Authors: Ashe Barker
Her Noble Lords
Copyright © 2015 by Stormy Night Publications and Ashe Barker
Copyright © 2015 by Stormy Night Publications and Ashe Barker
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Published by Stormy Night Publications and Design, LLC.
Her Noble Lords
Cover Design by Korey Mae Johnson
Images by Period Images and Bigstock/Madrugada Verde
This book is intended for
. Spanking and other sexual activities represented in this book are fantasies only, intended for adults.
“I cannot believe you did such a thing. What were you thinking, my lady?”
Lady Eleanor, dowager countess of Wellesworth, turns from the window, a supercilious smile upon her lovely face. She is beautiful, this mistress of mine, a fact of which she is keenly aware and which affords her great pleasure. Her expression now though radiates the disdain I have grown accustomed to seeing depicted in her perfect features. After all, what does my opinion matter? I am but a lowly servant.
She raises an elegant eyebrow. “What was I thinking? And that concerns you how exactly, Linnet? By what right do you question my actions?”
“I meant no offence, my lady. It is just… there will be consequences.” Grave consequences, if I am any judge.
“Will there? I think not. My lord the earl of Egremont is hundreds of miles away and likely to stay there, buried alive in his Westmoreland castle. He can languish there alone, for I will not marry him. The betrothal is terminated. The messenger has been dispatched.”
“But—” I halt, my words stemmed by the countess’ fierce glare. She is not above delivering a hard backhanded slap when crossed.
She strides across the room, the skirts of her kirtle swishing across the flagged floor. Despite her terse words to me, she does seem inclined to explain herself. I fold my hands at my waist and listen without offering further comment.
“My husband is dead, killed in this senseless war in the Holy Land. My brother too, in all probability. I may be just twenty-two years of age but I have survived one marriage and that is enough. Unless the king intervenes, I have every intention of managing my own destiny from now on and I am not about to shackle myself in servitude to another man, most especially not one I have yet to lay eyes upon. I prefer to select my own pleasures.”
Would that we might all be so liberated.
His majesty’s intervention seems unlikely since he is also embroiled in the foreign conflict, more intent upon subduing infidels in Jerusalem than unruly noblewomen in Gloucestershire. That just leaves me. Buoyed up by the promise of safety offered by the length of the chamber which now separates me from the immediate expression of my mistress’ wrath, I elect to try again.
“My lady, perhaps if you were to meet the earl you might find this alliance more to your liking. I recall both the St. John brothers were fine young men and I daresay will have become more handsome still with maturity. Either would make an attractive marriage prospect.”
“What do you know of handsome men, little mouse, or of marriage prospects for that matter? A few weeks spent toiling in the kitchens at Egremont castle would hardly bring you into close proximity with the heir to the keep. Any man with all his limbs intact can look fair, from a distance.”
“Of course that is true, my lady, but—”
She waves me to silence with an imperious swipe of her hand. “A dynastic marriage is a matter of property, of political advancement. I find myself in need of neither. I possess sufficient wealth to maintain an independent existence and if I should desire the company of a handsome man, that is easily come by without the requirement to mortgage my future to achieve it.”
I know my efforts are likely to fall on deaf ears but feel compelled to try regardless. “Before he left to join the king, your brother negotiated your betrothal to Ralf St. John, the earl of Egremont. The documents were signed. You are bound by that contract. The earl will surely seek to enforce it.”
Lady Eleanor emits a most unladylike snort, her derision at that prospect obvious. “He will have to drag himself and his ragbag army over two hundred miles south to do so. I doubt he will be minded to take the trouble.”
I am not so sure. “He is likely to consider himself slighted by your refusal to honour the betrothal contract, my lady. Men will go to considerable lengths when their pride is threatened.”
She waves her hand in exasperation. “Let him try. Wellesworth castle is impregnable. And since I inherited the castle and lands from my poor dear Henry, this keep and all within is now mine. I refuse to share it, even less will I hand my property over to some northern earl only to see Wellesworth reduced to a mere outpost to his estates. Even less do I relish the opportunity to remove myself from the home I love to take up residence in the middle of some God-forsaken, barren moorland on the Scottish borders. There will be no marriage between myself and the earl of Egremont and there lies an end to the matter.”
“I see.” In truth, I doubt the matter will conclude here but I discern no merit in debating the issue further at this stage. Lady Eleanor is irritated at my remarks already and perilously close to the point of ordering me to bend over the linen chest as it is. I opt for a more prudent course. “Would you like me to have the water for your bath brought up, my lady?”
“Yes, and you can bring some more logs for the fire too. It grows chilly in here.”
The chamber feels perfectly warm to me but I welcome the excuse to absent myself, if only for a few minutes. Lady Eleanor is an exacting and volatile mistress. I have already provoked her ire by questioning the wisdom of her actions. In her present mood she will not hesitate to take a switch to me for the slightest cause.
Fortunately, although she is often quick to anger, she is equally quick to cool down. Judging the situation to be safe once more, I return after a quarter of an hour with an armful of logs. As I expected, I find her ladyship’s equanimity quite restored.
“Ah, thank you, Linnet. See to the fire if you would, then you can play to me whilst I bathe.”
“Yes, my lady.” I deal with the matter of warmth as other servants troop in and out of the chamber bearing buckets of hot water. When the bath is filled to my lady’s satisfaction, the others are dismissed and I aid her in disrobing. Once she is settled in the tub, her long, dark tresses carefully arranged over the edge to remain dry, I position myself in the corner of the room, by the harp.
I pluck several strings, tightening as required to ensure perfect tone, then commence playing.
It is my skill with this instrument which has elevated me from the ranks of those toiling in the kitchens and sculleries to the lofty station I now occupy. Lady’s maid to a countess is a coveted position and one to which I could not have aspired had my father, an itinerant minstrel, not managed to pass on some musical ability to me. Part nature but mostly through hard work, I have become a decent enough musician with the harp, the lute, and at a stretch, the harpsichord. It pleases the countess to hear me play to her. That I can also manage her wardrobe, her toilet, and dress her hair are added benefits. I am far from indispensable but I know my services are appreciated.
As is my silence.
I am well aware the countess’ refusal to marry Ralf St. John is not born of any dislike of men. Indeed, she entertains an enthusiastic fondness for most of the male gender, as far as I can see. She is currently particularly enamoured of one of the archers who help to guard our stronghold. She takes far more interest in the readiness of our armoury than is strictly necessary and makes frequent nocturnal visits to the battlements to enjoy the company of this fortunate bowman. I prefer not to dwell upon what might transpire up against those cold stone ramparts—rather her than me.
Lady Eleanor’s nocturnal habits do hold certain benefits for me. When she has it in mind to go cavorting around the castle at night, she always insists I sleep in her chamber to create the illusion that the room is occupied, should any other servant have cause to enter. I find her secretive attitude puzzling given her penchant for adventure and usual careless disregard for convention but such are the ways of the nobility I suppose. I have no cause for complaint; her accommodations are considerably superior to my usual pallet on the floor outside her door. That any inquisitive skivvy could readily discern that my pallet is not slept in and arrive at the obvious conclusion is a complication Lady Eleanor is disinclined to consider.
I cannot comprehend Lady Eleanor’s reluctance to even consider Ralf St. John as her husband. Most women would throw themselves at his feet for the opportunity. Either he or his brother, Piers, would represent an excellent catch. She is quite mistaken in her view that I could not possibly have seen the St. John brothers at close quarters during the time I spent at Egremont as a child.
My grandmother was cook there and I lived with her after my parents died of the influenza. The brothers were regular visitors to the nether regions of the castle in search of sweetmeats and tasty morsels and my grandmother’s apple dumplings were the stuff of legend. Of course, they would not have noticed me, even less would they remember me now. It was over ten years ago and I was just a tiny girl of eight summers who balanced on a stool to reach the sink.
The St. John brothers were gods, or so I thought then. Golden-headed, beautiful giants of sixteen or seventeen summers I suppose, full of life and vigour, noisy, always hungry. My grandmother called them by their Christian names and would set aside their favourite treats. She could never tell them apart, of course. No one could, not even their father. I expect my grandmother got their names mixed up as regularly as everyone else did. They never took issue with her though. As alike as two peas in a pod, they enjoyed the sport of deliberately confusing the household. I recall it puzzled me at the time; they were indeed remarkably similar in appearance but not identical as far as I could see.
Ralf was the older brother, so the heir to the earldom and he was also the most handsome in my opinion. I recall one wet morning which saw me scurrying across the castle bailey, dodging puddles as best I might since my shoes were not watertight. Sir Ralf and Sir Piers emerged from the stables on horseback, accompanied by several other men at arms. The group cantered across the cobbles. I was slow to shift from their path but Ralf reined in his mount as I sought to scuttle out of his way. Had he not I would certainly have been soaked to the skin by the splashes sent up by his horse’s hooves, or possibly injured.
He smiled at me as he passed. I fell in love with him in that moment.
Ralf was the more even-tempered of the brothers or so my grandmother always said. She believed he would make a good lord when the time came and looked forward to serving him. But it was not to be. One winter morning she tripped on the narrow spiral stairs leading from the cold store beneath the kitchens. The stone was icy, and accidents were frequent. My grandmother’s body was discovered by the castle bailiff who immediately promoted the first scullery maid to the position of cook. The matter was closed, apart from the decision to ship one small, orphaned child to the estate of Sir William Marwood, earl of Wellesworth where help was required in his kitchens.
The houses of Wellesworth and Egremont had become connected by a dynastic marriage several decades earlier, which resulted in Sir Henry being cousin to Ralf and Piers. The kinship was distant as far as I am aware but Sir Henry’s mother, Lady Marwood and the late countess of Egremont had been great friends. When an unfortunate fire in the servants’ quarters at Wellesworth left that household somewhat depleted, the countess was pleased to make several surplus Egremont servants available to help ease the inconvenience. I was included in that number, offering a useful solution to the dilemma of what to do with a child no one really wanted to claim.
I have served here since and made a relative success of it. On her marriage to Sir Henry some three years ago, Lady Eleanor selected me to be her personal maid on the basis of my skill with the harp and with a hairbrush.
It is a decent enough existence though I confess, the prospect of merging our household with that at Egremont holds its attractions for me, even if it would reduce me to the status of a mere servant worshipping her lord from afar. Alas, though, it is not to be. I know my mistress well enough to be sure she will not change her mind now. The betrothal is off.