Alice and Darian were married less than two months later.
The wedding was held at Belmont Manor, just as they had always planned. Alice readied herself for the party, not in the large bedroom she shared with Darian, but in the private chamber he had given to her for her own use.
Pauline stood behind her, carefully arranging her hair. “You look lovely, My Lady,” she said. “His Grace will not be able to take his eyes from you tonight, I am certain.”
Alice smiled. “I hope he will at least be able to spare some attention for our guests,” she said. She and Darian had decided, in the end, to comply with the wishes of her mother and his aunt. The guest list was very long.
“After all,” her mother had said, “this is our first opportunity to show ourselves to the world after the whole sordid affair with your Father. We cannot hang our heads in shame. We cannot hide our faces. We must show that we are proud of who we are, proud to be the ladies of Ashmont, no matter how your Father has disgraced us.”
Alice had found, much to her own surprise, that she agreed with her mother’s assessment. She wanted no one to believe that she felt any shame over the things her father had done.
The only thing I feel today is happiness and pride to be marrying Darian at last.
Pauline stepped back and regarded Alice. “There,” she said. “You are a work of art, My Lady.”
“If I am, it’s all thanks to you.” Alice rose to her feet and moved to stand before the looking glass, gazing in at herself. “You’ve made me lovely, Pauline. I am so grateful that you chose to come with me to Belmont Manor.”
“Of course I came.” Pauline sounded surprised. “I serve you, My Lady.”
“My Mother would have given you a position in her household if you had wished to stay at Ashmont. You know that.”
“I do,” Pauline agreed. “But, of course, I would prefer to stay with you.”
Alice smiled. “I am glad of that,” she said. “I love Darian, and I could never have asked for a better husband. But even so, it is good to have an old companion from home with me here.”
“You may rest assured, My Lady, that I will be by your side wherever you go,” Pauline said.
There came a knock at the door, and Pauline hurried to answer it. A moment later, she stepped back to show Alice’s mother into the room.
“Alice.” Her mother crossed to stand before the looking glass beside her. “You do look lovely. The Duke of Belmont is a very fortunate man to have found such a wife.”
“I am the fortunate one,” Alice said.
“As long as you both feel that way, your marriage will be a happy one,” her mother said, and leaned to kiss her on the cheek. “Come now. The guests are beginning to arrive, and it’s your duty to greet everyone.”
Alice allowed herself to be led downstairs, reflecting that there was a time in her life when she would have argued with her mother. She would have protested that this was her wedding day, and that it was no time to be preoccupied by duty.
But she felt differently now. It didn’t matter what she had to do. What mattered was that, when the day was done, she and Darian would be united forever.
He stood waiting for her at the foot of the stairs, his arm extended, and Alice felt her heart flutter. He was just as handsome today as he had been the very first time she had seen him.
She hurried down the last of the stairs, even though she knew it was unladylike to do so, and took his arm.
“You look wonderful,” he said, smiling. “Were it not for the carriages beginning to arrive outside as we speak, I would kiss you right now.”
“I see no reason that should stop you,” Alice said.
He laughed, bent to her, and kissed her quickly. “We will find time to be alone,” he promised her. “And there will be more of that.”
Her mother came up behind them and shepherded them to the door. “Stand here,” she told them. “Greet your guests as they come in and send them to the dining room.”
Alice and Darian did as they had been bidden. The next half an hour was taken up by the arrival of the guests, each of whom wanted to stop and greet the Lord and Lady of Belmont Manor and to introduce themselves. Alice knew that she would never remember all the names, though she did her best. She would have to hope that she would become more familiar with the many new faces at subsequent social events.
When the guests had all arrived, they made their way into the dining room. The banquet had already been laid out by the servants. There was ham and turkey, two different kinds of fish, several soups, bowls of fruits, and baskets of fresh hot bread.
Alice took the seat beside Darian, clinging to his hand. Her excitement threatened to overwhelm her, and she found herself quite unwilling to let go of him.
The food was passed around, and before long, everyone was eating heartily and immersed in conversation. Those who were seated near Alice tried to capture her attention, but she found it difficult to turn her eyes from her new husband.
“I’m afraid I’m not being very hospitable,” she confessed.
“Nor am I,” he said, smiling. “But I suspect it’s a common enough failing for two newlyweds. Our guests will understand. It will please them to see that we are so in love.”
“I hope so,” Alice said. “I would hate to let anybody down.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” Darian said. “Didn’t you say once that the important thing was that our wedding be a celebration for us?”
“I suppose I did,” she said. “But it feels like a very long time ago. Perhaps everything that happened with my family has forced me to reexamine my priorities.”
“I am sorry that your Father couldn’t be here,” Darian said.
“Are you really?” she asked. “You wouldn’t have wanted to see him.”
“I’m sorry for you,” he explained. “No matter what he’s done, I know that he is still your Father. I know that you will always love him. And I would never want to take that away from you.”
She couldn’t believe anyone could be so kind, so generous of spirit. After the horrors her father had caused in his life, Darian should have hated him. He should have resented the very suggestion that she ever even thought of her father.
Perhaps he knew what she was thinking, for he spoke. “You were always very understanding about the things in my past,” he said. “You understood that I had loved before I knew you. You never asked me to forget Eleanor or to put my love for her from my heart.”
“I would not want to marry a man who could do such a thing,” she said. “It comforts me to know that your love endures.”
“And I feel the same way,” he said. “You care for your Father still. To me, it shows that you are loving and merciful. It shows me what a wonderful wife and mother you will surely be.”
Mother. She felt a little shiver of pleasant apprehension at the word. Now that they were married, that would be the next journey upon which they would embark. For a moment, she pictured herself with a child in her arms.
Perhaps next year. Perhaps we will have a party to celebrate the anniversary of our marriage, and when we do, there will be a baby.
After an interval, the food was cleared away and the cake was brought out. The guests gasped at the size of it, and it was cut and served. Alice could hardly eat her piece. She felt nervous and excited at the thought that a new part of her life was beginning today. It was as if she was becoming someone altogether different from the young lady she had once been.
When they had finished their cake, Alice, Darian, and their guests stood and proceeded into the ballroom for dancing. It was a relief to be swept into Darian’s arms as the first number began, to be guided around the dance floor.
Alice would have happily danced with Darian all night, but when the first dance ended, another of her guests claimed her hand. She was never left without a partner. And though she found her way back to Darian as frequently as she could, more often than not she found herself turning in the arms of a stranger.
It wasn’t until the night was winding down that he managed to take her by the hand and pull her out through the open doors and into the garden. It was mostly empty, although a few partygoers were wandering among the flowers and talking quietly to one another.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked, pulling her into a slow waltz on the cobbled path. The rhythm did not match that of the music that was playing inside, and Alice had the sense that this dance was a private one just for her and Darian.
“It’s a lovely party,” she said.
“That isn’t what I asked you.” He guided her through a slow turn.
“I’ll be pleased when it’s over,” she admitted. “It’s been enjoyable, and I’m happy to have done something that pleases my Mother—and your Aunt, of course. But when everyone goes—”
“It will be just you and me,” he said.
“I am eager for that myself.”
The music came to a halt, but they continued to dance.
Alice noticed that the people around them were now moving toward the doors, back into the ballroom. “I think people are beginning to leave,” she said. “We ought to go in and say goodbye to everyone.”
“My Aunt and your Mother will do that for us,” Darian said. “We’ve played host and hostess enough for one evening.”
Alice couldn’t keep the smile from her face. “They’re not going to be very happy with us.”
“No, I don’t imagine they will,” Darian agreed, smiling. “But they will be lenient.”
“Because we’re newlyweds?”
“I believe so,” Darian said. “And because we gave them what they wished for by having such a grand celebration.”
He pulled Alice down a garden path. It was darker here, and they could not be seen from the windows of the ballroom. Alice might have been frightened if she hadn’t known the garden so well. But she and Darian had spent many happy days out here, and it had already begun to feel like home to her.
There they remained, their arms around one another, as their guests slowly and gradually took their leave. Alice rested her head on Darian’s chest and closed her eyes, feeling secure and comforted.
His fingers began to move through her hair. “This has been, without question, one of the best nights of my life,” he told her.
She smiled, though she knew he could not see the expression on her face. “Even with all these people here?” she asked.
“It would not matter to me if there were a thousand people here tonight,” he said. “The only person who matters to me is you.”
He kissed her then, and she felt as if the kiss were a cloud that wrapped itself around the two of them, tying them together, shutting out the outside world and setting them afloat. She allowed herself to get lost in the magic of it and to forget everything else—her absent father, the fact that her mother might be angry with her.
All that matters is him.
He pulled away, looked into her eyes, and smiled. Taking her hand, he led her deeper into the garden.
Readers who read this book also liked