copyright 2019 by Clair Brett

WebGoddess: Mary Ann Jock

 

Chapter Two

Gisele woke with a start. Heart pounding, it took a moment to remember where she was. The morning light streamed in giving a luster to the pale blue of the bed covers strewn about the room. Her neck was still damp, indicating a sleep she knew well. Having no nightmares for over two weeks, this one was as powerful as her experience. She could almost smell the desert around her, sand stinging her cheeks.

            Rising, she noted the clock on the mantel read half past six. At the window, she spied the dew-covered garden and the fields beyond. The freedom of being out there was such a pull that she leaned into the window. The coolness of the glass seeped into her skin through her night rail, the same night rail she had donned for her husband on her wedding night. Why did it bother her so much? She didn’t care to have a physical relationship until she needed to. He wanted an heir. It was inevitable, so why was she so pricked that he didn’t want to get the deed done? She decided it was because it was not in her control; he would dictate when and where.

            If that was the case, Gisele concluded, she should let it go. Being honest with herself though, her new husband made the prospect interesting. Crossing the room, she pulled the bell for Cecily. As she brushed out her hair, loosening the snarls from her nightmarish sleep, she recalled the other women at the camp speaking of coupling. They would giggle and smile while talking about being with the Master. Gisele would never allow Lord Sutton that control. Those women, sharing one man, would wait to be summoned. They craved it. It made no sense that such a mechanical action could make women such silly girls. She was sure it was pleasurable, but nothing could control her so. It was preposterous even to think it.

Her maid came in bleary eyed, tying her apron. She bobbed a curtsy. “Good mornin’ Mi’ Lady.”

“Good morning, Cecily. I am sorry I woke you,” Gisele apologized. “It is just such a glorious morning, I thought I would go riding and get a lay of the land. His Lordship keeps horses, I would assume.” She hoped that would explain being up before the cock crowed.

“No need of worry, Mi’ Lady. I was up, and yes, I believe he has quite a large stable. Which habit would ye like to wear?”

“I think the emerald green this morning.” It was her favorite. She didn’t like pastels and muted colors. She knew jewel tones set off her olive toned skin. Now married, she could wear those colors.

“Lovely, Mi’ Lady. May I say I am so glad you left those light-colored outfits to your sister? They did not suit you,” said Cecily, as she laid the cumbersome outfit on the bed. She then took over the hairbrush and began pinning her hair it high atop Gisele’s head, leaving just a few, well-placed curls bobbing around her face.

The weight of the heavy material made her feel protected. “Mi Lady, please be puttin’ on some weight, lest this will not stay on. As it is, I keep having to move the buttons over,” Cecily commented as she worked to fasten the outfit. The hat sat at a fashionable angle leaving the peacock feather bending down to hide her markings. Cecily, left to send word to the barn and Jarrid to ready a horse for her Ladyship leaving Gisele to make her way to the front entrance.

Stepping down onto the marble of the foyer, the smell of the many choices for breakfast wafted down the hall from the dining room. She didn’t know who was there, so she decided to find the kitchen upon her return. He made it clear last night he was not interested in making conversation, so she would oblige. Ignoring the growl of her stomach, she stepped into the fresh morning sun, taking in a chilled breath making her feel alive.

Before she could turn left to the stables, Jarrid appeared. She never quite got used to him just appearing. He was a ghost in a man’s body.

“Good morning, Jarrid.”

He said nothing in response, but studied her face.

“Do not worry, I am unchanged in all ways but name,” she said. She needed the breeze on her face, the tightening of the horse's muscles beneath her, not dissecting what did not happen the previous night.

“Do you mean...” Jarrid started, and then stopped.

“No, I had to search him out, and he said he had not planned on putting that pressure on me until I was more settled. He was still entertaining his friend, so it was not an opportune time to further the discussion.”

“Humph.”

“What?” She quizzed. The sun was warming the garden with the dew giving up its hold on the greenery.

“What is his problem? Is he not capable or worse is he just an ass?” Jarrid asked with a true dislike in his voice. “Treating a lady as such is unacceptable.”

“Now, yesterday you were suggesting we run. Now you dislike him because he didn’t take me the moment the candles were lit?” She said it in hushed, but humor-filled tones.

            With no humor in his voice, Jarrid replied, “In my world, a real man would take his new bride and show her the love she would need to feel wanted and to become his. If he did not, we would consider him less than a man.”

“Well, I am in no hurry, and I do not believe he wants me to mistake any interaction for affection, much less love,” answered Gisele.

“Did you have night terrors?” He changed the subject.

“Just a few, but I am sure a new place caused it. They will subside.”

Jarrid’s answer was another humph.

“Were you able to find out why Lord Sutton refuses to have anything to do with society?” She asked to change the subject. They were almost at the stables, so he must talk quick.

“The staff do not like to discuss it, but I have found that it has something to do with his sister and a scandal at the time of her death. That is all.”

 At the stable, a groom greeted them at the open double doors.

“Good morning, Mi’ Lady. I’m Mr. Jenkins.”

“Good morning. I hope you received my message of needing a horse readied,” she said, knowing immediately this groom was unwilling to capitulate. Giselle continued into the stables that were hers through her husband.

Interacting with unfamiliar men made her skin all itchy and her neck and head throb. She scolded herself. This was but a mere groom. She would wager he was younger than her to boot. Jarrid’s quiet presence gave her the courage needed. If she couldn’t handle one young groom in her husband’s stables, society was out of her reach, and that was not an option.

The stables were missed as part of the original house tour. Giselle stood in the center of a magnificent horse stable with a groom who didn’t know what to do with her.

“You cannot tell me you do not have a horse that would suit. I can see ten stalls laid out in front of me. My saddle was delivered with my other belongings, was it not?”

“I, I know, my lady, but I don’t think any of them would suit. I would suggest a mount more suited to a genteel ride and his Lordship’s horses are all more suited to a male rider. Your saddle was indeed delivered and is ready, but today is not a good day to ride,” He protested, wringing his hat. Giselle assumed he was hoping for the master, or at the very least the head groom to appear, or for the floor to open up and swallow him, preferably anything to arguing with the Lady of the manor.

“I am sorry, that is simply not an appropriate response. I’ll just pick one.”

She walked past the fraught man glancing in the stalls. She had to admit Max’s stables were superior. No Arabians, but perhaps she could have one imported. Then she saw it, in the next stall a white and brown dappled mare. The horse quite possibly had the longest eyelashes of any she had ever seen. As she approached, the horse snorted and shook her mane unsure of this new strange person.

“Shh, aren’t you darling,” Giselle crooned reaching out a gloved hand for the horse to smell. Whatever it saw or smelled, it must have approved, because the mare walked toward the stall door and bent its huge head to allow Giselle to stroke its velvet nose.

“Oh, my lady, I wouldn’t iffen I were you. She is a feisty one.” The groom came up beside her, distraught about the potential harm. His fast movements made the horse shake her mane and kick the stall door, snorting.

“Nonsense, she is a love. I want her. Have her saddled.”

“But--”

“Sir, I would have been thrilled to discuss my choice of horse with you, but since you chose to not have that conversation, I am telling you to saddle this one. Being the lady of the house, I am not feeling very welcome at the moment. We learned how to ride on Arabian horses. In fact, the truth is that the horse I stole from my captors to flee on was an Arabian stallion. I rode him bareback, not sidesaddle through the desert with an injured man clinging to me--for two days no less. There is no more willful and sporadic animal than an Arabian is. Therefore, without a doubt, I can maneuver the pasture land with rabbit holes and the like.”

He eyed her with horror. He had two choices. Saddle her horse of choice or refuse and perhaps incur the wrath of the mistress of the house and her husband.

“Mr. Jenkins, are you married?” She asked leveling him with her most haughty stare.

“Yes, my lady, I am for some twenty-plus years now,” he said, with love clear in his eyes. A pang of something akin to jealousy tried to work itself up inside her. She stamped it down also realizing he was not younger than she was at all.

“Good, then you will understand, Mr. Jenkins, when I say that if I do not have an occasion to ride today, that His Lordship will receive my ire for the evening?”

“Ah, yes, my lady.”

“Good, now consider what kind of mood His Lordship will be in on the morrow when he finds out his ill-tempered wife was caused because she didn’t get to ride.”

“Yes, my lady,” he said with defeat clear in his voice. Perhaps she should seek out Mrs. Jenkins, they could have a strong bond. “I will wait in the paddock.”

In recent memory this was the first time she went anywhere without her family. This was a win. How long she could hold on to it was another question. Jarrid readied a sturdy gelding and walked the horse to the front of the paddock to wait.

The sun held high in the sky. Giselle raised her face as she left the cool darkness of the stable. She missed the warmth of India. People had trouble contemplating how tied to India she was. It was where she was raised. Most of her childhood memories were of hot days spent playing in the courtyard at their diplomatic residence, and splashing in the fountain, chasing little lizards or feeding the various birds that found refuge from the harshness of the desert outside the city walls. She missed the market with its cacophony of noises from vendors yelling about their wares, to the sights of every color from the barrels of spices and varieties of fruits and vegetables, or the silks and clothing, and the smell. Oh, she almost let a small cry escape as she remembered the smells in the market. The spice fragrances mingled with the meat cooked over little fires in the stalls.

Making her way around the paddock to the sunniest spot, she considered that first week when she had been back in her own home. She had been a mess. She would listen to her father railing about the fact he could never bring her back to England in her condition. The night terrors were non-stop, and because of her exhaustion, she would doze, waking on a scream to the stares and looks of horror from the staff. She refused to bathe until her sister convinced her she had to. Ariel threw everyone out and was the first to see the markings.

Her father relegated her to her room after the sight of her made a chambermaid cry. She fought with her demons alone, with every noise a potential threat, and food a danger. She would die if she couldn’t bottle the fear and terror she felt day in and day out. That was when she decided she had to overcome this. With every wave of panic that sent her scurrying under her bed to the nausea that came with a single bite of a toast finger for fear of drugs, they would have won.

Her sister purchased some traditional Indian attire that would easily cover her body and her face. She blatantly disobeyed her father and ventured into the public areas of the house, and eventually into the market, but not without Jarrid. If not for him, the quick vision of a man from the corner of her eye would have her diving behind a stall to hide, but she did it. The most important decision she made in that week was not to allow them to take her childhood memories, because if she were not comfortable, her memories would be tainted or lost because of her ordeal. The smells she so loved, could send waves of horror and sickness as the memories flooded her, but she would not allow it.

A knicker from behind her brought Giselle back to the paddock and her mount. The groom still looked mulish and unsure as he had a time reining the spirited animal in.

“I beg you, my lady, to reconsider. She has thrown more grooms than any in the stable. She will look sweet at you, then like a viper swing her head and nip, she will.”

Giselle walked up to the horse who swung her massive head around and draped it over her shoulder with a heavy horse sigh sending her hair bouncing. “She will do no such thing. All she needs is the strong hand of a woman to keep her in tow.”

The groom chuckled, and against his obvious better judgment, he said, “I hope ye are right, miss.” He set the mounting steps next to the horse and helped her mount. Once settling the heavy skirt and she was stable, the groom stepped back, and the horse pranced a bit with pent up energy.

“What is her name?” Giselle asked swinging the reins around to get the willful animal in tow.

“Hera, my lady.”

“Hera? The Goddess?” Giselle asked with amusement.

“Yes, my lady, Lord Anthony named her as she would bite him every time he entered the stable and took His Lordship’s attention. He used to say she was the Jealous Goddess Hera come back to life.”

Giselle leaned forward and patted the horse’s neck, whispering, “We will do just fine, you and me.” Once seated, she turned the horse toward the pasture. “I don’t believe we will be back before close to dinner.”

 She waved and eased the horse into a canter and out of the paddock, Jarrid following behind. She could feel the horse barely restraining her gait to keep such a slow pace. Hera wanted to fly. She knew her husband and Lord Poole had created a galloping trail past the stream in between their two properties. Her sister had mentioned hearing about it from one of father’s grooms. She would go there and let the horse have her head for a few turns. Not as familiar with the area, Giselle wasn’t stubborn enough to endanger the life of the horse with an unseen rabbit hole or covered rock. They created and maintained it for the men to run the horses in a safe place. Jarrid did not bother her, but let her be in the moment, neither looking back nor having to look forward, just now.

She could not let Hera have even an ounce of control, and Giselle appreciated the concentration it required to keep her in control. If she was controlling the horse, her wild unsettling thoughts were buried. She noted Hera realized their direction and picked up the pace to almost a prance as they cleared the trees to come out to a massive open area raked smooth. The horse whinnied and shook her mane with excitement.

“Is this what you want?” Giselle asked the horse. She understood the desire for freedom. She still felt much of the time as if she had not fully escaped her captors. That part of her was still there repeating the cycle of abuse. It was obvious most people would live much better as a horse in her husband’s stable, but Hera had never lived through lean times, and so she dreamed for a freedom that would never be.

“I too am itching to feel the wind in my face, so I hope you will not disappoint.” She patted the horse’s neck and felt her breathing hitch up with short snorts through her large velvet nose. “Now show me,” she whispered and pressed her heels into Hera's flanks while snapping the reins, and in seconds, they were all but flying as Hera beat the ground in determination to leave the earth. This was where Giselle needed to be. Hera would be hers.

           

***

Max entered the stable and saw Jenkins standing at the far end cleaning out Hera's stable. He hadn’t noticed her in the paddock. Lack of sleep over his new life situation certainly did not help. If he rode hard for the afternoon, he would be sure to sleep tonight.

“Jenkins, how is your wife?” Max asked coming up behind the groom.

“Oh, Your Lordship.” The man jumped making an awkward bow that Max waved off. “She is well and would be right happy if ye visited next time you are out,” Jenkins replied.

“Very well, I will make it a point. I am ready for a challenge today, Jenkins. Can you saddle Hera for me?” He asked. The man’s countenance changed in an instant.

“I’d be right happy to, Your Lordship, but she is already out,” he said avoiding eye contact.

“Out? Out with whom? Did one of the young grooms lose another bet?” He asked, knowing the lads used Hera as a punishment for losing a bet, as her ability at throwing her riders in the stream was legend.

“Ah, no, Your Lordship,” he answered, still with no explanation.

“Well?” Unease crept up his spine and wrapped around his shoulders and throat, cutting off his air.

“She demanded I saddle the beast. She didn’t give me an option, my lord.”

Curses filled the air, each louder and more vulgar than the last. “My wife took Hera?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Well, at least Jarrid won’t let her get too far if Hera proves too much,” Max said aloud trying to settle his nerves, until Jenkins cleared his throat and took on a greenish tint.

“The man did not once try to talk her out of it and did nay een help get her saddled. She rode out afore he did and he trailed behind with ney a care in the world.”

“Damn,” with a tone so low and threatening even took him aback.

“Where did they go?”

“They headed toward Lord Anthony’s land,” Jenkins answered, taking the subject change as a cue to make his way to the next fastest horse in the stable. “I’ll saddle Riddler, sir, won’t be but a moment.”

“See that it isn’t,” Max growled and walked outside to look in the direction Jenkins indicated. What was Jenkins thinking?
Hera came to him a young mare. He rescued her from being put down. Her previous owner didn’t want to take the time to tame an otherwise unteachable horse. Max wanted her from the moment he set eyes on her in the paddock bucking off any attempt to saddle her, then using her massive head to knock the groom on his ass.

He owned her for a month before she would allow a blanket on her back. Anthony named her Hera, because whenever Anthony entered, the horse would make every attempt to block him from Max, and when that didn’t work, she would try to kick or bite him. Anthony thought her jealousy came from Hera herself. To date, only Max rode her without being thrown. Panic again rose in his throat, and just as he would have turned to go back into the barn to speed Jenkins up, he emerged with Riddler following behind.

“If I am not back in the hour, send three grooms each heading a different direction to merge at the folly looking for them.” Jenkins nodded and held the horse for Max to mount.

“My opinion is not of worth, my lord, but the Missus and Hera seemed to strike an agreement. She appeared to have the wild beast in heed.”

Max nodded to the groom. It was on the tip of his tongue, to ask if he meant Hera as the wild beast or his wife. He rode out in the direction Jenkins pointed hoping he would not find his wife in a pile with her head beat in by a large rock and Hera mildly chewing on clover feet away.

To calm his racing heart and to silence his fears, he thought back to the previous night in his study when he wrapped her in the blanket to shield her from Anthony’s view. His body stiffened and softened at the same time. Since his parent's death and his sister’s suicide, Max’s muscles never relaxed. He carried himself taut and on alert at all times, but Giselle’s own muscles tightening under his grasp tamed the beast in him, the one waiting to quell any comment untoward about his family or sister. The one threatening to destroy a room from grief for all he lost and failed to do.

Ahead, the thundering of hooves on the ground shot his mind back to the grim reality that Hera in a temper might well spell death for any mere mortal. He kicked Riddler into a gallop racing toward the copse of trees separating his lands from Anthony’s. The racing paddock.


“Oh hell!” When being controlled by her rider, Hera was threat enough, but if given her head, the horse tried to launch herself and her rider into flight. Max knew the exhilaration, but also his trepidation when he had Hera on the track, one step away from losing control.

He slowed Riddler to a walk, not wanting to burst onto the scene scaring either horse or rider. Once in the trees, he dismounted and tied Riddler to a tree. If he had to capture Hera, or by the gods stop her from trampling an unconscious Giselle already thrown onto the ground, he didn’t want to have an extra set of legs to deal with. He caught a movement across the track. Jarrid and Ruby, another of his horses, stood observing, waiting.

Hera's hooves beat so violently, her every footfall vibrated the ground before he laid eyes on the scene. His heart pounded. He entered the south end of the running pad and his heart stopped and froze him with fear. Sitting on the ground off in the grass lay a sidesaddle and all its trappings, with a block of fallen wood set on its end. In the sunshine, his wife sat bareback on the most arrogant, willful horse he owned.


Giselle’s skirts billowed and pooled around her thighs and buttocks while her long dark stockinged legs gripped and guided the mare. She did not even have hold of the reins, which he noted was on the ground with the saddle.
Instead, the horse’s long mane gripped in each slender hand. Max watched as she handled Hera like a pro. As the horse turned to come barreling back down the track, both Giselle and the horse wore expressions of pure joy.


He stepped back just inside the cover of trees. Though his fear for her safety stood paramount, it enthralled him, the surprises this small woman held close. Max surmised if they were together for eighty years, she would surprise him as much in year eighty as week one.

 Hera must have caught a whiff of newcomers and spooked, rearing up with no warning. Giselle cursed and let out a surprised scream throwing herself forward to grab the horse around the neck to keep her seat. Once she had the horse turned and settled, but far from calm, Max emerged.

“It is just me,” Max said loud enough for them both to hear over the horse’s loud, nervous huffs. “Hera, calm yourself, girl, I am a friend,” he cooed with open hands, palms up in a sign of supplication. Giselle’s eyes flashed, but she remained calm to keep the horse grounded. She still clung to the horse’s neck in case she reared again.

“Come here, girl. Yes, that’s it. Come.” He coaxed the horse to his hand and held it out until Hera pressed her large nose into it. He stroked the horse who calmed by degrees. “Giselle,” he said, without changing the tone in his voice or breaking eye contact, he continued, “Can you dismount from here?”

“Yes,” she answered. Hera blocked his view of her, but her voice quivered, before she made it more controlled at the end.

“Why don’t you dismount and make your way over to your discarded items,” he said, wanting to rail at them both, knowing calm must reign. There would be time for a healthy set down soon. The swoosh of her riding habit and then the quiet thud of his wife’s feet as they hit the ground indicated she was safe. From the corner of his eye a flash of dark green a hat, skirts, and feathers floated to the edge of the pad.


He turned Hera away from Giselle and let her go. If she fled, he would round her up later, but making sure his wife remained unharmed took precedence. To his surprise, Hera turned and ambled behind him like an old trained mule to where Giselle stood, her cheeks still flushed, but from fear or exhilaration unclear.

“What in hell were you thinking?” He spat once close enough, but not close enough to grab her and shake her, which every coiled muscle in his body wanted to do. So much for her presence relaxing him. Movement from where Jarrid stood caught his attention. The man moved closer to show his presence.

“I--” she attempted, but he spoke over her.

“You blasted weren’t thinking,” he exploded. “That horse is one step from being untrainable. Any other horse in the stable is for your use, but you chose the one that would bring you closest to death!” Max’s voice hurt from yelling. The heat of an uneasy snort on the back of his neck by said dangerous horse heated his already hot body. Before he could drag in a breath and continue his rant, Hera ambled around him and turned placing herself behind Giselle, with her head hung over the blasted woman’s shoulder. Hera even bent her chin down to pull Giselle closer to her massive chest, and therefore more into the circle of the horse’s protection. His temper flared again.

“You know she bites,” he said dryly.

Giselle reached her arm up to stroke the satiny muzzle stretched down across her body. “I am aware, but we seem to have struck an agreement, Hera and I,” Giselle said, her eyes speaking of her hot temper and defiance. When he glanced at his horse, the same blazed in Hera's eyes.

“The blasted animal almost threw you. You might have died,” Max ground out, his limbs experiencing movement again when his heart began to beat at a normal pace, “and, why take your saddle off?”

“Have you ever ridden side saddle?” Giselle asked.

Max noted he was not the one being questioned. He had done nothing wrong. Of course, he had never ridden sidesaddle. He was not a woman. He didn’t however give that as his answer, because he got the impression it would be incorrect. “No.”

“Well, it is deuced uncomfortable and not how I rode when learning. Arabians are high strung and until we gained full control, our trainer let us learn the animal and their movements, which is best done bareback with our legs guiding the horse. Hera is so like those horses. She just needed permission to be herself. I needed--” she cut off, and Max hoped she would let fly some truth about herself she would not share with the world, or more importantly, him, her husband.

“You needed what?” He asked, knowing she would lie.

“I needed to get rid of that contraption to allow her freedom. It is quite an experience. You should try a sidesaddle. It may shed some light on how it is to be a woman,” she commented and turned to rub down the horse damp with sweat from their run.

Max refused to be ignored, not yet finished with his wife. A tangible fear bubbled just below the surface. “You have no business as a woman taking the most unpredictable animal in my stable out on a gallop. Hera may have been wounded and I would be out a great sum of money. If you don’t know what you are--” The word doing dangled on his tongue, when his wife appeared toe to toe with him, finger wagging in his face.

“Do not be so sure of my inability to handle horse flesh, my lord. Your knowledge of me is slim and even less concerning my experience with horses. I assure you I have spent enough time with horses to understand what they are capable of.” She whirled and began to pick up the saddle and sort it out to redress Hera.

“What is that supposed to mean? Any man worth his…”

“Ask your groom if you are concerned, but I am exhausted from my exertions and would like to return to the house to take a nap. So, if you would help me, please.” She motioned for him to help secure the saddle back on Hera. He nodded and did as she bid, but all the while, he held his silence about her remark about the groom. What knowledge did the groom possess about his wife he didn’t? He glanced up and Jarrid vanished. Once he re-saddled Hera, he helped to boost her up and seat her. “Thank you. Please inform the stables that Hera will be my mount of choice from now on, and if you or they take issue with saddling her, I will ride her out bareback without assistance.”

He watched as she turned with a defiant tilt to her head, a purple feather bobbing at her cheek and trotted off, both the horse and her with ramrod straight posture imparting more than words. The women in his life agreed. It only spelled danger for him.

Max followed behind out of sight, but was close enough to observe the above average horsewoman with or without a saddle that his wife proved to be. It became clear, Hera wouldn’t have spooked if not for him hiding. And it appeared Giselle, despite Hera's fit, calmed her well enough.

Max came to terms with the fact he just lost his favorite horse. Anthony would bark with laughter and never leave off from the fact.

The paddock stood empty when Max and Riddler sauntered in. He just caught sight of Giselle and her larger than life riding habit sweeping up the last part of the lawn with Jarrid and his billowing robes next to her, before disappearing into the house. A younger groom came out to take Riddler’s reins. “Where is Jenkins?” Max asked.

“He is in the back. Starling threw a shoe and they are working on him,” the groom explained.

“I will be in the office. Please ask him to join me as soon as he is able,” Max said, dismounting and walking around the horse.

“Certainly, sir.”


The groom led Riddler into the coolness of the barn. Max walked around the paddock to the back of the barn where the groom's office door stood open. The stable master left the day before to attend an auction in Surrey. A stallion Max wanted came available and he would not return for several days, so that left Jenkins in charge. He would not take him from his duties, but would also not leave until he satisfied his curiosity.

He pulled a sturdy wooden chair from the office and sat outside in the sun, leaning back until the barn propped him and the chair in a comfortable position. An hour later, Jenkins came strolling around the corner.

“Sorry, my lord, Starling did a right good job on that shoe, she did, but I am hopeful she will be right as rain.”

“Good, thank you. I am sure she will be,” Max answered.

“What can I do for you?” Jenkins asked, uneasy because of their earlier encounter.

“First, please pass along to all the grooms that Hera is now my wife’s mount. When she rides, it will be Hera that she goes out on.”

Jenkins didn’t say a word, only gaped at Max. He had the good sense to close his mouth when Max pointed to his own chin with a weary smile.

“I do not understand why, but they seem to have struck a friendship. I will assume it is the way females of every species are linked. We as men will never understand it.”

“Oh, ho ye don’t have to say more, my lord.” Jenkins chuckled and shook his head. “I’ll tell the lads tonight at sup.”

“Good, and there is one more thing. My wife, well she said something in passing that you may be better to explain to me.”

“Aye?”

“She said she spent more time with horses than I could imagine and if I wanted to more information, I should speak with you.”

A knowing look followed by one of distress crossed Jenkin’s face and he nodded. “I trust she ain’t talkin’ a lot about her--her--”

“No, she is not,” Max answered. No one quite understood how to term what Giselle had endured. In retrospect, even the poorest of estate farmers would be unable to relate to what Giselle fought her way through.

“Well, sir, perhaps we should go into the office with the door closed out of respect for Her Ladyship.” With that, Jenkins walked in the office and Max followed.

Thirty minutes later, Max walked numbly up the lawn toward the house, a vision of his wife’s scantily clad body exposed to the harsh desert elements on a wild Arabian stallion with an injured Jarrid clinging to her too thin body, riding aimlessly in the desert heat, not sure if she would survive or die. His mouth went dry when Jenkins retold what Giselle shared in her frustration to gain a mount. Whatever Giselle said, it was the best possible and least descriptive version and anything he conjured in his mind was sure to be closer to the truth.

How such a thing happened to a diplomat’s daughter, he didn’t know. Max would find the answer and they would suffer. A vision of a faceless man tied to a horse headed out into the desert played like theater production He however, would not want to lead a poor innocent horse to his death, so perhaps tying the bastard to a stake and letting the snakes and bugs eat his eyes would be satisfying. He tried to take deep breaths through his nose and out his mouth as he neared the house. Giselle did not deserve his anger at her captors. In his opinion, she did deserve his anger about her foolish behavior, but even that cooled by now. He would bathe, dress, and lose himself in his correspondence and ledgers until dinner.

 

***

She would make riding one of her regular activities. Annoying husbands aside, there was nothing more freeing than giving her horse its head and letting the moment take her. At that moment, she wasn’t marked or ever been used. She was just a girl waiting for the next breath or hedge to jump. She let go. Walking up the stairs through the door held open for her, she relinquished her hat, gloves, and crop to the doorman. The sight of her bare hand didn’t even seem to distract her, as was often the case. A woman with her destiny in her hands, what those hands looked like, didn’t matter.

Next stop, check if they picked the meal up or if they were holding it open for her. The stretch of the smile on her face surprised her. The buffet was cleared of any sign of the morning meal. Instead, she continued into her private salon, which her mother and sister helped her choose yesterday before they left. Her mother insisted on helping to settle Giselle by finding a place of her own before Lady Braveton agreed to leave. Giselle appreciated her mother’s pestering today.

The parlor Gisele claimed as her own let the light cast a soft glow about the objects, and the scents of the garden wafted in through the open windows. The sturdy furniture was heavy and overstuffed; the kind that begged a person to sit savoring a good book or a hot cup of tea. Giselle pulled the bell and ordered a tray from the butler, Sherman. She would change before sitting down with Mrs. Coy, the housekeeper to go over the tasks the lady of the house was responsible for.

Thirty minutes later, Mrs. Coy sat to Giselle’s right with her notebooks and lists. A tray of warmed meat and sweet honeyed oats with milk sat in reach. Gisele took out a small notebook she carried at all times. Organization never bothered her before, but now it was difficult for Giselle to keep numbers or lists in her head and whenever she tried, she would get a headache. Headaches were her constant companion since her return. Her frustration bloomed, and she didn't understand how she went from pragmatic and organized, to scatterbrained on the turn of a clock, but here she was.

The house was maintained, but in need of a mistress to oversee the upkeep. The housekeeper looked to her for direction. With a full belly and one more spoonful of the sweet oats for good measure, she began.

            “How many of our guest rooms are ready to serve visitors?”

            “Visitors? I am sorry, my lady, I don’t understand your question. You are the first guest in the last few years. Most of the guest rooms are closed and the furniture covered,” she said, looking through her ledger for the date of the last guests.

“Well, put a troupe on cleaning and preparing one room a day. If they went long without care, they will require a good cleaning out.”

“Might I ask, my lady, why we need to bother?”

“Well, in case we have guests.”

“That is fine, but His Lordship forbids society under his roof.” It was apparent Mrs. Coy was feeling the strain of which side to choose. She didn’t want to make her new mistress unhappy, and the prospect of having guests excited her, but she did not desire to go against her master’s demands.

“Why don’t we begin by giving each room a deep cleaning, which I am sure they are well overdue and don’t fret about doing anything behind His Lordship’s back.”

“Good, good plan, my lady.”

Gisele scribbled down notes as they spoke, moving on to more seasonal schedules and then the finances. As her notebook filled up a throbbing started behind her eyes. She reminded herself, she was raised for this, but the enormity of her duties threatened to overwhelm her like a wave.

“My dear, what has you going so pale on me?” Mrs. Coy asked with concern. Giselle smiled meekly, not knowing how to explain her sudden fear. The housekeeper set her ledger in her own lap and reached over to cover Giselle’s clammy hands with her own. “Oh, my dear this house has run for many years without a mistress. Do not worry over much of making a muck of things. 'Tis a big house and we will just take one thing at a time.”

“Thank you.” She relaxed some from the kind words, enjoying the warmth of the woman’s hand on her own. Human touch could be uncomfortable, hemming her in, but this was just right.

“I am here for questions and we will speak often about how your plans are progressing,” the housekeeper assured her.

“Of course, thank you for taking so much time to get me acclimated. Next week, let us schedule tea and continue, shall we?” Asked Giselle as she allowed the woman to rise and curtsy. Uncomfortable with the kindness, she was not sure how to accept it without the pity that floated in people’s gazes.

“My lady, I am not the type to be pryin’ into your business, but since you are new and just settling in, well--” The housekeeper stopped with a hesitant expression.

“Please, I can use all the aid offered, never having run my own household before. I trust you as the expert you are,” Gisele assured the older woman.

“Well, this 'tis not aboot the house, but His Lordship. He is a good man. He is overbearing now, but give him time, my lady. He just needs time. Lord Sutton was on the continent when his sister, well, when she passed, and didn’t even make it home for the services. Poor boy, he’s never been as broken as when he came home missing his opportunity to say his farewell. Then his parents passed so soon after. He‘s trying to control what he can. Give him patience and time; be gentle. You’ll see the man he can be. 'Tis all, my lady, thank you for letting me speak freely.” She curtsied again and left the room posthaste.

            Not what Gisele expected to hear. She expected some sage advice about taking over the running of such a large household, not the care and feeding of her new husband. She knew he lost his sister and both parents close together, but she was unaware he was not in the country when his sister’s scandal happened. Perhaps she found the one man in England as broken as she was or truth in fact, he found her.

Gisele could sit no longer. As comfortable as the room was, it was yet hers and she needed activity. She decided it was time to lay eyes on the guest rooms for herself and decide on their state. While she was exploring, she would try to make her way around the house without getting lost in the light of day when no shadows loomed.

Giselle stopped by her own room to collect a shawl. The late afternoon air was cooling and damp. She left her room taking a left down the hallway in the guest wing. The carpet and wall coverings showed no sign of wear, not a cobweb or dust bunny in sight. The first guest room indeed had the furniture covered, but the room was not forgotten. The windows were clean, and the mantel and the woodwork appeared waxed and dusted regularly. This room, an appealing burgundy, would go to the guest with highest status.

With the small notebook and a charcoal pencil, she jotted down the room, its condition, and what needed doing. Once done, she headed to the next. Each room was as well-kept as the next. Giselle took notes on all the rooms for her next meeting with Mrs. Coy. A few rooms would need new window dressings, and a hole in the carpet of the mint green room required attention.

Still trying to learn her bearings in the sprawling manor, she took a right at the end of the hallway which opened into the gallery. She perused the paintings of Maxwell’s family. Calling him by his Christian name aloud did not feel right, but the taste of it on her tongue silently to herself left a sweet after taste. The likeness of his other male relatives to him was uncanny. Her son would resemble his father. At the thought of having a son, she warmed from her chest outward. The man might be overbearing, but he gave her something she assumed impossible in the desert alone and scared. She would need to remind herself of this gift as she learned her new husband. It might curb her quick tongue when needed.

Through the doorway into what could only be the family wing, she walked on padded carpet. Small occasional tables set along the wall between the doors held large vases brimming with fresh flowers and foliage. The smell was comforting. The dark hallway loomed ahead for lack of a window at the end of the hallway allowing for natural light, only a large commanding, masculine door. She would not be cataloging that one room in her notebook. Instead, she turned to the room closest to the gallery entrance. The doorknob turned without a creak, the door swinging soundlessly. Inside, she found the first room in her searching that appeared to be ready for its occupant.

The colors were soft and calm with a collection of pinks and blues in various shades, but all muted and soft. Around the bed was a canopy pressed and ready for a night’s rest. Brushes and various baubles were laid out on the dressing table as if the room’s resident hurried out for a busy day. On the table by the bed was a book with a marker in it and a letter with its envelope.

Giselle picked up the envelope. No surprise it was a letter from Max to his sister. This must be the last letter she received from her brother before the incident. This was his sister’s room. She had been gone for over three years, but the room remained as if she still resided in it. A chill filled Giselle. When she escaped her captors and returned to her family’s residence in India, her room was as she left it. Even a shawl she dropped on the floor the night of her abduction remained. Her sister later told her that their mother refused to allow anyone to change a thing. They were allowed to dust and make sure it was ready should she return, nothing more.

Gisele set the letter back in its place and made her way to the sitting area, where she sat in a chair. Her stomach lurched making her dizzy. Would this have been the life her mother and sister lived? Would her Ariel have lived in her shadow forever had she not returned? She could not fathom the pain of continuing to hold a vigil over a person who would never return. She didn’t know Maxwell’s sister, but could not imagine she would have wanted her family to live like this.

Did Maxwell avoid this room or visit here to be closer to the sister he lost? Was he even aware the staff maintained the room to such an eerie standard? He appeared to be such a logical person, except for his unreasonable decision never to go into society, or his unrealistic need to know where she was at all times. Perhaps, his list of quirks was longer than she was aware.

She would figure out how to deal with this, but it would not help her cause to do anything about it at present. Besides, her connection to her sister-in-law was firm through Max, and she wanted to get to learn who she was. She rose and meandered around the room examining the different figurines, and paintings. A basket with her unfinished embroidery sat next to the settee with precise stitches, much better than hers ever were.

As she wandered the spacious room, she glanced at the books wondering if they shared any authors of interest. Under a small stack on the table near her bedside window was a leather-bound book with nothing printed on the spine. She opened it to find it was a journal. Was she the first to find this? Had her mother been able to read this before she died?

She set the book down and replaced the books on top. It wasn’t her place. After all, it wasn’t her sister, but it was her sister-in-law and if no one living would have a frank discussion, perhaps the woman herself could give her some answers. Maybe, she could find some answers that would settle her husband’s heart. Part of her still protested, but she put the doubt in the back of her mind and collected the journal. She left hoping to find the answers inside those pages.