It was a Sunday evening and Laird was visiting his childhood home in Oxfordshire. He was there to tell his father about his engagement to Martina. The old man would probably be shocked because he always held the view that his younger son wasn’t the marrying kind and that it would take a really special woman to get him to take the leap. Well, Martina was that woman. Whether his father accepted her or not was irrelevant. He was here merely to give him the news.
As he drove up the winding driveway, he thought of his childhood and later years in this Georgian country estate with its landscaped gardens. There were happy times. Karson and he learned to swim in the walled swimming pool located at the north west side of the house. They enjoyed playing competitive games of tennis on the resurfaced tennis court sheltered by beautiful mature trees.
They spent most of their time outdoors, going into the house only for lunch. Their father took them fishing at the lakes or into the woods which were teeming with all sorts of wildlife such as roe, fallow deer, hares and other game. On a couple of occasions, they went for some duck shooting off the lakes.
Perhaps it was because Karson and he used to spend so much time with their father and hardly any time with her, that Mrs. Pendlebury decided that she wanted to adopt a girl. She had always wanted a daughter but she couldn’t have any more children. After speaking it over with her husband, they made inquiries and they adopted an orphaned baby girl through a Voluntary adoption agency. At the time, Karson and he were twelve and ten years old respectively.
As a child, Antonia was very shy and withdrawn but Mrs. Pendlebury showered her with lots of love and attention and gradually, she began to come out of her shell. Karson and he interacted with her as much as brothers interact with sisters. As teenagers, Karson and he spent less time together. He was busy with his studies and Karson was busy tripping over himself trying to impress Antonia. Then, after graduating from Eton, he went to Oxford because he was interested in pursuing a career in Politics while both Karson and Antonia attended St. John’s College.
He knew that Karson had fallen in love with Antonia and it was during one Christmas holiday when they announced their engagement. He was happy for them and joined his parents in wishing them a lifetime of happiness.
By now he had reached the house. After parking his car, he ran up the steps and rang the doorbell. Archibald answered the door. “Master Laird,” he exclaimed. “How very good it is to see you, Sir.” He opened the door wider and stepped aside for Laird to enter the foyer.
“Hello, Archibald. It’s good to see you too. Is anyone home?”
“Miss Antonia is, Sir. You’ll find her in the drawing-room.”
“What about my father?”
“He’s not here, Sir.”
“All right. Thank you, Archibald.”
“May I bring you a refreshment?”
“No, thank you, Archibald.” He excused himself and headed for the drawing-room. Antonia was sitting on the sofa flipping through a magazine when he walked in.
She glanced up and color flooded her cheeks. Closing the magazine and setting it aside, she greeted him. “Hello, Laird.”
“This is a pleasant surprise.”
“He’s gone to his Gentlemen’s Club. I don’t expect that he’ll be back until around seven.”
“Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you stay? It’s now six-fifteen and he should be home by seven. You can stay for dinner. He’d like that very much.”
“I’m not dressed for dinner,” he replied curtly.
“Dinner isn’t as formal as it used to be in the past.”
“I’ll stay until he comes but after I’ve spoken to him, I’ll leave.”
“All right. I hope you change your mind, though.”
He didn’t answer but sat down in the antique chair beside the fireplace.
“It’s very good to see you, Laird. How have you been?”
“What brings you here this evening?”
“I have something important to tell Father.”
“He’ll be very happy to see you.”
“The last time we spoke, he said that he would be retiring at the end of the year.”
“Yes. He always said that he was going to do that as soon as he turned 66. He’s looking forward to it.”
“After being a Chief Magistrate for so many years, what the devil is he going to do with himself when he retires?”
“He mentioned something about finishing a book he had started.”
Laird’s eyebrows rose. “A book?”
“Yes. It’s called Genuine Discourse.“
“I’m not surprised. He was always keen on the subject of Discourse ethics and has engaged in many discussions about the principles of genuine discourse. I’m sure he will have a lot to write about.”
“I’ve offered to help him.”
Laird didn’t answer. He glanced at his watch. The time seem to be moving at an unusually slow pace.
“This morning, I was looking through photo albums and I couldn’t help remembering the wonderful times we used to have. So many parties and family trips. I loved the wedding photos. Father and Mother looked so happy.”
“They were very happy.”
“Your father was devastated when she fell ill. He was by her side the whole time and was thankful that you were able to leave London and be with her before she died.”
“Look, I’d rather not talk about my mother.”
“You mean you’d rather not talk about her to me.”
“I just don’t want to talk about another utterly dreadful event in my life.”
“You still blame me for what happened to Karson, don’t you, Laird?”
“Yes, I do. If he hadn’t caught you in my room, he wouldn’t have bolted out of there, gotten into his car and driven off. He wouldn’t have smashed into a tree and died.”
“I’m sorry, Laird. I–I thought that he was asleep and–“
“What kind of a woman are you, Antonia? You’re engaged to one brother and throw yourself at the other.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt Karson but I couldn’t help that I had fallen in love with you.”
“You say you didn’t mean to hurt Karson but yet you came to my room. What did you expect would happen? Did you think that I would sleep with you? How could I do that when I knew that Karson was in love with you?”
“Would you and I have become lovers if he wasn’t in love with me?”
“You’re my sister.”
“I could never see you as anything else.”
“I wish I weren’t your adopted sister and that it had been you who had fallen in love with me instead of Karson.”
“Well, it didn’t happen that way. He fell in love with you and look what happened to him. He died. He died believing that his brother was sleeping with his fiancée. I tried to explain to him that he was wrong but all I got for my efforts was a punch in the face. And you, you didn’t even try to stop him. You let him run out of there and then at his funeral, you had the gall to act like you were grieving.”
“I wasn’t acting. I was sorry that he died.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“It’s the truth, Laird. I didn’t want anything to happen to Karson. I was going to break off our engagement and after you rejected me, I was going to move out but he died and you left and I stayed.”
“And now you’ve managed to be the lady of the house without having to marry Karson.”
“How long are you going to hate me?”
“I don’t hate you but I hate what you did to my brother.”
“Your mother knew.”
“That I was in love with you and not Karson.”
“If that’s true, then why the devil didn’t she discourage you from marrying him?”
“She told me that not all women are fortunate like her to marry the men they loved so they settled for the men who loved them. She said that I should not get my hopes up where you were concerned.”
“So, the two of you decided that it would be better to marry Karson, never mind the fact that you didn’t love him.”
“It was what your mother wanted and I wanted to please her.”
“Poor Karson. He didn’t stand a chance against two scheming women.”
“Don’t hate your mother. She was only doing what she believed was best–“
“Best for whom? Certainly not for Karson.”
“I wonder what Mother would have done if she knew that you had come to my room and would have gotten into my bed if I hadn’t stopped you.”
“She–they weren’t there.”
“Yes and that was very fortunate for you, wasn’t it? They were spending the weekend in Bourton-on-the-Water.”
“We agreed that they wouldn’t know the truth.”
“Yes, we did but I didn’t do it for you. I did it for them, especially Mother. Overcome with grief over Karson, it would have been too much of a shock for her to know the truth. And she seemed to depend on you more than usual. As much as I detested you for what you had done, I couldn’t hurt her by exposing you. And I couldn’t stand to be here any longer so I moved out.”
She rose to her feet, her face pale. “So, I’m the reason why you hardly visited.”
“Yes. I couldn’t stand the sight of you.”
She closed her eyes at the pain his words inflicted on her heart. “I’m sorry that I have become so repulsive to you.”
He didn’t answer.
“After you moved out, I thought I would go mad because I missed you so much. Sometimes, at night, I used to go to your room and climb into your bed. I would lie on my stomach and kiss your pillow, pretending that it was you–“
“Enough! I don’t want to hear any more of this bloody foolish talk.” Incensed and filled with utter revulsion, he rose to his feet.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered. “Please don’t leave. Father will be so disappointed if you do.”
“I’ll telephone him. Goodbye.” He turned and strode out of the room.
Antonia stood there, her arms wrapped around her. She was trembling and close to tears. It was painfully clear to her that she would never have his love nor his forgiveness.