Remember when I said let’s pretend there was a dance and stuff happened? Well, I wrote it a last! Sorry for posting out of order. This is one of my bad habits.
A dance before the summer solstice.
It seemed the height of arrogance as those affected by the curse would be increasingly vulnerable to the effects of the nexus. A dance filled with light and music and laughter and bodies crushed together might prove too tempting for a beast on the prowl.
Still, that didn’t stop Solenne from donning her best frock, a lightweight seashore green stripe dress. Luis wore a black tailcoat and matching trousers left over from his school days that did not look entirely academic. Despite the sleeves being a touch too short, she thought her brother looked rather dashing and did not comment on the small dagger he put in his boot.
Godwin came down the stairs dressed smartly in evening clothes, a black patch over his eye and wielding a silver tipped cane. Solenne hadn’t been sure if he would attend, but felt glad he went to the effort.
Alek stated he had no plans to attend and did not enjoy standing about in a hot room to be scrutinized like a show animal. As Solenne left the house, he watched her with covetous eyes. When she caught him looking, he turned his attention back to his book.
Chamber’s house was lit against the night like a beacon. Braziers lined the path to the front. Every door and window had been opened to the night air. Lively music and laughter drifted out.
Inside, they had pushed the furniture back and space cleared for dancing. People milled at the edges, nibbling on food and nursing drinks. If the chatter stopped when the Marechals entered, it was only a moment. This was the first time Godwin had been out in society—such as it was in Boxon—since the attack.
The dance had all the makings of a perfect mid-summer evening, but something lurked at the edges, like a storm waiting to break, giving the atmosphere a manic feel. The revellers felt it, laughing a bit too loud, drinking a bit too much, and dancing with an almost desperate enthusiasm.
Solenne scanned the crowd, taking the familiar faces and half hoping to spy Alek brooding in a corner. Of course he wasn’t lurking about in corners with potted plants, waiting to dance the night away with her. That was wishful thinking. She promised Colonel Chambers a dance, and the sooner she completed that task, the better.
She spotted Charlotte in a vivid yellow dress with stiff white lace trim at the bodice and cap sleeves, standing next to her father by the terrace doors. She waved to her friend, who made her way across the room.
Luis stood awkwardly next to her, his hands twitching and flexing like he did not know how to stand.
“Perhaps you should ask Miles to dance,” she offered.
“He said he did not plan to attend. Said he wasn’t the proper company to keep,” Luis mumbled. “I had hoped he would change his mind, but no.”
Ah. She understood that feeling exactly.
“Oh, don’t you two look a lovely pair,” Charlotte said. Luis mumbled a reply, blushing.
“As do you,” Solenne said truthfully. Charlotte’s curls were on full display, tumbling and shining in the candlelight.
“How many dances have you promised? I haven’t agreed to any,” Charlotte said in a rush. “Papa says I’m being foolish, but Jase personally invited me. A personal invitation. Do you think that means something?” She fluttered a yellow silk fan, emphasizing her words.
“Just one dance,” Solenne answered when Charlotte paused for breath.
“To Aleksandar, yes? Where he is? I bet he looks so dashing. Oh, as do you, Luis. The color suits you.”
Colonel Chambers and his nephew approached. “Miss Marechal, Miss Wodehouse,” he said with a nod. “No Aleksandar?”
“He sends his regrets,” she said, which was a lie because Alek’s exact words were much more colorful and contained zero regret.
“Not a worry. More pretty partners for us, eh Jase?”
Charlotte laughed lightly, fluttering her fan. Luis tugged at the nearly too-short coat sleeves.
Jase looked bored at a dance held for his benefit. “If you say so. Country dances are a quaint amusement.”
“But the company is so charming,” Chambers said.
“If you can call this boorishly rustic aesthetic charming.”
Solenne rocked back on her heels, stunned at Jase’s rudeness. “I’m sure you’re accustomed to grander affairs in Founding,” she said, trying her best to keep her tone polite and not boorishly rustic.
“Not likely,” Chambers said, giving a hearty slap to Jase’s back. “This one was too sickly. Foul air in Founding, you know. Too much smoke in the air. Country life may be slower, but you get to enjoy it. Now, would you lovely ladies care to dance?”
He extended his hand to Solenne, who felt obliged to take it. Charlotte beamed at Jase, who gave her a cool look. “Pardon me, I’m feeling sickly and nothing entices me to dance at the moment. My apologies, Miss Wodehouse.”
He turned on his heel and left, leaving Charlotte quite red in the face.
Smoothly, Chambers offered his arm to Charlotte. “Forgive my nephew, Miss Wodehouse. He had a coughing fit earlier and is always in a foul mood after.”
“Is he quite recovered? Should he be out?” Charlotte asked, because of course she was more concerned about Jase Parkell’s well being than her own insulted pride. Not to worry. Solenne was more than capable of being insulted for the pair of them.
“Confinement is seldom beneficial, in my opinion. He needs to exercise his lungs beyond expelling hot air. Now, please have pity on an old man. I don’t know if I can keep up with a young lady such as yourself.”
Solenne rolled her eyes, but Charlotte laughed, Jase’s rude snub forgotten.
She felt perfectly content to watch the crowd and make pleasant conversation. Luis watched the dancers with raw greed on his face.
Suitable partners came over, traded pleasantries, but Luis never seemed to make the leap to asking them to dance, despite the clear yearning on his face.
“Would you like to dance?” she asked Luis.
“Would it be pathetic to dance with my sister?”
“Not as much as a spinster dancing with her younger brother. Oh, the burden he must bear, being seen with her in public society.” She pressed a hand to her forehead, earning a small chuckle.
They joined the dancers and almost immediately Solenne realized why Luis had been hesitant. He was terrible. All elbows and knees, he kept bumping into her.
“I know dance was on the syllabus at school,” she said.
“For girls, maybe.”
“We went to the same school and there were plenty of boys in my dance class. Now, stop rushing me. Count if you must.” She stepped back, letting Luis take the lead. She knew that he was not clumsy or physically awkward. Perhaps socially but she had witnessed his archery skills. He possessed hand-eye coordination. He just had to ignore the people watching.
With each turn, he grew more confident. By the end of the song, he moved with the skill and grace of a hunter. Breathless, she allowed herself to be led to the side.
“The next dance is mine,” a firm voice said. Alek wore his usual tailcoat, though sponged cleaned, and his cravat tied sloppily, but he was a most welcomed sight.
Without waiting for her response, he took her hand and swept her back onto the floor. He held her closer than proper, his eyes fixed on hers, and they moved together like familiar partners. Her body remembered his touch from when they sparred in their youth. She anticipated his motions, meeting him for every turn and twirl. Her eyes drank in the flush to his cheeks, the hungry look in his eyes.
He licked his lips, his fierce gaze never leaving her face. Her breath fluttered in her throat, suddenly overwhelmed.
The crowd vanished. Even the music vanished. Her beating heart provided the melody.
Eventually, she realized they stood still.
“The music stopped,” Alek said.
The moment felt too big to be contained. Her body hummed with excitement. She needed to catch her breath. She needed to sit for a moment.
She needed more.
Another voice interrupted. “Do you require a chair? A bit of air?” Colonel Chambers held out a glass of punch.
“I…” Alek tugged at this cravat, pulling the knot undone. His lips twisted, half sneer and half growl. He gave a clipped bow and left.
“Well,” Chambers said, watching Alek’s retreat, “I’d ask you to dance, but you look overtired. Perhaps I can show you the view of the garden from the terrace? There was a matter I wished to discuss with you.”
“Thank you,” she mumbled, accepting the punch and, by extension, the invitation to the terrace. Chambers wanted privacy, and she dreaded the reason.
A quick look around the room and she found Godwin watching them with interest.
She followed Chambers to the terrace, each step feeling like a march toward her execution.
The cool night air was a welcomed relief from the heat of the house’s interior. Chambers placed his hand on the small of her back, guiding her to a secluded corner. She jumped, spilling the punch over her hand.
“Not to worry. These things happen. The cup was filled to the brim.” Chambers produced a handkerchief and cleaned up the punch. He held her hand in his a bit too long, watching her reaction rather than on the task.
Solenne tried to be gracious or beatific or however the heroines appeared in those novels she read when being dotted on by a man they were expected to marry. Enthralled? Excited at being alone? Not the leaden weight she felt in her stomach.
His touch was unbearable. Wrong.
Chambers leaned in. Solenne turned her face away, fearing a kiss and better for it to land on her cheek than her lips.
He sniffed her hair.
This was too much.
She snatched her hand away and the cloth. “I can manage, thank you.”
“Ah, I see.” He took a step back, frowning. “I do hope that you know I hold you in great esteem.”
Yes, this was the proposal. She closed her eyes, wanting to be anyplace but there. Perhaps if she wasn’t watching him, he would finish quicker.
“Your father is among my closest acquaintances. I want nothing more than your family’s happiness. Particularly your happiness.”
This was it.
“Colonel Chambers, I—” she started.
“You’re charming and more than pretty enough.”
Solenne cracked open an eye. Pretty enough?
“I do wish you every happiness,” he continued, “but I’m afraid that I can not share that happiness with you. I know you’re disappointed. Your father indicated, several times, might I add, that you would be receptive to my attention.”
“You can not share my happiness? I must confess, this is the strangest proposal,” she blurted.
Chambers took a deliberate step back. “My apologies if I’ve given you the wrong impression, but this is not a proposal. It’s rather the opposite.”
Well, that made her unreasonably pleased.
“I fear I am a man ill suited to marriage. I am rather set in my ways. I know Godwin had hopes of a connection, but I’m afraid I must disappoint. And, if I’m being honest, I believe your heart lies elsewhere.”
Solenne felt herself blush, not realizing she had been that obvious with Alek. “Thank you for being forthright and clearing up any confusion.”
“If I said or did anything to mislead you, I sincerely apologize.” He gave her hand a perfunctory pat. “Feel free to enjoy the air. I believe I must return to my host duties.”
When Chambers departed, Solenne pressed a hand to her chest with relief.
“Ow!” The wooden sword clattered to the pavement, and Luis rubbed his shoulder.
“Perhaps you would be faster if you had not drank so much last night.”
“Two glasses of wine! I’m hardly a drunk and stop enjoying this.”
“I am not enjoying this.” Alek suppressed a smirk, noting that Luis did not deny being hungover.
He motioned for Luis to resume his stance, then sprang into an attack. Surprised, Luis quickly recovered. He placed too much importance on form and posture, as if a monster would wait for him to assume fighting stance number three. In the heat of the hunt, there was no time for formalities. Survival boiled down to action and reaction.
Truthfully, he had enjoyed very little since his return to the Marechals. Well, he enjoyed the dance with Solenne. He did not enjoy the suit of uncomfortable clothes he had to wear. He had not enjoyed leaving Solenne alone with that man last night. He did not enjoy watching them step out into the night for privacy. Loathing swelled inside of him and the beast wanted to tear it’s rival to shreds.
It demanded that Alek march out and challenge his rival for Solenne.
He left, rather than make a fool of himself, because what did he offer her? Chambers had a grand house, money to splash about on frivolities like dances, and Alek turned up uninvited, wearing rags. Despite cleaning his coat and carefully mending the shirt, his clothes were worn and ill fitting.
His only consultation was that Solenne appeared as miserable as he, which was a terrible thought. He should want her happiness, even if it meant his own misery. That morning, when the light crept across the bedroom floor, he could not find that spirit of generosity in himself. His beast was a selfish, greedy thing.
The practice sword smacked Luis across the shoulder. Again.
“You’re too fast,” Luis complained, rubbing his shoulder.
“So be faster or be dead.” If his words were too harsh, he did not care. The reality of their profession was harsh. A single mistake ended lives. Hunter rarely got the luxury of growing old. “Perhaps this is a good place to pause for breakfast,” he said.
Luis groaned. “I don’t think I can eat.”
“I have faith in you.” Alek gave Luis a slap on the back, which sent him stumbling forward.
Cook had breakfast waiting in the kitchens. Luis turned an interesting shade of green at the plate of ham and eggs. “I think just toast this morning.”
“Nonsense, Master Luis. Nothing cures a hangover better than butter and grease,” Cook said.
“I would have thought hydration and a bit of willow bark tea,” Alek said.
“Oh no. Don’t tell Solenne. She’ll make me drink an entire pot of the stuff and it is vile,” Luis said.
“My ears are burning,” Solenne said as she entered the room. Instinctively, his body shifted to face her and he perked to attention.
Damn his heart for feeling like it would burst out of his chest.
“You look peaky,” she said to her brother.
“I’m fine,” Luis said, quickly shoveling an egg into his mouth. He chewed slowly, as if his stomach threatened to revolt.
She sat next to Alek at the table, the scent of her lavender and honey soap ticking his nose. At least she did not smell of that vile old man.
“Why is your nose doing that?” she asked.
“My nose is not doing anything.”
“No, it’s doing that.” She wrinkled her nose, like there was a foul scent lodged inside.
“You are mistaken.” Alek picked up his plate and moved to the end of the table.
“Oh, wow. I’m glad I’m here to see this,” Luis said, planting his elbows on the table like he was in the front row of the greatest show imaginable.
Alek grumbled, stabbing at his plate.
“I don’t know why you’re so grumpy,” Solenne said.
“I suppose congratulations are in order,” he replied, every word hurting his soul.
The kitchen fell unnaturally silent.
“Quite the opposite, in fact.” Solenne retrieved a plate from the cabinet. Her cheeks flushed, and she gibbered. “Colonel Chambers felt I had the wrong impression of his intentions, so he clarified his own affection for me. Meaning, none.”
Solenne slammed down the plate. “Must you drag this out? Do you enjoy my humiliation? No affection. No engagement. I am forever to be a spinster, it means.”
“Don’t worry, Solenne,” Luis said, mouth stuffed with ham. “I’ll always need you, even when you’re old and all the village children think you’re a witch.”
Alek held his breath, expecting Solenne to send the dishes flying. Instead, she laughed, not her bright and mirth filled laugh, but something darker and more tender. It unnerved him, and the beast whispered that he could fix this. He could have what he always wanted and make her laugh properly. Every morning could be this, ham for breakfast in a tidy kitchen, with her smile.
Alek shoved another slice of toast into his mouth to keep himself from making a fool of himself.
No engagement. It meant nothing to him, but it meant everything to the beast.
Solenne was his.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings