Chapter 7: The Stain of Misfortune
The empty soup bowls were carried away, and the butler refilled Helena’s wine glass as the cook brought out a simple flat chocolate cake adorned with strawberries grown from the back garden.
“Father,” Sophya said as a slice of cake was placed in front of her. “Once the coronation is over, what will my dowry be?”
Josiah’s expression stiffened as he deflected her question. “A suitable amount, of course, but we may have to postpone your wedding until Maura has been married off.”
“Oh, yes!” Sophya turned her mischievous gaze towards Carina, who had been silent throughout the meal. “Mother was just telling us. How lucky for Maura to have caught Lord Lennox’s attention. And I hear he wishes to invest in your business, Father!”
“If only your lover, Lord Asher, and Baron Winslet were so generous,” Carina replied as she stabbed the plump strawberry beside her cake and bit into it.
“Maura!” Helena snapped. “They are not lovers! Please do not suggest something that could cause a misunderstanding before your father!”
Josiah’s fork rattled against his plate as he snorted in disgust. “Whose father?”
The coldness of his tone silenced the room. Sophya hastily scooped up a bite of her cake.
“What amount did he offer?” Carina asked as she raised her gaze to the man intent on selling her. “In exchange for a young bride who comes without a dowry.”
Josiah’s jowls trembled with apparent agitation. “How dare you take such a tone with me?”
“Am I not allowed to inquire about the benefits you expect to receive after selling me off for his investment?”
“That is the business of your elders and not something a child like you should meddle with.”
“So, you know that you’re selling a child to an old man?”
Josiah’s fist slammed against the table. His knuckles caught against the edge of his plate, which skidded sideways and scattered strawberries and cake across the tablecloth.
“It is not your place to question me!” he bellowed.
“Why? You’re so quick to remind me that you’re not my father, and yet you have the right to sell me now?”
“Consider it payment for raising another man’s bastard.”
“Raising me?” Carina arched her eyebrow cynically as her voice pitched higher in anger. “When was the last time you even bothered to look at me? When was the last time Mother took me shopping for clothes? When was the last time any of you ever said or did a kind thing for me?”
“Maura, please be quiet!” Helena hissed shrilly.
“Silence!” Josiah thundered.
“Why am I the one being punished because you’re not my father? Why is it my fault that your business is failing? Why do you all insist on treating me as if I’m not even human? Why can’t you just—”
Her rant was cut short as Helena threw the contents of her wine glass into Carina’s face. Sophya gasped and quickly covered a smile of delight with her hands.
Carina remained seated, eyes shut as the alcohol dripped down her face and hair to stain her dress.
The tension of the room wasn’t broken by a single laugh, perhaps because her siblings were too terrified to risk attracting Josiah’s attention.
Carina reached blindly for her napkin as a chair scraped against the floor. She hurriedly dabbed her face as Josiah’s cane and footsteps approached her. She had just managed to open her eyes again when her chair was yanked away from the table, and Josiah’s open fist struck her across the face.
Carina toppled to the floor and laid there as her vision spun, and Josiah’s feet retreated from view. The dining room door slammed as he made his exit.
Carina sucked in a sharp breath and pushed herself up. The servants averted their gaze as she retrieved her napkin and continued to dry at her hair and ruined dress.
Sophya snorted indelicately against her trembling fingers.
Lincoln looked oddly relieved as he shook his head and lifted his wine glass to salute Helena. “Good one, Mother.”
Helena sat rigid in her chair as she pushed her empty wine glass away. Then her sharp gaze cut through Lincoln, who cleared his throat and averted his gaze. Her children remained silent as their mother rose and, without a word, stormed from the room.
“Maura, Maura, Maura,” Sophya sang as she glided from her chair and sauntered towards her fallen half-sister. “Whatever possessed you? Did you really think such foolish words would cut through to Father’s heart? The words of a disgusting half-blood?”
Sophya blinked and shook her head. “Oh dear, Lincoln, it appears she’s gone mad.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Carina scoffed with a pitying look. “Why do you think your father suddenly needs to marry me off? Why would the younger sister get married before the eldest daughter, to begin with?”
Sophya’s eyes narrowed with wary uncertainty.
“He can’t afford your dowry! Your father is all but bankrupt! It’s the money that will come from my marriage to Lord Lennox that will pay your way into Asher’s family!”
“What?” Sophya stepped back and shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She turned to her brother for support, but even he looked doubtful.
“Well, so what if it is!” Sophya snapped. “Someone like you is only good for such a match! And besides, since Lennox already has two married sons, you won’t inherit a penny once he kicks the bucket!” She inched closer to Carina with a vindictive smile. “And at that time, who will want a used, ugly old maid like you? Hmm?”
“Old maid?” Carina replied with a cynical grin. “Which of us is unmarried and pushing twenty?”
To be fair, Sophya was eighteen, but since most noble young women were married by eighteen, she was sensitive to the rapidly ticking clock of her youth.
“Ignore her, Sophya,” Lincoln said as he rose from his seat. “Why listen to the ramblings of a mad half-blood? Come.” He held out his hand, and Sophya, with a blistering glare at Carina, moved to join him. The pair exited, arm in arm, and once more, Carina found herself alone.
She looked down at her ruined dress and contemplated whether it was worth trying to wash the wine out. Honestly, it was a little tiring having to replace all these second-hand dresses on such a constant basis, but it did give her an excuse to slip into the capital.
Carina ran her fingers through the dripping hair that clung to her numb cheek and traced the swollen outline of Josiah’s handprint. Someday she would repay the Turnbells for each and every insult.
The butler appeared at the door and cleared his throat. “Ahem, Lord Percy is here to see you, Miss.”
Carina looked up from her trance and blinked. “Lord Percy, the Earl of Hawthrone, is here to see me?”
“Yes, Miss.” She watched the butler examine her wet hair and ruined dress with a note of concern. “Perhaps, Miss, should change first?”
“And keep such an important guest waiting?” Carina arched her eyebrows with a malicious smile. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
She swept past the butler, who stammered his concerns as she headed towards the foyer.
Lord Percy had only recently become Earl of Hawthorne after reaching the age of twenty—the age most men of Lafeara received wealth or position inherited from their parents. Percy’s mother, the current Countess of Hawthorne, Lady Constance, had been Maura’s secret mentor since the age of ten.
Although Carina had met and conversed with Lord Percy several times at the Hawthorne’s residence, she had always been careful to maintain a cordial distance as determined by their difference in ranks. After all, the last person Carina wished to offend was the Countess, who was Maura’s staunchest ally and a vital key to her future plans.
Nevertheless, Lord Percy’s unexpected arrival at the Turnsbell manor was a rare opportunity Carina did not intend to waste.
As expected, the Turnbell siblings had noticed the arrival of the young Earl and were now engaged in forceful banter, seeking to win his approval.
“Lord Percy! Why it’s been ages since we last met at the midsummer festival!” Sophya purred delicately over her pink fan.
“Congratulations on being nominated for the House of Lords!” Lincoln added with cheerful enthusiasm.
“Yes, thank you both,” Lord Percy replied with a forced smile as he ran a hand through his dark reddish-brown hair. “It was my late father’s seat, but I am still grateful to have been nominated.”
Percy’s winter-gray eyes caught sight of Carina and quickly shifted from relief to concern. “Lady Maura, what happened to you?” He pushed past Lincoln as he stepped forward and offered her his handkerchief.
“Greetings, Lord Percy, forgive my appearance there was—” Carina’s gaze lingered over the pair of siblings who watched her with a mixture of fear and disgust, “—an incident at dinner.”
“My sister does love to joke!” Sophya tittered with a nervous smile.
“Ah yes, I fear Maura bumped into the maid who served the wine, and this is the result,” Lincoln rushed to explain. “We were just on our way to inform her maid, Ivy, that Maura needs tending to.”
“But Ivy can’t even get out of bed since you whipped her earlier today,” Carina retorted with an air of concern. “Surely you haven’t forgotten that already? Or how you accidentally whipped me as well?”
“What?” Lord Percy’s perplexed expression hardened as his cold gaze snapped to Lincoln. “You whipped your sister?”
“I—she—” Lincoln stammered.
“Maura has spoiled that slave girl beyond reason,” Sophya scoffed as she took her brother’s arm. “Lincoln was only disciplining Ivy for being negligent. It’s not his fault Maura recklessly put herself in harm’s way.”
“I see,” Percy replied as he studied the siblings who squirmed and avoided his gaze. “But I’m afraid my mother, the Countess, will be most distressed to hear of this. My purpose for visiting so late was to pass on her wish that Lady Maura come to Hawthorne Manor tomorrow.” He turned to Carina with a concerned frown. “I wonder if the doctor who examined your injury mentioned if you are well enough to travel?”
“I’m afraid our finances do not allow us to afford a doctor at present,” Carina confessed as she sniffed woefully into Percy’s handkerchief.
Carina wasn’t fond of playing the wounded damsel in distress, but she had seen enough TV dramas in her past life to pull off a convincingly pitiful act—or so she hoped.
“Do you mean your injuries have not been tended too?” Percy demanded incredulously. “Is the lord of this household so heartless?”
“No, no!” Lincoln hurriedly protested. “We did send a servant to fetch a physician—they simply have not returned yet!”
“Then I will send for my family’s physician at once,” Percy replied without hesitation as he snapped his fingers. His attendant, who waited by the door, hastily departed outside. “You may expect his arrival within the next hour.”
“You are too kind, Lord Percy,” Carina said as she offered a curtsy, carefully wincing with pain on the way up.
“Please, gentle lady, you should retire to your rooms and rest,” Percy exclaimed as he caught her hand. He gently supported her elbow as he leaned in closer. “Your makeup is running, my dear,” he whispered against her ear.