He arrived into their lives with no warning, late one autumn evening. It was just like Nikolai to bring an unexpected visitor at such an inopportune time. The family had been gathered in the drawing room after supper, and she had just been about to move upstairs, when Nikolai came charging into the room, with a dark stranger close at his heels.
Sonya looked up from her book as soon as she heard Nikolai's voice, her breath catching in her throat as always. His golden head shone as he bent to greet her aunt, and she felt the warmth of his presence wash over her, kindling the flame inside her. She waited quietly for him to finish greeting the rest of his family, basking in the sureness and contentment she only felt when he was near.
"I must introduce my great friend, Dolokhov – a hero of Austerlitz, you know!" Nikolai was announcing. "He is come to stay with us for a while. Fedya, this is my mother and father, and my sister Natasha. Denisov you know. And this is Sonya, my cousin."
It was only as her hand was enveloped in a much larger and warmer hand that she switched her gaze from Nikolai to the newcomer. He was already bending over her, but she had an impression of a striking and self-possessed man, with tousled dark hair brushing over his forehead. His shadowed eyes were looking straight into hers with a speculative expression as he raised her hand and touched his lips to her skin. It felt strangely intimate, and she shivered, something like recognition snaking up the back of her neck. She drew her hand away quickly, as if repulsed, and looked beseechingly towards Nikolai, but he had already been claimed by Natasha and was deep in conversation.
Dolokhov was watching her with a frown, and after catching the stern eye of the countess, Sonya realised that she must be disgracing herself as a hostess. She beckoned to a nearby chair and tried to smile in a friendly manner.
"I hope you have been recovering well. I understood from Nikolai that you were wounded. I am sorry."
As he moved to the seat, he looked at her with a raised eyebrow, and a hint of humour crossed his otherwise forbidding face.
"I thank you," He spoke with a tight grin, his voice low. "I am quite recovered at this point. Your cousin has done an excellent job of watching over me."
Sonya smiled. "I do not doubt it. He is exceptionally kind."
The speculation returned to Dolokhov's face, and Sonya felt suddenly as though he could see straight through her, see into all of her feelings for Nikolai. She flushed, and looked down at her hands, attempting to think of a different topic.
He seemed to take pity on her. "Nikolai has told me you have no other family, and have lived with them for many years?"
She looked up gratefully. "Yes indeed, I would have been quite bereft when my mother died, without my aunt and her family. They have been truly kind and generous to me. After all these years, I feel quite as one of the family."
"Is that so?" Dolokhov asked curiously, "That is somewhat different to other poor relations I know, who are generally treated as little more than servants."
His bluntness shocked her, and she looked towards her aunt and uncle, hoping they had not overheard. They were laughing with Nikolai and Natasha, with so much love in their eyes that, for a moment, she did indeed feel quite excluded. Although the count and countess were kind to her, there could be no mistaking the evident preference they felt for their own children. She tried to suppress the wave of sadness that briefly threatened to overwhelm her, and looked back at the strange man next to her with an attempt at a bright smile.
"Oh no, I assure you, that is not at all the case. Why, the countess is so caring and thoughtful, and Natasha is just like my sister." She tried to make it sound believable, but his expression did not seem convinced. She had not thought she was so easily read.
"And Nikolai is like your brother?" he asked carelessly.
Sonya started. "Yes, of course," she managed to stammer. He was provoking her, on purpose it seemed. It was not the kind of behaviour she was used to from men of her acquaintance, but she resolved that she would not act perturbed. She lifted her chin and met his gaze directly. He watched her for a moment, his dark eyes intent, and a slight wrinkle between his eyebrows.
"And how is my little Sonya?" Nikolai's smiling voice intruded on their conversation.
She pulled away from Dolokhov's contemplation, and turned to Nikolai with a smile, feeling some relief to be back on familiar ground. Conversation changed to safer topics, such as the events of the day, and their plans to attend Iogel's ball the next evening. Soon after, the countess announced her retirement, and Natasha and Sonya knew they must also make their goodnights.
Even as she was leaving, Sonya felt Dolokhov watching her again, and she could not resist one quick glance in his direction. He appeared disconcerted when her eyes met his, and he frowned, making her redden slightly and hasten her exit.
As she lay in bed that night, she wondered about his unsettling behaviour. She had to admit to herself that his honesty was rather fascinating, so unlike the usual façade that their acquaintances hid behind. But his perception was also unnerving, and she was not sure she was comfortable with her private thoughts being so exposed to a stranger. She so much preferred Nikolai's cheerful company, and her final thoughts before she drifted to sleep were of Nikolai's strong hand enclosing her own, and a dark head bending towards her.
The next evening, Sonya and Natasha were both in a state of high excitement, their preparations for the ball being all consuming. Sonya, turning in front of the mirror, was particularly pleased with her appearance, her hair having been dressed low in a way that suited her, and her cheeks being flushed with natural exuberance. The simple white gown contrasted well with her dark eyes and hair, and although she knew Natasha was the true beauty of the family, Sonya also knew that she was not at all displeasing to the eye.
As the coach pulled up outside Bezukhov's palace, where Iogel was holding his ball, Natasha was almost breathless with anticipation. Sonya laughed at her cousin, but she was also in high spirits, and starting to feel the atmosphere of romance that Natasha was so obviously surrounding herself with. If only Nikolai would ask her to dance...
When she stepped into the elegant high-ceilinged ballroom, Sonya's eyes were dazzled by the lights and colours of the thronging guests. She turned her head, this way and that, while Natasha gripped her hand, whispering excitedly into her ear of the dresses and the many handsome men. They filed past their host, and curtseyed prettily, before following the countess to an edge of the crowd near the dancefloor, where an acquaintance had been spotted.
After a quick word with his mother, Nikolai disappeared into the cardroom without a further glance at his sister or cousin. Sonya lowered her eyes, feeling a lurch of disappointment in her stomach. She knew how fatally addicted to cards Nikolai was, but she had thought he might feel he was required to do a dutiful turn or two around the dancefloor first. His mother was frowning after him in annoyance, but her thoughts were soon given a more pleasant turn as a likely-looking young man came up to Natasha, asking for her hand. Mother and daughter both glowed with approval, and Natasha gracefully stepped onto the floor with him.
Sonya felt deserted. So many people, yet she knew so few. She stood close to the countess, attempting to keep a small smile on her face, and maintaining the minimum of polite conversation, as she had been trained to do. Surely she could not be left here for the whole evening, she hoped she was not so unattractive as that. There were certainly far less handsome girls than herself on the dancefloor.
As she glanced about the room again, an intense and somewhat familiar regard caught her eye, stopping her breath in her throat. Dolokhov was walking steadily towards her, purpose to be read in every aspect of his powerful frame. He looked almost respectable in his dress clothes, but his dark eyes held a predatory glint, and she shivered with nervousness as he approached.
Dolokhov nodded at Countess Rostova, but leant straight towards Sonya, reaching down to capture her hand, and raising it to his lips. This time, there was no mistaking his intent as his warm lips touched the back of her hand for a moment more than necessary. Again, Sonya felt the recognition shudder up her spine, tickling the back of her skull. What was this?
"My lady. May I have the honour?" His low voice seemed tense.
Sonya glanced quickly at the Countess, who was nodding encouragingly. Her nerves were in a tangle, and although she would have been relieved to avoid his presence, she felt cornered. She looked up into his eyes and nodded.
The tension left his face, and he gave her a tight grin of approval, before pulling her gently towards him and onto the dance floor. It was the waltz, she noted with something akin to terror. She felt his arm reach around her waist without hesitation, and the heat of his presence enveloped her as he led her into the first steps of the dance. He smelt different to Nikolai – an earthier, muskier scent, with a hint of spice and leather. She closed her eyes briefly, attempting to focus on the music and re-steady her breathing, before surrendered herself to the lilting rhythm.
Dolokhov was not the most graceful dancer that Sonya had danced with. He moved around the dancefloor with restrained tension, but he led her smoothly and purposefully. Elegantly masculine. She felt quite secure in his arms, and she slowly relaxed into his embrace as she realised he could not harm her here. After all, she was at a ball, and the music really was enthralling. She dared to look up after a time, and found he was staring down at her with fascination.
"My god, you are beautiful," he murmured, almost below his breath.
Sonya flushed and looked down again. He was outrageously forward.
To be continued...