Bethany first saw him on twelfth night. It was the beginning of a new year, her father had become impatient with his efforts to find a title for her to marry, and this Christmas visit to her sister was a last chance attempt to find a suitor more important than a baron, someone impoverished perhaps, who would be likely to lower himself to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant.
He entered the banqueting hall much later than everyone else, drawing immediate attention to himself in so doing, and her sister did not seem pleased with his company.
He was very handsome; he was tall and well built and oh, so self confident. She watched him as he entered and cast his eyes about the company as though he belonged there.
Julia was very perplexed when she first saw him and she looked startled as well, as though she could not quite believe what she was seeing.
“His Lordship, the Earl of Summerville,” the steward announced him in a loud voice.
“What is he doing here?” Julia muttered crossly.
“Was he not invited?”
“Oh yes,” she replied. “He is our nearest and most important neighbour. He has to be invited, but he never comes. Never.”
“Well,” Bethany replied unnecessarily. “He has come this time.”
He seemed to have unofficially invited himself, a fact she found intriguing in this age and social class where everything has to be correctly done lest scandal should ensue.
Julia hurried off to greet this new and mysterious guest while her sister watched curiously both her own reaction and that of her husband. Sir Geoffrey looked quite furious, as if he might challenge this newcomer, although it was doubtful he possessed the courage. Threats and innuendo were more in keeping with his custom than actual action, much less confrontation.
There was a whispered argument going on between the Earl of Summerville and Julia. It may be that he was an important neighbour and due the respect owed to such a man, but the two seemed to be on rather more familiar terms than neighbourly friendliness would allow. Who could blame her, Bethany thought, if she had been tempted by her nearest and most important neighbour. In her position, she might well have done the same.
Bethany was intrigued by this hint of intimacy between them and could not resist going closer to see what they were whispering about. She never found out, because they both stopped talking abruptly on her approach.
“Allow me to present my sister, my Lord,” Julia said hurriedly in an obvious effort to change the subject. “Bethany, this is Lord Summerville, my neighbour.”
He turned and smiled, then took Bethany’s hand and kissed it.
“Delighted,” he murmured. “Another lovely member of the family.”
As he spoke there was a little playful grin about his mouth, a grin which reached his black eyes and made them dance with mischief. She found it difficult not to laugh, but Julia’s obvious displeasure at seeing him there caused her to conceal her amusement.
Their father was a merchant dealing in fine cloth and had built up vast wealth over the years, so much in fact that he was able to maintain a grand house in London as well as a small country residence. But what he really wanted was noble blood running through the veins of his grandchildren.
He had managed to negotiate a marriage between Julia and Sir Geoffrey Winterton, the first step on the staircase to the upper classes, but now he needed to find a man of similar or higher rank for his youngest daughter.
The gentlemen of Sir Geoffrey’s acquaintance were all of the same social rank as himself with the exception of a baron or two. Lord Summerville was the first Earl to have appeared in this house, and it was clear that Bethany was not alone in finding his presence unexpected.
She had never been of the obedient disposition, never understood why a woman had to accept that her menfolk knew best and she had done nothing to encourage any of the suitors Julia had so far invited to the house. She was determined to do everything within her power to deter these poverty stricken noblemen whom her father could wine and dine and feel pleased about.
She would infinitely prefer a man of her own class whom she could at least respect and like, if not love. If she did not achieve her goal of alienating them all, she would likely have to accept one of them. Her father was putting all his faith into these twelve days in the hope of finding someone more important.
Bethany had always known the time would come when she would have to marry and she would not be allowed to choose for herself, but the time had come too quickly and she was not yet ready to accept her fate. She wondered if she ever would be.
Her father did not really care much about the age or inclinations of a future husband, only that he was high born and could bring the family further up the social ladder, perhaps even give them access to the court. That was one commodity which could only be bought with his daughters and he still had one of those left with which to bargain. He had married her brother to a woman of his own class, but there was no title to be had in that direction so it was unimportant. Daughters were his bargaining tool and Bethany had a feeling he already knew he had wasted one of them on Sir Geoffrey, since no grandchild had yet appeared nor ever likely to, judging by their obvious animosity toward each other and their separate sleeping and living arrangements. He was taking more time with his remaining commodity.
Bethany was a beautiful maiden, with dark hair and eyes, a small straight nose and round cheeks. She had a sweet voice and an easy laughter, but her one failing was that she found pretence to be almost beyond her capabilities. She had so far seen very few at this ball who appealed, but time was running out. She knew as well as her father that the older she got, the smaller the pool of suitors would be.
Her brother had at least had some say in his choice of spouse, being a man. She did not think he loved Margaret, not in a romantic sense anyway, but he was certainly fond of her as she was of him. They would do well together; they might even learn respect for each other, even if she did obey his every command and agree with his every thought. Bethany still envied them both the choices she would be denied.
She could not do much worse than Julia, surely. It pained Bethany to think of all that beauty being wasted on Sir Geoffrey, who seemed not to care one iota for his wife. But that was hardly surprising, really. He had got her dowry, now he had no real need of her since he had a younger brother who could well be an acceptable heir.
He did not seem to take much notice of any woman and Bethany often wondered if he were perhaps one of those men who were attracted to their own sex. As she looked his way, she tried to shake off that idea; she had only heard rumours about such men and she was never sure whether to believe them or not. God made men and women in order for them to procreate, to perpetuate the species, so why would he make one like that? And God did not make mistakes, which meant that such men were as likely as a unicorn.
Lord Summerville helped himself to mead and stood watching his neighbour’s sister where she sat staring into space, her mind apparently elsewhere. He could imagine where her thoughts were taking her; Julia had told him the reason for her visit and he hoped those circumstances would work in his favour.
She was a very beautiful woman, not at all like her sister whose hair was fairer than any he had seen before or since. He never accepted Sir Geoffrey’s invitations, as he could not abide the man, but he had seen this young woman when she first arrived and had been attracted to her then. He decided to have a closer look, perhaps learn her character and now as he watched her, he thought she might suit his purposes very well.
He had been looking for a wife as he badly needed an heir to his title and estates, but he had grown tired of the women in his own social circles, many of whom he had already had in his bed. Although he enjoyed them, he secretly thought of them as harlots and that was not the sort of woman he wanted as his wife.
This young maiden was innocent and he could mould her to his purposes; he did not ask for much in a wife, only loyalty and companionship, and the hope of a son. He had no need of her generous dowry as he was one of the wealthiest noblemen in the country and he could be certain of her father’s consent.
He was sure she had no idea he was studying her, admiring her full bosom, her slim waist, her shining dark hair. She was too involved in worrying about her future to be aware of him at all and he found that intriguing. Women were usually very much aware of him.
Bethany’s mind was far away as she pondered her situation and wondered if there were by any chance a way out, when she felt the pressure of someone sitting down beside her.
“Lady Winterton did not tell me that she had such a beautiful sister,” he said.
Bethany turned her head and stared up at the Earl, still curious about the real relationship between him and her sister. They had indeed seemed too familiar for mere neighbours.
“Why should she tell you anything, My Lord?” She replied. “After all, you are but a neighbour, are you not? Nothing more?”
He laughed, drawing the attention of several other guests, and she caught sight of Julia, dancing with her husband and frowning in disapproval.
“Are you always so candid?” He asked.
“I try to curb my enthusiasm, Sir, but it does not always work. Sometimes I wish there were some function of the human body which allowed us to retract words that had already been spoken, sort of grab them back while they still hung in the air.” She sat back and sighed. “I will not apologise for it, My Lord.”
“I should hope not. And it is Richard,” he said firmly. “My name is Richard.”
She was surprised at such familiarity, but she could not deny she found it somewhat pleasing. For the first time since arriving here at Winterton House, she felt able to reveal her true self, to speak without thought of the impression she might be making. She was weary of trying to impress people of a superior social class and this Earl was unlikely to join her father’s queue of suitors. That queue was growing ever shorter as time went on and this was her main concern on this last night of Christmas, not whether she would offend the sensibilities of a Lord of the manor. It was a relief to be able to talk to someone of the male persuasion without having to pretend, without having to think about every word before it left her lips.
His clothes were of the finest cloth, velvet and satin with pearls embedded for decoration. The colour was dark though, dark blue to be exact, as though he did not wish to make himself conspicuous. Many men in his position would wear bright colours and plenty of embroidery and jewels, to display their wealth and importance, like Sir Geoffrey. This man was important, and he had no need to convince anyone of it. She liked that, very much. It seemed he was also someone who did not need nor like to pretend.
His hair and eyes were almost black, his shoulders beneath his jacket were broad and she could see the muscles at his thighs beneath his clothing.
She imagined a man of his age would be married and wondered where Lady Summerville might be. Perhaps he was a widower, or perhaps he kept his own wife hidden at home whilst he liaised with that of his neighbour.
She neither knew nor cared; she only knew she was enjoying his conversation and felt relaxed for the first time in weeks.
The following morning brought bright sunshine streaming through the windows of her bedchamber and although there was a sharp nip of cold in the air and thick frost on the ground, she was determined to walk off her fatigue from the night before. She had found it difficult to sleep, her thoughts in a whirl of indecision.
She wondered how it would be if she stole some of her mother’s jewels and ran away. It was an idea she had been toying with for some time, even before her father began presenting her to various prospective husbands, but that morning was the first time she had given it serious consideration. She could perhaps travel to another city, up north somewhere where nobody knew her. She was inventive; she could easily make up a story as to why she was travelling alone. Perhaps she could pretend to have been robbed by her servants, perhaps she could pretend to be a widow looking to forget a much loved husband. She smiled at the idea. A memory sprang to mind of her father locking away a purse in his cupboard; if she could get into that, find the money still there, she would not have to steal her mother’s jewels. She was not comfortable with doing that, but to steal her father’s money was a different matter. It would serve him right for forcing her into this position in the first place.
The only obstacle which really deterred her from forming a plan was that she had heard people in the north were still fiercely Catholic. Although against the law since the young King Edward had taken the throne, there were still some Papist factions about the country and she could expect no aid from any of them.
Was she brave enough? The world was a harsh place for a young woman alone and with no dowry and no family to support her, she would find it very difficult to make a good match. And she did want a good match, she was basically spoilt and had grown up with servants and her father’s wealth ready to grant her every wish and whim.
There had been a time of religious chaos in the land after the old king’s break with the Roman church. She had been told about it, about how King Henry had stripped the monasteries of all their possessions, destroyed the idols and turned the monks out on the street. Suddenly that which had been sacred was worthless, even blasphemous. But that had been twenty years ago, long before Bethany was born. She had no memory of a time when Rome had any say in the religion of England and since the accession of the young King Edward, there had been five years or more of peace and stability on that score.
Bethany believed they had seen an end to Papist rule. From what she had heard Catholic rule was harsh and their ideals were bizarre. Those who did not agree with them were tortured and burned alive, those like her family who did not accept the doctrine of confession, absolution, buying prayers to reduce their time in purgatory, or even paying money to touch the many relics they claimed were genuine. Catholics believed in transubstantiation, which meant that the wine and bread were transformed during the Holy Communion into the actual flesh and blood of the saviour, instead of being only symbolic of those things. She shuddered to think of it, but it was all in the past now except for some parts of the country where priests were hidden away in private houses, brought out to say mass in private chapels. It would never again be the religion of England, and that is all she knew and all that mattered.
For that Christmas, Bethany had more important things to think about, or at least she thought she did.
Most of her suitors were younger sons with no inheritance, but she could summon no respect for a man whose only interest in her was her generous dowry and her wealthy father.
Bethany had been so deep in thought she did not realise just how far from the house she had wandered. She pulled her cloak tightly about her shoulders, thankful for the rabbit fur lining, then she looked up to see a huge mansion in the valley, almost hidden by the trees surrounding it. This was the sort of house she had dreams of ruling. Her father’s country house, which she had believed so vast, was as a small manor house compared to this. How wonderful to be mistress of such a place, to command the homage and respect of all the people around her. Nobody then would be in a position to order her life or to decide with whom she should spend it.
She sighed despondently; she had not been born to that life and it was not going to happen so there was no earthly point in thinking about it. What she needed to think about was a way out of a marriage she did not want and could hardly bear to think about.
“Good morning, Mistress,” a voice came from behind her, making her start. “You are about early, considering the lateness of the ball last night.”
“My Lord,” she stammered, feeling foolish and vulnerable, neither position being one she enjoyed. “I did not expect to find anybody abroad. You live nearby?”
He smiled then indicated with his hand the huge mansion in the valley. Julia had said he was her nearest and most important neighbour, but Bethany had failed to make the connection. She just had too many other things going on in her mind, too many things more personal to her. Thinking of the small manor house that Sir Geoffrey owned nearby, she realised why His Lordship had to be invited, even if they neither wanted nor expected him to accept.
“I have wandered farther than I realised. Please forgive me for trespassing, My Lord.”
“You are welcome to trespass whenever you want.” He touched her arm as she turned to begin her walk back to Winterton House. “But do not run away,” he said. “We should take the opportunity to get to know each other.”
“Why?” Once again she wanted to grab back the word. Not very polite, given the circumstances. But he laughed.
“Why not?” He replied. “Come. You look cold and I know where we can get a hot drink and a warm fire.”
He held out his hand which she took and allowed him to lead her across the frost covered meadow toward his house. She wondered briefly if she should perhaps get word to Julia as to her whereabouts, but something told her that her sister would not approve. She also knew perfectly well that to be going off with a man who was not a relative, without a chaperone, was not the behaviour one expected of a lady. It did not occur to her, however, to worry about what the Earl might think of her for this indiscretion, she just knew it was a relief to be able to not care.
Once inside and warming up with mulled wine before a roaring fire, seated on rich cushions on oak settles such as she had never seen before, she was able to remove her cloak. She could not help but cast her eyes greedily over the chamber, over the rich tapestries and ancient paintings, the oak panelling and carved ceilings. There were even rugs from the Far East covering the stone floors. At least she assumed they were from the East since she had never seen anything like it in England before. She had heard somewhere that fine rugs were made in the far eastern countries which had only been found in the last century or two. Such things were too expensive for most people and seeing them here merely confirmed her suspicion that this man was incredibly wealthy, even wealthier than her father, perhaps even wealthier than the King himself. It was said that King Henry acquired Hampton Court from Cardinal Wolsey when he learned that the Cardinal was richer than he.
She let her glance slide towards her companion, appreciating his good looks and his confident manner, his broad shoulders and his muscular chest. She had never met anyone quite like him before, but then she had never met a nobleman before. For the first time in her life, she regretted who she was, regretted she had no right to be attracted to this man, even though she was.
“The King is not expected to live much longer,” Richard said suddenly. “What do you think of that?”
She turned to look at him, quite startled at the way he had suddenly dropped this treacherous statement into the silence of the room.
“To speak of the death of the King is treason, My Lord,” she replied quickly, lest she be accused of complying with such sentiments. “Is this some kind of trap you have led me into?”
“Not at all. I got the impression you speak whatever thoughts come into your mind and I believed it would be a topic of interest to us both. Forgive me if I am mistaken.”
She was still unsure of how best to reply. She hardly knew this man and he was close to the court, and while she in no way thought herself important enough to entrap with a false question, she felt it was difficult to trust such a conversation coming from a stranger.
“You are not mistaken,” she said at last. “I am just surprised, that is all. You know nothing about me. How do you know I will not betray you?”
He shrugged and smiled mischievously. “I will simply deny all knowledge of it, my dear. It is not difficult to believe that anybody would take my word over yours. Or is it?”
“You are probably right,” she replied carefully. “What is your own opinion of the King’s health?”
“I think it will be a good thing when the corrupt Lord Protector is ousted from his position. He has no love for the country or the people, but seeks only power.”
“But if the King should die young, the throne will go to his cousin. The Duke will still be Lord Protector; I heard he will marry his son to the Lady Jane Grey.”
“Jane Grey will never be queen,” he replied harshly. “She has no real claim to the throne. The Scottish queen has a greater claim but the people would never accept her either. Mary Tudor will succeed, just as her father willed it.”
“Mary?” She shuddered. “I hope you are wrong, Sir. She will turn England back to Rome and persecute those true to the Protestant faith. I may be young, but I have learned about the way Protestants were treated before King Henry broke with Rome, and even after. I believe Mary is a fanatic who refuses to give up the Mass, despite it being outlawed.”
“And her brother allows it, so long as it is performed in private. Why do you suppose that is?”
She did not know enough about the relationship between the King and his half sister to converse on the subject and she was still afraid of saying too much. This conversation was rapidly following a dangerous path and she felt it would be a good thing to change the subject.
“Is your lady wife here with you?” She asked, not knowing what else to say to change the course of the conversation.
“What makes you think I have a lady wife?”
“I suppose I just assumed that it would be the case.”
She got up and moved toward the window, looking out at the hundreds of acres of fields and meadows stretching as far as the eye could see. There were little cottages and farmhouses dotted about here and there, all with smoke coming from roofs. Some even had proper chimneys, an expense reserved for the wealthy. If they were part of Lord Summerville’s estate, then he must be responsible for installing them, for caring for his tenants’ comfort. She brought her mind back to the conversation about his wife. “Am I wrong?” She asked.
“You are indeed. I have no wife, a situation which must be remedied very soon. I am an only child and I need an heir.” She turned to look at him, surprised once more by this intimate choice of topic, and her heart leapt for a second with the hope his words promised. His next words dispelled that hope. “I am told that you will soon be married yourself.”
She laughed bitterly.
“That is what I am told as well, My Lord,” she replied cynically. “I am just not at all sure to whom my father intends to sell me.”
“An odd way of putting it.”
“Not at all. He wants a titled gentleman to give him a lift up the social ladder. He is wealthy; an impoverished nobleman would likely be interested, just as Sir Geoffrey bought my sister with his title. It is a barbaric system and not one with which I would ever willingly comply.”
“But only the lowest classes are given the privilege of being able to marry for love, Mistress. You and I must look upon the procedure as a business arrangement, something which will benefit both parties.”
“I have never heard it put like that before,” she replied wistfully. “Perhaps the lower classes have the advantage over us.”
“Perhaps. Just what sort of man would suit you, madam?” He asked playfully.
She looked about, returning his mischievous grin as she swept the space around her with her arms.
“This,” she replied. “The owner of all this would suit nicely.” She paused and laughed at her own folly. “But the owner of all this would not be in need of my dowry.”
She collected her cloak from where it lay upon the settle, warming beside the fire.
“I must go,” she said quickly. “Julia will be wondering where I am and I do not wish to outstay my welcome.” He helped her with her cloak, then took her chin in his hand and lifted her face to his. As she looked into his eyes she felt a sudden concern for his safety, though why she did not know. She hardly knew him. “My Lord,” she said. “You should have a care. I would hate to see your head on a spike on London Bridge.”
“It will never happen. Mary will be Queen and when she is, all us Catholics will be able to show our faces again without having to tread carefully and curb our tongues.”
She caught her breath and could only stare in disbelief. Us Catholics, he had said. He was playing a very dangerous game.
“You are a Catholic?”
He nodded. “You will not give me away, will you?”
“Why are you so sure? You know nothing of me, nothing. How can you be so sure I will not betray you?”
It was a few minutes before he replied, and when he did he was smiling like a man who knows he has won the day.
“Because I am the owner of all this,” he indicated the room. “You would not want to lose out on that, for the sake of a principle, now would you?”
The First Book of the Holy Poison Series
It is 1553, England has served the Protestant King Edward VI for five years and during that time catholicism has been outlawed, punishable by imprisonment and confiscation of lands and wealth. Into this volatile situation comes Bethany, the daughter of a wealthy merchant whose only concern is to avoid a marriage to an impoverished baron. When Lord Richard Summerville proposes a mutual marriage agreement, she is thrilled, despite his admission that he is a hated catholic and expects his wife to follow his beliefs.
Her eyes firmly fixed on his wealth, title and country mansion, as well as a handsome and amiable Earl, she has no idea how difficult it will be to support her catholic husband when Mary Tudor gains the throne and begins a brutal campaign to force England back to the church of Rome.
As Bethany's protestant friends and relatives are persecuted for their beliefs and prepared to face a horrible death rather than recant, she finds herself torn between love for her husband and loyalty to her faith.