Kissed By Shadows
Lady Philippa Nielson had no memory of what took place in her bedchamber in the dead of night--nor knowledge of the dangerous plot that put her life in jeopardy. But with a brief touch of his hand and one glance of his knowing gray eyes, Pippa felt a connection to the dark stranger who should have been her greatest enemy. Who was this man who seemed to understand more about her life than she did herself? Why did she respond to his most casual caresses with the most urgent and reckless of desires?
Lionel Ashton had been appointed guardian of both Pippa and the secret she unknowingly bore. And protect this sensuous and fiercely independent woman he would, even from the king himself. But what Lionel knows about Pippa will put both their lives in the greatest danger--even as they slip under the spell of a daring seduction that will turn them into passionate outlaws...and legendary lovers.
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Whitehall Palace, London, August, 1554
Pippa was aware of the bright sunlight before she opened her eyes. She lay still until she was fully awake. She knew almost without waiting for the sensations to make themselves apparent that her mouth would be dry, her limbs heavy, a faint dull ache in her joints. Whenever she slept past daybreak, it was always thus.
It was so unusual for her to sleep late. She had always awoken at cockcrow, ready for whatever the new day might hold. But in the last weeks, since the queen's wedding to Philip of Spain, there had been these mornings when she'd awoken feeling leaden and listless, a pain behind her eyes that took half the day to dissipate.
She moved her body carefully on the deep feather mattress. Stuart was beside her. He had not come to bed with her the previous evening, but that was generally the case. Wine still lingered on his breath and she guessed it had been dawn before he had left his friends and the cards and dice to which he was addicted.
She turned onto her side away from him, unwilling as yet to ring the handbell for her maid and begin the tedious process of dressing for the day.
As she moved her legs apart she noticed the slight discomfort, the dried stickiness on her thighs. Why? she thought with exasperation. Just why did Stuart only make love to her when she was asleep? She had never shown herself an unwilling partner. Indeed, in the early weeks after their marriage she had done everything she could to make their bedplay inviting and exciting. His enthusiasm had been distinctly muted, she reflected, but at least she'd been awake on each occasion.
Her husband stirred beside her, and with renewed energy Pippa rolled over, propping herself on an elbow to face him. Even in sleep, even with wine-soured breath, he was utterly beautiful. Fair curls clustered on a broad alabaster brow, thick brown eyelashes were crescent moons on his high cheekbones, his complexion tinged with gold from the sun. Lord Nielson was an avid hunter, a man who loved all outdoor pursuits as much as he loved the card tables. A man who could burn the candle at both ends without any apparent ill effects.
As if aware of his wife's scrutiny, he opened his eyes. Eyes the color of pure aquamarine, the whites as clear as a baby's.
Pippa's voice had an edge to it. "Why didn't you wake me, Stuart? If you wished to couple last night, why didn't you wake me?"
He looked discomfited, reached out a hand to touch her arm. "You were sleeping so soundly, Pippa. I had a great need for you but I didn't wish to disturb you."
Pippa sat up, brushing his hand away. "Why would you keep the pleasure to yourself? This is the fourth or fifth time this month. Do you enjoy making love to a corpse?"
Hot color flooded Stuart's fair complexion. He flung aside the covers and almost jumped to the floor, keeping his back to her. "That is a vile thing to say."
"Maybe so," Pippa said, sitting up. "But you must forgive me if I find it an equally vile thing to be used for your pleasure in my sleep."
Pippa knew the sharpness of her tongue and in general tried to moderate it with her husband. He became hurt so easily, and then as swiftly sullen. When he was in good spirits he was an amusing, pleasant companion, quick-witted and energetic. He suited her own temperament very well, which was why, she reflected now, she had agreed to marry him. That and his undeniable beauty.
She nibbled at a loose fingernail, frowning as she watched him thrust his arms into the wide sleeves of a chamber robe, still with his back averted. She didn't think she was shallow enough to find beauty sufficient in a husband, but Stuart Nielson had also charmed her with his physical prowess, his ability to make her laugh, and not least his devout admiration.
"I'll be in my dressing chamber," he said to the door frame. "Do you wish me to summon Martha?"
"If you please," Pippa responded, falling back against the pillows, closing her eyes once again. The bright sunlight exacerbated the dull thudding in her head.
There had been more to it than that, of course. At twenty-five she had been suddenly surprised by the sense that something was missing in her life. Until that revelation she had stoutly maintained that marriage was an irrelevancy, that she was having far too much amusement among the young players at court to settle into domesticity and the inevitable childbearing. But then her sister Pen had married Owen d'Arcy, and Pippa had realized that her own life seemed very empty. It was amusing to dance, to flirt with passionate encounters, but it was no longer enough.
A soft tap at the door heralded the arrival of Martha, bearing hot water in a covered jug. She greeted her mistress cheerfully. "Good morrow, madam. 'Tis a beautiful day."
"Yes," Pippa agreed but with so little enthusiasm that her maid regarded her with some concern.
"Is it your head again, madam?"
Pippa sighed and passed a hand over her eyes. "Aye. 'Tis the very devil, Martha. I've never suffered from headaches before."
"Mayhap your ladyship is with child," Martha observed shrewdly. "After seven months of marriage, 'tis quite possible."
"It's not truly been seven months, Martha," Pippa reminded the maid. She sat on the edge of the bed, gazing down at the richly waxed oak floor. She and Stuart had been married in January. They had had six weeks of marriage before the Lady Elizabeth, the queen's half sister, had been accused of treason in the aftermath of Thomas Wyatt's rebellion and imprisoned in the Tower. Pippa, as her closest companion, had been one of the few women permitted to share her imprisonment.
On Elizabeth's release at the end of May, Pippa had been reunited with her husband, and separated by the queen's order from her friend. Mary saw sedition everywhere and insisted that her half sister have only strangers as her companion/guards during her house arrest at the palace of Woodstock in Oxfordshire.
Pippa had been ordered with her husband to attend at court, Stuart had been active in the negotiations for the queen's marriage to Philip of Spain, and they had resumed married life.
" 'Tis been over two months since you returned to court, my lady," Martha observed, setting her jug of water on the dresser.
"Two months," Pippa muttered. There were times when it seemed much longer, longer even than the three months of terror in the Tower, when the scaffold on which Lady Jane Grey had died stood on the green beneath their windows, an ever-present reminder of the penalty for treason.
Stuart had hardly been an ardent lover since his wife's return. She tried now to remember how it had been in the few weeks after their wedding night, before her imprisonment. He had been diffident on their wedding night but she had thought little of it. The passionate flirtation of their courtship had died a sudden death, but again she had thought little of it. Indeed she had had no time to think of anything amid the bloody turmoil of Wyatt's rebellion, the mass executions that followed it, and the terrifying danger in which Elizabeth and her friends had stood.
And now her husband only coupled with her when she was sound asleep.
Did the act disgust him? Did he see it simply as a distasteful duty best accomplished swiftly and with minimal contact?
The thought was so startling her head jerked up of its own volition and she winced at the renewed pain behind her eyes.
Perhaps it wasn't the act itself that disgusted him, but his wife. He no longer found his wife appealing. Perhaps in her absence in the Tower he had taken a mistress, a woman more to his taste.
Pippa stood up and slowly pulled her nightshift over her head. "Fetch a bath, Martha. I would bathe this morning."
"Yes, madam." Martha hurried from the chamber.
Pippa went to the glass of finely beaten silver and surveyed her body with clear-eyed criticism. She was thin. Bony. Scrawny. Now, the Lady Elizabeth was thin, but elegantly so. Slender was the word one might use.
Pippa thought caustically that there was nothing elegant about the wavery image of the bag of bones in the mirror.
Strange how she had never questioned her physical appearance before. She peered closer, wondering if it would be possible to count the freckles that thickly scattered her very white complexion. Not a hope in hell. Her eyes were not unattractive though. They were more gold than green in the sunlight and slightly slanted. Her hair was thick, at least, even if it was an unruly mass. But the color was quite pretty.
"Madam, will you retire behind the screen, the men are bringing up the bath."
"Oh, yes. I didn't hear you come in." Pippa abandoned her inventory and slipped behind the worked screen to wait until the bustle in the bedchamber had ceased and the sound of the door closing on the burly servitors ensured privacy once more.
She emerged and stepped into the copper tub with a sigh of relief. Her body felt used and that wash of distaste made her lip curl. Why? Just what had gone wrong with this marriage? She took up the washcloth and scrubbed at her inner thighs with rough vigor.
On Queen Mary's accession, Pippa had joined the household of the Lady Elizabeth, the queen's half sister. With all the excitement of the queen's disputed accession and Mary's final triumph over the machinations of the Duke of Northumberland, Pippa had thought life beside the clever and vibrant Lady Elizabeth could only provide stimulation and adventure. And indeed it had, in the first six months after the queen's coronation.
Stuart Nielson, a distant relative of Elizabeth's on her mother Boleyn's side, had joined the court. And from the very first, it seemed, he had singled out Pippa for attentions that went far beyond the skillful flirting that she enjoyed so much.
Pippa closed her eyes as the warm water soothed her. She remembered the first time she had laid eyes upon him. It was at a joust at Whitehall, part of the coronation celebrations. Stuart had unhorsed his opponent in one try of the lance. At the banquet and dancing that night he had been made much of for his skill, both on the dance floor and in the lists, and the women of the court, both attached and single, had openly admired his beauty.
Pippa soaped a foot in leisurely fashion. Had she been flattered by the way he declared his preference for Lady Philippa Hadlow? On reflection, she didn't think so. She'd played in the fields of courtly gallantry for six years; she was immune to flattery unless it amused her.
It had been a whirlwind courtship. Her mother and stepfather had encouraged it, probably because they had despaired of her ever marrying; her sister Pen had almost thrust her into Stuart's arms; even her stepbrother, Robin, usually overly critical of her flirtatious activities, had made a friend of Stuart and had pronounced himself perfectly satisfied with his sister's choice.
Pippa pulled a face that was half smile, half grimace as she thought of Robin's firmly stated approval. It wasn't that she discounted his opinions, quite the reverse, but sometimes he could be very pompous.
"Madam, will you dress now?" Martha's discreet tones brought Pippa's reminiscing to an end.
She rose in a shower of drops and wrapped herself in the towel Martha handed her. "I think I'll wear the peacock-blue gown with the rose-pink underskirt," she announced. She needed something to lift her spirits. It was so unusual for her to feel depressed and out of sorts that it took considerable effort to force herself to think of what pleasures the day ahead might hold.
"Should I prepare a powder for your head, my lady?"
"If you please, and I'll break my fast. Just ale and some bread and cheese." Pippa dropped the towel and went to the domed window that looked down upon the park. Brightly clad figures were already strolling along the graveled walks. A party of Spaniards crossed the lawns to the terrace beneath her windows. They walked close together, hands always at the ready on their sword hilts. They were much disliked by the English court, and were subject to assault in the streets if they were unlucky enough to meet a group of rowdy Londoners. Their melodious yet incomprehensible speech rose on the air.
Pippa's lip curled, her long nose twitched slightly. She found them as a whole arrogant, pompous, and totally lacking in humor. But these days she had little choice but to smile courteously, dance when asked, applaud at their entertainments.
House arrest in Elizabeth's company at Woodstock would be infinitely preferable, she decided, as she turned to take her undergarments from the waiting Martha.
Half an hour later, a hunk of bread and cheese in hand, she examined her reflection once more in the mirror. Clothes were a distinct improvement. The vibrant colors and rich flowing materials disguised her prominent bones and gave a degree of luster to her white skin so that the freckles weren't quite so conspicuous. She had tamed her rebellious hair with a caul of delicate gold netting and the glint of the gold set off her tawny eyes.
Yes, dressed she presented a rather attractive appearance, although far from conventional beauty. But then, of course, when her husband sought her company in bed she had only her bare bones to offer him.
Her head throbbed anew and she dabbed a little lavender water on her handkerchief and pressed it to her temples. The headache powder was taking longer than usual to bring relief.
She turned as the door opened behind her. Stuart entered smiling. "Ah, how well we complement each other," he said approvingly as he took in her costume. "I tried to guess what gown you would choose and I see I guessed right."
The smile was a facade, Pippa thought. Both the smile and the charming tone. She couldn't tell whether it was simply anger at their earlier argument that lay beneath the surface or something deeper.
However, she offered a responding smile. Their shared pleasure in the luxurious materials and colors of dress had been another factor in their early attraction for each other. Stuart had always gone to great pains to ensure that his own garments complemented hers. This morning was no exception. His doublet of topaz velvet, the sleeves slashed to reveal the lining of dark blue satin that matched his striped hose, was a perfect foil for her own turquoise and rose.