St Valentine’s Day in Leicester was all wind, rain and freezing cold temperatures, but the weather had not deterred the many people who had come to the King Richard III Visitor Centre. They were eager to see the exhibition about the man who had died in battle at nearby Bosworth in 1485, was lost for over five hundred years, and then found again, to be buried in 2015 in Leicester’s cathedral.
Of all the many displays, people most wanted to see Richard’s accurately modelled head, which stood on a plinth in a glass cabinet, with a beam of light directed from above. Richard, so reviled by Shakespeare and the Tudors, was now known not to have been a monster at all, but a handsome young man, whom thousands believed was a strong, good ruler. His increasing number of supporters insisted that had he lived, he would have been a truly great king. But, when a tragic widower of only thirty-two, he had been betrayed, killed in battle, and his crown usurped.
The rain was coming down even harder when the centre closed for the night, after which the only lighting was to aid the CCTV cameras that covered virtually every nook and cranny. Strange things were to happen before the Feast of St Valentine ended at midnight, but for some unknown reason, some of the cameras closed down for half an hour before midnight.
If they had gone on working, the resultant recording would have been sensational evidence of the existence of ghosts. Surprisingly, it would also prove that if history had not treated King Richard well, it had not been entirely fair to his usurping Tudor successor either. Well, in one respect, at least. In others the usurper was justifiably criticised.
Where the two spectral figures came from was impossible to say. They simply appeared at the stroke of half-past eleven, at the very moment the cameras switched off. One second there was no one by the model of Richard, the next a tall young man and dainty young woman were there, both dressed in 15th-century clothes of particular richness and beauty.
The man was slender, with reddish hair that clung about his shoulders. He wasn’t handsome, but arresting, with a thin, sallow visage, high cheekbones, and hooded, rather chilly eyes that were emphasised by his arched eyebrows. He gave a withdrawn impression, secretive and unhappy.
He wore costly black velvet trimmed with rare brown fur, and the heavy gilt collar across his shoulders was thick with amethysts, rubies and pearls. The same precious jewels adorned the brooch on his soft black hat. Anyone who knew their history would immediately recognise the young King Henry VII, Lancastrian founder of the House of Tudor, and the very usurper who had stolen Richard’s crown. Supposedly, his usurpation had ended the civil strife we now call the Wars of the Roses.
Henry, who was cordially loathed by Richard’s army of modern-day supporters, had been very ill and in pain when he died in April 1509 at the age of fifty-two. Tonight, however, he was no more than thirty again, his constitution strong..
The woman at his side was small and dainty, with a pale, oval face, shaved forehead and fair hair that was completely hidden beneath a short hennin headdress draped behind with a white gauze veil. A diamond-shaped golden pendant, with a magnificent sapphire, rested prettily against her forehead, and she carried a fresh white rose, symbol of the House of York, to which she belonged. Fixed to the bodice of her golden gown was a costly brooch in the form of a white boar, and beneath it an enamelled red heart with the letter ‘R’ picked out in diamonds. The boar was the personal cognizance of her husband, King Richard III, and the red heart had been the last Valentine gift he had given to her.
Queen Anne Neville had fallen victim to consumption not long before her husband’s terrible betrayal at Bosworth in 1485. Their only child, the little Prince of Wales, had passed away before her, so Richard had been a lonely man, deep in grief, when he defended his crown, his realm and his life that dreadful August day. Anne had been only twenty-eight when she had to begin her next existence so prematurely, but now, on this St Valentine’s Night, she was twenty again, fresh and lovely.
That Anne and Henry were an unlikely pair to stand together was obvious enough, because they had never met in life, and if they had, they would have been bitter enemies. But here they were, strangers, obliged by the dictates and whims of the hereafter to come to this particular place on this particular night in an attempt to be reunited with their lost spouses. Their chance of success did not seem good, after all, five hundred years had passed and for some unknown reason, they were both still alone. Anne had some hopes of the coming minutes, but Henry was resigned to failure.
They were decidedly awkward in each other’s company. So much so, that Anne was waspish. “There are countless people I would prefer be with on St Valentine’s Night than you, Henry Tudor.”
“The feeling is mutual, madam. I consider myself to have drawn the short straw, not only having you to contend with, but your cursed husband as well. His is the very last face on earth I wish to see.”
“And his very nearly was the last face you saw,” Anne replied.
He ignored the jibe about his close call at Bosworth, where another yard or so would have seen Richard despatching him to oblivion. “Besides,” he continued, “you are actually immaterial, because it’s my tiresome wife I want a word with.”
“What about me?” Henry clearly felt hard done by.
“You? You’re just a parsimonious misery.”
“That’s what everyone says, and you’re all wrong.” He looked at Richard again. “Plague take the fellow,” he muttered.
Anne smiled lovingly at her husband’s likeness, wishing it were the complete living man again. How she longed for that, especially on this, the most romantic of all nights. Instead, she had Henry Tudor to put up with.
Henry was still grumbling. “What chance did I stand against such a rival? I could never win hearts as he did. The plaguey fellow’s still winning them now, half a millennium later.”
“Well, you didn’t even try, did you? You were—and still are—a scowling, frost-faced, unsympathetic, totally unloveable so-and-so, padding around your palaces like a hound with toothache.”
“I did have toothache.”
“Even so, it was your choice to be all the rest, so how you can stand here now and complain, I really do not know.”
Henry glowered. One of his eyes had a cast, which gave him a most disconcerting appearance.
Anne couldn’t resist goading him. “The wrong man lost at Bosworth, Henry, and he lost it because of heinous treachery.”
He groaned. “Oh, don’t start all that again. I know the Yorkist bleat by heart. Why can’t you admit that if the situation had been reversed, your dear Richard would have done as I did.”
Her eyes flashed. “Except for the dishonourable crime of flinging you naked over a horse, your body mutilated and disgraced.”
“I regret that.”
She made a disparaging, disbelieving noise, and turned her back on him to go closer to Richard. Her hand passed effortlessly through the protective glass cabinet, to touch the model’s cold, unyielding cheek. “Oh, my darling, most beloved Richard. I’ve been waiting so long for you,” she murmured, forgetting Henry entirely as she caressed the face. “But now you have been found again and buried properly, I hope we can be reunited at last. Please, my love.”
Her fingers traced adoringly over the unresponsive features, and then moved to the brooch in the velvet hat. It was such an insultingly cheap, over-large thing, with fake stones. Richard would never have worn something that vulgar and big. He had too much style and taste. She flicked the pendant pearl at the bottom, remembering that other, more joyous St Valentine’s Day, when she had presented the original to him. He had embraced her and kissed her lips right there, in front of the crowded great hall at Middleham. Such festivities had taken place that evening of romance, happiness and contentment. Such lovemaking when the curtains of the bed were eventually drawn, and they were alone at last . . .
Henry watched her. “I fail to see why you couldn’t have been reunited before. You knew where he was.” It wasn’t said unpleasantly, just curiously.
She gave him a dark glance. “Because you hid him away, and buried him ignominiously in a grave totally unworthy of a King of England. He and I would have been reunited immediately if he’d been laid to rest publicly and with respect. Being concealed like that has kept his soul here, instead of being freed to enjoy his second life in the hereafter. With me. And our son, who waits as well. Richard was incarcerated underground for all those centuries, but when they found him again and made this likeness, he somehow became trapped inside it. No one really knows what happened, just that this is where he is now.”
She paused to blink tears away, and then turned another accusing glare upon Henry. “Yet I notice you gave yourself an ostentatious tomb of almost ridiculous splendour, and are able to enjoy your second life as you please. You really are a horrid person, Henry Tudor.”
“Thank you so much.” He sketched a mocking bow, but then held up his hands in surrender. “Oh, very well, mea culpa, a thousand times over, but it does not explain why I have not been reunited with Bess.”
“What is ‘ah’ supposed to mean?” he demanded suspiciously. “You know something, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, actually. She’s avoiding you.”
He looked blank. “Avoiding me? I don’t believe you.”
“Please yourself. But it’s true. She had more than enough of your miserable ways in life. Now, every time she sees you looming on the horizon, she hides until you’ve gone again.”
“She . . . has no reason to feel that way,” Henry answered haltingly.
Anne was taken aback to see true hurt in his eyes. “Oh, think a little, sir! You kept such a tight hold upon your purse strings that she had to all but pay to breathe your air.”
His hurt intensified. “That is not so! Truly it is not. I pandered to her whims. I paid her gambling debts—which were HUGE!—and I let her have those unnecessarily expensive greyhounds. All one hundred of them! I always provided for her. And cherished her, which is more than she ever did me.”
“She says you were grudging and always lecturing her. According to her, you didn’t love her at all, and your . . . well, your attentions in the marital bed were cursory and efficient. Not in the least gentle and considerate.”
Henry’s lips had parted in dismay. “You seem intent upon believing her, but what she says is not true. Love, hate. So close, are they not?”
Anne was unsettled by his reaction, and as he walked away to a nearby exhibit, she leaned closer to Richard. “Do you think maybe Bess of York has been fibbing a little? Heaven forfend, of course.”
But Richard did not respond. He remained a cold, hard model on a plinth. Even his wig was the wrong colour, she thought. Far too straight and dark. His real hair had been a rich, deep chestnut, wavy, thick and heavy. Oh, how she had loved to run her fingers through it. Well, to be honest, she had loved to run her fingers over all of him. Every delicious inch.
His hair might not have been correctly depicted, but his face was. Well, except for the eyebrows, which were surely based upon the largest, furriest caterpillars in creation. Richard’s eyebrows had been smooth and cared for. Next she looked at the model’s blue eyes, but his eyes had been grey. She drew herself up sharply. No! His eyes were still grey, for he would come to her again. He was not going to stay in the past, or in this model. She wouldn’t allow it!
Words whispered to him in life now returned to her lips. “Oh, prithee Richard, your Anne would be your Valentine again.”
As she fingered her red heart brooch, a gift from him, she could almost hear his laughing reply as he pinned it there. “Your Valentine again? Sweetheart mine, you are always my Valentine, every minute, every hour, every day, every week, every month of every year.”
He had been a prince among men, and she had never been worthy of him. Fresh tears filled her eyes. “I failed you as a wife, my love,” she murmured, swallowing as a lump rose in her throat. “I gave you only one son, and it was not enough. Then we both left you on your own, surrounded by traitors and unworthy foes. Forgive me, for I still love you so very much.”
Henry was close enough to hear, and turned to her. “Speaking as one of those unworthy foes, I wish to point out that yours was a political alliance, as was mine.”
“You do not know anything about my marriage,” she declared.
“Hmm, yet you know all about mine, it would seem.”
She looked at him. “Perhaps I should not have spoken as I did.”
He inclined his head with that odd grace that was always his mark. “You judge me, but only have my wife’s testimony. I know your marriage to Richard was a calculated alliance on both your parts, for it’s as plain as the proverbial pikestaff. That you came to love each other deeply I do not doubt at all, indeed I am fully prepared to believe it. Yet you do not seem able to credit me with similar actions and feelings.”
Anne did not know what to say, because the man before her now was so very human that it did not seem possible he could be Henry Tudor.
He drew a long breath, leaned back against a display table, and folded his arms. “I married Bess because I had to, I admit it, but I soon loved her. She, however, remained cold, and refused to see my honest emotion. ‘Doing her duty’ was her creed, and she made no move to make the marriage more than a mere contract. She was Elizabeth Plantagenet, the White Rose of York, proud and disdainful, and never once wished her pristine petals to be joined with mine in the Tudor rose. It broke my heart when she died, but it would seem now that she departed gladly. Anything to get away from me. And so she breaks my heart again. Believe her if you wish—if you must—but at least remember that whatever it was she believes she endured at my hands, I endured it ten times over at hers.”
Anne could hear the pain in his voice, almost to the point of feeling it herself, and it affected her in a way she would never have expected. She felt sympathy—no, compassion! She, Anne Neville, was deeply affected by his private and very genuine distress.
Henry fished something from his purse. It was a beautifully embroidered silk badge . . . no, not a badge exactly, Anne thought, for it was heart-shaped. As she watched, he pinned it to his sleeve, and she saw it showed a likeness of Bess, with roses—white and Tudor—and the initials ‘E’ and ‘H’. He spoke quietly. “There, you see? I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
Then he moved away, pretending to examine other displays. Except for the silk heart, there was once again nothing to suggest he was anything other than the cool, calm, collected and controlled Henry Tudor to whom everyone was accustomed.
Anne glanced at Richard again. “I think we may wrong him in this particular respect, my love. Not in everything else, of course, but where love is concerned . . .” She didn’t finish.
The model did not move. There was no softening into living flesh, nor did its eyes meet hers or its lips part to speak. It was Richard, and yet it was not. She needed to be in his arms again, to feel his heart beat next to hers, and the warmth of his body in the secret night. His freedom to live his second life was everything to her now. As she, Henry and Bess already lived again, so he should too. It was so very lonely without him, and now, on the Feast of St Valentine, the sense of loss and echoing heartache was almost intolerable.
“Oh, why will you not come to me now?” she asked softly, not wanting Henry to hear again. “We have been apart for too many centuries. You have to come to me. If you do not, I will never forgive you!”
But nothing happened. There seemed no life within that beautiful image that tortured her with its close resemblance to the greatest love of her life. The only love of her life. Her heart was heavy as she drew a fingertip across his lips. “I cannot go on without you, Richard. Come to me. Please. Please!”
Henry spoke just behind her. “You and I have clearly done something wrong, my lady, for we are both to be refused the reunion we seek so earnestly.”
She gave such a start that he touched her hand apologetically. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I thought you realized I’d returned.”
“No, I didn’t.” She struggled to compose herself again. “Forgive me, I was lost in thought.”
“I can understand. There he is, so near and yet so very, very far.”
She nodded. That was just how Richard was to her.
He spoke sadly. “More than anything, I want to say to Bess the words I never said to her in life, that I love her. She may not want to hear it, indeed, she clearly does not, but I need to say it.”
Anne’s lips wobbled, and she burst into tears, because his sorrow had become hers. Henry hesitated, and then pulled her to him in a gesture of kindness and comfort. He was careful not to crush the white rose she carried, knowing that such a catastrophe would not go down well. “What a sorry pair we are,” he said. “Both of us needing our proud Plantagenet spouse, and both denied the solace we desire so very much.”
Her tears increased. She was overwhelmed that such complete understanding should be shared with Richard’s ultimate foe. At this moment, Henry Tudor offered the support that was suddenly essential to her.
He smiled a little. “How cruel fate can be. We have been sent here on this, of all days, and yet it seems that no matter what, we will be refused the easing of our hearts.”
“Maybe not this time. Maybe tonight we will find them again.” Sniffing, she stepped back to search in her purse for a kerchief that proved elusive.
He pressed his own into her hand, and winced a little as she blew her nose into it noisily. The finest, rarest, most heavenly silk—so costly!—and she— Well, no matter. What did anything really matter now?
Anne looked up at him gratefully. “I could almost like you.”
“I might say the same of you, my lady. Richard was a fortunate man. Well, in his marriage, at least.” Henry cleared his throat awkwardly, because for him to name Richard III as fortunate was surely inappropriate in the extreme.
Anne summoned a little smile. “I never thought I would say this, Henry Tudor, but I hope you find Bess and are able to tell her you love her. I really do wish it. If I see her, I will tell her she must be kind to you.”
He smiled again and kissed her hand. “Thank you, Lady Anne, and let me wish you success in regaining Richard.”
There was a soft sound from the cabinet, and Anne noticed to her astonishment that Richard’s hat brooch had fallen on to the plinth. “How . . . odd,” she said.
“Well, you were toying with it,” Henry pointed out sensibly.
He was right. She must have dislodged it.
Henry drew a long breath. “In our different ways, and after all this time, we deserve some happiness, don’t you think?”
“Yes. Henry, I—” She broke off as his gaze suddenly darted past her, towards one of the few shadowy corners where the lighting did not penetrate. “What is it?” she asked nervously, shrinking close to him again.
“There’s someone there,” he said softly. “It . . . it looks like—” His breath caught as a figure moved into the light. A beautiful woman, perhaps a little embonpoint, but unmistakably his beloved Bess of York.
She came closer, the rustle of her kingfisher silk gown audible in the silence. She too was young and lovely again, her red-gold hair cascading to her waist, and her eyes very blue. “Henry?” she said softly.
He gazed at her, unable to speak or move. Five hundred years was a long, long time.
“Oh, Henry, please forgive me,” Bess breathed.
Now his were the eyes that brimmed with tears.
She held out her hands. “Forgive me for never understanding. Come to me now. I will never spurn you again or do anything to hurt you. I love you too, you silly Welsh pudding, but you never once said the right thing at the right time.”
He hesitated. “And the right thing to say now is . . . ?”
“You know what it is.”
“I love you, Bess of York. I love you completely and always have.”
His queen extended her arms, and Anne gave him a gentle push. She watched as they clung together in an embrace that was centuries overdue, but then they began to fade from view. First she could see through them, and at the very moment their lips met, they disappeared completely.
The Visitor Centre seemed suddenly very empty. Or was it? Anne could hear her own heart beating, but was another beating too? One that she could sense, but not quite hear? She did not dare to turn towards the display cabinet again, for fear that he would be the same as before, a mere model, with the wrong eyes and hair, awful eyebrows and no life at all.
“Oh, Anne,” his voice said softly, “do you have so little hope of me?”
Her eyes closed. Please do not let her be imagining it.
“I . . . am afraid to turn, Richard, because I fear you will not really be here.”
“Did Henry just imagine his Bess?”
“No, for I saw and heard them both.”
“You hear me, sweetheart, so turn . . . and see me too.”
“I cannot,” she whispered.
“Do you remember how we exchanged red hearts that St Valentine Day in York? I pinned one to your gown, and you wear it still. But do you recall what happened to the other?”
“I . . . yes, I fixed it to your hat.”
“Where it is now. Turn, sweetheart.”
Slowly, shakily, she did as he asked, and at first experienced sharp dismay that the model was still in the cabinet, seeming unchanged. But then a movement nearby caught her full attention. There he was, the complete man, her perfect, imperfect Richard! Slender and almost fragile, smiling, his wonderful grey eyes alight with all that he felt for her.
His lean, fine-boned face was as matchless as ever, and his hair was dark chestnut again, falling in those sensuous waves that always invited her playful, adoring fingers. She could only stare, still fearing he was imagined; that he was her intense love conjured into light, but lacking substance. Yet the red heart was pinned to his hat.
He gazed at her. “My dearest love, I have so yearned for this moment.”
She remained uncertain. “But, why . . . after all this time?” she whispered. “Is it that you have now had an honourable interment?”
“No, sweetheart, it is because you and Henry wished each other well and meant it in your hearts. That is all. You were sent tonight to understand and like each other. It was the hereafter’s chosen way to free me and open Bess’s eyes. All four of us, brought together forever on St Valentine’s Night.”
“Forever? You really will be allowed your second life now?” she ventured timidly.
“Forever, my beloved. Unless . . . maybe you don’t want me after all?” He was teasing, but she did not realise.
“Not want you? I will always want you! Everything that you are! Everything!” she cried.
Then she saw his loving smile, and something seemed to burst with joy inside her. She flung herself into his arms so fiercely that she almost knocked him over. His embrace enclosed her tightly, and she raised her lips to be kissed. Oh, such a kiss, so longed for and imagined countless times, so dreamed about and yearned for through centuries. And now, so well worth the waiting.
Her body felt as if it were melting, becoming one with his, and love keened wildly through them both. She was suddenly so ridiculously, foolishly, exhilaratingly alive again that those empty centuries might never have been. King Richard III and his queen were reunited, and eternity now stretched gloriously before them.
Midnight began to strike, and she realized they were beginning to fade as Henry and Bess had before them. For a moment her thoughts turned to that other king, and the warmth with which he had comforted her. She sent a thought to find its way to him. ”Thank you, Henry Tudor.”
His happy reply winged back. “No, thank you, Lady Anne!”
The following morning, when the CCTV cameras were checked, as they were every day, it was discovered that those in the vicinity of Richard’s likeness had ceased to operate half an hour before midnight, but then resumed as normal immediately after the last stroke of the hour. It was also found that the king’s hat adornment had somehow fallen.
A middle-aged female assistant unlocked the cabinet to restore the brooch to its proper place on the hat, pinning it with the same great care she knew she’d shown before. “That’s odd,” she murmured to the colleague with her.
“You can’t have put it on properly the first time,” the young blonde friend at her side responded, and then laughed. “Or perhaps there was an earthquake.”
“The alarms would have gone off,” the first woman pointed out practically.
The other rolled her eyes. “It was a joke. I know Leicester isn’t the earthquake capital of the world,” she replied.
“Oh. Anyway, I’m not talking about the brooch having fallen, more that I feel sure there’s something different about him this morning.”
The other pursed her lips and tilted her head to study the model. “What do you mean? He looks the same as always to me. Must have been a tasty man in life, eh?” She laughed.
“What I mean is that he no longer seems to be inside.”
“Don’t be daft. He never was, poor chap.”
“No, I suppose not.”
The friend glanced at her watch. “I’m late! See you later.”
“Yes. Bye for now.” The first woman continued to look at the model’s handsome but inscrutable face. “You have gone, haven’t you, Richard?” she whispered. “Oh, I’ll miss you so much.” With a sigh, she adjusted the hat fondly, and then locked the cabinet again.