These Vicious Masks: A Swoon Novel, страница 1
To Calvin and Hobbes, for teaching me the important things
To Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for heroines who can beat the monsters and also (sometimes) fall in love
From the diary of Miss Laura Kent, soon to be Mrs. Laura Edwards
From the household notes of Edmund Tuffins
A Coffee Date
These Vicious Masks: Discussion Questions
Love, Lies and Spies
About the Authors
DEATH. THIS CARRIAGE was taking me straight to my death.
“Rose,” I said, turning to my younger sister. “In your esteemed medical opinion, is it possible to die of ennui?”
“I . . . can’t recall a documented case.”
“What about exhaustion? Monotony?”
“That could lead to madness,” Rose offered.
“And drowning in a sea of suitors? After being pushed in by your mother?”
“It would have to be a lot of suitors.”
“Evelyn, this is no time to be so morbid,” my mother interrupted, simultaneously poking my father awake. “And it is certainly not suitable conversation for dancing. You must enjoy yourself tonight.”
“You’re ordering me to enjoy myself?”
“Yes, it’s a ball, not a funeral.”
A funeral might have been preferable. In fact, there was a long list of things I would rather do than attend tonight’s monotonous event: thoroughly clean the stables, travel the Continent, have tea with my mother’s ten closest friends, travel the Continent, eat my hat, and—oh, yes, of course—travel the Continent. At this moment, my best friend, Catherine Harding, was undoubtedly watching some fabulous new opera in Vienna with an empty seat by her side, meant for me. But when I had modestly, logically suggested to my mother the importance—no, the necessity—of a young woman seeing the world, expanding her mind, and finding her passion, she remained utterly unconvinced.
“Catherine tells me Vienna has grand balls,” I put in.
“This isn’t the time to discuss that, either,” Mother replied.
“But what if tonight, in my sheltered naïveté, I accept a proposal from a pitiless rogue who takes all my money and confines me to an attic?”
“Then better it happens here than on the Continent.”
I bit my tongue, for it was quite useless to argue further. Mother would not be swayed to let me leave the country. Instead, she was determined to see me to every ball in England. But what was the point of all this? Was anyone truly satisfied with seeing the same people over and over again, mouthing the same false words, feeling nothing, and saying less? Even my London season felt like I was in a prison, trapped in the same routine of balls, dinners, theaters, and concerts that all seemed to blend together, just like the shallow people in attendance. They were so eager to confine themselves to a role and make the correct impression that they’d forget to have any actual thoughts of their own. How would I ever figure out what exactly it was that I wished to do, stuck here in sleepy Bramhurst?
Gazing out the window, I wondered if I should try very hard to have a horrible time tonight to spite my mother, or if we were still close enough to home that I could just throw myself out the door and roll back down the hill. But since we had left, the light pattering of rain had become an angry barrage, while the lightning flashed and the thunder raised its voice in warning. Hopes for an impassable flood took root within me as our carriage swerved and slowed along the slick, muddy road. Suddenly, it jerked to a dead stop, and I believed my prayers answered until the driver shouted down to my father.
“Sir! There’s a carriage stopped up ahead! Reckon they’re stuck! It’ll be just a moment!”
We lurched forward until we saw the outline of a carriage crookedly tilted halfway off the road. Our driver’s voice carried: “Hello there! Can we be of assistance?”
Rose and I crowded to her tiny window and found three drenched men—a driver, a passenger, and a near giant—all attempting to push the vehicle back out of a muddy ditch. They paused upon hearing us, and the large man tipped his hat toward our window, the carriage light illuminating his tanned skin and pale lips.
Their driver wiped his brow with a handkerchief as he approached. “Thank you, sir!” he yelled, panting as he waved us along. “It’s quite all right! Get your passengers to their destination! We shall manage—” The rest of his words were sucked up by another growl and crackle of thunder.
Whether it was the man’s words or the storm that was convincing, our driver decided not to argue and sent the horses forward. As I turned back, watching the three men fade into the blackness, a flash of lightning unveiled them for one last glimpse, their shapes stark against the bright white rip across the sky. But it wasn’t any figure that caught my eye. It was their carriage, which seemed to be lifted entirely off the ground by the giant man and heaved onto the road before they were swallowed by the darkness again.
“Did you see that?” I asked Rose.
Her raised brow answered the question, but then it furrowed as she considered the matter. “Is the fair in town? Perhaps he’s one of those strong men we always see advertised.”
“But . . . still, to lift an entire carriage by himself?”
“Evelyn,” Mother interrupted. “I don’t wish to hear another story about hallucinations rendering you too ill to attend—”
“Rose saw it, as well!”
“Oh. Excellent. Then we need not risk the health of any of our footmen to fix that driver’s foolish mistake,” my mother said, in her infinite kindness.
Our conversation died in the din of the storm, but the unnatural image of those four wheels suspended in the air stayed with me as we rolled up the narrow dirt path to the congested entrance of Feydon Hall. Though there was surely a rational explanation, my nerves were now on edge, making Feydon’s familiar details seem sinister. At the crest of the hill, the mansion loomed over the rest of the country, and thick clouds roiled menacingly over the magnificent estate. Cracked stone statues of Hades and Charon welcomed visitors in, while gnarled trees reached out to capture all who dared to veer off the path. Towering gargoyles stretched upward as if to attract an ominous flash of lightning. This was ridiculous. Was my mind so tired of Bramhurst that it was conjuring up these gothic images? This must be how girls go mad: It’s the only alternative to boredom.
Shaking the absurd thoughts away, I followed Rose and my parents out of the carriage. Umbrella-wielding footmen led us to the front door and into the bright, breathtaking vestibule that set the tone for the rest of the mansion. Though our home was rather large and well kept, Sir Winston’s home of Feydon was still awe-inspiring. Vivid paintings glowed in the gaslight against the dark wood paneling. Lush oriental rugs covered the floor, and the ceiling reached toward the sky, providing room for the second-floor balcony—a pla
Still, in spite of the main hall’s enormous size, the waves of fashionable men and women rendered it impossible to navigate. This looked to be by far the biggest ball our small town of Bramhurst had seen in years, which unfortunately meant I didn’t have to worry about a sea of suitors, but an ocean. We had not gone three steps when my mother fixed her eyes on a boy frozen in perfect imitation of the bronze statue beside him.
She leaned in confidentially. “Evelyn, see there. The eldest from the Ralstons. I hear they have a lovely collection of stained-glass windows.” Ah, yes, just my type: a stiff, prideful lord-to-be with impeccable, cold deportment to prove his perfect breeding.
“Set a date,” I declared solemnly with a wave of my hand. “I shall marry him immediately.”
Rose choked back her giggle, but Mother was far less amused. “Not this childish behavior again,” she said through her teeth, which were still arranged in a polite smile for the guests. “You will give these men more than a second’s thought or deeply regret this attitude in a few years’ time.”
“Yes, when I’m crying next to, God forbid, a plain window,” I said with a sigh.
As we slowly made our way inside, my sister caught my arm and flashed me a commiserative smile. Only Rose seemed to understand how unbearable these evenings were for me. If I could just make Mother see that, or annoy her enough, perhaps she would pack me off in frustration. I reaffirmed my plan to show her how joyless a ball could be. For everyone.
She, however, seemed to have her own plan and reinforcements, leading us to Sir Winston at the foot of the grand stairs. With his round face, sizable nose, and wide smile, our host’s jovial nature was easily apparent as he greeted his guests. But lurking beneath the surface was a slyness that most people missed; he was a Machiavelli who plotted marriages. Mine, mostly.
“My dear Wyndhams,” he greeted, giving me a quick wink. “I’m so glad you could come! I am the picture of health, thanks to you, Miss Rosamund, and of course your sister, Miss Wyndham! You are so very welcome tonight. What a pleasure!”
“The pleasure is ours,” I said carefully, wondering what he could be planning—for the man was always planning something.
“Sir, I am simply glad to see you so well recovered. The ball is beautiful.” Rose, of course, was all sincerity.
“A wonderful evening, indeed. I am sure you have many new friends gathered here tonight,” my mother said, stealthily shifting the subject. “Is there anyone of special acquaintance we should be sure to meet tonight?” They shared a mischievous look.
“Why indeed, Lady Wyndham, I must confess that tonight’s ball is a particularly special one. For we are celebrating the arrival of my nephew, Mr. Sebastian Braddock. Sebastian! Come meet the prettiest girls I know, Miss Evelyn Wyndham and Miss Rosamund Wyndham!”
With another wink at me, Sir Winston stepped aside to reveal his nephew behind him. Good Lord. His appearance was nearly a caricature of the dark and brooding hero from every gothic novel. He stood very tall, even more so than my gawky frame, arrogance oozing from every inch of his broad-shouldered form. Alert, hooded eyes scrutinized me fiercely, as if trying to turn my blood cooler. His lips were drawn into a slight frown, presumably a permanent state, while the crease in his brow gave the absurd impression of perpetual deep thought. With a gloved hand he brushed away a strand of mussed, straight black hair to afford us a better view of his captivating face. I felt sure he knew exactly the effect this would have on most young women.
Standing as far from us as was possibly acceptable, he shifted awkwardly, eyes held on Rose, and murmured, “Good evening.”
“Welcome to Bramhurst, Mr. Braddock,” my mother said, taking charge. “I hope you are finding the country agreeable.”
“It is . . . yes,” he said, still looking keenly at Rose. My sister is quite pretty indeed, but this felt like something else. “I have heard much about you. I—I hope to see Miss Rosamund’s . . . miracles myself.” His eyes burned bright as he put on a strange sort of grimace that I could only assume was an attempt at a smile. Was he mocking her nursing expertise?
Eager for us to be further acquainted, Sir Winston stepped in to hurry the process along. “Sebastian, why don’t you accompany Miss Wyndham and Miss Rosamund into the ballroom, and Miss Rosamund can tell you all about how she saved your dear old unc—What? Don’t be shy, boy, give her your arm.” Sir Winston gestured to Rose, who was closer to his nephew.
Mr. Braddock took a step back, his eyes flickering between all of us. “My apologies. . . . Perhaps they—you—uh—can find your own way in?”
He gave Rose a stilted bow and whirled away with nary a goodbye. We watched in stunned silence as he attempted to escape the main entrance hall, his initial route into the dining room too slow-moving and his alternative into the obstructed ballroom even worse. On his third try, he crossed back to the other side without meeting our eyes and finally disappeared into the game room.
“Ah, my nephew,” Sir Winston said. “You will have to accept my apologies—”
Rose jumped in to save the floundering man. “Sir Winston, do not trouble yourself. He must keenly feel the pressure of meeting your many friends. I assure you, we are not offended.”
Sir Winston relaxed at her kind words. “As usual, Miss Rosamund, you see straight to the heart of the matter. He is quite overwhelmed. I hope Miss Wyndham will also give him the benefit of the doubt!” Sir Winston beamed hopefully at me, and Mother’s gaze cast a hot warning.
“Of course, I understand,” I said. I believe it even came out sounding somewhat sincere.
With yet another wink, Sir Winston bade us a good evening and steered my father toward the smoking room. I let out a quiet snort that only Rose could hear.
“My, my, what an attractive, eligible young man,” my mother proudly declared, ignoring my dropped jaw. “A bit odd and mysterious, yes? I know that’s very popular these days. Mr. Sebastian Braddock—I shall have to ask about his parents.”
“Mother, are you really trying to marry me off to the man who just snubbed your youngest and ran off in order to appeal to fashion?”
“It was not on purpose, Ev,” Rose said. “He must have been anxious. And even you must admit he is extremely handsome. And tall.”
“As handsome as he may or may not be, he couldn’t simply walk you in like a gentleman?”
Mother glowered at me in an unwitting imitation of Mr. Braddock. “Perhaps he was running from my daughter, who could not make the slightest effort at politeness.”
“There is a troubling Byronic trend you will see next year, Rose, where these men try to appear mysterious and brooding without one true emotion among the lot of them. It will be nothing but exasperating,” I explained.
“Surely it cannot be as exasperating as your complaints about them,” my mother snapped, turning on her heels and all but dragging us into the crush.
The night already felt like an eternity. Yet deeper in we ventured. My mother’s punishment meant deliberately passing the dining room, where the waft of fresh breads and pastries could tickle and taunt my nose before we closed in on a bright waltz tune. If there were a tenth circle of hell, it would most definitely be a country ballroom.
The crowd bulged to the edge of the white marble dance floor, and a flurry of twirling dresses revolved around the center. All eyes fell on Rose when she floated in: The orchestra struggled to concentrate on their unremarkable tune, and a man accidentally stepped on his partner’s foot, while she withheld the yelp for propriety’s sake. Sometimes I wondered if I simply imagined the effect my sister had on a room, but here it was undeniable. It isn’t just her fair curls and bright blue eyes that draw attention; Rose has something indefinably wonderful about her—a coat of goodness she is unable to shed.
As a result, a mass of charmed suitors seemed to slink across the room to Rose. Mother, meanwhile, greeted several fri
“Evelyn, Rose, good evening to you. You’re looking quite lovely tonight.” His brown eyes never left Rose as he spoke.
In fact, his eyes had not left Rose much in his eighteen years. Living on a neighboring estate, Robert had been our constant companion since childhood, suffering through many a doll’s tea party and game of hide-and-seek. He grew into a kind, affable man, if slightly earnest. Not the man for me, but . . .
“Thank you, Robert,” Rose replied. “A lovely evening indeed.”
My sister never mentioned her feelings for Robert, but the attachment between them had always been obvious. Even when we were children, I often felt as if I were sneaking into their secret society without an invitation. I wondered whether tonight would be the night he finally made his intentions clear.
“It really is a lovely evening, isn’t it?” Robert continued with far more passion than the topic called for.
I glanced at Robert, who looked at Rose, who looked back at Robert. Well, odd one out, then. Maybe he would propose if I disappeared.
“Oh look! Upholstery,” I declared, feigning fascination with a side chair in the corner of the room. “I will be right back.”
Creeping toward the chair, I looked around to be sure no one was paying me any mind. Then, ever so subtly, I slid behind a large green plant. Good. A place safe from dancing, where I could make sure Rose and Robert’s romance flourished. The two were a good match, even if Robert was a little wanting in confidence. They were never at a loss for conversation, and when they got into the thick of things, Robert would actually relax, looking as if he were at home by a soothing fire instead of standing right in the center of a blazing one.
I gave a small, quiet cheer as he worked up the momentum to ask her for a dance, and her eyes lit as she nodded yes. Or at the least, I supposed she did. A large leaf was currently obscuring a quarter of the scene. She took his hand, while many disappointed faces watched her glide into the center of the room for the next song.