Part 24

Love stories such as theirs—why, they would never be forgotten.

Since the grand triumph of the army, the earl of Leicester who had been gone years from the queen's life it seemed, dined with Elizabeth each day. When he came to the queen's privy chambers, Blair learned to take him to the queen immediately. The guards who had been used to Essex's presence the past months slowly grew used and familiar once again to Robert Dudley. Elizabeth's face returned to how it was as a young woman, and Blair could imagine this plain and simple beauty as she bloomed like a flower under her childhood friend's careful eyes.

"It is a grand love," the ladies whispered behind their fans.

Leicester was an old man, not half as virile as Essex. Yet in his presence, Essex to the queen was but a shadow. It seemed even the creases on his face, the lines at the corners of his lips and eyes, were a map of all the stories he and the queen knew and everyone around them did not.

"Is it a grand love," she asked, "when she did not marry him?"

Blair had married Chuck, and Chuck had married her. She had sailed away on Walsingham's mission for her love of him, for the pain he wrought. And he had sailed across the Channel to be with her.

"He married another woman," Blair reasoned. Surely that meant Leicester and the queen were not as devoted to the other as she was the Chuck and he to her. She could imagine lying with no other man than her husband. "That is not love."

But they were such tender touches the queen gave Robert Dudley, such gentle words.

"There were few moments sparse within these decades past, but they were moments I shall remember until I die," the queen confessed to her softly when Leicester left for the night. And the look in her majesty's eyes told her that perhaps marriage was not the end or the beginning of a love affair. "There are many of those who wed each other who cannot contend with the love I have for Robert."

When she told her husband of this odd love, she asked, "Is it love, Chuck, when they can bear years without?" He met her gaze sadly. "I cannot bear a day without you," she said.

"They cannot be together," he answered. "Whereas you and I can run away as soon as you say."

They were little reminders that sounded like little accusations. "The queen—"

"With the reminder of her childhood love, I wager she would happily send you home to care for a babe."

There were few months to cherish, and she would remember every day she served the queen. Once the child was large enough in her belly that she was heavy and distended, the queen would ask her to leave the service. It had happened before with all the queen's favorite ladies. Elizabeth especially abhorred the sight of a child-bearing lady when she carried the babe of one of her courtiers.

"Tell her naught," she had pleaded with her husband.

And the simple request had imploded into their first bitter argument since Spain. He had taken her words, twisted it so even to her own ears she was such an uncaring mother.

"Naught? I shall not hide away my babe like a bastard whelp," he hissed.

It had been the first that he were truly angered by her, and she feared him, feared what he would do, if he should leave. "I ask for two moons, perhaps one," she argued. "Soon even my finest gowns can not hide the babe. Give me these two moons to be the queen's lady and we shall retire to your dank and ancient castle!"

She knew the words would hurt, but he had hurt her first with his accusing tone. But they had dreamed abed of a life in Warwick, and he had built up the fantasy of Kenilworth castle and its moats, had funneled gold into its restoration so it would be habitable once again by the countess of Warwick and their coming child.

He turned away from her, to look out the window of the chambers they now shared. But it was she who had spat out with intentional hurt, so she lowered her voice and said softly, "Chuck—"

"Perhaps," he said, his voice cool and hard as flint, "I should oversee the preparations in Kenilworth. I would not wish you to arrive to a pathetic excuse of a castle when it is the pomp of the courts you truly adore."

Her heart sank at the prospect. Incarceration in London, Isabella and Philip in Spain, and an attempted abortion in France did not drive a wedge between them. Yet now he chose to abandon her at court after their own heated outburst.

"I wish you would not," she said.

Eric took them a platter of meats and pastries in their chambers, and Dorota came to help Blair out of the gown that hid her child from the queen. When Dorota walked in with her nightgown, Blair waited in front of the mirror, her head inclined. She studied herself in her shift and was entranced by the swell of her belly. She placed a hand over the curve of her abdomen and silently greeted the child within.

Behind her, he stopped and held out the nightgown that Dorota had brought. They were alone now, and Blair raised her arms as he worked to lace the gown to cover her from the cool air. She lay abed and he had left the platter of food in his place. Blair followed his form as he left their chambers without a goodbye.

She imagined his arms around her in the night, yet come morning she woke alone. Her arm reached for his side of the bed and she found it warm and rumpled, and comforted herself in the knowledge that he had slept beside her.

She fought tears throughout the day. She imagined her bed cooling, and the large bedchambers so lonely if he truly left her for Warwick. But she had lashed at Kenilworth and lashed at their dreams, and deserved to be abandoned for it.

Leicester arrived by the end of the day, and the old man looked to her to be in pain. Blair rushed to his side and he, like the old knight he was, strode like he was unaffected. Halfway across he clutched at Blair arm, and the weight of him dragged her down. She was unprepared for the collapse, and Blair found herself falling to her knees right by Leicester's side. She called to another one of the queen's ladies for help.

Blair watched, from the other side of the curtains, when Leicester took her majesty's hand and kissed the back of it. They were silhouettes, both of them. From the other side she and the rest of the ladies saw Elizabeth rise from her gilded chair and throw her arms around the old lord.

"He has been sent to Buxton to heal," said one of the ladies.

"Look," another whispered.

The shadowed figures drew together, their mouths locked in an intimate kiss. Blair gasped, then turned her back on the two. She waved a hand to instruct the rest of the ladies to do the same. When finally, the earl of Leicester hobbled out of the queen's chambers to be assisted by his squire, Blair turned around and caught, from the swaying edges of the curtain, the face of the queen.

She would have the same desolation that night. She reluctantly returned to her chambers and opened the door to the dark emptiness. Blair lit a candle for what little light it could provide. She looked up at her sad reflection in the mirror and her hands rose to undo the laces of her gown.

He came to her from behind. When his face appeared over her shoulder she sobbed in surprise. He kissed the crook of her neck. She whirled in his arms and threw her arms around his neck, tightly, her fingers grasping the back of his shirt. He chuckled gently, but she shook her head against the laughter. "I thought you had gone," she sniffled. Her arms tightened even more as she pushed her body against his. "I love you, and I thought you had gone. I'm so sorry."

She grasped his cheeks and pulled his face down so she could kiss him. He met the kiss with an avid response. Chuck undid the laces of her gown so it would fall to their feet. With warm hands he massaged her breasts, and his hot tongue laved at them until her eyes rolled back with pleasure and she stumbled backwards until she hit the wall.

"Chuck," she breathed.

"You say you cannot bear to be without me. And you well know I cannot bear to be apart."

She felt the tears come when he knelt before her and kissed a trail down the tight skin of her stretched belly. Blair rested her hands on his shoulders and watched as he tenderly kissed the expanse of her stomach, lavishing attention on the babe she had chosen to hide. When his tongue dipped into her navel, her hand flew up to her own hair and pulled, her teeth bit hard onto her lower lip in an effort to contain her reaction.

"You know it," he said gruffly. "And I fear you push me around this little board that you know I am under your command."

She moaned, loud, pained and pleasured.

He looked up at her, breathing harshly, and she realized how much this took when he was straining in his pants. "Let yourself go," he said. "There is no need to hide from me."

She was captivated by his eyes, and followed blindly when he grasped her calf and raised her leg. Her thigh rested over his shoulder as he held his gaze. Without breaking the hold of his eyes, Blair watched as his mouth neared the opening between her thighs. A soft cry erupted from her mouth. Both of her hands dove into his hair as his lips worked on her, licking, probing, kissing, parting her for his tongue.

And she exploded, her chest violently rising and falling to catch her breath. Her knees weakened and she slowly slid down the wall. Her legs trembled still. Chuck rose, and Blair stared at his lips glistened with her. His tongue darted out to lick his lips, and she felt the wetness on her warm and stir like a honey pot. Impulsively she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his mouth, tasted herself and was thrilled of it.

"I want you," she gasped.

He had not come inside of her, not plunged into her core, since the incident with Jenny that she had chosen not to discuss again. She had been torn, but she had healed and the child moved as quickly and vigorously as she thought any healthy child did. He had not come inside her and drenched her for so long and her womb was parched of his seed.

"I want you inside of me."

She was certain to his uncertainty, so she pulled the belted waist of his pants and slid a hand inside. She reached for his, brushed against the head of his manhood and grabbed the sac in her hand. She massaged his balls and she felt him lengthening into a stiff rod against her arm.

"Make love to me," she pleaded again. Her other hand fumbled until she freed him. His trousers fell to the floor and when she freed him he was erect and straining. She pressed up against him and felt him against her stomach as she kissed his lips. She missed this. She missed this hardness, the near violence that intricately wrapped with tenderness when they were joined together. "Please."

She was throbbing, pouring, half-insane with her need that she thrashed on the bed when he raised her hips and buried his length inside her. When he slid into her she closed her eyes against the unbearable joy of it. She clutched her breasts as he rode her, and she raised and lowered herself in his rhythm. He came and spent himself, and her muscles clamped down and drained him.

"I love you," she sobbed, and Chuck collapsed on top of her and kissed the hollow of her throat. "Don't leave," she whispered as she fought to catch her breath. They were sticky together, and she savored the delicious way her skin stuck to his, the wonderful pressure of his weight on her.

She moved off her to release the weight on her stomach, but she clutch tightly to him, hooked her ankles to him and tightened her thighs around his hips. He sighed at his newfound realization, then held on to her as he rolled on his back so she would be the one sprawled over him. She showered kisses on his collarbone.

"I despise your decisions, and think it ridiculous that you should choose to remain in the queen's service when you are with child," he told her truthfully. She raised herself up on her elbows and looked down at him. Fear had a way of making her large, lucid eyes shine. She looked so very vulnerable to him, despite the way she had him completely in the palm of her hand. So he released the tension within her by assuring her—even the very thought of it killed him, "I still am here. As I shall be tomorrow."

She broke into a wondrous smile, and laid her sweaty, matted, beautiful head on his chest. She kissed through the patch of hair and found his moist skin.

"Oft I am afraid my love for you shall be our death. I make decisions so very unwise to make you happy," he told her.

When they slept, she was wrapped around him, limp and sated, her limbs tangled with his. "So I would know if you were to rise and leave me," she said lightly to him, but Chuck knew in his heart the fear remained.

Tendrils of light peeked into their chambers when he woke, and he found her raised upon one elbow staring at him as he slept. Her fingers drew titillating lines on his cheek, down his jaw. When she saw him wake, her lips curved and she lowered her lips to taste his.

"I am so very in love with you," she said to him.

In the privacy of their chambers, he cherished the words. He buried his fingers into her hair and said, "As am I."

She shook her head, and the tips of her hair brushed against his chest. "I love you. I love you more than I love Elizabeth, more than I love England," she confessed. "I love you more than my mother, or my father, or my child," she said, her voice in a whisper, as if the admission was such sin. Having never held the child, it was too easy. When the child came, it would all change, but he knew what it was she needed to say. "I would that you know I love you. How very awful I have been."

He caught a teardrop with his thumb. The lump in his throat was hard and large. "When I met you, your one desire was a place with the queen. I swore I would not change you."

She drew close to him, and laid her head upon his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and idly ran a hand up and down her upper arm. She said to him, "Tell me you know I love you."

"You confessed to a crime to save my arse," he said fondly. "I know."

"How is it so difficult, my lord, to push away these childhood dreams for a new one?"

But he knew not, so he held her until morning time that she needed to be present in the chambers of the queen. One day, one night, she would know, he hoped, which dream to next pursue. As long as it did not take her away from him, he would survive.

~o~o~o~

With Leicester having left for the healing waters of Buxton, Essex's star slowly began to rise again. Blair looked up one morning to see Essex on his way out of the queen's private chambers. The ladies around her giggled at the sight of the handsome Master of the Horse. Essex nodded towards her, then approached her.

"Lady Warwick," he said, warming her heart at the title that labeled her as Chuck's countess.

"Robert," she said with familiarity.

He broke into a grin, the use of his name enough welcome for him. "Not a long while ago I found a blushing little girl, completely green and unadulterated by the impurities of this court. And now you are the countess of Warwick."

It had always been an easy banter with Essex, even when she plotted to seduce him into campaigning for a post for her. "Do you dare claim, Robert, that being Chuck Bass' wife has rendered me impure?" she teased.

"You are, madame, certainly not a green, blushing girl." He bent at the waist and kissed the back of her hand.

Blair's smile grew. As Essex neared, she leaned and confided softly, "I am full with Chuck's babe."

His gaze drew up in surprise. "For truth?" She nodded. "Bass must be elated." And then, he frowned. "How is it that still you remain in court? I would suppose he would have carted your fine behind to Warwick, to hold your own little court in a kingdom of your own."

Blair rose, then said, "Walk with me, Lord Essex."

They eased back to the familiar companionship of two people who knew more about each other than many others in the court. "You have become so much more, in these last months," he said to her.

"Because I am a countess?" she asked.

"Because now you are not so hungry that you are careless," he told her.

"Was I careless, Robert? Truly?"

With a slight smile, he said, "I could see you thrum in hunger, when you first arrived. You were quite a handful." He chuckled. "You wished to pursue me."

She flushed. "You knew?"

"I am no green lad. And Chuck Bass is in the council. I sensed his ire." He shook his head. "You were a handful. I would never have handled you. Now you have calm. Perhaps because you have it all today."

Perhaps because she had Chuck Bass.

"And what of you? Do you have it all?" she asked him.

"Your husband knows," he answered. "I want more. I desire to be more, to have more. I am capable of more."

The tables had turned. When once he had been the favorite, and she had sought his power to become a lady-in-waiting, it was Essex who was restless now. She was in favor with the queen, and he was the one unsatisfied. "Be careful, my lord, lest you find yourself with more and more, then more than you can bear."

"The same way you knew you were not some little bride to be married off to the likes of that fiancé you took to court, and knew you were born to sit by Elizabeth." Essex declared quietly, "I am more than this courtier, more than a play thing, more than the queen's dog that Dudley is," he said, referring to his stepfather who had only just left the court and Elizabeth for the pains in his stomach. "Look at him, grown old and gray and ill and still nowhere close to the throne."

They returned to the hall, and Blair saw her husband standing with Cecil, in deep discussion of what seemed such grave a subject. She went over to him and placed a hand on his arm. "Chuck, is aught the matter?"

Chuck let out a deep breath, then pulled her to his arms. "News has reached the court, Blair, that the earl of Leicester is passed."

Blair covered her mouth, then thought back to the tender, bittersweet last farewell that she had seen past the queen's curtains. She turned from him and rushed to the queen's privy chambers. She saw one of the queen's ladies rush out pale and trembling. The woman shook her head.

"She is inconsolable."

Blair carefully tread her way into the chambers and saw the queen sitting in her chair, staring out her window. Spilled food and wine was on the floor. Blair walked around it, careful of slipping. A folded letter was in the queen's hands, on her lap, over the heavy, jeweled gown. She blinked away her tears, because Essex or not, she had seen the queen with Leicester and knew if she herself had lost Chuck Bass she would be worse off than her monarch.

"Your majesty—"

Elizabeth's eyes flickered to her. Blair approached slowly. "I have no wish to speak," Elizabeth said wearily.

"Then we shall not speak," Blair agreed. She sank on the seat opposite Elizabeth's. "Perhaps you could use company."

"Children—every one of you," the queen spat. "You have no knowledge of my pain."

"I could not presume, your majesty, that I understand your pain. But I would not wish this upon myself."

Elizabeth was satisfied. She closed her eyes and rested back her head on the back of the chair. Blair leaned back in her seat as well, and rested her hands on her belly.

The moment of quietness lulled her as she looked out the window.

"We were very young when we were imprisoned both in the Tower," the queen said. "Before even then I held him close to my heart." Blair looked back at the queen who was lost in her memories of a younger self. "I wished to marry him. If not for this throne, I would have married my Dudley."

This was not her queen in Tilbury, not the queen who declared her heart as strong as that of a Prince. This was young Elizabeth. This was Elizabeth in love.

"You had it right, Lady Blair," the queen allowed. "You married your love and cursed my name."

Blair protested quietly, "I did not curse your name."

"You should have!" Elizabeth burst out. "You married your Chuck Bass. To hell with the throne. It would not keep you warm at night, or be your companion in your old age." She sighed. The queen turned to her, and unconsciously her hands warmed her belly. "Lady Blair," Elizabeth said calmly, "you are breeding."

Blair gasped, then fisted her hand to her side. "Your majesty—"

"You are." Blair nodded. The queen waved her over with her hand. At the royal command, Blair rose and made her way towards the queen. She held her breath when Elizabeth touched her abdomen over her gown. "Why do you remain in court, Lady Blair? Most of my ladies retire to their lands when they breed."

"Why do I stay?" Blair repeated softly. "Because, majesty, here you are."

Elizabeth scoffed. She took her hand off Blair's stomach. She cupped her face and said, "The days in the world are so fleeting, gone too soon, done before we begin."

She had never been terrified than she had been at the thought of Chuck on the executioner's block. How easily it could have been, how easily the end.

Elizabeth placed the letter in Blair's hands. "Guard it well," she whispered. "This is my heart."

The last letter from the earl of Leicester, and it fractured her heart. He was a childhood sweetheart, married twice to women who were not Elizabeth when it was the queen that held his heart.

"I would not have done it differently," the queen said. "But I will regret it for the time I should have spent with him and not the throne."

Blair walked to the small coffer beside the queen's bed. "The place for this is by you, always."

"I have lost a man, but I am married to England. I will survive it all."

Blair asks, "So you can live without a man."

"I can. Because I have done it. But you—you are a young soul yet."

"You loved him."

"I love my kingdom more." Elizabeth dabbed at the tears in her eyes. "This is but a broken heart that shall heal."

"You are the strongest woman I know. Your majesty, tell me, while you and I are alone, when the weight of the crown is not upon your head and the council is away at their beds—" Blair reached for the queen's hand, "—do you truly regret none of what has come to pass?"

She chuckled, and it was such sad laughter. "My Robert married another, twice, yet he never broke my heart as much as the day he died."

As much as Blair adored the queen, this could not be her. This aging woman, in whose womb there never thrived a life, who was anguished for the loss of the man he loved and could not call her husband. If the queen loved Dudley like she loved her husband, this cannot be her. She would never be a broken woman for loving or losing.

Blair wept when she kissed her queen's hand. "I love you," Blair declared. And yet she could not claim she loved the queen more than any other, because she could not lie.

Elizabeth patted her cheek, in silent blessing. The queen asked, "Will he establish your household in Kenilworth?"

"That was his promise to me." And Chuck kept his promises.

"It is a castle of many stories, child," the queen recalled.

"So I have heard," Blair answered. "We shall fill it with our own." And even then she was surprised at what she now slowly found her strength to do. "I am walking away from all of my dreams."

The queen's gaze dropped to the slight swell of her belly which she still was able to hide. "Not all."

Blair remembered her dreams of her family, and they mitigated much of the dreams she now walked away from. She agreed, "Not all."

She drew the curtains shut when the queen asked. She left the chambers dark and cold, without a fire to keep Elizabeth warm. Blair left the queen's chambers in desolate coldness and made her way outside where her husband waited. She went to him, pressed herself against him. His thumbs traced her cheekbones.

"Are you well?" he asked.

"My heart bleeds," she answered.

Chuck pulled her close and tucked her hair behind her ears. She shared, "Leicester has died. She loved him for decades. And Leicester has perished; his last letter sits in a chest beside her head."

It seemed, in moments such as these, that all desires in this court had no destination.

"Decades, Chuck, and she never once could call him her own."

"And yet he was. From the days when they were young, never carefree, he was Gloriana's."

"This was my dream. I'm afraid to let it slip away," she began. "But I do not wish to wake one day and realize I am old and I had only spent a few wonderful moments with you."

She looked down as his hand wrapped around hers. His voice was hoarse when he said urgently, "Say the word and we will be gone from here."

"Then let us be gone."

And the look of surprise and wonder in his face was enough to make her lifetime.

He took her hand firmly in his grasp. Chuck wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and drew her up against him as they walked towards the doors. Blair's lips parted when she saw the fitted carriage he had leant to her once, and noticed the chests and baggage loaded. Dorota joined her in her smart traveling cloak while Eric handed Chuck a small bag.

She looked at Chuck. "You know me so well, my lord, to have them prepare for the journey before I answered."

He grinned, in triumph, in determination. "I cannot change you. But would you have hated me if I told you that whether or not you wished to go, I would have found a way to convince you to visit Warwick, my love? And once you made it there you would have stayed, because you would fall in love with it."

With one last look towards the court she would now abandon, Blair took a deep breath. "I would stay, even if it were a dilapidated hut along the Thames, not as much because I would fall in love with Warwick, Chuck. I would stay because I love you," she answered.

Epilogue

The letter was brief, to the point. It was written in Cecil's hand, steady and precise as he related the events that had transpired in Ireland and in London. It was out of respect that Cecil had written, of courtesy to a member of the Council. Yet still there were faint traces of generous neutrality in the choice of his words that spoke of his understanding that Lord Bass' wife would read it, and to the two of them the subject was more than just a traitor to the crown.

Blair folded the letter carefully and handed it to Chuck. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and kissed the nape of her neck. They stood, upon the hillock in Warwick where they had full view of the expanse of land. To the left she saw the fields where the cattle grazed, the very pasture lands that the queen had granted her as reward for her father's service.

It was a rich land, but it was not enough to cause them strife. How very young they had been.

On the other side, coming from the castle, their son was more than a little prince. He ran across the field while Bartholomew held his hand and endeavored at his age to run as fast.

"Your father will be beaten by a little boy." Blair scoffed. "He used to race me upon my horse and would not grant me single win."

"Your son brings the duke to his knees within moments, the way he had since the day he was born."

In truth the bloody wriggling mess that was the future earl of Warwick had hollered his birth to the world so loudly that Bartholomew had burst into the birthing chambers and despite the carnage of the Netherlands, the sight of the birthing fluids that dripped and ran with blood had caused Chuck's father to shame himself on his hands and knees.

His hand rested on her hip, and spoke about what she had deflected. Quietly he inquired, "Do you wish to go?"

"No," she answered quickly.

Essex's rebellion had exploded before their shocked eyes. He had been granted his mission to Ireland, and for a while it seemed he would finally prove his worth—be more as he wanted. Ambition and power, a step closer to the crown. She had been delighted when Essex had been given the opportunity, and appalled at how Essex turned his back to the queen. Not once had she thought this would be the road that he would take.

"He was my friend," she said. "I do not wish to see his death."

She could imagine it clearly in her mind. The Tower Green, upon that block by the gardens where she had walked past with Chuck on the way to their wedding. Robert Deveraux would take his last rites in the chapel where she had taken her marriage sacrament, then be forced to his knees behind the block.

More and more until he had more than he could bear, she had warned him.

She hoped it would be a swift, clean kill.

Her breath still trembled at the horrific images her mind conjured. She had been so afraid once to see Chuck's execution upon that block. Even now, far away from the Tower, the fear was very real. Behind her son and his grandfather, another figure, wallowing in her gown as she trudged under the sun, waved towards her.

"I shall ask mother to stay with us longer," she said to her husband.

Where there was death, there was life. Eleanor had not been with her for the birth of her son, but Elizabeth had granted her return and allowed Eleanor some peace in Warwick. Granted, of course, that Eleanor not darken the doors of the court. And Eleanor had no desire to see the queen. Blair was grateful, for she would need her mother the next months as she grew.

She had been on a path as reckless once, and she pitied Essex that he did not have some soul to love the way she loved Chuck. How easily it could have been her. Her desires rivaled his once upon a time. It was this love, this husband, this family she had that gave her the strength to pull away.

She turned to take Chuck's hands in hers and raised them to her lips. "You have fulfilled all my dreams, Chuck. This—this is far better than a lifetime in court." His lips curved in pleasure, unsurprised, always completely confident that he gave her everything she never knew she wanted. She said to him, "I am with child again."

His smile grew, and she remembered once more that standing in front of her was her teacher.

Her lord. "I know," he whispered, cupping her belly with her hands. Her husband. "Thank you."

The love of her entire life.

fin

AN: Is there even a message I can leave now? This was, as always, a pleasure.