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.
This chapter is dedicated to everyone on my Favorite Authors list. You guys are beyond talented and inspiring.
Chapter Seven: The Love Potion
"Destiny is not a matter of chance. It is a matter of choice.
It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved." - William Jennings Bryan
Cecilia leaned her head against the carriage window, watching the familiar line of hawthorn trees roll by as they entered the village of Little Hangleton. Every now and then, she nodded and smiled as though she'd been listening to Rose's constant chatter. Occasionally she twisted the ring on her left hand, admiring how the princess-cut diamond sparkled in the sunlight, throwing a prism of burgundy and violet on the wall. If she moved her hand just so, she could cast a rainbow on the blank face of her maid dozing opposite her.
"Wouldn't you agree, Celia?" Rose awaited a response, her blue eyes wide and expectant.
Cecilia roused herself and looked across at her sister. "I beg your pardon?"
"You've been miles and miles away since we left home," the younger girl complained. "Are you all right?"
"I'm sorry, Rosie, I haven't been sleeping very well lately." Cecilia twisted her ring thoughtfully, remembering the dream that had haunted her for weeks. It was always the same: she saw herself wandering alone on the moor, searching for something. Whether she had lost it or it had been taken from her, she couldn't say. All she knew was that whatever it was, she desperately needed it. The dream always ended before she could find anything, and she would wake up disturbed and dissatisfied.
Rose reached across and patted her knee sympathetically. "Could it be nerves?" she suggested. "The wedding is only a month away. You're just tired out from all the planning."
Cecilia forced a smile. "You're probably right."
"Seeing Tom will help a great deal," predicted Rose.
"I think so, too," Cecilia agreed. If I manage to see him for more than five minutes at a time, she thought. Tom had been very distant of late. He was as kind and attentive as before, but his mind always seemed to be elsewhere. Lately he had taken to riding in the country even more, and twice Cecilia had called to find him out.
Today the sisters were traveling to Riddle Manor to stay for the weekend, having been invited by Mary Riddle. "Please come so that we might finalize the wedding plans. I would also be honored to have you both attend my little dinner party on Saturday evening," she had written in her note.
"I wonder if John will come tomorrow night." Rose looked sideways at her sister. "He still owes me a dance, you know. He promised me at your engagement party."
"I think he will. Mrs. Riddle is on good terms with the Haverings, even if Tom isn't. I hope we can avoid another big scene, though," responded Cecilia, watching the little shops and cottages pass by.
Rose leaned forward to look out of her window, the sunlight catching glints of gold in her hair. "Lawney Medicine Shoppe," she murmured. "I wonder what it sells?"
"The usual tonics and ointments, I think. Why?"
Her sister shook her head. "No particular reason," she replied with a little sigh.
"I think I'll like living in Little Hangleton," Cecilia said brightly, attempting to be cheerful. "It's a pretty town, but of course Tom and I will have the house in London if we ever grow tired of it."
The village scene had transformed into rolling countryside. They could see a stone church and a few snug cottages dotting a sea of red and gold October trees. The carriage came to a fork in the road and bore left to the hill on which the Riddles lived.
"Where does that other road lead?" Rose inquired, pointing to the right fork.
Cecilia looked out of her sister's window. "To Gaunt's Hill," she answered, thinking of the frequent rides she and Tom had taken together. She couldn't remember the last time he had invited her on a gallop through the countryside. She thought it might have been in early September, when they saw that frightening peasant who lived in the run-down cottage. "Tom said that it's named for the people who live there."
The carriage ascended the steep hill and finally pulled into the courtyard of Riddle Manor. Mary Riddle swept out of the entrance, flanked by a coterie of efficient servants.
"Good morning, Cecilia," she said warmly, kissing her future daughter-in-law. "Welcome, Rose. I'm glad you could both join me. Unfortunately my son has seen fit to go for another ride, despite the fact that you were arriving so shortly," she added, looking mildly flustered.
Cecilia struggled to hide her disappointment and a subtle yet rising feeling of alarm. Why does he keep avoiding me? She smiled weakly at her fiance's mother. "I'm sure it's something important." The two women linked arms and walked into the house, followed by Rose at a distance.
"Just between the two of us, my dear," Mrs. Riddle said in a low voice, "Tom has been acting so different lately. I don't know what ails the boy."
"He must be anxious about the wedding," Cecilia replied, remembering Rose's excuse. "November's just a month away now."
The older woman sighed and patted her arm. "Maybe you're right. I'm sure he'll be himself again on your honeymoon in Italy. In any case, he promised to be home for dinner."
The three women went into the sunny parlor for coffee. For one agonizing hour in which they discussed the final wedding plans, Cecilia had to pretend that she was calm and collected. Mrs. Riddle laid out photographs of Great Hangleton Abbey, the beautiful church where the ceremony was to be held, and Cecilia looked at them without really seeing them. Why would Tom go riding, knowing that I would come today? This is the third time I've called to find him out.
Rose was chattering about being maid of honor, and how the bridesmaids would wear pale blue and carry yellow roses. The reception, which included close friends and family only, would take place at Riddle Manor. Everything was to be decorated with roses and blue satin ribbon, to match the invitations.
Mrs. Riddle was raving about how beautiful the bridal gown was, and how generous of Cecilia's mother to have had it sent from Paris. It boasted a ten-foot embroidered silk train and a Chantilly lace veil. Cecilia nodded distractedly at the compliments, still deep in thought. I might have said or done something wrong the last time I was with him. Perhaps he has a mistress ... or maybe he's tired of me ...
A maid came into the parlor and Mrs. Riddle sighed exasperatedly. "Gretchen, how many times must I tell you? When there is company," she said slowly, in a tone usually reserved for children, "you wait until I ring the bell."
"Begging your pardon, ma'am, but I have a message for Miss Ingram from Master Tom." The maid presented Cecilia with a neatly folded note, bobbed a brief curtsy, and fled for her life.
Not caring what the others thought, Cecilia tore the note open and devoured it with her eyes.
I beg your forgiveness for my absence. I was called into town early this morning, but I am now at leisure for the entirety of the weekend.
I am on my way back from Great Hangleton, and I expect to return within half an hour. Will you meet me in the village? I have business at the bookshop and would gladly see you there. Rose may accompany you if she wishes to.
I am, as always,
Your loving Tom
She could feel the corners of her mouth turning up involuntarily, blossoming into a smile not unlike the one she'd worn when he proposed. "Tom will be in the village in half an hour," she explained, "and wants me to meet him there." She and Mrs. Riddle exchanged relieved glances.
"Get your shawl and go at once, dear," Mrs. Riddle advised. "I'll call for the carriage."
"I'd rather walk on such a lovely day, thank you," responded Cecilia, feeling as though she might walk to Glasgow if he asked her to. "And he said that Rose could come, if she likes," she added, turning to her sister.
"She'd much rather be here, I'm sure," interjected Mrs. Riddle, smiling at the younger girl. "Tom has new sheet music in the drawing room and she might like to try it on the piano."
Rose had already risen to her feet. "I'd love some fresh air ... I'll visit some of the shops I saw on the drive here. I'll be quite out of the way, I promise."
Within five minutes the sisters were walking down the hill, enjoying the crisp October air. Cecilia found herself humming merrily, giddy to see Tom. "See? I knew you'd feel better," Rose teased her. "Just the sight of his handwriting makes you starry-eyed with joy."
Cecilia laughed and squeezed her arm. "I wish I could see you happily engaged, too."
"There's plenty of time," she said dismissively. "I'm only eighteen."
"What about John?" Cecilia suggested, plucking a red leaf from a maple.
"What about him?" Rose asked casually, although her pulse quickened and her cheeks grew warm.
"He likes you very much. When Tom and I are married, he'll soon forget me." Cecilia looked seriously at her sister. "I think you feel much more for him than you say, Rosie."
Rose was silent. "Is it that obvious?" she asked finally, turning away bitterly. What did Cecilia know about hopeless love? Nothing! People loved her, and she could accept or reject their love as she wished. For her there were no barren dreams, no quiet tears on the pillow because the one she wanted could never want anyone but her sister. How many more moonless nights of pacing would Rose have to endure before she could convince herself that John would never think of her that way?
Touched by her sister's quiet grief, Cecilia took her arm awkwardly. "I'm sorry, Rose. I shouldn't have said anything."
"It's all right." Rose managed a smile. "I'm a silly girl, I should have given up hope long ago."
"I nearly gave up on Tom, and then he proposed. Don't throw your wishes away before you know what they can become," urged Cecilia. "Dance with him tomorrow night. Speak to him. Make yourself so familiar to him that he can't bear to have you absent."
"Or give him a love potion," Rose suggested half-jokingly.
"That's the spirit," said Cecilia with a smile. "Let's visit that apothecary you saw and ask for one."
Rose laughed. "What will they think? The gossips will spread the news that you have lost Tom's affections!"
The two girls reached the village long before Tom was expected to arrive and whiled away the time in different shops. They were greeted cordially at each store by the owners, who recognized them as the young squire's friends. The woman who tended the fan shop was especially obsequious.
Rose giggled when they left the store. "She curtsied like we were royalty!"
"We might as well be," Cecilia answered. "They revere the Squire and his acquaintances, no matter how much they gossip about us." She led the way toward the shop with the neatly hand-painted sign, noting the carefully arranged bottles in the window. "This is the medicine shop you saw, Rosie. Let's go in."
The two women inside immediately stopped talking when Rose and Cecilia entered the shop, and the little bell on the door tinkled into silence.
"Good afternoon," said one of them courteously. She was rosy and black-haired and evidently owned the shop. All of her movements were quick and efficient. "How might I help you ladies today?"
Rose noticed that she did not curtsy like the other shop owners. "My sister and I are browsing, thank you," she replied.
"If there's anything I can do, please let me know." The young woman smiled and returned to her friend, who was watching Cecilia with a strange expression on her face. She was much taller than her friend and slender with wide-set dark eyes. She seemed to sense Rose watching her and turned away.
"A house of your own, Bethe! How wonderful," she murmured, and the two women stood behind the counter talking in low eager voices.
Rose drew Cecilia aside. "Did you see how that tall girl stared at you when we entered?"
Cecilia darted a glance over her shoulder. "I think I know her," she said, surprised. "She looks like that girl who lives up on Gaunt's Hill. Tom says that her father and brother are mad. I saw them get arrested last month."
Her sister stared, shocked. "Goodness! Were they thieves?"
"Possibly worse," whispered Cecilia. "I think that girl might be mad, too. She used to spy on us whenever we rode past her cottage."
"I remember you, too, Miss Ingram," said a quiet voice behind them. They turned to see the girl herself, looking at them with her unusual eyes. "I am indeed Merope Gaunt of Gaunt's Hill."
Cecilia pressed her lips together tightly. "I don't recall including you in this conversation," she said coldly. "I was speaking to my sister."
"I'm sorry, Miss Ingram," the girl answered softly, her eyes fixed on Cecilia's face. "I was too bold."
"Indeed you were," Cecilia agreed, her eyes like ice. "We aren't acquainted. I advise you to attend to your own matters in future, and let alone other people's business."
The young woman who owned the shop spoke up. "Merope meant no harm, Miss," she said politely, though her eyes were angry. "It's difficult not to hear when other people's business is spoken aloud in such a small shop."
"It's all right, Bethe," the girl said. "I'll let you attend to these ladies and I'll see you when you visit tonight." She nodded to the sisters and promptly left the shop.
"Now," said Bethe with a disarming smile, "have you decided on what you want?"
"Not yet -" began Rose.
"Yes," Cecilia answered at the same time. "We're interested in buying a potion of ... captivating capabilities."
Bethe raised her eyebrows, her steady gaze moving from Cecilia to Rose and back again. "What sort of captivation?"
"Infatuation," said Cecilia.
"A love potion, then?" Bethe laughed. "If I had a potion that could induce true love, I'd be the wealthiest woman alive, Miss Ingram."
"You must have something in this shop," insisted Cecilia, gesturing at the shelves. "Isn't there anything to improve one's happiness? Nothing to at least promote the chance and the willingness to fall in love?"
The young woman hesitated. "I know of certain plants with qualities like these, but they're difficult to find," she said slowly. "I do have a draught that creates the sensation of contentment. If used excessively, however, it causes extreme giddiness."
"Giddiness?" echoed Cecilia, glancing at Rose, but her sister was intently looking out of the window onto the street. "Rose?"
Rose turned quickly. "Yes, that sounds lovely. We'll take some."
Bethe nodded. "Just a moment, please," she said, walking into the small storeroom at the back of the shop.
Rose took the opportunity to grab Cecilia's arm. "What is it?" Cecilia mouthed. Not daring to speak, Rose pointed out the window at a couple standing in the bookshop doorway across the street. It was none other than Tom Riddle and the girl called Merope. The two sisters exchanged incredulous glances that mirrored their thoughts. Why was Tom talking to her?
As they watched, Merope pointed across the street at their shop and Tom turned to look. He met Cecilia's eyes, still speaking to the girl, and then she disappeared into the bookshop. Tom turned and headed towards them. He came in smiling and kissed Cecilia on the cheek.
"Hello, darling," he greeted her warmly. "Glad you got my note. Hello, Rose." He looked around the shop cheerfully, as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. "What a lot of fiddle-faddle," he observed. "Look at this, Cecilia! A hair-growing tonic. I must remember to recommend it to Havering."
Rose gave him a look.
"Sorry to offend you, Rose," he said, grinning, and glanced at Cecilia. "You're very quiet today, my dear. Anything wrong?"
Cecilia gave him a tight smile and tucked her arm under his. "No," she said lightly.
Bethe came out of the back room with a small glass phial in her hand. She named her price and gave it to Cecilia, who paid for it and gave her a chilly nod of thanks.
"A beautifying toilette water?" Tom asked cheerily. Neither sister responded and he nodded to Bethe. "I say, how much does that hair-growing tonic cost?"
She looked at him warily. "It's not for sale, sir."
He shrugged and offered one arm each to Rose and Cecilia. "Too bad. Shall we walk, ladies?" They left and began walking back through the village. Rose trailed behind, looking listlessly into shop windows.
Cecilia turned to Tom. "Why were you talking to that girl, Tom?"
He frowned. "What girl?"
"I think you know which girl I mean," she responded softly. "The girl you spoke to in front of the bookshop. The girl who lives on the other hill."
Tom laughed. "Oh, the Gaunt girl! She greeted me, as do all of the villagers, and told me I'd find you across the street. She was trying to be helpful."
"I think she's uncommonly rude," Cecilia told him. "She put herself forward and intruded upon my conversation with Rose, you know."
"Did she?" He raised his eyebrows. "She doesn't seem like a girl who puts herself forward unless it's necessary."
Cecilia felt her anger rising and struggled to suppress it. "You seem to know quite a lot about this girl, Tom."
He stopped in his tracks and pulled his arm away. "And what is that supposed to mean?" he demanded, irritated. "Do I have to explain to you every time someone speaks to me? Every time one of the villagers crosses my path? Remember yourself, Cecilia."
She touched his arm, desperate to make amends. His stony gaze frightened her and she was reminded of her duty and of how much she had to lose. "I'm sorry, Tom. Please don't be angry with me, darling. I haven't been sleeping well, I'm tired and out of sorts. Forgive me."
Tom softened and tucked her arm under his again. "Of course I forgive you, sweetheart. But you need to take better care of yourself."
And even as she gave him her promise that she would, Cecilia knew that the restless dreams would not stop coming. She had been very close to discovering exactly what it was that she had lost.
A woman always knows when a man looks into her eyes and is thinking of someone else.
* * *
Later that night, Bethe appeared at the Gaunts' cottage with a large box in her arms. When Merope opened the door, she dropped the box at her feet and laughed. "Christmas is two months early!" she said. "Open it and see the things I've brought for your home."
Merope knelt down and looked through the contents eagerly. "Rugs and linen and candles and - tea!" She sat back on her heels, laughing. "Bethe! This is too much!"
"Not at all," her friend answered affectionately. "There's also some material in there for curtains, if you want them."
The girl hugged her impulsively, her eyes damp. "You're so good to me. Come in and sit down! Supper's almost ready."
The cottage had undergone many improvements in Marvolo and Morfin's month-long absence. Merope had spent a week scrubbing the floor and athough the wood was still decaying in many places, at least it looked tidy. There were colorful branches of autumn leaves all around the room, peeking out from old cracked vases.
As there was only one armchair, Merope had spread one of Bethe's rugs by the fire and they ate comfortably on the floor. They eagerly discussed some of the books that Merope had recently read. She had taken to borrowing volumes from the village bookshop. The owner, Mr. Redmond, had become accustomed to seeing the strange young girl in his shop and had taken a liking to her.
"He's very kind," Merope commented. "He makes suggestions whenever I visit and insists that I tell him what I thought of each book."
Bethe smiled. "Mr. Redmond's a good old soul. I'm happy that he likes you."
Merope nodded in agreement. "What I wouldn't give for a collection of books like his!"
Bethe gazed at her thoughtfully. "I have a proposition for you, Merope," she said suddenly. "I've been thinking of my grandmother's house. I think I should like to live there and move my shop to that village."
Merope stared at her. "You're leaving?" she cried.
"And taking you, you goose!" Bethe exclaimed. "That house is much too big for just me. You could come live with me and help me in the shop. There's a magnificent library that you'll have free rein over. My grandmother must have been a very well-read woman."
The girl clasped her hands together, dark eyes shining. "How wonderful!" But she sobered almost immediately. "But Bethe, I'd be leaving Tom."
Bethe looked seriously at her. "Merope, you need to forget him and he needs to forget you. You have your whole life ahead of you, and he is engaged to be married. I say this for your own good, dear. I love you like a sister."
"Are we having this conversation again?" Merope asked irritably. "I appreciate your concern and I love you like a sister, too. But I've said many times that I won't be dissuaded about this."
"I'm worried about you," Bethe persisted. "Even if there's a future for the two of you, it can't end happily! He'd undoubtedly be disinherited. Maybe he'd even resent you for taking away a life of comfort. At any rate, the village would shun you for stealing away the Squire's son."
"Then we will leave," Merope said simply. "Tom will take me away from here. He's unhappy, Bethe. He's unhappy with her, I can see it in his eyes."
Bethe lowered her voice. "Cecilia saw the two of you talking, Merope. I was watching her and her sister after you left the shop today. I think she suspects..."
"I'm glad!" cried Merope. "Let her suspect! Let her break off the engagement and set him free - that's all he wants!"
"You don't understand. She will not give him up without a fight," Bethe stated plainly. "Do you know why she was in my shop today?" She looked at Merope directly in the eyes. "She was buying a love potion."
Merope gasped. "A love potion? For Tom?"
"Who else?" Bethe shook her head. "I gave her a rejuvenating tonic. It won't work quite the way she wants it to. With any luck, she'll only find him in better spirits than she has ever known him to be in."
"But is it possible?" Merope asked in a hushed voice. "Is it possible to make an actual love potion? Do they exist?"
"Mostly in old wives' tales," answered Bethe. "I have little faith in them. There are herbs rumored to grant the power of love, but if there's one thing I know, it is that love can't be purchased in a bottle. Infatuation or obsession or lust, yes - but trapping someone like that is deception. True love is impossible to drink."
The girl moved closer, her intent eyes on Bethe. "But he would want her," she whispered. "It would work."
"Yes, but it would also affect the person who administered it," said Bethe softly. "It would lure her into a false sense of comfort. It would lead her to believe that he loved her truly." She looked sternly at her young friend. "It would destroy her, Merope. I know what you're thinking. Careless of yourself as you are, I won't stand by and watch you be ruined."
"I want the love potion," Merope said, so quietly that Bethe could barely hear her. "I don't care what it costs. I want it, and I want him. I'm very close now." She stood and walked over to the window, thinking of the hours and hours they had spent together.
Tom's visits had been almost completely silent at first. He came twice a week without fail, bringing her mother's violin with him and playing for a few hours before leaving. There had been a strange, awkward kind of companionship between them. They were strangers from two different worlds who knew next to nothing about one another, yet week after week they shared these quiet interludes beneath the same roof.
Uneasiness had been inevitable at first, partly because of Merope's constant fear that her father would return and discover them. This fear had vanished with the arrival of a letter from Azkaban, informing her of Marvolo's six-month sentence; her brother would serve three years.
Then there had been her anxiety about actually spending time with someone she'd hopelessly worshipped for years, someone she'd never imagined would even want to be near her. Yet he always came at the appointed time. Surely that meant something? She tossed and turned at night, overjoyed yet incredulous, not daring to hope that he came for any other reason than to pay for the violin.
But what hold did she have over him? Surely he came of his own free will. And when they began to talk more, when he told her things about himself, surely he must have wanted to do so. He told her things she assumed he'd never told anyone before: his parents' rocky marriage, his dreams of becoming a musician that his father had discouraged, and his mother alternately idolizing him and pressuring him to be the best at everything he did. In turn, Merope confessed her dreams of finding her mother and her most cherished wish of traveling the world someday. They poured words into each other, grateful to find a sympathetic listener in the most unexpected of friendships.
But Merope hardly dared to believe that Bethe's prophecy was coming true. Tom showed no signs of love towards her, made no overtures of romance, gave off no other impression than that he enjoyed her company. But does not love often begin with friendship? she would ask herself. For a while, it had seemed to be enough, but she had always known that it wouldn't be enough. She wanted his heart and finally, here was a way to get it. A potion to make him want her as badly as she wanted him. As for true love - that would come later, she was sure of it.
When she finally turned around, the shadows fell upon her face and Bethe could only see the glittering of her eyes. "For the first time in my life, I can have something I want more than anything. Will you deny me this?"
Bethe sat in silence, watching her with a cold foreboding that enveloped her heart.
"Give me a potion, Bethe. A genuine love potion, unlike what you gave Cecilia." It was a command, not a request.
"I have said and done all I can. I've warned you repeatedly. Don't blame me when what I've said comes to pass," Bethe replied gravely. "Do you acknowledge this?"
There was no hesitation. "I do."
Bethe gave a deep sigh and rose to leave. "I'll think about it, Merope." And pray for you, she added silently.
For she understood that there is no going back when autumn becomes winter. There is no return to the sky for the rain that falls, no restoration of the breath that leaves the body. Such is the nature of love that a choice once made cannot easily be undone, and Merope had chosen.
* * *
Mary Riddle's dinner party on Saturday evening was a success. She had invited twenty of her most intimate friends, a most interesting group of people, worldly, educated, and well-traveled. The menu had been chosen accordingly and offered a splendid array of exotic and delicious foods to whet the appetite. The dinner table looked beautiful, decorated with candles and autumn flowers. The women all looked pretty, especially Cecilia in her blue satin dress. Amidst all of this elegance, fine cuisine, and scintillating conversation, a man should have been content just to be there.
Tom would have given anything to be far away just now.
He sipped his wine restlessly, trying not to look at the clock. His father was away on business and Tom had been obliged to replace him at the head of the table. It would be difficult to escape tonight.
"Will you be in Rome on your honeymoon, Tom?" inquired Mr. Davenport. "See the Trevi Fountain - I insist upon it. Such a work of beauty should not escape notice."
Endeavoring to regain his thoughts, Tom was slow to answer and Cecilia came to his rescue. "We're spending a week in Rome," she responded. "I'd love to see the fountain."
"Of course we must go," Tom agreed.
"Isn't that the fountain that guarantees luck when you toss in a coin?" ventured Cecilia.
Mr. Davenport inclined his head, smiling. "Offering coins to the Trevi is said to promise good fortune as well as a return to Rome someday."
"Now there's a clever ploy to ensnare travelers, if ever I heard one!" exclaimed John Havering, who sat a few seats away. "Make them think they court fame and fortune, when in reality all they will have are lighter pockets." Everyone laughed politely, in the manner of people humoring a wayward child or an intoxicated person. In John's case it was the latter, for he had been joking and laughing much too loudly all evening. The keen observer would notice Mrs. Riddle subtly giving orders that he only receive water after finishing his brandy. Also of notice was the reddened face of Rose Ingram, who sat beside the man in question.
Tom, who had been infuriated by John's presence at the engagement party, was completely ignoring him tonight. "We'll mostly be staying in Genoa, but we'll also go to Venice," he explained. "Cecilia wanted to see the Basilica there."
"The City of Bridges," spoke an elderly countess. "You must see the Bridge of Sighs. It is so named because it was supposedly the last thing a man would see before being imprisoned in the jail nearby."
"That too has a legend," Mr. Davenport said. "The couple who sits beneath shall be eternally bound by love."
The image strongly reminded Tom of Merope, who would undoubtedly adore hearing such a sentimental legend. She'd been fascinated with Italy ever since she read a love story set in Verona, and even dreamed of visiting one day.
Mrs. Riddle looked up from her seat and smiled. "How romantic, and how suitable for a young pair of lovers."
"Charming story," agreed John enthusiastically. He turned to Rose. "Don't you wish we had a bridge like that nearby?"
Rose blushed. "I think these bridges would lose their novelty if they were found everywhere."
"But everyone would be in love," John exclaimed. "Love wouldn't be the sole possession of, say, Miss Ingram there. It could be yours, it could be mine - or both."
Mrs. Hamlin, the doctor's wife, eyed them curiously. "I declare ... are we to expect another wedding soon after Tom's?"
John continued on blissfully. "Maybe love would find even Tom Riddle, who would undoubtedly walk to his wedding with a lighter heart." There was silence all around the table, but he didn't seem to notice. "Yes, a bridge would be the very thing he needs."
All eyes turned towards Tom to see what he would do. To the surprise of all - and the disappointment of some - he remained calm, as though he hadn't heard. He merely set down his fork and looked around the table. "Gentlemen? Shall we retire to the library for cigars?"
Mrs. Riddle smiled with relief and stood up, leading the ladies to the drawing-room where they would take fruit and coffee. The men followed Tom further down the hall and into the expansive library, where the butler waited with brandy and cigars. The guests sat in comfortable leather chairs, some already beginning spirited discussions on politics.
Tom walked over to the window that looked out on the front lawn. From here he could see the hill sweeping out before him and below that, the little lights of the village, cheerful beacons in a sea of dark blue. The moon was almost full and glowed intensely. To the left he could see the path to Gaunt's Hill. He imagined the little cottage that lay in the thicket of trees, light streaming from the windows. Merope would be lying on the rug before the hearth, a book spread open in front of her, the firelight reflecting in her eyes. It was a cheerful scene and he half smiled to himself. A sudden powerful longing to talk to her overcame him.
I musn't, he reprimanded himself. He knew that they would soon be expected to join the ladies for cards and music. He would be expected... Tom thought of the way Cecilia had questioned him about Merope the day before. Why should I feel defensive about Merope? he wondered. I will be Squire after Father and what I do is my business. Why shouldn't I be friends with whomever I choose? He wasn't ashamed and yet, what was this strange feeling? Guilt? Betrayal? But I'm not betraying Cecilia, he argued. My behavior towards Merope is above reproach at all times. Yet what was this pull he felt for her, this longing to see her when they were apart? Why could he talk to her with such ease, why confess things he'd never even dreamed of telling Cecilia? It was nothing he'd ever felt for his fiancee, even before he met Merope.
Tom had to make a decision. A servant had already come to the library to bring them to the ladies. He followed the others, making half-hearted replies to their remarks. He had to choose.
"Excuse me. I've forgotten something in my room," he said aloud, and walked right past the drawing-room door.
Sitting beside her sister, Cecilia continued speaking to the other guests and waited patiently for Tom to come into the room.
She waited all night.
* * *
One bright Tuesday morning, about a week later, Merope opened her door to find a small basket covered in flannel. Inside was a cryptic message written in Bethe's curly script.
I do what I do for love, and I know that you are doing the same. It is the only thing any of us can hope for.
She turned the note over eagerly. It said simply:
One drop in a glass, daily without fail.
Her heart beating furiously, Merope unwrapped the flannel to find two glass phials full of a deep amber liquid, the color of sunlight on leaves. She pressed the cool glass to her lips, tears streaming down her face. With these phials Bethe had given her blessing, that dear, dear friend who loved her like a sister. How could Merope ever repay her?
She hadn't forgotten Bethe's warning. So Tom wouldn't really love her, but the interest he already felt would deepen. He wouldn't be able to imagine life without her, and a life with him was the only thing she wanted. Maybe he would come to love her in time. A joyful, insane happiness burst in her breast. She wanted to do something crazy, to announce it to the world. She imagined running down to the village and shouting it in the streets, and the thought made her chuckle. She imagined knocking on the door of Riddle Manor and throwing herself into Tom's arms, all the while watching Cecilia's livid face over his shoulder, and that made her laugh even harder.
She could barely concentrate on breakfast; she'd never been so completely happy in her entire life. Was this how Cinderella had felt in that fairy tale? Had she felt as overwhelmed with love when she saw her prince hold out her glass slipper? I highly doubt it, Merope thought contentedly, walking out to the water pump in the garden to fill her pitcher.
Inside the house, she poured the fresh cool water into a tall glass.
Boil the water first.
She jumped in surprise and looked down at her locket. "Boil it?" she murmured.
The more ardent the flame, the more flame in the ardor.
Obediently she poured the water into a pot and lit the stove. She had learned not to question the locket's instructions because after Bethe, it was her dearest friend. Didn't a friend have one's best interests in mind? And the locket was certainly considerate of Merope's best interests.
Lemon and thyme to secure lust for all time.
She went to the cupboard and looked through the last of her spices, pulling out a withered lemon and a few sprigs of thyme. "Bethe didn't mention these things in her instructions."
Bethe doesn't know all, as I do. Have I ever been wrong?
The locket fell silent. When the water boiled, Merope poured it back into the glass and added the two ingredients. Then, uncapping one of the phials, she held the dropper over the glass. One amber bead dangled from the tip and for one moment, she saw her own reflection and her surroundings inside it. A mirror of the world in one tiny droplet. When it fell into the water, it barely disturbed the surface and diffused immediately, her secret accomplice floating in a pool of innocence.
There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," she called, trying to calm her pounding heart when she heard his footsteps. She turned to see him close the door, his eyes resting on hers. "Would you like something hot to drink?"
Tom smiled faintly and set his violin case down on the floor. "It's cold out there," he confessed. "Soon Apollo will have to come in here with me."
She laughed and handed him the glass. "Here."
"Thank you, Merope." He accepted it gratefully and breathed in the steam, fragrant with lemon. Then, holding it with one hand, he lifted it to his lips and drank deeply.
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