Out here, there is little else to entertain her. My sister tolerates her not at all and has the beauty to win her way as well as her little freedoms.”

“I cannot give you much time, but I confess I have a devilishly strong fondness for a good game of deception. Besides, you have fire behind those deep blue eyes of yours that cannot go entirely unaided. Doubtless it is what captivates young Dormer.”

Jane pressed down the swelling excitement she felt, not wanting to look too anxious or to rush headlong into something that was foolhardy with someone older and beyond her station. “I’ll not disappoint your trust in me, Sir Francis,” she said anyway.

“Oh, I know you’ll not. I am counting on an ample return on my investment one day. Fortunately for you, I have always been something of a gambler.”

In addition to a libertine? She longed to parry, but she chose to hug him very quickly instead and then dash across the field spotted with wild poppies toward the trees, where William was waiting.

“I thought you might have given up on me,” Jane said, sinking into the tall grass and the pretty red flowers that swallowed them up and hid them both from view as the breeze blew the greenery and the blossoms back and forth in a gentle rhythm like the waves of the ocean.

“No such luck, I’m afraid,” he said with half a laugh. His long, wheat blond lashes fluttered over eyes that mesmerized her. “I know you are younger than I, but I am quite fond of you, Jane.”

“Are you?” She looked at him lying there, gazing up at her, hidden from the world by the grass, the wildflowers, and the fullness of her own gown. She almost thought this was some ghastly joke Lucy had put him up to when they had ridden back together on his
horse yesterday, for why else would a boy, nearly a man now, look at her with such interest?

She saw that Lucy liked him. But Jane couldn’t blame her at all for that. If anything, she understood it completely.

“You’re just easy to be with, to talk to. I’ve told you that.” He reached up to touch her cheek very gently. The connection was magnetic, as his eyes glittered in the sunlight. “You don’t look at me with ambition, just simple sincerity, Jane. You did when we were children, and you do now.”

Bees droned in the poppies nearby as she tried very hard not to look too deeply into his gaze. She tried to ignore the growing allure of the forbidden delights she found there. “That certainly describes me, plain and simple Jane.”

“’Tis not at all what I meant.” William propped himself on his elbows and was quiet for a moment, but the connection—a kind of kinship between them—lingered as he refused to draw his eyes from hers. Jane felt herself growing very warm beneath his steady gaze.

“Read to me,” he bid her suddenly, breaking the intensity of the moment. He looked then at the volume still in her hand that she had used as a prop to escape her house.

“’Tis not poetry. If it’s beauty you’re after, you had better look elsewhere.”

“From your lips, it shall surely sound like it.”

Jane bit back a smile, then nudged his knee playfully with her own over the clumsy compliment. It was subtle, but the connection between them flared hotly. Jane watched the rise and fall of his chest as he lay back in the grass looking up at her with an expression that said she was lovely in his eyes. For a moment, she could not read the words on the open page before her.

“My mother is bound to be impressed that one of the king’s own gentlemen came here for the Mass,” he said, feeding the windswept silence and the stirring between them.

Hearing his hopeful tone, Jane looked up at him. “Your mother?”

“I hope this will not startle you, Jane, but I am going to speak to my parents about you. You must know that I should like you to be my wife one day when you are a bit older. At least I hope that it is obvious. I shall never be a man from King Henry’s court like the one intent on courting your sister, but I can give you a tolerably comfortable life.” William sat up now, his cheeks flushed, his eyes wide with the kind of devotion she had not known existed. “… And, of course, my love.”

Although William spoke it as an afterthought, Jane felt the power of it down to her soul. “You love me? But you barely know me.”

Her words were a whisper made shallow by disbelief.

“Do you not care for me even a little, then? I have known you for years, and I have thought about you constantly in all that time.”

“You speak brazenly, sir,” Jane countered, feeling an odd stirring between her legs, as though he were touching her there with his gaze, and with the slightly suggestive tone in his voice.

To break the power of it, she lay back in the tall grass beside him and looked up into the broad crystalline sky, feeling as though someone had just struck her. She was unable to catch her breath, but she was not entirely certain she wanted to. “You know this is absolute folly,” she warned him. “I’ll not be able to marry for two years more.”

In response, William reached over, then tenderly kissed her cheek, very near her lips. He hovered there for a moment, looking into her eyes, capturing her gaze, and her heart, a little more with
each breath. “You are young, surely, but I am old enough to know that I want to be betrothed to you, Jane. I crave nothing else so much in this world.”

It was a declaration with such simple purpose that she knew, strangely, that it would happen. William gave her a level look again then. It seemed to Jane that he was staring right through to her soul.

“I do feel affection for you. I suppose I have since you saved me from Lucy,” she finally admitted, still forcing herself to hold back because the expression of desire was so bright in his eyes.

“See there? Some good always comes from bad,” he said. They both began to laugh, but soon the laughter fell away. After a moment’s silence, William bent to kiss her again. She felt his breath on her face just as he very tenderly brushed her mouth with his own soft, slightly trembling lips. She could taste his hesitation and inexperience matching hers, which made the moment all the more sweet.

“Will you tell your parents?” he murmured against her mouth.

“Not until I know there is even one small glimmer of a chance yours will approve of me,” she replied in a whisper as she tried very hard to keep her voice from shaking. “You must know that is never going to happen, even two years hence.”

“I’ll not give up. Not ever,” William declared. “I know what I want, Jane, and who. Perhaps it is odd to be fated to one from such an early age, but I knew our destiny even in France.”

Then, as if he could ensure the future by branding her as his own, William’s mouth came down possessively on hers, and he moved his hands to anchor her hips beneath his. She could feel his heart hammering against hers and how solid and hard he was beneath his trunk hose, an invitation her own body urged her to accept. This must be a sin—surely it was primal—but that only made it that
much more darkly exciting when she lived every day bound tightly by the strict confines of a proper life.

Jane felt her body ignite as his warm tongue swept into her mouth. As their kissing deepened and became sensual, his hands molded her more tightly to him and he began to move his hips in a rhythm so intimate that she felt as if there were no fabric barriers between them anymore. Their connection felt as if it went on forever. He moved and she moved with him. She tasted his groan in the moist hollow of her small throat as he ground himself harder against her, as if he could not stop. Then very suddenly he slackened with a gasp.

As she trembled beneath him, the realization of what had happened came to her. Or at least, what she believed had just happened, because Thomas had only ever told her the very basic details. “Pray God, tell me I am not with child now!” she bid him in a shattered whisper, still clinging to his shoulders.

“Forgive me,” he said raggedly against her cheek. “I took far too much liberty just now, but you are not with child, nor shall you be until you are my wife.”

“That is still your wish?”

“Is it not yours? Or have I offended you too greatly?”

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