Annette took the day for herself, to assemble her feelings back to their proper state of reserve. Despite what she had said to her pet gentleman, Mikhail had not lied to her about his visit length, but been unavoidably detained, and was probably not anymore enthusiastic to find himself in the midst of the Constitutional Crisis than anyone else on the planet. She didn’t want to hear anything more about it, and yet, because of her husband, all the women she worked with on her committees made every excuse to give her a call and ask.
Some, in her estimation, were trying to profit from their source, but regardless most were as frightened as she was. Despite the expectations of ladylike ignorance and the unreliability of news reports, Annette had a reasonable handle on the politics of her Home, but she hadn’t learned how truly bad it was until the previous evening, after dinner when her guests had gone away, and a rare thing occurred. Her husband had actively sought her out, to join him in his study.
There’d been six occasions he’d sought her out over the course of their marriage, four of them in the first year, when he’d simply been making sure she was comfortable and happy in her new duties, and the fifth time during her first pregnancy to inquire after her health. Anything else she arranged, often with consultation with his secretary, or as part of all the little collisions they had where their spheres overlapped.
“Lady Harrington, in light of the ongoing developments, I would appreciate if you saw yourself armed, in addition to the usual precautions,” he looked tired, jowls drooping on his square jaw, blocky face blotchy the way it got when he abused stimulants too long. Annette got the impression he hadn’t slept in about three days. He’d come home just as the woman were sitting down to eat, and with only perfunctory courtesy, locked himself away with his screens and paperwork and the young secretary he was using most recently.
Councilman Harrington’s study was one of her more challenging decorating projects, early in their marriage, when the management of their marital property was first passed to her care. The rose and red she liked was deepened into wine, to complement the mustard of his particular section’s uniform, the furniture heavy, with simple carvings, all Landfall era antiques to remind anyone he was conferencing with how deep his family’s commitment was to tradition and to Home.
Now there was a desk between them, she in one of the curl armed, cushioned chairs, still in her rust tones from the dinner party, so she knew she looked like another object meant to compliment the upholstery. Her husband was pinching he bridge of his nose, uniform coat open, the secretary quietly in the background, jacket off and sleeves rolled so that he could sit at a smaller desk and tap out correspondences. The young man, still university fresh, looked as worn out as his employer.
“Is it that bad?” she’d asked, fingers curling into the knobbed arms of the chair, finding where the chisel had slashed a line, remembering what the appraiser had described about the wood. Hewn from the first clear cutting of Landfall and created only a decade after when the allotments of land were taking off in earnest, it looked like one of the clumsy craft projects her daughter sent to her from school, but was one of the more expensive items in the house. “I know you have been very occupied of late and that the clearing measures aren’t working as well.”
“They took hostages at Novalada. I know that your father saw that you knew how to look after yourself, but I do not want another… situation, like with your sister. The mother of my children doesn’t need that.”
Annette closed her eyes, a wince, “Alright. I’ll take some time at the range to reacquaint myself.”
But her husband had more to say, a tension in his voice from a man who backed down to no-one, “Go about your daily business, Lady Harrington. They tried to kill me this morning, but by God, I won’t let them give the impression that that sort of trick works or they’ll never stop trying.”
“The children are abroad,” she tried the make herself less grim sounding, put her chin up, taking an echo of her father into her posture. Her husband needed her to be brave and in the entirety of their marriage she had never failed him. “I will not let them see cracks.”
“The children will come home some day, Lady Harrington.” In all their marriage, that was what he called her, and before that, Miss Penning. It was comforting in a way that pet names never would be, and reminded her of her father with her mother. “Perhaps when the clearing succeeds. I have… never mind, I won’t burden you with man things.”
A chime sounded for a call, and the secretary interrupted, flat voiced, “Councilman, Lord Milthorpe, regarding deployment.”
“Right. Goodnight Lady Harrington.”
“Goodnight,” Annette stayed serious as she left her husband and his secretary to their late night work, putting her hands into fists and keeping her face smooth as she passed the servants.
Outside the study there was more messages from her female peers, but instead, she went to where Philip was laid out, sleeping face down and feverish. She saw there was a glass of water beside the bed, and that he had the sheet pulled over his naked body, but not the blankets.
Everything outside the house was out of control. None of her friends, except perhaps Chloe understood what was going on, and she could no more call Chloe than she could give state secrets to the anxious women calling her for reassurance. Annette sat down on the foot of the bed and marshalled her emotions, watching the slight stirrings in her sleeping prisoner.
“Wake up, Adam.”
Drowsy as she called him up from shallow sleep, Phillip awoke to feel Annette’s hand on his ankle. The lamp gave everything an amber and blush glow, but even bathed in warm light, he saw the trace of distress left in her face, ghosting into something predatory but still tense.
He moved towards her voice, curling his body as a preamble to sliding out of the bed. The damage Maria inflicted was still heavy on his body, exhausting him between battered flesh and endorphin warmth. “My Lady?”
At her silent direction, he stood at attention on the floor beside the bed, settled just so with his legs slightly apart and his hands behind his back. Just as he was looking to her for the next instruction her open palm caught him across the face in a heavy slap.
She watched him turn his head with the blow, than bring his neck straight again, and struck him a second time. She felt the softness of his cheek crushed against his teeth, regretted the little tremor that put less control into the blow, but brought her arm back to pancake the other side with the back of her hand. He winced but did not cringe away, though she saw the turmoil in his eyes, wondering why, but accepting, and something in her untied. Not a breaking but a release that made her push both hands against his shoulders until he was kneeling with the twice struck side of her face held to her belly and her arms were encircling over him, holding him there.
For Phillip, this was almost an extension of the dreams she’d tugged him out of. Maria had made him scream himself hoarse, wrung the energy from his body and left an ache in his core and in his joints that went beyond the damage to skin and muscle. Now, tasting salt and copper in his mouth, not knowing why Annette had started her assault or if it was even over, he let himself rest in the comfort of her warmth, feeling the stiffness of the muted-shine fabric of her dress and her legs under the layers of her dinner dress skirts, where he’d clumsily extended his arms around her.
She held him to her for almost a quarter of an hour, and he heard a couple of noises, that might have been gasps or they might have been sobs, and he did not look up, letting her take from him to sooth whatever distressed her without asking for anything in return. There was something new there, for Phillip. He was more than an ornament and entertainment, for once feeling a necessity.
“Adam, the next months may be…hard.” Annette chose her words carefully, not breaking her carefully manufactured distancing of her property from his past life. “You will be seen to.”
He did not know what it meant, but if it comforted Annette enough to say it, it was enough for him.