“You look beautiful, my love,” Michael said with a wistful smile.
He bit back the quiver which touched his lips. Seeing his little sister standing there in his wife’s pale blue wedding gown, little sapphires glittering all over the skirt and the sleeves, took him back to the day he had stood in the church and watched Christine slowly walking towards him.
That had been the happiest day of his life, although he did not know it then. He had no idea why his sister was so insistent upon wearing the gown, and he had tried to talk her out of it, but in truth he could refuse her nothing. She was very fond of Christine and Michael thought she wanted to wear the gown because she would not be here to see her wed. He thought it was so Grace could feel closer to her. He was wrong.
The first time he saw Christine was at the coronation of the new Queen, and at the banquet afterwards he found it difficult to take his eyes off her.
It was not just her beauty which attracted him; there were many beautiful women there, all richly dressed and sophisticated, yet Christine’s natural beauty set her apart. Her blonde hair fell about her shoulders in waves and curls, not twisted into impossible shapes by some clever hair stylist. Her skin had its own sheen, free of powder or potions to obscure its natural glow. And he watched her every move, the gentle way she touched her father’s arm as he sat beside her, the soft laughter when something amused her, the shine in her bright blue eyes as she watched the new Queen presiding over the feast.
The several parts of her gown were of a combination of pink satin and white lace. Her bodice was quilted satin, pulled tight so that her high bosom swelled and bounced gently as she moved. Her overskirt was pink satin and her petticoat was of gleaming white lace. Her sleeves were the same pink satin, but quilted and interspersed with pearls and she wore a necklace of matching pearls.
Her hair reflected the light from the candles overhead and Michael longed to discover how her lips would taste.
In Michael’s opinion, she outshone the new Queen, who was a pretty young girl, too young to be occupying the throne of England, but hopefully she would marry soon and seek guidance from a foreign Protestant prince.
Elizabeth had red hair, like her father, and her gown was impossibly heavy, with layer upon layer of elaborate brocade, stitched with many copies of the Tudor rose and trimmed with ermine. Her bright hair hung loosely down her back, as befitted a maiden lady, and the crown perched on her head was solid gold with many rubies glittering in the candlelight.
After the five year violence of Queen Mary’s reign, all the people here were hoping for great things from this Queen, young as she was.
But she could not compete with the lovely young girl who had caught Michael’s attention. He had to know who she was, had to know if she was someone he was entitled to pursue.
Occasionally she looked his way and smiled, the most glorious smile he had ever seen. Her even teeth were white, her lips smooth and her blue eyes kind. He felt sure she had sensed him watching her, and he blushed, glanced away, but not before that smile had captured his heart.
When he asked about her, the disappointment almost brought him to tears.
“She is Lady Christine,” the steward told him. “The daughter of the Duke of Westerbury.”
The daughter of a duke! Oh, no! He tried not to look at her again, but it was too late; he was enchanted. He was but the second son of an earl, important though that earl might be. He was not even the heir to his father’s title and estate; his elder brother held that privilege. She was the daughter of an important duke and a lady in her own right; he could offer her nothing. His Grace would intend her for an earl at the very least, possibly the heir to a duchy; certainly a viscount of small fortune, with no prospect of climbing higher would never do.
All four brothers, along with their father, were in high spirits. The Queen’s claim to the throne was easily challenged, but the people had cheered her enthusiastically along the route of the procession the day before and on her way to Westminster Abbey today for the coronation. They were as sick of the brutal reign of her sister, Mary as the Melfords and they had come out in their thousands, despite the cold January weather, to show their approval and sniff the fresh, clean air to be sure the stench of burning flesh had left no residue to linger over the city.
There were a lot of noblemen who still wanted a Catholic monarch, despite the brutality of Queen Mary’s five year reign of terror. There would always be those who wanted things their own way, especially where religion was concerned. As to that, Michael and his brothers were not pious in any religion and were quite happy to go along with what was safest.
The fact that Elizabeth had not attended her own coronation mass, held in Latin, and had retreated whilst the holy communion was performed, told them all that this may well be the last Catholic mass.
Michael stayed away from court circles after that. He had no wish to meet Lady Christine again, not when his ambitions toward her were so hopeless. The following months crept by slowly, as he tried his best to put her out of his mind, to look to other maidens as a possible Viscountess for him. But his dreams would not comply with his wishes; he often woke from a deep sleep thinking Christine was his after all. He had even reached out for her in the night, only to awake with a start and feel the disappointment all over again.
And those dreams always brought with them a stab of jealousy which was alien to Michael. He was of a placid disposition and had never been jealous of anyone or anything in his life before. He had no real idea of the meaning of the word, but now he knew, now he was very jealous of whoever would be chosen to be husband to Lady Christine.
As the months went by, he knew she would not stay free for long, that even should she not have been married, she would definitely have been promised. What manner of man would be fortunate enough to win her hand? And would he feel for her as Michael felt for her? Would he appreciate the treasure he had won, or would he think merely of her riches and lands, her status in the world? Michael often woke to find his hands clenched into fists, ready to do battle with whatever man had won the love of his life.
It was foolish; he had not even spoken to her. How could he be in love with her? She could be a spiteful, envious sort of female for all her knew. But he could never believe that. Anyone with that smile, with eyes as kind as hers, had to be perfect and perfection did not come along twice in a lifetime.
He tried hard to focus his interests in other directions. He nagged his father about building a new house, one in the shape of an E, as was the fashion since Elizabeth Tudor took the throne. Melford Manor, in which the family had lived for generations, was badly in need of modernisation as well as major renovations.
There was plenty of land going spare, but the old Earl would have none of it; he did not like change. Michael had little hope of his brother ever building such a house when he inherited; Malcolm was not averse to change, but he was very much averse to spending money.
Michael also had his eye on a beautiful black stallion, 17 hands and a wonderful beast, but his father was in control of the money and he would not spend that much on an animal. To the old Earl, a horse was no more than a convenient form of transport and one such mount was as good as the next. His only requirement in such a creature was that it was healthy and strong and fitted its rider.
Michael realised all these plans which occupied his thoughts were mostly to suppress his real desire, and no amount of money would buy her for him.
He had begun to think he would remain unmarried, that no woman could ever come close to meaning to him what Christine had come to mean to him, when the unthinkable happened. It was a family tragedy which should have left him devastated, but instead filled his heart with hope. He had always felt guilty about that, but it was out of his control and there was no help for it.
Both his father, the Earl of Melford, and his elder brother, Malcolm, were killed when their carriage was swept down a hillside during a gale. Suddenly Michael was the powerful and wealthy Earl of Melford himself and in a position to petition for the hand of Lady Christine in marriage.
Wealthy people were building houses in the shape of an E in honour of the new Queen and Michael was suddenly in a position to do the same. So much power was very intoxicating; his first action was to send word to the owner of the stallion, telling him he would be prepared to buy the creature. Then he sent word to a well known architect to design his new house.
Both these deeds could be accomplished within minutes, while he was dressing with care for his visit to the Duke of Westerbury and his most important acquisition.
He could not even wait a decent period after the double funeral to race to the Duke’s estate some ten miles away from Melford Hall in Essex. He had to get there before it was too late, if it were not already too late, and he mounted his late brother’s horse, which was faster and fitter than his own, in order to get there as quickly as possible.
His stomach fluttered throughout the journey as he turned over in his mind the best way to ask for Lady Christine, and what he would do if the Duke refused, or if he was too late and she was already promised to another man.
The latter would be worse. He could do his best to persuade the Duke, but if she was promised elsewhere it would be much harder.
She was barely fifteen but by the standards of her class, she should have been promised years ago. Why had Michael not considered that before? Why had he not realised? He had no idea, but still he was determined to try. His success depended on who he had to compete with. Betrothals had been broken before.
When he arrived at the Duke’s country mansion he saw her, walking in the formal gardens with a young man. Michael recognised him at once; Edmund Carstairs, the younger son of a minor baron whom he had met at the occasional local function.
Michael sat on his horse and watched the couple for a few moments, trying to judge how friendly they were with each other. He noted that they did not touch, that she did not hold his arm or even walk close to him. Good; at least he seemed to be only an acquaintance.
Carstairs was not at the palace for the coronation nor for the banquet afterwards; his family were not important and were unlikely to have been invited.
Again that treacherous surge of jealousy rose up, but he forced it down. Christine would not be promised to this man; if he thought for one moment he had kept quiet because of his low status while she had been betrothed to a man of less importance, he would never forgive himself.
He could not believe his good fortune when the duke agreed to his proposal.
“As you may know, Your Grace,” he began nervously, “I have recently inherited the Melford title and estates on the sudden death of my father and brother.”
The Duke shook his head slowly, his mouth turned down.
“I have heard, My Lord,” he replied. “You have my condolences.”
“Thank you. I hope you will not think me impetuous, or acting in bad taste to take advantage of the situation so soon after the event. Their deaths have left me in a position of holding the title and the wealth, but of having no bride. I was hoping to speak to you about your daughter.”
His Grace raised one eyebrow.
“The Lady Christine? I have no idea what her situation is, or what you might have arranged for her future, but I hope you will look favourably upon my petition for her hand in marriage?”
A smile escaped the Duke’s mouth, quickly forced away but not before Michael saw it. His hopes soared; it seemed the Duke did look favourably upon the request.
“My Lord,” he replied. “I am very pleased to hear your petition. The fact is my daughter has been keeping company with young Edmund Carstairs, a nice enough young man, I suppose, but the youngest son of a northern baron. He can offer her nothing, in addition to which his family are Catholic. I will not be sad to have a good reason to part them.”
It never occurred to Michael that Christine might have a preference for Carstairs; she was very young and in his opinion not old enough to know her own mind or heart.
He had inherited everything which would have gone to Malcolm, but he had no intention of inheriting his brother’s betrothed. She was not to his taste; he found her manner dour, she was far too thin and he never did understand how Malcolm could be so content to wed her. One night in his cups he had let slip that he had no intention of giving up his mistress for her and that he was marrying her only for her lands which adjoined Melford lands. He intended to stay with her only long enough to sire an heir.
Michael said nothing to his brother at the time, but that was not the sort of marriage he wanted for himself. What happened to Geraldine when Malcolm was killed, he had never enquired. She was sent back to her father along with her dowry and he never gave her another thought until now.
Comparing her with Lady Christine, comparing the swell of that lady’s bosom over the satin bodice with the almost flat chest of Lady Geraldine, almost made him laugh.
No, he had not thought about Christine’s wishes; all he knew was that he wanted her. He wanted to stroke that smooth skin, wanted to run his fingers through those lovely tresses, wanted to slip that bodice from her shoulders and hold her silken body against his own.
Did he even ask if she felt the same, if she wanted him? No, he did not. He had made the mistake of assuming she would be grateful for an illustrious title and wealthy husband. He was handsome enough and generous; he thought he could make her fall in love with him.
He was wrong.
That had been three years ago and now, watching his sister in his wife’s wedding gown, with that same fair hair cascading over her shoulders, he could almost believe it was Christine, back in his home again.
“Thank you, Michael,” Grace said, her expression grave. “I want to look my best for the Viscount you have told me I am to marry.”
Michael sighed impatiently. He thought they had finished with these discussions, but apparently he was wrong.
“You told me you liked him,” he said. “We have discussed this many times; you have had every opportunity to decide whether you would suit each other and you told me you were happy with the match. It could cause no end of problems to break the betrothal now; such an act could ruin your future, you know that.”
Michael had gone to a lot of effort to find a man who would suit his sister. After the collapse of his own marriage, for which he blamed himself for his lack of respect for Christine’s wishes, it was very important to him that Grace was happy with this marriage.
“Oh, it has nothing to do with liking him,” she said with a mischievous little smile. “I like him very much; he is handsome, personable and very charming. I am grateful for all your efforts on my behalf, Michael, really I am.”
Grace paused, her lips twisting into a little thoughtful pout, before she replied.
“I will not marry him unless My Lady Christine is there to see it.”
He stared at her. Their mother died giving birth to her and Christine had been the only mother she had ever known, albeit only briefly. She was almost as heartbroken as Michael when Christine left him, so why was he surprised at this turn of events?
She had done this on purpose, he was sure of it. She had made no mention of this before, had waited until it was too late to change things without scandal. This was the reason behind her insistence on wearing his wife’s wedding gown, when she could have had her own newly made one; she wanted him to see her in it and remember his own marriage.
He tried to keep the anger out of his voice, but was not very successful.
“Grace, you know that is impossible.”
“I know no such thing,” she replied with a little pout. “I do like Viscount Jason. Given time, I might even learn to love him, just as you love your wife.”
“That is all in the past.”
“Is it? Then why does her portrait still hang above the hearth in the great hall? Why does her likeness still look down on you in your bed?” She gave him a stubborn look. “I would have thought you might have put those images away in the attics, or even destroyed them altogether, were Christine really in the past.”
“Grace, you are being unreasonable. She left us; you know that.”
“Again, I know no such thing. She may have left you; I cannot know the truth of that as you have never shared it with me, but I know she would never have left me, not without a word of goodbye, and she certainly would never have left her baby daughter. You should have known that much, if nothing else.”
Grace stepped down from the stool where she had been standing for the dressmaker to finish her hem and allowed the woman to remove the gown. She stood in her shift and petticoats studying her brother, and he knew she was hoping for the right response to her demand.
She had made these same arguments before, but always Michael had swept them away, afraid to remember the rift between him and his wife and he had always ended by telling his sister she was too young to understand. Now she was to be a bride herself, he could hardly use her age as an excuse.
Her words resounded in his brain, made him catch his breath. She was right; Christine would not have left little Lisa. The child was not even a year old and Christine adored her; was it likely she would leave that baby girl for a man? And why the hell had Michael never even considered it before? Could it be because he was so blinded by jealousy he thought only of himself, just as he had thought only of himself when he asked for Christine in the first place?
“You are going to marry Jason,” he told Grace. “There is no choice now, not for you.”
She laughed. He knew why she laughed, because she knew very well he would give her anything within his power. He might threaten to be the heavy handed guardian, but in truth she was always able to manipulate him as easily as Christine could.
He often wished he had stopped his wife from leaving, from going to the man she had wanted before her father forced her into a marriage with Michael. But when he saw them together, it hurt too much and he was consumed by a rage he had never felt in his life before. He allowed his jealousy to get in the way.
He had walked into her bedchamber in this very house and seen them, kissing. Edmund Carstairs was holding Michael’s wife in his arms, pressing her lips against his, her breasts against his chest as he kissed her passionately and Michael’s heart twisted then as it twisted now to remember it. She pushed Carstairs away when she saw him there, but not before he had decided in his fury that she was not worth fighting for.
“I knew it!” He shouted. “I knew you would never be able to give him up!”
“Michael, please,” she begged as she took a step toward him. “It is not what it looks like.”
He heard no more; he marched out of the chamber as quickly as he could and although he knew she called after him, he had put too much distance between them to hear what she said. He was desperate to get away from them both. Tears were welling and he needed to hide those tears from this treacherous pair.
“Go!” He shouted back at her. “He is welcome to my leftovers. Whore!”
Michael returned to London and his little daughter and tried to calm himself. But he got no rest; he missed Christine so much, he ached for her. His dreams found her beside him in his bed, her sweet lips on his chest, her soft arms wrapped around him.
It was a week or so later that he returned to Essex; he could stand it no longer, and thinking about her sharing herself with that man produced in him an unfamiliar and murderous rage. Nothing had ever hurt him as much as losing Christine and if there was a way back for them, he wanted to find it.
He felt a fool for even thinking of forgiving her, told himself it was for the sake of their child, but when he arrived at Melford Hall it was to find she had gone.
It was early spring and not yet time for the household to return from London, so only a pair of caretakers visited the house once a day. Christine had left their London house early, had come here to his country estate because, she said, she had promised one of the tenants she would be godmother to her new baby.
Now he realised that was only a ruse and her real reason for coming to Essex had been to meet with her lover. He suspected that, which was why he followed her. He wanted to come with her, but she said there was no need, that she would be gone but two nights. Two nights spent in his house with Carstairs!
Michael had never been able to trust her, not since shortly after their marriage when Carstairs appeared at Melford Hall in pursuit of his lost love.
The man hung about outside, probably waiting for an opportunity to see Christine alone, but Michael was not going to allow that. He crept up behind him, not wanting to give him a chance to flee.
“What do you want here?” He demanded.
Carstairs drew a deep breath.
“I have come to see Christine.”
“Lady Christine to you,” Michael snapped angrily. “What do you want with my wife?”
“I want to talk to her, to be sure you are treating her well.”
“How dare you?”
“I dare because you stole her from me. She was mine! She is still mine in her heart and always will be. Did you even ask her if she wanted to marry you? Did you?”
Michael was silent. No, he had not asked her. He had asked her father for her but never once had he asked her. The Duke had said she was keeping company with this man, but Michael had thought nothing of it. He had never even considered that she might be in love with him.
“You know as well as I do,” Michael replied, “that His Grace would never have allowed a marriage between you.”
“That does not answer my question, My Lord. She loved me before you came along and ruined everything. You do not simply turn off your feelings; she loves me still and always will.”
“Get off my land!” Michael yelled at him.
But he had always had his doubts, ever since that day. Even then he did not ask Christine if Carstairs spoke the truth. Why had he not asked? Because he feared the answer, but the man’s words ate away at him and that was not the only time he heard them. Carstairs returned after the birth of their daughter, rousing Michael’s jealousy and insecurity even more, until the day he followed her from London and found her in his arms.
He had his suspicions; he would not admit that at the time, but it was true. He wanted to trust her, he wanted to show her that he trusted her by allowing her to go to Essex without him, but he let his fear of losing her decide for him.
He arrived at his country house just a few hours after her and saw the strange horse tied to a post outside. Jealousy flared and twisted him into some sort of monster he did not recognise and when he ran up the stairs and marched into her bedchamber, saw her in the arms of another man, he fled before his rage took him too far.
He could have killed the man, easily, but he never wanted to hurt her. She was still the love of his life, even if her heart did belong to another.
When he returned, the house was deserted as it always was at that time of year. Villagers came in once a day to keep the dust from accumulating, but that was all. The full staff were with the family in London.
He clung to the hope that he might be wrong. He mounted his horse and rode to the village, to the woman who had wanted Christine as godmother to her baby. There was a small gathering in the cottage, where the woman had only recently given birth, and the priest was there, ready to take the child to the village church. But there was no sign of Christine and Michael’s heart sank.
“Has Lady Christine been here?” He asked, feeling foolish.
The new mother sat up in her bed and shook her head.
“No, My Lord,” she replied. “She did promise to be here, but she never came.”
He asked no more questions, just mounted his horse and rode away. He could scarcely believe that Christine had disappointed that simple woman, it was so unlike her, but he supposed it was her only chance to escape with Carstairs.
He questioned the few cleaners who were in the house, but they had seen nothing, except Carstairs’ carriage driving away.
In Christine’s bedchamber he searched her clothes chests, found some of her clothing gone, but not all. Michael had lavished many fine garments on his wife, as he always wanted to see her in the best his inheritance could buy and it was difficult for him to know how much was gone and how much remained.
The sapphire necklace he had bought her when they married was still there, in her jewellery chest. In fact, she had taken none of her jewellery; Michael assumed she felt some flicker of shame which prevented her from taking jewels her husband had bought for her. But her ring was gone, presumably still on her finger where he had placed it on their wedding day.
There was little point in continuing with the search. It seemed to him she had taken enough clothes for but a few days, but he could not be sure. She had a lot of clothes, a lot of fine garments, and all of them seemed to be here in her chests. Perhaps her lover would replace the ones she had left behind. His mouth turned down in a bitter grimace as he left the house.
That had been almost six months ago and now he stood and gazed at the portrait above the fireplace, his Christine with her beautiful, thick fair hair, with that same pale blue satin gown his sister would wear for her own wedding. He did not want her to wear it; he thought it would hurt too much to see her in it, but he had said nothing. Why spoil her day because he had failed to make his wife happy? That is what he had thought when she made her request; now he suspected Grace had an ulterior motive.
As he stood and studied that sweet face, his sister’s words forced their way into his memory. She certainly would never have left her baby daughter. Why had he not considered that before? He was driven by jealousy, had believed then that her desire for another man was her priority and she knew her child would be safer with her father. That had to be the reason; he had thought he knew her well, but seeing her in the arms of that man made him realise he knew nothing about her, nothing at all. And his jealousy consumed him, made him wild with fury until he could think of nothing but the pain he wanted to inflict on Edmund Carstairs.
He had made no further attempt to find her. He loved her enough to want her happiness, no matter the cost to him, and if she was in love with another man, he wanted her to be with that man. It made him look weak, he knew that, but he cared nothing for appearances, only for Christine and her happiness.
Now he suspected Grace of wanting to wear Christine’s wedding gown intentionally to remind her brother of what he had lost, to force him to bring his wife back whether she wanted to come or not. And if she did not want to come, did he really want her? The answer was yes, even if she never spoke to him again, at least she would be here with him, where he could look at her if nothing else, where he could drink in her beauty and live on dreams of what might have been.
His sister was devious, knew how to slowly and patiently contrive a situation in order to get her own way, and he now believed this was it. Why else would she insist on wearing a three year old gown when she could have the finest fabrics and the best dressmakers to make her a new one? She must have known all along the affect her appearance would have on him. She had even curled her hair to resemble Christine’s.
He was angry, but more angry with himself for not realising before this what she was up to. He was also a little amused and impressed by the way Grace had managed to manipulate him.
He retreated to his bedchamber and lie down on his back, staring up at the embroidered velvet canopy above his bed as he remembered when he first saw Christine and tried to decide the best way to find her and persuade her to return, if only for that one day.
The Earl's Jealousy: Book One of the Elizabethans Series
There are three things for which Viscount Michael yearns: A new house, fashionably shaped like an E in honour of the new Queen Elizabeth, the beautiful black stallion he has seen for sale, and Lady Christine, the daughter of the Duke of Westerbury. Alas, he has not the means for the first two nor the status for the last.
He first sees her at the Queen's coronation and is besotted with her; he cannot get her out of his mind, but he knows that as the second son of the Earl, with no prospects of rising higher, he will not win favour with her father, the Duke.
Then the unthinkable happens - both his father and elder brother are killed in an accident and suddenly, Michael is the wealthy Earl of Melford. He wastes no time in sending for an architect to design his house, he wastes no time in sending a servant to buy the stallion, and he wastes no time in applying to the Duke for the hand of Lady Christine.
Despite knowing she has been seeing another man, that man has even less status than Michael had before the accident, so he gives him little thought. He cannot wait to make Christine his countess and very soon finds himself deeply in love.
But when her former suitor, Edmund Carstairs, arrives and tells him Christine loves him, that Michael has stolen her away from him, he allows his jealousy to guide him. He cannot bear to hear his wife confirm this tale, so he does not ask her and when he finds her in the arms of Carstairs, he thinks he will make her happy by allowing her to leave with him.
When his sister declares that she will not marry unless Christine is there to see it, Michael sets out to find her and bring her back. He regrets having let her go and wants to reconcile with her; he is prepared to forgive her and start again. But he learns he has made a horrendous mistake and it is she who needs to forgive him.