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Whitehall Palace, December 1564
It was him.
Suddenly dizzy, Celia Sutton reached out to steady herself against the panelled wall of Queen Elizabeth's presence chamber. The thick crowd had pressed in around her again, obscuring her view with a sea of jewelled velvet and embroidered satin. The nervous laughter and high-pitched chatter as they waited anxiously to petition the Queen sounded like a flock of birds in her ears, buzzing and formless.
She rubbed her hand over her eyes and looked again, standing on tiptoe to try and peer over the crowd. She could no longer see him. Not even that tiny glimpse of his tall figure by the door. The flash of his careless grin. He was gone.
Or maybe he had never been there at all. Maybe it had just been her imagination playing tricks on her. She had not been sleeping wellhad spent too many late nights here at Queen Elizabeth's Christmas revels. She had too many worries, and it was wearing on her. That was all.
And yethe had looked so real.
"It was not him," she whispered. John Brandon was gone. She had not seen him for over three yearsthree very long, hard yearsand she would never see him again. What was more, she did not want to see him. It would only remind her of the foolish girl she'd once been, of her old weakness for his handsome face, and right now she needed all her strength.
She pushed herself away from the wall and took a deep breath, trying to stand perfectly still, to keep herself calm. The Queen would call for her soon, and she had to have all her wits about her when they met. Her entire life depended on it. She should look only to the future now, not to the past. Not to John Brandon.
But still that fleeting image lingered in her mind, that glimpse of his lean, muscled figure through the crowd and the pounding of her heart at the sight. Despite the roaring fire in the stone grates, the close press of the crowd, and her own fur-trimmed black and purple velvet gown, she shivered.
All around her were desperate facespeople who saw their last chance in catching the Queen's attention. Did she look like them? She feared it was so. What would John say if he could see her now? Would he even recognise her?
The door to the Queen's privy chamber opened and everyone's attention turned towards it in the hope their name would now be called. Hope sank down again when they saw it was only Anton Gustavson and Lord Langley, the last parties to be called to consult with Queen Elizabeth. The nervous chatter fluttered anew.
Celia froze when her gaze met Anton's. He was her long-lost Swedish cousin, recently arrived in England to lay his claim to their grandfather's estate at Briony Manor. That estate was Celia's last hope for a comfortable, independent life in which she did not have to answer to the whims of a cruel man any longer. But as she had watched Anton charm the Queen, and every other lady at Court, her hopes had slipped away. He would have the estate, and she would be thrown back to the dubious mercy of her late husband's family.
Anton gave her a wary nod, and she curtsied in answer. He was the only family she had left, yet she did not know him and could not trust him. That was one of the hard lessons John Brandon had once taught hernever to trust in appearances or emotions. Always to be cautious.
Anton's latest flirtation, the beautiful golden-blonde Rosamund Ramsay, came to his side and gently touched his arm. He smiled down at her, and they gazed into each other's eyes as if the crowded chamber, the whole world, had vanished but for the two of them.
A cold sadness washed over Celia at the sight. She had once looked at John like that, sure that he felt that incandescent connection too. But it had been false in the end.
She turned away from the sight of Anton and Rosamund and pretended to study the tapestry on the wall. But the vivid greens and reds of the silken threads blurred in her vision, and she saw only that long-ago summer day. The sun so bright and warm in a cloudless azure sky, the cool shadows under the ancient oak tree where she'd waited for him. Imagining his kisses, the embrace of his strong body
But he had not come, even after he'd hinted at a future with her. The warm sun had melted away and there had been only the shadows.
It was not him, she told herself fiercely. He was not here. Not now.
The door swung open again, and this time it was the Queen's majordomo. A tense hush fell over the crowd.
Celia turned around to face him, wiping fiercely at her eyes. She hadn't cried in three years. She could not start now.
"Mistress Celia Sutton, Her Grace will see you now," the man announced.
Bitterly envious looks spun towards Celia, but she ignored them and slowly made her way forward. This was her chance. She couldn't let the memory of John Brandon distract her for even an instant. He had taken too much from her already.
Just inside the door a small looking glass hung on the wall, and she glimpsed her reflection therethe black cap on her smooth, tightly pinned dark hair, the high fur collar of her gown, the jet earrings in her ears. In mourning for a husband she could not truly mourn.
Her face looked chalk-white with worry, just like everyone else's in that room outside, but red streaked her cheekbones as if in memory of that long-ago summer's day. Her grey eyes glowed with unshed tears.
She forced them away, clasping her hands tightly before her waist as she followed the majordomo into the inner sanctum of the privy chamber. It was also crowded there, but the atmosphere was lighter, the conversation free of the strained quality outside. Ladies-in-waiting in their pale silks sat on cushions and low stools scattered over the floor and around the marble fireplace, whispering and laughing over their embroidery. Handsome young courtiers played cards in the corner, casting flirtatious glances at the ladies.
But the Queen's most favourite of all, Robert Dudley, was nowhere to be seen. Everyone said that after the alarming events of the Christmas season, the attempts on the Queen's life, he worked day and night to ensure the security of the palace. Nor was the Queen's chief secretary, Lord Burghley, who so rarely left her side, in evidence.
Queen Elizabeth sat by herself next to the window, a table covered with the scrolls of petitions beside her. The pale grey sunlight filtered through the thick glass, turning her red-gold hair into a fiery halo and making her fair ivory skin glow. She wore a splendourous robe of crimson velvet trimmed with white fur over a gold silk gown, rubies on her fingers and in her ears, and a band of pearls holding back her hair.
She looked every inch the young Sun Queen, but her dark eyes were shadowed and the set of her mouth was grim, as if the events of the last few days had taken their toll on her.
Celia had heard that those strange occurrences were not the Queen's only worries. Parties from Austria and Sweden were at Whitehall to press their marriage suits. Spain and France were constant threats. And the Queen's cousin to the north, Mary Queen of Scots, was always a thorn in Elizabeth's side.
It was almost enough to make Celia feel her own troubles were tiny in comparison! No one was trying to kill her or marry her.
"Mistress Sutton," Queen Elizabeth said. "You have had a long wait, I fear."
Celia curtsied low and made her way to the Queen's desk. Elizabeth tapped her long pale fingers on the papers, her rings sparkling. "I'm just grateful Your Grace has the time to meet with me."
Elizabeth waved her words away. "You may not be so grateful when you hear what I have to say, Mistress Sutton. Please sit."
A footman leaped forward with a stool, and Celia sank onto it gratefully. She had a terrible feeling this interview would not go as she so fervently wished. "Bri-ony Manor, Your Grace?"
"Aye." Elizabeth held up a scroll. "It seems clear to us that your grandfather's wish was for the estate to go to Master Gustavson's mother and then to him. We feel we cannot go against this."
Celia felt that chill wash over her againthe cold of disappointment, of an anger she had to suppress. If she could not go to Briony, where could she go? What would be her home? "Yes, Your Grace."
"I am sorry," Elizabeth said, and there was a tinge of true regret in her voice. She even used "I" instead of the official "we". "When I was a girl, I had no true place of my own. No place where I could be assured of my own security. Everything I had was dependent on othersmy father, my brother, my sister. Even my life depended on their whims."
Celia glanced at the Queen in surprise. Elizabeth so seldom spoke of the difficult past. Why would she now, and to Celia of all people? "Your Grace?"
"I know how you must feel, Mistress Sutton. We are alike in some ways, I think. And that is why I sense that I can ask a great favour of you."
Ask? Or demand? "I will do anything I can to serve Your Grace, of course."
Elizabeth tapped at the papers again. "You have heard the recent rumours surrounding my cousin Queen Mary, I am sure. She always seems of such acute interest to my courtiers."
"Iwell, aye, Your Grace. I sometimes hear tales of Queen Mary. Is there a specific rumour you refer to?"
Elizabeth laughed. "Oh, yes, there are many. But I refer to the fact that she intends to marry again. They say she has hopes of a union equal to her first with the King of France. I hear she has her sights set on Don Carlos of SpainKing Phillip's son."
"I have heard such rumours as well, Your Grace," Celia said. She had also heard Don Carlos was a violent lunatic, but even a reputed great beauty like Queen Mary seemed willing to overlook that for the chance to be Queen of Spain.
Elizabeth suddenly slammed her fist down on the desk, sending an inkwell clattering to the floor. "That cannot be! My cousin cannot make such a powerful alliance. She is menace enough as it is. I have suggested she should marry an English nobleman. I must have someone I can trust in her Court."
"Your Grace?" Celia said in confusion. How could she assist in such a task?
Elizabeth lowered her voice to a whisper. "I have a plan, you see, Mistress Sutton. But I will need help to see it carried off."
"How can I help, Your Grace? I know of no candidates for Queen Mary's hand."
"Oh, I will take care of that, Mistress Sutton. I have the perfect candidate in mindsomeone I can trust completely. I cannot say who just yet, but I promise you will know all you need to soon." The Queen sat back in her chair and reached for one of the papers on her desk. "In the meantime my cousin, the Countess of Lennox, who is Mary's cousin as well, petitions for her son Lord Darnley to be given a passport to visit his father who is now resident in Edinburgh."
Celia nodded. She knew well of the Countess's petition, as Lady Lennox had made certain indiscreet confidences to her in the last few days. Lady Lennox hoped that once Queen Mary met Lord Darnley, who was tall, blond and angelically handsome, she would marry him and make him King of Scotland. His own royal lineage would strengthen Mary's claim to be Elizabeth's heir.
Celia was not so sure such a plan could work, hinging as it did on Lord Darnley. Even she could see, from her brief time at Court, that he was a drunken braggart under his pretty exterior, and rather too fond of men.
"Yes, Your Grace," she said.
"It appears Lady Lennox has made a friend of you in these last few days."
"Lady Lennox has been welcoming to me. But she tells me little except that she misses her husband."
"I have been reluctant to let Lord Darnley travel north," Elizabeth said. "He seems the sort it is best to keep an eye on. But Lord Burghley counsels, and I concur, that we should allow him this passport now. He will depart for Scotland in a week's time."
"So soon, Your Grace?" Celia was surprised anyone could travel now. It was the coldest winter anyone could remember, with the Thames frozen through. Sensible people stayed home by their fires.
"I think time is imperative in this matter," the Queen said. "And Lord Darnley seems eager to go. I wish for you, Mistress Sutton, to be one of the travel party."
Celia tried not to gape at the Queen like a country lackwit. She had no idea what to say or even how to calm her jumbled thoughts. Shego to Scotland? "I fear I do not quite understand how I could help you in Edinburgh, Your Grace."
Elizabeth gave an impatient sigh. "You will serve Queen Mary as a lady-in-waitinga gift from me. I need a lady's close eye on matters there, Mistress Sut-ton. Men are all very well for certain things, of course, and Burghley will have his spies in the party. But a woman sees things men are blind toespecially when it comes to other women. I need to know Mary's true thoughts concerning her possible marriage. And I need to know if she is persuadable in that regard."
"And you believe I can do that?" Celia said carefully.
Elizabeth laughed. "I am sure you can. I have been watching you these last few days, Mistress Sutton, and I see how you notice everything around you. How you observe and listen. I need someone like that. Not a preening Court peacock who sees nothing but the cut of their own coat. It is vital that I know everything my cousin does right now. The security of our northern borders depends on her marital choice."
Celia nodded. She knew how unpredictable the Scottish Queen could be. Everyone knew that. And Celia did watch and listen; it was the only way for a woman alone to survive. She also knew how limited her own choices were. With no money or estate of her own, and no husband or family to lean on, she was dependent on the Queen's favour.
Better that than the cold charity of her in-laws.
"You would be rewarded for your efforts, of course," the Queen said. "As soon as Queen Mary's marriage is settled satisfactorily and you have returned to our Court you shall have a marriage of your own. The finest I can arrange, I promise you, Mistress Sutton. And then you will be settled for life."