The short tale below is part of a series of vignettes written to characterize Johna de Rothesay, formally known as Lady Winchester. Johna is a significant person in her daughters’ lives, though she does not appear directly in The Outcast Earl, and only briefly in The Rusticated Duchess.
If you have not finished The Outcast Earl and The Rusticated Duchess, as well as previous entries in the Temptation vignettes, this is officially your spoiler alert. Go read the books and the earlier vignettes first, then come back here.
Temptation in 1801
~Elle Q. Sabine~
Copyright 2014 by Elle Q. Sabine (firstname.lastname@example.org).
All rights reserved, do not reprint in paper or electronic form without prior permission of the author. This material is supplemental material to books in the series The Misbegotten Misses (The Outcast Earl, The Rusticated Duchess, TBD) published by Totally Bound. By reading further, you are stating you are 18 years of age, or over.
Alex was exhausted. Johna could see it in his posture, in the defeated stoop of his shoulders as he kicked his wooden leg against the door, shutting it. She may not have seen him for months, but the lines of his face were hauntingly familiar, deeper, as if he had aged more than the five months they had been apart. Her breath caught as he looked up and saw her outlined in the chair by the fire.
“Mon ange,” he uttered deeply, his voice breaking at the last word.
Johna stood, her arms full as he approached. The night was chilly, but she had stayed by the warmth of the fire and she glowed with the promise of Alex.
“I didn’t know you were here,” he told her, coming to a stop in front of her, his voice as low and intimate as possible. “You didn’t say when you’d arrive.”
“Just a few hours ago,” she assured him, her voice a husky whisper. “I couldn’t stay away even until tomorrow. I needed to see you. I knew you’d want to see her.”
In the dark room, Alex reached out and drew the soft length of fabric away from the bundle in Johna’s arms. His lips curved, his teeth gleamed, and he straightened a bit. “Pretty girl,” he murmured. “Almost as pretty as her mama.”
“Alex, this is Abigail,” Johna whispered. “Abigail, for your mother.” She bent and pressed a kiss to the sleeping babe’s forehead.
“Shall I hold her?” he whispered huskily against Johna’s forehead, the words a whisper threading through the room and her heart. She ached from the urge to throw herself on him, tell him all the pains of the last months of summer and childbirth and confinement, but his weariness held her back, worried her.
She watched critically as he lowered himself to the chair and held out his arms, accepting the small infant she laid in his embrace. Almost compulsively she came to her knees beside the pair, lifting her skirts so they didn’t pull and laying her head on his thigh. He was thinner, as if he had worried too much to eat, and it was late; the Alex she knew would have been in bed before now.
“You were later than I expected,” she murmured, rubbing her cheek against his woolen trouser leg.
“I’ve been going out to the Royal Hospital in Chelsea occasionally,” he told her absently, his gaze fixed on the brown curls peeking out from behind the baby girl’s knit cap.
Johna’s dismay must have been plain as her head jerked to stare at him and her arms tightened about his knees. She could feel her eyes open wide, and alarm streaked down her spine.
“No, no,” he reassured her. “It was just a visit. I wouldn’t leave Mayfair, not when I was expecting you to return. You know that.”
“I’ve missed you so much, Alex,” Johna whispered. “Letters aren’t nearly enough.” Tears were already leaking from her eyes and down her cheeks, a pretty stream that sparkled in the firelight and caused Alex’s arms to tighten around his tiny daughter.
In his arms, Abigail stirred. “You were busy making a beautiful bonny lass,” Alex told her, and Johna wanted his arms wrapped around her all over again. She stirred as Abigail shifted and gurgled. “Nurse is upstairs, thinks I’m visiting with Neil and Susan in their private sitting room, but they have already retired.”
“You must take her back to your nursery, then,” Alex agreed. “Will you return tonight?” The raw edge of pain and emotional need was etched into the question, as though he was desperate for affirmation, but expected her rejection.
Johna’s voice was faint against his trousers as she smiled. “I can see your exhaustion, your struggle to stay awake, lover mine. You should sleep.”
Alex hesitated, but did not deny it. Instead, he said, “I did not expect you, or I wouldn’t have gone today. But now that you’re here, I crave you – bare, clothed, with a cradle beside the bed, on my arm at a ball, as a dinner partner. Any way I can have you.”
“When you wake up in the morning, I’ll be in the bed beside you,” she murmured. “My arms will be around you, my hands will soothe your skin. You’ll roll over and I’ll be beneath you, and around you.”
“I’ll be inside you as soon as I wake, mon ange,” he said, in blunt language.
“I want you inside me,” she whispered. “So much that I hurt for it.”
“Come home as soon as you can, then,” he said as she stood and reached for the baby. “Come home to me. Because part of me is always inside of you, and when you are away from me, part of my soul is missing, too.”
Johna rocked the infant girl against her bodice, soothing her, and then bent forward and kissed him, loved his eyebrows tenderly with her lips. Wordless, she slipped from the room and away.
* * * *
In the early hours of the dark morning, she slipped into the bed beside him, one of her sleeveless summer lawn nightgowns on her form. In the warm cocoon of his bed, beneath the heavy blankets and counterpane, she didn’t need such attire, let alone a flannel winter bedgown such as the ones she wore at Winchester House. However, Johna knew Alex was absurdly appreciative of such domestic touches, perhaps because he was painfully aware of their circumstances. She reached out to him, as promised, and he rolled over to her. He was warm, nearly damp to the touch, so her fingers traced his eyebrows and then brushed his hair from his eyes.
He couldn’t conceal or make light of his health while he slept. He had thinned, and it left new grooves around his eyes and mouth. Her chest hurt as she smoothed her hands down his body. Even through his nightshirt she could feel his heat. As if responding to her promise, his body bowed, undulating under her hands.
Johna smiled and caressed him again, loving the instinctive response of his body. She stroked downward and ran her fingers up inside the nightshirt, feathering over his hips.
She paused, nebulous worry infecting her. He was warm. Very warm.
Sitting up in the bed, she pushed the counterpane off them both and lit the lantern beside the bed. Biting her lip, she studied him, then slipped away and retrieved the fresh water that had already been left in his dressing room for his morning ablutions.
Wetting a cloth, she carefully wiped the sweat away from his face and hands, then drew a chair beside the bed and sat in it, thinking.
Alex wouldn’t want her to worry. He’d want her to stay away so as to not risk infecting the children. He’d rather Jacob or the maids nurse him, and not worry about her contracting whatever illness he had.
She needed to call a doctor. And yet, she was bound by the limits of their relationship. She couldn’t openly share his bed. It was true, she had a key to the house and slipped in and out as she wished, and Neil’s staff likely knew that she shared Alex’s bed, but they didn’t flaunt the arrangement.
Alex’s valet, Jacob, definitely knew. She could summon him from the dressing room, and he could call for a doctor.
Almost without thinking, she sat again on the side of the bed and bent forward, kissing Alex’s forehead tenderly.
With a heavy heart, she stood and began unfastening the nightgown she had just buttoned. She’d have to dress first, and write a note to Neil and Susan, then slip away as soon as Jacob arrived. Johna could return at normal calling hours, or when Neil summoned her, whichever came first.
Neil’s summons, disguised as a warning to not bring the children around, arrived at breakfast. Winchester sat in state at his end of the table as Johna’s butler offered her the salver. She sliced open the missive and read it quickly.
The earl raised his eyes in inquiry, not bothering to speak. “My brother,” she said briefly. “Warning me not to bring the children today when I call to see him and Susan. Colonel Blessing apparently has a fever, and the doctor is coming round to see about it.”
“It wouldn’t do for little Aston to have it,” Winchester agreed, raising disapproving eyes at his wife.
Johna inwardly snorted. Of course he only mentioned John, as if little Lord Aston’s health was more important than Fiona or Abigail. Resentment shimmered and she choked back any response, hiding her reaction in the normal action of pouring herself a cup of tea.
“Perhaps this is just the thing to make Hanover realize he ought to expel that cripple good-for-nothing from his house. Blessing will never be anything more than an invalid dependent on someone’s generosity, no point in pretending otherwise. There are institutions for people like that – they might as well be dependent on the Crown.”
Johna’s heart seized, and her resentment exploded. Leaving her tea untouched, she stood and pushed back her chair before the butler could hurry forward to pull back that heavy piece. “I understand the War Office disagrees with your assessment. Susan says they’ve been working him tirelessly for months. You’ll excuse me, of course. I must see to the children and make calls this morning,” she managed to say, practically bustling out of the room in her attempt to escape without throwing her hot tea in his face.
She was at Hanover House thirty minutes later. The butler let her go as soon as she had doffed her pelisse.
Susan and Neil were in the library, and looked up, drawn concern on their faces.
“The doctor’s been,” Neil said kindly. “I’m afraid it’s going to be difficult. He’s already weakened from surviving the loss of his leg and hand, and infections related to those injuries.”
Johna nodded, swallowed hard.
“I’m taking the children home today to Hanover Fields,” Susan said somberly. “The doctor didn’t give a firm diagnosis, but he wants Alex to stay isolated, and I don’t want to risk it passing from the servants to the nursery. Alex came home late – we don’t know where he was or what he was doing. We know you saw him last night – has anyone else?”
Johna sank onto the settee, her face paling. “He held Abigail for a few minutes,” she whispered. “As to where he was, he told me he was visiting at Royal Hospital in Chelsea.”
“If you see him, Johna,” Susan said seriously, “You’ll have to stay here until we know who’s contracted it. The doctor is afraid it is contagious.”
Her heart hammering in her head, she thought ahead, didn’t care. “I’m staying,” she said grimly. Swallowing hard, she added, “I’ll send a note to Nurse not to take the little ones out, as there is apparently a fever going round.”
Neil watched her carefully, then said soberly, “I believe we can convince Winchester that the doctor gave us a quarantine order while you were in the house. But I don’t like the thought of you catching it, Johna. We’ll bring in nurses –“
“No,” Johna insisted, crossing her arms over her chest. She knew she was being mulish, but she’d wanted Alex desperately for months on end. She hadn’t been there when he’d suffered before. Johna couldn’t bear the thought of leaving.
Neil frowned, looked at Susan, and grimaced. “You’ll take every precaution, Johna. And I mean every single one that the doctor prescribes, including covering your face and hands. He left instructions and will be back. We’ll need to tell him about Alex’s trip out to Chelsea.”
Johna bit her lip, nodded, whispered, “If he gets delirious, Neil, you won’t want strangers nursing him. I won’t want strangers nursing him.”
“Jacob’s with him now. Says he won’t leave him either, poor chap is devoted to Alex,” Neil agreed.
Johna stood, anxious. “I’ll be upstairs,” she whispered, “Safe travels, Susan.”
Susan came and clasped her hands for a brief moment. “Godspeed his recovery, for both of you,” she said, squeezing Johna’s hands.
* * * *
On the sixth day, Alex opened his eyes and looked at Johna. She was exhausted, broken from sobbing, angry. It was suddenly odd, to see his pupils clear and calm, trailing over her face.
The continual flow of tears welled again, obscuring her vision, but Alex was now too weary to lift his hand. His breathing was shallow, his heart weak.
Johna didn’t know why she’d been spared the fever so far and didn’t care, knowing only that she wouldn’t leave his bedside now. Her fingers blindly sought his and clutched them tightly as she knelt beside the sickbed. She and Jacob shared Alex’s fevered deliriums, with Neil coming in and out of the room and sitting with Alex when he was peaceful so they could sleep.
Doctors – several of them – had come and gone. All now were resigned and grim. All the doctors had looked at Alex and given the same prognosis.
Alex might survive the fever, but his heart was failing. And his heart would not survive.
They said he was worn down and fragile when he contracted the fever. They said he should not have been touring soldiers’ hospitals, where disease was rampant, even if it was part and parcel of his military duties. His superior officers in the War Office had come, and gone away again after conferring with Neil. Colby had come and gone home again, tearing up as he’d left. Alex’s cousin Clare had come down in a rush with his wife from Norham Castle and were staying in the house, waiting.
Inside, Johna knew they were right, despite her outward rage and disbelief, her refusal to accept the inevitable.
Alex’s fingers tightened about hers, gripping tightly. “Mon ange,” he whispered thickly. “You-you must rest.”
“I will,” she cried, kissing his hands. “I will.”
“You are all I ever wanted,” he whispered. “Your happiness. Couldn’t even do that well.”
“No, Alex,” she whispered. “You have made me happier than anyone else ever has. Every moment with you.”
“Mon ange,” he said again, but this time it was faint, as if it was all he could do to whisper the syllables. “Find more ways to be happy.”
“Alex,” Johna cried, but he was already slipping into unconsciousness. “Alex, I love you,” she gasped.
But Alex didn’t answer, didn’t respond. A long hour later, Alex left her again. His heart, already slow and sluggish, simply stopped. Johna remained by the bed on her knees, her face pressed to the back of his hand, empty of anything but the quiet sobbing that wracked her. Neil sat by the other side of the bed, Alex’s loyal friend even to that day. Clare stood at the footboard, tears on his face despite the years that had passed between visits.
She didn’t know how much time passed but Alex’s hands cooled beneath her cheek. Eventually Neil came and lifted her in his arms as though she was a small girl again, being carried to bed. But he was carrying her away from Alex, and she hated him for it, so she beat and hit at his shoulders and begged him to let her stay.
“I’m sorry,” Neil said, and Johna looked up at his tear-stained cheeks and knew nothing would ever be the same.
* * * *
A door opened, boots shuffled. “You can see she’s sleeping now. And you’ve spoken to the doctor. Are you satisfied?” Neil’s voice was thick with grief, still. Johna couldn’t have spoken at all, not to Neil, not to the creature she couldn’t stand to see, not to the maid sitting in the corner, quietly mending. Even if she was able to speak, it was unclear to Johna if she was awake or in the midst of a dream. The mere thought of opening her mouth and speaking was paralyzing.
Lying still was simply the only possibility. Her eyes were closed, and Neil was there. In the back of her mind she knew Susan must have returned to London as well, with or without their children, because when she had seen him this morning, Neil had finally shaved.
“Is she the only one who’s taken ill?” Winchester demanded.
“No,” Neil returned woodenly, his voice hoarse. “No, two of the servants, and I had a mild fever, too. Johna wasn’t too far from childbed, and wasn’t strong enough to fight it off. Alex had a weak heart. Jacob was his primary nurse and valet, and was constantly exposed to Alex, and the other victim was one kitchen maids. We’re not sure how she contracted it.”
Johna knew – understood – that Alex’s valet Jacob had suffered from sustained exposure to Alex’s illness as Johna had, and the kitchen maid was Jacob’s lover. Both had had much milder cases, and stronger hearts than Alex. Both would recover.
Grief and loss stabbed Johna in the stomach, hard. She nearly bent over at the waist from the pain of it.
Winchester’s voice was dry with derision and criticism. “This is on your head Hanover. You summoned her over here, knowing he was ill. And I know her – she couldn’t have kept away. She was probably helping, even if you were in a sickbed. But you’re the one who kept that cripple around for you own edification –“
Johna bit down on her lip so hard that it bled, but Neil had no such restraint. Winchester stopped talking when Johna heard the impact of Neil’s fist, as it connected with Winchester’s less muscled flesh. He moaned, painfully. “Alex was my closest friend, you worthless cretin,” Neil rasped. “Get out of my house.”
“Not without my wife,” Winchester spat back, waspishly. “I think I’ll stay right here until she’s well.”
Neil grunted. “You’re going to get very uncomfortable, and quickly. We both know my fist can take more than your stomach or chin.”
“Fine, I’ll send her maid to stay with her and be sure you’re minding the doctor’s directives,” Winchester sneered.
Neil sniffed, in the way he’d done when Johna was tiny and had said something amusing. Johna recognized the fastidious sounds of Winchester straightening his coat before the two men retreated and she breathed a sigh.
Johna opened her eyes as the door closed. She did have a low-grade fever, and had been ordered to bed. Mostly, though, she felt a numbing bleak emptiness, as if all she had to look forward to in life had been painted over and there was a blank white canvas in front of her – a life without color or music or joy. Alex had filled that canvas with his compassion, his devotion, his passion. Johna had nothing and no wish to replace it.
* * * *
Johna had no reason to wear black, or even gray. She dressed in a muted purple twill and sat in her own back parlor, looking at her own garden. In another lifetime she would have left the house and gone to Hanover House, and then out to a luncheon and to the Park with Susan. Fiona, Aston and Abigail would have spent the afternoon in the nursery with their cousins, or in the nursery section of the Park with dozens of other children from Mayfair mansions.
Instead, Susan and Neil’s little ones were at Hanover Fields. Neil had aged overnight, the loss of Alex weighing on his heart and shoulders. Susan remained at her husband’s side.
Johna had stayed in the bed at Hanover House for a week and returned home only to isolate herself in her rooms for another three days. She was listless, directionless; she’d heard Frenchie clucking over her and excusing her depression as the effects of her illness to the senior staff. It took all of her effort to simply sit and look at the cold, wet garden through the windows.
A deafening silence rang in her ears, so loud it concealed what must have been the normal noise of the household. Around her, life seemed to have stopped. If she had climbed to the stairs, Johna imagined, everything would be perfectly in place, waiting for her to open the nursery door and see her babes toddling through the rooms.
She hadn’t said goodbye to Alex. The thought came from nowhere, dropping into her mind with recriminating bitterness. While she’d been consumed by grief, laid out in a bed as her fever rose and ebbed, Alex’s body had been prepared by the senior women in Susan’s kitchens and packed in ice. Clare himself had escorted Alex north and then across the sea to Killard Castle near Strangford. Alex’s parents were buried in the graveyard there, near the chapel inside the great castle walls. Alex had grown up in the stronghold, and it was only right that he return there.
Not that her opinion had been asked. Things simply happened. Alive, Alex had been hers. But in death, he was a man of the Blessing family, and the Dukes of Lauderdale ruled that clan.
Unannounced, Neil stepped into her presence, shutting the parlor door. He looked human, almost, Johna thought dispassionately. Susan did that for him; her presence gave him a healthy glow that drained away when they were apart. She remembered Alex, pale and drawn after their months of separation, and her eyes watered again.
Neil sat beside her and held her hand. “It’s just as well that you had that fever,” he said after a long while. “You’re still pale, withdrawn.”
“I suppose so,” Johna returned.
“I’ve come about Alex’s will,” he said then, and Johna frowned, confusion etching her features. “There’s nothing much for you to do, except decide whether to keep his things for Aston when he’s older.” When she didn’t speak, Neil raised his brows and asked, “He didn’t talk to you about it?”
Johna shook her head once, slowly.
“He left everything to you via the Hanover trust, except for the cavalry swords. There were three. One for Aston, and one each for my eldest son and Colby’s boy.”
Johna stared at him in disbelief, shaking her head again.
“He wasn’t wealthy, exactly, but his commission will be sold again. And then there’s the cottage at Killard Castle – the house his parents lived in. It could be sold.”
“No,” Johna said sharply, absolutely. She would give no reason, but knew she would never do such a thing. “No, don’t sell it.”
Neil asked nothing further, but simply sat with her and clasped her hand in his.
It was a long time later when he left. From the pocket of her gown, Johna finally drew forth the note her husband had left her that morning and had the butler deliver to her with her breakfast tray. She couldn’t have faced him there, across the length of the table, with its coffeepot and epergne displayed in grand elegance.
Slowly, suspecting its contents, she broke the seal and unfolded the lettering, smoothing out the creases.
I’ll expect you to see in your chamber at ten o’clock, as per our usual appointment.
He hadn’t even signed it.
Anger and disgust brought bile up into Johna’s throat. She couldn’t have said if it was his cold dismissal of her health and brittleness that upset her, or his impersonal lack of grace. Johna stared at the words, then crumpled the paper up into a ball and threw it with sinister intent at Winchester’s portrait, hanging near the door.
Someday, Johna decided bitterly, Winchester would die a slow, painful death. She sincerely hoped she was there to witness it.
* * * *
Johna wasn’t in the bed when he arrived. Instead, she sat on the window seat, looking down into the street below. Without looking at him, her voice stiff, she spoke. “I’d rather not tonight.”
“You don’t have a choice, now do you?” he returned, stepping to her side and taking her by her upper arm. “It won’t tax your energy level, you just lie there anyway. You know I must try to have another son.”
Fighting wouldn’t do a bit of good, so Johna didn’t fight. She closed her eyes, blanked out any thought of good or redemption, and focused on how much Winchester would hurt. Someday.