At the King's Command by Susan Wiggs - Fiction
Frustrated by his own failures at matrimony, King Henry VIII punishes an insolent nobleman by commanding him to marry the vagabond woman caught stealing his horse. Stephen de Lacey is a cold and bitter widower, long accustomed to the sovereign's capricious and malicious whims. He regards his new bride as utterly inconvenient...though undeniably fetching.
But Juliana Romanov is no ordinary thief--she is a Russian princess forced into hiding by the traitorous cabal who slaughtered her family. One day she hopes to return to Muscovy to seek vengeance.
What begins as a mockery of a marriage ultimately blossoms into deepest love.
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Richmond Palace, England 1538
Stephen de Lacey, baron of Wimberleigh, walked into the Royal Bedchamber to find his betrothed in bed with the king.
His face as cold and unflinching as a Holbein portrait, Stephen stared at the dark-eyed Welsh beauty all but hidden beneath the quilted silk counterpane. A hissing tide of resentment roiled deep inside him, threatening to drown him. Clenching his fists at his sides, Stephen conquered the turmoil within. Through deliberately blank eyes, he looked at King Henry VIII.
"My liege," he said, blowing stiffly, inhaling the scent of dried lavender and bergamot from the sachets in the bed hangings. By the time he straightened up, the king's attendants had arrived to groom their sovereign for the day.
"Ah, Wimberleigh." The king put out his arms as an attendant scurried forward and helped him don a loose silk jacket. Henry smiled. In that smile there lingered yet a hint of the old charm, the derring-do of a golden young prince. A prince whom Stephen, as a boy, had idolized as the second Arthur.
The legendary Arthur had died young, in a blaze of glory. Henry had made the mistake of living on into the corrupt mediocrity of middle age.
"Come, come," said Henry, beckoning. He swung his swollen legs over the side of the bed and pushed his pale feet into a pair of brocade slippers held by a kneeling servant. "You may approach the royal bed. See what I've found you."
As he crossed the huge room, Stephen felt the searing curiosity of the sovereign's attendants. By now the chamber was crowded with titled gentlemen, all engaged to supervise the most intimate bodily functions of the king--and also to influence the policies of the realm.
Sir Lambert Wilmeth, groom of the stool, took His Majesty's bowel movements as seriously as Scottish border disputes. Lord Harold Blodsmoor, surveyor of the wardrobe, regarded the king's collection of shoes as highly as the crown jewels. Yet at the moment, the attention of these great gentlemen burned into Stephen de Lacey.
The girl smiled shyly and even managed to summon an artful blush. She stretched with catlike grace, a bare shoulder emerging from the bedclothes. Like most of the king's mistresses, she took a perverse pride in sharing the bed of the sovereign.
After so many betrayals, Stephen should have known better than to trust the king. Should have known that the summons could only mean more petty cruelty.
"I was feeling frisky today." Henry's grin held both mischief and subtle rancor. Limping slightly, he went to the royal stool, speaking over his shoulder as he relieved himself. "I decided to exercise the droit du seigneur-- again. An antiquated notion, to be sure, but one that has its merits and deserves to be revived from time to time. Now, make a gracious greeting to your lady Gwenyth, and then we'll--"
"Sire," Stephen broke in, heedless of the gasps from the noblemen present. No one interrupted the king. In the thirty years of his reign, Henry VIII had put men to death for lesser offenses.
Instantly Stephen regretted the risk he had taken. With that one blurted word he might have jeopardized everything.
"Yes?" The king seemed only mildly annoyed as his gentlemen helped him into doublet and hose. "What is it, Wimberleigh?"
Stephen couldn't help himself. A killing rage rose like a fountain of fire inside him. "To hell with your droit du seigneur."
He turned on his heel and strode from the Royal Bedchamber. Though well aware of the infraction he was committing, he could not be a willing player in the familiar, vicious diversion that so delighted Henry.