Harriette Lewis was beautiful. Ames watched as she twirled around the ballroom in her sky-blue birthday gown. The strand of sapphires around her slender neck flashed as she moved, a tiny chain of starlight surrounded by a cascade of mahogany-colored hair.
He had known her since they were both small, though he was several years her senior. She had always been the most enjoyable of his playmates, never questioning his leadership when they played soldiers or contesting his victories in the games they played in the gardens. He enjoyed the quiet shyness she had possessed. Ames was not sure quite when friendship had shifted to some stronger feeling. But now, as he stood along the side of the dance floor awaiting his turn with the debutante, Ames Coventry knew that he desired to possess this beautiful young woman.
Harriette and her dance partner swirled around the floor for a while longer. The night was halfway over, and she had been carried in the arms of what seemed like every man in the room save Ames. He had only been able to watch as others danced with his prize, and he was not pleased with this fact. Did he not have the most entitlement to her?
As she and the current gentleman approached his area of the room, Ames stepped out to intercept them for the next song. He noted with satisfaction the angry looks from the two who had also vying to dance with her during this song. She smiled at him as he took her hand and began to lead her around in the steps of a cotillion.
“Good evening, Mr. Coventry,” she said happily, the hint of a smile playing on her full, pink lips as she flirted with him. “I have barely seen you this evening! Wherever have you been hiding from me?”
“Hiding? Never so, Miss Lewis. I was simply awaiting an opportunity to have you unoccupied. You’ve been quite the commodity this evening.”
He cast an appreciative glance down her throat to the soft white skin above the low neckline of her gown, relishing the blush that crept up her cheeks. “You are looking quite the grown lady, Miss Lewis. This is truly a party fitting to display your beauty.”
“Why, Mr. Coventry! How bold you are this evening!” She looked down demurely, never losing step of the dance as her grip tightened on his shoulder. “One should not speak so freely of a girl of marriageable age—it is most improper for a man of your station, Mr. Coventry. Imagine the rumors!”
Ames looked thoughtful at this. His family was indeed of old money, which came with certain societal responsibilities; he would be expected to wed soon. It would do his family well for him to marry this girl. Tonight was as good as any to publicly declare his intentions.
“If I might continue to be bold, Miss Harriette, perhaps I should be the one to relieve you of your unmarried status so as to halt any further implications on your honor or otherwise.”
Her clear blue eyes—they were the same shade as the strand of jewels around her neck, he noted—lit up at this statement and she faltered in her steps. Clearly childhood sentiment had not dissipated for her either. In the background, the Cotillion drew to an end and another young gentleman approached for his dance.
Ames touched her cheek softly as they broke apart. Her blush, which now extended from her flushed cheeks down the back of her neck, was fascinating to him. Before he walked away, leaving her to the dandy, he whispered softly, “Perhaps I shall speak with Squire Lewis before the evening is out.”
After conversation with her father the next afternoon, Ames began a brief but thorough courtship, and they were engaged within the fortnight. The date for the wedding was set for the end of the season, a mere six weeks away. For any other engagement, there would have been rampant scandal and accusations to the wind. But money and power go a long way toward silencing the tongues of Englishmen.
Ames stalked the upper hallways of their manor house. It seemed that he could navigate the corridors without thought, so frequent was this search for her. Outside, the softly-falling snow piled quietly to obscure the windows. Night was coming quickly, and his wife was still nowhere to be found. What gall she had! Here he was, home from a day of toil at his father’s firm, and his wife not there awaiting his return.
He shoved open another door in the corridor. The clatter of wood on wood as the door solidly met the wall beside it startled the maid within. She nearly dropped the set of clothing in her hands.
“Master Coventry, sir! Is there sommat I can fetch for you?” she asked, recovering her composure and placing the last of his freshly-laundered garments into the wardrobe. “I weren’t expecting you to need anyfin’ from your room at this hour—“
She fell silent as she saw the wrathful glint in his dark eyes.
“Where is my wife?” he demanded.
“I believe Mistress Coventry be in the library, sir. She’s been in there most o’ the day, actually…”
The master of the house turned on his heel and left the room silently. The maid swallowed the panic she had not noticed until that moment. She shut the wardrobe with a quiet click, wondering what she might have just brought down on her mistress.
He had been only seven when he’d shown his first bout of violent tendencies. Lady Coventry had found her son in the gardens prodding a dead rabbit with a stick. As she approached, Ames had turned toward her and grinned.
“Look what I did, Mother. It can’t hop anymore.”
Lady Coventry had had Ames sent to his room and his toys taken away for a week. He had broken a window and given his tutor a black eye in retaliation. Lord Coventry informed his wife that it was a phase, and she had best forget about the incident. His son was the perfect gentleman; he simply had a child’s temper. Nothing to fret her pretty head about.
He knew that his son was petty and opinionated, but he refused to see fault in the boy even as Ames left childhood. It was nothing more than boyish spirit, he told his wife. It was a perfectly respectable quality in a future man of the law, in Lord Coventry’s eyes. Ames gained composure as he aged, and carried himself like any other cultured young man. The rabbit was never mentioned again.
The only other incident his mother heard of was during his years at university. When he was nineteen, Ames broke another student’s jaw over a game of cricket. Lord Coventry had retired to his study and made no comment about the incident.
Ames had always showed attachment to the daughter of his father’s closest friend. They had been companions during their childhoods as their mothers visited over tea. Squire Lewis’s daughter had been a handsome young girl, and had grown into her beauty while away at finishing school.
Lord Coventry and Squire Lewis had been discussing the match for several months before Harriette’s debutante ball. Squire Lewis was concerned by his daughter’s behavior upon her return from finishing school. True to the school, she had returned a proper young debutante. However, she now read scientific journals and had ideas about the female station. Squire Lewis believed that marrying his daughter to her childhood friend would curb her Bluestocking tendencies.
None of the three men expected the freedoms of married life to encourage Harriette’s improper interests. Most distressed had been Ames, who was convinced that his beautiful wife should not be capable of such behavior.
He found her buried in a corner of his library. There were books spread around her, and she relaxed in his chair sipping tea while perusing some absurd journal. Ames was shocked to see her in such a state of undress—a simple visiting dress, a pince-nez upon her nose, and her hair hanging loose about her face.
“How did you get in here again?”
“Good evening, Husband. I trust you had fulfilling day at the firm? Would you care for some tea?”
“You are not supposed to be in this room. I have told you how I feel about your reading. We have been married seven months now.” He snatched the journal from her hand, glaring at it as though it were diseased. “Should you not be finished with this silly compulsion of yours?”
Harriette removed her pince-nez. “We have had this discussion, Husband. I have as much right in this society to be educated as you, do I not? Hiding the keys to the library is not going to deter my ‘silly compulsion,’ merely temporarily halt my pursuits. As it is, you’ve put me two months behind on the progress of this research!” She gestured at the stack of additional journals beside her.
“You silly girl…”
“I am not a silly girl,” she replied, looking her husband in the eye and extending her hand. “Now if you don’t mind, I would like to finish reading that before dinner is called, please.”
When he did not return the journal, she picked the next one from the top of the stack and resumed reading. Ames’ face twisted in anger, and he yanked her to her feet, a large hand forcefully gripping her shoulder.
“You will not ignore me, woman. I never want to find you in this room again.” He tossed the pages he held into the fire. He watched with satisfaction as the paper shrivel in the flames and recalled a rabbit he had hurt as a boy. It also would not do what he wanted it to. His grip tightened on his wife.
“Ames,” she said, her breath catching in her throat as his fingers dug into her skin. “Husband, stop. You are hurting my arm.”
“For once in your life woman, be silent.” He grabbed her chin, forcing her mouth closed, and shoved her back against the wall beside the fireplace. His voice was deadly soft, almost a whisper, as he glared at her. “Why can you not be a proper woman? This is not who I married.”
Harriette shook her head, removing his fingers from over her lips. The mark from his hand remained an angry red across her cheeks. “Yes, Ames. It is. I am not a prize to be held. You cannot stop me from thinking any more than you can stop me from breathing.”
“I would not be so sure of that fact, my love. You will do as you are told.”
Ames broke his deadly stare into her eyes as he move his hand down along her slim neck. He briefly wondered what it would be like to feel her choke in his grasp. When she moved to speak, he reached over with his free hand and slapped her across the face. Harriette tasted blood. As she stared at her husband, she saw that something was different—this time she would not get away with disobedience. The old bruises had faded with his ire, and the husband she genuinely loved returned, but this time she knew that would not happen.
Harriette knew that she possessed a quick tongue, and that it displeased him, but she would not compromise the core of herself to please him. She knew he had married her only for her beauty and position; he resent every instant where she acted outside of the niche where he had put her. She endured his prejudice because she loved him. Harriette maintained the hope that he loved her enough in return to eventually accept all of her. But with the look in his eyes at that moment, Harriette knew that her life was over, one way or the other. Either he would make good on his threat, or she would never again be allowed access to the intellectual things she loved.
Gathering every ounce of her confidence, she straightened and gripped her husband’s wrist where he still held her neck. “I will not. My actions are not yours to control. Do what you will, but know that I will never surrender myself to what you and my father want me to be.”
She looked at her husband, his perfect figure and clever mind. Where had the Ames she cherished gone? Had he even existed, or had that been merely a cleverly designed façade to cover the shallow child beneath? Harriette momentarily considered surrender, but becoming what he wanted would never change him. It would just give him more power over her.
No. Nothing would change. She released her hand from his and let her arm fall to her side. Harriette said a silent goodbye to the future she once hoped to shape with Ames, said goodbye to the love she could never again feel for him.
What was that in her eyes? It was no longer resistance… This was surely some new form of defiance. His hand was still around her throat; he shoved her backward, cutting off her air. He met her clear green eyes with his own dark gaze. It was pity. Pity mixed with regret. But there—the defiance was still there. She would never learn!
Ames shoved her forcefully away from him. The world seemed to slow as she stumbled to the side, tripping over the hem of her gown. His fingers, which had seemed so securely locked around her neck slipped from her skin. She fell with grace, her face a mask of shock as she looked up at him. Her skull met the stone of the hearth with a sound crack. As she looked up at him, her vision blurring, he saw a single tear fall from her eye.
Harriette lay motionless at his feet, her dark red blood pooling in her curls. He stumbled backward, staring at his shaking hands. Suddenly his rage dissipated and was replaced by panic. He would be punished. He had been punished for the rabbit. But the rabbit was not his wife. Rabbits are replaceable.
He had not hidden the rabbit from his mother. Perhaps he wouldn’t be punished if she never found out. There were many things his mother did not know about. He had not gotten in trouble for them. A glance around the library gave him no answers. He staggered to the window and looked out at the dark gardens. The grounds beyond them… The woods…
No one would find her in the river.