“No, there must be a mistake. Are you sure he received my message?!”
Lady Felicia heard the strain in her voice and hoped it was not so easily distinguishable to the uncomfortable, immovable man in front of her as it was to her own ears. Her frustration was too close for comfort to something she resolutely refused to name.
“Yes, lady Montague, I assure you my guard passed your message to the prisoner word by word.”
“But he cannot have refused to see me if he got it. Can't you try again?”
The man hesitated, looking even more uncomfortable. He moved a couple of steps closer to her chair, as if to share a confidence.
“With all due respect, ma'am, this is the fourth time you've visited and he always refused to see you. Or anyone else for that matter. Now, he may be a prisoner, but he still has the right to refuse visitations.”
She looked up at him with a lump in her throat and said nothing. The man's face softened and he continued after a small pause.
“I like to run an exemplary facility here, so I do not normally endorse this, but for you, lady Montague, I suppose I could have him brought up h-”
“No.” She sharply shook her head, appalled at the thought of prison guards dragging him up there against his will. God knew, too many things had already been done to him against his will. “No, that won't be necessary.”
The room suddenly felt very chilly and unwelcoming and she knew it was time to pick herself up and act like the lady she was. It had been a des- frustrated last attempt anyway. What had she even thought she would accomplish?
She got up, the best polite smile she could compose fixed on her face. The man looked at her questioningly and took the hand she offered.
“I'm so sorry for taking up so much of your time, Director Wynburry. You've been very kind. Seeing how well you run your facility has been a real... inspiration to me.”
“Why, thank you, lady Montague. It's an honor. We don't usually receive so much attention from high society. And... I'm sorry.”
She smiled again, making her goodbye automatically, and feeling increasingly out of place in the gray, austere office of the prison director. For some reason, she felt ridiculously overdressed and pretentious and wanted nothing more than to get out.
And yet, she stopped at the door, an expensively-gloved hand on the doorknob.
“Just one more thing, Director?”
“Do prisoners get information about their trial and sentence terms while they're inside?”
“Within legal bounds, they can request that information, yes.”
“Such as, say, if they have the right to bail?”
“Yes, although they usually get that information before they are brought here. Some expect their families to pay, but they almost never do.” After a hesitation, during which she did not move further to open the door, he added, “I don't think your man ever expected that, though. His bail was set ridiculously high. I suppose the court really wanted to make a point that this kind of crime is really not to be tolerated or pardoned anymore.”
“Thank you, Director.” She turned for one last socialite smile at him. “As a member of the fair sex, I'm immensely happy to know violence against women is finally taken up with all the seriousness it deserves.”
Director Wynburry looked slightly apologetic at their exchange, but just as immovable as he had seemed before. She nodded her farewell and calmly exited the room. The guard waiting outside by the door politely gestured ahead and accompanied her down the gray, echoing corridor towards the inner court and the exit on its other end. The space was filled with the clacking of her own sharp heels, the rustle of her expensive clothes, the smell of her imported French perfume, and the chaotic buzz of her own confused thoughts.
“His bail was set ridiculously high. I suppose the court really wanted to make a point that this kind of crime is really not to be tolerated or pardoned anymore.”
She had no idea what the court really wanted. Neither did Father Brown.
He had been frantic when this whole ungodly mess started. She, not so much. It was quite unpleasant, yes, but it was hardly the first time it happened. She knew there was always one last way out of any such incident - money and a few disarming smiles aimed at the right official. In the end, all would be well and she could hold the pretend debt as a blackmail of sorts, to get all kinds of favors that did not strictly fall into a chauffeur's duty. All pretend, of course. Such as escorting her to an extra boring social event. Or helping weed out a poor woman's garden. It had all been a game to her.
Until lord Montague said no.
She had not believed her own ears at first. Yes, the bail was set ridiculously high. Yes, it was a lot of money even for her. But surely, not for her husband? He bought her sports cars on a guilty whim, for goodness' sake!
And yet, he had put his foot down firmly on this one, and never relented even an inch, in an utterly uncharacteristic display of domestic tyranny that she had never even suspected he was capable of. He had refused to so much as speak about it again, as cold and hard as the jagged stone of the prison walls she was being led out of.
She had never been able to think of him as anything but “lord Montague” since then. No more “Monty.” She didn't feel as if she knew the man anymore.
The prison gates clanged shut behind her with the same hard finality as that “no” had done to their shaky and strained matrimonial relationship. She shivered, despite the warm sun that was trying its best to reach the chill in her bones.
The Rolls was parked in front of her, completely empty. In more ways than one.
She looked up at the sky in des- frustration and sighed, loosening a few tiny buttons on the neck of her dress. It still felt terribly overpriced and maddeningly inappropriate. She couldn't pretend she didn't know why. All the jewelry, clothes, accessories and other assorted nothings that lord Montague bought her for a year, or even half a year, would have paid that ridiculously high bail.
She looked at the Rolls again, frozen a few steps away from it. Why could lord Montague never understand what truly mattered to her? Why was a car a better gift than two years of a person's life?
She ignored the stinging feeling in her eyes and forced herself to take the few steps forward to the black-and-white car. It was only as she caressed the door before she opened it and sat in that she admitted it, very privately, inside.
She had walked into it all by herself.
Yes. It was all her. When her sweetheart did not return from the war with the rest of the Kembelford division, even though she knew he was alive, she had decided that there were better and more durable things in life than love. Such as respect. Social standing. Money, after all. So when lord Montague had proposed, no questions asked, there had been only one answer she could give. A chance to live her life free. To be completely independent. A bright future full of all the life's most charming distractions that she really, truly adored. And if it meant being alone, than all the better.
But she had never counted on meeting anyone like Father Brown – the man who reminded her of all the higher and brighter things in life and gave her hope for the world.
Or Bridgette McCarthy – the woman who had turned into the mother, sister and best friend she had never really gotten round to having. Underneath it all.
And least of all she had counted on... “Sid Carter.” There. She said it aloud and sighed.
He wasn't just a chauffeur, of course. Nobody in the whole of Kembleford had any doubt on that.
He was the friend who never, ever judged her for anything. He was her protection whenever she got herself thrown in anything dangerous, for reasons she did not like to dwell on. He was her support and companion in place of the “ever-absent” lord Montague. Sid was always there with a quick joke, or a glass of scotch, or a witty retort, or his unquestioning patience, or simply with his complete and utter disregard for all social norms and the masks people oh, so liked to put on. Including hers.
Sid Carter had had more affairs than her. He drank more than her. He did more things he wasn't supposed to than her. He also stole, cheated, poached, lied, generally ignored the law, and was an all-around imp in human form. But underneath it all, she knew there was a heart of gold that was fiercely loyal and as deeply innocent and loving as a child's. The child she never had.
Sid was her imp, and he made life with herself not just bearable, but even fun.
And he knew she had not paid his bail. She would leave him behind, in there, with that knowledge. She would also leave behind her guide Father Brown, and her best friend Mrs. McCarthy. All to follow a man who had never given her a second look. Just when had that become a bad thing?
She took a deep breath and forced her constricted throat and aching chest to relax. By now, Sid would have made some deliberately lame joke about how the other half lived and moped and would have offered her to go mope in the Red Lion together, on her tab, of course. With a glint under the hem of his driver's hat and a dirty, charming smile on his lips in the mirror.
She grasped the steering wheel and before she started the engine, gave the prison one last look. One thing she knew and had so far dreaded was that whoever came out of that place would not be the same Sid she knew. Just like she was now, he would be des- frustrated, and bitter, and angry, and God knew what else besides.
But he had made a choice – to go through whatever he had to, relying on his own strength, without hurting others with pity, or long farewells, or attempts to escape what his life had become. He tried his best to take it all in his stride.
So would she. She would take one more chance on her life, on the real things in her life, and come out of it stronger. If Sid had shown her anything, it was how to show a rude finger to all the difficulties in life.
Her fingers squeezed the leather of the steering wheel until it hurt. So be it. Next time they met, she would once again be someone he could look at with the same admiration and understanding he had always directed at her before.
After all, she was leaving behind for him the best possible people in the whole world to give him a helping hand whenever he came out – Father Brown and Bridgette McCarthy.
It was time to go and say her farewells. And then start all over again. And this time, do it right.
“Until we see each other again, Sid. Be safe. And thank you for everything.”
She pushed the gas and started towards the rolling hills on the horizon. Behind them was lying huddled Cotswold with St. Mary's, and then the train station, its lines running towards London.
And beyond that was the rest of the world, and her new life.