Truth in Love: A Solstice Tale
London, England 1898
Verity Hawkins stood before the tall mirror in her bed chamber, smoothing the front of her blue velvet gown with her palms. It was Christmas Eve and it was also her birthday; at the stroke of midnight, she would be thirty-three years old.
Too young to be a spinster, too old to marry, she thought gloomily. Too tall, too slender in some places, too well endowed in others. Too intelligent to appeal to a fool, too unconventional for the fashionable or stodgy. Face it, my girl ñ you are destined to be alone for the rest of your life.
She was still handsome, even if the first flush of youth had begun to fade. Her golden hair was slowly turning to gilt, and there was a touch of silver at her temples. Verity's eyes were an electrifying shade of blue, enhanced by the deep color of her dress; her lips were full, her cheekbones high and prominent. A patrician nose gave her a haughty appearance, as did her habit of peering down at people from her awkward six-foot height. In truth, Verity was not overly prideful or snobbish; she was slightly near-sighted, but hated wearing glasses.
When I was a child, I used to pray for love. When I was seventeen, I begged God and the Fates for it. When I was twenty-one, I harbored the hope that some day, I would meet my grand passion. Years passed, and I am yet alone. I have forgotten how to yearn. She frowned at her reflection. Why have I always closed my eyes and dreamed, not of a husband, but of another woman who would be mine?
Verity did not know the answer to her question. She accepted that she was different, and had never sought to engage a man's affections. The fact that no man (or woman) had offered her so much as a chaste kiss was nevertheless painful, an injury made twice as sharp by her continued virginal state. She did not want a husband, but a female partner who would love her and be loved in return ñand unfulfilled dreams became tarnished over time.
I've never even been kissed... she thought, and shook her head. Enough foolishness and self-pity. You've read far too many romances, girl. There are no knights in shining armor. There are no Casanovas to serenade beneath your balcony. No one will ever offer you rosebuds and posies. There will never be moonlight and stars and magical nights in your life, only a cold bed and a colder heart.
She stared into the mirror, momentarily fascinated by the reflection of a candle on her bedside table. The flame flickered and danced in a draft from the window. Verity refocused on her own image. Tugging her ruffled cuffs into place, she patted her high-necked bodice, and fastened a silver pin in the shape of a lyre to her discrete lace collar.
She'd done her hair up into a Grecian knot threaded with ribbon, with a pair of corkscrew-curled lovelocks left to dance on either side of her face. A scroll and a gold painted apple completed her costume. It was the evening of the annual Christmas celebration at Tobias Swann's home in Grosvenor Square.
Verity worked as an assistant librarian at the British Museum, and Mr. Swann was her supervisor. Every year, he invited his employees to celebrate the holiday season with a banquet and costume ball, for Mr. Swann was a generous, good-humored man.
Verity had decided to attend as a Muse ñ not any Muse in particular, but rather as three of the minor goddesses who appealed to her personal tastes. Hence the scroll for Clio, proclaimer of history; a lyre for Erato's love poetry; and a golden apple to stand as a symbol for Melpomene and tragedy. Had not a golden apple caused the launching of a thousand ships, and the topless towers of Illium to burn? All for the love of a woman, she thought, eyes catching sight of the candle's reflection once again. A world burned to ashes for love.
A wild idea suddenly blossomed in her mind. There had been a group of professors at the library the other afternoon, researching Russian history for some scholarly work. She had unearthed a peculiar pamphlet detailing some of the ancient customs and superstitions of that place. The information had included a Yuletide ritual. She had merely glanced at it then, but the memory of what she'd read was insisting on being recognized.
It was insane. It was nothing more than ignorant superstition, the same sort that caused thousands of English girls to peel apples and toss the peel over their shoulders to reveal the initial of their future husbands. Or to melt lead and drizzle it through a wedding ring into a bowl of cold water for a similar result. She had even heard of stupid young women actually setting a match to black powder poured in the snow, then taking note of the resultant patterns ñ and possibly losing an eye in the explosive process.
When she was younger and sillier, living in her family's farm in Oxfordshire, Verity had made a "dumb cake" with three friends one year. Each of them had, in complete silence, taken turns mixing flour, water, eggs and salt into a dough, and then baking it on the hearth. Tradition said that after eating equal shares of the cake, the girls should walk backwards to their beds, there to dream of future mates. The only thing Verity had gotten out of the ritual was indigestion. She had sworn to never do such a pointless thing again.
However, something about the Russian custom stuck in her mind and refused to go away. Verity finally sat down in a chair, chin in hand, thinking hard. There was a half hour before Mr. Swann's coach would arrive to pick her up. She had plenty of time to exorcise an errant thought and put common sense back into its place.
This is nonsense, pure and simple. I'm a grown woman, not an ignorant child. Magic does not exist, and only superstitious, uneducated people believe in fairy tales and divination.
After sitting and pondering and arguing against herself, Verity abruptly stood up and went to fetch another full length mirror. If performing an idiotic ritual would appease some part of herself ñ an impossibly romantic germ that continued to fester, no matter what she said or did ñ then so be it. She would get it over with, and then go to Mr. Swann's party.
Verity lived in a small flat on Saffron Hill, a London neighborhood favored by lower class Irish immigrants. It abutted onto Smithfield, a riverside district with an unsavory reputation. This was not the safest place to live, nor was it remotely respectable, but it was all she could afford on her assistant's salary. However, there were a few second-hand furniture and pawn shops, and she'd been able to furnish her flat surprisingly well.
The mirror she dragged into the bedchamber was mahogany framed, its condition marred only by a crack in one corner of the glass. Verity spent a few minutes arranging this mirror opposite the one already in the room, and putting a chair in-between. The lit candle collected, she sat down, closing her eyes against an ache in her ribs where the tightly laced corset cut into her sides.
The Russian pamphlet said that a young lady performed this ritual on Christmas Eve, sitting between two mirrors with a candle in her lap. The mirrors reflected into one another, repeating the same image again and again. She had to find the seventh reflection; here she would supposedly see the face of her one true love.
Her hands began to tremble. Verity controlled them with an effort, lest she spill hot wax on her velvet dress. She was breathless, as though the air had grown thinner, yet also electrified. This is ridiculous! she thought, opening her eyes. Am I a school-girl, to pay heed to fairy tales as though they were truth?
Nevertheless, she was exhilarated, a tingling sensation growing at the base of her spine. The faint inner protest had no power. It was as though she was being controlled by someone else, a stranger who lurked beneath her own skin. All those long and lonely years, her hopes had been dashed, shattered against grim reality ñ but somehow, deep within, a little piece of her heart had never ceased to believe.
Verity's eyes sought the seventh reflection, delving deeper and deeper into the mirror's silvery depths. She could not have torn her gaze away. Mesmerized, her head felt hot and hollow, a burgeoning lightness that threatened to pull her out of the chair and send her floating over London's coal-smogged skies.
There! There it was, the seventh reflection in the right-hand mirror. Verity squinted to bring the image into focus. "Perhaps I should have put on my glasses," she murmured, leaning forward. Much to her disappointment, all she was able to make out was her own face, and a tiny, flickering candle flame, the sole point of brightness. Verity was hideously crushed. She might not have wanted to believe, but it would have been nice to see something other than herself.
"Balderdash and humbug!" she proclaimed, about to rise. At that moment, something shocking occurred that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and the blood freeze to ice in her veins.
The candle flame turned blue. Vivid as a summer's sky, it leaped from the wick, nearly singing her eyebrows. Verity sat back down with a thump, staring in horrified fascination at the candle held between her fingers. The blue flame billowed at an extreme angle, seemingly drawn to the left-hand mirror. Despite her initial terror, Verity rolled her head to the left... and beheld a miracle.
There was a seventh reflection here as well, only it was expanding, swallowing up all the other images until it was prominent from corner to corner, interrupted only by the crack on the mirror's front. Tongues of streaming blue fire splashed against the surface, curling away in smoky threads.
Verity saw a woman, lovely, vibrant and laughing. She was dark as a Spaniard, with an olive complexion, black hair and flashing black eyes. Crimson lips drawn back in a brilliant smile, punctuated by a tiny mole at the corner of her generous mouth; a beauty mark that was begging to be kissed. She was plump and animated, the skirts of her dull gold gown swaying as she danced in place, fluttering a fan. Exquisitely rounded shoulders rose from a low cut bodice that all but exposed the stranger's charms.
The woman twirled, pulled a pin from her hair, and shook out a wealth of thick, black locks that tumbled and curled about her face. She spun again and again while Verity watched, her mouth gone dry, heart thudding painfully in a too-tight chest.
Verity was frozen in place, unable to move, but equally unable to resist the temptation to touch this impossible vision. She forced herself to reach out a hand that shook uncontrollably, and her fingertips just grazed the mirror's cold surface. There was a loud snap and a spark that sent an unpleasant jolt burning her arm from hand to elbow. Verity screamed, and in the same instant, the mirror cracked into a hundred pieces, and the candle went out.
She spent a few minutes panting in the near darkness, trying to gather her scattered wits back together. At last, when she felt a bit calmer, Verity got up and made her way to the small fireplace, where a log was burning sullenly. There was a box of paper spills on the mantelpiece; she lit one, and used it to re-light the candle. Houses on Saffron Hill were not fitted with gas lights, and she preferred candles to smelly oil lamps.
Her pulse had returned to normal. In truth, Verity felt rather numb, detached, as if she had received a mortal blow and the pain of it had yet to make itself known. Her arm did not hurt anymore, although it prickled slightly, a pins and needles sensation that was rapidly disappearing. She examined the broken mirror; fortunately, although it was shattered, the pieces were still held within the mahogany frame.
There was also a clock on the mantelpiece. Verity looked at it, noting that it was time for Mr. Swann's coach to arrive. He had been kind enough to send it for her, rather than allow her to travel unescorted in a hired hansom cab. She stuck the candle in a dish, retrieved her gloves and a woolen coat, which she buttoned up beneath her chin. The gilded apple and scroll were thrust into a pocket, along with her reticule. She did not have much money, only a few shillings, but it would be enough to tip the driver.
Verity risked one last glimpse into the broken mirror. Her image was distorted into dozens of sharp-edged fragments, chopped into slivers and bits. Her eyes were haunted by shadows, their bright blue hue somehow muted into gray. Pale as a ghost and bloodless to boot, Verity thought. Pull yourself together, girl. It was a whimsy, a hallucination, most likely produced by the strong cheese you had for lunch. Be rational. Magic does not exist. You saw nothing but an illusion. And the mirror is old; you probably damaged it when you dragged it in from the sitting room.
"Bah!" she said aloud, scowling at her reflection. "Fancies of a diseased brain, no doubt. You must be going mad, to think a superstitious rite would let you see the future! Stupid, foolish girl... I suppose you've learned your lesson now. Soul mates are found only in badly written, melodramatic novels. There'll be no love for you, Verity Hawkins. That's your fate, and you might as well accept it."
Angry at herself, believing that her own mind had deceived her, Verity blew out the candle and swept away into the sitting room. She stomped through the door of her flat and slammed it behind her, ignoring the crash of glass as pieces of the broken mirror fell to the floor. Underneath her breath, she muttered, "Seven years bad luck, too, I suppose... bah!"
Chin high, she strode down the stairs to the street below, there to await the arrival of Mr. Swann's coach.
Tobias Swann's grand house had been inherited from his great-uncle, who had made a fortune in the Exchange. Tobias was the Chief Librarian at the British Museum ñ a position of great consequence among the university set ñ but while that afforded him much respect, it did not grant him any social standing at all. To the gentry, he was a type of tradesman, because he worked a regular set of hours instead of being idle. Although he lived in a highly fashionable part of town and had money, his friends were as common as himself.
Every year, Tobias loved to share his good fortune with the library employees by giving a grand Christmas costume party. Everyone was invited, from lowly Michael Smith, an errand boy, to the terrifying Mrs. McGillicudy, a beetle-browed harridan in charge of 18th Century Periodicals. There would be a vast banquet, games, carols and diverse entertainments. No one ever left one of Tobias' parties hungry or bored.
The house was ablaze with lights as Verity's coach pulled up to the front. It had snowed earlier in the evening, but such pristine whiteness never lasted long in London. Already, the bulk of it had turned to dirty slush and ice. The night was bitterly cold and clear; very little of the city's famous fog was in evidence.
She waited while the driver climbed down and opened her door, offering a hand as she exited. She tipped him two shillings, wished him "Merry Christmas!" and made her way inside.
There was a maid standing by the door, ready to take her coat. Verity was grateful to be rid of it; Tobias had so many candles and gaslights lit, not to mention a roaring fire in every hearth, that it was very warm. A blast of noise and laughter and music assaulted her ears. She flinched from the sheer volume of it.
Tobias caught sight of her as she stood in the entrance hall. "My dear Miss Hawkins! Merry Christmas, dear lady! Welcome to my humble home!"
The man was considerably shorter than Verity, and nearly as wide; he waddled when he walked, and the buttons of his fancy waistcoat strained across his middle, seemingly in danger of exploding. Dressed as a gentleman of the Sun King's court, he wore an eye-searing orange satin coat, and his plump legs were encased in stockings and knee britches. The color made his florid face appear even redder, as did his powdered wig. Brown eyes sparkling with genuine happiness, Tobias clasped Verity's hand and shook it vigorously.
"Thank you, sir," Verity replied. She liked Mr. Swann. He was a kindly soul, a true gentleman, but he was so short, she always felt like a gawky Amazon when standing next to him. "How is your wife?"
"Capital! In her usual rude health, by Gad." Tobias winked broadly and made a show of examining her dress. "We are not a-muse, eh? Get it? A Muse? I see at least two classical references on your costume. The third escapes me for the moment, but you can't fool me for long."
She smiled at his joke. "Clio and Erato, as you see," she said, flourishing the scroll and pointing to the silver lyre pin on her collar. "Can you guess the last?" She held up the gilded apple.
"Not yet, but if the punch hasn't fuddled me, I'll come to it soon enough. Well, my dear girl, don't be shy. The dancing's begun, and I'm certain we can winkle out a partner for you."
Verity's protests went unheard as Tobias steered her into the ballroom. It was a long, rectangular space, actually a sitting room, dining room and drawing room combined by removing the connecting doors. A quartet of musicians, screened behind a wall of aspidistras and ferns, sawed away on their violins and cellos. At the moment, they were playing a waltz.
Out of the way of the dancing floor, a table had been set up for the banquet. There were raw oysters served in the shell, along with crisp oyster loaves, fried smelts and smoked fish. Roast geese stuffed with sage and onion dressing competed with a huge round of roast beef with gravy, and all the trimmings from brussels sprouts to potatoes to rice croquettes. In the center of the table was a bowl of shrub, a heavily sweetened, rum-and-orange punch that she knew was delicious, though deceptively strong.
On the sideboard was a plum pudding big enough to feed an army, accompanied by brandy butter, custard and whiskey sauce. She also spied a cheese board, mince pies, fancy cakes and fresh fruit should anyone have a spare corner or two that needed filling after such a feast.
Verity managed to extricate herself from Tobias' grip, promising him a dance later in the evening. The little man wandered away in high spirits, to join a group of people playing hunt the slipper. She managed to find a quiet corner where she could stand and observe ñ her usual pastime at Mr. Swann's jolly, holly-wreathed gatherings.
Mr. Bagg of Almanacs and Atlases had come dressed as an American cowboy, or rather his version of it, with a coiled whip, an empty saddlebag fastened onto his shoulder and an oversized Stetson hat that kept falling over his eyes. The effect was incongruous, especially since he wore a formal tuxedo rather than chaps and boots.
He was trying to dance with Mrs. Pittman (Encyclopedias), but kept being blinded by his hat, tripping and then interrupting the waltz to apologize profusely. Mrs. Pittman, who was stout, forty and wearing what Verity first took to be a shell pink nightie ñ but which on further reflection was an Empire-waisted Regency gown ñ huffed and puffed and turned an alarming shade of puce.
The couple whirled past her, and Mr. Bagg cried, "Ah, Merry, ah, Christmas, Miss... er... Chalkins."
"That's Miss Hawkins, sir," Mrs. Pittman replied, giving the younger woman a smile that revealed teeth as big as tombstone slabs. "She's the assistant in Geographical Journals and Periodicals. Merry Christmas!"
Verity nodded as they swept away, leaving a trail of mumbled apologies and magenta complexions. Her gaze shifted. There was a fir tree in a corner, a massive thing so completely covered in silver tinsel, glass ornaments, gingerbread men, candy-filled cornucopias, tin soldiers, marzipan decorations and other trinkets that it threatened to collapse. A Dresden angel with an unfortunate leer was given a place of honor at the top. As she turned away from Tobias Swann's excessive holiday cheer, she was startled to see someone standing directly before her.
He was shorter than she was - the top of his head came just level with her bosom ñ and wearing a rakish pirate's costume, complete with a rusty red, bristling false beard, a pig-tailed wig and tricorn hat. Black trousers were tucked into knee boots; he had on a ruffled shirt, embroidered waistcoat and a deep scarlet frock coat with wide, brass-buttoned cuffs. He caught her eye and bowed, hand on heart. "Might I have the pleasure of this dance?"
Verity was speechless with astonishment. She looked down at this... this impertinent midget... trying to discern his identity. His voice was a bit husky but without masculine depth, which made her realize that he was a teenage boy. His accent proclaimed him an American. She was certain that she did not know him, nor could she remember seeing him in the library. His eyes were black and heavily fringed with dark lashes, but much of his face was obscured behind that ridiculous beard.
"Certainly not!" she snapped. "We haven't been properly introduced."
"A minor technicality," he replied, not at all abashed. When Mr. Bagg and Mrs. Pittman came spinning around for a second pass on the dance floor, he reached out and tapped the middle-aged gentleman's shoulder. "I say, do you know this delightful lady? Would you be so kind as to introduce us?"
Mr. Bagg threw the boy a grateful smile. He took a moment to catch his breath, while Mrs. Pittmans' color slowly subsided. "Ah, of course, dear boy. Miss Hawkins, may I present Mr... er..."
"Beck," the pirate stage-whispered.
"Yes, yes, of course. Miss Hawkins, ah, may I have the honor of presenting to you Mr. Beck. Mr. Beck, Miss Hawkins. Er, what division did you say you worked in?"
"Prestidigitation," Beck said promptly. He turned to Verity. "Charmed to make your acquaintance, I'm sure."
Verity was aghast at the boldness, the sheer effrontery of this rascal. One could only request an introduction from a male member of the lady's family, and she had no such in London. "You, sir, are no gentleman," she said icily, looking down her patrician nose at him.
Mrs. Pittman made a scoffing noise. "Do climb down from your high horse, Miss Hawkins, and give the boy a dance. He's obviously taken with you." She tee-heed, but the ladylike giggle soon turned into a guffaw that made her enormous bosoms bounce. The Regency gown she wore was scandalously thin, a nightgown rather than a proper dress, not buttressed by multiple layers of petticoats and underthings. Verity almost hoped that the interfering woman's bodice would burst.
"Will you pay heed to your friend's advice, Miss Hawkins?" Beck held out a hand in invitation. "Surely it would not be a hardship to grant me the honor of a single dance."
Verity itched to smack his impudent face. Mr. Bagg, repeating the word ëprestidigitation' to himself in puzzlement, finally pushed his oversized hat back on his head, took hold of Mrs. Pitmann with a determined breath, and sent them both careening back onto the floor. His whip fell off with the vigor of his movements, and was kicked away. The saddlebag fell, too, and he tripped over it, nearly bringing down Mrs. Pittman. Someone persuaded the couple to visit the buffet. Verity was left alone with the cheeky pirate, his black eyes sparkling with mischief.
"It's not as though I'd be compromising your virtue," Beck said, cocking his head to one side. It was not possible to tell if he was grinning beneath the beard, but Verity suspected he was. "Please, Miss Hawkins. Just one dance, and if you don't care for another, I'll leave you be."
Verity realized that she was not going to be rid of Mr. Beck until he'd had his way. "Very well, sir. A single dance, on the understanding that afterwards, you'll go about your business and leave me to mine."
"Splendid!" Without warning, Beck swept her into his arms and they were away.
"Unmarried ladies do not waltz!" Verity hissed in embarrassment. She didn't dare struggle against his surprisingly strong grip, not wishing to draw attention to herself.
"Relax and enjoy, Miss Hawkins. I think you'll find that a hint of scandal is very exhilarating," Beck skillfully led her in the dance, one hand on her waist, the other caressing her fingers. Round and round they spun, gracefully gliding in time to the strains of the Viennese waltz.
Beck whispered a poem in time to the dance:
"O sway, and swing, and sway,
And swing, and sway, and swing!
Ah me, what bliss like unto this,
Can days and daylight bring?
O swing, and sway, and swing,
And rise, and sink, and fall!
There is no bliss like unto this,
This is the best of all."
Verity was impressed. He was quoting part of work by Amy Levy, The First Extra: A Waltz Song. It was perfect. She was fond of poetry, especially by modern authors. A spark of mischief made her quote a different poem by the same author in return:
"Grind me a dirge or a requiem,
Or a funeral-march sad and slow,
But not, O not, that waltz tune
I heard so long ago."
Beck clutched her tighter, and she felt herself literally melting in his arms.
Despite herself, Verity was enjoying the experience. She closed her eyes in sheer pleasure, allowing herself to be guided solely by her partner's masterful touch. The music swept through her senses, sent a thrumming melody straight to her core. The sun, the moon, the stars were dancing, too, in a stately reel. She felt as light as air, two becoming one, and the waltz was a long, sweet, purely sensual experience that she never wanted to end.
Beck's chuckle cut through her euphoria. "The music stopped two minutes ago, Miss Hawkins. Shall I bribe the band master to play a second?"
Her eyes flew open. Anger abruptly flooded her veins, and to her horror, she slapped his face. "Rogue! Scoundrel!" she growled, shaking with rage. "How dare you, sir!"
"I would dare much for you, delightful lady," Beck replied, staring up at her. He had the audacity to kiss her hand, while she was paralyzed with indignation.
She snatched her hand away. "Begone, sir. You'll not make me a laughingstock again." Verity stomped away, chin up, gathering the rags of her dignity around her.
Beck stood bemused, watching her leave through the French doors that opened onto the garden.
Verity went outside to cool her flaming cheeks. It was refreshing after the overheated room. She was ashamed, alarmed and confused. What was I thinking? A teenage lad who is not yet old enough to shave! What's wrong with me, that I took such pleasure in his arms?
She could have sworn there was something familiar about Beck's sparkling black eyes, his graceful movements, the barely glimpsed smile beneath his false beard. Verity shook her head and blew out a breath; a plume of white smoke escaped her lips and vanished. I must be going mad.
Verity knew that she did not want a man. Her dreams, her desires were always for women. So why was she attracted to a boy who was probably half her age? This is insane. Good Lord, I'm old enough to be his mother! And my mother would roll over in her grave if she knew!
She was close to tears, and that infuriated her, too.
A voice from behind said, "Excuse me, Miss Hawkins. I was a little concerned. It's perishing cold out here, and I don't want you to catch your death."
Beck had taken off his frock coat, and put it around Verity's shoulders. She considered hurling it down and stamping on it, but he was right. It was quite cold, and her hands were like ice. The coat was too tight to button over her bosom, but she was able to thrust her arms through the sleeves. "Thank you," she said in a clipped, polite tone. "Your concern and thoughtfulness does you credit."
He folded his arms across his chest. "I'm twenty-six years old, have inherited several silver mines in Colorado, and have traveled all over the world. I can honestly say that I've never met a woman like you before."
A hot flush suffused Verity's face. It wouldn't be polite to call him a liar, but how could she believe such an obvious fabrication? "How interesting," she replied as neutrally as possible.
Beck laughed. "I'm afraid that in order to prove my claims, I'd have to take you to my hotel. I'm staying at Brown's in Mayfair."
Another lie. Brown's was one of the finest hotels in London. "I could not possibly accept such an invitation," Verity said. She stared out into the garden. Moonlight washed the landscape, softened the bare branches and winter-blighted shrubs. There was a suspicious wetness in her eyes; she wiped it away roughly. Her heart was in turmoil, her mind consumed by doubt.
All her life, Verity had desired the perfect womanly partner. Such things were possible; she had occasionally smuggled naughty books from the Restricted section that detailed sapphic liaisons in all their glory. Reading the stories alone in her room at night, she had fallen asleep to dream of herself in the arms of another woman. Men held no fascination for her at all... or so she'd thought.
Now she found herself lusting after Beck just because of single, albeit magical, waltz. There was no mistaking the sensation of infatuation. She'd had schoolgirl crushes. She knew the signs and symptoms well. It could not be... and yet it was. Verity was so miserable, she wished the earth would open up and swallow her whole.
Beck touched her shoulder. "Miss Hawkins, there's something I have to tell you. Something extraordinary happened tonight, and I..."
His speech was interrupted by Tobias Swann, who came bustling towards Verity. "My dear girl! We are about to begin the Phantom Waltz. I insist you participate." He blinked, noticing Beck for the first time. "Good Gad, that's an excellent costume, sir! Are you perchance Mr. Dexter of Numismatics?"
"Alas, you are mistaken, sir," Beck replied.
"Mr. Pierce, the assistant in Medieval Theology?"
Tobias snapped his fingers. "I've got it, by Jove! You're Chomondely from Anglo-Saxon Studies!"
"Mr. Swann, you are perceptive, but I am not Chomondely, Pierce or Dexter."
Tobias scratched his head, tilting his powdered wig askew. "I shall eventually guess correctly, sir. I beg you not to spoil my fun by telling me."
"I wouldn't dream of such a thing." Beck smoothed his false beard down; it bristled quite fiercely, giving the impression of an animated hedge when he spoke.
It came to Tobias that Miss Hawkins was standing alone in the garden with a charming young man. She was wearing said man's frock coat. Her color was high. She appeared ill-at-ease. The gentleman with her was quite the opposite, apparently in excellent spirits. Tobias was sometimes absent minded, but he was no fool. He could smell a romance in the making, and could not help chuckling loudly.
"I'll leave you two alone again, shall I?" he said slyly. "On a night such as this, with a moon such as this, a young person's fancy turns to love, eh? Capital! Capital, I say! A pair of dark horses, for I'd had not a hint from your office behavior. Still, you need not fear scandal, Miss Hawkins. Should anyone ask, I shall tell them you are indisposed." He winked, nudged Beck with his elbow, and waddled back into the house.
Verity was mortified. The horrible old man and his insinuations were not to be borne! She knew that Mr. Swann was well-meaning, but he was also a terrible gossip. News of her ëliaison' would be on everyone's lips by the time the clocks chimed midnight. She put her face in her hands and muttered, "Ruined. I'm ruined."
"Not at all." Beck put an arm around her waist. She tried to shrug it off, but he held on. "Come with me; you need something warm to drink and some food inside you. It would be a pity to faint on Christmas Eve and miss Mr. Swann's gala."
"I can't. Don't you understand?" Verity had a haggard expression that made Beck tighten his grip, afraid that she might really faint. "Please, I beg you, leave me alone. I don't want to see you. I don't want to speak to you." She suddenly felt dizzy, and the night spun in circles around her. Beck caught her as she started to fall.
Verity pushed him away. "Don't touch me! I can't bear it!" She forced herself upright, struggled out of his frock coat, and shoved it into his arms. "Just leave me alone." She ran back inside, trying desperately to compose herself.
Upon seeing her, Mrs. Pittman at the buffet swallowed a mouthful of goose and said to Mr. Bagg, "The poor lamb. She's been crossed in love, mark my words."
Mr. Bagg, who was still trying to remember what ëprestigitation' meant, did not reply.
The band was playing another waltz. Verity had gotten a cup of smoking bishop, a spiced mulled wine, and hidden herself in an upstairs bedroom. She was attempting to calm her nerves. She felt thoroughly wretched. Her world had been turned upside-down by a petite pirate who was an outrageous liar and a rogue. Her reputation was ruined. Everything she thought she knew about herself was false. Or was it? Could it be a momentary aberration? Verity could not envision life as a conventional wife. Her flesh crawled at the vision of allowing a man to do things to her, things she had read about, things a proper lady was not supposed to know. She wanted a woman... or did she? Oh, this is so vexing! I don't know what I want anymore! Or if I want anything at all!
A soft knock came from the door. She started, nearly spilling cinnamon-scented wine over her dress. "It's me, Miss Hawkins. Please let me in. I have to talk to you."
Verity recognized that voice. It was a demon, a tormentor sent from Hell to confuse and plague her. "Go away, Mr. Beck!"
"No! Leave me alone!" Verity began to weep in earnest. She couldn't help it. Tears welled up and spilled down her cheeks, dripped into her wine, made spots on her satin gloves.
"If you don't open the door, Miss Hawkins, I shall be forced to take drastic action."
Verity did not dignify this meaningless threat with an answer. She sat down on the edge of a divan, her nose beginning to swell. She sobbed, taking in great gasps of air, her shoulders shaking. Verity was so caught up in her distress that at first, she did not notice a scraping sound coming from the door.
She hiccuped and said, "What are you doing? I want you to go away, Mr. Beck."
The reply she received was muffled by the stout oak door.
"Atthis, my darling, thou did'st
A few feet to the rushy bed,
When a great fear and passion shook
My heart lest haply thou wert dead;
It grew so still about the brook,
As if a soul were drawn away.
My darling! Nay, our very breath
Nor light nor darkness shall divide;
Queen Dawn shall find us on one bed,
Nor must thou flutter from my side
An instant, lest I feel the dread,
At this, the immanence of death. "
Verity started whispering the poem to herself at the fourth line, her voice echoing Beck's. It was one of her favorites, written by Michael Field ñ the pseudonym of a pair of lesbian lovers, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. She wiped her wet face with the back of her hand, and put the wine cup on a table. "What do you want?" she called. The storm of weeping was over. Instead, a heavy sadness had invaded her heart.
There was a click, and the door swung open. Beck slipped inside, shutting it behind him and re-locking it. He held up a hairpin. "I used it as a lock pick. If my father hadn't struck silver all those years ago, I'd have probably become a fairly good thief. Benefits of an undisciplined childhood, playing poker and billiards in mining towns. I have many skills, some of which are highly questionable."
"I have nothing to say to you," Verity replied in leaden tones.
"Well, I have plenty to say to you." Beck put the hairpin in the pocket of his coat. "Now, we can sit here and discuss this calmly and rationally, like adults, or I can shout it after you as we run all over this house and down the streets of London. It's your choice."
Verity sighed. "Fine. Have your say, Mr. Beck. It seems that I am unable to resist."
Beck plucked a single rosebud from the floral arrangement on the mantelpiece. He began to pace back and forth, twirling the flower between his fingers. "I've been in London on business for the last three months. About a fortnight ago, I had the good fortune to visit the British Museum Library. I spied an angel there ñ that would be you, Miss Hawkins ñ and I was instantly smitten."
"Please, sir, no more."
"Hear me out, I beg you." Beck stopped and fixed Verity with his intense gaze. "I followed you around the library, overhearing your conversations, but discreetly, always discreetly. The more I listened and saw, the more I came to admire your intelligence, your independence of thought. I've been your constant shadow for nearly fourteen days. I inquired after your personal life through colleagues and neighbors. Quite a liberty, I'll admit, but I was and still am utterly besotted."
Verity was flabbergasted. "Villain! How dare you!"
"As I said before, Miss Hawkins, for you I will dare anything. In fact, I took to going armed when I followed you home from work, in case you should require a heroic rescue." Beck removed his tricorn hat and flung it into a corner. "I was a fool in love, dear lady. You are as vibrant as you are beautiful, and I couldn't bear the secrecy any longer. I was determined to meet you, in circumstances where I could snatch a moment alone and explain myself. I'd hoped to impress you with my ingenuity."
"Impressed is an understatement," Verity said, rolling her eyes. "I am, in fact, horrified."
Beck tore off his false beard, hurling it to join the tricorn on the floor. He was devilishly pretty, with an olive complexion, pouting lips, round face and gorgeous black eyes. There was a tiny mole at the corner of his mouth. Verity felt a thrill of recognition run through her, but as far as she knew, Beck was still a complete stranger.
He continued, "I wasn't sure if you'd seen me in the library. The last thing I wanted was to cause a scene, or think that I was completely mad, so I adopted a cunning disguise. Perhaps a bit too cunning, as matters nearly backfired." He loosened the cravat around his throat. "Truth to tell, I was afraid to approach you directly. You're a goddess, Miss Hawkins ñ a golden, unapproachable goddess, and I was frankly terrified of rejection. Flowers, bon-bons, diamond bracelets... the usual trappings of courtship seemed somehow inappropriate. However, fortune favors the bold. I'm done lurking in the shadows. I'm done with disguises and games. It is time for the truth to out, and the Devil with the consequences."
With that pronouncement, Beck took three swift strides towards the divan, took Verity by the shoulders, and pushed her backwards. His body settled on hers, gracefully as a lion falling upon delectable prey. His mouth sought her lips and devoured them hungrily. Verity had no time to protest, no time to do anything other than squeak in alarm.
Her hands fluttered, settled on his chest, and attempted to shove him away. Her eyes flew open as she encountered a suspiciously pliant softness beneath his shirt. Verity managed to tear her lips away and nearly shriek, "You're a woman!"
Beck smiled, staring down at her. "Of course I am. People see what they want to see, what they've been conditioned to interpret as truth. Only men wear trousers, ergo, a person in trousers must be a man. It never occurred to me that you wouldn't perceive the woman beneath the loose pirate clothing, so I'm sorry to have distressed you, dear heart. You ran away before I could explain. By the way, my real name is Tamsin Rebecca Quinn. My friends call me Tam."
"The American heiress?" Verity's heart was stammering in her breast so hard, she could barely force herself to be coherent.
"Yes. I wore a mourning dress and layers of veils when I visited your library the first time. There are a lot of newspaper men in London who have been pestering me for interviews - very tiresome, but I don't begrudge them their trade. I just avoid them when possible. I learned something about disguise from a Pinkerton detective in San Francisco; the knowledge was put to good use when I decided to keep my eye on you incognito, as it were." Tam used the rosebud she was still holding to trace a path across Verity's cheek.
"I was the street sweeper who cleared your path on Thursday last, the violet seller on Monday, a beggar on Tuesday - that shilling you gave me is my most treasured possession," Tam continued. "I've been a policeman, an infirm widow, a window cleaner... I even played a dowdy spinster collecting for charity when I knocked on your door in Saffron Hill last week. As I said, I have many skills."
"That was you? But why?" Far from being uneasy, Verity was enjoying the weight of Tam's body on hers. A subtle fire was burning deep within, a pleasurable sensation made all the more thrilling by the knowledge that there were no conflicts, there could be no more doubt. Her heart had been right all along.
"I told you. When I saw you that morning, I was knocked head over heels. There was something about you, something that drew me with an irresistible call. Believe me, I didn't try to resist at all. I wanted you so very badly." Tam tossed the rosebud over her shoulder. The pig-tailed wig followed, revealing lush, black curls pinned firmly into place. In a kind of wondering daze, Verity removed the pins one by one, sending Tam's hair tumbling free. The fragrance made her want to swoon.
Tam's voice trembled. "I thought you were a woman for women, like me. The poetry you liked to read, the books I saw you smuggling out of the Restricted section ñ sinful girl!" She tapped Verity's nose with one finger. "I've had affairs in the past, but that's not why I sought you out. I believe you're the companion of my soul, my lady, the one I've been searching for all my life. But if you aren't... I mean, if I've been wrong..." She broke off, searching Verity's face.
Verity thought she might fly away to the moon, or burst into song. The vision in the mirror had not been an illusion. It was truth, and there was love in truth, and magic did exist. Oh, she believed in fairy tales, superstition and Christmas Eve. She believed! "I've been waiting for you forever," she said softly, blue eyes wide and shimmering. "Kiss me again, Tam. Kiss me again."
Tamsin needed no second invitation. This time, their embrace was sweet, warm as liquid honey. Verity felt like she was melting again. "They're playing another waltz," Tam whispered, lips against Verity's ear. "Will you pay me the honor of another dance?"
"As long as you don't kiss me with that horrid beard," Verity replied breathlessly.
To her astonishment, Tam quoted from another poem by Michael Field. As she said the lines, Verity realized that they spoke indirectly of her own experience earlier that same evening ñ the mirrors, the blue flaming candle, that impossible vision of lovely, lovely Tamsin Rebecca Quinn dancing in a silver reflection.
"One night--A night of mystic
blue, of rose,
A look will pass supreme from me, from you,
Like a long sob, laden with long adieux.
And, later on, an angel will unclose
The door, and, entering joyously, re-light
The tarnished mirrors and the flames blown to the night."
"It must have been an angel that sent you to me," Verity said, almost purring in bliss. "I'm in Heaven."
"You're also in a compromising position," Tam said with a very wicked grin. "What about your reputation?"
"To hell with my reputation," Verity said, shocking herself. That was no way for a lady to talk. On the other hand, the things she was contemplating doing to Tamsin when they were alone together were not ladylike at all. She squirmed slightly, making Tam's grin grow even broader. "Did you say that you have a hotel room?" she asked, feeling extremely naughty. "I haven't had affairs in the past, but I'm certainly willing to try."
Tam chuckled. "Anything for you, my dearest Verity."
From belowstairs came muted cracks and bangs as guests opened their cosaques, or exploding bon-bons, which contained little trinkets. Tobias insisted on this ritual taking place at midnight. Clocks around the house began to chime, twelve strokes ringing out one by one.
"It's my birthday," Verity said.
"Happy birthday." Tam kissed her again and again, until Verity was panting and flushed. "What would you like as a gift? I'll lay the world at your feet, my golden goddess."
"I've been given the greatest gift of all." Verity wound her arms around Tam's neck and said huskily, "You, my love."
The flames in the fireplace flickered and danced, turning sapphirine blue, as the two loneliest women in London pledged their love in a holly bedecked house on Christmas Day. A mirror above the mantelpiece went unnoticed, but magical visions began bubbling up from silver depths. Reflection after reflection of their future life together, leavened with laughter, a few troubles, and a trace of sorrow...
They did not know it then, but Verity Hawkins and Tamsin Quinn would, indeed, live happily ever after.