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little dove

Chapter Text

The Liddell Estate was anything but quaint. Bought and constructed by Monsieur Liddell's grandparents in 1782, and finished in 1785, it was a staple of the time. Each and every Alabaman – and even some Mississippians – knew of the marvel. 

The entire plantation was a perfect square, divided into four segments. Its cotton field occupied three: the top-left sector, the top-right, and the bottom-right. Said to be the largest in all of Alabama, it stretched across two thousand acres. A mammoth of a cotton gin occupied a vast expanse and cleaned over sixty pounds of lint a day. Within the depths of cotton was a grange for the livestock, as well as living spaces for the one hundred slaves. 

The bottom-left sector was populated by the garden, belonging to Madame Liddell. Flowers from around the world filled the massive maze of greenery. Thousands were wedding endowments, as well as donations from the local florist and gifts from visiting nobility. It was said that only a small few were allowed inside the garden on account of Madame Liddell's protectiveness.

In the center of the plot, a grand three-story manor sat. Stone pillars were seemingly guarding the enormous windows and front sitting area. It was a spectacle of architecture in both exterior and interior. Sweeping staircases, intricate designs etched into the plaster of the walls and ceilings, velvet curtains that reached six yards long, floorboards made of Peltogyne wood, and several more extravagant adornments filled the seventeen rooms. 

The lineage of the Liddell family was almost as famous as their estate. Marietta, the wife of Oswald, was the closest living kin to the late Marie Antoinette, the final Queen of France – hence the significant amount of wealth and land, and an equally opulent husband. Her royal bloodline also granted her a social circle that included the county's prominent selectmen and women, and a lovely collection of daughters. 

And yet, four of the five sisters – Marie, Annabelle, Pearl, and Tallulah – were no longer residents of the manor, for they were all wed to their suitors and lived on their own properties. Their absence left their childhood home quiet to some degree, with the exception of their youngest sibling, Birdie.

She had been described best by Grandmother Maria as a "wet hen with too much gumption" on her thirteenth birthday. Birdie had thrown a fit for the festivities starting too early for her liking. This had caused the seventy-year-old woman to snatch the brat by the ear and give her a piece of her mind. Despite bringing Birdie to more ruddy tears, this display hadn't stopped the young girl's behavior. 

Now, at fifteen, Birdie was seen by the eyes of society as a woman who was ready to do womanly things like gossip over bitter tea and knit pantaloons. The harrowing reality that she would soon have to endure countless suitors agitated her. She didn't want to be married off to someone she barely knew, or live in a humble one-story townhouse, or die for the sake of producing an heir. 

No, Birdie much preferred her life as it currently was. She had no worries or ambition, as she was expected to simply remain in the home and act like a proper lady of the South. Since her schooling was at a standstill because of the summer heat, she enjoyed the freedom she was allowed so little of. A whole day could be spent gazing at the endless arrangement of plants in her mother's garden or pestering the hardworking servants. It was a harmless monotony, but it was what Birdie knew best.

-

Then came the day when her mother suggested that she take piano lessons to pass the time. It was while they lounged beside one another in the sunroom, their afternoon lemonade and sandwiches long forgotten. "Weren't you complaining recently about having nothing to do? This could be your much-needed avocation," Marietta said. "Knowing how to play such an instrument can be a very fulfilling facet."

Birdie scoffed, "I refuse!" 

"But how come, mon chéri?"

"Because I would rather spend my days staring out the window before partaking in such a childish activity. Because piano lessons are for youngin's, not grown-ups. Because I simply refuse!" Birdie said, raising her chin in defiance.

Marietta visibly shrunk beneath her daughter's harsh words, but she pushed, "I'd hate to see the piano in the great hall go to waste. It was a gift from your père's Auntie Agatha before she passed. She would have loved to see you play."

"If you're so concerned with it withering away, then why don't you take lessons?"

"Well, how about we take lessons together? That way, we could learn—"

With a huff, Birdie made to rise from the couch. She found it foolish of her mother, at her ghastly age, to want to try to learn something so trivial as the piano alongside her youngest child. The thought itself was embarrassing enough to make her skin crawl. Next, she'd be asking to have a heart-to-heart with the slaves in the top-right sector, for goodness sake.

She crossed the large foyer and moved towards the main stairway. Hearing Marietta trail behind her in an attempt to extract more of a conversation, she climbed up the angled steps. She didn't falter when a maid by the name of Dinah announced that there were two men at the door.

"Did they say who they were, Dinah?" her mother asked.

The maid shook her head and replied, "No, Madame Liddell. All they says was that they needed to speak with you an' Monsieur Liddell."

At the sound of his name, Oswald appeared from around the corner. His fingers were dripping with wet ink, having been engrossed in something in his study. He removed his half-moon spectacles and inquired, "Who needs to speak with me?"

"Two men outside," Marietta provided.

"Well, let them in, Dinah. No use in letting them melt in the heat out there."

"Yes, Monsieur Liddell."

Birdie, curious to see who her parents' visitors were, found herself crouching on the stairway. She was taken aback by the sight of two rather haggard-looking strangers entering the manor. They were both practically dressed in rags and caked in dirt and sweat. The first man was big in stature and girth and wore a vacuous expression as he fumbled with the bags in his grasp. The second man was thin, but not gangly, and carried himself like most of the aristocrats she saw at Marietta's soirées. 

"Madame Marietta Liddell, I presume?" the second man spoke. His voice was much more regal than his appearance. He lifted the brim of his top hat and made a swooping bow at the waist before Birdie's mother, who looked dumbfounded.

"Ah, yes, I am. I am Madame Marietta Liddell. And this is my husband, Monsieur Oswald Liddell," she introduced mechanically.

The second man grasped her mother's hand between his two as his face split into a broad smile, "Oh, Marietta! I'm ever so delighted to meet you at last!"

Before the second man could fully embrace her, Oswald interjected, "I'm sorry, but who exactly are you gentlemen? How do you know my wife?"

"Oh! How careless of me. I have overlooked the tale of my whereabouts – a tale that has been spread throughout the countries. I am Louis the seventeenth, son of former King Louis the sixteenth of France and Queen Marie Antoinette," the second man explained. "I am here with my loyal friend, Regulus, the Duke of Bilge– Ahem, Bridgewater—" he nodded to the wide man beside him "—to meet my estranged great-niece, Marietta, at last."

"How d'you do?" Regulus grumbled.

Oswald and Marietta exchanged looks of complete surprise. It took a minute for the words to successfully sink in before her mother stammered, "But Louis-Charles died years ago. From an illness, I was told. How could you possibly be hi—?"

"My dear Marietta, have you not heard of the horrible legend that is the Lost Dauphin? Well, as you can see, it is not a legend. It is merely the truth. Why, I'd be loungin' on the throne as we speak had it not been for the upstart Corsican, who snaked me out of my own title."

Still, Birdie's father seemed to have little faith in the man's story. His eyes were narrowed, and his mouth was twisted in doubt. "Well, you don't look like a royal. Or talk like one too," Oswald observed. "How can we be sure that you two aren't a couple a' grifters?"

While Regulus began to chew on his lower lip anxiously, Louis-Charles paused and collected himself. "I understand and respect your skepticism, Monsieur Liddell. I would ask the same of someone who suddenly emerged in my foyer, speaking the things I speak. An' I am more than happy to offer you proof of my claims," he grinned. He proceeded to dig through the insides of his torn coat.

Once he found what he was looking for, he produced an emerald rivière from his pocket. The jewels nestled within the chain glittered in the light. It was indeed a beautiful piece of familiar French craftsmanship. "This is the sole heirloom I possess from my mother, Marie Antoinette herself. It was a rivière she favored above all the rest," he bragged. "Now, Marietta, seeing as you are the only other living relative of Queen Antoinette, I'm sure you recognize this?"

Meanwhile, sitting at the steps, Birdie was genuinely astonished by his ability to turn the tables on her unsuspecting mother. She saw that there was a sort of cleverness in the man that could be deemed dangerous if in the wrong situation. This was a man who could talk himself out of jail time with Sheriff Cunningham or death with the Grim Reaper.

Marietta was an intelligent woman for her day and age, but she did not like to be proven wrong. She gaped at the dangling rivière. Then she balked, "Why, of course, I recognize it! Ma mère – may God bless her soul – spoke of it often. Even showed me portraits of Queen Antoinette wearing it."

A satisfied smile crept onto Louis-Charles' lips, "Then you are convinced that I am your dear great-uncle?"

"Oh, how could I have doubted you? I'm so ashamed!" Marietta exclaimed. With that, she threw her arms around his shoulders and clutched him tightly. 

Louis-Charles gave a hearty laugh, seemingly relishing in the attention he was presented, and returned the hug. "Oh, Marietta! You have no idea how I've longed to see you," he hummed.

Once his wife finally released her great-uncle, the man of the household took a gentle step forward and shook both of the men's hands. "Welcome, Louis-Charles. Welcome, Regulus. But I do believe an apology is in order—"

"Nonsense, nonsense! No such apologies are required. You were only doing what you thought was right, Monsieur Liddell," said Louis-Charles. He kept his hands clasped around Marietta's in a polite indication of endearment while he spoke. "I believe I heard from the grapevine that you two have quite the family here. Is it four beautiful daughters?"

"Five. But alas, the four oldest are no longer live with us. You see, they're all married," Oswald clarified. "But our youngest, Birdie, is still here. Would you like to meet her?"

At the mention of her name, Birdie jumped and rushed up the rest of the steps. Evidently, she had more of a brain than both of her parents combined, and she had enough sense to avoid the pair of jackanapes. Being introduced to them was entirely out of the question.

"We would simply love to meet her. Wouldn't we, Regulus?"

"Uh-huh! I mean– yes, we sure would."

"Excellent." Oswald turned on his heel to face the stairway and zeroed in on his daughter, attempting to scamper out of view. "Birdie, come down here at once," he instructed.

Her fingers tightened around the railing. She hesitated for a moment and started her descent down the steps. Watching Louis-Charles and Regulus raise their eyes in her direction made her uneasy. She found herself frozen again when she stood within a few feet of the strangers. "Bonjour," Birdie grunted.

It was evident that Regulus wasn't nearly as interested in her as Louis-Charles, resembling a coyote sizing up its prey – what with his enlarged pupils, heightened stance, drooling teeth. 

Birdie did not scare easily, but she felt goose pimples prickling along her arms and legs as her supposed great-great-uncle licked his lips.

"Birdie, don't be rude. Introduce yourself properly," Marietta whispered in her ear.

Sighing, the girl took either side of her dress and dipped in a stiff curtsey, lowering her head. "How do you do? I'm Mademoiselle Birdie Liddell."

"How d'you do? I'm sure you overhead – but, as a provision – I am Louis-Charles the seventeenth, and this is Regulus. Come closer, little dove," Louis-Charles said and opened his arms in invitation.

She approached for an embrace similar to the one she had seen him gift her mother. What she didn't expect was for Louis-Charles to sweep her off the floor, hold her by the underside of her thighs, and shower her in kisses. "Oh, Birdie! What a pretty little thing you've become. I could just eat you up," he cooed. He punctuated his last statement with a small nip behind her ear, hidden from her parents and Dinah.

As a child, Birdie was no stranger to cuddles with her father, but she noticed a few fair differences between his and her great-great-uncle's:

Oswald's face would always be clean-shaven; the harsh stubble of Louis-Charles' scraped against her cheeks. 

Oswald's fingertips would never stray from the appropriate areas; Louis-Charles' squeezed at her hips and calves. 

Oswald's hug would be welcomed; Louis-Charles' was utterly unwanted.

Finished with his exhibition, he settled Birdie onto his left hipbone – much like a slave would with their own child during picking hours. His neck had grown red from his exertions. He claimed, "You both ought to be proud of how lovely your darling girl is. Her beauty should be talked about from here to Pikesville!"

"You say that now, but you'll see how much of a spitfire our 'darling girl' can be!" Marietta snickered, although Birdie wasn't aware of the joke.

"Mother, I want to go to my room."

"Hooey, you have got to stay down here with us. I'd like it very much if we got more acquainted, my dear," said Louis-Charles.

"He is right, Birdie. You can spare a few moments locked in that cave you call a room and spend some quality time with your family," her mother agreed. "Louis-Charles is your great-great-uncle, you know. He traveled a long way to see us. The least you can do is talk to him for a little while."

"But—!"

"Now, shall we move to the parlor?" Marietta was already halfway across the foyer out of excitement.

"That's very kind of you, Marietta. Thank you. We appreciate your hospitality," Louis-Charles beamed. He adjusted Birdie in his hip and followed his newfound great-niece into the next room, with Regulus and Oswald in tow.

Chapter Text

When everyone took their seats on the various plush couches and armchairs, Birdie squirmed in an effort to escape his hold but was caught tighter around the middle. It was now impossible for her to leave his lap.

She glared at his sweat-stained face, and hissed low enough for him to hear, "You will unhand me at once!" 

And yet, she was met with only a tight-lipped smile and his equally quiet reply of, "Not a chance in Hell, sweetheart."

Birdie gasped at his response, seething at his gall to cuss in her presence. "Mother—!" she began.

Louis-Charles interrupted, "Would you all like to hear of how Regulus and I scoured the country in search of you?"

"Oh, yes! That would be just lovely."

The passing hours consisted of Louis-Charles, having taken the role of a storyteller with ease, stringing one tall tale after another. He had Marietta and Oswald positively captivated.

However, Birdie showed little interest as he spoke of the luxuries on the East Coast. She yawned at the mention of savage natives camping in the mountains. She was more focused on the fact that her great-great-uncle still had not let her get up from his hold, and that Marietta and Oswald were oblivious to her discomfort. 

"My, my! Look at the time, Bridgewater. My poor great-niece and her family must be starved. I've been talking well past their supper time," Louis-Charles cried. He pointed at the towering grandfather clock, which displayed six thirty-seven. 

His partner squinted hard, clearly unable to read it.

"Do not feel too guilty, Oncle. We have thoroughly enjoyed your stories," Marietta smiled, and then called for the maid. "Dinah, please have supper ready for five instead of three tonight. I would like my great-uncle and his friend to join us. And fetch Lucy so she can show our guests to the washroom. They must be ready to jump out of their skins in this heat."

Louis-Charles opened his mouth to argue.

"Ah, ah! Come now, Oncle. Don't give me that look. It's no trouble at all. We would appreciate it greatly if you and Regulus stay for supper. I insist."

"Well, how could I say 'No' to a pretty face like yours?" he said and turned to Birdie. "Or yours?"

For once, Birdie bit down hard on her tongue, but that didn't stop her from rolling her eyes until they reached the back of her skull. 

Though she would never admit it, her mother was enjoying Birdie's silence and was going to snag an opportunity to take advantage of it. It was proven correct when she said, "On second thought, Birdie, you can show them. You should freshen yourself up as well. Go on now." 

Birdie was close to pointing out how Marietta's dear great-uncle refused to release her from his grasp, but – to her surprise – Louis-Charles loosened his arms around her waist. She hopped up without a second thought. Her eyes darted between the grinning man and her expectant parents. Defeated, she mumbled, "This way."

The two guests were compliant in trailing behind as she trudged up the staircase to the third floor. Neither man made an attempt at conversation with Birdie, for it was a short walk before she wheeled around a corner in the direction of the nearest washroom. She stopped in front of their destination. "Right in there. You'll find everything you need," she said. 

"Didn't your mère also tell you to freshen up?" Louis-Charles inquired.

"Yes, in my own washroom."

"Now that wouldn't be fair for us to make you walk all the way to your own washroom when there's a perfectly good one right here," he balked. "And we wouldn't mind sharing."

"We wouldn't?" said Regulus.

Birdie sneered, "As generous as that offer sounds, I would much rather use my own. I'm the only one to have a private washroom. You understand, don't you?"

"Ah, yes. Ladies and their desired privacy. How could I neglect such an afflictin' detail?"

"Yes. Well, if you would excuse me," she said and started down the corridor, trying to shake the undeniable feeling of being watched.

-

Eventually, the servants had set the expansive dining table for five plates. A sheer white tablecloth reached from one end to the other. Each dish, cup, and utensil was crafted from the most beautiful porcelain, glass, and metal. A heaping roast waited amongst bowls of cooked vegetables and pitchers filled with alcohol-infused juice. 

Despite the present heat, candles gleamed orange in the darkened hall. The curtains were pulled back to reveal the sun slowly setting beyond the hills.

Having splashed handful after handful of water onto her glowing cheeks, Birdie felt a bit calmer, as she was fully prepared to have a bite to eat and bid farewell to Louis-Charles and Regulus afterward. She took a seat near the middle of the table; Oswald was sitting at the head with Marietta on the opposite; their guests placed themselves directly across from Birdie.

She glanced at Louis-Charles, who was leering at her with his deep cocoa-colored eyes. She noticed that he had cleaned a substantial amount of dirt off his face, and his skin was no longer shining with sweat. For that, she was thankful because he didn't quite remind her of a brute anymore. And yet, as he smiled at her, she couldn't help but feel a bubble of apprehension build in her stomach. She chalked it up to hunger.

"This meal looks mighty fine, Marietta. Fit for a king. You spoil your dear uncle," Louis-Charles hummed.

Her mother giggled and encouraged them to take their share. Soon enough, the five of them were digging into their own plates, some more heavily than others. Birdie sipped her water while the adults sipped their whiskey. There was a comfortable quietude that was occasionally interrupted by the sounds of gnashing teeth, utensils scraping against porcelain, and swallowing.

"So, Birdie, you must have plenty of leisure activities. Especially in a manor such as this and in the midst of summer vacation. What do you like to do in your spare time?" Louis-Charles spoke up after gulping down his drink.

The young girl was almost struck dumb by his question. Not many people were curious about her interests; she was but a spoiled Southern belle with horrible manners – nothing more, nothing less. She quickly steeled herself and answered, "I don't like to do anything."

"Birdie," Oswald said in warning.

Louis-Charles didn't appear deterred. The corners of his mouth twitched as though he was fighting a smile. "Come now. You truly don't find pleasure in anything?"

There was something in the way he spoke that made Birdie's skin itch. She growled, "I like to sit in the garden and look at the flowers."

"I was trying to convince her to enroll in piano lessons when you arrived, Oncle," Marietta interjected. "But she absolutely scorns the idea. She says that children are taught the piano, not 'grown-ups' like her. The girl is downright impossible. I think she takes joy in it. Being impossible, I mean."

Birdie made an attempt at ignoring the conversation at hand by slicing into her piece of roast with more force than needed. Ripping the meat off her fork, she gnashed her teeth and huffed.

"That's rather funny. I was given lessons on how to play the violin when I was about Birdie's age. Taught by the finest instructor of New Orleans for three years. I found that performing was a satisfying recreation for a boy of my background. I believe you would fancy the lessons as much as I did," said Louis-Charles.

Her resolve was slipping, and the entire table became aware of the firecracker that was ready to pop. Birdie dropped her utensils onto her plate, so vexed that she didn't hear the loud crash her display caused. "And I believe you should keep that nose of yours out of other people's business," she spat. "Especially if you happened to walk into their life just mere hours beforehand."

Cocking his head to one side, Louis-Charles continued to grin and raised his open palms in mock defeat. He said, "I do apologize, Birdie. I am only trying to get to know you, my beloved great-great-niece, better. I thought that it would be possible to have shared enthusiasm for—"

"It would be wise to end any and all thoughts that involve you and I sharing anything more than a civil handshake!"

Marietta exclaimed, "Birdie Antonia!"

"I think it's past her bedtime," her father prompted.

"Oh, yes, that reminds me. Where are the two of you staying for the time being?"

The men looked at each other and then at her parents as though the answer was obvious. "Nowhere," Regulus grunted. 

"What he means is–" Louis-Charles jumped. "– I had been so enveloped in the thought of meeting the last remaining family I have that I had not taken the prospect of a place to stay into consideration."

Marietta clutched her heart. She pushed, "Then I will have rooms arranged for you immediately! No relative of mine is going to spend their nights sleeping on the cold ground like a beggar."

"I agree. That wouldn't be in good conscience on our parts," said Oswald. "Dinah, can you have two rooms prepared for our guests? And bring their luggage as well. Oncle can have Pearl and Tallulah's old bedroom, and Regulus can have Marie and Annabelle's. As fast as you can, please."

"Of course, Monsieur Liddell."

Their guests jolted to a stand, all but ran to Marietta and Oswald, and grabbed their hands in thanks. "Oh, I am blessed to belong to a family as kind and giving as you! Oh, Marietta! Oh, Oswald! How could we ever repay you for your generosity?" Louis-Charles cried, practically on the verge of tears.

Halting the exchange of sentiments, Birdie leaped to her feet and knocked her chair backward. She screeched, "This is lunacy! Are you going to hand them the entire manor tomorrow? And the deed to the property the day after that?"

"Birdie, please. Have you no heart?" her mother choked.

Oswald, a generally peaceful man of God, pulled his napkin from his lap and slapped it onto the table. "Young lady, I want you to wish your uncle and Regulus 'Goodnight' and go to the nursery at once," he snarled like a dog.

"I would rather cut off my own tongue!"

She sprinted from the dining hall. After a brief scuttle up the two arched staircases, she made it to her bedroom and slammed the door shut, tuning out the sounds of her agitated parents and supposed great-great-uncle.

Birdie collapsed onto her mattress and vowed that she would raise Hell on earth for her parents, allowing those men to set foot on their estate.

Chapter Text

Sleep had arrived with ease. 

Remaining in said sleep had been a struggle, for Birdie was tossing and turning, trying in vain to drown out her family's voices and quiet her own subconscious just long enough for dreams to overtake her. Of the several swimming thoughts, however, the most bothersome one was that Louis-Charles – or whatever his real name was – was not her great-great-uncle.

After her fifth attempt, she finally gave up. She inhaled a big, watery breath while tears dripped down her nose, onto the thick duvet. She wiped them away with the back of her hand. "No use in fretting about it now," she mumbled to no one in particular.

When Birdie was eight or nine years old, she had treasured the morning more than any other time of the day. The air would have a refreshing crispness, yet to be stuffy and coarse. Mourning doves would pleasantly croon on her balcony. But amongst all the beauty she had seen in her short life, she was convinced that the sky would rule above everything; the vivid myriad of color, the feathery clouds dancing across, the murder of crows passing through, and the gleaming sun in the heart of it. It would remind her of Lucy's orange crème pie.

Birdie sighed. Memories only made her feel worse – worse than how Louis-Charles made her feel. 

She didn't realize how long she simply lay with her legs dangling off the edge of the bed, glaring daggers at the ceiling until she heard her door creak open. Propping herself up by the elbows, she saw Athaliah peeking in.

Athaliah was the oldest maid in the Liddell manor. At ninety years old, she was Birdie's personal favorite by far. Her combination of a brusque attitude and a nurturing touch was a welcomed addition to Birdie's day-to-day life. "Good Lord, chil', how are you still layin' in bed? It's a quarter past eight o'clock," she squawked. 

A headache from the previous night's exertions was thumping queasily within Birdie's temples. She rolled over onto her stomach and groaned, "Let me be, Athaliah. I had a terrible night."

"Come on now. It's a brand new day. Walk yourself on over to your washroom an' then have some breakfast. I need to change your sheets."

"Oh, all right." Birdie did as the maid said and dragged herself out of bed. She crossed the nursery and approached the door that led to the adjoining washroom, her spirits steadily rising at the promise of a warm soak. Eager, Birdie entered and locked the door behind her.

Her excitement was extinguished when she came face to face with Louis-Charles. 

He was lounging quite comfortably in her copper tub. The near-overwhelming scent of soap surrounded him, and bubbles floated about in the air and piled in his lap like a white blanket. He appeared to be the epitome of relaxation. "Ah, bonjour, my sweet niece!" he greeted.

Stuck in front of the door, gripping the knob and staring, she fell silent and, in a way, entirely shut down. Part of her wanted to run and find comfort in her mother's embrace at the sight of a man in her private washroom, and the other, colder part of her wanted to attack. 

"What on God's green Earth are you doing in here?" she spluttered through a hanging jaw, careful to keep her voice low as to not alarm Athaliah in the next room. If she showed any indication of her current situation, she would have been asking for a lengthy beating, although said situation involved a man claiming to be her great-great-uncle.

"My dear, is that any way to talk to family? Especially after your little performance last night?" he replied.

Birdie rushed forward, tromping as she did so, and opened her mouth to hiss in response. But she stopped. She noticed how his face was now devoid of any stubble. And how his dark hair was sopping wet, flattened against his scalp and close to reaching the column of his throat. And how his tanned skin was turning pink and glistening. And how, if she stared hard enough, his abdomen had a patch of hair that led down below the water's surface.

She blinked.

In her fifteen years of life, she had never seen a man without his shirt on, in-person, up-close. Her father had made it a regularity to dress in a robe immediately after his daily soak to save his daughters from mortification. Even the slaves in the cotton field had worn their sweat-soaked garments in her presence.

She ignored the dizziness that began to grow in her belly and growled, "I will talk to you however I like while you are in my washroom. So I will ask again. What are you doing in here?"

Louis-Charles hummed to himself while he scrubbed her bar of lavender soap over his biceps. He was acting far too casual and content for her liking. "Seeing as your lovely home has three washrooms, and two are currently in use, your magnanimous parents have granted me permission to use yours," he supplied. "They assured me that you wouldn't mind."

"Oh, but I do! Very much!"

"Now, Birdie, do try to be civil," he clicked his tongue. He cupped his right hand, splashed his left arm to wash away any excess suds, and repeated for the opposite arm. His carelessness left a puddle on the floorboards. Once he was finished, he rested the back of his head against the lip of the tub and sank further into the depths of foam with a satisfied smile, "Be that as it may, you are more than welcome to join me. I'd be glad to help you."

She suddenly became aware of her nightgown. Even though the decorative cloth hiding any instance of undress, Birdie was utterly naked under Louis-Charles' fevered gaze. She curled into herself. "I beg your pardon? I'm old enough to wash myself – thank you very much," she said.

"An' how old is that? In all of yesternight's excitement, your mère failed to mention your age."

"I turned fifteen this past March."

"Fifteen," he echoed, pursing his lips. "My, my. We must be nearing the time of countless suitors and wedding arrangements, correct?"

Birdie bristled, "No, I want nothing to do with any of that. In case it hasn't registered by now, I spurn just about anything I'm told, and being carted off to man I barely know to be his wife is no exception."

"Is that so?" Louis-Charles goaded. He hooked an elbow over the brim and tucked his chin in his palm as though he were intently listening to her rant. A trace of a simper was apparent on his lips.

"Yes, it is. I would rather live out the rest of my life picking cotton."

"I see."

"And no one can make me change my mind."

There was a minute where he didn't immediately respond. He only sized Birdie up and down, paying close attention to her breasts – which were accentuated in her poor attempt at covering them with crossed arms, accentuating her breasts – and huffing. "We shall wait and see, I suppose," he said.

Her nerves were smothered in ice. She furrowed her brows and tried to look him in the eye, but was distracted by the flush of his cheeks. Instead of confronting his vague statement, Birdie changed the subject, "Are you nearly finished? I would like to use my bathtub. Since this is my washroom."

"Would you like me to finish?" Louis-Charles grinned wolfishly. He straightened himself against the side of the tub, creating sizable waves around his ribcage. Nevertheless, he made no move to leave.

"I would like you to get out this instant!" Birdie seethed and stomped her foot for emphasis.

"Well, if you insist," he said. Bracing his hands on the tub's brim, he pushed himself to a stand.

Birdie shrieked, shielding her eyes and spinning on her bare heels. Her face burned red hot as the blood boiled to a summit. She was relieved to have reacted so quickly; the poor girl was half of a second away from seeing a man in the nude. "How dare you!" she whimpered. "How dare you try to expose yourself to me. Just wait until Mother hears about this. She'll have you and your friend thrown out before you can say, 'Au revoir, mademoiselle'!"

A couple of splashes told Birdie that Louis-Charles was climbing out of the tub. He padded towards her vanity and dried himself off with her cotton towels. He chuckled, "I don't doubt that you would go scampering off to your mother. But I have a funny feeling she wouldn't believe a thing you say. Why, I reckon she'd easily take my word against yours."

She found herself rooted to the spot as Louis-Charles loomed behind her and cupped her trembling shoulder. The sleeve of his robe was cold on her back, whereas his open palm sent a fiery blaze down her arm. She craned her neck to the side when he leaned in close. "Grown-ups, you know. Always taking the wrong sides," he purred, his voice eerily soothing.

Gently, he took the girl's chin between his fingers and forced her eyes to meet his. He continued, "Of course, you did barge in here, unannounced. And you've had every opportunity to leave, but you still choose to stay. Anyone would find that rather disturbing, don't you think? What would Monsieur and Madame Liddell say when I tell them you were spying on me in the bath?"

Birdie gasped, "That's not true—!"

"You and I both know that. But your parents may be harder to persuade. Are you sure you want to take that chance?" he challenged. His calloused thumb grazed her bottom lip.

She shook her head.

"Good girl. Smart too. I promise I won't tell if you don't."

"Ah– all right. I promise too," Birdie resigned. She was willing to say anything to make him stop stroking her like she were a cat. The heat of his touch bloomed and increased along her skin, spidering into an intense fog that seemed to cloud her mind. She felt lightheaded.

"What a good pet," Louis-Charles praised. He spun Birdie around and yanked her front against his, despite her valiant efforts to wrangle herself out of his grasp. He steeled his grip, maintaining, "All that's left is to seal the deal. Now, give us a kiss."

"Release me!" she wailed. She swiped at his cheekbone and dug deep into the flesh. Blood spewed and sprinkled the floor, her nightgown as well as his robe, and her hand.

He howled, "Augh, you petulant brat!"

Beaming triumphantly, Birdie ignored the skin beneath her fingernails and drew back as Louis-Charles hunched forward, his face mauled and twisted in pain, and clutched at his injured jaw.

"I promise I won't tell if you don't, Oncle!" she sneered, running to the door that led to the outside corridor, rather than her bedroom. She wrenched it wide open and escaped with not a moment to spare.