Everyone had them on their backs. Appearing mysteriously on one’s sixteenth birth moon, tattooed in big black marks, would be sketched two names. Names that would change the owner’s life forever. One was the lover. The other – the killer.
I only had one.
Since my sixteenth birthday, the only person I’d ever told was my mother. She’d come into my room to find me straining my neck in front of the mirror, searching for the other name. She’d helped me look, loosening the skeleton of my corset and pulling back the strings. However, no other mark appeared next to the one lying in the hollow of my spine. Tears filled my eyes and I cried bitterly on what should have been a happy day.
Ever since that dreadful moment, I avoided every boy and man. That wasn’t very difficult. Propriety in England demanded a certain degree of decorum between the upper classes. Usually, a girl was not to speak to a man until her coming out party. Of course, many a giggling female found a way to coast a flirtatious conversation before that time. I was marked as a prude for never participating.
The only men I happily entertained were my brothers. Every day, I had one beside me to keep me company. They were my teachers as well as my guardians. From them I learnt how to ride a mighty stallion, to fence like a dancer, to win at cards and to drink a strong draught of ale.
A course of four years passed by, all care free and full of happiness. Then, on the eve of my twenty-first birthday, a dark shadow cast itself across our household. My darling mother – the angel, the light of my life – took ill. For weeks we watched her health decline as the doctors stood by, useless. At the very last, after saying goodbye to my father and brothers, she caressed my nutbrown hair and whispered in my ear with her final breath -
“Let love take its course.”
A girl lay sprawled out on her bed, one rosy cheek cupped in her hand and her long deep chestnut curls hanging down her side as she read a thick volume, ignoring the commotion of people strolling into the hall down below. Guests were coming, fluttering and twittering like birds, excited for the ball in her honor. Yet the girl stayed holed up in her room and made no motion to get ready. She seemed lost in an entirely different world, floating among the pages of buccaneers and the search for treasure.
A knock sounded on the door. “Julia, dear? Are you ready?”
The girl turned another page. “In a moment, Father,” she called back absently. The knob turned and a tall man stepped through. He was quite handsome, sporting fine broad shoulders and a dignified brow. The few gray hairs that lined the sides of his head did not age him, but gave the man a polished, genteel look. His eyes twinkled merrily as he gazed upon his youngest child.
“Julia! Your still in your nightdress!” He admonished.
The girl looked up, startled and slightly dazed from leaving her world of dreams in the pages before her. She then gazed down at her clothes. “Oh! I quite forgot about the party and must have put these on instead,” she mumbled.
“Come, child,” the man grabbed his daughter’s hands and pulled her up from the bed. “One mustn’t leave the guests waiting. The party can’t proceed until you arrive.”
Julia nodded and opened up her wardrobe reluctantly. Her father patted her shoulder and pressed a kiss to her brow before making for the door.
“I will send up Nancy to help you get ready,” he said before leaving the room. Even though he shut the door behind him, Julia could hear him mutter to himself, “I thought girls liked parties?”
A wave of guilt flooded Julia’s chest and she felt remorseful over her behavior. Yet, that could not prevent the feeling of foreboding that coursed through her blood. If only her mother were here!
Nancy came in and helped Julia tighten the strings of her corset and slip the dress over her head. It hugged at her bones so nicely that it gave the illusion of curves where there were none. Hanging to the ground in elegant pools of golden fabric, Julia felt as if she were Midas’ own daughter. The light glinted off the rich threads and caused them to sparkle when she spun around the room.
“Oh, you must feel like a princess, miss!” The maid cried out, clapping eagerly.
Julia smiled. “Yes, I do.”
“Perhaps you shall meet your prince!”
Julia’s smile fell. “Perhaps,” she replied, biting her lip.
“Don’t worry, miss. Many a fella will dance with you,” Nancy continued guiding Julia to the chair before her vanity and began plaiting her hair. “You shall have your pick of them before the night is through.”
Julia didn’t say a word. Her brow knit itself in worry as Nancy hummed while she pinned her mistresses’ hair up in a delicate top-not.
“There!” she cried in satisfaction, before grabbing a little hand-mirror so that Julia could view the masterpiece.
“Thank you, Nancy,” Julia gasped, “It’s truly lovely.”
The young maid shrugged. “It’s easy when I’ve to work with such lovely hair as yours. Now don’t keep them all waiting!” She gave her mistress a little shove towards the door.
Julia stumbled unwillingly and placed a gloved hand on the knob. Turning it and opening the door a crack, she peeped her head out. Laughter and gaiety flooded her ears, welcoming sounds. Yet, Julia’s tuned ears could pick out every unknown gentleman’s voice. One of those voices could be his.
“Don’t forget your dance card, miss.” Nancy pushed the door wide open and held out the sheet of paper filled with blank lines – lines that were expected to be full by the night’s end.
Taking the card, Julia eased her fluttering heart and turned away from the safety of her bedroom. Holding her head held high, she ran her finger along the balcony’s ebony wood before taking her first step down.
* * *
Her brothers, all five of them, surrounded her immediately once she reached the bottom of the staircase. The eldest, George, held out his arm for Julia to take, a big grin spread across his face. Seeing him, seeing them all, made Julia happy and she took her brother’s arm with a proud flourish. With that, George escorted her into the ballroom with Tom, Harry, John, and Nathan flanking them behind.
A hush fell over the room when the family entered the room. If she hadn’t been with her brothers, Julia would have felt intimidated by the fierce, glorious spectacle that met her eyes. Yet, no number of sparkling jewels, glittering dresses, and pressed tuxedoes could take away the cloak of safety the young girl felt when surrounded by her protective family.
Guiding her through the room, George took his sister to their table. Like a bug under a microscope, Julia could feel everyone’s eyes upon her. Sitting down, she smiled back on the group peering at her, till her eyes fell upon a set of piercing blue. Once met, she could not bring herself to look away. The mark on her back throbbed and she knew … she knew … she was doomed.
His name was Romney. She knew that even before he stepped forward to be introduced.
The man’s flaxen hair was slicked back from his forehead. He grinned charmingly at Julia after her father had introduced them and begged for the honor of the first dance.
She should have said no. She wanted to. But as Julia looked into those sea-green eyes, her heart began to pound and her mouth refused to speak. She could only watch helplessly as Romney took her hand and kissed it slowly, before escorting her down to the middle of the floor for the first waltz.
The orchestra strung up their instruments and began to play a soft, wistful melody. The young man took Julia in his strong arms, and the girl found herself somewhat short of breath. Guiding her gently through the paces, the young couple began to dance. Romney never stopped gazing down at Julia. His stare was intent and focused, as if he never wished to let her out of his sight. It made Julia feel bashful, and a little irritated.
Finally able to bear it no longer, she hissed, “Why do you stare so?”
The young man raised his brows, amused. “What? At you milady?” She nodded. “Is it not enough that I find my present partner beguiling to look upon?” he asked.
Julia flushed and ducked her head.
Romney chuckled and spun her around. Once she was back in his arms, he lowered his head till it was level with her ear. “I’ve been looking for you ever since I turned sixteen,” he whispered hoarsely.
Julia started back, which Romney quickly turned into a dip, thus finishing their dance rather dramatically. The music stopped and several people clapped enthusiastically. However, once she was back on her feet, Julia could see that many of the young ladies about the room did not look pleased. For each one glared at her haughtily and thrust her fan about with a certain degree of vengeance.
As soon as Romney brought Julia back to her brothers, he was accosted by a flock of girls. They surrounded him on all sides, giggling and waving their hands delicately as they talked. The young man seemed pleased with the attention. At least, that’s what Julia’s brothers said. They laughed and each one declared that he wished he was in Romney’s shoes.
“And yet he chose you, captain,” George told Julia with a light squeeze of her neck.
“But did she choose him?” Tom inquired curiously, stroking his chin as he examined his little sister.
“Well, we shall soon find out,” John answered for her.
The night carried on with great merriment. There was food and drink a-plenty for all, gay conversation, much dancing, and a great deal of flirting. Julia danced a turn with each of her brothers, yet was not asked by any other man present except for Romney.
Julia watched her dance card fill with the young man’s name. Nathan saw that his sister was worried. So, he explained the situation to her. Apparently, when Romney had taken her as a partner for the first dance, he had claimed her as his soulmate.
“What!” Julia cried, making Nathan hush her as people turned to look curiously at the two. Her brother smiled through his teeth before smacking the underarm of his sister. “Hey!” she cried, but quieter this time.
“At a girl’s coming out ball, the first dance is reserved specifically for family members,” Nathan explained, “Thus, you would have danced with one of us. However, an exception is made for the soulmate, should he ever make the claim. And Romney did.” Nathan’s eyes teared up as he spoke those words.
“I … I didn’t know,” Julia whispered back anxiously.
“We didn’t expect you to.”
Enlightened to this new information, Julia viewed the rest of the evening with new vision. She knew her killer. And he planned to marry her.
For weeks after the ball, Romney would call on Julia regularly. She always refused to see him. Yet, the man continued to persist in passing by her house every day. Even when it rained, Julia would look out her window and see him standing outside the gate, water dripping off his top hat and down his overcoat, looking as neglected and forlorn as a lost puppy. It got so, that even her brothers began to pity him.
It was Nathan, the youngest brother, who decided to invite Romney in and sit to tea. Julia stayed upstairs in her room, but she could hear her brother’s laughter mingling with the stranger’s as they conversed. After the call ended and Romney had left, Nathan told her over supper about how charming the young man was and who enjoyed all the same things that he did. Julia’s heart dropped when her brother continued to go on and on, singing the man’s praises. They had even scheduled a date to go out hunting the following week.
After that, Romney was always welcome. Julia began to feel like a hermit, due to the time she spent in her room, and she hardly ever saw her brothers anymore since Romney often was in their midst. What was worse was that her brothers seemed eager to play matchmaker. They were always approaching her and giving little messages of things that Romney had said. Nathan in particular had become the man’s confidante and would even slip love notes under Julia’s bedroom door.
The notes were always thrown into the fire, unopened with their red seals melting away in the heat like blood.
Julia was sure that nothing could change the hate she felt for that man. He was to become her killer, tearing her away from her life here among her loving father and brothers. She could not accept that fate. She wouldn’t.
However, one day … everything changed.
First thing that was heard was all the dogs barking in the stable yard. Julia didn’t think anything of it at first since it was merely the sound of the men back from their ride in the woods. But then there were men shouting and maids crying hysterically as someone called for a doctor. Julia rushed to the window. People were crowding around a man’s body lying on the cobblestones, surrounding him to that she could not see his face. Nathan!
Throwing open her door, Julia dashed down the stairs and out into the yard in her bare feet. Pushing through the people she called out desperately, “Nathan!”
“I’m here!” Nathan’s warm arms were immediately wrapped tightly around her and Julia laid her head gratefully against her brother’s shoulder.
Pulling back, she felt his arms, examining them carefully. “Are you hurt anywhere?”
Nathan shook his head solemnly. “No, but …” He pulled his sister to the lying figure. It was Romney. Her father was holding a bandage against the man’s chest, trying to stop the flow of blood that was seeping through. His face was deadly pale and his eyes rolled to the back of his head in a near faint.
Julia clutched at her brother’s arm. “What happened?”
“Friendly fire. A young lad was on his first hunt and aimed wrong. The bullet would have gotten me if Romney had not jumped in its path and pushed me down. Julia …” Nathan looked desperate. “He saved my life. Please, save his.”
“But, what can I do?” Julia asked helplessly.
“A soulmate’s kiss is known to possess tremendous power,” George told her, approaching her other side, “And you’re his soulmate.”
Julia frowned. “Now is not the time to be joking,” she reprimanded her brother. Neither laughed, but continued to stare at their sister seriously. “What? Such a thing exists?”
Nathan nodded. “Please Julia!” he pleaded.
The girl stared down at pale figure at her feet. The man was fading fast and her father had already given up hope. His bloody handkerchief now lay abandoned in the mud and his gray head was bent in prayer. Romney’s breath was slight and his chest barely moved with each gasping intake of air.
Slowly getting to her knees, Julia laid one head on the man’s forehead, caressing the damp blond hair that curled about his head in a crown. His lips were turning a pale blue and his eyes fluttered closed with a sigh. Fearing that it was his last breath, Julia hesitated no longer. She leant forward and planted her own lips against his.
A surge of energy immediately pulsed through her heart. It seemed to flow right up her body to her mouth and out through her lips. Romney took in a deep breath and Julia quickly pulled away. She was about to get to her feet when a hand grabbed her arm, stopping her.
Romney was looking up at her, a sweet smile spread across his face. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Julia was held fixed by those bright blue eyes. Then the doctor came and she was pushed out of the way.
* * * * *
Romney would live. The bullet only just grazed his heart, and what was injured was healing at a rapid pace. The doctor was well pleased and pronounced that the young man should be off bedrest within a week. Julia and her brothers were grateful. The men left the room to escort the physician to the door, leaving Julia and Romney alone together.
Julia remained sitting in the chair next to the bed, unable to look in the man’s eyes and yet also unable to release her hold of his hand. However, though she kept her eyes fixed to the walls, she could feel Romney gazing at her.
“Julia.” Romney sighed her name as if he were tasting each syllable.
The girl’s face flushed and she looked down at her feet. “Hmm?”
Her eyes dashed up from the floor to meet his. His face was serious and his lips were pursed in a fine, stubborn line. Her heart jumped a beat and before she could stop herself, she nodded.
At that moment, her brothers returned. Seeing Romney’s beaming face, they asked what happened.
“Congratulate me,” Romney replied, “I’m an engaged man.”
All the men turned in unison to look at Julia. Speechless, the girl could only nod again. Happily, her brothers lifted her off the chair and spun her around the room, each hugging her in his turn. They shook Romney’s hand and called him a lucky man.
Overwhelmed, Julia excused herself to her room, declaring that it was a rather late hour. With a shy ‘good night’ to her fiancé, the girl crossed the hall over to her room. Shutting the door behind her with a sigh, Julia leant against the wood and then smiled softly to herself. Taking the pins out of her bun, she shook her hair loose and with those strands, cast away all her doubts about the future.
So, the man she loved would end her life one day. From now on she will face whatever will come with a brave heart. She will live her life without fear.
They were married soon after Romney had fully recovered from his injuries. It was customary for soulmates to marry soon after finding one another, as to avoid scandal in society. Thus, rushed marriages were the norm and celebrated joyous occasions. While Romney had been on bedrest, Julia had stayed by his side constantly, leaving only once night fell. They conversed about everything, getting to know each other well.
Julia discovered that they shared many similar interests. Romney had a love for adventure and was eager to take up his father’s trade as sea-captain instead of remaining at home to take care of the business accounts. He agreed that Julia would come with him as the captain’s wife once they were married. Romney also loved to read and Julia proceeded to share her favorite novels, reading her favorite passages aloud, or even at times, an entire book if Romney so desired it.
They both enjoyed fencing, riding, and dancing. They both detested the demands of society that expected ladies to embroider proficiently and men to talk of nothing but politics.
And they both wanted lots of children.
The wedding came and Julia walked happily down the aisle on her father’s arm. Each of her brothers gave her their blessing, carefully kissing her brow, before their father gave their sister’s hand to the man who waited for her at the altar. Linking hands, they followed the priest’s words and repeated the vows to each other, promising to renounce all others and love the other till death.
A light meal was served and everyone present declared that the bride and groom were the handsomest couple ever seen as they watched them dance their first dance together as husband and wife. The party ended early with everyone seeing the bride and groom off in their carriage.
Once Romney and Julia reached the inn and were shown their room, Romney caught his bride in his arms and whispered in her ear his desire to see her soul mark.
For the first time in weeks Julia’s doubts came surging back. Yet, she pulled back her hair and let her husband loosen the strings of her corset. Since her back was turned, she couldn’t see his expression when he saw mark on her back. His name. Only his name.
He didn’t say anything. Biting her lip in worry, Julia turned to look at him. Romney’s face was serious but not hurt. Instead, a look of resignation was spread across his features. Without a word, he took off his shirt and turned around for Julia to look at his soul-mark.
There was her name. Sketched beautifully across her husband’s back.
It was the only mark.