What Desire Demands, My Duke – Olivia T. Bennet

he didn’t know how many times she’d come here in the past few years. Perhaps today would make the hundredth time, or perhaps the thousandth if she counted those dreams she had. Every time she arrived, it all looked the same. The same blue sky, slowly turning to night, with a few misty clouds drifting across the broad expanse. The same grassy stretch ahead of her before it ended at the bank of the river. The same gnarly roots of the large yew tree in the distance. It was a rather small park, inconsequential when compared to others such as Hyde Park in London. But this place, nestled in the countryside, held a special place in her heart. Elizabeth came to a stop, lifting her gaze to the sky. It never seemed to rain here. Every day was as sunny as the day she’d first come here as a child, a girl of barely ten years filled with such excitement to play around the yew tree. She would often come along with a friend of hers, under the watchful and amused eyes of their parents, and for the hours that ensued, they were lost in the world of play. Now, at two-and-twenty years, she’d long since lost that childlike fervor. Elizabeth didn’t care about running towards the gentle river in the distance, nor climbing the twisted limbs of the tree. Those memories didn’t even bring a smile to her face anymore.

“My Lady?” Elizabeth turned her head slightly to the side at the sound of her lady’s maid. Gemma was an older woman who had been by Elizabeth’s side since Elizabeth was in her youth. “Perhaps we should take our leave soon. Lord Gillet did say there will be guests who you have to meet.” Ah, yes. Those specials guests, one of whom was a gentleman hoping to have her hand in marriage, were the last people Elizabeth wanted to see. “I suppose,” she murmured noncommittally, sighing. But she didn’t turn around. Instead, she ventured closer to the tree, letting her wistful memories wash over her as she ran a finger over the simple gold ring he’d given her before he’d disappeared. Take this, Beth, as a symbol of my love for you.

It is a promise to our future, a future that we will have together. When we are older, I will officially ask for your hand in marriage. It had been so long since she’d seen his face, so long since she’d spoken to him. One year had passed since she’d last seen him and Elizabeth had spent her days in the countryside longing for the day he would return to her, clinging to those words. With every day that went by, with her memories of their time together following her constantly, her determination grew. She told herself they would see each other again, that nothing would stop her from finding him, even if she had to search across the seas. Nothing would come in the way of them one day being able to stand before this tree together once again. And then would she ask why he’d left so suddenly in the first place. Without a word, without a letter, he’d simply disappeared. The last time she’d seen him was one week after the death of his mother, at the funeral.

Elizabeth had still been struggling to handle the death of her own mother six months before but she’d pushed her grief aside to console him. She couldn’t forget the look on his face as he watched his mother’s coffin lower into the ground. There had been no tears, no anguish. Only hard anger. She didn’t see him again after that and Elizabeth spent the ensuing six months trying to inquire about his whereabouts. Her visits were unhelpful and none of his other friends knew what had happened. His disappearance had only added to her own distress and so when her father told her they would leave London and reside at their countryside manor, she had little choice but to accept. I care not about those guests when I still haven’t found you. The tears that were never far sprang to her eyes. Elizabeth reached a hand out to touch the bark of the tree.

“Where are you, William?” As if in response to her question, a sudden gust of wind came from the left, tugging wildly at her gown. Elizabeth curled her hand into a fist, letting it drop to her side, as she tried to hold back her sobs. She was tired of crying. But she was tired of failing, too. She wandered to the side, away from the river, still running her hand on the rough bark. This side of the tree was wetter, usually blocked from the sunlight, and so she normally stayed away. But, for some reason, she went there today and she didn’t bother to ask herself why. Then, something caught her eye. A white slip of…something, drifting in the wind. It seemed to be tethered to the tree.

“My Lady,” came Gemma’s urgent voice again, but Elizabeth ignored it. Curiosity nipped at her now, an unnamed force pulling her towards the white cloth. Drawing closer, Elizabeth saw that it was a handkerchief. Her heart began to race. Elizabeth rushed closer, not caring that her slippers were sinking slightly into muddy earth. She reached onto her toes to pull the handkerchief free and turned it over. It was dingy, dirt fringing the edges, but there was no denying the initials embroidered into the corner. W.H. William Hervey.

“Oh…” The tears came rushing back as Elizabeth nearly sank to her knees. Her hand trembled as she touched it gingerly, as if she would be able to feel him despite how long it had been. How had she not seen this before? All those times she’d come to this spot to think about him, to lose herself in the memories of their childhood, she’d never seen this. In those hundreds of visits, this handkerchief had been waiting for her to find. “Lady Elizabeth!” Gemma cried out in alarm. Her warm body was by hers in a second, keeping her from crumbling. “We should return home, My Lady.” Elizabeth didn’t have the strength to do anything but go along with Gemma as she was steered away from the tree towards the waiting carriage. She clutched the handkerchief to her chest with a shaky hand, tears dripping from her chin. She had to find him.

She must. Someone stepped into her path. Elizabeth wouldn’t have thought anything of it had Gemma not gasped. It was a man with a scruffy beard and beady eyes. His clothes were scraps of brown fabric patched together, a few new holes poked through the shoulders. Greasy hair hung over his forehead, hiding the top of a thick, puffy scar that ran around the side of his face to touch his chin. The orange glow of the setting sun seemed to make the grease on his face shine. Gemma shifted her body before Elizabeth, her hand trembling. “You stay away,” she warned in a strong voice. Elizabeth frowned, a twinge of fear lighting her insides.

Gemma was not the type to react so strongly to someone just because of how they looked. Then, she saw it. He held a dagger between them, his hand shaking. She swallowed, her heart beginning to race. “There ain’t no need to make this difficult for ya’, lass,” he said gruffly. “Give me everythin’ ya got.” “There is nothing for you here.” Gemma’s words drew the man’s attention to her. Slimy fear clung to the back of Elizabeth’s throat when the man ran his gaze up and down Gemma’s body. “Bold of ya, maid,” he spat.

Gemma stiffened when he turned the knife to her but she didn’t move, keeping herself standing partially in front of Elizabeth. “But if ya know what’s best for ya, keep quiet.” “And if you know what is best for you, thief, you will go along your way.” “Gemma…” Elizabeth’s body was frozen, her words stuck in her throat. She couldn’t believe Gemma’s bravery, couldn’t believe that all she could do was stand behind this older lady for protection. Her father had always prided her timidness, saying it was the mark of a true English lady. Right now, Elizabeth couldn’t fathom why. The man chuckled, clearly not intimidated by Gemma. He lifted his beady eyes back to Elizabeth. “I’m givin’ ya one last chance to hand over your valuables, lady.

” “I…” Elizabeth didn’t know what to say, her breathing labored. She glanced desperately behind the man but it was clear the coachman hadn’t noticed something was wrong yet. Elizabeth thought of crying out for help, but she could hardly catch a proper breath. Gemma put herself in front of Elizabeth. “You had best leave right now, scoundrel,” she warned. The man smirked. “Scoundrel? Aye, you can call me a scoundrel all you want when you stand next to someone who has it all. Surely you don’t think you’re any better than I am? Don’t fool yourself, slave. If she tosses you aside tomorrow, you’ll be in the same position as me. Now,” in a second, his anger surged as he jabbed the dagger towards them, “give me all your valuables! I don’t have any time to waste!” His shouting got the attention of the coachman.

Elizabeth tried not to breathe in relief when she spotted the scrawny, elderly man jumping down to the ground. She swallowed, putting a shaking hand on Gemma’s shoulder as she stepped out from behind her. “Gemma, it’s fine,” Elizabeth murmured. She tried to keep her voice steady as she spoke —a miraculous feat. “There is no need to put our lives in danger for material things.” “My Lady…” Gemma seemed reluctant to move from before Elizabeth. The maid still had an arm outstretched, her eyes not leaving the thief for a moment. But it was clear she knew she stood no chance against him. Elizabeth tried to pull her shoulders back, to bolster her courage. It helped a little but her insides still melted in fear when she looked the thief in eye.

“My reticule is in the carriage. It will have all that you’ll need.” The thief spat to the side and wiped his thin lips. “Is that so?” And then, without warning, he shoved Gemma aside. Elizabeth squealed in fright, watching as Gemma hit the ground hard. Before she had the chance to even think about running, the man grabbed her roughly by her upper arm. He used the hand holding his dagger to snap the necklace from her throat. Her collarbone lit up with pain, a shocking wave of numbness racing down her arm. Elizabeth grasped her shoulder, her heart sinking when she felt blood quickly soaking through her gown. “Ah, this will do nicely,” he mused aloud.

Elizabeth was shaking, her throat clogged with her fear. The coachman was running towards them now, finally noticing that something was wrong. And Gemma…Gemma was moaning in pain. The thief was still studying her. Elizabeth wanted to tell him to leave, to be brave, to do something! But she could only stand there like a trembling leaf and watch as he searched for something else to take. His eyes lit up once again and Elizabeth stiffened. Before she could hope to do anything, he reached for her again, taking her hand this time. But he did not reach for the handkerchief. Instead, he tried to take the simple gold band around her finger. “My, my,” he drawled.

Behind him, the coachman tripped over his feet and tumbled to the ground. Despair descended within her. “Would ya’ look at this? A mighty fine piece, if I do say so myself.” “You cannot have it,” Elizabeth declared. She tried to wrench her hand away from him but failed. Desperation coated her fear. She couldn’t let him take this piece of William she’d been carrying with her all this time. He’d given her this ring only a few months before he’d disappeared. This terrible man could not have it. The thief sneered derisively at her before he reached for her enclosed fist and forced it in front of her.

“Open ya’ hand or I’m cuttin’ it open myself.” Elizabeth bit her lip, shaking her head. It was foolish she knew, but she kept her fist closed as tightly as she could. It was the only connection she had to William, a reminder to her to never give up searching for him. “My Lady…” Gemma tried to sit up, cradling a hand to her chest. “Please, just give it to him.” Elizabeth shook her head desperately. “I can’t!” she sobbed. “My Lady!” came the coachman’s shout from behind the thief. Gritting his teeth, the thief pulled her fingers back and dragged the ring off, tugging harshly on her finger as she did.

Without thinking, driven by her desperation, Elizabeth grabbed hold of his wrist before he could move away. He grimaced and swipe at her arm with his dagger. Elizabeth didn’t let go, even as the pain seemed to shock her entire body. The coachman came to the rescue, but as Elizabeth expected, he could do nothing against this thief. He tried to grab him from behind and the thief whirled on him with a punch that sent the coachman sailing to the ground, his skinny limbs sprawling. Elizabeth winced, knowing the old coachman would not handle such a fall well. But she was grateful for the coachman’s actions, because it made the thief drop the ring. The fear was forgotten. All she could think was to run. To grab the ring lying among the grass and run.

I can’t let him have it. I can’t. A hand grabbed her from behind and then pain exploded in her side. Elizabeth lost her strength in an instant, sapped out by the blood that now coated her gown. She couldn’t hold on to anything any longer, couldn’t keep herself standing. As she sank to the ground, she looked up to see that he now held the bloody handkerchief in his hand, wiping angrily at his hands with it. “I hope this was worth all this trouble you’ve caused me,” he growled, lifting the ring up to his eye level. “Or else I might just come back for you. Maybe I’ll cut into your pretty face the next time.” “No…” She couldn’t feel anything anymore.

Calm settled over her body even as she reached out to him with blood fingers. “You can…have anything else. Just not that…”

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