She danced with the grace of a rose in the wind. Her hands exchanged from one partner to another as she glided through the steps, her face flushed, her blonde curls bouncing. She represented the essence of youth, beauty, and fragility—and innocence. If Catherine was anything, it was innocence.
And she belonged to him, King Henry VIII.
Henry watched the merrymaking from his throne. He was far past his prime to consider joining the carousing and dancing. Rather, he preferred to watch his pretty wife laugh and smile, lost in her joy, reminding him of a time when he was vibrant and young.
He took a long draught of ale from the gold goblet in his hand.
Years of decadence had worn on Henry’s body. Food and drink weighed him down, giving him the shape of a boulder stranded on the Irish green. Ulcers swelled his legs and rotted his flesh. And he often complained of fatigue. He was aged. He was on his decline and heading towards that heavenly door.
But he had Catherine, his rose without a thorn.
She brightened his life with her whispers and giggles. She imbued his days with her lightness and gaiety. She gave Henry what his four previous wives hadn't—easiness, a gentle breeze.
Henry smiled as he watched Catherine swing about with one of the men of his court. He recognized the fellow as Sir Thomas Culpeper, one of the men of his Privy Chamber. Culpeper was considered handsome by the ladies of the court, but nothing in his looks compared to Henry. When Henry was his age, of course.
Thomas seemed enamored with Catherine, the prettiest lady of Henry’s court. Many men fell to their knees at the sight of her, but he’d won her. He was the champion who had pluck that. darling rose. Being king, he often found a route to his prize, whether by convincing, negotiation, or force.
"Your Grace." Henry glanced to his right-hand side to see Thomas Cranmer, one of his most trusted advisers, at his ear. Seriousness pulled at the corners of Cranmer’s mouth, giving him a frown. His cheeks sagged, and his brow furrowed. "I've an important matter to discuss with you."
Courtiers clapped, a flute trebled. Now was not the time or place to bring matters of state to Henry’s attention, not when he was enjoying his evening. "Can it not wait?"
"It could, Your Grace, but—"
"Then wait, Cranmer." Henry swatted a hand in his face. "Bother me in the morning."
Cranmer fell silent, but did not remove himself. He watched, but without the same interest. Calculation seethed in his dark gaze. Henry followed his line of sight and realized Cranmer observed his rose. Not with passion or lust, as most men, but with mistrust and knowing.
Catherine still danced with Culpeper. Those two parted on a reel and took turns with other partners, only to clasp hands and rejoin moments later. Culpeper’s fascination flared, and Catherine, something in her eyes answered him. Something Henry remembered once, from long ago.
Cranmer shifted closer to Henry’s ear, dropping his tone to a whisper, "You watch your queen with the same lust you once did her cousin, Anne."
Anne. Henry remembered her. Once, he pursued her with desperate obsession. He spent nearly a decade fawning after her. All of Europe fell to its knees when he defied the Pope and seceded from the Vatican. He sparked zealotry and imagination when he made himself the head, of the Church of England. He created chaos, all so that he could marry Anne, but it came to nothing. Henry’s youth withered with her dark, sultry beauty.
What a mistake.
What a misfortune.
She never gave him a son, yet she'd fallen into the beds of several lovers.
Henry did not watch Catherine with the same lust. Anne was all tricks and appeal.
Catherine, his rose without a thorn, was all wide-eyed innocence.
"Do not compare her to Anne," Henry growled.
"But they've the same blood.”
“All similarities stop there."
"How can you be so sure?" Cranmer pointed to Culpeper. "He touches your wife with a certain familiarity."
“He desires her, as many men do.” Henry shrugged. “But, Catherine would never stray from me. She’s not experienced in the ways of the world.”
Cranmer nodded, his frown deepening. “True, she’s little understanding of court intrigues, but she’s more understanding of men then you’d like to think.”
“You’re dancing a tight line, Cranmer.” Henry thrust out his goblet on a snarl. A serving girl came to fill his cup to the rim. He eyed her as she backed away, without spilling a drop. Slender, petite, a brunette. He might’ve bedded the wench, at one time, if not for his cooling passions and loyalty to his wife. Once, maybe twice, this night.
Cranmer waited for the girl to leave ear shot, and for Henry’s gaze to leave her derriere.
“Please, Your Grace, if I might explain?”
Henry held his silence. He waited to hear what Cranmer might say, as the viper taking its strike. One chance was all Henry would give when regarding his rose without a thorn. She filled his days with brilliance, and no man would ruin his happiness without cause.
Cranmer accepted Henry’s uneasy peace as a signal for him to continue. “You see the fellow she dances with? Sir Thomas Culpeper.”
“Yes, he’s the finest hands when dressing my ulcers.” Henry took an angry swallow.
“Why is he important?”
“A rumor sweeps around court, Your Grace. A rumor that he has carnal knowledge of the Queen.”
Henry snapped his glower from the ale to Cranmer’s puffy face. He stared long, hard, disbelieving. His hand flexed as the desire to wring Cranmer’s neck overcame him. “Rumors mean nothing.”
But Henry watched his wife more closely. Culpeper grasped her waist, more tightly than one should dare when underneath her husband’s nose. Catherine’s green eyes glittered as she danced with him, and he held her as if he owned her heart.
“I’ve evidence, Your Grace.”
Henry snapped his head towards Cranmer. “What evidence?”
“I issued a search of Sir Culpeper’s quarters.” Cranmer’s lips pressed into a thin line. “A love letter addressed to Sir Thomas Culpeper, written in the Queen’s hand, was discovered amongst his possessions.”
Henry returned his attentions to Culpeper and his rose. He glowered at those two, dancing and twirling, radiant in their youth. He envied those two for their carefree natures, for their lack of reason. Once, he was young. Once, he cared little for consequence and fell into the entrapments of youth with abandon.
Once, long ago, he had Anne.
Her name beat through Henry’s mind. He’d never forgiven the vile witch, and he would not forgive Catherine if the rumors and evidence proved true. He’d not be duped again, and by two women from the same bloodline.
Henry banged a fist against the arm of his throne. “Bring the letter to me in the morning.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
Cranmer lingered by his side. Henry grew irritable.
“You may go.” Henry guzzled more of the ale. A river dribbled down his chins and onto his tunic.
Cranmer bowed and took a few steps back. He trotted away when he was out of view, off to grind the cogs of Henry’s kingdom. Henry respected him greatly, serious though he was. Cranmer bared news few other men would dare bring to his attention.
Such as his wife’s affair.
Henry thrummed his fingers to the flute’s tune, but with a blackness hanging over his head. His rose had a thorn. It took more than a year of marriage for the prick to grow, and Henry suspected his age and temper watered her affair.
Possible affair. Cranmer hadn’t provided his proof yet. His court could not yet look on him as the old cad fooled into giving a comely, dainty girl all the silks, riches, and ermines of a queen. He still possessed her, in name and in heart.
Henry watched her blonde curls as she finished the dance with Culpeper, knowing that if Cranmer’s accusation proved true, he would soon watch her head roll off the executioner’s block. Much like his second wife, Anne.
Notes hung in the hall as the music died. Dancers stopped in their places, passing joyous looks amongst their crowd. Applause rose, and that’s when Henry noticed more than a look or an innocent touch pass between Catherine and Culpeper.
Culpeper slid a hand along Catherine’s waist, as if expecting the excitement and applause in the aftermath of the music to cover his lust. His hand trailed downwards, further, further, until resting, briefly, on her bottom. Catherine shot him a glance, but giggled.
Henry heard nothing but the break in his thoughts. A crescendo rose, but not from the violinist’s strings or the flutist’s fingers. This came from the heat of his rising rage, blocking all sound from his ears.
Henry changed his mind. He thrust his chair out from under him. He started after Cranmer to demand to read the letter now, to see if his rose possessed a hidden thorn. And by God, if she did, he’d tear out her petals as he watched her head roll.