The Laudanum...February 1852
Jaylon could feel the irritating poke on his arm as someone tried desperately to wake him up. His sleep burdened mind sought to push it away, but the torment became more insistent and annoying until he opened his eyes. With eyebrows drawn, he peered down at Aniela’s sleeping form in his arms, and the annoying nudge came again. He peered over his shoulder, prepared to admonish the irksome offender.
Lucian stood beside the bed with his forefinger pressed to his lips, and he gestured for Jaylon to follow him.
It took a moment to recall why he remained in Aniela’s bedroom chamber. He closed his eyes, expressing a silent prayer to the gods, thankful that it had been Lucian to catch him in her bed and not Jessie.
He glanced over his shoulder again, and Lucian continued to wait for him at the door. Turning back, he peered down at Aniela, trying to figure the best way to slip away without disturbing her.
Her head rested on his arm, and her hand was draped at his waist. She looked tranquil and content like she didn’t have a single concern in this world, and he loathed to disturb her. Nonetheless, he gently slid his arm out from under her and lifted her hand, laying it gently at her side. Pushing up onto his elbow, he gently rose from the bed and lingered to see if she displayed any signs of waking. When he was confident she remained asleep, he stepped towards Lucian and accompanied him out the door.
Once satisfied they were out of hearing distance, Lucian turned on Jaylon. “Have you gone completely out of your mind?” Lucian hissed, still trying to hold his voice at a guarded whisper.
“It’s not what you think,” Jaylon said, seeking to justify himself.
Lucian’s eyebrows raised. “It’s not what I think?” he declared incredulously. “Let’s forget for one moment that I didn’t just see you in bed with Aniela.”
“Lucian, I recognize what you think you just witnessed,” Jaylon countered. “But, our clothes remained on the whole time. I swear it.”
Lucian walked away from him, shaking his head; then he swung back around. “How about this! It doesn’t matter what you think I saw. It only matters what Jessie thinks she saw because Jessie walked in on you first,” he exclaimed. “She is downstairs right now, losing her mind because she thinks you slept with Aniela again.”
“What?” Jaylon gasped. “She saw us in bed?”
Lifting his hand to his forehead, Lucian tried to rub the stress away. “Yes, Jessie saw you,” he confirmed, not trying to suppress his annoyance. “She went to Aniela’s chamber to check on her and discovered you both entangled in each other’s arms.”
“Where is Jessie now?”
“I forced her to go downstairs,” Lucian answered, taking a few strides towards him. “Before she woke the whole house.”
Jaylon turned and headed for the steps. “Is she in the library or study?”
Lucian followed behind him. “You have to be demented and out of your mind right now,” he exclaimed, trying to stop him. “Jessie is refusing to go to my fathers now because she feels she can’t trust you.”
Reaching the bottom step, Jaylon turned and went into the study. He found Jessie pacing in the center of the room.
She lifted her head when she saw him and her eyes grew wide with contempt. Unable to halter her rage, she charged at him and struck him with both hands on the chest and knocking him off balance. “How could you?” she wailed, almost hysterical. “You led us to believe we could trust you, then you turn around and sneak into her bed when you think our eyes are closed.”
Lucian stepped in between them, attempting to defuse the situation. “Jessie, please calm down,” he implored.
She looked at Lucian incredulously. “Calm down,” her voice pitched. “Are you condoning his actions?”
“Nothing happened,” Jaylon whispered, attempting to defend himself.
“You know me better than that, Jessie,” Lucian said, not able to mask his dismay that she would even think such thoughts.
“Nothing happened,” Jaylon repeated a little louder this time.
They both stopped their verbal onslaught and twisted to look at him.
“Nothing happened,” she sneered with eyes ablaze. “How convenient those words are for you.”
He took a few steps towards her. “I swear on my honor, Jessie,” Jaylon beseeched. “We did nothing, I just held her, and we both fell asleep. I swear.”
Her hands formed a fist at her sides, and Lucian stepped between them, knowing emotions were about to elevate to a new level. “I think we need to all calm down,” Lucian said, working to pull her across the room.
“You swear on your honor,” she gasped. She shook off Lucian’s hand and stormed towards Jaylon. “Was it your honor when I caught you sneaking from her bed-chamber so many weeks ago? Or how about the time Elizabeth accosted Aniela at the dress shop? Was your honor in play that day also?”
Jaylon shook his head. “This is different,” he exclaimed. “I regret Aniela finding out about my marriage that way, but you will never provoke me into saying I regret making love to her. I will never admit that!”
She turned deliberately and looked at Lucian. “He is not staying here with Aniela,” she stated firmly. “I am sorry about your father’s business Lucian, but there is no way I can leave now.”
Jaylon’s eyes grew wide, knowing it was dire that Lucian gets Jessie and the children far away from any potential danger. “No,” he implored, glancing at his best friend. “Lucian, please listen to me. You have to take Jessie, Brydon, and Olivia to your fathers in Lancashire. It’s imperative that you go...”
“Imperative that we go,” Jessie repeated with narrowed eyes. “What were you planning on doing in our absence? Did you already make some nefarious plans?”
“Nefarious plans,” Jaylon gaffed, shaking his head. “Do you even hear yourself, Jessie? What do nefarious plans even mean? And what kind of man do you think I am?”
Jessie laughed deep from her belly. “Do you truly want me to respond to that question?”
Lucian held his hands up, signaling for them to stop.
But Jessie didn’t heed his warning. “I refuse to allow you to stay in this house one more night. Go home to your wife Jaylon because you are no longer welcome here.”
Jaylon ignored her and approached Lucian with desperation. “Lucian, I need to speak to you in private,” he urged, battling to keep his voice calm.
Lucian looked from Jaylon to Jessie with a stiff jaw. “You both need to temper your emotions,” he charged. “We all wish for the same outcome, and that’s the well-being and safety of Aniela. Can we at least agree on that?”
Jaylon grabbed his arm in an attempt to pull him away. “I implore you, Lucian...”
Furious, Jessie charged at him once more. “You need to leave our house Jaylon,” she said vehemently. “Lucian and I will take care...”
“She tried to kill herself,” Jaylon blurted, halting Jessie’s words.
Jessie stepped away from him as if she had been physically struck.
“What?” Lucian asked in disbelief.
Jaylon saw the mortified look on Jessie’s face, and he closed his eyes, feeling sick for having to blurt it out that way. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, then drew a deep breath for courage. “I didn’t want to announce it like that, but neither of you would listen to me.”
Jessie turned and leaned on an armchair; confident her legs could no longer hold her. “Why do you think that? Are you certain?” she sobbed.
Lucian rushed to her side and encouraged her to sit down.
Jaylon sighed with an overpowering sense of foreboding. “Yes, I am positive,” he whispered. “She knew where your father kept his laudanum for pain. She had already swallowed three pills, and she had a handful more that she was planning to take.”
Jessie leaned forward, laid her head into her hands, and wept. “Why would she do that?” she sobbed, struggling to contain her emotions. “Why would she want to...”
“There is more,” Jaylon cut in, dropping his gaze to the floor.
Jessie lifted her head. “Wh-what?” she sniffed.
“What do you mean there’s more?” Lucian asked with unease.
It was almost more than he could bear, so Jaylon lifted his hand and rubbed his forehead. Closing his eyes, he cleared his throat. “In her delirium, Aniela confessed a few things to me.”
Jessie’s eyes grew wide. “What do you mean?” she gasped. “What things?”
Jaylon looked at Lucian and wished he would have heeded his plea earlier and allowed him to speak to him alone, but it was too late for that now. “For instance,” he added, resolving to begin with the less traumatic, “Where she was for most of the three years she was gone.”
Rising to her feet immediately, Jessie approached Jaylon. “Where was she?”
“Le Mourillon,” Jaylon stated flatly.
Lucian’s eyes narrowed. “Le Mourillon, France?”
Shifting to stare at her husband, Jessie couldn’t conceal her confusion. “Why would she go to Le Mourillon, France?” She twisted to Jaylon. “Did she convey why?”
Jaylon shrugged his shoulders. “When she was speaking, Aniela’s words were all over the place. She spoke of a family that helped her, but she offered them no names.”
“Did she present the name of anyone at all?” Lucian asked hesitantly.
Jaylon knew what Lucian was proposing. “She kept repeating the word ‘Meetza’. Does that mean anything to either one of you?”
Both Jessie and Lucian shook their heads.
“What is a Meetza? Did she reveal anything else?” Jessie asked with apprehension.
Nodding his head, Jaylon hesitated to disclose the rest. He took a moment to gather the courage to reiterate the words to Jessie. “She knew the effects of laudanum.” Jaylon’s voice wavered, and he collected a heavy sigh to settle his emotions. “Aniela knew the effect of laudanum because it is what her attacker gave her before he...” He paused and turned his head, helpless to complete his explanation.
Jessie’s lips quivered as she heard Jaylon’s voice break with emotion. She stepped to him and folded her arms around him, allowing his head to rest on her chest as she stroked his hair.
“I swear I didn’t go to her chamber for anything else,” Jaylon whispered as his frame shuddered. “You have to believe me, Jessie.”
Jessie closed her eyes, nodding her head. “I believe you,” she conceded. “I’m sorry. I meant none of the harsh words I expressed to you. I know you love her.”
Drawing away from her, Jaylon nodded his head and turned around to face Lucian. “Aniela confessed one more piece of information to me,” he said, rising to his feet. “I know Aniela had taken a few laudanum when she made this comment, but I believe it is something we can’t dismiss.”
Lucian couldn’t conceal his dismay that Jaylon was directing his statement for him. “What is it?”
With earnest eyes, Jaylon stared at his best friend. “She stated her attacker also threatened Jessie and Olivia. If he abducted Jessie, it would be like having Aniela back.”
Lucian’s body became rigid with concern. “What?”
“This is why I aspired to speak to you alone,” Jaylon added. “You need to take your family to your father’s Lucian. At this point, I’m not indeed certain if that is distant enough away.”
“What? No!” Jessie exclaimed, stepping towards Lucian. “I can’t leave her.”
Lucian grasped her hands. “Jessie, if this is true,” he implored. “I can’t endanger your and Olivia’s safety. You have seen what this man is capable of.”
She rubbed her forehead, feeling the stress overwhelm her. “How do I leave her when I am the sole family she has left?” She bolted to Lucian and folded her arms around him. “How much time do I have to say goodbye to her?”
Lucian sighed. “If it’s as Jaylon says, we should leave as soon as feasible. I will not take the risk of harm coming to our family.”
Jessie lifted her head from Lucian’s chest and nodded her understanding. “I will allow her to rest now and let the laudanum fade out of her system. Thus I can express my goodbyes in the morning,” she conceded.
Lucian lifted her chin. “I know you don’t wish to leave her,” he said, dropping his head gently kiss her waiting lips. “But, I am confident Jaylon will keep her safe.”
Jaylon nodded in understanding. “You have my word.”
Drawing from Lucian’s arms, Jessie went to Jaylon and draped her arms around him. “Thank you,” she murmured against his chest.
Aniela heard her door open, but she couldn’t force herself to open her eyes. The controlled whispers of Lucian and Jessie floated to her ears, then abruptly all went silent. Rolling onto her side, she faced Jessie as she walked in her direction and settled herself in the armchair beside the bed. By the solemn expression on her face, Aniela knew something was wrong.
Jessie cleared her throat and averted her eyes. “Good morning Aniela,” she said with a smile that didn’t match her tone. “Did you sleep well?”
Choosing not to respond, Aniela rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. Her mind raced, trying to summon what took place last night, and her hand suddenly moved up to her throat as visions of Gordon zig-zagged across her consciousness. She turned her head to face Jessie and noted she was fully dressed in traveling clothes. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Are you going someplace?” she asked in a coarse whisper as her hand rubbed her tender neck.
Jessie’s eyes strayed over the dark bruises, and she promptly abandoned her gaze down to her lap. “Lucian and I are leaving for Lancashire this morning,” she said, toiling to preserve composure. “Nettie is getting Brydon and Olivia dressed right now.” She fidgeted with her clothing, then lifted her eyes to Aniela. “I’m sorry for leaving you like this, but Lucian decided last night it was imperative we go to his father’s as soon as possible.”
Hearing her words felt almost like a physical blow to Aniela, and her bottom lip trembled as she sought to form words. “I knew you and Lucian had talked about going to his father’s,” Aniela whispered. “But I hadn’t realized it would be so soon.”
Jessie rose to her feet and commenced to pacing. “I don’t wish to leave you,” she exclaimed. “But Lucian and Jaylon...”
“Jaylon?” Aniela interjected. “What does Jaylon have to do with you and Lucian going to Lancashire?”
Jessie halted her strides and stared at her for a moment. “He doesn’t,” she admitted hesitantly.
“Then why would you mention him?”
Turning away from her, Jessie chewed her bottom lip. “I must have misspoken,” she conceded. Drawing a nervous breath, she turned back around to face Aniela. “Do you remember anything from last night?”
Aniela dropped her gaze, pondering on whether to be truthful. “I-I remember a man assaulting me while I waited for our driver to bring the carriage around,” she finally admitted. “And I think Jaylon escorted me home.” Her voice broke as the image of Gordon seeped into her mind, but she remained strong and lifted her eyes to peer at Jessie. “But that’s all I can remember. Everything else is distorted and blurred.”
Jessie stared at her for a moment, mulling over her next question. “Did you know the man who assaulted you? Would you be able to recognize him again?”
Her heart suddenly pounded in her chest, and she turned her head away from Jessie. “No,” she said blankly. “I didn’t know him.”
Jessie’s face fell as the lie flowed from Aniela’s lips, and she turned away once more to wipe the tears pooling in her eyes. Clearing her throat, she composed herself and hastily turned to drape her arms around her sister. “We are just so happy that you were unharmed,” Jessie sighed, pressing her cheek to Aniela’s. “To assure your safety in our absence, Aunt Roseanne and Uncle Michael will reside here until our return.” She felt Aniela nod, then she hesitantly added. “As will Camille and Jaylon.”
Aniela’s hands rose to settle on Jessie’s shoulders and cautiously pushed her away. “Wh-what?” she stammered, shaking her head. “No.”
Squaring her shoulder’s, Jessie tried to be resolute. “I’m sorry, Aniela,” she said. “Michael has already left for his estate to collect sufficient clothing for him and Roseanne.” She paused, allowing her statement to sink in, then she added. “And Jaylon has left to do the same for himself and Camille. Both he and Michael should return by nightfall.”
Aniela sat up abruptly and began shaking her head with a stubborn denial. “No,” she stubbornly refused. “When Jaylon arrives, I will send him back home. I don’t need him here taking care of me.”
“He won’t be taking care of you,” Jessie countered. “He will protect you.”
Aniela lifted her narrowed eyes. “Isn’t that the same thing?” She flung the blanket back and rose hastily from the bed. “I don’t want him here.” She stepped to the window and leaned against the glass. “I am more than a little surprised you would indeed suggest his presence here.”
Jessie chose to ignore her statement. “I will send Nettie in to help you dress,” she said, keeping her expression guarded. “So, you can come down and deliver your goodbye to Brydon and Olivia.”
Lifting her head from the glass, Aniela turned and studied her. “So, that’s it?” She sought with narrowed eyes. “I don’t even have a voice in it?”
“Aniela, please don’t cause this to be any more challenging than it already is,” Jessie begged, endeavoring to remain strong. “Lucian is insisting we go, and I swear that I didn’t choose to leave you.”
“Then, why are you?”
Staring at her, Jessie bit into her bottom lip and visibly grappled on how to respond. “Lucian has... he possesses a concern for our safety,” she stammered, peering down at her clasped hands.
Aniela swallowed hard, pressing down nausea burning her bruised throat. Again Gordon’s words reverberated in her mind.
Jessie would do quite well as one of my subjects.
“Lucian wants to protect his family,” Aniela conceded, battling to hold her emotions in check. “It’s very noble of him.” She watched Jessie fidget with her clothing and keep her eyes averted from her own. An overwhelming sense of unease swept over Aniela’s body, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that Jessie wanted to say more but was holding back. Nonetheless, she didn’t trust herself having Jaylon reside here in their absence and demanded to voice her apprehension. “When Jaylon returns, Camille can stay, but I will send him back home. With Roseanne and Michael also here, I don’t think it is imperative that he also remains.”
Jessie perked up, shaking her head. “No,” she replied adamantly. “It’s essential that Jaylon remains here in our absence. Swear Aniela, swear you won’t send him away.”
Feeling Jessie’s anxiety grow with every word, Aniela’s eyes drew together. “One minute you’re demanding he leaves,” she stated with suspicion. “Now you’re demanding he stays. Is there something else you are not mentioning to me?”
Jessie turned away from her and stepped to her wardrobe. She took a pale blue dress off its hanger and turned, strolling to the bed. Laying the dress down, she feigned to press wrinkles out with her one hand.
Aniela eyed her, perceiving she was stalling for time. So she strode to settle beside her and reached down, stopping her hand. “Is there something you aren’t telling me, Jessie?”
Jessie stared at her for a moment, then reached for her hands and gripped them tightly to her. “Do you...” she balked and had to twist her head to collect herself and calm her voice. “Do you recall Jaylon being in your chamber last night?”
Cocking her head, Aniela had a sense of confusion enter her mind. “No,” she answered pensively. “Why... Why was he in my chamber?”
Peering down, Jessie stroked the inside of Aniela’s hands with her thumbs and forefinger. “It doesn’t truly matter why he was there,” she sighed, pausing to bite her lip. “Do you recall where our father kept his laudanum?”
“Why would you...” Aniela halted as her head started to throb. She closed her eyes and lifted her hand to caress her temple. A vision of Jaylon begging her to answer him, but she didn’t know the reason or what he was demanding. She opened her eyes, feeling the warmth rise to her face, and stared at Jessie.
“Do you recall, Aniela?”
Her jaw clenched. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Jessie waited for her to say more, but Aniela remained reticent and turned her head. “I don’t know why you won’t talk to me, Aniela,” Jessie implored. “I merely wish to help you.”
Aniela’s head whirled back to face her. “And still, you are leaving me.”
“You know why I am leaving,” Jessie bit back with a choked cry.
Dropping her hands from Jessie’s grasp, Aniela felt her stomach muscles coil. “Yes,” she acknowledged with a hoarse whisper. “I do know why you are leaving.” She hesitated and gulped done her anxiety. “Lucian is a wise man to get you and the children as far away from me as possible.”
Jessie grabbed her arm and sought to turn her around. “It’s not you, he fears,” she asserted with desperation. “It’s the monster who did this to you. Please, Aniela, swear you won’t send Jaylon away.”
She dropped her gaze and strolled to the window, mulling over Jessie’s request. “I don’t know if I possess the fortitude to refute him any longer,” she admitted as she separated the drapes and leaned her head on the glass. “You have no idea what you are demanding of me.”
Her eyebrows lifted, and she stepped to stand beside her. “We merely desire you to be protected, and Jaylon is presently your best...”
“That’s not what I meant,” she interjected, turning her head to glance at her with sullen eyes. “We spent one night together, and you know what transpired.” She waited, letting her statement sink in. “Now imagine what it will be like when we have weeks together under the same roof. He’s very persuasive, Jessie. And I’m not that strong.”
“Oh,” was Jessie’s initial response. She bit her lip, contemplating, and eventually cleared her throat. “Then don’t be strong,” she conceded flatly. “Jaylon loves you, and he has sworn to protect you.”
Aniela spun around in disbelief. “What?”
“I know what you said,” Aniela spat. “Are you proposing that I allow... that we...”
“I’m not proposing anything,” Jessie cut in. She turned away and stepped back to the bed, allowing her hand to hover over the dress’s soft texture. “Whether or not you believe this, I think a great deal of Jaylon, and he is your best chance at staying safe in our absence.”
“So, I should just give in to his persuasive words?” Aniela questioned with apprehension. “Because you and I both know, men like him and Lucian usually get what they want.”
Jessie took a few steps towards Aniela until she settled before her. She lifted a hand and swept a stray curl that had strayed across her cheek. “I know they could entice a drowning man to take a drink,” Jessie laughed. She hesitated, and the sisters stared at each other. “Both Lucian and I just want you to be safe, and we both feel strongly that Jaylon is the best course to make certain that happens.”
They both folded their arms around each other, neither desiring to say more.