"Very well. " Lord Straughton grinned and headed outof theroom.
"He shall make mepayfor that,"hermother muttered.
Lady Straughtondid notsound overly distressedatthe thought. In fact, Avelyn waspositive she gave an anticipatory shiver as she watchedher husband pull the door closed behind him.
LadyMargeria turned to her son. "Go fetchyourhorse. Weshall meetyou at the doors. "Themoment he nodded and turned toleave, LadyStraughton turnedher attentionback to Avelyn. "Now – Oh, youlook better!" she exclaimedwithsurprise.
Avelyn managed a smile. "I think I amgetting used to it. If I stay calmand do not move about too much, I seemtobe well. " She took one cautious step awayfrom the window, then another.
"Perhapsyou woulddo betterto restuntil Warm returnswith hismount. "Her mother placed anervoushand out as if to catch her should shefall intoa dead faint.
"Ineedsmust besure I shallnot fainttaking the few stepsfrom Warin’s horseto my new husband," Avelyn pointed out, takinganother step asher mother, Gunnora and Runildatrailed,hands outto catch her. She hadonly taken afew stepsere the room began to sway around her. Avelyn suspected it waswasting breath on speech that had brought the faintness on so quickly this time. It seemed she would haveto choose between speaking and walking. At the moment, walking was the more important task, so she merelypaused for a moment to allow the sensation topass, thencontinued on. Avelyn was not the only one to breathe a sigh of relief when she reached the door.
She pausedtolean against the door frame for amoment, thenmanageda smile at the anxious women andpulled the door open. She steppedoutintothe halland paused.
All Avelynneed do was manage the long, long hallway and then the stairs.
Tighteningher lips against the whimperthat wanted toslip outatthe thoughtof all those stairs,she straightened her shoulders andstarted forth, terriblyrelievedwhen her mother took onearm and Gunnora the other. Runildathen dropped behindto press her hands to Avelyn’sback. Thethree of them were nearly carrying her,and still Avelyn had to pause often to attempt to drawbreath and allow her head to clear.
She’d just paused again to suck greedily at the air around her when Warin appeared on thelanding.
"Whatever is taking so long? I have been waitingfor – "Her brother paused in front of them,his gaze turning concerned. "This is no merenerves. DearLord,Avy is aboutto swoon. "Hisgazeturned from womanto woman, demanding answers Avelyn couldhave lived the rest of her life not giving.
Deciding it was bestto makethe humiliating explanations herself, Avelyn did so as quicklyandplainly asshe could,tryingnot to cringe and flush or stammer. Then she awaited his response. Much to her relief,Warin merelygrunted, then said,"Well, ’tisobvious you need helpgetting tothe horse,elsewe will never make it to the church. "
He stepped forward and tried to sweep Avelyn into his arms. Tried and failed.
With thetight binding, she was as stiff asa broomstick from thehips up. Avelyn simply did notbend. There was no way anyone could sweep her anywhere. For a moment, she fearedshe’d have totravelthe stairs after all; then her brother half squatted in front of her. He wrapped his arms around her upper legs, then straightened with a grunt.
Avelyn let out whatshould have beena squeal, but was more of asqueak,and clutchedat hisheadandshoulders. "What – ?"
"Be still, Avelyn," Warin saidgruffly. "This shall be tricky and no doubtingit. "
Avelyn remainedstill. Had she not been so starved for air, she was sure she wouldhaveheld her breath. Asit was, she prayed all the waydown the stairsand could have wept withrelief when theyreachedthegreat-hall floor. Warin carriedher out of the castle,with their motherand the two maids following, thenhesitatedon reaching his mount. Heturnedwithherstill in his arms andasked, "HowamIto get heronthe horse? One must bendtosit a horse. "
There was a moment of stunned silence;then Lady Straughton stepped forward.
"Set her down, Warin,and give meyour knife. Then you shall need toturn your back fora moment. "
"What – ?" Avelyn began anxiously as Warin set her down.
"Turnaround,dear,"her mother ordered, then set to workon the lacingat the back of the gown. "We are goingtoslit the lower part of the binding justenoughthat you may sit the horse. "
"But – " Avelyn’s protest died inher throat as she felt the lower part of the bindinggive way somewhat. It wasjustthesmallest bit and was at the lowerpart of thebinding, around the bottom of herhips, sothe changebrought no relief toher abused lungs, but still it was ablissfulsensation. God, how wonderfulitwould be whenthe binding was finally removed, she thoughtdreamily.
Dear God, thebindingwas bursting! Avelyn wasn’treally aware of that fact at first. She noticed that some of her discomfortseemed to ease when they wereonly halfway to the chapel. They would havebeen all the way tothechapel and halfway through the ceremonyat thatpoint, but her motherhad come upwith the brilliantidea thatshe, Gunnora and Runilda should walkin front of the horse, each carrying a basket of flowers which they would strew before Warin’s mount as they led the way to the chapel. She had thought it a most romantic idea and had wasted several momentsraidingher garden of thefinest buds.
Avelyn hadthought it rather sweet atthetime. But now, as herdiscomfort eased anotherlittle bit,andshe realizedthat the split her mother had sliced into the bottom of her binding was splitting furtherof its own accord, she decided it had been quite the worst idea ever.
"Whatever is the matter? You have gone quite stiff," Warin said as Avelyn straightened before him. Not that she hadn’t already been sittingstraightin the saddle as they crossed thebaileytothe chapel, but Avelyn was now stretchingher back out as much asshe could. And her breathing, which had been shallow panting really,had now stopped altogetheras she tried desperatelyto make herself as small as possible andpreventthe rend from tearingfurther.
"Hurry? But – " He glanced toward their mother and the two maids,whowere walking before them,thenback again, and she saw his concerndeepen. "Whatever is the matter with your face, Avy? Tis allred and puffy. "
Avelyn released the breath she’d been holdingand hissed, "Never mind my face.
The binding is giving, Warin. I need to dismount. Now. "
Much to herrelief, he didnot hesitate further, but calledhismother to themand explainedtheproblemand that they must speed upthisprocession. Nodding, Lady Straughtonhurried back tothe maids and heldawhisperedconference. Then the women set out again, this time at an accelerated pace. In fact, they wentfrom aslow meander to an almostjog, rushing along, strewing flowers at a slightly frantic speed as Warin urged hismounttofollowontheir heels.
Theyhad gone perhapsanother ten feet when Avelyn becameaware of a definite easingof the binding. This timeshecould hear theclothtearingbeneathher dress.
Warin heardit too.
"Faster," he called softly to thewomen. Then as the rending sound cameagain, he simplyhissed, "Move!"
Lady Straughtonglanced around with dismay, then hurried out of the way asher son urged his horse into a trot. The three women scampered after them, tossing flowersat their backsas they raced forward. Avelyn couldnot sayforsure which of them was the most relieved when Warin finally drew his mount to a halt. Shewasn’t surprised to find that every last weddingguest gatheredinfront of the chapel was agapeat this display.
Warin slid off his mount and turnedto findAvelyn following ina flurryof skirts, alightingwith indecent hastein an effort to prevent the rendin herbindings from going further.
She stood very still then, hardly breathing as she waited to seeifall would be well or whethershe would burstout of the gown like a grapeescaping itsskin.
"Isit all right?" Warin asked anxiously.
"Aye. I thinkso," Avelyn murmured. Certainly, the bindingwas firmly enough in placethatshe stilldidn’t seem able to breathemuch.
"Is all well?" her mother askedbreathlessly as she caught up to diem. Gunnora andRunilda, also out ofbreath fromtheir run, were on her heels.
"Aye. Ido not think it went very far. How do I look?"
Her mother looked her over critically, then reached upto pinchher cheeks. "You are abitpale,but otherwise lovely. "
Avelyn stood stillas her mother triedto bring some colorback intoher skin. The attention to her cheeks, however, reminded her of one of the insults Hugo had tormentedherwithsome years back. He’d said shehadchubby cheeks like asquirrel with nutsinitsmouth andhad followedher around for a whole week screaming, "Chubby cheeks! Chubby squirrelcheeks!"Now,Avelyn imaginedherselflooking utterly ridiculous with her forced trim body and bloated chubby cheeks.
"There. " Her mother stepped backandoffered abracingsmile. "You look lovely.
Can youwalk the rest of the way?"
Avelyn cast a quick nervous glance over her shoulder at the distance to the churchsteps. Warin had stopped sooner than shewouldhaveliked, butshe thought she could manage the distance if shewentvery slowly.
"Aye. " Avelyn sucked inher cheeks, trying for a less squirrel-like look as she turnedtofacethe church.
The guests parted like the Red Seafor Moses, leavingapathfor her towalk.
Avelyn started slowlyforward. Veryslowly. So slowlyshe was hardly moving,and still shewas panting and fighting a woozy feeling afteronly a handful of steps.
"Dear God, she looks like afish!" Wimarc Gervillegasped in shock, then grunted when hiswife’s elbow found its way into his gullet. "Sorry…but she does," he muttered withchagrin, then shook his head. "Wife, I donot recall her cheeks being all puckered and her lips all pursed like that when we saw her asa childand agreed tothe contract. Do you?"
"Nay. "Lady ChristinaGerville focused onthe girl walking toward them. Dear God in heaven, the chit was movingsoslowly and laboriously,one mighthavebeen forgiven for thinkingshe waswalking to her deathratherthan to her betrothed. Lady Gerville’s gazenarrowed on Avelyn’spuckered face, and then she relaxed somewhat.
"I believe she may besucking inhercheeks. "
"Whatever for?"Paen finally joinedthe conversation ashe watched his bride draw near. Ifhis mother answered his question, Paen was too distracted by his concern over hisbride to hear herresponse. It was nother looksthat worriedhim. True,her lower face wasrather squinchedupat the moment, making her look abitfishlike, but evensohe could see that her lips weresoftand full. Shealso had a straight nose, and large, clear blue eyes. And her hair was alovely chestnutbrown,scoopedup withlittle tendrils left to soften her face. Hesuspectedthatif she released her cheeks, she would bemore than passably pretty.
Nay, it was not herlooks thatconcernedPaen at the moment,it was the way she walked. She was as stiff asa soldierwith broken ribsand movingatanextremely slow pacethat he would expect only from someoneweak or ailing. The very last thingPaenwishedfor was a weak or ailing bride. He’d beenrather hoping for a robust, healthy wifewhowould offer comfort and strengththrough the trials life would no doubthave in store for them.
There was little Paen could do about the matternow, however. Ifshe wasweak or ailing,he would find out soon enough and have tomake do. This betrothal contract had been drawn up in his name when he was just a child, and his honorallowedno choice but to standbyit.
It took a nudge from his father to make Paen realize that his betrothed had reachedhis side andthat – rather thanturnto facethe priest – he was still standing withhis back to the man as he surveyed her with displeasure.
Rocking under his father’s not so subtle reminder, he grunted a greetingand offered asmile to the girl.
Avelyn closed her eyes, then blinked them openagainand sent up asilentprayer of thanks to God when Paen de Gerville smiled at her. For one heart-stopping momentshe hadfeared that the horrible binding and the cheek-sucking she was doinghad all beenfornaught. She’dbeen sure that he would do as Eunice andher brothers had suggested and reject her outright.
Legsweak and trembling,fear seeming almost toeataway her strength, Avelyn didn’t turn to thepriest atonce, but insteadstared up atherbetrothed.
Her motherhad not beenlying when she said hewas handsome and strong. The man was both. Hislookswere not the first thing she noticed,however. It was the sheersize of him. He was extremely tall, with shoulders almost aswide as the chapel door behind him. And yes,hewashandsome. But, more important to her, he was obviously kind, for though his initial expressionhad given him awayand shown his disappointment with her as his bride, thesmile that he was now gracing herwith assured her that hewould notrefuse this marriage. Aye. He wasincredibly kind, she decided, and fella littlebitin love with him on the spot for not turning her away.
Athroat-clearingby the priestbroughtAvelyn backto the situation at hand. She turnedtofacethe holyman. His expressionmade her realize thatwhileshe hadbeen busy ogling her betrothed, he had commenced with the wedding and was now awaiting some response from her.
"I thoo?" sheoffered, flushing atthewayher words were mangled byher effort tokeephercheekssucked in. She had to holdthem in place by gentlybiting on them withherteeth. No one commented, however, and Avelynforced herself to relaxand breathein some much-needed air. Only thereseemed very little airabout for herto breathe. The crowd ofpeople pressing inonthem appeared to be hogging it greedily for themselves. Trying a little harder to drag air into her lungs, Avelyn grabbed unconsciously ather betrothed’sarm and told herself notto panic, but the priest’s facewas wavering before her, his voicegrowing louder,then fading inher ears. Oh, no, she thoughtunhappily, this isn’t good at all.
Paen’s concern over the state of his bride’s health grew as the ceremony proceeded. She had grasped hisarm moments ago. This was notso unusualin itself, butthe desperate, clawlike nature of thegrasp was. Now, as the long ceremony continued, he became certain that she was starting to sway on her feet ever so slightly. Then whenit cametime for her to repeat her vows, her voicewasbreathy andfaint.
Paen watched herwith concern,sodistracted thathe wasn’tat first surewhy his father had nudged him when he rocked under his elbow.