It was the blood. Perhaps the alcohol. It was making her dizzy. Her hands were burning. She felt weak. Exhausted. Out of control. She collapsed. She heard gasps, shouts, whispers. Rumors. She heard someone talking. "–It's best she stays here, Isaac. She's sick." Who said it? The Marquess? A Baron? She didn't know. Finally she felt cool hands lift her to her feet, and then into a set of strong arms. As she settled among cool sheets she opened her eyes. The shapes before her were vague and blurry, only colors could she make out after careful glances. At last she closed her eyes again, leaning back into silk and goose feathers, letting sleep pull her under.
Amelia woke to the smell of hot soup and fresh bread. She opened her eyes and sat slowly up, grasping her pounding head. The food she smelled was on a table to the left of the bed. She didn't recognize the room. On her right was the Marquess. He smiled gently when he saw her wake. Amelia could do nothing but bow her head to him, and even that was difficult.
"Isaac has not yet arrived. I doubt he will be here until later this evening. He said he had some business to take care of in London."
Amelia's heart wrenched in fear. "I-I'll understand if you call the authorities."
Jasper laughed heartily. "Arrested? Dear girl, if the authorities were to come they would want only to question you, as you are only a victim here. You do not get arrested for running away from something that scares you."
His reaction confused her greatly. Wasn't he supposed to be mad? Disappointed? Suspicious? He was much nicer than she had ever expected. "Your Grace . . ."
"Yes, my dear?"
"How angry is the Earl?"
"Isaac? Not terribly so, I expect. But, I assume that he will have a few words with you when he arrives. Now he will understand why you have lied to him."
"I wish it could be so easy."
But the Earl did not arrive. Not that week, nor the next. Every day Amelia found herself wishing that he would barge into the room, even if it was to yell at her. Any sight of him would be better than this; this terribly anxiety about his thoughts. Did he hate her? Was he ever going to come back? Would he ever trust her again? God, would he kiss her again? Her heart would ache every time she thought of him, or asked herself these questions. She felt close to tears, close to giving up completely, if only it meant that he would come back. She didn't expect to miss him as much as she did. She realized then that she had done the worst thing possible for her future. She had fallen in love with the Earl Isaac Bristowe. He was related to the King, for goodness sake! Cousins or some relation as that. And she loved him. Loved him dearly with everything in her.
Over the course of the weeks without him, she started many letters to her mother, residing with her Aunt and Uncle in Edinburgh, but each time she found herself unable to continue. Anne would be horrified, mortified, at the action her daughter had taken. She would disown her, strip her of her name, cast her out. The very thought made Amelia wish to weep, but she held back since generally the Marquess was in the room and she didn't want to bother him with girlish tears. He might have noticed her difficulty, the way she couldn't hold her hands steady, the way the letters would run in some places, the way the letters were torn into shreds and tossed into a bucket. Nor did he ask anything about her husband. She was sure that he would let the authorities, take care of that, but like the Earl, they didn't come until it was too late.
Amelia spent her days at Jasper's residence playing with his two pups, Hugo and Miles, and learning how to ride. The Marquess himself devoted two hours from his busy agenda to instruct her. At first she was horribly embarrassed by the way that she rode, her heels up, hunched forward, unbalanced. But then, slowly she learned how to remain balanced, both as a man rides and in a ladies' saddle, how to keep her heels down, and straighten her back. She learned to remain calm in the saddle, to mount and dismount from either side, to groom and saddle correctly, to walk, trot, canter, and gallop. He was slowly teaching her to not be afraid.
The Earl spent much of that week a drunken mess. He would have hardly recognized himself had he looked in a mirror. He had bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, he was growing a rather thick and unattractive beard, and his clothing was stained and smelly. And, worst of all, he could not stop thinking about her. Though she had lied–not even a simple lie, but one that was so deep and complex that he could hardly understand it–he found himself making excuses for her. She had been scared. Terrified. She ran because she didn't know what to do, because she thought that she would be blamed for Walden-James' death. Silly, foolish, troublesome girl! Angrily, he slammed his fist onto his desk in front of him. Damn that girl's stubbornness, and fiery attitude! Why was it those qualities that attracted him?
His thoughts were interrupted by Beth's soft voice. "The Marquess is here to see you, Your Grace. Should I show him in?" Even she missed Isobel–Amelia–whoever she was.
"Send him in then!" the Earl snapped, slurring his words slightly, and taking another swig from the almost empty bottle of whiskey. He waited and seconds later the bottle was snatched from his hands and deposited into Shawcross'. The blonde was looking rather embarrassed and sheepish about the situation and no doubt he felt guilty about not taking better care of his best friend.
"Isaac!" Jasper Growled. "I expected that you were arranging your affairs, trying to find Miss Amelia's family, instead I find you wallowing and drinking! Get up off your ass!"
Jasper then oversaw the cleaning and grooming of the Earl. He was forced tea and cold water and given laudanum to rid him of severe headaches. He was given a haircut and a shave, as well as a bath. After a few hours of struggle with the drunken man, Jasper finally recognized him. Then they loaded him into Jasper's coach and began the journey back to Jasper's home.
His first glimpse of her in two weeks was astonishing. There she was, riding in a large square, sand-filled paddock, on a delicate Arabian mare. He hardly recognized her. She seemed like she had been riding her entire life, so at ease, so confident; shoulder's back, back straight, heel down. She saw them and a flush overcame her face. Whether It was from the exertion from the ride or from his presence he wasn't sure. She dismounted and walked toward them. Her smile faltered as she saw Isaac standing there and she immediately tried to turn around and walk the horse away, but Jasper stopped her. "Amelia." She stopped in her tracks, her back still to them. "As soon as you have finished cooling her out you may change and meet us in my study."
They saw her nod as she walked away, leading the mare back to the paddock where they walked in slow, lazy circles.
Amelia took her time cooling Sonata out, and then changing from her writing habit into a casual day dress of plum. She then drifted slowly to the Marquess' study, her heart pounding and wrenching. She was sure that she was going to be sick again, but she realized that she had been forgetting to breathe and quickly steadied her breath as she knocked on the study door. "Enter."
She opened the door and slipped inside, closing it snugly behind her. Both men were drinking water and, as she entered, she noticed that it didn't seem as though they had been talking at all. She took a seat on a small chaise, farthest from both men.
"Did you have a pleasant ride, Amelia?" the Marquess asked.
"I did, your Grace."
"Good. Sonata seems to have improved, you both have. I believe she likes your company."
"I hope she enjoys my company as much as I enjoy hers, your Grace."
"I'm sure that she does. Have you–ahh, excuse me for just a moment." He stood and Amelia noticed that there was a servant, Gerard, waiting in the doorway, a pained look upon his face. "I will be back, just business, I'm sure. Oh, and shall I tell the cook to set a place for you at Supper?"
The Earl nodded stiffly and the Marquess grinned. "Good."
Once alone, Amelia shifted uncomfortably, unease spreading through her quickly. Not for the first time she thought of running away, but maybe it was time to stop and catch her breath. But she quickly chastised herself. She would always be running. Always.
"How–How are you doing?"
"Well enough," she replied cautiously. "And you, your Grace?"
"Fine." he said briskly.
"Yes, I suppose . . . Why–Why didn't you tell me who you were?"
Amelia didn't say anything for a long time, looking at her fingers, folded in her lap, tryign to decide what she should and would say. "I–Your Grace, I am seventeen years old. I've been married for one. My husband is dead. I was afraid, fearful out of my mind of him, of what would happen if anyone found me there with him dead."
"Scared? Didn't you want to be married, to have children? Isn't that what most young women want?"
Amelia sighed and closed her eyes. "Your Grace, there is nothing more I would like than to have children. Nothing more. But, it simply isn't possible."
"You mean . . . you aren't . . . ready?" He seemed to choose his words carefully, but Amelia still couldn't keep a blush from reaching her face.
"Your Grace!" she protested loudly.
"Then what is it?"
"I cannot have children. I cannot bear them. My body doesn't allow it."
"Oh," He seemed to have grasped the idea, his face drawn in. "I'm sorry."
"So was Hunter." she said quietly, so quietly that he almost could not make out what she had said.
"My husband. His name was Hunter." she whispered.
"I don't want to hear about your husband!" the Earl snapped, emotion finally taking control of his features, changing him into a different man entirely. He was dangerously handsome, someone that she wouldn't dare to cross, but nothing, nothing like Hunter had been. "I want to hear about you!"
Amelia stood. "Stop it."
He stood as well and strode swiftly across the room towards her. What was happening? What was he thinking? Her heart started pounded faster, almost painfully. She was shaking. Nervous.
He kissed her. Right then and there. He was surrounding her, taking control of her senses. She pulled away, stumbling farther away from him. "Stop." she ordered hoarsely. She knew she was going to cry. She didn't want to but she couldn't help it.
"Why?!" he demanded, reaching out and grabbing her shoulders in his hands, looking her directly in the eyes. "Give me a reason, Isobel. And it had better be a damn good one!"
"Because!" she snapped. "Because my name is Amelia Anne Walden-James"
"Amelia . . ." he repeated softly.
"Because," she murmured brokenly, tears escaping from her eyes. "Because I ki–"
She was cut off my the door. It was opened harshly, the knob banging against the wall. Jasper stood there heaving, looking as though he'd run a long distance very quickly. "Amelia . . . Isaac . . ."
"What?" Amelia asked, pushing Isaac away. "What is it, Jasper?"
"Come. Quickly, there is someone here who needs to see you."
Confused, Amelia followed, Isaac in her wake. They traveled to the front salon where there was a messenger waiting. Amelia could tell he was one because he was dressed in uniform bearing the King's crest, and he was splattered with mud and debris. He caught Amelia's gaze, his eyes lingering on her before moving to Isaac. "I have been informed to tell you, your Graces, that the Baron Walden-James is missing. His body is gone. It was being held for burial in his home, but the body is gone."
Frightened, Amelia stepped back, her eyes widening. "Are you sure. Absolutely sure?"
The messenger nodded. "I am afraid so, Miss. The Baron Walden-James is alive. I must go, now. There are many others who must hear the news." He bowed and then followed Gerard out of the room.
Amelia sank into a chair. She was breathing too quickly again; she'd been holding her breath and was trying to gain it back. Tears leaked. She clutched at the arm rests of the chair, her eyes gazing wildly around the room. Jasper put a hand on her shoulder. "He doesn't know where you are, Amelia. He can't find you."
The Earl shook his head. "Yes, he does know. Everyone from the ball knows that she is here. It simply isn't possible that he hasn't heard about it from any one of your guests." He paused. "And isn't it good that he will know where you are? You won't have to hide anymore. You can go home."
Amelia shook her head quickly, harshly, and let out a choked sob. Jasper sighed. "It seems that you have much to tell the Earl still, Amelia.. I have a few letters to write it seems, so I shall leave you alone for a while. If you need anything, please, ring the bell." Jasper squeezed Amelia's shoulder gently, fatherly, and nodded to the Earl before striding out of the room.
"A-Amelia?" the Earl questioned. She sighed. It seemed so unlike him to stutter, to have his guard down. It scared her.
"I killed him. Or, I thought I did." she murmured, letting her face sink into her hands a little farther.
"What?" he exclaimed. "You–you killed him?"
Amelia nodded miserably. "I didn't intend to. You must understand that. I just wanted to slip enough laudanum into his drink to make him fall asleep. But I put too much in and–and I waited until he was asleep and then he turned cold . . . and I thought I'd killed him . . . I just wanted to escape."
The Earl reeled back at her words. This woman, this little, slip of a woman, had killed, or attempted to, kill her husband? The thought made him laugh. She frowned. "It's true. I have no reason to lie to you."
"Why on earth would you want to run away?" he demanded.
"Not every girl who marries is happy, Isaac. Especially if you marry a man like Hunter. He was . . . terrifying. Whiskey was his first, and most loved, companion. He drank like no man I have ever seen before. Every time he went away on business he would return home and drink away his sorrows. He would sometimes drink three or four bottles in a single night. I tried my best to do as I was told, fearful that he would take out his anger on me. Eventually he did. He forced me to his bed, beat me, used me, and cast me aside when he was done. He was an angry man who cared more about his horses, than his young bride."
She looked carefully at the Earl. His face was emotionless once again. The sight relieved her, encouraged her to go on. " When he discovered that I could not bear him any children, the beatings and the drinking grew worse and more frequent. He would leave, sometimes for weeks one end, to gamble what little money he had. Seldom did he win. I suppose that that is why he hated me, he blamed me. Maybe It was my fault . . . He enjoyed my pain . . . it encouraged him. I was glad, so glad that I could not give him a child. I could not bear the thought of bringing a child into his house. It would have been a living nightmare, especially if the child had been a girl. He hates all women . . . except his mother.
"So, one day I went to town. He was gone, gambling. And I bought the laudanum from a poor, lice covered vendor who looked like he should have liked to follow me home, but one of Hunter's staff was with me and threatened the man away. Hunter was due home that evening and I prepared his drinks as he liked them, adding some of the laudanum."
"What did his staff say, the man who was with you? Did he see you buy the laudanum?"
Amelia nodded. "He knew, but he hated Hunter as much as I did, for what he did to me and the other serving girls he came across. He told me what to do, how long the laudanum would take to work, and where to go. I was supposed to end up in France, but that didn't happen."
"What about this man, did he . . . did he love you?"
Amelia flushed. "I suppose he did, but he was married and had a young son who needed his protection as well, so he had to stay behind. He wished me luck. He kept me rather sane in the year I was held prisoner."
Isaac leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily. He refused to look at her, it was rather pathetic of him, but he couldn't help it. She needed his help, his support. "Well. What are you going to do now?"
Amelia shook her head. "I don't know. I think I should go to France."
"France!" The Earl stood angrily. "No. You will come home with me. We will celebrate Christmas with Emily, and then we will see what happens."
She laughed lightly, but it pained her. "I can't go back to your manor. If I do he will know. He would find me there and he would find me here."
"Not if I let it slip that you're on the run again!" he said, his eyes brightening a little at the plan. "If I tell Miss Swanson, she is bound to tell everyone else. It won't be long before all of England hears about you."
Amelia smiled softly. "How can you still be so kind to me? I've abused your trust."
He shook his head. "I don't know. I don't understand it myself. But, it would be selfish of me to not help you when you have showed me so much, even if you have misused my trust."
"I have shown you things?" Amelia asked in disbelief. Her uneasiness was slowly disappearing and she was becoming calmer. She dried her tears and took a deep, steadying breath.
He laughed. "Like you wouldn't believe. These past weeks have been rough, but I have learned a lot, about you, about you, about myself, about women in general."
She flushed. "I'm glad you have learned from my mistakes, from my lies."
He grinned wolfishly. "Of course, I could still care to learn more about you. Much more." His meaning was clear. It made her flush and a warmth pooled within her.
"Your Grace!" she protested. "That isn't proper!"
He winked. "I know. It is more enjoyable that way, don't you think."
Beat red, Amelia stepped back. To her surprise he didn't follow. He smirked. "When shall we journey? Emily will be home soon. She will be overjoyed to see you."