The empty hallways of the manor had never looked darker than when I stepped out of my bedroom that night. Yes, it was some hours past midnight, but I think it was Tom’s talk of ghosts in my house that made the shadows seem deeper than ever before. I half-turned to close the door behind me, but it suddenly slammed shut, nearly catching my hand.
“Oddio!” I gasped, startled, looking about fearfully and thinking of nothing but ghosts. Then I remembered the window in my bedroom was open; the wind had simply blown the door closed. Sighing with relief, I shook myself and pulled my dressing gown tighter around me. I had lived alone in this house for six years. No ghosts had ever bothered me, so why should they start now? This was silly.
Of course, I was doing something that I had not done in six years—entering that room. Before all the ledgers, the will, and all other necessary things had been cleared out, I had made Mr. Baines retrieve whatever I needed from there. It wasn’t because I was afraid of ghosts, but of a very real scene I had witnessed in there.
Yet the air in the hall did seem unusually cold as I grasped the doorknob of the study, turning it slowly. The hinges creaked, unaccustomed to the use they’d been seeing lately. Ordinarily, I believe Rebecca dusted in here no more than once a month; in that same amount of time, Tom had come and gone and now here I was. I took a breath, steeled myself, and went in.
The empty, unlit study met my eyes only a moment before the image flashed through my mind—bright, late afternoon sun streaming through the window; Peter’s still body on the ground, his pistol still firmly in his grasp; and his half-open eyes staring blankly across the carpet. I had noticed the blood last of all, splattered up the wall. I noticed nothing after that, except for the sickening drop in my stomach and the floor coming up to meet me. I didn’t remember screaming, though they told me later that I did.
I took another deep breath, and the scene faded back to the cool moonlit emptiness before me. I slipped in, shutting the door behind me. The study smelled of dust, dried ink, and very faintly the lingering vanilla scent of Peter’s old pipe-tobacco. That scent was stronger nearest the stout brocade armchair behind the desk—I moved toward it absently, inhaling the smell more deeply.
The study was mostly as he’d left it. I ran my hand over the surface of the desk, fingering the pens, inkpots, and other odds and ends. I supposed eventually I would empty this room, have it rearranged and made useful again. I was almost ready for that, but not quite. Though I no longer wept over my husband, I felt it would be an insult to his memory, as though I were erasing him from this house.
“Ah, sei un ipocrita,” I sighed to myself, walking past the desk and halting when I reached the dark stain on the carpet. I wouldn’t walk there. I swept my gaze over the spots on the wallpaper, up to the gilt frame gleaming in the moonlight. There, jammed between the frame and the canvas, was a black key. I pried it out with my fingernail and held it in my palm. It was smooth and cold like glass; I reached into my bosom and took out the rough black amulet I wore, putting the two side by side. Onyx. Anti-magic.
I prided myself on how quickly I’d become accustomed to the idea of magic. At first, the floating teacups were disturbing, and I was quite startled at first when, upon asking Tom to pass the jam, it appeared in front of me out of thin air. But by now I was used to it.
“See, Peter? I can handle it. I am not in hysterics, or whatever you feared I would do.” I took the painting down, laid it on the table, and stared sadly at the safe in front of me. It was almost funny that what I though of all these years as Peter’s mysterious side, was nothing more than an old safe and a talking bat; that there were dozens—hundreds—of other people just like him, and there was nothing at all mysterious about it.
My skin tingled as I turned the key in the lock, but whether it was from anticipation or fear, I didn’t know. The safe swung open, revealing a box and plenty of letters, just as Tom had said. I tucked my hair behind my ears, feeling suddenly anxious, before I reached in and pulled everything out.
I lit a candle at the desk and sat down. A photograph of the Fairfax gentlemen as children I put to the side, where a miniature of Lord Klein’s daughter joined it, followed by my wedding picture, several more of Peter and Lord and Lady Maverly, and another of Peter with the late Duke of Everington. In another stack I put Peter’s letters from his friends, which I would perhaps read another time. As I shook the last of the miniatures—a wedding picture of a shockingly young Duke and Duchess of Aimesley—out of the box, another object fell into my lap and rolled to the floor. I leaned over and snatched it up before it reached the awful stain.
It was Peter’s favorite ring—silver and set with a moonstone, which I always thought an odd choice for a man’s ring. But it was lovely. Peter always wore it when he traveled from home; he said its beauty made him think of me. In fact, he had left home with it the morning he died, and I realized for the first time that it had not been on his body when he was found. I had never given the ring so much as a thought ever since.
Looking at it, I realized it was smaller somehow—curiously, I slipped it onto my naked right ring finger. It felt as though it had been fitted for my use, but that was impossible. At this size, it wouldn’t have fit Peter’s little finger.
I kept it on as I left the contents of the box stacked neatly upon the desk, while I reclosed the safe and hung the painting over it once again. When I ran my hand over the texture of the painted canvas, I could remember each stroke as if it were yesterday. The Ponte dei Sospiri was not painted as accurately as if I had actually been there, instead of in Tuscany painting it from memory, but it was charming, and I’d been very proud of it when I was fifteen.
I snatched my hand back as my fingers neared the brown stain on the lower half, obscuring the little gondola pictured beneath the bridge, its vague silhouetted passengers gone from sight. I hadn’t cried for Peter in years, but the ruined painting took my breath away. I sank back into the desk chair, closing my stinging eyes and resting my forehead in my hand.
“All right, sorellina—keep your eyes closed, and hold out your hands.”
I giggled, shaking with excitement but keeping my eyes scrunched shut. “Aleso, if it’s a frog or something, I will have Papà give you such a spanking!”
“He’ll do no such thing! And I would not give you a frog, Bella, for shame!”
“You would!” But I caught my breath when I felt the smooth edges of a wooden box; I shook it to hear the heavy clunks of aluminum tubes. My eyes flew open. “Aleso! Winsor & Newtons? You didn’t!”
My brother laughed. “I did! And now you will be able to do even more amazing paintings. I bought them in Paris. There was such a fuss when I was there! There are these new artists called ‘Impressionists’—they are very revolutionary. And all of them swear by these paints.”
“Yes, I have seen advertisements for them; they’re from London,” I gushed, clutching the box to my chest. “They are the best, and they come in the most modern little tubes! It makes them very portable. Maybe now I can try painting en plen aire, like they do in France!” I cracked open the box, peering in to see the colors, when Mamma’s voice came down the hall, calling my name.
“Ah, merda,” Alessandro swore. “She probably wants you to sing for the guests.”
“Here, go hide in the library while I stall her.”
I did as my brother said, hurrying off down the hall. It was not that I minded singing, but whenever Mamma and Papà had guests, now that I had come out it was all I was ever made to do. We were currently in our Venetian townhouse, which was beautiful and perfect for evening parties, and which was readily frequented by Papà’s business associates when they were in town. Tonight, we were celebrating a very profitable stock purchase, and businessmen from many parts of Europe had filled our house, along with their fashionable wives and other friends. Not one thought to bring along a daughter for me to talk to—and the only young man present was Aleso. My other two brothers were grown and married, one living elsewhere in Italy and the other recently moved to Bath, England.
I slipped silently into our large, comfortable library, closing the door softly behind me. The dark window across from me showed my full reflection, clad in the new wine-colored gown Mamma had bought for me, and which I thought made me look much older and very sophisticated. At fifteen I already looked much like my mother, with her tan skin and soft brown hair, though hers was streaked with grey and mine yet with blonde, except that my somewhat squared jaw was all my father’s. In adolescence I had thought my face unpleasantly harsh, but my features were starting to come together nicely. Everyone told my mother what a beauty I was going to be, and I hoped it would turn out to be true.
Right now, though, my face was flushed with excitement, and I rushed to the book table in a manner more befitting a child than a lady. As I opened the box of paints and had my first glimpse of their vivid colors, a movement to my left caught my eye, and I looked up in alarm. I wasn’t alone. A man stood with his back to me across the room, staring up at the large canvas Ponte dei Sospiri above the mantel. One hand was in his pocket, the other was holding a glass of wine, and he appeared to have been standing there for some time.
He hadn’t noticed me. Obviously one of the guests, he’d probably come in here to get away from the crowd. I picked up my box and prepared to slip out quietly, and my hand was on the door handle when I heard him speaking to himself in English.
“Look at the brushstrokes. It looks just like the Bridge, only more wonderful, doesn’t it?”
I stood still by the door, listening. If he was indeed an eccentric who spoke to himself, he was also an admirer of my work, and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on what he had to say.
“The artist has even captured the lovers beneath the Bridge—the ones from that pretty story. There is more to this than a landscape, Fey. This is the work of a heart that loves Venice.”
It was the best critique I had ever heard, even better than that of Papà, who had insisted the painting be hung immediately for all to see. I understood English much better than I could speak it, so I realized after a moment that he’d said a woman’s name—Fey. I frowned. I hadn’t seen anyone else in the library with him.
“I’ll probably go back. Mr. and Mrs. Moretti were eager to give me a full tour tomorrow and the Bridge of Sighs will most likely be on the roster.”
I peered out to make certain he was alone. I couldn’t see his face, but he was most certainly British, and tall with dark hair. Perhaps I’d misheard some word as the name Fey; at any rate, I wasn’t about to let him go on like this without acknowledging his compliments. I put my paints back on the table and walked over to stand at his elbow, looking up at the painting myself. He turned, surprised, and I smiled up at him.
“Good evening,” I said, careful to use my best English pronunciation.
“Good evening,” the man said. “Miss Rissetto?”
“Yes,” I said, making a little curtsy and sounding, I thought, very grown-up. I put out my hand. “May I please to ask your name, signor?”
“Peter Stanford, Marquis of Willoughby.” He pressed my hand in its silk glove, and I noticed his hands were very warm. “Did you come in here to be alone? If so, I will not hesitate to leave.”
“No, please to stay...I am she that is interrupting,” I said with a smile. I was thinking partly how proud I was of speaking English so well this evening, and partly what a handsome smile Lord Willoughby had and what a sincere look was in his blue eyes. I could tell immediately that I would like him. “Is it this painting which you are watching?”
Lord Willoughby’s smile widened and he looked back up at it. “Indeed I am. It’s lovely. Did your father purchase this from a Venetian artist?”
“Hmm.” I regarded the painting thoughtfully. “Si. But my papà did not to buy this. It was...not for...it....” I gestured with my fingers as if I could pull the word out of the air. “I...am sorry, my English....”
“A...gift? Was it a gift?” Lord Willoughby supplied.
“Yes! A gift!” I exclaimed gratefully. “The artist, she made it special, in the summer. Papà loved it so. It is the Ponte dei Sospiri.”
“Is that Italian for the Bridge of Sighs?” At my nod, he tried it himself. “Ponte dei...Sospiri. That’s lovely. You speak a beautiful language.”
“Grazie, Lord Willoughby.”
“So it is a woman artist, is it? I must ask your father where I can purchase some of her work. It would be a nice thing to take home with me, as a souvenir of my first trip to Venice.”
I felt my cheeks flame. “You would...have such works in your home?” I gasped.
“Of course. It’s beautiful.”
“But...but there is so many mistakings! Guardare a questo—this house. It is crooked like a old tree! This gondola, too...it looks I think like a great shoe.”
Lord Willoughby was laughing quietly. “I don’t think I shall have to look far to find the artist!”
“Oh!” I realized that I’d given myself away, and took a step back, blushing furiously.
“I knew it was yours—the signature in the corner. ‘Anabelle Rissetto’. It’s quite small, but luckily I had my glasses on me, and I knew the artist all along.”
“Ah, you have tricked me,” I said with an embarrassed smile. “Surely, you will not mean to have this work in your home.”
“On the contrary, all the more reason! You are a prodigy, and anyone would be proud to have this in his home,” he said. He had turned back to the painting, and I was able to better observe him. I realized he must have been a great deal older than I first thought—for one thing, he used reading spectacles, and for another, upon closer inspection I could see a sprinkling of grey in his brown hair and even more in his beard.
He seemed very interested in the painting, almost as though he’d forgotten about me, and a pang of disappointment struck me. Well, he was quite mature; possibly almost forty, and a good man. Naturally he would think me very young and foolish. I knew he was not married—he was the bachelor friend of the Morettis, I had heard—but that had nothing to do with anything.
Something was fluttering in the corner of my eye; I dismissed it as a moth and continued to gaze at the painting as well as its admirer. But Lord Willoughby reached out and caught the fluttering thing—I started and jumped back when I realized it was a bat.
“Una mazza? How is—”
“Don’t be alarmed! She’s a...pet,” he said quickly. He cupped his big hands together and held them out to me. “Here, you may touch her. Fey will not bite.”
Luckily, I was not afraid of bats or most other small animals. Growing up with three brothers on a Tuscany farmhouse makes one accustomed to such things. Still, it was a bat. I peered into his hands and saw Fey’s small furry body. Her head cocked up at me, ears twitching, and she made a series of clicking sounds. She had large eyes of the same shade of deep blue as Lord Willoughby’s.
Tentatively I reached out and stroked a finger along Fey’s black velvet back. She squeaked.
“Bella?” The library door opened, and I jumped back from Lord Willoughby. Alessandro entered, paused to bow to Lord Willoughby, and addressed me in rapid Italian. “I can’t hold Mamma off anymore. She’s demanding you sing at once.”
“Oh...yes. I will go.” Forgetting to introduce Lord Willoughby to my brother, I dashed out of the room, my face burning. I hoped Aleso hadn’t seen me leaning in so close to Lord Willoughby, or hadn’t any sort of wrong idea about my being alone in a room with a man. My only consolation was that Lord Willoughby certainly had no delusions about the whole matter.
Mamma was already sitting at the piano when I rushed into the drawing rooms, waving for me to join her. I smoothed my skirts, put on a smile, and marched out in front of the party.
“Bella! Where were you, mia cara?” Mamma whispered through her smile. “Everyone is waiting to hear you sing!”
“Mamma, please,” I said, also through a smile, while curtsying to the guests. “What am I singing?”
“‘Addio, del passato,’” she announced.
“Ah, Mamma, that is so dreary,” I sighed, watching as she set up the music on the stand. Mamma’s favorite opera was La Traviata, at which she never failed to cry. As for me, I could not relate to the story, and it was so very dark and sad. At fifteen years old, what did I know of lost love and fallen virtue?
Mamma began to play, and I to sing, not nearly as well as we had heard it on stage, but the guests seemed to like it, and Papà beamed at me from where he stood in the doorway, smiling beneath his big black mustache.
A moment later, Aleso joined Papà at the door, and I could see that lingering in the hall beyond was Lord Willoughby. I certainly didn’t mean to, and I am sure he didn’t either, but our eyes met across the crowded room. Suddenly, I didn’t mind so much being made to perform. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to look beautiful and talented and clever, and I sang my heart out with a smile. At that moment, having that man’s eyes on me was all I could desire.
When the song was done, and the room erupted in pleased applause, I kept on smiling, and after a few hesitant seconds, Lord Willoughby returned the smile. It lit up his face and he could have been twenty-five; his blue eyes were on me and I could have been a confident, breathtakingly beautiful grown woman with the world in her hands.
“Peter—!” I sat up with a start, nearly launching myself out of the chair. I looked around at the dark, musty study, my hands shaking and my heart pounding in my chest. For a moment, in that space between sleep and waking, I was sure I had felt his touch on my cheek, stroking my face just as he used to do. In that first minute, I had almost believed he was still there, and now that I was fully conscious, the loss of him seemed fresh. A tear rolled down my cheek before I could stop it, and I sank back into the chair to compose myself.
It only took me a short while to pull myself together. I had had six whole years in which to practice. Gathering my dressing gown around me, I closed the box of letters and left it on the desk as I headed back to my bedroom. The clock in the hall struck four o’clock as I opened my door, humming softly to the tune of “Addio, del passato”.
Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti, le rose del volto già son pallenti. How I understood those words now. As I passed by my vanity mirror I was reminded that I was certainly not fifteen anymore. My face was more sculpted now, my body more proportioned, but my eyes seemed much darker, and I no longer had that bloom to my skin. Years of being a lonely widow had not neglected to leave their mark etched into the shape of my mouth and the angles of my eyebrows.
I turned from the mirror with a sigh, regarding the too-large, rumpled canopy bed before me. I didn’t relish the thought of climbing back into those cold sheets, but as I had been striving to practice self-control as of late, I forced myself into bed. As I stacked pillows in a sort of fortress in the empty space beside me, I knew with a sinking feeling that I was only going to hold out so long before giving in once again.
I thought about Peter and his death a long time while I lay waiting for sleep to come. Aside from my brief breakdown in the study and others like it, I had been doing pretty well the past few years. Especially compared to those first two awful years—locked away at Willoughby, not visiting my mother, refusing to see anyone but Lady Cordelia Meyer, my close and only friend. Cordelia cared so much for me that, when she and her husband were preparing to spend the summer in London, she personally entreated me to join them, even offering to have me as a guest in their townhouse if I felt too alone.
I had acquiesced as far as going to London, but I stalwartly chose to stay in my own townhouse. I had not been since before Peter’s death, and I thought facing my fears would be better than continuing to avoid them.
Which is why, on a gentle spring evening in early 1884, I decided to heed Cordelia’s advice in full and attend a ball. I laid aside my black clothes and donned a plum-colored gown, the first non-mourning purchase I had made in almost two years. I had the maid arrange my hair, and even she was glad to see me going out. I looked in the mirror, put on rouge and tried to smile. It was a very fancy party I was going to, put on by the Charlestons—Cordelia said it would be just the sort of happy, carefree environment I needed, and she would be there to support me.
I did feel a great deal better as I was driven up to the Charlestons’ mansion, stepping out in my long-unused dancing shoes and black velvet cape, my favorite diamond earrings swinging. It was like I was sixteen again, instead of a tired twenty-three.
I went in, marveling at the other ladies’ attire and admiring Mrs. Charleston’s decor. Cordelia was right. It was very cheering to once again see new things and new people, to hear the strains of dancing music and to sip champagne. No one said hello to me, but that was no surprise. I didn’t expect to be remembered after so many months of absence.
As was courteous, I found Mrs. Charleston and expressed my thanks for her invitation. “I’ve been very much looking forward to coming,” I told her. “It was Lady Cordelia whom I’ve to thank for convincing me to come to London. Is she here yet?”
“Oh, I’m afraid not,” Mrs. Charleston sighed, shaking her head. “It seems her little babe has been laid low with the fever and she and Lord Frederick stayed home to nurse him. But it’s very strange she did not tell you!”
“Not at all...if the telegram came I would have already left home,” I said sadly, looking out over the guests. This news certainly put a damper on things. “I do hope little Freddy feels better soon! I did think he seemed a little warm—”
“Excuse me, Lady Willoughby, but I must go see to the quartet at once! Must they really play this dreadful Verdi at a ball?” She dashed off in a fluster, leaving me to ponder my next move.
This was unexpected indeed. I knew some faces, but none that I could claim as more than acquaintances. But I squared my shoulders and walked among the crowd anyway. I was no longer a child. I was a self-assured woman who used to pride herself on being amiable enough to talk with anyone, anywhere. I spotted Victoria Millington, Lady Ardinghope some feet away, and quickly hurried over. I knew her a little, she being the sister of Peter’s good friend Robert Fairfax, Lord Maverly. Surely enough, as I approached she looked up and gave a small smile.
“Lady Willoughby?” she asked, her voice tinged with surprise. Two older women stood by her—Cordelia’s mother-in-law Frances Meyer, Duchess of Aimesly, and Lady Rachel Pennington. I curtsied to both and they returned the gesture.
“Whatever are you doing in London?” Lady Ardinghope sounded positively mystified. “I thought you had gone back to Italy.”
“She has been in England, Vicky dear,” the Duchess explained before I could say a word. “She’s been at Willoughby, you see. Well, Anabelle,” she said, using my first name casually, “I see Cordelia finally convinced you to get some air, but I didn’t expect to see you at a ball.”
“Why, it must be tearing your heart out to be here,” Lady Pennington exclaimed, placing a stout hand on my arm. “After all, it’s been only a year since Lord Willoughby passed so suddenly! You poor darling.”
I gave a little grateful smile, though the mention of my husband was both unexpected and painful to hear. “Thank you, madam. It did take some courage, but it has actually been nearly two years, and I—”
“Nearly two years?” the Duchess twittered, raising her well-plucked auburn eyebrows at Lady Ardinghope. “It must be wonderful to be young enough to think two years quite a long spell!” Her fluffy Yorkshire dog yapped in her arms.
I felt my face flush. “I suppose perhaps it doesn’t seem as long to some, Your Grace. But to me it was an eternity.”
“Of course! You were also grieving the loss of your child!” Lady Pennington cried. Her hand on my arm increased pressure. “How very dreadful. I could never bear to lose my Horace or Grace, but you did not even get to meet your little one.”
I must have been fairly gaping at Lady Pennington by now, because Lady Ardinghope changed the subject. “So Lady Willoughby, did you come alone?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied, confused again. “I wouldn’t have anyone to come with.”
“Well, it’s a valid question,” the Duchess piped up. “You have been widowed already two whole years, my dear, and you’re barely twenty!”
“I am twenty-three,” I said tentatively, “but what does that have to do with—”
“To be so young!” the Duchess repeated with a laugh. “Well, be that as it may, you may say you prefer to come alone, but that is rather the exception. Many young girls, freshly widowed and in possession of such a title, would snatch up a beau in no time at all!”
“There’s still time,” Lady Ardinghope said, continuing to smile her chill little smile. “You are looking lovely, Lady Willoughby. That gown...so daring.”
“You are a very pretty girl, my dear,” Lady Pennington agreed. “No doubt that is what attracted Lord Willoughby!”
“And if you managed to hook him,” the Duchess added, “you could get any man. Peter certainly did frustrate all my attempts to match him!” She smiled as if at a fond memory.
I no longer felt very composed or self-assured; rather, I felt like a schoolgirl being surrounded by the older girls and picked on during lunch. I couldn’t begin to fathom what I’d done to deserve this sort of treatment, but I hadn’t quite grasped until now exactly what it was that some people thought of me. The Duchess and Lady Ardinghope, in particular, had been very close to my husband for years before he married me; I now realized that perhaps they had entertained quite different ideas of how, and with whom, Peter should have settled down.
“Oh, but do not rush her,” Lady Pennington said. She alone didn’t seem to have sinister motives, just a tendency to speak before thinking.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” the Duchess said, her eyes leveled on me. Though a head shorter than I, she somehow managed to possess such poise that I felt almost cowed. “We all loved dear Peter—oh, for ages. He had ever so many young ladies after him. They never did quite stop! And then what a joke he must have thought it when he shocked us all by finally marrying. What a joke indeed, Vicky, don’t you think?” she asked, her gaze still on me.
I was glad she hadn’t addressed me. I did not know what to say, and wouldn’t have been able to say it if I did. The polite smile on my face was beginning to feel stiff.
“Yes. He will be very much missed by nearly everyone, I’m sure.”
“How are you recovering, Lady Willoughby?” Lady Pennington’s grip felt positively viselike by now. “The whole ordeal was a terrible shock. I don’t blame you for wishing to be home.”
“I do...I do wish to be home. I-I don’t know why I—please tell Cordelia I missed her, but I shan’t be staying anyway,” I stammered, beginning to back away. “Good...good evening, ladies.” I curtsied hurriedly and turned to go.
I wanted never to come back to any sort of ball. I wanted only to get my cape and disappear into the night. Frustrated with weaving through the merrily dancing crowds, I rushed into a sidelong hall that I hoped led in the general direction of the exit. But five minutes following the corridor led me only to a sort of fork, one hall leading into what appeared to be an empty drawing room and library, the other heading backwards to where the distant sounds of clinking dishes indicated the kitchen lay. As my eyes started to blur with frustrated tears, I spotted a third option—a pair of French doors leading out to the garden. I shoved through them and ran outside.
The night was lovely, just cool enough to be comfortable, but I felt hot with anger and embarrassment. I ran along the narrow path, hardly seeing where I was going, and finally reached a small clearing with a bench and an ivy-covered gazebo. I didn’t make it to the gazebo—I collapsed on the bench, my face in my hands, and wept aloud.
I missed Peter. No one would ever dare say those things if he were here; now that he was gone, everyone felt free to vent what they had always thought—that I was a young, flippant foreigner who only wanted Peter’s money and prestige and couldn’t be happier that he was gone. That Peter was a sweet man who’d been overcome by my physical beauty enough to fancy himself in love and foolishly marry me. They knew nothing! Nothing of mine and Peter’s love, of our perfect companionship, and of the grief I’d suffered when, in the end, I wasn’t enough to keep him in this world.
I could only cry so long. Eventually my sobs subsided to quiet sniffs, and I tried to return my wet, flushed face to order with a handkerchief. It was only then that I became aware of the faint scent of a French cigarette, and I glanced about in surprise, hoping I wouldn’t be discovered. The path behind me was empty, so was the clearing around me. I stood up, anxiously smoothing my skirts and patting my hair into place—not a moment too soon, for the next second a man stepped out of the gazebo, and I gasped and dropped my handkerchief.
“Please, don’t scream on account of me,” the man said, tossing his cigarette aside and stepping on it in one liquid movement. “I merely hoped not to disturb you.”
“I am sorry—if I had known anyone was here—” I said, deeply flustered. “I was only....”
“A lady need never apologize for having a good cry,” he declared, walking out of the shadow of the gazebo. In the brilliant moonlight, I could see he was tall, willowy, and dressed very stylishly in crisp black. His hair was also black and was slightly longer than was fashionable. He added, “‘Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth.’”
I couldn’t imagine why he was quoting Charles Dickens at a time like this, but he was now within arm’s reach, and I suddenly could not find my voice. I had never thought I fancied this type of young man—but he was beautiful. His face, though manly in its construction, had very delicate features, most notably large, long-lashed grey eyes, a straight nose, and a full mouth. I stared up at him wide-eyed, and thrust my hand into the space between us. “We have not met,” I blurted. “Anabelle Stanford, Marchioness of Willoughby. And you?”
“Lucien. Lucien Baptiste,” he said, rolling his tongue round the French syllables almost purposely. He took my hand. “You’re right, we haven’t met. I would most assuredly have remembered you, milady.” His lips parted, revealing a gorgeous smile made perfectly imperfect by his front teeth being slightly bucked. It somehow added appeal, as if he needed it.
“Are you a friend of the Charlestons?” I bit my lip, hoping that I still had some rouge on and that my eyes weren’t red from crying.
“No,” he replied swiftly, one black eyebrow flicking upward, and changed the subject. “Being as I am an intruder upon your sorrows, milady, might I offer my arm for a walk round the garden? Nature does wonders for sorrows.”
I wondered whether he were quoting again; he almost spoke as if he were always quoting, each line recited as for a play. Or perhaps that was just the way his baritone voice worked his accent. He sounded British, but was part French maybe, and that influenced his speech. Nodding wordlessly, I took his arm. It felt oddly slender, so very unlike Peter’s, but was still strong and held me close to his side.
“I confess my manners are amiss tonight,” I said as we started down the path. “I have had a trying evening, as I’m sure you’ve observed. Some ladies were being unkind...I was actually looking for the exit, to go home.”
“Is that so? Do you reside in London?” His eyes swept over me, so quickly that I hardly noticed, but it sent a flush to my face nevertheless. “I would have taken you for a Continental...Italian, perhaps?”
“Yes, I am from Tuscany,” I said. “My late husband, however, was British.”
“My condolences,” he said after a pause, losing the recited quality. “Forgive me, but how long...?”
“Two years. I am only recently out of mourning.” I had a thought, and glanced up at him. “Have you a wife, sir?”
“Not I. Ah, there you are,” he said suddenly, halting and holding out his arm. A large black bird swooped down out of nowhere and latched firmly on Mr. Baptiste’s sleeve, eyeing me harshly with beady grey eyes. At my startled face, Mr. Baptiste smiled again. “This is Misère, my raven. He’s quite gentle.”
I nodded, but had no particular desire to test Misère’s friendliness by contact. He couldn’t help but look rather forbidding.
We returned to the clearing after our short, mostly silent turn round the garden, and Mr. Baptiste led me up the steps to the gazebo where we sat side by side on the ledge. Suddenly I felt very awkward, and looked at the floor, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. Perhaps it was time to go. “Mr. Baptiste—”
“Please call me Lucien,” he said, crossing one long leg over the other and leaning his back against a post.
“Lucien,” I started again, “you have been very kind. It was a pleasure meeting you, but I shouldn’t take up any more of your time. I think I will go back inside the house.”
“And put yourself at the mercy of those dreadful harpies again?” Lucien asked, his eyebrows furrowing. “Don’t worry about my time, either. See here,” he said, and there was suddenly a card held between two of his long, slender fingers. “I drew this in one of my readings today—”
“You’re a fortune-teller?”
“Of sorts. Number Eight, Strength.” He showed me the card, which had a picture of a woman holding shut the jaws of a lion. “You are making me think of it. You see, this represents willpower, inner strength. Reversed, it indicates taking the path of least resistance. The latter would be to return to the Charlestons and endure the dreadful things those women were saying; the former would be to simply turn your back on them.” He gave a flick of his wrist and the card vanished. “I don’t need to ask what they said to hurt you. Those people in there....” He glanced back at the house with thinly veiled disdain. “They know nothing about you. They’re hypocrites, many of them, living to judge others because they fear being judged themselves.”
I could feel the tears welling inside me again as I nodded. “That is...exactly how I feel. They think...that I’m foolish and-and wicked and that I didn’t love my husband....”
Lucien reached inside his waistcoat and handed me a handkerchief, which I accepted gratefully.
“I am sorry,” I choked out. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this....”
“Hush. It’s quite all right, I don’t mind,” he said softly. He seemed to hesitate, then reached over and tucked back that strand of hair that kept falling into my face. I glanced up at him in surprise, but he kept his fingers there, tracing my face down to my chin before dropping his hand. “You are exceptionally beautiful, you know. Lord Willoughby was a lucky man.”
I nodded through my tears, but could not respond. My breath was coming in short gasps, partly from crying and partly from how close Lucien’s face was to mine. So close I could smell his cologne, something warm and masculine and very expensive. I met his eyes, then slid my gaze down to his lips. Before I even knew what was happening, I’d leaned forward and kissed him.
I expected him to be surprised, but he seemed to have been well-prepared. His lips parted expertly, and I felt my blood rush to my head. All my tears and anger melded into a burning need to be touched and held—my hands grabbed at his waistcoat, pulling him closer to me. There was something about this man that drew me into him, and I’d been so alone for such a long time....
He pulled away presently, his hands tangled in my hair; we were pressed against each other on the gazebo railing. “Lady Willoughby,” he said breathlessly, his voice low and mellow. “You are...quite the woman, I’m...well, I’m rather speechless.”
“Don’t,” I whispered urgently, clinging to him. “Don’t speak.” I felt as if the slightest interruption would make this dream all too real, a reality which I knew to be wrong. Wrong and stupid...and yet, I didn’t want it to end. It was an inner struggle which would be become all too familiar in the ensuing years.
It did not take much to make him come home with me. A fevered mention of my carriage, and he was more than willing. I had never done anything like this, and the rebelliousness of it was intoxicating. Reaching my townhouse, we hurried up the stairs like mischievous children afraid of being caught by the sleeping servants. At the top of the stairs, Lucien caught me and kissed me, one hand on my thigh holding me against him, the other on the back of my neck. I knew what was happening, what we were doing...and I didn’t even try to stop it.
The night went on in a blind passion. I am sure Lucien had no idea what this experience meant for me—it was a headlong rush down a path I had never
imagined I could take, and never would have wanted to. It was also the discovery of a side of myself that I hadn’t known existed. Perhaps it hadn’t, until
that night, but it was there to stay—and to struggle against—permanently.
I fell asleep in Lucien’s arms, cradled against his warm body. It felt like centuries since I’d had someone beside me in bed, and I felt so safe and treasured that I didn’t have room for guilt.
Before I dropped off, I am sure I even imagined that there was some special reason I was wanted by this man I had just met.
But sometime in the early hours of the morning, I stirred at the soft touch of Lucien’s lips on my forehead, then a rustle and the click of my bedroom door closing. When I came fully awake, all that remained of our night together was an empty space next to me and a tear-stained handkerchief monogrammed with LJB. I didn’t even know who Lucien was or where he came from—and I had done a terrible thing.
“Shameful girl—puttana!” I hissed at myself, clutching my head and bringing my knees up to my chest. “What did you think?” I cried until Lucien’s handkerchief was no longer fit to be returned. Which did not matter, as it was highly unlikely I would ever see him again.
I woke tangled in my sheets, my face still burning from the dream with Lucien. I’d nearly forgotten that first night we’d met—so much had changed between us, and yet so little. His and his friends’ stay in my home had so far been a curse and blessing. On the one hand I felt that Lucien and I were growing closer as friends, but on the other I’d succumbed twice already in the few weeks he’d been here. That was my own fault, of course, but I thought I could have done without the temptation.
Lord Klein had left long before supper yesterday, after spending much of the day shut up in the parlor with Lucien and Tom, talking about Helene. At supper Lucien had given me a quick explanation of what was to be done, but he’d seemed rather distracted, and kept exchanging knowing glances with Tom every time Helene was mentioned. I had the impression they were beginning to understand more the reasons for Helene’s fugitive status.
Today continued much the same—the three of them had magic lessons in the morning and after lunch. I waited till class was over, then went looking for Lucien in the most likely place of all: the library. As I approached the closed door it seemed as though he was in Tom’s company, for I could hear the two of them quarreling even before I reached the room. This wasn’t unusual, and I was going to pass on; but hearing my name mentioned just then, I paused.
“Of course I haven’t told Anabelle! What do you think I am, daft?” Lucien was speaking in a highly audible stage whisper, so I barely had to struggle to hear him. “First of all, my good standing depends upon you keeping the box hidden. Second, Lord Klein specifically said to keep it safe, and I don’t see how—”
“Ach, it’s safe with me! C’mon, Luce, d’you really think anyone can get this off me without my knowing?”
“Tom, when I came in you were asleep with the box on the table. What if Anabelle had come in and seen it?”
“I would’ve told her just what it was. I ain’t got nothin’ to be ashamed of. I’d tell her, ‘Look, your friend Lord Klein told me to steal it, so if I was you I’d be askin’ him.’”
“That’s just the point, Thomas. She doesn’t know you were—are—a professional thief. If she did, who do you suppose would have to answer for bringing you here?”
“You should’ve told her by now,” Tom replied matter-of-factly.
“You know I won’t. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her—and I’m operating on the assumption that you are not currently stealing from her.”
“Luce, I’m hurt, I am. Why would you think that?”
“Don’t turn this around on me. Here, take it—and I don’t ever want to see it in plain sight again.” The door opened suddenly, and I stepped back unseen as Lucien stormed out of the library, a stack of books under one long arm and Misère perched on the other. He turned and went down the hall toward his room.
The library door stayed open, and I waited several moments before going inside. Tom was sitting on one of the couches, his feet resting on a low book table. He appeared to be busy reading the newspaper, but as I came closer I realized it was the obituaries.
I paused inside the doorway, regarding him. Being a fair person, I did not plan on viewing Tom any differently because of what I’d just heard. I’d grown to consider him something of a friend, and since he could not exactly leave my home, I had no fear of him looting the place and running off with the spoils. Mostly, I was not pleased that neither he nor Lucien had planned to ever tell me. With Tom, this was somewhat understandable, since he would be the one under suspicion. Lucien, however, had no excuse.
“Hello, Tom,” I said presently, walking in. He looked up at me over the paper and gave a friendly smirk, which I had come to realize was actually a very affectionate greeting for him. Lucien usually received an insult and a caustic laugh, Helene a tug of the hair. “What are you reading the obituaries for?”
“It’s the only interesting thing in this whole bloody paper,” he replied, rolling it into a sort of scrunched tube and tossing it on the book table. “Nothin’ much happens in Willoughby, does it?”
“No, it’s a very quiet town. Not a lot of crime—not a lot of people, either. I suppose you’re more used to London. Tom,” I said, as though it had just occurred to me, “you never did tell me what you did for a living, back in London.” I sat at the other end of his sofa and looked at him expectantly.
Tom’s blue eyes widened, then dropped to his striped scarf which he was beginning to play with absently. “Nothin’ special. Worked in a cloth factory of sorts, with them big machines and such.”
“Oh, that must have been very dangerous. How long did you work there?”
He shrugged. “Since I was a wee laddie. Nine, I think.”
“Ah.” I leaned across the small space between us and grabbed his hand before he could think to move. He tried to pull away slightly and his cheeks turned pink. I lifted his hand and inspected it; it was hardly bigger than mine, though more masculine. “I am amazed, Tom. Your hands are in very good condition for someone who’s worked in a textile factory for...ten years?” I let go of his hand, and he snapped it back to him like a spring. “Not a single scar, and you still have all your fingers.”
“I didn’t say I worked on the machines,” Tom explained, tucking his hands safely underneath himself. “I worked in the shipping yard...lifting...things.” At my doubtful expression, he trailed off and grimaced slightly. “You heard me and Luce, didn’t you?”
Tom jumped up. “I haven’t stolen anything from you!...Except the box, but that was Lord Klein’s idea—and anyway, Luce is no angel here, he’s a thief too as much as he is a whore, and—”
“Wait, sit,” I said, waving him down. “One thing at a time!”
Tom hesitated, then slumped back onto the sofa. The expression on his comely face looked as though he would rather have been anywhere else, but it was to his credit that he did not just leave. “Look,” he said, more slowly this time, “back in London I was a thief, aye. Been one since I was a kid. Now that I’m grown, I often stole things for hire.”
“Lord Klein hired you to steal from me? Steal what?” The more involved I learned Lord Klein was in all this, the less I was liking him.
“This. He had to have it stolen, because there was magical protection on it. Would’ve killed him.” Tom pulled from his shirt a small wooden box and held it
out to me.
I picked it up, admiring the lid carving of a heart pierced by three swords. “Why doesn’t it hurt you...or me?” I asked.
“Something went wrong when I stole it—I somehow broke the magic seal on it. Nearly killed me, it did.” He shook his head when I tried to pry it open. “Don’t bother. No one can get it open.”
“I have seen it before,” I said, looking at it from all sides. “Peter always had it in his study. I assumed it was a trinket box or some such thing.”
“Whatever it is, the Council wants it. Lord Klein wanted to keep it safe.” Tom looked down at the box in my hands, then back at my face. “I know it was Lord Willoughby’s, it was, but it’s sort of a dangerous thing, you ken? A lot of people are after it—Lord Klein made me and Luce promise to keep it close to us.”
I hesitated only a moment before handing it back to him. “You may keep it, I don’t mind. I have many other things of Peter’s.” I met Tom’s eyes pointedly. “I’m not happy you burglarized my house, but I forgive you since I know you will never steal from me again.”
“Didn’t know you yet, or anythin’...I wouldn’t’ve if I did,” Tom mumbled, looking at the floor like a child caught in the wrong. I wondered how old he was—seventeen? Eighteen? “Sorry.”
“I could understand stealing to survive when you were a child,” I continued, “but I’d think that a grown man could find other ways of providing for himself.”
Tom gave a short laugh. “Aye, sure. Like Luce does? No, thanks. I’m not standin’ on no street corner and showin’ a leg. ‘Sides, if he’s any proof, that doesn’t get you very far. I’d end up stealin’ anyway, like he does.”
I narrowed my eyes. “That’s the second time you’ve hinted that Lucien is a...thief. What—”
“Aye, well,” Tom muttered, glancing up at me conspiratorially, “I’m probably not supposed to tell you this, but Luce’s got a wee secret. When nobody hires him to perform magic tricks—or whatever other tricks he does for a livin’—and he starts to starve, he ain’t above snatching a few bracelets or necklaces to make ends meet.”
“He’s a pickpocket?” I cried, shocked.
“Bloody shame, isn’t it? A grown lad like him should’ve moved on to greater enterprises, I should think—if, y’know, stealing was the only option,” Tom hurried to add. Then his eyes widened. “Not that I think—I mean, I’m sure he ain’t stealin’ from you. Luce respects you and all.”
“Does he now?” I couldn’t help a sardonic smile as I stood up. “Thank you, Tom, for your honesty. I’m going to go attempt to get the same out of Lucien.”
Lucien’s door was closed, and I stood in front of it a moment before knocking, trying to compose my thoughts—and vowing to refrain from physical assault when I got him to admit to being a dishonest swindler. I realized that in four years, I had learned almost nothing about Lucien. Now I planned to remedy that. I knocked.
“Bloody hell, Thomas, you’ve learned to knock,” Lucien growled as he yanked open the door, then immediately shrank back in horror. “Oh, dear heavens. Anabelle.”
“You don’t sound very happy to see me,” I said airily, going past him into the room. I wasn’t very surprised to see clothes scattered everywhere, but Lucien darted past me, snatching waistcoats, socks, and trousers off the floor.
“Oh, but I am! I was only surprised,” he said, flashing a handsome, hurried smile as he tossed an armful of clothes into the wardrobe and shut the door. He straightened his waistcoat and ran a quick hand over his hair. “It feels as though we haven’t spoken in ages.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” I gingerly picked a rumpled shirt off the desk chair and sat down austerely. “Could you close the door, Lucien, please? And have a seat?”
A fearful light entered his eyes, but he did as I requested, shutting us in the room and perching on the edge of the bed, his back ramrod-straight and his long legs crossed neatly. It was a terribly unnatural way to sit, and I wondered how he could be comfortable, but his perfect face betrayed no distress. He was too comfortable, I thought, and decided to go straight to the point.
“I was talking with Tom about his career as a professional thief,” I said casually, “and he informed me that the two of you have the industry in common...though, I’m inclined to think you more of an amateur than he.”
Lucien’s face drained of color to the point that I feared he was going to faint, his eyes widening. “Um—”
“In fact, I think you have other talents better worth cultivating—namely, the art of withholding the truth. To think—four years and I never knew you were a pickpocket. Nearly three weeks and you never told me Tom was a burglar.” I stared at him expectantly.
Lucien stared back in dismay for a few seconds, then dropped his gaze to the floor as if searching for something to say there. His hand came up and absently gave his hair a rueful tug. “Anabelle...I...I’m...dreadfully—”
“I am not looking for an apology, Lucien,” I said harshly, leaning forward. “I am looking for the truth. How can you possibly be my friend if I don’t even know you?”
Lucien nodded, looking at Misère as if for help before answering. “Yes, you’re perfectly right. I haven’t been honest with you. And I will be. But—” he glanced up, his beautiful grey eyes pleading, “I promise I have never stolen from you. Yes, I have committed petty theft, but only when I absolutely had no other choice—not that it’s an excuse. But never from you. I consider you a friend, and whatever else I may be, I am no traitor.”
“You’re very eloquent,” I said tiredly, leaning my elbow on the desk and my chin in my hand. “But you are also a good showman. Why should I believe you?”
Lucien finally relaxed his pose, slumping down with his elbows on his knees and closing his eyes. Misère fluttered over onto his shoulders, giving his ear an affectionate nip. “Because I’m telling the truth. Do you wish to know why I resorted to stealing?” he asked, opening his eyes and looking up at me. “Because I couldn’t afford my flat. Remember how you always chided me about not eating? It wasn’t because I forgot, not usually. I just didn’t have anything most of the time.”
I searched his face for some indication that he was jesting, but he wasn’t. I could see that. “Lucien...but you...you’re very successful. You have parties all the time, and clients every night.”
“Not every night, Anabelle dear, I’d be dead,” he corrected with a self-conscious raise of the eyebrows. “I mean, I appreciate the compliment, but I’m only human.”
“I wasn’t being literal,” I said, blushing. “But you are very popular, and I assumed you at least lived off some kind of allowance.”
“From whom?” he asked, frowning.
Lucien opened his mouth as if to reply, then shut it again and smiled. “I don’t receive an allowance. Suffice to say when my funds were low, I resorted to doing a lot of things I’m not exactly proud of.”
I tried not to look disappointed, but for a moment I had thought Lucien was going to divulge some of his past to me. Well, of course not, I chided myself. Why should he act any differently than he always had? I had not exactly made perfect confidence a prerequisite of his staying with me, and it was too late to do so now. “Why didn’t you tell me about Tom?”
He rolled his eyes at the mention of Tom. “I should think that was obvious.” He looked at me hard. “How did you get him to admit it?”
“I only asked him. He tried to lie, but it wasn’t hard to get to the truth. He’s only a boy, Lucien, and—”
“Please don’t,” Lucien groaned, covering his face with his hands. “Tom’s no boy. He just acts like one. And if you knew him like I do, you’d have thought twice about the whole thing too.”
I bristled. “I don’t like it when you’re unkind, Lucien. It looks ill on you.”
Lucien’s mouth dropped open. “What?”
“You act as though Tom is so much beneath you—why?” I stood up angrily. “Because he’s young? A thief? A little brusque and says what he thinks?” I took a step closer to Lucien and pointed a finger in his face. “At least it is better than what you do—acting very nice and mannerly, when really you’re a snob who refuses to tell me anything about himself.” I shook my head. “I appreciate honesty, Lucien, and fairness. More than your posturing and deception.”
Lucien looked ashamed as I swept past him toward the door, but his eyes alone followed me. As I pulled open the door, he said, somewhat rebelliously, “I can’t be someone I’m not, Anabelle. I’m sorry.”
I turned to glare at him. “Of course you can—you do it all the time. You’re doing it now.” I waited until he met my eyes. “I want to be friends with the real Lucien. If you find him, please be so kind as to let me know.”
His face colored. “Anabelle—”
“See you at supper.” I let the door slam shut behind me, before leaning back against it with a sigh. I had meant for that to go so differently—just like everything else.
En plen aire - (French) Outdoor painting, lit. "in plain air"
Grazie - (Italian) Thank you
Guardare a questo - (Italian) Look at this
Merda - (Italian) Sh*t
Mia cara - (Italian) My dear
Oddio - (Italian) Oh God
Puttana - (Italian) Whore
Sei un ipocrita - (Italian) You are a hypocrite
Si - (Italian) Yes
Signor - (Italian) Mister
Sorellina - (Italian) Little sister
Una mazza - (Italian) A bat
“Addio, del Passato” - (Italian aria from Verdi’s La Traviata) “Farewell Past”
Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti, - Farewell past, happy dreams of days gone by,
Le rose del volto già son pallenti. - The roses in my cheeks already are faded.