The Mermaid by Megan Derr
Sophia had the distinct feeling she was missing something. Life was never so convenient that it tossed her a fiancé when she most needed one. Lord Everett Dobson, Earl of Mermaid Cove, had never expressed any interest in her before. He had appeared just two weeks after her disgrace, however, and began a courtship that had led, with unprecedented swiftness, to engagement.
She was in disgrace; she should not be in a fancy carriage with her home rapidly fading behind her and a three week stay at her future home drawing ever closer. Marriage was the strangest punishment that had ever come from disgrace, to be sure; three months after the whole debacle, she still was confused by the diamond ring on her finger.
They had caught her, quite literally, with her hand upon the bosom of another woman. Worse, it had been at the betrothal ball of that toad-faced, milksop chit of the Duchess of Mayfair. Despite everything, Sophia had not been at all sorry to ruin the ball with scandal, not after what the bitch had done at her coming out party.
Still, she had always told herself that she could handle the consequences of her actions when she was eventually caught; she was not foolish enough to think she would keep her secret forever. But, it always hurt more than anticipated when the consequences struck. Family would not look at her, friends pretended not to know her. Her parents had dithered for a full week over whether to send to a convent, or the new ‘restorative home for young ladies of quality’. She had been contemplating the problems of running away.
Before any of them could act, however, he had shown up. Lord Everett Dobson, the most coveted bachelor in the city, and very nearly the kingdom. He was handsome in that dark, dashing way that was so popular, with a smile that held just the right amount of charm. He was irritatingly perfect, and would no doubt be a good husband and father, and being Lady Dobson would be a fine way to turn her nose up at all those who had sneered at her.
Stifling a sigh, she looked out the window at the landscape that had belonged to her family for more generations that she had ever been bothered to count (much to the annoyance of her tutors). She had loved it all dearly a child and a young girl, going where she might, whenever she wanted. Playing in the creek, climbing trees, playing games with the other young girls on the estate.
Then she had been made to be a lady: dresses, slippers, lessons far worse than history and grammar. Her hair was swept up, never to be worn loose again, her décolletage pulled down, for the better to snare a husband. Her only consolations had been her harp and occasionally sneaking off with the pretty women she managed to tempt away.
She wished she could be satisfied with Everett the way everyone wanted—satisfied with men the way everyone wanted. But she wasn’t, so she supposed there was nothing for it now but to grow up and make the best of it.
Blinking until her eyes stopped stinging and the back of her throat did not feel quite so raw, she turned to her fiancé and said, “Now that my dear father is not here to blather about stocks and crops and land value, do tell me really about your home, my lord. I admit I am looking forward to it; I’ve only been to the see once before.”
“Mermaid Cove is beautiful,” Everett replied, smiling in a warm, fond way that made her smile back. “It’s not a very large island, but certainly large enough, and only a couple of hours away from the mainland. The manor itself butts up right against the sea, and there is a stairway that leads down to a private breach. The people there are very friendly, and eager to welcome a new face. It’s been a long time since the Cove has had a proper mistress. I hope you will indulge us with a performance once we are properly settled in.”
Sophia brightened at that, thinking of the harp carefully packed away for the long journey. “It would be an honor.”
He smiled, and they lapsed again into an easy silence. She wished yet again that she could be satisfied with him. Be satisfied with her lot. It was a situation many a person envied; she knew from the gossip she overheard that several people had tried to persuade Everett that he was wasting his time, that he could do better than ‘that strumpet’. She had fallen from grace, and now had the perfect life.
But all she wanted was to be back in that drawing room, tasting honey on Anna’s lips, tugging at her bodice—
She cut the thought off, and tucked it away. She was engaged. That was, however unhappy it made her, the end of the matter.
Everett’s home was as beautiful as promised. It was like something out of a storybook, a city by the sea, the buildings painting vivid colors, the manor a fairy tale castle surmounting all, birds calling overheard, and the surf crashing against the island. It smelled of sunshine, sea, and sand, and even the occasional odor of fish could not ruin the whimsy of the place.
Sophia thought she could stare at the ocean for hours, perched there on the balcony of her bedroom. She brightened and leaned out further as she caught a hint of what appeared to be a large fish, it’s tail just peaking from the water for the moment. Beautiful. She wanted to throw herself off the balcony, dive into the waters below, and just swim.
Instead, she returned to her bedroom and let her maid cluck disapprovingly over the way Sophia ‘bared herself to sunlight in just a shift’. “Only the fish were around to be scandalized,” Sophia assured her. She slid her arms into the gown as Milly pulled it up. It was a beautiful dress, light and cool for the warm weather, sea-foam green in color, with a waterfall of cream lace spilling from her waist clear to the floor, ending in a short train. Her new wardrobe was a betrothal gift from Everett, and how it had made her sisters livid with envy. Sophia was only grateful, because her current wardrobe was completely unsuited to the climate and her parents would not have bought her a new one.
The sleeves were little more than bits of fabric barely clinging to the edge of her shoulders, with pearls adding a final, elegant touch.
Milly arranged Sophia’s pale blonde hair in an artful tumble of curls that echoed the waterfall of lace, then finished her off with a pearl choker and earrings. Sophia wiggled her fingers, enjoying seeing them bare. Gloves, she had been told, were just not done on the island. Too hot, too wet, Everett had explained. Sophia loved it; she hated gloves.
Giving herself a last look over in the large mirror, she decided she was as ready as she would ever be. Thanking Milly, she left the safety of her bedroom and made her way through the winding halls of the manor.
The manor made her think she was living in a sandcastle. Her family had only been to the beach once, when she was a child, but she could remember those two weeks better than she could remember most other parts of her childhood. She had loved the sand, the sea …
She could stay forever, and if she must be properly wed in order to do it, it was hardly the worst price someone had paid to live in a fairy tale. She had absolutely no complaints worth voicing, only selfish desires that had nearly put her in a convent.
The thought made her shudder, and was happily distracted by the laughter that trickled up the stairs toward her. Descending them, she entered the large ballroom already packed with people. Despite the crowding, it took her only moments to spy her fiancé across the room. He was talking to someone who looked passingly like him—not enough to be a brother, but very likely a cousin.
It was the cousin who saw her first, eyes widening. Everett noticed his distraction, and half-turned, then smiled. He extended a hand to her as she reached them, and softly kissed her knuckles. “Good evening, my dear. You look stunning.”
“Thank you for the gift,” Sophia demurred, then glanced inquisitively at the cousin.
“Allow me to introduce you to Master Tomas Dobson, my cousin. He fancies himself a sailor. Do not let his charm persuade you into believing he is anything but a rapscallion.”
Sophia laughed and gave Tomas her hand. “Rapscallion, is it? I believe I am acquainted with the species.”
Tomas laughed, and dusted her knuckles with a polite kiss. “Would you like a drink, Lady Sophia?”
“Wine would be marvelous, whatever you recommend, Master Rapscallion.”
“Milady,” he said, and with a bow vanished off into the crowd.
Alone with her fiancé, Sophia said, “You have a beautiful home; it’s like a sandcastle.”
Everett smiled, “That is often what we call it: the Sandcastle. Built by my thrice-great grandfather when he won the whole island in a bet.”
“A bet, truly?” Sophia asked. “How careless of the poor soul who lost.”
He seemed to hesitate a moment, then gave her his arm, “Come, there is something I want to show you.”
She took his arm, curious enough to go along with whatever was about. They made their way steadily through the throng of people, stopped frequently for introductions and conversation, but at last reached a room that proved to be a long gallery. “Family portraits, and a few close friends, in this hall,” Everett said, and led her to the far end. He indicated a portrait of a man that might have been Everett in a different time. “That is the man who won the house, Blakely Dobson, the first Earl of Mermaid Cove. How he became an Earl is a long and twisting tale for another day. But he won the island from that chap, there. They were best mates from the day they met in school.
“They stayed friends all their lives. After Blakely’s wife died, they were even closer. The bet came shortly thereafter. Blakely won the island, then made his friend stay on with him. They built the manor, remained on the island their entire lives, and died here quite happy. They were buried together at sea, in fact.”
Sophia looked at him in surprise. “Really?”
“Yes,” he said quietly, and smiled at her.
“Thank you for telling me the story,” Sophia replied softly. So Blakely and his friend had been lovers. No wonder Everett did not look at her askance. “You have a very unique island.”
Everett laughed. “More unique than you can possibly imagine. We have scandalous ancestors, mermaids, curses—the whole set.”
Sophia laughed with him as they made their way back to the ballroom. “Curses, huh? Pray tell, good sir, what curse weighs upon thee?” They were met by Tomas before he could reply, as he presented her with a wine that was dark pink in color, the color of the heavy roses her mother favored. “A local vintage, I believe you’ll like it.”
“Thank you, Master Rapscallion,” Sophia replied. “Everett was just about to tell me of the family curse.”
Tomas gave Everett a mock-reproving look. “You’re supposed to wed her before the curses come out, Evie. Grandmama will be quite put out with you, stealing her thunder.”
“Which is exactly why I’m doing it,” Everett said.
Sophia chuckled at them both, and sipped her wine. “You are correct, sir. I quite like it. Now tell me of this curse before curiosity compels me to seek out the dread grandmamma.”
“Superstition,” Tomas said dismissively. “Legend has it that way back when the first Dobson was learning how to walk about properly, he fell in love with someone he should not. Who or what has been lost to time, but the point is that he turned his back on that love to marry for duty.”
Everett picked up the tale, “Whoever it was he loved, cursed him and his lineage, to always love what they can’t have, unless they be brave enough to take it.”
“How sad,” Sophia replied. “Few people get to choose who they love, or even get to choose love. It does not seem fair to inflict the pain of the impossible on those who did no wrong.”
“We manage well enough,” Tomas said. “What would you choose, milady? Love or duty?”
Sophia replied, “There was never a choice for me, Master Rapscallion, and I can only be quite pleased with my current arrangement.”
Tomas opened his mouth to say more, but was drowned out as a gong sounded, signaling the beginning of dinner. Sophia once more took Everett’s arm, and silently let him lead her to the dining room.