“You wish to obtain the Key To The Heart?” Lady Diane questioned, standing behind her desk in the spacious study of her estate.
“After all, why not? The Key should be ours. A treasure of that value is of no use in the hands of that recluse,” the portly Baron seated on a nearby settee concluded.
His statement was cheered on by the echo of agreements of the fellow noblemen and noblewomen of the land.
Diane placed her hands flat against the rough surface of the desk. “You cannot acquire the Key. It does not belong to you, and there is no way Count Valarian would part with it.”
The room fell silent until a skinny Duke spoke up. “Why don’t we take it then?”
Diane suddenly straightened as all eyes in the room fell on her again, including those of the skinny Duke. “Why don’t you take it from him? You could. You are the only one of us who could.”
Diane shook her head once and kept her face free from emotion, though her heart raged. “He would never give it to me.”
“We were not telling you to ask it from him like a child,” a wrinkled Duchess scoffed. “You’re familiar with the Count, familiar with that place. Go there and take it.”
Diane’s pale eyes turned steely. “I will not. The Key you seek, it is not a magic lamp or wishing star to grant your every whim. You have no use of it.”
“Aye,” said the portly Baron. “But the Key leads the holder to their heart’s deepest desire. That alone could be worth more than all the wishes in the world.”
“Exactly,” the old duchess continued. “Upon having the Key, each of us will have our turn with it until we’ve had our one use of it.” She paused to level Diane with a haughty expression. “You would not go unrewarded either. You could have your turn with the Key, and of course a monetary reward.”
“Precisely,” a handsome but haughty older Earl chimed in. “The other nobles and I are prepared to offer you a generous sum for obtaining the Key. That money would help with your...” He gestured around the study. “Humble conditions?”
Diane clenched her hands into fists in the folds of her skirt. Several thoughts passed through her mind, including the enticing thought of telling them off and storming out of the room, and thoughts of memories which both pained and consoled her.
Yet, it was the memory of the words her mother had spoken to her that broke through the rest, the words that had made Diane return home only six months ago. We need you here, to rebuild our legacy and restore our family name.
The fortune the nobles offered now would bring them back from the brink of poverty and restore the Roxfield home. Then Diane could leave the place for good.
With a heavy heart, she accepted the offer.
The next evening, Diana and her elder brother Thaddeus rode in a carriage to Count Valarian’s manor.
Diane’s dread grew with every turn of the carriage wheels, but she resolved, once again, to continue on in the mission to rescue the family she detested, apart from her dear brother.
“Are you sure you wish to do this?” Thaddeus asked.
Her answer was soft and tinged with hopelessness. “I have no choice.”
Thaddeus exhaled roughly. “Of course you do. I can help. I am the eldest, after all. It is my responsibility. I could ask Maria for money. It wouldn’t be much, but enough to get you by for now.”
Diane turned to him, hardly able to see his face in the inky shadows of the carriage. “No, Thaddeus. That is your wife’s fortune. I cannot turn to charity to save our name.” Only thievery, she thought with a sinking heart.
Silence fell over them once again. Soon, they came to the gravel drive secluded by a canopy of bare branches from long dead trees on either side of the drive, and Thaddeus signaled for the driver to stop.
The carriage swayed to a stop and Diane kissed her brother’s cheek. “Remain out of sight. If I do not return by the end of the hour, return without me.” She stepped out of the cart and the gravel crunched beneath her feet. She began to walk.
The sound of the carriage rolling away sounded behind her, she moved over to the grass on the side of the path to lessen the sound of her approach as she continued on.
As Diane exited the copse of trees, the manor appeared like a dream or a memory before her, dark and beautiful in the pale moonlight, and bringing back waves of memories.
Stilling herself, Diane crossed the yard towards the manor, but instead went to the nearby stables. The Count went for a ride at this time every evening without fail, but she only needed to make sure this evening was not an exception. Peeking in, she confirmed that the stall of his black steed indeed stood empty.
She drew the spare key from her pocket and proceeded to the house. Coming to the front door, she unlocked it. She opened the door slowly on soundless hinges and was greeted with the faint smells of cedar and wood smoke.
Diane held her breath, listening, but the manor was silent, and so she proceeded, stepping inside the ornate foyer awash with warmth and candlelight.
She closed the door but left it open a crack just in case she needed to make a hasty escape.
Think, Diane, she thought as she walked. Where would the Count have kept the Key To The Heart? His study? The art gallery safe? His chambers? That thought made her stumble a step. The art gallery safe. Of course, she reasoned.
And so that’s where she checked, followed by the study, the library, and any other location she thought likely, all while keeping an alert ear listening for any sign or sound of the Count.
It was when she came to the second safe in the drawing room that Diane stopped. What am I doing here? I’m invading his property and his privacy. And for what? To please the nobles and their selfish souls? To help my family when they are the reason my life is now in ruins?
Diane stepped back from the safe and bit her lip. Once again drawing the spare key from her pocket, she laid it softly on a table holding a painted vase and slipped back into the corridor.
With footfalls swift and silent, Diane came to the front door again, slightly ajar as she had left it. Glancing outside, she opened the door to slip back into the night, but it was too late.
A figure, tall and pale and dressed in fine black clothing, was on the walkway approaching the house.
Heart lurching, Diane ducked back inside, shut the door, and turned to escape through a different route, but she stopped herself. Whether it was from guilt or hope, she turned back to the entrance and stood her ground, dropping her eyes to the marble floor.
The door opened, and then silence.
When Diane could stand it no longer, she lifted her eyes to see the most haunting and handsome face of Count Valarian.
Various emotions flicked through his perfect gray eyes. Shock, hope, then they turned dark. “What are you doing here?”
“I- I...” Diane tried over and over to attempt to form any words, but she was rendered quite speechless. Swallowing, she finally voiced a feeble confession. “I don’t know.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, she shook her head. “No. No, I do. I came for the Key To The Heart.”
If Valarian’s eyes were dark before, they were storm clouds now. “To steal it from me.”
Diane gave a small nod, clenching her hands over her stomach. “Yes. The nobles promised a worthy sum for it.” She straightened her shoulders. “But I couldn’t go through with it. I couldn’t hurt you to help them.”
“Not this time at least.”
Valarian’s words cut her to her heart, but she restrained her emotions.
He stepped aside to open the path to the doorway. “Leave,” he ordered, but there was no anger in his voice.
Shutting her eyes for the briefest moment, Diane nodded in acceptance and moved to the open doorway, her heart leaping at being near him again, even if only to walk past him. As she stepped onto the stone pathway, she turned back to see Valarian with his hand on the edge of the door, ready to close it.
“For what it’s worth,” she began before she lost her nerve or her chance, “I am truly, truly sorry. I regret leaving you every day of my life. Choosing my family over you is my heart’s one true regret. If I could do it over again, I would choose you over honoring my parents’ wishes to return and govern the Roxfield home. Choose to be your betrothed again, and one day, your wife.”
Valarian’s eyes stared unseeing at the door frame. A muscle in his jaw twitched, but otherwise, he showed no emotion.
Diane turned again to leave and movement in the bushes ahead caught her attention.
Thaddeus poked his head out of the foliage. He saw Diane there and then noticed Valarian there behind her. He balked, but Diane signaled carefully for him to go. He took the cue and disappeared back behind the bush in the direction of the gravel path.
“Diane.” Her name on Valarian’s lips brought her back.
He took hold of the thin chain which hung from his neck and snapped it with a yank. He held it aloft and from the chain hung a delicate key of black iron with the shape of a heart made in the top.
Diane gasped softly. He kept it with him the entire time. She remained still, but he held it out to her. “Take it. It’s of no use to me now.” His eyes met hers then, dark and sincere. “I know my heart’s one true desire.”
Tears sprang into Diane’s eyes and burned as she held them back, shaking her head.
Valarian grabbed her hand then and faltered at the touch but placed the key in her palm and closed her fingers around the cool metal. “It’s yours. Now go.”
And so she did, clutching the key to herself and feeling as if her very heart were being clawed from her chest. She walked away and it took everything within her not to look back.
Diane stepped from the walkway to the gravel path, entering the copse of trees, and pressed on until she knew the manor was no longer visible behind her. It was only then that she allowed her tears to fall, freely and silently, down her cheeks and onto the ground as she went.
She did not even notice she had made it back until Thaddeus caught her arm and pulled her along the carriage.
“Diane! When you did not return, I became worried. I saw the Count. What happened? Are you all right? Did you get the key?”
Meeting her brother’s eyes, she nodded weakly, although to which question she didn’t know.
He breathed a laugh. In the pale light, he could not see the tears staining her face. “Excellent!” He opened the carriage door and guided Diane inside. “Come, let us leave this place.”
Once they were both seated, Thaddeus signaled for the driver to go.
The wheels began to roll along the path but Diane never lifted her eyes from her clasped hands.
I do not wish to leave him. Not again. I cannot. I still love him. I love him, I love him, I love him, was all her broken heart could think of.
“You said you got the key. Well, let’s see it,” Thaddeus’ voice sounded near her ear.
Diane’s eyes were taken from her hands to peer at her brother through the shadows. He waited.
When she looked back down, her fingers glowed with a pink light. She gasped and opened her palms to see the Key To The Heart illuminated with a beautiful glow within the heart shaped hollow.
“What does this mean?” Thaddeus questioned. “Could it mean...?”
But Diane didn’t hear him. At first, the light shimmered brightly, but as they moved further away from the manor and Valarian, the light slowly dimmed.
“I know my heart’s one true desire,” Valarian had said, and now Diane could honestly say it too.
“Stop the carriage!” she called out the window to the driver and the carriage lurched to an abrupt halt. She faced her brother and kissed his cheek. “Goodbye, Thaddeus.”
She sensed more than saw his furrowed brow. “You’re going back to him.”
“I have to try.”
Thaddeus smiled then and folded her fingers closed over the key. “And I wish you all the luck in the world, dear sister.”
“Thank you,” Diane bade and exited the carriage, the warm night air feeling refreshing and the stars shining brighter above her.
Securing the Key in her pocket, she lifted her skirts and ran the other direction down the path, gravel crunching beneath her feet and wind rushing through her hair.
Her heart pounded and her lungs ached, but it wasn’t from running.
Diane broke out of the copse of trees and the manor appeared once again, glorious and wonderful.
The door still stood open and the Count still stood in the doorway, his form silhouetted by candlelight and moonlight.
“Valarian! Valarian!” Diane cried, running to him.
Upon seeing her again, Valarian made a step outside as if to run to her but stopped himself, waiting there.
Diane slowed to a halt a few steps in front of him. She found it difficult to catch her breath, but her exercise was completely forgotten. She swallowed. Now or never.
“Forgive me,” she said finally. “I was a fool, to go back to my old life, to leave you, to break your trust and your heart.” Stepping closer but still short of him, she continued. “I failed you once before, but I choose you. Now and forever. If you would have me, if you would forgive me. I love you. My heart...” she revealed the Key to him to see it now glowed with the brightest and purest pink light, “...chose you.”
Valarian’s gaze flicked from her face to the Key and back to her face again, the barest hint of hope and a smile on his own face. “You’re staying?”
Diane breathed a smile and clutched her hands to herself. “I am.”
Valarian closed the remaining distance between them with slow, sure steps, never taking his eyes off of her. “If you stay, I’m never letting you go again.”
He placed a cool hand on her cheek, and she leaned into it, savoring his touch, his presence, and his love. “Please. I never want you to let me go again. I’m never returning home. I can never go back home.”
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, K.E.DrakeWrite a Review