Charlotte went rigid. The voice that beckoned her was silvery–and notably male. She looked over her shoulder at the darkened path, wondering if perhaps she should go back.
But it was no use. Going back would only leave her lost, and this man, whether he be friend or foe, already knew she was there.
Recovering the use of her limbs, she peeled her dark, matted hair away from her face and attempted to smooth her tattered dress before stepping forward.
The man sitting there in the leaves was young, but his expression was cold and hard, giving him the impression of an agelessness as impassive as stone. His blue eyes were frigid with the kind of judgement that made Charlotte feel as if she were suffering through afternoon tea with her Aunt Cordelia. On his shoulder, beneath the fold of his jacket collar, Charlotte caught the glimmer of two wide, stone-black eyes.
“He-hello?” she stammered, though quickly regretted it, unsure if she should have followed a different courtesy. (What was the courtesy for strangers in the woods? They never taught anything half as valuable at finishing school–a lot of good her lessons were now.) “Sir?” she added hesitantly.
The man did a double-take, staring at her with one brow raised.
And perhaps she deserved it. Standing there before him, she became acutely aware of just how wholly her dress had descended into a state of ruins, tattered and mud-splattered, the lace laden with stains and debris just above her ankle boots. It was impossible to say what color her boots started as, they were so clogged with mud and moss and leaves and her dark hair had escaped its pin in long, flyaway strands, framing her cheeks in tousled ringlets.
“Well, hello,” he answered at length, his tone friendlier than his expression, “my, it seems like you’ve had something of an adventure.”
Charlotte glanced down at the shabby, mud-splattered remains of her dress, realizing what an awful state she must appear in–a realization that made her feel oddly singular. For despite being in the middle of a dark, damp, moss ridden forest, the man, for his part, was ridiculously well groomed, wearing a dark, silver buttoned jacket with tails, a tailored waistcoat and clean, high waisted trousers tucked into boots that reached his knees; not a thread out of place.
Charlotte blushed under the dirt and grime. Perhaps it would be better to run away. She wanted to run away.
And yet, she thought, perhaps he had seen John.
To hell with the pleasantries, she thought savagely, drawing herself up. “I suppose I have,” she answered with resolve, “Can you help me?”
The man lowered his violin from his shoulder, and in one, fluid jump, he rose from the mud, still staring intently. Charlotte refused to take her eyes off him, even as he began to circle her in silence, swinging his bow from one finger, his sauntering bootsteps silent in the moss and wet leaves. “That would depend a great deal on what kind of ‘help’ you seek,” he said at last, shades of a devious smile reverberating in his airy tone.
Charlotte met his gaze as he paused to face her, noting that his eyes bore the same condescension as his conceited strut. Instinctively, she averted her eyes, but disdained herself for it, and forced herself to meet his unblinking gaze again. She shook the tension from her shoulders, standing straight, thrusting her chin out.
“My brother.” she replied, this time matching his stare with a raised eyebrow of her own, “He’s gone and gotten himself lost. Have you seen him?”
The man stared at her with an inscrutable expression, which then spread into a smirk. He ‘mm-ed’ softly, a noncommittal sound that made Charlotte’s blood boil. Then, with a flourishing flick of his wrist, he caught the tip of his violin bow under her chin and coaxed her to tilt her head back– an infuriating gesture. “Perhaps I have,” he said silkily, “then again, perhaps I haven’t. Difficult to say when one doesn’t know what exactly one is looking for.”
Cheeks burning hot with frustration, Charlotte opened her mouth to protest, but the man wouldn’t let her get a word out.
“Tell me,” he continued, “and no games– I haven’t the time and you haven’t the patience– but it occurs to me, who, exactly, has lost who?” His eyes skimmed down the length of Charlotte’s ruined dress, eliciting an all-new smirk.
The end of his bow tickled her chin, which only infuriated her more. Who was he to condescend?
“He’s the one who ran off, I’ll have you know,” she clipped, flicking away the tip of his bow with a grimace, “I beg your pardon,” she said, in a manner that she intended not to actually beg much pardon at all, “but who are you?”