You May Kiss the Bride(7)

By: Lisa Berne


“Perhaps,” he had suggested to his grandmother, irony in his tone, “I ought to propose first.”

Airily she waved a bejeweled hand in the air. “Fine.”

He had planned to speak to Miss Orr the next day, but found himself at breakfast being eyed by Lady Glanville and Miss Orr as if he were a juicy first-rate carcass hanging in a butcher’s shop. And when her ladyship made a blatant attempt to hustle him and Miss Orr out into the garden for a private stroll, a flash of intense irritation overrode his good intentions—how he loathed being manipulated!—and he only said, standing:

“If you’ll excuse me, ladies? My horse is in need of exercise.”

“But—” Miss Orr glanced toward the window. “But it looks as if it might rain, Mr. Penhallow.”

“Then perhaps,” he said, pleasantly, “it would have been a mistake to walk in the garden. Your gown would most certainly have been spoiled. Good day.”

At the stables he had his horse Primus saddled, and rode away toward the woods. Already he was a little sorry for giving in to his annoyance; he really should have gone out into the garden and gotten it over with. When he got back to the house, he’d do it. A few polished phrases, perhaps a quick obligatory kiss, and then everything would be nicely settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

Cheered by a comfortable sense of resolve, Gabriel rode on.





Chapter 2




“Not go to the ball?” Aunt Bella said, for what was possibly the twentieth time. “But Livia, whyever not? Such a delightful treat for you, I’m sure, and your Uncle Charles so thoughtful as to take you. Come away from those drapes. It will rain, I feel it in my very bones, and I do not care to see it. What on earth are you wearing? You look a positive ragamuffin. Your ankles are showing! Surely it’s not one of the gowns which Cecily so generously gave you?”

“No.” Today was one of those days when Livia couldn’t bear to put on yet another of Cecily’s things, and so she’d worn an old dress of Aunt Bella’s which she hadn’t even bothered to alter. What did she care that it was too short and an ugly puce color and looked ghastly on her? As Cecily had pointed out with that barbed sweetness of hers, she didn’t go anywhere anyway.

Briefly vivified by Livia’s dreadfully off appearance, Aunt Bella now lost interest in the subject. “My head is aching,” she said fretfully. “I need a little more cordial. Ring for someone to bring it to me. And do go. Your pacing about is making my head worse.”

“Certainly, Aunt.” Livia pulled violently on the bell cord and without ceremony left the drawing-room. She went quickly to her bedchamber where she exchanged her slippers for a pair of sturdy old boots and flung round her shoulders another of Aunt Bella’s discards—a large and hideous gray shawl, stretched in places and shriveled in others. Then she ran downstairs and out a little-used side door. She couldn’t bear the stifling atmosphere for one more minute.

Outside.

She needed to be outside.

Livia walked rapidly along the damp, soft path that led her to the woods and into their quiet refuge. With a deep sense of relief, she breathed in the rich, wild scent of earth, plants, seemingly even the sky itself. How beautiful it was. She had spent so much time here, walking and wandering, it seemed that every tree, every shrub, every stone was known to her. Rain began to fall, and a cool wind whipped playfully around the tops of her boots and fluttered at loose tendrils of hair that had escaped her careless braid.

She had forgotten to wear a bonnet, but there was no one to see her and besides, she was hardly some delicate little miss to melt away in a little rain: she had no fear of succumbing to illness. A good thing, she thought sardonically, for who would tend to her if she did? Not Aunt Bella, who could barely get herself out of bed each day, nor any of the harassed, unhappy servants who went sullenly, sloppily, about their duties.

Livia could feel her boots sinking deliciously into the mud, then kicked at some sodden clumps of leaves, scattering them. She wished she never had to go home.

Not that Ealdor Abbey had ever really felt like home.

Fighting back a sharp, sudden pang of loneliness, Livia found herself walking quietly now, along a faint and twisting track that led to the old woodsman’s cottage she had discovered long ago. Here it was, a simple little dwelling formed from crudely fashioned logs, abandoned and decrepit, entirely covered with vines, with only a gaping space where once a door had been and the doorway itself rotted away. In her fancy it had been an elven home, or a mystical chapel where fairy weddings took place beneath the green canopy that the roof had become. All at once a slight movement within stopped her. She caught her breath in wonder, and stared, for inside the cottage, twenty feet away, stood a young doe, unmoving, gazing back at her with dark liquid eyes.

And then: a tawny form to her left, among the trees; it shifted, stamped a hoof, and she saw a great stag, its head lifted proudly. The doe’s mate?

Livia stood absolutely still, as if frozen in time, half-expecting some fantastical minister—part human? part beast?—to show himself and perform the sacred rites of marriage.