Authors: Ella J. Quince
A heavy silence fell over the room. Her mother looked at her as if she had sprouted a tail, and Patience was as red as a strawberry. Obedience didn’t know where her words sprang from
, but perhaps it was because she knew that she would no longer be residing with them and that her anger and brutal honesty were shaking lose. She would no longer have to bite her tongue or feel the bite of theirs any longer. She would be free of their misplaced spite, free to be herself without censure.
“You ungrateful girl. Have I not kept you in the finest clothes, a pillow upon which to rest your head, and food on your plate.”
“I could argue about the last,” Obedience mumbled.
There was a loud bang as her mother slammed the book closed. Patience had jumped in her chair and looked at their mother in fright.
“You jest? This is our hour of need and you jest? We will never show our faces in public again, so great will be our shame.”
Obedience shook her head. “What do you mean? What have I done that is so horrendous?”
Patience grabbed their mother’s hand. Her skin was pale and her bony hand looked almost skeletal. “Don’t tell her.”
“Tell me what?” Obedience looked back and forth between them. She had a horrible feeling. “Whatever it is, it can’t be as bad as you think.”
“It’s worse than what your small mind could fathom.” Patience snapped at her. “We are on the verge of scandal and Lord Willowton was our only hope. I will never be able to find a suitable husband who will marry as quickly now. It’s because of you we will come to ruination.”
Obedience stepped back. Here she was again being blamed, and she still didn’t understand why. There was a very large piece missing from the puzzle
, but for once, she had the confidence in herself to know it was not her fault. Something had happened, something awful. “If I am to take responsibility for this scandal and ruination, then surely I have the right to know what it is.”
Her mother and her sister wore the same tight-lipped expressions.
“I insist,” Obedience demanded.
Patience sat down in defeat again and folded her arms over her chest. Her mother walked around the table to where Obedience stood, her face void of any softness.
“Well, if you insist,” she said with mock sweetness. “A gentleman forced himself on your sister and now she is with child. There, is that what you wish to know?”
Obedience gasped, her hands covering her mouth in horror. Her sister buried her face in her hands and began to sob.
“That is what happens when one lets a man take liberties without the benefit of marriage. Why just steal a morsel when he can steal the whole feast.”
Obedience shuddered. “How can you say that? We should tell the magistrate and the duke, he will
“We will tell no one
,” her mother barked. “It is his word against hers, and he is a well-known gentleman of superior birth. Our only recourse is to find your sister a husband to marry immediately to save our families honor.”
“Oh my God.” Obedience felt sick. To think
that she had aided them last night, however slightly, and thankfully, unsuccessfully, in wedding her sister to him while she carried another man’s child. It made her skin crawl and her stomach turn over. She couldn’t comprehend the horror of what her sister must have endured, the ramifications that she will face once it becomes obvious to everyone else.
“I wish there was something I could do
,” Obedience admitted with an unusual swell of sisterly emotion.
Patience glowered at her. “There was, until you ruined it.”
Obedience swallowed. Dare she tell them what an enlightening afternoon she had? Would it help? They were both staring at her with eyes filled with loathing. She held her tongue and decided on retreat. “I didn’t know... I will leave you now.” Obedience kept her head down and exited the library. She let out a heavy sigh as she reached the stairs and hurried to her room. She didn’t know what to do or say to them at such a time. They always lashed out at her, but something needed to be said. She innately wanted to comfort her sister—she was her little sister, after all, but it would be unwelcome. What else could she do? Her gut told her to tell Chance. He would have an answer, and surely see to justice for Patience, but her mother would be against it. If she knew her mother at all, she knew her mother would try to sweep the situation under the rug. Her mother would rather lose an appendage than lose standing in their small community.
She didn’t know what to do, so she secluded herself in her room
and waited for evening to come. Later, her maid Myra arrived with a tray, and informed her that there would be no formal dinner. Obedience heaved a sigh of relief. However, when she sat at the small table beside her vanity and uncovered her tray, all to be found were a few limp leaves of spinach and an overcooked piece of fish. Obedience looked at the Myra in question.
. “I was under strict orders. I even tried to slip you a roll, but Mrs. Cornritch inspected yer food and threw it in the trash heap.”
Obedience groaned. “I will starve to death before I ever leave this place.”
Myra put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “You could always run away, join the theater or something.”
“Thank you, but I already consider it.” Obedience gave her a weak smile. She didn’t have to join the theater
. She would soon be a duchess. The future could not arrive fast enough for her empty, gnawing stomach. “What are my mother and sister dining on this evening?”
“It can’t be as bad as what I was given. Is Esmeralda sick? I can't believe she is even capable of cooking something this... limp.” Obedience poked at the fish with her fingernail.
“Your mother requested tomato soup and fresh butter bread for Miss Patience. For herself, she had requested roasted duck in wine sauce with potatoes.”
Suddenly, Obedience felt very hot. Her fingernails bit into the palms of her hands. She unclenched her fists. “Myra, I will be changing into my riding habit.” She stood quickly and presented her back. She heard Myra gather the garment and begin to undo the back of her gown. “I would appreciate it if you tell no one that I've left.”
“Yes, miss.” Myra helped her dress and brought her the smart little hat.
“It’s not needed. I’m only going to the dukes to dine.”
Myra nodded. “What should I do with that?” She pointed to the untouched food.
“Give it to the barn cats. I’m told Mama Fern Tail is expecting again. Goodnight, Myra.” Obedience hurried to the door. She paused and looked back. “For your silence, I will reward you handsomely. I can’t say how yet, just know that I will not break my word.”
Myra nodded but said nothing. Obedience hurried down the back stairs and out into the side courtyard. The shadows were growing as the sun set, hiding her in their depths as she made her way to the stables. The barn was empty, the stable hands and grooms enjoying their supper. She saddled
a horse herself and rode out of the stables without being seen. If anyone came upon an empty stall, Obedience always left her handkerchief on the peg to let them know it was her doing.
The ride was a blur, the route second nature. Obedience rode straight into the
duke’s stable, surprising Edgar, the head stableman.
“You near frightened me to death.” He wiped his brow and took hold of Tulips bridle.
“I’m sorry, Edgar. I came to surprise the duke and Lord Willowton.”
“You will always be welcome here
. That is why I’m here so often. It’s nice to feel welcome.”
“That it is
, miss, that it is. I heard the dinner gong two minutes ago so you’d better hurry.”
“Thank you, Edgar.” Obedience left Tulip in his capable hands and headed inside the house. She entered through the kitchen, earning a scolding from Mrs. Moore.
“Why, Miss Wickenham, I had no idea you were dining with us tonight.”
“Neither did I.” Obedience smiled. “I hope it’s not too much of an inconvenience.”
“Nonsense. We are always happy to have you, but his grace and his lord ship are dining informally in his graces room.
“Oh, I suppose that is easier when there is no company.” Obedience hesitated. She hadn’t stopped to consider where the duke ate when she wasn’t here. Obedience didn’t mind inviting herself to dinner in the dining room. However, the duke
’s bedroom was a different story.
“Would it be too much trouble if I ate with you?” Obedience asked nervously.
“With us?” Mrs. Moore looked scandalized.
“You see, my mother intends to starve me with a ridiculous slimming regime
, and I simply must eat something other than spinach leaves.” Obedience looked around at the shocked faces and considered going to a local inn. Her mother would love hearing about that.
“You honor us
, Miss Wickenham, but I know his grace would prefer you dine with him. I’ll have another service sent up straight away. Don’t you worry about a thing.”
, Mrs. Moore.” Obedience blushed with embarrassment.
“Miss Wickenham, if you will allow me
, I will show you to his graces rooms.” Gable waved her forward.
Obedience folded her clammy hands behind her back as they climbed the stairs to the duke’s suite. They paused before the door and Gable promptly knocked before entering. Obedience waited while he announced her. Chance appeared at the door instantly, his brow furrowed. “Is everything all right?”
“Well, yes. I just wanted to see the duke. I hope I’m not interrupting your dinner?”
Chance raised a brow. “It just arrived... with an extra place setting.”
Obedience smiled bashfully. “I came in through the kitchen
, and Mrs. Moore insisted I join you. I hope it’s not a bother.”
“Of course not,” Chance stepped back and beckoned her in. “Our home is now your home.”
Obedience walked in slowly, her smile timid but very real. Her heart squeezed painfully in her chest when she saw the duke. He was looking at her with his shrewd eyes and seeing far too much, but she didn’t care, because it was a reminder that he cared for her, and she didn’t often feel cared for anymore. She was surprised to find herself feeling weepy suddenly. A swell of fond emotion suffused her and her eyes felt watery. Chance held out a chair for her and she sat.
The duke continued to watch her, his gaze softening and a smile playing about his lips. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
“I'm glad you think so.” Obedience brightened. “May I join you?”
“Certainly, you never have to ask, my dear. You presence is always a gift to me.”
“Stop wooing my fiancée, father.” Chance chuckled and took his seat. The footman came forward and began to serve them.
Obedience sighed in appreciation as covers were removed to reveal roasted asparagus in
Hollandaise sauce, creamy potatoes, succulent slices of roast beef dripping with juices, and rolls, golden and puffed to perfection. Her mouth began to water, and she gripped her skirts under the table to keep herself from scooping handfuls of food into her mouth like a starving beast. The glasses before her were filled with wine and water, and then the footman retreated to his post.
“A toast,” the duke raised his glass. “To the future, and all the blessings it will bring.”
Chance and Obedience raised their glasses. Chance gave her an apologetic smile before sipping his wine. Obedience smiled in return, grateful beyond words for their kindness.
Obedience attacked her food gracefully. There was no need to fill the void with conversation
. Instead, there was a sense of peaceful companionship amongst them. When her plate was cleared, and the footman presented her with apricot pudding, Obedience almost declined. But then she thought about the chances of indulging in such a delight before her marriage to Chance and caved into the wants of her sweet tooth. She didn't know when they would be married, and it wasn't as if she could come to dinner every night. She was courting scandal every time she came here alone, but she just couldn't summon the urge to care at this point in her life.
They finished eating, and Obedience knew she couldn't stay any longer. She stood and kissed the duke on the cheek, bringing a ruby glow to his cheeks though he waved her away bashfully.
“Don't waste your kisses on an old man like me. You've a fiancée now.” He laughed.
,” Chance scolded. His father laughed at his dismay.
“Come, Obedience. I will see you out.”
Obedience squeezed the dukes’ hand. Her cheeks felt warm, as well. “Goodnight.” She took Chances offered elbow and they left the room.
“I don't suppose you arrived in something acceptable like a carriage?”
“No,” she looked up and smiled at his disapproving frown. “I rode.”
Chance rolled his eyes. “I'll have the carriage brought round then.”
“No. My mother doesn't know I've left. I can ride back.”
Chance pulled her to a stop in the hall. “Obedience, why the clandestine dinner?”