THE THRONE OF ENGLAND IS AT STAKE!
Anne of Stamford has long been the keeper of her mistress's secrets, but when Lady Joan marries the king's son, court life becomes ever more perilous. Sir Nicholas Lovayne has arrived to uncover the truth about Lady Joan's past, and Anne must do something—anything—to throw him off....
Longing to escape the intrigues at court, Nicholas hasn't counted on the way Anne distracts him—her refusal to accept pity for her clubfoot touches something deep inside him. Will he be able to follow his duty when every fiber of his being tells him to protect Anne?
A hint of scandal this way comes!
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After many years in public relations, advertising, and marketing, Blythe Gifford started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years later, she became an overnight success when she sold her Romance Writers of America Golden Heart finalist manuscript to Harlequin. Blythe lives and works along Chicago’s lakefront, nurturing her muse with art, music, history, long walks, good food and good friends. She loves to have visitors at: www.blythegifford.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Windsor Castle-late March, 1361
'Come. Quickly.' A whisper, urgent. Disturbing her dreams.
Anne felt a hand, squeezing her shoulder. She opened her eyes, blinking, to see the Countess holding a candle and leaning over her in the darkness.
Closing her eyes, Anne rolled onto her side. She only dreamt. Lady Joan would never rise in the dead of night. That was left to Anne.
Slender fingers pinched her cheek. 'Are you awake, Anne?'
Suddenly, she was. Throwing back her bedclothes. Reaching for something to cover her feet. 'What is it?' Had the pestilence found them? Or perhaps the French? 'What is the hour?'
Lady Joan waved a hand. 'Dark.' Then, she gripped Anne's fingers and tugged. 'Come. I need you.'
Anne tried to stand. Awkward, more out of balance than usual. She patted the sheets, searching for her walking stick.
'Here.' It was thrust into her hand. Then, the Countess, putting her impatience aside, offered a shoulder to help Anne rise.
Kindness from her lady, often when it was least expected. Or wanted.
Walking staff tucked snugly under her left arm, Anne hobbled through Windsor's corridors, mindful that Lady Joan had put a finger to her lips to signal quiet and gestured for her to hurry. As if Anne had any control over either. Between stick and stairs, she could not hurry unless she wanted to tumble to the bottom and risk her only good leg in the process.
Lady Joan led her toward the royal quarters and into an echoing chapel, dark except for a candle, held by someone standing before the altar. A man, tall and strong.
Edward of Woodstock, eldest son of the King, Prince of England, smiling and looking nothing like the stern warrior she, nay, all England and France knew.
Lady Joan was beaming, too. No longer sparing a glance for Anne, she moved swiftly to join her hand with his. 'Here. Now. With a witness.'
No. It could not be what she intended. But Lady Joan, of all people, knew what must be done and how important a witness would be.
The Prince took her candle and set them both on the trestle that served as an altar. Wavering flames cast shadows upwards on their faces, throwing the
Prince's nose and cheekbones into sharp relief and softening her lady's rounded smile. Then they clasped hands, fingers tight, one on top of the other's.
'I, Edward, take thee, Joan, to be my wedded wife.'
Anne swallowed, speechless. Surely God must want her to speak, to prevent this sacrilege?
'Thee to love and keep, as a man ought to love his wife…'
She freed her voice. 'You mustn't. You cannot! The King, you are too close.'
The Prince's scowl stopped her speech. They knew the truth better than she. They shared a royal grandfather, a connection too close for the church to allow this marriage.
'All will be as it must,' Lady Joan said. 'As soon as we have said the vows, we will send a petition to the Pope. He will set aside the impediment and then we will be wed in the church.'
'But…' Anne let the objections fade. The Countess believed it would be as easy as that. Logic, reason, all for naught. Lady Joan would do as she pleased and the world would accommodate her.
It had ever been thus.
The Prince withdrew his frown and faced his bride again. '…and thereto, I plight thee my troth.'
As if he knew exactly the words to say.
Ah, but her lady knew. Lady Joan knew exactly what must be done to make such a marriage valid.
Now, she heard her lady's voice, the soft, seductive tone Anne knew too well. 'I, Joan, take thee, Edward, to be my wedded husband.'
Intentions stated, clearly. Too late to protest now.
The chill of the midnight chapel sank into her bones. She would be the one. She would be the one who held the truth of Lady Joan's clandestine marriage.
Within sight of the English coast-four months later
The waters of the channel pitched and rolled less than usual this day, if Nicholas's stomach was any judge. The tide was with them. He would be ashore by midday and at Windsor Castle before week's end, his duty discharged.
Free of responsibility.
He was weary of his duty. A moment unheeded and the horses you held in reserve would go lame, victuals would be lost, or hail would fall out of a spring sky, destroying food, armour, men and the decisive victory the King had sought for twenty years.
He turned from seeking the shoreline to look at his squire, Eustace. The boy had hardened on this journey.
He was not the only one. 'Yes?'
'Your things are packed. All is ready.'
There was a question at the end of the sentence.
'Except your horse.'
He sighed. Horses were meant for land, not water. Without a word, he left the sharp, bracing air of the deck and descended to the cramped, smelly bowels of the ship.
No wonder the horse was ill. If he had been confined to this cesspool, he would be, too.
The horse's head hung low, nearly touching the floor. Unable to throw out the contents of his belly as a man would do, the poor beast could only stand, miserable, shedding tears and sweat like rain.
Nicholas stroked his neck and the animal, barely able to lift his head, seemed to open his eyes and blink in gratitude.
No. He would not ride this horse today. The final miles of this journey stretched before him, as difficult as all the rest had been.
But the Edwards, both King and Prince, would have no patience for excuses. Princes and popes need only speak a thing for it to happen, expecting mere mortals such as Nicholas Lovayne to create the needed miracles.
And time after time, he did. He made certain there was always an alternate route, always another choice, always one more way the goal might be reached, never exhausting the possibilities until the deed was done.
There was pride in that.
But his other horse had succumbed on this journey, so he would find another way.
Leaving his squire to unload, Nicholas disembarked and was greeted by the warden of the Cinque Ports. He, too, had ridden with the Prince in France, though Nicholas did not know him well. It did not matter. Men who had shared a war all knew each other. A horse would be provided.
'What news in my absence?' Nicholas asked. It had taken near six weeks to travel to Avignon and back. Time enough for three intrigues and more to swirl about the court. He must prepare for this as he would prepare for a battle, knowing how the ground lay and where the troops massed.
'Pestilence still stalks the land.'
More than ten years since the last time. He had thought, they all had, that God's punishment was behind them.
'The King. Is he at Windsor?'
The warden shook his head. 'He's closed the courts, suspended the business of the exchequer so men do not need to travel and fled to the New Forest.'
The New Forest. A longer ride, then. Pray God he'd find no pestilence along the way.
'How fares Prince Edward?'
The warden shrugged. 'He is a Prince, not a King. With the war over, he has little to do but cavort with his friends and with the Virgin of Kent.'
Nicholas shot him a sharp look. Few were brave enough to speak so pointedly about Edward's intended.
'And you?' The warden looked at him with open curiosity. 'Was your journey successful?'
Did the entire country know why he'd been sent? Well, he would not speak of it to anyone until he had seen the Prince. The besotted Prince who, instead of making an alliance with a bride from Spain or the Low Countries, had thrown it all away for love of a woman forbidden to him by the laws of the church and common sense.
'I can only say,' he spoke carefully, 'that it will not go well with me if it did not.'
For Prince Edward had expected him to obtain the Pope's blessing of a folly too foolish to be forgiven.
And Nicholas was a man who did not suffer fools. Even royal ones.
A lodge in the New Forest-a few days later
After all these years, Anne sometimes tried to run, as she did in dreams. Run as other women her age might, happily chasing their children, playing peek and hide.
Instead, her gait was an awkward, rolling thing. Even when she walked, she rose and sank as if she were a drunken sailor on a tottering ship. The walking stick, a third leg to compensate for the useless second one, only made things more difficult. Sometimes, she tripped over her lame foot and could not withhold her curses, and when she fell, she had learned that rolling would soften the blow.
She had stumbled when the King's ambassador arrived, but fortunately out of his sight and hearing. Tall and straight, he swung off his horse and strode into the keep, his very ease mocking her.
Poor, foolish Anne. Still longing for a body other than the one she had been born with.
She paused before her lady's chamber, gasping for breath, then pushed open the door without knocking for permission.
Even that rude entry could not disturb Lady Joan's perpetual smile. Anne's news, however, would. 'The emissary. He has returned.'
The smile tightened, as if pulled by a vice. They exchanged a wordless glance. 'Have him come to me first.'
Anne held back a retort. Did the woman think to change the news if it were not to her liking? 'But the King-'
'Yes. Of course. The King will want to see him immediately.' She rose. 'I must find Edward.'
Anne sighed. Joan would find her 'husband' and, if the news were bad, she would hear it together with him for the last moments she could call him so.
'And, Anne…' She raised her eyebrows. Not a question. A warning.
'As ever, my lady.'
The beautiful face relaxed into its accustomed smile. She took a breath. 'All will be as it must.'
Anne waited until her lady had turned away before she looked to Heaven for patience. 'As it must' meant as her lady wished it.
She trailed her mistress out of the door, but there was no need to search for Prince Edward. He had already come, as if he had known her need. He took her in his arms, kissed her brow, murmured in her ear, as if no one were near to see.
Anne pursed her lips, fighting a wave of pain. Not in her leg, no. That was perpetual, comforting in its faithfulness. This was different. This was the pain of knowing that no one would ever look at her that way.
Forgive my ingratitude. Her perpetual prayer.
She had no reason to complain. Her mother had assured her future at an early age, saving Anne from a certain fate of begging beside the road. Instead, she was a lady-in-waiting to a woman who, if today's news were good, would one day take her place beside England's King.
Yet as her mistress and the Prince kissed, Anne looked on them with blatant envy. It was not Edward of Woodstock she coveted. For all his glory, he was not a man who appealed to her. She merely wished that a man might smile, his face aglow, just to see her.
As it was, she was clever and unobtrusive and had a face most men did not care to dwell on, so if her expression ever slipped, which it often did, no one would be watching.
They did not watch now, the Prince and her lady, as they turned toward the King's chambers.
'Milady, shall I.?'
Without bothering to turn, Lady Joan shook her head and waved a hand in dismissal. And as the two walked off together to learn their fate, Anne stood in the hall, alone.
Later, then. Later she would discover whether the Pope had been convinced and all was as it must be.
There was a great deal to be made right. And the man who brought the news had not been smiling.
Nicholas, they had called him.
Sir Nicholas Lovayne had rehearsed his speech during the whole of the ride from the port to the New
Forest astride a borrowed horse. Time enough and more to get the words right.
He was grateful he had, for the minute he arrived, they ushered him into the King's private chambers and he faced the King, the Queen, Prince Edward and Joan, Countess of Kent.
There was no more time to rearrange words.
'Well?' King Edward himself spoke, eyes as piercing as a falcon's. Beside him, the Queen gripped his hand.
Nicholas looked at Prince Edward and Lady Joan, for their lives were the ones at stake. 'They will not be excommunicated for violating the Church's marriage laws.'
The Pope had had every right to do so, but Nicholas and some well-placed gold florins had saved their immortal souls. No small feat and more than they deserved.
Thus was the privilege of royalty. To be rewarded for behaviour that would damn any other mortal.
But that was only the first of the miracles Nicholas had accomplished in Avignon. And not even the one the Prince cared most to hear.
'But we will be allowed to marry?' The Prince, as eager as a boy waiting for his first bedding, though he and his 'bride' had been sharing the sheets for months.
'Yes.' In the best of circumstances, the couple would have needed the Pope's permission to wed, since they were closely related. But they had made the situation much, much worse, by marrying in secret.
Then they had dumped their sins in Nicholas's lap, expecting him to untangle the mess to their satisfaction. 'His Holiness will overlook your consanguinity and also set aside your clandestine marriage. You will be allowed to wed in a church-sanctioned union.'
Allowed to marry and share their lives. And the throne.
Relief. The hard, silent expressions melted. Eyes, lips, shoulders, tongues let loose. How quickly? How soon?
He raised his voice to answer with a tone of caution. 'Also,' he added, 'His Holiness requires that each of you build and endow a chapel.'
Neither the Prince nor the Lady Joan bothered to respond to what would be a minor inconvenience. Instead, Prince Edward held out his hand. 'The document.' A demand. 'Give it to me.'
'It will be sent directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I expect he will receive it near Michaelmas. Until then, you must live separately.'
The Prince and his lady turned their eyes on him, as if he, instead of the Pope, had forbidden them their bed. As if two months apart were a lifetime.
Well, that was not the worst of it. 'And there is one more thing,' he said.
Hard silence fell again. They quieted, knowing he had more news to deliver and that it would not be as pleasant as the last.
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