“Pray, forgive me, but it is the truth. I swear to you by all that is holy, for the severity of my head injury that day, and the loss of my eye, I did not even remember it until the letter was brought to me a few days ago. Then, slowly, the pieces of my memory began to fit together. I tried to tell you earlier today, but I found I needed some liquid courage in the form of your father’s Dutch wine before I could speak of it.”
She was afraid to take the letter from him. Afraid to see the written words. She had spent so many years trying to heal from her single adolescent fantasy of love—to mature beyond the loss of it. Instinctively, Jane crumpled it up and shoved it into the fabric of her deep bell sleeve.
“Will you not read it?” Francis cautiously asked.
“I know not,” she said truthfully. “What would be the point?”
“We were children.”
“Is there an age requirement with matters of the heart?”
“Good sense would strongly suggest there should be,” Jane countered drily.
“’Tis true you were both young, Jane, but his words of explanation ring true, and, if I may say, living at court most of my life, I am something of an expert on courtly plays at love. This does not qualify.”
“Well, it matters not now anyway,” she decided. “’Twas too long
ago, and I am quite certain he has known the affection of many women since his few fleeting moments with me.”
Her voice, like her knees, trembled as she sank onto a painted wooden bench beneath a pergola smothered in violet wisteria blooms, feeling as if the very life had just been knocked out of her, no matter how stoic she had trained herself to be.
“You must understand, my dear, that lust is not love.”
“Tell that to the queen. The
His brows merged above the black eye patch, and he let out a heavy sigh. “Oh, now you have gone and berated my niece. You know I have long been a champion of Queen Anne.”
“So has anyone who wished to remain a recipient of the king’s largesse. I personally found it all distasteful, and I am glad to be away from it.”
There was a long silence as the first strains of the night music, headed by a chorus of crickets, began slowly to rise to a crescendo. “Yet the question does thus become, what will you do without a court appointment or a proper suitor if you refuse to listen to him?”
“William Dormer did not press a suit with my family, or with me,” she countered defensively, rising again on unsteady legs.
“’Twas not for want of trying, or lack of desire, sweetheart.”
The voice, richer than Francis Bryan’s, yet still familiar, came suddenly, and Jane felt as if she had been hit yet again, a blow from which she could not easily recover. Her gaze darted swiftly in the deepening darkness. When it finally landed on a tall form drawing forth from the shadows, she could see by his eyes that the trim and elegantly dressed man, after all these years, was William Dormer.
“You have not changed at all, Jane,” William said calmly as he approached.
There was just the slightest hint of a smile dimpling his cheeks, tanned and healthy looking from frequent riding and hunting. Jane tried to step back as he stood before her, but Francis was there like a steadying brace. In the last pale burst of mellow sunlight, William’s face shimmered. It was chiseled now, the well-defined face of an adult, with an air of grace that neither money nor a title, but only goodness, could provide. He wore no beard, and his clean-shaven face only added to his elegant beauty.
So like a Roman statue,
Jane thought, envious of how magnificent his face was compared to her own plain visage.
“Would that I had been changed enough to match
transformation,” she replied haltingly, unable to take her eyes from him for the complex memories that seeing him conjured. These last years apart were like an eternity.
She was certain he had no idea what a force he had already been in her life.
“You know perfectly well your beauty suited me.”
She wanted desperately then to quip something about his lack of resolve in convincing her, but she managed to hold her tongue.
“I hope you will forgive this small deception conjured by Sir Francis and me, but when he told me that, through circumstance, you never received my letter, I knew no other course to take but this one.”
“You might have let sleeping dogs lie,” she replied, not meaning it.
“I could sooner have cut out my own tongue, once I learned fate had not allowed me a proper hearing with you.”
“If you will both forgive me,” Francis awkwardly interrupted their exchange.
Jane and William looked at him as if they had totally forgotten he was there. She knew that she certainly had.
“… but I find I fancy a draught of ale, and then ’tis early to bed for me. Youth does not live quite so close to my bones as it once did.”
After he had gone, Jane turned back, still uncertain whether she was angry or happy to see William after all this time. In spite of what she had once felt for him, there was so much water under the bridge. Yet the memory of them together in that field would never quite leave her mind.
“I was sorry to hear about the queen. Last time he was home, your brother Edward said she had grown very fond of you.”
“And I, her.” Jane looked away.
It was simply not natural to be so drawn to a man one barely knew.
“Did you read it?”
“Will you?” he asked.
“And what would be the point, Master Dormer?”
“Ah, so formal are we now, when once we were nearly lovers?” He reached out to touch the huge bell of her sleeve. The connection had power behind it. “The point, to my way of thinking, at least, is that I have never forgotten about you, never stopped wishing it had ended differently between us.”
“Oh, William, pray do not speak of such things.”
She turned away, but he brought her face back with a gentle, cupped hand.
“I’ll not make any excuses for what happened. I won’t say that I was young, or vulnerable to the power of my awkward body that day.”
“I would not wish to hear it.” Jane cringed, vanquishing the image yet again.
“Then I shall speak of it no more. But I cannot be silenced in the
same way about my heart, since that part of me which you captured so long ago has never, nor shall ever, belong to anyone else.”
“It has been years since we have even seen each other, William. How can you utter such words? Time has changed me. You do not know me any longer.” Jane felt desperate and frightened at the prospect of what he was saying. There was an impossibility swirling around the two of them like bees to a rose as they gazed at each other, remembering some things and trying to forget others.
“Jane, please, listen to me. These past years, I have been trotted out to as many young ladies as there are likely at court, and all of them have come up short in comparison to you.”
She chuckled, but it was a bitter sound. “Clearly you needed your memory examined along with your eyes. Do you not see what a plain, quiet woman I am? That will never change. If one has no beauty, at least she must have a fortune, and I have neither.”
“I am told I have enough of both to negate the issue.” He smiled wryly, hoping only to make her laugh.
“I speak seriously, William,” she countered, trying to remain aloof.
“I know,” he said, smiling at her indulgently. “Did you not ever hear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?”
“Plato clearly had not seen me when he said that.”
To her surprise, William laughed. “You see, that is what I have always been drawn to about you. Yours is not just wit for wit’s sake. ’Tis fire inside you waiting to burst forth like a great volcano, and I have long hoped to be there when it does.” He took a step nearer, until their chests were touching. Then, without asking, William pressed a kiss gently onto her cheek as if the years apart had been no more than a day. He dared to hold the connection between them as
his arms encircled her and he drew her fully into an embrace. Jane could neither think nor breathe for the foreign, desirable sensations it conjured.
“We’ve lost so much time due to my stupidity and fate’s intervention,” he said with a sigh. She could feel his warm, slightly honeyed breath on her face. “Your cousin, Sir Francis, has said he would speak to your parents about us now to see if there is approval for our courtship. Tell me, Jane, that he can act as intermediary as well with my family.”
“You wish to
“I have wished it for over ten years, if memory serves,” he replied, smiling a bit grimly this time.
Jane pulled away from him and wrapped her arms around her waist in self-defense. “This is too much too soon, William.”
“Until your cousin came to me this afternoon telling me you did not reject me outright, that you never even read my letter, I believed there was no hope, Jane. Still, no matter how many willing candidates my mother has found since then, I have had no interest in marriage with anyone else. Can you not see that this is our time, finally? That we are meant to be? Read my letter, I bid you, please,” he desperately urged her.
Jane hesitated, then pulled the crumpled letter from her bell sleeve. She smoothed it out and read:
My dearest heart,
It is said in the work of Thomas à Kempis, which you so love, that, so long as we live in the world, we cannot escape suffering and temptation. The truth in those words has brought me much solace, since I know how dear you hold them to your heart. I did wrongly by you
that afternoon long ago, and “every vice will have its own proper punishment.” You were young and I was tempted. For that, I believe I have paid a price. We both have. But the fact remains as it was then. I do love you, my heart. I do wish to marry you, as I do no other. If you will but send word telling me I have at least a chance, I will come away to you this very night. I love you, Jane.
Then. Now. Forever.
“Apparently, I am not very good at choosing my messengers,” William said as Jane lowered the letter to her side. She was surprised by how much it sounded like the king’s missive to Anne. Those words had so struck her as having been from an open and desperate heart. Only when she looked up at him did she realize that there were tears blurring her eyes.
“Do you not still love me, Jane, even just a small bit?”
A second time, he filled the space between them by drawing her into his arms. And this time she let herself surrender to the power beneath a darkening night sky that was quickly filling with stars. For all of the clandestine embraces and drunken romantic encounters she had stumbled upon at court, Jane knew how different this was, because it was not only lust between them, but love. Yes, she loved William with her whole heart. She always had. She just could not quite believe he still loved her, too.
“More than a little,” she finally admitted, and though her admission was softly spoken, she knew he took it, and its powerful meaning, as fully as she had meant it.
In response, William swept her up then and kissed her so
powerfully that she could not breathe, nor did she want to. Her mouth melted beneath his, and she parted her lips as he pressed his tongue sensually between them. Jane reached up and twined her slim arms, like a new vine, tightly around his neck, and William pressed himself fully, tightly, indecently, against her. They were not children, her mind said, calming her. They had waited many years for this. No matter what ardent liberties they took with each other now, they would marry soon anyway. And, besides, nothing in her life had ever felt this good. His powerful hands snaked down her spine as they kissed, and he pulled her so tightly against his groin that she thought for a moment he was trying to make them one person. A low growl escaped his lips, and she tasted it.
Abruptly then, and just as powerfully, William pulled back and skillfully drew her arms from his neck with forceful hands. His breathing was ragged and his face was flushed.
“We dare not do more until our wedding bed is beneath us, sweetheart. But then, I warn you, we shall bridge these years we have lost, and swiftly!”
Jane smiled as her mouth burned from his kisses. “May that well be a promise.”
“Then Sir Francis has your leave to speak to my parents as well, since they are sure to be our biggest challenge?”
“Of course,” she answered as he kissed her again, but not before she asked him, “Think you they shall find cause against it?”
But his answer was lost to the moment, the deepening chirp of the crickets, and another powerful kiss that convinced Jane to hope they might have a happy ending after all.
The next afternoon, Francis Bryan stood, gloves in hand, in the archway of the heavily paneled library, his arrival having just been
announced to Lord and Lady Dormer by a servant. It had gone smoothly with John and Margery, who were relieved to hear that their daughter had managed to ensnare anyone’s heart, much less that of an impressively wealthy heir like William. Due to Margery’s royal connection, albeit somewhat weak and distant, as well as the family’s current court ties, Francis expected mere formalities today with the Dormers, and he had not allotted much time or attention to what he would say. After all, did not the king himself trust Francis Bryan at skillful diplomatic negotiations with entire countries? Unless he missed his guess completely, this should be child’s play.
“Sir Robert,” he said, approaching the compact little man with the ring of hair and small dark eyes. He stopped to bow, then turned to William’s mother. “Lady Dormer,” he said with a nod.
“To what do we owe the honor of your visit, Sir Francis?” Robert Dormer asked, rising as his wife remained seated, gazing up with an oddly suspicious expression from her book and afternoon sherry.
“I pray you find the cause as charming as I do,” he said, taking the seat Sir Robert indicated on an empty bench near their two upholstered chairs.
The musty old room was warm and full of flies. Out of good breeding, he tried not to wave them away. He longed for an open window but reminded himself that this was only a summer home for the Dormers. They had just taken up residence for the season and most likely had not had the chance to air the house properly.