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"But how could he not like you?"
"He is an earl, Joan!"
"And you, Marget, are to be his countess."
...In several short months I was to exchange my life as a knight's daughter for life as a countess. That thought still had the power to drain the blood from my face as if January's salt-laden winds were whipping in from the Wash, stealing my breath as they continued on their way.
"Think you. For how many years now have you trained for this?"
"Twelve." It had begun at the age of five. If I whispered the number it was only because, of a sudden, I did not wish for the training to end...
"But what if—"
"What if what? What if you cannot please him?" Joan's voice was rising, as if my worries were trifles too small to warrant her attentions. "Do you not know a dozen ways to dance? Can you not sing like a songbird? In how many languages can you read? And how many stitches can you work upon a canvas? How can you fail to please him, Marget?"
"What if he is ... aged?"
"Then you will spend less time in bed and more time in delighting yourself with ... all the means of a countess at your disposal."
I could not keep a blush from spreading through my cheeks. "But his first wife—"
"The marriage was annulled. Is that not what you told me?"
"Aye. 'Tis true."
"Then she was no wife to him at all."
"But what if—"
..."Truly. What if I cannot please him?"
"Are you meaning to ask me if you are to play the role of your mother?"
My fingers tightened around her arm.
"He will not be your father, Marget. You will please him. He will stay in your bed. Is that what vexes you?"
I could not bring myself to nod, but Joan knew me almost better than I knew myself.
"Hear me: there is nothing in you that could make him cast you off."
"Hush you. Last time I noticed, earls were still men." She said it as if that settled everything. As if there were no reason for the worries that churned in my belly.
"And last time I looked, Marget, you still had the face of an angel." Her gaze softened before she continued on. " 'Tis nothing like my own."
It was enough to drive a man mad!
Any nobleman worth his title could write poetry. That was what my tutor had taught me long ago. That was what I had always believed. But then came Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and now rumors of some person named Shakespeare. They had ruined it for us all. It was no longer acceptable to just dash out a sonnet. One must employ mythology and politics, and work for days to cultivate allusions aplenty.
But now, all I needed was a rhyme for carriage.
Her Majesty's comportment, her carriage, could be compared to ... Bah! It had been at the edge of my mind the entire forenoon. Carriage ... carnage.
Carriage ... cleavage.
There was no hope for it. It would come. I could feel it, but I might as well do something else, something more productive, until it did. Why did poetry have to require so much work? I was replacing the quill in the inkwell when a knock sounded upon the door, and then it opened forthwith.
It was Nicholas. He was carrying something in his hand. "For you, my lord." He straightened from a bow and extended a document toward me. "From the east, my lord."
...I spread it on the desk before me but still could not focus on the words long enough to read them. Pushing away from the desk, I gestured Nicholas toward the paper. "Read it."
"Aye, aye. Does he accept the terms or not?"
...finally, he lifted his eyes to mine. "Aye. After all of that, in the very last phrase, he agrees. You shall have the hand of his daughter in marriage."
"Congratulations, my lord. It is my fondest hope that the young lady will bring you nothing but happiness."
I looked at him. Though his mien revealed nothing but innocence, I knew him too well. "You mean to say, as opposed to the first young lady?"
Nicholas merely stood there.
I frowned as I regained my desk and removed my quill from the inkpot. "The young lady is of no importance."
"I beg to argue, my lord...As a knight's daughter, her only wish will be to please you. You must not punish her for another's mistakes, my lord."
"Do you think me some cruel tyrant?"
"Nay, my lord. But it was you who said she was of no importance."
"Relatively speaking, Nicholas. 'Tis her dowry that I am after. Her knight-father's riches will allow me to regain Holleystone. If there is anything to rejoice over, 'tis that fact. You and I shall both be going home. 'Tis for that God is to be praised."
Nicholas cleared his throat, a sure sign that I had been ignoring him. "The young lady, my lord."
"What of her?"
"You will not neglect her, my lord?"
"Certainly not! Luck's chosen vessel must be looked after ..."
My thoughts turned toward all the ways in which I might, very soon, become lucky. I might be selected to receive a venerable Garter Knighthood. I might be asked to take a seat on Her Majesty's Privy Council. I might be given another estate or even a chance to purchase a monopoly.