Catherine lifted the gown from her bed – a gift she delighted in greatly – and gazed at the beaded detail. She was surrounded by beautiful gowns in her boudoir, but nothing was so magnificent as this one, and nothing fit her tall, slender frame so well.
The house in London was certainly her favorite. Of all the estates her parents owned or rented, this might be the most exquisite as it gave her all of this space to get ready whenever there was something worth getting ready for. As it was the London season, Catherine knew she was going to spend a great deal of time in here.
Penelope brushed the side of the fabric, and Catherine saw how smooth it was. Perfect for tonight’s ball.
“I cannot help but wonder if it will strike me as so many women say it does. As if, in just a moment, I will see a man and know he is the one I’m to be with for the rest of my life,” Catherine mused.
“It cannot be that simple, my lady,” Penelope replied, ushering Catherine to the mirror so that she might do her hair for the evening.
“Why ever not?” Catherine pouted.
“If it were that simple, then everybody would be falling in love. Every time a ball occurred, men and women would leave completely overwhelmed by their affections,” Penelope reasoned.
“You say they do not?” Catherine asked.
“Well, I can’t say I’ve ever been to a ball. Lady’s maids don’t typically get invitations,” Penelope laughed. Catherine sensed a sadness in her confession.
“True. It is rather unfair,” Catherine commented.
“But when I was younger, we had dances in our town. Not so grand as those you attend, but good nonetheless. And I never did see anyone fall so deeply in love as they always say about these types of events,” she replied.
Catherine considered it as she looked in the mirror before her. With each stroke of the brush, her Venetian blonde hair seemed to glow with a shine. Her emerald eyes looked back at her from a heart-shaped face with a pixie nose.
She had never liked her nose, deeming it pig-like, although others disputed this comparison. Moreover, Catherine could not refrain from noticing how her cheeks were rounded so much before slimming to the point at her chin.
She tried to ignore these things, but it was difficult to do.
“What sort of love do you wish to find?” Penelope asked, playfully.
Catherine wistfully looked into the distance, imagining him.
“Mysterious and brave. Someone I can be intrigued by. I have no desire for the boring sort,” she laughed. “What about you? What sort of man do you prefer?”
“Decent and loyal. Someone who will always care for me, be by my side. I appreciate loyalty more than anything,” Penelope replied, beginning the up-do of Catherine’s hair.
“That is exactly the sort of man you deserve,” Catherine agreed.
“Perhaps you shall find your mysterious beau at the ball this evening. Someone dashing, handsome perhaps?” Penelope suggested.
Catherine opened her mouth to speak in reply, but was cut off by the flurry of her mother entering the room in quite a tizzy.
“Catherine! You must be quick. Hurry, we have an urgent need to get to the ball,” she rushed, pushing Penelope from the chair and digging her hands painfully into Catherine’s scalp to finish the work.
“Mother? Good heavens, what is all this about?” Catherine asked in protest.
“You are dismissed. Go to your room,” her mother ordered Penelope rudely .
Catherine looked at her friend and maid apologetically, and Penelope did as she was told, remembering her place. It infuriated Catherine to see how her parents treated the woman she had grown so close to.
“Mother? What is it that has you in such a rush? I thought we still had more than an hour before we are to depart,” Catherine noted, using this as a means to conceal the agitation she felt towards her mother.
“Do you not think there must be a very good reason for me urging you? My goodness, why are you always so ungrateful? I have an alarmingly wonderful bit of news for you!” her mother announced, all her sentences delivered in the same breath.
Catherine couldn’t understand how alarming news would be wonderful and dreaded to hear what it was that her mother was so overwhelmed by. It didn’t seem as though it could be anything very good at all. In fact, she was already quite alarmed by her mother’s strange behavior.
Lady Abingdon sat her rather plump body on Catherine’s bed as though she were a childhood friend. A bit of pastry was flaked upon her chin, and Catherine debated whether or not to tell her. In the end, she decided to wait until she heard the news.
“Alright then, I am listening,” she said, hesitantly.
“You had better be. Because this evening is going to change the fortunes of this family forever and you are going to make us all very proud,” Lady Abingdon said.
Although her voice was lilting and excited, her blue eyes failed to shine, and she remained vacant as ever.
“And how am I to do that?” Catherine asked with continued anxiety, imperceptibly backing away from her mother.
“You know, of course, that our host for this evening is none other than the Duke of Windermere. He is one of the most powerful men in the whole of England, Catherine! Of course, that is to say, he is shockingly rich! Can you even imagine?” she carried on.
Catherine knew all of this. She couldn’t imagine why her mother was fawning over the fact. It was not as though the identity of the ball’s host had ever been a secret.
“I know he is, Mother. But what does that have to do with all of your sudden excitement?” she asked.
“Oh, Catherine. It is the most wonderful news! The Duke of Windermere has agreed to open discussions about you!” she declared.
“About me?” Catherine asked, utterly confused. What was there to discuss?
“Yes, of course. I have no doubt he would have made me an offer, but I am already a married woman,” Lady Abingdon mumbled, toying with the string of pearls at her neck.
All at once, the realization came to Catherine.
Discussions about her. The Duke of Windermere. A wealthy nobleman.
“Mother, you cannot be serious. You cannot be saying what I believe you to be! The Duke of Windermere? He is far too old a suitor for me. And all of those horrible rumors about him? You wish for me to marry a man like that? What could you possibly mean by all of this?” she pleaded, her voice quaking in horror.
Catherine could not imagine it. The Duke? He wished for her hand? They had never even met! She only knew that no one had seen him in years and that he scarcely ever appeared in society.
For good reason. Because of the shame and drama that had followed him all this time.
“Do not be so dramatic, Catherine. You ought to know well by now that a man like him is quite a catch. Not many young women get the opportunity to be wed to such a man, and your father and I have worked hard to earn you this match,” she replied, casually, yawning and leaning back on the bed.
Catherine was utterly tempted to point out that her mother’s rotund figure was present due to the absence of love in her marriage, that she sought affection through food because of an arranged, calculated match such as this.
But her anger would get her nowhere. Her stubbornness, on the other hand…
“I’ll not do it. I shan’t, Mother,” she declared.
“Stop being a fool, Catherine. He has agreed to a formal courtship, and you shall, of course, enter into it. As I said, this is a gift. One that you would not dare to refuse,” Lady Abingdon said in a warning tone, sitting up straight.
“And he is not so aged. How could you make a remark like that? The Duke is only thirty-something. Perhaps fifteen years your senior. That is nothing,” she continued dismissively.
“Mother, what about the rumo–”
“Do stop it about all those silly rumors, Catherine,” Lady Abingdon hissed. “They were started as a means of revenge by women who were not able to capture his attention. Women whose parents did not love them enough to arrange a match. Are you going to listen to them over your own mother?” she challenged.
Catherine breathed hard through her nose, unconvinced.
She was furious but knew there was little chance to convince her mother what a foolish idea this was. How could her parents be so cruel? How could they do this to her?
“How would you know if the rumors are true or not? Have you ever met him?” Catherine finally dared to ask.
Lady Abingdon looked off to the corner of the room in a standoffish manner. It was evident that she had no desire to reply.
“Your father has dealt with a man of his. Faversham. That is enough. The negotiation has gone very well, and there has been a promise of a great deal of money. It is a very advantageous opportunity for us, and that is all any of us need to know,” she remarked.
“My happiness is not so important as money?” Catherine asked in a small voice.
“Do not work on my emotions. You know how that taxes me so. Can you not just be grateful for this delightful opportunity we are giving to you? Can you not accept what a great joy this will be for us all?” Lady Abingdon manipulated.
“Money is not so important to me, Mother,” Catherine replied quietly.
“Enough, Catherine! That is quite enough, do you hear me? You are to quickly prepare yourself, and you must behave this evening. You shall do your utmost to please the Duke, or you shall face the most devastating consequences from your father, do you understand?” Lady Abingdon warned sternly.
Catherine swallowed hard against the threat and nodded her head softly.
It sounded like the worst of tortures, but there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing that she could say to change it.
She had no choice.
Her mother stood and left the room without another word, having made herself quite clear.
Catherine was relieved when Penelope opened the door, knocking softly as she did. At least Catherine would not be alone at a time like this. At least she would have Penelope by her side, and everything would be okay.
“My lady, what is it?” Penelope asked concerned, the compassion seeping into her words.
“My mother… She told me that I am to enter into a courtship with the Duke of Windermere…” Catherine answered, trying not to choke on the words.
Penelope gasped and wrapped her arms around Catherine. The two held one another as Catherine began to sob, not believing that this could truly be so.
She told Penelope everything, all of the details of what her mother had banished her into.
It was too much. It was too great a horror to fathom.
“Perhaps he is not so bad,” Penelope tried to comfort her. “Maybe he will even be good, my lady. You never know. It is possible that your mother is right, and they are merely rumors started by jealous women.
“Do not lose heart. Do not grow faint. All will be well. You shall see,” Penelope soothed.
“But what if he isn’t? What if he is really the horrible old man I’ve heard he is?” Catherine wept.
“Then your parents will not arrange for this match after all. They love you, they care for you, and want whatever is best for you. Surely you know that,” Penelope encouraged.
A scoff escaped Catherine’s lips.
“My parents love the idea of wealth and status. That is their passion. Do you truly think they would put me above such a thing? That they would care more about my desires and wants than that? They married one another for the advantage of the match, and nothing more,” she said with anger.
“Perhaps they did, but it does not mean they intend to relegate you to the same fate,” Penelope replied, trying to be positive.
“Thank you for speaking so comfortingly. I cannot believe a word of it, but I do appreciate that you are trying, Penelope,” Catherine sniffed. “You deserve the loyalty you wish for in a husband. Truly.”
It was time for them to leave, and Catherine heard her mother calling for her once more. She knew she must look a terrible fright from all the crying.
“I shall go tell her that you will only be a moment longer. And do not worry, everything will be alright. We can figure something out. Perhaps this evening a better offer might even come along. You never know. Just have hope, my lady,” Penelope urged.
Catherine nodded, wiping away the tears and trying to stop more from falling.
Her maid left the room, and Catherine went over to the mirror, sniffing a few times and attempting to right herself. She took three deep breaths, with each one soothing her more than the last, until she felt she could face the world.
At last, she was ready.
And yet, no matter the calming words of her friend, no matter the hopes she tried to have or the ways she attempted to calm herself, Catherine remained concerned. Her worry would not abate.
At the forefront of her mind were the rumors she had heard about the Duke. He was infamous, and not for anything good. Indeed, the fact was every woman in whom the Duke showed interest had one thing in common.
They all ended up dead.
Benjamin’s eyes took in the view from the window. Surrounded by the smell of books in his library, the room he loved most in his London residence, he couldn’t help but indulge in peering out over the city.
He hated being in the city. As much as he loved this home, he could not bear the crowds, the society, the noise of London. He felt choked by every inch of it.
But that was not the greatest thing on his mind that evening. No, indeed it was only a mild thought, shadowed by greater concerns.
Benjamin sighed. He had received yet another marriage proposal. The countless offers were piling up, given by eager parents who would do anything for him to accept their daughter’s hand. Parents who cared nothing for the wellbeing of those daughters but rather craved the wealth and status he offered.
And those daughters were equally eager for it.
This was simply the latest of those offers. He wondered what made this young woman any different from the others. After all, if he was going to accept an offer from someone, how was he to choose?
How was he to decide who he wanted and who he didn’t want? It seemed a ridiculous expectation that he had to choose between them all.
The library door was open, but Benjamin did not need to turn around when he heard footsteps behind him. He knew those steps, and the majority of his other employees were cleaning the estate or baking and preparing the drinks for the evening.
“Good evening, Your Grace,” Faversham greeted respectfully upon entering.
“Good evening, Faversham. Are you ready for all that lies ahead?” he asked, eyes still trained on the city beyond.
“Indeed. I have something for you,” Faversham replied.
From the corner of his eye, Benjamin saw the salver presented to him. A missive lay atop it, and he sighed, taking it in his fingers. Without a glance, he fiddled the edges of the paper before setting it on the table to his left.
“Could you pour me a drink please, Faversham?” he asked politely.
“Of course, Your Grace,” the valet replied.
He had been an excellent companion. Faversham’s loyalty and dedication to Benjamin, through everything, had been unwavering. Benjamin could hardly understand why. Surely, he was not deserving of so good a friend. And yet, Faversham had stayed with him.
In a brief moment, Faversham handed Benjamin a glass of whisky. He swished it in the glass before swallowing the lot of it. Faversham quickly refilled it, although Benjamin knew he oughtn’t drink too much before the ball that evening. Only enough to find his courage.
He would soon be surrounded by hundreds of guests. It was one of his least favorite things in all the world, having people invade his space. But it had to be done. It was simply the duty of a man in his position.
More than that, he needed the world to know he was not the terror they had come to believe him to be. Whether he desired it or not, the name of his family rested upon the stitching up of his reputation.
A reputation that had left few parents even remotely concerned for the well-being of their daughters.
He would never be such a father, of that he was determined. While Benjamin knew he was destined to be alone, he made the commitment regardless, knowing that no child ought to be traded so selfishly.
“The letter, Your Grace. You do not wish to read it?” Faversham inquired, his voice rife with hesitation.
Benjamin sighed, wondering why he had to think about these things.
“I do not. I know exactly what it asks of me. What they all ask of me. To marry their daughters. Am I wrong?” he shot back.
“No, Your Grace. You are not wrong. But this is from the Earl of Abingdon. As I told you, he has engaged me in the process of obtaining your betrothal to their daughter. It would be ideal if you could read the letter and prepare yourself before the ball,” Faversham suggested.
“There is no need for it,” Benjamin answered him. “Now, do pour yourself a glass and have a seat. There is a long night ahead, no reason to weary yourself now.”
He listened as Faversham poured another glass and made himself comfortable. Benjamin noticed the sky dimming from afar. It would not be long now before guests began to arrive. Within the hour, certainly.
“Oh, London. Why do I always struggle when I am in London? Have you noticed the way this city grows grey when evening falls?” he mused.
“Yes, I suppose it does,” Faversham agreed.
“And the noise? Oftentimes I feel as though my head is ringing with it. As if even within these walls, it cannot be escaped,” he continued.
“Your Grace, if you detest the city so much, then why have we come?” the valet inquired.
Benjamin had been asking himself that very same question time after time since their arrival.
He knew why. He knew what was expected of him. But it didn’t change the fact that he missed the countryside and his trips to Brighton and, best yet, those brief stays away from England entirely.
“It is what the world expects of a duke, Faversham. As I’ve no say in my title, I’ve no say in which aspects of it I choose to honor and those which I should like to ignore. It is my family’s name that depends upon me. So, I must come,” Benjamin conceded.
“I understand, Your Grace. Although, I must say I am sorry you have to endure these things which you hate so deeply. I understand this city is not always kind,” he said quietly.
No, it was not. The vast majority of Benjamin’s experiences in the city had been quite terrible. He was always spoken about, always felt as though he were lurking, unwelcome, through the streets of the city.
He faced stares and gossip and all manner of struggle. When he entered the gentlemen’s clubs, he was treated with dignity and respect on the surface, but he remained certain of all the things that were said the moment he turned his back.
It was horrible to be feared. It was painful. Benjamin wanted to be the sort of man who could easily escape it and do as he pleased with his life.
“And yet, the city is where a man of means must be during the season, surrounded by men and women of all sorts. Engaging and willing to open his home to the very people who seek a friendship based solely on wealth and status,” he continued, grimly, eyes taking in the horizon.
Was he too harsh? Was there some optimism to be found amidst everything he had simply ignored? Could he not try, make any sort of effort, to see the positive in this season?
Benjamin sighed, trying to consider the good. The children and destitute in the streets chose to enjoy themselves, so why could he not? There was so much for him to be grateful for. Truly, he had a good life, all things considered.
But shadows remained, and he had no idea how he was to escape them. Or if he even wanted to.
The shadows didn’t judge him, didn’t fear him.
“Are you ready for the ball this evening, Your Grace? Even with all of the dread you feel, it could be a positive evening,” Faversham remarked as if trying to follow up the attempts in Benjamin’s mind to be optimistic.
“I am as ready as I shall ever be for public appearances,” he replied.
“You have hired the finest musicians. I think it shall be magnificent and your guests will always speak about this night as being a grand opening to the season,” Faversham complimented.
“One can only hope,” he said in reply.
Benjamin had chosen to host his ball right at the beginning of the season to get it out of the way. He had always been a man who tried to finish the dreaded tasks first, so he might be able to forget them and move on. After this, he would attend very few social events.
It was the best idea for him to be able to be rid of everything he did not want and get it over with.
“You’ve had an invitation to the Dowager Lady Kensington’s ball in three days hence, as well as Sir Reginald’s. I think they should all be rather delighted by your presence,” Faversham ventured.
“Indeed, everyone wants a look at the monster,” Benjamin mumbled.
“Your Grace, you are no monster,” Faversham scolded gently.
But Benjamin knew what was said about him. He was no fool. He could not deny a little part of him that knew that, if he had only been a better man, less selfish and hard, those rumors would never have been spoken.
“In any case, I do not know if I shall attend them. Perhaps once or twice per month, I may attend a ball or some other event, but I do not wish to go to two or three each week. You know me better than that, my friend,” Benjamin said.
“You are not a man for London,” Faversham chuckled lightly.
Benjamin nodded in agreement, taking a light swig of his whisky when he watched a carriage pass by. Relieved that they did not stop at his home, he exhaled.
“Indeed, I am not,” he confirmed once more.
“As I said, it is not always a kind place. London can be quite ugly at times. But there are some good things in which you might indulge,” Faversham hinted.
“Such as?” Benjamin asked dryly.
“Well, all of those who seek to have you marry their daughters. They hold you in rather high regard,” he replied.
Benjamin scoffed. “High regard? You mean they want my wealth. They want my title. There is very little regard held when I am desired only to elevate the status of another. I do not see that as much import,” he said.
The conversation was going somewhere he did not desire it to go, and Benjamin distracted himself by watching a few of the young boys, the street urchins, playing with some sort of fabric wrapped up into a ball. Their amusement gave him a sliver of hope for the world around him.
“Surely that is not the truth of all of them. Perhaps there are those who wish it, but others may truly desire that you be a part of their families,” Faversham fancied.
Benjamin felt his blood strengthening in his veins. A strength of frustration and anger, pulsing a little faster.
He tried to continue focusing on the children, tried to contain himself. If only Faversham would stop talking about all of this nonsense, he would be perfectly fine.
Taking a deep breath through his nose, he tried to bear in mind that Faversham simply cared for him and wished to see him happy. A loyal, dutiful man.
He was trying to find the best possible options for his master and believed betrothals to be one of those. Even though they both knew it was a grave mistake, he still sought to try for a match on Benjamin’s behalf.
“I ask that you desist with this conversation,” he said in a steady voice.
“I understand, Your Grace. And if that is what you wish, then certainly we shall cease this discussion. But I still must urge you to consider the courtship with the Earl of Abingdon’s daughter. It would be a very advantageous marriage,” he added, one last time.
With that, Benjamin felt a tightened string snap within him.
Although Faversham was a friend, this was not his place. He ought not to have suggested this or gone so far.
Benjamin turned, looking at his friend and valet for the first time that evening. There was rage within him, which he tried to temper. There was hurt and fury and regret and a whole number of emotions that Benjamin hated to feel and tried not to show.
“I have no interest in being betrothed. Do you hear me? Do you understand? No interest at all,” he said with finality.
Faversham looked at him with hesitant eyes before daring to speak again.
“It shall not be like last time,” he remarked quietly.
The string had gone too tight. Now, rather than a snap, Benjamin felt it break completely.
The memories of everything were too much, and there was nothing for him to do but launch the tumbler in his hand into the fireplace, where it crashed with the loud shattering of glass blown generations before.
The flames licked at the pieces that landed within, and he knew that Faversham would say nothing more for now. But Benjamin could not bear to remain in the room. Not after this outburst.
He turned swiftly, marching towards the door. The sensation of warmth from the firelight caught his face just as he passed a mirror.
A small glimpse was more than enough for him. It caused him to wince, his reflection unbearable to himself.
If he could remove every flame, every source of light, and every reflecting surface, it would not be enough to satisfy him. No, he was not a man for the city. He was a man for seclusion.
Faversham was wrong. He knew it. It would be exactly like last time, and all foolish hopes to the contrary were only a waste of time.
After all, how could he ever be happy in a marriage? How could he prevent another tragedy?
No, if these young women’s parents cared so little for them, he would have to do it. He would have to be the one who worried and was pained by the use of their girls. He would have to be the one who made an effort to look after them. After all, they deserved better.
They deserved better than him. They deserved better than to be forced into marriage with a man who had so many secrets. Far too great. Far too dangerous.
He would never have a happy ending.
Her feet met the ground, and the coachman released Catherine’s hand now that she had exited. Before her, a grand estate stood tall and opulent in every way.
Lady Abingdon’s jaw fell, and Lord Abingdon wrinkled his small nose in jealousy. It seemed to sink into his round face, and Catherine had to look away.
She took in the view of the home and regretted it immediately. She was not typically impressed by such things, but this home, with all of its grandness and exquisite beauty, seemed to strike her nonetheless.
She simply could not help it. The beauty was more than she had ever seen and, for a moment, she wondered what it must be like to be the lady of a house such as this.
The moment the thought entered her mind, she pushed it away, angry at herself for even considering it.
Catherine knew she was stronger than that, able to see past these things. She would not allow herself to be struck by opulence.
But the balconies jutting out beneath dozens of windows, the intricate carvings, the floral motifs, all of it seemed beyond its time. As if it had been brought back from some beautiful day in the future.
London society always sought to be beautiful, but it was only a superficial sort of beauty. There was never anything behind it or real about it.
Catherine saw others arriving as well and realized that everyone of note had been invited. This was not a simple ball for some of the dukes and earls. This was an event for everyone among the nobility, and there were a few faces that Catherine was shocked to see.
Lord Abingdon seemed to notice the faces as well and proceeded forward in an arrogant swagger that caused his gut to protrude forward. His shoulders hung back as if to elongate his body, but it only made him look apish.
Seeing that they were finally moving forward, Catherine cautiously followed, trying to hide her nerves.
It was not the many faces of nobility that caused her such anxiety but rather the awareness that she was soon to meet a man to whom she was apparently betrothed.
Her mother noticed the gentle fidget of her hands as they began up the stairs to the entrance, and Catherine accepted the glare. She made every effort to right herself, to present herself as elegant and strong.
“Stop slouching. And fidgeting. What is the matter with you? Do you not know how important this evening is?” her mother hissed.
“Yes, Mother. I’m very sorry,” Catherine replied quietly, swallowing the bitter anger she held within.
“Now, when you are presented to the Duke, His Grace, you must be shy and respectful. Flutter your lashes like this,” her mother demonstrated.
Catherine had to press her lips together so as not to laugh at how foolish her mother looked. She did not wish to be disrespectful, but it was quite amusing to see.
“Of course, I shall, Mother,” she promised, though knowing full well she would never behave so falsely.
“You will curtsey, use a soft, breathy voice to greet him by his proper title and press forward when you descend so he might catch a glimpse of your assets,” Lady Abingdon hinted.
Catherine was mortified by this thought. As a slender woman, and taller than most of her peers, Catherine had far less to display in that department. But even if she had, it was improper, and her mother was disgracing her by even suggesting it.
“Stay quiet unless he speaks to you and answer only in such a way that shall flatter him. Make statements such as, ‘my goodness, what a fine home you keep, Your Grace,’ and ‘it is my highest honor to be presented before you,’ and whatnot,” Lady Abingdon instructed.
Catherine nodded, feeling like a fool.
Soon, however, they entered the hall, and Catherine had a little bit more room for freedom as her parents quickly discovered the table filled with pastries and drinks of all sorts.
Now that they were elsewhere occupied, she took a deep breath.
She looked about the room, noting the ample number of young gentlemen and catching the eye of some. It was strange, feeling so on display for all of them to see and notice.
She wondered if this was how it would always feel to be a young woman. As if she was the table full of treats they would like to devour.
Her dance card began to acquire names upon it, and Catherine acquiesced to dance with a few gentlemen.
They all bored her, and she felt that they were quite possibly too youthful to be of any interest to her. While she did not wish for an old man, they seemed young and immature.
The Duke, however, was nowhere to be seen. She heard a few conversations around her mentioning him and the fact that he had yet to come and greet his guests.
“I’ve not seen him yet,” whispered a debutant nearby.
Catherine subtly leaned her body closer, as if uninterested, trying to learn more.
“Do you know what he looks like?” the other young woman asked.
“No. Nobody has seen him for an age. They say he has spent a great deal of time in the country or on brief travels. Probably because of all the shame. After all, he must be quite brave to host this evening when we all know the truth about him,” the first replied.
Catherine glanced at the young women for the first time. It was a quick look, but she saw that the two wore exquisite dresses. Perhaps even more beautiful than her own.
Their faces, however, were piggish. A small part of her felt satisfaction at that. Not because of jealousy, but because of how they spoke of the Duke so rudely.
True, they were the same thoughts she had been having. But she would not go about gossiping when she knew only from the gossip of others. What evidence did they have?
While she dreaded any meeting with the Duke, she knew she was to respect him if she was forced into a marriage.
Catherine’s anxiety intensified then. What sort of a fool was she? Having defensive thoughts for this man? She knew nothing about him other than those very rumors. But was he kind?
There was nothing to tell her. No reputation preceded him in that regard. Was he handsome? Still, she had no knowledge.
Catherine wished she at least knew what he looked like so she might be able to keep an eye open for him. If she saw his face, she might be able to better prepare herself. She could hide for a moment and then come out when she was ready.
“You know that he paid off the constabulary, don’t you?” one of the women said then.
It captured Catherine’s attention all over again.
“For what?” gasped the other.
“For the deaths of all the women. And in his travels, I have heard that everywhere he goes, a body is left behind,” said the first.
Catherine felt her heart pound. It sounded absurd. But what if it was true? What if he really was a monster that was going about killing women at every turn?
“I suppose it is possible. I mean, not that I would ever believe such fantasy, but you have heard what happens to him at night, have you not?” asked the other, sounding as though she very much believed the fantasy.
“Oh dear, what happens?” asked the other, quite dramatically.
“I oughtn’t to tell you, but it is rather awful. He turns into a great beast. Red-eyed and howling, he roams the halls of his residence, seeking the ghost of his first love,” she whispered, just loud enough for Catherine to hear it.
It sounded utterly ridiculous, but…
What sort of man was this that she was to marry? Why had her parents abandoned her to this man?
Panic struck her, but she could not stop listening for more.
“He seeks her ghost?” asked one.
“Indeed. His first betrothed. She mysteriously disappeared. And that is nothing compared to Fiona. Everyone knows he killed her in cold blood,” replied the other.
Catherine tried not to gasp, but her heart would not still.
She had no idea who Fiona was, but these girls seemed to. All of their words erased her desire to remain respectful of her intended. She could bear it no more.
Catherine would have to beg her mother and father, tell them anything that might convince them otherwise.
Perhaps, as the evening wore on, she would indeed find a better match. She could find a man who would keep them satisfied, a man with wealth and a title, but no rumors.
The idea of being with someone whom everyone supposed was a murderer was sheer madness. How could her mother and father expect this of her?
“He hasn’t been to church in ages. If he goes, the Lord might take him then and there, you know. A monster like him? It is only his title which keeps him safe,” noted the other young woman.
“I have little doubt he would be struck. Perhaps he even made a pact with a demon to become like that,” the other sensationalized.
“It is quite possible. Perhaps that is how he communicates with his first betrothed. Or maybe he even collects the souls of those he murders. Oh, do you think it could be so?” surmised one.
It was absolute nonsense, Catherine reminded herself. And yet, despite knowing that, she couldn’t quite escape it all. The fantasy and madness of it was almost palpable, yet that was the very thing that made it believable.
“Who knows. Whatever he is, whatever he does, he is sincerely a murderer, and there is no mistaking that,” replied the first.
“A wealthy murderer. Meaning he can easily capture more women and deal them the same death card until there is simply no one left,” replied the other.
It was too much. Catherine could handle no more. As incredulous as it all sounded, she was unable to abate her fear. This was not the sort of man she wished to marry, and her parents would simply have to accept that!
Looking around the room and seeing Lord and Lady Abingdon distracted by those more important than them, she found a chance to leave the hall, desperately needing fresh air.
It was against protocol and all proper behaviors of society, but she had to escape and was not the sort of woman who would allow herself to be tied by such ridiculous expectations. She had her own mind, and right now, it was determined that she should get away from everyone and everything inside.
Her feet led her to a room where she noted the door to the balcony was open. The air called to her, making her eager for a breath and relief from everything she had just heard.
Catherine glanced into the room to ensure that it was empty and she would not be caught.
If her parents learned she had tried to sneak away during the ball, or that she was found alone without the eyes of society guarding her, she would surely be disgraced. So would they all. Her parents would rebuke her and marry her off in an instant.
But Catherine found the room to be safe. Thankfully, there was no one there. She entered, softly, lightly crossing it to the balcony. The moment she stepped out on it, she allowed relief to fold her.
Her relief was short-lived.
Catherine gasped when she saw a man standing there, giving her a mere glance and an amused expression from his right side. She’d had no idea at all that anyone was out there, and wished she had been more careful and not allowed herself to end up in such a foolish position.
She had been caught after all, and surely this man would be quick to tell her parents about her behavior.
But Catherine allowed herself the briefest of moments to accept that glance from him, and in that time, she drew up her own conclusions about him in return.
“It would seem as though you, too, have decided that it is better to disappear out the window than remain inside with the vultures of society,” he said, rather directly, in a deep, musical voice.
For a moment, Catherine’s breath caught in her throat. She knew not what to say in reply, forgetting her typically witty self.
Despite the poor lighting and the angle at which he stood, it was evident to her that the man was exceedingly handsome.
His hair, nearly black, was gently streaked with greying hairs. His beaked nose, which many would claim to be too large for his face, only enhanced his masculinity.
At that amused grin, Catherine noted the sharp edge of his jaw, another asset to his manly appearance. And was it the lighting or were his eyes nearly black? In a deep, mysterious way?
Not only that, but he was quite tall, which gave her a sense of relief as Catherine was often used to being the same height, or nearly so, as the men around her. Even as she had danced earlier in the evening, she felt like quite the mountain.
At her silence, the man glanced over at her once more, raising his right eyebrow in curiosity, as if to urge her into conversation. But Catherine was utterly caught by the fact that she knew she ought not to be alone with a man like this.
Particularly not one so attractive and foreign to her.
“Oh, yes, of course. Vultures,” she laughed nervously, referring to his earlier comment.
A long pause passed, making her comment seem quite ridiculous, and she was entirely embarrassed that she had chosen to refer back to that rather than move the conversation forward.
The best thing for her would be to go back inside and return to the dance. And yet, she could not bring herself to do that.
After all, there was something about this man’s presence that both made her nervous and intrigued. And wasn’t that exactly the sort of adventure she might have wished for?
Benjamin eyed the young woman, unable to stop himself. She was stunningly beautiful, with large, curious eyes that glinted against the light.
But he knew the hall was filled with beautiful women that night. He had very little care for that. After all, what did it matter if a woman was beautiful? That meant nothing at all to him. Surely, what mattered was what she held in her brain.
Intellect was what intrigued him. This shy, quiet young woman had shown nothing of that, thus far. So, he maintained his gaze away from her, continuing to dread entry into the main hall.
But the young woman, nervous though she seemed, did not leave. It intrigued him that she would not remove herself. He simply wished that she would either speak or go.
The evening was such a bore, and he had no desire to go inside, so Benjamin decided there was only one option for him.
He could make sport of this young woman. He could tease her and watch as her vacancy showed. After all, if she was a young woman at the ball that evening, surely she must have been there for no other reason than to secure a match and make her family proud.
“Tell me, what is it about balconies that you prefer to people?” he asked, simply.
“I beg your pardon?” she replied, evidently uncertain.
“Well, something must have brought you out here and away from them. Do tell me, what has you so frightened of being indoors?” he continued.
“What makes you believe I am frightened?” she retorted.
“You are the daughter of a nobleman,” he quipped. “Is it not the duty of all noblemen’s daughters to be shy and frightened, waiting for their rescuer?”
He waited at this, wondering how long it would take her to look at him with fluttered lashes and confess that she longed for a prince to sweep her away. One of her parents’ choosing, of course, because she was a good girl.
“The only thing young women need rescuing from is a society that tells her vultures belong in a dance hall and how it is shameful to depart on one’s own,” she replied, giving him a cocked eyebrow and a tilt of her head.
Benjamin was surprised by this response. He had not expected her to have any sort of mind of her own. After all, young women were trained well to avoid such a thing.
“And what makes it shameful?” he asked, curious to see what other thoughts dwelt within her mind.
“A vulture may pick its prey at any time, but only so long as he has the approval of a young woman’s parents. It is their deepest fear that if she should depart, she may come upon a swan instead,” she answered him.
Again, he was taken aback. This was a young woman who truly did not wish to be picked apart by society and was willing to share that openly with him, despite the fact that such a thing was frowned upon.
“You do give your opinion quite soundly,” he remarked.
Benjamin could not help but wonder more about what this young woman was like. She had already surprised him, and he noticed she was growing more comfortable than she had been moments before when he first spoke with her.
“If I’m to be told what to say and do, how to dress and present myself, then I must conclude that my opinion is the only thing I have that is my very own. All else belongs to the rest of London,” she confessed.
“All of London? Is there anyone in particular?” he asked.
The young woman looked at him, and he allowed himself to hold her gaze, turning just enough that she could speak directly to him.
“Does not every English girl belong to her parents? And are they not willing and able to exchange her for any goods they see fit?” she challenged him.
Of course. Her parents were the sort who sought money and power. No wonder they brought her here. Perhaps they had even seen him standing out here and sent her. Maybe this was all a ruse to get his attention.
But he couldn’t be sure. He wondered if she was like them and wanted to find out as quickly as possible. He would have to continue in this dialogue until she gave him some sort of answer regarding her own character rather than simply that of her parents.
“And do you not desire to have those things? What young woman could be blamed? The safety and security to be found in a title and wealth are certainly a temptation to any man or woman,” he remarked casually.
“You, sir, have the luxury of saying that. You are a man. But I have been arranged for a courtship at the behest of my mother and father. Without my consent or desire. Wealth and power mean nothing to me when I am stuck being committed to some old duke,” she said bitterly.
“Some old duke?” he asked, curious. A thought began to form in the back of his mind, and Benjamin wondered if she was, indeed, one of the young ladies whose parents had tried to arrange a courtship with him.
“Yes. A man no one has seen for years. Who knows what he might be like. There is no telling, and no one will give me any hint about him other than the terrible rumors I hear,” she sighed.
Indeed, he realized. This must be the young woman Faversham was trying to tell him about before the dance. Either she truly had no idea who he was, or her parents had instructed her to play the fool, and she had gone overboard.
He was not offended by her remarks, but he could not help being amused by them. It was a good opportunity for him to learn more about what was said about him and how she felt. If indeed, they were truly her feelings and not those she was instructed to have by her mother and father.
“Oh dear. That sounds perfectly terrible. An old man?” he began.
“Yes. Something like fifteen years my senior. And a murderer…” she added quietly at the end.
For a moment, Benjamin’s heart broke. The fact that this was one of the only things she believed about him was agony. But he wanted to know more, and he wanted her to realize how foolish all of this was.
It bothered him that he wished for her to think better of him, but perhaps if he could make her the fool for believing such lies, he might find some sort of satisfaction.
“A murderer? What sort? How could he be a murderer and get away with it?” he asked.
“Well, the rumors are unclear. They say he gets away with it because of his wealth and status, but I have heard a great deal of other things as well. All manner of terrifying things,” she said, showing genuine fear.
“Such as?” he asked.
“Why, just this night, I have heard he made a pact with a demon to become a beast in the night. He howls and calls for the ghost of his betrothed, and he leaves death in his wake everywhere he goes,” she told him, trying not to gasp at the words.
“A demon? Leaving death in his wake? He sounds utterly dreadful!” Benjamin exclaimed, dramatically.
“He truly does. I cannot believe my parents wish for me to marry such a man. If even a fraction of the rumors regarding him are true, I shall be dead before the wedding even occurs,” she said.
He ignored the stabbing pain that she believed this about him, but he was not quite finished with making sport of her.
“And then what do you suppose would happen? I mean, if you are killed so terribly soon, if such a thing should happen to you. What would become of you? What happens to his victims?” he asked her.
“Goodness knows! If he calls to them in the night as I’ve heard, howling like a beast, then perhaps he shall keep my soul locked away with all the rest. Oh, it sounds ridiculous, but it is what they all say about him. He is a great beast,” she told him breathlessly.
Benjamin tried not to laugh, but a small chuckle escaped his lips. He closed his mouth tightly and glanced at her properly.
When their eyes met, he noticed the corners of her mouth lilting upwards until she, too, began to laugh.
“Oh, forgive me, such ridiculous gossip that is. As much as I enjoy reading such things, it does make for poor party conversation,” she giggled.
“Does that mean some of your fears are relieved?” he asked, still laughing in reply.
“I have a great deal of fears that have nothing to do with these rumors, but I must confess it does ease a bit of my worry. Thank you for that. I appreciate you helping me to realize how ridiculous and foolish this is,” she told him.
“It is no trouble at all. I am glad you are feeling more at peace about the matter. Although I sense that it will be quite some time before you fully change your mind regarding this match,” he said.
“Yes, it shall. I cannot imagine it will be easy being married off even to a man who is not some wretched beast. I know nothing of him. I do not know if he is kind or generous or anything at all,” she said.
“Are those the things you seek in a marriage?” he inquired.
“Of course. Those and many others,” she replied.
“Tell me then, what are the others? You claim it is not simply wealth and status that you desire, so what is your idea of what marriage ought to be?” he asked.
The young woman sighed dreamily.
“Certainly kindness. And, rare though it is, I seek a husband whom I can love, and whom loves me in return. Not in the fleeting sort of way. Not in the way so many young women seek. But a true, committed love. The sort that lasts through challenges and differing opinions and even the changes of time over one’s appearance,” she told him.
“You have thought about this a great deal,” he noted.
“Well, it is difficult not to think about. As a young woman, I have been trained my whole life to consider what shall be expected of me as a wife. Is it wrong that I allow myself to dream of what I might expect in a husband?” she asked.
“Certainly not wrong, just unusual,” he answered.
“I do not wish for a husband who is simply going to pamper me and bow to my every whim. I wish for one whom I can respect because of the character I see in him rather than a title he holds,” she continued.
“That is a rather different view than what I have heard young women seek,” he confessed to her.
“Perhaps that is because young women are trained not to hope for such a dream. We are raised to seek only fortune and title. So the vast majority of young women train themselves to wish for that because it is believed to be the best the world has to offer us,” she said.
“You truly believe so?” he asked, ever more taken aback by her honesty and opinions regarding these things.
“Of course. I would be a fool to believe that such a match could ever take place. And it is painful having dreamt of something different and knowing I shall never have it.
“Sometimes I wish I could be content with the same things other young women want. I wish I could be content to search for a husband who has wealth and title rather than hoping for love and respect within my marriage one day,” she said.
“You surprise me,” he admitted to her.
“How so?” she asked him, looking at the side of his face that was still visible.
“I have never met a young woman who has thought further on these matters,” he told her.
“Perhaps she was not foolish enough to tell you that she felt such,” the young woman retorted. “Society demands otherwise from us.”
Although it was barely visible, he noted a small shudder in her frame.
“Are you cold?” he asked her.
She looked at him, caught off guard by that simple question.
“Perhaps a little,” she confessed.
Benjamin considered his options. There were a few things he wondered about her still. He could remain outside with her, trying to learn more, or he could ask her to dance.
In reality, she seemed very different from how he might have considered her just a few moments before. She was wise and mature, unlike any other young woman that he knew.
And yet it was clear that her parents— Abingdon, was it? —were only seeking after his wealth and title. Surely she could not have come by her own thoughts so easily. She must not be so different from them as she seemed.
This was all, certainly, a game of theirs. It was likely something they had come up with to engage his interests and create a bond or connection between the two. But he still wished to learn more about her, and this would give him the perfect opportunity.
If they went inside and danced together, he could quickly learn who she really was and how she truly thought about matters.
The apple could not have fallen so far from the tree. Her parents must have trained her very well in preparation for this meeting.
“Would you like to go inside for a dance?” he asked her openly and in a friendly manner.
Benjamin held out his hand to her, allowing her to reply as she wished.
The young woman, whose name he could not quite recall at that moment, looked at him hesitantly.
But after only a moment, she opened her lips to reply.
“Yes, thank you,” she said. Then her soft, elegant hand slipped into his.