A Rearranged Marriage
Lord Curan Ramsden is home from war, and eager to claim his betrothed. And he arrives just in time--his bride's father has summoned her to London, to wed another man. But Bridget's father promised her to Curan, and Curan means to have her. Especially now that he sees the luscious young woman she has blossomed into. He'll just have to convince Bridget, somehow, that her heart is more important than her duty...
Bridget Newbury has always done her duty--to her parents, to the church, to the man they selected as her betrothed. She knows what could happen if she disobeys her father. The king has put nobler women to death for lesser trespasses. But she was promised to Curan first, and his kisses are very tempting...
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Kensington Publishing Corporation
December 28, 2010
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Excerpt from Improper Seduction by Mary Wine
Lincolnshire, March 1546
Her mother was nervous. Bridget Newbury considered her mother with curiosity. Lady Connolly was normally the perfect model of poise.
"Good morrow, Mother."
Jane turned in a flurry of wool skirts. She was wearing one of her very modest Sabbath dresses. There was no lace upon it, the only trim formed by contrasting persimmon wool cut into thin strips and used to border the brown wool that made up the garment. She even wore an over-partlet that covered every inch of her chest, all the way to her neck.
"Good, you are here."
"I came straight after receiving your summons, Mother."
Jane smiled. A gentle curving of her lips that was genuine. She held out her hands, and Bridget moved forward to clasp them. Even through their gloves, the embrace of fingers and palms was warm.
"Of course you did. You have ever been an obedient child. God blessed me with your sweet heart." Her mother's smile faded. The hands grasping Bridget's tightened momentarily before releasing their hold. Jane clasped her fingers together in a practiced pose, one she used as mistress of the house.
With the maids always observing them, appearances were important. Bridget held her chin steady and waited for her mother to speak.
"I have word from your father."
Her mother's voice hardened. Bridget knew the tone. It was one that often showed itself when letters from her father arrived. Lord Connolly resided at the court of Henry the Eighth. Her sire often sent home detailed instructions on how the family was to conduct themselves. In the quickly changing climate of the aging king's court, her mother was always sure to instill a deep respect for each sentence her husband penned. It was the wisest course of action given the king's history of beheading those nobles who displeased him.
"A marriage has been arranged for you."
Bridget was startled. "Do you mean that Sir Curan has returned from France?"
Her mother's face drew into an expression that Bridget knew too well. It was the look her mother always wore when circumstances were not to her liking but unavoidable.
"Your father has negotiated a new arrangement for you with Lord Oswald. The wedding is to be celebrated within a fortnight."
Her mother's voice was full of impending duty. It lacked joy and even mild liking. Bridget felt dread chill her heart.
"I gave my word to Sir Curan." She had sworn to wait for him. "With Father's blessing I swore, Mother."
Her mother nodded and fingered her skirt. Bridget understood the nervousness now. Yet she might wish that she was still ignorant. Curan Ramsden was not a man you broke promises to. He was one of England's border lords. Unlike many who swarmed around the aged King Henry Tudor, Curan was a man of action. He'd earned his spurs of knight hood on the field in France alongside the king on one of Henry's campaigns to regain soil in Europe.
"You were young and obedient to your father."
"It was only three years ago."
Her mother's fingers gripped her skirt. "Yes. However things change quickly these days. You shall wed Lord Oswald. We are to leave for London three days hence. Lord Oswald is one of the king's advisors and resides at Whitehall Palace."
"Lord Oswald." Bridget searched her memory. Her father went to great lengths to keep her away from court. Maidens did not maintain their virtue very long once in attendance. At twenty-two years of age she was in awe of her sire for being able to keep her in the country. Having her betrothed to Sir Curan Ramsden had kept the gossips from her.
"His daughter passed a night here a few years ago."
Bridget felt her face drain of color. The lady in question was older than her mother. She tried to cover her dislike. It was unseemly. Many a nobleman's daughter found herself married to a man well past her in age. Even Queen Catherine Parr was many years Henry Tudor's junior.
"He is widowed?"
Her mother's lips pressed into a hard line. "No. Lord Oswald has divorced his newest wife for failing to conceive. The poor girl has been sent back to her father."
Bridget lost a bit more of her color. She pressed her lips together tightly, resisting the urge to make some sound of protest. Her mother's face was just as stark. When their father sent a letter, it was to be obeyed. There was no questioning the wishes of the lord of the house. According to the will of the king, her sire was master of the family. Especially over the female members. To argue was to question her place and offer greedy men the opportunity to name her a heretic so that her father's lands might be forfeit. There were plenty of men who would make use of any reason to depose another noble peer, even if it was so low as to use the women in the family to accomplish that goal. Now that all the monasteries were claimed and their land and riches divided, the hungry looked to new sources to gain quick wealth.
Marriage was one of the favorite methods for amassing funds. Divorce was more common than anyone dared say. Many young wives suffered the same fate as Catherine of Aragon; Henry the Eighth's first wife was shuffled off into the country to live out the remainder of her days in near poverty once her child-bearing days came to an end. Things had only become worse since that time. Now new brides were often discarded only months after their wedding nights and sent home without their dowries for failing to conceive quickly. Such was a grim fate. Years could go by before lawyers agreed on what parts of their wedding agreement might be recovered. The discarded bride could not remarry until such was done. Even after legal negotiations were finished, not many men wanted a girl who had failed in her primary duty as wife.
Jane clasped her hands together. She was still agitated, and her leather gloves made a smacking sound when they met.
"We must do all in our power to ensure that your union is a solid one."
The look in her mother's eyes was one Bridget had not seen before--a sort of determination that almost looked desperate. Jane looked at Bridget in a way she had never done previously. It was an assessment from one woman to another. Her mother settled on some firm decision.
"Come with me, Daughter. I have someone for you to meet."
Bridget stared at the woman her mother took her to. Hidden behind the thick oak door of her mother's solar was someone she had never thought to actually converse with.
"This is Marie. She is a courtesan. We shall refrain from mentioning her family name. The staff does not know she is here. That is best for us all."
"I've heard of such women before."
Jane looked displeased. Bridget merely stared back at her mother.
"What is the point in behaving as though I have not heard of courtesans when you have brought me to meet one?"
Courtesans were women who captivated men. They were not common prostitutes. Most of them serviced only one rich client at a time. Such women were well educated, schooled in dance, and versed in several languages. More than one nobleman's illegitimate daughter was a member of their ranks. Most important, they were demure and silent, keeping their exploits hidden behind closed doors. Men flocked to them, often waiting for long periods before being able to sponsor one of the elite women and thereby gain her personal attention.
Her mother sighed. "I suppose you are being more practical than I." She drew a deep breath and gestured at Marie. "In light of the perilous times, I have purchased some of Marie's time in order to have you instructed. She has graciously agreed that you should not remain ignorant."
"In what subject?" The question slipped out because Bridget was too busy looking at Marie. Yes, she had heard of courtesans, but the reality was far more intriguing than the whispers. The woman was gowned in wool as fine as Bridget and her mother wore. The courtesan's gloves were leather and lacked no tailoring detail. Her face was smooth and lightly accented with powder. Her lips were stained the color of ruby, and not some garish shade of red that was too bright. Marie looked for all the world as if she might be a woman of noble birth on her way to court. The only difference was the lack of jewelry. She wore no pearls or gems. Such things were only for the blue-blooded nobility. But Jane's tone also reminded Bridget that Marie did not have to answer her summons like a servant. The courtesan was there of her own free will.
"The subject of seduction."
Bridget turned a curious look on her mother. "You have already taught me what to expect in my marriage bed." Jane had seen to that task the night that she and Curan had knelt in the family chapel to swear to one another. She was practically a wife after such; the only detail lacking was a bedding. Curan had said that he would not claim her until his last duty to the king was served. It was not an uncommon arrangement. Negotiations for a wedding between noble families often took many years, often difficult to time exactly. A "pledge to marry" ceremony often took place when the families reached agreement but the knight still owed service. Moreover, such a ceremony was expected to be honored by both families, drawing its strength from the codes of chivalry. But it was a truth that legally her father could wed her to another. She had simply never considered that her sire might break with the knightly code of conduct.
"What you have not been taught is how to please a man." Bridget's mother flushed slightly, but she didn't appear uncomfortable. The stain on her cheeks was paired with a flicker of enjoyment in her eyes. "Since the men of this country have become so greedy, taking numerous wives whenever the whim consumes them, I believe it is time we women employ a few tactics of our own to ensure our futures."
Jane looked at Marie. "I will trust you to teach my daughter everything she needs to know about stealing a man's wits in bed. I shall be in the outer chamber making sure you are not disturbed."
Or discovered. Bridget added the little comment inside her head. Her mother cast a look at her before leaving the room. Bridget returned her attention to Marie, curious to discover just what seduction entailed. Certainly she had heard the word, but in truth she knew little of the details.
A slow smile curved Marie's lips as Bridget watched. Something very intriguing swept over the courtesan; a confidence seemed to radiate from her.
"We shall begin with how to disrobe." Marie strode into the center of the chamber. Her eyes took on a slightly slanted appearance. "Men can be slaves to their lust. They are greedy like children looking for sweets. Learn to control that appetite and you shall master the man."
She turned in a graceful flare of skirts. "Always make him watch you. Do not give in to his demands to rush. Once he is spent between your thighs, your power over him recedes."
Marie paused with her back to Bridget. She peeked over her shoulder in a gesture that was both teasing and naughty. Her eyes were half closed, the lashes veiling her deepest thoughts. Bridget heard the popping sounds of the hooks opening on the front of Marie's bodice. That sound sent a little heat racing into Bridget's cheeks. Hearing it, yet being prevented from seeing the opening of the garment, sent her mind racing with ideas. Marie laughed. Low and sultry, the sound floated over her shoulder.
"You understand, don't you, Bridget? The idea of what I am doing is more powerful than the act itself. Tease him with it. Make him wait for you to reveal yourself to his eyes."
Marie rolled her shoulders, and her dress slid over them. It was a slow motion. The dark wool slipping inch by inch to reveal the creamy fabric of her chemise.
"Disrobing in front of the fire is pleasing. The flames illuminate your body beneath the fabric of your undergarments. It tantalizes men."
Marie turned and stepped out of her dress in a smooth and graceful motion. Her chemise was held against her body by a set of stays that did not match the somber color of her dress. Peacock-blue silk shimmered in the afternoon light. Such a rich fabric spoke of a lover who did indeed keep her very well.
"Now you try."
Bridget felt her throat constrict. "Me? Do you mean to say that you want me to disrobe?"
Marie walked across the solar on little steps that looked lazy. She was completely at ease in her lack of clothing, almost content.
"I'm pleased to hear you say it plainly. At least we shall not have the chore of washing puritan teaching out of you."
"Puritan habits are wise considering how Queens Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn both met their ends."
Marie lifted a hand and began slowly pulling her glove off, one fingertip at a time. "To court a crown is a dangerous game. Resist the urge to be too greedy when it comes to the power men like to believe should be theirs. Politics has always been deadly. With greater gain always comes higher risk. Remember to stroke the ego of the man who thinks he owns you."
"Thinks he owns me?" According to the law, a husband did own his spouse. Even if Bridget wished it otherwise. Why did her gender make her less in the eyes of the world? She was every bit as keen witted as any of her brothers.
Marie pulled the glove free. Her hand was clean and smooth. She trailed her fingertips up her own neck before answering. In spite of the fact that she was another woman, Brid get found herself watching that touch. A faint tingle crossed her own neck in response.
"If you are wise, you will never forget that your heart is yours alone. It can be the greatest gift, but never can it be commanded." Marie aimed a firm look at her. "You cannot entrance a man unless you are comfortable with your own body. Turn and disrobe."
Bridget found that her hands shook. She fumbled the hooks that normally she opened with ease. A shaky breath rattled past her teeth as she tried to force herself to relax. It was only another woman, after all. What shame was there in showing her body to someone who had one exactly the same?
Her hands still trembled. But she finished and rolled her shoulders to send her dress down her arms. A least that worked well. Her dress slumped to the floor in a pile.
"Tomorrow I shall have you watch me while I entertain a man."
"What?" Bridget's arms crossed over her body in defense. Marie had no pity for her, though. She reached across the space between them and flicked Bridget's quivering chin back up with one firm finger.
"You heard me correctly. I will arrange a place for you to view me giving pleasure to a man. You must gain confidence or you shall be doomed to be taken on your back like countless other brides. With nothing to do but endure being used to relieve your groom's lust."
"You mean there are other . . . positions?" It was a bold question, one she normally wouldn't have voiced. Maybe sin was intoxicating such as they said in church. Now that she was on the path, each step was easier to take. She craved knowing more.
"Oh, yes. There are many positions for a man and woman to make love in and several other things that will keep your husband eager to join you after sunset."
Enjoyment flickered in Marie's eyes again. Bridget smiled without thinking. She wanted to know whatever it was that made Marie look that way. It was some secret that promised to bring pleasure when she at last discovered what it was.
"First we shall refine your entrance and disrobing. You must grasp your partner's attention the moment you enter the room."
Marie proved a tough taskmaster. Bridget redressed and unhooked her bodice countless more times.
"Better. Now we must proceed, for our time is limited. Once your dress is removed, take your shoes off, and always wear lace stockings. Change into them before supper."
"They are so expensive." Or time consuming to produce. The only two pairs Bridget owned were ones she had made under the watchful eye of the estate tailor. She had labored until her shoulders ached to knit them.
"But they draw a man's eyes to your legs." Marie sat down. But she didn't use one of the chairs the solar offered. Instead she lowered her body onto a padded footstool. She parted her knees so that the point of her corset dipped down to cover her mons. With one hand on top of either thigh she slowly drew her chemise up to display her lace-stocking-clad legs.
"I see what you mean." It was captivating. Naughty. But ever so clever. The subtle demonstration played on the submissive role that a wife was expected to embody while wielding a measure of control that Bridget had never considered she might. The last traces of her childhood felt as if they were evaporating, and she was happy to allow it. Here was the thing that she had felt the need to discover ever since accepting that she would wed Curan. Deep inside her, she had felt a surprising rush of heat, unsure what its purpose was.
"Good. Now you try it."