My brother clicked his fingers in front of my face and I blinked, jolted back to the present. “Hmm?”
“What is up with you this afternoon? Your head is in the clouds; you barely listen when we call your name.” James’ voice was light-hearted, but I could see the weariness in his eyes.
“Apologies,” I murmured, but I was still distracted, Nell’s ghost still smiling seductively from every window. In a sudden movement, I scraped back my chair and threw open one of the windows, breathing in the fresh, sharp air.
“Is Your Majesty quite well?” I restrained a sigh, glad that my face was turned from the speaker. Any hint of annoyance in my voice was instantly taken by my council as a sign of sickness or weakness, and they stared like bloodhounds, desperate to snatch any inch I might give them.
God forbid I should merely be irritated. “Perfectly,” I snapped.
I turned back to the table to catch the tail end of the Council’s exasperated glances, which incensed me all the more. The clock on the mantelpiece told me we had another hour’s worth of work before the next meal, yet I knew that I could not concentrate for another second. “Council adjourned until tomorrow,” I said briefly, and stalked out of the room before I could catch their sighs and tuts.
“Charles!” James caught up with me as I rounded a corner. Panting, he tried to keep up with my long strides for a few moments, before grabbing my shoulder and dragging me to a halt. “Charles, what the hell is wrong with you?”
“You haven’t heard a blind thing anyone has said to you today, your thoughts are a mile away – now in God’s name, tell me what is going on!”
I shrugged. “Tis God’s truth I rarely have many thoughts for my council. Dim-witted thieves, the lot of them.”
James looked at me disbelievingly. “Maybe so, but ‘tis no reason for you to act as you have the last few hours. I’m your brother, Charles. Tell me the truth.”
I sighed, knowing he would drag the truth out of me in the end. “That girl we dined with last night.”
“What about her?”
“Do you remember her name?”
His brow furrowed. “Bess. Or was it Belle?”
“That’s it. Why ask me, then?”
“I want her surname, you dolt.”
James blinked at me in astonishment. “Why do you want the girl’s surname?”
I gave a rueful smile. “She shared my bed last night.”
My brother looked as though he were restraining himself from rolling his eyes with extreme difficulty. “I guessed as much.”
“I want to see her again, James. My God. She is the most beautiful creature ever to set foot on God’s earth – and, James, she treats me like a man.” I closed my eyes, visualising her again.
“You are a man.” My brother would never understand. “Why on earth do you need some whore to tell you?”
“I am not a man. I am a King. No-one, no-one in this world save you, treats me like Charles and not Your Majesty. Except her. Nell.”
James shrugged. “My heart rejoices for you.”
“I want to see her again.” The bluntness of my words had his eyebrows dancing, but I ignored that. “I want her. Find her for me, brother.”
“No.” James’s monosyllable left no room for argument. “No. No, you are crazy, Charles. I am not tramping around Covent Garden after one of your whores. Find another – or better, take that Cleveland woman to your bed again. It should cool her temper, and I’ve heard she has become intensely irritating of late.”
I sighed, knowing it to be true. But it was Nell’s sweet lips I was hungry for, not Barbara’s thin smiles. “Please, James.”
He scowled, digging his heel into the cracks in the wooden floor. “What is this girl to you?”
“Nothing,” I lied, taking the easy option.
James’ eyebrow rose, and I sighed. “I barely know myself, brother. But she is special. Everything to me. My God, her eyes... I think I am in love.”
“You’re always in love,” James rolled his eyes, but his scowl had lessened somewhat. “Always oozing love for some girl or other. Forget her, and you’ll quickly move on to another.”
I closed my eyes. “No. No, I can’t forget her. She is – oh, she is something incredible. Something wonderful and new. She’s not just another of my girls, James, she is my friend. I don’t have friends.”
“You have me,” he snapped, “Won’t I do?”
I opened my eyes again, wearily. “You don’t have breasts.”
Seeing, at last, that I would not be persuaded against it, James smiled. “Very well, brother. I make no promises. But I’ll have one of my men enquire after the girl.”
James nodded at the genuine gratitude in my voice. "You owe me," he sighed, "I'll expect another title for this."
Then he was gone, and I lay back against the cool marble wall and closed my eyes, already anticipating Nell's kisses.
It wasn’t until I heard Lucy’s feet clattering on the wooden boards with unusual haste that I knew something was up.
“Nell? For God’s sake, get you here, make haste! Nell!”
Her bawling for someone or other had become so common of late that I had completely ignored her first few cries, but as her screams would not be stopped I sighed, scraped my chair back and yanked aside the curtain to see what was up.
“What is it?”
“Nell? Oh, Nell, where are you?”
“I’m in here!”
“What? Nell, was that you?”
She turned a complete circle and still didn’t see me, trying to spot my face among the crowd of actors, stage crew and servants that bustled here and there. “Nell?”
I hung over the banister and yelled for all I was worth. “Lucy!”
She saw me at last. “Nell!” Pushing her way through the crowd, she fair ran up the stairs and flung herself into my dressing room. “Nell – news has come – the best news...” She gasped for breath, stuttering in her attempt to get her story out. Bosom heaving, she collapsed into my chair, draining the glass of wine I had just poured for myself.
“Oh, by all means, make yourself at home," I sighed, "Why not have some wine?” She glanced at her – my – empty glass, ashamedly, as well she might. “Sorry.”
I laughed. “This news had better be good, Luce.”
“Oh, it is.” She put the glass down on my dressing table and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees excitedly. “I have such news for you, my girl. The best!"
I threw myself back on a chair in frustration. "My God, Luce. Stop your babbling and tell me, for God's sake!"
"Fine," she sulked, "I just met the King's messenger."
"Oh? Oh?! Is that all you can say?" She scowled at me. "He is the closest thing to royalty you or I might ever see!"
I nodded, unsure why I did not burst into gloating about the night before. But for some reason, I wanted to keep it my secret, holding the few moments I'd had in the King's arms tight into my heart. Not that he would ever feel the same way about me, I knew, but I could hold his sweet love murmurings in my mind and pretend he had not lied when he had called me his love, his sweetheart, his one and only. "True."
"And then he gave me a letter, and bowed most kindly, and called me 'miss'. Just imagine!"
"Did you read the letter?"
She sighed. "Here it is. It's for you." She pulled a sealed envelope from her breasts and held it out to me. "It's the royal seal, look!"
I took the heavy parchment and rubbed my thumb gently across the red wax. "It's not his," I murmured.
"It's not the royal seal. It's a bit different. I think it's the Duke of York's."
She stared at me. "What the hell? How d'you know that?"
I shrugged, remembering the King's coat of arms hanging in velvet above me. "I dunno."
"Anyway. Open it, Nell, honey. I'm dying to know what it says."
I turned it over and recognized my name on the front, but none of the other words. "I can't read so well."
She tutted. "Oh, give it here. I used to work for a seamstress, and she made me read accounts." She tore open the paper enthusiastically, and frowned at me. "You don't look that enthusiastic. The King, or whoever it is, wrote to you! Personally!"
I knew it was probably just a thank you for the night before, but I kept up appearances for her sake. "Give me the news, Luce."
She smirked, but as she scanned the page slowly the smile fell from her face. "Oh. Gawd. Nell!"
Lucy stared at me. "Nell, it's from the Duke of York. He's asking you to the palace."
"What?" I tore the parchment from her hand and stared at the spidery writing, making out what letters I could.
She snatched it back. "You'll never know what it says if you keep taking it from me."
"So read it!"
"Dear Miss Gwyn - oh, how fancy! - The Duke of York wishes to invite you to the Court of St. James this evening. Please arrive at seven of the clock in the evening. And then someone signed it that I can't read, but I think it's his clerk or whoever. Oh, Nell! Just imagine!" She looked at me sideways. "Why?"
I stared, frozen to my seat. "I - I don't know," I whispered, "Perhaps the King enjoyed the play."
"Hmm." She was still staring at me suspiciously, "The King certainly likes his pretty actresses, Nell. Are you sure he hasn't taken a fancy?"
A giggle escaped my lips, but even now I held my silence, though I could not have explained why. “The king’s women are like his wigs – curly-haired, well made up and expensive to keep! Be reasonable. I’m a whore from the East End of London, and he has a liking for pretty courtesans. He’d never look twice at me.”
“Don’t do yourself an injustice, Nell,” she said. “And don’t waste what could be a strategic move for you. Turn and flirt and flatter, and who knows where that face’ll lead you?”
I smiled. It would lead me to the King's bed, that I knew well enough. It could lead me to gold and silver, but mountains of wealth and jewellery had never been a dream of mine and I could not bear the idea of being kept by a man. But to his heart? That was a treasure I could never hope to win.
Yet I still hoped.
To be continued...