Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.
Chapter Four: The Engagement Party
"Romance is the privilege of the rich." - Oscar Wilde
Tom Riddle dug his heels into his horse's flank, urging the chestnut stallion into a canter towards the wooden fence. At the last possible second the horse bunched his muscles and took flight, soaring over the fence and landing easily on the other side. Tom reined him in to a slow walk and patted his neck. "Well done, old boy," he murmured. Apollo had been a birthday gift from his father, and Tom had been diligently training the horse for months.
As they headed for home, he thought how pleasant it was to ride in the solitude of the fields, away from the irritation of an audience. He had been riding since he was a small boy and had grown up doing everything from steeple chasing to fancy dressage. The only thing he hated was how people gushed at his talent - most especially his parents.
"He's the finest horseman in the county," Thomas Riddle would say pompously. "Born to be a true country gentleman is my Tom. Not like those citified dandies who mince around London." Yet another jab at his city-bred wife.
Mary Riddle always coldly ignored him. She would beam at her son, her light, her world - all in all, the only reason she hadn't permanently left Riddle Manor for the London townhouse. "My Tom, is there anything you can't do?"
The men praised him reverently. The women sighed and simpered and giggled. He could do no wrong, no matter how little he did right.
Tom had to admit it to himself: being young, privileged, and wealthy certainly had its advantages. Esteem and respect - even open worship - weren't always unwelcome. But there were times when the manor's gilded walls and gold-leaf ceilings seemed to close in on him; when his parents' polite insults to one another grated upon his ears; and when he was just plain tired of being followed around by servants and spied on by lovesick village girls. Those were the times that he would go out to the stables, saddle Apollo, and go riding for hours and hours. Those were the times he could escape being Master Riddle, young lord of the manor, and just be himself.
Now, he directed his horse up the crest of Gaunt's Hill, as they called it in the village. Ridiculous, really, he thought scornfully, as Father owns every blade of grass in Little Hangleton. The villagers, being the spineless, useless provincials they were, fearfully avoided Gaunt and his mad son. Tom, however, always made sure to ride jauntily past the cottage. Someone had to put that pauper in his place.
As always the crooked chimney was the first thing he saw, emerging from the trees like a twisted cigar. Next came the cheap clay roof and finally the shack itself appeared, all stained clapboard and cracked windows. But these things were now so familiar to Tom that he barely noticed them at all.
Lately, he had found himself looking for the girl.
He knew well that she watched him, that she had been watching him for years. Usually she turned beet red and scurried away when she saw him. That had suddenly changed. She stopped hiding when he came riding by. Sometimes she was even outdoors in the pathetic little garden or sitting on the doorstep with a book in her lap. Each time, she looked him directly in the eye. Two days ago she had even given him a nod of greeting, which he had returned as slightly as possible. He found himself wondering what she would do next. Would she dare speak to him?
And there she was again, reading on the doorstep, her face hidden behind a dark curtain of hair. She was called Merope, he remembered, from having heard it shouted so often. The faintest star of the Pleiades, he recalled from his lessons, because she fell in love with a mortal. Tom decided that the mother, wherever she was, must have named her; Gaunt was too much of an insane half-wit to think of something like that.
Startled by the sound of hoofbeats, she looked up at him abruptly. She's no beauty, but she's not as hideous as I thought, Tom realized with some surprise. They continued looking at each other in an awkward silence. Just as Tom was about to ride on, she spoke. "Good day," she said quietly.
"Good day," Tom returned, shocked into speech.
The corners of her mouth turned up politely, and then she silently returned her attention to her book.
Still a little shocked, Tom continued on his way but couldn't resist a backward glance. She was still reading, but a face had appeared in the kitchen window. Her barmy brother was openly watching him from inside, a sneer of pure evil on his face. The sight gave him chills and he turned away, urging Apollo to go faster. They galloped the whole way home.
* * *
Tom returned home to find Riddle Manor in a state of mild chaos. The foyer was teeming with servants who rushed to and fro, scrubbing the marble floors, washing windows, and polishing the banisters. Chadworth, the head butler, stood on the grand staircase barking orders. He saw Tom and rushed towards him, bowing deferentially. "Your mother requested that you join her for tea on the terrace, sir."
"Very well." Tom handed him his hat and made his way into the ballroom, which was even more crowded if that were possible. Servants perched on ladders dusting the chandeliers, while maids cleaned the carpet and arranged the flowers. Ignoring their low curtsies and murmured greetings, Tom went straight to the French doors and out onto the stone terrace.
Mary Riddle was reclining gracefully on a rosewood chair, watching a small army of gardeners prune the lilac trees. She turned and smiled lovingly at her son. "There you are, dear," she remarked, letting him drop a gentle kiss on her cheek, "I was beginning to wonder when you would return."
"Did you think I would miss the party?" he asked lightly, surveying the array of pastries in front of him and selecting a blackberry scone.
"I'd be extremely put out if you did, after all the work I've done," she responded, pouring him a cup of tea. "Do you know how many maids I've had to scold today?" She sipped her own tea delicately. "But you know I never complain dear, when it's all for your happiness. This is to be the social event of the season after all."
Tom sighed. "Honestly I'd rather have a smaller gathering, Mother. A fortnight of preparation and three hundred guests is a little daunting."
Mrs. Riddle looked shocked. "Don't be ridiculous, Tom. It has to be lavish and extravagant. You're marrying a viscount's daughter, for goodness' sake." She gestured to a maid to clear away her plate. "Anyway this will be nothing compared to the wedding in November."
"Well, I'll be relieved when it's all over," her son confessed, "and Cecilia and I are finally in Venice, away from the prying eyes and wagging tongues."
At that moment a flurry of bowing servants announced the arrival of Thomas Riddle. Disregarding them all, he waddled towards his family with difficulty. "Back so soon, Tom?" he boomed, clapping his son's shoulder. He settled his massive form into a chair which creaked in protest, and a maid hurried forth to replace a plate of pastries. "And how was the riding today?" he asked, smearing a scone or three with a generous dollop of clotted cream.
"Very nice, Father," Tom responded, "Apollo cleared every jump all afternoon."
Mr. Riddle nodded approvingly, swallowing a large bite of raspberry cake. "Good. At the price I paid for him, that horse should jump over the moon if you told him to."
"I've half a mind to bring him along to Italy when I go."
"A splendid idea," his father replied.
"A terrible idea!" interjected Mrs. Riddle, who had been cringing with disgust since her husband's arrival. "Why, pray, would you bring along a horse on your honeymoon?"
Her husband gave her a scathing look. "Afraid it'll be costly, are you? Wish you'd thought of that before buying all that Paris frippery." He gulped down some tea loudly and turned to his son. "Be sure that you rein in Cecilia early, my boy. Give her an inch and she'll spend your entire fortune on scarves."
"The expense means nothing to me," snapped his wife, sitting up straighter in her chair. "I only meant that Tom should spend time with his new bride and not his horse."
"For land's sake, woman, let the boy do as he likes!" Mr. Riddle bellowed.
"Stop there," Tom interrupted, before they could continue the shouting match. "Mother, I only thought of bringing Apollo so that Cecilia and I could tour Italy on horseback."
Struggling to regain her composure, his mother smiled. "I see, dear. You always know what is right."
"Of course he knows what is right!" Mr. Riddle looked at his only child with a savage pride. "He's a Riddle!"
Mrs. Riddle touched her son's arm. "I'm glad for you, Tom, and I'm sure your father is as well," she remarked, glancing scornfully at her husband. "I think you and Cecilia will be very happy. I believe marrying for love always is."
"You couldn't have made a better choice, son," added his father. And they both sat there beaming at him, beaming at the only thing they could ever agree on in twenty-three years of marital misery.
Tom smiled back, and didn't bother reminding them that Cecilia was as much their choice as she was his.
Marriage had been an unspoken assumption since their infancy. After all, the Riddles had money and the Ingrams were titled - it was a match made in heaven. Perhaps it had even been fate that had placed Thomas Riddle and Charles Ingram on the same cricket team at school. In any case, the families would celebrate the engagement tonight and in two months, Tom and Cecilia would finally marry.
It was all set in stone.
* * *
The beautiful, lilting waltzes of Strauss filled the ballroom of Riddle Manor, blending in with laughter, conversation, and the light tinkling of champagne flutes. Guests dressed in their finest danced and drank and gossiped, while the happy young couple held court at the front of the room.
Cecilia Ingram leaned against her fiance's arm, basking in the admiration. It had taken her six hours to dress despite the assistance of two maids, her sister, and her mother, but it had all been worth it just to see Tom's expression. She knew what a splendid vision she made in deep jade watered silk. He smiled down at her and she gazed back at him adoringly.
"Tired of greeting these overstuffed windbags?" he asked her in a low voice, dark eyes twinkling, during a momentary lull in the parade of well-wishers.
She laughed and swatted him playfully with her fan. "Tom!" Then in a whisper, she admitted, "Yes, if you must know."
"Then dance with me," he commanded, tucking her arm under his.
Tom led her in the waltz, just as he led her in every other aspect of their relationship. But Cecilia was perfectly content just to be his, knowing that any woman in the room would gladly change places with her.
Maybe I was silly to worry, she thought. She had often feared that despite all her charm and beauty, she was not enough for him. There was a part of himself that he kept locked away, even from her. Tom was extremely fond of her, but she often wondered if she truly had his whole heart, the way he had hers.
The waltz ended and duty called Tom to his mother's side. The minute he was gone, Cecilia was besieged by her younger sister.
"I'm so glad you listened to me and didn't wear the pink chiffon," said Rose Ingram, kissing her sister's cheek. "You look so lovely, Celia. Tom can't take his eyes off you." She added in a whisper, "And neither can John."
They peeked at a young man standing across the room, watching them. The moment John Havering saw them looking at him, he excused himself from his companions and began to walk towards them.
"He's going to ask you to dance," Rose predicted glumly. "Will you accept?"
Cecilia sighed. "I suppose so, to be polite."
"Tom won't like it," protested the younger girl. She paused and looked at her sister intently. "Cecilia ... you don't have feelings for John still, do you?"
"Of course not!" Cecilia exclaimed indignantly. Though I wasn't opposed to marrying him at one time, spoke a tiny voice in her head. She silenced it immediately, saying, "And to prove that I feel nothing, I will have you dance with him." She turned from Rose's brightening face to the handsome man who appeared before them.
"Good evening, ladies," he said, sweeping them a gallant bow. "Care to dance, Cecilia?"
"I'm afraid I've had enough for tonight," Cecilia answered formally, "but my sister has just expressed her wish to dance." There! That was cold and polite enough, she thought.
John's warm brown eyes were smiling at her. "Then I shall dance with her after our waltz." He held out his arm, giving her no choice but to take it and follow him to the dance floor. "Cecilia," he said urgently once they had reached the safety of the crowd, "why have you been avoiding me?"
"I haven't been avoiding you," she replied uneasily. She was beginning to regret having even looked at him tonight. "I've been busy. My wedding is in two months, though it seems difficult for you to remember at times, John."
"It is difficult for me to accept," he corrected her, looking down into her eyes. "You don't love him, Cecilia. Admit it. You're marrying Tom Riddle out of habit, out of convenience, and because your family expects it. Bad reasons, all of them."
"Stop it, John," she said in a low voice. "Stop it this instant."
His arm tightened around her waist and he looked at her eagerly. "Please, darling," he begged, "listen to me. There's still time to reconsider. Riddle cares for you, but he'll never worship you the way I do. You deserve to be adored, and I've adored you since we were children."
Cecilia shook her head. "Tom loves me," she retorted, "and it isn't your place to speculate on his feelings for me."
"He will never love anyone but himself -" John broke off and looked behind her.
"May I ask what you were saying to make my fiancee look so uncomfortable?" Tom inquired coldly, glowering at his longtime rival. Without waiting for an answer, he took Cecilia's hand from John's and put a protective arm around her. "You'd better leave, Havering," he stated.
John flushed. "Why? So you can keep your property safe? That's all she is to you, isn't it? Just another possession, another prize to keep among your trophies."
Tom let go of Cecilia and advanced menacingly. "I thought I told you to leave, Havering," he said softly.
Cecilia grabbed his arm. "Tom, please don't."
The couples around them had stopped dancing and stood watching in fascination.
Tom had noticed everyone watching and forced a smile. "Go on, keep dancing!" he declared, looking around. "My dear friend and I will continue our discussion outside." He grasped John's arm and steered him in the direction of the French doors, pulling him out onto the terrace. "How dare you," he demanded, "how dare you come into my house, to my engagement party, and try to ruin my happiness? I could kill you for what you said."
"Don't trouble yourself, Riddle," snapped John. "I'm leaving. But I meant every word."
Tom gave a bitter laugh. "You're just jealous of me," he accused, "you've always been jealous of me since we were children. Jealous that I'm loved, that I'm going to be something in this world, when all you are is a second son with a stepfather who couldn't care less."
"You've said quite enough." John pulled his arm away roughly. "I hope you'll at least try to deserve Cecilia, although I highly doubt it." He went back into the ballroom, ignoring the stares, and bowed to Cecilia and her sister. "Goodnight. I beg your pardon, Rose - perhaps we'll have another opportunity to dance."
Cecilia watched him go and then hurried out onto the terrace. Tom was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, looking calmly at the summer moon as though nothing had happened. "Tom, I wish you'd left him alone," she said anxiously.
He turned and smiled, as though surprised to see her, and held out his arms. "Come here, darling."
She stepped into his embrace obediently and rested her head on his chest. "I chose you, you know," she said quietly.
"I know." He kissed the top of her head, and tilted her chin to look into her eyes. "You know what you mean to me, don't you?" She smiled in response and he said decidedly, "Now, we'll speak no more of this. Come dance with me."
* * *
Merope was drying the supper dishes, gazing dreamily out of the kitchen window, when her brother's voice interrupted her reverie. "I know what you're thinking," he hissed.
Merope turned to gaze at him. "What?"
"You're thinking about ... him."
She glanced quickly at their father, who was taking his usual evening nap. "I don't know who you mean."
Morfin stared at her from his seat by the fireplace, the flickering light casting evil shadows on his face. "I could tell Father. Do you know how quickly he'd kill you?"
Merope's hands clenched into tight fists, her heart racing. "You wouldn't," she breathed.
"Maybe I will. And maybe I won't." Morfin rose to his feet and walked to the front door. He opened it, and held up a dead adder against the wormy wood.
I told you, snakey, to be good
I warned you to obey
But I will nail you to the wood
And there you will decay
He stuck a nail right through the body of the snake and proceeded to pound it into the door with his fist, laughing and chanting as he did it.
Merope's fingers reached unconsciously for her wand. I could hex him right now, she thought. His back is turned. I could finish him.
The heavy golden locket grew warm against her chest instantly and she looked down at it. Don't even think about it. Do you know how they punish murderers? the little jewel-eyed snake seemed to say.
I'd rather be in Azkaban than stay here, Merope thought.
No you wouldn't. The emerald glittered in the firelight. Don't do anything. The madman has his part to play in all this, and so do you.
She let go out of the wand and looked at her brother steadily when he turned to grin at her. "I don't care what you do," she stated calmly, walking over to the ladder. "Tell him."
Morfin watched her, open-mouthed, as she climbed to the attic and shut the trapdoor behind her.
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