“Oh dear.” Lady Fairley paused in brushing her hair briefly, then
fixed an unconcerned smile on her face and continued with her brushing even as
she listened to her son stomp his way through the small sitting room off her bed
chamber. By an effort of will, she managed to keep from giving in to a startled
jump when the bed chamber door burst open announcing his arrival.
Margaret studiously ignored him as he stormed across the room to where she
sat by the fire, but she grimaced inwardly at the way he loomed over her, breathing
fury down the back of her neck. She waited a count of ten as he glared and snorted
over her much like an angry bull, then glanced over her shoulder at him and offered
a bland smile. “Good morning, son. How are you this fine day?”
He seemed somewhat agitated by the question, his face flushing an angry red,
his expression becoming even more furious, she noted as he bellowed, “How
am I? How am I?! How do you think I bloody well am?!”
“Hmmm,” she murmured mildly, turning back to her brushing. “Someone
awoke on the wrong side of his bed this morn.”
“Not me!” he snapped. “I was in a perfectly good mood...
until my audience with King Henry.”
Lady Fairley opened her eyes wide with feigned surprise. “Did it not
“Did it –“ He broke off to mutter a few choice words that
drew a gaze of mild reproof from his mother.
“Please, Johnathan. It is not very chivalrous to speak so around ladies.
Surely Lord Westcott taught you better than that while you were training under
him? If not, perhaps your father should have taken you in hand for training...
as I suggested. He never would listen to me, the stubborn- ”
“Mother,” he interrupted, with an obvious attempt at restraint.
“What did you say to Queen Eleanor?”
“Me?” She stared at him wide-eyed, which merely made his eyes narrow.
“Aye. You. I know you had something to do with this.”
Judging that it was time to show some irritation of her own, Lady Fairley set
her brush down with a snap. “Something to do with what, Jonathan? You have
not yet said what occurred. Why did the King call you to court?”
She watched the struggle take place on his face with interest, then he blurted,
“He has ordered me to marry!”
“Oh.” Margaret turned back to the fire and resumed brushing her
hair. “Is that all? For a moment you had me concerned.”
Lady Fairley sensed rather than saw the way her son slumped behind her, apparently
flummoxed by her lack of concern.
“Is that all?” He echoed with dismay. “King Henry
has given me two weeks to choose my own bride or he will. Two weeks! He wants
me married by month’s end, and to have begotten an heir by next summer.”
Fury covered his face again at the very thought of these orders.
“Oh bother!” Lady Fairley said, drawing her son’s attention
“Well, really Jonathan. Pray, do you really think I needed to do anything
to bring this about? Ha!” She turned her nose up at him and sniffed delicately.
“It hardly needed my attention, did it? Your father has been gone for five
years now, leaving you the Earl of Fairley. An heirless earl. I am only
surprised King Henry let the matter go so long. Fairley is on the border of Wales.
Politically, it is an important keep. Of course he wants you married and your
bride bearing. Should you die, the only person to take your place is your cousin
Albert. You know what a fool he is. So does the King. He would hardly
want him as lord over Fairley and it’s environs.”
“Well a babe is scarcely likely to do a better job,” Johnathan
grumbled, shifting irritably.
“No, but is there an heir and a widow, Henry may put who he wishes in
your place. Either as Chatelaine, or as a new husband for your widow. But without
a widow and heir, Albert would inherit the estate and title.”
Jonathan grimaced over this news, distracted briefly with the truth of it,
then scowled as he noted she had given up her brushing in favor of donning jewels
and a head piece. Her finest head piece. One she generally saved for special occasions.
Eyes widening slightly, he took in the dress she wore, the way she had pulled
up her hair, and – Was that natural color on her cheeks? Or had she resorted
to some unnatural coloring there? She looked lovely, and younger than her fifty
“You are primping!” The words were a dismayed accusation.
Lady Fairley felt herself flush and thought it a rather nice touch as she tried
for a partially guilty expression. “I am not primping,” she said with
“You are wearing your best jewels.”
Lady Fairley felt her mouth twitch, but stood with feigned impatience. “They
match my gown. One likes to look ones best at court. She ignored the way his eyes
narrowed suspiciously and moved toward the door to the sitting room, entering
as her maid Leda burst in from the hall.
you are, my lady.”
“Oh, good,” Lady Fairley murmured as the girl rushed forward, holding
out a small decanter.
John watched her take the decanter, then sniffed suspiciously when she unstopped
“Perfume!” The word shot out like an arrow released from a bow.
“Aye.” Margaret applied it liberally while her son watched in growing
horror. She knew the source of his dismay. She had not bothered to apply perfume
since his father was stricken by the plague. Which was why she had been forced
to send her maid out in search of some. She hadn’t even brought any with
her to court. It was questionable as to whether she still had any at Fairley to
bring. It had most likely dried up over time.
“Thank you, Leda.” Lady Fairley handed the perfume back and continued
on to the door, not at all surprised when Johnathan followed at once.
“Where are you going?”
“To visit with a friend,” she answered gaily.
“I believe I am passed the age of needing to explain myself, Johnathan,”
she said with exasperation as she opened her chamber door and started out into
the hall. “However, if you must know, I am going to visit with Lady Houghton
and her daughter.
Jonathan relaxed at once, comprehension covering his face. Ah ha! Now he understood.
His mother had convinced the King to order he marry and now would thrust another
friend’s daughter under his nose. If he never saw another eligible daughter
of one of her friends he would-
“There is no need for you to accompany me,” his mother said now,
ruining this theory quite thoroughly. “In any case, is there not something
of more import that you should be doing with your time? Two weeks is very little
time to decide on a bride, and while the plague has seen many young women widowed
before she was married by taking her betrothed, it has taken an equal amount of
would-be bride’s as well. There are many men other than yourself still scrambling
to make new alliances. You really should not waste your time following me about.”
Jonathan was so startled by this pronouncement that he stopped walking briefly
to gape at her back as she continued on down the hall.
“But what of this friend’s daughter?” He blurted, hurrying
to catch up to her once he got over his shock.
“What of her?”
“Do you not wish me to consider her for my bride?”
“Oh no. She would not do at all.”
“What?” He cried scandalized. “You have shoved every eligible
daughter of every friend under my nose for the last five years. Now here is one
“I have introduced you to every eligible and suitable daughter of friends
of mine,” she corrected sharply. “And, I have run through the entire
list of them. Now, you are on your own.”
“You are giving up on me?” He cried, unsure whether to be relieved
or injured at the possibility.
“Not at all, son. I shall support you in your choice, I simply can no
longer aid you in it. Now.” She patted him affectionately on the arm. “Go
find yourself a bride to please the King and leave me to my friends.”
Jonathan stared at her in bewilderment, then noted that the hand she had patted
his arm with was now patting at her hair. She was primping again! She hadn’t
primped since his father’s death. Something odd was going on here.
“I think I shall just accompany you to meet your friend’s daughter,”
he announced as she started away again.
“No!” She shrieked, coming to an abrupt halt, then regained herself
somewhat, replacing the alarm on her face with an irritable scowl. “I mean,
I told you she is not suitable.”
“Oh?” He eyed her curiously. It had been his experience that nothing
short of a concern as to the woman’s chastity was enough to make a woman
unsuitable in his mother’s eyes. At least lately. To be fair, she had been
much more choosey at first, when producing possible brides for him to consider,
but as the last five years had passed and he had shown a distinct lack of interest
in the marital state, his mother’s desperation had begun to show in the
fact that any woman with all the necessary parts was paraded before him. Necessary
parts did not always mean all her limbs. Or attractiveness. Or personality. His
mother had grown quite desperate. Chastity had never been a point she had overlooked,
however. Lady Fairley wanted grandchildren of her son, not someone else’s
“Is she free with her affections?” He asked now, and his mother
turned a horrified expression on him.
“Of course she is not free with her affections. Elizabeth raised her
properly. The girl is as pure as a babe.”
“Hmmm.” This was interesting. “Is she betrothed then?”
Irritation flickered on her face, but she did admit with obvious reluctance,
“Nay. Her betrothed was taken by the plague, just as your Juliet was.”
“Is she without title or dower then?”
Much to his interest, irritation flickered on her face once more. “Nay.
Her father was a wealthy Baron. There is a sizeable dower.”
“Well then, why is she unsuitable?“
”She is...” Her expression fluctuated briefly, torn between irritation
and reluctance as she struggled for an explanation. Johnathan was shocked beyond
belief when it finally popped out. “Puffy.”
“Puffy?” He echoed with a laugh, drawing her ire once more. “Aye.
She is large. Over large, if you must know. And she is far too intelligent and
strong minded. She would not do at all. She even reads,” she added with
distaste, giving a delicate shudder. “Nay, she is perfectly nice. But not
for you. She- Oh look! There is Lady Epton. I understand that her parents have
not yet secured her a betrothed. Little coin for a dower, I gather. But you hardly
need concern yourself with that. Fairley is quite wealthy. Why do you not go see
how she would suit?”
Jonathan’s eyes nearly fell out of his head at that. He knew quite well
that his mother positively loathed Lady Epton . Oddly enough, at one time, that
had only added to the woman’s attractions in Jonathan’s eyes and he
had courted her briefly. Very briefly. The woman had an amazingly high screeching
voice. Which was a shame, really. Otherwise, she was quite lovely. But a man would
have to be deaf to put up with her for life and Johnathan was far from deaf. Of
course, her voice was not the reason his mother did not like the woman. She claimed
the girl was spiteful and sneaky, a cruel, heartless witch who wielded gossip
like most men wielded their sword, ruining people at will if she did not like
Realizing that while he stood there goggling, his mother was doing her best
to escape him, Jonathan rushed forward. She was moving at a fast clip as she turned
the corner ahead of him. When he turned the corner himself, it took him a moment
to spot her. This corridor was busier than the one leading to her rooms, and Johnathan
suspected that she had put on a burst of speed the moment she was out of his site,
because she was a good distance up the hall, half hidden from his site by a quartet
of people coming toward him.
Putting on some speed himself, Jonathan ate up the distance with his longer
stride, quickly catching up to her. The glance she threw his way was not welcoming.
Other than that, she ignored him as they reached the stairs, then traversed another
hall. Finally, at the door he knew lead out into the gardens, she paused to toss
him an harassed glance. “Are you not going to go look for a bride? You could
hardly wish Henry to choose one for you.”
“I have plenty of time for that.”
“Oh, aye. Plenty of time,” she agreed scathingly. “Two whole
Ignoring her sarcasm, he moved forward and opened the door, gesturing for her
Lady Fairley glared at him in frustration for a moment, then, seeming to realize
he was unaffected by her irritation, she let her breath out on a disgruntled whoosh
of air and marched grimly forth.
Alice was the first to spot the approach of Lady Fairley and her son. At least,
Alice assumed it was her son. The older woman had spoken a lot about the man,
describing him as tall, dark and handsome, very strong, solid like his father
and various other flattering descriptions. Most of them appeared correct on this
her first sight of the man. He was tall and dark. He certainly looked solid and
strong as he marched along beside his much smaller mother. As for handsome. It
was hard to say. His face was scrunched up in a scowl as they neared, a scowl
that seemed to merely deepen and twist his face more with each step as his mother
appeared to verbally berate him.
Alice tilted her head and watched the pair curiously. The petit older woman
appeared to be trying to shoo him away like a pesky fly, her hand waving vaguely
in the air as she spoke to him intensely. The man Alice assumed to be her son,
appeared unmoved by her gesture or her words as he followed her forward, paused
when she did so to wave a finger vaguely under his nose, then followed her again.
It was all rather curious, amusing even and Alice’s lips had stretched into
a slight smile as she watched the pair approach.
“What has you so amused?” her mother asked curiously, then followed
her gaze and positively beamed as she spied her friend and the man approaching.
“Oh! There is Margaret. And look, young Johnathan has accompanied her.”
Alice caught the meaningful expression that her mother cast Uncle James, and
had a moment to wonder at it, but then was urged to her feet by her mother.
“Let Lady Fairley have your seat, dear. Respect your elders.”
Alice rose automatically and shifted away from the bench where her mother and
Uncle James had settled with her bare moments ago. The move made her the first
to greet Lady Fairley and her son as they approached.
“Oh, good morn, my dear,” the older woman murmured and Alice felt
her expression reflect her confusion at the cool tone she used. Lady Margaret
was usually as warm and pleasant as could be. Her chill tones now were somewhat
startling to Alice and set her aback a bit, but she laid the blame for it at the
feet of the man accompanying her as the woman cast the man an irritated glance
before introducing them.
“This is my son, Johnathan.” Her smile was decidedly forced and
unenthusiastic as she made the introduction. “Johnathan, this is Lady Alice
“Good morn, my Lady.” The smile that accompanied his greeting was
brilliant, turning his face almost handsome as he took her hand and bowed slightly
“Good day, my lord,” Alice murmured, smiling politely back even
as Lady Margaret added, “He very kindly walked me here but can not stay.
He has a task to fulfill for the King.”
“Oh, what a shame,” Alice murmured politely, her gaze moving curiously
from the woman’s grim face to the again scowling son as they staged a silent
war with their eyes.
“There is no need for me to rush off this very minute. Certainly, I can
afford to spare a few moments to get acquainted with your dear friend and her
Alice could not help but notice that his charming words merely seemed to agitate
his mother even more. With an exasperated wave, the older woman turned away and
almost flounced over to take up the seat Alice had just vacated. Apparently the
introductions were over, Alice thought wryly. It was hard not to notice and wonder
at the fact that Lady Fairley had very obviously neglected to introduce her son
to Alice’s own mother. Or her Uncle, whom Alice’s mother had most
mysteriously insisted accompany them on this morning constitutional through the
royal gardens. More surprising than that to her, was the sudden warmth that the
woman was showing Alice’s uncle. Not that they had not been friendly before,
but from where Alice stood, Lady Fairley almost appeared to be gushing over the
man, which was a slight bit surprising. Alice had not thought the usually dignified
woman capable of gushing.
Putting this curious turn of events away for later consideration, Alice glanced
at Lord Fairley, to find the man glaring at the older trio with obvious displeasure.
Alice peered from son to mother just as Lady Fairley paused in her talking to
glare at her son and, if she wasn’t mistaken, Alice as well.
“Come stand by me, son. Better yet, go away.”
Alice gasped at this rudeneess, but Johnathan, rather than appear upset or
insulted, suddenly smiled. The smile was all teeth. “Nonsense, mother. I
know you are concerned with my completing my appointed task, but tomorrow is soon
enough to start that endeavour. Besides, I could hardly leave Lady Alice alone
here. There is no room for her on that bench you are sharing, so I should stay
to keep her company. Speaking of Lady Alice,” he added slowly, a shark-like
smile coming to his face. “You were hardly fair in your description of her.
She is much lovelier than you claimed.”
If Alice blushed at this unexpected compliment, Lady Fairley flushed an even
redder shade, one that turned almost purple when her son went on, “How was
it that you described her?”
Alice peered from son to mother again when he paused, aware of undercurrents,
but not understanding them.
“You never mentioned that her hair held all the colors of a sunset; mellow
golds, and fiery reds. Or that her eyes were the clear blue of a cloudless sky.
What was it you said?” He tapped his chin thoughtfully and all the while
his mother grew more straight-backed and tense, while Alice grew more and more
“Oh aye, I remember now. You commented on her fine figure. What was it
you said? She was...lush? Round and rich like a berry brought to full ripeness
by age? No, no. It was something else you said. What was it?”
Lady Fairley looked ready to burst out of her skin at that point, and did blurt
out, “Oh, go sit over there with her if you insist. Just do be quiet.”
A chuckle slipped from his lips that most definitely had a victorious ring
to it, and Lord Fairley took Alice’s arm. He turned her toward the bench
on the opposite side of the path. “Shall we sit over here, Lady Houghton?
I promise not to embarrass you with any further compliments.”
“Er..aye. Thank you,” Alice murmured, as bewildered by the exchange
that had just taken place as she was flustered by the delightful words Lord Fairley
had used to describe her. No one had ever described her hair or eyes so prettily,
and his description of her figure...well, gentlemen were not suppose to comment
on a lady’s figure, and Alice suddenly knew why. His words had sounded seductive
and almost carnal. But perhaps that was only due to his reference to fruit and
ripeness and such, she thought a little faintly. Glancing over her shoulder, she
saw that her Uncle now sat seemingly forgotten as her mother and Lady Fairley
huddled together, satisfaction on both their faces as they held a whispered conversation.
“Prey forgive my mother’s moodiness,” Lord Johnathan murmured,
drawing her attention again. “She is angry with me.”
“Oh.” Alice seated herself on the bench and proceeded to direct
her eyes everywhere but at the man settling beside her. It was funny, she hadn’t
found him the least bit threatening on first meeting him, but he suddenly seemed...so...male.
Embarrassed by her own gauche behavior, she cleared her throat uncomfortably.
“I had noticed that she seemed just a tad out of sorts.”
Alice forced herself to glance at him, only to see that his gaze had moved
back to the trio on the opposite bench. Apparently he didn’t like what he
saw, for a scowl was tugging at his features, making his handsome face seem harsh.
Alice followed his gaze, eyebrows rising. It seemed Lady Fairley’s discussion
with Alice’s mother was finished, she and Alice’s Uncle James were
now in the midst of what appeared to be a rather intimate tete de tete while Lady
Houghton appeared to be dozing in the sun beside them.
uncle?” Johnathan asked harshly and Alice turned a questioning glance on
him as he asked, “Is he married?”
“Nay. He is widowed. His wife died some years ago, shortly after supplying
their only son. He never bothered to remarry.”
Alice blinked at the question. He sounded almost irritated that her uncle hadn’t
remarried. “Well,” she said slowly. “I suppose his affections
were never engaged by any of the eligible widows about. And then there was never
any apparent need...until his son and my father died.” She had his full
attention at that announcement, and answered his silent question. “They
were both in the city when the plague struck.”
“Aye.” She let her breath out on an unhappy sigh, then went on,
“Uncle James inherited father’s title and the responsibility for Mother
“The plague took many,” he said with a quiet sympathy that made
Alice’s eyes fill with the loss before she could catch it. She had lost
a younger sister, her father, her cousin, and her betrothed all in one fell swoop
to that plague. The extent of her loss had seemed unbearable at the time. It was
still a terrible ache within her. Painful, but easing with each passing year.
Still, at times like this one, the pain caught her by surprise and overwhelmed
Embarrassed by this unexpected display of emotion, she glanced away and blinked
her eyes rapidly to clear them, wiping surreptitiously at the few small drops
that over-flowed to roll down her cheeks.
“What have you done now, Johnathan? You have the poor girl crying.”
Alice straightened and shifted to the edge of the bench to make room as Lady
Fairley suddenly plopped herself between them.
“It was nothing he did,” she said quickly. “I was just explaining
about my father, sister, cousin, and betrothed being taken by the plague.”
“Oh. Aye. Terrible that. Johnathan’s father and betrothed were
stricken down by it as well.”
“Oh, dear. I am sorry,” Alice murmured sympathetically.
“Aye. So am I.” Lady Fairley’s eyes turned briefly misty,
then determination settled on her face. “In fact, that is the reason we
are here at court.”
“Is it?” Alice asked politely.
“Aye. Well it is the reason Johnathan is here. I was already here enjoying
a nice visit with you and your mother and various other friends. It is so nice
to be able to get out and about after a long dreary winter like this last one.”
“Aye,” Alice agreed. “It was a harsh winter. There was so
much snow we were castle bound at one point. The men even had trouble getting
through the snow to hunt. We were quite desperate for meat at one or two points.
“We had the same difficulties,” Lady Fairley said solemnly. “That
is one of the problems of living in the north.”
“Any how, I was here visiting when the King sent for Johnathan for an
“Aye. I had no idea what it was about, but it turns out that the King
has decided that it is time that Johnathan wed.”
Alice’s jaw began to drop, then she caught herself. “I...see,”
she said finally, at a loss as to what else to say to that news.
“Aye.“ She heaved a sigh that ended with her glaring at her son.
“Johnathan has dallied about the project himself and the King has run out
of patience. He has two weeks to find a bride, else King Henry will choose one
“Oh...my,” Alice breathed, her eyes shooting to Lord Fairley’s
face to find him looking quite irritated and miserable as his mother told this
“It is quite a fix,” Lady Fairley confided unhappily. “And
Johnathan, well he really is no good at this sort of thing. As for me, I am of
little use. He has already refused to even consider every single young woman of
marriageable age I have been able to come up with. I suppose that is not surprising.
After all, I am an old woman. I hardly know what the young people are thinking
now-a-days, let alone what young bucks would find attractive.”
“Oh, aye, well....” Alice hadn’t a clue what to say to that,
then Lady Fairley suddenly brightened and grabbed up her hands.
“I have a brilliant idea.”
“You do?” Alice asked warily, suspecting she would not like what
“You are young and would have a better idea of the kind of bride Johnathan
would like. Perhaps you could help him, Alice.”
“Me?” Alice peered at her with a combination of surprise and mounting
“Mother,” Johnathan hissed in a warning tone, but she ignored him
“Oh, I do not think-“ Alice began desperately.
”Oh, that is a fine idea.”
Alice snapped her mouth closed and turned a disbelieving glance to her mother
who was suddenly standing before them beaming brightly. “Mother-“
”It would not be any trouble at all I am sure, Margaret. Alice would
love to help you with your son. Why she knows plenty of lovely young women for
Johnathan to look over.”
“Look over?” Alice’s mouth thinned, her nostrils flaring
a little. “Rather like looking over a stable of horses to choose a mount?”
“Aye, it is rather like that, is it not?”
“She could make a list and arrange for Johnathan to meet with the ones
he found to his taste,” Alice’s mother enthused..
“Aye. It is perfect!” Lady Fairley cried, then turned to pat her
son’s arm soothingly as he seethed at her. “You see, dear. With Lady
Houghton’s aid, you should have a bride in no time.”
Johnathan’s only answer was a long drawn out groan.
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