On the evening of the fifth day of their journey, the Duke and his men arrived at his Welsh estate. He halted his men, taking lay of the land and the poachers that were camping there. Small campfires dotted the area surrounding the estate, loud and raucous laughter erupting in spots. He could only imagine what havoc had been created in the main house.
"They are lax, probably drunk and very sure of themselves. We wait an hour, move in quietly, and attack when they are exhausted from their celebrations."
The battle was over before dawn. The poachers foolish to fight to the death to keep their ill-gotten gains died swiftly; others were incapacitated and still others who attempted to flee were chased, caught and guarded until the local magistrates took them into their own hands.
The main house had suffered severe vandalism. The immediate grounds were in ruins, trees cut down, shrubs uprooted, stone patios and garden benches in pieces. The outer buildings had been burned, the animals slaughtered, few escaping the carnage. None of the Duke's staff could be found.
By the time he had been gone eight days, the Duke had a detailed assessment of what needed to be repaired. With the help of his men and additional help from the village, the rebuilding had begun. By the sixteenth day, things were moving swiftly toward restoration.
A few more days and I'll set out for home, he mused. Jenny is probably missing me.
"Your Grace!" An excited voice called to him as he walked away from the workmen to gather his thoughts.
"What brings you here?" the Duke asked, startled to see one of his footmen rushing to his side. "Is there something amiss at home?"
"Your wife," the man began, his breath raspy as he tried to make his words come too swiftly, his chest heaving emphasizing how hard the man rode to reach his master.
"Easy, man. Take a breath."
The sad sordid story was told in chunks - the Duke's mother had heard her son's words that Jennifer was not to leave their room without his permission. She dismissed the footman and a guard of her choosing had placed a lock on the door of the Duke's bedchamber ensuring that no one would come to the young Duchess' aid. The Duke's mother had forbid everyone from giving her food and water. The silence on the other side of the door was disconcerting and the footman feared for the young woman's life.
"Are you telling me my wife has not eaten since I left her, almost three weeks ago?"
"Aye, your Grace. That's exactly what I'm saying. The dowager Duchess ..."
The Duke was shocked into silence. "God's bones! My Jenny may very well be dead!" Anger swelled ... fear for Jennifer rose swiftly ...
Leaving two trusted managers to supervise the repairs along with a contingent of loyal followers that would maintain estate security, he took a small troop of men and rushed toward home.
"Jenny," he murmured. "Sweet Jenny. What have I done?"
Day eighteen: Jennifer drifted in and out of consciousness. Whenever she opened her eyes, she was less aware of where she was. She didn't know how many hours had passed, whether it was day or night. Sometimes she slept, other times she lost consciousness completely. Her body grew numb, her mind wandered and once she blinked in wonder, trying to figure out who she was, trying to remember her name.
Is this death? If it is, it's painless.
The nineteenth day passed ... the twentieth ...
Jennifer was oblivious to the commotion below stairs, the stomping of heavy boots, the crashing and splintering of the frame surrounding the heavy wooden door to the Duke's bedchamber. She was deaf to the loud swearing of the man who immediately grasped her to his chest. She couldn't feel the heavy thumping of his heart against her own, and was immune to his cries of sorrow and regret.
"Jenny, my Jenny," the Duke moaned. He was hard pressed to reconcile the near bone-thin body in his arms with the soft, warm and curvaceous woman he had wed barely a month before. Jenny had been slim ... but now her bones protruded ... her eyes sunk into her skull ... She was near death.
Unable to summon the energy to change her clothes, she had lain in the same dress she had worn for weeks. Her body soiled ... sore ... She lay still in his arms, her breath so shallow one had to search ... and pray ... for the subtle rise and fall of her chest.
He dipped his fingers into a bowl of fresh water and rubbed her lips with the moisture ... again and again. He dropped more between her dry lips ... onto her tongue ... again. Her head was propped on his arm and as he willed her to drink ... to live ... he assessed the damage to her person.
So thin, so frail, so small, my Jenny. His thoughts were heartfelt and filled with regret. "I was wrong Jenny," he murmured. "I should have been more patient, gave you more leeway. Come back to me, love. Let me make it right between us. Let me be your lover and your life mate. I love you, Jenny. I love you more than I can say."
At his instructions, staff swarmed into the room to air it, change the linens, and bring food. A small bathing tub was placed by the blazing fire in the hearth, the water warm. When all was done to his satisfaction, the Duke ordered everyone from the room and then and only then, he removed his wife's soiled clothing. Gently placing her in the bathing tub, he washed her pale body and then her hair.
Jennifer slept through it all - her breath only slightly stronger than before.
Holding her on his lap, the Duke spoke to her, telling her of his dreams for a better life for the two of them, more harmony between them, the children they would have, the joy they would find in each other.
When she opened her eyes ... he fed her a rich broth. When she finally blinked ... he smiled at her, told her how much he loved her and how happy he was to see she was awake.
She wondered who he was.
When he lay beside her in their bed ... her nightclothes and the covers gathered around her ... he whispered his regrets, his careless words that had led to her confinement and starvation, his promise to send his mother to the dower house.
His voice lulled her into dreamless sleep. With no thought as to why, she felt safe again and rested easy.
The dowager Duchess sat on the couch in her son's office, a place she had occupied since her own marriage forty years earlier. Her spine was straight, her dress immaculate and the grim expression on her face an old and too familiar one.
"I don't know why you think I've done anything wrong," she sniffed as her son glared at her. "I only followed your instructions."
"And you assumed starving my wife was included in those instructions? Were you hoping she would die before I came home? Have you no morals? No shame? What do you think would have happened if I found her dead?"
The dowager remained silent.
"Speak now, mother. This will be your only chance to redeem yourself."
"You have no right to speak to me in that manner. I am your mother and the elder. What I say supercedes anything you might say. The girl was unfit to be your bride. You married her against my better judgement. She got what she deserved. More's the pity that she survived."
"Your sense of right and wrong astounds me," the Duke said quietly. He remained on the other side of his desk, clenching his fists, and hoping he had enough willpower not to throttle her.
"You will move to the dower house immediately. Your maid has already been instructed to pack your wardrobe and books. Everything else remains here."
"My jewelry?" the elder Duchess was aghast.
"Everything," her son replied.
"I will not move until the house is renovated. There's barely eight rooms. You'll have to add a wing before I go."
"You're leaving within the hour," the Duke said firmly. "You're not moving into the dower house here. You're moving into the dower house at our Welsh estate. As I recall, there are three adequate rooms there."
"I'll not stand for this," his mother said, rising to her feet and pointing a well manicured finger in his direction.
"What I should do," her son said with quiet determination, "is lock you in your bedchamber until you starve to death. I will not see you again, Mother but I will be informed of your demise whenever it occurs. You'll be buried on Welsh land."
"I hate Wales!" the woman stormed.
"I'm certain they feel the same about you. And you will not be free to wander the grounds. You will be fed - by a maid I hired to attend you. She is deaf and does not read or write so there will be no assistance or company in that regard. In truth, I am giving you more than you gave my bride."