Previously: The Girl, Part II
What a triumph that was!
Cordelia Patridge, dejected debutante, rose from the ashes of her own disappointments on the arm of Count Adrik Mironov, prancing about the dance floor like some fae creature, looking positively perfect in pink.
The Dowager Countess was present, of course, but did not dance. Typically, a widow of her great age would not be chosen to--
Queen Charlotte angrily crumpled up the latest Whistledown and tossed it aside in a huff.
"This is a disaster," she mumbled breathlessly. "I had thought the prior ball a mere fluke, but it would appear this is becoming...something."
"Your Majesty, we do not know the man's intent," Lady Danbury assured her, adding an extra sugar to her tea and stirring with a golden spoon. "The girl caught him off guard; it would have been embarrassing if he dismissed her...not to mention, disastrous to her reputation."
"Oh please, Agatha," Charlotte snapped. She rarely called her old friend by name. "You know how these men are. A virgin in pink bats her eyes and suddenly they forget everything--everyone--that's actually important."
"If he indeed loves the Dowager--"
"He loves her," the Queen nodded resolutely, more so to herself than Lady Danbury. "I know he loves her. I saw it in his eyes, in both their eyes. Why can't they just be together?"
"This is place is a fucking tomb," Clementine sighed irritably, stopping by the kitchens to visit her cousin and steal an apple. "The Dowager is smoking incessantly in her chambers, the Count is sulking in his, Iakov won't stop playing the piano, and nobody wants the lights on...save for the hearths."
"It would seem Cordelia Patridge has come between them," Allegra shook her head, kneading the dough for bread. "Have the guestrooms been dusted?"
Clementine scowled at her, having already taken a large bite of her apple. "Of course the guestrooms have been dusted, cousin...even though we never have any guests."
"Still need to keep a clean house," Allegra shrugged, briefly wiping the sweat from her brow.
"Can we stop talking about the bloody house?" Clementine snapped.
"What do you want me to say, cousin?" Allegra sighed. "He met someone younger, fresher--"
"I heard the Dowager didn't flinch at the ball," Clementine took another bite. "They say she even encouraged the Count to dance with Cordelia."
"As a proper lady would," Allegra nodded. "It's good to know she values her dignity."
"Does she?" Clementine blinked. "Because if you could see her now...."
She missed her morning bath, didn't bother to dress, and her hair was unbraided. And though Elizabeth typically detested the smell of smoke, she couldn't stop smoking. Cigarettes were literally the only thing holding her together at this point.
She missed breakfast, and later lunch. Just before the sun went down, Adrik finally came to see her, likely out of concern. She was lounging on a chaise in front of her window, overlooking the courtyard, and the barren winter trees beyond. She was still in her dressing gown, and still smoking.
"Elizaveta," he began gingerly, "the servants tell me you haven't eaten all day."
"I'm not hungry," she mumbled back, leaning over to a nearby end table to tap her cigarette ash.
"Even so," he entered the room, closing the door behind him, "we should probably talk about last night."
"Just last night?" she asked lightly. Her tone hardened slightly with her next question. "What about the nights before that?"
Adrik was briefly confused. "Nights...?"
"Adrik, you are an adult, unmarried, and even if you were married you could still fuck whoever you wanted. What you won't do, is blindside me, not when I've waited this long to finally come home."
"Don't," she bit out, "'Veta' me, Adrik." She paused for a quick draw. When she spoke again, her voice was leaden. "What are you doing with the Patridge girl?"
He sighed, then scoffed, "I'm not fucking Cordelia Patridge, Elizabeth."
She rose swiftly, nimbly to her feet and turned to his face. "I know you're not fucking her! But you want to, or at least you've considered it. Well, guess what? She doesn't want to be a dalliance, Adrik; she wants to be your wife. Her mother is expecting you to call on them; hell, she's already scheduling your wedding for next year!"
"It was one dance at one ball," Adrik said lowly, trying to do damage control. "I didn't expect--"
"You didn't expect that doe-eyed girl to want more?" Elizabeth asked, her eyes incredulous, her tone only slightly sarcastic. "You didn't expect the ton to gossip, or for Lady Whistledown to print their whispers?"
Adrik sighed, exhausted. "I don't want to marry Cordelia."
"I know," Elizabeth nodded. "But that just leaves the question of what you do want. Because if you drag me into a scandal, so help me God--"
"I want to marry you," he surrendered. "I've always wanted to marry you. I don't care how impossible you think it is or how much you think the ton will gossip, there has to be a way. My father is dead, we are still here, and I want to marry you, Veta. If not, I can just return home with Iakov, and get on with my li--"
He couldn't finish because she was across the room, in his arms, kissing him and sinking her fingers into his dark silky hair. He immediately kissed her back; she tasted of ash and wine and sorrow and the love she stubbornly refused to admit for him. She was warm and soft in his arms, and instead their usual fiery, illicit passion there was comfort and familiarity. And yet...they'd been down the road before, many times, always to the same result. Adrik knew that if he kept kissing her, they were going to end up in her bed, and then their dysfunctional little cycle would start all over again.
"Nyet," he gently pushed her away. Not this time. Not ever again. "Not until we are married. You have until the end of this week to accept my proposal. After that, I will move my things to an inn. And when the weather warms, I will return to Russia."
"Of course I accept," she rasped, eyes tearing. "If you can figure out a way to make it work, I accept."
The sorrow and weariness burned away as his eyes turned to deep, smoldering coals. His jaw tightened. "You accept?"
Elizabeth nodded, unable to speak any further. She expected another kiss to seal the proposal, but instead he took a step back.
"There's nothing to figure out," he stated, voice like iron. "These are not my people. This is not my country. I will apply for a special license. We will wed. And when the warms, my wife and I will return home, gossipers be damned."
The tears ran down her dark cheeks as her chest heaved. "I don't want to leave."
"We can stay," he shrugged, nodding stiffly. "But we will wed before anything else. I have waited years for this. No matter what, we will wed."
"The Patridge family--"
"I will pay for the Baroness to whisk her daughter away, to a spa perhaps," he shrugged again. "Whatever eases the girl's pain and spares her embarrassment." He nodded. "In the meantime, we wed."
Next: The Bride