Jaylon and Harlow came back into the house, laughing and nudging each other as familiar friends would do. Aniela didn’t know why their simple actions annoyed her so much, but it did.
She regarded them conversing about the first time they met, and they acted like no one else was in the room. Her eyes strayed over their male physic, and she scrutinized the two of them. She was never really one to compare men, but she found herself doing that very thing right now.
They were like night and day.
Harlow was tall and slim, with dark chestnut hair. His brown eyes appeared to be serious and expressive, like so many stories were trapped inside them. She imagined if she put questions to him, he could tell her many fascinating tales of Jessie in her younger years, both good and bad.
To her, Harlow alluded confidence in the way he presented and carried himself. He articulated well and had a pleasant, calming voice. She surmised he could most likely sell eggs to a chicken farmer.
Releasing a sigh, she knew that Harlow’s only downfall was where he was standing right now. If he had stood next to an average person, she would most definitely consider him to be a handsome man. But his misfortune on this day was that he stood next to Jaylon.
What man, if any, could contend with that?
The two of them carried on with their conversation, and Aniela found her eyes straying to Jaylon’s lips, then advanced their trek down his body.
“Someday, you will stop lying to yourself, Aniela. Only then will you be able to see that you want me as much as I want you.”
His words resounded in her brain, inducing her stomach to coil up in binding knots. Not because his words hurt her in any way, but merely because she knew he expressed the truth.
She did want him.
These next several weeks, while Jessie and Lucian were gone, was going to be a test of her will. How could she reign in and control the longing he stirred in her?
I don’t think you have the fortitude, Aniela.
She decided right then that her best defense with him was to set much-needed boundaries.
So, she walked in their direction until she settled herself between them and waited for their conversation to end. When they both noted her inclination to speak, they shifted in unison, staring at her.
A sudden sense of apprehension swept over her, and she cleared her throat before she spoke. “May I have a word with you in private, Jaylon?” she inquired, allowing her eyes to look anywhere but into his blue ones.
Jaylon smiled at her nervousness. He bowed, then gestured to Harlow. “Can we conclude our conversation another time? Perhaps later tonight in the library, over a drink?”
Harlow bowed his agreement. “I would be delighted,” he responded with a smile. He turned towards Aniela and reached for her hand. “It has been a pleasure meeting you, Lady Aniela.” His lips brushed her knuckles. “Besides the fact that you stabbed me, I perceive we are destined to be great friends.” Then he promptly left the room.
Shifting to study his departing form, Aniela’s one eyebrow lifted with a sudden sense of confusion and mild indignation. She glared over her shoulder at Jaylon and immediately noticed the roguish grin on his face. She refused to allow herself to be baited, so she cleared her throat and declared, “We can speak further in my father’s study,” she announced, then spun around and left the room, not lingering to see if he followed.
When she stepped into the study, she expressed a silent unladylike curse under her breath because Geoffrey hadn’t yet lit the small lamps in the room. She bolted to her father’s desk and started opening drawers, searching for matches.
Then she remembered the box of cigars on the corner of the desk, and she recalled matches being there in the past. Lifting the lid, she discharged a sigh of relief and promptly lifted a match from its resting place. Just as she struck a flame and lifted it towards the lamp, she heard the study door squeak open. She noted Jaylon from the corner of her eye as he turned to close the door behind him.
“Please leave the door open,” she requested, holding her focus on the lamp until it commenced with lighting the room with a subdued glow. To her dismay, she heard the heavy click of the door as it closed shut. Lifting her gaze, she turned and faced him. “I said to leave the door...”
“I heard your request,” Jaylon halted her words. “I explained that I too aspired to discuss with you, but I wish it to be in private.”
Aniela gulped down a mouth full of air as she watched him begin to walk in her direction, and she started shaking her head. “I-I would rather the door remained open,” she said, as a flustered warmth settled on her cheeks. She found herself backing away from him with every step he took in her direction. In her haste, she stumbled over her own two feet and lost her balance, but Jaylon reached her in time before she teetered to the floor.
His hand grasped her around the waist and drew her to him. “What is it you wish to speak to me about?” he asked, lifting one hand to settle on her cheek.
“Jaylon, please,” she gasped, angling her face away from his touch. “This is precisely what I wish to speak to you about. If you are going to reside here until Jessie and Lucian return, you and I need to set boundaries.” She reached up and thrust his hand from her waist and backed away from him. But the desk and wall created a serious hindrance of establishing any substantial distance between them.
“Boundaries?” he repeated, crossing his arms at his chest.
His closeness caused her heart to flutter, and she sucked in a deep breath hoping to alleviate her raging emotions. “Yes, boundaries,” she finally exclaimed with a pitched voice. “We are not a couple, Jaylon. Do you understand that? You can’t be touching me at-at will or-or looking at me like...”
“Looking at you,” Jaylon repeated with dismay as he stepped closer to her. “How do I look at you, Aniela?”
She had a sudden awareness of what a trapped animal felt like and held up one hand, halting his progression. “It’s what you are doing right now,” her voice pitched. “You have been this way since the very first day we met. You-you have this aura about you that causes women—″ she hesitated, not desiring to admit he had the same effect on her. “I just expect you to perform as a gentleman would. Proper.”
He laughed. “I consider myself always to present my utmost gentlemanly qualities,” he declared, cocking his head to the side. He proceeded to step in her direction until he was settled in front of her. Lifting a hand, he fixed it on her cheek again and grazed her skin. “Is that it? Was this you’re reasoning for desiring to converse with me in private?”
Helpless to move or draw her gaze away, she stared at him for a moment. “No-no, that’s not it,” she stammered, battling with her mind and body to draw away from his touch. “I also need you to understand this is my home, and you have no say on the comings or goings of Joseph Harlow. If he is welcomed here by Jessie and Lucian, then he is also welcomed by me.” She swallowed hard, waiting for him to admonish her, but when he didn’t, her anxiety reached a new level.
In response, his thumb caressed her skin, and his eyes wandered over the purple bruises on her neck. “Do these cause you discomfort?” he asked, discounting her tirade about Harlow.
She opened her mouth but was having a hard time articulating words. “D-Did, you not hear me, Jaylon?” she groaned, closing her eyes. “I demand you to treat Harlow with respect while you both reside here.” She lifted her hands and pushed forcibly on his chest, but he wouldn’t budge. “And this is what I was talking about boundaries.”
His eyes drifted to her lips, and his hand wandered to clasped a rogue curl that had settled across her cheek. “I believe the usual courting boundaries don’t pertain to us,” he murmured, as he bowed his head to allow his lips to glide over the bruised flesh on her neck.
Her mind reeled as she grappled with the emotions that were beginning to simmer to the surface, and she needed to extinguish them before she surrendered herself in his persuasive touch. So she pushed with more force on his chest until she was able to squeeze her way between him and the desk. “Courting,” she asserted, yet feeling the heat from his lips on her skin. “Is that what you call this? You do understand that you are already married? So there is no courting involved.” She didn’t know why she was suddenly so offended, but she was. “Do you think I am deserving of becoming your mistress or paramour? Is that truly what you think of me?”
He twisted to glare at her with narrowed eyes. “What?”
The tension permeated between them, and she suddenly discovered it painful to breathe, so she turned away from him with all intentions to leave. But Jaylon sprinted across the room, placing himself between her and the door. “What are you doing, Jaylon?” she exclaimed, as her hands clutched into fists at her sides. “This conversation is over.”
He shook his head. “No. This conversation is not even close to being over,” he countered, pressing his back to the door and crossing his arms over his chest. “Remember, I likewise expressed a desire to speak to you in private.”
She had forgotten but would never admit it to him. “About what?” she challenged, feeling the heat from his gaze searing her skin.
Staring at her for a moment, Jaylon was clearly grappling with his next question. “Do you recall anything from the Whittmer’s Masquerade Ball, or what happened to you?”
It was as if a bucket of cold water had been poured over her body. She turned from him, gulping down air and staring blankly at the floor. “No,” she murmured, shaking her head. “I don’t remember anything from that night.” It amazed her how easily the lie flowed from her lips, but it had to be done to protect her family.
“You didn’t know the man that...”
“No!” she blurted, spinning to oppose him. “He-he must have been a beggar waiting for an unsuspecting victim to stroll his way, and I stumbled into his trap.”
“Really?” Jaylon asked, lifting his hand to rub his chin. “Did he steal anything from you?”
“No,” she murmured, avoiding his gaze.
Jaylon’s eyes narrowed as he stared at her in confusion. “And, you swear you didn’t know him?” He repeated, stepping towards her.
Closing her eyes, she turned away from him as nausea settled in her belly. “Why would someone I know attack me that way?” she asserted, battling to keep her voice steady. She felt Jaylon settle behind her, and before she could move away, he placed both hands around her waist.
Nuzzling his cheek on her hair, Jaylon released a heavy sigh. “Please give me his name Aniela,” he implored in a throaty whisper. “Please.”
Her eyes pooled, and she shook her head. “I don’t know his name,” she whispered with a fractured voice, knowing she never wished to express his name out loud again. To her, speaking his name made it more real, and she couldn’t bring him to life in her mind again.
He closed his eyes and bowed his head, pressing his lips to the delicate skin along her neck and shoulders. Before he could stop himself, he whispered, “Who is Meetza?”
Her body went rigid, and her head commenced to spin in a nauseating whirl. She slowly stepped away to face him. “Wh-what?” she stammered with a blank stare. “Wh-where did you learn that name?” A hot panic began to surge through her body, and she was finding it laborious to breathe. “Do you know her?”
His jaw tightened, and his eyes turned into slits, revealing his building fury. “Her!” he exclaimed, taking a stride towards her retreating form. “A woman did this to you?”
“What?” she choked, shaking her head in confusion. “No. Meetza,is who saved...” She broke off her admission, knowing she had already revealed too much.
“Who is she, Aniela?” he demanded, gripping her arm, compelling her to look at him. “Clearly by your reaction, she has something to do with whoever attacked you.”
Retching her arm free, she backed away from him. “No, she doesn’t,” she whispered, a forced denial. “Meetza has no guilt in what happened to me.” She could see by his blank stare and tight jaw, and he didn’t believe her.
“Then who is she?” he demanded in a flat whisper.
Tears pooled as her mind grappled with what to say to him. “How did you find out about Meetza if you don’t know her?”
He stepped until he was in her line of sight, prompting her to look at him. “Do you not remember anything from the other night?” he asked incredulously.
Her eyes drew together in confusion. “I-I know that I was attacked at the WhittmereBall...”
“No!” he exclaimed, reaching for her arm. “I am speaking about when I brought you home... in your bed chamber? Do you not remember anything?”
“You brought me home?” she repeated as if realizing it for the first time. “I-I don’t remember...” Her head started to throb as bursts of memory started permeating through her mind. Bits and pieces of visions flared across her brain, and nausea seized hold of her belly causing bile to rise up into her throat.
“Tell me about Toulon, Aniela,” he whispered, struggling to remain calm. “Or maybe tell me about Le Mourillon. Were you ever intending to divulge what happened to you? Why did I have to wait and hear it on a night you chose to swallow your father’s pills?”
Her memory came flooding back in fragments and pieces like vomit spewed from a baby’s mouth. A trembling hand pressed to lips and smothered a gasp. “My father’s pills,” she sobbed, dropping her head to stare at her open hand. She remembered now, and shame for what she put him through flooded through her body. “I-I was not in my proper mind,” she cried, with regret.
He settled his hands on her shoulders, urging her to face him. “Do you have any notion of what could have happened if I hadn’t gone to your chamber? Do you even care?”
The hurt in his eyes was more than she could bear, but it didn’t impede her next biting words. “A person needs to have a fraction of joy in their lives, Jaylon. They-they need to have something to look forward to or know matters are going to get better,” she whispered in a fractured voice. “I have lost so much, and I am tired of the constant pain... death seemed like the only...”
He drew her quickly to him, smothering her words. “Don’t,” he whispered against her hair. “You have me. You will always have me.”
An abrupt tap on the door interrupted their solitude, causing Jaylon to swear under his breath. “Not now, Geoffry, he shouted towards the door, as he worked to preserve his hold on Aniela.
The door flung open, and Camille inserted herself into the chamber. “Oh, here you are, Jaylon,” she gushed with a fraudulent smile and large warning eyes. Her arms made a quick gesturing motion for them to separate; then, she craned her neck back out the doorway. “See, I told you he would be in here, Elizabeth.”
The two of them parted like the Red Sea, and Jaylon swore under his breath for the millionth time today. He watched Aniela step towards the window, wiping tears from her eyes, and he wanted more than anything to pull her back into his arms.
“I swear it’s crazy how this family seeks to hold the noble high ground,” Elizabeth’s complaints echoed from the corridor. When she stepped over the threshold, she came to an abrupt halt while her eyes flitted between the two of them. “Well, isn’t this cozy?” she declared with a sarcastic tone. “Will you stop at nothing to shame me, Jaylon?”
His eyes rolled to the ceiling in disgust. “What are you doing here, Lizy?”
A groan flowed from her lips. “What am I doing here?” she spat in response. “Shouldn’t I be the one asking this question, Jaylon? I mean, how can I be the one at fault here when my husband hasn’t been home for two consecutive nights? Is it suddenly wrong to show up searching for him?”
His eyes settled on Aniela, but he spoke to his sister. “Can you escort Lizy to the door for me, Camille? Aniela and I are presently in the midst of something,” he urged.
“No,” Aniela blurted, spinning around. She wiped the last of her tears and headed for the door. “You stay, Elizabeth. I will go.”
“Aniela,” Jaylon called to her retreating form, attempting to stop her.
Turning to stare at him, Aniela’s eyes pooled once more. “It’s okay, Jaylon,” she said in a weak voice. “Your wife wishes to spend time with you, so I will leave you two alone.”
Helplessly he watched her walk out the door, and he shifted to look at Camille.
She immediately sprung into action; no further direction was needed. “I will go with her,” Camille announced with a crooked smile. Then mouthed the words, I’m sorry to her brother as she skirted out the door.
Only silence prevailed in the study permeating between himself and Elizabeth.
She cleared her throat and stepped to settle before him. “I am your wife, Jaylon,” she said with a broken voice. “What were you planning on doing? Reside here until Jessie and Lucian return, and I am presumed to accept that decision?”
He turned his back, attempting to reign in his emotions. “Yes,” he returned, lifting his hand to rub the back of his neck.
“Well, I will not stand for this,” she gaffed in a pitched and almost hysterical voice. “You are my husband. It is not your obligation to be her protector.” She started to pace in front of him with her arms gesturing in the air. “You don’t think I didn’t notice the bruises on her neck? Have you even once considered she might have done that to herself to keep you here? Otherwise, how did the bruises get there? Why would anyone choose to harm her that way?”
For the first time in his life, Jaylon actually wanted to commit physical harm to a woman. “You need to leave Lizy,” he said coolly, recognizing his emotions were about to boil over. “And you need to leave NOW.”
Elizabeth rushed at him and folded her arms around him. “Please, Jaylon,” she pleaded, holding him tight. “Don’t do this to us or our marriage. We need each other, and you know we do.”
Striving to release her hold, he eventually pried her off his body. “I’m sorry Lizy, but this marriage is over,” he whispered, forcing her away. “I have already contacted a solicitor.”
Her shoulders squared, and a deviant smile suddenly curved across her pursed lips. “We were good together until she came back,” she sneered. “And we can be happy. You know we can.”
“No,” he sighed, shaking his head. “We can’t. I’m sorry, Lizy.” He watched the panic flit across her face.
“I will fight it then,” she announced, her voice threaded with bitterness. “It can be held in the courts for years. Let’s see how long Miss Aniela is prepared to wait for you.” Her eyes raked over him in mock disgust. “You are good, Sir Jaylon, but you’re not that good.” She spun on her heel to leave.
“I’m in love with her,” Jaylon blurted to her retreating form. He watched as Lizy hesitated and peered over her should at him; then, she quickly left, not again looking back.