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Crowned By Love

Crowned By Love

Book excerpt

Chapter One

Westminster Palace, London, April, 1471

Denys Woodville hiked up her skirts and hopped onto the palace gate. The crowd cheered as King Edward led his Yorkist army into the outer court, fresh from another defeat of the Lancastrians. The scene evoked mixed feelings as despair overtook her joy. How she longed for a soldier of her own to welcome home.

Mounted on his white stallion, the king waved to adoring subjects as if today were any other. Trumpets and clarions blasted a sprightly tune. Knights unhorsed and removed their helmets as families and lady loves flocked to them. Richard, the king's brother, leapt off his mount into his sweetheart Anne’s open arms. The king led the stream of squires and grooms into the palace to greet his pregnant Queen Elizabeth. Amidst all this embracing and kissing, Denys stepped down from her perch and stood alone.

Only one knight remained mounted. He didn't rush into the arms of an ardent maiden. Instead, he halted his gray stallion directly in front of Denys.

“Good morrow, my lady!” His tone, clear and confident, boomed from his slatted visor.

Her eyes locked on the proud figure, its regal bearing a portrait of chivalry. The sun's rays blocked all but the outline of his pointed helmet. With one graceful move, he threw back his visor. Her gaze lingered on his face, shadowed with stubble, a cut on his chin his only physical mar. The sun’s rays glinted in his sky-blue eyes.

“Welcome home, my lord,” she greeted him. “We are all very proud of you.”

He plucked a white rose from the vine behind him, leaned over and handed it to her. The striking contrast twixt delicate rose and hard plate armor sent a thrill through her. She longed to clasp his fingers under those gauntlets. “Why, thank you, my lord.”

He gazed at her with such longing, she knew he shared her loneliness, her displacement.

He also needed a special someone to come home to; she knew it in her heart. 

The revelers converged, pushing them apart, yet their eyes still locked. The press of people and horses drove him away, only helmet and gauntlet visible as he waved. She waved back, but for certes he could no longer see her. 

“Farewell, Sir—”

Sir—who? As he vanished, she caressed the rose petals and her imagination soared.

She never had a sweetheart or a romantic liaison. She cherished her childhood friend Richard, but that was childhood. This soldier made her feel like a woman for the first time in her life.

She nudged her way through the crowded palace grounds. No sight of him. “I shall find him,” she vowed out loud.

* * *

Valentine Starbury guided his mount around the outer court’s perimeter, trampled flowers and handkerchiefs the only remnants of the joyous parade. He glanced over his shoulder but couldn't find her, the only maiden without a steepled headdress. Only an elegant pearl circlet graced her silver hair. Standing alone when he entered, neither welcoming nor embracing a special soldier, eyes downcast, she’d looked so despondent. But they brightened like jewels when he approached, his own heartache reflected in those eyes. She was the maiden he'd envisioned all those lonely nights in France—the maiden he always knew he'd find.

And in a moment, he’d lost her.

Swearing, he shook his head in despair—you lost her, you fool, you can't even do that right.

He couldn't bear another loss.

                                                                          * * *

Alone in her chambers after the feast, Denys stroked the fragrant rose he'd given her. After her Aunt Elizabeth adopted her, she passionately pursued Edward, England’s future king. Edward fell hard, and they married. The new bride had no need of a child, so she sent Denys to Yorkshire, far out of the way.

The childless duke and duchess of Scarborough raised her as the daughter they never had. When the duchess died, the duke sent Denys back to court, unwanted again. Despite having a king and queen for an uncle and aunt, Denys languished, a lost soul. Today, as reunited lovers surrounded her, she stood alone, unwanted. To add to her misery, the knight of her dreams appeared, only to vanish. Such was her life as an outsider.

Her lady-in-waiting entered, curtsied, and held out a folded parchment embossed with the royal seal. “A page delivered this from her highness the queen, my lady.”

She dismissed the maid. “It can wait.” Probably a summons to one of the queen's silly musicales, an excuse for court ladies to gossip.

She put the message out of her mind till that eve as her tiring woman stood behind her brushing her hair.

“Jane, please fetch me that royal parchment.” She waved in the direction of her writing table.

Denys broke the seal and unfolded it—a summons, all right—but not to a giddy musicale.

It was a summons to a wedding—her own. Her heart took a sickening lurch.

Her intended was Richard, duke of Gloucester, the king's youngest brother, her childhood companion. Queen Elizabeth always married relatives off to the cream of nobility, and Richard was the highest ranking bachelor in the kingdom.

Far from her idea of a husband. A brother, yes. A husband—never!

A fastidious prude, he intended to wed his sweetheart Anne Neville.

Denys and Richard played together as children, and renewed their friendship when she returned to court. They played tennis, chess, cards—but play ended at games. Just the thought of kissing him made her shudder.

Now the queen wanted them wed on Christmas Day.

Seething with fury, she strode to the hearth and flung the parchment into the flames. They licked and charred it beyond recognition. She crawled into bed for a long, hard think.

By the time she fell asleep, she'd already thought of several ways out.

                                                                          * * *

King Edward stood to bid his queen good eve; she left the dais and her bevy of maids followed her out of the great hall. Denys climbed the dais steps and approached her uncle with a curtsy. “Uncle Ned, I need speak with you.”

“Denys, my dear, come, sit by me!” His beefy hand wrapped hers in comforting warmth. “I hardly see you, what with all the battles and council meetings—you must let me get my revenge on the chessboard!”

She smiled at the memory of their last match—she captured Uncle Ned's own king with no more than rook and pawn. “I would much enjoy that, Uncle.” She sat beside him and kissed his ruby coronation ring.

He motioned a passing steward to bring Denys a cup of wine. “Are you happy at court, my dear? Or would you rather stay up Yorkshire way where it's quiet at least?”

“Oh, I felt especially misty today, the first anniversary of the duchess's death. I miss Castle Howard so much.”  Ah, Castle Howard—where warmth and love surrounded her, embracing her childhood with rocking cradles, a lullaby every night and the duchess's soft breast to rest her head on. “I had my studies, gave alms to the poor, read to the urchins . . . they devoured King Arthur tales.” Her tone lightened as she recalled the joy of bringing brief happiness to bleak lives.

“I know how much the folk and the duchess adored you.” King Edward gazed into the distance. “In the years my brothers, sisters and I lived at Castle Howard, the duchess was a mother to all of us.”

Denys nodded. Her eyes caught the blur of lights glinting off her goblet. “Duchess used to spend hours fussing over my hair, especially when the sun bleached it white. 'How pretty you are, like a little Dove!' she said to me one day.” Her pet name was Dove from that day on. But her halcyon childhood met an abrupt end.

A playful grin frolicked on King Edward's lips. “She had pet names for us all. I was Knobby, for my big knees and elbows. But I’ve grown into them.” He splayed his fingers, rough and calloused from wielding sword and mace.

“I'm lost here, with the constant buzz of court affairs and trappings of royalty. I just don't fit in here.” She could talk to him this way; his was the most sympathetic ear at court. He shared her love for the Yorkshire countryside: lush green fields, gentle dales, moors purple with heather. She hated London, a filthy, crowded stinkhole. Most of all, she despised the queen's greedy family. “How I wish I can find my true origins. I'll never believe I'm the queen's niece.”

“Have you appealed to her since your return to court?” He took a swig of wine. “She may accommodate you now that you're older.”

“Aye, the day I arrived from Castle Howard. She dismissed me with 'your father never married my sister, they died of the sweat, and be grateful I adopted a bastard like you.'“ She looked her uncle in the eye. “She hides something, I know it.”

With her first spoken words, she began asking her aunt—”Who were my lord father and ma mere?” Elizabeth either slapped or shooed her away, and when the questioning became too annoying for the queen-to-be, with coronation jewels and feasts on her mind, she cast Denys off to faraway Yorkshire.

But Denys never stopped wondering. What does Elizabeth hide? Who are my parents? Who am I? 

Edward nodded, a dimple in his cheek punctuating his frown. Oh, he knew his conniving wife, all right.

Denys took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Uncle, last eve, the queen dispatched me a most preposterous demand. I must appeal to you about it.”

“Oh, no, what does she want this time?” His tone weary, Edward motioned one of the servers for a refill. “Shall I fetch a pitcher for this?”

“I would fetch a cask.” Denys gripped her goblet. “She wants me to marry Richard. On Christmas Day.”

“Richard? My brother Richard?” Edward rolled his eyes and took a long pull of wine. She read his thoughts: “High time we married the urchin off.” But not to Richard!

“I knew it was just a matter of time before she betrothed me. But I cannot marry Richard. He’s a brother to me. Besides, he’s intended to wed Anne for years as the queen well knows.” She took a much-needed gulp of wine, draining the goblet. “Elizabeth pushed me round since infancy, shunting me out of the way, then dragging me back. But she cannot marry me to Richard on Christmas Day or any other day. Uncle, please, deny permission.”

“So that's the urgency.” He chuckled, swinging his goblet twixt thumb and forefinger.

“Urgency?” She sat upright.

Edward nodded. “Richard already cornered—” He twirled his goblet. “I mean requested that I grant him permission to marry Anne at dawn tomorrow.  I've seen men anxious to get unmarried, but not the other way round.”

“Oh, thank heaven.” She sighed with relief. “They should be wed. They're ever so fond of each other. They are to wed tomorrow, then?”

“Aye, but not at dawn as he requested. He was ready to hunt down any priest he could drag out of bed, but I thought it wise to inform the bride first.” He gave a smile and a playful wink. “I promised to post the banns twixt council meetings tomorrow, so he can't enter wedded bliss at least until after vespers.” He glanced round the noisy great hall. “Now I've got that dreaded funeral mass to attend, so I must be gone, my child. But we shall have that chess game, I promise.”

“Whose funeral?” She stood as he did.

“The earl of Desmond. He was executed as were his two small sons.” He tugged on his doublet.

“Desmond? Executed? Why, he was a most loyal Yorkist. What was his crime?” Denys shuddered at the thought of this latest execution. “This court is a bloodbath,” she muttered.

“There was no crime. Not on his part, but on the part of my wrathful queen.” Edward spoke as if resigned to the steady flow of executions Elizabeth instigated. “When Desmond first arrived from Ireland, we went hunting. I lightly solicited his opinion of my marriage to Bess. Desmond replied in all honesty that it was better to marry into a foreign alliance. Thinking no more of it, I made the mistake of casually mentioning the conversation to Bess. She flew into a rage, and cajoled the earl of Worcester into devising a trumped-up charge against poor old Desmond. He was arrested a week ago and brought to the block yestermorn.”

“But why could you not stop it?” Denys insisted, following him down the two steps of the dais.  

“I intended to grant him pardon. Whilst in the council chambers, I led a futile search for the royal signet, and discovered my queen pilfered it in order to seal the death warrant.” He stifled a yawn. “Desmond was ever so faithful. Wish I could say the same for—others here.” She knew exactly whom he referred to.

Denys frowned in disgust, knowing she didn't have to hide it from her uncle. “Whenever will your rope snap?”

“No need, lass.” The king displayed a rare frown. “The queen's about to birth now, and I'll keep her breeding the rest of her days. She's bound to bring forth a prince fit to be king, or at least as robust as the two wags she whelped by that other canker.”

That ‘other canker’ was her first husband, John Grey.

“We shall hope that's where the similarity ends.” Uncle and niece exchanged amused glances.

Edward waved to courtiers as they exited the great hall. Several of his retinue followed him out.

“I must change into black raiment.” He bent and hugged her. She felt so safe encircled in his warmth.

“Thank you, sire.” She tightened her embrace.

“Sometimes I wonder why I bother to change out of black. One would think I was a widower.”

“Be careful what you ask for, Uncle.” She nudged him in the ribs. “You may get it.”

They shared a more secret exchange of smiles this time. 

She loved Uncle Ned with all her heart. He was father, brother, and friend to her—she trusted him with her every problem. He was the only good thing to come out of this twist of fate. She missed him so when away to battle or on progress. But why had he fallen under Elizabeth's spell? She'd heard many tales, most of them outright bawdy, about maidens Uncle Ned courted. He nearly married one of them. 

But Elizabeth fixed all that.

And many thought it witchcraft.

Elizabeth Woodville first met Edward Plantagenet under an oak tree. The eve before their wedding, thirtieth of April, was a sabbath in the witches' year. Witches always held their sabbaths beneath oak trees. Elizabeth's neighbor publicly accused her of witchcraft, producing two small leaden figures representing king and queen. Edward took the charge seriously and investigated it himself. But hopelessly smitten with the Grey Mare, as she was known, he married her. Was it because she wouldn't give him what he wanted till the wedding night? Denys always wondered.

                                                                          * * *

All throughout Mass the next morn, Denys observed Richard fidgeting, glancing everywhere, ignoring the priest at the pulpit. He toyed with his rings, smoothed his tabard till she thought he would wear the fabric out, and spent the latter half of the service hunched over, head in hands. His mind was not on worship.

No, the queen could not be so cruel as to deprive him of happiness with his true love. We shall find a way out of it, she swore before God.

As the chapel emptied out after Mass, Richard tugged on Denys's sleeve and motioned for her to follow him. But he made an abrupt twirlabout and strode back down the aisle. “No. Let's sit in the back instead.” He added, muttering, “the farther from the altar the better.”

Denys gathered her skirts and sat in the last pew. Richard paced back and forth, hands clasped behind his back. “Richard, please sit. You're making me dizzy.”

“I cannot sit. I can only think on my feet—moving feet.” His voice echoed through the empty chapel. “The blasted queen is up to her usual tricks. And this one might even work.” He drove a fist into his palm.

“What has she done now?” Her voice rose with alarm. “I thought Uncle Ned gave you permission to wed Anne today.”

“He did. So, after securing permission and summoning Father Farley, all in the space of an hour, I went to fetch my bride, but her sheep-biting father already sequestered her.” His voice dripped bitterness.

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