Chapter 27: Cover Story

“So, what’s the story?”

“What story?”

“Our story,” I clarified.

It was the morning of August twenty third, the day of the grand event honoring Maria Dalton’s birthday.  The final touches were being made to the opulent decorations and the guest list had been finalized.  The affair promised to be intimate; seventy five guests in total had sent their confirmation.  To me the number felt considerably larger than intimate; Tilly had assured me the guest list had been whittled down from more than twice the final count.  Fewer guests meant fewer suspects.

Everyone in the community wondered who the secret woman was, rumored to be courted by Nicholas Dalton II.  Nick was going to officially announce our betrothal tonight.  We were going to mingle, dance, and enjoy the good company.  But most importantly we were going to survive.

“Have you forgotten so soon?  I met you in a magical mirror, enticed you with my various charms, and convinced you to give up the future so that you could marry me.”

Nick was incorrigible—and I loved it.  To avoid more smart answers, I amended my previous statement.  “Right.  I meant our cover story.  The one we are telling everyone so they won’t think we’re both crazy.”

“Oh, that one.”  False enlightenment dawned on his beautiful face, but his eyes remained alight with mischief.  “You came to visit Tilly a few months ago.  You’re a cousin many, many times removed on my mother’s side.  You lived in New York but have graciously decided to move to England because…”               

“Because what?”  I asked in earnest, committing the false facts to memory.  Every detail had to be on point so no one would grow more suspicious of our relationship than they already were.  The last thing we needed was to worry that discrepancies could put a chink in the armor shielding us from scandal.

“Because I swept you off your feet and, after days of painful deliberation on my end, you convinced me that I should marry you.”

I hit him on the shoulder, and he winced in feigned pain.  “Honestly, Nick, that’s not how I remember it happening.”

“Really?  That is odd; I thought my version had been spot on.”

 I stuck out my tongue and made a show of rolling my eyes.  “Yeah, right.”

“You’ve been around my sister entirely too long.” 

I magnanimously ignored the jibe.  “The backstory was good, but the ending isn’t quite right.”

“No?  Hmmm.  Please, educate me with the accurate version, my love.”

His love.  It took me a minute to come down from the endearment-induced high so I could answer him.  “I came from America—that part works.  I met you and you were immediately enthralled—obviously.  After much negotiation and begging—on your part—you convinced me to stick around… for now.”

“You mean you’re not positively positive in your decision to be with me?”

“Of course I am.  I’m absolutely, positively positive I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

Nick gave me a quick, hard kiss that left my head spinning.  “I suppose that sounds a bit closer to the real story, but I fear our guests will never believe it.”

“Why not?”  There was just enough mystery and romance to leave our audience wanting more.

“Because I do not beg.  I never have and never will.”

“That’s funny, I distinctly remember…” 

Nick tried to tackle me and pin me on the bed, but I slid to the right and made a narrow escape.  He cornered me by the window, effectively cutting off any means of escape.  Laughing, I fell into the window seat in surrender.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the flowers being carried in for the night’s celebrations.  Hundreds of Azalea bouquets were being placed around the room’s perimeter to paint the boundaries white with buds.

“Will it work?” I asked, unable to pull my gaze from the scene outside. “Won’t the staff be a little suspicious seeing as I technically have only just arrived?”

“They won’t say a word.  Our staff at Barnard Hall is loyal to the extreme.” 

A woman walking behind one of the butlers had stolen my attention, leaving Nick’s words lost in the space between us.  “Who is that?” 

The stranger was stunning. Her long mahogany hair reached nearly to her tiny waist, curling slightly at the ends.  Her porcelain skin looked painted, like an expensive antique doll.  I felt a pang of jealousy at the inherent confidence emanating from her willowy frame.  When she walked she floated gracefully.  Everyone in her presence noticed her effortless elegance.

Nick caught up with me, stopped laughing, and stiffened rigidly.  “Which one?”

“The woman right there.”

“Which one?”

“The one who doesn’t work for you.”  The perfect one.

“Just one of the neighbors,” he responded with forced nonchalance.

He had neighbors who looked like that and he had to come all the way to 2012 to find a wife?  “She’s beautiful.”  The statement did not capture her essence; she was ethereal.

Nick snorted and wrapped his arms around me.  “Superficially, and even then only from a distance.”

“There’s more to this than you’re telling me.  What is her name?”           

“Does it matter?”

“Nick…”

“Emily,” he hedged.

“As in Lady Emily Smyth?”  My stomach sank lower.  This was the woman Nick was supposed to be with if I did not exist?  This angel?  How could he ever think that a lifetime with this woman would be punishment?  She appeared to be perfection incarnate, and I suspected my conclusion would remain true no matter how close her proximity.

“Yes.”  He straightened, preparing for a fight.

“As in your intended Lady Emily Smyth?”  I had to ask in order to justify the hopelessness I felt creeping into my gut.

“No,” he said, wincing. 

“Oh, good.” 

“I had been her intended.  Despite his threats, my father has assured me he had no intention of aligning our families.  They may be members of the peerage, but we far exceed them in integrity and merit.”

His passionate speech did nothing to restore my confidence.  “Is she coming to the party?”  My head began spinning, and I felt faint as I waited for his answer.

Please say no.  Please, please, please say no.

Nick grimaced.  He wasn’t going to say no.  “Unfortunately, a slight would do more damage than the invitation.”

“Of course it would.”  Cursed twentieth-century social etiquette… 

“Callista, I need you to do me a favor.”

He turned me from the window, but the image of Lady Smyth lingered, haunting my self-assurance.  “Do not listen to Emily.  I fully expect her to be deceitful and hateful toward you.  Do not listen to her lies.  She is a viper of the nastiest sort.  It will be pure jealousy talking.  You have my heart.”

I nodded to appease him but knew the promise was easier given than kept.  There was a knock on the door, and Tilly admitted herself without permission.

“Nicki, I have come to steal away your fiancé.  Come, Callista, we must make ourselves beautiful for the party.”

“If that’s the case then I needn’t let you go; you are already the most beautiful woman in the world,” Nick whispered before giving me a tender farewell kiss.

He released me reluctantly, and I walked stiffly toward Tilly.  All my enthusiasm for my first social event in 1902 had been drained by the appearance of Lady Emily Smyth.  Even without any interaction, the mere sight of the woman had already ruined my night.  August twenty fifth could not come soon enough.

“What has gotten into you?”  Tilly asked with her usual tact just after we left Nick’s room.

“I just saw Lady Smyth.”

“So?”

“So!” I said more shrilly than intended.  “So she’s perfection incarnate.”

Tilly snorted.  “Don’t worry about her.”

“How can you say that?”

“Easily.  You don’t know the vile woman as I do.”

“No, but I have seen her.  Tilly, she’s gorgeous.”

My best friend rolled her eyes, and revealed her contempt for the woman in her voice.  “Just wait until you meet her.”

* * *

“Oh, Callista, you are beautiful!  No, you’re more than that.”

I barely heard Tilly’s exclamation at I stared at the unfamiliar woman reflected in the mirror.  Her lightly tanned skin was painted with twenty-first century makeup; her golden tresses were pulled into an elaborate up-do no longer appreciated in the modern world outside of red-carpet events. Tilly’s maid was a truly miracle worker.  She had pinned my curls and twisted the rest of my thick hair into a creation worthy of a queen.  I wore a dress Nick had insisted on commissioning for me; the silvery silk clung to my body like the moonlight. 

If nothing else, I felt beautiful.

I turned to my best friend and hugged her.  “Thank you.”  The combination of nerves and excitement shook my voice.

“Go on, my impatient brother is waiting.”  Tilly ruined the moment with an awful gagging sound. 

Nick had been doing laps of the hallway for the last hour.  By now he had probably completed a solid five-mile hike.  Tilly had yelled at him once, saying his impatience only made her work slower.  His footsteps had stopped but, after five silent minutes, he had resumed his relentless pacing.

Nick’s mouth fell open when I stepped out of the room.  His exaggerated reaction aroused my self-consciousness.  Had I spilled something on the delicate fabric?  There didn’t appear to be any noticeable blemishes marring the silk.  Had I forgotten to button the dress?   The buttons were in the back.  I felt around, twisting to check the enclosures.

“Do you think it’s okay?”  I whispered, unsure of how to take his reaction.

He straightened and took my hand.  With a flick of his wrist he spun me around.  “I will admit, the thought of bringing you downstairs looking like that it is causing me great distress.”

My heart dropped to my knees.  He didn’t like it.  With his finger, Nick pulled my fallen chin so that I was facing him.  He chuckled.  “Callista, look at me.”  I balefully followed his order.  “I am struggling with myself.  When you look like an unattainable angel, I do not want to share you with anyone else.”

“Oh…”   He liked it too much.  I released the anxious breath I had been holding, allowing a nervous giggle to slip from my lips.  When he made magnanimous statements like that, his words smooth and his voice smoother, my stomach did somersaults. 

He sighed.  “I suppose the sooner we get this over with, the sooner I can have you alone.”  I stood up straighter to give the illusion of a confidence I did not feel.  “Wait.”

Nick pulled something from his pocket and hooked it around my neck.  The cool weight of the sparkling diamonds pressed heavily against my chest. 

“I cannot accept this.”  It must have been very, very expensive.

“Of course you can.  They are nothing more than cold, hard stones.”

“You are wrong.  They’re stunning.”

“No, you are stunning.  You bring their infinite sparkle to life.  Now, if you have no other objections, let’s get this over with.”

Music drifted up the stairs as we descended.  The notes grew louder as we walked hand in hand down the hall.  With a reassuring squeeze, Nick flung open the door to the back room.  The music continued, but the dancing guests halted their movements in unison with our entrance.

Everyone in attendance turned to stare at us.  My feet sank into the wooden floor like quicksand.  I stood frozen, unable to shift even an inch, and prayed that I would continue to sink until the vacuum beneath me swallowed me whole.  My heart pounded an unsteady rhythm against the crushing weight of the necklace, vibrating the stones.

Rich colors filled my vision, more beautiful than the most vibrant rainbow.  The women wore elaborate dresses of varying styles and shapes, each more stunning than the one before it.  The men contrasted nicely in black, sharp against the vast array of pigments. 

Nick took a step forward, but I remained rooted where I was.  Then I heard Tilly from behind me.  “Let’s get this over with.” 

I broke into a smile, knowing the exact sentiment was shared by the entirety of the Dalton family.  Together, Nick, Tilly and I went to confront the mob.

I followed Nick around the room, meeting his friends, neighbors, and extended family.  Most of the looks I received were of interest, nothing more.  As a whole, the men were friendly, some more inappropriately than others.  If they leered, Nick’s eyes took on a murderous edge.   Most of the woman glared at me with open hostility.  When that happened, Tilly decidedly snubbed them.  No doubt my face was scarlet throughout the entire ordeal.

“Callista, you are marvelous!” Maria said, greeting me with an exuberant hug.  We had blessedly reached the epicenter of the party, my own personal Dalton-lined safety net.

I managed to squeak a, “Thanks,” when the floor began spinning beneath me.

“Mother, I believe my fiancé cannot breathe.” 

Maria released me and cradled my cheek with her palm.  She took hold of my hand and her son’s.  Nick’s father stood behind his wife, tolerating her excitement.  When he noticed me looking at him, he winked.

The Dalton men looked so dashing in their black tuxedos.  The cut of the fine material was tailored impeccably to their lean frames.  Maria stood out with her dark skin and flamboyant red dress.  Tilly wore a deep purple gown, which made her flawless porcelain skin glow in contrast.  My friend’s maid had done the impossible and had tamed Tilly’s unruly curls; they hung loosely about her shoulders in a cloud of shiny ringlets.

“Rosa?”  My housekeeper stood behind her daughter, content with hanging in the background.  Why had I not expected to see her tonight?  Of course it made sense, her coming to her daughter’s birthday and my own engagement party.  Her presence made me feel steadier, more grounded.

“Callista, you are perfect,” she said, pulling me in for a hug.

Nick held me tightly in his arms as we swirled around the dance floor.  As long as he was near me, I felt safe.  On the rare occasions when he was required to leave my side, my sanity waned.  I became nervous, oblivious to everyone around me, caught in my own agonizing world of worry.  Tonight was not a time for me to allow any of my new family out of my sight.  They were acting so normal.  Had they forgotten that each guest in attendance was a potential murderer?

I had prayed the looks of malice we had received were being directed at me, not the Daltons.  My recent acquaintances grew bolder when I was alone.  A few stared blatantly at me.  Could they tell I did not belong in their world?  Their eyes bore holes into my exposed skin.  I looked down to make sure there were no visible marks.  Sure, they had mostly been unfailingly polite to my face, but I had heard whispers of a scandal brewing.  More than just the Smyths had thought the two families were to be aligned through marriage.

I had yet to meet Lady Emily Smyth, but if the confrontation with her mother was anything to go by, I had to be wary. 

“It’s a pleasure, Miss Franklyn.”   The emphasis Lady Regina Smyth had placed on my lack of title had tightened my smile.  I was wealthier than she would ever be, but I kept that secret locked away.  She would have been a beautiful woman if a life of dissatisfaction had not pinched her face into a permanent look of disapproval.

“The same to you, Lady Smyth.”  I had emphasized her title, letting her know that I had noticed her slight.  If she had the audacity to say it then I had the confidence to acknowledge it.

“Where is it you said you were from?”

“New York,” I drawled.

“Typical American.”  She had stood straighter and looked down her nose at me.  “It was certainly a surprise to learn that Nicholas had announced his engagement to you this evening.  As I am sure you have already heard, my family and most of those in attendance had been expecting a different result entirely.”

I had smiled and bared my teeth.  It must not have crossed Regina’s mind that Nick would have warned me about the spiteful gossip.  “I imagine so, but then the idea was never shared by the Daltons, so I had not taken the rumors seriously.”

Lady Regina had opened and closed her mouth a few times, remarkably resembling a fish out of water, and then she had retreated.  I had made a powerful enemy, but I could not help but be proud of myself.  Nick had come barreling toward me, flying to my rescue just as Lady Smyth had made her hasty exit.

“Callista, I apologize for leaving you alone. The moment I turned around, the viper crawled from her lair, ready to strike.”

That was how Lady Smyth had planned it.

“Nick, I don’t expect you to babysit me the entire evening.”  I smiled serenely at my fiancé.  There was only one other confrontation I had yet to endure.  Something told me that it would come sooner rather than later.  Lady Regina had left me and gone straight to her daughter.  Whatever was said to Lady Emily had turned her face an unattractive shade of purple.  Her eyes found mine from across the room and she focused her hatred and malicious intentions on me.  I smiled as serenely as I could manage, quivering inside.  These were powerful enemies to make.

“What did you say to her?”  Nick said, his voice full of concealed mirth.  He started to shake with laughter.  “I have never seen her mother look like that.”

“I simply dispelled some nasty rumors that had been swirling around the party.”

Nick placed his hand on the small of my back.  He leaned toward me and whispered.  The heat from his breath tickled the fine hairs on my neck, and I shivered.  “I love you, Callista Franklyn.”

I smiled even as I accepted the depth of emotion in his tone.  “I know.”

He pulled away and giggled. 

“You sound like Tilly when you do that.”

Nick immediately sobered, but his eyes still smiled. 

I rolled my eyes.  “Alright, Lady Smyth is no longer making a face so what do you think is so funny?”

He sealed his lips with a flourish and shook his head.

“Please?” I begged.

“I just thought of something amusing.”

“And that would be?”

“That technically our children will be older than you.”

I stuck out my tongue.  “You’re so ignorant sometimes.”

“Blissfully so, my love.”

We danced the hours away, always painfully aware of the ticking grandfather clock in the corner.  After a particularly steamy waltz, Nick went to get us some refreshment, leaving me without an ally.  The room was stuffy from the mass of sweaty bodies and heavy perfume, bordering on claustrophobic.  I sought a brief reprieve from the festivities, desperately in need of some fresh air.  ON the patio, I stared through the blackness at the carriage house, eerily visible only in the slivers of moonlight.

“Miss Franklyn.” 

It wasn’t necessary for me to turn around to know who had spoken.  Her voice was unfamiliar, but I knew Lady Emily Smyth had finally found me.

“Lady Emily,” I offered.

“I hear congratulations are in order,” she said evenly.

“Thank you.”  I turned to face my adversary.  Again, her beauty stunned me.  The rich mahogany of her hair was set off by the emerald green of her dress.  She smiled tightly, but the motion did not reach her cold eyes.

“I cannot help but be mildly disappointed,” she confessed.

“Why is that?”

“I am sure you already know the answer and are inquiring only out of politeness.”

There was no sense in mincing words.  “I do and I am.”    

She sighed, a tinkling sound, harsh in its pleasantness.  “Alas, you should enjoy the victory while it lasts.” 

Before I could ask for clarification, she left me with my dark thoughts and incessant fears.  I waited a beat before following her into the ballroom, allowing myself time to breathe and gain composure.  My nerves were stretched and vibrating with the tension of our brief meeting.

Lady Emily Smyth had disappeared into the crowd of guests.  I searched for Nick, to tell him about the odd exchange, but his face, now as familiar to me as my own, was not in the room.  Once again, my heart began beating hard enough to shake the diamond necklace I wore. 

Something was wrong.

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