The random—and not so random—musings of a quirky Regency romance writer.
No one with that many people in her head can possibly be normal...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

~Regency Wednesday~ My Lady Coward, Part 10: The Final Installment

You have all been waiting so patiently for the final installment of this serial Regency romance. Here it is, finally, over one year since the first installment went live.

If you haven't read the first 9 parts of this story, you may want to take the time to do so now. Here are all the links, in one convenient place (all links open in a new tab or window depending on your browser settings):
  1. Original short on Clever Fiction for the prompt All Day/Speechless/Dinner 
  2. Clever Fiction prompt Darkness/Faith/Perplexed 
  3. Clever Fiction prompt October/Bad Luck/Compass 
  4. My website, using the Clever Fiction prompt Stormy/Family/Holidays 
  5. My website, no prompt, scroll down past Part 4 
  6. Clever Fiction prompt Thoughtless/Blue Skies/January 
  7. My website, no prompt, scroll down past Parts 4 and 5 
  8. Clever Fiction prompt Late/Anxiety/Continue 
  9. My website, no prompt, scroll down past Parts 4, 5, and 7 
  10. Right here. Enjoy! ♥


My Lady Coward, Part 10
by Jaimey Grant 
©2012 Laura J Miller. All Rights Reserved.


Silence reigned in the duke's household. Lady Maria had nothing to say to her unfaithful husband and went to great pains to avoid being alone in his company.

And, she realized with a pang, he didn't seem to notice.

A tiny, wet circle blossomed on the fabric in her hands, two more quickly joining the first. She ruthlessly dammed the wellspring, fingers clenching in the soft cotton she held. Too many tears had already been shed, too much misery felt over a situation she could not control. She could only control her own reaction and she refused to shed one more tear.

After this one, final bout.

She buried her face in the soft cloth and let the wave of sadness crash over her. Sobs tore at her chest, swelling her lungs to the point of bursting. With each sob released, two more rose to replace it until she grew lightheaded.

The child in her belly moved, disturbed by her grief. A wave of longing shot through her heart, longing to hold her precious baby. This child would be loved, adored, and never allowed to see Maria's unhappiness.

This decision effectively stifled her tears. She straightened her spine and stared down at the garment she held, a snowy infant's gown of the softest cotton, adorned with bright yellow silk ribbon. The garment was only half trimmed, halted while Maria took a moment to grieve over a marriage that was no different than many Society marriages.

The drawing room door opened, Maria's personal servant entering with her own basket of mending. Maria turned away, trying to compose herself before Colette managed to discern her mistress's distress. The last thing she needed was yet another jaw-me-dead from her outspoken, yet well-meaning, maid.

“Your grace,” she said, dropping a curtsy and depositing her burden on the floor beside the straight-backed chair in the corner, “you have a visitor.”

Maria swung about, unpleasantly surprised. Her hand shot forward to catch her sewing as it tried to slide from her ever-decreasing lap. “A visitor? Who?”

“Lady Felicia, madam.”

Ever since Maria's faux pas at a gathering weeks prior—when she'd asked that lady if she was her husband's mistress—she'd managed to avoid Lady Felicia Hensley. It was one thing Society would not countenance: a lady simply did not ask her husband's mistress if she was indeed that gentleman's mistress, and she certainly did not do so at a social gathering. A lady pretended the mistress didn't exist. If forced into a social gathering with such a woman, one did not acknowledge her unless forced to, as Maria had been.

Bitterness swept her child-plump form, knotting in her stomach. Felicia could move about in Society, accepted as one of them. Maria, married to a duke, was barely tolerated because her late father was in trade. Her acceptance plummeted to exactly none after she publicly inquired after Felicia's relationship with Richard, Maria's husband. What an unfair world she'd married into!

“I am not at home,” Maria declared.

Colette nodded. “Very good, madam.” She disappeared, returning a moment later to resume her seat in the corner.

Maria resumed her sewing task, but her thoughts would not focus on the task at hand. She darted looks at her maid, dying to ask what the lady's response was, but knowing how improper it was to ask.

Colette's hands stilled for a fraction of a moment. Then, as her fingers moved again, working her needle with speed and skill, she asked, “Is there anything else, madam?”

Horrified at having been caught so deftly, Maria nevertheless steeled her nerve enough to ask, “Did Lady Felicia seem vexed?”

“Oh yes, madam,” the maid confirmed. “Her ladyship demanded to see his grace.”

This time the garment fell from Maria's numb fingers and slid to the floor. She had the devil of a time asking, “And was his grace at home to her?”

“Oh yes, madam, he always is.”

Those words, uttered with such finality, sent Maria's heart into double time. She had no conscious thought of doing so, but moments later she exited the drawing room, her feet taking her to her husband's study where she knew he spent many afternoons overseeing the financial aspects of his properties—properties he wouldn't have if it wasn't for her and her father's money.

This last thought sent her into a blind rage. How dare Richard so disrespect her as to bring his amours into their home! How dare he reprimand her for her conduct when he treated his mistress with more respect than his own wife!

She would have thrown open the study door—despite the wide-eyed footman standing at attention just down the corridor—had raised voices from the other side not stopped her in her tracks. What fresh mystery was this? Lady Felicia arguing with Richard? About what?

Maria unashamedly leaned closer, putting herself as close to the slightly open door as she dared. The footman opened his mouth but Maria shot him a glare that effectively snapped it shut.

Felicia's voice filtered through the ornate mahogany. “You have to tell her, Richard.”

“Why? She already believes the worst of me. Shall I confirm her suspicion, Felicia? What good would that do her?”

A pause, and then, “Surely you do not believe this to be healthy for the child? Maria's fear will do them both harm. Ease her fear for your child's sake if not for hers.”

“Everything I do is for her,” came Richard's reply, slightly muffled. Maria could only assume he'd moved further from the door. “I love her.”

Maria's racing heart slowed, her fingers twisting in her muslin skirts. He loved her? And yet, he consorted with his mistress, publicly shamed his wife, and made a mockery of their marriage. The ways of Society bedamned! She'd take no more.

Lady Maria didn't throw open the door as she longed to do. No, she forced herself to nod to the footman, taking a step back so that young man could open the door for her, as befitted a duchess.

Richard and Felicia stood face-to-face, her hand on his arm. She stepped quickly away, a faint pink climbing her cheeks. But she straightened her spine and gazed at Maria, waiting for her to further humiliate herself, no doubt, with gauche behavior.

As for the duke, he sighed, sinking back against his desk and wiping a weary hand over his face. His whole being spoke of defeat. The image shook Maria to her core.

As if to emphasize her disquiet, the baby moved. Maria gasped, her hand coming to rest protectively on her distended belly.

Richard came alive at the sound. “Maria? Are you unwell? Is it the baby?”

“I am well. My daughter merely protests so much excitement.” She couldn't help the teasing edge of her tone as she mentioned their unborn child. It was her habit to insist she carried a girl. Her husband insisted she carried his heir. Though Maria acknowledged it was unusual to speak of an unborn child, vulgar even, she took heart in her husband's willingness to tease. If a duke did something, it was unlikely to be thought vulgar, merely eccentric.

The duke smiled, a genuine grin rife with amusement. The tiny indentation in his left cheek appeared, reminding Maria of how long it had been since she'd seen him smile, really smile. What cares weighed him down, she wondered now, that caused the slump in his broad shoulders and the new lines feathering his brow? Why had she failed to notice the change in her husband? What burden did he carry?

As quickly as the teasing light entered her eyes, it faded, replaced with wariness. Her eyes darted to the side, meeting those of Lady Felicia.

Richard's smile disappeared. His eyes still trained on his wife, he said, “Felicia, please excuse us.”

Maria's heart stuttered, her gaze drawn once again to her husband. Fingers clenching, she wondered if he'd reveal his secrets, finally let her into his elite little world, the world where she was at least equal to his mistress in his affections.

Felicia nodded and stepped toward the door. She paused next to Richard. “If you worry over revealing secrets not your own, I assure you it is of little import. I, nor David, would ever wish for your unhappiness.”
Having her said her piece, she nodded to Maria, murmured, “My lady,” and made her exit. A subtle hint of roses lingered in her wake.

Maria frowned. “Who is David?”

“Felicia's husband.”

“But— I thought— Is he not... dead?”

“Indeed,” Richard murmured. “For many years.” He moved away, his low voice barely carrying to her ears. “By my hand.”

“What?” Surely she'd misheard.

His sigh was louder than his words. Maria's eyes bored into his back, willing him to turn, to say it was nothing more than a poor jest. He moved further away, the distance short but for Maria it may as well have been miles.

Minutes passed. Maria fidgeted, her fingers twisting the life out of her skirt. She didn't know what to do, what to say, how to make her husband speak as she knew he must. His heavy thoughts weighed him down, the secrets he kept on Felicia's behalf, David's behalf.

Enough was enough. If Richard wouldn't come to her, offer his secrets so she could share the burden, she would go to him.

Her fingers brushed the rough wool of his coat. He tensed, turning about to meet her concerned gaze. “Tell me, Richard. Tell me what plagues you so. Why do you say David died by your hand?”

Richard stiffened and pulled away. Maria felt his departure in the deepest part of her soul and mourned the loss.

“David was my best friend. I'd known him since we were in short coats. We attended Eton and Cambridge together. Then he married Felicia.”

He stopped, pacing away from her. Maria wondered if he'd continue, wondered if she'd have to prompt him to do so, but he only took a moment to gather his thoughts.

“It was the stupidest thing, really. He took a mistress and I, idealistic young man that I was at the time, thought it was unfair to Felicia. I challenged him to a duel and he accepted.” He glanced at Maria, a self-deprecating smile tilting his lips. “Ridiculous, isn't it?”

“A duel?” Maria, reminded of another duel her husband had fought, didn't know what to think. Duels were illegal, yet Richard had engaged in two of which Maria had knowledge. How many more had he felt were necessary to preserve honor, as gentlemen claimed was reason enough to engage in such barbaric behavior?

“A duel. My first duel. I killed him.” He paused, his gaze flying upward. “I'd never fought a duel before because I was a notoriously bad shot. He chose pistols. I turned and fired. He died. Felicia and I covered over the truth, claiming it was a hunting accident. Being a duke had its advantages. No one questioned my claim.”

“You challenged him believing you would lose.” The thought filled her with horror, the sensation sinking all the way to her toes. “When you challenged Lord Derringer—”

He laughed, a deep, surprised sound that jarred her. “Hart was never a threat. He's all bluster. He shot over my head and I winged him, accidentally.”

“So that's why he left London,” she mused. With the loss of her father just after Richard's duel with the Duke of Derringer, Maria hadn't time to think of what had become of Derringer. Her husband had no response to her conclusion and the last person she wanted to think about was the hateful duke.

She returned to the subject at hand. “What if David had killed you? What would that have proven?” She took a step, closing a portion of the distance between of them, her skirts rustling in the silence.

The wrinkles in Richard's brow attested to his confusion at her response. “It was a point of honor. He wronged his wife.”

“But—”

“I know it makes little sense to you, Maria, but to a gentleman honor is everything.”

A smile tipped his lips, one that Maria felt was a trifle patronizing. How would he react if she slapped him the way she suddenly longed to do?

“But why did honor demand you challenge him? I am given to understand it is common for Society gentlemen to take a mistress, married or no. What made David and Felicia's situation different?”

She dreaded the answer. Tension settled itself over her shoulders, stiffening her spine until it would surely snap.

“Felicia loved him, trusted him. And she never believed he would play her false.”

“And that warranted your intervention?”

Richard exhaled in a violent breath, throwing his hands into the air. “What do you want me to say, Maria? That I loved her? That I couldn't live without her? That I was jealous of David and wanted her for myself?”

Heart thumping in her chest, child flipping in agitation, she closed more of the distance between them. Then she asked the one question she didn't want to, the one question whose answer could very well shatter any hopes she harbored about her husband's affections.

“Do you love her?”

Richard's tawny gaze snared hers. “Would it matter if I did?”

He studied her face, nothing of his own emotions showing on his own, and Maria didn't know what answer he wanted to hear. So she said nothing.

“You believe Felicia is my mistress.”

“Is she not?” Maria demanded, amazed by her own daring. “Everyone whispers she is and though they try to hide their whispers behind fans and snuff, I am not deaf, nor am I stupid.”

The emotions that flickered through Richard's eyes were too swift for Maria to identify. But she caught regret and her heart sank.

Despite that, it was derision that settled on his face. “Society is desirous of a delicious on dit for the gossip mill,” he scoffed. “Truth is not required.”

“Indeed,” Maria agreed, “yet most rumor has basis in fact.”

Richard's eyes widened, boring into hers. “What do you believe, Maria? Do you think I long for her the way I long for you? That I dream of kissing her the way I kiss you? That my every waking thought is taken up with the moment that I can once again hold her in my arms, the way I want to hold you?” He stepped closer until the space separating them was only a few inches. “Do you think I love her?”

“Perhaps not,” Maria allowed, knowing full well a gentleman didn't have to love his mistress to engage her services.

Richard chuckled, a tinge of bitterness coloring the sound. “Perhaps not,” he repeated, the dimple in his cheek peeking out. “The truth is, Maria, I do love her.” Maria sucked in a hurt breath. “Much the way I would love a sister, if I had one. Felicia was never my mistress. I have never been unfaithful to you.”

The air whooshed out of Maria's lungs, a lightheaded sensation making her teeter on her feet. Richard reached for her, no doubt to steady her, but he went one step further and slid his arm around her waist. He brought their bodies together, their unborn child nestled uncomfortably between them.

“Why did I marry you, Maria?”

“Money,” she breathed, her heart in her throat.

He frowned, eyes narrowing. “Why do you think that?”

“Father told me you'd squandered your inheritance,” she admitted, cheeks heating at the embarrassing subject.

Her throat caught on the memory of that conversation with her father. He'd not told her to hurt her; indeed, had he known how attached she'd become to the kind young duke who visited them on a daily basis, he'd surely have said nothing at all. And when he revealed the truth, she didn't dare tell him how much she admired the gentleman.

“Your father told you that?” Richard squeezed her tighter, eliciting a squeak from Maria and an impatient jab from the baby. Her husband pulled away and glanced down. “Was that—?”

Maria nodded, watching the wonder in her husband's face. He grinned and looked back into her eyes. “He's an active one, I dare say.”

“Yes, she is,” Maria replied, unable to resist the opportunity to insist she carried a girl.

They smiled at each other, a wave of peace settling over Maria. This was what she wanted, this understanding, this contentment, this unshakable certainty of love and acceptance.

Then his smile faded, replaced with sadness, regret.

“Your father was mistaken, Maria,” Richard murmured, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. “I didn't need his money, at least, not like he thought I did. I needed you.”

Maria's breath caught, pure joy and uncertainty coalescing in her heart. “You needed me?”

“Oh, Maria, my love,” he breathed, “what fears have plagued you this past year?” He leaned in, pressing his lips to hers, telling her as certainly as if he'd spoken that he loved her and her alone. “I didn't marry you for money. I would never marry for money. The title can go hang for all I care.”

In that moment, there was only one thing Maria could do. And though it was against all the ladylike training she'd received at her mother's knee, she did it anyway, throwing all caution to the winds.

She reached up, pulled his head down and pressed her lips to his, pure joy blossoming at the contact. With her marriage vows came the acquisition of a title and position in Society. Security.

With her marriage vows came love.



This concludes the [sometimes] bittersweet romance of Maria and Richard. I hope you enjoyed this final installment as well as those previous. Look for the compiled version of this story, coming soon to a major eBook retailer near you!

If you recall Lord Derringer but are unsure where, his tale can be found in Heartless, one of the novels in my Regency "series." He also enjoys a rather infamous appearance [or two] in Deception

Random bit of My Lady Coward trivia: The original story (Part 1) was inspired by country song Why They Call It Falling by Lee Ann Womack.

♥Happy reading, writing, and blogging!!♥

There's a jukebox in my head. It's currently playing
♫♪ Bon Jovi ~ I'll Be There For You

2 comments:

Kat said...

I was worried when I read part 9 that it ended there and vowed never to read short stories again! Thanks for finishing the story and giving it a happy ending!

Jaimey Grant said...

I thought Part 9 might be the end.. 'til I actually got to the end of that part. lol So after promising everyone that 9 would be it, I went and wrote Part 10.

I'm so glad you enjoyed it! ♥

~Jaimey

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