Do My Eyes Deceive Me...
Aniela watched as Harlow grasp Camille’s hand as supported her in stepping up into the waiting carriage. She shifted around and glanced towards the house just as Jaylon had commenced descending the front stairs.
His face appeared taut and sullen, while a wisp of his blonde hair came loose from their tether and drifted across his brow. When he reached her, she twisted to smile up at him, but his jaw remained rigid with a brooding and chiseled tenseness.
Lifting his hand, he extended it to her. “After you, my lady,” he whispered in a glum voice.
Aniela laid her hand into his and turned her body so Camille and Harlow couldn’t see her. “Don’t sulk, Jaylon,” she whispered, lifting her weight onto her toes to graze her lips against his. “It makes you appear mean and unapproachable.”
The corner of his mouth lifted, and he snaked his hand around her waist to draw her against him. “Right now, I am mean and unapproachable,” he whispered in her ear. “Because my sister doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word no.”
Closing her eyes, Aniela gave a slight shudder when she felt Jaylon’s breath on her skin. It prompted her to lean into him and draw a deep breath. She pulled away and obliged him to assist her up into the carriage.
Camille and Harlow sat together on one side and already appeared deep in conversation, so she sat on the opposite side facing them. She drifted over for Jaylon to seat himself beside her, and when he did, she could feel the heat of his thigh pressed against her own.
“What is your intention for today, Camille?” Jaylon asked with mild annoyance. “Where are we going first?” He lifted his arm to rest on the seat behind Aniela and lifted a booted foot to rest on one knee.
Camille wasn’t fazed in the least by his brooding disposition. “Well, I thought that maybe we could split up,” she gushed with a wide smile. “You come with me to meet with Lord Daniel, and Harlow will go with Aniela to Miss Tamara’s boutique.”
Sitting up abruptly, Jaylon leaned onto his knees. “Absolutely not,” he opposed shaking his head. “You should have mentioned this plan before you wasted our time. We are turning around and going back home.”
“What?” Aniela blurted, shifting to stare at him. “No, we are definitely not turning around.”
“Jay,” Camille pouted. “Why would you seek and spoil this opportunity for me?”
Looking between them, Harlow’s eyes became apprehensive. “I can assure you that I will properly watch over her, Sir Jaylon. You have my word.”
Rolling his eyes, Jaylon lifted one hand to rub his forehead. “I appreciate you will seek to protect her, Harlow. I just can’t take the chance...”
“Where are we headed to first?” Aniela suddenly interjected, peering at Jaylon, waiting for him to refute her.
Clapping her hands, Camille squealed with delight. “The carriage will drop Jay and me off at Hyde Park first,” she mused. “Thus, it will progress on to the boutique; once you pick up the gowns, come back and retrieve Jay and me.”
“It’s that simple?” Jaylon stated, glaring at her.
Acting wounded, Camille gaffed with a mocking smile. “Yes, it’s that simple.”
“I’ll be fine, Jaylon,” Aniela declared, patting his thigh.
He settled his hand on top of hers and interlaced their fingers together while his other hand swept around her neck so he could pull her to him. “I don’t like this turn of events Aniela, I suggest we go back home, and we can plan this for another time,” he whispered against her ear.
Knowing he had no concept what he was doing to her, Aniela released a nervous smirk, and her toes curled under in her slippers. “How many gowns are Harlow and I picking up for you, Camille?” she asked, ignoring Jaylon’s appeal, needing to draw his attention to anyone else but her. She recognized his annoyance when he pulled away, shaking his head.
“There are four in total,” Camille beamed, blind to the turmoil sitting across from her. “Wait until you see them Aniela, the color and designs are magnificent.”
Looking towards Jaylon, the corner of her mouth upturned at his brooding disposition. “I know Miss Tamara and Miss Caroline should be commended for the beautiful work they do,” Aniela stated, shifting her gaze to peer out the window.
For the remainder of the ride, Jaylon didn’t speak to her. So she listened to Camille and Harlow’s casual conversation until they pulled up to Hyde Park.
Without haste, Harlow opened the door and leaped from the carriage. He waited for Camille to place her hand in his, and he assisted her to the ground.
Aniela looked at Jaylon, waiting for him to follow them, but to her bewilderment, instead, he leaned over and pulled the carriage door shut. “W-what are you...” her words were arrested as his lips covered hers.
His hand curved around her neck and into her hair, drawing her to him. When he deepened the kiss, she didn’t hesitate and opened her mouth to him.
Reluctant to terminate his fervent kisses, Aniela lifted one hand and placed it on his chest to gently push him away. “We should go,” she whispered as she struggled to breathe. “Camille and Harlow are waiting on us.”
He caressed her lips again. “I don’t care,” he sighed. “They can wait all day. It matters not to me.”
Closing her eyes, she leaned her forehead onto him. “I will be fine, Jaylon,” she sighed. “You need to go.”
Allowing his thumb to caress her cheek, he lifted her chin to look into her eyes. “Promise me you won’t leave Harlow’s side.”
She pondered over his petition, studying his fierce gaze until her eyes slipped to his lips. “I promise,” she sighed, waiting for him to pull away, but instead, he pushed up from the seat, then drifted to his knees. “Jaylon, what are you doing?”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a leather strap while the other hand pulled an ivory-handled knife from its sheath. “Harlow informed me you desired to carry a gun. Instead, I had this made for you.” He lifted her hand and placed the dagger onto her palm.
Aniela shook her head. “I don’t know if...”
“If you need to use it, always aim for below the rib cage,” he explained, not allowing her to rebuff or argue with him. He placed a hand on her waist, pointing out the most vulnerable area to aim for. “Point the blade up and in. Then if called for, do it again and again until your attacker drops.”
Staring down at the dagger if felt awkward in her hand. “But where would I carry this?”
A knock on the carriage door generated a groan of irritation to spill from his lips. He reached for the door handle and opened it. “Can you please give us one minute?” he barked, then hastily pulled the door shut again.
Turning back to Aniela, he reached down for the bottom hem of her dress and commenced to lift it up around her knees.
Feeling her face flame, Aniela pushed down on the dress and urged his hand away. “Jaylon, what are you doing?” her voice pitched.
Ceasing her movements, he clamped his hand over hers. “I need to secure this strap to your upper thigh,” he explained, as he worked his other hand up her leg.
“Oh,” she sighed and promptly held her breath when she felt both his hands on the sensitive flesh of her thigh.
“The blade will be on the outside of your thigh in its protective sheath,” he stated as he tightened the strap, then he grasped her hand and steered it to the sheath showing her how accessible it was to pull loose. “It’s a small dagger, Aniela, but it can save your life if you discover yourself accosted by Gordon again.”
Placing both her hands on his face, she leaned down to graze her lips against his. “Thank you,” she whispered against him.
He didn’t respond; instead, he allowed his lips to drift over hers while his hands corrected her dress.
The carriage door jerked open suddenly, terminating their quietude. “Do I need to find a pail of ice-cold water to throw on you two?” Camille demanded in a pitched voice. “Come on, brother, you are going to make me late, and you know how much that raises my ire.”
Kissing her one last time, Jaylon turned and exited the carriage. He stopped Harlow just as he was about to climb back in. “Don’t let her leave your sight,” Jaylon asserted. “You pick up the gowns and come back here. Is that clear?”
“Y-yes,” Harlow stammered, nodding his head. “You have my word; I will remain at her side the whole time.”
“Good,” Jaylon said, patting his back.
“Come, Jay,” Camille said as she linked her arm into his. “Let’s you and I go find Sir Daniel. I’m positive he has been waiting for us already way too long.”
But Jaylon refused to budge until Aniela’s carriage had pulled away and was completely out of sight.
Jaylon and Camille strolled along the promenade for almost an hour with no hint of Sir Daniel in sight.
Camille paused, stamping her foot. “I told you we needed to hurry. Now Sir Daniel has most likely left because he presumed I stood him up.”
One eyebrow lifted. “We weren’t that delayed, Camille,” Jaylon rebuffed, contemplating her somber face. “If he left so soon, then he wasn’t worth coming here for.” Just as he finished his statement, they rounded the corner on the pathway and noted a couple sitting in the distance on a bench. Immediately Jaylon halted and shifted to stare at his sister. “What is she doing here?” he raged in a fierce whisper.
Camille’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “W-what?” she sputtered, flitting her gaze from him to the couple. Then it dawned on her, and her mouth gaped open. “I-I swear, Jaylon. I didn’t know Elizabeth would be here.”
Drawing a heavy breath, Jaylon turned and walked in the opposite direction, but Camille ran after him.
“Please, Jaylon,” she implored, placing her hand on his arm, forcing him to face her. “Sir Daniel is her brother. That is the sole reason she is here. I swear it.” When he ceased walking, she peered over her shoulder at the couple, then back at him. “Just come with me, and if it’s not awful and I feel comfortable with him, you can leave. Please, Jaylon.”
He paused, looking at her. “I have never known you to be apprehensive in the company of a man before, Camille,” he declared with narrowed eyes. “Why the hesitance now?”
She wrenched her hands in front of her. “Do you remember Sir Daniel from yours and Elizabeths wedding?”
“Barely,” he scowled, with a shoulder shrug. “All I can remember is he presented to be somewhat full of himself. Even when it was apparent to everyone else, there was no cause to be.”
Discharging an uneasy laugh, Camille nodded her head. “Yes, I have the same memory,” she answered. “I just... I just have discomfort around him. Don’t ask me why, because I just do. That is why I yearned to have you here instead of Harlow.”
“And yet you are contemplating a marriage with him?” he asked incredulously. “Why are we wasting our time here Camille, if you undoubtedly have ill feelings towards Sir Daniel?”
She stared down at her hands, shaking her head but chose not to respond.
“Because I am twenty-one years old,” she exclaimed in a broken voice.
Jaylon stared at her for a moment, regarding her statement. “What?” he gaped. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am going to end up alone, Jaylon,” she sighed, with her head bent. “I squandered all those years pursuing Lucian, and now I am on the threshold of turning into an aged spinster. I don’t wish to end up alone. I can’t; I just can’t.” She angled her head and wiped at her tears. “Please, do this one thing for me. Then you can go. Please.”
He twisted away, exhaling, and lifted his gaze to the flawless blue sky as unease swept through his body. He peered back down at her and presented his arm. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
A weak smile crossed Camille’s exquisite face, and she promptly accepted his silk handkerchief when he offered it to her. “Thank you, Jay,” she whispered, interweaving her arm through his, and they walked to the waiting couple.
Harlow guided Aniela up the steps to the boutique, and as customary, they pushed the door open. The bells overhead alerted the dressmakers of their presence. The sound generated a surge of Deja Vu to sweep over Aniela’s body, and an uneasiness began to settle into her mind. This place held too many emotional memories for her, both good and bad.
Upon hearing them enter, Miss Caroline rushed to her side. “Lady Aniela,” Miss Caroline purred. “How nice it is to see you. Is there something we can do for you? Perhaps an up-and-coming event draws you to desire to have a new gown made?”
Accepting her modest embrace, Aniela shook her head. “No,” she explained as she pulled away. “I am here to pick up a couple of newly made gowns for Lady Veltre.”
An expression of unmitigated confusion crossed over Miss Tamara’s face. “We have not produced a gown for Lady Elizabeth since the Whittmere’s ball,” she declared with a hint of nervousness. “Are you completely sure Miss Caroline and I are the ones who designed the gowns for her?”
Aniela cleared her throat and her stomach muscles coiled with her own raging stupidity. “I’m sorry,” she responded, feeling the warmth rise to her face. “Please allow me to clarify. The gowns are not for Lady Elizabeth; they are for Lady Camille.”
“Oh, yes,” Miss Tamara laughed awkwardly. “I can see how easily that could be muddled up in all the confusion.” She darted around the counter, unable to meet Aniela’s gaze because she clearly recalled the confrontation from several weeks ago. “We do have several gowns ready for Lady Camille. Allow me to go in the back and prepare them for transport. I promise it will merely be a few minutes.” She cleared her throat again and lifted her gaze with a full smile curling her lips. “Can I get you two anything to drink while you wait?”
“No,” Aniela answered, then she shifted to Harlow.
He sprung forward to answer. “No, my dear lady,” he beamed. “I am quite fine. Thank you.”
Once Miss Tamara was out of sight, Aniela turned to glance at Harlow. “My dear lady,” she repeated with a laugh.
He shrugged his shoulders, and a pink hue covered his cheeks. “Sorry,” he mused. “We weren’t properly introduced, so I wasn’t completely certain of her given name or what to call her.”
“It’s quite all right,” Aniela said, turning to commence walking around the modest boutique. “It presented a distraction to stop her from discussing Lady Elizabeth any further.” She allowed her hand to float over a couple spools of silk. “I promise to properly introduce you when she comes back. I sometimes forget that you remain unblemished when it comes to the lives of noblemen and their ladies.” She thought of Jaylon for a moment and recalled how at one time, he had the sisters blushing and groveling at his feet.
Harlow bowed. “I am learning, Lady Aniela.”
Allotting him a crooked smile, she progressed to wander around the room, ultimately ceasing at the windows to lean on the glass and peer outside at the busy street below.
The crowds were oppressive this day, which allotted the lower class the laboring task of trying to sell their wares to the passing elite. It saddened her to think Jessie had survived that way once, even if it was so many years ago.
“How did you and Jessie survive this way of life, Harlow?” she asked in a somber voice, recalling her first day in the city Le Mourillon. Not too long ago, this could have easily been her begging on the streets.
Harlow stepped to stand beside her. “We did what we had to do,” he explained. “Sometimes, it wasn’t the most ethical situations, but we never harmed anyone.” He laughed, giving a shoulder shrug. “Not intentionally anyway.”
Turning to stare at him, she asked, “Was it harder for her? I mean, because she is a girl?”
Fidgeting, Harlow cleared his throat. “I don’t pretend to know precisely how Jessie felt, but for the longest time, no one really knew Jessie was a girl. I was amazed at how long she was actually capable of maintaining it as a secret,” he answered, reflecting back. “But to answer your question, yes-sometimes, it was incredibly hard for her.”
She mulled over his words. “What ultimately did her in? How did she get away from it?” she asked.
A chuckle flowed from his lips and one eyebrow lifted. “Lucian.”
Her eyes turned wide. “What? I didn’t know that,” she laughed. “Are you certain?”
“I am completely positive,” he smirked. “I even made fun of her the first time she met him. She was thoroughly smitten even though she wouldn’t admit it. It was a really rough time for her, though, so I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy for her in any way. Even after they met and fell in love.”
Smiling to herself, Aniela loved hearing tales about Jessie. “I will have to tease her about it the next time we are together and have her elaborate the whole story for me.”
“Just don’t tell her where you heard it,” Harlow said. “I’m quite positive you understand why.”
They laughed together, and Aniela peered over her shoulder to see if Miss Tamara was carrying out Camille’s gowns yet.
Harlow leaned on the glass. “You see those two lads right there?” He stated, pointing at the glass to the street below. “Watch them because they are about to make a move on the unsuspecting woman ahead of them.”
Intrigued, she too leaned on the glass, seeking to catch a better look. “Make a move?” she asked, smiling. “What does that mean?”
“It means they have noticed something valuable in her possession, and they believe it can be lifted without her knowledge.”
Sucking in her breath, Aniela was suddenly transfixed. “How do you know this?”
“Because this is what Jessie and I used to do,” he chuckled. “We watched for unsuspecting women or men, and we’d steal from them.”
Glancing at him, she wasn’t sure why she was so surprised, but she was. “So you would have stolen from me? If I looked like an easy...”
“Mark,” he finished for her. “Yes, I would have. And Jessie would have too, back then.”
“Oh,” she mused, peering back towards the crowd. “I find this to be interesting.”
He paused close to her and again pointed out the two young boys. “You see how they are acting like they are goofing off? Watch closely; one of them is about to run into her accidentally.”
“But they simply look like playing children,” she expressed, shaking her head.
“It’s a ruse,” Harlow explained. “Wait for it.”
They both watched as the two boys dashed around pretending to chase each other, then just as Harlow said, the taller one bumped into the woman, while the other forced his hand into her pocket and plucked out a silk handkerchief. He swiftly tucked it into his sleeve, and they both ran off.
“That was amaz...” Aniela’s voice caught in her throat as the woman they stole from turned in her direction, permitting her to see her face. “M-Meetza,” she gasped, placing her palms on the glass. Her heart began to pound in her chest as she watched Meetza begin to wander away. “No!” she screamed, pounding on the glass. “Meetza, stop!” Her eyes scoured the crowd as she lost sight of her. Then an abrupt realization hit her, and she anxiously backed away from the glass, allowing her hands to drop down to her sides. “This can’t be possible,” she mumbled, as her body began to tremble uncontrollably. Shaking her head, rambling words spewed from her lips. “Salisbury is so far away. It-it took me two weeks to make it home. So it can’t be Meetza. There is no reason for her to be here.”
Harlow’s eyes narrowed, and he settled his hands on her shoulder’s. “Aniela?” he asked. When he noted her body teetering, he lowered his head to look into her eyes. “Aniela, what’s wrong?”
Miss Tamara entered the room, boisterously announcing Camille’s gowns were packed and ready to travel.
Aniela jumped at Miss Tamara’s loud intrusion. “I need to leave Harlow,” she announced, dragging away from him. “I need to stop her.”
“What? Lady Camille’s gowns are ready now; we can’t....” He sought to preserve his constraint on her, but she wiggled free. “Aniela, wait!”
Running for the door, Aniela flung it open and ran down the steps. She wavered at the bottom, glancing both ways, working to see if she could spot Meetza again.
Harlow ran after her, vaulting down two and three steps at a time. When he finally caught up with her, he seized her arm and reeled her around. “Aniela,” he barked, out of breath. “What are you doing? You know that you can’t go anywhere without me.”
“It was her, Harlow,” she cried. “I-I need to find her. We need to help her.”
Harlow bent over, seeking to catch his breath. “What are you talking about? Who is she?”
“Meetza,” she declared, her voice pitched with emotion. “She is the only reason I am alive today. She helped me slip away and escape.”
Grabbing her hand, Harlow held her in place. “Calm down, Aniela,” he soothed. “We shouldn’t be out here in this crowd. Let’s go back inside.”
“No,” she rebuked, drawing her hand away. “Please, Harlow, you need to help me find her. Before she goes back to him.” Then like a douse of cold water hitting her, Aniela froze. “What if he is likewise here?” She mumbled, suddenly turning pale. Spinning around, she found herself scrutinizing the faces of all the men who passed by her. “What if he’s here?” She murmured again and again, her voice pitching almost in hysterics.
Harlow grabbed her arm, and hastily began ushering her to the waiting carriage. “I am sorry, Aniela,” he murmured against her ear. “But we need to go, and we need to go now.”
Incoherent words spilled from her lips as she stumbled and was dragged along by Harlow. Once at the carriage, a crippling nausea took hold of her stomach, and she sank to her knees, losing all the contents of the breakfast she had eaten that morning. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she let Harlow assist her back up to her feet. “P-please take me home,” she hiccuped, struggling to catch her breath.
Assisting her in the carriage, Harlow promptly directed the driver to take them directly to Matthews Hall and make no other stops.
Once seated beside her, Harlow wrapped an arm around her and murmured calming assurances, seeking to mollify her the best he could.
But he recognized this was the calm before the storm. Because now, he needed to face Jaylon and inform him that he had indeed been right all along.