The day my life changed started out like any other. It was a hot August afternoon in 1864, the weather so oppressive that even the flies stopped swarming around the barn. The servants' children, who usually played wild games and shrieked as they ran from one chore to another, were silent. The air was still, as if holding off on a long-awaited thunderstorm. I'd planned to spend a few hours riding my horse, Mezzanotte, into the cool forest on the edge of Veritas Estate--my family home. I'd packed my satchel with a book and was intent on simply escaping.
That was what I'd been doing most days that summer. I was seventeen and restless, ready neither to join the war alongside my brother nor to have Father teach me to run the estate. Every afternoon, I had the same hope: that several hours of solitude would help me figure out who I was and what I wanted to become. My time at the Boys Academy had ended last spring, and Father had made me hold off on enrolling at the University of Virginia until the war had ended. Since then, I'd been curiously stuck in the in-between. I was no longer a boy, not quite a man, and utterly unsure of what to do with myself.
The worst part was that I had no one to talk to. Damon, my brother, was with General Groom's army down in Atlanta, most of my boyhood friends were either about to be betrothed or on faraway battlefields themselves, and Father was constantly in his study.
"Gonna be a hot one!" our overseer, Robert, yelled from the edge of the barn, where he was watching two stable boys attempt to bridle one of the horses Father had purchased at auction last week.
"Yep," I grunted. That was another problem: While I yearned for someone to talk with, when presented with a conversation partner, I was never content. What I desperately wanted was to meet someone who could understand me, who could discuss real things like books and life, not just the weather. Robert was nice enough and one of Father's most trusted advisers, but he was so loud and brash that even a ten-minute conversation could leave me exhausted.
"Heard the latest?" Robert asked, abandoning the horse to walk toward me. I groaned inwardly.
I shook my head. "Haven't been reading the papers. What's General Groom doing now?" I asked, even though conversation about the war always left me uneasy.
Robert shielded his eyes from the sun as he shook his head. "No, not the war. The animal attacks. The folks over at Griffin's lost five chickens. All with gashes in their necks."
I paused mid-step, the hairs on the back of my neck rising on end. All summer, reports of strange animal attacks had emerged from neighboring plantations. Usually, the animals were small, mostly chickens or geese, but in the past few weeks someone--probably Robert, after four or five tumblers of whiskey--had begun a rumor that the attacks were the work of demons. I didn't believe that, but it was one more reminder that the world wasn't the same one I'd grown up in. Everything was changing, whether I wanted it to or not.
"Could have been a stray dog that killed them," I told Robert with an impatient wave of my hand, parroting the words I'd overheard Father say to Robert last week. A breeze picked up, causing the horses to stomp their feet nervously.
"Well, then, I hope one of those stray dogs doesn't find you when you're out riding alone like you do every day." With that, Robert strode off toward the pasture.
I walked into the cool, dark stable. The steady rhythm of the breathing and snorting of the horses relaxed me instantly. I plucked Mezzanotte's brush from the wall and began combing through her smooth, coal-black coat. She whinnied in appreciation.
Just then, the stable door creaked open, and Father stepped in. A tall man, Father carried himself with so much force and presence that he easily intimidated those who crossed his path. His face was lined with wrinkles that only added to his authority, and he wore a formal morning coat, despite the heat.
"Stefan?" Father called, glancing around the stalls. Even though he'd lived at Veritas for years, he'd probably only been in the stable a few times, preferring to have his horses prepared and brought straight to the door.
I ducked out of Mezzanotte's stall.
Father picked his way toward the back of the stable. His eyes flicked over me, and I felt suddenly embarrassed for him to see me caked in sweat and dirt. "We have stable boys for a reason, son."
"I know," I said, feeling as though I'd disappointed him.
"There's a time and a place for having fun with horses. But then there's the point when it's time for a boy to stop playing and become a man." Father hit Mezzanotte on the flanks, hard. She snorted and took a step back.
I clenched my jaw, waiting for him to tell me about how, when he was my age, he'd moved to Virginia from Italy with only the clothes on his back. How he'd fought and bargained to build a tiny, one-acre plot of land into what was now the two hundred acres of Veritas Estate. How he'd named it that because veritas was Latin for truth, because he'd learned that as long as a man because he'd learned that as long as a man searched for truth and fought deception, he didn't need anything else in life.
Father leaned against the door of the stall. "Rosalyn Cartwright just celebrated her sixteenth birthday. She's looking for a husband."
"Rosalyn Cartwright?" I repeated. When we were twelve, Rosalyn had gone to a finishing school outside of Richmond, and I hadn't seen her in ages. She was a nondescript girl with mousy blond hair and brown eyes; in every memory I held of her, she wore a brown dress. She'd never been sunny and laughing, like Clementine Haverford, or flirty and feisty, like Amelia Hawke, or whip-smart and mischievous, like Sarah Brennan. She was simply a shadow in the background, content to trail along on all our childhood adventures but never to lead them.
"Y Rosalyn Cartwright." Father gave me one
es. of his rare smiles, with the corners of his lips turned so slightly upward, one would think he was sneering if one did not know him well. "Her father and I have been talking, and it seems the ideal union. She's always been quite fond of you, Stefan."
"I don't know if Rosalyn Cartwright and I are a match," I mumbled, feeling as though the cool walls of the stable were closing in on me. Of course Father and Mr. Cartwright had been talking. Mr. Cartwright owned the bank in town; if Father had an alliance with him, it would be easy to expand Veritas even further. And if they'd been talking, it was as good as done that Rosalyn and I were to be man and wife.
"Of course you don't know, boy!" Father guffawed, slapping me on the back. He was in remarkably good spirits. My spirits, however, were sinking lower and lower with each word. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping this was all a bad dream. "No boy your age knows what's good for him. That's why you need to trust me. I'm arranging a dinner for next week to celebrate the two of you. In the meantime, pay her a call. Get to know her. Compliment her. Let her fall in love with you." Father finished, taking my hand and pressing a box inside my palm.
What about me? What if I don't want her to fall in love with me? I wanted to say. But I didn't. Instead, I shoved the box in my back pocket without glancing at its contents, then went back to attending to Mezzanotte, brushing her so hard, she snorted and stepped back in indignation.
"I'm glad we had this talk, son," Father said. I waited for him to notice that I'd barely said a word, to realize that it was absurd to ask me to marry a girl I hadn't spoken to in years.
"Father?" I said, hoping he would say something to set me free from the fate he'd laid out for me. "I think October would be lovely for a wedding," my father said instead, letting the door bang shut behind him.
I clenched my jaw in frustration. I thought back to our childhood, when Rosalyn and I would find ourselves pushed to sit together at Saturday barbecues and church socials. But the forced socialization simply hadn't worked, and as soon as we were old enough to choose our own playmates, Rosalyn and I went our separate ways. Our relationship was going to be just as it was when we were ten years younger--ignoring each other while dutifully making our parents happy. Except now, I realized grimly, we'd be bound together forever.
The next afternoon, I found myself sitting on a stiff, low-backed velvet chair in the Cartwrights' sitting room. Every time I shifted, trying to find a spot of comfort on the hard seat, I felt the gaze of Mrs. Cartwright, Rosalyn, and her maid fall upon me. It was as though I was the subject in a portrait at a museum or a character in a drawing room drama. The entire front room reminded me of a set for a play--it was hardly the type of place in which to relax. Or talk, for that matter. During the first fifteen minutes of my arrival, we'd haltingly discussed the weather, the new store in town, and the war.
After that, long pauses reigned, the only sound the hollow clacking of the maid's knitting needles. I glanced at Rosalyn again, trying to find something about her person to compliment. She had a pert face with a dimple in her chin, and her earlobes were small and symmetrical. From the half centimeter of ankle I could see below the hem of her dress, it seemed she had delicate bone structure.
Just then a sharp pain shot up my leg. I let out a cry, then looked down at the floor, where a tiny, copper-colored dog about the size of a rat had embedded its pointed teeth in the skin of my ankle. "Oh, that's Penny. Penny's just saying hi, isn't she?" Rosalyn cooed, scooping up the tiny animal into her arms. The dog stared at me, continuing to bare its teeth. I inched farther back in my seat.
"She's, uh, very nice," I said, even though I didn't understand the point of a dog that small. Dogs were supposed to be companions that could keep you company on a hunt, not ornaments to match the furniture.
"Isn't she, though?" Rosalyn looked up in rapture. "She's my very best friend, and I must say, I'm terrified of her going outside now, with all the reports of animal murders!"
"I'm telling you, Stefan, we're so frightened!" Mrs. Cartwright jumped in, running her hands over the bodice of her navy dress. "I don't understand this world. It's simply not meant for us women to even go outside."
"I hope whatever it is doesn't attack us. Sometimes I'm scared to step foot outdoors, even when it's light," Rosalyn fretted, clutching Penny tightly to her chest. The dog yelped and jumped off her lap. "I'd die if anything happened to Penny."
"I'm sure she'll be fine. After all, the attacks have been happening on farms, not in town," I said, halfheartedly trying to comfort her.
"Stefan?" Mrs. Cartwright asked in her shrill voice, the same one she affected when she used to chide Damon and me for whispering during church. Her face was pinched, and her expression looked like she had just sucked on a lemon. "Don't you think Rosalyn looks especially beautiful today?"
"Oh, yes," I lied. Rosalyn was wearing a drab brown dress that matched her brownish blond hair. Loose ringlets fell about her skinny shoulders. Her outfit was a direct contrast to the parlor, which was decorated with oak furniture, brocade chairs, and dark-colored Oriental rugs that overlapped on the gleaming wood floor. In the far corner, over the marble mantel, a portrait of Mr. Cartwright stared down at me, a stern expression on his angular face. I glanced at him curiously. In contrast to his wife, who was overweight and red-faced, Mr. Cartwright was ghostly pale and skinny--and slightly dangerous-looking, like the vultures we'd seen circling around the battlefield last summer. Considering who her parents were, Rosalyn had actually turned out remarkably well.
Rosalyn blushed. I shifted on the chair's edge, feeling the jewelry box in my rear pocket. I'd glanced at the ring last night, when sleep wouldn't come. I recognized it instantly. It was an emerald circled by diamonds, made by the finest craftsmen in Venice and worn by my mother until the day she died.
"So, Stefan? What do you think of pink?" Rosalyn asked, breaking me out of my reverie.
"I'm sorry, what?" I asked, distracted. Mrs. Cartwright shot me an irritated look.
"Pink? For the dinner next week? It's so kind of your father to plan it," Rosalyn said, her face bright red as she stared at the floor.
"I think pink would look delightful on you. Y ou'll be beautiful no matter what you wear," I said woodenly, as though I were an actor reading lines from a script. Mrs. Cartwright smiled approvingly. The dog ran to her and jumped onto a pillow next to her. She began stroking its coat.
Suddenly the room felt hot and humid. The cloying, competing scents of Mrs. Cartwright's and Rosalyn's perfumes made my head spin. I sneaked a glance at the antique grandfather clock in the corner. I'd been here for only fifty-five minutes, yet it might as well have been fifty-five years.
I stood up, my legs wobbling beneath me. "It has been lovely visiting with you, Mrs. and Miss Cartwright, but I'd be loath to take up the rest of your afternoon."
"Thank you." Mrs. Cartwright nodded, not rising from her settee. "Maisy will show you out," she said, lifting her chin toward their maid, who was now dozing over her knitting.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I left the house. The air was cool against my clammy skin, and I was happy that I hadn't had our coachman wait for me; I would be able to clear my head by walking the two miles home. The sun was beginning to sink into the horizon, and the smell of honeysuckle and jasmine hung heavily in the air.
I glanced up at Veritas as I strode up the hill. Blooming lilies surrounded the large urns flanking the path to the front door. The white columns of the porch glowed orange from the setting sun, the pond's mirror-like surface gleamed in the distance, and I could hear the faraway sound of the children playing near the servants' quarters. This was my home, and I loved it.
But I couldn't imagine sharing it with Rosalyn. I shoved my hands in my pockets and angrily kicked a stone in the curve of the road.