A Knight in Shining Armor: Chapter 31


You can’t marry her,” Dougless said quite calmly.

“My love,” Nicholas said, walking toward her, his hands outstretched.

He had asked her to go riding with him, then had taken her to a neighboring estate where there was a mature maze in the garden. The hedges were twelve feet tall, and the way in and out was complicated. He knew she didn’t know her way out of the maze and therefore she was less likely to run from him when he told her what he had to.

“I must marry her,” Nicholas said. “It is my duty to my family.”

Dougless told herself to remain calm. She told herself that she had a job to do, and that she must explain to Nicholas why he couldn’t marry Lettice. But when faced with having the man she loved tell her he was going to marry another, logic fled.

“Duty?” she said through her teeth. “No doubt it’s a great hardship for you to marry a beautiful babe like Lettice. I’ll just bet you’re dreading it. And I guess you want me too. Is that it? A wife and a lover? Only I can’t be your lover, can I?” She glared at him. “Or maybe I can be. If I went to bed with you, would that keep you from marrying that evil woman?”

Nicholas was moving toward her, trying to take her in his arms, but he halted. “Evil? Lettice is greedy perhaps, but evil?”

Dougless’s fists were clenched at her side. “What do you know of evil? You men are all alike no matter when you were born. All you can see is the outside of a person. If a woman is beautiful, she can have any man she wants, no matter how rotten she is inside. And if a woman is ugly, nothing else matters.”

Nicholas dropped his hands; his eyes were angry. “Aye, that is all that interests me. I care naught for duty or family or for the woman I love. Tearing the clothes from Lettice’s divine body is all that interests me.”

Dougless gasped, feeling as though he’d slapped her. She wanted to leave the maze, but she knew she didn’t know the way out. She turned back to him. Anger was holding her upright, but, quite suddenly, the anger left her. She collapsed on a bench, her face in her hands. “Oh, God,” she whispered.

Nicholas sat beside her and pulled her into his arms, holding her while she cried against his chest. “The marriage is something I must do. It has been arranged. I do not wish it, not now, not since I have you, but it is what I must do. Were something to befall Kit, I would be earl and it is my duty to produce an heir.”

“Lettice can’t bave chilled,” Dougless said against his chest.

He pulled a handkerchief from inside his slops. “What?”

Dougless blew her nose. “Lettice can’t have children.”

“How do you know of this?”

“Lettice was the one who caused your execution. Oh, Nicholas, please don’t marry her. You can’t marry her. She will kill you.” Dougless was calming somewhat, and beginning to remember what she must tell him. “I was going to tell you, but I thought we would have more time together. I wanted you to trust me more before I told you. I know how much you love Lettice, and—”

“Love her? I love Lettice Culpin? Who has told you this?”

“You did. You told me she’s one of the major reasons you wanted to return to the sixteenth century, because you loved her so very much.”

Pulling away from her, he stood up. “I came to love her?”

Dougless sniffed and blew her nose again. “When you came to me, you’d been married to her for four years.”

“It would take more than four years to make me love that woman,” Nicholas muttered.

“What?”

“Tell me more of this love I bore for my wife.”

There was a knot in Dougless’s throat, so she had difficulty speaking, but she did her best to explain all that he’d said to her. He questioned her thoroughly, asking about their last days together. Dougless held on to one of his big hands with both of hers while she answered his questions.

At last he put his fingertips under her chin and lifted her face. “When I was with you before, I knew I must return. Perhaps I did not want to cause you pain when I left. Perhaps I meant to prevent your loving a man who would not stay.”

Dougless’s eyes widened, tears sparkling. “You said that,” she whispered. “On our last night together, you said you wouldn’t touch me because I’d grieve too much for you.”

Smiling at her, he smoothed a damp tendril of hair away from her face. “I could not love Lettice were I to live with her a thousand years.”

“Oh, Nicholas,” she said, then threw her arms around his neck and began kissing him. “I knew you’d do the right thing. I knew you wouldn’t marry her. Now everything will come out right. You won’t be executed because Lettice won’t have any reason to try to kill you or Kit. And she won’t get hooked up with Robert Sydney because Arabella hasn’t had your baby. Oh, Nicholas, I knew you wouldn’t marry her.”

Nicholas pulled her arms from around him and held her hands, his eyes locked with hers. “I am pledged to marry Lettice, and I shall leave for the marriage in three days’ time.” When Dougless struggled for release, he held her hands firmly. “My way is not yours. My time is not the same as yours, and I have not the freedom you have. I cannot marry to suit myself only.”

He leaned closer to her and put his lips to her cheek. “You must understand me. My marriage was arranged years ago, and it is a good alliance. My wife will bring property and relatives into the Stafford family.”

“Will this property and these relatives help you when the axman removes your head?” she asked angrily. “Will you go to your death thinking how good this marriage was?”

“You must tell me all. What you tell me will help me prevent an accusation of treason.”

She jerked out of his grasp, then walked to the far side of the grassed area at the heart of the maze. “You’ll be able to prevent your execution as well as you could have prevented Kit’s drowning. If I hadn’t been here, your brother would be dead and your lovely Lettice would be marrying an earl.”

A smile twitched at the corners of Nicholas’s mouth. “Were I the earl, I would not marry Lettice. No doubt my mother would marry me to your fat Lucy.”

“You did marry Lettice after you became the earl. Maybe you owed her something and had to marry her.”

“Ah, yes, the sheep,” Nicholas said, smiling.

“You can laugh at me if you want, but I can assure you that when you came to me, you weren’t laughing. Facing an executioner’s ax doesn’t make a person feel jovial.”

Nicholas sobered. “Nay, it would not. You would tell me of Lettice? Tell me all that you know?”

Dougless sat down on the bench, at the far end from him, away from his touch. As she stared ahead at the green wall of trimmed hedge, she didn’t look at him.

She started slowly, at the very beginning, telling him of reading Lady Margaret’s papers that were found in a hole in a wall. She told how Nicholas had finagled an invitation into the Harewood’s home, where they’d met Lee and Arabella.

“We read the papers and asked questions all weekend, but we found out little. In the end you drew your sword on Lee and he told you that the traitor’s name was Robert Sydney. You and I both thought you’d return to this century after that, but you didn’t. You stayed.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “After that, we had a wonderful time together, but then we . . .” The pain of that morning in the church when Nicholas had disappeared was still fresh. “We made love and the next day you went back. Later I found out you’d been executed.”

She drew a deep breath and told him more. She told of afterward meeting Lee, and Lee’s telling her of finding Lady Margaret’s account of the truth of what had happened, the truth that became known only after Nicholas’s death.

She told how Lettice had planned to marry a Stafford, produce an heir, and put the child on the throne of England. She repeated Lady Margaret’s belief that Lettice had had Kit killed so she’d be marrying an earl instead of a younger son.

“After you married her, she tried to persuade you to raise yourself at court. She wanted to gain as many people to back her as possible, but you refused.”

“I do not like court,” Nicholas said. “Too many people conspire against one another.”

She turned to look at him. “You refused to stay at court with your wife, so she tried to kill you. When I met you, you had a long, deep scar on your calf where you had fallen from a horse about a year after your marriage. Your mother wrote that you had many ‘accidents’ after your marriage.”

When Nicholas didn’t speak, Dougless continued. She told him that Lettice had begun to look for someone to help rid her of Nicholas and she’d found Robert Sydney. “He hated you for being his wife’s lover and impregnating her. Lady Margaret thinks he killed both Arabella and the baby.”

“But this time I did not impregnate Arabella,” Nicholas said softly.

“True,” Dougless said, smiling, then continued. “When you started to raise an army to fight in Wales, it was easy for Lettice to get Robert to tell the queen it was treason. Queen Elizabeth was jittery about Mary of Scotland anyway, and maybe she’d heard rumors that the Staffords were considering joining with Mary.”

Dougless looked at him, at his beautiful face, at his blue eyes. She reached out her hand and put her palm on his soft, dark beard. “They cut off your head,” she whispered, blinking back tears.

Nicholas kissed her palm.

Dougless dropped her hand and looked away. “After your . . . death, Robert Sydney blackmailed Lettice into marrying him. He wanted to put his own child on the throne, only the beauteous Lettice, the woman a man had died for, was barren. She could have no children.”

Dougless grimaced. “Lee said it was all ironic. Lettice destroyed the Stafford family for a child she would never have.”

There was silence between them for a while.

“And what of my mother?”

She looked back at him. “The queen confiscated all that the Staffords owned, and Robert Sydney married her to Dickie Harewood.”

“Harewood?!” Nicholas said with disgust.

“It was either that or starve to death. The queen gave Sydney a couple of your estates, then someone pushed your mother down a flight of stairs and broke her neck.”

She paused at Nicholas’s intake of breath. “After that there were no more Staffords. Lettice had managed to wipe out all of you.”

When she turned back to look at him, his face was pale.

Nicholas got up and walked toward the hedge. He stood in silence for a while, thinking over her words, then turned back to her. “What you say could have happened once but could not now.”

She understood what he was saying, that now it would be all right to marry Lettice. Anger began to swell her veins. “You wouldn’t be such a fool to marry her after what I’ve told you, would you?”

“But your story could not happen now. Arabella does not carry my child, so Robin has no reason to hate me. Kit is alive, so I have no reason to raise an army, and if Kit must raise the army, you will be assured that I will petition the queen’s permission.”

Dougless came to her feet. “Nicholas, don’t you understand that you don’t know the future? When you were in my time, the books said you had died three days before your execution. After you returned, the books told of your execution. History is so very easy to change. If you marry Lettice, when I return will I read that Kit was killed another way? That maybe Lettice came up with another way to have you executed? Maybe she’ll find someone else to help her. I’m sure there are other men with pretty wives who hate you.”

Nicholas smiled at the last. “A man or two.”

“You’re laughing at me! I am talking life and death, and you stand there laughing at me.”

He pulled Dougless’s rigid body into his arms. “My love, it is good that you care so much, and it is good that you have warned me. I will be cautious from now on.”

She pushed away from him. Her voice and body showed her anger. “You are thinking like a man,” she accused. “You think that no woman could ever really do you harm, don’t you? I tell you all of this, and you chuckle at me. Why not wink at me and pat me on the head as well? Why not tell me to go back to my sewing and leave men things, like life and death, to males who are capable of understanding?”

“Dougless, please,” he said, reaching out his hands.

“Don’t you touch me. Save your touches for your lovely Lettice. Tell me, is she so beautiful that she’s worth all the tragedy that she’ll cause? Your death, Kit’s death, your mother’s death, the end of the noble Stafford family?”

Nicholas let his arms fall to his side. “Do you not see that I have no choice? Am I to tell my family and the Culpins I must break the betrothal because a woman from the future says my bride might kill all of the Staffords? I would be considered a fool and you . . . you would not be treated well.”

“You risk everything because of what people might say?”

Nicholas searched for a way to explain what must be so that she could understand. “In your time do you not contract bargains? Legal bargains on paper?”

“Of course. We have contracts for everything. We even have marriage contracts but marriages should be made for love, not—”

“My class does not marry for love. We cannot. Look you about. See the wealth of this house? This is but one house my family owns. These riches have come to us because my ancestors married for estate, not for love. My grandfather married a shrew of a woman, but she brought three houses with her and much plate.”

“Nicholas, I understand the theory, but marriage is so . . . so intimate. It’s not like signing a contract to do some work for someone. Marriage has to do with love and children, and a home and safety, and having a friend.”

“So you live in poverty with the one you love. Does this love feed you, clothe you, keep you warm in winter? There is more to marriage than what you say. You are poor, so you cannot understand.”

Her eyes blazed. “For your information I am not poor. Not by a long shot. My family is very rich. Lots of money. But just because my family has money doesn’t mean I don’t want love, or that I’d sell myself to the highest bidder.”

“How did your family obtain its wealth?” he asked softly.

“I don’t know. We’ve had it forever. My father said that our ancestors married—” She broke off and looked at him with wide eyes.

“Your ancestors married who?”

“Nothing. It was a joke. He didn’t mean anything.”

“Who?” Nicholas asked.

“Rich women,” she said angrily. “He said our ancestors were quite good at marrying rich women.”

Nicholas said nothing, just stood there looking at her.

Her anger left her and she went to him, putting her arms about his waist, holding him tightly. “Marry for money,” she said. “Marry the richest woman in the world, but please don’t marry Lettice. She is bad. She’ll hurt you, Nicholas, hurt all of you.”

Nicholas pushed her out to arm’s length to look into her eyes. “Lettice Culpin is the highest I can hope for. I am a younger son, a mere knight. I have naught but what Kit allows me. I am fortunate he is so generous as to allow me to live at his expense. The lands Lettice brings to this family will benefit us all. How can I not do this for a brother who has given me so much?”

“Lettice isn’t the best you can hope for. Lots of women like you. You can get someone else. If you have to marry someone for money, we’ll find her. Somebody rich but not ambitious like Lettice.”

Nicholas smiled down at her. “Having a woman in bed is not the same as a marriage alliance. You must trust me on this. Lettice is a good match for me. No, do not frown. I will be safe. Do you not see? The danger of her is in not knowing. Now that I know, I can save my family and myself.”

“If she finds out that you aren’t interested in overthrowing the queen or even in going to court, perhaps she will break the engagement.”

“For all that she is related to the Throne and has money, her family is not so old as mine. If what you say about her plans is true, she will not release me. What woman does not believe that she can bend a man to her will?”

“Then she’s going to kill you,” Dougless said. “Are you going to check every saddle cinch to see if it’s been cut? What about poison in your food? What about a wire stretched across the stairs? What if she hires thugs to beat you up? What about drowning? Burning?”

He chuckled in a patronizing way. “I am pleased you care. You shall help me keep watch.”

“Me?” She pulled away from him. “Me?”

“Aye. You shall stay in my household.” He gave her a look through his lashes. “You shall attend to my wife.”

It took Dougless a moment to react. “Attend to your wife?” she said evenly. “You mean like help her dress, check that her bathwater isn’t too hot? That sort of thing?”

Her calm tone didn’t fool him. “Dougless, my love, my one and only love, it will not be so bad. We will spend much time together.”

“Do we spend the time together with or without a permission slip from your wife?”

“Dougless,” he pleaded.

“You can ask this of me after the way you talked about my living with Robert? At least with Robert I was his only woman. But you . . . you’re asking me to wait on that . . . that killer! What am I supposed to do at night while you’re trying to produce an heir with her?”

Nicholas stiffened. “You cannot ask me to be celibate. You say you cannot share my bed for fear of returning.”

“Oh, I see, I can be celibate; that’s perfectly okay. But you, Mr. Macho Stud, you have to have a different woman every night. What do you do on the nights when Lettice tells you no? Chase the maids into the arbor?”

“You may not speak to me like this,” he said, his eyes darkening with anger.

“Oh, I can’t, can’t I? If someone travels four hundred years just to warn another person, and that person won’t listen for no reason except his own vanity, then the party of the first part can say any damn thing she pleases. Go ahead, marry Lettice, see if I care. Kill Kit. Kill your mother. Lose your estates you think are so bloody valuable. Lose your head!”

She shouted the last part, then pushed past him and ran through the maze, tears blinding her.

She was lost within three minutes and she just stood where she was crying. Maybe a person couldn’t change history. Maybe it was predestined that Kit was going to die and Nicholas was going to be executed. Maybe it was never meant that the Stafford family should continue to live. Maybe no one could change what was going to happen.

Nicholas came to her, but he didn’t speak, and Dougless was glad. She knew that mere words would not change what each felt must be done. Silently, she followed him out of the maze.


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