She smoothed the non-existant wrinkles in the ugly mint colored dress her mother had forced her to wear. Tears in her eyes she gazed at her reflection, her raven hair had been pinned so tightly to her head that the wild curls were finally tamed, her cheeks had been covered in rouge to give her more color than her normal porcelain white skin had. Her mother had always told her she'd never get a man on her looks, she was thin, with thick dark brows and full red lips. Her skin was white as snow, her hair a dark raven mess. She didn't even resemble herself tonight, she hated the pastel color of the dress and preferred to put herself in dark clothes.
"You look beautiful," Her mother said, breezing in the room.
"I hate this dress."
"Don't be ridiculous, you have to look your best."
"Why?" She asked, turning to her mother.
"Well, rumor has it that Sir Morland is going to ask for your hand tonight."
"Oh, no. Please, mother."
"Don't whine Margaret, he's quite a catch. Especially for you. Why, you have next to no money and yet he's considering you for a wife."
"I don't love him."
"Love? Who said anything about love? We need the money that he can bring to the family."
"He's old enough to be my father."
"Hush now, he's only thirty years older. Many women marry older than that."
"Please, I don't want too."
"Stop your fussing, you know we need the money he'll bring and besides you don't want to be an old spinster."
"I rather would be, as opposed to marrying him."
"Stop it, right now. The carriage is waiting and your brother will be at the party wondering where you are, it's your engagement party after all."
"Engagement party? Does everyone know he intends to propose?" She asked, horrified.
"Of course they do."
She bit her lip in an effort to keep from crying out her anguish. She didn't like Roland, he was three times her age and a large man. The thought of him living under a roof with her, taking her into his bed was nearly agonizing and all for the money. They'd had money once, but her father passed on and her older brother Godfrey had gambled away the rest. They're only hope now was that Margaret marry well.
"Come now, let's get to the carriage." Her mother called.
Her mother led her gently down the stairs, not caring that her daughter did not wish to go. They climbed into their carriage and prepared for the trek to Morland Hall. It was a few miles out of the bustling town. Her mother was stoic and silent the entire ride and Margaret passed the time by gazing out the window, wishing to God that the carriage would crash and kill her and spare her from this fate.
They had traveled about three miles out of town when the large dark castle broke through the trees briefly. Raven hall, she'd heard stories of the man who lived there. They said he was possessed, that he'd sold his soul to the devil, he was in control of powerful magic and a ridiculous fortune. The bravest men would not travel too close and no women would even speak his name.
Normally Margaret would never bring up the subject of the enigma of a man, but she was desperate for any way out of her situation.
"What about the Lord of Raven hall? They say he's wealthy and he's made deals with people in the past."
"Bite your tongue girl, no man in his right mind would ask that man for a favor. He is the devil himself, his deals must come at a terrible price."
"Don't even think it, we're going to this party and you're going to get engaged."
She watched the large building pass and leaned back against the seat, wiping a tear that rolled down her cheek. Her mother reached over to pat her leg.
"I know it's hard but we don't have a choice. Plus, you're not the prettiest girl in town. Better offers won't come."
Her mother had told her she wasn't pretty her entire life. Her brother was blonde haired, blue eyed and perfect. The other ladies in town were blondes, red heads and light brunettes. Her brothers father had been from town and died when her brother was two in a riding accident, her mother then met her father four years later. He had gypsy blood in his lineage and while he showed no signs of it, Margaret did. Her dark eyes, ghost white skin and jet black hair had made her a pariah in town and a burden to her poor mother.
They reached Morland Manor and her brother was waiting on the steps. He assisted their mother in climbing from the carriage but let Margaret climb down herself. As her mother and brother headed into the massive house arm and arm she fell behind, taking her time. Ladies in fancy dresses poured into the house and men in their best suits and it struck her then that all of it was for her, which explained why everyone seemed to be watching her.
Taking a deep breath she walked up the steps, following her brother and mother. She noticed several other girls whispering behind their fans, younger girls. She couldn't deny that on top of her not being as pretty she was quite a deal older. At twenty six she was passed time to be courted and had assumed she'd be a spinster. She was okay with that until Godfrey gambled away their fortune and she was forced to search for a suitor.
"Margaret, Roland is waiting for you on the balcony." Godfrey said.
"Don't keep him waiting," Her mother said with a smile.
She gave her mother one last look before moving through the crowd, women openly watched her and so did a few men as she passed through each room. She stepped onto the balcony and saw Roland, he was just as horrible as she remembered. He was a stout, round man with a white scratchy looking bear and no hair. He smiled warmly at her and she winced, looks aside he was a nice enough man.
"Margaret, how good to see you."
"Roland,"She forced a smile.
"Come, sit with me."
He motioned to a bench, and fidgeting briefly with her dress Margaret obeyed. She sat beside him, her fingers toying with the ugly green fabric of her dress.
"I know the past few weeks have been hard after losing your father and what's become of your brother. I want you to know how much I appreciate all the time we've spent together." He said.
She wished she could return his feelings, wished she could say she'd enjoyed their walks together, their dances, tea time. She wished she could lie to him, but she couldn't.
"I know the situation isn't ideal and after Mary my first wife died ten years ago I never thought I'd consider this. Margaret, I'd like to ask you to consider being my wife. I know I'm much older than you but you'd always be taken care of and while I know we're not in love I am fond of you. All I ask of you is an heir."
She winced and couldn't force herself to look at him. He moved from the bench to kneel at her feet, producing a large sized diamond ring. He didn't ask her answer, just slipped it on her finger as if he knew she had no choice.
"I will try my best to always make you happy," He promised.
She didn't reply and he gently pulled her to her feet, he lead her into the ballroom and everyone turned to look at the pair. Practically beaming he moved to the center of the floor, holding her hand in his.
"She said yes!"He declared.
As the crowd clapped approvingly she wanted to object, wanted to tell them all that she hadn't said anything, much less accepted. She was pulled aside by several high standing ladies as the gushed and fussed over her and her upcoming nuptials. Suddenly the room seemed to shrink and the crowd go thicker and she had the feeling of drowning.
"Please, excuse me for a moment?"She begged.
"Of course," The closest lady offered her a smile.
She turned and rushed as quickly and quietly as she could from the ballroom, skirting around ladies and gentleman that were congratulating her fiance' and coddling her mother. She reached the front doors and shoved them open, stumbling out onto the steps. She took a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves. It was done, there was nothing she could do about it now. Her mind flashed back to the castle she'd passed on her way here, the one her mother warned her to stay away from.
Glancing back at the party she backed down the stairs until she was standing in the courtyard. A butler and footman stood a few feet away. The footman seeming to sense her struggle stepped forward.
"Miss, are you alright?"He asked.
Making up her mind in an instant, making it up before she even realized she had. She turned and lifting her skirts she ran. It didn't take long for her to reach the end of the gravel path and she turned right, heading back in the direction she'd came.
It was at least three miles back to Raven Hall, but she didn't care. She was desperate enough to walk twice that distance. Only once did she allow herself to worry that the man who lived there was as cruel as they said. What if he was truly evil? What would her freedom cost her? Shaking her head she decided she didn't care.
By the time she'd reached the winding load leading to the castle her feet were aching, she'd been forced to discard her shoes about a mile into her journey. They were too tight and had caused more pain than the road had. Her pretty dress was dirty, and the hem was torn in places. Her tiny feet were just as dirty and her hair had fallen free of it's pins, she knew she looked nowhere near appropriate to be visiting someone, let alone at this hour of the night and unexpected. By now she was sure her mother, Roland and Godfrey would be looking for her, it was too late to turn around.
She started up the hill that would lead to the man that could hopefully change the course her life was about to take. The castle was even bigger up closed and the doors were heavy wood. She knocked until her knuckles ached but there was no answer, did he not even have a butler? Taking a deep breath and drawing up her courage she pushed the door open enough she could slip inside.
She stood in a grand entryway, stairs winding down on her right and a large open space. A chandelier lit the room and it was a more welcoming environment than she anticipated.
"Hello?" She took a step further inside.
"Is anyone here?"She called.
As if answering her the door behind her slammed shut, she jumped at the noise and spun around to see nobody behind her. She felt goosebumps break out on her skin as suddenly, this seemed like a bad idea.
"Can I help you?" A voice called from the stairs.
She was terrified, every muscle and her body wanted to run from the building and back into the woods.
He was standing on the stairs, the darkness keeping him completely hidden.
"M-m-My name is..."
"I know your name, Miss Margaret Allen."
"Yes and I'm here..."
"Because you need money, your family is forcing you to marry a man at least twice your age and you'd rather die than allow him into your bed."
She stood in shock, not saying anything. Not able to find her voice. His silhouette was all she could see, despite the well lit room he kept to the outer shadows.
"How did you know?" She asked, finally finding her voice.
"Just because I don't come down to the town doesn't mean I don't know what's going on, I have ears and eyes everywhere. I know everything."
He didn't seem as bad as everyone said, he was intimidating, his voice was deep and not being able to see him gave him an edge but so far he hadn't lashed out or struck her down with lightening. She took a step closer, hesitantly.
"So, can you help me?"
"Oh, I can. That doesn't mean that I will."
He walked slowly down the rest of the stairs, predatory, like a lion stalking it's prey. When he stepped into the light he wasn't at all what she expected. He was of normal stature, with a trim build, his long hair went straight to almost his shoulders and was dark. He had dark eyes and while taller than her he was small for a man.
"See, I could help you. I could send your family the money they need to keep you from your marriage, save your life, change your destiny, make all your dreams come true...but what's in it for me?"
"I'll do anything, just name it."
"Oh I know you will, I can practically smell the desperation."
"So, will you help me?"
He stalked closer to her, his arms folded across his chest and she took a step back. He approached until he was just inched away from her then slowly began to circle her, openly studying every inch of her. His stares made her uncomfortable but she held her ground, determined to prove she would cooperate.
"You are a brave little thing, aren't you?" He asked, leaning over her shoulder. His breath tickling her neck.
She didn't think he really wanted an answer so she didn't give him one, at that moment though brave was the last thing she felt. Her hands were shaking and she could hardly breathe with him leaning so close. His hand came up to her neck, his fingers brushing against her exposed collarbone.
"I wonder just how far you're really willing to go to get what you want."
She whirled to face him, his hand falling from her neck and her dirty skirts whirling around her legs. He merely smiled at her reaction, then slowly continued to circle her.
"Not nearly as far as you say," He stated.
"I know, but that's not what I had in mind. I was thinking of something a little more...permanent."
He walked to stand in front of her, still looking at her as if she was a horse he was about to purchase and not a human being.
"I will help you, I'll send your family the money they need."
"Oh, thank you!" She suddenly wanted to embrace him.
"But, I do not work for free. I have a price that you will pay."
"I have no money."
"I know that, and before you offer I don't want your body."
"You will stay here, all days and nights until I see fit to release you. You will work for me and you will not leave until released by me. When you have repaid you debt."
She stood there a minute, debating what to say. She needed the help, she needed the money but the scandal that would come from living here with only him would ruin her reputation.
"Tik Tok sweet thing, I don't have all night."
"Yes, I will do it." She said, before she could change her mind.
He waved his hand and with a puff of smoke a large piece of parchment appeared along with a thin needle. She took a step closer out of pure curiosity.
"Once you agree, there's no going back." He warned.
Before she could read the fine print he reached out and pricked her finger with the needle. She let out a squeak of surprise and took a step back, clutching her finger. He let the single drop of blood fall onto the parchment and it ignited into flames before burning to nothing before her eyes.
"Follow me and I'll take you to your room."
He turned and started up the stairs, she followed him completely speechless. He was amazing, it wasn't fear she felt towards him but interest. He reached a room with a heavy solid wooden door and pushed it open for her.
"Here is your room, I'll see you in the morning."
She crossed the threshold and he slammed the door, the room was plunged into darkness except for the moonlight streaming from the window. She wondered if her mother was worried for her and what everyone would think when they found out about her situation. She found the large four poster bed and collapsed on top of the covers, realizing now how tired she was. Tomorrow she'd have to go get her things from her home and face her family but for tonight she could rest easy knowing she'd never have to face Roland again.