Helena’s secret burned inside of her like a young flame. The deceit was thrilling yet she was terrified that her mother would discover her betrayal and cast her out of the family home for good. She loathed her mother’s interference but she would not be able to survive on her own without money or shelter. It was only a matter of time before the truth was revealed and Helena felt as though she was tiptoeing on egg shells.
A month had gone by since she had last seen Sir Gryffindor and she was beginning to doubt he was ever going to return to ask for her reply to his offer. Perhaps he had seen her for the young woman she truly was or had since decided that his affections for her weren’t so strong after all. She did not know what she had got herself into. The problem was, although it had seemed like a cunning plan at the time, she now saw that nothing could become of it. Sir Godric would eventually discover that she was not her mother and would want nothing more to do with her. Her mother, too, would soon realise that something was amiss. This plan was doomed to fail. Her only hope was to ensure that the knight would not side with her mother when it inevitably came to light what she had done.
A dreary morning found Helena curled up her father’s old armchair, dim grey light failing to illuminate the cold room. Her mother had informed her that the Baron was due to visit her at noon and she could not help but dread it. Marrying without love was not even worth considering, even though she was sure the Baron would make a worthy companion. No, she could not marry any man less than equal to herself; her family had always lived a life of secrecy in order to hide their abnormal gifts and she could not condemn herself to a fate of hiding her true identity as long as she lived. Entertaining the Baron for the afternoon would be a nuisance, though she was not so rude as to turn him away. She would pretend to enjoy his company but she knew deep down nothing would become of it. Merely humouring her mother was all she could do to sweeten her mother’s temperament. Helena considered herself destined for far greater things than the lady of the manor.
Sir Godric’s offer was tantalising her. To found the first school for sorcerers would give her fame and respect beyond anything her mother had ever achieved; what use was reputation when Helena could put her skills to practical use? Sorcerers and enchantresses everywhere would envy her gifts and revere her. Her name would be glorified for centuries to come. If greatness was in her destiny, she could not help but feel that this was surely the path to it; Godric would help her fulfil it.
Although she was attempting to hide from her mother, Helena knew she would not be left in peace for long. Rowena would be sure to send one of her servants to her to tend to her hair, to choose the outfit most likely to please the Baron and make her as attractive as possible. She sighed, trying to think of something polite to say to the Baron in order to pass the time. She would have to forget all thoughts of a certain knight whilst she kept the Baron at ease. Unsurprisingly, there was soon a knock at her father’s study door.
“Helena?” Her mother’s brisk tone was muffled by the thick oak door, but she knew it would be pointless to ignore her. Untangling her legs from under herself and smoothing out her skirts, Helena went to unlock the door.
“Yes, Mother?” she responded curtly.
Through the gap between the door and its frame, her mother appeared to be harassed. Her hair was not as neat as it usually was and her cheeks had traces of red in them. “May I have a word?” Helena swallowed a sigh and opened the door wider so that her mother could enter. Rowena stood thoughtfully in the centre of the room, observing the dust that was gathering on the surfaces. “I am not so sure you spending so much time in here is good for your health,” she said with an absent look on her strong features. Often Helena found her mother’s mind wandered away from the present topic and she had always attributed it to the fact that her mother was so intelligent; only now was she beginning to find it irritating. She wished she could pin her mother to the moment and truly discover what it was she actually meant to say a lot of the time. She was ever so cryptic.
“I like it in here,” Helena muttered. “It reminds me of Father.”
There was a heavy silence as Rowena turned to face her defiant daughter. They were equals in height and stature and surely in mind also, but as they stood opposite each other there could be no denying that they were incompatible in everything else.
“I know you believe me to be unfeeling, Helena,” her mother began evenly. “But try to understand that I really do consider this to be the best option for you. Please try and be obedient for once; you need to move on from our unfortunate past.”
Helena averted her gaze and wandered over to her father’s untidy desk. Looking at her mother was only causing anger to rise within her. Tracing a pale finger through the layer of dust, she tried to calm herself. “I wish you would listen to me, Mother. I have tried to explain myself plainly and I had hoped that you would understand as well as Father did that I cannot be as absent as you wish me to be. I cannot stop myself from thinking about Father when I miss him dearly. Your meddling is preventing me from moving on as you so wish me to do. Let me breathe.”
“You expect too much,” her mother said sharply, causing Helena to start slightly. “I do not understand where you have learned this ungainly notion that your emotions are free to wander your features. Take your mind of these things that ail you and you will surely forget the pain your father’s death has caused you. We both need to look to the future; do you think two ladies like us can be sure of a secure future? Harbouring unnecessary dark feelings will lead you nowhere, you will be no one. I have only ever wanted the best for you and I think it is time that you trusted my judgement. I do not wish to hear any more on this matter. I suggest you remove that sullen look from your brow and start thinking of tomorrow, not yesterday.” A frown had crept its way onto Helena’s face and she bit her lip hard in order not to respond to her mother’s harsh words. Rowena turned to leave, adding brusquely, “I will see you in the drawing room at noon. Do not be late.”
After her mother had left, Helena briefly considered making an escape out of her father’s study window, but she eventually came to the conclusion that she was more likely to slip and fall to her death from the roof than to make it safely out of the manor. That would certainly not be for the best her, as her mother kept insisting was so important. Sighing, she brushed the dust from her clothes and went in search of the seamstress who had been making her new dress. She really did despise all this mindless frivolity that ladies were supposed to take part in. Was she meant to do nothing more than look pretty? What about her mind, her soul? Were these things of no importance? Her mother would have her believe so. It really was ever so tedious. At least keeping her plan a secret from her mother had brought a little excitement into her life; if Sir Godric did not return soon, she would surely die from boredom.
At twelve noon sharp, Helena hesitated awkwardly outside the drawing room, fiddling with the hem of her sleeve. She found dresses to be constraining at the best of times, but new dresses were the worst; she would feel dreadful if she wasted someone’s hard work by a careless stepping on the hem or tearing of a stitch. Hopefully she could preserve her newest dress for long enough to satisfy her mother that she was behaving herself.
She could hear muted voices on the other side of the panelled door; her mother’s measured tones and the deeper sound of a man’s voice. For a moment, she considered leaving them to their small talk and wandering away, hopefully not to be found before long after the Baron had left. Silently groaning, she eventually found the courage to enter the room, the heavy door creaking as she did so. All hopes of slipping in unnoticed were dashed; both her mother and the Baron had looked around to discover the source of the noise. Helena stood in the doorway, hair shining slightly in the midday light, bright in spite of the poor weather, dearly wishing she could fade into the woodwork.
“Helena,” her mother said crisply, interrupting her thoughts. “May I introduce you to the Baron of Edinburgh?”
Helena crossed the room, dodging plush armchairs and grand tables as she did so; she didn’t really see the need for so much furniture when they hardly used this room. It was purely for entertaining and displaying their wealth. Curtseying, she tried to avoid the Baron’s gaze as he lifted her hand to his lips.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lady,” he said gently, he voice deep and gruff. She could feel him observing her unabashedly and she was beginning to feel hot beneath her clothes. Being anywhere else but under his eye and her mother’s watch would be preferable and she was beginning to wonder that she would not be able to worm her way out of this situation very easily.
When the Baron finally turned away from her to make conversation with Rowena, Helena let her eyes take in his appearance. His manners were acceptable, though she had detected something a little less polite in the way he stood; he was overbearing, forceful. His looks were average but he was far from what Helena considered handsome; he definitely was not anywhere near as pleasing to the eye as Sir Godric had been. Then again, she wasn’t sure she had ever met anyone as dashing as the young knight.
“I trust your journey was comfortable, my lord?” Rowena smiled up at the tall Baron, the smile only wavering when the Baron turned momentarily to look at Helena.
“Very much so,” he responded, smoothing a crease in his cloak. “I appreciate your hospitality. It is very kind of you to offer me a bed for the night in order to break the arduous journey. I am truly humbled by your generosity.”
He had turned to gaze upon her once more and she had to repress a shudder. His words were so heavy and tinted with intensity that she found it terribly hard not to break the stare. He unnerved her; she could see exactly what it was that he wanted in the hard glint in his eye. He had, no doubt, already seen enough of her family manor to know of the riches they possessed. Greed in a man was another thing Helena found unattractive and the Baron certainly did not wear it well. What frustrated her was that it was so plain to see yet her mother was still so keen on impressing him. She doubted there was much more she could do to dissuade her. She would have to sit through his performance until he had made a satisfactory stab at pleasantries and he could, undoubtedly, propose to her. It was so predictable, she almost felt nauseated.
“Helena, why don’t you show his lordship the gallery?” her mother interjected sweetly, eyes wide behind the Baron’s turned head.
Curtseying in the direction of her mother, she struggled not to throw a dark look at her. Was this all supposed to entertain her? She did not find the Baron’s company at all thrilling. He did nothing to lighten her mood or dispel the darker thoughts her mother had referred to.
Helena had never had a normal childhood, her family’s wealth and importance forcing her parents to protect her from any unsavoury types who would taint her reputation. As such, she never had any real friends. Now, with her father gone and her mother becoming less and less sympathetic by the day, she felt unbearably lonely. She missed the easy company of her father, their lively conversation and natural understanding.
Leading the Baron through the manor, she did her best to be polite and join in his small-talk, though her heart was elsewhere. Though, she knew it would be best not to upset him, seeing as he was a rather powerful man in society, or at least, had some very powerful friends. As a sorceress, Helena knew very well that wrong word in the wrong hands could have devastating consequences. They walked side-by-side as Helena tried desperately to find something pleasant to say to him. Every word that came to mind either sounded bitter or snide, and even if she sincerely objected to his company she had not right to be rude to him. She was still a lady, after all, even if a slightly extraordinary one.
“This is a beautiful room,” the Baron called as he stopped to admire the architecture of the room whilst Helena continued to stroll. She slowed down her pace and waited irritably for the Baron to join her. The room itself was something she no longer stopped to admire; having lived there all her life, she was used to its splendour. She couldn’t help but wonder what exactly it was that the Baron saw as he inspected her home; was it money that saw lining the floors or gold bars that he saw in the walls?
“I suppose it is,” Helena managed eventually, staring out of a small window over the grounds. “Shall we continue?”
“Indeed,” he conceded, his eyes lingering on a grand fireplace. “Do lead on.”
They did not have much further to go, although Helena was beginning to wish she had taken him the long way round. It would not have been hard to do to take the wrong turn in the manor, there were multiple ways of getting to the same room, and whilst she knew the house like the back of her hand, she doubted the Baron would have noticed.
Helena paused outside the door to the gallery, hoping that at the last minute the Baron would remember a prior engagement and rush away, or that perhaps he would realise that this was a pointless encounter and decide to waste his time elsewhere. She had no such luck, though; if anything, the Baron seemed more than eager to enter the room with her. Stifling a sigh, she opened the heavy door, leaning against it with all her might. The Baron, noticing her struggle with the heavy door, helped her to open it. They entered together, shutting the door noisily behind them. The sound echoed around the long room, a reminder of Helena’s now stifled life. Finding a chair, she settled herself into it with the hope of disappearing into the fabric.
The Baron hovered close to her and she was sure she detected a small note of hesitation in his voice. She doubted that it was sincere. “I hope my intentions do not alarm you, my lady,” he began, heavy eyes on her. She looked away, feeling an imprint her skin where the intensity of his gaze had burned into her. He continued to speak, his voice becoming louder as his assurance grew. “I have much enjoyed my visit to your abode and I am enchanted with your company. I must confess that I have desired this for quite some time. I have heard your recent loss has left you quite melancholy, but I assure you that I can offer you happiness and security. It is with this intent that I ask you for your hand in matrimony.”
It was all Helena could do not to raise her eyebrows so high that they fell off her forehead; he sounded pompous and ridiculous. He could surely see that she had no desire whatsoever to marry him, it was written into her features and into the way she avoided eye contact with him. She had not been rude, but she had not gone out of the way to be nice to him; if the Baron could not see that then he truly was as stupid as she had first thought. How was she supposed to reply to his proposal, if she could even call it that? His manner was so arrogant that he must have been so blinded by it that he could not see her reluctance to be in his company. She would have to break it gently in order not to wound his pride. He seemed like he could be very dangerous indeed.
“I am flattered,” Helena lied, finally finding the courage to look up at him. He stood proudly in front of her, unprepared for the rejection she was about to deliver. “But I regret to inform you that I am disinclined to accept your proposal. Please accept my apology.”
The effect these words had on the Baron was quite remarkable, even to Helena’s knowledgeable mind. He seemed to grow taller with disbelief, his face creasing in denial. “I beg your pardon?” he asked stonily.
“I cannot accept your offer, my lord,” Helena repeated, trying to keep the venom out of her voice. He really was wasting his time and he needn’t be so haughty. He would find another wife, perhaps one more compliant than she was willing to be.
“I was under the illusion that my advances would be well received. Am I to take that this is not the case?” She detected the note of anger in his voice and thought it best to try and calm the situation before the anger escaped in full force. He had been duped, unintentionally, his hopes dashed and understandably he was embarrassed. He just did not handle shame very well. A man of his title would probably be used to getting his own way all the time. Helena had no time for such theatrics.
“I am truly sorry if I mislead you in any way, my lord,” she said with false remorse. “I did not know of your intentions, please excuse my ignorance. I am woefully unprepared for marriage, and require some time to myself after said loss. Excuse me.”
The Baron was seemingly stunned and so made no movement when Helena left her seat and made for the door. In her eagerness to escape from him, she had forgotten that the solid oak door would cause an obstacle. Desperately, she heaved on the door handle in the hope that it would fly open and offer her an exit. Her heart racing, she wondered what she was supposed to do next. The Baron was surely watching her, having shaken off his shock. Would he get angry? She did not like the idea of that at all, having seen far too much of his emotions already. He strode over to her; Helena prepared to flinch, but all he did was pull the door open with all his force.
“I will return in one week,” he said gruffly. “I will ask you my question once again, and it would be advisable for you to rethink your answer. I do not handle rejection gracefully. Good day, my lady.”
With those words, she was free from his presence. Helena walked as fast as she could away from him, feeling his eyes upon her until she rounded a corner. Breaking into a run, she tore past servants and rooms alike. She distantly heard her mother call, “Helena?” after her echoing footsteps before she slammed her bedroom door shut. The world could not disturb her there.