Later that day after a quiet and uneventful supper, William returned to his room, running his thumbs over his knuckles as he did when thoughtful. Claire would never be satisfied here, he knew it in his bones. It was obvious to anyone who spent more than a minute’s conversation with her"something their mother rarely did, even during her more lucid moments. But he could see how she wanted more than they had.
The spacious, grand estate and lush grounds they had grown up with was not enough for her. It lacked life, lacked vitality and stability of any sort. Lessons were not enough of a distraction, not even William’s weaponry sessions the Lady had reluctantly allowed her to watch. No, this was no home for her. She would want to explore, as he himself did. William threw himself on his bed as the problem bounced around in his skull.
He would be leaving soon and wouldn’t be allowed to communicate freely with his family, let alone see them at his leisure. Conflicted, William dug his palms into his shut eyes. What he was doing was best for them all, he felt, even if it was painful for him to go through. Claire was his sister and he cared about her, and it was hard for him to leave her with their mother. He cared for Claire so much that he’d distanced himself over the years, so she would hurt less when he had to leave. It would be a harsh existence, living alone with the Lady. But he had to leave if he wanted them both to be taken care of; it was his duty as the man of the house. It was the promise he’d dangled over his mother to coax her into some semblance of health"he would go if she could get well again. It had kept them all alive this far.
“It won’t be as bad as all that,” he told himself, slowly exhaling and rolling onto his stomach. “You’ll earn your rank and place and Claire will grow up, and you can see how things have changed. It will be worth it.”
Claire shook her head slowly, arms crossed, lips pressed together in a thin, taught line. “You’re going to leave me here with her,” she whispered, looking anywhere but her brother. The velvet curtains hung over the drawing room windows suddenly became fascinating and she watched the fading evening light seep through the gap between them for a few moments; dust motes rose in lazy circles, illuminated like fireflies.
“I know, chere, and I’m terribly sorry. It’s something that has to be done"the end of the year has come and I’m to leave tomorrow, just like I told you. We’ve talked this over. You would leave if you could, too.” William massaged his temples, head hung out of fatigue. He hated every moment of this conversation for what it would bring about for both of them, but told himself it was necessary. Anything that might ease relations between his sister and mother was worth a bit of a headache.
“The only way I can leave is on a man’s arm. I am stuck here with mother until then.”
“All I ask is that you don’t rile her. The doctor said she shouldn’t be too excited or she could collapse again.”
Claire brought her eyes to William and the hurt was unmistakable. “I don’t anger her on purpose. She just seems…determined to find fault in me. I cannot help it if she does.” Cheeks flushed, she looked back to the curtains.
Letting out a sad sigh, William rose and walked to his sister’s side, placing a hand hesitantly on her shoulder. “There is nothing wrong with you. Mother is just upset because I’m leaving and she doesn’t know how to handle it. I think she is afraid for you and critiques because she doesn’t want you to get hurt, or have anyone else find fault in you. You know she’s always been demanding.” A little smile crooked up one corner of his mouth and Claire eventually tore her eyes from the windows to see it.
“I suppose,” she said at last, warily, unable to shake the feeling that William was hiding some other reason from her. He was a little too taught, a little too careful with his words for her to be entirely satisfied, but she was too distraught and tired to press for the truth. Instead, she surprised her brother by leaning over and giving him a hug.
“Since you must go, all I ask is that you come back before I’m bartered away. I am sure mother will write you.”
William grinned fully, giving Claire’s back a gentle pat. “I will come back as often as possible. But you know that won’t be often. I have my military career to think of now.” He sobered, face going stony at the thought. Still against his chest, Claire didn’t see the change, for which William was grateful. Once he’d composed himself, he pushed Claire gently away and looked her over appraisingly.
“You will do fine without me. It is not as though you ever had much need for me before.”
He let out a long breath before uttering a string of curses that would make a sailor cringe. He should have told her, warned her at least, that he was lying. That she would likely never see him again, for her own good. His own mother had told him not to come back until his respect and rank were secure enough: that could take years. Claire would be married off by then, if the Lady could force her into it.
He should have told her.
“You coward,” he muttered to himself, banging his fists against the closed door to his bedroom. Burgundy curtains drawn tight over the western windows, the room was dark and anything but inviting. William turned his back against the wall and slid down it, not bothering to light a lantern or candle. It would be his punishment to spend the rest of the night in darkness. There was no need to see any of the fine trinkets lying around the room, or his books or other bits of the life he would no longer be a part of. In the morning he would be leaving them all behind for an entirely new life; only his weapons and least refined clothes would be going with him. He would live as a commoner once he joined the ranks and earn himself the respect he would have been given if they knew his title. It was the best way, and the most fair, if he ever wanted to be judged on his skill rather than the money his family possessed.
It meant he had to let go of the man he knew himself as, and that would be his real trial.
“Do write often, love. I will miss you so.” Sniffling into her embroidered kerchief, Lady Wandesford waved at her son as he stepped toward the carriage waiting for him outside their front doors. Mildly disgusted by the uncharacteristic display of affection, Claire gave her brother only a lingering look before turning away; she couldn’t watch her mother so openly choose between them. Having to stay on at the estate with only her mother for company was painful enough without being reminded so forcibly that she was, in every way, the second child.
William didn’t turn to reply until he had reached the carriage, one foot on the iron step, bag handed to the footman. Even then he had to take a deep breath before he managed to pull on a brave face. It was the disarming smile his mother saw when he looked back and waved energetically, not the nervous man of eighteen who would rather stay home in comfortable decadence.
“I will write when I can,” he yelled back, looking from his mother to his sister. Claire had looked back only for a moment before shaking her head and returning to the empty house with a sad whisper of her skirts. William couldn’t stop his grin from turning into a grimace, but the Lady didn’t notice. She had taken her eyes from her son to frown disapprovingly at her daughter’s retreating form, entirely missing the way William’s jaw was set, the way his eyes flared with anger. By the time the Lady had finished glaring daggers William was inside the carriage, only a waving hand saying his final farewell.
She doesn’t care anymore about the reasons, he thought, righteous anger flaring up inside him as the carriage lurched forward, she’s just mad at me for leaving.
Can you really blame her? The tiny voice brought his thoughts to a halt. You’re forcing her to spend more of her formative years in that stifling place with no company other than a woman who begrudges her very existence. If she thanked you, that would be surprising.
Sobered by the more sensible side of his mind, William's ire flared down just as quickly as it had risen, leaving behind an uncomfortable lump of guilt to sink in his stomach. He knew, somewhere in his heart, that he would likely feel the same in her position; but he refused to let that dampen his own escape from the gloomy presence of the estate. Too many of his own years had been wasted behind the confining walls, the rules and lessons his mother insisted upon. Claire had held her own for the most part and would simply have to continue to do so now. If he stayed, it would likely make things worse, increase her sense of jealousy. It was no longer the time for looking backward, at his past, at the driveway, but rather to look forward to what was waiting for him"an escape from a life he had never truly lived or loved. Feeling justified at his own departure, he let the carriage ride away any further concerns and rationalized himself into a dreamless sleep.