Ch. 11 Heart Dis-Ease
As Alice walked out of Army Headquarters, she saw a familiar figure at the gate.
"Lady Alice," Lord Schultz greeted her, with a curt bow.
Alice winced. Schultz's tone and expression reminded her of a kicked puppy. She was certain that wasn't his intention, but she couldn't always help her imagination.
"Lord Schultz," she replied with a demure nod, "I'm sure you wish to talk."
Lord Schultz grimaced, his mouth forming a tight line.
"Milady, I do indeed," he said, and offered his elbow. "Will you do me the honor of escorting you home this evening, before you leave for your journey?" He made a sweeping gesture to his carriage.
Alice almost suggested walking instead, but realized too many ears might hear sensitive information. She took his arm and smiled.
"Of course I will," she replied.
After seeing Alice comfortable in her seat, Schultz instructed his coachman to take the longer route. Settling in, the two were muted at first in an awkward silence broken only by the familiar rhythm of the Clydesdale's hooves.
Alice spoke first. "I'm sorry," she said, her tone again demure but earnest.
Schultz stared at her with dulled eyes used to betrayal. He replied after a moment.
"Well…that's a start, I suppose."
Alice opened her mouth but closed it again. What could she say? The young lord had always adored her, ever since they were children together. However, Alice never could get past the feeling of him being closer to a brother than a potential beau.
"Just tell me something, milady," he said, "and…please be honest?"
She nodded emphatically and leaned forward.
"Was there ever…I mean, did you…did I ever have a chance at winning your heart? Any chance at all?"
Alice's face fell. She leaned back and sighed. At that, Schultz bowed his head, plucked his silk handkerchief from his pocket and tried to stop the few furious tears that threatened to overwhelm him.
"Well," he said, trying hard not to crumble right in front of her, "that's that."
"I am sorry," Alice said.
"Please," he interrupted. "At least I know now. I just wanted...oh, something. Well, I'd like to know why! You're not swayed by flowers or flattery, classical music and operas bore you, and you abhor shopping! I never heard of any woman, noble or common, who hates shopping! Then, that night of the attack, I thought I finally understood at least a small part of you. I left you that night, giving you room to breathe as you requested, so I could learn everything about the work you do."
"I know," Alice replied. "Thank you for that, by the way. For everything."
Schultz seemed only mildly surprised. "So your captain told you?"
"Not the details," she said. "But it was mentioned…so thank you, really. What you're doing is dangerous."
Schultz looked away, desperate to compose himself.
"Well," he sniffed, "at least you see something in me that tickles your fancy."
"Hey!" Alice replied, growing angry herself, "Stop that!"
Schultz continued to look out the window, lifting his chin in response.
Alice shook her head in frustration. "Honestly!" she said. "You know better than to say something so childish! You are a good man. I've always known that! Better yet, you are a dear friend. At least, I thought you were."
"Then why am I not good enough for you?" he asked softly. "I just don't understand."
Alice sighed and put her head in her hands.
"It's not like that," she said. "I…just…I just don't feel that way about you."
Alice looked up. "Huh?"
He was looking at her again with a deep intensity.
"You heard me," he said in a low voice. "So what? Most couples in our class are hardly civil, let alone friends. My parents barely speak to one another anymore." His eyebrows rose as he saw her look of dismay. "You didn't know?"
Alice shook her head. "I did not. My lord…I had no idea; I'm so sorry."
Schultz waved an impatient hand in dismissal. His next question was almost a sneer.
"Are you telling me your house was actually filled with affection?" he asked.
"Of course!" she blurted before she could stop herself. She brought a hand to her mouth in embarrassment, which made her angry all over again. Why should she be embarrassed? She then realized she was embarrassed for his sake, not her own.
"My parents were quite affectionate," she said softly. "You know how hard my father took her passing. He mourned for years. Years! Why do you think I was at your house for days on end? It was because he was never home! As young as we were, didn't that strike you as odd?"
Schultz shook his head, puzzled.
"No," he said, "You were my favorite playmate, and I assumed I was yours. I thought that was why you and your sisters were always there." He fiddled with his handkerchief. "My father was always gone, too. My mother left me with my nannies, and they were kind to me. My parents made no secret of their affairs. I just…I thought every noble house was like that, or similar, anyway." He shrugged. "I guess not."
Alice felt awful. She couldn't imagine being brought up in such a cold, loveless house. How many other noble houses were like this for him to think it was normal? Was that why the royal council seemed so broken? It did explain Schultz's overt feelings for her.
"Lord Taylor," Schultz continued, "fared no better with you, did he? I mean, even before his…accident, you were no more amorous toward him than you were toward me." When Alice remained silent, he added. "You don't deny it. I still do not understand, Alice. You are not a cold woman. You are passionate, fiery, even!" Alice gave a wry chuckle at that but he rushed on. "I am so fond of you. I know you better than most, really, and so…can't you at least try? Isn't there a chance you will grow to love me? I beseech you, in the name of our friendship!"
Alice glanced outside and saw they were almost to her house. She sighed wearily, then leaned over and grasped his hand.
"In the name of our friendship," she repeated, "I want you to listen to me, my lord. It is precisely because we are good friends that I must respectfully decline your very kind and generous offer. I know that if I accept, this friendship, that we both hold dear, even though for different reasons, will no longer exist. It's not because I'm not fond of you. I am, but only as a good friend. I know you wish otherwise, but that will not change. I don't want to ruin what we have with a lie. We've always been honest with one another, haven't we?" Schultz nodded reluctantly. "Would you really want me to lie to you every day? Tell you only what you wanted to hear? That's not love, my lord. That's not how it works. And that's not how I want to live my life. Now do you understand?"
Schultz swallowed hard and smiled sadly. "This is why I fell in love with you in the first place," he said ruefully, stroking her gloved hand with both of his thumbs. "You're the only one I know who isn't afraid of giving me a straight answer. It's painful, but at least I know I can trust you to tell me what's truly in your heart."
They felt the carriage come to a halt. Alice waited for him to open the door for her. When he didn't, she looked back at him. He was still holding her hand in both of his.
"You are an amazing woman, Alice," Schultz said, and raised her hand to his lips. "I thank you for this night. It was…enlightening." He looked up at her with unshed tears. Alice truly felt sorry for him then, although she couldn't tell if she should hide that fact or not. She didn't want to humiliate him any further. He slipped out of the carriage and waited for her to step out. When she did, he took her by the arm and escorted her to her front door. When they got there, he knelt.
"I humbly beg your pardon, milady," he said, "but would you permit this clumsy lout one request?"
Alice chuckled gently. "And what would that be, milord?" she asked.
"To bestow upon you one token of good luck for this perilous mission I know you must do."
"Oh, well…" Alice said, struggling for words. Schultz suddenly stood up and cupped her face. He gazed longingly at her mouth, but at the last moment turned her head and graced her cheek with a light kiss. Alice squeezed her eyes shut. Schultz was a noble to the end. She would have allowed him to kiss her fully, but she was afraid that if she kissed him now, it might still give him the wrong idea. Instead, she gave him a long, tight embrace. It was the best she could do.
"Thank you, Master Schultz, she said. "Please don't let this get between us-"
"Fret not, my dear!" Schultz interrupted. "I cherish our friendship moreso now than ever before! I will always be your ally, never fear!" With that, he stepped back and made a dramatic, sweeping bow.
"Good night, Lady Alice. Rest well; you will need your strength on the morrow!"
"Good night, Master Schultz. I will."