Still Wicked – Kathleen Ayers

ady Elizabeth Reynolds clutched her favorite doll to her chest and scuttled under the table in Papa’s study. She pulled her knees up tight, backing as far underneath the table as she could. Mother and Sutton hadn’t seen her when they had entered. Papa had beaten Cousin Archie until he’d had to be carried from the house and then Papa had collapsed and now, he lay in his bed, barely moving. Grandmother held his hand. Miranda cried and stayed in her room. Only Mother had smiled. Then Sutton had come home from Macao. Elizabeth’s much spoken about, but never seen until now older brother. He was handsome and dashing. He wore an earring. And he hated Mother. Mother had stopped smiling. Now Sutton and Mother were arguing. About what needed to be done with Elizabeth.

“I will take Elizabeth and flee this house this instant.” Mother’s skirts whirled about her ankles as the strong floral scent she wore filled the room. “She can grow up on the Continent.” “You will do nothing of the sort. I know what you’ve done, or rather, what you allowed to happen.” Her brother’s voice was icy and cold. “It would be best if Archie left the vicinity of London immediately.” “Robert has beaten him so badly my poor cousin is barely able to walk.” Mother’s voice was the same as when she’d caught Miranda eating a raisin cake. “You should be imprisoned for what you’ve done.

He was only playing with the little troll. Nothing happened.” “How dare you?” Sutton said. Mother’s skirts backed away toward a corner of the room. “Come any closer and I’ll scream for the servants. I’m warning you, Sutton.” “I am sending Elizabeth away, far away where you and the filth you call your cousin will never find her.” “We were only playing. Your father overreacted.” “Playing?” Sutton made a sound of disgust.

“Is that what you call your deviant behavior with your cousin?” A sound of surprise came from Mother. Her skirts swished back and forth as she paced across the room. “Oh, you thought I didn’t know. But I do, Mother. You bitch.” Elizabeth winced at her big brother’s tone. He was so mad. Maybe she should crawl out and tell him what had happened. “He never touched her,” Mother wailed in a pleading voice. “Sutton, you must believe me.

” Mother reached out and clutched at Sutton’s arm, but he shook her off. “As if I would believe anything from your lying mouth. How could you expose her to such a thing? Encourage it? What kind of mother are you?” “Better than that whore your father married before me.” Mother wasn’t crying anymore. She’d been faking. Elizabeth had seen her fake cry dozens of times when fighting with Papa. Mother hissed like the tiny snake Elizabeth had seen hiding in the gardens last week. “You’re nothing more than a bastard, born of a wealthy man and his mistress. You think I don’t know?” Sutton grabbed Mother and shook her. Elizabeth didn’t know what a bastard was, but Mother saying the word made Sutton really mad.

He was shaking her like a rag doll. “Go ahead.” Mother was laughing. Laughing. “Hit me, Sutton. Perhaps we’ll both enjoy it.” With a sound of disgust, Sutton pushed Mother away from him. She could see how mad her brother was. How much he hated her mother. Elizabeth’s heart hurt, torn between her recently introduced, adored older brother and her mother.

She knew Mother was…bad. Papa didn’t like her either, but Elizabeth still loved her. Mother and Cousin Archie played games together and when Elizabeth saw them, Mother giggled. Archie brought Elizabeth sweets and had promised her a new doll. But she mustn’t tell anyone. Mother said all gentlemen touch ladies in the way Cousin Archie touched her. Didn’t Elizabeth wish to be a lady? She did. She wanted Mother to be proud of her. Mother started screaming at Sutton, calling him names. Elizabeth didn’t know what any of them meant but they were bad because her brother was clenching his fists.

She let go of her doll and put her hands over her ears, wanting to scream herself. This was all her fault. Everyone was mad because of her. Papa couldn’t move from his bed because of Elizabeth. All because she had wanted to be a lady like Mother. I deserve to be sent away. Look at all the trouble I’ve caused. Just because a gentleman touched my knee. I’ll never be a lady. “You will never see Elizabeth again.

No goodbye. I don’t even want you in the same room with her.” “Where are you taking her? She’s my daughter. You can’t keep me from her. When Robert dies—” Elizabeth shook so hard she thought she might knock over the table. Papa was going to die? Tears started down her cheeks. This was her fault. Why had she screamed when Archie touched her? He had only been trying to make her a lady, like Mother. “Watch me.” Sutton strode from the room.

After Sutton left, Mother went to the sideboard where Papa kept his spirits. Mother liked sherry. She talked to herself while she drank, saying horrible things about Sutton. She became so quiet Elizabeth was sure Mother knew she was hiding under the table. Then Mother set down the sherry glass so hard the stem broke. The glass rolled beneath the chair. Sherry spilled over the rug, reminding Elizabeth of Cousin Archie’s blood when Papa had hit him. She wanted to run out and hug Mother, but she wouldn’t. Mother said Elizabeth’s hands were often dirty and she mussed Mother’s skirts. Elizabeth wiped her cheeks with the sleeve of her dress.

Papa was going to die, and Elizabeth wanted her mother. She started to come out from beneath the table. “So much fuss over that messy little child. Elizabeth is a little troll, only useful if I make her a grand marriage.” Elizabeth stopped moving at her mother’s words. A fresh stream of tears erupted. “Girls are far more trouble than they’re worth. Why couldn’t she have been a boy? Useless. She and Miranda, both.” Elizabeth bit the inside of her cheeks to keep from wailing in denial at the awful words.

Mother didn’t love her at all. L 1 Scottish Border – Present ady Elizabeth Reynolds adjusted her novice’s headdress and dug at yet another stubborn weed marring the otherwise perfect herb garden. Her trowel flashed in the sunlight as she chopped away until the dandelion pulled free. The early morning sun warmed her shoulders and only the roar of the nearby ocean disturbed the silence of the grounds. She sat back, satisfied at the turned dirt and pile of weeds in her basket. Mornings were her favorite time. The grass still held a hint of dew and the air was full of promise for the coming day. Elizabeth looked out across the wide lawn at the ancient stone edifice at her back. St. Albans was especially lovely this time of year.

St. Albans, too small to be a true convent, sat just at the northern edge of the Duke of Dunbar’s ancestral estate, unnoticed and tucked away. The structure, built of stone from the surrounding area, was as weathered as the cliffs on which it perched. Isolated as it was, St. Albans had remained a safe haven during the years when Viking raiders had roamed the shoreline. The now crumbling walls had never been breached by the enemy and still provided sanctuary for those who dwelled within, especially Elizabeth. She inhaled deeply, deciding there was nowhere else she wished to be, despite missing her family. Her brother, Sutton, the Marquess of Cambourne, begged her to return home, as did her grandmother. Elizabeth had two nephews and a niece she’d never even met. Miranda, her older sister, had married but Elizabeth had refused to leave St.

Albans to be in attendance. Sutton assured Elizabeth she need not ever return to town but could reside at Gray Covington, the family estate outside of London. But even Gray Covington, a little over three hours from London, was far too close to the city for Elizabeth’s tastes. Still, she often dreamt of Gray Covington and the sprawling gardens the estate was famous for. She’d made a determination about her future. A cowardly decision, to be sure, since it involved never leaving St. Albans, but she thought her judgement sound. Elizabeth wished to begin her training as a novice and eventually take her vows to become a nun. The problem was Mother Hildegard, the abbess, and Elizabeth’s own lack of any true calling to serve God. Fear of London was not enough reason to dedicate one’s life to serving others, Mother Hildegard insisted, nor did Elizabeth possess the obedient nature required of a nun.

Elizabeth decided Mother Hildegard was wrong. And I’m stubborn. Another deficit in my character according to Mother Hildegard. Brushing the wet earth from the worn skirts of her novice’s habit, Elizabeth stood and stretched. Her back and shoulders ached from kneeling for so long, though she adored her neat rows of herbs and vegetables. The white headdress slipped over one temple, knocked out of place by the thick braid of her hair. Stubbornly, she adjusted the scarf atop the braid again, knowing a pin had slipped out and even now sat lost among the tarragon or dill. Not that the slipping of her headdress would pose a problem. St. Albans had few visitors.

Nor would anyone seeing her think her anyone other than a novice. At her brother’s insistence, no one knew Elizabeth was the sister of the Marquess of Cambourne. When she traveled to the nearby village to sell the honey the bees of St. Albans produced, Elizabeth was assumed to be a young woman seeking to take her vows. Only one other person knew who she was, outside of the sisters of St. Albans: McMannish, the Duke of Dunbar’s steward. The Scotsman had once been her brother’s valet but had longed to return home. Sutton had agreed, thinking it prudent to have someone nearby Elizabeth, just in case. Sutton worried because of Mother. Elizabeth thought Sutton was only being overprotective, though she adored McMannish.

She was rarely anxious in his presence. Jeanette Reynolds, her mother, and the cause of all the misery which had resulted in Elizabeth’s stay at the Scottish border, was unlikely to find her. Not because St. Albans wasn’t listed on any maps and was under the protection of the Duke of Dunbar, but because Mother was catatonic. She hadn’t spoken in years. Deemed insane by a host of physicians, she currently resided under lock and key in Yorkshire under the watchful eye of Mother’s husband, Herbert Reynolds. “Crazy as a loon,” Elizabeth said into the wind. Mother’s sanity had deteriorated after the death of her beloved cousin, Archie. He’d been the only person Mother had ever loved. Thinking of her mother cast a pall on the bright morning.

Elizabeth rarely allowed Jeanette Reynolds to invade her thoughts, but sometimes out of the blue, Elizabeth would think of her. Picking up the basket, Elizabeth surveyed the neatly weeded garden, nodding in approval at her morning’s work. Plants were much better company than people. She was in no danger of being touched inappropriately by a sprig of rosemary nor ruined by the basil. The beets tucked into their neat rows would not become flirtatious and leave Elizabeth tongue-tied and filled with choking anxiety. Even before she had arrived at St. Albans, Elizabeth had loved gardens. Grandmother had created one of the most famous gardens in all of England at Gray Covington and her father, Robert, had been a great lover of nature. It was Papa who had taught her how to properly tuck a plant into a pot. He’d often spoken to the wisteria and hollyhocks, encouraging them to grow and bloom while he and Elizabeth had walked about to inspect the beauty of the grounds.

As a child, Elizabeth had been convinced a family of gnomes lived behind the weeping willow in the gardens at their house in London. She would force her poor father out, lamp in hand, to check on them. Elizabeth still felt the loss of her father keenly, though sinking her fingers into the damp earth eased the pain somewhat. Gardening, however, did nothing for the guilt. She turned to view the ocean. Perhaps later, if she finished with her other duties, she’d take a walk along the cliffs and stretch out her legs before the noon meal. Gathering up her tools, she made her way to the gardening shed, discarding the basket and her gloves. She was putting away her trowel when she heard her name being called. “Elizabeth!” Sister Abigail called out into the yard. “Elizabeth!” “I’m here, Sister.

” Elizabeth carefully smoothed her headdress and left the confines of the shed before approaching the plump form of Sister Abigail. Sister Abigail stood on the back steps peering into the yard. She was terribly nearsighted but refused to wear the spectacles Mother Hildegard had had made for her in Edinburgh. A blossom of flour dirtied her apron and dough stuck to her fingers. “Oh, there you are,” she said as Elizabeth approached. A sour look crossed the nun’s face as she took in Elizabeth. “Covered in dirt too, I see.” Sister Abigail didn’t like Elizabeth for reasons known only to the nun herself. Elizabeth had tried to form some semblance of a relationship with Sister Abigail, but all her efforts had so far been for naught. She’d brought fresh herbs for the kitchen or offered to knead the bread dough, but no matter how kind she was, Sister Abigail continued to treat Elizabeth with disapproval.

Most people assumed nuns were peaceful, serene creatures who loved everyone. Those people hadn’t met Sister Abigail. “Did you need something from the garden?” Elizabeth brushed off as much dirt from her skirts as she could. “Perhaps some rosemary?” “Mother Hildegard is looking for you.” Sister Abigail’s face held nothing but dislike for Elizabeth. “You’re to go to her office.” Elizabeth nodded and headed for the other side of the abbey to get to Mother Hildegard’s office instead of taking the more direct route through the kitchens. Anything to avoid Sister Abigail. Mother Hildegard’s small, cozy office sat at the far side of St. Albans with a spectacular view of the rocky Scottish coast.

Sister Abigail jumped from the stoop and followed at Elizabeth’s side. Elizabeth shot her an annoyed look which did nothing to deter the nun. “Thank you, Sister,” Elizabeth said, hoping Sister Abigail would turn and disappear back into the kitchens. But Sister Abigail pressed on, apparently determined to discover the cause of Elizabeth’s summons. Mother Hildegard and Elizabeth spoke often, but usually after the evening meal with a pot of tea between them. Elizabeth was rarely asked to Mother Hildegard’s office so early in the day. Unless there was a problem. Like the soup. A sigh of resignation escaped her lips. The nuns of St.

Albans were expected to heal the sick and feed the poor, neither of which Elizabeth did well. She’d been summoned to Mother Hildegard’s office two weeks before when the soup she’d made to feed a family in the village had been met with mixed results. According to Sister Abigail, even the family dog wouldn’t eat the soup Elizabeth had carefully prepared. Mother Hildegard had requested Elizabeth refrain from cooking in the future, but her healing skills were no better. She’d once been given the simple task of bandaging Mrs. Gibbon. The older woman had injured herself chasing one of her chickens, who’d flown the coop. Mrs. Gibbon’s fingers had turned purple before Sister Mary Grace had interceded and waved Elizabeth away. The only thing Elizabeth did well was tend the garden.

Sister Abigail puffed and scowled as she tried to keep up with Elizabeth’s quicker pace. “Why do you suppose Mother Hildegard wishes to see you? I’m sure it’s something to do with your mishandling of the honey.” “There was no mishandling of the honey.” Elizabeth intentionally quickened her step, hoping to shake the nun from her side. “She may even ask you to leave St. Albans.” Sister Abigail could barely disguise her glee as she placed a hand to her side. “Do slow down.” Elizabeth lengthened her stride. “I sold all of our honey at a good profit.

More than enough to fix the roof.” The problem had not been the honey. It had been the fair at which the sisters of St. Albans had sold the honey. Elizabeth hadn’t expected a fair, in reality little more than a small farmer’s market. The village square had been filled with stalls. Crowds. People. Smells. Touching.

Her senses had become overloaded, anxiety filtering through her pores. She’d struggled to focus on her breathing, as Mother Hildegard had taught her. But when one of the village lads had said something flirtatious and taken Elizabeth’s arm, she’d screamed bloody murder. “I was only startled when young Angus took my arm, nothing more.” Sister Abigail made a honking sound of disapproval. “Young Angus is barely fourteen. You scared him half out of his wits. I’m sure his father beat him soundly for his misstep. You behaved as if he accosted you.” Elizabeth felt terrible as she was certain Angus had been punished as well.

He hadn’t meant to harm her, or even startle her. For goodness sakes, he’d only complimented Elizabeth on the sparkle in her eyes and offered to help her with the heavy basket she’d carried. I have an affliction. Elizabeth would never survive living amongst the ton. London and society were to be avoided at all costs. Her skin crawled, imagining all the touching which would be required should she return to live with her brother. She wasn’t capable of being out in society and she certainly could never marry. The very thought of the intimacy required of a wife filled her with ice-cold panic. “I apologized profusely, Sister Abigail. Mother Hildegard explained to his parents that I was only startled.

Angus did nothing wrong.” Sister Abigail snorted. “You screamed like he’d committed murder, poor lad. I wrote to my sister about what a daft nun I lived with.” Elizabeth rounded the stone wall at the side of the abbey, trying to distance herself from the disapproving Sister Abigail. She wasn’t daft. She had an affliction. Much like having a limp or not being able to hear. Her anger flared sharply at the thought of Sister Abigail writing witty anecdotes about Elizabeth to her sister. Perhaps Elizabeth was a source of amusement for the nun’s entire family.

“I can find my own way to Mother Hildegard’s,” she said, giving Sister Abigail a pointed look. Sister Abigail merely shrugged, bits of dough dropping from her apron. “I was going in this direction anyway.” Elizabeth gritted her teeth as she approached the abbess’s office. “Ah, Elizabeth.” Mother Hildegard waved her inside, casting a stern look at Sister Abigail. “Please shut the door, Sister.” Sister Abigail frowned at the dismissal but did as she was asked. Mother Hildegard waved Elizabeth inside, a stern look fixed on her angular features. A large crucifix carved of mahogany hung on one wall of the office.

The artist had been incredibly talented. If Elizabeth looked closely enough, she would see Christ’s eyelashes, intricately carved in the wood. A gift, Mother Hildegard had once told Elizabeth, from a past Duke of Dunbar. “Please sit.” Mother Hildegard’s lips were pressed tight. It was about the honey. “I’ve recently returned from visiting with McMannish.” The abbess sat down and proceeded to drum her thin fingers atop the desk. “How is McMannish?” Elizabeth inquired politely, suddenly knowing with certainty that this was not only about the honey. “Proud, actually.

” Mother Hildegard’s mouth hardened further. “You have a keen eye and a steady aim, I’m told. He was surprised to find I knew nothing of the skills he boasted about, considering you told him I approved of your training with pistols.” Elizabeth’s stomach fell. “I—” She instantly regretted not swearing the Scotsman to secrecy. Learning to fire pistols had been an inspiration on Elizabeth’s part. The ability to protect herself, if such a thing became necessary, gave her a great deal of security. “My child.” Mother Hildegard’s mouth softened. The abbess had always been kind to Elizabeth, more substitute parent and mentor than disciplinarian.

“Learning to be a crack shot, while certainly admirable in some circles, is not a skill required to serve God.” “I thought it would be useful. What if St. Albans is attacked? I could protect us.”

.

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