That soft breath of sound made Avelyn turn whereshe stoodon the trestle table.
Lady Straughton – her mother – had murmured the noise and now paused in descending the stairs towatch with watery eyes as Runilda fiddled withthe hem of Avelyn’s gown.
Lady Margeria Straughton hadbeen teary-eyed a lot lately,ever since theyhad received notice that Paen deGerville hadfinallyreturned from the Crusades and wished to claim his betrothed. Avelyn’s mother wasnot taking the upcoming nuptials well. More to the point,she was notreacting well to thefact that Avelynwould be moving toGervillesoonafterthe nuptials were finished. Avelyn knewher mother was happy tosee her married and starting on grandbabies. It was themoving-away partthat Lady Straughton did not care for. But then, Avelynand hermotherwere very close. Soclosethatrather than be sent awaywhile young, Avelyn had trained at hermother’s knee, taught with patience and love.
"Oh," Lady Margeria Straughton breathedagainas she crossed the greathall,her maid on herheels. Avelyn shared a smile withRunilda, then shookher headather mother and saidwithfondexasperation, "Do I lookso hideous that it would see you in tears, Mother?"
"Nay!" Lady Straughton gasped in denial. "You look lovely, my dear. Very lovely. Theblueof thegown brings out the blue of your eyes. ‘Tis very flattering. "
"Thenwhydo you appear sotragic?" Avelyn asked gently.
"Oh. ‘Tis justthat you look so… so much a lady. Oh, Gunnora! My babeis a grownwoman now," she bemoaned to theservant atherside.
"Aye, milady. "Gunnorasmiled patiently. "Andso she is. ‘Tistime she married andleftthis home to build her own. "
At the maid’sgentle words, Lady Straughton’s eyes filled with tears onceagain.
They were threatening towelloverher lashes andpour down her face when Lord Willham Straughton – who had been seated quietly in a chair bythefire – stoodwith a squeakingof leather and the jangleof mail.
"No tears, my love," he chidedashe movedto join thewomen by the trestle table. "This is a joyous occasion. Besides,we hadour Avelyn longer than Ihad hoped. Were itnot for Richard andhis Crusades,we most like would have lost our girlat fourteenor shortly thereafter. "
"Aye. " Lady Straughton moved to lean against her husband’s side as he peered approvingly up at his daughter. "AndI am ever grateful that wewereallowed tokeep hertotwenty. Howbeit I am going to miss her so. "
"As will I," Lord Straughton agreed gruffly. Heencircledhis wife withone arm as heturned tohisdaughter. "You look beautiful, child. Just like your mother on the daywe were wed. Paenis a lucky man. You do usproud. "
For a moment,Avelyn was startled to see herfather’seyes goglassy, as if he too might cry;thenhe clearedhis throat and managed acrookedsmileforhis wife. "We shall just havetodistractourselves asmuch as possible from our loss. "
"I can think of nothing that willdistract me from losing our daughter," Lady Straughton said dismally.
"Nay?" A naughty look crossed Willham Straughton’s face, and Avelyn was amused to see his hand drop fromhermother’s waist to cupher bottom throughher skirts. "I may beable to come up with athing ortwo," he said, thenurgedher away from the table andin the general directionof the stairs. "Letusto our room so we might discuss these ideas. "
"Oh. "Lady Straughton sounded breathy, and her nextwords,while a protest, weresomewhatweak. "But Gunnoraand I were going to count stores and seewhat – "
"You can do thatlater. Gunnora may go rest herself for a bit in themeantime,"
Themaid grinned,then slipped out of the room even as her lady protested, "But whatof Avelyn? I shouldlike to – "
"Avelyn shall behere when we return below,"he said as heurged her up the stairs. "She is notleavingyet. "
"If sheleaves atall. "
Avelyn jerked in surprise at that softly spoken insult from behind her. She managed to keep her perch on the trestle table thanks onlytoher maid’s quick action in grabbingherarm to steady her.
Avelyn murmured her thankstothe girl and turned carefully to face the speaker.
Her cousinlooked as mean-tempered as ever. Hernarrow face was pinched,and there was mocking amusementinthe eyes thatraked over Avelyn. "What do you think, Staci?"
Avelyn’s gaze moved tothe two young men accompanying the woman. Twin brothers to Eunice, Hugo and Staciushadmatchingpuglike faces thatat the moment bore cruelsmiles. The three ofthem must have enteredwhile she had been distracted byherparents’ leaving.
Grand, she thought unhappily. If Avelyn had been blessed in having loving parents, fatehad made up forthat kindness bycursing her with threeofthe most horridcousins in existence. Thetrio seemed tolive tomake her miserable. They enjoyednothing more than achance to point out her flaws. They had done soever since theirarrival at Straughton some ten yearsearlierwhen their castle hadbeen overrun andtheir father killed. With nowhere else toturn, theirmother had brought herchildrentoStraughton, and they had quickly become the bane of Avelyn’s young existence.
"Ithink" – Staci’s thick nose turnedup as he droppedontothebench andtipped his head back to peerover Avelyn in her gown – "once Gervillegets alook at what a bovinehis betrothedhas growninto, he will breakthecontract andfleeforhis very life. "
"Ifear Staci iscorrect, Avy,"Eunice said with mock sympathy as Avelynflinched under his words. "You look like agreat huge blueberryin that gown. Mindyou, I do not suppose thecoloris at fault, forin red youlook like agreat cherry andin brown a great lumpof – "
"IbelieveI get the point, Eunice," Avelyn said quietlyas Eunice and Hugo joined their brotheronthe bench seat. The warmglow that hadbloomedunderher parents’ complimentsdied an abruptdeath. Shesuddenly didn’t feel lovely anymore. Shefelt frumpy and fat. Which she was. Only when her parents were around with their unconditional love and acceptance did shebriefly forget thatfact. SomehowEunice, Hugo and Stacius were usually there to remind her otherwise.
"Ihave ever foundblueberries lovely and luscious myself. "
Avelynturned toward the door at thosesharpwords tofind herbrother Warin closing the door. Shewasn’t sure how long ago he had entered,butthe way he glared attheir cousins madeherthink it hadbeen a while. She wasn’t sorrywhen the trio scrambledback to their feet and made abeelinefor the door to the kitchens.
Warin glared after themuntil theywere gone, then turnedto hisdeflated sister.
"Do not letthemget to you, Avy. You do not look likea blueberry. You look beautiful. Like a princess. "
Avelyn forced a smile as he reached up to squeeze her hand. "Thank you, Warin. "
His expression was troubled, and Avelyn knew he didn’tbelievehe had convinced her. For a moment,shethought he wouldinsist she was lovely, asa good brother would, but then he seemed to let itgo on a resignedsigh. "Do you know where Fatheris?"
"He went above stairs with mother," Avelyn told him; then some of the twinkle returnedto her eyesand she added,"To discussmethods of distractingher from moping over my leave-taking. "
Warin raised his eyebrows, thengrinned as he turned toward the doors. "Well, if they comedownanytime soon, please tell Father I needa word withhim. I shall be down at thepracticefield. "
"Aye. " Avely nwatched him leave, then glanced downas her maidtugged at the material of her gown. "What thinkyou, Runilda?"
"I think we might take itin another little bitinthe shoulders, my lady. ‘Tis atad loose there. "
Avelyn tucked herneck inand triedto peer at herself. Her view of her shoulders was too close andfuzzyto tell how they looked. She had a better view of her overgenerous br**sts,gently roundedbelly andthe h*ps that she considered to be toowide in the blue gown. A blueberry, Eunicehad said, and suddenlythe cloth Avelyn had chosen with such care lostits beauty in her eyes. Sheimaginedherself a great round blueberry, her head stickingout like astem.
Avelyn fingered the clothunhappily. it was lovely material. But even the loveliest material could not make a silly old round chicken into a swan.
"Milady? Shall I takein the shoulders?" Runildaasked.
"Aye. " Avelyn let the material drop from her fingers and straightened her shoulders determinedly. "And the waist as well. And cut away theexcess. "
The maid’seyes widened. "Thewaist? But the waistline fits perfectly. "
"It does now," Avelynagreed. "But it shall not by thewedding, forI vowhere andnow that Ishall lose at least a stone – hopefully two – ere theweddingday. "
"Oh, my lady," Runilda began with concern,"I donot think ’tisa good ideato – "
"I do," Avelyn said firmly. Smiling with determination, she stepped down from the table to the bench, then ontothe floor. "Iwill lose two stone ere the weddingand that is that. For oncein mylifeIwill be prettyand slenderand…graceful. Paen de Gerville shallbe proud to claim me. "
" ‘Tis damned strange. "
"Hmm?"LadyChristinaGerville glanced up from her meal with surpriseat those muttered words. Her gaze softened as it ran over the man seated betweenherandher husband. Paen Gerville, herson. His long dark hair was caught ina pony-tail low at the back of his neck, his face was cleanshaven, and he was wearing the new forest-green tunic she’d madeforthisauspicious occasion. He looked much as his own father had ontheir wedding day:handsome,strong andjust about as grumpy, she noted withmild amusement. Thenshe recalled what he’d muttered to catchher attentionandasked, "What is strange, son?"
"This. " Paen gesturedaround the trestletables filled withpeople. Lordand Lady Straughtonand all theirpeople surrounded them, all but one. The mostimportant one, in his mind. "Whereis my bride? ‘Tis damned strange that she is not here. She was not about when wearrivedlast night either. Something is amiss. "
Lady Gerville exchanged an amused glance with her husband, Wimarc, as he turned from his conversation with Lord Straughton to hear the end of Paen’s comment.
"There is nothing amiss, boy," Lord Wimarc Gerville assured hisson. "No doubt thegirl is delayed by… er… beautifying-typethings. Typical female stuff. Women are always the last to arrive," heassured him. Then, catching the way his wife’s eyes narrowedwith displeasure, the older man cleared his throat and sent an apologetic smile her way for slandering thewholeofher gender. "Well, anyway, justrefrain from _worrying. ‘Tisjust thoseweddingjitters Iwarned you about. They are playing havoc with you. "
He concluded this bit of encouragement by givinghis sonwhat heconsideredto bea gentle supportivenudge. Thatnudge nearly sent his largeson flying backward off thebench, but Paen – used to his father’s affectionate thumps and bumps – grabbed at the table andwas able tosave himself fromending in an ignoble heap in the rushes.
Grunting ashe settled backin place, Paenpicked up apieceof cheese and took a bite, buthe was distracted. His gazewas locked onthestairs heexpected his bride to descend anymoment. He knew his fatherwas right and thathe was unusually nervous, butPaen had noideawhy. The uneasiness hadcomeupon him suddenly.
He hadn’t been the leastuncertain on the way here. In his mind there had been nothingtobe uncertain about. He was merely collecting his betrothed,making her his wife.
True, it was a new venture forhim, but ’twas not muchdifferentfrom collecting a new squire, which was something else he had to do on this trip. He planned tomarry the girl,spend a few days at Straughton afterward, then head back to Gerville, stoppingto collect his new squire along the way. Simple. ‘Twasnothing to get all worked up about.
Or so he’dthought on thejourney her eyesterday. This morning,however, Paen wasofadifferent mind. It had suddenly occurredto him that a wifemight be a somewhat different proposition from a squire. After all, a man needn’t bed his squire. He also didn’t haveto live out his life withthe squire for however long he shouldbefortunateenough – or unfortunate enough as the case might be – to live.
And,too, he could always dismiss the squireif he displeased him. Unfortunately, onecould notdismiss a wife, no matter how badshe was.
On top ofall that, hehadyet toset eyes on his would-be bride. Italmost seemed thatshe wasavoidinghim. He foundit hardtoimagine that was agoodsign.
"Suckin your breatha bit more, my lady. "
"I cannot, Runilda. This is as muchas I can suck in. " Avelyn pushed thewords out on thelast of the air in her lungs,thenhadtoinhale to ask, "How close are we?"
The maid’shesitation was answer enough. Ave-lyn let her breath out on adefeated sigh. " Tis no use, Runilda. I shall not get thisgown on, and we bothknow it. ‘Sides, even did I manage the chore, no doubt the seams would split the moment you finished fastening the hooks. "
"I am sorry, mylady. Ishould nothave taken it in so much. " Runildastepped around in frontof Avelyn, her face aportrait ofguilt.
" ‘Tis notyour fault. Iordered it done. "Avelyn sank onto the end of the bed,her mind searching foroptions. There were very few that she couldsee. She had notlost two stone inthe last two weeks. In fact, despite all her determination and best efforts,Avelyn very much feared that she might have gained apound or two. The lovely blue gown she and Runilda had workedso hard over would not fit.
On the bright side,shesupposedshe’d nolonger need fear lookinglikeagiant blueberry on this, her wedding day. Unfortunately, that left her withthe choice of resembling a large cherry or apile of – "Perhapswecould let theseams back out," Runildasuggested doubtfully, but Avelyn knew that was impossible. She’dinsisted the clothbecut away to ensureher successat losing weight. She wasan idiot.
If she had at least triedthegown onsooner, there would havebeen a chanceto do something about it. But she hadn’t. Therehadbeensomuch todo to prepare for thewedding and the influx of guestsattending it, shehadn’t thought of hergown or the factthatshe’daskedRunilda to take it in. She was a fool.
Forcingaway her misery and self-pity, Avelynstood and beganto struggle out of the dress.
"Well, it shall havetobe the red gownthen. Tistheone with the least wear. " She tried not to thinkof thereason for that. Thelast thing she neededwas tofret over its unfortunate effectof turning her face florid. Fortunately, Runilda was kind enough not to bringupthatpoint and merely murmured a heartbroken, "Oh, my lady. "