by: A. K. Naten
For disclaimers, etc., see Part One.
It had been a confusing, emotionally-charged three days for the young Marchioness of Weldon. She was not surprised to hear that her husband had left the castle immediately after their violently enlightening altercation, but she was surprised when her handmaid told her that he hadn't returned that night nor the next day.
Gwynneth felt sure that Anton meant to separate from her for good. How could he not? She'd been violated and spoiled by another man and now, according to the doctor, she carried his child rather than her husband's. How could Anton tolerate that? He wouldn't, Gwynneth was certain. Anton could have any woman in the realm... why would he settle for someone like her? For someone impure and ruined?
Gwynneth still cried, but she wasn't sure anymore what she was crying about. Was it the shock of finding out she was pregnant? The shame and humiliation of having to tell Anton what'd happened between her and Aldred? The trauma and terror of having her loving husband turn on her and become so physically hateful? The agony of waiting to discover what her fate, and the fate of her unborn child, would be? Or, perhaps, it was all of these and so much more.
Perhaps it was the realization that her life was taking yet another dramatic turn, and that, again, it was out of her control. The happiness and contented life that she thought she'd found had been unmercifully torn from her grasp and shredded to ribbons. The kind, caring husband she thought she had was now a furious demon who loathed her. Her dreams of having his child and living happily ever after with him had been dashed to a million pieces, and she was now left with nothing. Nothing except the unborn child of a man she would forever despise. Her life had turned into a travesty of the greatest magnitude.
She still couldn't believe it - didn't want to believe it. She went over everything in her mind a hundred times, calculating dates and times and the peculiarities of her 'illness', trying to find some evidence or some way of proving that the child was Anton's. But alas, she could find nothing. She hated to admit it, but it seemed that indeed Victor could be correct about the child's conception, and therefore, parentage.
Gwynneth mourned. She mourned for the baby that now dwelt inside her because of the mixed feelings of joy and loathing she felt for it, and she mourned over the loss of the brief, fleeting happiness she'd shared with Anton. Nothing else really mattered if Anton left her. Whether or not she had a child seemed unimportant if she didn't have her husband. Over the course of the past several fortnights, Anton had become her guiding light, her anchor. She had come to need him and depend on him for everything. If she lost him, all else would become insignificant.
When the Marchioness Dowager came to call on her the second day of her husband's absence, Gwynneth was certain it was to tell her to pack her bags and leave. Instead, Lady Marina asked her what in the world had taken place to cause Anton to disappear. Gwynneth wanted to tell the Lady what had happened, but the only thing she could do was cry. She tried to get her pathetic sobbing under control, but obviously having little patience with the matter, Lady Marina stormed out of her room and did not return.
Unable to take the pressure any longer, Gwynneth finally broke down and confessed everything to her trusted ladies maid. Alice listened dutifully while Gwynneth poured her heart out and cried all over again, and when the tale was all said and done, Alice told her Lady that she was inclined to agree with the physician as well. Gwynneth was shocked as Alice explained how she suspected that something had happened with Aldred, and how and why she'd been harboring additional suspicions about a pregnancy all along. As Gwynneth wept again at her plight, Alice wrapped her in her arms and rocked her gently, insisting that everything would be all right.
Gwynneth wanted so badly to believe her.
Alice had arisen early in the morning, determined to spur her young charge out of her depressive state. She'd convinced Gwynneth to get up early and take a stroll with her around the Manor grounds, promising that the fresh air would do her a world of good. Alice carefully helped her Lady dress and stood in front of her while she fixed her hair and chatted enthusiastically about how beautiful the countryside looked at this time of the year.
Gwynneth only listened half-heartedly as she sat in the chair and allowed Alice to primp her. She knew that the handmaid was trying to make her feel better, and she did appreciate it; she just didn't feel like leaving her room today. As far as she was concerned, she didn't care if she ever left her room again.
A knock on the door interrupted both women's thoughts. Gwynneth's heart leapt to her throat as she and Alice exchanged worried looks. Gwynneth nodded and the maid walked to the door and opened it.
The sight of her husband's figure in the doorway nearly caused Gwynneth to faint. She drew a quick breath and gripped the armrests of the chair she was sitting in, fearful that she might actually fall over.
Not waiting for an invitation, Anton stepped into the room. Judging by the look on Gwynneth's face, the young woman was either surprised to see her or absolutely panic-stricken. Refusing to get side-tracked by feelings of guilt, Anton shifted her gaze and spoke to Alice, "I wish to speak to my wife alone."
The low, flat tone of Lord Anton's voice brooked no argument and cut through the tense atmosphere like cold steel. For a brief moment, Alice debated leaving her Lady. Gwynneth had told her what'd happened in the bathing chambers, and Alice was terrified that Anton might revisit his wrath on the young blonde again. She hesitated, indecisively flipping her eyes back and forth between her Lord and her Lady.
Anton recognized and understood the maid's hesitation, and she was even glad that the older woman was so vigilant for Gwynneth. Still, she would not have someone disobey her wishes or her authority. She glared at the maid, arching an eyebrow sharply and silently scolding the woman.
Alice immediately dropped her eyes and nodded, "Yes Milord." She skittered quickly past Anton but before she disappeared out the door, she turned back and gave Gwynneth a worried, sorrowful look. The young Lady met her eyes and Alice could see the fear plainly visible. Still, the maid obediently closed the door and said a prayer before turning away and leaving the two alone.
Gwynneth's heart was beating in triple time as Anton walked further into the room and stared at her. He opened his mouth slightly as though he was going to say something, but then seemed to change his mind, averting his eyes and turning away to go and stand in front of the fireplace instead. As her mind spun and churned with thoughts and fears of what her husband might have come to say, and do, Gwynneth observed him carefully.
Anton looked tired and weary, but it was more than that. He looked positively defeated. It was as though the past three days had been as hard on him as they'd been on Gwynneth. His strong, beautiful face was pale and creased with tension, his sky-blue eyes were hollow and empty, and his broad shoulders seemed to sag with exhaustion. Gwynneth wondered what on earth she could possibly say to him to help right the wrongs between them. Her natural instinct told her to fall to her knees before Anton and beg forgiveness and plead for her life, but she knew that she should wait for her husband to speak before she did anything too rash. She hoped he didn't make her wait too long; it felt as though her neck was stretched out on the executioner's block, awaiting the cutting blow. When Anton turned back around to face her, Gwynneth's heart nearly leapt out of her mouth.
"I've come to a decision regarding... the situation." Anton said, her voice sounding low and stern as it filled the stilted silence of the room. Gwynneth held her breath and continued to wait. "This... child," Anton nearly choked on the word and she clenched her jaw before continuing, "will be accepted and named as mine."
Gwynneth expelled her breath but still stared at her husband anxiously, for he still had not passed judgment on her.
Anton walked toward Gwynneth, wanting to get closer to her so that she understood her next statement clearly. "As for the child's parentage, everyone will assume that I am the father, and we will allow and encourage that belief." she said, her voice dipping even lower as she stared hard at Gwynneth, "No one is to know about Aldred... no one is to know what happened between the two of you... do you understand?"
Gwynneth nodded vigorously, "Yes, My Lord." she managed. Her heart continued to pound in her chest and she dropped her eyes, unnerved by her husband's intense stare. She could feel herself trembling and she bit the inside of her cheek nervously.
"Good. The pregnancy will be announced soon, so you should prepare yourself." Anton instructed, watching her wife's face and hating the look of fear and shame that she saw there. But the situation had to be clarified and handled; surely Gwynneth knew this had been coming. Deciding that there was nothing further to say, Anton made to turn and walk away.
A fresh panic gripped Gwynneth as she realized that Anton was leaving and he hadn't said one word about what would become of her, or them; all he'd said is that she should 'prepare'. Prepare for what? Gwynneth wondered frantically. She knew that she should be obedient, and she wanted to please her husband and simply stay silent, but the unspoken questions were killing her. What did Anton have planned for her? For them and their relationship? Would they just continue to avoid each other? Would Anton keep her sequestered until the baby was born? Would he divorce her immediately after? Wouldn't people ask questions? Wouldn't they begin to wonder why the once-happy couple now pointedly avoided each other?
Gwynneth couldn't stand not knowing, so she took a chance, swallowing her fear and speaking out before Anton disappeared. "My Lord?"
Anton stopped and turned back to look at Gwynneth. It was only then that she really noticed the strained look of anxiety on her wife's soft, exquisite face. It pained her to see such misery and cloudy uncertainty in the once clear, blue-green depths of Gwynneth's eyes.
"W-What are we to do if anyone asks questions or... or suspects something different from what we say?" Gwynneth asked, her voice timid and tremulous.
"They won't, and even if they would, we do nothing!" Anton snapped. "We must pretend that we've been blessed and feign excitement over the prospect of having a beautiful, bouncing baby!" Anton said snidely, the thought of having to pretend anything more suddenly infuriating her. "According to my Mother, we should be celebrating!" Anton added, lifting her arms and making exaggerated motions, "Aldred has managed to bless us from the grave! It's really quite generous of him, isn't it?! I must remember to thank him in my prayers tonight!" she ranted, her suddenly loud voice echoing off the room's stark stone walls.
Gwynneth immediately dropped her eyes and shrunk back into her chair, shaken by her husband's outburst and obvious lingering anger. She knew the potential of his fury; she did not need a reminder. And yet... still... Anton hadn't said what the future held for her, specifically. What fate did he have in store? What special Hell did he have planned for her? She so desperately needed to know.
Gwynneth swallowed hard and closed her eyes, forcing herself to be brave and praying that her husband would not grow more angry with her persistent questions. "Begging your pardon, My Lord, but, please... c-can you tell me what you plan to do with me?" she asked meekly, her voice quavering as she bowed her head in dutiful subservience.
Anton huffed aloud at the question, "'Plan'? That's amusing... someone told me just recently that nothing can ever really be 'planned'." Her sharp retort was met with silence, and Anton looked down at her wife's cowering form. She hesitated, her tender feelings conflicting with her angry thoughts. "I suppose some might say that I should divorce you, or send you away, or even toss you out into the streets."
Gwynneth's head snapped up, her eyes bulging in sudden panic. She looked at her husband, but his eyes were not focused on her. They were staring over her head, locked in a far-off gaze.
"But... I shan't do that," Anton added, her voice sounding softer as she shook her head slowly, "...I can't. What happened isn't your fault. 'Tis my brother's fault." She paused and continued to stare as an angry undertone crept back into her voice. "But... Aldred isn't here to take the blame and pay the price, is he?" She turned and directed her stare back at Gwynneth. The petite woman wilted, but didn't look away. "You and I, and this child," she continued, pointing to Gwynneth's belly, "we shall be the ones to pay the price and endure whatever consequences come."
Gwynneth said nothing; she just continued to look at Anton with pleading apology and doleful regret in her eyes. Anton didn't want to take her frustration out on the young woman. She didn't deserve it. Acutely feeling the tumult of emotions as they roiled inside her, Anton told herself that she had done what she had to do, and now she had to leave. She needed to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the room. She could not stand the look of shame and uncertain vulnerability on her wife's beautiful countenance.
Anton dropped her eyes and turned away, but before she opened the door, she stopped. Turning her head slightly, Anton spoke over her shoulder without looking back. "I... I wish to apologize," she hesitated, her voice soft and guilt-laden, "...for striking you." She paused, closing her eyes as she turned back to the door, "It shan't happen again."
Gwynneth watched her husband leave the room. His presence had filled her with fear and anxiousness, but now that he was gone, she was left feeling empty and even more unhappy. The wonderful, passionate, trusting relationship that had so tenuously been built between them was now lost forever. Lost and ruined because of what she carried inside her... something that was supposed to be positive and happy, but instead left her feeling soiled and guilty. Gwynneth wondered if the feelings would ever fade.
How was she to feel about this child who should never have been? A child who was destroying dreams and lives because of its very existence... a child who put an end to the peaceful happiness she'd only just begun to enjoy. How was this going to affect her in the long run? How would it affect Anton?
Anton would have to deceive everyone and live a lie, and it was because of her... because of this child. They would lie about the pregnancy, and the baby, and they would have to continue with the deception for the rest of their lives. Gwynneth would go along with what Anton wished, but she knew that some day, in some way, Anton would most likely change his mind about either her, or the child, or both. And then what? He'd reacted once in a violent manner; what if it happened again?
Even though she knew that her relationship with her husband was destroyed, Gwynneth told herself that she should be grateful that Anton was apparently willing to keep her. He'd said that he understood it wasn't her fault, and that he didn't blame her. It had surprised her to hear this, truly. She knew that if Anton really wanted to, he could tell everyone the truth and she could be tossed away like mere garbage. If the Marquess so desired, Gwynneth could be blamed for everything and banished forever for her crime. But, Anton said he would not do that to her, and she wanted badly to trust in what he said.
Gwynneth wanted to believe that Anton was willing to keep her, and the child, because he really did care for her, despite everything. At one time, she would have believed that easily; now she wasn't sure.
The precious bond of trust between them had been broken, and she couldn't be sure of anything at all right now.
It was only a few days later that the pregnancy was officially announced. Everyone in Weldon celebrated with joy. Finally something positive had happened for the noble family. Finally the death and depression that had surrounded the kingdom would dissipate, and there would at last be new life and new blood. The dark clouds that had descended upon the small kingdom were lifting. All was well and good once again.
It was a shame that the young Marquess and Marchioness did not share everyone's merry sentiments.
While the rest of Weldon celebrated, Anton continued to avoid her wife, and Gwynneth spent most of her time in her room, day after day, week after week. Whenever someone congratulated either of them, they graciously accepted it while plastering on a fake smile and feigning happiness. Deep inside, however, the stressful situation was beginning to take its toll on both the Lord and Lady.
Gwynneth missed her husband. She missed the happiness that they'd enjoyed and the closeness they'd shared. She missed his gentle voice and the way it spoke to her so kindly; she missed his enchanting eyes and the way they looked at her so adoringly. She missed being held by his arms every night while she slumbered and dreamt. She missed his smell and his warmth... she missed his tender touch and his passionate kisses.... she missed his love. She hated feeling so miserable day in and day out, but she didn't know how to break the cycle of despair.
For her part, Anton was going through her own private Hell. She was now, because of a most sadistic, cruel twist of fate, living not one lie, but two. Not only was she pretending to be a man, she was now also pretending to be a father. She felt like the biggest fraud and hypocrite in the entire world. It was all she could do some days to keep her sanity. She stayed away from the Manor house as much as possible, taking herself on long, cross-country horseback rides, engaging in all-day hunts, or sparring and training with her fellow knights and warriors. Anything to keep herself preoccupied.
The Marchioness Dowager constantly gave Anton encouragement and repeatedly convinced her that she was doing the right thing, but Anton was, quite frankly, tired of hearing it. Her mother had no idea what it was like to live one life that was a lie, let alone two. Still, that didn't stop Marina from chiding her daughter about how she needed to 'keep up appearances' and be seen in public, affectionately and compassionately supporting Gwynneth. Lady Marina was very concerned about the public perception of the relationship between the Marquess and Marchioness, and she wished that Anton was as well.
Anton knew that it looked bad for her to be spending so much time away from her wife. She knew that tongues were, and had been, wagging for some time. Honestly, she didn't see how that could be prevented or changed at this point. Those who worked in and around the manor knew that something negative had taken place between the Marquess and Marchioness - the rumor mill of the staff and servants had already revealed and devoured that juicy little tidbit. But rather than trying to do damage control and go through the agony of constantly putting on fake performances, Anton instead dropped little hints and excuses here and there regarding her reasons for being apart from her wife. Gwynneth was still feeling poorly... she was in a very fragile condition... she tired very easily and needed plenty of rest... etc., etc. Anton told herself that, technically, it was all true, so she decided that the excuses would just have to do. She convinced herself that she really didn't care if people believed her reasons or not. It was all the justification she was going to provide, 'public appearances' be damned.
But rumor mills and public appearances were only part of the problem for Anton. What troubled her most were the lies and the toll they were taking on her. The fallacy she'd been living her entire life was now being compounded by having two additional lives thrown into the deception. She'd had nothing to do with the creation of either lie, but she was entirely responsible for them now. It didn't seem fair, and it just wasn't right.
Anton was kept awake at night by a multitude of angry feelings and guilty thoughts. She felt primarily guilty because she had screamed at Gwynneth for lying to her, and yet she had been lying to the innocent blonde from day one. She was the liar, not Gwynneth.
Anton lied about her true identity because she had to continue with a charade that began years ago. Her mother insisted that her lie was 'necessary', but it didn't make it any easier to swallow or perpetuate. Gwynneth had lied about being with someone else out of shame and a fear of what would happen to her if anyone knew the truth. So which lie was worse? Which one was more justified? Anton didn't really want to contemplate the answers. She only knew that she hated the lies that now dominated and complicated her life, and she saw no way out.
The young Marquess knew that she would just have to let go of the angry feelings and try to move on and live her life. That was easier said than done, however. She had to be careful of everything she did and said. She had to be aware of the eyes that constantly watched her, and she had to be conscious of her reactions and expressions when she was near her wife.
Anton felt a mixture of hurt and longing whenever she did come into contact with Gwynneth. She had always found her wife very attractive and appealing, and still did; but she was having such a hard time dealing with the harsh realization of what had happened between the young blonde and her brother. She just didn't know how to get past it. Aldred had tainted Gwynneth and took something sacred from her. He had damaged her and left her with the most horrible scar possible... an unwanted child. A child who would remind both of them, every day, of the truth, and the lies.
Anton not only hated Aldred for what he'd done, she hated the fact that her dead brother succeeded where she should have succeeded, but never could. She could never get her wife pregnant. She could never transfer a part of herself inside Gwynneth and then watch as their two life forces came together and created a tiny human being that was a perfect combination of the two of them. It was impossible. Marina had said that because of that fact, the child was a blessing in disguise. But Anton didn't see it that way. She only saw that the relationship she'd been building with the beautiful young woman she'd grown to care about so deeply had been stolen from her. The place that Anton should have rightfully filled had been unjustly usurped and filled by someone else. And Gwynneth carried the evidence of the illegitimacy in her womb.
Despite her resolve to just accept the pregnancy, the child, and the lie, Anton found herself stewing about all of it day in and day out. She had been hurt badly by the whole thing.
She would not be hurt any more. She vowed to protect her heart now, just as she protected it in battle... at any and all cost.
The weeks passed quietly and uneventfully for both the Marquess and Marchioness of Weldon. While Anton's misery and frustration seemed to lessen as she convinced herself just to get over everything and move on, Gwynneth's sorrow and despair began to change into a mildly festering mixture of anger and resentment.
She felt as though she were being punished; punished for something she'd had no control over. Her husband had said that he didn't blame nor fault her, and yet she was treated like a leper. No one in the Manor came to visit her or check on her health or her progress. She barely got a 'good day' from the staff, and no one inquired after her or sought her opinion for anything. Granted, she didn't venture out of her room too often, but still - she was supposed to be the Lady of the Manor, and yet it seemed that everything was operating around her, without her.
She supposed that Lady Marina had stepped up to take control of the servants and the daily tasks and duties in and around the Manor, and as much as she knew she should appreciate the gesture, Gwynneth found that she instead resented it. Perhaps Anton and Lady Marina assumed that she was too young, or too weak, or too feeble-minded to rise above her misfortune and forge ahead with her life. Well, she decided that she would have to prove to them that she was none of those things. If they could carry on as though everything were fine and good, then she could too.
Gwynneth awoke on this morning feeling agitated. She hadn't slept very well because of a dreadful and bizarre dream she'd begun having lately, so she was especially tired and irritable. Lying in her bed and contemplating her predicament in general, she finally decided that today she would force herself to venture forth from her room and begin the reclamation of her title as Marchioness of Weldon. No more sulking and feeling sorry for herself; no more wallowing in despair; no more hiding in shame. It was time for her to show some bravery and determined strength.
Alice was, of course, thrilled that her Lady was at last showing some resolve and fortitude. The handmaid knew of her young charge's keen mind and strong will; she'd been anxiously waiting for the blonde to blossom and come into her own. Perhaps now was not the most ideal time, seeing how the Marquess and Marchioness were at odds with one another, but still, any sign that indicated Lady Gwynneth was emerging from her cocoon was a good one, in Alice's mind.
The Manor was abuzz with preparation for a visit from another noble family. Lord Hershel had been a good friend and ally to the former Lord Edgar for many years. The elderly Hershel had been unable to attend Edgar's burial, nor had he been able to speak with Anton since she'd become Marquess. He sent word to Anton several days ago saying that he had recently remarried, and that he and his new wife were traveling the countryside and wanted very much to visit Weldon.
Gwynneth wasn't told about the impending visit until the last minute, and it incensed her immensely. She was the Lady of the House; she should be in charge of all preparations, and yet no one seemed to care one stitch what she thought. She wasn't sure if this was Anton's doing or Marina's. Nevertheless, she decided that it would have to change.
When Gwynneth at last descended from her room, she immediately came upon Lady Marina harshly barking orders to the staff and servants in the dining hall. Everyone skittered around cleaning, decorating, and outfitting the huge room and table in preparation for the great feast that was planned in Lord Hershel and Lady Josephine's honor. Marina was quibbling with one of the female seamstresses over the color and type of draperies to be used when Gwynneth walked up behind her. Surprised at the sudden appearance of the long-absent Marchioness, the seamstress gasped as she realized who it was.
"M-My Lady," the girl stumbled, bowing her head slightly, "so good to see you up and about." She added with a smile.
Gwynneth smiled back, "Thank you, Anna."
Marina had by now turned to scrutinize her daughter-in-law, and when Gwynneth's gaze came to meet hers, she smiled thinly, "Yes indeed; it is good to finally see you back on your feet again."
The comment didn't sound caustic, but Gwynneth couldn't help but take it that way. Although Marina hadn't said anything negative to her throughout the entire ordeal, Gwynneth had a niggling feeling that the Marchioness Dowager was not completely on her side. She knew Anton felt that she was without guilt, but she couldn't be sure of what Marina felt. The older woman was hard to read, and even harder to figure out. The only thing Gwynneth knew for sure was that Marina was strong, and in order to assert her rightful place in the Manor, she would have to be stronger. The young blonde had been coaching herself about this very moment; she knew her place and knew that she had the authority to overrule Marina. She did not want to ruffle feathers or hurt feelings, but if she needed to, Gwynneth told herself that she must, and would, fight for her rights.
"I trust that you're feeling better?" Marina asked.
"Oh yes, much better," Gwynneth smiled politely again, "good enough to jump back into the fray of every day life in the Manor." The smile was sweet, but the words were laced with underlying inferences. Inferences that Gwynneth hoped said, 'I'm in charge here.'
Gwynneth turned her attention to the seamstress, bypassing Marina's mildly surprised expression. "You two seemed to be at odds; what were you discussing?"
"Err," the seamstress hesitated, flashing a quick look at Lady Marina before answering, "we were just discussing which colors to use, Milady." She explained, indicating the long swaths of embroidered drapes she held in her arms.
Marina interrupted, unable to keep her mouth shut, "Yes, Anna was preparing to use the blue drapes and colors, but I feel burgundy would be much better."
"Hmm," Gwynneth pursed her lips as she reached out to finger the dark blue cloth of the drapes in question. "Anton's favorite color is blue... I think we should go with that."
She looked at Anna, who in turn flipped a quick sideways glance at Lady Marina. Annoyed at the older woman's obvious influence over the seamstress, Gwynneth turned to give Marina an expectant look. She held her head high and raised an eyebrow, daring Marina to usurp her authority and go against her wishes.
Surprised at the young Lady's sudden display of bravery, but knowing that she was being tested, Marina graciously cocked her head and nodded once, "As you wish... you are the Lady of the House." She said in a tone that told Gwynneth that she understood the message that was being sent.
Instead of gloating, however, Gwynneth merely gave a small nod in return, then turned back to the seamstress. "Hang the blue drapery, and please be swift about it."
"Yes, Milady," the seamstress said, quickly turning on her heel and dashing away.
Gwynneth turned back to face Marina again, wondering if the older woman would have something to say now that they were alone. But she found only Marina's back as she watched her disappear from the dining hall. The young Marchioness wondered if everything between her and the older woman would be a contest from now on. Would Marina denounce Gwynneth's ability and authority and try to force her ways and beliefs? Or would she deign authority to Gwynneth and only publicly pretend to let her handle things while privately trying to keep control? Could they ever learn to run the Manor together, in harmony, or would there always be a power struggle?
Gwynneth didn't know; she supposed only time would tell.
Lord Hershel and Lady Josephine's visit was now in its second full day, and Anton was quite ready for the old man and his entourage to leave Weldon. He was a kindly old soul, but he was dreadfully boring, and he kept prattling on and on about Edgar's death and how he fancied himself growing closer to the grave with every day. Still, Anton played the gracious host, listening to the old man's repetitive laments and assuring him that he was alive and well, much unlike her father.
The visit was stressful and draining on the young Marquess, in many ways. It was bad enough that Hershel was depressing Anton and boring her to tears, but in addition to that, the old Lord's young wife was shamelessly coquettish, and her handmaids and personal attendants were flirtatious as well. Anton apologized to Hershel the first few times his wife casually looped her arm through Anton's or touched her in what Anton considered a much too friendly way. She feared the old man would think she was inviting the brash behavior, but instead, Hershel laughed it off and applauded his wife's 'youthful zest for life'.
At first it shocked Anton to have all these female visitors openly interact and toy with her so boldly. But after awhile, Anton grew to rather enjoy their unabashed, flirtatious attention. She wasn't getting attention anywhere else - not that she was pointing fingers; she knew that it was by her choice - so she decided that if Hershel didn't seem to mind, she wouldn't either.
It was the third, and hopefully final, day of Lord Hershel's visit to Weldon, and Gwynneth was more than tired of all of them and all the false pretenses.
She hated the stress that permeated the room every time she and Anton needed to be together for Hershel's sake, and she hated the fact that they had to do this repeatedly. Lord Hershel was a blathering old bore of a man, but he never failed to eye Gwynneth lecherously and toss her overly friendly grins every time she walked into the room. He stood too close to her, and he smiled entirely too much at her. The old man unnerved her greatly. And, if that weren't bad enough, Hershel's wife, Josephine, and her attendants were shameless trollops who flirted and batted their eyes at Anton - right in front of her, no less. She realized that her husband was young and attractive and obviously garnered the attention of women easily, but still, to be so blatant was downright shameful and rude.
She just wanted all of them to leave, posthaste.
Gwynneth had finally managed to leave the library, using the excuse that she was very tired and needed to retire for the night. She left Anton with Lord Hershel, noticing the obvious boredom on her husband's blank face as Hershel ranted and raved about death and dying, but not feeling much sympathy for him. She was upset that Anton not only permitted the visiting women to cavort with him, but he seemed to be enjoying it a bit too much. They smiled and fluttered their eyes at him, and he smiled right back. He escorted Lady Josephine all around the Manor, gladly taking her arm in his while chatting and smiling pleasantly. Gwynneth could read her husband's expressions and body language fairly well by now, and she could tell when he was pretending or not pretending. It infuriated her that he was relaxed enough with these women to the point where he laughed and talked with all of them at length.
Feeling a bit too uptight to actually retire for the night, Gwynneth decided to climb the stairs to the open tower and gaze at the night sky. The fresh air helped to relax her and she needed to clear her mind. She ended up not star-gazing for long, however. As her repetitive yawns proved, she was more weary than she thought, so she headed back down the stairs and down the long hallway toward her bedroom.
As she was passing an intersecting hallway, she distinctly heard the murmur of voices, punctuated by a shrill giggle. Her curiosity piqued, Gwynneth started down the other hallway in search of the noise source. When she rounded the corner, she was flabbergasted to find her husband and one of Lady Josephine's attendants huddled against the corridor wall, talking lowly and laughing with one another. Anton had one hand leaning against the wall and the other propped on his hip, but that wasn't what troubled Gwynneth. What troubled her was the young woman - she was standing much too close to Anton and was gazing up at him with a twinkle in her eyes and a filthy smirk on her lips... and her fingers were playfully fingering the hem of Anton's silk shirt.
Gwynneth was appalled, and she felt an acute rush of shock and hurt wash over her. She hesitated in the hallway, too astounded to move, and not quite brave enough to cause a distraction and interrupt the moment. Finally she made herself turn around and walk away from Anton and the woman, scurrying out of the hallway and away from the distressing situation.
Gwynneth was in tears by the time she reached the top of the tower where she'd been only moments earlier. The night breeze ruffled her hair and chilled the tears that streamed down her cheeks, and she wrapped her arms around herself tightly as she gazed out across the countryside.
As she stood and contemplated things, her hurt began to turn into anger. How could Anton carry-on with these women and behave in such a despicable way? Gwynneth knew that it wasn't uncommon for Lords and noblemen to do whatever they pleased with whomever they desired, but as far as she knew, Anton had never done this. In her mind, it was deplorable and unfair. She was being vilified for being with another man - against her will - and yet her husband could go and cavort and philander with strange women whenever he wished? ...It wasn't right. Besides, what if Anton were to carry-on with one of the women and end up getting her with child? Based on the way the fates had been treating them lately, it was certainly something Anton should consider! As far as Gwynneth knew, Anton had not been with anyone since they'd been married. She couldn't be absolutely certain, but judging from the way her husband had behaved before things became... complicated... Gwynneth had always assumed that she was the only one. But now, it appeared that this was no longer so.
More tears streamed down Gwynneth's fair cheeks as she mulled over the fact that her husband would rather be with some strange woman than with her. Why? She wondered. Is it because I'm so loathsome, he can't stand the sight of me? Is it because I'm so wretchedly soiled, he can't bear the thought of touching me? She began to cry harder. What if Anton was trying to 'get back' at her, or at Aldred? Perhaps he thought that since he couldn't make his own wife pregnant with his child, then by God he'll make someone else pregnant. Could that be what he was thinking? Could he, and would he, really do such an awful thing? Gwynneth didn't know. Her mind kept racing from one absurd thought to another as she stood there in the night's silence and released her frustration and anger through tears.
Anton was tired as she climbed the stairs to the tower. She'd played nicely with Lady Josephine and her maids, but when one of them followed her to her bedroom chambers and tried to cajole her way inside, Anton decided that she'd had enough. She tried to turn the girl away as gently and politely as possible, kindly telling her that she appreciated her attentions, but that she wasn't interested in carrying-on with her. The girl didn't take the turn-down immediately to heart, and when she began boldly caressing Anton's arms and frolicking with her clothing, the Marquess knew that she needed to be more firm. She fully expected to hear some kind of complaint about her rejection from Lord Hershel, but she didn't care. They were leaving the morrow, and daybreak couldn't come soon enough for her.
As soon as Anton reached the top of the tower, she saw that she wasn't alone. Immediately fearing that it was another one of Lady Josephine's handmaids, she nearly turned and dashed back down the stairs. But she hesitated a moment, thinking that the figure looked familiar. She walked closer and soon recognized her wife's form.
Gwynneth heard the footsteps and turned around, surprised to see her husband standing before her. Her heart fluttered with a mixture of fear and lingering anger over what she'd witnessed earlier.
Anton frowned at the tears and the strange expression on Gwynneth's face. It looked like she was upset and angry, but Anton couldn't be certain; she'd never seen the blonde display any kind of anger before. She wondered why Gwynneth would be up here late at night, all alone and obviously distraught over something.
"What are you doing up here at this hour, alone?" Anton asked, "It's quite late; you shouldn't be out and about; you should be in bed, resting."
Gwynneth's hackles rose at the scolding tone in her husband's voice. "I dare to say the same to you, My Lord." She replied, carefully trying to mind the tone of her voice. "But then, you weren't exactly alone, were you?" She tried to sound casual, but it didn't come out that way; it came out caustic and angry.
Anton's gaze narrowed, and she immediately understood what was going on. She'd thought she heard someone else in the hallway when she was trying to rebuff the flirtatious young maiden; she just didn't realize it'd been her wife. She supposed she should just tell Gwynneth that the girl was being very forward with her, but that nothing had happened. But, she was tired, and she didn't feel like going into detail about the whole annoying mess. Besides, Anton reasoned, it was ridiculous for Gwynneth to be angry; the young woman couldn't possibly give a whip about her brutish husband or their relationship anymore.
Before Anton could formulate more thoughts, Gwynneth interrupted, "Who was that, that woman you were speaking so intimately with?" The disdain in her voice was evident.
Anton sighed, not in the mood for any more drama this night. She was surprised, though, that the little blonde had the audacity to broach the subject and raise her voice in such a way. She'd heard from her mother that Gwynneth was growing quite bold and assertive, but she hadn't given the complaint much credence. She'd just figured that her mother was feeling the pinch of being replaced and harbored a little jealousy.
Anton shook her head slightly, "She is no one," she answered dismissively as she turned away and walked over to the edge of the parapet wall. "...No one you need to concern yourself with."
Gwynneth gave a snort of incredulity, "Oh I think I should be concerned... I think I should be very concerned when my husband allows himself to be so, so... familiar with some strange woman!"
Anton spun around to face Gwynneth, surprised at what her wife seemed to be inferring. She would not deny that she had dilly-dallied with visiting ladies and maidens in the past, when she was merely Marquess Edgar's second son, but even then she'd never fully taken advantage of any of them. And now, being a married man, she knew that she would never even consider such a thing. To have her wife assume differently and dare to question her about it incensed her greatly. It was one thing for Gwynneth to question and disagree with her mother as the former Marchioness, but it was quite another to question Anton as the Marquess and Lord of the Manor.
Anton glared at her wife, "I don't believe it's any of your business what I do, and it's certainly none of your concern whom I choose to do it with." she retorted, her voice low and warning.
Gwynneth's mouth dropped open in horror; how could Anton say such a cold and heartless thing? She took a step toward him, "It is my concern!" Gwynneth responded emphatically, daring to raise her voice further. "I am your wife! I am the Lady of this House and the mother of a future Lord or Lady of this House!" She touched a hand to her slightly-swollen abdomen.
Anton gritted her teeth and stepped closer to the younger woman, glaring menacingly, "Yes, you are my wife," she growled, taking another step and coming nose to nose with Gwynneth, who was suddenly realizing that she'd made a huge mistake in challenging her husband. "But you are a Lady in title only... or do you need to be reminded that the child you're carrying is my brother's bastard?!"
The loud voice and cutting words sliced right through Gwynneth. Her mouth opened in shock at the vehemence coming from her husband's lips and she brought a hand up to her chest to quell her racing heart.
Anton's eyes flashed blue fire as she held her face close to her wife's and scolded further, "You would be wise to remember that fact before you even dare to speak to me this way again!"
The warning was delivered loud and clear and Gwynneth received it full force. Anton continued to stare harshly and bore her message into her wife until finally the younger woman succumbed and dropped her eyes. Gwynneth bowed her head, silently admitting her defeat and submitting to her husband's dominance and authority. A tense moment passed before Anton turned on her heel and disappeared quickly, leaving Gwynneth in tears and reeling with shock at her husband's bitter, angry words.
It was hours later, and still Anton was rehashing the altercation with Gwynneth. Part of her felt anger and resentment toward the blonde, but part of her also felt bad for lashing out and saying such spiteful things. She told herself that she couldn't help it though; Gwynneth should have known better than to speak to her in such a way. How dare the little woman presume to lecture to her, the Marquess and Lord of the Manor, about propriety and behavior? It was absurd.
She almost wished that she'd told Gwynneth that she should really be thankful that her husband hadn't taken some young thing to bed in order to curb urges and release frustrations. She certainly could do that if she pleased; noblemen did it all the time!
But... Anton knew she would never do that. It was true that she still ached inside and that sometimes she even wished she could hurt others the way she hurt; but still... Anton knew that she could not betray Gwynneth outright. Despite the angry words and lingering pain between them, Anton could not deny that she still cared for her wife, deep down inside.
At times the damage to their relationship seemed hopelessly irreparable, yet Anton continued to hold on to a glimmer of hope that Gwynneth not only still cared for her, but that some day, somehow, they might find their way back to one another.
...To Be Continued in Part 6...
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