Benjamin Thorebourne squirmed anxiously in his seat at his carriage turned into the drive way up to his family's country estate. He had left his darling wife and his two young sons with his mother while he ventured far and wide on business trips. He always missed them greatly and send postcards to them whenever he stopped but running a textile empire was not an easy task. He had learned that at an early age when he watched his father build it from the ground up. Now, in an effort to keep his family, especially his mother, in a lifestyle that they had grown accustomed to he was required to leave them for weeks at a time two or three times a year, sometimes more.
He had journeyed east on this trip, trading wool and cotton for silks and satins on the ancient Silk Road and points beyond. Trading raw materials for readymade fabrics to sell to dressmakers, drapers, and tailors. He brought home a substantial income, enough to manage a London house and a country house nearly year-round, but his greatest delights came in spoiling his family. He always brought new toys for the children, a new gown for his wife, and new shoes or a nice bonnet for his mother. Even if his mother hated the gift, which she often did now that he thought about it, Heaven help anyone who left her out with nothing.
Benjamin ordered the carriage around the back so that he could sneak upstairs and surprise his family. He was not expected home for another week and couldn't wait to see the looks on their faces when he joined them for an evening around the fire. He jumped out before the carriage came to a halt and did not stop to notice the astonished looks on the faces of the servants. He ran through the kitchen shouting greetings to the cooks and the maids cleaning up after dinner. He was so excited that he did not hear the cook gasp or the maid call after him. Benjamin frightened a pair of maids coming down the servants' staircase as he ran up them. He apologized and asked where her family was. The maid told him that the family was upstairs in the family library, but she asked Benjamin if she could speak with him first. Benjamin waved her away and told her that he would find her later.
He was bounded up the stairs two at a time and came out of the door at the end of the hallway. He could hear his family in the library a few doors down. He heard the children's wild screeches coming from the other end of the corridor. As he poked his head out the door he came upon a sight that disturbed him. he saw his firstborn, Quentin, running down the hall in his direction. Behind him, baby Tristan, not yet two, was pounding on the library door with his tiny fist. Benjamin came fully into the hallway and called to Quentin. The four-year-old turned and began to cry, racing towards him.
"Daddy! Daddy! Help!"
"Help?" Benjamin scooped his son in his arms and comforted him. "Quentin, what's the matter?"
"Momma! Momma!" He pointed back down the hall where Tristan still sat hitting the library door. "Momma! Help!"
"What is going on?" All of Benjamin's excitement was gone. It had drained out of him along with the color of his face. Benjamin carried his son down the hallway and reached down the pick up the other child. Tristan patted Benjamin's lapel and then pointed to the door.
Benjamin put both children on the ground and told them to stay close. He turned back to the door but stopped with his hand on the knob. Was that his mother in there? He heard an angry voice shouting insults to an unknown someone.
"Ungrateful child!" his mother's voice spat. "Degenerate! Useless! I will never know what my son sees in you!"
"I'm sorry, Mother Serafina."
Was that Caroline? How dare his mother speak to his wife that way? She was wonderful. Benjamin motioned for his boys to remain silent and then opened the door noiselessly. He saw his mother standing over his defeated wife, her head bent in submission, her hands folded docilely in front of her.
"Sitting around all hours of the day like a lazy lump! What good are you to this family? How could my son find such a useless wife?"
"Mother," Caroline pleaded. "I am not idle. I keep the ledgers and I manage the staff."
"Pah!" his mother cried. "You call this management? But you're right, I suppose this is your management style, isn't it? Breakfast is never brought in on time, rooms smell like dust and ashes after they're cleaned," she said this word in a mocking tone. "I don't know how you can keep anything accomplished with the records you keep. I've seen those ledgers. How can you keep the household finances straight?"
"Mother," Caroline pleaded. "What have I done wrong?"
Benjamin missed what his mother said as Quentin pulled on his pant leg. Benjamin quieted him again and turned back to the room.
"…entire family fortune will crumble with you at the helm. Oh!" Mother cried dramatically, "I shudder to think what will become of my son when I am gone. With a wife who cannot keep house and cannot keep proper records for him."
Caroline tried to speak again, but his mother grew louder.
"We are meant to be partners to our husbands! And ease their stress. It is beyond me how my husband finds peace with you around. The only thing you ever did right was give birth to those little cretins."
Benjamin was about to barge in at that point, but Caroline found confidence.
"How dare you speak of my children like that."
Benjamin swelled with pride for his wife but was deflated just as quickly when he saw his mother slap Caroline across the face. He watched his wife stumble backwards, but she stayed on her feet. He could not watch any longer. Benjamin threw the door open so hard that the doorknob stuck in the wall. Caroline shrieked, and his mother took a step back. The boys began to cry again and pushed behind their father. Quentin ran to his mother and grabbed her skirt and Tristan toddled in behind him.
"Ben?" Caroline asked.
He did not answer but moved to stand beside her. He glared at his mother until she faltered and leaned against the back of a highbacked chair.
"Benjamin," his mother began shakily, "you have returned early."
"Yes," Benjamin seethed. "I had hoped to surprise my family with an early return. Instead I come to find two crying boys and my wife being assaulted by my own mother."
Mother Serafina blanched but did not try to defend herself. She had been caught. Mother sank into a chair and Benjamin turned to his wife. Her cheek was red, and her eyes were brimming with tears. Ben touched the rubicund skin and she flinched.
"Does this happen every time I leave?" Ben demanded.
Caroline looked down at her children. She could not bring herself to meet her husband's eyes.
"Why have you never told me?"
"She is your mother," Caroline whispered. "You did not need any added stress."
"Lonnie," Benjamin cooed, forgetting his mother. "Your well-being is not added stress."
Caroline shook her head and bent to pick up her youngest son. She placed a hand on Quentin's head. Benjamin turned back to his mother.
"What gives you the right to abuse my family in this way?"
"Am I not your family as well?"
Benjamin sighed in frustration. "Mother." Benjamin was going to lose in temper. It was slipping out of his grasp quickly. Caroline had been married to Ben long enough to know the signs of his anger. She ushered her children to the far corner of the room away from their father's temper.
"Benjamin, let me say—"
"You will remain silent," Benjamin seethed. He looked back at his young family in the corner. "I trusted you to keep my family safe," he told his mother. "I trusted you to welcome Caroline into our family and teach her how to manage the Thorebourne household. Not only was she to be a companion to me, but she was to be a comfort to you."
"Instead," he interrupted. "You treat her like less than a servant and reprimand her every attempt to please you and how to run our household." Mother Serafina opened her mouth to speak again, but Benjamin raised his voice. "Not only that, but you insulted my children, the heirs to our family livelihood. Mother, how could you?"
Mother Serafina did not speak, but Caroline could see her color rising even from the corner she sat in. She and Benjamin stared at each other for a what seemed like an eternity. It was easy to see where he got his anger from. Finally, he turned back and met his wife's eyes.
"I am sending you to the seaside cottage," he told his mother. "You will be sent with a companion and as many servants are necessary to keep you comfortable."
"How can you do this to me?" Mother Serafina shrieked.
Quentin clung to his mother's skirts and Tristan began to cry. Benjamin rounded on his Mother Serafina.
"You will not terrorize my family any longer! Until I saw it with my own eyes, I never would have believed that my own mother was capable of such cruelty. I trusted you to love her as a daughter, keep her as a daughter. A daughter to keep you company while I was away, and your grandchildren would bring you added joy. Instead you mistreat her and frighten my children." Benjamin held up a hand to silence her. "My decision is final. I came home early to surprise my sons and spend an enjoyable evening with my family, both my wife and my mother, and instead I am sending my mother to the sea for the safety of my children."
"Benjamin, I will speak!" Mother Serafina rose from her seat and stood toe to toe with her son.
"Fine, I will hear you, but if you say one word against my wife you will leave tonight."
Mother Serafina sat back down slowly, flashing a glace of hatred at Carolina as she did so. Caroline held her children tighter. She caught Benjamin's eye and he held out a hand to her.
"I will spend the rest of the summer with my family here," Benjamin took his wife's hand as he spoke. "I think I've earned a little holiday." He smiled at Caroline and turned to his mother. "I wish that you could spend it with us, Mother, but I refuse to let any of us, including the servants, live in constant fear of your temper."
"Benjamin, you are being cruel, and I will not stand for it."
"Mother, I don't know why you dislike my wife, but I will tell you that she is the sweetest, gentlest creature I have ever met. I'm sorry you can't see that."
"I will not let her take you away from me." She took a step towards Caroline.
Benjamin stepped between them. "You leave tomorrow afternoon," Benjamin informed Mother Serafina. "We will collect you when we return to London. I pray that by then you have accepted our marriage and learned to love Caroline as I do." Mother Serafina attempted to argue, but Benjamin held up his hand and motioned for his mother to leave.
Mother Serafina gaped at her son before turning in a huff and heading to the door. As she was leaving, Mother turned back to her son and knocked a photograph of Benjamin and his father off the wall. Benjamin held her gaze until she finally backed out of the room and moved down the hall.
Benjamin pulled the door out of the wall and surveyed the damage. The oak paneling that flanked the fireplace had a ghastly hole just below the decorative sconce. He closed the door to the library and turned back to his family. "I suppose I'll send for a carpenter, shall I?" he smiled sheepishly.
Caroline hugged him tight and pressed her face to the crook of his shoulder. She felt Ben's arms wrap around her shoulders and instantly she felt secure and warm again. "Thank you," she whispered.
"I'm sorry," he replied. "I had no idea."
"It's not your fault. I knew she never liked me."
Ben squeezed her affectionately. "I don't know why."
"Benjamin," Caroline pulled back and looked up at him. "She's your mother, and I'm sure that she thinks that I'm not good enough for you; my family has never been as rich as yours."
"Our family hasn't been rich or influential for that long, if she cares to study our genealogy." Benjamin rolled his eyes.
You're her only son." She shrugged. "She's just an overprotective mother."
"Caroline, she's jealous that my affections are now focused elsewhere. Well, they appear to be that way to her. It's just as you tell the boys all the time: my heart grew, my love did not shrink."
"Ben, she is your mother," Caroline repeated. "Until we were married it was just the two of you. You were all she had. Now she has to share."
"My sweet Lonnie," Ben kissed the top of her head. "Always seeing the best in people." His face changed. "This is still no excuse to mistreat her family. I truly am sorry. I never would have left you with her had I known. Is this the first time she has hit you?" Caroline shook her head and Benjamin tensed. "And the children?"
"I would never let her harm them." She turned towards the small children sitting in the corner waiting for their turn to hug their father. They ran to their parents now jumping up and down in an effort to be held.
Benjamin picked up both of them, one on each arm, and pulled them into a hug. "Daddy missed his boys."
"Daddy!" Quentin smiled at his father and Tristan giggled.
"I truly am sorry my mother is…the way she is. I don't remember her being quite so…." He could not find the word.
Caroline smiled demurely. "Well, you weren't married then, and it is quite possible that you never saw any of it. It was just between your parents."
"I shudder to think what my father put up with." Ben shook his head. "No more talk of it. She will be comfortable, and we shall enjoy a summer together before I have to return to London." He kissed both of his children on the cheek. "And the next trip I take, my family will be coming with me."
Caroline kissed him between her children and they giggled at the sign of affection. "Promise?"
Benjamin kissed her again and boys squealed with laughter again. "I promise."