Tania’s corset was pulled so tight she could barely breathe, but anger provided enough air to fuel her shout.
“I am not going out there!”
“Tania.” Her mother’s voice was a whip. “Mind your temper, and your manners. There is a gentleman here to see you.”
Tania snorted. “Gentleman” was a generous description. Thomas Tanner was the cobbler’s son, heir to no land or titles, just a shoe shop that kept all sixty-three feet in the village properly covered. (It would have been sixty-four, but Connor James had lost one in a hunting accident some years back.) He was pale, with more pimples than freckles, and he always smelled of leather and shoe polish.
“Tell him I don’t wish to see him. Or if you’d rather, tell him I’m under the weather. Tell him I’m out catching frogs, for all I care.”
Mother gave her a warning look, her eyes hard as jade. “You will go out there and receive Mister Tanner like a proper lady. You cannot turn a man away the day after you’ve accepted his proposal.”
“I’ve accepted no proposals. He didn’t even propose to me. He spoke with you and Papa; one of you should marry him.”
“Titania Joan!” Mother was so upset that she didn’t even sweep out her skirts before sinking into the chair at Tania’s dressing table. Scarlet blooms folded in on themselves across the patterned fabric, reflections of the blossoms in her cheeks. Even flushed with anger, Tania’s mother was lovely.
Tania had inherited none of her beauty. She was too tall, and her round face was the plain sort that belonged to nuns and spinsters. When she blushed, she looked more like a radish than a rose.
Hence the engagement to Thomas, who was her best (and in truth, probably her only) prospect. It wasn’t that shedisliked Thomas; he simply bored her. He only ever talked about his father’s business, and he seemed the sort who would want his wife to enjoy picking wildflowers and making dinner for him each day. Despite Mother’s best efforts, Tania could abide neither activity. She preferred to spend her time reading her father’s books, and she got so caught up in her own thoughts that she burned everything she attempted to cook. Anyone could see they would be a poor match.
Tania laid a hand on her mother’s arm and said, more gently, “Thomas is a good man, but our marriage would be a sentence for us both.”
“Refusing him would be more of a sentence for you.”
Tania recoiled like she’d been slapped. A turnip might never be a rose, but telling it such was a needless insult. And who was to say there wasn’t a man out there who found turnips delightful?
Footsteps neared the door. “Shall I come back another time?” Thomas called.
“Yes,” Tania said, at the same time her mother said, “No.” They glared at one another.
“I’m afraid I’m a bit out of sorts today,” Tania said, trying to sound flustered. “All this excitement has made me faint.”
“Of course,” Thomas said. “It was thoughtless of me to call so suddenly.”
Guilt squeezed Tania’s heart. Thomas was a good man, and it was his right to call on his betrothed.
“Thank you, Mister Tanner,” Tania said.
“It would please Tania to see you as soon as she’s well again,” Mother added.
Tania could hear his smile in his reply. “The pleasure will be mine, Miss September. I shall call again tomorrow.”
“I look forward to it,” Tania said, unable to keep the dread from her voice.
Mother stared daggers at her as Thomas’s footsteps receded. She said nothing until their front door opened, then closed again. The click of the latch was like someone releasing a dam. Mother stood, throwing her hands up in frustration.
“Well, I hope you’re happy. You’d better pray he doesn’t change his mind.”
“He won’t,” Tania said. Thomas’s prospects were about as good as hers. Sylvan was a small village, and Thomas’s working-class status narrowed his options. In marrying her, he would be marrying up.
Mother frowned. “Just wait ‘til your father hears about this.”
“Papa will take my side,” Tania said, already undoing her laces. It was too hard to breathe in that blasted gown.
Papa didn’t take her side. His voice hitched as he ran a hand through his chestnut curls, making his hair stick up like an angry tomcat’s.
“What were you thinking, Tania? Throwing the poor boy out. A fine start to your engagement.”
“I never asked to be engaged,” she said coolly, hiding her pain behind a wall of anger. She expected this from Mother, but not Papa. Not the man who’d laughed when she’d nearly set the kitchen on fire making biscuits, or who’d dried her tears when Alice told her her nose was too big for any man to think her pretty. Not the man who’d given her a locket on her sixteenth birthday, a heart as large and golden as the one that beat in his chest. She’d felt like a princess that day, but today he was treating her like some scullery maid.
“You’re sixteen. You’re running out of time to secure a match,” Papa said.
“Why can’t I go to one of the cities?” she asked. “I’ll have a better chance of finding someone there.”
“We don’t know anyone in the cities,” Mother said, massaging the spot between her eyes where she got headaches. “Besides, we could never afford the travel, let alone lodging for a whole season.”
“And you’ve already found someone here,” Papa added.
“No, you’ve found someone.”
“What’s wrong with Thomas?” Papa asked.
“Nothing’s wrong with him. I just don’t love him.”
“You’ll grow to love him,” Mother said.
Tania shook her head. She wasn’t some daft romantic; she knew couples grew to love one another. But they had to have something to grow on. “He’ll want me to be someone I’m not.”
“A woman does what her husband requires of her,” Mother said.
“That’s easy for you to say. Papa loves you as you are.” Everyone in Sylvan knew the story of how Papa had come, a stranger from another town, and fallen so madly in love with Mother that he’d stayed and married her. “Is it so bad for me to want the same thing?”
Papa sighed. The fading light from the hearth cast deep shadows on his cheeks. “I should never have let you read the Arcanae. Life is not a fairy tale, and even fairy tales are false.”
“I know that,” Tania said through clenched teeth. “I’m not expecting a knight or a prince or a happily-ever-after. I’m not some silly girl.”
“I know you’re not.” Papa’s voice grew stern. “But you are my daughter, and you’ll do as I say. When Thomas calls on you tomorrow, you’ll apologize, and tell him you’re pleased with the match.”
Tania opened her mouth to protest, but the set of his jaw stopped her words. She bit her lip, tears springing to her eyes.
“Now,” Papa said, his face softening, “let’s have supper before it gets any colder.”
“I’m not hungry,” Tania said, and strode quickly to her bedroom, slamming the door behind her. It was rude, but her parents let it go. Tania fell onto her bed, dissolving into tears as the scrape of knives on plates drifted through the door.