Twelfth Night TriumphbyTinyBeth©
Author's note: This is a work of fiction. While many of the characters are historical personages, the main character and her family are fictional and do not knowingly resemble anyone who actually lived.
Joanna Nolan followed her parents Lord and Lady Coe off their river barge and towards the great hall of Greenwich Castle; gaily decorated for Yuletide. The cold chill of the Thames was barely kept out by her billowing boat cloak. She shivered half from the wind and half from excitement. In spite of the cold, Joanna's cheeks were hot. She was finally being presented to the Queen-the great Sovereign Lady who had been held up to her as a role model since she was a girl and for whose sake her husband had died and her family had left the country.
She shivered again, remembering the fierce cold of Bern. The small group of English exiles had pooled their few resources to keep from freezing and starving in a foreign land. The Nolan pewter had gone to pay for food for the struggling Protestant community. She could still see the accusing eyes of her deceased husband for betraying his family, but today she hoped would be the first step to recovering his legacy and making up for her crime to his ancestors. She thrilled at the thought that she could see Larkswood again soon.
Joanna was wearing the only gown she had managed to save from her trousseau, carefully preserved for the day Bloody Mary's reign of terror ended and her family could return triumphantly to serve the Good Queen Bess. The brocade was embroidered with gold lace that had been her husband's final New Year's present. She shed a tear for her departed Edward; he would have been so happy to see this day.
A herald met them at the entrance to the Presence Chamber. He took their names and gave them to the Secretary. In stentorian tones he announced, "Presenting the Lord and Lady Coe of Stoutbridge and Mistress Nolan of Larkswood Bend."
Joanna nervously searched the room for a familiar face and saw that of Letitia Knollys whose family had shared their exile in Switzerland. Letitia however, looked right through her as if no one was there are all. Indeed Letitia (or Lettice as she preferred to be known by) had recognized her old acquaintance, but as the Queen's own cousin, and possibly niece if the rumor that Catherine Knollys' father was really old King Henry was true, she needn't acknowledge someone as insignificant as Joanna Nolan. Joanna took the slight in stride and choked down the insult. The Queen could hardly be as graceless as her snobbish Boylen kin.
Behind her parent's Joanna dipped into a deep curtsey. She barely dared to peek up through her eyelashes at the glorious Queen. Instead her eyes were drawn to the most handsome man she had ever seen in her life standing to Her Majesty's right. He was tall and perfectly proportioned and his cunningly cut velvet doublet emphasized his masculine presence. She was shaken and quickly dropped her eyes once she realized that he was looking at her as well.
The richly melodious and highly imperious voice of the Queen said, "Arise my Lord. Your sufferings for our cause are well known. Loyalty like that is well rewarded. And you my Lady as well." Elizabeth signaled from them to stand, but Joanna remained kneeling having not been given leave. Elizabeth smiled. She was rarely disposed towards attractive young widows barely older than herself, but given the circumstances she could afford to be kind. "Well that is proper respect. Please rise Mistress Nolan. And how did you spend your days in Bern?"
Joanna stood and replied, in Italian, "I spent my days expanding my mind after the example of our great Queen."
Elizabeth exclaimed, in the same tongue, "Ah! A woman after my own heart." She changed back to English. "My Lord, you are to be commended for your dedication to education."
"Thank you Your Majesty, but Joanna deserves the credit for pursuing it regardless of anyone's opinion on the matter," Lord Coe responded with a mild chuckle.
Elizabeth smiled again. Yes, she was quite inclined to be kind to this family. "It is our wish Sir that you serve us as Gentleman Usher. My Lady Coe we would like to serve as Lady of the Bedchamber and Mistress Nolan as Lady of the Presence Chamber."
Joanna was shocked. While the Coes and Nolans were honorable old names she had not expected to be given a Court appointment. As a Lady of the Presence Chamber she would serve beside the highest born in the land. She dropped to her knees again, "I am honored Your Majesty."
Her parents followed suit. "Indeed Your Grace we are all honored," Lord Coe said.
That quickly, the Queen was done with them. She turned away to speak to the handsome man standing beside her throne and the herald signaled that their interview was over. As Joanna and her parents followed a page out of the room to their assigned quarters the man gave her one last searing look. She shivered again, even though it wasn't cold.
Lettice Knollys' eyes flashed fire. She was not at all happy to see the Queen bestowing favors on this family, especially not to another young unmarried woman. She had also noticed Robert Dudley looking at the beautiful widow. She would show this little Mistress No-One what it meant to be in her way.
It was a few days before Christmas and Her Majesty had finished her last interview of the morning. Joanna looked up from the quiet corner of the room she sat in waiting to assist the Queen and sighed. After four days at Court she had well learned of the resentment held against a woman of her stature being raised to the level of one of the Queen's ladies. Lettice's nickname of Mistress No-One had quickly caught on with her fashionable set, confirming Joanna's position on the margins. Mealtimes were the worst for the continuous stream of insults.
The only positive was that she was so irrelevant that she could be in a room and most of the time nobody would even notice. Joanna overheard more conversations than a Scottish spy and in a short time she knew more people's secrets than the simpering old Spanish Ambassador. She hoarded her knowledge for her own amusement. These fine figures could condescend to her all day and with her knowing their darkest sins she could more easily laugh off their petty jabs in private.
The Queen signaled for her ladies to follow her into the hall for Dinner. Joanna put away her needlework and took her place at the back of the line. Elizabeth began to walk past them as they each curtsied in turn. Elizabeth smiled down at the quiet and efficient young woman dressed in the plain smock typical of the Protestant exile and stopped to comment, "Your lacework is truly exceptional Mistress Nolan." She paused to think for a moment and came to a sudden decision. "There is a length of burgundy velvet in the Royal Wardrobe. We would like to give it to you as our New Year's gift. We prefer to see our ladies well-dressed and you are in need of a gown for the holiday revels." She smiled again generously.
Joanna was taken aback. She dropped to the floor, "I...I am truly honored and grateful Your Majesty." She was grateful as the Queen quickly moved on, but it left a sour taste in her mouth. A length of velvet was a generous gift, but not nearly as valuable as her dower manor and every time she tried to get a moment to ask Elizabeth about it the Queen quickly changed the subject or moved on. She knew well that Elizabeth could more cheaply "reward" her family by housing them at Court then by restoring their property and every day she was forced to endure snubs was a day she resented. Her Edward hadn't died helping Wyatt to see his widow slighted and denied her rights!
Joanna kept her head down so that no one would see the sudden fierce anger in her face. She looked through her eyelashes to see when Her Majesty's train would finish passing and met the eyes again of the man standing right behind the Queen. She knew who he was now-Sir Robert Dudley, son of the former Protector and the Queen's closest confidante. She had overheard many conversations saying that the Queen wished to marry Sir Robert. He had recently been widowed, but the same voices whispered that the timing of his wife's death seemed far too coincidental. Joanna had heard so many stories the last few days of the man it made her head spin. In spite of the dark rumors there was something in his powerful posture, his rugged looks and his fierce glances that sent a sharp pain into her sex. Damn the enforced celibacy of virtuous widowhood! And damn the man for looking at a good woman with such open and naked lust while covering it with praise for another woman, even if she was a Queen!
Lettice was fuming. She had been planning to wheedle the Queen for that cloth and to see it handed over to another was infuriating. She sat down at the table and turned to Joanna with a vicious grin to all her friends seated nearby.
"It is fortunate for our Mistress No-One that the Queen is so generous. Too bad she did not give you enough for an everyday dress as well. That thing you are wearing looks like it has seen more winters than you have."
Joanna seethed. "Well Lettice, if I recall you were not dressed much better when we were in Bern, but none of us but you ever cared about so piddling a thing compared to our freedom and our faith." She motioned for a page. "Please inform Her Majesty I am ill and I would like to request permission to retire from table to my chambers." The page quickly returned with permission and Joanna excused herself to the surrounding women.
Joanna went back to her bedchamber and was surprised to see that the promised cloth had already arrived. She fingered the delicate, soft velvet and draped it around her body to see its flow. The deep burgundy color was a striking contrast to her fair skin and dark hair. Her maids exclaimed at its perfections. Joanna asked them, "Can we finish a gown by Twelfth Night?"
"We will Mistress," one maid responded. The other was busily pulling out dress patterns. Joanna stood looking at her other gown, the one she had arrived at Court wearing. It was a sacrifice, especially since the lace she was currently working on would be going to Her Majesty as a New Year's gift, but she would have to take the gold lace off of this dress for the new one. Even if it left this one bare.
"I will need my sewing tools. I will be right back, "Joanna told them.
She raced down the corridors back to the Presence Chamber, hoping that everyone would still be dining. She heaved a sigh of relief when she saw the room was empty. She quickly headed to the corner where her sewing basket was stowed. Just then the door opened behind her back. Joanna stepped back into the shadows and was shocked to see Lettice with her arms around a man. He was kissing her passionately.
"God's breath I want you," a deep masculine voice said between kisses.
Lettice pushed him off with a flirtatious and triumphant laugh. "And what do you offer me Sir in exchange for my maidenhead and my virtue?"
"Body of God Lettice you know I cannot marry! The Queen will never allow it. But that should not stop us."
"It may not stop you my Lord, but it does stop me." Lettice dropped her eyes and played demure.
The man turned around and stormed out of the room and Joanna recognized Sir Robert. He did not see her though as he exited. Lettice grabbed one of Elizabeth's silken pillows and shrieked her frustration into it and then threw it across the room. She then regained her composure, smoothed the cushion, put it back into place and left the room. Lettice was not sure, but she thought she may have seen someone in the corner of the room. It could not have been anyone important or she would have noticed them when she entered. And no one would dare go to the Queen with a story accusing her dear Robert. Lettice smirked and headed back to the Hall.
Joanna was shaken by what she had just seen as she slipped back to her room. The only clear thought in her head was of Sir Robert repeating the words, "I want you." Her entire body tingled at the thought of hearing him whisper that in her ear. Unlike Lettice, she was not a virgin and her body missed what it had once known. Her chances for matrimony seemed slim and the prospect of permanent chastity was not sitting at all well. The beginnings of a plan began to form in Joanna's mind.
Twelfth Night and Sir Robert was not in a good mood. Ever since New Year's, in spite of the fortune he had spent on her gift, the Queen had been ignoring him in favor of her other courtiers. He knew that the eyes of Europe were on them; ready to accuse them of perfidy in the death of his wife, but she was taking avoidance a bit far. He watched as she fawned over Sir Christopher Hatton and burned with anger and jealousy. She had no right to expect him not to pay attention to any other woman while she had so many men waiting on her every word.
He was in his finest Italian velvet doublet with a matching domino mask, but he knew it barely hid the identity of the most famous man in England. Women watched as he left the dais and headed onto the dance floor. Several of them tried to catch his attention. He saw Lettice, recognizable in spite of her mask, surrounded by a group of suitors almost as large as Her Majesty's. She was flirting wildly with Sir Walter Devereux. Damn the girl and her so-called virtue! She would throw it away in an instant if she had or could get a ring around her finger. He heard the signal from the musicians for the opening pavane to begin and watched them line up. He was about to back out and off the floor in a huff when he looked across-and saw a vision.
Robert almost could not believe she was real. He had never seen such vivid coloring on a woman. Her skin shone like purest alabaster and her hair was black as jet. She was wearing a burgundy velvet gown cut simply and decorated with exquisite embroidery and the finest gold lace he had ever seen although he vaguely remembered seeing some like it before. She wore no ruff. Her mask was made of the same red velvet. He stopped himself from leaving and turned towards the mystery woman. The music began and he bowed to her as she curtsied in return. Who was she?
He attempted to reckon it out, but there were a dozen or more women who could fit. He would need to look for clues. Robert gracefully took her hand for the opening figure and noticed her wedding ring. A married woman or a widow he wondered? Either way she was no virgin. He smiled at her and asked, "Have you been long at Court, Mistress?"
"No Sir. My family arrived only a short time ago," the lady responded.
A family, he thought. Even more likely she was married, but still not out of the question that she was a widow. Many women had been forced to return to their parents in the wake of the recent troubles. Still the information narrowed down the possibilities.
They made a stately turn and were next to each other again. "And where are you from Mistress?" he asked.
"So many questions Sir! Since you ask, I grew up in Kent." She smiled with her eyes and Robert felt there was something familiar about them.
Kent, well that narrowed the list down further. Her home, her coloring and the quality of her lace would seem to indicate French blood. There were only a few possibilities left and one seemed to be scratching at the back of his memory.
The Queen looked up to see where Robert had gone and saw him dancing with a strange woman. She began to grow angry at his neglecting her for another when she recognized the burgundy velvet and calmed down. He was just dancing with Mistress Nolan; there was nothing to worry about. Her "Eyes" had always enjoyed a fine dance partner and she was pleased to see Mistress Nolan so proficient and that she had put her gift to such good use.
Elizabeth looked over at her cousin Lettice, still dancing with Sir Walter and gave them an encouraging smile. She approved of the match. Lettice would get herself into trouble if she did not marry soon and better someone like Walter Devereux than...others.
Robert saw the look of approval the Queen gave to Lettice and Walter and swallowed his rage. He turned back to his charming companion as the pavane ended and the galliard started up. "Mistress may I have this dance?" He gave his most courtly bow.
The woman curtsied again and replied, "You may, Sir." She looked up at him through her eyelashes and he suddenly knew to whom he was speaking. His carnal desire roared from deep within.
Robert grinned like a wolf as her pulled her close for the first throw. He could feel the heat of her breasts through the velvet and his hand lingered a moment longer than was proper. She did not rebuke him. Instead she gave a sly smile in return before she pirouetted and flew through the air in a controlled arc. She landed gracefully into the next figure to a round of applause from nearby dancers.
It became a pattern, a part of the dance. As the dance progressed he took increasing liberty with his hands before each throw. On the third he tweaked her nipple. Instead of admonishing him her coy smirk and small covered up gasps proved that she was enjoying his touches. Robert could hardly stand any more teasing. He surreptitiously touched the side of her breast again and whispered, "I long to touch these-bare." Joanna's whole body throbbed with fire as she soared higher than ever. On another pass he ran his hand over her buttock and down her leg and Joanna had to control herself to keep from showing her response. On the last throw he pulled her ear close, "Meet me in the room just before the entrance to the north tower later tonight."
Joanna nodded and he sent her into the air. She landed with a flourish into a formal curtsey as the music ended. He could see a hint of nervousness in her eyes and hoped she would not back out. He bowed, kissed her hand and headed back to the royal dais. Robert attempted to settle his face into an expression of boredom at having spent the last two dances with someone of little significance. The last thing he wanted was to pique Her Majesty's jealousy. The Queen nipped his shoulder with her fan for leaving.
"I am sorry Your Grace, you were engaged and I wished to dance."
Elizabeth's expression softened. "And very well you do it too my Sweet Robin. You and Mistress Nolan brought us great enjoyment to watch."
Robert smiled. The Queen had confirmed his suspicion as to the identity of his mystery paramour. "A fine compliment from the best dancer in England, nay the world. And indeed Mistress Nolan was an exceptional partner, but nothing to Your Grace. May I have this dance Your Majesty?"
Elizabeth kept Robert at her side the rest of the evening as he had expected. He saw Joanna Nolan take the floor several more times with other partners and he tried to keep his jealousy in check. On that night there was not a more beautiful or sought after partner than Joanna and the thought that she would soon be his had his blood burning.
"It is late and time to retire," Elizabeth announced, signaling the Ladies of the Bedchamber. Joanna curtsied politely to her last partner, Sir Thomas Howard and thanked him for honoring her with a dance. She left the Hall and let herself into an anteroom to wait for the Court to settle to bed. Time passed, but Joanna was not bothered. She had waited nearly seven years since the death of her husband to break her chastity; a few more minutes would just add to her growing storm of eroticism. Her breath was rising and falling rapidly in anticipation and she could feel the dampness of her shift clinging to her thighs. She had her triumph at the Ball. Now she would have her triumph over Lettice and the Queen-by having the man they wanted.
Joanna heard the changing of the guard and peeked out the door. The corridors were clear. She slipped out the door and headed for the north side of the palace. She avoided Sir William Cecil coming out of his office and a group of chambermaids loudly laughing and turned towards the tower. Just to the side of the staircase was a door. She scurried over and opened the door, but before she could get it completely open she felt a hand cover hers and pull her into the room. The door was closed behind her and she was pushed up against it by the man inside. She caught her breath as Sir Robert's mouth crushed her own.