I liked him.
I’ve never been a girl to beat about the bush and I certainly didn’t intend to start with the King. In truth, however, the idea of meeting the man himself had set my stomach fluttering, terrified that the only small talk I knew how to make – bawdy tavern-girl humour – would not amuse royalty. Yet I was the brazen one, the girl whose cock-sure temperament frequently strayed the wrong side of arrogant. If they knew at the theatre that Nell Gwyn was nervous about meeting the King, I’d hear the laughter from the other end of Drury Lane.
But I liked him very well. Despite his silks and powdered wig, his eye had a mischievous twinkle and the corner of his mouth flirted upwards in a smirk at every joke I made. Too loud, I winced internally at the sound of my own voice. Play smart, Nell!
Truth was, I didn’t know how. What did I know of men of quality? He was divine, half way to being God himself, what the hell did I know of that?
There was nothing for it but to treat him the only way I knew – just like every other man.
But no other man in the world would step back for me to enter the door first, with a respectful bow as he swept the hat from his head. No other man in the world would treat me like a lady – me! A lady! – nor hold back my chair as I sat down.
“What will you have to eat?”
I stared at the platters in front of me, the pies and meats and some things I had never seen before in my life. Before I could stop myself, a low whistle escaped my lips. “Your Majesty certainly knows how to treat a gal!”
The Duke of York blinked, taken aback, I think, by my brazen tone, but mercifully the King chuckled. “I have never yet been accused of being frugal, ‘tis true,” he admitted, piling my plate high with every manner of delicious things. “Will you take some wine?”
Never having had much head for wine, I spoke without thinking. “Ale will do me just fine.”
I blushed as soon as the words had escaped my mouth, realising that I had set my status definitively. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the King’s brother smirk, and lowered my head. “Or wine. Whatever is easiest,” I muttered.
Casting a glare at his brother, the King poured three tankards of ale. His effort to put me at my ease comforted me a little, and I smiled up at him as he pushed the ale towards me.
“A toast, to the most talented actress in Covent Garden.”
I bit my lip to stop myself from interrupting the King, but I could not let that pass. “Oh, no. We must toast Your Majesty.” That, I hoped, would please him; he was surely used to having his health drunk.
He rolled his eyes with a smile. “My dear Nell, a thousand toasts are drunk to my health every day. Allow me to wish you well this once.”
He took a gulp of his ale before I could protest, but when he set down his tankard I could see his smile. I took a sip myself, raising my eyebrows – “Nice.”
“I’m glad you approve. Now eat up, my girl! You must be hungry.”
I nodded, unsure what to try first. His Majesty made the decision for me by tearing a small piece of bread, dipping it in a sauce, and holding it to my lips. Without taking my eyes from his, I opened my mouth. “Mmm.”
His smile broadened, and he reached for another item on my plate. “Now close your eyes.”
I obeyed, and tasted something like sweet pastry on my tongue. “What on earth is that?”
“A honey dish from the Far East, made with pistachio nuts.” I did not understand half the words from his mouth, but I loved listening to his voice, the gentle accent that was so used to being obeyed. I opened my eyes again into his dark brown ones, and saw them flicker to my lips and back again.
I pulled back a little, straightening myself on my chair, and broke eye contact. Better he should not know the thoughts that were already running through my head. I glanced at the Duke of York, who was quietly munching his way through dinner, politely ignoring our flirtation.
I could see that the King was none too pleased with this arrangement, but he said nothing, turning back to his own plate. For a few moments the only sound from the table was contented eating, and I ate slowly, relishing the fine meats and spices.
Wiping his plate clean with a slice of bread, the King leaned back in his chair and sighed. “So, entertain us, Florimel!”
“Entertain you?” I mumbled, my mouth full – before clapping a hand over my mouth as I realised to whom I was talking.
“Peace, Charles,” chided the Duke of York, “She has entertained us all evening. It is your turn to repay the favour.”
“Oh, the favour is more than repaid,” I said hurriedly, “I have never eaten so well in my life!”
The Duke laughed out loud at that. “She wishes to keep you from telling your jokes, brother!”
The King mock slapped his brother. “You’ll be the death of me, James. My apologies, my dear, you have worked hard enough tonight. You have been in the theatre many years?”
“I was born in one. This is the first time I’ve left,” I teased, “I jest, Your Majesty, yet ‘tis true I have barely left the stage since I was a girl.”
“I thought you looked born for the role. Do you have any favourites?”
“Anything without a dress!” The King guffawed, and I realized again what a mistake I had made, feeling my face burn. “I meant, ah – breeches roles. It has not been so long since ladies have been permitted to grace the stage, sir, but already the public clamour for a girl in a man’s garb. ‘Tis God’s truth I find it a liberating costume!” I chuckled, but the mortification of the accidental double-entendre still burned in my ears.
Both the Duke of York and the King were still trying to restrain their laughter at the slip of my tongue, the former wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. “Oddsfish, my dear Nell, when I meet the likes of you, I cannot be more glad I allowed the ladies onto the stage!” Charles chuckled again, placing his hand over mine.
His palm was hot against my cold fingers as he turned my hand over, playing gently with my fingers. “Would you like me to recite something for Your Majesty?”
He shook his head slowly. “You are not at work now. But allow me to come and see you when you next perform.”
I snorted, as unlike a lady as you could imagine. “As if I could keep Your Majesty away!”
A door banging open caused the King to tear his eyes from mine, as the sour-faced owner of the Black Cat placed a piece of paper covered with illegible scribble in front of the King. “That’ll be two pounds eight shillings, Yer Majesty,” he growled, snatching the empty jugs of ale from the table.
The King slid the bill across the table to his brother. “Pay the man, James.”
The Duke of York blinked at him. “I have not got my purse.”
The King stared. “Well, you know I never carry money.” He reddened a little. “You are a damned fool, James!”
“The bill must be paid tonight, sirs,” the owner insisted.
The King rose to his feet and tried a royal smile upon the owner. “I can arrange for the money to be sent for tomorrow morning. Double the fee, for the inconvenience. How does that sound?”
“I can’t accept that, Your Majesty,” the owner said, folding his arms firmly. I saw the Duke of York’s eyebrows raise at the flat refusal, but he said nothing.
“You see, my man, ‘tis rather difficult. Neither my brother nor I have so much as a shilling on our person.”
Thumbing through my pocket, I drew out my purse. “Let me pay, sir.”
“Nell, no.” The King put his hand on my shoulder to keep me in my seat. “I will sort this out, I promise you.”
“The bill must be paid,” insisted the owner again, a touch of irritation in his voice.
I held out the purse, knowing it to be barely over the required amount. The tip would be small, but he could hardly expect better from an actress. “Take it.”
Reluctantly the King allowed me to pay the owner. “I cannot apologise enough,” he repeated, over and over again, “I will arrange for every penny to be paid back double, I promise.”
To lighten the mood, I perched the King’s hat precariously atop my hair, and took up a male stance, “Oddsfish,” I smirked, mimicking the King’s accent, “But this is the worst company I have ever been in!”
The King chuckled at my imitation, but it was the Duke of York who laughed the hardest, tilting his chair back against the wall as he did so. It was only then that I saw how truly alike the brothers were; the lines of their lips and jaws were identical. But Charles’ eyes were deeper, darker, and captivated me in the way that his younger brother’s could never.
The Black Cat owner, having counted the contents of my purse, pocketed it with a disdainful sniff. With the barest scrape of a bow to the King, a nod to the Duke of York and completely ignoring me, he slammed the door behind him.
The King winced, but did not allow his irritation to show beyond that. “It must be dark by now,” he said, mildly, “Where do you live?”
“Not far from the theatre, Your Majesty,” I rushed, wrapping my shawl around me in case he was keen for me to leave.
He shook his head with a frown. “Tut, I cannot allow a lady to walk so far in this weather. There is a cab waiting to take my brother and myself back to the Palace; you will not object, I hope, to accompanying us?”
I could not prevent my eyebrows dancing in surprise. “I would be delighted, Your Majesty.”
As he bent his head to leave the door, his lips trembled at my ear. “And I long to delight you, my sweet Nell.”
To be continued...