"The Russians are back to speaking Russian," Allegra grumbled as she emptied the tea pot and rinsed it out.
"I think it's charming, cousin," Clementine grinned, pouring herself a small glass of milk. "I wonder if I can get Iakov to teach me."
Allegra paused to turn and face her. "Why the bloody hell would you want to learn Russian?"
"Well, if the Count ever does decides to return home--"
"Don't even think of it," Allegra cut her off.
"You know, someone ought to tell Lady Whistledown that 'dashing' was a bit of understatement," Clementine mused wryly. "That man is as chiseled and sculpted as a god."
"I wonder what brings him here," Allegra suddenly pondered, turning back to her tasks.
"His father died," Clementine shrugged. "There's a war going on. He probably just needed an escape."
"He could've escaped anywhere. So why here? Dowager doesn't seem to keen on having him around."
Their conversation was interrupted by Iakov, bringing the last tray down.
Iakov usually maintained a certain distance from servants, but he didn't mean to. It was just something he'd always done, both in England and back home. He'd never been a "full servant" in the eyes of either Counts, and in many ways was more like a ward. Unlike other servants, he'd received a full education and was even allowed to be informal with the current Count sometimes.
But seeing as he didn't know how long he'd be in England, or what plans Adrik had for him, he figured he might as well try to build better relationships with other members of his standing.
Upon seeing him, Clementine immediately asked, "Iakov, you've know the Dowager and the Count for a long time, yes?"
"Since I was five," he stated emotionlessly. Internally, he winced; he didn't mean to sound so flat to them.
"And are they always so...distant?" she asked. "It's like they don't want to look at each other, much less speak."
Iakov tried to relax his voice. "If you ask me, it's all an act," he shrugged slightly. "They only behave that way when they think someone's watching. Because whenever they believe they're alone...the sparks fly."
"What the hell was that?"
"What the hell was what?" Adrik snorted, pouring himself a brandy after the guests had left.
"You know, Adrik," Elizabeth rubbed her temples, as she slowly paced the drawing room, "it's not that hard to be an English gentleman. All you have to do is smile, tell these women their gowns are exquisite, and then catch them if they swoon!"
Adrik scoffed. "I'm neither English nor a gentleman, Veta."
"Stop calling me that!"
Adrik finally looked up at her. "I've been calling you that for twenty years."
"When are you leaving?" she finally demanded.
He gave a hapless shrug. "I just got here."
Elizabeth's eyes were like daggers. "You know very well what I mean."
"You were the one who chose to travel so close to winter," he reminded her.
"Why did you even come?"
His eyes held hers, saying one thing while his lips said another. "I wanted to see England."
"You could have traveled anywhere, anytime," she fired back.
He didn't answer and when he finally spoke, it was to calmly pose a question, "Why did your father sell you?"
She was thrown by the inquiry, the sudden change in language. Flummoxed, her brow furrowing, her head shaking, she tried to collect herself. "My...father? My father didn't--"
"He did and everyone who knows you, knows that he did it," Adrik said strictly. "Why sell you but keep the other two? What did you do?"
She threw her hands up and then placed them on her hips. "I suppose...I was a bit rebellious as a child." It was suddenly hard to speak. There was something simmering in, bubbling deep for years and she was afraid of letting it out. "I didn't like my father's rules. I didn't like my parents at all." She shrugged again. "They just wanted to be rid of me, Adrik. My father always hated the fact he had three daughters and no sons, so he made our lives hell." Her body trembled with repressed fury. "I refuse to live in hell, Adrik."
"I know how this works," she pressed, taking a step towards him. "I'm a widow now. I outlived him, just as I outlived my father. I am free now. And I will not have yet another man in my life telling me what to do!"
Adrik was on his feet in a flash, coming to stand before her. "And when have I ever told you what to do?" he fired back. "You were the Countess, the 'Lady Mironova'. If my lady hated azaleas, there were no azaleas allowed in the entire house. If my lady preferred champagne, all we drank was champagne. Do you realize how many tiresome ballets I was forced to sit through because of you? The only one set above you was my father himself, and he loved nothing more than accommodating you!"
They faced off, eyes blazing, but instead of tearing into each other, Elizabeth started laughing. She literally doubled over at the strange turn in their argument.
After a pause, Adrik allowed himself a soft chuckle. "I hated the ballet, and you always knew that, Elizaveta," he said lowly.
"Oh, Adrik," she sighed, standing up and wiping the tears from her eyes. "You have to go."
"Is that what you want?" he murmured, taking another step forward. "For me to leave? You said it yourself, you're a widow now. He is dead. He is dead, and we are still here...Veta."
"You are the Count now," she wearily told him. "If you want, you can go and fill all three of your houses with azaleas. You can drown yourself in a tub of vodka, if it pleases you."
"That doesn't please me," he shook his head. "It's been twenty years, Veta. He is dead, and we--"
"You are my stepson," she reminded him sharply. "I am your stepmother. I slept in the same bed as your father. Five minutes in Mayfair and we've already made the pages of Lady Whistledown, may she rot. What do you think the ton will say when she gets ahold of this?"
"What do you think your father would say?" he shook his head, echoing words he'd heard a thousand times. "What do you think the court would say? Now it's what do you think the ton will say? Fuck the ton!" Adrik suddenly growled. "I have waited. Do you understand? Because of you, I couldn't marry, I couldn't even be a proper rake. How could I be, when every woman's face was your face?"
Elizabeth felt it again, the bubbling, the simmering. Her eyes welled as her heart swelled and threatened to soften at his words. "Adrik," she whispered, hoarse with misery.
"Do you know what it's like to be at a brothel with your friends, staring down into your drink, hating your life? I used to pay the whores just to leave me alone."
It was dark now, as the afternoon deepened, the weak light faded from the sky. The hearth was dead, and the candles were burning low. The quiet and dim light seemed to embolden him as their eyes locked, bringing him closer, until he finally gave in and pulled her into his arms.
She refused to touch him back, even when he leaned in and kissed her. They'd had lapses like this before, especially when Andrei's health finally began to fail. The kiss started off gentle, full of longing. He'd missed her, missed their stolen moments. They hadn't touched since Andrei died.
Gentle quickly melted into passion as Adrik pulled her closer, pressing her against him. Elizabeth still refused to touch him, not those broad shoulders, not that silky dark hair. The last time she'd made that mistake, they'd been unable to stop.
He pulled back slightly, breathing heavily. "You are a widow. This is your house. You can do whatever you want."
The meaning hung between them as he waited for her consent. Instead, she pulled away.
"I can't tell you what I won't do," she said softly. "I won't be my stepson's mistress." She turned and left him alone the drawing room.