Hugh took a deep breath as he entered the bedchamber. Eleanor sat on a stool by the table as Blanche unpinned her hair. She sat with her eyes closed, seemingly unaware of his presence, and Hugh stopped, not wanting to disturb the scene. Blanche turned and started to acknowledge him but he put his finger to his mouth, urging her to silence and she carried on taking out the last few pins.
Finally free, Eleanor’s hair fell about her shoulders. He was amazed at how thick and shiny it still was; in fact it had changed little since their marriage day. Her face looked relaxed, as if, behind those closed eyes, she was dreaming of something beautiful, something she loved. He wondered if she dreamt about him.
Then she opened her eyes and looked straight at him: he realised she had known he was there all along and yet had let him wait until she was ready. She gave a tight smile, something he’d not been sure of getting after neglecting her earlier in order to be with Edward. Her Clare temperament was legendary and he’d half expected something to be thrown at him as he walked through the door. But there again, She’d been brought up around the Court – surely she understood how things were.
‘Blanche, you may go now,’ she instructed her serving woman. Blanche bowed, first to her mistress and then to him and left the room.
‘Nell, I am sorry about earlier, I…’ he started to say but was stopped by a shake of her head.
‘Let’s not talk of it right now,’ she said. ‘I am tired, and, I think, so are you.’
Hugh’s heart sank a little at her words: he had been hoping to find a willing lover, something to help him take his mind off the King. The feel of Edward’s lips on his was yet a vivid enough memory to make him feel disturbed inside. But the root of that disturbance was still something that he could not identify. It certainly was not revulsion: he had not been repelled at all by Edward’s kiss – much to his surprise. He had thought he’d have to steel himself against his instincts to run, in order to gain the King’s heart and yet in the end, those instincts had been non-existent. No, he suspected that the reason why he felt so disturbed was that, against all expectations, he had actually enjoyed it.
Eleanor picked the comb off the table and started to drag it through the tangles in her hair. Hugh moved forward and quietly took it, his fingers closing around hers. ‘Let me…’
He pulled the comb lightly through her hair, as if fearing to hurt her. He had a gentle touch for a man accustomed to the sword and the saddle. She relaxed back into him, letting him lull her back into that sense of relaxation with the rhythmic strokes.
‘Just like you used to…’ she murmured, a smile about her lips, ‘… before we came to court.’
‘When we were poor and almost landless, you mean.’
‘It wasn’t so bad Hugh; I could have continued like that, as long as I had you be my side.’ She sat up and turned to face him. ‘But you would never have been happy staying that way, would you?’
He stopped combing and looked down at her. ‘Ever since a boy I’ve wanted wealth and position, Nell, you know that. And now I have it – we have it.’
‘But is it enough for you Hugh? Truly?’ She stood up and took his face in her hands. ‘I have seen it in your eyes, Hugh – your hunger for more. I just wonder… where will it lead you?’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
She turned from him and walked towards the bed. ‘There is a side to you, one which I would rather not know, that would gladly sell his soul to the devil to get what he wanted. I fear that part of you is getting stronger. I fear that I am losing the man I love.’
She looked so lost, so vulnerable in that moment that he crossed the room in two strides and enclosed her in his arms. ‘Jesus Nell, how could you say such a thing? You’ll never lose me, I swear it.’
‘Not even to Ned?’
Her use of Edward’s pet name froze him for a second, then he recovered himself, and pushed himself slightly away from her so that he could look down into her face. ‘What in heaven are you talking about?’
‘You are always with him.’
Hugh almost laughed. ‘Of course I am always with him: I am his chamberlain – it’s my job. I thought you knew that.’
This time the eyes that met his had hardened. ‘I am not talking about your position. When you began, you and he were not close; I spent so much time convincing my uncle that you were actually likeable and not the hot-headed young upstart he thought you to be. I thought it was a hopeless task but now he demands more and more of your time – even when you have finished your business. And this evening… I saw the way he looked at you.’
Hugh felt himself flush. He was a natural born liar, but when it came to his wife, his skill fell away, and he was as flustered as any young squire caught stealing his master’s weapons. ‘I cannot deny that he seems attracted to me, but that does not mean…’
Nell gave a harsh laugh. ‘And you do nothing to encourage him, I suppose. I know you, Hugh, all too well. As I said before, you would sell your soul to the devil if it meant you got what you desired.’
‘So, you think I lust after his grace, the King? Is that what my wife really thinks.’ Hugh hit back angrily, a reaction to his guilt.
‘Not just me, Hugh. Isabella, too, thinks you are intimate with Ned. She told me so this morning.’
‘Devil take that woman! She has no right putting such thoughts into your head.’ Hugh started to pace the chamber, trying to keep his temper under some sort of control. He knew his reaction was out of all proportion to Nell’s accusation – it was as if all the bottled up emotion from earlier had now bubbled to the surface and overflowed. All because he had kissed another man, and enjoyed it.
Eleanor put an arm out to stop him. ‘Enough, Hugh. Let’s speak no more of this tonight. All I want to know right now is that you still want me in your bed, as your wife and as your friend.’
When he kissed her it was not gentle; it still contained some of the anger, but it seemed to melt its way through her skin, awakening her senses and putting to flight all of her previous tiredness. Hugh felt her soften into his as his body responded to hers. And at that moment he knew. He knew that when it came to Edward and Nell, he could have them both.