The sunny winter morning dawns bright and crisp in Côtes 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.”
“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.”
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. ^_^