Bess Stoughton, waiting woman to the well-connected Lady Allingbourne, has discovered that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and wrests from her father a year’s grace to find a husband more to her liking.
Edmund Wyard, a taciturn and scarred veteran of England’s campaign in Ireland, is attempting to ignore the pressure from his family to find a suitable wife as he prepares to join the Earl of Leicester’s army in the Netherlands.
Although Bess and Edmund are drawn to each other, they are aware that they can have nothing more than friendship. Bess knows that Edmund’s wealth and family connections place him beyond her reach. And Edmund, with his well-honed sense of duty, has never considered that he could follow his own wishes.
With England on the brink of war and fear of Catholic plots extending even into Lady Allingbourne’s household, time is running out for both of them.
Love is no game for women. The price is far too high.
Bess started as the bedroom door slammed open.
Nicholas Askew stood in the doorway glowering. ‘Your behaviour today was a scandal.’
‘I thought I behaved most civilly in the circumstances.’
‘You did little to disguise the contempt you apparently felt for our host.’
‘I doubt he noticed it, so taken up is he with his own fantasies.’ She grimaced. ‘He kissed me.’
‘What man is not entitled to kiss the girl he is courting?’ There was puzzlement in his scowl. ‘That is no reason to show lack of respect to him.’
‘I did not show lack of respect. I merely attempted to avoid his company, once I knew what he wanted.’
‘There are others interested and, if you are not careful, he may withdraw his offer.’ His scowl deepened. ‘I do not know what ails you, girl. It is a good offer.’
‘The man is ancient, his breath is foul, he is unclean and he makes my flesh crawl.’
‘Rubbish! You cannot afford to be particular.’
Bess bridled, ‘What do you mean by that?’
‘A widow of two years and not a single offer in that time.’
‘And why is that?’ Bess took a sharp breath, her nostrils narrowed. ‘An unmarried woman brings a dowry to her marriage, a widow her jointure. The Stoughtons have cheated us. They took the dowry you offered but refuse to pay the jointure that is my right now Myles is dead. I have nothing to live on yet you have not lifted a finger to help me. If I had my jointure, I would have more hope of a decent offer.’
‘Bah! I do not have the money to throw at useless legal cases. I have six other daughters to provide dowries for.’
‘As my only male relative it is your duty to ensure I receive the income that is rightfully mine.’
Askew’s face was mottled red. ‘You lecture me on duty?’ A nerve flickered at the corner of his eye.
‘Why not? I know enough about duty—I did my duty when I married according to your wishes. I am a grown woman now, a widow, should I not have some say in the running of my life?’ She rushed on, ‘Yet you have begun negotiations with Master Litchfield without attempting to discover what my wishes are.’
‘You know now,’ he snarled.
‘And you know now that I despise the man and will not marry him.’ Bess lifted her chin. ‘I see no point in staying here any longer, I will be returning to Lady Allingbourne on the morrow.’
‘Hornebolt has work to do here. I’ll not have him wandering the countryside on ladies’ fancies. Life with Lady Allingbourne has given you airs—you consider yourself better than the rest of us. No,’ he crossed his arms, his pointed beard jutting out, ‘you will remain here and be ruled by your father like a dutiful daughter. You can help your mother with the children until you are married to Dick Litchfield.’
‘I swear I will never marry that vile man,’ Bess spat back. ‘I will stand in church and say that I do not take him, tell the whole congregation that I have been forced.’
Askew glared at her, his fists clenched. Bess braced herself but he turned on his heel, slamming the door behind him.
As Bess heard the key scrape in the lock, she shouted after him, ‘She is not my mother.’
Meet Catherine Meyrick
Catherine Meyrick is a writer of historical fiction with a particular love of Elizabethan England. Her stories weave fictional characters into the gaps within the historical record – tales of ordinary people who are very much men and women of their time, yet in so many ways are like us today. These are people with the same hopes and longings as we have to find both love and their own place in a troubled world.
Catherine grew up in regional Victoria, but has lived all her adult life in Melbourne, Australia. Until recently she worked as a customer service librarian at her local library. She has a Master of Arts in history and is also an obsessive genealogist. When not writing, reading and researching, Catherine enjoys gardening, the cinema and music of all sorts from early music and classical to folk and country and western and, not least of all, taking photos of the family cat to post on Instagram.
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