Summer 1384. Berkhamsted Castle, Hertfordshire, England.
“Servants may marry whomever they want, but a king’s ward has no freedom at all.”
Evangeline broke off the song she was singing. A lump rose in her throat. Through her open window facing the castle bailey she watched the servants talking and laughing and milling about, finishing their morning chores.
A kitchen maid was drawing a bucket of water at the well in the center of the bailey. A young man approached her.
Alma gave him the dipper, and he lifted it to his lips.
The stranger’s hair was brown and fell over his brow at an angle. He was tall, and even from Evangeline’s bedchamber window on the third level of the castle, she could see he was handsome, with a strong chin and a sturdy stance.
He passed the water around to the other men who had followed him to the well. Evangeline leaned out the window to try to catch what they were saying.
“Thank you,” the man said as he handed the dipper back to the servant. He wore the clothing of a peasant—a leather mantle over his long linen tunic.
“Where are you from?” Alma asked.
“Glynval, a little village north . . . brought . . . to sell . . . and wheat flour . . .” Evangeline couldn’t make out all the words.
The man wasn’t like most peasants. Not that she had seen very many. But this man held himself upright with an air of confidence and ease she had rarely seen before.
Evangeline leaned out a little farther, hanging on to the casement. The man was moving on as the cart started forward, Alma still staring after him. He turned to say something to the other men and suddenly looked up at Evangeline.
She jumped backward, her heart crashing against her chest.
“What are you doing, hanging out the window like a common—? Don’t you know better than to behave that way?” Muriel hurried to the open window and peered out, then closed it and clamped her hands on her hips.
“Am I not allowed to look out the window? I’m no better than the prisoners in the dungeon. You know, I feel much pity for them. I daydream sometimes about releasing them and running away with them.” She tipped her face to the ceiling as if turning her face to the sun and closed her eyes. “How good it would feel, walking free through the fields of wildflowers I read about in a poem once, breathing the fresh air, free to go wherever I want.”
“You think your jests are amusing,” Muriel said, “but when the king of England is your guardian and is planning your wedding to a wealthy nobleman, you should not expect pity. Envy is more likely.”
“Wedding? What do you mean?” Evangeline’s heart seemed to stop beating. “What do you know?”
“It is only gossip, but it is said that the king has promised you to one of his closest advisors.”
“The Earl of Shiveley.”
Evangeline reached out and placed a hand on the stone wall as the room seemed to teeter from side to side. How could the king betroth her to him? Lord Shiveley was old—almost forty—and Evangeline was barely seventeen. She had only seen Lord Shiveley a few times when he had accompanied the king to Berkhamsted Castle. He stared at her in a way that made her stomach sick, and he always managed to put a hand on her—on her shoulder or her back, and even once at her waist. She would always writhe inwardly and step away from him as quickly as she could.
Besides that, it was rumored that Lord Shiveley’s first wife had died under mysterious circumstances.
“The king and Lord Shiveley will arrive tonight, and you must be ready to greet them.” Muriel bustled over to the wardrobe where Evangeline’s best dresses were kept. She opened it and rummaged through her clothing. “You should wash your hair. I have ordered your bath sent up, and I shall—”
“Muriel, stop!” Evangeline stared at the woman who had been her closest companion and confidant for ten years. Though Muriel was nearly old enough to be her mother, she could not be so daft.
Muriel stared back at her with a bland expression. “What is it?”
“Surely you must see that I cannot marry that man.” Her voice was a breathy whisper.
“My dear,” Muriel said, not unkindly, “you know, you have always known, you must marry whomever the king wishes you to.”
Evangeline’s throat constricted. “The king does not care a whit about my feelings.”
“Careful.” Muriel’s gaze darted about the room. “You mustn’t risk speaking against the king. You never know who might betray you.”
“I shall tell the king to his face when he arrives that I shall not marry Lord Shiveley, and it is cruel to ask it of me.”
“You know you shall do no such thi—”
“I shall! I shall tell him!”