Torrent Hall, north of Brighton
March 15, 1816
"Who are you supposed to be?" Holden asked, adjusting the animal skin draped over his shoulder as he attempted to settle further into the chair.
"I'm Helen of Troy, of course," his cousin April stated as she adjusted the folds of her skirts around her legs. "I simply adore dressing for dinner, don't you?" As she straightened, her gaze turned serious and her eyes narrowed on him. "Who are you, anyway?"
"Attila the Hun, although I'm regretting the decision at the moment."
Only the Rutledge family would concoct such a plan for the evening of his homecoming-a historical dinner involving costumes, no less. He finally pushed aside the fur with a shrug of his shoulders. He'd worn the damned thing through dinner; surely he could remove it now without issue. "I suppose it would be outlandish to dress as ourselves and talk of the damp English weather."
"It would indeed." April drew back in mock dismay, bumping into one of her sisters on the settee beside her in the process and causing a clatter of teacups and squeals.
Holden chuckled as he glanced toward Aunt Penelope and Uncle Joseph, who were sitting and chatting in the corner of the drawing room, seemingly unaware of the din of girlish voices around them.
It was nice to be back. He liked the familiar sights and sounds of Torrent Hall, even if he had to dress sometimes in a ridiculous costume. It was a price he was willing to pay, for this was the closest thing to home and family he'd ever known. He grinned and took another sip of his drink.
Piles of books lined the walls of the drawing room, stacked so high the room almost appeared to be made of a patchwork of leather. Abandoned embroidery, paints, and stationery covered the side tables, leaving only small spaces where polished wood was visible.
As it often did, the room rang with laughter as April attempted a dramatic fling of her arm indicating the tea tray. It would have been a convincing Helen of Troy imitation had one of her bracelets not flown from her arm and hit Uncle Joseph on the head.
"Sorry, Papa!" April scurried across the thick rug to retrieve her lost jewelry, her bright pink dress swirling around her as she moved.
"No damage done, dear," Joseph replied, rubbing his balding head and shifting Caesar's wreath of leaves askew in the process.
Holden couldn't contain a chuckle over April's ensemble now that he truly looked at her. She had taken the excuse of her historical persona to wear every piece of jewelry in the family's possession. Her arms were laden with jewels. Pearls were layered on top of diamonds surrounded by sapphires, all shimmering in silver and stacked up to her elbows. No wonder she was losing them with every shift of her arms.
What gentleman would she tie herself to this season? So far she had been more interested in the ball gown she wore than the gentleman with whom she twirled the floor. That would change soon. With the Rutledge dark hair and exotic eyes, she was too lovely to remain unwed for long. He would have to keep an eye on her while in London-all of his cousins, really. Not that he minded surrounding himself with his lovely cousins. After all, Holden Ellis, Viscount Steelings, was always surrounded by beauty. Beautiful ladies, beautiful clothing, a beautifully appointed town home. He was known for it.
There was always a lady longing to be on his arm and have her name linked to his for a time, a short time anyway. His thoughts were pulled back to the present with the barking of the puppy Jan played with on the floor, the curl of her dark ringlets shining in the light of the fire. At least he wouldn't need to worry about her presence in society for a few years yet. He would have his hands full with only three Rutledge ladies in London.
"May, you're not in character. Joan of Arc would never say that." June pushed her spectacles higher on her nose to level a proper glare at her sister.
"I only asked for more tea. Have you ever worn armor? It's terribly heavy. I'm positively parched from the effort." May shifted her breastplate to the side and sank further into the chair.
June's eyes darted over her sister's attire before giving her a shrug of her shoulders. "I simply don't see Joan of Arc as a tea drinker. And you need to at least speak with a French accent if you aren't going to attempt the true language."
"You aren't in character either, June," May returned, finally tossing the armor to the floor and reaching for the pot of tea on the table. "You may be wearing bed linens, but you've yet to say anything profound or insightful."
"I'm Socrates!" June countered. "I'm quite certain he was opinionated."
"Yes, and he spoke his opinions in Latin," May returned with a grin.
"That's a dead language."
"Precisely." May smiled and turned her dark head away from her sister.
Holden's attention drifted to April as she asked, "Mama, is all planned for the ball?"
Aunt Penelope's eyes filled with happiness at the possibility of her daughter's involvement. "There's always much to do, if you're volunteering."
"No," April replied a bit too quickly before offering her mother a smile. "I was only asking so that I might begin selecting my gown. I want to coordinate with the décor but not match it."
He heard May mutter into her cup of tea. "Why does it matter? It will look just as all your other gowns do-pink."
Aunt Penelope frowned in response before turning back to April. "You will look lovely, my sweet. Don't forget your mask, though." She beamed and clasped her hands together. "I already have Sara preparing mine for the event."
"It's to be a masquerade ball this year then?" Holden asked, unaware of the change in plans as he'd only arrived at Torrent Hall that morning.
"Yes, did I forget to mention that fact? I do hope you have a mask with you. If not, we can find one for you to wear."
"As it happens I brought one." He'd discovered long ago that it paid to be prepared for all wardrobe eventualities when staying with the Rutledges.
"Oh, perfect!" Aunt Penelope exclaimed with a jump, making her Cleopatra costume catch the lamplight and cast green sparkles around the room. She grew still as she watched Holden, making him tense about what might be to come. "I feel as if I've forgotten to tell you something..."
Aunt Penelope did this often. She was a bright lady, although her mind frequently traveled in two directions at once. Down one path lay glittery masquerade masks and down the other lay her opinion on how Holden should be living his life. He didn't mind. It was actually nice to be worried over. He waited, returning her gaze. What would it be this time? His blond hair had grown too long for fashion? He needed to eat properly or drink less?
"Lady Rightworth came for tea yesterday while you were out."
"Rightworth," he repeated, trying to remember the name. "Is she the one with the hook nose?"
"No! She's quite handsome, but that's neither here nor there." Aunt Penelope waved away the comment with the back of her hand. "She asked after you, wanted to know if you would be making the rounds in London this year, since you're back in the country. I assured her you would."
"Why would she want to know my schedule? I'm not even entirely sure of whom we're speaking."
"I believe she has her eye set on you for her daughter. She's introducing her to society this year. Evangeline, I believe."
May gasped. "That's horribly unfair of her. She should be focusing her efforts on Sue who is almost on the shelf as it is. Now, with Evangeline coming out, Sue won't stand a chance."
April rounded on her sister with a superior "I'm far older and wiser than you" voice. "May, you can't force gentlemen to dance with such an obvious wallflower as Sue. Some ladies are perfectly content with spinsterhood, you know. Lady Rightworth cannot make her elder daughter a diamond of the first water any more than I can make flour into a cake."
"When have you ever gone to the kitchen and tried to make a cake? Which proves my point perfectly, just so you know." May crossed her arms with a frown.
Aunt Penelope intervened before anyone came to blows, which she did so often as to not be upset by it. "Girls, it is not our place to interfere with the goings-on inside the Green household. Lady Rightworth can see to her family as she chooses. I only brought this up to let Holden know he was spoken of over tea yesterday."
Holden leaned forward to regain his aunt's attention. "Why would she be interested in me? I've never met either of her daughters."
"Holden, you are getting to be of an age..."
"Nine and twenty is an age, all right. Thirty, forty, and fifty are ages as well, and I plan to see them all without a leg shackle, thank you."
Uncle Joseph leaned into the conversation, his toga draping over the arm of his chair. "Don't be defensive, Holden. Your aunt is only trying to help. Perhaps this would be a good time to peruse the available ladies."
"Uncle, I peruse ladies every chance I get. I just have more interest in young widows with no interest in marriage."
Aunt Penelope gasped and shot him a look of disapproval. "Holden! Don't speak of such things in front of the family."
"My apologies, Aunt Penelope. At this point I'm not even certain how long I'll be in England. This trip was rather sudden."
"Speak of what in front of the family?" Jan asked from her seat on the floor before the fireplace. "What did Holden say? Was it clever? What did I miss?"
Holden needed to change the subject to something far from the topic of his marriage prospects. He glanced at his youngest cousin where she sat curled on the floor in a Leonardo da Vinci costume playing with her new dog. "Da Vinci killed puppies for sport."
"He did not!" Jan pulled the puppy in her lap closer into her arms to protect him from harm.
"You're right. It was only the brown ones with white paws he favored for puppy murder." Holden laughed in response as he'd just described the ball of fur Jan was holding.
"Holden," his uncle murmured when the conversation around them turned to Jan's newest pet.
Holden turned to face him.
"I understand your reservations in regards to marriage. Every man experiences a young man's love of freedom, but what of an old man's loneliness? Look at all I have." He smiled at his family scattered around the room. "I want the same happiness for you. I only ask that you consider it."
Holden gave his uncle a tight-lipped nod before returning his attention to Jan and her puppy. It wouldn't take him long to consider the issue of marriage. There. He'd considered it. And it was never going to happen. It couldn't.
Sue raked her eyes across the garden, searching for movement. All remained still. Only a slight breeze rustled the trees beyond the stone walls. They were safe.
Straightening, she started to push the sash of the window closed. Squeak! She cringed at the sound, although the herd of cats at her back in the darkened hallway was making far more noise than any window was able to produce. That's what she called them, for that was the way they acted-always preening, strutting about, and demanding attention as they drifted through life on a smile and a coy rejoinder. They were also known as her sister and twin cousins. Sue rolled her eyes and slammed the window shut with one swift motion.
She turned, shooting identical glares at her identical cousins through the holes in her dark masquerade mask. "Shhh...we'll all get caught if you two don't stop arguing. Does it really matter why she stepped on your toe, Victoria?"
"It matters to my toe," Victoria huffed as she adjusted the bright green, bejeweled mask higher on her cheekbones, shook out her matching gown, and took a dramatic step away from her sister.
"For goodness' sake! Isabelle didn't mean to injure your toe." Sue lengthened her stride to catch up with her sister, pulling Isabelle along with her as she hissed over her shoulder at her other cousin, "It's dark and she was crawling through a window."
"She did it on purpose," Victoria stated with a raised chin, looking like the exotic peacock she was dressed to resemble, the feathers woven into her hair trembling with indignant hauteur.
"I did not," Isabelle argued from Sue's side, her yellow mask shifting as she scrunched her nose.
They were halfway down the hall now. The farther they drew away from the window, the more Sue relaxed-which was very little. This was a terrible idea. At least she was of age, but her sister and twin cousins hadn't even been presented at court or had any sort of introduction to society yet. It was only a matter of a week, since they would leave for London in a few days, but if they were caught at a masquerade ball, Sue knew exactly who would take the blame.
She'd said no when the girls first approached her about attending tonight. Yet, with Evangeline and Victoria involved, Sue knew they would have come anyway. It always fell to her to be the sensible voice of reason. Sensible, simple Sue Green. She rolled her eyes. No wonder she was still in the market for a husband after four failed seasons. Who would want to marry someone like her?
She glanced to the side, watching one of Isabelle's blond ringlets fall over her cheek in perfect bounces with every step. She would be betrothed within the month. And, of course, Evangeline would have no troubles. Renowned beauties rarely had issues capturing a gentleman's attention.
Evangeline threw her hand out to stop their journey down the shadowed hallway. Sue bumped into her sister, her nose squashing into the back of Evangeline's deep blue gown.
Sue ran her fingers over her mask, checking for dents as she peered around her sister to see what had stopped their progress. "What? Did you hear something? Is someone coming?"
"EEEEE!" Evangeline squealed as she turned around to face them. "I hear music from the ballroom!"
Sue gave Evangeline a shove in the shoulder for causing her heart to stop, if only for a brief moment. "Of course you hear music from the ballroom! We're sneaking into a ball."
Victoria drifted up to them now and peered over their shoulders to see why they'd stopped. "I need to find a mirror to pull myself together. I can't be seen with leaves all over my skirts."
Isabelle tensed at Sue's side. "I said I was sorry. I thought I saw a servant approaching."
"I fail to see how pushing me into a bush would have saved your skin, even if there had been a footman patrolling the gardens," Victoria returned.
"I swear I saw it move, though." Isabelle's eyes were wide beneath her mask as she gave a tiny shake of her head.
"Isabelle, it was a statue, a replica of David. Was he going to throw down the pebble in his hand and banish us from the grounds? Really," Sue snapped.
She'd had enough. Why hadn't she stayed well away from the herd's antics this evening? She could be back at her cousin's home painting, sleeping-anything but listening to this incessant bickering. "Stop arguing! Victoria, we will find a place to repair your dress. Isabelle, stop jumping at every squeak of a floorboard. And Evie, if you squeal again, so help me, I'll kill you. We are ladies, and we need to blend in or we'll be thrown out on our ears."
"Sue, calm down," Evangeline replied with a light laugh. "We're wearing masks. Of course we'll blend in. How could we not? Come along."
Evangeline led the way down the hallway, trying two doors before finding one unlocked and slipping inside. She laughed and spun around, throwing the door open for Sue and her cousins to enter. It looked to be a private parlor. The lamps were turned down to a flickering glow, which Victoria quickly brightened as she muttered, "I hope the owner of this parlor likes pink roses because if not she would run in horror."
Bright pink. Every surface in sight was washed in it, draped in it, or otherwise covered in it. Sue blinked in surprise. Pink draperies, pink chairs, even a rug depicting blush roses adorned the floor. "It must belong to April Rutledge. No one else would abide such a wealth of one color."
"Do you know her?" Isabelle asked.
"Only by the sight of her pink ensembles," Sue returned. "It's her color. I believe she owns it."
Isabelle moved to a side table draped in pale pink fabric. "Look! There are even two bottles of champagne set out."
Victoria joined her sister, lifting one bottle in investigation. "How thoughtful of our gracious host to provide us with champagne while we make ourselves presentable."
"I don't think we should..." Sue's words were drowned out by the pop of the cork and three squeals. What had she been thinking when she'd agreed to come this evening? They were sure to be caught. If not by the missing champagne, then the squeals of delight were sure to give them away. Was there any use in attempting to halt their actions? Her family was an unstoppable force. She flopped down into a pink chair, feeling like a rancid remnant from a bakery sale in her dark rose gown and thin pelisse.
"Oh, I'm such a mess," Evangeline exclaimed, gazing in the gilded mirror that stood in the corner of the room. She pinched her rosy cheeks and pushed her pale blue mask into place with the nudge of a finger.
Sue snorted. "I don't believe I've ever been so close to perfection that a pinch of my cheeks would do anything other than increase my blotchiness." Her head tilted to the side as she watched her younger sister primp. At times it was hard to believe they were related.
Victoria patted the ringlets on her head and touched a finger to her lips before declaring herself ready and reaching for the bottle of champagne Isabelle was holding. Passing the bottle to her twin sister, Isabelle smoothed her skirts for a moment before gazing at Sue with a combination of pity and determination. Oh dear. "The last time you had that look in your eye, I ended up with a fringe of hair around my face that took over a year to grow back."
Isabelle huffed in response, her eyes still locked on Sue. She meant well; it simply never seemed to work in Sue's favor to be on the receiving end of her cousin's agenda.
Sue looked away, sinking further into the chair. Perhaps if she didn't look directly at Isabelle, her cousin would become distracted. She could hope.
"Sue." Isabelle's version of a pert declaration of war sounded in her ear just as a bottle of champagne was pressed into her hand.
"Yes, Isabelle?" Innocence dripped from her voice like hot wax.
"Drink a bit of that. You need it."
Sue sighed. "I suppose if we're going to get caught trespassing we may as well enjoy the champagne before we're led away in chains." With that said, she took a large gulp, allowing the bubbles to slide down her throat. She could feel some of the tension leave her body, replaced by the warm effervescence of the champagne.
"Is my mask straight?" Evangeline asked.
"Yes. You look perfect," Sue offered without looking. "You all look lovely. Shall we go now?"
"Sue, what about your looks?" Isabelle's voice was small and coated in a sweetness her forceful sister could never achieve.
"What of my looks?" Sue lifted her feet off the floor and held them out to properly see the entirety of her gown. She appeared fine. She always appeared fine. Fine wasn't bad. There was nothing wrong with fine.
"Well, you look a little... Evangeline, can I have the brooch you removed?"
"Certainly. It did nothing for this ensemble anyway." She dug into her reticule to retrieve the brooch and hand it to Isabelle.
Isabelle beckoned Sue to stand up. She wasn't likely to be distracted from her evident plan to make Sue into an exotic beauty. Seeing no escape, Sue set the champagne down and stood-at which point Isabelle reached her hand straight into Sue's bosom.
"What are you doing?" Sue gasped.
"Take another sip of champagne and trust me," Isabelle commanded, gathering the fabric between her cousin's breasts and securing it with the brooch.
Sue had never in her life exposed so much skin. Her eyes widened, but before she could speak, Victoria shoved the bottle back into her hand. Sue took another drink.
"Here. Take these feathers and fix them into her hair. I'm not going to use them after all. Essence of feathers is all I require this evening." Victoria lifted her chin and tossed her head to show off the feathers that remained on her head.
"Oh, you don't have to..." Sue's words were drowned under a sea of commands to drink.
"Victoria, did you bring that rouge you got in town last week?" Isabelle asked as she inserted feathers into Sue's hair.
"Rouge? Oh no!" Sue tried to step away, but Isabelle pulled her back within reach.
"You need a bit of color on your cheeks, Sue. And something on your lips wouldn't hurt."
"I don't want to look like a light skirt, Isabelle."
"You'll look alluring and lovely. Just shh and drink."
"Too bad we don't have any ribbon. This dress could use some ribbon here, there, and perhaps some here." Isabelle grabbed at the fabric of her gown, gathering it into folds and revealing triangles of a darker underskirt in the process.
"I have some black ribbon."
Sue was starting to feel off balance as three sets of hands set to work making her presentable. Every time she complained, they told her to take another sip of champagne, which was most likely contributing to the off feeling surrounding her.
She couldn't stop laughing at Victoria and Isabelle as they worked. They were twins. Twins were funny. She didn't know why. Then Evangeline put something on her lips and told her to press them together. Why were her lips numb? "Numb." That was a funny word. Numb lips and twins, numb twins. She snorted to herself. After a few minutes, Isabelle stepped back.
"Sue, I believe you're ready for the ball."
"I'm almost afraid to look." Sue pushed through her family to approach the mirror in the corner. She studied her image for a moment, not recognizing the sight before her. Never before had she appeared as scandalous as she did now. In fact, she didn't believe it possible. Even her nondescript shade of light brown hair appeared to sparkle in the flickering candlelight. She touched her lips, amazed at how dramatic the red looked against her pale skin. This must be what beauty felt like.
Her plain rose gown had been gathered in places around the skirts and on the shoulders with black ribbon tied into neat little bows. A wide ribbon now made a sash at the high waist of the gown, which only drew attention to the scandalous amount of exposed skin at her neckline.
"I don't look like Sue a'tol. No, ladies." She turned with a smile. "Tonight, I'm Suzanna!"
"Suzanna?" Evangeline arched a brow in her direction.
Sue twirled toward the door, the black ribbons that tacked her dress together flying around her like wisps of smoke in the night. "Yes, she is wild and irresistible to all gentlemen who lay eyes upon her."
Isabelle giggled. "Ah. She's your evil twin then."
"Why is it always an evil twin?" Victoria scoffed. "I, for one, resent the implication. I'm not evil, Isabelle. I'm just more entertaining than you."
Evangeline stepped between the two with a smile aimed at Sue. "I think it's time we go downstairs and make our grand entrance."
Perhaps tonight wouldn't be so disastrous after all. The sound of the music floated on the air around her, lulling her with its spell. Pulled down the hallway as if in a dream, she could feel the pulse of the melody in her veins. Was it the champagne or the drugging effect of feeling truly lovely? Sue didn't want to know the answer. She only knew tonight was special.
Tonight anything could happen. Tonight she had joined the ranks of her feline family at last.
"Tonight the world is ours! Bring the champagne on silver platters! Bring the handsome gentlemen-also on silver platters!" She giggled, not even minding the chatter of her family. Nothing could touch this magical feeling as they drew near the top of the stairs.
Torrent Hall was a grand estate built into the side of a hill that rolled down to a series of lakes visible from the terrace and south lawn. The house had remained in the same family for some generations now and had been added onto in various styles over the years. The result was a rambling estate with turning hallways and multiple stairs joining the collection of rooms that made up the home.
They'd entered through a window off the upper gardens nearest the border of Sue's cousins' new estate. The ballroom was tucked away at the rear of the home and one level down in a very unconventional style-much like the occupants of the house, if rumors could be believed. She knew the eldest two girls in the family by sight, but no more. They looked normal, yet there was always talk about the family.
Evangeline smoothed her skirts and glanced at her cousin beside her. "Isabelle, tug your dress down a bit and you'll be sure to catch a gentleman's eye with that neckline."
"How is my neckline?" Victoria gazed down into the deep, lace-lined scoop of her gown.
"Victoria, if you pull your dress down any farther, it will be around your knees."
"Evangeline, I'm not showing anything that ought not to be shown at a masked ball. You make me sound so tawdry! Meanwhile, you're showing more skin than all of us put together."
Sue turned, leveling a glare at her family that stopped their movement down the hallway. "Ladies, if it's skin you wish to show, Suzanna will show you how it's done." She turned, tossing what she imagined to be a sultry smile over her shoulder as she stepped to the top of the darkened staircase leading to the ballroom on the first floor.
Wrapping her hand around the railing, she hitched up her skirts and lifted one pointed toe to her knee before flicking her foot out in a kick that exposed her stocking-clad leg to the thigh. Taking a step down, she gave the empty stairway a shimmy of her breasts and kicked her other leg out. Turning with her gown gathered in her hands at her waist, she kissed the air in front of her sister. Enjoying the laughter swirling around her, as well as the effects of the champagne, she took a few more steps down the stairs.
"Do the kick again!" Isabelle said between giggles.
"Yes, you must!" Evangeline encouraged, dabbing at what must be tears of laughter before they fell on her mask.
Sue smiled, hurried to the landing where the stairs turned to the left, and spun to face her family. She held the banister rail behind her back and allowed her arms to slip to the sides as she arched her back and shot a seductive look over her shoulder into the darkness. The girls laughed as Victoria called out, "Suzanna, you light skirt!"
Gathering the hem of her gown once more, Sue dipped one foot down to the next step as one might test cool water in a pond. Then she ran her foot up her other leg and began kicking with each step down the stairs. She paused her descent every few steps to shimmy her bosom for the enjoyment of her family. They were still laughing as she neared the bottom of the steps. She raised her skirts to the point of indecency and kicked as high as her leg would allow, attempting to finish her dance with flair.
It wasn't until the toe of her beaded slipper met something hard that she stopped and immediately fell back onto the step behind her with a thud.
Her eyes grew wide beneath her mask as she looked up at the figure wearing black at the base of the stairs. His golden blond hair was the only bit of color shining in the dim lamplight cast from a single wall sconce. His head was bent away from her so she couldn't see his face. Who had she injured? Had he seen her dance? She wasn't even supposed to be here. Oh, what had she done?