A Knight in Shining Armor: Chapter 30

Nicholas leaned back on the bench and watched Dougless playing with his son. The sun was bright, the air heavy with the scent of roses, and as far as Nicholas could tell, all was perfect in the world. It had been three days since she’d taken the boy off the peg and out of swaddling, and during those three days the child had spent a great deal of time with them. But then so had many people spent time with them. Nicholas was amazed to discover how much Dougless had involved herself in in the short time she’d been with the Stafford family. Early mornings she “rehearsed,” as she called it, with the fat heiress, and yesterday she and the heiress had put on a ridiculous play while wearing even more ridiculous peasant clothes. They had sung a song about “Travelin’ along, singin’ a song . . . ,” then told jokes that bordered on blasphemy.

Throughout the play, Nicholas had refused to laugh, because he knew she had done this work for Kit. She had even told Nicholas so. The rest of his family had laughed uproariously at the play, but Nicholas refused to do so.

Later, when he got her alone, she had laughed at him and accused him of being jealous. Jealous? Nicholas Stafford jealous? He could have any woman he wanted, so why should he be jealous? She had smiled so knowingly that, to stop her, he had grabbed her to him and kissed her until she couldn’t remember her own name, much less think of another man.

Now, leaning back against the garden wall and watching her toss a ball to his son, he felt at peace. Was this love? he wondered. Was this the love that the troubadours sang of? How could he be in love with a woman he hadn’t taken to bed? Once he’d thought he was in love with a half-gypsy girl who had done splendid things to his body. But with this Dougless all they did was talk—and laugh.

She had nagged him so much about the sketches she’d found while snooping in his belongings that he had started making new drawings. Kit had told Nicholas that he could begin building Thornwyck Castle in the spring.

During their days spent together, he and Dougless talked and sang together, rode, and walked. And he found himself telling her things about himself that he had never told another soul.

Two days ago a portrait painter had come to the Stafford household and Nicholas had commissioned him to paint a miniature oil of Dougless. It should be finished soon.

Looking at her now, he was beginning to wonder if he could live without her. But, regularly, she mentioned leaving. She talked about what he must do when she was gone. She talked of cleanliness until he could bear no more, but she kept saying cleanliness was of utmost importance.

When she was gone. He couldn’t bear to think of not being with her. Many times during the day he’d found himself thinking, I must tell Dougless that. She said that in her time men and women were partners and they shared thoughts and ideas. He knew his mother’s last husband had often asked Lady Margaret’s opinion, but he couldn’t remember his stepfather saying, “How was your day?” as Dougless asked.

And there was the child. The child was a bother, of course, but there were times when he enjoyed the boy’s smiles. The boy looked up at Nicholas as though his father were a god. Yesterday Nicholas had taken the boy into the saddle before him, and the child’s squeals of laughter had made Nicholas smile.

Suddenly Dougless laughed at something the boy did and brought Nicholas back to the present. The sunlight was shining on her hair, but then the sunlight seemed to come out only when she was near. He wanted to touch her, hold her, make love to her, but the threat of her disappearance kept him from pulling her into his bed. Oh, he kissed her when he could and touched every part of her body he could reach. They snuggled together in the evenings, alone in some deserted nook, and watched the firelight or the stars out an open window. He touched her and held her, but they went no further. The possibility of her leaving was too great for him to risk.

A boy came to tell Nicholas that Lady Margaret wanted to see him, so, reluctantly, he left the garden and went into the house.

His mother awaited him in her private closet off her bedchamber.

“Have you told her?” Lady Margaret asked, her face stern.

Nicholas didn’t have to be told what she meant. “Nay, I have not.”

“Nicholas, this has gone too far. I have been lenient with the woman because she saved Kit’s life, but your behavior . . .” She trailed off because there was no need to say more.

Nicholas went to the window, opened it, and looked down into the garden. He could just see Dougless below. “I would spend my life with the Montgomery woman,” he said softly.

Lady Margaret slammed the window shut and glared at her son. She had eyes that could pierce a man. “You cannot. The dowry for Lettice Culpin has been accepted and part of it spent to buy sheep. The woman brings land with her and a good name. Your children will be related to the throne. You cannot throw that away for this woman who is nothing.”

“She is all to me.”

Lady Margaret glared at him. “She is nothing. Two days ago the rider returned from Lanconia. There is no Montgomery king. This Dougless Montgomery is no more than a fast-tongued—”

“Say no more,” Nicholas said, cutting her off. “I have never believed her to be of royal blood, but she has come to mean more to me than bloodlines and property.”

Lady Margaret groaned. “Do you think you are the first to love? When I was a girl, I loved my cousin, so I refused to marry your father. My mother beat me until I was willing.” She narrowed her eyes at Nicholas. “And she was right. Your father gave me two sons who lived to manhood, while my cousin gambled his fortune away.”

“Dougless is not likely to gamble my fortune away.”

“Nor will she increase your fortune!” Lady Margaret calmed herself. “What ails you? Kit is to marry a fat child, while you are to marry one of the great beauties of England. Lettice is much more beautiful than the Montgomery woman.”

“What do I care for money and beauty? Lettice has a heart of stone. She marries me, a younger son, only for my connection to the throne. Let her find another who will overlook her lack of warmth and will see only the perfection of her face.”

“You mean to unkiss this bargain? You will break your betrothal?” Lady Margaret was aghast.

“How can I marry one woman when another owns my heart?”

Lady Margaret gave a derisive snort of laughter. “I did not raise you to be a fool. Keep the Montgomery woman after your marriage. Make her a maid to your wife. I cannot believe Lettice will mind that you do not go to her every night. Get Lettice with child, then go to your Montgomery woman. It was an arrangement my second husband had, and I did not mind. Although he gave his woman three children and me only one and that one died,” she added bitterly.

Nicholas turned away from his mother. “I do not believe Dougless would agree to such an arrangement. In her country I do not believe such things are done.”

“Her country? Where is this country of hers? It is not Lanconia. Where does she get these games and amusements? Where do these strange implements she carries come from? She adds on a machine. She has pills that are magic. Is she from the devil? Do you wish to cohabit with one of the devil’s own?”

“She is no witch. She’s from—” He stopped and looked at his mother. He could not tell her the truth about Dougless. Dougless had made a remark about the household loving her now because she had saved Kit, but that it would soon cease.

Lady Margaret glared at her son. “Do you sell yourself to her? Do you believe whatever story she tells you? The woman is a liar and . . .”

She hesitated. “She interferes too much. She has you drawing houses like a tradesman. She has the girl Kit is to marry dressing like a peasant. She takes children from the nursery. She teaches the servant children to read and write—as though that were needed. She—”

“But you have encouraged all of this,” Nicholas said in astonishment. “I was the one who preached caution when she came. You took the tablet she offered.”

“Aye, I did. I was much amused by her at first. And I would be amused now were not my youngest son thinking himself in love with her.” Lady Margaret softened and put her hand on Nicholas’s arm. “Love God, love your children when they are grown if you must, but do not give your love to a lying woman. What does she want from you? What does she want from all of us? Listen to me, Nicholas, beware of her. She changes too much in our family. She wants something.”

“No,” Nicholas said softly. “She wants naught but to help. She has been sent—”

“Sent? She has been sent here by whom? Who sent her? What can she gain?” Lady Margaret’s eyes widened. “Kit said men tried to pull him under when he nearly drowned. Did the Montgomery woman arrange to have him drowned, then pretend to save him? Such a trick would gain her much in our family. Or mayhap she meant for him to die. Twere Kit dead, you would be earl and she has you in her palm.”

“No, no, no,” Nicholas said. “Her character is not like that. She did not know about Kit because I had lied to her about the door at Bellwood.”

Lady Margaret’s handsome face showed her confusion at his words. “What do you know of her?”

“Naught. I know naught bad of her. You must believe me, the woman wants only good for us. She has no evil intent.”

“Then why does she want to prevent your marriage?”

“She does not,” Nicholas said, but turned away. When he had first met Dougless, she had said several derogatory things about Lettice, but lately she had said nothing. Nicholas realized his mother’s words were making him doubt Dougless.

Lady Margaret moved to stand before her son. “Does the Montgomery woman love you?” she asked softly.

“Aye, she does,” he answered.

“Then she will want what is best for you. And Lettice Culpin is best. The Montgomery woman must see that she can bring no dowry to the marriage. She has lied about having an uncle who is king, so I doubt if she has any relative who matters. What is she? The daughter of a tradesman?”

“Her father teaches.”

“Ah,” Lady Margaret said. “The truth at last. What can she offer the Stafford family? She has nothing.” She put her hand on Nicholas’s arm. “I do not ask you to give her up. She will stay in this house with you, or go with you and your wife. Breed with the woman. Love her. Make free with her.” Her face became stern again. “But you cannot make her your wife. Do you understand me? Staffords do not marry the penniless daughters of teachers.”

“I understand full well, madam,” Nicholas said, eyes dark with anger. “I, more than anyone, feel the weight of my family’s name on my shoulders. I will do my duty and marry the beauteous, coldhearted Lettice.”

“Good,” Lady Margaret said, then lowered her voice. “I should hate for something to happen to the Montgomery woman. I have grown fond of her.”

Nicholas stared at his mother for a moment, then turned and left the room. He stalked angrily to his bedchamber, and there, alone, he leaned against the door and closed his eyes. His mother’s words had been clear enough: do your duty and marry Lettice Culpin or “something” will happen to Dougless. Even as he thought the words, he knew how Dougless would react to his marrying another woman. Dougless would not remain in his household to wait on his wife.

To lose Dougless and gain Lettice, he thought. To trade Dougless’s eyes of love for Lettice’s cold, calculating eyes. The first time he had met Lettice, he had been taken with her beauty. Dark eyes, dark hair, full red lips. But Nicholas had been around enough beautiful women that he was soon able to see beneath her beauty. She walked about the Stafford household, her eyes on gold vessels, tallying them, her mind like a scale, weighing how much gold the Staffords owned, how much silver.

Nicholas had tried to seduce the woman, but had failed. He had failed, not because Lettice was unwilling, but because she was uninterested. Kissing Lettice was like kissing warm marble.

Duty, he thought. His duty was to marry the woman who had more money, the woman with the bluest blood. “Dougless,” he whispered, then closed his eyes.

Tonight he must tell her, he thought. Tonight he had to tell Dougless of his impending marriage. He could put it off no longer.


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