Lady Fortune

Lady Fortune

Anne Stuart

March 2014 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-475-4

Is he a half-mad court jester or a brilliant spy for the king?

Lady Julianna knows this much for certain: He is no fool when it comes to the art of seduction.

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Nicholas Strangefellow is a scoundrel prized by King Henry himself—a court jester. Now sent to the wedding of the Earl of Fordham to entertain, but secretly under orders from the King to bring back a legendary chalice, Nicholas is a man on a mission that could easily be bollixed. Suddenly the chances of bollixing increase merrily when he meets irresistible Julianna, the widowed daughter of the bride-to-be.

After a loveless arranged marriage, Julianna plans to join a convent. Yet she finds herself in wickedly provocative conversation with, of all men, the king’s mocking, ribald "wedding present” to the Earl. Nicholas—the jester, the fool, and a mere commoner, who immediately decides to seduce her while procuring the chalice for King Henry.

What follows is a rollicking comedy, an intrigue spiced with villains and danger, but most of all, a tender and sexy romance. Nicholas is hardly the husband a noblewoman should choose, and when he’s faced with a choice between desire and betrayal, or loyalty to King and a comfortable life, he’ll have to confront the shocking truth. That he’s become a fool for love.


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"THE BLESSED CHALICE of the Martyred Saint Hugelina the Dragon?” the fool echoed. "Never heard of it.” Nicholas Strangefellow had been lounging lazily in his king’s presence, paying scant attention, when his sovereign’s request startled him.

"It’s little wonder,” King Henry said in an aggrieved tone. "Hugh of Fortham is a selfish man, hoarding a holy treasure where no man may see it. Particularly since it rightfully should belong to the true king of England.”

"You, my lord.” Nicholas left no question in his voice, but Henry glared at him anyway.

"Of course me, fool!” he snapped. "The Earl of Fortham has kept possession of a sacred relic belonging to the throne, and nothing will induce him to give it up. And that’s where you come in.”


"You’re the only man I trust, the only man I can truly rely on, Nicholas,” the king said in deep tones. "You’re the only man who dares tell me the truth, as annoying as that habit may be, and you’re just the one to help me. I’ve tried demands, I’ve tried polite requests, I’ve tried threats, but Fortham Castle is a fortress, and I’m not ready to wage war over the chalice. There’s more than one way to get what I want, and I want the sacred chalice! It’s rightfully mine, and you’re going to get it for me.”

"Why?” Nicholas inquired with his customary insolence.

"Because you’re my servant, God rot your bones, and I’ll have your head removed if you’re foolish enough to try to thwart me.”

In fact, Henry probably wouldn’t bother to have him ceremoniously beheaded, Nicholas thought lazily, not stirring. He’d simply assign someone to cut his throat. Someone like his innocent-seeming child assassin, Gilbert de Blaith.

Nicholas had no intention of suffering either fate. "Your highness, I live only to serve your will,” he said, not batting an eye. "I merely wondered why an old goblet would suddenly become so important to you. Its value cannot be that extraordinary.”

"It’s pure gold, encrusted with precious jewels, including a sapphire that matches one in the royal crown.”

"Fancy plate for a martyred nun,” Nicholas observed.

"She was murdered with that chalice,” Henry said sharply. "It was a simple pewter goblet that was miraculously transformed when her husband poisoned her.”

"One of your ancestors, I believe,” Nicholas murmured.

King Henry frowned. "There are times when I wonder whether you’re as great a fool as you profess to be. Hugelina was the wife of a king, but she wanted to return to the convent. Her husband wanted more heirs, so he decided to get rid of her.”

"Efficient of him. So we’re left with a holy chalice and a saint. What’s Fortham’s connection to her?”

"She was supposedly from his family. It was so far back, I wonder that he dares make such a claim.”

"No further back than your own, sire.”

He had almost pushed Henry too far. The king glared at him for a moment, and Nicholas could feel the whistle of air as the executioner’s blade flashed downward.

And then the king laughed. "The royal lineage is of far more import than that of an upstart earl from the west country. Suffice it to say the chalice is in Fortham’s possession when it should rightfully be in mine, and I want it, by fair means or foul. And you’re the man to get it for me, aren’t you?”

"Just how do you propose I do that, sire?” Nicholas inquired. "Do you wish me to storm the castle single-handed and murder Lord Hugh in cold blood? You forget, I have a great distaste for bloodshed and needless exertion.” He allowed himself an exaggerated shudder.

King Henry gave him an indulgent smile. "I have more than enough men willing to kill for me, Nicholas, but few with your unique talents. I thought I might send you to Lord Hugh and his new bride as a wedding gift.”

"A gift?”

"A loan,” the king amended hastily. "Till Christmastide, I’ll tell them. To help make their first few months of married life particularly entertaining.”

"I shall endeavor to please them.”

"You shall endeavor to please me,” King Henry corrected him. "You will find out everything you can about his strengths, his weaknesses, his plans. Fortham Castle is built upon solid rock, and it would be no easy thing to take it. He won’t give up the chalice without a fight—I may have no choice but to simply take the whole castle. For the good of the kingdom,” he added piously.

"You want me to be your spy, sire?” Nicholas didn’t bother to look at his king. Henry was one of the few men in the kingdom who realized just how clever Nicholas Strangefellow could be if he chose to exert himself, and even he had no idea of the extent of Nicholas’s talents.

"I want you to find out where the chalice is, how closely guarded it may be. I need to know how great a threat Hugh of Fortham is and seek out ways to vanquish him.”

"And if he is no threat?” Nicholas asked mildly. "If I can simply steal the chalice and leave without anyone making a fuss?”

"It won’t be that easy. Don’t underestimate Hugh of Fortham. He can be very stubborn. Sometimes we must... dispose of those who get in our way.”

"And what about his new bride? Is she a threat as well? Will she be disposed of?”

The king didn’t bother to respond. He allowed Nicholas more latitude than any human in existence, but there was a limit to his indulgence. "There are casualties in war,” he said distantly. "Innocent people die all the time. We will pray for their souls.”

"I’m certain that we will, sire.” He made no effort to disguise the irony in his voice. "A wedding gift am I? And when shall your gift be delivered?”

"The sooner, the better. My sister won’t be best pleased at having her favorite removed from the court, and there are doubtless many other damsels who will miss you. It might be best if you didn’t have a chance to bid them all a fond farewell.”

"The king is but a wicked churl

To send his fool away

No kisses, faith, no lovely girl

To soothe the poor fool’s way.”

"Don’t rhyme!” King Henry snapped. "It annoys me.” Nicholas grinned, saying nothing. It was a facile enough talent, and one that never failed to provoke a reaction.

King Henry approached him, putting his beringed hands on Nicholas’s shoulders and drawing him up. It was a mistake, of course. Nicholas was half a head taller than the king, and unlike most of his knights and courtiers, he made no effort to slouch in order to assuage his majesty’s pride. "You’ll do my bidding, and you’ll do it well,” Henry murmured, looking up into Nicholas’s strange eyes. "And you’ll be rewarded. I may even let you marry my strumpet of a sister if I can’t do better for her.”

"Better than a penniless fool?” Nicholas murmured. "I cannot imagine.”

"I never underestimate you, Nicholas. Though I expect my foolish sister does,” Henry said genially, giving him a cuff on the shoulder. "Be gone with you. We shall come visit Fortham and his new bride at Christmastide if you haven’t returned with the chalice by then. But I expect to see you far sooner than that, or I shall be much displeased.”

Nicholas bowed with his usual extreme flourish, his elegant nose almost brushing the ground, his grace a mockery. But the king allowed him mockery, when he allowed it in no one else. "You can always trust your fool, sire,” he murmured.

And King Henry, uncharacteristically naive, appeared to believe him.



Chapter One

IT WAS A WARM day in autumn when Lady Julianna of Moncrieff learned she was finally a widow. After ten years of barren married life, she was no longer the chattel of Victor of Moncrieff. But she didn’t for one moment believe that she might possibly be free.

She would have managed to dredge up some self-pity if she didn’t know full well that no one, man or woman, was free in this life, with the possible exception of King Henry, and she had her doubts about that. Even if the king had to answer to no man, he was still weighted down by the demands of his title, and his responsibilities were widespread, down to arranging for the future of a distant, newly widowed kinswoman of dubious importance.

She moved to the window, looking out across the rolling hills that surrounded the small manor that had been her home since her marriage. The last few years had been good to her. Her husband had grown tired of trying to get a child on her unwelcoming body, and he’d turned to other pursuits. He’d been an old man when she’d married him—almost sixty years of age, with too much of a fondness for rich food and ale—and by the time he lost interest in his child bride, he had lost interest in his mistress and the serving wenches as well.

She hadn’t seen him in almost three years. Three blessed, peaceful years she’d been mistress of Moncrieff, answering to no one while her husband went on a meandering pilgrimage that seemed to include more taverns than holy sites. She’d overseen the harvest and the making of honey and butter and cheeses; she’d led the weavers, helped heal the sick, birthed the babies, and seen to the well-being of her people. She’d been lady of the manor, happy and well loved.

And now it was gone. She had been Victor’s third wife, come to his household and his bed when she was no more than eleven years old. He had sons from his first two marriages, sons who were far too like their father for Julianna’s peace of mind, and the oldest, Reynald, would be coming back to claim his inheritance. He and his narrow-minded wife, older than Julianna’s own mother, were already packing their household, intent on taking possession.

Lady Julianna of Moncrieff was homeless. Penniless. With nowhere to go but, at the king’s behest, to her only living relative. To the mother she hadn’t seen in ten years, not since she was carried off by her new husband, Victor of Moncrieff, as she wept bitter, heartbroken, childish tears.

Isabeau had wept as well, but Julianna didn’t like to think of that. Her mother had allowed her only surviving child to be sent off like a freshened cow, and from that day on Julianna had hardened her heart against her. She had already disliked her brutish, distant father, but she’d adored the fragile, pretty Isabeau. In the eleven years she’d been at home, her mother had always been ill, either with child or recovering from her latest stillbirth. It was a wonder she hadn’t died, but Isabeau had clung stubbornly to life no matter how desperate her husband was to get a male heir.

And now she was a widow as well. Julianna’s father had died some two years before, and Isabeau had been betrothed to a powerful lord in the west. Lord Hugh, the Earl of Fortham, was a wealthy man, and his estates were vast, more a fortress than a home if rumor had it right. He needed an heir, but Isabeau of Peckham would be unlikely to provide him one if history could be relied upon. At least in that one aspect Julianna took after her mother.

"Lady Julianna.” Sir Richard’s voice was edgy, and Julianna turned back, startled out of her reveries. She stared at the king’s envoy, calm and dry-eyed.

"I beg pardon,” she murmured. "My thoughts were wandering. This has come as a shock.”

"Of course, my lady. I only wish it were within my power to allow you time to grieve, but it pains me to inform you that we need to be away by first light.”

She stared at him numbly. "Away?”

"I was on my way to your lady mother with a gift from the king to celebrate her upcoming marriage to his dearest friend Fortham. When news came of Moncrieff’s death, he bade me come and escort you home as well.”

"Home.” A place she’d never seen, to a mother who’d let her be taken away. She roused herself. "I see no need for such haste, Sir Richard. I’m certain my stepson and his lady wife will have questions concerning the running of the household. It would be far wiser for me to remain here to welcome them. I have no doubt Reynald will see me safely escorted to Castle Fortham if and when the time comes.”

"If, my lady?” Sir Richard fixed his small, dark eyes on her, his brow beetling with disapproval. "His majesty has decreed that you are to join your mother in her new household, at least until such time as he can make arrangements for your future. I doubt you would care to dispute his majesty’s orders?”

Julianna would have disputed anything she thought she could get away with, but she’d learned the value of holding her tongue and using tact. "I would wish to serve God, Sir Richard,” she said simply. "It is my greatest wish to join the Holy Sisters of Saint Anne.”

"I don’t believe King Henry is particularly concerned with your wishes, my lady. It is our task to do his bidding, not to question it. We’ll leave at first light. Have your women pack what they can, but I warn you, we travel fast. In the meantime we’ll need quarters for the night.”

One battle lost, but a war still to be waged. She smiled at him, the soothing, maternal smile that came naturally to her when she felt most threatened. "Your men have been seen to,” she said, "and I’ll have Lord Victor’s room prepared for you—”

"I’m not alone,” he said abruptly.

"For you and your lady,” she added smoothly.

"I didn’t bring my leman into your household, Lady Julianna!” He looked flustered. "It’s a bit more difficult to explain. It’s your mother’s wedding present.”

Julianna had learned patience at an early age. "Yes, Sir Richard? Is it precious? Should it be guarded?”

"Not it,” Sir Richard said in an irritable voice. "He. The king’s wedding gift is a he.”

Julianna blinked. "How extraordinary,” she murmured. "I thought that was what Lord Hugh was for.”

Sir Richard stared at her suspiciously, but Julianna kept her expression calm and serene. She had learned early on that men didn’t like a woman with a sense of humor, or much wit, and she must remember to hide it.

"It’s not just any man, milady,” he grumbled. "It’s his fool. Sent to entertain her ladyship and her new husband, not to mention the crowds that will be there for the wedding. He’ll need a decent bed for the night, as far away from me as you can find it. As far away from everyone, or they’ll be driven mad by his crazed yammering.”

"He’s crazed?”

"Close to it. I might just throttle him before we make Castle Fortham,” Sir Richard said in a dire voice. "Praise be you can keep him company in that blasted litter.”

"Praise be,” she echoed ironically. "Can’t he ride?”

"He refuses to. And I wouldn’t trust him on any horse. The man’s half mad, like most of his ilk.”

"But I can ride.”

"No, milady. You’ll ride in the litter. I didn’t bring a horse for you, and I know you wouldn’t want to take anything belonging to Reynald and his wife. Nicholas will do you no more harm than annoy you with his ceaseless prattle. I’m certain you’ve suffered far worse in your life than a babbling fool.”

"Far worse,” she said smoothly. "I’ll have a room prepared for him.”

"No high windows,” Sir Richard warned. "And it might be best if he could be locked in tonight.”

"He’s dangerous?” she demanded sharply.

Sir Richard had the grace to look abashed. "Not that I know of. The women all seem to like him well enough, but I doubt Reynald would fancy any half-wit bastards littering his household nine months hence. I mainly want to keep him away from me.”

"He favors men as well as women?” she inquired in a dulcet tone.

Sir Richard’s high color turned darker still. "No! And if he did I would hardly be the sort... I mean...” Words failed him, and he blustered a moment longer until Julianna took pity on him. It was ever her weakness—much as she wanted to be a modern Boadicea, a warrior queen, she was too easily moved to guilt and pity.

"I understand, Sir Richard. The man is annoying. We will see him safely settled in one of the smaller bedchambers. The door can be locked, and there’s no way he can harm himself or anyone else.”

"Many thanks, milady.” Sir Richard wiped a handkerchief across his sweating brow. It was a cool day, with a breeze blowing in the open window, but the man was clearly at his wits’ end.

"And you might wish a few hours to compose yourself as well,” she added. "We weren’t expecting visitors, but I’m certain the kitchens can come up with a feast suitable for such distinguished guests.”

"I’ll dine in my rooms,” he said hastily. "Traveling upsets my digestion. And you can ill afford the time to entertain me if we’re to leave at first light. See to your own affairs, milady. I won’t be kept waiting once it’s time to depart.”

So much for pity, thought Julianna, suppressing the urge to kick him. "I’ll be ready at dawn,” she said sweetly. She turned her back on the window, the peaceful, rolling hillside that had been her solace and her pleasure for so many years. Turned her back on it with all the resolution she could muster. She had learned that weeping and bemoaning the fates did no good at all.

She had learned efficiency, first from her mother, then from her serving woman, Agnes, a wise, maternal soul who had been at her side since she arrived at Moncrieff. Agnes, with a husband, six children, and a new one in her belly. Agnes, who must be left behind, a harder grief than all else combined.

In truth, there was no one she could or would bring with her. She would make do on her own until they arrived at Fortham Castle. With a madman for company.

She moved through her duties with her usual calm, instructing her serving women to pack what would fit in two small trunks. She had never had much use for finery, immured in a castle with only a disinterested husband to please, and her gowns were serviceable and not much more. She had no jewelry, no wealth to transport. Everything had belonged to her husband and to his sons and their wives. It wouldn’t take long to make her ready for a journey of less than three days. Unless the madman chose to strangle her before they arrived.

She slept poorly in the narrow bed she had seldom shared with her husband, and when she arose in the darkness before first light she stared down at it, feeling oddly detached. It had been her place of comfort and rest when she was blessedly alone. It had been her place of pain and humiliation and misery when her husband had come to her.

But Victor was dead. And she was useless as a wife, with no lands and no possibility of children. With any luck she would never have to endure a man’s touch again.

Agnes was weeping softly as she fixed Julianna’s long, wheat- colored hair into thick, hip-length plaits for the last time. "I’ll come with you, milady,” she sobbed. "We’ll find a way to bring Angus and the children along later...”

"No, Agnes. You belong at Moncrieff, and you know it. I doubt Reynald’s wife would be able to survive without your help, and I will no longer be responsible for a household. I’m certain Lady Isabeau will find a young girl who will see to my needs.”

Agnes wasn’t so far gone in sorrow that she couldn’t wrinkle her nose in disapproval. "She’s your lady mother, Lady Julianna,” she chided her. "Why do you always call her by her formal name?”

Julianna wasn’t about to waste her last moments arguing with the woman who hadn’t been just her servant, but her dearest friend as well. "Don’t worry about Lady Isabeau. We will be reunited in a few days’ time, and things will work themselves out.”

Agnes sniffed. "And how long has she been no more than a few days’ ride from you, and you’ve made no effort to see her?”

"She’s made no effort to see me.”

"You don’t answer her letters, lass! You return her gifts—”

"Don’t let us spend our last few minutes quarreling,” Julianna begged. "You’ve been a better mother to me than she ever was. I’ll be polite to her. I’ll show her the deference due her. I can promise no more than that.”

Agnes shook her head. "You’re a hard lass for one with such a sweet soul,” she said. "But I’m counting on the goodness of your heart to strip away the anger. Your lady mother had no choice in this world. Few women do.” Julianna ignored her words, embracing her stout, pregnant body. "I don’t know who I’ll miss more, you or the children.”

"The children will miss you terribly,” Agnes said, thankfully distracted from her lecture on daughterly duty. "They love you dearly, as much as you love them. You need children of your own, lass...”

It had gone from bad to worse. "Enough!” Julianna cried. "I’m close enough to tears as it is. It’s God’s will that I’ll have no children, and all the prayers and hopes have made no difference. At least I can love other women’s children.”

Agnes shook her head. "You’re young yet, lass. Still a child yourself. You’ll learn that life is far from certain.”

"I know one thing,” Julianna said calmly. "I will never bear a child. I will never willingly lie with a man again, and I will never forgive my mother for abandoning me.” The harshness of her own voice surprised her, and she pulled out of Agnes’s comforting embrace, expecting reproaches.

But Agnes’s broad face was wreathed in a wry smile, despite the tears in her eyes. "Life is full of surprises, my lady,” she said. "And I will pray every day that all your surprises are blessed ones.”

Julianna didn’t bother to argue. The first surprise of her new life was the presence of a mad fool, threatening to drive her crazy.

Things were not looking up.

NICHOLAS STRANGEFELLOW had come a long way since his childhood in the north of England. Nicholas of Derwent had been born an only child, beloved of his frail mother and gruff, argumentative father, raised within the comfortable confines of his father’s great house, schooled and trained by the best that money could buy.

Until his father, Baron Derwent, made the dire mistake of annoying King Henry’s father. It was a dangerous thing to get mixed up with the obstreperous sons of Henry the Second, as more than one noble had discovered to his cost. By the time Nicholas was fifteen, everything was gone—his parents, the house, the vast wealth. All that remained was an empty title and his father’s old squire, Bogo, to try to look after him.

The first few years were both the hardest and the best. Nicholas discovered he had a talent for both cutting a man’s purse and charming food from vulnerable ladies. Within a year he was charming much more than food; he was a man wise in the ways of the world, a scamp and a thief, a liar and a rogue.

By the next year, he was a fool.

It was a role entirely suited to his nature. He could say or do anything he pleased without fear of retribution, he straddled all the levels of society, from peasants and criminals to lords and ladies, from traveling players to the King of England himself.

He had taken the worst that life had to offer and survived. He had little doubt he would continue to do so.

Sooner or later he would please Henry enough to claim his reward, though not the long-lost riches of the north that had once belonged to his father. King Henry, like most of his kind, seldom parted with anything of true value unless absolutely forced to do so.

But a small, tumbledown estate, anywhere, would be enough. A house in disrepair, land and people and peace. He wasn’t ready for it yet, but the time was coming closer, and providing King Henry with the sought-after chalice might do the trick. Then, and only then, would Nicholas become Lord Nicholas, Baron Derwent, again.

For now he was content to be a fool. Content to drive sober, stuffy men mad with his prattle, content to drive the ladies to distraction with far more pleasurable ways. He would find the same at Fortham Castle. Men to annoy, women to love.

And the Blessed Chalice of the Martyred Saint Hugelina the Dragon.

He was looking forward to it.

He stretched out in the litter, admiring his tattered, mismatched hose. Bogo, his manservant, keeper, and friend, had outdone himself this morning in providing just the right apparel. The lady of Moncrieff Castle would be appalled when she saw her traveling companion.

He wondered whether she’d be any more of a challenge than the stuffy Sir Richard. She could hardly be less of one. He could charm her, of course—he’d yet to meet a woman he couldn’t charm, no matter her age, appearance, or social background. If suitably inspired he could always while away the interminable journey beneath Lady Julianna’s skirts. She was young, he knew that much. A child bride, a girl widow, a woman without dowry or value. She couldn’t be more than passably pretty—he would have heard if she was a beauty or a troll.

He could hear her approach—Sir Richard was droning on and on in his gruff voice, a grating sound that was his only defense against Nicholas’s determined assault. He shifted in the seat, resisting the impulse to peer out at her.

"What was that?” Her voice, at least, was pleasant, unlike Sir Richard’s. More than pleasant, actually, it was low and rich, with a tinge of voluptuousness that suddenly stirred his senses. He shifted on the bench.

"What?” Sir Richard replied in a fretful voice.

"That clanging noise? Is he kept in chains?” She sounded wary. Obviously Sir Richard had managed to exaggerate Nicholas’s reputation until the poor girl was terrified.

"Bells, my lady. I warned you he was a noisy creature.” He pushed aside the curtains, ignoring Nicholas. "In you go, my lady.”

He sat very still in his corner of the litter, watching her as she was assisted inside, sinking back on the seat with a faint sigh and settling her plain wool skirts around her. She lifted her head and looked at him, directly, with only faint wariness in her brown eyes.

She was exactly what he’d expected, imagined, and yet far different. She had an ordinary-enough face, pleasing in an unremarkable manner. Her nose was small, her mouth wide, her eyes deceptively serene. She wore her dark yellow hair in long plaits that reached to her hips, and the thin veil covering her head was made of gray silk.

The dress was unadorned, of decent quality as befit her status but totally without charm, and it covered her body without flattering it. He suspected she was tall and generously formed, but there was no way to tell—she huddled in the corner, seeming entirely uncomfortable with herself and her body. Or maybe she was just uncomfortable with her companion.

"The widow’s but a quiet lass

Who feels that heart’s deep pain

But this I know, and know full well

Her loss, in truth, her gain.”

"I beg your pardon?” she said in a frosty voice. At least she tried to make it sound frosty. But it had that voluptuous undertone, entirely at odds with her nervous demeanor.

He leaned back and put his legs up on the seat beside her, the tiny silver bells jingling. There were times when the sound of them almost drove him mad, but they were always certain to make everyone around him even madder, and it was a small price to pay. "My condolences on the loss of your husband, my lady,” he said in a dulcet voice.

She was not appeased. The lady of Moncrieff was no fool, a fact that interested him even more than her uneasy body. He’d seldom found wit and beauty in the same package. Lady Julianna was not a beauty, but there was something strangely compelling about her nonetheless. And he was in a rare mood to be compelled.

She nodded her head in brief acknowledgment. She leaned back against the side of the litter, closing her eyes as if to shut him out, and he stared at her in fascination. Her large brown eyes were probably her greatest beauty, and yet when they were closed her face took on a serene expression that was enchanting.

However, he was in no mood to be shut out. "Have you no handmaiden to accompany you, my lady? Surely you’ll need help during the trip? I can offer my poor services—I have a great deal of experience helping ladies out of their gowns, though I must admit I haven’t bothered with helping them back into them.”

Her eyes flew open in instant outrage. He smiled at her sweetly, all seeming innocence.

"I’m certain I shall have no difficulties... ,” She floundered for a moment. "I don’t know what to call you,” she said eventually.

Another surprise, that frankness. He wondered if she were as serene, as honest, in bed. "You may call me anything that takes your fancy,” he murmured. "You may call me fool, or lover, or enemy if you must. If you wish to be proper you may call me Strangefellow.”

"Strange fellow?” she echoed.

"Nicholas Strangefellow. Most men call me Master Nicholas.”

"Master Nicholas,” she murmured.

"Yes, Lady Julianna? Shall I entertain you with tales of the court, with poems and songs and stories?”

She sighed. "You can let me rest. I didn’t get much sleep last night, and I am weary.”

"Shall I provide a pillow with my lap, my lady? I’m afraid it might prove a hard one.”

The lewd comment seemed to sail right past her. "Just leave me alone,” she murmured, closing her eyes.

He waited until she was almost asleep, her breathing slow and steady, and then he moved his arm, just enough to fill the small enclosure with the tinkling of bells.

Her eyes flew open in sleepy confusion. "Master Nicholas,” she said in a calm voice, "I have a small, sharp knife with me. If you do not hold still I will remove those blasted bells from your sleeve, and I will then proceed to other, more sensitive parts of your body. I could unman you in the blink of an eye. Do not provoke me.” She closed her eyes again, dismissing him.

He stared at her in astonishment. No woman had ever spoken thusly to him. No other woman had ever been so adept at ignoring him.

He was tempted to start singing, something indecent and annoying, but thought better of it. She was a woman who would make good on her threats.

Not that she’d get very far. If she came near his bells—or his balls—he’d be forced to stop her. And as delicious as that notion was, this was neither the time nor the place.

She was asleep again. He shifted, carefully, so as not to set the tiny silver bells ringing. It appeared as if Lady Julianna of Moncrieff was going to make the time spent at Fortham Castle particularly entertaining.

He wondered how she’d look when she woke up lying naked in his bed after a night of vigorous exercise. Whether she’d still be uneasy with her tall, beautiful body.

And whether she’d put up a defense, or simply fall in love with him like most of them did.



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