Lady Cicely Bowen, daughter of the Earl of Leighton, is sent away by her father when her jealous stepmother threatens her safety. Soon the exiled Cicely becomes best friends with Lady Joan Beaufort, the king's cousin, and when Joan is married to King James I of Scotland she chooses Cicely as one of the ladies accompany her north?
At the Scot's court Cicely finds herself pursued by two men?elegant Andrew Gordon, the laird of Fairlee, and Ian Douglas, the laird of Glengorm, a rough-spoken border lord. When Ian kidnaps Cicely just as Andrew is about to propose, the royal court is sent into an uproar. The queen is demanding the return of her friend and the Gordons are threatening to set the border on fire. But the border lord is difficult to tame, and the lady's heart is even harder to claim.
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Henry of Lancaster had died on the twentieth of March, and his heir was crowned on the ninth of April as King Henry V. The young king was eager to go to war with France. The Earl of Leighton consulted with his friend—and blood relation—Sir William Rogers, as to where he might foster his daughter.
"'Tis a bad time, Robert," Sir William said candidly. "But perhaps there is a chance you can get your lass into an important house if you can offer the king something in return. He's like all the Lancasters, ready to do a favor for a favor."
"He'll need financing for his war," Robert Bowen said. "I can probably aid him there. The Florentine bankers are always looking to make another profit, and I have many friends among them."
"The king will be at Windsor next week," Sir William said. "I'm leaving in another day or two. Ride with me. I can at least get you into his presence."
"You have a new daughter, don't you?" the earl said to his relation.
"Born on the day the old king died," Sir William responded.
"She'll need a husband one day," Robert Bowen said.
"And he'll need a rich wife," Sir William observed. "My lass won't have much, but I thank you for even considering it."
"You don't know what will happen in the next few years," the Earl of Leighton told his kinsman. "Let us wait and see."
When Sir William had departed Leighton Hall, Robert Bowen called for his horse and rode to the cottage where his daughter resided. Hearing his horse approaching, Cicely flew from the little house to greet her father. When he saw her, his heart contracted painfully. She was her mother's image, with her rich auburn hair and her blue-green eyes. When she was grown she would be every bit as beautiful as Anne had been, if not more so. Even her creamy skin tone was Anne's, and the long, dark eyelashes that brushed her rose-hued cheeks. The perfection of her skin, however, was marred by a purplish bruise upon her left cheekbone.
"Papa! You came! I thought you might be angry at me." She looked up at him, concerned.
"Now, why would I be angry with you, poppet?" the earl asked her as he swept her up into his embrace, kissing her right cheek, gently fingering the bruise, disturbed when she winced slightly.
"I didn't mean to anger your lady wife, Papa," Cicely said as he set her down upon her feet. "Why does she hate me so?"
Taking her small hand in his big one, the earl led his daughter to a bench outside of the cottage door and they sat together. "I cannot sugarcoat the truth, poppet," he began. "Your stepmother is a jealous woman, Cicely. She wants no other woman in my life but her. Sadly, I cannot change her, which brings me to why I have come today. Orva," he called. "Please come and join us." And when the serving woman stood by his side he continued. "For your own safety, and for the welfare of your half brothers, I am going to foster you out to a good family. There will be other girls with you from other families. The lady of the house will teach you all those things you must learn and must know one day when you become the lady of the house. Eventually I shall make a fine marriage for you, Cicely. Orva will go with you and continue to look after you as she has always done, poppet. You could not remain at Leighton Hall forever."
"Where are we to go?" Orva asked the earl quietly.
He looked directly at her. "I do not know yet. I am going with Sir William to Windsor in a few days. The court is very busy now, and if I am fortunate I will speak with the king himself. I will choose wisely, Orva. In the meantime you must keep close to the cottage. There must be no opportunity for the countess to see you, or to see Cicely. Do you understand me?" he asked her softly, meaningfully.
Orva nodded. "I will keep the little lady safe, my lord."
"Will I ever see you again, Papa?" Cicely asked her father, and he heard the fear in her young voice.
"Of course you will see me, poppet!" he assured her. "Sadly, your stepmother will not share her excellent household skills with you, and if you are to wed one day you must have those skills. Most girls your age are sent to other families. You will follow an age-old pattern, Cicely. And while I am at Windsor, Orva will make you some fine new gowns from the materials she takes from the storerooms. You will be the prettiest young lady in whichever household you join." And Robert Bowen bent and kissed his little daughter's cheek, careful to avoid her bruise. He arose from his seat. "I must return now to the house. When I come again, Cicely, I will know where you are to go."
"Go into the cottage, child," Orva said quietly. "I need to speak with your papa."
Cicely obeyed immediately.
"Would you send her away if it had not been for the incident with your sons?" Orva asked her master frankly.
"I don't know," he answered honestly. "She does need to know the things that only a lady of rank can teach her. Donna Clara tells me my wife speaks of harming Cicely, for the jealousy assailing her cannot be quenched. Sending my daughter away will keep the child safe, I believe. Don't let Cicely eat anything you have not prepared yourself while I am gone. Do you understand, Orva?"
Orva nodded, her mouth quirking with her disapproval. "I have heard these foreigners like to use poison," she noted.
The earl sighed and shrugged. "What else can I do but what I'm doing?" he said.
"Find us a good home, my lord," Orva replied. "And find my mistress a good husband when she is old enough."
The earl nodded. "I will," he promised.
At Windsor his cousin managed to introduce him to the king, but the young man was more interested in preparing for war than in the fortunes of the daughter of an unimportant man. But Henry V was not heartless. Seeing the disappointment on the earl's face, he said, "Such a request is not within my purview at this time, my lord, but I shall send you to my most excellent and well-loved mother, Queen Joan, with my request that she aid you in your endeavor."
Relieved, the Earl of Leighton bowed low and thanked the king, who sent him off with a servant, promptly forgetting him.
Queen Joan's antechamber was filled with petitioners. Robert Bowen was forced to wait, but the king's servant waited with him to introduce him and present the king's request of the lady.
Queen Joan had been Henry IV's second wife. The daughter of King Charles the Bad of Navarre, and his wife, a princess of France, she had been married first to the Duke of Brittany, by whom she had had nine children. After her husband died she had acted as regent for her oldest son until he came of age at twelve. She had then married the widowed King of England, a father of six children himself. While both the king and queen were still young enough to have children, none were born to them. But Henry IV's offspring adored their stepmother.
After sitting in the queen's antechamber for several hours, the Earl of Leighton and the king's servant were ushered into Queen Joan's presence. The earl bowed low and kissed the elegant beringed hand held out to him.
"His Highness, the king, would have you aid this gentleman, madam," the servant said, and then he backed from the room, leaving the earl to face the queen, along with her attendants, who sat about the chamber sewing and chattering softly.
"You are?" Queen Joan asked Robert Bowen seated in a high-backed chair, a footstool beneath her feet.
"Robert Bowen, the Earl of Leighton, madam," he told her.
"What is it I may do for you, my lord?" the queen inquired of him softly.
Quietly, as carefully and quickly as he could, the earl explained his situation. He did not wish to heap criticism upon his wife, but he did need Queen Joan to understand the desperate situation that he faced in the matter of his daughter.
The queen nodded slowly, and when he had finished she said, "Aye, I can see the difficulty, my lord, but you are partly to blame for it. When you took your bride you were not firm with her. Your daughter should never have been made to live outside of your house in another dwelling. Like my dear late husband's uncles were, you legitimated your daughter. Your wife was obviously spoiled and allowed to have her own way by her parents." Queen Joan shook her head. "But even if your wife had accepted your little girl, it would be better that she be fostered out. She has a dower portion, I assume."
"With the goldsmith Isaac Kira, in London," the earl said, and then he told the queen the amount he had placed with the goldsmith.
The queen drew in a sharp breath. "Indeed, my lord, 'tis a considerable amount. You will have no trouble finding a worthy husband of impeccable breeding for your child one day. But for now we must find a suitable family for her."
"I would be honored if you could suggest such a family, Your Highness," the earl said. "My family is old. It is honorable. But we have always lived quietly, avoiding entanglements that might bring dishonor to us or those we serve."
Queen Joan nodded. "There is nothing wrong with being prudent, my lord. Now tell me how old your daughter is."
"She is seven, madam," he answered.
"Has she been taught? What languages does she speak?" the queen continued.
"She speaks both English and French, and can understand church Latin, madam," he told her. "She can do sums. She rides well, and her manners are good."
"Then she is fit for the best company," Queen Joan concluded. "Somerset's widow has remarried herself to Thomas Plantagenet, the Duke of Clarence. She has left her children by John Beaufort in the care of others. Henry, the eldest, now holds his father's titles, and remains in his own home. His three brothers are all fostered out, and serve different masters. His sisters are at home. The youngest will remain there for the interim, for she is only four, but I am considering bringing my namesake, Lady Joan Beaufort, who is almost nine, into the royal household. She is a sweet girl. Perhaps your daughter would make a good companion for her. Yes. I shall bring young Joan here, and your daughter will have a place among her maiden companions." Queen Joan looked at the Earl of Leighton. "It is settled. Bring your daughter to me, my lord."
Robert Bowen was astounded. Never had he anticipated such a high place for his wee Cicely! To be fostered within the royal house was an honor belonging to a greater name than his. "M-madam," he stammered, and he flushed at his own awkwardness. "My family is not worthy of such an honor. Forgive me, but are you certain you would have my daughter? I am in your debt to such an extent I doubt I can ever repay you."
"I am told you are clever with your investments, my lord." Queen Joan surprised him again. " 'Tis an interesting pursuit for one with so old and respected a name as yours. Is there truth to the rumor?"
He nodded. "My wife is extremely knowledgeable in such matters, having learned from her father in Firenze. I in turn have learned from her. I will advise you in any way that I can, madam. You have but to ask me."
The queen nodded. "I will send to you now and again, my lord, for your thoughts in certain matters of finance. Now have your child delivered to my favorite home, Havering-atte-Bower, at the beginning of July. You may send a servant with her. When she is older I shall suggest a suitable match for her, with your permission, of course, my lord," Queen Joan said graciously.
"Thank you, madam," the Earl of Leighton said. He bowed again as, with a nod and a languid wave of her hand, the king's stepmother dismissed him. Robert Bowen made his way from the queen's chambers and found his cousin.
"What happened?" Sir William asked, and the earl told him all that had transpired. "What good fortune you have had, Rob!" his cousin exclaimed. "You will never have to worry about your Cicely again if she gets on with the other girls in Queen Joan's household. You must instruct her to make certain that she pleases the queen in particular. If she has that lady's favor her future will be secured."
"I still cannot believe all of this," the earl said. "Of course I cannot tell Luciana exactly what has transpired. She will be jealous that I have obtained such a fine place for my daughter. I think she would have preferred I give Cicely to the Church with a meager dower portion and never see my child again. A cloistered order would have been her choice," Robert Bowen said with a wry smile.
"Does she not realize that if your daughter makes the right friends at court, and marries well, that all of that would be of advantage to your sons?" Sir William said.
"Nay, she does not envision such things," the earl answered. "When she considers Cicely she sees only a rival for my affections."
"I am sorry for you then, Rob," his cousin replied. "Surely then little Lady Cicely is better off leaving Leighton Hall."
Robert Bowen nodded, but his eyes were sad.
He returned home, stopping at the cottage where his daughter lived before seeing his wife. Cicely ran to greet him, welcoming him home. Orva stood in the door to the dwelling, and their eyes met, hers questioning him.
"Let us sit down by the hearth," the earl said. "The air is damp, and the fog not yet lifted from the fields." He took his daughter onto his lap as he lowered himself into a chair by the small fire.
Orva put a small goblet of wine that was kept for his visits by his hand, and then she sat down too. When Robert Bowen visited his child they did not stand on ceremony.
"I have had an extraordinary piece of luck, poppet," the earl began.
"You have found a family to foster me, Papa?" she asked, and to his sorrow he heard the fear in her young voice.
"Not a family, poppet, but Queen Joan herself!" he replied, forcing an enthusiasm into his voice that he did not feel. "And you will have another young lass for company who is coming to Queen Joan as well. Her little namesake, Lady Joan Beaufort. She is a year or two older than you, I am told, but it will be her first time away from her home too. Her father is dead, and her mother remarried. Her older brother is the Earl of Somerset. They are the king's cousins, poppet. This is incredible good fortune for you to be taken into a royal household. And Orva is to come with you."
Cicely began to cry. "But I don't want to leave Leighton Hall, Papa," she told him. "Please don't send me away! I will be good, I promise! I will never leave the cottage, and my stepmother will never see me again. I swear it!" She sobbed into his shoulder. "Please don't make me go, Papa! Please!"
His heart was breaking, Robert Bowen thought, but he had no other choice. If Cicely remained Luciana would work herself into a dangerous fury. And he had no doubt that she would attempt to rid herself of the child in any manner possible. Swallowing down his own anguish, he said to his daughter, "Cicely, you are not being punished. This is a great honor you are being given, being allowed admittance into the royal household. Our family is an ancient one but unimportant. Our lack of wealth has not allowed us to marry into the more prestigious families, nor gain any foothold on the rungs of power. Now we are gaining that wealth, but we have no entrée into the court. If you please Queen Joan with your sweetness and your manners you will have an opportunity to meet the most important folk in the land.
And that will one day help our family to gain ingress into the court. Queen Joan will see that you make an advantageous marriage. And once you are involved in the court I shall be able to make the best matches for your brothers, thus increasing our family's strength and importance. I need you to take this first step for Leighton."
Cicely's sniffling had stopped. She was an intelligent child. She heard and digested her father's words carefully. She understood them. "What will you tell my stepmother, Papa?" she asked him astutely. "She will not be pleased I am going to court."
"I will say that I have found a place for you in the house of a wealthy widow," he said with a small smile. "In time she will learn the full truth, but knowing then that you can aid our sons one day will help to temper her jealousy towards you, I am certain."
The child nodded. "Perhaps it will," she agreed. "When must Orva and I leave? Where are we to go, Papa?"
"Havering-atte-Bower, which is Queen Joan's favorite residence. It's about fifteen miles from London. She wants you there in early July, so you have several weeks before you must leave Leighton."
Orva had sat silent. Now she said candidly, "My lady will need proper clothing, my lord. She must have some jewelry, and an allowance to be paid quarterly. And her own horse. It won't be easy seeing to these things, for your lady will not want to give Cicely anything. As you can see, the child's gown is shabby and worn, as are all her few gowns. I do my best to keep them in good repair, but the material will go only so far, and Lady Cicely is growing. And I have had to loosen the stitching on the toes of her shoes, for her footwear no longer fits."
"How is this possible?" the earl wanted to know. "My storage rooms are full with whatever you need, Orva." His look was one of confusion.
"But the Lady Luciana holds the keys to those storerooms, my lord. She has refused my last two requests for material to make my little lady gowns," Orva said.
"Why did you not come to me?" he asked his daughter's serving woman.
"It would have but caused more difficulty for us, my lord. I hoped that in time you would see the state of my mistress's wardrobe, and correct the situation," Orva said.
"By the rood!" the earl swore softly. "I will not have this! Cicely shall have everything she needs, and more. How dare her stepmother withhold necessities from my daughter." His arm tightened about the little girl. "You shall be denied nothing, my darling," he promised her. Then he tipped her from his lap. "I must now go and speak with my wife. In the morning, Orva, you shall have access to the storerooms. Take all you need, but remember I shall have to return the keys to my lady wife the same day, lest I send her into a greater temper than she will already have." Standing, he bent and kissed his daughter on her forehead, then strode from the cottage to ride home. Entering his house he asked the steward where his wife could be found.
Luciana was in her apartments with Donna Clara, who was brushing her hair. "My head aches," she greeted him languidly, waving him to a chair.
"Give me the keys to the storerooms," he replied, not sitting.
A wary look came into her large brown eyes. "Why do you want them?" she asked him boldly. "Do not stop brushing! It eases my pain," she snapped at Donna Clara. "Must I live in agony always?"
"Give me the keys to the storerooms," he repeated, not answering her. "Am I master of Leighton or not, madam?"
"Have you found a place for your daughter?" she wanted to know.
"I have," he said, "and now I will see that Cicely is properly garbed and equipped for her new home."
"I am the mistress of this household," Luciana said in a hard voice. "It is my duty to see your daughter supplied with what she needs."
"You have laid eyes on Cicely but once, and not by choice, madam," the earl said in an equally hard voice. "You have denied her serving woman the cloth necessary to make the child gowns. Her garments are worn, shabby. Have you no shame, Luciana? Cicely is an earl's daughter, not some stranger I have taken in."
"She is your bastard!" Luciana cried angrily.
"Her mother died before we could wed, but our daughter was legitimated by Rome, Canterbury, and the laws of England," the earl shouted furiously. "Why do you refuse to admit the truth, Luciana? This was all long before I even knew of your existence. You have given me three sons. My respect for you is great. What more do you want of me?"
"You loved her!" the Countess of Leighton accused.
Robert Bowen looked surprised. "Loved whom?" he asked her.
"My ladybird," Donna Clara cautioned, "do not pursue this, I beg you."
"Your daughter's mother!" Luciana spat. "And everyone says the brat is her mother's image. The whore who was your servant's daughter!"
The Earl of Leighton slapped his wife across her angry face.
Luciana shrieked, outraged, her hand going to her burning cheek.
Donna Clara gasped in shock. Never had she seen her English master lose his control. He was always calm, always the voice of reason. The look in his eyes now, however, was one of uncontrolled fury. Her mistress stood on the brink of disaster.
The red haze faded slowly from before his eyes as the earl fought to regain some measure of control, struggling with himself not to put his hands about her slim white neck and snap it. Finally he felt calm, but he was very angry. His wife stood glaring at him, totally unaware of how close she had come to death. Donna Clara knew, and her eyes filled with relief as Robert Bowen came to himself again, and spoke.
"Aye, I loved Anne," he told Luciana. "She was everything you are not. She was beautiful, and Cicely is her image. She was kind and generous. She was genuinely devout. We were blood kin, madam, but not so close that a marriage between us was forbidden. Old families like mine frequently parcel out the responsibilities of their estates to kin, because in most instances blood will not betray you. Your interests are their interests, madam. Whether your estate is large or small, such loyalty is important.
"I might have wed the daughter of another noble, but an honorable family like mine was left with little dower. However, I fell in love with Anne, and we planned to wed. The banns had already been posted when her father was killed in an accident. She was his only child, and his own wife, her mother, had died when Anne was ten. The shock of her father's death caused my beloved to go into an early labor. She lived long enough to push our daughter from her body, and then with a great sigh she died.
"I was content to remain unmarried, but Cicely needed a mother to teach her the things a girl of her rank should know, and I needed a legitimate son. And then your father learned I sought a wife. As your behavior in Firenze had made you unmarriageable, he had to seek a husband for you here in England. I was poor, but I could give you a title. You could bring me a fat dower, and give me sons. It was an ideal match, Luciana. I swore to your father that I would honor you and respect you. I have done these things. I have treated you well. You, however, have not kept your part of our bargain."
"I gave you wealth!" she cried. "I have advised you in which trading ventures to invest in, and you have become rich in the process. I have given you three sons! I am faithful to you. What more could you want?"
"I wanted a mother for my daughter," he said.
"I told you before the wedding contracts were even signed that I would not raise that child," Luciana said. "You agreed!"
"I believed that once you felt secure, once you had given me a son, that you would no longer feel the need to reject Cicely," the earl replied. "What kind of woman are you that you could hate an innocent little girl so greatly? What could she have possibly done to you before you even met her that you hate her?"
"You love her! You love her as you loved her mother! But you have never loved me, Robert, have you?" the countess said bitterly.
"How many marriages are made for love, Luciana?" he asked quietly. "Certainly not among our kind, nor even among the poor. Marriages are made to gain certain advantages. Among the peasantry they are made for children to help in the fields. And among the nobility they are made for land, for wealth, for a higher position on the social scale. You are my wife. I have a fondness for you. I am grateful to you for the sons you have given me, for the wealth you brought me, for the knowledge you have given me that has aided me in acquiring more riches. You have my respect in all but one matter, and that is your inability to accept my daughter. For you and for your peace of mind I have agreed to foster Cicely out, but I will not send her from this house, from her home, without all she needs to survive, to succeed in the world beyond Leighton Hall. But even now, gaining your own way, you cannot be generous to my daughter, which is why I will have the keys from my storerooms from you." He held out his hand to her. "Give them to me now, madam!"
Luciana stood up. Her look was murderous, but she unfastened the chatelaine's keys from her satin girdle and flung them at him. "Here, and be damned to you, Robert! But why the wench needs a fine wardrobe in the house of a widow, I do not know."
He knew he was being foolish, but she had angered him so greatly he needed to strike back at her. He knew there would be more difficulties with Luciana over it, but he couldn't help himself. "She does if the widow is the king's beloved stepmother," the Earl of Leighton said with a wicked smile.
"Your daughter is going to live in Queen Joan's household? The queen is fostering her?" The Countess of Leighton was astounded. "How did you manage to arrange such a thing, Robert?" There was new respect for him in her voice, and she was already considering the possibilities for their sons.
"It was pure luck, Luciana," he told her, "but if Cicely does well she will be able to ease the way to introduce our sons into the court one day."
"Yes," his wife replied slowly, "perhaps the brat will prove useful after all. And I will not have to see her ever again."
"Nay, you will not," Robert Bowen agreed.
"Take whatever you desire from the storerooms," the countess told her husband graciously, although in truth it was all his to take. "The wench should not disgrace Leighton. Has she manners? Is she educated at all or will she be an embarrassment, my lord? She must not be forward in any way."
"My daughter has manners, and enough learning to please the queen," he said, amused by this sudden shift in her attitude.
"Even if she proves of value to us I will always hate her because you love her," Luciana told him bluntly.
"I love our sons too, madam, and I was never aware that you sought my love. Have I not been a good husband to you? A competent lover?" he demanded.
"I thought it would be enough," Luciana answered him slowly, "but I find it is not enough for me now. I suppose it is my warm nature that makes it so."
"I am sorry then that I must disappoint you," the earl told his wife. "But we need not be enemies, madam." Nay, they would not be enemies, yet he could never forgive her for the cruel way she had treated his daughter, would continue to treat Cicely. With a polite bow he turned and left her.
"Does he hate me?" the countess asked Donna Clara.
"Nay," the older woman replied. "But had you made the slightest effort towards little Lady Cicely, had you shown her even a modicum of kindness, my lady, you might have gained his love. The love he had for his daughter's mother was one born of familiarity, longevity, and kinship. They had much in common because they were raised together. Do you not recall your brother Gio's first love was your cousin Theresa?"
"He outgrew her," Luciana said.
Donna Clara shook her head in the negative. "Nay, he did not. He would have willingly wed her had your father and hers allowed it. But they would not because each family needed a wealthier mate for their child. Your husband was not as practical a man. He was ready to wed his lover. Only her death prevented it, and then he did what he should have done in the first place: He sought an heiress bride. He might have given you his love had you accepted his daughter. I warned you, my lady, after little Carlo was born, to relent and bring Lady Cicely into the house, but you would not. Now the earl's patience is at an end. 'Tis you who have driven him to it."
"I do not care," Luciana said irritably. "I do not need his love. I am his wife. I am the Countess of Leighton." Then a calculating light came into her eyes. "I shall give him a daughter too! When he has another daughter, Donna Clara, he will not think so much on this one. And she will be gone from Leighton."
Donna Clara did not argue with her mistress. She doubted another daughter would change the earl's attitude towards his wife. Oh, he would love the child, for he was a good man, but he would not love her mistress. "You are worn with birthing your three sons in so short a time, cara," the older woman said. "You must rebuild your strength, for if you are to have a daughter you will want her to be strong and healthy, as your sons are."
The countess nodded. "Aye, I do want a healthy daughter. You must continue to give me that strengthening drink you prepare each day for me."
"I will, my lady. You may be sure that I will," Donna Clara promised her mistress. And as long as Luciana drank the potion there would be no more children, but of course the Countess of Leighton did not know it. And if her mistress convinced her husband to have another child Donna Clara would cease adding her special ingredient to the mixture. She was relieved that the earl had taken her advice and was fostering his daughter out, for her mistress, she firmly believed, would not have let the matter go.
On the following morning Orva came early to the hall and sought out Bingham, the steward. Bingham was filled with gossip. "The earl fought so loudly with her yesterday that you could have heard them in the next village," the steward informed Orva. "It was about our little lady." He reached into his pocket and drew out a ring of keys. "These are for you. What's going on?"
"Come with me to the storerooms, and I'll tell you," Orva said, and he followed her eagerly. "He has decided it will be safer for Lady Cicely to be fostered by another family," Orva began. "And I'm to go with her!"
"Lady Cicely is being sent from Leighton?" Bingham was surprised. "So the countess has had her way in the matter."
"My lord does it for his daughter, not for the countess," Orva said sharply. "And into whose household are we going? We are being sent to Queen Joan herself!" Orva crowed. "We'll be a part of the royal court!" Her eyes scanned the bolts of material.
"God's boots!" Bingham swore softly. "How did the earl manage that? Leighton isn't an important house."
"He says it was pure good fortune that put him in Queen Joan's eye," Orva said. "I think Saint Anne, to whom I always pray, looks out for her namesake's child." She reached for a bolt of medium blue velvet and, unrolling it to the length she desired, took the scissors on her girdle and cut the piece. Folding it, she then set it on a small table.
"Praise God and his blessed Mother that the child will be safe," Bingham replied. He was Lady Cicely's great-uncle on her mother's side. "The others will be glad to learn your news, Orva. May I tell them?"
"Shout it to the skies if you will," Orva said, taking another bolt down, this one of burnt orange brocade, and cutting the piece she wanted.
"I'll leave you then to your picking and choosing," Bingham answered. "Lock the door from the inside, Orva. That way you'll not be disturbed." And he gave her a broad wink. "The mistress isn't pleased at all this morning, I'm told." Then he left her.
Orva took his advice and turned the big key in the lock before going back to her task. There was much to chose from, and Orva took her time. To the blue velvet and the burnt orange silk brocade she added a dark green, a cream, and a burgundy-colored velvet, along with a violet silk brocade, a medium blue and a grass green silk. She took a length of deep blue wool and another of rich brown to make cloaks for her mistress, as well as a packet of rabbit fur and another of marten to line the cloaks. She took linen and lawn for undergarments and veils, trimmings, buttons, several narrow lengths of satin, and another of leather to make girdles. The shoemaker belonging to Leighton would make Cicely new shoes and boots.
In a dark corner Orva found a small dusty box almost hidden beneath several bolts of heavy wool. Curious, she opened it. Seeing its contents, she smiled. Inside the box was a narrow gold chain with a small jeweled cross, a simple band of red gold, and a tarnished wire caul. The gilt flaked from the caul as she lifted it up. These few small possessions had belonged to Cicely's mother, Anne. The chain and the ring had been Bowen family jewelry. Robert Bowen had given them to Anne in pledge of their love. The little wire gilt caul Orva remembered the earl buying for his love at a Michaelmas fair. She could still picture Anne in her mind's eye, tucking her thick auburn hair into the caul and twirling about happily as she showed it off to Orva and to her father.
"These should belong to Cicely," Orva said aloud to herself. The chain and the ring were hardly impressive pieces, and the little caul needed to be regilded. But the serving woman knew that her little mistress would appreciate that these items had belonged to the mother she had never known. She added the box to her pile. Then, unlocking the door, letting herself out, and relocking it, she hurried off to find some servants to aid her in taking her prizes back to the cottage, where she would begin to fashion the gowns her little mistress needed.
When the earl came to visit his child later that day Orva showed him everything she had taken from his storerooms. The earl nodded, thinking to himself that Cicely could not be in better hands than Orva's. The serving woman had taken enough material to make his daughter a wardrobe fit for a princess. Then Orva showed him the box with the few small pieces of jewelry that had been Anne's.
Robert Bowen's eyes welled up. "I had forgotten these," he said softly, fingering the chain with the crucifix. "Aye, Cicely should have them. You were right to bring them, Orva. But the caul has seen better days, hasn't it?" He smiled at his remembrance of Anne's squeal of delight when he had bought it for her.
"A bit of fresh gilt, my lord," Orva assured him, "and 'twill be fine."
"My daughter should have a real gold caul, and some bits of good jewelry," the earl noted. "I will see to it."
"Remember, my lord, she is still a little girl. Perhaps a strand of pearls, and two or three rings. As she grows older you will gift her," Orva advised.
Several days later Robert Bowen brought his daughter a beautiful long strand of pearls, several gold rings decorated with brightly colored gemstones or pearls, a fine golden caul, and a gold headband with an oval piece of green malachite in its center. And when another week had passed he arrived with a beautiful dappled gray mare with a black mane and tail for Cicely, and a sturdy chestnut gelding for Orva.
The weeks flew by, and then it was Midsummer's eve. There was dancing, and there were games, drinking of sweet honeyed mead, and bonfires on the hillsides. In just a few more days Lady Cicely Bowen would be leaving her childhood home to be fostered by the widowed Queen Joan. The new king, rumor had it, was preparing for war against France. It would be an exciting time to be at court.
On the morning before her departure Cicely slipped from the cottage. Orva was busy finishing the packing, and would not consider where her little mistress had gone; nor would she worry about it, for Cicely was completely safe on Leighton lands. Walking across the fields Cicely made her way to her father's gardens, and secreted herself within a large hedge. And then the three nursemaids came, bringing with them her three little half brothers. She watched them silently, smiling at the antics of the two elder, wishing she might be allowed to play with them. Charles looked like their father, she was happy to see. The other two favored both their parents. Finally she could sit no longer.
"Farewell, little brothers," she whispered softly. "I doubt we will ever meet again. May God and his blessed Mother protect you all. Bring honor to Leighton." Then Lady Cicely Bowen crept quietly from her father's gardens, making her way back across the fields to the cottage where she had spent all of her life.
"Where were you?" Orva asked her when she entered.
"Out walking, and saying my farewells to Leighton," the little girl answered. "I still wish we didn't have to go. Oh, I know the great advantage this is for me, for my family, but I should have been content to remain here forever."
Orva sighed. "I know," she sympathized. "This has been my home for all my life too, and now I wonder if I will ever see it again, my little lady." She sighed again but then said, "Still, it is a great adventure we are about to embark upon. It could be worse. Your father's wife could have convinced him to put you in a convent for the rest of your days."
"I would have made a very bad nun," Cicely said, giggling.
"So would I," Orva agreed with a chuckle.
"Do you think my father will come to say good-bye, Orva?" Cicely wondered.
"Did he not tell you, child? Oh! Perhaps he meant for it to be a surprise," the serving woman said. "Your father is to escort us to Havering-atte-Bower."
Cicely clapped her small hands together with delight. "Ohh, we shall have time together before he leaves me. I am so glad!" She danced about the room.
Orva smiled to see the child happy. This sudden change in Cicely's life was a difficult one to make for a child so young. Orva prayed silently that all would be well, and that her little mistress would be happy in Queen Joan's household. She hoped the earl's daughter would find a friend among the other little maidens certain to be there. She slept restlessly that night—the last night in the cottage she considered her home. The earl had assured her the cottage would be there for her when Cicely was grown and no longer needed her. It was the one comfort she had in all of this great change.
The following day dawned gray and gloomy. Certainly not the most hopeful sign, Orva thought as she directed the loading of the trunks onto the baggage cart. It would take them a week to reach Queen Joan's residence, which was some fifteen miles east of London. The earl had sent word ahead to four convents and three monasteries requesting shelter for his party. Each night they would stop at a religious guesthouse, where they would be given a bed and two meals in the safety of the establishment's sturdy walls. They would travel with a dozen men-at-arms from Leighton to keep them, and Cicely's baggage cart with all her new gowns and other worldly possessions, safe.
They had traveled no more than a few miles when the rain began, and it continued for the next two days. The earl had wisely considered that they would travel slowly, and so, while uncomfortable, they were able to reach the convent in which they would stay the night. The mother superior was impressed that Lady Cicely was to be fostered by the king's stepmother.
"You are aware, though, my lord, of the rumors about Queen Joan, aren't you?" the nun asked the earl.
"What rumors?" Robert Bowen inquired nervously. Were all his plans for his daughter to come to naught?
"Some say the lady practices witchcraft, my lord, although King Henry does not give such chatter credence," the mother superior murmured.
"Why would anyone say that?" the earl wondered aloud.
"Well, my lord, her kingly father in Navarre was called 'the Bad.' And then she lived in Brittany for many years, and all know that witchcraft is practiced there. And then there is the fact that while she bore her first husband, the Duke of Brittany, nine children, and our own late king had six with Lady Mary before she died and he succeeded to England's throne, together the king and Queen Joan produced no progeny. Both were young enough to do so. So why were there no more children?"
"Perhaps because of their large families their marriage was by choice a celibate one," the earl suggested. "As I recall Queen Joan brought her two younger daughters with her when she came from Brittany, Reverend Mother, and they needed her attention. But as I am not a part of the court circle my opinion on the matter would be worthless."
The nun smiled archly. "Your little girl is very fortunate, my lord," she said.
It rained the next day as well, and the monastery guesthouse they stayed in the second night was very sparse, the supper and meal the following morning scant. But when they awoke the third morning the sky had turned blue and the sun was shining. The weather held for the rest of their journey, and late in the afternoon of the seventh day they reached the village of Havering-atte-Bower, and Queen Joan's residence. The queen, however, was not there. She would be arriving on the morrow, the steward said, with Lady Joan Beaufort. He could not admit the queen's new fosterling until she arrived.
Anticipating that he might need a seventh night of shelter, the Earl of Leighton had arranged it in the guesthouse of a small but prosperous convent just outside of the village. The mother superior herself welcomed them, smiling. She was quite unlike their hostess on that first night on the road.
"So you're to live in the queen's household," the nun said. "You are a very lucky little girl, Lady Cicely. I have known the queen since she came to England over ten years ago. She is very wise and can be a lot of fun. Her daughters Marguerite and Blanche came with her then. Of course, they're married back into France now but I remember them well. Two of the sisters and I used to take them berry picking. And the Decembers we had with all the feasting from Christmas to Twelfth Night. Queen Joan always invited us to her table then, for we are a small order. How lovely to learn there will be two little girls back at the queen's house again to bring it laughter and joy."
"I believe your words are comforting to my daughter," Robert Bowen said. "She has never before been away from Leighton."
"Oh," the mother superior said, and she stooped down so she might speak face-to-face with Cicely. "You must not be afraid, my daughter. You have come to a good place, and within a few short weeks it will be and will feel like home to you. Do you like animals? The queen's house here is always filled with dogs and cats."
"I have a horse," Cicely said. "My lord father gave her to me before we departed our home. Her name is Gris, because she is gray. I've never had a dog or cat."
"Well, you shall probably find you have several once the queen is in residence," the nun said cheerfully, standing up again. "Come now, my lord, my lady. We are about to celebrate vespers. Will you not join us? And then we'll have supper. I know that Sister Margarethe has made a wonderful vegetable-and-rabbit potage for supper. I have smelled it cooking all afternoon." She reached out and took Cicely's hand. "But first we must go into the chapel and thank our dear Lord and his Mother for your safe arrival."
The convent might be small, but the meal they were served after vespers was every bit as good as that served at the earl's table. The rabbit stew was flavorful, the bread warm and crisp, and there was an egg custard flavored with lavender, served last. The beds given them were clean and fresh, free from bedbugs and fleas. And in the morning their second meal of oat stirabout, with newly baked bread and butter was delicious. The earl thanked the sisters as they departed, pressing a generous donation into the hand of the mother superior.
"I hope we will see you again very soon, Lady Cicely," the nun called after them.
"Do you think the queen will like me, Papa?" Cicely asked as they rode towards the village again, and the queen's residence. "What of the other girl who comes with her? Do you know who she is?"
The earl nodded. "You must not fret, poppet," he told his daughter. "Queen Joan is a good woman, and she cannot help but like you. Everyone likes you."
"My stepmother does not like me," Cicely said softly.
"Luciana does not know you, and she is jealous of the love I bear you, and bore your mother. I wish it were otherwise, but it is not. Queen Joan will like you."
"And the girl? Who is she, Papa?" Cicely asked anxiously.
"Lady Joan Beaufort is the daughter of the late Earl of Somerset, John Beaufort," the earl began. "His father was the Duke of Lancaster, a son of King Edward the Third, called John of Gaunt because he was born to Queen Philippa in Ghent. The duke had three wives, and outlived two. John Beaufort, his brothers Henry and Thomas, and his sister, Joan, were the children of the duke's mistress, and later third wife, Katherine Swynford. The Beauforts were born on the other side of the blanket, as were you, Cicely. But like you they were legitimated. They and their descendants are not permitted to be placed in the line of succession, but they are legitimate. You, my daughter, are, however, in my line of succession. When I die you will receive an inheritance along with your brothers."
"So this other little girl is royal," Cicely said. Her stomach stirred nervously.
"Aye," her father admitted, "she is. But she is still an earl's daughter, as are you."
They were now approaching the queen's residence, which, like the village, was known as Havering-atte-Bower. It was a large dwelling that had been built originally by King William, known as the Conqueror, to serve as a hunting lodge. Over the centuries since it had been added onto, and made into a large, livable home. When they had come yesterday it had been quiet. Now, however, the path to and before the house was filled with carts, and horses, and servants of various rank.
One of the earl's men rode forward, shouting, "Make way for my lord, the Earl of Leighton! Make way!"
Carts were drawn to the road's edge, and grumbling people stepped aside until a narrow path was formed, allowing their party through. The queen's steward met them at the door to the house. Grooms hurried forward to take their horses as they dismounted. Robert Bowen took his daughter by the hand and beckoned Orva to follow them as the steward led them into the house and to the hall.
Cicely's little heart hammered with a mixture of both fear and excitement. She had chosen her new burnt orange velvet gown to wear this day. It had a turned-up collar and long, trailing sleeves. She wore the gold chain with the little jeweled crucifix about her neck, and rings on several of her fingers. Her gold coronet was worn about her head, and beneath it was a delicate lawn veil barely hiding the rich russet of her hair. She knew she looked most elegant, because Orva had told her so. Still, she worried that she would not please the queen. She cast a quick glance about the hall.
Queen Joan stood waiting for the child to be put into her care. Seeing Cicely, she smiled. The little girl was absolutely adorable. Leaning to the right, she murmured to the child by her side, "Now, Joan, here is the companion I promised you."
The earl reached the queen's chair. He bowed low with an elegant flourish that his wife had taught him when she'd learned he was speaking with the queen. He looked then to his daughter, and Cicely curtsied prettily.
"So here you are at last, my lord. And this will be your daughter, Lady Cicely Bowen, will it not?" Queen Joan said.
"It is, madam, and again let me express my gratitude for your generosity and kindness in fostering my child," Robert Bowen replied.
Queen Joan nodded graciously, then asked, "This is Lady Cicely's servant, my lord? Come forward." She gestured to Orva.
Startled to be noticed, Orva stepped forward, and then curtsied politely.
"Orva, madam," was the reply.
"You are welcome to Havering-atte-Bower, Orva," the queen said. Then she looked to Cicely. "Come here, child, and let me see you better."
Cicely stepped forward.
"Your father tells me you speak English and French," the queen said.
"Aye, my lady, I do," Cicely responded.
"And you do sums?"
"Aye, my lady."
"You are a good Christian maid? You make your confession regularly?" the queen continued.
"Oh, yes, my lady!" Cicely said earnestly.
The queen smiled a small smile. "Do you think you will be happy with us?"
"I do not know, my lady," Cicely said honestly. "I have never before been away from home. But I am told in a few weeks this will be home, and I shall be content."
Again Queen Joan smiled. "Aye, I think you will be. Then you are content to come into my care."
"Oh, my lady, this is a great honor you do me, do my family,"
Cicely answered her. "My father is not an important man. I am very grateful for your kindness to me."
The child had, of course, been told that the queen understood, but she seemed intelligent. She knew the advantage being given to her. Queen Joan drew the other girl by her side forward. "This is your new companion, Lady Joan Beaufort," she said. "Joan, this is Lady Cicely Bowen. You will share a chamber, and lessons, and learn how to be great ladies in my care. My lord of Leighton, bid your daughter farewell now."
The earl knelt and drew Cicely into his embrace. He kissed her rosy cheeks, and his eyes grew misty as she put her arms about his neck.
Then she whispered, "I will do my best to bring honor to Leighton, my lord father. I swear it on my mother's name."
Robert Bowen's heart contracted. "I know you will," he responded. Then, kissing her smooth forehead, he arose, saying, "Farewell, my daughter. We will meet again, I promise you." Bowing to the queen, he then turned and left her hall.
Cicely stared after her father. She suddenly felt abandoned, as if she would weep.
Then a small hand slipped into hers, and a sweet voice said, "We are going to be such great friends, Cicely. I just know it!"
Turning, she looked into the smiling face of little Lady Joan Beaufort.