Chapter One

May 24, 1509

Maidstone, Kent


The rain was threatening again as Mistress Ackworth paced the kitchen of the small manor. She was nervous despite her love of the strong country storms. Normally, on a gray evening like this, she and her husband would lie in bed and listen to the patter of the drops fall on their roof. But the doctor was away tending to the Lady Wyatt and her newly born daughter Margaret.

"Oh Thomas, please come home before the storm." She said half-aloud as she watched Ester chop the vegetables for dinner.

"He'll be home soon Miss. He's never spent a night away from his bride and I doubt he will start now." The cook teased as she plopped the celery in the pot.

"Are you insinuating that I can't manage a night alone?" The lady returned her jest. Ester moved to the wall and leaned on it to face her.

"I've never doubted your strength, Miss Bess, nor your independence. I just doubt his ability to resist you." She winked before returning to work. Bess felt the heat rush to her cheeks when she realized the cook's meaning, but Joan held a blank look as if she hadn't heard a thing.

"I think Master Thomas is a rare man. Always insisting that he be home for supper, and never dreaming of advancing himself to power. He and my Robert are rare men indeed." Joan mumbled as she furiously pulled at the feathers of the chicken.

"They are just like their fathers," Ester mused. A nostalgic smile spread across her face.

"What was Thomas's father like? I remember only meeting him once, at the betrothal ceremony. We were just children then. He seemed so….tall." Bess grabbed a mushroom and a knife, in an effort to assist in some way. Ester gently removed the items from her hands and placed them back in their original positions. Bess exhaled sharply, plopping down on a nearby stool.

"Thomas' father was very tall indeed, child. He was also very kind. Master Humphrey was a merchant by trade, and was gone too often; but he wrote Thomas everyday. Even though they were apart most of his young life, Thomas was very fond of his father."

"Does he look like him?"

"Oh, my yes! Although he has his mother's coloring. Humphrey had a sandy shade to his hair, but Thomas is still the spitting image of him!" Ester had taken the washed and plucked chicken from Joan and was cutting it into sections. Joan was chopping fresh herbs from the garden and listened intently as she did so. She was a year younger than Bess, having just married three months prior. Her fair complexion and silky black curls made her quite desired amongst the gentlemen in the village, but she had swooned over the shy, green-eyed, Robert her entire life. Bess used to watch them stroll through the Shambles, looking in the shop windows, Joan's dark head resting on his strong shoulder. She was always slightly resentful of their affection while Thomas was away apprenticing under the elderly physician in Rochester. But now she could look at them with joy and pride for their strong love for each other. Bess took to pulling the sleeves of her chemise through the slashes in her dress while she listened.

"Humphrey and my John were the best of friends. They seemed inseparable since they were but crawling around on the grass. So it was only right that we would follow the Ackworths as they moved to new lands. But when my dear husband fell ill from the sweat, Master Humphrey walked around like a lost pup from then on. I fear he mourned my John as deeply as I did." Her tears welled up, but never fell, as they did each time she remembered.

"What of his mother? He hardly speaks of her." Joan broke in. She knew as well as Bess, that the best way to comfort Ester was to change the subject.

"She died in childbirth; Thomas was indeed a large, healthy infant. But despite his guilt, it was not the labor that took her. She was always weak, and coughed constantly in the winter months. I was frightened for her long before she was with child." She informed them matter-of-factly. Bess remembered Thomas' confessions of his grave feeling of responsibility over his mother's death since they were young. She had always told him it was not his fault, but he never seemed swayed.

"His father was so in love with her." She thought aloud. Ester nodded slowly, patting Bess' hand with hers.

"As Thomas loves you, Miss." A comfortable silence fell upon the group as the soft sound of thunder echoed from the eastern wood. Bess began tapping her foot in impatience as the sky became a very dark gray and the wind outside whistled lightly. Joan offered some mulled cider before sitting on the stool next to her. Bess took a deep swing of it and handed it back. The other girl did the same and drained the mug. Ester shook her head as the girls giggled.

"You drink like men!" She mockingly scolded. The giggling ceased as the clopping of boots approached them. Bess bolted toward the newcomer and nearly collided with Robert.

"I'm terribly sorry!" She blurted out. He just nodded politely and kissed Joan on the cheek. His hair was wind swept, and his face seemed irritated. She had always been timid around him. His usual silence seemed to her as if he was hiding something, or silently judging her. He smelled the soup mischievously and then snuck a spoonful. Ester slapped at him and shooed him away furiously.

"Can't you wait until Master Thomas comes home like the rest of us?" She reprimanded him as he scooted out of her way. "Praise be to God that I caught you before you got into the bread!"

"I doubt he'll be home tonight. The sky is near black! Nothing can be finished until tomorrow." He answered as his wife rubbed the sore spot on his back.

"He'll be home, Silly. He probably left once he saw the sky darken." Joan tried to appease both him and Bess's worried mind. He hugged her to him briefly, which brought a smile to all the women. Robert wasn't one for public displays, but he always made sure Joan was secure in his feelings. He whispered something to her and quickly made his way back outside.

"Surely he's not going back in that weather!" Ester scoffed

"He's just getting more firewood from the pile before the rain soaks it. He says it'll be a chilly night, we'll need it." Bess chided herself for feeling lonely at Joan's words. How selfish she was acting for wanting her husband home to keep her warm, when whoever he was tending to at the moment obviously needed him in a more urgent way. Joan took her leave and began to attend to the fire in their bedchamber. Ester was watching her mistress agonize over her thoughts and looked rather amused at the girl's distress.

"Oh, Miss Bess, don't fret too much. When I was a mere bride myself, I couldn't stand to have my husband out of my sight. I felt utterly lost without him. Don't let that feeling go away, child. A man likes to think his woman is yearning for him whilst he is away. It makes him eager to return." The young woman blushed to think her insecurities were so transparent but she greatly appreciated the advice.

After trying to help clean up the kitchen, she gave up the fight. Ester was territorial about her cooking and mostly refused aid, except what was offered by Joan. Bess suddenly felt tired of the struggle and decided to read her anxiety away. She was cautious in entering Thomas' study without him there. He had so many tools and valuable books that she did not want to touch anything that might break. Her fingers ran along the smooth bindings and felt each gold leafed title. Their journey ended on the dark crimson volume that was shorter than the rest. It was the latest text on midwifery, and she had been reading it for a month or so. She was slow with the words but loved the joy that came with comprehension. Thomas had been teaching her over the last year, and she was always proud to tell him when a word suddenly became clear in her understanding, or when a sentence was finally mastered. She was far from spouting Latin poetry, but she could manage for the most part. She stared at the rust colored leather on the book as she tried to soak in the chapter she had just read.

"Thomas would look wonderful in this color; it would bring out his eyes," she mused to herself. Her mind immediately began constructing a pattern and calculating the cost for the fabric. "I think we could spare it; if I save some of my money from my mending."

"What mending, Sweetheart? I already threw out the shirt you tore so ardently last night." A warm yet roguish voice came from the doorway. She jumped like a caught thief and nearly scattered his papers about the room.

"Oh, dear Thomas, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to prowl in your things, I was just looking for something to read." She began explaining but soon trailed off as his hand moved to lie on her hip. He grinned like a little boy when she melted into him. She hoped he had forgotten her unintended confession, but he had not. He was merely enjoying her excitement to see him. His chest shook lightly, proving to her that he still found her earlier shock amusing.

"Now, my restless little wife, what is this money and mending you were speaking of?" He asked, touching his forehead tenderly to hers. She tried to answer but was still too jumpy to really think straight. After she suffered a few failed attempts to speak, his eyebrows furrowed at her hesitance, but he didn't pull away. She buried her face in his shoulder to hide from him. He was a proud man who insisted that they were well off and did not need her to bring in any more funds. And for the most part he was right. But she occasionally needed a few shillings for unnecessary but very special items.

"I have been doing the sewing for Lady Wyatt when Dorothy goes to visit her family. She pays me a little sum for my work."

"I'm not against you helping her. But I pray it's not for the money, for we have more than enough for us, the servants, and maybe a few children, if God chooses to grant it." She raised her head and squeezed him a little tighter.

"I've been helping her for both her aid as well as mine."

"So it is for the money." His tone showed his disappointment as did his body language as his arms dropped to his side.

"My dear Thomas, I been saving the extra money to buy you a present. Your birthday is soon, isn't it? And I can't very well come to you and ask for you to pay for your present." Her nose scrunched and her head tilted involuntarily which seemed to stress her point. He creased his face into a frown to suppress his amusement but was failing miserably.

"I'm too old for birthdays." He kissed her on the temple and then headed toward his writing desk. She followed him impatiently and lowered herself in the nearby chair.

"But Thomas, I used to give you little gifts when we were courting and you didn't seem to mind it. Twenty is not old, and this is your first birthday since I became your wife. I want it to be special." She gave her sweetest smile in an attempt to sway him. He scratched his head as he always did when he was frustrated and sighed several times before finally reclining back in his seat.

"Have I upset you, Husband?" She questioned pensively.

"No, Sweet Bess, I'm just very tired." He moaned as he rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"Do you have a headache? I can get you some water or ale." She rose quickly, about to head to the kitchen when he reached out his arms to her. He drew her into his lap and snuggled his head to her chest. His body appeared so strangely weak that she held him protectively. "Ester is making a chicken stew; that should warm your heart. Then after supper, we can head to bed. Maybe it'll rain My Love." She whispered, playing with his dark hair. He clutched to her like a child would a favored doll while she spoke consoling yet helpless words to him.

He was quiet all through the meal, which concerned Bess. She was used to, even came to look forward to, his prattling on about all the patients and new sicknesses he encountered each day. He would become so animated and would give her a sense as if she had been there with him. But not tonight; he seemed to only be able to muster a small smile or a nod when she asked him questions or told him of the village gossip the ladies shared with her throughout the last week. He ate heartily, which proved he wasn't ill. That comforted her a bit, but not enough for her to completely relax. It wasn't until that night, when they were preparing for bed, that she sensed he was ready to let her know what caused his pain. He unlaced her in silence, but she could tell his feelings were not as such. The laces proved not to agree with his lack of attention, and his fingers struggled clumsily.

"If you are weary, Husband, I can have Joan help me undress." She offered. But he continued tugging and pulling as if he never heard. After he was finished, she shrugged out of her dress and folded it. Thomas was oblivious to the fact that his wife was carefully watching him. He had begun murmuring inaudibly to himself as he removed his boots and stockings. She tried to gather some meaning from his words, but they were too muddled. It bothered her that something had disturbed him so much. After he was comfortably in his nightshirt, he moved to sit on the edge of the bed to await her. She sprinkled lavender over her dress, now lying snugly in her trunk, to prevent that dusty smell from storage. He took a deep breath, savoring the perfume of the dried flowers and exhaled slowly. She kissed the curls at the crown of his head as she passed on her way to the vanity. He yawned submissively, leaning on the bedpost. She loosed her bun and proceeded to plait her hair.

"Leave your hair down tonight, Pet," He requested, barely loud enough for her to hear, "Like our wedding night." She nodded at his reflection in the mirror. He yawned once more, this time stretching with it, reaching high into the air and nearly touching the canopy. She began brushing her hair, counting each sweep. He was so drowsy that she knew she must get him to bed soon, or he'll fall asleep on the edge where he sat. Just as she predicted, he curled up into a ball with his face turned so he could see her.

"Were you needed much today, My Love? You are so dreadfully tired." He blinked very leisurely.

"A lot of small ailments to deal with, and the little Wyatt babe is growing well."

"I'm pleased to hear that. They say she has her mother's eyes. Is that true?"

"Very much so, she is but a small image of her. My Lord was happy as well. He offered wine to all present, and insisted on regularly holding the child." He scratched his nose indifferently.

"Ah, so my husband is drunk." She lightly taunted, hoping it would get more out of him.

"Not at all, I couldn't very well come home intoxicated and demand attention from my wife like those other fools. That would be dreadful! For I would much rather drink with friends who I can trust to protect her from us all if we succumb to the whims of alcohol."

"You believe that you would become forceful with me? You have never before."

"I've never allowed myself to become completely drunk, My Love, for I do not trust myself. It's a horrible trait from my father; he used to fight many men and become an ass when he drank. But fortunately for my mother, like me, he learned early." She found it hard to believe that he could become violent with the most sacred of things between them. He was always so gentle. Even when he was playing rough, he was never really. Was that what was bothering him? Was there something she needed to beware? Her mind started to race at the thought. She shot him a quick glance and her worry melted away at the sight of him soundly sleeping. She eased down to sit beside him, trying not to disturb his cute snoring. Her hands brushed his cheek and she whispered how much she loved him in his ear, despite the fact that his slumber had deafened it. She leaned over him, laying her head on his side and listened to him breathe. The pace of it was fast but deep, as if he had ran all the way from Hever. She didn't like the restlessness of it and decided to wake him.

"Thomas, please wake up. I know you're very tired, but I need you to wake up." His eyes gradually opened and he searched her face anxiously for some hint as to what was wrong. His appearance seemed like that of a frightened animal and he mouthed her words to himself.

"Is everything alright?" She asked, playing with his hair.

"I was having a strange dream." His speech was slow and slurred. He wiped his eyes gruffly.

"Your breathing was rough. I was worried." She whispered, trying not the startle him too much, since he was still half asleep.

"It's just the heavy air from the rain, Love, and my own exhaustion. I think I'll let Master Longton take my patients tomorrow. I need some rest desperately."

"The Apothecary? Can he do that?"

"Yes, he is well capable. Do not fret." His head was now resting in her lap and he scratched nonchalantly at her stomach.

"Then why don't we get started on that rest? It's really late already." She kissed his nose and rose from her spot. He opted not to walk to his side of the bed and instead, crawled on top of the blankets and collapsed on his pillow. She gently tugged at the layers underneath him until he raised his bum and let her pull the covers out. She tucked him in and drew the cotton curtain around them. When she was all snuggled in herself; he wrapped her in an embrace and nuzzled her neck before letting his muscles finally relax. She could feel his breath on her skin and it was eerily shallow. Bess lightly rubbed the bare skin of his arm and hummed a tune as she always did, hoping it would soothe him. He chuckled weakly into her ear.

"What is it?"

"You coddle me so; I sometimes wonder if you are my wife or my wet nurse."

"Tis' my duty to care for you as your wife;" she emphasized her title," in all ways, whether it be rousing or nurturing." She winked as she playfully jabbed him in the stomach.

"Since when did abuse become your duty?" He teased, pretending to be hurt. He roughly pulled at her until she was facing him. She giggled like a little girl as he nibbled at her neck, growling like a hungry dog.

"You are mad!" she impishly tried to fight him off but her laughter had drained her of any strength. He continued to kiss her neck and jaw but had stopped growling after she nearly escaped him. His body now rested on his side, his hands were more roaming than tickling by now. Her eyelids fluttered at his touch on her bare back when he reached under her night gown. She could tell he was watching her face when she bit her lower lip to restrain a moan. His right hand moved from her bare thigh to her cheek. His caress was light and more innocent now; his change of mood brought her back from her desire. She was startled to see his fierce glare affixed on her. His eyes searched her face for something, something she couldn't deduce much less give him. His sudden change in demeanor startled her, making it obvious that this was about something she did.

She swallowed hard, hoping her hesitance would coax him into returning to his gentility and humor.

"I fear my husband's mind is bewitched by wine, for his expression looks like that of a brawling man." She tried to tease him, her light giggle fading at her failure.

"I'm not drunk, I drank no wine tonight. Although I wish that I was, for the wretched news I received today would be all but a drunken cloud."

"Wretched news?" Bess' heart sank. She already knew what he was about to say. He inched closer to her, leaning on his elbow which rested behind her. She could feel his shoulder against hers and his eyes watching.

"I know about your motives for the mending. A new doublet for me was hardly the reason. It's all been for Anna." His countenance was surprisingly full of sadness, not the condemnation she was expecting.

"She's with child." Bess hid her face in Thomas' shoulder as if to hide from him. He sighed heavily, as if he already knew.

"You should have told me. I would be caring for her right now. And besides, I'm your husband. Secrets should not exist with me." Bess's jaw tightened at his words, feeling the deep running shame fill her.

"You need not have to take care of William's mistress. She's all but his widow and my family's responsibility. He wasn't your brother, so I didn't feel it was proper to…."

"Elizabeth! Not my brother? I knew him even longer than you. He was my comrade and my brother through my marriage to you." Flushing with anger, he pushed off the bed and began pacing. "God's Blood, your lack of trust is disheartening. He is the only part of you that is hidden to me. You're being foolish! I knew as well as you. I knew of her, I knew of his love. I also knew of his plans to marry her." Exasperated, he stood before her, his stance questioning. "I know what he did. And I'll have you know, because I wasn't there when he died does not mean it justifies you keeping secrets from me."

"What would you have had me do?" Bess moved to her knees so she could look him in the eyes just enough to prove her point but not enough to evoke more anger. "Come out and announce to the whole world that my brother's bastard is about to be born. My own mother doesn't know. And if people knew of her condition they would assume it is yours and then it'd all have to come out to save our reputation. My brother would be disgraced yet again." Thomas shook his head as if to shake her words from his ears.

"Still, going behind my back was hardly proper." Although his words were firm, his whole being showed resignation. Bess did feel guilty. She regretted the lies and deception, but she still felt as though he was better off not knowing. Thomas returned to his place beside her, trying not to cause her to topple over from the movement. "How long?" He asked after a long silence.

"From what I can tell, she will be ready in less than a month. She already began her lying in. Though she's not pleased. She complains of the darkness."

"Most do." He sighed. She could tell his mind was going at a fast pace. He was trying to figure out how they could provide for Anna. Bess simply shook her head, allowing it to fall into her hands. Though he was an accomplished doctor for his young age, there was no way he could provide for Bess, Esther's family, and now Anna and her babe. She silently scolded her brother for leaving her to fend for him; leaving everything in fear and chaos.