Hearing the tremblein the young maid’s voice,Avelyn stiffenedher spine. "Here, now. No crying, Runilda, else you shall start me cryingas well. "
Avelyn turned away from the maid’s tragic face, determined that she would withstand this disasterwith all the dignity andaplomb she could muster. She would not cry. Evenif Lord PaenGervilleshould rejecther onsight, she wouldholdher headhighandkeepa calm and unaffectedfacade.
Avelyn moved to her chest and sorted throughits contents until she found the red gown inquestion. Her mouth twisted asshe touched the softcloth. She’dthought it theloveliest material she’d ever seen when the traveling merchant had brought it out of his wagon. Avelyn hadimagined the cool cloth cutinsimple lines,flowing over herbodyin caressingwaves. Of course, she’d imaginedherself leanandlovely in the gown – an imagethat had stayed in her head even once the gown was finished.
Avelyn had felt more than beautiful on first donningit… thenshe’d gone below for the sup.
Hugo, Stacius and Eunice had been quick to help clear her vision. Their caustic commentsand cruel words had sliced at her pride andpleasurein the new gown, leaving herfeeling large and ungainly. It was Eunice who had pointed out that the color had an unfortunate effect on her complexion. Hugo had laughed and commented that he’d hardly noticed, what with herlooking likea large cherry in the gown.
Avelyn had never worn itagain. Hencethe reason it was like new.
It was to be hoped thatPaen Gerville was partial tocherries, she thought with a touch ofself-mockeryas she lifted thegownout of the chest and gave it a sharp snap.
Most ofher gowns – including this one – had beenpacked away for thejourney to Gerville. Avelyngrimacedover its wrinkled state,then shrugged inwardly. She was sure a few wrinkles wouldhardly be noticed amidsthervast girth.
Shetriednot to thinkon how much she’d come to hate the gown. Runildahad just finished fastening it for her when the bedchamber door opened.
"Avelyn!" her mother cried. "What areyou doing?You arenot evenin your dress yet! Paen is impatient to meet with youbefore thewedding. "
"What is he like?" Avelyn asked asher mother hurried to herside. The Gervilles were supposed to have reached Straughtonearly the day before, giving Avelynand Paen at leasta little time tobecome acquainted. However,the day had passedwith no sign of herbetrothed andhis party. Most of the other guests had arrivedand been settled in beforea messenger hadarrived withthe news thatthere had been a mishap with one of the Gervilles’wagons and they were delayed. Avelyn had already beenabed when they finally arrived atStraughton.
If she were tobe honest, Avelyn had been relievedat the delay in havingto present herself before her betrothed. Her cousins’taunts that he wouldsurely reject her the moment he laid eyes on her had haunted Avelyn these last two weeks. And each time she consideredthe possibility, she felt queasywithanxiety.
"He seems very nice," her motherassuredher. "In fact, he reminds me a great deal of your father when younger. Now, come. We must get you into the blue gown. "
Avelyn forceda smilefor her mother. "Ihave decided to wear this gowninstead. "
"What?" Lady Straughton stopped, her dismayed gaze traveling over Avelyn.
"Nay! But why? The blue gown looks so lovely on you, and this oneis wrinkled. "
Her mouth firmed and she shook her head. "Nay. Youmust wear theblue. "
"It doesnot fit," Avelynadmitted as hermother grabbed up the bluegownand approached.
"Of course it does. I saw you init but a fortnightpast. It fit beautifully. You lookedlovely. "
Avelyn could notkeep the doubt from her expression atthis claim, but merely confessed unhappily, "I had Runilda take itin andcut away the excess. I hopedto lose weightere the wedding, but – "
"Oh, Avelyn!" Lady Straughton’s hands dropped with disappointment, the precious gown nowdangling fromherfingers and poolingonthe rush-covered floor.
Shame washing over her,Avelyn started to turn away, but her mothercaughther arm, drawing her into awarm embrace. "On, Avelyn,how I wish youwouldnot fret soover your shape. You are beautiful just as youare. Why doyou suffer so over it?"
"BecauseI am a greatcow, Mother, and would haveit otherwise. "
Much to Avelyn’samazement, hermotherhissed a curse word as she released her. Whenshe steppedback therewas anger in the woman’s eyes and her lipshad thinned with displeasure. "I ought tohide Hugo, Stacius and Eunice. Honestly! I knowthey are behindthis. Thosethree – " She suddenly fellsilent and a struggle took place on herface; then she calmed and shook her head. "Never mind. You are nocow, Avelyn. You arepleasingly plump. Men prefer their women that way. "
Avelyn snorted,but her mother ignored her.
"You cannot wear thered. Tis too wrinkled. "LadyStraughton’s gaze droppedto the blue gown danglingfrom her fingers. "Ihavean idea. Butwe shall have to hurry.
They are readytostart forthe churchand are waiting only for you. Take off the red gown,"she instructed, thenturned to Runilda. "Go fetch Gunnora. Tell herto find that length of white linen we purchasedfrom the travelingmerchant and hurry back here. "
"What are you thinking, Mother?" Avelyn asked anxiously asshe shrugged out of the redgown.
"Weare going to bind you," her mother announcedwithdetermination.
Avelyn’s eyeswidened uncertainly. "Bind me?” "Aye. Ifwe cannot change the gown to fityour shape, we shallchange your shapetofitthe gown. "
"Oh, dear,"Avelyn breathed, notat all sure that this sounded agoodidea.
Several moments latershe was quitesure it was not. She foundherselfclutching desperatelyat Runilda to helpkeep herself inplace as her mother and Gunnora worked behindher, busily tugging and squeezing.
"How much more, Mother? Tis awfullytight already," Avelyngasped, her hands clutching Runilda’sshoulders. The maidgaveher a half-worried, half-bracingsmile, thenleaned to the side to try to seewhat Lady Straughtonand Gunnorawere doing behind Avelyn’s back. Avelyn did not need to see. She could feel it. They had wrapped the linentight around her waist and were drawing it tighter with each pass… andtighter… and tighter.
"I know ’tis uncomfortable, but ’tis onlyfor alittle while," her mother soothed, thenordered,"Tighter, Gunnora. We arealmost there. "
Avelyn groaned asthe restriction aroundher waist becameunbearable. She could swear her vitalswere being pushed upward in search of room as the cloth was bound abouther. Unfortunately,those vitalsappeared to betaking up room generally usedbyherlungs. Her breath was suddenly terribly restricted. Avelyn nearly fainted withrelief when her mother announced, "There! That is it! Nowlet usjust tie it off. "
"Wecannot tie it,m’lady," Gunnora protested. " ‘Twillleave a bulge. "
"Oh,aye. We shall have to sew it, I suppose. " She sighed. "Well,here. I shall hold it while yousew,but be quick about itplease, Gunnora. Myhands are already threatening to cramp. I do not know how long I can continue to hold it. "
"Aye, m’lady. "
Avelyn listened to allthis through a growing fog. She trulycouldnot take in more thana slight puff of air at atime. Groaning as her head began to spin,she leanedher faceinto Runilda’sshoulder and tried to hold on tothethreadof consciousness for just alittle longer.
"There!" Gunnora’s announcement drew Avelynfrom her dazed state.
"Thank goodness!Oh, my hands," Lady Straughtoncomplained. "Here, letus do upthe gown. Perfect. "
Avelyn presumed the "perfect"meant that theyhad managed to fastenthegowri.
She wasn’t sure,however, until she felt herself being turnedaway from where she leaned againstRunilda. Liftingher head, she tried for a smile as she found herself facing her mother and Gunnora.
"Oh," Lady Straughton breathed.
"Aye," Gunnora agreed. Thetwo women exchanged congratulatory glances.
"You look lovely, my dear. Justlovely. "Taking Avelyn’s arm, Lady Straughton urged her towardthe door. "Now letus go belowbefore they come looking for us. "
Avelyn managed to cross almost half the room, each step slower and more arduousthan the onepreceding it, before shewas forced to stop and catch her breath.
"What is it, dear?" Lady Straughtonasked.
"I… nothing,I just… need… to catch…my breath. " Avelynforced a smile even as she strained to drawair intohercompressedlungs. "Just__give me… amoment. "
Lady Straughtonexchanged ananxious glancewithher maid, then murmured, "Aye. Takea momentto catch yourbreath. Then we may go below and introduce you to yourbetrothedere we walktothe church. "
Thesmallpuff of air Avelyn had managed to draw intoher chest wheezedout at the verythought of walking – not just out of the room anddownthestairs but all the way to the chapel. The church had never seemed very far away toher before,but at that moment itmight as well have been miles away. She could not seem to get enough air into her lungs to breathe, let alone walk. Avelynwas faint and swayingon her feetaftercrossing only her room; shewould never make it all theway to the church.
"Ido not think I can manage to walk that far," she admitted, feeling as though she wereletting everyone down.
"Oh, dear. "Lady Straughton steadied her as Avelyn swayed against her. "You are flushing, then paling, dear. Mayhap we should loosen thebindingjust atouch. "
"We can not,"Gunnora said. "We sewed it in place. "
Lady Straughtonlooked so distressed at this reminderthat Avelyn forced herself upright and suggested, "Perhaps if we move slowly. "
"Aye. " Her mother agreedwithrelief. " ‘Tis more ladylike towalkslowly anyway.
Come, let us tryagain,but slowly this time. "
Avelyn took one struggling step, then another. She could feel her face flushing withthe effort, then feel theheat seepingaway fromher skin, leaving hercheeks pale andcold as the room begantospinaround her.
"Oh, dear. This is not goingto work," Lady Straughton saidunhappily,drawing Avelynto a halt. She hesitated for a moment, obviously thinking,then suddenly turned to her maid with determination. "Fetch Warinand my husbandhere at once, Gunnora. "
"Aye, my lady. "
Margeria Straughton turned her attention back to Avelyn as the maid hurried from the room. Notingthe way Avelynwas swaying on her feet, shefrownedand pushed herseveralstepstothe side until shestoodin front ofa chest. "Here, dear; sit here. "
"I cannot," Avelyn wheezed, strugglingto retain her feet despite her mother’s pushing. "I cannot sit! That will make it worse. Please! I need air. Ineed – "
Lady Straughton’s eyes widened in horror. "You are turning blue! Runilda! Quickly, the window!" she cried,and pulling Avelyn’s arm over her shoulder, she draggedher acrossthe room in a panic as the maid ran ahead and opened the shutters.
It was a gusty day. The windwhirled intothe room, sending the drapes around herbed rippling as Avelynleanedagainstthe ledge. She couldfeel the breeze clawing ather hair, pulling several strandsloose from the tight chignonshe’d had Runilda arrange, but she didn’t care. All she cared about was the revivingsensation of the coolbreeze slappingher face. Avelynopened hermouth tothe wind and gasped, tryingto suck air intolungs that simply had no room to accept more than a bit at a time.
"What the devil is goingonhere?"
All threewomen stiffened at that roarasthe door burstopen. Avelyn glanced over her shoulder asherfather stomped in with aconcerned Warin on his heels.
"Margeria? What is the delay? First Avelyn does not come down; then you disappear and Gunnora – "He paused abruptly as he glimpsed Avelyn’s pallid face.
Thefire fled his expression, replacedby concern ashe rushed forward. "Avelyn? DearGod,you arepale asdeath. What isthe matter?"
"’Tis all right, ’tis – " Lady Straughtonbegan, but pausedwhen Avelyn’s fingers tightenedconvulsively on her arm.
" Tis just nerves,Father," Avelyn finished for her on a gasp, thenpaused tosuck inanother bit of breath. Tears immediately welled in her eyes,asmuch from the tortureof her lungs as from her words asshefinished, "I am gettingmarriedand leavingmyhome. I willmiss youandI – "
Herwords endedon a painedgroan as Willham Straughton hugged her tight.
"And we shall missyou too. You area spark of light in ourlives,child. But we shall visit often and – Have youlostsome meat, girl? You seem smaller to hug. "
Avelyn’s answer was a gurgling gasp as she clutched her father’s tunic and struggled to get herface out ofhisshoulder to breathe insomemuch-neededair.
She wasn’table to gether noseor mouth free, butshedid gether eyes above his shoulder. They were wide and alarmedas they fellonhermother.
"Let her go, Willham!" Lady Straughtoncried. "Youare suffocating her. "
Avelyn found herself released atonce. She turned away to fall againstthewindow ledge, gasping at theair smacking her inthe face.
"Are yousure ’tis just nerves?" Warm asked. "She doesnot appearto be at all well. "
"Aye. ‘Tis nerves," Lady Straughton insisted. Then Avelyn heard the definite sound of her mother sucking in a determined breath. It sounded a lovely deep, bracing breath, and Avelyn moaned as she imagined being able to suck in one herself. Thenshe heard her mother say, "Howbeit, inthis state, the walk to the church would be toomuch for her. Willham, you shall have to take everyone down tothe church. Warin, youshall ride Avelyndown thereonyour horse. "
"Ride her downonthe horse?" bothmenexclaimed.
"But ’tisfartherfor meto fetchmy horsethan to walk to the chapel," Warin protested.
"Aye," Lord Straughton agreed. "The Gervilleswill think her ailing or – "
"Not when you explainthat’tis considered quite romanticat courtforthebrideto arriveon a charger,"Lady Straughton insistedpatiently. "And that ’tis all therage andall thebestnoble brides aredoing it. "
Willham blinked atthe suggestion. "Arethey?"
"How would Iknow?" Lady Straughton asked with exasperation. "Youhatecourt andwill not take me there. "
"Oh. " Willhamnodded inunderstanding. "So’tis lying you want me to do. "