They did not meet again until it was time to sup, when they sat at a small table set in the parlour where the curtains were closed against the evening chill and a small fire of aromatic pine cones scented the air.
Once William had taken the edge off his hunger he smiled at Mary.
“It seems,” he said kindly, “that you are to be complimented on your stewardship of this household.”
Mary felt a blush heating her cheeks. “I did what I could within the constraints of…” then she could not continue speaking.
“Within the constraints of your father and brother wasting every penny the estate could be squeezed to provide?”
Mary hung her head. “Yes,” she whispered miserably.
“You have no need to reproach yourself, my wife. You have worked miracles. And you have had none to assist you. Save the servants, each of whom would, I think, lay down his or her life in your service.”
Mary felt her sense of humour returning and dared a small sally. “I think they mostly like me because I am unlikely to be groping anybody on the stairs.”
William narrowed his eyes and for a second she feared she had gone too far, but his brow cleared and he grinned. “It is,” he said genially, “a great relief to find a female who chooses sense above sensibility, and realism above fairy stories. And talking of fairy stories, what shall we do about your cousin?”
“That, sir, is a moot question. I know what would be best, but I do not know if it is possible.”
“Tell me what it is and we shall see.”
“Catherine has a brother, Charles, who is, I believe, in the Low Countries with… Umm with…”
“With the King, do you mean?”
Mary nodded, round eyed with amazement.
“You did not expect me to call him thus, did you?”
“No. I did not. I had heard…”
“It is confession time. I am not such a good Parliamentarian as to have a grudge against the rightful King of England. I believe in the values of the Protestant Church, I am a nephew to Thomas Fairfax, and I was a school friend of Richard Cromwell. I fought for the cause because of my family and my friend, but I would not have voted to execute the previous King and neither do I feel any animosity towards his son.”
Mary digested this information then smiled, disclosing, if she could but have seen it, a furtive dimple at the corner of her mouth.
“Perhaps I should make my own confession. My father and brother may have been Catholic, although I would doubt that either had any religious beliefs, but my mother and I always held by heretical tenets. And you should also know that the manor came from my mother’s family so it is not properly Ashleigh land at all.”
He looked solemn. “Truthfully, then, the land was not your father’s to lose, nor your brother’s to play ducks and drakes with.”
“Oh, I think it was. Mother gave it into my father’s hands on the day she was foolish enough to wed him. I have made a much better bargain of a husband, and if I have any claim to the land I choose to give that to him as a wedding gift.”
William sat silent for a very long time. Long enough so that Mary was beginning to think she had made a dreadful mistake and wondering what she might do to mend things. But then his gaze switched back from wherever he had been and he reached for her hand where it lay on the table.
“Thank you wife,” he lifted her small work roughened hand to his lips. “I swear that you shall not live to regret your trust in me.”
It was some six weeks later and a full moon lit the gardens with its eerie silver radiance. Mary stood in the shelter of William’s arms and fretted a little.
“Are you sure they will come?”
William just laughed indulgently. “Listen.”
The sound of muffled hoofbeats announced the imminent arrival of nocturnal visitors and Mary turned her face to where the manor gardens met the dyke-crossed fens. There were six horses and a riderless pony coming at a careful pace through the treacherous peat bogs. A figure materialised at the iron gate and ushered the riders in. Their guide and two others waited just inside the gate, leaving three riders to drop their reins and dismount on the sloping lawn. Mary recognised her cousin Charles as he strode over to where she stood. He was very obviously one of the King’s men, from his plumed hat to his gleaming top boots, although Mary could not help noticing how shabby and threadbare he was. He grinned unrepentantly, removed his extravagantly feathered hat, and bowed floridly.
“Mary it is good to see you well.” He turned his attention to William. “William Fairfax, as I live and breathe. I never thought to see you again. Not after Naseby.”
The two men grasped arms like the staunchest of friends, and Mary was left wondering how many more secrets her husband harboured.
Charles looked about him. “I see my sister is not here to greet me. Where is the jade? Still abed?”
“She changed her mind this afternoon,” Mary said dully, “says she isn’t going with you.”
“Oh but she is. I have too much affection for you, and too much respect for your husband to leave that black-hearted trollop here spreading her poison. I take it she has already started.”
“Oh indeed. I was barely in the door.”
Charles laughed although it wasn’t an entirely pleasant sound. “Where is she?”
“The yellow bedchamber. But I think she has locked the door.”
Charles indicated the surly looking giant at his shoulder. “I have a key.”
The two men walked purposefully into the house while their companion smiled at Mary. “Anthony Babbage at your service ma’am. Betrothed, so they remind me, to a certain Catherine Ashleigh. Big belly and all.” He dropped the fashionable drawl and gave Mary a shrewd look. “Do we have any idea at all who is responsible?”
“Honestly. No. She claims a rape, which may or may not be true.”
He lifted a shoulder in what seemed to Mary to be a strangely feminine gesture. “Whatever the truth, it solves a looming problem. And my servant Gregory will know how to keep her in order.”
Mary had been hearing a series of muffled crashes and one single scream of rage before footfalls could be heard descending the stairs. Charles carried an unwieldy bundle of clothing and the big man had Catherine over his shoulder. She was quiet and still and Mary felt worried until Charles reassured her.
“She’s just unconscious. We couldn’t ride across the fens in the dead of night with a screaming virago in our midst.”
He slapped palms with William who passed him a small leather pouch.
“Thank you. I am doubly in your debt now.”
The oddly assorted quartet went back to where their horses waited and Charles tied the ungainly bundle of clothing to the pony’s saddle while the silent Gregory mounted his huge horse, holding Catherine against his chest. Charles and Anthony lifted their hands, then the small cavalcade faded into the mist that was coming down to envelop the fens. Mary shivered and William drew her to him for comfort – and somewhat else.
Ten years later and a fine June morning. The family Fairfax sat at breakfast with the early sun catching the auburn lights in the hair that William had passed to all five of his sons. The man himself sat reading a letter from London and his sandy brows drew together in a frown. Recognising the signs of an impending explosion, Mary sent the children off with their nursemaid. She shut the door firmly behind them and held out her hand for the letter. Almost against his will, William handed it over grimacing as he did so. Mary read, stumbling through the legal language and the overly ornate script.
“Well we are not having that are we. Our marriage annulled, our children bastardised and me given to some ‘cousin’ of whom I have never heard. I think not.”
Looking into her husband’s eyes she saw something unclench in him and passed a hand over her own eyes before stamping one small foot.
“William Fairfax, you didn’t think for one minute that I would even consider this revolting scheme, did you?”
“No. Not really. But I gave you no option but to marry me.”
“And so? That was a decade ago. You are my husband, and the father of my children, and my life, and my love.”
William’s chair hit the floor as he leapt to his feet. He dragged Mary into a mad embrace and swung her around and around until she was completely dizzy. When he set her on her feet she had to clutch hold of his shirt front to stop herself from falling.
“What?” She said a bit crossly.
He took her smooth peachy face in his big hands and held it for a long moment before claiming her lips in a tender kiss.
“Oh Mary,” he said in a voice so deep and tender that it all but stole her breath, “do you know how long I have waited to hear you say those words?”
“That you love me.”
“Oh. Those words. I thought you knew. I thought you must know, but I always thought you didn’t love me…”
This time his kiss burned with quite the fire of the sunset over the fens and his hug all but crushed the breath from her body.
“Of course I love you, Mary mine, I think I fell the moment you turned your trusting little face up to mine as we walked home from our wedding.”
It was Mary’s turn to say something but she couldn’t speak, so she pulled his head down to where she could cover his face with tiny, biting kisses.
He groaned. “Do you have any pressing business, my wife?”
She laughed up into his eyes. “None more pressing that the love I have for you, my husband. Shall we see if we can make the daughter your heart desires?”