Lydia Ascott sat stiffly on the edge of a high-backed arm chair. The sitting room of Mr. Cal Talloway was filled with strange women and men. Her stepmother drifted about the room laughing with that mock tone she used so often when trying to impress her betters. Lydia's eyes traced the crowd for some sort of answer as to what on earth she was doing there.
Mr. Talloway, known for his wealth and odd eccentricities, had yet to make an appearance at this strange party he had chosen to throw in the early days of September. The Ascott family had lost practically everything due to the bad money management of her father. Their once great manor and many acres in Northern New York were now reduced to a small lake and the house which acted as a hotel for travelers. Mrs. Ascott had been overjoyed with the news of Mr. Talloway's invitation. She had hardly thought of questioning it. Lydia was not as foolish and eager. Her family had nothing to offer. They lived quite far away from the happening world of Mr. Talloway. He, as far as she knew, had never seen her, their manor, or their grounds. She was in no position to argue with her stepmother. So they bundled themselves up and scraped together enough money to buy a suitable wardrobe for the occasion.
Lydia stared down at her light green dress and smoothed down the fabric carefully. The chatter around her had been reduced to an unpleasant drone. She prayed for the moment the host would appear so she could slip out of the room. As it stood now even the slightest movement towards the double doors of the room would be detected.
Not far from her a woman sat gossiping with a thin man dresed in a brown suit. She listened despite her good breeding telling her not to eavesdrop.
"Mr. Talloway's second wife just vanished one day." The woman said seriously as she leaned closer to the man. "Just disappeared. No one ever saw her again. This was two years ago and still no news of her."
"Perhaps he kept quiet about her running off." The man supplied.
"Perhaps. She did seem a rather flightly thing but she certainly loved his money. Why, she came into my aunt's shop practically every week ordering some new day dress or evening gown."
"You know what it could be?" The man said with a slight chuckle. "He could have sent her packing!" The two giggled quietly. Lydia watched as the woman's hand landed on the man's thigh and squeezed gently.
She averted her gaze, embarrassed. Her hands fidgeted with a silver chain she had extracted from her neck. She would give anything to be anywhere else in the world right now than a stuffy sitting room with these kinds of people. She was starting to expect that Mr. Talloway kept the kinds of company that would make most people cringe.
Her eyes moved curiously to the door as a tall man stepped in. His hair was hanging about his face and reached to his shoulder in wispy curls of a graying color. His thin face supported large, inquisitive eyes. A small smile graced his lips. She watched him curiously as a man older than he rushed up and took hold of his hand, shaking it vigorously. She smirked slightly as the newcomer smiled and talked with the man. He bent slightly to make up for the height differential. His crisp gray suit crinkled slightly at the waist as he talked to the man. Lydia tore her eyes away as she became aware of her behavior. Her face felt flushed. She grasped light gloves off of her lap and pulled them on hastily to give herself something distracting to do.
"Ladies and gentlemen," A deep, melodious voice said loudly over the idle chatter. "thank you all for coming. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting." Her eyes drifted up to the speaker. The newcomer-Mr. Talloway it would seem- smiled at the groupings of people. "I had instructed my butler to usher you all out to the back veranda where you would be free to walk among the gardens but it appears he misunderstood me." He said with a slight chuckle. Lydia's eyes could not move from his face. Every movement he made seemed to capture her attention. "I would be so pleased if you would join me outside." He said, his eyes linking with Lydia's. "The weather is much more welcoming."
Murmurs of agreement rippled about her while she and Mr. Talloway stared at one another. "Lydia," her stepmother called as she rushed over to her. Given the chance, she was finally able to move her eyes away from him. "come. Outside, we go." She said cheerily as she stood by while Lydia slowly got to her feet. She looked toward the door to find their host had disappeared.
Her stepmother kept her close by her side as they moved alongside fellow pary-goers. "You must be more social, Lydia." She scolded. "You want to make a good impression on these people, don't you?" Lydia fought back a torrent of replies about her own behavior.
"I don't much care for their company." She said slowly and quietly as a group of giggling women rushed past her.
Mrs. Ascott simply shook her head. "And this is how you feel about Mr. Talloway as well?" She asked. Lydia felt her breath catch in her throat. Her silence was taken as a response by her assuming elder. "Such a shame. I wonder how we shall ever marry you off."
Marriage. Again. A popular topic with this woman. It sent Lydia into whirlwinds of anger and frustration. "I don't think I shall ever marry." She said haughtily. "I shall be an old spinster running the hotel."
"Lydia, don't speak like that." Mrs. Ascott hissed in response.
"Or, perhaps," Lydia said, emboldened by her stepmother's disapproval. "I shall take many lovers and be a scandal among the town. So much so I shall have to leave and make my living in a big city." Her stepmother smacked her arm sharply.
Lydia stopped to stare at her stepmother. "Does such talk upset you, mother?" She asked cooly. "I imagine it should knowing your background." She watched with malicious pleasure as the color drained from the woman's face. She smiled politely and walked away.
The weather was indeed warm. It felt like paradise against Lydia's face. The slight breeze whispering through her hair made her smile. She nodded and acknowledged many of the fellow guest as she weaved her way about them on the veranda. She leaned against a column and stared across the people toward the hedges and pathways. A small pond was visible. The grounds on this small piece of land close to a city were marvelous, she decided.
"Scarlett, do not make such a fuss." A cool, slightly familiar voice said. She turned to see Mr. Talloway and a thin woman dressed in plum. They were close together, their bodies practically touching.
"Cal," She whined. "I am serious! Don't make eyes at other women." She frowned at him as his eyes looked down at her.
"Do you think I would take any of these women for my wife." He said as he touched her blonde curls. "You, Scarlett, are the only one I will have for that." Lydia found she could not take her eye off of the couple. Her face turned red as she tried futilely. Seconds were all she could manage before returning her gaze.
"There are some women that are too good-looking here. Why did you invite them?"
"I will tell you later." He said in a low voice.
"No. I want to know now. That Mrs. Ascott. What is she doing here? Her husband has no money whatsoever. They live out in the middle of nowhere. And her daughter. Have you seen that girl. Really, Cal. What was the point of inviting that creature. She's not even a civil, social creature. She was just sitting completely alone watching everyone."
"Scarlett." His voice warned.
"I'm serious, Cal. I can understand inviting Samantha Bank. She's attractive and social and her father is such a big investor. But That Ascott girl! I want to know why."
Lydia felt unruly emotions brimming dangerously. She lowered her gaze at the ground and felt as if she were going to burst into tears. When she looked up she saw Mr. Talloway looking at her. Her face, she was sure, was red with guilt. She turned on her heel. Before she was completely out of ear's reach, Mr. Talloway's fiancee finished off all form of dignity she could possibly posses.
"See, Cal. She was even eavesdropping on us."
She wound her way down through the garden, past hedges and couples standing close together. She continued on past her stepmother conversing with an elderly woman. She ran to the pond and stood starring into the depths.
This is your punishment for treating your own stepmother like that. She told herself as she wiped a tear from her cheek furiously with her gloved hand. She could not deny that she had deserved to be humiliated much as she had done so to her guardian. She slowly walked along the edge of the pond. Across it's watery distance was a tree close to the banks. She made her way to it and slumped down on the ground facing away from the party. She certainly didn't need to be accussed of starring after them all again.
She wished she had been aware of her behavior long before it had been pointed out by one of her betters. Had she known that her glance had upset people she would have stopped. She could just as easily have looked after the lines of her fabric.
She was always so foolish among people. Her only use in life was serving on the guests at the hotel and reading on the edge of the family lake. She often resented her stepmother's attempt to make her more social. This woman who, as far as she was concerned, replaced her beloved mother. She was certain that the only reason she pretened to care about Lydia was for the benefit of her husband.
Lydia felt no need to be so obedient to her father. The woman he had married five years after the death of Lydia's mother was one that had fleed a scandolous past in a Southern city. Mr. Ascott had told Lydia he knew and did not care because he loved her. Lydia felt he was tarnishing the good name of her mother, a beautiful, kind, generous woman. A woman who's only scandal in the entire world had been to invite her pregenant, unmarried sister to stay with them. So she had hated her stepmother and resisted her every step of the way.
Now, it appeared, she should have taken heed to her stepmother's words. Despite the fact that she wouldn't have ever been at Mr. Talloway's party were it not for the woman.
She felt tears course down her cheeks as she wondered why on God's green earth she was such a lonely, silent nobody. She could be so content on her own. Her stepmother was right though. She couldn't spend her entire life alone. She sucked in breath to try to banish a sob. It persisted and threatened to break lose in a loud, embarassing manner. She clasped her gloved hand and thrust it against her mouth as she closed her eyes and tried to sob silently.
"Ms. Ascott," an intruder said dangerously close to her. Her body trembled with fear as she determinedly kept her eyes closed. "Ms. Ascott, please don't cry." His voice said. She could hear the man crouching in front of her. "I am terribly sorry." She let out a sob. "Oh please, don't cry so." She felt his firm hand grab her fist away from her mouth."Ms. Ascott, will you look at me?" She shook her head, sending rivulets of tears down her cheeks. They fell in splashing patterns on her dress. "I shall sit here until you do." He warned.
She fell silent with terror. She always caused herself so much grief. She yanked her hand out of the man's grasp and wiped angrily at her face. Her eyes opened slowly to find Mr. Talloway crouching in front of her with a worried look plastered on his handsome face. "I am quite alright, thank you very much." She said as she stared him down. "Your concern is much appreciated, Mr. Talloway, but my tears have absolutely nothing to do with you." Her voice sounded strong and unconcerned.
"Are you sure?" He said as if he were playing along. Lydia nodded. "Well, if you're sure." He said as he stood and turned to walk away. Certain of his disappearance she let her facade drop. Tears once again began to leap from her eyes. She lowered her gaze and stared through blurry vision at her lap. She heard his footsteps coming closer once more. He crouched and grasped her face with a hand. "Ms. Ascott, I do believe you lied to me." Her skin tingled were his cool, bare hand touched her.
He removed his hand and let himself fall down in front of her. "Mr. Talloway, please, just leave me be." she sobbed as she buried her face in her hands.
"I am sorry." He said as he grabbed her hands boldly. "I apologize for Scarlett. I should not have to but she can be one of the most rude women in a room." Lydia felt nervous and uncomfortable with his proximity. "Had I known how close you were to us I would have silenced her instantly."
"It is quite alright." She determined. "She was right in every possible way."
"No, Ms. Ascott, I don't think she was." He looked at her with a firm gaze. "I could never forgive myself if I let you think I agree with her. I do not. Scarlett is haughty and snobbish. She thinks she is above her place." She turned her gaze away from his. "It's true. She acts as if she is better than all else when she is little better than you." He leaned in and smiled at her. "I daresay you're a creature more worthy of attention." Her face burned red for the millionth time in a single day. "I often wonder why I am with her." He said dreamily as he turned to stare at the pond. Lydia felt awkward and silent. "Ms. Ascott, can you keep a secret?" He asked.
She looked at him, startled. "Mr. Talloway, I-"
"Yes." She whispered anxiously.
"You must promise not to share it with another soul."
"Mr. Talloway, I promise."
"Call me Cal." He urged.
"Mr. Talloway, I can't!" She said as she grimaced. "It's so improper."
"If you don't call me Cal I won't tell you a thing." He threatened. "I insist. You must." She shook her head. "What are you afraid of? It's not so terribly improper any longer. You may call me Mr. Talloway when we are among other people."
"If you absolutely insist." She relented.
"I do." He said with a devilish grin.
"Cal," She said slowly and cautiously. "I promise."
"Thank you." He said as he grasped one of her hands. She felt dangerously out of her element. Her head swam with excitement. "I am thinking of breaking our engagement."
"What?" Lydia gasped. "That would crush her, I am sure!" She said with certainty. She could not imagine any woman being fine after being turned away from a man like Cal Talloway.
"She bores me and insults me. She dislikes my taste in friends and she distrusts my motives entirely. She is suspicious and a gossip. I do not need another woman like that in my life." Lydia tried to look unaware of his past. "I am sure you know I have been married twice." She nodded slowly.
"Mr.-Cal, she seems to be a decent woman. I really shouldn't have been staring."
"Ms. Ascott," He paused and studied her. "do not stand up for the woman who caused your tears."
"Call me Lydia." She decided. "If I must call you Cal you must call me Lydia." He grinned at her.
"Lydia, you have such a beauty about you ." He declared as he stared across the pond at the party. She turned to see quite a few people standing on the edge of the pond looking their way. "You must be the most charming young woman I have ever had the pleasure of meeting." He stood slowly and held out a hand for her. She grasped it and allowed him to pull her up. "That is why I must now say we should return before I besmirch your good name." They walked slowly around the pound. "Though, if am to be completely honest," He whispered. "I would much rather keep you entirely to myself."
Lydia allowed Cal Talloway to keep her close for the rest of the night. She was never more than an arm's length away. He told her it was because he wanted to be able to make a quick getaway if he were to bore of a conversation. Her stepmother smiled at her often, seemingly pleased with the attention the host was granting her. His fiancee shot her daggers of anger.
As couples started to partake in wines and hard liquer, Lydia found herself being twirled around by Cal. They danced around other couples who were becoming too drunk to be aware of their surruoundings. Her guardian, it seemed, was one of these with an elderly man and woman.
"Lydia," He whispered into her ear as he spun her around. "I must tell you something."
"Again? It's not about-"
"No, not at all." His dark eyes bored into hers. She felt his plead. She felt his allure. In one night she had completely forgotten her place and her manners. She was falling into a dangerous trap she knew she could never be allowed out of. This man, only slightly younger than her own father, was charming and handsome and he genuinely seemed to take interest in her. Her heart thumped rapidly every time his mouth moved near her ear. His hand often found its way into the small of her back.
She suddenly understood how her stepmother could have fallen into a scandal. She made up her mind to apologize instantly.
"Cal!" His fiancee howled as she drew near. "Why are you making such a show of this!" Heads began to turn.
"Scarlett, my dear, I would be careful with your words."
"I knew I should not have trusted a word you said." She ignored his warning. "You make a fool of me and our engagement while you parade around with this, this country whore!" Lydia wrestled herself free of his grip and turned to walk away.
"Lydia, please! Wait!" he called after her. She stood still, her back to the scene. His footsteps approached her, he grasped her hand and led her back to Scarlett. "Scarlett, do you see this woman? Do you?" She remained silent with an angry look on her face. "This woman is more graceful, more thoughtful, more elegant than you shall ever be. Apologize at once for she has done absolutely nothing to warrant this behavior." Lydia saw her stepmother moving toward her.
"I shall do no such thing." Scarlett spat.
"Than it's over, Scarlett. We are through. There will be no wedding." He grasped Lydia's hand tighter and pulled her past his former fiancee. Lydia grimaced at her as she saw the color slowly drain from her face. She had no time to say a thing before Cal pulled her all the way across the lawn to the pond. She could hear murmurs behind them. She could hear giggles turning into strong laughs.
"Cal, that was awful!" Lydia said as she pulled her hand free. "How could you do that?"
"Lydia," He said as he drew near. "she is more awful than you realize. There is nothing in her worth loving."
"No." She hissed. "You make a mockery of her in front of everyone and pull me with you as far as possible. You make a mockery of me as well!"
"They're all going talk now. They'll be saying awful things. Things I can never defend myself against." She was close to tears again. "I won't ever be able to show my face in public again. I'll be banished from any good society and spend the rest of my days in the middle of nowhere."
"I'm going back over there and I'm apologizing to her right this instant." She started to move back from him, greatful for the moon lighting her path.
"Lydia." He moaned as he crossed the space between them and closed his lips over hers. His lips felt ice cold and his face was hauntingly pale. She shut her eyes and braced herself to throw him off. His hands wove around her body and she found herself twined comfortably in his embrace. The moonlight shimmered off of the pond and mingled in their hair. She told herself that this is what love felt like.
When they separated he looked deathly ill. "Cal?" She said nervously. She watched in horror as his eyes rolled back, showing the pearly whites. His eyelids fluttered and he collapsed to the ground. A scream flew out of her that shook the air. She screamed again as fell to her knees by his side. She could hear people yelling and she could hear footsteps running toward them.
His eyes opened and he grasped her. "Lydia," he whispered. "quick. I must tell you something." She could hear men shouting to one another as they drew near. She leaned close to his lips. "Forgive me for not telling you sooner." He said weakly.
"Cal, what is it?" She pleaded.
"I'm a dangerous creature. No one knows save for Scarlett and my former wives." The men swarmed around them but Cal kept her close enough so he could whisper into her ear. He was determined to finish their conversation with no one the wiser. "I'm a vampire, Lydia."
She straightened instantly, insulted by his words. She felt humiliated. To think she could still feel her heart beating rapidly as his cool skin touched hers. She looked down at him with disgust. His face weakened and she could see the panic spreading across his face. She stood quickly and moved past the questioning men. "Lydia!" He yelled. "Lydia!" She forced herself onward. Halfway across the lawn she was stopped by Scarlett.
"What happened?" The woman asked nervously.
"I don't know." She said angrily. In the distance he was screaming. Her name was audible. "I don't kow what sort of joke you two are playing at but it's not funny." She moved past Scarlett.
"Wait, Ms. Ascott. What did he tell you? He didn't tell you did he?" She begged.
"Vampire. How ridiculous is that!" She spat with disgust. "You two deserve each other. Go to him. I am sure he'll appreciate the comfort." She stormed past the woman. She moved up the lawn. She grasped her shocked stepmother's hand. Even as they neared the door they could hear Cal Talloway screaming her name.
In the carriage Lydia burst into tears. She sobbed so loudly her stepmother looked terrified. Lydia had never felt more humiliated, abandoned and hopeless in her life.
"Lydia." Her stepmother tried. "What on earth happened? Please, darling, tell me."
"I don't ever want to see Cal Talloway again. Ever." She sobbed.
"He's an awful man, a lying, humiliating man. I don't even want to hear his name again."
Her stepmother moved to her and pulled her into her arms. Lydia sobbed hysterically as she thought of how easily she had been taken in. She had been taunted and made fun of callously. She was embarrassed beyond belief. She was even more embarrassed by the sinking feeling in her gut at the thought of never allowing herself to see Cal Talloway's face ever again. To go the rest of her life without his gaze, his voice, his laugh, seemed an eternity spent in Hell.