Lincoln, England—November 1214
Constance crouched down beside her cousin, pressing her eye to a gap in the slats of the gallery railing above the great hall. In the gauzy light of the fireside below, she studied each of the new arrivals in turn, waiting for some flash of recognition or long-distant memory to stir. None did.
‘So?’ Isabella nudged her in the ribs. ‘Which one of them is he?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But he’s your husband! How can you not know?’
‘Because I only met him once five years ago and I was only fourteen at the time! It was before I came to live here, remember?’
‘Oh, so it was…’ Isabella giggled. ‘I couldn’t believe that you were only a year older than me and already married. And to Matthew Wintour of all people!’
‘Sir Matthew now, Uncle says.’
‘Whoever he is, I’ve been pestering Father to find me a husband ever since.’
‘I know.’ Constance threw her cousin a half-affectionate, half-exasperated look. ‘I’ve had to listen, but at least you’re betrothed now.’
‘Finally. You know, he might not be as well connected or important as your husband, but I think I’d recognise Tristan anywhere, even after five years.’
‘Maybe because you want to be married. I don’t.’
‘Well, it’s a little late to do anything about that, but you must remember something about him. What about his hair? His eyes? Was he dark or fair?’
‘Fair… I think.’
‘You think? Didn’t you spend any time alone with him?’
‘No. There was a short ceremony and then he and his father left. I never saw either of them again.’
She lifted a hand to her mouth, chewing nervously on her fingernails. As far as she recalled, she and her so-called husband hadn’t exchanged a single private word on their wedding day. They’d barely even looked at each other, except for one brief, disconcerting moment when he’d slipped the gold band over her finger. Of course he’d been older than she was, around the same age she was now at the time, but he’d barely acknowledged her existence while she’d been too nervous to throw more than a few tentative glances in his direction. They’d simply stood side by side, reciting their vows like the strangers they were. It was no wonder she didn’t recognise him!
Even so, Isabella’s questions were making her feel more and more uncomfortable. Maybe she ought to remember more about the man she’d vowed to spend the rest of her life with, but then she hadn’t particularly wanted to. Truth be told, she’d done almost everything she could to put him out of her mind since their wedding day, as if by doing so she could somehow forget the fact it had ever happened. The only thing she’d never been able to forget was the icy, almost glacial impression he’d left behind. Of all the men her uncle might have chosen for her to marry, why had it had to be him? She’d regretted her vows ever since, dreading the day when he’d come back to claim her.
But now he had and her nails were already chewed down to stubs.
‘That was really all that happened?’ Isabella sounded as if she didn’t believe her. ‘He never wrote or sent gifts?’
‘No, you know that he didn’t.’ She glanced over her shoulder quizzically. After sharing a bedchamber for five years, surely they both knew it would have been impossible to hide any gifts?
‘Not necessarily.’ Isabella shrugged. ‘I know that you don’t like to talk about him. I thought maybe you were just being secretive. Either that or you’d thrown them away.’
‘Well, I wasn’t and I didn’t. I haven’t heard anything from him since our wedding day. All I know is that he’s been away fighting for the King in Normandy. Uncle says this is the first time that he’s set foot in England in five years.’
‘He still could have sent a few messages.’ Isabella sounded offended on her behalf. ‘How strange.’
Constance made a non-committal murmur. Strictly speaking, Isabella was right, he ought to have sent word occasionally. Not that she’d wanted him to, but since he apparently hadn’t forgotten about her existence then he could at least have sent a few gentle reminders of his own, some token attempts at gallantry at least, instead of turning up at her uncle’s manor with barely a week’s worth of notice and simply expecting her to be ready. Then she might have accustomed herself to the idea of being a wife again, as much as she ever could anyway. The only good thing about his return was that it meant she could finally go home… Five years away from Lacelby was far too long.
‘I wouldn’t want a husband I could forget.’ Her younger cousin, sixteen-year-old Emma, came scurrying along the gallery to join them, bending over to avoid being seen from below.
‘Not so loud!’ Isabella hissed with a look of irritation. ‘Father will be furious if he finds out we’re up here. And you’ll be lucky to find a husband at all with your long face. You look like a horse.’
‘I do not! Take that back!’
‘Not when you listen in to other people’s conversations.’
‘If you don’t take it back, then I’ll tell Mother you’re spying!’
Constance rolled her eyes as the two sisters began hurling insults at each other. It was a regular occurrence, though if they weren’t careful, their increasingly irate whispers would start to attract more than their father’s attention below. It wasn’t even as if they had anything to insult each other about. They were both strikingly pretty, blue-eyed and flaxen-haired with small figures and even smaller features, whereas she…
She looked down at her body in chagrin. She was too tall for a woman for a start. As tall as, and frequently taller than, most men, with curves in places she hated and a bosom that drew all the wrong kind of attention. She was the one who felt like a horse. A giant carthorse beside two delicate palfreys. Even her face looked wrong, her wide forehead and round cheeks a long way from the ideal of pale, fragile beauty that both of her female cousins naturally exemplified. The only thing she did like about her appearance was the dark hair she’d inherited from her mother, a thick wavy mass that reached all the way down to her too-wide hips, though even then the deep sable shade was unfashionable.
As much as she loved her cousins, it hadn’t been easy growing up with such paragons of female beauty. Men looked at them with expressions of admiration and awe, as if Isabella and Emma were somehow pure and untouchable, perfect examples of womanhood to be idealised from a distance. It was a stark contrast to the way they looked at her, their eyes raking over her figure with a darker, more primal emotion that made her feel obscurely frightened and even more self-conscious. She couldn’t help but wonder if her husband would look at her in the same way. Or would he simply be disappointed that he hadn’t married one of her golden cousins instead?
Not that it mattered what he thought of her, she reminded herself. Her marriage had nothing to do with looks, or compatibility for that matter, and definitely nothing to do with love, that all-consuming emotion the minstrels sang about. It was simply about her inheritance, about the property and fortune that nobody thought a woman ought to be allowed to keep or to manage on her own, no matter how much her upbringing might have prepared her for it.
As the only child of Philip and Eleanor Lacelby, she’d found herself one of the most eligible heiresses in the east of the country when they’d both succumbed to the same illness just weeks before her fourteenth birthday. It was a position that, according to her uncle, had left her vulnerable to fortune hunters, would-be seducers and villains alike. After weeks of attempting to assert her independence, she’d eventually realised that protestations were futile and marriage inevitable. Exhausted and numb with grief, she’d agreed to a union in name only until she came of age, though she’d still been unprepared for the consequences…