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Tabitha

By DarkLadyAthara All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Fantasy

.III.

I am free. Free of my mother. Free of her tyranny. And I have been for over four whole years, now.

And it has been a pleasant four years simply because she isn’t ruling my every waking moment, my every waking thought, my every reaction, my every feeling. It is a freedom I have craved ever since I was a girl, even after I left home for the Meyer Estate. There I had her agent, my governess Miss Bonner, parroting every single sort of criticism and instruction Mother would have lain upon me. Then I was home again and back under Mother’s immediate control.

Now I’m not. She’s not here.

I suppose being married isn’t precisely being free, but here in my house, I feel lighter without my Mother’s oppressive presence. Sure, I get letters, long and as intensive as a book with instruction and reminder and criticism. But unlike when she is in my presence, where I cannot escape her cutting tongue and critical eyes, here in my house, I am free to ignore her instructions. And, unlike when I was under Miss Bonner’s supervision, I don’t even have to read her missives if I don’t wish it. I need not give her a say in how I run my house. I smile at the thought.

My house.

Mine.

Really, it is Josef’s, but it feels like mine. It is a modest manor—twelve bedrooms, a great hall that also serves as the formal dining room when the occasion calls, two sitting rooms, two drawing rooms and a parlour, nine fireplaces, a decent library; its almost a mansion, really—but it is mine to direct as I please. I’m sure the staff initially thought I was overbearing and demanding, but I could care less, then as I still do now. I am in control here. They learned quickly enough, and once they understood what I intended, many of them rather rose to the occasion. I do believe I learned rather quickly myself, for I am not too proud to admit that there was much I didn’t actually know about running my own household when I first arrived here. But the Steward, Mr. Hummel, has proven himself most helpful, and though he was perhaps a little put off by my constant hovering and questions at first, and a little put off now at the level of control I insist upon holding myself instead of leaving to him, he is still a great deal more instructive than my Mother or her Steward ever were.

But I truly do love being the Mistress of my own house! That aspect alone is enough to let me enjoy being married.

The other aspect, actually being married, I like less so. Oh, Josef is a decent enough husband, but I feel like I really mean very little to him. I am a duty, a vessel for him to get heirs on and someone to look to his home so he does not have to. I’m little more than a steward to him who must also bear him children. We really have very little to do with each other save at some meals, when we have guests and when we must attend to our marital duties. Mother keeps chiding me for not having borne my husband his heir yet, but that particular duty seems to be more of a chore than anything else for both of us.

As I had anticipated, the wedding night was the worst part of that day. I was already dreading it, and I am begrudgingly certain that that fact didn’t help in the least. Thankfully, my Mother-in-law thought to ask me if I knew what had to happen in my marriage bed. Truthfully, I didn’t, not really, and luckily, I think, she saw that in my face.

Mother had told me only that I wouldn’t like it, but that I must do as my husband demanded and that I would have to endure it like all wives must. She said nothing else on the matter. It fell to Lady Amherst to fill me in on what was actually expected of me.

It wasn’t as bad as Mother had implied, but it was not pleasant, regardless. And it really has not improved much in the handful of years since. My mother-in-law had hinted that it would become more bearable, possibly even enjoyable, as Josef and I grew to know each other, but I suspect that without the emotional bond most married couples seem to develop, my own husband and I are unlikely to experience that.

I had few hopes going into this, Mother made sure of that. I know that love like you hear about in stories is rare, if not an outright myth, so I had no illusions that I would find a love like that with Josef. But I had hoped at least that by now there would be a little tenderness between my husband and me; a little affection that marks our relationship as different than that of mere acquaintance.

It is disappointing.

It is disheartening.

The part that hurts me most is that I think I may be developing feelings for him regardless of his apathy. My heart sometimes beats a little faster when I see him and there are times when I can’t help but smile when he looks at me.

Is it possible to have an unrequited affection for one’s husband? I don’t know, but sometimes it feels that way. I try not to think on it too much.

Instead I look to my house and my duties. I take care of guests when we have them; a frequent occurrence, especially in summer and autumn as my husband and most of his closest acquaintances are avid sportsmen. I have grown quite proud of the fact that my skills as a hostess have developed to the point where we are beginning to host visitors who come for my reputation, rather than the reputation of Josef as the consummate sportsman and carefree courtier, or our Manor as a prime hunting retreat. That has to be enough to give me pleasure. And I will own that it does give me pleasure. I am immensely pleased that I have carved out a humble but quickly growing place for myself in the social hierarchy of our Kingdom. I am a rising star. I am easily the most popular lady in the county, and am quickly growing to be one of the most popular ladies in our little corner of the Kingdom, and possibly the whole of it. The simple constraint of space at our Manor that limited how many guests I could host has given way to the perception that my events and parties are exclusive, and a place on my guest-list is becoming a coveted privilege. There are few whom I would prefer not to have visit; Mother, of course, and her unpleasant husband…

…and Richard.

I don’t know how I would handle Richard being a guest. I have not seen him since leaving the Meyer Estate, and certainly not since my marriage. Mother made absolutely certain that the Treslers were not at my wedding, to the point where I have heard rumours circulating that a veritable feud has developed between my Mother and Baron and Lady Tresler. And given the developments since my wedding, that is certainly not a good thing for my Mother’s ambition.

Barely a year into my own marriage, our Kingdom was rocked by the news that our King had his eye caught by one Lady Yolande Tresler, and within months had married my old companion. Much of the Court was delighted; in this King’s Court they love a good romance, it seems, and the King’s courtship and marriage has since been likened to something out of a fairy story. Needless to say, the Treslers have since found themselves rising very high indeed, much to my Mother’s chagrin.

If part of me wasn’t so unhappy and upset by the news, I would be laughing for the sheer irony of it! Mother refused to marry me to Richard because his family was too low, in her esteem, with little ambition and fewer real prospects. Now, with his sister Yolande married to the young King, Richard is our monarch’s brother-in-law and has apparently become rather a close friend and confidant to King Aldric. I can’t say such a thing really surprises me in the least. Richard has always been companionable and charming and has always had a great ease in making and keeping friends with what always seemed to me very little effort; I have always had a much harder time of it, and find it takes a great deal of work and effort to affect the same easy-going charm and charisma that Richard has always had naturally. So no, it does not surprise me in the slightest that the King was drawn to him as a friend. Word is that he is likely to be made a Count, in honour of his rumoured position as the newborn Prince’s Godfather and Uncle. He could possibly even become a Duke one day.

I imagine mother is fuming; that thought alone gave me pleasure when I heard the news.

It allowed me to smile and offer up words of congratulations and well wishes in honour of the royal couple when in company. It makes it fractionally easier to pretend that a little part of me wasn’t crushed upon realizing that, had I been permitted to marry Richard, both Mother’s ambition and my happiness might very well have been achieved.

I try not to dwell on that.

But it is hard not to, especially in these early March morning minutes when I am working to convince myself that I need to get out of my lovely warm bed with it’s rose-coloured down comforter and start on my tasks and duties of the day. Especially given that I know the instant I sit up, not only will the air be unbearably chilled despite the healthy fire my maid has built up, but my head will spin and my stomach will twist and lurch as though I was bouncing along in a farmer’s wagon. But get up I must, and so I pull myself from my covers, thinking I have sufficiently prepared myself for the challenge my stomach is likely to offer.

I haven’t.

Even as my body rebels against keeping the contents of my stomach where they are meant to be, I am steadfast in my purpose to begin my day, no matter that sleeping for another hour or two sounds—and feels—infinitely more preferable. It is an old argument. For nearly two weeks now I have woken to the same battle against my equilibrium in my effort to begin my day.

I don’t let a troubled stomach keep me from getting out of bed. It is a long borne habit. I had to be truly sick for Mother to believe that I was not feigning illness. Colds were nothing, to her mind, but a lack of will power—I have endeavoured my whole life under Mother’s instruction to teach myself not to sniffle too much when plagued with a head cold—and headaches are to be endured. It was impossible to convince my Mother I was truly suffering from a headache, even when I was wavering on my feet and almost unable to walk.

It was only if I was unable to move, with a dangerously high fever or spots or some other serious—and visible—malady that Mother would grant that perhaps bed rest was warranted, and only then when a physician had confirmed that I was indeed ill.

Even at the Meyer’s, I was not beyond the reach of Mother’s opinions, my governess holding me to my Mother’s beliefs for her. Neither of them wanted me to get lazy, Bonner said, and license to lie down or fail to rise at all for a trifling discomfort, as she put it, was the height of poor character. The Meyers and the Treslers were far more compassionate, Lady Meyer shrilly ordering my governess to take me back to bed when I presented myself to her parlour white as a ghost and visibly dizzy from the strength of a particularly bad headache.

That didn’t stop Bonner from lecturing me on my laziness as she grudgingly put me back to bed.

So no, a slightly upset stomach is of little consequence to me anymore.

Especially as I suspect it is a sign that I have been long awaiting over the course of my four years of marriage. I have a local midwife of good repute due to visit me this afternoon to confirm my suspicions. It will be a relief of sorts if I am proven correct and I am indeed pregnant…at least then I will have a respite from Mother’s constant harassment about why I have not given my husband an heir yet.

I’ve never really thought much on the prospect of becoming a mother. Oh, I knew it would eventually happen; “it is a wife and a woman’s duty, no matter how distasteful” as Mother has often repeated. I suppose if I truly had a choice, I might have abstained from the responsibility. There seemed little appeal to the idea. It was always something to me that just had to be done. And with my own Mother in as my shining example of motherhood? It has not made me particularly keen for the experience. Even with Lady Meyer and Lady Amherst to provide me with a somewhat more balanced example of motherhood, I was still not particularly anxious to take up my duty and bear children.

But now? As I realize that this procreative eventuality may actually have happened? Now that I’ve had a chance to actually come to terms with the fact that I am quite possibly going to be a mother? A warm feeling lights in my chest at the thought of holding my own baby, my own little child. I find I am growing rather excited by the prospect, or at least, notably less anxious about it than I was before I began to suspect a pregnancy. Oh it is not certain yet, I have yet to have my condition confirmed, so I try not to get my hopes up, which is an odd concept in and of itself.

One thing is certain and that is that I have no intention of being to my theoretical children what my Mother was, is, to me: a tyrant, a tormentor. I will model my behaviour as a mother on that of Lady Meyer: firm, demanding, but fair in a way my Mother has never been. A balance of disciplinarian and teacher.

But I will not become my Mother in this.

I will not become my Mother in any aspect.

“I swear it,” I promise to the tiny life I am hoping is growing in my belly, not even realizing at first that the thought had escaped the confines of my mind until I hear my own whispering voice.

My musing is interrupted when my lady’s maid, Gina, comes in with my breakfast. Holding back a sigh, I go to stand, only to have a wave of dizziness overtake me. As I close my eyes, trying to order the wave of nausea away, I feel Gina at my side, her hand tentative against my shoulder. Peaking over at her out of the corner of my eye, I shoot her a faint look of aggravation, and she responds back with a knowing glance of her own. I can’t help but sigh. I know she means well, but I am so used to taking care of myself that having her jumping to help me when I don’t think I need it is a little bit aggravating, especially when she insists she has my best interests at heart.

I didn’t expect to take to Gina as well as I did, and I certainly wasn’t expecting her to take to me so quickly. But she’s become quite protective of me in the last couple years, something I am quietly grateful for; it wouldn’t be appropriate to be overly demonstrative, especially as she is my servant. But I have found that, for being as popular as I have become, I am admittedly lonely. I wasn’t raised to have friends. I had Richard, and I suspect that was more his doing than mine.

It does not take long to dress and ready myself, though a brief struggle with the buttons on my bodice means that it takes longer than usual—it’s something that both annoys and amuses me.

My morning tasks are dull, but necessary. I go over menus for the week, talk to my steward and housekeeper about any anticipated guests—none this week, so far—and oversee some of the daily household chores just to satisfy my personal resolve on making sure my household is being run properly. Before I know it, my morning has whiled away and it is nearly time for luncheon. I am already growing tired, but I push the feeling back. The day is barely half over.

Walking into the dining room, I am faintly surprised to see Josef already sitting at the table, lounging in his chair with his long legs out before him crossed at the ankles, reading his paper while he waits for me to join him. It is a change of pace. Usually, I am the one waiting for him to appear, so seeing him waiting for me is different.

“Husband,” I greet him. He peers over his paper at me as he turns the page, the corner of his mouth tilting up as he returns my greeting: “Tabitha.” As I head for my seat, he straightens in his chair, folding his paper and setting it aside. Without needing any sort of gesture or instruction, the footmen begin bringing in our meal. I smile to myself with satisfaction at the efficiency I have insisted on.

Just then, as Josef and I are sitting down to our luncheon, a footman comes hurrying in, a letter held before him as he marches straight for my husband. That fact alone is enough to cause me to frown with concern. It must be truly urgent, for in running my household I have been diligent to ensure that it is run in a respectable and fashionable manner. Convention dictates that the boy should have borne the letter to his Master on one of the letter trays that I procured on the advice of my Mother-in-law, Lady Amherst. Our little Manor may be nearly a backwater place, but thanks to my direction, it is run to higher standards than any old country house.

Josef’s Manor, or really his father’s secondary house in the northeast part of the kingdom, had come to be little more than a hunting manor. Lady Amherst told me on one of her visits that traditionally the Viscount’s heir would set up and keep his household in the smaller Manor as his personal residence as a prelude to one day inheriting the entirely of the Amherst Estates. But, she had told me, in the last few generations the practice had lapsed, as the smaller property was farther away from heart of the Kingdom, and most heirs had a desire and sometimes a necessity to be near the King’s Court. As such, the Manor itself had been all but relegated to that of a hunting residence, that is, until Josef decided to take it up as his own residence. I imagine its status as his family’s Hunting Manor had more to do with that decision than any desire on his part to revive old traditions.

That the young footman didn’t take the time to do things properly irritates me, but studying the look on his face causes me to pause.

Looking neither eager nor enthusiastic in his anxiousness, the boy nearly thrusts the letter into Josef’s hand. For a brief moment, he looks as though he’d like nothing better than to run off. A pointed glance from me keeps him standing discreetly several steps behind my husband’s chair as he has been instructed, reassuring me that he has not intentionally forgotten his duties. It seems only incidental that Josef makes a small gesture for the boy to stay as well.

As he opens the letter carefully, it is only Josef’s furrowed brow that shows he is suddenly worried by what it contains. My husband may not be quite so preoccupied as I am with what is proper and what is fashionable in running a household, but he is aware of how things should be done; it is one thing I am pleased Lady Amherst managed to impress upon her son; he certainly is a well-bred and properly mannered nobleman. He is not dull, nor stupid, nor oblivious as many young men of his rank and position that I’ve encountered are. That is, admittedly, something that does give me a measure of comfort in this arrangement. He knows something is off by the way the footman is behaving, just as I do.

The way his face pales as he reads the letter confirms my suspicion that it is indeed urgent, and unpleasant, news. But he is silent. My hand creeps to my belly, but I force it back to the table, momentarily surprised by the impulse. I watch as his eyes dart back and forth over the letter a second and third time before his blue gaze stills, staring blankly at the page. I judge that it isn’t a long letter, but it is distressing.

I shift forward slightly in my seat, laying my hand on the table near his. I don’t presume to take it.

“My Lord husband?” I probe tentatively, “it is ill news?” I say it as a question, but it is obvious to all it is bad news that he has received. Josef starts, as though he had forgotten I was there. He blinks heavily, getting his thoughts in order before answering me.

“Yes,” he clears his throat when his first attempt comes out too quiet, “yes, it is ill news indeed. My father has died; a stroke, Mother believes. It would seem that I am now to be Viscount Amherst.” I am stunned by the news—Viscount Amherst, sorry, the Late Viscount seemed such a healthy and vigorous man for his age—but I manage to withhold the extent of my surprise. I can feel my eyes widen before I can stop them, but I manage to keep my jaw from gaping open like a fish. Josef says it with almost no inflection at all. I can barely tell how it is he feels by his voice. There is a strain of sadness there, but no hint of gratification that the title is now his. It surprises me a little; I have become used to the idea that Noblemen’s sons inherently covet their fathers’ titles. Lord knows, enough of Josef’s companions are thus.

On an impulse, I reach my fingers forward, taking my husband’s hand. I can sympathize a little, at least, with his pain; though it has been a great many years now, I still miss my own Papa, and I get the impression from the grief-stricken look in my husband’s eyes that he cared for his father much as I cared for mine. After a moment, his fingers curl around mine.

“I am sorry, Josef,” I offer simply. He looks up and, even through his grief, I feel like he is actually seeing me for the first time since we entered into this arrangement. His eyes are wide as he looks at me, his bloodless face making them look starkly vivid. After a moment he clears his throat, his gaze dropping from mine back down to the letter he still has clutched in his fingers. His knuckles are nearly white.

“The funeral is to be held in three days time. We should just—if we leave in the morning we will be there in time. It will also give us time to begin organizing ourselves to move. The Viscount’s Manor is mine now along with my Fath—my Father’s title; it is only appropriate that I take up residence there.” He stammers at mention of his inheritance, unable to process the reality just yet that it is his because his Father is dead. I lift my chin by a fraction. He will come to terms with this change in circumstance soon enough. Until then, I decide that I will take charge.

“Of course, husband,” I respond softy, making sure to keep my voice low and soothing, “I will see to the arrangements.” A twinge of pain on his behalf vibrates in my chest. I may not love him, but it does affect me to see him like this. His fingers tighten for a moment on mine before he pulls away. Taking a steadying breath he stands, setting his napkin aside with a deliberate air. We’d barely been able to eat more than a few bites or our meal, but he has evidently lost his appitite. Drawing away from the table, Josef gets to his feet and makes for the doorway, looking to me as though he is fleeing the news even though the letter is still gripped tightly in his hand.

“Excuse me,” he says, remembering his manners just before he exits the room, “I find I have letters I must write before the day is out.” With a short, distracted nod in my direction, he turns on his heel and strides out into the hallway.

I sit at the table, alone but for the footmen standing by the door acting as though they aren’t there, for the longest time, running what just happened over and over again in my mind. I am a Viscountess, now, I realize belatedly. The act of fate that took my husband’s father from him has made me a Viscountess. Though the thought of my husband’s pain is sobering, I fight the small grin that tries to appear on my face. It wouldn’t do for the servants to catch sight of and gossip over any apparent pleasure on my part at my husband’s sorrow. I had not thought to gain such a title for many years yet. Mother would be pleased. She was forever ranting in her letters to me that I had not accumulated enough influence to suit her yet, no matter my entreaties that there was only so much I could do in my current position. But this? Gaining a new title would surely grant me some reprieve from her denigrations…at least on the front of influence.

Gathering my thoughts from where they are beginning to stray, I stand, discreetly steadying myself against the table as a faint wave of dizziness makes a brief appearance before making my way to see Mr. and Mrs. Hummel, the Steward and the Housekeeper. There is a great deal to be done, and not a lot of time in which to do it.


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