Age of Edward Contest


Title: Playing for the Heart of a Lady

Type of Edward: Elizabethanward

11901 words without header and A/N.

Stephenie Meyers owns Twlight and Edward. Shakespeare owns Midsummer.

Many thanks to DeJean Smith and Swimom7 for their handy red pen work.

Southwark, London 1599

Even five pence for the cushioned seats two stories up couldn't keep the vile smell of the Stinkards at bay; their foul odor wafted up through the packed house, causing Isabella to cover her nose with a scented kerchief. She prayed for the slightest wind to stir through the rafters of the newly built Globe Theatre — anything to provide some fresh air.

"How dost thou, fair sister?" Emmett asked, a mischievous grin upon his face. "Prithee tell us what ails thee."

"Zounds, my friend," Sir Jasper exclaimed, slapping Emmett's thigh. "Can thee not see it is the privy smell which ails her?"

The small group guffawed at Jasper's witty repartee, but Isabella worked to keep her mouth sealed tightly. The odor was noxious, and it would lead to ill humors if she drew it too deeply into her system. Though the lowlies quieted as the actors came on stage, the Courtiers didn't cease their witty banter. Isabella leaned forward in her chair, squinting her eyes to see the three players on stage far below her.

"Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour / Draws on apace; four happy days bring in / Another moon: but O, methinks, how slow / This old moon wanes!"

Isabella strained to hear the pretty words, missing the sweet inflections of the actors because of her brother's ignorant banter.

"Stay, dear brother!" she hissed, her eyes entranced on the stage. "There will be time for folly anon."

"Methinks fair Isabella is smitten on one of the actors," Emmett teased. "Mark her words, ye cutpurses. The lady is a vile wench when angered."

Isabella could not even tear herself away from the action on stage to respond to his insult, so entrancing was the story unfolding below her. Whispers hissed behind her as her companions traded barbs and flirtations. Her brother, Captain Sir Emmett Swan, Earl of Southwark, had just announced his engagement to Lady Rosalie Hale, one of the Queen's Ladies-in-Waiting. Isabella herself was the newest Lady-in-waiting, and she prided herself on being the Queen's current pet. Good Queen Bess had insisted Emmett bring his sister to the play this afternoon to "further enlighten our young Swan's mind for our pleasure." Isabella had curtsied and acted demure, but she was thrilled; she adored theatre and this was the first opening night she'd been permitted to attend.

Also in attendance were Isabella's spritely best friend, Lady Alice Brandon, and her on again off-again beau, Sir Jasper Hale. Sir Jasper had come, ostensibly as a chaperon for his sister Rosalie. However, he was paying far more attention to Lady Brandon than to either his sister or the play. To Isabella great displeasure, a newcomer to Court was invited along with them. James Laurent, Earl of Lennox, was an arrogant prig of a man who fancied himself a good catch for an up and coming Lady-in-Waiting. Isabella begged to differ; she didn't deign to return his advances, no matter how obvious they had become.

His oily voice set her teeth on edge, but she was able to feign ignorance. Her eyes remained rapt on the stage below, widening as a new cast member made his appearance on stage. It was beginning of Act II and a new fairy had alighted upon the stage. Dressed all in evergreen, the fairy's clothing was covered in moss and dried leaves. His hair, a strange red-bronze color, was mussed and strewn with forest detritus. As he gazed mischievously out on the audience, his green eyes twinkled with merriment.

"How now, spirit!" he cried, his rich velvet voice carrying around the theatre. "Wither wander you?"

Isabella's breath caught in her throat as she listened to him deliver his lines and prance around the stage. He played the troublesome fairy, Puck, with grace and elegance, dancing around the stage. His antics elicited howls of laughter from both the Stinkards and the noble classes. He was a fine actor, and Isabella thought him a fine specimen of a man as well. She fanned herself, the worry about the noxious odors forgotten in her absorption with the play and the pretty Puck.

As the night wore on, it became increasingly difficult to ignore Lord Lennox and his banter. His rank breath sent unwelcome shivers down her spine and she recoiled.

"Marry! But you are alive. I feared you turned to stone by yonder foolhardy charmers." Lennox leaned closer, and Isabella cast a glance over at her brother.

Jovial Emmett sat plying Lady Hale with his charm, ignorant of his little sister's discomfort. Remembering she held the ear of the Queen because of her wit and grace, Isabella steeled her resolve.

"Nay. Mayhap I am enchanted and therefore less verbose. My Lord will forgive me and pray allow me to continue being spellbound."

"Surely a pure maid such as My Lady Swan doth not fall victim to the cunning wordplay and thinly veiled lechery on display before us?"

"In faith, I cannot believe a bastion of learning such as yourself, Lord Lennox, would not revel in the delights of drama. Her Highness finds it the greatest form of entertainment."

"Verily, I see through the thin veil of deceit better than any woman could hope to," he sneered.

Isabella frowned behind her fan, eager to be rid of this nuisance.

"Pray pardon my naiveté, good sir, but I must know how the good folk fair on the stage."

"As you will, my Lady Swan."

Isabella shuddered at the familiarity with which he caressed her name. As she turned her attentions back to the stage, she saw that Puck was alone on the stage with Oberon and Titania. It appeared the play was coming to a close. When the king and queen of the fairies had exited the stage, Puck alone held the audience enraptured. He waited a beat, ensuring that every last audience member was hanging on his word. He gave a crooked smiled, and Isabella imagined that he winked in her direction, making her heart skip a beat.

"If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have slumber'd here / While these visions did appear."

As his speech continued, Isabella clasped her kerchief above her breast as tears welled in her eyes. Was he but a dream, envisioned here in front of her eyes and about to evaporate? Hark! With a quick step, Puck twirled on the stage and disappeared from sight.

Isabella rose to her feet with the commoners, wildly clapping her hands and dabbing at her eyes.

"Prithee sit down, Lady Swan!" Rosalie's sharp voice hissed at her. "Thou dost go on like yon Stinkards!"

Duly embarrassed by her own behavior, Isabella sat down quickly. The crowd grew thunderous as Puck emerged called the playwright himself out on stage. A young man, with full beard and jovial eyes leapt on stage and bobbed his head in appreciation for the raucous applause. The commoners began filing out of the yard, heading for one of the local taverns, no doubt. Isabella couldn't bear to tear her eyes away from the stage where the actors milled, joking amongst themselves.

"Tarry no longer, sister," Emmett called, tapping her gently on the shoulder. "Or are you so taken with yonder sprites that you require bodily assistance?"

Isabella pursed her lips at her brother's impertinence, but her expression softened when she saw his blue eyes twinkling. Lennox, however, didn't let the opportunity to impose on Isabella's person pass him by.

"Prithee, allow me to escort my Lady Swan if she is fair taken with the excitement of the day."

"Grammercy, my Lord Lennox, but I am well." Isabella removed her hand from his and smiled stiffly. "I was passing pleased with the spectacle, as I gather all in attendance were, but I am quite capable of walking on my own."

Lennox made another grab for her hand, but Emmett blocked him, leveling him with a cold stare.

"The Lady Swan said no, my Good Lord," Emmett insisted.

"By my beard, does the Lady Swan also require her poppet when she retires to bed?"

The others in the company looked around uncomfortably, but Emmett never dropped his eyes. He did not take lightly an insult to his sister's honor or station.

"Thou willst recant, sir."

"Unhand me, thou mewling, idle-headed giglet!" Lennox's face became purple with anger as he tried to wrest his arm from Emmett's grip.

Emmett for his part, maintained his genteel smile. "Thou willst recant, sir," he said again, enunciating every word.

"A thousand pardons," the Lord Lennox whispered, wincing as Emmett's grip tightened. "My Lady Swan," he grimaced, his face turning a darker shade of crimson.

Emmett released his arm and Lennox stormed away from the group. No one said a word as they made their way down the staircases. When they arrived at the carriage for the ladies, they saw that Lennox had taken his horse and gone back to the Palace on his own. Isabella sank into the carriage, thankful to be rid of the insufferable Lord Lennox, at least for one evening.

Puck, the mischievous fairy, called to her in her dreams. She didn't know his real name, so to her, he was Puck. And in her dreams, he spoke to only her. Isabella awoke the next morning, not knowing how she would make it through the tedium of Courtly duties without the promise of some more magic at the Globe. And so it was, that she began to plot.

As Isabella played viol for the Queen, she thought of excuses to be away from court. There were precious few opportunities for a genteel lady, especially one favored by the Queen, to be away. It was expected that she be present and waiting upon the Queen's whim. And it was a pleasure to do so, for she loved Her Highness. Still, the yearning to see Puck again at her. Isabella knew that she could ask Her Majesty's leave to see the play again, saying she was inspired by the moving words Will Shakespeare had written, but she was worried.

Lord Lennox was in passing good favor with Her Majesty these days. Isabella couldn't risk giving Lennox an opening to smear her name, and so she chose instead to do something that might get her killed. She feigned illness and slunk out of the Winchester Palace dressed as one of the commoners. Running down the southern bank of the Thames, she saw the Stinkards filing into the Yard after dropping their pennies into the box. She fingered her five pennies, knowing that if she spent them all that afternoon, it would be the last play she would see for a long time. She plucked up her courage and dropped a penny in the box, filing into the Yard along with the commoners.

She barely noticed the smell that day, or any of the other three times she was able to get away from Winchester. Over the course of a month, Isabella deceived her Queen and dressed as a commoner so that she could lean against the stage and watch Puck work his magic. He cast a pretty spell over the audience, and over Isabella's naïve heart. Tarrying after one of the shows, she learned that the actor who played Puck was called Edward Masen, and he was as mischievous as the fairy himself.

It was St. Swithun's day and all of the children of Court were reciting tedious rhymes to each other over and over again:

St. Swithun's day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain

St. Swithun's day if thou be fair

For forty days 'twill rain nae mare.

Isabella smiled at them distractedly as she passed them by on her way to the presence chamber. It had been over a week since she'd last been to the Globe. She could feel the tension building within her and cast around for another reason to beg off of courtly duties so that she could run away. The Queen was suffering from poor humors, and required her ladies to play her soft melodies while the Physician let her blood. After Isabella had played for over an hour, she begged leave to retire to her chamber.

"Verily, child, thou suffer from passing many vapors these days," the Queen said, beckoning Isabella close. "We do not wish thee to be ill. Do go to thy room and lay thee down until the morrow. We shall send our good Physician to thee then."

Her Highness held out the royal hand for Isabella and she scurried over on her knees to kiss it, closing her eyes as she did so. It was traitorous what she was doing, and yet the good Queen loved her. Should she be found out, she would deserve any fate the Queen dealt her. With a quick curtsy, Isabella exited the presence room and hurried up to her chamber.

Isabella hurried out of her grand Court gown and into her plain commoner attire. When she was certain that the hall was deserted, she steeled herself for the run through the darkened hallway toward the exit. In the past, she'd made it in under five minutes. Every second, however, her heart thumped painfully in her throat. Just as the gate was in sight, however, something else caught Isabella's throat.

"Art thou going somewhere, milady?" a hissing female voice whispered in her ear.

Isabella didn't dare breathe, feeling the woman's sharp fingernails digging into her flesh.

"Ho! Lennox!"

Isabella felt her stomach fall as the James Laurent appeared at the side of the gate. An evil smile appeared on his face as he tucked his hands into his doublet.

"Well. Miss Swan."

"Lady," Isabella stuttered.

"By my troth, thou art not dressed as a Lady! Verily, thou art dressed as a common wench. Or, art thou dressed as … yon Stinkards, my Lady?"

A hot flush rose on Isabella's cheeks and she looked down, knowing that Lord Lennox knew her secret. How long had he known?

"Come hither, milady," Lennox said, as he grabbed her elbow roughly. "The Queen awaits."

He tossed a coin at the red-haired woman who had held Isabella's throat. Her dirty face beamed as Lennox passed her by.

"Thank ye kindly, milord!" The woman reached out a blackened hand toward Lennox's carefully tailored doublet.

"Be gone, foul besom," Lennox muttered. "Our deal is quit."

"As ye will, my good Lord."

The woman curtsied awkwardly and as she did, Isabella saw her face clearly for the first time. It was the milkmaid from the barn. Lennox dragged Isabella down the passage way, but she did not give up hope of changing her lot yet.

"Was that not yon milkmaid, Victoria? Or, as they say, 'Venomed Vicky'? Dost thou not worry that thou be consorting with witches?"

Lennox turned on her, his pale face screwed up in an ugly grimace. He drew his hand back, raising it above his head in position to strike. Isabella flinched away, cowering from the threatening hand.

"Nay," he murmured, lowering his hand. "I wouldst not sully my opportunities with so rash a choice. Come. Her Highness does not hold with waiting."

Fear filled Isabella's stomach as Lennox marched her down the hallway toward the presence chamber. As the doors opened, she saw not only the Queen, but also much of the court. Her friends, Ladies Brandon and Hale, were in attendance, with her own brother and Major Hale. To her horror, her father and mother were also there, boring holes through her as she was marched to the center of the room.

Charles Swan, Earl of Suffolk, and his wife, Renee Swan, Lady Suffolk, were the worst kind of Court climbers in Isabella's opinion. They put their children shamelessly in front of the Queen to help their own selfish aims. Isabella knew that regardless of what Good Queen Bess might wish to do to her, her father would likely kill her. She closed her eyes and turned toward Her Highness, dropping low to the floor in a grand curtsy.

"Our little Swan dressed as a common peasant? What is the meaning of this, Lennox?"

"Your Majesty, it pains me to be the bearer of such distressing news. The Lady Swan has been deceiving you these past weeks with her phantom vapors. There has been nary an occasion when the child was sick, only taken on with delusions."

"And ye know this for fact?" the Queen asked quietly.

"Verily, my Queen. I just now caught her attempting to leave the palace grounds unchaperoned."

"We wonder where thou thought to run to, little Swan."

Isabella flinched at the pet term, knowing that she'd disobeyed the Queen. As she opened her mouth to tell the truth, Lennox pinched her arm painfully and began speaking again.

"Your Majesty, if I may…"

Queen Elizabeth held up a single hand and leveled Lennox with a warning glance. "We trust that the Lady Swan is not struck dumb. She will answer us herself."

"As you will, my Queen."

Lennox bowed his head, but Isabella saw the sneer on his face. He loathed bowing to the good Queen and Isabella hated him for it.

"If it pleases your Highness, I went to see a play," Isabella whispered.

"It does not please us, our little Swan. Why didst thou lie to us?"

"Oh, Your Majesty!" Isabella burst out, losing her composure and letting tears fall down her cheeks.

"There, there, poppet," the Queen murmured. "Tell us thy story."

Isabella drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes, hot tears coursing down her cheeks. "It twas a beautiful dream, Your Majesty. My heart yearned for the magic set on the stage, aching to be lost in that dream world."

"The play thou speakest of? We wish to know the name of it."

"A Midsummer Night's Dream, Your Highness."

Elizabeth was silent for several moments. Isabella kept her head down as the Queen deliberated. Beside her, she felt someone come to her side and she did not dare to look. She smelled the cloying perfume her father used and knew that he had stepped up to speak.

"Thou wishes to address us, Lord Suffolk?"

Charles bowed low to the ground, groveling again. "Your Majesty is good and kind to even suffer this vile deceptor in Her presence. Allow me, your Highness, to deal with this traitor in due fashion."

Isabella flinched at her father's terrible labels, but she knew that she deserved them and worse. She prayed, fruitlessly she assumed, that Elizabeth would have pity and punish her herself. Lord Suffolk had a terrible temper and anything he dreamed up would be far worse than even a swift execution at the hands of Her Majesty.

"Stay, Suffolk," the Queen chided gently. "We remind thee this is thy daughter you speak of."

"Nay, Your Majesty," Suffolk said coldly. "No offspring of mine would dare betray her Queen in such a fashion."

"So eager to distance thyself from one so dear to our heart, Suffolk?"

Isabella's eyes shot up to the Queen who had a bemused smile on her lips. Her father looked confused, his eyes darting between Isabella and the Queen, unsure of how to answer.

"Come hither, Little Swan," Her Majesty beckoned.

Crawling on her knees across the hard wooden floors of the Presence Chamber, Isabella stopped just before the stairs leading up to the Queen's great throne.

"Hither, child," Elizabeth said with a smile. "You may approach us."

Hesitantly, Isabella mounted the steps in front of the Court and knelt before Elizabeth. The old Queen was so beautiful to Isabella, despite the pale white makeup that hid her features and the worry lines that marred her face. Isabella hated that she had deceived the Queen and possibly hurt her; the thought of that was worse than any punishment she might face.

"We are passing well acquainted with the siren call of the theatre," Elizabeth said with a smirk. "We do not, however, know of the joy of this particular play."

Confused, Isabella blinked rapidly. She did not know what the Queen wished her to say and felt it prudent to remain silent.

Elizabeth clapped her hands three times and her royal Chancellor, Michael, scurried over to the throne, quill and parchment at the ready.

"We cordially require W. Shakespeare and his players to attend us and entertain us with his lauded play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, in celebration of Lammastide. We thank our faithful playwright and offer him our best tidings. He will send a list presently of his requirements for the festival."

Michael scratched out the Queen's edict and bowed lowly as he backed away from her throne.

"There, my pet. The dream shall come to thee."

"Your Majesty?" Suffolk said, his voice cracking with surprise and indignation. "Is it right to allow her fancy like this, my queen?"

"Dost thou question our judgment, Suffolk?" Elizabeth asked, her voice harsh. She rose slowly from her chair, beady eyes staring menacingly at Charles. He bowed lower to the ground, his lips trembling in fear. "Thou wouldst do well to remember who our favorites are, Suffolk, if thou wishes to remain in our good graces."

Elizabeth's stony glance passed over Lady Suffolk as well as Lord Lennox. Everyone in the presence chamber, including Isabella herself, was stunned into silence at the queen's decision.

"We will retire," the Queen murmured quietly. "And our Little Swan will be taken to her chamber to rest from her attack of vapors this afternoon. No one shall disturb her. Are we clear, Suffolk?"

"Y-yes, my Queen."

"God Save the Queen!" the room erupted as she stepped down from her throne. "God Save the Queen!"

Waving her hand dismissively, Elizabeth exited the room. In a rush of fabric, Isabella was surrounded by Lady Brandon and Lady Hale, who hastened her off to her chambers.

The two weeks following the spectacle in the presence chamber were both exciting and confusing for Isabella. She was ecstatic at the thought that Puck — Edward, she must remember that he had a real name — would be coming to Court. The knowledge that Lammastide was the next day left her feeling breathless with anticipation. However, worry niggled at Isabella's conscience.

She heard the whispers that followed her, about how she had gotten off too easily because she was the Queen's pet. It was no secret that Isabella's small triumph was Lennox and Suffolk's shame. They would make her pay, she had no doubt. But they would need to wait until the time was right; at the moment, the Queen's fancy protected her. But would it always? Only time would tell.

The morning of Lammas arrived and Isabella awoke with a start. Puck would be at the palace that very evening. She dressed quickly and found Lady Brandon waiting for outside of her chamber.

"Good morrow, sister," Alice said, curtsying. "Prithee accompany me to the procession this fine morning?"

"As thee will, good sister," Isabella replied with a smile.

Lady Brandon twined her arm around Isabella's as they fell in step with each other. "How dost thou hide thy excitement? Thou must be fair taken with the thought of this e'en's festivities."

"Forsooth! I can barely contain myself, though I must endeavor to maintain my good counsel. It is the least I can do to show my gratitude for Her Highness's good grace."

"Fie!" Alice hissed. "Forget yon whey-faced scoundrels. Thou art the Queen's favorite; none can deny it."

Isabella blushed hotly as they passed by Lord Lennox himself. He bowed to them and they nodded their heads in return.

"One must not assume upon the Regent's good will," Isabella whispered. "What head today is her favorite, might well decorate the top of her iron gate on the morrow. Thou knowest that as well as I."

"Too true, good sister," Alice replied seriously. "But thou knowest Good Queen Bess is in fair spirits this morrow. Hark! She comes nigh for the procession!"

After the parade, the Court was abuzz with talk about the night's performance. It had been over two years since Shakespeare and his company had performed at Winchester. All gathered greatly anticipated the new play and Isabella herself was in high demand for information about the nature of the play.

After supper, word spread like wildfire that the troupe had arrived at the gates and Shakespeare himself would be granted an audience with the Queen. Court was abuzz with the news, but Isabella felt the excitement of seeing the play wearing on her. Elizabeth seemed to notice Isabella's discomfort and suggested that she retire to the garden until it was time for the play. Isabella curtsied low and kissed her Queen's hand in thanks, earning a smile from Elizabeth.

Once away from the chatter, Isabella began to think again of Puck — of Edward. It had been some time since she'd allowed herself the fancy that he spoke to her from the stage. Her heart fluttered at thinking of the bronze-haired actor again. Would that he could notice her amid the swirling and bedecked Court. Isabella pondered what she might do to catch his attention without displeasing her queen.

A noise within one of the garden's many trees startled Isabella. She gasped and turned around quickly, sure that it was Lennox come to corner her. In the darkening night, she could not see anything, but again she heard the rustling coming from one of the Queen's favored nut trees. To her great surprise, as Isabella approached, she saw a pair of black-hosed legs protruding from the underneath of the tree.

Isabella froze, wary of who might be hiding in the branches. With a great shaking of the leaves, the man within leapt to the ground, dusting himself off of the stray leaves that clung to his dark, black doublet. Isabella gasped, covering her lips. Before her stood none other than her dream-fairy Puck.

He was dressed in the traditional fashion, black hose and a matching black doublet. The color of his clothing gave him a roguish appearance, but his face betrayed his surprise. Isabella saw his familiar green eyes twinkling and a telltale blush creeping up his neck. Ever the actor, he recovered quickly and bowed low before her with a graceful movement.

"I beg a thousand pardons o' milady," he murmured, removing his feathered cap in a fluid movement and tipping it toward the ground. "I am but a clumsy fool to intrude upon a lady's private daydreams."

Edward looked up from his low bow, his lips twisted in an uneven grin as he winked cheekily at Isabella. She felt heat creeping up her neck and toward her face and thanked the heavens for the low light within the walled garden. Her heart raced and his eyes traveled over her body, not bothering to hide his appreciation of her curves as men of court would do. It shocked her, but she didn't shrink back away from his gaze. She'd thought of this man every night since she'd first seen him on stage; if this was the only moment she'd share with him, she wouldn't dare to recoil from him.

"Dost the lady not speak? Forsooth, I prithee believe I mean you no harm."

Isabella blinked, stepping forward boldly toward the young actor. He was comely, far more so than she remembered from the stage. In the light, she could see his face was clean shaven and free of any of the heavy makeup he usually wore on stage.

"I forgive thee for the fright," Isabella murmured. "But pray tell, what is an actor doing climbing in the Queen's favorite nut tree?"

He stood up with a start and turned around, comically eying up the tree he'd just stepped out of. When he turned back around, he was wearing his familiar half-smile and there was a devilish light in his eyes that made Isabella's stomach flutter.

"So, you knowest I am an actor and yet you do not shy away," he said, stroking his chin as he stalked toward her. Isabella felt rooted to the spot, caught in his emerald-eyed gaze. "Mayhap you could tell yon guardsmen of my virtue so they might cease their tiresome patrol."

"Thou know that they wish only to protect her Majesty from evil-doers," Isabella retorted. "Tell me that thou dost not wish our queen to come to harm, good sir."

"Nay, my lady. I wish our Queen only the best of health and happiness. Good Queen Bess knows no better friends than our troupe, and yet we are met by such accusatory glances from her guardsmen." He shook his head sadly. "It is a travesty."

Isabella covered her mouth as she giggled. Edward was overly sad, pretending to be wounded to the core at the treatment of the guard. When he caught her laughing, his eyes twinkled with delight.

"I have amused you, then," he murmured, dipping his head again. "Mine e'en hath reached its peak and it is not yet five of the clock!"

"Thou hast many pretty words, good sir," Isabella said, hiding her smiling lips behind her kerchief. "Art thou not needed in preparation for this e'en's performance?"

"Nay, nay … the troupe is set as is our stage. After Will is done courting Bess, we'll all be off in a flurry of costumes and makeup. But pray tell, what does a Lady such as yourself know of our little play?"

Edward was teasing her, and she did not like the tone.

"Thou knowst nothing of me," Isabella said, her eyebrows knitting together as she saw through his words.

He assumed that she was but another Court climber, one who could play at coquettish flirtations, but did not carry the learning to understand the beauty inherent in the play. She sniffed and turned away from him, hurt at the implication that she wasn't worldly enough to understand his art.

"Then tell me, fair lady?" He was close, far closer than he had been before. "Tell me everything?"

Isabella looked up to see his hypnotic eyes a mere breath away from her. She expected to see an overly dramatic, playful pleading look on his face, but what she saw was truly plaintive. It made her heart flutter joyfully to see it. She could smell him, a light scent of wood dust mixed with something spicy, like pine. She breathed it in, trying to savor the memory of it so that when she dreamed of him, it would be more real.

"I am Lady Isabella Swan, daughter of Lord Charles Swan, Earl of Suffolk, and Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen." She lowered her kerchief and raised her chin boldly. "'Twas I who mentioned Midsummer to Her Highness, for I fell in love with it when I saw it opening night."

Edward's eyes widened when she revealed who she was and what her rank was. He took a deferential step back, but held her eyes firmly with his. His step back triggered Isabella's memory, reminding her who she was and who he was. She ought not to be in an enclosed garden alone with an actor. The Queen could have Edward's head for being so forward with one her Ladies; she could have Isabella's as well for allowing it. She took a step back, uncertainty crossing her features.

"Ah, you've remembered that I am but a rogue, have you not?"

"By your leave, I do not wish to offend!"

Isabella felt trapped. She wanted so very much to stay and talk with him, but knew that to do so would be dangerous for them both. He took a step forward with his hand held out to her and she nearly tripped, backing herself up against a tree. Edward didn't stop his progress forward; instead, he moved steadily toward her, his hand still outstretched. Isabella felt her heart might burst within her throat as it beat as fast as a hummingbird's wings. When he reached her, Edward knelt to one knee and gently took her hand in his. His flesh upon hers burned her skin like hot wax dropped from a candle.

"Thou fair rose! Thou hast won my heart this night. For a love so rare as thine, I wouldst endure a thousand fires."

His short poem finished, he bent down and placed a chaste kiss on her knuckles before standing and backing away with a bow.

"Stay!" she called as he turned. When he was looking at her again, she continued. "Prithee, was that a bit of a new sonnet from Master Shakespeare?"

"Nay, my Lady," he replied, with a shake of his head. "It is but the crude renderings of a meager apprentice. E. Masen, at thy service."

Without another word, Edward hopped up into one of the trees and left the garden in the same way that he came in. Isabella covered her lips and watched as his dark form disappeared from sight before hurrying into the palace to prepare for the show.

Her heart still drumming from her meeting with Edward, Isabella raced into the palace and found a prime seat near the Queen's box for the play. Lady Brandon scooted up next to her, making Isabella jump as Alice tapped her on the shoulder.

"By my troth,"Alice breathed, clucking her tongue in derision. "Thou art shaking like a leaf. I pray thee didn't catch a cold whilst out in the open air."

"Nay," Isabella replied breathlessly, pressing her palms into the starched ruffles of her dress to stay her nerves. She leaned over to her good friend, putting her hand up to her mouth to whisper in her ear. "Mayhap I caught something far worse."

Isabella giggled and leaned back, but Alice turned her head and stared back at her, incredulously. "In good earnest, sister, if thou dost not tell me this instant what thou goest on about, I shall beat that tickle-brained head of your with yon feather duster."

Alice's serious expression only made Isabella laugh harder, her face turning a fierce shade of red as she held in the gales of merriment. Alice frowned, smacking her friend on the back of the hand, but Isabella only shook her head. Seeing the commotion, Lady Hale made her way through the mingling crowd and sat down Isabella's other side, her cool blue eyes surveying both of her friends.

"Why goest on she?" Rosalie asked, her lips pursed in disapproval.

"Verily, I believe she may be fair touched," Alice whispered.

Isabella hiccuped on her own laughter at Alice's words, nodding violently. She swallowed thickly and regained her composure, fanning herself with her hand before looking both women in the eye. "Yea, verily, I have been touched. But my head is clear."

It only took a moment for the two ladies to discern Isabella's meaning and they dissolved into a fit of furious whispering, attempting to pull the details from Isabella before the actors took the stage. Though she wanted to confide in her friends, to feel Edward's name on her lips as she told them how he'd kissed her hand, she also wanted to keep his memory selfishly to herself. Sharing him would mean exposing that memory to the harsh reality that there would never be another moment in the garden. Isabella didn't want to face that reality just yet.

She allowed her friends to poke and prod her viciously until the Queen's entrance was heralded. They all fell into perfect curtsies as Elizabeth made her way to her box. As the Queen sat down, she nodded to Isabella, the hint of a smile on her lips. A slight thrill of fear curdled Isabella's stomach. What if the Queen heard of Isabella's tryst in the garden? It was true that Elizabeth had eyes everywhere. What if she found out? What would happen to Isabella then? What would happen to Edward?

The play started and Isabella was lost again in the pageantry and beauty that was A Midsummer Night's Dream. The troupe had spared no expense in bringing the play to life for their queen. Every costume had been embellished, every actor groomed perfectly. Isabella sat enthralled, waiting for the moment when her beloved Puck would enter the stage.

He did, and his eyes seemed to search the darkness of the house looking for something. Isabella's heart beat painfully in her chest until his eyes rested upon her and he smiled. It no longer mattered to her whether her friends guessed at the small intrigue between herself and the man on stage. Edward was looking at her, and she had made him smile.

Word got around the Court quickly that Lady Isabella had caught the fancy of one of the troupe players. Not long after the actors had left the palace, whispered rumors began to fly that one of the main players was so bold as to make a play for one of the Ladies-in-Waiting. Isabella retired to her room early, intent on avoiding her mother and father, but she could not delay them forever. The next morning, her mother waited upon her outside her door.

"Open this door, you insufferable little wench, or I shall tear it down with my fingers," Lady Swan hissed at the door when she was certain Isabella was awake.

Isabella took her time, stretching and pulling on a day coat, before opening to the door for her mother. She curtsied overly low and bid her come in.

"Verily, Mother, there is no need for theatrics," Isabella said cheekily.

Lady Swan's hand sliced through the air, setting Isabella's cheek on fire with a cruel blow. "Silence," she said, her blue eyes fiery in their fury. "Tell me true, didst thou besmirch our good name with yon fool-born miscreant who made doe eyes at thee last night?"

"Nay, my lady," Isabella said, choking back tears. "I swear on all that is holy, I did nothing untoward."

Lady Swan stiffened, but nodded tersely. "I did not believe it of you, poppet, but thou knowest how tongues wag."

Isabella reeled with the way her mother's tone had changed, but she didn't comment. One blow to the cheek was enough to cure her of her loose manners.

"Get thee dressed, sweeting. This is no time to keep thy Regent waiting."

"As you will, my lady," Isabella murmured, stunned out of the sleepy daydreams that had clung to her after waking. "Grammercy."

Rumors faded after a day of Isabella acting demurely in her role as the Queen's lady, but it didn't take long for Isabella to see that things were not the same — that they might never be again. Elizabeth, though still kind to Isabella, was a touch frosty the day after the play. It hurt Isabella's heart to hear her beloved Queen call for Lady Brandon to play viol for her in private instead of herself. She had hoped that it was only a passing choice as the queen was given to fancies, but it was not.

Isabella's life at court took on a monochromatic bleakness as she realized three things. For one, she was no longer the Queen's favorite Lady. This meant that while she still enjoyed the privileges that came with being a Lady-in-Waiting, she didn't reap the benefits that came with being Bess's favorite. Secondly, Isabella had resigned herself to the fact that her days of sneaking out to see plays were over. She just couldn't risk being found out again. This complicated her third realization greatly: she was in love with Edward Masen.

Desperate for some contact with him, but unable to leave the castle, Isabella did the only thing she could think of: she wrote him a playful letter, pouting that she was bored and needed cheering from her life at court. She sent it, unsure how it would be received. When, some days later, a letter arrived for her in unfamiliar, scrawling script, Isabella's heart leapt. Isabella, mi Bella Amore, it began. His writing was halting, as though it took much effort for him to craft, but his words were at once playful and sincere, so much like the man Isabella remembered from the garden.

She did not fool herself. Her good friend Lady Brandon reminded her that playful flirtations in letters were nothing more than words on paper. But Edward's continued responses to her letters eased the dullness of her life at court and fueled more of Isabella's beautiful daydreams. Until, of course, her father killed the chance that any daydream might come true ever again.

My dearest E,

Forgive my boldness in writing to thee so soon after my last missive, but I shall be brief. The Lord forgive me for my sin of disobedience, but I cannot allow my father his latest attempt to kill my spirit without first asking — nay, begging — thee to intercede.

I am to be married, or so says the Lord Suffolk, to the most vile, evil-headed man God hath ever dared unleash upon this good earth. Lord Lennox means to wed me next month, at which time I will be removed from court and holed up within one of his putrid hunting lodges.

I cannot, my dear, for thee must know by now that my heart belongs to another. If thee loves me, as I love thee, save me from this most rotten fate. And if thee does not, stay … I will understand. Know, thou, that thee will always have my heart.



She folded the letter, her heart racing with her own impertinence. Edward had never once, save for his playful use of her name, professed love for her. But she couldn't marry Lennox never knowing if Edward returned any of her feelings. She had to know. And so, with her heart beating painfully in her chest, she sealed the letter and along with it, her heart.

After two weeks, Isabella resigned herself to the fact that she had scared Edward away from her. She was true to her word and did not blame him. The thought of the crown as well as two powerful Lords standing in the way would be enough to dampen the smoldering beginnings of any romance. Her heart knew its true love, however, and she remained silently loyal to him. She begged leave to sit in the garden, ostensibly so that she might sketch some of the flowers. When the Queen gave her a cold smile and nodded her head, Isabella raced with her sketchbook to the garden to bid a final farewell to her heart.

"How now, spirit! wither wander you?" she murmured, picking two fragile daisies and twining their stems together.

Tears pricked at the back of her eyes as she walked slowly through the garden, her eyes on the ground and on the flowers … decidedly away from the nut trees that reminded her of Edward.

"Thou speakest aright," she whispered, a faint smile on her lips, "I am that merry wanderer of the night … oh, Puck!"

She could not bring herself to say his real name, and so she mourned the loss of the character who had first set her heart aflame. Isabella circled the garden several times, murmuring to herself as the tears began to course down her cheeks. Her sketchbook was long forgotten on the grass as she recalled Puck's lines from memory. She could not know that she had an audience who was both listening and judging her performance.

"Oh, bravo my lady," an oily voice called from a dark corner of the garden.

Isabella looked up, startled. She covered her heart with hand and fished her handkerchief from out with her other, dabbing at her leaking eyes. "How now? Who goes there?"

"Dost thou not know thy own betrothed?"

James stalked out of the shadows, his eyes traveling greedily over Isabella's body. It made her skin crawl to be trapped in his gaze for so long.

"My good Lord," Isabella breathed. "How long didst thou watch over me?"

"Passing long, my sweet," he replied, coming ever close. "Passing long, indeed."

Isabella clutched her hands at the sides of her dress, willing herself not to back away from him. He created in her the most visceral need to flee, but with their wedding so soon upon them, she would need to learn not to shy from him. Though he would never possess her heart, he was soon to possess her body.

"Pray pardon me, my Lord," she said, her voice still thick with tears. "I am troubled today, and wish a few moments alone with the flowers."

"Yes," Lennox replied, his lips curled in a snarl. "Alone with the flowers … and thy lecherous thoughts of a vile, lurdane actor."

His hand rose too quickly that it didn't process through Isabella's mind what he was doing. As he sliced through the air toward her, however, she realized what he was about and cried out in shock. She turned just in time to save her face from the blow, but he still struck her. His hand landed, palm open, upon her bare back. The heat from the blow seared her flesh and stole the wind from her lungs. It radiated out across her back and made her cheeks flush with anger and embarrassment. Lennox trailed his fingers up her back and curled them around her neck, squeezing just enough to make her gasp for air. He brought his face close to hers and as he spoke, his foul breath poisoned the air around Isabella's head.

"You are mine, wench," he hissed. "And when I wed and bed thee, I will take pleasure in beating the devil out of thee until thou art a good and virtuous wife."

He released her, pushing her backward hard enough that her back hit one of the trees. Lennox left the garden without another word, leaving Isabella panting and sobbing in a heap below the same nut tree she had first spied Edward.

The next day, Isabella returned to the garden after finishing her court duties. As she was no longer Elizabeth's favorite, she had more time that was her own. She brought with her parchment and quill, upon which she intended to write her last letter to Edward. She had not decided if she would send it, but there were words her heart needed to say and she intended to write them, if only to ease the pain that clawed at her chest.

As she sat, her back facing the nut trees in the dying light, she found that she simply could not make her hand form the words. Her heart and mind knew these would be the last words — the last time she wrote his name. She could not, and so she bent her head over the parchment and wept bitterly. In her anguish, she heard nothing around her.

"Stay, mi bella amore," a voice whispered in her ear. "Why dost thou cry so?"

Isabella didn't look up, certain that his dulcet tone was only another daydream sent to torture her. "For thee," she whispered, "and for me."

"My beautiful lady, do not weep for us." A calloused finger brushed a lock of hair hesitantly over her ear, moving her heavy braid to the side. The feel of his finger on her skin sent a familiar heat through her body, one she remembered from the first time Edward had touched her, and Isabella looked up in shock. Edward's green eyes looked back at her apologetically. "I did not mean to keep thee waiting … my sweet."

Her eyes searched his face, reassuring herself that he was, indeed, real and not a vivid imagining. After several moments, she lurched up to her knees and threw her arms around his neck, surprising both herself and Edward with her actions.

"Say you came to take me away from this hell," she whispered in a rush. "Say it now and my tears will dry."

He was silent, his hands moving slowly around her. He tilted his head close to hers as he leaned into her embrace. She heard him draw in a shaking breath as his nose brushed against her neck. He seemed about to speak when all at once, he leaned back, his eyes wide with horror.

"Who did this to thee, Bella?" he murmured, his fingertips brushing over the four circular bruises James had left on her neck.

"I …" she bowed her head in shame, but he tipped her face upward.

His green eyes were ablaze with emotion and her breath caught in her throat.

"Who?" he whispered again, his voice harsh.

"My betrothed," she replied.

The sound that escaped his throat was tortured, full of anguish. He crushed her to his chest, his arms wrapped fully around her body. It was heaven to Isabella, what her love-soaked brain had conjured up as a daydream so many times before.

"I have wronged you so terribly, mi Bella amore," he cried. "I left you here, without a word, as our troupe traveled. I thought you would be safe here … waiting for me to get back. How wrong I was, my love."

Isabella closed her eyes and breathed Edward in. My love, he'd said. Nothing could ever be wrong again. His arms still around her, Edward stood. She rose with him and looked up at him expectantly. When he gestured toward to the outside of the wall, she smiled and nodded. Isabella was not fool enough think that leaving would be without consequences. But no consequence, not even one so great as death, would be enough to stop her from leaving with Edward. She followed him silently through the gateway and down the very same path she'd taken when she'd slipped out of the palace to see the play. There, at the end of the path, was a gray horse. Edward bowed, a twinkle in his eye, as he got up and held a hand down to Isabella. As he pulled her up behind him and she wrapped her arms around his waist, she felt her heart lighten and let herself hope for a future free of Lennox's cruelty.

To Isabella's surprise, Edward took them to the theatre. He turned round to her with a smile and hopped off of the horse. He led the horse around the theatre to a stable and then offered his hand to help her off of the beast. He braced her waist with his other hand and she slid down his body, her nose touching his chest. Isabella's heart sang in an uneven rhythm of anticipation. In taking the first step away from the palace, she'd left behind all of her courtly obligations. She'd never be welcomed back there and that was fine. Her life, and her heart, belonged with Edward.

"Come," Edward murmured.

She followed him through the straw filled stable and up a set of rickety stairs that led to an enclosed area above the barn. From there, they followed a winding passage that led them to a row of apartments. Edward stopped at one of the doors and turned to face Isabella.

"Dost thou wish to come in, Isabella?" he asked, his bright, playful eyes nervous in the dying light.

"I am no longer Isabella," she replied. "I am thy Bella and I wish to be wherever thee are."

His smile was radiant and he squeezed her hand gently as he opened the door. The room inside was small, only big enough for a bed, a desk and a large bookcase. Letters were strewn all over the desk and Bella's heart leapt when she saw her own handwriting on several of them. He'd kept her letters out in the open so that he might reread them.

"My home," he said simply, extending his arm to encompass the room.

Bella smiled as she looked around, seeing touches of the man she'd come to know in his letters throughout the small space. He was playful, a bit disorganized, and enamored with brightly colored things. She walked over to the bookshelf where she found a decaying tree branch. She touched it and turned around with her head cocked in question to Edward. He smiled shyly, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Dost thou not recognize her Majesty's favorite nut tree?" he asked.

Bella gasped in surprise. "Thou kept it?"

"Aye." He took a step toward her, uncertainly. "Twas all I had of thee at the time."

Bella's heart swelled, a heady mix of amazement and love filling her mind.

"I did not know if thee felt anything for me that night," she whispered, her head lowered.

Edward crossed the room quickly, wrapping his hand gently around her waist and placing a finger beneath her chin. "Verily, my Bella, I think it has always been thee."

The kiss was soft, a mere brushing of his lips on hers, at first. Bella closed her eyes as his mouth covered hers. She stood still, unsure what she was meant to do in return, and allowed him to cradle her face with his hand. The feeling was so much more than she could have ever imagined with her narrow daydreams. He was all touch and taste and warmth as his lips moved over her own. Edward kissed her upper lip and then her lower lip before leaning his forehead against hers.

"Dost thou wish me to stop, my Bella?" he asked, a note of sadness in his voice.

"Nay!" she cried. "I wish thee would never stop."

He chuckled, his lips pulling up into a half smirk.

"Why dost thou not return my kiss then?" he asked gently.

"Forsooth, I do not know what thou expects," she whispered, a hot blush rising on her cheeks. "But I am a quick and eager student, my … love."

Edward's hand on her waist tightened and he pulled her body flush with his. His hypnotic eyes grew serious as his other hand moved up her neck and into her hair. With a fluid motion, he untied the ribbon, releasing the heavy braid. Gently, he ran his fingers through her tresses, a smile playing on his lips. The feel of his fingers running through her loose hair was a new and luxuriant feeling. She sighed and let her eyes close as his fingers caressed her neck and back.

"Do not try to learn," he said, his lips so close to her ear that his warm breath tickled the inner shell, "simply feel."

His warm mouth closed on the lobe of her ear and Bella grabbed hold of his doublet as his tongue darted out to taste her. Hot waves of desire seemed to radiate from her ear, down her neck, and come to rest in the pit of her stomach. Slowly, she moved her hands up his sides and traced over the line of his jaw, feeling the smoothness of his cleanly-shaven face under her fingertips. His muscles tightened as she brushed her fingers over his face. He took deep breaths in through his nose as though steadying himself before reaching up and bringing her hand to his mouth.

Edward kissed each of Bella's fingers, sucking on the pad of each one and making her whimper softly. His eyes, dark emerald in the low candlelight, appeared hooded under his sooty lashes as he watched her reaction. He gently bit the fleshy mound between her thumb and index finger, darting his tongue out over the sensitive skin and eliciting a moan.

"Pray, sir, kiss me again," she breathed, leaning into him.

With a low sound, almost like a growl, Edward covered Bella's mouth with his own roughly. She tilted her head to better reach him, opening her mouth as he opened his. His tongue moved tentatively against her upper lip and her skin tingled with warmth. Feeling, as he had instructed her to, she moved her tongue toward his and sighed as they touched. Her chest rose and fell heavily as their tongues moved slowly around each other, feeling and exploring. Her fingers found their way into his soft hair and she held his face to hers, drinking in the sweetness of his presence.

As their kiss intensified, so too did their fingers and hands, growing bolder in their explorations. Edward found the ties that held her smocking and pulled them loose. Bella yelped in surprised as his fingers played against the stays of her corset. He looked at her questioningly, his dark eyes speaking volumes to her silently. She nodded, and brought her lips back to his, desperate for more of his touch. Bella ran her fingers down his neck unhurriedly, trying to hide the tremor as she reached for the ties of his doublet. Red-gold hair peeked out from beneath the white shirt and she touched it gently, reveling in its softness.

It wasn't long before they'd laid each other bare, all of their garments discarded upon the wood floor. No words were needed. They stared at each other in the soft moonlight and flickering candlelight, the weight of the choice they were making heavy in the silence between them. Taking her hand, Edward led Bella over to his bed. He pulled back the coverlet and motioned for her to lay down. As he joined her, his eyes never left hers.

They kissed again, allowing their naked bodies to learn the curve of each other. Edward moved against her, the hardness of his desire pressing into her thigh and making her gasp in surprise. Bella clung to him as he moved over top of her, his eyes asking permission and her open arms granting it.

"With my body, I thee love," Edward whispered hoarsely. He nudged apart her legs gently and knelt between them. "I thee worship." He placed open mouth kisses upon both of her nipples, making her writhe beneath him. "I thee honor." Edward lowered himself until his manhood pressed against her entrance. "I thee wed."

Edward pushed himself within her and they both gasped at the intrusion. There was pain in the coupling, but there was pleasure too. Bella lost herself in Edward and she felt him lose himself in her. As he cried out her name, she clutched him close and prayed that no one would ever take her from his side again.

Bella's sleepy bliss was broken with the harsh sounds of shouting from the street below. Her brain cobwebbed from drowsiness, it took her a few moments to place herself. She remembered slowly that she'd fled the palace on horseback, that she'd slipped through the night into the apartments above a stable, and that she'd lain with Edward in his bed the night before.


She felt around the small bed, but though his side was still warm, he was nowhere to be found. Her sleep-heavy mind took in the sounds of curses flung from the street below and gradually, she placed the voices. Edward's soft voice was raised in anger and he was quarreling with an all too familiar voice that pulled Bella fully from her slumber and made her run across the wood floor to the window.

In the street below, she saw Lennox circling Edward. Her heart raced as she pulled on a slip of clothing, barely bothering to cover herself completely before she flew out of the room and down toward the stable entrance. As an afterthought, she grabbed her dress and carried it with her down the stairs, unwilling to waste the time to pull it over her head. As she was about to burst out into the street, Bella spied two familiar heads in front of her. Her brother, Emmett, and his friend Major Whitlock stood ramrod straight in the doorway facing away from her. She pulled at the loose fabric that covered her body, ashamed for the first time of her appearance. She hung back and listened for a moment.

"See! Hark how yon coxcomb stands like a dummy before us, half dressed and ill-able to answer my charges," James cried to the gathering crowd of interested onlookers. "Canst thou answer my query, scut? Where is the Lady Swan?"

Edward remained stoic, his jaw clenching and unclenching as Lennox circled and riled the crowd of people. He was a noble and Edward was only a lowly actor. The mere charge that he'd absconded with a Lady of the Court would be enough to call for Edward's death. If she emerged dressed as she was in her undergarments, they could execute him on the spot. Slipping behind a pole, Bella pulled on her dress and fought with the stays so that she looked somewhat presentable.

"Thou has no answer for me, swine?" Lennox seethed. "Then, pray tell, why didst thou come hurtling down the steps when thou heard us calling for the Lady in the street?"

"A missing Lady of the Court is nothing to doze through, good sir," Edward said. "I came to help."

Bella could hear the familiar smirk in Edward's voice and it made her heart race faster. The stays on her dress would not cooperate and Edward's playful cheek would get him killed if she did not show herself. She nearly screamed in terror when she felt a cool hand cover hers to help her with the ties.

"Stay, my good sister," a soft, familiar voice said. "By thy leave, I will help thee."

"Alice!" Bella cried, her immediate joy cut short by the embarrassment of the situation. "In faith, there is an explanation."

"Hush, my friend," Alice replied, smiling at Bella. "No judgment will you find here, only help and love."

Bella smiled warmly at her friend, and silently wished that all the world could be as understanding as Alice. In the street, Lennox was threatening to search every actors' room. There was a great uproar, and above them all, Bella could hear Edward yelling at Lennox to stand down.

"Fie on thee, filthy cur," Lennox cried. "I will go where I choose, and no errant, dog-hearted, haggard will stand in the way of me finding what is mine."

"She was not yours, Lord," Edward seethed, "Though you left enough marks upon her body."

The crowd gasped, hearing only that Edward had seen the Lady's body. It was as good as admitting he'd bedded her. Alice squeezed Bella's hand before letting her go. Bella ran out through the barn, past her brother who cried out as she past, and straight toward Edward. Lennox, however, was faster than Bella. He grabbed hold of her by the hair, almost pulling her backward with the force of his grasp.

"Thou craven harlot," he hissed as he pulled on her hair. "Thou shalt pay, but first … thou will watch as I kill the fawning whoreson who stole thy maidenhead, which was rightly mine."

Tears sprang to Bella's eyes, but she saw Edward leap into action, pulling off the leather glove he wore and throwing it at Lennox's feet.

"Unhand her at once," Edward bellowed, silencing the entire crowd.

Lennox slowly unwound his hand from Bella's hair, his head bowed and his lips curled in a sneer. "Dost thou challenge me to a duel, boy?"

"A la outrance," Edward replied steadily.

Lennox smiled fiercely. "A la outrance, then."

The crowd gasped, murmuring among themselves as they speculated how long the handsome young actor could hope to last against the older Lord in a fight to the death. Another one of the troupe moved through the crowd and threw Edward a sword, which he wielded with a grace that only slightly quelled the ache in Bella's heart. The Lord Lennox was a trained fighter; Edward was but an actor. Stage fighting would get him nowhere against an opponent as skilled as Lennox.

"Sir Emmett," James said quietly. "Prithee guard thy sister whilst I dispose of this nuisance."

"No!" Bella cried and tried to grab hold of James, but her brother's strong, gentle hand held her back.

She looked up at him wild-eyed, but he just shook his head. She could see he was sorely disappointed in her, but he was also saddened by what was about to take place. She and Emmett shared an understanding, and she knew that he did not want to see her hurt. Bella clutched her hands over her breast and prayed with all of her might that her true love might succeed against the stacked odds against him.

"En garde," Lennox cried, unsheathing his sword and holding it aloft.

Almost lazily, Edward brought his sword up. He looked calm – comfortable with the sword in his hand. Bella prayed as the first clang of metal on metal rang through the street, and then she shut her eyes. She could not watch as the men grunted and parried and thrust, the sharp metal so close to her beloved's exposed skin.

The crowed oohed and ahhed as the fight continued, long after Bella had assumed it would be over. She opened one eye and covered her mouth as she saw Edward, his bronze hair standing on end atop his head and a crazy gleam in his eye. For his part, Lennox's left sleeve was soaked in blood. Edward had gotten in a stroke against the Lord!

Bella opened both eyes and watched the action unfold, hope beginning to push away the cold dread that had settled around her heart. For every thrust that Lord Lennox threw at Edward, he had a parry to block him. Edward moved with a fluid grace across the cobbled street, whereas Lennox looked to be wheezing and stumbling. Edward appeared to be winning, much to everyone's shock and amazement.

A loud cry of anger rippled through the crowd as Lennox feinted and tricked Edward, slicing his side with a tricky sword movement. It was but a flesh wound, but it made Bella's heart bleed. It seemed they might go on for hours, no one truly coming out ahead, until with a series of thrusts, Edward managed to get Lennox backed into a corner. The Lord dropped his sword, the metal clanging loudly on the cobbled street. The tip of Edward's sword pressed dangerously into the Lord's neck as he leaned in, smiling victoriously at the cornered Lord.

"I submit," Lennox cried, his eyes darting between Edward's face and the blade. "I submit!"

"A la outrance," Edward sneered.

Bella shut her eyes just in time, but she heard the wet sound of the sword slicing home as well as the mortal grunt that escaped Lennox's throat as Edward struck the killing blow. The crowd dispersed quickly after the killing, but Emmett, Jasper, Alice and Bella remained.

Edward ran over to Bella and without looking at Emmett, he took her in his arms. She fell gratefully into his embrace, touching his chest and face and hands to be sure that he was whole and really there. She grazed his wound and he hissed in pain.

"Alack! You are fair wounded, my love," she cried. "We must get thee tended and whole."

"He is not mortally hurt," Emmett said, pulling Bella's attention away from Edward for a moment. "First, we must see you both safely away from this place. Father will be looking for thee, sister, and he will not be so easily dealt with."

Bella looked worriedly between Edward's pained expression and her brother. She didn't know the next step, only that she would not be parted from Edward. It did not seem that Emmett wished to part them; he seemed to be offering them his aid while he could. Still, Bella would not stoop to endangering his marriage to Rosalie.

"Stay," Edward said, placing a hand on Emmett's shoulder warily. "Wouldst thou agree to witness for us? This e'en at yonder chapel?"

"Be this your wish, my sister?" Emmett asked gently.

"Aye," Bella replied, her eyes on Edward. "Aye, it is my greatest wish, brother."

"Go thee, and hide thyselves for the day. Anon, we will all be back at yonder chapel to witness for thee and wish thee well."

Good as his word, Emmett met Edward and Bella under cover of darkness at the chapel. With him, he brought Alice and Jasper as well as his fiancée, Rosalie. Bella was overwhelmed with their presence, crying and hugging her two friends when they were safely within the chapel.

"Marry, sister! Thou whilst not be wed in everyday threads while I have something to say about it," Alice said with a smile. She pulled out a package she'd carried under her cloak and motioned for Bella and Rosalie to follow her to the back of the church. "I snatched it from thy closet in thy room. It was the brightest, most beautiful garment I could find, and as worthy of this occasion as any."

Together, Rosalie and Alice helped Bella into her blue gown and fixed her hair quickly. Bella worked to keep her emotions calm, but as Alice and Rosalie escorted her out of the small antechamber at the back of the church, Bella felt her eyes well with tears. Edward stood at the front of the chapel with the Minister and their witnesses. Along with Emmett and Jasper, a few of the other actors as well as Will Shakespeare himself had joined them to wish them well. On the morrow, no one, not even the Queen herself, could vow that they had not been married in front of witnesses and by the appropriate means.

With Alice and Rose behind her, Bella processed down the aisle with Emmett by her side. Her steady heartbeat was the only music to accompany her. Edward waited, a smile on his face as he took her proffered hand from Emmett. The service was simple and quick, their vows traditional. After escorting the new couple to Edward's apartment, the group dispersed.

"How now, my husband?" Bella asked sleepily as they lay in their marriage bed.

The dawn light had just begun to peek in through the closed draperies. Edward stirred beside her, his fingers moving lazily across her bare back raising goose bumps wherever he touched.

"I am passing well, my wife," he whispered, running his nose along the inside of her wrist and nipping at her palm. "How fare thee?"

"Verily, I hath never been this happy in all my life," Bella said, dipping her head low and resting it against Edward's cheek. "What shall we do now, though?"

The road that lay ahead for them was uncertain. Word had gotten to the palace of Lord Lennox's death and of the duel that had been fought. Lord and Lady Suffolk knew, then, of their daughter's choice as did the Queen. That was, perhaps, the only sadness that Bella felt for her old life. The Queen, she knew, would miss her and she would miss her queen.

"We shall lay low for a while, my love," Edward murmured, pulling her roughly to him to accentuate his bawdy words.

Bella giggled and kissed him, reveling in the feel of his day-old beard against her cheek. "And then what?"

"And then, we shall face the day together," he replied, sighing as he moved over her. "Always … together."

Bella rose to meet him as he sought entrance and they sighed at that fulfillment, the worry of what might come to pass lost in the pleasure of knowing they would face it together.

A/N: I do hope you enjoyed this little story. If the story struck your fancy, there will be voting for the Age of Edward contest starting on February 12th. I'd be much obliged if you would consider voting for whichever story touched your heart. Thank you so much for reading! God save you, merry readers. I bid you a good day! ~Jen