Roderick’s Widow – Emily Royal

“NO, ALİCE, I refuse to believe it. You love me. I know you do!” “I’m sorry, Ross.” Alice turned her head to conceal her expression. “I’ve reflected upon my error in judgement.” “Your error in judgement?” Alice bit her lip, letting the sharp sting conquer the ache in her heart. The silence stretched, punctuated by wind in the trees, whispers to admonish her. At length, he issued a sharp sigh. “Have the decency, madam, to look at me while you break our engagement.” Her chest tightened at the hard edge to his voice, and she turned to face the darkness in his gray eyes. “I take it I have a rival,” he said. “My lack of a title renders me unworthy of Viscount de Grecy’s daughter.” Her skin prickled at Papa’s name. The bruises hidden by the uncomfortably long sleeves of her dress were still fresh from his education on how to be a dutiful daughter. “Is it Roderick Markham?” She remained silent.

He narrowed his eyes. “You are to be congratulated in securing the heir to a dukedom. Forgive my folly in believing the Honorable Alice de Grecy was more than an insipid, soulless, little hunter of titles.” Insipid. Soulless… Had he added weak to her catalogue of faults, he might have penetrated the hard shell she’d erected around herself to prepare for this interview. Weakness had driven her to this—her weakness to withstand Papa. In her dreams, she’d imagined Ross sweeping her into his arms and carrying her off to Gretna Green. But such action went hand in hand with scandal. As a tradesman, however rich, Ross had struggled to secure a footing in society to further his business interests. She could not ask him to do anything to risk his livelihood.

Or could she? Could she make one last bid for life, as a drowning man reaches out before the water engulfs him? “Ross, I…” “I believe the correct address is Mr. Trelawney,” he said. “Save your familiarities for your fiancé. I trust they will earn you a satisfactory number of trinkets.” Alice fingered the object in her hands—the gift Ross had handed to her not five minutes before. A perfect orange. She dug her fingernails into the skin and released the tangy aroma. Such a simple offering, unlike the hothouse bouquets with all the character bred out of them, which all suitors in London used to secure a lady’s heart and hand. All except the suitor standing before her now. The Cornishman who smelled of the sea.

The man who’d captured her heart months before with the offering of a simple orange. “Give me your hand, Ross,” she said. He held out his hand, and she dropped the orange into his palm. His eyes hardened, and he turned his hand sideways, letting his offering fall into the soft mud. “Don’t hate me, Ross.” “I could never hate you, Alice,” he said. “Hate is not love’s enemy. Hate is love’s cousin. Strip away the dark hues of hate and often love remains, a softer shade on the palette.” He stepped toward her until the shadow of his firm, athletic body touched her.

“I don’t hate you, Alice. I have no feelings for you at all. I hope you and Markham enjoy a long and prosperous marriage.” He turned his back on her and strode out of the garden, his feet grinding the orange deeper into the mud as he walked out of her life. Chapter One Hyde Park, London September 1821 “THE PROBLEM WİTH a madwoman is her inability to understand the world.” Alice watched the couple walk past, quickening their pace as they recognized her. The man had echoed the words her doctors had said. Their justification for her incarceration. Every night for two years, they had strapped her onto the bed, then poured laudanum down her throat, the cold liquid seeping into her bones until blackness engulfed her. At first, the blackness had become a comfort to shield her from the nightmare that had been her life.

It was a nightmare of her own doing. She deserved to be punished. That’s what they’d said, the voices in her head, whispering to her at every waking moment. The voices in her mind had faded, now the threat of a lifetime in Bedlam had driven them away. But the real voices remained. Human voices. Mad Alice. The deranged duchess. She picked up a leaf which had fluttered onto the bench beside her and held it against the sunlight. An ordinary object, fated to spend the remainder of its life rotting on the ground, trampled underfoot and ignored by society.

But a thing of beauty, nonetheless. The lush green of the summer had almost faded. But at the center was a vivid red, morphing into orange, then yellow, before the green gave its last gasp, skirting round the leaf’s edges. Alice smiled to herself. She’d once had a friend who talked like that. A woman with an artist’s eye, who always explained how difficult it was to replicate a precise shade of green in paint because it wasn’t a simple exercise of mixing blue and yellow. Frederica Stanford, now Countess Stiles. The woman Roderick had almost destroyed. Roderick… The cold air rippled through Alice. Her late husband’s violent death still haunted her dreams.

Though it had been an accident, society whispered it had been Alice’s doing. And why shouldn’t they? She’d been carted off to Bedlam within hours of the events which had killed Roderick and almost brought about the death of Frederica’s husband. A salacious story which had kept the gossips entertained for weeks. After all, it wasn’t every day a duchess was publicly declared a madwoman. She released the leaf, and it swirled upward, taking flight in a gust of wind. Then it spiraled downward, weighted, as all things are, toward the ground, unable to conquer the solid earth. The small bundle of fur in her lap stirred and she picked him up, cradling his rotund little body. He gave a grunt of satisfaction, yawned, and licked his front paws. She ran her hand along his back, the fur smooth and silky against her fingertips. “Are you hungry, Monty?” The pug’s tail twirled in excitement at his mistress’s voice, and she leaned forward and kissed the top of his head, breathing in the scent of sandalwood.

She reached for the four roses on her lap and closed her eyes. Monty might be just an animal, but he was the only creature in the world who posed no threat to her. And he was the closest she would come to having a child. Clutching the roses, she whispered a silent prayer. Sarah, Anna, Thomas, Ross… At that last name, the familiar pull at her heart constricted her chest. Like the doctors had taught her, she drew in a deep breath through her nostrils and exhaled through her mouth. Ross. What greater sin can a woman commit than to break the heart of the man who’d bared his soul to her? Her reward had been to watch him court and marry another while she had sold herself for a title. She closed her eyes, the memory of his voice resonating through her—a rich baritone softened with the warmth of a Cornish burr. Alice.

My Alice… When he spoke her name, his voice would deepen, and his eyes pulsed with love. They were the grayest eyes she’d ever seen. She had clung to the memory of the love which had once resided in their thoughtful expression, and the touch of his hand which had sent shivers of desire through her, whispering of what was to come, the anticipation of unawakened pleasure. The last time she’d seen those eyes was the day Roderick had died. Corroded with contempt, they had watched while she was carried away to her fate, her mind broken. She stood and sighed. There was no use regretting the past. She was an outcast, laughed at by the cruel and pitied by the good. But she had much to be thankful for. Had Papa not agreed to resume responsibility for her after her release, she’d have lived out her days incarcerated.

A lifetime under Papa’s authority was marginally better than a lifetime locked in a cell. At least Papa gave her liberty to visit the park and breathe the fresh air again, even if he would never give her parental love. She shook her head to dispel the memory and continued along the path. A couple stood near the entrance to the park, arm in arm, their backs to her. The gentleman was tall, broad-shouldered, his dark, green coat fitting his form perfectly. His companion was more brightly colored, her dress a rich, pink silk with red trim, the tell-tale style of Madame Dupont’s work, the color all the brighter for Alice’s months of depravation with only gray walls for company. Her hair was piled on top of her head in fashionable curls, and her statuesque frame almost met the height of her companion. She was a courtesan. One might feel sympathy for such a creature, having to devote her time to maintaining the interest of her patron, relying on her youth and beauty which would inevitably fade with time. But power exuded from this woman.

The air surrounding her shimmered with it. As if she knew she was being observed, she turned and saw Alice. Her smile of greeting turned into the look of scorn which adorned the face of every member of society Alice came into contact with. Alice could almost read her thoughts. The deranged duchess. The newspapers had done their job. Society’s hunger for gossip had increased over the summer when the queen died after a short illness, following a public outcry when she’d been refused admission to the king’s coronation. Drawing rooms echoed with whispers that, after failing to secure a divorce, the king had disposed of his wife in a more permanent manner. Wives, after all, were expendable. But society had now turned its attention to a new tale—her release.

The woman tugged at her companion’s sleeve. The man turned to face Alice, and the smile in his eyes died. His nostrils flared, and he clamped his lips together in a thin, unforgiving line. Creases formed around his mouth, the strong mouth which had brushed against her lips the day he’d made her the happiest of women. Monty whimpered, and she tightened her grip on him. He tilted his head and gave her a slight bow, enough to demonstrate acknowledgement of her presence but insufficient to show civility. One might have almost believed it was calculated at such an angle as to cause the most insult. “Duchess.” She inclined her head. “Mr.

Trelawney.” For a moment, the world around her blended into an amorphous blur of noise, the colors fading into gray. A shape moved in front of her, its vibrant hues snapping her back into reality. “Ross, darling, aren’t you going to introduce us?” The woman smiled at Alice, but her lips curled into a sneer, her pale, blue eyes as hard as steel. She tightened her grip on his arm in a gesture of possession, and he narrowed his eyes. “Of course,” he said. “Duchess, may I present Catherine, Mrs. Bonneville. Kitty, my dear, this is Alice, Duchess Markham.” “What a pleasure,” the woman said, the musical tones of her voice reminding Alice of a bird of paradise.

“I rather wonder at not having seen you hereabouts before.” The veneer of civility could not mask the hostility in her tone. Alice returned the smile. “I understand Miss—forgive me, Mrs. Bonneville,” she said, the lightness of tone masking her unease. “A woman engaged in your style of employment would find little opportunity to acquaint herself with society.” “Quite so,” the woman replied. “Your very particular corner of society is thinly populated, is it not? Tell me, how easy is it for the Deranged Duchess to find like-minded souls in Hyde Park?” Her smile remained fixed, as if in challenge. Swallowing her pain at the insult, Alice set her mouth into a hard line. “There are plenty of companions to be found if one looks hard enough,” she said.

“But I admire your fortitude, Mrs. Bonneville. Your efforts need to be doubly vigorous. Society is an unforgiving animal at the best of times. There are madmen aplenty to be found within its population. Harlots, however, are rarely to be seen. I applaud your tenacity.” The woman recoiled and cast a sideways glance at her companion. Then she shook her head and let out a long, plaintive sigh and stumbled into his arms. “Oh Ross…” He pulled her close and turned to Alice, his eyes black with anger.

“How dare you insult Mrs. Bonneville!” “As she insulted me? I merely stated what she is.” “As did she,” he said. “Tell me, madam, which is worse, a woman who devotes her life to making a respectable man happy, or the plaything of a beast who ruined the lives of many?” For a moment, she thought she saw a flash of regret in his eyes, but he blinked, and the cold expression returned. She lifted her chin and forced her expression into a cold smile. “It was such a pleasure to speak to you again,” she said. “Please, excuse me.” Clutching her little dog in her arms, she hurried past them and out onto the street. Only then did she slow her pace and allow herself to breathe. She could withstand loathing and censure from members of society, in fact, by now, she expected it.

But not from him. Deep down, she’d always hoped a part of him still cared about her. But it wasn’t the calling of his heart that gave rise to the pain threatening to crush her. It was the calling of hers. Ross Trelawney might harbor irrevocable hatred for her, but Alice still loved him.

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