Marie arrived just before dinner was ready with a dress for Persephone. It was a beautiful blue that would look lovely with her eyes and she changed before coming to the dinner. Unfortunately, Duke Gentry heard it was Persephone’s birthday and decided to invite himself to dinner.
My father and I despised Duke Gentry. However, to keep peace among everyone, we stayed on friendly relations with him. I just worried what he would say if he found out Persephone was staying with us. It wouldn’t matter if we told him she was my caretaker. She was a woman and that was reason enough for him to harass her. That’s the last thing I wanted.
I smiled when she walked in with her sister. She looked gorgeous. I struggled to my feet and held her chair out for her, ignoring the smirk playing on my father’s face. She smiled at me and I did the same for her sister.
“Sit down,” Persephone said sternly. “You’re getting flushed.”
My father sighed. “Percy, while Duke Gentry’s here-”
“I hear there’s a birthday girl in the manor!”
As usual, Duke Gentry decided to make a grand entrance. His large belly preceded him. He was in a fancy velvet coat and I tried not to roll my eyes. With his ruffled tie, he looked like an overgrown baby. He bowed deeply to Persephone and she stood to do a small curtsy. He sat beside me and I resisted the urge to move my chair away from him.
“How old is this beautiful young woman turning today?” he asked, smiling the same smile that never reached his eyes.
“Twenty-five,” she answered and he nodded thoughtfully.
“And what brings you to the Moreau Manor?”
“Madame Petit has been my son’s caretaker,” my father said, shaking his head a little at Persephone when she was about to respond.
“Oh?” he asked. “What kind of caretaker?” Before we could answer, he guffawed. “Ah yes! I forgot there were more things a man needed than medicinal care.”
Persephone turned a deep shade of red.
“Duke Gentry,” my father admonished. “Do not embarrass my guests.”
“It’s not like that,” I added. “As my father said, she has been my caretaker and that’s as far as it will go.”
I looked up in time to see the hurt look on her face. She lowered her eyes to her dinner and silence fell. I prayed she would help me to bed again tonight so I could explain.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the duke said. “Perhaps she can come meet my son, then.”
Persephone’s face was permanently red at this point. I clenched my jaw, trying not to grip my hands. I was close to striking the duke, though. Not only was he embarrassing Persephone, now I had to lie to keep him from embarrassing us all.
We let Duke Gentry go on about all of his successes in battle and in the court rooms. Occasionally I would look up, hoping to catch Persephone’s eye, but she was either looking at her plate or giving Duke Gentry her attention. It killed me and I waited anxiously for the end of the meal.
I cleared my throat pointedly.
“I must return to bed,” I said. “I’m not… feeling well. Will you assist me, Madame Petit?”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she stood, curtsied to everyone at the table, and kissed her sister’s cheek. Her sister whispered something but Persephone shook her head and waited for me to get to my feet.
The walk to my room was completely silent. She grabbed her supplies as I changed into my night clothes and checked my vitals. I took her hand when she was done checking my temperature.
“Persephone,” I whispered, “I didn’t mean what I said.”
“There’s no need to lie,” she said in a flat voice. “I understand. You are lonely. That’s all it is.”
“No,” I said quickly, sitting up and felt something crack but I ignored it. “No, that’s not what it is! It’s Duke Gentry! He’s an awful man. If he knew my true feelings for you, then it would cause an upset between everyone.”
She glared at me. “Is it because I am a woman practicing medicine?”
I hesitated and decided to be honest with her.
“I’m….” I sighed. “He wants me to marry his daughter.” Her eyes widened. “He kept saying that, if I got better, he expected me to marry her. If he knew how I feel, then he would break his friendship with my father. If he does that-”
She shook her head. “I have to go,” she said.
Her voice was thick but I refused to let her go.
“Don’t,” I begged. “Hear me out.”
“You’re engaged and you didn’t tell me. And now I-”
She shut her eyes in pain.
“I’m not engaged,” I said quickly. “Didn’t you hear me? He just wants me to. That is why he is here, Madame Petit! He was trying to arrange the marriage with my father. My father has said no. He can’t know the reason why, though.”
She looked at me. “And what is the reason?”
I stared into her eyes. Suddenly, something closed my throat. I tried to tell her but I couldn’t speak. I pulled gently on her hand until I could reach her neck. I pressed my lips to hers. She didn’t do anything at first then kissed me back.
My back was hurting. At first I was going to break away, but she sat beside me as I leaned into the pillows. I put my hand in her hair and she placed her hand on my chest. My heart was racing as I put my other arm around her.
She stopped kissing me and lowered her head. I didn’t know what to say. I heard her sniffle and realized she was crying. Gently, I had her put her head on my chest. I closed my eyes, stroking her hair as she cried. I didn’t know why she was but I knew she’d tell me.
“I’m sorry I hurt you,” I whispered. “I was going to explain it to you before dinner but I didn’t get the chance.”
She shook her head. “I should have- I’m just so scared.”
“Why? Because of your ex-fiancé?”
“Yes. And… I’m your caretaker. I didn’t expect to-”
She stopped and I did my best to keep my heart rate even.
“Expect to what?” I whispered.
“I should let you sleep,” she said, sitting up and wiping her tears away. “You look like you’re in pain. Where?”
“My back,” I answered, disappointed that she was no longer in my arms.
“When Jacques comes back in, have him give you a massage with the lotion.”
“I will. Good night….”
I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to use her name again and she smiled a little, nodding.
“Persephone,” I whispered.
“Good night, Luc.”
I sighed when the door closed and shut my eyes. When someone knocked, I let them in. It was my father and he looked frantic.
“Is she okay?” he asked.
“We talked about it,” I said and handed him the lotion, telling him her orders. “Did… did you accept?”
“No,” he said immediately and I nodded. “That’s why he was so unpleasant at dinner. I’m sure he suspects it is either Persephone or Marie that you have feelings for.”
“Is he still here?”
“Yes,” he sighed. “He has forced his stay on us.”
I shook my head and grimaced in pain as he put pressure on my back.
“Kick him out,” I said. “He embarrassed Persephone.”
“You know I can’t do that, Luc,” he said. “He is too valuable of an ally.”
“And you’re just going to let him treat our guest like that?” I snapped.
“I spoke with him after everyone left,” he promised. “He will not do it again.”
“I hope not or I shall not keep my tongue silent.”
He chuckled. “How did you hurt your back?”
“I just moved it wrong,” I said. “Persephone usually just massages my hands with the lotion and it does the trick.”
He pulled my shirt back down and grimaced as I rolled on my back.
“That smells awful,” he said and I laughed.
“Yeah, it does.”
“Well, we have an unpleasant day in front of us tomorrow. Get some rest. I’m going to go make sure Persephone is okay.”
I nodded. “Good night.”