Author’s Note: I was dwelling a bit on the word for Sunday Scribblings, sharp, thinking I could use it for both of my possible serials. I thought it fit rather well with each of them, but perhaps more so with the fantasy than this historical fiction. It still works, though.
Since the website’s remodel is not yet complete, there’s still time for people to pick one or both of these serials as a permanent one on the site. There’s more information here.
Robert kept the woman braced against him, wishing that he had been able to make their first meeting easier, if only for her sake. He had seen some of what he admired so much about her letters—a frankness and forthrightness as well as a strength that surprised him under her present circumstances. She should be in bed, that seemed undeniable, but she had been able to meet him and had spoken with him with candor, not shying away from the unpleasant or awkwardness of their conversation. She had been all sorts of things that he thought should serve her well and see her through her current crisis. If he had thought he needed to come in as some sort of hero in a novel, rescuing a damsel in distress, he would have no one to rescue.
True, her circumstances were far from ideal, but she seemed to have all of that under control at present, and that control was considerable from someone so small—well, that stomach of hers was far from small—but overall she was rather petite. Her scent matched her name, like a gentle summer breeze carrying the hint of a garden, of violets and more, and he wondered if she’d done that on purpose.
“I know I asked you before, but do you need a doctor?”
She grimaced. “Please do not say that so loudly. My mother would take you up upon it in an instant, and I do not want to be fussed over further. It is true that I feel poorly, but I have ever since my condition presented itself. It is as if it cannot stand acting as though it were not my conscience, stabbing me over with many sharp pains.”
He looked at her. “I don’t understand. The man did present himself as single and honorable, and he did marry you. What have you done that is so terrible?”
“I was a fool, wasn’t I?” She asked, opening her door. She pushed it open and hesitated in the doorway. “Thank you very much for your assistance. I do believe I shall make it to my bed alone, and I would—that is—I do not feel comfortable letting you into my bedroom, even if I cannot possibly be… Well, I am not appealing in this state, nor would I think that you—oh, heaven. Listen to me being so ridiculous.”
“I do not know that you can consider it ridiculous. You know very little of me, and I do believe I may have misspoken when I said that you are… That is, he did use my name, and there might be others who would think that… entitled them to something from you.”
She nodded, reaching to place a hand on her back. “I do hope you maintain that opinion. I do not want to create any difficulties between us—and I rather hope there is something that can be done if you do find Winston. I did not want to hear of him doing this to any other woman. Imagine if he went about ‘marrying’ all of them with a false name. That is… horrible.”
“He should be the one getting the sharp pains.”
“I doubt his conscience troubles him any.”
Robert nodded. Any man that could steal another’s name and use it to defraud everyone, including one woman to the point of marriage, to impregnating her and abandoning her, that sort of man could not have a conscience. If he had, he would never have done any of it. “You are right.”
“I wish I had not been so… blind. That I had seen what he was and not fallen for his charm. He seemed so sweet—not cunning or cruel—but how can he not have been all those things?”
“I do not know,” Robert told her. He did not think that he could explain it as anything other than a malicious act. “There is some possibility that this Winston of yours was genuinely in love with you, that he did not intend to leave you, but that seems unlikely.”
She closed her eyes. “That is what cuts the deepest, you know. It is not so much that I am in this condition or that I have been betrayed, but the idea that he came here always intending to do so… That I let myself be a part of that, that I was so stupid and foolish, that I lost all practical sense…”
Robert wished that he had some kind of comfort to give her, but he could summon no words of wisdom, could find nothing to help her. Her pain was raw and visible, all over her face and her posture, and he was more helpless now than he had been when he was dragged to the field hospital. “I think you should lie down now. That was the idea behind getting you up these stairs after all.”
She looked at him. “Yes, of course it was. Thank you again.”
He forced a smile, backing away so that she could take those final steps by herself. “I… I have no right to ask this, but did… did you love him?”
She stopped, leaning against the bedpost. “I thought I did. It is strange how quickly love can sour under the circumstances. Had he stayed, perhaps the illusion would have lasted longer. Since he left me, it has faded into nothing more than another one of my many pains. Time, I think, will continue to dull that one, though I fear I cannot ever be allowed to forget.”
The child would be a living reminder of everything when it came. Robert nodded. “I am sorry.”
“For what? None of this was your doing.”
“I keep thinking there was a reason why he used my name among all of those that he could have chosen, and if that is true, then I must in some way be responsible for it. Even just the use of my name in such a way…”
“You are not him. You proved that when you walked in the door.”
He smiled at her words, but he could not take comfort in them. She had her pains, and he had his. He would not be able to deny the way he felt any more than she did, and he could not escape the feeling that nagged at him, the one that told him that he should have been able to prevent this somehow, that he could have spared her if only he had stopped this man before he got to her. He had tried to explain it, but the more that he thought about it, the more he thought that someone had done this to punish him, not her, and she was caught in the middle of a horrible game that she didn’t even know she was in. He should know, should be able to say who hated him that much, but he did not know.
He would find out, though. That was the only way to satisfy the sharp pangs of his conscience.