A young woman forced into becoming a powerful man’s tool in his revenge, Saphira is desperate for a way out. The Marquis manipulated her into an engagement and required outrageous things from her in order to get back at her father. But there is more to the Marquis than his lust for revenge, dark secrets buried deep in his past.
Everything feels like a corset – the cream dress squeezing my middle in and my boobs out, the Marquis’s grand ballroom, the tuxedoed men and congratulating women. They clink their glasses and eye me up and down when they think I’m not looking, my image reflected in the polygonal crystal filled with champagne.
When they see me up close some of the guests seem stricken, but by now I’m used to the effect of golden eyes staring out of a pale face. I lost weight, and this counts to the aftermath. My grammar teacher’s words crawl up from distant memory – “heretic gold.” I even caught her crossing herself once after I sat back at my desk. Now, without Mum’s usual help, the make-up only enhances the effect instead of damping it down, but the golden waves of hair matching my eye color make the sight a little more agreeable like some kind of symmetry.
“You’re beautiful,” a familiar voice says, causing me to look to the side, seeking the source. Jeremy Simmons stands to my right like a guardian angel. He’s anything but, yet right now the kindness in his eyes makes it hard to keep back tears. It’s been a while since I’ve been at the receiving end of kindness.
“Thank you.” My whisper comes out a little raw.
He takes my hand in his, my fingers white and skinny, splaying over his palm in search of his human warmth, so different from the serpent smoothness of the Marquis. The engagement sapphire on my finger seems to glare at him. Ostentatious. Glitter standing for a dirty lie disguised as fairy tale.
Jeremy takes this gesture of mine for more than it is, and squeezes my hand, pulling me closer a bit too fast and too roughly. I feel forced to look into his face, a frown darkening his rough masculine lines. His steroid-fed muscles seem to bulge under the suit.
“You can’t do this, Saph. You can’t marry him.”
It sounds like an order, and I resent it. I pull my hand away, the urge to cry quickly replaced by coldness.
“You’re in no position to tell me what to do, Jeremy. Even less at my engagement party, it’s particularly disrespectful.”
“Saphira, I see you,” he stresses, lowering his face close to mine. I feel awkward. In the end, to all eyes now gawking, this is my fiancé the Marquis’s ballroom, and I look almost intimate with my old boyfriend.
“You’re pale, uptight, and something weighs heavy on your mind,” Jeremy continues. “You stare lost, like a junkie. If I didn’t know what was going on, I’d say he has you on drugs, and pimps you at night.”
The pseudo-truth in his words brings the tears back in my throat, salty and pushy. I can barely control a twitch right beneath my eye. He’s so close to the truth, too close, making me want to spill it too bad. But there’s something else that needs picking on right away.
“If you didn’t know? What do you think you know?”
He looks around from under his sewn eyebrows, his scowl suiting the Inspector he is.
“I won’t be able to talk anywhere else.”
“You can’t talk here either, with all these Toms watching you like you’re Jerry. The catacombs. Do you remember them?”
Memories rush through my mind and heart. Back when we were kids, he used to call Virgin Vivien and me chickens for not following him and the boys down to the dungeons under this very manor, which had stood empty for decades before the Marquis bought it from Dad.
I swallow and nod. Curiosity makes the blood thump in my ears. I need to know what he does.
“I’ll wait for you as long as I must, so take your time,” he says, now looking away, pretending casual. “Don’t take any risks.”
With only a few of his long legged strides he puts distance between us, losing himself in the crowd. As my gaze follows him it bumps into the Marquis, staring hard at me. The blackness of his eyes is chilling, dangerous, contrasting with the ivory pallor of his face. I swallow, unnerved by his beauty. He stirs emotions in me, and I’m not sure I can blame them on his hypnotic powers alone. I’m a victim falling in love with her abuser, but I’m determined to kill the feeling or die trying. I move on among the crowd, but his black gaze sticks to me like a shadow.
He keeps watching me as I move around, making a show of my presence, but avoiding contact at the same time. It’s especially hard to keep the man who fathered me off my tracks. Nausea hooks in my throat as I grasp once more that I’ve grown up in a nest of deranged killers disguised as polished gentlemen, gathered in Northville to protect their ridiculous riches and festering criminal habits. Every time I catch a glimpse of the man I can’t stop thinking of as “Father” I wonder if the Marquis’s dead lover was his first rape. Or his first kill.
A shift in the Marquis’s attention triggers opportunity and puts a stop to these thoughts. He’s turned to greet Ronald Lord Barkley – the head of the lunatic asylum – and his family, who’ve just entered the grand doors. They’ve been relieved of their coats by the valets, and now seek a welcome worthy of their aristocratic blood from the Marquis and his ever-present entourage made up of undercover bodyguards.
I pick up pace, gathering the folds of my dress in my hands to make a sprint easy when I’m completely out of sight, but run into Virgin Vivien as I turn at the nearest exit.
“Saph,” she says, holding her palms up to stop me. There’s a grave look on her face. “Not so fast, we need to talk.”
Vivien’s face is usually grave and serious, so I don’t stop to consider her reasons. She’s an aristocrat, and her attitude as well as her sleek and simple dress make a statement of it. It’s beige and pencil-shaped, highlighting her elegant and proud frame. She stands tall and straight, her natural dark-brown hair up in a tight and restrictive bun, her make-up minimal and the features of her face truly noble. I’ve heard men file her as “marriage material,” though “not exactly sexy.” They must be mad, I always thought, she’s beautiful in a very classy kind of way.
I’m impatient, and I can feel the blood flooding my cheeks. I grip Vivien’s hand, looking directly into her face.
“Cover me, please,” I breathe.
“Say what?” she asks, disconcerted.
“Whatever you do, keep whoever might want to follow off my back. Say I went to powder my nose, change my shoes, change my panties from my part, just make sure no one picks my trail.”
I throw the final words over my shoulder, already running towards the service stairs that I know should lead down to the catacombs both Vivien and I used to have nightmares about as children. The boys used to bring back all kinds of spooky objects and beasts from down there, like old burnt iron cuffs – the place used to be a prison centuries ago, in medieval times – or snakes. Snakes . . .
I stop running as I reach the hidden stairs in the ruinous left wing of the manor, a damp chill cooling my face as I descend. The lighting is faint, but it does the job, so I don’t have to fear stepping on small reptiles or heaps of roaches. Still, I’m dead scared.
Old lamps line the old lime walls of what looks like dungeons indeed. The cells seem cavities carved in the wall, separated from the aisle by rusted iron bars. Creaking old metal and dripping water disturb the silence along with the clatter of my steps on the stone, giving me goose skin. I can almost feel the ghosts of tortured souls yawning and reaching at me from the past.
Jeremy hears me approach and emerges from one of the cavities, placing himself broad and bulky before me. I come to a stop, feeling wan and fragile facing him. My heart is pounding because I know there isn’t much time. I must get back soon, Vivien won’t be able to hold the Marquis and his people off my heels for long. I square my shoulders and raise my chin, deciding on a line that would mean something to Jeremy if he knows as much as I do, and nothing if he doesn’t.
“Don’t waste time, because I don’t have much. I already know he is a monster.” One of my eyebrows rises of its own accord to emphasize the meaning of that last word. Nothing in Jeremy’s eyes changes. There’s only a steady glimmer in their otherwise opaque brown, and yet his reply surprises me.
“He’s one of the world’s most dangerous killers,” he says. “A devious beast that took down very important men, and made their power his own.”
‘All his business partners ceded him their wealth before they died,’ people whispered on the Night of Venice.
“How much do you actually know about the Marquis?” I breathe full of hope. Maybe I can finally share this dreadful burden.
“More than you, Saph, of that I assure you.”
“I’ve seen him,” I whisper, looking deep into Jeremy’s eyes. “Changing. Killing.”
Jeremy grabs me around the arms, his hands so big that the tips of his fingers and the heels of his palms almost meet. He bends his head, looking me hard in the face.
“Believe me, Saphira, you’ve barely scratched the surface. ”
Enjoyed this? Check out episodes of the prequel, Saphira, here, or the whole prequel in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here. Stay tuned for a further episode on Friday. Until then, enjoy all the quizzes, stories and goodies available here especially for refined, passionate personalities.
NEXT EPISODE – The Villain’s Motive – Ep. 3 of The Marquis
PREQUEL – Saphira in the Christmas Story Book for Adults.