Sibella had been absent from Highhurst for several weeks with little contact, and Monty and Phoebe were worried.
Phoebe had actually gone as far as to call on Sibella at the Holland residence in town. She was met with a maid who informed her that Mrs. Holland was resting in her room and had asked not to be disturbed. When Phoebe insisted that Sibella be told she was there, the maid had disappeared upstairs for a minute or two before coming back down, saying that Mrs. Holland was unwilling to see her.
Phoebe had fled back to Highhurst, knowing definitively that something was wrong. The maid had seemed frightened of something, though she tried her best to hide it, and Phoebe could not fathom Sibella turning her away unless things were quite seriously amiss.
But only two days later, they recieved a telegram from Sibella saying that Lionel was going out of town on business that afternoon, and she could return to them at Highhurst later on in the evening. Monty took the news straight to Phoebe, who was of course delighted. However, she could not forget the curious expression in the eyes of Sibella's maid.
When Sibella swept through the doors of the castle in the late evening, she behaved as though nothing had happened. Though as her lovers greeted her, they noted that she had less of a bounce in her step and that her smile was not as bright as usual. As the evening progressed, the blonde seemed jumpy, starting slightly every time either Monty or Phoebe touched her.
Only when Sibella just about jumped out of her skin as Monty rested a hand on her shoulder from behind did Phoebe say something. The brunette immediately plopped down beside Sibella on the setee, looking both concerned and determined.
"Sibella, you have to tell us what happened. We know there's something wrong, darling, and we're worried about you," Phoebe spoke. Monty, who had been standing behind them, moved to sit on the other side of the blonde.
Looking from Phoebe to Monty and back again, the blonde sighed, her shoulders falling out of their usually impeccable posture.
"I felt like I didn't know what was real anymore," Sibella said softly. "Some days, Lionel would come home with flowers for me, he'd compliment my gown or my hair, but some days..." She took a breath before continuing. "Some days he'd come home and ignore me. Until he decided he was angry at me. Then we'd fight and he'd say... horrible things. And the next day, he'd be back to the picture of a perfect husband, bringing me some sort of gift to apologise. I thought I might be going mad, I couldn't tell which version of him was the real one." She laughed bitterly. "Until the other day, that is."
"What happened the other day?" Monty pressed, now deeply concerned.
"We'd been fighting since the morning. It seemed that I couldn't do anything right, every word, every action he somehow found fault in. It escalated to a shouting match in the drawing room, and when I said that I wish I'd never married him, he..." She trailed off, leaving Monty and Phoebe in anxious silence for a moment. "He struck me."
Phoebe gasped sharply, a hand flying up to cover her mouth, while Monty remained quiet. He rose and crossed to the fireplace, leaning agaisnt the mantle.
"That's why I wouldn't see you, dearest," the blonde explained, turning to Phoebe. "Lionel stormed out and my half face swelled up and bruised, and I couldn't let you see that."
"Oh, my darling," whispered Phoebe, her eyes shining with tears. She lifted a hand up and rested it lightly against Sibella's cheek, but the blonde pulled away immediately, standing.
Just then, Monty stepped towards her and reached out to touch her arm, but Sibella shrunk back from his touch. "Sibella?" Monty spoke her name as a question, reaching for her again.
"Don't." She commanded, and he stopped with his hand in mid-air.
"Why not?" he asked, worried.
"Because I can't... I don't know what to do with kindness anymore. Is it real? Do I trust it? Wait for it to turn to anger? I don't know! I-" She broke off as a sob escaped her. "Blows and abuse I can take and give back again. Tenderness I cannot bear!" She sank into the armchair beside her as she dissolved into tears.
After a moment, Monty approached cautiously, kneeling in front of the armchair. "Sibella," he spoke gently, his voice low and soft. "My darling Sibella. You have nothing to fear here. You are safe here, under my roof. I will always keep you safe. You have nothing to fear from me. My kindness will never turn to anger, my love will never be a lie, you can always trust me. I will never strike you, never mistreat you, never speak a harsh word in earnest against you. All this I swear, because I love you. I have always loved you, and I will always love you. You will always be safe with me."
She lifted her head to meet his gaze with tear-soaked eyes. Never looking away, he raised a hand, extended palm up to her. After a moment, she tentatively placed her hand in his. Ever so gently, he pulled her towards him, and she slid willingly out of the armchair and into his waiting arms. Sitting with her on the carpet, he held her tightly as she wept.