Disclaimer: This fanfic is rated 'M' for adult themes. I do not own any of the characters of The Hunger Games or of Pride and Prejudice.

Chapter 7:

"Maybe it's that I find it hard to forgive the follies and vices of others, or their offenses against me."

- Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Katniss inhaled a deep, sleepy breath the moment her eyes fluttered open the next morning, the cooing song of the morning doves outside her window a pleasant awakening. For a fleeting moment all seemed as it should, like any other day, as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes…that was until the sound of pacing footsteps and her aunt's muffled voice from behind the door soured her mood. She turned to awaken Primrose but found her side of the bed already empty.

There was a light knock at the door before it creaked open and her aunt's head appeared from in the doorway. "Katniss, my dear," she started, her voice bright and cheerful, as though what had transpired between them the day before had been long forgotten. "Lady Undersee has called upon us today to join her and Madge for luncheon. See yourself dressed and you can accompany your sister and cousins on the walk through town. I shall follow along after with the carriage."

The thought of the day spent visiting with Madge, and more importantly, away from these walls, caused Katniss to sigh in relief. She hid her smile beneath the blankets as her aunt began to back away through the doorway, but when she suddenly reappeared again, swinging the door open wide, she caught her niece off-guard. "Oh! I almost forgot! I suggested to Mr. Crane that he escort you girls along the way. I believe the fresh air would do him some good after his long journey yesterday. Stretch out his tired legs. Wouldn't you agree?"

Katniss' scowl was answer enough, and her aunt's frown in return as she retreated through the doorway yet again did not go unmissed. The woman's obvious agenda of forcing Katniss and Mr. Crane into close confines in hopes of them conversing and spending time together was futile. Had she not made herself perfectly clear on the matter of Mr. Crane? Had her uncle not made himself clear as well?

However, one thing was clear: Her aunt had successfully ruined her morning.

To Katniss' dismay, Mrs. Abernathy's plan had appeared to be unfolding as she had hoped. Upon dressing in a brown cotton dress that she was certain Mr. Crane would find dull and unflattering, Katniss begrudgingly set off with her sister and cousins on foot towards town, with a more than enthusiastic Mr. Crane close at their heels.

The man did not stray more than few steps from her side as they departed the gates of Seamfirth. As such, Katniss stuck close to her sister and Annie, linking arms with them as they discussed their excitement for the upcoming ball at Seaforth. If it weren't for the constant looming shadow behind her, it would have been a most refreshing walk. The air was crisp and the sun shone brightly over the rolling hills that had come to life in vibrant greens, and the yellow and white wildflowers that dotted the hills filled the air with a sweet aroma.

When they reached the stone bridge crossing that separated Seamfirth from the neighboring Seaforth Park, Johanna and Portia paused to watch the families of ducks as they swam in the stream below. Katniss crept away to the other side to regard a mother duck and her ducklings as they dove below the water, surfacing and shaking off the droplets that beaded along their downy backs. The hot sun shone down on her own back and she rolled her shoulders. It was days like these she cursed the layers of her dress and the long sleeves that made her arms itch from the perspiration that collected along her skin. What she would give to free herself of the stifling garment and join the care-free ducklings as they splashed about in the cool stream below.

"Where is your bonnet, Miss Everdeen? The sun is bright today!"

Katniss shut her eyes for a brief moment and inhaled a calming breath. She forced the evidence of her annoyance from her face and replaced it with a terse smile before turning around. Mr. Crane stood beside her, his hands clasped behind his back as he cautiously approached the wall of the bridge and peered over the edge to examine what had occupied her attention.

"I will be quite fine, I assure you. I quite enjoy the sun on my face."

"But will you not burn? With such a pretty face as yours, it would be best to preserve it as long as you can."

Katniss arched her brow and watched him from the corner of her eye, unsure if whether the statement was meant as a compliment or not. If it had been, the man had an awkward way with flattery.

"Please do not concern yourself, Mr. Crane, I assure you again, I will be fine." He nodded in understanding and looked to the ground, his pursed lips signaling to her that he seemed somewhat uncertain as how to proceed next. The discomfited pause that ensued was enough to compel Katniss into breaking the silence. "Mr. Crane, you mentioned last night that Sir Snow is your patron. Is that correct?"

"Ah yes, I have been truly blessed to have fallen into the gentleman's good graces and generosity. To be in his company is such an honor and I am quite fortunate for the position he has seen me fit to fill. I am delighted to admit that I frequent his estate at least once a week to share a meal with him." The proud smile that Mr. Crane wore was marked of his attempt to impress her. Unfortunately for him, his efforts had fallen upon indifferent ears.

The prospect of discovering more with regards to Mr. Mellark and his family was enough for her to fight back the urge to turn on her heel and leave, so she begrudgingly continued with the conversation. "Do you know much of the family?"

Mr. Crane angled his body to lean against the bridge and stroked his chin with his well-manicured fingers. "Miss Clove aside, I know not much of the family. Sir Snow is a private man, but from what I have gathered in passing and through casual conversation is that he is the last surviving member of his immediate family, God rest their souls." He brought a hand to rest over his heart and paused for a moment of silence before continuing. "I do believe there are a handful of children from his much younger sister and there were two elder brothers as well; twins, in fact, who were also his business partners, however neither were blessed with the happiness of marriage or children. Regretfully, both succumbed to an untimely death well before their 30th birthday, an unfortunate bout with consumption or something or other."

"Have you ever had the pleasure of meeting his sister's children?" Katniss asked, averting her eyes from Mr. Crane's face as she drummed her fingertips across the weathered surface of the bridge.

"I've the pleasure of dining once with the elder of Sir Snow's nephews, the one that currently looks after his interests overseas and then there is one currently abroad with the naval unit in the West Indies who Sir Snow has not seen in years. As for the youngest—"

"Mr. Mellark? Of the Mellark Milling Company?"

"Why yes! Do you know of him?"

A heated flush crept across her cheeks as she placed a hand over the bodice of her dress, hoping to settle the fluttering within upon the mention of his name. "Only a little."

"I would so much enjoy to make his acquaintance!" Mr. Crane answered, the glint in his eye apparent as he stared out towards the direction of where Seaforth stood proudly upon the hill in the distance. "I have heard that Mr. Mellark's estate is one of such grandeur and refinement that it puts these country houses to shame! Some even say, and please do not repeat this again as they are not mine own words, but that his estate rivals that of his uncle's."

Katniss followed Mr. Crane's gaze out to the mansion before them, and as she took in the overall grandeur and commanding height of the stone walls, she frowned. Never before had she seen a more impressive property than Seaforth Park, but if Mr. Mellark was indeed a man of greater wealth and higher rank, then she was certain Seaforth would pale in comparison to Spring Haven. Not that she cared much for the opulence and frivolous lifestyles of those in the upper gentry, but a part of her could not help but wonder the way of life these men lived. To her disappointment, she would never know for herself if the rumors were in fact true.

Mr. Crane paused, as a conspiratorial look overtook his face and he turned his body towards her, leaning in ever so slightly as he continued in a hushed voice. "Miss Everdeen, it is not in my nature to perpetuate the scandalous chitchat that I happened to come across, but from my time spent with my patron I have come to learn that a most unfortunate event passed between the two, for you see, Sir Snow and his nephew have not spoken for quite some time. I am unsure as to the cause for their estrangement, as it is not my place to ask. Alas, I do not believe I shall ever have the pleasure of making the gentleman's acquaintance, given my current circumstance."

It was improper to scoff at Mr. Crane's crestfallen face upon the realization, but it did not stop Katniss from bringing a hand up to cover her mouth, trying to pass off her muffled laugh as astonishment. She did not have the heart to inform the man that there was no need for secrecy pertaining to Sir Snow and his nephew's falling out.

For a gentleman expected to uphold high principles and possess great humility of manner, it was undeniable that Mr. Crane was one with a taste for gossip, which led her to once again question his morals as a clergyman.

So Katniss simply nodded but did not answer. She knew full well that it would be a kindness to put an end to the gentleman's disappointment and enlighten him that just beyond the walls of the estate before them was the man he was so anxious to meet. The giggles from Johanna and Portia as they continued on their way down the path caused Mr. Crane to offer his arm to Katniss. She begrudgingly linked her arm through his, despite the concerned look that Primrose flashed from over her shoulder. Katniss was thankful that her sister and Annie were not more than a few steps ahead of them, no doubt waiting to interrupt if need be.

"Do tell me, who is the master of the estate upon the hill? I would very well like to meet him if the chance should arise."

"Mr. Finnick Odair purchased Seaforth Park not more than a month ago, and I am sure he and his sister would be more than thrilled to make your acquaintance." Kantiss chuckled to herself at the thought of Miss Odair having to uphold a conversation with Mr. Crane; what an amusing sight it would be. "In fact, you will be most happy to learn that Mr. Mellark is a guest of Mr. Odair's for the summer."

"You do not say! What wonderful news!" Mr. Crane's eyes widened as he released her arm and clasped his hands together in excitement. "Do tell me, Miss Everdeen, have you the pleasure of his acquaintance?"

The heated blush once again returned to Kantiss' cheeks as she crossed her arms over her chest and looked away, the curious flip in her stomach making it hard to maintain her composure. "Yes, I have had the pleasure of his company on more than one occasion," she replied, struggling to keep her voice flat and indifferent.

"And how is he? If you could describe him with one word, what would it be?"

Kantiss pursed her lips. It was a simple question, one with which a simple answer would easily suffice. But was the answer really that simple? A month prior it might have been, but within the past week, the answer had grown…complicated. "I find him quite…well, he is quite…" she trailed off as she released a long and labored breath.

Industrious? Ambitious? Perceptive? Mysterious? Infuriating? Handsome? She huffed to herself in frustration, unable to sufficiently describe such a complex gentleman whom she regretfully still did not know much about. It was an impossible task, for no single word would do the man justice.

"Yes? Quite what?" Mr. Crane asked, his eyes wide as he gestured with his hand for her to continue.

"Pleasurable?" Whether the slight lift in her voice was intentional or not, she was unsure, but what she was most undeniably sure of was the burst of warmth that shot through her body at the thought of how pleasurable his lips felt against her skin.

A choked cough from up ahead caught Katniss' attention as Primrose gawked at her from over her shoulder, causing Kantiss to avert her gaze momentarily to the dusty road to regain her composure. When she looked up to meet her sister's still inquisitive stare, she narrowed her eyes and shook her head slightly.

"What good news! I am now even more eager to meet the man! What else do you know of him? Come now, Miss Everdeen, be honest for I must admit, I am quite curious as to the nature of this mysterious man."

Katniss gnawed on her lip, unsure of how much to reveal of what she had come to learn of Mr. Mellark. "Well, from what I have gathered, when it comes to his business he appears to be a humble yet sensible man. He does not have a tendency to ramble or engage in trivial subjects, but when he does speak he is to the point and…and there is something pleasing…a-about his mouth when he does…" She trailed off as she recalled the way his lips parted ever so slightly when he spoke her name, the image causing heat to bloom across her chest.

Fearing she had spoken out of turn, Katniss glanced up, and the look upon her sister's face as she continued to watch her from over her shoulder was one of complete bewilderment. From the slight furrow between her sister's brows, she was certain she had exposed too much and aroused a suspicion that she was certain would not be ignored.

Mr. Crane regarded her peculiarly before he smiled curtly. "I see, well, I am pleased to hear. I did not think a man of such accomplishment would be unpleasant. Perhaps I can persuade your uncle for an introduction?"

"You are in luck then, sir, for Mr. Mellark mentioned that he did intend to call upon Seamfirth this week." A smile played at her lips at the hope of seeing him again soon, and hence Katniss continued in a much lighter tone, "So it seems you will get your chance to meet him sooner than you thought."

The town was bustling with life as they reached the outskirts of the crowded streets and wove their way through the masses. During the remainder of their walk, Katniss noticed how Mr. Crane had slowly and covertly bridged the gap between their bodies. He was much closer than she cared for, and in an attempt to thwart his unwanted attentions she paused to push away the stray stands of hair that had blown into her face. She crossed her arms after over her chest and increased her pace, desperate to put distance between them, and selfishly wishing that they could lose Mr. Crane in the crowd once and for all.

As she rounded the corner of the seamstress shop in search of Annie and Primrose, she felt a hand at her elbow. Reeling from the unexpected touch, she pulled her arm to her chest and turned in haste, prepared to put Mr. Crane and his perpetually infuriating advances in their place; however, the pair of steely blue eyes and beaming smile that greeted her were unexpected.

"Mr. Cray," she said as she dipped into a shallow curtsy and he bowed in response. "What brings you to town?"

"I am fortunate that my morning duties were cancelled, and I have been given the day off. So I thought, what better way to amuse myself than with a walk into town to see what trouble I can find," he said with a wink.

Katniss crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head lightheartedly. What trouble could he possibly get into here in one morning? It was then she recalled her cousins and sister and she scanned the crowd, relieved when she spotted them over her shoulder. Her absence had not gone unnoticed and they had stopped to peruse the storefront of the dress shop as they waited. Mr. Crane had joined them and although Katniss felt a tinge of sympathy for Primrose when he had decided to fix her in conversation, she was thankful to not have him at her heels.

"A friend of yours?"

Katniss' brow rose in surprise. "Come again?"

"The gentleman conversing quite animatedly with your sister; is he a friend of yours?"

"Not exactly. That is Mr. Crane, a cousin of my uncle who has decided to grace us with an unexpected visit," Kantiss replied flatly, turning to look away when Mr. Crane glanced over and waved.

"An admirer as well, it seems."

"I beg your pardon, sir?" Katniss scoffed, but the heat that flooded her cheeks gave her away. "Is it obvious?"

"I am afraid so." He chuckled and ran the pad of this thumb across his lower lip. "Forgive me if I am mistaken, but from the unimpressed look upon your face, am I to believe his apparent affections are one-sided?"

Startled by Mr. Cray's blunt inquiry, she narrowed her eyes, taken aback by his lapse in proper conduct, but she saw no reason to answer him dishonestly. "Yes, your assumption would be correct."

"Well, that is a relief, but if I am to be honest, I cannot fault the man for his choice." The serious undertone of his voice as he took a step closer towards Katniss caused the air between them to tense and her body to stiffen. When his gaze focused on her lips, an unsettling feeling rippled beneath her skin and she swallowed thickly as his eyes once again rose to meet hers.

From their brief encounters they had shared, Katniss had realized early on that Mr. Cray had a tendency to flirt, but the coveting manner with which he looked upon her now seemed improper.

Unable to keep his stare, she looked away to the passing faces of the crowd but when she spotted the top of Johanna's bonnet as she eagerly wove her way towards them, a sense of relief washed over Katniss.

"Miss Everdeen!" a cheerful voice called out from behind, diverting her attention once more. She smiled and curtsied as Mr. Darius appeared from the crowd, the brilliant hue of his regiment regalia causing him to stand out from the drab surroundings. "How wonderful it is to see you! And do we have the pleasure of the rest of the Abernathy household today?"

Before Katniss could respond, Johanna came to a halt next to her. "Oh, Mr. Darius! What a wonderful surprise!"

Katniss rolled her eyes at the way her young cousin's eyes seemed to sparkle as she gazed in awe at Mr. Darius in his gleaming red lieutenant's coat. Of all her cousins, Johanna had proven to be the boldest, never letting propriety interfere with her tongue or manners. Although Katniss had to admit, Johanna's whip-crack humor and confidence had made for great entertainment over the years.

"Where are you ladies off to this fine day?"

"We are expected at Undersee Lodge to dine with Lady Undersee and her daughter, Madge. Oh! You must join us for the walk!"

"Jo!" Katniss hissed. "I am sure Mr. Darius has more important matters to attend." Johanna stuck out her tongue in a most unladylike fashion before turning back to Mr. Darius with innocent yet pleading eyes.

Mr. Darius sighed. "I am afraid I must decline. Nothing would bring me greater joy than to accompany you on your journey, however I must return to camp. I am on an errand for the colonel, and he is expecting my hasty return. Perhaps another time?"

Johanna pouted and kicked at the dirt.

"If it is any consolation, would my presence make up for my friend's absence if I was to escort you ladies in his stead?" Mr. Cray asked as he offered his arm to Johanna. Her face lit up immediately as she linked arms with him, poor Mr. Darius already forgotten as he politely bowed and turned on his heel to retreat back into the crowd. Katniss caught Mr. Cray's eye as he winked, a wolfish smile playing upon his lips. "Shall we?"

The presence of Mr. Cray made for a livelier journey and the return of his cordial nature and ease of conversation had almost made Katniss forgot about Mr. Crane, who had slowed his pace to follow a few steps behind them.

When they neared the stone gates of the estate, Lady Undersee and Madge were out in the garden, baskets in hand as they picked through the first bright red strawberries of the season.

"Madge!" Katniss called out as she ran ahead of the group to greet her friend. As she embraced Madge, her basket fell to the ground, sending the berries into the air before they landed amongst the long blades of grass below. "Oh dear, I am sorry! Let me help you." Katniss knelt down to help collect the scattered fruit, but when she reached for the basket, she realized it was already gone.

"Allow me." Mr. Cray helped Katniss to her feet as he bent over and gathered up the spilt fruit. Madge exchanged a curious look with Katniss as they watched him work, but she shrugged her shoulders, at a loss for words. When he had brushed off the last of the delicate berries, Lady Undersee called out to her daughter, and Madge accepted back the basket before scurrying away into the house after her mother, leaving Katniss and Mr. Cray alone in the garden.

"Thank you, that was very kind."

"Of course, Miss Everdeen, it is my pleasure to serve you."

The underlying fervor of his words once again caused an unsettling feeling to invade her senses. There was no dispute that Mr. Cray was charming, and his figure and face were most definitely to his favor; however, it was the man's intensity that rubbed Katniss in such a way that caused her to feel uncomfortable, as though he was seeking something from her. Was the sincerity of his words and attentions true? Or were they suspect, as though below his pleasing facade was a hidden agenda?

The sound of an approaching horse and carriage caused Katniss to break their stare. She turned to find Mrs. Abernathy, with her head hanging out from the window, a frown upon her face as they came up the laneway. As upset as she still was with her aunt, Katniss was thankful for her timing. She kept her eyes ahead of her as she continued to the entrance of the house, Mr. Cray just a step behind her, to where Lady Undersee had reappeared to greet her aunt.

"Mr. Cray!" Mrs. Abernathy shrieked. "What a pleasant surprise! Do join us for our meal!"

"Aunt Effie!" Katniss chided before she looked to Lady Undersee with apologetic eyes for her aunt's unfailing habit of overstepping her boundaries.

"Oh, it is quite alright my dear." Lady Undersee smiled as she turned to Mr. Cray. "We would be thrilled if you joined us, sir."

"With such distinguished company, how could I refuse?" Mr. Cray bowed to both Lady Undersee and Mrs. Abernathy before he gestured for them to enter the house, following close behind Katniss as they made their way to the dining room.

When they entered, the rest of the party was already seated at the lavishly set table, except for Mr. Crane, who stood quiet and unmoving in the corner, blending in with the décor like a statue. There were three empty seats left, and Katniss cringed when she realized that Mr. Crane was no doubt waiting for her to seat herself before choosing his own. Johanna clapped her hands excitedly as she beckoned Mr. Cray over to the empty seat next to her, but as though sensing Katniss' dilemma, he instead offered it to Katniss, taking the seat next to her. This left Mr. Crane the only option of sitting between Mr. Cray and Madge.

"Thank you," Katniss whispered so that only Mr. Cray could hear as he pushed the chair in behind her. He answered with slight nod of his head before taking his own seat and laying his napkin across his lap as the dishes began to be passed about the table.

The meal passed by pleasantly enough. Kantiss was impressed that her aunt had managed to behave herself and did not speak out of turn, as she was so accustomed to doing so. Eventually, the lively conversations of the town gossip inevitably led to their anticipation of the upcoming ball.

"Mr. Cray, do you plan on attending the ball?" Johanna inquired as she swirled a plump red strawberry through the bowl of freshly churned cream at the center of the table. "You must! The entire regiment is to be invited. Mr. Odair has promised me himself that he would!"

"We shall see," he chuckled as he wiped his mouth with his napkin, although Katniss could not help but notice the way his lips twitched, as though he was holding back a frown.

"Mr. Cray, how is it that you found your place in the militia?" Mrs. Abernathy called out from across the table as she stirred her tea. "I would have thought a gentleman such as yourself would have preferred to be an officer in the navy, and with your refine air and charm, I would suspect you to have been promoted to captain by now!"

"Aunt Effie!" Katniss shushed under her breath. "That is not our business! I am sure his reasons are quite honorable and as such, we need not further employ him for his justification." She looked to Mr. Cray with a contrite smile, but he returned it in kind with a frown before his lips curled into a roguish grin.

"Do not worry yourself, no offense was taken." His eyes did not leave hers as he subtly reached over and brushed the back of her hand with the pad of this thumb. Katniss flinched and inhaled a sharp breath. Her skin prickled from the unexpected contact, and her eyes darted down to her hand just as he pulled his away. Her heart began to race, but as to whether it was attributed to the excitement from his intrepid gesture or rather the exact opposite, she was unsure.

Worried that their exchange had been witnessed by meddling eyes, Katniss looked about the table nervously. To her relief, Johanna had already steered the conversation back to the details of the ball and her desire to dance with as many of the officers as she could. Mr. Crane had thankfully remained content with his quiet conversation with Madge, and Katniss made a note to thank her friend later for keeping him otherwise occupied.

Katniss was appalled by her aunt's lack of tact and manners regarding appropriate topics for discussion during the meal. It was at times like these that Katniss could not understand how a lady born and raised in the Capitol, who should be the epitome of grace and etiquette, could behave as such.

A light cough broke her from her thoughts, and she turned her head, greeted by Mr. Cray's curious stare. After setting down his napkin next to his empty plate, he turned to Katniss and asked in a hushed tone, causing her to lean in close to hear. "Tell me, Miss Everdeen, do you happen to know how long Mr. Odair's guests will be staying on?"

Katniss pursed her lips and her brow rose in confusion as to whom he was speaking of. Considering that Mr. Mellark was the sole guest at Seaforth, the only other person Mr. Crane could be referring to was Miss Odair, which Katniss thought peculiar if he was. No, he had to be inquiring about Mr. Mellark, and given the cold yet curious exchange that she witnessed between the two men when she first met Mr. Cray, she thought it the perfect opportunity to ask of their acquaintance.

"Are you referring to Mr. Mellark? He is the only guest of Mr. Odairs that I am aware of."

He fell silent for a moment before he reached for his goblet. "Yes, I suppose I am."

"As far as I am aware, he plans to stay on until the summer. Pardon my curiosity, but how is it that you are acquainted with Mr. Mellark?"

Mr. Cray settled back against his chair as he traced the rim of his goblet with the tip of his finger. "I have known Mr. Mellark for too long, but let me first ask you, how do you find him?"

Having the same question posed twice to her in one day was almost too much for her reeling mind to take. Still caught up in the slew of emotions that surrounded her opinion of Mr. Mellark and still unsure of Mr. Cray's true character, she decided to exhibit a neutral stance with regards to Mr. Mellark and answered cautiously. "I find him to be a proud yet private man. How do you find him?"

Mr. Cray snickered. "I know Mr. Mellark too well to be a fair judge of his character. The world is blinded by his wealth and social rank to the point that they see him only as he chooses to be seen."

Kantiss could not help but look surprised as she mulled his words over in her head.

"Have I astonished you? You see, Miss Everdeen, I was once closely connected to the Mellark family. I was his father's ward, and so from infancy I was raised within the walls of Spring Haven and I called the estate my home. Mr. Mellark and myself are close in age so we played together quite often as boys, at one time I even considered him a brother, an ally even during our formative years."

Mr. Cray ceased the movement of his finger and lowered his hand to the stem of his goblet, bringing it to his lips to take a long, drawn out sip. He cleared his throat as he set down his drink. "I treasured the camaraderie we once shared, which is why the sting of his betrayal cut deep. His father loved me as his own flesh and blood, and he was a noble and righteous man, very unlike his son. If only temperament was a trait to be passed down through blood, rather than a product of nurture. I am not sure why, but Mr. Mellark had always looked to me with a jealous eye, but how am I to blame? I was only acting upon my own kindhearted nature; am I to blame that his father preferred me to him?"

With her curiosity piqued, Katniss worried her bottom lip with her teeth as she sought out a delicate manner with which to broach the topic of the exact nature of their discord. Deciding it was an impossibility, she settled for candor over decorum. "What betrayal is it that you speak of?" she asked timidly, not expecting for him to give her an answer.

"Not but a few years back, at the unfortunate passing of Mr. Mellark's father, he bequeathed to me a good part of his estate. This of course did not sit well with Mr. Mellark, causing him to treat the matter quite scandalously. Disregarding his father's wishes, he denied me my share of the inheritance and saw fit to dispose of it elsewhere. This single act of betrayal sent us on our separate ways and compelled me to join the militia, although since childhood I was groomed to take up a role in the Church. But without the legacy I was promised, I was unable to complete my schooling. Thus, this is how you find me now," he said as he gestured to his regiment coat.

Astonished by the revelation and his willingness to share such a private matter, Katniss stared back at him in disbelief. She could not ignore the clipped manner with which Mr. Cray spoke as he regaled his account of Mr. Mellark and his falling out. The bitterness she sensed from the way he clenched his fist atop the table also caused her to wonder if his version of the account was not tainted and although she had no reason to consider the man deceitful, she found it hard to believe that Mr. Mellark could act so unjustly…unless provoked.

"But, what would possess him to act in such a manner?" she finally asked as she regarded his face with uncertainty.

"Jealousy drives men to unthinkable measures, Miss Everdeen."

Katniss frowned, unsatisfied by his answer. With numerous differing views of Mr. Mellark's character, which one was she to believe? Did one exist that was not biased in favor of his wealth or against as the result of a previous personal slight? She would require more information if she was to come to an unprejudiced opinion of her own.

"Mr. Cray, you speak of nurture versus nature, and you are quite lucky to have been born with such a pleasurable nature, but how is it that Mr. Mellark came to be…well as you say, as he is now?"

"It is my opinion that his mother had a great deal to do with it. He takes after her in disposition more than his brothers. She was his favorite and it showed. Over-indulgence and confidence breeds a sense of entitlement." He sighed and shook his head slowly. "It is truly a shame that he did not take after his father."

"Does he not have a younger sister? How is she?"

A sardonic laugh escaped Mr. Cray's lips as he took another sip from his goblet. "Just as proud and selfish as he," he replied flatly. The coldness of his tone was so apparent that Katniss was surprised it did not freeze his drink solid.

Frustrated that she was not progressing in her quest to understand the true nature of Mr. Mellark's character and worried that she had soured Mr. Cray's mood with her incessant questions, she decided it would be best to change the subject.

"I do hope you will attend the ball, as it will be quite the sight to behold, I assure you. Oh, but I do hope that Mr. Mellark's presence does not play a factor in your decision to attend."

"No, not at all. I would not go out of my way as to intentionally avoid the man. It is he who cannot stand my presence. I no longer harbor any ill will towards him, despite his actions against me. I have come to peace with what could have been and what is now, and plan to make the best of the hand I have been dealt." He hesitated before taking another sip of his wine, the corner of his lips twitching as though there was more he wished to say. "Miss Everdeen, I feel it would be a dishonor if I did not warn you."

"Warn me?" she repeated, her eyes widening in confusion. "Warn me of what?"

"Mr. Mellark," he said as he lowered his goblet to the table, "he is not the man he appears to be; he is not to be trusted. The constant drama that seems to follow him and his family like a specter is not one that a fine and respectable lady such as yourself should get caught up in."

The tone and fervor with which Mr. Cray expressed his warning did not appear to be genuine in nature, but laced with an accusatory quality to it. If Katniss was to trust her instincts, then she thought it best not to ignore the nagging feeling of suspicion she felt towards Mr. Cray's true motives for his behavior. Had he truly come to terms with his past and moved on? She had her doubts.

"I see," she said with a diminutive smile as she reached for her fork and continued with her meal. "I thank you for concern."

Upon their return later that afternoon, they found Mr. Abernathy out at the front of the house, tending to the overgrowth of the hedges as a group of geese honked and nipped at his heels. It was amusing to Katniss the way the stubborn birds had a tendency to tangle amongst his feet and follow him as he puttered about the property.

As they filed out of the carriage, Mr. Abernathy looked up from his pruning and greeted his wife with a chaste kiss to her cheek. She wrinkled her nose in disapproval from the scent of her husband's physical exertion, and waved him off with a flick of her hand as she gathered the skirt of her dress to ascend the steps.

"If my affectionate greeting can no longer bring a smile to your sweet face, my dear, then perhaps the tiding of good news will?"

With her attention gained, her aunt stopped at the doorway and looked to her husband expectantly, shooing away the geese that attempted to follow her into the house. "Well, out with it then."

"In your absence, I had a visitor. Mr. Odair—"

"Mr. Odair!" Mrs. Abernathy squealed, as she turned to Annie and grasped her arm tightly. "What was the purpose of his calling? Oh, come now dear husband, do not keep us in suspense!"

"He asked me to pass along the message that a date has been set for our dear Primrose's coming out ball, which is to occur in three weeks time. Preparations are already under way and he informed me that we are to expect his trusted friend, a Mr. Cinna I believe it was, to call upon us next week."

"Next week?" Johanna and Portia both squealed in unison before succumbing to a fit of excited giggles.

"Oh, Annie, you must let me borrow one of your hair pins!" Johanna shouted.

"And I as well!" Portia echoed as she and Johanna saddled up next to their sister, linking arms as to lead Annie up the steps.

Annie paused when they reached the door, as though to inquire more about Mr. Odair's visit, but before she could get a word out, Portia and Johanna clamored into the house, dragging their sister with them. Katniss shook her head as she smiled at her cousin's retreating form, before she looked to her own sister who she could tell was brimming with excitement but trying desperately to keep some modesty upon hearing the wonder news.

"Come now, Prim!" Mrs. Abernathy beamed as she took hold of her niece's hand and patted it gently. "Let us find Mrs. Sae and see if she can prepare for us a cake to celebrate this evening!"

Katniss was torn as she watched the interaction between Primrose and the woman who for so many years had attempted to fill the maternal role that she knew her sister required. As upset as she still was at her aunt for her own concern, she could not fault her aunt for the love she so openly showed to her sister.

"Mr. Crane!" her uncle called out. "Take up a pair of shears and join me, for one day soon enough these hedges will be yours to tend to when I sleep soundly in my grave!"

Mr. Crane bristled and laughed nervously as he reached for a pair of small clippers from the wheelbarrow beside him and tested the weight of them in his hand. The site of Mr. Crane as he hummed absentmindedly to himself and inspected the rose bushes that flanked the entrance to the house caused Katniss to glower as she turned her back to him. If it were not for him, her life—all their lives really—would be in a much simpler place.

Her patience was waning thin with his persistent presence, and as she thought back to his elation at the mention of Mr. Mellark's estate and—Mr. Mellark! How could she have forgotten? Worry flooded her chest as she looked to her uncle in earnest. Had she missed him?

"Uncle, what of Mr. Mellark?" she asked nervously.

"Hmm?" Mr. Abernathy did not look up as he continued to snip away at the stray branches and leaves of the unkempt hedge. "What of him?"

"Did he not accompany Mr. Odair this afternoon on his visit?"

"No, he did not." Her uncle paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, looking over to assess Mr. Crane's work. "But Mr. Odair did mention something about his guest having to take his leave for something reason or other."

"He…he left?" she choked out, unable to control the tremor of her voice.

"Yes, on business I would assume. A man like that, no wonder he is not yet married, he is no doubt a slave to his obligations..."

Katniss stared off into the distance as her uncle's words fell silent to her ears. He had left? For how long? And without a word?

There was a distinct tightening in her chest, one that she had regretfully been quite familiar with before but to a much larger effect. It was foolish to be upset over Mr. Mellark's sudden departure, and more foolish still to think that she had any right to be informed of his comings and goings. It was not as though she had any claim to him, nor him to her, but there had been something between them, she was sure of it. And if there was, did she not deserve at least the courtesy of a note to say he would not be calling upon her this week?

Did he ever intend to keep his promise? As much as she wanted to believe her uncle's theory for his sudden departure that it was to attend to his business, she could not help wonder if perhaps Mr. Cray's words held some merit.

Was she mistaken? Had she imprudently misinterpreted the attention that Mr. Mellark had bestowed upon her as something more? It was true; at first she held no content for the man who had so openly affronted her, but the secret glances she had witnessed from him had grown to open interest. And lips…the way he pressed his lips so reverently to her hand…had she imagined that? Although he had not openly confessed anything with regards to his feelings towards her, did his actions not speak volumes?

"Is everything alright, my child?" her uncle asked as he touched her shoulder softly. Katniss nodded but remained quiet, eventually sufficing his concern with a terse smile.

Perhaps Mr. Cray had been right, that she had been blinded by the intrigue and mystery of the man, instead of being on her guard to a stranger. Unsure of which she felt more, irrational anger or hurt, and not wanting to allow how much Mr. Mellark had affected her to show through, she pursed her lips and entered the house without another world.

She felt numb as she closed the door behind her. Her heartbeat thrummed loudly in her ears as she tried to remain optimistic, but the doubt of why any man, especially a man of such distinct standing, could possibly have an interest in her…it was absurd. Despite the hum of excitement and cheerful sounds that echoed through the walls, she could not ignore the incessant and now mocking words of Mr. Cray as they echoed through her head.

He is not to be trusted.

"Up, up, up, my sweet ones! Today is a big, big, big day!"

The click of her aunt's heels against the floorboards, followed by the whoosh of the thick curtains as she hastily drew them back, caused Katniss to cringe. She cracked open an eye just as a ray of sunlight broke through the window, and she groaned, grasping for the blanket to shield her face from the blinding light and of course the unwelcomed awakening.

Early mornings were not unusual for Katniss; however, with the discerning presence of Mr. Crane still under their roof, she had not slept well since the day of his arrival. Alas, before she could roll onto her side to evade her aunt's persistence, the blanket was snatched from her grasp.

"There will be no sleeping in today!" her aunt's voice trilled as she grabbed hold of Katniss' bare feet and shook them with great vigor. "You too, Primrose, my dear!" Her sister, who was much more accommodating to their aunt's request, sat up and stretched her arms over her head as she stifled a yawn.

"What could possibly be happening today that would require such an early arousal?" Katniss huffed as she took Primrose's pillow to hide her face.

"Mr. Cinna, you silly girl, or have you forgotten? We are to expect them before midday, and there is still much to be done!"

Had it already been a week? Katniss had lost track of the days since the arrival of Mr. Crane and her exchange with Mr. Cray and of course, the unexplained departure of Mr. Mellark. The days seemed to merge without anything to look forward to. She was quickly running out of places to be alone with her thoughts, every corner of the house stuffy as though the walls were closing in on her. She needed room to breath, but today would bring her no space, not after the long list of tasks her aunt had assigned her prior to the arrival of their guests.

If anyone, especially her sister or Annie, had noticed the shift in her demeanor since their visit to Undersee Lodge, they had fortunately not mentioned it. She still felt foolish for the way she had allowed herself to be affected by the illogical allure of Mr. Mellark, and after a string of days spent stewing about the house, she decided she had had enough.

The morning hours passed in a whirlwind, the air of the house charged with energy as the women dusted and swept away every last speck of dirt. Katniss did not see any sign of her uncle or Mr. Crane all morning, her uncle no doubt hiding away in his study, and Mr. Crane in his room. When Mrs. Abernathy was satisfied, she allowed her daughters and nieces to break for a light meal before ushering them into the drawing room to wait.

Katniss seated herself on the bench in front of the window, next to her sister who was diligently attending to her needlework. In her hands, Katniss held her favorite book. She looked out the window and longed to sit beneath the willow tree in the meadow, her favorite spot to be alone with her thoughts. Instead, she was cooped up in the stuffy drawing room, the sound of her aunt's nervously tapping foot testing her nerves.

"Are you excited?" she asked Primrose, who looked up from her stitching.

"Yes, we are so fortunate for Mr. Odair's generosity; this is beyond what I could ever have hoped for or imagined. And you, Kat? How are you?"

"Oh, it is just another day for me."

"Promise me you try to enjoy yourself. If Mr. Odair trusts this gentleman, I am sure he will make you look breathtaking."

Katniss formed a tight smile as she dropped her gaze to the book in her lap. As Primrose returned to her stitching, Katniss opened the cover, and her eyes widened in surprise. There, tucked behind the first page was the now flattened sketch from Mr. Mellark. She had forgotten all about it and found herself rather grateful that the crease lines had faded and were no longer visible.

Her fingers traced the pencil lines of her face as she released a controlled breath. The detail and accuracy of the portrait still fascinated her, although she was convinced he had been overly generous in his account of her features, and the corners of her mouth lifted on their own accord. To have produced such a true resemblance, he must have studied her intently without her knowing.

Despite the way her chest still tightened when Mr. Mellark infiltrated her otherwise stubborn thoughts, she found that the portrait still had a calming effect on her, and against her pessimistic conscience, she breathed in deep at the memory of the way his lips felt against the back of her hand.

A light knock at the drawing room door caused her head to snap up, and although she knew Mr. Mellark would not be present, she could not help from holding her breath as her eyes involuntarily sought out the familiar blue orbs that always seemed to find her no matter where in the room she was.

Miss Odair was first through the doorway, the skirt of her dark green, raw silk dress fluttering about her feet as though she had floated in on a cloud of air. Katniss wrinkled her nose; the gown, which held a curious resemblance to her own favorite dress, was beautiful but excessively formal for the occasion. Two women and two gentlemen entered the room behind her, chattering away and lost in their own conversations as they gestured wildly with their hands. Their high-pitched laughter filled the room as they strutted to the middle of the room, paying no mind to those around them.

She wondered which of the men was Mr. Cinna, a little concerned for her sister's sake by the extravagant and garish outfits which they wore. It was then she noticed one other gentleman who held back from the group, dressed in a simple yet elegant dark tailcoat with matching breeches that seemed to glisten with flecks of gold with the slightest of movements. He caught her eye and smiled warmly before clapping his hands together twice. The other two gentlemen and ladies fell quiet at once and shuffled to form into a line beside him.

"Mrs. Abernathy, I presume?" he said, extending a hand to her aunt. Mrs. Abernathy nodded as she grasped hold of his and brought her own to her chest when he pressed a kiss to her knuckles. "I am Mr. Cinna. Thank you for welcoming us into your home."

"The pleasure is all ours, I assure you. And these are my daughters and nieces, the youngest to be the honored guest at the ball Mr. Odair has offered to graciously host."

An invisible weight was shed from Katniss' shoulders at the confirmation that this seemingly modest man was Mr. Cinna. She closed her book and rose to her feet, taking hold of her sister's hand to present her to him. He bowed to Katniss and Primrose, his polite smile putting her further at ease.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, and I look forward to working with you. With you both," he said as he looked between the sisters. Katniss could not be more pleased with Mr. Cinna's disposition, and when Primrose squeezed her hand in excitement, she looked down at their clasped hands and smiled.

"What of Mr. Odair?" her aunt called out before looking to his sister curiously. "When is his he to arrive?"

"Regretfully, he and Mr. Mellark are running late."

Katniss' head shot up, her breath catching in her throat as she bit back the urge to ask the man to repeat himself. Was it true? He had returned?

Mr. Cinna flashed Mrs. Abernathy a reassuring smile when her face fell slightly from the news. "Do not fret, madam, they will be joining us as soon as possible after they have concluded their business in town."

The flutter in her stomach at the slight hope that this had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding on her part caused Katniss to lower herself to the bench. She felt foolish. She had overreacted and scolded herself for her self-deprecating habit of always assuming the worst, and above all, for letting the biased opinions of Mr. Cray sway her own judgement of Mr. Mellark.

"Now," Mr. Cinna continued, "these are my trusted assistants who will be helping me today with your measurements and style choices. Mr. Odair has requested only the best for you young ladies, and the best is what we offer." He clapped his hands twice again and the assistants sprang into action.

A flurry of fabrics, lace, and ribbon filled the drawing room not a moment later, as Mr. Cinna's assistants opened trunk after trunk with such exuberance, draping the plethora of materials over every spare surface in the room. Katniss watched quietly from her seat as Mr. Cinna walked Primrose from choice to choice encouraging her to examine the colors and feel the vast assortment of textures.

Her attention eventually shifted to Miss Odair, who appeared to be taking it all in stride as she graciously accepted a cup of tea and engaged both Mrs. Abernathy and Annie in a spirited conversation with regards to the flower arrangements and the expanding guest list. Although she did not care to admit it, Katniss was thankful for the presumptuous woman's apparent skills for hosting social gathering. By the sound of the guest list, it appeared that everyone from town, including those from the surrounding areas and a distinguished few from the Capitol, had been invited.

Katniss was delighted with how Mr. Cinna and his attendants doted upon Primrose, showering her with attention and suggestions as to which colors suited her creamy complexion and blue eyes the most. Mrs. Abernathy was full of opinions as to which style of dress would accentuate Primrose's slight figure best, but fortunately with Mr. Cinna's keen eye for flattering lines, they settled on an elegant yet uncomplicated dress which was be made from a sky-blue charmeuse that Katniss was confident would look breathtaking against Prim's complexion.

Amongst the chatter and flutter of movement about the room, Katniss nearly missed the arrival of Mr. Odair and Mr. Mellark as they entered the room, followed closely behind by her uncle and Mr. Crane. Her heart fluttered wildly when Mr. Mellark's eyes fixated upon hers, an easy smile playing upon his lips, which stole the very breath from her lungs. When he finally looked away to respond to Mr. Odair, she fell back against the chair and grinned. How foolish she had been!

The gentlemen stationed themselves at the back of the room in front of the fireplace, so as not to interfere with the proceedings of Mr. Cinna, but even from across the room, the invisible pull that threatened to overwhelm Katniss' body and draw her to Mr. Mellark's side was evident. She was overcome by the desire to apologize to him for wrongfully judging him without reason, but she remained seated, for he would not understand her purpose and she did not need another reason to look foolish in front of him. Instead, she looked about the room and smiled, her mood and spirits once again restored.

Mr. Odair was already engaged in an animated conversation with Mr. Abernathy, and Katniss chuckled to herself at the way Mr. Crane struggled to insert himself into their discussion. Miss Odair was still speaking with Annie, who did not shy away from stealing glances at Mr. Odair from across the room.

Once Mr. Cinna had completed the sketch of the design for her sister's gown, Primrose was ushered behind a screen in the corner of the room where one of the attendants began to take the necessary measurements of her body while her cousins began to peruse the fabrics for themselves. No longer able to remain still, Katniss set down her book and stood, but she was hesitant to join the group.

Instead, she walked over to the collection of ribbons displayed on the writing desk in the far corner of the room, away from the gaggle of preening women. She was immediately drawn to a vibrant orange ribbon that reminded her of color of sunset, and her fingers glided effortlessly over the slick satin, taking note of how the color oddly enough seemed to complement the olive undertones of her skin.

A light cough from over her shoulder caused Katniss to startle, and she spun around to find Mr. Cinna standing behind her, eyeing her curiously. "Does nothing suit your tastes, Miss Everdeen?"

"Oh, quite the contrary, sir. I have never before seen a collection of such finery in my life. I am rather taken aback by it all."

"Ah, it is a little overwhelming, is it not? All these choices." Katniss responded with a diminutive nod. "May I be so bold to make a suggestion?"

"Oh, please do, you are the expert."

The man reached down and plucked the orange ribbon off the table, running the length of it between his fingers as he studied it. "It's quite an unusual color, is it not?" He paused as he lifted the satin ribbon up into a ray of sunlight that shown brightly through the window. "I find that it reminds me of the sky at sunset, just before the sun retires for the day beyond the horizon. And it is quite striking against the undertones of your skin, if I might add." He held the ribbon up close to her cheek and a knowing smile stretched across his face. "However, for you may I propose a more muted shade to compliment—rather than compete—with the already present warmth of your complexion? I already have in mind the perfect color and style; I assure that you will look…radiant."

Katniss turned her head abruptly to face Mr. Cinna, her eyes widening as the surface of her skin flooded in a sea of goose bumps. Her eyes darted to the group of men standing idly by the fireplace, and she narrowed her gaze at the very person who had been first to bestow upon her such a compliment. Was it a coincidence? Mr. Cinna's precise choice of words? Or was it contrived? She was unsure, but the softness of the gentleman's tone inclined her to trust him.

She smiled. "That sounds wonderful."

"Mr. Cinna! Please do me next!" Johanna called out, as she held up a panel of ruby red silk against her body.

"Pardon me, Miss Everdeen, but please excuse me as I save your young cousin from a most unfortunate fashion choice." Katniss chuckled to herself as she turned to make her way back to the bench, but when she looked up, she was surprised to find Mr. Mellark peering at her from over his shoulder as he retreated back to the fireplace with the rest of the gentlemen.

Curious as to his reason, she cocked her head to the side and studied his expression intently, eventually following his gaze as it dropped down to the bench where she had been seated. There, perched atop her book was a note, and atop the note a stem of flowers, but not just any flowers. She looked up to him in earnest, unsure if his choice was merely a coincidence, but the sincerity behind his stare was all she needed to confirm it was deliberate. She had not seen the white, three-petaled flowers since the early days of her childhood, the flower that was her namesake and with it, her most pleasant memories of her former home.

She picked up the stem, rolling it between her thumb and forefinger to examine the simple yet elegant blooms. Her eyes fluttered shut as she recalled the crowns of katniss flowers she loved to weave together from the hardy plants that thrived in the lake on her father's property. It was that very lake where he had taught her to swim, against her mother's wishes. Katniss smiled to herself at the memory of her mother's face when she had returned home one afternoon from swimming, her white dress colored a murky tan from the muddied water.

When her eyes finally opened, she was met with Mr. Mellark's pensive gaze, imploring her from across the room with a slight raise of his brow, as though he was awaiting her approval of his gesture.

At that moment, her head and her heart shifted into alignment, each one no longer determined to pull her in opposite directions with respects to her previously misguided feelings. The two were finally in sync, and she could not be more relieved by the way Mr. Mellark's features softened at her answering nod.

If she was unsure of his feelings for her before, she most certainly did not doubt them now.

Author's Note: I know, I know, two months without a peep from me so I hope this was worth the wait! I'd love to hear your thoughts about Mr. Cray (although I think I know what they might be already), hehe. The ball and more Everlark interaction up ahead in the next chapter :)

Fun Facts from Jane Austen's Time:

- As part of upholding the high standards of etiquette, young women were expected to play it safe with regards to what topics they could discuss with gentlemen, the list of unacceptable topics far outweighing those deemed acceptable. One of these unacceptable topics was asking direct personal questions about a new acquaintance, which is why Katniss is so hesitant to ask Mr. Cray about his relationship and falling out with Mr. Mellark, but of course her aunt has no hesitation what so ever and openly engages in gossip regardless of who is around!

- Typically a dressmaker (or mantua maker) was a woman who would come to a ladies house to do fittings and design garments, but if she was successful then she'd be able to set up a shop in town and serve tea and refreshments, similar to a modern day bridal boutique. But of course for the sake of this story and keeping with canon, I made the dressmaker a man of course, Mr. Cinna :) If a lady couldn't afford to have a dress made professionally, then she was stuck with making herself one at home, hence why women learned sewing.

Huge thanks to my dear friends and cheering squad Court81981 and Streetlightlove1 for betaing and pre-reading, you ladies keep me going and are far too kind to me! Also, these two lovely ladies along with myself and many other talented writers will be submitting pieces to a great cause called Stories 2 Save Lives (S2SL) to help find a cure for DIPG, check out Street's tumblr or S2SL to find out more and please consider donating!

Last but not least, thank you to all of my readers who have been so patient with me and who continue to leave me wonderful reviews and messages, I appreciate every last one of them!

Thanks again for reading and you can find me on my tumblr (Pookieh)!