Prologue - The Unseen Lady
Sighing plaintively, I watched the single lit candle in front of my dressing mirror, surrounded by small stubs on a hard cake of candles that had long since burned down to their last. Under my gaze the nascent orange flicker slowly became a vigorous flame and the charred wick began to curl over into a pool of molten wax. I lifted my hand to touch the path the wax had dribbled over the edge, tracing my finger over the drips and runs after they had cooled.
I watched the flame softly move and sway unevenly from side to side beneath the barest hint of an icy breeze. Another drop op melted heat cascaded down the candle’s length, nearing my fingertips. I felt its warmth lick at my skin and yanked my hand back from its heated path. Having not been fast enough, I felt the wax cool and crack on my finger and shoved it into my mouth to soothe the burn.
The thundering of hooves and carriage wheels on cobblestone pierced the silence that had fallen over the household. I stiffened and lowered my hands to clutch them into fists at my sides. Apprehension snaked down my spine. Was it more dinner guests from affluent society come to take some small pity on the Ainsworth’s state? I bristled silently. I would like nothing more than to deliver them a tongue-lashing worthy of the intolerable unkindness I had been forced to suffer beneath their subjugation.
Exhaling a calming breath, I moved to part the heavy drapes in front of my chamber window. I couldn’t let anyone catch a glimpse of me. Father’s warning still rang clear in my mind, but I needed to see my suspicions confirmed.
As if on cue, a tall man stepped down from the foot-board, his hulking frame illuminated by the carriage lamps. Breath caught in my throat, I watched as he straightened. From what I could see, I thought him quite handsome. He appeared every inch a member of the peerage, posture upright and garbed in stately attire. Light-colored breeches clung to thick, powerful thighs, tucked into knee high hessian boots. A perfectly tailored waistcoat spun across wide shoulders and the ends of his hair snuck just beneath the collar, brushing the stiffly starched cravat around his neck.
I swallowed thickly at the unknown feeling that squeezed my throat. My eyes were compelled to watch the way ropes of muscle seemed to roll across his frame. Warmth inundated my body and trickled through my belly. Quaky with nerves, my knees knocked together, my skin tingling as if I had fallen under some sort of spell.
Something stirred within me, hot and fast.
I licked at my parched lips. I had never even met the man and I feared I’d swoon.
Thoughts of him entered my mind unbidden, made me wish I could get close enough for our bodies to brush. This stranger projected masculinity and with his size, could probably cover the entire width of my petite frame. My face flushed hotly, blood pounding through my body. I had never responded to a man this way before, not that I’d had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of many. Drawing a shaky breath, I leaned my elbows on the window ledge. I knew it was foolish to risk him seeing me, but I couldn’t tear my gaze away.
A gloved hand appeared from inside the dark carriage. I blinked. I could do nothing but watch as the perceived gentleman gallantly offered his arm to assist the lady’s descent. Jealousy guided my thoughts as his female companion emerged in a flurry of mint green skirts. I felt my insides tighten when she tilted her head back and proceeded to thank him with a flirtatious smile.
My fingers tightened around the window ledge. That tart little pout on her lips was scarcely discernable as night fell over the estate in earnest and my vision began to fail, but I recognized this damsel only too well. Enhanced eyesight during the daylight hours certainly didn’t atone for near blindness at night – a particular ailment of mine for which there was no effective treatment – but at this very moment I wished wholeheartedly that I had been too blind to witness her pawing at the only man to ever stir something inside me.
My mouth twisted into a bitter scowl. This impetuous behavior belonged to none other than my younger sister, Alice. The debutante daughter returned home from her second season in London, doubtless with more offers than she had turned down after her first. Half blinded with unfamiliar emotion, I exhaled a shuddering breath. He must be another of countless suitors for her hand.
Just as well.
Alongside Alice, the devilishly handsome lord she had on her arm would heed me no less if I were invincible.
I dropped the cinnamon drapes into place and stepped back from the window, rubbing at my arms through the cotton fabric of my long ruffle sleeve nightdress. Even drawn they did nothing to chase the chill from the stone walls. I turned towards the low burning fire and shakily inhaled the fragrance of burning pine. The soft crackle of flames filled the chamber with gentle whispers that gave an accurate account of my forlorn soul. I pressed my head against the intricately woven bars of the brass bedstead and slowly sank down to the pale blue spread.
Nevertheless aware of its merits, I wished father had never started this charade. Though he always found it necessary to remind me that there were infinitely many things worse in the world. That I could have been begging on alms in Whitechapel. That I should be grateful of the protection his name afforded my condition.
I didn’t feel very grateful.
I wanted what Alice had, to attend lavish balls in beautiful gowns and have eligible gentlemen pencil their names into my dance card. But I had no place in society. Instead I had to endure the widespread gossip that Viscount Ainsworth’s sickly daughter had been born a cretin so disfigured her own parents couldn’t look upon her. My throat tightened. I hated being kept in the dark as I was, treated as if I had contracted leprosy. It had become a hardship beyond comprehension.
I flinched when a knock sounded at my chamber door and jarred me from my dark thoughts. I tilted my head to see Edith, my middle aged lady’s maid, enter unperturbed by my silence.
Her protective manner towards, what my mother believed a changeling not born of her womb – a faerie child left in place of her human child stolen by faeries – had been my only light all these years of being kept in the dark. I was glad father had hired her and that she had made it her utmost mission to befriend me. We had each recognized a grieving soul and kindred spirit in the other.
Edith oftentimes spoke with lasting sadness of her love for a burly Scottish Laird and I had begun to suspect him either married or dead. I did not pry. Ever following in my shadow, she treated me as her own.
“Good evenin’, milady.” She gave a cheery smile and curtsied before she set down a tray, laden with tea and biscuits, on a small table near the hearth that occupied most of one wall. “Would ye like some tea? I thought ye might enjoy some refreshments since ye barely touched yer dinner.”
“Yes, that would be lovely,” I replied with a nod and went to sit glumly on the plush red settee facing the hearth. The sweet smell of freshly baked biscuits made my mouth water despite the uneasy feeling that had tied my stomach up in knots. With a soft bite to the inside of my cheek, I nabbed a biscuit from the tray and dipped it into my tea. Rolling my shoulders forward, I sipped the warm beverage between small bites of the sugar biscuits, enjoying the combined rich and sweetened flavor.
Edith fetched my wrapper and draped it gently over my shoulders. “Ye have t’ keep warm, milady. We wouldnae want ye t’ catch yer death of a cold.” Her tone was kind and lilting as she crossed the room to separate the lit candle from the hardened wax on my dressing table. She shook her head and muttered quietly to herself about my inability to use a candleholder. The wick popped loudly and the small flame flickered, sheltered though it was by her cupped fingers. She placed the candle onto the sconce of a silver baluster candlestick beside the bed before turning down the covers and checking the embers of the bed warmer.
I huffed and placed my teacup down on the porcelain saucer with a light clatter. “You don’t have to do all this, Edith. I’m perfectly capable of getting into bed unassisted.”
“Nonsense. Tis my job and I enjoy doin’ these tasks fer ye.” She tsked and pursed her lips. “Dunnae be a stubborn lass ‘bout it, ye need t’ keep warm, ye know ye do.”
“I’ll not be treated as an invalid.” I was being positively mulish and it was terribly uncomely of me, but I could not be pacified by reflections of remorse. Stubbornness was currently the only thing that kept me from surrendering to the bottomless pit of pain that had begun to expand from my chest.
“Aye.” Edith planted her hands firmly on her hips, expression pinched. “And I’ll nae have ye acting as a child. I’ve enough o’ that with yer sister returned and intent on being the object o’ all men’s desires.”
I groaned in response, touching my head where it throbbed at my temple.
At the mention of her my thoughts had immediately returned to the man at her side. My eyes strained against the looming blindness, staring blankly at Edith’s fading countenance. A sadness that startled me drained through my body and made my heart sink deeper into my chest. It ached behind my ribs, finding little solace in fate’s diabolic ingenuity. I felt suddenly breathless and clung to the upholstered armrest of the settee as if the floor was about to tilt from beneath my feet.
Edith reached out and gently grasped my shoulder. “What ails ye, lass?” Her voice had lost its edge, her words laced with concern. A shiver ran through me and I averted my gaze from her keen observation. I knew she had to be watching my expression carefully. She cupped my cheek in her callused palm. “Tell me.”
My head bowed in anguish, eyes glazed with tears. Her comfort was my undoing. “That man,” I paused and sucked in a sharp breath. I lifted my eyes to gauge her reaction, but the outline of her frame was all I could detect. My voice was barely a whisper when I spoke again. “I think somehow he was meant to be mine.”