As I walked into the room, I could feel every pair of eyes focused on me. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have shrunk under such scrutiny, but tonight I had paid special attention to my appearance and knew exactly how stunning I was. Tonight I would bask in the attention of those in attendance. I glided confidently across the room to my seat. As I reached my seat, I heard a dozen gentlemen scramble for it; Lord Henry Wotton reached it first.
“Allow me, Lady Veradisia,” smiled Lord Henry, giving me a slight bow.
I murmured a soft thanks and took my seat next to my aunt, Lady Agatha, watching the other gentlemen resume their seats in disappointment. Lord Henry resumed his seat across the table from me.
“Lady Veradisia, I don’t believe you’ve met our charming Mr. Dorian Gray,” introduced Lord Henry.
“I believe not,” I returned breathily, “It’s a pleasure, Mr. Gray.”
“The pleasure is entirely mine,” returned Dorian with his usual boyish charm.
Then he gave me a smile transforming the childlike, boyish charm into the countenance of a man. His eyes were bright with hope, but if you happened to stare long enough, you would notice the gleam of cruelty that lay behind his mask of innocence. His hair was a rich golden hue and of course, that transformative smile could launch a thousand ships. In short, he had the face of Helen of Troy. He was terribly beautiful, yet so very artificial. Yes, Mr. Gray had the two most important things in the world: youth and beauty but those could not last. That was what made him so charming, so desirable.
“It’s odd isn’t it?” commented Lord Henry.
“What is?” asked Dorian.
“That he isn’t here?” continued Lord Henry.
“Who?” asked Dorian.
“Henry, stop speaking in half sentences,” said Lady Agatha sharply, “It’s quite irritating, contrary to what you may be attempting to accomplish.”
“When will you learn Aunt Agatha, I am not attempting anything. I have already accomplished it,” said Lord Henry smiling.
Lady Agatha sighed, “I suppose you were trying to be provocative. Well out with it then.”
“Well, isn’t it odd that Lord Alexander isn’t in attendance?” asked Lord Henry smugly, “My dear Vera, where is he? You two are nearly inseparable, and yet you’ve come to dinner without him.”
“Late, as usual, I presume. Must’ve been some piece of…appalling advice you gave him about how to impress me,” I returned dismissively.
Lord Henry smiled, “Well speak of the devil and he shall appear.”
I looked at him questioningly and he inclined his head. I turned to see Lord Alexander Delacroix sweeping in and causing quite a disturbance as he did so. it seemed that anyone who had the misfortune of associating with Lord Henry or Mr. Gray caused a considerable commotion.
“Evening,” greeting Lord Alexander addressing the table.
“Late as usual,” reprimanded Lady Agatha sternly.
“My deepest apologies, Lady Agatha,” smiled Alexander, inclining his head slightly, “There were unexpected circumstances that delayed me.”
Lord Alexander was just as coy and manipulative as Mr. Gray though one could say that he was far more attractive than Mr. Gray. He had Harry’s sarcasm, but with Alexander I could discern true affection from theatrics. I knew that there was nothing that Alexander wouldn’t do for me and he knew that I felt the same about him. He had began as a childhood crush, but that simple childish affection soon blossomed into an intense love affair thought only to be possible in cheap romance novels.
Lady Agatha smiled, shaking her head, trying to hold in a laugh, “Henry, what did you do this time?”
“Nothing at all,” answered Lord Henry, giving Lady Agatha one of his special looks reserved for her.
“Harry,” I said warningly.
“I swear it, I had nothing to do it,” Lord Henry said simply, “I speak nothing but the truth.”
“I can never believe you when you speak like that Harry,” I said eyeing him suspiciously.
Lord Henry laughed, “My dear, what do you take me for?”
“A spider spinning a web of lies, sitting in the middle, pulling the right strings just to watch them dance for your pleasure,” I admitted teasingly, “We are all marionettes in a world you built, in a world you control.”
“A spider? How repulsive,” said Lord Henry, “However, I don’t believe that someone as pure as yourself could ever fall prey to my tactics.”
“Me?” I said, giving him a small smile, “You have no idea how profound your ideas are, sometimes I believe you blind as to how you affect others, myself included.”
“I’m touched,” said Lord Henry, “And honoured.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” said Lady Agatha laughing, “I don’t think Veradisia meant it as a compliment.”
“Oh, of course she did,” said Lord Henry, “If I am the spider who spins the web, then who must be the one who give the spider those orders, for he…or she must be the devil.”
“Oh stop,” I laughed, “That will be quite enough Harry. Let us speak about something more pleasant. Look, the dancing has begun.”
“Well then, Lady Veradisia, would you grace me with the honour of the first dance?” asked Lord Henry.
“Dance with Victoria,” I said bluntly, “A gentleman should always offer the first dance to his wife.”
“It’s quite all right, Lady Veradisia, I’ve had utterly enough of Lord Henry tonight,” reassured Lady Victoria.
“You’re sure it’ll be all right?” I confirmed.
“I’ve been feeling under the weather as of late. It’s better I forego all dances this evening until I am well,” insisted Lady Victoria.
“Very well,” I nodded rising.
Lord Henry made his way around the table, offering me his hand and leading me to the dance floor, assuming the start position.
“I still don’t understand why you married Victoria if you refuse to dance with her and she with you,” I muttered.
Lord Henry shrugged, “She was charming when I first met her, as all women are.”
“Is that not so anymore?” I inquired delicately, raising my eyebrow ever so slightly.
“So long as we keep our lives separate, I shall be content,” said Lord Henry, “That is what makes Victoria more tolerable than most.”
“Is that so? Well, so long as you’re content, there is nothing more for us to discuss,” I nodded, “If you would be so kind to humour me, tell me about Mr. Gray.”
“I know not much and certainly not more than what everyone already knows. He is the grandson of Lord Kelso and that he has since inherited a handsome amount following Kelso’s death,” recounted Lord Henry.
“Don’t lie to me Harry,” I dismissed, “You’re friends with Mr. Gray. You say that Lord Alexander and I are inseparable, well I have heard the same about you and Mr. Gray. I’ve heard that you dote upon him more than you do your own wife. So when I ask you who Mr. Gray is, tell me who he is.”
“Apologies, my lady,” said Lord Henry grimacing, “I find Dorian to be a thoroughly fascinating subject. He is young and impressionable. Reminds me a bit of myself before I met you.”
“Poor boy,” I said amused.
“Are you speaking of me or of Mr. Gray?” asked Lord Henry.
“Mr. Gray,” I answered.
“Help me understand what he’s done to earn your pity and I have not,” said Lord Henry.
“Because the boy was and is far more gullible than you ever were and are,” I returned.
“He is a man. I am sure he has a well-developed sense of reason to decide what is moral and what is not,” countered Lord Henry.
“Harry,” I said sharply, “This is not a game we’re speaking of, this is a man’s life.”
“Even so…” sighed Lord Henry, “I cannot resist. You showed me a world beyond words, beyond the senses, how can you expect me not to share its beauty with the world.”
“Because there are those who can use the truth for good and there are others who will use it to their own self-destruction,” I said quietly, breaking away from him as the dance ended.
As we returned to our table, Dorian and Lord Alexander rushed forward to greet us; I looked on with curiosity.
“Will you do the honour of being my dance partner?” asked Dorian timidly.
Lord Alexander looked at me sternly, “If you dance with him this evening, you must promise to stay in my company for the remainder of this evening.”
“My Lord,” I exclaimed exasperated, “You mustn’t do this at every party; people will talk.”
“Let them talk,” said Lord Alexander boldly.
“Lord Alexander!” I laughed uncomfortably.
“I relent darling. Dance with whomever you please. Grace whomever you please with your presence,” grumbled Lord Alexander grudgingly.
Lord Henry smiled but said nothing. Keeping his eyes on me, studying my expression, he leaned over and whispered into Dorian’s ear as he passed him on his way back to his seat. Dorian smiled knowingly, holding his hand out towards me. I took it, allowing myself to be led back to the dance floor once more.
“Your Ladyship looks absolutely ravishing tonight. Anything that one can put into words can never do your beauty justice. Language did not know you when it was created,” complimented Dorian, “If I may be so bold, only actions can ever truly express the emotions I feel for you.”
I blushed, “You flatter me, Mr. Gray. But it is a bit bold for we have only just met.”
“It is the truth, my Lady,” smiled Dorian, looking directly into my eyes, “I apologize for being too forward, but you should know your impact on my heart and soul.”
I studied his face; his words seemed genuine. Lord Henry had certainly outdone himself this time. Everything on Dorian’s face was well calculated and given in perfect measure. This was manipulation at its finest and I knew I could never love a beautiful lie such as he.
“Oh Dorian,” I sighed, sending his heart fluttering, “Those are the sweetest words to have graced my ears.”
“My Lady Veradisia…” smiled Dorian.
“But you mustn’t believe all the lies Harry has told you,” I told him, “He may have taught you the art of seduction, but that man is a cynic, a man without morals.”
Dorian laughed, “You think that it was Harry who taught me these things? He has nothing to do with this. This is my life, the life I chose to live.”
I bit my lip, Harry really had exceeded all my expectations. How Harry had managed to convince the poor boy that he had had the choice all along, that it was all his own was something beyond my own abilities. I was envious, but also wary. I knew passion and love in the hands of the wrong people were very dangerous; I had flirted with it once before in my boredom and nearly compromised myself. He shot a look past me at Harry, almost in panic.
“What did Harry say to you earlier?” I asked.
“Nothing of consequence,” deflected Dorian.
“Was it about me?” I asked innocently.
“Not at all my Lady,” said Dorian, trying to hide his surprise.
“It absolutely was,” I said smiling, “What did he say?”
“I swear, it’s nothing you ought to be worried about my Lady,” said Dorian.
I gave him a sad doe-eyed look and he melted, “He said…he told me to try and charm you. He assured me that you would fall in love with me just as everyone always does.”
“Harry said that did he?” I asked raising an eyebrow.
“To Harry, everything is an experiment,” I said bitterly.
“My deepest apologies, Lady Veradisia,” apologized Dorian looking hurt, “I meant no offense.”
“There is no need to apologize, Dorian, ” I sighed, “I will have a word with Harry when we are done here. He is so cruel to have exploited you for your youth and beauty.”
“Harry hasn’t done a thing,” said Dorian quickly.
“Harry is right about one thing, Mr. Gray, youth and beauty are all you have. Both things add to your irresistibility,” I smiled, “But despite all that, you can tell Harry that he was wrong to have used you in the way that he did.”
Dorian returned my smile, “So you do find me irresistible, and yet you resist.”
“I know charming when I see it Mr. Gray, but that doesn’t mean I am resisting,” I returned.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” said Dorian, furrowing his brow.
“I mean that my heart…my heart belongs to another ,” I said as delicately as I could manage, “You could have all the charm, youth, beauty, money, and whatever else in the world, but that would never change what my heart desires.”
I could see that I had injured him despite it all. Even in his despair, Dorian was beautiful. For the first time in a long time, I was unsure what to say or do.
“Mr. Gray…” I said, putting a hand on his cheek.
He looked up with his sadness filled blue eyes, “My Lady?”
“Please…I never meant to hurt you,” I started.
“My Lady, we cannot choose who we love,” returned Dorian, “I cannot blame you for loving another. Your heart is sincere and you certainly cannot deny your heart what it longs for. But I wish you to know that from the moment I lay eyes on you, my heart was yours.”
I stared at him speechless. Society’s conventions had always taught me the art of lying was the most important skill a woman should employ. Frankness was rare and mostly frowned upon in polite society. His confession had caught me off guard.
“I…Mr. Gray…” I started.
“My lady, I will never be lucky enough to have you, but I hope, from the depths of my heart that you and I will remain cherished friends,” said Dorian.
“Mr. Gray, there will always be another out there, someone who is a better fit for you than I. When you meet her, treat her like your finest possession, with tender love and care. And most importantly, a woman is not property, she is not an object, she is your equal,” I said, finding my voice again.
“I will do my best,” smiled Dorian, escorting me back to our seats, “It was a true honour to have had this dance with you Lady Veradisia. Thank you.”
“The honour was mine,” I said returning the compliment.
I turned to Harry, ready to reprimand him, when an arrogant, foppish gentleman tottered up to us, grinning lecherously at me before bowing deeply. I cringed, taking care not to make my discontent too apparent. I looked at Harry pleadingly. He came immediately to my aid.
“Mr. Lovel*,” addressed Lord Henry with a slight sneer.
“Lord Henry!” squeaked Mr. Lovel, bowing again, “Your Lordship looks particularly fine this evening.”
“Are you suggesting that upon other evenings I do not look as fine?” questioned Lord Henry.
“No! Of course not my Lord. You are always exceptional, in fact, beyond exceptional,” exclaimed Mr. Lovel reddening.
“Oh, Mr. Lovel, you must stop with the flattery, or others may talk, for I am a married man and though your words are very kind, I am not interested in what you have to offer me,” said Lord Henry.
Mr. Lovel reddened even more, “I only meant…”
“Yes, to flatter me in hopes that I would allow you the honour to dance with Lady Veradisia,” said Lord Henry coldly cutting him off, “My answer is still no.”
“Please, Lady Veradisia, won’t you allow me this one simple pleasure, this simple honour,” implored Mr. Lovel, “I swear I will ask nothing more of you should you accept. I shall make myself scarce and never dare approach your loveliness again.”
“I cannot and will not defy, my Lord Henry,” I stated plainly.
“I know and understand that your cousin means well, but…” Mr. Lovel continued.
Lord Henry glared at him and he shrank away, “She’s beyond your social rank. You have no right to demand anything of her, or of myself. Is that clear Mr. Lovel?”
“Y-y-yes, m-my Lord,” said Mr. Lovel backing away, “M-m-my deepest-deepest a-a-apologies for having bothered you.”
“My Lady Vera, may I?” asked Lord Alexander, holding his hand out towards me.
I took his hand in mine, “It would be my greatest pleasure, my Lord.”
He smiled at me knowingly and I tried my best to control the desires rising up in my breast.
“How utterly improper!” thought Mr. Lovel watching us dance, “How dare she deny me a dance purely on a whim!”
I knew in that moment I was the luckiest girl in the world. There was no one, there was nowhere I’d rather be than in the arms of my greatest love. He held me close and I felt as though nothing in the world mattered anymore.
“Vera, after this dance, would you accompany me to the gardens, I have something I’d like to show you,” whispered Lord Alexander softly.
“As my lord wishes,” I nodded, “You have permission from Harry and Aunt Agatha, I presume?”
“Of course, my love,” agreed Lord Alexander.
I nodded once more, resting my head against his shoulder, closing my eyes. With him, I felt safe. I knew that he would never harm me, nor allow any harm to befall me. Behind me, Mr. Lovel was fuming. I dreaded facing him.
When the dance finally ended, I clung to Lord Alexander as he guided me towards the veranda. Mr. Lovel intercepted us on our way out. Harry and Dorian took notice and made their way across the room to join us.
“Lady Veradisia, Lord Alexander, is it not so very inappropriate for you to be so intimate with one another when you are not betrothed?” asked Mr. Lovel smugly.
Lord Alexander took a step forward protectively. Mr. Lovel shrank back slightly but remained in his place.
“Mr. Lovel, are you causing Lady Veradisia trouble again?” said Lord Henry, shielding me as Lord Alexander was.
“Not at all your lordship, I was mere pointing out that it is appallingly improper for a woman of her standing to be intimate with another,” stated Mr. Lovel.
“And it is equally improper for a man of your standing to even speak to a lady of her standing about impropriety,” returned Lord Henry.
“Lady Veradisia,” said Mr. Lovel trying to navigate around Lord Henry and Lord Alexander.
“No,” I said, “Leave me be. If I ever see your visage again Mr. Lovel, I will make sure that that is the last time you ever draw breath in my presence again.”
Mr. Lovel’s jaw dropped. Having rendered him speechless, I swept past him onto the veranda, waiting for Lord Alexander to join me. As predicted, he followed shortly after.
“That was quite a threat, my love,” said Lord Alexander, leaning up against the balustrade.
“And you know me well enough to know that I do not make idle threats, ” I returned.
Lord Alexander inclined his head, “That I do . However that was a rash lapse in judgment.”
“I suppose you’re right, but I don’t think you understand what it’s like to be constantly pestered by a man such as he. I suppose I ought to have been flattered, but I am not. It disgusts me how women are pursued like they are prey and men are taught to be relentless,” I sighed.
“You know my love that you only need to say the word and I will obey,” said Lord Alexander.
“I do,” I nodded, “Now what was it you wanted to show me?”
Lord Alexander dropped to his knees, “My darling Vera, I’ve known and loved you since the first. There were times you hurt me terribly, but I knew in my heart that there would be no other who would give me greater pleasure. For what is pleasure without pain? What is life without you? I only have but one request, and that is that you do me the honour of becoming my wife.”
I stared at him speechless, my mind was racing and heart pounding.
“Vera, please, say something. If you don’t love me, please…” begged Lord Alexander.
For the first time in my life, the words wouldn’t come. I could not express what my heart felt, what my heart wanted.
Lord Alexander rose dejectedly, turning to leave, “I’m sorry to have wasted your time, Lady Veradisia.”
I took a deep breath, “My Lord Alexander, please…wait.”
He turned, his eyes filled with sadness and hurt.
“From the moment I met you, you stole my breath, my heart, and filled every moment of my life with joy. I apologize for all the pain I’ve ever caused you. And I will love to the end of my days. You are more than I deserve,” I confessed, “To be your wife is a greater honour than I deserve. I will do everything in my power to ensure you success and happiness. I will do everything to return to you the joy you have given me. ”
“Vera…” he murmured, gently stroking my face.
I paused, observing my surroundings, seeing no one around I thrust myself at him, resting my head against his chest, listening to the rhythmic beat of his heartbeat. He ran his fingers gently through my hair, kissing me.
“Let’s put that all behind us and work on building a life together,” I whispered, taking his hand and leading him back towards the party.
Lord Alexander asked, “Will you promise one thing?”
“Anything,” I returned.
“I would like to keep this engagement private for the time being. I would like to find better circumstances to announce something as important as this,” requested Lord Alexander, slipping the engagement ring onto my finger.
I stopped to examine the ring before we headed back to our table: a ring of pure gold topped with a three carat diamond. This was beyond expensive and ornamental, but it was certainly in line with Lord Alexander’s style. He was after an Earl who’s family made its fortune in diamonds. It could be said that I expected nothing less from him; he always gave me the very best. We returned to our table, doing our best to hide our happiness. Not long after we were seated, a voice called out from behind me, “Ah Lady Veradisia, there you are!”
I half turned, paled, turning back to my party.
“Harry…please,” I whispered, “I…That man has no sense of propriety. He-”
“Vera, calm down. He will not lay a hand on you,” said Lord Henry standing, “I will personally see to it.”
“Good evening my ladies and lords. If I may, Lady Veradisia, have this next dance?” asked the gentleman.
“Not this evening, Sir Clement**,” answered Lord Henry, “Lady Veradisia was about to retire for the evening.”
“With all due respect my Lord, I was addressing Lady Vera,” stated Sir Clement boldly.
“Sir Clement!” exclaimed Lady Agatha, “You are too bold and acting much too familiar.”
“My apologies Lady Agatha, but as I recall, Lady Vera and I have quite a history and her familiarity with so many gentlemen-” began Sir Clement.
“Watch your mouth,” snapped Lord Alexander, “I will not have you bring Lady Veradisia’s virtue into question.”
“It’s never been in question-” Sir Clement began again.
“Enough!” barked Lord Henry, “Lord Alexander, if you would be so kind to escort Lady Veradisia home immediately.”
Lord Alexander gave a curt nod and offered me his arm. Taking it, he and swept out of the room, stopping only to thank our hosts and bid them a good evening.
I rose early the next morning and went out onto the terrace to write. It had been a long time since I had found time for such a pleasure, but with everything that had happened last night, this was the best way to clear my head.
Summer was notoriously busy with all the dances and dinner parties every fashionable lady was expected to attend. An upper-class lady such as myself received an upward of fourteen invitations an evening, making it utterly impossible to honour all them all. Each promise led to another until one found that summer was now at its end. However, it was not simply evening occupations, there were luncheons and afternoon teas that one were expected to attend. They were utterly impossible to keep straight. Thankfully, I never had to, there was someone else to do that for me.
“Excuse me, my Lady,” said my maid timidly.
“Yes?” I asked looking up from my work.
“A Mr. Dorian Gray is here to see you,” said my maid blushing.
“What?” I asked standing, knocking my inkwell across my papers.
She nodded, “In the parlour, my Lady.”
I scrambled to pick up the inkwell before it completely spoiled my work.
“Leave it, my Lady. I will clean it up,” said the maid.
I nodded, wiping as much of the ink off my hands as I could, my hands shaking as I did so. I took a deep breath to collect myself and headed into the parlour.
“Good morning Mr. Gray,” I greeted, “To what do I owe this early morning pleasure?”
“Lady Veradisia,” smiled Dorian standing, “I just wanted to make sure you arrived home alright. last night.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” I said, “Lord Alexander would have never left me in distress.”
I took a seat and Dorian resumed his.
“I was thinking about you last night,” started Dorian flushing.
“Mr. Gray…” I said.
“Wh-what I meant was…I…I think I’m in love with you Lady Veradisia,” said Dorian shyly.
I had never met a man so bold yet still able to maintain a sense of propriety.
“Mr. Gray…I can’t possibly…” I said, still unable to form coherent sentences.
“Please, call me Dorian,” he smiled, gaining the upper hand over me.
“Dorian, I can’t possibly love you,” I managed.
“Why is that, my Lady?” asked Dorian innocently, “I can see in your eyes what your heart desires, why do you deny it?”
“You are not what my heart desires, Lord Alexander is,” I said, almost uncomfortably.
“Is he?” asked Dorian raising an eyebrow, “A man so caught up in convention. I can’t imagine a lady such as yourself to be interested in a man like him.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to keep the accusation, the defensiveness out of my voice.
“You grew up with Harry, did you not?” asked Dorian.
“That I did. But I don’t understand what bearing it would have on this conversation,” I asked.
“Well, it’s apparent that both of you are so taken by the theories of beauty and pleasure that you preach about, yet neither of you dare to live it. You in particular hold back much more than Harry though I can see that you are far more brilliant when you do choose to employ your wit,” explained Dorian, “I don’t understand why you of all people must conform to society’s ridiculous expectations for a man like Lord Alexander.”
“Lord Alexander is more than meets the eye,” I began.
“We all are,” said Dorian cutting me off, “But that is no excuse not to follow your heart and dreams.”
“How do you know that I’m not doing so?” I asked.
Dorian looked at me as though I had said something impossibly stupid. Before he had the chance to respond, Lord Henry entered, “I thought I -Dorian?”
“Good morning Harry,” exclaimed Dorian, jumping up and flushing.
“Vera, this is highly improper, even for you,” teased Lord Henry.
“Good morning Harry,” I returned, “Might I have a word in private?”
Lord Henry looked at Dorian curiously and followed me from the room.
“What is it Vera?” asked Lord Henry lowering his voice.
“I’d like the record to show that I had nothing to do with Dorian’s visit. He came here to confess his love, which I cannot return. I have explained it so, but he is persistent. Whatever you’ve done to his mind, I ask you to reset it back,” I began.
“He spoke ill of Alexander didn’t he?” asked Lord Henry amused.
“Harry, I’m serious,” I said annoyed.
“Forgive me Vera. I’ll have a word him,” apologized Lord Henry.
“Harry…please don’t reveal to Dorian my engagement to Alexander yet. There are formalities we need to observe prior to a making the announcement,” I said.
Lord Henry nodded, “I understand Vera, don’t worry, I will take care if it.”
Lord Henry headed back into the parlour and I followed close behind.
“Dorian, shall we take a walk?” asked Lord Henry.
Dorian gave him a curt nod, following Lord Henry out to the garden. I watched them disappear behind the hedges. I waited a moment longer before summoning my maid. She came in, still flushed from earlier.
“Have you gathered all my things?” I asked.
“Yes, my Lady,” she nodded.
“Please take them up to my writing desk,” I ordered.
“Of course, my Lady,” she nodded.
“Oh, and could you send Alice in?” I asked.
“Certainly, my Lady,” she said, “Will that be all?”
I nodded, she curtseyed once and exited.
“You called for me, my Lady?” asked Alice entering.
“Yes, what engagements do I have this afternoon?” I asked.
“Your aunt, Lady Agatha is hosting lunch here, afternoon tea will be at Lady Ashford’s today, and in the evening, Lord Alexander is hosting a ball in which he will announce your engagement,” listed Alice.
“I beg your pardon?” I said, caught off guard by the last.
“Which engagement shocks you, my Lady?” asked Alice.
“The last. When…?” I asked.
“This morning. He had asked it of your aunt last evening and this morning she consented and had me add it to your schedule for today,” explained Alice.
“Thank you Alice,” I nodded, “Please prepare my things for lunch.”
She curtseyed, “Right away, my Lady.”
“My Lady, I hope I am not interrupting. You have a guest,” stated the butler, narrowly missing Alice on his way in, “My apologies Alice.”
“No problem at all,” said Alice hurrying away.
“Who has come to call upon me?” I asked.
“Lord Alexander Delacroix,” answered the butler.
“Show him in,” I said.
The butler gave a curt nodded and padded down the hall followed by the click of Lord Alexander’s shoes. I rose as he entered.
“Good morning, my Lord,” I smiled.
“My darling Vera, did you sleep well?” greeted Lord Alexander.
“Fairly well,” I nodded, “Will you sit?”
Lord Alexander swept across the room to my side, indicating I ought to be seated first.
“Is there anything I can get for you, my Lord? My Lady?” asked the butler lingering.
I shook my head.
“No, that’ll be all, thank you,” replied Lord Alexander.
The butler nodded and made himself scarce.
“You’re up earlier than I expected,” commented Lord Alexander.
“Mr. Gray paid me a visit,” I said dryly.
Lord Alexander looked startled, “That’s quite improper of him. Did he rouse you from sleep?”
“Thankfully, no. I was working on my latest novella,” I informed him.
“If you’ll excuse me darling, I’d like to have a word with Mr. Gray,” stated Lord Alexander rising.
“He’s in the garden with Harry,” I informed him.
“I won’t be long love. Will you wait here for me?” he asked.
“Alright,” I nodded, “But don’t keep me waiting too long.”
“I will certainly endeavour not to,” smiled Lord Alexander.
Lord Alexander made his way across the lawn, heading straight for Lord Henry and Dorian in the northeast corner of the garden.
“Excuse me Lord Henry, might I have a word with Mr. Gray?” interrupted Lord Alexander.
“Well good morning Lord Alexander. What an ungodly hour for all of London to be paying Vera a visit,” smiled Lord Henry sardonically.
“Mr. Gray, I would like to impress upon you the dire consequences of your action. If you commit such an impropriety again, I will be forced to take action against you,” started Lord Alexander.
“I meant nothing by it,” apologized Dorian innocently, “Forgive my insolence, my Lord. I came to speak to Lady Veradisia as a friend; I apologize if it has offended you.”
Lord Alexander eyed him suspiciously as Lord Henry laughed, ” “Relax Lord Alexander, Dorian means to keep his word. He honestly meant nothing by it.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Lord Alexander coldly, returning to the house.
Dorian laughed, “Thank you Harry.”
“I would be careful Dorian,” said Lord Henry, “Lord Alexander does not make idle threats.”
“Truly? He would be barbaric enough to use violence against me?” asked Dorian, his eyes wide.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” said Lord Henry seriously.
Dorian grinned, heading back towards the house, “If that’s all Harry, we ought to be heading back.”
“Dorian, one last thing,” said Lord Henry.
“What is it?” asked Dorian.
“Please do not call upon Vera again,” said Lord Henry.
Dorian spun around in surprise, “What are you saying Harry?”
“Stay away from her,” said Lord Henry warningly.
“I love her,” sighed Dorian.
“Not Vera,” stated Lord Henry firmly.
“You don’t understand. You never will,” said Dorian accusingly, “You’ve always looked at marriage so cynically. You don’t understand how Vera makes me feel. She’s different from any other woman I’ve ever been with.”
“I know exactly how she makes people feel. She makes them feel as though they’re the only one in the world that matters,” said Lord Henry, “I nearly broke off my engagement to Victoria because of her. And she was just playing with me. I can’t imagine how it must feel for those she is truly targeting.”
Dorian looked astonished, “Harry, you speak about her as though she’s a monster.”
Lord Henry smiled, “When you have known her as long and as well as I, you’ll know what an absolute monster she is.”
“Harry, you shouldn’t speak of her like that. She is an angel,” argued Dorian.
Lord Henry shook his head. He knew that nothing he could say would change Dorian’s mind.
“Darling, there’s still time before lunch, would you like to go for a walk somewhere until then?” asked Lord Alexander, returning to the parlour.
“Vauxhall or Ranelagh garden?” I suggested, “Or perhaps Hampshire.”
“Wherever suits your fancy, my love,” nodded Lord Alexander.
Lord Henry and Dorian re-entered the house as we prepared to head out. Upon seeing Dorian, Lord Alexander put his arm around my waist possessively.
“Harry, Dorian, we were just heading out to the gardens, care to join us?” I asked.
Dorian opened his mouth to answer, but Lord Henry stopped him, “No, not today, my dear. Though I must say, it is a refreshing change that you are not choosing to say cooped up indoors with a book.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a good book,” I said defensively.
Lord Henry smiled, “So shall we be expecting you back for lunch?”
“We certainly will be,” I nodded.
“Well, enjoy yourselves and try not to get into too much trouble,” teased Lord Henry.
I gave him a girlish laugh, leading Lord Alexander out towards the waiting carriage.
The gardens were pleasant, as usual. I always found that they were particularly beautiful in the morning. The sun bathed all the flowers in its pale warmth, the dew delicately adorning leaves and petals with miniature diamonds. The impermanence and insubstantiality were what gave the garden its early morning beauty. The crispness of the air was a perfect excuse to be close to Lord Alexander. It was the perfect morning. Or at least it would have been had it not been for Sir Clement’s untimely appearance.
“Good morning Lady Veradisia, Lord Alexander!” greeted Sir Clement, “What a pleasure it is to encounter you on this fine morning. What brings you here so early in the morn?”
“Good morning,” said Lord Alexander icily.
“Are you feeling better, my Lady? I apologize deeply if I offended you last night,” apologized Sir Clement.
“There have been matters that have been pressing as of late,” I returned politely.
“Forgive my intrusion, but would it be too bold to ask what that might be?” asked Sir Clement.
“Too bold,” answered Lord Alexander, stepping forward and shielding me.
Sir Clement shrank back slightly, but did not back down.
“May I speak with you in confidence, my Lady Vera?” asked Sir Clement.
“I said no,” snapped Lord Alexander, “Know your place, Willoughby.”
“With all due respect my Lord, I wasn’t addressing you,” sniffed Sir Clement.
“Do not speak to my Lord with so impertinently,” I said sternly.
“My Lady, I would advise you speak to me alone unless you care not for your reputation and wish the world to hear,” threatened Sir Clement.
I cast of a look of bewilderment towards Lord Alexander. Though I had no idea what Sir Clement could be holding over me, I was afraid. I knew my place and my obligations. I knew that for a woman in my position, my reputation, my virtue, was all I had. I did the only thing I knew I could do to escape this unsavoury situation. I fainted. Lord Alexander caught me in surprise.
“Is she all right?” fussed Sir Clement.
“Leave. If I speak to me or my lady ever again, I will make sure you never see the light of day again,” threatened Lord Alexander.
He gently set me down in the carriage before slamming the door in Sir Clement’s face and instructing the driver to return home posthaste.
As we came to a stop, the page posted at the door rushed forward and held open the door.
“Fetch your master and mistress at once,” ordered Lord Alexander, disembarking with me in his arms.
The boy gave a curt nod and ran inside, yelling for the butler.
Lord Henry intercepted Lord Alexander as he was setting me down on a sofa in the parlour. Dorian rushed in after him, paling at the sight of me.
“What happened?” demanded Lord Henry.
“I haven’t the slightest clue,” said Lord Alexander bewildered.
“Describe to me the exact scenario you found yourselves in,” pressed Lord Henry.
Lady Agatha swept into the room, pushing the gentlemen aside, “Oh for heaven’s sake. Stop standing around and talking. Loosen her corset.”
Lady Agatha’s maid slipped past the gentlemen and did her best to loosen the corset without exposing my body to the point of indecency.
“Brandy,” called out Lady Agatha.
Lord Henry poured her a glass. She grabbed it hurriedly, sloshing some on herself and inadvertently pouring some into my mouth. This was my first encounter with something as strong as brandy. I sputtered and choked, jolting upwards, spitting most of it out. Lord Henry laughed as I tried to catch my breath. Then the room fell silent, watching me as I sought to catch my breath.
“Lady Veradisia, are you alright?” asked Lord Alexander, breaking the silence.
I blushed, shifting uncomfortably. To tell them the truth would have dire consequences, but to lie was a different problem all on its own.
“I suppose the stress of the moment combined with the tightness of the corset was just too overwhelming,” I replied.
“The stress of the moment?” echoed Dorian, “What or who could’ve possibly done that to you?”
“Sir Clement,” I said disgustedly.
“Excuse me,” bowed Dorian, rising and leaving the room.
I stared after him, watching him disappear through the front door. There was something strange about how angry Dorian had gotten.
“What did he want?” asked Lord Henry irritated, “Did we not make clear that he was not to associate with you any further?”
“He wanted to speak with Veradisia, alone,” sneered Lord Alexander.
“With Lord Alexander in your company?” asked Lady Agatha astonished.
I nodded. Everyone cried out about Sir Clement’s impropriety, about how fortunate I was to be struck by my affliction when I was, how Lord Alexander should have been more active in the assertion of his dominance, and so on and so forth. Only Lord Henry looked at me knowingly, a smile, tugging at the corners of his thin beckoning lips.
“This day has been quite taxing, if you don’t mind, I’d like to rest,” I sighed standing.
“May I?” asked Lord Alexander also standing.
I nodded and exited on his arm.
“Will you stay?” I asked removing my earrings.
“If you’d like,” nodded Lord Alexander, drawing a seat next to me at the vanity, studying my face in the mirror, “Vera, did you really faint?”
I turned to face him, “Of course not. You know as well as I that to wander off alone with that man means the death of me and my reputation. The alternative was to reveal our engagement and that is not something I would do without your consent.”
Lord Alexander smiled, leaning forward to kiss me. I leaned in towards him, and as I did so, my dress slipped from my shoulders, piling around my waist.
Lord Alexander lifted me to my feet and the dress cascaded to the floor. He pulled me close and kissed me.
“We shouldn’t,” I whispered, stifling a giggle.
“Do you want me to stop?” teased Lord Alexander.
“No,” I admitted.
His fingers worked their way around my waist and started unlacing my corset. We were interrupted by a knock at the door, causing us both to jump. Lord Alexander knelt down, picking up my dress and kissing my thigh as he did. I grinned down at him, making myself look semi-presentable and took a seat at my vanity, reapplying my makeup. Lord Alexander sat down across from my vanity and pretended to look disinterested.
“Come in,” I called.
Lord Henry came in, closing the door behind him.
“I must admit, you have more self-control than I thought,” mused Lord Henry, “I expected to find you in some form of undress.”
“Harry!” I exclaimed.
Henry smirked, “I know you well enough to know that that was certainly on your mind.”
“Regardless Harry, why are you here?” I smiled.
“Did you faint to avoid speaking to Sir Clement?” started Lord Henry.
“Was it too obvious?” I asked, biting my lip.
“No, never,” smiled Lord Henry, “You’ve always been a good actress when you need to be. The second order of business however…”
Lord Alexander rose, “I’m supposing you’d like me to leave momentarily?”
“If it’s not too much trouble,” nodded Lord Henry.
Lord Alexander nodded, lingering briefly to smile at me before he exited, closing the door gently behind him. I heard his footfalls grow quieter and quieter until I heard nothing at all.
I turned to Lord Henry worriedly, “What’s wrong Harry?”
“Keep away from Dorian, I’m worried about his impression on you,” started Lord Henry.
I started laughing, “Me? You’re worried about me leaving Alexander for Dorian?!”
“Veradisia…” said Lord Henry seriously.
“I don’t understand why you’re so worried Harry,” I sighed, “Are you afraid of Dorian ‘corrupting’ me?”
“You shouldn’t take this too lightly Vera,” said Lord Henry.
“Harry, I’m not,” I returned, “I would never leave a man for a boy. I love Alexander far too much. It’s as you said, the sexual tension between us was palpable. Do you think I’d leave someone who understands me? Someone who has my heart and feeds my soul? No, I wouldn’t leave Alexander for the world. Dorian is nothing more than a Narcissus. Beauty and youth are all he has. Without those, he is nothing but a child. And I have no interest in a child.”
Lord Henry looked relieved, “Dorian confessed that he’s in love with you. I was afraid that you-“
I began to laugh again, “How could he possibly know what love is?”
Lord Henry shrugged, “How can you be sure you know what love is? How do you know Alexander is the one?”
My eyes flickered towards the door, “I…I’m not sure how to explain it to you Harry. You’ve always been a cynic when it come to love.”
Lord Henry smiled, “You don’t have to. You just showed me…”
I stared at him speechless.
“Alexander!” called Lord Henry.
Alexander returned to the room, putting a hand on my shoulder, “Is everything alright?”
I smiled up at him, “Everything’s perfect now.”
“What you to have is love,” said Lord Henry, “Something I once had with Victoria…but that has long since passed.”
Lord Alexander stroked my cheek and returned my smile.
“I’ll look the other way if the two of you decide to throw yourselves at each other right now,” said Lord Henry standing.
“Of course you would,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Oh come on, you know I wouldn’t tell,” teased Lord Henry.
“Hush,” I giggled.
“Oh, alright, hurry downstairs and announce your engagement!” relented Lord Henry.
I jumped to my feet and called for my maid. She relaced and tightened my corset. I took Alexander’s hand half-leading, half-dragging him down the stairs. Everyone was in the parlour taking lunch. They all looked at us apprehensively as we entered. My cheeks were flushed; I could feel my blood surging through my veins constricting my throat.
“Excuse us everyone, we’d like to say something,” said Lord Alexander hesitantly.
The room immediately fell silent, every pair of eyes upon us. Dorian looked on at us in dread as Lord Henry wandered in lazily, grinning at Lady Agatha before taking a seat.
“Lady Veradisia and I are engaged. A date for the actual wedding has yet to be set, but we’re hoping that it’ll be in the next few months,” said Lord Alexander proudly, holding up my hand with the ring on it.
Lady Agatha replaced her cup into its saucer and set it on the table.
“Congratulations!” exclaimed Lady Agatha, standing and clapping her hands together delight, “We can finally and officially welcome you to our family, Lord Alexander.”
“Lady Agatha, you’re too kind,” smiled Lord Alexander, stepping forward and grasping her hand firmly in his.
Dorian looked dejectedly at the ground, the colour drained from his face. He avoided everyone’s gaze, toying with his cufflink. Lady Agatha made her way towards me and gave me a hug, whispering in my ear, “I’m so happy for you sweetheart. I know you’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
Dorian clenched his fist, standing up with resolve, striding straight towards me.
“I’m so happy for you, Lady Veradisia,” said Dorian in a strained voice.
“Thank you Dorian,” I smiled radiantly.
An apology caught in my throat. What did I have to apologize for? Nothing. Yet, I felt as though I had to address the harsh rejection Dorian had just endured.
Dorian looked at me expectantly, but no words would come. I looked towards Lord Alexander helplessly and he quickly came to my aid.
“Hello Mr. Gray,” smiled Lord Alexander coldly, “Keeping well I assume?”
Dorian mumbled a quick response before darting off.
“Thank you darling,” I whispered, “I had no idea how I was to handle that. I feel terrible that he’s faced the ultimate form of rejection, but-“
Lord Alexander shook his head, “You shouldn’t berate yourself so. Dorian would never have been a good match for you; he is simply attempting to force your hand. Perhaps I’m being biased, but I could never see you being happy with a man like him.”
I nodded thoughtfully, “I know.”
This was it. Today was the day I was waiting for for my whole life. Lord Henry had spared no expenses and neither had Lord Alexander. It had turned out to be quite the spending war. It was the most lavish party and wedding of the century. It seemed as though, between the two of them, they had invited the whole of the United Kingdom. I could hardly keep track of all those in attendance. In fact, I didn’t even know who was and wasn’t invited and Lord Henry didn’t look like he cared much.
“Congratulations,” repeated Dorian softly, echoing that day months ago, handing me a gift wrapped in gold and silver paper with a blue ribbon.
“Thank you Dorian,” I smiled, “I’m so glad you could come.”
“I’ve never seen you looking so lovely as you do tonight,” complimented Dorian smiling charmingly in that special way of his, “And I’ll forever remember you this way.”
“Oh, Dorian, always the compliments,” I smiled, shifting the gifts around to make space on the table.
I turned to face him, “I hope you enjoy yourself tonight.”
As I turned, he drove a dagger into my heart. He leaned in and whispered in my ear, “I couldn’t bear that Sir Clement disrespected you so that day, so I took care of him. But you didn’t know, you never knew the things I’d do for you. I loved you Vera. I still love you. I’ll always love you.”
With the smile frozen on my face, I collapsed. The chaos around me seemed to be moving in slow motion. I couldn’t hear the screams around me. I could only remember how I had always dreamt of the splash of blood that would stain my marriage bed. I only knew that I would never have that pleasure. Alexander ran to my side horror struck, catching me inches from the ground.
“I love you, my darling,” I whispered, dying in his arms, “Good bye.”
No one questioned him as he carried my limp body upstairs to what would have been our bedroom and locked the door. Etched across his flawless features was an inhuman rage and indescribable pain.
“You’ve forced my hand for the final time, Mr. Gray,” snarled Lord Alexander.
He ripped away the collar of my dress, sinking his fangs into my throat.
*A character from Francis Burney’s novel Evelina who first courts Evelina at her first ball in London.
**Sir Clement Willoughby. Also from Frances Burney’s Evelina. Courts Evelina shamelessly. Is supposed to be a baronet or of similar standing.