The painting had been moved from the middle of the room and was now hanging on a wall watching over the privileged guests as they danced. The men watched me as I entered the room and continued to watch as I crossed it, their minds visualizing me as I was in the painting. The women in their arms became tense, their adoring gazes turned to scowls.
Not knowing what to do with myself I stood, confused, and watched the dancers without really seeing them. I considered walking myself home, but it was too far on foot and in this dress. I considered hiding, but Faolon would come inside soon and begin looking for me. I considered looking for Caleb, but he had already found me.
He stood in a corner at the back of the room, on the opposite side of the festivities. I felt him first and turned to see if my instincts were right. With a small gesture of his head he signaled for me to follow him and without question I did. I found myself in a dark corner of the room, Caleb took my hand and led me through a door. We were in our host’s library. Leather, books and crystal.
Caleb leaned against a table positioned underneath a tall, cathedral like window, allowing light from the lanterns to shine in. He watched me, without judgment or pity. He didn’t open his arms to me and he didn’t beckon me to come forward, but I had to resist crossing the room to feel safe at his side. Instead I stood in the centre of the library, afraid of the consequences of movement.
We were silent, watching each other, unmoving. I studied his soft brown hair, his deep brown eyes and his pale skin, stubbled with facial hair. His tuxedo was expertly worn and made to fit him perfectly. In fact everything about him could be described as perfect. The only fault that I could find with him, in that moment, was that he was not mine to have.
Eventually he turned toward a tray of crystal and poured himself a drink of golden liquid. I noticed that his hair curled slightly at the nape of his neck. I wanted to touch it, to twirl it around my fingers. He did not pour a second glass for me, nor did he offer.
“You force me to speak first.” He said matter of factly.
I nodded my head. “It seems only proper.”
“Your husband is a Monster.” Though I knew he had witnessed, what Faolon would describe as “a tender moment between husband and wife.” I didn’t expect him to acknowledge it.
“That is not for you to say.”
“But that is what you think.” He countered.
“It doesn’t matter what I think.” I reminded him.
“Pieter has out done himself.” He changed the subject. “He has captured so much more than your beauty.” He did not eye me as the other men had. His eyes held mine with a softness that suggested nothing more than adoration.
“He is an excellent painter” Caleb nodded and took a sip of the Amber liquid. “He is.” He agreed.
“You give me nothing.” He said waiting for my reply.
“I have nothing left to give.” It was more than I had intended to say, but it was what I felt. I was spent, this evening was threatening my sanity and this private encounter with this beautiful being was doing very little to quiet my need to be at home. Though, instead of retreating to my dark, private chamber alone, I now had brief glimpses of sharing that space with the man before me.
“I suspect you have plenty left to give.” He said approaching me.
“Stop. Please.” I begged. He did.
“Unhappily” he pointed out. “And I suspect, not legally.” I swallowed. I was not prepared for this sort of encounter and felt affronted. He was right. Faolon and I had never consummated our marriage. This was something that didn’t interest him and I was thankful for that small mercy.
I turned toward the door to return to the party.
“Please, forgive me.” Caleb begged. I stopped to hear his explanation, without turning to face him. When there was none, I left the room. I was afraid that if I took the step to forgive Caleb, I would be lost to him forever.
I did not venture away from home for weeks. There were no invitations or calling cards from the ladies in my circle and I extended none to them. I had no idea how my husband faired after that night, as I did not see him in that time. Still riding on his high he ventured to Paris for a few months to make connections, as he put it. I knew, that some of the connections he spoke of would be prostitutes willing to fulfill his desires with the lustiness he required.
I took this time to freely paint, a task that Faolon said was messy and a waste of time for a woman to pursue. This was one of the pleasures I took in my time posing for Pieter. Watching his technique and the ease he had in answering my questions about his talent.
I was surprised when my chambermaid entered and handed me a note. She told me the gentleman who had delivered it was waiting for me downstairs. Given the perfection of the folded note and the wax seal I had a suspicion of whom I’d find waiting for me. I instructed her to have him shown into the parlour and to make him comfortable. I’d be downstairs after I had made myself presentable.
While I was still alone in my room, I threw the note into the fire. I didn’t care what it said.
When she returned she helped me into my afternoon dress and pinned up my hair where it had fallen loose. I studied myself in the looking glass, pinched my cheeks for colour and with a determined stride made my way downstairs to greet my guest.
I shut the door behind me as I entered the parlour, without thought and moved toward him. I greeted him comfortably, obviously forgetting that I was supposed to be mad at him. I had forgiven him several times over in the days that had passed since I saw him last, but had forgotten that he didn’t know that.
Relief softened his momentarily sharp features. He put his hands out to greet me with a touch, but I breezed by, afraid of the intimacy and poured him a drink. “It’s brandy you drink, yes?” Caleb nodded and accepted my offering.
“You read my note?” He rolled the crystal in his hands, waiting.
“Now it’s your turn to forgive me.” I started. “I threw your note in the fire.” He was startled, but regained his composure very quickly.
“But you have forgiven me?” I couldn’t admit my vulnerability to him. I couldn’t let him know that he had been forgiven before he had a chance to beg for it.
“Of course.” I heard myself saying before I could stop it. He smiled and sipped his brandy.
The silence was awkward. Neither of us knew where to start this new friendship. Him not wanting to offend a second time, me not wanting to cross the line.
“I tend to speak before I think.” He said to break the silence.
“I didn’t take you for a liar.” I replied. He startled and smiled.
“I believe you know exactly what you say.” I continued. He tipped his glass to me in a gesture of cheers.
“You surprise me, Niamh. I didn’t expect your tongue to be so sharp.” The sound of my name from his lips had me pause a moment as I listened to it repeated in my memory.
“You bring out a boldness in me.” I took a step away from him and picked up a book to give my hands something to do.
“It suits you.” He studied my movements and smiled like a boy in a sweet shop. In return, I put the book down and touched my hair, unsure what to do with this kind of attention.
I turned my back to him and moved toward a love seat, of all things, to sit. Just as I sat down, he was beside me, sitting as well. Realizing my mistake I stood back up with a fluid suddenness, but he had a hold of my hand and pulled me back down beside him.
With his lips next to my ear he whispered, “You are beautiful.” I dipped my chin and pulled my head back from his closeness. I was unable to look him in the eyes. “You are in love with the girl in the painting.”
He put his forehead against mine. “I was, and then I met you.”
This is a fictional story written by Amber that she will continue writing in future posts. Subscribe to the Empress Tea newsletter and be the first to read the next part of her creation.
To read Part I of The Becoming, click here; Part I