Part the Third
“Zach, what’s the matter?” Haesel asked, stunned by the horror, helpless disgust, and anger in his eyes. It took her a moment to realize she had shortened his given name and addressed him casually in public, but she batted the thought from her mind. It didn’t matter what anyone thought of the situation. Zacharias Smith was her best friend; he didn’t treat her like she was made of crystal, or like she should be placed upon a pedestal and worshipped. He gave her the bare minimum amount of proper respect she deserved, and then treated her like a normal person. She adored him for it. If there had ever been a spark of attraction between them, she would have ignored her family’s deliberations and ordered him to accept her first waltz.
As it was, having each dueled for the other’s honor more than once, they shared something of a symbiotic sibling bond. He was one of a very limited number of people that she trusted implicitly.
His magic lashed out, reeking of distaste, as he strode across the room. Everyone’s attention was centered on him (which he usually adored), but he wasn’t grinning smugly. His handsome face was twisted, lips spread in a tight frown. His blond hair seemed to defy gravity, and his brown eyes spat hatred. With every step closer he took, she could see how much he had grown during his magical maturity a month earlier; she had been livid when her parents had forbidden her from attending his party, and had to settle for sending him the newest broom on the market: a Solar Flare.
What her parents didn’t know was that she had Apparated to Smith Castle that night and spent hours with him. He deserved more than a gift sent by owl just because she was ‘coming out’ soon. She owed him more loyalty than that.
“I’m serious, Haesel. Kill me. Right now would be brilliant,” he snapped as he stopped before her, chest rising and falling. He raised one hand and shoved it through his short hair agitatedly.
Haesel placed one hand on his chest, over his thudding heart. “Zach, tell me what’s wrong,” she ordered. Her voice was hard as diamond. Zach loved life and himself too much to ever ask such a favor from her—and she would never kill him. Never. What had caused her best friend to so utterly lose his composure?
Zach leaned down until his face was obscenely close to hers. She could feel his breath on her lips when he said, “Mother arranged a marriage date with Granger.”
What had he just said? “Beg pardon?” She couldn’t possibly have heard that right. Lady Smith had arranged a marriage date for her son, a descendant of Helga Hufflepuff (from the main line), with a Muggle-born?
He grabbed her hand, which made Henry step even closer to her. Before her brother could open his mouth, Zach yanked her hand upward, pulled her wand from her holster into her hand, and then pointed it at his throat. “Kill me.” He had been forced to lean back as he manhandled her, but he bent his head just enough to whisper, “Don’t make me beg, Haesel. Just do it.”
“Offensive magic doesn’t work here. You know that,” Henry interjected, gaze narrowed on Zach. “She couldn’t kill you even if she felt like it.” He balled his hands into fists. “But I will gladly rearrange your face if you don’t release her, Smith,” Henry spat. “You’re bruising her.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Henry,” Haesel said absently as she drafted and discarded scenarios one after the other. “Zach would never hurt me.”
“I would never hurt her,” Zach snarled at the same time, completely insulted.
“Then prove it,” Henry said. His jaw was locked and, for just a moment, the resemblance to their father was uncanny. Haesel couldn’t remember seeing that look since a wizard in Diagon Alley had dared to proposition her mother—in front of her father, no less. The wizard’s suffering for doing so had been great indeed.
Zach loosened his hold and kissed her wrists apologetically. “Haesel, may I request your company elsewhere, then? Just outside the wards would be acceptable.” The shadow on his countenance tugged at her heart. How could his mother do something like this to him?
“You didn’t tell her?” Haesel guessed. Zach was deeply, irrevocably in love already. To be told he had to attend a marriage date with someone else—and Granger, of all people—must feel like a terrible betrayal.
“She wouldn’t listen to me,” Zach gritted out. “She’s always worse when Father’s out of the country on business. You know that.”
Indeed, she did. Lady Ophelia Smith had been born into a pureblood family of low standing and little wealth. Catching the eye of Lord Smith was her greatest achievement in life. Unfortunately, the wealth and power of being Lady of a high-ranking family had gone to her head. In her husband’s absence, she pretended she held all the power and control. Since it was a mother’s duty to organize marriage dates, Zach would be subjected to as many as Lady Smith wished to arrange.
“But Granger?” Haesel asked in disbelief. Why would Lady Smith even consider a Muggle-born, let alone that one? Haesel had nothing against Muggle-borns in general, but she couldn’t stand Hermione Granger.
“Aside from yourself and Lady Daphne, she has the next highest grades in our year.”
Lady Smith had picked Granger because of her school grades? Was she mental?
Henry cleared his throat, drawing their attention back to him. “I’m afraid I couldn’t help but overhear. Your mother set up a marriage date with Hermione Granger, correct?”
Zach nodded sharply, eyes haunted.
Haesel felt terrible for him. When word got out that his first marriage date had been with Granger (for the girl would definitely gloat about it) the purebloods wouldn’t understand at all. The witches would feel like he thought a Muggle-born was better than them, and their fathers, brothers, and mothers would be rightfully offended on their behalf. No pureblood parents would want to associate with him after that. Lady Smith should use her brain, not utilize her obsessive, petty need to feel important!
Dusky red colored Henry’s cheeks as he glanced down at the floor. “In that case, I am honor-bound to inform you that the female in question is without virtue. As such, the marriage date is void.”
Haesel blinked and barely kept her jaw from dropping in shock. She knew Granger was a know-it-all, who often lorded her knowledge over others and refused to accept the wizarding way of life (saying house-elves were enslaved and purebloods were wrong about most everything), but she would never have guessed that the uptight girl would give her virginity away before bonding! What a loathsome thing to do! Had she no self-respect?
“You’re absolutely positive?” Zach asked, eyes narrowed and voice harsh.
Henry nodded. “I . . . chanced upon her and a pureblood wizard in flagrante delicto last year at Hogwarts.”
It must have been a Weasley, Haesel thought viciously. Definitely Ronald. Every other pureblood wizard I know would’ve been smart enough to ensure total privacy before . . . She couldn’t even finish the thought. How dare they subject her little brother to something like that? What if one of the young witches had walked in on them? The girls would have been traumatized for life! Just thinking of stumbling across something like that made her feel ill.
“I’m sorry, Haesel, for having to speak of such things in your presence,” Henry whispered. He was mortified, but it wasn’t his fault, and he was saving her friend’s chance at love.
“It’s of no consequence,” she said, even though she felt dirty. She didn’t want such pictures in her mind; they had no place there.
“Then I won’t need you to kill me, Haesel,” Zach said. His shoulders sagged with relief, muscles unknotting. He smiled, finally, and then kissed Haesel’s cheeks. The people still present in the room—who had been unable to hear anything but Zach and Haesel’s very first words to each other, because of the distance between them—eyed Zach suspiciously, as if they thought he would attack her.
“Where were you supposed to meet her?” asked Haesel.
Zach paled, as if he might faint. “In the Muggle world.”
“Right. I know you don’t like tattling, but your father needs to know what his wife is doing. You’re his only son, and you deserve better than Granger. The very best. If she insists on being difficult, and your father won’t take her in hand, then we’ll gladly give you asylum,” said Haesel. Her words were much too daring, but she didn’t care. Her friend was more important than the polite rules of society.
“I will,” Zach agreed. “I . . .” He swallowed and stared into her eyes. “I couldn’t bear to lose her before I’ve even received a chance to win her,” he whispered.
“Well, you haven’t lost her yet. I can’t imagine you losing her at all,” Haesel said as she turned and placed one arm atop his, and her other atop her brother’s. Zach had fallen hopelessly in love with Rose Zeller, a Hufflepuff several years younger than they were. She could still remember the perfect blend of magic that occurred when Rose was Sorted. She had felt Zach’s magic react and brush against Rose’s; they were such a close match magically that she knew Rose would never settle for anyone but Zach, unless he was stolen from her by Lady Smith’s asinine machinations.
Rose was a sweet girl with scarlet hair down to her hips and aureate eyes from her mother’s line. She was innocent, loving, and would make an ideal wife for Zach. Haesel had ensured that Rose knew she could come to Haesel for any reason at all.
Haesel had never offered asylum to anyone before, but she meant it whole-heartedly. She would not allow Lady Smith to ruin her best friend’s future.
Now that Zach was calm, he was much more handsome. “What do we have planned?” asked Zach, neatly insinuating himself into their afternoon.
“Well, we were headed for the Gallery. . . .” Henry’s voice trailed off as he stared down at her.
“What would you like to do now, Haesel?” inquired Zach, purposely leaving off her title and smirking at the closest wizards, who frowned at him in blatant disapproval.
“Treating her, of all people, that way.”
“Some of this younger generation possesses no manners.”
“What’s her brother thinking, letting that ingrate anywhere near her?”
“He grabbed her as if she were a Muggle!”
Haesel rolled her eyes at them before pondering Zach’s question. Honestly, she felt like riding. However, doing so in the tunic she currently wore would be more than inappropriate. It would hitch up about her mid-thigh, and that was something she would not allow, even to be defiant.
“We said we’d go to the Gallery. I’ll not be called a liar,” said Haesel. Even if they didn’t stay for long, honor demanded that she and her brother make an appearance.
“Now there’s a proper lady,” one ancient wizard muttered. “If only I were younger.”
Haesel decided to be flattered, instead of horrified. However, she felt the arms underneath hers shaking with amusement. Her escorts were such children, she thought fondly. Though, to be fair, Lord Wallace’s comment had been absurdly entertaining.
“What do you want to bet that Lord Slytherin returned for a chance at winning your hand?” Zach asked, something he had mentioned countless times since the Prophet declared the ambassador’s return to England.
Henry smirked. “I hadn’t thought of that, but I really should have. People say he was the most powerful wizard of his generation; maybe he finally found someone worthy enough to bear his heirs,” he said teasingly as he wiggled his eyebrows.
“Why, the very few who have seen him say he doesn’t look a day over twenty-five, and that he’s dashing. Surely the Perfect Pureblood Princess has caught his attention,” Zach said. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. He was ever fond of picking on her, as normal friends often did. He seemed determined to prove she was herself, not some destined witch to be fawned over, and she loved him for that.
“And who could dare resist the great Lord Slytherin?” asked Henry, who was grinning. “Why, you would have even more power, wealth, and prestige than you already do.”
Haesel stared down at her toes and sighed.
“Just think of how adorable your children will be!” Zach waved his other arm through the air with excessive enthusiasm. “With an estate as grand as his surely is, heirs are a necessity, of course.”
Haesel flinched. “And that is who I would be to him.” Her voice was monotone. “If that’s why he returned to England, when he has happily resided elsewhere for decades, it’s because he heard of my power. My physical appearance would be nothing but a bonus to accompany my magical strength, assuming he likes petite women. If he came back for me, it’s because he’s looking for a broodmare, someone who can guarantee that his heirs, that his line, will become even more powerful.
“He won’t care about my family (other than that it’s pureblood and so prestigious), or my friends (unless they can serve him some way), or my personality (except for how he plans to mold it).” Haesel hung her head, wishing that her hair were down so it could hide her face, even though she never wore it down in public. The silence from her brother and best friend was weighted. “If he returned for me, it’s because Lord Slytherin desires Lady Haesel Potter’s magical prowess to be joined with his and passed to his heirs. It will,” she whispered sadly, eyes shimmering with tears she refused to let fall, “have nothing to do with just Haesel. It will be about what I can do, not who I am.
“And that,” Haesel said as they approached the Gallery, “is what being Lady Haesel Potter means. Finding a love match for who I am, instead of what I am, will be nigh impossible.”
Before either Zach or Henry could reply, she straightened her shoulders and sent a breeze of magic to dry her eyes. Then she stepped inexorably closer to the doors, which opened before them. Everyone in the room turned to face them, including Lord and Heir Malfoy, whom she had hoped to avoid today. Lady Rana Lestrange was sitting dutifully beside her cousin. The genuine happiness on Heir Draco’s face was overshadowed by the calculating glint in Lord Malfoy’s eyes.
Even here, among acquaintances, she was just something to covet.
She hadn’t even had her coming of age gala yet, and Haesel was already tired of being a prize to be won.
* * *
Heir Longbottom, in Marvolo’s mind, was a complete waste of space. Not only had he had to sit for a full quarter hour in the presence of the boy and his insufferable grandmother before finding an excuse, but the battle-axe would not stop looking at him questioningly and with far too much suspicion in her eyes.
How he hated society at times.
In the end, he did not make his request. All he had to do was be in the same room as the boy to tell that he was hopelessly in love with his godsister and that his magic was so weak and erratic that she probably loathed his very presence, not that a lady would ever say so.
Lady Haesel, though, was nothing if not intelligent—if the rumors were to be believed. She wouldn’t give her first waltz to such a puppy unless absolutely pushed into a corner. And Heir Longbottom was hardly a threat.
He still remembered the recent taste of her magic, fleeting though it was.
Marvolo could practically smell it—jasmine with a hint of baby’s breath. It was so simple, so sweet, and so perfect. He was surprised at himself. After the scents of nature in the Lone Islands, he would expect a common flower like jasmine to be boring, but coming from Lady Haesel, his future wife—
The thought of bonding did not produce the usual feeling of duty and resignation that it often had before . . . before . . . Interesting.
Not wishing to return to his empty monolith of a home, Marvolo decided to visit The Golden Fleece. Merlin, it had been an age. He must have been barely twenty-five when he last set foot in this club. Still, as Lord Slytherin, he and his heirs had lifetime memberships—even if he didn’t have any heirs yet.
“Lord Slytherin,” a house-elf greeted, not bothering to take his wizard’s jacket, which was light and made of the finest Acromantula silk. Wizards his age often preferred formal robes, but he much preferred this more elegant style of dress, that could be both casual and sophisticated depending on the occasion. It was the fashion of a young man, but Marvolo was a wizard in a young body. He only hoped that it would catch Lady Haesel’s eye, for even in the receiving room, Marvolo could smell her tantalizing scent.
He had come to the right place.
Strolling into the lobby, Marvolo did not pause as the conversations around him halted and several wizards and witches turned to look at him. No one, however, dared to approach. He was so far above them, out of their reach. The thought brought a smirk to his handsome face.
Climbing up the grand staircase, he followed the tantalizing scent that was so distinct from the weaker ones about it. A rush of rainwater was near it, with the same hint of baby’s breath. A relative, then. It wasn’t as strong, but certainly powerful.
Then the smell of crushed jasmine shifted, coming closer, and Marvolo paused on the staircase, breathing in the air around him. His body stilled and his senses heightened, a talent he had been quick to acquire on the Lone Islands. Touch, taste, sound, smell—so much could be learned from just one of them.
It had caused a stir in the Court when he had chosen to blindfold himself for an entire Island month—which was nearly a year in human terms—just to better understand the people he was meant to live among. The senses were a deep magic, one wizards rarely sought to understand. Still, Marvolo used it to his advantage now.
The scent came steadily closer and, unable to help himself, he withdrew into a small antechamber. The curtains whispered against his frame as he hid himself partially from view. He could still make out the grand staircase, but if someone was not searching for him . . .
An unwitting test.
Could Lady Haesel, despite her youth, sense the strong thrum of his magic although they had never met before? She had given no indication in her home, but the structure had been saturated in her family magic. He had barely caught the flowering vapors surrounding her footfalls as she flew up the stairs elegantly, away from the conversation about her debut into wizarding society.
Come to me, his mind begged, his heart picking up a beat as the smell got stronger and stronger, weaving its way toward him.
“Perhaps,” a voice, young and decidedly masculine, was saying, “Master Potter might accompany you? I know how much you enjoy riding our Abraxans, Lady Haesel, and I am certain my cousin has sorely missed your company the past week. It might also serve as a distraction from your coming debut.”
Heir Malfoy, then, Marvolo reasoned. What an arrogant little sod.
“I have not flown Abraxans in quite some time,” another voice, also male, answered. Master Potter, most likely.
A snort answered him.
“Zach, just because Abraxans aren’t brooms doesn’t mean that they’re completely worthless when it comes to flying,” a light, feminine voice answered.
Marvolo’s heart fluttered, despite his attempts at self-control, and he leaned back against a small desk. His arms crossed, he looked out through the gauzy curtains and caught his first true sight of his future bride, because nothing would deter him from winning her hand.
She was petite, slender, her dark hair up in plaits, her eyes flashing in amusement, and—wearing the tunic of a young wizard who had not reached manhood. Her knees were on display, and they were elegant and yet so very, very human. They should be dull to him and yet, that tantalizing show of the shape of her legs even through tights, that small form of rebellion . . .
Marvolo licked his suddenly dry lips.
Lady Haesel paused, and he could feel the questioning in her magic as it reached out toward him. So, it seemed she had trained seriously. Letting out a near silent breath, Marvolo unfurled his magic carefully, begging her to come toward him. The shiver that ran down Lady Haesel’s spine was almost invisible to the eye, and yet Marvolo still caught it.
“Gentlemen,” she said politely as she turned to the young men surrounding her, “please excuse me; I believe I should powder my nose before we take our late tea.” She lied through her teeth without any of her companions, even the dark-haired witch, calling her on it.
The young boy at her side, similarly dressed in a tunic, with blond hair and hazel eyes, looked down at her questioningly. Their coloring was so different, and yet they had a similar line to the jaw, and he was the smell of rainwater and baby’s breath. He must be her brother, her younger brother, judging by the way he was dressed.
“Would you like me to accompany you, Haesel?”
“No need, Henry,” she answered, placing a hand on his arm in reassurance. “I shall be down in a moment.”
A look passed between them, a silent message of some kind, and then Master Henry Potter nodded his head in agreement. “Smith? Malfoy?”
The young man with hair so white it could hardly be called blond looked at Lady Haesel with barely disguised longing, but he left her with a gentlemanly bow before following her brother and the witch. The third youth, Smith, gave Lady Haesel a mocking salute as she smiled back at him. He left, too, though.
Lady Haesel waited a moment, her back turned toward the antechamber, her shoulders lifting slightly as she took a deep, steadying breath.
Then, with no hesitation, she spun on her toes and walked to the curtains that separated her from him. Pulling them aside, she did not seem surprised to see the small antechamber occupied, though she paused a moment in the archway before taking another step forward and allowing the veils to fall behind her.
Marvolo’s magic jumped in lust and joy, and another shiver ran through Lady Haesel, slightly less contained because of their proximity.
“You called?” she questioned, dispensing with formalities, and Marvolo could only smile charmingly at her. She was bold, honest, and forthright. She was shamelessly wearing boys’ clothing. She was perfect.
“You answered,” he responded after a moment, his voice cascading around her.
Lady Haesel almost suppressed the shiver.
“I hope you do not mind my choice of venue,” he continued, uncrossing his arms and placing his hands behind him on the desk. “This antechamber appeared private and yet—”
“Completely in the open to all passersby. It does not contain a door that could ruin my reputation.” She arched an eyebrow at him in challenge.
He chuckled. “I hope I have not offended you, my lady.” He bowed low to her, a courtesy he reserved for the royalty of the Lone Islands.
“No. Not yet.” She smiled and stared at him with intense calculation. “You could not wait for a formal introduction?” There was a hint of mocking in her voice that both amused and irked him.
“I could,” he responded, admiring how the light from the windows caught her dark hair and made it shine a deep, dark bronze. “But it seemed a tedious waste of an afternoon.”
“And you deplore such tediousness.”
She moved around him slowly, her eyes sweeping over his face. He did not need to answer. The truth was bare and unhesitating between them; his presence was answer enough. She sat at the desk behind him, and he didn’t turn to face her at first, wanting her to catch the breadth of his shoulders and the muscles of his back beneath his wizard coat. He could feel her eyes upon him. It seemed he had at least a portion of her interest. Brilliant.
Still, the temptation was too great, and Marvolo turned smoothly, only to admire the myriad of emotions that shone from her eyes.
“As you shirk the boundaries, I’m surprised that you haven’t introduced yourself,” she said as she tucked the emotions where he could not see them.
“A third party would need to be present,” he quipped in response, a genuine smile flashing across his lips for the barest of moments. Lady Haesel was utterly enchanting, and the scent of jasmine was intoxicating as it rose and fell with every breath she took. It had never been this heady before.
“There are dozens, are there not?” Her gaze flittered to the curtain that did nothing to muffle the sound of the other purebloods in the club.
He laughed quietly, not wishing to draw attention to their impromptu tête-à-tête. Still, it was unbridled and brought a sly smile to her face. She was more charming than any pureblood lady he had ever come across during his brief time in society before his appointment to the Lone Islands. She was more real, and less like a living doll—as so many pureblood witches resembled.
“My friends call me Marvolo,” he answered as she continued to watch him.
Lady Haesel inclined her head to the side and narrowed her eyes, as if searching for his hidden agenda. “That is terribly intimate of you.”
“You showed no hesitation in calling—Smith, was it?—by his given name.” It took more restraint than he would ever admit to keep from frowning. He didn’t like the thought of his future wife being on a first name basis with any wizards she wasn’t related to by blood.
“I have known him since childhood,” she countered. “It’s commonly known that he’s my closest friend.” She showed no hesitation at the admission, although it was certainly not the done thing when he had last left England.
Marvolo inhaled deeply, smelling the truth in her words. How intriguing. She was certainly unlike the pureblood ladies he had previously known.
“I am but a humble diplomat,” he said, causing Lady Haesel to break out into quiet laughter.
“Humble? You? You are sly enough to be a diplomat, though perhaps a bit young.”
“Looks can be deceiving.” He glanced down to her tunic, not permitting his gaze to linger on her breasts or below the desk that lay between them. He grasped the wood with his right hand, leaning his weight onto it so as not to move forward.
The rumors and foresight had not done Lady Haesel justice. Her magic was almost torture in person, and he had been saturated in it for only a few minutes!
“Though magic never can be.” The words were soft, simple, said almost as if to herself. Lady Haesel was looking away from him now, past his shoulder and to the grand staircase beyond.
“Would it be too intimate if I said that you are more beautiful than I could have imagined, even when dressed in what appears to be your brother’s clothes, Lady Haesel?” The compliment fell from his lips like honey, and he meant it. More sentiment. And yet, in that moment, he couldn’t bring himself to care.
Her eyes flickered toward him almost immediately before she looked down demurely, like a proper pureblood lady. There was a slight cast to her face that made him think it was all an act. “Thank you.” She peered up at him. “But I daresay it’s my height.”
“I daresay it is not,” he countered quickly, his mind turning to the tall, exotic Islanders. “Those more traveled might see it as a physical—though hardly magical—shortcoming.”
Her eyes flashed in vexation. There, he knew it! The pureblood demureness was a façade; she had a fiery spirit. Thank Merlin. Completely submissive women were boring, bland, and certainly not appealing in the least. “You are well traveled, then, Diplomat?”
“I find it amusing that you seem to have attained such a lofty position in your field without us ever having been introduced. You must be trusted and highly skilled to be, as you say, so well travelled.” Her words were biting, but she added a sweet, mocking smile to them. The magic about her, though, trilled in delight, showing her pleasure in their sparring of words. “I find, though, that I have taken an inordinate amount of time to powder my nose, especially as I have not brought powder with me on this outing—a fact which my brother knows well.”
Marvolo bowed his head, recognizing that a lady of her caliber would only allow herself to skirt impropriety so far. He moved to the side to allow her a wide path out of the antechamber, and she smiled her thanks. His magic caressed hers; when hers hesitantly caressed back, he could barely suppress the shiver that ran up his arms.
Lady Haesel was perfect to be the mother of his heirs. Her magic sang to him and, judging by her coming to him when his magic had beckoned, his called to her as well. That aside, though, her beauty and unrelenting personality also greatly tempted him.
She glanced over her shoulder at him. “As you are so illustrious a person, I take it I’ll see you at my debut, Diplomat?”
The title was both mocking and fond, and Marvolo found he could not mind it as it fell from her lips, which were just begging for her maiden’s kiss to be stolen from them. If only such a thing could be stolen. If Magic itself didn’t ensure that a maiden’s kiss was voluntary, he would have claimed her lips and hand right then. No one else would have ever been given the chance to win what was already his.
“I have no doubt.”
She nodded her goodbye and, with the scent of jasmine floating about her, she was gone. Marvolo was left alone, and yet, the sea of strangers in front of his gaze proved just how public their first meeting had been.
The crowd parted for her and, despite himself, despite that it made him seem needy, Marvolo could not help but whisper, “Look back.”
As if she had heard, her face turned so that he could see her profile as she descended the stairs, and then Lady Haesel was out of sight.
If Marvolo had been as young as he looked, he would have sworn that he had just fallen irrevocably in love.