* * *
“Lady, would you like some more tea? Your complexion is very pale.”
“It’s all right, Molly. Have you heard anything from Liliette?”
“No. Not at all. It’s probably because her carriage broke down or something, but don’t worry too much about it.”
“Have any of my carriages broken down in the last few years?”
“No. …… That’s the lamest excuse I could come up with.”
Belviana sighed and shifted the position in which she had been clenching her jaw. Her thin, sleepy back was uncomfortable, and she was tired from the lack of sleep she’d gotten. She had been plagued by nightmares all last night. A dream in which the door to her bedroom opened and a golden-eyed monster entered. The creature crushed her, spreading her thighs wide, and she wrapped her legs around him like a lustful cat, wiggling her hips and purring, until she woke up drenched in sweat.
Her juices had dripped onto the sheets, and her unquenched libido lingered dully near her lower belly. Worst of all, she felt sorry it had been a dream, because that was the kind of pleasure she’d been craving all along. Belviana pressed a handkerchief to her nauseous lips and opened the window.
The breeze was unseasonably cold and a little humid. The gorgeous hilly road, wound through lush evergreens, was the only paved path leading to the Lester mansion. It was wide enough for a slender carriage of the latest fashionable design. Belviana fantasized a little about running away with Liam along it. Liam. Just repeating that solid name over and over in her mind made her feel like she was going crazy.
She sifted through her memories of him obsessively: his voice, his expression, his frame, the face she recognized so readily, the big, rough hands that carefully shaded her from the sun……. Everything she loved. But these days she often forgot about him. In fact, if she didn’t, she couldn’t even breathe properly with the strangling guilt. Ironically, it was in Aiden’s arms that she was most desperately reminded of Liam.
In an instant, the mansion was filled with a renewed commotion. She looked up with a start. A black speck had appeared at the edge of the manicured path. At first it was as far away as a dot, but as she watched, it steadily closed the distance. It must be the carriage that had brought Liliette home. Belviana waited until the carriage was close enough and rose from her seat. Molly, who was putting away her cup of tea, narrowed her eyes.
“Are you going downstairs?”
Belviana nodded slightly.
“Yes. I think they’ll be here soon. Call for two or three servants. I’ll have a lot of luggage.”
“I will, but I don’t think it’s necessary for my lady to go out to greet her……. the carriage that was so obviously sent for her, and she didn’t even send a telegram to say that she will be late; and it’s a pity to say this, but she’s never done it before, so why should you be polite?”
“But my mother has entrusted me with that child…….”
Entrusted was a very mild word. The Countess had almost paroxysmally shifted the duty to Belviana.
“First, get ready. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Molly stepped back, somewhat uncomfortably. Belviana hesitated to scold her, then stopped. If Molly’s demeanor was any indication, the world’s opinion of Liliette was not favorable. Liliette was a woman who had been suddenly elevated in value by her brother, who had been promised an enormous inheritance, and the world did not like to see someone so easily elevated from the bottom of the heap. Some men drooled over Liliette, and that was reason enough for lesser women to hate her.
But Belviana had more impressive memories. A young girl who would color her cheeks all day long if she caught a handful of her glances. Whenever that first memory comes flooding back, her heart is as soft as freshly made butter. And now that she’d decided to throw it all away, it didn’t bother her in the slightest if she tried to swallow Lester Manor whole.
Belviana, her mind racing, smiled in relief. Because that was the surest proof yet that she was still in love with Liam.
“Unnie1언니 / `Sister` if spoken by a female.”
Liliette beamed like a ray of late spring sunshine as soon as she stepped out of the carriage. She ran straight to Belviana and hugged her. The wide-brimmed hat she was wearing fell back, and she smelled very strongly of the latest lilac perfume. Belviana stood in the doorway, somewhat awkwardly, and hugged her back.
“Liliette, it’s been a long time.”
“It is a long time, indeed! I have missed you so much! I hardly ever see you except during your vacations. How have you been? Oh, my dear, how you seem to be growing prettier and prettier— Is it the power of love, after all, now that you’re getting married?”
Her words were spoken smoothly, with brightly folded eyes, as natural as those of a woman worn and influenced by society. Belviana suddenly realized that she was more refined, more capable of handling herself, than when she had last seen her. Belviana gently led Liliette inside.
“Come in. You must be tired from your long journey.”
“Not at all, I had so much fun, Dietrich has some really nice shops, unlike Millton, and I bought a lot of stuff on the way here, so I have a lot of luggage. Oh, it’s going to be such an exciting month, you and I are going to be a real family now, of course you’re going to get married and become a duchess, but you’re going to be my sister for as long as I’m here, and I wish you were my real sister, I’ve always wished for that, but I never thought it would come true……. Oh, wait a minute, I’ll carry that!”
“It’s too heavy for you to carry.”
The suddenness of Aiden’s voice at her back startled Belviana completely; she whimpered and took a couple of steps backward; being wary of him felt like an old habit now. The fear and discomfort a vulnerable animal feels at a predator. She’d never felt anything but those instinctive feelings, but today the whole situation bothered her. Maybe it was the golden eyes in her dreams, the monster. Belviana bit down hard on her trembling lower lip, while Liliette clung to the handle of the bag Aiden was carrying.
“I’ll carry this up to my room, and you can hold the other one.”
It was a very old, very worn bag. Among the trendy new dresses, hats, and shoes, it stood out like a sore thumb, and ironically, it stood out all the more for it. Aiden stopped her lightly.
“The wheels are old and will damage the carpet, I’ll carry it up to your room.”
“But it’s my personal stuff, and I’m a little…….uncomfortable to leave it in someone else’s hands.”
“I’ll make sure you don’t have to worry about it.”
Aiden’s polite demeanor was lovely to Belviana, who knew his every move. It was no wonder, then, that Liliette, who knew nothing, blushed. She hesitated, then stood on her tiptoes and whispered something in his ear. When Aiden replied with a slight bow and Liliette smiled broadly, Belviana clenched her fists. In an instant, the distance between them had closed, and she felt like a bystander. That girl, so clueless, just like that. So innocently and dangerously…….
Liliette cheerfully grabbed Belviana’s white-knuckled hand. Liliette cooled her flushed face with her hand and chattered.
“Now come in, I’ve been running around all morning and I’m tired, and I could use some lemonade or something.”
“The maids probably have it ready in the parlor.”
“And after that, do you mind if I ask Aiden to tidy up my room?”
“I’m sure he’ll be busy. …… He’s got a wedding to plan, and he’s Father’s personal assistant.”
“I’ve never met anyone so handsome, and I’d believe it if you told me he was a gentleman of distinction, not a servant, and he’s very polite, too. Speaking of which, I’d like him to keep an eye on me while I’m here, in my spare time, of course, to help with the Count’s affairs. Do you mind if I borrow him?”
Liliette looked back at Aiden again and again with a dazed expression. Her eyes were almost dreamlike, and her face was blind, like someone who had just fallen in love. Belviana answered with a coldness that surprised even her.
“If he says yes.”
It sounded much sharper than she intended. Seeing Liliette’s surprised face, Belviana realized she had reacted more sharply than necessary, and quickly added in a softer voice.
“An unmarried young lady being attended to by a male servant is a bit unusual in Dietrich.”
“Is it? On the contrary, it’s nothing out of the ordinary in Millton, and besides, a servant as handsome as Aiden would be coveted.”
“You think so highly of him…… and he’s just a servant.”
“I love new things, but somehow I get attached to old things, like my old suitcase. He’s been loyal to Unnie’s household for so long, he must be trustworthy.”
The thought of Liliette’s old suitcase made her feel a little better. Despite her colorful exterior, her kind and innocent interior hadn’t completely disappeared.
Belviana opened the door to the parlor, feeling much more at ease. Maids pushed a trolley in, almost to the sound of silver bells. The round table was piled high with sumptuous sweets. Whipped cream cake with fresh strawberries, macaroons covered in anglaise, chocolate mousse, fresh milk and tea. All were of the finest quality and rarely seen in the countryside of Millton.
While Belviana stroked the countess’s pet cat on her lap, Liliette ate and drank her cake and tea, admiring them all. Belviana was relieved that her attention had been diverted away from Aiden.
“You said you were going to stay for a month and then leave, what are you going to do?”
“Well, for starters, tomorrow I’m going to visit a young lady I made friends with at the last ball, she lives nearby, and in the afternoon we’re going to see some of the city, and then we’re going to go to the sea, it’s only a half day’s carriage ride from here, so my schedule is completely jam-packed, and I’m so excited, Dietrich is so different from Millton, everything is so cool, so refined, so wonderful, and of course, I’m looking forward to the banquet in three days.”
Popping a strawberry from the top of the cake into her mouth, Liliette clenched her jaw and spoke dreamily.
“I can’t wait for my brother to graduate from college, because then we’ll really get to live in this wonderful place……. Oh, and Aiden will still be here then, right?”
“……Well. Father said he’s sending him off to law school, so he’ll be gone for a while.”
“Well, that’s all the better for him, if that’s what Uncle is doing. I heard from the maids the other day that Aiden’s actually from…….”
Aiden, Aiden! No matter which way she went with the story, it eventually came back to him. Liliette was acting like an idiot, like someone who was completely infatuated with him, and it wasn’t progressive, productive, or even pleasant. Her patience had long since run out. Belviana jumped to her feet, forgetting that she had the cat on her lap. The cat glared at her in annoyance, then meowed and disappeared.
“Unnie, where are you going?”
“I’m going upstairs to rest. Molly will show you to your room when you’re done.”
Liliette’s eyes narrowed, cutting off whatever she was about to say, Belviana hurriedly pushed her chair in.
“If you’ll excuse me first.”
- 1언니 / `Sister` if spoken by a female