By Doc. Klein's LabRat <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: February 2002
Summary: Another in the series of Lois and Clark fairy tales. Loisetta Lane eagerly contemplates marrying her handsome true love. But is he true? And does he love her? And will she survive the marriage at all?
Although there's nothing terribly graphic herein there is implied violence and the reactions of characters thereto. When your beta screams eek more than three times while reading you know you need a warning. ;)
Thanks go to Helene — whose comments and suggestions and brainstorming led me to a furious rewrite from my initial draft, upped the page count on this one by half, and finally made it into the story it should have been to begin with. :)
And to Julie, who edited this one for the Archive, many thanks. :)
Loisetta Lane stood on the red velvet-covered stool, shifting impatiently as the woman at her feet stuck another pin in the hem of her wedding gown. "How much longer?" she complained.
The seamstress didn't look up from her labors. "As long as a piece of lace is long," she said enigmatically. "And as long as the number of pins I have to stick in it."
Loisetta sighed and then studied her reflection in the brass-framed mirror opposite. She bit at her lower lip and resisted the urge — which she knew would bring on a fit of apoplexy from Margarette — to spread her skirts wide so that she could admire the intricate stitching that had showered the glittering gems and seed pearls on them like so many jewels. "Do you think — "
"Yes, he'll find you very pretty, I'm sure," Margarette interrupted, with all the air of someone who'd heard the question a dozen times before. Actually from this particular young lady she hadn't, but she'd worked on enough wedding gowns and dealt with enough anxious young brides to know what surfaced in their minds and took their attention at these times.
"He'll find you a vision," she added a little more gently, glancing up briefly at Loisetta's face and noting the rapt expression on it which gave every indication the girl was barely listening to her at all. The moment faded. "*If* you stay still and let me work in peace," she added grimly.
Loisetta clasped her small hands to her bosom and sighed theatrically. "Oh, I do hope so! Oh, Margarette, I love him so much! He's so romantic. And handsome. And — "
"Yes, I'm sure he is. And charming and attentive too, no doubt," Margarette said with some asperity. "They always are till they get you into the marriage bed." Then, perhaps realizing to whom she was speaking, she glanced up quickly at her young charge. Seeing the rapturous glow undiminished on the face of the dreaming young woman, her angular, somewhat stern features softened into a smile. This was not a time for skepticism and no time to tread heavily on a young woman's dreams of true love and romance. Time and fate would perhaps be all too harsh instructors there. And…she allowed herself a moment to let the habits of her dour nature be swept up in her young mistress's headstrong optimism and conceded that perhaps they would prove Loisetta had the right of it all along.
Stranger things had happened.
And he *was* very handsome.
She rose stiffly to her feet and patted one white satin- clad shoulder. "Well, maybe this one will be different," she murmured. "Maybe he'll stay just as he is."
Loisetta turned her head and bestowed a beatific smile on her companion and seamstress. "He will. I know he will. He says…" and here she blushed prettily, lowering her gaze a moment. The sudden shyness was so unlike her however that she looked up again an instant later and her eyes were sparkling with the irrepressible spirit that flowed untamed within her. "…he says I'm his one true love. His, forever," she confided in a whisper.
Then, as though that spirit had been kept in check enough, she whirled back to the mirror, opening her arms wide as she laughed in delight. "Oh, Margarette, I'm so happy!"
Margarette squawked as several pins where displaced by the violence of the motion and caught at Loisetta's arm, steadying her and keeping her in place. "Yes, yes, but if you don't stand still you won't be for much longer," she warned darkly. "If this isn't finished in time for the wedding your father will take a switch to both of us."
Loisetta wasn't listening. She stared at herself in the mirror, taking in the vision of dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty gowned in lace and satin and sparkles and sighed again. "Alexander…" she murmured. "Alexander, my own true darling…soon you'll be mine too."
Loisetta stirred as the maid pulled back the heavy drapes of the bedchamber, her peaceful sleep disturbed by the sudden onslaught of sun that blazed through the window like a beacon, calling her to breakfast. The enticing aroma of coffee brought her further out of sleep and she sat up, stretching with the unselfconscious grace of a cat. She smiled at the girl as she set the elegant silver tray on the night-stand and thanked her as she bobbed a curtsy and left.
The smile grew softer as the girl exited the room, pulling the heavy mahogany door closed behind her. Loisetta let herself fall back against the pillows, the warm satisfaction in her mood spreading within her like a low heat. Her cheeks flushed as the memories of the previous night came flooding back, increasing that warmth and sharpening it in the pit of her belly.
They had been married for…four days, eight hours and twenty nine minutes and every single moment of it had truly been blissful. Alexander was so… she closed her eyes, conjuring up the image of her handsome, domineering, but gentle husband in her mind's eye. Alexander was just wonderful. The sigh bubbled up out of her and her eyes flew open as a gruff voice spoke in response to it.
"Down-hearted, my darling? This won't do."
Her heart leapt at the sight of him and her smiled flashed a welcome for him. She stretched out a hand in invitation and with an answering smile he came and sat on the edge of the bed beside her. He reached out to stroke back a stray tendril of her hair and she blushed, lowering her eyes. Such intimacies were like him, his tenderness a casual thing, but she was so far still unused to such open affection. Especially when it was accompanied by a certain glow in the eyes of the man sitting beside her that spoke of a passion he had lately been teaching her the wonders of. Wonders and pleasures such as she had never imagined even in her wildest dreams.
"Why so sad?" Alexander said, his touch shifting as he put a hand beneath her chin and raised her eyes to his.
"Oh, I'm not sad at all!" she blurted out hastily. "I was just thinking about…" she stopped and the rosy flush on her cheeks deepened. Not at all a suitable topic of conversation for a young bride, she reprimanded herself. "I was just thinking how happy I am," she said softly instead. "How happy you make me."
"Ah. Then I'll have to see that you continue to be so," he teased her. His face became more somber. "But not for a time yet, I'm afraid. Malcolm brought back news from town this morning of the Seafarer. She's anchored in harbor."
Her heart skipped a beat. Belatedly she took in his attire, the leather breeches and loose linen shirt. So at odds with the elegant gentleman's attire she was used to seeing him wear. "You're leaving? But you can't! I mean — " she hesitated as he frowned. "Alexander, please, not so soon. We — "
"Hush now." He brushed the back of his hand against her cheek briefly and to her surprise the sudden, unexpected touch made her flinch. For a moment, she'd almost imagined it could have easily been a blow as a caress. How stupid, she thought. This is Alexander. Alexander would never hurt me. But still…just for a moment there… Perhaps it had been the sudden darkness that had momentarily crossed his brow at her protest. She shook off the strange notion as her husband continued, "I have to make this trip. It's important. Do you understand?"
/More important than me?/ she wanted to demand. But of course she couldn't. She had no idea what business her husband had founded his vast fortune on, other than that it was based on sea trade and no inkling of what he did while he was away from the castle and her side. What wife did? Or should? But she knew that he probably knew best in this. And it was none of her concern.
"I'm sorry," she said, folding her hands demurely on the quilt. "It's just — "
"I know. I know, my sweet. But I'll be back soon. Only a month at most…" A month! she wanted to exclaim but prudence kept her silent as he continued, apparently unaware of her dismay, "…and I'll bring you such gifts from the islands that will restore that smile. I swear it."
She couldn't help but smile at that. "Just bring me you," she said. "That's all I need to make me smile."
His fingers brushed her cheek again and then withdrew. "The servants will make sure your comforts are provided for till I return," he told her. His face became serious, his eyes intent. "You're free to explore as you wish, of course, but remember — "
"I know." She nodded quickly. "I'll remember."
He echoed her nod, seemingly satisfied. "It's a small thing I ask, but important you obey me in that."
She lifted her chin dutifully to receive his farewell kiss — an all too brief touch of his lips against her forehead that held nothing of the heat and passion which had marked his kisses of the previous evening.
Loisetta watched him leave the room, her heart sinking as she contemplated the loneliness of the days — and nights — to come till his return.
She sighed and dropped the mess of ragged stitching into her lap, staring out of the tall windows beside her at the dark and heavy afternoon outside.
The loneliness she could have dealt with, she thought acidly. It was the boredom that was deadening her heart in her breast.
At first she had taken delight in exploring the large and rambling castle and its grounds. Always mindful to keep to the sections that her husband had granted her permission to roam. The castle was old and Alexander had bought it so recently with his arrival in the village — had it only been a year since he had launched himself so successfully into the business and social community of Metropolis? Only a year since she had first become aware that he existed in the world? Why had her world not been empty without him when now she could barely think of not having him in her life?
The thought brought on a pang of desolation that he was not at her side now. She missed him so deeply. Surely he would be home soon?
There had barely been time, she shifted her thoughts in an effort to ease the hurt in her heart for his absence, for the castle to be maintained as it should. It had fallen into disrepair in the hands of its previous owner and Alexander had had neither the inclination nor the interest to transform it to its former glory. Until they had wed. He had promised her he would make it a place fit for his princess and she had smiled. She had no need of grand castles, she had said, all she required was that they were together. And he had teased her, telling her that that may suit her but it would never do for their enormous brood of children to be running around like stray puppies in such a hovel.
"Enormous brood?" she had said somewhat faintly, knowing that he was teasing, but also that he was serious beneath the jocularity of his words.
"But certainly. I enjoy large families," he had told her, and despite her misgivings — she had never entertained a thought for *children* and the thought of being a mother scared her slightly — she had settled into his arms and known that no matter what he asked of her, it would be right. He loved her, and she him, and nothing could disturb that.
But that was for the future. For now, there were areas of the castle that were dangerous to walk, where masonry was loose and might tumble, or floorboards weak and liable to give under her weight. And, at the very top of the vast structure, the attic was unsafe to the point of being forbidden to her so strongly that her husband felt the need to remind her constantly that she was not to enter there, or try to. She trusted her husband's judgement in this, as in all else, and knew his restrictions on her movements were prompted simply by concern for her wellbeing, and so she did try to obey but…
…but lately, bored as she'd been, with the inclement weather confining her indoors and robbing her even of the small pleasure she had previously taken in the gardens and grounds…it was difficult not to explore further into the castle's depths.
She knew Alexander would be angry with her if he even suspected her of disobeying him.
He would be angry about other things too. Things she dreaded he might hear of on his return. The servants would tattle of course. They were loyal not to a new wife, barely arrived in their midst, but to the master who had been their lord for years before she'd come here to the castle.
Her hands worried restlessly at the ruined embroidery and she forced them to stillness. It hadn't been her fault, she thought miserably. She hadn't *invited* him to come. She hadn't wished for or wanted him to come. She hadn't even known he was back in Metropolis. She had even been so foolish as to think that she had forgotten him entirely. Not that had she behaved with anything other than the utmost propriety in his company! But…
But would Alexander believe that?
She hoped so. Oh, by all that was graceful, she did hope for that.
She had been here in the morning room then as now. She had been practicing on the small piano in the corner. Her musical abilities were less than inspiring — she was a better singer than she was a player — but she wanted to surprise Alexander on his return with a new minuet, recently become popular among the salons of Metropolis society and written by the king's own bard.
The suddenness of voices raised in the hall outside had been a startling intrusion which had made her hands skitter across the keyboard, producing a discordant jangle that hurt her ears. Rising, she had quickly crossed the room. But before she could reach the door it had been thrust open and a wild-eyed, disheveled figure had almost bowled her over as it had torn through…
Her name on his lips was a glad cry and before she could move he had opened his arms and pulled her into his embrace, crushing her against his chest as his lips murmured her name over and over. "Oh, thank god, I thought — "
He released her abruptly, pushing her back to hold her at arm's length. "Why?" he said and despite her confusion and the unsettled beat of her heart in her breast that his embrace had provoked in her she was stricken by the wounded look in the dark eyes of the man confronting her. "How could you do this? If you had waited — "
"Jerome…" she whispered. She may have said more, but suddenly she became aware of the interested faces of the maid and housekeeper over his shoulder, the latter showing stern disapproval, the former eyes agog with curiosity. She eased herself out of the tightening grip of her visitor and stepped around him to issue a firm command that coffee and some sweetcakes be brought.
Once the two women had gone — the housekeeper obeying with noticeable reluctance — she quickly drew Jerome into the room, closing the door behind them. She sat down carefully, feeling faint all at once as the implications of his being there became an urgent clamor in her head and looked up at him anxiously.
"This is not proper. For you to be here while my husband is — "
"At sea. He left you when barely the marriage bed was warm." At the sudden flare of anger in her face he shook his head. "I'm sorry. It's just — I don't understand… When I heard, when they told me of your plans, I left Geneva at once. I thought perhaps I would be in time…" He took the chair beside hers absently, reaching over to take one chill hand in his. "…in time to stop you — "
"Loisetta, to marry…*him*." He looked bewildered now. "I cannot understand it. If you had only waited — "
"Waited? For you?" She shook her head and her eyes softened as she saw the barb strike deeply at him. "Jerome, I thought you understood. You're my friend. You will always be my friend. But to ask me to…to love you…I told you I could not — "
"You told me you could not marry *me*!" he burst out. "You said nothing about marrying him!" He glared at her, his eyes harboring a mixture of dismay and disbelief. The hurt was deepest of all, however. "You said nothing about marrying anyone."
"I wasn't marrying any — him — I wasn't then! When you left Metropolis, I had no intent to — " She drew back, irritated with how defensive that sounded. What right did he have to question her? This was none of his concern. But the retort died on her lips as she looked into his eyes and found the grief there.
"Why, Loisetta? Why him? Of all men why him? When I was told I could not believe — "
"You left me." The bitterness in her reply surprised even her. "You left — what else did you expect me to do? Pine for you? Grieve for our lost friendship?"
"Why not? I did."
The dark edge to that stilled her for a moment. "You left," she reminded him. "Not I."
He sighed. "What choice did I have? Loisetta, I couldn't stay. Not when…not when you had made your feelings for me so plain. It was too painful. But if I had known you had this in mind…Loisetta, I would never have left you alone if I had known you would — "
"I married Alexander because he asked me," she said softly. "And because he was there. Because he was there when you were not."
His eyes hardened and he pulled his hand from hers. It was only then that she realized that she hadn't done the same when he'd taken hold of it, as any proper married woman should be at such an unwelcome advance. Guiltily she clasped them tightly into her lap now, as though they might be tempted into more scandalous conduct if she didn't.
"I never wanted you to be my husband, Jerome. I told you how I felt. But I never expected you to abandon me as a friend. I was so alone. And Alexander…" She spread her hands in defeat. "Was there. He became my friend. And then…" she stopped, sensing in the tightness of the way he held himself how painful it was for him to hear the details of her relationship with her husband. "I'm sorry you were hurt," she finished bleakly.
"I thought that time might change things between us. I went to Geneva to build something for us both. I had hoped that once I'd proven to you how much I loved — "
Her hasty move, the light touch of her fingers against his lips, cut him off. "Please, Jerome," she pleaded. "This is wrong. I love — "
"You can't," he interrupted her bitterly. He rose to his feet. "You can't love a monster you don't even know! Loisetta if you would only listen to — "
She followed him up, anger sparking in her eyes now. "I've listened to enough. Monster, you say? You're right. I love no monster, nor know one in my husband. I know and love a man who is gentle and caring, who loves me — "
"He loves himself! And the social advantages he gains by allying himself with your father through bedding you!"
He knew he'd gone too far. She saw it in his face. Her own was stiff. She pulled open the door. "I want you to leave. Please. Go, now."
"Lois…" He groaned, reaching out to take her hands again and gripping them tight when she tried to pull free. She felt the soft intimacy of that pet name, that only he had ever used for her, shiver through her, mixed with vague, unformed longings and deeper fears. But she resisted its pull, angry still at him as she was for continuing to insult her beloved Alexander. "Forgive me. I never meant to say any of this when I came here. Please…" he begged as she continued to struggle. "Listen to me. I came to warn you, that was all — "
She stilled. "Warn me?" She frowned, confused. "Of what?"
"Loisetta, you're in grave danger. I know it. He's dangerous. I'm afraid…I'm so afraid for you. If you only knew what he's capable of. If you only understood — "
"I understand only too well," Loisetta clipped out. "When you told me you loved me, that evening in the rose arbor…I'm sorry, Jerome, but you understood my feelings then. I hope you understand them now. You are my friend. And that's all you can ever be. If that's no longer sufficient for you, then — "
"I am your friend," he said quietly. "If you won't listen to anything else from me, I ask you to remember that at least. I always will be. And if you should need me — "
"Jerome — " Her eyes flickered to the hallway beyond him, knowing that the servants could not long be delayed in their return.
He shook his head. "I know. I'll leave. But remember. Promise me? If you're ever in trouble…or…or danger…"
"I will. Thank you, Jerome."
He stared at her another moment, perhaps hearing more beyond the formality of the words and the primness of her tone. Then he turned sharply and was gone, the echo of his steps on the flagged tiles of the hall punctuated finally by the slamming of the door.
Loisetta sank to her seat, her face pale and her eyes brimming with unshed tears. Her hands retained the warmth of his touch and her emotions were a sea of confusing memories and turmoil.
Remembering his visit now, she tightened her lips. Why had he spoiled everything? Why had he come here acting like a fool and mixing her up, till she neither knew nor understood why she was so confused.
How was he able to?
She frowned at the small thought in her head. She knew it was right. If truly she felt no more for Jerome than friendship why was he able to disturb her happiness with Alexander so at all?
Loisetta buried the thought deep. It had no business being in her head. She was married to Alexander, who loved her. And she loved him. And Jerome…
Who had looked so sincere, so concerned, so worried about her. Why? Why would he…?
She started abruptly to her feet. This was nothing, she told herself firmly. Nothing more than an oddly lingering malaise brought on by her boredom and Alexander's absence. When he came back, she reassured herself, all would be well.
When he came back…
She looked down at the embroidery hoop and tossed it irritably to the chair she'd vacated.
Alexander had been gone three weeks and the loneliness was unbearable.
Nor had she seen anything more of Jerome. He had taken the implication contained in her last words to him that he should confine himself to seeing her only at the appropriate times and in the proper social setting to heart it seemed. In future she would see him only when propriety deemed it safe and acceptable. At a society ball or dinner perhaps. A discreet nod of acquaintances as she passed by on Alexander's arm. A snatch of polite but distant conversation if they met on the street.
And never alone. They would never be alone again. And she would never be held in his arms, as he had held her that day. As he had held her that night in the rose arbor. When she could feel his heart beating fast against her own and the sound of his voice, tremulous and soft against her ear.
The thought produced a sharp pang in her heart and the sudden welling up of misery to her eyes. She dashed the threat of tears aside angrily and then stared out at the bright sunshine beyond the window.
Malcolm, her husband's voice here in the household when he was absent, had regretfully informed her earlier that day that it would be most unwise for her to leave the house unaccompanied.
Several of the groundskeepers and servants had reported seeing a stranger lurking near the house. There had been signs of habitation found in the woods.
"A poacher, no doubt, my lady," Malcolm had said grimly. "I'll have him flushed out by the end of the week and sent before the magistrates, mark my word. But until then…" he'd shaken his head ruefully. "I think my lord would find it most imprudent for his wife to wander around alone out there. Best to stay inside, my lady. Till it's safe."
Loisetta was of a mind to argue the point. She could take care of herself and it was intolerable that with the weather clearing she should remain imprisoned in the dark and gloomy castle.
But she was to discover that lady of the castle she may be, but Malcolm was the one the servants obeyed. She was thwarted with all courtesy and respect of course. But she was thwarted. The stable boy had positively cringed before her as he'd refused to saddle her horse for instance. It seemed he had more fear of being thrashed by Malcolm — or Alexander — for disobeying them, than he was of her retribution.
And in truth she couldn't see the boy punished simply for the sake of her pleasure.
She had tried walking in the gardens, but had been unable to persuade the gaggle of old women Alexander had provided as her 'companions'. Jailors, she thought contemptuously now. And then knew it to be unfair. Alexander just simply didn't understand a young lady's requirements, that was all. When he came back, she would ask him about retaining companions more suitable. But for now…she had no friends in the village, no one she could ask to visit to alleviate her boredom.
She knew she had no appetite for visitors besides. She wanted to be alone. Just for one moment. But that, it seemed, Malcolm and Alexander had made impossible between them.
/For your safety…/
She sighed heavily.
/In your best interests…/
She scowled. She was so sick of hearing those words! Her best interests were what she would decide, she thought rebelliously. She would not permit herself to be caged up in this moldering castle like some…some…ornamental hen! Petted, cosseted, and unable to fly. She simply wouldn't!
Decided, she nodded firmly and then glanced around the room. She had no conscious thought that she was looking for something, some small thing, to act upon as a measure of her newfound defiance, but her eyes dimmed and some of the fire of her thoughts went out of her, when she found only the dusty, stifling confines of her prison, as always.
She sighed, settled herself before the window on the wide, padded seat there, and yanked on the bellcord for someone who would at least obey her in her demands for tea.
She stood in the shadows of the staircase, her eyes fixed on the figure making its way down from the castle's upper levels. Her brow creased in a puzzled frown as Malcolm strode jauntily away from her and vanished into the darkness of the corridor leading to the servant's halls.
She had been coming through the hallway on her way to the kitchens — no answer having been forthcoming to her increasingly impatient tugs on the bellcord — when she had caught sight of Alexander's man in the upper hallway.
Instinct had ducked her back into the shadows of the paneled lea of the staircase. She had no idea in her to hide until she was there. No reason to hide. And yet she had. And then embarrassment had stilled her in place, her cheeks flushed as she prayed that Malcolm would not look her way and see her there. What would he think of her skulking around like a common servant girl?
Fortunately, he hadn't.
Her presence unnoticed, she found her gaze lingering on the upper hallway Malcolm had descended from. The only reason for him to be using these stairs would be…if he was returning from the attic room. But…wasn't the attic room out of bounds to all here in at the castle? Wasn't it unsafe? Dangerous? Hadn't Alexander deemed it so?
Alexander had said so. It must be so.
So why…would Malcolm be risking a visit to such a dangerous part of the castle?
He was only a servant of course. Perhaps Alexander was less careful of a servant's safety than he was her own. Perhaps something had been required from the attic and Malcolm had been dispatched to get it. She shook her head, unsatisfied with the explanation. He hadn't been carrying anything and besides it just didn't sound right. Alexander had said the attic room was not to be visited. She was sure he hadn't meant by her alone. Only the other day she had come upon Mistress Abigail roundly chiding one of the young maids for being where she shouldn't.
No. Malcolm had no business being up there. That was clear.
Yet he had shown no sign of furtiveness in his behavior. No skulking or snooping. No sign at all that he was wary of being caught and out of place. Alexander was not, so far as she was aware, a harsh master. But she suspected that none of his servants gainsaid him lightly. Malcolm would not, she was sure, disobey her husband…unless…
Unless he wasn't disobeying at all.
The rogue thought squirmed darkly in her head. Had Alexander…lied to her? Had he lied about the precarious state of the attic room…simply to prevent her entering there?
But…why would he?
Why would it be important that she stay out of the attic room? No other part of the castle was forbidden to her. Why there?
She turned away, confusion twisting in her thoughts and in her eyes.
Alexander had been absent from the castle for seven weeks when Loisetta decided she was going to discover what was in the attic.
She had been chewing over the idea for days. Her boredom and lassitude had increased — more so with the added disappointment of his late return and the unforeseen and unwelcome extension to his absence. In the days that had followed her discovery of Malcolm on the attic stairs she had watched him ascend and descend that route from her hiding place in the shadows several times.
Finally her curiosity had overcome her anxiety and her knowledge of how disappointed and angry her husband would be with her if she was caught in this defiance of his instructions.
She would just have to make sure she wasn't caught, she told herself firmly. Not knowing what was up there was driving her insane. It had even invaded her dreams. In the darkness of her nights she walked those stairs a thousand times, took the great brass key that hung in the kitchens and inserted it into a lock well oiled and not rusted from disuse as she had imagined it would be. She had pushed the door open and…and then she woke. Every time she woke. And her heart thudded in her chest with disappointment and thwarted curiosity strong enough to choke her.
Today…Loisetta had decided. Today she was going to find out what lay behind that door.
If it killed her.
An unwelcome shudder coursed across her spine with the thought and she made a quick superstitious gesture of deflection. Was she a silly, clucking hen of a girl — like Molly, who swore when she delivered her mistress's breakfast tray that she heard moans and wailing behind the door's oak beams at night? Or was she strong enough to discover what lay in that room in truth?
Bolstered and armed by the defiance of that, she strode determinedly for the kitchens.
It had been but the work of a moment to hook the heavy key from its place with the others and secret it in her pocket. The kitchens had been empty of all but the cook, who had been so flustered at the unexpected visit from the castle's mistress that she had been more concerned with making sure everything was in place and there could be no cause for complaint to the master when he came home than watching Loisetta.
A sweetly requested glass of buttermilk had dispatched the sweating woman into the large, cold larder on the other side of the room and by the time she'd returned Loisetta had all she needed. She had lingered only long enough to drink the milk and offer her thanks before hastily returning to the hall.
Now, she stood where her dreams had taken her on so many nights as she'd tossed and turned in her bed. Now she stood on the brink of discovery. On the edge of knowing. Of satisfying that clawing curiosity that had brought her here.
She stared up the length of the steep stairs. The lamps had been doused of course — even at night they often remained unlit. Why waste precious, expensive lamp-oil to light the way to a room that was never visited and not in use? Without them shadows lurked and swarmed in the well of the staircase, the comforting light at their foot gradually dying into a pool of gloom.
Loisetta wiped her damp palms nervously against her skirts and then set her chin in a determined line that her husband would have been surprised to see. Fixing her eyes on her goal and looking to neither right nor left, she set her foot on the first step and began to climb steadily upward.
The stair-treads groaned beneath her weight, as though protesting her presence there.
/Foolish,/ she told herself sharply. They're only stairs. And the room above…
/Just a room?/
She pulled in a small breath, pausing in her tracks. Had there been…? She turned her head, fully expecting to find someone standing there behind her. Watching. Malcolm.
But there was nothing but empty hall. And the frightened thunder of her heart. Loisetta swallowed. Just a room. Honestly, what was there to be afraid of in a dusty attic, long forgotten. She was sure she would find it uninteresting, hardly worthy of the effort and guile it had taken to -
/Yes, hardly worth bothering with. Leave it. Why not leave it? If you return the key now no one will notice its absence, no one will ever know…/
Alexander would never know.
That she had so willfully disobeyed him. He placed so few restrictions on her. He granted her freedoms few other women of her status were. And he forbade her this only because he was concerned for her safety. Was it really so much to ask that she obey him in this? Was he really being so -
How dangerous could one room be? she thought with a toss of her head as though arguing the point with Alexander in truth, rather than simply in her mind. Was she not as capable of placing a foot carefully on a worn board as any man? Was she not as blessed with simple commonsense and intelligence to know when danger threatened and how to avoid it?
She was not a child! He had no need to treat her like one. She was a woman grown and as such entrusted with her own safety.
These thoughts — which seemed so like a betrayal of the husband who had treated her so kindly and well — stung her. She refused to consider it any more, she told herself tartly. She wanted to know what was in the attic. She was going to find out. And that was all there was to that.
She continued up the stairs, trying to ignore the weighted silence that bore down on her as though the very castle were holding its breath. Along with her. She realized she had forgotten to breathe only when she set foot on the last stair and exhaled sharply with relief. Only then did she realize how much she had expected something — or someone — to stop her before she did.
She paused in the hallway. Without light and warmth she stood in a pocket of damp, chilled air that seemed steeped in the frigid cold of neglect. She shivered. And then, unable to bear standing there in the darkness a moment longer, suddenly sure that something — with claws and teeth bared in a snarl — was waiting there, reaching for her…
Loisetta hastily fumbled for the lamp set high on the wall beside the attic door and lit it.
Its glow was faint, but it was enough to beat back the shadows and show her a hallway empty of all but herself.
Loisetta almost sobbed with relief. And then immediately chided herself for her ridiculous fears. A grown woman indeed! If this was so and if her arguments against Alexander's cosseting were to hold then she should act like one instead of a whining child afraid of goblins beneath its bed!
With a snort of contempt for herself, she re-orientated herself and looked at the door before her.
It was just a door. A plain, ordinary door. It had no special markings or features. Just a plain slab of wood. How strange that something that fascinated her so, that had haunted her dreams and filled her waking thoughts with so many fantasies and notions, ideas of rebellion and unbearable curiosity should be so…uninspiring.
Loisetta shrugged, fighting off a sudden and inexplicably sharp disappointment. The door wasn't what had brought her here, she reminded herself. What lay beyond it had.
She pulled the key from the pocket of her skirts and pushed it into the lock. Her dreams had told her true in one regard. The lock was well used and well oiled. The key turned soundlessly. Loisetta took a deep breath and pushed open the door with a trembling hand.
Something more than darkness. A black gloom that swallowed the light from the corridor in which she stood and sucked it into…absence. It was absence that filled the room. Nothing.
It was the stench that caught at her next. A thick, unpleasant smell that clogged in the back of her throat. Like something left moldering there. An animal perhaps she thought, nose wrinkling in disgust. A rat or maybe a raccoon. Something that had crawled in here and died.
Or maybe, she chided herself with some asperity for the wildness of her imagination, simply the damp mustiness of a room long disused and seldom opened.
She took a few steps forward, peering into the dark. Vaguely she made out shapes, shrouded in shadow. A slight motion at the corner of her eye startled her. Twisting around she realized that it was only a mannequin propped against the wall. The cloth which covered it was settling back even as she watched, only disturbed by the air of her passage. She let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding and tried to ignore the thundering of her heart within her as she advanced further into the room.
Warily, she glanced across her shoulder, unreasonably reassured to note the door still standing ajar and the spill of warm lamplight beyond it. The air within the attic seemed chilled compared to the warmth of the corridor. She shivered slightly and promised herself she would leave in a minute. There was nothing here, nothing to keep her, nothing worth risking her husband's anger over or -
As her eyes slowly adjusted and became accustomed to the lack of light she became abruptly aware that there was more than one mannequin in the small room.
She turned around in a slow circle, surveying her surroundings. Perhaps half a dozen or more, she estimated. What would Alexander want with so many? What would he want with mannequins at all? Shaking her head in puzzlement, she spied a small window at the far end of the attic. Crossing quickly, she noted that it was tightly shuttered, but with a little bit of manipulation she was able to ease free the catches. She pulled the shutters wide and then, blinking a little in the wash of weak, late afternoon light that was released into the room, turned to better see what was in the room with her.
The figures scattered around the room were shrouded in white sheets. Against the dust, she supposed idly. She wandered curiously towards the nearest, reaching for the sheet, and then took back her hand as she almost tripped over something lying in her path.
An irritable glance showed her a small packing crate. She stepped around and then glanced back drawn by a peculiar shadow just beside the box.
Something had spilled across the floor here…she frowned, staring at the rust- colored pool. Fortunate that she had seen it before she had stepped into it, she thought with some relief. She had no desire to explain to a servant why she was wandering the castle barefoot and what had happened to her slippers should she meet one on the way back to her room.
She cocked her head, studying the stain. Some kind of tailor's dye perhaps. Alexander would be displeased if he found this here. It had obviously not been dealt with when it should have been…it had congealed stickily among the floorboards, seeping darkly into the wood and dulling to a thick, noisome…
She made a small moue of distaste as she realized that some of the substance had got onto the hem of her skirts. She would have to discard them as soon as she returned to her room, she considered anxiously. Perhaps get rid of them entirely, for she could not trust to Alexander's servants not to speak of it and surely -
Loisetta's breath caught in her throat. Her hand had reached for the stained hem as she'd considered how to get rid of this unwelcome evidence of her disobedience. Her fingers had rubbed across the gown, trying to discover how deeply the stain had taken…now, eyes dazed she brought those red-stained fingers up before her face. Her mouth became a soft O as horror filled her.
Her eyes widened. Then bulged with the terror that clutched at her throat all at once. She backed up towards the door, almost falling in her haste as she collided with something behind her. Something that was her height and…
She spun and her quick, frightened motion dragged the covering sheet from the figure at her back, letting it slip with inevitable calm to the floor, and revealing what horror lay beneath its pristine shroud.
Frozen by the paralysis of terror, Loisetta's breath labored in her chest. She fought the scream that welled up in her, knowing it would be her death. Knowing it would be her last if someone heard.
/Out of here. She had to get out of here./ Her thoughts gibbered madly in her head. /No one must know…no one must find her here…Alexander…/
Her eyes flickered upward and caught the glazed blue eyes of -
Her mind broke. Her thoughts snapped. Out of here! Out of here! was all that was left to howl in her head, a litany of panic and fear that had her fleeing into the hallway as though all the demons of hell were at her back.
She found herself in the great hall, with no clear idea of how she'd come there. The confusion of thoughts in her head beat at her with wings of blood and she only knew that she must flee. Flee!
Sobbing she pulled at the great door that led to the outside world. To sanity and life. Away from this castle of death. It came free easily letting in a surge of sunlight that blinded her all at once…
…and she fell back with a soft cry as a dark figure loomed up before her on the stoop.
He was staring at her as though she was a stranger. Then he came forward to pull her into his arms.
"My dear child! You are so pale, and trembling. Are you ill? They did not say — I sent word from the harbor of my return, but they said they could not find you to tell you — have they not been taking care of you?"
Every instinct for self-preservation that was in Loisetta was shrieking at her to act out the role of dutiful wife, eager and anxious to see her husband home, welcoming him into her arms. To fool him into believing that nothing was wrong until she was able to escape him.
But she couldn't. She couldn't. All that she could see was the eyes of the women dead in that room. All that she could hear was the silent screams ripped out of their mouths that had been cut off forever. All that she could smell was the sweet, corrupt ripeness of blood…
She froze in his embrace, like a frightened bird in the hand of the hunter, her body rigid and tense in his grip.
Alexander let her go, his expression concerned and puzzled as he stepped back to study her. "Loisetta, what is wrong? Are you not pleased to see me? Have I been away so long then? I should never have left you alone, I know, but, come my sweet — ?" He stopped. "Your hands are stained," he said and now his voice was cold.
Loisetta's stricken gaze leapt up to meet his…and found her own death lurking in the darkness of his eyes and the sudden stillness of his face. "Ah, Loisetta…" he said softly and regretfully, "I do wish you had listened. I do wish you had obeyed."
"Alexander — " Her moan of disbelief, of betrayal was cut off sharply as he reached for her. Desperately she tried to run, but he was far faster and stronger than she was. She struggled wildly in his grip as he caught her. Her scream lodged in her throat and then found its release in a sudden shriek that echoed through the cavernous halls of the castle. Briefly, over her husband's shoulder she saw the startled face of Malcolm as he hurried for them and then…oh then…
Merciful blackness claimed her.
"A faithless wife strikes at a man's heart more deeply than a serpent."
Loisetta lifted her head, dazedly looking up at the dark figure looming over her, trying to make sense of the words. Her head hurt and it fogged her senses.
/Faithless?/ she wanted to say. /No, I was never…Jerome and I never…I would not betray you my love…not like that…/
But the muzziness in her head dissolved the words as soon as they were thought. She tried to speak…and discovered the thick cloth gagging her. Memory returned in a frightening rush.
…those women…oh, sweet god the women…locked in the room and frozen in the moments of their deaths…their horrifying, brutal…their eyes…their eyes…
She was still in the attic, she realized. She'd been dragged into the far corner. A terror so deep it almost surged up into madness filled her abruptly. She kept her eyes fixed on the bare boards she was huddled on, knowing that if she caught a glimpse of what was keeping her company she would truly fall into madness. He had tied her hands behind her while she was unconscious. Her ankles were similarly bound. There was a coldness on the side of her face. Blood? She felt dizzy and weak. Had he hit her? The throbbing in her head…she remembered his hands, tight around her throat…
A sob broke free of her and her husband bent quickly. "There…hush now…"
He lifted her chin with a steady hand, the gesture so familiar to her that it twisted in her heart. She had expected to find anger in his eyes, contempt, but there was only sorrow. Sorrow and a deep, welling disappointment. She searched his shadow- shrouded face, desperately trying to find some trace of the husband she knew, trying to fit the pieces of this new Alexander into the man she had loved. But there was no trace of the husband who had kissed her tenderly when he had left. Who had shown her the pleasures of the marriage bed so gently and passionately. Who had… Tears trickled down her face and she closed her eyes, blocking out his features as he drew a soft thumb across one cheek, smearing them away. She thought that if he leaned forward now and kissed her on the forehead she truly would scream her way silently into madness behind the gag that muffled her sobs.
This was not her Alexander. She had no idea whom she was trapped in this attic with. But she knew it was not her husband. There was nothing in this man to whom she could appeal, nothing of warmth, nothing of love.
"I thought I'd finally found the one who'd listen," the stranger who wore her husband's face told her gently. "I thought you'd obey. That's all I ever wanted you know. A woman who'd obey me and listen to what I said." His eyes grew dark and now she saw the disdain she'd expected. He let her go abruptly and rose to his feet. "But you never learn, do you? You're all the same. Stupid and vain…poking and prying…sneaking around like rats in the gutters…and — you just don't listen!!"
The sudden rising of his voice made her quiver. She closed her eyes momentarily, wishing this nightmare gone, wishing for the warm safety of her bed and the arms of her husband holding her close. Murmuring sweet reassurance that it had all been nothing more than some terrible dream.
"You just have to go prying where you shouldn't," he repeated. "Disturbing things. Ah, Loisetta…" She looked up at him numbly, drawn by the sudden return to softness in his tone. "I did so love you. I did so hope that this time…" He shook his head and turned away. Alexander! she tried to cry but only muffled moans got past the cloth silencing her. He paused in the doorway, the light outlining his handsome figure as he turned back. "Rest now, my darling. Tonight you'll join your sisters." He smiled sorrowfully at her. "No one will come for you. So, please, my love, don't torture yourself with the hope of that, I beg you. I would not see you suffer so. Malcolm was quite able to explain your cries to the rest of the servants as the vapors brought on by your excitement at my return."
The smile turned mocking for an instant, belying the previous sincerity of his tone. "And none of them will pry into your whereabouts for the rest of the night. A new husband returned home and a new bride eager to welcome him back into her bed…no, they will not expect to see you for some hours yet." He chuckled, the sound making her flinch. "Or days, perhaps. And Malcolm has already taken a carriage to your father to inform him that we will be leaving soon on a trip together. I am sure he too will understand that his daughter has so pined for her husband and I so guilt- stricken at leaving the marriage bed cold so soon after our wedding, would wish to make amends and take my bride away where we can be alone."
He stopped. The silence thickened around them. In it Loisetta could hear the faint cries of the ghosts which filled the room and the stench of the memories the attic held and knew that soon she too would join them. That she too would be reduced to nothing more than a mannequin in this collection of horrors. As though hearing the fearsome thought, Alexander nodded. "We will be alone together forever my sweet. You will never be alone again. And I shall never leave you. I shall visit you. Often. And remember how much I loved you." He closed the door behind him. It was soundless, this sealing her into her tomb, and yet for Loisetta, crouched and bound in the dark with the horrors of her companions clawing at her mind, the finality of that closing door rang in her head like the tolling of a funeral bell, it's echoes following her down into the pit of despair as she wept in the black gloom of her prison.
She struggled with the ropes binding her until her wrists bled. But gained nothing. She closed her eyes, wondering how many minutes of her life had ticked away while she'd tried to free herself. Wondering how many remained before Alexander would return and…
How could he ever have fooled her so?
How could she have ever thought he loved her?
She knew that for a lie however. Alexander had loved her. In his own way. Those moments of gentleness and passion that so sickened her now with their memory hadn't been feigned.
He was insane.
Fear pooled in her belly and she whimpered softly. She shifted her body and began to rub the ropes against the rough wall behind her. Hope had left her, but still she couldn't give up. She couldn't just let Alexander…
Loisetta sobbed. She couldn't die like this! She couldn't die when…
/Jerome…Jerome help me…please…/
The sound of his name in her head jolted her. Fresh tears stung at her eyes. /Oh, Jerome…/ She couldn't die. Not without ever seeing his face again. Not without the opportunity to tell him how sorry she was, how foolish she had been…how wrong. To tell him…
/To tell him she loved him./
So many surprises, she thought, a small, bitter laugh escaping her. So many truths revealed to her this night. Now when they were useless, when they could no longer matter.
And yet they did matter, she discovered. They mattered to her. And they offered a small flame of comfort in the cold and the dark. If nothing else she would die knowing Alexander for what he was, no longer the fool, the naive child. She would…die…knowing that she loved Jerome. And if fate and gods granted it, she thought with a savagery and hatred she had never known she possessed, she would find a way to tell Alexander that before she…before he…
She was jerked out of her thoughts abruptly by the soft opening of the attic door. The thud of her heart was so loud, Loisetta thought it would break apart in her breast. What she had mistakenly imagined as terror earlier had only been a foretelling of the wild, petrifying emotions that surged up inside her as she watched the dark figure enter and stand in the doorway. All thoughts of defiance fled. All thoughts of revenging herself on her husband. All thoughts… it all faded into a blaze of cold dark light as dread took her and swept her clear of the steadying rock of Jerome and her love, of all that she had been clinging so desperately to.
/Alexander… Alexander…/ her thoughts babbled mindlessly in their shock and fear.
Death had come.
Vainly, instinctively, mindless in her horror and fear and reduced to reflex, she tried to push herself deeper into the wall, her bound feet skating across the bare boards without purchase. The rustle of her skirts and her frantic whimperings turned the head of the man standing in the doorway sharply towards her.
Her name was spoken incredulously and then he was hurrying towards her.
Loisetta shrieked behind the gag in her mouth, shaking her head violently in desperate pleading and then she was pulled up roughly and against the solid chest of the man crouching at her side. "It's me, it's me, dear god what has he done to you? What he done here?"
Bewildered it took her a moment to get past her terror, to recognize the voice, to realize she was safe…
Jerome pulled quickly away. "Be still," he said. "I'll have you free of this in a — "
Loisetta's eyes widened, her face twisting into a rictus mask of horror.
Warned by her reaction, Jerome ducked to one side.
As a result, the metal rod missed impacting on his skull, as it had been intended to, by mere inches and struck the wall between him and Loisetta with a hollow boom instead.
Jerome made a desperate grab for the man hulking over them, knowing that he was at a disadvantage. But the presence of Loisetta, bound and hurt beside him lent him strength. He had to protect her. Fury drove him further. That this man should so abuse her, so threaten her enraged him. He found himself on his feet, had no idea how he'd got there, as he lowered his head with a roar and launched himself forward. He hit Alexander full in the chest, bowling him over with the weight and furious strength of his charge. They tumbled to the floor together, struggling for supremacy.
The next few moments were a blur of heat and red mist as Jerome fought for his life — and for the life of Loisetta which was more valuable to him still. Alexander matched him in all ways except one — Jerome's rage gave him an edge Alexander's didn't.
Loisetta tried in vain to judge what was happening only feet away from her in the gloom of the attic. The two men were of a size and build and entwined as they were in their desperate, furious struggle, she had no way to tell which of them was Jerome. They were merely shadows in the darkness, grunting and cursing as they traded blows. She shrank back against the wall, feeling her inability to help him keenly. The ropes binding her were still as strong as they had ever been, despite her attempts to break them. The gag prevented her from screaming for aid. And even if it hadn't what help would have come and who would it have come for, here in the domain ruled by Alexander? She couldn't help. She couldn't cry out. All she could do was wait, helpless and bound, until one of them prevailed. And one of them claimed her. She could do no more than watch…and pray…it would be Jerome.
The miserable thought that her savior…her love, she thought with no surprise now at that truth as it stirred within her…might be dying there on the attic floor so close beside her had her struggling to find her feet. She had no idea what she could do, what she would do, but she had to help him. She had to! But it was futile. She couldn't even get enough purchase to drag herself upright. Desperately she twisted her head, knowing not what she sought, only knowing that there had to be some way, some thing…
Her gaze fell on a length of metal lying by her side. The club that Alexander had tried to kill Jerome with. Now she saw that it was a fire-iron. No more than a thin, metal spike with a barbed hook at one end. A shiver ran through her unchecked. Had this been her own death? Had Alexander brought this here to use on her? And finding Jerome here…?
It didn't matter! she shrieked at her wandering thoughts. What mattered was that it might help Jerome. Quickly she thrashed and undulated her body, working her way around until she had her feet positioned next to the iron. She paused, lifting her head. Waiting was an unendurable agony, but she knew that she must know which of the struggling men was Jerome. She had to wait for just the right moment. If Alexander got his hands on the weapon instead…she closed her eyes as the vivid consequences of getting this wrong flashed into her head, like a spear in the chest, and then hastily forced them open again, terrified she had missed her chance.
She watched, breath coming jagged in the hollowness of her chest, as one of the men fought his way to his feet, dragging the other with him with hands bunched into his shirt. His shirt! The wide, loose shirt favored by the seafarers! Trembling, Loisetta focused her attention on the man holding Alexander. Jerome loosed one hand, keeping his hold on his swaying adversary and used it to deliver a fast, hard punch that had the man reeling violently backwards. Alexander fetched up hard against the railings of the staircase. He looked momentarily dazed.
Loisetta screamed for all she was worth. It emerged as no more than a muffled cry but it was enough to turn Jerome hastily in her direction. Having gained his attention, she kicked out sharply. The iron skittered rapidly across the bare boards.
Her heart swelled with love and a fierce, exultant pride as Jerome didn't hesitate to take advantage of the offering. There were no questions in his face as he glanced up at her, no surprised pauses. He simply bent to grasp the weapon and came around in one smooth, graceful motion as, with a roar of outrage, Alexander pushed himself clear of the railings and came for him in a fast, ungainly lunge.
Jerome danced back a few paces, giving himself room and then swung out with all he had.
The iron thudded into Alexander's upper chest with a dull thump, rocking him back. He staggered, pain filling his eyes — Loisetta flinched, having heard the unmistakable sound of bone breaking — and then his hands clutched at his chest. He moaned and fell back another few paces. Loisetta saw the open space gape suddenly behind her husband and the inevitable reached out to grasp them all like a black hand. To her surprise, even then, she cried out behind the gag. A wordless plea that went unanswered.
Alexander stumbled backwards and then his face changed. Pain, surprise, anger and bewilderment all flashing into shock as he realized there was only empty air at his back. His arms pinwheeled frantically, his eyes locked on hers for an instant — an instant that lasted a lifetime — and incredibly she found love there. Insane, twisted love, but love nonetheless. Then his gaze broke away, shifted to Jerome. What was in his eyes became pleading. But there was no time. Jerome's hasty move for him was in vain. Alexander vanished with a shrill cry as he tumbled down the steep stairs.
Then there was silence. A moment of stillness. It was broken only by the rough, labored breathing of Jerome as he stood staring at the empty space where but a moment previously his enemy and nemesis had stood. Slowly with the vague motions of a sleepwalker, as though he moved through a dream, Loisetta watched him cross slowly to stand at the top of the stairs. For a moment that stretched into eternity he looked down into the hall below. The iron in his hand fell to the floor with a clatter and there was grief in his eyes Loisetta saw as he turned blindly for her.
Her arms ached to hold him, to comfort him as he dropped bonelessly to his knees at her side. "I didn't — I never wanted — "
/I know…I know, my love…/ she told him, but he couldn't hear. She twisted her head and he reached up quickly, his fingers gentle but deft as he untied the foul cloth and drew it from her mouth. His face twisted as he pulled it clear and then he threw it from him.
Loisetta tried to speak and failed. Her throat worked painfully, her mouth was dry. "It wasn't your fault — " she finally managed hoarsely and then the words were lost as Jerome's mouth covered hers. His kiss was desperate and heated and Loisetta moaned softly against his lips before he withdrew. His eyes were full of pain as he searched her own.
"I was so angry. When I saw what he had done…what he had done to you — "
"Alexander…" she couldn't help but ask. He shook his head. "Perhaps…" her glance shifted across his shoulder to the open door. "Perhaps…he's only…"
"No." The look in his eyes told its own story and killed the thought in her, stillborn. She could not tell if she was relieved or sorrowed by the knowledge that Alexander was dead. "His neck…" She saw him rein back, refusing to share with her whatever he had seen. "I know a dead man when I see one," he said tautly. "He's dead, Loisetta. He won't hurt you again." His eyes, stricken, traveled around the room and then he embraced her fiercely again as though he feared to let her go for too long. "He won't hurt anyone. Not any more."
"I don't understand…" Loisetta murmured dazedly. Reaction was setting in, the adrenaline that had kept her desperate attempts to get free, to save herself, suddenly draining away into exhaustion. She swayed dizzily and was caught against the warm body kneeling at her side. His arms felt so good around her… She relaxed into his embrace with a soft sigh. "I don't understand…" she whispered. "How did you know…how did you come to be — ?"
"I couldn't leave you, Loisetta. Even if you wouldn't listen, I had to stay. Make sure you were safe." He pulled back from her, ignoring her soft, wordless protest, and took hold of her face in his hands, his eyes earnest on her own. "I've been watching the castle for weeks. Him…and you, when I could. I knew he'd hurt you eventually. I wasn't…" He closed his eyes briefly and when again they fixed on hers they blazed with a fury that stilled her breath in her throat. Fury and…something more. "I wasn't prepared to let that happen. I wasn't going to allow that. So…I watched. And waited. Waited for him to show himself. His true self."
"You watched… You watched over me all this time?"
He nodded sheepishly. "I knew you didn't want to see me — " He shook his head, cutting off her faint protest, " — and you were right about that. So I hid out in the woods, where I could keep an eye on the house and who came and went there. I saw you too. Every day you walked in the grounds. But you were never alone and I had given you my word I would not try to speak with you again…but, oh, Lois, my Lois…" His hand rose to cup at her cheek as his voice grew hoarse with the emotions trapped within him, "you have no idea how much I wanted to! But at least, seeing you each day I knew you were safe." His hand dropped away and Loisetta stilled the impulse to pull it back into place as he said softly, "And then I heard that the Seafarer was back in harbor."
He gazed at her, an old fear stirring in his eyes. "I knew that with Alexander back your safety couldn't be assured. That the danger for you was increased with his return. So I moved closer to the house. I was so afraid for you, my love…"
Loisetta closed her eyes briefly, almost losing his next words in the bright flare of joy that lanced through her heart with the words, so naturally and unconsciously spoken by him.
"When you didn't come out of the house, I grew worried. It was unlike you to lose a bright day like this. Only the cold and rain has kept you from the gardens before now. I crept nearer to the castle, trying to discover where you were, trying to catch a glimpse of you." He paused. "Instead…a window in the morning room was open. I was passing it, when I heard Alexander's voice and the mention of your name. He was giving his servant instructions. Telling him that he must be sure no servants were around when they took you from the attic…I knew then that my worst fears were true. I was so afraid for you. So afraid he'd hurt you…that he might have — " He broke off, the words choking in his throat and pulled her close against him again, murmuring her name like a litany of relief.
Loisetta thought her heart would break with the words. She had treated him so badly and yet, still…still he had protected her. Cared for her.
"Oh, Jerome…" she said, tears beginning to flow across her pale cheeks unchecked. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't ever mean — "
"Sshhhh…" He bent his head and his lips were warm and gentle on hers for a moment that was all too brief. "Everything's fine now," he said as he released her. His gaze turned anxious and his manner urgent. He fumbled for a moment with the ropes at her ankles, then swore softly and went looking for the fire-iron before returning to carefully insert its hooked edge between her skin and the bonds, slicing them cleanly. The ropes on her wrists were similarly swiftly dealt with. "We should get out of here. Malcolm has gone to see your father, but he will return soon enough. Can you walk?" he asked her softly and underneath the gentleness of his voice and the care with which he handled her she could sense a deep core of anger. She knew it was not for her.
But her knees buckled beneath her as she let him help her to her feet and she heard him mutter an oath before she was swung up into his arms. She didn't protest. Gratefully and somewhat shyly she put her arms around her neck and laid her cheek to the welcome harbor of his shoulder as he headed for the stairs.
Before they reached the bottom, she turned her face into the side of his throat and felt his hand spread itself against her hair in comfort, pressing her closer still so she would not have to see what lay there.
"I mean who could ever have imagined?" the mayor of Metropolis wrung his hands anxiously as his eyes skittered over Jerome's shoulder towards the wan and listless figure lying on the canopied bed.
Jerome glanced back to follow that gaze and then put a hand to the mayor's elbow, ushering him a little further out of the room and into the hallway beyond. He didn't want Loisetta disturbed right then. Certainly not by this little weasel of a man whose unctuous concern was nothing more than a veneer for his own self-interest.
The mayor glanced up at him as though urging him to agree. "Who could have thought that such a man as Alexander Luthorbeard could be…would do…would turn out to — "
"— be a mass murderer?" Jerome said grimly. His gaze lit briefly on Loisetta again. Her eyes were closed, lashes dark as soot against the chalky pallor of her face. Despite her protests — which had been pretty virulent — the doctor he had called to attend her once he'd got her here to his home had dosed her with laudanum. It seemed that the drug was finally having an effect, granting her an at least temporary peace from the horrors of the last hours.
"Yes, who could?" he said and there was a bitterness in his tone that dismayed even him.
The mayor brought out a grubby handkerchief from his pocket and mopped at his sweating brow. "I'm sure if any of us had ever —" he assured Jerome bleakly.
"I'm sure," Jerome interrupted grimly. Hard to imagine how the village council had missed several of Luthorbeard's previous wives vanishing without a trace. But, he reminded himself charitably no one else in Metropolis seemed to have suspected the man either, so perhaps he was being unjustifiably hard on the mayor.
The mayor's eyes swiveled desperately to the bedroom behind them. "What matters is that…what matters is that it's over," he finished, his tone taking on a slightly hopeful note. "Luthorbeard is dead, those poor women have been removed and will be respectively interred in an appropriate — "
Jerome had had enough. "I think Mrs…Loisetta needs to rest now. This has all been a terrible shock for her, as I'm sure you'll understand."
"Right. Of course, of course." The mayor paused as he was ushered down the hall. "And…um…you'll attend to…the other matter — " he asked nervously, glancing at the grim- faced younger man.
"I'm sure Loisetta has no plans to make any decisions just yet."
"Oh, good. I mean…yes. Of course." The mayor bobbed his head in a hasty farewell and headed for the door.
"Although you may hear from her lawyers when they arrive from Boston," Jerome called after him.
The mayor visibly winced and then hurried for his carriage.
Jerome watched until he was out of sight and then returned to the bedroom. He closed the door carefully and then, walking softly so as not to wake her, drew up a chair as close to the bed as he could get and settled himself into it. His gaze became pensive and withdrawn as he gazed at the sleeping figure on the bed.
"What was that all about?" Loisetta asked tiredly, opening her eyes and turning her head to view him. The drug she'd been given was weaving its way through her now, spreading a soft haze of lassitude over her thoughts. She struggled to keep her eyes open, curiosity stronger than her need for rest.
Had gotten her into this mess. Hadn't she had enough of it by now?
It seemed not. She waited for his answer.
"It was nothing. The mayor called to offer his condolences." He said it dismissively, but her steady gaze didn't waver and finally he conceded to her silent insistence that she not be fobbed off with excuses or platitudes. If her experiences hadn't dimmed her curious nature they had certainly made her weary of people making decisions for her 'for her own good'.
Jerome shrugged in defeat. "You're a very wealthy widow now. The village council's worried you might…take your business elsewhere. Alexander brought a lot of money to this village. Without him — "
"Oh." Loisetta said, abruptly losing interest. "I can't think about all of that. Not now."
There was so much else to think about. Things she didn't want to think about. And even painful as they were to consider, the practicalities of what happened now at least beat back the howling things that twisted and capered in her head. The wild imaginings, the dark images, the horrifying memories…
"What happened to… Where is he?" she spoke up abruptly.
Jerome didn't pretend to misunderstand the question. "They took him to the magistrate's office. They'll arrange for his…they'll arrange everything."
Her eyes questioned him anxiously. "Did he say…they won't…I mean they can't blame you for — "
"No. They'll want to question you of course. Later." His tone and the sudden tightness around his eyes spoke of his opinion that it would be much later if he had his way. "But they seem to have believed my version of events. The evidence of the bodies…his wives…" He shook his head. "Mostly they want to bury this as soon as they can decently manage. They're embarrassed they let it go on under their noses. That they didn't know. Malcolm was taken on his way back from your father's house. He seems more than eager to tell them that it was all of Alexander's doing. That he merely obeyed his master and had nothing to do with…with the killing. Eager to save his own skin as much as he can, he'll corroborate much of our story."
Loisetta nodded. Her eyes wanted to close again. She let them.
"I never wanted him to die. Not like that anyway." The low voice brought her back from the brink of sleep. She struggled to raise herself against the pillows a little, ignoring his protests and his abortive move to prevent her.
"I know…" Her move was reflexive, her hand closing over his. She felt the shock of that contact race through her like a pulse of heat and he looked up into her eyes. He smiled wanly and lifted his free hand to push back a strand of her hair even as his fingers curled tightly around her own. The memory of Alexander doing the same coursed through her, but strangely it didn't feel as though she should pull away. Somehow, this felt…right.
"You should sleep," Jerome said.
She dropped her gaze. The tenderness in his eyes made her ashamed and yet filled her with a sense of peace. "I'm…afraid to sleep…" she confessed in a whisper. "I'm afraid of what…of what's waiting for me in sleep."
She heard him move as he sat on the edge of the bed beside her. He pulled her close, saying nothing for a moment. Loisetta closed her eyes. "You'll be safe, my love," he said softly. "I'll be here. Nothing can harm you while I watch over you."
Something she knew to be true. A faint shudder rolled through her and then he was laying her back gently to the pillows, fussing over the quilt that covered her. "Sleep…" he commanded. She felt herself drift.
"Talk to me…" she murmured. "So that I know you're there." She opened her eyes and looked into his handsome face and the kindness…no the love…in his eyes and her heart was still and quiet in her breast. At peace. Becalmed. There could, she knew, be nothing of fear or pain in it while he was at her side. "Jerome…" she said, a soft sigh in the darkness of the room.
He smiled down at her. "Jerome," he repeated ruefully. "You know, all my life I'd had people refer to me as Master Jerome Kent." She gave him an inquiring look and he shrugged. "I always thought it sounded kind of…stuffy," he confessed. "I hate it."
She smiled. "Jerome Kent? My hero? The man who saved my life…and my sanity?" She snuggled closer into the quilt. To her surprise she found her hand was still enclosed in his. She tightened her grip a little. "I don't think you could ever be stuffy."
"My middle name is Clark," he offered, looking slightly embarrassed now.
"Clark." She rolled the name around for a moment and then nodded. "I like that." There was silence for a moment, then she said, "You know what else I like?"
"No." He tilted his head in question, his eyes intrigued. "What?"
"When you call me Lois." He looked at her, surprised, and she blushed a little. "I like the way you say it."
"Then that's what I'll call you," he promised. He bent to brush his lips against her cheek and she sighed again. "Sometimes," he amended with a grin as he straightened.
"Well, sometimes, I may call you 'sweetheart' or 'my love' instead."
"Oh…" She pulled his hand up, enfolding it in both of hers and then resting her cheek against them, pressing their fingers into the pillow. "That's all right then."
She felt his amusement. It warmed her. Chased away whatever demons might be lurking in the shadows of her mind, waiting for the laudanum to claim her. She knew that those demons would come. That they would ambush her on this night and on many nights still to come. But she also knew that when they did her hero, her love…Clark…would be waiting to offer comfort and succor, his protection and love…and that made what would come bearable.
"Do you think this will work, Clark?" she asked tentatively. "Us, I mean?"
There was an us, she understood. They had not spoken of it, but it was something so strong and vibrant between them that had no need of words to make it so. She knew he understood that too. They were one. They always had been one. He had always known that. She had tried to deny it but had finally understood too that one can only thwart destiny for so long. He was her fate. As she was his. And that was a truth that, although it had come to her belatedly and after much grief and pain, was so shining and bright a constant in her heart now that she could not imagine how she had managed to avoid it and deny it for so long.
He gathered her close. "Loisetta Lane and Jerome Kent, together and loose on the world?" He smiled against her hair. "How could it possibly fail?"
"*Lois* Lane and *Clark* Kent…" she reminded him sleepily.
"Ah, yes…" he agreed. "And them too."
And then his lips took possession of hers and as his kiss swept her away into a blissful haze, Lois understood the truth of *that* too. They could not fail. Together they could never fail. Together they could do anything.
She snuggled in deep into the arms of her beloved, closed her eyes and slept.
Contrary to her expectations, she did not dream.
At least…she did not dream of Alexander.
(c) LabRat 2002. No intentional infringement of copyright.
Thanks go to Laurie, whose reciting of fairy tale titles on irc the other evening, the list of which included The Robber Bridegroom, reminded me of the story of Bluebeard's wife and popped this one into my head. :)