“All right, all right, break it up! What’s going on?”
I picked up my skirts and ran towards the fight. The mob jeered to see a girl push her way through, but when it became clear that I intended to break them up myself a couple of men stepped in to help me, disentangling Roberts from the ugly man and pulling them apart. Finally under control, they were held within spitting distance, until they stopped struggling and proceeded to glare at one another, wary cats watching for the other to make their first move.
“I said, what’s going on? ” I demanded, looking between the two for an explanation.
My coachman’s eyes bulged in fury. “I was defending your honour, madam!”
My eyebrows shot to the top of my head. “That surprises me, since I have little enough of that to defend. What are the particulars?”
He blushed. “’Tis not a matter I would wish to repeat before a lady.”
“Then go ahead,” I countered, “For I’m no lady.”
The crowd laughed at that, none more than the ugly man who had been fighting with Roberts only moments before.
Roberts snarled at his rival’s response. “This little bastard called you a whore, madam.”
I pressed my hand to my mouth to suppress a giggle. Only when I had managed to regain my countenance did I fix Roberts with an unamused glare, raising one eyebrow as high as it could go. “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about,” I said, in the most disgusted tone I could manage, before picking up my skirts and sweeping into the carriage, ignoring the jeers and catcalls that I knew would follow in my wake.
The house I had chosen for Nell for the birth of our second child was close enough that I could - and would - visit often. Tall and thin, I had ordered it to be filled with the finest food, furniture and linens, relishing the rare opportunity to spoil her rotten.
And it worked. Her mouth dropped as I led her in, staring around her dumbly. "Good Gawd ," she muttered, "And this is mine ?"
I nodded, grinning. "Like it?"
She gave a childish giggle. "I love it!" Her lips found mine in a moment of exhilaration.
"Mama!" The echoing of a child's voice across the hallway broke us both apart as our first son, Charles, threw himself across the room and into his mother's arms.
"Charles! What have I told you -" the governess broke off as she saw us, dipping into a curtsey. "My apologies, Your Majesty. Miss Gwyn."
"It is of no matter," I said quickly, "He is well?"
"Hale and hearty in every respect, I promise, sir."
"Good." Nell stood up, Charles on hip, "We will spend some time with him, if that suits you."
"Certainly." The governess curtseyed again, and was gone in a swish of navy blue skirts.
Was this what it was like to have a real family? I wondered, as Nell brushed the curls from Charles's face and kissed his cheek, still chubby from infancy. My heart swelled to see the joy on her face as the boy caressed her swollen belly.
But as I approached, my son squirmed, and wriggled out of his mother's grip, running across the room. When he slipped on the polished floors, grinning up at his mama wickedly, Nell followed him, lifting up her skirts as she ran.
Laughing, Nell grabbed the little tyke’s collar and hauled him to his feet. “Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father.”
I winced at the word. “Must you call him that, sweetheart?”
She just looked at me in bewilderment. “But he is a bastard,” she said, as though explaining the obvious to someone very stupid, “And Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him.”
“Well, that’s easily remedied.” I knelt down to the boy’s height, smiling into his endearing face. “Charles, how would you like to be called the Earl of Burford?”
The child just blinked at me, and then looked up at his mother, who still held tightly onto his collar. His lip trembled, and for a ghastly moment I thought he was about to burst into tears.
But then Nell laughed, diffusing the tension the way only she could. “Cor, ain’t you quite the little toff?” she teased, twitching his curls affectionately.
Charles blinked up at her once again. “Cor, ain’t you quite the little toff Your Grace ,” he corrected her serenely.
I caught Nell’s eye and together we burst out laughing.
“Corrected on title by my own little boy! Aha! Oh, aye, he is Your Majesty’s son!”
“He’s right, though,” I replied, when I had wiped my eyes, “Nell, if you please, he now outranks you.”
She inclined her head a little. “Never let it be said I forget my manners. Your Grace.” She sunk into a deep curtsey before her son, twisting her tongue round the accent she mimicked at court but made fun of in private. “Please, sir, forgive my lapse of judgement.”
The new Earl of Burford tilted up his head to meet her gaze. “You are forgiven, Mama,” he said graciously, “May I go now?”
She tilted her head to me. “Ask your Papa.”
Charles turned to me somewhat reluctantly. “Your Majesty?”
I smiled. “Yes, yes, run along, my boy. I’ll see you later.”
Nell smirked at me as the door shut behind him. “So he gets a title, but I stay plain old Nell? Where’s all the fairness gone in life, huh?”
I got up, dusting off my hands. “Would you like a title?”
She laughed. “No fear! Rather go to my grave than become a proper lady. I’ll just stay ‘pretty, witty, Nell’, if it’s all the same to you.”
“An excellent choice.” I kissed her, and offered her my arm. “Are you going to show me around your humble abode, then?”
“Why don’t you show me? You know your way around here better than I do.” She curled her hand around my arm and smiled up at me prettily.
“Actually, no I don’t. I haven't been here before, I just ordered the architects."
"Well then." Nell grinned up at me with a smile as wicked as our son's. "Let's explore!"
To be continued...