Brett let out a sigh of relief as they left the crowded market behind. He had heard the whispers, he knew that they would be coming. He had been gone for a long time. He had very much enjoyed his life out on the countryside, and exploring the world. Matthew had accompanied him every step of the way. Nobody knew Brett better than Matthew, while he was just a footman, Brett really saw Matthew as his equal. As if on cue, Matthew coughed. "You've been gone a long time my Lord, there is going to be talk of marriage and of course, the Balls and Galas of the Season."
Matthew looked over at Brett with a slight smirk. The Marquess looked downright miserable. "You know Matthew," he began, looking at his friend with laughter in his eyes. "It had crossed my mind to ask you to wear a robe and sit side saddle when we returned. With your long hair, they just might have thought I was bringing home a bride." Matthew burst out laughing, "I would have made a hideous bride." But then his face turned serious, "you know Sir, I would've done it if you had asked me." "I know, and I thank you..." Brett's voice trailed off. They had finally reached the edges of Wimborne Manor. As they passed through the gate, Brett's face darkened and they finished the ride to the mansion in silence.
"Breeeettt!" A young woman's voice screamed as she ran down the stairs her skirts flying behind her. She let go of her skirts as she launched herself at the tall man who had just gotten off his horse. Brett turned around and braced himself just in time as the young woman slammed into him. Her honey coloured locks brushed his chin as she jumped up and down excitedly in his embrace. "Let me take a look at you Elise," he said as he gently pried her off and held her away from him. Elise's face was bright as she looked excitedly at him. Brett couldn't help but smile, his sister had always been a bundle of joy and was the only person he had truly missed during his time away. "I missed you so much!" She cried as she broke free and grabbed him again for a big hug. Brett returned the hug as he smiled down at his sister.
"Your Grace." Brett heard Matthew say before dropping into a bow. Brett looked up to see his mother had joined them. "Elise, come here," she ordered in a thin voice. Elise let go of Brett and walked over to her mother. While she walked over gracefully and calmly, Brett could see that she was still full of excitement and the huge grin on her face did not hide it. "Mother," Brett kissed the Duchess's hand quickly and bowed. "You are home at last my Dear," she said as she took her hand and touched his cheek fondly. Brett smiled tightly at his mother. He did love her but his affection for her was limited. She had always been kind to him but duty and reputation had always come first for her. She was very proper and expected much from her eldest child. In truth, Brett had been a disappointment. Instead of staying to help run the manor, Brett had run off after his schooling. She would've had more children but the Duke had started to fall ill after Elise and additional children were out of the question.
Isabella loved her children but she had fought hard to be the Duchess of Strathburn. She had won over the Duke's heart after much sacrifice and she took her title very seriously. She wanted the world for her children and knew the importance of continuing the family line. She had had very high hopes when Brett finished school and was of marrying age. A neighbouring Duke's daughter had announced her coming out for her first Season just as Brett had been graduating. However, after Brett had been given his title as Marquess of Highmore, he had thanked his father and defiantly announced his intent to travel. To Isabella's great displeasure, her son had left soon after and that year the neighbouring Duke's daughter married into another family. The two family's had since grown in affluence. Meanwhile Wimborne had continued to suffer as the Duke's illness grew.
The Duchess eyed her son quietly as she reflected on the past. "Let's go in and eat,"Elise exclaimed as looked back and forth between her mother and brother. She had been young when Brett left but she had understood why he had to go. She was just so excited to have him back. Elise snatched Brett's hand and began dragging him into the house. The Duchess followed behind.
The cook had prepared a massive feast to welcome the Marquess home. Cakes, sandwiches, roast pig, anything a person could dream of. Elise filled the air with her chatter, telling Brett about school, and other news at Wimborne. Brett was grateful to her, since entering the gates of Wimborne the memories from the past were fresh on his mind.
The day Brett left for his travels, the mansion was very silent. Elise had given him a hug and ran away crying. Being 10 years older than her hadn't kept him from developing a good relationship with her. His mother had stood at the top of the stairs looking down at him bitterly. She had spent the night before chatising him and stressing the damage he would do to his family.
When he left the house Brett had glanced up to see the figure of his father hunched over his cane looking down at him through a window. Brett had lifted a hand to wave and his father had turned away. After he left, Brett never wrote to his family except for Christmas and of course Elise's birthday.
"Your Father is waiting to see you," the Duchess stated. Her comment interrupted Brett's thoughts on the past. He looked up at her. "Yes, I will go and see him." He stood up and excused himself from the table. Elise quickly did the same and ran after him. "I will show you where he is," she said as she grabbed his arm and directed him away from the stairs.
"Papa no longer goes upstairs, the stairs are too difficult. Mother moved them into this room downstairs a couple years ago. Evenings are the worst for Papa, he'll be joining us for breakfast in the morning though." Elise paused before knocking on the door. She looked up at Brett and warned, "you must brace yourself, he is far worse than you can imagine." She knocked and then opened the door.
Brett followed his sister into the darkened room, the curtains were drawn and the only light came from a candle by the large four post canopy bed. Elise bent over the bed and hugged her father, "Papa, Brett is here to see you." She stood up and gestured encouragingly towards Brett. He took a deep breath and braced himself before walking over to the bed.
The man in the bed was just a shell of the person Brett remembered. His father was thin, his hair had fallen out from illness, and his limbs were permanently contorted into strange bent angles. The Duke's eyes were sunken into his sallow face and his skin looked waxy and translucent. The last 10 years had left the Duke feeble and old beyond his years. Brett watched his father's chest struggling to rise up and down when he breathed. He glanced up to see his father looking at him.
"Welcome home my son," the Duke squeezed out as he huffed and puffed trying to drag himself up into a sitting position. Suddenly a maid appeared out of the dark and with Elise's assistance, helped the Duke into a seating position. The Duke turned to Elise and squeezed her hand before firmly instructing everyone except Brett to leave. Within seconds, Brett was the only one left in the room.
"So you have returned," the Duke began. "Did your travels give you what you needed? Was it worth the destruction it has caused our family? The struggles this family has faced? Do you know what people are saying about me, your father, and a son that would abandon him for a decade?" He spat the last sentence out with hate. "Did you come home with a wife? You are a score and ten and no family. Your duty to me, to our bloodline. Do you have no care?"
"Father," Brett began, but the withering stare his father gave him made him start again. "Your Grace, I appreciate all that you have given me and done for me, but I have never wanted to be Lord of Wimborne. I am not meant..." Before Brett could even finish, the Duke burst out in anger.
"For DECADES Wimborne has been cared for by the eldest son. It has been passed down from generation to generation. Will you not accept your birthright? Do what is right for this family, for ME?" The Duke was so angry he was frothing at the mouth as he yelled at Brett. "Will you not grant an old man his last requests? This family needs you, the people need you. How can you be such a coward?" Suddenly the Duke's eyes rolled into the back of his head and he began to shake in a seizure.
Brett ran to the door and bellowed for help, a team of people came rushing in to attend to his Father. His mother also came in following the caretakers. She stood with Brett and watched as they worked to stabilize her husband. Once the Duke was comfortable and the seizing had stopped the doctor and caretakers left the room. This left Brett and his mother to stand in silence while watching the Duke's chest rise up and down with his shallow breathing.
The Duchess sat on the edge of the bed and held her husband's hand and looked sadly at his face. Without turning to look at Brett she addressed him, "we will be having a ball in five days to celebrate the beginning of the Season and your return. Should you decide not to attend and represent our family," here she turned her head and looked Brett directly in the eyes. "Should you decide not to attend," she repeated,"you will no longer be the Marquess of Highmore and you will have no part in this family." With that, she turned back to look at the Duke. "You may leave."
Brett stared at the back of his mother's head, and as there was nothing for him to say, he bowed and left the room.