Isabella pulled out her dark blue dress. One of the few items she had saved for and splurged on.
She never considered she'd ever wear it before the king, and especially not before some man she could barely keep from grabbing and kissing.
Edward did things to her blood and body. It was like horses raced through her veins and almost crippled her.
Dinner was going to be vexing this evening.
Her dress was pulled into place; she left her hair loose and decided to fore-go the gable hood.
Why should she try to fit in when it was clear she was not meant to be at Henry's table?
Rap, rap, rap . . .
There was a soft tap at her chamber door.
She slipped her shoes on and stumbled over then opened it.
Her breath caught in her throat immediately.
"Sir Edward," she said, curtsying.
"Lady Isabella—you are to accompany me to the king's presence chamber," he said and reached out for her hand.
She took it with a frightening, greedy speed.
He was silent as he walked with a breathtaking fluid grace and kept her hand tucked around his arm.
"How are you related to the king? I can see some resemblance, but temperament wise—you are night to his day."
"Oh, I see." He stopped walking. "So Henry is the light of Christ, and I am Satan's blanket of—"
"No, no, sir, I only meant . . ." she trailed off and looked at the wall, her cheeks heating. Her thoughts ran away with her like her breath she was trying desperately to catch.
"Go on. I long to hear what goes on in that mind of yours." He patted her hand on his arm and smirked.
"Oh, God," she groaned. That smile would make her knees fell her on her ass.
"God is in your head? Do you honestly expect me to believe you sit and pray all day long, down in the laundry?"
"No—I expect you to realize I am cleaning your underclothes of ladies seeds you let spill onto you!" She let go of his arm and backed away.
"Is there a reason you have turned from a sprightly little nymph to a hissing viper? What alarm have I raised in you to elicit such a reaction?"
"You disarm with your wicked tongue and probing eyes," she said and then sucked in a rasping breath. Why did she say that?
Her hands flexed and her legs tightened, begging her to run back to her room and hide there.
"My wicked tongue is used only for pleasant things—I can assure you."
"Like wanton women?" She was unaware of how he spent his time in the company of women, so she baited him, to draw it out of him—trick him into saying if he was attached to another woman.
It sickened her to think of him even looking at another lady.
Bile slipped up the back of her throat.
"Perhaps . . ." His head waggled a bit on his shoulders. His grin was firmly affixed in place.
"Are you pretending to be a gentleman that keeps his exploits to himself?"
He chuckled, low and throaty, like a sensual caress—her legs heated below her plush, thick skirts. Especially between her thighs.
"I pretend nothing except to be interested in Henry's affairs."
"You are not interested?"
"I refer to his business matters—not his wandering eyes. That interests me greatly." He swiped his bottom lip with his thumb and forefinger, stretching them out at the corners of his mouth then bringing them together to pinch the center of his lip.
She stifled a gasp. Those lips were as tempting as his eyes.
Her gaze dropped to the ground as she breathed in as deep as she could.
He paused. "Especially when it involves you."
Her eyes bounced back up to his, and her mouth dropped open.
What did he mean?
He grabbed her hand and resumed their walk to the presence chamber.
"I repeat—how are you related to the king? I have heard of no brother before."
He laughed. "No—I dare say you haven't. Henry struggles to admit his father had a wandering eye, too, and that he created a few bastards along the way. As Henry, my brother, accepted his son with Bessie Blount, I was also accepted by his father as his possible heir. Not that I was needed. Henry VII had two strapping, healthy sons. But we see how Arthur fared. Once he was gone, Henry VII panicked and announced me as a legitimate son for the throne if anything should happen to his son, Henry VIII."
I rubbed my chest with my free hand. It ached to hear these words.
"Did you know your father well?"
"Not the one whose seeds I came from. He cared little for me—but then my brother, Henry, says the same treatment was afforded him. Many kings do not trouble themselves with knowing their offspring. They have little time or regard for such trivialities."
"And you said you care not about your brother's business affairs? Why is that?" she asked, matching his brisk pace. He seemed to be speeding up.
Was he tired of her—ready to give her away to Henry already?"
"Because I have no aspirations for the throne."
She stopped and yanked on his sleeve. "What? Why would you say that?"
He stared straight in her eyes and gripped her shoulders. "You said that women in this realm know his affection is fleeting and usually attached to the blade of an ax?"
"Aye, that I did."
"And I realize the same holds true for any blood that seeks the throne, even if it is only a vague interest," he explained. His eyes went hard. "I never wanted to be in line for the throne."
"Then why did you come when he summoned?"
"He can be very convincing," he said, but it almost sounded like a question.
She popped her eyebrow up at him and shrugged his hands off her.
"I needed the money," he admitted, his cheeks coloring.
She smiled. "He bribed you?"
He nodded and they were off again.
All too soon, they were in the presence chamber, and it was bustling with boisterous voices and happy feet, dancing to the gay music.
As soon as Edward presented her to Henry, Edward's hand clamped down on her wrist like he had no intention of releasing her.
She looked to her captor and there was an angry vein throbbing in the side of his neck and he wore a wounded look.
"Ah yes, Isabella. You look radiant, dear heart. But you must take to the dance. There is much food to come out soon, but until then—dance. I must watch you move about," Henry said, shooing her.
"I have no partner, Majesty," she said.
He looked at his brother. "Edward—would you be so kind as to oblige and take this pretty little thing out on the floor?"
Edward nodded and deftly swung her to his other side then marched her out there without a word, his spine rigid and jaw clenched.
Was he angry with her? How had she offended?
He gripped her waist tight and lifted her straight up in the air in time with the other dancers.
My Lord but he was strong and moved with a dizzying ease.
She locked her gaze on his and barely breathed.
His secure grip made her lightheaded and her tummy flip.
"Have I shamed you already?"
His brow crinkled. "Why would you suggest such a thing?"
"Because your pale pallor and flaring nostrils speak to an angry man that has been offended, and since I am the only one you you have conversed with, other than your brother, it seems I am the fiend." She fingered the silky cloth across his broad shoulders. If only she could feel those muscles rippling beneath.
"You have done nothing but attract unwanted attention, but that seems to be your favorite mistake to repeat."
He whirled her around in a circle and when it was time to pass her on and take on the next partner, he refused and kept hold of her.
She gaped at him but kept dancing. This was unheard of!
Her steps faltered a few times and her feet were unsure. She never learned these dances well enough to pass the scrupulous eye of her mother.
Where had that thought come from?
She had avoided thought of her mother for a very long time.
Her mother who married beneath her station because she could not afford to have the man she truly loved. Then when it became more than she could bear, she abandoned her family, hoping to rejoin riveting court-life. When Isabella became the royal laundress she had heard talk that her mother had been trying to win back the king's favor for many years and finally gave up.
Isabella rolled her shoulders back to improve her posture, kept a stiff frame yet relaxed into his hold. He could lead her anywhere, and she would follow.
His eyes were always on hers, and he smiled at her several times when she would miss a beat or turn a wrong way.
"You move like a lithe little fox," he said.
One brow lifted. She clucked her tongue and said, "Meaning I dash away and run in sporadic circles, uncertain of where to place my feet?"
He rolled his eyes and smirked. "Must a man beat you over the head for you to accept a compliment?"
"No, most men do not need to do that—but for you—oh, yes, Lord Edward. You must because I never know which direction you think to lead me with your confusing talk."
He blinked a few times in rapid succession and his mouth hung open. "I confuse you? You run me in circles with the things you say. I can scarcely sleep after I have had a conversation with you."
They clapped and hopped, and her insides were still jumping about at what he said.
She kept him from sleep? Her? But she was no one of consequence or of eloquent speech.
They linked hands, swayed and turned and then he had her up against his chest, unlike the other dancers, and whispered, "I will keep you safe tonight. You stay near me and follow my lead—just as we dance now."
"P-promise?" she asked, her voice shaking, her throat constricting. The power in this man was excruciating to be near—the way it creamed her thighs and made her head fuzzy as if filled with soft hay, was indescribable.
"Yes, I do. You take care to heed me. I have a mind to keep you hidden as best I can."
The song ended and they broke apart and clapped.
When she turned in the direction of the king, Henry was flushed, looked sweatier than she, and he waved for her to return to him.
Edward took her hand and paraded her through the room.
Queen Catherine entered the room before they reached Henry, and everyone bowed and curtsied toward her.
The king's visage went from jovial to somber in the mere time it took the candles to flicker as she moved into the room.
Oh, this was beyond encouraging.
Isabella hid her smile by pretending to yawn. She leaned toward Edward and whispered, "Perhaps your services are unnecessary."
"My services will always be necessary to you, madame." He gripped a hand around the back of her ribs, his fingers flirting at the edge of her breast, hidden under her arm. She was flushed and warm, more so now than she had been from the exuberant dancing. He leaned toward her, holding her steady with his arm and walked her toward the king's table, but instead of seating her next to Henry, he directed her down the length of the table and he nodded at the queen.
All three of them sat at the same time, and Henry made a loud, obnoxious kissing sound when he hugged his wife.
"So good you are here to join us!" he exclaimed.
Many welcomed her, lavished her with attention and Isabella shrunk in her seat, grateful for the queen's presence.
"She is most exquisite tonight," Isabella told Edward.
"Aye; that she is, but she pales in comparison to some of the beauty seated at this end of the table."
"Yes, you are very beautiful, but I do not see—"
He turned toward her, swiveling his hips in her direction until his legs were flush up against hers. "I was speaking of you." His eyes hardened and were darker than the coals in the fires lit in the room. "You surround my senses and take me unawares. You steal my breath away, and I intend to get it back from you, for I can only breathe when you are near. And, by God, it is hard to pretend otherwise."
"Me?" Her heart expanded and she choked on an exhale.
He gripped her hand under the table. "None other. Isabella . . . I, Christ, you are so—"
"Is this the Isabella that all the ladies have been prattling on about?" a woman across the way asked.
Isabella's body went cold. This woman was the most dazzling creature she had ever seen.
"Baroness Hale—this is the lady to which you refer," Edward said and then he placed Isabella's hand on his lap beneath the table. No one would see it, but now she was the one that would not be able to breathe—rather than Edward, as he had told her was the case. "Isabella Swan, I would like to introduce you to Baroness Mary Alice Hale."
Her dark hair dipped down and Isabella did the same. In that instant, she realized how hopeless she was—trying to look anything like this spectacular woman before her.
The blond man at her side smiled so bright, Isabella worried it meant he could see how inadequate she felt.
"Baron Jasper Hale—this is a surprise. I am shocked to see you tonight," Edward said.
"Yes, well, since my lady wife will be going into hiding soon for her lying in—we thought it best to attend court one last time." He rubbed his wife's belly, and Isabella smiled.
The woman was pregnant.
Oh God, why did she immediately set in on being jealous of some woman she had never met before?
And here this woman was heavy with child, and Isabella had failed to notice because she was too busy cumbering her soul with envy.
"Isabella Swan? Yes? Is that your name?" Jasper asked.
He had an odd accent.
Isabella nodded and murmured a yes.
"I knew your mother well. She was a sweet, wonderful woman. One of the few that failed to play the courtly love ritualistic games well. I supposed it was why she eventually left court," he replied.
Isabella sat speechless.
"She failed to be included and find her way?"
"Aye, that is how I saw it," he agreed.
Isabella picked at her food that was now sitting before her. She was unaware of when it had been placed there, but she did not care.
Was it her lot to be the same—not find a way to fit comfortably with gentry? Would Edward forever be humiliated to dance with a clumsy oaf who never uttered the right words?
But what was she thinking? He was not hers to have. She was here to work, not play and be one of them.
The topic of conversation shifted to the hunt that had been sustained today.
She had nothing to say. What could she add? Oh, yes, I will be happy to wash out the blood and grass stains tomorrow after your clothes are delivered to me.
Oh, indeed that would be a great way to be included. Her chest was heavy.
She swallowed down a bite of venison and barely tasted it.
Edward shifted next to her, and unexpectedly, his leg was touching hers again. But not simply touching, rubbing up against her repeatedly and most definitely in a deliberate fashion.
It took her a moment to brave a glimpse at him, and when she did, there was a dark, hungry look in his eyes.
He leaned close to her ear, his lips grazed the edge for a second. "Eat—a damsel like you will need her strength tonight. I have plans to exhaust you."
She tried not to jump in her seat as her thighs slammed shut.
"What do you . . . ?" When she turned to him, thinking they'd be nose-to-nose, he was eating as if nothing had just transpired between them.
A ripple of shame ran through her. Why did she think Edward was interested in her?
Surely, she was misunderstanding his words, simply because his voice held this sensual rasp that traveled straight to her knees, weakening them and making them turn inward for the protection of her throbbing cunny.
It was no fault of his own that she felt this way around him.
He had said she took his breath away, but most likely this was the courtly way of flirting and being friendly. She was so naive, she had no way to decipher what was ordinary and what was more.
When her gaze flitted further down the table while she tried to gain her sporadic breath back, another man also stared at her. It was the king, and he was obviously pouting and pining away for her.
When she finished all she could eat, she stood and asked to be excused.
Edward motioned to the king, they were given permission, and Edward dutifully took her hand and led her out of the hall.
"Did you enjoy your meal?" he asked.
"It was satisfactory," she said, keeping her eyes at the end of the corridor, for if she looked at him . . . her thighs would heat at the top, she would lose her way with words and she would want him so desperately she would be pained even worse about the chest.
"Henry was most displeased when I returned the necklace to him," Edward said.
She ran her hand up his arm a little higher. "Is that so? Well, I tried to take your advice and stop confusing a monarch into thinking a paid subordinate reached for a higher station."
"You should have seen the look on his face," he said as if she had not replied at all.
"I am rather pleased I did not have to see it." She tried to rush them, by lengthening her stride, but he gripped her arm and slowed her down.
He turned her right when she should have gone left.
"Wh-why're we going this way? My chambers are the other direction."
"Come, now, I have something to show you," he said. "A way to keep you occupied and exhaust you, like I promised earlier. It is well you ate enough to keep your strength for the exertions you will experience soon enough."
"I will not go to your chambers," she choked out, her throat constricting. Her heart pounded harder than ever. If he touched her once more, she would shame herself by throwing her arms around him and kissing his perfectly pouty lips.
"I know you are too valuable to be treated like a tart. It is a perfectly innocent engaging activity I involve you in," he said. "Or at least one that leaves a little room to sin if so desired." He smirked. "I leave that up to your good judgment, sweet lady."
Before she could balk, he led her outside into the garden.