Lady Alice Andrews’ thin white wrists swirled over the opened trunk. Fingers scrambled across various types of fabric – suits, jackets, stockings, undergarments – everything the head housekeeper had packed up for her husband, Lord Cecil Andrews, in the previous half-hour. She muttered to herself, remembering the long list of demands her husband had given her, regarding the packing job. Surely she’d thought of everything, and yet, with Cecil, it seemed she was always forgetting something. Although it had been the housekeeper’s duty to pack, Alice knew she had to double- and triple-check. Otherwise, the insults fell to her.
“Darling,” Cecil so often said to her, his voice heavy with a sigh. “It’s ridiculous that you cannot keep all this in your head. You’re my wife. It’s up to you to ensure I don’t make a fool of myself in front of my business prospects. This is our future, Alice. Our future, together. It seems that doesn’t matter to you.”
Early spring sunlight flickered through the lace curtains. Alice turned her eyes towards the glass, gazing out across the moors. The Andrews estate was located a few miles from Mayfair. After growing up in the city, Alice frequently felt that their location was a lonely one. Her eyes ached on the horizon line, looking for Cecil. He would return home for a brief moment before embarking on yet another business trip. Apparently, the trips were meant for them, for their future. But Alice hadn’t any clue what on earth Cecil did whilst away. When she demanded it of him, he always spurned her, telling her she couldn’t possibly understand.
Of course, this was ridiculous. Alice had always been a bright pupil of the world, eternally curious. Yet Cecil had never fully seen her that way. Always, she felt she had to prove herself with him, alerting him to her worth. And always, it seemed he came away disappointed.
The housekeeper, Evelyn Sanders, appeared in the doorway of the bedroom. The stooped woman, inching ever more towards the age of fifty, blinked beady eyes at Alice. She’d been the housekeeper at the Andrews estate for the previous twenty years, and thus knew the ins and outs of the affairs. In the wake of Cecil’s parents’ death – both within two years of one another, to a wretched influenza, Evelyn had become sole protector of Cecil. Although she had seen the benefit of Cecil’s marriage to Alice, she’d made no qualms at showing her occasional disdain towards Alice. It was clear that Alice would never be good enough, quite beautiful enough. After all, as Evelyn often remarked in passing, where on earth would Alice be if not for Cecil’s generosity?
Alice shoved the top part of the trunk across the bottom, forcing herself to speak. “Hello, Miss Sanders,” she offered. “Thank you for packing for Cecil. I’m just finalising everything. As you know, he’s terribly particular about his affairs.”
Evelyn clucked her tongue. “As he should be, My Lady,” she returned. “His work is constant. You know his tireless mission involves the betterment of your family’s wealth. He thinks endlessly of the family that will come after you. Of the world he’s meant to leave behind.”
Alice swept a blonde curl behind her ear. Evelyn’s shadow grew increasingly menacing across the floor, darker as the sun shifted outside. “I understand that, Miss Sanders,” she said, knowing that whatever ill-will she projected towards Evelyn would surely snake its way back to her. The woman was akin to a spider, lurking across the web you didn’t see behind your back. “I’ve gone through my mental list of his requirements over and over again. I really do believe that…”
“What of his hat? The one he doesn’t wish to wear whilst travelling?” Evelyn demanded. “I didn’t see it on the list.” She cut deeper into the room – Alice and Cecil’s bedroom, a room she was meant to be invited into. It seemed she didn’t care.
“Of course,” Alice said, bringing her chin higher. “I would never have forgotten his hat.” She whirled back to the wardrobe, reaching for it. She dotted it next to the trunk, shivering.
“And what of his stockings?” Evelyn continued, her voice growing thicker, more textured. “He’s terribly rugged, this man. He likes to ride fast, like the wind, and it generates quite a…”
“It seems you’ve added enough stockings,” Alice whispered, feeling herself growing less and less confident. Could she draw enough air to answer? “Truly, I’ve thought of…”
Just then, the front door barrelled open. Familiar footsteps echoed through the foyer. Alice’s heart skipped; a smile inched its way between her cheeks. It was him – her husband – an impossible title for a man. Until several months ago, she hadn’t imagined herself ever to have the title of wife. They’d said their vows; Cecil had slipped a ring on her finger. His eyes had glowed when he’d said the words, “I do.” They were bonded forever. For life.
“Where is that beautiful wife of mine?” Cecil boomed from below.
Evelyn gave off a clear air of disdain. She snorted and stepped back, arching her brow. “I suppose you had better pray you have everything in that trunk, My Lady. You know the consequences, otherwise.”
Alice shoved the words from her head and went towards the steps. The towering form of Cecil appeared at the bottom, all six feet of him, with glowing blond curls, a thick reddish beard, and enormous blue eyes. Frequently, Alice felt herself falling into those eyes, apt to believe anything they echoed back.
“There she is. My beautiful bride,” Cecil said. He spread his muscled arms wide.
Alice rushed down the steps, skirts billowing behind her. She tossed her lithe body against his, wrapped her arms around his neck, and showered him with little, doting kisses. This had been their recent routine, an assurance, for Alice, at least, that they’d made the proper decision in their marriage. They were well-suited.
Finally, Cecil drew her back, gripping her shoulders. Although Alice stood several steps above him, her stature still barely reached the top of his head.
“I expect you’ve been preparing me for my trip?” he asked, arching his blond brow.
“Absolutely, my dear,” Alice returned. “I know it’s terribly important to you.”
“And I expect you haven’t forgotten anything this time?” he asked, his voice still playful, yet reaching towards some kind of terror.
Alice tried to ignore it, ignore the expectation in his eyes that she had messed something else up. She stepped back, giving him a light grin. “Of course, darling.”
“Let us check, shall we? Darling Miss Sanders?” His words echoed up the staircase, striding towards Evelyn, who’d remained perched at the edge of the steps.
Alice hated that eternally the older woman seemed to be watching over them. The effect was not warm, didn’t evoke feelings of safety. It felt strange and sinister, without any of the welcome softness of a mother watching over her daughter or son.
Cecil led Alice into the bedroom. Alice blinked twice, remembering the raucous night they’d shared just a week before. His body, a dark shadow over hers, making hers feel electric, her nipples pressed hard against the coarse hairs of his chest. HIs breath had come in spurts, wild and loud. He’d seemed like an animal, and she’d welcomed it – knowing that this, this was the greatest secret between husband and wife. This was what the world knew you were doing, without actually saying it aloud.
This was a delicious newfound fact, at least for Alice.
Cecil stood over the trunk, thrusting the top open. Evelyn tip-toed around the landing outside the room, seemingly waiting for something to happen. Alice swept her hands over her lap, peering down as Cecil began to sift through his various belongings. He whistled as he went, hunting. Slowly Alice felt the colour drain from her cheeks.
“I do hope you’re safe on your journey,” Alice began, uttering words that sounded strange and foreign on her lips.
Cecil murmured, “Of course. You know I’m always safe.” He continued to pile things out of his trunk, making a mockery of everything Alice had done.
“And I wonder if, perhaps, we can have a conversation about – about our family, when your return,” Alice continued. Her cheeks flashed with heat.
Cecil didn’t bother to meet her eyes. “Of course, darling,” he said, his tone precisely the same. “I know it’s time.”
Alice’s stomach bubbled with warmth. Behind her eyes, she grew lost in visions of little boys who looked like Cecil – blond curls, dimpled cheeks. Perhaps the girls would resemble her – blonde as well, slight and easy with a laugh. She could half-hear their giggles, already echoing down the hall. With a strange, arrogant air, she thought about how she could find a way to rid the house of Miss Evelyn Sanders, the moment the children were born. But of course, it wasn’t up to her.
“I just truly think it’s time. Time for us to – to find that kind of love. Together,” Alice continued. “I’m twenty-six years old, darling. My younger sister already has two children. I’m not terribly competitive, of course. But it would be good to begin. At least so they can have a small amount of time to play together. You know how much I appreciated having two siblings. Cousins would have been just spectacular.”
“Ah-hah!” Cecil reared back, blinking big eyes towards Alice. They seemed accusatory. “You’ve done it. You’ve forgotten my comb.”
The blood drained from Alice’s cheeks. She pressed her lips together, feeling her heart drip towards her stomach. “I felt sure I saw it within the trunk,” she murmured. “I really…”
“No, no, darling,” Cecil sighed. He stomped to the side wardrobe, slipping his massive fingers through the top drawer. “It’s right here. You’ve always known it’s right here. How could you possibly forget?”
Alice bumbled back. She stretched her fingers over her stomach. Somehow, the echoes of children’s voices swept away. The hollowness of the house felt heavy around her. She felt she could hear Evelyn chuckling outside the door. Perhaps she had put the comb back into the drawer – although Alice didn’t fully remember packing it.
“Alice, how did you imagine I would comb my hair prior to my business meeting tomorrow afternoon?” Cecil asked. He demanded as though he was god, asking why one had gone through with a sin on earth.
“I’m not. I didn’t…” Alice’s voice barely hung out of her lips. It sounded meek and stupid, the words from a much younger girl.
“It’s absolutely atrocious that you would think … I mean, Alice, I can’t possibly do this without you,” Cecil spat.
Alice took a light step back. Throughout her life, she’d never seen such volatility in anyone. Her father had always been soft, at any point pressing his forehead into wrinkles and speculating on the right mode of action. Her mother had been similar. Perhaps she’d said the rogue word or two, but it had always been followed up with an act of kindness, or apology. Cecil was far different. Perhaps that was part of the reason Alice had liked him – at least, had eventually fallen for him in the midst of their courting. He was so different.
Of course, his title may have had something to do with it, as well.
“I know that,” Alice murmured. She swallowed slowly, trying to articulate her inner, swirling thoughts. “I really didn’t mean it, Cecil. You know I respect your work. I wouldn’t forget your comb on purpose.”
Cecil slowly forced a smile to snake up towards his ears. His eyes sparkled. “I know that,” he said. “It’s just imperative that I teach you. If you’re going to be my wife for the rest of time…”
Suddenly, he sprung forward, drawing his hand along the small of her back. He inhaled deeply, allowing his lips to dot along her neck. Alice shivered. She wasn’t sure if her inner motion was apprehensive in nature, or simply proving her love for him. Finally, he drew back and brought his lips over hers, allowing his tongue to sweep along hers. This – a fresh, newly practiced marital kiss – made Alice passionate, yet also terrified.
“I love you,” Alice murmured, the moment their lips broke apart. “I really do.”
“I know,” Cecil returned. After a pause, he uttered, “I love you, too.”
Alice helped Cecil latch the trunk once more. She grinned wildly at him whilst he turned to the bedroom door, the trunk swinging at his side. Always, her inner heart shifted with such highs and lows while he was around. He sniffed. “I’ll be back in a few days, darling. Don’t look at me as though you’ll never see me again. You know how irritating it is.”
Alice pressed her lips together. “I know, Cecil,” she murmured, her voice breaking. “You have to admit, though. Days apart are always difficult.”
Cecil clucked his tongue. His eyes remained locked onto hers. Alice knew this was her shot. She had to say it.
“Cecil, I don’t suppose you remember what it was I just asked you about? In the wake of all this – commotion – I want to make sure you heard me. At least a little.”
Cecil gave her a snide smile. “Regarding the extension of our family, you mean?”
Alice forced herself to maintain her smile. “It’s just, Cecil. We’ve been married now for quite a while. And I wonder, I wonder if it’s time…”
“You’ve said all I need to hear, darling,” Cecil said. He snapped his head to the staircase, strutting towards it. “We shouldn’t beat a dead horse, now, should we? I know that I’ll certainly be ready to speak to you more regarding this issue when I return. But you know, darling…”
At this, he paused and cut his eyes back to her. Alice felt she couldn’t breathe. Her fingers pressed hard against her chest, feeling the quake of her beating heart.
“You know that if you don’t give me a son first, I have every ground to leave you,” he said.
Alice felt her knees give out. They felt like water beneath her. Her face fell towards the floor. This wasn’t a true fact, of course. He had no grounds to leave her, and couldn’t, if he ever wished to remarry. That is, he couldn’t unless she was deceitful to him, an adulteress. She simply didn’t have it in her to do such a thing.
“I’m only joking, darling,” Cecil said, his smile growing wider. It was clear he liked to watch her fidget. “You know I would never do such a thing. Don’t you know that?”
Alice pressed her lips together, feeling them thin out. She grimaced, then forced a light chuckle. “Of course, darling. Be safe on your journey.”
Cecil leaned a bit closer towards her, whipping his trunk to the other side of his body. Alice was suddenly conscious of Evelyn, lurking at the far end of the landing. She was akin to a ghost, her eyes glowing from every corner. Alice couldn’t do a thing.
“We’re going to be very rich, my love,” Cecil murmured. “Richer than you or I could have ever comprehended before. Trust your Cecil, darling. Trust him. He takes risks when he should. He knows all the proper people. Didn’t he take your meek and weak title and make it extraordinary? Weren’t you very much nothing, when he met you?”
Alice detested when Cecil slipped into this third-person mode of speak. She swallowed hard, forcing her knees to lock beneath her. “Of course. You’ve given me everything I could ever need.”
“There’s always more,” Cecil returned.
Cecil sauntered through the door and down the steps, cutting towards the back of the big house towards the stables. Alice spun into the bedroom and drew her forehead against the chill of the glass. A spring rain spat through the sunlight, seemingly insistent, despite the ache from the people below for the weather to change once and for all. She watched Cecil step into his carriage and yank the carriage door closed. It clattered. The horse stalled, seemingly shaken by the quake of the carriage door. The stable boy – yet another person left over from the years prior to Alice’s move into the Andrews estate – tossed a whip across the horse’s glowing mane, surging them towards whatever meeting awaited Cecil. Outside the estate walls, Alice felt a simmering quality to everything that awaited Cecil: as though he was strong enough, in mind and in spirit, to tear through the rules of society and ensure he came out on top.
“You’re weak-minded,” Cecil had told her once, perhaps a year ago. Alice hadn’t known him well at the time. She’d been seated at the pianoforte bench in her parents’ smaller estate, twiddling her fingers across the keys. When Cecil had spouted this accusation, she’d yanked her shoulders back and drawn her hair over her ear, shivering. It had seemed an accurate description of her at the time –barely twenty-five years old, without a suitor in sight. Except for Cecil, of course. And that had seemed oddly accidental, just a brief greeting at a ball. Her parents hadn’t dared to hope she could attach herself to someone like him. A nobleman, the sight and lust of countless girls across the court.
“Perhaps you’re right,” Alice had murmured, throwing her fingers into a minor scale. The music was a direct reflection of her inner world.
In the corner, Alice remembered now, had been her younger sister, Samantha, acting as chaperone. At the time, Samantha had been six months pregnant with her second child, despite being three years younger than Alice. Her sleepiness, due to the pregnancy, had brought her eyelashes across her cheeks, fluttering. This was perhaps why she didn’t rip up from her chair, demanding that Cecil take back his words.
Of course, if she had heard, she’d never mentioned it to Alice. Perhaps it was better this way, her younger sister staying out of her business. Allowing her elder sister to do what she thought was right in her own life.
It was the least she could do. The most respectful.
“But you know I can teach you. Teach you to become better,” Cecil had said. He’d taken a step forward, drawing his hand across Alice’s upper back. The motion was tender, so unlike the severity of the words.
Perhaps he finds it difficult to articulate how he feels, Alice had thought at the time, knowing this was quite a normal trait in men. Perhaps he recognizes me for who I am. And despite knowing I need to change – my, don’t we all – he still wants me.
Alice had never been wanted before.
This had been a near-constant conundrum in her life. Her elder brother, Joseph, her sister Samantha, and Alice herself were all remarkably beautiful, each in their own right. Joseph was six-foot three inches, with sweeping dark locks and a quick wit. Frequently, he was lauded as one of the top hunters on the moors and had been known to capture the interests of several women in society. At twenty-eight years old, he’d only flirted with the idea of settling down, whispering to Alice that he didn’t want anything to be decided upon yet. “I’m having too much fun,” he’d offered.
Samantha had married at twenty. A man named Thomas with a moderately strong title, whose love continued to reflect out in his mannerisms, the things he said, despite their being married for several years. Samantha looked similar to Alice, but perhaps (and this had been said many times) not nearly as beautiful. Her eyes glowed blue, her blonde locks curled across her shoulders, sweeping down her back. Her motions were tender and feminine. She was alert and cordial and never spoke out of turn.
Yet, Alice – there was something off about her, at least in Alice’s eyes (and the eyes of society, and clearly, the eyes of her now-husband). It wasn’t entirely apparent what it was that people saw off. Alice was a brilliant pianist, a generous sister, a curious woman of the world. Perhaps that was it, Samantha sometimes offered. Perhaps the world couldn’t comprehend why she wanted so much from it, saw such beauty. “Calm your mind,” Samantha murmured to Alice, over and over again. “It doesn’t have to be so big all the time.”
Perhaps, in retrospect, these thoughts had been the ones to push Alice towards her love for Cecil. Her decision to lower her requirements of the world down to a different level, perhaps forcing herself to see Cecil as the rest of society did. As a perfectly perfect option. A man anyone should covet, given the opportunity.
That afternoon at the pianoforte bench, Cecil’s hand had swept down to the small of her back. Alice had never been touched so tenderly before. It felt akin to being seen for the first time. Immediately, her fingers had drifted off the keys. Her eyes had closed, as though she was trying to trap the memory in her skull.
“But just because you’re weak-minded,” Cecil had continued, allowing his fingers to tickle across her waist. “Doesn’t mean you’re not worthwhile. My mother, too. She was a weak little thing. Always apt to pick up a paintbrush or write a poem or play the pianoforte, rather than bother herself with the affairs of the household.”
“She sounds like a daydreamer,” Alice had whispered.
“She’s been dead for years,” Cecil had said. “Perhaps it’s because her head was so lost. When she got the influenza, she didn’t take much care.”
Alice hadn’t been sure how to respond. She shifted away so that his hands fell towards the floor. His fingers hung down, looking like little willow trees. Samantha opened her eyes in the corner, coming-to.
Alice had forced herself to gaze up at Cecil, at the impossible ocean-blue of his eyes. A wave fell over her, one of lust and desire and pain and power. Perhaps she had more of it than she initially thought.
“I’m terribly sorry to hear about your mother,” she whispered.
Cecil had given her a small shrug, one that seemed flippant, but was surely hiding something. He had reached his palm across her cheek, perhaps testing her. How far could he take her? How much could he possibly do, with Samantha pressed deep in the lounge chair in the corner?
“We all go the way of death, don’t we?” Cecil had returned. “Even you. Even me.”
When Cecil had asked her father for her hand in marriage, Alice’s father had agreed immediately – sensing the power that lurked behind the man’s title, the man’s account. The previous late summer had been a daydream of garden engagement parties, of Alice stitching herself into tight little brightly colored gowns and perfecting the laugh she had to use, to ring out between the rose bushes. “Oh, yes, isn’t he divine? How did I get so lucky?”
It had all moved so quickly. Alice had felt herself strapped to a kind of ever-running horse, surging towards a future she couldn’t quite name. She felt herself jostling around, her smile waning. In the wake of the ceremony, she’d moved into the Andrews estate, finding herself the victim of rules and household goings-on that she couldn’t quite comprehend. And Cecil, he’d turned rather ominous. The pomp and circumstance of the ceremony and various parties had thrilled him. And the fact that he was marrying down seemed an act of compassion to several. So much so that Alice had heard, several times, the words, “He really is saving that poor girl.”
Alice perched in the bedroom she shared with Cecil, wrapping a blonde curl around and around her finger. Cecil had been gone for ten minutes, perhaps fifteen. Outside the room, she heard Evelyn bucking about, sweeping the staircase for the twelfth time, as though to prove something. Alice felt certain she’d heard the conversation regarding children. “I just want to expand our family,” Alice practiced to herself, feeling that the words sounded proper, sincere. “Is that such a hard task?”
Despite her inner anxieties about their relationship, Alice truly did love Cecil. When she awoke in the middle of the night, she occasionally gazed at the view of his face, usually cased in moonlight, marveling at how lucky she’d been. Since their marriage, society had regarded her with a much more eager eye. At various balls and parties, and throughout Christmas, she’d seen a staggering leap in her social status.
“It’s as though they don’t remember what they said about the old me,” Alice had marveled once to Samantha, shrugging. “It feels a bit dishonest, doesn’t it?”
“Enjoy it,” Samantha had said, bouncing her second baby upon her knee. Her tone was almost mothering now, despite her younger years. “The moment you have children, everything will change.”
“I don’t suppose it will change so greatly. Cecil says that Evelyn is remarkable at child-rearing,” Alice offered.
“Evelyn? You detest her. And don’t say differently. I’ve sat up with you as you cry about her,” Samantha said, her tone growing increasingly taut with passion. “You can’t possibly have me believe that you want her to raise your children.”
“Samantha, this has all been a remarkable experiment,” Alice had whispered, feeling vaguely deflated. “It’s not as though I thought anyone would marry me, anyway.”
This had closed Samantha’s lips.
“As long as he loves me back,” Alice murmured now, her nostrils flared. “And he truly does. He wouldn’t have married me if he hadn’t. And we have an entire world to build together, right here at the Andrews estate. I must uphold my love for him over everything. I will carry his sons. I will live for him in everything. It’s what I’m meant to do as a wife, as a mother. It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of.”
Alice was an active dreamer. She tossed and turned, thrusting herself up from the sheets, her eyes burning towards the window. Outside, the spring rain had ripped into a horrendous black storm. The trees tipped themselves towards the sweeping fields, all looking apt to crack. Alice wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and peered out, her feet shoulder-width apart beneath her. With Cecil away, she felt she was in an impossibly empty home – a mere skeleton filled with ghosts of so many other different lives. She felt an urge to find Evelyn Sanders, just to sit alongside someone. Another warm body. But she held back, fearful, knowing that going to Evelyn Sanders meant an immediate rebuke.
It was a strange thing, sleeplessness. Alice wracked her brain, hunting for a path to some sort of reprieve. Shots of lightning burned across the sky. She pressed her hand across her abdomen, pretending that she was protecting a baby that didn’t yet exist. How funny it would be, years from then, gazing out across the same field, with her babies tucked in their beds around her. Perhaps she would feel as regal as the queen herself – a tiny nation of the world, in her care.
Shivering, Alice padded to the door and shuffled to the kitchen below, where a fire flickered in the corner. Seated beside it was one of the stablemen, who’d darted indoors in the midst of the storm and had begun to brew himself a pot of tea. The man was perhaps forty years old and, according to Cecil, had been a stable boy at the Andrews estate for the majority of his life. Alice hadn’t spoken much to him and found her brain zipping about for his name.
Finally, she landed at it. “Matthew,” she murmured. She patted at the back of her hair – soft and a little tangled from the pillow – and added, “I suppose the both of us can’t sleep.”
“Difficult to find the energy to do so, with the wind so wild out there,” Matthew returned. He cut his eyes towards the bubbling water, adding, “I don’t suppose I can offer you some tea, My Lady?”
“That would be grand,” Alice said.
With the elegance of a clownish child, Alice dropped into the chair alongside him, sweeping her hands across her knees. She watched as he brewed the tea with tentative motions, looking as though he was handling very delicate wares.
The motion activated a strange memory in the back of Alice’s mind. Surprised at herself, she opened her lips and said, “You remind me a great deal of my uncle, Matthew.”
The words were so bizarre, articulated with the bouncing thunder outside. Matthew turned his attention towards her, keeping the cup of steaming tea high.
“No one has ever said I remind them of anyone before,” Matthew returned.
Alice’s cheeks burned red with embarrassment. She sought the tea and drew it to her face, inhaling the steam. She hadn’t spoken so freely since her move into the Andrews estate. Yet something bubbled within her, a childishness, which she’d had to abandon the moment she’d become Cecil’s wife.
“Yes. The way you brewed the tea. Such light motions. He was a doctor, my uncle. We used to go into the woods together. We would gather up various herbs, leaves and flowers. Things I couldn’t have imagined meant anything to the medicinal world. And then, he would set me up with a mortar and pestle, and I would – Oh, goodness. I probably sound mad, don’t I?”
Matthew tossed a small log onto the fire, which spit around it and then swallowed it.
“I ain’t in the market for sleep, anyway,” Matthew offered.
This wasn’t entirely an invitation to continue. Alice drew her lips around the edge of the cup. Her heart beat slowly, thudding like a drum.
“But I ain’t complaining about it, either,” Matthew said.
Alice singed the tip of her tongue but forced herself to keep quiet. After a pause, she said, “He talked to me endlessly about the wood, about the green, about the natural world that so many of us ignore day to day. What was it he said? The secret to good health is found outdoors. I never thought I’d forget that.”
“It seems you haven’t,” Matthew returned, his voice gruff, yet oddly warm.
“It’s not that I forgot it exactly,” Alice whispered. “Perhaps just that I filled my head around it so much with other information, other people, that I didn’t see it for quite some time.”
“Marriage can do that to a woman,” he said.
“Perhaps,” Alice said. Her heart felt squeezed. “But I never imagined I would be the sort to allow my uncle’s teachings to slip away.”
Matthew turned his eyes towards her. They glinted orange from the firelight. Despite the fiery heat, he’d already drunk half of his tea. Alice imagined it sloshing about in his stomach, singing the softness within.
“I never imagined Cecil Andrews would marry a woman like you,” Matthew said.
Thunder rollicked across the fields. A strange, alien thought twisted about in the back of Alice’s mind, a reminder that, under no circumstance, should she be seated in a dark kitchen with the stable-hand, gazing out at the darkness of a stormy night.
Of course, with Matthew, she’d been able to utter something real, something that ached with nostalgia and passion. Something she hadn’t felt allowed to feel, nor remember, in quite some time.
“What do you mean?”
The fire grew increasingly ominous, a tossing animal before them. The wrinkles on Matthew’s cheeks and forehead were uncountable. Alice wondered how it to find the skin of your face extending itself towards the ground as time-pressed forward.
Matthew leaned slightly towards Alice. She inhaled his tea-scented breath. There was nothing ominous in his demeanor. Nothing that told her he was going to rip her in two, or kiss her, or belittle her.
He was a comforting presence. So much like her uncle.
“The man is an imbecile,” Matthew said then, his eyes dancing in the light. “Since he was a boy, I’ve known it. He can’t get a grip on reality, and so he lashes out at the world around him, very much aware that he’s not good enough for any of it. I hear him in here, screeching at you. And you think he’ll operate in any other way towards your children? No. The man never had to grow older. He was always given exactly what he wanted. And now, you do the same.”
Throughout his speech, Alice’s jaw had dropped lower and lower. Each of his words seemed heavy with dozens of stories, and they ached with truth. Matthew had, in fact, been privy to a great deal of Cecil’s upbringing. Perhaps, besides Evelyn Sanders herself, Matthew knew more about the makeup of the young nobleman than anyone else. His character. The deeds he’d done.
Alice had a sense that she didn’t truly wish to know the whole story.
“I do love him,” she murmured.
Outside, lightning wound its golden arch across the sky. She shivered, forcing her eyes to the fire. She couldn’t see the reflection of honesty from Matthew’s face a moment more. It felt too sincere. It was clear he ached with worry for her.
“Do you really?” he asked.
At this, thunder rocked the house. Alice’s eyes grew heavy. She imagined her cheeks, laced with tears in the coming minutes. She couldn’t bear to feel the comfort from Matthew. It would be too intimate, giving him so much of herself.
“I’m terribly sorry, Matthew,” Alice said. She cut up from the fireside chair, drawing her nose towards the ground. “I really must return to bed.”
Matthew creaked from his seat, watching her go. He grunted, “I really hope I didn’t step beyond my boundary, My Lady.”
Again, Alice was reminded of her now-long-deceased uncle, who’d died after a raucous ride across the moors on horseback. Nothing, not even his herbs or his flowers or his serums, could save him.
“I’m sorry for speaking so much out of turn, regarding my memories of my uncle,” Alice said. “Only that I ache with memories of my youth, just like anyone. Especially in the months prior to, I’m sure, carrying Lord Andrews’ first child.”
Matthew’s face crumpled. Alice yearned to demand a final thing. What would he have her do, if she was truly meant to acknowledge Cecil’s occasionally-childish (nay, wretched?) disposition? What did she have to gain through staring the terror in the face? Women, men, all humankind were meant to string the burdens of reality across their backs and yank them into eternity. Alice had been given hers.
“Thank you for the tea, Matthew,” Alice said, her voice rattling out of her throat. “I hope to see you soon, on a brighter day.”
Alice marched back upstairs. It seemed that her bones quivered within the skin sacks of her body, making a mockery of the act of walking. After what seemed like a small eternity, she arrived back in her bedroom – the bedroom she shared with the love of her life, Cecil Andrews – and again gazed out of the window. It seemed the storm would never cease.
Sleep didn’t find her again.
Hours later, the sun drew itself, pale and soft, over the fields. The trees outside the window remained spindly, as it was still early spring. The rain made them look brittle and sharp. It seemed an impossibility that they would ever grow fertile with leaves, although Alice knew the day would come. It always had before.
Downstairs, the commotion caused the house to quake. Alice scrubbed at the back of her head, straining to hear. It was perhaps seven, a little before. Smells of baked bread and sizzling meat crept up the staircase. But alongside that was a strange, animal-like sound, then a wail. Evelyn Sanders was the unmistakable source.
“THIS CAN’T BE SO!”
The words scorched up from the front door. Alice sprung towards the landing, still dressed in only her nightdress. At the very base of the stairs, she made out the shadow of a much taller man. He appeared to lurk in the doorway, staring down at Evelyn Sanders.
Throughout the time Alice had spent at the Andrews estate, she’d always seen Evelyn Sanders as an upright, proper woman – a woman without sentiment, her shoulders yanked back and her nose high. Yet now, she’d tossed herself forward, had begun to scrunch the fabric of her dress. Her moans rang out, echoing.
“No! No, tell me it’s not so!”
Alice swept her bare feet across the floorboards. Her muscles ached with dread. Not fully realising what she was doing, nor the craze of her scrunched-up face, she swirled down the stairs, her eyes doe-big. She sprang to the side of Evelyn, dropping her hands across her shoulders. She blinked up at the towering man, who wore a jet-black coat that cut towards his knees. He dripped with the early-morning rain. His eyes were impossibly dark, almost unseeing.
“What is it?” Alice asked, nearly swallowing her words. “Tell me. What’s happened?”
Evelyn coughed, seeming to swallow her tongue. Alice cranked at her lower back, trying to force her to draw breath. The other servants and cooks appeared in the hallway behind them, looking like sparrows, gathered for crumbs of information.
The man gave no mention of Alice’s lackluster, morning appearance. He tipped his hat from his head and spread it across his chest.
“Lady Andrews, I presume?” he grunted. “I’ve ridden long and hard to come and tell you this.”
Alice felt like she was in a dream-state, a woman walking through impossible boundaries, blinking at the world around her as though it didn’t exist.
“Yes,” Alice returned, sensing already that was the incorrect word to say back. “I’m Lady Andrews.”
“He already knows that, you imbecile,” Evelyn said, her shoulders shaking.
“Your husband was involved in a wretched incident a few hours earlier,” the man continued. “During the storm, a group of highwaymen attacked the stagecoach. In the midst of the robbery, Lord Andrews sustained a number of injuries. His arrival at the estate is pressing. But I must tell you, Lady Andrews, his injuries are a difficult thing to witness.”
Alice stitched her eyebrows together. She felt as though the man had arrived with news of another woman’s husband – that surely he’d made a mistake.
“But you – you were there, were you?” she asked, her voice rasping.
“Unfortunately, I rode past in the early hours after the incident,” the man continued. “I found your husband on the ground, My Lady. I arranged for my dear friend and fellow witness to bring the carriage back to the estate. Your husband informed me of the location of his home and insisted he arrives back here to be treated. It seems he trusts only a single doctor in the area.”
“Doctor French,” Evelyn said. She cut up, yanking her bird-like skull towards the maid behind her. “You must tell the stable boy to ride for Doctor French. Tell him it’s a matter of life and death. If he dallies –”
“He shan’t, Miss Sanders,” the maid burst out, whirling towards the back of the house. Her scampering feet made little hollow taps across the floorboards.
“Thank you for delivering this information, sir,” Evelyn said, sniffing. She ripped herself from Alice’s latches, as though Alice’s attempted assistance was entirely sour to her. “Can we fetch you a cup of tea? I imagine you must be chilled to the bone.”
The man, who said his name was Nigel Caldwell, agreed to the tea. He shrugged out of his massive black coat and placed his wet hat into the outstretched hands of another maid. Alice remained in the foyer, her bare feet spread wide beneath her. The world outside was hazy with early light. She felt they’d been pressed into another reality, a world with rules she couldn’t understand. She’d heard tell of highwaymen, of raucous, murderous incidents. But these sorts of stories had never affected her. She’d never given them much thought.
“You saw him?” Alice whispered, her voice childlike.
Nigel’s dark eyes burned towards hers. Alice felt she could see Cecil’s injuries, reflected in them.
“I never wanted to be the bearer of such news, Lady Andrews,” Nigel said. He twirled absently at a black curl beneath his ear. “You can’t imagine how it pains me to do so. Thinking of my young wife at home, with our son, I now understand the treachery of the road.”
“I never imagined it,” Alice murmured, speaking mostly to herself.
At this moment, Matthew burst through the back door of the estate. His towering shadow held every bit the height of Nigel. Alice felt strange she hadn’t noted it before, the severity of his stature. He gaped at Alice, his dirtied hands hanging at his sides.
“Matthew, I can’t imagine what you’re doing in the house,” Evelyn said, scuttling towards him.
“I’ve heard news of the master,” Matthew spat back. His words simmered with vitriol. He took a hesitant step back, whilst Evelyn burned towards him. Alice saw for the first time that theirs was a strange, black relationship – one with the depth of many decades of continued hatred.
“He’s coming here directly,” Evelyn returned, her voice pompous. “And the doctor is summoned. I can’t imagine it will take long for Cecil to heal. He was always such a strong, resilient boy.”
Resilient? Alice pressed her lips together. Once, Cecil had sliced his finger on the edge of the window. Impossibly bright red blood dribbled along the wall. His wail had echoed, demonic in nature, without any sense of matching what had occurred. Alice had dotted at the slight wound, her words soft and mothering. “Darling, it’s quite all right. Only look at it, won’t you? There’s truly nothing amiss. Just a flesh wound.”
“I’m quite sure his appearance will be a shocking one, Lady Andrews,” Nigel offered now, drawing his chin towards his chest. “It’s important that you prepare yourself, body and mind. He will not look much like the man you love.”
Alice snaked herself against the wall of the foyer. She stretched her hands out against the chill of the stones. It felt necessary for her to respond in some manner, to deliver her understanding of the wretched nature of this to the man before her. But her bottom lip quivered, lost to its own devices.
“I’ve loved him as well as I could,” were the words that spilled from between her lips.
In hindsight, always, Alice marveled at the strangeness of these words. They felt oddly telling, as though she’d felt prepared to splay out the stresses and pains and wills of her inner heart to the strange man before her. Of course, she would never see him again and felt the heaviness of this now. Even the man who’d arrived with the news of her forever-altered life wouldn’t stay.
The doctor arrived mere minutes before the stagecoach. A forty-year-old grey-haired rogue-looking man, he burst through the door with his trunk lashing against the side of his leg. He blinked at Alice, murmuring, “Won’t someone fetch her a tonic? She’s white as a sheet.”
Evelyn snapped her fingers towards a surly twelve-year-old maid, ordering the same. But Alice shook her head left and right, stating, “No. I wish to be entirely conscious. I only wish to help.”
“Help?” the doctor stammered. He strode towards Alice, pressing his trunk into her twig-like arms “If you’re sure you can handle the sight of the injuries without fainting, my dear girl, I will take all the help I can get.”
The words were spat out, volatile and utterly useless. Alice’s nostrils flared. She grabbed the trunk by its underbelly and stomped up the steps after the doctor. Down below, Evelyn continued to order the various members of the household about the manor, as though her blossoming anger could, in some capacity, prove her love for her master. As though it could keep him alive.
Once they reached the bedroom, Alice slipped one of her husband’s shirts over her shoulders and stabbed her feet into stockings. The doctor snorted, saying, “Covering up in front of me is useless business. And I imagine you’ll want better use of your elbows. Prepare a washbasin, several towels and cloths.”
“Shall I put together a selection of serums for him, Doctor?” Alice asked, her brain sizzling with the memory of what her uncle had taught her. “I believe I have a few ointments leftover from my parents’ estate.”
Always, Cecil had teased her about this collection, calling them her potions. “If my friends knew I’d married a witch, can you imagine what they’d say? I would never live it down.”
“If you think a few herbal serums will save your husband’s life,” the doctor spat, “Then I imagine you’re far more insane than Cecil himself thinks.”
Alice’s heart thrust against the inside of her ribcage. She imagined the bones shattering, scattering to the innards and her belly. Instead of speaking, she flung herself down the stairs with the washbasin, filling it and gathering several towels. In her flurry, she heard the clattering of hooves outside, the howl of a man calling for assistance. Nigel sped to the door to greet his friend, the man he’d been with when they’d come upon Cecil. Alice half-imagined a reality in which she and Cecil greeted these men as friends – providing them guest of honour positions at their various parties. “If it weren’t for these men, I wouldn’t be alive today,” Cecil would say, in that pompous, bursting way of his.
Alice prayed for it.
Nigel and his friend, John, carried the aching, injured body of Lord Cecil Andrews into the foyer, mere feet away from where Alice stood with her sloshing basin of water. The man they held between them had almost nothing in common with the man she’d married. One-half of his face was glossy with blood, his thick, blond curls were caked with mud and grit and grime. As John cut up the stairs, Cecil let out a low moan, the first assurance to Alice that he was alive.
Behind her, Evelyn collapsed to her knees. She smacked her palms together, raised her eyes towards the sky. Her lips churned into a chaotic series of prayers. Alice forced her feet forward, knowing the doctor needed her. If she’d ever had a purpose, perhaps it had all been leading to this day.
The doctor made no mention of the horrendous nature of Cecil’s injuries, not now that he was a bleeding, mottled presence in the centre of the bed. Nigel and John arranged themselves in the corner of the room, their faces glowing pale. Alice hustled to her husband’s side, helping the doctor to rip the already-torn fabric of his once-perfect suit from his muscled form. The story of his injuries seemed too colossal to be true – punches and kicks and a blow from some sort of iron instrument across the side of the head. Tears swirled down Alice’s cheeks. Her knowledge of herbs and serums surely wouldn’t do anything, not now. They were meek against the evil horrors of men.
Cecil let out the occasional moan. His eyes rolled about in their sockets, still glowing blue orbs, seemingly hunting for something. Alice peered into them, trying to draw out consciousness.
“Cecil? Cecil, darling?” she murmured, drawing a towel across the side of his head. The motion was tender, the one only a lover could muster. “Cecil, do you hear me? Make a noise, if you can.”
Cecil’s eyelashes fluttered. The doctor coughed, saying, “You’re wasting your time, My Lady.” Still, his words hadn’t the same edge as earlier. It was clear to them all that this was a losing battle. Perhaps Cecil had known this, had requested that he return to his estate – to the place in which he’d been born – to die. Wasn’t that the sort of thing animals did all the time?
The other men clunked out onto the landing, marching down to the tearoom below. Alice remained perched at the side of her marriage bed, clinging to Cecil’s hand. He drew slow, shallow breaths, while she dotted at his face and chest with a cloth, trying to take the blood away. Alice used words she remembered her mother using when she was a sick child, words like, “You’re going to be all right. Keep going. Remember that tomorrow will be a brighter day.” But the words felt hollow, useless. The doctor no longer had to remind her how wretched her presence was in the bedroom. She knew it, fully. Knew that whatever she did in these moments, it wouldn’t secure Cecil’s place on earth.
When the doctor, John, and Nigel had fully abandoned her, Alice rose from the bed and ripped the curtains to the side of the window. Outside, a gruesome blue sky arched over them. Alice marveled at the number of times Cecil had gazed out at such a sky, surely filled with excitement and thrill about his days ahead. All the plans he had for himself – for their family – she felt them dying along with him.
“Look, Cecil,” Alice whispered, splaying her fingers across the glass. “You have to stay awake. We could have a picnic in the garden like you always did as a child. I know you always say it’s not pleasant, doing it before the flowers bloom. But darling, there’s such hope and promise in seeing the garden in the weeks just before the green takes.”
Cecil’s eyes closed. He no longer hunted the room, looking for impossible ghosts. Alice felt she could see his soul seeping out of him, perhaps sweeping out from his lips or through his wounds. She’d never given much thought for the ways in which souls made their way from a body. Now she felt the poetic nature of it, wondering if the soul slipped away little by little, or if it came away all at once. Perhaps now, the pieces of what had escaped lurked over the top of him, waiting for the rest to catch up. They would journey to heaven together, forming a full Cecil in the clouds above.
“You’ll watch over me. Won’t you, Cecil?” Alice whispered. She leaned towards a spot of clean skin on his forehead, a spot the highwaymen had missed, in the midst of their raucous beating. “I married you for love, Cecil. I married you for the future we could have had together. And I’ll always remember that future. Until my dying day, I will.”
Each staggering breath seemed to be his last. Alice felt herself counting them, wondering how many she would watch. She prayed for another, and then another. Downstairs, it seemed that more people had gathered. Gossip spread quickly throughout London, like a poison or plague. Up in the bedroom, where she watched her husband slowly teeter into death, she felt hollow, weak, unwilling to interact with another soul.
At some point, Alice lost consciousness herself. She was told later that Evelyn found her, cupping several pillows with her little frame, still gripping Cecil’s hand. “She was muttering to herself,” Evelyn told another maid, who informed Alice much later. “She was saying that she would give him children if only he’d stay with her. As though she hadn’t seen the injuries. As though she didn’t comprehend the horror they’d shown him. My poor, darling Cecil. My beautiful boy. Gone. Gone from us. How will we go on?”
“What the Wicked Lord Desires” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Alice Andrews has everything she’s ever dreamed of: a handsome husband, wealth and all her future ahead of her. Yet all is taken away from her when she’s left a widow. On top of that, she only then discovers her husband’s wretched business deals—one, in particular, with the mysterious and arrogant Lord Timothy Langley, which ultimately cast her into debt. He has a bad reputation but to her surprise, Alice can’t help but feel an electrifying connection with him. Will she be able to peer behind his darkness and perhaps find love again?
Lord Timothy Langley has a dark past, one that made him a self-built, ruthless businessman. When he visits a widow to collect her husband’s debt to him, he didn’t expect to be mesmerized by her striking beauty. He has vowed never to be fooled by any woman again, but his desire for her is so uncontrollable that he’s starting to believe that she’s different. When she proves that she is strong and ready to take her life into her own hands, will it be too late for him to make up for their rocky first meeting?
Alice will soon find herself at war with society and its dated rules, but only one man will show her the respect she deserves. Too bad it’s the same man that led to her ruin! Will they be able to face all obstacles thrown at them and acknowledge the one thing that unites them? Will they finally succumb to the forbidden desire they feel for each other?
“What the Wicked Lord Desires” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.