The knock was soft, but made us both jump nonetheless. “Don’t get it,” Jamie whispered in my ear, “Whoever it is will go away.”
Ignoring him, I climbed to my feet and straightened my skirts. “If you’ve come with gifts or flowers, you’re supposed to leave them at the stage door...”
I trailed off.
A pair of sparkling gold and diamond buckles adorned shining black shoes. A cloak of velvet hung in ripples across his shoulders. A handsome face glowed at me with the barest hint of a smile.
I had opened the curtain to the King of England.
For the first time in my life, I was speechless. I just stared at him, no idea what to say or do.
“So this is the beautiful Florimel,” the King purred, “I wondered if she would consider dining with her most fervent admirer tonight.”
I folded my arms, chin snapping up to look straight at him. His eyebrows flickered briefly, almost managing to mask his surprise that I had dared to meet his eye.
Good. I hid a smile, enjoying watching the King of England on the defensive. Not many girls could claim that, and without a word spoken. “I don’t know who you mistake me for, sir, but I am not in the custom of dining with strange men to whom I have not been introduced.”
For a moment he stared at me, and then he threw back his head and laughed. Smirking, I leaned against the doorframe until he had finished. “Oddsfish, but you are quite the funniest girl I have ever met! Now I insist upon buying you dinner, so that you may amuse me all the more.”
“But it’s true, sir,” I protested, “How am I to dine with you if I don’t even know your name?”
“Forgive me.” The king took my hand and pressed his lips to it, his eyes never leaving mine. As his lips curled, I felt my heart flutter curiously, and I snatched my hand back at once, though I could tell he would have preferred it to linger in his. “My name is Charles.”
I pretended to bristle a little. “If it comes to that, Charles what?”
He laughed again, and took up my hand once more. “I’m sure you would like a few moments to make yourself ready, Nell. My brother and I will await you at the stage door. Don’t keep us waiting long.”
I met his eyes with a little smile. “I never make my men wait,” I promised, sinking into a curtsey without taking my eyes from his. "Oh, Charles. I will be with you very, very soon."
The girl that greeted me at the stage door was quite different to the one that had I had just parted from. In truth, I was half-expecting the girl to be an embarrassment – to herself and to me – by greeting us improperly or feigning ignorance of my brother. Worse, I feared that she might genuinely not recognise him at all, or chastise me for bringing family to greet her. On consideration, I had never felt more nervous before meeting a woman.
I needn’t have worried. Nell curtseyed very prettily before the pair of us. “Your Majesty.”
I took her hand. “Nell, this is my brother, the Duke of York.”
“Your Royal Highness.”
“I enjoyed the play,” James smiled, “You have quite a talent for acting, mistress.”
Nell glanced up at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “I fear it is not quite so great as my appetite, and I have been promised a meal. Or it all a ruse, so that I may have the chance to experience Your Majesty’s talent for acting?”
I could see James’ shock at the way she addressed me from the corner of my eye, but I confess her frank way of talking amused me. “Quite right! A meal you have been promised, madam, and a meal it will be my honour to provide.” I offered her my arm, and she curled her fingers around it, lashes flirting upwards as her eyes met mine.
I blinked, surprised at the sudden surge of desire that grew deep within me. It was hardly a novel emotion, yet the strength of it, and at such a simple gesture on her part, made it hard to breathe for a second. For a fleeting moment, I imagined the feel of her soft lips beneath mine, and I wondered whether she would taste of the same oranges that I could smell on her skin.
Damn him. I tore my gaze from Nell’s to see my brother’s expression of mild amusement turn to surprise as he took an involuntary step back at the displeasure I must have shown on my face.
The right side of James’ mouth pulled up in a smirk. Damn, he knew me well. “We must make haste if supper is not to be cold. I have told the keeper of the Black Cat we would dine at nine, and it is ten past now.”
I shrugged, but fell into step with Nell behind him. “I don’t think I ever told you how much I enjoyed the play.”
“I don’t think you did.” Her eyebrows danced. “I am glad to have pleased you, however.”
“Oh, you do, then and now,” I replied fervently.
She chuckled, and I was momentarily annoyed. Did she think I was jesting? I took an instinctive step back as we approached the Black Cat to allow her to enter the inn first, and she looked at me in surprise before stepping in.
It took me a moment to understand. She was not used to being treated as a lady.
"After you," I reassured her, and she disappeared inside with a grateful smile.
"Charles!" My brother's voice made me start, and I turned to see his hand on my arm, his surprisingly strong grasp holding me back.
I scowled at him. "You will not stop me going after her, I hope."
James sighed. "She is not one of your court ladies. Have a care."
"As if I'd treat a girl with anything but the highest respect." Perhaps my sarcasm was less disguised than it should have been, for one of James' eyebrows almost disappeared into his hairline. "All right, James! I do not need mothering by you."
"Hmm." James seemed almost prepared to let it go; his fingers relaxed their grip on my arm a little. "Just look after her, that's all. She seems a nice girl; there's no reason to use and abuse her."
"Her name is Nell. She's not just a nice girl. Her name is Nell." I spoke through gritted teeth, sounding like a petulant child, I knew, but it was too late to take back the words now.
James nodded, a small smile growing on his lips. "Then I give you every blessing."
I snorted. "As if I need you," I laughed, as I followed Nell into the inn.
To be continued...