It was dark when his bedroom door opened. “Ben?” whispered Elizabeth nervously. “Are you awake?”
He raised his head, wincing as his back throbbed anew. “Yes.”
There was a rustle and the door closed with a quiet click. “I managed to save a bit of milk.” She crouched down next to his bed and held up the cup. “I think Nanny looked the other way on purpose.”
He pulled himself toward the edge of the bed. From his shoulders to his hips, he ached. Awkwardly he sipped from Elizabeth’s mug.
“I don’t think it’s fair that you got a whipping and shall have only bread and water for a week.”
Benedict sighed, resting his cheek on the mattress. “It doesn’t matter what we think.”
“I know.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry, Ben. Samantha wanted to hold my doll Bess, but I was selfish and wouldn’t let her. She pulled on Bess and I pulled back, and we both bumped into the statue, and Nanny was calling us, and—and—”
“Don’t worry.” He reached for her hand. She scrambled nearer and leaned her head against the bed frame beside his, clasping his hand to her cheek. “Make sure Samantha knows not to tell about Bess.”
She nodded. “I will. I told her to pretend she had a nightmare and go cry in Nanny’s lap while I sneaked in here with the milk. Are—are you badly hurt?”
He made a face even though his back felt like it was on fire. “Not much.”
“Mother will come see you tomorrow, won’t she?”
He hoped. Sometimes his punishments included being sequestered from everyone else. Elizabeth was only able to come to him because his room was still in the nursery. Benedict thought he could bear this much better if his mother would come and stroke his hair and lay cold compresses on his back and read to him. She did that when the earl was away from Stratford Court. Of course, when the earl was away, he wasn’t whipped at all.
“I wish he would go to London,” whispered his sister, echoing his thoughts.
“So do I.” He wished the earl would go to London, or anywhere else, and stay there forever. “You should go back to bed before Nanny realizes you’re here.”
She held up the cup so he could finish the milk. Greedily he sucked the last of it, then gave her a little push. “Good night, Ben,” she whispered next to his ear. “Thank you.”
He closed his eyes as she slipped out of the room. If he hadn’t taken responsibility, their father would have begun to suspect the girls. Stratford never whipped his daughters—Benedict wondered if he would when they grew older—but he would punish them in other ways. If Stratford had seen Bess lying on the stair and realized the truth, he probably would have burned the doll. That would have broken Elizabeth’s heart; she loved Bess and took very gentle care of her.
In a few days his back would stop hurting. A week with only bread and water would be miserable, but he was ten, nearly eleven—almost a man, and his little sisters needed their milk and good food more than he did. With any luck, his mother would find a way to come see him and make the days pass more quickly. And on the bright side, he would be allowed to recite his lessons here, instead of standing in the school room.
But he wished, deeply and intensely, that he had been born the son of anyone other than the Earl of Stratford.