Today was supposed to be her wedding day. She should have been unable to sleep because of nerves and not because sleep had evaded her nearly every night for the last six months. Sleep was where the monsters lived, sleep was where he could still come for her – but that didn’t bear thinking about, and so she would not do it. She focused back on her novel, then to the clock on the mantle. It was half-past nine. She should, at this moment, be standing in a cathedral in London and preparing to say vows to her cousin, Gaston. He was her father’s heir and she an only child. The marriage had been arranged when she was in the cradle and he still in short pants and it had never occurred to her to want anything else. She’d been fond enough of him, in her way, and he’d accepted it without question the same way he’d been groomed to accept anything else. And then six months ago, all that had been ripped out from under her.
Her book slipped from her fingers at the memory, and she jumped at the sound of it slamming into the floor. She’d not done well with loud noises for the last six months. Not loud noises, or surprises, or darkness, or the smell of alcohol, or certain phrases that had been innocuous enough before but now left her world tilting dangerously on its axis. Her father had been forced to stop calling her my girl, and even now he would occasionally stop a sentence halfway through and she knew that he’d been about to say the hated words.
Belle grimaced at the thought and stooped to retrieve her fallen book. She hadn’t turned a page in an hour, and another glance at the clock told her it hadn’t been five minutes since the last time she looked up. What would she be doing right now, she wondered, if everything hadn’t gone so spectacularly to hell six months ago? She imagined she’d have been up half the night worrying about everything from the flowers to her dress, the idea of marrying Gaston having long since lost its mystery. He’d spent weeks at a time at her father’s estate in the country and she didn’t see how marriage would have changed much between them beyond their sleeping arrangements. That, she thought, was the part that would have consumed most of her interest and anxiety. Six months ago, Belle had been totally ignorant of the goings ons between a man and a woman – now, she knew them all too well.
Six months ago, she had been at a house party. Six months ago, she had gotten separated from the other guests by the Earl of Nottingham. Six months ago, her life had effectively been ended.
She never much cared for the Earl. He drank too much, he smoked too much, and he liked to corner young ladies in dark place and whisper obscene things to them where their chaperones couldn’t hear. No one dared speak of it, because the ladies were not meant to know such words and anyway, why were you in a dark corner of the house alone? Belle asked herself the same question on a near daily basis now. Why had she gone to the library alone? Why hadn’t she retired to her room instead when the headache came on her? If it had changed nothing else, at least no one would have stumbled onto them later when he was putting himself back together and she was sobbing and trying frantically to hold up a torn neckline to cover her shame.
Even if everything else had been innocent, the blood on the chaise had given the whole thing away.
Gaston, of course, had called the Earl out regardless of the fact that their engagement had been effectively ended. Instead of an acceptance of the duel, Nottingham had replied with a proposal of marriage. Belle wanted to take her grievance to the courts before being talked out of it. She wouldn’t marry him, though. She’d rather die alone and a spinster than be forced to endure his company for another moment.
Not that she had much of a choice about becoming a spinster, anyway. She wasn’t naïve – it was Nottingham or it was spinsterhood, and so she had retired to her father’s country estate (which would one day be Gaston’s), stopped taking visitors, and dedicated herself to quietly wasting away.
Belle sighed and got up, setting her book on the table of the sitting room (she could barely stand to be in libraries anymore). If she was going to be completely unable to focus, she might as well take a walk. The fresh air would probably do her good, and as long as she stayed to sunlit paths and open spaces she rather enjoyed being outside. Outside wasn’t where it had happened, outside was safe.
She skipped the parasol, gloves, and veiled hat that she would have worn in her life before. What was the point in attempting to preserve a complexion now? What was the point in anything now? The sunlight felt good on her bare skin, and Belle felt herself drawn to sanctuary of the gardens, where no one would notice her or care what she was doing.
One of the few things that she had found eased her frayed nerves in the days after her ordeal was pacing. She had made a habit of it, circling the drawing room of the London house so many times the servants had begun to skip cleaning it if the door was shut. She paced in her room when she had been bedridden, and now that she had fled in shame to the country house she paced in her gardens. She was struck with the strange image of herself dropping dead and spending the rest of eternity as a ghost pacing through the attics and gardens and scaring the daylights out of everyone. She thought she might like that, actually. No one could hurt ghosts, and she could finally be beyond caring about any of the rest of this.
It should probably terrify her how pleasant death sounded, but it didn’t. The one thing that kept her from leaping off the roof (now that she mostly had her wits about her) was that, were she to take her own life, she would be damned to Hell while Nottingham could be one deathbed prayer away from salvation. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, he’d already taken enough from her that she would not let him have that. She would live just to spite him.
“Are you going someplace, dearie?” the voice broke into her thoughts and practically sent her hurtling into the roses in her surprise. A hand came to her arm and held her steady on her feet. “Careful,” the voice continued. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
She had to bite down on her tongue to try to steady her breathing as the hand released her slowly. She was floating again and she couldn’t breathe for the tightness in her chest. She turned and found Mr. Gold standing there. He seemed to recognize her discomfort, and took a step back as she fought to get her emotions under control.
“My father is out,” she said once she could control herself enough. “But the gardeners are around and I’m expecting visitors at any moment.”
The last came in a rush, and she knew he could tell she was lying. She had the sudden fear of Mr. Gold covering her mouth and dragging her into the bushes while she screamed and fought, but she brutally crushed it. He walked with a cane, and if he truly meant her any harm he’d not have introduced himself like he had.
“Then I’ll not keep you,” he said patiently. “I was simply walking home and saw you taking a stroll and thought I would say hello.”
A stroll was a polite way of putting it, but the rest of his story was certainly credible. The man had owned a house nearby as long as she could remember, having made his fortune in textiles manufacturing or something similar. Her father had always vaguely looked down on Mr. Gold for being new money, but that hadn’t stopped them from socializing, nor had it stopped him from lending her Papa a bit of money over the years or helping him with some investments. She’d known the man since he first bought the estate when she’d been a girl – his house wasn’t nearly as large as hers, but then her family name was ancient and so was their money, and his house had only become a permanent home a year or two ago. She remembered it was right around the time her engagement to Gaston had been announced, maybe a few months after. He’d come here and she had gone to London for the season and they hadn’t spoken since.
She had become lost in her thoughts again, she realized. It had been too long since she’d talked and now he would start looking at her strangely and make his excuses and leave. She didn’t want him to leave, she realized. He was still looking at her, but it wasn’t with scorn or pity or thinly veiled lust or any of the ways she’d been used to people looking at her these last months. He wasn’t leaning in as though hoping she’d reveal some titillating detail that had been kept from the public, or leaning away in disgust. He stood ramrod straight with both hands resting on the cane which he held in front of him. He was simply waiting for her to reply and continue his polite chitchat. It had been ages since someone spoke to her as though she were not seconds away from shattering into a million pieces.
“How has your son been?” she finally asked, remembering vaguely that he had a son someplace and that the young man was about her age, though she’d never really met him.
“He’s been well,” he replied, inclining his head. “He’s still trying to adjust to running the company, of course.”
Ah yes, that’s right. His son ran his company. That was why he had moved out of London, so he could let his son take over running the company.
“And are you adjusted to country life?” she said, and she was proud of herself, this was the longest conversation she thought she’d had that didn’t result in tears – either hers or her father’s – since it had happened.
“As well as can be expected,” he replied with a smile and she forced her face to mirror his as well as she could. It was sometimes hard to remember to show the right emotions at the right times, but he hadn’t seemed to notice. “The doctor has insisted I take more walks.”
Dr. Hopper loved prescribing walks, it had become something of a joke around town that there was no ailment a good walk couldn’t fix. Perhaps that was what drove Belle in her relentless pacing.
“And what has brought you out on this fine day?” he asked her when she didn’t continue their conversation. She felt her breath constrict in her chest again as she tried to formulate an answer that wasn’t more truth than she could tell him.
It was possible, she realized, he truly didn’t know what had befallen her in London. It was hardly a secret – six people had walked in on her immediately afterward and it had been in all the papers. Mr. Gold may be a solitary man, but she would be surprised if there was anyone in the English speaking world who wasn’t aware she’d been defiled at a house party by a peer of the realm. It was the kind of thing people loved to tut over at breakfast in low tones. Did you hear that Miss So-and-so and Mr. Such-and-such were seen walking alone in Regents Park? What would her mother say?
And it was always the woman who felt the wrath of society, Belle had realized. No one had said Nottingham was unmarriageable after this. He’d certainly been uninvited from a fair few social events and had been forced to leave the city for the season, but she’d be surprised if he wasn’t back in town next year and attending dances and dinners. A title and a fortune on a single man could override a good many complaints from a good many mothers, people would simply keep closer eyes on their daughters for a little while.
Damn, she hadn’t answered him in a long time again.
“It was such a lovely day,” she began, the fake smile on her face becoming almost painful. “That I simply couldn’t be cooped up inside another moment.”
He nodded sympathetically, and she wondered for one horrible second if he’d just remembered where he’d seen her name recently and would now take his leave and go back home to write letters to everyone about how he’d run into Lady Belle French and wouldn’t you know it, she’s a mad woman now.
“I have to agree,” he said instead. “Perhaps the good doctor is onto something with this walking business.”
She breathed a sigh of relief, because at least he still wasn’t looking at her like she was crazy and it just felt so good for someone to listen to her for a moment without waiting for her to begin shrieking hysterically and rending her garments in shame and insanity.
“Perhaps he is,” she replied, her smile rapidly becoming genuine. She was proud of herself. She had held a conversation with a man, and nothing bad had happened.
“Well, I’ll not take any more of your time,” he said finally, apparently having exhausted his repertoire of topics with the weather and asking after her health and with her own conversation skills already stretched to their limit. “It’s been a pleasure, Lady Belle.”
It wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t have known – shouldn’t have known, really – but suddenly Belle felt like her head was under water and she couldn’t breathe and there was another man here and he was whispering the words it’s been a pleasure into her ear as he slid out of her and his breath was hot and moist and she felt dirty and desecrated and just wanted to be at home in her bed and for all of this to be a terrible, horrible dream.
She wasn’t there, she reminded herself. She wasn’t there anymore. It had happened and it was over and she was outside and there was sun beating down on her and she was floating and watching Mr. Gold as he became more and more agitated and he was calling her name but she was shaking and she felt like she was choking and suddenly she turned and ran and she was running so hard she thought her lungs might burst and she cursed corsets as she slammed the door, drawing the attention of the maid who had been dusting in the hall. Belle couldn’t face anyone or their questions, instead she ran up the stairs like the hounds of hell were after her and locked herself in the bedroom where her breathing didn’t let up until she had shut herself up in a wardrobe and sunk to the floor and shaking uncontrollably.
Today was supposed to be her wedding day.