Kat Devitt is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee whose short stories have appeared in the Tales to Terrify podcast, Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, Suspense Magazine, and other venues. To learn more about Kat, look for her on her website at https://katdevitt.com/.
TO OWN HER BODY
“Can you believe I’m handing in my bachelor’s cap for a wedding band?” Alexander Courtenay, the fourth Viscount Belgrave, asked, languishing in the sunlight streaming through a bay window as he cocked up a silver hand mirror to check the crevices between his pearly white teeth.
Sir James Rutherford, his nearest and sheerest friend, stood at his favorite place in the room; the sideboard lined with crystal cut decanters filled with an array of eaux de vie. He splashed the fruit brandy into two cups, giving himself the more generous of the portions.
“It still confounds me how you’ll be a married man before sundown,” James remarked.
“Why is it surprising?” Alexander stared into his reflection’s azure gaze, his auburn curls shimmering red and gold in the morning light. “What’s difficult to comprehend is how handsome God molded me. It comes as no surprise I’ve had scores of women vying for the position of my wife.”
“Oh, stop your preening.”
A white cloth fluttered over Alexander’s head, eclipsing his view of the stunning face in the mirror.
“James Percival Rutherford.” Alexander clawed the handkerchief off his head and flourished it over his shoulder. “How many times must I tell you not to throw articles of fabric at me?”
Alexander glowered at James from across the study.
James met his ire with an unapologetic smirk. “Only my mother is allowed to address me with my full Christian name.”
“Shall I call for your mother on my behalf, then?”
“You make your face an enticing target when you behave like a peacock.” James sipped straight from the decanter, smacking his lips together. “Tastes like pears. Oh, how divine.”
“Don’t tipple without me,” Alexander scolded. “I’m the one who needs fortification. It’s my wedding day, after all.”
“Right you are.”
James plucked up the two glasses and stumbled towards Alexander, his steps already heavy with liquor.
“Don’t spill,” Alexander said, setting the hand mirror on a nearby mahogany drum table.
“Oops.” James pretended to stumble over a gold tassel sewn to the corner of a burgundy and forest green Persian rug. He twirled to avoid the scrolled arm of a settee, recovering his bearings in front of Alexander.
A laugh tickled in the back of Alexander’s throat. “Wait until after my vows to break your neck.”
James chuckled as he handed off a glass. The one with the least brandy, of course. He raised his glass high, nudging Alexander’s elbow to encourage him to do the same.
“To your husbandly rights!” James cheered before downing his brandy in one swift gulp.
Alexander preferred to sip on his liquor. He enjoyed the path it burned down his throat, a hint of pears lingering on his tongue. Warmth slowly seeped into his belly from the fine eau de vie, mingled with thoughts of Della, his lovely bride. Once Della changed hands from her father to Alexander, she’d belong to him; bound by man’s laws and holy vows uttered in Cottersbury’s little church.
Alexander craved total possession of his Della. Of her body. His tingled in anticipation of the wedding night, when she’d be splayed out beneath him, her champagne-colored hair fanning across his feather pillows, her skin lustrous in the firelight burning low in the hearth.
Alexander enjoyed another heady sip. “Della compliments my striking looks with her beauty.”
James fell onto the settee, throwing a casual arm over the backrest. “Her large dowry and familial connections also compliment your ambitions.”
“I wouldn’t be the first gentleman in England to marry a pretty face tied to wealth and status. Someday, it’ll be your turn.”
“Let’s hope that day is far away and over many horizons.” James eyed Alexander skeptically. “You’re certain Lady Della is who you want to be leg-shackled to for the remainder of your life?”
This wasn’t the first time James had tried to prod him away from Della.
Alexander puffed out his chest. “Della will see me as her savior.”
“You’re not a white knight, Alexander. If Shakespeare still lived, he’d pen you as the villain.”
“Thank you for your faith in my character, my dear friend.” Alexander abandoned his place in the sunlight and strode deeper into the study’s shadows, closer to James. “Society sees Della as damaged goods. Despite her scandal last summer, I’m marrying her. She’ll adore me for rescuing her from eventual spinsterhood.”
“While you reap the benefits of her dowry and her father’s connections in London.”
“I cannot climb the ladder if I abide by silly things like whether or not a lady’s maidenhead is intact. I wish to advance my plans for a textile mill, here in Cottersbury, and Della’s father is the right man to help me find the funding.”
“I wonder if Della would have been so keen to accept your proposal if Mr. Elijah Taylor still lived.”
Alexander lifted a careless shoulder. “What’s better than a dead opponent? Mr. Taylor is buried six feet under somewhere; beside the great Shakespeare for all I know or care.”
James swirled his glass. “Memories are a potent danger, Alexander.”
“Stop driveling like a character from one of those silly Gothic novels. Della suffered a romantic streak like any girl of seventeen, but she’s now a woman grown with more practicality than fantasy in her head.”
“Have you taken a peek down her ear and checked her mind?”
“Do I need to? It’s not her mind I’m marrying.”
James studied Alexander for a long, strenuous minute. “Does she love you like she did Mr. Taylor?”
Alexander stuck his nose in the air, certain his shadow cut a winsome figure on the bottle green damask walls. With his classical looks, he parted women like Moses did the Red Sea. Della was lucky he fished her from those waves and chose her as his bride.
“How could she not love me?” Alexander asked. “I’m more handsome than that poor, village tailor ever was.”
“There’s more to love than physical beauty.”
Alexander sneered at this frequent use of the word “love.” James had always been the more tenderhearted of the two, scribbling alcohol-fueled poems until the evening hours while Alexander slept off his crapulence. Love had no place in marriage. Money, power, and breeding determined unions made by the aristocracy.
Alexander opened his mouth, prepared to debate against his friend’s romantic inclinations, when the door burst open. He lurched back, brandy droplets drizzling onto his expensive Persian rug.
For a moment, Alexander thought Mr. Elijah Taylor’s corpse had clawed his way from his grave, hellbent on stopping the wedding by strangling him with his undead hands. Instead, the Countess of Pennmore, his soon-to-be mother-in-law, quivered in the doorway.
“My Della.” Lady Pennmore blew into a snotty handkerchief. “My sweet girl, she’s…she’s…”
Alexander cringed at the sagging woman shaking in layers of crinkled gold silk and tulle. He’d have preferred Mr. Elijah Taylor’s corpse to this feminine display of tears.
“What’s the matter?” Alexander asked, his tone frayed with annoyance.
Alexander expected to hear something trivial. He wouldn’t have been shocked if Lady Pennmore’s distress came from a tear in Della’s dress or the flowers in the church wilting to their stems.
Lady Pennmore dabbed at the corners of her eyes, which did little good, as there were already streaks in her layers of caked-on rouge. “Della has gone missing.”
Well, that’s not what Alexander anticipated hearing.
He set his brandy down. “She’s not in the house or somewhere on the grounds?”
“No,” Lady Pennmore sobbed. “We’re searching everywhere for her. An army of servants is scouring the woods near Pennmore Manor while Della’s father has braved the cold to seek her out in the village.”
Alexander pursed his lips. It’s the height of summer, you ninny. There isn’t a chill in the air.
Lady Pennmore would do well in picking up a quill and penning novels. She had the feverish mind and dramatic prose for writing the fanciful balderdash women so adored.
“Who was the last person to see her?” Alexander asked.
Alexander’s chest palpitated. “Miss Margaret Gray?”
Lady Pennmore nodded.
Miss Gray’s name left a bitterness in Alexander’s mouth. She’d been the trollop to pass letters between Della and Mr. Taylor. For Miss Gray’s part in the scandal, Alexander never understood why Della’s parents allowed her to remain friends with the deceitful, little shrew.
“I’ll go speak with Miss Gray,” Alexander said.
“You’re the epitome of chivalry. Della chose well…” A fresh onslaught of tears slurred whatever else Lady Pennmore said.
“I’ll find her.”
Alexander’s promise was more for himself than Lady Pennmore. He’d become a laughingstock if Della jilted him.
She, who had little marriage prospects.
She, who had conducted an affair with a man far below her station in society.
His nails bit into his palms. He wouldn’t suffer it.
Alexander snatched up his glass and swigged the rest of the brandy. “Sir James will console you in my absence.”
James struggled out of the settee. “Hold on. I think I’ll be of better use searching—”
James was cut off as Lady Pennmore flung herself against his chest.
“Oh, thank you, sir.” She wiped her nose against his burgundy silk waistcoat. “Thank you.”
James scowled over the countess’s head and mouthed “traitor” as the air was squeezed from his lungs by the clawing countess. Alexander shrugged at his friend, slammed his glass down on the drum table, and stormed from the study to search for his runaway bride.
Alexander’s legs were sore from riding his favorite bay stallion, Desmond, by the time he tracked down Miss Gray. He found her leading a search party through the northern part of Pennmore Manor’s lands.
Miss Gray’s buttercream skirts were hiked up, revealing a glimpse of the doe brown half-boots she wore as she picked her way through thick underbrush, an army of footmen and stable lads trailing behind her beneath the leafy fingers of oak and sycamore trees. She looked every inch the bluestocking.
“Let’s go a little farther before we return to the manor house,” Miss Gray called over her shoulder to the search party.
When she didn’t hear Desmond’s hooves churning dirt, Alexander bellowed her name on his approach: “Miss Gray.”
Tendrils of mousy brown hair fluttered loose from Miss Gray’s chignon as she whipped around. Her pale pink lips pinched as she recognized Alexander. He returned her disdain with a scowl.
Miss Gray gave Alexander a thorough study, from his black top hat to the silver cufflinks holding his gray coat sleeves together. “Viscount Belgrave. At last, you join us in the search for your dear Della, but you don’t appear dressed for the occasion.”
“I’ve been preoccupied with finding you.”
Miss Gray’s brows creased with suspicion. “Why?”
“To ask you a few questions.”
Miss Gray looked to the servants waiting at a standstill, watching their verbal exchange as if it was more interesting than a boxing match between London’s most renown pugilists.
She flashed them a polite smile. “Continue without me. I’ll rejoin in a few minutes. I doubt Belgrave and I will be long. His attention span is much shorter than…”
Miss Gray’s gaze drifted downwards, making her point plain. Somehow, she made her innuendo sound like the most proper thing born from a lady’s mouth, which might’ve been why a few of the male servants were comfortable enough to chuckle. Only one or two lads with scruffy wisps on their chins had the modesty to blush.
Leaves crunched beneath mud-splattered boots as the search party progressed forward, their shirtsleeves shushing, their murmuring growing distant.
“Was that necessary?” Alexander asked, face burning.
“My insult?” Miss Gray shrugged, all nonchalance. “You deserve every barb aimed at you. It’s your fault Della has gone missing.”
“Don’t shoot accusations at me.”
“She wouldn’t have gone running if it was Elijah she was marrying.”
Alexander’s grip tightened on his riding crop. If only I could strike this slut down.
“His memory will stop overshadowing my wedding day.” Alexander slashed the crop through the air, as if he was Zeus sealing his decision with a lightning bolt’s strike. “Lady Pennmore said you were the last to see Della. Tell me what happened.”
Alexander waited for Miss Gray to speak, but all the woman did was glare at him. If she could incinerate him and Desmond in this wooded spot, she’d have smiled at their ashes and walked away.
“Well?” Alexander prodded.
“I’m not a dog to be commanded.”
“I’ll remain with you until you tell me.”
Miss Gray rolled her eyes. “Goodness, I couldn’t think of a worse punishment.” She hiked her chin up a notch, her brown eyes glittering. “We were preparing for the wedding, and the next minute she was gone.”
“Not quite,” Miss Gray admitted. “Her lady’s maid had finished dressing her in her wedding gown when she started to cry. I sat with her on her bed, held her and reassured her, while she spilled her fears.”
“What frightened her?”
“Marriage to you, obviously.”
Nothing happened to Alexander’s heart at those cold words. No icy water doused his hopes; no fire pulsed through his veins at the thought his bride loathed him. If anything, Alexander was annoyed.
“And?” Alexander pushed.
“And I told Della that she doesn’t need to marry you. I pressed her to jilt you, but she said her parents demand the marriage. They believe she will never find a better offer.”
“Because she won’t.” Alexander ran a hand through his glorious, copper mane, sneering. “Della should worship me as her hero, her savior, for rescuing her from a future as a pariah.”
“Because you and every other stuffy lord in England consider her ill-used?” Miss Gray’s upper lip curled as if she smelled garlic. “Because she dared to love? Men may keep mistresses and visit brothels before and during marriage. Why can’t a woman follow where her heart leads?”
It was Alexander’s turn to roll his eyes, but instead of to the heavens, to the back of his skullcap. He needed to remember he was speaking with a bluestocking that thought God ordained her as man’s equal, but she couldn’t be more wrong. The fragile female mind needed guidance—male guidance.
Desmond stamped a hoof as wind blasted through the forest. Leaves rustled, as if trying to join the argument, and tree limbs quaked, as if shaking angry arms. Desmond backed up a step, spooked by the sounds.
Alexander reached out to stroke Desmond’s neck. “Love isn’t practical for a highborn lady. She must stay within her class.”
“As her dowry’s money breeds more money? But for who, Belgrave? You? It’s not fair.”
“I’m not here to philosophize with a bluestocking. Where did Della go?”
Miss Gray’s face turned a peculiar shade of red, but her tone remained calm, even. “Della said she needed air. I offered to join her, but she insisted on a few minutes alone in the gardens.”
“You’re certain she went into the gardens?”
“I saw her picking a bouquet from the window before I went to find Lady Pennmore. After that, I didn’t see her again.”
“Thank you.” Alexander tipped his hat at Miss Gray, stiffly, with only formality motivating his gesture. “It’s easier having a rotten tooth pulled than talking to you.”
Alexander turned Desmond around, but Miss Gray stepped in front of his stallion, preventing him from leaving. If not for the angry quiver to her lips, one might have called her mouth kissable.
“You might not feel anything through the chunk of ice numbing your heart,” Miss Gray seethed, “but she loved Elijah. You’ll never have that with her.”
“I’ll have all I require—her body. I don’t care for the other bits: the mind, the heart.”
Miss Gray spat at Desmond’s hooves. “You’re despicable.”
Maybe I’ll lash her after all.
Alexander took a deep, steadying breath. Miss Gray wasn’t his to reprimand, but she’d given him a clue as to where he might find Della. A woman gathered a bouquet for one of two occasions: her wedding day or visiting the grave of a loved one. Seeing she ran from the marriage altar, it could only be the latter.
“Excuse me, my dear. You’re in my way.” Alexander kicked his heels into Desmond’s sides, forcing Miss Gray to stumble back to avoid having her bones crunched beneath the stallion’s hooves.
But the headstrong lass wouldn’t let him leave without a few curses.
“You bloody devil,” Miss Gray shouted. “I wish you had died of pneumonia and not Elijah. If not for your demand that he deliver your new clothes posthaste, he would have never been caught in that rainstorm…”
Miss Gray’s words were swallowed by the wind as Alexander forced Desmond into a gallop.
Gravestones emerged through tree branches as Alexander beat them down with his riding crop. Far off, on the top of a hill, rested the church, its windows dark and faded. No one stood in the gravel drive waiting for him and Della to emerge from its doors united as man and wife.
Alexander bit back his vexation as he rode toward the hill and hoped Della waited in one of the pews, a bouquet in her hands, her skirts soiled with mud. She had to be frightened at the prospect of married life. Miss Gray had indicated as much.
Alexander could forgive Della one more indiscretion—if only he could find her—to avoid the gossip. He didn’t need his good name associated with the scandal of being jilted by a hussy lovesick for her dead paramour.
Drifting in these thoughts, Alexander was blind to his surroundings—until Desmond halted in the middle of the church’s graveyard.
“Desmond?” Alexander clicked his tongue at him, but Desmond only stamped his hoof against the ground. “What is it, boy?”
Alexander took his crop to Desmond’s hindquarter. He whinnied in protest as he sidestepped.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Alexander crooned, his grasp loosening on the reins. “There’s nothing to fear, you silly horse.”
Desmond tossed his head, behaving as if he’d seen a phantom. Alexander turned Desmond in small, tight circles to calm him while surveying the landscape for whatever spooked him. If he found the monster his stallion perceived, he’d have Desmond walk circles around the object to show him there was nothing to fear.
On the second turn, Alexander found Desmond’s monster.
His heart sank into his stomach.
He stopped Desmond and studied a mass of white tulle laying on the ground, leaning against a tombstone several yards away. “Della?”
Alexander spurred Desmond away from the white mass to avoid alarming him further. He dismounted in the shade of a crab apple tree, tied Desmond’s reins to a branch, and hurried towards the motionless heap.
No answer came.
Doubt niggled. That couldn’t be his bride, but who else in Cottersbury would wear head-to-toe white on this day?
His suspicions were confirmed when he neared and recognized her fair hair and pale skin. “No.”
Alexander scrambled onto the ground beside her and scooped her into his arms. He brushed blonde tendrils off her face, finding her emerald green eyes peering up at him, unmoving, her eyelashes spiky and damp as if she’d been crying.
“No, no, no,” Alexander chanted. Of all the words in his massive brain, it was the only one he could think to utter.
Alexander scrambled for her wrist and checked—no pulse.
“What’s happened? Answer me.”
Alexander gave her a shake—and a vial rolled from her slender fingers.
He stared at the glass.
“What—?”He plucked it off the ground, held it up to the clear, blue skies, and shook it. A few white grains leaped in the vial.
Grains as white as her dress.
Alexander’s gaze fell to Della. Her peach-peel-colored lips were slightly parted, as if she’d taken her last breath while murmuring a prayer. “Foolish girl. What have you done?”
No tears burned Alexander’s eyes. He had none to give his pale bride.
“How could you be so cruel to me?” Alexander whispered.
He looked to the tombstone shadowing him and Della’s corpse. Elijah Taylor lies here, lived 1820 to 1844.
A bouquet rested on the chiseled granite stone. Roses and lavender were bunched together, still fresh, still fragrant, but dead.
Much like Della in his arms.
Her body was warm.
Her beauty lived in the hollows of her ashen face.
But she was no longer rooted in this life. Alexander now owned her body, but only in death, with her love and mind gone.
“Hussy.” Alexander shoved her body from his lap, sickened by the melodrama behind her last action. “You’d never have made a good wife. You’d have sat at my breakfast table with memories of him in your head. You’d have spent nights in our marriage bed, under me, pining after him.”
If only she was still alive to hear his venom.
“Oh, God.” Alexander’s stomach roiled at a worse realization. “If she’s discovered here, I’ll never be able to show my face again.”
Della’s story would fill scandal sheets for weeks, if not months. Her death would stir gossip for even longer. Sniveling poets might immortalize her in flowery poems, and England’s public, plagued by fantasists, would consume their words.
Alexander saw the next several years of his life overshadowed by a dead girl and her dead lover. Ladies would flick open their fans and circulate rumors about him when he entered ballrooms. His Tory peers would snicker while he gave speeches in the House of Lords. Polite society would gawk at him, mock him, ridicule him.
Alexander hoisted himself off the ground and glared down at Della’s body. “I won’t allow it to happen. Not after how you’ve abused me.”
He wasted no time.
He led Desmond over to her corpse and hauled her onto his back. He’d pitch her body somewhere in the forest, posed with the vial in her hand. No one would praise her romanticism—or more importantly, ruin his reputation—if she was found lifeless in the forest, her motivations a mystery.
Alexander congratulated himself on his inventiveness as he walked Desmond across the graveyard and into the forest, but as the branches scratched his arms, he heard a gasp.
Alexander lurched back.
His heart thumped against his ribcage.
“Della?” he murmured, his breathing shaky.
She still lay limp across Desmond’s back.
Alexander felt eyes knifing into him. He looked beyond the trees to the edge of a glade. Miss Gray stood there, her fingers covering her damnable mouth. Tawny curls fell around her flushed cheeks.
Miss Gray shuddered. “What have you done?”