Chapter 84: A Broken Family Affair
Helena looked down at her beautiful boy one last time. His bright auburn hair neatly swept away from his proud brows and clear skin, paler than it should be. His eyelids, unnaturally dark, were peacefully closed. He might have been sleeping were it not for the odd way the left corner of his mouth twisted in pain, or the strange discoloration that was visible beneath the powder of makeup against his cold skin.
She leaned in to kiss him goodbye and pulled away quickly as the rancid scent of death filled her nostrils.
From a distance, Lincoln resumed his peaceful slumbering expression. Helena knew he was dead, but visualizing him this way kept her from falling apart. If she closed her eyes, she would see him awake with his charming, confident smile, forest-green eyes, and fiery red hair—a younger, kinder version of Josiah.
A son who had loved her—who had shielded her more than once from Josiah’s foul moods. A son she had convinced Josiah to send away to school.
‘You should have been safe there. You would have become a better man than Josiah could ever dream of being!’ Helena opened her eyes and clutched her handkerchief against the tight, suffocating pain within her chest. ‘You could have been the next heir of Gilwren. Your future was limitless, Lincoln. How did this—why did this happen?’
A comforting arm wrapped around her and Helena turned to search the dusk-blue eyes of Abbess Mercy, as if she hoped to find answers within the holy woman’s gaze.
“Say your goodbyes, Lady Helena,” Mercy said firmly as she gently pat the trembling woman’s hand and then turned to the two figures who lingered at a discreet distance. “You as well, Lady Sophya. It is time to close the casket.”
“Sophya?” Helena turned towards her silent daughter. The pale, beautiful Sophya stared at Lincoln with an expression of numb disbelief. “Sophya, do you—”
Lord Asher stepped forward quickly as Sophya swayed, grabbed her head, and collapsed.
“Sophya!” Helena rushed to her daughter’s side and pulled her from Asher’s arms. “I—” she could not find the right words. “I’m sorry,” Helena whispered as she brushed back Sophya’s pretty red hair—red like an apple at harvest, red like an oak leaf in autumn, as red as Lincoln’s hair had been.
They could have been twins, were it not for the two years between them. Still, Helena had always taken comfort in their closeness, reassured that they would support each other long after she left this world.
But instead, her eldest lay cold in his coffin, while her youngest lay weak as a babe in her arms.
‘And it’s all my fault—No, it’s all her fault!’
“I’ll take her to rest,” Asher said softly as he touched Helena’s shoulder.
Helena nodded and reluctantly moved aside so Asher could support Sophya in his arms. He lifted his fiancé effortlessly and carried the limp girl to a pew three rows back from the coffin.
Mercy assisted Helena to her feet, and though the Abbess did not speak, Helena could sense she was becoming impatient.
“I will—we should close the coffin now,” Helena whispered, even as the instinct to rip her son free from the casket and shake him awake shuddered through her.
‘Harmonia, give me strength.’
“Wait a moment,” Asher jogged back and offered a token of red hair tied in a ribbon of forest-green to Helena. “Sophya’s token.”
Helena nodded as she accepted the parting gift. She returned to the coffin and placed the token on Lincoln’s chest, beside the silver pocket watch she had bought for him when he was eighteen. The same watch the knights had used to identify and bring back word of his death.
‘If I could only turn back time.’
Helena could still hear the words the knights had spoken when they delivered the death notice.
“He was found dead in an alleyway. The only witness said he went looking for his sister—he must have gotten tangled up in some sort of trouble after that.”
Helena watched the nuns lower the coffin lid, separating her from her son for the final time. Her fingers trembled as she pulled down her veil then folded them against her stomach. She clenched her jaw tightly as tears slid down her cheeks and clung to the shroud’s thin fabric.
‘If I could go back—I would kill her before she even took her first breath—before she could take you from me.’
The soft melody of the choir in the loft above floated down upon the tiny gathering. The setting sun burned through the glass window pane. The divine rays bathed the casket, walls, columns, and pews in a garden of colors. Helena knelt slowly onto the provided pillow to offer her prayers to Harmonia, Saintess of Lafeara. Mercy took her place behind the coffin and folded her hands in silent vigil.
The Abbess’s benevolent expression beneath the statue of the Saintess helped ease the desperation that clawed through Helena’s chest as she closed her eyes and offered a mother’s plea. ‘Let my boy find peace and comfort in the arms of the Saints. Let him be born into a better life, one he deserves, where he shall live to the end of his days—happy and blessed. If the Saints and gods are willing—let me find him again in my next life.’
The chapel doors banged open behind her. Helena’s heart nearly spun out of her chest as she turned—full of dread—to find the figure of her recently divorced husband.
“There they are!” Josiah trilled as the choir died out with a faint squeak. “Old wife, old life!” He wove unsteadily through the pews towards the small grieving party. “Let’s drink to new beginnings!” He kissed the bottle in his hand, then turned and motioned impatiently to the woman who hesitated at the threshold of the chapel. “Stop dallying and come in, girl!”
Helena blinked in stunned disbelief at the small young woman who took Josiah’s arm intimately. Her ex-husband laid a slobbery kiss on the familiar woman’s mouth before he turned and raised his bottle in a mocking salute to Helena.
“Lord Josiah!” Mercy’s tone flared with divine wrath as she lowered her hands from prayer. “You are drunk!” The young woman who clutched Josiah’s bandaged arm flinched beneath the Abbess’s disapproving tone.
It was then Helena saw the bruise, barely hidden beneath the young woman’s mousy brown hair and makeup—and recognization sank in. ‘Josiah—you didn’t!’
“Excellent perception—for a nun,” Josiah snickered as he eyed the Abbess up and down crookedly. “Yes, I’m drunk.” He smacked the bottle against his chest and sniffed. “And that’s my boy—” he nodded towards the casket as a tear spilled down his flushed cheeks. “My oldest—my best—” he choked and shoved his drink into the young woman’s hand while he fumbled for a handkerchief and blew his nose loudly.
“Father,” Sophya said numbly as she rose from the pew beside Asher. “Is that—Judith?”
“You recognize her? Good.” Josiah raised his gaze with a gleeful smile as he stepped back and pinched Judith’s pale cheek. “She’s your step-mother now, and my new wife—” his gaze slid over to Helena with ruthless malice “—Lady Judith.”
“Lady Judith?” Sophya repeated in sharp disbelief. “Father—she is a slave!”
“Was a slave,” Lady Judith corrected with a bitter smile. “But now, I am the Lady of Turnbell Manor.”
Sophya let out a strangled laugh and reached blindly for Asher’s arm as she wobbled unsteadily. Asher pulled her against him and glared wordlessly over Sophya’s quivering shoulders at Josiah and his new bride.
“How dare you!” Helena fumed as she rose from the prayer pillow and marched towards Josiah. “How dare you bring a whore to my son’s funeral!”
“Well—” Josiah replied with a huff, “—it’s not like she’s the only whore here, is she?”
“Lady Helena!” Abbess Mercy, who appeared behind the livid noblewoman with surprising speed, caught Helena’s raised hand quickly. “Do not demean yourself to his level.”
Josiah cackled as he tipped back his hat. “No, no, don’t stop her. Go on, Helena, give us a show. Let’s see how vulgar the fallen noble daughter of a viscount has become. Oh, wait, you’re divorced now! And the Viscount stripped you of title and inheritance—do you even count as a noble anymore?”
“Why!” Sophya shrieked as she whirled around to face her parents. “Why must you both be so vile. This isn’t about you—either of you! Lincoln is dead!”
“Miss Sophya has a point,” Judith said stiffly as she surveyed the family before her with cold disinterest. “Let’s get him buried so we can move on with our lives.”
“You!” Sophya jabbed a finger in the slave’s direction. “Have no right to speak, let alone be here!”
Judith pulled away from Josiah’s arm and sauntered past Helena towards Sophya with a crooked smile. “No right to speak?” She held up her hand to display the bright emerald ring, which had once adorned Helena’s finger. “I’m not a slave anymore, little Sophya. I am your step-mother. And at this very moment—” she grabbed Sophya’s hand and pressed it to her stomach “—I just might be carrying your father’s next male heir.”
Sophya pulled away sharply and cringed as her hip smacked against the pew. “You-you’re revolting—”
Judith laughed as she raised the sparkling jewel to her lips and tilted her head. “Well, if I am, it was your family that made me this way.”
“That is enough,” Asher interrupted as he took Sophya’s arm and gently placed her in the pew behind him. “Before you act above your class Lady Judith, remember that your husband is one bad creditor away from dragging you both back into the gutter.”
Judith flinched as she pulled the shawl over the bruises on her arms. She dropped her gaze, turned sharply, and returned to Josiah, who lowered his bottle to welcome her with a hungry kiss.
“You are in a church, Lord Josiah,” Asher growled with evident disgust. “Even if you do not care for such things, you should at least remember this is your son’s funeral.”
Josiah peered around Judith and squinted at the young baron. “Ah, it’s Lord Asher! Good to see you. I trust things are well with your father, Baron Winslet?”
“The Baron still suffers from gout,” Asher answered stiffly as he left Sophya briefly to check on Helena. “Which is why he’s left me in charge of the estate and his businesses.” He guided the shaking mother back to her daughter and offered his handkerchief as she sank into the pew.
“Excellent! Excellent!” Josiah cried as he advanced towards them, dragging a reluctant Judith behind him. “Young minds are keener when it comes to business and more courageous when calculating risk and reward.”
“No, Lord Josiah,” Asher said bluntly as he moved to block the drunk man’s path into the pew.
“No?” Josiah repeated in confusion.
“No, I will not be offering you a loan.”
Josiah’s already splotched skin reddened to match his hair while his lips twisted in fury. “Loan? Why would I need a loan?” He brushed a hand down his brand-new suit with a note of disdain. “Don’t act so high and mighty with me, little pup. I know Helena paid you and the Baroness quite handsomely to marry that preening shrew.”
“W-what?” Sophya squeaked as she turned towards them, horrified.
“You are mistaken, Lord Josiah,” Asher adamantly replied as he gripped the corner of the pew tightly. “Helena only gave us Sophya’s dowry, which you, her father, were unable to provide. A dowry that will be given to Sophya after we are married as is proper,” he added with a cynical smile. “Unlike certain detestable scoundrels, I don’t need to rely upon a woman to support my household.”
“Ha! I wouldn’t be so ready to marry a girl whose mother is the queen of lies if I were you,” Josiah spat furiously.
“You!” Helena shrieked as she tore past a startled Asher to rake at her ex-husband’s face. “You who bore more bastards than you could ever remember to name? You who spent my aunt’s fortune pandering to your friends and useless business partners while assuring me the company was bringing in a profit. If I am the queen of lies, then you are the emperor of filth!”
Asher managed to restrain the hysterical woman around the waist and pulled her back, though not before Helena left her mark on Josiah’s cheek. The belligerent man stumbled and caught himself as he yanked Judith’s arm harshly enough for her to cry out in pain.
“Josiah!” the young woman sobbed as she stumbled to her knees and clutched her stomach protectively.
“Stop! Stop this or I will throw you both out!” Mercy snapped as she quickly moved between the quarreling ex-spouses.
“Mother, please!” Sophya reached past Asher to clasp the still struggling Helena’s wrist. “Please!”
Helena tore her burning gaze from Josiah as her arms dropped limply to her side. Asher released her cautiously as Sophya moved around him to embrace the still trembling woman.
Helena buried her face in her daughter’s shoulder as her anger bled away and drained her very bones. ‘I am so tired of fighting a man who only ever hurt and disappointed me.’
“Yeah, that’s right, cry like the pathetic bitch you are,” Josiah taunted as he pressed a shiny new silk handkerchief to his bleeding cheek.
“One more word,” Mercy hissed in warning. Her far from benevolent gaze made Josiah’s jaw clamp shut. “Attend to your new wife, Lord Josiah.”
The humbled noble turned and grumbled as he helped Judith to her feet.
Sophya trembled with rage as she watched Josiah dote over the ex-slave, her new step-mother, and escorted Judith to a pew. Asher touched her shoulder and offered a reassuring smile.
“I wouldn’t be so proud of your new wife,” Asher said as he focused upon the newlyweds. “In fact, I would keep her as far from the public eye as possible. Who knows how many nobles might recognize her after she was passed around your last group of investors.”
Josiah visibly flinched. Judith shrank away from her husband as he turned towards Asher.
The young noble moved into the pew with a smug leer. “A wife with that kind of background—even if she gave birth to a dozen sons—they would only ever be of questionable lineage.”
“You!” Josiah blustered as he stormed from the pew and grabbed Asher’s collar.
“Gentlemen, please!” Mercy snapped in an exasperated tone.
“Don’t start something you can’t finish, Lord Josiah,” Asher warned as he caught the lord’s swinging wrist. “Unlike the Earl of Hawthorne, I have no problem crushing you beyond the point of return. If it weren’t for Lady Sophya, your pathetic hide would already be in debtor’s prison for the 6,000 crescents you still owe my father.”
Josiah’s jowls billowed as he sucked in an angry breath to retort—just as the chapel doors rattled open behind them.
“Is this the funeral of one Lincoln Turnbell?” the priest demanded as he strode down the aisle shadowed by another man, cloaked in red robes and scarlet armor.
Helena took one look at the witch hunter’s electric-blue eyes and pulled Sophya down into the pew beside her as her legs buckled in terror.
The past she had long feared—had finally caught up to her.