Secrets at Court
Harlequin / February 18, 2014 / $5.85 print, $4.61 digital
Anne of Stamford has long been the keeper of her mistress's secrets, but when Lady Joan marries the king's son, court life becomes ever more perilous. Sir Nicholas Lovayne has arrived to uncover the truth about Lady Joan's past, and Anne must do something—anything—to throw him off….
Longing to escape the intrigues at court, Nicholas hasn't counted on the way Anne distracts him—her refusal to accept pity for her clubfoot touches something deep inside him. Will he be able to follow his duty when every fiber of his being tells him to protect Anne?
In Blythe Gifford's Secrets at Court, Anne has been a valued part of Lady Joan's household since childhood, surprising, given that Anne was born with a club foot and lives in an era (the 14th c.) that was not kind to those with physical infirmities. But, she is the keeper of Lady Joan's secrets, secrets that could prove especially damaging now that Joan has married Prince Edward in a clandestine ceremony.
Sir Nicholas is indispensible to both the King and the Prince. He is the man who fixes problems, arranges food and lodging for an army at war, smoothes over difficulties, and just in general gets things done. He's recently returned to England from visiting the Pope to get dispensation and blessing for the marriage of Joan and Edward. He is successful, but has one more task: to travel to Canterbury, find the proof of the annulment of Joan's previous marriage, and obtain the Archbishop's blessing.
Joan sends Anne along with him, ostensibly so she can pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral to seek a miracle for her disfigurement, but really to make sure that Nicholas doesn't delve too deeply into the circumstances of the annulment. Anne, who has never left Lady Joan's side for most of her life, is thrilled to be granted a bit of freedom and to see new places.
Simply to stay on the horse took all her strength. Her right foot could not rest in the stirrup, so she clenched her thighs, as tightly as she could, hoping with every mile that she would not slide off and be trampled. The horse, sensing her tension, seemed to fight her, making every step a struggle.
By afternoon, her muscles shook with pain. Yet she felt happy enough to sing.
Though she had imagined, in the moments before sleep, journeying to the far corners of the world, seeing sights too strange to be imagined, she knew it to be a dream. Only in the circle of her lady's protection could she live safely. In lucid, waking moments, she could not conceive of leaving Lady Joan's side.
Yet here she was, on a lovely summer day, so far away she could not hear or see or even be summoned by the Countess. And instead of fear, exhilaration pulsed through her. She took in the wonderful scent of flowers, first those of bright yellow, then some of vivid blue, and the rise and fall of the grasslands at the edge of the forest. Perhaps they would ride near enough to the water that she would get a glimpse.
Happiness—all the result of a freedom she had never known. Because now, today, she could pretend she was the person she wanted to be, one who could travel unencumbered.
Nicholas is not happy to be saddled with Anne, for she will slow him down greatly, postponing the time he will finally be done with this task and can return to his life. But mostly because he finds himself very attracted to Anne and the way she sees the world.
“Tell me of all the places you have travelled. Tell me of France.”
France? Nicholas searched his memories. What was there to say of France?
He shrugged. “All earth looks alike to a man at war, except where the marsh makes the land treacherous or the hills offer the best defence for battle.”
She looked at him as if he were jesting. “You must have seen rivers, castles, cathedrals… Did you see Chartres?”
Chartres. Yes, he knew that name. As he recalled, he had seen Chartres right after the terrible storm when the King decided to sign a treaty…But all he remembered were dead men and exhausted horses and an unending cycle of light and dark. He had travelled countless miles through France and could remember nothing but the war that travelled with him.
She looked back at him, expectant. “Or Notre Dame?”
The mirror of his memory was empty. “I was not there to look at churches.”
“Then I will tell you of my travels. When I was in France with Lady Joan, we lived in a castle in Normandy with two round towers and a square tower. There was an abbey close by and at the top of one of the pillars was a carving of the Green Man with a great swoosh that made it look as if he was swallowing his own, long hair.”
She laughed at the memory and went on to describe the abbey's windows and the view from the castle's tower in such detail that he could see it before him. A castle he had visited, at least he must have, but he could summon no more of it than that the curved walls looked strong but should have been higher. Yes, he had been there. And to so many other places, but he had focused only on the needs of the moment because he cared more to keep moving than to be where he was. There would always be some place new. But Anne, forced to move slowly, all but trapped in each place, had absorbed the vision of it as if it were a gem, to be savoured and saved, treasured and revisited in memory in later days.
The loss of all he had seen, yet not seen, cut his breath. How many days, how many sights, had been lost to him? When he turned to look at the years behind him, he saw only war and mud and windswept sky.
On the return trip, after many experiences, after closeness and betrayals, after affection and anger, knowing they will soon part, they stop to visit Ely Cathedral.
“Show me Ely, Anne. Show me so I will know I was here.”
“Just look,” she said, as if impatient with a balky student. “How many towers has it?”
“Yes. Only one. Most churches have two.”
He nodded. Something else he had seen without every really seeing.
“Now look. There.” She pointed at the top of the arches lining the nave. “You see the carvings up there?”
Not until she had shown them to him.
“They are of the saint, Etheldreda.”
He squinted to see the place where the columns met the arches. Had he ever noticed anything other than how many men could sleep in a castle's hall and whether the list he had given matched the food delivered?
So many things that he had not seen. Excited, she did not wait for him to catch up. “And the windows, you see? Angels playing music.”
He tried to make out the image. Once he opened his eyes, once he tried to see it all, there was too much to take in.
But already she was pointing out something new. “Now look up. Have you ever seen anything like that?”
Above him stretched eight arches, meeting to support a higher structure, floating above the floor. It must have been the dome-like structure they had seen before they even reached the city. It looked as celestial and far above the world as if God had made it and put it in the heavens. Standing directly beneath it, he was dizzy. Yes, he would remember Ely Cathedral now.
What would the rest of the world look like, through Anne's eyes?
Nicolas takes her to places and gives her experiences she would never have had with Lady Joan, and Anne gives him the eyes to see where he is.
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Cheryl Sneed reviews for Rakehell.com.