“Must you leave?”
He spoke the words softly, barely a whisper he heard himself. Vulnerability was something he wasn’t used to showing. It was dangerous, but despite his better judgment, he looked up from his desk at his personal maid. Mrs. Millers had been his maid for as long as he could remember. She was his nurse when he was still young, raising him as if he were her own when his mother had passed. She was the only one beside his father that knew.
The betrayal that followed her announcement still lingered.
Mrs. Millers didn’t look up from his bed as she straightened the sheets. “Sweetheart, you know I wouldn’t go if I had any other choice.”
He pressed his lips together to refrain from saying more.
Noticing his stoic expression, Mrs. Millers sighed, stepping away from the bed and to the young heir. The crowfeet around her eyes deepened as she offered him a gentle smile.
“Besides, you can’t rely on me forever,” she said, patting his hand. “You’re a young man now, you should be able to take care of yourself.”
He turned his gaze to the window, leaning back into his chair. She was right. Of course she was. But it didn’t change that he didn’t feel ready. Too often did he spill tea on himself, forget to blow out a candle before leaving a room, trip over his own feet. Weakness, his father would call it, incapable. Mrs. Millers was the only one who made him feel like he could achieve anything. And now she was leaving.
How could he not be upset?
Did she even consider how this might affect him?
He shook his head. Of course she considered it. She decided it was best for him as well. Even if he doubted that.
“I handpicked my replacement myself, if that makes you feel any better.”
“I don’t need a replacement,” he grumbled, knowing as well as she did that he wouldn’t make a day without one. “I’ll be fine on my own.”
Mrs. Millers ignored his comment, busing herself with dusting off his desk. “She is very kind, very thoughtful, and very pretty.”
His brows furrowed as he turned his attention back to the old woman, who’s smile had turned to a knowing one. He never liked it when she looked the way she did now, as if she had a secret he couldn’t know if. It used to infuriate him as a child, now it only agitated him.
“I am not looking to court anyone.” He rubbed his brows, willing the tension to cease.
Mrs. Millers chuckled, lifting the duster to his face to tickle it with the brown feathers. “I never said that.”
He rubbed his nose, the crease between his brows returning. “You were implying it.”
“I was merely filling you in on what to expect. So please, go easy on her.”
“If she does what she is told there shouldn’t be a problem,” he scoffed, resting his head on his fist. His other hand played with the pages of the book he had been trying to read. Trying being the main objective.
“You still have to be kind.” Mrs. Millers sat down in the chair beside the desk. Were she any other maid, he would have scolded her and likely have her fired. “She’s still young and learning.”
“If you know I won’t treat her right why make the decision of hiring someone incapable of replacing you?”
She sighed again, shaking her head. “She’s from outside of town, unaware of your reputation, this could mend the way people see you.”
Or damage it even further. Now he understood. She was the only one willing to take the job.
The town’s people had hated his father since before he was born, and therefore expected nothing less from his son. Even as a child no one wanted to be his friend. He still remembered when it dawned on him that things would never change no matter how much he changed. How much he tried to show he was different.
Only after a few months of attending a public school did he beg his father to get homeschooled. They used to call him names, say he was cursed, that he brought misfortune with him. They hadn’t been wrong there. Though, to a child, those words hurt worse than anything else. Especially since he hadn’t known about the actual curse that he carried at the time.
Now, at the age of twenty-two, the only times he visited the town was when his father had business there, which wasn’t often. The town’s people hadn’t liked him as a child, and they still didn’t as an adult. Though now that dislike had mixed with fear for his status.
He preferred staying home if he could help it.
But things were changing, and the only person he could confide in was leaving.
After a long moment, he mumbled, “I’ll be on my best behavior.”
“Excellent,” Mrs. Millers said, standing and clapping her hands together. “You’ll get to meet her tomorrow.”
He lifted his head. “But you won’t be leaving until the end of the week.”
“I’ll have to fill her in on all your necessities, don’t I?”
She left before he could get in a protest.
Sylvester’s thoughts were more chaotic than usual.
Many things troubled him at every moment, but today it was even worse. A new maid. A new person. New. New to avoid. New to ignore. New to be chastised by behind his back. But he couldn’t do that, not exactly. She would be his personal maid. The one who is to wake him in the morning and make his bed. Who is to dust his shelves as he drank his afternoon tea. Who brings him a towel after sparring and serves him dinner. He couldn’t avoid her even if he wanted to.
His footsteps echoed through the halls, his pace matching the speed of his racing thoughts. He raked a hand through his hair, then folded his arms. Perhaps he should blow off some steam. Think of nothing for a moment as his focus was on his opponent. That should do the trick.
Turning on his heels, he started for the training area, when his father turned the corner. Sylvester stopped as his father approached. His hands behind his back, his chin raised, and his eyes trained on Sylvester. Swallowing, he did not move as the silent warning was clear.
Sylvester did not spend much time with his father, but when he did, the Duke did not care for meaningless conversation. At an early age, he learned his father only spoke when needed, each word calculated and necessary. For moment when most would simply call out “come” or “hold on” or “wait,” his gaze was enough. And right now, his gaze was telling Sylvester to stay where he was.
It still send chills down his spine.
“Do not let the new maid know of your secret,” he said as he came to a halt, looking down at Sylvester through his glasses. “We cannot afford another mistake.”
Keeping his shoulders squire, Sylvester nodded. “It won’t happen, father.”
Mrs. Millers was never meant to find out either. It had been Sylvester’s own stupidity that had doomed her. Why they had to hold onto her for so long, why his father would still pay her after she left. If the people knew what he was, it would mean the end for their family. Their title would be stripped and they’d be shunned by society, never to be accepted again.
Sylvester knew the cost.
His father didn’t reply, didn’t even nod, as he continued on his way. Sylvester did not linger either, his pace twice as fast as his need to hit something—or someone—grew bigger. Perhaps it was his monster, perhaps it was his own temper.
He had never been good at distinguishing the two.