The capital city of Tyresial, Ennion
Sergio knocked on the door, asking if he could come in. He was waiting patiently out of view, true to his nature of being the only person she knew who actually meant that question when he asked it. He would go away if she flat out refused. For a moment she considered joking, but did not. She had been moody and evasive for the past few days and decided she had been such for long enough, if she did not want to run the risk of her family becoming fed up with her.
Sergio rounded the door and smiled at her. ‘You look beautiful.’
‘Thank you.’ Lavell turned back to the mirror to check if the pearls she had fastened into her chocolate brown curls were holding. There was a ball that evening, as on this day Le’Mar’s church was founded. The entire family was going and the servant girl had just left her, finishing helping Lavell into her dress and with her hair.
Sergio pulled out the chair of her dressing table and sat down. ‘Any sightings, the past few nights?’
She shook her head, but the euphemistic code did make her smile somewhat. Sergio usually came in from the side when it was a sore topic, as it did not necessarily mean anything good. Tryst could be planning something bigger, considering he could enter the house now. Tomorrow morning the priest would be here to do the ritual over again, and she just knew that Tryst Valentine knew this. Luckily there was a ball tonight, which meant that they would come home perhaps late enough to get an early sunrise.
‘You know that I would do anything to protect you. Sadie would sleep at the foot of your bed if it were necessary. But I can’t just kill him, no matter how much you or your sister might want that from me. He is gone before we can identify him and mind control leaves no traces. You can’t prove it.’ Sergio said. ‘It doesn’t help your sister’s relationship with your father, you know, that the Council won’t consider even going near the treaty. Nor that she can explain to him why she wants them to look at the law. It gives her a reputation for being far harder on them than she actually is.’
‘She actually is that unforgiving, she just does not want people to know it.’ Lavell said. Sergio, despite being from Aryfn – and perhaps the reason why he had chosen to leave there despite his close knit family –, truly believed that if you left vampires alone, they would leave you alone. Sadie and Lavell both knew that it was too dangerous to cage an unpredictable animal. There were too many of them to keep controlling them like this, and sooner or later the vampires would see that too.
She knew the other part to be true, though. Sadie’s relationship with their father had always been rather difficult. ‘It’s not that you don’t do all you can to protect me, Sergio. All of you.’ Lavell said to him. ‘But that I can’t save myself.’
Sergio didn’t answer, as her powerlessness was undoubtedly true. She froze up whenever he tried to teach her. Nothing she had tried had been able to get her past that, so she wanted to be able to defend herself, but she also kept refusing. Sergio chose not to open that conversation up again. He stood, putting the chair back. ‘Well, I have something that might be able to help.’ He took a small box from his dress pocket. ‘Happy birthday, sweet.’
She looked at him with an indulging smile. ‘That would be tomorrow.’
‘Yes, I know, but it is going to be midnight soon enough. Open it.’
She did. There was a golden pendant inside. It had been shaped into Le’Mar’s symbol and within there was a small vial. The herbs with which it was filled smelled sweet, which was why no one would think it strange that she wore such unusual jewellery. It was also gorgeous. She took it from the box and held it up.
‘It is verbena. No one will ever be able to compel you again for as long as you wear it.’
‘I assumed.’ she said. Although she had already read it in the draft of his letter, the feeling of relief and gratitude was undiminished. She hugged him. ‘I love it, Sergio. That you, so very much.’
‘You’re welcome.’ He looked at her and asked as he let her go: ‘Tell me the truth, what you won’t even admit to your sister. When was the last time you felt genuinely safe?’
She thought about lying for just a single moment. ‘Slightly under five years ago.’ she answered.
She saw the look of pity and sorrow flash across his face before he controlled himself, but pretended she hadn’t. Once again that feeling of being trapped washed over her, and a desperate wish to break away from it paired with not knowing how. Her life consisted of nothing more than pretending, being scared, and hurting those she loved by making them worry for her. ‘Let’s go down. I am assuming that my parents and Sadie are already waiting for us.’ she said.
‘They must be, considering your sister went down already, and her tendency to cudgel her surroundings to her liking.’
Lavell grinned. She had put on the necklace and was now putting a warm coat over her clothes. She took Sergio’s offered arm and they went down. If there was anything Sadie Cathcart was known for, it was her headstrong and flammable nature. Lavell had always admired her sister’s ability to be unfazed in every situation. Their father had not known how to handle her, which was part of the reason why Sadie had run away at fifteen to one of the most dangerous provinces of Ennion, becoming a hunter against his wishes. That she had found herself a husband who could take her on had been the big surprise upon her return. Lord Cathcart had not liked any of it, but he had come to admit that Sergio was not only a very capable hunter, but also that he had a softening influence on his difficult eldest daughter. Although Lavell slightly envied her sister’s character, he challenging nature had become a household joke between her and Sergio over time.
They went downstairs together, where her family was indeed already gathered. Lavell realised that her sudden elated mood had everything to do with wearing the necklace Sergio had given her. If the new ban on the house was arranged, there was nothing Tryst could do to her anymore. The realisation that she was finally safe hit her. No matter what Tryst intended to do, he could not touch her. He could never coerce her again.
He could, of course, gain her mother’s consent to enter. He was their neighbour. Her mother did not have to accept the reality of vampires to invite him in. It would be easy. But he had never done it. Because it was hers he wanted.
Freedom. It was shocking to think that something as small as an herb could make that difference in her. Both truths hit her at the same time – the relief that it was as simple as that, and the regret that it had always been as simple as that, for years. But a part of her still knew, of course, that the feeling wouldn’t last. Something would happen, and she would feel just as unsafe. Maybe, perhaps, slightly less so now.
When they arrived at the house of lord and lady Rimmerthe, who had this year been given the honour of hosting, the highlight of the season was already underway. Lively music floated in from the ballroom to the grand central hall. As Lavell took off her coat and shawl, giving it to the servant ready to collect them, Sadie’s eye fell on the necklace, and she said with a smile: ‘That is very pretty. And not the one you were intent on wearing earlier.’
‘Don’t be jealous because your husband chose to bestow his good taste on me and not you.’ Lavell said.
Sadie laughed aloud, which rewarded her with a chiding look from their mother, who would have turned it on Lavell sooner, had she only heard the comment.
‘I am glad you like it. It took him quite some doing to get it.’ Sadie said, putting a hand on her sister’s arm and kissing her cheek. ‘Happy early birthday then from me as well. Although I will not give you your present until tomorrow.’
‘I will suffer the anticipation with heartfelt sighs and tearful looks.’
That made Sadie laugh even harder. She took her husband’s arm and went in with him before her mother could say something about inappropriate behaviour when out in society. For years Sadie had made this move, which she called fleeing without pretension. It usually left Lavell to clean it up and smooth things over. Luckily, Lavell seldom minded.
She entered the ballroom with her parents, and they were well received. Because of their high status with the Crown and the shadow society consistent of hunters, no hunter families could rise above the rank of baron – for fear of one of these families becoming too influential across the board and into regular society. It had always been a sore point for lord Cathcart, although he had by now gotten most of Tiresial’s higher ranks to extend annual invitations to his family, including this one by the duke of Rimmerthe, despite the Crown’s leash. It meant much to him. He had once put his hopes on marrying his daughters well, but Sadie’s running off to become a hunter and marrying a man from Aryfn had served him in another way, eventually. While Lavell was still in the running to land herself a marquis and was the darling of society, Sadie had given them scandals just delicious enough not to cause outright disapproval.
Sadie never knew that Lavell had felt the need to compensate for her, with their father. Sadie thought this act of the beautiful and carefree socialite was what Lavell wanted. Maybe it was what she wanted. She simply did not know anymore what her original thoughts were and what had been infused by others.
Lavell noticed her friends, who were standing close to the entrance. Probably waiting for her, since she was the last of them to arrive. She excused herself with her family and went over to them. As they saw her she was lauded in almost, considering that this was the first time they saw each other since the summer months. Lavell’s family usually did not leave for the summer, but Lindemere had only come home days ago because of the unexpected death of her grandmother, and Christobel Castell had been travelling through the southern provinces, including Aryfn, which Lavell would love to talk to her about. She had been to Aryfn herself once, two years ago, to meet Sergio’s family together with Sadie. Lavell had developed a deep respect for the family that hunted together in unison. She had never seen such a thing. Of course the Ennion king – rightfully – frowned on the unruliness with which Aryfn battled vampires, but they had a deep bond formed because of hunting together. Lavell had not once felt less safe than at home, even though there was an ongoing feud between the Pascutti family and a nest of vampires known as the Deramore. They pulled together to protect each other and they had taken Sadie and Lavell into the fold as if it was only natural. No one had judged her for not wanting to be a hunter. They had not made her feel inadequate for choosing to opt out of the life, which her father did whether he meant to or not. Their easy acceptance of whatever it was that she wanted to be had been a strange sensation.
She was talking to Christobel, Lindemere and the others, when Liliane Rousse gasped lightly and looked past them to someone behind Lavell. ‘O, don’t look around. It’s him.’ she said excitedly.
Lindemere, to make a point, did just that. ‘Considering I have no clue as to who you are referring to, I think we are safe from being found out as I let my eyes searchingly wander across the hundred men that are in this sample and despair.’
Liliane rolled her eyes at Lindemere’s words. ‘You are so theatrical when you try for condescension.’
Feline DeMere already knew who she was talking about and was openly eying him now. ‘He is just so… beautiful. And trouble, I hear there is not a bed he has not been in, his women either married or unmarried. I get it, though. Do you remember those stories we used to tell each other as children? About night crawlers? I for one cannot remember having ever seen him in the daylight, only at night during balls and parties.’
Christobel laughed. ‘O please. As if handsome bad men come by for a nice cup of tea with the parents. Of course you only see them at night, I can name quite a lot of them. Are all of them coming straight out of fantasy horror stories?’
Lavell was forced to hold her tongue on the reality of the possibility, which Christobel so easily dismissed. Had Lavell not known, she would undoubtedly have done the same. She was no longer fond of the dramatic stories that had enticed her as a foolish youth. Some vampires had been in Tiresial long enough to build a reputation, a respectable-seeming house, so they could move in her circles. Some for the enjoyment of humanity’s many temptations and vices, some for more.
Christobel laid a hand on Lavell’s arm as she turned around to look as well, having Liliane point him out for her. Lindemere, rolling her eyes, still refused. ‘Is he not living in the house next to yours, Lavell? What is his name again?’
Lavell had not needed to turn around to know who they talked about. ‘Yes.’
Because Lindemere was looking at Lavell instead of Tryst Valentine, she saw the look on her friend’s face and her eyes turned worried. Lavell pretended to be disinterested rather than discomfited, and hoped that it worked. Lindemere sniffing a bone could be very dangerous. ‘Lavell, are you quite alright?’ Lindemere asked. ‘What is wrong?’ Now she did glance over at Tryst, and back at Lavell.
‘Nothing. I am fine.’ Lavell said, forcing herself to smile and throw a fleeting look over her shoulder at Tryst Valentine, who of course had his dark eyes locked on her as soon as she did. He lifted the corner of his mouth in a grin and she turned back around, trying to mask how that had thrown her, shoving down her hatred and contempt. ‘Trust me, you have never met a more unpleasant, unsavoury sort. If there was a way to get him to vacate his house, I’d make sure it’d happen. Do not go anywhere near him.’
Lindemere opened her mouth, probably to ask more about Lavell’s obvious attitude towards Tryst, which was unlike her to say the least. All of them had known each other for years, and it was unlikely as well for Lavell to never have mentioned it before now if it ran so deeply. Tryst very seldom came to society balls, but he had been there occasionally. Of course, Liliane and Feline had never before shown such direct interest. But before Lindemere could say something, Feline, who had probably not been paying attention in the slightest, continued: ‘Well, there must be something to him, or all those women would not be finding their way to his door.’
Feline sighed in admiration of such a reputation, ignoring Christobel’s not so subtle hint to shut up, who had seen the look passing between Lavell and Lindemere.
‘I can imagine that it is not amusing to live next door to someone whose flagrant behaviour must be suffered. Especially if it is true that he…’ she turned down the volume of her voice. ‘That he really is quite dangerous.’ In spite of her actual words, she sounded as if she would love to live in the house next door to that of Tryst Valentine if he was a vampire. Since Lavell knew he truly was one, but was not allowed to spill, she had no choice but to let her friend wallow in the very real possibility of death.
‘Feline, truly.’ Lindemere burst out. ‘Please stop talking if you cannot say anything sensible. For one, I’d like to meet even one of all those women who’ve slept with him because for the myriads boasted, I know none. Secondly, your friend has just told you that he is a terrible person. Take her word for it instead of behaving like you would love to find yourself in trouble, considering you would run screaming for the hills if you actually were. Please pay attention with the brain I know you’ve been given, and see that Lavell does not want to talk about it anymore!’
Feline threw Lindemere a hateful look, but she kept silent. Christobel changed the subject, which had all four of them relieved, and Liliane was the first to comply with a quick answer. It made Lavell smile. They were all of them so different, but that was one of the reasons they had been able to maintain a friendship for so many years within this competitive society. Although they clashed at times, they complemented each other too. Now Lavell was surrounded by them, Tryst would keep his distance. Like an animal waiting for the fire to die down before he’d strike. Her friends asked her for news from Tiresial, and shared news from the country. They could easily fill an entire night with this, so Lavell could find a way to relax.
She was spending a pleasant evening, dividing herself between her friends and her family. As Sadie and Sergio stepped onto the dancefloor while Lavell was with them and her parents, her mother’s talk irreversibly turned to the marquis. He was here tonight, but Lavell had not spoken to him yet. She knew she should, soon, but she was not looking forward to it. She was still torn as to what her choice was going to be and she still did not know why she would be. Even though she had known the marquis only for a few months, having met him over the summer, it was a question she had been wrestling with for the last four years. She knew what it ought to be, but that did not get her far. Or far enough.
She was still with her parents, whom Sadie and Sergio had also joined, when she saw the marquis of Estyll walk through the crowd towards them. It was as if they parted way for him, while his eyes were only on her. When he caught her eye, he showed a hint of a smile, private. It flushed her with warmth, the feeling of being special to someone and she returned the smile for him.
He bowed to her when he reached her and her family. ‘Well met on this fine evening.’
‘And you.’ Lady Cathcart said, smiling enchantedly to encourage him in his affection for her daughter, while lord Cathcart was doing a great impression of the concerned father wondering whether or not he could trust his youngest daughter with this man. If there was one thing lord Cathcart was not afraid of, it was a regular human being. But society had its niceties that had to be adhered to.
‘I feared you had abandoned the party altogether. I had not seen you before now.’ Lavell said to him, although her mother had commented on his being there an hour ago.
‘I must admit to arriving fairly late. The wheel of my carriage broke on the way here, such unfortunate things always happen when you least want them to. But I found you were well taken care of by either family or friends, alternately. Constantly.’
Lavell smiled at the quip on her vanguard. They did not only keep vampires at bay, also eligible, handsome men you actually did want around. ‘But you did decide to eventually take them on.’
‘I had to keep a lady to her promise.’ he said.
‘Yes. A dance, I believe it was.’ she laid her hand on the arm he consequently offered as an answer. He had a quick wit. They walked up to the dance floor, and Lavell asked him: ‘Not many people would face my parents before my friends. Yet you decided them to be the less dangerous of entourage.’
‘I have thought it out.’ He started quite seriously, although she could see from the glint in his eyes that he was not. ‘I have the inclination to believe that your mother likes me, so she will protect me from both your father and sister. If she can get your brother-in-law to join her, I will at least have a chance of getting away. But offend one friend and all the others close ranks before you can say ‘Best intentions’.’
Lavell laughed aloud. When they talked, he made her feel like she was a better person than she was. Which was exactly why she usually dreaded speaking to him beforehand. He was so kind, it made her forget who she was. But she would never be able to keep it up if she was married to him. The things she knew, the way she reacted to them – she was going to hurt him.
‘So that is what they are, then? Best intentions?’
He turned her around and took her hands to lead her into the dance, looking down at her. His smile turned to warmth. ‘Definitely.’ She really liked this man. She wanted so much to fall in love with him, a man who so clearly deserved and wanted it. She knew that she would never be loved more.
Yet she had not. Was she holding back or would it never come? Lavell didn’t think she was strong enough to marry a man on the faith that one day it would. And it would devastate her, to hurt a man who did have that faith. Underneath it all, she had no idea what sort of person she really was and so, she was incapable of deciding on her own life these days. She could not stand the impasse for much longer. She felt on the verge of something. If only Lavell knew what.
‘Your mind seems far off, tonight.’ he said.
‘It is, I apologise.’ Lavell said, and turned Tryst’s attendance into something productive – a diversion. ‘I found out our neighbour is attending tonight and we are not on the friendliest of terms.’
‘Would that be Tryst Valentine?’
‘Well, I cannot say I have made his acquaintance, but now I will certainly withhold from doing so.’ he said. ‘At least I will not be as pleasant as I had anticipated to be.’
The good-humoured joke made her smile again. ‘You are a dream.’ she said, and although not as restraint a remark as she usually would have made, she meant every word of it.
‘Here is to hoping we don’t wake.’ he answered, a sentiment she shared.
After the dance, when he walked her back, he asked as they were leaving the dance floor: ‘Family or friends?’
‘Sadie and Sergio, please.’ Lavell answered, to which he obliged. He bowed to her and retreated gracefully, having spent the time allotted by society with her at least for now. Lavell watched him go. She had preferred Sadie and Sergio because her friends – with the exception of a very sober Lindemere this evening – would question her relentlessly on everything to do with the marquis. Considering she did not have any answers, Lavell prevented the situation by avoiding it. For now.
‘You don’t look like someone doubting to marry him.’ Sergio said, and got punched quite ferociously by his wife behind Lavell’s back, who turned around too late to catch it.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
‘Well, I’m just saying. You looked beautiful together dancing.’ Sergio improvised all too clearly, and Sadie barely held back a sigh of frustration. Lavell frowned at him. Still distracted, she didn’t get into it and scanned the ballroom, having the uneasy feeling of eyes watching her. It gave Sadie the opportunity to shake her head at her husband in disbelief. What? he mouthed.
‘Lavell, do you have any idea where father and mother are?’ Sadie asked, to get away from the topic of the marquis. ‘If we don’t run in to them soon, I am going to think they left us here. I would not put it past them.’
Turning back again, Lavell finally gave her her full attention. ‘I saw father walking towards the study with our host, probably wrapped up in another one of their discussions. And mother is over there with duchess Elmsbury, in the left corner.’
Sadie grinned unladylike at the former.
‘Discussions?’ Sergio asked, picking up on his wife’s reaction. He had not personally met lord Rimmerthe and did not know the story. Sadie enlightened him: ‘A few years ago father was courting lord Rimmerthe into extending our family invitations to their events. They discovered that they both have a passion for mathematics. There followed endless discussions, conversations and theoretical problem solving at our dinner table, until mother put her foot down. She flatly refused to invited the Rimmerthes again until father promised her they would never speak of it in front of her again. And I am glad for it. I have never had my head spun more from all those names of mathematicians I had never heard of. Which, apparently, I should have heard of.’
Sergio laughed. ‘That does not surprise me. The names of my family members throw you for a loop as well.’
Sadie crossed her arms. ‘Sergio Ferdinando Pascutti, you have family twice, thrice, four times removed and you really expect me to remember all their names? You may be thankful I remember your parents’ names.’
‘I love it when you are exaggerating.’ Sergio grinned, not insulted in the least. She was doing exactly that, of course. The only names Sadie had trouble with these days, were those of Sergio’s innumerable amount of interchangeable nieces.
Lavell wondered why it was so hard to find this, exactly this. Sadie saw the look on her sister’s face, misinterpreting it. ‘We are boring you. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t stop on my account. I have promised the insufferable lord Moseby this dance, so she will come for me any minute now and you can happily carry on without fear. Sergio, please promise me that you will rescue me if he intends to keep me there longer.’
‘Why do you accept an invitation if that is how you feel about him?’
‘I am taking upon me the role of the perfect, dutiful daughter once again.’ Lavell answered. ‘Society has expectations. Luckily, not a one of them cares if I snub Tryst Valentine, so I am counting my blessings as is, or I think I would not be attending many balls.’
‘I saw him too, yes.’ Sadie said, in a tone that betrayed how annoyed she was at having her hands tied during events like these. She had never particularly liked any of it, the high society into which she was born and raised, but when this world meshed with that of a hunter she chafed even worse at the bonds. Sadie was born with a silver sword in her hands, meeting out judgement, it seemed sometimes.
A young, quite handsome man was coming over to them. He was about ten years older than Lavell, and engaged to a girl barely old enough to come out to a ball. He was of the fairly reprehensible sort, although harmless when kept on a short leash, but he was the son of a duke and thus society obligingly fawned over him. Lavell could never bring herself to go that far, no matter how well she knew to manoeuvre these waters, but she did accept occasional invitations to dance when there was no plausible excuse not to.
When she had left, Sergio turned to his wife. ‘Will you now explain to me what that was all about?’
Sadie shook her head at him again. ‘Really Sergio. I love you, but you are absolutely blind to a young woman’s heart. Can’t you see that she does not want to talk about him? She feels pressure enough from our parents who think he is perfect, and from her friends who think he is perfect. She does not need it from us.’
‘But the man is perfect. I am sorry to say it, but he is someone I can see her happy with. He can keep her far away from… what we do.’ Sergio made a face when he realised in the nick of time that he could be overheard. In spite of Aryfn’s society being much the same, they did not adhere to the treaty and so the existence of vampires was common knowledge.
‘Could you live with not being able to tell the person you share your life with what it is that has you terrified?’ Sadie asked him. ‘That the monsters you fear are real? Even worse, that Tryst Valentine will follow her. You know he will by now.’ she said. ‘What if she has a child?’
Sergio had to accede to that. ‘True, but there are ways around it. People have done it before.’
‘Yes. If they loved someone enough. I don’t believe the does, or perhaps she just doesn’t know it for sure. It is a lot to ask of a man when you don’t have proper time together, to get to know each other before one must propose marriage to the other. Especially with secrets such as ours.’ Sadie said. ‘And people who have done it before know how to protect themselves from vampires. They pick up a sword. I know it’s not her fault, but sometimes I think we should just push through, even if it means she’ll never talk to me again.’
Sergio ignored the last. From the unchanged expression it was evident he had heard this before without Sadie making good on the threat. ‘So even marriage is about them, then.’ he said. ‘No matter if it should only be about love or prospects.’
Sadie shrugged, looking at her sister behaving pleasantly on the dance floor amidst the throng of her peers. ‘It will always be about them for her, Sergio.’ she answered.
‘She’s coming back.’ he warned her. He then looked at her affectionately. ‘You two are very
much alike despite apparent differences. Stubborn, and rash. Both in your actions and in your judgement.’
Before Sadie could ask him what exactly he meant by that, Lavell re-joined them as she had successfully shaken off lord Moseby. ‘This one I could handle on my own, luckily.’ She looked over her sister’s shoulder. ‘Mother is coming this way as well. I think she wants to go home as soon as she has convinced father to join us.’
‘That doesn’t surprise me in the least, she has been heaving headaches all week.’ Sadie answered. ‘Let’s find father. I must say that I won’t mind going to bed already. We have been here for hours.’
In all honesty, Lavell had to agree, but it had more to do with the multiple levels of avoidance she was engaged in tonight. Besides, Tryst had yet to show himself and the longer she stayed, the larger the chance he actually would. Sergio offered to find lord Cathcart, as he could more easily disturb a group of gentlemen smoking cigars away from their wives. As soon as Sergio left, lady Cathcart joined both her daughters.
‘Do you know where your father is? I would like to put an end to this evening.’ she said by way of introduction.
‘Sergio is just getting him now. Shall I ask if they bring the carriage?’ Lavell offered, and her mother nodded. ‘Thank you, I would like that. Then we will be able to leave immediately if he comes. Sadie, would you join me to take our leave of lady Rimmerthe?’
Lavell quickly departed for the hall, although to see Sadie taking her mother’s arm to go bid goodbye to a society lady would be a lovely sight of discomfort. Lavell usually took that task, but occasionally made her sister do it, considering someone had to make sure she stayed in people’s good graces.
Although Sadie didn’t realise it, Lavell helped her survive in this world as much as the other way around, albeit in a fairly different manner. Her sister had never considered society to be of any worth, but Lavell – and Sergio – knew differently.
In the grand hall she encountered a servant in attendance, as she had expected to. She arranged with him to have the carriage brought and their coats ready. He left the hall to attend to her family’s needs, leaving her alone. It was cool and quiet there after the busy rush of the ballroom, and she took a moment to herself, looking at the portraits hanging from the walls. There were a great many of them, important members of the Rimmerthe family. Because they were a wealthy family they could afford good artists, and it made the hall very beautiful. She knew she should go back into the ballroom, but the door was open and she could walk back in at any time.
She turned around. ‘Marquis.’ she said. ‘You found me just in time. My family is preparing to leave, so I just asked to have the carriage pulled up.’
‘I am glad I saw you headed this way, then.’ he answered. ‘I hope you wouldn’t find it presumptuous of me, but with what you told me of your neighbour and him being here, it seemed reasonable to stay close by just in case when I saw you going out alone. And since I could be accused of stalking you myself when I do it secretly, I thought it best to just reveal myself.’
Lavell smiled, genuinely finding him funny. ‘I should count myself lucky with such a gallant gentleman nearby.’
He walked up to her. ‘I do have to admit there is a slightly selfish motive at play here as well.’ he added.
‘Truly?’ she asked. He nodded, and looked up at the paintings she had just been admiring as well. She did the same.
‘They are impressive, no matter how many times I’ve seen them. I do prefer landscapes to portraits, to be honest. All those eyes seem to keep following me whenever I spent too long a time here.’
‘I think I agree with you.’ she said. ‘It is a perfect place to take a moment for oneself, but also makes sure it is not more than that.’
After looking at the painting for a little longer, the marquis turned back to her. ‘I am just going to dare ask. Jump in, as they say. I was wondering if you would find it agreeable at all if I would call upon your family next week.’
‘Much so.’ she heard herself say from somewhere far away. She had not put an end to this time alone, although he had given her ample time to do so. She knew he was going to ask it sooner or later. And she had already answered him, she was not about to take it back. But there was a slight feel of panic that she tried to hide with a smile when she looked up at the marquis.
He looked into her eyes, his own smile still waning on his lips. He bowed gracefully to her and excused himself, considering her family could be arriving any minute now. She told him she was quite safe, freeing him to return to the ballroom. Too long away and people would start to talk. As she watched him go, she knew he had wanted to kiss her, but his upbringing had got the better of him. She was contemplating whether she was feeling relieved or disappointed. Lavell knew it was a bit of both. She was wondering what it would be like, to just let go of the control that reigned her in all the time.
Oh, Le’Mar, what was she doing?
She took a deep breath and headed back to the ballroom, certain that if she stayed any longer on her own it was pushing her luck. She slipped back inside, looking to see if she could find either her mother and sister, or her friends. The former two were nowhere to be seen, probably on their way to meet Sergio and lord Cathcart. Her friends she found slightly scattered around, but before she could walk towards any of them, a soft, drawn out breath fell across her neck. On purpose.
‘You just come looking for me when I don’t come to you, do you?’
As she was standing near one of the pillars she knew, with him behind her, that he was just out of sight of anyone helpful. With so many people nearby, she couldn’t draw attention to herself other than the wrong kind. She did appreciate the irony, that going back in was the thing causing her to be in this tight spot. She made to move out of range, but before she could, he closed his hand on the back of her dress. The hem cut low across her shoulder blades, and the feel of the knuckles of his hand against her bare skin made her shiver. ‘A-ah.’ he warned. ‘I’ve not even begun.’
She did not answer, determined to wait him out. If she was not in the hall when her parents came, the first thing Sadie would do was look for her. She knew he was here. Surrounded by this many people there were limits to what Tryst could do, anyone was bound to move into sight at any moment. But there was also no way for her to defend herself without attracting unwanted attention and Tryst was aware of that also. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what would happen if society caught her so. But she did have the necklace. He could not force her to do anything against her will ever again. That straightened her resolve. And back.
She heard him grinning at that. ‘You just keep on trying at it, don’t you?’ He laid his hand on the back of her neck, thumb on her artery as a subtle threat. She froze, knowing that even the slightest of muscle movements betrayed to him her next move and he would be so much quicker. ‘I could strangle you or break your neck without anyone even noticing. Wearing verbena might make you immune to mind control, but it still won’t do you any good if I decide to get physical.’
She yanked herself out of his grip and honestly, he let her. He was much stronger than she. She turned around to look him in the eye now that it was finally safe to do so, and which she had been wanting to do for a long time.
‘You can, but you never will.’
‘No.’ he admitted easily. ‘There is no sport in force. And I don’t need the mind control to get what I want from you, it just makes the song and dance go a little faster.’ He closed the space between them with a step. She didn’t move. That crooked smile started again in the corner of his mouth. ‘Just admit it. Having that necklace doesn’t mean that you can walk away from me. To you, it means that you can face me. Let me again tell you something you don’t want to hear. Even before you decided to find out for yourself how frightening we are, you were never going to be a hunter. Back then you knew and accepted that. But now you have this unhealthy need to rehash your beliefs, your life, your decisions. You want to be in your father’s good graces, be as tough as your big sister. Doesn’t matter that you fear my kind to the point of paralysation, or that you can’t touch a silver sword. It’s why you keep finding yourself in situations like these – in danger and frustrated because you can’t do a damned thing about it. So you keep pretending to be this happy butterfly of a girl for society’s sake and tear yourself apart between two paths that you can both never take.’ He let his eyes go over her face. ‘So what is it going to be? Tell me, if you could marry whomever you want, no consequences, would it be the marquis?’
‘Yes, he would.’ she said through clenched teeth.
‘Oh, how you lie to yourself. He most definitely would not.’
‘What do you want from me?’ she asked.
Tryst just lifted the corner of his mouth again and smiled at her. He stepped back, and was gone within seconds, leaving her thoroughly unsettled.
‘Here you are.’
Lavell almost jumped as Christobel suddenly turned up by her side. Christobel pulled her with her before she could say anything, and only when they were firmly among people did Christobel stop tugging.
‘I’m sorry. I could see he was already slinking off when he caught me approaching, but sometimes you just need to be in a well-lit, busy area. The way he smiled at you unsettled me. Did he pull you back there? What did he say to you that has you so unhinged?’ Christobel was concernedly looking for clues in Lavell’s face. When the latter didn’t answer, Christobel realised: ‘You hate him. I’ve never seen you hate anyone.’
That would have been funny had Lavell been able to just tell her friend the truth. So she only nodded. ‘I do.’ she said, and could not explain further, except to thank her friend for showing up when she needed her. She knew Christobel suspected more going on, perhaps a case of unrequited love, but Lavell couldn’t correct that thought without bringing up more questions without answers.
‘Well, you won’t live in your parents’ house forever. When you marry, you can be as far away from him as you prefer to be.’ Christobel said. Lavell smiled because of the heart behind that statement. She dearly loved her friends.
‘I thought you were leaving with your family?’ Christobel asked, adding.
‘I am.’ Lavell said. ‘I got bored by watching the portraits in the hall, so I foolishly walked back in after calling the carriage.’
‘Sadie is making her way here right now.’ Christobel said, looking over Lavell’s shoulder. She looked back at her friend. ‘I wish you would just tell people something like this. Now that I know to which extend you do dislike that man, I will not leave you out of my sight again when he is here.’
Lavell forced herself to laugh it off. ‘You are overreacting.’
She was not persuading anyone tonight, as Christobel was shaking her head. ‘You should see your face, Lavell. You are as white as a ghost.’
‘I’ll be fine. He just startled me.’ Lavell promised, a lie. Sadie joined them, which luckily ended the conversation. ‘Here you are. I thought you had already said your goodbyes.’ Sadie said to her sister.
‘I had, but I came back in when you took your time in meeting me.’ Lavell said. Before Sadie could answer, Christobel took her leave of them, with the parting request not to tell her mother that she had used the expression ‘slinking of’. When she had left, Sadie looked at Lavell.
‘Tryst.’ Lavell said.
Sadie mumbled some heartfelt curses as both sisters left the ballroom. In the hall their parents and Sergio were waiting. Lavell let herself be helped into her coat and was distracted on her way back. As soon as they arrived home she excused herself to go up to bed. Although she loved Sadie, and wanted her sister to look out for her, she was not in the mood to go over the details. She wanted to be alone. To her surprise, she was left alone.
It was the following morning that Sadie was sitting in the drawing room with a book when Lavell came in after having had some breakfast. She smiled and closed the door. Sadie was very seldom found sitting quietly, especially with a book. It was her way of saying that she was waiting for Lavell to get ready to talk. When Lavell sat down opposite her, she saw the title. A book on hunter history. At least that made sense.
‘I spoke to the marquis last night.’
Sadie looked up from her book, and put it down on the table stand beside her.
‘In the hall, we were alone.’
‘Did he behave himself?’
‘Like a gentleman.’
‘Are you sorry he did?’ Sadie asked, letting her eyes go over his sister’s face in search for clues. Since Lavell didn’t have the answer to that, she assumed Sadie wasn’t finding any either.
‘He asked permission to come by the house next week, see our parents.’
‘And he’ll talk to father during that visit?’
‘I am assuming so.’ Lavell said, having no idea how to lift the awkwardness of the conversation. Normally she had no trouble talking to her sister, but Sadie appeared to be having the same problem getting out of this cautious, polite, one sentenced conversation. She was probably worried about saying something that would make Lavell shut down. Lavell knew she was not known for confiding. This time though, she did want to talk about it. She was torn up about her decisions for long enough. Knowing that the marquis was coming by soon, she knew she had to. So she started from the beginning, and before she knew it, all her doubts were spilling out.
Sadie pulled up both her legs on the sofa, listening.
‘I don’t know what to do.’ Lavell said, eventually.
Sadie got up and came to sit next to her sister. She took Lavell’s face into her hands. ‘The only question that matters is this.’ she said. ‘Do you want to marry him?’
The answer left her lips before she knew what she was going to say. ‘No.’
Sadie smiled and let go of her. ‘Then you do not marry him.’ she said. ‘Sometimes it is as simple as being asked a straight question.’
Now that she had said it aloud, Lavell knew it was true. The only reason she had drawn it out for as long as she had, was because she had wanted to want it. Tears welled up in her eyes, she was so afraid she was never going to find a solution to the things that haunted her. Sadie moved closer and put an arm around her little sister. Who would have thought that the adventure-seeking runaway would come back a married, mature adult, Lavell thought with a smile.
‘Why did you even consider it for so long?’
‘Because I thought I wanted it. That it would come.’
‘Nothing is ever too late. It won’t be a pretty sight to tell him, but best before he comes here. You know that, of course. Father won’t pressure you to go forward with marrying him. I don’t think he was prepared to let you go anyway.’
Sadie shook her head. ‘She saw me leave.’ she said in the end, as if she almost missed the opportunity to speak it. Lavell blinked, not getting the change of subject. Sadie sighed softly and confessed: ‘When I got ready to leave the house to go to Aryfn, mother heard the noise and came to the stairs. She was standing there as I crossed it, suitcase in hand. She looked at me, but she never said anything. She just nodded. I almost didn’t go. The last thing I wanted was her permission to run away. But I’m glad that it didn’t stop me. Until this day I don’t know if she was trying reverse psychology on me, but I would rather think she let me go to make sure I’d come back one day. When I was alone, and scared, it helped me through somehow.’
Lavell was trying to take it all in. Sadie had let her go, and Lavell now moved back to look her sister in the eye. ‘She saw you leave?’ she repeated.
‘And you went anyway.’ Lavell could not wrap her head around the implications, the selfishness of it.
‘Yes.’ Sadie answered, more tentative this time, and stood also. Lavell shook her head at her in disbelief, not unlike Sadie had done to her husband the night before. ‘Did you ever on your mad dash out the door and away, think about me?’ she asked. She had been holding in her anger on this subject for far too long and now that she had let go of the control of her emotions, not much was necessary to make her swing from one to the other. ‘That you left me behind? Do you have any idea how I felt after you were gone, what I did, how much I needed you then? You took a second to think about staying to spite our mother, so how can it not have mattered that you left me?’
‘But I did.’ Sadie said. ‘Lavell, I did thi–’
‘I don’t want to hear it.’ Lavell cut her off. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ she raised her hands to emphasize that sentiment, and walked past her sister to leave the drawing room. Sadie sighed deeply, watching her go, as someone used to being the reason things exploded around her.