"You wanna do something fun?" Lucile whispers alluringly in my ear.
I blink away from the figure framed by light across the room, giving her a guarded look for having abandoned me for the better part of an hour. Not to mention that fun with Lucile rarely involves rules. One always runs the risk of complete and total destruction when agreeing to do something fun with Lucile.
And normally I would say no. Point out that we are at a party already having fun, though perhaps I would need to convince her of it. Especially since I've been moping about for most of said party…
I run my clammy hands down the front of my bodice, the lace itching the places where it touches my chest and neckline. I had thought I looked beautiful. Was sure that this dress and my hair done as it is and the overuse of rogue on my cheeks would turn his eye away from that of his betrothed. For one could argue that engagements can always be broken. But alas.
“Lucile,” I begin, only to gasp to a stop. “What have you done?” I squeak, eyes wide as I take in the state of her gown. There is a distinct rent down the middle of her skirt, streaks of brown apparent and bold against the white of the dress.
Lucile glances down, wiggling her brows at me in mock horror. “I’ve been climbing trees.”
I blink at the statement, very much at a loss for words. Not only did she drag me forcibly to this party on account of being ‘bored beyond an acceptable amount,’ but she had disappeared for the majority of it, leaving me to my own devices. Disappeared to climb trees.
I roll my jaw, holding back acute anger. “And why, by the light, have you been climbing trees?”
She shrugs. It’s a bad attempt at nonchalance. “I’ve just offered you the chance to find out.”
“Lucile, I came here to dance with him not to climb trees with you.”
She makes an exasperated noise. “Like I didn’t know that. What if I told you I could guarantee his attentions to you in the better part of an hour? All you have to do is trust me.”
I purse my lips. “Hardly a riskless venture,” I mutter, but when she extends her ruined gloved hand to me once more, I take it. It’s bad enough to have stood here for so long gazing at him with not so much as a flicker my way.
Ah, Bennington, Duke of Kent. Dashing in a kind of pompous way, deep blue eyes framed by infamous eyelashes, hair a sweeping thing of beauty. Two summers ago, we stole a kiss in the orchard. And just this past winter, he had asked me for three dances in a row. A scandal to be sure, however, I wasn’t worried. How could I be? He was making his intentions clear to all.
But it was short-lived. My mother, in a fit of passion and decorum, had sent me away for the better part of a year to work with my dreaded aunt on what was proper and what was not.
My return had been met by the betrothal of Bennington. And now here I was. Heartbroken and a little disgraced by society. The ‘sad kitten’ I’d heard Lady Remy say to my mother over tea.
Well, I wasn’t. I wasn’t a ‘sad kitten,’ and I most assuredly wasn’t going to let his marriage take place without at least trying to end it once.
I allow Lucile to drag me through the couplings along the wall, their dresses just as laced and creamed as mine, though I do think I’ve done a better service to my hair than anyone else here. However, my evaluation of my competitors is short-lived, and in a breath, we are in the outer courtyard.
The air is crisp, my dress thin against the fall breeze. I pull back on Lucile. “Come, tell me your secret now. It’s chilly out here.”
Lucile shakes her head. “It isn’t a secret to tell. It’s a secret to show.”
We weave through the extensive gardens of the manor home, the light falling quickly as night approaches, the lit lanterns guiding us with their glow.
The smell of slumbering ground and evergreen fills my nose as we wander deeper and deeper, my annoyance growing. I’m just about to enlighten Lucile when a strange noise stops my tongue. A grunt. Hushed voices.
Lucile’s wide eyes meet mine, her grin full of mischief as she lets go of my hand and silently leaves the path. She launches herself into the nearest pine, the rustle soft and animal-like as she begins to climb, headless of her skirts once more.
I only stop a moment to consider before hiking my skirts above my knee, the cold a sweet kiss against my ankles, as I join her climb. Needles stab at my exposed arms and face, the smell sweet and full as we heedlessly crush pine underfoot.
It’s not so much that Lucile is climbing the tree as that she is moving through it. Together we fight through branches, and she inhales loudly as her hand squeezes my wrist, bringing me to a stop.
There before us, from the shelter of the trees, is a pair coupling. The girl’s dress is well above her knees, the man atop her, the bareness of him easy to miss at first in the coming darkness, until it’s not.
I feel heat crawl up my neck and flush along my cheeks, squeezing my eyes shut as I finally understand the noises for what they are.
Blast to Lucile for dragging me all this way to see this. I blindly reach back, yearning for solid ground and a glass of champagne to steady me. But her nails dig into me, and I realize too late I’ve let out a yelp.
It happens all at once. The girl on the ground lets out a horrified gasp, the boy lets out an animalistic grunt, and Lucile yells for me as I fall out of the tree into the clearing.
Our eyes meet. Those of Bennington’s intended and mine as she lays on the ground. Clara. And just for a moment, all is as frozen as water in winter, but then I turn on my heel and sprint like my very future depends on it. Because, indeed, it might.
Clara calls after me; a helpless, desperate sound, followed by a heavy volley of inappropriate words as she instructs the boy off of her. But then it’s all lost behind me.
I burst from the greenery, gasping for air as I come to a jolting halt. I can’t very well run in there and declare what I’ve seen. Not least of all like this. I turn, and it isn’t a minute too soon, as Lucile comes barreling into me.
Her cold fingers find my wrist and she drags me back away from the windows into the shadows of the balcony. “What are you doing?” she hisses.
“I have to tell him. They only wouldn’t let him marry me because of my indecencies. Imagine,” I take a shaky breath, feeling the flutter of my words in my throat, “just imagine what they'll think of her!”
“That’s all good and well, Eliza, but you can’t just burst in there and tell it to the world. She saw you. She saw us.”
“What does that matter?”
Lucile grounds her teeth, her eyes flashing. “ It matters because it will be her word against ours. What were we doing in the garden, Eliza, hmm? She could just as easily convince that boy to her side. They could accuse you of being indecent with him in the garden. You’ve a history, after all.”
“Lucile!” I bark, feeling that familiar heat spread along my cheeks once more. It had only been the one time - the silly, stupid kiss in the orchard that had stolen my breath and my good senses. And somehow, most of society had found out about it.
I take a deep breath. I’ve learned since then. I won’t be made a fool the same way. “What was your intention, bringing me out there then?”
“I had thought to show you so you could come back here and invite him for a stroll. You’re as graceless as a cow, apparently!”
“Luc-” I begin, but am cut off by a sharp voice.
I glance behind me, blanching at the sight of Clara just as I feel Lucile’s fingers unhand me and disappear. I turn to catch her, but she’s already at the door, retreating back inside as I turn and brace myself for the storm that is Clara.
Blast to Lucile for this mess!
Eliza is up the steps in a moment, her sharp grip replacing that of Lucile's as she drags me deeper into the shadows of the balcony. It’s only then that she releases me, the shimmer of glistening candles winking through the windows of the ballroom.
“Clara,” I say unsteadily, glancing around for the boy she was with, who is mercifully out of sight.
She folds her arms across her chest, my eyes glancing over the wrinkled mess of her skirts, her mused hair, and smudged rouge. “What do you want?”
I clear my throat. Clara, the diamond of society. Rich, well-groomed (except for right now), and betrothed to the most eligible man in England. Clara is the girl we all gossip about and dislike from afar. It’s a rare moment to be near her, let alone addressed by her. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“What,” she says through clenched teeth, leaning towards me, “do you want? Money? Popularity? A decent match? Name your price.”
I smooth down my skirts, stalling for time. Because this is the sort of thing Lucile would be good at - blackmailing the princess of society to gain the upper hand. I, however, am not well-versed in such a thing. I clear my throat again, avoiding her glowering gaze. “I don’t understand.”
Clara’s eyes narrow, and then she laughs. “You really are as sad as they, aren’t you?” Her eyes trace me up and down. “Then I suppose we are done here. Repeat a word of what you saw and I’ll ensure you’re sent off to your aunt’s for good.” She moves to step past me but I grab her arm.
Because, yes, perhaps I am not as strong or rich or as single-minded as she, but I am loyal. And, yes, despite how badly Bennington has treated me, I do care for him. I care for him enough to not see him marry this.
“Why would you do such a thing to Bennington? Do you not love him?”
She wrenches her arm out of my grip, backing a few steps away to glare at me. “Love him? Of course I don’t love him.”
I swallow, angry and confused. “Then why did you agree to the betrothal?”
“Because money begets money, my dear Eliza. And if you ever came down from those love-sick clouds you float about in, you would see that. Bennington is rich. I am rich. This is how the world works.”
“So then you love the boy? The boy you were just coupling with in the-”
She cuts across me. “I love no one. You must, at some point in your sad life, come to understand the way the world works. You take what you can. We have so very little, my dear Eliza. You and me and your silly little friend, Lucile. We are nothing more than property to be owned, traded, and sold to the highest bidder.” She leans in, close enough that I can smell the sourness on her breath. “You take what you want when you can. Otherwise, you end up with nothing.”
She brushes past me, and I let her. But then I can’t help myself. I can’t help who I am.
“You may believe that, but I don’t. He deserves more than you. Bennington deserves someone who loves him.”
She pauses at the door and sneers at me. “I’ll be sure to let him know someone does.”
And then she is gone. I listen to the door open and close, the sound of the party washing over me in small waves.
I fall back against the wall, its warmth seeping into my back, feeling tears prickle my eyes despite myself.
Clara is nothing but a bully, and I’m loath to believe what she says… but it doesn’t keep this feeling at bay despite that knowledge.
She can look the way she does, couple with whomever she pleases, and still get to marry the boy I love without so much as a how you -
I jump from my thoughts, swallowing hard as he steps through the balcony doors towards me. Bennington. I clear my throat, glancing around nervously before meeting his gaze. “Yes?”
He closes the distance between us in a few strides, the light behind him casting his face in shadows. “You’ve quite the friend,” he says after a suspended moment.
I swallow hard, gazing up at him confused, trying to keep my thoughts despite the smell of him, the nearness of him… “What?”
“Lucile. She’s a smart one. I heard everything.”
I blink. Once. Twice. “Heard what?”
He points towards the window, the breeze causing the sheer curtains inside to stir. Open. The open window.
I gape. I snap my mouth shut.
He tilts his head and, in a gesture so unlike him, runs his hand through his hair nervously. He takes a short step back and lifts his arm, offering it to me in a gesture that is both unsure but firm. “Would you honor me with a stroll about the gardens?”
I stare at his arm. I glance back at the window, the silhouette of a girl who invited me for a bit of fun framed within it. A fall breeze lifts the curls off the back of my neck as I gently slip my fingers around the warmth of his arm. “I would like nothing better,” I whisper, daring to look up at those warm blue eyes.
He smiles at me as we take the first step together. “I hear it’s quite easy to get lost in the trees, what with it being so quiet and dark.” His grin is mischievous, but also kind, soft. “That it’s the perfect place to,” he pauses, as though searching for the word, “talk.”
I feel that blasted blush crawl up my neck to my cheeks, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except this. I incline my head forward and smile up at him as I had done not so very long ago when he had been mine. When he might be mine again.
“Indeed,” I manage to say, and allow him to lead me down the path into the darkness of the evergreens.