Title: Venus Revealed
Summary: Adhemar finally wins Jocelyn after ten years have gone by.
Disclaimer: The characters are not mine and I don't own them in any way, shape, or form.
Notes: I'd swear nothing rated 'R' ever gets read around here. Rating changed. As with 'Measure of a Man', anything higher than PG-13 will be in full at my site.
I'm getting too old for this, Nicholas Adhemar thought, standing with an impassive face as two squires strapped his armor on. He was still mostly unbeatable in the tournament circuit, yet not nearly as much as a decade earlier. There were younger knights who wanted to win more than he and had the sheer drive and determination to unhorse him. There were always more young men wanting to make a name for themselves as Champion and possibly even emulate the legendary William Thatcher by both unhorsing Count Adhemar and winning a title. Such scandals had become common place over the years; peasant men infiltrating the tournaments and even a few deluded young girls playing at being knights. The men had been placed in the stocks and the girls sold off by their masters.
He'd bought a couple of the girls himself to work in his kitchens.
It was funny how age could shift a man's focus and make him peer back in time at the follies of his youth with a curl of disgust to his lip. He had spent a lifetime as a soldier, full of piss and vinegar, entrenched in the immoral practices of the mercenaries he'd led, fighting for the pleasure of fighting, raping on occasion and pillaging to add to his family coffers -- not that that raiding had done him any good in the long run, since his departed bitch of a wife had run through his money as fast as she could get her hands on it.
The past, his past, disgusted him. He'd squandered his youth away and had nothing to show for it but two daughters and a reputation as a hard task master. The sincere need for a male heir hit him hard in the gut daily now. His brothers had all died, then his uncles, the Angel of Death treading among the boughs of his family with war and sickness on his scythe, killing all men save Nicholas. He was the last of his line. There were not even any bastard boys left. They too had succumbed to Death's call. Who would inherit his holds when he went into the cold embrace of that hovering Angel?
Genevieve and Ana? No, girls wouldn't inherit his lands, no matter how dear they were to him. He sighed. He was not a young man any more, nor did he have the wealth left to attract a financially profitable wife. All he could truly hope for was to play the games well this season and catch the eye of some pretty young thing who could give him sons. Sons could eventually fill the coffers with profitable marriages. It was a gamble, but what in life wasn't?
His hazel gaze slid in lazy sweeps over the crown milling along the street, coming to rest on one small boy. I'm being watched. His lips twitched. How amusing.
The boy was perhaps eight years of age, dressed in fine clothes that showed just a bit of wear, as though he had played hard already that morning. The boy crossed his arms and made his way through the crowd to look up at Adhemar. Adhemar returned the stare. There was a thoughtful turn to the boy's brow. "You're a knight." He proclaimed, pride of his conclusion in his gaze.
"You're correct." Adhemar replied, studying the boy's almost fine features curiously. Something he saw there was familiar, yet he could not place him. Did he know the boy from somewhere?
"My father was a knight."
Past tense. Either the man had died, or was considerably older than the boy's mother. Either was possible, he knew. Many young women were married to men much older than they were. He was nearing that milestone himself, the old age of thirty-three upon him in a few days. Adhemar almost shuddered at the thought of being considered 'old'. He considered himself still in his prime, yet reality had to be faced. Whatever he considered himself, there were those whose opinion differed. To the world, he was an old man, and one with little to entice a wealthy family to him.
In the distance, a woman's voice, slightly frantic, could be heard calling out, "Miles! Miles!"
"Is your father here?" Adhemar enquired politely. Carrying on the conversation was the least he could do seeing as the boy had started it.
The boy sighed and glanced in the direction the woman's voice was coming from. "No. He died last year. I'm here with my mother and her maid."
"Miles! Where are you?"
Adhemar almost smiled. The boy was likely Miles, sneaking away from the two women to find some excitement near the arena. He could sympathize. As a boy, he'd craved excitement, hence his eventual career as a mercenary soldier with the Free Companies. He'd gotten all the excitement he could want there, traveling the world and fighting for whoever hired him, working himself up the ladder of the ranks until he commanded his own army of men. He'd had no true loyalty. Plain political loyalty didn't get a man paid. If England wanted him, he worked for England. If France wanted him, he worked for France. Whoever gave the biggest financial incentive. "Is that your mother calling you?"
The boy stepped closer, slipping around the squires to circle Adhemar. "No, that's just Chrissy. She worries too much. She thinks someone is going to run off with me. I'm not in any danger. You're a knight. My father once told me that knights are sworn to protect women and children from danger. You'd protect me then, if something did happen."
The urge to laugh built up in his chest, Adhemar tamping it down. Whoever his father was, he'd given the boy only the idealized chivalrous code. Most knights Adhemar knew were like him in some way: mercenary, cocky and not given to saving inquisitive young children from dangers untold. That this boy had such blind trust in him was actually somewhat flattering. "You snuck off when her back was turned I take it?"
"She was looking at girl stuff. She promised we'd come to the arena and watch the jousts, but she kept saying 'later'. Always 'later, Miles. I have shopping to do for your mother.' Like my mom couldn't shop all by herself. She's perfectly capable. I've seen her."
"Well," The squires finished with his arms, he stepped off the block and crouched down. "I understand. Girl stuff can be boring, but you shouldn't worry them unduly. Women are delicate often times and worry when there is no reason to do so. Humor them on occasion and be patient."
Miles opened his mouth to reply, expression indicating an argument on the subject was pending, but was enveloped in the teal blue fabric of a woman's cloak.
"There you are!" A woman said in an exasperated tone. " I'm sorry, my lord, he wanders off." The last word of her sentence trailed away into silence, the woman swallowing loudly.
"Get off me, Chrissy!" Miles hissed, squirming under the grip of her hands. "Let go!"
Adhemar stood, taking in the slender form and chestnut brown hair that fell straight to the woman's hips. The face was more than familiar, though a decade had passed since he'd last seen her. "Christiana."
"Count Adhemar." Her eyes wide and wary, she inclined her head a fraction. "I'm sorry if Miles was bothering you." She stood also, keeping one hand on the boy.
Miles snorted in disgust. "Bothering!"
"He wasn't bothering me. I enjoyed our brief chat." Chrissy. He should have guessed. He also should have guessed who the boy was. How could he have not realized he was Miles Thatcher? The boy's features were William Thatcher all over again.
Her gaze darted around them, taking in the tents with the Adhemar crest. "You're competing?"
He nodded, stepping a bit away from her so the final touches of his armor could be put on. "Yes. In moments actually."
Christiana took a few steps back. "Oh. Well...good luck in the tournament."
Before he could say anything more, Christiana dragged the boy away, though it was obvious Miles didn't want to leave. He dragged his heels and once even dropped himself bodily to the dust. The woman was stronger than she looked however, lifting him as though he weighed very little and carrying him away until the crowd swallowed up their progress down the street.
Adhemar permitted himself a smile at that intrusion of the past into the present. Sometimes he wondered what had become of William Thatcher and the prize he had snatched from Adhemar. Thatcher had never showed up on the tournament circuit again, dropping from that crowd to remain in London. What he did there was a guess. For all Adhemar knew, Sir William and Lady Jocelyn had lived a life of luxury at court. He'd wondered on the beauteous Jocelyn only a few times over the years, speculating his life might have turned out different if he'd managed to snare her instead of catching Rochelle's eye. Other than his private speculations though, he hadn't bothered to find out their fates.
Thatcher was dead, and Jocelyn was back in town.
He felt no satisfaction in the death of his old tournament nemesis. Thatcher had proved to be a man of decent character in the end, a man more than worthy to be called an opponent, unlike so many Adhemar had come across since then. Looking back, the passing years mellowing his view of the past, Adhemar could admit that he had been fairly beaten.
Trumpets sounded in the distance and he walked towards the arena. Germaine was there already. Time to show all that Count Adhemar could still win a match, old or not.
The things a woman has to do, Jocelyn Thatcher reflected, slipping into the chair she had been led to. On her brother's orders, she'd dressed in the most fashionable and sensational gown and surcoat she had left in her wardrobe. She was to be all sweetness and light and enticing femininity. For years, she'd managed to avoid the full restrictions placed upon women, those horrid man's commands such as being silent and adoring to her lord and master and keeping her opinions in her own mind. Her father had often been amused by his forward daughter, encouraging her to use her mind. He delighted in provoking her, much to her brother Thomas' dismay. Thomas was of the school of thought that a woman was supposed to be a pretty object useful only to bear sons.
With Will gone, Jocelyn had no choice but to do as Thomas told her. He was her closest living male relative. Her friends, all save Christiana, were gone. The home and wealth Will had built for them seized by Thomas to add to his own coffers. Technically, her son Miles should have inherited it all upon Will's death, but Thomas was adept at finding ways around those troublesome legal matters that would normally keep him from taking that wealth.
Jocelyn was bereft and dependent on Thomas for her well being. Not a good thing with a brother who hated his only sister. She was to find a man and marry him. Or rather, Thomas was to find her a man and marry her to him. She would have little say in the choice, but Thomas' malice towards her indicated he'd pick the most loathsome specimens he could find at tournament. And there were several men here that Jocelyn would as soon slit her own throat than wed.
The tables were filling up for this banquet. Christiana had opted not to come with her, insisting she didn't trust Thomas' servants to watch Miles. Jocelyn's gaze roamed the tabletop, seeing, but not registering, the fancy centerpieces at precisely figured intervals and the elaborate place settings. Christiana missed her own children and her husband, it was painfully clear. She and Roland had been blessed with three boys and one girl over nine years, but when Thomas had come and begun mistreating the entire staff, Roland had acted as peacemaker, staying as long as he could before, like the rest, he left. He'd taken their children and now resided at one of Princess Joan's homes in England, taken in because Will was fondly remembered by the Princess. Any servant of his was welcome.
Christiana wouldn't leave Jocelyn. She'd refused. Having grown up with Jocelyn, she knew the depths to which Thomas would go in his hatred and wouldn't abandon her mistress to that.
Jocelyn blinked back tears, plastering a tiny smile on her lips should Thomas be watching her. Friendship. Over the years, Christiana had become more than a maid. She'd become a trusted friend and now Jocelyn knew the full measure of friendship. She also understood why the others had gone when they did.
Wat, not one to keep silent in his opinions, would have seen the stocks within a week of Thomas' arrival. Indeed, that first day had seen him at the very limits of his restraint and he'd had to be physically restrained to keep him from seeking Thomas out and bludgeoning him to within an inch of his life. Jocelyn didn't know where he'd gone, but Roland had seemed to have some idea, insisting Wat could be called back should circumstances improve. Kate had left soon after, ending up in the Chaucer residence, a home run by Philippa, Geoff's wife. Roland was the last to go.
A familiar voice intruded upon her thoughts, a voice she'd not heard in years. She looked at the seat beside her, unsurprised that the banquet host had chosen to seat her with Count Adhemar. Her smile faltered, but only a bit. "Count Adhemar." It amazed her that after a full decade had passed, some people still hoped for a last gasp of scandal from them. She and Adhemar were on display. Their seats, at the very end of one long table, were set apart from their table companions by one of those large centerpieces she'd glanced over moments earlier. They were to share a cup and be gossip fodder for all who watched.
"The years have been kind to you. The bloom of girlhood still lingers on your cheeks."
It could not be said that he lied to her of her beauty. Jocelyn was well aware that she still compared favorably to the young women she saw here. However, that fresh bloom of girlhood had long ago faded and she knew it. Her hair was artfully arranged to hide the strands of silver slowly lightening the raven tresses and treasured cosmetics hid the wear on skin that was ten years older than the last time he'd seen her. No, he didn't lie exactly.
A servant girl filled their cup with wine and moved across the room towards Thomas' table. At him, she paused. Jocelyn saw her brother look their way and quickly redirected her own gaze at her companion. "Your tongue has grown silver. I don't recall such compliments slipping from you years ago."
A mirthless smile tugged the corners of his mouth up. "As we mature, we develop the skills we need for survival, do we not?"
"That we do." She had to agree there. Survival was utmost in her thoughts much of late. She had once thought her fairy tale ending would last forever, but had woken from that ideal dream most rudely with the play half over and her prince dead. Survival was what got her through each day now and survival would carry her on.
Adhemar was only a little changed himself. Surreptitiously, Jocelyn studied him. There were tiny lines beside his eyes, possibly laugh lines, though she couldn't imagine him laughing except in mocking amusement. The change that startled her the most though, was in his eyes. There was a weariness there that she hadn't seen before, a resignation. It was as though he too, was merely surviving and no longer truly living.
As dishes of food were brought out, she tried to remember what she'd heard about him over the years. He'd married Rochelle de Puis, had two daughters and.... What? What else was there? She smoothed her skirts as she thought on the matter. Rochelle had died, the rumors surrounding the woman making Jocelyn sick to her stomach. Apparently, Rochelle had only been concerned with her pleasures. Motherhood was not for her. She chose to go to court and gorge herself on food, wine and men, leaving her family at home. Her sexual depravities were sickening.
Adhemar began dishing up their food. She watched his lean hands work at slicing off the choicest bits of meat and set them on her plate. "I heard of your wife's death. I'm sorry she died."
"I'm not." He paused and Jocelyn realized her disbelief must be fully displayed on her face. "Don't look so shocked, Lady Jocelyn. My marriage was purely a political alliance. Rochelle and I barely tolerated each other long enough for her to give me two daughters. I'm not even certain they're really mine. Thankfully, she kept herself to dark haired lovers." The dish was passed and the next brought. "She went off to court, leaving two young babies at home with me, picked up some exotic disease from an ill-chosen lover, then died of it."
It wasn't that he didn't appear upset in the slightest about his wife's death that shocked her, but that he was so cheerfully cavalier about it.
"The rumors of my thankfully departed wife are all true. Every last one. She was a bitchy, vengeful, scheming, promiscuous spendthrift and I'd have to be daft to be sorry she's dead."
Jocelyn sipped from their cup, wiped where her lips had touched the rim with a cloth. She couldn't hide her amazement and didn't try. "I'm surprised you put up with her behavior. I didn't think you the sort of man to sit back and just let your wife cuckold you."
"What else could I do?" He scooted her plate close to her. "In a political alliance, the one who needs the alliance the most has the least power, and as of that fall.... I needed the alliance most desperately. With Edward sick and becoming increasingly irrational from that sickness the Free Companies weren't likely to be paid by him. The war in Castille cost him quite a bit of money. I needed political favor from somewhere and Rochelle's family was rather active in Charles' court. She was pretty and it wasn't until we were wed that I found out they'd married her to me to keep her from going through all their money."
"Charming." As he spoke, the bud of an idea began to form in her mind, blossoming forth a solution for her dilemma, one that she knew Christiana would be horrified at.
He took a bite, chewed and swallowed. "And what of you? I heard only today that your husband is dead."
Jocelyn tried the meat, then the pudding, mulling over her answer. If she planned it right, she could thwart Thomas at his own game and still come out as mistress of her own destiny, with her life intact. The more she thought on the plan, the better she liked it. She'd cheated destiny once before, maneuvering events as best she could for the outcome she wanted, so why not do it again? Why did she have to sit back while Thomas directed her life?
"I, Count, am in the market for a husband."
Adhemar's gaze lifted from his plate, darting to her with a nonchalant air. In those hazel orbs, she saw the spark of interest she'd been hoping for.
Jocelyn smiled her first genuine smile in weeks. The hunt was on.