Etta had lived with her aunt and uncle ever since her mother had died when she was nine. It hadn’t sounded so bad when she had first been told what would happen. And then she met the family.
Her Uncle Joseph wasn’t so bad. Clueless and unhelpful at times, but he was decent enough. Her aunt and cousins, however…
Her Aunt Claudia was obsessed with the idea of her daughters getting married and settling down with good husbands. Naturally, that obsession extended to her niece as well. And Etta could not be more disinterested in marrying, preferring to spend her days reading and wandering the moors surrounding their home.
Three of her cousins were younger than her. Yvette was moody and seemed mostly bored by interactions with other people. Laura was a bit ditzy, though nowhere near as ditzy as Wel. Claudia’s influence was most notable in those two, as they shared many of her ideas about marriage and spent most of their time at balls eagerly flirting with the village boys.
The one saving grace among the cousins was Ophelia, the oldest. She was calmer and more rational than her sisters, though she shared the same longing to be married. Thankfully she was less overbearing than Laura and Wel, allowing Etta a bit more room to breathe.
Although she had very little breathing room at the moment, as the five of them were crowded around the door to Joseph’s study, trying desperately to hear what he and Claudia were discussing.
“What are they saying?” Laura hissed in her ear, her hand pressing down heavily on Etta’s shoulder.
Etta swatted her away. “I can’t hear anything if you keep talking,” she said.
“And he’s single!” Claudia said on the other side of the wooden door. “Imagine that! They sell the estate and who should move in but an eligible bachelor?”
Wel gasped in delight and Laura tugged on the sleeve of her dress. “What is it? What is it?”
“They sold the Morpheus estate! And a bachelor is going to move in!”
Laura squealed in delight. The girls pressed closer to the door to try to hear more.
“You must go over and introduce yourself,” Claudia said. “None of us may go over until you have! And he must marry one of the girls!”
Joseph sighed. “Is that so?”
Wel made an annoyed sort of growl beside Etta.
“Yes! Do you want your daughters and niece to become old maids?” Claudia said.
“Well, I suppose it’s a good thing I already went over there this morning then,” Joseph said. “And before you ask, yes, I invited him to this evening’s ball.”
Laura and Wel squealed happily and Ophelia nudged Etta, beaming brightly. “Isn’t that exciting?” she said.
Etta shot her a quick grin back. “Definitely.” The fact on its own didn’t particularly interest Etta, but the way it made her cousins light up certainly did.
Laura and Wel grabbed Ophelia’s hands just then and began dragging her upstairs, asking her excitedly about what clothes and makeup of hers they would be able to borrow. Etta followed after them, smiling to herself. Her cousins were certainly easy to rile up.
Balls were quite possibly Etta’s favourite social events as they allowed her to indulge in one of her favourite activities: dancing. It was hard to dance at any other time, as one needs a partner to dance well and good music to dance to. And Etta was frequently at a loss for one or both of them. But at a ball - there she got to have both and she could spend the entire night dancing to her heart’s content.
She was being pulled away from her dancing by Ophelia. He cousin pulled her over to the side of the room where Kate, a village girl that they were friends with, was waiting. Ophelia immediately began wondering what the new bachelor would be like.
“Do you think he’ll be nice?” she asked. “I’m hoping he will be, but you can never tell what you’re going to get with city folk.”
“It doesn’t matter if he isn’t,” Etta said. “You could have any man in this room if you wanted to.”
Ophelia laughed. “I highly doubt that, but thank you.”
“No, it’s true,” Kate said, backing Etta up. “Any man would be lucky to have you.”
Ophelia laughed again, ducking her head to hide her blush. “You’re too kind.”
Etta nudged Kate. “What do you think he’ll be like?”
“Do we know anything about him besides that he’s single?”
“He’s rich and presumably handsome,” Etta said. “Nothing else.”
“His name’s Renard,” Ophelia said.
Etta looked at her, surprised. “It is? How do you know that?”
Ophelia sighed. “It’s like you never listen when Mother talks.”
“That’s the French word for fox, isn’t it?” Kate said. “Maybe he’s cunning and sly.”
“Oh, I hope not! I want him to be lovely and kind,” Ophelia said.
“And you want him to write poetry and bring you flowers,” Etta said.
Ophelia smiled. “It’s just more romantic that way.”
“Is he going to fall in love with you at first sight?” Kate asked.
The other two girls dissolved into giggles. Ophelia smiled shyly. “At least that’s what I hope,” she said. “He may be exactly what you say he will be.”
“Or he may be exactly what you are wishing for,” Kate said.
Almost as if their conversation had summoned him, Etta saw a man that she had never seen before enter the room, followed by a woman and another man. The people closest to the door began whispering among themselves and Etta nudged Ophelia.
“There’s your prince,” she said.
Ophelia looked over at the door and smiled. “He is rather handsome. That’s a good start.”
“Now how do we find out if he writes poetry?” Kate said teasingly.
Claudia rushed over and grabbed Etta and Ophelia by their wrists. “Come on, it’s polite to greet our guests when they arrive!” she said, dragging them off towards the door. Etta winked at Kate as they were dragged away and the other girl laughed.
One of the men offered them up a bright smile as they approached, while the other just looked uncomfortable and avoided eye contact. The woman eyed them up and down, looking unimpressed.
“Mr. Renard, I presume?” Claudia said to the friendly man.
“Please, call me Bertie,” he said. “This is my younger sister, Bollard, and our family friend, Roger Kaplan. He’ll be staying with us while we’re here.”
“Lovely to meet you both,” she said. Bollard gave her a small nod while Roger just grimaced slightly. “This is my daughter, Ophelia, and my niece and ward, Etta. My other three daughters are elsewhere in the room. I’m sure you’ll meet them throughout the night.”
Bertie bowed to the two girls, but kept his eyes on Ophelia. “It’s wonderful to meet you both.”
Etta smirked, amused. Love at first sight. Typical. “Are you planning on staying long?” she asked.
“We’re unsure yet,” Bertie said. “I’m hoping that it will be for at least a few months. It’s quite lovely up here.”
“You’re not a fan of the city?” Ophelia said.
“Well, the city is certainly nice, but I prefer the country. Flowers- There’s- There’s flowers here,” he stammered.
Ophelia giggled slightly. “Yes, the flowers are certainly the best part.”
Bertie lit up. “You like flowers?”
“Oh my gosh…” Roger muttered and Etta gave him an annoyed look. His friend was happy, why was he being bitter? More importantly, his friend was happy with her cousin, and there was no way she was going to let him ruin that.
Ophelia didn’t seem to have heard Roger. Etta doubted that she had even noticed that he existed. “Yes! I love them!” she said before Etta had a chance to tell him off.
“Would you like to dance?” Bertie said.
“I’d love to.”
The two of them hurried off to the dance floor, already giving each other doe eyes, leaving Etta and Claudia with Bollard and Roger.
“I take it you’re not a fan of flowers?” Etta said to Roger.
“After hearing Bertie talk about them for years, no, I’m not,” he said.
“That’s odd. I’ve heard Ophelia talk about them extensively for years, and yet I still enjoy them.”
“Well, we can’t all have your endless patience.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Are you implying that I’m impatient?”
“I’m not implying anything,” Etta said.
Claudia gave her a sharp look. “Of course she’s not. She’s merely… commenting on how extensive that particular virtue of hers is.”
Etta was impressed by her aunt’s quick ability to lie. Her patience was nearly as terrible as Roger’s seemed to be, and her comment about listening to Ophelia talk about flowers had been a slight lie. In reality, she found the topic a bit drawn out by this point.
Roger didn’t seem quite as impressed. “I see humbleness isn’t one of her others.”
“And being polite isn’t one of yours,” Etta said, bristling. How dare this man be casting judgements! He didn’t even know her! And it wasn’t like he was so great anyways!
She turned and walked away quickly, ignoring Claudia’s voice when she called after her. She found Kate on the other side of the room, sipping a glass of punch as she watched the dancers.
“You don’t look happy,” Kate said.
“Bertie brought a friend with him from London and I do not like him one bit,” Etta said.
“Oh, yes that’s what Mr. Renard wants us to call him. He’s quite nice and seems to have taken a shine to Ophelia-“
“What did I tell you?” Kate interrupted and Etta gave her an annoyed look. “Sorry.”
Etta huffed. “It’s just his friend. He’s so rude!”
“Oh? What did he do?”
“He said I was arrogant! And he was just so rude in general, he’s like an uptight, impatient…” Etta trailed off with an annoyed noise and Kate laughed.
“I love you dearly, Etta, but I find it hard to believe that a man who has never met you before would call you arrogant during your first conversation.”
“It happened, I swear to you that it did!” Kate still didn’t look like she believed her so Etta grabbed her hand. “Fine, I’ll prove it to you!”
She dragged Kate down to the small hallway that ran around the ballroom half a level below. It was meant to serve as a place where people could get some fresher air than the stuffiness of the ballroom while still being near enough to enjoy the fun. It was also a good deal quieter than the ballroom, which allowed it to be used for private conversations as well as being able to overhear those in the ballroom above. In short, it was the perfect place for Etta and Kate to listen in on Roger and Bollard’s conversation without being seen.
“-completely insufferable, I don’t know how Bertie stands it up here. I already want to return home to London,” Bollard was saying as the two girls took their place.
“The environment isn’t so bad,” Roger said.
Etta gave Kate a smug look. The other girl swatted her arm. “Hush! That doesn’t mean that he dislikes the people!” she said.
Etta rolled her eyes. “He hates nature by the sounds of it. You should have heard him complain about Bertie’s love of flowers.”
“You say as though you don’t complain about Ophelia’s every week.”
“Oh? In what way?”
“It just is,” Etta said, puffing her cheeks out in annoyance.
Bertie joined the pair above. His face was flushed with excitement and his eyes were bright.
“Did you enjoy your dances?” Bollard asked him. “She certainly kept you out there for long.”
“She is absolutely fantastic!” he said, beaming. “She knows the scientific name of every plant in the area! Every one!”
“And yet she hasn’t been proposed to already?” Bollard said.
“I know!” Bertie said, not picking up on her sarcastic tone. “She’s perfect! I don’t understand it!”
“Too bad her cousin doesn’t share the same attributes,” Roger said.
Etta smacked Kate’s arm.
“You see?” she hissed. “I told you he was rude!”
Kate frowned. “Yes, I suppose he is.”
“Oh dear, did you not like Etta?” Bertie asked.
“She was… quite intolerable,” Roger said.
Kate’s eyes widened and Etta frowned. She knew he hadn’t liked her much, but intolerable seemed a little harsh. It had only been one conversation. How could he think her intolerable when he’d barely even had time to tolerate her?
“I’m sorry,” Kate said.
Etta straightened up, trying to act as though Roger’s comment hadn’t bothered her. “What for? Why should I care if he thinks that I’m quite intolerable when he’s completely intolerable?”
Kate laughed lightly. Etta hooked her arm through Kate’s. “Come on. I want to find Ophelia and hear all about her dances with Bertie. Hopefully she found him just as perfect as he thinks her!”
Etta knocked lightly on the door to the Renard house. Bertie opened it and gave her a wide smile.
“Etta! It’s so lovely to see you again!” he said.
“It’s nice to see you too,” she said. “I was wondering if I could see my cousin?”
He lead her upstairs to a guest bedroom where Ophelia was sitting in bed and reading a book. She looked up and beamed at her cousin. “Etta! What are you doing here?”
“I came to check on you. Bertie sent us a letter telling us you were sick,” she said. Ophelia had ridden over a couple of days earlier to visit Bollard, and when she didn’t return, Etta had momentarily suspected Bertie of not being as pleasant as he had first seemed. But then the letter came so she returned the butcher knife to the kitchen and stopped trying to think of the best place in the moors to hide a body.
“That was so sweet of you!” Ophelia said, smiling at Bertie.
“Well, I was worried,” Etta said, unsure of who Ophelia was talking to. “You’re away from home and sick. Are they taking care of you okay?”
“Oh yes, Bertie’s been so lovely and has been spending so much time looking after me. And Bollard’s been just lovely.”
“Has he now?” she asked with an amused smile. Bertie flushed.
“Well, I was worried about her. She showed up here sneezing and looking like death,” he said.
“A very cute version of death?” Etta teased.
His blush deepened. “I’d better go… Tea.” He hurried out of the room.
Etta laughed and sat down on the bed next to Ophelia. “He’s certainly easily flustered.”
“Don’t tease him,” she said. “He’s been nothing but lovely and I want him to like us.”
“Aunt Claudia would be angry if we made all three of them hate us…”
“Bollard doesn’t hate us,” Ophelia said. “Actually, I think we’re becoming friends.”
She gave her a rueful smile. “Yes, well… That ship sailed as soon as you met him.”
Etta glanced at the doorway. “How’s he been?” she asked in a low voice. “Has he tried to kill you yet?”
Ophelia smacked her arm lightly. “Etta! He’s not that bad!”
She looked at her doubtingly. “Oh really?”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, he’s prickly and not particularly nice, but Bertie says that he’s very loyal and sweet once you get to know him.”
“Bertie says. And he’s biased.”
“I trust his judgement.”
“That’s only because you want to hear his poetry,” Etta said. “Speaking of which, has he written you anything yet?”
“No. But we’ve been talking a lot and it’s going well. I think he might like me a little bit. Or at least I hope,” Ophelia said, her ears turning red.
“You think? He’s been fawning over you - a sick you! - for the last couple of days. Of course he likes you a little bit. Kate and I heard him call you fantastic.”
“That could mean anything,” she said, blushing. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that he wants to propose.”
“You’re thinking about a proposal already?” Etta asked, grinning.
Ophelia somehow managed to get even redder. “Oh, hush! I just meant-“
She was interrupted by Bertie stumbling back into the room with a tray of tea. “I hope this will help,” he said, placing it carefully on Ophelia’s lap. She smiled up at him like he had just announced that he had saved the planet from total destruction.
“It looks perfect.”
He turned to Etta. “I can find you a guest room if you’d like to stay until Ophelia’s well enough to return home.”
“That would be great, thank you. Oh.” She frowned. “I didn’t bring any clothes.”
“I’m sure Bollard would be willing to lend you something. They might be a bit long though, she is taller than you.”
Etta huffed as Ophelia giggled. “I’m sure they’ll be fine. Thank you.”
He lead her down the hall to Bollard’s room. She was sitting in the corner, frowning at a book. Bertie knocked lightly on the door. She looked up.
“It’s nice to see you too,” Etta said, trying not to scowl. She wasn’t looking forward to having to deal with Bollard for the next couple of days, regardless of what Ophelia said.
“Etta’s going to be staying with us for a few days until Ophelia’s well enough to travel,” Bertie said. “I was hoping you could lend her some clothes.”
“I doubt anything I have could fit her,” Bollard said.
“I’ll make it work,” Etta said with a tight smile.
She sighed and went over to her wardrobe. She pulled out a few dresses and handed them to Bertie. “See if these’ll do.”
“Thank you very much.”
Bertie lead her back towards the guest bedrooms. They were passing the staircase when Bertie nearly collided with the person coming up it.
“Oh! Sorry, Roger,” he said.
“It’s fine, that was my faul…” Roger trailed off as he spotted Etta standing beside Bertie. She made a face at him.
“You remember Etta, right? Ophelia’s cousin?”
“And I unfortunately remember you,” she said.
“Please don’t fight…” Bertie mumbled.
Roger glanced at him before sighing and bowing slightly to Etta. “I assume you’re staying here while your cousin’s sick?”
“Yes. Bertie’s been taking such good care of her, but I’d hate to leave him with such an imposition.”
“She’s not-“ Bertie began but was interrupted by Roger.
“So you decided to cause a second imposition?”
“You’re not an imposition,” Bertie assured her.
“Thank you.” She gave him a sweet smile before turning a cold glare on Roger. “Not everyone’s as inhospitable as you.”
“Well I’m not sure I would describe him that way,” Bertie began, only to be interrupted yet again.
“Do you always make such hasty declarations?” Roger asked, his cheeks flushed with anger.
“You’re one to talk. What happened to me being impatient and intolerable?” Etta snapped.
“I didn’t- Were you eavesdropping?”
“It’s not eavesdropping if you’re talking in a public place!”
“I think I’m going to go put these in your room,” Bertie whimpered, backing away from the other two slowly.
“That is not how it works!” Roger said, ignoring Bertie.
“Well you still shouldn’t be surprised if someone overhears you being rude when you’re in a public place!” Etta said, clenching her fists.
“It’s not rude if the other person was rude to you first.”
“That’s not how it works!” Etta mocked his tone.
“Don’t do that!”
“Why would I mimic you? Why would anyone want to appear anything like you?”
“Do you have to be so rude all the time?”
“Do you have to be such a colossal ass all the time?”
“Don’t call me an ass!”
Etta gasped dramatically. “Roger! Don’t say ass in front of a lady! Don’t you know that’s impolite?”
“What the-? You said it first!” He tugged on his hair, eyes blazing with frustration.
She gasped again. “What!? I would never!”
“You just did!”
“I did not!”
“Yes you did!”
“Hey!” They looked over at where Bollard was glaring at them from down the hall. “Can you two keep it down? It’s hard to read when people right outside your door.”
“Sorry,” Roger muttered. She rolled her eyes and went back into her room.
Etta was suddenly painfully aware of how close the two of them were standing. She could see the flecks of gold in Roger’s eyes, the small scar on his chin, the slight rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. His eyes flicked over her face and she wondered if he was doing the same thing she was: taking in every detail of the other’s face, thinking about what it would be like to touch them, getting annoyed because where did that thought come from, that’s a stupid thought and you-
Her stupid thought was cut off by Bertie sticking his head out of a guest bedroom. “Are you two done fighting?”
Etta stepped back from Roger, taking a deep breath and shaking her head in an attempt to clear it. “Yes. Sorry.”
He gave her a wry smile. “It’s fine. This sort of thing happens a lot.”
She walked down the hallway to the guest bedroom, leaving behind a very confused looking Roger. Bertie gave him a small shrug before following Etta into the room.
“I hope this will be comfortable enough for you,” he said. “I put Bollard’s dresses in the wardrobe, and it’s right next to Ophelia’s room, so you’ll be able to-“
Etta gasped. “Ophelia’s right there! Oh no, I hope we didn’t upset her with all the yelling. Do you mind if I leave you to go check on her?”
Bertie smiled. “Not at all.”
Ophelia looked up as Etta came in. She gave her cousin an amused smile. “I see you found Roger.”
“Did we upset you?” she asked.
Ophelia shook her head. “I’m fine. Are you okay? You were holding your own pretty nicely, but it was still a fight.”
“I’m fine. I can’t bring myself to care about a fight with him because I can’t bring myself to care about him.”
“I don’t understand why the two of you have such trouble getting along. Bertie speaks so highly of him,” she said with a small frown.
“I think Bertie would speak highly of anybody,” Etta said.
“You might have to get used to him,” Ophelia teased.
“Hm? What do you mean?”
“If things go well with Bertie and I. You may end up seeing a lot more of him.”
Etta groaned. “Noooo…”
“Yeeeessss…” Ophelia giggled.
“You can’t marry Bertie,” she said, clutching Ophelia’s hands. “You have to become an old maid.”
“And since when are my only two options marrying Bertie or becoming an old maid?”
“Fine, you can marry someone else!”
“Well I suppose I’ll marry Roger then, so you have to spend twice as much time with him.”
Etta groaned. “Stop…”
Ophelia laughed lightly. “You’re so easy to rile up. Maybe that’s why you two don’t get along. You’re both so… sensitive.”
She gasped, offended. “Don’t you dare compare me to him!”
“You have to admit, you are pretty similar.”
“We are not!”
“You’re both stubborn, arrogant, sensitive, judgemental-“
“You’re clearly delirious from your fever, I should let you rest.” Etta got up with a huff.
Ophelia laughed. “Say whatever you want, you know I’m right.”
“Goodnight!” Etta said, closing the door sharply. She could still hear Ophelia laughing from the other side of it.
Ophelia was feeling better a few days later, and Etta was thankful that they could finally leave. Although Bertie continued to be tied with Ophelia for the loveliest person Etta had ever met, she was still less than thrilled with his companions. Bollard stayed out of her way for the most part, either hiding in her room reading, or muttering with Roger in the corner. While she never had another fight with him as explosive as the one the first night, Etta continued to exchange jabs with him over the course of her stay.
She felt guilty about it, of course: Bertie was being such a hospitable host, and she was repaying him by continuing to get into arguments with his friend. Bertie never scolded her for it though. In fact, he seemed fairly ill-equipped to deal with the arguments, as he fled the room whenever Etta and Roger began snarking at one another. Bollard, on the other hand, seemed merely amused by the arguments, and never tried to stop them unless they were disrupting her reading.
Despite her feelings of guilt, Etta couldn’t help but butt heads with Roger constantly. He was just so aggravating. It was as though arrogance, stubbornness, rudeness, and general annoyance were all rolled up into one person. And she was stuck in a house with him.
But now she was free! Ophelia was feeling better and they were finally going to go home. And then she wouldn’t have to deal with Roger’s stupid face for at least a few more weeks. Well, hopefully. It all depended on when Aunt Claudia would try to throw Ophelia at Bertie next. Wherever Ophelia went, Etta was close behind. And unfortunately for her, the same seemed to apply to Bertie and Roger.
The five of them stood outside the Renard house. Ophelia and Bertie were saying goodbye to each other, holding hands and talking in hushed voices next to the carriage. Etta resisted the urge to roll her eyes, reminding herself that it was sweet that her cousin had found love and was so happy. Bollard was having less luck with that. Or she just wasn’t trying at all.
After about five minutes of whispered goodbyes, Etta gave up on her cousin and decided to just prod her along by getting into the carriage, a completely unsubtle hint that they should get moving. Unfortunately, the carriage step was higher than she expected, and she wasn’t sure how she was going to manage to get up there.
Maybe I should just walk home… she thought to herself.
“Would you like some help?” She looked over to see Roger watching her with something like concern in his eyes.
She was about to snap at him that she was fine, thank you very much, when she once again noticed Ophelia and Bertie saying goodbye. Bertie was tucking a strand of dark hair behind Ophelia’s ear.
Etta sighed. “Yes, thank you,” she said through gritted teeth.
Roger held out a hand to her to help her into the carriage. As she took it, she felt as though she had been electrocuted. It was like her entire body had been asleep, waiting for this one moment, and he had woken it up with a simple touch. She sat down in the carriage and pulled her hand close to her chest, confused.
“Th-Thank you,” she managed to stutter out.
Roger nodded stiffly at her, his ears red. “Have a good trip,” he muttered before returning to Bollard, who raised her eyebrows at him.
“Oh! We should really get going,” Ophelia said, glancing over at Etta. She gave her a weak smile back, her heart hammering in her chest. Ophelia gave Bertie a lovesick smile. “I’ll see you soon.”
“I’ll be holding my breath until we meet again,” he replied. Etta was thankful that she was too far away to hear Bollard’s gag.
Bertie helped Ophelia up into the carriage and then they were off down the dirt road, back towards home. Ophelia sighed happily. “I didn’t like being sick, but wasn’t that just the most perfect visit?” she asked.
Etta stared down at her hand. She could still feel where Roger’s hand had touched hers, warm and soft, nicer than she would have thought. “Yes,” she said quietly. “It was… unexpected.”
Comments and/or feedback are appreciated! I'm on tumblr @pillowcreeks. Hope you enjoyed!
“We will have a visitor joining us tomorrow,” Joseph said over dinner one night. Laura and Wel exchanged excited glances while Yvette groaned. Etta raised her eyebrows at Ophelia. Bertie? She shook her head. Too bad.
“Who is it?” Etta asked.
“My cousin, Frank Hayward,” Joseph said. “He will be staying with us for a few weeks.”
“How wonderful. I’m sure he’ll want to be shown around,” Claudia said with a pointed look at Etta. She rolled her eyes. Of course she was already planning on throwing Etta at this new man. Heaven forbid there be a single man in the area that wasn’t interested in one of her daughters or her ward. At least she hadn’t thrown her at Roger…
“Etta and I would be happy to,” Ophelia said. Etta shot her a thankful look. Sure, she was still stuck showing this… Frank around, but at least she wouldn’t have to do it alone.
As she would find out tomorrow, that at least was very minimal.
“Your town is so small, it’s amazing that you make do with so little,” Frank said as they walked down the main street. Etta scowled. He’d making backhanded compliments all afternoon and she was getting fed up. And she had three weeks with him left to go. Fantastic.
“I know it’s smaller than what you’re used to in London, but it’s really quite lovely once you get used to it,” Ophelia said.
“And it’s still quite a bit larger than some towns,” Kate said. They had run into her and she’d agreed to help them show Frank around, mostly because Etta already had her murder face on.
“At least it turns out lovely women,” Frank said, winking at them. Ophelia blinked, unimpressed. Kate grabbed Etta’s arm to keep her from hitting him.
“Thank you. I think we have the prettiest girls in the country,” Kate said. Ophelia bit her lip to keep from laughing and Etta relaxed enough for Kate to let go.
Frank didn’t seem to pick up on what Kate meant. “I don’t know about that, but they’re certainly up there.”
“The real appeal is natural, I think,” Ophelia said, changing the subject. “We have some lovely moors, and the wildflowers in the area are very pretty. There’s one that-“
“The moors are really great.” Etta interrupted before Ophelia could go off on a tangent. “They’re especially nice to go wandering through in the morning. They get all foggy and spooky. It’s rather lovely. You could also go wandering out there in the middle of the night and die.”
Kate cleared her throat loudly. “Or you could just go during the day and live.”
“Or you could die,” Etta said eagerly.
Kate gave her a sharp look. “Or we could show Frank-“
“Bertie!” Ophelia said suddenly, her face lighting up.
Etta rolled her eyes. “We are not going all the way out to Bertie’s just because you’re lovesick.”
“No, Bertie’s here,” Kate said, pointing down the street in the direction that Ophelia was already headed. Sure enough, Bertie was standing at the other end of the street, talking with Roger. Etta grimaced.
“I am not going over there,” she said.
“Well then it looks like we’ll be waiting here for a while,” Kate said as Ophelia reached the two men. Bertie’s face lit up when he saw her. She said something to him and gestured down the street at the other three. Bertie and Roger looked over. Bertie smiled and waved at them. Roger made a face.
Etta looked over at Kate. “Show Frank around for me,” she said.
Kate looked startled. “What?”
“Please? I can’t deal with Roger today as well as him.”
“Thank you!” she said before Kate got a chance to finish. She hurried off down the street, calling back over her shoulder, “I’ll make it up to you, I promise!”
But she was already disappearing around the corner.
Etta hurried down a few streets, trying to put as much distance between herself and Roger and Frank as possible. She felt slightly bad about abandoning Kate with Frank, but she had Ophelia. She’d be fine.
She turned a corner and ran right into a very sturdy person. He caught her before she fell over.
“Watch it,” he said with a slight laugh.
“Sorry,” Etta said, her ears burning.
“It’s fine.” The man grinned at her, although something about it felt like he was laughing at her. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“I am…” She glanced over her shoulder before smiling at him sheepishly. “I’m actually avoiding someone. Well, two someones.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Yeah. They’re both aggravating and I’ve already had to spend the morning with one of them. I can’t spend the afternoon with both of them.”
“Well, why don’t I help you with that? I haven’t been here long, but I’ve found a few nice spots where no one will find you for at least a few hours.”
Etta hesitated. On one hand, she didn’t want to end up stuck with someone who might turn out to be worse than Frank and Roger combined. But on the other, she wouldn’t be able to return home unless she wanted to be scolded by Claudia, and some company would be nice.
“Alright,” she said at last. She held out her hand for him to shake. “I’m Etta, by the way.”
He kissed her hand instead and she resisted the urge to smack him. This might have been a mistake after all. “Lovely to meet you, Etta. I’m Percy.”
Spending time with Percy ended up not being as terrible as she was expecting. While he was more flirtatious than she would have liked, he wasn’t bad company if she reminded him to reign it in. He had brought her to a small grove near the river, the trees hiding them from sight.
“So who are these dreadful people that you were running from?” Percy asked, his legs stretched in front of him as he lounged against the trunk of a tree. Etta kept her legs tucked to her chest, arms wrapped around them.
“One of them is my father’s friend, Frank Hayward. He arrived in town today and I was supposed to show him around.”
“Well I think you’re doing an amazing job at that,” he teased.
She threw a handful of grass at him, but it didn’t get more than a few inches away from her. “Hush!”
Percy laughed. “He’s quite obnoxious then?”
“The worst. Well, second worst.”
“And the worst is?”
“Roger Kaplan, who I am forced to get along with because my cousin is wildly in love with his best friend.”
Percy groaned. “Oh, that’s horrible! I pity you, I really do.”
Etta raised her eyebrows. “You know him?”
“Unfortunately. We grew up together.”
She leaned forward, interested. “Really? I can’t imagine him as a child. It seems like he was born an eternal grouch.”
“He was,” Percy said with a laugh. “Not the best person to grow up with.”
“What was the worst thing he did when you were children?”
“Hm, I’m not certain about the worst thing when we were children. The worst thing he ever did was when we were adults.”
Etta frowned. “Oh?”
He looked uncertain. “I don’t know if I should tell you.”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“His father practically raised me,” Percy said, requiring no further prompting. “Our families were close, and my father died when I was young. He took me in.”
“I’m sorry,” Etta said.
“Thank you. His father promised me an inheritance, so that I would be able to go to school. However when he died, Roger refused to give it to me.”
“What?!” She stared at him in shock. She knew that Roger was rude, but this was horrible even for him.
Percy nodded. “I ended up having to join the army to get by. It’s not the best life, but at least I’m not starving. And I get to meet pretty girls.” He winked at her.
Etta rolled her eyes. “I’ll leave if you keep that up.”
He laughed. “Fine. So what did he do to you? Be his usual charming self?”
“You said your cousin is in love with his best friend?”
“Yes. It’s a stroke of terrible luck, but I suppose that sums up the last few months for me,” she said. “Ophelia saw Bertie in town today, so I ran off before I got stuck having to pretend not to hate Roger.”
“I suppose you’ve mastered that skill?” Percy teased.
“I’ve gotten better.” Etta ran her fingers over the palm of her right hand. She could still feel the memory of Roger’s hand in hers. She had tried to forget, but it kept slipping back into her mind, even when she wasn’t thinking about him.
“You left your cousin all alone?”
“No. Our friend is there with her. She agreed to show Frank the rest of town in my place.”
“That was nice of her.”
“Yes, it was. I should be returning to them soon though. My aunt would have a heart attack if she found out I had left Kate alone with an eligible bachelor instead of flinging myself at his feet,” Etta said bitterly.
“Your aunt’s trying to marry you off? That sounds exciting,” Percy said.
“It’s horrifying,” she said, getting up. “She has been throwing us all at every bachelor in town for months. Ophelia manages to avoid it because she and Bertie are getting along so well, but I’ve had no such luck.”
“Perhaps if she were to see you with a handsome young man, she would change her mind,” he said suggestively.
Etta raised her eyebrows. “You?”
“I am all those things.”
She smiled slightly. “Alright. My family’s throwing a ball next Saturday. You should come by. I’ll expect you to dance though.”
He grinned up at her. “I’d expect nothing less.”
My tumblr's @pillowcreeks. Comments & feedback are appreciated. Hope you enjoyed!
CW for lack of parental support when Etta goes to talk to Yvette.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“So which one is the handsome stranger?”
Etta rolled her eyes at Kate’s question. She had told Kate and Ophelia about meeting Percy and inviting him to the ball, which turned out to be a mistake, as they hadn’t stopped teasing her about it since.
“He’s not here yet,” she said.
“So he’s making a dramatic entrance then?”
Etta sighed. “I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“He’s dramatic? Sounds like he’ll be a great fit for you,” Ophelia said.
“I am not dramatic.” They both laughed and Etta pouted. “Well, not that dramatic.”
“You told Frank to wander off into the moors and die,” Kate pointed out.
“That’s not dramatic. It’s an honest suggestion.”
“I believe I heard my name?”
Etta groaned at the sound of Frank’s voice. Ophelia shot her a sympathetic look and Kate gave Frank a tight smile.
“Frank. It’s good to see you again.”
“Lovely to see you too, Miss Burnham.” He glanced over at Etta. “I was correct? You were discussing me?”
“Unfortunately,” Etta said.
“Well I think it’s only fair that I’m a part of the conversation. What about me are we discussing?”
Frank blinked and Kate quickly stepped in to cover for Etta. “And how tragic it would be! We would all just be so grief stricken.”
“So tragic,” Ophelia said, mock sincere.
He puffed out his chest. “Yes, it would be the greatest tragedy to befall this nation in many years. I can’t imagine what your little town would be like without me. And I just got here! I’m an influencer, you see.”
“Oh, certainly,” Kate said. “You’re very important to us all.”
Frank grinned proudly. “While I would love to stand here and talk with you lovely ladies all evening, it is a ball! We are supposed to be dancing! Etta, would you care to join me?”
“I would love to but-” Etta began, searching wildly for an excuse. She spotted Yvette sulking in the corner, “-but Yvette needs my help! Family comes first.”
She hurried over to her cousin. “What’s wrong?”
Yvette looked up. “Nothing,” she muttered.
“Then why are you sulking in the corner instead of playing the piano?”
“Mother said that Wel’s playing was better and people would prefer it to mine.”
“That’s not true,” Etta said, putting an arm around her. “We all love your music.”
“Mother doesn’t,” Yvette muttered.
“One person out of dozens doesn’t adore your gift. Does that really matter?”
“She has terrible taste in music.”
“I want her to be proud of me.”
“So go take back the piano.”
Yvette frowned. “But Wel’s playing it.”
“She took it from you. Take it back,” Etta said.
A small smile appeared on Yvette’s face and she headed over towards the piano. Etta sighed and leaned back against the wall, relieved to have fixed somebody else’s problem, even if she couldn’t fix her own.
She scanned the room for Percy, but there was still no sign of him. The only red hair that she could see belonged to a ten-year-old girl who was certainly not a twenty-something soldier. Etta tried not to feel too disappointed - she had just met the man, she barely knew him, it was only to get her aunt to stop throwing men at her - but her stomach still twisted itself into a knot. Maybe he had decided that he couldn’t stand her. Maybe he had just been playing a trick on her and had never been able to stand her. It wouldn’t be all that surprising really, she was hard to be around and unlikeable.
Etta shook her head, trying to clear her mind of those thoughts. They weren’t helpful and would only make herself upset when she should have been happy. Etta focused instead on thinking up rational reasons for Percy not to be there. Maybe he had been called onto duty last minute. Maybe he had fallen ill. Maybe he had broken his leg. Maybe he was simply running late.
She had moved on from the rational reasons for him not to be there to the far more amusing but much less realistic ones - maybe his hair had caught on fire and he was too embarrassed to show up bald because he had an oddly shaped head - when an unfortunately familiar voice spoke up next to her.
“Are you having a good time?”
Etta sighed. “Hello Roger.”
“Yes, hello. Are you having a good time?” he asked again.
She was surprised to see the corner of his mouth lift in the faintest hint of a smile. “Of course. You were until I arrived.”
“Do you mind being quiet? I’m trying to enjoy my cousin’s playing.”
“She’s very talented,” he said.
“She is. She’s especially talented at listening to other people’s words,” Etta said.
“Can you just-“ Roger sighed. “Never mind.”
“That’s not being quiet,” Etta said in a sing-song voice.
“Would you like to dance?” Roger blurted out.
She raised her eyebrows. “With you?”
“No, with the curtains,” he said sarcastically. Etta glared at him and he sighed. “Yes, with me.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because you like dancing.”
She blinked. “I never told you that. How did you- Everyone likes dancing.”
“You look happier when you’re dancing. It’s like you come alive a little bit more,” Roger said.
“It’s nice not to have to be all stiff and proper for once,” Etta muttered.
“Oh, is this you stiff and proper?”
“If you want someone to dance with you, being rude isn’t really the best approach.”
He sighed and bowed dramatically to her. “Would you care to join me in a dance?”
Etta could have sworn that Roger was smirking. She gave the room a final scan, but there was still no sign of Percy. “Fine.”
“Really?” He looked surprised.
“I might as well dance with you. The person I want to dance with apparently isn’t coming.”
He held out his hand to her. “Who were you expecting?”
She hesitated before taking his hand. It was just as soft and warm as she remembered, as though the feeling of Roger’s hand would be forever burned into her skin. “None of your business,” she responded.
He rolled his eyes. “Of course it’s not.”
Roger lead her out onto the dance floor. Etta caught Kate’s eye across the room. She was still talking to Frank. Kate raised her eyebrows at Etta, and she shrugged.
Want help? Kate mouthed.
Etta shook her head. Being rescued by Kate would only mean being stuck with Frank again, and that wasn’t much better than her current situation. Worse, really. She could tolerate Roger for at least a few minutes.
He put his hand on her waist and she could suddenly think of nothing else but the feeling of him so close to her. They were even closer than they had been on the landing at the Renard house and she could feel him breathing as she placed her hand on his shoulder.
“We don’t have to talk,” Roger said, so quietly that she almost didn’t hear him over the music.
“That makes it worse,” Etta said. “Then we’re just dancing and it’s uncomfortable.”
He laughed and she felt her heart skip a beat. It was the first time that he seemed anything other than stoic or arrogant. It was… nice. Cute, almost. Not that Roger was cute. He was good looking in an objective sense if you didn’t know about his terrible personality, but the terrible personality cancelled out any potential cuteness.
“Fine. What do you want to talk about then? I don’t remember us having much we could agree on.”
“Why did you come up here with Bertie?” Etta asked. “You don’t seem to like it here much.”
“Have you met Bertie? He needs somebody to look out for him. Make sure he doesn’t do anything rash,” he said.
“Like wander off into the moors and die looking for the perfect wildflower?” she joked.
He snorted. “Yeah. Exactly.”
“Better keep him away from Ophelia then. That’s her favourite hobby.”
“I would have guessed you were the one who preferred dying as a hobby.”
Etta laughed. “No. I’m just better at the dramatic moor wandering. Ophelia’s too excited about nature to be properly angsty.”
A couple passed near them, too wrapped up in each other to pay attention to their surroundings, and the two of them pressed together as Roger pulled Etta out of the way. “Sorry,” he mumbled in her ear, his breath softly ruffling her hair.
Her voice caught in her throat. She was so close to him. He smelled like pine and salt. It was oddly nice. “It’s fine,” she finally managed to choke out.
The couple had left, but Etta didn’t feel the urge to move away from Roger quite yet. He was warm and steady, like the human embodiment of a bed. Comforting when he wasn’t talking. It was hard not to step on each other’s toes in such close proximity though, so she looked down at her feet, resting her forehead against the curve of Roger’s neck. She heard his breath catch.
“You okay?” she asked quietly.
“Fine.” His voice was low and hoarse.
“So you really just came up here to look after Bertie?” Etta kept her voice quiet. It felt wrong to speak at a normal volume when they were so close together like this.
“Is that so hard to believe?”
“He had Bollard with him. Couldn’t she have done that?”
“Bollard isn’t very good at looking after him. She doesn’t always catch the important things.”
“What he thinks of the situation. She focuses on her own thoughts, and ignores what’s best for Bertie.”
“And you’re able to do that?”
“You’re very opinionated. I find it hard to believe that you can put your opinions aside and focus on what Bertie wants.”
“It’s less about what he wants and more about what’s best for him.”
Etta rolled her eyes. “So I was right. You aren’t able to do it.”
“Do you always have to be so confrontational?” Roger asked, pulling away from her. He was scowling.
“Do you always have to think that your opinion is the only one that’s right?” she snapped back.
“Like you don’t do the exact same thing!”
Etta huffed loudly and stormed off, not in the mood to fight with Roger, especially not with all the tumultuous feelings rushing through her after being so close to him. His presence shouldn’t affect her that way. Touching him shouldn’t make her feel like her body had just been brought to life after lying dormant for years.
She found Kate standing by herself, watching the dancers.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Etta sighed. “Roger’s just as irritating as ever. Where’s Ophelia?”
“Dancing. She’s popular tonight. I don’t think I’ve seen her with Bertie at all though.” Kate pointed across the room at Bertie, standing sadly alone, watching Ophelia dance with a man from town.
“He looks so sad,” Etta said. “Should we go keep him company?”
“It looks like Roger’s on his way over, so I think we should steer clear.”
“Did your handsome stranger ever show up?” Kate asked.
“It doesn’t look like it.”
Catching the upset look on Etta’s face, Kate gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I’m sure something came up at the last minute.”
“Yes. That must be it,” Etta said, still doubtful. She sighed. “Do you want to get out of here? I think I need to clear my head.”
Kate smiled. “Of course. Come on, let’s go for a walk.”
My tumblr's @pillowcreeks. Comments and feedback are appreciated. Hope you enjoyed!