“Liar,” she said softly. Her mouth trembled as though she might start crying, but her eyes were cold, colder than he had ever seen them. Their chill bit through him.
“I do not hate you,” he said again. He was angry with her, angrier than he had yet been, and he did not know why. “I despise you.”
The words hung in the air—he could not snatch them back. She caught her breath and then nodded. “So.” She opened her hand, and rose petals fell to the ground like snow. “We are good company after all. You cannot despise me as much as I despise myself.”
Without curtsying, without asking for leave, she turned and walked away.
“Beatrice.” He had not meant to say he despised her. That was too simple a name for what he felt…!
PRINCE OF HEARTS
“With a rare magic and grace, Katy Cooper creates a vivid world of history and passion that readers are bound to adore. An unforgettable debut!”
–bestselling author Miranda Jarrett
“This is a powerful, captivating novel…. Ms. Cooper carves out a slice of history, mixes it with matters of the heart, and emerges triumphant.”
To the Hussies, for prayers, hugs, CBs, warmth, generosity and a place to hide when it gets really rough out there.
W hen Sebastian Benbury stepped onto the water stairs at the Earl of Wednesfield’s London residence and began walking through the garden toward the riverside door, there was nothing about Coleville House to indicate that disaster lurked within its walls.
Golden in the July sunlight, the house appeared as it always had, its hundred windows glittering, its roofs reaching heavenward. As he walked the winding path through knots of herbs and flowers, as he crossed the threshold into a screens passage that was blind-dark after the brilliant light outside, Sebastian had no sense that his life was about to be irrevocably changed.
He paused in the passage, blinking his eyes to clear his vision. Out of the darkness an usher murmured, asking him if he wished to be announced. Sebastian shook his head and waved the usher away. Since giving up his post at Court, he had been a guest here, enjoying the Earl of Wednesfield’s gracious hospitality.
As Sebastian’s vision cleared, a man spoke in the hall. “Why are you in black, Bea?”
The voice was strange yet recognition tickled on the edges of Sebastian’s awareness, as if he knew the speaker. But how? He did not know anyone close enough to Beatrice Coleville Manners to call her by her pet name who was not also aware that she had recently been widowed.
“My husband died a fortnight ago. God rest his soul,” Beatrice replied in her low, soft voice. The sound of it awoke tangled emotions in Sebastian’s chest, pain and anger so mixed that he did not know how to separate them. Instead he swallowed them both, forcing them down beyond awareness with the skill of practice.
In the hall, there was a splatter, as if someone had spilled wine on the flagstone floor. The stranger said, “Then Sebastian Benbury is dead.”
Dead? Who was this stranger who assumed that if Beatrice was a widow, Sebastian must be the husband she had lost? Crossing himself against the ill chance raised by the stranger’s remark, Sebastian walked through the gap in the screens that led to the hall. “I am alive as anyone in this room. Who says I am dead?”
His glance flicked over Beatrice’s sister, Cecilia, and the strange man and woman at her side before going to Beatrice, cool and distant in her widow’s black. Beatrice, whom he had once loved.
“John does,” Cecilia said.
Sebastian brought his gaze back to the strange man. His heart began to pound as if his body recognized the nearly familiar stranger before his eyes did, and then his eyes knew. The stranger was Beatrice’s brother, John Coleville. He had left England five years ago, so long ago that he could not know of Beatrice’s marriage to Thomas Manners. That was why he had made the mistake about Beatrice’s late husband.
John is home. The impact of it struck him all at once and delighted laughter bubbled up, drowning everything but joy in its flood. John had been companion, friend, everything Sebastian had imagined a brother would be. Sebastian rushed forward to embrace him, to confirm the truth of this homecoming with the certainty of touch.
“Thank God! Thank God for it!” he cried, the words hardly serving to convey his pleasure.
His happiness was so intense that it took him a moment to realize that John was neither laughing nor returning his embrace. Sebastian’s laughter died. He loosened his grip.
“You do not seem happy to see me, my friend. What ails you?”
“I am glad, more glad than you can know, to see you,” John said grimly, reaching up to grasp Sebastian’s wrists.
“You look it,” Sebastian said, and pulled free of John’s hands. “It cannot be grief for poor Thomas Manners that makes you look so black. You never knew the man. Come, tell me, tell us all. Why the long face?”
“Because Bea says she is the widow of a man she cannot have married.”
Sebastian stared at him, the back of his neck prickling as if at the rumor of catastrophe. “I witnessed their marriage and Ceci attended her. Do you tell us we were not there, that it was all a dream?”
“No. I am sure there was a wedding. I am telling you that the marriage was invalid.”
“Invalid? On what grounds?”
“That she was promised to another man,” John said. “Promised in a binding betrothal.”
“Another man?” he asked, disbelieving. His heart pounded, loud in his ears, hard against his breastbone. He had thought he knew the worst Beatrice could do. His sense of approaching disaster deepened. “Are you saying she has known yet another man?”
“Another man? What are you babbling about?” John asked, frowning, and shook his head. “She is betrothed to you, Sebastian.”
“To me?” The pounding of his heart was swallowed by a vast silence, a numbed stillness.
Beatrice cried, “Are you mad? We are no more betrothed than…than… We are not betrothed. Do you think I could make such a mistake?”
“Or I?” Sebastian demanded. “This is not funny, John.”
“It is not jest, Sebastian, and I do not think it funny. Do you not remember that Twelfth Night when you and your family joined us at Wednesfield? I filched a ewer of mead and the three of us drank it in the old tower. You and Beatrice promised to marry when you were grown and then we all laughed and drank some more.”
“Oh, blessed Virgin,” Beatrice said, closing her eyes.
“I do not re—” But he did remember, no matter how he tried to forget. Details he had wanted to bury rose up from the depths of his mind. Words, the words of a vow… “Yes, now I do! What foolishness is this? We made no promises that bound.” Promises to break, yes, not promises to bind.
“That is not what I remember, Sebastian. Think. Think what you said, the words you used. The promises you made bind you.”
Beatrice clenched her hands into fists as if she might batter her way out of this. “You are no churchman. How can you know for certain?”
In a distant corner of his mind Sebastian wondered if perhaps he slept and John’s appalling announcement was a part of a nightmare from which he would soon awaken. Surely this madness was the stuff of dreams. Otherwise his life had been disordered beyond recognition in the space of five minutes.
“Do you not remember? You promised to have Sebastian as your husband and he promised to have you as his wife. Both of you promised without conditions. You made a binding marriage between you,” John said. “I have lived among churchmen for the last three years, Bea. Canon law fills the air in Rome. A man who has ears to hear cannot help learning a little.”
Sebastian knew a little canon law, as well. Enough, he had thought, to keep himself from doing just what John claimed they had done. “We did not lie together. It cannot be binding.”
“That does not matter in this case. If you never lie with her, she will still be your wife before God,” John said gently.
“I cannot believe this,” Beatrice said. She went to sit on one of the benches pushed against the wall and leaned her head back, her hands lying slack on her lap. For a moment Sebastian wanted to go sit beside her, companions in calamity. But he could not, not when she had betrayed him, not when she had abandoned honor as easily and thoughtlessly as she might discard a gown that no longer fit.
He had to do something, anything, to avert this disaster.
“I am betrothed to Cecilia,” he said.
“You cannot be,” John said.
At the same moment Cecilia said, “Do not lie, Sebastian. It will only confuse matters.”
“We can pretend it never happened. If no one knows…”
His voice slowed. Truth was sinking into him, the awareness that he would not awaken from this nightmare slowly breaking over him. No matter how he might wish it otherwise, his betrothal to Beatrice was real, as unbreakable and real as marriage. He could behave like a fool and a child, and fight it for a time, but to what end? Damage to his soul, damage to his honor, and marriage to Beatrice at the end of it anyway.
But, God help him, he wished it were not true.
“You will know, Sebastian. And God will know. Can you take another woman to wife, knowing you make a concubine of her? And if you do not marry, who will your heirs be?” John asked.
“How do I get out of this?” Beatrice asked, her voice flat, bled of expression.
Sebastian glanced at her. Against the black of her hood and bodice, her pallor was stark, the color leached even from her down-turned mouth. She looked weary and sad, a woman alone despite the company of her kinsmen. Pity moved in him, pity she did not deserve, pity he refused to feel. Balling his hands into fists, he turned away and walked to the opposite side of the room. He leaned against the wall and pressed his forehead against its cool stone. Behind him, the others continued as if he were still in their midst, while slowly he tried to absorb the shocks of the afternoon– John’s unexpected homecoming, his disastrous announcement.
“Ceci, why do they fight this? What has happened while I have been away?” John asked.
“I do not know, John. I do not now nor have I ever understood why they are at odds.”
“It avails you nothing to do this!” Beatrice cried. “You will do most good by telling me how I may escape!”
“There is no way. You are married to Sebastian,” John said.
“If I deny it? What then, O brother?”
“Sebastian can sue you to live with him.”
“And how many witnesses will he need? Is one enough? And will you oppose me in this, my brother?” The fraying edge of Beatrice’s temper rang clearly in the sharpness of her tone.
“It takes two witnesses to make a case, but if you marry another man, you will be committing bigamy and your children will be bastards,” John said.
“I do not intend to marry again. Once was enough to last me a lifetime.”
“Bea, you know you are married,” Cecilia said.
“There are no witnesses!”
“I will be a witness to your admission of the promise,” Cecilia said, her voice firm. “With John, that is two witnesses.”
“A pox on you!” Beatrice’s voice caught on the last word.
Sebastian lifted his head. The moment had come for him to put an end to her bootless protests. He and Beatrice must face what they had done—it was past time to honor a promise that should not have been forgotten in the first place. This marriage was calamitous, but they had sown its seeds themselves. Who better to reap the bitter crop? He turned and crossed the hall, joining them by the hearth once more. He faced Beatrice, forced himself to confront her beauty, to meet her clear blue eyes steadily and to hold his simmering anger in check.
“I cannot marry another woman, knowing the marriage is a lie. I cannot let her risk her life to bear me a son, knowing that son is a bastard. You are my wife, as much as I wish it otherwise, Beatrice, and if you have a particle of honor left, you will come live with me as my wife.”
“I will not. I will not be wife to a man who scorns me as you do,” Beatrice said, glaring at him as if this garboil was entirely his fault, as if she had not made the same witless promises as he.
His anger flared. “I do not desire to be married to a woman so stupid with pride she will ruin herself rather than yield, but unfortunately, I am betrothed to one and have no choice. In law, Beatrice, you are already my wife and as such you owe me obedience.”
“How dare you!”
John went to sit beside her and laid a hand over hers. “Beatrice, be sensible. You cannot win, not if Ceci and I both bear witness against you. Nor can you wish to spend the rest of your life in limbo, neither wife nor widow nor maid. I do not know what has happened to estrange you from Sebastian nor do I understand why the pair of you are behaving as if we were all back in the nursery, but surely neither of you is foolish enough to ruin your lives.”
Beatrice turned her head and stared at John for a long moment, her free hand gripping the front of the bench with such force her knuckles whitened. “This means I am trapped.”
“We both are,” Sebastian said. Stubborn jade, could she not see that?
“Yes, you are,” John said gently, “but only so long as you both see it so.”
Beatrice slipped her hand free of John’s and pressed it to her temple. “My head aches. I cannot listen to another moment of this. You will please excuse me.” She stood, sketched a stiff curtsy at Sebastian, and left the hall without a backward glance.
Sebastian watched her go, his hands still fisted. Then he turned on John, resentment clenching into a hard knot in the middle of his chest, impossible to swallow or ignore. If John had remained in exile, painting pictures like a merchant’s son… “Why did you come back now? Why could you not stay in Rome?”
“I wanted to come home.” John’s voice was soft. He nodded toward his companion. “I wanted to bring Lucia, my wife, home.”
Sebastian’s face burned. If all his dreams and hopes were in ruins now, it was not because John had come home. It was because he had once been a fool for love.
John went on, his voice hard. “I will not apologize for this, Sebastian. I had no way to know you and Beatrice were not married and raising a handful of yellow-headed babies.”
“I know, I know. Forgive me, I beg of you.” He sighed and put his cap on. “What an accursed garboil this is. I must go to my lawyer and I must find your father. There are contracts to amend.”
He crossed the hall to Cecilia. “Ceci, I am sorry. What will become of you now?” He had thought to marry her, clever and calm. Unlike her sister, she had been a sensible choice.
She took his hand and squeezed it. “Dear Sebastian, do not worry about me. All will be well.”
“I cannot help worrying,” he said. “I have loved you for a long time.”
“As I love you and my sister. If you wish to do anything for me, mend this rift with Beatrice.”
“I cannot,” he said, his voice low as if to conceal what he admitted. “I cannot help thinking of her with Conyers and then I am so angry I cannot see anything.”
Her brows quirked together over her short nose. “She does not love him, Sebastian.”
“Then it is worse than I thought.” He sighed. “Leave it be, Ceci. You cannot make it right.” He kissed her forehead, and then stepped beyond her and embraced John. “I am glad you are home, John. I could wish you had not had such news to bring with you, but I am glad you came before Ceci was utterly ruined. Your parents have kindly given me leave to stay here while I am in London, so I shall see you again later.” He bowed to John’s wife, still silent at his side, then turned and left the hall, walking behind the screen without a backward glance.
The ordeal of facing the earl awaited.
Only the busk in her pair-of-bodies kept Beatrice from hunching over to soothe the pain slashing across her abdomen. This could not be happening to her, not after everything else.
Pushing away from her bedchamber door, she crossed the room to kneel at the prie-dieu against the far wall. What shall I pray for? Shall I pray for mercy, for aid? Or shall I pray for answers, answers that will not come?
She could find no peace, no matter where she turned. Instead she found despair, as if her heart were under a cold, steady rain. Despair was a sin and she was weary of sin. Would it never end? Was this awful grayness clouding her heart never to be lifted, even if she did all her duty? She gripped the railing of the prie-dieu and leaned her forehead against her knotted hands.
She feared that she would spend her life struggling to do right, only to find that she had failed despite all her effort. She was weary, so tired of fighting for peace and a clean heart that sometimes she half wished the sweating sickness would swoop down and carry her away. But her wish was not much better than self-destruction, blackening her soul with yet another sin.
And now this. Trapped in another marriage, once more at the mercy of a man who would have none. Were her sins so terrible they warranted such punishment? She had done penance for the sins of the past year. Surely that had been enough…
Someone tapped on the door and opened it, the hinges creaking.
“Leave me be,” Beatrice said without looking to see who it was. She could not bear company, did not have the strength to pretend a calm she did not feel.
“It is I, Beatrice,” Cecilia said.
Beatrice lifted her head and stared at her across the width of the room. Cecilia gasped at whatever she saw in Beatrice’s face, slipping into the room and closing the door behind her.
“I do not want your pity,” Beatrice said. Her voice, in the quiet room, was harsh and unwelcoming. Please do not go, do not leave me. “I said, leave me be. Do as I bid you.”
“I shall not.” Cecilia sat down on the chest at the end of the bed and folded her hands in her lap.
How obstinate they were as a family, how determined, each of them, to have his or her will. Beatrice did not have the strength to fight her sister. Marriage to Manners had stripped her of stubbornness, leaving her as passive as a feeble-minded nun.
“I am trying to pray,” she said.
Beatrice’s breath caught. “I cannot pray if you watch me.”
“I worry about you,” Cecilia said.
“Do not. There is no need.” I do not deserve it.
“I do not like to see you and Sebastian at such odds. And now that you are married—”
“Do not speak of it!” She could not talk about it, not to anyone. “It would be better for everyone if he married you—”
“Not for me, Beatrice, never for me,” Cecilia said, stiffening. “Do not think that.”
“Why not? You have always been good friends, much at ease with one another. You would deal well together and both of you could do worse.” It was easier to talk of Cecilia’s problems and heart than of her own.
“I cannot marry Sebastian. I was wrong to think I could.” Cecilia clamped her mouth shut.
What now? Beatrice rubbed the shelf. The kneeler had no cushion and was hard even through the layers of her petticoats. The window above the prie-dieu was open to the July afternoon. Below, in the garden, men murmured together and then laughed. The sound was loud in the silence between her and Cecilia and made her think of gardens and gardeners. Would Sebastian let her tend his gardens, or would he forbid it, as Thomas had done? I will not think of it. She dared not hope.
She opened her mouth to ask Cecilia to leave. “Do you ever pray and think God and the saints are not listening?” Tears came out of nowhere and filled her eyes; her heart felt as though the words had been torn out of it.
“No,” Cecilia whispered. “Do you feel so alone?”
“Yes.” Beatrice put her head down on her hands and wept.
Her sister was beside her in a moment, strong arms wrapped tightly around her as if she would hold all the demons at bay.
“Hush, my honey, hush. Hush, dearling.”
Beatrice rested against her, sobs shaking her. She was weary of this, as well, the tears that brought no relief. Finally the weeping subsided, leaving her with swollen eyes and an aching head.
“I have no more strength left, Ceci,” she murmured. “I have no strength to be married.”
“You will not need strength, lovedy,” Cecilia replied, rubbing Beatrice’s back with long, firm strokes. “Sebastian will care for you.”
If only she could believe that. He had never harmed her, but she had never been in his power before. I cannot endure any more. It will kill me.
“Will he?” she mumbled. “He hates me.”
“He loves you,” Cecilia said. “Let me unlace you and then you lie down and rest. Anyone who thinks God does not listen when she prays is too weary to think clearly. You will be better for sleep, I promise you.”
Beatrice straightened, laughing without amusement. “But I do not sleep, Ceci. I have not slept in years.”