Lady Alice Parsons alighted from her carriage and was welcomed by her brother and his many staff, She felt greatly relieved that her long journey was finally over.
“My dear brother!” she exclaimed, clasping his hands and looking up into his warm brown eyes, so similar to her own. “It is good to see you again.”
“And you.” John, the Duke of Royston, smiled back at her with apparent fondness, although there was no spark of joy in his eyes. “Was the journey an arduous one?”
She tried to laugh even though her concern for her dear brother continued to grow by the minute. “It was indeed, as well you know, but you are inclined to remain at the furthest estate from town, are you not?”
He shrugged, although she was glad to see the rueful smile on his face. “It was always good enough for Father, so I should think it good enough for me also.”
Chuckling, Alice took his arm and greeted the staff, who all appeared to be somewhat relieved at her presence, given the warmth that practically exuded from them all. Alice tried not to let her despair grow, even though all of the worries she had been carrying for so long suddenly burst into life. It was true, then. Her brother was just as distraught as before.
“Have you been very busy whilst I have been away?” she asked, as brightly as she could. “I know six months is not particularly long to be apart from one’s sister, but I do hope that you have missed me just a little!”
Again, that smile that did not pass to his eyes. “I have been as busy as one is expected to be when one is a Duke,” he muttered, passing one hand through his dark, straight hair. “There has been the usual estate business to attend to and, thus far, things appear to be going remarkably well, according to my stewards. I have been relieved to have been excused from all social occasions these last twelve months, although that has recently begun to change.”
There was no delight expressed in this, but rather a deep sense of frustration that he, the Duke of Royston, should be requested to come to a dinner or some other event. Alice shook her head to herself, realizing that her brother had still not returned to his former self.
“It is to be expected,” she said, as gently as she could. “They are your friends, John, and are only doing what they think is best.”
“I do not wish it,” he replied, firmly. “I continue to refuse them and have not yet attended a single social occasion. I have no plans to do anything of the sort in the near future.”
She arched one eyebrow, looking up at him as he walked beside her into the drawing room, where tea and refreshments were already waiting. “Even though I have returned?”
That gave him pause, his eyes wrinkling at the corners as he considered what she had said, his square jaw jutting out just a little.
“You may attend whatever you wish,” he replied, after a moment. “I shall do no such thing.”
Seeing that he was in no mood to discuss the matter further, Alice kept her own counsel and remained silent. The atmosphere grew a little tense, making her stomach churn a trifle uncomfortably as her brother paced up and down in front of the fire. She did not blame him for his behavior, however, for she had very little understanding of what a man in his situation must feel, but she was not, to all intents and purposes, a particularly emotional young lady. Instead, she had more of a practical nature and knew full well that her brother could not simply ignore the fact that he had duties towards both himself and to his friends.
“You are happy to remain here for a time, as you said?”
Glancing up at her brother, she saw that there was something of a darkness in his expression, a deep concern that she was not to remain with him for as long as she had said. Her smile was broad as she nodded, ensuring that he knew there was little to concern him. “But of course, John,” she said, practically. “I have no intention of leaving this estate until you require it of me. I am more than content here. After all, it was my home for many years!”
John’s relief was evident. “Indeed, it was, and it shall be as glad as I to have you in residence once more, I am quite sure of it,” he replied, with a small smile. “Although I do believe that the manor house Father left you in his will is more than adequate!”
Alice chuckled, her eyes twinkling. “More than adequate indeed, for it even has a gatehouse which I have none other than the gardener residing in since I have no need of it. I have enjoyed being closer to London also. Mrs. Harper, my companion, remains there alone and will be quite relieved to have some time to herself, I am quite sure.” Carefully, she poured the tea, before handing him a cup. “Although I should warn you, John, I fully intend to marry by the end of next year. Another Season should do it, I think.”
Her brother lifted a brow, regarding her carefully, although he said nothing.
“If what you are asking by that expression is whether or not a few gentlemen have shown any partiality towards me, then I will state that they have! I find them all to be quite decent gentlemen with good character and, of course, a good family.”
“Of course.” Alice resisted the urge to roll her eyes, knowing that her brother meant well. “I would not think of accepting them were they not.”
Grunting quietly, John accepted this and reached for something to eat.
“You will wish to speak to the one I eventually settle on, will you?” Alice murmured, watching John carefully.
There was a short pause. “I suppose I ought to, although I do not want you to think that I do not trust your judgment, Alice.”
That brought a small smile to her face, her heart warming. “Thank you, John. I do appreciate that.” She pressed her lips together, considering whether she ought to speak her mind to him but seeing the way he sat back in his chair, now appearing rather tired, she thought it best not to do so. Her words remained unspoken, still lingering on in her mind.
“I should change,” she murmured, setting aside her teacup and rising to her feet. “Are we to keep country hours?”
It was as though he did not see nor hear her for a moment, for his gaze took a long time to return to her and even then, she had to wait for a good few seconds before he nodded, slowly.
“Very well, then,” she continued, in as bright a voice as she could muster. “A little earlier than I am used to, but it is no great trial! I shall see you at dinner then, John. Do excuse me.”
He did not speak to her again, not even so much as to bid her goodbye for the moment, or to assure her that all of her things would have already been set out for her in her bedchamber, as he used to do. There was nothing but silence chasing her away, catching at her heels as she closed the door behind it. Tears sprang to her eyes as she pressed one hand to her mouth, deeply upset at the state of her poor, dear brother.
Slowly, she made her way up the grand staircase and along the hallway, her eyes still damp with tears. Even the old familiarity of the house she had grown up in did not soothe her aching soul. She had very little idea of how she ought to help him, worrying that her presence here would do nothing to pull him from his deep sadness and pain.
Drawing in a deep breath, she stepped into her bedchamber and found that her usual maid, Bessie, was busy putting the last of her things away.
“Do excuse me, my lady!” Bessie exclaimed, scrapping a curtsy. “I did not think –”
“There is nothing the matter, Bessie,” Alice replied, with as good a smile as she could muster. “I came up a few minutes earlier than expected. Is my bath drawn?”
Bessie nodded. “Steaming gently, my lady.”
A wave of relief crashed over her. “Then I shall go to it at once,” she replied, making her way to the dressing room where the bath would be waiting for her. “Thank you, Bessie.”
Just as she was about to enter the dressing room, with Bessie following behind her, she paused. Turning, she looked Bessie directly in the eye.
“Has he never recovered?”
Bessie hesitated, her color rising.
“You may speak freely, Bessie,” Alice commanded, quietly. “I wish to know the state of my brother and, from what I have seen, I can surmise that he is not in a particularly good frame of mind.”
Bessie shook her head, her expression somewhat downcast. “No, my lady. He still mourns his child every day.”
Closing her eyes for a moment, Alice fought to regain her composure. It had been almost eighteen months now since John had lost his wife in childbirth, but seeing him today, it was as though he was still at the very beginning of his grief.
“Sometimes, His Grace is up in the nursery, simply staring out at what was meant to be for his child,” Bessie continued, a little hesitantly. “I am not certain what it is we should do, my lady, for the staff have been very concerned for him, I can assure you.” She shook her head, her lips pulling down. “We were all so very relieved when we learned you were coming back, my lady.”
“He does not mourn his wife?”
Bessie blushed furiously, her gaze dropping away again. “I cannot say, my lady. I do not know His Grace’s thoughts.”
“But he only ever goes to the nursery?” Alice persisted. “He does not go to her bedchamber?”
A look of doubt crept over Alice’s features. “His Grace shut the room off, of course, during the year of mourning, but it is now being entirely redecorated, my lady.”
Alice drew in a sharp breath, fully aware of what this revealed about her brother.
“But His Grace is truly in such a deep despair that none of us knows how to help him, my lady,” Bessie finished, mournfully. “The stewards have been working ever so hard to keep things afloat, and Mrs. Rickert, the housekeeper, has been keeping everything as it ought to be here, of course.”
Alice was glad that Bessie had not allowed their difference in station to prevent her from speaking freely about John, for what she had said had given Alice a valuable insight into the life her brother led. She believed every word that Bessie had spoken, more than aware that John had not gone into a marriage of love and affection, but rather one that had been chosen for him before his birth. Lady Penelope Armistice had been of noble breeding and was everything John would want in a wife. She had died only ten months after their marriage, due to complications with the birth of their first child. It had been a terrible, if not unfamiliar, course of events, but Alice had hoped that her brother would have found a way to have moved on somewhat, especially after the year of mourning that he had completed. Apparently, her hopes had been entirely misplaced.
“I did receive his letters, of course,” she murmured, half to herself, recalling the very short notes that had given her nothing but worry. “They always appeared very sad which, of course, I could well understand but I thought that after a year......” She trailed off, her gaze drifting towards the bath that waited for her in the dressing room. With a sad shake of her head, she continued into the room, her mind filled with thoughts about what she might do to help her brother’s despondent state of mind.
“Might you consider marrying again, John?”
It was now a good few hours after Alice’s bath and she had washed, dressed and had Bessie arrange her hair into a rather sensible chignon, despite the maid’s protestations that she could do much better. There was little need to stand on ceremony when one was dining with one’s own brother and no other company to speak of!
His glare surprised her. “Do not tell me that you too are to join the many other ladies of my acquaintance who are encouraging me to join the fray once more!” he exclaimed, his hand grasping his glass of wine a little too tightly. “It has only been a year, Alice!”
“Eighteen months,” she replied, as gently as she could. “And I can see that you are still rather saddened by the state of it all, John, but I only ask in case it was something you had considered so that I might be of assistance to you.”
His eyes narrowed a little more. “No, Alice, I do not consider it.”
“But you will need an heir,” she pointed out, gently. “You are only two and thirty, I know, but as the Duke of Royston, it is important that one begets an heir as soon as possible.”
There was a short silence for a moment, and Alice was forced to keep her gaze steady as she looked at her brother, seeing his irritation growing with almost every moment. However, she kept her face calm but her gaze firm, refusing to shy away from the questions.
To her horror, John’s eyes suddenly filled, and he turned away, drawing a hand over his eyes for a moment. Her heart broke within her, her breath catching in her throat.
“Oh, John,” she began, in a whisper. “I am so terribly sorry. I did not mean –”
“I was to have an heir,” he replied, breaking into her thoughts. “I thought I would have a son, I am sure of it. But he was taken from me, whilst still in his mother’s womb. They both left me here alone, Alice.”
She swallowed, finding nothing to say that would bring him any kind of comfort.
“You know I did not love my wife,” he continued, hoarsely. “But I loved that child, even though it was not yet born. How could I not? It was my own flesh and blood.”
Alice wanted to take his hand, wanted to do something that would help his anguish but found herself utterly unable to think of a single thing. She had never seen her brother in this frame before, seeing the pain and agony in his eyes as he looked back at her, his face pale and expression wretched.
“I know I will need an heir, Alice, but I cannot bring myself to consider matrimony. Not again. Not now.”
“But perhaps –” Her own voice was hoarse and broken, struggling to make clear what it was she was trying to say. “Perhaps a wife would do you good, John. She might bring some joy back to your life.”
He shook his head. “Do not speak to me about joy, Alice. It has gone from me for good. I shall not have it in my life again, I fear.”
“But you could,” she persisted, against the growing urge in her mind to cease from talking completely. “I know that things must seem terribly bleak now, John, but you cannot live here alone for the remainder of your days.”
He shook his head. “I will not be alone. At least, not for the coming year. You are to remain here with me.”
There came no easy answer to him about that. He was quite right, of course, for she had agreed to remain until the following Season when she might again return to town.
“You will consider it at least, will you not?”
Sighing, he waved a hand. “If I must. But, as you will be here for a good twelve month, I need not think long on it.”
To her surprise, he rose from the table, even though dessert had not yet been served. “If you will excuse me, Alice, I am a little tired. I will take port – and whatever other delightful dishes present themselves – in my study.”
She had nothing to say, simply watching him go with a heavy heart as she was left alone at the table, aware of the growing darkness seeping into the room. Her brother had walked away with such weariness, as though bearing a terribly heavy weight. How she wished she could take it from him! How she wished she might free him from his shackles, remove him entirely from the dark places in which he walked, where shadows clung to him with every step!
“A twelve month,” she murmured to herself, as dessert was set in front of her. “Surely within that time I can find some way to help him?”
She tasted none of the sweetness that burst on her tongue, her mind caught up with the same worries and anxieties over her brother that she had struggled with for so long. All she wanted to do was help him, but what good was that when she had very little idea of what he required? Yes, she was here with him now, but was her presence all that was required for him to recover himself again? She could not believe that it would.
“You will think of something,” she said aloud, trying to bolster her own courage. “He will soon be returned to himself. You will see.”
But even as she spoke, the heaviness that John carried seemed to drift back to her, blowing out her flickering flame of hope and plunging her heart back into darkness.