Sally bobbed a curtsy and left the room with a basket full of mending to do. Cecily smiled at her
reflection in the glass, pleased. Sally had done a marvelous job with her hair, pinning it up in
intricate coils and patiently curling the locks that still lay on her neck with hot tongs. She smiled
and looked herself over one last time before heading downstairs.
She took the stairs carefully in her new high-heeled shoes. Painful, if not recent, experience told
her that the stairs that Morris kept polished with such pride would be slippery. She held her skirts
and negotiated the descent. Mama was waiting for her, dressed in a new gown of a rich wine
color that suited her fair skin and honey colored hair. Cecily stood to face her, knowing that
Mama's eyes were the mirror that truly counted. "You look lovely, my dear," she said. And Cecily
did. She had been right in not allowing her daughter to wear a gown in the new apple-green; it
would have made her skin, pale under the long dark hair, look sallow and unhealthy. This light,
foamy pink was much better, and the light green bows kept the whole effect from being cloying.
"Show your father and then we'll be on our way to the ball," Mrs. Halford instructed, turning to
accept her cloak from the footman.
Cecily found her father sitting before the roaring fire in the library. "Thank you, Papa, for my
lovely dress," she said with automatic obedience.
"It suits you," he said, something akin to pride in his eyes. Her mother was undeniably pretty, but who would have thought he had it in him to produce such a beautiful child? Samuel had been individual looking at best, but then, Horace Halford recalled, his first wife had not possessed beauty equal to her dowry. He smiled at his daughter fondly; he had great expectations for her. With her charms and his money, he was sure that she'd be able to win a titled husband. Perhaps even Lord Roederer, the catch of the season. "I
expect you'll put all the other girls to shame at the ball tonight," he continued. "Now run along. I'll be at the Hurstons' later in the evening."
The footman, Miller, helped her up the carriage steps, and she arranged her voluminous skirts
carefully so that they wouldn't be crushed. It was a twenty-minute ride to the Hurstons' house,
and she gasped when she saw how brightly it blazed with candles and the new electrical lights.
She descended from the carriage as if in a dream. Her first ball! Mama kept a tight grip on her
forearm, keeping her at her side, and Cecily was grateful for the support. She only wished she'd
had the chance to ask her about the young man who had been consuming her thoughts for weeks.
She didn't know if she'd be allowed to talk to him at the ball, or if he would even have been
invited. Not that he seemed like anything but a gentleman, but still, there were rules she knew
Once inside and divested of her gossamer-thin cloak, she glanced around eagerly, the shy, curious
look on her face piquing the interest of many of the young men talking amongst themselves. She
flushed in disappointment when she caught no sight of him, emphasizing the pink of her cheeks,
achieved by pinching in the carriage. Well, that was at least as much good as it was bad. He
wasn't there to make her first ball complete, but that also meant that she wouldn't find herself
weak-kneed and tongue-tied in his presence. She wished she knew what that meant. Mama had
explained that love was a feeling that was born only after marriage, that physical sensations were
reserved for men and also, alarmingly, claimed by women of ill repute. But Cecily hadn't quite
believed her; the headiness of being near him, aware of his soft eyes fixed on her face, was too
delicious to be wrong. It couldn't be love, though; all of the heroines of Miss Austen's novels
displayed their love by being witty and sparkling in front of their suitors, not by feeling butterflies
in their stomachs. She didn't know what it was that made her feel so strange when William
Meredith was near.
She was fairly sure, nevertheless, of his feelings. He loved her, that young man with the honey-
brown hair and inky fingers. She'd glanced surreptitiously over her fan at the Brinkmans' party
several times, and he'd had those blue eyes either on her face or on the papers in front of him. His
face brightened each time she laughed, he looked lost when she spoke of riding on the Row. Such
things were beyond his pocket. She'd known then that she had him, this innocent boy, eyes wide
behind his spectacles. And she didn't know what that meant.
She was spinning round the floor in a waltz - George Stevenson danced divinely - easily making
polite conversation about the ball, the season, their families. George looked down at her pretty
face, her dreaming eyes making him take the turn too quickly. She was wondering what sort of a
dancer William was, how she'd feel if he held her like this, if she'd be able, finally, to speak when
he looked at her. The song ended, and she smiled charmingly at George as they applauded the
A murmur ran through the crowd, and Mrs. Hurston looked positively giddy with delight. Lord
Roederer had made an appearance at her ball! She had no daughters to marry off, so she was
satisfied with her triumph. It was up to some other parent to pull of the coup of claiming the
viscount as a son-in-law. He walked in, top hat properly in his hand, but the dominance was clear
in his face. His maple-brown hair was brushed straight back from his brow, his piercing eyes and
high-bridged nose casually possessive, his mouth, thin-lipped but flexible, smiling with conscious
invitation. The thwack of his gloves as they landed inside his hat seemed to release the spell of
silence, and the party resumed its vivacious hum.
Cecily was waiting for George to return with refreshments, chatting with several other girls her
age. Not one of them had a dress as pretty as hers, and her spirits lifted again. She felt a tap on
her shoulder, and she pivoted to see George standing before her, a full plate of ice in his hand, an
admiring look on his face. She smiled up at him, looking around for a place they could sit and eat,
when there was a tap on George's shoulder. Lord Roederer stood there. "Well, George?" he
asked, his voice deep and rich. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your charming friend?"
"Oh! Certainly. Miss Cecily Halford, this is Lord Frederick Roederer," George stammered, unsure of
himself beside the dashing viscount.
Lord Roederer took possession of Cecily's hand and brushed it with his lips as she curtsied. "Very charming indeed," he said, smiling down at her. "Would you honor me with the next dance, Miss Halford?" She glanced uncertainly at George, wishing her mother were there to guide her through the tangles of proper etiquette. She looked back at Lord Roederer, his arm extended in offer, and she laid her hand on it. Surely, she thought, a viscount should know the rules of etiquette. If he saw nothing wrong in asking her to dance in front of George, then how could it be wrong for her to say yes?
Horace Halford emerged victoriously from a game of whist in one of the drawing rooms to see his
daughter being whirled round the floor by Lord Roederer himself. He smiled in approval. They
were certainly a well-matched couple. He was feeling so pleased with himself that he even danced
with his wife.
* * *
Every day since the Hurstons' ball, the Halford house had seen Lord Roederer as a visitor. Cecily
received his calls with her eyes demurely down, listening as he spoke easily of his travels, his
prowess as a sportsman, the fun to be had in London. He worked hard to catch her gaze, noting
that she looked up only when he spoke of the arts he patronized. "Would you like to go to the
Exhibition tomorrow?" he asked. "I hear there are some very fine paintings there. Portraits
especially. Have you ever had yours done?"
Wonderingly, she shook her head, then realized she still hadn't answered his first question. "That would be most agreeable to see the Exhibition. I am looking forward to tomorrow already." He stood, recognizing his cue to leave. As he walked down the front steps, he turned, wondering what had finally put the sparkle in her eye.
Cecily dressed with care for the excursion. It had been days since she'd last seen William
Meredith, and even then it hardly counted, as she'd seen him walking along the street, his lips
moving as he read silently to himself from his pocket copy of The Aeneid. She'd been in her
carriage, tucked next to her mother, on their way to pay afternoon calls. Still, it was possible,
perhaps even probable, that he would be at the Exhibition. She knew he was passionately
interested in art. So she put on her best afternoon gown, butter-yellow silk with a fine froth of
creamy lace at the hem, sleeves, and bodice, and called Sally to do something special with her
She walked into the Exhibition on Lord Roederer's arm. He paused for a moment in the doorway,
as if to court the gazes that were already on him, accepting it as his due. Many of the male gazes
were filled with envy, and he leaned down and said softly, "I think your beauty is distracting to
those with aesthetic sensibilities." She smiled at the graceful compliment, turning slightly away at
the same time. She headed for the nearest painting, standing behind the semicircle of spectators
already gathered in front of it. It seemed to be made up of one large party, for when the elderly
lady among them moved on to the next painting, nearly all of them followed obediently. Only one
man still stood there.
She knew without having to look that it was William. He pivoted, apparently alerted by that same sense, and smiled. "Good afternoon, Miss Halford. You look lovely." He bowed slightly, his slim form limber in its charcoal grey suit.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Meredith." She'd never spoken his name out loud before, and his eyes widened slightly at the surprise. She was a vision, standing before him in a dress the color of sunshine, stray curls resting against her delicate throat, her dark eyes meeting his directly, her sweet voice softly uttering his name. A large figure appeared suddenly behind her, and the pale, perfect oval of her face stood
out sharply against the expanse of black broadcloth. William raised his eyes to greet her escort,
hesitating when he realized the man was a stranger to him.
"Lord Frederick Roederer," the viscount said casually. "Is one of these yours?" he gestured at the paintings that adorned the walls, his eyes never leaving William's fingertips, stained with inks.
"No. I follow a different form of art. William Meredith," he answered, holding out his hand. After a deliberate hesitation, the viscount shook it. Cecily watched them carefully, hoping to finally puzzle out what she felt for William Meredith. He was unlike anyone else in the world.
* * *
A few weeks later, the Halfords held a party. It was expected when one had a daughter in her first
London season. Cecily couldn't work up too much excitement, since she knew that William
would never be on the guest list that her father had approved. She obeyed her mother's choice of
dress and hairstyle for her, and greeted the guests as they arrived with a pleasant expression firmly
fixed on her face. She started when she saw William approaching. "Miss Halford," he greeted her.
"A friend of mine, John Shelley, was invited to your party, but he was unable to be here. He asked
me to convey his regrets in person. I accepted the charge with pleasure." She smiled warmly at
him. She should have known that he wouldn't miss an opportunity to see her and speak with her.
"I am sorry that Mr. Shelley will not be joining us, but you are most welcome. Doubly so, once as
his proxy, and once on your own merits." The butterflies in her stomach hadn't disappeared, but
at least she was able to speak rationally again. He brightened at her sincerity, and moved inside,
not wanting to hold up the line of guests any longer.
She kept him at least in her peripheral vision as she moved from group to group, chatting, flirting,
playing the good hostess under her mother's watchful eye. Miller and the other footman circulated
with trays of hors d'oeuvres and drinks. She had just finished telling a funny story, when under the
cover of the laughter, Miller whispered, "Mr. Halford wants to see you in the library, Miss
Cecily." She nodded and excused herself. As she exited the room, she caught William's eye and
smiled. His answering smile was so bright that even across the room she felt its light.
She entered the library to find her father smoking one of his best cigars and beaming from ear to
ear. "Come in, come in," he ordered jovially.
"What is it, Papa?" she asked, smiling already at his evident good spirits. She wished he could be like this more of the time. He had only become interested in her in the last year or so, but still he rarely spoke to her.
"You're going to be married, my dear," he answered, grinning around the cigar clenched in his teeth.
"Lord Roederer was just in here with me, asking for your hand."
"Why did he ask you?" she asked foolishly, her shock making her forget what she knew very well about how marriages were arranged.
His jaw tightened. "Because it is right. A man must approve of the man who is to
provide for his daughter."
"I don't need any providing for. We've got money," she said.
His face had turned a dull red from anger. "I don't intend to have a spinster for a daughter. Lord Roederer
has asked for you, and I have accepted on your behalf."
"But that's not what I would have answered!" she cried. "I do not love him, Papa."
He relaxed a bit, thinking she was only giving way to maidenly modesty. "No doubt you will soon enough," he chuckled.
"I can't ever, because I love somebody else."
The moment she said it, she split into two. One part of her was floating, free because she finally
understood and acknowledged what William meant to her, while the other half cowered in fear
because she knew she had gone too far.
His face darkened with rage, and he threw his cigar into the fire that blazed behind him. His fingers dug into her soft upper arm. "Who is he? Tell me, girl! Who is he?"
"William Meredith," she answered softly.
"That puppy! His father was in trade, and I hear the boy himself is good for nothing but books in dead languages." He was almost amused until he saw the love on her face. "Have you lost your virtue to this blackguard?" he shouted, his fingers demanding.
"No, Father!" How could she explain that she loved him and that he had never touched her? That the closest he had come was slipping a poem he'd written for her into her hand, his fingertips gliding softly against her wrist, the folded paper crackling between their palms?
"He hasn't ruined you?" he demanded once more.
"No." There was a quiet finality in her tone.
"Well, then, the marriage can go ahead as arranged." He saw the light of protest in her eyes, and his grip
on her arm tightened until she thought her bones would break. "You will marry Lord Roederer, or
else you will no longer be a daughter of mine. You will leave this house. Your mother will not
know you. And you will be penniless. There will be no one to take you in." He looked her hard in
the face, trying to impress his will upon her. "Lord Roederer is a viscount. Your sons will be of
the nobility. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Papa," she answered, but her spirit was not yet broken.
He saw it, briefly admired it, and moved in for the kill. "Likely this Meredith fellow was
only after your money. He wants to step up in the world, no doubt. But remember this: he is
beneath you. And that is what you must tell him the next time he dares to speak to you. William
Meredith must be beneath Lady Roederer."
She headed back for the main room in a daze, her father close on her heels, still holding tightly to
her arm. He felt the tremor that passed through her and her unnatural stiffness when she saw
William again. He followed her longing gaze and saw only a tradesman's son. "Go," he hissed,
pushing her forward. "Tell him now." She was moving on shaky legs when a few men, boisterous
from drink, blocked her path, snatching up the papers William had been writing on during the
evening. Avoiding William's attempts to recover his property, they took turns reading aloud in
ridiculous, sing-song voices. William flushed with embarrassment, but he calmed when he met
Cecily's eyes. As long as she wasn't laughing at him, he could withstand anything. He frowned in
anxiety when she turned and fled the room.
He went after her, not noticing that her father had followed as well, listening intently. She sat on
the couch, her face paler than usual, her voice unsteady. She wanted just once to hear him say it.
She asked, "Are your poems about me?"
Didn't she know? "They're about how I feel," he answered.
"Yes, but are they about me, William?" The sound of his name dropping from her pale pink lips intoxicated him.
"Every syllable," he breathed. She closed her eyes, knowing she would hear those words for the rest of her life. And she had to let him go. He took her silence for disdain, and hastened to explain. "Please, they're only words, and if they're no good. . . . . I'm a good man." His dignity moved her, and she opened her eyes to see love plainly written on his face. What need had he of words when his eyes could say so much? "All I ask is that you see me," he said, kneeling in front of her.
She blanched as his movement revealed her father standing in the doorway. "But I do see you, William. That's the problem. You're beneath me," she said as her heart broke.
* * *
The wedding was announced a few days later. Cecily had never been allowed to read a
newspaper, but her father instructed that it was to be made available to her so that she could see
the length of the article about the engagement. Morris offered her the freshly ironed society pages
as she sat in the morning-room, trying in vain to write letters to her aunts instead of to William.
She had to explain to him. He must know that she loved him, even if she could never marry him;
she owed him that much at the very least. She glanced through the paper disconsolately, unaware
that Morris was still standing next to her until he cleared his throat. "Letter for you, Miss Cecily,"
he said, and offered her the silver tray again. She opened the letter neatly, read it through, and ran
up to her room, sobbing bitterly.
Horace Halford was drying himself off in front of the fire when the library door slammed open. He
spun around to see his daughter, her tears as fierce as the rainstorm outside. "He's dead! You
made me kill him!" she raged, waving John Shelley's letter in one trembling hand.
"Who is dead?" he asked, fear freezing him in place.
"William! William is dead!" she mourned aloud. "He left here and was immediately set upon by murderers." She was choking on her sorrow. "He's gone. And he never knew how I loved him," she whispered brokenly, so softly that her father couldn't make out her words.
"I am sorry, my dear," he said stiffly. "London can be so dangerous. Upsetting to think such vile people could be lurking so close by. You go upstairs and lie down. You'll want to be well-rested for the play tonight."
She stared at him in disbelief. "I will not be going to any play."
His face seized with alarm. "Yes, you will! Lord Roederer has invited all of us to share his box! Most certainly we are going!" She turned and left the library without a word.
Up in her bedroom, at least, she could be alone. The tears came again when she remembered all
the light leaving William's face when she spoke those cruel words - her last words - to him. "What
have I done?" She thought about her father, and a hatred like nothing she'd ever known could
exist took her over. She would make him suffer. She would make him pay for William's life, for
the lives of the children they would have had, for her own life too.
The scaly hand on her arm didn't startle her nearly as much as it should have. She looked up and saw a demon. "I am D'Hoffryn," it said in a low, rumbly voice. "I can help you attain your vengeance." She smiled and reached out to take the necklace he held out towards her. "It looks good on you, Halfrek,"
D'Hoffryn smiled in return, watching as power suffused her being and she set aside everything
that had been her, except her love for William and her hatred for her father. Those two were
enough to sustain her. She walked towards the library.