One year ago…
John Humphreys strode across his drawing room, puffing angrily at his cigar. His Hessian boots sank into the plush blue carpet as he paced from window to sofa and back, skirting around a high-backed chair in the process. Several times, he brushed past a delicate mahogany table, causing his cooling, untouched teacup to rattle on its saucer in the most irritating fashion. Through narrowed eyes, he glanced out the grand window, framed elegantly with gold-tone drapes that set off the gilt frames on the chairs and sofa, but still saw nothing other than the empty drive that stretched away into the distance between two perfect rows of stately oaks. With his unoccupied hand, Humphreys tugged free his watch, nearly tearing the pocket in his frustration, and noted the time.
“Five minutes more,” he grumbled to himself, thrusting the silver timepiece back in place.
“Jack, dearest,” his lady murmured, “I’m sure the inspector will arrive on schedule.”
Mrs. Humphreys sat alone on the sofa, a few of her grey-streaked light brown curls dangling from her cap as she bent her plump figure over her needlework. The sound of her voice grated on Humphreys’s nerves, and he whirled to face her, removing the cigar from his lips to better deliver a retort.
“Well I damned wish he’d be early,” he spat as he tapped his cigar over the fire, then stepped closer to his wife. “It’s trial enough to be robbed, but then to be kept waiting–”
His complaint ceased as the sound of the front door being knocked upon and answered alerted him to the arrival of the inspector. Mr. Humphreys thrust aside his cigar and checked his reflection in a large, gilt mirror, ensuring his cravat was neatly tied and his patterned silk waistcoat showed to advantage beneath his new broadcloth tailcoat. He brushed his fingers over his smooth chin, turned his head to the right and the left to confirm his dark hair was tidy, poked idly at the large, ugly mole just below his right eye, then spun away from the mirror and came to a halt at the fireplace, resting an elbow on the pure white mantle while his chin gained a few inches of elevation.
A footman bustled into the room, holding the door open as he bowed an introduction. “Inspector Farnsworth, sir.”
Mr. Humphreys offered the footman a mere jerk of a nod in response, and the man quietly vanished while the inspector approached. Humphreys almost smirked with satisfaction, seeing the inspector had not wasted any time by allowing the servants to take his hat and overcoat from him, and instead entered the room still bundled against the chilly weather.
“Mr. Humphreys.” The inspector bowed, sweeping his hat from his head, a businesslike alertness to his bright blue eyes. “I am at your service, sir.”
“What have you found?” the gentleman barked.
Inspector Farnsworth’s eyes flicked a bit wider, clearly abashed at the discourteous beginning, but wisely did not com-ment, and immediately reported, “We have recovered the stolen jewel, sir. It will be along shortly. Your jeweler, Mr. Pritchett, offered his services to transport the item securely.”
Mr. Humphreys snorted with impatience. He didn’t care much for the jewel in question – beside the fact that his wife would have given all manner of bother about it had it not been recovered – though he was livid over the simple matter of having been stolen from. It was not the jewel he wanted, so much as its taker.
“And the thief?” he demanded.
“Ah.” The inspector brightened, his eyes twinkling with the pleasure of success. “We have him in custody, though it was a bit of a trial to restrain him. With that accomplished, however, it was simplicity itself to wring a confession from the man. You see, he attempted to lie about the theft, but was unable to do so.”
Mr. Humphreys caught the inflection in the inspector’s words, but not understanding the meaning, he gave the inspector a puzzled look and asked, “Unable?”
“Yes, he–” the inspector began, nodding vigorously, then checked himself. He looked around, clearly noting that Mrs. Humphreys was watching the exchange with rapt attention, then cleared his throat and stepped closer, lowering his voice. “He was not one of us, sir.”
“I beg your pardon?”
The inspector motioned with his hand, and Mr. Humphreys, growling impatiently again, leaned closer. A single word of three syllables drifted into his ear, and at the sound of it, Humphreys reared back and roared, “Them! They are a menace! I do wish the Crown would do away with the lot of them!”
“Whom, dear?” his wife gasped, her needlework slipping from her fingers as her attention fixed on the two men.
“My dear!” he cried angrily, and gave his lady a look that she rightly understood to mean she was excused. The little woman rapidly gathered her things and bustled away, leaving the two men alone.
“A menace, I tell you!” he repeated once the door clicked shut. He spun away from the fireplace and resumed pacing, the carpet now useless to quiet his thundering steps. “Can nothing be done about them?”
The inspector spread his hands and shrugged. “They exist all over the world, sir, from what I hear. Not that there are a great many of them, comparatively speaking – a minor and dwindling race, as I understand it. Still, you can hardly judge the lot of them by the actions of one–”
“I may judge as I wish!” the gentleman spat, purpling with rage. “This one has used his abilities to his advantage, and against me! I would see the lot of them hanged!”
“Sir, if I may, in all my years, this is only the second I’ve encountered in a criminal role. Surely–”
When Mr. Humphreys turned his angry glare upon the inspector, the latter quickly silenced himself and waited, clasping his hands before him while his hat still dangled from where it was pinched between a thumb and forefinger. After a tense moment, Mr. Humphreys huffed angrily, then gave a curt bow. “Thank you for your trouble, Inspector. Good afternoon.”
Inspector Farnsworth stared at his host for a moment, clearly astounded at the conversation, then bowed deeply, giving a polite but forced, “Sir,” before he swept from the room.
That evening, facing her parents in the carriage as it rolled over the cobblestone streets, Agatha Humphreys sat as quietly as she could, knowing her father was still in a rather foul mood. She’d seen him brooding all afternoon, and he’d threatened to cancel their attendance at the ball that evening, until Agatha had begun to cry and he had given in.
When they arrived at the Caldwell’s townhouse, Agatha alighted from the carriage with the help of her father’s hand. She glanced down to make sure the skirt of her primrose gown was flowing just so, but straightened abruptly when she realized her father still maintained his clasp on her fingers. Startled, Agatha looked up and saw a hint of a smile on his face. He patted her cheek, being careful not to disturb the dark curls that graced her temples, then took Agatha and her mother on either arm as he led them inside. Agatha’s spirits soared, knowing she was her father’s dearest treasure as usual.
Once inside, servants helped them become divested of hats and cloaks, and Agatha followed her parents up a grand staircase and through to a large hall, emptied of furniture except for the chairs that lined the paneled walls. All earlier tension was forgotten as Agatha glanced over the sea of guests, looking for one face in particular amidst the swirling mass of ribbons, lace, monocles, tailcoats, gloves, and fans.
Agatha fought to keep her eager grin restrained as she turned with her parents at the sound of the voice. It belonged to a handsome young gentleman who was approaching them with a welcoming smile.
“Good evening, sir!” the young man exclaimed as he shook hands with Agatha’s father. “Please excuse my tardiness. I ought to have met you in the receiving line.” Then he turned to Mrs. Humphreys, repeating his apology while politely pressing her fingers, and finally bowed gallantly at Agatha herself. “Miss Humphreys. Might I have the honor of the first dance?”
Certain that she was blushing to the roots of her hair, Agatha dropped a curtsy and murmured, “It would be my pleasure, Mr. Caldwell.”
Young Mr. Caldwell bowed to them all again, his dark brown hair sweeping into his equally dark eyes as he did so, and Agatha longed to reach out and brush those locks aside, though the change in gravity did it for her as he straightened. With the flash of a perfect smile, he disappeared to greet other guests, and Agatha sighed to herself, resigned to wait. She followed her parents through the rooms, only stopping occasionally to chat gaily with her friends, but always keeping an eye on the young man who had captured her heart.
When it was finally time to dance, Mr. Caldwell escorted her to the dance floor, making up the set, and she hardly noticed the movements, so enraptured as she was by his presence. He continued a lively stream of conversation, in which she participated she knew not how, and marveled at how effortless it was to dance with such an accomplished partner. The music came to an end long before she imagined possible.
For the next set, Agatha danced with another fine young gentleman, one whom she also considered a desirable match, though no one quite attained Mr. Caldwell’s amiability. Throughout the dance, she tried to be attentive to her partner, but also kept an eye on the other gentleman, secretly jealous of seeing him dancing with another girl, particularly as he was equally lively and gentlemanly with her.
The third set found Agatha resting on a chair near the wall, sipping a glass of lemonade while she watched the dancers and caught her breath. Going down the dance, Mr. Caldwell was easy to find: his confident, upright frame easily stood out amongst the crowd.
There was something different about him at that moment, though, and Agatha felt her spirits begin to sink. Instead of his usual smiling conversation, Mr. Caldwell was utterly silent as he danced with Miss Jane Parrish. The pair gazed intently at one another without saying a word, and something about the look in Mr. Caldwell’s eyes made Agatha want to cry.
Miss Parrish did not qualify as a great beauty, though Agatha knew the girl was quite an accomplished young lady – indeed, Agatha could not even begin to compete with Jane’s skill at the pianoforte, let alone in such matters as painting and a mastery of multiple languages. Nevertheless, despite the unremarkable face and average figure, Mr. Caldwell was clearly intoxicated by Jane Parrish, his gaze full of restrained longing as he led his partner down the dance.
There was a striking sense of intimacy in the way the pair danced. Despite the timing of the movements, Mr. Caldwell and Miss Parrish clasped hands as soon as they could reach, and re-leased hands again only at the last possible moment before the steps took them away from one another. As Agatha watched, it struck her that both partners had removed their gloves, and she realized that she had never seen either of them without that article of dress – except for when they danced together.
Heart thudding with envy, Agatha saw the pair come together again, their hands meeting smoothly without either of them breaking their shared gaze. Agatha knew them for accomplished dancers, but their hands were certainly beyond the range of peripheral vision, as Agatha knew perfectly well from having participated in this dance herself several times in the past. She shut her mouth with a snap, realizing her jaw had dropped while she’d been lost in wonder of how their coordination and spacial awareness could be so precise.
An amused smile tugged at Mr. Caldwell’s lips, and a moment later Miss Parrish was showing every symptom of trying not to laugh aloud. Studying their features, Agatha saw their expressions change from amused to inquisitive to desiring, yet they said not a word to one another. She got the distinct impression that they were somehow reading one another’s minds.
But that’s impossible! Agatha thought, but another invitation to dance interrupted any further pursuit of her curiosity, and she found she had to force on a smile while she temporarily banished her musings.
The evening wore on, and when Agatha found herself paired with Mr. Caldwell again, all her jealousies were quickly forgotten as she lost herself in his presence and his utterly contagious joy. Surely this was the man of her dreams, and she would simply have to capture his heart.
When the dance ended, Mr. Caldwell retrieved two glasses of lemonade and escorted Agatha to the side of the room, helping her to a chair and taking one beside her as they watched the crowd. Conversation turned to various matters of couples and dress, each of them remarking how Mr. Hunter was a dreadfully clumsy dancer, and how elderly Mrs. Eastwood had simply re-fused to keep up with the latest fashions, her gowns all made with a cut that belonged to a prior decade. They maintained a steady stream of commentary until Mr. Caldwell made a passing remark about a couple newly engaged, and his tone seemed rather wistful to Agatha’s ears.
“Mr. Caldwell,” Agatha began, encouraged by the look on his face, though she knew she was performing a gross impropriety by saying: “You know, I come of age this year.”
He turned to her, eyes wide in a startled expression as he asked, “Pardon me, Miss Humphreys?”
Agatha blushed, realizing she’d made a mistake, and cast her eyes downward. “Charles– I mean, Mr. Caldwell…please forgive me. Forget what I said. I simply–”
She broke off, embarrassed, and an awkward silence ensued. When she looked up again, she found Mr. Caldwell giving her a strange, searching look, and then he sighed, seemingly resigned to something.
“Miss Humphreys, you must understand, I–”
He paused, and glanced across the room, gazing at something for a long moment, then turned back to her again, saying very quietly, “Miss Humphreys, I’ve no wish to cause you pain, but I realize now that it is important for me to tell you something. You are a darling girl and should make any man quite happy, but please do not waste your hopes on me. I am not at liberty–”
A deep, cheerful, masculine voice interrupted him, booming out, “Charles!”
Agatha saw Mr. Caldwell turn, a smile lighting up his face as he greeted the other gentleman, and as Agatha fought to hold back her tears of rejection, she barely noticed when the men bowed and took their leave of her. She turned her face from the crowd, trying with all her might to school her features, and only when she had forced herself to a sufficient calm did she slowly rise from her seat and make her way through the room to find her parents.
Forced gaiety wore on her as the evening continued, and just when she thought she couldn’t bear anything more, she caught sight of Mr. Caldwell once again. He was standing with a group of men who were deep in conversation, though he was looking past them and not really contributing much in the way of words. Agatha followed his gaze across the room and saw that Jane Parrish was gazing directly back at him, a hint of a smile on her face. As Agatha watched, she saw Mr. Caldwell give the subtlest of nods, which Jane returned, and after a few moments, though no one else appeared to have noticed, she saw Jane disappear through a side door, followed a few minutes later by Charles.
Before the tears could burst from her eyes again, Agatha’s father came to her side and took her arm, announcing that they were going home. Agatha nodded absently and followed him.
Mr. Humphreys looked at his daughter, a woman grown and the pride of his life, sitting demurely in the carriage across from himself and his wife. He could tell something had upset Agatha, but decided to wait until they were home and he could have a moment alone with her to discuss it, not wanting his wife present to complicate matters the way she always managed.
Once home, Mr. Humphreys called his daughter into his study and helped her to a seat. The room was dim and quiet, the light of a few candles pushing the shadows back against the dark wood panels and bookshelves that encircled a patterned red carpet and a capacious writing desk. Humphreys leaned back against the desk as he looked down at his daughter, sitting there quietly with her hands neatly folded in her lap.
“Now, my pet,” he murmured, crossing his arms over his chest. “What troubles you? You look quite distressed.”
Agatha shook her head, her ringlet curls dancing sweetly as she did so. “Nothing is the matter, Papa. I’m quite well.”
“Agatha,” he insisted, reaching out and putting a finger under her chin, forcing her to look up at him.
She instantly burst into tears. “Oh, Papa! It’s so unfair! I’m sure I shall break my heart!”
“Tell me, child,” he soothed, dropping to one knee and clasping her hands between his.
“Charles– Forgive me, Mr. Caldwell,” she sobbed. “I had such hopes, but…he said–”
His daughter put her face in her hands, shaking as she cried, and Mr. Humphreys swallowed down his anger at the gentleman mentioned, trying to keep his tone light as he asked, “What has he done to hurt you, my sweet?”
“Oh, Papa, you said he would make such a good match, and I love him so! But he told me to put the idea right out of my head! He said he wasn’t at liberty, but he’s never announced an engagement to anyone else! Oh, it’s not fair!”
“Shhh, child, shhh,” he soothed, rocking her. “We’ll just see about this, alright? Don’t you fret. Your dear papa will get to the bottom of this, I promise.”
After a good deal more crying, he finally got his treasure to calm herself enough to go to bed, and once she was out of the study, Mr. Humphreys took himself to his desk, wrote a brief note, and handed it to a servant to deliver first thing in the morning.
The next day dawned bright and clear, finding Mr. Humphreys already dressed and pacing about while he awaited the breakfast hour. He attended to business throughout the morning while also watching the clock, counting down the hours until he would likely receive a reply to his note.
It arrived sooner than expected, and in Charles Caldwell’s elegant hand. Proper and polite, the note informed him that the young man had agreed to Mr. Humphreys’s summons, and that he would attend him promptly at the requested hour of two o’clock. Mr. Humphreys threw himself back into his work, helping the hours pass with productive activity.
Five minutes before the clock chimed two, Mr. Charles Caldwell entered Mr. Humphreys’s study.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Caldwell,” his host greeted, shaking hands, and offered the young gentleman a seat.
“My pleasure, sir,” the young man replied with a smile. “However I might be of assistance to you–”
Mr. Humphreys held up a hand to silence him. “I’ll come right to the point, sir. My daughter was quite distressed after last night’s party, and she claims it was due to something you said. I would like an explanation, sir.”
The handsome young man sighed. “I must beg your forgiveness, sir. It was never my intention to hurt Miss Humphreys, though I’m afraid I did so inadvertently. It became apparent to me, last night while she and I were conversing, that I was considered an acceptable match. I had to inform her – indeed, I did not know any other way to do so – that I was not one upon whom she ought to set her ambitions.”
“And is my daughter not good enough for you, sir?!” Mr. Humphreys growled. “She has had the finest education; she’s well thought of in the highest circles; she–”
The young man nodded. “She will make an ideal wife to any man, sir. However, not to me.”
“And why is that, sir?!”
That handsome face looked at him steadily, one of the very few which had never cowered under his angry glare. After a long moment, Charles Caldwell sighed with resignation, reached into a pocket of his coat, and pulled out a simple gold ring which he slipped onto his left ring finger, holding the hand up for inspection. Humphreys’s jaw dropped at the sight.
“I’m already joined,” the young man explained. “My partner and I are bound for life, and it is only a matter of Jane and myself to come of age – thanks to the confounded norms and legalities in this country – before our union is considered ‘legitimate’ and fit to be recognized. For now, it is a secret.”
“How is it you are married, sir?!” Mr. Humphreys almost bellowed, shocked by the break with tradition. “You are far too young!”
Charles Caldwell laughed. “Jane and I have been ‘married’ these three years, at least. I can assure you, our parents are fully aware of the fact. Though, more to the point, we are not yet married by law, but simply and naturally joined by soul.”
Mr. Humphreys started at that, his eyes widening as he stared at the young man across from him. His mind reeled, his anger from the day before rising up once more and joining the new anger he was feeling at that moment.
“You–” he began, fuming. “You are not human, are you?”
With a perfectly serious expression, the young man an-swered, “No, sir. I am not.”
“Then you are–”
“One of them!”
Mr. Caldwell seemed a bit startled by the angry outburst, but offered neither excuse nor apology. The young man sat perfectly still under Humphreys’s angry glare, the expression on his face showing clearly that he felt his revelation was the most natural thing in the world, despite law and tradition. The shocking disregard for social norms was more than Humphreys could bear.
“Out!” Mr. Humphreys roared.
“I said, out! I will not tolerate your kind in my house!”
Mr. Caldwell rose smoothly to his feet, bowed politely, and took himself from the room. Mr. Humphreys watched him go, his eyes wide with anger, and once the door shut between them, he slammed his fist down on his desk, sending his pens and ink pots rattling.
“I’ll see the lot of them hanged, I will!”
* * *
A few days later, long after the sun had set, Mr. Humphreys ordered his carriage and traveled across town, arriving just at the border of the least reputable part of the city. Making sure he was well-cloaked, Mr. Humphreys got out and continued on foot, leaving his driver and footmen – all armed – to stay with the carriage until he returned.
He slunk through the shadows, weaving his way through cramped, filthy alleyways until he reached the building to which he’d been directed. It was by no means prepossessing: the windows were so thick with grime that one could hardly even discern the flicker of candlelight within, and the garbage strewn about made Humphreys pick his steps very carefully. Bracing himself, he knocked upon the rotting door.
It was promptly answered by a middle-aged man – slightly stooped, with greasy, lank hair, and a vile grin that lacked a few teeth. Without a word, the man welcomed him inside, and Mr. Humphreys took care not to touch anything as he followed the man through the crowded opium den to an empty back room.
Once shut inside and away from prying eyes, Mr. Humphreys uncloaked himself and took an offered chair, sitting gingerly on its edge, while the other man sank lazily onto a bench across from him, saying, “I hear tell you need information.”
“Yes,” Mr. Humphreys answered shortly, trying to swallow his disgust at the sight of yellowed, rotten teeth when the man had spoken. “And I have a little…problem…I would like to have addressed.”
“Oh, aye, I’m good at problems.” The man grinned, rubbing his dirty hands together, his rags swaying loosely on his unwashed arms as he did so.
Mr. Humphreys extracted a purse from his coat and tossed it to the man, who caught it from the air and whisked a coin from within all in one fluid motion. He tested the coin between his teeth, savored the rattle of the purse in his hand, then sneered, “How can I help you, Mr. Smith?”
Mr. Humphreys leaned forward conspiratorially and narrowed his eyes, growling, “Tell me everything you know about the Lethean.”
The man across from him leaned back against the wall, lei-surely stretched out his legs, and grinned.
Landon Hale closed his eyes for just a moment while he took a deep breath to steady himself, then forced on a polite smile as he squeezed through the crowd of young ladies to climb the grand staircase. As assigned, he came to a stop halfway up and put his back to the wall, making himself ready to assist but also giving himself an elevated vantage from which to survey the crowded foyer.
The Westbrook Finishing School and Ladies’ Boarding House was abuzz with excitement. For one matter, the new term was to commence the following day, so the House was filled to capacity with girls moving in – many return students, but also a few shy ladies coming for the first time. Parents and servants bustled about, moving in and unpacking an endless stream of trunks and packages. Even in the midst of the chaos, the girls put on their best behavior, not only to please their parents but also to show the Westbrook staff that they hadn’t forgotten their les-sons.
Still, despite propriety and decorum, there were moments of excited meetings between friends who had not seen one another since the last term. The young ladies embraced passionately, eager to start sharing the latest gossip and fashions. Even some of the teachers joined in the excitement, as several of them had be-come close to various girls under their tutelage.
Scattered amongst the sea of petticoats and bonnets was the occasional waistcoat and cravat. Westbrook House maintained a full-time, live-in security staff of the male sex. These gentlemen, after receiving thorough background checks and providing several character references, were employed to ensure the safety of the ladies housed there, both to make sure none sneaked out unaccompanied during the day and no intruder sneaked in uninvited during the night.
Though one of the youngest members of the security staff, Landon Hale was Westbrook’s greatest asset – not that the fact was advertised, and indeed the secrecy was part of his value.
Positioned halfway up the main staircase – ostensibly to direct the endless flow of traffic, indicating to which rooms the myriad ladies and trunks needed to be sent – he had a clear view of his fellows scattered about the space below, and tried to keep a sharp eye on them and the crowd in case anyone signaled that he was needed.
The jumble of conversations was a tremendous distraction, and though he tried to focus, Landon found his attention pulled in multiple directions at once. Between inquiries and instructions, between observations and interruptions, Mr. Hale overheard several mentions of the most important item of gossip for the day, which was another reason for the heightened excitement in the House.
Lord and Lady Braddock, Westbrook’s primary benefactors, had met with a tragic accident several months earlier, leaving their only child, a grown daughter, as heiress to their great fortune according to the terms of a remarkably ironclad Will drawn up by the family solicitors.
This ought not have been possible, except that – scandal of scandals! – the entail on the Braddock holdings had been broken three generations ago, with consent of all parties involved, and since then had never been renewed. One could hardly fathom a peer of the realm doing such a thing, let alone his heirs cooperating, yet it had been done, and consequently Miss Braddock would enjoy the extraordinary good fortune of inheriting the estate and becoming that marvelous rarity amongst English females – the independent woman.
Rumor had it that Miss Braddock had spent most of her life in India, where her parents had been working to bring modern developments and conveniences to the people, but now that her affairs were arranged there, she was to return to her native land – for how long, nobody knew – to claim her inheritance and have the estate made over to her name.
The family solicitors decided that the young heiress ought to stay at Westbrook House until things could be arranged for her to reach the family estate. Westbrook was glad to have her, and it owed so much of its existence to the Braddocks that any visit from that family constituted a holiday of sorts.
In addition to these facts, gossip and conjecture abounded down to the minutest detail: the possibilities of Miss Braddock’s features, her hair, her clothing, her behavior. She had spent a great deal of her life in a foreign land, after all, so she was sure to be an oddity. The young ladies openly wondered if she would be crude enough to eat with her hands, as they’d heard was commonplace in India.
Mr. Hale allowed himself a moment of nostalgia, recalling a few instances of eating in such a way himself as a child when he’d joined his father on a business trip abroad. He couldn’t very well share such a reminiscence with the nobility surrounding him, however, and considering his father had passed on, he was more inclined to keep the treasured memories to himself anyway.
The flow of trunks finally began to subside, and now most of the traffic moved in the opposite direction, the ladies and their families returning to the ground floor to take tea or visit with others. Mr. Hale, still confined to his station for the time being, was glad the crowds were thinning. He didn’t have to keep quite so pressed to the wall, with the stair banister buried painfully into his lower back, not to mention his thoughts were finally allowed to clear a bit.
One of the downsides of his kind being stuck in a crowd was that any accidental touch of another person’s flesh sent their thoughts immediately to his awareness. He cursed inwardly for having forgotten to wear gloves.
Mr. Hale shook himself, trying to expel the last few foreign thoughts cluttering his mind. The things he’d seen, unbeknownst to the originators of those thoughts, had both amused and disgusted him – the former including such things as many of the young ladies finding him strikingly handsome, and the latter including the various frivolities of hair and dress on which young ladies often had their minds. Amusing or disgusting, though, it all annoyed him simply because the thoughts came to him unbidden.
He knew it was part of his nature – a being who looked human but was something more – yet he could never seem to become accustomed to his strange ability, particularly in such a crowd as this. The chaos of others’ thoughts coming to his mind, overlaid with the noise of the ceaseless chatter that surrounded him, was enough to make a person go mad.
With the crowd thinning and his mind more clear, Mr. Hale became suddenly aware of a strong pulling sensation at his chest. He rubbed his fingertips on a spot just over his heart, his lips parting in awe as he realized what the sensation meant.
Minutes passed and the feeling grew in intensity – a magnetic pull in the direction of the drive. A feeling of total peace began to trickle slowly through his entire body, then picked up speed until wave after wave of serenity and clarity flowed through him in pace with the strengthening of the magnetic pull at his heart. His eyes slipped closed, a smile just touching his lips as proximity filled his awareness, and he crossed his hands over his heart, delighted at the sensation.
All his life he had felt the slightest tug there, something he always expected to experience as a soul-sharer, though it had never been nearly so intense. His fatigue and annoyance vanished as the feeling grew, and he became vibrantly alert, his eyes opening wide as he stared at the front doorway, eager to discover his soul partner for the first time.
A young errand boy dashed through the main entrance, calling above the mass of conversations: “The Braddock carriage has arrived!”
Once again, to Mr. Hale’s dismay, the crowd swelled. He pressed himself back as far as he could, avoiding anyone’s touch as much as possible. The foyer was once again a chaotic sea of people and noise, and Mr. Hale was glad for his elevated vantage point, even though the grand staircase was filling up as well. The more the crowd grew, the stronger his feeling became: a bewildering mix of peaceful bliss and heart-thudding expectation.
Thanks to the pull, he knew the precise moment she would enter the room. The magnetic connection between their soul halves nearly pulled him down the stairs, and through accidental contact, he knew the people around him wondered why he suddenly lunged forward just to press himself back even harder against the wall.
Ignoring those around him, Landon Hale was dimly aware that his hand eagerly clutched his pocketwatch chain as his eyes went directly to his partner, drawn to her as the other half of himself.
Miss Braddock was announced, and elderly Mrs. Westbrook, matron of Westbrook House, pressed through the crowd, her grey skirts gathered in her hands as she squeezed between the eager girls and their parents. A space opened amidst the crowd, and Mrs. Westbrook smoothed down her skirts and lifted her elegantly-greying head just in time for Miss Braddock to step through the front doorway and come to a stop before the matron, both women smiling at one another.
Mr. Hale had his eyes glued to Miss Braddock as the two women shook hands, the others pressing close to overhear the introduction, many of them whispering surprise that the lady did not carry a foreign accent.
The crowd pressed back a little more to give the young benefactress space, and suddenly a gentleman was at her side, taking her arm through his. Mr. Hale expelled all his breath in one choking sob which, to his relief, nobody noticed.
She’s human! he thought with despair.
If she had been one of his kind, she would have felt the pull just as strongly as he had, and would have been instantly able to pick him out from the crowd. As it was, she was on the arm of another man, and she only slowly let her eyes scan the room, taking in all the strange faces surrounding her. When her glance finally met his own, he knew she saw his face blackened with anger.
* * *
For what seemed like several minutes, though was in fact only a few seconds, Miss Braddock held the gaze of a young man amidst the crowd on the rich, dark wood staircase. He was strikingly handsome, with clear brown eyes, neatly-trimmed brown hair, a strong jawline and an aquiline nose. His posture was confidently erect, with chin up and shoulders square, and his coloring set off nicely against the light green paper that decorated the wall behind him. She felt she could do nothing but watch him all day and feel perfectly content, except for the fact that he was staring angrily at her.
She gazed back at him with contracted eyebrows and parted lips, wondering sadly why this man should have cause to glare at her the way he was. When she finally tore her eyes away, she had to take a slow, deep breath to steady herself, and when she looked back, there was no sign of him other than a slight ripple in the crowd through which he must have passed.
“And who might this fine gentleman be?” Mrs. Westbrook asked, reclaiming Miss Braddock’s attention, and indicating the man at her side.
“Oh, forgive me.” Miss Braddock laughed, forcing aside her curiosity and hoping her voice was pitched to a proper tone. “Mrs. Westbrook, this is Mr. Andrew Lawrence, a long-time family friend, and junior partner of Mr. Brimley, my family’s solicitor.”
“A pleasure to meet you, sir.” Mrs. Westbrook smiled, shaking hands with Mr. Lawrence. “I trust you will find everything here to your liking.”
“I’m sure I will, madam,” Mr. Lawrence replied, leaving a polite kiss on the back of the matron’s hand before he released it.
“Come, I shall show you to your apartment, Miss Braddock,” Mrs. Westbrook said, turning on her heel, the crowd squeezing apart to make space for the visitors and their servants to access the grand staircase.
When they reached the next flight of stairs, Miss Braddock pressed a hand to her chest and grimaced as though in pain. On the landing, Mr. Lawrence pulled gently on her arm to hold her back, speaking quietly so the matron would not hear.
“Victoria, are you unwell?” he asked.
“What? Oh, no, thank you. I’m sorry, just…a sudden chest pain. It’s gone now.”
“Again? You’re sure you’re alright?”
“Yes, quite sure. I’m very well.”
“I can call for a doctor. You know your family is prone to heart conditions, and I’d hate to see you leave this untreated–”
“Andrew, I’m quite alright,” she insisted, giving him her most winning smile, and they continued on, following Mrs. Westbrook.
Miss Braddock’s trunks were brought into the apartment while Mrs. Westbrook pointed out the features of the room: it was well-fitted up with a comfortable bed covered with plain but sufficient sheets, with additional warm blankets available in a small cupboard; an old yet elegant washstand stood near a small dressing table; and, along another wall, there was a generous window which allowed the afternoon sunlight to grace the soothing, pale colors of the room. The fireplace was swept and ready to use, and Miss Braddock looked forward to having it lit that evening – after the hurried travel, nothing sounded better than the coziness of curling up near a fire with only a book for company.
She noticed Mr. Lawrence appeared skeptical about the sufficiency of the accommodations, but convinced him that she was perfectly satisfied and asked that he pass along her thanks to his employer, who had made the arrangements. While Mr. Lawrence bowed his acquiescence, Mrs. Westbrook gave her a delighted smile, and assured her that, should she or Mr. Lawrence find anything lacking, Westbrook would be quick to provide. Miss Braddock happily shook hands with the matron again, and then she was left alone to refresh herself after her journey.
While Miss Braddock settled into her apartment, Landon Hale returned to his duties, all the while overhearing conversations that erupted throughout the House – those who had seen the visiting heiress sharing their observations with those whom had not.
There was nothing to be said, really, about her carriage and speech, as those were quiet proper, although any who had not overseen the introduction wanted to know precisely how she’d spoken and what she’d said. Her beauty was gone over with a fine-toothed comb, yet no one could really fault her flawless complexion, her dazzling eyes, the graceful curve of her cheek, or the aquiline nose. Her hair was not quite in keeping with the modern style, yet neither was it terribly drastic: her long, well-kept brunette locks wound up into a neat twist at the back of her neck.
What really got everyone chattering excitedly, though, was her attire. Instead of a proper traveling gown, her fine figure was only partially disguised beneath a traditional Indian sari. The forest green cloth with gold embroidery was a perfect complement to her exotic eyes and her skin tone, but the very idea of her wearing such an outfit was quite shocking! Instead of a gown, her ghangra skirt pressed close to her slender hips beneath the wound sari. Instead of a spencer or a pelisse, her upper body was covered only by a midriff choli and the pallu – the heavily-embroidered end of the sari – draped over one shoulder. The pallu was pulled around her torso and belted in place, keeping her waist mostly hidden, but her arms below the short sleeves were quiet bare. Nothing so much as pretending to be a bonnet could be found either in her hands or on her head.
To make matters worse, she ought to have still been in full mourning, so a debate instantly flared up as to whether Miss Braddock was even aware of the requirements of mourning dress or if she was intentionally ignoring such sacred traditions.
Conversation amongst the gentlemen particularly centered around the fact that the man who had accompanied Miss Brad-dock had not seemed the least perturbed by her appearance. The men all declared they would never see their wives and daughters dressed in such an improper way, and they wondered at Mr. Lawrence’s complete disregard for the matter. He seemed to stand proudly beside her, neither ashamed of her appearance nor encouraging her to cover herself more closely. Landon heard these conversations but declined to participate, keeping his thoughts to himself, and the more he was able to push aside his anger, the more he became aware of the fact that he’d had no idea what Miss Braddock had been wearing – shocking or not – because the joy of proximity had trumped all other awareness. Hearing the gentlemen continue to discuss her appearance made him wildly jealous, particularly when he read their unspoken lewd thoughts through accidental touch, and he had to fight down his anger yet again.
At least, when Miss Braddock came down to supper, the commentary buzzing around Landon finally began to die down as the heiress was now more or less properly attired in evening gown and gloves: more or less, because the gown was ivory in-stead of black.
As Landon idly picked at his meal, hardly noticing the food while his eyes were focused on his partner, it seemed to him that it was all Miss Braddock and Mr. Lawrence could do to actually get food into their bellies, considering the rush of questions that came their way from all directions. He watched one answer a question while the other stole a chance to bring a bite to his or her mouth, and the questions seemed to have no end – the ladies and their parents politely inquiring after Miss Braddock’s entire history down to the smallest detail.
The one question danced around but never directly put – and the one question to which Mr. Hale particularly wanted an answer – was the exact nature of the relationship between Miss Braddock and her handsome escort. They were assumed to be an engaged couple, though they certainly did not behave as if they were so. Several of the young ladies clearly wanted assurance that Mr. Lawrence was still an eligible bachelor – his handsome features, manly bearing, and pleasant conversation making him quite attractive as a potential husband – but no one seemed brave enough to come right out and ask. Landon clenched his teeth, the suspense of the unanswered question eating at him in the most agonizing way as he eavesdropped upon the conversations.
Throughout the meal, Miss Braddock could feel the man’s persistent glare. Once or twice she glanced up and found his eyes burning with anger in her direction, and though she tried to ignore it, the feeling grew more oppressive as the evening wore on. It required all her effort to maintain a smile and respond to the barrage of questions put to her. With Mr. Lawrence at her side and contributing to the conversation, she was able to be-come lost in her thoughts from time to time, staring blankly at the plate of fresh butter or the basket of warm rolls as her mind turned over the curiosity of this man.
She glanced up again, seeing him watch her steadily, ignoring the full plate before him, and she cast her eyes back down, looking at but not seeing the roast on her plate. Mechanically, she took a bite to buy some time, then forced on a smile and glanced around, trying to get her mind caught up with the conversation rather than make it obvious she had not been attending.
Mr. Hale sat along with the other security staff at a table on a raised platform near one end of the room, the teachers in a similar position at the other end, affording all those on staff an open view of their charges. From his position, he had a perfect and direct view of Miss Braddock, and he spent so much time intently glaring at her that his meal soon went quite forgotten.
He was trembling in agony, so close to her, yet so far. Now that he had finally found her, and had experienced the overpowering bliss of having the other half of his soul so near, it was an unbearable torture to know that she was not of his kind, and that though she was close in proximity, she was as unattainable as worldly possible.
A hand on his shoulder startled him out of his reverie, and he jumped in his seat, upsetting his wine glass in the process. Quickly righting the glass and throwing his napkin over the spilled fluid, he turned to see Mrs. Westbrook standing just behind his chair.
“My apologies, Mrs. Westbrook,” he blurted out while sopping up the mess.
“Leave it, Mr. Hale. There are maids for that. May I have a word?”
“Of course, Mrs. Westbrook.”
Landon left his hardly-touched meal and briskly followed Mrs. Westbrook out of the dining hall and down to her private office. The room was well-lit with several candles while the heavy green draperies hid away the darkness growing outdoors. Mrs. Westbrook seated herself behind her large oak desk and indicated that Landon should take a chair across from her.
“Mr. Hale, I have a particular request to make of you,” she began, folding her wrinkled hands upon the surface of the desk.
“Certainly, madam,” he replied, clearing his throat politely. Here, away from the dining hall, he could breathe a little more easily not having Miss Braddock within his sight, but the pull, though a touch fainter because of the distance, was more painful. He made a great effort to focus his attention on his employer.
“I would like you to be particularly attentive to Miss Braddock’s needs and safety while she is with us. I’m sure you know what an honor it is to have her here at Westbrook.”
Landon couldn’t resist lifting an eyebrow in question. Surely Mrs. Westbrook had no need to make such a request in private, especially considering he was certain the entire security staff would be given the same instructions. His puzzlement, however, was far outweighed by the pain he foresaw he would be enduring: paying particular attention to Miss Braddock’s security would mean frequent contact with her, and he wasn’t sure he was equal to the task.
Knowing not to argue, however, Landon nodded. “Of course, Mrs. Westbrook.”
“I would not have troubled you especially, except that, be-sides Miss Braddock being important to this institution as a benefactress, she is also now an heiress alone in the world, and I would see no harm come to her. I have complete faith in my entire security staff here; however, I think your particular…talents…will be especially useful in this case.”
So that was it. His Lethean heritage was rarely brought up between them, though Mrs. Westbrook had been fully aware of his abilities from the day he had applied for the position. As such, whenever she needed someone to be especially discerning, or needed precise information obtained, she always came to Mr. Hale as she knew he could produce the kind of results that no human could ever possibly achieve.
It was primarily this ability that had earned him the position, despite his distracting appearance, although his personal motivation certainly also played a role. It was no accident that any gentleman hired at Westbrook was usually less than attractive, so as not to place any excess distractions before the young ladies. Mrs. Westbrook had originally expressed concern that Mr. Hale’s handsome face would prove problematic, but once he’d given her his reason for applying for the position, and especially once she was later able to observe his complete romantic disinterest in and distance from any of the ladies there, she mentioned to him that she was glad his appearance was not going to pose too much of a problem, particularly because his abilities were so frequently useful.
“I understand, madam. I shall be diligent.”
“You always are.”
Mrs. Westbrook rang a small silver bell on her desk, bringing a servant girl dashing in from a side door. She bobbed a curtsy and asked, “Yes, mum?”
“Jenny, please go find Miss Braddock and ask if she would be so kind as to grant me a short interview at her convenience.”
“Yes, mum. Right away, mum.”
Jenny curtsied again and hurried from the room. Landon watched her go, remembering her first days in her new position as Mrs. Westbrook’s servant. The girl had learned the hard way that dawdling was not tolerated at Westbrook, and after two sharp punishments for tardiness, she had quickly fitted herself into the efficient network of teachers and servants that kept Westbrook running like a well-oiled machine. Her brisk pace was fast enough to be effective but slow enough to not be unladylike.
When the girl was gone, Landon asked, “Mrs. Westbrook?”
“I would like you and Miss Braddock to have a formal introduction so that she’ll know to recognize you when she has the need,” the matron explained while her hands were busy efficiently arranging notes and memorandum books that were strewn across her desk.
“Madam, if I may–” he began, wanting to protest such a sudden meeting, but a knock at the door interrupted him.
Madam Villeneuve, the French instructor, stepped into the office and had a short discussion with Westbrook’s matron about a slight change in curriculum for the new term, and just as she left, Jenny returned with Miss Braddock and – to Landon’s further discomfort – Mr. Lawrence in tow.
“Ah, Miss Braddock, thank you for coming.” Mrs. West-brook smiled as she rose from her seat. She came around her desk, and Landon also stood to join them. “And Mr. Lawrence. A pleasure to see you again, sir. I trust you are satisfied thus far?”
“Indeed, madam,” Mr. Lawrence said. “I shall feel quite comfortable knowing Miss Braddock is safe within your walls.”
“You do us honor, sir. Now, if you please, I would like to introduce one of my security staff. This is Mr. Hale, and I can assure you he will do everything in his power to make sure Miss Braddock feels safe and provided for at all times.”
“How do you do, sir?” Mr. Lawrence asked, offering his hand. Landon forced himself to accept it, and as they shook, the junior solicitor’s thoughts came immediately to his mind. Primarily, he saw Mr. Lawrence’s thoughts of Miss Braddock, and he did not at all like what he read there. It was clear that he and Miss Braddock were in fact not engaged, which gave Landon great relief; however, Mr. Lawrence clearly held matrimonial intentions in that direction, and his thoughts were depressingly confident on that topic. Swallowing his anger and jealousy, Landon forced on a polite smile, and the other man smiled back, though with a slightly astonished expression. “Well, you are quite young!”
“He is just eight-and-twenty,” Mrs. Westbrook mentioned, “but I can assure you he is very adept at his responsibilities here. Under his watchful eyes, our girls are quite safe from intruders.”
“Glad to hear it,” Mr. Lawrence said.
“Miss Braddock, Mr. Hale,” Mrs. Westbrook introduced, and the two turned toward one another. Miss Braddock seemed hesitant to accept his offered hand, and Landon had to control himself, wanting so much more than a handshake, wanting the blissful intimacy of isolation with her, but knowing that such was impossible.
Landon shuddered inwardly when their hands met. He was thankful she was still wearing her long gloves, so that their skin didn’t touch directly – too afraid to read in her thoughts any regard she might feel for the gentleman at her side – but the incredible proximity made his heart thud wildly within his chest.
“Miss Braddock,” he said quietly as he fought the desire to clasp her in his arms.
“Mr. Hale,” came the cold reply.
“If you ever need anything,” Mrs. Westbrook continued joyfully, neither her nor Mr. Lawrence having noticed the odd undertone to the greeting, “Mr. Hale is always easy to find on his rounds. He will not hesitate to assist you.”
“Much appreciated, sir,” Miss Braddock said in a flat tone, looking directly at Landon with a cold, searching gaze, then smiled as she turned to Mrs. Westbrook. “Madam, if you don’t mind, it has been a long day and I should very much like to re-tire.”
“Of course, my dear. Of course. I’ll give you a moment to say goodnight to Mr. Lawrence and I shall escort you to your room myself if you’d like.”
“Thank you, madam. I would.”
Mrs. Westbrook led Mr. Hale from the room, for which he was very glad. He didn’t think he could bear to witness anything more than the most friendly, chaste parting between Miss Braddock and her escort, though at the same time he was desperate for a confirmation of just what their relationship entailed.
Victoria Braddock exchanged farewells with Mr. Lawrence – though it took all her strength to keep her patience as he lingered, gallantly bowing over her hand as he kissed it – and then he went on his way to his rooms above the solicitor’s offices in town, leaving her to Mrs. Westbrook’s care.
As the Westbrook matron escorted her, arm-in-arm, down the corridor to her designated apartment, Victoria asked, “Mrs. Westbrook, could you tell me? I sense I’ve performed some gross impropriety, or something of the sort: Mr. Hale seems to despise me.”
“Does he? How so? I saw no such indication.”
“He has been looking at me strangely since the moment I arrived.”
“Indeed? Well perhaps I ought to speak with him.”
Victoria was silent for a moment as they arrived at her door, then said, “Perhaps I’m just over-tired and imagining things. It has been a rather long day.”
“Poor dear.” The matron patted her hand sympathetically. “Well, have a good rest and I shall see you at breakfast in the morning.”
“Thank you, madam. Goodnight.”
Victoria went into her room, shut and locked the door, then slowly made her way to the bed. Sinking down onto it, she absentmindedly removed her gloves, and sighed.
“Oh dear. This could be interesting.”
Once supper was over and all visitors had departed, the security staff went to make their rounds, closing and locking all exterior doors and gates, then visually inspecting all common rooms to make sure they were empty. The young ladies and other staff remained in the dining hall, conversing and enjoying an after-supper tea and pudding until it was time for bed.
With the ladies safe in their rooms and the House quieting down for the night, the security staff made one more visual round before changing hands for the overnight hours. Landon was glad for the relief of being free to go to his own room, having spent the evening in agony, trying to focus on his duties while feeling Miss Braddock’s constant presence.
When he finally entered his room and had the barrier of a door between himself and the rest of the House, he gave in to the painful torment coursing through his body. Having thrown the bolt on the door, he languidly turned and slumped against the hard wood, sliding down until he sat on the floor. With his elbows on his knees, he hung his head in his hands, sliding his fingers back through his hair and holding on for dear life.
He felt Miss Braddock somewhere above him to his right. Without the distraction of his duties, the pull of her half of their soul enveloped him with painful clarity. Landon longed to crash directly through the walls in the most direct route to her, which he could easily have done in his emotionally aroused state – wood, plaster, and even stone could not stand up to an angry or impassioned Lethean. The walls would part like tissue paper under his hands if he chose to close the distance between himself and his partner in that manner. Instead, exercising incredible physical restraint, he maintained his seated position and sank under the weight of emotions that had struggled all evening for liberty.
Why? he thought, realizing it was a question to which he may never have an answer no matter how long he lived nor how often he asked it. Why? Why? Why?!
It was a rare thing – a soul being divided between a Lethean and a human – but when it did occur, it was like a curse for the Lethean. Whereas the human could feel nothing more than a common human attraction, and could thus decide not to pair with his or her Lethean soul mate, the Lethean would go through life feeling the constant presence of the human, yet never attain the satisfaction of a union.
He had heard stories, passed down by his ancestors, of Lethean in such pairings taking their own lives, unable to endure the pain of seeing their human partners wedded to others. For the first time in his life, Landon Hale began to curse his blood, wishing that he could be nothing more than an average human, incapable of feeling this overpowering connection between soul halves – knowing that he just might be willing to take his own life if he could not join with his partner.
Yet, at the same time, a part of him was feeling more alive than ever before. With an unjoined soul, a Lethean never feels whole until he or she meets his or her other half, and the serenity that comes with meeting one’s soul partner gives the Lethean a sense of a more complete existence. Intertwined with Landon’s pain was a liberating sensation of floating along, less burdened by his half-existence. The only sensation more perfect would be to unite bodies and souls, but Landon knew perfectly well that, Miss Braddock being human, she would never understand the joining, let alone permit it.
Clenching his jaw and still grasping handfuls of hair, Landon trembled with the effort to maintain his position, striving with all his might to prevent himself from breaking down walls and doors to get to her. The pull’s intensity demanded movement, though, so he jumped to his feet and began pacing the room. Moving rapidly from one wall to the opposite and back again several times, Landon struggled with himself, alternately clasping his hands before him or clenching them into fists at his sides, the muscles in his fingers strained beyond ache as his pacing continued.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but finally the monotony of pacing allowed a numbness to temper his struggle, and he sank to his knees beside his bed, breathing heavily as though he’d run several miles. A few tears streamed silently down his cheeks, and he stared absently at the wall, feeling both whole and emptied at the same time. Landon maintained that posture until long after his knees began to ache, pressed heavily to the hardwood floor, then mechanically got to his feet.
He undressed in a daze, absentmindedly dropping his clothing about the room, neither seeing nor truly caring that his waistcoat and trousers were becoming rumpled where they lay on the floor. Once in his nightshirt, he turned down the bedclothes and sat on the edge of his bed, but minutes passed and he couldn’t make himself lie down. He stared at his candle, watching the wax drip slowly down its length, willing himself to blow out the flame and go to bed, but he knew that being alone in the dark would only make that nagging pull more apparent.
The muffled chime of a clock startled him to his feet. He cocked his head to one side, listening, and expelled a shaky breath as the chimes faded away, his rapid heartbeat slowing as the sound diminished.
Shaking himself, Landon went to his washstand and looked into the pitcher. Seeing a bit of water in the bottom, he upturned it over his head, soaking his hair and letting the icy water trickle down the back of his neck. He shivered, enjoying the brisk sensation, then gently replaced the pitcher on the washstand and went to sit at his small writing desk.
Being mindful of his posture so as not to let his plastered locks drip water on the desk, he chose a sheet of paper and mended a pen. Words flowed rapidly and illegibly across the page, his thoughts and feelings impatient for expulsion. Sensible or not, he continued writing ceaselessly for half an hour, filling page after page with everything from complete sentences to single words repeated several times. He gave free rein to whatever ideas wanted escape, and in the end he had a nonsensical conglomeration of words, shorthand, phrases, questions, and double-underlined professions of an excruciating love that was beginning to blossom.
Feeling the relief of a slightly clearer mind, Landon opened two drawers in his desk, found one nearly empty, stuffed its few contents into the other drawer, then slowly and methodically gathered his pages, piled them neatly together, and laid them in the empty drawer, shutting it slowly and carefully. He took a moment to flex his cramped fingers, then selected another blank sheet, prepared his pen, and rested his hand in place, gathering his thoughts.
He longed to write to Miss Braddock, but he quickly realized what a gross impropriety that would be. Even if he were to do so under the guise of further introducing himself as her designated protector during her stay at Westbrook, he knew his words could easily run on to a confession of his heritage and his yearning for her. Such a love letter from a mere acquaintance – and as yet hardly an acquaintance at that – would be discarded in haste by any proper young woman. How could he possibly explain to her that she and he were two halves of one existence?
He laughed at himself. How ridiculous it would sound! Par-don me, but would you mind joining souls with me and then sharing my bed? The connection meant so much more and went so much deeper than that, but any human unfamiliar with Lethean characteristics would probably understand any such request in those simple and indecorous terms.
Landon stared at the blank page, willing himself to write something, anything, but his pen remained immobile. He longed to unburden himself of his solitary pain by revealing it to the one whom it most concerned, but the more ways he tried to capture the feelings in words, the more he became frustrated at the assumption that, no matter in what phrases he couched the ideas, she as a human would never be able to truly understand. Without feeling what he felt, Miss Braddock would very likely never be able to acquire any semblance of a concept of what Landon suffered. Reluctantly, he rested the pen on the desk and sat back, still staring at the blank page.
“She wouldn’t accept a letter from me, regardless,” he mumbled to himself. “Not without her first explicitly granting me permission to write to her. And she without a guardian to whom I could apply for permission, except perhaps for that Mr. Lawrence…”
He inwardly shuddered at the thought. Writing to a man, who was undoubtedly Miss Braddock’s intended, in order to ask permission to write professions of love to the same woman – what a catastrophe that would be! That option was clearly off the list, but writing directly to Miss Braddock was also out of the question – she would certainly think him far too brazen.
Would she accept a simple note of apology, at least? he wondered. Landon knew his few words with her that day had been cold at best. The least he could do would be to write a brief, polite apology for his disagreeable behavior, begging for an opportunity to begin their acquaintance anew on friendly terms. He hoped he could find the willpower to pen a note with its scope so limited, and not to embellish it with all the rest he desired to tell her. Surely such a gesture would not be denied, and would not break the bounds of propriety?
He dipped his pen into an ink pot, rested his hand on the pa-per, and took a deep breath. With great restraint and several pauses, managed to write a short note in his neatest script:
Please forgive my impertinence in daring to write to a lady without permission, yet I must apologize for my behavior today. My disagreeable conduct was unfounded, and will not happen again. Be assured that your safety and comfort here shall always be my primary concern.
Madam, your servant,
The words depressed him when he read them over again. The note seemed so empty and formal compared to what he was feeling. Laying that note aside, he took another sheet and began again, needing the release of writing out what he really wanted to tell her.
I hope you can forgive my misconduct in daring to write to you without permission, but I cannot bear the burden of my behavior to you today without offering an explanation. I know my manner was cold and disagreeable, and for that I sincerely apologize.
The only excuse I have to offer is the very fact of my being: I am Lethean. I know not how familiar you are with my kind, we humans who are something more than human. My behavior to you today was simply a reaction of my half-soul at the sight of its mate.
Yes, Miss Braddock, you carry within yourself the other half of our soul. We are both part of one existence – neither of us is whole without the other. Yet, how could you ever feel it the way I do?
I am in torment. My entire being cries out to be joined to yours. As I write these words, I can feel your presence, so close yet so far. As you lie awake at this moment, I can feel your agitation. Strain of travel, perhaps? Or, even worse, is your suffering caused by my own crude behavior? If you only knew what determination is required of me at this moment to remain where I am rather than flying to your aid!
Oh, to lie beside you and share the bliss of a perfect night’s sleep!
He couldn’t finish the letter, aware that his words were rapidly approaching a subject that would be utterly unacceptable to her. Still, his feelings and desires could not be repressed. His entire being – soul and body – was desperate for her nearer proximity. Visions of joining with her crowded his mind, sending his pulse racing.
Landon bolted from the chair and threw open his window. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply of the crisp air, letting his imagination wander among thoughts of twisted sheets, scattered clothing, bare skin…
Until he realized again that Miss Braddock was only human, and would never experience love-making the way he could. For him it would be the very meaning of life itself, bringing together two bodies and souls in an embrace that was intimate and personal beyond imagining – connecting bodies and souls so wholly that nothing else in life could ever possibly matter. But for her? She would feel but a fraction of the sensation, if that. He would feel utter bliss, while she felt nothing of the kind.
He growled with anger and turned away from the window, the fantasy shattered in his mind. Forgetting the unfinished letter on his table, he put out the candle and threw himself on the bed, covering his head with the pillow to muffle his voice as he growled curses against his Lethean nature.
How could he bear it, this half existence? He needed her more than anything, but she could never know the breadth and depth of their connection the way he could. He wanted her wholly and truly, feeling what he felt, sensing what he sensed.
“Why? Oh why? Why me?”
When Landon did finally drift off, he enjoyed a kind of sleep that he’d never experienced in his lifetime. His sleep had a depth and restfulness that he had only heard about from others of his kind. Though he had gone to bed later – and thus slept far fewer hours – than was his wont, when the maid knocked on his door in the morning to bring him hot water for his wash basin, he surprised himself by how easily he popped out of bed. He felt more refreshed after that one night than he ever had when he got to sleep-in while away on holiday. Now he had yet another reason to desire proximity to Miss Braddock for the remainder of his life, no matter how painful the daylight hours might prove.
Even though the water was still a bit too uncomfortably hot, Landon plunged right into washing himself, being more thorough than usual. Feeling refreshed, he scrubbed himself dry while he turned his mind to what he would wear that day. He chose his garments with especial care, selecting the dark green waistcoat that looked particularly flattering with his shade of light brown hair.
It was an odd process for him, intentionally dressing in hopes of pleasing a woman. It was something he’d simply never had to do, as he’d never felt even the slightest desire for a woman, knowing full well that his soul partner existed somewhere in the world. Countless times, he had witnessed the effort of dress and manners that went along with human courtship, though he never quite fully understood it until now, realizing the only way to turn Miss Braddock’s head was by resorting to these human conventions.
“So this is what it feels like,” he wondered aloud, feeling the giddy sensation that goes along with wondering and fearing how well one might impress the object of one’s affections.
Satisfied with his appearance, he hung his pocketwatch – a family heirloom – on its chain and made his way to the dining hall for breakfast. All the while, he could feel Miss Braddock approaching from the other direction, her steps in time with his. It felt effortless, moving toward her, as though he were not using his own muscles to walk but was instead being pulled along by their connection.
The dining hall was already nearly full, the ladies eager to resume gossip with their friends before lessons officially began and commanded the majority of their time at Westbrook. When Landon and Miss Braddock reached the corridor outside the dining hall, approaching one another from opposite directions, they were very nearly alone.
As they neared, Landon saw Miss Braddock cast her eyes to the floor before her while a charming flush appeared on her cheeks, visible from a distance thanks to the contrast between that rosy hue and the creamy whiteness of both her skin and her day dress. Assuming she did not want to meet him after their cold encounter of the day before, Landon felt in his pockets for the note he had written her, wanting to offer his apology as soon as possible, and only realized too late that he had quite forgotten the note on his desk.
The sensation of her emotions hit him before he was near enough to discern the expression on her face. It was clear that she had cried – that morning or the night before, he couldn’t quite tell – but she was making an effort to mask the emotion.
“Miss Braddock, are you unwell?” he blurted out with feeling as they came to a stop a few feet from one another, framed within the open entryway to the noisy dining hall.
She seemed surprised by his concerned tone, her expression softening as she replied, “Thank you, Mr. Hale, I’m quite well. We simply traveled a bit farther yesterday than I would have liked, making up for delays on the road. Tired as I was, it was rather difficult to fall asleep last night.”
He could tell she was technically telling the truth, but it certainly wasn’t the whole truth. However, not wanting to be intrusive, he simply asked, “If you require anything…”
“Thank you, sir. No, I shall be perfectly well after a little coffee.”
Miss Braddock curtsied to him like an equal, though in terms of human social conventions she was quite a few steps above him, and turned toward the dining hall.
“Miss Braddock,” he called, stopping her. “If I may, I had written you an apology last night…I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten the note. Would you accept my deepest regrets for my behavior yesterday? I know I was rather–”
He looked up and saw Jackson Briggs, his best friend and fellow member of security, approaching rapidly behind Miss Braddock. Mr. Briggs stopped and bowed to the lady, apologizing for interrupting the conversation, then turned to Landon. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to delay your breakfast. We have an issue that requires your immediate attention.”
“Right away, Mr. Briggs,” he said, then turned to the lady, bowing. “Miss Braddock, my apologies for–”
“No apology necessary, sir,” she said without a smile, quickly wrapping up their conversation and curtseying again. “I shall not keep you. Good morning.”
“Good morning,” Landon murmured, though it was to her back as she’d already turned on her heel and entered the dining hall.
Mr. Briggs leaned over and whispered, “Something going on?”
“I’ll tell you later. What’s the situation?”
Mr. Briggs pressed his lips together to indicate the problem could not be discussed there, and then he turned and moved his hulking form briskly back up the corridor with Landon close behind him.
The two men hurried through the House toward the servants’ domain, which was bustling with activity at that hour of the morning. The cooks and kitchen maids were rushing to prepare hot dishes for the dining hall, while the chamber maids gathered their tools for cleaning the ladies’ rooms while they were at lessons. Mr. Briggs and Mr. Hale squeezed through the rush of people and exited the building, making their way toward the carriage house and stables.
Outside, one of the maids – a pretty, plump woman in her forties – was hanging sheets to dry, and Landon couldn’t help but notice her anxious looks in the direction of the stables.
“We caught a man trying to sneak in this morning,” Mr. Briggs explained quietly once they were outside. “He said he was the new milkman, but he had neither cart nor milk with him. Nothing more than a handbag, in fact.”
“Excellent lie, that.” Landon chuckled, then glanced back at the laundry maid one more time, seeing her almost drop a clean sheet on the ground because her eyes were riveted to the stable door, and he made a mental note to assure her after the interrogation that there was no security issue to fear.
“Indeed,” Mr. Briggs agreed, also laughing. “We’ve tried to question him by every possible method, but he refuses to account for his presence here. His bag contained only a few clean shirts, and some other odd items. My guess is that he is simply a poor traveler, too humble to ask for assistance, but I could get no further information from him as to why he stopped here. So, we’re down to you.”
Being Landon’s closest friend, Jackson Briggs was one of the few people who knew he wasn’t human, and the fact was certainly kept secret from the rest of the Westbrook servants. Whenever there was a security issue that the staff in general could not resolve, Mr. Hale was called in for a private conference with the offender, with only Mr. Briggs or Mrs. Westbrook as witnesses, and the other staff could never figure out how he managed to question the truth out of someone so successfully after they had failed.
They entered the stables and went to a storage room where two men were guarding the door. Those two left immediately when told to do so, Mr. Briggs’s towering, hulking figure allowing for no argument. When they were sure they wouldn’t be overheard, Mr. Briggs opened the door and allowed Landon to step inside before following himself and closing the door behind them.
On the hay-strewn and dusty floor sat a middle-aged man with his hands tied behind his back, visible only by the light of one candle resting on a shelf. His clothing was poor but neat and clean. He shied away from Mr. Briggs’s imposing presence and kept his eyes fixed on Landon, comparably a much less lethal-looking gentleman.
“Please, sir,” the man begged. “Please, free me. I swear I meant no harm.”
“We will release you when you explain what brought you here,” Mr. Hale said politely but sternly.
“Please, sir.” He shook slightly, looking agitated, and seemed to require a great effort to force our his words. “I only meant to…I was going to deliver…” He paused, and seemed to struggle a bit as he said, “…m-milk, and–”
“Now, sir,” Mr. Hale said, “whereas that lie might have worked with my fellows, it will not work with me. I know a lie when I hear one. You cannot fool me.”
The man drew back a little and frowned, then nodded to Mr. Briggs while maintaining eye contact with Landon as he asked, “Does he know?”
“What you are?”
Landon looked at his friend, then back at the prisoner, wondering how this strange man could have possibly guessed his secret so easily, but answered, “Yes, he does.”
“Ah, thank Lethe!” the man cried. “Read me! I promise, I’ll cooperate. Read me! You’ll see the truth!”
“I’m Lethean!” the man whispered urgently, and waited.
Landon was silent, wondering for a moment why the man didn’t continue, then he realized and nodded. “Truth.”
“Truth! Yes, just like you, young sir. Please, read me and you’ll see why I’m here.”
Lethean usually kept their identities a closely guarded secret, and it was considered taboo among them to read one another’s minds forcibly – even getting permission to do so was quite rare, yet the man didn’t so much as flinch as Mr. Hale stepped forward. Clearly eager to reveal his truth so that he might be freed, the poor gentleman remained sitting very still on the ground and looked up at the young Lethean standing over him. Landon placed his hand on the man’s forehead and had to brace himself, instantly assaulted by a flash of thoughts and images coming from the older man’s mind. He dropped his hand after only a few seconds, discerning amongst myriad images the vibrantly clear reason for the man’s appearance there.
“Did you see?” the older man asked.
“Yes, sir, I did,” Landon replied, helping the man to his feet and cutting his bonds. “If you’ll just step outside, I think you’ll find her hanging the wash.”
The older man beamed, shaking Landon’s hand vigorously. “Thank you, sir! Thank you very much indeed!”
Mr. Briggs stepped aside, a puzzled expression on his face, and they all three stepped out into the yard. Before they could go far, Landon halted the visitor with a hand on his shoulder. He gave Jackson a look, and his friend took a few steps away, giving them some semblance of privacy.
“One question, sir,” he asked, and the anxious man attended to him, though he was clearly trembling to move again. “How is it you were able to speak a lie?”
The man gave him a grin and shrugged. “Simple practice, sir. You must have noticed the effort it cost me, though all it requires is practice. Perhaps when you have attained my years…”
He trailed off, leaving it at that, and Landon nodded thoughtfully. Then he stepped back and motioned the older man forward, pointing in the direction of the sheets fluttering in the breeze, then felt like a fool, knowing perfectly well that the man knew precisely where to go.
Landon joined his friend and they watched as the older man made his way forward, and suddenly from behind one of the sheets, the laundry woman stepped out, a look of awe on her face. The two strangers approached one another and immediately embraced, both in tears of joy.
“What just happened?” Mr. Briggs asked.
“They’re a Lethean pair,” Landon explained quietly so no one could overhear him, and laughed at himself, realizing the woman hadn’t been anxious about an intruder, so much as the first awareness of her partner being interrupted by the interrogation. “Soul sharers. The man was traveling through on the way to the coast, and when he felt her, he left his route and tracked the pull until he arrived here.”
“So…they’ve never met before?”
“No. But the soul halves recognize one another, and that’s what draws them together. You would have to be Lethean to understand the agony of separation. I pity them, only finding one another this late in life, but at least the remainder of their years will be blissful.”
Jackson eyed his friend for a moment, seeing the wistful expression on his face, and asked, “Have you ever felt your partner?”
Landon’s eyes dropped to the ground, blinking as he adjusted to the dimmer light as they returned indoors, sighing, “Yes. She’s…well, she’s here.”
“She is? Who?”
Taking a deep breath, he said, “Miss Braddock.”
“Miss Braddock? The heiress who arrived yesterday?”
“But you two looked so…so somber this morning. Nothing like that pair outside.”
“I know. I envy them. Miss Braddock is human.”
“Very well, I’m confused.”
Landon turned and headed through the House to the dining hall, his friend keeping up as he explained quietly, “All souls are split between two people, whether human or Lethean. Only the Lethean can feel it; humans cannot. The lucky ones are Lethean pairs, because they can find one another. Human pairs don’t feel the connection at all, though they sometimes claim to when they feel a great attraction to one another. Yet, that attraction is nothing to what we feel. Sometimes, though, as in my case, a soul will split between a human and a Lethean. We’re still a matched pair, but while I can feel it, she cannot. She could easily choose to marry another, and we’d live our entire lives apart, myself yearning for her, and she none the wiser.”
“And you can’t choose another mate?”
“No. The attraction to her is far too strong for me to ever even feebly desire another woman.”
Jackson stopped and raised an eyebrow, looking at Landon with wonder for a long moment, and in an uncertain tone he quietly mused, “Hmmm. I think I’m glad I’m just plain human.”
Landon looked over at his friend, suddenly a little envious of him, and sighed, “You should be.”