Chapter Nine: Richard
Five Years Prior
The mist of the morning had not yet passed as I crested the hill on the back of my favorite mare, Minerva. Her breath huffed pleasantly in the crisp morning air, and her hooves crunched over frosty grass with a satisfying crackle. Beside me, a dark steed idled, his rider surveying the surrounding landscape with a critical eye. Sir Richard Highland, whose thirty-five years of age made him a staid bachelor in the eyes of society, was courting me with rabid persistence and I was not quite sure I liked him.
Seated as he was atop quite the handsome stallion, Sir Richard made an impressive picture. His emerald jacket was immaculate, his blond hair neatly combed, his moustache groomed to the perfect length, and his black riding boots shone in the early morning sun. Were I only interested in looks and money, Sir Richard would fit the bill. He was the richest suitor yet to request my company, and in his mind he was most certainly the handsomest.
And in some ways, it was true. His wide smile revealed that he still possessed all of his teeth, and dimples graced both cheeks. With icy blue eyes and straw-colored hair that turned golden in the summer, Sir Richard kept his looks well and displayed them proudly in luxurious clothes meant to impress and turn heads. One might argue that he was every bit as vain as the women he pursued.
Yet the longer I spent time in his company, the less I cared for him. I could not quite put my finger on why, but deep in my belly there was a nervous feeling about Sir Richard. Had I my own way, I would be out riding Minerva in my brother's breeches and a loose blouse, alone with my thoughts and in full possession of my own time. But here I sat, trussed up in my best riding outfit, attempting to make some sort of intelligent conversation with a man who was little more than an overgrown peacock.
"You look quite beautiful today, Miss Erstwilder," he said, flashing that grin that was a little too wide to be trusted.
I cleared my throat and nodded. "Thank you, Sir Richard." His gaze lingered and the long silence alerted me to the fact that he expected a compliment in return. Swiftly, I quipped, "Your jacket is very... well made, Sir Richard."
He lifted an arm to inspect the fabric, his grin becoming impossibly wider. "Ah yes, yes it is." Unsolicited, he launched into a long tale of how it had been ordered especially for him from a place I had not heard of, and that it had cost far too much, in my estimation, and that it was fitted very well to his figure, which he then turned so that he might display himself in full.
I surveyed his unfortunately narrow shoulders and, as my gaze traveled down to his slightly effeminate hands, I nodded. "It is certainly quite... er... fitted." Overall, he had the distinct look of a man born into wealth. While not chubby, his hands were soft and particularly boneless looking, and his chin had a telltale roundness despite his being a tall and rather thin man. These aspects dampened his good looks just slightly, and I could not help but idly wonder if I could best him in a game of wrestling.
Dismounting, he came to my side and offered a hand. "Perhaps we might stroll and admire the countryside."
As I slid down, he firmly placed my hand in the crook of his arm. The silence was broken only by a flock of birds rising suddenly from a nearby tree. I watched them swoop and sway as one in the sky, in awe of their graceful dance in the sky. When I turned, I found that Sir Richard was not watching the birds, but rather admiring me. Or, perhaps, admiring the cut of my riding habit with its nipped in waist and shiny gold buttons. I felt my skin begin to crawl as his eyes traveled back up to my face, and had a sudden wish to be back on my horse and traveling home.
I had not wanted to come on this ride, but my mother had accepted the invitation without consulting me. Our family was in desperate need of a good marriage, she had said, and this was just the ticket. After my so-called scandalous snubbing of George Clearwater, my mother was determined to foist upon me as many gentlemen willing to court and marry as she possibly could. Of course, I had maintained quite the friendly discourse with George, whom I had not snubbed at all. In fact, after the night of my debutante ball, during which I finally got it through his head that I was not interested in his attentions, he had gone on to court my best friend Imelda, who had an odd affection for his awkward stutter and proclivity for chocolates.
This past week, I had entertained more gentleman than I felt was proper, but my mother did not care. Two proposals had already been made; neither from good enough prospects. In my mother's eyes, neither gentleman was quite rich enough to deserve the title I would give them. In my eyes... well, I did not love either man, nor very well even like them. Sir Richard was swiftly joining their ranks.
As we walked, he prattled on about his grand estate, and his beautiful gardens, and his stable full of horses. He boasted of his immaculate house, how he attired his servants in the latest styles, how his cook made the richest of delicacies. Not once, as we walked along the ridge above the vast bank of fog over the valley, did he ask me a single question that did not somehow refer back to himself.
"This place is as good as any," Richard said suddenly, and I found that while preoccupied with my thoughts, we had come to stand before the very tree that had prior housed a flock of birds.
Fumbling around in his pocket, Sir Richard took my hand and launched into a speech. "Forgive me for standing during this auspicious moment, dear Miss Erstwilder, but I find the ground leaves quite the stubborn stains on my knees and these breeches are quite new." He paused for effect, expecting, I suspected, that I would agree kneeling on the ground was foolhardy. "At any rate, my dear, you must be expecting this. It has been quite pleasant to be found in your company and I am sure I have provided you with welcome distraction from your country life at home.
"Miss Erstwilder, you are quite the most beautiful girl, so well proportioned and endowed with lovely hair, and you must know I hold admiration for yourself and of course your family. It comes as no surprise then that I offer you my hand in marriage, though of course I have many choices amongst society. You see, Dear Miss Erstwilder, I find you to be set apart from the other ladies in my company and it intrigues me. I must know your secrets and unravel the mystery behind your particularly pretty eyes." He presented the ring he had fished from his pocket, a large emerald nestled amongst a sea of diamonds, and lowered his face toward mine. "Will you accept me as your husband?"
I stared at the ring in his fingers, then at his awaiting gaze, and slowly removed my hand from his. "Thank you for the attention, Sir Richard, and I am truly honored by this... proposal." The light started to fade from his eyes as I went on. "But you see, I barely know you! We have only been in this... courtship, if you will, for two weeks and I cannot possibly know whether I should sign the rest of my life away to a man in just two weeks."
He grabbed my hand again and kissed my fingertips. The feel of his moustache on my knuckles was uncomfortably intimate. "But there is a chance, my beauty?"
Inwardly, I bristled at his use of such a possessive and objectifying phrase. "Well, I..."
But before I could go on, he snatched me tightly to his bosom and exclaimed "I will dress you in the finest clothes, Isobel, the most beautiful silks and lace your pretty little eyes have ever seen. You will be dripping with jewels, positively laden with emeralds and diamonds and rubies around your slender neck. Indeed, when we honeymoon that need be your only attire..." Those icy blue eyes turned rabid as he surveyed me.
As I had expected, it did not take much to push him away. "Excuse me, sir, but I am not your wife nor even your beloved and it is entirely inappropriate for you to speak to me in this way!" I dusted my dress off, feeling the skin beneath crawl at the look in his gaze. "I do not want to belong to a man to be dressed up and shown off like a prized statue! I am not a thing to be had, and I will do very well without you in my future." Taking a few steps away, I nodded my head politely, despite my disgust. "Good day, Sir Richard."
But I did not get any further. With something akin to a snarl, he snatched my arm and pushed me against the tree with such force that my breath was knocked from me. "I will have you..." his hands scrabbled at my skirts and the buttons on my riding vest, and I was too dumbfounded to fight him away. "Your family will have to give you to me when they discover this little tryst. I will have that title even if I must perform this little indiscretion to get it."
His arm pinned me across the shoulders, holding me against a hard knot in the tree with the entire weight of his body as his other hand jerked my skirt up. The ribbon around my stocking fell to the ground, useless, and I stared at him with horror. Though my mind was screaming at me to move, I felt as frozen as the ground beneath me. Was this really happening?
As if time moved at half pace, I watched his cheeks redden, his eyes gleaming with greed, his perfectly combed blond hair falling haphazardly around his face, and his lips curling into a snarl beneath his perfectly groomed moustache. I could see the tendrils of my breath puff into the cold air, drifting away swiftly as the birds in the sky. The tree behind me dug painfully into my spine and a few gold buttons popped up, hitting the bottom of my chin as he tore at my jacket.
But it was not until his hand grazed the bare skin of my thigh that time moved again. A rush of adrenaline pumped through me. With a scream that welled up from deep in my belly, I rammed my head forward into his chin, feeling his lip split against my forehead, and I shoved him away from me with every mite of strength and anger that I had. Surprised at the sudden movement, he stumbled over his own feet and fell on his bottom on the hard, frozen ground.
My hair was half tumbling around my face, my riding vest half ripped open and my blouse undone. Blood slid down my forehead and onto my nose. At that very moment, I knew I looked as furious as I felt.
"How dare you!" Despite the energy vibrating through my very core, I heard my own voice come out low and calm. "How dare you try to take advantage of a young girl for your own gain. How dare you try to rape me for something so miniscule as a title! How dare you -"
"No, no, no," he interrupted, pushing up from the ground and reaching a hand out to me. I slapped it away and he let his hands drop to his side. "I only meant... please forgive me, dear Miss Erstwilder, I would never - I did not think to take it so far as - you mistake-"
"I mistake nothing!" I spat at him, backing away to where our horses stood obediently. Something hurt quivered in my abdomen, some inner fear, but I tamped it down. "You meant to force yourself on me and report this indiscretion as some lover's tryst. You meant to take me against my will."
He advanced and I flinched. "Dear Isobel, I assure you, my adoration took hold and I did not know what I was doing! I only mean to secure you with the most honorable of futures!"
Before I knew what I was doing, I slapped him, hard. Again, and again, and again. It took him so by surprise that he could do nothing but throw up his arms and cower away, uttering a high pitched sort of cry at each blow.
Reigning in my fury, I backed away to Minerva and took a few quick seconds to mount her. Sir Richard's stallion willingly came to me, and with his reins in hand I looked back at my would-be suitor, who looked far too afraid to come close and protest my divesting him of a ride.
"If you dare to come to my home or any place near my person, I will have my brothers do their worst. They will all know of this." I looked down at him.
"Please..." he said, and his voice quivered. Blood trickled from his split lip, and his cheek was red from my angry blows. "Please my mother must not know of this..."
I took a sharp breath and felt my back ache. There would be a bruise there shortly, if it was not already making its way up my back at this moment. "I make no promises whom I will and will not tell. For the sake of your family and your sisters alone, I will be discreet. But should I ever find that you have attacked another girl as you did me, the whole of society will know what you have tried to do, and what an utter coward you are."
I clicked my tongue to Minerva and spurred her forward. "I do not ever want to see you again," I said, and I made for home, taking Sir Richard's horse with me. Either my furious attack or the long, cold walk home would, I hoped, pound some sort of sense or fear into his head and he would never attempt this again. Staring at the horizon, I knew at that moment I was not going to marry well, or perhaps at all. The weight of my parents' fortune would not rest on my shoulders; it was their burden to carry, not mine. As I rode through the mist toward Erstwilder Estates, I wondered: how long, exactly, would it take to convince my mother?
I arrived home at the choice moment when my mother was in her dressing room and my father was gone on "business." Which I knew meant he had gone to gamble another part of his estate away to whomever would take property in lieu of the money he did not have. My youngest brother, Archibald, caught me slinking through the back hallways. My hair was completely loose around my face, and I was missing three buttons from my best. But most worrisome of all, I had a gash along my hairline that oozed blood.
"Isobel! What happened to you?!" Archie was fourteen, four years younger than myself, and the brother I trusted the least with my secrets. Though he meant well, he loved a good story to tell, and this, I knew, would be the most titillating one of all.
"Minerva spooked on the way home and I fell off." I lied, brushing past him. "I need to get cleaned up before mother notices I've ruined my jacket."
"But you've got a tear in the back and the buttons... and you've hit your head!" Archie was smart and I knew he could tell my wounds did not add up to falling off a horse. Besides which, I was the best horsewoman in the county, and Minerva was the least likely of any to spook.
I sighed. "Well, we ran into a branch before I fell!"
There was disbelief in his eyes, and he squinted at me for a moment before shrugging. "Mother wants to see you as soon as you are back. Of course, she'll want to know what good Sir Richard proposed. Or rather, how." He grinned and waggled his eyebrows at me. "I'll bet he told you about every beautiful jacket in his possession." Sir Richard was known for his excessive love of opulent dinner jackets.
Hearing his name shot an ache through my chest, but I rolled my eyes at Archie and turned to go up the stairs. "That man probably has more dresses than any girl in the county," I tried to say as lightly as I could. Archie did not pursue me further, and I was able to escape to my room without being seen.
Pain radiated from the spot in my back where the tree had dug into me, and removing my clothes unassisted was a chore that took much longer than I anticipated. When I was entirely denuded, I twisted in front of the mirror to see just how bad it was. The sight made me gasp. In the white expanse of my back was an ugly purple-red mark nearly the size of my fist, and I could see the center of it darkening even more. No wonder my entire side ached! Soon, I was sure, it would spread over the whole of my lower back.
I pulled garments on, pained and wondering how I would hide this from my mother. I could not quite move normally, as any small twist shot pain through my ribs. And then, there was the cut on my forehead to deal with. Luckily, it was a small split and mostly hidden in the line of my hair, but it had not yet stopped bleeding. I dabbed at it with a handkerchief until it seemed to cease, and arranged my hair to cover that side of my forehead.
Finally, presentable and all evidence of the attack hidden, I went to my mother's rooms to find her.
She was taking tea when I arrived, and her eyes skewered me with a million questions before she uttered a thing. "My darling! Come, sit and have tea!"
I accepted her invitation, lowering myself precariously and carefully onto the settee across from her armchair. It took all I had not to flinch as I accepted the tea and a biscuit from her outstretched hands.
"Do tell. Good news?" She prodded.
I cleared my throat. "Well... he proposed..." I began, but my mother was already clapping her hands with glee.
"Well, Isobel. Three proposals in one week! Quite the good turnout. You have, of course, said yes?" Geneva Erstwilder was quite chuffed that so many offers had come in.
My stomach quivered with disgust as I thought about Sir Richard. Slowly, I shook my head. "I don't love any of them."
My mother scoffed. "What's love got to do with it?" she questioned me. "I don't love your father."
I was a little taken aback, but not surprised by this admission. Though my parents had an amicable relationship, I had never once seen any form of affection passed between them. They barely spoke except through necessary conversation about what to order from the grocers, what meals would be eaten, who should be invited to dinner. In fact, I could not remember a single interest my parents shared.
"Well," I tried, "I don't like any of them, either." The ghostly feel of hands scrabbling up my skirt skittered over me and I suppressed a shudder. "And certainly Sir Richard is at the lowest of the three."
My mother shook her head. " Isobel," she said, "At your station in life, one cannot be too picky about who one marries. Sir Richard is harmless enough, will give you a steady income, and keeps a very well run home. He is just as good as anyone else."
I took a deep breath. "Mother... I can't. I can't marry a man like that. I..." the confession was on the tip of my tongue, but I hesitated. If I told my mother, she would tell her friends, who would spread the news like wildfire. Sir Richard's sisters, who were both quite recently engaged, would be ruined, likely jilted, and cast from society. The knowledge of their brother's indiscretion would affect their futures, too, though they had done nothing to deserve such censure.
Shoulders sagging, I cast my eyes away and finished, "... I would be bored to death married to someone so vain and self-serving as he."
Unfazed, my mother raised an eyebrow. "You have no money, no social recommendations, and no rich friends to elevate you in society. Even with your looks, you cannot go far. The only thing you will have in your life is marriage. If you become a spinster, you will live on your father's money and when that is gone you will be penniless, old, and ruined. There will be nothing for you."
I clenched my jaw defiantly. "So be it, then. I'll live as a spinster! I will make my own way in the world! I can work. I can earn my wages. I will make a way."
With pity in her eyes, my mother took my hands gently. "My child, you are so accomplished, but so young and inexperienced. This world does not look kindly on those who do not marry. As a woman, you'll be the lowest society, without friends, and forced to work on the streets. If you want to make your way in life, you must marry well."
Cupping my face in her hand, she smiled sadly and shook her head. It was then that I knew my mother had once been in my place. She had once had dreams of what she could accomplish, hopes for her future, and a determination to be her own person. But then she had married my father, and all of her dreams had been dashed.
"Marry well, my love. Marry a man with wealth to spare, and a man who uses his wealth wisely." Letting out a long breath, she lowered her own gaze. "Do this, and you will be able to make your life as comfortable as you wish. Secure your future. Whether or not you love, or like, or can even tolerate the man is simply not important."