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Hearts on Fire

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Hearts on Fire

She wanted to scream in frustration. Instead, Quistis mustered a smile and took the man's arm. She just had to survive twenty more minutes of this, and then she could claim a headache and go home. All she wanted to was to get out of here. This party was not her idea of fun, and with both Rinoa and Selphie recently engaged, Quistis had suddenly become the focus of the London marriage market. In some ways, that wasn't surprising. At eighteen, Quistis had already inherited both her title and quite a sum of money. The young Countess of Caledonia was pretty, wealthy, titled, and of impeccable linage. However, she was also smarter than most gentlemen wanted their wives to be and had the habit of speaking her mind.

Quite frankly, Quistis wasn't sure if she wanted an offer this Season or not. Both Rinoa and Selphie were quite happy with their matches, but those were both love matches, and both of their young men suited them quite well. Quistis had yet to meet anyone this season that she would want to spend months with, let alone the rest of her life. In fact, the only person that Quistis could even think about being tolerable to marry was the Duke of Centra. They had known one another since childhood, and while Quistis might bicker with Seifer Almasy constantly, he was also a good friend.

Unfortunately, Quistis had seen neither hide nor hair of him this Season, and if someone made her an offer, Quistis' guardian, Lord Deling, would most likely force her to accept it. So her best bet was to make sure that anyone interested in either her fortune or her title found her unsuitable. The trick was to do that without completely ruining herself in the process. It was not proving exactly easy, especially since she still had a whole cadre hovering around. Quistis was beginning to think that someone was trying to get her married off.

Keeping the smile plastered on her face became more and more difficult as her current partner's hands kept wandering during their dance. Between that and the fact that he would not shut up about his prized hunting hounds, Quistis was very tempted to simply walk away in the middle of the dance. It would be unconscionably rude, but she was very close to punching the man. It was also clear that he was expecting to get a second dance. Thankfully, as the dance ended, she was saved.

"Excuse me. The countess promised me the next dance." Seifer took her hand in his and smirked. "Countess."

Quistis' smile was genuine this time. "Your grace."

He led her out onto the dance floor. "You seem to have gathered quite a following."

She rolled her eyes at him. "I'm trying to get rid of them. Would you like to help? Lord Deling will require me to accept whatever offer I get, so I am endeavoring to chase them away."

He frowned slightly. "Deling's trying to marry you off? Without your consent?"

She wrinkled her nose slightly. "Not exactly. If no one offers for me, I have nothing to worry about."

His expression darkened even as he swept her into a waltz. "That's hardly fair to you."

"Well, I haven't met anyone this Season that I actually want to marry. So as long as I can keep any marriage proposals from happening, I should be fine."

"Until next Season. Do you know why he's pushing marriage?"

Quistis shook her head. "No. I mean, as soon as I am twenty-one he is gone, but that is not for another three years. It doesn't make much sense to me, but then again, I stopped expecting my guardian to make sense years ago. We both know that I'm really the one who runs the household, and that if it weren't for the fact that I am not of age yet, Lord Deling would be completely superfluous."

"I'll see what I can find out for you." Then he smirked at her. "So, what's this about Squall getting engaged in the middle of being threatened by an irate father?"

Quistis laughed. "That was exaggerated. He proposed afterwards. General Caraway just put him through hell before he have him permission to marry Rinoa."

So the party was not a complete loss, and Quistis actually left it in a fairly good mood. She was more than content to sleep late the next morning. The Season had started to wind down, and really, right now the only thing she cared about was avoiding matrimony until the Season was over. It was much easier to refuse marriage proposals when you weren't in the middle of Society.

However, Quistis did not expect to come down to breakfast to find her guardian beaming at her. An uneasy feeling started to form in the pit of her stomach. Deling seemed far too happy. He smiled at her gesturing for her to sit.

"I expect I'll be congratulating you soon, my dear. I've given Viscount Dollet permission to address his suit to you. I trust you will respond appropriately. It would be unfortunate for you to look a fool when you marry them man despite some sort of token refusal."

Quistis did her best to keep her emotions from showing on her face. Dollet. He was going to make her marry Dollet. Even supposedly sheltered young ladies of quality knew of his reputation. And Quistis knew very well that her life married to him would be akin to hell. Her mind worked furiously to come up with a plan to save herself.

"I see. I will be sure to remember that when I see the viscount next." Quistis took a deep breath, trying to steady herself; she didn't plan on seeing him anytime soon if she could help it. "I am off to Miss Caraway's as soon as I'm done with breakfast. Miss Tilmit and I were asked to come with her when she does her shopping for her bride clothes."

That was all true enough. It was also boring enough that Deling wouldn't care to come with her, especially since they would be chaperoned by one of Rinoa's older relatives. Quistis was counting on that. As soon as she had finished eating, Quistis retired to her room to change and to repack her reticule with some things she had a feeling she might need, including all of her pin money. Deling might control her finances currently, but Quistis had always been frugal, and she had quite a bit of money squirreled away.

Her maid accompanied her to Rinoa's townhouse. However, once there, Quistis was able to get her friends alone.

"When we leave the modiste's, I am going to disappear. I need you two to promise me that you won't give Deling any clues to where I might have gone."

Rinoa looked at her with grave eyes. "What is going on, Quistis?"

"Deling gave Viscount Dollet permission to marry me. All that is left is for Dollet to propose. And we all know that Deling can make me marry him. So I'm not going to give him the opportunity."

Selphie nodded. "Right. We can leave your maid here when we go. That's one less thing to worry about."

They made it to their appointment without a hitch. Quistis actually did plan on staying for the entire thing. For one thing, it would just confuse people more when she did disappear. Besides, things being what they currently were, she might end up missing Rinoa's wedding, but she wasn't about to miss the parts of the experience she could be there for. The three young women had been close for years, and while Quistis did not plan on having to absent herself from polite company after this, she honestly didn't know when the next time she would see them would be.

The three parted ways, and Quistis gave her driver the address she was heading to. She didn't have that many options really, but she did have a few allies she could call on, and if she ever needed them, now was the time. Seifer's butler didn't seem to think that her arrival alone and unchaperoned was anything of note, and he immediately escorted her to the room where Seifer was having tea with the Dowager Duchess. Edea took one look at Quistis' face and bade her sit down, already pouring her a coup of tea.

"What has happened, my dear?"

Quistis did her best to explain the situation without falling apart. Now that she was relatively safe it really hit her what could happen. Being married to Dollet against her will rather terrified her. Seifer looked furious by the time she had finished related the recent developments. Edea looked concerned more than anything else.

"What exactly are you planning to do about the situation?" she asked.

Quistis sighed. "I was planning to lay low, so Dollet can't propose to me while I figure out a more permanent solution. If I leave London now and do not return until the Season is over, hopefully Dollet will forget the scheme."

"But that might not prevent Deling from trying something like this again. You really won't be safe until you're of age."

"I could challenge Dollet to a duel," Seifer offered. "Accidents happen."

His foster mother gave him a stern look. "I doubt we need go that far. You'll stay here tonight, Quistis. I have a few things to look into, and I rather doubt anyone would look for you here."

Quistis had the feeling that Edea had a plan, but it didn't look like the Dowager Duchess would be sharing it with her at the moment. It wasn't before the older woman left them, and Seifer smirked across the table at her.

"Seriously, Quisty, just say the word and I'll challenge the idiot."

She shrugged slightly. "I'll hold that offer in reserve. I'd prefer to resolve this without bloodshed."

He slipped his hand into her. "Whatever you need, Quistis."

They finished their tea in silence. Afterwards, Quistis wandered off to the library. It was nothing to the collection at her estate or even Seifer's, but its collection was different from the one at her own townhouse, and she was able to find plenty to entertain her. Sometime before supper, Seifer wandered into the library and joined her. Or more acurately came in an annoyed her. Seifer clearly did not want to be ignored, and soon Quistis found herself retaliating. One moment she was laughing at him. The next Seifer was kissing her, his hands slipping into her neat updo.

Finally pulling away, Quistis was wide eyed and breathless. Seifer smiled and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Not knowing what to say, Quistis bit her lip, even as Seifer ran his thumb over he cheek bone.

"I won't let you get hurt by Deling or Dollet. I promise, Quisty."

A soft smile spread across her lips. However, before she could say anything, Edea swept into the room, bestowing the two of them with a pleased smile.

"Good. It looks like you two may be more amenable to my plan than I originally thought. We should have this sorted out in three days." Edea smiled. "Quistis dear, we have an appointment tomorrow. Not to worry. Lord Deling is under the impression that you are visiting a distant relative who is ill and will be back at the end of the week. He is a little put out, but he'll get over it."

Quistis blinked. That was good. At least it was one less thing to worry about, and that was helpful. And it sounded like the Dowager Duchess had a solution for this mess. Though she would like some details about that solution.

"Your grace, what exactly are you planning?"

Edea's smile grew. "You two are getting married, of course."

Quistis felt her jaw drop. Seifer looked just as startled.

"You two will want to dress for supper. I'll see you in half an hour."

She swept out of the room leaving the two alone once again. Quistis found that she couldn't meet Seifer's eyes. It was a solution to her problem, and it was one that Quistis would actually be quite satisfied with. However, she didn't know if it was one that Seifer could live with. And she wouldn't trap Seifer. She couldn't do that. Not when it was what she was trying to escape herself. Even if he had just been kissing her that didn't mean he wanted to spend the rest of his life stuck with her.

"You don't have to do this, Quisty." Seifer's voice was soft and steady. "If this isn't what you want, we'll find another way to protect you. I won't trap you in a marriage you don't want."

"What about you?"

"I wouldn't be."

That fact trickled through her mind as Quistis tried to piece together exactly what Seifer was saying. Seifer's hand slipped into her own once again, and Quistis knew what her answer was.

"I don't think I would be either."

Seifer just kissed her again.

Two days later, they were married by special license. The wedding was small, but it was attended by most of their close friends. Neither Lord Deling nor Viscount Dollet had been invited. They would be informed by the announcement in the paper, which would be published after the pair were safely off on their honeymoon. Quistis was more than happy to let someone else deal with that confrontation. But she wasn't worried about that at the moment. She was curled up in bed with her new husband safe, warm, and content. She was happy and free, and she wasn't alone. She was where she wanted to be, and spending the rest of her life bickering with Seifer sounded like a happy ending to her.