AN: I decided to try NaNoWriMo this year (crazy, I know). There's a full summary on my blog (LTL has it's own page)
Carina Wallace propped her hands on her hips and blew out a puff of air. Moving was tiring work. She scanned the small room she stood at the center of, committing the layout, the smell, the marks in the wood, all of it to memory.
She heaved a heavy sigh and shook her head sadly. Truly, she did not want to leave. But, what choice did she have? What reason did she have to remain in the small village? Carina had lived her entire life in Brysleigh and had planned on marrying, raising her children, and laying to rest in the quaint village. However, for the past three years, every trip to the market or walk down the street was riddled with pitying looks, horribly concealed whispers, and polite, but awkward conversations.
For her sanity she had to escape. As much as she loved her home and the people in the village, she had her pride and she simply could not take much more. Carina dropped her arms and strolled towards the window that overlooked the street below. She drew back the dull material hanging in front of it and peered out seeing a little boy skip ahead of his mother on the sidewalk, who was busy trying to balance her groceries in one hand and a squirming bundle in the other.
Carina smiled at the carefree image, hoping the mother could handle her burden. She would miss seeing children playing freely, women living with a little more freedom than aristocratic society allowed. However, she would not miss their constantly flapping gums, judgmental stares, disapproving sniffs, their blatant and public cuts that hurt far worse than a scraped knee or pricked thumb.
Carina closed her eyes, letting the curtain fall back as she once again turned to the room before her, debating whether or not to she should keep the items littering the floor or dispose of them. As much as she wanted to remember, she wanted to forget. There were some things she needed to forget.
Carina walked across the hall and pulled out a trunk hidden behind the door that she had been saving for her personal belongings. She pushed it across the hall, opened it and sat in the middle of the room, inspecting each object – saying goodbye – before she placed it in the trunk.
Hours later, when the sun dipped behind the clouds, Carina had finally finished packing the room. The only things that remained were a few pieces of furniture. All that was left was for her to find a place to store the trunk, then, pack her own bag and she was ready to leave.
Carina stood, interlaced her fingers and stretched her arms high above her head, arching her back. She heard a crack and winced. Rubbing her back, she muttered, "I am not that old."
Her stomach growled. "But, I am famished."
She bent down and closed the lid of the trunk. She headed down the stairs to the little kitchen concealed behind the bookstore her parents owned. The pantry was bare, with only half a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese, but Carina made due. She dragged a stool to the worktable at the center of the room, placed her bread and cheese on the surface – she already sold the dishes – and settled in for a meal.
When she was finished, Carina wrapped the piece of bread that remained – deciding it would tide her over for part of her journey – and washed her hands. She opened the secret door that separated the kitchen and the bookstore and walked to behind the counter. She collected the money she had made for the day – it wasn't much since she had one customer for the whole day – placed it in a black pouch, then, locked the front door and retreated up the stairs to her bedroom.
Carina grabbed a well-worn satchel hanging from the doorknob and placed the pouch with the rest of the coin she had saved as well as the bit she had gained from selling the bookstore. She folded her black bombazine and placed it on top, covering the money, next, her once vibrant green, now gray walking dress. Carina nodded to herself.
Catching a glimpse of her reflection in the window, Carina decided she needed a comb. She ran across the hall, opened the trunk, quickly located a comb and slammed the lid shut. She placed the comb at the top, then, loosely pulled the drawstrings together and tied a small knot.
Carina unfolded a blanket and laid it under the window where silver moonlight was streaming in, illuminating her little corner. She picked up her satchel and placed at one end of the blanket. She stripped off her cotton dress, down to her shift, folded the dress and placed it neatly on the windowsill where she could easily find it the next morning. She pulled back the blanket and slipped under, using the satchel as a pillow.
She laid on her side, looking out the window at the moon. It was large and round and silver, hovering in the sky looking down on her. She always felt comfort from the moon; it was like her protector, shining through the darkness letting her know that everything would work out for the best and that the world was larger than her little village.
Brysleigh was nestled directly between Northumberland and Durham, sitting on the borders of the two counties. Carina reasoned she could simply cross the street and make a new life for herself in Durham, but she wanted a larger change. A significant change that would help her move on and maybe even find her an adventure. An avid reader, Carina had immersed herself in fantastical worlds as a child and longed for an adventure of her own. Now, in her current situation, Carina seized the opportunity. She had never ventured beyond the boundaries of Brysleigh, had never been to London, only heard tales told by those passing through Brysleigh on their way to Scotland. That is, until tomorrow.
She sighed and rolled onto her back. Tomorrow she would take her satchel and board the first hackney out of Brysleigh. However, that meant she would have to rise before dawn as Brysleigh had one hackney that traveled to London and it made that trip once every two weeks at five in the morning. A cloud moved in front of the moon, plunging the room into temporary darkness.
Carina felt her pulse quicken and she took a slow breath. It was an absurd reaction. The moon was still out there. It was not necessary for her to panic. Carina's body, however, did not agree and the short hairs on the back of her neck prickled, her fingers trembled, and her heart beat faster. She closed her eyes until she felt the moonlight dancing on her skin, then she slowly opened them and stared at the sky. She heaved a sigh heavy with relief.
As her heartbeat returned to its normal rate, Carina felt her eyelids grow heavy and eventually she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning Carina woke well before the sun, the birds, before any other creature really. She yawned and stretched her arms. Turning her head towards the door, Carina stared at the wood as if she could see through it into the next room. She considered taking the trunk with her, but where would she put it? She did not have a place to stay, therefore nowhere to store the problematic box.
Carina shook her head, crawling out from underneath the blanket and shivered violently as the frigid Northumberland air blasted her bare arms. She grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around her body, making her way to the window where she had left her dress the night before. Quickly, pulling it over her head, she folded the blanket and stuffed it into the satchel.
Carina opened the door and headed down to the store in darkness, wondering if anyone in the village would be willing to hold on to the trunk for her. There were a lot of nice, elderly people in, but could she trust them to not look inside? Carina immediately thought of Pandora and her box. When she was younger, her father had read the story of Pandora's Box to her, and while the qualms of the world being placed solely on the female's shoulders – much like Adam and Eve of the Bible – never rested well with Carina, she gathered the hidden meaning of the tale. The sin of temptation was one human beings often surrendered.
Carina dragged her hands along the wall until she reached kitchen, where she rummaged through the cupboards until she found a stub of candle. She lit the candle and returned upstairs where she struggled, but eventually managed to push the trunk down the stairs. However, each thump and thunk caused a massive and unwanted headache to stir at the base of her skull. By the time she had pushed the chest to the door and donned her moth-eaten pelisse, the candle had blown out and the ache spread to her neck and shoulders.
Rolling her shoulders, Carina opened the door and quickly wedged herself between the door and the chest, using her feet to push it out of the store. Maybe Widow McClellan could keep it for her. Mrs. McClellan was a kind old woman who had lost her husband some years prior and lived in a small house just across the street. Carina was hoping Widow McClellan would agree to store it for her because she was not looking forward the dragging the cumbersome trunk all about the village. She was trying to leave, not spend her day looking for a keeper, possibly miss her carriage and have to stay another two weeks.
She pushed and pulled the chest across the empty street until she stood, breathing heavily with her breath misting in front of her, on Mrs. McClellan's doorstep. Although it was early, Carina knew the woman would be awake. She was always up before the sun out of habit, having had six children who needed breakfast on the table before they rose.
Carina raised a fist and knocked on the wooden door, tapping her foot against the ground waiting for an answer. Carina often called on Mrs. McClellan, sharing the stories she read or created with the woman, who in turn shared stories about her childhood and her children – who were now all grown with families of their own. Some were even lucky enough to move out of Brysleigh after their marriage.
After a minute, the door swung open to reveal a small, Scottish woman with graying hair and kind brown eyes that seemed to light up whenever she smile.
Carina smiled. "Good morning, Mrs. McClellan."
"Child, how many times must I tell you call me Lottie?"
"Only once more, I'm sure." Carina grinned, shaking her head at their usual exchange.
"Och, sure ye say that 'ow. But, the second I turn me back, it be back to Mrs. McClellan."
"Would you prefer Widow McClellan?"
"No! I would prefer ye drag that little behind in this here house before you freeze your arse off."
Carina shook her head. "Oh, Lottie. Whatever am I going to do with you?"
"Excuse the ramblings of an old woman because you love her and would never tell her otherwise?" Mrs. McClellan said innocently.
Carina chuckled. "Of course, what else would I do?"
"Come in, come in." Mrs. McClellan retreated into the house and Carina was left on the doorstep to pull the trunk in herself. Those big, strapping McClellan boys were married and living with their wives. Carina tugged on the trunk until she made it a few inches into room and closed the door, shutting out the cold air.
"Lass, have ye had breakfast yet?"
Carina looked up at Mrs. McClellan who was standing in the kitchen that doubled as a sitting room.
"No, I came straight here to see your lovely face first." Carina smiled cheekily at the woman.
"Och, you," Mrs. McClellan shook a wooden spoon at her, "will never catch a fine young lad with just skin and bones. You need to eat!"
"I do eat, Mrs. McClellan."
"Nay! You nibble!" She whirled around. "You must eat!" She banged the spoon against a pot and muttered under her breath.
Carina could not suppress her grin. Mrs. McClellan always tried to feed her. Carina believed the woman would try to force food down her throat even if she had finished an entire boar. With trimmings. She walked to the table and pulled out a stool.
"Can I help you with anything?"
"Nay!" Mrs. McClellan smacked the spoon against the counter. "You can sit and eat!" She shoved a plate filled with freshly baked biscuits, sausages, and a diced apple.
Carina blinked, silently took the plate, shuffled her way to the table, sat down, and started eating. She knew better than to argue with the woman in her own kitchen.
"Good." Mrs. McClellan nodded to herself and retrieved another plate for herself. Together, the two ate in silence, then the woman grunted. "Aye, I'll keep it."
Carina looked up, startled. Mrs. McClellan gave her a knowing looking and Carina smiled, piling another helping of biscuits onto her plate.
An hour later, Carina was wedged between a burly, old man who smelled of onions and a wrinkly woman who felt the need to voice her opinion about everything her eyes landed on, clutching her satchel to her chest. She sighed and rested her head against the cushioned seat, preparing herself for a long journey.
Ashton Calder stumbled into his London town house just before dawn smelling deliciously of brandy, smoke, and sweat. He clumsily climbed the stairs and collapsed on his large, four poster bed. He buried his head into the pillows, trying to kick his boots off, but gave up when they wouldn't budge and fell into a deep slumber fully clothed, dreaming of the raucous night of drunken debauchery he had the pleasure of experiencing.
Shafts of light pierced through the heavy silk curtains hanging in front of the floor- to- ceiling French windows that led to a balcony outside the master bedroom. Ashton groaned and rolled onto his stomach when the light rested on his face. Then, he began feeling heated, and clawed at the cravat tied around his neck. He loosened the infernal piece of cloth and tossed it across the room, letting his arm fall heavily on the bed.
Ashton groaned again and pulled the pillow over his head. "What is it, Harris?" However, from underneath the pillow it sounded like, "Whas it Arris?"
"I have come to inform you, my lord, that Mrs. Tilley left early this morning."
Ashton peeked out from under the pillow at the butler, to find him holding the ruined cravat and a grave expression. "Well, when she returns she will carry out her duties."
Harris shook his head. "My lord, she took her bags with her. Her quarters are empty and she left this," he presented an envelope, "in my charge."
Ashton sat up slowly, propping himself up against the headboard. "What is it?" He asked, extending his arm.
Harris coughed. "I believe it is her resignation as she was muttering about unruly and unreachable children on her way to the carriage."
"What must I do to keep a governess on hand for longer than four days?" Ashton muttered. He glanced up at Harris, who was patiently awaiting his next command. Ashton waved a hand dismissively, but his face turned grave at the prospect of interviewing and hiring yet another governess. "Find Zachary and place him in my study after breakfast. I would like to have a word with him."
Harris nodded and said in his usual monotone, "Yes, my lord."
Ashton sighed and dragged himself out of bed to the wash station set up behind the changing screen on the other side of the room. Going through his morning ablutions – washing his face, rinsing his mouth, shaving – Ashton ignored the pounding headache and mulled over his dilemma. He needed to hire a new governess and quickly, before word got out that that Seventh Earl of Arden had yet another governess fleeing from his estate in the wee hours of the morning.
Ashton dropped the blade next to the bowl of tepid water, grabbed the towel and wiped his face. He turned around to find Roman - his valet – carefully placing the day's trousers, lawn shirt, weskit and cravat on the bed. Ashton arched a brow; today's theme appeared to be a deep blue. He leisurely donned the clothing, and made his way to the dining hall where the sideboard was filled with pastries, fruits, meats, coffee, and tea.
Ashton sat at the head of the table and unfolded the neatly pressed newspaper. A footman placed a full plate in front of him and he took bites in between articles, idly drumming his fingers along the table's wooden surface. He flipped through the pages uninterestedly, eventually flinging the paper down next to the plate and storming out of the room.
Ashton stomped down the hall to his study, throwing the door open with such force it rebounded off the wall and slammed shut, almost clipping his right leg. His furious gaze landed on the small boy innocently sitting in a large, cushioned chair with his back to the door, swinging his legs back and forth. Ashton's long, purposeful stride carried him in front of the boy who was oblivious of his approach.
"Zachary." Ashton said through clenched teeth.
The blonde child's gaze remained transfixed on his lap and twiddling thumbs.
Not even a flinch.
Ashton took two steps forward and firmly grasped the child's shoulder, shaking him. Zachary's blonde head snapped up, smacking into Ashton's chin.
"Dammit!" Ashton rubbed his chin. "What is the matter with you?"
Zachary's eyes began to water which caused Ashton to increase his glare.
"Do not cry. Crying is for imbeciles and weak willed chits. I was assured of your gender at your birth, do not become an imbecile." He said snidely.
Zachary's brows scrunched in confusion, but Ashton plowed ahead. "What must I do with you? You run off every governess who enters this house without as much as a word! How do you manage to turn so many people away without making a sound?" He tossed his hands in the air and muttered, "First, I am leg- shackled to that dimwitted mother of yours, now I am saddle with you – a dumb child!"
Ashton withdrew a decanter of whiskey from the bookshelf, poured himself a healthy serving and downed it. Then poured another. He slammed the empty snifter on the desk, sending papers flying and overturning an open inkwell.
Zachary's eyes silently followed the chaos his father was making, until finally lifting his gaze. Ashton stared hard at the child, willing him to talk, but Zachary's eyes slid past his shoulder to the sun streaming into the study. Ashton sighed and shook his head. He fell back on the high-backed winged chair and closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
Ashton heard tiny footsteps, then felt a small hand on his elbow, gripping the material. He turned his head to the side and met Zachary's hopeful gaze with a blank one of his own. The child opened and closed his mouth several times before making inarticulate, grunting noises. Unwilling – unable – to understand, Ashton yanked his arm out of the boy's grasp and stabbed a finger in the direction of the door.
Zachary looked between Ashton's unyielding gaze, his finger, and the door, then sighed, hung his head miserably and left the study without a second glance. Ashton scrubbed his hands over his face and released a frustrated scream into his palms.
This was so damn maddening! Without a governess he would have to care for the child and Ashton did not know the first thing about child rearing, let alone how to deal with child as difficult as Zachary. Granted, there were a string of governesses willing to take the position, but because of the name attached to it – Earl of Arden – or the hope that Ashton would unleash his – according to the ton – vile, lascivious desires and ruin them, eventually forcing his hand into yet another unwanted marriage, not for the task at hand.
What Ashton could not fathom was why these women believed he was sufficiently depraved, yet honorable enough to protect them in their time of ruin. He was either a debased, immoral rake, or an honorable, gentleman of the ton. He could not be both, even if he wanted. For Ashton, it was physically impossible to the do the gentlemanly thing. Not that he often tried, but on the few occasions he was swindled into morality the situation usually became worse due to his involvement.
Ashton grabbed the snifter and threw it across the room, watching as the glass shattered against the wall, but took no satisfaction from it. Ashton simply wanted a woman willing to put up with the child, who would leave him be and not bother him with every detail of Zachary's behavior or education. He would give the governess free reign to do a she wished, if only they stayed in the house long enough.
There was a scratch at the door.
"What!" Ashton barked.
Harris stepped in with his hands wrapped firmly around a silver platter. "My lord, a missive has arrived."
"It bears Lady Arden's seal."
Ashton scoffed. "What in the world does she want?" He motioned for Harris to bring the letter. He snatched the paper off the platter, slid his thumb under the wax and broke the seal. He scanned the content, then crumpled the paper and slammed it on the desk under his hand. "Prepare a room for Lady Arden. She will be arriving shortly – within the day." Ashton shook his head as Harris scurried off to carry out his orders.
Ashton boarded himself in the study, dreading the impending arrival of his mother. It wasn't that his mother was a horrid woman; on the contrary, she was a very pleasant lady. However, Lady Arden and Ashton often clashed in regards to his chosen way of life, especially his treatment of his son. Ashton, however, always argued that it was his life and his son, and should therefore be able to manage it all as he saw fit.
Hours later when a maid entered the study to light a branch of beeswax candles, Harris knock on the door announcing the arrival of Lady Arden's carriage. Ashton sighed and dropped his boots to the ground, causing the young, but rotund maid to shriek and scurry out of the room as if Napoleon's army was bearing down on her.
Ashton shook his head, a grin playing on his lips. They run from the room at a glance, he wondered, what would they do if he truly turned his attention on them?
He tugged on his waistcoat, smoothing out the wrinkles as best he could, and exited the study. His boots clicked against the polished stairs as he descended and were then muffled by the carpeted foyer where he stood rigidly awaiting his mother's entrance.
"What is taking so long? Where is Arden? Walk faster! Be careful with that trunk, boy!" Lady Arden's nasally voice traveled up the walkway, swirled around Ashton, and cemented itself in his head. He shook his head furiously. Now he would hear her in his sleep!
Ashton cleared his throat as she exploded through the door in a burst of color and feathers. His eyes widened as a peacock feather flopped back and forth, then smacked into Harris' face. Ashton watched in amusement as Harris tried to stifle a sneeze.
He stepped forward, smoothly ducked under the feather as Lady Arden turned around, and took her gloved hand, bowing over it and placing a swift kiss on the back. "Mother," he tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. "I trust your journey was quiet and uneventful?"
"And you would be wrong." She sniffed, blowing at the plume that flopped in front of her face.
"Was there mischief on the road?" Ashton asked, grinning.
"Not the kind your ill mannered mind is imagining, Arden." She pulled her hand away to remove her hat – plumage and all – and handed it to the awaiting footman. Slipping her hand back into the crook of his arm, she continued, "I am in need of a new carriage, promptly! The wheels were stuck in the mud and the footmen spent two hours digging the carriage out of the rut. Then, the horses became unruly, tossing their heads, stomping their hooves. It was enough to give an old woman a fright!"
"But, who was this old woman?" Ashton said slyly.
Lady Arden looked at Ashton through the corner of her eye. "False flattery will not work with me, Arden. I do not understand how you have become so," she paused searching for the right word. "admired by the ladies of the ton with empty words such as those. It truly boggles the mind."
"They do not admire the words, but the actions that follow."
Pointedly ignoring him, Lady Arden glanced around the drawing room Ashton guided her into. "Where is that grandson of mine?"
"Most likely in his chamber."
"Most likely?" Lady Arden twisted her head towards him. "You do not know? What kind of father are you, Arden?"
The incredulous look she gave him was enough to push Ashton over the edge. "A fine one considering the circumstances!"
Lady Arden yanked her hand out of his grasp and walked to the window on the opposite side of the room, angrily tugging at her white satin gloves. "What circumstances would that be? My lord, Arden!" She threw her hands – and gloves – in the air and spun towards him. "It has been five years! You have a child! A son! You need to move past whatever grudge you are holding and become the mature adult –"
"A child I never wanted," Ashton exploded, stalking towards her, "from a marriage Father forced me into! He signed the contract, he should have been the one to marry her."
"That is preposterous! Your father entered into an agreement with the Thomas' – "
"That did not benefit this family in the least. Father used it as an opportunity to control my life. He manipulated everyone that was around him. He is dead and you still cannot see what a despicable, calculating man he was!"
"Do not speak ill of the dead, Ashton. He was your father and you should appreciate him, despite his flaws."
"Flaws you are oblivious too." Ashton muttered.
"How would you feel if young Zachary were to walk about London speaking of you in such an ill manner?"
"I would be beside myself with joy." Ashton said sardonically.
Lady Arden gasped. "You wish for your child to be disrespectful? You wish for him to despise you and every decision you made?"
"While I am fairly certain all of that is already true, I would that he would talk." Ashton flipped a blonde strand out of his eye. "Were he to verbalize any word – positive or negative – I would content."
Lady Arden's demeanor changed drastically. The shrieking harpy intent on ripping Ashton limb from limb for dishonoring her husband was replaced by a somber matron desperate to help her grandson and – if possible – rescue her son.
"He has not improved?" She asked quietly.
"No." Ashton said, his harsh tone a sharp contrast to the countess' calm.
"What have you done? What of his governess?"
"What have I done? I have hired every governess and tutor available, but they all run screaming from the house! That child is the devil himself!"
"Ashton!" Lady Arden admonished. "Do not speak of you son in that manner. It is hardly appropriate or kind. What if the servants heard you? They would spread rumors of Lord Arden's cruelty to children – to his own child. What if Zachary hears you?"
"If he was able to hear me this discussion would be unnecessary!"
She shook her head sadly, her eyes gaining a sheen and becoming bright with unshed tears. "I don't how you became such a cynical, heartless man. But, one day – one day soon – I guarantee you will regret your behavior and your treatment of that sweet child."
"Hardly," Ashton scoffed and stormed out of the drawing room, slamming the door behind him.
Lady Arden sunk onto the cushioned window seat, staring hopelessly after her son who was determined to shut everyone out of his life. She turned her head, looking out the window as the first stars of the night appeared, bathing Mayfair in their silver glow.
She sighed. How much longer could he live like this? How much longer could she allow Zachary to live like this?
When her husband signed the contract, uniting the two families, she had promised him she would not interfere because she truly believed he was acting out of the goodness of his heart, acting within the best interest of his family. But, then he died and Cassandra died. The relationship between the Calder's and Thomas' had dissolved rapidly and on unfriendly terms.
True, the Thomas' had benefited more from the alliance – their line would continue and their debts would be paid in full – but, the Calder's – specifically Ashton – had gained as well. He had acquired a well bred, young lady from a good family with a pristine reputation as his wife. What more could he ask for? But, of course, Ashton was not satisfied with what he had. He was always searching, expecting more than what people had to offer. Lady Arden feared her son would be sorely disappointed in life if he continued down that path.
Author's Note: This is really long, should I spilt it into 2 chapters? Say.... at the POV switch? For this chapter the word count is 5009. I'm a little behind, but that's ok. I'm confident I'll catch up. But, it you want to follow my progress check out the blog! I'll try to post each chapter when I finish it. Then, when the story is complete (hopefully 11/30/09) I'll go back and edit! :) WW's edits begin in January.