Dearest readers, I apologize for my absence, I realize I say that to you far too much but this story will be finished one way or another. I know it has been some time and this is little for that amount of waiting, my intention is to remain steadfast and continue to write, hopefully I will have the next chapter by Monday of next week, at the latest it will be Friday. I appreciate the readers that are still harassing me about the story, it means I did well enough to be remembered.
For the dedicated reader this bit doesn't have any sex in it, and for that I suppose I should apologize, but it does touch on Clara's internal struggle and the emotions have been amped up for this particular bit. There will be action in the next one, though it may not go in the direction you might think ;)
I am excited to tell you this tale will come to an end and then I hope to continue Snow White's journey, though I intend to make some changes to that one before I get too far along as I did with this. The story of Clara is as much a journey of learning as it is a hobby so please give me your feedback.
As always, happy reading - WH
The room is abuzz with conversation, a smaller crowd than yesterday but still large enough to give me pause, if it weren't for Ander's hand on my back I wouldn't be able to move. I catch Amelia's gaze and it takes all my resolve to keep the emotions from painting my face, by the steely resolve forming in my gut I manage to drag my gaze from hers. I see a smile curve her lips, perhaps she believes Ander punished me for my behavior... I cut off the thoughts before they can take hold, I won't obsess over her, I do not have the time to worry what she thinks nor will I waste the space in my mind on such useless chatter.
To my extreme relief, the only available chairs are far from Amelia, I end up seated next to a blond woman in an exquisite green dress, her hair is arranged so intricately I can't imagine how early she must have woken up to have it done. Conversation flows gently through the room, everyone tosses in compliments about Amelia's home, strategically playing the game to earn her favor. I glance at her to find her laughing with the men seated near her, the men are watching her closely, perhaps hoping to earn her approval or maybe they are even trying to woo her. She is wearing a gold dress today, the cut is a bit less revealing with long sleeves but any dress would look elegant on her, just like the woman beside me her hair is done so perfectly I wonder what they must think of my untamed black mess of hair.
Her dark eyes flash up to mine, the world freezes, her smile is still plastered across her face but her eyes brighten when she sees me. There is a certain quality to her gaze, as if she is pleased to see me, but that can't be right, there has to be some other explanation for that expression being directed at me; something about it sends a chill down my spine. Amelia breaks the moment when the man beside her says something that makes her burst into laughter, I drop my gaze to the plate before me and try to still my overactive nerves, I want more than anything to leave this nightmare behind. I glance up at Ander, he is chatting with the woman next to him, his tone low and formal, I wonder deep down if I should bother continuing this, will this relationship be worth all the biting comments, the secretive backstabbing, the drama that accompanies mingling with the upper class?
This day will not be the last I am subjected to their scrutiny, there will always be others, and perhaps he will take me to more parties, perhaps he will dangle me upon his arm as his well-behaved little treat... I tremble at the very idea of it. I look away from him and try to keep the desperation from coloring my features, it is far too late to leave this particular situation but if I am honest with myself there is only pain ahead of me. Whether he loves me forever or I end up being a fling, this will always cause me pain, the sideways glances, the stinging comments, and no matter the situation I will be obligated to be presentable. Doubts flood my mind so fully I barely notice the food being placed on the table, I can't even focus on the plate in front of me, let alone the strangers surrounding me.
A few answered questions doesn't tell me who Ander is, a few weeks ago I hadn't even known him and now? A touch at my shoulder causes me to jump, I look up to find Ander staring down at me, his expression dark with concern, "Clara are you not hungry?"
I drop my eyes and dig into the food before me, it is flavorless on my tongue, flowing down my throat into the twisting mass of my gut. A dark fear has eaten its way inside of me, but what must I do to escape such thoughts? Why must my life continue to erupt into insanity? I hate eating the food from this house, basically eating from the hand of my enemy, my gaze cuts to Amelia her lips spread in that awful smile. It may as well be carved upon her perfect face... I look away before someone notices, no, I cannot give them any reason to pay me any mind, they are content to watch me pretend to be important, but if they believe I think of myself as such I will be broken down. I take a deep breath and focus on making it through the meal.
Conversations continue all around me, very few words are spared on me, and it is a deep relief to have the time to try to compose myself but I would need an eternity to carve through the emotions trying to overwhelm me, if anything the time is merely used to stow away the confusion, to pretend. I am so tired of pretending...
Smiles in the right places, timid laughter twinkling through the proper sentences, body language perfected to please the audience keeps the meal running smoothly. Amelia seems to be disinterested in me, as if I am not worth her time, or perhaps... I sneak a sideways glance at Ander and wonder if he spoke with her, if he decided to threaten her, to reprimand her... The thought sends a thrill up my spine but somehow I wonder if it is worth it for him to speak for me, if it matters that he confronted her. If he did, it means she will just wait for the right moment, she will lurk and smile and laugh until I am alone and then she will tear me to shreds. The thrill turns to ice slamming squarely in the pit of my stomach, I drop my eyes to my empty plate; I cannot change the situation so I push away the thoughts and let the conversation roll over me, sweeping me up into the swell of life as if everything is utterly normal.
Once everyone has finished eating Ander stands and, being unsure what to do, I follow his lead, "Ander, my dear, I must insist we settle our business relations soon so that you may further enjoy what I have to offer." I swallow the hardened edge of anger at the sound of her voice, I am not sure what it is Ander intends to do with this woman, what could he possibly see in her? She threw a violin at me, the thought stops me cold, and I glance up at him as he gives her a tight smile. What if he is going to marry her, what if this is just a game, all a twisted game to get me to trust him, who has told me he is a good person? Gregor mentioned it in passing, once, and he is just another servant, and he enlisted William to attempt to violate me...
Ice claws through my veins, he turns to me and I flinch, "There is a garden out back, I will meet you there soon." I nod while the numbness threatens to overtake me, I am careful to bow to Amelia before I depart, if this is a trap there is no need to deepen the pain I will feel later. I can feel Ander's gaze on me as I slip out of the room but I cannot bear to look at him, I am drowning in my own emotions at the moment and there is no way for me to pretend, something feels very wrong. How very sick would it be if this turns out to be a ploy? I can barely breathe, everything could be a lie, an elaborate pastime to have a laugh at the gullible servant girl. I have heard of more ludicrous schemes... 'Dear God, what have I done?'
Outside there are hedge animals, enormous, shaped like the most exotic creatures, it makes me feel ill just looking at them, further from the house is a solid wall of dark green hedges with a small entrance directly across from the back door, "Fancy meeting you here."
Tension floods my cold skin as I turn to meet those horrid blue eyes, my eyes strain to follow him as he saunters out of the house, "I suppose there is a reason you are speaking to me."
William smirks before spreading his arms wide, "Our most glorious friend asked me to watch over you while he is preoccupied. And so, I am here by your side until he returns."
I blanch at the thought of spending time with this false human being, "Is there no one else?" I realize the idiocy of the question, of course there is no one else, William is his only friend, I shake my head, "Of course not, forget I even mentioned the idea."
He chuckles as he reaches for my hand, I yank away glowering hotly, "You will forgive me for my previous transgression if you give me a moment to explain." I turn on my heel and walk toward the hedges, the fury is boiling over piercing the flesh of my heart causing pinpricks of pain to explode through my body; he falls into step with me quite easily and I want nothing more than to strike out at him but I cannot bear to touch him, I grind my teeth as the hedges close around us, "This is quite a large maze, I actually know how to get around if you'd like to see what is at the center."
My hands tighten into painful fists at my sides, my nails biting deep into my flesh until I am sure I will draw blood, "If I agree will you restrain yourself from attempting a conversation with me?"
William laughs, his eyes dance as he motions me forward and strides ahead of me weaving through the maze without a moment's hesitation and the thought of intentionally letting him lose me entertains me for but a moment. There are others here, people Ander must not trust since he sent William to watch me, that thought sends me scurrying after that mop-top without another thought. After what seems an eternity of silent traveling the path opens into a cozy nook, a white stone fountain in the center with trees I've never seen arching overhead to block the harshest rays of sunlight, roses form a semicircle around the fountain curling around a superbly fashioned white metal bench. The smell of roses is wonderful, William settles on the bench his eyes instantly resting on the fountain, I stamp down my emotions and sit stiffly beside him, "I am aware your behavior was Ander's doing, though I do not approve of either of your reasons for such behavior and I am not sure I have forgiven Ander yet, let alone you."
William leans back, the movement sends my body into full tension, "Did Ander tell you why he was so comfortable with me touching you?"
"You're his only friend?"
He sighs as his eyes cut to me, "Yes, that is true, but even that is not enough is it?" I shudder as I imagine how far away I am from salvation if he decides to hurt me, "I prefer the company of men Clara, that is why he knew I would take matters no further, and why I even agreed to do it. He was convinced there was something wrong with you, you know. It isn't just that you enjoyed him physically, it was the ease with which you did so even though you were untouched and the way you spoke to him even outside of those moments."
A blush bursts across my skin as I wonder exactly how much Ander has shared with this man, "He might have considered speaking to me."
"Yes, well there are people who are elegant little liars are there not? He attempted to talk out his differences with that snake of a wife he had, and that did not work so well. He spoke with the women that attempted to seduce him, he even believed a few of them initially but he is a guarded man. There are people who know all the right things to say, perhaps he was afraid because he finally let someone in without making sure to begin with. That is not exactly his style, ever since that fire he has been careful who he gets close to, but from what I understand he knew very little about you initially."
I can't help but scoff, "He was unsure!? Oh dear me, well I am quite glad that matter is cleared up for him." I slam to my feet and turn on William the fury bursting through whether I want it to or not, "I still do not know what it is he wants from me, he talks so beautifully but I cannot believe him, never, I will never believe anyone ever again! I cannot do this any longer, I wish to go back, I do not want any of this, the dread, the..." I fall silent as that awful word nearly tumbles free, 'love, no there is none of that', "I'm going back to the room to wait, please show me out."
William opens his mouth to speak when voices trickle over the sound of the fountain, "She seems kind though..." The voice is soft, timid even, and I am sure it is Jess, I stiffen, William gets up slowly standing inches away from me but I don't dare move for fear they will hear me and stop talking.
"They all seem kind when you first see 'em, all fake smiles, and pretty dresses, ain't a grain of real heart under all that glitter and fabric. Just a black little selfish pit, you hear me girl? Don't you go riskin' Lady Amelia's wrath on one man's worthless tramp of a Mistress, she ain't no better than you an' me, pretendin' to be better than us and goin' round with that man, she deserves what she gets."
A long silence, before Jess speaks up, "But why the tea? I don't understand why Lady Amelia made me use different herbs in the tea..." The rest is lost on me, William looks back at me, after a long moment I realize he is speaking softly but I don't hear a word of it, my entire body is numb as he grabs my hand and I blindly follow, once outside the hedges he grabs my shoulders and stares into my eyes, I peel away the fear and anger to be met with the cool calculation underneath.
"Clara?" I meet his gaze and he sighs, "I thought I lost you, I need to find Ander, can you go back to your room so I can find him?" I nod dumbly and he trots away, as soon as he enters the house I move forward. I don't have the slightest intention of going to the room, if Ander confronts Amelia she will know Jess said something, she will be severely punished. I will not allow that to happen to her, no matter what she did it was not her choice, her guilt is enough for me to decide what I need to do. I will not be responsible for her suffering and I am certain Ander will waste no time in causing it to have whatever vengeance there is to be had.
The house is full of servants, after a few well-placed questions I am led to Amelia's office, the servant knocks and the sweetest voice answers, "Come in." The servant swings the door wide and I step through, upon seeing me Amelia's eyes darken, her face is plastered with a smile but it doesn't warm her features, "Ah, it is just you..."
She hesitates, I know very well she knows my name, that much is clear, yet I do not much care to play along, "Clara, Lady Amelia." I close the door behind me and approach her, the heavy desk she sits behind is larger than Ander's, as if the sheer size is meant to impress clients, her chair is high-backed, luxuriously covered in red cushions, a fireplace directly behind her and papers strewn across the desk in a haphazard fashion, the chair before the desk is just as beautifully crafted yet it is markedly smaller than hers, sitting a bit lower to the ground so that no matter the client she can look down upon them.
She lifts a cup from her desk, tea no doubt and my stomach does a flip but I push away the reality to cling to whatever shamble of a plan I have, "Would you care for some tea?"
My stomach plunges but I smile, "It is very kind of you to offer my Lady but I am quite all right, I merely wanted to apologize for my inappropriate behavior. It was quite misplaced, especially within your home, I suppose I understood my place was temporary but servants are known for exceeding their bounds. And for that I apologize."
She studies me for a long moment before smiling and this time the grin reaches her eyes, "Please have a seat."
I do not want to sit, but if this is to work I have to play along so I sit and meet her gaze, "Thank you my Lady."
Her eyes are practically glowing, "Is that all you have to say to me? You came all this way to apologize? Did Lord Ander request you do so?"
It takes all my resolve not to roll my eyes, "Ander demanded nothing of the sort, my Lady."
Her eyes flash, "He is your master, you are not his equal."
The words strike deep, they are words I already know deep in my heart but I don't flinch, "Perhaps not in your eyes, yet he insists I call him by his name, even in public my Lady, and so I do so."
Her smile falls away, "You will never satisfy him, even now he courts me behind your back, even while he crawls into bed with you he imagines his life with me."
I study her with a calm gaze, my heart is pounding the words into my skull, screaming that they are true, screaming for me to run, I smile sadly, "Yet when he is with me he does not seem in the least distracted, it would seem he should spend more time with you if he wanted you so badly. Were you aware that he insisted I come with him? I barely had a choice in the matter, and since we've been here he has spent very little time seeking out your company. For someone he wants so desperately I congratulate him on his restraint."
Her jaw clenches and I can see her cracking, "With the upper class there is a bit more to be had in the way of courting, though I assume you would know little of that since your Masters claim your body when it is convenient, since you are not an equal you would have little knowledge of such things."
I blush before fanning myself, "Of course not my Lady, yet even in that regard I must admit Ander to be my first lover, he is quite the gentleman, spending so much of his valuable time with me instead of solidifying valuable business relations such as those of the Marquis and, of course, those with you. I imagine he holds some regard for my honor since he destroys relations with those that would cause me harm. It is quite romantic."
Amelia is seething at this point, her rage boiling over, she sets her cup down hard, "You worthless cunt, no one will ever want that used hole of yours! Not even Ander when he finds out you are a pregnant little slut, all those herbs in your fucking tea, how many times did he fill your slutty little body? Bet there is a little child growing in that belly of yours right this moment, did he ever tell you how much he hates children? He's told me plenty of times he has no desire for children, no matter what he will leave you now. He will imagine you didn't drink your tea just so you could trap him in a marriage! You will never have him."
I stare at her for a long moment, my head throbs, if he does hate children will he leave me after this? The door slams open and I turn to see Ander storming into the room, I stand slowly and meet him before he can reach her, he doesn't even glance at me as he grabs my shoulders and thrusts me into William's arms, "Get her out of here."
"Ander..." He turns to me and nods, but his eyes don't reach mine, he is looking past me, through me, never truly at me, he turn his back and I feel cold inside. William pulls me out of the room and I block out the world as he guides me through the house, a few words to the servants and we are in a carriage headed back to Ander's Manor, after a time I manage to block out the emotions pouring through me, despair clings to me but I will not cry yet, I cannot until I know what path this will lead to, not yet...
"Why did you confront her Clara? That was dangerous! And what if I had not brought Ander in time to hear that nonsense?" William sounds livid, but he isn't the one I care about.
"If you took him in there without a confession she would have known Jess told you, or him, or me, and she would have been punished. There would have been no way to prove it, perhaps she would have brought more lies and convinced Lord Ander I did it to myself, since he is so inclined to distrust me I do not doubt he would have tested me in some other fashion to sate his curiosity my Lord." My voice pitches tightly, sounding inhuman, the emotions are bundled so tightly that none is allowed to enter my voice but I am trembling, my hands are tight in my lap and it does nothing to quell the shaking.
"He would not have brought you if he didn't trust you."
I smile and it feels like I am breaking inside, "You will forgive me if I tell you I do not believe that for an instant my Lord."
William shakes his head, "Why are you with him if you do not trust him?"
I frown as I sink into the carriage, "A few weeks of kindness does not surpass years of fear my Lord, but I was trying to allow a chance because..." I shake my head, "But I cannot bear it. Especially not now..." I close my eyes and press a hand to my abdomen, the fear swirls somewhere distant, but I cannot let it in yet, if I do I will go mad.
"This is a surprisingly calm reaction..."
I look up at him, anger flaring inside me burning away all other emotions for an instant, "Imagine what I have been through to manage such a feat my Lord, now please leave me be."
William watches me, I am sure he is studying my stoic form, but my emotions are securely locked away, I cannot make myself care if he thinks I am manipulative, perhaps he imagines my reaction is calculated. The resistance is, but my fear is clamoring for attention at the forefront of my mind, in the darkest corner of my mind I hope Ander slits Amelia's porcelain throat, though my biggest fear is that he is ravishing her at this very moment while I worry on the fate of my first child. If there is a child inside me... I shake my head, I cannot bear to think on it, I am sure Ander will decide what will be done, though the very idea of losing my first child because he doesn't want one, or even managing to kill it before it enters the world. My stomach knots uncomfortably, my heart pulsing loudly in my ears as the thoughts begin to overpower my reality.
"Clara?" I look up slowly, my eyes ache with the strain of focusing, "Your nose..." I wipe my fingers across my upper lip and stare at my bright red fingers through blurry eyes, it reminds me of the roses, my stomach clenches and the world washes away.
May 12, 2018 in romance