A fortnight after we arrived at our new home, my mother decided that the time had come to host a party to celebrate our arrival. Gigi and I exchanged knowing looks when informed of this decision. We were both fully aware of our mother's true purposes for the evening. A party would provide the perfect opportunity to survey the neighboring populace for potential suitors.
True to her usual, beastly self, Gigi leaned over and whispered, "I wonder which fat, ugly duke or lord mother will chose to marry you off to."
"At least men want to marry me," I shot back coldly. A small twinge of remorse marred the satisfaction I felt as I watched my cruel words hit their mark, but I chose not to care. Gigi refused to speak to me for the rest of the day, which provided a rather pleasant break from her never-ending whining.
As the day of the party approached, my mother grew increasingly demanding and impossible to please. I noticed that Ella spent more and more time outdoors and that even my stepfather took pains to avoid my mother. The servants hid when they heard her footsteps echoing in the hall. Only Gigi remained at her side, her petulant voice offering unwanted opinions. I withstood as much of the preparations as I could before finally escaping into the world of my books.
On the morning of the party, I gladly rose before the sun. As much as I hate waking up early, I hated the prospect of facing my mother and her barrage of orders and expectations even more. I lit a candle and dressed hastily before opening my bedroom door and peering through the crack. The hallway was dark and silent. Only the servants were awake at this hour, and they were not expected to make their way upstairs for at least another thirty minutes.
I tiptoed out into the hall, quietly making my way towards the library. The flickering candlelight was hardly necessary; my frequent visits over the last few days had left me well acquainted with the route.
Whatever my feelings toward my new stepfather might have been, I was indebted to him for this escape from my new life. I was pleasantly surprised by the wide variety of books. The man owned everything from René Descartes's Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy to Charles Perrault's Fairy Tales.
Unlike her new husband, my mother saw books as I waste of time. I always had to be very careful when sneaking in and out of the library. I shuddered to think what would happen if she caught me there before dawn on the day of the party.
Once safely inside, I breathed in the comforting scent of aging paper, leather, and ink. I loved the smell of books—it was like a promise. It reminded me that I was not alone or trapped like a songbird in a gilded cage. Waiting in the pages of those books were new worlds to be explored, exciting new ideas to discover. In those stories, I caught glimpses of myself that assured me I wasn't alone.
Knowing that I had very little time, I held up my candle and quickly ran my gaze over the titles lining the shelves. I usually took my time browsing, but I knew that I needed to hurry if I was going to escape before my mother awoke.
I snatched Le Cid off the shelf and hurried to the door. In my haste, I pulled it open without bothering to see if the coast was clear. What I saw made me go still as a stone. Ella stood looking directly at me, her eyes wide with surprise. Without saying a word, I pushed past her and fled down the hall.
Things had changed between us ever since the encounter with my mother in the library. Ella seemed to understand that I desired to keep my distance, and she respected my wishes. That is not to say that she behaved coldly. Whenever we met by chance or came together for meals, she always offered a tentative but genuine smile. Once, when I was sneaking another book out of library, my mother would have caught me had Ella not noticed me peeking through the door and distracted her with conversation. Her small, quiet kindnesses unnerved me.
I no longer viewed Ella with suspicion so much as with an uncomfortable uncertainty. I did not understand, her, and it has always been in my nature to hate any ignorance on my part. Could it be that her kindness was genuine? I sometimes wondered. While prior experiences with the superficial girls back in the city caused me to dismiss the idea, a vague suspicion began to take root in my mind. Perhaps true friends did exist—though I was too cynical to hope that Ella might actually be mine.
I had originally intended to hide in the attic that day, but the sound of descending footsteps on the staircase sent me racing downstairs instead. Once downstairs, it was all that I could do to avoid the servants. Before I realized what I was doing, I found myself darting out the back door and heading out into the cold morning air.
I spun around uncertainly, clutching the book to my chest and shivering. Like an idiot, I had stepped outside in spite of the fact that I had not thought to bring a cloak to ward off the early chill.
My eyes locked onto the stable in the distance. Perhaps I might find a warm spot to read inside. Pushing away the niggling feeling of fear rising in my chest, I took off for the stable. I knew that if I reentered the house at this time, I was certain to be seen.
As I reached the entrance, I hesitated. The only sounds I heard seemed to be coming from the horses. I cautiously crept inside, my heart pounding in my chest.
I hate horses. The beasts frighten me. I suppose this fear is rooted in the fact that my unfortunate father was killed by an unruly horse. Whatever the reason, I never venture any closer to them than necessary.
Still, faced with a choice between my mother's last minute party preparations and a stable full of horses, I chose the later. After all, the horses were secure in their pens and incapable of dictating appropriate conversation topics for the party and bemoaning what was wrong with my appearance.
I climbed up to the loft and made myself as comfortable as I could on a bale of hay. I relit my candle and settled in for a few quiet hours of reading. Though ordinarily I would have found the thought of sitting in a dirty stable loft abhorrent, I soon forgot my surroundings as I became engrossed in my book.
The hours quickly melted away. A gurgling in my stomach reminded me that I had not eaten all day. I was nearly jolted out of my skin when I realized just how much time had passed. The sun was already beginning to descend, and I realized that I only had a few hours to get ready for the party.
A feeling of terror gripped me as I hastily made my way back to the house. I knew that there would be no escaping my mother's fury.
The maid's face was deathly pale as I entered my room. "Where have you been?" she asked. "The comtesse has been searching for you everywhere!"
At that instant the door flew open and my mother entered. Her eyes hardened as she caught sight of me, but to my surprise she did not scold me.
"Jocelin!" she said. "I will deal with your foolishness and irresponsibility later. First we must draw you a bath. We have little time to lose."
I numbly did as I was told and was soon lost in the flurry of preparations. Once I was bathed and dressed with my hair carefully done up in an intricate style, my mother arrived with a small jewelry box.
"I brought some trinkets for you to wear, darling," she said, carefully choosing a few pieces. "I only hope that they will inspire you to act like the charming young lady that I know you can be."
She carefully set them onto the dressing table and patted my cheek before leaving to attend to the guests that were already beginning to arrive. I picked up a pretty gold bracelet and turned it over to find an inscription: "For my beloved Eloise."
Still puzzling over the inscription, I hurriedly put on the other pieces of jewelry. Picking up the bracelet, I reread the inscription and wondered who its original owner was. Just as I was about to fasten it around my wrist, a knock sounded at my bedroom door.
"Come in," I said, halting my actions.
The door opened and Ella stepped inside, dressed in a simple silk frock that accentuated the natural bloom of her complexion. Her smile froze as she caught sight of the bracelet. A little gasp escaped her lips. "Where did you find that?" she asked.
At that moment, I realized the identity of the bracelet's original owner. I dropped it as if it burned me, shocked at my mother's audacity. "This was your mother's bracelet," I said, stating the obvious.
"Yes," Ella said, both pain and anger evident in her eyes.
Unexpected shame swept over me. I knew that Ella had loved her mother fiercely and that the bracelet should by all rights have been given to her. The memory of her distracting my mother so that I could slip out of the library appeared unbidden.
"Then I believe you should wear this tonight," I said, holding out the bracelet to her before I knew what I was doing.
Her face brightened. "Thank you!" she said, eagerly taking it from my outstretched hand. She smiled and gave me a quick hug before I could react. "We are wanted downstairs now."
It was time to face the crowd my mother had surreptitiously gathered in my honor.
As Gigi had predicted, the room was filled with fat, ugly men who were several years older than me. There were, however, a few attractive young men milling about as well. I shot a practiced smile at one of them as I entered the room. Even at thirteen, I was practiced in the art of flirtation. It was like a game: beautiful, intelligent women outwitting rich, pompous men in hopes of gaining a fortune.
My mother immediately appeared at my side and introduced me to several of our guests. I smiled and nodded and laughed at the inane things the gentlemen said until my face hurt. Perhaps if I was charming enough, I could appease my mother's anger.
After what seemed like hours of prattling like a winsome, little imbecile, I grew tired of the game and escaped to the refreshment table for a few minutes of respite. From where I stood, I could see Gigi trying to flirt with a man who had to be at least six years her senior. I was struck by how different she looked from Ella, who was happily chatting with the group of men talking to her father. Whereas Gigi's desperate ploys for attention only invited scorn, Ella's unconscious charm elicited genuine affection.
My thoughts were interrupted by a voice at my elbow. "An evening of invigorating discussion feeds the soul, but only good food can make a night of dull conversation bearable."
I turned to find a stocky boy about my age standing beside me, his plate piled high with delicacies.With his wavy chestnut hair and green eyes, he was almost good-looking in a rough, country sort of way. Had he not been at least an inch shorter than me, I might have even said he was handsome. From the cut of his clothing it was plain that he was a member of the lower aristocracy.
I raised an eyebrow. "You quote Henri Moreau, I presume?"
His face broke out into what some might describe as a good-natured smile. "You recognize the passage?" he asked. "Not many girls your age have read his work. He is an excellent writer, no?"
"Hardly," I scoffed. "The man is a pompous idiot. I find his works repetitive and dull. Everyone with a half a brain knows that he is simply regurgitating Jacques Esprit's ideas."
My harsh criticism flew in the face of everything my mother ever taught me about making polite conversation, but the words sprang from my lips before I could stop them. I flushed, wondering what had suddenly compelled me to speak out in such a manner.
But Remy's smile widened at my scathing remarks. "Really? I have not read Monsieur Esprit's works. I will have to see for myself whether or not there is truth to your accusation."
Before I could reply, I heard my mother call out my name. I cringed. I knew her voice well enough to recognize that she had still not forgiven me for my earlier irresponsibility. "I am afraid that duty beckons," I said, my social facade slipping back into place. "It has been a pleasure Monsier—"
"Remy," the boy supplied. "Please call me Remy. I am the youngest son of Baron Alexandre de Saverne."
He cracked another lop-sided smile. "I hope we are granted the chance to debate the merits of Moreau's writings again, Mademoiselle Jocelin."
That brief conversation with Remy was so unlike any of my other interactions at the party that I found myself puzzling over it as I made my way back to my bedroom once the party had finished and the guests had gone home. Our interaction contained none of the usual playful banter or flattery I had come to expect from young men. It was as if he didn't know the rules of the game. Not that it mattered. He was only a younger son and not worth playing with.
Absorbed in these thoughts, I was unprepared for what awaited me when I opened the door. My mother was standing in the center of my room, her face white with anger. I instinctively shrunk back. Although I knew that I had earned her wrath with my negligence that day, I had not expected to see that dreadful look in her eyes.
"You little fool," she said, her voice deathly quiet as she lay Eloise's broken bracelet on top of my dressing table. "Do you realize what you have done?"