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 earlier vignettes first, then come back here.
Temptation in 1802
~Elle Q. Sabine~
Copyright 2015 by Elle Q. Sabine (email@example.com).
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.
“Find more ways to be happy.”
Alex’s last words echoed in Johna’s head. The garden was quiet, the children having gone inside with the nurse and her little helpers for afternoon naps. Little Abigail toddled about now, hand tightly clenched in a nurse’s skirts. She still toppled onto the flagged walkways and sat down to pull at the flower petals, but her curls were growing out to frame her face, a feminine version of Alex’s dear visage. John, now three, was a spirited boy in the style of Johna’s brother Neil. Little evidence of Alex was in his face or his frame, though Winchester imagined the boy took after him in appearance. And darling Fiona, with her black hair and sharp eyes, was already so inquisitive and demanding that she was rarely found without a book in hand or a stream of questions about its contents.
Leaving London in May had been the right thing to do. The children were happier here, and had more freedom than they knew in the London mansion. Johna finally felt as if she could breathe again. She did not have to guard her expression every minute of the day, and her solitary evenings were precisely what she had needed to truly grieve for Alex, without having to don a polite mask and face a horde of virtual strangers who knew nothing of her grief but expected all of her energies to be expended in socially acceptable, vibrant discourse.
She had grieved – was grieving – for Alex, as if she were his wife and confidante, though she marked the passage of time in solitary state. They had reunited just less than three years together, and many months were separated by circumstance. Still, those years were three years Johna had never expected or hoped for. Those years had been a small miracle in a lifetime of duty, and she was grateful.
Just now, ten months later, she was finally waking up in the morning without tears rolling down her cheeks. It had been shocking, the first morning she had wandered around her rooms for a full five minutes before shock and surprise hit – not that he was gone, but that she hadn’t remembered for those few moments.
The thought of returning to London and smiling from dusk until dawn, adopting a bright and cheerful mien for the glittering cognoscenti brought back all of resentment and bitterness she’d felt months earlier.
Johna simply couldn’t do it.
As if he’d divined her inner thoughts, Winchester approached, climbing the gazebo steps where she sat with her basket of embroidery. She hadn’t touched the intricate pattern in two days, but Winchester wouldn’t notice such a detail. He imagined her to be busily producing fine pillow covers and detailed wall hangings.
Acknowledging her with a brisk nod, he took a seat across from her and pinned his gaze on her. She stared right back, refusing to pretend a meekness she didn’t feel. It was, after all, Monday. She wouldn’t placate him until at least Thursday evening.
“When will you be ready to leave for London?” he asked directly. “The end of September nears, and Parliament will be opening. I expect you will want to settle into the house in Town before the Little Season begins.”
Johna didn’t want to travel with him, with or without the children. Suddenly the idea of being separate from him for more than two full months seemed like a little bit of heaven. She couldn’t imagine searching out a lover right now, not even for the sole purpose of producing the second son that Winchester required in order to end the cold mockery of conjugal relations with him. Alex might be gone, but she couldn’t bear the thought of someone else’s touch on her skin. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Find more ways to be happy.
Looking down at the length of linen on her lap, she smoothed it out and examined the stitches she had last set. “Actually, I’m not certain I do, not this year. You remember how ill I was this spring, and I still am not sure I’ve fully recovered, as I often feel tired and weak in the evenings. That London air is so smoky and oppressive and wet – perhaps I shouldn’t indulge in the Little Season this year? I certainly would not want a relapse.”
Winchester regarded her for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders. “If you wish to remain here in the country alone with the nursery and the servants, I’ve no objections. Of course we won’t be going into Devonshire for the Yuletide, so I’ll stay in London until Parliament closes.”
Johna nodded. The Dowager Countess, Winchester’s mother, had died during the spring. Instead of moving the family to Devonshire into the earldom’s estate, Winchester had sold off a great deal of the ancient furniture and valuable art, then rented out Winchester Castle to a prosperous merchant family and the land to nearby farmers. Johna had been unhappy with the decision, but Aston Manor was closer to London and nearby Birmingham, and he hadn’t consulted her on the matter.
“When I return, I expect you’ll be amenable to expanding the nursery again.”
Johna kept her eyes carefully on her embroidery. It wasn’t as though he didn’t visit her bed. He did. Every Friday, as he always had. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been acquiescent. She pursed her lips together angrily for a moment, but said only, “Have I been uncooperative? I was under the impression that you visited my chamber as you wished.”
He inclined his head, acknowledging her words. “Yes. I only meant we would resume the project when I returned.”
Johna dug her fingers into the linen, struggling to suppress the emotional storm that threatened to erupt. She would not disgrace herself. She would not.
He sighed and stood. “I will plan to leave Saturday morning, then.”
“You should do as you think best, of course,” she returned, poking the needle through the fabric in order to stop herself from stabbing him with it. “I shall have the children ready to bid you farewell.”
Winchester bowed to her briefly. “I shall see you at dinner.”
Johna remained seated for a long while after he departed, her head bent, and her hands still in her lap.
One more time, she thought. I can do this. I have to do this.
* * * *
Johna dreamed that night. About Alex, of course. She always dreamed about Alex, but tonight the dream was different. At his worst, dream-Alex was a drunkenly inept man, jealous and possessive as he alternately threatened Winchester and bemoaned his inability to protect her from the earl. At his best, dream-Alex was whole and happy, and they frolicked together, and glorious happiness suffused her when Alex smiled and carried her – his limbs and heart whole and healthy – to a quiet place beside a gurgling river where a blanket spread over the banks waited. In that dream, the ring on her finger was his Blessing signet ring. In her dream, he always laughed, and she always answered him with the same joyful noise.
That night, the dream was new, and short enough that it repeated in her mind several times. Alex was soberly dressed, his expression serious. He cupped his hand against her cheek in the way he had always done, raising her chin with his thumb so that she was forced to meet his earnest gaze. “Find more ways to be happy,” he said. “I will always love you, but you will be in the world for a long time to come. Find more ways to be happy.”
When she awoke, Johna remained in bed for a bit and stared at the high ceiling above her head, its height painted in a blue and white design that gleamed even in the early morning light.
Stabbing Winchester with her embroidery needle would have made her happy, but she didn’t think that was what dream-Alex had in mind. Did he really expect that she might take another lover, another man, into her body willingly, in place of him?
Of course Alex had meant that. He knew Johna was expected to produce a second son. But not today. Not this season. Not this Christmas. Advent would come, but Johna was not ready to prepare for the next incarnation of her life. Not yet.
* * * *
Johna pressed the coins into the lad’s hands, taking the large basket of mistletoe berries he’d gathered in return. With Winchester out of the house, she had taken all the Christmastide traditions she could remember, and was determined to celebrate them with the children. Fiona, John, and even tiny Abigail had helped prepare the fruitcakes and puddings, enough for both the family and the servants to be richly fed. The children now checked on them daily to be sure they were aging properly. Cook had hung them from the pantry ceiling to keep dry, having snuck inside of them the traditional good luck charms: silver coins for wealth, wishbones for good luck, and tiny wooden-carved anchors provided by the carpenter as charms for safe harbor.
Several years earlier, Johna remembered, Queen Charlotte had brought a living yew tree inside the royal lodge, hanging sweets and small toys from it. All the young masters and misses invited to the celebration had been able to choose a treat from the tree and had been delighted by the merrymaking. While Johna did not want to bring a tree into the house, she appreciated the gifting. Holly boughs hung in the doorways, and the stable lad had hunted the entire basket of mistletoe sprigs and berries to hang with them, a herald of prosperity and fertility for the household. In addition to the mistletoe, she took the Queen’s creativity to heart, hanging dried fruits and candies wrapped in paper in pretty bunches with the holly and mistletoe. On Christmas Day, the children and the lads and girls who served in the house could take them down and share them. In addition, with the help of the butler and the other menservants, she’d organized small toys for all the boxes that would be distributed to the servants and the estate families on St. Stephen’s Day, enough for every child in every household. Most were already prepared, but on Christmas Day itself, she and Cook would add fresh baked goods to each box so that they would be ready for delivery the following morning. Johna planned to deliver them herself, another first for her, perhaps with Fiona in tow.
Tonight, though, she wrapped the mistletoe bunches with ribbon, being sure that each bunch contained several berries. According to tradition, whenever a young lady was caught and kissed under the sprigs, the youth or young man would remove one of the berries as a keepsake.
Johna found herself looking forward to watching the berries, to see how quickly they went missing.
She wasn’t expecting any kisses herself. No, as the lady of the house she could hardly expect any such thing, except perhaps from little John, but she could enjoy watching the budding romances on the estate. Of course, several of the household servants were already couples, both married and engaged. Even more amusing was watching the nursemaid Ellen, who was walking out with one of the young men, named Benjamin, who both carried water upstairs and worked in the stables.
Late that night, she let Jacob move her chair close to the sitting room fire before drawing a writing table across her knees. Jacob brought her the inkwell and she organized her things before smiling up at him. “I’m grateful you came to us here this winter,” she told him. “It helps, to see a familiar face.”
Jacob nodded somberly. “Lord Hanover agreed. I’ll return to London when you go up, of course. His lordship will be opening the house there.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “You may retire now. I’ll ring for Frenchie when I’m ready to retire.”
“Yes, my lady.”
She waited until Jacob closed the doors to her rooms and tread carefully along the upper hall. Tilting her head to the side, she listened for him to descend the narrow servants’ stairwell that separated her rooms from the earl’s apartment. Only when the house echoed with silence did Johna move. She removed a letter from the center drawer of the writing desk, where she’d put it two days earlier and hoped it would disappear.
Winchester had only written once since he’d departed for London, and that was a simple missive with instructions regarding the estate’s operations. This one, so near Parliament’s adjournment, was assuredly related to his return.
So it proved.
* * * *
“You shall have to mind every expense,” Winchester lectured. He slammed the ledger closed and frowned. “We simply cannot afford to keep both houses open – you and the children will need to come to London in the spring.”
“As I planned,” Johna nodded, inwardly furious. Why should she and the children suffer because of Winchester’s inability to manage the familial purse? For all the man was complaining about the expenses of keeping Aston Manor open all winter, the truth was that he hadn’t needed to fully open or staff Winchester House for the fall session, either. She hadn’t been there to act as hostess, after all. “But I’ll need my usual dress allowance when we return to London. Even if my current wardrobe fits perfectly, everything is a season out. The entire ton will know if I suddenly appear in last year’s fashions.”
“If you must, but mind yourself.” The earl sighed, his face drooping even in the candlelight. To Johna’s disgust, he withdrew an unfamiliar pocket-sized silver snuff box inlaid with mother-of-pearl on its lid and sides. Johna restrained herself from snapping the obvious question: Where had he found the money for such an expensive ornamentation? She knew his answer. He could hardly carry one made of potato-pulp, such as a poor shopkeeper might own. Even so, the practice of using snuff was terribly out of fashion, and the giving of snuff boxes was reserved for diplomats and ingratiating distant cousins. She watched dispassionately as he settled a pinch of the tobacco on the back of his hand and sniffed it. Johna recognized that the gesture was elegantly sophisticated, but actually witnessing the inhalation of those fermented tobacco leaves was revolting.
Johna rose. “If there’s nothing else, I shall be going up to my rooms for the remainder of the night.”
In response, he rose a brow. “It’s Friday, of course.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “And also the last night of the year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and two and the seventh day of Yuletide.”
“I’ll see you at ten o’clock, then.”
“If you wish,” she said dismissively, her lips tight. It was enough that he’d arrived home on Christmas Eve and come to her bed that very night. He didn’t need to end the year with such an unwelcome visit, either.
But, of course, he did.
Much later, she stared at the ceiling in the dark and told herself the next year would be better than this one. She would not be confined to the country. She would not love a man, and no man she loved would die. But most importantly, no matter what, she would find some way to defy Winchester and fulfill Alex’s last request.
She would find a way, some way, to be happy.