"Excuse me miss, but do you have the time of the-"
Rosa turned to face the woman who had tapped her on the shoulder, a quizzical look on her face as the other broke off. The glimpse she had caught of the older woman's face was wide-eyed with surprise and perhaps a bit of fright, as well as something hidden, which Rosa couldn't quite catch. The woman quickly turned away, almost doubling over with one hand on her heart and the other wrapping around her torso.
Rosa reached out a hand, not quite touching. "Are you all right?" she asked, genuine concern underneath her own surprise and puzzlement.
"No miss, I always look this way," the stranger replied, scurrying away. Rosa sensed sarcasm in the retort, and decided to set the strange encounter aside.
She cast her eyes around for her friend Helena, with whom she had been walking, as well as Helena's twin brother Neville. She knew from firsthand experience that Neville could be temperamental and flighty at times, and figured Helena had chased after him as he wandered. Cloisterham High Street was crowded, and Rosa had an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach; even with the place so busy, she didn't feel right as a young woman unaccompanied.
She therefore should have seen it coming.
The word was a whisper, but there was fervor in every syllable. His hot breath blew her hair, colliding rather moistly with her ear and creeping down her neck. Her face turned pink as she gasped with alarm; she knew that voice, had had it embedded in her mind in the most subtly menacing of ways.
She whipped her head around to look over her right shoulder, instinctively taking a step to the left to distance herself from him. Sure enough, her frightened eyes were met with the leering face of John Jasper.
He was tall, dark-haired and smartly dressed in top hat and tails, several years older than she was. In some respects, a very handsome man. But the way he looked at her, the way he had always looked at her, rendered any positive thought about him completely obliterated. When she was present, he never for a moment took his eyes off her if he could help it. But his was not a flattering gaze; it was an absolute, obsessive, possessive stare that in no way concealed his true feelings for her. His desires clearly manifested themselves behind his eyes as he took in every detail of her face, her dress, her hair. Hostile, intimidating and downright terrifying, but most of all wanting. Wanting, and knowing he couldn't have, she wasn't his - it drove him mad. She belonged to someone else.
Or, she had. Edwin had disappeared without a trace six months earlier. His bloody coat had been found by the riverbank, where he had been walking on Christmas Eve. Murdered, everyone thought so.
Which meant she was as good as prey to anyone wishing to hunt.
"Rosa..." He breathed her name again, savoring it in such a way that sent shivers down the back of her neck and spine. Slowly, he repositioned himself so he was behind her, speaking over her other shoulder. "I'm afraid we've both been neglecting your music lessons. When shall we resume?"
Rosa thought back to her last lesson, in which Jasper had given her a piece of his own composition to sing - one he had written especially for her. The tune had been lovely, the words beautifully, though hardly, disguised. She had been so uncomfortable after the first run through that she had fainted on the spot.
She screwed up her courage, taking several quick strides forward and to the right, away. Her heart was in her throat as she managed to project, "Never, sir."
The atmosphere changed at once. The air itself became more sinister; the cat had been letting the mouse scurry on its own, sure of its plan. Now it was time to kill before the mouse became more cunning. He slowly stepped up behind her again, keeping just an arm's length between them this time, clasping his hands behind his back.
"Am I being politely told," he asked, the adjective dripped over his light words like a syrup, "that you've chosen to abandon your studies all together?"
This could be her chance. For the first time, he was questioning. She jumped at the glimmer of promise - anything.
"The politeness is yours, not mine," she said in a rush. She turned and met his eyes for the moment, letting him see the resolve - however false - she had finally been determined enough to put there. "I beg not to be questioned; I will not answer any more. At least I have that in my power."
A flash of what might have been genuine hurt appeared across his face. He shifted imperceptibly closer, one hand rising to chest height. "Rosa, I-"
"I do not wish to hear you, sir!"
In that instant, she knew she had done it, crossed that carefully toed forbidden line that had kept him from igniting all together. It had most certainly been hurt she had seen in his eyes, but not of the sad sort; it was the hurt of scorn, of being brushed off, of anger.
Cobra-like, he struck out and sunk his fingers into her flesh as they wrapped tightly around her left arm, twisting it behind her back in such a way that made her cry out. The move also effectively brought her much closer to him, her whole left side pressed against him as he yanked her in farther, trapping and concealing her imprisoned limb between them.
"Do not forget how many eyes command a view of us!" he hissed in her ear as she pushed vainly against his chest with her free hand. She was loathe to admit he was right - what accusations would hold? He had yet to take action on any of his silent threats. The position he had put her in - literally and figuratively - would be impossible to escape without a fight. The edge of the knife they walked was very sharp indeed. She shoved his chest again, but he only held her tighter.
His sinister sneer was back in place. "Dearest Rosa..." he crooned, "charming Rosa... Even when you were engaged to my dear boy, I loved you madly."
Rosa shrank as far away from his leering gaze as was physically possible, real anger bubbling up underneath the fear. Though her fight-or-flight response was heavily geared toward flight, with escape impossible she could feel her muscles tightening in preparation for a war of wills and words.
His admonition didn't stop there. "Yet I endured it all in silence. So long as you were his, I hid my - our - secret loyally, did I not?"
"You were as false to him sir, daily and hourly, as you are now!" she spat, brows furrowed with fury and concentration as she continued to pull back. "You know you made me afraid to open his kind eyes to the truth - that you are a bad, bad man!"
To her horror, he was elated rather than deterred. "How beautiful you are! Even more beautiful in anger than in repose." His teeth glistened as he leaned in still closer, thrilled at her reaction and her helplessness. "I do not ask for your love. Give me your self and your rage, your hatred, that enchanting scorn - it will be enough for me."
Revulsion filled her throat and chest, so vile and overwhelming she thought she might drown in it. This, combined with the ever-so-slight slackening of his grip on her arm as he bared himself gave her the power to yank free, bringing her right hand around to slap his cheek with every ounce of strength she could muster. Never one to slack on the reflex and retaliation front, however, Jasper had seized her wrist as it whizzed through the air, stopping it before they met with an almost effortless air. He grabbed her other arm in the same spot before she could twist away again, more for the effect of keeping her still and dragging her squirming body back to him that for fear of her escape. Her newfound anger would keep her there until she could fully express her own feelings.
Rosa cried out in pain and frustration at being caught again, mentally kicking herself for remaining within grasp of his groping fingers. All the same, the smile was wiped from his face at her violent action. "I warn you, sweet witch, rare charmer," he all but snarled, "you must stay and hear me, or do more harm that can be undone!"
She knew his threat was not an empty one. Jasper was a powerful man with very easy access to several people she cared about - Neville and Helena, Reverend Crisparkle, even her acquaintances at the seminary.
But she was fed up. "You're mad!" she snapped, still twisting fruitlessly.
"I mean to show you just how mad my love is!" he replied, half a declaration of desire, half a confirmation of her accusation.
"Love!" she shouted, face contorting with a madness of her own. She stepped closer to him, forgetting his fearsome grip and perverted longings, as well as anyone who might be looking on. "Love! You dare use that word?"
Something in her voice, her tone, wiped his face completely. His expression was unreadable as he dropped her hands, otherwise unmoving, eyes still fixed intensely on her face.
This reaction took her aback slightly, but it slowed neither her anger nor her newfound brave advances. She shook her head, somewhat incredulous, before she could articulate the rushes of color and heat behind her eyes.
"Love is but a word that wandered here from pastures green, where it was rare said or seen and seldom sung." She noticed a slight flicker of movement about him at the last word, and was pleased to see he too knew full well that she was speaking of the song he had written for her. Rewarded with a reaction in her favor, she continued, barely aware of the words spilling from her lips. "It was innocent enough, intended to be used on rare occasion, not abused by every tongue!"
It was his turn to step backward, but this time she followed him forward, not about to allow him to escape if she for once had the advantage. "Never has there been so quite exhausted such a term - your sighs and syllables confirm how drained this word!"
They were slowly circling one another now, two wolves in a twisted sort of dance, only just avoiding lunging at each other's throats, locked together by eyes.
"You call it love - I call it rude!"
"You think me just a bit too crude?"
"I call it cruel."
"Yet still I dare to call it love?"
"I think it foul - you're downright vile!"
"I see you scowl - you watch me smile?"
"You're worse than bad! Your words are mad; you give to sin the name of love!"
"I speak them in the name of love."
She was appalled. For the briefest of moments she had been in control, but each insult she had spat at him was thrown back in her face. He had no shame, nor the need to hide - with Edwin gone, he no longer felt the need to keep his advances clean.
The street had grown far less crowded in the short period of time they had been arguing; people didn't often like to meet Jasper's gaze when he was in one of his infamous "moods". For one who was - publicly, at least - reasonably well-respected, he still managed to keep a tight reign and a fair amount of power through fear; through that instinctive notion that if things didn't go his way, they wouldn't turn out well in the long run.
She was done with it.
"Rosa Bud, the dainty little face whose every curl confirms that she's a child, a girl, a neophyte!" Sarcasm was threaded through every letter of this proclamation, and she began to stalk toward him again as she continued. "Rosa Bud's the only soul in Cloisterham, it seems, who senses just the sort of dreams you dream at night! Did you think your stare would stop my seeing? Every fiber of my being told me since I was betrothed, that your most unnatural attention has conjured other words I dare not mention! You must know how much I loathe to know your wants - to see you clutch!"
"I need not clutch."
"To hear your voice-"
"You have no choice! Is it so much for me to ask?"
"-to feel your touch!"
"I only seek the name of love!"
He was turning her own words against her, the simpering smile brushing the corners of his lips. "I love to hear the angry bite in your fair voice..."
No, she thought. I need to fear this dreadful plight.
"I have a choice! I'll take to flight."
The threat of her leaving changing his tactic. He was all but steaming, his cunning turned to frustration, having at last thought he'd backed her into a corner. His voice was no longer raised as hers was, but somehow it was all the more menacing.
"You will submit, and give your fate to this name of love!"
She locked eyes with him, furious and frightened all in one. She had hoped it wouldn't come to this; she had hoped to walk away without fueling the fire. She didn't break eye contact, doing her best to keep him concentrated as she fumbled in the waistband of her skirt, behind her back, groping for that cool, slim handle...
She stepped closer, breathing heavily. "I'll not permit you to desecrate my name of love!" she said, and before he even had time to glance down, she had a knife at his throat.
The fingers of her other hand curled, vicelike, around the lapel of his coat, holding him there. For once, she was not the victim of their perverted relationship; for once, she had managed to score the upper hand. Her eyes were fixed on the small, glinting blade of the knife she had taken to concealing just for this purpose - yet she found she had no intention of further action. Angry, frightened and tired of playing subservient to his looks, sick of being forced to keep silent without his uttering a single threat, she had folded the weapon into her waistband as a final measure of self-defense.
Slowly, almost painfully, she met his gaze. For once, his face was near unreadable with conflict, caught somewhere between surprise and an odd, rather alarming excitement. Nowhere was there a trace of fear; he knew just as well as she did that his throat was in no danger.
Eyes unmoving, she took a step back. They were both breathing heavily now, though their reasons could hardly have been more different. She found, for all the bravery she had felt before, she was unable to just stand there holding his gaze. Knife still in hand, she spun on her heel and fled, quickly as her heavy skirts would allow.
A sinister, leering smile spread across his face, lips curling to reveal white teeth. Rather than the conflict serving as a warning, her furious words and actions only served to spur his desire - his lecherous want. She had hardly been gone a few moments before he took off in pursuit.