The past night has been a blur, only living in his mind now as a series of disjointed but impossibly vivid images.
The stars in the sky like diamonds in a debutante’s hair as his horse flew towards London.
The butler’s gaunt face as he admitted him.
Caro’s bloodied domino, forlorn and abandoned in the front hall.
His mother’s pursed, taut expression.
The softness and sympathy of Emily’s embrace.
The disgruntled whiff of his father’s brandy from the library.
The doctor’s voice, brusque but reassuring as he took his leave.
And now this.
She is deathly pale when he enters her chambers, propped up on a dozen pillows and swathed in blankets despite the summer warmth, as the dawn light bursts, bloody and unrepentant, through the gap in her curtains. When he had married her, she had been nineteen and in full bloom, glowing with all the light of good spirits and a sharp, strong mind. The ghost who watches him now from the bed is almost unrecognisable. Catching sight of himself in the mirror - dark hair tufted up in agitation, purple bruises of exhaustion smudged under his eyes, shoulders sunk in defeat - he notes that those eight years have taken their toll on him too.
“How do you do, my dearest one?” That is a lie. The endearment. He thinks sometimes that if he says it often enough, it will become true again. The only trouble with that is that Caro, when she is in her senses, knows it is a lie, too.
She blinks, slow and empty-eyed. “I… do not know.” In Ireland, William had believed that she was recovering her composure. He sees now that it was foolish to have hoped, for even a moment, that it was the case. He sinks, gingerly, to the very edge of her bed.
He is so, so tired.
He has tried to be angry, still, at her behaviour, but he is not heartless enough. (Emily says that his heart is too big and fragile for a man married to such a little beast as Caro is, but his heart is not a thing that may easily be changed.) Even when George Byron had swept her off her silly, darling feet and into his bed, William had not been able to stop loving her, even as he wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled in her precious, treacherous skull. And last night, when it felt like her life was hanging in the balance…
“The doctor tells me that you did not injure yourself badly,” he tells her at last, trying to keep his voice light.
“Oh.” Caro lets out a small, strained laugh. “Well, thank God for that!”
William frowns. “Did you mean to hurt yourself?” His voice is quiet and even, betraying nothing of the sudden, hammering, jolting rush of panic which has flooded him. The doctor had told him that she had not had sufficient time, or wits about her, to do real damage, but that does not, of course, preclude the intention being there. From what he knows of Byron’s cruelty this past night, it would not surprise him overmuch if she had.
He cannot tell, for a moment, what answer he is hoping for.
Her swallow is reflexive, as if she is trying to clear her throat of something unpleasant and overwhelming. “W-would it distress you very much if I said that I did?” she quivers, looking at him properly for the first time -
For the first time since she came back.
Her face is full of - he knows not what emotion. She does not even seem to be truly… present. Yet more evidence that, perhaps, the strain on her mind has been too great for her to recover from.
Gently, he lifts one of her hands, careful not to disturb her bandages, and kisses her fingertips. They are cold and fragile and unmoving against his mouth. “Yes. It would.”
That, at least, is the truth, William realises. He has no desire to be a widower, no desire for Caro to destroy herself. No desire, most of all, for Augustus, asleep in Hertfordshire still, to be left motherless.
Besides, it is not difficult to be tender, to forget her disgrace, when she lies here, so lost and so vulnerable.
“I suppose that there is going to be a scandal.” Her voice is barely louder than a whisper, and clouded for the first time since her escapade with the slightest trace of shame, as if this night were the first hint of trouble to reach public attention. As if there had not already been a scandal. As if she had not been flaunting her lover in the most scandalous way possible for months, letting the newspapers and the cartoonists and the society gossips link her name with the most lurid speculations, and bringing wave upon wave of humiliation to smash over his head.
He could almost laugh.
“You suppose correctly.” It sounds harsh, but there is no bitterness behind the words, only exhausted acknowledgement of the truth. One eyebrow quirks up - preparing, as usual, to hide himself, his feelings, behind a clever, quick barb. “On the other hand, my love,” he drawls, “Lady Heathcote’s ball was the event of the Season.”
Oh, yes - every gossip in London is either congratulating themselves on having been in attendance, or pretending that they had been. That, he supposes darkly, is what happens when Lord Byron’s latest discarded paramour tries to cut herself open with a smashed wine glass whilst in company with London’s most fashionable ladies and gentlemen.
The cry of despair bursts from her like a bird from a tree as she reaches helplessly for him. By the time the second sob leaves her mouth, he has her gathered safely against his shirt-front, enfolded tightly in his arms, as if he might shield her from all hurt and pain and scandal. His lips press briefly against the top of her head and she nestles closer with a whimper of something shockingly like relief.
She doesn’t want him, of course. She hasn’t wanted him for a very long time, and he’d be a damned fool to believe that her grip on him now (tighter than a vice, tighter than manacles!) is born from desire, or even liking. But tonight, his solid, dull, terribly English brand of reliability is very much needed.
It is both triumph and tragedy that he cannot quite bring himself to deny her.