Silence filled the air, ringing loud with the eeriness that came with new places, untraveled territories. The only problem was; this path was not new. It was one Sebastian Longcross had traveled several times over.
It was the road that led to home. Perhaps it was his gloom that made it all so strange. He had never been so sad, to return home.
Yes, it had been over a year since he last went down this path, a year since he last saw his family. He still remembered this course like he did everything else that mattered to him.
The trees he was all too familiar with, the rocky terrains, the hills, the rivers… they were all there. Just as he had left them, just as he remembered. When he finally reached the manor where he had lived most of his life in, his family would be there awaiting his return too, arms open wide to welcome him home.
Alas… it would not be the same.
His demeanor dampened even more as the carriage that was bearing him home, took the last turn that would lead them into Widmore. He swayed with its motion, taking great care to remain on his seat- not that it was hard to do, the coachman was proving very careful with his riding.
When they had righted once more, he adjusted his suit and stared out the window.
Soon, they would be in the heart of the village. Only a few moments left until he had to face his family. His mind was plagued with thoughts on how the reunion would go- with plenty of other thoughts too, many of which he might never tell another soul.
It had been plagued since he had received the letter two months ago. Of course, he had packed up his things and left for England immediately. There had been no time to tarry.
The seas had been kind on most days and the sail had been impressive. They had made good time and in less than two months, Sebastian had found himself on English shores.
His old life was over- this he was certain of. Everything changed the moment he read those words. He now had a new life, new responsibilities. Shoes that he was afraid were too big to fill. Yet, he could only try and hope not to fail.
Sebastian Longcross had the type of childhood every second heir in this era had- growing up knowing that he came second. He was the one they would fall back to, in the case that something went wrong.
It had never bothered him. Though he had known that his duties and responsibilities differed from that of his elder brother, his parents had tried their best to show both sons, equal love.
Yes, they had taken the same lessons, been invited into the same meetings- still, Sebastian had constantly been reminded of the fact that he would never have to take on the mantle unless his older brother was found wanting.
He had been just fine with that. As they grew into men, Sebastian had come to realize the bigger blessing that was. While Hanson, his beloved brother, had to remain in Widmore and rule alongside his father, he had been free to go on a grand tour that had lasted four years.
The plan had been to be gone for five. See the world in its entirety. Then, he would return to rule as Marquess of Northcott. It had been a beautiful thought, and he had enjoyed every moment of his freedom.
Until something had gone terribly wrong.
Though Sebastian had been trained to take his brother’s place if the need ever arose, he was aware that the likelihood of that happening was quite slim. No one had wanted for it.
No one in the family he knew and loved. They had believed that Hanson would live long and old, and rule as Duke when their father went to eternal rest. Everyone had been pleased by that thought. Everyone.
A terrible thing that fate had other plans and life had its way of proving it was beyond human control.
That letter he had received… one he still had in his hand this moment, he held everywhere he went, had contained a short, precise and entirely heartbreaking message.
Hanson was dead. His heart had failed him. He was found in his study at the townhouse in London, his soul given.
Sebastian had to return home as he was now the only heir. He would have the time to mourn his brother, yes. Then, he would have to step into the shoes Hanson had left behind, and carry on as his brother had so faithfully done.
Sebastian was yet to mourn, but his soul grieved already. A part of him hoped it was all a lie. A very ludicrous one to lure him home… after all, his birthday was near, was it not? Perhaps, his family simply wanted him home, so he would celebrate with them.
Yet, even as that thought crossed his mind, he felt the sharp pain like a stab in his heart. It made him wince. A voice, mocking, laughed in his ears… he was simply deluding himself.
Deep down, where there were no doubts or denial, he knew his brother was gone. Also, in that very place for clarity and critical thoughts, Sebastian knew that Hanson’s death had been no stroke of a poor heart.
His brother had been murdered.
Sebastian had made a vow that he would not mourn, not until he brought the murderer to justice. How he intended to do it, he knew not. All he knew, was that it would be done.
Hanson had been a wonderful man, a great son and an amazing older brother. Older by three years, he had held Sebastian’s hands when they were only little lads, taught him all he knew about hunting and fishing. Climbing trees and swimming rivers.
Hanson had made Sebastian laugh even when tears filled his eyes and had remained by his bedside every time the woes of ailment plagued him and he had needed to be nursed to health.
When they became men, Hanson had taught Sebastian all he needed to know about life, as he saw it. He had shared his experiences, his dream, his hope… They had been more than brothers, they had been the best of friends.
The first year of the grand tour, they had been together. It had been the best year of their lives. Away from all the duties back at home. Free to do whatever it was they wanted… they had felt like birds in the skies, with feathers to fly wherever fit their heart’s desires.
After Hanson had ended his tour and returned home, he had kept writing to Sebastian. A good number of correspondences, defying time and distance. Their love had been pure, it had been strong, it had held.
The grief of his death weighed heavily on Sebastian’s heart. It was like a fresh sore that would not heal soon. Sebastian welcomed its pain. He would hold it dear until he found who had done this wicked thing.
It would be his reminder to never give up, no matter how hard it got.
There was no inkling that there had been foul play, except the gut feeling in Sebastian’s throat that he could not shake away, no matter how hard he tried.
The physician had said there had been no sign of struggle, or poison… Hanson had died a peaceful death. So, it could only have been his heart.
Sebastian did not agree. He had known Hanson. Lived with him, breathed the same air as him. He knew his brother had a strong heart. One that could not have given up only after twenty and eight summers of good work.
No. Impossible. Someone had done that. Why? He knew not. How? He would know soon. Who? That too, was his duty to find.
That was the true reason he was returning home. Yet, it was a secret he would keep to himself, for this was something he needed to do alone.
Hanson had been killed in London. Whatever Sebastian needed to find, it was to be found in London. It was a good thing he had arrived just in time for the season.
Though they should be mourning, Hanson had been dead five months, and it was another month until the season would begin fully. Now that he was heir, it was only expected that he took a wife as quickly as possible.
Hanson had had no wife until his death. The implication of that was that he had no son, no heir whatsoever. If something happened to Sebastian, their lineage would be gone…
He knew all these things, he understood it. There was no time to tarry.
He would take a wife, and he would sire an heir. It was what his parents would ask of him, his people, and he would not deny them. It was only the start of many other sacrifices that would follow.
Only, Sebastian was a man who believed in love. The past years on other sides of the world, different people, experiencing their culture, had given him an entirely different outlook on life.
He wanted more than a marriage born out of duty. He wanted more than a union of obligation. His only fear was, that it would not be found in three months of the season.
However, he could only try, could he not?
Finding love, while finding a murderer would pose a difficult task to accomplish, but he was Sebastian Northcott. Very little proved impossible for him to do.
As for the shoes he had to fill… he would never compare to Hanson and he never wished to. He would do his best by his people, make his parents proud. All the lessons he had learned, he would call to remembrance and put into practice.
When he left America, he had kissed his freedom goodbye. He was a new man now, a man on a mission.
The silence faded as noise from the village began to stream into the carriage.
Knowing that the time had come, he pushed his head out the window and began to wave at the villagers; children, their mothers, maiden, and gentry. He was their heir now. The one who would become Duke in good time.
Their warm welcome, their happy smiles, their reference, all filled his heart with emotions so warm, they almost drove away from the chill he had been cloaked in for a while now.
Sebastian cherished it, glad for the moment. As they left the village behind, he settled into his seat once more and prepared his mind for the meeting to come.
In no time, the carriage rolled to a stop.
Finally, he had arrived home.
Gracefully, he stepped down from the carriage. His limbs ached to be stretched after being held stiffly in position for days, but he knew there would be time for that later.
Stilling his mind one last time, he turned and looked upon the assemblage that had gathered to welcome him home.
Of course, leading the charge were his mother and father.
It was always like this whenever he returned home. Only, next to his parents, used to be Hanson. Always.
The trees, and hills and rivers might have remained the same, but Hanson was gone. His family was now incomplete.
The pain in his heart went deeper, making the sore hurt even harder.
Nevertheless, Sebastian forced his lips to curve in a smile; howbeit a sad one. Then, he began his ascent to where his parents waited.
There was silence as he climbed the stairs. When he finally reached his father, he sunk into a bow.
“Father…” the duke of Widmore would not let him finish. He held his son up, drawing him into an embrace instead.
Sebastian had sworn he would shed no tears. He had believed it an easy feat to manage. Yet, as his father’s arms gathered around him, sharing all the warmth and love in his heart, Sebastian felt the flood gather around his eyes. Holding them back proved harder than any duty he had ever fulfilled.
“Welcome home, son! You have no idea how happy we are to finally see you. It has been trying times indeed. Now that you are home with us, we can rest easy and continue to mourn our beloved in peace.”
“Father…” he wanted to speak, but he had no words. He had prepared for this, gone over this meeting countless times, thought of a million reactions and responses. Yet, all he could do at that moment was hold on to his father and try not to cry before all the people here.
So, he nodded and took his time to pull himself together. When he was confident he could handle his emotions once more, he pulled away and went to his mother.
Tears had already filled her eyes and her black garment, a sign of her sorrowful heart. He wouldn’t let her say anything. He simply took her into his arms. She was still as petite as he remembered her, as she had always been. She easily fit in, her head stopping at his chest.
When Sebastian felt his shirt grow wet, he held her even tighter.
“Mother, I’m here. I’m sorry I did not come earlier. I’m sorry I have not been here to hold you and comfort you. But, I’m here now.”
She began to shake her head, wanting none of his guilt.
She pulled away eventually to look him in the eyes…
“Don’t you go speaking as though you could have controlled this any more than we could have. We could have done nothing… all of us put together. Hanson had been alone in London, with no one but staff for acompanion. Those staff brought his body, lifeless, back to us. Yes, you were away, but just as you have been for years, living your life. We were away too. There was no way we could have known that such a thing could happen. So, my dear…” she reached up to cup his cheeks, her voice tender, her eyes soft.
“I do not wish to hear any nonsense that expresses regrets. He is gone. We could not have stopped him from doing so. Only the good Lord knows best. All we can do now is mourn him, miss him and try to move on with our lives. It is what he would want, you know. Hanson? He would want us to be happy.”
And because that was true, for the first time since Sebastian received that news, he let himself breathe. Deeply, free from the weight of guilt he had placed upon himself.
Nodding, he held his mother gently and dropped a tender kiss on the fore of her head.
“We will be that… happy, once again. I promise you.”
It was not the end of the sad, teary reunion, Sebastian knew. Nevertheless, it was enough for now.
So, he let his mother go and he went round, accepting condolences from staff and extended family members that had gathered on his behalf.
“Oh, goodness! So lovely! Is it not?”
Liliana Swan shook her head as she looked up at her sister, her lips stretching into a happy smile.
“Yes, Nora. It looks very lovely. I believe it brings out the color in your eyes, and it compliments your skin so well.”
Nora gave into a squeal accompanied by a happy dance that had her skipping around the same spot.
“Thank you, sister! I knew this shade of yellow was the right color. I’m going to look absolutely beautiful at the ball tomorrow. Like a dream, I tell you. A fairy tale.”
“That, I have no doubt about,” Liliana answered, enjoying her sister’s excitement.
With the smile on her face, she went back to her embroidery, leaving her sister to admire herself in the mirror. That was Nora. Ever happy, a little too loud than was considered proper for a lady, and very outspoken too.
She lived with no apologies and did whatever it was she felt like. Perhaps, it helped that she was their step father’s favorite, so that meant she could always get away with disobeying the rules.
Not that Liliana minded though. She loved her sister dearly and wouldn’t have her any other way. Nora was the thunderstorm. She was the soft drizzle, or perhaps the rainbow that came after a storm.
Whatever it was, they were perfect together, like two peas in a pod. Not surprising, considering that they shared a womb and looked almost exactly alike.
Only those who were truly close to the family could tell them apart in an instant. Although, one who was a little more confused, simply had to watch the two of them for a while to tell. Their contrasting demeanor was all the telltale people ever needed for clarity.
Beyond that, when it came to physical attributes, save for the varying length of their hair, and the different pitches their voices naturally took, if one looked carefully enough, they would easily distinguish Nora’s amber, from Liliana’s setting sun eyes.
As for the height, body size, skin color, their oval-shaped face, thin lips, and puckered nose- all of that was the same.
A few people said Liliana walked more gracefully than Nora did, but that was only due to Nora’s flighty nature. When her beloved sister was aware that she needed to obey the rules of propriety, she was as graceful as the Swan she was, even more so.
“Are you done with your dress, yet?”
Nora called out once again, distracting Liliana from her thoughts. She stopped her needling and looked up at her sister.
“Almost. Just a few more stitches and it would be ready for wear.”
“I think it is wonderful that you sew so well, Lilly. I can’t wait to try on this dress you’ve made for me,” she sighed dreamily, bringing the dress to rub against her cheeks. “It looks so beautiful, I want to sleep in it forever! Nevertheless, I must wait for you, so that we do our fittings together.”
“Only a little while more, Nora. You’ll see.”
“Alright, Lilly. I shall wait patiently, then. Perhaps, I would amuse myself with some pastries from the kitchen while I do so. You will be done soon, will you not?”
Liliana nodded, the small smile never leaving her face.
“Certainly. Steal some biscuits for me, would you?”
Nora’s face went pink with her guilt, even as her eyes twinkled with mischief.
“Who said anything about stealing?”
With those words, she skipped out of the room.
As she left, Liliana caught their maids heaving a sigh of relief. Not that it indicated any ill thoughts, quite the opposite. Nora was simply so given to theatrics that she brought everyone to exhaustion with her energy.
Ah… but Liliana had lived by her side for eighteen years and she had grown accustomed to every side of her sister. Nora was only a sweet, carefree child. It was why she always took Evie’s biscuits and caused the elderly woman to follow her about the house, scolding her.
It was a sport for Nora and in truth, it was always fun to watch for everyone knew that Evie didn’t mind Nora taking the biscuits at all. It was the only reason she went through the trouble to make some every day.
What they didn’t know though, was that Evie gave Liliana a jar full of biscuits every other day, as Lilly was her favorite twin whom she loved dearly.
Complaints? Lilly had none whatsoever. Evie’s jar of biscuits was akin to a jar of goodness.
“You really do sew well, my lady. Only, I wish you do not have to go through so much trouble. The master does not like it, you know. He can afford the best of seamstresses for you and Lady Nora.”
That was Rachel, her maid.
“Thank you, Rachel. Nevertheless, I never get quite satisfied with anything that was not made by my mother or myself. Well, mother is gone now and this is all I have left of her. Making dresses, they make me feel closer to her. As though she is still here with us.”
Her mother had been a seamstress when she had been married to her father. It had been necessary to make enough money so that their family of four could get by, as their father, the second son of a viscount, a clergyman, and a teacher, had had very little fortune to his name.
After her father had died and her mother had remarried Lord Rothwell, their stepfather, she had continued to make dresses, but only for herself and her daughters. Lord Rothwell would not allow otherwise.
Unlike her father, her stepfather was a wealthy man. A marquess with a lot of fortune to call his own. He provided every need for them, making sure they wanted not.
Even after her mother had gone to join her father in sweet rest, Lord Rothwell had continued to provide still. He was a wonderful man, indeed. Even more wonderful, for letting her continue her mother’s art.
Every time Liliana sewed, she felt her mother’s presence… guiding her, her words, teaching her. Yes, there were memories and things that her mother had owned, lying around the house, here and there.
Though it had been three years since her death, Liliana still missed her terribly, and nothing made her feel closer than carrying on with an art that her mother had loved so much. It had been her essence, after her two children and her dear husbands.
It was just as well, that Liliana was as blessed as her mother was with the gift. Perhaps, someday, if she married a man who would allow her, she would be a seamstress indeed.
If not, then she hoped she would have many daughters for whom to make beautiful dresses.
Finally, she finished the last stitch and as she dropped her needle, she held up the dress to examine her handiwork. It was perfect.
There was to be a ball on the evening of the morrow. The duke of Widmore, her stepfather’s distant cousin, was throwing a ball in honor of his son’s return and of course, in celebration of his twenty-fifth birthday.
Their family had been honored with an invitation and since she and Nora would finally be entering society this season, their step-father had decided this would be a good way to start.
Good thing it was, that it was a masquerade ball. It meant that there would be some mystery left to them, still. That which would be revealed at the start of the season.
Her eyes squinted as she looked at the work she had done, more critically. It was beautiful as it was, but the perfectionist in her had to make certain that there were absolutely no faults.
Nora had chosen a yellow gown, but she had decided to go with a dress that was midnight blue. The embroidery was full of stars… she wished to look like a dream. A beautiful sky, on a beautiful night.
Deep down, she also wished to honor the memory of Late Lord Hanson. It might have been months since he was laid to rest. Yet, it was no secret that the family was still in mourning and they would be formally, until the sixth month.
Liliana reckoned that it was perhaps, the reason why the ball would be a masquerade one. It would not do well to attend in happy colors, with no respite to their grief.
The door opened then and Nora entered, a happy grin on her face.
“I got the biscuits, sister!” she paused when she saw that Liliana was finally done with the dress.
“Oh, Lilly! Finally! Oh my, it is utterly beautiful. Hurry up now, let’s try it on and see how we look in them. I am certain we are going to steal many hearts. Do you think we would catch the marquess’s attention? I hear he’s a fine man,” her sister giggled as she finished.
Nora’s giddiness was communicable, no doubt, and Liliana soon found herself caught on the excitement.
The mention of the marquess made her think. She had met with Lord Longcross before. Many years ago, when her mother had married Lord Rothwell.
She had been only twelve summers then… a child. Yet, she had sensed the kindness and warmth in his eyes when they had been introduced. She had felt it in her heart.
Six summers since then. She wondered if the Lord had changed much, especially after being away for that long. She wondered if he was still kind and warm, or if the world beyond had changed him.
This thought plagued her as they got into their dresses. When they were done, they looked at their reflection in the mirror.
Liliana was awed by what she saw. The dresses fit perfectly and they looked utterly beautiful.
They both turned around at the voice that had just sounded. It was Lord Rothwell who had just stepped into the sewing room.
Liliana felt her cheeks grow warm, and she knew that Nora was just as pleased at the approval in their step-father’s eyes. Nora adored the man. She had found an intimacy with him that she had never shared with their true father.
Liliana minded not one bit. In their own way, Nora and their father had loved each other. They had simply been cut from different cloths.
Dipping into curtsies, the girls acknowledged his presence.
“Father!” Nora chimed
“Father,” Liliana repeated.
“My darlings… you two are going to be the belles of the ball tomorrow, you’ll see. Goodness! How fast they grow. I remember the first time I set my eyes upon you, you were no more than eleven summers. You could not reach my waist even if you tried. Now, look at you. All grown, and as beautiful as the rising sun. Come, come.”
They walked to him happily, for Lord Rothwell was a kind man and he had only ever shown them love and warmth.
When they reached him, he kissed them both on their heads and requested that they sat.
They did just that. He followed, and when they had all settled, he began to speak.
“It is just as well that I met you in this manner. I am now more convinced than ever, that you two are ready for what is to come next. You are women now, no more girls. And as is expected of every woman, the time has come when you must find your husbands and start your own family, in your own home. The season is nigh, as I’m sure you are aware.”
It was Nora who answered. “Yes, Father. It beckons.”
“Ah yes. You are also aware that you shall finally be entering society?”
Liliana replied this time. “Certainly. We shall be debutantes.”
“That is right. In a fortnight or two… I shall introduce my pride to society. I get teary-eyed, just thinking about it. It shall be such an emotional moment for us all. I wish your mother were alive to witness the joy. She would have been so proud. Prouder than I am.”
There was silence as he paused. The mention of their mother caused a shift in the atmosphere and the ache in Liliana’s heart deepened. It had never gone away. Some days were simply better than the others.
“You have been very good children to me. If you were my own seeds, I could not have asked for any better, and I could not love you more.”
“Thank you, father. You have been ever kind and wonderful. We would never be able to repay your goodness.”
“Oh no no, Liliana. I do not consider it a debt. All I did, I did out of love. For your mother, and for you two. It is what she would have wanted. What is expected of me, what I swore when I agreed to take her as my wife. I shall continue to take care of you, protect you, which is why we must have this discussion.”
That got Liliana’s attention. She had known that her step-father had come on a mission. Now that that had been confirmed, she was curious to know what it was.
He continued, answering the questions in her mind.
“As you know, I could never send you away. This is your home and you are welcome to stay as long as you want. Nevertheless, you must know that the age which you both are now, is the prime of a woman. Her peak. If you must find a husband, you must seize the opportunity of this season and secure an engagement before its end. Hopefully, even a marriage. For the life of comfort I have given you, it would be my happiness to see you both married to men who will continue to afford you that comfort. Men of title, or solid reputation, men of wealth. Do you understand?”
Nora nodded eagerly, too eagerly. Liliana gave two curt nods, her mood dampening. She was certain this conversation would not end well. She could sense it and her gut hardly ever lied.
“Good. I am glad. You must do all you can to get a husband this season. It is all you have. Many ladies debut when they are younger. Seventeen summers, some sixteen… by twenty, your era would be over and the time for a new wave shall come. I shall hate for you to have to wait for so long or miss this chance. You must make do with what you have now. I am confident in your capabilities. You shall continue to do father proud, shall you not? Remember, this is all for your own good.”
“We understand, father. I promise you, I shall be married by the time the season ends. To a wealthy Lord, no less. You will see.”
Liliana watched her sister as she spoke with such conviction. She knew Nora meant every word. She knew her sister would do everything in her power to make their stepfather happy.
For the first time, Liliana wondered if that was a good thing… and if it wasn’t, what did that mean for her sister?
“And you, Liliana?”
Cut out of her thoughts, she turned to her step-father.
“My lord, I have heard your admonition and shall do as you say. Although, these things are beyond human control. Nevertheless, I promise to try.”
Lord Rothwell’s face grew wide with a full-fledged grin. “I knew I would not be disappointed. Once again, you have made me happy, dear ones. God bless your sweet souls. I shall leave you be now. Perhaps, the ball tomorrow shall be a good opportunity for you to begin to practice your charms. Your governess has made me understand that she had equipped you with all necessary knowledge of courtship behavior.”
Liliana and Nora shared a look, then turned to their stepfather, nodding.
“Ah, very well then. I shall trust you lovelies to impress me with your good behavior.’
He rose to his feet then, and the ladies did the same, sinking into curtsies as he turned to leave.
He paused halfway, turning his head so he could gaze upon them once more. “Liliana?”
Her eyes widened in response.
“You have done beautifully well with the dresses, yet again. Well done.”
Her lips spread in a warm smile and she watched him until the door closed behind him, wondering what to make of what had just happened.
Would she be able to fulfill her step-father’s wishes?
She knew Nora bore no notions of love. Her sister loved a life of comfort. She had always made it clear that she would marry for convenience. However, Liliana was different.
She loved love, believed in it and all her life, she had only ever wanted a marriage like the one her mother and father had had. One filled with love, respect, peace, and happiness.
Wealth had mattered little. They had gotten by just fine, and they had been happy, truly happy.
The kind of love that was needed to have such a marriage, Liliana feared that it could not be found in three months.
If she did not… did that mean she would have to settle for a life of convenience? And hope to grow in love?
Lord, she hoped not. She had watched her mother after her marriage to Lord Rothwell… though she had only been a child but she had been able to tell. Her mother might have loved Rothwell in her way, but she had been happier with their father.
Liliana knew that forever was too long a time, to live that way.
The weather was quite chilly that evening. The wind floated in swift harmony, its melody so sweet that it left the trees little choice but to sway to its tune.
Although it sang a song of melancholia- or perhaps, that was simply Sebastian’s mood reflecting in the evening atmosphere- the trees still danced eagerly, as though understanding the meaning of every note.
The sky was fully lit tonight. It was as though the heavenly bodies were aware that there was an occasion and they had gathered to witness it. The stars twinkled and the full moon, right in their middle, seemed all that the night needed to shine.
His mother had declared that there would be no need for lamps to light the path for their guest since the moon provided that much, but she had requested that they are placed all the same. ‘’For beauty’’ she had said.
She had really gone all out for the ball tonight. In her words- it had to be an affair fit for a double celebration- his birthday and his homecoming.
Sebastian was in no mood for celebration. He did not think it fair that only months after his beloved brother’s cold body had been laid to rest, there would be music and dancing in the ballroom below as though they did not still mourn.
It was not fitting to Hanson’s memory, but there was little say he had in the matter. This ball was as necessary as his coming home had been. It had to be done, either way.
At the very least, his mother had accepted his request to make it a masquerade. He knew he would survive better through the night if he did not have to wear a false smile throughout the event.
He would rather hide his gloom behind a happy mask. Ah yes. He would feel better that way.
He continued to look down through the window from the hallway up the stairs. People had begun to arrive over an hour ago. In no time, his presence would be requested.
Good thing the guests seemed to have respect for the dead. Most of them had come in beautiful dresses as would be expected for a ball such as this, but these dresses were mostly in dark colors. It was a thought Sebastian found himself grateful for.
Not to mention, the music that had been wafting through the air from the ballroom was one of solemnity. None of the jingling tunes he had feared would be played.
It was a ball, yes. A beautiful one at that, for his mother never threw any less. As much as he would be celebrated tonight, it was comforting to know that the memory of his late brother would not be so disregarded with loud music and fast dancing.
The mood had been set and when it was time, he knew he would join the ballroom, less dreary than he had been over the past few weeks of preparation.
“Oh, there you are!”
The voice was none other than his mother’s. He did not turn. At the huge window where he stood, it was easy to watch the guest as they arrived one by one.
When he moved from there, he would have to move to the ballroom and remain atop the stairs a while, to watch for himself what it was like in person.
His mother came to stand by his side. As though understanding his demeanor, she went quietly and looked out the window a short while with him. That tender moment ended when she placed a soft hand on his shoulder.
Gone was the cheery tone with which she had called out to him.
“We miss him too. We all wished he was here. Alas, he is not and we must continue forward. It is what he would have wanted. You have no idea how hard this has been for me as a mother. I cry every night, barely managing to get a wink of peaceful sleep without having dreams plagued with memories of him. Yet I awake the next morn and go about my household duties as though I had had blissful sleep filled with the sweetest dreams.” She paused as a heavy sigh slipped past her lips.
“’ Tis all a farce, my love. Nevertheless, I cannot afford to crumble in their presence any longer. Tonight, son, we merry. The pain will get easier with days. Not today, but eventually. Now, enough of that moping. You have guests who have gathered on your behalf. It is rude to keep them waiting. Come.”
Sebastian drew in a deep breath and looked at his mother, really looked at her. Guilt overwhelmed him. He had been so caught up in his grief since he arrived that he had failed to consider how much pain his parents were going through, especially his mother.
She had only ever loved them dearly, both her sons. Yet, she had had to bury one of them… watch him lyinglie lifeless. It could not have been easy.
He could see that now. The tired lines, the dark circles around her eyes, the hollow in her neck. She had become lean, paler, yet she managed to hide all of that behind a smile or two, being so busy fooling everyone.
The sorrow in those eyes, the sadness surrounding the edges of her lips. His mother had been hiding so much pain. He could imagine that she felt even more than he did.
If she could put her grief behind all in a bid to do what was best for their family, then he could do the same, too.
Being back here in Widmore had been harder than he had imagined. He had been so sad and quiet, mostly keeping to himself. He still would not visit his brother’s grave, and settling into his brother’s duties had proved difficult.
No surprises there, he had not exactly been trying. They would leave for London in a few days. How did he hope to find his brother’s murderer if he could not get a hold of himself and his emotions?
“I…” he released the breath he had been holding in a deep sigh. “I am sorry, mother. I did not realize that I was being selfish in my grieving. Of course, you hurt as much as I do, even more. You have been strong, mother. You and father both… I suppose, a part of me remained in denial as I journeyed, hoping that I would return to meet Hanson in flesh and blood.”
“Alas, you did not and it is only just now that you are letting yourself accept the truth and mourn him when we have had months to get accustomed to the truth of him being no more.”
His mother had always been so wonderful, sensible and understanding. Of course, there were days when she was demanding and more. Nevertheless, she was lovely.
Now, they faced each other. Her hand moved from his shoulder to cup his cheek in that affectionate way only she could have with him. Her other hand joined in no time.
“There is no rush. Take all the time you need. Nonetheless, as you do, never forget that you are still living and you must tend to matters of the living. This…” she withdrew her hands to make a circle.
“All of these are our legacy. The family, your people, there shall be no one to cater to them when your father and I are gone. This is your duty.”
“I understand mother, I apologize. I shall join the crowd now. You only need to give me a minute. Will you be by my side?”
“For as long as I live.”
With a kiss to his cheek, his mother walked away smiling. It was perhaps, the third time since his arrival that he had seen a smile reach her eyes so.
When she was gone from the hallway, he remained to prepare himself for what was to come. The talk with his mother had done a great deal. He would be meeting with people he had not met in a while.
Many who would be happy to see him, yet unable to hide their sadness at his loss. Thank God for masks. He would be just fine.
Removing the mask from his pocket, he took one look at it and finally wore it around his head.
Taking another deep breath, he started to walk to the ballroom.
His mother was waiting at the door that led into the large hall, just at the top of the stairs. Her back was turned to him, yet she felt his presence before her eyes found him.
She turned the moment his eyes laid upon her and her face lit up in a genuine smile once more. She waited for him to cover the three-feet-distance between them.
Her hand was waiting and she easily tucked it around his.
“Have I told you how handsome you look tonight? The maidens are all going to be fawning over you. I daresay, there shall be a contest to gain your attention tonight.”
He chuckled at this, glad at his mother’s attempt to make him laugh, although he knew there was an even more serious message lying underneath all of that. He ignored it though. There would be time for that discussion later.
“And you, mother, are the most beautiful woman in this room tonight. I do believe I shall be the envy of many men. One man, I am very certain. He appears unable to stop sending me death glares at the moment.”
His mother followed his eyes to his father’s who was down the stairs.
She laughed when she saw the look in his father’s eyes.
“Ah… you flatter me, son. As do your father with that oh so dreadful glare. The man does not like to share at all.”
“If only I could lay blame to him. It is the heartache one must suffer for marrying a woman of unmatched beauty.”
His mother was grinning wide and his heart warmed at the thought that even for this moment, he had caused her true happiness.
“His Lordship, Lord Longcross, Marquess of Northcott, heir to the duchy of Widmore and her Ladyship, Lady Leighton, Duchess of Northcott.”
Sebastian and his mother nodded at the announcer in acknowledgment and when the entire room turned to look up at them, they began to descend the stairs.
Though he had settled for a full mask, his mother simply had a flimsy feather over her eyes. Unlike himself, she had perfected the art of wearing a natural mask over her face. She needn’t hide behind another.
Sebastian hoped though, that for tonight, his mother would enjoy true happiness… as true as it could get.
“It’s going to be a lovely night, Sebastian. I can feel it.”
Those were the last words she said to him personally before they got swamped into the sea of people who were eager to meet him.
The next hour was filled with introductions, and heartfelt condolences, in addition to birthday wishes- all of which Sebastian accepted as heartily as he could.
There were several ladies too of course, all of whom his mother particularly wanted him to meet. Many of them were in masks just as flimsy as his mother’s. It was just as well. Their beauties were too potent to be kept hidden.
In fact, with the soft music playing beneath all of the conversations, Sebastian found himself relaxing into the night. These were his people. People of Widmore and Northcott. He could allow himself one night with them.
Moments like win flew, and in no time, he had to cut the cake that had been made in his honor.
Everyone officially wished him a very happy birthday- once again. And after the cake had been cut, his mother and father stepped up to him.
“It seems only yesterday that you were christened before family and dear friends. I cannot believe it has been twenty and five years since then.” That was his father. His voice was solemn, though the smile on his face was amiable.
The duke had found no need for a mask, all his emotions had been left on display all night and Sebastian had read joy, pride, a little hint of sadness, and relief.
“Time does fly, does it not?”
“Like the kite, you often pursued when you were naught but a wee lad.”
Sebastian smiled as memories returned. It was a sad smile, for those kites… he never pursued alone. Hanson had shared every memory. But, it was not a night to be sad, was it?
Yet, the irony was not lost. Only a few months ago they had mourned death, now they celebrated life. This was the existence’s entire essence. To be born, to live and to die.
Sensing the change in the atmosphere, his mother quickly took charge. She gestured at someone who happened to be Renley, the butler. Renley marched forward with a soft pillow on which laid a crossbow.
It was one Sebastian instantly recognized. Their family came from a long line of hunters, men who were known far and wide and with pride, for their hunting talent that was unmatched by many other clans.
The crossbow was their family’s symbol… their heirloom and it had been passed from generation to generation six times. His brother Hanson had received this when he reached eighteen summers, as the heir.
Now that Hanson was gone and he was the only heir left, it was only traditional that it came to him.
Sebastian swallowed hard as he took the beauty in. It was a beautiful crossbow carved by the finest of craftsmen. One that had survived the years. Sebastian almost felt unworthy.
His mother took the beautiful piece from Renley and handed it over to his father, who held it out to him.
“Here you go, son. You are all we have left now and it rightfully belongs to you henceforth.”
It was overwhelming. His chest grew tight from all the conflicted emotions he felt. Most of the crowd had busied with their chatter, still, he was aware of many more eyes on them, watching this precious moment.
Reaching out, he accepted the bow from his father. It was very lightweight, he knew because he had held it several times… yet, it weighed a ton in his hands.
Sebastian knew it was the weight of the responsibility that had just been formally handed down to him. A testament of actuality.
As customary, he picked an arrow from the quiver another servant held out to him and turned to face the bull’s eye that had been kept in place. Taking his stance, he prepared to take his first shot.
He stood steady on his feet, his eyes on the target as he stretched the strings. Deep, steady breaths filled his lungs and when it was certain he could not take anymore, he released- both his breath and the arrow.
He kept his eyes on the arrow, the silence that had dawned ringing loud in his ears. Like a stroke of lightning, the arrow landed right on the bull’s eye, sticking firmly.
Cheers of applause erupted from the crowd and Sebastian threw up the hand that held the bow. The cheering grew and his parents gazed upon him with admiration and nostalgia in their eyes.
Nodding, because he understood the emotions they were experiencing, he dropped his arm and took a bow.
And so it was, that the traditional handover was completed.
He had watched Hanson do this and never in his wildest thoughts, had he reckoned that he would ever get to do the same.
It was all so surreal and as the noise quieted, he finally caught his breath, his heart receding from its stampede.
Liliana had been to quite some balls before. Maybe no more than three or two but enough to become familiar with such events. Yet, she had never experienced anything like what had just happened.
She had been captivated by the moment it had begun, aware that something very significant was about to take place. She had watched the duke hand over the crossbow to the marquess. She had watched the marquess take his shot.
It had appeared such a simple moment, yet something deep in her stirred, affirming that it was much more than that.
“Father, that means something, does it not?” That was Nora. She had wandered off the moment they entered the ballroom, but it appeared she had found her way back to her family.
“Yes, my dear. It is the tradition of the Leighton family. Now, Lord Longcross has been declared the rightful heir to all of these. The crossbow is the family heirloom and he had performed the rite of acceptance.”
Liliana’s ears were perked in attentiveness.
“This is done every time there is a new heir?”
“When they come of age, yes. The late marquess was given the crossbow when he became eighteen summers. It is the customary age for one generation to hand over to the next.”
“I see… does it have to be on a birthday?”
“It usually is, yes. Although, if it had not happened so that the marquess’ birthday fell in time, I suspect they would have done a private ceremony, nevertheless. It is a very significant tradition, you see.”
Liliana nodded and from the side of her eye, she could see Nora mirroring her movement.
The conversation ended then, but she did not take her eyes off the marquess.
She had not been introduced to him formally, of course. They had arrived late and until now, there had not been time to meet with the marquess personally.
She knew her stepfather would achieve that feat before the evening ended. He was family, after all. Yet, even as she watched the marquess from a distance, something about him pulled her in.
It was the strangest thing she had ever felt and she could not fathom why he had such an effect on her. Once, he had caught her watching. Since she had tried to be discreet about her staring as much as she could, but she could not help it.
She could not even see the man behind the mask… only his eyes, and his lips. All else remained a mystery.
Yet, from his tall physique and the rumors, she could tell that he was a handsome man. The ladies had been fawning over him all evening.
It was good to know that the years had been good to the Lord. She wondered if he would remember her- yet, that would be almost impossible as she had settled for a full mask despite pleas to go for something more in fashion for ladies.
Because she would not budge, Nora had reluctantly picked a full mask, herself. She entertained fancies that the mask would make it even more difficult to tell them apart.
The notion of being confused for one another was something that had always thrilled Nora. For whatever reason, Liliana seemed unable to wrap her head around. Herself? She cared little for the confusion.
She would rather be Liliana and be recognized for being Liliana. Perhaps it was because Nora was so good at pretending to her, and had gotten both of them in trouble countless times over the years for that act.
Whatever it was, Liliana could not be bothered about their resemblance tonight. She was simply glad for the mask as well.
“Father has gone to bring his Lordship. Oh, the other ladies here shall be green with envy when they realize we have close ties with the golden heir.”
Liliana turned to look at her sister, wondering what she was rambling on about. The words slowly replayed in her head, understanding dawning. It was only then that she realized that while she had been lost in thoughts, her stepfather had left their side.
Good thing that Miss Humphrey, their governess had agreed to serve as chaperone tonight. Not that she was doing much of a work where Nora was concerned.
As if confirming her thoughts, Nora squealed again, all giddy.
“There they are. They come already, Lilly. See for yourself, I was right. Oh, the ladies are already beginning to stare. We shall be the talk of the town by the morrow, I tell you. I shall wait until the introductions are over, then I shall be gone on my way. I bet you, if I can charm him, he shall come after me.”
Sometimes, Liliana wondered how two people could have spent every living moment together for so many years, yet, could not be more different from the other.
“You’re not supposed to wander off, Nora.”
“Who cares? It’s a masquerade ball. I can do and be whatever strikes my fancy. This manor is a beautiful one. Perhaps, you shall explore with me, little sister?”
For most of it, Liliana knew Nora said many things in a bid to jest. Still, she was aware of the many mischievous her sister had in her.
“We are to be in our best behavior, remember? This isn’t home, sister. You must behave as any proper lady would. It is the least you can do for father, considering all of the ridiculous amounts he has put into our education.”
The mention of their step-father was all Nora needed to become sober- for the moment.
It was a good time, for her father arrived with the marquess then and of course, his mother flanked by his side.
“Your Grace, my Lord, you must remember my daughters. Liliana and Nora Swan. They are all grown now, so I understand the confusion. They were only girls the last time you set eyes upon them.”
“That was at your wedding to their mother, was it not? Oh no… I do believe I met them at the funeral too.” It was the duchess, with a cheery smile on her face which quickly downturned at her mention of the funeral.
Liliana understood. It could not have gotten easy yet. Not quite.
The girls sunk into deep curtsies, acquiescing to the authority the duchess commanded effortlessly.
“Nice to meet you, my lady,” they chorused as they rose to their feet.
“The pleasure is utterly mine, dears. That, I assure you of. I still am sorry about your mother. I know now that the pain never goes away. Nevertheless, I hope the years have been kind to you and my cousin?”
“Certainly, your grace. Father has been only ever gracious. As for the pain, it grows daily. You must accept our condolences too, your Grace. It is a terrible thing, the loss you have suffered.” Said Nora.
Liliana was utterly impressed by her sister. Ah… why was she astonished? Nora had a talent for the theatre. When it came to theatrics, she did so effortlessly well.
“Of course. It is with joy in my heart that I welcome you. I am happy you were able to make it here. Your father tells me you are to enter society this season?”
“Yes, your grace,” that was Liliana.
“An excellent decision. You are two beautiful ladies well in your prime. I am confident that you two shall have no trouble finding suitable suitors. Your hearts are as lovely to know, as your faces are beautiful to behold.”
Their response was the crimson stain upon their cheeks. Liliana decided at that moment, that she liked the duchess. She dared to look her in the eye then and their gazes met and held.
A silent communication passed. It was an unexpected thing but it happened anyway. The duchess nodded solemnly and Liliana knew that she understood.
She had seen the depth of Liliana’s best wishes, she knew that Liliana truly understood her pain, and she had welcomed her well-meaning thoughts.
The knowledge of that felt completely satisfying for Liliana.
There was a cough then, and that was when they all turned to behold the marquess. He had been all but forgotten. Quick as ever, Lord Rothwell rose to save the day.
“Lord Longcross, you must become acquainted with my daughters once again. Lady Liliana, and Lady Nora.”
Lord Rothwell introduced them without indicating who was who.
Lord Longcross took the hands they held out to him one by one and dipped in a flawless bow to kiss them each.
“Nice to meet you, my ladies.”
“My Lord, the honor is ours,” they chorused, dipping into curtsies, themselves.
When Liliana felt his cool lips against her gloved hands, her whole body warmed.
She withdrew her hand the moment she could and as he rose, their eyes met…
Her throat suddenly felt clogged and she followed his gaze until he righted on his feet. Her chin had to go up for he was almost a foot taller than she was, howbeit, she minded naught.
Goodness, but he was such a handsome man! He had hair like the darkness of midnight. Today, he wore black formal attire, the only items of color being the white shirt and white cravat which complimented his other choice.
He had grown broad and sturdy, yet graceful. It was a thing to wonder about. What had he been up to in the years he was away?
After her appraisal, she gazed upon his face again. It felt somewhat discomforting, unable to see the man behind the mask. All that was left visible to her were his eyes… they were almost violet, just like his mother’s.
They were so lovely to look upon.
Liliana wondered if she would recognize him if she ever met him again- if he would recognize her. They were blind to each other, as it was.
Why did it matter, anyway? Why was she so intrigued by his person?
Well, she reckoned it was because she could not forget that small moment of kindness they had shared at her mother’s wedding, but it had been so long ago.
For the life of her, she knew naught of the marquess, beyond what everyone else knew. Perhaps, others were just as intrigued as her. He was a mystery and all the many books Liliana occupied herself with when she was not sewing, had grown her a penchant for mystery.
“Something tickles your mind, my lady? I am happy to answer whatever questions it is that you may have. Pray, ask away.”
Liliana felt her cheeks grow hot and she knew that she had been flushed with crimson tides. The urge to palm them overwhelmed her but she resisted.
Ah… she had been caught staring too much.
“Oh, my Lord… it is nothing of importance, I assure you. It is only, I imagine that you must have seen so many things in the outside world. The knowledge that you hold puts me in marvel, is all.”
He smiled… she couldn’t see the smile but she felt it all the same, and she instantly felt better.
“Perhaps, if you still have a dance to spare, I could apprise you with some of that knowledge as we waltz, my lady.”
Had he just asked her to dance?
Liliana’s eyes widened as she turned to look at her step-father and her sister.
They nodded eagerly, their happiness evident.
She returned to Lord Longcross and stole one look at the duchess. The duchess herself looked pleased.
Liliana felt warmth once again. This time, it reached her heart.
Blushing now, she lowered her head, remembering all the lessons Miss Humphrey had given to them. Not that she had to try hide, it seemed to come naturally.
“Well, I do believe my dance card is free for the very last dance…”
“Then if you would grant me the honor, I shall return to take your hand.”
The honor would be hers, for he was the marquess and future duke of Widmore. Liliana said nothing of it though, she simply dipped into another shallow curtsy and murmured,
“It would be my pleasure, my Lord.”
“Very well, then. I do hope you enjoy the affair until then. Uncle James? I have been meaning to have a word with you. Shall we?” it was directed at Lord Rothwell who nodded eagerly.
Afterward, Lord Longcross turned to them once more. “Ladies, if you would excuse me, I beg my leave.”
They nodded, and with a bow, he walked away with their step-father, his mother following.
“I do believe, dear sister, that the Marquess has taken an interest in you. I would wager ten pounds that he is at this very moment, trying to get Father to confess which twin you are and request rights of courtship.”
“Oh, Nora! Stop the nonsense! It is nothing of sorts. As you well know, Father had business ties with the Leightons. Beyond that, they are family indeed.”
“Ah, yes, yes. Be that as it may, I do maintain my stand that that private meeting is regarding you. You shall see. It is only a matter of time before father returns, and he shall affirm it with his own lips.”
Nora was teasing her, she knew. Yet, Liliana found herself liking the thought that his lordship had called her step-father away to discuss her. Nevertheless, it could not be true, could it?
They were barely acquainted with one another. He could not have picked an interest so soon. It was rather impossible.
“Oh, it’s the fourth dance, dear sister. I see Lord Wembley making his way to you now. Oh, and there is Lord Ramsey. It is just as well. We shall enjoy this dance and afterward, you shall waltz into midnight with your fine gentleman.”
Liliana shook her head at her sister, a giggle escaping her lips beside herself.
Before she would turn to look at the men Nora had mentioned, they were standing in front of them. Taking their hands, they let the gentlemen lead them to the dance floor.
Liliana remained amiable through it all, but the marquess never left her mind.