~ Second Son ~
by A. K. Naten
** This is a sort-of 'XMas present' for all the readers out there who've been enjoying this story and asking me for more - thanks for the feedback **
For disclaimers, etc., see Part One.
** Violence warning **
Alice chatted merrily about the tasks of the day as she helped her Lady undress and prepare to bathe. Gwynneth sat down on the ledge beside the large tub and released a sigh. She still felt tired and queasy, and her handmaid's suggestion of a nice, warm bath sounded like the most wonderful thing in the world.
Alice was carefully unbraiding her hair when the bath chamber doors suddenly flew open without preamble. Both women gasped loudly, shocked at the intrusion, and Alice spun around and stood in front of her Lady, protecting her as always.
When Gwynneth realized that it was her husband who stood in the doorway, she felt somewhat relieved, and yet still, surprised. Granted, Anton was unconventional in many ways, but to intrude upon the privacy of her bath was highly inappropriate. She was completely nude, for heavens sake, and she could feel her body flush violently with embarrassment.
When Anton didn't say anything to explain his appearance, Gwynneth spoke up, peeking her head around Alice's body. "Husband?" she queried tentatively, "Do you require me for something?"
Anton stared at the source of her pain and ire with darkened eyes and a burning heart. Her temper had been steadily rising as she searched the manor for her wayward wife. When at last someone directed her to the bathing chambers, her fury was ready to boil over. Standing now and looking at her wife face to face, she acutely felt the stinging pain and blinding agony of what she perceived to be the blonde's betrayal.
Gwynneth immediately felt ill at ease as she observed the dark, foreboding look on her husband's face while he began walking toward her silently. She knew him well enough by now to recognize when he was angry, but this was more than anger. This was nothing she'd ever seen before, and it filled her with a sense of dread. His unblinking eyes never left hers as he finally came to stand before her, staring speechless and unflinching.
Finally breaking the unsettling contact, Anton flashed a warning look at Alice, "Leave us," she snapped.
Alice nodded and immediately scurried away, fearful of the hateful vibrations that seemed to roll off the Marquess in waves.
"And close the door," Anton called out just before the handmaid disappeared.
"Y-Yes, Milord," Alice stammered, closing the door behind her. She rested her forehead on the outside surface of the heavy wood door, wondering what in the world the Marquess could be so furious about. Obviously something was very wrong, and obviously his displeasure was being directed at Gwynneth. Alice's stomach churned with worry and a sinking feeling. The maid strained her ears for a moment, hoping to hear if anything was happening behind the thick door. She didn't want to think about the possibilities of what might be unfolding.
Alice had been harboring a suspicion about her Lady for quite some time, even though she'd tried her best to put it out of her mind. She'd been a ladies maid for many years, having much experience to draw upon. So when her young charge had begun feeling ill and missing her monthly courses, she suspected right away that the young woman was with child. During her short time at Weldon Manor, Alice had made fast friends with some of the staff, and those friends had wagging tongues and flapping ears that picked up on every little snippet of gossip - especially gossip surrounding the noble family. After processing all the gossip and hearsay and mentally calculating dates and events, Alice was left with a sense of dread and uncertainty about her Lady's predicament rather than elation. She now feared, based on the expression Lord Anton was wearing when he'd walked into the bath chambers, that the Marquess had figured out the same thing she had: Lady Gwynneth's pregnancy was a bit ahead of schedule.
Hearing no noises, Alice straightened herself up and turned away uneasily, walking down the long corridor. There was nothing she could do for Gwynneth; she could only hope that the young Lady had the answers Lord Anton might be seeking.
Meanwhile, inside the bathing chambers, Anton's fury somehow remained in check as she looked down at her seated wife. Gwynneth had demurely tried to cover her exposed private areas with her arms and hands, but her cheeks were still splotched red with the evidence of her embarrassment. A good portion of her body was exposed to Anton's burning stare, and the Marquess took the opportunity to run her pale eyes all over the alabaster, supple-looking flesh. Anton's gaze narrowed in on her wife's abdomen, and she studied it hard, trying to discern if the pregnancy was noticeable... trying to see if she'd just been stupidly blind to the fact that her wife's body had been changing right in front of her eyes... trying to see if there was a readily-apparent difference that she had somehow naively overlooked... trying to discover and prove her wife's deception while not giving away her own.
Unable to stand the silent scrutiny, Gwynneth tentatively peered upward. Blue-green eyes blinked rapidly and scanned her husband's tense face as she searched for some kind of sign or signal as to what was going on. She quirked the corners of her mouth in a tiny half-smile, hoping to evoke some sort of reaction from Anton. But still, he stood motionless and glaring before her.
Anton determined that there was no obvious swell to her wife's abdomen, nor any other part of her body, for that matter; it appeared to have the same soft, gentle curves that she had become accustomed to. Gwynneth was still so incredibly beautiful in Anton's eyes; the Marquess didn't know if she wanted to scream or cry.
To think that Gwynneth had been touched by someone other than her, before her... to realize that someone else had been the first to discover the blonde's body and soul and enjoy the gift of her many treasures... to consider that her lovely wife could have hidden such a thing from her and deceived her so... the thoughts drove Anton mad. And now, knowing she'd been deceptive, Gwynneth had the audacity to sit there and smile at her so sweetly...
Anton's upper lip curled into a sneer and she reached out to place her hands on Gwynneth's shoulders. Still saying nothing, Anton pushed on her wife's shoulders, turning her around so that she was sitting on the ledge of the tub with her back against the front of Anton's thighs.
Gwynneth's eyes darted to her side and she tracked her husband's movements as he bent down and picked up one of the sponges and wetted it. Keeping one hand on her shoulder, Anton slowly and wordlessly began to rub the sponge over her back.
The stilted quiet was killing Gwynneth. Something was obviously troubling Anton, but she didn't know if he was angry about something, or if he'd come to seduce her in some new and unusual way. No longer able to stand the torturous silence, Gwynneth reached up with her hand and covered the larger one that rested on her shoulder.
"Husband," Gwynneth began in a whisper as she carefully twisted herself and looked up at Anton, his eyes still dark and clouded with some unspoken emotion, "...is something wrong?"
A hundred different responses flooded Anton's head, but she didn't give voice to any of them. Instead, she dropped the sponge and removed her hands from Gwynneth's body, turning around and taking a step away. She could not look into her wife's eyes; she could not stand to feel the touch of the one who'd betrayed her.
Anton stood with her back to Gwynneth for just a minute before finally speaking. "Are you...," her voice cracked and she paused, "are you happy here, Gwynneth?" she finally asked.
The young Lady smiled gently, even though it wasn't seen, "Yes... I'm quite happy." She answered honestly.
Anton continued, "And what about with me? ...Are you happy with me?"
Gwynneth frowned in confusion, "Yes, of course. I'm very happy with you, Anton." She answered, using her husband's name to emphasize her sincerity.
It was true, she was happy, but perhaps Anton doubted it for some reason. Had he heard something to the contrary? Is that why he was acting so strangely? Before she had time to further contemplate, Anton turned around to face her again, and she nearly gasped aloud. Her husband's face was a darkened mask of barely controlled rage. His eyes seemed to glow and his lips twitched as they fought to contain what could only be angry, caustic words.
"Then, why?" Anton whispered through gritted teeth.
Gwynneth shook her head, not understanding, "Why what?"
Anton stepped closer, "Why would you be unfaithful to me?" Anton ground out harshly, her voice low and seething.
Gwynneth was stunned into absolute stillness. She wasn't sure she heard him properly, and she stared for a moment before breathlessly stammering, "W-What?"
Anton took another step and now stood towering over the blonde. "You have lain with another man!" she said slowly, her voice full of disdain and disgust.
Gwynneth's mouth fell open and her eyes dropped away, her heart pounding and her head immediately filling with horrid recollections of Aldred - the only other man who'd ever touched her. She had successfully pushed the memory of the evil former Lord out of her mind, but now, those memories were suddenly and dreadfully reawakening.
Had Anton discovered her secret? Gwynneth wondered in panic, but outwardly, she forced her eyes to return to her husband's and shook her head, "N-No, husband..."
Anton saw the hesitation, "LIAR!" she shouted suddenly, making Gwynneth jump. The Marquess leaned in closer, bringing their faces just an inch apart, "Tell me whom you laid with before me... or since me even!" she demanded.
Gwynneth's mind spun out of control. How could he know? ...How could he know about Aldred? she thought frantically. Still, she stammered aloud, "I-I have been completely faithful to you, my husband-"
The sudden slap caught Gwynneth off guard, knocking her off the side of the tub ledge and onto the stone floor.
"DON'T LIE TO ME!" Anton screamed, nearly out of her head and blind with rage. She did not see a helpless woman before her, she did not see her devoted wife and lover; she saw only lying, cheating, and betrayal.
Gwynneth was shocked... flabbergasted. She couldn't believe what was happening. Somehow Anton had figured out that she had not been pure, and now he was accusing her of a mortal sin. The husband who had been so good and so kind to her now thought she was a liar and an adulteress. Her happy world was crumbling and disintegrating into nothingness. Holding a trembling hand up to her stinging cheek, Gwynneth felt tears begin to trickle down her cheeks.
Anton knelt down and leaned in close again so that their noses nearly touched, "You are a faithless harlot!" She hissed, "You whored yourself with someone before me! Who WAS it!?" She screamed again in demand, her fury unchecked and unstoppable.
Gwynneth flinched and whimpered aloud, frightened beyond belief at her husband's rabid violence. But no, the man in front of her was not her loving husband; this man was a wild-eyed, out-of-control beast.
Gwynneth shook her head, "N-No, my Lord, I-I," she stammered unsteadily, her body quaking in fear.
Anton interrupted her by reaching out and grabbing her by the arms, squeezing them and shaking her while practically lifting her off the floor. She roared again, "Tell me who you allowed to defile you, or by God I'll beat you within an inch of your life!" Anton drew her hand back again, preparing to deliver another blow to the mortified young woman.
Gwynneth cried out, "No! Please!" Her voice was pleading and panic-stricken as she raised her hands to shield her face, her eyes wide and terror-filled.
With those words and actions, Anton stopped dead, seeing the absolute fright and desperation in astonished blue-green eyes and realizing in horror what she was doing to her vulnerable, defenseless - and pregnant - wife. She released Gwynneth immediately and the younger woman quickly scrambled back away, curling up in a corner of the room. Wrapping her arms around herself, Gwynneth began to shake and sob uncontrollably.
Anton got up and turned away from the cowering blonde. She was suddenly overcome with a multitude of surging feelings. Shame... anger... regret... hurt... frustration. She began to walk around, clenching and unclenching her fists as she fought to contain her warring emotions. Her mind was in a whirlwind when she came to stand in front of a small table where some bottles of perfume, soap and scented oils sat beside the bathing tub. Unable to contain her out-of-control feelings, Anton lashed out, swinging her arm across the table and sending the glass bottles crashing to the ground as she released a loud, rage-filled roar.
"Damn you! Damn it all!" Anton cursed aloud.
Gwynneth jumped fearfully and clapped her hands over her ears, squeezing her eyes shut and trying to block out the sounds of her husband's aggressive rampage. Tears streamed down her face as she pressed herself tighter against the cold stone wall, petrified that Anton would again come after her and hurt her.
Anton brought her hands up to her head and squeezed tight. She was losing her mind. She couldn't control herself and she couldn't control what was happening. Everything was exploding all around her. She was surely going insane.
All was quiet in the bathing chamber room for a few moments as Anton fought to reign in her raging fury and Gwynneth continued to cower fearfully in the corner. After several minutes, Anton finally calmed herself enough to speak.
With her back to Gwynneth, she began the conversation that she knew they had to have. "I spoke with Victor about your illness," she said, her voice low and hoarse and her tone sarcastic as she finally turned around to face the trembling blonde. "...He informed me that you are with child."
Gwynneth's mouth slowly dropped open and her heart immediately leapt into her throat.
With child? She was going to have a baby?
Her first reaction was shock, quickly followed by a feeling of relief. However, the vivid memory of her husband's violent anger invaded her fleeting happiness, and her thoughts immediately turned to question and worry. If she was pregnant, why was Anton so upset? Shouldn't he be pleased that she was going to give him a child? He should be thrilled. And how would he conclude, out of the pregnancy, that she'd been with another man?
Gwynneth's mind spun quickly, putting two and two together and retracing times and reliving circumstances. Almost instantly, she knew what was going on. The deep-seated terror and fearful thoughts that she had fought so hard to push aside and forget had apparently come to fruition... with a vengeance. The horrific evil she'd suffered at the hands of Aldred had not only come back to haunt her, it had planted itself inside her.
She was pregnant with his child.
Gwynneth's stomach suddenly surged and she thought she might be sick.
But how? How could it be? And how could anyone know? The fates would not do such a cruel and wretched thing to her! The child must be Anton's! It had to be Anton's! She could not accept anything else! Gwynneth placed a hand over her roiling stomach, feeling certain that she was going to either throw up or pass out.
Anton could see all the thoughts and emotions racing across Gwynneth's face. She could tell that the small blonde was trying to figure it all out.
"You have nothing to say about it?" Anton's spat sharply, bringing her wife's attention back.
Not looking up at her husband, Gwynneth hesitated for a moment before answering with what she hoped Anton wanted to hear, "The child is yours, husband." she said meekly.
Anton released a cynical laugh. She knew, of course, that it wasn't possible for the child to be hers, but Gwynneth didn't know that. ...And she couldn't let her know that. She had to think of a reasonable way to explain the impossibility. Luckily, Victor had helped her somewhat.
"It isn't mine," Anton snapped, "Victor examined you; he said that the pregnancy - or at least the evidence of the pregnancy - has occurred much too early in our joining for it to be my child." It was true, but Anton had to hope that Gwynneth accepted the weak explanation.
Gwynneth's mind swirled at the implications. How could Victor possibly know such things? She desperately thought back to her examinations and discussions with the physician but came up with nothing out of the ordinary. She wasn't a doctor, after all, and she didn't have the slightest idea how Victor could know that she'd been with anyone except her husband. Anton had not mentioned Aldred, so Gwynneth had to hope that she could reason with her incensed husband and convince him that he was the father, lest he beat her mercilessly.
Gwynneth's chin trembled with fear as she tried to speak again, her voice cracking under the stress, "B-But, Victor must be wrong-"
Anton cut her off, "He's not wrong!" she shouted, making Gwynneth flinch again. "You told him when you had your last courses! You told him you first began to feel ill before we were even married! You were ill the entire journey to Wextony, only days after our wedding! Or have you conveniently forgotten all this?!"
Gwynneth's mind desperately tried to follow what Anton said, calculating times and recalling the cycle of her courses. It was true that she hadn't had her courses for a few months, but she hadn't been overly concerned about it - or rather, she'd forced herself not to dwell upon it. Instead, she had convinced herself that her cycle had always been rather fitful and irregular, and that her illness, combined with all the recent stresses, was simply throwing her body off-course.
In reality, Gwynneth had absolutely refused to consider the possibility that she could actually be pregnant, and she refused to think about the fact that she did not know whose child it might be. She was young and innocent, but she wasn't so foolish that she naively thought it could only belong to her husband.
When Aldred first violated her, Gwynneth did indeed worry that she could become pregnant, but she reasoned that since they would be married soon, it wouldn't matter anyway. After Aldred's death, however, she forced herself to forget about everything; she had to in order to survive. She had been living in a state of denial, blocking out the wretched hell Aldred had put her through, as well as the lingering fear of a pregnancy. But now that fear had been reawakened.
Gwynneth felt panic grip her again. If Anton knew the truth about Aldred, what would happen to her? What would happen to the child she was now carrying? She licked her lips and ventured a glance up at her husband. He was staring at her, his eyes still fiery and demanding. She swallowed and opened her mouth to speak, but Anton quickly walked over to her and crouched down on the floor, leaning in close to her face again, making her draw away fearfully.
"We've been married barely three fortnights, Gwynneth! And you've been 'ill' for more than four fortnights! Think about it!" Anton yelled, her breath hot and angry against Gwynneth's face. "This child cannot possibly be mine! Whose bastard is it!?" she demanded sharply, causing Gwynneth to flinch. "Whose bed did you lie in?! Who took your purity and spoiled you!?" Anton shouted again, and again Gwynneth cringed, turning her cheek and anticipating another blow. "TELL ME!" Anton roared loudly.
"Aldred!" Gwynneth finally cried out, no longer able to suppress it. "...It was Aldred, My Lord!" she sobbed wretchedly, bringing her hands up to cover her face and her shame.
Anton pulled back quickly, shocked to hear the words fall from her wife's lips. She could feel the blood drain from her face as she tried to stand, her legs faltering and stumbling. She backed away from the small, crumbling form on the floor, wanting to disbelieve what she'd heard, even though Victor had already warned her. Now, as the truth and crushing reality slowly began to sink in, she felt like a fool... and a heartless brute.
Anton's thoughts were interrupted by a soft, quavering voice. "H-He came to my room, s-several times," Gwynneth started confessing tearfully, "He made me do it... I couldn't stop it... I couldn't stop him!" she cried, her shoulders shaking from the force of her sobs. "I'm sorry, My Lord," she begged pathetically, subserviently, "...Forgive me!"
Anton squeezed her eyes shut and turned away. She was dying inside.
She couldn't believe it. She couldn't believe that her beautiful, precious wife - a woman she'd come to care for so much - had been violated and despoiled by her own brother. And, to add salt to the wound, the despicable union had been fruitful. Her wife would bear her dead brother's bastard. Anton almost felt like she wanted to cry herself, but anger won out instead.
But the anger had her in a quandary... it would do no good to be angry with Aldred - he was dead - but the fury was built-up inside her and she needed to direct at something, or someone. In Anton's rage-clouded mind, someone had to pay for the injustice. She wanted to be angry with Gwynneth, but she also knew the young woman wasn't to blame. As usual, Victor's words had been true - Gwynneth was innocent in all of this. Fearing that she wouldn't be able to keep her raging thoughts and feelings inside, however, Anton knew she had to run and get away from her wife, and everyone else. She turned on her heel suddenly and stormed from the room without another word.
Gwynneth warily watched her husband go; as soon as the sound of his footsteps disappeared, she uncurled herself and stood on shaky legs. Spotting her robe nearby, Gwynneth grabbed it and wrapped it tightly around herself, trying to warm her chilled body and numbed mind.
Sitting back down on the tub ledge, the young Lady rehashed the words again... with child... with child. She was going to have a baby... she was going to be a mother. What should have been a joyous moment was instead clouded with dread, worry and fear.
Gwynneth began to contemplate what would happen now that Anton knew what had taken place between her and Aldred. What should she to do about it? More importantly, what was Anton going to do to her? Would he denounce her and divorce her? Would he throw her out into the streets? Would he have her locked up in the dungeons or - she shuddered to even think it - would he have her put to death? She knew he could if he really wanted to - the sin was that great.
He said he'd always take care of me, Gwynneth thought as her eyes began to well with tears again. She didn't think she would be able to stand it. A future that had looked so bright and happy was now blackened with shame and disgrace... and the product of that shame and disgrace was growing inside her. She still couldn't believe it - didn't want to believe it. How could the doctor be certain it was Aldred's child when even she wasn't certain? She had no idea what to do or where to turn from here.
Letting her face fall into her hands again, the young Marchioness did the only thing she could think to do... she broke down and wept piteously.
Anton stayed away from the manor the rest of the day, as well as all night, the following day, and the following night.
She traveled the countryside, hunting and living off the land like some kind of ruffian and resting and sleeping in any empty cottage or shack she found along the way. She had so many thoughts and emotions to sort out, it didn't really occur to her that everyone back at the castle might be going insane with worry. For those two days and nights, she didn't care or think about anything besides the child that dwelled inside her wife and what its existence meant.
Hateful thoughts and unanswered questions plagued Anton night and day. All she could think was that, even in death, Aldred had bested her again. Anton was still, and would always be, second in line... even when it came to her own spouse. She was consumed by anger, jealousy, and impure thoughts of her brother and her wife. What had Aldred done with Gwynneth? How man times had he taken her? How had he touched her, and where? Did he hurt her at all? Did Gwynneth enjoy it in any way, shape or form, or was she scared out of her mind? It drove Anton insane to think of Aldred being with Gwynneth... to think of him touching her, plundering her, filling her with his rotten seed and making her pregnant. It absolutely sickened Anton beyond belief.
In reality, Anton knew that, somehow, she was going to have to accept the child. If she didn't, she would have to reveal the truth, and the truth would damn Gwynneth to hell. No matter that the young Lady was the victim; she would still be ostracized and banished from society for good. Despite the anger and hurt that she felt inside, Anton knew she could never let that happen. Gwynneth was still a kind-hearted soul who didn't deserve to be criticized or judged by anyone.
But, to accept the child meant that she would have to pretend that it was hers. While this would mean another lie, it would protect everyone and everything - her family's name and reputation, as well as her wife's. If everyone thought the child was hers, everyone's dirty little secrets would remain successfully hidden away, and life would go on. The whole thing was a double-edged sword that seemed to cut Anton in every way possible.
Anton know that even though the child wasn't hers, it did represent an heir to Weldon... a true, noble-blooded heir - the only one there would ever be, in fact. The child would provide both a solution and a thorn in her side. Anton didn't know if she would be able to pass the child off as her own, however, knowing that it was her brother's bastard spawn... knowing how it had been conceived... knowing that it was not and would never truly be a part of her. She was torn with indecision.
And how was she to interact with Gwynneth now? Knowing that her wife was pregnant with Aldred's abomination... knowing what he had done to her... and then, knowing that she had unjustly accused Gwynneth and blamed her... knowing that she had lashed out and struck the younger woman out of reckless anger and frustration. Anton felt like the biggest disgrace and failure in the entire world... and the biggest hypocrite.
But she knew what she had to do. She knew that she had to return home and once again face new responsibilities and duties. She knew that she had to accept the pregnancy and deal with it, and she knew that she had to somehow face her wife.
Everything had changed, yet again. And Anton wasn't quite sure how she was going to handle these changes; for they may prove to be the most difficult yet.
When Anton finally returned home the next day, she was met by a very angry, very exasperated Marchioness Dowager as she climbed the stairs to her sleeping chambers, hoping to escape detection.
Lady Marina was shocked by her daughter's haggard appearance. It wasn't unusual for Anton to disappear and engage in an all-day hunt, but for her to go missing for two nights and days was outrageous.
She knew something terrible had happened between her only child and Lady Gwynneth. When Anton didn't return home the first night, Marina began questioning the staff as to her whereabouts. One of the servants mentioned that Lady Gwynneth's maid said that there had been a disagreement between the Marquess and the young Lady, causing Marina to promptly seek out Gwynneth's handmaid, Alice. A brief grilling of the handmaid yielded the truth: that Anton and Gwynneth had a terrible, heated argument and the Marquess had stormed away in fury, leaving her wife in tears. When Marina finally went to Gwynneth for specific answers, however, the young woman only broke down and cried wretchedly.
Now that Anton was finally standing before her, looking exhausted but defiant, Marina wasn't sure what to do or say first. She opted for scolding.
"Where in the name of God have you been for the past two days and nights?!" Marina hissed at her wayward daughter. Anton only shifted her jaw and glared silently at her mother. "Do you have any idea how many people have been searching for you and going mad with worry over your whereabouts? How could you be so irresponsible and inconsiderate?!"
Anton audibly sighed and ran a hand through her unkempt hair, "With all due respect, Mother dearest," she said snidely, "I don't especially care to listen to your tongue-lashing at this particular moment. I'm tired, I'm filthy, and I wish only to take a long, hot bath."
Anton turned away and started back up the stairs again, but Marina would have none of it. The Marchioness Dowager reached out and grabbed her daughter by the arm, forcing her to halt her movement. "Anton... don't you dare turn away from me," she said, her voice low and warning.
Anton swung around, her eyes meeting her mother's and providing a warning of her own.
But Marina was undaunted, "I demand an explanation!" she insisted, her voice a cross between indignance and anger.
A hundred caustic replies flitted through Anton's mind, but she was just too exhausted to get into a battle at the moment. Instead, she sighed again and closed her eyes, shaking her head. "Alright, we shall talk... but first I must have a bath."
Marina pursed her lips and gave a stiff nod, wanting to say much more but knowing it would be best not to. She knew her daughter well enough to realize that she should accept any victory when battling with the hard-headed girl... even if they were only small ones.
Marina waited as patiently as she could, but after enough time had passed, she decided to go in search of Anton. She dreaded having a confrontation, but at the same time, she desperately needed answers to the numerous questions that now plagued her. Arriving at her daughter's chamber door, she took a deep breath before knocking.
Anton had been lounging by the fireplace, staring vacantly into the flickering orange flames as her body warmed and her mind wandered. She held a small snifter of brandy in her hands and sipped absently at the strong liqueur while she stared, wondering yet again what she would say to Gwynneth when she saw her again. Even though it had only been a few days, it felt like months had passed since she'd seen her wife.
Anton had been haunted by the memories of their altercation in the bathing chambers - especially the look of shock and fear on Gwynneth's face when she had lashed out and struck her. Those memories shamed her the most. Anton was so disgusted with herself. Yes, she had been very angry and upset at the time - and she still was - but she'd never struck another woman the way she had Gwynneth. She knew that she couldn't take her actions back, but she wished she could.
The knocking sound at the door interrupted Anton's thoughts, and she knew that it was her mother, come to give her the third degree. She dreaded having this confrontation and could only imagine what the older woman would say.
Marina had always played the role of Marchioness and Lady of the Manor perfectly. She stayed in the background supporting her husband, always deferring to him and behaving in the proper, demure way that a noble Lady should. But everyone knew that Edgar depended on Marina a great deal, and that she was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. No one knew this more than Anton. She'd had more than her share of arguments with her mother, and when the two of them clashed, it usually ended up being a hard-fought battle of iron-clad wills.
Anton opened the door and silently invited her mother in, then turned to find steely eyes on her as soon as the door was closed.
"Well you certainly look far more presentable than you did earlier... I trust you won't partake in such a folly again, hmm?" Marina said, her voice only mildly scolding. She had told herself earlier that she would do her best to contain her own temper. It would do no good to shout and chastise Anton. They needed to talk and discuss things civilly, not fight and throw angry words around.
Anton still made an irritated face at her mother's comment, "It wasn't folly, I was upset and angry and...," she paused for a moment, not wanting to describe what she had been feeling, "I just needed to get away." The words were spoken softly and Anton quickly turned away, walking toward the fireplace.
Marina could sense that her daughter still felt some lingering distress over this mysterious, troubling matter. She still didn't know exactly what had happened between Anton and Gwynneth; she only knew that they'd had a disagreement so terrible, it left Gwynneth shattered to the point where she refused to leave her chambers. The tongues of the staff and servants were wagging furiously, and rumors abounded.
Marina walked up to her only child and placed a hand on her back. "What is it, Anton? What has happened between you and Gwynneth that would push you to such extreme behavior and cause her to stay cooped up in her room for days and nights?"
Anton turned around, immediately concerned, "Gwynneth hasn't left her room?"
"No, not since you disappeared."
Anton's eyes slid shut and she sighed aloud as her head fell downward. Pausing for a long moment, she took a deep breath before responding. "She's pregnant."
It took Marina a moment to process the words of the simple statement, and when she did, she wasn't sure she'd heard correctly, "What?"
Anton lifted her eyes to look at her mother, "Gwynneth is with child." she said, her voice firmer this time.
Marina's mouth fell open and her eyes held Anton's. A hundred thoughts instantly filled her mind, a hundred comments danced upon her tongue, a hundred worries filled her heart. "I don't understand," Marina said, shaking her head in disbelief. "How can that be? ...There must be some mistake."
"There's no mistake. She's been ill for some time... Victor examined her at Wextony and discovered it."
Marina didn't understand her daughter's calm demeanor and resolve. "Well perhaps Victor is wrong?"
"He isn't wrong. He gave her a thorough examination and performed several tried and true tests," Anton said more emphatically. "She's pregnant."
The Marchioness Dowager made an indignant noise, "But how, Anton?! How could she be? And who?! Who could have-"
Anton cut her off, "Now you know why I reacted the way I did." She said, her voice carrying an edge of resentment.
Marina stopped abruptly, realizing that indeed, Anton must have been flabbergasted and rightfully upset. The older woman sighed and turned away from her daughter, walking a few steps away before turning back. "Do you know who the father is?" she asked.
"Yes." Anton answered quietly before turning around to face her mother. She wanted to see her reaction when she told her.
Marina gave an impatient, expectant look, but Anton hesitated, allowing the tip of her tongue to play upon her lower lip for a second while she prepared herself for her own reaction, as well as her mother's. "Aldred." she finally said, the name sour and distasteful in her mouth.
Marina's eyes bulged in astonishment. "What!?" the older woman exclaimed, bringing a hand up to her chest.
"Aldred is the father." Anton repeated, locking her eyes with her mother's and daring her to refute the truth that she now knew.
Marina shook her head, "That... that can't be! They weren't married! They weren't together!" she argued. "Who told you it's Aldred?!"
"Gwynneth," Anton answered flatly.
"She lies!" Marina spat angrily.
"She isn't lying!" Anton snapped back forcefully as she stepped toward her mother, bringing them face to face.
"How do you know?!" Marina fought back.
"She confessed to me!"
"And you're just going to take her word for it?!"
"Yes, Mother, I am!" Anton shouted vehemently, tired of her mother's reticence and agitation. Marina flinched slightly at her daughter's angry outburst, and Anton's fury relented when she saw the reaction. She drew a deep breath and prepared to try to explain.
"Victor had already figured it out when he first told me of the pregnancy," Anton began. "Like you, I refused to believe him. But then, he explained that he had questioned a few of the servants here at Weldon... one of them said that she overheard Aldred speaking harshly to Gwynneth and using threatening words, and that Gwynneth was often in tears." Anton swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. "Gwynneth's handmaid, Alice, told Victor that she feared the worst when Aldred came calling to Gwynneth's room late at night." Anton's voice quavered as she spoke the words and her heart felt like it was breaking all over again.
"When I confronted Gwynneth, she tried to lie to me. She denied that she'd been with anyone, and...," Anton hesitated as she remembered lashing out at her wife. "I... I became very angry, and she finally broke down and confessed. She told me that... Aldred did come to her room and forced himself upon her... several times." Anton's teeth gritted together as she struggled to speak the words. She felt her hackles rise again at the thought of what her brother had done to her wife.
Marina shook her head and closed her eyes, "Dear God," she whispered, breaking the silence she'd kept the whole time Anton spoke.
The Marchioness Dowager walked to one of the large chairs and sat down, her eyes unblinking as she stared into the fire and contemplated what to do and say and think and feel. This was a situation that could not be easily remedied or swept under the rug. It had far-reaching consequences and a multitude of implications; some being good, some being bad. Most of all, it would mean more lies and more deception. She hated that thought, and she knew that Anton would too, but what else were they to do?
The silence stretched for several long moments until Marina finally spoke. "You must accept the child as yours and raise it as your own," she said, her voice stilted and emotionless. "You must announce the pregnancy and welcome it."
"It's all so simple to you, isn't it?" Anton said, feeling a hot burst of anger. "Just pretend that everything's fine and good and move on... do you have any idea how this feels?" she said, walking to stand in front of her mother. "Do you know what it shall be like for me to do this? To raise a child that isn't mine? To pretend? To lie - again!?" she shouted.
"What other choice do we have, Anton?!" Marina yelled back. "If you won't accept the child as yours, then you must either get rid of it, or get rid of Gwynneth! Which shall it be?!"
Anton's eyes flashed dangerously, but she didn't say anything. She didn't have to; her mother knew she would never choose either of those options.
The older woman drew a deep breath and began more softly, "You must find the positive in this, Anton. There is some good to come of it." Marina said. "It shall provide you with an heir, first and foremost; it will forever cement our relationship with the House of Clarendon, second; and... it shall further bolster your identity as a man as well."
Anton made a noise of disgust, "How can you even say such things? Have you listened to what I've just told you?!" she decried, giving her mother an incredulous look.
"Of course I have! But you must listen to me! You must see the positives in this Anton, or else you will never feel anything but anger and resentment toward the child!" Marina scolded.
"Oh I already feel resentment, Mother!" Anton spat back. "Mostly what I resent is my disgusting brother for what he visited upon my wife! He took her innocence and left her with nothing but fear, shame, and his bastard spawn!"
"Anton!" Marina gasped in shock.
"And now I'm expected to rear that bastard? That's just so fitting!" Anton gritted her teeth as she spoke. "What if I can't raise this child as mine, Mother? What if I do resent it, and Gwynneth, and you for making me do this! What then?!" she decried, throwing her hands out. "What happens if I can't even stand the sight of this child? This child who is nothing to me? Who is not my flesh and blood!?" Anton shouted, placing a hand against her chest.
Marina jumped out of her chair and came to stand in front of her daughter, "This child is your flesh and blood, Anton! Just as you and Aldred shared the same blood, so will this child share in that blood. This is not just any child, Anton... this is your brother's child!"
Anton's eyes darkened and she glared at her mother, "Yes, my brother...," she ground out through clenched teeth, "my honorable, wonderful, predatory, vile, black-hearted brother, who terrorized and ruined my wife! MY wife!" she pounded her hand against her chest emphatically.
Marina's eyes flashed with anger, "You will not speak of your brother like that!" she snapped. "What he did was deplorable, yes, but Gwynneth was not your wife at the time!"
"He RAPED her!" Anton finally shouted into her mother's face. "She was a young, innocent girl, and he forced her and hurt her! She did not yet belong to him, and he took her! How can you stand there and defend him, Mother?! How?!" Anton waved her arms wildly, nearly shaking with the force of her rage. The feeling of losing control began to overtake her and she turned away from her mother and stalked over toward the door, ready to yank it open and run away again.
Marina couldn't think of anything to say. She'd never seen Anton as furious and upset as she was now. She was certain that whatever she said would be misinterpreted and thrown back into her face.
Long, agonizing moments passed in silence as both Weldon women tried to calm themselves and regain their composure.
Finally, Marina spoke up, her voice quiet and resigned, "Anton... I know that you didn't expect to have a child, let alone in this way... but the fact of the matter is... you have to accept this and deal with it."
Anton hesitated for a moment before turning around again, "Yes, I know full well what I must accept and deal with," she said, her voice laced with hard sarcasm, "And I will accept and deal with my brother's bastard, just as I accepted and dealt with his wife."
The Marchioness Dowager frowned at her daughter, "Anton, you cannot stand there and tell me that your marriage to Gwynneth has been entirely unpleasant."
Anton averted her eyes, refusing to look at her mother.
"I've seen the way the two of you interact... I've seen the way she looks at you and the way you look at her. I know that you have come to care for her very much."
Anton dropped her head but still ignored the older woman. Marina could tell that she'd struck upon a nerve just from the expression on her daughter's face and the set of her shoulders. The beautifully handsome features softened and the broad shoulders sagged slightly when Gwynneth was mentioned.
Marina walked up to Anton and reached out to grasp her arm, "Perhaps this child will be a blessing in disguise for you, just as Gwynneth was...?"
Anton quickly looked up at her, confusion and incredulity in her eyes. "A blessing?" she said, "Is that what all this has been? A blessing?" she bit the word off sharply. "My life has been completely uprooted and turned upside down!" Anton stressed, her voice growing louder, "I never wanted to marry anyone, let alone my dead brother's despoiled fiancee! I never wanted to rule my father's house nor govern his lands!" she said, waving her hands in gesture as she began to pace back and forth. "And yet, here I am, put upon and expected to perform all these feats and duties for which I am grossly ill-prepared!" she ranted and raved in exasperation. "And now, in addition to all these things, I must play the impossible role of father and feign happiness over a child that isn't even mine!? It's insanity!"
"It isn't!" Marina snapped. "You must do this, Anton - you will do it! All of it! Whether you want the responsibilities or not, they're yours now!"
"I don't want them, Mother! I don't want any of them!" Anton shouted, shaking her head and throwing her arms out. "This is not the way I planned my life to be! So you'll forgive me if I do not feel that it's a blessing... rather, I feel that it's just another unexpected, unwelcomed, perverted twist of fate!"
The harsh words echoed loudly off the room's stone walls, and mother and daughter stared at each other for a moment before Anton turned away again. This time she headed over to the small serving table that held her brandy. She downed the remainder of liqueur in the glass and immediately poured herself another.
Marina could only stand and watch as her daughter proceeded to self-destruct. She wracked her brain furiously, wondering what she could do and say next to bring things back under control and make Anton see reason. She brought a hand up to her head, pressing on her temple as she fought to calm herself and gather her wits at the same time.
Anton was just polishing off the second brandy when the Marchioness Dowager came to stand in back of her. "Anton," Marina started, her voice soft and calm, "we cannot always plan everything in our lives... it doesn't work that way... you know this." She stepped closer to Anton. "I don't believe that life is meant to be planned... I think it is just meant to occur...,to happen. And whatever happens, we must try to make the best of it." Marina watched her daughter's body language as she continued, speaking solemnly and praying that Anton understood.
"No one planned for Aldred's death; it just happened... we didn't plan for your father to pass away so soon; but he did." Marina placed her hands on Anton's shoulders and turned her, forcing a meeting of their identical blue depths, "And all those years ago, I never planned on having a daughter instead of a second son... but I did." She stared long and hard into her daughter's darkened eyes, "...And I'm so glad I did." She said, her voice low, her face absolutely serious.
Anton said nothing. She wasn't sure where her mother was trying to go with this exactly, and she wanted to see what parallels she might draw before tearing it all to shreds and insisting that she was still insane.
Marina dropped her hands and looked away for a moment, her face wistful, "When you were first born, before we...," she hesitated, "before we knew how we were going to raise you... I gave you a name." She said, turning back to face Anton, "I named you after your grandmother - my mother... I named you 'Antonia'," Marina said, a tone of pride in her voice. "She was a very strong, very capable woman, and I knew, somehow, that you would be as well. Then, when we decided that... it would be best to... raise you as a male," she struggled with the explanation, even after all these years, "I insisted that your name just be shortened to 'Anton'." She turned back and gave a small smile, "Most of the time though, in my mind, you are still my querida... my bonita bebe', Antonia." Marina spoke the words of her native Spanish tongue and her eyes began to fill with tears. She stepped closer to Anton, "You have no idea what a blessing you were to your father... what a blessing you are to me." Placing her palms on Anton's chest, she stared up at her daughter, "I never planned to have a child like you... but I thank God every day for giving you to me."
Anton stared dumbfounded at her mother. She'd never heard such words come from the woman's mouth before and she truly didn't know how to react. The comparison that'd been drawn was a fairly good one, and Anton had no argument for it. But still, she didn't want to just accept it so easily and so simply. It was still too much to comprehend all at once, and it was still too damned painful.
Instead of saying anything, Anton gave her mother one final glare, making her face look hard and impassive before abruptly turning on her heel and disappearing out the door.
Marina sighed with resignation as she watched her daughter storm off. She'd seen the numerous emotions that raced across her daughter's face, and she knew that the young woman was hurt, frustrated and confused. She supposed that Anton still wanted to be angry with her in some way, and truthfully, she expected such. She knew that what Anton needed most was to digest everything and give it all some thought. Perhaps in time, the young Marquess would see her mother's wisdom and understand that what she insisted was for the best.
Then again, it had to be... the alternatives were too unacceptable.