Authors: Jennifer McNare
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence after Mary alighted and they all stood on the narrow gravel drive before the small cottage. When Melody finally raised her eyes, she saw that John Edwards seemed to be looking to his wife for direction. He was obviously nervous and very much ill at ease. Mary, bless her, quickly took charge of the situation.
“Why don’t you show us inside, and then you can tend to the horse.”
“A’corse,” he nodded, seeming relieved. “Follow me.” He turned back toward the cottage as she and Mary followed a few steps behind.
Stepping across the threshold a moment later, Melody could see that the small house appeared to contain all of the standard necessities. Though there was little in the way of furniture, what there was looked clean, comfortable and well-constructed.
“Can I get you anythin’, M’lady?” John asked, turning toward her. “Somethin’ to drink?” He stood awkwardly before her as he motioned toward the tiny kitchen, his tone hesitant and slightly uncertain.
“No thank you, Mr. Edwards. I am fine,” she replied with a small, appreciative smile. In truth, she was far from fine, but there was little that could be done to fix that. “Perhaps you should just show me where…” she paused for a moment, swallowing hard as she felt her throat tighten, “where I am to go.”
He nodded his head solemnly; looking as if he wished the floor would open up and swallow him whole. “This way.”
She caught Mary’s eye as John turned toward the rear of the cottage. The older woman met her gaze, nodding her head slightly as if to say,
It’s going to
Melody nodded her head in return, surprisingly grateful for the other woman’s reassuring presence.
Turning, she followed John to a closed door. He grasped the knob, turning toward her as he pulled the door open. “There’s no light in the hall, M’lady. You might want to take my arm.”
She did as he suggested, placing her hand on his shirt sleeve as they entered the darkened corridor. He pulled the door closed behind them, shrouding them in complete darkness. “Sorry,” he murmured. The only sign of light came from the narrow crack beneath the door. If there was a window in the corridor, it had apparently been covered.
“It’s fine, I understand.” She recognized the reason for the darkness.
“Watch yer step,” he instructed, moving slowly forward. They walked only a few short feet before he stopped. “The door’s here, first one on the right. If ye reach out yer hand, ye should feel the knob.”
She did as he said, releasing her hold on his arm. She moved her hand forward and felt her fingertips brush against solid metal. “Yes, I’ve got it.”
“I’m t’return for ye in an hour.”
She was shocked, for an hour seemed like an eternity. Surely it wouldn’t take anywhere near that long.
? She tried to remember exactly what her mother had told her about the intimacies between men and women. No, certainly it would not take an entire hour. Perhaps Charles was merely being overly fastidious, making certain that she had more than ample time to conceive the heir he so desperately coveted. Surely that had to be it. “I understand.” With a trembling hand, she turned the knob.
She stepped forward into the room and then stood still, frozen in place as Mr. Edwards pulled the door closed softly behind her. She nearly jumped out of her skin a split second later though, as the latch clicked softly into place. Heart racing, she listened to his heavy footsteps as he walked away, leaving her alone in the inky darkness. No, not alone. Of course she wasn’t alone. She couldn’t see anyone though, or
for that matter, not even her hand in front of her face, for the blackness that surrounded her was
absolute. She realized then that she was holding her breath. Exhaling, she allowed the pent-up air to escape slowly from her lungs.
From his position on the bed, Gavin heard the faint sound, his hearing and other senses presently heightened by his lack of vision. “Take five steps forward and then four steps to your left.”
Melody flinched, startled not only by the disembodied voice, but by the harsh, somewhat biting tone that accompanied it. Other than that small involuntary motion she didn’t move, couldn’t move. She merely stood there, frozen. She felt a tightness building in her chest, and realized once again that she was holding her breath.
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
His tone was still austere and now impatient as well. He was angry she realized. She wanted to turn and run. Instead she remained rooted in place, still unable to move. Relax, don’t panic, she told herself. He’s not going to hurt you. Charles had assured her of that. She tried to think rationally. His anger shouldn’t have surprised her. Of course he was angry; he had every right to be. Obviously he didn’t want to be here anymore than she did.
Another long moment passed. He sighed then, a long drawn out sound, but said nothing. Melody bit down upon her lower lip.
Don’t be such a coward!
she told herself.
You can do this, just move your feet and get it over with.
Her inner voice continued its silent commands, and with no small degree of difficulty she finally managed to unlock her frozen limbs. Hesitantly she took a step forward, and then another. She took three more steps and then turned to her left. With her hands held slightly out in front of her, she took another step. She moved ahead slowly, three more paces, the only sound in the room the light brush of her leather soles against the wooden floor. Then her thigh brushed against something hard. She moved her hand and felt the texture of carved wood beneath her fingers. She moved them upward. A footboard, she wondered, tracing the lines with her fingertips. Yes, it was a footboard. She stopped. Was he there, on the bed? She swayed slightly, clutching at the smooth wood to steady herself as another surge of fear nearly buckled her knees. She was frozen once more. The seconds ticked by, one by one, and she heard him sigh once again, the sound expressing a combination of annoyance and frustration.
“I…I’m s-sorry,” she stammered, on the verge of tears.
“Christ,” Gavin muttered under his breath, pushing himself up into a sitting position on the bed. What the hell was wrong with her?
The quietly spoken expletive was barely audible, but Melody heard it, and the tears she’d been fighting began to roll slowly down her cheeks. “I’m s-sorry,” she said again. She was getting choked up, her breathing quickly becoming ragged.
“Are you crying?” Gavin asked in surprise, baffled by the unexpected notion.
Melody merely sniffled in response, her throat too tight to speak.
She’s afraid, Gavin realized with dawning clarity. He thought back to the letter, trying to remember exactly what it had said. Had he misinterpreted this part? He had assumed the woman involved would be
willing, being paid or compensated somehow for her services. Good lord, was she a victim of this madness just as much as he was? The surprising notion was nearly inconceivable.
“You are not here of your own free will?” he asked, dumbfounded. How stupid, he thought, that the idea had never occurred to him.
The question, and the sudden softness in his voice, surprised her. His initial anger made even more sense to her now. Apparently he had assumed that she was a willing participant in this insanity. She tried to calm her breathing, sniffling and wiping at the tears that dampened her cheeks. “No,” she said, her voice a mere whisper, and then hesitated. “I mean yes… that is… I…I
given a choice,” she told him honestly.
. Like he’d been given a choice? Comply or suffer the consequences, he thought bitterly. He understood only too well. Perhaps she hadn’t been abducted as he had, he didn’t know, but she was a victim nonetheless. That much seemed fairly clear.
Though it seemed impossible, the situation was now even more horrific than he’d originally thought. “I understand now.” Shrouded as they were in darkness, he could only hope that his voice conveyed the sympathy he now felt. “I am sorry that I upset you. Please forgive me.”
Melody felt her tense muscles relax fractionally. His voice was cultured and refined. She reminded herself that he was a gentleman. Until now, she had tried not to think about him, tried not to contemplate who he was, what he looked like, whether he was old or young. What did it matter she’d asked herself, but now, here in this room, hearing the soft timber of his voice, her curiosity was undeniably piqued. Who was he, she wondered? Whose voice was it that came to her from the concealing darkness?
“Will you come and sit?” Gavin asked with the utmost courtesy, striving to keep his tone calm and unthreatening as he swung his legs over the side of bed, placing his bare feet softly onto the floor. “I will not harm you, I promise.”
Melody gathered her courage, hesitating only a moment. “Alright.” She let her hand drop to the bed and felt a soft fabric beneath her touch; a quilt perhaps.
“Just a couple of steps,” Gavin said, his voice still calm and now slightly coaxing as well.
She took two small steps forward, feeling the mattress against her leg. Carefully, she turned and then slowly lowered herself into a seated position upon the edge of the bed.
Gavin felt the slight dip as the mattress absorbed her weight. He turned instinctively, though he could see nothing. The infernal darkness that surrounded them was maddening. Who was this woman who now sat beside him? Why was she here? What
had she been given that brought her to this dark room? How old was she? What did she look like? Question after question flitted through his thoughts as they sat in silence. But of course, he wasn’t allowed to ask them aloud. He sat there at a complete loss, a rare and unfamiliar occurrence for someone who, as his mother often claimed, could charm the birds from the trees with only a few choice words. Blindly, he searched his addled thoughts for something to say. She surprised him however, by speaking first.
“Are you forced to stay in this room day and night?” It was something she hadn’t considered until now. Despite the atrociousness of her own situation, the thought of him, of anyone for that matter, being trapped in this perpetual darkness for weeks, perhaps months was almost too horrifying to contemplate. Could Charles be so brutally cruel?
Gavin heard the sincere concern in her soft, hesitant voice. It was unexpected and surprisingly touching. “No, not all the time.”
“Oh,” she said, relieved. “I’m glad.”
They were silent again, their quiet breathing the only sounds in the dark room.
Finally Gavin drew in a deep breath, and then let it out slowly. “I wish I could tell you that we did not have to do this.”
Melody heard the regret in his voice, but there was resignation as well. They had no choice, neither of them. “I know,” she replied, her own voice resigned as well.
Gavin thought about initiating further conversation, and then decided against it. Their situation was awkward enough already. Maybe it was best to just get on with it. “Perhaps we should undress,” he suggested.
Melody squeezed her eyes shut tightly and dropped her chin to her chest. For the first time, she was grateful for the darkness. “Yes, of course” she breathed, and then reached for the buttons at the front of her gown, her fingers trembling.
“Do you need assistance?” Gavin asked with polite courtesy, knowing from firsthand experience that a woman’s garments were not always that easily removed.
“No thank you. I can manage.” She’d deliberately worn a gown she could unfasten herself. Rising to her feet, she began slipping the pearl buttons from their buttonholes.
You can do this, you can do this
, she said to herself, repeating the words over and over in her head as she slowly unfastened the bodice of her gown.
Her speech was smooth and refined, her grammar faultless, Gavin noted, as he pulled his shirt from the waistband of his trousers. Her softly spoken words held none of the coarse, unmistakable inflections so often heard amongst the predominantly uneducated members of the lower class. He couldn’t help wondering again at the identity of the woman who stood beside him, silently disrobing in the darkness, this woman who was to bear his child.
His fingers clutched the fabric of his shirt, his hand balling into a tight fist.
Stop, don’t think about it.
His jaw tightened, but with grim determination he pushed the thought aside before his anger could resurface. He relaxed his hand and worked at the buttons on his shirt, and a moment later slid his arms free, allowing the garment to fall lightly to the floor.
Beside him, Melody pulled her arms from her sleeves, but instead of allowing her gown to slide to the floor, she carefully stepped free of the skirt and then laid the gown along the foot of the bed. The neatly pressed garment would be a shocking mass of wrinkles otherwise. Reaching down, she slipped her shoes from her feet and then stepped out of her linen drawers and silk stockings, placing them on top of her gown. She’d forgone a corset, and stood only in her lace trimmed chemise, its short hem falling just to the
midpoint of her thighs. She started to remove it, and then decided against it. The thin barrier left little to the imagination, but she held on to the small, tenuous bit of modesty just the same.