Forsaking All Other
Love is no game for women; the price is far too high.
Bess Stoughton, waiting woman to the well-connected Lady Allingbourne, has discovered that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and wrests from her father a year’s grace to find a husband more to her liking.
Edmund Wyard, a taciturn and scarred veteran of England’s campaign in Ireland, is attempting to ignore the pressure from his family to find a suitable wife as he prepares to join the Earl of Leicester’s army in the Netherlands.
Although Bess and Edmund are drawn to each other, they are aware that they can have nothing more than friendship. Bess knows that Edmund’s wealth and family connections place him beyond her reach. And Edmund, with his well-honed sense of duty, has never considered that he could follow his own wishes. Until now.
With England on the brink of war and fear of Catholic plots extending even into Lady Allingbourne’s household, time is running out for both of them.
Bess Stoughton shivered as the icy wind snatched, yet again, at the hood of her mantle. Her dark hair was plastered to her head, her ruff flattened and, after a downpour an hour earlier, her clothing damp beneath the mantle.
In the gloom she glared at Hornebolt’s back as he rode ahead of her. From the moment they had set out at daybreak, her father’s man had set such a punishing pace that, at times, Bess had difficulty keeping up. He had assured Lady Allingbourne before they left that he had arranged for them to travel with a group of merchants once they reached Chelmsford—there was greater safety in numbers. Yet here Bess was, one of Lady Allingbourne’s waiting women, travelling alone. Hornebolt was so far ahead that had she been attacked by brigands, she doubted he would have noticed.
Hornebolt had barely spoken to her except to give gruff directions. They had not stopped often enough to rest the horses well and would have eaten in the saddle had Bess not insisted otherwise. Her pleas to give thought to the horses had been met at first with mutterings and later by silent contempt. The journey, which usually took at least a day and a half at a moderate pace from Allingbourne Hall to Bess’s father’s manor near Ipswich, would be completed in one long day.
Bess sank back into a miserable reverie. She had no wish to return to her father’s house. She had never before been required to attend the christening of his children by the young wife who had replaced her mother ten years ago. Besides, Philippa was to be betrothed in a week. Philippa Beckingham was the eldest of the young women in Lady Allingbourne’s care, learning the skills and duties required of a woman in the running of a large household. Nearest in age to Bess, she had become her closest friend. Bess doubted she would be back at Allingbourne Hall in time for the betrothal.
The road wound past a small copse and there, nestled in the folds of the grey hills, was her father’s manor house. Not a single light flickered in any window.
As soon as they clattered across the bridge and into the courtyard, Hornebolt dismounted and led his horse towards the stables without a backward look. Perris, the groom of the stable, a familiar face from Bess’s childhood, came out buttoning his doublet. He greeted Hornebolt as he passed but Hornebolt merely grunted in reply.
Exhausted, Bess remained in her saddle.
‘Let me help you down, Mistress,’ Perris said as he walked towards Bess’s horse.
Bess fought back tears. ‘Thank you, Perris.’ Her feet finally on firm earth, she stumbled against him. ‘My legs are like jelly,’ she forced a laugh, holding his arm for support.
‘A long journey?’
‘Too long to be done in a single day unless it is a matter of life and death.’ Doubt swept through her. ‘It is not…? My father…?’
‘No Mistress, all are well here. Mistress Askew and her babe, a little lass, are both thriving.’
Perris ran his hand along the quivering palfrey’s flank and grumbled, more to himself, ‘I’m surprised this horse is still standing. That man should never be allowed near horses.’ He called to a lad who had just come out into the courtyard, rubbing sleep from his eyes, ‘Ralph, bring Hornebolt’s gelding out here.’ He led Bess’s palfrey around the yard.
‘Is there something wrong with Rosie?’
‘Not if I do my job properly. But no horse should be ridden as hard or as far as this one has been. Did you stop to rest the horses at all?’
Bess nodded weakly. ‘Yes, but not as often or for as long as we should have. Hornebolt was in a hurry. I tried to explain but he would not listen to an empty-headed woman prattling about matters beyond her ken.’ Bess made a fair imitation of Hornebolt’s gruff voice.
‘That’s the pot calling the pan burnt-arse,’ Perris muttered under his breath.
Bess stood staring up at the dark windows of the house. ‘Perris,’ she said, ‘do you think anyone else is awake?’
His attention drawn away from the horses, Perris took in her bedraggled state. ‘You get yourself inside, Mistress. Mary is up. She’ll help you out of those wet things and find something to warm you.’
Before Bess reached the great door, it was flung open by a stout woman, grey hair escaping from beneath her coif. She bobbed a curtsy then threw her arms around Bess. ‘Sweeting, you’ve come home.’
‘Goody Perris,’ Bess blinked, forcing back sudden tears. ‘I am so glad to see you.’
Mary Perris stepped back, her hands resting on Bess’s shoulders. ‘But look at the state you are in! Up to the parlour with you. I’ve stoked the fire and I’ll get something for you to eat.’
She chattered as she led Bess through the darkened hall into a small parlour at the end. ‘Everyone’s abed. We did not think to see you until tomorrow.’
‘Hornebolt made sure we made the journey in a single day.’
‘A single day?’ Mary glanced over her shoulder. ‘But he left five days ago.’
‘He arrived at Allingbourne Hall late yesterday.’ She did not trust herself to explain more.
Mary clicked her tongue in disapproval. ‘I would be letting your father know that, if I was you.’ She held the door to the parlour open for Bess. Inside a fire crackled and the candles had been lit. ‘Now get that cloak off and sit by the fire.’ She settled Bess into a chair, plumping a cushion behind her, and hurried from the room, Bess’s cloak on her arm.
Bess dragged the chair closer to the fire and held out her hands. She sniffed, again fighting the urge to cry. Mary Perris and her husband had been part of Woolham Manor for as long as she could remember. In her way, Mary had been mother to Bess when her own mother had died. She was part of Bess’s idea of home.
In the flickering candlelight, the parlour appeared unchanged despite the presence of her father’s second wife these past ten years. The legs of a doll poked out from beneath a cushion lying on the floor beside the chair at the other side of the hearth. Bess eased herself out of her chair, bent stiffly and picked up the doll. She stood in front of the fire staring at the doll’s carefully embroidered face and wondered what growing up in this house was like now. Her own childhood, until the day her mother died, seemed to have been sun-filled even in mid-winter.
Within a year, a stepmother had arrived, a young woman five years older than Bess. Her father had been besotted to Bess’s mind, fawning over his new wife, barely able to keep his hands in check. Bess’s sullen incivility had ensured a place was quickly found for her in service with her mother’s distant cousin, Lady Allingbourne. The years had not altered Bess’s attitude to her stepmother—she was her father’s wife, her children her father’s children, no real kindred to Bess.
Mary bustled in with a goblet of mulled wine and a plate with slices of bread and cold mutton. ‘Here we are—this will take the edge off your hunger until I can heat up something else.’
Bess placed the doll in the chair opposite her and took the plate and cup. ‘I am not that hungry Goody, this will do.’ She nibbled at the bread. ‘I would like to go to bed soon.’
‘You’ll be in with Joyce and Sybell.’
Bess frowned, she did not want to share a bed with children.
Mary rushed on, ‘They are the eldest, eight and nine, both good girls. The others are in the nursery. Joyce has been so excited at the thought of you coming.’
Bess sipped her drink and said nothing.
‘I’ll go and put your things in your room.’ Mary closed the door quietly behind her. Despite the appearance of always being in a rush, Bess remembered Mary could, when she wanted, move silently, appearing from nowhere—especially when you were indulging in the most entertaining of mischief.
Bess placed the plate on a small table beside the chair and pushed off her shoes, wriggling her damp stockinged toes in front of the fire. Her skirt steamed with the warmth.
Bess’s father stood at the door. Perhaps it was the dim light of the parlour, but Nicholas Askew seemed to have aged since she had last seen him two years ago, his hair and beard now heavily peppered with grey. Bess rose wearily from her seat; tomorrow every muscle would ache.
‘No lass, stay where you are.’ He squeezed her shoulder gently as he passed by and took the seat opposite her. Frowning, he pulled the doll out from beneath him and tossed it across the room onto a pile of cushions in the corner. ‘We were hoping you would arrive today.’
‘Hornebolt made sure we did. He set such a pace that he near killed the horses.’
‘He’s a driven man when he sets his mind to something.’ Askew tugged his fur-trimmed night gown tighter around himself. ‘Still, you seem to have survived the ordeal.’
Bess bit back a sharp reply and sipped her drink, staring into the fire.
‘Mary is seeing to your needs?’ her father asked.
‘Ay, she has gone to prepare a bed for me with two of your children.’
Askew’s eyes darkened. ‘We have little space at present. Emma’s elder sister, Elinor, and her daughter came for the lying-in and will be staying until the churching.’ He forced a smile. ‘Joyce and Sybell will no doubt plague you with questions when they wake. To hear them talk, their sister is waiting woman to the Queen.’
Bess gave a slight smile, acknowledging the thought, we are sisters even if we have different mothers. I should not blame them for it.
Askew rose and bent over her. ‘Well daughter, I will leave you.’ He brushed his dry lips against her forehead. ‘The christening will follow the church service tomorrow morning.’
Bess’s face betrayed nothing of her feelings. ‘I will be ready. No doubt Joyce and Sybell will make certain I am up early.’
Askew’s face relaxed. ‘That I do not doubt.’
Mary Perris led Bess to the bedchamber by the light of a single candle. She whispered as they climbed the stairs, ‘All your belongings are damp but I’ll make sure they are dry for the morning. You will have to wear a bed smock of the Mistress’s.’
Much as she wanted to, Bess could not refuse.
Mary opened the door. ‘You’ll find the bed well warmed by those two little angels in there.’
Bess’s eyes brimmed as a surge of jealousy swept through her. This was her Goody Perris loving other children. Bess held herself taut, as much against her unreasonable emotion as the cold, while Mary helped her undress and combed out her hair. She told herself sternly that it was not rational that she, a grown woman, should be jealous of children near a third her age.
Bess climbed into the large bed and stretched out alongside the two girls with their flushed cheeks and angelic curls, careful not to disturb their sleep. She watched the wavering light of the candle as Mary moved towards the door and fell soundly asleep as soon as darkness claimed the room.