A Terrible Choice

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A Flash Fiction Short Story by Jessie Bennett

Genre: Regency Romance
Word Count: 999

A Terrible Choice

“I need that income. I wish I didn’t but I do.”

Gertrude Preston whispered it under her breath, miserably. Her life was a mess. Debts had piled up behind her, demanding more money than she could ever hope to earn as a governess.

“An ex-governess,” she reminded herself.

Lady Anna Dunning and her adoptive brother, Lord Stephen, were grown and had not needed a governess for many years. They maintained her in the household at a fraction of her salary, out of a sense of responsibility for her. At least, she was trying to tell herself it was only responsibility. Her only hope depended on her convincing herself of that.

“Lady Anna trusts me!” she almost shouted in the darkness of her bedchamber. She shook her head, feeling tears run down her face. She could not do it.

“I need to tell Stephen. I cannot do this,” she said decidedly, and, biting her lip, made her way down to the library to meet with her employer, to tell him so.

She wished there was someone to whom she could turn. The most likely option was Duke Shawn Worthington, the ruler of the region, whose manor house was not that far away. He was known to be just and upstanding, and he would, she was certain, help in any way he could. She almost decided, then dismissed the plan, laughing sadly.

“Why would he believe you, a servant, over a nobleman?”

It was impossible. She had only one route left to her, and that was defiance. And soon. Before she was any more involved than she was already.

She walked briskly down the stairs and to the library, where she had met the young lord earlier to discuss the plan. The door creaked as she entered, and she held her breath, feeling suddenly afraid.

“Lord Stephen?”

It was dark in the library – dark enough that she did not see Stephen until he was almost before her.

He laughed softly in the darkness. “So,” he said silkenly. “You have agreed on our terms? You will do this for me?”

Gertrude bit her lip, hard. She had to stiffen her resolve. “I came here to tell you that I cannot do it. My lord, I am sorry, but I cannot.”
Stephen blinked. She saw the rage flare in his green eyes and she shuddered inwardly. He had always been unpredictable. Then a hooded look crept across their surface, and he smiled, placidly.

“So be it,” he said lightly.

Gertrude stared at him. He was really giving up easily? That was not like him!

“As you wish, Miss Preston,” he said lightly. “But remember, your debtors will be at the door. I will not stop them.” He smiled, thinly. “What do you think will happen to you, if I decide to withdraw our patronage?”

Gertrude swallowed hard. She studied him through wide eyes, as if seeing him for the first time. How had her beautiful boy, favourite of her charges for so long, grown up this wicked? She had loved him like a son, holding him over even her beautiful Anna for a time, before his wild temper and power-hungriness had come to the fore. She could not let him make her do this, something which sickened her. She had to be strong.

“My lord…” she felt her hands clench into fists. “It is not that I am not frightened of that. I am. But I love my lady Anne and she trusts me. I cannot face the thought of doing harm to her.”

“Fine,” Stephen said lightly. “If you love her so, I cannot press you. I can only say that, if you choose this road, I will not help you. Your salary will be reduced, and you will be turned out. I cannot face your creditors for you, can I? And you are not really necessary to the estate…”

“My lord!” Gertrude was horrified. “You don’t mean..?”

“Of course I do, Miss. Would I lie?”

Gertrude stared at him. He wouldn’t, would he?

She thought of the terror awaiting her – the threat of poverty, homelessness, living on the roads…

“My lord,” she said, clearing her throat.

“Yes?” Stephen turned. With the flame light licking along his carven cheek, he was beautiful. Beautiful and horrible at once.

“I will do it.”

“I thought you would see reason,” he said, beaming. “Now. We have to plan.”

“My lady cannot find out I am involved.”

“She will not,” he assured. “How would she?”

“If anyone were to find out…”

“I will tell no-one,” he shrugged lightly. “So how would she know. I am not asking you to do anything hard. Just…something inventive.”

“I am not sure I can..?”

“Oh come!” he dismissed her. “How hard can it be?” He made a wide gesture. “My sister needs to marry within a few weeks, or she will not inherit, by royal decree. All her wealth, this house, the title…it will all pas to me!”

“And you want me,” Gertrude confirmed slowly, “to stop her marriage. How?”

“Oh, don’t ask me!” Stephen said expansively. “I thought your female wiles would contrive all that. Tell them she has boils, that she is an awful harridan…I care not! Only,” he added, “ensure that she does not marry before her birthday. If you can do this, then…I shall be indebted.”

Gertrude sighed. She swallowed hard. It was a plan most diabolical, but she could not refuse. How could she? It was life or death for her.

“Very well, my lord,” she sighed. “I agree to do this.”

“Thank you, Miss Preston. I will have cause to be grateful in a matter of weeks.”

He was grinning, and Gertrude swallowed hard, trying not to be sick.

He was silent a moment, then turned to her, waving airily. “You are free to go.”

“Very good sir.”

Gertrude bowed her head and walked from the room, feeling like she left her heart behind her.

“What,” she said under her breath, “have I done?”

*****

Author Notes

I came up with this little tale about Ms Gertrude Preston and her plot against Lady Anna, so that she will not marry on time for her inheritance. If you enjoy this story… please tell your friends. It would be great to get the book, “MORE FOR A DUKE” to know if Lady Anna will marry the man of her dreams.

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