Hunters

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II. Slavery

“It’s been quite odd.”

“What has?” replied Lisette in a whisper. Her shimmering eyes entranced by a man across the room.

“Haven’t you been listening?” snarled her companion. “Lisette!” she barked when all she received as an answer was a distant grin of infatuation for some ridiculous rake.

“Oh!” Lisette gasped when she was taken by the wrist to be drawn from distraction.

Through the flocks of colors and speech, Lecia Harper led her confidante from the poisonous melodies. Around them the opulent manor recessed into darker crevices and caves where—had she not visited before—Lecia would have been lost. The oblivion of forbidden, lonely travel seemed more welcoming than the packs of smiling, glittering wolves. Their enchantments were stealing away her dearest friend as well as they had torn from her a most beloved sister. She could not allow it.

At last, a dim trail of light emerged from a crack. Lisette brushed ahead in an intoxicated rush, to fall—ungracefully—to a fine, velvet chaise. The distant hum of music lingered in the small parlor, though the effects of the witchcraft only left Lecia to brood. The gilded, perfect spines of a thousand books loomed over them, more dazzling reminders of what the pack could offer.

“How did they get him to come?” Lisette sighed, sprawled like in some semi-classical portrait with mussed chocolate tresses.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Had you been listening instead of gawking at him, you would know,” gritted Lecia.

“Oh, please tell me now,” her pathetically infatuated friend insisted, rolling her head to afford all her attention to the subject.

“I’ve half a mind not to—” she grumbled, only to be interrupted by an adamant “Please!”.

If Lecia had not already made up her mind about men, the image of her vibrant childhood companion turned to a puddle of useless nothingness would have persuaded her. It seemed slavery to her, whether it was for love or not. For as long as she had control, she promised herself independence. Never willingly would she toss aside her choice and liberty. There was no price that could convince her to forget freedom.

“I suggest you listen closely; I will not be telling you again.” She peered down her nose, wide, wondering eyes gazed up in anticipation. “He’s related to Henry—somehow. The Earl of Forneford’s cousin, Tobias, married Lady Beatrice Lorton. Her mother’s sister had married Duke Oliver Cantington, who—as you know—was the current Duke of Cambria and Martisine’s grandfather. A cousin’s cousin’s son, is really who he is,” Lecia explained, rather disinterested.

Lisette remained fascinated. Very few young ladies had ever denied the splendor of Duke Vaughan Ethan Cantington of Cambria and Martisine. Likely those who had were never privy to a portrait of his face void of an unruly beard or a tumble of floppy locks atop his head. There had been a time, as Lisette and Lecia had learned, that he donned fine garments made just right. His eyes had sparkled like the diamond lights and his manners of etiquette had been unmatched. As just a boy, new to his title and infinite wealth, he had engraved himself on everyone and everything, and it was that memory of him that would never be struck from any single mind and left him to be forever tormented by his own shadow.

On that night, when Zora Harper became a future countess, he returned. After years of an abrupt and mystifying hibernation, his amorphous skin was shed, and—resurrected—was the boy who had awed an entire society. Taller, stronger, and infinitely more handsome than any recollection or imagination, a man emerged. A man without boyish charm to spare the naïve and ignorant and, instead, an aggrieved allure that rendered all pathetic and defenseless.

Lisette, as it were, was not an exception.

“Zora’s related, then?” inquired the obsessed girl. “She simply must invite him to every ball she has. And she must have lots of balls.”

“Believe me,” grumbled Lecia, “the Countess does that on her own. That woman wishes she had had a daughter to marry off to that man. Personally, I fail to understand what exactly has everyone so titillated. He’s rich, to be sure—as mother has incessantly reminded me—but from what father’s said, he seems to be some sort of cankerous degenerate.”

“He is not!” Lisette defended the Welshman. Though, even in her wildest dreams, the likelihood of her contact with him under normal circumstances was exorbitantly minute. Most of her dazed admiration was inflicted by the unforgiving shock of the miracle that had taken place when she and the Duke had, in fact, been invited to the same ball. “He’s a gentleman,” she swooned.

“How can you say that? I know you’ve not met him,” Lecia accused.

“I don’t need to. For God’s sake, Lecia, take just one look at the man. No one that magnificent could be so faulted.”

“Please,” she groaned her disagreement. “I digress, any word of him is too much. After hearing mother and father compliment him for weeks, I’d rather return to embroidery practices.”

“You’ve known he’d be here for weeks?” demanded an exasperated Lisette. “How could you not tell me? Lecia!”

“What?” she barked. “How should I have known you’d fancy him so bloody much? Christ be damned, Lisette, he’s just a man and I’m entirely sick of him!”

Her friend pouted, indignant disappointment. There was silence, though the flutter of waltzing dresses floated through the cracks. Lecia herself began to frown. Was this truly all there was? Dances and ball gowns and tea? She’d known that it defined many, but never thought it would ravage her closest friends to pieces. Zora had embraced it that day—she had grasped on to it and fallen in love with its finery and loveliness. Surely there was no truth in affection for a man she barely knew. And it was Lisette, swooning over a miserable man—too familiar a story, it seemed—that placed Lecia on the edge.

Once before she had had hope that maybe, perhaps, a man—a real man—would find her. He would look past what she was and see who she was. There would be no question, then, if everything would crumble under a touch because he would make sure that everything would be all right.

But he would never come. Not to her. If the twenty men she had scared off already were no account of that, then the superficiality of charm and manners confirmed it all. There was no place for love in a society where titles were prizes and women the currency. Beauty was wealth. She was rich, but no amount of allure could afford the greatest trophy of all. And even then, it was an ugly thing. So she decided that she’d rather have nothing after all.

“Let us return to the party, I fear our presence has been greatly missed,” Lecia declared. Really, no would have noticed their disappearance. The Baroness maybe, but only in an absence of reminders to smile murmured with every exhale…

Excitement overwhelmed her companion, contempt lost to her ears.

“Quickly!” Lisette piped, eager to experience the wonder once again. She leapt from the chaise and seized Lecia’s hand. Rushing through twists and turns they arrived, once more, to the whirling of sounds and sweetness. Ever dazzled, Lisette’s eyes glittered like emeralds in the sun, while Lecia pledged to mourn her losses forever.

A new song began, lightly fluttering above their heads. Giggles of desperate daughters and maniacal mothers rang, too. It was, however, a gasp that grabbed Lecia to focus. Lisette squeezed her hand so tightly Lecia’s fingers may have well turned blue, but still she did not know from what the mania grew.

“What is it?” Lecia growled, yanking her hand from Lisette’s.

“Your—your father—”

“Well, spit it out,” Lecia egged.

“He’s speaking with the Duke!” Her air was so constricted that Lecia was sure Lisette might faint. “We must be introduced at once.”

So Lisette stampeded through the flock toward where—sure enough—the Baron and the Duke were engaged in conversation. Even with the glowing gold lights, her father seemed pale. Lecia’s heart sank with terror for her father and anger toward the man who disparaged him. Without a second cause, she too trudged through the sea of silk to rescue the only man she would ever love.

Though neither had been near drowning, Lisette gasped as if no air reached her lungs while her companion lacked any breath at all. He was mere paces away, yet it seemed to Lecia that the Duke was on another earth. He rested so far out of her grasp that it seemed futile even to reach, but Lisette had dreamed this moment too many times not to attempt. It was for her that Lecia spoke up.

“Father,” she had interrupted, she knew, though it could be only for the better. Startled, he turned to gaze at her, a deep void in his eyes as he did. It scared her. More than anything.

“Ah,” he feigned a smile. “My dear,” he beckoned her under his arm.

Lecia complied, resting in a weak embrace. He was too tense to hold her closer, too nervous to love her. For that she resented the Duke. More in that minute than any other that could come to be. He was ripping from her the vestiges of a well-spent future and she hated him for it.

As Lisette had prattled—and to Lecia’s dismay—he actually was quite handsome. Soft grey eyes regarded her curiously, as if a foreign chieftain contemplating an invasion of her own territory. Freckles from his shave spotted his formidable jaw, and the pelt on his head had been recently sheared. Poised fiercely, he stood above most men and every woman there, and his shoulders promised power unlike any Lecia had seen.

“My Lord Duke, may I present my daughter, Miss Lecia Harper,” her father said evenly. He pressed her forward to offer her hand to the beast before her. “My dear, meet Vaughan Cantington, Duke of Cambria and Martisine.”

In his hand, hers appeared to belong to a child. His skin was calloused and mean, like the lines across his face, but his lips were like a gentleman when they met her skin.

“My Lady,” he purred, “it is my pleasure.”

“Duke,” she replied, shrinking away from his touch as he grinned.

“And, Miss Lisette Plucknet of Feva,” the Baron continued.

Distracted, the Duke turned to Lisette. She offered her hand too willingly, though his touch was not as kind as before. In that moment Lecia studied him, calculating his thick brows and exquisite tailoring. Lisette’s pathetic mumbling was a hum while the return of the Duke’s eyes to hers was a scream that could deafen.

“I had heard rumors of your beauty,” he began, smiling down while Lecia fought a frown. “I now know they are false.” In that breath it seemed the room was stilled. Even Lisette, in all her admiration, was taken aback so suddenly there was barely hope for recovery. “For there are no words to depict you, Miss Harper. A sonnet could not illustrate the splendor I see before me.”

A smirk glinted for a moment. Lecia knew that he was all too aware of his potential offense. She knew his words were meant to impress the greatest of opinions on her father—though it was lost to her why. Although he was a fine man, what purpose could a duke have to impress a baron? It was not money, for she was all too aware of the wealth the young man held. “Richer than half the peerage combined,” her father had said once, and Lisette too had gushed over and over of it. So she wondered if maybe he intended to win her over some how—have her innocence, it would seem. That only fueled her distaste for him; he was a symbol of all that was rotten in society.

“It would be a great honor if you would grant me this next dance.”

Though her father smiled just a little more fully and Lisette barely contained a gasp, Lecia felt numb. It took every bit of will she had not to stomp away as an indignant child and ruin her reputation. For her it would have been worth the scorn of the ton, but she knew that her bad name would mar Zora’s as well, and break what seemed left of her once sturdy father.

“Only if you accept Lisette after we’re finished,” she challenged him.

“Of course,” he agreed eagerly, turning his eyes to the giddy young woman. “It would be my honor, Miss Plucknet.” He expectantly returned his gaze to Lecia.

“Then I am yours,” she admitted tersely and extended her hand. Again she seemed to become a girl, small beside him despite her own height, but she wished she had been born even slighter when the Duke became a beacon for every guest to watch. The silk sea parted as they made their way to waltz, and the birds twittered while the wolves cried out in agony.

“What is it you want?” she asked him coyly, wrapping her left arm around his neck. He grinned still as his right hand found the small of her back and brought her closer to him.

“It’s not my place to tell you that,” he whispered in her ear as the music picked up and they began to float across the floor. Despite herself, Lecia smiled. As an outsider, the Duke had become rather perceptive, though even a faint smile on her usually stony face was hard to miss. “You’re pleased by this?” he laughed.

“No,” she pouted. Quickly, she explained herself, “Chopin is my favorite.”

Regarding the current melody, he nodded, “I’m not surprised.”

“And that means?” she dared him to continue.

“Merely that he suits you rather well. Though at this party, I’m afraid his nuances are lost,” he shared with her.

As their turn came to a close, the Duke watched her with an enquiring eye.

“I must admit, I anticipated you to be…much more sociable,” he said.

“And I confess,” she began as he escorted her back to her father, “I’ve given up on charming young men.” She half intended to harrumph for him, but decided against it as they got too near to where her mother had joined the group.

“Then I regret to inform you,” he kissed her hand, “that you have failed, for I am no longer young.”

He left her with that, gracefully meeting her mother before taking Lisette off to dance. She was all too confused, unable to understand exactly what had happened. Before she realized it, her eyes studied his movements with her friend. She scowled at Lisette, her warm smile unhidden or disguised. How was it so easy for her to feel such happiness?

“He seems to be a fine dancing partner,” her mother decided, linking their arms together. It was a wonder Lecia heard her voice at all, with the buzzing in her ears too loud for her to focus on much else.

“Decent,” Lecia allowed.

“And a fine man, as you well know,” the Baroness continued. “I imagine it’s a great wonder to many why he’s here at all.”

“And why is he here, mother?” Lecia asked, breaking her prowling gaze to look on her mother. She had been beautiful once, too. It hadn’t all left her yet, but it would. Someday. Her hair dazzled like rubies and her eyes bronze, but once perfect porcelain skin was now beginning to crack.

“It is not my place to say,” she parroted the words of the very man she spoke of. “Though I do hear the Countess has many times entertained him with a ball.”

Her lips lied as well as her husband’s eyes had feigned pleasure.

A mess was unfolding before Lecia, a great confusion of feelings and knowledge. Nothing was making sense; everything was lost and vanished from her grasp. She began to wonder if delusions were safer than independence. And she worried why her mother could scarcely look at her again and her father disappeared after collecting Lisette from the Duke.

There were secrets—at least that had become clear—but the manner of them was a haze of uncertainty.


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