“Wherein we meet an unlikely, and unlikable, heroine.”
“Not that one, you stupid girl.” Isabella snatched the brooch from her abigail and threw it across the room. It landed will a dull thud on the luxurious, thick pile of the carpet in her bedroom. “I said the diamond and pearl brooch. Can’t you tell a sapphire from a pearl?”
“Yes, my lady,” the maid muttered, scurrying back to the jewellery box and plucking the correct piece with shaking fingers. She returned to her mistress, blinking back tears, and tried to pin it in place.
“Don’t stab me with it, you clumsy creature,” Isabella shouted with growing impatience. “Oh, give it here. You’re worse than useless. I’ll do it myself.”
Isabella took the brooch from her with a tut and a scowl. She dismissed the girl and watched as the girl ran for the door as fast as possible.
To her dismay, Isabella found her own hands were shaking just as much as the hapless maid’s, and it took several tries to fix the brooch in place.
A deep breath expanded her chest as Isabella stared at herself in the mirror. Her skin was flawless, fine as porcelain, and her expression held about as much warmth. Isabella blinked hard, refusing to give into the tumult of emotions surging through her. A lady never showed an excess of emotion, of any kind. That was a lesson her mother had taught her well. Lady Scranford slapped hard for laughing, harder for crying. Isabella had received a lifetime of instruction about many such rules. Blushing was inadvisable and avoided at all costs. A lady should look down on those around her with disdain, according to her mother, as if from a great height. A lady was always serene and unruffled, cool and dignified, no matter the circumstance. Serenity was something Isabella was finding hard to find.
She looked down and smoothed her hands over the ever-increasing curve of her stomach. Fear lanced through her. She could not hide her condition for much longer. It was a wonder she’d managed it this long. Slender of figure, her clothes would not continue to conceal her foolishness. Efforts to hide her burgeoning body from her abigail had become a stressful ritual that was becoming harder each day. The girl studied her with watchful curiosity in her eyes and a guarded expression to add her already reserved demeanour. That she feared her mistress and her fiery temper was no secret. Isabella didn’t doubt that the girl hated her. She would delight in her downfall. Good fortune alone had kept her secret so far as her monthly courses had always been sporadic; five months, however, that was hard to explain.
Whatever was she to do?
The father, the handsome and feckless viscount Treedle, had made his feelings clear. He'd enjoyed his cruelty. There would be no marriage proposal. He didn’t want her, or his bastard, and he cared little what happened to her. She had been an easy conquest and one he would not consider again. He would lose no sleep over her predicament.
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. Isabella repeated the words to herself and prepared to go down to dinner. A meal shared with her mother was nothing more than a battle, each of them keeping score and counting the number of barbed and serrated comments that hit home. The past few months had made the confrontations insupportable and nausea roiled in her stomach. It was hard enough to eat at all at present, doing it under her mother’s icy and judgemental gaze did not encourage her finicky appetite.
Isabella glided down the grand staircase with the regal poise of a queen, ignoring the staff as if they did not exist. A lady never acknowledged the serving classes.
“Good evening, mother.”
Isabella steeled her spine, readying herself for the night’s battle. The finest Limoges china, crystal glassware and shining silver graced the table. The dining room glowed, bathed in candlelight, beautiful and perfect, at least on the surface.
To her surprise, Isabella discovered that her mother stood waiting for her, and the room was devoid of serving staff. In fact, her mother’s expression, always so impassive, almost showed signs of emotion. Anger.
Isabella paused, laying her hand on the back of the chair. The room appeared in stunning clarity, all her senses heightened and on alert. The mahogany chair under her fingers, cool and smooth to the touch; the slight, smoky aroma of recently lit candles and warm wax floated on the air. Isabella gripped the chair a little tighter as her mother moved towards her and placed her bony hand on her stomach.
No matter how long she lived, Isabella would never forget the expression on her mother’s face at that moment. It was the first time she had ever seen anything resembling an honest emotional reaction, but the revulsion, the anger, the outrage … It was blatant.
“You ungrateful little slut.”
Isabella jolted but did not react. The urge to cry was strong, but tears would not help her. That this woman had given birth to her seemed incredible, improbable at least. She hadn’t anything resembling a maternal instinct and Isabella knew her future was now uncertain. She had hoped that she might have the baby somewhere quiet and isolated and then return as if nothing had happened. They could raise the child as a cousin … Even as she grasped at straws, Isabella knew it was hopeless.
“You told me to entice him with any means necessary, mother,” Isabella replied, though the tone of her voice was weary. This battle was already lost. “You said I wasted this chance at my peril after what happened with Lord Winterbourne. Well …” Isabella gave a mirthless laugh. “I followed your instructions to the letter.”
The slap was hard and fast and stung like the devil. It made her eyes water, too, and Isabella blinked the tears away, careful to keep her head up.
“You weren’t supposed to open your legs to him until you got the proposal,” her mother snarled, her face screwed up with bitterness. “Even the little nobody who trapped Winterbourne understood that much.”
Isabella tried hard to suppress the memory of the night in question, when she’d acted in desperation, forced to behave in such a lowering manner. Her mother had been pushing and pushing. She must do whatever necessary to get the viscount to propose. So, she had.
Pain and discomfort and indignity lingered in her memory. She had hated no one as much as the viscount in that wretched moment, and yet she was desperate to marry him. It wouldn’t be worse than her life now. Her mother’s constant manoeuvrings left her out of control, shifting her back and forth like nothing more than a pretty, ivory gaming counter. She had never in her life regretted anything more than her actions of that night, but the viscount had promised that if she did …
What a fool she’d been. Yet she wasn't the first girl ruined by a lie, and she would not be the last.
“Well,” her mother said, shaking her head and letting out a breath. “I have no further use for you now. You have ruined yourself and all my hopes and dreams with your stupidity. I have no wish to look upon you for a moment longer. Take your bastard and get out.”
The words circled in Isabella’s brain, but for a moment she could not comprehend them.
“B-but mother… ” Isabella stammered, casting around for reasons she should stay, even though she knew it was hopeless. Her mother never changed her mind. Never. “I could go away until…”
Isabella watched as her mother seated herself at the dining table, spreading the napkin in her lap with care. Her cold, precise existence would continue unhindered. The decision was made, and Isabella would to be cut out of her life with a clean, sharp blade. She would be removed and never spoken of again.
“Your cousin, Jane, is coming to stay with me as my companion,” Lady Scranford continued, not looking at her. “I shall see if she can’t succeed where you have failed so utterly.”
Isabella caught her breath, stunned by the depths of the betrayal. “B-but you hate Jane, and I … I’m your daughter.”
Lady Scranford looked up at her and Isabella knew for certain that there was nothing more to say. There was nothing in her mother’s eyes but contempt.
“I would be grateful if you would take yourself as far away as possible,” she said, moving the knives and forks that lined her place setting with a frown. When they were straight enough to pass her own measure of perfection, she looked up again. “Perhaps, in time, I can tell everyone you died. That, at least, is something you ought to do for me.”
The words were so said with such ease, such easy cruelty that Isabella gasped. She shook, an involuntary trembling of limbs she could not stop as terror gripped her. The tremors racked her body and she couldn't make it stop.
“I have nowhere to go,” she whispered, a breathless quality to her voice as panic held the air captive in her lungs.
“You should have considered that before you behaved like a whore.” The words were emotionless, and Isabella wondered if the woman would bleed if cut. She was as cool and unmoveable as alabaster, bloodless. As nerveless as a marble bust.
Isabella watched, as numb as if she watched a distant figure in a dream as her mother rang the small silver bell beside her and her serving staff hurried in. They’d been listening for the bell, so they knew everything now. They knew her shame. They knew she was being cut out like a cancer.
“Middleton,” her mother said, as Isabella watched the expressionless face remain cool and impassive. There was no pain for the surgeon of this operation. Isabella doubted her mother’s ability to feel pain, to feel anything. “See she leaves.”
“Very good, Lady Stamford.”
Isabella’s breath picked up as she looked around in alarm. Their butler moved towards her, a glint of satisfaction in his eyes as he strode forward and clasped her arm.
“No!” she exclaimed, trying in vain to tug her arm free. “No! No!” She screamed and struggled as a footman came to help Middleton remove her. Still a well-trained, deeply engrained sense of manners abhorred her own hysteria, yet she could not help the cries of distress and fear that tore from her throat as they dragged her from the room, sealing her fate. “Mother! Mother, please!”
The last thing Isabella saw as she left was her mother taking a sip of her wine and nodding her approval. Then the footman moved forward, the crystal decanter glinting in the candlelight as he filled her glass. The door closed.
Before she knew what was happening, Isabella stood at the gates of their estate. Despite the frosty air, cold enough to sober the most drink-addled brain, her mind felt dazed and sluggish, numb with shock. A thick pelisse and a carpet bag lay at her feet on the ice hard ground and she heard the metal clang of the gates as Middleton locked them against her.
There was no pity in his eyes, rather a superior glimmer of malicious pleasure. The staff hated her, and for good reason. This humiliating outcome would gratify them all. She had no friends in the house who would pity her. There was no one to sneak in and retrieve her more valuable possessions. She imagined them raising a glass and cheering with delight at this moment.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
Isabella sucked in an uncertain breath. The trembling had become so bad she could hardly move, her legs jerky and unsteady like a marionette’s. She reached out as a wave of dizziness turned her head and reached to cling to the gate before she fell. The metal burned, icy cold beneath her palm, and she snatched her hand away again.
Terror rippled over her as Isabella stared around. The countryside was dark and forbidding, unfamiliar with the unnerving absence of daylight. As a well-bred young lady, she had never ventured out at night without attendants and a carriage to protect her from the world at large. That world seemed vast and threatening now, liable to devour her in one large swallow. She gasped as an owl screeched overhead, the bird gliding through the darkness like a tiny ghost. Shivers ran over her skin, almost unnoticeable against the trembling of shock, but she saw her breath cloud in front of her face like a plume of smoke. It was so cold.
Then put the coat on, stupid creature.
Isabella cursed and reached for the pelisse, tugging it around herself and trying to force her terrified brain into finding a way out of this dreadful situation. In some dim part of her mind, she found herself unsurprised by her predicament. Life had never been kind. Her mother had been cruel and hard and impossible to please. That marriage to a vile man like Viscount Treedle had seemed like an escape spoke enough of the world she inhabited. Isabella had never expected or sought happiness; that was a state of mind confined only to books and poetry and art. She had always assumed that her life would be miserable in luxury, though.
With horror, she imagined the gossip that would begin as the servants tattled their tales and her infamy spread. Everyone would know she’d laid on her back while that repulsive man had taken her virtue. They’d know why, too, that she’d been trying to catch a title. The blush that scalded her heated her skin, at least, searing against the frigid air as it spread over her, leaving her clammy and wretched.
She had little choice left but to go to Alice Cranton’s house. Alice was Isabella’s only friend, though friend was perhaps not the correct choice of words. Isabella did not have friends, she had people useful to her, and Alice was at least useful. Alice only bore with Isabella for her wealth and connections to the ton, and because Alice was too frightened to disobey her. It was something they both knew, but never acknowledged.
It was at least five miles to Alice’s house, and in the cold and the dark, it was a miserable undertaking. The knowledge she must throw herself upon Alice’s mercy at the end of it did not make it any more enjoyable.
By the time she found herself at the house, Isabella was numb with cold and misery and it was all she could do to hammer the wrought iron knocker loud enough to wake the household. By now, her emotions were beyond her grasp, her body incapable of enduring more. As a startled footman opened the door, Isabella fell to the ground.
There was humiliation and debasement, and then there was this.
Isabella looked up at Alice’s face, pinched with shock and disgust, a smug glint of pleasure showing in her eyes and betraying the insincerity of her words.
“I’m sorry, Isabella, but I’m sure you understand. I cannot risk being tarnished by association.”
She looked back at Alice, knowing she wasn’t sorry at all. It was the first time in Alice’s life she’d held the upper hand. It looked as though she was enjoying it. No doubt she would become popular now, as she’d have the story first hand. Isabella imagined her in the coming days, the centre of attention as she recited her scandalous tale of woe. The history of a lady of quality and her fall from grace. Shame burned, but not with as much heat as anger and wounded pride. Isabella put up her chin, watching while nausea roiled in her stomach as Alice reached for her reticule.
“It’s not much,” Alice said, with a sorrowful little smile. “But it’s all I have.” She held out her hand, the metallic sound of the coins sliding against each other making Isabella grit her teeth. Alice looked at her with the benign expression of a religious icon. Virginal Mary, all charity and forgiveness. It was as superficial as paint on plaster.
Isabella got to her feet, sweeping past Alice with what remained of her dignity.
“Don’t trouble yourself, Alice,” she said, as the ice in the words flowed in her blood now, little spiky chips that cut at her heart. “I have no need of it.”
Not allowing the girl to speak another word, Isabella didn’t wait for the door to open for her. She left without another word. Her bones ached, her back protested, and her feet hurt from walking on the rough ground in the fine silk slippers she’d worn for dinner. How foolish it was to be walking about at this hour in such finery.
The daylight was spreading across the countryside now, a strange purplish tint to the morning. The sense of unreality rushed back to her and she could almost believe she walked in a dream. A nightmare.
Isabella looked up as tiny, icy prickles touched her skin. She gave an incredulous laugh and held out her hand as the snowflakes melted against her skin. Well, she’d sunk as far as it was possible to go. God was laughing at her for sure, retribution for all her sins crashing down upon her head with the delicacy of a fragile white flake. At least there was no one around at this hour of the morning, no one else to witness her shame. There were plenty who would enjoy it, who would say she’d gotten what she deserved. Perhaps they were right?
Isabella had smiled whilst delivering such pretty, little insults. She had destroyed with barbed comments wrapped up in lace and sympathetic smiles. She had never been on the receiving end of such treatment herself, though. Even her mother had been honest in her criticism, though she saved her words for the privacy of their home. She’d never bothered softening the cut with false smiles.
Well, Isabella was done with it, done with all of them. There was at least a sense of freedom in her decision. For once, she would choose the path her life would take. Even if it was a dead end.
Now she had made her choice. There was no way out and nothing left for her. Her pride blazed too fierce to endure the humiliation of seeing the world laugh at her. Isabella would not suffer their pity and their sneers, their enjoyment at her downfall. So, she would end this herself, now, and hope that their consciences troubled them for a day or two. She harboured no illusions it would be any longer than that.
As Isabella picked up the heavy satin skirts of her dress, the fabric caught upon the frozen ground, tearing the luxurious satin, but she trudged on, uncaring. The skies lightened overhead, a new day dawning as the sun rose, and one that would set without her. She forced her weary body onwards, resigned, as she headed towards the river.