concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.
a set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.
“The American finds me boring,” Olivia sighed, idly stroking the ears of the calico kitten curled in her lap. Dusk cast shattered light in through the windows, coloring the sitting room with a rosy pallor and igniting the strawberry blonde curls at her neck. Olivia’s voice was soft alto notes over the rustling of turning pages and the tiny pops of flame in the fireplace.
“No, dear,” Mother murmured, “he’s simply out of sorts, is all. Give him time.”
Father’s emerald eyes met mine from across the room, a tight frown pulling taunt the chalk-white scar along his jaw. I shook my head slightly with hopes of curbing the biting retort I could feel was clawing its way toward his lips. A simple nod was all I received before his eyes fell once more to the ledger on his desk.
“Do not doubt your own charms, Olivia,” Mother continued. She rose to pace before the crackling fire, having abandoned her embroidery the second the American was mentioned. Her gown was the same hue as tea with milk and clung to her figure, swishing quietly as she took two steps forward and spun for two steps back. Our mother was aging as gently as imported Cognac; her skin still shining with notes of pearl and tinges of gray along her scalp only seeming to heighten the sharp cheekbones she was gifted. Her hair was of similar coloring to Olivia’s and bound in a falling psyche knot leaving small tendrils to frame her face.
“I simply cannot fathom what the man wants to truly talk about. I’ve tried everything,” Olivia stated, her eyes following Mother’s anxious pacing. An odd mixture of adoration and suppressed irritation was brimming beneath her lashes. “He seems entirely put out with conversing.”
Biting my tongue, I glanced once more toward Father to find his frown was even more pronounced. It occurred to me if he didn’t release it quite soon, it might very well rip his scar wide open causing room-wide panic followed by a delirious bout of fainting. Then again, I pondered, if this line of conversation continued I wouldn’t be against the collapse of my mother and sister into the pits of female fragility.
“Tell me again what you two discussed,” Mother inquired as her hands reached to clasp around her backside. The sapphire ring she wore on her right hand glittered in the firelight with what seemed to be more malice than beauty. My mother was an eyeful who held the power to turn heads in every crowded room but always left me feeling dizzy.
A rather small-pooled list of subjects flowed from my sister’s mouth including: the weather and this season’s upcoming events. It took all the restraint I had in my repertoire of self-containment to stop my eyes from rolling into the back of my head; it was such a fickle dance between etiquette and my sharp tongue, something akin to Russian Roulette to see who would win the upper hand.
Slamming my book shut, I stuttered out an excuse of needing fresh air before fleeing the confines of the sitting room. Mother paid me no mind in her endless pacing, as per her usual degree, but Father gave me the decency of a half-smile. There was weight to it, a sadness at its edges, but it was as comforting as he could offer in the circumstances.
My heels clicked across the polished, black marble as I passed the split staircase and it’s iron banisters. Father was a well-known acquirer of architectural oddities, the staircase being his prized possession. Each spindle of curled metal lead in a helix toward unique newel posts: a rearing stallion carved from driftwood, the profile of a serene Medusa and her angry serpents comprised of clockwork bits, a copper castle with a verdigris moat, on and on they climbed toward the second and third floors.
Down a narrow hallway, full to bursting with peculiar paintings of the constellations, the back step opened to the darkened gardens. They were currently heavy with the perfume of peony and tea-rose, before melting into a well-worn path toward the stables. Nighttime drew thick across my skin, once I’d escaped the confines of the house, like dew clinging to early morning grass but a light beckoned from inside the barn walls.
My footsteps were hushed across the damp grass as I made my way furtively toward the equine sanctum but a voice rang out to meet me in the liquid black:
“Fleeing the house like a common alley cat caught with a table scrap.”
I spun toward the bass voice to find a figure leaned lazily against the paddock fence. The inky night might have concealed his face but a voice couldn’t be denied. Not a voice rich with lilted corners and minor melody, a siren song leading me step by step toward him. I could almost trace the shape of his mouth in my mind, the way one side seemed to perk up as if in a silent joke between the two of us.
“I was coming to see you but you’re no better than a common thief, preying on a woman in the dark,” I sniped. A grunt of surprised laughter danced between his lips when I reached out to swat his shoulder with the book I still carried in my hands.
The moon grew lazy and disappeared even further behind the charcoal clouds. All the familiar sounds of the house were far removed, minus the hushed trill of the wind chime outside the kitchen. Chunks of sea glass bumped against one another echoing tinkling notes in muted sea foam and turquoise.
“Glad to see you’ve discovered something useful to do with Kipling. Much better as a weapon than reading material,” the voice teased, reaching out to snag my wrist and tug me closer. His fingers felt warm around my wrist bones, his callouses catching on the lace sleeve of my dress. The way he was openly affectionate with my person still left me feeling unsteady even after all these months. My existence at Corvus Hall, before he had arrived, orbited a world where no one reached out to me, must less openly touched me. “Fleeing your mother and Olivia again?”
Ignoring both his correct assumption I was reading Rudyard Kipling and the sudden inclination to say unkind words about the females in my household, I leaned slowly into the cozy heat of his chest. The smell of fresh hay and horses closed like a wool blanket around my shoulders as both of his arms rose up to cage me to him.
A breeze whistled its way through the tree branches above us and carried the cadence of all things nocturnal like a distant symphony. Restless hooves beat staccato notes inside the barn, much like the familiar heartbeat under my hand.
“Olivia is besotted with the American man staying at Hillshire,” I sighed. “It’s all her and Mother want to talk about. It’s no wonder the poor man flees like a spooked horse every time our family arrives.”
The bulky arms around me stiffened and his downturned face angled slightly away from mine, out of reach. What little sense of comfort I’d felt seconds before vanished like smoke on the wind. Without a trace of humor, I snorted into his chest and pushed away entirely.
“For the love of God. What is it about that man that brings out the worst in people? Obsession. Feminine plotting. Now you and your jealousy. I would’ve thought you above such precious waste of emotion. Goodnight, Samuel.”
Quick, searing anger flared up in my stomach as I turned to head back to the house, the moment of joyous escape ruined. When I lifted my eyes toward the path, there stood a haloed figure at the edge of the garden.
“Jealousy be damned, Seren. I was simply going to warn you we had a visitor,” Samuel whispered smartly, coming to stand behind me. He donned the coat he’d carelessly tossed across the fence and rose to his full height, while his hand reached to curve around my waist. “One of these days I plan to conquer that temper of yours.”
“I wish you the best of luck at that doomed endeavor,” I said, leaning ever so slightly back into his arms. “May we help you, Mr. Campbell?”
My voice rang out in the darkness, sure to ruin any hope Liam Campbell had held for a clandestine arrival. The American man was quite the opposite of his usual, rowdy compatriots. Instead, over the last few weeks I’d discovered Liam often yearned for solitude, sneaking away during dinner parties to relax on abandoned balconies or peruse hushed libraries. After the third chance meeting, I relinquished my hold on the usual hideouts, allowing them to become common ground between us.
Birds of a feather flee together.
Samuel’s palm pressed firmly on my ribs as Mr. Campbell approached, sure-footed and steady in the dark. I felt an odd, whimsical sensation of being trapped between two alpha wolves looking to devour a hunk of venison.
Where Samuel stood well above six feet, wide shoulders and lean musculature, Mr. Campbell was built more like a juggernaut. I’d seen him mount a horse, light on his feet and comfortable in his skin, but I always wondered if at any moment he was going to tuck his head down and bowl over anyone in his path. Women were swooning in all the houses down the road and in town for obvious reasons: eyes the color of the summer sky with thick lashes like honey, freckles from the sun across his cheeks and jaw, ash blonde hair falling in waves over his brows. He was arresting in his brilliance, all golden skin and the smell of mint clinging to his clothes.
“Miss Wade, Mr. Vance, I do apologize for interrupting,” he stated, making his way toward us. I bit back on my surprise that the two men knew each other while Mr. Campbell’s accent turned to gravel in my hands, rough and grave. “I’m afraid I didn’t make introductions inside Corvus, Miss Wade. I hoped to avoid causing a stir with your family this late. Pardon the impropriety but I didn’t think this could wait until tomorrow.”
Before I could respond, Samuel’s hand pressed hard into my hipbone, stalling my words.
“I won’t be leaving you two alone to talk out here,” Samuel snapped, a bit of his Irish slipping through the cracks, “so I suggest we take this inside the safety of the barn. We can all talk freely.”
Mr. Campbell remained silent and waved us forward, following a step behind as we marched toward the stable. The familiar smells of stained wood, worn leather, and horse were a balm to my nerves as we entered the flood of light. Six stalls housed Father and I’s cherished pets: a pair of disinterested Friesians munching on hay, an ornery pony with more years on her than I, a hard-mouthed bay Father favored, a dappled broodmare with a penchant for sugar cubes, and my solemn, no-nonsense dun gelding.
“Well, isn’t this an odd gathering,” I mumbled, perching on the nearest saddle rack.
“I’m sure Mr. Campbell will make this quick,” Samuel supplied, once more leaning heavily against a stall door. Bertie, the Shetland pony at his elbow, nosed curiously at his navy frock coat coaxing him to rub her velvet nose. Smug impatience radiated off Samuel’s body like pressed steam but an undercurrent of something unidentifiable was there, too. “I can’t imagine what he’s doing here this late.”
Crushing a bit of dirt with the toe of his boot, Mr. Campbell chuckled darkly before sliding to the floor and closing his eyes. I couldn’t imagine the mess his clothes would be but exhaustion seeped out of his pores so permeably to be almost tangible. His back was planted firmly against the far wall, putting a safe distance between the three of us, to create an equilateral triangle of silence.
Finally, after a few deep breaths, he spoke:
“Just as I can’t imagine why one of this town’s most eligible daughters is sneaking around in the night with a known rake,” he smiled, eyelids still closed. “Then again, having the law on your side is a wise choice, Miss Wade.”
When his eyes opened, they met mine with brutal clarity, the vulgar insinuation dull against the razor-sharp question he was holding back.
I felt more than saw Samuel lock up, the veiled threat doing little to calm his already bottled vexation at Mr. Campbell’s presence. While a small part of me was infinitely curious who would win in an altercation, I stepped forward to intercept such a primal thing from coming to fruition.
“I find your malicious attitude quite unpleasant, Mr. Campbell,” I said, walking purposefully toward his outstretched feet. “You see, I just recently escaped with my life from Mother and Olivia, whom I might add, are strategically plotting your societal demise. I was so hoping you’d be a tad more amusing but it seems I am destined to wilt away from boredom on all fronts.”
Kicking the outside of his calf with my own boot, none too gentle, I passed by and had my hand on the door before Mr. Campbell called out. To his credit, Samuel was fighting a grin across the way, his eyes alight with matching mischief and something akin to relief.
“Miss Wade. You are a woman of modern disposition,” Mr. Campbell implored loudly, “and that’s why I’ve come forward. Please, hear me out before you vacate the premises so fast those kid boots light fire to the grass.”
He rose, coming to stand directly in front of me, the wash of mint strong in my nose and cooling my skin. I looked at Samuel over his shoulder to find his face wiped clean of smiling charm and his hands curled into fists at his side. Anger didn’t suit him but under it was something else more desperate.
“I’ll start at the beginning. My name is not Liam Campbell-“
“Stop. Now,” Samuel cut in, voice low and menacing. He’d pushed away from the stall and was squared off in the space behind us. He was like a Greek god shrugging off a cloak of disillusionment – gone was the constable I knew to be filled with quick humor and natural ease, gone was the man with alluring brown eyes and a dimpled smile. In his place stood a spine-chilling brute, visibly shaking with rage. “Damn it all. Don’t you say another word.”
“That man’s name is not Samuel. And he’s not who you think he is either,” the man continued, not in the least concerned with Samuel’s thunderous demand. Gripping both of my hands in his, words poured from his mouth like liquid fire. “I cannot tell you my real name but I can tell you this: Seren, you are hours away from an attempt on your life. An attempt, I’m sure, which would’ve been successful come morning light if I didn’t intercede. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. But I do know this…if you don’t come with us somewhere safe, they will try to kill you.”