Disclaimer: Don't own it.
A/N: Aaah, I can't believe I'm doing this again. I know, I'm a massive liar - I promised you Lex Legis ch 3 and I haven't got it to you yet, but I honestly am trying my hardest to do so, believe me.
Anyway, I know I'm foolish for even considering another AU, but hey, HERE I AM. So yea, this is the historical romance I was talking about in the A/N intro to Straight Towards the Sun. It's a good'n, especially since it's finally set in London (I love my country.), and I can use old school phrases like "Wool-gathering" without being laughed at. SCORE.
But...yea, I don't expect the 1830's to be everyone's cup of tea. As usual, I'm not massively pleased as to how it turned out - but I don't have the energy to care. HA.
Right. So. Good luck with this one.
Edited 16/02/14: Hello everyone! The time has come for me to make these first few Suitor chapters a little less "17-year-old-me" - yes, that's right - Suitor is getting a grown-up makeover. I'm doing this because I believe it will give me some peace of mind as I write the final chapters. I was never totally happy with how these first ones turned out, and this story really is so very close to my heart it would be a shame if I didn't feel I'd done everything I could to make it shine. This will all hopefully be for the better, and there won't be many noticeable changes. Think of it more as a gentle facial as opposed to a full on nose-job. Anyway, here I go.
If you're new to this story, welcome and I hope you enjoy. If you're coming back to re-read, you are amazing and I will endeavor to bake several cakes in your honour. In fact, cakes for the newbies too. CAKES FOR EVERYONE.
Thank you so much for your support over the years - enjoy!
The thought passed through her head again, as blithely and dispassionately as it had done so many times before.
Mindless, unintelligible chatter grated on her ears. It was the same as it always was at this point in the evening, ranging generally from unpleasant snippets of last week's gossip, to the practiced chuckle of a Viscountess trying to hide her illicit love affair with a footman, and even, if one was near enough, to the odd whisper of debauchery from a rake to a poor, unsuspecting debutante.
From where she stood, by the wall adjacent to the crowded dance floor, she could see them all. Draped in their expensive silks, adorned in their acres of frills and pointless lace; the same people, party after party, dinner after dinner, who ignored her. Day after day.
So she, she in her sensible brown muslin gown, she who had never danced with a man, she who had never known what it was to enjoy a party, had learned to simply tell herself the same thing at every soirée: one day somebody would realise she was standing there. Somebody would look at her. Somebody would notice.
Hitomi sighed heavily as she spotted Merle across the room, talking rather too genially with an attractive, tall, blonde-haired man she could not recall. She supposed he must be an earl or duke's heir, considering the vivacious young debutante had bothered to even consider him a suitable match. For a mere slip of a girl at eighteen years, Merle Rogers had an air of confidence that was, frankly, incomprehensible. Since her come-out the previous month, suitors had seemed to flock to her daily, attempting to win her affections in various shallow and unadventurous manners; bunches of bright, exotic, expensive flowers were sent to the house almost every afternoon, ridiculous penned proclamations of love stuck haphazardly between the blooms. The front hall had become a veritable greenhouse of late. Naturally, these offerings would often be accompanied by countless boxes of pearls and jewels and other pointlessly high-priced baubles.
However, Merle cared not for the gifts, and would often complain of how she yearned for men to be "far more daring", a worrying prospect indeed to Hitomi who, as her governess and chaperone, would undoubtedly not approve of whatever that meant.
Nonetheless, the various suitors were in no way deterred when the lady cast their attempts off as mere trifles, however many times she would casually do so inside of a week. But it was no mystery to Hitomi why the majority of London's male population were pining for her so. It was true, Merle's dowry would be considerable, and yet it was certainly not "considerable" enough to be fought over. So she had come to the conclusion that it was the girl's effervescent personality and, undoubtedly, the beautiful face and perfectly petite figure which drew men to her in such a fashion. All that fiery hair was surely just the icing on an absolutely flawless cake, as it were. Even if it was supposedly out of fashion.
Hitomi's hands strayed errantly to her own, cropped locks at this point, and she winced as she remembered just how short her style was now. Merle had, of course, expressed remorse for the incident, but that did not in any way detract from the fact she was, frankly, an awful coiffeuse. Indeed, the girl had only meant to cut a knotted ribbon from Hitomi's hair, and yet had somehow ended up cropping an enormous chunk from the back and side. The only solution had been to even everything out, thus resulting in the short tresses she was curling lightly around her finger as she recalled the occasion now. Honestly, she thought the style almost suited her in an odd sort of way.
"Dear lord Hitomi, you have been standing in that corner wool-gathering for the past hour and a half!"
Merle's soprano reached her ears before she had even realised the girl was standing barely a metre away.
Hitomi blinked rapidly, "Goodness, h-have I really?"
"Oh my, but you are funny!" Merle whacked the governess' forearm none-too-gently with her fan, giggling. "Don't you wish to dance?"
Hitomi feigned a smile as she shook her head, "Not tonight."
Flashing an expression quite openly brimming with pity, Merle said no more and turned back to the dance floor, obviously planning to reconvene with the blonde man she'd been flirting with earlier.
Hitomi watched the girl recede into the crush before frowning slightly. Merle would never understand that people of Hitomi's status could not just converse with the rest of the ton as if it were normal, as if it were proper. Chaperones such as herself were destined to either stand in a corner, or sit with the widows and spinsters, casually protecting their charges from fortune hunters, witless dandies and, most importantly, notorious London rakes. If she were to walk up to any man at this party, they would surely sneer and turn away. Perhaps they wouldn't notice her at all.
Yes, that was the more likely outcome.
Perhaps it was time to accept the fact she would probably sit with the spinsters forever. And perhaps this unsavoury acknowledgement was a sign that, at six and twenty, she was fast approaching spinsterhood herself. She had never been presented; had never been a debutante. She'd started work as Merle's governess at eighteen and had never looked back. It was too late now to wish for things that could not be. A husband. A family. A fortune.
Certainly not a fortune. She smiled at the thought of something so absurd. Her fingers floated unconsciously up to her neck, gliding gently over the pendant resting over her heart. It was the most precious thing she owned, yet its value lay deeper than its mere weight in gold and the clarity of the blood-red ruby which warmed under her hand. This pendant was the only reminder of her mother. Of her life, her wisdom... and her sins.
Music started. A waltz.
Hitomi shook away her feelings, pushing them behind the familiar façade of indifference once again, and focused on searching for Merle. However, after several seconds of attempting to do so, it became clear that the elusive girl was nowhere to be seen. Frowning, she took a few steps toward the dance floor. Yet still after peering subtly round passing, waltzing bodies, she could not locate her charge.
Beginning to worry at this point, she walked quickly to the corridor and looked calmly from one end to the other. Nothing. She turned on her heel and examined the room for a third time. Nothing.
Consequently burdened with several terrifying thoughts of the debutante locked in a rather compromising situation, Hitomi quickened her pace as she made a panicked circuit of the room. She was just about to make another when she saw that the door leading to the garden was ajar; it had almost certainly been locked not five minutes before.
She walked briskly to it, pushing none-too gently past those in her way, and rushed out onto the terrace.
The completely empty, silent terrace.
"Damn!" The curse left her lips of its own accord.
She sighed exasperatedly before turning her head this way and that, the crease between her brows growing more severe as the night air stung her naked cheeks. Closing the door behind her, she took a few steps forward. The sound of the string quartet wafted lazily through the open windows, filling the air with a sort of mushy richness that only served to aggravate her further. Crossing her arms moodily, she approached the stone steps leading down onto the freshly trimmed lawn.
"When I find that girl..." She muttered darkly, shivering as she descended onto the grass.
She glanced left and then right as she reached the bottom, following the line of the balustrade as far as she could see. Her eyes rolled as they met with only the empty, crisp air.
"Damn." She swore again, "Damn, damn, damn!"
The aggravated chaperone leant forward ungracefully in an attempt to peer round the corner of the high wall. It seemed too far to walk on the dewy grass; and she may not have been trying to impress anyone, but a soggy hem was something even she abhorred. She tutted loudly as the action proved utterly pointless. After looking round fruitlessly for any sign of the troublesome girl in some last, desperate hope, she sighed heavily again.
A soggy hem it would have to be.
Uttering a noise of absolute detestation, Hitomi picked up her skirts and proceeded to strut, rather like a cat (so as not to soak her very best boots), along the lawn, following the high wall the terrace created for several seconds before she reached the corner.
And then she froze.
Because another heavy sigh, and not one of her own, had just cut through the sharp air.
Caught in the act!
Choosing not to wait for any further provocation, she steeled herself for a direct confrontation with her disobedient charge. And… well, whoever else she was with.
She swallowed before rounding the angle rapidly.
Putting on a most austere tone, her eyes fixed on the soil at her feet to avoid any further embarrassment, lest she find them… busy.
"I should hope you will be grateful I have chosen not to mention this to your mother—"
But it was at this point she realised the shoes she was staring at determinedly were not Merle's delicate silk pumps.
In fact, they were not a woman's shoes at all.
Hitomi's eyes widened.
"I shouldn't think my mother would be particularly interested, but I am grateful all the same."
The low, amused timbre settled languidly in the empty air. Uttering a mental curse that would have made a Brixton whore wince, Hitomi counted to three.
And looked up.
Into deep, rich, claret. Into endless depths of lusciously dark chocolate; into shadow and temptation. Into the eyes of sin itself.
Her breath hitched uncomfortably, and it rather felt as if her heart had stopped.
"F-Forgive me my Lord," Her eyes dropped to the grass once more, retreating as if scalded, "I assumed you were… somebody else."
"Indeed." The voice, now somewhat intrigued, reached her ears again. But it appeared not to wish for any further conversation.
"I will... leave you now." Hitomi conceded after an awkward moment, and curtsied politely, "My sincere apologies for interrupting—"
"Out of interest, precisely who is it you are looking for?"
She blinked in surprise, her gaze remaining trained on the lawn.
"Why, that would be my charge, my Lord. Now if you'll excuse me—"
"Is there a reason your eyes are so earnestly searching the soil?" He interrupted without invitation, "Might your charge be located there? Or is it my horrendous features which offend you so?"
"Oh no, my Lord." She promptly looked up again, grateful when she saw he was no longer looking at her, but out towards the darkness of the vast gardens, "I simply… that is, I…" Blushing, she hesitated as her eyes feasted on his chiselled profile.
Waves of ebony hair that were a touch too long, a whisper too wild perhaps, fell slightly over his eyes, giving him the presence of some sort of… dashing pirate, and perfectly wicked, sensual lips were wrapped around some sort of… smoking… stick that looked rather like a malnourished cigar. Hitomi watched as he leant casually back against the high wall and removed it, exhaling a cloud of smoke as a roguish smile tilted one corner of that sinful mouth.
He turned to her then, catching her hopeless stare.
"Tell me, who is this rebellious charge of yours?"
Hitomi blinked as her heart seemed to stop beating again. The stranger's eyes gleamed in the yellow light that bathed them from the windows above.
She clasped her hands in front of her.
"I believe that is none of your business, my Lord." She said succinctly, straightening, ignoring the flicker of amusement that passed over his sharp features.
"Well then what is your name?" He asked after regarding her silently for a long moment.
"Well…" Hitomi raised her eyebrows slightly in surprise, "I don't believe that is any of your business either."
One dark, ebony brow lifted opposite her.
"Truly?" The stranger mocked lightly, his smile lop-sided.
"Of course." Came her defence, "It would be highly improper, my Lord."
He stared at her again, smirking; she hated to admit that it thrilled her.
"You are an interesting chit, aren't you."
"I am no chit, my Lord."
The sound of his soft, understated chuckle made her mouth pop open.
"Indeed." He conceded, bringing the smoking stick to his smiling lips once more. The small action seemed to fascinate her; she stared as he appeared to relish drinking the fumes.
"Well," He exhaled after a moment, "It seems I am entirely in the wrong this evening." He glanced at her subtly, finding her absorption quite charming.
Unfortunately, Hitomi did not notice, and continued to regard him in silence.
"… Might I be right in thinking you have never seen a gentleman smoke before?"
"I-I…" She shook her head in an attempt to clear it. Of course she had seen men smoke before, the problem was simply that… it had never looked so positively sinful to her. The small brown stick seemed to fit so elegantly between his fingers, she rather thought it had been made especially for him; to tempt, to burn.
Hitomi gestured to it, "I am indeed familiar with the act of smoking, my Lord, but simply not with… such a peculiar looking—"
"Cigarette." He finished for her, holding it closer to her so she could regard it, "I developed a taste for them during my travels in America. I've been importing them over here ever since I returned."
"I see…" She said, shortly before he took it from her view and stubbed it out on the wall next to them.
"Bizarre little habit." He smiled sheepishly as it sizzled out, dropping to the grass, "I only indulge when absolutely necessary."
Hitomi tilted her head in interest, unaware of what possessed her to continue, "And pray tell, what made such a bizarre little habit such a necessity this evening, my Lord?"
To her immense surprise, the stranger chose this moment to lean in rather too close to her, his grin surpassing wickedness.
"I do believe," his voice, barely more than a whisper, caressed her senses, "…that is none of your business, my dear Lady."
Her lips parted at his gentle mockery.
"Lord Fanel has nothing to do with this!"
Hitomi whirled in the direction of that familiar soprano. Perfectly practiced, delightful giggles filtered down to them from the terrace, as well as the low, satisfied murmur of a particularly fortunate gentleman.
"Oh!" Hitomi turned immediately, rounding the corner in under a second, "Mer-"
And she was just approaching the steps leading up from grass when a strong arm settled round her waist, tugging her back with incontestable yet gentle force.
"What in god's name—!"
The stranger silenced her by laying a long finger over her outraged lips as he pushed her softly against the wall, caging her with his large, lithe body. And she would have been frightened, had the man's eyes been fixed on her and not on the grass beside them, narrowed as if intent on catching every murmur of the conversation above.
"My Lord," She whispered violently, attempting to catch his eye, "if you would kindly—"
He looked at her and shook his head, silently forming the word "sh" as his finger remained on her lips.
"You don't appear to understand, that girl is my—"
"Hush!" He ordered, craning his head in an attempt to see the couple on the terrace. The quiet voices filtered down once more.
"He's a damned untrustworthy fool, Merle. He couldn't give you what I could." A light yet resonant baritone attempted persuasion.
"I don't care if he's untrustworthy! He's rich and you're penniless!"
Words trailed off into private whispers. The stranger frowned.
"Sir, if you do not unhand me at once, I swear—"
"You do swear an awful lot for a woman, don't you." He cut her off moodily as he caught her eye again.
"I beg your pardon?"
"The number of times you managed the word "damn" was frankly admirable."
She blushed as she recalled her thoughtless cursing upon finding the terrace empty.
"Stay quiet, I want to hear this." He removed his finger from her mouth, and yet she found the warmth of it remained. She licked her lips greedily.
And didn't notice when his gaze darted to them briefly.
"… and he is rather handsome; marvellously so." Merle's voice sang out, "I should not think I would mind his courting terribly." She giggled.
Hitomi watched the stranger's lips quirk in what looked like very male satisfaction.
A man's footsteps sounded from above.
"Are you trying to make me jealous, my dearest love?" Came the seductive, light baritone for a second time, "Because if so, you are succeeding."
Merle's delighted squeal sounded out in the night, and Hitomi assumed that the girl's…friend had just caught her in his arms.
The telltale sounds of lips meeting in barely contained passion wafted down shortly afterwards to where she stood, still trapped between the now brooding stranger's body and the wall below the balustrade.
"I must stop this!" She murmured stressfully, reaching down to lift her skirts in preparation for a swift confrontation.
However two large, warm hands took her own before they could gain purchase on the plain fabric, and lifted them above her head, holding her absolutely immobile.
"Unhand me at once!" She whispered vehemently as the stranger leaned forward, holding her in place with the weight of his body.
Hitomi found she could not quite breathe as his face neared her own.
"Wait." He mouthed, his eyes intense as they fixed on hers.
Her heart stopped again.
She could smell his cologne, the starch from his shirt; a musk that must have belonged to him alone. Mixed with the scent of the grass and the trees around them, it was quite unique. Quite enticing.
"Please…" She begged, rather desperate for freedom now, her breath coming out in soft bursts for reasons she was not entirely sure of.
But the stranger merely leant in further, studying her anxious features in bemusement, "Darling, if you don't stop talking I'll have to silence you myself."
Ignoring the endearment (yet blushing all the same), she struggled again, "Well I should think you will be very sorry for it!"
She stilled when he flashed that mischievous smile again.
"I shouldn't think so."
She swallowed a mewl of protest as his wicked mouth passed over hers, warm and soft and gently caressing. Sensation flooded every single nerve and synapse, and for reasons she could not process, she did not push him away. In that moment, she softened. In that moment, she leant into him and gasped into his unfamiliar kiss. In that moment she surrendered to something she could not even begin to understand. This stranger. This feeling. This night.
And the next moment it was over.
"My dearest, let's return; that unbearable chaperone of yours is probably searching the house for you." The voice of Merle's partner pierced the mood like a knife, "We'll have to wait until Lady Aston's dinner tomorrow night."
Hitomi moved back, her lips parting from the stranger's softly, her eyes catching his own, hooded ones.
She shivered at their penetrating darkness.
And at the sound of the door above opening and closing, she let out a breath she had not been aware of holding. They stared at each other for a long moment before she had the common sense to try to get away.
"I-I… I must go." She breathed.
He released her hands immediately, stepping back.
"What's your name, chick?" He asked quickly, his voice low.
She gathered her skirts hastily. "The unbearable chaperone."
Without another word, she pushed past him and rounded the corner, refusing to look back when she heard the stranger say something quietly to himself. It sounded like a curse.
Praying to God she did not look as flustered as she felt, she ran onto the terrace and went swiftly through the door. Bless her invisibility to the ton at times like these. Merle's fiery coiffure was quite visible in the crowd. Hitomi approached her at rapid pace, grabbing her hand without warning as she went past, heading towards the door.
Sputtering, Merle demanded an explanation, "Hitomi!? What is the meaning of this—"
"We are returning home immediately, and you should not need an explanation as to why."
"But I was in the middle of a conversation—!"
Hitomi spun to her as they approached the front door, nodding at the awkwardly placed footman to collect their shawls, "Your behaviour tonight has been ludicrous, irresponsible—"
"What on earth are you talking about?!" Merle snatched the shawl from the footman, who backed away hurriedly towards Hitomi, "I've been exchanging pleasantries all night with potential suitors!"
"Indeed!" Hitomi snatched her own shawl from the poor, unsuspecting man, "Pleasantries!? Is that how you would describe-" she stopped herself, pursing her lips irritably. It seemed she couldn't explain what she'd heard without admitting to a little… tryst of her own. And that would most certainly not be a helpful confession. "I- You should know what I'm talking about, young Lady!"
Merle tugged her shawl on violently, "Do not presume to label me so 'young', madam! I'll have you know that many of the ton consider me to be mature beyond my years!"
Wrenching on her own wrap, Hitomi straightened as the door was opened for them.
"I have eaten cheeses that were more mature than you, Merle Rogers!" She gestured for her charge to exit first, "Believe you me, we will finish this conversation later!"
The debutante harrumphed as she moved to go past her, but stopped before stepping out into the night. She turned to Hitomi, a scowl implanted uncharacteristically in her girlish features.
"Just because you are a loveless, heartless spinster, does not mean that others must be doomed to the same fate!"
And with that, she stalked moodily towards the carriage, leaving her chaperone speechless on the landing.
But after a moment, and perhaps a slightly longer moment than usual, Hitomi merely swallowed.
Took a breath.
And followed, wincing at the slam of the door (the abused footman no doubt) behind her.
Unaware that a certain dark-haired stranger had heard every word.
Unaware that he had seen the pain so obvious in her glassy, tired eyes.
What did you think?
Be gentle, readers.