Chapter 1: Yes, A Charming Man, Indeed
It had been brought to her attention, at least once by anyone who caught her in private conversation, that Peter Talwin was a man of admirable charm and upbringing that should not be forsaken.
In accordance to each repeat of the previously presented white elephant, Phoebe Mae Barrettmore assured the adviser that she was indeed well aware and that she had no intention to speak otherwise. Yes, very aware.
As the daughter and only child of a small plantation owner, she was fortunate in being the sole heir to her childhood estate and father's fortune. However, she would be unable to legitimately run the plantation and would need a husband to give his name to the business. Specifically, a husband posing enough sentiment to run the plantation as a farce to hide the true intent: using it as a place to give minorities a free ticket into the new world of proclaimed liberty. Her home, America, land of the free white man.
A radical request, considering she had been formerly content with a future as a spinster living out her inheritance.
For Phoebe, marriage was a lottery on love. And Phoebe was adverse to gambling. There was an immense quantity of factors weighing down the number on a person's chance to find it. But if marriage was her design, instead of the intent being for love, she believed the best route was to approach courting with a mind of business: marry your social equal, and be satisfied should they be decent enough in persona. In time, children would be produced and give the spouses enough occupation to ignore one another.
"Surely, you jest."
"No, madam. If I did, you would be in stitches with laughter."
A giggle squeezed past Phoebe's barely parted lips, and after receiving a nod of appreciation from the man, she ceased.
Yes, Mr. Talwin was a very charming man. More charming than a woman of her romantic realism could imagine into tangibility. It was a shame, however, that his manners faltered by his continued delay in arriving.
Balls were rarely attended by Phoebe, but through Mr. Talwin's interest in attending them, Phoebe found her own. The gentleman would never seek her at home, but when chanced upon each other in public, such as a ball, he would give her brief moments without his presence. Tonight, in his stead, she found company through an enlightenment of tales of western savagery by a visiting colonel. All true, she was reminded once more.
"—the redskin had me with spearhead to my Adam's Apple. Was saying the 'Our Father', I was. When, blam!"
The smacking of two dry hands diverted Phoebe's attention, from scanning the room, back to the older gentleman. "Young Timmy shoots a clean 'eadshot from outta the bushes."
She turned to her friend, Elinor Wade, who met her gaze with both lips tucked in her mouth. Poor Elinor was forced to bear the burden of contributing exchanges of ideas, for the only other person present was socially incompetent.
Their looks were initiated by the lack of comfort toward the topic of this exchange, but not even that could conceal the sympathy that Elinor held in her gaze for her friend. A white-elephant-inspired sympathy. Phoebe returned her smile to the colonel, deciding to devote herself to the usual endeavor in company of a stranger: making the man believe she was interested in his words so that he may tell others that 'Phoebe was a sweet girl with terrific listening skills'.
While the creases of her mouth burned sorely, Phoebe contemplated how to convince Elinor that sympathy was unnecessary. Yes, Phoebe was a little distressed by the absence of a certain gentleman, and yes, she knew that her incapability to utter words in public could wane Mr. Talwin's affections. And that such a wane could be the sole reason for his absence. But she grew offended by the implications that no effort was made on her part.
For example, she made an entire day's event to primp herself for this night. Her dress was currently the best of her wardrobe and she was constantly mindful not to itch her head in an attempt to alleviate the pain of several hair pins irritating her scalp. Most importantly, she endured distasteful conversations for this man. Was that not declaration of her love enough?
"Mr. Talwin, how did the cargo fair the seas?"
Phoebe took in a breath after hearing the conversation beginning behind her. Elinor made a final statement of their enjoyment in the story, reassured the colonel against his claim that he spoke too much, and excused herself and Phoebe from his company. Placing her hand in the crook of Phoebe's arm, Elinor turned her around to join the group taken with the person they truly wished to speak with.
"A few packages lost to the kraken, but nothing out of the ordinary. Thank you for the inquiry," Mr. Talwin delivered the sentence while his eyes caught Phoebe's. She returned his smile with her first sincere one of the night.
Peter Talwin was an oddity in a small southern town. A good oddity, but he stood out nonetheless. His suit was cleanly cut with brass buttons on the closed tailcoat. Although of a darker shade, the coat was purple and he wore his cravat tied and secured in his vest, rather than the previous ruffle fashion still adorned by the countrymen. His sun-kissed brown hair coincided with the recent Grecian fashion, with his hair trimmed short aside from the front strands which were kept a little lengthy so that they may be styled back to emphasize the layers as they curled atop one another. In short, he was a modern city-man who seemed a long way from home.
"And what might the kraken be feasting upon tonight?"
His misty-grey eyes never left her person. "I believe some wine and ale."
"Ah, then any plans to depart to the old world must be done so immediately before he sobers again."
A laugh was produced by the group, joined by Phoebe, who glanced about awkwardly, waiting desperately for them to cease so that she may join them in that as well.
"How are you, Miss Barrettmore?"
Pleased to hear him address her, she still wrung her fingers in discomfort to be the target of many eyes. One pair depart with the old man who no longer saw a business prospect for the night, and the wringing intensified at the prospect that the old man would resent her 'til death. Without any verbalization, Phoebe had an impeccable gift of gaining the condemnation of acquaintances.
"Quite well...thank you for asking...and yourself?" She finished with a third hasty breath.
"Very well, thank you for asking."
Phoebe nodded and glanced away nervously.
"No, really," He added quickly, earning her look once more, "Thank you...for asking...it's wonderful to know that you care."
Her lips had parted during the declaration and she tried to keep her brows from rising in condemnation at the excess thanks to so general a greeting.
"Uh...." When proper words never replaced the temporary sound, she hoped he would settle with another nod this time.
Looking down, he wiped the invisible creases off his stiff coat. Once content, he looked up to give a quick nod to Elinor, who in turn gave a small curtsy, before smiling back at Phoebe.
"Ms. Barrettmore--ah, Ms. Wade--," He quickly gave a second nod to Elinor, then stared at Phoebe for a moment, who stared back waiting for him to continue with whatever he had to say. Moving back, he directed their attention to the last member of their quartet. "May I introduce, my good friend, Mr. Niall Claremont?"
Upon taking in his image, she felt small fingers slither on the outside of her stomach and she clenched the muscle in retaliation. Niall Claremont brought reconsideration to her definition of an oddity, having achieved this in a unique fashion to his friend. His hair was a bit of an unusual length for it seemed too short for a ribbon's securing, but too long to be worn down without receiving questions from an observer. And his hair needed securing. The chestnut locks were womanly thick and, though he groomed it back on his head, strands had rebelliously disagreed with the notion. His sideburns were of fashion, but the bristle on his jaw made a larger statement. Phoebe thought him gorgeously disheveled.
Not disheveled in an inappropriate manner. His jacket seemed as stiffly pressed as his friend and the two gentlemen were one of the few men to wear gloves at the assembly. Yet Niall Claremont's dark jacket had enough of a green tint to accent the warmth of his bronze skin. Then there were the scars. Not to claim them as extraordinary in size, such as the ones that were common among countrymen, but they did seem contradictory to his up-to-par city fashion. No, his dishevelment seemed to make an honest character of him. That even though he was dressed for the public, traces of sides unknown to her were peeking through the garb.
His hair broke free to gravity during his bow, mostly in part with having barely bent at the waist and allowing his head to finish the bow. Phoebe clenched her stomach muscles once more, a remotely difficult task when she neglected to relax them the first time. Just as he began to rise from the bow, Phoebe hastily supplied a curtsy. This hasty nature inconvenienced her with the opportunity to catch his eyes. His dark brown eyes that also brought an emphasis to his skin.
She bit the inside of her cheek, narrowed her eyes, and let out a puff of breath through her nostrils. All this in an attempt to swallow her appreciation for an example of nature's talent with a chisel.
His eyes narrowed in return and his lips parted, provoking her to fear that he may speak. The moment was short lived as a small jerk of his divine lower jaw consumed the gap.
"Miss Barrettmore, are you quite alright? You seem flushed."
The reminder of Mr. Talwin's presence beside her brought a slight jerk to her shoulders. Then the severity of the situation sunk in. That without uttering a word, Niall Claremont had managed to have her temper altered to a state where Peter Talwin had not.
Phoebe brought a hand to her cheek and was surprised to find herself a well-established thermal source. "The...room is rather stuffy."
Mr. Talwin sheltered her free hand between both of his; the first time they had physical contact with one another. Not even this could rage war upon her stomach. In fact, it had subdued any previous anxieties she felt, and she realized just how empty she became in Mr. Talwin's company.
"Here, sit for a moment," He gently led her to a nearby seat, abandoning the other members of their party.
Once settled, he squeezed her hand and lowered himself to her eye level, "We shall fetch some punch."
Rising, he finally rid her of Mr. Claremont, as it thankfully seemed to take two men to pursue refreshments. Meanwhile, Elinor joined her in the seat to the side.
"Well, your Mr. Talwin seems as attentive as ever."
Phoebe could only nod.
Elinor and she had been friends since girlhood. Her friend, often times, served as a storage barn for things that couldn't be said and things that couldn't be held. However, leasing of this facility came with the payment of constant reminders of the inhabitants accumulating. As much as Phoebe desired to take this moment free from Mr. Talwin's witness to enact upon Elinor's services, it seemed unlikely to help. No, it was much better to forget the earlier fluke entirely.
"Was that Mr. Talwin just now?" The late widow, Mrs. Emmons, stood at their wake.
"Yes, ma'am. They've gone for refreshments." Phoebe was grateful for Elinor's exclusion of an invite to the woman.
"I see. What a charming lad. To be young again, I would only snatch him for myself."
Yes, very grateful.