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The secret bride, p.29
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       The Secret Bride, p.29

           Diane Haeger
 

  . . . move with great care in all that you do and say. And if any motions of marriage be made unto you, do not listen or heed them. . . .

  Great irony, she thought bitterly. The only man she had ever loved or wanted to marry was a country away—a world beyond her once again. An impossible dream. Light from the candles flickered endlessly across the folds of her thick white robes in the blackness of midday. Flames cast odd shadows around her. She was angry at Wolsey’s words, the presumption in them. Angry at her circumstances. A wasted life.

  Someday, she thought, I must speak with Katherine, tell her that there is someone who understands. I hurt for her now in a way I did not, nor could I, before. I wish I had tried to understand better then. She deserves someone’s understanding, the way I deserve it now.

  She missed Charles . . . Jane . . . and especially Henry. . . .

  Why did her brother not write her some encouragement?

  Her French secretary, a mouselike man with protruding teeth and small eyes, sat before her at an inlaid writing table topped with ink pot, sand and paper. His poised hand and nails were stained black. He dipped and waited for her words of reply, his face, like hers, illuminated by the dancing candlelight.

  I trust the king, my brother, and you will not see in me such childishness. I trust that I have conducted myself well since I came to France and to the utmost honor of the King. . . .

  She paused, feeling tears push at the back of her eyes, missing so dearly a time of her life that could never be again.

  . . . and if there is anything I may do for you, I would gladly do it. . . .

  Mary brushed away tears she could not contain and drew in a breath, trying to steady herself, trying to remain, in manner, royal. “Yes, send that. Only that. They know me. They will both understand that I have been faithful to His Majesty’s will in spite of my desire to do everything to the contrary.”

  At the very moment when Wolsey bowed to the king in England, Mary curtsied fully to the new sovereign, Francois across the Channel in France. She rose slowly in the dark of the shadows and flickering light of her mourning chamber, her world for the month that seemed to stretch endlessly before her. There was no youthful smile lighting her flawless face any longer, no blush adorning her cheeks. No music lightening the somber rooms. Only silence, and the crack and snap of the wood blazing away in the hearth. Her skin, it seemed, matched her starkly sewn and unadorned snow white gown.

  Louis had been dead for nine days, and the whispers, even at the Hotel de Cluny, had reached a crescendo. Was the queen with child? Would the dauphin ever be crowned or was he to be replaced by the son of an English queen? Servants lingered silently in the corner as Francois now advanced toward her in a sweep of elegant black velvet.

  “You are well, I trust?” Francois asked, casually glancing around with a little sniff of disapproval at the spartan surroundings, and the darkness.

  “As well as can be expected.”

  “Is it mourning sickness that plagues Your Majesty, perhaps?”

  “Perhaps. But not at all likely,” she replied with a taunting calm. “That is why you have come, I assume?”

  Francois smiled slyly in response as he sank into one of the collection of brocade-covered chairs near the fire. “Will you not offer me a cup of wine for my trouble in coming?”

  “I need offer Your Majesty nothing. You are King of France. You may take what you desire.” She leveled her eyes on him as the civility in her tone slipped by a degree. She hovered near his chair, declining to sit with him, as it would be, she believed, too familiar. They both knew what she meant.

  “A king uncrowned is really the same as no king at all,” he said.

  “Just as a queen without a king beside her is only a dowager?” Mary parried.

  Francois sighed, shrugging his shoulders as he accepted a silver cup of wine from Madame d’Aumont, who had heard them, accommodating him in a swift sweep across the floor, her gown rustling in the silence.

  “The physicians who examined me said the very thing I told Your Majesty just now. The possibility that I might be with child by the late king is very small.”

  Francois balanced an elbow on the chair arm and rested his chin on his hand as he studied her then, his smile smug and overly confident. “And so whatever is to be done with you, until we know for certain?”

  “We do know.”

  “Ah, but how desperately I do want to believe you, mabelle-mère.” He reached out so suddenly then to take her hand that she could not resist or pull away. She stood stone still above him, firelight playing off the stark white silk of her mourning gown. “It is so inescapably dreary in here. I truly would like nothing better than to cut short your mourning and free you from this perpetual night, ushering you like a beautiful bird back into the daylight.”

  “There shall be no challenger to Your Majesty’s rightful place on the throne.”

  “But were you not a wife to him in every way?”

  “He was not able to be a husband to me in every way. Not since Abbeville.”

  “That was two months ago.”

  “Yes, it was.”

  He tightened his grip until she could feel her hand begin to throb. “Will you swear this?”

  “With the utmost sincerity.”

  “I find that I am satisfied with your assurances. So when I return from Rheims, it shall please me greatly to terminate your period of mourning, so that you may attend me, and see what a true French court should be like.” Francois finally set down his goblet and ran his other hand caressingly from her waist up to her breast. His fingers stilled there for only a moment as he looked up, daring her to push it away—daring her to reject him again now that he was king. “What a waste of such loveliness.”

  “I have not felt a waste in France. Only ever well cared for.”

  “Splendid to know.” He was still smiling, but his expression had darkened to one that held an ominous offer. “Your good brother the King of England seeks the return of your dowry—or you—which he no doubt will soon find someone suitable to offer for. Yet it would appear that, with you and your dowry still here in France, I hold all of the cards in that particular game. Would you not agree?”

  Mary nodded, seeing fully how well, by his ruthlessly ambitious mother, he had been taught to play, and feeling well out of her league in it. Francois would make a formida-ble opponent for Henry, on any battlefield or council chamber. Mary knew she was likely to become a marriageable bargaining chip once again. This time, however, it would be for both sides. If Francois could successfully marry her off to a French candidate—and the ambitious and wealthy Claude de Lorraine had been whispered about since before Louis’ death—she would be forced to remain in France, as would her substantial dowry. If Henry successfully negotiated her remarriage to some other powerful prince, she would lose all hope of returning to England—and to Charles. She was so isolated from any English companions, even from daylight, that she could think of little else but what mystery fate had in store for her. But she was smarter than that, too determined to succumb. She had spent her early years watching how the game was played. Henry, like Francois, had become a master. No matter the pressure, she would not be undone by it now.

  “I want you, Mary, and I mean to have you. Not now, when the risk of a pregnancy is great. But after.” He touched her cheek. “Oui, apres. You and I shall have our day.”

  “Your Majesty cannot mean that.”

  “I never say anything I do not mean.” He looked at her with sharp eyes, then drew her against him, his face meeting her breasts, his hands tightening at her small waist. “You shall remain in France, either as my mistress, or as the wife of my noble associate Claude de Lorraine, or perhaps . . . if you are very good, as my queen.”

  She despised his gaze. His touch like this was worse. But she was trapped, and he meant to keep her that way. For now, he had all of the power and he knew it. However much she dealt with the denial in it, the prospect of seeing daylight and freedom a little
sooner was worth the risk of not rejecting him fully. She would tell this new king anything he wanted to hear in order to have the warmth of sunlight on her face. She may not be in control of her life, but Mary was a far more worthy opponent than Francois had bargained for. And being a Tudor meant she knew how to get what she wanted. . . .

  Yes, eventually she would.

  From the luxury of the jumbled satin bedding strewn across his massive tester bed, the heraldic symbol sewn into the silk behind them, Jane Popincourt watched the movements of his magnificent bare body. Tanned and fit, he strode like a lion past a mural depicting the life of Saint John. God, she thought, but Henry VIII was a beautiful man.

  Finally, she was with him in the way she had believed for nearly all of her life that she wanted. Small moments between them had convinced her at a very young age that one day he might actually love her. That fantasy had colored and changed her entire life. She knew about his affair with Bessie Blount, and about Elizabeth Fitzwalter before her. Like the other two girls, Jane attended Queen Katherine every day. But none of them had mattered an hour ago. Jane realized now she had used Thomas Knyvet only in order to hurt Henry. She had used Louis d’Orleans to hurt herself. She had no excuse for what she had just done with the King of England.

  Like some great bubble that had burst before her, Jane saw now with a raw clarity she had never had before that Henry did not love her. In all likelihood, he did not even actually like her. The only place in his heart for that depth of enduring sentiment had been with Mary. Not even his wife but only ever Mary. He did not even seem aware of Jane now as he picked up a stack of letters and began to leaf through them, his bare back to her, as if she were not even there.

  The rumor was that Bessie Blount was pregnant with the king’s child. He would not have as much use for a pregnant mistress, Jane had reasoned in the tense moments after he had sent for her unexpectedly. She had walked, trembling with every step, surrounded by a coterie of his guards, toward the royal bedchamber, as a willing, fresh conquest. The queen had only recently been delivered of yet another stillborn child—this one the much needed son, so that the king could barely look at her. He dined with her only on state occasions now, or when she absolutely would not be avoided.

  It was a little world, this place, a microcosm called the English court. Here, gossip was so rampant that everyone knew everything eventually, Jane thought, watching Henry’s every sinewy muscle, every move of his broad, bare body, and trying not to feel the depth of his indifference. Oddly, watching Henry, she thought of Longueville instead. Like Henry and Knyvet, he was a completely unacceptable man for her—noble, important, married. Yet no one had made a more indelible impression on her heart. And then last month, Mary had written that his wife had died in childbirth. The fantasy of Longueville, as it once had with Henry, had increased ever since. This distasteful event with the king had been a tying off, a completion. She had thought she wanted it. Now she was grateful to be done with it.

  As if somehow sensing her distraction, he set down the papers and came back to her then, not bothering to cover himself before her, nor she before him. Henry touched her pale, freckled cheek with a tanned finger. Without a word, he pressed his lips against hers and drew her tongue into his mouth. Helpless to stop him, or the story nearly played out at last between them, Jane let the King of England lead her silently back to his bed.

  “Very well, you have my ear, Norfolk. Say what you mean to.”

  “Pray, forgive me, Your Majesty, I know of the love you bear for both of them. But I am afraid I do not trust either Wolsey or Suffolk.”

  The Duke of Norfolk, slightly hunched now, more silver than bronze in his hair, sat at the end of the council table alone with Henry VIII after all of the other members had gone. Frigid winter cold still bled through the walls of Richmond Palace, and a heavy rain beat against the leaded windows that rattled them nearby. “I believe there is something between them well beyond friendship. Something to do with the Dowager Queen of France, though I have no real proof of it.”

  “Not that again! Are there not enough real problems to contend ourselves with?” Henry moaned, slumping more deeply into his leather-back chair, weary of Jane . . . of Katherine . . . of Bessie . . . of the complications of them all.

  “Charles assured me there was nothing between him and Mary beyond our childhood alliance. No rumors have come from France to the contrary in the meantime, have they?”

  Norfolk was cautious. Each word meticulously chosen, each enemy—Buckingham, Wolsey, Brandon—more vulnerable to his desire for power than they would ever know. “If it please Your Majesty, allow me to say that I have it on sound authority that Wolsey writes to the queen daily, counseling her and—”

  “His Eminence is like an uncle to us both. I would expect nothing less,” Henry interjected, but Norfolk would not miss an opportunity alone with the king, as there were so few of them these days. Now with rumors of Buckingham’s potential renewed claim to the throne as a descendant of Edward III, the discontented duke would take care of himself. Norfolk’s greatest obstacle remained the team of Wolsey and Brandon. To vanquish them both, he had but to prove that they could not be trusted. But how to convince the king what he already knew? That Wolsey had known all along about Mary and Brandon and even assisted in their deception.

  “And, sire, he then speaks privately to Suffolk almost immediately afterward.”

  “The two are related?”

  “One could make that inference.”

  Henry pounded a fist onto the table. At his feet, his two favorite greyhounds passively lifted their heads. “Facts, Norfolk. By God, I can do nothing at all without facts!”

  He had precious few of those. Only what rumors he longed to believe, and a heavy dose of ambition to bind them. He was many things, but a foolish man Norfolk was not. There was something between Mary and Brandon. Henry could feel it, down to the very marrow of his bones. Now, if only he could prove it, their betrayal—and Wolsey’s complicity, the stage, and the power, would be his entirely. And after all, was not the sovereign owed fidelity from those he trusted?

  And did he not have the opportunity to punish those who betrayed that trust?

  “Perhaps I cannot yet prove it, sire. But there is one way to find out.”

  Henry leaned forward, his red-gold brows merging.

  “Since the death of the French king, the Prince of Castile has renewed his suit for the hand of your sister.”

  “So have several others, Norfolk. What of it?”

  Norfolk could see Henry was swiftly growing impatient.

  Norfolk supposed the king wished to return to Mistress Blount or whoever his newest mistress was. Pleasure now, most of the time, was the only thing. The duke had little time. There must be an impact made with each and every sharp, clear word.

  “So have you a plan to entrap my two friends . . . as well as a most beloved sister?”

  “The Prince of Castile is older now, a better candidate by far than he was before, but still the same man you and your father before you thought of as suitable for a princess. Send His Grace, the Duke of Suffolk, to inform your sister of that.

  If there has been anything untoward between them, the announcement of the new marriage shall be like a closing off.

  If Brandon cannot or will not tell her, you shall have your answer as proof. Then you may send me to finish the job by informing Mary myself.”

  “Brandon has already offered to head up the delegation to France,” Henry revealed with a suddenly uneasy tone.

  Norfolk could see as the words left his lips that Henry’s mind fought reaching the same inevitable conclusion the duke already had long ago accepted about Mary and the king’s best friend. Henry scratched his neat beard, remembering how fervently Charles Brandon had offered to return to France, though he did not reveal that to Norfolk. If I do this for you . . . do you promise I can choose my next husband? . . . No, Mary, his Mary, would not take matters into her own hands. They were far too close as
brother and sister for her to betray him like that. He had not really meant she could marry anyone, best friend or not. And of course she knew that. She was a princess of the blood. He arched a brow in a show of irritation. In life sometimes there were things one simply did not wish to know. But as sovereign, Henry did not often have that luxury. Even if it involved betrayal of the most horrible kind.

  “You are playing with fire in this, Norfolk,” said Henry at last. “You know that, I hope.”

  “It shall be worth the risk if I honor Your Highness’s trust in me.”

  “And if you are wrong about all of it . . . what then, Norfolk?”

  Freed from the Hotel de Cluny, yet attired still in unadorned white silk, Mary stood before the new French king, Francois, as he had instructed her to do. Her place was beside him, next to the throne of Queen Claude. His mother, Louise de Savoy, was as resplendently attired now as her daughter-in-law, in gold and green brocade and glittering emerald jewels.

  Mary had thought it an odd arrangement until the entrance of the delegation was announced. She should have known, she thought, that there would be a reason. The shock of hearing his name squeezed her heart.

  “Representing His Gracious Majesty Henry VIII, King of England, His Grace the Duke of Suffolk, attended by Sir Nicholas West and Sir Richard Wingfield.”

  He had returned! Hearing his name now, Mary had the overwhelming urge to run to him, fling herself into his arms.

  But she was not that little girl anymore. Instead, she held herself with the greatest dignity now. Still she nearly forgot to breathe as Charles, Wingfield and West advanced and all three bowed deeply to the new, young French king.

  “It is pleasing to see you again, Suffolk,” said Francois.

  “Though in sad circumstances. But the late king, our good father, was fond of you, so it is a pleasure to receive you nonetheless.”

 
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