The summer night was warm. A comfortable breeze danced through the boughs of trees, nudging the wind chimes into song. Golden lights hung from the branches, drooping from tree to tree, illuminating the garden like fireflies in stasis, lighting the faces of revelers with a delicate glow. Small groups of men and women mingled at the edge of the gravel path, nattering drunkenly to one another in hushed voices. Wrapped in silks of ruby, sapphire and emerald, weighed down by glistening jewels, they clutched their crystal glasses and brought them to their wine stained lips. The partygoers stood around the towering oaks that bordered the path that led to the estate, candlelight streaming from the windows and lively music drifting through the open doors.
“Do you have an invitation, m’lady?” A man in green velvet tails stood before me. His cheeks were sunken in and the hand he stretched out to me was dappled in liver spots, and yet his black eyes were sharp.
“Yes, I do.” My hands slipped beneath the folds of my dress and produced the invitation. I remembered how excited I had been when it had first arrived. My fingers trembled when I broke the red wax seal and saw the delicate, swooping handwriting inviting me to a ball. Not just any ball, mind you, but an engagement ball. The engagement ball of my Prince Charming. Charles Hearst was my paramour--my one and only--and by the end of the night he would be my fiancé. Ever since the invitation had made its way into my possession my heart had been beating against my chest like a bird beating its wings against the bars of its cage, longing to be free. Ever since our courtship began nearly five months ago, Charles had insisted we be inconspicuous and keep our relationship a secret. Of course it seemed awfully exciting at the time; taking walks through his gardens unchaperoned, intertwining our fingers secretly at social events and stealing kisses behind statues. He was a few years older than me and well respected within society, so I was terribly surprised when he started making subtle passes at me. Eventually I tired of the secrecy and begged dear Charles if we could tell our families. I was shut down at once. When the invitation arrived I could hardly contain my joy when I realised we were to be engaged. Maybe this was his way of apologising, although it did seem rather soon.
I passed the invitation to the maitre d’ and smiled knowingly.
“Ah, Miss Avery.” He shot me a look. “Shall I let Sir know you are here?” I chuckled.
“No, I’d rather like to surprise him today. Maybe just let him know I’ll be by his side soon.” The man didn’t seem to fully understand what I meant, but he nodded anyway.
“Very well, Miss.” He bowed slightly and crunched up the path back to the house. Now alone under the starry night I glanced up at the large manor. Tall, white marble columns stretched into the sky, glass glinting cooly. It all seemed rather imposing and uninviting. My eyes darted around the garden, looking for an escape. I had two options: either face the manor and my love while clearly nervous or slip off into the private hedged gardens to calm my pre-engagement jitters. I chose the latter, the hem of my dress rustling the neatly kept lawn. Ten minutes later and I was well and truly lost among the sprawling hedges. While I had wandered the vast grounds of the Hearst estate, I rarely paid attention to where I was going as my focus was always stuck to dear Charlie, listening to him talk about his friends, asking questions about his day. Somehow I found myself standing before a koi pond that I had never seen before.
Beams of moonlight bounced off the crystal clear water, dappling the flowers and myself in a silvery, ethereal glow. The pond itself attracted me, like a magnet, to its edge. When I looked down, I was disappointed with who was looking back at me. Gone was the carefree girl who had cared not if her strawberry blonde waves whipped in the wind. Gone were the forget-me-not eyes that had looked upon the world with awe. Gone were the intricate gauzy gowns that let her run through the meadows behind her home. Instead, a woman looked back at me. The soft curls had been ironed flat, the loose gauze replaced with constricting corsets and silk. The forget-me-not eyes were no longer full of life but instead more resembled the pressed flowers that hung in the drawing room. Charlie loved her though, so I suppose I had to learn to love her too. When we first met I had been so immature and uncouth, yet Charlie saw the potential of who I could be. He helped me become a lady worthy of taking his name.
“Party boring you too?” called a voice behind me. I jumped in fright as the question broke through my thoughts. Half ensconced in shadows stood a man. As he emerged from the darkness, the moonlight lit up his figure. He was rather tall, a little taller than Charles, and had honey golden eyes. His dark hair was a little ruffled, and instead of wearing a tunic like the other male guests, he wore a simple white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, along with black trousers. I could tell by the way he held himself that he was of high standing, but from the way he was dressed he looked more like a gardener that worked for the estate.
“No,” I snipped, smoothing the layers of my dress. In the dim light of the garden the blue silk appeared almost black. “I’ve only just arrived.”
“And you haven’t gone inside to greet the happy couple? Doesn’t seem very polite of you.” His tone indicated he couldn’t care less about manners and whether or not I was being polite.
“What do you mean ‘greet the happy couple’?” A lump had formed in the pit of my stomach, less to do with nerves and more to do with dread. The man shrugged.
“Shouldn’t you thank them for the invitation before they make the announcement? That’s what I was told to do, at least.”
“But why would Charles make the announcement without me present?” The words sounded very breathless, as if I was having difficulty breathing. The man shot me a funny look.
“Who are you, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Avery Donahue, why?”
“Donahue… Donahue…” He stared at the ground, brows furrowed in concentration. When he glanced up at me there was recognition glinting in his golden eyes. “Yes, I’ve heard of you. You are… close with Charlie, no?”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that.” I smiled slightly, debating whether to tell him just how close we were.
“No, I mean… very close. Closer than friends,” he pushed. I threw him a puzzled look; he couldn’t possibly know could he? “Um… it’s a little uncomfortable to ask but, you had a… a secret flirtation with Charlie, right?” It was as if I had received a slap to the face. How did he know about this? I was sworn to secrecy about our relationship, surely Charlie wouldn’t go back on his word.
“H- how would you know?”
“He spoke of you a few times in passing. Well… it sounded more like boasting if you ask me.” His voice was barely more than a growl. “So… you are her, right?”
“Yes… I suppose I am.” His honey eyes glowed with an inner fire as he scowled at the ground.
“Maybe you should go before you make a fool of yourself.” The words were quiet, yet strained.
“No, I don’t think I will.” I spat.
“Avery,” The tenor of his voice as he spoke my name sent shivers down my spine. “Trust me, it is in your best interest to leave now.” I stared at the man with a mixture of shock and rage. How dare he dictate whether I leave my special day?!
“Do you know how foolish you sound? Why on earth would Charle’s invite me here if it wasn’t us getting engaged?!” I cried, my voice slightly louder than intended.
“It’s because he’s cruel! He’s like a cat, playing with his food!” The man yelled back.
“You’re wrong.” My voice was barely a whisper, so at odds with the screech I had emitted only moments earlier.
“Charlie isn’t as nice as you think he is.” he sneered.
“And how would you know?” I snapped back.
“I grew up with the man, I’m his cousin. Roman Kline, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He threw me a rather attractive half smile as he extended a hand, yet I made no attempt to shake it. It was tempting to place my hand in his, but I restrained myself. Now that I had a name to put with the face, there was something familiar about Roman. No doubt I had seen him at one of Charlie’s parties. How they were cousins, though, was a mystery to me. While Charlie was all straight lines and sophistication, Roman was a little more rough around the edges and seemed more suited to the life of a country bumpkin. No doubt Charlie would agree with me. “The look on your face speaks volumes.” Even though he was grinning, my cheeks began to burn. I hadn’t realised I’d been staring.
“Sorry, it’s just… you look very different from Charlie.” At that he laughed, an unrestrained laugh. His real laugh. Charlie had a polite chuckle that resembled more of a cough that he would use in social situations. I don’t think I had ever heard his real laugh.
“We’re distantly related, and thank God too. Any closer on the family tree and I’m fairly certain I’d have a stick up my ass like my dear cousin.” I wanted to be offended at the way he spoke of my future husband, but he had a point. A giggle escaped my lips. I was quick to regather myself.
“Sorry.” I mumbled.
“Don’t be sorry for laughing.” There was something genial about him. He liked to have fun, and didn’t mind others knowing it.
“Yes, but it’s impolite to do so. Especially at another’s expense.”
“You have me there,” he chuckled. “I guess we shouldn’t be laughing at Charlie’s uptight nature. But you seem so against laughing in general, why?”
“Like I said, it’s impolite to do so.” Roman scoffed, hands folding underneath his armpits.
“What? Did Charlie tell you that?”
“Perhaps,” I mused. Roman gave me a look; there was something so hypnotising about his eyes. “Alright, yes. He did.” Roman let out a sigh and shook his head.
“Just because he doesn’t know what happiness is, doesn’t mean he can prevent others from expressing theirs.” Now that I thought about it, I don’t think I had ever seen Charlie express any positive emotions ever. During the social season he was typically stony faced and callous. When we were alone together he was a little less cold, yet whenever I tried to engage in conversation it still felt like I was talking to a handsome piece of marble.
“Well,” I said. “I should probably go and see Charlie before the announcement. He must be wondering where I am.” Roman looked like he wanted to say something, but thought better of it. “Would you like to walk back with me?” His black locks shone in the moonlight as he shook his head.
“Thank you for the offer, but I need to scrounge up something to drink other than that wine they are serving up at the house. I need something stronger to steel me for the announcement, lest I die of boredom.” He smiled at me and I smiled back, giggling. This time I didn’t stop myself. With a polite farewell we walked off in opposite directions, Roman slinking back into the shadows and me walking back to the front of the house, albeit much more reluctantly than before.
After my chat with Roman my nerves had settled somewhat. While I was no longer nervous, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Roman had said. ‘Greet the happy couple.’ Roman had known who I was, yet didn’t recognise me as Charle’s finaceé. He made it sound like Charles was with someone else inside the manor. With thoughts racing through my head and doubts weighing upon my shoulders, the pit of dread in my stomach grew heavier and heavier.
“Come now, Avery. Pull yourself together,” I muttered to myself. The front garden of the house where the maitre d’ had asked for my invitation was now much emptier than it had been when I had arrived. Most of the guests had filed back inside and only a few more drunken men and women occupied the lawns. I lifted the skirts of my gown and hurried up the gravel path to the house. My shoes tapped against the stone staircase that led to the front doors. I nodded politely to a few women that I had met at that year’s social season. Their names escaped my mind as I’m sure mine did theirs.
The inside of the house was much louder than I had thought. Music danced along the walls accompanied by the din of conversations. I walked through the halls, past paintings and empty vases on side tables, following the music that drifted through the house. The inside of the manor was decorated in dark cherry wood and red carpets, yet there was something very clinical about the house that I had failed to notice before. There were very few trinkets that marked the house as a home. On my way to the ballroom I passed no signs that anyone lived there other than a large family portrait that adorned the wall above the ballroom doors. I didn’t give myself time to consider what would await me inside when I turned the golden handle and pushed the door open. Orchestral music filled the room, competing against the din of conversation amongst the guests.
Almost immediately my eyes landed on Charles and my heart plummeted to my feet.
Linking his arm, all cozy, was another woman. Delia Abbott. Her chocolate brown hair was braided into a crown and her pointed features formed a sneering smile as she spoke with another couple. Perhaps my staring was noticeable, for Charles looked away from the conversation and locked eyes with me. I thought he would shoot me a pleading look, a look that cried “This isn’t my choice, you must believe me!”, but he sneered and firmly planted his hand on her hip. My eyes pricked and I blinked away the forming tears. I turned to walk back out the front door and leave, but an arm linked mine and led me right past and around the other side of the room, away from Charles and Delia.
“Don’t let him see you cry.” Roman murmured, bringing us to a halt near a refreshments table.
“Trust me, I don’t intend to,” I fired back. Thankfully I sounded much stronger than I felt. Seeing a friendly face calmed me, but that calm was quickly squashed by anger. “Did you know about him and Delia!” I hissed, careful not to draw attention from the nearby groups.
“Yes, I did.” Roman said regretfully. “And I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t think you would believe me!” He added when I opened my mouth to argue. My arm fell from his and I walked away. “Come now, don’t be like that.” He took my hand and walked over to me.
“I would like to be left alone right now.” I sniffed.
“You can’t leave now! They are about to make the announcement.” Roman hissed. I glowered up at him.
“If you’re trying to make me feel better, you’re failing miserably.” Roman apologised and leant close, whispering in my ear.
“You have to get through the next few minutes. It will hurt, but you have to listen to the announcement and congratulate them. Don’t let Charles see just how much he’s hurt you. Don’t let him win. Trust me when I say I’ve made that mistake far too often.” I looked up at him, but his face was blurry. He ran his thumb gently across my cheek, brushing away the tears I hadn’t even realised I’d shed. When my vision cleared he was smiling. “Ready?” he asked.
We made our way to the front of the gathering crowd at the centre of the ballroom. Charles and Delia were standing at the centre of the circle that had formed. Charles looked dashing under the candlelight from the many chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. His blonde locks were combed back, not a hair out of place. His skin was almost porcelain under the warm light and, like most --other than Roman--, he wore a black suit. His pocket square was of purple satin, and looked like it had been cut from the same cloth that made Delia’s dress. It hurt seeing her up there with him, standing in my place. But it wasn’t my place, was it? No. It never had been. I had been the secret shame, the mistress, all while he had been courting and preparing to marry her!
“Lady Delia and I would like to make an announcement. An announcement I’m sure will come as no surprise to any of you.” As Charles spoke, his steely eyes sought me out in the crowd and cut into me. If not for Roman’s reassuring presence beside me, I would have broken down in front of everyone. “Lady Delia and I are engaged to be wed.” The news was met with cheers from the assembled crowd. I stayed silent, and maybe it was out of solidarity for me that Roman stayed silent too.
“The ceremony will take place next spring before the beginning of the social season.” Delia said. She didn’t smile when she said it, but she didn’t look unhappy either. In fact, she was acting quite like Charles, cold and indifferent.
“Now that the news has been made public, please enjoy the rest of your evening.” Charles drawled before escorting Delia over to a pillar. The orchestra picked up again, but this time couples made their way to the dance floor and began to waltz. Every few minutes, a few people would make their way over to Charles and Delia and congratulate them on their engagement.
“Would you like to dance?” Roman asked me. I jumped having forgotten that he was still linking my arm. It felt strangely natural having him near me; like he was another limb.
“No thank you. I don’t find much enjoyment in waltzes.” I said. “Unless you do of course, then I will gladly accept your invitation.” I added in a rush, glancing up at him awkwardly.
“Don’t worry, I was only asking to be polite.” He laughed, smiling down at me. “I much prefer participating in the line dances during the village festivals.” I smiled back at him.
“Me too.” We stood against a wall near the doors out of the room, content to bask in each other's silence. Roman watched the dancers, lost in thought. My head rested against his arm as I stared at the twinkling lights, my mind blissfully empty. Time passed at a confusing pace. It only felt like minutes that we were standing there, but when Roman jerked me out of my thoughts, the room was significantly dimmer as the candles burned lower.
“What is it?” I mumbled. Had I drifted off?
“Are you tired?” he asked soothingly, brushing a lock of hair behind my ear. I was happy to see that the straightness to my hair was falling out and the soft curls returning to it.
“Maybe a little.” I yawned.
“Let’s go congratulate my cousin and Miss Abbott and bid them farewell. I’ll take you home afterwards, ok?” I nodded sleepily, but blinked away the bleariness from my eyes as we made our way over to Charles and his fianceé.
“Mister Kline, Miss Donahue.” Charles greeted us curtly. Once his voice had sounded like black silk, smoothe and undulating, but now it reminded me of the drone of a fly.
“Hello, cousin,” Roman said, matching Charles’s energy, disdain dripping with each word. The tension was palpable, uncomfortably constricting. I glanced at Delia who was regarding me with narrowed brows and pursed lips. She didn’t look like she was going to do anything about the hostility, so I swooped in.
“I believe some congratulations are in order!” I beamed. Charles’s eyebrow quirked in surprise. “Delia, you must be incredibly excited.”
“Of course. I am thrilled to be engaged to Charles,” Delia drawled. She didn’t look excited in the slightest. “Forgive me for not exuding such frivolity as you seem incapable of doing; I do not wish to be seen as immature.” I bit my lip, embarrassed, and looked down at the floor.
“I find Avery’s excitement charming. When she’s excited she smiles, and she has a truly wonderful smile,” remarked Roman. I looked up at him and smiled; he squeezed my hand in response. Throughout the exchange Charles’s eyes kept darting between Roman and me, glaring daggers at us both. Was he, perhaps, jealous?
“Tell me, Miss Donahue,” Charles droned, his gaze of disdain fixed upon Roman and me. “How is it that you acquainted yourself with Mr Kline?” I didn’t like the way he was looking at me, looking at me like I belonged to him. I chuckled.
“I met him in the garden when I first arrived,” I replied. “A lucky thing too as I’ve never been in more pleasant company.” Roman’s thumb ran soothing circles over the back of my hand as I threw a tight lipped smile at Charles. Outwardly Charles remained unphased by my comment, but a slight blush blooming on his ears gave away his irritation.
“You should be wary, Avery.” Even hearing my name in his mouth made me feel ill. “If, in your naivety, you see yourself having some sort of amorous entanglement with Mr Kline here, you should know he’s never been one to hold a woman down.” He smirked over at his cousin. I didn’t have to look at Roman to know he was white with fury. His body hummed beside me with rage and… embarrassment?
“I’m not entirely sure what you’re referring to, Charles, but I’m not worried. It’s taken me time, but I’ve learned not to trust the song of a blue jay.” My words seemed to have a similar effect on Charles as his had on Roman. Delia, throughout the entire, venomous altercation had remained thin lipped and silent. While she made no attempt to redeem her betrothed, she too seethed in anger. From the moment of claustrophobic silence that followed, I got the sense we had overstayed our welcome and caught Roman’s eye, subtly indicating the door.
“Anyway,” said Roman, bowing his head slightly, trying not to grin too wide. “Thank you for the, er… entertaining party, but Avery and I must be getting on our way.”
“You’re leaving together.” Charles seethed. It was less of a question and more of a statement.
“That’s what I just said, cousin.” sighed Roman, glaring down at him. Surprisingly, Charles looked at me as if waiting for me to tell him that Roman was lying. I would give him no such satisfaction.
“Yes,” I smiled at him. “Together. Roman and I are going to have a nightcap together at mine before he heads home.”
“I am?” Roman looked at me, surprised. His golden eyes showed bemusement but a smile played at his lips.
“Yes. Only if you want to, of course.”
“I’d love to.” He grinned. Charles looked like he wanted to say something but Delia put out her hand to stop him. Roman and I nodded at them both before sweeping out of the ballroom, the new couple gaping and glowering behind us.
Back outside of the manor we made our way down the gravel path, under the firefly lights and out the front gate in comfortable silence. A handful of carriages were lined up just outside, the drivers most likely inside the manor, spending time with the estate’s staff. We passed by a carriage with black lace curtains drawn on the window. I caught a look at my reflection and was pleasantly surprised. My hair had recovered it’s kinks and waves and my forget-me-not eyes no longer looked wilted and lifeless. I was beginning to look like myself again. Roman caught the pleased expression on my face in the glass and smiled down at me. It was a different smile, a secret smile. A smile you give someone when they aren’t looking at you. I extracted my arm from his, to which he gave me a concerned look. Instead, I smiled up at him and tangled my fingers in his, resting my head against his arm again. Together, hand in hand, we walked away from the uninviting manor and into the darkness.