Read The Reluctant Queen Online

Authors: Freda Lightfoot

The Reluctant Queen

Reluctant Queen

 

Freda Lightfoot

Published 2010 in Great Britain and in the USA by SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of 9-15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DE Trade paperback edition published in Great Britain and the USA 2010 by SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD.

 

Copyright C 2011 by Freda Lightfoot.

 

All rights reserved.

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

ISBN -
978-0-9568119-0-5

 

Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

 

Published by Freda Lightfoot 2011

 

‘a fascinating, richly detailed setting with a dramatic plot brimming with enough scandal, passion, and danger for a Jackie Collins’ novel.’

Booklist on Hostage Queen

 

‘I was engaged with the story from page one. She piles horror on horror – rape, torture, sexual humiliation, incest, suicide - but she keeps you reading!’

Historical Novels Review Nov 2009 on House of Angels

 

‘paints a vivid picture of life on the fells during the war. Enhanced by fine historical detail and strong characterisation it is an endearing story...’

Westmorland Gazette on Luckpenny Land

 

‘an informative and lively read’
West Briton on The Bobbin Girls

 

 
‘Freda Lightfoot’s talent for creating believable characters makes this a page-turning read.’
Newcastle Evening Chronicle on Kitty Little

 

‘A stirring tale of a woman with an iron purpose’
The Keswick Reminder on The Favourite Child

(in the top 20 of the Sunday Times bestseller list)

 

‘Freda Lightfoot has a reputation for creating strong, character-driven sagas and
Watch for the Talleyman
is no exception… a fast paced story, packed with action and sentiment.’
Historical Novel Association

 

‘This is a book I couldn’t put down . . .
 
a great read!’

South Wales Evening Post on The Girl From Poorhouse Lane

 

‘An inspiring novel about accepting change and bravely facing the future.’

The Daily Telegraph on Ruby McBride

 

Description

The story of Gabrielle d’Estrées is one of love, betrayal, intrigue and tragedy. All she wanted was to marry for love, and enjoy the respectability of a happy marriage. But in the court of sixteenth century France this was almost impossible to achieve. She was sold by her own mother to three different lovers before catching the eye of a king.

 

Henry has a weakness for beautiful women with fair hair and blue eyes, and once he sees Gabrielle, he knows he must have her. She bears him children and he promises to marry her, despite still being married to the exiled Queen Margot.

 

Is the love of a king enough to secure Gabrielle the happiness and respectability she craves, and a crown for her son as the next dauphin of France?

 

Part One

 

Margot

 

1578

‘My sweet one, I love you more than I can say. I do understand your concern, but no other woman is prettier or more charming than you. I cherish the day Madame de Tignonville, your dear mother, was chosen as companion and governess for my sister when she returned recently from Paris. Otherwise I might never have met you.’

Jeanne cast a sideways glance up at him from beneath her lashes, carefully studying his expression for evidence of his sincerity. This was the King of Navarre she was refusing, after all, not some young courtier with no manners or money to his name. Was that wise? Her caution lay not simply with regard to her virtue, virgin though she undoubtedly was, but with the sad fact that the King was not free as he possessed a wife already. But then Queen Margot remained in Paris, held captive by her brother Henri III and her mother Catherine de Medici. Even as Jeanne heeded her own mother’s wise advice not to yield too easily, she felt giddy with the possibilities of what heights she might reach by capturing the King’s heart. ‘Sire, I must guard my reputation. I am an innocent.’

‘Your innocence enchants me. I adore you.’

‘But how can you say that when you hardly know me?’

‘Your modesty does you great credit, but you are not so innocent as to fail to see how the very sight of you sets my pulses racing. I must have you. I need you by my side, day and night.’

Jeanne was instantly alarmed, a flush of pink flooding her soft cheeks. ‘Sire, you speak wild. I am a maiden. My mother would never consent.’

‘I am not asking your mother. Besides, how could she deny a King?’ he teased. ‘Ah, but I see I am rushing you, my little one. Will you grant me a kiss at least?’

Henry gazed into her blue eyes, entranced. He was all too aware that falling in love was as natural to him as eating the pigeon pie he loved so much, or drinking his favourite Gascon wine. He was quite unable to resist a beautiful woman, particularly one as young and delightful as this one. Her dark hair was so soft that he ached to stroke it, her childlike form so delicate his fingers itched to caress her budding young breasts. He had been pursuing the girl for some weeks now, ever since his sister Catherine had come home, yet she resisted him still.

Capturing her in his arms he attempted to steal a kiss, but at the last moment Jeanne averted her face. ‘What is it my lovely, do I repulse you?’

‘Of course not, Your Grace.’ She looked appalled by the very idea, which soothed his bruised ego somewhat. Nevertheless, Henry very reluctantly let her go.

‘Why then do you deny me? I am not an unkind man, a most generous one in fact, known for my good humour and equable temper. Nor would I ever force myself upon a woman. Ah, could it be that you have never been kissed before?’

The flush deepened and Henry laughed out loud. ‘That is the way of it, eh? An innocent indeed.’ The prospect of teaching this delightful child all about love making excited him more than he could express. What a diligent teacher he would be! ‘Perhaps, as our friendship develops, and if I am very good, you will permit me a little license?’

Soft lips pouted as she considered the matter, blue eyes bright with wounded pride. Jeanne felt confused and untutored in these matters, uncertain how to protect herself and yet not lose his interest completely. ‘I do not see how a maid of honour could dare to refuse a king anything, so I beg of you, Sire, not to presume upon me by asking.’ So saying, she sank into a curtsey and begged leave to depart. Chuckling with delight Henry granted her wish. Oh, but he would enjoy wooing this little one, and one way or another, he would win her.

 

Catherine had hated the years she’d spent at the French Court, as had Henry. She had accompanied him there in 1572 for his wedding to Princess Marguerite, an event swiftly followed by the horrors of the St Bartholomew massacre. Henry had been fortunate, or sufficiently daring, to make a dash for freedom after three years largely held under house arrest at the Louvre simply for being the wrong religion. Catherine wished she could have escaped with him for she had never fitted in to the glittering, hedonistic life style of the court. She’d spent her time largely on the fringes, knowing she was considered dull and far too Puritan, although, like her brother, she too had been forced to abandon her religion and agree to take the Mass.

Now she was immensely relieved to finally be allowed to join her brother and be back home in Nérac with the people she loved. At the banquet held to celebrate her homecoming, Henry, his face uncharacteristically solemn, had asked if she had forgotten what it was to be a Huguenot.

‘Indeed not,’ Catherine had hastened to reassure him. ‘I have ever remained a Huguenot in my heart.’

He’d kissed her fondly on the cheek. ‘I am glad to hear it. Aubigné too will be mightily relieved. You know how very seriously my chamberlain views these matters.’

‘He need have no fear. I remain true to our mother’s faith.’

Now, as she walked through the gardens that her mother Jeanne d’Albret had created by the River Baïse, Catherine mused on how they had ever been close and were great friends. She had no quarrel with her brother, not on religion, nor any other matter.

But she was no longer an obedient young girl striving to please. She was twenty years old and it might well be a different matter when it came to affairs of the heart. Catherine had yet to confess to Henry that she was in love with her cousin Charles, the Comte de Soissons, and he with her. She had no reason to suppose he would disapprove, yet for some reason she hesitated to broach the subject.

This morning Catherine hurried to meet her beloved in the gardens, just as they met in secret most days. The pair dreamed of marriage and she could not begin to imagine how she would feel if Henry set his mind against the match. Such a prospect was unthinkable. Charles was a fine soldier, if a touch hot-headed, brother to Prince de Condé, and a Bourbon like herself.

She caught a glimpse of his beloved figure emerging from behind a tree, a broad smile on his handsome face. Feeling her heart lift with anticipation, Catherine quickened her pace and ran to meet her lover.

 

‘I do not understand what it is you ask of me.’

‘It is perfectly simple, I wish you to persuade Mademoiselle Jeanne de Tignonville to change her mind and accept me as her lover.’

An angry flush appeared on the old man’s sallow cheeks. ‘It is not my task to procure your mistresses for you, Sire. I shudder to think you should even make such a request.’

‘Ah, but I do make it. It is your role in life is it not, Aubigné, to perform whatever task is necessary to please me? The girl is devout, too much so. Convince her that her soul is not at risk for loving a king.’

‘Sire, I beg you to have a care for your own soul. The constant seeking of pleasure, even for a king, is a dangerous pursuit.’

Henry frowned. Were his nature less affable he might take exception to a servant, even a pastor, daring to issue such a lecture. But he knew Aubigné for a narrow minded Calvinist, dedicated to his God and his religion, and that he was equally devoted to his king. ‘I will let that comment pass, since I think your tongue runs away with you. Nevertheless, it was your idea to award the post of governess to her mother. Therefore you are responsible for bringing the girl to my notice. Now I am dying for love of her. I must have her.’

‘I did not allow her mother to bring the child to court in order for her to be deflowered.’

Henry was growing bored with the argument, irritated by his chamberlain’s stubbornness. He believed he loved the girl as he had loved no other, and, tolerant though he may be, he refused to be spurned by her. Such a thing was unheard of. He really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

‘I do not see a problem. She will be well rewarded. Make the girl appreciate that it is perfectly seemly to surrender her virginity to a king. See to it Aubigné. I will not be bested in this matter.’ Whereupon he strode from the room, leaving his chamberlain wringing his hands in silent despair.

 

Aubigné did not speak to the girl, despite his monarch’s firm instructions to do so. He refused absolutely to involve himself in what he considered to be personal affairs, particularly of the romantic sort. Although he was aware that kings lived by a different set of rules to common folk. Henry’s own father, Antoine de Bourbon, had also kept many mistresses, but procuring a woman for the King was not a part of his duties.

When it became clear that his chamberlain was to take no action, Henry grew uncharacteristically cool and distant towards him, no longer clapping him on the back in a friendly fashion, or laughing and joking with him. Aubigné quickly realized that he would suffer for his obstinacy, and his comfortable life began to fray at the edges. He found that his pay was delayed or withheld, and as a consequence he fell into debt. Personal items would disappear from his chamber: the sermon he’d taken such trouble over, a book he was reading, his comfy slippers. Nor was he allowed to choose his favourite dishes. Food would be set before him at dinner that the King knew he disliked, yet Henry would oblige him to eat it and smile at his dismay.

‘Is not a little suffering good for the soul? Is that not what you are at pains to teach me?’

So many tricks were played on him that Aubigné grew increasingly miserable, feeling himself the butt of ridicule in the court. He came to loathe
la petite
Tignonville, as the King insisted on calling the chit, for causing him to lose favour. Yet he did not back down.

Nor did Jeanne. Months went by and still she kept the king dangling, enchanting him with her ready smiles and beguiling glances, but managing to maintain a firm hold upon her chastity. The court watched the courtship progress, and the King’s desperation increase, with high amusement and avid interest.

 

Jeanne was in a sulk. The king purported to love her yet she knew he courted other women. His amourettes seemed too numerous to count. No maid of honour was safe from his lewd glances and wandering hands. And yet he was always sweetly complimentary towards herself, making it abundantly clear that she was the one he truly loved and wanted.

‘These other women are but trifles to amuse me,’ he told her. ‘For you, my little Tignonville, I would give my heart and soul were you but to agree to love me a little. A kiss would suffice.’

Jeanne rewarded him with a teasing smile. ‘I think you want a great deal more than that.’

Henry laughed. ‘I think you are right. What would you take for a kiss? A pretty new gown, a ribbon for your glorious dark hair? What can I do to win you?’

‘I want for nothing.’

‘Your bright blue eyes tell me different. Will you sit on my knee and let me fondle you? There, what is so wrong in that? Are you not comfortable and happy to be so cherished?’

Jeanne leaned back in his arms and allowed him to kiss her neck and the curve of her throat, unable to deny that it was indeed most pleasant to be loved and petted by a king. Navarre, as she still liked to call him, was not unhandsome. His hair was black, thick and wavy, if slightly greying at the temples, carelessly brushed back from a broad high brow. He had a long face tapered to a firm chin, which indicated a stubborn determination to have his way. But the King’s most notable feature was his eyes, which were deep-set, large and luminous, the kind which could sparkle and flash with humour, soften with gentleness or ignite with passion. The fact that few women could resist him did not surprise Jeanne in the slightest. And he was a gentleman, of that there was no doubt. But when he dipped his head lower to kiss the soft mound of her breast she slapped him gently away.

‘You are too bold, Sire. Where might this lead? Nowhere, I think.’

His merry eyes looked at her askance. ‘I thought it might lead to my bedchamber.’

‘How can it when you are not free?’ Jeanne retorted, struggling unsuccessfully to free herself from his grasp. ‘You have a wife already in Queen Margot. How can I risk my honour and spiritual well-being when you are already taken?’

‘You need not be jealous of my wife, she would not be of you.’ He was scattering kisses on her mouth, her eyes, the shell-like curl of an ear. ‘Margot is in Paris and has lovers of her own.’

‘And you are certainly not short of mistresses.’

Henry clicked his tongue in gentle admonition. Oh, how he loved it when jealousy sparkled in those bewitching blue eyes. ‘As I have already told you, all other women are but trifles by comparison with your beauty. But I think you protest too much, mon petite Tignonville. This little flare up of jealousy tells me that, secretly, you are indeed enamoured of me. And I can sense it in your breathless excitement.’

Jeanne allowed him one last kiss before slipping adroitly from his lap. ‘I am breathless from battling with you, Sire. You must remember that I am but a simple girl. What if I were to fall
enceinte
?’

‘I would take care that you did not, my sweet.’

‘Even if I didn’t, who would marry me once I had given away the prize of my virginity? I would be spoiled goods. The cast-off of a king.’

‘Why would I cast you off when I love you so?’

‘I think you tease me too much!’ Exasperated, she dipped a hasty curtsey and walked away without even asking his leave. Henry chuckled to himself for the game wasn’t over yet. Tomorrow, he might strike lucky.

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