The Yuletide festivities were coming to a close and Lord Michael Melford and his family were delighted to have their younger brother home at last.
They were a close family and had not seen John for almost a year, not since he left for London to seek his fortune. He had briefly met with his brother, James, at the palace, when the latter went there to seek an annulment, having discovered his wife had an illegitimate child.
Apart from that one meeting, when John would have liked to say much more on the subject of James’ marriage, they had heard little and Michael worried about his youngest brother. At that meeting John had been in a hurry to leave for the north, to help defeat a rebellion to oust Elizabeth and replace her as Queen with Mary of Scotland. Rebellions of that nature often broke out, as there would always be Catholic lords who wanted another Catholic monarch as well as those who saw Elizabeth as a bastard and not fit to be Queen. They saw Mary as the rightful heir and felt the need to establish that fact.
There would always be people who wanted everything their own way in religion and politics, but the Melfords were not among them. They would defend the Queen because she was the Queen, and after the brutal reign of her papist sister, they would always do their best to protect a Protestant monarch.
When Michael heard where his brother was going, he was not sure whether to be relieved or even more worried. At least he was not being sent to the new world to defend England’s claims there.
This Christmas they were all together in Michael’s London house and after tribulations over the past few years, it was indeed the happiest family time.
Michael was not born to inherit the title and estate; that privilege should have gone to his eldest brother, Malcolm, and when he was killed along with their father, Michael suddenly found himself the head of a very old and noble family. It was a frightening prospect and he could not have fallen into the role so easily without the help of his remaining brothers.
Now they watched the children as they played an energetic game together. There was little James and his brother Mark, the sons of James, Viscount West and his wife Helen. There was Lisa and little Michael, the children of Lord Melford and his wife Christine, and there was Angela, the eldest of all, the daughter Helen bore out of wedlock to a renegade Catholic priest.
Michael’s eyes followed the little girl, so much like her mother, a child whose existence they knew nothing about until this time last year. He still could not quite believe that James had not only taken his wife back, he had adopted her illegitimate daughter. When he left them after that Christmas, he was determined to see the Archbishop and get an annulment, determined never to see Helen again, but he had learned the hard way what it was to lose the woman he loved. Still, Michael was surprised. He would never have expected James to be so generous. He was not of a forgiving nature.
They all thought James was far too possessive of his wife. He hardly ever let her out of his sight, wanted to know where she was and what she was doing all the time. Michael’s wife, Christine, could never understand how she endured such scrutiny but what none of them knew was that Helen was just as possessive as James. She did not want him going off and leaving her alone, for who knows what he might be doing? They suited each other very well.
Helen squeezed her husband’s hand as she watched the children at play. Despite being raised by a brutal father, this year had been the hardest she had ever lived through. Since the day she married James, she had longed to tell him about Angela, but there had never been an opportunity and she was always very afraid of his reaction. When James learned about Angela, he greeted the news precisely as she had expected him to. He set out to annul their marriage, breaking her heart and tearing her away from her two sons.
After a year of living in secret with her daughter, he forgave her, said he could not live without her whatever she had done, and she was surprised and grateful.
Now she watched her little daughter, her firstborn, running around and laughing with her half brothers, with her cousins, where Helen had always believed she belonged and she thought she might burst with happiness. And she owed it all to her very generous husband.
She would never have expected it of him. He was a very proud man and a very possessive one, and she expected no forgiveness. Ever since the day they married she had lied to him. She had told him the two days she spent away each month were to pay visits to her father, when in fact she went to see her daughter who lived in hiding with Helen’s retired nurse.
She did not want to dissolve their marriage, as James meant the world to her, yet she would not beg. He would not have liked that. But when her father burned down the house in which she and Angela had found shelter, a house on his estate, she had nowhere to go and nowhere else to turn.
It would not have been easy for James to be granted an annulment. The Archbishop of Canterbury was the only one who could grant such a thing to a member of the nobility and he had insisted on hearing from Helen, insisted on her giving her side of things before he would agree.
Helen did not want to do that. She was not sure she had the courage to help dissolve her own marriage, to help James rip her happiness and her future away and it would have been so humiliating to have to tell a tribunal of bishops about her shame.
But she had no choice. She came back to try to come to an agreement with James, that she would tell the church court whatever he wanted so that he could be free of her and remarry, if he would provide her and her daughter with a home. He had an estate in Hertfordshire and Helen expected he would find her a small house on that estate, send her many miles away from him and her sons. He visited that estate only two or three times a year and she could agree to make herself scarce when he visited.
Instead of agreeing to her plan, a plan which tore her apart to even suggest, he had taken her in his arms, kissed her and told her that he loved her, even said he would adopt Angela and make her his own. She had no idea he loved her that much, no idea he loved her enough to swallow his enormous pride and have everyone know that the child who now lived as his daughter was his wife’s bastard. No, she would never have expected that and she was so grateful to him,
Now she had another secret, but this was not one she wanted to keep from him. She only waited for the festivities to be over before she told him.
John leaned across the table and spoke quietly to his brother, a little smile lighting his handsome features.
“I am very glad you saw reason,” he said. “Last time we met you were on your way to end your marriage.”
James scowled at him.
“Would you do me the very great favour of forgetting that conversation ever took place?” He replied, with a glance at Helen to be sure she had not heard.
He was relieved to see her looking the other way, talking to Christine.
“What conversation?” John said playfully. “I remember nothing. I must say I am surprised, though.”
James brought Helen’s hand to his lips and kissed it, before picking up his goblet and standing up, gesturing his younger brother to follow him. John obviously had a lot to say and he had no wish for Helen to hear and be distressed by it.
“All right,” James said when they were seated beside the window, away from the table. “You have questions and I can see you will not shut up until you have answers.”
“Well, it is none of my business, of course, which I am sure you will tell me. I am delighted that you have decided your pride is not worth losing a wonderful woman for, but I am very surprised that you would take her child in as your own. I would never have expected that of you.”
“No. Michael, yes, he is soft enough for anything, but you, James?”
James gave him a rare grin.
“I surprised myself as well,” he said. “I have learned a lot during this last year away from Helen. I learned that I love her, John. I love her far more than I ever realised and I could not ask her to come back to me unless I also adopted her child. Even if she had agreed to return without Angela, she would have always resented having to part with her, and I am content. She is a delightful child and the boys love her. If they can accept her, so can I. She will never hear a word of reproach from me.”
“I hope you can keep to that promise, James.”
“I can. I will do anything to make my wife happy.” He paused and sipped at his wine. “And you? What will you do now?”
“The Queen has honoured me with a small estate in Surrey.”
“You must have done well for her. I trust you did not put yourself in too much danger, or if you did, please do not tell Michael.”
“I have done no more than any other supporter of the Queen and the Protestant cause. There are always papist schemes to remove Her Majesty and replace her with Mary of Scotland, even though no one has asked Mary if she would even accept the throne. It is unfair to both, but I am a Protestant like my father and brothers before me. I do not think any of us will forget the last reign, will we? The violence, the deaths, the barbarism. I cannot contemplate another Catholic monarch.” He shrugged and sipped his wine. “It was but a small uprising, easily subdued.”
“You will have something to offer a bride now, at least,” James said.
“That is true.”
“Do you have someone in mind?”
“No such thing! I have given it no thought and it seems to me that I am too late. You and Michael have already claimed the most beautiful women in the land.”
It was true he had given the matter little thought. All his life he had accepted that, as the youngest son with nothing to offer, he would likely only marry if a wealthy commoner could be found to exchange her wealth for his title.
Now he had an estate and an income and he had no idea how to find a bride. It seemed to be a task he should entrust to his brother, who was the Earl and whose consent would be needed for any match. In truth he felt a little shy when he thought about finding a wife. Both his brothers were fortunate in their marriages, despite recent misunderstandings; he could scarcely hope to be nearly so fortunate and he did not want a wife he could not love.
“John has matured a lot this past year,” James remarked as he closed the door to Helen’s bedchamber and turned to look at her. “I can no longer think of him as a boy. I wonder what manner of bride he will choose.”
He stood behind her and unlaced her bodice, felt her respond with a shiver of pleasure as he slipped her sleeves away from her arms, slipped the bodice away from her breasts and allowed it to drop to the floor. His arms went around her and held her tightly against him, her back pressed against his chest as he kissed her neck then turned her in his arms to kiss her lips.
“Whoever she is,” Helen answered, “she will not be as fortunate as I.”
“My daughter had more fun this yuletide than ever before in her whole life. She played and laughed and danced, just as a child should. She has spent her life with no company save her elderly nurse and occasionally her mother. She has had to hide away for fear of her grandfather learning of her existence and doing her harm. That is no way for a child to live.” She wiped at her eyes with her fingers, then reached her lips to his face. “I do so thank you, James. I am so very grateful.”
“There are many things I want from my wife, but gratitude is not one of them. She is a charming child and deserves everything I can give her.”
She drew a deep breath and stood while he pulled the tie fastenings of her skirt and her petticoats and allowed them to gather at her feet while he slipped her shift from her shoulders, his fingers caressing the flesh as he did so until she stood naked before him. Then he stepped away and ran his palm over the slight bulge of her stomach.
“You are with child?” He asked.
She flushed, a crimson stain spreading over her cheeks, and she buried her face against his chest to hide it. He held her against him, kissed the top of her head and smiled.
“Why the secrecy?” He asked. “I have suspected for weeks now, but I grew tired of waiting for you to tell me.”
“I was not sure how you would greet this news,” she murmured against his open shirt.
“With joy, of course.”
“But there is Angela. If this child should prove to be the daughter you always wanted, what will become of her?”
“She will have a little sister. Do you think I would break my promise to you?”
She shook her head, feeling that swell of gratitude once more.
“You are pleased then?”
He ran his hands over her body, traced the line of her waist and her full hips, cupped her breast and pulled her close to him.
“Of course I am pleased. It is what we need for our new beginning.”
Lord John's Folly: Book Three of the Elizabethans
John is the youngest of the three Melford brothers and as such is used to having nothing. He decides to go to London to seek his fortune at the royal court of Queen Elizabeth I with the outcome that he plays his part in defeating a rebellion by Catholic lords wanting to replace Elizabeth on the English throne with Mary, Queen of Scots.
As a reward, Elizabeth gives John the title and estate of one of the traitors so at last he has something to call his own and something to offer a bride. Excited, he prepares to leave for his new estate, but before he can do so, Lady Geraldine, the betrothed of his dead eldest brother, Malcolm, arrives with a letter for him. She found the letter along with love letters to Malcolm from a peasant woman named Heather, when Malcolm died, but she was angry and out of spite kept them to herself.
John has to find Heather and see to her safety before he can begin his new life. Finding her in dire straits with Malcolm's twin sons, he takes her back to his estate with him and all is well until the Queen presents him with Lady Jennifer Fitzroy to be his bride. John is distraught; he should never have allowed himself to fall in love with Heather. She is a peasant and he will never be allowed to marry her. He must marry Jennifer or his brothers might also lose everything.
There seems no solution to his dilemma; can he give up the woman he loves, see her return to the life of a peasant, to safe himself and his brothers?