Thomas stood on the terrace, surveying the lands now belonging to him. The sloping lawns, the wooded acres. It was all his. All except the great meadow. He could still hear his father’s recriminations. The last they had spoken, his father had once again blamed him for losing that precious tract of land.
The vigil period had been short. Celeste had called the tradition barbaric, and refused to allow it longer than twenty-four hours. Claimed it would scar the child. The procession to the family cemetery had been short, too. Only Baldwin had accompanied him. The majority of his father’s friends had paid their respects then left. The old man had driven away more friends than Thomas had realized.
Celeste stepped into the foggy gloom. Placing a hand upon his arm, she said “Thomas, you must come inside. You’ll catch a chill standing out here in the rain.”
Thomas took one look at his wife’s glowing face and jerked away from her touch. The severe black of mourning should have washed her out, as it did him. Instead, the black served to highlight the glow of motherhood. Even in mourning his wife stirred desire.
“I cannot Celeste.” The bloody woman understood nothing. What had he expected? “I need to be out here. The rain matches my soul. Do you not understand?”
“Now Thomas, that is no way to speak to your wife.” Esther’s soft voice slithered over his skin, sinking its claws into his heart. She came! And looked appropriately horrible in the somber black, as was expected. As was proper. Celeste shrugged her shoulders quietly before slipping past Esther to return inside.
“She does not mourn my father, Esther, not as I do.” Thomas wanted to confess his darkest secret to Esther. But would she still love him if she knew he was glad the rotten old bastard was dead? “She cares only for young Duncan.”
“She is a new mother, Thomas. It is only natural she is consumed with your son,” Esther said. Slipping onto the terrace, she came to stand next to him. “Don’t forget, everyone knows your father held no tenderness for her, nor she him. I certainly would not mourn someone who despised me.”
With Esther by her side, Thomas looked for the sun to break free of the fog and clouds. Instead, a fat drop of rain landed on his upturned cheek. Esther watched him, her gaze closed, unreadable. The weight of her stare became too much for him. Grimacing, Thomas lowered his gaze, fixating on the stone patterns at his feet.
“Come inside, my friend. When did you last eat?” Baldwin joined his wife speaking to Thomas in a cajoling tone. “Cook says you have refused all trays since Lord Blacke passed. Three days with no food? Think you to chase the old man to the grave?”
Oh, heaven save him. Was Baldwin making fun of him? Did Cook know he snuck into the kitchen pantry? Had she yet noticed the ham he had taken? How could he justify eating when his father was dead, and he not there to ease the passing?
Celeste’s husky voice echoed once more into the fog, breaking the silence that had grown after Baldwin’s accusation. “When last did you hold your son. That is a better question. You held no more love for that man than I, Thomas.”
Duncan. His perfect child. His heir. The one who would be a better man than he. His salvation.
“I am not hungry, Celeste,” he said.
“And what of your son, husband? Do you no longer wish for a son?” Celeste’s voice raked across his skin, shredding his dignity.
Thomas jerked at the accusation. Had the gypsy witch read this thoughts. “What was that, wife?”
“I asked if you would like to hold Duncan. He just fell asleep, and Nurse is about to take him back to the nursery.” Celeste tilted her head, looking at him quizzically.
He was going mad. There was no other explanation. Must be the sun peeking through the clouds. Thomas swept into the library, his long strides taking him to the sideboard covered with decanters and glasses.
Glancing at the tiny bundle cradled in Nurse’s arms, Thomas felt a momentary pang in his chest. Every night, while the household slept, he crept into the nursery. He watched tiny Duncan sleeping, his chest rising and falling with each breath. He undressed him, marvelling at the magnificent, tiny toes at the end of magnificent, tiny feet. He had even once endured the humiliation of being sprayed as he removed the swaddling cloth.
But hold him? Sweat broke out on his temples at the thought. Swallowing several times, Thomas said, “No. Take him away. In fact, take yourself away. All of you. Get out, now.”
Turning, Thomas ignored his wife and their friends. From a crystal decanter, he poured himself a generous amount of amber liquid. The glass was empty in one long, fiery swallow. He relished the burn of the smuggled Brandy. Pain was all he deserved.
When Celeste screamed for the third time in as many hours, Thomas could no longer stand idly in the hall. Ignoring Baldwin’s comforting hand upon his shoulder, he threw the door open, rushing to his wife’s side.
The red buds he had impulsively plucked from the greenhouse threw a sweet fragrance into the air. Etlingera something or other, old Roger had supplied before trimming the stems and arranging them in a crystal vase. As if he cared about the latin name of some stupid flower. Celeste did, though.
The bed drew his attention. There, Celeste labored to birth their son, his heir. Her breath, ragged gasps through clenched teeth, sent his shoulders back. Thrusting out his chest, a gleam in his eye, Thomas walked to the bed. Celeste grabbed his hand, even as Dr. Arrington’s wife tried to usher him out.
“No, my lord, you mustn’t be here. This isn’t for men,” she said, tugging at the sleeve of his shirt.
“Nonsense, Mrs. Arrington. If my husband wishes to be here for the birth of our son, then be here he shall.” Celeste’s voice, weak from pain, slithered over his skin, filling the air.
“There is nowhere I would rather be, wife.” Thomas let out a boom of laughter. He felt taller, stronger – he was ready to take on the world. His son would be here soon – a son of worthy of a princess.
Celeste’s grasp tightened around his large hand, squeezing until his cry of pain echoed hers. Pulling in a breath of air, Thomas encouraged his wife. “That’s it, Celeste. Not much longer. Right doctor?”
“Hard to say, son. First births can be long. Your own mother labored over thirteen hours with you.”
Thomas reeled. Thirteen hours of this? It had only been three, and he could already feel Celeste flagging next to him. flashing a smile at his wife, he said, “Well, my wife is strong. She assured me so just last night.”
Two hours later, Dr. Arrington placed a red-faced infant into his arms. When those tiny eyes opened, Thomas was spell-bound. This was his son. His.
“Looks just like you did, my boy. Congratulations. What name do you give him?” Mrs. Arrington asked, helping Celeste sit up so the bed linens could be changed around her.
“Duncan. He shall be known as Duncan Hildebrand Hughes,” replied Thomas, staring down into his wife’s steel grey eyes, reflected in the face of his heir. “Is that not so, Celeste?”
His son. Oh, he must show his father. Holding the babe close, Thomas darted across the hall, thrusting his father’s unlocked door open with the gentle bump of a hip.
“Father, I would like to present you with Duncan Hildebrand Hughes, the fourteenth Viscount of Egerton. Duncan, this is your grandfather, the ninth Marquis of Blacke.” Thomas knelt by his father’s wheeled chair, one hand reaching to nudge his father when there was no response.
“Father?” Thomas’ voice rose. His father refused to answer him. Hands trembling, Thomas called for a maid to take the babe so he did not drop him. Lifting his father’s clammy hand, Thomas found no pulse. Sweat broke out, dripping down his face. “Dr. Arrington! Doctor, please come quickly. My father – my father needs you. Now!”
Dr. Arrington rushed to his side. Checking for a pulse, the doctor said, “I’m sorry, my lord. He is gone.”
“He – he cannot be gone, Arrington. He did not get to meet the heir.” Thomas slid to the ground, still grasping at his father’s hand. Tears fell from closed eyes. He had finally done something worthy of his father’s praise, and he was being denied even that.
Damn the old bastard. Damn him.
“Come, my lord. Your wife is asking for you.” Gently, the elderly doctor helped him to his feet.
Swiping the tears away, Thomas returned to his wife’s side. A smile of satisfaction crossed his face upon seeing their boy swaddled in her arms.
His son. His heir. A tiny bundle of perfection. His.
Thomas ducked behind the large stalks of the sunflower field. His gaze fixed upon the naked form of the nymph splashing about the pond. His pulse quickened as she stood in a shallow spot, breasts bobbing on the water surface. Small and round, they would fit perfectly into his large hands. An image appeared before him: those striking auburn curls spread out beneath her, his tongue lapping first at one firm breast, then the other.
He wanted to move closer, to make the image a reality. The shriek of laughter from her companion stopped him.
Celeste. Damn that woman.
His wife stepped from the pond, a relaxed smile upon her face. The sight of her pale stomach, engorged with life, caused him to recoil. How was he married to such a grotesque woman, when he could have had the fairy queen next to her? The damnable woman had not even the decency to hide the evidence of her shame. Instead, she flaunted it. Any chance she could, she rubbed her rotund belly, talking about how big she was getting, how excited she was.
Licking his lips, Thomas moved his eyes back to Esther, creeping a few steps closer without realizing it. The ends of his fingers tingled, the nerves coursing with electricity. One hand reached up, gently caressing the length of his neck, a poor replacement for Esther’s.
Damn Celeste. Clenching his teeth, Thomas supressed the urge to call out, to denounce his wife as a whore, a charlatan.
Surely Esther would thank him. Once she knew the truth, once they discarded their faithless spouses – they would be free to show their affection openly. To let the Council know it got this one wrong, and they were going to fix it. Consequences be damned. Surely she felt the same – why else had she invited him to join them around 2:00?
He even had the champagne she requested. Two bottles.
A whistle opposite caught his attention. “Ho there, ladies!” called Baldwin, moving into sight, a large basket in hand.
“You remembered, Baldwin! How lovely,” said Esther. Walking from the water, she stepped into the robe Celeste held out for her.
“Of course I did, darling. How could I deny you?” Baldwin spoke to Esther, but even from his hiding spot, Thomas could see how his gaze fixated upon Celeste. His wife. “Now, we need only Thomas for our picnic to be complete.”
His nymph, his Esther, looked in his direction, as if she could sense him. His mouth grew dry, his throat thickening, as she looked right at him. Did she see him? If so, she gave no indication. She made no move to spoil this little game of theirs.
“Don’t count on Thomas today, Baldwin. His father continues to spread poison between us,” Celeste said. “I fear it affects his sleep. Said he was going to take a nap, last I spoke with him.”
“I don’t envy you that man as a father-in-law, Celeste. What was it you said – he told Thomas that my husband had fathered your child?” Esther’s quiet laugh filled Thomas’ heart. She knew of Baldwin’s perfidy? “I would insist upon living elsewhere were I you.”
“I suggested it, believe me. There is the quaintest little cabin near the Sacred Tree. I suggested even that.” Celeste sighed. He remembered the suggestion. As if he would leave the comforts of home.
I do hope he chooses to join us, though. Your husband can always be counted on to stimulate the conversation.”
Esther desired his presence? Could this be the time when they exposed their own feelings?
Quietly, Thomas backtracked, leaving the field of sunflowers and grass. He would follow the path Celeste would have taken earlier. It was time to join his beloved.
Thomas stood in the shadows, furtively watching his beautiful wife laugh at something her partner said. Bitterness swept through him, building with each new partner escorting her to the floor.
As Baldwin swept his wife from the crowded marble floor, he knew his father had been right. The urge to issue a challenge took over; one foot in front of the other, firsts clenched at his side. Swearing under his breath, he caught himself, and quickly moved back into the shadows.
Sweeping his gaze across the mirror lined hall, Thomas quickly found the source of his irritation. Nestled into an open alcove, Lady Harley relaxed on a blue settee, Lord Collins at her side. Not once had the girl looked in his direction. No, her attention was all for Collins.
A growl sounded in the back of his throat, revealing his hiding spot to a gaggle of wives nearby. Renalta Pourchard, wife of his man of business and inveterate gossip, followed his gaze. A knowing smile creased her drawn face. No doubt the information was being filed away to be better used at a later date.
“So, this is where you’ve been skulking, boy.” His father waved a hand, dismissing the young servant who had been wheeling him about. “I would know that rumble anywhere, son.”
“Hello, father. Don’t you have some hapless servant to terrorize?” Thomas smirked into his father’s sightless face, relishing the ability to do so.
“Insolent young pup,” Lord Blacke said. “Why are you hiding in the shadows while that doxy you call a wife flirts with every man present?”
Damn her. Who else had noticed her loose behavior as she flitted about the marble floor, smiling and laughing as if she had not a care in the world. How had his father…
“Who told you such nonsense?” Damn it, why did he even care what Celeste did?
“That harpy, Mrs. Pourchard, of course. Nosy woman. Watch out for her, son.” Concern pushed away censure. Disappointed as he was, Lord Blacke wanted only the best for his only child.
Thomas pushed his father’s large sedan chair from the alcove, making his way to the punch table. The gaggle of wives moved to allow them through, knowing looks on each face.
“No unpleasantries this night, father. We live to serve the new Elder, do we not? He honors us with his presence, as we honor his nuptials with this celebration.”
“How diplomatic, Pennbrooke.” The Earl of Dalrymple stepped into view, a grin breaking the severe lines of his face. “If only you had shown the council such sense prior to the vote.”
“How remiss of me,” Thomas answered drolly. Dalrymple could always be counted on for a laugh.
Later That Night
Thomas slipped through the door joining his room to Celeste’s. His bare feet made no noise on the smooth stone floor, yet she met his gaze once again in the mirror.
“Thomas.” His name was a sigh on her soft lips, slipping into his heart. He rejoiced that it was his name, not Baldwin’s, being whispered seductively.
His chest burned; spots clouded his vision. He suddenly wished harm upon Baldwin. His closest friend since boyhood, and a woman – no, two women – would finally come between them.
The candles burned low, flame throwing shadows across the corners of the room. The glow highlighted Celeste’s rich, chestnut curls as she slowly pulled pins from her hair. “Did you come to help me undress, husband?”
Pushing aside his feelings of inadequacy, Thomas came to stand behind his wife. “Of course I have, wife. Tell me, how did you find the evening?”
Celeste held his gaze in the mirror. Was that guilt he saw shining in her eyes? Teeth clenched, he started jerking the pins out of her hair.
Reaching up to stop him, Celeste winced. Quickly covering it with a laugh, she said, “Are you in such a hurry to bed me that you will tear out my hair, husband?”
Thomas growled in response. Celeste smiled. Hurriedly, she pulled free the last few pins, letting her long hair tumble loosely down her back.
Standing, she pulled the curls over her shoulder and said, “Please be careful, Thomas. I do rather like this dress.”
Remembering the appreciative looks of his friends, Thomas tore the gown from her slender body. Pulling her to face him, his lips met hers, fingers trailing to tease at the small of her back.
Burying his face in her hair, notes of hyacinth tickled his nose.
She wore nothing beneath the gown. The thought drove him mad as he directed her to the small chaise near the dressing table. Towering over her naked form, the large diamond pendant caught his eye, eliciting another growl.
She was his wife. His. Not theirs. Damn them all for trying to take her away.
“Are you nervous about the ball, my lady?” Tansy stood behind her, brushing Celeste’s hair into an intricate updo. Bringing her from London guaranteed at least one ally in a house where she was deemed the interloper.
“Of course not. Why would I be nervous?” The maid’s flush of embarrassment caused Celeste a moment of regret. Why was she purposely alienating her most loyal ally?
Nevermind that Tansy did the most beautiful work with her unruly hair…
Turning, she admired the girl’s work. With a placating smile, she placed one hand on Tansy’s shoulder. “My apologies, Tansy. It would appear I am more nervous than I thought.”
“I hear the master will be there. Is he as ferocious as they, my lady?” Tansy bustled about the room, tidying as she went.
Celeste had counted on her for the latest gossip in London. It proved no different upon their arrival at Summer Haven. In a home where one was not welcome, it helped to have an ear to the ground.
“The old man refuses to meet me, Tansy.” Her cheeks burned as she admitted this. Swallowing the lump welling up in her throat, she acknowledged the truth at last: Summer Haven was killing her self-confidence.
Tansy tsked sympathetically, but said nothing further regarding Lord Blacke. Instea she asked which jewels Celeste would be wearing.
“I’ll have the diamond pendant, Tansy. I believe its simplicity will perfectly contrast the intricacies of my hair.”
“You would dishonor my boy by wearing the gift of another man?”
With a gasp, Celeste turned toward the door. She must have left it cracked because an elderly man in a wheelchair had pushed into her room. This must be Lord Blacke, she decided.
“Lord Blacke. How kind of you visit me. Finally. This is not, as you must be aware, an ideal time for a visit. Shall I call your valet to see you back to your room?” Celeste pulled her father’s old silk dressing gown tighter about her body.
“I am not so easily dismissed, girl. And I will not allow you to dishonor my House with your harlot’s jewels.” Lord Blacke’s sightless eyes bored into her. “You will not wear it.”
“You would rather I present myself as a dowdy frump with no jewels than wear something from my past? Where is the honor in that, sir?” Taking the large pendant from Tansy, she placed it on the dressing table at which she sat. “No fear, though. This is a family heirloom, passed down through the generations. I, and my jewels, bring nothing but honor to the Blacke family name.”
“Honor? From a worthless gypsy whore?” Lord Blacke spat in her direction. Celeste mentally gave thanks it landed quite short of her.
“Please leave my room, Lord Blacke. I will not allow you to spoil the beauty of this night.” Turning her back on the old man, Celeste watched through the mirror as he sputtered, red mottling his face.
“You go too far, girl. Ordering me about in my own home?” Spittle formed at the crack of his thin lips, dribbling onto the black jacket he wore. “I will see this sham of a marriage annulled, mark my words.”
Celeste let loose a brittle laugh, unable to stop it. “When Thomas and I have been sharing a bed these last weeks? I think not, my lord. Now, do leave me be. I have a ball to get ready for.”
Lord Blacke flinched. Jerking back in the wheeled sedan, he rolled himself away, muttering curses under his breath.
“Best not to upset that one too much, miss,” Tansy said, slipping back into sight.
“What the hell did you say to my father just now, Celeste?” Thomas threw open the door joining their suites, a pinched expression on his handsome face.
“Only the truth, husband. Perhaps you should be asking what he said to me.” Sitting down, Celeste let the dressing gown fall loose, breasts pale against the blue silk framing them.
“You dare question me? Clearly you said, or did, something to anger him. Damn it woman, learn your bloody place.” The veins in Thomas’ neck bulged as he shouted.
With a murmur, Celeste dismissed Tansy, secure in the ability to protect herself. A woman alone quickly learned these things.
“I know my place, husband. By your side, proud and strong. It is you who forgets. You, and the people in this cursed pile of stone.” Celeste dropped the thin gown to walk naked to the tall bureau in which she kept her jewels.
Lifting the heavy gold chain from its resting spot on a bed of velvet, she dropped it over her neck, allowing the cool diamond to nestle under her breasts.
“Which of the many before me gifted that to you, wife? Was it the king?”
“This was not a gift, my lord. It is a family heirloom, passed down over generations.” Celeste’s skin rippled as a shiver passed down her spine. “One day, I shall pass it along to a daughter.”
“I would ask which great family it was stolen from, but I honestly do not want to know.” Thomas moved closer to her, wrapping one strong arm around her waist.
It had become like this since their arrival. Words of anger, accusations, and name calling that ended in bouts of sex.
This time, her shudder had less to do with despair, and much more to do with excitement. Thomas’ lips met hers, and all sensible thoughts left her head. One hand crept down her naked back, roughly cupping her rear.
The kiss was over all too soon, however. Thomas broke the embrace, swiping the back of his hand across his lips. Stalking to the door, he said, “Get dressed woman. You are expected to be on time as the hostess. You will not embarrass sweet Eleanor with your crass behavior, either.”
Slamming the door behind him, Thomas left no room for Celeste to respond.
The sharp smell of peppermint soap lingered in the air. She trembled; her knees grew weak. Collapsing, she tumbled to the floor where Tansy found her moments later.
Tsking, the maid helped her stand. “Quick now, Miss Celested. I’ve strict orders to get you ready on time.”
“Yes. It is time for me to play meek hostess while my husband fawns over the young Lady Harley.” Pursing her lips, Celeste felt the bitter taste of jealousy, and despised herself for it.
“What possible excuse could I have for feeling jealous, Tansy. I hold no love for Thomas. Friendship, respect, yes. Love? No.”
“Maybe not, but he is still your husband, your family. We guard what is ours, do we not?” Holding open the shimmering emerald gown, she waited while Celeste stepped into it before tightening the corset bodice.
“Yes, we do.” Smoothing the silk gown over her curves, Celeste twirled in front of her long mirror, admiring the way the fabric shimmered. It would positively glow under thousands of candles reflecting off crystal chandeliers and mirrors.
“Now then miss, let us get you downstairs. No reason to give Lord Thomas another excuse to be angry.”
“No, I suppose not, Tansy. No need to wait up for me, of course.” Dismissing the maid, Celeste made her way down the grand staircase.
There, Thomas waited for her, tapping his foot against the cold marble floor of the Great Hall. Twisting the amber cufflinks at his wrist, he grabbed her arm roughly. “My father and I both told you not to wear the pendant, Celeste.”
“I guess it is a good thing you do not control me, husband.” She said. Plastering a smile across her face, she whispered, “Now release me. Our guests are arriving.”
Celeste felt the shift in the air before she even heard Peter’s melodic voice introducing Lord and Lady Harley. Thomas tensed next to her, hitching in his breath. Celeste quietly cleared her throat. Thomas exhaled in a disjointed breath, muttering quietly.
From her vantage point at the bottom of the marble stairs, Celeste could not see the mysterious earl or his young bride. Not through the crowd of people lining up to greet her. Next to her, Thomas kept the line moving. Soon, the auburn haired bride stood in front of Thomas, a polite smile upon her face. Towering in front of her, a… Really, she had no words. Towering above her, Lord Harley had golden hair, a chiseled jaw, and the kindest eyes she had ever looked into. When her knees buckled, he grabbed her elbow, steadying her. A jolt coursed through her body as his hand brushed against the flat of her stomach.
“Thank you, my lord.” Lowering her lashes, Celeste studied the man before her. She was as mesmerized as her husband. What a great bloody laugh, she thought.
“Baldwin. Please call me Baldwin Lady Blacke.”
“Only if you call me Celeste.”
Standard note: I do not own the painting shared with this post. No copyright infringement is intended. All credit remains with the original artist. I located it here, by the way.
Each week, I am surprised by the direction in which I am tugged by Thomas and Celeste. Last week, it looked like Celeste had been backed into the corner. As Patrick Swayze said, Nobody Puts Baby In A Corner.
Tucked away in her cramped room, Celeste spent a restless night mulling the meaning of Peter’s words. What did it mean when he said he saw her? And what did he think she needed to accomplish? Did he really see her, or was he acknowledging her position in the household where his wife would not?
When she eventually found sleep, Celeste fell into a series of visions. One vision was so intense, she wrenched herself out of it, chest heaving, breath coming in painful gasps as she fought for air; her lungs hurt, her sides ached.
The feeling of something – or someone – chasing her was too strong; she could not shake the fear from her head. Wiping the sweat from her neck, Celeste lit a nearby candle and rolled over, hoping to fall quickly into a dreamless slumber. A howl in the distance brought momentary comfort. The animals of the night were paying tribute to the heavy moon.
When next she woke, it was because a wet nose burrowed into her limp hand, dangling off the side of the narrow bed. Opening one yee, her gaze fell upon the largest beast she had ever seen inside a home. Nearly the size of a child’s pony, the brindle dog sniffed at her, poking her with that cold nose and licking at her affectionately, long tail thundering into the bare stone floor.
Celeste fought the urge to shriek or dive under the covers. Never let them see your fear, Nan’s voice echoed through her head. Clenching the thing quilt against her body, Celeste slowly sat up. The beast seemed friendly enough so she slowly reached out, patting his head tentatively.
The great, ferocious beast whuffed and whined in response, leaning into her hand. The more vigorous she rubbed the dog behind his ears, the more thunderous the beast’s tail became, drumming a staccato into the floor.
The heavy door into her room flew open, and Thomas stepped into her view. He was a glorious, welcome sight, and her heart soared.
“Grendel, you ninny. What are you doing inn – oh.” Thomas stopped laughing as he caught sight of her. Brushing a fall of thick black hair from his face, his eyes grazed over her. “Why are you hiding away in the east wing?”
Snapping his fingers at the large dog, Thomas continued, “This explains why you weren’t in your chamber last night. I went looking for you.”
“You didn’t look far then, did you Thomas?” Narrowing her eyes, Celeste forced a laugh, brittle and too loud. “And where did you search for me? Rather, when? I barely left this chamber last night.”
“At the supper gong, and again before I retired for the night,” he said. “But not here, no. We do not use this wing. I looked in the suite adjoining my own.”
“Then you and old Hagenbrock need to have a conversation, Thomas.” Spreading her arms wide, she said, “This is the chamber I was shown to last night.”
Thomas frowned. “There must be some mistake. You must have misunderstood.”
Celeste bit the inside of her lip to suppress the scream working its way up her throat. Before she could defend herself, Thomas was on a different subject.
“No matter. Now that I have found you, get dressed. Breakfast grows cold, and we have a ball to plan.”
Celeste smiled, saying, “Are we to have a ball celebrating our marriage, my lord? How delicious.”
Thomas gave her a queer look and said, “No, we celebrate Eleanor. Erm, Eleanor and Baldwin, I mean.”
Clenching her jaw, Helena ignored the sudden urge to kick the jackass wearing her husband’s clothing. Eleanor and Baldwin, indeed.
“And when do we celebrate our own nuptials, Thomas?” Sliding out of the bed, she let the quilt fall to the floor. Repressing a sigh, she allowed her husband to help her dress in the wrinkled dress she had worn the day before.
“We celebrated in London, Celeste. You are the one who chose not to have a wedding trip, after all.”
“Surely we shall have a small celebration here with the Council and your family?” Looking over her shoulder while Thomas tightened her dress, she asked, “When do I get to meet your father?”
I really struggled this week. l jotted a few notes Friday morning about what I wanted to cover in this next installment, but still… I struggled. Normally, I get all my writing for the installment done on Saturday, but not this week.
Remember how yesterday I said there’s no plan? It’s true. I have an idea of the direction I want to take with each installment, but no set-in-stone plan. Well, that is especially true this week. Celeste and Peter, whom you meet today, took this installment and made it their own.
The ride from the grassy meadow to Summer Haven took an eternity as silence stretched awkwardly between Celeste and her new husband. Somewhere along the graveled path, a lump of doubt lodged in her throat. Am I up to the task, she wondered.
The motion of the vehicle pulled at her stomach, sending a jolt to her already frayed nerves with each bump. A sigh escaped her lips as they finally pulled to a stop in front of… a castle?
Can it be the Castle, she wondered.
“But where is the moat?” Dragon’s Fire should be near if this was truly Vovin Castle.
“Hm?” Thomas looked at her, his attention seeming to be elsewhere. After a minute, he pointed at a tunnel circling around each side of the castle, laden with roses, and said, “The moat is right there.”
The blooms, blood red with white, were easily identified: Dragon’s Blood. Cultivated by her people, the bloom had been carried from Spain when they fled.
“You replaced Dragon’s Fire with a trellis of Dragon’s Blood?”
Helping her down from the carriage, Thomas ordered a footman to see to their luggage.
“You know the bloom? It’s rare outside the Forest.”
“My people cultivated it. We brought it here.”
“Surely the trellis is not a bad thing, then.”
“Not a bad thing? The moat was part of this land. Dragon’s Fire river flowed through the lands before even my people settled here.”
“The moat still flows, have no fear.” Thomas laughed as he said this. “We only built a bridge over it, and planted the tunnels here at the entrance.”
Celeste grounded herself, sending tendrils of her aura down into the earth, deep to the roots of the rose trellis. Yes, there was the water, a faint gurgle in the back of her mind. Like the tree, this was a duty too long neglected by the Interlopers.
With a heavy heart, she walked into the cold, looming castle, closely following Thomas. Inside, her breath hitched as the immense hall overwhelmed her. Nothing in her past as a dancer and a mistress had prepared her for the stark beauty laid out before her, not even the private rooms she had shared with the Mad One.
The floor of the entrance hall gleamed beneath her feet, while a double staircase climbed to great heights, meeting above an arched door directly across from the entrance. A plump woman in severe black walked quickly down the west stairs, a scowl disfiguring her ageless face. As she drew closer, Celeste heard her mutter, “Miserable old man. Sending me to answer the door like some lowly maid. And where is that miserable butler anyway?”
“I’m right here you cheeky old cow.” An ancient man called, slipping from the arched door. Coming to a stop, he arched his back, rolling his shoulders, giving his tall frame room to stretch. Thomas stood close to a foot taller than she, and this man towered over him.
“You never mentioned having a giant serving as butler, my lord,” she said.
The joke fell into a great cavern of silence. Celeste cringed as everyone turned to watch the pink creep up her neck, flooding her cheeks. Thomas stood at her side, already ignoring her existence again.
“Lord Thomas! You’ve finally returned home.” A smile swept away the scowl as the servant embraced Celeste’s husband. “And you brought company.”
The weight of four judgmental eyes crashed down upon Celeste’s shoulders. She was being judged by the servants — her servants, and it was not a pleasant feeling.
“You brought company, Lord Thomas. Your father will not be pleased at the interruption of the household schedule,” the butler stated in a deep baritone.
“I have no doubt he is already planning the many ways in which he will punish me. No matter.” As if remembering her existence, Thomas turned to her and said, “Celeste, this is Hagenbrock, our trusted Housekeeper. And of course, her husband, Peter.”
“Will you be staying long then?”
Celeste shivered as the judgmental look turned withering, looking her up then down. “Yes. I do imagine I’ll be staying a while.”
“Follow me, then. I’ll try to find a room.”
“The one next to Thomas shall serve, I’m sure.”
With a snort, Hagenbrock turned and headed back up the stairs, this time to the east wing.
A quarter hour later, Celeste was being ushered into a cramped room containing only a single bed and a tall dresser. The housekeeper lit a candle and promptly left. Pausing at the door, she said, “Dinner is in an hour. Someone will be sent for you.”
When an hour passed with no one to show her to dinner, Celeste refused to admit defeat. Steeling her spine, she grabbed the candle and went searching for her husband. The lone candle was too dim, casting shadows so dark she could feel them slinking over her skin. With a few words, she increased the capacity of the candle light, brightening the hall so she could see.
Heels clacking on the stone floor, Celeste shivered as she walked down the hall. Austere, disapproving faces loomed over her, the shadows lending menace to the formal poses. Most doors along the corridor were locked, and the few not locked held only covered furniture. No one lived in this section of the house.
Turning a corner, she peeked into the first room she could find. Instantly, she was overwhelmed as peppermint tickled her nose. Thomas slept here, he lived here.
Just not right now.
Following the long hall, Celeste found herself turning another corner. Soon, she was back at the front of the house, this time at the top of the west wing stairs.
Where is everyone, she wondered. The loneliness engulfed her, threatened to send her reeling. Grabbing the smooth wooden banister, she sat down on the marble stairs.
Footsteps echoed across the cold marble floor, but Celeste didn’t look up.
“You didn’t come to dinner, miss.” Peter’s melodic baritone slid over her skin, caressing her. For a moment, she felt like someone cared.
“No one came for me, Peter. I’m up there in a tiny room, in an unused w – wing.” Hitching in a breath, Celeste looked up into the face of the giant seated next to her.
“You have much to accomplish here, miss. I see you.”