Chapter 25: The Weight of Prejudice
Lord Acheron stared blankly at the frail young woman, dressed in a shabby purple dress, who entered the library and curtsied.
“My Lords,” the graceful girl said in a calm, soothing voice that was unexpectedly pleasant to hear. “I am Lady Maura. I was informed you wished to speak with me.”
It took a moment for Acheron to register the name, so bewitched was he by the beautiful girl with vivid blue eyes. Then her identity sank in, and he stared at her in utter bewilderment.
‘Was this entire family mad? There was nothing wrong with Lady Maura. No blemish, scar, or deformity of any kind in sight.’
Maura remained in her curtsey. Her glossy ash-brown hair glinted under the light of the slowly dying fire from the hearth. Before Acheron could recover and invite her to rise, Percy stepped forward and extended his hand to the young lady.
“Lady Maura, please,” Percy said. The gentleness in the earl’s voice caught Acheron’s attention, and he smothered an amused laugh behind his hand.
Maura accepted Percy’s hand and scanned the pale expressions of the Turnbell family as she straightened. “Mother, sister, you look unwell. Perhaps we should send for the doctor?”
Acheron’s gaze flickered from Maura to the rest of her flabbergasted family, who appeared to have been struck dumb by her appearance. As he did so, he couldn’t help but compare the difference in the gowns Maura and Sophya wore. One modest enough but more suited to a servant. The other, fashionable, but a tad costly for the daughter of a Baron rumored to be mired in debt.
He caught Maura watching him. Her enchanting blue eyes held not the faintest sign of tears or sorrow as they glanced away.
“Lady Maura.” Acheron rose from his chair. “Is it possible you do not know?”
“My Lord?” Maura turned towards him as she pulled her hand free from Percy’s grasp.
Acheron watched his friend’s face for a flicker of emotion, but as always, the earl wore a mask of neutral composure. Still, Percy’s winter grey eyes remained steadfast on the object of his attention, the lovely Lady Maura, who fascinated Acheron with every passing moment.
‘Any woman who can wind Percy up is definitely worth getting to know.’ Acheron stepped forward and scooped up Maura’s hand. “My dear, have you not heard the news?” he questioned gently. “That your brother, Lincoln, is dead?”
Maura’s lovely dark lashes fluttered as her eyes tightened with an expression of pain. “Do you think my family so cruel that they would not inform me?” She freed her hand, then stepped back. “And you should not approach me so casually, Sir, as we have not been introduced.”
‘Sir?’ Acheron fought back an amused smile. ‘Was this half-blood without so much as a surname actually correcting him on etiquette?’
“Lady Maura, this is Lord Acheron Wilder,” Percy said, correcting his friend’s blunder.
“Prime Minister Attwood Wilder’s son,” Maura replied softly, though she seemed unsurprised—and unimpressed—by his identity.
‘Well, that was definitely a first.’ Acheron was beginning to like this little half-blood.
“Forgive my poor manners, Lady Maura.” He bowed in humble apology.
“My Lord, you should not—” she replied hastily.
“A member of the House of Lords apologizing and bowing to a half-blood?” Josiah rasped in disbelief. His white knuckles tightened around a bulldog cane as his murderous green eyes bored into the half-blood.
Maura ignored Josiah as she turned and approached Lady Helena on the couch. “Mother, you look unwell. Should I fetch you some herbal tea?”
“I want nothing from you,” Helena snapped as she shrank into her corner of the sofa.
Maura offered no reaction as she nodded and stepped back. Despite the mixed looks of hatred, indifference, and disgust that radiated from the family around her, she remained unaffected. Her stoic expression and posture reminded him so vividly of another that Acheron felt his chest tighten with a sudden urge to protect her.
“Lady Maura.” Acheron stepped forward as he drew the official document from his jacket and presented it to her. “I am here officially, as a representative of the palace to inform this household that you have been accepted as a candidate for the position of lady-in-waiting to Crown Princess Eleanora.”
For a moment, Maura’s careful mask faltered, and he saw those blue eyes brim with relief as they focused on the golden twin-wolf crest of the royal family, which sealed the decree.
“I am honored, my Lord.” Her voice, strained with suppressed emotion, cracked faintly as she reached for the document.
“No! I forbid it!” Josiah snatched the letter from the tips of Maura’s fingers and ripped it apart with vicious anger. Percy watched in stunned disbelief as the madman stomped upon the fragments as they scattered to the wooden panels of the floor. “I absolutely forbid you to go!”
The royal seal glinted dangerously close to Josiah’s foot. Acheron snatched it up quickly. “What in Heaven’s Mercy is wrong with you?” To desecrate the royal family crest was an offense punishable by death. To destroy a royal decree—was punishable by death. “Have you lost your mind?”
“No,” Josiah stiffly replied as he composed himself. “I have lost my son. Now I must insist that you gentlemen leave my house at once. This family needs time to grieve, and she—” he pointed at Maura, “—isn’t going anywhere.”
Acheron drew in a deep breath as he turned to Percy and extended the golden wax seal. Percy pulled out his handkerchief then carefully wrapped the royal emblem within it. Confident the royal insignia was secure, Acheron turned and backhanded Josiah across the face.
Helena gasped as her husband staggered back towards the couch. Josiah clutched his face, the anger, and humiliation of being slapped like a woman or common servant ran scarlet across his pale skin.
“Forgive him, Lord Acheron,” Maura spoke up quickly. “Although he should know better, I believe his actions to be motivated by anger and grief rather than disrespect towards their majesties.”
Acheron exhaled as he adjusted the cuff of his jacket and ignored the sting along his knuckles. Unlike Percy, he wasn’t fond of physical violence, but he’d be damned if he stood by and watched someone disrespect the royal family and his position as an official of Lafeara.
‘Still how odd that Maura should speak up for Lord Josiah when she held none of his blood and certainly none of his affection.’
He glanced to where Maura stood, her hands wound tightly into the folds of her dress as she stared at the tattered remains of the royal document.
“Pay it no mind,” Percy said gently as he took her hand and placed his handkerchief, and the royal emblem it held, into her palm. “He can rip up a piece of paper, but he can’t destroy a royal decree that easily.”
‘Mercy’s Tit, she’s got him by the balls.’ Acheron gawked at the pair in surprise.
“Father, are you hurt?” Sophya took her father’s arm gently, but Josiah shoved her aside as he advanced on Maura. The startled half-blood backed away, but not before Josiah seized her wrist and yanked her towards him.
The handkerchief and seal slipped from Maura’s fingers, and this time, the royal insignia shattered as it struck to the floor.