Book One: Tempering
Betaed by the wonderful Prolixious...... The most amazing and patient beta in the multiverse..... Lyxie, my friend, I don't have the words to thank you....
Part one: Kenneth
Duke Kenneth Von Hutchinson looked out of the train window and contemplated his life. His father had given in. He was only returning to Vienna to pick up Gillian and their child. Then they would return to Berlin for a short and secret ceremony and then go to England to receive her father’s blessings. They could even stay there for a little while before they decided where to go next.
They were dreaming about Montmartre since they were children but they had to think of Richard now, even a year after Napoleon’s fall it was still not safe. That big fat slug of Bourbon was so revolting that he was going to have a revolution on his hands in no time. Surely it was not a place to raise a child! But wherever they went, they were going together!
The trip was long and tiring so he couldn’t help but close his eyes and contemplate the last twenty years of his life. They were the only two thirds of his life that mattered. And they mattered because in the majority of those years Gillian was in some way in his life.
It had not always been that easy for them. Since the first day they met, both at the young age of ten and she being the natural daughter of their host Lord Ingram, he had felt a connection for that studious, serious, blonde girl, who shared most of his interests.
So he had asked his father, who always told him that he was meant to grow up and do his duty towards the family, whether he could do that duty together with his friend Gillian. His father simply stared at him for a moment and then turned away.
It was his mother, later that night, who explained to him that no matter how noble Gillian and her father were, it didn’t change the fact that her mother had been an actress. She was therefore not fit to be the wife of a descendant of the Frederick the first and nephew to the reigning King Frederick William the second.
That was the first time Kenneth used the word unfair for something that was not only about himself, neither was it the last. Fortunately his parents didn’t pay much attention to his interest in Gillian, as they found him too childish to mean anything seriously. So he had happily spent many of his vacations from school in her company, hers and her cousin’s Jack Mitchell, heir to the Earl, and his fellow student at Eton.
But the things changed over the years. As he was getting older he discovered that Gillian wasn’t just his precious friend and sweetest, most intelligent companion but also the most beautiful woman on earth and he finally realised the meaning of Jack’s ruthless teasing over the years. He was in love!!!
He had spent a whole year in school before he found the courage in himself to confess his feelings to her, but nothing could prepare him for the delight and happiness when she shyly admitted she felt the same!
The kiss, and the summer that followed it, were made from the staff of dreams. Walking in the rose gardens in the moonlight, wild horse’s racing in the countryside, and endless quiet hours in the library, all that accompanying sweet kissing and shy caressing the second that they were alone.
But even in the madness of his feelings he held back. She was going to be his wife; it was unfathomable of him, to not respect her, and dishonouring her in their families. Even if would have confirmed their wedding. He regretted that, later.
At that time, he returned to his last year of school, leaving her with the promise of their marriage, within the following of the end of his schooling. And then he had to spend the next three months blissfully unaware of anything but their correspondence, unsuspecting of the tragedy that was awaiting them.
In the third month after their separation Gillian’s letters abruptly ceased to arrive. No warnings, no breaking up, just silence! He was worried as hell and felt almost angry and betrayed, but his every other emotion was eclipsed in fear for her, as in all the years of their friendship there had never been such silence.
He was about to leave school, to figure out what had happened to her, when Jack’s frantic appeasing convinced him that there was nothing wrong at home and that he should wait for the anger of her father to wear off, and not disgrace her, by acting so immaturely, and not in slightest befitting their station. (He stopped talking to his friend for years after that fact.)
So he once more sacrificed his heart in the name of honour, and waited. By late Spring he had finished his schooling with honours! (God only knows how he managed that! As sure as hell he didn’t have the attention!) But he was ready to face every dragon, her father and his included, to win her hand.
The reality was worst than his dreariest nightmare. Gillian had been married for almost six months, to someone named Albert Grossman, a rich bourgeois merchant, which by the words of her father ‘Would be able to treat Gillian in the way that she was raised and in honour’.
In his angry exclamation Lord Ingram answered that he couldn’t really expect anything more from him than ‘Carta Blanca’, as his family would have never allowed more, and that his daughter was worth more than just that.
In his vehement protest that the only thing that mattered was Gillian, and his parents could have him disinherited in their leisure, Lord Ingram just looked at him with pity and left him with a letter from Gillian.
The letter's content was strange to say the least. It had Gillian’s writing character, Gillian’s words and maybe even Gillian’s feelings, but it certainly lacked Gillian’s spirit. Her words burned his stomach in sadness and anger, but he was so blind with emotion that it took him three readings before realising what was wrong.
She was writing to him, in essence, that she loved him more than anything in the world, but as a woman, her natural place was doing her duty before God, by obeying her father, as a good daughter should, but that she would remember him for the rest of her life.
And that from a girl that had read Rousseau, Plato, Aristotle even Voltaire? Who admired Katherine the Great and wasn’t disagreeing with the principles of the French Revolution.
Impossible! The only answer that he could think of was that she was asking for help in the only way that she could find. There was no way that her father could have read it. He would not have believed it! But her godmother, her aunt, they were so religious to the point it became funny. (It was years later that he had learned from her nanny Edith that her father had made her accept the wedding, else she would have destroyed his life because he would have been disowned by his parents.)
But all that had taken place five months ago. There were a lot of things that could have happened in the meantime. Maybe she was even pregnant; he was honest with himself to admit that he needed to be sure that he could handle the idea of her bearing the child of another man before he could face her.
He could freely admit that he was jealous and angry, but the anger was aimed at her family, for taking her away from him, and her husband for having her. But he found to his relief that a child of Gillian was welcome, be it his, her husband’s, or the archbishop’s of Cadbury. In the end he loved her and that was that.
As for the rest, if his family disinherited him, good for them. Between Gillian and him they knew enough languages to travel in many countries and he was educated enough to find work anywhere he wished, he didn’t mind honest work. Maybe he could start to be worth something. And as for Polite Society and their tongues, they could drown themselves for all he cared. Only Gillian mattered to him.
He had found peace in himself about the matter. Now everything was standing at Gillian’s opinion and if she would follow him, even into exile, it was time to find her.
He looked for days. He looked with every means at his disposal but he still couldn’t find her. Weeks had passed before he found out that the Grossmans had left London for an unknown destination.
He despaired. His revolution against his parents now seemed empty. The only thing that fascinated him now was his studies. So he left for the University of Vienna to study diplomacy and he started to learn fencing and shooting in his spare time.
A true gentleman’s hobbies, really, and if he truly wished the company of a lady, he had discovered that the ballerinas and the demi-mondaines were most accommodating. A fact no doubt based on his good looks, youth, family name and wealth.
He didn’t try to feel modest about it, nor to let that information affect him, because he knew that they didn’t think about him as anything more than a possible good conquest, or provider, they didn’t care any more about him than he cared about them.
And if the romantic in him was crying for something more, he didn’t dare trust his heart again. In fact he didn’t trust anything; the idealist in him had been touched by the French Revolution but the bloodshed and the descending in such a short time in an empire had disillusioned him back. The only thing he had truly left was his devotion to his small but glorious country, Prussia. The rest was just meaningless.
That was the state of affairs three years later. He had embraced his career into the diplomatic corps, with his value opening him more paths than his noble blood, when Napoleon’s attack changed his opinion about the finest service that he could be offering to his country.
He resigned from his position, as attaché in the embassy of Russia, and returned home. He found it was as he had feared, and much, much worst. Nevertheless he fought till the bitter end in Jena and Auerstedt and he was among the few that covered his King in his fleeing.
He was rewarded, far more than he deserved. After all, he was just a devoted soldier protecting his King. Yet as the King had not seen it this way, he was named Ambassador, and he had the honour of being among the ones that worked on the terms in the Treaty of Tilsit.
It was more than an honour, it was a sacred duty. To protect the interests of his country, in that dismal time of their history, but it was also a heavy cross. He was twenty five, had just barely finished his studies, and he was completely inexperienced and frightened beyond belief. If he made a mistake the whole country might pay for it.
He was right. They lost half their country. But instead of banishing him, the King continued to favour him and he planned to send him to France even after his failure. He took it upon himself to do his best, but it was in times like these that he hated being related to his sovereign.
However before his responsibility to his country he had to face another more personal obligation. A duty of his existence he had all but forgotten. His father had recalled him home in Konigsberg. His mother’s heart had started failing her, after the hardships of the war. Her last wish was to see her only son marry the young lady that had kept her company during the last days of her life.
He had not seen his mother in years; the last time they spent time together, he was still a child, but he'd always held her in his heart, he could never say no to her.
The bride that his mother had chosen, Countess Vanessa Von Chiller, was as different from Gillian as fire from air. Beautiful too, but when Gillian was blonde Vanessa was dark haired and had the most startling green eyes whereas Gillian’s eyes were soft blue.
But the main difference between both women was personality wise. Gillian was studious, Vanessa was coquettish. Gillian was a dreamer; Vanessa was a ruthlessly ambitious one.
He had finally understood why his father had ordered him to marry her, putting her French emigrant mother and small dowry aside; she was the type of woman who could help her husband in his career. He had already been dragged into marrying her when he discovered too late that he didn’t like this type of help.
It was in their wedding bed that he discovered the other side of love. Not even the most famous courtisane had ever made him feel that way and Vanessa was his, truly his. And if the blood in the sheets was not exactly convincing, she was his wife. What good would it do if he insulted her? She was as old as he, not a little girl anymore.
And even if it troubled him he wanted to please her and he did everything in his power to do just that. Be it career wise, jewellery wise, or boudoir wise. Too bad, that the only thing that they were agreeing upon, and she was not complaining, was the latter.
After a few years of marriage, he had finally got more confident in his work in France and had started having some positive results, his life started to change once again. His new life was full of challenges. He was representing his defeated country in the Emperor’s court and that was tricky by itself when Vanessa started interfering in his work even more than before.
That was not a problem. The problem was that her advice had started sounding more and more like the Austrian positions. He didn’t have any personal grievance against Ambassador Metternich. On the contrary he found him rather charismatic, but he couldn’t help but finding his positions quite archaic. History was writing itself every day, they couldn’t stay in the dark ages forever. Not that the positions of his county were differing that much, but still!
It was some ambitious attaché that had mentioned oh so innocently that he had seen his wife returning with prince’s Metternich carriage after some tea... He did not appreciate the information, and he let it be known, but his eyes had finally opened and soon he found out the whole truth. His wife was Metternich’s mistress.
He was more than enraged, he was furious. During the four years of their marriage he had been religiously faithful. He knew that most men in his position had more than one mistress. He had made a point to spend his every spare second in her company. How did she dare complain?
He confronted her immediately. She acted like nothing happened, like he was the one to be wrong, like everything was normal.
Trying to keep his composure he smiled sardonically and pointed out that even Brittan ladies didn’t take a lover before they had given their husband an heir. She sweetly smiled at that and answered that she would be happy to do so.
It was the last straw, he come a breath away from hitting her, but he controlled himself just barely and left her with the promise, that it would be a cold day in hell before he would do that. He never came near her bed again.
He had gone immediately to his desk to write his King and plead to being granted a divorce when he remembered his place. He was an ambassador; he couldn’t let his personal problems affect the already difficult position of his country. More than the scandal -Prussia was secretly allied with Austria- he would not destroy his country’s hope out of outrage.
When he was recalled he would get that divorce. His anger to Vanessa had gone stone cold; he didn’t hate her, he didn’t want to hurt her, he just wanted her out of his life immediately. It didn’t matter when he could get the divorce papers. It was over.
Metternich contacted him the next day and tried to make amends, offering him information to soothe his pride. For his country’s sake Hutchinson accepted politely. In his heart he wanted to break the bastard’s teeth or even better, to shoot him and abandon him in a random place to die. He did his duty, but it would be years before he felt clean again.
He completely devoted himself to his work. Soon he heard rumours; some secretary in the Ministry was selling secrets. He couldn’t help but try to investigate. And what a surprise! The same ambitious attaché could introduce him with an invitation to one of Monsieur’s Grosse’s famous soirées.
It was more than a surprise, because the woman he saw at the side of his vaguely disgusting host was Gillian!
He had tried his best to forget her, or else he would never have been able to go on with his life. Even after he had met her nanny during his trip to France, and had finally found out the true reasons of his beloved’s wedding, he had convinced himself that it was too late, he was married, and it didn’t matter anymore. It had been all lies; he knew that now, in all those years, he had never stopped loving her, not even for a moment.
She was also shocked to see him, but she covered it immediately. She let her husband introduce them, while her eyes were begging him to leave.
He followed her example in pretending but he endeavoured to figure out the reason of her charade.
He was mildly surprised when Monsieur Grosse or more precisely Mister Grossman ordered his wife to accompany him at his table, as he was the honoured guest. It was certainly not the way of Polite Society.
Then he sat and started observing the other guests. They were diplomats and people of power. All of them knew him. Most of them he despised. Every one of them had a striking young woman at his side, none of them their wife.
He glanced at Gillian again; her head was down with her cheeks burning in shame. He looked more closely, her dress was so sheer it was nearly indecent, and so low cut that it resembled more the elegant gown of a courtesan than that of a lady.
He battled down his instinct to cover her with his cape.
Meanwhile they had been served the wine. Uncomfortable with his realisations he tried to hide his feelings behind his glass.
Her delicate hand and her terrified whisper stopped him abruptly.
“Don’t drink, please. Pretend that you do, but don’t touch it.
He did as she said and soon the reason was more than apparent, since the other guests were acting more like the patrons in a certain type of house than guests of an officer of ministry. He smelled his glass delicately, opiate. How charming.
But he could certainly understand now why Grossman could maintain his position in the Ministry, even with his double crossings an open secret. It was a fact that state secrets were mostly leaked in an intimate setting than anywhere else, (Vanessa was certainly an adept in that kind of persuasion) and if you could put on a little blackmail you had the perfect trap.
He observed Gillian in silence, she held her head high in wounded dignity, her lips had thinned in helpless anger and her little fists were white knuckled in desperation.
She closed her eyes in humiliation but when, after a few seconds, she opened them back again, she had made her decision.
“Pretend that you are leaning on me, and come along.”
They left the party, pretending that they were lost in each other, but as soon as they were alone, they started to run until they reached the corridor behind the back door.
Then she opened the door and ordered him out, with the poise of a true lady. “Go Kenneth, it is not safe here, not for you, and not for your associates.”
“I noticed.” he answered dry as sand, but not making a single move in leaving.
“Please Ken, it’s not only what you have seen here, he has connections with the Sicilian Camorra, he could truly hurt you.”
“Then how do you expect me to leave you here? If he could hurt me, I abhor even considering what he could do to you.”
“Leave Ken, it is too late for me, and it’s been too many years for you to care.”
“Like hell!” he calmed his anger and tried to talk reasonably. “Listen to me Gillian, no matter what you are not to me, the fact remains that you were and are my childhood friend. There is no way on earth that I will leave you to this…. (He controlled himself just barely but the words were not appropriate for his Gillian) ...place. And I can’t believe that you will let yourself in your fate. You are stronger than that.”
“You are right. I haven’t accepted it as my fate. I have finally managed to send a letter to Jack. He will be here in a few days. There is no reason for you to expose yourself, just go.”
“No my dear, I will not. If you prefer to stay here, so will I.” He shoved his cape aside showing her his gun. “I have a lot to settle with ‘Mister’ Grossman, for your honour and mine. I preferred to settle it elsewhere, but if you favour here, so be it.”
Gillian looked at him in horror and then she started thinking. He was able to pick her thoughts by looking at her expression. There were very few things he had in common with the bookish boy that she remembered. And that steel in his eyes seemed to reassure her as much as it scared her. She understood at last that he, in his own honourable way, was as ruthless as her husband, in his wish to protect her. She found some comfort in that and just nodded her acceptance of his plans.
Glad as never in his life, that she still trusted him, he simply covered her with his cape, offered her his arm and ushered her out of the house, into a new future unknown to both of them.
He escorted her in his carriage. Both of them worried at what might come in their way. When they got there he almost had to laugh at her expression upon meeting his coachman.
“Hey boss isn’t a bit early for you to leave the party, and you brought a beautiful lady, how come?”
“None of your damn business, Hug.”
He now truly had to laugh at how taken aback she looked by the exchange, not the reaction she expected by his upbringing and not something that she could ever imagine with her background.
“I will explain.”
He whispered the directions to Huggy and then he started the story at how he had met that unusual man.
Huggy was from Africa but he had met him in Russia. He was an uncommon bearer who charmed the crowds because he danced with his bear. Huggy had saved his life in a riot in a village near San Petersburg. Some days later an idiot had shot the bear, at which point he had taken the man as his coachman in gratitude. He had never regretted it.
Huggy was dedicated and more than a good driver, he was his orderly in the war, had saved his life more than once and had become his eyes and ears here in the Parisian streets. Huggy had incredibly grown to be the closest thing to a friend that he had at this time of his life.
After the explanations Gillian looked at him for a long time, and then she took his hand, smiled tenderly and whispered: “You haven’t changed. I am glad!!!”
Then she remembered herself and recoiled visibly “I am sorry I've forgotten myself.”
He had to smile. “You shouldn’t be, I am not, and you haven’t changed either.”
His words angered her. “How could you say such rave? Look at me.” He shook his head “No Gillian you haven’t changed. Your difficult experiences had maybe shaped you to some extent. And you may have matured a bit. But you are still Gillian. Your inner core is the same. Your soul is the same. And I love you the same!!!”
They both fell silent. He was shocked. Not of his emotions, those he know intimately well, but expressing that emotion, that was something different. He was trained since childhood in conducting himself with dignity. Discipline had been the rule all his life. Anything else was inexcusable.
“Forgive me I have no right.”
She smiled sadly “If I were a lady I should be affronted, but as I am not, I can be selfish enough to indulge myself and be glad that you retained enough memories of that innocent time to keep me in some small part of your heart. Thank you.”
“You speak like an old lady, who is admired for the beauty she once was. Like I didn’t just grievously insult you, and you could easily come to believe that I am no better than your husband. I have just taken you from that horrible place and yet I dared to bring my feelings forward. You are under my protection, I shouldn’t have.”
Gillian laughed, really laughed “Oh Kenny only you! If half the men on the world had one quarter of your gentleness the world would have been a better place! It never even crossed your mind that I could have been the one who was using you to free myself from my dreadful husband. I could be exploiting your emotions for my own gain.”
“Not you Gillian. I would never believe that. You are too honest to ever do that to anyone, especially to me!”
“You are wrong Kenneth I have used people, I have hurt people and I have destroyed people. For the past nine years I have seen and have been forced to do things that would have you recoiled. I am dead inside Ken. There is nothing left from the Gillian that you once knew. Stay away from me before I destroy you too.”
“I don’t believe you Gillian. If that was true you would have latched to me and begged for my protection, not warning me away.”
“I may be trying to draw your interest. And where are we going?”
The carriage had stopped.
“We are in the house of Alice Douceur.”
“A courtesan? Appropriate! Is she your mistress? Oh forgive me. It is not my place to ask.”
“No she is not my mistress, just a friend who listens sometimes. If you don’t feel comfortable staying in a courtisane’s house I can take you to a hotel. I would have taken you to my house but it is also the embassy. I apologise.”
“I understand you can’t afford a scandal.”
He didn’t answer; he just took her to the house. Alice was as gracious as he expected. She ushered them into a room with the minimum of fuss. The room that she had taken them to was more comfortable than he expected. He couldn’t help but suspect that she had given Gillian her own room and was more than the perfect hostess leaving them alone. He felt a pinch of remorse. Another person in his life that he used as others used him.
Gillian was looking strangely at him as he sat contemplating but when she had his attention she smiled sadly. “You can leave now Ken I will be all right. When Jack comes you can send him here.”
“I know that Alice will treat you like a sister, but I am worried about Grossman, what if he finds you? You said he had connections with Camorra.”
That reminder was like frozen water for his beloved.
“Oh God, Ken I am putting Alice in danger, it is not right. Take me out of here, please.”
“Don’t worry I doubt that he will find us tonight, and tomorrow I will take you somewhere else.”
“You don’t have to worry, I will sleep somewhere else.”
“Ken, you idiot! You think that I am afraid about that? It is your reputation that I am concerned about!”
“You shouldn’t be. My standing is already tarnished. My wife made sure about that.”
“Oh dear! What did she do to you? How did she hurt you? You had never been cynic before.”
“You think that you are the only one who got hurt Gillian? You have no idea. I have been humiliated as you wouldn’t believe. I have been forced to be charming with the man who is sleeping with my wife, because my country is indebted to his, not to mention the deals that I had to make with other diplomats. Talk about dirty. I feel so ashamed most of the time.”
“At least you did it for your country; I have been forced to do reprehensible things with disgusting people. Oh God, Ken! I can’t stand it, how revolted you must feel toward me?”
She was trembling now, but she was also trying to recover her composure. He took her hands in his.
“Never, my Gillian! I could never be disgusted with you, you were forced. That man now, your husband, that man is more than revolting. His duty was to protect you and to cherish you. Not that… He will pay, my Gillian, I swear it to you on my mother’s grave. He will pay.”
His words broke Gillian, at last, and she started crying. He could do nothing but hold her tightly, and encourage her to speak.
“That’s it my Gillian! Let it all out, he can’t hurt you here, I will kill him first. It is all over. You are safe. You can tell me everything. I want it. Let it all out, my Gillian.”
Little by little, emboldened by his whispered words, Gillian found the courage to open up. Her words disturbed him to his core. He had thought that he was a man of the world, but such corruption was well beyond his comprehension.
“Before I was married I had heard that my husband had made his fortune by bringing merchandise from the East. I had no idea what merchandise it was, I thought that it was silk. It was only after we left the country that I found out by accident that except the silk and jewellery he was also bringing girls and opium.
I tried to get away, they caught me. It was then that my husband, whom so far I believed considerate, had let me see his true colours.
He was incompetent, and he could find pleasure only when he was seeing me with others, or hitting me. The true project of the family was catching little girls and selling them to high ranking officials, after they drugged them with opium so they would not try to get away.”
That’s was it, he lost the battle with his stomach. He barely had the time to find the chamber pot. When he managed to raise his head, Gillian was holding him out a wet handkerchief. She had an expression of such misery that he felt his heart fall for her once again.
But then she held her head high once again, and asked him defiantly:
“Now that you know what my reality was for the last nine years, are you sure that you are not disgusted?”
“I told you before: I am not disgusted with you, but with that beast husband of yours. I am going to stop him. I have to.”
Another thought crossed his mind and he froze.
“Gillian you must tell me, did he force you to take opium?”
“No,” she laughed mirthlessly. “He wanted me to suffer. But he was not the boss. It was his mother Olga Barisnova. That was the Madame. She is the mastermind of the enterprise.”
“She will be sent to the galleons, you have my word. Now tell me everything that you remember from his enterprises, else when I kill him, someone else will simply take over.”
They sat in the bed and talked late into the night.
When he opened his eyes in the morning he had to smile. Gillian was sleeping by his side. He hadn’t touched her and they had both slept in their clothes (which was more than a little uncomfortable!). But it didn’t matter, he was happy as never before in his life. Gillian was his, he could wait.
He stroked her hair softly and whispered his vows. She was his wife now. No matter what the law or the people thought, that was the way that he considered her, and some day, after Grossman’s death, and his divorce, he was going to wed her and by the law. In Berlin’s cathedral, in front of his father and his King, with all the honour that she deserved and that had been taken from her.
He understood better now her earlier comments. His beloved was disgusted with men’s touch and was incapable of thinking of it as pleasure. But it didn’t matter, they had time. Their past love was an excellent foundation to build upon. Someday she was going to come to him out of love, trust and desire.
He knew it.
He was a patient man.
He could wait...
The next few days passed into a blur. Gillian had reluctantly remained in Alice’s house, and he had put Huggy into spying on Grossman. Grossman’s men were dedicatedly looking for Gillian but with little success so far.
Gillian was both relieved to be out of Grossman’s influence and frightened that in the end she would be forced to return. He wanted to console her but it was too soon to offer her Carta Blanca, and truthfully it was not what he wanted for them. But most importantly Gillian was so terrified of Grossman, that she could refuse him to protect him from her husband.
It was too late for that, he was already involved, and he intended to personally confront that monster, except if his people were able to find proofs of his transgressions, and he was to be left to the law to deal with.
Not that it was that easy. His people so far had found a lot of hints of his depraved actions but his clients were in so high places that it was extremely difficult to find standing evidence.
In the end he had only three options:
He could inform the police, but he doubted that it could have any result. He feared, and had reasonable valid reasons to do so, that the emperor, though a known enforcer of justice, was quite possibly the one who held the strings of Grossman, or rather more plausibly it was Barras.
He could as well be in disgrace, but he was also a friend of the ex-empress, and he had managed to keep his anything but modest fortune. Those facts were pretty notable, even without the unlawful hints in his connections. His people had been able to find enough.
He could also let his knowledge slip to some clients of Grossman, and to let them take care of him, out of self preservation. It was a kind of neat solution, but if he tried that, it would leave a bitter taste in his mouth. Those men were no less guilty than Grossman, because it was their perversions that were giving Grossman his livelihood.
In the end the best option was to take care of Grossman personally. Even with as much as he preferred the law to take care of justice. Else it would be Gillian who would pay the price. The law was specific: at best she was unable to testify against Grossman, at worst she was going to share his exile.
And yet something inside him was protesting the idea of him blatantly disregard the law. Even if everything within him was shouting it was justice.
The status quo remained as it was until Jack graced them with his presence. He was quite naturally still resenting his old friend and the circumstances that he had found Gillian didn’t help that matter at all.
But Jack’s obvious regret that he felt for the mistreatment of his cousin and the heartfelt apologies that he made, had softened him somewhat, enough at least so that they could talk and plot about Grossman’s downfall.
The plot had been ingenious enough, (even though it backfired horribly), but at the time it was the best that they had.
Jack visited the Grossmans and told them that he had been looking for them a long time, as his uncle was worried, because Gillian hadn’t written to him for a long while.
The Grossmans believed him, and told him that Gillian had died out of sickness. But they also invited him to stay with them for a while. Jack’s reputation as a libertine was widely known so they didn’t try terribly hard to hide their dealings.
Jack played along, quite successfully, and it was not long before they stopped suspecting him all together. It was ridiculously easy for Jack to open the door for him, Huggy and a few others in the dead of the night.
He should have known better.
He had just managed to corner Grossman and he was drawing his sword, when the foul smell of smoke and the cries of terrified women filled the air. Jack, the idiot, had set the house on fire.
Grossman managed to get away from him, but he had more serious problems to deal with. There was no way that he could leave those women in their fate, and so he, Huggy and the rest of his men took out every woman and man that they could find.
Thank God, the late hour and the smoke had taken care of his blond hair else the scandal would have been the least of his problems.
Later on, after they found Jack, he was ready to hit him. Jack informed them calmly that he had taken care of Grossmans himself. And when he asked him why he had started the fire, he just shrugged and answered as a matter of fact that he was not going to keep proofs of his cousin’s dishonour.
He let his anger aside, but only because he understood that he had created another kind of problems.
Gillian was free now, she could easily return to England, and to her father’s comfort. If he was honest with himself it was the best that she could do. There was no scandal attached to her name, her father was never going to leave her without protection and she was now a widow and so free to choose her future. If he was lucky, she could wait for him to go through his divorce.
He was ashamed to admit that he didn’t want her to go. It was more than possible that years could pass from now to the end of the war and his divorce. There were a lot of things that could go in the way of their reunion, even if Gillian wanted that.
But his wishes didn’t matter when Gillian’s welfare was at stake. He was going to keep his thoughts hidden even if it was killing him.
He managed to keep his promise until the next day. But then he got a surprise that he never expected.
They were sitting in Alice’s parlour and they were discussing Gillian’s options. Jack was vehement that Gillian should return with him to London.
He poetically waxed about the life that awaited her back in her city. When that didn’t work he started talking about Gillian’s father and how he missed his daughter. But when Gillian remained unaffected by the fact, Jack tried to get him to support him.
He tried his best but he didn’t feel it, and his beloved was too perceptive to miss as much.
She patiently waited until he finished and then she gifted him with a tremulous bittersweet smile. “Ken, are you completely sure that I would be better off in London?” Her question hurt him, as much as the bullet that he had received in the shoulder in the battle of Jena.
But he couldn’t lie to her. And he remembered, all too well, the way Polite Society dismissed Gillian just because her mother was an actress. No, better here, at least she was judged by herself.
His expression told her everything she needed to know. She squared her shoulders. “I will stay.”
“But cousin, you will be alone here.”
“What is the difference from one monastery to the other?”
“But why into a monastery? You could return home with us?”
“The scandal is going to break anyway Jack. They were too many, those who know it. The further I am from father, the better for him. Trust me please.”
He had enough.
“Gillian, you don’t have to stay in a monastery. I will take care of you.”
She looked at him dead in the eyes. “Are you sure, absolutely sure?”
“Yes.” There was no need for another word.
Gillian nodded gracefully. “I accept.”
But Jack couldn’t hold his opinion. “Carta Blanca, I know that it would have come to that. You deserve better, cousin.”
He bit his tongue, at not responding him, as how better the match they had provided for her turned to be, instead he answered him with all his dignity.
“I, Kenneth Von Hutchinson, promise to you, Jacques of Mitchell, that I will respect and protect your cousin Gillian for as long as I live. After the end of the war I will divorce my current wife and marry Gillian. That I swear as a Knight of the Order of the Black Eagle.”
After Jack managed to find his voice he showed them the full height of his upbringing, and his caring of his cousin. He didn’t try to dissuade them mentioning the difficulties that were waiting for them in this course, or inform them that they were planning a social suicide. He simply held out his hand and answered. “I will hold you to that.”
The days went flying after that. Before long Jack had left for England, and then he had to find the perfect house for Gillian. It had to be in a respectable district but not an aristocratic one, a comfortable home but not an extravagant one. Thank God, Paris was full of such places.
Hutchinson knew that if he was really planning to marry her some day he should try to visit her less often, but her presence was calming him of all his stress, and he ended up spending all his spare time in her company and with their books.
Not that he had touched her, he didn’t plan to. As much he wanted it, he was going to wait at last until their wedding, maybe even more. It was not prudence. Gillian’s experiences had been rather traumatic and he was hoping that when the time had come for them to become intimate, to be something more than mere duty for her. So he waited.
It didn’t help that after Gillian moved to her house she expected that he would make her his mistress, and she seemed okay with that. But it was impossible for him not to notice how she flinched to the most innocent unexpected touch. He held to his resolve.
As for his wife, in the beginning she didn’t notice a thing. She considered his leave as an expression of his continuous anger, and she didn’t give it much thought. Vanessa, for all her unfaithfulness, was expecting that he would break and return to her bed. She was disappointed.
He didn’t try to take from her any of the privileges that came from her being his wife, neither tried to cut her generous allowance, he simply stopped going out of his way to please her. It didn’t go unnoticed.
Even when Huggy, whom she hated, stopped working in the family’s carriage, she initially felt pleased to get rid of him. When she found out that he was still working for her husband, she put the numbers together and she certainly didn’t like what she found out.
She put a fight to end all fights, but after everything was said and done, the only thing that he felt was the need to laugh. What a delicious irony! What did Vanessa’s fury matter to him? He had his Gillian and their little house, which was far more a home to him than the imposing embassy.
Life went on, and before he could realise it, a couple of years had passed already. Gillian and he had gotten closer, she didn’t flinch to his touch anymore and their old familiarity was back. They were not lovers yet, but it had stopped being just an unattainable dream.
Meanwhile his work started to get tricky again. The Emperor was planning his campaign to Russia. If he won there would be nothing in the world that could stand against him.
But Hutchinson had lived in Russia, even for a little while, and he remembered the winters. The letter to his King was according to that fact. If everything went as he expected there was light at the end of the tunnel.
He was right. The Emperor lost for the first time in his life. Thousands of soldiers lost their lives in the frozen wasteland. (He was still inwardly winching with that.) But his country was finally going to fight for its independence and he was recalled from his position and to fight once again. He couldn’t help but be pleased with that.
Vanessa was of course going to stay with his father, but there was no etiquette for where he should leave Gillian. There was no way that he could leave her in Paris; it was too dangerous to even contemplate it.
That problem was solved by Jack, God bless his soul. With the first hint of war in the air he returned to France, with false papers, to take his cousin home.
He was also considerate enough to leave them alone during their last day in France. He had no untoward intentions for her at the time. With the war in the immediate future, it would have been no less than pure lunacy. But he was not the only one who had a say in that matter.
He chose to spend his last night in France at her house. It was not, by far, the first time that he was doing so, but it was also something that he was trying not to. Not only to avoid a scandal attached to her name but because in the end he was just human, he could control himself only so much.
He stayed late that final night and took his time to mentally farewell his life in Paris. Whatever might happen in the war his life here was over, and it was a good life in many terms.
He was slowly sipping his Porto in the library when Gillian came to find him. She was dressed in a sheer white night dress. Her long blonde hair was flowing on her back.
He felt his mouth hanging open, he had never in his life seen her more beautiful. He opened his mouth to admonish her gently for her lack of attire in that cold and he found himself stuttering like the seventeen years old he once was, when he first confessed his feelings to her.
“Y-You shouldn’t be up that late in the cold Gillian.” He tried to steady his voice. “You could get sick.”
She regarded him frankly. “I couldn’t sleep, my thoughts couldn’t let me.”
His tone firmed. “I know but you should rest. Tomorrow is going to be a trying day.”
Gillian took a deep breath. “Not without you.”
He blushed to the tips of his ears. “I thought that we had decided that it was best if we waited.”
It was her turn to blush but she held his gaze. “So did I, but its different now.” She stepped closer to him and her hand rested on his shoulder, above his scar. “It is war, you could be killed.” Her tone held no agreements. “I won’t lose my one chance in this life to be touched with love.”
Whatever resistance he had left melted like it was nothing. “God, Gillian!” He kissed her like a man who found fresh water in desert. He then took her in his arms and moved swiftly to the next room and gently deposited her on his bed.
He looked at her taking his fill. Her blonde hair was mused, her cheeks blushed and her breath laboured. She was stunning. And His!
He choked to the depth of his emotions. He thought that he knew everything about love. He clearly had no idea.
They were both advanced in the boudoir arts. It had nothing to do with them at that moment. The only thing that mattered was them, their shared breath, their hearts beating together, her hands holding him like she didn’t plan to stop, his hands to hers. Their souls touching!
He whispered the marriage vows to her, she did the same. They weren’t separate beings anymore.
They lost themselves to each other.
The next day was dark and cloudy, exactly like their mood. Gillian may not have held the title of a lady but she conducted herself with the dignity of one. Not a single tear escaped the prison of her eyes.
Jack just looked at them once, and then he found an excuse to leave them alone. They kissed desperately one last time, but by the time they parted there was not even a hint of scene, even if Gillian had to hold her hands to her back toward the end.
Lützen was hard on him. More than the bloodshed, the death of Gerhard Von Scharnhorst had hit him hard. After that he was swept through the battles, he hardly had time for anything except trying to stay alive. Even Gillian’s thoughts didn’t surface except late just before sleep. Still it was a huge comfort.
He fought, to the best of his ability, until he was wounded in Dresden. He survived the battle but his recovery was tenuous and he was barely good enough to fight in the battle of Leipzig. That had the unfortunate results of reopening his wounds in the worst way.
He had to stay in Leipzig to recover and he was unable to take part in any other battle. But when the news of his injuries reached Gillian she gave up everything to come and help him.
The surprise was so strong that his heart skipped a beat. It resulted to their first truly serious fight. Travelling was anything but good for a pregnant woman, and Gillian was very pregnant.
He was absolutely frozen with terror at the thoughts of the dangers that she had put herself and his child to come to him and she later confessed to him that his reaction made her think that he didn’t want the child. Truthfully it was anything but that. Seeing Gillian rounded with their child had fulfilled a lot of his dreams.
After he managed to calm her down, things got rather good for them. The owner of the inn that he was staying in believed him to be just another soldier and it was not difficult to believe that Gillian was his wife and they spent the rest of her pregnancy in quiet happiness.
Little Richard was born on January first. He was strong, healthy, and his Gillian got out the birth ordeal without damage. For once in his life Kenneth was utterly happy.
He was now determined more than ever to get his divorce.
After the exile of the emperor, he decided that it was his time to act. He bit the bullet and took Gillian and their child to Berlin. He would rather spare her his father’s savage tongue, but his King was a kind man underneath and he was going to be more easily swaged to his cause after seeing the baby.
The King was more than sympathetic but he was also pragmatic, and while he didn’t see anything wrong with Kenneth formally adopting Richard, he was also quite firm against the divorce.
He explained that quite patiently. It was not that he was not enraged by the dishonour that Vanessa had put to their House but Vanessa was Metternich’s mistress and whatever pull they had against him was God’s gift to them.
The Congress hadn’t gone in their favour so far and his King had new orders for him. He was to go to Vienna and help the other diplomats of his country and also allow Vanessa to play her game.
He was absolutely furious but duty won over his reservations once again. Much to his surprise Gillian took the news much better than him and answered to his inquiries to why with such bitter wisdom that he was never going to forget her quiet but resolved explanations.
“I am sorry my love, I failed you. I should have pushed the King more.”
“Kenneth. No.” Her words rushed in. “If you insisted on the divorce and forced the King in granting it you could lose your position even your country, if he was angry enough to exile you. Are you ready to give up your career that easily?”
He hung his head in shame. “Not for as long as I could do some good for my country.”
“Ken...” Gillian smiled at him. “It is the best thing that could happen to us, Ken.”
Gillian’s tone held no uncertainty and he found himself almost hurt with the easy way she could dismiss his fondest dreams.
“I thought that you wanted to be my wife.”
“God, Ken you have no idea how much... You are such a dreamer! And I love you so for that. But it is an impossible dream. And in everything that counts I am your wife.”
He could do nothing but take her in his arms and kiss her shining hair. “I wanted to give you the protection of my name.” He wanted to give her the sun, the moon and the stars, but it was hardly the time to tell her now.
She took a step back and breathed deeply like she was preparing. It was obvious to Ken that she had put a lot of thought to what she was going to say.
“Ken with the way we are now I can stay in your shadow, and love you, and have no one to bother us. If you have gotten the divorce everyone would have started gossiping about it and they would start looking at me like I was worst than dirt. I am not sure that I would survive it.”
He didn’t have to try that hard to guess his father’s treatment. His heart hurt for her. He made his decision.
“I will not stay in the diplomatic corps forever. I am growing tired with the dirty transactions under the table. After the Congress is done I will find a quiet university to teach.” He looked stern. “Someday Gillian we are going to marry.”
She fell in his arms with tears. “Someday!”
‘Someday’ became their prayer during the months that followed. He worked as hard as he could and the results were slow but real. Privately he could even admit a bit of smugness in the pride that Gillian held to his work. But a true resolution, that was a long way yet.
Meanwhile Vanessa had gone almost placid. It was not that surprising. She was anything but dense and it was more than obvious that their marriage was almost officially over.
In the summer of 1915 the Treaty was signed. His colleagues and he had made a fairly good work and they had taken back their land and more. Problem: Austria now held the seat of power.
Consequences: His King was very pleased with him and he made him an offer that he could not resist. That if he could take the ambassadorial position in Austrian court for a few years to try and undermine the Austrian power a bit then the King himself would support his divorce.
On one hand it seemed to him a quite dishonest deal, on the other so it was the whole diplomatic game, and he had served his country for almost ten years, it was truly difficult to stop now.
But if he was honest with himself, and Kenneth always prided himself to be so, there was also a very dark thing in his psyche that he would immensely enjoy it too. That he was to be able to pull one over Metternich.
Gillian supported his decision without a complaint, and she seemed to enjoy their quiet life. Yet he couldn’t help but feel unease at how easily he himself accepted that double life. And he swore to himself once again that he was going to retire as soon as he had the chance.
He was six months into that stage of his life when Vanessa got gravely ill. It took him a while to take notice as they were leading separate lives, with his, all but official, living with Gillian. However all the rouge in the world couldn’t hide Van's deathly pallor!
The point was forced home in a formal reception. They were dancing, as it was their duty, when Vanessa lost consciousness in his arms.
He called the doctor immediately, there wasn’t time for hesitations. He prayed softly as he waited, he had stopped being angry long ago.
The doctor’s verdict was shattering: Rapid consumption. A death sentence with no way out.
Following the doctor’s leave Kenneth just sat there trying to figure a way out from the labyrinth of his feelings. He looked at Vanessa's sleeping face. Except of the whiteness of her skin no one could guess the severity of her condition.
Vanessa was an extremely beautiful woman and she was barely over thirty years. She was also vivacious and sharply intelligent, truthfully the last person that he could ever expect or wish to die.
He just sat there, by her side, he didn't know how many hours but finally Vanessa woke up. “God, I hate labdanum.”
If there was a thing that he always loved about Vanessa it was her sheer pride and guts. Even in those circumstances she was trying to keep control. But her eyes were telling something completely different and he couldn’t help but feel a wave of tenderness for her. He understood at that moment that he loved her, maybe not like Gillian, but he had loved her once.
“How are you? Do you want me to call to bring you something?”
Her green eyes were hazy with sleep at first but they sharpened as they focused on him.
“Don’t bother. Shouldn’t you be in the reception or, even better, with your little mistress?”
He reminded himself of her illness.
“My duty is with you. You are my wife.”
“Not for long. You will be free soon enough to marry your whore.”
“You will never, ever call Gillian like that again. Do you hear me? Yes I want a divorce, not your death. You hear?”
His tone was so menacing that Vanessa looked terrified and just nodded mutely. She started crying miserably and something broke inside him. He stroked her hair.
“Shh. Doctor Weber is not the only doctor in Vienna, not even the best. We will ask another opinion Van, I promise, we will fight this.”
She buried her head in his chest. “Will you stay with me to the end, Ken? I am terrified of dying alone.”
“I will, I promise.”
He kept his word to Vanessa. His free time was equally spared between Gillian and Richard and with Vanessa. He spent his time with Vanessa reading her books, or even brushing her dark hair, one of his favourite intimacies of their early marriage.
That was one of the worst problems that were making his position so difficult. Vanessa’s insistence that they should try make their marriage intimate once again.
He was also completely sure that for all her kindness in Vanessa’s condition that was the only thing that Gillian wasn’t going to forgive.
He was truly dumfounded to the extent of her compassion but she had explained to him that her beloved mother had died from the same disease just a few months before they had first met.
That information had made him feel even worst but it had also kept him strong to Vanessa’s advances. He could never forget her last try.
Curiously, her condition had made her more radiant and her appetites more carnal. He had read in a book that the reason for that was the stronger blood flow but that didn’t make it easier to resist.
He was reading to her, to lull her to sleep, when her hands had started wandering to his body, he had caught her hands into stopping her but she had put his hand to her breasts. All his blood had gotten to his head and he had started feeling dizzy.
“Ken,” She whispered passionately, “I still love you, and I made a terrible mistake then, can you forgive me and try with me once again?”
Her dark hair was fawned to her pillow, her green eyes shining and vibrant. Her lips like luscious strawberries. She was like a vision from their wedding night.
It was only the view of the locket to her neck that got him to his senses, it was Metternich’s gift and he was well aware that he continued to visit her. Angry at almost betraying his beloved the words got out way harsher than he intended.
“I am sorry Vanessa, but even in different circumstances it is too late. You love another and I love another. Even if that wasn’t the case we are too different to make it. I am sorry.”
Vanessa’s lips thinned and went white. Her voice was frosty when she answered him. “I understand Kenneth, you have spend too much of my precious time in my company. You may leave now.” She turned her back to him and never talked to him again.
Three days later she was dead.
Her death hit Ken far worse than he expected. The reason for that was that he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow responsible. That was pretty illogical and he knew it well but the feeling remained.
Gillian accepted his brooding silence for a couple of months but after that she needed answers. He discovered that he was ready to answer. He truly needed to get it out of his chest and when he faltered her tender caresses and some hard truths had him continue.
After he confessed her his guilt over both his temptation and his refusal he felt clean again. Her light response helped much to that fact. Also the fact that she meant it: she understood completely well that he was a man, and while she could live with that, if he had touched his wife, she appreciated very much that he didn’t.
His overwhelming guilt lightened after that and he was ready for some decisions. His trip to Berlin was more than tradition. He owed it, to his King, to resign in person.
He didn’t take Gillian and Richard with him. Even if his father wasn’t against the wedding, still he wouldn’t risk forcing Gillian to his verbal abuse once more.
But to his surprise the old dragon had finally accepted, and even explained that he really had nothing against Gillian. Gregory of Ingram was from his oldest friends, from the time he was himself an ambassador in England, it was only the scandal he was dead against. Now that he was widowed it was not an issue. Even his advice to lay low for a couple of years was sound.
He smiled softly to his recalls and discovered that he had slept for most of his journey. Huggy was waiting for him in the station and the sun had just broken into the sky. He was happy.
The door to his little home was open and the house eerily quiet. He felt the fear gripping his insides and he run faster than ever in his life. Something was horribly wrong.
He didn’t have to go far into the house to spot the tragedy. There on the parlour’s floor, within the pool of her own blood was laid Gillian.