The clinking of silverware and hearty laughter echoed around the corners of the hallway, signaling that James and Genevieve were already late to the dinner party. His father, Julius, had invited wealthy nobles from all over the country, or in other words, wealthy politicians. James had been born into the world of politics and he was immersed in it every single day of his life. It had been his fate since he had been a young lad to follow in his father’s footsteps.
James gently guided his wife down the hallway, glancing over at her every few seconds with worry etched into his face. Finally, he stopped them just around the corner of the dining room, turning to take her in. Against her raven black hair and dark eyes to match, Genevieve still looked deathly pale, definitely in no shape to attend a dinner party. “Are you sure that you will be alright? It will be fine for you to skip out on the party just this once. You can return to your bedchamber and you can rest while I give you a relaxing massage. You really need to rest.” He placed a hand on her belly, rubbing his thumb in gentle circles. Although she wasn’t showing quite just yet, he still didn’t want the chance of a miscarriage.
Surprisingly, Genevieve just smiled at him and shook her head. “There are a lot of influential people in that room. What better time to make the announcement than tonight? James, I will be fine. Do not worry about me.”
That was much easier said than done.
He and Genevieve had been married for a little less than a year now, and although he still hadn’t developed feelings of love for her, he still cared about her immensely, and he most certainly cared about the child that she carried within her. The sooner this dinner party was over with, the better.
Giving her a smile that didn’t quite reach his worried eyes, James took her hand and led her into the dining room where everyone froze completely at their appearance. There looked to be about fifteen or so people in attendance all surrounding the table, every eye turned in their direction.
“Please pardon our tardiness,” James said with a bow. He felt like he needed to make a legitimate excuse, but he was the marquess now. He didn’t need an excuse. “Thank you all who are in attendance. I hope you have a great evening.”
The attendees murmured in assent, lifting their goblets to them and taking a drink. The conversations resumed once again, giving James the opportunity to seat his wife at the table, pulling the chair out for her to sit. Again, a spark of worry fluttered in his chest as he took in her pale face. Genevieve didn’t look well and he couldn’t help but worry. If he had a say, then he would make this night as short as he possibly could for her.
“You’re late,” Julius said quietly, just loud enough for James to hear, but there was no mistaking the venom in his voice. “When you have guests, you do not make them wait.”
James scowled. He had never gotten along with his father and chance was that he never would. He couldn’t help but wish that his father lived at one of their other estates instead of insisting on living in Bath where James had inherited his birthright as firstborn and only son. All he wanted was for his father to leave and stop trying to control the way he and Genevieve lived their lives. Of course, he felt no malice toward his mother, Helen, but still he longed for his parents to give him space to make his own decisions.
“Marquess Avery,” a gentleman said from the other end of the table, and James had to crane his neck to find Mr. Doughty—a very wealthy politician—gazing back at him curiously. “I was just speaking to your father about his most recent campaign over foreign affairs. What is your view on the matter?”
“I, uh…” It proved to be very difficult to form even a single coherent thought when his mind revolved around his wife’s wellbeing. He only wished she wouldn’t be so stubborn when it came to resting. James should have known that getting roped into marrying a politician’s daughter from Scotland would come with their difficulties. The woman had a stubborn streak the size of an ox. “I have differing views, but perhaps that is a conversation for another day.”
He could practically feel his father’s glare on him but chose not to look. No matter what James did, it always set Julius off. James had learned the hard way that nothing he did would ever please his father. Nothing at all.
“And what of the threat?” Mr. Doughty continued, making the clatter of silverware against plates cease immediately. James’s heart leapt to his throat, and not in a good way. Although he feared the threat from the Witch of the Wiles that his father had received, his father brushed it right off his shoulder as if it were no big deal. More than once he had pleaded for his father to give into the witch’s demands, but each time, his father would not heed his words.
Julius interrupted the conversation right then, preventing James from speaking his mind on the matter. “We have nothing to fear from the Witch of the Wiles. The threat is simply just that—a threat. Nothing more. I will go on with my foreign affairs campaign as planned.”
The whole room erupted in debating politicians, but James could not hear a single word they said over the roaring of the blood pulsing through his ears as Genevieve made a choking sound before swooning and collapsing right out of her chair. She hit the floor with a loud thud, and time seemed to slow down immensely as he shouted her name and rushed to her side. His wife didn’t respond to his voice nor his touch. His blood turned to ice when he felt for a pulse. Nothing.
“Retrieve a doctor!” James exclaimed frantically as he scooped his unresponsive wife up into his arms. “Somebody retrieve a doctor!”
The room erupted in a different type of frenzy as they all tried to help. Several of the guests followed him up to his bedchamber as he laid Genevieve down on the bed. Her skin felt icy cold, her usually full red lips bluer than he had ever seen them.
“Genevieve, please!” James cried, holding her frail hand against his forehead as if just that will alone could bring her back from whatever sickness ailed her. “Please don’t leave. Help is on the way.”
Tears streaked down his face. He couldn’t lose her. He just couldn’t. Losing her would break his heart, and losing the baby would break his heart beyond belief. His heart just wouldn’t be able to bear the pain.
Within minutes, a physician entered the room and pulled a chair up beside the bed, getting right to work. Helen, his mother, ushered everyone out of the room so only she, Julius, Genevieve, James, and the doctor were in the room, but James only had eyes for his wife. A sinking feeling entered his stomach. Just from looking at her, he knew things would not be alright, especially as the doctor’s expression fell more and more with each test performed.
Finally, the doctor stood up and took off his stethoscope, his face crestfallen. “I am sorry, but she is dead.”
James covered his mouth with his hand, his heart full of anguish as more tears escaped from his eyes. As he held his wife’s hand and gazed down at her lifeless face, he just couldn’t believe it. He should have insisted that she rested, but now he couldn’t insist on anything because now she was gone.
“There is something else,” the doctor said, looking down at the floor as he spoke while his expression became even graver. “Her death wasn’t an accident. The marchioness was poisoned with a plant called Atropa Belladonna, otherwise known as Nightshade.”
Almost immediately, James’s eyes widened as realization dawned on him. “Nightshade is used by witches,” he murmured, his gaze directed right on his father. Anger took a sudden hold on him as he clenched his fists and glared at his father with all the venom he could muster. “This is your fault! If you had just complied with the witch’s demands, this wouldn’t have happened!”
“Calm down,” Julius soothed, casting a worried glance toward the closed door as if he were afraid that someone might hear them.
“Calm down?!” James shouted, angry tears trailing down his cheeks. “My wife is dead because of you! When a witch threatens to wreak havoc on your life if you don’t comply with her demands, you should listen!” He sunk to his knees, clutching onto Genevieve’s hand as his heart ached immensely. In a broken whisper, he said, “She was pregnant. Genevieve was carrying our child.”
Helen gasped, clutching her hand to her mouth as tears brimmed her eyes. “I am so sorry, James,” she said, giving his shoulder a brief squeeze. “I cannot even imagine how you must be hurting.”
“Tis only a trivial matter,” Julius said as he crossed his arms over his chest. “After all, you had begged me to let you marry that Bassett girl instead of Genevieve. It shouldn’t be long before you get over it.”
James hated his father so much. How could he say such a thing? “I cared for Genevieve. Don’t you dare tell me otherwise.”
His father heaved a deep sigh. “No one will know the reason of her death. We will tell everyone that she passed away from a sudden illness. Nobody has to know.”
“Just leave!” James sobbed into Genevieve’s belly, a belly that he wished he could have seen grow larger and larger until he met his child for the first time. “You have created enough havoc in my life and I never want to see you again. By tomorrow morning, I want both of you gone. There are plenty of other estates you could live in, but I do not want to share mine with you.”
“James…” his mother said softly, touching his shoulder yet again but James jerked it away from her grasp.
“Just leave!” he sobbed again. “Please just leave.”
His parents said nothing more as they left the room with the doctor, leaving James alone with his anguish. His wife was dead because his father had been too stubborn to lose, even just once. Genevieve had paid the price for his father’s pride, and he would never be able to forgive him for it.