“Miss Alexandra Bolen.”
Alexandra stood patiently while the butler introduced her, and proceeded to enter the grand room of her hosts with her chin slightly raised, her bare shoulders relaxed while her hands nestle amongst the folds of the black fabric of her dress. With her large blue eyes she quickly surveys the room. Before she finds her place in this gathering of society, it finds her and the din is punctuated by girlish squeals.
“It’s so good to see you,” said the young woman, Alexandra’s age but so unlike her in most other aspects. This was Cynthia, the auburn haired school friend that Alexandra had not seen since the end of term - the end of their final term at school.
Cynthia was dressed in emerald green, a common colour for her to wear as it suited her hair colour to perfection. The dress was pulled tight to give Cynthia the illusion of the wasp-waisted woman that was so popular then. Her arms were sheathed in black lace gloves, leaving little exposed flesh. Alexandra’s hands were immediately ensconced in those lace gloved hands, in a greeting of sincere affection.
Alexandra kissed her cheek and the smell of sherry explained the high colour in Cynthia’s cheeks. Alexandra looked even paler in comparison, than normal. But that pale complexion made her blue eyes shine that much more, and her ruby lips all that much more striking.
Cynthia was now leading Alexandra to vacant seats by the fire. Alexandra, having just returned from abroad, was fashionably late; not because it was fashionable but because she was exhausted from the journey.
“You must tell me everything,” Cynthia said as her eyes widened and she bit her lip in anticipation. Alexandra spent the last few weeks after school ended with a friend of the family, a Count, in the more exotic Eastern Europe. More exotic that is, than the English countryside.
Alexandra sighed. “Where to begin?”
Cynthia’s eyes flashed. “Start with the castle. Was it like something out of a Wollstonecraft novel?”
Alexandra laughed. “I think the only one who finds the Count’s reputation as fascinating is the Count himself.” Cynthia smiled at her, patiently waiting for an answer to her question.
“The castle, yes. It was big, monstrously big and gothic. Perched right atop a mountain with a deep ravine to one side. The gates - there were three I believe - of wood and iron, at least a foot thick. Everything was out of scale and abnormally large, even inside. The bedrooms were at least as big as this ballroom, some ceilings were four storeys high - it’s impossible to imagine how grand the place is unless you see it,” Alexandra said.
“And the Count?” Cynthia asked. “Was he as dashing a host as he plays here?”
“Even more so, although why I was there was really not to socialize. The Count was charming, and, well, energetic,” Alexandra was certain someone within ear shot had sniggered at that, “but still very sick with fever.”
“Did you nurse him back to health?” The question came not from Cynthia but from a young man, in his mid-twenties, lounging near the fire. He had a drink of clear, amber liquid, in one hand and near the other a dark haired woman perched on the arm of his chair - a young woman who happened to be Alexandra’s older sister, Beatrice.
Alexandra knew immediately she definitely heard a snigger and it definitely came from the rogue who just addressed her. If it had been any other man in the room, she would have cut him to the core but this man was the son of her host, and by the rules of society she had to pay him the utmost respect while her family were guests in his house. So, she chose to ignore the entendre in his question.
“No, unfortunately,” she said, her eyes downcast but still locked on her dueller. “He will never fully regain his health, but he is not as close to death as he was.” She paused. “I hope I can take some modest credit for his small recovery.”
Alexandra saw her sister roll her eyes. “Honestly, Lexi. You sound like a fucking nun.”
All sitting within ear shot turned in surprise to hear the language from Beatrice’s mouth. The party started earlier than I first thought, Alexandra realized as her sister wobbled on her perch.
“Well really,” Beatrice said, addressing her audience as well as her younger sister. “You go all the way to Romania, spend weeks at his bedside and he never lays a finger on you - ha! If that’s the case then the Count might as well die because if he can’t get it up for an uptight strumpet like you, there’s not much for his kind to live for.”
Alexandra wasn’t sure whether she should laugh or feel mortally embarrassed for Beatrice. She laughed, disguising it as a cough.
Their mother, unfortunately, didn’t find the tirade at all funny. Gladys Bolen half dragged her daughter out of the room.
Alexandra hid her smile at her sister’s predicament behind her thin fingers, but her eyes betrayed her glee. As her sister left the room, her gaze landed on the rogue who started this whole conversation - and he wasn’t smiling.
She blinked, dropped her gaze to her lap and her smile from her face. The Count was not only a treasured friend of the Bolen family, but also of the Aylward family, with whom she was staying. The Count was somewhat of a mentor to Nathaniel, an uncle, who showed the young man the more entertaining ways of the world. And for that, Nathaniel put him on a pedestal.
“What kind of a fever was it?” asked Cynthia, taking her friend’s hand and drawing her attention back to the subject.
“Oh, well, it was your typical scarlet fever,” Alexandra said regaining her composure. She could still feel Nathaniel’s eyes on her, and her cheeks began to colour. “The Count, as Beatrice is obviously well aware, enjoys a strong drink and entertainment often, which isn’t always the best thing for one’s health.”
“What should he do then?” Nathaniel asked, remaining slouched in his chair. “Give up the drink, the women and lead a pious life from now on, until death finally claims him?”
“No, not at all,” Alexandra said, slightly emboldened by Nathaniel’s implicit challenge to her morals. “He’s lead a full and exciting life, one that many of us would envy, if we knew the true extent of it.” She smiled, and Nathaniel gave her a slight nod, encouraging her to continue. “If he changes his ways now, he may squeak out a few more years but would those years be as rewarding as his, how do I put this?,” Alexandra said, raising her eyebrow in impish inspiration, “his pound of flesh?”
Nathaniel nearly roared with laughter. Alexandra smiled, finally back on friendlier terms. “No, the Count will continue his ways, unabated,” she concluded.
Cynthia had more questions for her, and her relationship with Nathaniel back on casual footing, Alexandra let her attention be consumed by her friend. This gave Nathaniel the chance to study the sharp-tongued woman in front of him and he found himself asking why had he never done so before.
Here was the same pale blonde figure sitting on his furniture, as she had done on so many occasions, yet she was different somehow. Sharper, more in focus. She was no longer a ghost that swept through the rooms with barely a whisper. Here was a woman that commanded his attention.
What was it? The curve of her figure was the same, although now she wore a corseted black silk dress, making her thin frame almost disappear, her breasts pushed outwards but unadorned save for a string of diamonds at her throat. She wore no gloves and her hair was pulled back from her heart shaped face. This was not a woman that should peak interest in him. Yet all he could think to do at that moment was turn her face towards him and feel her soft tongue behind her teeth.
She would be soft. She would smell like jasmine. And she would taste like strawberries. This he knew, and yet he’d never noticed her before this instant.
“The Count knew me?” Nathaniel had his attention snap back to the conversation in front of him. Cynthia squealed in delight as Alexandra told her how the Count admired her auburn tresses, and how he said he wanted to hold her in his arms so he could simply smell her hair.
Alexandra though this was creepy when the Count first mentioned it, and she told him that. He just smiled and touched her cheek, saying that she would understand, someday.
“What other wisdom did the Count confer upon you?” Nathaniel asked, an unreadable expression in his eyes.
“You mean, what did he say about you?” she asked, with Nathaniel unmoved. Some of Nathaniel’s friends, whom he counted on as partners in crime in his sprees of debauchery, ended conversations to listen in. “He simply said that you had a penchant for variety.”
The listeners erupted with laughter, some clapping Nathaniel on the back and nodding in agreement. Only Nathaniel and Alexandra knew what the count was really referring to. Although the she couldn’t read his expression, Nathaniel was relieved and grateful for her discretion.
Their gaze was broken by the arrival of yet another friend, a mutual friend that Nathaniel and Alexandra had both met under very different circumstances. Edmund Clancey was a school mate of Nathaniel‘s; of Alexandra he was a co-worker. Although part of their circle, he was significantly poorer and of an inferior lineage to them both, but Alexandra greeted him as an equal.
On his arrival, she stood as he kissed her hand and had him sit beside her. He wanted information about some of the items their employer had asked Alexandra to bring back from Romania.
“Oh Edmund, really,” she playfully scolded. “I’ve just returned, today in fact, from an abysmally long journey. I’m afraid I don’t have the wits for talk about work this evening.” He looked slightly crestfallen. “But please, to trivial matters,” she quickly said, noticing his expression. “How have you been these last few weeks?”
Nathaniel smiled as Alexandra inadvertently called the man’s life trivial. She must be tired; he can’t remember her ever slipping up during a social occasion. Although he can’t remember much of her past tonight.
The conversation was soon ended as Edmund suddenly stood, bidding a hasty good evening to the group assembled.
“He’s so strange,” Cynthia said, in a conspiratorial whisper. “I do think he has a crush on you.”
Alexandra looked pained at the suggestion. “I do hope not. He is such a nice person, I wouldn’t want to cause him pain.”
The clock struck eleven and Nathaniel drained the last of his drink and stood catching the eye of his comrades. Beatrice was obviously confined to her room, punished for her little outburst and wouldn’t be of use to him tonight. But he planned to get relief, even if it meant having to picture the stoic blonde he met tonight in his head.
Nathaniel was sitting, more like laying really, on the sofa in front of an empty hearth, trying to read while a marching band kept time in his head. The whiskey at the bawdy house he and the boys partook of after they left the party the night before was of poor quality, and although it had the intended effect, the consequences the morning after were intolerable.
Every shift, every rustle of the paper, every sip of morning tea from the two men seated opposite him were enough to send him into a rage. He kept his anger in check however because of the two men sitting with him, one was his father and the other was Randolph Bolen, Alexandra’s father and their annual houseguest.
They were discussing the markets, the price of grain, the cost of this, that and the other thing. Why Nathaniel couldn’t fathom as both men had more money than most African Nations. Money wasn’t a worry to either family, so why make it one?
Then he heard a different sound. A distinctive click that carried down the stairs, through the parlour and into this sitting room, before stopping. Nathaniel peered over the sofa to see where the sound came from.
“Alexandra, my darling daughter,” Randolph said as Alexandra crossed the room to kiss his cheek. “So glad to have you back. I’ve missed your smile, my dear.”
She remained standing, as Nathaniel had not moved to allow her to take a seat. She was only stopping for a few seconds, anyway. In truth, Nathaniel was too dumbfounded to move. Alexandra was dressed for riding, that was clear but her dress was not at all what was fashionable in England at that moment. It must have been something she brought back from Romania. The click he heard was from her boots, knee high leather with a four-inch heel. They clung to her legs, as did her black pants and black vest, over a white collared shirt. Her hair was again pulled back and the riding crop she held in her hands planted the inspiration for a fantasy, not fully formed in his mind.
“Nathaniel, sit up for God’s sake,” scolded his father. “If you’re going to stay out all night at least have the decency to remember the simplest social gestures.”
“Oh it’s fine, Mr. Aylward, really,” Alexandra said with a wave of her hand, beckoning Nathaniel to stay where he was. “I’ve only stopped to ask to take the Beaute out for a ride.”
The Beaute was a large, black stallion that Obediah Aylward had recently purchased. The horse was broken but not trained nearly well enough for a young woman like Alexandra to take on her own. She would be unable to control it.
“No my dear, I must say no,” Obediah said. “That horse would challenge the best rider in England. I’m afraid what might happen if he were to get away from you.”
Alexandra’s expression clouded, and her eyebrows creased. Clearly, this woman was not told no very often. “But I’ve ridden horses much wilder than what we have here and …”
Her father cut her off before she could state her argument and refused to hear another word from her. Colour started to rise in her cheeks and her hands clenched the riding crop as she opened her mouth to protest.
“I found a new trail the other day that leads to a high ridge on the south side of the property,” Nathaniel said. “If you like, we see if we can find it again. It’s a spectacular view, I assure you. And I would like the pleasure of your company. I’m interested to hear more about your stay with the Count.”
Nathaniel was sitting by this point, and all eyes were on Alexandra to accept, which she did, with just a slight hesitation. “Good,” Nathaniel said, smiling. “I’ll change and meet you by the stables. Have my valet saddle the horses for us - he’ll know which ones.”
Nathaniel and Alexandra set off on their adventure, or rather a leisurely ride through the Aylward’s immense estate. Acres of tended gardens make way for knee high grasses and thick forests and gurgling streams. The pair is quiet, speaking only to point out some mark of interest.
Alexandra is left to her thoughts, the rhythm of the horse lulling her into waking unconsciousness. Nathaniel is lost in thought, too, of replacing himself with the powerful beast between her legs. He can’t decide how to go about it. Should he seduce her with love and affection, or with brute strength? Which fantasy is better - his mistress soft and pliant or angry and fighting?
“The sky seems so different here, compared to Romania,” Alexandra observes, shaking Nathaniel out of his revere. “In essence, it’s the same sky. I wonder why it feels so different.” She turns to him, a wistful expression on her face. “Are you ill?”
Nathaniel had gone whiter than Alexandra thought his pale skin would allow. He swallowed with difficulty. “I’m fine.”
Their ride continued, reaching the summit of a lumbering hill. The ravine on the other side offered them an aerial view of the land below. They dismounted, letting the horses stray to a small pond nearby, and wandered to the cliff edge.
Alexandra sat down on the grass, the dew having evaporated in the morning sun. Nathaniel sat beside her, flicking pebbles over the edge, while Alexandra picked buttercups from the grass.
“That Edmund Clancey certainly has eyes for you,” Nathaniel said, hoping his tone sounded teasing. He forced a smile.
Alexandra rolled her eyes and smiled back, grateful for the break in tension. “That’s what everyone says.”
“You don’t feel the same?” he asked, a stupid, obvious question but the only one that would come into his feeble mind at the moment. It was exhausting conversing with a smart woman, and he wished he hadn’t had a hangover to contend with.
Alexandra shook her head, a wisp of blonde hair coming unpinned. Nathaniel reached over and smoothed it back behind her ear, before realizing what he’d done. Alexandra blushed. An odd reaction from someone who’d just spent the last four weeks with the Count, he thought.
“I don’t want him to touch me,” Alexandra said.
“Edmund. I, um, don’t want him to touch me.” Alexandra seemed on the verge of confessing something, and Nathaniel remained silent in the hopes that she would. “I haven’t really met a man that I could tolerate his touch. I think. Not really, but maybe.” Alexandra’s cheeks flamed red and she turned away from him.
“So, what I did just now, touching your hair, you didn’t like that?” That would explain the blush, he though.
He watched her fidget with a blade of grass. “No, that was fine but other men, when they kiss my hand or touch my arm, or … my skin starts to crawl,” she finished, looking at him finally.
“You prefer the company of women?” he asked, a snarly smile playing at his lips.
Alexandra’s jaw dropped. “No that’s not what I meant at all. I just meant that I haven’t met a man that doesn’t, well, that …” she trailed off, unable to finish.
He reached out and took her hand, placing it on top of his. He gently stroked the back of it and her fingers, watching her expression. “Does this bother you?” he asked. She shook her head, her eyes intent on their hands.
He raised it to his lips, kissing it, before moving it to stroke his clean shaven cheek. “And this?” Again she shook her head, this time her eyes meeting his. He turned her hand over and kissed the palm. He saw a smile flick across her lips.
Placing her hand back in her lap, he reached under her knees and dragged her closer to him, letting her legs fall across his own. Like this, he could look into her eyes, touch her face and kiss her mouth. “Tell me, is a man’s touch so bad?”
She smiled, that devilish, impish smile. “Yes, it is. But yours, I admit I am enjoying.” He put his arms around her small waist, drawing their bodies closer together, and kissing her more and more deeply. He was right; she smelled like jasmine and she tasted like strawberries.
Alexandra felt the nerves in her stomach and between her legs flutter, her nipples grow hard. She was sitting in his lap and felt his erection next to her thigh. His hands caressed her neck, squeezed her hip before landing on her breast. “Wait,” she said, pushing him away and standing in one fluid motion. She took several steps, turning her back on him. She was breathing heavily, her legs barely supporting her.
“Wait for what?” Nathaniel demanded, his soft, pliable temptress suddenly gone from his lap. He sat on the grass, looking at her back.
“I’ve never done this before,” she whispered.
Nathaniel laughed, and Alexandra whirled around to glare at him. “Surely you don’t think I’m that naïve. To spend four weeks with the Count and come away with your virtue intact?” He laughed again.
Alexandra gritted her teeth and narrowed her eyes. She spoke slowly, to inflict maximum damage with her words. “I didn’t let him do to me what he did to your fiancée.”
Nathaniel stopped laughing, his jaw slightly slack. The wind stopped, the birds were silent and the horses moved not a muscle in case it provoked the young man into knocking the pretty blonde off the cliff and let her fall to her death. Alexandra realized she had miscalculated, inflicting a wound deeper than she intended.
Nathaniel slowly rose from the ground and walked towards her. She inched backwards, a hand up in poor defence and whispered, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to …”
“You didn’t mean to what?” he roared, his long fingers wrapping around her thin upper arms. He squeezed and shook her until tears formed at the edges of her eyes. His eyes were wild, looking not at her but at something unseen. His grip was strong, and Alexandra knew he would kill her. “Please,” she whispered.
Suddenly, life was back in his eyes, the fiery rage extinguished. His grip released and Alexandra fell to the grass, gasping for air. Nathaniel took two steps backwards, taking deep breaths before bending to see if Alexandra was alright. She laid back on the grass, and he leaned over her, his face in front of hers. She was still gasping. He stroked her face, whispering, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
She kissed the palm of his hand, like he had done just minutes before. “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have said … what I said.”
“The memory was so strong, it was like …” he trailed off as Alexandra put her hand over his mouth.
She knew how the Count had ushered him into the world of adults, ended his love for a young woman on a cold, rainy night in England. It had been in his own bed. She became pregnant and joined a convent over the affair. It was ten years ago and it was yesterday.
“The count thought he was on his deathbed and I became his confessor. I’ve heard every sordid detail of his life. It’s not you that’s disgusting; it’s him.”
He laid his head on her stomach, listening to her breath, the breath only a few moments ago he almost stopped forever.
“Am I to become your lover?” she asked. He sat up again, looking down at her beautiful face.
“You’re still a virgin? I still find it so difficult to believe.”
She sat up as well, sitting face to face, like they were. “I told you. I hadn’t met a man whose touch I could tolerate. Until now.”
He smiled and kissed her, long and deeply. This time it was he who pulled away. “Not here. We must do this properly.” He looked skyward. “It will be dark soon. We need to head back.”
Alexandra nodded, getting to her feet and offering her hands to him, pulling him up. He cupped her face in his hands, gazing at her perfect face. He kissed her tenderly and thoroughly.
They collected the horses, mounted and slowly made their way back to the manor house.
They left the horses in care of the stable boys and walked back to the house. It was nearly dark and likely close to dinner.
“Hold still,” Nathaniel told Alexandra as he pulled a blade of grass from her hair and handed it to her. Her hair was not a smooth as when they set out that morning but its rumpled look was endearing.
Beatrice watched from the parlour window as the two walked up to the house. She watched the playful banter, the way Nathaniel touched her sister’s cheek and pulled the grass from her hair. She felt her jealousy grow, like an apple in the pit of her stomach. Her face was impassive, however, letting none of her feelings show. She was sitting in a room full of people, dressed for dinner and waiting for the two horseback riders to return.
The door slammed, followed by Alexandra’s tinkling laughter. “Alexandra, dear, please come here a moment,” their mother commanded.
Alexandra obeyed, entering the parlour in her dishevelled state, Nathaniel following behind her. “I’m sorry we’re late. Time just seemed to get away today,” Alexandra said. She turned to leave, explaining she would quickly change and be ready for dinner, but Beatrice stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“What have you really been doing Alexandra?” she asked, her fingernails digging into her arm. She looked from her sister to Nathaniel. “Out all day, didn’t return for lunch and you told everyone it would just be a short ride?” She squeezed harder. “How was the ride Alexandra?”
Alexandra stood with her mouth open, barely aware of the pain in her arm she was so shocked by her sister’s brazen words. The rest of the room fell silent, in a similar state of shock, to see where this conversation would lead the two women. Alexandra was vaguely aware of Nathaniel standing closely behind her.
“I never said it would be a short ride,” Alexandra said, unable to think of a way to disarm Beatrice. “Nathaniel suggested a trail he discovered recently and I followed along.”
“We went along the south side of the grounds, and followed the creek to the hilly area above the ravine,” Nathaniel said. “It took much longer than I anticipated, although last time I went I had the Beaute at a full gallop most of the way.”
Nathaniel’ father chuckled. “Did Alexandra get a chance to ride the beast at all? That was the whole point of the journey this morning.”
Nathaniel winked at Alexandra. “Yeah, she had a short ride. I made sure he behaved himself though.”
“Liars!” Beatrice screamed, tears springing to her eyes. She grabbed Alexandra by both arms and shook her, screaming at her. Most of what she said was nonsense, but Alexandra was able to discern that Beatrice believed she had stolen Nathaniel from her. Embarrassed for herself and her sister, Alexandra tried to pry herself away and calm Beatrice down at the same time. Soon everyone was on their feet, shouting and pulling the girls apart.
“I never did any such thing, Beatrice,” Alexandra yelled, getting free and taking a step back. “He asked me to go riding. I didn’t do anything so mundane as steal your boyfriend. Stop being so melodramatic and compose yourself.”
With that, Beatrice’s hand shot out, backhanding her sister across the cheek. Alexandra staggered with the force of the blow and touched her cheek with her fingertips, which came away bloody. The emerald ring, the same one Alexandra always regarded as gaudy, on Beatrice’s hand had torn off a strip of skin.
Nathaniel caught Alexandra as she staggered and saw the blood. Her mother grabbed her sister, scolding her as best she could her favourite daughter. As Beatrice began to cry, her mother’s tone turned soothing, assuring her she was forgiven. In Nathaniel’ eyes, she wasn’t. His anger boiled again that day as he grabbed Beatrice’s wrist, the same one that had just wounded Alexandra, causing her pain and promising her even more pain to come.
“If you ever touch her again, I’ll see you thrown from this house and into the street,” he shouted.
Alexandra was between them again, not because she felt any sympathy or familial love for her sister but she knew Nathaniel was likely to follow through on his threat.
“Nathaniel, stop this,” she commanded, pushing on his chest, trying to drive more space between him and her sister.
He didn’t hear her, or chose to ignore her. His verbal abuse continued, the rest of the household too shocked, or curious, to do anything about it. “Do you actually think that I would love someone like you? A drunk, a pass around party girl?”
Beatrice tried to pull away but Nathaniel had seized her wrist tight. “Let me go,” she screamed back, tears streaming down her face. “You picked me, not her. You picked me!”
“I didn’t pick a fucking half-wit,” he screamed back. “I wouldn’t pick a fucking half-wit for a wife.” With that, he released her and she ran wailing into her mother‘s arms. Alexandra continued pushing him, until he was out of the room and they were alone. On the other side of the door, they could hear their parents arguing over who should do and say what.
Nathaniel and Alexandra didn’t say anything. He took her in his arms and held her. With her boots on, her forehead was level with his lips. He kissed her cheek, the wound now an angry red streak.
“I feel like I just met you,” Nathaniel said, his chin nestled against her head, breathing in her scent, now mixed with dry grass. “How is it that you evoke such a reaction from me when I just met you?”
Alexandra squeezed her arms around him tighter. “You’ve known me your whole life.”
“Maybe that’s it. Why I feel like I just met you and yet like I’ve known you my whole life.”
“I think that’s precisely it,” she smiled up at him. “Now that you’ve met me, what do you plan to do with me?”
“I have an idea,” he said, the impish light returning to his eyes.
Alexandra smiled. “I think our parents will find us.”
Nathaniel kissed her, sweeping her into his arm. “It’s a big house.”