"The Maidenhall heiress!"
Joby could hardly contain herself as she looked at her brother Jamie and her older sister, Berengaria, sitting so close to each other at the high table. She was no longer dazzled by the beauty of the two of them as she had been when she was small. Her father used to lift her high above his head and promise her that she was going to grow up to be as beautiful as her sister, Berengaria.
But he'd not told the truth. Not about that or, as it turned out, about a great many things. He'd not told the truth when he said they'd always have enough to eat and always have a warm, comfortable place to live. He'd not told the truth when he'd sworn that her mother would soon stop talking to her spirit people.
But most of all he'd lied about living forever.
Joby tossed her head of dark curls and looked up at her brother with stars in her eyes. Her hair had been shorn after she'd beaten some of the boys at sword play, and in retaliation, they had slathered her head with warm honey and pine pitch. Now her hair was growing back into glossy curls, and she found that she did indeed have one quite beautiful feature.
"The Maidenhall heiress," she repeated. "Oh, Jamie, just think of all that lovely money. Do you think she bathes in a gold tub? Does she wear emeralds to bed?"
"Nothing else is in her bed," Rhys, Jamie's man, said under his breath. "That father of hers keeps her as locked up as his gold."
Rhys gave a soft grunt as Thomas, Jamie's only other retainer, kicked him under the table.
Joby well knew the kick was to silence Rhys because they thought that at twelve years old she knew nothing about anything, and they wanted to keep it that way. Joby wasn't about to tell them what she knew or did not know, because in her opinion, there were already too many restrictions placed on her freedom. If any of the many adults in her life found out just exactly how much she did know, they'd start trying to find out where she had been to learn what she wasn't supposed to know.
Jamie's eyes were twinkling. "Perhaps not emeralds. But maybe she wears a silk nightgown."
"Silk," Joby said dreamily, her head propped on her hand. "Italian silk or French?"
At that everyone at the table laughed, and Joby knew she had an audience. She might not win attention for her looks, but she knew that she could make people laugh.
Maybe their branch of the Montgomery family couldn't afford jesters and other entertainers for dinner, or even much dinner for that matter, but Joby did what she could to enliven their otherwise dreary existence.
With one great leap she sprang to the top of the table, then bounded over it to the cold stone floor of the old castle.
With a bit of a frown, Jamie looked across the room at his mother, sitting so quietly, eating so little that no one could figure how she survived, but Joby's mannerless enthusiasm did not penetrate their mother's eternal dream world. She was vaguely looking in her youngest daughter's direction, but Jamie had no idea if she could see her or not. Or if she did, whether or not she remembered who she was. Their mother was as likely to call Joby Edward or Berengaria or, sometimes, Joby's real name of Margaret.
Jamie looked back at his young sister, as always dressed as a knight's page in tights and jerkin. For the thousandth time he told himself he had to force her to start dressing as a girl, but even as he thought it, he knew he hadn't the heart. Time enough for her to grow up and face the harshness of life. Let her be a child as long as possible.
"And how do you think she dresses each day?" Joby was saying as she stood before them. There were only five people at the table and a few servants -- all that were left to them -- beginning to straggle in from the kitchens, but Joby liked to imagine there were hundreds and she was on the stage before the queen.
Joby mimicked a woman awakening in the morning, stretching and yawning. "Bring me my gold chamber pot," she commanded imperiously and was rewarded with a laugh from her sister. If what she did made Berengaria laugh, then Jamie would allow her to continue.
Joby began making rather vulgar movements of a woman lifting her nightgown and settling herself onto a chamberpot. "Oh, my, but these emeralds do give me the most delicious pain," she said, wiggling about.
Jamie, who was whispering to Berengaria, raised one black eyebrow at Joby, letting her know she was not to go too far.
Joby straightened. "Here, bring me my dress. No! No! Not that one. Nor that one or that one or that one or that one. No, no, you fool. How many times have I told you that I have worn that gown before? I want new clothes. Always new clothes. What? This is a new gown? How do you expect the Maidenhall heiress to wear such as that? Why that silk is so thin it would...Why it would bend if I were to wear it."
At that Rhys began to laugh, and even Thomas, who rarely laughed, crooked one corner of his mouth up. They'd seen women at court who wore gowns so stiff they might as well have been carved of wood.
"Now," Joby said, standing back and looking at an imaginary gown, "this is more to my taste. Here, you men there, lift me into it."
At that even Thomas smiled broad enough to show his teeth, and a laugh escaped Jamie too.
Joby gave a great leap as though being lowered into the stiff dress, then waited while the hooks were latched.
"Now for my jewels." Joby pretended to be looking at several displays of jewels. "Yes, here are the emeralds and the rubies and diamonds, and here are pearls. Which shall I choose?" she asked as though in answer to a question. "Choose? How does one choose jewels? I shall, of course, wear them all."
Spreading her legs apart as though bracing herself for a storm at sea, Joby extended her arms. "All right, men, put your hands behind my shoulders and brace me. Now, you there, put my jewels on me."
Everyone at the table was laughing as Joby extended first one foot, then the other, then an arm, then stretched her neck as though a hangman's rope had elongated it for her. Then, with her neck still stretched, she somehow managed to convey the impression to her audience that her head was now being weighed down with great, massive earrings. And when the jeweled headdress was placed on top of her head, she visually swayed under the weight.
By now everyone, servants, retainers, family, all except Joby's mother, were laughing helplessly.
"Release me now," Joby said to the imaginary men still bracing her shoulders. For a moment she swayed dangerously, about to go down, first one side, then the other, looking like a drunken sailor standing on the deck of a storm at sea. Just when she was about to go down, she righted herself and finally, at last, with great dignity, held herself erect.
With difficulty, the audience quieted and awaited what came next.
"Now," Joby said with gravity, "I shall see this man who is to escort me, the richest woman in all of England, across the country. I will see if he is worthy of taking me to the man my father has contracted for me to marry. But wait, tell me of him."
Everyone at the table was sneaking looks at Jamie as he ducked his head shyly, holding Berengaria's hand close to his heart. He'd only been home for a fewdays, and he found he could not bear to allow any of his family out of his sight or touch.
"James Montgomery," Joby said. "Ah yes, I have heard of that family. A bit of money there, but not much. But then no one has riches to compare to me, do they? What?! Speak up! I cannot hear you. Yes, yes, that is better. I know in my heart how rich I am, but I am still a woman and I like to hear it said aloud."
For a moment she was lost in thought as she admired her left arm. "Now, what was I speaking of? Oh yes. This man who has the privilege, the honor, of escorting me. He is a Montgomery. What is it you say? He is of the poor branch of the Montgomerys?"
Joby's pixie face with its sharp nose wrinkled in puzzlement. "Poor? I do not believe I know this word. Please explain it to me."
When the laughter had quieted again, she continued. "Ah, I see. People who have only a hundred silk dresses and only small jewels. What? No jewels? No silk? What's that? You say this man lives in a house with only part of a roof and sometimes no meat on the table?"
At this Jamie frowned, knowing that this was why he'd agreed to take on the degrading employment of escorting some spoiled heiress across England to join her almost-as-rich fiancé. But even so, he did not like to hear it said aloud.
Joby ignored her brother's frown. "If he has nothing to eat, he must be rather...small," she said in wonder, making Jamie laugh and forget his very real problems. Small he was not.
"Shall I carry him about in a box?" Joby asked, holding up her hands, not forgetting to act as though her arms were weighed down with hundreds of jewels.
She kept her fingers spread wide because her imaginary rings were so large they wouldn't allow her to close her fingers. "A jeweled box, of course," she said. "Ah yes, perhaps this is good. I see a way to carry more jewels. What! Is this box not made yet? You are dismissed! And you! And -- Oh, I see, he is not small. He does not eat, but he is not small. I do not understand. But perhaps you had better send him in and let me see this...this...What was that word again? Ah, yes, poor. Let me see this moor, er, ah, poor person."
At this Joby did a pantomime of the Maidenhall heiress standing utterly still, weighed down with all her many hundreds of jewels, and awaiting the arrival of James Montgomery.
Out of the side of her mouth, Joby made a creaking noise as of rusty door hinges trying to open. "I have it on authority," she said as an aside to her audience, "that gold hinges creak abominably. That's why we refuse to have them here."
In the next moment Joby's face changed to astonishment: her mouth dropped open, her eyes widened, then she threw her arm across her eyes as though to keep a bright light from blinding her. "You are too beautiful," she said in a loud stage whisper.
At that, Jamie's face turned red, and his two men, who were sick of seeing women make fools of themselves over the extraordinary beauty of Jamie, fell about themselves laughing.
"No jewel in the world," Joby shouted above the loud laughter of the men, "could compare with your beauty. Oh, I must have you. Must, must, must have you. Here!" she said and began pantomiming the removal of all her jewels, sliding them off her arms, her neck, her ears; running her hands along her head to remove great handfuls of them; tossing each precious piece at him.
"You must marry me," Joby cried. "I cannot live without you. You are what I have been looking for all my life. Next to you, emeralds are dark; they do not twinkle as brightly as your eyes. Pearls have no luster next to your skin. Diamonds cannot -- "
She broke off because Jamie grabbed the worn cushion from under him and threw it at her, hitting her squarely on her flat chest.
Catching it, she clasped it tightly. "This is from my most beautiful beloved. He...Oh, heavens, but he sat on it. That most tender part of him has touched it. Would that my eyes and lips could share what this lowly cushion has -- "
This time she stopped because Jamie had bounded over the table and clasped his hand over her mouth. She nipped his little finger with her sharp teeth, and taken in surprise, he released his grip on her.
"His arms about me," she said loudly. "I shall die from the pleasure of it."
"You shall die if you do not shut up," Jamie said. "Where have you learned such things as you have said? No, do not tell me. But if you have no care for my own delicate sensibilities, think how you shock your dear sister."
Joby peeped around the great bulk of her brother to see her sister's lovely face flushed with merriment. It suited her and her sister to pretend that Berengaria was as innocent and as angelic as she looked. The truth was that Joby was completely honest with her sister, often keeping her up half the night with tales of her latest escapade.
"Go!" Jamie commanded, motioning his arm to include everyone in the room. "Your ridicule of me is at an end. Tell me, little sister, what did you do for entertainment when I was not here to make merry of?"
Never at a loss for words, Joby said, "It was a solemn household. With only Father and Edward -- She broke off, the back of her hand going to her mouth.
For a moment there was silence in the worn, old hall as everyone seemed to have forgotten that just two days ago they had attended a double funeral. Technically, the household was in mourning, deep mourning, for the loss of the father and the eldest son of this branch of the Montgomery family. But the son, Edward, had never shared in the simple joys of family life, and their father had been absent, barricaded in his room at the top of the tower. It was difficult to weep for people who you rarely saw or, in Edward's case, did not miss.
"Yes," Jamie said calmly. "I think it is time we remembered what we are about." With his back rigid, he walked around the table to escort Berengaria from the room.
It was only minutes later that he was alone with his sister.
"Why did someone not tell me?" Jamie asked, standing before the tiny, crumbling window in Berengaria's room. Reaching out his hand, he broke a piece of stone away. Water damage. Years ago, while he'd been away, the lead gutters had been sold off the old stone keep, so the water seeped into the stone.
Turning, he looked at his sister as she sat serenely on her cushioned chair, a chair more suited for a peasant's hut than what had once been the keep of a proud and glorious estate. "Why did no one tell me?" he asked again.
Berengaria opened her mouth to give the explanation she'd planned to give, but instead, she told the truth. "Pride. That great Montgomery curse of pride." She hesitated, then smiled. "That pride that is now making your stomach churn and bringing out the sweat on your brow. Tell me, are you toying with the dagger Father gave you?"
For a moment Jamie didn't know what she was talking about but then realized that he was indeed holding the beautiful golden-handled dagger his father had given him long ago. The jewels in the hilt had been replaced with glass years ago, but if the dagger were held just so in the sunlight, one could see the gold that still coated the steel handle.
He gave a laugh. "I had forgotten how well you know me." With one easy movement, he sat on a cushion at her feet and leaned his head against her knee, closing his eyes in pleasure as she stroked his hair.
"I never saw any woman who could compare with you in beauty," he said softly.
"Is that not a vain thing for you to say as we are twins?"
He kissed her hand. "I am old and ugly and scarred, whereas you are untouched by time."
"Untouched is true," she said, trying to make a joke about her virginity.
But Jamie did not smile. Instead, he put his hand up before her face.
"It is no use," she said, smiling sweetly, catching his hand. "I cannot see lighted twigs before my face. There is no sight for me, and no man wants a blind wife. For all the use I am to the world, it would have been better had I died at birth."
The violence with which Jamie arose startled her. "Oh, Jamie, I am sorry. I did not mean -- It was thoughtless of me. Please, come sit down again. Let me touch you. Please."
He sat down again, but his heart was pounding. Pounding with guilt. He and his sister were twins, but Jamie had been quite a bit bigger than his sister and so had taken hours to be born. When Berengaria was finally allowed out, the umbilical cord was found to be wrapped around her neck, and it was soon discovered that she was blind. The midwife said it was Jamie's fault for taking so long to be born, so all his life Jamie had lived with the guilt of what he'd done to his beautiful sister.
And all their lives he had been close to her, never once losing patience with her or tiring of her company. He helped her in everything, encouraging her to climb trees, to walk miles into the hills, even to ride a horse alone.
Only their brother, Edward, thought Jamie less than a saint for helping his blind sister. Whenever anyone remarked on how good Jamie was to give up time with his rowdy boyhood companions to take his blind sister berry picking, their older brother would say, "He stole her sight, didn't he? Why shouldn't he do what he can to give it back to her?"
Jamie took a deep breath. "So no one told me what Edward was doing out of pride?" he said, coming back to the present. Guilt still weighed him down. Guilt over leaving his sister who needed him so much, guilt for what had happened after he left.
"You must cease this flagellation of yourself," Berengaria said, pulling Jamie's thick black hair with both her hands, making his head come back so he looked up at her. It was difficult to believe that those perfect, lushly lashed blue eyes of hers could not see.
"If you give me a look of pity, I shall snatch you bald," she said, pulling harder.
"Ow!" He laughed as she released his hair, then he pulled one of her hands to his chest and kissed it. "I cannot help the guilt I feel. I knew what Father and Edward were like."
"Yes," Berengaria said with a grimace. "Father never took his nose out of a book if he could help it, and Edward was a pig. There wasn't a village girl over the age of ten who was safe from him. He died young because the devil liked him so well he wanted him near him forever."
In spite of himself, Jamie laughed. "How very much I have missed you these months."
"Years, my dear brother. Years."
"Why do women always remember the most inconsequential of details?"
She tweaked his ear and made him yelp. "Now stop telling me of your women and tell me of this task you have taken on."
"How kind you are. How you make escorting a rich heiress across the country sound like a knight's holy quest."
"It is if you are involved. How Edward and you could be brothers bewilders me."
"As he was born five months after our parents' marriage, I sometimes wonder who his father was," Jamie said with great cynicism.
Had anyone else said this, Berengaria would have defended her dear mother, whose mind had long ago slipped away. "One time I asked Mother about that."
Jamie was surprised. "And what did she say?"
"She waved her hand and said, 'There were so many lovely young men that summer I'm afraid I cannot remember who was what.'"
The maleness in Jamie reacted first, making anger surge through him, but he knew his mother too well to take offense and so relaxed and smiled. "If her family found she was pregnant, who better to marry her to than Father? I can hear his mother, 'Come, dear, put down that book. It's time to get married.'"
"Do you think he read on his wedding night? Oh, Jamie, do you think we are...?" Her eyes widened.
"Even scholars put down their books at times. Besides, look you at us and our cousins. We are alike. And Joby is the mirror image of Father."
"Yes," she said, "so you have thought of this, too?"
"A time or two."
"Perhaps every time Edward pushed you into a pile of horse dung? Or tied you to a tree branch and left you? Or destroyed your possessions?"
"Or when he called you names," Jamie said softly, then his eyes twinkled. "Or when he tried to marry you to Henry Oliver."
At that Berengaria groaned. "Henry still petitions Mother."
"Does he still have the intelligence of a carrot?"
"More of a radish," she said bleakly, not wanting anyone to see her despair that the only honest marriage proposal she'd ever had came from someone like Henry Oliver. "Please, no more talk of Edward and how he decimated what little we had. And definitely no more talk of -- of that man! Tell me of your heiress."
Jamie started to protest but closed his mouth. "His" heiress had everything to do with the gambling and whoring and general depravity of his "brother" Edward. In Jamie's mind no one as degenerate as Edward deserved the title of brother. While Jamie had been away fighting for the queen, performing tasks for the queen, endangering his life for the queen, Edward had been selling off all that his family owned so he could afford horses (whose legs or necks he broke), fine clothes (which he lost or destroyed), and his never-ending gambling (where he invariably lost).
While Edward had been rapidly bankrupting the family, their father had imprisoned himself in a tower room to write a history of the world. He ate little, slept little, saw no one, spoke to no one. Just wrote day and night. When Berengaria and Joby confronted their father with proof of Edward's excesses, including deeds of land he'd signed over to pay his debts, their father had said, "What can I do? It will all be Edward's someday, so he may do what he likes. I must finish this book before I die."
But a fever had taken the lives of both Edward and their father. One day they were alive and two days later they were dead.
When Jamie returned for the funerals, he found what had once been a moderately profitable estate now unable to support itself. All the land except what the old keep was standing on had been sold. The manor house had been sold the year before, along with all the fields and all the cottages where the farmers lived.
For days Jamie had been inconsolable in his rage. "How did he expect you to live? If there are no rents or crops, how did he expect you to feed yourselves?"
"With his gambling wins, of course. He was always saying that he was going to win next time," Joby had said, looking both prematurely old and heartbreakingly young. She raised an eyebrow at her brother. "Perhaps you should spend less time ranting about what you cannot change and do what you can with what you have." She had given a meaningful glance toward Berengaria.
Joby meant that no man wanted a blind wife no matter how beautiful she was or even what her dowry was. Always it would be Jamie's responsibility to provide for her.
"Pride," he said now. "Yes, you and Joby had too much pride to call me home."
"No, I had too much pride. Joby said...Well, perhaps it is better left unrepeated what Joby said."
"Something about my cowardice at leaving you two at the hands of a monster like Edward?"
"You are kinder to yourself than she was," Berengaria said, smiling, remembering exactly what Joby had said. "Where does she learn all those dreadful words?"
Jamie winced. "No doubt about Joby being a Montgomery. Father was right when he said that Job had not been through so much as he had with his youngest child."
"Father hated anything that took him from his precious book." There was bitterness in her voice. "But Joby could read aloud to him and I could not."
Jamie squeezed her hand, and for a moment they were lost in unhappy memories."Enough!" Berengaria said sternly. "Heiress. Tell me of your heiress."
"Not mine by any means. She is to wed one of the Bolingbrookes."
"Imagine such wealth," Berengaria said dreamily. "Do you think they burn great logs each day so all the house is warm?"
Jamie laughed. "Joby dreams of jewels and silk, and you dream of warmth."
"I dream of more than that," she said softly. "I dream of you marrying your heiress."
Annoyed, Jamie pushed her hand away and got up to go to the window. Without realizing what he was doing, he pulled the worn dagger from its sheath by his side and began to toy with it. "Why do women put romance into everything?"
"Romance, ha!" she said with passion. "I want to put food onto the table. Do you know what it is like to eat nothing but moldy lentils for a month? Do you know what they do to your stomach, not to mention your bowels? Do you -- "
Putting his hands on her shoulders, Jamie forced her back into the chair. "I am sorry. I -- " What could he say? While his family had been starving, he had been dining at the queen's table.
"It is not your fault," she said calmly. "But weevils in the bread do take the romance out of one's life. We must look at the facts, look at what we have. First of all we could go to our rich Montgomery relatives and throw ourselves on their mercy. We could move into their houses and begin to eat three good meals a day."
Jamie looked at her for a moment, one eyebrow raised. "If that is an alternative, why did not you and our foul-mouthed little sister go to them years ago? Edward would not have cared, and Father would not have noticed. Why did you choose to remain here and eat rotten food?"
Slowly, Berengaria smiled, then as they often did, together they said, "Pride."
"Too bad we cannot sell our pride," Jamie said. "If we could, we would be richer than the Maidenhall heiress."
At that they burst into laughter, for "richer than the Maidenhall heiress" was a saying throughout England. Jamie had even heard it in France.
"We cannot sell pride," Berengaria said slowly, "but we do have something else that is very valuable."
"And, pray tell me, what is that? Is there a market for crumbling stone? Perhaps we should say the well water has healed us so we could bring wealthy patrons here. Or we could -- "
"Sell the dung from the stables," he continued. "Or we could -- My what?"
"Your beauty. It was Joby who said as much. Jamie, think of it! What cannot money buy?"
"Very little, if anything."
"It cannot buy beauty."
"Oh, I am beginning to see. I am to sell my...beauty as you call it. If I am for sale, then money can buy beauty -- if that is what I have." His eyes twinkled as they always did when he teased her. "How do you know that I am not as ugly as...as a pile of your mouldy lentils?"
"Jamie, I cannot see, but I am not blind," Berengaria said as though talking to a simpleton.
Jamie had to suppress a laugh.
"Do you think I do not hear and feel the sighs of the women when you walk past? Do you think I have not heard filthy things said by women when they say what they would like to do to you?"
"This interests me," he said. "You must tell me more."
"Jamie! I am serious."
Taking her shoulders in his hand, he put his nose close to hers. "Sweet little sister," he said even though he was only minutes older than she, "you are not listening to what I said. I'm to escort this rich heiress to the man she is to marry. She does not need a husband; she has one."
"And who is this Bolingbrooke?"
"As you well know, rich is what he is. His father is almost as rich as hers is."
"So what does she need of more money?"
Jamie smiled indulgently at his beautiful sister. She had lived all her life in the country, and to her, wealth was warm clothes and plentiful food. But Jamie had traveled, and he knew that there was no such thing as "enough" money, "enough" power. For many people, the word enough did not exist.
"Do not patronize me," she snapped.
"I said not a word." He held up his hands in protest, the dagger in one of them.
"Yes, but I could hear your thoughts. You know that the queen has hinted that titles could be given to Perkin Maidenhall if he paid enough."
"And he has refused. The man's miserliness is known throughout England. And for once I am glad of it or else he would not have hired a man as poor as I to escort his precious daughter."
"Poor, yes, but you have now inherited all Father's titles."
For a moment Jamie was startled. "So I have," he said musingly. "So I have. So I am an earl, am I?"
"And a viscount, and you have at least three baronetcies."
"Hmm, do you think I can make Joby kneel before me and kiss my ring?"
"Jamie, think of the marriage market. You are titled; you are gorgeous."
At that he nearly choked. "You make me sound like a prize bird to be auctioned for the Christmas table. Lord Gander. Come, ladies, look at his fine plumage. Will he not look splendid on your table? Take this bird home, and your husband and children will love you forever."
Berengaria tightened her lips into a fine line. "What else do we have if not you? Me? Is a rich man going to marry me? Blind with no dowry? What about Joby? She has no dowry, she will never be a beauty, and her temper leaves a great deal to be desired."
"You are being kind," he teased.
"And you are being stupid."
"I beg your pardon," he said, anger in his voice. "When I look in a mirror, I see only myself, not this Apollo my two sisters seem to see." He took a breath and calmed himself. "Sweet sister, do you not think I too have thought of all this? Not quite in the way you have stated it, but I know that if I made a good marriage, it would solve many problems. And do you not think that my first thought of this heiress was that she would be a way to solve all our problems?"
Berengaria smiled in a way that Jamie knew too well.
He did not return her smile. "What are you and that hellion sister of ours up to? What are you planning?" For all that two people could not be more different, Joby and Berengaria were thick as clotted cream.
"Berengaria!" he said sternly. "I'll not participate in anything you two have devised. This is a job. Honest employment. If I deliver this girl safely into her fiancé's hands, I will be paid handsomely. There is nothing more to it than that, and I refuse to allow you or that brat sister to -- "
He stopped and gave a groan. He could fight wars, lead men into battle, negotiate contracts between countries, but heaven help him when his two sisters got hold of him!
"I will not participate," he said. "I will not! Do you understand me? Berengaria, stop smiling in that way."
Copyright © 1995 by Deveraux, Inc.