When Margaret Dudley joined the ranks of Queen Elizabeth I’s gentlewomen, she never expected the whirlwind of changes that occurred in her life.
Expecting to retreat to the background, to serve her sovereign with integrity and devotion, she never dreamed she’d find herself embroiled in a world of jealousy, lust, and betrayal.
Or that she would experience a love that surpasses all.
Trying not to stare around her in awed shock, Margaret Dudley waited patiently on the outskirts of the Queen’s privy chamber until she was granted at audience. When her uncle had informed her father that he had secured Margaret a position in Her Majesty’s personal quarters, it was too much to believe. As an illegitimate daughter, her chances for marriage were slim, certainly for a beneficial one. Despite her light green eyes, auburn hair, and lithe body, she was a by-blow, the result of an illicit affair with a widow, and was unworthy of any of the peers of the realm. She had been acting as lady’s maid the last five years for her stepmother, ever since she had reached the marriageable age of fourteen.
Certainly she had never entertained the idea of marriage herself, as none of the men available to her had caught her interest. The only prospects she had so far were lecherous old men looking for a third or fourth wife, well past the point of caring about the circumstances of her conception. Thankfully, her stepmother seemed to care about her, and was unwilling to allow any such marriage.
Her stepmother, her father’s lady wife, had been gracious enough to allow her to be raised with her own children, but Margaret had always known she wasn’t one of them, that she was the result of her father’s indiscretion while his wife was having her laying in with child. It helped some that her stepmother encouraged her father to seek his pleasures elsewhere, and that Margaret’s own mother had died in childbirth. Guilt, she had learned very early in life, was a wonderful motivator.
Unwilling to settle for less than her sisters, regardless of the circumstances of her birth, Margaret had almost resigned herself to taking vows with the Church when her uncle informed her father of an opening in the queen’s chambers, and the need for a young woman who would be faithful and true to the queen. Despite the unfortunate details of her birth, Margaret had been raised to owe her loyalty to country, God, and family.
With her uncle’s backing, she had been presented to Lady Catherine Ashley, the queen’s chief gentlewoman. Meeting her approval, she would soon be presented to Her Majesty. So far, the sights and sounds of the royal palace had done nothing to convince her that her position was any better off than if she had taken the vows of a nun.
It was only upon entering the queen’s chambers that her life changed. On first glimpse of the Virgin Queen, she was ready to drop to her knees and swear her undying devotion. Not pretty in the feminine sense, Elizabeth had a presence that made Margaret feel lightheaded and drunk, despite not having indulged. With her red-gold hair and her dark eyes set in a narrow and pale face, the queen was both majestic and princely. Unlike with the few men who had tried to tempt Margaret into matrimony—all of whom had left her feeling cold—simply being in her majesty’s presence made Margaret feel warm and ticklish within her core. A feminine awareness flooded her that she had hereto never known.
“And where is my young lady, come to serve me?”
Jerking her head up at Her Majesty’s words, Margaret shyly stepped forward when the crowd of ladies around the queen parted. Aware of every eye in the room focused on her, she faltered, coming to a stop. Catherine Ashley, the queen’s former governess and now chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, grasped her elbow and half pulled, half pushed her forward.
Legs trembling, Margaret swept into a deep curtsey as she reached Her Majesty, holding it until she was bidden to rise. A firm, long-fingered hand cupped her chin, tipping her face up. As she lifted her eyelashes, Margaret shyly looked into dark Boleyn eyes, and felt her pulse leap. Up close, the queen’s presence was even more overwhelming. Although midway through her fourth decade, Elizabeth still retained her slim figure. Her facial features, while lacking true beauty, were pleasing to look upon when coupled with the almost mischievous sparkle in her eyes. Margaret had already been treated twice to Her Majesty’s booming laughter as she held nothing back in her joy.
“Is this our young cousin, Kat?” As she turned her attention to Lady Ashley, Margaret allowed her gaze to briefly flitter about the queen.
“Indeed, Your Majesty. She is Margaret Dudley, the illegitimate niece of your master of the horse.”
Dark eyes suddenly turned to her, and Margaret found herself trapped within the queen’s gaze, completely tongue-tied. “And are you a loving cousin, Margaret, willing to be devoted and serve your queen?”
Margaret clasped her trembling hands together in front of her as she struggled to collect her thoughts. Unable to help herself, Margaret looked away from her sovereign’s eyes as she spoke, her voice almost whisper soft but filled with conviction. “Your Majesty, it would please me to serve you, with faith and devotion, should it please you to have me.”
Her answer was a lively laugh that sprang from the queen’s lips without any warning, then a soft kiss placed upon her cheek. “You are indeed a loving cousin, and a welcome addition to my ladies. Kat, show young Margaret to her quarters and make sure she is ready to serve her queen.”
After giving her order, Her Majesty settled back into her throne-like chair and turned to other matters. Dismissed, Margaret followed the Lady Ashley out of the room, her whole body quivering with fear and delight. Resisting the urge to press a hand against her cheek where the flesh still tingled from the queen’s kiss, she followed the chief gentlewoman through a labyrinth of corridors until they reached a simple, yet elegantly decorated room. Three beds filled half the room, with chests at the end of each and a row of wardrobes dominating the far wall. A small seating area had been placed before the fireplace, giving a cozy atmosphere to the room.
“If I may, my lady?”
Margaret could see the faint impatience crossing the older lady’s face, her eyes darting about the room even as she held herself still. Margaret knew she had to have things she needed to attend to, but she couldn’t help asking. “Her Majesty called me her cousin, but I am not.”
Kat’s soft chuckle filled the room with a muted mirth. “Ah, young one, we are our queen’s family, our first duty to love her and be devoted to her. In that regard, we are as her cousins, family of a sort, but never too close. Now…
“You will be sharing this room with two other girls for the time being. Should your service please Her Majesty, she had been known to reward her ladies with their own chambers, as well as gifts of her pleasure. The rules of service are fairly simple, but must be followed at all times. You are to always be clean within Her Majesty’s presence. A bowl of water is kept fresh in the antechamber to Her Majesty’s privy room for a quick washing, should you need it.
“You are not to dally with any of the men at court, without Her Majesty’s permission. Should someone catch your eye, you are to come to me, and then Her Majesty. Marriages have and can be arranged, should you wish.
“And finally, discretion and faithfulness is expected at all times. You will be caring for Her Majesty’s person, as well as her belongings. Anything you may overhear or see while in service to the queen, you are expected to remain silent about. Her Majesty’s expects discretion among her ladies.”
Margaret barely had time to murmur her consent before Lady Catherine Ashley swept out of the room, and her two roommates entered.