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Authors: Anne Stuart

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Medieval, #Historical Romance

Lady Fortune

BOOK: Lady Fortune
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Anne Stuart - Lady Fortune

 

LADY FORTUNE

A
s the child bride of an elderly husband, Lady Julianna of Moncrieff learned little of men and nothing of pleasure. So when the newly widowed lady finds herself thrown into the company of the mocking and elegant Nicholas Strangefellow, a maddening court jester sent by King Henry III to entertain at her mother’s wedding, Julianna is more than wary; she is determined to keep her distance.

B
ut it doesn’t take long for the mysterious Nicholas to weave his wickedly sensual spell around her. And only when it is too late will Julianna discover what sort of man he really is…a coolly calculating spy out to steal a sacred relic—and her own innocent heart. Yet Nicholas is in for a shock of his own.
F
or never did the king’s fool imagine that he would become a fool for love…until the moment comes when he must choose between desire and betrayal.

DELICIOUS SIN
“If you don’t go away, I will scream,” Julianna said. “There are women in the adjoining rooms, and I imagine they’ll come quite quickly. What’s to stop me?”

“Curiosity,” Nicholas said.

“Curiosity is a sin.”

“And you’re above sin, aren’t you, my lady? Except that I don’t believe it. I think you’re capable of sinning quite deliciously.” He leaned forward then, his silky hair brushing his face, and Julianna’s breath caught in her throat. In the firelight he was quite disarmingly handsome. She let her errant gaze stray to his mouth before she could stop herself.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said softly. “I’m just going to kiss you.”
 
“Go away.”

“After I kiss you.”
 
“All right,” she said in a challenging tone. “Kiss me, and then go away.” And she folded her arms across her chest, waiting.

PROLOGUE

 

“The Blessed Chalice of the Martyred Saint Hugelina the Dragon?” the fool echoed. “Never heard of it.”

Nicholas Strangefellow had been lounging lazily in his king’s presence, paying scant attention, when his sovereign’s request startled him.

“It’s little wonder,” King Henry said in an aggrieved tone. “Hugh of Fortham is a selfish man, hoarding a holy treasure like that where no man may see it. Particularly since it rightfully should belong to the true king of
England.”

“You, my lord.” Nicholas left no question in his voice, but Henry glared at him anyway.

“Of course me, fool!” he snapped. “The Earl of Fortham has kept possession of a sacred relic belonging to the throne, and nothing will induce him to give it up. And that’s where you come in.”

“Sire?”

“You’re the only man I trust, the only man I can truly rely on, Nicholas,” the king said in deep tones. “You’re the only man who dares tell me the truth, as annoying as that habit may be, and you’re just the one to help me. I’ve tried demands, I’ve tried polite requests, I’ve tried threats, but
Fortham
Castle
is like a fortress, and I’m not ready to wage war over the chalice. There’s more than one way to get what I want, and I want the sacred chalice! It’s rightfully mine and you’re going to get it for me.”

“Why?” Nicholas inquired with his customary insolence.

“Because you’re my servant, God rot your bones, and I’ll have your head removed if you’re foolish enough to try to thwart me.”

In fact, Henry probably wouldn’t bother to have him ceremoniously beheaded, Nicholas thought lazily, not stirring. He’d simply assign someone to cut his throat. Someone like his innocent-seeming child assassin, Gilbert de Blaith.

Nicholas had no intention of suffering either fate. “Your highness, I live only to serve your will,” he said, not batting an eye. “I merely wondered why an old goblet would suddenly become so important to you. Its value cannot be that extraordinary.”

“It’s pure gold, encrusted with precious jewels, including a sapphire that matches one in the royal crown.”

“Fancy plate for a martyred nun,” Nicholas observed.

“She was poisoned with the chalice,” Henry said sharply, “a simple pewter goblet that was miraculously transformed when her husband poisoned her.”

“One of your ancestors, I believe,” Nicholas murmured.

King Henry frowned. “There are times when I wonder whether you’re as great a fool as you profess to be. Hugelina was the wife of a king, but she wanted to return to the convent. Her husband wanted more heirs, so he poisoned her.”

“Efficient of him. So we’re left with a holy chalice and a saint. What’s Fortham’s claim to her?”

“She was supposedly from his family. It was so far back, I wonder that he dares make such a claim.”

“No further back than your own claim, sire.”

He’d almost pushed Henry too far. The king glared at him for a moment, and Nicholas could feel the whistle of air as the executioner’s blade flashed downward.

And then the king laughed. “The royal lineage is of far more import than that of an upstart earl from the west country. Suffice it to say the chalice is in Fortham’s possession when it should rightfully be in mine, and I want it, by fair means or foul. And you’re the man to get it for me, aren’t you?”

“Just how do you propose I do that, sire?” Nicholas inquired. “Do you wish me to storm the castle single-handed and murder Lord Hugh in cold blood? You forget, I have a great distaste for bloodshed and needless exertion.” He allowed himself an exaggerated shudder.

King Henry gave him an indulgent smile. “I have more than enough men willing to kill for me, Nicholas, but few with your unique talents. I thought I might send you to Lord Hugh and his new bride as a wedding gift.”

“A gift?”

“A loan,” the king amended hastily. “Till Christmastide, I’ll tell them. To help make their first few months of married life particularly entertaining.”

“I shall endeavor to please them.”

“You shall endeavor to please
me
,” King Henry corrected him. “You will find out everything you can about his strengths, his weaknesses, his plans.
Fortham
Castle
is built upon solid rock, and it would be no easy thing to take it. He won’t give up the chalice without a fight—I may have no choice but to simply take the whole castle. For the good of the kingdom,” he added piously.

“You want me to be your spy, sire?” Nicholas didn’t bother to look at his king. Henry was one of the few men in the kingdom who realized just how clever Nicholas Strangefellow could be if he chose to exert himself, and even he had no idea of the extent of Nicholas’s talents.

“I want you to find out where the chalice is, how closely guarded it may be. I need to know how great a threat Hugh of Fortham is, and seek out ways to vanquish him.”

“And if he is no threat?” Nicholas asked mildly. “If I can simply steal the chalice and leave without anyone making a fuss?”

“It won’t be that easy. Don’t underestimate Hugh of Fortham. He can be very stubborn. Sometimes we must… dispose of those who get in our way.”

“And what about his new bride? Is she a threat as well? Will she be disposed of?”

The king didn’t bother to respond. He allowed Nicholas more latitude than any human in existence, but there was a limit to his indulgence. “There are casualties in war,” he said distantly. “Innocent people the all the time. We will pray for their souls.”

“I’m certain that we will, sire.” He made no effort to disguise the irony in his voice. “A wedding gift, am I? And when shall your gift be delivered?”

“The sooner, the better. My sister won’t be best pleased at having her favorite removed from the court, and there are doubtless many other damsels who will miss you. It might be best if you didn’t have a chance to bid them all a fond farewell.”

 

“The king is but a wicked churl

To send his fool away

No kisses, faith, no lovely girl

To soothe the poor fool’s way.

 

“Don’t rhyme!” King Henry snapped. “It annoys me.”

Nicholas grinned, saying nothing. It was a facile enough talent, and one that never failed to provoke a reaction.

King Henry approached him, put his beringed hands on Nicholas’s shoulders, and drew him up. It was a mistake, of course. Nicholas was half a head taller than the king, and unlike half his knights and courtiers, he made no effort to slouch to assuage his majesty’s pride. “You’ll do my bidding, and you’ll do it well,” Henry murmured, looking up into Nicholas’s strange eyes. “And you’ll be rewarded. I may even let you marry my strumpet of a sister if I can’t do better for her.”

“Better than a penniless fool?” Nicholas murmured. “I cannot imagine.”

“I never underestimate you, Nicholas. Though I expect my foolish sister does,” Henry said genially, giving him a cuff on the shoulder. “Be gone with you. We shall come visit Fortham and his new bride at Christmastide if you haven’t returned with the chalice by then. But I expect to see you far sooner than that, or I shall be much displeased.”

Nicholas bowed with his usual extreme flourish, his elegant nose almost brushing the ground, his grace a mockery. But the king allowed him mockery, when he allowed it in no one else.

“You can always trust your fool, sire,” Nicholas murmured.

And King Henry, uncharacteristically naive, appeared to believe him.

CHAPTER ONE

 
 

It was a warm day in autumn when Lady Julianna of Moncrieff learned she was finally a widow. After ten years of barren married life, she was no longer the chattel of Victor of Moncrieff. But she didn’t for one moment believe that she might possibly be free.

She would have managed to dredge up some self-pity if she didn’t know full well that no one, man or woman, was free in this life, with the possible exception of King Henry, and she had her doubts about that. Even if the king had to answer to no man, he was still weighted down by the demands of his title, and his responsibilities were widespread, down to arranging for the future of a distant, newly widowed kinswoman of dubious worth.

She moved to the window, looking out across the rolling hills that surrounded the small manor that had been her home since her marriage. The last few years had been good to her. Her husband had grown tired of trying to get a child on her unwelcoming body, and he’d turned to other pursuits. He’d been an old man when she’d married him—almost sixty years of age, with too much of a fondness for rich food and ale—and by the time he lost interest in his child bride, he had lost interest in his mistress and the serving wenches as well.

She hadn’t seen him in almost three years. Three blessed, peaceful years she’d been mistress of Moncrieff, answering to no one while her husband went on a meandering pilgrimage that seemed to include more taverns than holy sites. She’d overseen the harvest and the making of honey and butter and cheeses; she’d led the weavers, helped heal the sick, birthed the babies, and seen to the well-being of her people. She’d been lady of the manor, happy and well loved.

And now it was gone. She had been Victor’s third wife, come to his household and his bed when she was no more than eleven years old. He had sons from his first two marriages, sons who were far too like their father for Julianna’s peace of mind, and the oldest, Reynald, would come back to claim his inheritance. He and his narrow-minded wife, older than Julianna’s own mother, were already packing their household, intent on taking possession.

Lady Julianna of Moncrieff was homeless. Penniless. With nowhere to go but, at the king’s behest, to her only living relative. To the mother she hadn’t seen in ten years, not since she was carried off by her new husband, Victor of Moncrieff, as she wept bitter, heartbroken, childish tears.

Isabeau had wept as well, but Julianna didn’t like to think of that. Her mother had allowed her only surviving child to be sent off like a freshened cow, and from that day on Julianna had hardened her heart against her. She had already disliked her brutish, distant father, but she’d adored the fragile, pretty Isabeau. In the eleven years she’d been at home, her mother had always been ill, either with child or recovering from her latest stillbirth. It was a wonder she hadn’t died, but Isabeau had clung stubbornly to life no matter how desperate her husband was to get a male heir.

And now she was a widow as well. Julianna’s father had died some two years before, and Isabeau had been betrothed to a powerful lord in the west. Lord Hugh, the Earl of Fortham, was a wealthy man, and his estates were vast, more a fortress than a home if rumor had it right. He needed an heir, but Isabeau of Peckham would be unlikely to provide him one if history could be relied upon. At least in that one aspect Julianna took after her mother.

“Lady Julianna.” Sir Richard’s voice was edgy, and Julianna turned back, startled out of her reveries. She stared at the king’s envoy, calm and dry-eyed.

“I beg pardon,” she murmured. “My thoughts were wandering. This has come as a shock.”

“Of course, my lady. I only wish it were within my power to allow you time to grieve, but it pains me to inform you that we need to be away by first light.”

She stared at him numbly. “Away?”

“I was on my way to your lady mother with a gift from the king, to celebrate her upcoming marriage to his dearest friend Fortham. When news came of Moncrieff’s death, he bade me come and escort you home as well.”

“Home.” A place she’d never seen, to a mother who’d let her be taken away. She roused herself. “I see no need for such haste, Sir Richard. I’m certain my stepson and his lady wife will have questions concerning the running of the household. It would be far wiser for me to remain here to welcome them. I have no doubt Reynald will see me safely escorted to Castle Fortham if and when the time comes.”

“If, my lady?” Sir Richard fixed his small, dark eyes on her, his brow beetling with disapproval. “His majesty has decreed that you are to join your mother in her new household, at least until such time as he can make arrangements for your future. I doubt you would care to dispute his majesty’s orders?”

Julianna would have disputed anything she thought she could get away with, but she’d learned the value of holding her tongue and using tact. “I would wish to serve God, Sir Richard,” she said simply. “It is my greatest wish to join the Holy Sisters of Saint Anne.”

“I don’t believe King Henry is particularly concerned with your wishes, my lady. It is our task to do his bidding, not to question it. We’ll leave at first light. Have your women pack what they can, but I warn you, we travel fast. In the meantime we’ll need quarters for the night.”

One battle lost, but a war still to be waged. She smiled at him, the soothing, maternal smile that came naturally to her when she felt most threatened. “Your men have been seen to,” she said, “and I’ll have Lord Victor’s room prepared for you—”

“I’m not alone,” he said abruptly.

“For you and your lady,” she added smoothly.

“I didn’t bring my leman into your household, Lady Julianna!” He looked flustered. “It’s a bit more difficult to explain. It’s your mother’s wedding present.”

Julianna had learned patience at an early age. “Yes, Sir Richard? Is it precious? Should it be guarded?”

“Not it,” Sir Richard said in an irritable voice. “He. The king’s wedding gift is a he.”

Julianna blinked. “How extraordinary,” she murmured. “I thought that was what Lord Hugh was for.”

Sir Richard stared at her suspiciously, but Julianna kept her expression calm and serene. She had learned early on that men didn’t like a woman with a sense of humor, or much wit, and she must remember to hide it.

“It’s not just any man, milady,” he grumbled. “It’s his fool. Sent to entertain her ladyship and her new husband, not to mention the crowds that will be there for the wedding. He’ll need a decent bed for the night, as far away from me as you can find it. As far away from everyone, or they’ll be driven mad by his crazed yammering.”

“He’s crazed?”

“Close to it. I might just throttle him before we make Castle Fortham,” Sir Richard said in a dire voice. “Praise be you can keep him company in that blasted litter.”

“Praise be,” she echoed ironically. “Can’t he ride?”

“He refuses to. And I wouldn’t trust him on any horse. The man’s half mad, like most of his ilk.”

“But I can ride.”

“No, milady. You’ll ride in the litter. I didn’t bring a horse for you, and I know you wouldn’t want to take anything belonging to Reynald and his wife. Nicholas will do you no more harm than driving you mad with his ceaseless prattle. I’m certain you’ve suffered far worse in your life than a babbling fool.”

“Far worse,” she said smoothly. “I’ll have a room prepared for him.”

“No high windows,” Sir Richard warned. “And it might be best if he could be locked in tonight.”

“He’s dangerous?” she demanded sharply.

Sir Richard had the grace to look abashed. “Not that I know of. The women all seem to like him well enough, but I doubt Reynald would fancy any half-wit bastards littering his household nine months hence. I mainly want to keep him away from me.”

“He favors men as well as women?” she inquired in a dulcet tone.

Sir Richard’s high color turned darker still. “No! And if he did I would hardly be the sort… I mean…” Words failed him, and he blustered a moment longer, until Julianna took pity on him. It was ever her weakness—much as she wanted to be a modern Boadicea, a warrior queen, she was too easily moved to guilt and pity.

“I understand, Sir Richard. The man is annoying. We will see him safely settled in one of the smaller bedchambers. The door can be locked, and there’s no way he can harm himself or anyone else.”

“Many thanks, milady.” Sir Richard wiped a handkerchief across his sweating brow. It was a cool day, with a breeze blowing in the open window, but the man was clearly at his wits’ end.

“And you might wish a few hours to compose yourself as well,” she added. “We weren’t expecting visitors, but I’m certain the kitchens can come up with a feast suitable for such distinguished guests.”

“I’ll dine in my rooms,” he said hastily. “Traveling upsets my digestion. And you can ill afford the time to entertain me if we’re to leave at first light. See to your own affairs, milady. I won’t be kept waiting once it’s time to depart.”

So much for pity, thought Julianna, suppressing the urge to kick him. “I’ll be ready at dawn,” she said sweetly. She turned her back on the window, the peaceful, rolling hillside that had been her solace and her pleasure for so many years. Turned her back on it with all the resolution she could muster. She had learned that weeping and bemoaning the fates did no good at all.

She had learned efficiency, first from her mother, then from her serving woman, Agnes, a wise, maternal soul who had been at her side since she arrived at Moncrieff. Agnes, with a husband, six children, and a new one in her belly. Agnes, who must be left behind, a harder grief than all else combined.

In truth, there was no one she could or would bring with her. She would make do on her own until they arrived at
Fortham
Castle
. With a madman for company.

She moved through her duties with her usual calm, instructing her serving women to pack what would fit in two small trunks. She had never had much use for finery, immured in a castle with only a disinterested husband to please, and her gowns were serviceable and not much more. She had no jewelry, no wealth to transport. Everything had belonged to her husband and to his sons and their wives. It wouldn’t take long to make her ready for a journey of less than three days. Unless the madman chose to strangle her before they arrived.

She slept poorly in the narrow bed she had seldom shared with her husband, and when she arose in the darkness before first light she stared down it, feeling oddly detached. It had been her place of comfort and rest when she was blessedly alone. It had been her place of pain and humiliation and misery when her husband had come to her.

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