Copyright © 2010, 2015 by Gwenn Wright
Vienna, Austria 1866
“That monk is a doddering fool.”
He remained bent over the microscope, speaking more to his Petri dish than the imbecile who had come to question him.
“Yes Doctor, but what you’re working on...”
“Will ensure Austria’s power for eternity.”
The man scoffed. He had heard of the scientist’s maniacal zeal. His mother had warned him that being intelligent was admirable and, if utilized properly, profitable but there came a point when it was nothing but a detriment. Genius was often followed by madness, she had said. Looking at the frenzied younger man, Dr. Rochenstein fully appreciated the wise woman his mother had been.
“The University,” he continued. “Needs more assurance of the potential success of your work.”
A bitter laugh resonated within the form hunched over the microscope. “You mean they would like to know when my work will begin repaying their generosity.”
It was not a question.
Everyone knew of the lavish expenses of the professor, but no one was certain of what the money was being spent on. There was gossip and speculation that perhaps he was building some great invention, but this was circulated only among those who did not know his particular field was biology.
Nashville, Tennessee 2010
Kevin looks at me and I know he isn’t seeing the little girl I use to be, all pigtails and gangly limbs. He isn’t seeing my mother’s daughter or even my mother anymore. As his eyes linger over me, stopping here and there in the most uncomfortable places, I know he isn’t really even seeing me as I am. The bloodshot eyes staring out of the alcohol-flushed face are seeing a girl, nearly of age, who owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
He has had no shortage of women over the years. He kept them from me at first, being careful of what I saw and, disturbingly, heard. But, as I grew older, and he saw that I was not growing into a refined young lady but that the poverty and desperation of our lives has made me something harder, coarser, he stopped caring. There were one-night stands and those who didn’t bother staying more than a few hours; those who got what they wanted, just as he had, who used him just as he used them, and left promptly after. Occasionally one might last a few weeks, but rarely. They didn’t want a man with responsibilities.
A man with responsibilities and no car and an address that changed at least every fifth month depending on the compassion of our landlord at the time.
I was the only unchanging factor in his life and knew he blamed me for his lack of constants. If he hadn’t done the right thing, if he hadn’t been so good to me and true to the promise he had made to my mother then his life would be different.
But he had been true to my mother’s wish.
She had been obviously pregnant when he had taken her in. And when she had asked him to care for me, he had agreed.
They had pulled me from the hemorrhaging, dying body of my mother and turned me over to the care of the man who was not my father. He had taken me home to their tiny apartment above the old hardware store and done what little he knew to take care of me.
It took less than six weeks for him to realize his mistake. Maybe even less than six hours, but he never abandoned me. He clung to me as though I was the last remnant of some great and powerful love.
And that gave me hope that maybe my mother was really something else and not just some girl who got knocked up by a guy whose name she didn’t even know. She was something special, someone worthy of a man’s loyalty and devotion.
Saint Louis, Missouri 1877
“Do not be so upset Katherine. It’s just a silly little dinner party. There will be other chances to meet the young man.”
“I am more interested in meeting the Count, mother.”
“No doubt.” With graceful, nimble fingers Mrs. Demure tied the lace at her daughter’s throat.
“Oh but mother, you have heard the rumors and you must let me at least have a peek.”
“Indeed I shall not!” Banished or not, the Count was not a man whom Mrs. Demure wanted to fall out of favor with, particularly in regard to her two daughters. The man was worth more money than the Queen of England it was said and was building the finest home this side of the Mississippi. A home of such proportions and grandeur meant only one thing: the Count intended to stay. This would not bring such a stirring of hope to all the mothers in town if not for the most fortunate fact that Count von Strassenberg had a son. He was reportedly a boy of about eighteen and had no siblings. The Demure girls stood a fairer chance than any in town of securing the affections of the boy.
But not tonight.
At least not for Katherine, the younger of the two. Katherine was considered a great beauty, greater even than her sister, but she was born tired and frail. Most of her time was passed with reading. She was therefore fortunate in having an ambitious lawyer for a father, a man who himself was widely read and boasted wherever he went of the great personal library he possessed.
“When this spell passes Katherine, your father will introduce you, if we do indeed not find the Count to be altogether evil,” she whispered with mock foreboding, “but for now, you must rest and wait.”
With that, Henrietta flitted into the room. At eighteen she was just a year older than Katherine, but possessed the beauty and poise of a much older girl, a woman rather than a silly flighty girl. Katherine hated her most of the time.
“I hear the father is a bit of a dark lord,” Henrietta giggled. “Oh well,” she said dipping down to check her reflection in the vanity’s glass. “I suppose the boy and I can establish ourselves in Europe and leave daddy back here in his dark, brooding castle.” She dotted her nose with powder and adjusted her bosom.
Mrs. Demure gasped, but only slightly. Henrietta had been forward and proud since she had realized there was a difference between boys and girls. This had given Mrs. Demure sufficient time to grow accustomed to her oldest daughter’s wanton behavior.
Katherine swung her legs over the side of the bed. “O mother, it isn’t fair that she gets to go down. She will completely humiliate you and father! Look at her! She looks like a tart!”
“O mother, you know it’s true. I may be broken and sickly but at least I have some dignity.” Henrietta leaned over her sister, her barely concealed cleavage poignantly displayed. “Dignity is not what counts or their sons are after.” With a swish and a wave of obnoxious perfume, Henrietta left the room. “I am sorry Katherine, but unfortunately,” and here Mrs. Demure sighed, knowing the unfairness and stupidity of it all, “Your sister is right. You know it pains me to say it is so.” Katherine slumped back. Mrs. Demure kissed her daughter’s brow. “I will tell you all about
it in the morning. Now get some rest.” With a more graceful swish of her own skirts Mrs. Demure was gone, leaving Katherine to plan her escape. She would not be waiting for this pain to pass. She would meet the Count tonight.
My life is hard. No one would rob me of that. The clothes I am wearing came out of a knotted up black plastic trash bag from a resale shop downtown. And not the downtown where shiny cars wink at you in the sunlight. If a car winks at you in this area it’s being driven by a person you would be best to avoid.
My side of downtown is crumbling and skirted by chain link fences.
Kevin’s out of work again. Staying sober for eight hours out of the day was too much for him.
It always is.
So I work here, at Dobson’s Market, fifteen hours a week during the school year. That’s my Friday, Saturday, Sunday job.
Since Dobson doesn’t want to get in trouble for overworking a minor we worked it out with his younger brother that I would work the rest of the week at the family restaurant. Fifteen hours here. Fifteen hours there. No benefits anywhere and crap pay everywhere.
But for now, it’s holding us. We’ve been in the same place for three months now. I’ve opened my own bank account, that Kevin knows nothing about, and I’m paying the bills as they roll in.
And we’re finally making it.
Eventually, though, he’ll come out of his stupor and realize things are getting comfortable and he’ll want to know where the money is.
But maybe by then I’ll be gone.
“Go on now, Miss.” Josephine, the Demure’s only maid, tried to shuffle Katherine from her hiding place behind a tapestry that hung just outside the dining room. “Go on now, they’re almost done with their soup. And your father and the Count are just talking business. Don’t wear yourself out standing here spying for such boredom as that.” Katherine peeked at her from behind the tapestry. “But Josephine, the son is lame.” Josephine was obviously a little taken aback by the excitement Katherine found in this. “Not lame so much, Miss, more like he’s tormented. Poor boy.”
“Tormented by the sun! How lovely!”
“I never did understand you Miss Katherine. But if the boy is anywhere near as handsome as his father, the shock may nearly kill your sister.”
Katherine stifled a giggle, “Indeed.”
Josephine shook her head and started back toward the kitchen. “You are too much in those books, Miss Katherine.” She shuffled only three feet away before jumping, rattling the china, at the sound of the knocker. A vase nearly fell to the floor as Josephine quickly turned and struggled to unload her tray onto a hall table. “O Miss Katherine,” she hissed. “He will certainly see you. Silly girl!” Chairs were being pushed back from the table in the adjoining room.
Josephine, already at the door, righted her curls and glanced furtively back to make sure Katherine was hidden. Satisfied, she flung the door open.
The back of Josephine’s neck flushed crimson at the sight of their visitor. Katherine was barely able to suppress the giggle. “Viktor, son of Count von Strassenberg of Austria,” announced Josephine, rather a bit too grandly. The young man stepped inside. Katherine cursed silently. Josephine had moved, blocking her view, all she could see of the stranger was perfectly coiffed, raven-black hair and a pale forehead. Josephine, choking on her words, dipped in a curtsey and stepped aside. Katherine ducked behind the tapestry. While she wanted to see, she most certainly did not want to be seen. She heard long strides across the wooden floor. Just in front of the dining room door, they stopped. A cacophony of overdone greetings rose as the dinner party met the new arrival.
Katherine dared a peek.
“Have you finished it yet?”
Charlene slams her tray down beside me, not because she’s mad but because Charlene overdoes everything. It’s not like it’s out of a need to be dramatic, she just came naturally that way. Passionate. Exuberant. Uncontrolled and unrefined. That’s Charlene. And she’s almost as poor as me and Kevin, almost. Her dad is sober but disabled. Some kind of freak accident when he was working as a mechanic at the only reputable car dealership this side of town.
I finish chewing the rubbery substance the cafeteria ladies refer to as “pizza.” I thought maybe I was mistaken as to its classification because the stuff at the restaurant isn’t so...chewy, but the menu says this is pizza. “Did I finish what?”
Charlene squeezes her plump bottom between mine and the freshman next to me, not asking her to move.
“Duh, the new Evening Shade.”
When we were younger Charlene and I were considered complete morons and geeks because we wore third-hand clothes and spent all of our free time reading. It’s this thing literate people do, but apparently it wasn’t cool. And then in ninth grade this new series came out and it’s all the rage and the popular girls think it’s wicked cool. They’ve made movies out of the series and there are t-shirts and posters and every other marketable thing imaginable. Candies even. So now reading is acceptable. Charlene and I consider ourselves to be the only true fans of Evening Shade because we were reading them before the marketing blitz.
The rich girls can buy their own copies. For everyone else it’s a tooth-and-claw fight at the library over their one copy of each book in the series. Mrs. Henderson, the librarian, loves me. Before I started working and before earning money became a fascination of mine, we became well acquainted. The library was quieter and cozier than my ever-changing address. And, as it turned out, Mrs. Henderson is a huge fan of teenage paranormal romances. We were thick as thieves. And that’s how Charlene, Mrs. Henderson and I became friends.
Some people have clubhouses or the mall to run away to. Charlene and I had Mrs. Henderson and the library.
“No, I’ve been working on that stupid paper for Roberts.”
“That is a stupid paper.” Charlene pops open her chocolate milk and takes an enthusiastic gulp, finishing half of the inadequate box. “Well hurry up with it will you? Or it’ll be overdue and you can’t renew it because Posey Jenkins has reserved it and so has Ophelia What’s-Her-Face.”
I crunch my last bit of salad from my free-or-reduced lunch. “I’ll try to finish it tonight on break.”
“What time do you get off? Can you drop it off on the way home?”
Would I risk my life and my purity for Charlene’s obsessive reading habits? Yes. For her and no one else. Because I know she would walk the dark back streets of Nashville for me. And, in the six years of our friendship, no one has ever bothered us before. Many, many times I have slinked out my bedroom window when one of Kevin’s more vocal guests had joined us and I slipped through the shadows of side streets, to make my way to the quietness of Charlene’s mundane home.
So tonight wouldn’t be any different.
He stood there, towering over Josephine, as though waiting. Why they had paused in the doorway, Katherine did not know, but then just before they continued into the dining room, Viktor’s eyes drifted toward the floor, to where the tapestry brushed the wood, and he smiled. As though he could see through the heavy fabric, his eyes roamed toward hers and locked. With a silent, conspiratorial laugh he allowed Mr. Demure to lead him into the dining room.
Katherine welcomed the noise of the continued greetings. It would cover her footsteps as she fled. She was halfway up the staircase, clutching the rail and her skirts, imploring her weakened limbs to carry her faster, when she heard her mother’s gasp.
She was too smart and too shocked at being caught in her nightdress to quit her ascent. Clumsily, feebly she pulled herself more desperately up the seemingly endless steps.
“My apologies,” she heard her mother saying. “She was to be resting in bed. Just a curious child,” Mrs. Demure prattled on nervously.
The stairs were simply too high, too finely polished and her skirts treacherously long for legs that could no longer bear to straighten. Her foot caught and wet palms gave way and everything came down, plundering her mother’s dreams of a successful marriage for one of her girls. Katherine saw Henrietta’s face, which was not at all shocked by her sister’s tumbling form, merely infuriated by it, as she rolled heel over head. Mrs. Demure and Josephine screamed. Three men were rushing the steps. Their black jacketed arms looking like the flapping wings of crows as she caught glimpse after tumbling glimpse of them. Why were there so many stairs? She continued down, no longer scrabbling to grab a baluster but surrendering to the pull of gravity and her own clumsiness, knowing at some point she would reach the bottom. She closed her eyes as the flapping birds closed in on her.
Her mother and Josephine had stopped screaming.
The men were all asking questions of her. It was all spinning and thundering, the blood rushing through her brain in a torrent. She looked down at her mother, white and leaning on Josephine, and at Henrietta’s annoyance.
She stopped tumbling before reaching the floor. Her father was over her, his face floating above her. “Katherine. Katherine can you hear me?”
What was he talking about?
“Katherine are you all right?” Mr. Demure awkwardly reached forward to brush the hair from her eyes.
“Viktor carefully lift her and carry her to her room,” the stranger’s voice said. Viktor? She knew no Viktor. Her father was edging away, shifting her weight into the arms of an unseen force. He was pointing now in the direction of her room and she was rising in strong arms. Uncertain if it would faithfully respond, Katherine urged her trembling hand to brush the last strands of chestnut hair from her eyes. And froze.
They were his strong arms. It was his careful grace. It was his tender, firm grasp that carried her toward her room. She dared not look up, beyond his square jaw or the tip of his sharp nose. She did not want to see what his eyes might be saying about this silly little girl who had ruined a perfectly fine dinner party to hide behind a curtain. There was pain, somewhere in her body, but the torment in her mind was distracting her from realizing it. Her mother must be mortified.
But Henrietta...Henrietta would be what? Jealous most likely. This was the perfect sort of scenario she was always plotting against Caleb McDonelly, the handsomest boy in town. And Katherine had pulled it off effortlessly in front of the most captivating and mysterious young man she had ever beheld.
Mr. Demure hurried forward, ushering them into Katherine and Henrietta’s room. “Here, son, place her here.”
It was unavoidable as he lowered her to the soft mattress. She could not help but to look up into his icy eyes, like the faintest of blue struggling through the clouds before a snow. Were they gray or blue? She gave herself no time for observation, jerking her eyes away from his before they could mock her and her childishness.
“Doctor, would you please?” Mr. Demure stepped aside, but Katherine did not see the Count/Doctor approach. She stared intensely at a sketch pinned to her wall. There was shuffling and cold hands and prodding fingers. Katherine endured the doctor’s silent inquiries without protesting, waiting for the lean shadow at the end of her bed to vanish.
Why would he not just leave?
The man with the accent stepped away. “She is fortunate. There appear to be no injuries.” Would her pride count? Her mother’s shattered hopes?
Mr. Demure leaned in and kissed his daughter’s forehead and gently spread a blanket across her. “I have always warned her that her curiosity would be the death of her. That or her clumsiness.”
She heard the men laughing as they drifted out of the room.
The shadow stayed.
She wished he would go. The burning tears ached to be set free. She couldn’t restrain them much longer. With a trembling, unwilling hand she rubbed her throbbing forehead and exhaled deeply.
For a moment she believed he had left, but as she shifted away from the wall she sensed him there beside the bed. He was very close.
But she would fight it and not look.
“Katherine,” he whispered, his breath rolling in a warm wave across her cheek. A traitor tear spilled out, the humiliation was too much to contain. Gently, a finger dabbed the wetness from her skin. He said it again, softly, as though it pleased him just to say it, “Katherine.”
“Viktor!” the accented voice bellowed from below. And then the shadow was gone.
Darkness overwhelmed her then and carried her away to a land of crows and mocking strangers.
“You want a ride home Rocky?”
“No thanks, Mr. Dobson,” I tell him, not because I wouldn’t really like to not walk home through the constant drizzle and darkened streets, but because the man weirds me out a bit. Being alone in a car with him...that just isn’t going to happen. Not that I think he’d ever lay a hand on me, but just the same, I don’t like the way his eyes slowly roll over me. I don’t think he realizes it’s so ridiculously obvious to everyone around, but it is. Everyone knows the boss is always checking me out and it’s embarrassing.
I don’t get it.
My body isn’t fantastic. But, living in an area where men aren’t raised to be gentlemen, I have learned that it doesn’t take much to entice a man. I’ve never understood the other girls at school who try so hard. They plump their lips and push their cleavage up to their chins, but none of that’s really necessary. The men are going to look anyway.
Kevin has always said I’m a natural beauty like my mom and that I would have to try real hard to be ugly. I use to think he was crazy, just muttering things to make an awkward little poor girl feel better about her unfair growth spurts (going up, not out). Now, though, as more eyes begin to follow me, I think maybe Kevin was actually right about something.
And I don’t like it.
I try to pull myself into a hunched ball and keep my hair in my face so they can’t see me. When they look, they’re looking for something I’m not willing to give and I want them to know that.
As I walk down the street now, and I mean straight down the middle, I sweep both sides with paranoid eyes. It isn’t the worst neighborhood, but it isn’t exactly the kind of place you want to let your guard down. The houses and businesses here are packed tightly together, a mishmash of shapes and angles and sizes; like a swollen shantytown. Most of the houses are rented out, the original owners having moved on to brighter pastures on the newer side of town. Kevin and I have been living in a house that we suppose was actually painted white but looks grayer now, the owners never considering it worth their trouble to paint a house that would only be occupied for a few months at a time.
But we’ve had it for three months and it’s starting to feel like home. It’s starting to feel dangerous, like something I would miss if we had to move. It’s a feeling I don’t welcome as I probably should because I know it won’t last. Kevin won’t let it.
All these thoughts swirl through my head, crowding out any normal teenager thoughts. There are no boys floating around, no dreams of college or a better life, just the plan to make it through the next day.
And to make it without going insane.
Headlights appear over the hill and I move over to the cracked and uneven sidewalk. I try to make myself look confident and strong and unbothered by their approach without looking like a hooker, but boys this side of town aren’t geniuses at reading signals. They wouldn’t read the instructions anyway. They would make up their own rules to the game.
It’s a commercial/residential area, speed limit 25, but whoever this is drives like it’s a traffic accident at rush hour.
A lot of people think it’s the speeders that are the troublemakers, the bad boys. I say it’s the guy going ten in a thirty. He’s taking his time to look for trouble, for a deal or a girl.
This is a bad boy car and it’s slowing down for me.
It feels like my blood is pulled from my head and feet and hands and takes up residence in my gut, leaving my nerves exposed and raw and my skin tingling with exposure to them. I pluck my baggy shirt out, away from my slender form and insist that my shoulders ignore their burning desire to curl in. I have to look strong. Look strong and they won’t think they can have you so easily.
“Won’t you tell it again?”
Katherine covered her head with the pillow, trying to block out her sister’s endless requests. “No Henrietta, I will not.”
“But you tell it so splendidly.”
Henrietta jumped back as her sister sprang out from behind the defensive wall of pillows. “Of course I do, Henrietta! I was the one falling down the blasted staircase.”
Mixed in with Henrietta’s pride was a sudden hint of victory. “Tell me again Katherine or I will tell mother you swore.”
“I did not swear,” she growled. “And even if I had I would just tell mother it was something I had heard my big sister say and I had no idea it was such horrible slang. Now leave me alone.” Grabbing her pillow, Katherine flopped back over, intent on ignoring any further requests.
“Shut up, Henrietta!”
This time she was on her feet, wobbling furiously in front of her shocked sister. “Do you not understand, you selfish twit? It was humiliating! I fell down the stairs, unintentionally!” She sank into the bed. “It does not matter anyway. I do not find him favorable. He is...odd and so...tall.”
“Taller than any man I have ever seen and handsome and rich, you idiot. What does it matter if he’s odd?”
It was not a battle to be won. “Just leave me be, Henrietta. If you want him, throw yourself down a staircase, he can rescue you and you can be happily wed to the son of the banished, dark lord.”
Just then a loud banging resounded through the home. Henrietta glanced at the darkening sky outside her window. “Who on earth?”
“Oh,” Katherine moaned, retreating beneath her pillow. “It is most likely your great love come in the mysterious twilight hour. Go to him, for he waits for you.”
“You really are insufferable Katherine.” But Henrietta was already up, checking her reflection and readjusting her unprepared bosom.
“Indeed I am.”
She heard a frenzy of slippered steps and swooshing skirts and then the barely restrained flight down the staircase. Voices. Josephine and Henrietta and one too low to make out.
“Oh hang it all,” Katherine groaned, throwing the pillow off again and going to the glass to check her own reflection. Her father was most likely right. One day her curiosity would be the death of her.
Henrietta was at the door, edging Josephine out of her way.
“I was just telling Master Viktor here that Mr. Demure is still at the office and we are not expecting him back until late this evening and that Mrs. Demure is not yet returned from calling on the Marshes, Miss.”
Henrietta tried to wave the plump little maid away. “It’s all right, Josephine. I am more than happy to receive Mister von Strassenberg.”
Bright red splotches bloomed across Josephine’s modest cheeks. “Begging your pardon, miss,” she interjected, stepping between the ravenous Henrietta and her prey. “It would be improper. Mrs. Demure would not forgive me.”
Henrietta never turned from Viktor, who stood patiently in the doorway, looking amused. “Oh hang your proprieties and modesties Josephine. After the show Katherine put on the other night, ruining everything,” she smiled pointedly at him. “Mister von Strassenberg deserves a chance to see that his neighbors are not crazed lunatics. At least not all of them. Pray Mister von Strassenberg, what is it that brings you?”
Uncertain but unwilling to tangle with Henrietta, Josephine scuttled away.
Viktor surveyed the flushed young woman before him, who imagined herself to be stunning in all her presumptuous glory. He seemed to be allowing a time of suspense in which to grow her aching desires. Her breath caught, swelling her already swollen bosom. Katherine cringed, knowing this was a practiced ploy, which her sister believed men found seductive. Katherine mostly thought it was ridiculous.
Without a word, Viktor’s stormy eyes skewed away from Henrietta and, sensing that her chances of being caught were rising dramatically, Katherine backed into the shadows.
“I came to inquire,” he began slowly and Henrietta’s breath caught again, heaving her ridiculous bosom. “After your sister, Miss Katherine.”
Without the intent, or even any practice, Katherine’s own breath caught in a sharp little gasp. The horrid man! Did he mean to prolong her humiliation! Henrietta’s head cocked slowly in the direction of the betraying gasp, her frame rigid with instant jealousy. Viktor took this all in and, upon translating it, his eyes once again found Katherine in the shadows.
Wrapping her robes closely around her, she attempted to tuck herself away. Henrietta openly followed Viktor’s gaze to the alcove just beyond the staircase. There was no hiding.
Viktor boldly stepped around Henrietta, his eyes locked on Katherine’s shadowy hiding place. He addressed the darkness. “Miss Katherine, my father asked that I call on you, to inquire as to your well being.”
A sigh of relief from Henrietta, “Your father asked you.”
Viktor ignored her. “Miss Katherine?” He waited for her to step forward. She accepted that she would have to move out of hiding at some point or he would never leave. Pretentious, stubborn thing that he was.
Her heart began a chaotic rhythm within her chest and she cursed him silently for it. She didn’t want him; this arrogant, unconventional young man who couldn’t see past his own needs to save her further embarrassment. And here she was again in her robes, her hair undone and flowing down her back in a tumult of unkempt waves. She would have to humiliate herself and her mother again just to appease this spoiled young man.
But why was her heart fluttering and why were her hands beginning to tremble?
Henrietta’s face was dark with envy but she would not give up so easily. As Viktor stepped in front of her she began adjusting her cleavage and pinching her cheeks and biting her lips.
Katherine stepped from the shadows. As they rolled off her, revealing her pale skin and chestnut hair, Viktor moved closer to the staircase. Katherine approached the balustrade, saving him from having to come any farther.
“Are you well?” he asked.
“Yes sir, very well, thank you. And thank your father for his kindness.” His face did not alter. He merely stood there, staring at her, making her wretchedly uncomfortable. Henrietta moved forward, encroaching upon the awkwardness of the moment. “There, you see,” she said, taking his side. “She is perfectly well, as lame and sickly as ever. No change.” She smiled as though this little joke at her sister’s expense would please him and he would find her very clever.
He continued to study Katherine’s down-turned face. Slowly his eyes shifted to Henrietta. “She does not look sickly to me.” Katherine dared to glance up, just enough to witness Henrietta’s shock and immediate smoothing-over. Perhaps this infuriating young man did have some better qualities. Anyone who could torment Henrietta could not be so horribly vile.
“O she has always been sickly. Tired and fragile.”
“I have suffered greatly most of my life as well.”
Henrietta laughed lightly at this trifling fact. “But you do not look it as she does. Indeed sir, you look positively robust.”
“The move has been favorable for me. I find myself,” he inadvertently moved closer to the steps. “Strengthened in this strange, new land.”
Henrietta tinkled with laughter again but Katherine saw the searching thoughts and knew her sister had come up with no smart reply. Viktor placed a foot on the first step.
“My father sent a gift for you.”
Henrietta’s jaw gaped.
“And, if you agree, I would say it would be safer for me to bring it to you,” he laughed softly. “Than it would be for you to come down and retrieve it.” Henrietta was quickly in front of him, blocking his path. “I will take it to her. It is improper, you know, she is in her robes.” Annoyance flicked across Viktor’s fine features. “Perhaps we should hang your proprieties and modesties as well?”
Henrietta was furious, her bosom and her cheeks grew scarlet with ugly blotches of embarrassment and rage. “I see,” she said in a low growl and then she was gone, off to scream at Josephine for some imagined incompetence.
Katherine clutched the balustrade as she watched her sister fly from the room. She was perfectly alone with him. Again. Her heart thudded wildly. The trembling in her hands increased and she felt that she would fall in a mortified lump right there at the top of the stairs.
Don’t, she told herself, or he will have to save you again and you shall never recover from the humiliation.
She had been too distracted by her own flutterings to notice that he was approaching. “Sir,” she whispered, eyes locked on her whitening knuckles. “It really is not necessary.”
And then he was beside her. He was surprisingly quick and graceful and she loathed him for it. It made it harder to runaway. She had always imagined moments like these, placing herself in the same situations so many of the heroines in her novels found themselves in. But in life it was different, more humiliating. Why was he so calm and suave and she was such a mess?
He was watching her but she would not turn to him.
Viktor reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a small box. “My father feels somewhat responsible for what happened.”
“That is ridiculous,” Katherine retorted, quickly biting her lip. “It could not be further from the truth, is what I mean.”
“Yes well, my father has not had a reason to buy a gift for a young lady for quite some time. He is glad for the opportunity, as imaginary as it may be.” He held the box out, waiting patiently for her to turn and receive it.
It seemed centuries before she could reach out and take the box, afraid she would look up and catch his eye or worse, brush his hand as she accepted the gift.
“Please,” he whispered. “I shall be disowned if you do not take it and gush profusely with surprise and gratitude.”
She had always imagined herself with some dark, brooding stranger and yet, now that he was in front of her she found that his lack of normalcy affronted her. He was not like any boy she had ever met. There was something piercing and searching in his gaze, almost intrusive. It unnerved her. She felt completely out of control near him and that, in her mind, was unforgivable.
As it seemed to be the safest way to exchange the box, Katherine held her hand out, palm flat, and waited.
Why was he always pausing? Why could this man not be rushed? She would not look up but she could sense his amusement, the way he held the box between them. He knew this waiting infuriated her and he was purposefully prolonging it. O she despised him! Standing there in her robes and her undone hair and he couldn’t be bothered to quit the game and hurry a bit.
And then it occurred to her that he was waiting and not just to increase her frustration. He was waiting for her to meet his eyes.
Just do it, she prodded herself, and then this nonsense, sheer and utter nonsense, will be done with.
With a long, slow breath Katherine steadied herself and lifted her gaze, and the anger swelled within her. “O you insufferable man!” She hissed, snatching the box. “Why does this amuse you? This is not at all amusing!”
With barely checked frustration she glared into his laughing eyes. This was all a game to him and he was playing with her, playing with the invalid. Was he that heartless? Did he like to tug the heartstrings of unfortunate girls just to watch their torment?
“Open it,” he ordered, laughter in his voice.
She growled back, her fingers prying at the lid of the small velvet box, “As you wish. Gladly.”
But she could not manage to open the box. Over and over she turned it, but could find no solution. He waited with insufferable patience through what seemed many minutes until at last he reached his long fingers out to assist her. The coolness of his skin brushed against her fingertips and she recoiled at the warmth that spread through her hand. It seemed the heat from his cool touch spread rapidly to her heart, throwing the rhythm into a frenzy once more. “There is a small lock,” he was saying, nimbly pushing a tiny latch she had not seen. The lid sprang back. “There.” He lifted her small hand in his own and she thought her knees would give way. It was maddening. He seemed to know the effect he was having on her, an effect she did not welcome and could not control, sensible as she imagined herself to be. With a withering glance at his smiling face she dropped her eyes down to the box.
“Oh!” she gasped. “Well that is...I cannot accept this.”
“That’s not exactly the reaction I believe my father was looking for.”
“Indeed,” she whispered, lifting the ring from the velvet cushion.
“He hoped that it would fit.”
She was trembling inside, the beauty of the gift overwhelming her. The ring, a wide yet tiny band of gold was overlaid with sparkling diamonds and intricate scrollwork. In the center was a large pale blue diamond.
“I have only read of such beautiful things,” she humbly whispered. “I cannot accept it.”
“Ah,” he said, taking the ring from her, skin brushing skin. “But you must. May I?” Before she could offer any protest, he was holding her hand and sliding the ring on to her finger. He sighed, “A perfect fit.”
She gathered herself, “I cannot accept this. It’s...”
“Impossible for you to refuse,” he finished for her. “Take comfort, Miss Katherine, it cost him no expense. It is from his personal collection. I believe it belonged to my great-grandmother or great-aunt or someone such as that.”
Katherine began tugging at the ring, “Well then I certainly cannot accept it. I cannot possibly take a family heirloom over such a trifling matter for which your father was not even at fault.” The ring was sliding over her knuckle when he grasped her hand firmly. “Then accept it for my sake, Miss Katherine.” He slid the ring back down. “I chose it for you. It seems to suit you.”
“To suit me?” She withdrew, the anger rising again. “How would you know what suits me? You are all presumption. You do not know me and cannot guess my character. I am not some sickly, frail thing that falls down the stairs whenever rich, handsome men come to call.”
“Although it would seem so,” he smiled.
Frustrated and embarrassed, Katherine stomped her slippered foot. “Oh you are insufferable beyond all men! Have you no sympathy? I believe you have mistaken me sir, for some soft little creature in need of your saving! I am not in need of a tormented man’s gallantry! And as for this gift...”
He stepped forward, interrupting her crescendo. “You will keep it.”
Surprising herself, Katherine came toward him, seething, “Oh indeed I will. If only to frustrate my ridiculous sister.”
At this he grinned but she could find no humor. “You can show yourself out, I assume?” Before he could confirm, Katherine spun on her heel and hurried back to her room, collapsing onto her bed. Her heart was racing. She could not begin to understand herself or her violent reactions toward this young man.
Eddie’s Bar is two blocks away. Short enough blocks, I hope. The car slows as it gets closer to me and I’m trying to figure out if I should bolt now or wait until they proposition me. Maybe they’re just trying to scare me. I don’t want to give them too much satisfaction by running now if all they really want is a chance to laugh at a silly little girl. The engine purrs contentedly beneath its shiny, perfect hood. Dealers. Or Rich-boy Moneybags looking for a good time.
I keep walking, faster now, and despite my good intentions, my shoulders hunch defensively.
Please just be idiots. Stupid, harmless idiots.
I’m ready to cross the side street. Eddie’s is so close and most of them know me there. They may be friends of Kevin’s but it’s gotta be fractionally safer with them than with this shiny out-of-place car.
The darkened window slowly rolls down. I don’t want to look. Don’t give them the time of day. Just cross to the next block and keep going. Get to Eddie’s. Kevin might even be there. He’s not much of a social drinker, but he might be, tonight.
My foot hovers over the gutter. It’s time to run.
I nearly trip over the affluence and authority in the voice. “Miss we’re looking for Dobson’s Market, do you know where it is?” The question has stopped the frantic pacing of my mind, but my foot is still ready to take flight. I stand like a stork on the corner of Fifth and Washington. “I said, `We’re looking for Dobson’s Market, do you know where it is?’”
“Maybe she’s strung out,” the suited young man in the driver’s seat offers.
“Maybe she can hear you,” I snap. His stupidity makes me angry. This is not what someone who is strung out looks like. He’s probably some kind of high- power, daddy’s coattails exec who never had to slug it out it in the slums before scoring his shiny, winking car. “And maybe she was taught not to talk to strangers. In particular, strangers who are crawlin’ around in fancy cars where they don’t belong.”
The Matrix twins exchange glances, seeming somewhat amused and altogether ready to be done with their assignment.
“Dobson’s is closed anyway. But so you know,” my foot lands in the gutter. “It’s three blocks down, on your right.” I start across the narrow street. They creep alongside me.
“How old are you miss?”
Keep walking, don’t look. “Not old enough.”
He ignores me. “We’re looking for someone.”
“I thought you were looking for Dobson’s.” Back on the sidewalk and Eddie’s isn’t far. “We’re looking for someone who works at Dobson’s.”
She just started there last week.
What kind of crazy mess has that girl gotten herself into this time?
I stop and look at them. Maybe I can throw them off long enough to get Charlene a warning, give her time to run. “Who?”
“A girl, about your age.”
“Most of the cashiers are my age. Name?”
The passenger seems to be weighing something mentally. He looks at me in a scientific sort of way that is almost more unnerving than the way I am used to being looked at by men and consults the contents of a manila folder. After a long moment of flipping and scanning pages, he closes the folder and eyes me again. The less reasonable side of me registers that he is easy on the eyes, but I ignore it.
“Maria Josepha Raquel Demure von Strassenberg.”
The blood rushing into my ears sounds more like silence than even the quietest silence I have ever heard. It’s the sound of my thoughts being sucked into a black hole, the sound of a numbed and shocked mind.
He looks at the folder again, “Evans. This girl would have been given the last name of Evans.”
His parents had been as cruel as my mother. My dying mother had actually asked two things of Kevin Evans as she slipped away. The first and most obvious was that he care for me and keep me out of foster homes and orphanages. Which may actually have been better, but that’s neither here nor there. The second, which was more of a demand, and one I wish he had waffled on, was my name. “Name her after me,” she had said. And just as he had been the only person alive who had known her full name, so he was the only person ever privileged with knowing my name. And that’s just because he gave it to me, tacking his on at the end for the sake of practicality.
Maria Josepha Raquel Demure von Strassenberg Evans.
But everyone calls me Rocky.
Except Mrs. Cornwallis of eleventh grade English. She calls me Raquel.
I want to deny it but my thoughts haven’t had time to reorder themselves for the purpose of lying and it’s too late anyway. I think they heard the blood whisking my brain cells into protective hiding.
His fist came crashing down on the desk with such force that pens jumped from their stillness, spilling their ink and blotching his research notes. “Get it back!”
Viktor leaned against the frame of the massive door, unwilling to cross the threshold into his father’s study. “Father you can hardly expect me to ask for her to return it. It was a gift.”
Klaus von Strassenberg’s face shifted violently through each possible shade of red and purple and every combination in between. “It was not yours to give! Do you understand the importance of that ring?”
“It is so important that it has remained locked in its little box for what? A century now?”
“I cannot possibly take it back Father. I imagine Mr. and Mrs. Demure would take it as a bit of an insult and it is doubtful that such unfavorable opinions would be helpful to your... endeavors?”
The old man settled back in his chair. “You must have inherited your impertinence and your stupidity from your mother.” He watched as the brief anger played across his son’s face. “She was not the most intelligent woman, your mother.”
“So you have told me. All that speaks to is your own shallow desires; that you would marry a woman for her beauty or her money and not her companionship, much less love.”
His father snorted.
“Unintelligent, but tall,” Viktor motioned toward his own towering form. “Because that certainly did not come from you, I believe you are not even as tall as the average man, are you father? That must be so humiliating, to be so great in mind and yet so small in stature.”
The Count waved him off, popping a peppermint into his wrinkled mouth. “My height matters not, son. My mind more than makes up for what my physical form lacks.”
“Does it?” Viktor laughed. “And that is why the women flock to you?”
Unruffled, the Count took up his pen. “I have no need of feeble-minded companions. And the woman that can match her brilliance to mine is rare, if nonexistent.”
“Perhaps what you lack in stature you make up for with arrogance? Then what of my mother? If she was so unintelligent, why did you bother?”
The Count mulled this over. “Necessity.”
“Because you needed an heir? What a disappointment I must be, Father. Your only son and with the intelligence of a rock.”
“Do not flatter yourself son. A rock would be an improvement. Leave me now and go get that ring or your inheritance goes with it.” The Count hunched back over his notes. Viktor turned his back on the shelves and shadows of his father’s study and did not stop as the gravely voice took up its warning, “And you cannot get the ring back by marrying the girl. I will not give you my blessing.” Viktor drew the heavy door closed and heard it click. His father bellowed, “I will not allow you to breed with an invalid after all we have done for you!”
The chill of the corridor seemed more pronounced after the stuffy warmth of the study. Viktor buried his hands beneath his arms, pausing in the forced darkness of the house. Outside the sun shone in all its glory, beating a fierce heat down upon the fortress that was his home, but there was none of its warmth here in the shadows.
“Will you come with us?”
“Would you stop acting like a moron?” The Matrix twin, I can tell, is not used to being spoken to like the jerk he is. On his side of town his money buys respect. On these streets, it only buys trouble. The driver, in his fine suit, leans across his color-changing friend. “Miss Evans, we’re only trying to help.”
“Trying to help who? Because I don’t remember asking for anyone’s help.” And I hadn’t. Ever. I was getting by just fine without anyone’s help. Not even Kevin’s. One good thing about living beneath the poverty line: it teaches you how to get by, how to manage without some fancy-car-driving schmuck coming along and shaking things up. Kevin says my pride needs a room of its own. I tell him, maybe he’d be better off if he had some for himself. The Matrix driver is more patient than his friend. He tries again. “We’re attorneys.”
I can’t stop the snort that escapes me. “And you’re here to help?” He waits for me to finish laughing. It takes a couple minutes before the giggle fit subsides. His snotty friend has snapped his briefcase shut. He’s as done with me as I am with him.
“Miss Evans, do you really think, with a name like that, you don’t have family somewhere?”
Family, he says?
“Do you have access to the Internet,” Matrix Number 2 asks.
“Are you crazy?” My mouth is still smart, but the insides of me have gone numb with shock.
“Why don’t you Google yourself?”
No. I’m out of sass. It’s just gone.
“And when you do...” he leans across the other Matrix twin, who eyes me with a kind of mocking condescension. “Call us. We need to talk. We’ve been looking for you,” this he pauses to consider, shooting for accuracy. “Since before you were born.”
He doesn’t wait for a reply. The car rolls past my deaf, mute and dumb form. I stand on the corner, the music and raucous voices of Eddie’s drift down the street toward me, but I don’t hear them.
“Miss Demure, may I have the pleasure of your hand in the next dance?”
It had been a month since he had seen her, though it had not been a month since he had tried.
Many evenings, as shadows filled the lanes and twilight nestled over the town, Viktor had come to call on Miss Katherine Demure. Not once had he been able to see her.
She was frightfully ill.
With what, they would not say at first, and Viktor suspected they were playing him for a fool. One day, however, just as he was lifting his hand to knock, the door swung open. A surprised Josephine begged his pardon and continued to show Doctor Craig out before welcoming Viktor in. “Is it Miss Demure,” he had pressed, not giving Josephine time to greet him properly. “Yes, sir,” she had whispered covertly. “She is very ill, sir, very ill indeed.”
Viktor had left then, choosing not to bother the family with his lingering presence as he had on the other nights.
It seemed, however, that they had all been mistaken in his intentions over the course of the last month. Josephine had not told them that upon his arrivals he had always inquired first after Katherine. Henrietta never even considered this, but fawned over him, a sight that Mrs. Demure was too happy to behold. Knowing it wouldn’t be proper to call on the younger sister before the elder was married, Viktor kept his intentions to himself. What those intentions were, even Viktor was not certain. What he was certain of was that he longed to see Katherine again, in all her fire and stubbornness. He was desperate for those accusatory, raging eyes...so unlike the plotting, preening eyes of her sister and so many other girls.
“My apologies, sir,” Katherine responded a bit too quickly, her eyes locked on his proffered hand. “I am afraid I am still too weak to dance.”
“Ah, but I am not! I shall suffer to take my sister’s place!” Henrietta, appearing from nowhere, laughed gleefully as though this had been Viktor’s plan all along. She took his arm, though he had not offered it.
There was no patience for her silliness left in him. Viktor disengaged himself. “It would seem improper to leave your sister to herself while everyone else enjoys the dance.”
Henrietta scoffed. “Oh piff! She cares nothing for dancing or fun. Only her books interest her. Your charms would be perfectly wasted on the silly little thing!”
Katherine hated Henrietta to the very core of her shallow being, but simply said, “Unfortunately my sister is right. I do not dance well even when I am in good health. I am neither witty nor intriguing. I am simply,” Katherine shrugged, bored by her own boringness. “I am simply dull.”
Viktor would not take his eyes from her, not even when Henrietta reclaimed his arm and began lightly tugging at him. Katherine wanted to look away but the deep, icy seas of his eyes drew her in. With flecks of gold and pale blue they reminded her of lightening and storms on a summer day. Unworldly, she whispered in her thoughts as though he might be able to hear her.
Noticing that her sister and Viktor were gazing a bit too long at each other, Henrietta slapped Viktor’s arm with her fan. “Silly boy, we must hurry! They have begun without us!” As he unwillingly left her side, a deep breath rolled into Katherine. She had stopped breathing as she stared into the stormy depths. What had he been pondering that had caused him to look at her in such a way? With hope and pain and puzzlement?
Mrs. Demure swooped over, curiosity burning brilliantly in her eyes. Katherine slid across the seat to allow room for her mother. Subtly, Mrs. Demure leaned in close to Katherine’s ear.
“How do they get on?”
For a moment Katherine debated whether or not she should tell her mother that Viktor regarded Henrietta with as much affection as he would a buzzing fly, but thought better of it. Her mother would only think her jealous and childish. Instead she said, “I did not notice. He seems
to me very odd.” Mrs. Demure tinkled with laughter. “Yes my dear, but one day men will not be such a mystery. They are rather simple creatures and rather easily pleased.”
Color rose high in her mother’s cheeks, for what reason Katherine did not know, but her mother seemed to have said more than intended.
To distract her Katherine offered, “Aside from that, Mother. I mean he is very odd indeed. Always staring and brooding. Is that what people in castles do all day? Sit around brooding and imagining how to make the little people around them feel insignificant with the force of one pretentious stare?”
To Katherine’s dismay, her mother bubbled with laughter again. Why were people forever laughing at her when she wasn’t trying to be funny? She would never understand people. “Oh Katherine,” trilled Mrs. Demure. “You are a treasure. Such a bright wit.” To her daughter’s relief she then planted a light kiss on Katherine’s cheek and stepped back into the crowd.
With a bothered sigh, Katherine stood, stretching out the stiffening muscles of her body. A wave of dizziness blurred the edges of her vision. She tried not to call attention to it, standing very still and waiting for it to pass as it always did. Heaven forbid, she thought, that I fall again and have him lift me up in front of all these people. The only redeeming consequence of such a scene would be Henrietta’s red, angry face. Yes, thought Katherine, that would be worth it!
The haze was taking longer to clear than usual and she swayed slightly, clutching the high arm of the sofa. People were clapping as the music ended, as the room was grew dimmer around her. She was not worried. It was a nearly daily occurrence in her life. It was just that she was usually afforded the luxury of fainting in private. “Oh no,” she whispered aloud, her knees beginning to go soft.
Blessedly as she began to sink, there was suddenly, unexpected pressure under her arm guiding her back to standing.
“I will not be carrying you tonight,” he whispered in her ear. “I am not available to play the role of the shining knight this evening.” Suave though it was, sarcasm dripped from each word.
How infuriating he was!
Katherine tried to jerk away but he held her firmly, standing at an angle so the others wouldn’t notice he was gripping her elbow. Considerate, she conceded, but infuriating just the same. He continued, “I sent your sister for punch, but, perhaps you are in need of fresh air? And a strong arm to lean on?”
“Have you no morals?” Katherine snapped, but spotting the top of Henrietta’s curls across the swaying crowd, she gathered her skirts and took his proffered arm. Moving with him through the clustered groups of gossipers, trying not to lean upon him too openly, Katherine began to question herself. Why was she allowing him to lead her outside? Whatever could he want? There certainly was no a shortage of fine young ladies to keep him amused.
She thought of the rumors.
The Count had supposedly fled to America after being banished from Austria for dark deeds unknown. The tales had spread all through Europe and everywhere they went his reputation preceded them. Katherine burned to know what could be so horrid that mere rumors of it could chase a count not only from his country but also from an entire continent and across a three thousand mile stretch of ocean. And why had he chosen here? Missouri was halfway across the United States. Though Saint Louis was growing in importance it could not rival the cities of the East. Why here?
She wondered all these things as the cool night air seeped into her lungs. She was grateful for it.
A chill breeze blew across the patio, rustling the leaves of the abundant ivy and a powerful shiver seized her. Katherine drew her arms tightly around herself. Before she could protest, before she could even register the very nearness of him, Viktor was close, drawing her shawl around her shoulders. Despite her greatest efforts Katherine found herself looking up again. He was watching her, as ever, waiting for her reaction.
This time, she found herself uncertain of what to do next. She could turn and go back in, saying it was too cold. Or she could walk across the balcony to survey the grounds below. Or she could do the only thing that seemed possible at the moment. She could simply stand there, accepting his unwavering gaze and wait.
She could not look away. And as she cursed herself for her silliness, she found that she was not breathing even though she felt she was surely hyperventilating.
What was this madness?
He was not the first boy to gaze at her or play the part of the chivalrous knight. There had been a time when the boys in town had considered her a bit of a conquest, a fair damsel to be saved. They had carried her packages and held her umbrella and escorted her home. It did not take long, however, for them to grow tired of her illnesses. The reality of her fragility was too much for them to bear and they had moved on to the tireless energy of Henrietta. And, Katherine had to admit, no young man likes being second fiddle to the brave and handsome men of her novels. She sighed, knowing that no such man truly existed and she would be forced to reconcile her longings for a mundane life.
“What troubles you?” The sigh, she realized and blushed, had been audible. “Are you not well,” the concern rose in his voice, the Austrian accent he made efforts to hide becoming thicker.
“No sir,” she turned away from his gaze. “Only...” she trailed off. She could not tell him her silly problems. It was really not a problem at all. Her discontentment was a product of her overly educated mind. So this, she thought, is why they do not want women to read. For then we shall know what dreadful bores we have attached ourselves to! And we shall be forever depressed following the revelation. She cursed her father and his blasted library.
She looked away, never doubting that he would detect the lie in her eyes. “It is nothing.”
A distraction was needed but she found herself unwilling to go back into the crowd. Instead she approached the balustrade. In the absence of the moon, there was nothing but darkness below. Silently, he moved to her side. “Are you tired,” he spoke softly, yet not as to a child. Perhaps that, beyond his uncommonly good looks and polished manners, was what set him apart. Never, even as she had fallen from the staircase, had he treated her as a child. No. He mocked her and challenged her, and all without condescension. She had watched him, all those evenings as he had approached the Demure’s home on his gallant black steed. She had watched as he eagerly strode to the door and she had even dared to sneak glances as Josephine welcomed him in and escorted him to her father’s study. Time after time he had come, and every time he had seemed just as ardent as the time before. It was the last evening he had come that had awakened a foreign curiosity inside her. She had always imagined Viktor was coming to visit for the sake of Henrietta. His inquiries after her own health she wrote off as part of his chivalrous nature. But that last evening as he trotted away, shoulders slumped a bit, he had stopped and turned his horse. For a moment he had sat there, staring up at the tightly drawn shades of her window. She had dared not move lest he spy her jewel-green eyes gazing out at him. He had shaken his head and turned back toward home, driving his steed at a breakneck pace.
As he stood there beside her now with the amber glow of the dance hall spilling into the moonless night, Katherine began to tremble...yet not from cold or illness. “I am afraid,” her words tumbled into the heavy silence. “That my father has allowed me too much familiarity with his novels.” He allowed her pause to fill the air between them. “You see, I am sinfully discontent and there is nothing to be done about it. I am too weak and too ill to go off on any adventures. And let us not forget that I am a lady anyway. And men are all insufferable bores.”
A spontaneous bark of laughter erupted from Viktor, making her jump. Katherine gazed sharply across the lawn, keeping her indignant eyes to herself. She was beginning to feel that she could no longer sustain her anger if she met his eyes. “There’s no need to laugh!” She fumed, “I shall not speak openly with you if you insist on mocking me.”
“Oh dear, Katherine,” he laughed gently, wiping at the corner of his eye. “You are a treat.”
Exploding with a huff, she turned on her heel and began to make her escape. With the same gentle firmness he always seemed to be using with her, Viktor grabbed her wrist. He did not pull her back and yet he would not let her go. “Do not go, Katherine,” his words were but a breath. “Or I shall die of boredom.”
He could see, before it even reached her eyes, the retort that was welling inside of her.
“Oh do I amuse you so,” she hissed. “Cute little Katherine and her pretty little tantrums?” With a wrenching jerk she tried to escape. His grasp tightened as he pulled her closer and she winced at the pain.
“Behave yourself, you little minx, or I shall toss you off this balcony and be done with it.”
Her breaths came quick and fast. She had never stood quite so close to a boy. And he was the most handsome and infuriating boy she had ever met. More man than boy. A man like those in her novels.
“You speak of men being insufferable bores, but have you ever turned that judgmental eye upon your own gender?” Viktor turned his gaze away from her and she imagined he was seeing the fine courts of Vienna and Paris. “I have met the finest,” an ironic laugh slipped out as he continued, “of your species, so they tell me. They are all the same. They want a man with wealth and property. They want a man who will care for their lavish expenses and otherwise leave them be. They speak of fashions and spend their every waking moment gossiping and plotting romances and weddings. But not you Katherine. I have never met another girl who would hide behind a tapestry in her robes to get a glimpse of a mysterious stranger.” His thumb gently stroked her wrist.
Feeling the danger in the moment, Katherine shook herself, tears rising to her emerald eyes. Should she be angry or shocked or insulted that he was so forward?
But she felt none of these things.
Inside, her family and neighbors continued in their gaiety, ignorant of the wealth of gossip occurring just feet away. She could see Henrietta’s curls twirling across the floor and knew her sister’s eyes would be angrily scanning the room for her escaped suitor.
But outside, in the stillness of the night, neither Viktor nor Katherine moved. Neither did they look at one another. They had reached a point where neither wanted the moment to end and yet, they were not certain how to continue.
In their uncertainty, they chose silence.
Katherine turned back to the darkness of the grounds, leaning against the balustrade for support. Viktor slowly released his grip on her and stood stoically beside her, gazing at nothing, studying his own bewildered thoughts. Inside the song ended and the crowd clapped in appreciation of the musicians and the dancers. Grappling with his fears and anxieties, Viktor gripped the stone railing and spoke into the darkness.
“May I call on you Miss Katherine Demure?”
It was improper and she knew it. Because of her illnesses her father and mother had never presented her to society. She was not well enough and besides, Henrietta was yet unwed. And the Von Strassenbergs were strangers with unknown and rumored pasts.
“You should not ask me for such a thing.” Katherine swallowed with difficulty, attempting to force down the impending tears. “You do not even know me.”
An elegant finger reached out and dared to turn her chin toward him, “But I am dying to know you, Katherine Demure.” She could see his chest rising and falling with the anxiety of the moment. “All those nights I rode out to see you, just a glimpse of you. I would come a thousand nights more, if you will just please, allow me to call on you.”
“You must ask my father, it is only proper.” Mr. Demure would never hear of such a thing and Katherine knew it all too well. A tear slipped down her night-cooled cheek. Viktor withdrew a handkerchief to wipe away the glistening trail that coursed down her cheek to her trembling lips.
She knew there was music being played inside and people laughing and carrying on but she could no longer hear them. Viktor leaned in closer, his words barely above a whisper, “I am asking you, Katherine, may I call on you?”
What could she say? She turned away from his pleading eyes.
“Only you and I need know.”
She tried to think of some sharp remark or some reason why they should not risk it, but nothing came. Finally, feeling the world shift beneath her, Katherine turned to those eyes sparkling with their own summer storms, and nodded.
Saturday is never a busy day at the library. And really, the only reason people tend to come in on the other days is for the free Internet and in the summer, the free AC. It’s 7:59 and I’m waiting for Mrs. Henderson to unlock the doors. The thought of busting in last night did cross my mind and knowing that Mrs. Henderson would forgive me once she realized my motives, well that only made the desire stronger. Somehow I resisted and now I’m sitting on the sidewalk, watching outdated Fords and Chevies roll by. A rattling startles me back to the world outside my thoughts. Mrs. Henderson, fabulous Mrs. Henderson, is at the door with her blessed set of keys. As the door opens her laughter spills into the late spring air.
“Child what are you doin’? You know the next Evening Shade isn’t due out for another five months.”
“I know, Mrs. Henderson,” I say, stepping around her, careful not to bulldoze the old lady. My nerves are getting the best of me. “But I need on the Internet and fast.”
I sit in one of the creaky old chairs and power up the ancient computer, flicking on the monitor and agitating the mouse in my impatience. Other people would be expected to fill out forms and show their library card. Not me. Mrs. Henderson lets me reign here.
“Child, what on earth?”
“I don’t know yet, but as soon as I find out, you’ll be the first to know.”
It seems like hours before the computer boots up. Why are these infernal computers so ancient? Stupid hick library.
I navigate away from the library’s homepage to the search engine’s site. What the library is lacking in hardware it makes up for with its high-speed Internet connection. Google my name. Maria Josepha Raquel Demure
von Strassenberg, leave off the Evans.
Over a million hits and none of them exact.
Maria Josepha...Archduchess...blah blah....so?
August Demure....attorney...Saint Louis.....1865...
What? Nothing recent? No rich, old granny?
Twenty minutes pass and I find nothing within the last one hundred years. The Matrix twins have bothered me, gotten my hopes up and dashed them
without even being present. So maybe some of my people came from Austria. And so maybe my great-something granddaddy was a lawyer. Well at least someone in the family had brains and did something worthwhile....
Von Strassenberg, Klaus...biologist...yadda yadda... Austria.... Washington University, St. Louis...
Well that’s two for Austria and two for St. Louis.
All right, one more and then the Matrix twins are getting a nasty call.
St. Louis. Newspaper. Archives..1877.... Attorney Demure Continues Search for Missing Daughter. Missing daughter?
Well that certainly sounds like it has some kind of possibility.