Saturday, August 23, 2014

Chapter 9: Fool's Dream

Kieran stares out the ice encrusted window, his eyes distant and vague as he struggles to keep his thoughts on the situation at hand. His son needs him, and he won’t let him down. Not again.

“But what can we do?!” Griffin’s voice rises irritably. “I promised to protect her, and I’ve failed. The duke must have threatened her somehow. Why else would she stay with him? No,” he declares, shaking his head in angry determination. “I will just storm in and take her back.”

“You and what army?” Kieran’s quiet words reverberate off the frozen stone walls. “Besides,” he pauses and turns around to face him. “How do you even know that she wants to be saved? How do you know that she feels the same way about you?”

“I just know!” Griffin sounds both frustrated and desperate as he clings to this final thread of hope. “Dammit, Kieran, love doesn’t just vanish overnight. I wanted to marry her, to start a family and settle down for real this time. I-” he hesitates, watching his father carefully. “I sold the vineyard to pay for a new place for us in her village. I really do love her, Dad. ”

Kieran sighs and glances toward the cat perched gracefully near Griffin’s shoulders.

“Pardon me, but have we met?” he asks suddenly, addressing the animal in a strangely formal tone of voice.

Ari mews, his blue eyes flickering toward Kieran in a bored, leisurely fashion. Perhaps, he retorts with a lazy yawn. However, you would more likely recognize the name of My Lady Delia.

Kieran stiffens visibly. “Delia?” he scowls. “But why do I find her familiar here with my son? What does the Goddess want with Griffin?”

She fears for the boy, Ari answers simply as Griffin looks back and forth between the two of them in confusion. The Gods watch Georgia closely, and My Lady worries that they will discover him.

“They still hunt him? After all these years, after all I’ve given, they still want to punish me?”

“Fine,” he growls after a moment of thought. “Griffin, I will help you get Georgia back, but we must play this smart. Before you attempt anything rash, let me figure a few things out.”

“Like what?” Griffin demands. “I don’t want to wait. I-”

“You won’t have to wait long,” he promises gruffly. “Cat, take me to your Goddess. We have some business to discuss.”

As night falls over Everly Isles, Marcellus Draven downs another pint of ale and drunkenly slouches over his now empty tankard.

“Stupid bastard,” he slurs to no one in particular. “Damn fool, that’s what he is. Letting her influence him like this, and for what? Some God forsaken prophecy?! He needs to leave for Praaven immediately to prove his loyalty to the kingdom, especially after that unfortunate mishap with Cecily, but no! He can’t possibly abandon her now! Not if she might need him. To think, he’s giving away everything we’ve ever worked for just to remain with that vile peasant girl! Fucking idiot, that’s what he is!”

“Reminds me of an old acquaintance of mine,” the slender young woman beside him comments as she casually slides in closer. “He’s throwing away his life to chase a silly dream that will never come true.”

“A dream, yes!” Marcellus declares emphatically. “That’s what Georgia is! An unattainable, nonsensical dream. Alasdair needs a taste of reality. He needs a taste of life outside his cushy manor.”

“It sounds to me like he needs this woman out of his life.”

Marcellus nods and glances over at his companion. “Yes, yes! Get rid of the wench. But how?”

Grabbing her glass, Amara smiles back at him innocently, her eyes briskly taking in the rich silk fabric of his tunic and expensive polished leather of his boots. “Why don’t you take me back to your place tonight and we can discuss it in more detail?” she whispers suggestively. “Surely together we can come up with something.”

“Focus!” Lieutenant Albright hollers, his deep voice booming in Alasdair’s ears.

“Dammit, Albright, give me some slack,” the duke snaps in response. “Georgia could give birth any minute now, and-”

“Are you in labor, Your Grace?”

“No, but-”

“Then I don’t want to hear it!” the soldier roars. “Now FOCUS!”

An entire day passes before the healer allows Alasdair in to see his wife, but now that he’s with her the duke doesn’t quite know what to say. “Oh, Georgia,” he breathes. “Is it-”

“A boy,” she smiles at him blissfully. “And a girl too.”

Alasdair inhales sharply and glances between the baby in her arms and the baby in the bassinet. “Twins?!” he whispers.

Georgia nods as he walks around behind her and gently kisses her flushed, but glowing cheeks.

“Are you-” she pauses. “Are you happy?”

“Darling, I’m thrilled. They’re beautiful.”

“What shall we name them?” Georgia asks as she sets the sleeping baby down beside his sister and quietly tucks him in.

“Hmm,” Alasdair taps his chin thoughtfully. “What about George for the boy?” he grins. “George, after his mother.”

Her mouth falls open in stunned surprise. “You mean it?!” she gasps.

“Yes,” he chuckles softly at her reaction. “I love you, and I want our son to carry a bit of each of us with him wherever he goes. He will inherit my surname and title, but his first name should come from you.”

Georgia throws her arms around Alasdair’s neck and sighs contentedly. “Thank you,” she beams, fighting back tears. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”

“What about the girl?” he asks after a moment.

“I like the name Henrietta for her,” Georgia tells him in a somewhat reluctant tone. “If you approve, Your Grace.”

“George and his sister Henrietta. Yes,” he nods. “Very nice. Strong, striking names, yet eloquent and refined. I like it.”

Gazing down at Georgia, his eyes grow tender and concerned. “You did wonderfully, my dear.”

“So you’re not upset with me any longer?” she asks him timidly.

Alasdair leans in and kisses her deeply, savoring the sensation of holding her in his arms. “How can I stay angry with you?” he whispers in between kisses. “Not when you’ve given me everything I’ve ever wanted and so much more.”

As they lie in bed together later that night, Alasdair groggily cracks open his eyes. “Georgia?” he murmurs in a sleepy haze.

“Yes?” she smiles and glances up at him expectantly.

“Do you love me?”

The words hang in the air for a moment too long as Georgia contemplates her response. “Yes, of course,” she says with a small shrug, but her husband has already fallen back asleep.

Do I love him? she wonders to herself as his breathing resumes a slow, rhythmic pace. It’s a question that she once would have answered with speed and certainty, but now she isn’t so sure. She wants to love him, desperately so, but some tiny part of her believes that she never has and never truly will. After all, how can she love a man who has stolen so much from her and hurt her so terribly? Perhaps this whole time she has just been fooling herself into believing that she cares for him in order to make her life at the manor more tolerable. The idea leaves her feeling more confused and despondent than ever before.

“You know him?” Marcellus watches Amara skeptically.

“Yes, I do. I knew him very well at one point.”

“And you are sure that you can lure this Griffin fellow into our trap?”

Yes!” Amara exclaims, rolling her eyes in annoyance. “I will simply tell Griffin that Georgia asked us to meet her down by the docks. I guarantee you he will fall for it, and then you and your little soldiers can arrest him, the duke can order his hanging, and I can explain to little Miss Sunshine that her husband arranged the execution of her lover. Georgia will be stricken with grief and self-loathing, driving your brother mad with jealousy, and then you can swoop in and suggest that he permanently uproot his family to Praaven as a way to distance his beloved from the painful memories in her past. They will argue, he will insist, she will refuse, and their marriage will collapse. And even if it doesn’t, they will be exactly where you want them, at the palace in Praaven, and you will be left to rule over Everly Isles uninhibited. A win-win situation.”

“What’s in it for you?” Marcellus demands.

“So suspicious!” she pouts. “All I want is a bit of… security once you gain control of the islands.”

“Money?” he surmises.

Amara smirks at him. “What else?”

Author’s Notes:

Not my best work, but I’m eager to get caught up to where I am in game so I’m attempting to spend less time tweaking every single little word, phrase, and sentence. AND I’M SO CLOSE NOW!!! Seriously, just a couple more chapters (or one big one… or maybe three big ones depending on how wordy I get), and I can actually start playing again. SO excited!

Anyway, I *promise* I will do my very best to reply to comments in a timely manner from here on out. I feel awful about how late/spotty I’ve been with my responses, but I do read everything you all write and I really appreciate the feedback. <3 Y’all rock.

I received a really good question a couple of chapters ago about how the living arrangements look in game right now, and I would like to address that real quick. Everything from chapter seven onward has been shot in an alternate save. I still have a couple of twists in store that I don’t want to spoil yet, so I’m not going to reveal my family structure roll right now, but I promise it will come to light very soon! These past few chapters are solely about the story and do not necessarily reflect with 100% accuracy the in game events, timeline, etc. Same goes for the next few. Honestly, at this point in game, Georgia still lived with Amara in that tiny little cottage that she started out in. Well, technically up until the start of this chapter. ;) But more on that later! =D

Thank you for reading!

P.S. I know Georgia has no clothes on in that picture and that’s totally unrealistic considering the timeframe I laid out, but… I re-wrote that part of this chapter and needed a picture for the text, and I was waaaay too lazy to go back in game just for one more screenshot, so I used what I had. XD Sorry for the immersion breaking moment.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Chapter 8: Slip Up Fall Down

The sunny winter morning dawns bright and crisp in CĂ´tes d'Ambonnay, but despite the unusually temperate weather Griffin wants nothing more than to stay in bed and sleep away his hangover. His companion, however, has other plans in mind for them today, and he does not hesitate to rouse him from his slumber.

“Do you have to play that in here?” Griffin snaps as he pushes himself upright.

The man smirks and continues to strum the easygoing melody on his guitar. “Do you like it?” he asks, his soft voice barely audible above the music.

Griffin glares at him crossly. “What do you want, Dad?” he demands through gritted teeth.

Kieran Everard stops and glances up, his vivid blue eyes twinkling with barely contained excitement. “I have something for you,” he replies.

On the other side of Everly Isles, Georgia props herself up against a table and sighs impatiently. Leah, her most trusted servant and closest acquaintance at the manor, cheerfully hums as she chops up some vegetables for dinner, ignoring her mistress’s frustrated scowl.

“Well?” Georgia asks at last. “Did you see her?”

“See who?” Leah smiles and glances back at her in mock confusion.

“Amara!” she exclaims. “Is she doing alright? Has she had her baby yet? Is it a boy or a girl? Did the birth go smoothly? Come on, Leah! Put me out of my misery!”

Leah chuckles and complacently wipes her hands on her apron. “Fine, fine. Calm your horses, deary,” she clucks. “I did manage to stop by your old place while I was in Lincolnshire this morning. She had the baby last week as I remember it. He’s healthy and happy, and they’re both doin’ well.”

“Oh Gods, a boy!” Georgia gasps excitedly. “I wish I could have been there. What did she name him? Is he a sweet child? How did she-”

“Why don’t you go and visit her yourself?” Leah suggests with an amused laugh. “I bet His Grace could be persuaded.”

Georgia frowns. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to ask…” she trails off uncertainly.

Anxious about broaching the subject with her stern, overprotective husband, Georgia barely touches supper that night. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, she blurts out her request.

“My friend in the village had a baby last week,” Georgia tells Alasdair in a rush of words. “I would like to visit her tomorrow and meet her son. May I?”

Marcellus, the duke’s half-brother, smirks at her condescendingly from across the table. “And pigs can fly,” he titters.

Georgia flinches slightly at his biting tone. “What?” she whispers.

“You are the Duchess of Ambonnay now,” the lord sneers. “Noblewomen do not associate with peasants. It would be…” he pauses, searching for the right word, “…embarrassing.”

Alasdair frowns and studies Georgia’s crestfallen face. “It’s important to you, isn’t it?” he asks her softly, ignoring Marcellus’s indignant spluttering.

“Yes,” she retorts, pushing some food around on her plate. “Amara was, is, my best friend. I miss her.”

“Alright,” he sighs after a tense moment. “You may go. I’ll send a couple of my guardsmen with you and I expect you back well before sundown, but I don’t see any harm in it.”

Marcellus furiously slams his fork down on the table. “But-”

“And that is final,” the duke cuts him off with a piercing glare.

Georgia sets off for Lincolnshire first thing the following morning, and as soon as she arrives Amara tackles her in an enthusiastic hug.

“What are you doing here?” she cries.

George takes a deep breath, soaking in the comforting, familiar scents of her old home. “I missed you,” she explains. “His Grace said I could come by and see the baby.”

Amara pulls away abruptly and stares down at her friend’s bulging belly. “Are you-” she pauses and lowers her voice. “Are you pregnant?”

Georgia nods, fidgeting uneasily. “I am. I found out after the wedding.”

“Is it Griffin’s?” Amara asks with wide, astonished eyes.

“No!” Georgia laughs and playfully slaps her friend’s shoulder. “Don’t be ridiculous. Alasdair is the baby’s father.”

“You’re sure?”

Yes,” Georgia rolls her eyes. “Now enough about me. Where is he?!”

Amara motions toward the bassinet in the corner, and at her friend’s urging Georgia gently picks up the newborn and cradles him against her chest.

“Oh, Mara,” she breathes. “He’s perfect. What did you name him?”

“Rowan,” she replies with an impassive shrug. “I should probably put him down for his nap now actually, but can you stay for lunch?”

“I can,” Georgia beams.

“And he was the most handsome baby I have ever seen!” she gushes to Alasdair that night. “So sweet and so happy, too. He barely fussed at all.”

“So you had a good time?” he smiles and coaxes his daughter Celia up onto her wobbly toddler legs.

“Yes! It was wonderful to see her again. We grew up together, and her mother practically adopted me I spent so much time at their house.” Georgia sighs contentedly as the memories flood back to her. “Thank you for standing up for me, by the way,” she adds in a more serious tone. “I really appreciate it.”

The duke nods. “Marcellus worries too much. For reasons I have never fully comprehended, he believes that the nobility must maintain its distance from the common folk, but I find that line of thinking dangerously outdated. Obviously,” he murmurs, glancing up at her.

Georgia blushes and swiftly changes the subject. “I should put Celia to bed now,” she informs him as she heaves herself to her feet.

“Bethany can do it tonight,” he retorts. “I want you to stay a bit longer. Please?” he adds, noticing her hesitation.

Georgia frowns but tentatively agrees. “One last hug good night,” she tells Celia as the toddler reaches out for her.

The child doesn’t put up too much of a fuss, however, happily drifting off to sleep in her father’s arms.

After handing off Celia to her nursemaid, the duke joins Georgia on the sofa.

“How are you feeling?” Alasdair asks, running a concerned hand over her stomach.

“Tired,” she admits. “I can’t believe how exhausting and uncomfortable pregnancy is, and on top of it all I look like a beached whale.”

“You look beautiful,” he insists as she turns to face him. “Honestly. I have never wanted you more than I do right now.”

“You don’t have to lie to me,” she scowls at him irritably. “I feel disgusting.”

As though to prove his point, Alasdair draws Georgia towards him and slides his strong, muscular arms around her waist, absently tracing his fingers along the crook of her bare back. She shivers slightly as he begins to fumble with the lacing on her nightdress, but to his surprise instead of pushing him away she leans in and arcs her body against his firm embrace.

“Is this okay?” he breathes, their faces nearly touching.

Georgia smiles and runs her hand through his wavy brown hair. “Will you just kiss me already?” she whispers.

Alasdair does not hesitate, pressing his lips to hers with a hungry, desperate sort of passion.

Stumbling into his bedroom, the couple ravenously tear off each other’s clothing and collapse onto the sheets.

“Georgia,” he groans in appreciation as she strokes the inside of his thigh with her leg. “Dammit, darling, you best stop teasing me like that unless you really want me to lose it.”

Georgia laughs and pulls him down beside her. “Maybe that’s exactly what I want,” she tells him, wriggling out of the last of her undergarments.

“Oh yeah?” he breathes between kisses.

“Yeah,” she moans softly as his fingers work their way between her legs. Closing her eyes, Georgia allows her mind to glaze over in the pleasure of the moment, and as his lips move lower and lower down her body she quickly succumbs to the ecstasy of his touch.

“Oh!” she cries out as her body writhes and shakes in an orgasm. “Oh, oh, OH! Griffin! Yes, YES!”

Georgia smiles at him blissfully as he surfaces, but she can’t miss the look of hurt and confusion in his gaze.

“What’s wrong?” She asks the question in total innocence, but as the moment plays back through her mind she suddenly, nauseatingly realizes her mistake.

“Who is he?” Alasdair’s voice sounds cold and distant, and his tight, almost painful grasp on her arm sends a wave of panic rippling through her body.

“I’m sorry,” she stammers. “I didn’t mean-”

“You’re cheating on me,” he states it as a fact, not a question. He wants to be angry with her, to yell and scream and curse at her, but the only emotion he can muster right now is pure unadulterated dejection.

“No! Alasdair, I’m not. I-”


“Please, you must listen to me,” she pleads, tears spilling down her cheeks. “He was my lover, yes, but I never cheated on you. I wouldn’t,” she cries. “I love you.”

“Leave me,” he repeats in a hollow, dead tone. He hears her sobbing behind him, but he can’t summon the strength to care. He’s never felt the sting of rejection so fiercely before, and it cuts him to his core. The idea that his wife, the mother of his unborn child and the only woman he’s ever truly cared for, has another man in her life, that she belongs to someone else besides him, leaves him burning and chafing in angry humiliation.

Over the next few days, the duke takes out his frustration the only way he knows how, by throwing himself into his military training.

A gifted archer and decorated swordsman, Alasdair prides himself on his dedication to perfecting every discipline in the fighting arts, including hand-to-hand combat. His weakest area on the battlefield by far, he specifically chose his right hand man, Lieutenant Albright, due to the soldier’s legendary skill at bare fisted fighting.

“Your Grace!” Lord Draven unceremoniously interrupts the duke’s practice.

“Can it wait, Marcellus?” Alasdair pants and deftly blocks an oncoming attack from Lieutenant Albright. “I’m kind of busy right now.”

“No,” the younger man huffs. “His Majesty sent word from Praaven. Arathak is threatening war on our southern border again, and the king demands your presence at the palace immediately.”

Alasdair scowls and brusquely dismisses his comrade.

“When shall I arrange for the ships to set sail?” Marcellus asks as soon as they are alone. “I imagine you will want to take a few of your men along with you as well, but we ought to leave enough soldiers here to defend the province in case a war does break out.”

The duke frowns at him irritably and folds his arms across his chest. “I am not going.”

“What?!” Lord Draven freezes. “But- But you must! His Majesty issued you a direct order! Your kingdom needs you!”

“My wife needs me,” Alasdair spits, waving his hand dismissively. “Our son is due soon, and I will not leave her alone right now.”

Marcellus recoils visibly, his bulging eyes narrowing into angry slits. “The duchess will survive just fine without you,” he snaps, sarcastically emphasizing her title. “And frankly, who cares if she does not? I tried to hold my tongue for as long as I could, but I think it’s high time that I spoke up. You would be better off without her. The woman is a commoner,” he reasons with a hollow laugh. “She brought no power, no money, no nothing to your marriage, and if it weren’t for your obvious infatuation with her I would have forbidden it from the very start.”

“What did you say?” Alasdair’s face flickers with rage.

“I will not stand by and allow you to shame our family and dishonor our name for some filthy peasant wench,” Marcellus hisses. “You are Merida’s most feared general and a revered military strategist. Your king needs you, and you will answer his call.”

“I will beat your face in until your brain squishes out your eyeballs,” the duke roars. “You are not fit to scrub the ground that she walks on, you lying traitorous bastard. I should have listened to my councilmen when they advised me to kick you and your whore mother out on the street the day our father died, but I took pity on you, my flesh and blood. I made you the man you are today, gave you your position, your wealth, your title, and this is how you repay me?”

“How do you know that the baby even belongs to you?” Lord Draven jeers. “With what I’ve heard about your precious wife lately, she doesn’t seem all that different from my own mother in her philandering ways. Ever consider that, Your Grace?” he chides.

Marcellus instantly realizes that he has pushed the duke too far by the look of cold, violent fury burning within his brother’s dark green eyes, but the pale, scrawny little man doesn’t stand a chance. Alasdair explodes on him, pummeling Marcellus until his own fists bleed and throb from the thrashing.

He walks away from the fight in a furious daze of adrenaline, unsure of whether Lord Draven survived the beating but honestly not giving a damn either way. He challenged his authority to the utmost degree, and in the duke’s mind he deserved every blow that he received.

Across the island in a rambling old farmhouse in Lincolnshire, Griffin sits and stares at the sole item in the dusty, deserted room, a small wood chest with roughly hewn designs etched into the sides.

You must choose, his father’s quiet voice echoes in his mind. I will help you down whichever path you follow, but if you do decide to accept my gift know this. The power it contains will save you, son, but at the expense of the life you lead now. Once you open the chest, you can never go back, whether you embrace it or not.

I don’t need your help, he remembers snapping at him irritably. I didn’t need you growing up, and I certainly don’t need you now.

Kieran had sighed at his words, his harsh scowl briefly softening with regret. I would walk through the fires of hell and steal the eyes of the devil himself if it meant keeping you safe, the mage had replied. But time works against me, against us all, and you may soon find yourself facing this brutal, hostile world alone. That is why I give you this, the labor of a dozen lifetimes, as the only protection I can offer.

With a sudden jolt, Griffin’s thoughts come screeching back to the present as Ari, his ever faithful companion, demandingly nuzzles up against his calves.

I’m bored, Ari purrs and splays himself across Griffin’s shoes. Why are we sitting here in this dank, dirty house when you still need to rescue your girl?

“I have to choose,” he mutters distractedly. “Kieran knows something, and he wants to protect me. I cannot take his warning lightly.”

The old man barely knows his name anymore, the cat retorts with a sleepy yawn. If he realized that you risk losing the love of your life over some overblown figment of his overworked imagination, I guarantee you he would not have put you in this position.

“You don’t know that.”

I know that you love Georgia. I have seen you two together, and the looks you give each other make me want to hack up a hairball. No matter what you find in that chest, it will never match what you feel for her.

Griffin grunts. “I need to speak with my father,” he replies after a long pause. “I- I think I need his help.”

Ari stands up and smiles, his crystal blue eyes gleaming elatedly. So we’re off to save her then? he asks.

Griffin nods. “I’m going to get back Georgia.”

Author’s Notes:

After reading the comments on my last chapter, I just want to clarify something. I do not condone what the duke did to Georgia, nor do I find his past actions and general contempt for women in any way excusable. I hope this comes off clearly in the story, but with this chapter and the previous chapter I am simply aiming to write him as a multi-dimensional villain with some positive traits as well as a whole slew of negative qualities. I honestly did not for one second hope or believe that you guys would change your opinion of him or begin to see him as a sympathetic character, and I really have no intention of trying to convince anyone that rapists deserve anything less than to be hung by their toenails and castrated.

However, I do hope you all can understand why Georgia may not view him in such a harsh light and how come she can forgive and forget so much more easily than a modern day woman would. She grew up in a society that suppresses, derides, and belittles women, and for the most part she accepts this attitude toward her gender as a way of life. It’s the only reality she has ever known, and it has probably never even occurred to her to question it. Furthermore, Alasdair’s position as the Duke of Ambonnay pretty much entitles him to do whatever he wants with whomever he wants, especially if it involves a woman of the lower class, and his status as a wealthy nobleman and respected military leader practically ensures that he won’t face any legal or social consequences for his behavior. Finally, Georgia wants to love him. She has always felt extremely attracted to him, and now that she is expecting a baby she realizes that she needs to think about her child’s future as well as her own. She sees no other choice than to stay with him, and fighting his advances at every turn will only make life harder for her. If she can convince herself that she cares for him, then she thinks that perhaps she won’t feel so miserable and lonely all the time.

Thanks so much for reading! Your support and feedback means a lot to me. ^_^

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Chapter 7: The White Flag of Despair

Like a drop of blood on a mound of fresh snow, the duchess’s death stains Georgia’s once clean conscience, but as the single hint of color in an otherwise frozen, hostile world it offers her a strange sort of solace as well. She could not save her, but yet she finds strength in the woman’s decision. She escaped him.

Following the funeral, Georgia spends her days in a sea of white ice and blank faces, but despite her stoic, impassive demeanor the bitter isolation threatens to consume her. She misses her friends, her village, and her work, but most of all she misses Griffin, or at least the man she once believed him to be.

“You look beautiful tonight.”

Georgia nods silently as she surveys her unfamiliar reflection in the mirror.

“We make a handsome couple,” the duke presses. “Did you enjoy the banquet?”

“I- It was too much, Your Grace,” she whispers.

“When we are alone, you may call me Alasdair,” he instructs her in a commanding tone. “And nothing is too much for my bride on her wedding day.”

Georgia glances back at him, her eyes dim and defeated. “May I go now?”

Alasdair smirks. “You will share my bed tonight,” he decrees, “and every night from here on out. As my wife, it is your duty.”

“My duty?!” she cries, turning around to face him. “I have a duty to the people of Lincolnshire as their healer and apothecary. I feel no obligation to you.”

“You defy me, then?” he hisses, shoving her up against the frame of the bed.

“Alasdair, please,” she sobs. “Stop!”

For a moment, the duke refuses to release her, but as suddenly as his temper flares he loosens his grasp and lets her go.

“Leave,” he spits as she runs toward the door. “But I will not always be so generous.”

“Griffin.” Amara’s voice cuts through the air like a knife. “Stop. You cannot blame yourself for this. Georgia went there on her own volition.”

“How can I not?” he whispers. “I should have known better. I should have-”

“You tried to stop her,” she points out. “She wanted to go.”

“But why in hell would she marry that man?!” he chokes back his tears. “I thought… I thought she loved me.”

Her arms curl around his chest, temporarily startling him out of his desolation.

“She may not love you, but I do,” Amara murmurs in his ear. “I never stopped loving you, my darling.”

“Amara?” His voice sounds both husky and uncertain as she presses herself up against him. “What-”

“Don’t speak,” she breathes. “I don’t need an answer now.”

“No,” he whispers. “We shouldn’t-”

“Why?” she demands, eagerly tugging at his clothes. “She won’t know.”

“But I want to get her back. I-”

“Baby, she doesn’t want you,” Amara persists. “She doesn’t love you.”

Griffin shakes his head and pushes her away.

“You’re wrong,” he hisses angrily. “Georgia does love me, and you know it. But even if I never see her again, even if she turns me down cold, I would rather die alone than spend another moment with a backstabbing snake like you. Now get out of my house, Amara, before I really lose my temper.”

On the other side of the island, Georgia patiently coos to the infant in her arms, trying to coax her back to sleep. Celia, Alasdair’s daughter, fusses a bit, but she quickly relaxes within Georgia’s firm but tender embrace.

A quiet tapping at the door breaks the stillness in the room, and Georgia groans slightly as she heaves herself up to answer it.

“Bethany said I might find you up here,” the young woman chides her cheerfully as she enters the nursery. “She told me ya kicked her out again.”

“I enjoy spending time with Celia,” Georgia smiles down at the child. “She is such a sweet baby.”

“Aye, but you need your rest. His Grace-”

“His Grace does not know of my condition, and I would like to keep it that way,” she retorts bitterly. “I will tell him when the time feels right.”

The maid shakes her head and leans in to survey the baby. “He don’t know?!” she laughs, clucking happily at Celia.

“Know what?” Alasdair narrows his eyes and glances between the two women.

“I’ll just be leavin’ ya then,” the maid whispers to Georgia as she ducks her head and scurries away.

Setting Celia down in her crib, Georgia nods to Alasdair. “Your Grace,” she begins, carefully avoiding eye contact. “How may I be of service?”

“I love the way you look with a baby in your arms,” Alasdair murmurs as he comes up behind her. “I can’t wait until it’s our baby in your arms.”

Georgia glances down. “Well, you won’t have to wait much longer,” she whispers, fighting back a sudden onslaught of tears. “I’m pregnant.”

Spinning her around to face him, the duke lurches forward at her words. “But we haven’t- You just- Already?” he breathes.

“I didn’t want to believe it before,” she frowns, “but yes. Ever since that night.”

He inhales sharply and drops to his knees, running a gentle hand over her slightly distended belly.

“Georgia, I- I don’t know what to say!” he exclaims as he presses his face against her stomach. “Finally, after all these years, I will have a son.”

Georgia can’t help but laugh at his sudden enthusiasm. She’s never seen this side of him before, and it catches her by surprise. “It might be a girl, Your Grace,” she smiles.

“No, we will have a boy,” he declares, kissing her bump. “I will have a son.”

The next couple of months slip by quietly, and Celia outgrows the confines of her baby blanket. Georgia continues to monopolize the child’s time, spending as many hours as she can with her, but as her pregnancy progresses she finds herself struggling to keep up with the precocious toddler.

“You’re going to become a big sister,” Georgia grins sleepily as Celia drapes herself over her stomach and babbles incoherently. The little girl can’t quite formulate words yet, but that doesn’t stop her from trying.

“That’s right,” George tells her, tapping the toddler’s tiny nose. “Big sister.”

Celia yawns and snuggles up beside her, and Georgia allows her heavy eyelids to close for a moment.

“Just a small nap,” she murmurs as Celia gazes at her questioningly. “I just need a minute.”

Alasdair approaches Georgia’s sleeping quarters nervously that night with news from the capital, but when she doesn’t respond to his repeated knocks the duke hesitantly lets himself inside.

“Well hello pumpkin,” he chuckles and squats down to greet the toddler.

Celia squeals loudly and begins to crawl over a sleeping Georgia to get to him, but Alasdair quickly scoops her up into his arms before she can awaken his pregnant wife. “Come on, sweet pea,” he smiles. “Let’s give your mama a break.”

An hour later, Georgia groggily opens her eyes. She winces a bit as she sits up, the weight of the baby leaving her back feeling achy and sore, but despite the pregnancy pains she thoroughly enjoyed her stolen nap.

“Celia?” Georgia yawns and glances around the room. “Celia?” she calls out louder, but only silence greets her words. “I wonder if Bethany took her,” she muses, worry creeping across her face.

Georgia gasps as she peeks into the nursery.

“Alasdair?” she frowns, tiptoeing inside. She watches them silently for a moment as they play together, Celia giggling delightedly as her father swings her around the room and swoops her up and down, tickling and teasing the toddler until he finally notices his wife.

“Hi,” he smiles at her breathlessly and comes to an abrupt halt. “I- I thought you were sleeping,” he tells her in an almost apologetic tone. “I wanted to let you rest.”

Georgia’s eyes dart back and forth between Celia’s wide, happy grin and Alasdair’s tight, protective grasp. “Thank you,” she replies meekly.

They stare at each other for a long moment before Celia starts tugging on Alasdair’s hair, begging for more attention.

“Hey now, pumpkin,” he laughs at her expectant face. “I may just have to- WHOOP!” Alasdair pretends to drop the child, letting her fall just a bit before sweeping her back up into a hug.

Georgia smirks at Celia’s piercing yelps of enjoyment. “I didn’t realize you liked kids,” she comments as they resume playing together.

“Oh yes,” he pants. “I love them. I always have.”

Georgia glances up at the clock and sighs. “It’s almost her bedtime,” she reluctantly informs him. “I can-”

“I’ll do it,” he volunteers.

After Celia falls asleep, Alasdair makes his way back to Georgia’s rooms.

“You look worried,” he remarks, leaning his tall, elegant frame up against the doorway.

Georgia does not move, seemingly entranced by the fire flickering in the hearth. “I can’t figure you out,” she replies at last. “You’ve barely talked to me since our wedding, and then you go and do something nice? Why?” she demands. “What do you want from me now?”

The duke sighs and walks over to sit beside her.

“Do you-” Alasdair falters slightly. “Do you believe in love at first sight?” he asks softly.

Georgia leans in, carefully studying his face. “Yes,” she replies after a moment. “I do.”

“I didn’t,” he sighs. “I didn’t really believe in love at all. Until I met you.”

“No!” Georgia snorts and shakes her head in disgust. “You don’t intentionally hurt someone you love.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I have a temper-”

“And I had a life before you ruined it!” she snaps.

“You want to go home?” he frowns at her in response.

“Of course I do!” she exclaims angrily. “I miss my house, my bed, my dog! I miss my life.”

“Would you leave, if I let you?”

Georgia hesitates. “I- I don’t know,” she admits, reflexively running her hand across her swollen, pregnant belly.

“You may not believe me, but I do love you,” he tells her as he rises to his feet. “Ever since that day at the spring when I caught you watching me.”

“I didn’t know who you were then,” she replies flatly.

“You know now, and yet you stay.”

“For Celia and the child I carry,” Georgia retorts. And to keep Griffin and Amara safe, she adds silently.

Alasdair grits his teeth. “So you feel nothing for me?” he demands, pacing back and forth.

Georgia eyes him warily. “Your Grace…” she trails off as he abruptly starts toward her.

Leaning over her, Alasdair kisses her fiercely.

“Nothing at all?” he breathes, their faces just a hair’s breadth apart.

In a distant bar in the slums of Sarlat, Griffin slams his empty glass down and drunkenly motions for the barmaid to bring him another. The wiry middle-aged woman eyes him suspiciously, but she takes his money and grudgingly refills his drink.

“Alcohol only amplifies the pain,” a gruff voice informs him.

Griffin doesn’t even bother glancing up. “What do you know of pain?” he slurs irately. “I gave up everything for her, and she doesn’t want me. She doesn’t love me.”

“I’ve known more pain than most men experience in ten lifetimes,” the man responds with a hollow laugh. “Now come on, son. You can tell me all about it tomorrow when you’re sober.”