She is in the garden with Dash, who frolics about her feet carefree and unabashed. He feels the exact opposite but can do naught else but approach, heart in throat.
“Lord M,” she says, her face serene, her mouth set with mischief. “Had I known that the magic to summoning you was to send my Government into a frenzy, I should have done so long ago.”
He has been nine months away from Town. Nine months, in which he has answered neither letter nor summons. Since the failure of the Saxe-Coburg boy, it has not been safe for him to be nearer. He has told himself the safety he protects is only hers, and her good name; he has not examined his own heart too closely, for in the secret places of his soul he knows it will not bear the scrutiny.
“Peel rode himself to Brocket Hall,” he says, watching her face. “He would not tell me much, but he demanded I speak to you. He was nigh on apoplexy.”
She does not speak at once, instead bending to pet Dash. “I suppose he must have wished me to explain. Perhaps he thought you would not believe him.”
He has been shaken ever since Peel woke him this morning, with his face like a thundercloud. “Ma’am,” he says, then clears his throat to rid himself of the rasp. “Ma’am, what have you done?”
She turns her face to him then, fixes him with the unerring clarity of her gaze. “Tell me once and for all, Lord M, and do not hedge the matter. If I were simply a woman and you simply a man, and nothing else to bar the way, would I have a hope of gaining your love?”
He cannot respond.
“Here and now,” she says, still not releasing his gaze, “I will have an answer. If you must have it so, your Queen commands it.”
“You cannot command the secrets of my heart. And you cannot ask for an answer as a woman, when you command it as a Queen.”
She shakes her head, imperious and sure. “Do not bandy words with me.”
“It would be treason,” he says, evading with less skill than he did of old. Nine months apart has weakened his defences, and she is not the girl-woman he left behind. This is a different woman, something indefinable in the set of her shoulders, and his breath comes the quicker.
She turns her face up to the afternoon sky, sun-dappled. “I have been continuing my studies since you left me. I find the history of my forebears most fascinating. Do you know Joan of Acre?”
He is aware at once that this is a flanking manoeuvre, but is unsure of the direction. “One of the Plantagenets, I believe.”
“One of Edward I’s daughters,” she confirms. “He had a great many of them. He married Joan to one of his great lords, after seducing the lord’s first wife. She was eighteen when she married, and her husband thirty years older with children her senior.”
He is uncomfortably aware of their own age difference. “Was she happy?”
She looks at him, her eyes clear. “I hardly know. After five years, the lord died. Edward decided to use her next marriage to buy an alliance on the Continent. But she came to his court, declaring that she had secretly married one of her late husband’s squires and was bearing his child.”
“What happened to her?” he asks, softly, when she does not immediately continue the story. He does not remember the fate of all of Edward’s many children. He remembers that Edward was ever prone to fearsome rages.
“Edward was angry beyond reckoning. He threw her husband into prison.”
For the crime of wanting what was beyond your reach, and winning her heart. He hears the echoes, down the centuries.
“And then,” she says, “Joan pled for him. Her words were set down, for they softened her father’s heart and won her back her husband. Would you like to hear what she said?”
He can do naught else but say, “Yes.”
Her voice changes, and almost he can hear the long-ago plea. “It is not considered ignominious, nor disgraceful, for a great earl to take a poor and mean woman to wife; neither, on the other hand, is it worthy of blame, or too difficult a thing for a countess to promote to honour a gallant youth.”
The silence stretches between them, this sunlit afternoon.
“I am no gallant youth,” he says, finally, as close to a direct answer as he has ever come.
She meets his eyes again. “And I am no Joan of Acre,” she says, “for she was a princess pleading for the life of her true love, and I am a Queen regnant.”
A wild fear overtakes him. “Ma’am – you have not – what have you told the Prime Minister and the Cabinet?”
Dash is barking at something, a squirrel perhaps, but he has no space for anything except the small woman before him, the woman who has his heart and his honour in her hands.
“I have not compromised you, if that is what you fear,” she says. “If you truly care not for me, and wish only for the quiet solitude of Brocket Hall, then I will leave you to your peace.”
If she has not – but Peel – “Then why was the Prime Minister scarce able to string two words together this morning?”
She smiles, a private amusement. “I told them a tale of my ancestors.”
“Joan of Acre.”
“No, as it happens,” she says. “Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth,” he repeats, feeling blank.
“As the story goes, she loved Robert of Leicester, but was forbidden to marry him, for he was wholly unsuitable and an Englishman. So she never married or gave birth to any heirs, and when she died her realm went to a Scottish cousin.”
He listens, and watches the spark in her eyes. Whatever she has done, she is absolutely certain. There is no doubt in her, only calm and surety.
“I told them,” she says, turning her face to the horizon, “that I would make my own marriage, or have none at all. My heart is the one thing in this whole world that belongs to me alone, and I will not be forced to give it where it does not wish to go. If I love a man, I will promote him to honour at my side, if he will have me. And if he will not - or if they will not permit me - then they may have my cousin George after me.”
George of Cumberland. Peel’s apoplexy now becomes clear. “He believes in autocracy and supreme royal authority.”
“Yes,” she says. “He does. But if they would bring down a battle between Crown and Parliament, then it would be on their own head.” She is smiling, though there is a hard edge to it. “They say I must marry, must give England heirs. And I am willing, but only if I may choose my own husband. Elsewise they cannot force me. I shall be the Virgin Queen reborn to the end of my days, and after me – George.”
He moistens his lips. “And their reply?”
She turns back to him. “It appears to have been my Prime Minister riding to Brocket Hall.”
He has no words for her. He cannot, even now, begin to comprehend that hope exists.
“I will have an answer, Lord Melbourne,” she says. “My heart is yours. If you do not love me, I will not speak of it again. But I will have an answer, in plain words.”
He cannot find those words. All his life, words have come easily. Now, in the most important moment, they have deserted him. She waits, and he cannot –
“What happened to Joan’s second husband?” he asks. “The one she defied her father for?”
“They had four children and were madly in love for the rest of her life.” A little crease appears between her eyebrows. “She did die in childbirth, but that’s a risk every married woman takes. And our doctors are better now.”
She is beautiful, here in this afternoon, in all her certainty and her hope and her strength. He has resisted her for so long, has endeavoured so strongly to turn her love towards a more suitable object. He knows all the reasons he cannot be her husband, all the reasons he should walk away. He has whispered them to himself again and again, all those lonely sleepless nights in exile at Brocket Hall.
“You are truly sure,” he says, quietly.
Her head goes back. “Yes.”
This is no girlish fancy, as he thought once. He had been so sure that the Saxe-Coburg boy, young and handsome, would drive him out of her heart in an instant. Yet far from that coming to pass, she is even more resolute; she stands before him now having frightened her Government into submission by a cogent threat. She loves him, and she will have him or none other – and by this unshakeable resolve, she has freed him from his duty to urge another match.
He is free to choose, if he has the bravery to stand before the world and claim her. There will be censure, and ugly laughter, and more than a few coarse words. He will be throwing away friendships, some of a lifetime’s standing, and his legacy will be forever a footnote to hers. He will be the man who seduced a Queen.
He measures all that he would lose, and listens to the dawning ferocity of the song in his breast.
In the end, the answer she demands is simplicity itself. He need only open his mouth and loose the truth, kept leashed and hidden for so long.
“Then I must tell you,” he says at last, his voice rubbed raw by emotion, “that my heart and honour have long been yours.”
He watches the joy flare up in her face like a bonfire, hope turning into happiness in an instant. She is incandescent, a woman transformed, and he cannot tear his eyes away. He knew her father long ago, a wastrel and a cad, and he cannot believe this is his daughter. She has forged herself into a monarch, into Elizabeth's spiritual heir, and claimed her love as Elizabeth was never able to do. He stands in awe of her, and loves her with a fierceness long denied.
“You will marry me.” Her voice is suddenly shy, for all that it comes out like a command.
“Victoria,” he says, her name a caress in his mouth, and takes her in his arms. She is soft save where her corset turns her unyielding, and her touch is gentle and hesitant only for a moment. He is what she has long desired, and she holds him to her as if she will never lose him again.
They will face the world together, for theirs will be a difficult journey.
As Victoria lifts her face to his, and William kisses her for the first time, they take their first step.