Please believe me...
Jerking awake, Aniela opened her eyes and glanced around her dark bed-chamber. A hint of light was setting up to show its self gradually through the curtain windows. The growing light made it easier to determine it was just before dawn.
Releasing a slow groan, she wondered if she was ever going to be able to have a normal night’s sleep again. What was normal anyway? Did she really know? The honest answer is, not really.
No nightmares. No Jaylon.
Pulling the blankets back, she sat up and let her feet drift gradually to the floor. Her hands moved up to caress the back of her neck, seeking to alleviate the anxiety that had built up over these past few weeks. Her effort produced little ease for her restlessness, so she rose from the bed and stretched her tired muscles.
A shudder shot up her spine, and she shifted to lift her blanket to drape it over her shoulders. Looking towards the chamber door, she speculated on whether to go downstairs for some warm tea. But decided she didn’t feel like dealing with everyone today. So she stepped to the window seat and sat down, pulling her knees up to her chest.
She leaned her head against the glass, watching the sun start to poke itself over the horizon, presenting light to the star-laden sky, causing them to melt into complete nothingness.
Sighing, she felt a flutter of apprehension sweep over her body. She twisted to let her eyes scan over objects in her room. She had always had the finest of everything, and yet she felt as if she had nothing. The grandest silk gowns lined her wardrobe. The most exquisite gems filled her jewelry box, and the brilliantly made furniture glamorized each corner of her chamber.
Her family loved her dearly.
Jaylon loved her.
She peered down at her left wrist and rubbed the raised pink scars. It had developed into a nervous habit for her. Maybe, she thought if she rubbed them enough, they would fade or disappear. Could she indeed be so lucky?
Tilting her head, she picked up the muffled sound of Olivia’s cries coming from across the hallway. If Olivia was awake, then that meant Jessie was too. So she left her room and went across the hall to their bed-chamber door. Leaning, she pressed her ear to it. When she heard the cries again, she tapped softly, then opened the door. She peeked her head inside searching for Jessie. And she found her sitting close to the fireplace getting ready to nurse Olivia.
“May I come in?” she whispered, taking a step inside.
Jessie held her finger up to her lips, then gestured for her to come over and sit beside her.
Aniela tip-toed into the room allowing her eyes to adjust to its darkness. She went and sat next to Jessie, offering her a light kiss on the cheek.
“Is everything okay?” Jessie whispered, searching her sullen face.
“Yes,” she whispered, nodding her head. “I couldn’t go back to sleep, and I heard Olivia crying. I didn’t think you would mind if I came and sat with you for a while.”
“Of course not,” Jessie smiled, as she caressed Olivia’s cheek.
Aniela watched her sister, and her heart surged with happiness for her. Olivia’s little chubby fingers clasped around her mother’s hand, and she made little-cooing noises as she filled her belly with her mother’s milk. It wasn’t long before she was sound asleep.
Jessie stared at Aniela for a moment. “Would you like to hold her?”
Aniela shook her head. “Oh, no,” she gasped, holding her hands up. “She is sleeping now. I wouldn’t wish to wake her.”
“Nonsense,” Jessie whispered, moving up to her feet. She stepped to Aniela and laid Olivia in her arms. “Just support her head.” She instructed with care.
Aniela smiled as she peered down at her niece’s rosy cheeks. She leaned down pressing her lips against Olivia’s forehead, and she closed her eyes inhaling her baby scent. Olivia cooed but didn’t open her eyes. Aniela rose to her feet, swaying her hips back and forth.
“Her belly is full now,” Jessie whispered. “You don’t need to worry about waking her.”
“She’s beautiful,” Aniela whispered, ambling around the room and swaying her hips. Then she captured a glimpse of Lucian sleeping in their shared bed, and she ceased her movements. He slept on his back, and his hand rested on his exposed chest. She quickly averted her gaze as she felt the warmth rise to her face.
Jessie picked up on her discomfort and stepped over to the bed. She reached for the blanket that rested on Lucian’s hips and drew it up to cover his naked chest.
Feeling the movement, Lucian opened his eyes and reached for her. “Come to bed, Jessie,” he whispered with hooded eyes. His hand curved around her neck, pulling her down to his lips.
Jessie struggled to pull away, but Lucian wasn’t allowing her. “Lucian!” she gasped against his lips and pressing on his chest. “Aniela is here!”
Releasing her, Jessie stood up straight while Lucian attempted to peer past her. “Good morning Aniela,” he laughed, burrowing deeper under the blanket. “I apologize; I thought Jessie and I were alone.”
“I-I was just leaving,” Aniela stammered, mortified that her presence halted his apparent attempt at lovemaking with his wife.
Turning quickly, she walked over to Jessie and laid Olivia back into her arms. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, her face growing warm. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I forgot Lucian would be here with you. I better go.”
“Don’t be silly,” Jessie argued, walking towards the crib to lay Olivia down. “Lucian usually sleeps like the dead. He doesn’t even hear Olivia wake up to be fed most nights.”
Aniela swallowed hard because that’s not what she was referring to. She glimpsed back towards the bed, letting her eyes linger on Lucian and his passion stimulated her to think of Jaylon.
She had to leave this room.
She walked to Jessie, hugging her. “I better go,” she whispered. “I will see you later.” Then she quickly left before Jessie tried to talk her out of it. Outside the bed-chamber, she leaned on the door and surrendered a long sigh.
She decided her sister was a lucky woman.
Jaylon sat glaring at his half-full glass of whiskey and grimaced deep from within his belly. He picked up his gaze and counted the row of empty liquor bottles covering the edge of his oak desk. There were twelve in all, and they consisted of all sorts of assorted shapes and sizes.
For most rational people, consuming that many liquor bottles in such a limited time frame was a grueling task indeed. But the only fact that burdened him currently was how he could get his hands on more.
He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his unshaven chin with the wisdom he had undoubtedly not been sober since his and Aniela’s confrontation over a week ago. He raised his arm, giving his clothing a brief sniff, and the smell exuding from his body caused his nose to curl. He imagined that’s what happened when you don’t bathe or change your clothes for three days.
He’s heard stories about how people drown their miseries in liquor, but he never honestly accepted the myth, and he never thought he would fall into that pathetic category.
Lifting the glass to his lips, he flung his head back, draining its contents without a care. He heard a tap on his study door but didn’t bother responding to it. Figuring it was Elizabeth trying to offer another attempt at making amends for her reprehensible act of cruelty towards Aniela.
Camilla opened the door like a whirlwind and stepped inside. “So you’re not taking any callers now? Is this what you are resorting to? Are you going to sit here and drink yourself to death?” she admonished as she walked over to him and lifted the empty glass from his hand. She stepped to the sole remaining bottle that held any brown liquid and gestured towards the wastebasket. She turned the bottle upside down, dumping out the rest of its contents.
Jaylon refused to react and laid his head down on the desk. “If Lizy sent for you, Camille, just go away, please.”
Ignoring him, she walked around to settle behind him and commenced to rub his shoulders. “You need to pull yourself together, brother,” she demanded, lifting her one hand to her face and scrunching up her nose. “When was the last time you bathed?”
Picking up his head, he turned to stare at her. “If you are strictly here to annoy me, you can leave now because I am not in the mood.”
“Of course, I am here to annoy you. Isn’t that what sisters are for?” she admitted, with a crooked smile. She stepped around to sit on the desk beside him and crossed her arms over her breast.
He glared at her for a moment, then lowered his head. “I want to thank you for trying to mitigate the situation with Aniela,” he said with a flat voice. “I appreciated your assistance. Even though it didn’t work out.”
She looked pensive for a moment. “No, it didn’t work out. Did it?” she concurred, shrugging her shoulders. “So, what are you going to do about it?”
One eyebrow lifted. “What do you mean? She loathes me now. So I don’t propose-”
“So you’re giving up?” she exclaimed, raising her arms in the air.
“I’m not giving up-”
“That’s what it sounds like to me!” she huffed, cutting him off again. She reached for his chin, forcing him to look at her. “You need to fight for her, Jaylon.”
He settled his hand on top of hers. “And what do you suggest I do wise sister?” he demanded, as his face fell.
Squaring her shoulders, she stood up, allowing his hand to slip down to lay on the desk. “I have committed nefarious acts against Jessie and Aniela, and it’s a wonder why they even continue to speak to me. But I am trying my best to atone for my behavior,” she conceded. “I suppose part of my reparation is making sure Aniela ends up with the correct man. And I believe with all my heart that man is you, dear brother.”
Jaylon shook his head, disagreeing with her. “I am quite certain she won’t speak to me or indeed allow me to be near her now,” he sighed, leaning back in his chair, feeling hopeless.
“Make her speak to you!” Camille argued, thrusting her arms in the air. “I have never known you to give up on something so easily. What happened to my bold rogueish brother?”
“Cami I...” he paused, looking down at his feet. He truly felt defeated and didn’t know what to say.
“What if I told you Lucian and Jessie are leaving the Matthew’s estate in a couple of weeks,” she declared, lifting her hand to pretend to scrutinize her well-manicured fingernails. “They are going to Lucian’s home in Lancashire. Something about his father suffering a riding accident and requires assistance in running the business.” She lifted her gaze and raised an all-knowing eyebrow.
Jaylon leaned up, giving her his full attention. “How do you know this?”
Camille laughed. “Jessie invited me over for afternoon tea last week,” she revealed with a wide smile. “And guess who they invited to be Aniela’s house guest until their return?”
“You lie,” Jaylon blurted incredulously.
Her mouth dropped open, and she pressed a hand to her breast. “Jay, please,” she smirked, feigning to be insulted. “Why would I lie about something so important?”
His eyes narrowed, and he lifted his hand to rub his chin in disbelief. “But-but why would Jessie ask you?” he asked, confused. “I mean, I don’t want to sound impolite, but until recently, you have not been their favorite person.”
“I know,” she gushed with a laugh. “Isn’t it crazy what a heartfelt apology can do for a friendship?”
He leaned back in his chair again, blinking back his amazement. “So you are telling me,” he inquired, needing to clarify. “That you are going to be Aniela’s house guest; while they are in Lancashire until Lucian and Jessie return?”
She leaned close to his face, nodding her head. “Yes.”
“And you conceded to this?” he asked, still unable to believe her words.
Camille placed both her hands on his cheeks. “Jay,” she said in her most stern voice. “I am going to be Aniela’s house guest. If you had spoken to your best friend Lucian at all this week, you would already know all of this.”
He still couldn’t believe it. “When?”
She stood up from the desk and stepped to the window. “Jessie told me that she and Aniela had already ordered gowns for the Wittmer Masquerade ball. So, it will be soon after, I presume,” she retorted.
“They are going to the Ball?”
She laughed at his preposterous question. “Everybody is going to the Wittmer masquerade ball, Jaylon.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Until a second ago, I wasn’t going.”
“But, you are now!” she laughed.
He sat for a few minutes pondering all the information she had provided him. “After what happen at the dress maker’s boutique, I can’t believe Aniela went back there.”
“Oh, she didn’t go back, dear brother,” she clarified. “Miss Tamara loaded up a carriage full of brilliantly colored silks and took them to the Matthew’s estate upon Jessie’s appeal. They picked out their desired gown design and material; Miss Tamara promised to have them completed by next week.”
He raked his hands down his face. “Do you suppose Lizy will want to attend this ball?”
“Jay,” she gaped, twisting to look at him. “Yes, she will be attending. Elizabeth ordered her gown a month ago. Really, you need to pay better attention to your surroundings. I am a little embarrassed at how ill-informed you truly are.”
Leaning over, he settled his elbows on his knee and shook his head as unbelievable stress took hold of his body. “This is all too much even to process,” he whispered.
“Well, you better start processing,” she ordered. “Because you have two weeks to figure out how you are going to win Aniela back and get out of your farce of a marriage.”
“Two weeks,” he mumbled.
She walked to him and stooped down to look into his eyes. “First things first,” she declared. “We need to retain you a solicitor.”
He nodded his head in complete agreement.
Finishing up the final touches of her masquerade ball transformation, Aniela could hardly believe it was her own image peering back at her in the mirror. Her perfectly red-painted lips stood out against her powdered skin. Bursts of green, blue, and gold gems were glued on the corners of her green eyes, solely to be regarded if she chose to remove her mask.
She had concluded that she desired complete anonymity. So she had Roseanne buy her a wig with long dark amber curls. It cascaded down past her shoulder’s and was the perfect added piece to her gaudy disguise.
She drew the fiery curls to one side and bound it together with painted gold and green beads. Once the fiery curls were harnessed, she entwined the colorful beads throughout the auburn curls. They presented her with the complete gaudy masquerade motif she strived for.
Desiring to have the scars on her wrist remain hidden, she chose to wear white silk gloves that rose three-quarters of the way up her arms. Her deep emerald-colored gown had a plunging sweetheart neckline with gold brocade adorning its short sleeves and the V-cut material pressed to her bosom.
She lifted a bulky white pearl necklace from the dresser and fastened it around her neck. In all, there were eight stands pulled together by a clasp adorned with one emerald gem. It was the perfect accent for the attire she wore, but she couldn’t imagine wearing it for anything else.
Lifting the matching earrings, she snapped the emerald base, one by one, onto each ear. Then she lifted the last and final piece that completed her whole ensemble.
The overdecorated mask.
It was adorned with green, blue, and gold gems sprayed like fireworks at each lifted corners edge. The top was fashioned as if she wore a crown of gold, with each color’s feathers outlining the perimeter like a lion main. Green Silk ties hung loosely at each side, and she lifted the mask, settling it into place.
It wasn’t easy, but she managed to get it tied snug enough as not to have it falter with her every movement. She leaned back in her chair, peering at herself, and turned her head in an attempt to scrutinize herself from all angles. With the auburn wig, there were no distinguishing out-cries that she was undoubtedly, Aniela Matthews.
And that was exactly what she desired.
Rising to her feet, she stepped to the full-length mirror beside her desk. She stared at her reflection with tremendous apprehension and almost went to chew on her bottom lip but didn’t want to smudge her red-colored lips. Sighing heavily, she turned in a half-circle, then paused to tug on the gown’s plunging neckline. Tamara had taken her measurements well because the gown barely budged. Lifting her head, she stared at the ceiling while her mind sought to talk her out of going. Dropping her eyes back down, she groaned to herself. Knowing Jessie and Roseanne would be so disheartened in her if she chose to back out.
Lifting the cumbersome full skirt of her gown, she stepped to the door and walked out into the hallway. She could hear Jessie’s and Lucian’s voices carry to her from the floor below.
Roseann’s and Michael’s bed-chamber door clicked open, and they too stepped out into the hall. When Roseanne saw Aniela standing there, she rushed to her side.
Clasping Aniela’s hands with her own, Roseanne beamed with excitement. “You look lovely, my dear,” she raved, leaning to kiss her on the cheek. “Oh my, this color on you-” She turned and glanced at her husband. “Doesn’t she look beautiful, Michael?”
Michael bowed. “You do look lovely, Aniela.”
Blushing, she let go of Roseanne’s hands and tugged on her bodice. “Thank you,” she murmured. Then let her gaze travel over the both of them, and she smiled. “You two look marvelous yourselves. I love the matching pink feathers; it’s quite a nice touch.”
“I didn’t think pink was my color,” Michael chuckled. “But, I presume that I was mistaken.”
Roseanne gave him a love pat. “We do look silly, don’t we,” she beamed. “But it’s all in fun, and that’s what we design to do tonight.”
Roseanne spun around, allowing Aniela to scrutinize her flamboyant gown’s full effect and its vivid colors. “Do you approve?”
“I do,” Aniela laughed. She linked her arm into Roseanne’s, and they descended the stairs together. At the bottom waiting for them, was Lucian and Jessie. Their attire also coordinated but bore no elaborate feathers or fringe. Instead, splendidly colored beads adorned their intricate masks, and their clothes were embroidered with the same deep lavender silk. They looked like a striking couple, with their pretentious matching silver brocade.
When Aniela met them at the bottom of the stairs, Jessie greeted her with a gentle kiss on the cheek. “You can ride with us,” Jessie declared, seizing her hand and drawing her towards the door.
“We are taking two carriages?” Aniela asked, confused.
Jessie laughed. “Oh, yes, we have to. Do you honestly think us three women will fit into the same carriage with these full skirts?” She turned and held her hand out for Lucian and waited for him to take it. Then they all moved down the front steps, and he helped them both into the waiting carriage.
Aniela scooted onto the seat, and Jessie settled across from her. “You both look stunning in you’re matching costumes,” Aniela said, watching Lucian enter and seated himself beside Jessie. “So does Aunt Roseanne and Uncle Michael. Miss Tamara and Miss Caroline did a magnificent job with their creations.”
“You also look absolutely enchanting, Aniela,” Lucian said. “The auburn hair color surprised me. It almost makes you resemble a bar-”
Jessie’s elbow cut into his side, interrupting his proclamation. “I love the auburn hair Aniela, don’t listen to my husband.”
Aniela looked between the two of them and smiled. “I recognize that it makes me look like a gaudy bar wench,” she conceded with a laugh. “But it was the kind of effect I was going for. I didn’t want anyone to be able to recognize me.”
“Job well done,” Lucian blurted with a half salute. When he felt Jessie’s elbow again, he looked at his wife and mouth the word ‘what?’ shrugging his shoulders.
Jessie leaned over and patted Aniela’s leg. “Last season, this masquerade ball was exceedingly enjoyable. But at any time, if you desire to leave, we can go.”
“I’ll be fine,” Aniela said, trying to sound convincing. “You and Lucian don’t need to worry about me. If I desire to go, I will just send the carriage back to retrieve you both.” She turned her head and stared out the window, not truly hearing Jessie’s response. Her thoughts were now preoccupied with the probability that she would see Jaylon soon. She fidgeted in her seat, speculating how she was going to deal with the emotional turmoil already commencing to simmer in her belly.
Releasing a slow sigh, she braced herself for a long and immensely stimulating evening.