Author’s Note: So when I saw the Carry On Tuesday prompt of “the show must go on,” I thought of pretenses and stoicism and masks. Each of the possible serials have them, since both the queen and Violet have their acts, their ways of concealing their thoughts and emotions. The story and the shows always go on, though.
Maybe they shouldn’t, but then again… where would I be if the stories didn’t go on?
“I think I had better lie down again.”
Robert felt her draw away from him, struggling to compose herself as she did. She wiped at her eyes, and he grimaced as he saw her do it. He did not like seeing her hurting, and she would not want to acknowledge that he was seeing it. He did think she managed an admirable act—though not all of it was a pretense, some of it was just who she was—of pretending that she was not agonizing over everything. With everything that had happened to her after the imposter left, learning she was pregnant, facing the gossip and insinuations not only about how he left but also about her child, to learn that the man she’d married was not only the sort of blackguard who abandoned his family, he was also one who had married her under a false name. That left her as good as unmarried, bearing a child people would call a bastard, but she did not give in to the sort of behavior anyone would expect.
She wasn’t crying constantly. She hadn’t become bitter like her aunt. She didn’t blame anyone else for her condition, not even the man who had deceived her. Robert had nothing but admiration for her poise, her decorum and dignity. He could not find enough words to describe what and who she was, this strength that shone through her actions. She would not betray a weakness, not even when she had every reason to let herself feel them, perhaps even to wallow in them. That would have been permissible in her situation, her condition.
He did not understand how she managed it. She was a woman trapped in a most unpleasant position, and she bore it better than he did. He should not think being a man somehow made it easier for him—he did not think that war could ever be called easy—or that being a woman somehow made her less than him and therefore incapable of coping, but he knew what was expected of him and not of her. He had to be in control, always strong, never weak, and he could not allow his injuries or his memories to enfeeble him. That was not permitted.
He could hear his father’s voice in his head, and he almost yelled in response, but then she would think that he was a lunatic, as any man with shell-shock might be called if they had not already labeled him a coward.
She frowned. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, no, forgive me. I did not mean to start woolgathering. Here, let me walk you back into the house.”
“Mr. Winston—Robbie—I did not—I am not assuming anything about your promise.”
He blinked, and then he almost cursed again when he remembered what he’d said. That had sounded rather like something it wasn’t—like a proposal. He swallowed. “Mrs. Winston—”
“Violet,” she said, and then she blushed. “I—That is, after all that has passed today, it seems rather foolish to stand on formalities, even if my aunt will make assumptions that she shouldn’t.”
“Violet,” he repeated, not sure which name he liked less. Calling her Mrs. Winston was awkward since on paper she would appear to be his wife. Violet, though, that was a name that burned her into a person’s mind—her scent, her voice, and her face. He did not want that, could not. He was not supposed to admire her. She was not his. She was the victim of the man who stole his name, his identity. He had come here to help her, yes, but that was all. Helping her did not mean that he would do what her aunt suggested. “I… Yet again I did not pay enough attention to my words.”
“I told you before that I do not expect you to marry me, nor do I think that you meant them as any sort of proposal. I do appreciate—Oh.” She stopped, her hand on her back again. “Oh, that is…”
“What? Are you feeling unwell? Should I—”
“No, no, I am fine,” she said, and he frowned, and she reached for his hand. He continued to frown as she guided it over to her stomach. He almost pulled away, but then he felt the strangest sensation underneath his palm, and he could only stare down at his hand. “I’m told that’s quite normal. All babies kick. It doesn’t feel normal, and it does seem like I ought to be covered all over in dark bruises, but it never leaves a mark.”
He nodded. “It is very… odd. Not unpleasant, just different.”
“Yes, it is,” she said, closing her eyes for a moment. Then they popped open and she stepped back, breaking contact. “I don’t know why I did that. It was inappropriate enough the way we were sitting, but to put your hand on me that way… Oh, hell fire.”
She should not have been able to run, not in her state, and in truth, she did not manage to move with much of any grace, but she still fled from him, hiding behind the hedge. He let out a breath. He hadn’t thought of the impropriety of the moment, either, just the wonder of it. She’d shared something with him that he would never have thought he could have.
He turned toward her. Her face was still red, but she held herself straight, her posture stiff but her whole being as composed as always.
“I… I will go in and lie down now. Please excuse me,” she said, about to walk away, and then she stopped. “I will attempt to answer your questions tomorrow, if that is acceptable.”
He nodded. “Of course.”
She gave him a very slight smile and walked away with as much dignity as a lady in her condition could manage. Either she was the strongest woman he’d ever met, or she should have been an actress. She put on one hell of a show.