Lord Daniel McDermott...
Upon approaching the waiting couple seated on the bench, Jaylon immediately caught the bored expression on Sir Daniel’s pale face. For some reason, it vexed him tremendously that his sister was indeed considering giving this fool the time of day. Earl or not, he felt she deserved better than this powdered wig simpleton.
Lifting his hand, Jaylon gave Camilla’s arm a consoling squeeze, prompting her to peer up at him with wide, unblinking eyes. He has never known her so apprehensive before, and it disturbed him more than he would prefer to admit.
They stopped before them, and Elizabeth ascended to her feet, preparing to greet them, while her brother, the Earl, rudely remained seated. “Good afternoon, Camille,” she purred, reaching for her to extend a cool and somewhat frigid embrace. Her eyes instantly extended to Jaylon. “I’m astonished to see you here and displaying an interest in your sister’s potential future.”
“As expected, it’s always a pleasure, Lizy,” Jaylon declared with a bow.
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “Is that how a devoted husband properly greets his wife?” she scowled as her eyes roamed over him.
Allotting her a shoulder shrug, he rolled his eyes and blandly declared, “It is on this day.”
Clearing his throat, Sir Daniel eventually rose to his feet, and he offered Jaylon his hand for a gentleman’s handshake.
When Jaylon felt Sir Daniels’s delicate skin held firmly in his hand, it caused him to think of Brydon; Lucian, and Jessie’s two-year-old son. Soft and smooth, making him wonder what kind of man Sir Daniel really was?
“It’s an honor to see you again, Sir Daniel,” Jaylon greeted with a bow. “It has been a long while since we saw each other last?”
Sir Daniel glanced up at Jaylon with bored and hooded eyes. “That’s not altogether accurate, Sir Jaylon,” he sniffed. “I believe you were at the Wittmere ball a couple of weeks ago, as was I.”
“Oh,” Jaylon responded with a crooked smile and a little surprised he would point that out. “My pardon, I must have missed seeing you there. I didn’t stay overly lo...”
“I noticed you there with Sir William’s daughter,” Sir Daniel suddenly cut in. “The lovely Lady Aniela, how is she fairing after the turbulent last few years she has had? Did she take her father’s death well? If I remember correctly, she was away when he passed; wasn’t she?”
Jaylon’s eyes narrow as he nodded his head, then he twisted to glance at Camille. “She fairs better every day; but, Lady Aniela and I did not attend the affair together,” he countered, correcting the Earl. “She and I happened to run into each other, and we chatted for a moment.”
Sir Daniel released a haughty laugh. “You chatted,” he echoed with a smirk. “Is that what they are calling it these days?”
Eyebrows sinking deeper, Jaylon squared his shoulders with increasing ire. “I am not certain I appreciate what you are implying, Sir Daniel. Miss Aniela Matthews is a lady. I will not have you discussing her like she is a common...”
“Come now, Jaylon,” Elizabeth interjected, snaking her arm into his. “Let’s leave these two alone so they can become further acquainted.”
Shaking off her persistence, Jaylon peered at Camille again with a building sense of unease. His inner self-poked at him to not leave his sister alone with this man as the hairs on his neck crept to attention.
Dismissing Jaylon, Sir Daniel pushed past him to settle in front of Camille. “How nice to see you again, Lady Camille,” he cooed, reaching for her hand. He planted a wet kiss on her knuckles. “You are a lovely diversion for this unbelievably boring day. Shall we stroll together?”
Smiling nervously, Camille’s voice caught in her throat. “I-I would be overjoyed,” her voice squeaked as she linked her arm through his.
But Jaylon stepped in, terminating their union, and seized his sister’s arm, escorting her away and out of hearing distance. “I think we should leave Camille,” he confided as he peered back over his shoulder at Sir Daniel.
“You are embarrassing me, Jaylon,” Camille gasped, wiggling her arm loose. “I am fine! Just remain here for our carriage to return.”
He hauled her back to him. “Camille,” he advised in a restrained whisper. “Something doesn’t feel right here.”
“Why?” she countered with a fraudulent smile. “Because he insulted Aniela? Come on Jaylon... that was a trivial transgression, and you know it.”
His jaw tensed as he sought to reign in his concerns. “Fine, you go, but if you are gone longer than an hour,” Jaylon announced in an intense whisper. “Sir Daniel will not appreciate it if I have to come searching the gardens for you.”
Wavering for a moment, Camille suddenly allotted Jaylon with one of her sweetest smiles; then, she spun and strode in Sir Daniels direction. “I will meet you back here in about an hour,” she called over her shoulder. When she approached Sir Daniel, he held out his arm, and she again linked her arm in his.
Elizabeth walked up to stand next to Jaylon, and they both regarded their sibling as they walked away. “I see the concern in your eyes, Jaylon,” she mused with mock interest. “I can assure you, my brother is harmless. Since his wife’s unfortunate death a few years ago, I have often wondered if he wasn’t more fond of the male physic over a woman’s.”
Crossing his arms at his chest, Jaylon spun to stare at her with wide eyes. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” she returned with a top lip curl. “But Daniel and I both know his sexual preference could scar his reputation. I recommended he marries again, and I advocated for your sister. You should both be thanking me because I wished to propose Lady Aniela as a potential bride, but I knew you would never have forgiven me.”
“You would be correct on that part,” Jaylon admitted, stepping away from her. “But I preferred you would have likewise left my sister out of it.”
Elizabeth rounded on him and her arms crossed on her chest. “Why?” she spat with indignation. “He is the Earl of Harrington Hall. It could be a glorious union for the two of them.”
“I am mindful of his title Elizabeth,” he countered with drawn eyes. “I don’t want Camille to wed this way. I know she will come to regret it and most likely begin to loathe her husband.”
“Why?” she asserted, walking to his side and lifting her arm to glide over his. “Because it’s the way you feel, Jaylon? Do you despise me so much?”
He exhaled and angled his eyes towards the cloudless sky. “I don’t despise you in the least bit, Lizy. Our circumstances just happened to have altered; that’s it.”
She laughed, rolling her eyes. “And Aniela is our one little hindering circumstance, isn’t she?”
Shaking his head, he glared at her. “She has nothing to do with any of this, Lizy. We should never have married. I know that now.”
“What we should have, or shouldn’t have done is moot now because we are married,” she insisted, eyeing his manly physic. “We had a remarkably passionate relationship once, and we can again if you would just concede to admit it. You can’t abolish our past, Jaylon, even if you hire a solicitor. Nothing will change.” Her hand stopped at his bicep, and she gave it a tender squeeze. “I plan to refute your claims for an annulment, so end this now because I have no intention of ever letting you go.”
Exhaling, Jaylon lifted his face to the sky once again and surrendered a deep guttural groan. “This was a mistake,” he sighed, lifting his hand to rub his temples. Turning his head, he glanced up the street, hoping to see if his carriage returning to pick them up.
Elizabeth tugged at his arm, making him look at her. “The only mistake here is you demanding to rekindle your relationship with her.”
He pushed her hand away. “I refuse to discuss Aniela one-second longer with you,” he countered, shifting his body in hopes Camille was returning from her stroll.
But Elizabeth couldn’t be dissuaded. She circled his body and stood before him again. “Don’t discuss her then, Jaylon,” she sneered. “Do you really believe it matters not to me? I wish Lady Aniela would have never come back or that she never was able to escape the evil man who...”
He swung on her suddenly. “Don’t you dare say it,” Jaylon seethed, seizing her arm and yanking her to him?
Shocked by his anger, Elizabeth struggled for a moment, then leaned onto him with a weak smile. “Let go of me, Jaylon.”
“Do you even understand the kind of horrors she went through by the hands of this depraved man?” he raged. “As a woman, I am appalled by your lack of empathy for her.”
“Lack of empathy,” she snorted with wide eyes. She pulled her arm free from his grasp, then hoisted her finger and wielded it in front of his face. “Don’t make me out to be the one who did wrong here, Jaylon. I am not the one gallivanting around the city with another man for all eyes to see while still married to you.”
Jaylon had heard enough of her tirade and shifted around, presenting his back to her.
He was done with her and her selfish rants. His sole chance for peace at this moment was to pray Camille would return soon and relieve him of this annoyance. “I am not debating this matter with you any longer,” he murmured, recognizing there was no getting through to her. “The subject of Aniela is closed off to you, and I don’t want to hear her name on your lips again. Is that clear, Lizy?”
“You are going to regret someday that you dismissed me so entirely,” she chortled, to his back.
He peered at her over his shoulder. “Keep up your idle threats, Lizy,” he retorted flatly. “It matters not to me.” He heard the soft shuffling of Camille’s skirts, and he shifted to see her walking towards them. She was alone and seemed to be in a hurry.
Her face appeared pale, with a hint of rose color on her cheeks. Jaylon walked down the pathway to meet her, and as he did so, he puzzled over why Sir Daniel wasn’t with her.
As he strode towards her, Jaylon immediately noticed the muffled appearance of her hair, and it induced him a moment of hesitation. One fact he knew with absolute authority from growing up with Camille was her hair had invariably been her vanity focal point for most of her life. It was never out of place or mussed as it appeared now.
As she grew closer, it became clear that she was indeed angry and on a mission to leave.
“Where is the carriage,” she said, laboring to catch her breath from her brisk walk up the pathway? “I desire to leave without delay.” She stopped beside Jaylon and fretted with her jacket and hair, seeking to ensure everything was back in place.
Jaylon’s eyes flitted from her to the walkway, expecting for Sir Daniel to emerge at any time behind her, but he didn’t, and his concern grew. “Aniela and Harlow haven’t as yet returned,” he said with raised eyebrows. “Are you okay? Because you present to be a little...”
“Where is my brother?” Elizabeth interjected, grabbing Camille’s arm and whirling her around. “Why isn’t he with you?”
Yanking herself free from Lizy’s grasp, Camille smirked with a flat voice. “Your brother is a swine. You will encounter him laying by a large tree down the pathway.” She eyed Elizabeth with a cool demeanor. “At least that’s where I left him.”
Elizabeth’s mouth gaped open. “What?”
Jaylon touched her arm, prompting her to glance at him as his eyes traveled over her torso. “What happened? Did he harm you?”
She shook her head, and her hand rose to the missing button on her jacket. “He thought he was entitled to take a few liberties that I didn’t agree to,” she jeered, trying to sound brave. She twisted and faced Elizabeth. “Apparently, your brother does not understand the meaning of the word no.”
“What did you do to him?” Elizabeth urged, craning her head to seeking to see better down the walkway.
Clearing her throat, Camille raised her eyes to the sky. “I have always recognized from growing up with a brother, the swiftest means to deal with a man doing wrong to you is to kick him in the...” she paused, uncertain if she actually required to finish. Her confession caused her face to burn red, and she shifted back to Jaylon. “I desire to leave. Can we please go?”
Elizabeth issued an exasperated groan and swung away from them to go find her ailing brother.
Once she was out of hearing distance, Jaylon set his hands on his sister’s stiff shoulders. “What happened, Camille? Are you certain he didn’t hurt you?” To his surprise, she sighed and leaned into him, setting her forehead onto his chest. When she began to shake with uncontrolled sobs, his arms folded around her.
“Sir Daniel is an awful, vile man,” she sniffed into his chest. “I-I should have listened to you, Jaylon. Thank goodness you came with me; otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done.”
He pried her away from his torso to search into her eyes. “What did he do to you, Camille?”
Shaking her head, she couldn’t bring forth the words. “I just want to go back to Aniela’s home,” she whispered, peering down at her shaking hands.
Looking up the street, Jaylon could hear the echo of an approaching carriage. He prayed it was Aniela and Harlow returning to pick them up.
But as it drew closer, he recognized it as one of his own carriages, but it wasn’t the same one that had earlier dropped them off.
A distinct unease swept over him as he watched the horse pull up and gradually come to a standstill.
Harlow was on his feet, getting ready to leap out when Jaylon flung the door opened.
Peering past him, Jaylon noticed Aniela was not seated inside. He watched Harlow jump to the ground. Jaylon grabbed the front of his jacket and yanked him aggressively to his body. “Where is Aniela?”
Eyes flitting from one to the other, Harlow placed his hands on top of Jaylon’s, prying himself loose. “We should go,” Harlow pitched. “I-I will explain on our way back.” He sighed a gasp of relief when Jaylon released him, then he reached for Camille and boosted her into the carriage.
Once seated inside, again, Harlow’s eyes flitted back and forth between them, and he noted Camille’s muffed appearance. “I can see your afternoon went as smoothly as mine,” he said with a nervous snort.
Leaning back in his seat, Jaylon’s eyes raked over him. “I am about two seconds away from coming over there and imposing physical harm to you,” he declared with an eerily calm voice. “why must I repeat myself? Where is Aniela?”
“Okay,” Harlow started, lifting his hands in a surrendering gesture. “Before you become angry with me, just know, she is home and safe at Matthew’s Hall.”
“Why is she there and not with you?” Jaylon demanded in a coarse tone.
Harlow gulped. “W-we had a minor incident,” he sputtered, with growing anxiety. “I mean, how was anybody to know we would see this woman there?”
Camille looked between them. “Jaylon, you need to take a deep breath,” she urged. “Your tone is undoubtedly causing Harlow discomfort, and he’s having difficulty explaining.”
Cool eyes drifted to Camille. “I will allow you a little latitude here, dear sister because you haven’t had the best afternoon yourself,” Jaylon said with a composure he didn’t feel. “So please, be quiet and allow Harlow to explain. Please.” He stared at her until she nodded her concession; then he shifted his gaze back to Harlow.
Appearing suddenly pale, Harlow sat up straight, seeking to present himself as brave. “Well,... Aniela and I went to the boutique as you instructed us,” he declared, gesturing towards Camille. “We talked to the lady in charge... I wasn’t properly introduced, so I’m uncertain what her name is.”
“Miss Tamara or Miss...?” Camille halted before she could finish because of the steady glare she received from Jaylon.
Harlow nodded. “Y-yes,” he stammered with a sudden alertness and pointing at her. “I believe Aniela had called her Miss Tamara.” He fidgeted in his seat, and his eyes flitted between them. “While Aniela and I waited for Miss Tamara to prepare the garments for travel, she and I watched through the window as some children created a ruse to steal from a woman on the street below.”
Jaylon leaned back in his seat, grumbling in frustration. “I don’t care about beggars out in the street Harlow. I only care why Aniela isn’t here with us right now. Do you understand?”
Even with the chill of the day, Harlow could feel the cool sweat drip down his back in between his shoulder blades. “B-but that’s what I am trying to explain,” his voice pitched. “We were observing these juveniles, and they stole a silk handkerchief from this unsuspecting woman.”
Reaching across to the opposite seat, Jaylon clutched Harlow by the collar of his jacket. “If I have to repeat myself one more time,” he whispered inches from Harlow’s face. “What happened to Aniela?”
Gulping down his anxiety, Harlow squeaked, “T-the woman the boys stole from, she turned around, and Aniela freaked out.”
Pulling away, Jaylon released him. “What do you mean? Who was she?”
“I-I don’t know?” Harlow blurted, again looking between them. “I never saw her before.”
“Well, how do you know her reaction was over this woman?” Camille asked, setting her hand on Jaylon’s knee in hopes of placating him.
“Because, when the woman turned around, Aniela rushed out of the boutique trying to find her in the crowd,” Harlow explained. “She kept repeating she needed to help her.”
With drawn eyes, Jaylon again leaned back in his seat. “Why would Aniela desired to help her?”
Harlow shrugged his shoulders. “I-I don’t know.”
“Did she mention anything else?” Camille asked. “Or give you a reason?”
Glancing down at his hands, Harlow shook his head. “No,” he responded. Then he turned to Jaylon. “I’m sorry. I pledged to look after her, and I let you down.”
“She is untouched?” Jaylon inquired. “Is she not?”
Harlow again bowed his head. “She has had no physical harm done to her, but...”
“Then what are you talking about?” Jaylon interjected, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Why apologize if she is unharmed?”
He moved to speak, but instead, his mouth gaped wide, half afraid to proclaim his next statement. “B-because,” Harlow gulped down his dread. “Because she collapsed on the street before I could get her inside the carriage.”
“What?” Both Jaylon and Camille exclaimed at the same time.
“How horrible,” Camille gasped into her hand.
Jaylon leaned forward, and he stared at Harlow. “Why would she collapse over a woman she didn’t know?”
“Oh, she knew her,” Harlow adamantly insisted. “If I am positive of anything, it’s that.”
Shaking his head, Jaylon lifted a hand to rub his forehead. “If she didn’t give you a name, did she reveal anything at all?”
Looking down, Harlow tapped his hands on his knees, trying to recall; then abruptly, he sat up straight and pointed at Jaylon. “Yes,” he exclaimed with wide eyes. “She kept repeating this word that made little sense to me. What is a Meetza?”
Jaylon sat up like a shock wave had hurled him forward and grabbed Harlow again. “Are you telling me Meetza is who Aniela saw on the street?”
Trying to pull away, Harlow nodded his head. “If Meetza is a woman,” he confirmed. “Then, yes. Aniela saw her on the street.”
Releasing him, Jaylon sat back in his seat, and his face fell. “My God,” he whispered in disbelief. “Why would she be here?”
Camille leaned over to touch his leg again. “Who is she, Jaylon?”
He peered at his sister, unable to immediately answer her. His mind raced with every probable reason why this woman would be in Cheshire, and none of them were good. Dazed and unblinking, Jaylon lifted his hand to rub the back of his neck. “Was Meetza alone?” he asked in a flat tone.
Shrugging his shoulders, Harlow thought about it for a moment. “From what I can recall,” he returned. “She appeared to be alone, but I honestly couldn’t say for certain.”
The silence lingered inside the carriage until Jaylon turned and opened the narrow window behind him to converse with the driver. After instructing him to make haste, the carriage lurched forward and picked up speed.
Eyeing her brother, she waited for him to divulge how he knew who this woman was when he didn’t, Camille cleared her throat, “Are you even going to try to explain anything to us?”
Jaylon’s eyes narrowed. “How can I explain when I wasn’t there?”
“But you appear to know who this Meetza is,” Camille stated, cocking her head. “So, who is she, Jaylon?”
Raising his hands, they ran down his face as he sighed with foreboding. “She was there the day Aniela escaped her captor. Meetza actually helped her, even when she knew it would be detrimental to herself,” he finally revealed. “Anything other than that, I am not positive about yet.”
A solace settled over the carriage, and they stared at each other, letting the silence permeate between them.
Pulling his gaze from them, Jaylon slid to the window to redirect his raging thoughts on the landscape passing by. But nothing could ease his mind until he was able to look into Aniela’s eyes.