It was said of Miss Elizabeth Weston that she was a young woman of great fortune and little accomplishment. Since the former went some ways toward making up for the latter, all was well, or should have been. But at twenty-two years of age, Miss Weston remained unmarried.
She played the pianoforte adequately, but would not play before strangers. Her needlework was loose at best, her dancing merely functional. She was pretty, with honey-brown hair, a pert face, and clean skin; but she was shy, and so did not catch the eye as she might have if she smiled more.
What she liked best was to read, and while conversations and games of whist might go on around her, she would sit alone with a book of Scott or Radcliffe. She could sometimes be prevailed upon to read aloud, but within a line or two, her voice would grow so timid and constricted she had to leave off.
Elizabeth knew what people said about her in whispers behind their fans and glasses of sherry. Since she could not help what they said or what she was, she withdrew further and avoided the kind of company a highly marriageable young woman in her prime should have sought out. It was a paradox that gave her mother and father some anxiety.
She did not have to hear or be told what the gossip said about her; she knew, with an inner sense that might have been a curse.
Elizabeth would not have attended the ball at Woodfair at all, but Woodfair was the home of the Brannocks. If Elizabeth had a best friend in all the world it was Amy Brannock, because what Amy said and the feelings behind her words were just the same. When the invitations went out, Elizabeth accepted, because Amy would not question why she did not wish to dance.
Mr. and Mrs. Brannock greeted the Westons at the door, and Elizabeth immediately looked over their shoulders for her friend, but alas, she was not in view, and Mrs. Brannock had another plan. She and Mrs. Weston exchanged a wink that meant they had been conspiring.
“Miss Weston, it is my great pleasure to present to you Mr. Richard Forester. He is a cousin on my mother’s side, and expressed a great interest in meeting you after hearing of your many charms!” Mrs. Brannock offered up the handsome young man as if he were wrapped with ribbon.
Blushing enough to make her head ache, Elizabeth curtseyed, and Mr. Forester grinned as he bowed. Her great charms . . . her fortune, was what he was thinking. Why was that the first thing anyone learned about her?
“Miss Weston,” he said, as he was expected to, as this situation was contrived to arrange. “Would you do the honor of dancing this next set with me?” Music was playing in the next room. Of course the dancing had already begun, Elizabeth could not have delayed just a half an hour more to miss it. She looked pleadingly at her mother, but Mrs. Weston seemed so happy, Elizabeth could not argue.
“Of course,” she said, and held out her hand. He led her to the ballroom, where couples lined up for the next figure.
His touch was cold. Not physically—she was wearing gloves and could not feel his skin. But something in his eyes, a stiffness in his carriage, held a chill.
“If I may be so bold, Miss Weston, you are the brightest ornament at this gathering. My gaze was drawn to you the moment you stepped through the doorway.”
The movements of the dance took her away from him; when next he took her hand, he said, “You are grace itself.”
“I thank you, sir,” she said, little more than a whisper. Not a single compliment he spoke was sincere.
She heard his words, but another meaning entirely lay behind them, some feeling that came off him like the scent of soap used to launder his shirts, rude and unkind thoughts. His true motivation, his true feelings: she was a silly girl, but someone ought to have her money, so why shouldn’t it be him? She wasn’t even a prize to be won, but an obstacle to be overcome.
The dances here were like hunts, gentlemen and ladies chasing after one another.
Her foot missed a beat and she stumbled. One of the other ladies, the kind Miss Allison, took her elbow and steadied her. Elizabeth caught more than the kind look in her eyes; there was also the belief, the certainty, that Elizabeth was a talentless creature who ought to be pitied. While Elizabeth might not hear the words, the feelings directed toward her were plain, sharp as the screaming edge of knives.
Much speculation went on among her parents and their friends about what could make a girl like Elizabeth so quiet and withdrawn. Mrs. Weston had decided that her dear girl by some accident of birth was simply too sensitive to withstand the rigors of society and the world. Likewise, Mr. Weston declared that the fineness of her disposition made her superior, but also vulnerable. Those outside the immediate family were sure that the girl obviously had been too coddled, too sheltered, and so would always be weak and sniveling. A gentleman who aspired to marrying her fortune would first have to persuade Miss Weston that she was strong enough to accept a firm proposal. But the more forceful a suitor appeared, the more timid Miss Weston became. Another paradox.
These speculations never happened within earshot of Elizabeth. She knew of them, just the same.
In truth, Mrs. Weston nearly had the right of it: Elizabeth felt everything. The thousand petty dramas of the typical gathering were as shouting in her ears. She felt the prides and hurts of others as pains in her own heart. She knew what she shouldn’t: which young gentlemen carried on affairs with their mothers’ maids, which young ladies were so desperate to escape indifferent families they were prepared to throw themselves into unsuitable marriages. Men who worried over debts, coachmen nursing lame horses—she knew. She could not say how, but she did. She knew that one of the brusque suitors she’d refused, Mr. Rackham, would be cruel if he succeeded in winning her. Another, Mr. Carroll, would simply ignore her. From the ladies, she felt the gossip about how she was proud and odd and would die an old maid if she were not careful. The old men wondered what was wrong with her, that she should turn up her nose at their sons.
She felt herself to be like the ancient Greek oracles, caught up in the torture of ecstatic revelation. Empathy was the word she found—profound, damaging empathy. And she could not tell a soul.
At last, finally, the music ended, and Elizabeth curtseyed with a sigh of relief. Mr. Forester insisted on seeing her to a chair, when all she wanted was to flee.
“Miss Weston, you seem quite flush, do let me bring you a sherry,” he said, but he was not concerned with her wellbeing, only with flattering her so that she might fall in love with him.
“No, I thank you, I only need to sit—”
“Elizabeth! How long since you arrived? I did not see you! Here, come with me, I’ve been longing to speak with you—oh, pardon me, Mr. Forester, but I must steal Miss Weston away from you, I’m sure you understand.” Without further explanation, Amy Brannock swept between them, hooked her arm around Elizabeth’s, and pulled her into the next room, leaving Forester staring.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth breathed.
“Richard Forester is such a bore, I’m sure you have had quite enough of him. I knew my mother was going to waylay you. I had wanted to be there, I was watching for you, but then she sent me off to see that Emma knew to fill the punch bowl. Mother can’t leave well enough alone.”
Amy looked very well, as she always did, with roses in her cheeks, wearing a pink muslin gown that complemented her light hair and creamy features. Elizabeth wore a gown of blue with lace—it suited her because Amy had helped choose it, and her friend beamed at the compliment Elizabeth paid her by wearing it.
In the drawing room they settled on a pair of chairs. Elizabeth could listen contentedly for hours while Amy gossiped. She might not move for the rest of the afternoon.
And then three strange gentlemen entered the drawing room.
The trio stopped at the door to look about, and because they were strangers, everyone else paused to study them.
“Goodness, will you look at them?” Amy said, hand on her breast like some romantic heroine. “Have you ever seen such . . . shapely gentlemen? Is shapely the right word for it?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “I think it is.”
All three had powerful forms under well-made suits; they possessed broad shoulders and took graceful steps. They . . . prowled, looking about with a hooded darkness in their gazes, which scoured every surface, every face. Elizabeth could not take her eyes from them. Mr. Brannock immediately went forward to meet them, shaking hands all around, and the room returned to a normal state of pleasantness, as if a cloud had passed by the sun.
“Who are they, do you think?” Amy asked.
“It’s your ball,” Elizabeth said. “Do you not know?”
“I’ll just go see, then.” She flounced up and made her way to where her mother sat with the matrons. Elizabeth felt herself shrinking in her seat, hoping that no one felt the chivalrous need to come and speak with her.
Fortunately, Amy came back soon enough. “I’ve gotten all the news of it from Mother. They are the Misters Wilde, brothers who’ve come into the neighborhood and have taken the lease at Lilies Park. Father met them in town and invited them to introduce them to the neighborhood. It never hurts having more beaux among the number, yes? I imagine Father thinks to put them in my way.”
“Brothers? They don’t look anything alike.”
Indeed the tallest of the men was fair; the shortest had a brown complexion, calling to mind the West Indies sun; while the middle had dark hair and striking gray eyes.
Amy furrowed her brow, an expression her mother was always complaining of because it marred her features. “They don’t, do they? Ah well, who’s to say.”
The middle one, with the gray eyes, caught Elizabeth staring. She quickly looked away, but knew he still studied her—she felt a focused attention that put her in mind of a hawk.
“That one there has his eye on you, I wager,” Amy said, her smile mischievous.
With increasing dread, Elizabeth watched the Wilde brothers make bows to the host, who brightened after a moment’s conversation and turned toward her and Amy.
“Oh, you see?” Amy said brightly. Of course she was thrilled. New gentlemen meant new attention.
“Do stay close,” Elizabeth said, clutching her friend’s hand.
“Of course, but promise me that if he asks you for a dance, you will accept? It’s only a dance and perhaps you will like him. Not all men are Mr. Foresters.”
That was Amy—every gentleman deserved at least one dance.
Elizabeth looked up and met the gray-eyed gentleman’s gaze. This time, she could not look away, though she was sure she ought to. He held her fast, and her heart sped, like that of a rabbit fleeing the hunt. He offered a polite nod. She had forgotten to breathe.
He was intrigued by her—the same way she could identify arrogance and pity, she knew he was intrigued. But his interest would quickly fade once he actually spoke to her, surely. When she stumbled during their inevitable dance.
“Truly, he will not ask me for a dance,” she said to Amy. “Will he?”
“I am certain he means you no harm. Don’t be afraid.”
She steeled herself as if she were walking into battle. “Then I promise. Because you asked. I may even enjoy it.”
“With that one? Oh, please enjoy it!”
At last the gentlemen approached, and the ladies stood to make curtseys as Mr. Brannock presented them.
The tallest one was Vincent Wilde; the shorter, swarthy man was Francis Wilde; and the middle, dark-haired man was Edward Wilde.
Amy’s father said, “This is my eldest daughter, Miss Brannock, and her good friend Miss Weston.”
“How do you do?” Amy said for them both.
Mr. Brannock said suggestively, “Do you think the music is very good? The quartet came highly recommended.”
“It’s very good,” Amy agreed.
“Indeed,” the first Wilde said.
There was only the slightest pause before Francis Wilde bowed again. “Miss Brannock, will you grant me the next dance?”
Amy’s true feelings were as eager as her smile. “Thank you, sir.” She took his offered hand.
That left Elizabeth standing before Edward Wilde, whose emotion was plain to her. Though the strangeness of it . . . the gentleman’s interest in her was, indeed, for her. Not her money, her family, or her brown curls. He might have been as intent as a hunting hound, but the attention was honest. This as much as anything startled her. Perhaps he simply had not been in the neighborhood long enough to hear of her fortune or her oddness.
“Miss Weston, I would not be left behind by my brother, if you will do me the honor?”
She did not think twice before taking his hand. Yes, her stomach might still be roiling. But the feeling was not dread this time. Edward Wilde’s touch was light, as if he knew that any pressure on her hand would incite panic. If she wanted to flee, he would not hold her. This comforted her to a degree that surprised her. In turn, Mr. Wilde’s feelings also settled.
She would engage him in conversation, if she only knew what to say. She did not have Amy’s open nature, alas. The benefit of dancing was that she could pretend to be so engrossed in the music and where she placed her feet, that she need not speak.
The couples lined up. Elizabeth repeated steps to herself, watched others for the proper cues.
Mr. Wilde’s gaze kept drawing her. In spite of herself, she kept wanting to look at him. To study him. To learn exactly why he was so different from anyone she’d ever met. Him and his brothers, really, but he was the one standing before her.
Of course, she stumbled. It was the part of the dance where one crossed over with one’s partner, and one was meant to look into his eyes and not at her feet. She always feared losing her place or running into the other gentleman—and that was what happened. She took a wrong step, saw herself about to collide, and quickly moved to avoid it, which meant she lost the rhythm of the entire sequence and ruined the figure for her partner and the other couple besides.
Mr. Wilde rescued her deftly and without fuss. When the next bar of music came, and it was his and the other lady’s turn to cross, he touched her elbow and pressed her over while nodding to the spot she should have been, next to him, before the music told them to turn half a circle back to their original places.
What was more, he did not express contempt or pity, as others before him had done when they tried to dance around her mistakes. He did not leer, did not roll his eyes, and his emotion was . . . sympathy. If he smiled, it was not to laugh at her, but out of understanding that there was nothing more difficult than remembering where to put one’s feet while others were watching you.
The other gentleman, however, chuckled, passing a mocking glance to his lady. The behavior that Elizabeth had come to expect.
Edward Wilde growled at him.
She distinctly heard the burr in his throat. He glared hard at the other man, who stopped, wide-eyed and trembling before his partner pushed him into the next phrase of the dance.
“I beg your pardon,” Edward whispered hoarsely, and they crossed over with the next couple in the row. Far from not granting him pardon, she wanted to thank him.
She did not make another mistake for the rest of the dance. When Mr. Edward Wilde asked for the next dance as well, she accepted.
Propriety dictated that for the third dance he move to a new partner, and Elizabeth politely declared that she must rest. Much of the company was watching her as she found a chair to sit and catch her breath. She realized this was because she was smiling.
Those in attendance had known her since her girlhood, and they were shocked—no, that was too strong a word, more they were all wonder—because she was not slouching. Might she even be enjoying herself? Because of this new gentleman? When he wasn’t dancing, Edward Wilde stalked the edges of the room, glaring at any who dared look at him, until the light-haired brother touched his arm and brought him back to himself.
The music ended, and Elizabeth looked up from her seat to find Mr. Edward Wilde and Amy approaching.
He said, “Miss Brannock asked me to escort her to sit beside her best friend, so here we are. Might I be so bold as to bring you both refreshment?”
“Oh yes, please, that would be lovely,” Amy said, patting Elizabeth’s wrist. “Wouldn’t it, Beth?”
“Oh, yes,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you.”
Mr. Wilde made a bow and went away.
Amy took both of Elizabeth’s hands in her own and gave her a smile large enough to knock her over. “Well?”
Elizabeth bit her lip. “Well what?”
“What do you think of Mr. Wilde?” she said with mock frustration.
“He is very kind.”
Amy seemed to be nonplussed at this. “I will take that to mean you like him.”
They had to leave off then, because Mr. Wilde returned—along with his brother, Mr. Wilde. This could become quite confusing, Elizabeth reflected. She couldn’t tell by looking who was eldest. They seemed of an age.
The brothers had brought them glasses of punch, and Francis drew Amy off for a conversation—intentionally, Elizabeth was sure, leaving her with Edward Wilde seated attentively beside her. Francis Wilde offered a smile that was not entirely as kind as his brother’s.
She made herself sit very straight and proper.
“How do you like the ball, Miss Weston?” Edward Wilde asked in a way that suggested he had practiced this question as a crutch for polite conversation. He was looking about warily as if he expected someone to leap at him.
“I like it very well,” Elizabeth said, and meant it for once. “And you? I mean—you are new to the neighborhood, it must be quite overwhelming meeting so many new people. How do you find it all?”
“I believe I find it quite agreeable. I’m not often comfortable in gatherings such as this,” he said. “So many . . . people in such a close space.”
Would that she could stop blushing. “I understand—about gatherings, that is. They can be very trying. Especially—well. It would all be so much easier if I liked balls and assemblies as much as Amy—Miss Brannock—does.”
She pressed her lips in a sad smile. “At my age I am supposed to be seeking companionship, not avoiding it. And yet, I feel most at ease when I am alone. I am told this will not do for a young lady.” His frank interest was startling her into honesty when she should have kept quiet. She rarely talked so much.
“The matrons throw their sons at you in hopes of marrying you off. I do see how that could be tiring.”
She laughed; the sound startled her, and she put a hand over her mouth. “I had three marriage proposals before I turned eighteen. I was able to put them off by claiming my youth, but that excuse no longer serves.”
“You are one of those romantic girls who wants to marry for love.” The jest was meant kindly. His smile was conspiratorial.
“I want to marry for trust, Mr. Wilde. For trust.” She lowered her gaze.
He looked thoughtful. “I think I understand you.” And he did. Her words had sparked his appreciation.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, blushing so fiercely she thought she must faint. “I speak far too freely.”
“You do me a great compliment by speaking freely. Thank you.”
She was sure that he could hear her heart beating faster. Again, he put her in mind of a hawk—or perhaps a fox.
Because she had said far too much already, she added, “Mr. Wilde, if you are not comfortable in places like this, why tolerate it? You can do whatever you like. You aren’t expected to come to assemblies and make a good show of it. You can run free in the woods if you like, and people would merely think you eccentric—”
He looked at her with something like shock, as if she had uncovered some deep truth. She couldn’t see the truth itself, only that she had exposed him. She fell quiet because, obviously, she kept saying the wrong thing. His thoughts turned chagrined—he had been working very hard to hide his discomfort, she realized. She had exposed him, and now she was sorry for it.
“My brothers and I,” he said, taking a steadying breath, “decided we would like to come in from the woods. There are . . . attractions to drawing rooms and assemblies.”
She felt a great welling of desire, and could not tell if it came from him, or from her.
“Edward! My goodness, but people will talk, with you dominating this poor young lady’s attentions!” Francis Wilde came over and taunted his brother. Elizabeth couldn’t see where Amy had gone to.
She started to say that no, Edward wasn’t a bother at all, and then excuse herself to find her friend, but Edward bristled. An emotion that was half annoyance poured from him—the other half was anger. He rose and faced the other. “Francis. Do not interrupt where you’re not wanted.”
“I’m saving you. No—I correct myself. I’m saving the lady from you. From the gossip you will incite.” He bowed at her, and his smile was mischievous.
She wanted to smile at his playfulness, but Edward’s anger confused her. Something more than what was visible was happening here. The two men had both stiffened, and their glares held challenges.
“You are provoking me, sir,” Edward said, his voice constrained.
Francis blinked a moment in apparent surprise. “Yes, perhaps I am. And how are you getting on with that?”
The two brothers glared at one another, their expressions were fierce.
“Miss Weston, you must pardon my brothers.” This was Vincent. He’d deftly stepped between them, grabbed them both by the necks, and glared pointedly until they drew back. The brewing argument vanished. “They are prone to teasing one another.”
Francis started, “It was only a conversation—” But Vincent threw him such a look, the small man wilted and ducked his gaze.
Edward, his shoulders still bunched with tension, looked away. “I will remember myself.”
“Good,” Vincent said to him. “Do endeavor to be pleasant for at least another hour.”
Elizabeth could not interpret what she had witnessed—rivalry, authority, uncertainty, all of it. The goading, the reprimand—perhaps it was that they were only brothers, deeply competitive. But there was more than that at work here. We decided we would like to come in from the woods. . . .
Francis bowed something that was like an apology and went off to another room. Vincent followed him, and she expected Edward to do likewise.
Instead, he turned to her, his expression chagrined. “My deepest apologies. Tell me you will forgive me and grant me one more dance?”
She should have been frightened of him, after what she had seen. But she took his hand and stood before she knew what she was about.
“You like him,” her father said, as they sat at supper. She was with her parents near the Brannocks. The brothers Wilde were at the far end of the table. She didn’t dare steal a glance at Edward, though she was sure he was stealing glances at her.
Elizabeth gathered herself as well as she could, folding her hands before her. “I don’t know that I would use so strong a word,” she replied. “Mr. Wilde is very . . . interesting.”
“That is more than you have said about any other man who has ever turned an eye toward you, my sweet girl.” He kissed her hand and smiled knowingly.
Perhaps she could persuade Edward Wilde to return to whatever woods he had come from, and take her with him. This thought was shocking—and pleasant. She wrapped herself up with it.
While the gentlemen smoked and drank their brandy, Mrs. Brannock led the ladies to the drawing room. The gossip that followed there was mercenary. For once, the thoughts of the women were just as stark as the words they spoke. There were more daughters than available bachelors in the neighborhood, and the arrival of the Wildes was a boon.
“But what of their family? Does no one know anything of them?”
“Clearly, the family made its money in business, this is why no one has heard of them.”
“They do have a rough edge to them, don’t they?”
“But money forgives many faults, doesn’t it?”
A few stray glances went to Elizabeth, who pretended to be occupied with the lace on her sleeve.
“I would know more about them before allowing them to claim one of my daughters.”
“Does anyone know if they even have this fortune that everyone speaks of? Taking Lilies Park isn’t a sure sign of it—”
“They’d have had to prove their credit before taking the estate, surely—”
“I’m sure I don’t understand such things—”
“But they do seem very fine, don’t they? Ah, to be young again, I might try to catch one of them for myself!”
The worry over money was true, but it had a second function: to put off rivals. Whatever they said, the mothers would be happy to have their daughters married to money. None of them was so fine that they could easily refuse anything upward of three thousand a year. If the marriage went poorly years hence, whether because of money or disposition, they would all say that they knew from the first it would be so. None would remember the talk of this evening.
Amy leaned close to Elizabeth. “You are thinking very deep thoughts, my friend.”
“Oh? I’m told that thinking in ladies is unattractive.”
“Usually it is, but it makes you appear quite mysterious. I approve.”
“Amy, you’re a bad influence on me.”
“Good! Now, do share.”
She took a deep breath. “I am thinking, what a pack of vultures.”
Amy burst out laughing, and the matrons and their daughters turned sharp looks to them, which caused Elizabeth’s friend to choke back even more laughter.
The gentlemen joined the ladies soon enough, and there was music and whist. The younger of the company drifted to an adjacent parlor, talking around the fireplace with the illusion of privacy, chaperoned by the company in the other room.
“I think our introduction to the neighborhood has been a great success, brothers,” said Francis, the merry one as Elizabeth thought of him. “What say you, ladies?”
“A triumphant success, I think,” Amy exclaimed. “But you will have to hold a ball of your own soon to truly establish yourselves.”
“Ah, of course,” Francis said. “We cannot escape the balls, can we?”
Vincent and Edward showed sour expressions at this, though they made a good show of fortitude. The drawing room was not their natural habitat, as Edward had indicated. Francis masked discomfort by being forward. Vincent and Edward did not mask it at all.
“But now—I am going to be quite rude,” Amy said. “I hope you will not think ill of me for it.”
“How could anyone ever think ill of you?” Francis asked.
“We know nothing about you,” she said. “Where are you from? What can you tell us of the Wilde family? If you do not wish to answer directly, perhaps we can play a game of questions. You need only answer yes or no, then.”
“There is nothing to tell, really,” Vincent said, eyeing his brothers.
“No, please, a game of questions would be delightful! Are you from the north?”
“Ah . . . no,” Vincent said.
“The south, then?”
Amy pursed her lips. “Well then, where are you from?”
“Miss Weston,” Edward said. He began to pace. “Do you play the pianoforte?”
Elizabeth flinched, startled. “Not very well, I’m afraid.”
Francis laughed. “Then we must hear you play, Miss Weston, for all ladies say they do not play well, to better display their genteel humility.”
Amy stood and gave a brilliant smile. All the gentlemen must swoon. “Mr. Wilde, we are having such a fine conversation, I’m sure no one wishes to leave it even for a moment just to play something.”
Rescue. Elizabeth’s relief was physical.
Francis seemed put out. “Really, I thought this was how it was done. The lady is asked to play, she demurs that she does not play well, her assembled friends assure her that she plays very well indeed, and then the lady is allowed to demonstrate her skill without being accused of undue pride.” He was teasing. His manner was bright, containing no malice at all, but Elizabeth might wish she weren’t the subject of his banter. She was ill equipped to bear it.
“Mr. Wilde, do be still,” Edward said, biting the words. Something rose up in him. His lips curled, showing teeth.
Their exteriors were polite. They did not tear into each other with claws—but they wanted to, with the looks they gave one another, raking each other up and down with sharp gazes. Their lips parted hungrily, their teeth were white and sharp.
Elizabeth stood. She did not have to feign an anxious tremor in her voice. “I think . . . I think I should like to take a walk. A turn about the room. To get some air.”
The brothers turned to her, still annoyed, but they no longer seemed as if they wished to devour one another, and that made a great improvement on Elizabeth’s nerves.
“Miss Weston, are you well?” Vincent Wilde asked.
“In truth, the room seems somewhat . . . crowded.”
“There are less than a dozen of us here!” one of the other young ladies, one often frustrated with Elizabeth’s fragility, exclaimed.
“And yet I think the room is quite full.”
“Miss Weston displays a great deal of insight, I think,” Edward said. “If I may, I will escort you to the window for some air.”
“Thank you, sir.”
They went off a little ways, and Edward pushed open the window. The air that came in was cold and damp. Her mother would be horrified of a chill overtaking her, but Elizabeth breathed it in gratefully.
They had some privacy. They could speak alone in quiet voices. It seemed wonderfully illicit. Some of the others might think this had all been a ploy on her part to get Edward alone. Amy might have encouraged her to try such a trick, but she would know this was honest. Elizabeth wasn’t very good at ploys.
Edward’s concern was genuine. He did not think this was a ploy.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “I was quite overwhelmed.”
“You are not wrong about the room,” Edward said. “It is more full than it appears.”
“I think that is because the personalities of you and your brothers are so very large. When you were boys, your mother and father must have despaired of ever having peace again. Except—you are not truly brothers, are you?”
“How do you guess that? I know we do not favor one another, but it is very forward of you to say so.”
“I have never done a forward thing in all my life but talk to you.”
“You—your insight . . . it astonishes me.” His whole manner had stiffened.
She had never wanted to understand someone as much as she wanted to understand him. At the moment, he was building walls in his mind to keep her out.
“I am not trying to astonish, truly.”
“It makes you all the more intriguing.”
She had never before wanted to kiss someone, but she could finally see why one might want to. If she leaned in, if she put her hand on his chest—it was scandalous. She also felt that if she tried to kiss him, he would let her.
He shook his head and took a step back, and she felt as if a chasm opened between them.
“I fear, Miss Weston, that I have misled you. I admire you, but I cannot do more than that. This is for your own safety, please believe me.”
He was not lying. But he was disguising the full truth.
“Mr. Wilde—” But he had already walked away.
Amy interrogated her thoroughly.
“But what did he say?”
Heads bent together, no one could hear them. The evening was over. Elizabeth was in her pelisse, waiting in the foyer for the carriages to be drawn up. The brothers Wilde were nowhere to be seen.
“That this was for my own safety, and then he left. He was unhappy. I could see that he was.”
“Of course he was, to give you up. My dear, he has used you very ill, to draw you in and then drop you like . . . like a handkerchief.” She frowned at her own metaphor.
“I do not know what I did wrong. Perhaps I spoke too freely—”
“Oh, do not blame yourself. Who can understand men?”
They kissed cheeks in farewell and the Westons left in their carriage. When her father asked her how she liked the evening, she only said that she liked it well enough, but that she was tired now and didn’t want to speak.
That night, a wolf howled across the valley. She had never before heard such a sound, a plaintive cry, a heart breaking as the piercing note drew long and faded. The tenor of longing and of uncertainty was familiar to her. It should not have been. The sound was the frustration of someone who had been unhappily standing in close company all evening, but who no longer felt at home in the woods, either. The cry of someone who would be pleased to dance, if only he could find the right partner.
Because she had danced so much more than she was used to, because she had spoken so freely to Edward Wilde, she was feeling brave, and so she donned a wrap, and took a lantern, and went out to the grounds of the manor.
She did not think to search so much as she meant to let herself be found. But the wolf did not cry again. “Edward!” she called out once, but her voice echoed strangely and she cringed. Perhaps she should go to the edge of the wooded park and wait for him.
Her slippers grew wet with dew, as did the hem of her nightdress. She ought to have put on better clothes; she thought the woven wrap would be enough. This was all madness—but she did not mind so much. It felt honest, in a world of pretense.
Then she saw him, a huge creature loping across the grass of the park. He was gray, the color of slate and steel, with a touch of mist on his muzzle and belly. His fur stood thickly from his body. His long, rangy legs carried him toward her. His eyes were icy. She should have been terrified, but she was not. She should have imagined the creature leaping and biting into her throat. Instead, the wolf slowed, stopped, and watched her.
He was lost, angry, and terribly sad. She wanted very badly to touch him, to say that all would be well.
At the edge of the wooded park, she sat, hugging her wrap around her against the dewy grass. The wolf sat, too. They regarded each other as a couple in a dance might, looking across a space just barely too far apart to reach out and touch, not knowing what to say to one another. The wolf—she felt him being oh so careful; he did not trust himself to move any closer.
Moments passed, and she found she was satisfied to sit, and listen. The wolf bowed his head, his ears pressed back. There was apology in the gesture. Shame. She had seen hounds look like this after being scolded.
“Don’t be sorry,” she assured him. “Oh please, don’t be sorry. It is such a pleasant evening, I am happy to sit with you like this.” The air was cool, but with her wrap she did not feel the damp.
The wolf settled, lying down and resting his head upon his paws. He sighed a breath that sounded like a whine.
“Bloody hell!” Francis cried out when he came out through the trees. “I beg your pardon, Miss Weston, you startled me.”
The wolf had not startled him; she had.
She blinked awake—she had nodded off. The wolf—he was truly asleep, curled up, tail to nose. She flattered herself that she had given him some comfort, to allow him to rest.
Vincent came up behind Francis. Both stood, wearing coats and looking harried. The masks were gone.
“Mr. Wilde . . . and Mr. Wilde,” she said, thinking that she ought to stand, but she did not want to disturb the wolf’s rest. Something was happening—she did not look away for fear of missing it. The creature’s fur seemed to thin; his limbs seemed to lengthen, claws fattening into fingers. The changes happened with the gentleness of mist fading at dawn.
“Miss Weston,” Vincent said. He seemed tired; his brother stood wary. “What in God’s name are you doing here?”
She hugged herself. “I do not know. A voice drew me.”
“Edward—” Vincent said wonderingly, and she nodded. “But how?”
“Again, I do not know.”
Francis laughed, and the sound was a relief. The merry version of him was more pleasant. “Do not take this as an insult, my dear lady—but what are you?”
“I might ask the same of you.”
The wolf was half man now, a naked face with pointed ears, sharp teeth behind curled human lips. The fur continued to thin.
Vincent said softly, “He spent too long in a crowded ballroom. We . . . we are not so used to polite company.”
“He said you had decided to come in from the woods.”
“Yes,” the taller brother said. “Francis and I have more . . . fortitude. For Edward, it is difficult. He lasted in company longer than I thought he would, and I believe we have you to thank for it.”
“You give him a reason to be civilized.”
He does the same for me, she thought.
Edward Wilde lay before them now, nude, back bowed in the curled shape his wolf had lain in. He seemed tense, muscles taut, as if dreaming some difficult dream.
“He will sleep for some time,” Vincent said.
“He is exhausted,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I am astonished that you understand. You are not at all . . . frightened?”
She smiled. “Assemblies frighten me. Proposals frighten me. This . . . is merely wondrous.”
Her limbs had grown stiff and she took some time rising from the ground. Francis rushed forward to assist but was only in time to touch her elbow and bow an apology. She thanked him anyway. Moving then to Edward, she removed her wrap and spread it over him. He made a sound, a soft murmur that she couldn’t make out, and nestled more deeply into his grassy bed and sighed in comfort.
“I think I should take my leave, sirs. Do have a pleasant evening.”
“Miss Weston, we should escort you home—”
“No, it isn’t far, truly. Stay with Edward.”
They bowed, and she curtseyed, which seemed ridiculous here under the moon by the shadow of the forest, but it also seemed proper.
Taking her lantern, she hurried back to the house, shivering in her nightdress, to warm herself in her bed. Her maid never asked how her slippers had become so muddy and grass stained.
Several days later, she received a parcel wrapped in paper and tied with twine. She took it to her room to unwrap, because she was sure what the package contained: her wrap, with a carefully written slip of paper that said, My thanks.
This gave her such a warm feeling she was almost overwhelmed, and she held the note to her breast for a long time.
Elizabeth gladly attended the next assembly in town, not for any expectation that the brothers Wilde would be present, but for the hope that they would. Hope, she discovered, was a powerful inducement to feats of bravery.
She refused two dances, with Amy defending her by spreading about that she had a weak ankle, and was sitting in her usual wallflower role in a chair, happy to watch people enter and exit by the foyer.
And there he was. The three brothers entered, much as they had at the Woodfair ball. Edward was in the middle, and his gaze fell on her directly, as a hound on the scent. Elizabeth stood in a bit of a panic. Vincent nodded to her, and took a smirking Francis off to another part of the room.
Edward came to stand before her. He bowed; she curtseyed. The emotions pouring from him were tangled, but the thread she felt strongest was happiness.
He asked if she would like to sit; she did, clutching her hands together in her lap. He sat in the chair beside her. He was like the wolf, ears pricked forward, afraid to move lest he startle her.
“May I speak freely with you, Miss Weston?” he asked finally.
“Of course.” They sat a little apart from one another. The distance seemed a mile.
“I could smell you, when I woke. Your wrap—it smelled of you.” He blushed, trying to find the words. “I have never slept so well. I have never slept so soundly and comfortably, after returning from my other self. I fear I must ask you to run after me every full moon, to drape me with your wrap.”
“I would do it,” she said simply.
He chuckled. “You should stay inside where it is safe. But perhaps I can learn to carry your handkerchief with me.”
“I would give you a handkerchief right now, if I had one.”
“Elizabeth. There is so much you don’t know about us.”
She smiled. “You and the other Misters Wilde are not brothers—well, you are in spirit, if not by blood. It is most strange.”
“Indeed. And yet no one but you questions it.”
“Most people are eager to accept what they are told.”
“But not you.”
“This is my secret, Mr. Wilde: I can feel lies. And almost every word spoken in parlors like this is a lie. I wonder that you are so eager to leave your woods.”
“As I said, there are some attractions here.” This time, he blushed, which was rather gratifying.
“I do like the music,” she said.
“Miss Weston—will you trust me?” The meaning behind the words was more than what he spoke, and she understood him perfectly.
“Yes, I will,” she said.
CARRIE VAUGHN is the author of the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, the most recent installment of which is Low Midnight. She’s written several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, as well as upwards of 70 short stories. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at www.carrievaughn.com