London, England – 1766 (approx.)
I tuck a loose curl behind my ear. Mariana, my lady’s maid, will want to pin it to my scalp the moment she sees it, but I like knowing that it’s there; a small piece of me that cannot be restrained.
I tug on my kid gloves, hoping the tight restriction of my hands does not become a hindrance before reminding myself that, unlike the men in the room, I will be shaking no one’s hand. It is moments like this when I miss Mama so desperately I feel my heart might burst from my chest and begin sprinting toward the heavens. She would know what to do. Or, at the very least, she would be able to stand up against my grandfather – to ensure I got a say in it all. She had a way about her. Or perhaps she simply knew how to play the game of elites far better than I ever will.
As if he is somehow able to read my thoughts, Grandpapa scowls in my direction, his gray mustache scrunching overtop a pursed lip. I try to stop the shaking of my hands by folding them together in my lap, but I don’t think he buys a moment of my forged, calm togetherness. Rather, his sharp eyes dare me to make a single movement that ought not to be perceived as ladylike. I try my best not to let a single breath show.
Luckily, the chipper man and his son seated on the formal sofa before me don’t appear to be minding me one bit. In fact, the man – a blonde gentleman with soft blue eyes and a bright smile – appears to be more focused on the decor of the sitting room than on his son’s prospective wife.
“What a lovely rug,” he notes with the tap of his shiny black leather shoe against the red-dyed fabric lining the wood floor. “Is it Persian?” His inquisitive eyes finally flicker to me, seeming to momentarily recognize my presence before flitting to my grandfather.
“It was a gift from the Ottoman Empire to my great-grandfather after the Izicar war. A show of good faith to a merchant ally,” my grandfather explains, though his expression remains pinched. I cannot help but wonder if it is the expression he wears always – even mid-slumber – and suddenly I find the thought so ridiculous I am fighting back giggles.
The boy seated directly before me does not miss the way I tuck my glove up against my lips in an effort to conceal the upturned corners of my mouth. His eyes shift, sparkling with a mischievousness that makes me catch my breath, and he outright grins at me. I glare back in response, hoping my grandfather hasn’t noticed my sudden lapse in behavior. The sharp downturn of his own mouth tells me he most certainly has and I will be receiving a reprimand the moment this meeting has adjourned.
The thought alone makes my stomach cramp and I can’t help the soft simmer of rage that builds in my gut as I meet the boy’s gaze, my back straight, posture stiff – every bit the lady.
The boy, in return, seems to have lost interest at my sudden change because he sighs, leaning back into the couch, and averting his eyes until he is staring blankly out the window, expression bored. It’s better this way. Better that he knows we are not allies from the very beginning. We are simply game pieces to be moved and traded. One day he will be old enough to do the trading himself. He’ll be the head of an immaculate household, manipulating things as he sees fit, and I hate him for it.
“Ah,” his father says, eyes still leisurely passing over the rug. “Allegiance: a sentiment I can certainly stand behind. We all must give to one another all that we are able; despite the risk of potential detriment to ourselves.”
Suddenly I feel as though we are no longer speaking of decorative rugs. It appears Grandpapa comes to the same conclusion because he chooses this moment to stand and make his way closer to the couches on which we are sitting. He does not say a word, only lets his black eyes pass over every one of us, glaring judgment slicing straight through the tension.
I don’t know how he does it.
The gentleman clears his throat, his hand sliding the thigh of his gray slacks as though attempting to subtly wipe away sweat. I’m certain my grandfather has noticed it also and taken keen note; he misses nothing.
“By all means, I suppose it is time we stop neglecting the reason for this meeting,” the man says, gesturing to the boy at his side. He is young, perhaps a few years older than my seventeen, though he shares his father’s same ocean-blue eyes, flaxen hair, and dimpled smile. Charming, I’m sure, though we’ve never spoken. Gesturing to my grandfather, the boy’s own father continues. “The Carlisle family is honored that you would be so gracious as to don the hand of your beautiful granddaughter to my son. A partnership between the Gershman and Carlisle households has been a long time coming.
Grandpapa smiles his usual calculating sneer-grin; the one that says he knows he is getting his way and he’s quite happy about it. “We, too, are quite pleased you have decided to this arrangement. We expect nothing less than a lifetime of happiness and cooperation between the Gershman and Carlisle names. In addition to prosperous lineage, of course.” He places a hand on my shoulder and I try not to visibly flinch.
I notice he has made no mention of my father, my actual namesake, but this is by no means a surprise. To anyone here, my father is as good as dead. After all, he couldn’t give my grandfather what he ultimately wanted: an heir. Despite years of trying, the only child my mother was able to conceive was me. Another female. Another disappointment. A non-inheritor to my grandfather’s widely amassed wealth and power. To Grandpapa, my merchant father – already unsuited to his high-born daughter – failed yet again.
Then my mother died, my father left to explore the world, and I – his ever-useless granddaughter – was left behind. But, by God, if my grandfather doesn’t love a good pawn. Thus became my only responsibility in the entirety of his estate: be a suitable marriage candidate and, after that, be a good wife to a rich and powerful husband. The unspoken expectation of babies, male heirs, hangs over my head always.
I am sure my grandfather’s copy of the King James Bible would frown upon me for saying this, but I don’t believe I can spend one more day in this monotonous, suffocating hellscape. So I’m leaving.