One: Lady Ludwig
Two: And So They Came
Three: Introduction and Seduction
Four: Lady Buttercup
Five: Two Souls
Eight: The Right Thing
Nine: The Lady Elswick
Ten: Starting Over
Eleven: Music of Youth
Twelve: Blow in the Wind
Thirteen: A Veil of Strength
Fourteen: Of Love and Truth
Chapter One: Lady Ludwig
Melanie trembled. Jarred from her sleep by a loud noise, she sat up in her husband’s bed and was immediately swept over by a warm yet overwhelming rush of air. Unfortunately, it was raining as well. She leapt from beneath the covers to close the shutter on the chamber window.
“Did you not latch the damn thing before coming to bed?” she heard her lord husband say, as she pulled on her red robe. Clutching it closed in the wet wind, she dashed to the open window.
“Of course I did darling. It appears the latch is in need of repair and not strong enough to withstand this storm.” As she spoke, struggling with the rusted latch against the howling wind, she slid the belt from her robe and secured the shutter, tying it closed. “There, that should hold until someone can attend to it properly.” She smiled. Her face was flushed and wet with rain, and she swept back the loose silver streaked golden wisps of hair at the edges of her face.
Her cotton nightgown was wet down the front and she shook it out with a gentle laugh and a sigh. It’s nearly sunrise anyway, she thought. I may as well wash and dress for the day. She turned to find her husband had fallen back into a deep slumber, so she lit a candle and stepped soundlessly to her own chamber door to ready herself for the day. This would be quite a long one after all. Her lord husband, Edward Ludwig, would be entertaining the nobles and lords tonight and many preparations needed to be made.
Her hand maiden was still sleeping in the small chamber which was connected to hers by way of an alcove. Melanie tapped with the knuckle of her index finger and then opened the door and whispered, “Janine, I hate to wake you so early but I need you.”
The girl sprang to her feet as if she’d been pricked with a pin. “Of course mi’lady,” she curtsied, straightening her night cap and then rushing to dress.
“I’ll be in my chamber,” Melanie said, lighting the candle on the girl’s nightstand with her own and then heading back to her room.
Once the door was closed behind her in her chamber, Mellie, as her lord husband named her, lit every candle in the room. Despite the day’s gale, the weather had been mild and warm and perfectly temperate for July. Keeping the shutters closed against the storm gave the room the feel of evening instead of dawn and her eyes took several moments to adjust, even in the candlelight.
“I love the rain,” she whispered aloud to herself as lightning flashed through the creases in her shutters and the first clap of thunder followed a few seconds later. She longed to throw them open and just stand naked in the open window to bathe, showered in rain water and lightning, then giggled to herself at such a shameless fantasy.
Janine’s knock spun her around. “Come in,” she said and smiled, still day dreaming. “I’m quite soaked from a broken shutter in my husband’s chamber, Janine.” Mellie giggled. “I’ll need a dry shift. I’ll simply rinse off and wear a day dress; something simple and functional as I have quite a bit to do. Tonight before the guests arrive, I’d love a hot bath; rain water if at all possible…hopefully kissed by lightning.” She giggled again. “The dressmaker will be bringing my gown for this evening by three o’clock. I may still be quite occupied but come and find me immediately when she arrives.”
“Yes mi’lady.” Janine curtsied and went to work pulling everything together. “What time will your guests be arriving?”
“Dinner is at seven o’clock so I’d imagine they’ll start arriving around four. I’ve taken care of having all of the guest chambers cleaned, dressed with fresh linens and all the usual comforts. This morning is about the menu, the décor and the entertainment.”
“Will Bellamy be playing this evening mi’lady?” Janine’s excitement was nowhere hidden in her sweet voice or her widened eyes as they shot up at Mellie, from where she kneeled to secure her Lady’s stockings.
“Of course!” Mellie exclaimed, reaching down and cupping Janine’s chin softly in her right palm. “How could I deprive my ladies such loveliness.” She smiled as she felt the girl’s face grow warm against her hand. “Those long black curls of his and those deep soulful eyes as he sings.” Mellie sighed. “I’d be remiss not to say were I twenty years younger and unwed to Lord Edward, that creamy voice of his combined with his countless other attributes…” She cleared her throat and her thoughts and straightened, releasing the dreamy eyed girl’s rosy expression. “Anyway, yes of course, as well as the usual musicians ensemble.”
“Yes mi’lady.” Janine continued adding the layers of clothing quietly as she worked.
“Janine, would you like to serve at the party this evening? I know you have more than enough work to do but…”
“Oh yes mi’lady!” she interrupted. “Apologies mi’lady,” she whispered, backing away slowly and lowering her head.
“My darling, if I could dress myself in these mounds of fabric and manage my needs as I manage this castle, I would. But then you’d have no work to do. You’ve been a Godsend to me this past year and I want you to know how much I appreciate everything you do. As long as your other duties are complete, you most certainly may serve this evening. I’ll inform Mrs. Bolton when I go to the kitchens.”
Janine curtsied and bowed, causing Mellie to stifle a laugh as she stepped to the mirror to examine her appearance and then sat at her vanity for Janine to sort out her hair. “Something simple Janine; we’ll save the extravagance for tonight.” Mellie chuckled. “I may be middle aged but I’ll not allow that to keep me from turning every male head in the room if I can help it.” She laughed again. “Well, that was a bit vain,” she mumbled and frowned.
“Mi’lady, you are the most lovely, elegant and engaging woman I’ve ever had the honor to serve,” Janine said as she combed Mellie’s hair and began a long braid to wrap up and pin.
Mellie reached up and clasped Janine’s wrist gently. “That’s the sweetest thing anyone has said to me in quite a long time.”
“Surely Lord Edward reminds you every day of these things.”
Mellie’s hand slid away and fell back into her lap, as the thunder sent a tremble through the chamber. “Surely.”
Within the hour, Mellie was whisking from room to room, followed by a host of servants. She made note of anything that wasn’t up to lordly standards. The castle caretaker ordered the adjustments made immediately as they went. More flowers, more candles due to the storm and an update on the progress of the evening’s feast until at last she was able to reach the kitchen and see for herself.
“Mrs. Bolton, it smells absolutely wonderful down here!” Mellie exclaimed, clapping her hands together. “Just please, no fish of any kind. You know Lord Edward detests it.”
“Of course mi’lady. The menu is to your specifications and nary a fish to be found in the whole castle.”
Mellie breezed through the host of twelve cooks, all preparing something different, as well as the extra dozen or so helpers, busy at preparing smaller meals for their breakfast and midday, as well as washing vegetables and preparing stews. “Has Lord Edward’s breakfast been sent up yet?” Mellie asked, turning back to Mrs. Bolton who followed on her heels.
“He hasn’t rung yet mi’lady.”
“Of course he hasn’t,” Mellie said, rolling her eyes as she recalled his late arrival to bed. She continued on. “I’ll have mine now if you please. No porridge or biscuits. Something simple like eggs and ham and perhaps some of your delicious marmalade and slice of fresh bread with butter. I’ve been awake since dawn and I’ll need to keep my strength up today.”
“Of course mi’lady,” Mrs. Bolton said, snapping her fingers at one of the helpers to get to task.
“I’ll be in the small dining room,” Mellie said as she leaned over a pot of what smelled like venison stew. “Marvelous. Absolutely marvelous!” she said and patted the cook on his thick back.
As she and her entourage of servants entered the small dining room which wasn’t small at all, yet warm with candlelight, cherry wood and rich rugs and tapestries of equestrian themes, she turned to the caretaker and said, “Mister Randall, it seems so far everything is in order. You and your staff go and break your fast and meet me in the formal hall in one hour.”
“Yes mi’lady,” he bowed, waving his flock of hens out of the room and following swiftly behind them.
As Mellie was seated by a young page, her thoughts wandered to the guest list. “Young man, I seem to have forgotten the guest list. Could you go after the caretaker and retrieve it for me please? I’ll need to make the seating chart so bring me a quill and parchment as well.”
The young man nodded and hurried off, returning within moments with the requested items. “You’re Lord Harrison’s nephew aren’t you? I can always spot a resemblance,” Mellie said.
“Yes my lady. I’m Stuart. Son to Lord Harrison’s younger sister Abigail Winston, of…”
“Nottingham. Yes my dear I know. That makes us cousin’s did you know that?”
“Yes my lady,” he said and bowed. “Of course you would know our family connections far more than I.”
“How old are you Stuart?” Mellie asked as her breakfast was carried in and placed before her.
“Fifteen my lady, in April.”
“My, how time flies. I remember receiving the announcement of your birth. Lord Edward and I had made the journey from Essex to Whitehall for the coronation of King Henry VIII. I’d received the birth announcement while I was away but quickly replied with our sincere congratulations. How is my dear cousin—your mother?”
“She was in good health and spirits when I departed for Essex and your lord husband’s fine castle my lady, except of course for a brief bit of melancholy over my leaving.”
“Castle Ludwig is my lovely castle as well as my lord’s Stuart.” Mellie smiled as she sipped her tea. “I shall write to Abigail as soon as this celebration is over—sooner rather than later.” She smiled again.
“May I ask why my lady does not seem pleased with the affair?”
“No, you may not. However, I’ll answer and pretend it was of my own prerogative to tell you. Every season, my lord husband invites all the lords from Sussex to Norfolk to hunt, to drink and to maintain amiable relationships, as well as for political reasons. I prefer a more peaceful and gentle atmosphere.”
“But my lady, you’ve been doing everything to make this visit as pleasant for them as possible.” Stuart swallowed so hard it was audible and took a step back.
“No need to choke on your words, Stuart. My responsibilities as lady of this castle far outweigh whatever feelings I may have in regards to my husband’s social requirements. Besides, it’s always a pleasure to see Lady Winchester and Lady Covington.”
Stuart nodded and returned to his post near the door as Mellie finished her breakfast and the seating chart, as she awaited the return of Mr. Randall and his staff.
“Lady Ludwig, we are at your service,” Mr. Randall said as he entered the hall.“Excellent. Follow me.”
Chapter Two – And So they Came
The storm blew itself out and away shortly after the midday meal. Mellie threw open the shutters in her chamber when she returned from her duties. She decided to rest for a bit before the evening’s festivities. Janine had undressed her down to her shift and turned down her sheets. She even placed Mellie’s favorite flowers in a vase by her bed. Mellie, however, was overcome with the breeze now bathing her in a post rain aroma, more so than the fragrance of lilac, as she sat in a chair by her tower window and admired the fields below.
“Mi’lady finished her preparations quickly I see,” Janine said as she poured water from a pitcher into a wash basin.
“Your lady is good at giving orders and seeing them carried out is about the extent of it. Besides, who other than my lord husband would dare to tell me no?” Mellie laughed softly as she pulled the pins from her braid and let it fall down her back as she gazed away. From her perch she had a bird’s eye view of the road to the castle. In the distance, perhaps a mile off, she could already see the carriage houses and men on horses making their approach. “And soon it begins,” she said over a sigh.
“Will mi’lady require anything else?” Janine asked.
“Wake me when my dress arrives please. That will be all,” Mellie said, looking over her shoulder briefly at Janine as she curtsied and left the room. Mellie stood and stretched and then strolled to her bed. She stopped upon hearing her husband’s voice and Janine’s giggle, outside of her chamber door, just before it opened.
“Mellie, good afternoon,” he bellowed as he closed the door.
She curtsied to her mate. “And to you Edward. I trust you slept well?”
“Not at all with that damn storm and the banging shutter,” he grumbled and then kissed her cheek.
“I’m sorry dear. Perhaps after an evening of socializing you’ll sleep much better tonight.”
“Why aren’t you dressed?”
“I was dressed. I’ve been up since dawn making the final arrangements for tonight.”
He looked bewildered and then sullen. “I should have known. You always have everything in hand.” He smiled meekly. “The kitchen?”
“Ms. Bolton has prepared everything you requested perfectly. I did the seating chart myself and have no worries dear, I made certain to seat Lord Elswick next to you, as I know he is your current favorite…and loyal friend.”
“I’ve known Elswick for years, Mellie. He’s our closest neighbor and I’ve purchased many a fine horse from him.”
“Then why is this his first time joining us?” Mellie lowered herself onto the bed and sat.
“Alex’s wife is unwell and has been for quite some time. Since his father passed last year and he and Catherine returned from Norwich to take over as Lord of Elswick, he’s been engaged with getting things in proper order.”
“Had the late Lord Elswick mismanaged things?”
“To say the least,” he said as he approached the bed and sat beside her. “But Alexander’s diligence has paid off. His land is rich and flourishing and his tenants are thriving. His wealth has increased substantially.”
“You have a great deal of respect for the man.” She nodded.
“That I do, and I’m thrilled he’s finally set things right enough to at last feel confident to visit.” He leaned in and kissed Mellie gently. “Seeing him also reminds me how grateful I am to have you.”
“Grateful?” she asked with a raised brow.
“I couldn’t do any of this without you. Alexander does not have that privilege. Lady Elswick is not fit enough to handle such tasks.” He cleared his throat and appeared troubled.
“So I assume Lady Elswick won’t be joining him?”
“Sadly no.” Edward patted her on the thigh, and she grabbed his hand and held it tightly.
“Everything is ready for tonight. Why don’t you join me…here, just for a little while?” Her eyes were deep with longing for his touch and his love—for his body beside her. He gazed into those deep green eyes for a moment until she knew he understood. Months had passed since they’d lain together as husband and wife. She could hardly recall his touch. He pulled her hand to his lips and kissed it as that rain and lilac scented breeze filled the air between them with emptiness. He stood to leave and let go of her hand.
“Get some rest. I’ll see that our guests are lodged and settled,” he said as he opened the chamber door. “I’ll come to you tonight. I promise.”
She nodded but in her heart she knew he wouldn’t.
“Mi’Lady? Your dress has arrived,” Janine whispered as she woke Mellie from her nap. Her eyes felt gritty as she sat up and rubbed at them as the late afternoon sun struck her. She instantly remembered the tears as she lay down to sleep and then cast them away as she always did as she rose and slipped on her blue robe.
“Mi’lady, I’m sorry but the laundry must have misplaced the belt to your red robe. I know you prefer that one but…”
“Ah, my belt,” she said remembering the broken shutter. “Janine, a robe is a robe. They’re all the same really. However, can you send word to Mr. Randall that the shutter in my husband’s chamber needs repair?”
“Of course, mi’lady. I’m on my way to the kitchen to request the water for your bath so I’ll tell him immediately.”
“Thank you. Please send Mrs. Tennison in with my gown.”
Janine opened the door and invited the dressmaker into the chamber, along with her two attendants.
“Lady Ludwig,” she said and curtsied. “I do hope I’ve met your wishes with this gown.”
The two attendants laid the gown out gently on the bed. It was wrapped in a cotton sheath, which they gently unfolded and then held the gown up for Mellie’s inspection.
Mellie’s hand flew to her chest. “My Lord in heaven. Mrs. Tennison, it’s absolutely breathtaking,” she said, running her fingertips lightly over the cream colored silken fabric. “However did you manage all of these beads? And the embroidery is simply flawless.”
“I’ve been blessed with a steady hand and very talented assistants, mi’lady.” She nodded.
“Please hold it up, I want to see how it falls.” They did as she requested. The neckline was low and bared her shoulders. The neckline was covered in turquoise beads and thread, as was the matching trim of her billowing bell sleeves and the empire waist just below the bodice. It was the most beautiful gown she’d ever seen.
Mellie stepped back and placed her hand over her heart again. “Mrs. Tennison, you’ve outdone yourself. I’m naming you my seamstress in perpetuity. You shall be richly rewarded for your work and made high note of.”
Mrs. Tennison curtsied and nodded proudly. “Shall we try it on? I want to make sure it fits you as I envisioned.”
“Oh, of course.”
The attendants pulled the dressing stool to the center of the room and Mellie stepped carefully into the gown and they laced it up the back with cream colored ribbon. It fit perfectly.
“May I look?” Mellie asked as she turned carefully towards the full length mirror near her wardrobe. Gently she lifted the fabric in her fingertips and turned left and right, eyeing how the silk and taffeta moved and swayed.
“Mi’lady, I took the liberty of making these shoes to match. They have a slight heel which is apparently the latest fashion in France.” Mrs. Tennison’s assistant knelt and slipped the shoes on Mellie’s feet.
“Well this may take a little practice but they feel fine and if I do say so, seem to straighten my back a bit. Again and now with the complete costume, she turned gracefully, raising her hands to watch the sleeves fall softly away from her wrists and see the beads sparkle in the sunlight.
“Mrs. Tennison, please return when I’ve bathed and Janine has finished my hair. I’ll have only your hands dress for me for the evening.”
“Of course mi’lady,” she said, nodding to her assistants to undress Mellie and rewrap the dress for safe keeping until it was time to return.
“Six o’clock then?” Mellie said as she watched them gently lift the gown as Mrs. Tennison opened the door for them all to leave.
“Yes mi’lady. You’re going to be the most beautiful woman they’ve ever seen…like an angel from heaven.”
“You’re too kind,” Mellie said and crossed the room to her vanity. She sat looking at herself in the mirror as the door closed.
“Perhaps this won’t be such a bore after all.” She gently pushed and smoothed the skin around her eyes and jaw, catching a glimpse of her reflection from twenty years before, as the sunlight moved away from her window. The candle’s glow softened the years and twinkled in her eyes.
Janine’s light tapping pulled her from the memory she had smiled throughout, of the cream colored gown she wore the first time she danced with Edward in the very same ballroom she’d be entertaining in that night.
“Enter, Janine,” she called.
“Your bath mi’lady,” Janine said as the servants carried in her ornate brass tub and lined it with a soft linen sheet.
As they filled it, she fell back into that memory of Edward. He was so handsome and gallant. His close trimmed black beard and dark brown smiling eyes gazing back at her as he held her and so gracefully lead her across the ballroom floor. He only had eyes for her all that evening as his father watched from the high table, smiling in approval. It had only taken a month before she received word that he’d sent for her again to come with her family for his father’s birthday celebration, which ended with him on his knee in the rose garden off the west ballroom balcony, proposing marriage. That night I wore blue, she recalled. It was his favorite color.
The servants finished filling her bath and Janine scooted them out of the room. “Your bath is ready mi’lady. Would you like the rose oil or the vanilla?”“Both please,” she said as she swept the shift off over her head and Janine helped her step into her bath.
Chapter Three – Introduction and Seduction
“Well? What do you think, Janine?” Mellie asked as she stood from her vanity and waited for the second unveiling of her gown.
“Mi’lady if I may say so your hair is absolutely lovely.” Mrs. Tennison noted.
“I was fortunate enough to be blessed with someone like Janine who has magical hands.” Mellie saw Janine’s eyes widen and her hand fly to her face when she saw the gown.
“Mi’lady!” she exclaimed.
“I knew you’d love it.” Mellie stepped carefully again into the gown as Mrs. Tennison’s assistants laced her and made their few final primps.
“Mi’lady however do you keep this figure? You must eat like a bird,” Mrs. Tennison remarked.
“I’m an accomplished rider. Plenty of fresh air and exercise keeps me fit.”
“Mi’lady, your emerald?” Janine asked.
“No. My gold and diamonds,” Mellie replied as Janine turned to the jewelry cabinet and withdrew the necklace she knew Mellie was referring to. It was her mother’s prize possession that Mellie only wore on the most special occasions but decided to make an exception because it went perfectly with the gown. It was layered in three delicate strands of teardrops, each with a one carat diamond surrounded by smaller diamonds, set in pure gold. It fell perfectly just below her throat in layers, with one large five carat diamond that rested just above the crease between her breasts. It was heavy but Mellie loved the weight of it against her skin.
“Your shoes mi’lady,” Mrs. Tennison said softly, as if in awe.
Mellie slid each cream-colored stockinged foot slowly into the shoes and took one last look at herself in the mirror. “Thank you, ladies.” She took a deep breath and sighed, touching the necklace and then holding out her hand as Janine slid on her usual rings.
Edward’s man servant’s knock was unmistakable and Janine raced to the door.
“Lord Ludwig is waiting,” he said in his customary exasperated tone.
“I’ll be right there,” Mellie said. “Janine, see Mrs. Tennison and her attendants out and hurry to the kitchen. Mrs. Bolton will provide you with your serving clothes.” She winked at the girl, now bubbling in anticipation and moved swiftly to the man waiting to escort her to the ballroom. You did not keep Lord Edward waiting.
When Mellie arrived in the drawing room, Edward was pacing in wait, goblet in hand and turned at the sound of her heels on the stone floor. “There you are…”
His eyes widened and he seemed stunned to silence when he laid eyes on her. “Is that a new gown?” he asked as he took a sip of wine.
“Why yes it is. Do you like it?” Pleasantly surprised at his attention, she turned as if rotated on a slow-moving wheel.
He stepped towards her and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek. “You look lovely as always my dear,” he said and offered her his arm. “I was afraid they’d have to announce me by myself.”
Lovely as always, she thought, which to her was the equivalent of nothing special. “I’m sorry. Things take a bit longer now. I’m not twenty anymore.” She chuckled softly, brushing off any disappointment she felt.
“Don’t be ridiculous. No one expects you to be.”
A knot seemed to form in Mellie’s throat. After so many years of Edward’s less than thoughtful remarks, she always believed she’d grown immune to them until the next one and the next one. Over time, she’d convinced herself he was completely unaware of how his words nicked her. She took a deep breath, swallowed the knot and carried on. Duty before feelings and certainly before hers.
“Lord and Lady Ludwig,” the call came as the doors were opened and Edward led her to the high table. Stuart pulled out her seat for her and she smiled at him sweetly.
“You look quite handsome this evening, Stuart,” she whispered as he pushed her in.
“And you my lady are an absolute vision. Truly,” he whispered back over her shoulder.
Edward remained standing and raised his goblet as the hall fell silent. “Lords, ladies, gentlemen and friends, I welcome you to castle Ludwig. We thank you for your presence and hope your time with us will be most enjoyable. May the music delight you and the many courses our cooks have prepared tempt you to bursting!”
“Hear, hear!” someone called out as everyone in the room raised their cups in toast and drank.
Edward nodded to the row of servants and they scattered like ants to begin bringing out the feast. When he finally sat, he raised his goblet for Stuart to refill it.
“That was a very good toast my darling,” Mellie remarked as her eyes moved around the room. She spied all of the usual guests and was delighted to see Lady Covington. Now with her mood much improved at the prospect of spending time with her old friend over the next several days, she took a deep breath and relaxed into her chair.
“Alexander!” Edward exclaimed, standing and turning to greet his friend who’d come in late, with a handshake and a hearty embrace.
“Edward, it’s good to see you my lord,” Alexander said. “I apologize for my tardiness. I didn’t want to come striding in during your toast so I waited in the doorway as you and your beautiful wife were announced.”
“I’m just happy you’re finally here and kept your word.”
Mellie’s head turned slightly at the commotion. She quickly brushed off the lack of acknowledgement from her husband of her compliment of his speech, due to Lord Elswick’s arrival.
Alexander leaned forward slightly and caught Mellie’s gaze. “You must be the Lady Ludwig,” he said. His voice was smooth and yet masculine.
“Yes, yes this is my wife. Melanie, this is Lord Elswick,” Edward said.
“It’s an honor to finally meet you Lord Elswick,” Mellie said as she offered him her hand and he kissed it lightly as Edward moved aside.
“The pleasure is all mine my lady,” he said and bowed. His light blue eyes lowered to nearly closed and then opened meeting hers again as he straightened. “Edward, you never mentioned your wife was descendant of Venus herself or was it Helen of Troy?”
“Lord Elswick, you flatter me too much,” Mellie said, feeling a warmth growing in her cheeks.
“Surely you grow weary of such notice,” Alexander said with a smile as Edward moved back between them to take his seat.
Mellie looked away and lifted her goblet to her lips.
“Yes I am a blessed man I cannot deny it,” Edward replied. “How was your journey?”
“Quite muddy obviously but my horse is sure footed in all weather and fortunately for me my ride is less than half a day, so I was able to wait out the storm and arrive dry.”
Their conversation continued for quite some time as Mellie could feel the two cups of wine she’d drank begin to course through her veins. The food was plenty and the conversation void of anything relevant to her, as she tasted the venison stew and picked at her chicken pie. Wine, however, always replaced her inner thoughts with outward ones.
“Please excuse me my Lord, the privy calls,” Edward said over a hearty laugh as he stumbled slightly from his chair and bowed as he went.
“Your husband is quite the character,” Alexander said, breaking the silence.
“Indeed he is,” Mellie answered, with a demure smile.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking my Lady but is that a new style of gown? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like it.” Lord Elswick leaned forward turning towards her. He rested his forearm on the table and pushed what remained of his meal aside. “Not that I’d have any knowledge of what’s new. I don’t often attend affairs as lavish as this and as such rarely see such loveliness and ornate dress—in women or men both. I apologize,” he said, lowering his eyes as if embarrassed. “Obviously I don’t speak much either.”
“Yes…yes it is new but the style is not. My seamstress is quite imaginative and talented. I usually sketch out an idea and she works her magic,” Mellie said, doing her utmost not sound in complete surprise that a man she just met would take notice of her gown. “I find how you speak refreshing. Please don’t shy away from honesty. It’s so rare in these times.”
“My own dear wife…” He paused and sighed. “She has been unwell since we moved back to Elswick castle. It’s been a difficult adjustment for her over the past year. The doctor’s believe the damp weather does not agree with her.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that. Is there nothing they can do for her?” Mellie’s eyes were filled with concern and sorrow.
“They’ve tried tonics and an array of other therapies to no avail.” He seemed sad and yet spoke more with acceptance than deep concern. Mellie couldn’t discern if he was concealing his unhappiness with the situation or had simply come to terms with it as their new reality; him working to restore Elswick castle to its former glory and she abed for whatever reason.
“I’ll pray for her my Lord.”
“Thank you my lady.” He nodded.
“Melanie, please.” She swallowed hard after she said it, believing outwardly, perhaps she was behaving too familiar. Inwardly, however, being in Lord Elswick’s company was easy and felt mysteriously safe. “It seems my husband has gotten lost on his way to and from.” She craned her neck, searching the room for any sign of him as the band started up.
“I’ve heard wonderful things about this band of yours and the singer…Bellamy is it?”
“Yes. Bellamy is quite talented with a love song. All the young women in the castle are quite taken with him.”
“Are you?” he asked over a devilish grin.
“I beg your par…” she started to say and then the wine flushed her cheeks as she burst into laughter. “My goodness Lord Elswick, your humor got the best of me!”
“Alexander, please,” he said, reaching over Edward’s chair and offering her his hand. Mellie stared at it as he reached farther out to her and then slowly slid hers into it. “May I have this dance Melanie? It’s been quite a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of dancing with such a lovely woman or to be honest as you requested, dancing at all.”
Mellie took another long look around the room, doing her utmost not to notice the slightly rough texture of his palm against hers as he gently squeezed it. He is definitely unafraid of hard work, she thought. Still unable to locate Edward, she took a long drink from her cup and nodded. “I’d be honored.”
Alexander led her out onto the ballroom floor, and they bowed to each other as they stepped in line with the other dancers. Before the music started, he stepped forward and whispered in her ear, “Music is my passion, as is dancing although they come second and third to beauty…in all things.”
Mellie felt flush again as the music started up and the dance began. Their eyes connected with a smile at every turn as they passed and bowed and curtsied their way through the song, until she found herself in his arms for a moment and then spun away again. She was conscious of how she moved, how her gown moved and of something else she couldn’t comprehend.
He was tall and thick and yet gentle and light on his feet. Although not Bellamy handsome or even Edward handsome, he had a pleasant countenance and an inherent gentleness beneath his masculine form. She liked the way his blond hair shined in waves beneath the candle’s glow from the great chandelier above. His arms were well muscled beneath his doublet and her hands, although not small and delicate in the least, seemed to get lost in his when they came together.
At last, the song ended as they came face to face and palm to palm for the last time. But a second felt like an eternity as the dancers began to applaud and she at last broke their gaze and clapped as well.
“You’re quite the dancer Lord Elswick,” Mellie said as he escorted her from the dance floor.
“Thank you, Melanie. You as well. Your band is very talented. It felt wonderful to dance again.”
“They’ve been playing together for quite some time. Years together practicing has made them an accomplished ensemble.”
“There you are!” Edward exclaimed as they approached the table at the same time.
“Yes, here we are,” Alexander said as he seated Mellie. “We’d given you up for lost and I decided to steal your wife.” He laughed as Mellie smiled awkwardly, unsure of what a jest like this would elicit from Edward.
“Steal her? Oh no! You may be my very good friend Alexander but even you would have to pay her weight in gold! Rules are rules!” He laughed boisterously.
Mellie’s eyes lowered and then caught Alexander’s, until she swore, she could feel his discomfort in Edward’s callous jest. The shock of it caused her heart to race and her words to sear. “Thank goodness he wouldn’t have to pay your weight in gold my Lord. He’d lose his castle! Stuart?” she exclaimed as he rushed forward and refilled her cup.
“True, true my love!” Edward shouted and patted his rotund midsection proudly. “Come Alexander, allow me to introduce you to your neighbors. At long last I have you here so we might as well drum you up some good business for those horses of yours.”
Mellie watched as Edward led Alexander away from the table towards the knots of gathered Lords from all over the kingdom, making introductions and flirting with their wives. Edward loved attention and he thrived on it. The more he could arouse a giggle or a blush or the attention of his subjects and peers the happier he became. The wine continued to pour, the music continued to play and there she sat in her beautiful gown, chatting with a page.
“My lady, why aren’t you dancing?”
“No one else has asked.”
“I may be acting a bit forward but…”
“Oh Stuart I’m deep in my cup. Please by all means be as forward as you like. I promise, tomorrow, I won’t even remember.”
“Sir Elliot has been unable to remove his eyes from you this entire evening. I’ve watched him. Perhaps a slight glance in his direction would give him courage enough to request a dance. Of course, I’m still learning what’s acceptable and what isn’t. May knights dance with the Lady of the castle?”
“This lady may dance with whomever she likes,” Mellie said, turning her eyes to Sir Elliot. “My goodness, he is quite striking in that green tunic this evening, isn’t he Stuart?”
“Yes my lady. I hear he’s unmarried and has whispered he only has eyes for you. You’re his forbidden fruit.”
“Oh Stuart you must stop saying such things. I believe I’ve uncovered you as a gossip. Oh my,” Mellie whispered as Sir Elliot nodded towards the dance floor.
“What shall I do now?”
“Nod back so that he knows you agree.”
Mellie nodded and smiled at Sir Elliot, and as if he had wings, a moment later he was bowing before her, his hand outstretched.
“Stuart,” she whispered between her teeth.
“Go my Lady. Just go.”
Again, Mellie found herself in the middle of the dance floor as Sir Elliot gallantly saved her from her seat. He was indeed strikingly handsome. His dark waves of hair fell to his shoulders and what shoulders they were. He was broad and tall and strong from his years of swinging a sword, and he was pleasingly graceful, despite his size and occupation.
“My Lady may I say you are an absolute vision this evening?”
“Thank you Sir Elliot. You are quite handsome this evening as well.”
“If I might have a word with you when the dance is over?”
“Yes, perhaps several words,” he smiled. His teeth were white against his weathered skin. He appeared to be in his early forties, much like Lord Elswick, yet his features were much more defined, and he had deep lines at the outside corners of his golden eyes.
“Of course,” she said, not knowing why she said it. What if what Stuart said was true? What could she say to this glorious man to make him understand she was his Lady and as such well beyond his reach?
When the song ended, Sir Elliot offered Mellie his arm and he led her off the dancefloor toward the west balcony.
“I don’t think it would be prudent for us to be alone on a balcony kind Sir,” Mellie said as she stopped short of the open doors.
“My Lady, I assure you my words are pure, as are my intentions…at least to me. Besides, we are in plain view of everyone in the hall. No one would ever question your honor, nor mine.”
He raised his arm for her to take again and she did, and she allowed him to lead her outside onto the balcony—curiosity and wine having overtaken caution. The fragrant roses were overwhelming and reminded her of the night Edward had professed his love for her on bended knee.
Sir Elliot leaned back against the stone rail and gazed at her until her heart pounded in her chest. His eyes were gentle and yet reminded her of a wolf’s eyes—golden and fierce. She spoke to break the tension. “Well, you have me here kind Sir. Please, speak your thoughts. I shan’t be out here all evening.”
“If I were able to speak my thoughts, you’d hear my heart. I don’t believe you want to know what’s in there for you. As such, my offerings are pale in comparison.” He bowed.
“Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea,” Mellie said and turned to go.
“Wait! Please! I’m sorry…I mean to say, please don’t go yet. Although it is true that I have loved you since I came into service here and…dream of you I confess, I am no fool. I know you are my Lord’s wife and as such, as beyond my reach as the sun.” He glanced toward the setting sun behind him and then stepped towards her, reaching down he took her hand. “Knowing someone so alive and beautiful and loving as you has no lover breaks my heart,” he whispered so softly she could barely hear him. “I only wish to offer myself to you whenever you wish, however, you wish. I am yours to command.”
Suddenly, Mellie’s hand struck him so hard across the face with a slap she could have sworn she’d broken both his cheekbone and her hand all at once. Sir Elliot’s hand flew to his cheek and he turned back to look at her. His eyes were filled with pain. Her ring had torn a gash over his cheekbone. “My Lady, I only meant to…”
“How did you know?” Her face was reddened with both disgust and embarrassment and her hand stung as if she held a swarm of bees.
“His man servant. He said Lord Ludwig hasn’t come to your bed in several years and that you go to his but he hears nothing but snoring. I…I’ve obviously mistaken your kindness for interest. I will go. I will leave the castle tonight and never come back.”
“No,” she shouted and then calmed her voice. “No don’t leave but do not ever breathe a word of this to another living soul or I’ll have you stripped of your land and title and banished.” Mellie was suddenly sober and aware that if Sir Elliot loved her as he claimed, he would not betray her by spreading this throughout the land. “If you do love me as you claim, you will take this conversation and any other vicious gossip you’ve heard to your grave.”
“I will honor your wishes my Lady…my heart.” He drew his hand away from his face and a drop of blood trickled from the wound as he bowed to her. “And I shall wear whatever mark you’ve left upon my cheek as a reminder.”
“I’m…sorry Sir Elliot. I just…I can’t betray my husband or my honor, no matter my circumstances.” She was suddenly kind and more vulnerable than she’d allowed herself to be for so long she couldn’t even remember. She felt sorry for this beautiful man who obviously wanted only to give her pleasure. “There are dozens of lovely young maids who’d fall over each other to land in your arms.” She reached out to him, and he kissed the hand that had wounded him. “My loss will be their gain.”
Suddenly, the mood turned as the sun set completely and those golden eyes became fiercer in the torchlight. “Do you see all of your lady friends in there? Do you think they don’t have lovers? You know all of their husband’s do, including your own.” His smile and whispered tone over such words confused her.
“I assure you; my husband has no lovers Sir.” He’s trying to make all this deception sound commonplace, she thought, holding onto her resolve. His pledging had turned to remorse and now, to coercion.
“Perhaps not today or in the recent past but I assure you, you waste your loving heart and your beauty when you could have so much more…discreetly and loyally.” He bowed.
Mellie resisted the urge to strike him on the other cheek and instead, tears welled in her eyes and she turned and raced back into the hall. She didn’t even know why. Stuart caught her glance and his expression was of horror. He met her as she approached the table.
“My Lady, you’re crying. What happened? What did he say to you out there?” he whispered.
“You were watching?” she sniffled as he handed her his handkerchief and she faced away from the crowd to dry her eyes.
“Obviously not the entire time.” He looked over and watched Sir Elliot blotting his cheek on his own handkerchief. “Did he touch you?” Stuart’s voice was hard and full of anger.
“No but his words cut me in places I didn’t know I could be cut.” Mellie turned and saw Janine passing by the table. “Janine! Janine!” she called out.
Janine came rushing over. “Yes mi’lady?”
“I’d like to return to my chamber. Could you and Stuart escort me please?”
“Of course, mi’lady but the night is still young and…”
“I’m not feeling well. I’ll need your help getting out this gown and then if you’d like to return to the party, you’re more than welcome to.” Her head was swimming. The pounding in her chest combined with her lack of food and many cups of wine, were wreaking chaos throughout her body.
“Of course, mi’lady,” Janine said as she looked at Stuart and nodded to him to lead the way.
“Lady Ludwig? Are you leaving so soon?” Lord Elswick said as he appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “I’d hoped for another dance. Your husband has kept me quite occupied.”
“I’m not feeling well my Lord. Perhaps another time?” Mellie said, not meeting his gaze.
“Well, would you allow me to escort you back? I promise; you’re perfectly safe with me.” His warm smile immediately soothed her as she at last lifted her eyes. Safe with me, she thought, wondering if he too had witnessed her exchange with Sir Elliot.
Mellie looked at Janine and Stuart and smiled weakly, now feeling to deny Lord Elswick may be construed as a slight. “Janine, come with Lord Elswick and I. Stuart, attend to Lord Ludwig. Please give him my regrets and tell him I’ll see him tomorrow.” Mellie took one last glance around the room and found Edward. He was seated with Lord and Lady Covington, drinking and laughing away, oblivious to her presence.
“Thank you my Lady,” Lord Elswick said and bowed to her, then offered her his arm.
“No, thank you,” Mellie said as Janine followed them out of the hall.
“Are you truly unwell? Should I call a doctor?” Lord Elswick whispered as they walked towards the tower.
“Yes…well no…no I don’t need a doctor. I just need to sleep.” Mellie felt lightheaded as they reached the stairs and apparently, Lord Elswick sensed her sudden weakness and caught her just as she began to fall.
“Janine, lead the way to your Lady’s chamber,” he said, scooping Mellie up in his arms and carrying her the rest of the way to her room.
Janine opened the door and Lord Elswick laid her gently on the bed. “Fresh water Janine and a compress cloth please.”
“Yes mi’lord.” Janine raced to the basin, soaked a rag and wrung it out.
“Hand it here,” he said as he folded it and patted her brow and cheeks gently until a few moments later, she began to rouse.
“Where…where am I?”
“You’re in your chamber. You fainted,” he said, handing the rag back to Janine to rinse it and bring it back.
“Alexander? How did I get here?” she glanced around the room confused.
“I carried you. Janine helped me.” He took the freshened rag from Janine and laid it over Mellie’s brow.
“Thank you,” she whispered. I’m feeling much better now. I should have eaten more. I don’t know what I was thinking. You should return to the party.”
“Not until I know you’re well,” he said kindly.
“Janine will take care of me. Please, Edward will be looking for you.” Her eyes fluttered open, finding concern in his eyes and then closed. “I need to get out of this gown before I ruin it. Lord Elswick, please.”
“Of course,” he said, rising from her side on the bed and taking her hand. “I’ll check on you tomorrow if that’s agreeable to you?”
“Of course. You’ve been more than kind. Goodnight,” Mellie said as she began to sit up. “Janine, see Lord Elswick out please and then help me get undressed.”
Mellie watched Lord Elswick follow Janine to her chamber door and when he glanced back at her before leaving, his eyes were sad and troubled. He simply nodded and closed the door behind himself.
“Let me help you up mi’lady,” Janine said as she took Mellie’s hands to pull her to her feet.
“He’s a wonderful man, isn’t he Janine?”
“I’ve never seen a man so attentive and caring. His wife is very fortunate to have such a loving husband.”
“Indeed she is.”
Chapter Four – Lady Buttercup
Mellie awoke to the sound of birds singing and Janine humming what reminded her of a song Bellamy was famous for. The sun was well over the horizon and for that brief moment between sleep and awareness, she had no recollection of the night before. However, as she sat up in bed, it rushed in with a vengeance.
“Good morning mi’lady,” Janine said. “I trust you slept well?”
“I suppose I did,” Mellie answered as Janine milled about, pouring water into a bathing bowl and adding fresh flowers to the vase on Mellie’s nightstand. “Janine, can you have my breakfast brought in this morning and please give my regrets to Lord Edward? I simply cannot see myself entertaining this morning. Perhaps by the afternoon meal…or maybe dinner I’ll feel fit enough to make intelligent conversation.”
“Yes mi’lady,” Janine answered and went on her way.
Mellie gazed around her spacious chamber and then fell back into her pillows as the sunlight made its ascent over the windowsill, bathing the room in gold. She stretched and took a deep breath, closing her eyes and drinking in the sweet aroma of morning, until the full recollection of the peculiar events from the night before appeared before her in her mind. First, the memory of the handsome and dashing Sir Elliot and his ludicrous offer of a sexual affair flashed to life. How dare he? She thought, and then, his accusations that her friends had engaged in such debauchery, not to mention Edward. Quickly, she pivoted that memory to Lord Elswick, and how chivalrous and caring he’d been. He and Sir Elliot were like the opposite swings of a pendulum.
She hadn’t fainted in years. When did she become so frail? She prided herself on her strength and unwavering ability to handle anything that crossed her path. Being married to Lord Edward had not only thickened her skin but taught her to be confident in her accomplishments great and small. Now, came the understanding that Grogan, Edward’s man servant needed to be dealt with for spreading personal details of her marriage. She regretted losing her temper over Sir Elliot’s indiscretion so quickly and not finding out the extent to which Grogan had shared the secrets he had gathered. She needed a plan. She couldn’t just go to Edward and tell him the context of how she discovered this information. Surely both Grogan and Sir Elliot would be punished and severely and regardless of the outcome, she didn’t want blood on her hands. No, this was hers to deal with her way and she’d figure this out on her own.
Lord Elswick…Alexander, carried me here, to my bed, she suddenly remembered. That was a perfectly lovely memory of an honorable act from an honorable man. In her mind’s eye she could still see his concerned expression and his eyes, so blue they shamed the summer sky. I must do something to repay him, she thought. She imagined discovering his favorite wine or having something made for him like a monogramed flask or a goblet perhaps. Then, it suddenly occurred to her to do something for his wife. Yes, that’s it! She thought, sitting up.
“If Lady Elswick cannot come to us, then I shall go to her. I’ll take her a lovely basket of sweets from Mrs. Bolton,” she whispered aloud to herself. “When Alexander returns home in a few days, Janine and I will accompany him back to Elswick and pay her a visit.”
The prospect of befriending Lady Elswick, if only to raise her spirits excited Mellie so much she felt energized and immediately got out of bed. She decided she’d still take her breakfast in her chamber but afterwards, she’d go on about her day as if nothing had happened the night before and dare anyone to spoil her good humor and renewed sense of purpose.
Suddenly, she heard voices in the courtyard and rushed to the open window to see who was below. There she found her lord husband, accompanied by all his gentlemen guests on horseback, obviously gathering for some hunting in the hills. Paying no mind to the fact that she was still in her shift, her hair blowing in the breeze through her window, she shouted to Edward, “Good morning my darling! Have a good hunt!”
Edward wheeled his horse around and looked up, putting the sun at his back, and waved up at her. “Will do my love! We’ll be back by sundown and perhaps you’ll dress for the occasion!”
All of the men burst into laughter as she looked down at herself and laughed as well. That was until she saw Alexander. He wasn’t laughing. He was smiling. He waved his hand across his waist and bowed slightly, and then gestured as if tipping a hat to her before bringing his horse about and following the pack off towards the distant woods. Again that peculiar feeling she still could not discern came over her. It was as if they had some unspoken understanding—perhaps he’d kept her secret from last night, but she had no idea what it was; yet another mystery to solve.
She was beginning to feel this interlude—this disruption of her peace, wasn’t meant to turn her life upside down but rather to turn it right side up. She felt alive and very happy to be so. The next thing she knew, she was sitting at her writing desk, penning a letter to her cousin Abigail in Nottingham, singing Stuart’s praises.
Mellie’s day progressed quite swiftly. By the afternoon meal, she’d organized a garden party for the ladies in her company and they dined on light fare, tea and an array of sweets that Mrs. Bolton was famous for. Mellie flitted about from guest to guest, catching up on all of the latest news from each household, not limited to children, grandchildren and very well made matches amongst cousins and friends. There was more, much more that she hadn’t imagined and that came in the form of a stroll with Lady Covington, alone, when the rest of her party decided to turn in for an afternoon nap.
“Eleanor, how I’ve missed your company the most,” Mellie said, hooking her arm around her friend’s as they approached the small stone bridge that covered the brook that flowed through her land. “Seeing you again is the greatest gift I could dream of.”
“Oh Melanie, how you do carry on. I must confess as you know I always do and never mince words, your behavior last night had me quite put off. I’m almost certain we made eye contact and yet you rushed away not even half way through the feast without so much as a nod.”
Mellie let go of Eleanor’s arm and stepped to the summit of the bridge and looked down into the water below. “You’re right. Can you ever forgive me? I wasn’t feeling well and had drank too much too fast.”
Eleanor approached her. “That isn’t like you at all. I saw you dance a couple of times and you seemed perfectly fine. This must have come on you suddenly.”
“Yes…yes it did. The dancing…it…it must have stirred things up a bit and…”
“And then I saw you step onto the balcony with that dark haired gentleman.”
“Yes, Sir Elliot. You saw us?”
“Hmmm. That name suits him quite well. A dashing man to say the least and obviously a knight of the highest order I assume?”
“Yes,” Mellie said, turning back to her friend. “He is a knight but of the highest order I’m not certain.” She scoffed.
“No? Why so? He carried himself well and is quite the dancer too. Is he not brave and skilled? I mean, he must be to be a knight at all.”
Mellie was struggling to tell or not to tell, all the while understanding if she would tell anyone, it would have to be Eleanor as she’d proven herself a trusted confidant for over twenty years. “Eleanor, this may seem a horrid and completely shameless question but…”
“Oh, my dear now you have my complete and undivided attention,” Eleanor interrupted with palpable glee. “You know, you get to be our age and such… mischievous conversations shall we say, are like your Mrs. Bolton’s strawberry tarts. You can’t eat just one.” She burst into laughter.
“Oh, Eleanor, if it were only worth laughing about.”
“Darling,” Eleanor said, taking Mellie by the hands. “What is life? Is it strolls through gardens, tea parties, reading, writing letters, and embroidery or in your case, riding horses? No my dear, it’s all the delicious bits that leave their mark—sweet or sour, and give us something to smile about on our death beds…which by the way I do not intend to lie in for many years to come.” She smiled and squeezed Mellie’s hands tight. “Now, ask the question, even though I’m almost certain I may already know what it is.”
“How could you know?”
Eleanor’s eyebrow raised and she said, “Mellie just ask the question, you’re behaving like a naïve child. I love you but really.”
Mellie swallowed and turned back to the brook. “Have you ever been unfaithful to Lord Covington?”
“Mellie!” Eleanor shouted. “How could you ask me such a thing? Have you lost your senses?”
Mellie spun back to her friend in horror. “Oh Eleanor! I’m so sorry. Please forgive the intrusion.”
Suddenly, Eleanor’s shocked expression tumbled into a burst of laughter. “Oh Mellie you should see your face! It’s absolutely tragic!”
“I should have known! You’re still the incorrigible tease you were when we were girls! How could you?” Mellie shouted and then began laughing.
“You should be thanking me. A moment ago you were tied like a knot and now, you’re laughing.”
“True but you didn’t answer my question.”
“I know. Why don’t we play a game—a hypothetical game?”
“I’m not sure how to play this game.”
“Pretend I’m…oh, Lady Buttercup or something I don’t know just make up a silly name it’s more fun that way and then ask me the question.”
“You are exhausting sometimes Eleanor but all right I’ll play your silly game.” She laughed. “Lady Buttercup, have you ever entertained anyone other than Lord Buttercup…” Mellie stopped and laughed.
“Oh come now!”
“All right! Have you ever entertained anyone other than Lord Buttercup in your chamber or elsewhere for the purposes of sex?”
“Hmmm…” Eleanor said, rolling her eyes up and placing a contemplating index finger on her chin. “Sex you say?”
“Yes, intimate relations, you know.”
“My dear, Lady Buttercup has quite the appetite. Just as she adores Mrs. Bolton’s strawberry tarts, she’s come to understand that tarts come in many flavors and she has quite the sweet tooth.”
“So, you’re telling me it’s true what Sir Elliot told me last night?”
“Sir Elliot? Are you telling me Sir Elliot…”
“Offered me sweets last night.” Mellie cringed as soon as she made the jest.
“Oh my dear that was quite good,” Eleanor whispered and laughed. “Quite good indeed and having seen the gentlemen myself I’d say he appears to be quite the cart of tarts.”
“Nothing like this has ever crossed my mind.”
“Well then, Edward must be quite virile and delicious in his own right if you haven’t even so much as looked at what else is on the menu in twenty years.”
Mellie grew sullen and gazed back towards the castle. “That would not exactly be the truth.”
“What do you mean?” Eleanor’s expression turned to serious.
“Edward hasn’t touched me in over two years. I don’t know what’s wrong. I thought it was me because I’m getting older but…”
“Stop right there. My darling the years have been more than kind to you. You are lovelier now than you were when you married that brutish bull of a man.”
“Sir Elliot said Edward was most likely entertaining someone else. There could be no other explanation and he suggested you, as well as the other ladies in the hall were keeping themselves entertained elsewhere as well.”
“Of course, that can be the only explanation although for the life of me I cannot imagine why Edward would ever stray from you unless, he’s done that before. Of course, these men…they have everything they could ever want and yet some pretty little thing bats her eyes at them and they lose their senses.”
“So Lord Covington…I mean Buttercup too?”
“Of course Lord Buttercup; I’m no fool. There are plenty of Sir Elliots at Covington, although unfortunately they aren’t quite as bold as yours.” She chuckled. “It’s all quite discreet and clandestine and brief but for that little while you feel the blush in your cheeks and the warmth of a man in your arms, and then you…carry on.” She rolled her wrist as if waving ahead.
“Do you fall in love?”
“Darling this isn’t about love. I love Henry Covington…bore that he is. It’s about a few hours of believing in a fantasy that this younger, hungry man desires you—all of you and you just delight in being that object of lust again.”
“I understand. I also understand the hurt of their indiscretions and how betrayed one feels afterwards. I know Edward strayed years ago when Archie and Phillip were small and my world no longer revolved around him. I accepted it…as we do.”
“Do you still love him? Did you forgive him?”
“Yes. I still love him and as I said I accepted it as my mother had enlightened me to men before I was even wed. She said it’s just what they do. She told me they were strong and would provide for every need or want but they were weak in other ways.”
“So you don’t believe you deserve affection or a man’s desire anymore?”
“I…I don’t know what I deserve or expect. I sat there last night and Lord Elswick showered me with compliments and he was sincere and I felt beautiful and desirable and then Sir Elliot was so blunt and vulgar. He did not hesitate to proposition me. I feel as if I’ve manifested this attention somehow, as if I’ve been sending signs without my own knowledge. I felt naked and my desires laid bare for all to see.”
“Oh they can smell it on you my dear, make no mistake; the way you move and breathe. It’s as if they can see you’re not satisfied and they’ll sniff you out like a dog in heat.”
“Listen,” Eleanor said as she took Mellie’s arm and began leading her back to the castle. “You do or do not do whatever your heart desires but will you allow me to give you a bit of advice?”
“Please, by all means.”
“Firstly, no matter what happens, trust no one. Enlist no one to keep your secrets for you. Carry it with you to the grave. Lady Buttercup does not trust anyone for good reason because what is good for the goose is absolutely no good for the gander. In other places in the world, affairs are not frowned upon but rather encouraged for women. In King Henry’s England however, there is no such acceptance. Secondly, just because some dashing knight throws himself at you, doesn’t mean you have to catch him between your thighs. If he’s as devoted to you as he says, give it time. I’m not saying to lead him on but don’t spurn him…yet.”
“Well I’m afraid it’s too late for that. I hit him rather hard.”
Eleanor burst into laughter again. “Perhaps you aren’t meant for the lifestyle of Lady Buttercup, Mellie, not everyone is. However, I hate seeing you so forlorn and not getting everything you deserve. For heaven’s sake you’re still in your child bearing years, you should be bedded often and by someone who knows what he’s doing.”
“Child bearing years yes but thankfully, not able to conceive anymore after Archibald.”
“All the more reason to just enjoy the act, correct?” Eleanor whispered as they approached the front gate. “Unless you do not enjoy it and you certainly wouldn’t be the first or the last. Some men are absolute bumbling idiots beneath the sheets dear, but I assure you, some are definitely not.” She winked.
“I don’t think so. I just don’t believe I could ever betray Edward and… he’s the only man I’ve ever known.”
Eleanor turned to Mellie just before they crossed the threshold. “So you’d betray yourself before betraying someone who obviously has no more use for you in the bed chamber. My darling, you’re a better woman than me…or rather, Lady Buttercup.”
Both women turned upon hearing a rider approaching at thundering speed. It was Stuart. He’d joined the men on the hunt and was returning in a cloud of dust, alone, pulling his horse to a stop so quickly it slid and nearly threw him off.
“Lady Ludwig!” he shouted as he dismounted and ran towards her. “Lady Ludwig, there’s been a horrible accident. Lord Ludwig’s horse was spooked by something and shot off. He struggled to keep upon her, but she hit a thicket of trees and slid in a muddy patch. They both tumbled down a steep ravine into the brook. The poor horse…they had to put her down but Lord Ludwig…”
“Lord Ludwig what, Stuart?” Mellie screamed into his horrified face as he fell to his knees before her.
“Lord Ludwig has died my lady,” Stuart said, choking on his words as she pushed past him, nearly knocking him over. “My lady, what are you doing?” he shouted as Mellie leapt onto his horse.
“My lady I swear to you he’s…”
“Which direction?” she screamed. “How far down the brook?”
“A mile or so that way,” he pointed.
Chapter Five – Two Souls
When Mellie at last arrived on the scene of Edward’s tragic end, Lord Elswick, along with several of the other lords were carrying his lifeless body up the hill. She placed her hand over her heart to make sure it was still beating. None of this seemed real. She recalled him waving to her that morning from atop his now dead horse—she was his pride and joy. Mellie supposed some divine power had seen to it that his sweet mare, Charlotte, went with him into heaven, if there truly was such a place. The only thing Mellie cared about was that Edward was no longer with her, not where he went.
When they laid Edward down in the grass, Lord Elswick caught sight of Mellie rushing towards them screaming, and motioned to the other men to stand aside. She stumbled and fell on her hands and knees, and then crawled to Edward’s broken body. She clung to his massive chest, now caved in beneath his hunting leathers, no doubt from Charlotte crushing him as they tumbled down the hill. Her screams turned into wailing sobs and then, after several minutes, silence.
By the time the cart arrived to carry Edward back to the castle, Mellie was spent. She felt as if she’d been asleep and yet exhausted from a nightmare. Yet the moment of realization that he truly was gone at last set in, when Alexander leaned down and gently touched her shoulder.
“Mellie, the cart is here to carry Edward back to the castle. Please, allow us to move him,” he whispered.
She raised her heavy head and turned her eyes up at him and nodded, and he helped her to her feet. It was as if the ground was swaying beneath her and she stumbled, falling against Alexander and clinging to him until he yet again lifted her into his arms and this time, carried her to the wagon.
“We’ll place him here with you,” he said as he sat her down gently and appeared to be waiting for some acknowledgement of what he’d said but none came. After a few moments, he turned slowly to go assist the others with Edward.
“Alexander?” she said in a breath. He turned and rushed back to her.
“Yes, my lady?”
“I’m afraid I will be quite useless for a while. My sons…” Her voice faded.
“My dear lady, let us get you and Edward home. The rest can wait.” With that, he removed his leather jerkin, rolled it up and placed it behind her, motioning for her to lay her head on it as a pillow. The next thing Mellie knew, Alexander was yet again, carrying her to her bed.
Mellie awoke to her chamber in complete darkness. She was disoriented and trapped somewhere between reality and a doom that lurked all around her, until she heard a stirring in the room and then heard Janine’s voice.
Mellie sat up slowly. Her head was thumping like a drum. “May I please have some water?” Her voice was raspy and small.
Janine had been sleeping on the sofa across the room. She lit a candle, and then lit several others until she reached the pitcher on Mellie’s night stand and poured her a cup of water.
“Here mi’lady,” she said as Mellie raised her head just enough to drink. “Would you like something to eat or…anything at all?” Janine began to cry.
Mellie took several sips and then laid back. “No my darling but please open the shutters. It’s terribly warm in here.”
Janine did as she was bid, wiping her tears away all the while.
“Thank you for staying with me. You can go to your room now. I’ll be fine. I suppose I’ve been asleep for quite some time. I think I’ll just sit by the window and get some fresh air.”
“But…Lord Elswick insisted I stay with you and Lady Covington insisted I notify her the minute you awoke.”
“I appreciate that, Janine and Lord Elswick’s and Lady Covington’s concern but I promise, I’ll be…on second thought, would you be so kind as to bring me a pot of tea and a flagon of wine? Depending on how this night goes for me, I’d like two choices of comfort…for now.”
Janine curtsied. “Of course, mi’lady. Anything, mi’lady.”
Once Janine was gone, Mellie moved slowly from the bed to her chair by the window. The moon was nearly full, and the torches below gave the courtyard an orange glow—enough that she could see it was deserted and feel the absolute silence and emptiness of the late hour. With the exception of an occasional horse whinnying in the distance, and the crickets, there was nothing. Suddenly, the vision of Edward waving to her before he left for the hunt caused her breath to catch in her chest and she began to cry again. I must go to him, she thought.
Janine knocked lightly and then entered with a large tray, with the tea and wine and sat them on a small table near the dark, cold hearth. She also brought some bread and a bowl of leftover venison stew. “In case you get hungry.”
“Janine, where is Lord Ludwig?” Mellie asked, turning back to gaze at the stars.
“Mi’lady?” Janine seemed startled by the question.
“Where have they lain my husband?”
“He’s in the chapel mi’lady,” she answered, again fighting back tears. “Oh, mi’lady, please forgive me. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, Janine. Please bring my robe. I’d like to go and be with him.”
Janine helped Mellie into her robe and was dismissed. After deciding the wine a better tonic for her anguish, she finished one cup and then poured another before deciding to just bring the flagon with her to see her husband.
Following the torch lights down the winding staircase, through the great hall and out into the courtyard, not another human being was stirring within the castle walls. She paused for a moment when she stepped outside and took a deep breath of the cool night air.
“Lady Ludwig,” a voice said and she turned.
“Sir Elliot. You…you startled me.”
He bowed. “Apologies, my lady, I am on watch tonight. May I do anything for you?”
His demeanor was serious and completely different from that of the night before. He was knightly and gentlemanly. “No, thank you. I’m only walking across the courtyard to the chapel to have a cup of wine with my lord husband.”
“May I escort you my lady?”
“Am I in some sort of danger?” she said unkindly, but Sir Elliot appeared not to notice.
“No my lady, it is simply my duty to ask.” He bowed again and returned to his post.
As Mellie reached the chapel, the heavy arched wood and iron doors were open. Even from outside, she could see dozens of candles alit around the altar. Pausing for several moments to summon her courage, at last she climbed the stone steps and pushed herself forward across the threshold. She was numb; completely numb.
There in the front, just below the altar lay her husband of twenty years. In the glow of the candlelight, he appeared to be asleep and the mask of death was shrouded in golden light. Without a sound, she placed the flagon and her cup on the floor, dipped her fingers in holy water and crossed herself, whispering a silent prayer. A single tear escaped her eye and she instantly swiped it away as she stepped slowly forward, oblivious to the figure seated ahead of her in the first pew until they were both fully alit in the candlelight. He spoke. She trembled.
“Melanie,” Alexander said as he stood. “My apologies, I did not intend to intrude.”
“Alexander, you are no intruder.”
He bowed. “I requested first watch over him. I hope you approve. I would have made the request of you but…” he said and stopped when she raised her hand and waved him into silence.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You were his dearest friend. He’d want you here.” Mellie never looked away from Edward as she spoke. “The sisters have done him quite well. He looks as if he’s asleep, although Edward snored like a bear so to see him so quiet is more than peculiar.”
“How are you?” Alexander asked, stepping to her side.
“My husband, the father of my sons is dead. I suppose I’ll be dead for a while as well. I remember when my lord father died. My mother changed overnight from a warm and jolly woman into a wistful and uninterested creature whose last days consisted of sitting in her room for hours upon hours doing needlework.”
“Some people mourn themselves to death but you won’t. I know you won’t.”
Mellie turned and looked up into Alexander’s warm blue eyes. “And what makes you say that? You barely know me. We only just met a day ago.”
“I feel as if I’ve known you my entire life.”
Mellie looked puzzled and yet had a similar experience in knowing him as well.
Alexander cleared his throat and continued. “Edward spoke of you often; almost incessantly; your likes and dislikes, your love of horses and the outdoors, your abilities in running this estate. He even spoke of your strength in putting up with him.” He chuckled softly. “He said no other woman on Earth could put him in his place.”
“He spoke of you as well but not to that extent. Edward was a man of action more so than conversation but knowing he cared enough to share so many things about me is a pleasing thought. He did think very highly of you, of that he was adamant.”
They stood in silence for several moments until Mellie walked back and retrieved the wine. “Shall we?” she asked as she made her way to Alexander and handed him the cup to hold as she filled it. “A toast to Lord Edward Ludwig.” Mellie glanced up at the carved marble statue of Christ behind the altar. “Please let him into heaven? He made many mistakes but all in all, his good deeds far outweighed his bad.”
Alexander offered Mellie the first drink which she took and then handed it back. “What happened to Charlotte?”
“Charlotte? Oh, you mean Edward’s horse. I imagine she’s still out there in the ravine, poor girl.” He shook his head.
“I want her head brought back here and buried with him.” She refilled the cup and drank again. “I think he’d like that, don’t you?”
Alexander took a deep breath and shrugged. “If that is your wish than I’ll see that it’s done.”
Mellie was beginning to feel again…just a bit. She stepped forward and touched Edward’s long, dark hair and the silver streaks at his temples. “He was so handsome, wasn’t he? He was a bit older than me. That’s usual I suppose, but his spirit was younger than mine.” Her voice was soft like a feather floating through a dream.
“I never knew anyone else like him that is for certain.”
“We shall never see his like again.” She paused a moment and sighed. “Have you met our sons? I don’t believe Edward ever mentioned if you had,” she said, never facing him throughout their conversation, her eyes and fingertips gliding lightly over her husband’s body.
“Last autumn, he brought them to choose new horses to take to London.”
“That’s right. I’d totally forgotten. I’ll need to get word off to them in the morning.”
“No need. I’ve already taken care of it, as well as the service. I’d hoped to discuss this with you tomorrow but…”
“Of course you did,” she whispered and then leaned over and kissed Edward softly on the cheek. As she backed away, she asked, “Would you mind if I sat here with you a while? I’m not quite ready to leave him yet.”
“My lady, you need not ask anything of me that you do not already own the right to have.” His voice was deep but touched with soft emotion.
At last she turned and looked up at him and realized his eyes were wet with tears. “Come Alexander, let’s finish this wine and mourn together. Perhaps Edward’s hand was in our meeting tonight and finding comfort in each other will heal us both.”
“I’ve lost my dearest friend and you’ve lost your husband my lady. We may need more wine than this.”
“Don’t worry, we’re in the church. There’s plenty beneath the altar.”
“My lady?” Alexander said over a chuckle.
“Hmmm, and you said you felt you’d known me all your life. There are goblets back there as well. If you can recover from my candor, go and get one and bring the wine.”
“You are a complicated woman my lady but I can appreciate your mood under these circumstances.” Alexander did as he was bid and they sat in the first pew, facing Edward.
“To think just hours ago I was wailing myself into a puddle and my world was coming to what I believed to be an end…as you so unfortunately saw.” She said and paused, taking a long drink.
Silence reigned between them for several minutes as Mellie sat flat backed against the pew gazing up at the burning candles. “Did Edward ever tell you we lost our first boy? His name was Edward too or the second or…well it doesn’t matter but he was born almost nine months to the day of our wedding. He was born healthy and quite large like his father and brothers but just after his first birthday, he caught a chill.” She stopped and sighed.
“My lady, you don’t need to explain…”
“We’re already in mourning Alex—I’m sorry may I call you Alex? Alexander is such a long name and my tongue seems to be flopping about a bit from the wine.”
“Yes, Alex is fine.”
“So my sweet, round faced black haired boy lasted but three days once the fever hit him. It took poor Edward and Jewel, my hand maid at the time, until I fainted from exhaustion to pry his little lifeless body from my arms.”
“To answer your question, yes. Edward once told me you’d lost a child but he couldn’t finish the conversation once it started and changed the subject. I’m terribly sorry for your loss. My own lady wife has never been able to carry a child to term. She lost four before her sixth month at varied stages. We finally decided to give up the prospect of a child. Thankfully I have a younger brother in the event of my own death, who can take over Elswick.”
Mellie turned her head and at last looked over at Alexander. “I’m terribly sorry. I know that sentiment isn’t nearly strong enough to encompass your grief and your wife’s but I truly don’t know what else to say. Words of comfort escape me right now.”
“It was many years ago and I’ve come to terms with it through prayer and faith.”
“Has Lady Elswick?”
“I honestly don’t know. She isn’t one for sharing her emotions anymore.”
“Then obviously she hasn’t. It’s every wife’s dream to have her husband’s children. To lose a child and then to bear two healthy sons saved me from my grief. That was where my story was leading. I wasn’t aware at the time of little Edward’s death that I was already carrying Phillip. He saved my heart, my marriage and my faith. What is your wife’s name? I don’t believe you’ve ever mentioned it.”
“Catherine,” he said and lowered his head, staring into his wine.
“I had planned to leave with you when you returned to Elswick and visit her. I was going to take her a basket filled with Mrs. Bolton’s best tarts to hopefully cheer her. More often than not, a woman can bring understanding and comfort to another woman that a man cannot understand.”
“My lady, I assure you, Catherine has had many visitors as well as physicians, healers, priests and hand maids who’ve tirelessly searched her for a remedy. Believe me, if one was to be found, I’d have uncovered it by now.”
“Here you are alive. A handsome, gallant, and obviously virile man who loves his wife and yet she’s unhappy and wasting away the best years of her life like my mother did. The world can be unmercifully cruel, Alex but we march on as soldiers as those around us wither like leaves in the cold.”
“I could tell from the moment I met you that you are not the withering type.”
“I kick and scream and cry and curse God and then…I rest. Afterwards I put on my armor and get back to the war. I suppose to some that would appear heartless or even as if I didn’t care at all but oh I assure you, I love ferociously and loyally. I just have an understanding with life.”
“Will you share that understanding with me?” Alexander asked as he refilled her cup.
“It continues. It goes on. With all the losses I’ve endured I’ve learned the sun will still rise, the rain will fall and the moon will wax and wane as the night falls, just as it did tonight. Our duty is to the living, Alex. Our duty is to breathe and eat and sleep and love and find there’s still so much to live for. Edward would neither want nor expect me to lock myself up in my chamber with needlework.” She chuckled. “He’d come back and haunt me I’m sure if it.”
“Perhaps coming to Elswick may be a good idea after all.”
“So, I’m more persuasive than you let on?” Mellie turned her body and faced him, meeting his eyes this time.
“You could be the remedy Catherine needs after all. If I’m being honest, simply by virtue of your presence, the place will brighten up quite a lot. Oh my, I do hope my words aren’t misconstrued. I assure you I meant only as an influence to encourage hope to flourish.”
Mellie smiled meekly and then laid a willowy hand on Alexander’s cheek. “We understand each other, Alex, completely. I’ll come and visit Lady Catherine in a fortnight. To some it will be too soon but strangely, I don’t really care what anyone thinks anymore.”
Within the hour and the wine, Mellie had fallen asleep. When the morning light shown through the stained glass windows she awoke with her head leaning against Alexander’s shoulder. He’d fallen asleep sitting up but slumped against her as well. Slowly she sat up, gathered the wine decanter and goblet and placed them back behind the altar, kissed Edward’s cheek and slipped away.
Chapter Six – Portals
Janine came to Mellie and explained that she was moving on from her service. Since Edward’s death and the arrival of Phillip to assume his rightful role as Lord Ludwig, Mellie had struggled with the adjustments. Her moods were certainly more subdued and her patience was short. What once had been an intelligent wit had become more of a nipping snarl and Janine was not immune to it. Working so closely with Mellie was difficult to say the least but Janine’s little secret was starting to show and Mellie had noticed.
“I do hope the father of that swollen belly plans to do the right thing,” Mellie said, that morning, when she’d finally decided to make Janine aware that she knew. Janine was brushing Mellie’s hair at the time and the brush slid from her hand and bounced across the rug. “Shocked?” Mellie said flippantly. “Oh my dear, how long did you think you could conceal it?”
Janine bent and picked up the brush. “I’m…going home to my family in the village.”
“When are you leaving?”
“I was going to speak with you this morning about it. I had hoped to have been gone weeks ago…but I was waiting on a letter from my mother. The letter arrived only yesterday.”
Mellie turned away from her vanity mirror and addressed Janine directly. “And the father? Who is he? I’ll have him flogged in the courtyard for leaving you like this.”
“He’s no one mi’lady. No one you would know.”
“I didn’t ask you if I knew him, I asked his name so that he may be dealt with properly. I have no patience for lecherous men.”
“He was no lech mi’lady. He was kind and good.”
“Was? What do mean was? Where did he go?” Mellie’s brow was furrowed and her heart rate began ascending with her anger.
“He had to go away. He couldn’t find work here so he…went to London.”
Mellie turned back in her chair with a jerk and swept her hair over her shoulders. “I’ll have him hunted down and brought back here. Your child shall have a name.”
Janine’s hands shook as she began brushing Mellie’s hair again and sorted it out for a braid. Mellie could see Janine’s reflection in the mirror before her and the tears now rolling down her cheeks.
“Oh for the love of God Janine! How could you do this to yourself?” Mellie turned again and this time rose to her feet and swiped the hairbrush from Janine’s hand. “If I were your mother I’d…” she said through her teeth and then threw the brush across the room. It crashed against the wall and bounced off, hitting the rug with a thud. Mellie released a frustrated scream.
“Mi’lady please! You’re scaring me,” Janine said, rushing for the door.
“Wait! Wait,” she said, gathering herself together as her voice softened. “Come back. I…I’m still just so angry. I’m angry at everything since Edward died. I’m angry at him, at God at the whole bloody world.”
“I’m sorry mi’lady. I didn’t mean to add to your woes.”
“My woes. Ha!” Mellie said as she flopped back down onto the vanity chair. “I used to believe woes were stepping in mud puddles and broken shutters.” She froze and stared blindly at her reflection and then closed her eyes. “Go to your mother child. You’re her woe, not mine.” A moment later, Janine sat the hairbrush on the vanity next to Mellie and was gone.
After a hearty session of crying, Mellie washed her face, braided her own hair and sent for one of Mrs. Bolton’s kitchen girls to help her dress. It was awkward and unpleasant and silent but if she had to spend one more moment in that chamber she was going to throw herself from the tower window.
“What’s your name child?” Mellie asked the girl, who appeared no more than twelve.
“Beatrice, mi’lady.” The girl did not raise her eyes as she spoke.
“You are permitted to look at me when I’m speaking to you child,” Mellie said as she straightened her clothes in the mirror and pushed a few more pins into her wrapped braid. The girl just stood there with her head down and her hands folded in front of her like a statue. “Never mind, you’re excused. Come back after supper and help me out of these things.”
The girl curtsied and rushed out of the room. Mellie’s stomach rumbled and a moment later, she made her way down to break her fast with Phillip.
“Good morning, mother,” Phillip said, rising from his seat and kissing her lightly on the cheek. “I trust you’re well this morning?” By his raised eyebrows, he did not appear convinced that was the case based on the way in which she swept into the room as if on a gust of wind.
Stuart rushed up behind her to seat her at Phillip’s left. “My lady,” Stuart said but it came out like a mumble rather than a greeting.
“Is there no fruit? Do we not have orchards and gardens? If I eat one more egg I swear I’ll sprout feathers,” she barked.
“The harvest will be coming in soon mother but I do believe we’ve brought in some lovely apples a bit early, as well as a healthy crop of squashes and onions.” Phillip shook out his napkin and placed it in his lap.
“I suppose those will serve well when we roast the next pig. Stuart, please go to the kitchen and have someone fry me an apple with some butter and place it atop a bowl of porridge with milk.”
“Yes my lady,” he answered and raced off.
“In the mean-time Phillip, please pass me one of those scones.”
“Mother I’ve been thinking. It’s been nearly three months since father’s passing and you haven’t left the castle for more than your daily rides. Perhaps a visit to London would tempt you away and the change of scenery may restore your good nature.”
Mellie lifted her cup of tea and took a sip. “My good nature?”
“Janine was hysterical when she left a while ago. I asked her what was wrong but the poor girl couldn’t even speak.”
Mellie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, remembering this was her beloved son and as such, he deserved her best behavior. Her eyes opened and she smiled and reached out for his hand which he gave easily. “She’s gone home to be with her mother. I suppose she was distraught over having to leave. She’s been with me since she was barely thirteen so perhaps she felt this was her home now and she took having to leave, poorly.”
“I can see your disappointment as well. I’m sorry mother. We’ll find you someone equally as efficient and pleasant as soon as possible. You’ll need a new maid to accompany you to London.”
“Oh, did I agree? I must have missed that while I was sitting here starving to death.” She chuckled and then took a bite of her scone. “Truth be told it’s a wonder I’m not as round as Mrs. Bolton.”
“You’re still as ravishing as you were when I was a child. You look the same to me,” Phillip said sincerely.
“And when I look at you I still see my sweet, rambunctious little boy. Our eyes play tricks on us when we love someone. We see with our hearts.”
“Now there’s my darling mother. You’re even lovelier when your true nature shines from inside of you.”
“I do love you Phillip but I’ll have no part of London. It’s too crowded and…” Mellie stopped mid-sentence, remembering what Janine had said about this rogue who’d left her alone with his child. Her mind began to work through a plan to find him and insist he come back and do right by Janine. “Phillip?”
“Yes mother?” he asked, wiping his lips.
“On second thought, I believe London in autumn may not be so bad. It will be good to visit with Archie as well. I trust he’s kept our apartments there in good order?”
“Apologies my lady,” Stuart said as he placed the steaming bowl of porridge and fried apples before her.
“Oh yes. They’re in very good order and have been updated several times since you visited last. How long has it been mother?”
Mellie raised a spoon full of what she was craving to her lips, blew on it several times and then slid it between her lips with a satisfied moan. “Absolutely the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in months. Thank you Stuart and please thank whoever cooked this for me. Take note, I’ll have this every morning until I’m sick to death of it.” Mellie took another bite and then turned back to Phillip. “Over ten years. It wasn’t completely awful and King Henry was gracious enough to invite us to court.”
“How was that mother? I hope I’m fortunate enough in the future to receive such an invitation.”
“It was as marvelous as you could ever imagine but much too decadent for my taste. Your father of course loved every second of it.” She chuckled. “Lovely gardens and sights to see; you boys rather enjoyed that part of it but the palace,” she said and sighed.
“Perhaps the king will receive word of your visit and invite you to court again.”
“Heavens no, I have no desire to return to that place. Besides, I’m going to visit your brother, perhaps do some shopping and take in a play or two.”
“Good then it’s settled. I’ll put together a traveling party for you and send word to Archie.” Phillip paused a moment and then asked, “Mother, I’ve been wondering about Mister Grogan, father’s man servant.”
Mellie’s eyes widened as she took another sip of tea. “What of him?”
“He packed his bag and left the day after father’s burial.”
Mellie’s memory of that day was foggy at best but the fog lifted quickly as she tried not to lie to her son. “I never trusted him. I was dissatisfied with his attitudes as well and believed it best for you to choose your own man. Of course all of this is for naught as your own man Mister Jones who came with you from London seems a much more pleasant and trustworthy gentleman.”
“Oh,” Phillip replied and shrugged, although his raised eyebrow and sideways glance at her, left her wondering if he imagined something more.
The room fell silent but for Mellie’s occasional sounds of appreciation for her breakfast meal as she devoured it, until Phillip began going through some letters Stuart brought in.
“Well here’s an interesting note,” he said as he lifted it to read aloud.
“Who’s it from?” Mellie inquired.
“Lord Elswick. He said he was fortunate in the spring to have produced six foals, one of which is the spitting image of Charlotte. He says here that she’s of the same line and he’d love to bring her down to you as a gift. He believes she’ll bring you great comfort.”
Mellie was silent and produced not so much as a blink at the offering.
“Mother, did you hear me?”
“Of course I heard you. That’s a lovely gesture. Please write back to him and accept the horse. Even I’m not so ignorant as to turn down such a generous gift.”
“May I ask you something?” Phillip said, sitting the letter aside and turning to give her his undivided attention in the most tender tone he’d used thus far in their conversation.
“Of course my dear,” Mellie said and turned to him as well.
“When I arrived from London for father’s burial, Lord Elswick mentioned you would be visiting his wife once your time of mourning had passed. He seemed quite pleased with the notion and hoped your visit would be a sort of tonic for Lady Elswick. It’s been three months. Did you have a change of heart?”
“Three months,” she said and sighed. “Now I feel absolutely horrible. Oh my darling have I truly been as awful as I believe I have?”
“Mother, no one blames you. You suffered a horrible loss and passed through many changes since father died.” He took her hand and placed a kiss upon her knuckles. “Lord Elswick obviously thinks very highly of you. You write to him instead of me. Accept this lovely horse and invite him immediately to bring it. He’s only a half day’s ride. Then, should you still wish to visit lady Elswick, by all means do so. It’s going to take me a few weeks to get everything in order for your visit to London anyway. Make good use of the time. You know, you used to tell Archie and me that we are never so much ourselves as when we’re giving some of us away in good faith.”
“Why are you so lovely and brilliant?” she asked, smiling. Her eyes were filled with tender pride.
“With you for a mother, how could I be anything else?”
“It’s settled then. I’ll go now and write the letter to Lord Elswick and see if that little maid from the kitchen is up to traveling with me to visit Alexander’s lady wife.”
“Alexander?” Phillip raised a brow at her informality.
“Alexander was a pillar of strength to me when your father died. I don’t think I’d have made it through that day if not for his support. He was a loyal friend to your lord father and to me.”
“Oh, I wasn’t implying anything mother. For heaven’s sake the man is married. I’d never assume…”
“Oh you can assume all you please but no. He has a place in my heart as a dear friend and there he shall stay.”
“I suppose I owe him a debt as well then. What a breakfast this has been. I feel as if I have my mother back for the small cost of a bowl of porridge and apples, a horse and a letter. I’d say that’s quite a portal we’ve passed through.”
“One step at a time my darling. However, I must agree with you that it feels as if we’ve taken a giant leap into the future today. Thank you.”
Mellie rose from the table as Stuart rushed in to take her chair and she kissed her son and bid them both a good day.
In the library, Mellie walked slowly to Edward’s writing desk. Phillip had been using it as he was entitled but the room was definitely still Edward’s. To her, the room was Edward and she’d spent many nights since his death in his chair or touching his books and running her fingertips over his handwriting on old journals and letters. As callous and boorish as he could be, she did love him and like most of the people she’d lost, she never realized how much until he was gone.
Her portrait still hung on the wall behind his desk. She remembered asking why he’d placed it there instead of where he could see it as he worked. He’d told her gruffly in one breath that he liked knowing she was behind him, watching over his shoulder and in the next, that he’d never get any work done with her staring at him the entire time. She chuckled at the memory of his deep voice growling those words at her and how she’d laughed as he embraced her and kissed her hair after he’d said it.
“Enough of this.” She swiped a tear away and sat down to write to Alexander.
I am responding to your generous offer to gift me with one of your fine horses. I’d be honored to accept her at your earliest convenience. I’d also like to honor my offer to come to Elswick Castle to visit with your lady wife as I’d promised to months ago.
We look forward to your visit as soon as you are able.
Lady Melanie Ludwig
Immediately upon finishing the letter, Mellie sealed it with wax and passed it off to Stuart to carry to Lord Elswick. “If you leave right now, you should reach Elswick Castle by supper. Knowing Lord Elswick he’ll invite you to stay the night and you can come home in the morning.”
“Yes my lady.” He bowed and took the letter.
As he turned to carry out her request she called him back. “Stuart,” she whispered. “I need you to do something for me but this must remain between us do you understand?”
“Of course my lady—anything.” He leaned in.
“I’ve never met Lady Elswick but I do know at last I heard she was almost completely confined to her bed. Should you catch a glimpse of her or hear anything in relation to her well-being, take note. I’m to call on her within the week and I’d just like to know what I’m getting myself into.”
“Yes my lady.” He bowed again and waited.
“Go on now. Deliver that letter. I need to go for a ride and clear my head. Come and find me immediately upon your return in the morning. Do you understand?”
He nodded and bolted off to his task.
Chapter Seven – Anticipation
The next morning, Mellie awoke and at first, did not remember Janine was gone. A sadness fell over her when the shutters were still closed, and there was no one buzzing about her chamber preparing everything for the day.
Beatrice wasn’t a hand maid; she was a kitchen maid and as such, would require a great deal of training in order to step into Janine’s shoes. As she sat up, Mellie decided a better course would be to send Stuart into the village later to inquire about a new hand maid—preferably someone much older or at least beyond child bearing years. However, perhaps working with Beatrice and suffering her ignorance for a time may be quicker than finding someone else.
She sighed and arose, pulling on her robe and stepping to the window to let in the morning air. It was cool and gooseflesh rose on Mellie’s body but she liked it all the same. When she glanced down into the courtyard, it was quiet and bare, so she carried on, making herself ready for the day. Thankfully, the sun was shining and the clouds were sparse. With no rain in sight, she’d be able to get her ride in before the sun was high. She poured water in the basin and slipped out of her robe and washed.
Shortly after she’d finished, she heard a soft tap on her chamber door. “Beatrice, thank goodness,” she said aloud and then, “Who’s there?”
“It’s Beatrice mi’lady.”
“Come in please. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Beatrice once again was as quiet and timid as a mouse. Mellie was feeling fit and spry for some reason this morning so she decided to attempt to draw some of the girl out and make her feel more comfortable.
“I’d like my riding clothes this morning, Beatrice. Do you know what they look like?”
“No mi’lady,” she answered.
Mellie rushed to her wardrobe closet and threw the doors open. “Come closer and look dear. Janine always kept my gowns separated by color except for my riding clothes. Those she kept all the way to the left. I have several that I prefer but the brown will do this morning. Everything is kept together in one bundle. See?” Mellie said, moving the other clothes aside and allowing Beatrice to get a good look. “Can you fix hair at all?”
“I…I can braid.” There was a touch of excitement in her tone which encouraged Mellie.
“Really? That’s excellent. I always wear braids, especially when I ride so that will work out perfectly.”
“Shall I do your hair before or after you’re dressed?” Beatrice asked, much to Mellie’s joyful surprise.
“I prefer after. It’s the crowning touch as they say. All right, let’s get me into these clothes and then you may brush and braid my hair. Afterwards, you’ll make up my bed—Janine stripped my linens on Saturdays but the rest of the room she straightened and cleaned each day. Today is Friday so all you’ll need to do is dust and tidy up, make the bed and see my soiled clothes to the laundry. Always make sure my bathing pitcher is filled with fresh water—I’m ridiculous about cleanliness and my drinking water always fresh and available. I take a full bath in my tub every Sunday evening after mass or before any special occasions.”
“I noticed there are no flowers in the vase by your bed. Do you like fresh flowers every day?”
Mellie smiled. “I do. I like my chamber to smell fresh and I don’t have a preference. As long as they smell good, I’m happy.” Mellie at last caught a solid glimpse of Beatrice’s eyes. They were the brightest, rounded green orbs she’d ever seen and she even detected the hint of a smile. “Come here my darling,” Mellie said, pulling Beatrice to the mirror but she shied away. “Oh don’t be silly now look how pretty you are. You are still a child but you’re not too young to start growing more secure in your abilities. The first step towards that is feeling good about yourself.”
Beatrice appeared embarrassed and her cheeks flushed pink as a rose. “But mi’lady,” she mumbled.
“All right, never mind.” Mellie stepped away and stood near her bed. “Stockings first. Let’s get this done. I’m starving this morning!”
After breakfast with Phillip, which was an absolute delight to both based on the complete ease at which they discussed her trip to London and the lack of anything more serious than his desire to plan a harvest festival. Mellie was bubbling by the end of their chat and had agreed to assist him but made him promise to postpone her trip until November. He was concerned about her traveling in the cold and feared an early snow could halt her travels completely. She insisted she’d be fine and reminded him how mild the autumn had been the year prior and how mild October had begun already.
They settled on Thursday October 22 as the opening day of the festival, closing it on Sunday the 25th. He would have notices posted in the village to invite everyone to come and set up their wares and they’d have an open air market. There would be entertainment, food and drink enough for all, as they’d had a bountiful season and more than enough to last the winter, mild or not.
Directly after breakfast, Mellie took out her favorite horse, Mary Belle. She was gentle and tame as well as a beautiful golden brown with chestnut mane that Mellie kept braided and groomed perfectly. Mellie despised riding side saddle and always, when far enough away from the castle, would hike up her gown, revealing her soft, leather britches beneath which no one ever saw except her hand maid. Beatrice had raised an eyebrow when she removed them from the clothing bundle but Mellie assured her they were simply for extra warmth, which wasn’t a complete lie, she told herself.
As she came upon the first hill, she glanced back and saw no one within view. Knowing her lands were always well protected and guarded, she was never frightened to ride alone. Phillip had advised against it as Edward always did but both knew she would do as she wished and accepted it.
Her dress now gathered at her hips, she swung her left leg over the saddle and gave Mary Belle a gentle kick to move. A few moments later, she was flying through the trails, climbing hills and descending into the meadow she adored about a mile from the castle gate. As she climbed down and led the horse to a sunny spot to warm up a bit, she spotted a huge buck, grazing at the tree line, surrounded by several does and two fawns. “Oh how lovely,” she whispered as she crouched in the grass to watch for a moment and then reached into her satchel for a drink from her water skin. “Mary Belle, days like this are a gift from God. Life has gone on and I don’t intend to waste another moment of it.” Next, she pulled out a book and then sat in the grass and read.
After about an hour, the sun had moved and her golden patch of grass was growing cold. Announcing it was time to go, she mounted the horse and began her usual lazy journey back to the castle, choosing to follow the main road until the castle was in view and she’d have to return to the uncomfortable side saddle position. She became lost in a daydream about the festival and of London until suddenly, she heard hoof beats behind her.
“My lady,” she heard someone say and turned to find Stewart. Following him was Lord Elswick and her new colt. She stopped and waited for them to join her.
“Stuart, is it that late already? Lord Elswick, it’s so good to see you again,” she said with a degree of exuberance she instantly regretted.
Alexander got down from his mount and led the horse until he was standing beneath her at her side. “My Lady Ludwig, you’re a sight for weary eyes.”
Mellie quickly swept all of the loose strands of hair that had blown free as she rode, back away from her face which was pink and warm from the sun. “I must be a fright,” she said over a chuckle. “When I sent word with Stuart about the colt, I had no idea you’d come today.”
“You said at my earliest convenience and since I was completely unencumbered by anything as important as visiting, I decided today was more than convenient. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not.” She smiled longer than she’d wanted to but his face was a welcome change and his pleasant demeanor was just as she’d recalled.
“Well, if I can convince you down from this magnificent animal, I’d love to introduce you to the one I brought you,” he said, smiling all the while.
Mellie then realized she was still sitting astride Mary Belle and her eyes popped wide and she gasped and then acted as if she’d done nothing out of sorts. “Of course, I’m dying to meet her.” Without the slightest bit of awkwardness, she threw her right leg over the horse and climbed down, straightening her skirt. “I suppose that seemed out of the ordinary but I find it much more pleasant and the exercise far more effective.”
“My lady, I don’t hold with traditions that encumber women. My own mother rode astride and my father could not have cared less as long as she was happy.”
Of course, she thought and paused a moment and then snapped back into her head. “Well, let’s get a look at her.”
Stuart led the colt forward by a lead rope and Mellie took a deep breath and sighed. “She’s just as you said. She’s the image of Charlotte.” She patted the animal’s neck and stroked her back gently. “She’s still young but weaned of course?”
“Of course. She’s a healthy appetite too and eats like…well…a horse,” Alexander said and laughed. “Stuart, would you mind taking the colt to the stables?”
“Of course not my lord,” Stuart said. “Unless my lady wishes me not to.”
“Go on Stuart. Lord Elswick and I will be along shortly.”
Stuart nodded and clucked his tongue in his cheek, riding off slowly and leading the colt back to the castle. Mellie caught him glancing back a few times and laughed.
“Poor Stuart, he’s so protective of me. If he only knew how safe I am with you.”
“Totally safe; I’m as meek as a kitten,” he said and smiled as they began walking and leading their horses.
“Oh Alexander, please accept my apology for not coming to visit your wife. I don’t know what I was thinking making such a promise under those circumstances. Can you forgive me?”
“There’s nothing to forgive. I knew you’d need time to mourn, despite your declarations that night in church that life goes on. That isn’t to say it doesn’t but sometimes it takes a while to get there.”
“You’re such a wonderful friend. So, how have you been?”
He walked beside her and stared off towards the castle for a moment before answering. “Lonely I suppose. I do miss Edward’s counsel and more so his friendship. I think I miss his humor and laughter most of all.”
“Same. The castle is so quiet without him. It’s taken well, months to get used to it.”
“Well you seem to be adjusting if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Trust me, I was a retch. I was angry for quite a while and you wouldn’t have wanted to see me let alone speak with me for more than a few moments.” She laughed. “But yesterday, when your letter came and the offer of the horse…then Phillip’s suggestion of going to London for a few weeks I…”
“London?” Alexander stopped, gaping at her as he interrupted. “It’s nearly winter my lady. Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
“Oh please Alex you sound like a worried father. I’ll be fine. I’ll have every comfort on my journey as well as a host of escorts.”
“Apologies. I just worry that it’s still so soon for you and of course my own selfish reasons.”
“Selfish? You? How so?” Mellie asked. Her voice was swimming with curiosity and intrigue—two of her favorite things.
“You mentioned coming to Elswick to visit. Will you still have time before you go? I was so looking forward to showing you my stables and our wonderful horses.”
“Unlike before when I was not myself, I plan to keep my word. I’m supposed to assist Phillip in planning a harvest festival but that isn’t for several weeks yet. I’m sure I can squeeze in a few days at Elswick. After all, planning things is one of my specialties.” Mellie stopped and her eyes flicked back and forth as her mind ticked away. “I’ve got it. You’ll stay with us tonight and Stuart, my hand maid and I will return to Elswick with you on the morrow.”
“Your mind does work swiftly Melanie,” he said and laughed.
She hooked her free hand around his arm. “You know I haven’t asked about your lady wife yet but now I am. How is she Alex? Is she still failing?” Mellie’s voice was soft and concerned and her eyes filled with tender care.
Alexander sighed heavily and answered without meeting Mellie’s gaze. “She’s grown steadily worse I’m sad to say. I’ve entertained the idea of sending her back to her family in hopes that the milder weather and familiarity may if not cure her, at least allow her time to regain her strength but she wouldn’t hear of it.”
“I do not proclaim to be able to work miracles by any means but I promise you,” Mellie said, her voice hardening as she stopped and turned facing him, forcing him to look at her. “I’ll do everything within my power and spare no expense to help her. You’re a good man Alexander and if I can bring her back to you, I will.”
Alexander took her hand in his and placed a gentle kiss on her knuckles. “We simply do not deserve you…any of us.”
“I know but I grew very fond of you through Edward and how you stood by me through what happened. I consider you a dear, dear friend and if I can make at least one person happy after everything I’ve been through, I intend to try.” She winked and smiled at her own sarcasm and Alexander nodded and smiled. “And don’t be ridiculous, of course you deserve happiness; we all do. Now, I’m famished. Let’s get these horses put away and have something to eat.” Suddenly her alternate reason for deciding to go to London popped into her head. Perhaps Alexander can help me? She thought. “Alex, after supper would you grant me another chat?”
“As if you need to ask such a thing when you know I adore our conversations.”
“Good. The subject is of a highly sensitive nature so what I’m going to share must be kept strictly between us.”
Alexander’s raised brow at first worried her, but as a smile grew over his lips, she understood he too had a streak of mystery that was lurking beneath his kind and gentlemanly exterior. Mellie swept her hair back again and climbed back in her saddle. “Come Eslwick! I’ll race you to the stables!”
Chapter Eight – The Right Thing
Phillip and Lord Elswick spent quite some time conversing in the library, much to Mellie’s dismay. Night had fallen and yet she still hadn’t been able to have her chat with Alexander as she’d requested. She wondered if he even remembered her request but imagined regardless, he wouldn’t insult the lord of the castle by cutting their conversation short to speak his mother. Since the evening was cool, she settled on a walk in the west garden, donning her heavy cloak and strolling about passing time until Stuart brought word that Lord Elswick was free as she’d instructed.
“This is ridiculous. I can simply discuss this with him tomorrow after we reach his home,” she said aloud to herself as she carefully picked half dead roses from a bush and tossed them over her shoulder.
“There you are my lady,” Stuart said rushing up to her. “I barely saw you there in your dark cloak.”
“I’m practicing for intrigue, Stuart.”
“I’m sorry?” he cocked a brow in confusion.
“Never mind—is Lord Elswick free yet?”
“That’s why I came to find you. The gentleman is…”
“The gentleman is right here,” Alexander said as he walked up behind Stuart.
“Shall I go my lady? I’d be happy to stay if you need me to,” Stuart remarked, giving her a look of concern.
“Perhaps you could take care of the other matter I spoke with you about earlier. You’ll be joining us tomorrow for our journey to Lord Elswick’s home and you may report to me once we arrive there. Please see that Beatrice has packed my things and have them brought down to be loaded on the cart. Oh and although I appreciate your ongoing concern for my well-being, I assure you, I am a mature widowed woman, not a helpless girl and Lord Elswick is a gentleman of the highest esteem. Now, do as I asked please.”
Stuart bowed and rushed off, leaving Mellie practically in stitches.
“That was quite a speech my lady,” Alexander bowed. “Remind me never to cross you.”
“The poor lad’s face,” she said over a soft laugh as she gathered herself back together. “He’s actually grown quite dear to me but I cannot help myself sometimes from reminding him he’s not my guardian. I have knights for that.”
“Shall we walk? It’s a lovely evening and we have this beautiful moon which is nearly full,” Alexander said, offering her his arm.
“Yes please. This cool air is so much better than the stifling heat and stuffiness in the castle.” She took his arm and they began a casual stroll through the garden.
“I hope you won’t mind me asking but speaking of knights, I trust you’ve had no other issues with…Sir Elliot was it?”
“I haven’t spoken two words with him nor has he crossed my path with more than a nod since the night of Edward’s passing. Oddly enough the incident hasn’t crossed my mind since…wait, how did you know about that?” Mellie stopped and released his arm. Her eyes widened in both shock and embarrassment.
“Apologies my lady but the opportunity to discuss this with you did not present itself until tonight. After I carried you to your chamber the night of the feast, I questioned your young page as to what had happened and he said he did not know, only that you’d moments before had words with Sir Elliot. I hope you don’t mind but I had a word with him myself.”
“Unfortunately Alex I do mind. What possessed you to get involved in such a thing?”
“As we’ve spoken of before my dear lady, and I hope you won’t think this out of turn but since this is mutual, I feel we’ve known each other much longer than what the calendar shows. Truth be told I wanted to pummel him senseless but he confessed to me he’d made overtures towards you and that you…quite firmly shall we say, put him back in his place. I simply said should he ever make such a lewd gesture toward you again, I’d break his spine.”
“Oh,” Mellie gasped, covering her mouth. “My word, Alexander, I’m shocked at a man as gentle and refined as you making such a threat!” She slipped her arm back through his. “I’m quite impressed if I’m being honest. I like being surprised by people, especially when they behave out of character or at least out of character from what I’ve known.”
“I saw no reason to drag Edward into it and I believed your honor as a lady is to be protected and shielded from such indignities. I’m glad to hear he’s kept his distance although I for one would feel more at ease if you simply discharged him.”
“I did discharge the instigator of the entire issue which was far more sinister than a simple lewd suggestion; Edward’s man servant, Grogan. Apparently he’d filled Sir Elliot’s head with nonsense…anyway, I found out he’d been carrying tales and I simply cannot have anyone under my roof whom I cannot trust—which by the way leads me to the reason I wanted to speak with you.”
Alexander led Mellie to a stone bench at the far end of the garden near an altar for prayers among the flowers. He waved his hand for her to sit and then sat beside her, careful to leave space between them. “So this conversation is about someone who you are suspicious of?”
“Not exactly. I had a young hand maiden who recently left my service for a very personal reason, and returned to her family in the village. Oh, Alex, can I trust you with my deepest secret?” Mellie asked, resting her hand on his arm and looking up at him pleadingly.
“I believed you already did. We only just spoke of it.”
“I suppose you’re right. Well, this is someone else’s secret. Although I lost my temper with her and chastised her horribly, I was very fond of Janine and she was the most capable Hand maiden I’ve ever had.” Mellie paused and sighed.
“You can trust me, I promise,” he said softly and with that deep and tender tone she remembered from the first time they’d met.
“Janine is with child and the man left her. She told me he went to London to find work.”
“Ahhh,” Alexander said, glancing at her with a side eye. “So you want to find him and see that he does what is right by your hand maid.”
Mellie looked over at him, her pale skin barely visible in the moonlight beneath the shadow from her hood, and nodded. “I want to find him and have him brought back here to do what a man should do. I’m shocked that any man could just abandon a woman in her condition, for work or any reason.”
“Yes, I’m surprised he didn’t marry her before he left, which leads me to believe his intentions weren’t the most honorable. At least her name wouldn’t be tarnished and the child…not to mention the child. However, Mellie, I know you’ve led a wonderfully full life here and if I may say so, a bit sheltered from the outside world. You are aware there are many Janine’s in villages all over England.”
“Yes but this one is mine. She was like a daughter to me, Alex.”
He couldn’t see as she’d turned her face away but he surmised she was crying when her hand went up and swiped at her cheeks and he heard her sniffle. He reached into his surcoat and handed her his handkerchief. “Here my dear lady, dry your eyes. It is impossible for me to deny you and your tears so please, tell me what you need me to do.”
“I only wanted to ask you if I was doing the right thing. I…I have no one else I feel comfortable enough asking who’s a man who I believe will give me a truthful answer. I normally don’t meddle in the affairs of others like this but the injustice of it all has me mad.”
“Have you asked Janine if this is what she truly wants?”
Mellie had to pause for a moment and reflect. She was silent, remembering her outburst and how if she’d perhaps handled the conversation with more compassion, she’d have had the common sense to ask the girl what she wanted. “No, I have not. Are you telling me I’m making a mistake?”
“Of course not. I simply don’t believe you should run off to London in search of a man you know nothing about, who could be an absolute rogue, and who seduced your young maid with the intention of doing exactly what he did.”
Mellie slumped a bit and sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Oh Alex do you think I’m just a meddling old fool with no grandchildren who can find nothing better to do than stick her nose where it doesn’t belong?”
“Oh, so now I’m a joke as well?” she asked in a huff.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing could be further from the truth. You have a loving and caring heart and you only wanted to help the girl. You’re not meddling, you’re simply trying to do a good deed but unfortunately, no matter how much we desire to help others, if they choose not to help themselves or prevent such situations from happening, perhaps allowing them to face the consequences is the most noble thing we can do.”
“How is leaving a naive young woman unwed with a child noble, when we have it within our power to help?”
Alexander looked up at the castle wall and said, “Perhaps getting away from here is exactly what you need. The world out there is much different than your experience has been for a long time. My advice to you is to leave this be, go to London and visit your son, take in the theater and the sights and do some shopping and put this matter aside. You’ve been through so much and seem to be well on your way back to joy. Why turn it all upside down over something that may end up resolving itself?”
“I’ll sleep on it and see what information Stuart brings me. I’ve enlisted him to find out who the man is and anything else he can turn up.”
“He is a loyal lad,” Alexander said and rose to his feet. “It’s getting late. Allow me to walk you back to the hall.” He held out his hand to her which she took and stood as well.
“He’s my cousin you know and sadly, the closest thing I have to friend, other than my horse,” she said over a sad chuckle.
“Lady Ludwig you wound me. Am I not your friend? I would hope so considering we’ve spent the better part of an hour plotting intrigue.” He smiled as she took his arm again.
“Lady Covington has always been my most true confidant but we only see each other thrice per year if we’re fortunate enough. I’ve never had a gentleman for a friend before. Doesn’t this feel strangely off to you?”
“I’ll admit it is quite peculiar but Lady Elswick and I were friends once.” He paused and his gate seemed to miss a beat for a step or two.
“Once?” she asked and then thought better of asking something so personal yet. “I’ll admit, Edward and I were never friends. We had absolutely nothing in common and bickered relentlessly,” she said and laughed. “Arranged marriages don’t often end in love but at least we did have that. So, what did you mean by once?” The words flew from her lips before she could stop them and immediately regretted asking out of fear she’d made him uncomfortable.
“It’s late my lady. Let’s keep that story for another time.” He nodded as they entered the entrance hall and she released his arm.
“Of course.” Se yawned, covering her mouth and thankful for his response which released her from her guilt of asking. “I swear there’s nothing better for sleeping than crisp autumn air.” She quickly changed the subject.
“You’re so right. Goodnight my dear lady, until the morrow.” He bowed to her and she turned and headed for the stairs, her long black cloak billowing in her wake. “My lady?”
Mellie’s heart stopped as quickly as she did, and she tossed back her hood, resting her hand on the banister. Despite her better judgement telling her not to, she glanced back at him over her shoulder as he moved towards her as if wading through water.
“You are neither a fool nor old. You’re simply remarkable and generous and I’m proud that you’re my friend.” He bowed and walked away, leaving Mellie emotional with pride but a bit sad all at once. She nodded and raced up the steps to the tower.
When she reached her chamber, her bed was turned down, her shutters slightly ajar, her water pitchers filled and a lovely arrangement of wildflowers filled her vase. The next thing she knew, Beatrice appeared in her doorway.
“Mi’lady,” she curtsied. “I’m here to help you get ready for bed.”
“Thank you, Beatrice. The room is clean and lovely. Have you moved into your room yet?”
“Yes mi’lady. Mrs. Bolton helped me and I’m so thankful. I’ve never had a room or a bed all to meself.”
“Well, as long you as continue working like this, you won’t have to give it up anytime soon. Shall we?” Mellie asked, untying the strings at her neck and removing the cloak.
When they were through and Mellie abed, she turned on her side facing the partially open shutters, but as chilled as the air was, she wanted to see the night sky. She rose and opened one of the shutters enough so that she could see the stars and paused to stoke the fire Beatrice had started for her in the hearth. She then knelt to pray before she climbed back beneath her blankets and curled into herself.
“Thank you Lord, for this comfortable bed, my warm fire, and this lovely view of the stars. And thank you for sending me Alexander and his level headedness and wisdom. He’s simply like no one I’ve ever known and yet so familiar and easy. Please help me find a way to cure Lady Elswick and restore her to good health. If not, I fear his affection for me as a friend and our mutual lonely and unpleasant situations may take us down a path that could lead us to a deep and singular misery or worse, complete ecstasy. Amen.”
Chapter Nine – The Lady Elswick
Just after breakfast, Lord Elswick, Lady Ludwig, Stuart and Beatrice headed off towards Elswick castle under clear skies and a warm sun. The season was finally turning, and the chill in the morning air had Mellie bundled in her thick warm cloak. She sat astride Mary Belle and traveled parallel to Lord Elswick on the main road. Stuart and Beatrice, rode in the cart with their belongings, following behind at several lengths.
Their breakfast conversation had consisted of the road conditions, whether or not to stop for a midday meal and Phillip’s ramblings about the upcoming festival. Mellie chimed in often and enlisted Mrs. Bolton and Mr. Randall to assist Phillip in her absence with the planning. At a mere eighteen, Phillip was wise beyond his years, but still had much to learn about planning an event this vast and in such a short time, among other things.
Now, an hour into their journey, Mellie grew weary of horse clops and wagon wheels and at last gave in to her urge to speak. “You were right, you know,” she said, glancing at Alexander’s striking profile and then turning her eyes back to the road ahead.
“Hmm, now there’s something I don’t hear very often,” he said over a chuckle.
“As most men say to women but I’m referring to getting away from the castle for a few days. I’m feeling a sense of adventure and I’m looking forward to new scenery.”
“Castles are castles, my lady. However, I think you’ll enjoy the landscape, as well as my pride and joy,” he said and nodded to her. “My horses of course.”
“Of course. If that colt you gifted me is any indication of your passion for fine breeding, I’m sure I’ll be awed at what I find. I’m looking forward to meeting Lady Elswick and getting to know her more so than the horses I confess. After all, that was the reason I wanted to visit in the first place if you recall.”
“Yes and,” he said and paused for a moment. “I’m glad we have this time to discuss some things that we haven’t yet where she is concerned.” His voice was not tender as it usually was but rather apprehensive and flat.
“Do you mean in regards to her affliction? I confess I only heard that she was ill but not the exact symptoms of her condition.”
“Yes, that is precisely what I mean.”
Mellie was intrigued and yet she pressed on, with a nervous feeling, and clutched tightly to the reins. “Please, do go on.” She glanced back at the wagon behind them, satisfied that the distance would allow them to speak freely without being overheard. “The more I understand her condition, the better prepared I’ll be to hopefully assist her.” Mellie reflected on her brief conversation with Stuart the evening before. Unfortunately, he had neither met nor seen the Lady Elswick. He’d said there was no introduction and that he’d dined in the kitchen alone and slept in a small but comfortable chamber that was given over to him on Alexander’s request to one of his servants. At sunrise, he was informed they’d be leaving after breakfast and that was that.
“You asked me last night what I meant when I said she and I were friends once. I’m about to attempt to explain what I meant by that.” He stopped hard on his last word and paused before going on. “Catherine was a lovely girl, a distant cousin but we knew each other from our early years and grew a friendship as children do. She was always laughing and she was incredibly bright—literally leaps and bounds ahead of me in her studies. She was also quite a talented artist. She loved to paint animals, especially birds. She was fascinated by them. Of course as we know birds don’t sit still for long but somehow she’d memorize every bird she saw and could recreate them down to their eyes. They were so vivid and realistic you’d look at one of her paintings and believe the bird would simply fly away right before your eyes.”
“Oh how magnificent! I’d be thrilled to have such talent. I hope I’ll get to see some of her artwork during my visit.”
“I have managed to save some of them but she gave most of them away as gifts. After all, what good is having such a gift if you don’t share it?”
“That is so true, Alex. I’m afraid my gifts were more directed towards people. My mother used to say my discernment was a gift. Unfortunately it kept me away from them more so that engaged with them.” She smiled. He did not. She wondered if he’d heard her at all and decided from that point onward, not to interrupt him. Any commentary or questions, she’d save until he’d completely purged whatever it was he needed to, as when he spoke, he appeared entranced. It was as if he was telling this story for the first time.
“When Catherine was sixteen and I eighteen, it was decided the time had come for me to marry. My father immediately suggested Catherine, as we were already so familiar and had such a good rapport. What my father did not know and did not care to know was that Catherine was completely in love with someone else; another young lord from Dorchester whom she’d met on a trip to London the year before. She was there with her family for six weeks so as you can imagine, they’d had ample time in each other’s company to become well acquainted. I remember when she and her family returned to Essex how different she was. No longer did we spend our afternoons riding or playing with the dogs or doing much of anything really. All she wanted to do was paint and talk about how wonderful London was and Lord Harrington this and that. I knew then she was in love. There was no hiding it.”
He spoke frankly as if none of this affected him at all. He seemed to be telling someone else’s story instead of his own. His detachment was palpable.
“Since I felt nothing more for her than friendship, only my sense of adventure suffered as she no longer wished to spend time with me and I was left to my younger brother who cared more about his studies than finding some boyish nonsense to get into. I recovered quickly though as I’d only ever seen Catherine in the summer months when she came to stay. When she left the last time, her usual letters and little bird paintings she’d enclose became less frequent. Then of course when my father suggested,” he turned to Mellie and raised his eyebrow as if to imply suggested meant insisted. “I write and invite her to Elswick and propose marriage, I at first resisted on the grounds I wasn’t ready to marry, although my true reason was I did not wish to marry anyone who was so obviously in love with someone else. But as parents do, they took it upon themselves to invite the Everleighs—Everleigh is Catherine’s surname, to Elswick. It was all planned without our knowledge or consent.”
Mellie couldn’t withhold her shock and disappointment. “How uncomfortable that must have been for you both.”
“That’s putting it quite mildly but yes, that’s a nice way of saying it. When they arrived, Catherine was absolutely distraught. I tried tempting her with bird watching or anything I could really to draw her out enough to conspire with me a way to stop this engagement from taking place and after several days of watching her brood at her bedroom window, she finally agreed to take a walk with me. I explained to her I wanted this no more than she did. I wanted to go to London and go to school but of course my brother had already won that honor and was preparing to leave in the fall. My duty was to remain and study at home in order to assume this role I inherited, at least until I was wed. I told her I understood about Lord Harrington and would support her decision to refuse the arrangement. That’s when she at last broke down and confessed to me that Lord Harrington had married someone else over winter and broken her heart. There was no understanding between them, so her father had no grounds against Harrington but that didn’t save poor Catherine’s hopes from being crushed. It was then she confessed to me it was she who’d persisted in pressing her father for a marriage with me. She cried and explained that at least we were familiar and this way, they wouldn’t ship her off to marry some other lord who she didn’t know and who may end up being twice her age.”
“So in essence you’re saying you married her out of pity that she’d have to suffer beneath her father’s wishes?”
He only nodded.
“And once you were married?” Mellie asked with a great deal of apprehension.
“We moved to a lovely manor in Norwich which was close enough to both families and also close to her beloved sea. She enjoyed hours painting the many sea birds on the shoreline. She’d have stayed out there all day if I’d have allowed it. Then came the losses, one behind the next and with each, her recovery was longer. However, she began to…” His voice trailed off into a sullen silence.
“Alexander you really don’t need to go on any further. This is obviously deeply personal to you and I wouldn’t want you to suffer through it again by explaining it.”
“If there’s even the slightest chance you can help her, if not for me, but for her to find some semblance of happiness again, I need to explain it all. Do you understand?” He turned and faced her, his eyes reddened at the edges from withholding emotion. Mellie nodded, holding back emotion of her own at the sight of his anguish. “One day, she went down to the shoreline to paint. It was during her final recovery and she’d barely spoken a word for weeks. I’d become concerned and had her hand maid accompany her and keep watch over her. I’d had a horrible dream and…I was worried more so than I’d ever been. It was a cold day, not chilly. It was practically frigid and I expected them not to stay long but when the hour reached the afternoon meal I climbed on my horse and I swear I must have thought the poor beast had wings the way I rode him the quarter mile to the beach. As I came over the dune, the poor hysterical maid was dragging Catherine from the frigid water.”
Mellie gasped. Her hand flew to her mouth and she burst into tears. “My God, Alexander,” she shouted in a whisper. “You must have been terrified.”
“I barely remember much of it. Only that it took hours to warm her and then a fever took over and she suffered for several days. The doctor came and stayed at her bedside, as did her maid and I. I don’t even think I slept. I sent word for her mother to come but feared she wouldn’t make it in time. I believed the worst but through some miracle, on the fifth day, the fever broke and she opened her eyes. During those days, her maid Glenda, had tearfully apologized and explained to me that she’d crept away for only a few moments to gather some shells and when she turned back, Catherine was nowhere in sight. She began running and screaming down the shoreline until she spotted Catherine just walking into the waves blindly. That girl saved her life but what life? The Catherine I knew and loved as a dear friend did die that day. Her will to live washed out into the sea.”
“How long ago was this?”
“It will be five years next month. Five years of her crying, fits of rage, staying abed for days on end, of starving herself, of sheer misery.”
“Her misery or you both?”
Alexander’s head snapped to her. “How could I watch her shrivel and shrink into whatever she’s become and not live in misery as well? To watch someone you care about suffer and be utterly helpless to save them…what is more cruel and painful than that?”
“Alexander, listen to me; I don’t know if there’s anything I can do but as I promised you before,” she said and reached out her hand to him as she pulled her horse closer to his. “I will do anything within my power to try to reach her and help her. Everything you’ve told me…I also promise to keep close to my chest and never speak of it to another living soul.”
Alexander took her hand in his and squeezed it gently. “I believe you. I also believe if anyone will find a way, it will be you my dear lady.”
Upon their arrival at Elswick, they were greeted by several house servants and taken to their chambers to freshen up before supper. Mellie’s room was at the far eastern end of the castle and Beatrice had a simple cell much like the one she had at Ludwig but it was not connected but rather across the corridor. Mellie’s chamber was decorated in rich deep blue and cream, which were the colors of the Elswick banners and she found them warm and pleasing.
She chose her emerald green gown for supper, and Beatrice styled her hair more softly with half of it up in braids and the rest laying in waves down her back. Mellie adored the change and thought it was becoming of a woman on an adventure to change things up, even her hair.
At half past six, a young page arrived to escort Mellie to the dining hall. Alexander kept things quite in line with all the usually expected pomp and she admired him for not allowing his current unhappy situation to impede his duty as lord as well as his temperament. Either he was a very good actor or he truly was this strong and able to maintain his good spirits through everything he’d had to endure. Her ability to see through people, although clouded by her attachment to Alexander, told her to believe in the latter.
“The Lady Ludwig,” Mellie heard someone announce as she entered the dining hall, which consisted of only Lord Elswick, who stood and bowed as she entered the room. He was right that one castle was very much like the next and the dining hall was decorated similar to her own which gave her comfortable feeling despite the unfamiliar local.
“Oh Alexander please, there’s no need for such formality.” He waved her to the chair aside him to the right and Stuart seated her as he always did.
“Stuart insisted on being your chaperone at supper my lady. He is quite the loyal lad,” Alexander whispered as she sat. “I do hope you enjoy venison. We have quite a lot of deer on our land.”
“I adore it. To be honest there isn’t much in the way of well prepared food that I don’t adore,” Mellie said and chuckled.
“Well you must only taste small bites by the look of you.”
“That’s kind of you to say but I assure you, my appetite is healthy and I make no apologies for it.”
“How did you find your chamber?”
“It’s lovely, Alex. The blue and cream is just so pleasing. Thank you so much for your hospitality.”
Idle chat was growing thinner by the second, considering the depths of their conversation en route. Eating became a comfortable substitute as they could not converse about Catherine with two pages and a serving girl in the room. However, discussing the festival and London served to get them through all five courses as well as dessert and soon, they were taking a stroll about the castle as Alexander proudly took her on a tour through the history of Elswick.
“Alexander,” Mellie said as they had nearly reached the west wing. “I get the feeling you’ve a purpose with all of this.”
“With all of what my lady? The tour?”
“Is Lady Elswick in the west wing?”
Alexander stopped just before they reached a staircase at the end of a long hallway. In the torchlight, she watched his expression go from that of a proud lord showing off his home, to a knowing glance through the weary eyes of a man at his wits end. “Catherine’s chambers are at the top of these stairs. I wanted you to know where she was although I planned your introduction in the morning.”
“Yes, I believe meeting her in the light of day would be much more pleasant.” Just as Mellie spoke, a hand maid scurried down the stairs carrying a tray.
“Good evening Glenda. Did my lady enjoy her supper?” he asked.
Glenda lowered her head and shook it slowly. “But she did drink the warm milk and honey mi’lord and ate a bit of bread.”
“Thank you. I suppose that’s better than nothing.”
“Yes mi’lord. I’ll just put this here on the table and someone will collect it. I can’t be leaving mi’lady alone for long as ye know.” Glenda said, and sat the full tray down on a small table in the hallway and then turned and rushed back up the stairs.
“You know, Alexander, if you’d like to go and say goodnight, I can easily find my way back to my chamber,” Mellie said, glancing back at Stuart lurking some ten feet behind her. “I’m sure Stuart will see that I find my way.” She chuckled.
“Yes, I suppose I will. I told her you were coming to visit when you were able. Perhaps she’ll be tempted to finally meet you, knowing you’ve kept your word. I’ve told her all about you. I didn’t want her to think you a stranger when this time came.”
“I’m truly looking forward to it.” She placed her hand on his arm and patted it gently. “Goodnight then. I’ll see you at breakfast and please give her my kind regards.”
“I will,” was all he said as she watched him go. He climbed those stairs as if he were trudging through mud. Her heart went out to him and she vowed to make every effort to help him, whatever it would take.
Chapter Ten – Starting Over
Mellie’s sleep was restless to say the least. When Beatrice entered her room in the morning to assist her in readying for the day—most of all her introduction to Lady Elswick, Mellie rose slowly and reluctantly.
“Please give me a few minutes Beatrice. I haven’t slept in any bed other than my husband’s or my own in many years. I feel as if I’ve slept on a pile of stones.”
“Of course mi’lady. Please, take your time,” Beatrice said as she filled her lady’s wash basin and then poured her a cup of water. She waited patiently as Mellie sat up and stretched over a yawn.
“What is the hour?” Mellie asked, sliding from the bed to her feet.
“It’s just after seven mi’lady. Lord Elswick said breakfast would be served at eight o’clock.”
“I suppose I’d better move faster then.” Mellie made her way slowly to the basin and splashed the cool water over her face, and then proceeded to wash herself beneath her sheath. With ample time to spare, her hair was done and she was dressed and well awake when the young page she now knew as George came to collect her for the morning meal. She’d chosen a beige dress, quite simple in its accents of black, brown and gold banding at the neck, elbow and hem. It was front lacing with petal sleeves and she wore a matching choker of gold and onyx. The darker colors always seemed to bring out the cream of her complexion and the deep green of her eyes.
“You look lovely mi’lady,” Beatrice remarked as Mellie turned in the mirror when the knock came at her door.
“I want to make a good first impression on Lady Elswick. She has an extremely delicate temperament and I want to be the soul of modesty and warmth to her.”
“You look like a garden fairy. What could be more warm and modest indeed?”
“Thank you, child. Please maintain your duties here as you would at Ludwig and to pass your time, by all means you may offer your services elsewhere—perhaps the kitchen.”
“Oh thank you mi’lady. I’d be happy to help.” Beatrice curtsied and opened the door.
Mellie took George’s arm and he led her to breakfast where yet again, she and Alexander were the only diners.
“Good morning Alexander,” Mellie said as he stood to greet her and kissed her once on each cheek.
“Good morning my lady, I pray you slept well?”
“I must confess; I did not. However, that is no reflection either on you or the mattress. It’s just been a very long time since I’ve slept away from home. I’m certain tonight will be much better once I’m more settled.”
“I have over a dozen rooms my lady and as many beds. If you’d like to try another I’m sure it would be no trouble at all.”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, dragging out the word with a smile. “Enough about me, how are you this morning and as important, how was Lady Catherine last night?”
“Much the same as every night I’m afraid. I sat with her and told her of your visit. I offered to read to her for a bit and tried to tempt her to the window to see the half-moon but to no avail.”
“How did she seem when you told her I was here?” Mellie asked with a degree of apprehension in her voice.
“She said that it was good of you to come and that she was thankful I had someone to talk to.” Alexander raised his eyes and smiled meekly. “Tea?”
Mellie looked beyond his eyes for what she herself was feeling and saw the sadness. It gave her pause and after several awkward moments of breath she answered. “Yes, yes please,” and looked away at her plate of poached eggs and sausage.
The young serving girl moved forward upon Alexander’s nod and poured.
They spoke simultaneously and then smiled.
“You first my lady,” he said.
“I’m worried that Lady Catherine isn’t up to visitors. Is that my fear of upsetting her or am I simply being overly concerned?”
“Mellie, if you wait until she’s up to a visitor, I fear that day will never come. However, I do understand if you’d rather not go through with this but I wish you would. My confidence in you…your spirit and I don’t know, I just feel something about you that I can’t explain. I believe you could be the miracle I’ve waited for.”
Mellie took a deep breath and sat back a bit in her chair. “Alexander, I…I don’t know what to say.”
“I hope I haven’t made you uncomfortable but like you, I always speak my mind and my heart and both are shouting to me that this is Catherine’s last chance. It may sound as if I’m begging but I don’t know, perhaps I am. Please forgive me.” It seemed as if he hadn’t even realized he’d clasped onto Mellie hand where it rested on the table. His eyes were closed for a moment and he sighed as he opened them. “Again, my apologies my lady. If you wish to go, I will understand and hold no grudge for it.” He released her hand and sat back.
“No. I do not wish to go. If anything your words have fortified my resolve to help you…and her. Now, let us finish our breakfast and then, you’ll take me to meet Lady Catherine.”
Mellie had neither a plan nor experience in matters of saving someone from themselves. What she did have was the memory of her mother, fading away and not being able to even try. She decided to rely on instinct and follow through with whatever her heart told her to do.
Glenda the hand maid was bringing down Catherine’s mostly untouched breakfast when Mellie and Alexander reached the stairs to her chamber, much as the night before. She sat down the tray and curtsied and turned to race back to her lady when Alexander stopped her.
“Mi’lord?” she said, surprised at his request to stay downstairs.
“Yes, Lady Ludwig and I wish to visit my lady wife this morning. You may take the tray back to the kitchen and have your breakfast.”
Glenda curtsied to them both, her expression of acceptance obviously shrouding suspicion and she reluctantly picked up the tray and left them.
Alexander led the way up the stairs and tapped lightly on Catherine’s door before entering. “Catherine? I’m here with Lady Ludwig for a visit,” he said as he slowly opened the door.
When they stepped inside, she was indeed still abed but sitting halfway up propped on several down pillows. Her hair was brushed and neatly braided, and she wore a bright green robe over her sleeping shift. Her frail, nearly translucent hands were folded and resting over the blanket that covered her nearly to her chest. What Mellie found most striking of all was her pale blue eyes—nearly colorless in the mid-morning light of the room. Thickly lidded from her obvious malnutrition, they were like orbs that seemed to float within their sockets. Her cheekbones were pronounced but not sharp and Mellie found the degree of gray in her auburn hair peculiar based on her age. She couldn’t have been more than thirty eight.
Mellie moved forward. “Lady Elswick, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you.”
Catherine lifted her hand and offered it in greeting. “Lady Ludwig. It’s so kind of you to visit us.”
“Please, do call me Mellie. I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner, you see I…”
“You lost your lord husband. Yes, Alex told me. I’m so sorry. It was such a tragedy,” Catherine interrupted.
Mellie bowed her head and then looked up into those clear blue eyes. Although the color of ice, they did not appear cold at all, neither did her touch. Instead, they were simply empty and transparent, and devoid of anything resembling emotion. “May I sit with you a while?” Mellie asked.
“Of course but I’m afraid I am not very good company. In my state of health, I’ve been known to fall asleep right in the middle of a conversation.”
Mellie’s heart swelled with sadness that was quickly overtaken with compassion. “Oh my darling, don’t worry, but I’ll try not to bore you to sleep.” She smiled, struggling to hold back a river of tears.
“Alexander, go away. Mellie and I are going to have a visit and we don’t need you loping about. I’m sure you have a hundred things to do,” Catherine said breathily.
“Of course darling. My ladies,” he said and bowed, kissing her hand and then excused himself.
Catherine seemed to sink back into the pillows as the door closed and she sighed. “The poor man,” she said. Her voice was more like wisps of soft wind than actual speech. She stared out across the room as she spoke, as if she were miles away. “Isn’t he lovely though? He’s always been lovely.”
Mellie sat in the chair beside the bed facing Catherine’s blank expression. “He is a lovely man. He’s devoted and loyal as well, which is of course the reason I’m here.” Mellie shuddered a bit from a cold chill and realized one of the windows was open. “Should that window be open? It’s rather chilly in here. Would you like me to shut it?”
Catherine slowly turned her head and their eyes met full on. “I prefer it cool in here.” She paused a few moments as if trying to decide what to say but then said, “I’m glad your journey wasn’t far my lady. I’d hate for you to have traveled day and night to sit in that chair. I know why you’re here and I’d love nothing more than to tell you I appreciate your company but save yourself the trouble and go back to your family.” She turned away.
Mellie was at first taken aback. She’d expected some reluctance or even resistance to her offering of friendship, but to so coldly and without reason be so quickly cast away was something she hadn’t foreseen. She swallowed hard, restraining her anger and sat up straight, collecting herself and then answered. “Lady Elswick, you do not know me therefor I can appreciate your candor as well as your sentiment that by leaving, I’d be saving myself trouble as you said. However, truth be told I’m not here to coddle you nor hold your hand, nor will I make an exception from being truthful simply due to your condition. I do understand your plight and am not without compassion for your circumstances but I made a promise to your lord husband to at least try to befriend you and by some miracle of God, help you, and unless you plan to get out of that bed and physically remove me from this chair, I’m afraid you’d better get used to looking at me because I do not intend to leave until you can physically toss me out.”
Catherine stared blankly at Mellie and then looked away. “Where is Glenda?”
“Taking some well-deserved time to herself away from this room. Now, one thing I will tell you straight away is that I am above all else an honest woman and I won’t ever lie to you nor mislead you.”
“Alexander has told you about me then?”
“Yes. He has at least told me as much as I need to know for now. Shall I recite it all to you or do you believe him truthful in what he shared?”
“No, I’m certain he told you everything you need to know.”
“Good. It’s obvious to me that you’ve suffered more than any woman I’ve ever known and the sadness has broken your spirit. My intention in being here and hopefully becoming your friend is to assist you in finding your way back from this hell you’ve fallen into.”
“Do you believe you’re the first person to sit in that chair and spout such pious intentions because I assure you, you are not?”
“My methods are neither medical nor spiritual my lady and my experience is limited to a mother who shrunk herself down to no more than a shadow of her former self whom I was powerless to help.”
“You couldn’t save your own mother and yet you believe you can save me?” she said and scoffed.
“I’m your last hope Catherine Elswick. All I have is my mind, my spirit and my wits. If that isn’t enough then by the time we’re through, you can die if that’s what you truly want but Alexander is a good man and a dear friend to me. I owe it to him to at least try.”
“You believe you can come into my home and speak to me like this?”
“Oh, is this still your home after all? When is the last time you’ve been out of this room or that bed for that matter? You probably can’t even remember can you?”
“I want Glenda. You will send for her right now or…”
“Or what? What will you do?” Mellie asked as she shot to her feet and leaned over, pulling the blanket away from Catherine’s body.
“You witch,” Catherine muttered, clenching her boney hands at her sides. “I’ll freeze to death. Is that what you want?”
“Of course not but is that what you want?”
Catherine began to cry. “If Alex knew what you were doing he’d cast you out,” she whimpered.
“And if he does then none of us are any better off than we were when I walked into this room. Now, can you stand?”
“Of course I can stand,” she sniveled.
“Then take my hands and let’s get you out of that bed.”
“I don’t want to get up right now.”
“Fine then, at least let’s sit you up. It’s a wonder you’re not covered in sores from laying here all this time.”
Catherine fell silent. Not a whimper or a sniffle.
“Catherine, do you have sores?” Mellie whispered, suddenly overtaken with concern. “Please, may I look?”
“Glenda takes care of them. They’re nothing to worry about.”
Mellie stood back for a moment, believing she should take a turn of direction. “Come on darling, please take my hands and let’s at least get you on your feet for a few steps.” She stood aside the bed and held out her hands.
“Glenda will get me up. She knows how.”
“My dear, I’m as strong an ox and you’re as frail as a fawn. I assure you, I won’t let you fall. Please,” Mellie said pleadingly. “Just trust me.”
“No, I can’t.”
Mellie dropped her hands on her hips and huffed and then sat down on the bed beside Catherine. “I didn’t come here to be cruel or to upset you but in my experience, the longer we grow familiar with a situation, the longer it will continue. Maybe no one has been honest enough with you to tell you that if you do not come back to life and at least try a little each day to make steps, your death is inevitable. By the looks of you I’m amazed you aren’t dead already.”
“Maybe that’s what I want? Did you not consider that? I tried to end it but Glenda pulled me from the water and Alexander refused to let me die.”
Mellie reached out and snatched Catherine’s hand. “No, that’s where you’re wrong. If you truly wanted to die you’d have succeeded by now. You pulled through that ordeal. You survived that fever. You eat and drink just enough to stay alive. That is not the actions of a woman who wants to die. Those are the actions of a woman who is just too sad to live.”
Catherine began to sob and Mellie pulled her forward into her arms and cried as well. She could feel every bone in Catherine’s body; even through the thickness of the robe. “There, there my darling, cry it out.” Mellie pressed her cheek to Catherine’s and whispered to her, “I see you darling woman. I see you and I feel your pain but I promise you, today is a new beginning. I don’t care how long it takes I won’t leave you until I know you’re well.”
After several minutes, a knock came at the door. “Mi’lady?”
Catherine pulled back and said, “Yes, Glenda?”
“Is everything all right?”
“Yes, yes I’m fine. I’ll send for you in a bit.” Her voice was thin and weak but Mellie soon heard footsteps receding and lay Catherine back into her pillows.
“Now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, how about we just talk?” Mellie pulled the blanket back over Catherine’s body.
“Yes only don’t allow me the honor or I’ll go on forever. Let’s start at the beginning. What is your very first memory as a child? I know Catherine is in there somewhere and maybe in order to find her, we’ll need to just start over.”
Catherine gazed blankly towards the open window. “Birds, nesting in a tree outside my window; baby birds in a nest.”
Chapter Eleven – Music of Youth
Despite being unable to get Catherine out of bed, by the time Mellie left her for the noon meal, she felt they’d made a step in the right direction. Whether or not the steps would continue was too soon to say. Mellie’s optimistic nature however, kept her chin up and her spirits high when she took her seat at the table and Alexander swept into the room and joined her, just as Stuart had seated her.
“Apologies, my lady, I did wash up a bit but since I’m unaccustomed to eating with anyone else, I may still smell a bit like the stables. We normally pass on formalities here. I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course I do and I don’t want you to make any special adjustments to your usual ways on my account. The smell of stables does not offend me, even if I did sense it which I do not.”
“Leek soup, pork sausage and boiled carrots mi’lord,” the serving girl said as she sat the meal before them. “Oh, and fresh bread.” She curtsied and served.
“Thank you, Agatha. The Lady Ludwig and I have some things to discuss. If you and George and Stuart would excuse us please, we’ll dine alone this afternoon,” Alexander stated politely and smiled.
“Yes…of course, mi’lord,” she answered and the three of them filed out of the room.
“May I?” Alexander asked as he reached for the tea pot. Mellie smiled and nodded. “I hope you don’t mind but I’m curious as to how your first meeting went.” His tone although pleasant did not sound optimistic.
“Oh no, not at all, I assumed you would be and although there isn’t a lot to tell, I will say things started a bit rocky but after a while, I believe she accepted my presence.”
“Accepted your presence; what an interesting way to put it.”
“How about we eat while the food is still hot? Afterward, I’ll explain everything.”
“Apologies, again, my lady I had not intended to be rude. Of course, it was unfair of me to pounce on you that way.”
“Don’t worry, if that’s what you call a pounce—I’ve had eight week old kittens pounce on me harder than that,” Mellie said and chuckled. “I don’t believe you could ever be rude or in any way overbearing. You simply want your wife back and wish to know what my impression was of her, if any. To relieve your thoughts if I may so we can eat, all I can tell you is it’s far too soon to know. I wish I could offer you hope but I have a feeling I may be here a while, that is if it is agreeable to you.”
“Mellie, I do not wish to impose so much on you. Perhaps I was wrong to bring you here and for this purpose. You have the festival coming up in a few weeks and preparations that need be made.” Alexander’s eyes were wide and she sensed a touch of regret in his voice.
“Phillip must learn how to handle such things and if he cannot, than I believe it’s time he began searching for a wife to assist him. Besides, he has Mister Randall and Mrs. Bolton. I’m here now and if you know me as well as you claimed to, you’ll know once I press in my heels and push forward with anything, it’s practically impossible for me give up until I’ve seen things through. Now, let us enjoy our meal and then, you’re going to introduce me to your lovely horses. Hmm?” she said pleasantly and yet with a stern and affirming glare that left him speechless.
Once they’d finished, Alexander offered her his arm and led her out to the courtyard and onward to the stables. He was cheerful and engaging, and even proud of everything he’d done to restore the castle and lands to their former glory. He didn’t once speak ill of his father, only mentioned in passing how had he known things had been declining, he’d have come home much sooner or never left at all.
“Was your father ill when you left?” Mellie asked, as she picked up a brush and gently stroked the smooth, muscular neck of a young filly.
“Not that I was aware of. Of course now, looking back, he must have been in order for things to have declined so quickly. By the time my mother wrote to me that I was needed here, we’d already lost over half our tenants and livestock and barely had enough money coming in to pay for feed for the animals that remained.”
“And look at you now? All of this has come so naturally to you. Your father obviously knew what he was doing by keeping you close and raising you up to take over for him. You’ve done wonderfully, Alex.”
“Yes, wonderfully at managing land, raising animals and even agriculture.” He chuckled sadly and petted the young filly’s nose. “I’ve never been very good at people though.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I won’t hear you speak like that. Edward adored you like a brother and you certainly charmed me the first time we met. Stop pretending your less than you are. I simply won’t stand for it,” she said scolding him, without even raising her voice. She sat down the brush and began walking out of the horse stall towards the sunlight of the open stable doorway.
Alexander rushed to keep up with her and when he reached her, she turned to him. Her expression was solemn and she was fighting back emotion. “Alexander,” she said as he faced her almost hovering and blocking the sun from her eyes. “You mustn’t blame yourself for Catherine’s condition. I’ve felt your angst over her illness not as concern or caring but rather as regret, as if you did something to cause this. Please, if we’re going to help her, you must release yourself from the guilt that your actions had anything to do with it.” She was firm and yet gentle with her words, but as she spoke, he stared off aside and away from her, appearing unable to acknowledge the honestly in her eyes.
His hands were planted firmly on his hips and she reached out, ever so precariously and offered her own hand him to him. At last, he met her pleading stare and looked down at her open hand and grabbed onto it as if it were line tossed into the sea to save a drowning sailor.
“My lady, I cannot fathom what good I have done in this lifetime to be so deserving of your company, let alone your friendship but whatever it was, I thank God for it.”
“If we cannot be truthful with each other, Alex, and face our own hauntings, there is no way we can be whole and happy people. I need you to tell me why you’re carrying this blame in your heart and don’t deny me the truth because believe me, I’ll know.”
He lowered his head and sighed. “I don’t know what more I can tell you other than what I said on our journey here. I told you everything.”
“You relayed the facts to me as they happened. You relayed the timeline and the series of events but there was nothing in your story about how either of you felt. I know you both have a beating heart although yours seems from my perspective, boarded up against a storm while hers is fully exposed, as if it beats on the outside of her chest. I can plainly see her sadness and pain while you…” Mellie stopped herself, suddenly realizing she’d gone too far when his face reddened and his hand tensed in hers.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t delve into such cavernous places yet my lady,” he said abruptly in a whisper. His voice was strained and his back straightened. It was obvious he’d become extremely uneasy. Mellie could feel the pulse of his heart quicken in his palm as she held on.
She tilted her head and looked up at him. Pride was the first word that came to mind. She knew men shied away from speaking of things like hearts and feelings and thought to stop completely but she wasn’t about to let him escape this easily. She glanced around and found no company besides the whinnies of horses and the occasional maned tail whipping away a fly. “I need you to trust me,” she pleaded in a whisper.
“I do trust you but…” he took a deep breath and squeezed her hand gently, releasing a sigh. “There are things I cannot explain to you. Things that only recently became haunts that have me lying awake in the night. Things that perhaps should never be spoken into the light.”
“It’s all right, Alex. I know I can be a bit forthcoming; perhaps too forthcoming. If you wish, after supper we can share a flagon of wine again and I’ll impart some of my own hauntings to you. Sometimes, allowing oneself to share those cavernous places makes it easier when someone else goes down there with you to light the way.”
Mellie glanced something in the corner of her vision above Alexander’s shoulder and her other hand went to her brow to block the afternoon sun. It was Glenda, standing in Catherine’s window looking down at them. She unconsciously and immediately released Alexander’s hand. “Alex, how well do you know Glenda?” she asked, not yet mentioning the woman watching them.
“She’s been with us for over ten years. She’s dutiful and completely dedicated to Catherine’s care. Why do you ask?”
“Oh I’m going to need much more than that I’m afraid but for now, that’s sufficient. If the time came when I asked you to release her for perhaps just a while, maybe a week or so, would you agree to it? I mean of course I’d take care of everything in her stead.”
“Of course.” Alexander must have followed Mellie’s eyes and he suddenly turned, catching a glimpse of Glenda as she pulled the drapes on the window. “Ah, now I understand why you…so, do you think she’s spying on you?”
“It’s understandable really. She’s obviously very protective of Catherine and just wants to measure my intentions. We’ll see how things play out. Now, let’s continue our discussion later. I’d like to check in on Mary Belle and go for a ride. Would you join me? I’m afraid I don’t know the terrain here. I’d hate to end up lost in the woods.” She laughed.
Alexander smiled and stared at her. “How do you do it?” he asked and then chuckled as she spun away and headed back into the stable.
“Beg pardon?” she asked, barely listening and focused on her intentions. “My goodness I’ve lost my senses. I’m not wearing my riding leathers. I’ll need to run and change. I’ll be right back.”
As she turned to rush past him, Alexander caught her by the arm gently and held her there a moment. Her green eyes lit up with surprise. “I asked you, how do you do it?”
“Do what?” she asked. Her confused and yet amused expression appeared to catch him off guard and his eyes grew narrow and serious.
“You command and yet allow and comfort all at once, simply by virtue of your presence. I’ve never known anyone in my entire life like you.”
Mellie wasn’t sure what to answer, nor was she comfortable in that moment with how powerful yet gentle his large hand felt as it clasped onto her upper arm. She did however understand the racing of her heart and the quickening of her breath and she softly pulled away, choosing humor over some empty explanation that his blue eyes would see straight through.
“Don’t be silly. You described a horse!” she shouted over a laugh as she rushed away.
By the time Mellie reached her chamber, she was winded and beads of perspiration covered her brow. Beatrice was nowhere in sight but as it was mid-afternoon, she surmised she was still helping in the kitchen. Her room was tidy and thankfully, her water pitcher was full. Quickly, she poured a cup and drank it down as she dampened a wash cloth and blotted her face.
“Change. I need to change,” she mumbled to herself, trying to recall why she’d rushed to her chamber in the first place. “My pants and I really should change my gown.” She stepped to the wardrobe and found everything just as it should be, just as she’d instructed Beatrice to arrange it. Quickly, she rummaged through and managed to find something she could easily dress herself in until a doubt that perhaps spending even one more minute with Alexander today was not advisable. “Dear Lord in heaven, what shall I do?”
Mellie was pulled from her prayer by Beatrice’s voice and her light tap on the door.
“Yes! Come in dear!” Oh thank you Lord! She thought, believing she didn’t wish to be alone in this moment of uncertainty and a distraction from her thumping heart was as welcome as it was necessary.
Beatrice entered with a bundle of clean linens and placed them on a chair near the bed. “I’m sorry mi’lady. I wanted to get this done before you returned.”
“Oh no! It’s quite all right. Shall I assist you?”
“What? I’m more than capable of helping you.” Mellie’s voice was breathy as if she could barely keep enough air in her lungs to speak.
“But you’re dressed for a ride and you really do not need to do these things. Are you all right mi’lady?” Beatrice’s expression of utter and complete concern shocked Mellie back into the moment.
“Oh yes! I went out to go for a ride and realized I needed to change clothes and I ran all the way back here.” Her tone was high and obviously nervous.
“Here, sit down a moment and I’ll get you some water,” Beatrice said, moving the linens to the bed and leading Mellie to sit.
Mellie took several deep breaths and fanned herself with her hand as she waited and then again, drank the water down in nearly one long gulp. A few moments later, she had managed to calm her breathing and her jittery behavior and gathered herself together.
“Thank you Beatrice. You’re a God send, truly.”
“It’s my pleasure mi’lady.” Beatrice stood staring at Mellie for several moments.
“What is it dear?” Mellie asked.
“You…said you were going riding?”
Mellie thought for a moment and decided for now, or at least until she could discern what had transpired between her and Alexander in the stables, she’d forego her ride and instead, search out Alexander’s library and perhaps write a letter to Lady Covington. She hadn’t written to her friend in weeks and owed her dear friend a reply.
“Beatrice, would you be a dear and locate Stuart for me? I need to let Lord Elswick know I’ve decided not go for my ride after all and that I suddenly remembered I have an important letter to write.”
Beatrice smiled shyly and Mellie detected a bit of a blush in the girl’s full, freckled cheeks. “Of course, mi’lady, straight away. Oh, will you be changing again?”
“No. That won’t be necessary. I’ll just keep this on until supper. Go on now. I’ll be in the library if anyone needs me.”
Mellie found her way to the library, which was quite impressive and practically the equal of her own husband’s. However, there was no portrait of Catherine either in front of or behind Alexander’s desk, only lovely tapestries and rugs, and several paintings of whom she assumed to be the previous Lord and Lady Elswick. There was even a beautiful painting of a rather large and shaggy dog that she surmised was a long gone beloved family pet.
As she sat down to write, the painting of the dog kept distracting her for some reason. She began to wonder where Catherine’s paintings were and she hoped Alexander would share them with her that evening. She resolved to make sure to ask him. Once she gathered her thoughts and managed to pull her attention and what she believed to be a brilliant idea away from the shaggy mutt in the painting, she dipped her quill and began to at last write the letter to Lady Covington.
My Dearest Eleanor,
I am well and have at last made my journey to meet the Lady Elswick. Beatrice and Stuart accompanied me and although we’ve only been here a day, I’ve had the pleasure of having my first meeting with the lady. She is indeed a study in the female mind and how a lifetime of disappointment can affect a woman who perhaps never learned how to survive loss. Then again, she never had a friend like you or I to turn to. I’ve resolved to be her friend if she’ll allow it. I see a long road ahead and as of this afternoon, the road has shown itself to me as all uphill. Complications…complications. Pray for me.
I’ve missed you desperately. I cannot write plainly but please bear with me. Remember when we were young and silly girls and wrote to each other? I pray you do. Remember how we would be the only two in the world who could understand those letters? I’m certain you do.
I heard a song today I haven’t heard in a very long time. The verse was familiar and yet the melody was so much more enchanting. It reminded me of the angels singing. It was horribly sweet and yet as deep as the ocean and nearly as dark and mysterious. I fear if I listen to it too many times, I may drown in its refrain. The trouble with this song is that it’s terribly sad. I must never listen to it again for I know it will not serve me to memorize it. How unfortunate to hear such music only to know its verses, although sweet and true, are only found in dreams and never here on earth.
With all my heart,
Chapter Twelve – Blow in The Wind
Mellie did not see Alexander again until supper. By then, she’d managed to accept her emotional response to what she’d convinced herself was no more than a peculiar attraction between them, but one she also knew must be suppressed and forgotten. Her best sense told her avoiding any intimate conversation that could possibly bring about a deeper attraction was of the utmost importance—possibly even more important than Lady Elswick.
“Good evening my lady,” Alexander said as Mellie entered the hall and Stuart rushed to seat her.
“Good evening Lord Elswick. Thank you Stuart,” she said and curtsied, observing every formality as to not be her familiar self.
“I’m sorry you couldn’t enjoy your afternoon ride,” Alexander said as their supper of ham, roasted with vegetables and a savory blend of apples was carried in and placed before them.
The aroma had Mellie’s stomach aching with hunger. “Everything smells delicious,” she remarked. “I needed to get a letter off. I’d allowed other interests to distract me from responding to Lady Covington. I do hope to see her while I’m in London.”
“Oh,” Alexander said, with an expression of surprise. “I wasn’t aware Lady Covington would be in London as well.”
“Of course but how could you be since I’d forgotten to mention that when I decided to go, I remembered her saying when she was at Ludwig, that she and Lord Covington had planned to Christmas there this season. Lord Covington’s family has an estate there.” Even in her thoughts Mellie was putting as many roads between them as she could.
“Ah, yes.” He stopped, looking up from his plate for just a moment and smiled so weakly she could barely detect the upturn at the corner of his lips. His eyes, which normally displayed his smile before it even reached his mouth were vacant of any such emotion.
“Would it be possible for me to visit with Lady Elswick this evening?” Mellie asked, dismissing her suggestion from earlier of that chat and flagon of wine.
“I thought…” he said and paused, looking over at her and then he appeared to have thought better of mentioning it at all. “Of course you may. I did look in on her on my way here and I was pleased to find her sitting up in bed reading.”
“Reading?” Mellie asked. “Does she often read?” Her voice was tipped around the edges with surprise.
“Not often but on occasion. She must have had Glenda search her chamber high and low for the book as it was one I hadn’t seen her with in quite a while.”
“What sort of book was it if you don’t mind me asking?”
“It’s more of a journal really—her own. It was one she kept as a young girl and has some of her first drawings in it. It’s a bit of poems, drawings, remembrances and such.”
Mellie was elated. “How wonderful,” she exclaimed softly, showing the most sincere bit emotion she’d shown since she entered the room.
“Yes, it is, considering only a few months ago she’d tried to burn it. Glenda nearly set herself ablaze pulling it from the flames of the hearth.”
Mellie sat down her fork on her plate with a bang. “Thank goodness she saved it! When I think of what a tragedy that would be, to lose something so wonderful.”
“Indeed, it would have been. Thankfully, there are several of them in my library tucked away for safe keeping. After that incident, I made sure to preserve them.”
“Oh, Alexander may I please see them? They would be so helpful to me.”
“Of course,” he said kindly. “I’ll retrieve them for you myself and bring them to you later after you visit with her. Anything I can do to assist you, I will.”
They ate quietly for several minutes, as Mellie’s mind wandered through the prospect of finding anything worth gleaning from those journals. Her excitement grew and she decided not to visit Catherine after supper but to instead, learn more about her through those books before seeing her again in the morning.
“You appear as if you’re plotting to take over the world,” Alexander remarked over a chuckle.
“Your eyes are wild with thoughts and ideas, it’s obvious you know.”
“Is it really? I suppose I never was very good at concealing things. I’ve decided to wait until tomorrow for my next meeting with Catherine. I believe I’d like to see those journals immediately after supper. Would you mind?”
“Naturally I do not as I truly don’t think I could deny you anything my lady, as I believe I’ve mentioned before. Your determination is a force I dare not make myself a boundary of lest I fear you’d run me over.”
Mellie scoffed and yet chuckled all at once. “I suppose I can be relentless at times but I have noticed it’s grown stronger with age.”
“Wine my lady?” he asked, lifting a carafe.
“Yes please,” she said and nodded. “Just a sip, I’m hungrier now for those books than I am for anything.”
Immediately after supper, Alexander led Mellie to the library to retrieve the journals. The sun was setting and he’d sent George on ahead to light the room as well as the hearth. It was an unusually cool autumn evening and there was a damp chill throughout the castle.
“Brrr,” Mellie muttered, pulling a shawl around her shoulders. “I do hope Beatrice has started the fire in my chamber.”
“I’m sure she has. I ordered the servants to see to all occupied and common rooms as the chill came on quite quickly as I was on my way back to the castle earlier.”
Mellie stood near the roaring fire and waited as Alexander retrieved three plain, leather bound books from a drawer in his desk. They were quite large, at least ten inches in height and perhaps six inches wide. The leather was well worn. From the looks of them, they’d been dearly loved by someone’s hands.
Mellie moved to one of the large deerskin covered chairs nearest to where she stood by the hearth and Alexander placed the books in her hands. “Will this be enough light my lady?”
“Oh, yes. The firelight will be just fine.”
Alexander poured himself and Mellie a glass of wine at the sideboard near one of the giant book cases and placed it on the small round table next to where she sat. “Here, this will help to warm you as well,” he said, taking a seat in the chair opposite her. “it’s been quite some time since I’ve browsed those pages.”
“Is this you?” she asked, holding open a page and turning the open book to face him.
He sat back and took a sip from his cup. “She did that one summer’s day when I was fourteen.” He chuckled, seemingly a bit shy about it.
“What? It’s marvelous Alex. What a beautiful boy you were,” Mellie said and then flipped the page back around and studied it. “She captured you perfectly. What were looking at while she drew it?” Mellie noticed a faraway glance in the eyes of the young man in the drawing.
“I can barely remember a week ago,” he muttered, gazing into the fire.
“Are you sure?” she asked, studying the picture. “You appear so engaged. None the less, the little poem that accompanies it is sweet.”
“Eyes like the sky, reflecting from within. Hair like the sun, yet none on his chin,” Alexander said closing his eyes and releasing a soft laugh. “That was her humor. She was teasing me because most boys my age had already begun growing out beards but my fair hair left me with nothing but soft, pale fuzz like a peach until I was seventeen.”
“It is quite funny. Did she poke fun at you often?” Mellie asked, taking a sip of wine.
“She was always happy, as I said. Her wit was her charm. She was never mean spirited but oh yes, she could turn a jest over anything.”
Mellie smiled, imagining the two of them together as she turned each page. “It appears she liked dogs as much as birds and that your memory is just fine.” Mellie held up another open page and showed it to him.
“Shelby was always her favorite.”
“Wait is this the dog in the painting?” Mellie said and turned, pointing to the portrait on the wall.
“Yes, when he was a puppy. My God what a mess he was when we found him. We were taking a walk by the creek and we heard the saddest little whimpering and yelping. Catherine ran ahead of me and when I caught up, they were both covered in mud,” he said solemnly. “Thank goodness the creek isn’t very deep. She’d run into the water and scooped him out and wrapped him in her shawl. Immediately we raced back to the castle and she had a bath drawn for him and begged my father to allow her to keep him until it was time for her to return home.”
“I see you kept him,” Mellie said, smiling.
“She had four dogs, six cats and several other animals at home and her father absolutely forbid her from bringing Shelby home. I of course adored the hairy mutt as well and my father became quite attached to him, hence that painting.”
“Blow in the wind. Blow in the wind and carry the leaves away. Blow in the wind. Blow in the wind and keep the rain at bay. Blow in the wind. Blow in the wind and when the sky turns gray. Blow in the wind. Blow in the wind and I’ll be back someday,” Mellie read from one of the pages with a drawing of a tree losing its leaves. “These are simply lovely; such talent.”
Alexander sat silently sipping his wine and gazing at nothing, and then arose and poured another.
“Alexander if you’d rather be elsewhere, I’ll be fine here. I’m sure I can find my way.”
“There’s nowhere else for me to be my lady and over time, I’ve read every book in this library; some more than once. Does my company offend you?”
Mellie was surprised at his candor and her eyes shot up from the book. “Of course not, I simply feel as if my exploration is either boring you or making you melancholy.”
“May we speak freely?” he asked, sitting down his wine and returning to his seat.
Mellie swallowed a sip of wine and closed the book. She could feel a bit of her dinner rise from her stomach and she swallowed again. “Yes…yes of course,” she replied but was unsure of the truth of her answer.
“You were right this afternoon. I have blamed myself for Catherine’s condition.”
“But why? I told you there is no one to blame. Sometimes these personality problems or sadness sicknesses come about for no reason at all and yet, Catherine has many reasons, none of which refer back to you.”
“Of course they do. Who do you think put those children inside of her,” he said harshly but Mellie knew his angst was not directed at her. “Apologies my lady, I have no cause to speak so harshly to you.” He rose to his feet. “I’ll go and leave you to your research.”
“No,” Mellie exclaimed. “Please don’t. Please sit. You weren’t speaking harshly to me, Alex. You were speaking harshly to you.” She sat forward in her chair and waved her hand towards where he’d sat.
“I’ll stay if you truly want to hear this,” he said, the rich warm tone returning to his voice.
“If I didn’t want to listen, I wouldn’t have stopped you.” Her own voice was softer now and the fears she’d had earlier in the evening seemed to dissipate like smoke from a candle flame.
He sat and leaned forward. His shoulders hunched as he leaned his forearms on his thighs and lowered his head. “I wanted a child. I believe I wanted a child more than she did. It was selfish of me. I knew how she suffered and yet the moment she appeared well enough, I pressed her to try again.” He stopped and his hands slowly moved to his face.
“All men want children as do women. It’s only natural, Alex. You love her and you only wanted her to be happy. I’m sure you thought a child would bring her joy and…”
“I didn’t. I don’t. I…don’t love her,” he interrupted. His voice was now a rasp of masculine emotion the likes that Mellie had never heard. “I wanted to. I believed I could make myself love her as a man loves…is supposed to love his wife but I didn’t and I never could.”
Mellie’s heart was somewhere up in her throat and pounding like a hammer on an anvil. “Oh…oh Alexander,” was the only words she could muster.
He combed his hands through his blond mane and fell back into the chair. “I’ve never told a living soul what I’ve told you. So now do you see? This lovely, talented, joyful girl wasted on a man who did not love her and yet who pressed her to have his children, and for the most part, avoided her otherwise.”
“Oh, Alex I’m sure you did not misuse her. Please don’t torture yourself so.”
“Oh I have for a very long time. You see, she did not love me either. Marrying Catherine was like being forced to marry my own sister. It took us nearly a fortnight just to consummate the marriage and then, I never touched her again until nearly two years later. She conceived the first time we lay together.”
“Oh my poor darlings,” Mellie said. She wanted desperately to comfort him but it appeared he wasn’t yet through. All she could do was sit there with her hands folded in her lap as tears rolled from the corners of her eyes.
“Catherine had one love—Charles Harrington. Sadly, I had no other ladies as interests as I was trapped here and told who I was going to be, how I was going to be it and ultimately who I would marry.”
“Alexander don’t you see? You know yourself you both did the best you could do under the circumstances. Catherine was funny and lighthearted because beneath all that she was delicate and frail. I’ve known many a person who was outwardly lively and jovial, only to conceal something deeply troubling. Then, when she lost her Lord Harrington and ultimately believed she’d failed you by not giving you the child you desperately wanted, she fell into sadness and neither you nor anyone else up until now could pull her out of it because you’re attached to it. This is why I believe I may be able to help. I’m in no way attached to it. I’m a stranger with no guilt, no remorse or regrets where she is concerned.”
“Oh but Melanie you do not understand,” Alex pleaded and pushed himself to his feet. Mellie looked up at him as the tears continued to flow. “The worst of it is that…” he appeared to stop himself with an audible struggle to catch his breath and turned away.
“What is it Alex? Is there something else I need to know? Were you unfaithful to her? Please, just say it. I don’t believe we’ve anything left to conceal.” She stood and rushed to him, clutching his sleeve and turning him back to face her.
“That day at the shore…”
She reached out and took him firmly by the arms. “That wasn’t your fault either. You did everything you could to save her and you did,” Mellie whispered through tears.
“God forgive me, Mellie. In my blackened heart I wish I hadn’t,” he shouted in a whisper as his wet eyes locked on to hers. “You can’t understand what it’s like to live the way I’ve lived for so long now.”
“Don’t say this.” She shook him but being twice her size, he barely moved. “Don’t say this. You don’t mean it.”
“I mean it now more than ever and you know why. You more than anyone know why.”
Mellie was suddenly light headed and nearly unable to catch her breath. She let go of him and stumbled back but he caught her in his arms and she fell against him, willingly. She was defenseless and overcome with emotion as he pulled her close. “Oh, Alexander, yes, I do know but this is impossible.” She pushed him away and stood back, wiping her tears away.
“I know…I know it’s as if I have some twisted destiny that continues to press me into circumstances over which I have no control but for the first time in my entire life, I know what it feels like to love and adore and want someone more than life itself.”
“Alexander, don’t say these things. Please, you know our position and that this can never be. I’m…I’m so sorry but we must maintain our faith and goodness and accept things as they are.”
“Do you believe I do not know this? Do you think I haven’t suffered under this pressing on my heart at the mere thought of you? I assure you my lady I do. I may be mad with love for you but believe me Mellie, I am no fool. I know this can never be but all my life, all I’ve ever wanted was to feel the way I feel when I’m anywhere near you and to be able to express it with my whole heart and now…I have. Now I am free of it. You have my very soul as well as my heart and if all these things are good for is to give them away then take them, they’re of no use to me anyway,” he rambled in a whisper and then burst from the room, leaving her standing there, trembling.
Mellie staggered back to her chair and sat, trying to absorb everything that had just happened and yet frozen in the heat of the fire. Her mind raced with regret and blame—she blamed herself for even coming there. She began to ask herself how long she’d loved him as well and if the real reason she’d come to Elswick had just stormed out of the room. How would it be possible for her to stay now and fulfill her promise? How would she be able to face Catherine or anyone else for that matter?
An hour had passed before she was able to make clear her entire existence. As weak and spent as she’d been when Alexander left her there, her faith, her ever reliable ability to go on and the years she’d spent living with Edward and being forced to find her own joys and pursuits assured her she could press on. What had happened was solely between her and Alexander. She did admit to herself she was in love with him and quite madly at that but her duty came first, last and always.
I can sweep this aside, she thought. I can sweep this aside and continue with my task unless this feeling becomes too heavy a burden to bear, and once Catherine is on her way to wellness, I will return home, and suffer the loss of Alexander in my own, private way. As much as do love him and he loves me, this cannot and will never be. Once we are apart, time will heal us both.
Chapter Thirteen – A Veil of Strength
Mellie had fallen asleep with Alexander on her thoughts and awakened much the same way. It was nearly impossible to keep him off her mind. Not because she was longing for him but because she worried for his well-being. He’d been upset—nearly distraught when he stormed out of the library. She prayed he’d be strong and that he truly did understand they could never be together.
When she came down to break her fast, Alexander wasn’t there. Stuart moved to seat her and she asked, “Will Lord Elswick be joining me?”
“No my lady, he left this morning just after sunrise,” Stuart answered.
“And?” Mellie asked, turning her head slowly towards him with an inquisitive brow.
“I don’t know my lady,” Stuart said softly and then bowed as he backed away.
“He never says. He does this from time to time and then returns a few days later with gifts for Lady Catherine,” Agatha chimed in as she placed the porridge with cooked apples on top in front of Mellie.
“Thank you, that will be all,” Mellie said, sounding surprised at the serving girl speaking so freely. She would have been put off by the girl’s remarks except for the fact she was grateful for them.
Agatha curtsied and stepped away from the table. “Tea mi’lady?”
“Yes, please,” Mellie answered and then looked back at Stuart.
“Do you need anything my lady?” he asked.
“This was your doing was it not?” she asked, looking down at the porridge.
“Yes…yes it was. I hope you don’t mind?”
Mellie smiled and nodded to him, receiving a smile in return. “Stuart, when I’m through, I will need your help with a few things.”
The boy seemed elated. “Oh, yes my lady! You need only to ask and I am at your disposal.”
“How could I ever dispose of anyone who remembered I love porridge with apples?” She smiled and then went on to eat and enjoy. “Agatha, has Lady Catherine been served her breakfast?”
“Yes, mi’lady, I normally pick up her dishes in the hall once I’m finished here.”
“Very good then. When I’m through, after a brief chat with Stuart, I’ll make my way to her chambers.”
“Should I tell Glenda you’ll be coming?” Agatha’s eyes darted from Stuart to Mellie and back again.”
“It’s only me dear, not the Queen of England. I require no announcement.”
Agatha curtsied and resumed her stance near the doorway.
“Now Stuart, do exactly as I say. I can’t imagine these things will be difficult to find and don’t allow the tenants or villagers to bully you. Sometimes they can be a bit envious of young men of your station.” Mellie turned to leave and then stopped and spun back. “Better yet, borrow something to wear from one of those stable boys—preferably something a bit clean. Wear a hat and muss your hair. If anyone asks who you are, simply tell them you’re here with me and you’re my…my personal horse groomer or some nonsense. Oh I nearly forgot!” she said, digging in her purse and handing him some coins. “I suppose that will help.” She chuckled. “Now go on and seek me out the minute you return!”
“Yes my lady!” Stuart shouted as he rushed away.
Mellie made her way to the steps leading up to Catherine’s chambers. There was no half eaten breakfast tray on the table near the staircase so Mellie believed it safe to proceed. She paused briefly for a moment and gazed up the stairs, as if awaiting Glenda to sniff her out and intercede somehow and then carried on. When she reached the landing at the top and stepped forward to Catherine’s door, it was quiet. She leaned in and not even whisper could be heard. She knocked anyway, albeit lightly. The door opened a pinch and Glenda’s left eye peered at her. “Yes mi’lady?”
“I’ve come to visit with Lady Catherine as promised. May I come in?”
“Of course she’s resting she rests from sun to sun. Will you tell her I’m here please? It’s rather impolite to keep me standing here staring into your eye.”
“Yes mi’lady,” Glenda answered and opened the door.
“My dear, you could do with a bit of courtesy training. Has anyone ever told you that?” Mellie asked as she swept into the room.
“Mi’lady, my duty is to watch over Lady Catherine and I…”
“Oh do go take in the sunshine dear. You’re appallingly pale and I wish to visit with your lady alone,” Mellie interrupted, fanning her hand at the woman.
Glenda turned her eyes towards the bed across the room and Catherine spoke. “Go on Glenda. I’ll be fine,” she said over a soft breath.
Glenda curtsied to both women and stepped through the doorway into the hall as Mellie closed the door a bit firmly behind her and took a deep breath.
“There you are my dear!” she exclaimed, swooping in like a landing bird and settling in the chair near the bed. “Oh my, shall I open these drapes and allow some of this glorious sun in?”
“Do as you wish,” Catherine replied, her hollow, icy eyes staring ahead.
Mellie stood and stepped to the window, pressing the drapes open and looking down into the courtyard. “Ah, that’s much better. There’s a lovely view of the stables from here.” She waited a moment for some acknowledgement of her statement but none came, and she returned to her seat. “How was your breakfast my dear?” Mellie glanced around the room in awe. She’d never seen a more immaculately kept chamber—even more-so than her own when Janice was with her. Not a speck of dust danced in the beams of sunlight.
“Porridge and fried apples.”
“My favorite, I had it as well. You have lovely orchards here, much larger than ours. We’ve had a very fine year for growing, did you know that?”
Catherine shook her head.
“Just the right amount of rain and sun, I’d say we’ve been truly blessed.”
Silence again reigned but Mellie could talk enough for both of them. “Have you been out of bed today or yesterday at all? I can help you up if you like?”
“Yes. I do use the privy…you know.”
“Of course you do but I did take note of the rather lovely chamber pot tucked beneath your bed.”
Catherine at last turned her eyes to Mellie.
“I have a confession to make to you; last evening I looked at your journals. They were absolutely wonderful, Catherine. Your drawings were lovely and the poems…my dear such talent.”
“I suppose…that was his doing.”
“Yes but in truth I requested he allow me to see them. He mentioned you’d been looking through one up here. Would you share that one with me as well?”
“I did not share the others…Alex did.” Catherine’s jaw tightened and the pale blue veins stretched in her neck.
“Well then may I ask what prompted you to want to look at one last night?”
“I was looking for something—a flower I’d pressed into it.”
“Oh I do love flowers. What kind is it?”
“A white primrose…from the garden from many years ago.”
“Did you find it?”
Mellie turned in her chair and gently asked, “What was the significance of it? I’m sure it meant something to you.”
“I can’t remember. That’s the reason I was looking for it. My memories are so foggy now. When I try to remember my head aches.”
“Is that the book?” Mellie asked, pointing to the leather bound volume that rested on a secretary near the door.
Mellie stood and retrieved the book and sat back down, holding it in her lap. She could see where the cover was singed from the fire incident. “May I?”
Catherine nodded again.
Mellie opened the cover and noted an inscription on the first page. There hadn’t been one in the others. She read it aloud. “Property of Catherine Marie Everleigh – fifteen hundred and ten. What a lovely hand you have.”
“You must have been what, a girl of fifteen?”
“I don’t know. I believe perhaps…thirteen. I don’t know.”
“My dear, you do know what the year is don’t you?”
“What does it matter?”
“It matters a great deal. Oh, here it is,” Mellie said, turning a page carefully and finding the flower. “What did you use to secure it?”
“I don’t remember. Tree sap perhaps.”
Mellie glanced at the opposite page and began to read what was written. “A primrose from the garden. I wanted to draw it but instead, I plucked it. A flower’s beauty cannot be matched by any sketch or painting. Well I certainly cannot argue with you on that point. So, you must have been walking in the garden on a lovely day and spotted it and here it is, all these years later. Such a treasure.”
“What good is a…dead flower?”
“What good would it have been crushed into the dirt after a hard rain or to wither and die on its stem? Here, it lives on in your book of memories forever.” Mellie thought for a moment. “Would you like to go outside?”
“Now? No, I would not. It appears…cold today.”
“Actually it’s rather warm in the sunshine. I suppose just finding your feet today here in this room will suffice.” Mellie stood next to the bed. “Shall we?”
“I’d really…rather not.”
“Well of course you’d rather not but…” Mellie paused a moment and then asked, “Catherine, when was the last time you were seen by doctor?” She’d become concerned with the breathy pauses in Catherine’s speech. She wondered if her lack of fresh air and exercise had weakened the woman substantially.
“He comes the first of each month…he was here last week.”
“And what does he say if I may ask?”
“He…doesn’t say anything. He’s waiting for me to die.”
“Catherine, don’t be ridiculous. What a horrible thing to say. The only way you’re going to die is if you starve yourself to death which I may say you’re doing a very poor job of. As I said yesterday, you’re still eating enough to survive but not enough to thrive.”
“I suppose…I’ll tell you the truth of the matter than. Otherwise, I fear you’ll wear yourself out…trying to save me. Alexander would be so disappointed if both of us were abed.”
Mellie sat back down slowly. She hadn’t even considered Alexander since she’d began her journey to Catherine’s room. “The truth of what?”
“My lungs. There’s no point in pretending he…hasn’t told you about my little swim in the ocean that day…and the sickness after. My lungs were damaged quite horribly…by the sea water. The doctor says there’s a lot of scarring…which is why I cannot exert myself and why…I’m dying. He comes and puts his ear to my chest…and listens to my heart and my breathing…and leaves.”
“But I’ve heard no cough, no wheezing but…” Mellie stopped herself and realized how labored Catherine’s breathing had become throughout their conversation and that she was wrong, it wasn’t simple weakness.
“You’ve seen me all of…perhaps an hour total.” She stopped and did in fact pull in a breath and Mellie detected an audible wheezing sound, now allowing her hardheadedness to listen for it. “Pull that chamber pot from beneath the bed…and see for yourself since my words obviously mean nothing.”
Mellie decided against the offer, not wishing to see what she assumed would be sputum and blood. “But Alexander said nothing of this. I…I don’t understand.” Mellie’s eyes were wide with mortification, believing she’d been lied to.
“He doesn’t know. Doctor Whiteford…brings me a syrup made of liquorice and comfrey as well as honey. It helps but…not for long.” She stopped to catch her breath. “Glenda…keeps me upright during the day. It helps and Alex sees me for perhaps…a few minutes in the evening. I do my best…keeping him at a distance.”
“How could you keep this from him? He believes your illness is due to your sadness and the pain of losing your children. He has a right to know if you are truly unwell physically.”
“Alexander bears enough guilt over our entire life. Do you honestly think…that knowing that what I did…ultimately brought about my own death…will sooth him? He’s suffered…enough…and for longer than any man should ever have to.”
“What about your suffering? He is your husband, Catherine. He has a right to know.”
“The doctor said…it won’t be much longer, perhaps a month or two…if I’m very lucky.” Catherine’s voice had become raspy and weak, almost to the point where Mellie had to lean in to understand her. “Yes, my sadness after my many losses…drove me to do what I did. Yes, that sadness still…consumes me but for these past several years…the knowing that death is coming…coming for me is what has…kept me abed. No exertion or excitement. My heart could give out or my lungs just…stop breathing.” Catherine motioned for a cup of water. Mellie sprang to her feet and poured it and then held it to Catherine’s lips. Then, she motioned again. “My medicine,” she whispered, nodding to the bedside table.
“Of course my darling,” Mellie said, with a great degree of pain in her voice. She opened the drawer and lifted a bottle and a small cup and poured the thick liquid. “Here, allow me,” she said, and placed the cup in Catherine’s hand and she drank it down.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she settled back into her pillow. “You see…I do not wish to gaze from the window or feel the…sun on my face or smell fresh wet grass after a rain.”
Mellie took Catherine’s frail, bone white hand and said, “But you must. Please let me give you as much as I can to allow you to enjoy the beauty of the world before…”
“Before I die?” she whispered. “Don’t be afraid to say it. I’m not. I’ve been waiting…for it for a long time. The lingering…seeing his forlorn face…that is worse than death.”
Mellie’s head lowered and her tears ran down her cheeks and onto Catherine’s blue coverlet. “What shall I do? How can you share this with me and not with Alexander?”
“Did you know…he’s in love with you I think?”
Mellie’s head rose slowly and she stared blankly at Catherine, although her mind was raging with shock. “Catherine, how can you say such a thing?” She cried.
“I believe I’ve known…since he returned from your home after your…husband died. I’d never seen him so spirited and alive…at least not for many years. He was saddened and did suffer…over the loss of his dear Edward…but there was something else…I’ve known him a very…long time. Then, when he’d speak of you coming here…his eyes shined with a light…a light I hadn’t seen since we were children.”
“Catherine, you’re so very wrong,” Mellie said, knowing it was lie. “Please put that thought away and never speak it again.”
“I’ll be gone soon…he’ll need someone…no, he’ll need you to be his strength. Please, Mellie…do this for me. He’s isolated himself…from the world for me. You may be…his only friend.”
Mellie nodded quickly. She wasn’t sure if she meant it or if she did it to appease Catherine. “Will you please allow me to speak with him and tell him of your condition? I can never look him in the eye again unless I do.”
“I have been…debating this with myself, ever since Doctor Whiteford’s…visit. Now that I know how soon…perhaps Alex should know…to prepare himself. I do love him…I simply could never love him…the way he needed.”
Mellie’s tears came like rain now. “Oh, doctors aren’t God, Catherine. He could be wrong. There could be other doctors or medicine.”
“I wish…I wish I believed that…but my heart and my body told me long…before the doctor did. I need to rest now. He puts something else…in the medicine to help me sleep. It’s very difficult…to sleep sitting up but…it helps with my breathing and…the cough.”
Mellie was still holding tightly to Catherine’s hand as she stood. She swept the beautiful auburn and silver wisps of hair away from Catherine’s brow and kissed her gently on her forehead as those icy eyes closed. “I’m going to pray for you and I’ll be back later to check on you.” Mellie released Catherine’s hand as if it were made of blown glass, and turned to leave when she saw the book sitting on the chair where she had been. She picked it up and cradled it in her arms and spoke one last time. “Why? Why did you try to destroy this book?”
“Finish it…” was all she replied and then fell silent in sleep.
Chapter Fourteen – Of Love and Truth
Mellie had made her way to the parish immediately after leaving Catherine’s bed side. The promise she made to pray was not an idle one, and pray she did. She prayed until every other thought flew from her mind, leaving her only with pleas for God to release Catherine from her suffering—all of it. When she was through, she dried her tears and made her way back to the castle dining hall for the afternoon meal. The book was tucked under her arm and she embraced it as if within in its pages were things that longed to be embraced and treasured.
“My lady,” Stuart said and bowed as Mellie entered. “Are you unwell?” he asked, upon seeing her sad demeanor and noticed she’d been crying.
“No, I’m not unwell. I was at prayer and it made me a bit emotional.”
“Please sit,” he said, pulling out her chair. “The cook has prepared delicious pies filled with chicken and vegetables. That will warm you up inside.”
Mellie’s saddened eyes smiled up at him and she reached out for his hand. “Stuart, you are such a wonderful young man. Yes, that sounds perfect.” When she let go, he bowed again.
“And you my lady are the finest person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Is there anything I may do for you?”
“Were you able to find everything I sent you for?”
“I was. I did come to find you but was told you were at prayer so I didn’t wish to disturb you. Everything is in my chamber, except for the biggest item. I placed that in the barn and asked one of the field hands to watch over it for me.”
Mellie’s sadness began to fade upon hearing Stuart’s report. “Thank you, Stuart. This news has given me much relief! You must take me and show me everything right after my meal.”
“It will be my pleasure my lady.”
Mellie’s meal was brought to her and she ate with vigor in anticipation. The moment she was through, she swept Stuart up by the arm and he led her to where he’d stored the purchases but she heard them before she saw them.
“Oh Stuart,” she purred as he opened the door to his chamber and she saw them. There were two lovely mourning doves in a cage, cooing away.
“They mate for life the man said.”
“Yes, yes they do. What a lovely couple you are,” Mellie said softly as she approached the cage. “Don’t worry my loves; you won’t be in this thing for long.” She turned back towards the door. “Shall we meet our other guest?”
“Yes my lady, of course,” Stuart said over a smile and she followed him to the livestock barn.
“Percy?” Stuart called out as they approached.
The young man Mellie assumed was Percy was milking a goat and turned, looking at them over his shoulder. “Stuart!” he shouted, wiping his hands on his britches as he rose from his stool. “Sorry Stuart, I had to leash him to the pig pen. The little bugger kept trying to run off.”
Mellie could hear little whimpers and snappy barks. “Stuart, untether the poor thing and bring it here.”
“Yes my lady,” he said, rushing toward the pig pen. “Yes, yes come now. Come along.”
Mellie’s face lit up like a full moon when Stuart turned towards her with the scruffiest, sweetest ball of mottled brown fur she’d ever laid eyes on. “Is it a he or a she?”
“The lady who had him said well, it’s a he. He’s ten weeks old but the bitch who bore him was huge and looked much the same as he does. He was the last of the brood.”
Mellie scooped the sweet pup from his arms and it immediately began lapping at her chin as she giggled. “He’s absolutely perfect,” she said softly. “Oh my, but he does need a good bath.” She crinkled her nose. “Come Stuart. Have you ever bathed a dog before?”
“No my lady but he’s a wee thing so I imagine it isn’t much of a task.” He laughed as he followed her out of the barn.
“We’ll need a wash tub, some soap and a good sturdy brush.”
“I can take care of this my lady. There’s no reason for you to…”
“Now don’t you dare try to snatch this angel from me!” she said interrupting him. “I’ll not let him out of my sight until I’ve secured him for safe keeping until I can present him to Lady Catherine.”
“Lady Catherine? I thought he was for you?”
Mellie stopped her march towards the castle and stilled for several moments. “No,” she said quietly, glancing at the young man kindly. “This is his home now. I assure you, he will be needed here more than he could ever be appreciated at home.”
Later, the puppy was clean and smelled like cherries. Mellie dried him off and brought him to her chamber where she brushed him and brushed him, ever so gently to remove the mats and tangles from his shaggy coat. When she was through, she placed him on the floor where almost immediately, he left a puddle where he landed.
“Naughty boy! You’re a naughty, naughty boy,” she said over a laugh. A moment later, Beatrice’s soft knock came at her door.
“Just a moment!” she shouted, scooping the puppy up in her arms in case he decided to try and make a dash for the door. “All right, you may enter.”
Beatrice’s eyes opened as wide as an owl. “Mi’lady,” she curtsied. “Is that a…”
“Yes my dear, it’s dog. Well, a baby dog but isn’t he just wonderful?” She kissed the sweet and now calm and mostly docile pup on his head and embraced him.
Beatrice giggled like the girl she was and rushed forward. “Oh mi’lady, may I hold him?”
“Of course! He’s an absolute darling, although watch your step just there. He’s already christened the room,” Mellie said, pointing to the puddle.
“What’s his name?” Beatrice asked, cradling the pup and laying kisses on his head. “Oh no worries mi’lady, I’ll clean that up in a moment.”
“He doesn’t have a name yet. I’m about to call him puddles,” Mellie said over a laugh.
“He looks like a Charlie to me, don’t you, you little angel?” Beatrice said stroking him in her arms.
“Did you need something dear?” Mellie asked, petting him as well.
“I completely forgot once I saw him. I came to help you get ready for supper.”
“Oh! Supper. I’d forgotten as well. All right then. Here, give him to me and take care of his accident and I’ll pick out something to wear.” Mellie strode across the room, puppy in tow and opened her cupboard. “Beatrice, will you be a dear and look after…Charlie while I’m at supper?”
Beatrice was on the floor cleaning up the mess and immediately spun on her knee. “Oh yes mi’lady! I’d love to! I had a sweet dog as a child. I’ll take him outside for a bit so he won’t have any more accidents in here.” She giggled and finished her task.
“Very good. He must learn his manners, right sweet Charlie?” she said and placed him back down on the floor.
“He needs some soft bedding mi’lady. Puppies love to bed down and snuggle like they did with their mother.”
Mellie looked into the cupboard and grabbed a wool shawl. “Will this work?”
“But mi’lady, that’s your shawl.”
“I have others. Here,” she said, handing it over.
Beatrice folded the shawl and placed it on the floor near the hearth where it was warm and then scooped Charlie up and sat him in the middle of it. He sniffed at it a bit and then curled up and lay down.
“How lovely,” Mellie remarked.
“For now. Hopefully he’s not a chewer. My dog chewed everything he could get his paws on. It’s best to make sure he has a nice soup bone or an old shoe so he doesn’t bother your good things.”
“I’ll leave that to you for now. Come along and help me dear.”
Beatrice assisted Mellie and soon she was on her way down to supper. Oddly, Stuart was waiting for her in the corridor on her way to the dining hall.
“Hello Stuart. Have you come to escort me to supper?”
“Yes my lady, and to…” he said and paused, seemingly unable to speak but his eyes were wide with unspoken words.
“And to what? Has your tongue suddenly seized on you?” Mellie looked at him as if he’d sprouted a horn on his forehead.
“Lord Elswick has returned. Apparently, he decided to go on a hunt and did not go off on an excursion as some suspected. He did however snag a fine buck, which I believe we’ll be dining on this evening.” His Adam’s apple bounced in his throat.
“Why this angst? Is Lord Elswick unwell?”
“No my lady. He appears quite fit albeit a bit disheveled.”
“Stuart, do get a hold of yourself. There’s no reason to behave so…peculiar I suppose for lack of a better word. Now, give me your arm and escort me to dinner please.”
He did as he was bid and as they entered the dining hall, Alexander rose to his feet and bowed.
“Lord Elswick,” Mellie said and curtsied. She was all too familiar with behaving as if nothing was amiss and played her part very well. “I’ve been informed we’ll be dining on the fruits of your hunt this evening.”
“Yes. I was fortunate to come upon a large herd this morning a few miles into the hills,” he said and took his seat. “The cook had mentioned we were low on venison and it is my preferred meat.”
“You must be quite the hunter,” Mellie said and smiled, and then her eyes moved away from his swiftly. “The weather is marvelous,” she added, as Agatha, along with another serving girl carried in trays of food.
“Wine my lady?” Alexander asked, lifting a carafe.
“Yes, please.” Mellie nodded.
“May we have the room please?” Alexander said rather spontaneously, taking everyone off their guard. He filled her cup and then glanced around the room, eying everyone as if they weren’t moving fast enough for his liking. Their pace increased and within seconds, the doors were closing behind them.
“You look surprised my lady.”
“Only at your tone, it was a bit abrupt.”
“Sometimes I am abrupt and this evening, I’d prefer to dine without people lingering about.” He looked over at her solemnly and she detected something different about him. He’d obviously had more wine prior to coming to the table.
“Then by all means, let us enjoy this amazing food. Shall we say grace?”
“Please, you do the honors.” He placed both forearms on the table and lowered his head.
“Thank you lord for blessing us this evening with this wonderful meal, so that we may nourish our bodies with thy bounty, and nourish our souls with thine grace. Amen.”
“Amen,” Alexander mumbled. “And how was your day?”
“My day?” Mellie’s voice turned up on the end as if she was startled. A hundred thoughts swirled in her mind but she couldn’t yet share all of the intimate details of her day before they’d even had a chance to sup. “Well I had a lovely visit with Lady Catherine this morning, then I went to worship and then I had a delicious chicken pie and then I went for a walk with Stuart,” she said, looking down at her plate and cutting her meat, telling herself she was not lying. “Then, I rested until supper.” In one breath I’m praying and the next, I’m bending the truth, she thought.
“How was she?” he asked, never taking his eyes off his plate, even when he reached for his wine cup and took a long drink.
Mellie nodded as she chewed and swallowed. “Much the same but a good deal more agreeable to my company.”
“How could she not be,” he mumbled.
“How do you mean?” she asked, and then popped a piece roasted onion in her mouth.
“I mean how could she not find your company agreeable? You are the most agreeable person, even when you aren’t trying to be. Actually, I don’t believe you have to try to be anything.”
Mellie put down her fork and turned to face him. “Alex, no I do not try nor do I pretend. I won’t pretend I cannot obviously see that your candor this evening is not your own but brought on through a bit of spirits, perhaps enough of them. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate straight forwardness but I can feel if not smell yours from three feet away. Now, if there’s something you want to say, do say it so we can get on with it.”
Alexander took a deep breath and leaned in over his plate, turning his eyes to her. They were speckled with red, which she knew was the wine. “I believe I said everything I needed to say last night my lady and the wine is my guilt over putting you in such an awkward position. I came back this evening weighted heavily with the need to beg your forgiveness.” His voice was soft and sincere.
“I forgive you, Alex but please believe me when I say there is nothing to forgive. It’s a rare thing to hear a man speak freely from his heart and it is certainly not something I’ve ever been accustomed to.”
“Oh please, Mellie. Please cease blessing me with your pure heart. My own cannot bear such selflessness when you know what lies within it.”
Mellie broke their gaze and as strong as she was on the surface for him, inside, she felt as if she was dissolving. She knew if she was going to tell him the truth as she’d planned, she’d better get on with it before she lost her nerve. “Alexander, I feel as if this is not the right time but perhaps the right time may never come. I must share something with you.”
He sat up and pushed his plate away slowly, appearing to prepare himself for whatever she was about to say. “Is everything all right? You’re not leaving are you? Although, I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
“No, no I’m not leaving. I definitely could never bring myself to leave now.”
He took another long drink of wine and Mellie stood and stepped to his side, removing the cup from his hand and placing it on the table. “You’ve had enough of this, hm?”
He nodded and looked up at her.
“It’s about Catherine. We spent a good bit of the morning together. It seems, she hasn’t been completely truthful with you about her illness.”
His red eyes widened and he spun in his seat, glaring up at Mellie as a tear rolled down her cheek. “What is it? What happened?” He reached out and clung to Mellie’s hands. He appeared as if he’d been slapped hard across the face.
“When she…after the incident at the beach and she was gravely ill, apparently, due to the water in her lungs, there was a great deal damage. When Doctor Whiteford came last week, he told her the damage was…”
“Wait! What are you talking about? She recovered from that. She was well and, yes it took quite some time before she was back on her feet but she was well again. You said this illness was brought on by her sadness.”
“Alex, I didn’t know. Doctor Whiteford said the damage was too much for her lungs to heal. She’s been treated by him as best he could all this time but he told her she has weeks,” Mellie’s words caught in her throat with emotion and the tears fell readily. “Maybe a month to live.”
He sprang to his feet. “This can’t be true! How could I not know this? Why didn’t Doctor Whiteford tell me?” He was incencsed with both grief and anger.
“Catherine begged him not to. She knew how you blamed yourself and how you’ve suffered due to what happened and she didn’t want you adding her to death to that blame.”
His hands flew to his head and he combed his fingers through his hair and down over his face, now wet with tears. “I…don’t understand why she allowed you to be the one to tell me. I don’t understand why she didn’t tell me herself.” He paced the room, his fists clenched at his sides, now seeming more angry than sad.
“It was my idea to tell you. I told her I couldn’t ever face you again knowing this. I told her it was wrong of her to keep this from you and she agreed, on the grounds that you had a right to know since she had such little time left.”
“Dear God, how much is one man supposed to withstand?” he shouted at the ceiling, shaking his fist.
Mellie rushed to hold him together, feeling he was about to crumble into a million pieces. “Alex, listen to me, you must understand she didn’t want to hurt you but things went beyond her control.” She grabbed onto his shirt sleeves and then his hands. “Here, take my strength. Take as much as you need. I want you to know I will not leave this house until she’s at peace. Please, for the years you spent together and for the love you claim of me, do not see her in this state. You will not break. You will not crumble and you will not under any circumstances allow that poor woman to see you like this.”
He pulled one hand free and wiped his face on his sleeve. “Yes…yes I know you’re right. She doesn’t deserve to see me like this.” He looked down into Mellie’s puddled eyes. “I am a cad and a selfish beast but even I can dress myself in the guise of a man worthy and strong enough to allow his wife a peaceful death.”
“Listen to me. Look at me. You are not a cad and you have always been worthy of something wonderful and I need you to help me make her final days in this world beautiful. She has many regrets too, Alex. She regrets not being able to love you the way you needed to be loved—the way a woman loves her husband. She regrets you being tethered to her all these years in her unwell state mentally as well as now, physically. She wants only for you to be happy when she goes.”
Hearing those words finally did break him, as he collapsed back into his chair and pulled Mellie against him and sobbed into her as she held him. There was no romantic love in his embrace, only a man who just needed something and someone to hold onto.
Mellie stroked his hair as she embraced him. “Everything is going to be all right. I promise I will not leave you alone with this misfortune and loss. I have several wonderful surprises for her that I know will bring her joy. Together, we will see her through gracefully to the end.”
The end, Mellie thought, remembering what Catherine had said about the journal. Finish it.
Chapter Fifteen – Mercy
Mellie had stayed for a while with Alexander after he broke down from the horrible news of Catherine’s fate. Once he was calm and accepting of the circumstances, he agreed to her ideas and plans for whatever time Catherine would spend in this world. She told him of the doves and the puppy and how she believed they’d sooth his wife and maybe even bring a smile to her face if only for a while.
She’d told him, “I’ve decided to speak with Glenda and make her aware of my plans. I won’t tolerate any reluctance on her part, so I’m relying on you to support me.”
Of course, Alexander agreed and even asked to be with her when she presented the animals. “Although I cannot say how she will react, I do believe there is enough of her in there to appreciate what you’re doing.”
“Right after we break our fast then?” Mellie asked. He nodded.
When morning came and they collected the animals together, Alexander was overjoyed at the sight of Charlie. “He’s so much like Shelby, right down to his big golden eyes.”
“He could very well be a descendant. He came from a litter from one of the tenants. Of course I don’t know but I do see a very strong likeness.”
Alex cuddled the pup and chuckled at the laps of affection on his chin. “He’s lovely. Thank you, Mellie.”
“Would you like me to carry the doves my lady? This is quite heavy,” Stuart asked as he emerged from his chamber with the cage.
“Would you please? I can barely contain my excitement,” Mellie said, lifting the cover from the birds and peeking at them. “Shall we go?”
They made their way to the staircase leading to Catherine’s room and Glenda met them on the landing outside the door. “What have you there?” she asked coldly.
“We come bearing gifts for Lady Catherine,” Mellie answered.
“She can’t have those things in her condition. Her breathing…I…” Glenda stopped.
“I’m fully aware of her condition. What difference will it make now? There’s no reason why she can’t have a little while with things she loves.” Alexander said sternly. “Besides, although I’ve more than appreciated your dedication to her and owe you a great deal for her care, who and what enters that room is still my decision and no one else’s.” He was firm but not unkind.
Glenda curtsied and stepped aside, allowing them to enter.
“I trust she is awake?” Mellie asked.
Glenda nodded and Mellie opened the door.
“Catherine? It’s me again, your new pest of a friend but I’ve brought visitors for you.” Mellie made her way towards the bed, where Catherine was as always, propped up on her pillows and covered toe to chin.
“Good morning, Mellie,” Catherine said softly. “I’m not certain I’m up to…” she stopped speaking upon seeing Alexander and the bundle of brown fur in his arms. “Is that…”
“Yes, Catherine, it is. It’s a new friend for you,” Alexander said as he approached and rested slowly on the bed next to her. “His name is Charlie. Mellie thought he may cheer you and I must say, this place could use a dog anyway.”
Catherine’s ice blue eyes were smiling and then, the corners of her mouth turned up a bit. “May I…pet him?”
Alexander glanced at Mellie to his side and sadly smiled as he turned back to Catherine. “He’s yours my darling. You may pet him all you wish.” Alex gently sat the puppy on her lap and she pet him lightly. Suddenly, a breathy chuckle escaped her lips.
“He’s an absolute angel,” she whispered as he nuzzled into her blanket. It was as if he understood how frail she was.
“We have one more gift,” Mellie said, waving Stuart over with birds.
“Is that a birdcage?” Her eyes grew wide with surprise yet again.
Stuart pulled the cover from the cage, exposing the two doves, who immediately began cooing away happily.
“Would you like them here on the table next to you?” Stuart asked.
Catherine nodded. “Yes, please, right here where I can see them.”
“Is this all right? I mean, was it all right for us to bring these to you?” Alexander asked with hesitancy in his voice.
“You know, don’t you?” she asked him, turning her eyes to Mellie.
Alexander nodded and said, “Please, don’t worry or think of me in any of this. We only wish for your comfort and happiness.”
Catherine looked down at the puppy, now sleeping in her arms. “This is the most wonderful thing…anyone has ever done for me. God bless you both.”
“We’re here for you my darling, anything you want you’ve only to ask,” Mellie said, pulling a chair up beside the bed.
“I have all I…could ever need.” She glanced over at the doves and then down at Charlie.
“When you’re tired, I’ll take Charlie to Beatrice. She’s fallen absolutely in love with him and is training him to go outdoors. I’m afraid he hadn’t yet learned his manners when Stuart retrieved him for you.”
“As long as she brings him…straight back to me.” She smiled, never lifting her eyes from the dog.
“I’ll see he remains in this room with you at all times, except for his training,” Mellie said.
The room fell silent for several minutes as they basked in Catherine’s joy and blotted a tear a two. Suddenly, she asked, “Mellie, may I please have a moment alone with Alexander?”
“Why of course my dear. Shall I take Charlie with me?”
“He’s sleeping. I’m sure he’ll be fine…for a while,” she said and looked over at Mellie with a smile that nearly took her breath away.
“I’ll go find Beatrice and tell her to check in with you in an hour or so.” Mellie stood and leaned over, placing a gentle kiss on Catherine’s brow. “I’ll visit you after while my lady.”
Catherine nodded and Mellie patted Alexander gently on the shoulder as she went.
Glenda was waiting patiently outside the chamber door as Mellie, followed by Stuart, exited the room. “Glenda, you’ll be pleased to know Lady Catherine is thrilled with her new pets. Now don’t worry, I do not expect you to care for those as well, you have more than enough to do taking care of Lady Catherine. My own hand maiden, Beatrice will tend to the animals throughout the day. I thought you should know so that there is no friction or resistance.”
“Lady Catherine…is happy?” Glenda asked, her eyes now filling with tears.
“She’s as overjoyed as a woman in her condition can be. Please, allow her to stay that way.”
Glenda rushed towards the door.
“Oh no, dear,” Mellie said stopping her. “She requested time alone with Lord Elswick. No one is to enter the room until he leaves or calls for you.”
Glenda lowered her head and blotted at her eyes and nose with a handkerchief. “Of course, mi’lady. I’ll do whatever you say.”
“Now there’s a refreshing bit of information. Thank you, Glenda. Beatrice should be here within the hour for Charlie; Charlie is the new puppy’s name. She’s training him not to leave puddles and…other things on the floor. Come along Stuart,” Mellie said and led the way down the stairs.
“My lady?” Stuart asked as they headed down the corridor.
Mellie couldn’t answer. She was so overcome with joy and grief simultaneously, she stopped mid stride and gasped out a sob. Stuart rushed to her and placed his handkerchief in her hands. “My lady, allow me to escort you back to your chamber.”
Mellie nodded, still unable to speak through her weeping.
When the hour came to go to supper, Mellie joined Alexander in the dining hall as cheerful as she had been earlier. She took a ride in the cool crisp afternoon and felt refreshed with a new sense of clarity. She now knew that it wasn’t how much time you have but rather how you fill that time with joy that matters. She swept into the room as if on a summer breeze and Stuart seated her as Alexander stood.
“Good evening my lady. You look absolutely lovely if you don’t mind my saying so,” Alexander said as Stuart scooted in her chair.
“I don’t mind at all. I took a lovely ride this afternoon and the fresh air as always, cleared my heart and mind.” She nodded and smiled. “I trust Lady Catherine was still smiling when you left her?”
“Actually she was sleeping with that delightful puppy curled in beside her but I could almost swear she was smiling in her sleep.”
“How could she not be?” Mellie sighed. “Oh, Alex I’m overjoyed at how well things went. Weren’t you?”
“More than I say. We owe you a great debt.”
“What? You owe me nothing at all. Her happiness was all I wanted. However, there is something else I was thinking of on my ride that may top this.” Mellie’s eyes widened and she pursed her lips into a devilish bow.
“Oh my, should I be concerned? Not more animals?” he asked over a chuckle as Agatha brought in roasted chickens, buttered carrots and turnips and a large tray of fresh rolls.
“Not exactly,” she said with a sweetness in her tone. “What would you say if I told you I was thinking of moving the harvest festival here to Elswick castle?”
Alexander nearly choked on the sip of wine he was in the midst of as she spoke. “What?” he said and coughed, covering his mouth with a napkin to catch and dribbles.
“I was thinking of asking Phillip if we could have the festival here instead of at Ludwig. We can combine our resources and Mellie could be there to see it all from her window. Don’t you agree that would be a joyous thing?” She nodded as if persuading him to agree as she pushed a fork full of chicken into her mouth and then gave him a puffy cheeked, tight lipped smile.
“How persuasive you are my lady but do we have enough time to spread the word?”
“Oh Stuart can handle it, can’t you, Stuart?”
Stuart was silent for a moment until Mellie turned in her chair and glared at him. “Oh, yes my lady. I’m certain I can get the word out in a day.”
“The excitement will permeate the countryside like wildfire. Right after supper, I’ll write the announcements and send a messenger to Ludwig to inform Phillip.”
“But my lady, shouldn’t you ask your lord son if he agrees with this proposal first?” Alexander asked hesitantly, knowing how headstrong she was.
Mellie slumped and sat down her fork. “I suppose you’re right. Oh, what’s one more day to wait? Stuart, I’ll give you the letter for Phillip and you can head out first thing in the morning. The moment he replies, you come straight back.”
“Yes my lady,” he said and bowed.
“I suppose I should tell you Catherine insisted on releasing those doves. She said birds do not belong in cages,” Alexander said, looking over at Mellie from beneath his brow.
“I suspected as much. Based on her love of animals I didn’t think they’d be caged for long. So…are they flapping about the bedroom?” Mellie asked and giggled.
“She held one for a few moments and then ordered me to open the window and let them go. It was sweet and reminded me very much of her as a girl.”
“How lovely.” Mellie sighed and took a sip of wine.
“My lady would you take a turn with me in the garden before you turn in to write your letter to Phillip?” Alexander asked.
“Why yes I will. We won’t have many more evenings such as this. Soon it will be so cold one might freeze solid after a single turn in a circle outside.” She laughed and he laughed with her.
After they were finished, Mellie sent Stuart for her heavy cloak. They air had grown substantially cooler since the sun started to go down. He rushed it to her and placed it over her shoulders.
“Thank you Stuart. Alex, you should wear your long coat,” she suggested.
“I’ll be fine.” He offered her his elbow as they stepped out onto the stone path that led to the castle gardens. There were very few flowers in bloom but the topiaries were still gorgeous. “I wanted to speak to you alone about Catherine.”
“Of course you did. I’m not a fool, Alex.”
“No, you’re definitely not,” he said and fell silent for several moments as they strolled slowly side by side.
“Well? Did you forget what you wanted to tell me already?” She looked over at him and laughed softly.
“It could have been a hundred years ago and I’d still remember.” He stopped and sighed, turning to face her. “She asked me if I loved you, Mellie and I told her that yes, I do.”
“Well this conversation is off to an uncomfortable start.”
“Is it really that uncomfortable? Am I truly alone in these feelings?”
Mellie spun away and then stopped, her back facing him. Her words were quiet and hesitant. “Edward…he’s been gone but three months and…”
Alex rushed around and stood before her. “Please don’t take me for a fool. You are the most progressive and unconventional woman I’ve ever known. Don’t pretend someone like you would deny herself happiness due to the inconvenience of timing. I won’t believe it.”
She looked up into his eyes. “You’re right and yet you’re wrong. I am unconventional and yet only since Edward died have I allowed that part of myself to run free. But to let it go that far, Alexander I just don’t know if I can. I’ll admit I’ve been happier living outside of my cage than in it and therefor I won’t deny it, but these wings of mine aren’t yet ready to open wide and fly.”
“Oh but my darling they are, it’s only in your mind that you still feel that cage around you. I assure you in my eyes your wings have been ready for a long time. You need only to take that first flight.” He moved towards her and took her hands in his.
“What is it that you want, Alex?” Her chin shot up in a defensive stance but her eyes were full of sadness.
“You, only you. You my lady are the love of my entire life. My dove or my angel soaring free and being who you truly are. If I’m being honest, whether or not you love me, seeing you soar fills me with so much happiness. Forgive me, I’m going on like some lovesick boy,” he said lowering his head and laughing. “But I can’t help myself. I love who I am when I’m with you. You make me feel alive again.”
“I know you don’t want to hear this, especially now but Catherine has blessed this. Her exact words were, simply knowing that one of us has found complete happiness in this lifetime will allow me to live in eternal peace.”
Mellie immediately began to weep.
“Please don’t cry. She was smiling when she said it.”
“I never imagined making a woman happy by being the object of her own husband’s love. It feels a betrayal none the less.”
“I’ll admit my happiness has overshadowed how this must appear from the outside. I am not without guilt over the years both Catherine and I suffered but I won’t apologize for being happy, even under such tragic circumstances. I’ve lived far too long denying myself what every man has a right to, to pretend it doesn’t exist just so that other people won’t judge me.”
“Well you’ve summed that up very well. You are afraid others will think you selfish but not so afraid that you’ll deny your heart and continue to deprive yourself of love. I do believe you’ve found your wings as well.” Mellie squeezed his hands in hers. “I learned at an early age that selfishness is a sin and yet all my life I sacrificed my own happiness for the selfishness of others. I no longer believe it to be a selfish thing to be happy and yet, I’m not there yet, Alex.”
“Draw on my strength.” He pulled her hands to his chest. “Draw on it and feel it as it flows freely to you through my heart,” he exclaimed in a whisper and then pulled them to his lips and kissed them. She did not resist. She no longer could. All of the emotion she’d suppressed in her resolve to deny him out of fear of the depths of her own heart melted away. She could feel his love and his strength and the walls she’d built came tumbling down.
He went on. “I adore and worship you. I want to spend the rest of our lives loving you and please believe me when I say I have a lot of time to make up for.”
“Oh, Alex I do love you,” she finally said, tears streaming. “I cannot and will not deny it to you anymore but please, allow us our unselfishness just a while longer. If our love is true it will wait until Catherine is with God. Otherwise, I fear our joy will turn to regret.”
“Anything my love,” he said and sighed, kissing her knuckles again. “Your heart is too pure to soil it with regret.”