"Did you hear something?" Paenasked.
"No," Avelyn squeaked, the bite of chicken churning inhertight belly.
"No? Hmm. " He glancedaround. "I am sureIheard something, though I am not surewhatit wasor where itcamefrom. "
Afraid to move oreven breathe, Avelyn dropped her arms topress her elbows againsthersides in a vain effort to hold herself in.
"There it isagain!" Paen glancedaround sharply, first looking at her, then pasther in an effort to find the source of the sound. Avelyn didnot look around. Sheknew the source. She could feel herlungs expand a bit with each rending sound, and where secondsago she had beenafraid to move and possiblymake the situation worse, she was nowalmostdesperate toleavethe tableere she learnedwhat true humiliation was. For onemoment she desperatelysearched her mind foranexcuse to leave, but as the rendingcame again,shegave up botheringwith an excuseand lunged to her feet.
Her timing wasbad. A servant hadjust stopped behind herand Paen, bearing a tray holding ahuge hamhock. Avelynmanaged to jostle the unsuspectingman as she stood, sending thehamhock sliding off the tray as ittipped inhis hands. Acting oninstinct, Avelynbent to catch the large hunkof meat. It wasa badinstinct. There was no mistaking theloud rending sound as shedid so. She stilled atonce, handson the ham hock that lay in therushes.
"Avelyn?" hermotherasked uncertainly. Avelynclosed her eyes andbeganto pray. So far it was just herbinding that was gone. The gown she worewasholding her in, but she knew its seamswould not last long. Please, God, let me make it above stairs, she prayed,thenstraightened.
God appeared to be engaged elsewhere. Avelyn had barely straightened completely when the seamsof her gown begantosplit. She instinctivelyclutched the hamhock against her chest, trying to hide behind it ashergown burst like the skin of an overripe grape. The ham hock wasn’t big enough to hide her. That was obvious from Paen’s expression ashe gapedat her.
"Avelyn!"hermother gasped with dismay in the sudden silence as all eyesturned toher.
Tearsof humiliation wellingin her eyes,Avelyn bit herlipand shook her head as hermother rose to movetoherside.
"I am sorry, mylord," Avelyn managed tosay withouther voice cracking. "I wishedto looknice and… my gown would not fitand… Mother and Gunnora bound meup, but the binding has splitand – "Her voice died abruptlyas Eunice let loose ashriek of laughter. She was quickly joined by both Hugo andStacius. The three were nearly falling off the bench with theiramusement. No one else joined in the laughter, thoughagiggledid escape Diamanda before her aunt shushed her.
Otherwise,the guests and the people of Straughton were all eyeing Avelynwith sympathy and pity, butthatmerely completed her humiliation.
Mortified, shedropped the ham hock and turnedto flee thegreat hall,racingup the stairs to her room as quickly as her legs wouldcarry her. Now that she could breathe again, that was ratherfast.
Paen stared after his bride inamazement as she fled up thestairs. Shemoved rather quickly for one who had fainted during the wedding ceremony. He was marveling overthiswhen her motherrecovered fromher shockedstate and chased after her daughter. A pair of women servants followed. Lord Straughton then muttered a word to his son and alsorose. Paen noted withsome satisfactionthat the manpaused to give a dressing-down to therude triothat had laughed. Oncetheman continued onupstairs, Paen relaxedbackon the bench and peered about, rather perplexed bywhat had just happened. His bride had popped hergownbecause of some binding? Thatmade littlesense to him.
"I do not understand, do you?"he asked hismother at last.
"Aye. I do. Thepoor dear. " Lady Gervillestood and wavedher maid Sely over.
Then the pair followed the growing parademaking their way abovestairs,leaving Paen justas bewildered. Aglance at his father’s expression showedthat the older man hadno more understanding of the situation than himself. If anything,Wimarc Gerville lookedevenmoreperplexed thanPaen felt. Still, Paen asked him, "Do you understand what just happened? Whatdid she mean about binding?"
Lord Gerville shook his head, apparently as bewildered as his son. Paen was beginningto feel a bitfrustrated when the trio furtherdownthetable began tolaugh again. As Paenrecalled from the introductions when he had first arrived, these three were cousins tohisbride, andthe woman trying unsuccessfully to hush them was their mother andher aunt. He was about tosnap at them to shut up whenone of them, the onenamed Hugo, laughingly explained,"The silly sow had thembindher up. Butno bindingcould hold in her belly andthe binding burst. Her poor dress followed suit. "
"Why ever would she dothat?"Paen asked with true bewilderment.
" ‘Cause she isa cow and shewanted to looktrim and attractive for you,"theone named Stacius saidas thetrio burst into freshgales of laughter.
Paen wasn’t amused. Expression turning thunderous, hegot slowlyto hisfeet, his hand moving to his sword. Thatbrought thetrio toimmediate silence. Still, Paen scowledat them, debating whatto do. He supposed it wouldn’t be a good ideato kill his in-lawson hiswedding day. Ontheotherhand, theyreally appeared toneed tobe taught a lesson. Their behaviorshowed a complete lack of respect for anyone, including their beleaguered-looking mother, theircousin his wife, and even for the unclewho had taken them inwhentheyhad no home. Aye, in his mind, they needed to be taughta lesson, but perhaps another day. Not killing themtoday would be a bridal gifttohis wife.
The silence inthe room seemed deafening as Paen had considered the now nervous-lookingtrio. Letting his hand drop away from his sword, Paen glanced toward thestairs, then hesitated. Aftera moment, helooked athis father,then to his newbrother-in-law. The man hadremained silent throughout, watchinghim closely.
Now Paen asked, "Whatdo Ido? Should I go abovetoo? She ismybride. "
Warin Straughton considered the matter, then quietly suggested, "Best leavego for abit. Avy is terribly embarrassed. "
"Aye. And who would not be, with family like that?" He looked with disgust at the cousins. "Ishall have to let her know that Idonothold herresponsible for her cousins’ oafishness. "
Much to Paen’s amazement, Warin suddenly smiled and said, "I believeyou shall be good for her, my lord. "
Paenstaredathim in bewilderment, thenshook his head and steppedover the bench tohead for the stairs. Despite what the brother thought, he would go to her.
She was hisbride. It was hisplace to sootheher whenshewasupset,and he was going to soothe her, dammit.
* * * "Poor darling," LadyStraughton cooed, rubbing Avelyn’s back as she sobbed into thefresh linens on her bed.
"Iam an idiot,"Avelyn cried intothe linens.
"Nay. You are brilliantandlovely, and you fared beautifully at thewedding. "
"Ifainted!" Avelyn raised her head to cry, and Gunnora and Runilda arrived then, sliding silently into the room. Avelyn took one look at theirpitying expressionsand dropped her head to thebed again.
"Aye, you did faint. " Her mother sighed,thenstood, and there wasa rustleas she movedacross the room. "Come, wemust getyou changedandreturntothe feast. "
"Changed!"Avelyn sat upright onthe bed, horrorcoveringher face. "I cannot return tothe feast,Mother! I humiliatedmyself!" She groaned as sherecalled the horrible ordeal. "Dear God, I think I shall die of embarrassment. "
"Nay," her mother assuredheras she picked up the red gownthey had discarded earlier. She began toshakeit out. "It just feels like you shall die of embarrassment.
This is one ofthose inopportunemoments in life. There shall be many more. All you can dois hold up your head and walk with pride. " She started backacross the room withdetermination, the two maids fallinginto step behind her, obviouslypreparedto helpforceAvelyn into the gown if necessary. Thethree ofthem stopped atthefoot of thebed and eyed her grimly. "Now, this is your bridal feast, your celebration.
You shall have only one… God willing and yourhusbanddoesn’t die. Andyou shall attend it. "
Avelynstared at theredgown hermotherheld,considered rebelling, andthen supposed shemayas well return below. She would have toface everyone sooner or later. She supposed it was bestto do so now and getitoverwith. Heaving out a quiveringbreath, shestraightened hershouldersand slid off the bed to strip the remnantsof her ruinedgown.
It was at that moment that LordStraughton arrived and stormedinto thechamber.
"Father!"Avelyn squealed and crossed herarms over the thin chemise she wore as she lunged forcover behind her mother and the maids.
"Isshe all right?" Lord Straughton demanded.
"Father!" Avelyn cried again, raising her head enough to glare at him over Runilda’s shoulder.
"Do not ‘Father’ me! I am your father!" Willham Straughton bellowed, then paused to frown at his ownwords. Sighing, heshook his head, then espied traces of tearsonthe portion of face he couldsee. Expression softening,he strode around the trio of women to clasp Avelyn’s upperarms. Ignoring her obvious embarrassment, he said, "You looked lovely, Avelyn. Butyou look lovelierstill now that youareno longer trussed up likea turkey. "
"Oh, Papa. " Avelyn bit her lip, then fell against his chest with asniffle.
"There, there. Tis not the end of the world," he soothed, patting her back awkwardly.
Avelyn nestled into his chest,feeling ascoddled andsafeas she had when just a child asshe bemoaned, "Why could I not be more… graceful?Only Icould burst mybindingin front ofeveryonelike that. "
"Well,that would be my fault," he sighed, thumping her a littleharder in his distraction. "Aye,you got itfrom me. "
"You?" Avelyn pulled back to peer at him with surprise.
"Mm-hmm. "He nodded. "See thisscar?"
Avelyn followed his gestureto the scar besidehis right eye. Ithad beenthere as long as shecould remember. "’Tisthe one yougot in the battle ofBelville. "
He looked a bitchagrined. "Aye. The battle of Belville. But I never told you exactly how I got itin the battle of Belville, did I?"
"That is because’tisa tad embarrassing. Ifear it was a matter not dissimilarto your own. I’d hada pairof new braesmade. I wanted to impress your mother. The damn things were too small. They did not fit at all, but I was too proud to say so andhave the tailormakenew. I would make myselffitinto them. " He grimaced at the memory. "Well,I donned them and headed forQuarmby to woo yourmother. I cameacross the battle atBelville along the way. Belvillewas afriend, and I thought I would helphim out andenjoy abit of sporton my way, so I stopped and joined in thebattle. it was neartheend of the battle when the seams on my braesburst. " He shudderedat the memory. "Iinstinctively reached to cover mybollocks,and Lord Ivers got in a lucky blow. "
He rubbed at the scar on his face withremembered disgust. "Twas damned embarrassing, I’ll tell you. And that bloody Iverstalkedabout itfor the next six months. He laughed his arseoff in the tellingevery time too. The manrubbedmy facein itat every turn until Ifinally killed him in the battle ofIpswitch. "
Avelyn winced. "My cousins shall be laughingabout it forever. "
"Aye. " Willham looked displeased atthe mention of hisnieceand nephews. " Tis a shame we cannot killthem. "
"Wimarc!" Lady Straughtonreprimanded, butwithlittle heat.
Her fathermerelyshrugged,looking unrepentant,and Avelyn bit her lip tokeep from laughing. The man wasnomore fond ofthe trio than she. He made it morethan obvious that he felt himself plaguedbytheir presencein his homeand tolerated them for his wife’s sake only.
Ashuffling sound drew Avelyn’s attention to thefact that Lady Gerville andher maidhad entered at some point. Avelyn’s new mother-in-law now stood looking both sympathetic and uncertain of her welcome.
Managing a smile for thewoman,Avelyn stepped outof her father’s embraceand reached for the gown her mother held. Paen chose thatmomentto burst into the room, and all the humiliation that her father had soothed returned in full force.
Scrambling around herfather tohide,she leanedher head against his back as he turnedtoconfront his new son-in-law.
"Here now!What is this, my lord? You do not – "
"Isshe all right?" Paen interrupted impatiently.
Avelynfelt herfather’s backease at the obvious concern in theyoungerman’s voice. "Aye. She isfine.
"Avelyn?" Paen queried, obviously not going to bereassured until he saw for himself. Sighing,Avelyn quicklypulledher gown onover herhead,tugged it into placeandsteppedout from behind her father. Muchto her relief, Runildarushedup behindher atonce todo up the laces of her gown. Hoping herface wasn’tall red and blotchy from crying, she liftedher chin and forced herself to face him. She would have to eventuallyanyway – might as wellget it over with.
"I am fine, mylord," Avelyn said withquietdignity. "Atad embarrassed, but fine. "
"Aye. Well. These thingshappen," heassured her, then added, "And I want you not to worry. There isnaught for you to be embarrassed about. I’ll notjudge youby your cousins’ behavior. "
Avelynpaused, feelingconfusion swamp her. Aquick glancerevealed thather parents shared her confusion. "My cousins, my lord?"
"Aye. While theirbehavior is unpardonable, Iwould nothave it distress youto the point that you flee your own bridal meal. "
"Oh. Er… well, actually,my lord, it was not their crueltaunts that sent me from the table,I am quite used to those," she assured him uncomfortably, so embarrassed to have to explainthat she didn’t note the way his eyes narrowed. "Iretreatedto repair my… to change outof…surely you noticed the seamsof my gown split?"
"Oh, that. " He shrugged mildly. "As I said, thesethingshappen. I feared you weretaking solong due to distress over those cousinsof yours. "
Avelyn stared at him. He was shruggingaway asinconsequential somethingthat moments ago she had been sure was theendof theworld.
"These thingshappen?" she got out on agurgle.
"Aye. Iam forever splitting the seams on mytunics. Diamanda has mademeone forevery birthday and Christmas sinceshecame totrain with my mother, but she makesthem too small inthe shoulders. Theyare fine whilst I am atrest, butthemo-, ment I take up my swordand flex my muscles, the damn things rip wide open. " He shrugged again. "Hardlyworthworrying over. "