Used by the Marquis for vengeance and for physical pleasures, young artist Saphira struggles to escape his power. She has come up with a plan to persuade him to let her leave his grand manor, so that she can secretly meet Inspector Jeremy Simmons – the one man who knows more about the Marquis’ dark powers and his past than Saphira. But her plans are dangerous, and discovery may cost Saphira her life. The Marquis allows her to leave only in the company of his spy, Pretty Lauren, a woman who was once Saphira’s best friend, and who today is her worst enemy. Will Saphira’s plan succeed, or will the Marquis catch her?
Lauren and I descend the manor stairs side by side, each with her chin up and a sour attitude. I feel slightly superior because of my elegant two-piece outfit of a creamy white and the respect-inspiring golden bun that I managed to restrain my hair in, while Lauren looks a hooker in her short red dress and pumps too high for her skinny legs.
By the last step my stomach turns and twists as I think what must be happening in the Marquis’ men’s heads while they flank and tail us like a squad of bodyguards. They must be convinced the Marquis has cheated on me with her. Maybe he has. My heart shrinks with jealousy, but I manage to keep control.
We get into the black car waiting in front of the manor, the fountain with gargoyles that spit water in warmer seasons looming beyond it in the fog. The Marquis is a monster, a murderer, and I must break away from him, I tell myself. I must help Jeremy to bring him down, and free myself from his blackmail and his cruelty. I won’t be swayed by his inebriating power on my senses, or by his charm when I’m “sober.”
A short clapping sound rips me from my thoughts. I look to my side to see Lauren redoing her lipstick in a small round pocket-mirror, and I forget my determination, now replaced by hot jealousy again. In the flash of a second I want to jump over our bags that occupy the seat between us, straddle her and tear her reddish hair, but instead clamp my hands together on my lap, hurting under the gloves that conceal the marks of last night’s cuffs.
“Repairing your mouth after a blow job?” I spit, glaring at her.
“How I’d love to let you believe that,” she says, puckering her lips while still looking in the mirror, then smacking them. She claps the pocket mirror back shut and places it in her bag, in which she rummages as she speaks. “I could let you boil in your own juice over it for at least a few hours, but I won’t risk the Marquis’ good feelings about me for short-lived satisfaction. He’d tell you the truth when you asked, and that would kill my chances.”
The Marquis’ good feelings. Her chances. Jealousy chokes me, and I pray my cheeks haven’t turned red.
“You hope to get him between your legs. But I doubt your satisfaction will last any longer than it did with Jeremy.”
“Who says the satisfaction with Jeremy didn’t last?” She grins, lights a long slim cigarette and cracks the window. The draught pulls out most of the smoke, but it still reaches me and stings my eyes. She knows I’m sensitive to it, the bitch. By the time we come to our destination I’ll be looking like a poltergeist with red-rimmed golden eyes.
“Are you still seeing him?” I inquire.
She takes a drag of her cigarette, her cheeks hollowing, the skin stretching on her thin but sharp jaw line.
“Curiosity killed the cat,” she says.
“That it did.” I look away through the window. It’s foggy and grey outside. The seeming indifference sets Lauren on fire, as I expected.
“I saw you leaving after him last night. Vivien tried to keep your fiancé’s men off your heels, but Zed here –” she throws one curt knock on the black glass that separates us from the driver’s side of the car where Zed and the driver sit – “is hard to fool.”
I bite my lower lip and refrain from responding. I know she wants to know what happened, so I decide to let her boil in her own juice.
“Why would you still want Jeremy, Saphira?” She inquires, annoyed by my silence. “He’s no match for the Marquis in looks or assets. Is the power of the first love that great?” She mocks, but beyond that she’s dying to know. I take the opportunity to hurt her, hoping it will cause at least a tenth of the pain she once caused me.
“I don’t give a shit about Jeremy, Lauren, you can have him. Catching him in bed with you installed automatic nausea at the thought of sex with him. I didn’t follow Jeremy out of the hall, I went down to the dungeons. Remember the catacombs you used to play in with the boys back when we were kids? I always wanted to do it in there. Well, the Marquis fulfilled my fantasy last night, he cuffed me to the wall and banged me. He made me come so hard –”
“He’s in love with you, Saphira, there’s no arguing that,” she interrupts and throws me a killer glare. The statement stuns me into dumbness.
“I can’t say I didn’t try to seduce him,” she continues. “I think you can tell. But he has the resilience of a man with a fresh crush. Still, infatuation doesn’t last an eternity, Saphira, and when it fades, I’ll be there to take advantage.”
That last sentence is a declaration of war, but I’m so stunned by her words that I can’t speak, and almost miss the turn where I can ask for a stop at Billy the Notary’s. In the last moment I jerk to the separating black glass and knock hard, my mouth still open and my eyes blinking, trying to gather myself. The glass lowers and Zed’s profile appears, as stony and expressionless as ever, offering me his ear to speak in like in an intercom. I can see the small headphone and the curled transparent wire that links it to whatever bodyguard gadgets are hidden under his black suit.
“Please stop at Billy the Notary’s,” I say the line I’ve prepared. “It’s on our route, and I might as well set in motion the formalities for the upcoming change of my name.”
I can only hope he buys it. My heart beats hard in my chest, not only with anxiety that Zed might refuse, but also because of what Lauren just said. I can barely believe it when Zed gives a curt nod and motions the driver to pull over. Relishing in the idea that the Marquis might be in love with me, I forget to expect that Lauren would want to come along, so I’m surprised when she expresses this desire, grabbing her purse.
I fall behind and let Lauren lead the way up the creaky stairs to Billy’s office. The building is old and mouldy, but its Victorian charm nonetheless intact. I watch Lauren’s bottom move under her red silk dress, and realize she must be freezing with only a leather jacket over her torso. It’s January, in the end. Girls go to unimaginable lengths to be attractive, but Lauren has always been a sexy cat-girl, so her reasons for acting desperate escape me.
We’ve known each other since childhood, she and I and Vivien used to be best friends. Jeanie, Jeremy’s little sister, was yet a toddler watching with her small hands and nose pressed to the window while the rest of us played in the yard, and ventured at the cliffs and in the forest beyond the Manor with the Fields. Catching Lauren in bed with Jeremy two years ago, a month before he and I were supposed to get married, broke me in quite a number of ways. So Lauren’s manifesting more hatred and grudge than me has been a challenge to common sense and to my logic, but now that it becomes clear she’d have a go at any man who shows interest in me makes me wonder if there’s not more to it than plain meanness.
The door to Billy’s office opens to reveal the mouse-faced man in a crumpled suit, the glasses large and round on his narrow, grey face. The office is cluttered with shelves and books and papers, his desk a mess, the small sofa patched and greasy, and the window closed. A catastrophe, since cigarette smoke fills the place, making me cough hard.
“Oh, Lauren, Lauren Morris, wow,” he exclaims as he recognizes Lauren, straightening his back like a soldier on command. He seems unsure and shaky in his greeting to me. “Saphira, what a pleasant surprise.”
He hurries to the window, pulls a few times until it unsticks and cracks, and then motions us to take a seat on the gross looking sofa.
“That’s all right, I prefer to stand,” I say, my eyes darting from him to Lauren, who lights a cigarette and stomps about the room like an undercover spy. She seems to be looking for something – or someone. Maybe the Marquis instructed her to. I’m now relieved that Jeremy isn’t waiting here, that he’s either late or already gone. Still, I’m anxious, afraid he might pop in any second and expose our plans to Lauren.
“To what do I owe the honour?” Billy says, clearing his desk with fast and clumsy hands, then emptying an ashtray in the paper bin and offering it to Lauren.
“I need to see to some formalities for the change of my name. I’ll soon be married to the Marquis of Vandenesse, and I –”
“I know, I attended the engagement ball yesterday,” he interrupts, and in his eagerness stumbles and spills the cup of coffee he intended to offer Lauren all over her.
“Oh, God, oh, oh, that’s terrible, I’m so sorry,” he says, eyes wide, hands all over Lauren, who he clearly has a thing for. I remember he was pretty obvious about it the night at my parents’ house, when my father announced my engagement to the Marquis.
“You complete idiot,” she cusses.
“Oh, please, let me –”
“Just take your hands off me. I know where the bathroom is,” she spews and stalks to the door, then up the creaking stairs. When I turn my eyes back to Billy, he’s so composed I’m staggered.
“I’ll keep her out for as long as I can. I’ll knock three times when she’s on her way back,” he says, and follows Lauren.
I stare, amazed by his presence of mind. Soon after they leave the cluttered bookcase behind his desk opens heavily like a hidden door, as if pushed by a ghost.
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 Tuesday and, until then, enjoy all the quizzes, stories and goodies available here especially for you.
READ THE STORY FROM THE BEGINNING: PREQUEL – Saphira in the Christmas Story Book for Adults