If you should visit Áhasêstse'ó Falls,
When the night sky is a broken diamond,
When the wind cries through the trees,
Chances are you might hear something unexpected:
A voice hidden within wind, words spoken through water.
One heart lost in battle, another drowned deep
Both separated in life, irrevocably joined in death.
Wait and listen patiently,
For this tale requires a ready heart.
It's a story told in many languages, many cultures,
But made no less powerful by its recitation.
It concerns two lovers,
Swift Wind and Whispering Willow,
Two restless souls still searching for the other.
Swift Wind was the fastest, the cleverest,
The best loved by far.
His father was the chief and life was good.
He was free to roam prairie and plain,
But while running brought him happiness,
It never satisfied his deep-rooted hunger;
It was a heart-heavy hunger.
Whispering Willow was the sweetest, the softest,
The best loved by far.
Her father was the chief and life was good.
She was free to weave her tapestries,
Her stories etched in slippery silk and rough wool,
But they never satisfied her deep-rooted hunger;
It was a heart-heavy hunger.
Both their fathers were lifelong foes
Fighting bitterly over land.
They resolved to meet on the battleground for one final battle
To put an end to this most contentious debate.
Swift Wind led his tribe into battle
With a mighty war cry that shook the boughs
And pierced Whispering Willow's heart.
Edit: The poem was finished and posted on Ficlets. You can read it starting here. The challenge-poster, g2, honored me with a win in this challenge. Joy! :)
Tomorrow I'll set my alarm clock for seven AM, and next week I'll set it to six, and so on, until I'm closer to that dreaded five AM. Ugh. Why does my school have to start classes at 7:30?! I'd rather work 8:00 - 3:00, and stay a half hour extra if it means a half hour extra of sleep!
But I do admit it's nice to wake up this early, having had a full night of sleep. I want to kick myself for waking up late all summer. I know I've wasted my time this way. I haven't even worked on my thesis. But it's not too late, damnit. I might even work on it today.
I've got some other things to do, too. Chiefly groceries - I've run out of food and have been mooching off my family. Plus I need to do something about my feet - I haven't had a pedicure in a month and it's starting to show.
I just posted two poems on Ficlets that I don't think I'd posted before: "Nightmare" and "Meaning & Memory." Somehow, I was able to publish both without getting that horrible "Ouch!" message, but it just started acting up again and I wasn't able to browse stories on the site. I am dreading the day I try to log on and find that Ficlets is down for good. To that end, I've begun backing up my stuff. So if you find a bunch of short stories and poems on my blog, don't freak out. It will have the tag "ficlets" so that you know it's fiction and won't think I'm actually doing the fantastical and crazy things that go on in my stories. ;)
Vashti lay in a box. She was almost completely immobile. Almost. She could wriggle her toes and roll her head from side to side, and she could even swing her arms. But she couldn’t sit up. She couldn’t roll over. Vashti had the suddenly violent urge to pee.
Then the curtains opened, and he came out. Fitzgerald was flourishing a large saw dramatically, the red cape fluttering over his spare frame. Vashti noticed that the saw was menacingly sharp. She felt the beginning of nerves, like a pinprick at the base of her neck.
Fitzgerald’s voice echoed against the brick walls of the small theater: “And now for my best trick. I shall cut this woman in half.” He approached her, his green eyes glittering. “Don’t worry, love, this won’t hurt a bit.” He smiled at her reassuringly. It was a toothless smile.He began slicing through the box, the saw making a grating sound that hurt her ears. But then the real hurt began. The last thing she heard before losing consciousness was a woman’s bloodcurdling scream. Her own.
How to apologize to your husband for burning dinner
The oven broke. Oops. Here’s dinner.
How to embarrass your sister in front of her boyfriend
This isn’t my wig! It’s yours!
How to freak out your friends (and enemies)
I really have to pee. Hug?
What to say when you walk in on your roommate (ahem)
Door was open. Didn’t see anything!
How to get that NASCAR fanatic to notice you
I love the smell of gasoline.
What to write on the condolence card to your neighbor
My dog ate your cat. Sorry.
Felicia can only remember her past in fragments, brilliant shards of memory that splinter off in her mind and form patterns that are beautiful, despite the fact that they do not touch. She is ninety, gray-haired and stooped, but her eyes are still the eyes with which she entered this world: bright and blue as the just-washed sky at dawn. It is as if her essence, her Felicia-ness, exists solely within those blue spheres. No one who looks into her eyes, young or old, can resist the chemistry of that gaze.
She speaks to those who would hear her stories. Some people dismiss her as an old babbling fool, but those who take the time to listen leave her presence with the gift of her insight.
“Love is so small it can fit through the eye of a needle,” she says with a smile, as she fingers the rose-petal beads of her rosary.I am one of the nurses who attend her at night. Most of the time, I just sit and watch her sleep, fascinated even by the slow rise and fall of her ribcage, the play of dreams across her face.
In time I came to see I was wrong to call Felicia peaceful. We’d been staring into the still surface of a lake when I impulsively compared it to her. She’d swung around to face me, a mysterious smile turning up the corners of her mouth.
“Really?” she’d said, and I remember being amazed that such a small word could contain so much inside of it. I realize now that she’d seen my really very innocent comment as a challenge. But then her next response took my breath away.
She jumped into the lake. I remember how hard she laughed as she surfaced, long hair plastered against her head, shirt ballooning around her. She looked waterlogged and messy. I’d never seen her look more beautiful.
Now she sits in the small room where she lives in the ALF , her memories stolen by something they call Alzheimer’s. Her blue eyes are now cloudy, no longer the clear, deep waters I knew. After nearly half a century together I realize how I was wrong to call her peaceful. Unpredictable would’ve been a better word. Beautiful the best.
It is 4 am and the house sleeps.
I awakened by a memory that has come trespassing into my dream
My pulse an angry fish, desperate to get out of its net of veins.
These are the eyes that envision a past coldly,
This is the mind that unfurls itself wildly,
Conjuring up a host of ghosts.
What is this face, this abstract jigsaw
With eyes where the mouth should be?
What is its name? What color is its voice?
I begin to recall.
This is the memory I had confidently drowned
Five fathoms deep, come suddenly to surface;
It drives cruel fangs into my heart
And I learn what pain is again.
a thousand different things I want to say to you,
like, the moon slid off the face of the sky
just like a tear.
But my mouth disobeys, stays shut as a tomb.
Were you about to say something? you ask and I'm left
defenseless, the doors behind doors slamming shut,
bolts locked into place.
Meaning comes later, after the words that will be spoken
have been spoken.
Remembering will come, too, with its sharp little teeth
that dig and dig.
Don't try so hard, the mind whispers, before the body flings
itself into action.
Nothing, I say, and smile.
What word? What look?
A sadness in your eyes like rain, your empty hands waiting.
Always waiting in vain.
Lately I find myself wordless before you, though
my frustration sometimes tries to translate itself for you.
In those moments, my angry words slash like knives,
knives that cut out your core
and pare the green green fruit of your heart into slivers.
It could be so easy to please you,
if I wanted to.
One word, one look, and the storm in you would be calmed.
But there is a stubborn streak in me, my love,
and I am no Penelope, I am no patient maiden,
willing to face the storm alone,
waiting for you to come and fill my days
while I ravel and unravel the years I have left
like skeins of so much useless thread.
I am only a flesh and blood woman with my own storms,
my own wants.
My boyfriend surprised me with a bouquet of roses yesterday. They were pale pink, the flesh of the inner petals a darker shade, almost magenta. Their heads were so heavy that they nodded like sleepy children, their cheeks suffused with the red patches healthy children's faces always seem to have.
I thanked him for the roses, genuinely surprised. Our anniversary had already passed, Valentine's Day was still a couple of weeks away. I asked him what the occasion was, and he replied, "Just because."
Of course, this only perplexed me more.
I know I have the tendency to over-analyze things too much; my horoscope told me so this morning. But sitting here, contemplating the beauty of these roses, the thoughtfulness of this timeless gesture, I can't help but wonder:
When did it become de rigeur for suitors to give their lovers flowers whose blooms are, at best, transient?
And I cannot resist the sinful thought that a CD or a book would have made for a better gift. At least then I wouldn't have to watch it die.
Part I: A Matter of Time
It is only a matter of time.
I sit by the window in my chamber, watching the leaves of the persimmon tree slowly fall to the earth. A delicate rain. Time passes so slowly when you're waiting for death. My husband, the king, has locked me in because I refused to take my medicine. At least, that's what he insists on calling it. But I know better now.
For two days I have suffered from fits, and the king sent the imperial doctor to see me. To no avail. He prescribed a strange tonic that tasted bitter in my throat, but my fits remain uncured. In fact, I have only gotten worse, the fits longer and more violent now.
From my window, I can see the king and my lady-in-waiting walking the lawns by the fountain. The same fountain the king dedicated to me once. She is his latest favorite, just one of many in his string of conquests.
As the tears blur my vision, I place my open palm on the cold glass of my window. I try to imagine the poison in my blood like a hungry snake, slaking its thirst on the fruit of my heart.
Part II: Once Beloved
My once beloved queen is at the window, her pale heart-shaped face reflected in the glass. Her posture is perfect, as always, her diminutive figure austere. Poised. From this distance I cannot see her eyes, but I envision the pain swimming in the black pools of her irises. She gives no outward sign of the poison that is at this very moment eating away at her. I wonder if she knows that she is dying.
"Night blooming mushroom," the imperial doctor told me as he drew the black bulb out of his bag and placed it in my hand. "Very poisonous." It crouched on my open palm like a deadly spider, ready to pounce and deliver its venom. "The intended victim should drink tea distilled with its essence every six hours, and within 72 hours he will suffer irreparable heart damage and fall into a coma."
"Can she—I mean, he awaken from the coma?"
"No, the effect is terminal. Once the poison reaches the heart, he will surely die."
A fitting end for a traitorous wife. For one who gave her heart away so freely.
Part III: Lady in Waiting
From where I stand in the garden I can see her face, pale and pinched. It is hateful to me.
The king speaks with me, taking care to listen to my words. I giggle and smile coquettishly, hoping he likes my new dress. It is cut specially to accent my bosom, which is one of my best assets. He keeps sneaking glances to my breasts, and when I caught him the last time, I got the satisfaction of seeing him blush. But I only smiled.
My plan is beginning to take effect. Already I have turned the queen against her husband by leaving clues of our (supposed) tryst. By his bed, I casually dropped one of my handkerchiefs, monogrammed with my initials and scented with violet. I am the only one of her court that wears violet, and she will surely know it is mine.
It was harder to convince the king of her infidelities. With my kisses and caresses, I paid the stable boy to spread rumors of the queen's loose ways. It reached the king in no time.
Now it is only a matter of time. I sit in my web, patient as a spider. And wait.
“John, it’s almost ten o’clock. Let’s go to bed.“
“Oh, honey, can’t you see I’m in the middle of something? I’ll join you later. Just remember to wake me up before you go go. I have a meeting tomorrow morning.”
My wife positioned herself in front of me so that she was blocking the computer monitor where I was currently busy customizing my weapons on World of Warcraft. I opened my mouth to complain and then noticed that she was wearing something that looked like it was made out of tissue paper. It was black and very, very see-through. I couldn’t help myself – I stared at her with hungry eyes.
“Don’t you love me anymore?” She pouted. “I’ve been the owner of a lonely heart for months now.”
How could I resist such a request?
“All I want is you,” I told her, and then I endeavored to show her I meant it.
Much later that evening, we lay tangled up in each other.
“(I just) died in your arms,” I whispered.
She turned to me and said, “You know what they say, dear. Love is a battlefield.“
His breath hung in the air like smoke, its weight minimal. Almost transparent. In an instant it was gone. He smiled at her and pulled his scarf tighter against his neck, his eyes a flash of blue that burned into her mind. Its imprint keeping her warm on this cold day.
They had bumped into each other in the library, where Susannah was buying coffee on the first floor, and they fell into conversation the way snow drifts down to ground. That casual. That deliberate. And now he was walking with her to class.
How long had she carried this feather of a hope inside her heart? She couldn’t remember. It was as if the time before didn’t matter, ceased to exist. That old expression, walking on air, well, she felt she really understood it now.
Suddenly a slender, long-haired blond came up and wrapped herself around him. He turned away from Susannah and kissed the blond girl on the mouth.
Susannah felt her heart stop for just a moment before it resumed beating. A little out of rhythm maybe, but still beating.
The waves were rough that morning, the wind whipping them into a froth. The girl pulled the curtain aside impatiently, frowning when she saw the dark clouds on the horizon.
“Don’t even think about going swimming today, m’ija! “
The girl hesitated at the window before moving the curtain back. Something below caught her attention. Her shoulders stiffened as she saw the object of her attention walking towards the shoreline with his surfboard in tow. There was a gaggle of girls following in his wake, all simpering stupidity in their neon print bikinis.
She waited until her mother went down to the lobby before she made her escape. Down at the shore, she caught up with him.
“Hey, did you come for a surfing lesson, too?” He grinned. The other girls shot daggers at her with their eyes.
Ignoring them, she tightened the strings holding up her bikini and smiled at him. “Only if you’re teaching.”
The truth was that she was inexperienced at flirting and even worse at surfing. The proof? One lost bikini top.
Scratch that. Let me try again.
Blech, too… I don’t know, but I know I don’t like it! You know what, I’ll just write..
OK so there’s this girl I hate in 5th period, Jenny. She sits in front of me and she’s so annoying. She’s always raising her hand and wanting to answer every little question the teacher asks. When she’s not doing that, she’s flipping her perfect hair. And when she’s not doing that, she’s flirting with the guy who sits on her left, George.
I really like George. But he doesn’t know I exist. I noticed that his face turned red today when Jenny started in on him again. She’s so pushy. I’d love to speak with him myself, but I don’t know what I would say. I’d probably say something stupid and then he’ll think I’m a moron or something.
Anyways… I just realized I haven’t introduced myself. I guess I don’t know the proper diary etiquette. I haven’t kept a diary in like ten years. My name is Helena and I’m a frustrated seventeen year old.
I sat underneath my favorite tree in the park by my house, reading like I always do when I don’t want strange men or nosy kids coming up to bug me. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Today’s book of choice, Anna Karenina. It’s my second time reading it.
My English teacher thinks I read too much. I think the books she assigns are dumb. I mean, come on, how many times do I have to read Romeo and Juliet? I get it, already, people. Jeez. There’s only so much of those star-crossed lovers a person can take.
So anyways, there I sat, leafing through the book because for some reason my mind was restless and couldn’t settle on the same page. After a bit, I gave up and placed the book on the warm grass by my feet. I looked around me and noticed the tree directly across from me had some carving on it:
Jonathan ♥ Kate Jonathan ♥ Mary Jonathan ♥ Lisette
I wondered if it was the same Jonathan. I wondered, What kind of loser does that?
I never expected to learn the answer to that question.
The woman’s plaintive voice rises and falls like a sigh. I turn up the radio.
No hay mas vida, no hay
No hay mas lluvia, no hay…
I sit at my mirror and brush out my hair.100 strokes every night, ever since I was a little girl. Ever since I could remember. Even before you.
Llévame donde estés, llévame…
My hair hangs to my waist, the length of it like a black waterfall. Your hands once knew it well.
Cuando alguien se va, él que se queda sufre más.
I put down the brush, impatient with myself and my useless recollections. But memory is long and forgetting is never. I will your face to become a ghost, a spirit. Not this relentless image that burns its imprint behind my closed eyes.
No hay mas cielo , no hay
No hay mas viento, no hay
No hay mas hielo, no hay
No hay mas fuego, no hay…
The woman’s plaintive voice rises and falls like a sigh. I give up to memory and feel the tears course down my face, these irrevocable rivers of love and loss.
Cuando alguien se va, él que se queda sufre más…
At first it is hard. At first it feels like pretending, like acting. Like the smile on my face is so plastic, if I move wrong it will crack and part of my face will fall to the ground. Broken.
The thought of this gives me some sick satisfaction, because at least then I will be able to show on the outside how broken I am on the inside. And then I won’t have to pretend anymore.
But I’m still whole, at least on the outside, so I keep pretending. Because I know it breaks my mother’s heart to see me depressed. Because I don’t want my friends to think I’m some estupida who does nothing but mope over a guy who won’t even give her the time of the day.
I see you sometimes, when you don’t think I’m looking at you. When you are rummaging through your locker or joking with your buddies. I watch you laugh and all I can think is, how can you go on living as though you aren’t missing half of yourself? As if your heart has already forgotten me.
Shakira got it right, man. The one left behind always suffers more.
When he touched me, it stung my hand as if an electric current had passed through us. I pulled back instinctively and then felt guilty when I saw him wince and pull back his own hand. He’d been handing me back last week’s notes, which he’d borrowed since he’d missed that class. I could still feel the electricity coursing through my veins, stimulating my senses.
He didn’t know the effect he had over me. But how could I tell him? I certainly couldn’t tell him right now, in the middle of Professor Seitzer’s lecture on 1984.
But when? How? “Hey, what are you doing this weekend? Wanna get together? Oh, by the way, I’m madly in love with you and I have a feeling that you might like me, too. See you later!”
I almost giggled out loud at the thought of telling him in such an offhand way and I had to look down to hide my mirth. But he saw me, and now the ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. I could hide nothing from him.
I would tell him soon, I promised myself. I owed it to myself and to him.
The day began like any other. The sky wasn’t any bluer than normal, the dogs weren’t barking any louder than usual, and Marjorie and I were walking to school, like we always did. She was my neighbor and in a grade below me at Bayland High.
Even though Marjorie was 16 and I was 17, something about her always made her feel older than me. Or maybe it was me. She was always rubbing in the fact that “girls mature faster than boys.” But you know what? It’s the fact that she knows junk like that makes her feel older, more mature somehow. Anyways, I felt like I could relate to her more than most girls (and even guys, truth be told).
As we walked the three blocks to school, Marjorie chattered on about different things: the upcoming Talent Show, her new role as editor in the newspaper, and other things I half paid attention to. So her next question came as a shock:
“Who are you taking to prom?”
I looked at her and realized that prom was this weekend and I still didn’t have a date. Thank God for Marjorie.
I smiled lazily and slung a friendly arm around her neck. “Who’s my date? You are, silly.”
She quickly slid out from under my arm and smiled at me. I noticed that the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Yeah, well you should have asked me if you wanted to come with me,” she sniffed. I’d never seen her look like this.
“I, uh, I’m sorry, Marjorie,” I stuttered, slightly taken aback. Trying a new tactic, I straightened my shoulders and said in a solemn voice, “Will you do me the honor of being my prom date, Marjorie Henderson?”
A real smile spread across her face, lighting her green eyes and making her freckles jump. There was a wistful quality to that smile though that made me feel somehow nervous.
“I’m sorry, Jon. I already have a date.”
“You don’t know him. He’s a sophomore.”
Her voice was so cool, so measured that I wanted to grab her and shake her, shake her until she felt as rattled as I did in that moment. And it was in that moment that I realized I was in love with Marjorie Henderson.
“Have at, you sniveling cockerel of a dog!” A short, extremely rotund man, Ludovic Milfois, pulled back the lace-encumbered sleeves of his shirt and moved forward in what he thought was a menacing manner. In truth, he just looked like an overfed duck waddling forward in ill-fitting clothes.
The other man, who went simply by Jace, stood a short distance away, holding a rapier lazily in one hand. Raising his head, he surveyed Milfois with narrowed green eyes that brimmed over with amusement. Unbelievably, the duck was still waddling towards him. Jace’s second began moving forward, a question on his face. Jace stilled him with a hand.
“Let me take him. The duck’s mine.”
“Are you deaf!” Milfois screamed, his face turning a vivid shade of puce that reminded Jace of his sister’s favorite jam. “I said, have at, you sniveling cockerel of a dog! Are you a man or no? Fight, damn you!”
Jace struck a casual pose and said in a conversational manner, “Technically speaking, a cockerel can’t be a dog too, you know…”
You know how some moments pass by so quickly that it is all you can do to keep your eyes open and hope you don’t blink and miss it? And how some others seem to go on impossibly long, as if time itself has stopped?
Yeah, this story is one of the latter variety.
It began as an ordinary day: sun shining, neighbor waving hello as I sprinted to the paper. The usual.
Then I heard this God-awful sound. It sounded more like a thousand bats screeching than the squeal of slammed brakes. The paper dropped from my unfeeling fingers, forgotten. I stood up straight and saw a terrible sight: a little girl running after a ball, running right into the path of a careening Porsche 911.
I watched as the sunlight gleamed off her yellow hair. I watched as my neighbor’s mouth slowly formed an “O” shape, the hose in her hand falling to the ground, wetting her feet. She didn’t seem to notice.
I watched as this man came out of nowhere and pulled the little girl out of the way.
That’s when my ordinary day became extraordinary.
A restlessness in my chest like a caged bird. I can feel its wings beating against the bars of my ribcage. So many thoughts filling my mind, scratching to get out. They are meaningless, weightless like feathers, but still there.
Days like this, I don’t know what to do with myself.
All day – and all night.
I wander the halls along the walls and under my breath
I say to myself,
I need fuel – to take flight
My mother complains I don’t smile anymore. You weren’t always like this, she says. And as much as I hate to admit it, she’s right.
Is that why they call me a sullen girl – sullen girl.
They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea.
But he washed me ashore and he took my pearl -
And left an empty shell of me.
A restlessness in my chest like a caged bird. How do I go about releasing him from my thoughts? How do I answer my mother’s question and make her see that I’m all right, that it’s all right?
And there’s too much going on.
But it’s calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion.
Julie Meyer had it all.
She was a tall and statuesque brunette with dazzling green eyes, a killer tan year-round, and designer clothes that were perfectly molded to her every curve. Every girl wanted to be her, every boy wanted to have her. All of Finnigan High School was painfully aware of her existence, from the lowliest freshman to the most popular senior.
Today was the first day of her junior year. Julie carefully placed a practiced smile on her face, eager to soak up the attention that was sure to follow, and then pushed open the cafeteria door.
Sure enough, there was a predictable ripple of heads turning to see who’d just walked in, the hush of whispers when they realized it was her. Julie’s smile widened when she saw her friend Stacy wave from one of the benches at the front.
In the back of the cafeteria sat Katherine. She sat alone reading Sense and Sensibility . She didn’t even look up when her older sister walked in. She was used to all the fuss made about Julie, used to being a ghost.
Everything was perfect. The candles were lit, the table set. Roses lined a petal-pink trail from the door to the dining room.
I heard her car pull up and I ran to press play on the stereo. Violins began to fill the room like so many brightly feathered birds. I straightened my tie, patted my pocket to make sure the small velvet box was still there.
Then she opened the door and walked in. She blinked at the dim candle-light. “What’s going on, Eric?” A half-smile on her face as she closed the door and noticed the petals.
“I thought you deserved a nice dinner for a change. You work so hard..” My voice trailed off, unsure.
“Oh wow,” she breathed, as she suddenly noticed the candle-lit dinner waiting for her.
She drifted towards me and laced her arms around my neck. “You didn’t have to do this, Steve.”
It was like a glass of ice-cold water had been dropped over my head. I heard her intake of breath. It sounded like it was coming from a million miles away. I pulled back slowly.
“What did you just say?”
WEST PALM BEACH , FL -
Superhero Average Woman, alias, Jane Doe, best known for being the only superhero to accomplish absolutely nothing of consequence, passed away on Sunday at 2:15 PM. Average Woman and her husband John Doe were enjoying a stimulating game of shuffleboard at their retirement home, Shining Shores, when she unexpectedly collapsed.
Doctors are still awaiting results from the autopsy but they suspect that she died of heat stroke.
“73% of deaths in Florida for individuals aged 50+ are a result of heat stroke,” resident physician of Shining Shores, Kendall Smith, stated. Average Woman was 55.
“She may not have achieved great things like Wonder Woman but she was a good mom most of the time,” her daughter Elizabeth tearfully informed reporters.
When asked how Average Woman made a difference in his life, John Doe responded, “I can best compare our marriage to the tale of Goldilocks – not too hot, not too cold. Just right.”
Average Woman is survived by husband John Doe and their 2.5 children.
Just as Tracy was sweeping away the stray pieces of hair from the floor, she heard the jingle of the door and looked up. It was 5:30 PM and she normally didn’t receive customers this late in the day. Tracy eyed the young couple who entered the salon with a wary eye.
“May I help you?” She asked, leaning on her broom.
The girl couldn’t have been more than twenty. She had long, curly black hair and a childlike smile. The boy was around her age and he had a protective arm slung around the girl’s shoulders.
To Tracy’s surprise, the girl spoke first. “Um, we both wanted a hair cut? I know it’s kind of late, but we just need a cut, no blow-dry or anything…”
As her voice trailed off, Tracy sighed, drawn to the attractive young couple despite herself. “All right, but let me lock the door. You’ll be my last customers.”
The boy sat in the chair first. He asked for “just a trim.” Tracy took a deep breath and placed her hands on his head, waiting for the visceral jolt, the pull of memories that had yet to happen.
I am one of the last remaining Ancients. My skin grows thinner and ever more pale with each passing year, the blue rivers of veins only more visible, as if proclaiming the fact that they have not felt warm blood in a thousand years. My eyes, which were always pale, seem so light these days that they are almost transparent.
I feel as though I am starting to fade.
Marisa assures me that I still look natural, if a little pallid. She advises me to lie in the sun to gain color, but these days I find I cannot endure the feel of direct sunlight on my skin.
So I sit in my room and play my violin and I write poetry which nobody will ever read. And I think of my life, how endless it has been. How full of strife and beauty and rapture. It is almost too much to bear sometimes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I often wonder why I was blessed with this unwanted gift. I worry I am not living up to it. Marisa has come to view her immortality as an affliction, but I view it as an open road with no end in sight.
I first met Marisa in Agrigento in the 13th century. She was the youngest daughter of Count Simon del Vasto and a beauty, with cascading red hair and vivid emerald eyes. After two hundred years of solitude I craved nothing but her presence.
I knew what I was – I bore no false delusions about my predilections, my unnatural habits. So I had to approach her with caution, and above all, with delicacy.
As luck would have it Marisa played right into my hands. I was quite wealthy by that time, always having been prudent with my money, even before the change. Her father approached me in the hopes of arranging a marriage with Marisa. It was no secret that Count del Vasto had lost much of his assets after a fire destroyed five of his vineyards, and I was well aware that he sought to restore his original status. He needed a rich son-in-law for that and I fit the bill.
I was overjoyed of course. But one thing concerned me: at the time Marisa was only twelve. I insisted that the marriage be delayed for four years.
During those four years I got to know Marisa little by little. She was young but endlessly fascinating to me. She could speak about anything and was the rare girl who was not only literate but well versed in Latin and Greek. She wanted to learn Arabic but her father thought it was a waste of time.
She had lost her mother when she was still an infant, barely out of swaddling clothes. And so her three older sisters had raised her. Her father was never around much, but he made sure that each of his daughters receive tutoring in letters and arithmetic. Of the four girls, Marisa showed the most promise, being not only intelligent but resourceful. Having lacked a mother’s touch and watchful eye, there was a domineering, almost masculine quality to Marisa that I found intriguing.
I was enraptured with this woman-child, impatient for the four years to be over and done with. I often regretted my stipulation. Especially when I thought Marisa was starting to suspect that there was something not quite right about me.
The first time I realized that Marisa might have an inkling of what I was occurred at a banquet her father held to honor a visiting senator.
I was seated next to Marisa, as always, and when the servants brought out the many different courses for the guests, I endeavored to snare Marisa in conversation. This was how I was able to distract others from the fact that I did not eat, that I never ate.
In fact, after the change, I never needed food or drink again.
As I prattled on about this or that, commenting on what the senator’s wife was wearing, how abominable the heat was this summer, Marisa suddenly turned her vivid green eyes onto my face and said, “You are not eating.”
It was not a question – it was a statement.
I hesitated before saying, “No, I am not. I don’t feel very well today.”
She continued as if she didn’t hear me or didn’t regard what I had said: “You never eat.”
The question was there, written upon her face. But what scared me was that there was no confusion, no fear in her eyes.
I was pulled by the magnet of her eyes, unable to look away. Unable to answer her. The wall that I had carefully constructed for centuries, hoping that it would hold in everything that I was, everything that made me so different, was beginning to crumble. I could feel my defenses falling in pieces around me.
For the first time, I felt a thrill run through me. I realized I didn’t care if she found out what I was now, in this room full of fragile humans. I was tired of waiting, tired of the unsufferable loneliness. I wanted her to know me for what I truly was. If my heart had been working, I swear it would have beat faster in that moment.
Then the spell was broken as the person seated on the other side of Marisa called her attention to something. She looked away, dragging her eyes reluctantly from my face. The firm set of her lips seemed to suggest that she would not forget, and that I would have to satisfy her curiosity later on.
But Marisa was not to learn of my condition until our wedding night.
The day of the wedding dawned clear. I had stayed up all night wrestling with my inner demons, wondering if I was about to commit the most ungodly of sins, in taking this innocent to be my immortal bride.
Then I laughed when I realized that by my being immortal, I was literally laughing in the face of God. I was already damned.
Though I had been fully conscious during my change, I had never performed the change myself. I had some idea of how to go about it, but no practice whatsoever. I worried something might go wrong, that I might irrevocably hurt Marisa or worse.
For the first time, I regretted distancing myself from the others like me. But the truth was that I was too used to being an outcast, even when I was an ordinary human. We cannot change our stripes that easily, whether mortal or immortal.
So I watched the sun rise over the mountain, lighting the sky on fire. My skin, which grew colder and colder with each passing decade, greedily drank up the sun’s warmth. And I did what I did best – I waited.
The ceremony was held in a cathedral nearly as old as me. Despite the fact that others of my kind did not like frequenting churches or any other type of religious edifice, I thought this was nothing more than superstition. I happened to like churches quite a bit, as they offered quiet places of sanctuary and meditation, and this cathedral was one that I often frequented.
I had never been married before, so I didn’t know what to expect today. I had been changed when I was barely a man, only 19 years of age. I wondered if this sudden nervousness, this tightening of the throat, was normal. I adjusted my tunic and ran an unsteady hand through my hair.
One of Marisa’s sisters, Elisabetta, I think, came up to me and laid a reassuring hand on my arm.
She immediately drew back her hand, as if she’d been burned. “Goodness, you are so cold! There’s no need to be so nervous. Marisa will be a worthy wife for you. Her sisters have taught her well.” And then she flashed me a suggestive smile and walked back to her pew.
Before I could even contemplate the hidden message in Elisabetta’s words there was a sudden hush, an expectant rustling of feet and heads, all turning to face the entrance.
The priest entered first, his attendants each holding a heavy iron cross on either side of him. Then Marisa and her father, Count del Vasto beaming a smile that fairly reeked of self-pride.
You worthless fool, I thought to myself. All the vineyards in the world, including yours, are worth nothing compared to the treasure at your side. My hands balled into fists at my side and I felt my lips curling back to reveal my preternatural grimace. I quickly regained my composure, however, when I realized that it would not do to slaughter my bride’s father on her wedding day.
And then Marisa’s eyes locked with mine and all logical thought fled from my brain. I had never seen her looking so utterly beautiful. Youth fairly bloomed on her – she was like a perfect rose. I knew then my life, whatever those words meant, was no longer mine alone.
The actual ceremony was a blur. I remember the priest intoning the vows, our hesitant voices repeating after him. Marisa’s eyes never left my face. There was an otherwordly glow in them that made my insides ache. In the area where my heart used to beat I felt a burning sensation, as if a fire had set up residence there.
I tried smiling at Marisa, hoping to ease the ache, but careful not to reveal too much. Careful not to give everything away too soon. There would be time enough for that later tonight.
(I was always nervous in front of Marisa, before her change, because I always suspected that she knew something about me, about the real me. She assures me now that this wasn’t the case, that she was completely in the dark about me. But I was nevertheless prudent during those early days, knowing that to reveal myself too soon would be to risk losing her.)
Finally, the interminable ceremony ended and the wedding banquet began in earnest. In a few short hours, Marisa and I would be alone. Forever alone.
Marisa was the first to leave the banquet. After bidding adieu to the guests, she came up and stood on tip-toe and whispered in my ear: “I am going to our bed chamber, husband. I will be waiting for you there.”
I thrilled at that word, husband. I nodded at her and inhaled sharply, knowing that soon I would be alone with this beauteous woman.
I hoped that she would be able to handle the truth. When I chose her, I was banking on her intelligence, on her resourcefulness. I knew that I was not offering her a gift. This wasn’t a prize, immortality – it was a burden, but one that I longed to share with another. I had a feeling that Marisa would prove to be a worthy companion.
But she was so young, only 16. Did I wait long enough? What if she refused me? Perhaps in a few more years… I could surely keep up the pretense until then.
But she was shrewd, she would surely guess my true nature within time…
These were my thoughts as I bid farewell to my guests and climbed the winding stair to our bed chamber.
There were two servant girls waiting in the hallway in front of our bed chamber. They helped me off with my tunic and boots, and then I asked them to leave me. They both smiled and winked at me before departing.
I stood in my underclothes, shivering not from cold (I no longer suffered from the elements) but from a sensation I hadn’t felt in centuries – fear.
I knocked at the door. A musical voice answered, “Who is it?”
“It is I, Lucas. Your husband.”
Then I heard the sound of rushing footsteps and the door was suddenly flung open. Marisa stood there in an ivory night-shirt, her long red curls hanging down to her waist. Her cheeks were flushed as though with fever and her eyes glittered with an inner light. I noticed that she was barefoot and that her feet were utterly perfect, the little half-moons of toe nails gleaming in the near darkness.
“Are you frightened, Lucas? Here’s a secret – I am, too.” Marisa tipped up my chin so that I looked at her. Then I stepped inside and she closed the door behind us.
Marisa kept up a steady stream of chatter, whether to soothe her own nerves or what she imagined were mine, I was not sure.
“My sisters have all told me what to expect for tonight, so you mustn’t worry on my account. I am perfectly prepared.”
I sat down on the bed and watched her. She blushed very prettily and then continued, “It’s to be my first time, of course, so I haven’t got any experience. I did kiss one of the servants’ sons when I was younger, but that doesn’t count, does it?”
“No, I suppose that doesn’t count.” I reached out a hand, beckoning her to me. She was still standing by the door, nervously twining a strand of her hair on her finger.
After a moment of painful deliberation, she took one step forward then stopped. “Is it your first time, too, Lucas?” She whispered, lowering her head so that I could not read her eyes.
I stood up then, but very gently so as to not scare her. I was at her side in a moment, stroking her hair. “Would you believe me if I told you that this is my first time?”
Marisa tilted her head up to look into my eyes and I felt her shudder. I gingerly placed my arms around her waist.
I knew my own strength – I knew how fragile she was. Being what I was, I could not be with her in the way that she meant. Not yet. Not until she was like me, too. I could crush her so very easily now. I could not risk losing her so soon.
I also knew my own temptation, I knew too well the lust I had forsaken for centuries. I had not given in to my temptation since the change, though I had felt stirrings of it from time to time, normally when I was unusually close to human beings.
Just as I was close to Marisa now.
I buried my head in her glorious hair and breathed deeply in the faint fragrance she exuded. I decided that if I took small steps it would be fine. I could control myself. It was safest this way.
I slowly pushed my face through the thick mass of her curls until my nose was resting at the side of her neck. Until I could hear the pulse of her blood.
That was my first mistake.
Suddenly, her scent was all around me. It was in the air, it was in my nose. It was in my head, taunting me, daring me to have a taste, to see if she tasted as good as she smelled.
No. Not her. Not now.
I pushed her away from me with a groan. Too late, I realized I had used too much of my strength. She crumpled against the wall like a rag. Her eyes first wide and scared, then blank and unseeing. A trickle of blood fell from her mouth as her head slumped forward on her chest.
I was at her side in a second, feeling for the tell-tale pulse at her wrist. Her hand hung limply in my own.
“Marisa, wake up, darling, wake up.”
There was the faintest of pulses threading weakly through her veins. She didn’t have much time.
I knew I had two choices then: one – to let Marisa die to her mortal life and rest in eternal peace; or two – to let Marisa die to her mortal life and awaken to an immortal life, with me.
This wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. But it was too late for regrets. It was time to make a choice.
I pulled my lips back and held my wrist against my teeth so that I could feel the incisors pricking the thin skin. Then I pushed my teeth into the flesh until they broke through, until my blood was pouring out in a cold stream. I tilted Marisa’s head back on my arm and let the blood pour into her half-open mouth.
At first she didn’t respond. I worried it was too late. Frantically, I put my wrist right up to her mouth, silently willing her to drink, to awaken, to live.
And then Marisa’s eyes flashed open with such fierce intensity that I was shocked despite myself. She yanked my wrist to her mouth hard, drinking me in. I felt the sharp pull of her thirst, the intense thirst that all fledgling drinkers are born with. The thirst that I was somehow able to resist for so long.
“Drink, my beloved, drink.” I urged her with my soft voice, with my eyes. Then the pull of her thirst suddenly became a pain, racking my body and threatening to tear me apart.
“Let go, Marisa!”
But she didn’t or wouldn’t listen.
The whole world started to turn red. I could feel my veins becoming dessicated, drying out. For the first time since I’d been changed, I thirsted uncontrollably for blood.
Unthinking, beyond any shred of humanity I had left, I pulled Marisa off of me. She felt stronger now, somehow more resistant.
I slammed her hard against my chest and drew her neck level with my mouth. Then I sank my teeth into her fragrant skin.
This was the first time I’d ever fed on blood, human or otherwise. I was not prepared for the glut of sensations, for the flash of memories this awakened. I don’t mean my memories, I mean Marisa’s. Her blood fairly sang of her human life.
I saw Marisa at age five, running wild through a field of sunflowers. Her crimson hair flapping behind her like a flag.
I saw Marisa at age eight, taking her first communion, wearing a demure white veil and kneeling before a cross.
I saw Marisa at age sixteen, walking down an aisle wearing a similar veil, only this time I was there, too.
It was the sight of me in her memories, the sight of my watchful predator’s eyes staring back at me that severed the need. I pushed her gently away with a broken sob and sat down in front of the bed. She fell onto my lap and lay there as if sleeping.
After a long time had passed I raked a hesitant hand through her hair, uncovering her face. Her eyes were looking up at me, unblinking, full of questions.
“Marisa,” I breathed.
“How can you still call me that, after what I have done to you. After what you know me to be.” I groaned and put my head into my hands, reliving the last painful hours. “I could have killed you,” I muttered.
I felt a soft hand on my shoulder. “But you didn’t. I’m still here. Only better than before. I can feel the strength flowing in my veins, your strength.”
I felt Marisa pull away from me. I looked up and saw her standing over me like a beautiful statue, pale and strong. I’d never seen her emerald eyes sparkle so brightly.
“I am yours forever,” she said simply.
That was our first night as husband and wife. It was a painful night, in many ways. I had never performed the change before, and I had forgotten much about my own change. So many centuries had passed since then.
I had forgotten, for instance, how painful it is for fledgling drinkers to expel the remains of human waste from their newly perfected bodies, how uncomfortable the sensation of one’s new blood mixing with the old, as it takes over the capillaries and infuses the brain with different chemicals.
I am no doctor so I cannot pretend to say I know the inner workings of our kind. In the thousand years that I have roamed the earth, I have come across very few of our own kind, and have learned little about our condition. But I have a feeling that the large amount of blood Marisa drank from me, plus the fact that my blood was unchanged from my second awakening, since I’d never, ever drank blood until that night, helped her through the change.
By morning, she was herself again. Well, her new self.
When the sun came up, she was full of questions, mostly about my change.
“How was it for you? Did you have the same horrible thirst that burned right through you? Who changed you? When?”
And then she asked the question that I had been preparing myself for all of this time: “How old are you?”
I looked right into her vivid emerald eyes and answered directly, “I am a thousand years old.”
But that only stopped the flow of questions for a moment before she blinked and continued.
“Where were you born? Whom else have you changed? Where do you feed? On whom or what do you feed? Will I live forever, too?”
I held up a hand to stem the unceasing flow of her questions. She was insatiable for answers. “I will explain, wife. But first, we must destroy the evidence. It won’t do for the servants to find you all bloody and bedraggled, would it?”
“It could just mean we had a wild wedding night, husband,” she said with a wicked smile. But she let me bathe her, change her. In an hour we were both respectable again.
After I helped her into a fresh night-shirt and passed a comb through her gnarled tresses, removing the knots, we lay back down on the bed to rest for a while. The servants would not be bothering us until at least noon, as was custom on the morning after the wedding. We had plenty of time to talk.
Marisa lay curled up at my side like a child. I was unaccustomed to the feel of another body next to me in bed. For so long I’d lived a monk’s life, ascetic, celibate. Undrinking. Not partaking in any temptations, human or otherwise.
“Are you going to answer any of the questions I asked you before, Lucas?”
“In due time, my insatiable little wife. You must let me tell you my story. I have been waiting a very long time for you.”
“Yes, I know, four years.”
“No, my beloved, for centuries.”
This was sufficient to silence her. After a beat I continued, “I have wandered this earth for so long alone that I forgot what it was to yearn for company. When I first laid eyes upon your face, I knew that you were to be mine.”
“I knew then, looking into your pure eyes, that my life until that point had been meaningless. Worthless. You were the reason I’d kept myself alive, though I didn’t know it until then. I finally had a reason to continue. I even began to hope that I might change you, too.”
I saw another question flash in Marisa’s eyes and I stopped her with a quick kiss on her mouth before continuing.
“You asked who changed me. In truth, I do not know. I will tell you what I do know, but for that I must go back to the beginning.
“I was born in Greece to a fisherman and his family. I was one of five children, all boys. I was neither the youngest nor the oldest, but rather somewhere in between. I lived in the sea, always swimming or fishing in it. My name then was Luka.
“I had a happy childhood. My parents did not push me into marriage, allowing their sons to make that decision on their own. So I was still living at home when I turned nineteen, although now I helped provide for my family by selling fish to the villagers.”
“At night, I often liked to swim in the ocean, alongside dolphins and sometimes even sharks. But I was never afraid. I felt more at home in the water than on land.
“One night when I came back to shore, I saw a dark figure waiting for me near where I’d left my clothes next to a sand dune. I couldn’t see the person’s face but I felt their eyes watching me. It was an unnerving feeling. I approached the figure warily, hoping he or she wasn’t looking to steal my money as I wasn’t carrying any with me. As I got closer the figure inexplicably moved farther away. I quickly gathered my clothes and dressed, not even shoving the sandals on my feet in my haste to get away.
“I ran all the way home, wondering if I’d imagined what I’d seen.
“The next night I went swimming with two of my brothers. I didn’t tell them why I wanted them to come, hoping they wouldn’t ask. In the light of day my fears from the night before seemed silly but I wasn’t about to take any risks.
“But the figure didn’t appear that night. Not there.”
“That night I had fitful dreams. In my dreams the dark figure kept moving closer and closer but my feet were somehow glued to the ground, not letting me move. I could only wait and watch as the dark figure moved ever closer to me.”
“I woke up in the middle of the night and decided I would take a walk outside to clear my head. Once outside, I came face to face with the dark figure. This time, he was close enough for me to see him. He was small of build and preternaturally pale, with horrible black eyes that stared right through me. Before I could even scream for help, he pulled me over his shoulder and ran away with me slung over his back like I was weightless, despite the fact that I was much taller than him.
“I blacked out, reawakening in a cave. When I opened my eyes, the man was leaning over me, speaking to me. But I couldn’t understand his language. Then I felt his teeth everywhere, piercing me, killing me.
“Only I didn’t die. Not completely. When I awoke again he was gone and I was already changed.”
“I know, somehow, that I didn’t drink from him. The change could not have happened that way. When I awoke, the cave floor and walls were splattered with a copious amount of blood, too much to be mine alone. I had thin scars all over my body from where he had punctured my skin with his sharp teeth but even as I watched, the scars began to heal until they disappeared completely.
“That was the first clue that there was something really wrong with me.
“And then my body was suddenly racked with intense pains, pains I had never experienced before in my life. I know now that this was just part of the change, my new blood mixing with my old blood, my body becoming what it is today. But at the time I truly thought that I was dying.
“To my great and utter surprise, I did not die. But looking down at my suddenly pale skin, which was once so tan from the sun, I knew that I had changed. In a very real way, my way of living had died. I could not return to the old ways.
“That was the day I learned to say good-bye.”
I sat quiet for a moment, collecting my thoughts. Marisa didn’t stir – she was so still I wondered if she was awake. Then she raised her head up to look at me, an almost tangible sadness in her wondrous eyes.
“Did you ever get to see your family again?”
I smiled mirthlessly, dipping back into the black well of memory.
“Only from afar. What they must have thought about me, I cannot imagine…”
Marisa placed a firm but gentle hand on my arm. “Surely they would never think that you abandoned them.”
I shrugged, looking out the window at the sun. It was almost in the exact center of the sky; soon the servants would be coming in to wake us.
“I don’t know what my family thought. Probably that I’d been murdered by a street robber and thrown over a cliff. They wore black for an entire month and my mother never left the house again. I stayed for a year, living in the same cave where I’d been changed, coming as close to my family as I dared. I left after my mother’s death. I never returned to Greece again.”
“Did you never feed?”
I’d been waiting for that question. I pulled Marisa back so that she was at arm’s length and addressed her directly.
“As I told you before, I’ve never fed on blood before tonight. Even right after the change, when I was being torn asunder by horrible pains and thought I was dying, I did not feel thirst. I have never known thirst until tonight.” I couldn’t erase the trace of remorse lingering in my words. I’d always taken pride in the fact that I wasn’t like the others, that I didn’t feed on innocent humans.
“But I don’t understand. How have you survived? Did you truly never feel this unbearable thirst? It’s almost maddening!” Marisa loosened the ties at her throat that held up her nightshirt, a restless glow in her green eyes.
“I don’t know how I have survived, my love. I suppose I was half-hoping I would starve. And in my blackest hour, after my mother’s death, I tried to kill myself, by jumping off a cliff. But it appears our kind is not meant to die.”
Marisa sat upright on the bed and played with my hands, turning them over as she studied the striking pallor of my skin, the raised veins at the wrist.
“I saw things, when I was drinking from you,” she said softly, still looking down at my hands.
I tipped her chin up with a finger. “What did you see, Marisa?”
“I saw you as a child – how dark you were then, Lucas! You were swimming in incredibly blue waters with your brothers at your side, as swift as fish, darting in and out of the waves … I saw a beautiful woman that had your same eyes, and I saw the love that burned in those eyes …”
“That was my mother you saw.”
“I had an idea it might be her. But Lucas, I didn’t see anything after that. Everything went black, and then you were pushing me away.”
I pulled her close to me now. “I hope I did not hurt you in doing so, little one. But I was afraid you were going to drain me dry.”
She spoke against my chest, her words muffled. “It is I who should be apologizing. But Lucas, why am I still so hungry?”
I always knew we were a little different. There were compartments within Elisabeth that would remain forever locked to me, doors within the vibrant green spheres of her eyes that would always stay bolted shut. Impenetrable.
It was her eyes that first drew me in, those bright green eyes that stared at me so curiously. The shade of them like nothing I’d ever encountered before in nature. Almost but not quite neon. The first time I’d met her, she’d held a wine bottle in her hands, wiping it down with a dark rag. Her narrowed eyes were questioning me across the bar.
“You new here?” she asked in a surprisingly gruff voice.
“Yeah, I’m from Atlanta. Just moved here, actually.”
For a while she didn’t respond. She put the bottle down and moved to take some orders from other customers who’d just walked in. Another bartender came and took my order. I downed two beers before she came back.
“You doing anything now? Any plans?”
I stared at her, half-wondering if she was kidding.
“Follow me,” she said.
Pulling off her apron, she said something to the other bartender, who nodded and then gave me a suspicious look. I tried my best to look innocent as I followed the girl.
She led me through the suddenly crowded bar (Where did all these people come from? I didn’t remember seeing so many people enter the room.), her hips swaying sinuously as she navigated her way past a particularly rowdy bunch of frat boys.
One of them reached out and tried to put his arm around her waist. The beefy twenty-something year old leered at her as his buddies egged him on. The next thing I knew, that same guy was folded over forward on the floor, moaning in pain. The girl stood by the kitchen door about ten feet away. She beckoned me towards her with an impatient hand. Dumbfounded, I followed.
In the kitchen, I watched as she filled a ziplock bag with ice and held it to her left hand.
“That’s quite a left hook you got there,” I said, my voice cracking just slightly.
“Thanks,” she smiled, revealing perfect teeth.
Her pale hair swung forward as she looked at her hand, which I could see was beginning to swell.
“Crap, that’s going to hurt tomorrow,” she muttered, biting her lower lip.
“Doesn’t it hurt now? I mean, you must’ve hit that jerk pretty hard, to make him crumple like that.”
Those green eyes flashed to my face again, unnerving me. “What kind of guy uses the word ‘crumple’?” she asked, smiling again.
I realized to my horror that I was blushing. Even my ears were beginning to turn red.
Mercifully, she averted her face as she turned to toss the ziplock bag into the sink. By the time she’d turned back to face me, my face was (hopefully) back to its usual ashen state.
“So, you got a name?”
“It’s Nicholas. Nick,” I said. “What’s yours?”
“My name’s Elisabeth. It’s nice to meet you, Nicholas Nick.” Her eyes danced as a smile curved her red lips. “What do you say we get out of here? Let me give you a tour of my city.”
I’d only spent 72 hours in my new hometown, Chicago, and already things were looking promising.
I can remember how dark that night was. The moon was shrouded in clouds that were pulled across the sky by a restless wind. It was October and unseasonably cold.
On the way out of the bar, Elisabeth grabbed an oversized coat from the closet in the kitchen, and as we stepped out onto the sidewalk, she shoved her hands into its pockets.
“First, I think I’ll take you to my favorite place,” she’d announced, before she began marching across the street. I had to run to catch up.
“Where is that?” I asked as I struggled to match my pace with hers. She walked very fast for someone who was relatively short, only about five-four to my six feet.
She peered up at me, a strand of hair whipping across her face. “Don’t you like surprises, Nick?”
For some reason, it made me ridiculously happy to hear her say my name. “No, not really,” I responded, but she only grinned, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
We walked in companionable silence for about ten minutes before I took notice of a giant ferris wheel in the distance.
Soon, we’d arrived at her destination. There was not only a giant ferris wheel that dominated the skyline, 150 feet or so in height alone, but also a carousel, a miniature golf field and a funhouse. But the ferris wheel definitely stole the show, no doubt about it. I gazed at it in awe, aware that my jaw was hanging open but not even caring about it.
Elisabeth turned to face me, her pale blond hair caught on a sudden gust of wind. It fluttered around her head like a halo.
“Welcome to Navy Pier. This is one of my haunts.” Her voice was almost stolen by the wind and I had to lean down to catch it. Doing so, I inadvertently breathed in her scent. She smelled like violets and cigarettes. A heady scent, a paradox of smells.
The next thing I knew, Elisabeth was pulling me towards the ferris wheel. “Come on,” she urged, “the lines are insufferable on Friday nights. I want to make sure we get a cart to ourselves.”
She was right. The line to ride the ferris wheel was long. It took an hour, but it was worth it.
The truth was that I was a little nervous about getting on the ferris wheel. Not because of Elisabeth, though I confess she did rattle my senses a bit that first night, and would continue to do so for the rest of our short time together. No, it was because I am deathly afraid of heights. Just getting onto that cart and feeling it sway as it began its ascent made my knees turn to jelly.
“You cold, Nick?” she asked, mistaking my chattering teeth for the chill.
“Y-Yeah. Must be ‘cause I’m from Hotlanta. I’m not used to this cold.”
She playfully punched me with her good hand. “Wait until January or February rolls around. Then you’ll really know what cold is.”
Elisabeth was sitting next to me in the cart and I had to turn my head to look at her. I carefully avoided looking down below, trying to focus on her face instead. We’d managed to get a cart all to ourselves, despite the fact that it normally sat 6 passengers.
“Soon you’ll know why this is my favorite place,” she sighed.
So I did. I stared out into the starless sky, watching the clouds as they raced each other. The moon broke out from her clouds from time to time, a pale and expressionless face that bore mute testimony over us. The cart continued its relentless ascent up into the heavens, going impossibly high. I balled my hands into fists and tried not to break out into a sweat.
“Look down, Nick,” she cried suddenly.
I forced myself to look down, though my eyes were unwilling. But I didn’t want to look like a coward.
At first I didn’t see much at all. Just an endless expanse of black. But then the moon broke free from the clouds again, spilling a brilliant wash of light below. I could see an enormous stretch of water, its surface rippling with the wind. It glittered and gleamed in the moonlight.
“Ahh, it’s so peaceful here. This is the only place I can really relax,” Elisabeth sighed again and leaned her head gently against my shoulder.
“That’s Lake Michigan, right?” I said dumbly, suddenly feeling the need to speak.
Her green eyes looked at me askance in that disconcerting way of hers.
“Did you fail geography in grade school or something, Nick? Of course that’s Lake Michigan. It’s only one of the five Great Lakes of America. The only one that is contained entirely within the United States, coincidentally.”
“Huh,” I murmured, looking at her.
“What?” she demanded.
“Oh, it’s nothing, I just didn’t peg you for a geography nerd, is all.”
She went to punch me on the arm again, but this time she forgot to use her good hand. She winced as her hurt fist came in contact with my shoulder.
“Ow, look what you made me do!”
I laughed and moved forward to take her left hand in mine. The sudden jolt of electricity that passed from her hand to mine was so unexpected I almost jumped. The laughter died in my throat. I busied myself with studying her hand, opening the fingers to look at her palm.
“At least the swelling’s gone down,” she said so softly I could barely hear her.
I kept my eyes on her palm. “Hmm, very interesting.”
With gentle fingers, I traced the delicate network of lines across her palm.
I took a deep breath and braved her green eyes again. I found I could only look into them in short bursts before my lungs would begin to contract painfully. I was starting to wonder if one could contract asthma as an adult.
“You have a short life line, but your love line is the longest I’ve ever seen,” I said.
She stared back at me in silence for a beat before she pulled her hand back and scoffed at me. “Get out!”
“It’s true. Don’t believe me if you want. My great-grandmother was a gypsy,” I replied airily pretending to be miffed. To my surprise she leaned in close again, an expression on her face I couldn’t quite read. It was as if she wanted to believe me but was thinking better about it.
“You’re so full of it, Nick. I should’ve known better when I started talking to you at the bar.”
I looked away again, trying (and failing) not to smile. To my surprise I found it wasn’t so unbearable after all, being 150 feet off the ground.
After the ferris wheel came back down to earth, I turned towards her expectantly.
“Well, what next, tour guide? Or are you so utterly disgusted with my fortune telling skills that you want to abandon me?”
She laughed, the sound of it ringing like a bell and calling the attention of a few bystanders. Her cheeks were flushed, whether from the cold or something else, I couldn’t tell.
“It’s not the first time a guy has fed me a pick-up line, though I must admit, that was the most creative line I’ve ever heard.”
We began walking in no particular direction, the bright lights of the carousel and the excited yelps of young children receding in the distance as we talked. She asked what I was doing in Chicago, and I explained how I’d recently been hired at a local community college to teach painting. It wasn’t the best paying job, but as an aspiring artist, I knew that my chances were better in Chicago than in Atlanta.
Part of me wondered why it was so easy to speak with her. It was as if I’d always known her.
We left Navy Pier a little after midnight. As we walked away from the pier, our words ran out until we were walking in silence.
The air between us still seemed charged with that same strange electricity. I had an irrepressible urge to touch her, to reach out and brush the long pale hair out of her eyes. To hold her. I was well aware of how insane this urge was, of how insane I was.
As I walked next to this perfect girl, I found myself trying to reason my way out of this attraction. It must be because I’m new here, and lonely, and it’s been a while since I last dated anybody. It must be those beers I drank back at the bar. It must be a hallucination. Tomorrow I’ll wake up and realize it was all a dream.
My brain raced from one explanation to the next like a lab rat in one of those tortuous mazes. But I could find no way out of this tangled mess of emotions that was currently mixing up both my head and stomach.
Suddenly I realized that I desperately needed to find a restroom, the quicker the better.
Just as I was about to open my mouth to ask where I could find a restroom, Elisabeth suddenly announced: “Oh my gosh, I haven’t been here in ages. I can’t believe Johnny kept the place! That is, if he’s still here.”
We stood in front of what looked to be a dilapidated pizza joint. The sign was missing some letters and the paint on the door was cracked and covered in fading graffiti. It had definitely seen better days. Only the OPEN sign in the window looked new, its letters a bright neon blue. Sure enough, most of the tables inside were full, despite the fact that it was 12:30 AM. And if it was open, then maybe it had a bathroom inside that I could use…
“Are you hungry?” I asked, hoping she would say yes.
“Yeah, sure. I’m always down for some pizza. They make the best deep dish. Takes a while, but it’s totally worth it.”
Once inside, the hostess cheerily told us to sit down wherever we wanted. I quickly excused myself to find the bathroom. As I sprinted away, I could hear her asking for Johnny.
It was a waste of time …. and tears were beginning to form in her stockings, jagged zig-zags that looked like fault lines.
“Vanessa, ballerinas are supposed to be delicate in their movements, not stomp around like elephants.”
The other girls, those heavenly creatures in their petal-colored leotards, snickered in a very unladylike way. Vanessa sighed. Yes, it was a waste of time to be enrolled in this class at Ballet Etudes, but her mother had insisted.
Apparently, their teacher had decided enough was enough, because she turned off the stereo.
Vanessa resisted the urge to squeal with delight. This was her favorite part of class, the only part she liked: the FREE dance!
“OK, girls, that’s enough practice. Enjoy yourselves. Let loose. Let’s see some creativity!”
And creativity is exactly what Vanessa gave them. She spun around and around and around, growing more dizzy, more ecstatic, with each passing turn. She didn’t notice the other girls stop and stare at her, unconcealed envy in their eyes.
There was a rustle of crinoline as she swept away on his arm, laughing throatily at something he said. I pushed my chair further back so that I was sitting against the wall. I longed to be absorbed into it, to become a true wallflower so that I did not have to watch my cousin make a fool of herself.
Ball after ball it was the same. I had to pretend not to listen when I heard the other women begin to whisper behind raised fans, whisper about her:
“Such a pretty little thing, Isabelle Montgomery -“
“This season is her debut and already she’s well known -“
“And no wonder! Such an easy little thing. I heard Mr. de Grave stole a kiss in the gardens a fortnight ago.”
Women could be so cruel. I slapped my fan shut remembering how my stomach had curdled the first time I heard those words. I wish I could tell my cousin, warn her somehow.
But she would never listen. She was madly in love with Vincent de Grave, the man with whom she was dancing now. The man who was singlehandedly ruining her reputation.
Usually I was able to ignore the heated gossip of these women, but tonight I was distracted and letting it get to me. The sound of my name suddenly caught my attention. This was new; they didn’t normally talk about me.
”’Tis a pity the cousin, what’s-her-name…”
“Yes, that’s it. As I was saying, ‘tis a pity she doesn’t share her cousin’s looks. I mean, she is handsome, albeit in a rather feline way, with those strange slanted eyes of hers.”
I was holding my fan so tightly that the sticks snapped in my hand. I hid it under a fold of my skirt and tried to compose my frayed nerves. Suddenly I felt someone standing over me. Looking up, I found myself staring into a pair of pitch-black eyes.
“Would you care to dance, miss?”
I blinked and resisted the temptation to look around and make sure he was really asking me, and not somebody else.
“Oh no – no thank you. I don’t dance.”
To my surprise, he heaved a sigh of relief and pulled up a chair. “Oh, thank goodness. I don’t either.”
I looked down at my lap, wondering what on earth this man was doing sitting down next to me. Men normally took no notice of me, as most people normally behaved around me. This was decidedly abnormal behavior. I wasn’t quite sure how to react.
He sat tapping his toe in beat with the music, watching the dancing. I stole a glance and noticed he had pleasant features, though his nose was a bit prominent. But his strong brow and deep-set eyes more than made up for that. There was something foreign about him. He didn’t look like most of the men in Devonshire. All of a sudden he swiveled his eyes towards me, a questioning look writ upon his face. I blushed furiously and looked away again.
“I couldn’t help noticing that your fan needs repair,” he said and I realized that I’d moved the fan back into my hands, forgetting I’d snapped the sticks just moments before.
I laughed nervously. “These things are so dreadfully delicate. They break so easily.”
He took it from my hands and examined it. “I think I can fix this.”
We bent our heads over my fan, discussing the best way to go about fixing it. Unaware of our surroundings. The abrupt sound of de Grave clearing his throat burst the bubble. I realized to my chagrin that I had moved my chair closer to the man, so that our legs were almost touching, and then there was the more embarrassing realization that I didn’t even know this man’s name. How would I introduce him to Isabelle and de Grave now?!
As luck would have it, de Grave was already acquainted with him.
“Geof, old boy! How long has it been? What – four, five years? I haven’t seen you since Oxford!”
There was much hand-shaking and back-slapping. Isabelle raised her perfectly groomed eyebrows over this exchange and smiled at me. I smiled back, relieved that I didn’t have to reveal my lack of social skills.
Finally, the men turned back to face us. De Grave said, “Geoffrey, allow me to introduce Miss Isabelle Montgomery and her cousin Miss Samantha Delacourt. Ladies, may I present the Honorable Lord Geoffrey Windham.”
I stood on unsteady legs, marveling that this rather nondescript man was not a mere mister but a lord, and an honorable one at that. My curtsy left much to be desired, whereas Isabelle’s was graceful and elegant, as always. I saw Lord Windham’s eyes light up with interest as he regarded my cousin. I had become a wallflower again.
I had every reason to be jealous of Isabelle. She was everything I was not – she had the flaxen curls, porcelain skin and blue eyes that were all the rage at the moment. Her waist was tiny and hardly had any need of a corset. Her posture was perfect, her dancing divine.
While my complexion had no fault, it was darker than Isabelle’s, almost approaching olive. My hair was pin-straight and black, refusing to stay in the crown of curls that was the current fashion. Then there were my “feline” eyes, which were a rather pretty color, almost emerald. They might not be fashionable but I quite liked them anyways. Lastly, my posture (not to mention my dancing) needed improvement.
Yes, I had every reason to be jealous of my cousin, this “Fair Rose,” as one of her previous suitors had dubbed her. But I could never be jealous of Isabelle. Because this rose came without thorns, without even one malicious thought in her head.
I watched as she gazed up at de Grave, her blue eyes soft with affection. How ironic, that what I most admired in her – her unflagging ability to see the best in everyone, and not rely on others’ judgment – was what was leading to her downfall.
“Why aren’t you two out dancing? Why are you seated like a pair of hens?” de Grave asked Lord Windham and me, his dark eyes scornful as he surveyed the row of matrons seated against the wall. They bristled as they met his stare. De Grave just laughed that strange, hollow laugh of his before turning back to us.
“Miss Delacourt and I were just figuring out how best to fix her fan,” Lord Windham said, smiling at me in a way that made my stomach hurt.
“Oh, Sam, you broke another fan!” Isabelle cried with dismay. I sighed.
Then Lord Windham did something quite surprising.
“Oh, no, don’t go blaming poor Miss Delacourt for something I did. You see, it broke when I was examining the stitching. Just ask Vincent – I’ve always been a bit clumsy.”
“Yes, he possesses the dubious power of breaking things just by looking at them.”
While the four of us were laughing, I stole a glance at Lord Windham and found him already looking my way. He winked. I smiled at him gratefully.
Just then they began calling the guests in for dinner. De Grave offered Isabelle his arm and then went to give me his other arm, as he normally did. This was the part I hated the most in every ball, because it was obvious de Grave would rather sit alone with Isabelle. He was just doing this to please my cousin.
As I was walking towards de Grave and Isabelle, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“That’s just like you, Vincent, to be escorted by two lovely ladies while I have to dine alone. Please be kind to a lonely bachelor, Miss Delacourt, and sit with me.”
Lord Gavinson made for a very merry host, and his wife, Lady Marguerite, was the consummate hostess, stopping by every table to greet each guest personally.
When she reached the table where Isabelle, de Grave, Windham, and I were seated, she checked suddenly, the smile on her face faltering ever so slightly. I noticed her face pale as she caught sight of de Grave. For the first time, I saw de Grave look disconcerted, his usually cool demeanor shaken. He suddenly became concerned with the contents of his wine glass.
Isabelle took no notice of this and asked Lady Marguerite where she had purchased her beautiful gown. This was enough to restore her good humor and she began to speak with Isabelle quite animatedly about a “darling little shop in Paris.”
But Lord Windham had noticed. He bent his head to speak with de Grave in a hushed whisper. I sipped my wine and tried very hard to appear deaf.
“Is she invited, Vincent?”
“I’m not sure.”
“When did you last see her?”
“Not since last year.”
Soon, Lady Marguerite bid us a good meal and left to speak with the guests at another table, but not without casting a dark look at de Grave. I noticed that though de Grave would not meet Lady Marguerite’s eyes, Lord Windham did, and he gave her a very haughty stare.
“I wonder what that was all about,” I thought to myself, biting my lower lip as I often did whenever I was pensive. “Who could that mysterious ‘her’ be? And why was Lady Marguerite staring at de Grave in that way…?”
“Well, you look the very figure of contemplation! In fact, if I were a skilled artist, I should wish to draw you in such a pose and I daresay I would title it, ‘Contemplation.’”
I came out of my reverie with a start, finding Lord Windham gazing at me with a twinkle lighting up his dark eyes.
“Oh, I’m just tired. We were at another ball last night, the Joffreys’, and I’m afraid I haven’t gotten much sleep.” I feigned what I hoped was a very realistic yawn. Lord Windham, however, didn’t seem very convinced.
“Miss Beatrice Hughley,” the servant announced in a sonorous tone. I looked up, as did many guests, curious to see who the late-comer was.
A young woman stood uncertainly on the threshold. She was so pale she was almost translucent, and her hair, a red so vivid it shone through the powder, was wound in intricate plaits upon her head. Amber eyes fringed with impossibly long lashes peered out into the room, searching the tables. As her eyes fell upon our table, a tremulous smile lit up her face and she began walking towards us, the voluminous skirts of her pale pink gown whispering as she moved.
Next to me, Lord Windham stood, a ready smile upon his lips. “Dearest Betty,” he said, holding out his hands. Miss Hughley took his hands and smiled up at him.
“Geoffrey, I haven’t seen you in ages. How is your sister?”
The other guests turned their attention back to their plates, bored again, and I attempted to do the same. When I turned back to face the table, I noticed that de Grave was no longer there.
Isabelle, however, was still in her seat, chatting amiably with the elderly lady seated on her left, and seemingly unperturbed by the empty seat on her right. Before I could catch my cousin’s attention, Lord Windham began speaking to me.
“Miss Delacourt, have you met Miss Hughley?”
I smiled at Miss Hughley and was rewarded with an engaging smile in return. “No, I haven’t. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Hughley. I’m Samantha Delacourt.”
Thankfully, I was able to essay a more or less decent curtsy this time. Miss Hughley exclaimed, “What beautiful eyes you have, Miss Delacourt! They’re like emeralds.”
“Thank you, and please, do call me Samantha.”
“Only if you will call me Betty.” Miss Hughley – Betty – stopped and regarded me with a candid stare, then said, “I have a feeling we are going to become very good friends, Samantha.”
Lord Windham chuckled. “And Betty’s feelings are never wrong, are they, Betty?”
Betty reverted her attention to him. “Geoffrey, I could’ve sworn I saw de Grave. Is he here?”
Lord Windham’s smile never wavered though I noticed his eyes narrow almost imperceptibly.
“He stepped out just before you arrived, most likely gone to partake of some snuff in the gardens as he’s wont to do after the first course. You know how devilish fond he is of that rubbish.”
Betty laughed, the sound of it like a tinkling bell. “Yes, that does sound like Vincent. Well, I suppose I’ll go and surprise him. No, don’t worry, Geoffrey, I can find my way. And besides, I should go apologize to Lady Maguerite for my late arrival. She’s been staring daggers at me since I entered the room. It was a pleasure to meet you, Samantha. I’ll be in touch.”
And as quickly as she had arrived, Betty was gone again, walking with a quick though graceful step to the table where Lady Marguerite sat chatting with a red-faced priest.
“Nice girl, isn’t she?” Lord Windham drawled, popping a grape into his mouth. “Known her since I was in the nursery. But let’s talk about you, Miss Delacourt. What brings you to London?”
I hesitated before answering. Why was he so curious? Surely, he couldn’t be interested in me. I’d seen the way he’d looked at Isabelle, that admiring glance that men couldn’t help but give her. His eyes were warm, certainly, as he looked at me, glinting with curiosity. But not with admiration. Of that much I was sure.
I decided to try and adopt a carefree manner. “I’m in London for the very same reason every other young girl is in London right now – it’s the beginning of a new season.”
“But this isn’t your debut, is it?”
I almost dropped the wine glass. How did he know?
He was looking down at the table, an inscrutable expression in his eyes. “I remember you from last year. You had an impenetrable shield wrapped around you that no man dared approach. Also, your chaperon, Lady Huxtable, was quite formidable. I confess I was surprised, happily so, to see you tonight. And also relieved to see that Lady Huxtable is not with your party.”
He looked up at me then and smiled. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I answered, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t remember you.”
I really didn’t remember him. In truth, he did not have unforgettable features, unlike de Grave, though he was attractive, in his own way. I was floored that he remembered me.
I felt I had to defend my chaperon, Lady Huxtable. “Lady Huxtable couldn’t attend tonight as she is home recovering from a bad cold. She is still my chaperon, mine and Izzie’s now, and she isn’t as bad as she seems. Lady Huxtable was good friends with my mother growing up, and after my parents died she became my guardian.”
He leaned in close just then, a mischievous glow in his eyes, and whispered, “Can you keep a secret?”
Curious, I found myself leaning towards him, too. “Yes…”
“All right, but you must promise not to breathe a word to anyone.”
“Go on! Tell me,” I hissed.
“Well, all right. We have a nickname for her, in the gentleman’s club. We call her the ‘Dragon.’”
Despite myself, I began giggling.
Just then the band resumed their places and began playing a quadrille. It was a lively dance, and I always enjoyed watching watching couples performing it.
Men and women, both young and old, began taking the floor.
“Are you sure you don’t dance, Miss Delacourt?” Lord Windham asked. “Your feet seem to be suggesting the opposite.”
It was true, I was tapping my feet in tune with the beat. But I couldn’t resist – the music was that infectious.
Before I knew what was happening, he was bending over me, his hand outstretched. “Come, let us cement our new friendship. Come dance with me.”
Just then Isabelle and de Grave were passing us, heading towards the dance floor. “Lord Windham, Samantha’s dance card is empty. And I happen to know that Samantha is a genius when it comes to the quadrille. She’s the one who taught me how to dance it!” I frowned at my traitorous cousin. She’d be regretting this later.
But Lord Windham took my hand firmly. “Alas, you’ve been discovered,” he said, as he helped me to my feet.
As we began dancing, I searched the room, looking for Betty. I hadn’t noticed when de Grave had come back. He looked as though he hadn’t a care in the world as he danced with Isabelle. I wondered what he and Betty had talked about in the garden, assuming that Betty had been able to track him down. I wondered where Betty had gone off to -
“Oh, I do beg your pardon, Miss Delacourt. But you have been warned of my clumsiness. I trust your foot is, ah, undamaged?”
“Quite,” I responded in a stiff tone that was belied by my smile.
Despite Lord Windham’s avowed clumsiness, he was a skilled dancer, moving with assurance and grace. I found myself disappointed when the dance was over. But then Lord Windham stayed standing in front of me. “I know I’m being dreadfully selfish, but will you dance with me again? That is, if your card doesn’t mind.”
“No, my dance card doesn’t – I mean, I don’t mind, Lord Windham.”
After that dance was over, not one but three men were waiting to ask for the next dance.
“Miss Delacourt, you seem to have become the belle of the ball. I shan’t keep your admirers at bay any longer, for fear that I’ll be engaged in a duel. May I have your dance card?”
“My dear Miss Delacourt, I do believe you are funning with me. Surely you know the function of dance cards. If I don’t pen my name down for another dance now, I probably won’t get the chance again tonight.”
I laughed nervously as I handed him my card. I honestly didn’t know how dance cards worked. Lady Huxtable always made me carry one, but this was the first time I’d ever danced at a ball, let alone had to use my card.
After scratching his name down for ten o’clock, he essayed a deep bow and left me with alone with three unfamiliar men.
“Er, now who was first?” I smiled, unsure of what to do next. I needn’t have worried. They quickly took care of matters, filling out my card, one of them arguing with the other two when he insisted on claiming two dances in a row.
I found myself looking forward to ten o’clock.
I was a poor dancing companion for my so-called “admirers.”
“Your name is Miss Delacourt, is it not?”
“Hmm…? Oh, yes, it is.”
As soon as Lord Windham had left my side, he was quickly snatched up by Betty. He looked all too happy to lead her in the next dance, a waltz. I kept sneaking glances at them. They made a handsome couple, but they never smiled. In fact, they looked strangely serious, their eyes never leaving the other’s face.
I scarcely paid attention to the men with whom I danced. I just kept nodding or smiling in the appropriate places, trying to imitate Isabelle’s charm (and probably failing miserably in the attempt).
Isabelle kept flashing meaningful looks my way, but I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to tell me.
Lord Windham never once looked at me. He was too preoccupied with Betty.
When the dance ended, he bowed deeply before her and then quickly left the room.
Ten o’clock came and went but he never returned to claim his dance with me. I tried not to look too disappointed.
Isabelle chattered happily in the carriage all the way back home from the ball.
“Oh, Sam, I was trying to catch your attention when you were dancing with Viscount Dubois, but I guess you were too distracted by his stunning good looks to notice me!”
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember that tall gentleman with the sparkling green eyes? He was wearing so many medals, I thought he would surely be knocked down by the weight of them! He looked quite taken with you, Sam.”
Isabelle waved a hand before my face, and I blinked her into focus.
“What is it?” I said, a bit more crossly than I would have liked.
“What is wrong with you, Sam? I’ve never seen you like this.”
I sighed. “I’m sorry, Izzie. I’ve got a dreadful headache. Maybe I’m catching Lady Huxtable’s cold.”
Back at Lady Huxtable’s apartment, I allowed Isabelle to fret over me, even letting her make me some hot tea.
But I slept poorly that night. And when I finally did fall asleep, it was only to dream of Lord Windham.
I woke up at half past ten. The housekeeper Candace was just coming in with my morning chocolate when I opened my eyes. A maid carrying a vase full of flowers entered with her.
“Oh, you’re finally up, Miss Sam! You’re looking a fine mess this morning, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Candace was a plump woman in her fifties who spoke with a thick Scottish accent. She had a short temper and a big heart, and she’d been working for Lady Huxtable for twenty years. She’d always felt like family to me.
“Good morning, Candace. Is everyone up already?”
“Aye, even Lady Huxtable is up and about, and feeling much better, so she says.”
I sat up slowly, feeling an unaccustomed pounding in my temples. I groaned and sank down into my pillows. Candace laid the tray on my bedside table and came to place a cold hand on my forehead.
“Bless your poor heart, Sammie, you’ve got a fever! Let me ring for the doctor. You just stay put, dearie.”
“Who are those flowers from, Candace?”
“Hmm? Oh, these are from a Lord Windham.”
I waited until Candace and the maid had left the room and then pushed back the covers and ran to the table. I had to hold the table with both hands to steady my legs, I felt that dizzy, but it soon passed.
I found a small envelope hidden in the flowers – the fattest, reddest roses I’d ever seen – and tore it open, taking out the card with trembling fingers.
Please forgive me for leaving the ball so early last night. I pray you will allow me to call on you today at 4 o’clock to apologise in person. Until then, please accept these roses as a token of our new friendship.
If the weather is fine and Lady H. permits, we may even go driving in my phaeton.
Until then, I am ever…
I had barely finished reading it before I heard Candace’s unmistakable step in the hall, so I dashed back to bed with the card, tucking it under my pillow.
Soon the doctor arrived and announced that I had a head cold. He prescribed no less than seven days of bed rest.
After I got over the initial disappointment, I asked Candace to fetch Isabelle to me as soon as possible.
“Oh, Miss Sam, didn’t she tell you? Izzie went to the library with Lady Huxtable and Mr. de Grave.”
I had wanted to see if Isabelle could send a note over to Lord Windham so that he would know not to come. I didn’t want one of the nosy maids taking the note – they would surely relay the information back to my guardian. I wasn’t quite sure how Lady Huxtable would feel about Lord Windham coming to call on me.
Lady Huxtable was not as strict with my cousin, Isabelle, as she was with me. Perhaps it was because Isabelle wasn’t her ward and was staying with us just for the season.
She would probably be impressed with Lord Windham’s title, but I knew from prior experience that she frowned upon my being seen in public with another man without a chaperon (i.e., Lady Huxtable) present. Better to wait until she returned before I set up any future meetings with Lord Windham.
In the meantime it looked like one of the maids would have to relay the message to Lord Windham after all. I’d deal with the consequences later.
I got out of bed again, this time to fetch some stationary and my quill. I felt too weak to sit at my desk, so I brought everything back to bed with me and wrote the message there.
Dear Mr. Windham,
Thank you for the beautiful flowers. Unfortunately I am currently unable to receive any callers as I seem to have contracted my guardian’s cold and was prescribed bed rest for a week.
I look forward to our next meeting and will be in touch again soon.
I realized I needed Lord Windham’s address, which was probably on the envelope that came with his card. I saw where it lay, on the floor under the table, where it had most likely fallen when I had torn it open to read the card. However, I decided to rest my eyes for just a minute before standing up again. I was still feeling dizzy and the warmth of my bed felt so delicious…
I woke up with a start when I heard voices in the hall. I blinked at the seemingly sudden darkness in my room. Glancing at my clock, I realized it was a quarter past four…
I suddenly heard Candace’s raised voice and another voice in concert with it, a somehow familiar voice…
“Now, did you say her room was the second or the third?”
“I said nothing of the sort! Sir, you cannot go in there! Lady Huxtable is not present at the moment and she does not allow Miss Delacourt to receive gentlemen callers without a suitable chaperon present! Furthermore, that is Miss Delacourt’s bedroom!“
“You seem a suitable enough chaperon to me, Madam.”
The door opened and a tall man in riding boots stood there. It was Lord Windham.
I saw a strange glitter in his eyes as he stood there looking down at me, and I suddenly realized I was lying in bed with the covers thrown off, plus my night-shift had hitched up while I was sleeping and my legs were currently quite bare.
With a shriek, I yanked the covers over my head.
I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. I just lay huddled under the covers, willing the earth to open up and swallow me. My cheeks were blazing hot, and not just because of my fever. I wanted, truly, to die, and be relieved of this misery.
But then I heard something that quite washed away my embarrassment, something that was enough to make me resurface again.
Lord Windham was laughing at me. If there was one thing I could not tolerate, it being laughed at.
I pushed the covers off again (though keeping them modestly tucked under my chin) and chided him, “How dare you laugh at me! First you have the nerve to – to break into my house -“
“Actually, miss, I did open the door -” Candace tried to interject, but I went on as if I didn’t heed her.
“-And then you have the unsufferable gall to come into my bedroom and laugh at me whilst I lay in my sick bed? For shame, Lord Windham!”
This was enough to still his torrent of laughter, though I could still see the mirth reflected in his eyes.
Suddenly, all trace of laughter was erased from his chiseled features (I hadn’t noticed last night what fine cheekbones he had) and he essayed a decorous bow.
“I apologize, Miss Delacourt. It’s just I wanted to give you this in person. I’m quite sure you’ll understand and perhaps even forgive my … intrusion when you see it.” He drew a long, flat box out from beneath his riding cloak. The box was light blue in color and trimmed with gilt.
“What is it?” I asked, curiosity getting the better of me. I held out my hands and he placed the box gently on my waiting palms. It felt light. I was almost tempted to shake it.
“Something you left behind last night. Something every fashionable lady requires for her season.”
I carefully eased open the lid and pushed it aside. Inside the box lay my fan, the fan I’d carelessly broken last night. I suddenly remembered leaving it on the table next to my reticule as I danced. But I didn’t remember it being there when I came back for my reticule at the end of the night…
I lifted the fan out of the box carefully, realizing the sticks which I’d broken last night were somehow mended now.
“You fixed my fan!”
Lord Windham smiled then, a true, genuine smile that lit up his entire face. Then he said with a wink, “Of course. I broke it, didn’t I, Miss Delacourt?”
I gaped at him. “I didn’t notice you taking it.”
Lord Windham’s eyes glittered with what almost looked like ill humor. “No, but how could you? You were too wrapped up in Viscount Dubois to notice me. Consequently, those are some beautiful flowers he sent you, Miss Delacourt. Quite puts mine to shame, actually.” He nodded derisively at the red roses on the table.
I looked at Candace, who still stood by my bed, a look of complete and utter bemusement writ upon her countenance.
“Candace, did Viscount Dubois send me flowers?”
“Aye – I mean – yes, miss. The loveliest arrangement of lilies. Unfortunately, it was too large to fit in your room, so we had to place it in the foyer. Let me go and fetch you the card.”
Candace swept out of the room, leaving the door wide open and casting Lord Windham a stern look before exiting.
I squirmed under the sheets, well aware of what a quiz I must look, with my hair unbrushed and falling over my forehead. As if reading my thoughts, Lord Windham gazed at my hair, a smile tugging at the corner of his lower lip. Defensively, I reached up to brush the hair out of my eyes.
“You know, your hair is the exact same shade as my sister’s. Such a pretty shade of brown.”
“Thank you.” I straightened my shoulders and tried to look cool and collected, which is not an easy thing to do when one has one’s bedclothes bunched up under one’s chin. I cleared my throat. “Now I really do think you must be leaving, Lord Windham. Candace is right, you shouldn’t be here when my guardian is not present. Thank you for the roses and most especially for my fan. That was most kind of you.”
Lord Windham smiled, looking like a sphinx as he did so. Then he sat down at my desk and made himself quite comfortable.
For what seemed like the hundredth time in less than ten minutes, I fumed at Lord Windham, feeling my normally composed temper begin to rage. Then I heard the most awful sound in the world: the front door opening followed by the clattering step of my cousin on the stair. Lady Huxtable’s more decorous step was heard soon after.
“What are you doing? Get up from there! You must leave. Lady Huxtable has come home and she is going to murder you when she finds you in my chamber!” I pushed back the covers, forgetting all sense of propriety in my haste, and attempted to propel him out of the room.
But Lord Windham wouldn’t budge. He seemed suddenly made of granite. “I’m not afraid of a dragon, Miss Delacourt. It’s going to take a lot more than that to shake me, I’m afraid.” His eyes were doing strange things to my stomach.
I threw up my hands. “Oh, suit yourself! But I won’t cry at your funeral after Lady Huxtable -“
“Did somebody say my name?”
An icy trickle rushed down my spine. I slowly turned around.
Just then Candace walked back into the room with the card and blanched when she saw Lady Huxtable.
“Madam! Er, you’ve come home earlier than expected.”
“Yes, amazing that my early arrival is surprising to you, given that we have an unexpected guest here, in Miss Delacourt’s chamber, no less.”
Candace began turning alternate shades of white and red and I sincerely wished that Lord Windham would just disappear. He looked in little danger of disappearing, however, as he watched the interplay between my guardian and Candace, the same irritable tugging at the bottom of his lower lip distracting me.
As if he could read my thoughts, Lord Windham suddenly turned towards me. His eyes were deep and dark and strangely serious. There was something rather like … was it apology I saw swimming in the endless depths of his eyes?
My guardian’s voice jolted me out of my thoughts. “Samantha? I’ve been speaking to you for at least a minute, child! Perhaps you should get back in bed. You’re looking rather peaked.”
“Had I known you were sick, Isabelle and I never would have left you alone. When you slept in, Samantha, I thought it was simply the result of coming in so late last night…” Lady Huxtable’s voice trailed off and then she turned to Candace. “Have you sent for the doctor?”
“Aye, Madam. He prescribed bed rest for a week. Said he’d be back in the morning to check up on Miss Samantha.”
“Very well,” my guardian sniffed and then gave me one of her rare apologetic looks. “I’m so sorry that you caught my cold. We’ll let you get some rest now.” And then she very firmly took Lord Windham by the elbow and escorted him out of my chamber before he or I could say another word.
The door shut behind them with a resounding click.
Candace, looking more flustered than I’d ever seen her look, busied herself tucking me back into bed and feeling my forehead for fever.
“Your cheeks look rather flushed but your fever seems to have abated. Hmm...”
As she was plumping my pillows, Isabelle opened the door and peeked around it.
“May I come in, Sam?”
Candace gave Isabelle a friendly look. She was particularly fond of my cousin as they both shared a weakness for astrology.
“Come in, dear. I was just putting Samantha to bed again, the poor thing. She seems to have contracted Lady Huxtable’s cold.”
Isabelle shut the door quietly behind her and rushed towards me, her skirts making a whispering sound against the floor as she moved. She carried a straw bonnet in her hands, pink ribbons trailing down from it.
“Oh, my poor coz! I didn’t know you were sick! I wouldn’t have gone with Vincent and Lady H. to the library if I would’ve known!”
“I’m fine, Izzie. Really.”
“I should have realized last night when you came home from the ball with that awful headache. But I thought you were just upset because Lord Windham never returned to claim his dance.”
I shot my cousin a dirty look but she just stared back at me with innocent eyes. It was very easy to forget sometimes that Isabelle’s pretty golden curls concealed such a quick thinking brain.
Candace cleared her throat, but it sounded more like she was trying to suppress a laugh.
“Speak of the devil, that same man came to call on Miss Samantha while you and Lady Huxtable were out with Mr. de Grave. Came right up into Miss Samantha’s chamber, if you can believe it! Refused to wait for Lady Huxtable to arrive. Of all the nerve.” Candace’s eyes narrowed to cat-like slits and Isabelle giggled.
“My, coz, but you do seem to have an effect on gentlemen. First Lord Windham and then Viscount Dubois. I wonder who’s next?”
I suddenly remembered the card. “That’s right – Candace, did you ever find the card that came with Viscount Dubois’s flowers?” I tried to ignore the fact that Isabelle’s eyes were positively ready to come out of their sockets, she looked that surprised.
“Oh yes, here it is, Miss Samantha.” Candace handed me a small envelope. I opened it and removed a small card. I wished I could remember Viscount Dubois, but I only had a vague impression of a tall man with bright medals on his coat.
I opened the card and began reading it aloud. “My Dear Miss Delacourt -“
“Ooh, he called you his dear Miss Delacourt!”
I glared at Isabelle over the card. “Do you want me to read this or not?”
“Sorry, sorry. I’ll be quiet as a mouse. Do continue.”
I cleared my throat and started over, trying to ignore the many squeaks and sighs of the “mouse” as I read. “My Dear Miss Delacourt, it was a distinct pleasure meeting you last night. Your beauty is equal only to your charm. I hope I have the pleasure of meeting you again soon. Yours Very Truly, Viscount Henry William Cardet Beauchamps Dubois.”
“How many names can one man have, dear God?” Candace exclaimed as I finished, and both Isabelle and I succumbed into fits of laughter.
This was the tableau that Lady Huxtable encountered when she reentered the room. She didn’t say a word – she didn’t have to. Her eyes said it all. Our laughter quickly died and both Isabelle and Candace scurried out of the room, leaving me alone with the “dragon.”
I gulped. “Begin what, Louisa?” Louisa was my guardian’s name, and I normally felt quite comfortable using it with her, but now I felt as though a stranger were standing in front of me, and saying her name seemed somehow strange, as if I was trespassing onto private property.
My guardian began pacing, which was really uncharacteristic of her. She said in an exasperated tone, “Begin at the beginning, child! Tell me why I had to come home to find a man in my ward’s own chamber! I thought I had raised you better, I thought for sure I was doing right by your mother and father. Where did I go wrong?”
She put her head into her hands, stray strands of black hair coming down from her chignon. I gaped at her. Were today’s strange events the hallucinatory product of my fever?
She looked up at me again, dark eyes fiery. I quailed against my pillows. “Please – tell – me – you – are – still – untouched.” Her words came out slowly but deliberately, like well-aimed arrows. I blinked, not understanding her meaning.
“Did he touch you, Samantha?”
I sighed, finally comprehending now. “Oh, no. No, Louisa. Lord Windham is many things, but he’s not a rake. He’s not like Mr. de Grave.” I really hadn’t meant to say that last sentence aloud. I clapped a hand over my mouth.
But my guardian just smiled a thin-lipped smile and then pursed her mouth. “Good. I’m glad he doesn’t share the same reputation as his friend. I’m well aware of de Grave’s reputation, Samantha. I may be old, and I might be an unmarried spinster, but I still have my wits intact and I can spot a rake when I see one.”
I leaned forward. “Then why do you allow Isabelle to be courted by Mr. de Grave? Aren’t you concerned for her reputation?”
Louisa sighed, looking tired. “Isabelle knows what she’s doing. This is just an innocent dalliance and she will ensure it is kept that way. Besides, de Grave will soon tire of her.”
But remembering how my cousin had looked at de Grave last night, I knew that she wouldn’t be tiring of him any time soon.
1 week later…
After my prescribed week of bed-rest, Louisa decided to whisk Isabelle and me away to Bath for two weeks. Candace and two of our maids would be accompanying us.
“The sea air will set you right again, dear,” Candace said as she picked up the vase on my table. She hummed as she took out the bouquet of withering red roses from inside the vase and threw it into the wastebasket in the corner. Somehow, the bright bunch of daisies now filling the vase didn’t cheer my spirits as it normally did. I reasoned it was because I was still feeling listless from my being sick.
“Will you be wanting the white valise or the pink, Miss Samantha?”
I turned away from the wastebasket, distracted. “Hmm? Oh, I think the white, Candace. Since we’ll be gone for two weeks I’ll need the larger of the two.”
“Wise choice, miss. I’ll go and fetch it now.”
As Candace exited the room, Isabelle entered in her wake. Her features were uncharacteristically arranged in a frown.
“Two whole weeks, Sam! How will we bear it?”
I absentmindedly took a withered rose out of the wastebasket and twirled it in my fingers.
“Oh, I don’t know. We can play Old Maid, as we used to when we were little girls. I don’t know about you, but I am quite looking forward to laying out in the sun. Doesn’t it ever stop raining in London?”
Isabelle sat down on the edge of my bed and crinkled her nose as she surveyed her arms. They were so white they looked as though they were made out of porcelain.
“Oh, coz, I don’t know about laying out in the sun. I go through so much trouble to keep my skin fair. You know how Mama gets if I so much as sprout one freckle on my nose.”
Isabelle’s mother, my aunt, Valentina, was a highly sensitive creature who believed a woman’s only role was to be a beautiful piece of property, maintained in perfect condition for her future owner – The Husband.
“Oh yes,” I began in a high-pitched voice, doing a fair imitation of my aunt. “We must keep ourselves pristine for The Husband.”
We both erupted in a gale of giggles.
Candace came back in with two valises, mine and Isabelle’s smart red valise. Hers was at least two sizes bigger than mine.
“Hush, girls. Lady Huxtable is coming this way and she is in a frightful mood.”
We both stopped laughing and Isabelle stood up and nervously straightened nonexistent wrinkles in her skirt.
“I was just with her and she seemed all right,” Isabelle said but before Candace could respond, my guardian swept into the room, her eyebrows perched high upon her forehead.
“Candace, I believe you’re needed in the foyer. Millie appears to have lost her broom and you know how that silly girl gets when she’s upset.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Candace curtsied and left the room. Louisa closed the door behind her. A bad sign. I exchanged a worried glance with Isabelle.
“Have a seat, girls.”
Isabelle and I sat on the bed. Louisa remained standing.
“We’ve received a proposal this afternoon. Our first, and the season is not even halfway through.”
My thoughts flew immediately to Lord Windham. I held my breath.
Louisa took a deep breath and looked at Isabelle. “De Grave came to see me this afternoon, Isabelle, to ask for your hand in marriage.”
Isabelle’s face blanched at the sudden news. She said in a stunned voice, “Can it be?”
Louisa went on, despite of or perhaps because of Isabelle’s response. “Naturally, I could not accept this request as I am sure your mother and father will want to be apprised of the matter, and it is ultimately their decision, not mine.”
Isabelle stood, her face alternately turning red and white. “Is he still here, Louisa? Oh, but I must look a fright, still in my gardening clothes!”
“Child, do be seated,” Louisa exclaimed, “Of course he is not here. I sent him home.”
Isabelle meekly sat back down.
“We need to speak of your comportment sometime, Isabelle. Your parents sent you here in the hopes that the season would give you that necessary polish that ladies need.”
“Don’t forget The Husband,” I muttered under my breath. Isabelle stifled a giggle. I smiled, but my heart wasn’t in it.
“Oh, Louisa, may I write him?” I couldn’t help but admire how lovely my cousin looked as she knelt at my guardian’s feet, a beseeching look in her crystalline irises. Even in her dirty gardening skirts she was beautiful. For the first time in the sixteen years I’d known Isabelle, I felt a twinge of jealousy.
Louisa’s eyes softened as she looked down at her. “There’s no need to be so dramatic, dear. No doubt he will be at the Chestertons’ ball tomorrow night. You may speak to him then. I must go and write a long letter to your mother now. I’d like to get in touch with her before we leave to Bath.”
My aunt left and Isabelle sprang to her feet. “Oh, I’d forgotten all about Bath! How am I ever going to get through those two weeks? A proposal, Sam! From Vincent! Oh, I do hope Mama and Papa will like him. Do you think they will like him? Well, I’d better go and pack my things.” And with that she grabbed her valise and flew out of the room.
I was left standing alone, a crushed and withered red rose in my fist.
The days passed quickly enough in Bath, filled as they were with strolls down the shore and card games with Louisa and Isabella. But the nights were unbearable. I found myself tossing and turning in bed, flirting with sleep. My mind would flash from one picture to the next, restless and untiring.
Only one picture remained fixed in my brain – it was of a dark-complexioned man, neither too attractive nor unattractive, but somehow compelling. His eyes glittering with humor, his mouth curling with amusement. Sometimes this man even starred in my more recent dreams.
My cousin was positively in raptures as she planned every detail of her future wedding. Much as I adored my dear cousin, I found I couldn’t stomach her constant prattling about the wedding. Even Louisa had taken to rolling her eyes whenever Isabella mentioned de Grave’s name. Which was often.
I hadn’t seen Lord Windham since the Chestertons’ ball. I wondered what was occupying his days lately, and if the thought of me had crossed his mind at all.
I hadn’t expected to see him at the Chestertons’ ball. At least, that’s what I had told myself.
If I wore my best gown, a pale blue with double-lined panniers and a lace-bordered décolletage, it was mere coincidence. My hair was powdered and strands of pearls were inserted amidst the twisted ringlets. But I didn’t tell the maid to go to any great lengths. I couldn’t help it if she felt like being creative.
Louisa said I looked very fine and Isabella muttered no doubt Lord Windham would agree. I resisted the urge to kick my darling cousin and thanked them both.
Isabella lent me her prized fan, one made entirely of lace which de Grave had specially made for her in Brussels. I promised her I would treat it with care and not resort to any violence against it. In any event, I would try my very best.
When the three of us made our entrance, my eyes seemed to develop a life of their own. They scanned the ballroom until they found a pair of dark eyes. Despite myself, a sigh escaped my lips.
De Grave was at Isabella’s side within moments of our arrival. Louisa accepted Izzie’s reticule with a fond smile and they swept away, joining in the throng of couples whirling across the ballroom floor.
“Shall we?” Louisa asked, inclining her head to the row of chairs against the far wall.
“Yes, let’s,” I said, trying in vain not to look in Lord Windham’s direction. To my consternation I found him looking my way. I quickly averted my gaze, feeling the tell-tale warmth of a blush creeping up my throat. My guardian looked at me curiously.
“Whatever is wrong with you, child, you’re turning beet red! I can have the carriage take you home if you’re still feeling unwell.”
“No!” I said a bit too forcefully. I cleared my throat and willed my face to appear composed. “That is to say, no, Louisa. I’ve been cooped up for a week, I couldn’t bear to go back home. I just felt very hot all of a sudden, is all.”
“Maybe the cool night air will restore you.”
I turned to find Lord Windham suddenly standing next to me.
“That sounds like a capital idea, Lord Windham. Don’t overexert yourself, my dear, remember you were ill.” And with a last stern look at Lord Windham, Lady Huxtable left to go join the row of matrons seated against the wall.
“The Dragon is in fine form tonight,” Lord Windham said sotto voce as he escorted me onto the terrace. He firmly but gently took my hand and tucked it under his arm.
“Yes, I’m surprised she let me come out here with you at all, given the circumstances under which we last met.”
I was referring to Lord Windham’s surprising (and extremely mortifying, at least to me) visit earlier that week. I still couldn’t believe he had been in my bedchamber.
Lord Windham regarded me beneath those strange hooded eyes of his, so like the sphinx he was.
“And have you had other visitors, Miss Delacourt? Such as our friend Viscount Dubois?”
I smiled despite myself. “No, though he did send the most charming card.”
I noticed through lowered lashes that his jaw had tensed ever so slightly at this.
Lord Windham’s suddenly grim look made me nervous. I decided to change the subject.
“Did you hear about de Grave and Isabella? They are to be married.”
Lord Windham’s eyebrows knit together. “Is that so? I wonder why the old boy didn’t bother to tell me.”
I tried very hard not to look surprised. I imagined that was something you would convey to your friend, but perhaps the two weren’t as close as I’d imagined. After all, when they greeted each other at the last ball they seemed like old friends who were catching up on lost time…
Lord Windham’s voice cut through my thoughts, “Well, what does the Dragon have to say about this union? I imagine she knows de Grave is one leopard who can’t change his spots.”
I snapped my fan shut and whirled around to face Lord Windham, pulling my arm out of his. “Whatever does that quaint metaphor mean, sir?”
“I mean, my dear Miss Delacourt, that de Grave has a reputation that precedes him. Surely you’ve heard the tongues wag about him.”
“Sorry, I don’t listen to gossip.”
Lord Windham regarded me with fierce eyes. I couldn’t help feeling pulled by them.
“But you do listen to common sense, I trust,” he hissed, “it is common knowledge that de Grave has oft played fast and loose with the ladies. He’s ruined the reputation of many an upstanding young woman before, leaving them no better than light-shirts in his wake. I can’t imagine Lady Huxtable would not have heard the rumours, or, for that matter, that you wouldn’t have, either.”
I had no words for this. I couldn’t truthfully say I hadn’t heard the rumours, too. But why was I suddenly feeling the need to defend de Grave? I knew, in my heart of hearts, that what Lord Windham was saying was true. I had argued as much to my own guardian. Yet, somehow, I felt a strong need to defend de Grave. For Izzie’s sake, I reasoned, as I opened my mouth to issue forth another rejoinder.
The words never left my mouth. Before I knew what was happening, Lord Windham’s mouth was on mine, stifling whatever argument I was about to make.
I had been kissed before. Once, to be precise, by the son of one of Lady Huxtable’s bridge partners. We had been thirteen at the time and at a picnic. That time, the kiss had taken me by surprise, too.
But this time was nothing like the last.
To begin with, this kiss lasted much longer. I lost track of time, space, setting, being. Everything save the kiss. His hands were gently cupping my face, exploring the curve of my jaw, his thumbs rough against my skin.
Another difference? The first time I didn’t kiss back.
Lord Windham was the first to break the spell. He pulled back and wiped his mouth. “I am so sorry. That was unforgivable of me. But you are to blame, Miss Delacourt. No woman has ever had the talent of driving me to distraction quite like you.”
He smiled ruefully into my eyes. As if begging me to forgive him. And to forget.
“Still friends?” he asked, offering a hand. I steeled myself and shook his hand with a steady grip.
“Friends,” I said, unable to unclench my teeth despite my best efforts.
Lord Windham walked me back into the ballroom, my hand back under his arm. I longed to twist it out of his grip, but I knew this would be bad manners and really very petty of me. So I left it where it was and pasted a vapid smile on my face so that nobody would know a storm was currently roiling inside me.
It seemed as though my self had split into two parts, and they vied with each other now for supremacy.
He kissed me! Oh, but that kiss was marvelous!
He kissed you all right, but then he apologized for it immediately after. He obviously didn’t think the kiss was marvelous if he was begging you to forgive him for it.
I tried ignoring both voices, but I could only get them to fade into the background and not fully disappear.
“Would you like some punch, Miss Delacourt?” Lord Windham asked as he led me to a seat next to my guardian.
I smiled up at him, “Yes, that would be lovely.”
My guardian waited until his back was turned and then murmured, “Lord Windham is certainly very attentive tonight, dear.”
I bent my head down to study the ornate beading on my fan. “Oh, no more attentive than usual, Louisa.”
I felt compelled to keep arguing my point, no doubt some residual frustration from my confrontation with Lord Windham.
“We have a lot in common. We – we can talk together very easily. So he’s become sort of like a friend.”
“If you say so, dear, but I’ve seen the way he looks at you. I’m no fool, you know.”
I looked up at her and saw the wisdom mingled with humor in her warm gray eyes. I realized then I could hide my feelings from everyone else here, maybe even from Lord Windham himself, but not my guardian. She knew me too well.
Just then Lord Windham returned with two glasses of punch, one of which he offered to Louisa. “Lady Huxtable, you look like a diamond of the first water this evening” he said with a smile tugging the corner of his mouth.
Louisa rapped his wrist with her closed fan. “Save your flirting for the younger generation.”
“Alas, I am not worthy of Miss Delacourt’s attention.”
I gaped at Lord Windham. Whatever was he about now? He winked at me. I frowned at him.
“Yes, it’s quite tragic for men of my ilk, but truly Miss Delacourt is more deserving of a duke, or, at the very least, a viscount.”
Some of the matrons seated near us trilled with laughter. “What a sense of humor! And quite handsome, too,” one of them said in an overly loud whisper. I could feel my hands shaking.
“Stop this nonsense right now. Have you been in the cups?” I hissed at him through my teeth.
He smiled beatifically down at me, “I’ll stop if you let me have your dance card.”
I fumbled through my reticule, nearly tipping the entire contents of my glass of punch into my lap. After much work, I was able to extricate the dance card.
“Fine, here it is.”
Lord Windham bent over the card and scratched something on it, then handed it back to me.
I stared at what he’d written. He’d put his name down for nine o’clock and ten o’clock.
I looked back up, a question already forming on my lips. But he was gone.
“What’s wrong, Sam? You look white as milk.” Izzie sat down on the chair de Grave had just pulled up next to mine and gazed at me with concern.
“Oh, just the insufferable Lord Windham, getting on my nerves. That man doesn’t rest until he gets his way.”
De Grave laughed at this. “Yes, I remember him from our school days. He was exactly the same. He could always charm the maids, or the teachers, for that matter, into his getting his way. He never had to resort to the more underhanded measures the rest of us were forced to use.”
I filed that last comment away for future reference. What underhanded measures could de Grave be referring to? Was he implying something there?
I finished my glass of punch and placed it on a nearby table. “Well, I’m going to the powder room. I feel as though my hair is coming undone. I fear the maid didn’t use enough pins.”
Izzie immediately stood up. “I’ll come, too, Sam.”
De Grave offered to bring us all back some punch and we thanked him and left to find the powder room.
In the powder room, I surveyed my hair in a mirror, surprised when it looked relatively the same as when I’d left the house. The patch on my cheek was threatening to come loose, however, no doubt as a result of Lord Windham’s unexpected …
I couldn’t bring myself even to think the word, for fear that another tidal wave of emotions might wash over me. The important thing now was to affect an undisturbed demeanor. I would be seeing him again at nine o’clock and ten o’clock, and it wouldn’t do to seem affected in any way.
After Isabella had pinched her cheeks to achieve the desired flush, she tottered over to where I stood and sank down into a nearby chair.
“Are you having a good time?” I asked her as I labored to reattach the stubborn patch on my cheek. It was in the shape of a new moon, one of the shapes currently in vogue.
“Yes, though it is rather vexing to hear the gossipmongers carry on about Vincent.”
This was the first time she’d ever addressed the issue of de Grave’s reputation in my presence.
I gave up on the patch, peeling it off with a sigh and sitting down on the divan opposite Isabella. We had the powder room to ourselves, for now. I might as well make the most of this opportunity.
I took my cousin’s hands in mine. “I hadn’t wished to discuss this before for fear of disturbing you, Izzie. But it would drive me mad to hear those women talk about de Grave in that way. How do you put up with it?”
Izzie’s eyes filled with tears, threatening to brim over. “If it were any other man, I wouldn’t put up with it. But Vincent is so splendid, such a wonderful, wonderful man. You don’t know how he suffers on my account! D’you know he almost decided not to propose?”
I privately wished de Grave had decided to hold to that choice, but outwardly tut-tutted in sympathy.
“He’s everything that is good and decent and beautiful about the world,” she continued, the tears in her eyes replaced with a fervent glow. “Yes, he’s had his missteps. What man hasn’t? The important thing is that he’s moved on from them.”
“But aren’t you concerned about your reputation, Izzie? Think about how Valentina would feel if she heard your name being bandied about by those vicious old matrons.”
Izzie stood up, fists clenched. “I don’t give a farthing about my reputation. I hate this stupid season, all of this!” She gestured to her fine dress, the dainty shoes poking underneath. “I do all this to make Mama happy, but I know in her heart of hearts, she would just want me to be happy. And my happiness is dependent on Vincent, not a clutch of bitter old crones.”
I stood up, too, smoothing my skirt. “A passionate defense. If I wasn’t already on your side, I daresay I would have switched by now.”
Izzie’s hands slowly unclenched and she laughed, the sound of it a watery gurgle. The tears sprang forth again, and the next thing I knew, she was crushing me in a smothering hug.
“Oh, Sam! I knew I could count on you! Will you speak to Louisa? Only you could convince her to see things our way. Then it will be easy to convince Mama, too.”
After we had repaired Isabella’s face so that no trace of tears was left, we squared our shoulders and walked back into the ballroom. As we passed a group of young bloods, I could hear one of them say quite loudly, “I do say, who is that exquisite creature in the blue gown?”
Isabella’s gown was a pale gold whereas mine was blue. And yet, I was so used to the attention being focused solely on Isabella, I couldn’t help turning my head to stare at the young man and make sure he was talking about me. He had a quizzing glass raised to his right eye and he was observing me through it, one enlarged blue eye blinking at me in a comic fashion.
“Don’t stare, Sam. He might get the wrong impression,” my cousin hissed and we giggled and began walking faster.
We were breathless when we arrived back where Louisa sat with de Grave.
“What brings such a twinkle to your eyes, ladies?” de Grave asked with a smile as he handed each of us a glass of punch.
Before I could answer him, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder.
I turned and saw a very tall gentleman standing there with sparkling green eyes that vied for attention with the shiny row of medals decorating his coat.
“Miss Delacourt, I am glad to see you are so obviously restored in health.”
I bowed low, not an easy feat to accomplish with a glass of punch in hand, and smiled up at Viscount Dubois. “Thank you, Viscount Dubois. The lilies you sent were most beautiful.”
“Did you get the card? I took special care to make sure they arrived with a card. I wrote it myself, you know.” He smiled proudly, reminding me of a male peacock I once saw in the zoo.
“Yes, that was a most, er, thoughtful gesture,” I said lamely, trying hard not to laugh. I could see Izzie trying to get my attention out of the corner of my eye, but I refused to look, knowing that to do so would prove my undoing. So I took a demure sip of my punch instead and looked expectantly up at the viscount.
“Did someone claim the dance for eight, Miss Delacourt?” he asked hopefully. I resisted the urge to groan.
“No, she’s claimed already for nine and ten, but eight is clear, right, Sam?” Izzie piped up. I turned to face her, hoping she could feel the daggers I was shooting her way.
“Will you hold my punch, darling cousin?”
“Delighted to help you in any way, dearest cousin,” she replied with a wink.
I followed Viscount Dubois onto the ballroom floor, wishing it was eleven already so the mindless dancing could cease and we could eat dinner and not have to dance anymore.
It was a minuet, quite an old-fashioned dance that normally wasn’t featured in balls today, but the Chestertons were a family renown for their love of esoteric dance styles.
The minuet was a dance composed of small, almost mincing steps and it required one’s constant attention. Much as I did not really appreciate the art of dance, I knew I wasn’t half bad. My poise was good, and my steps lively.
I found myself enjoying it despite myself. But perhaps this had something to do with the fact that the viscount didn’t speak once during the dance.
The hour slipped away from me. Suddenly it was nine o’clock and the minuet was ending. The viscount and I bowed to each other, and when I straightened back up, Lord Windham was standing behind the viscount.
Seeing the expression on my face, the viscount turned around and saw Lord Windham.
“Windham, old chap, how do you do?” The viscount clapped Lord Windham hard on the shoulder.
Lord Windham smiled at him, but his eyes were dangerously devoid of any light.
“Splendid, now that my dance with Miss Delacourt can begin.”
“Very well, very well. Miss Delacourt, will you do me the great pleasure of allowing me to escort you into dinner?”
Before I could think of a viable excuse, Lord Windham opened his mouth. “Actually, I’m afraid that great pleasure is already promised to me. Isn’t that right, Miss Delacourt?” He turned towards me and winked, his mouth tugging at the corner in that distracting way of his.
“Yes, it’s true,” I lied through my teeth.
The viscount had the good grace not to look too put out.
Lord Windham and I exchanged pleasantries as we waited for the band to strike up the next tune.
“Have you been enjoying yourself, Miss Delacourt? You appear much restored since I saw you last.”
How I longed to claw his eyes out after hearing that remark. ‘Tis a wonder I was able to restore myself after you mauled me, sir! I longed to cry. But I simply smiled and delivered a picture-perfect curtsy. The band began playing then, as if on cue.
It was a waltz. I’d never danced the waltz with anyone except my cousin, let alone a man.
I froze mid-curtsy. Lord Windham’s curious stare shook me out of my shock.
He took my hand in his, and his other hand came to rest at my waist. It felt as though it was burning clean through my gown, the heat spreading out towards my legs.
“You took so long to get back up from your curtsy, I thought your petticoats came loose. It happened to my sister, once,” he said coolly. But there was a twitch at his lips, as though he wanted to laugh.
I “accidentally” trod on his foot.
Lord Windham muttered a low oath and looked down at his boots. I endeavored to conceal the ear-to-ear grin on my face by coughing.
“Oh, I’m so dreadfully sorry. I must have lost my balance. Are you quite all right?”
I blinked a few times for good measure and hoped my face looked innocent. His face wasn’t quite so easy to read. I looked for the tell-tale twitch at his lips, but they were pulled tight in a grim line.
“Oh, I am perfectly fine. Just fine. Now, where were we?” He placed his hand on my waist again, and again I felt that disconcerting warmth spread through me. I braved a glance and saw that his mouth was still tight. I averted my eyes quickly, wondering if I’d upset him in some way. I hoped he couldn’t feel my hand trembling in his.
We continued dancing, but he didn’t speak again. I focused on the music, allowing my mind to drift.
He apologized for kissing me. But if he was truly sorry, then why did he tell the viscount he was going to sit with me at dinner? Why is he even here with me now?