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CHAPTER ONE: Wedding
Ann Astweir sat in her finery beside the window watching for the coach. As soon as it arrived she was to inform her sister and mother. They, together with two maids, the hairdresser, and the seamstress, were readying her sister, Rosalyn, for today was Rosalyn's wedding day. A sprightly clop-clop of hooves brought the fine carriage into sight and Ann scurrying to her sister's room.
"Rosy, Mother, the carriage is here!"
"My darling!" exclaimed Lady Astweir, embracing her elder daughter. "Today you become Lady Corringdon, and all my dreams have been fulfilled. You are so very beautiful. Isn't Rosalyn beautiful, Ann?"
"Yes Mother," Ann responded dutifully, wishing that her mother would not always call upon the contrasts in Ann and Rosy's looks. Rosy's masses of luxurious chestnut curls were currently swept up on top of her head and becomingly framing her perfect oval face, her huge tawny eyes, her vigorous complexion, and her generous lips. Rosy's stature was undeniably stately, and her shapely hips and small breasts met the ideal of the Classical feminine form. Naturally, in the voluminous gold silk wedding gown Rosy was stunningly beautiful.
Ann, on the other hand, was like a ghostly edition of her elder sister. Ann's hair was light brown with blonde and red locks streaking her hair--a caprice of the sun's effect. Further, unlike Rosy's tight curls, Ann's hair was wavy, curling only when the weather was damp. Unlike Rosy's robust color, Anne's complexion was extremely fair, and brisk winds, extremes of cold and hot, and moments of excitement, anger, and mortification readily brought a flush of red to her face. While Rosy'smouth was generous, Ann's lips' fullness was embarrassingly sensuous. Ann's eyes were large and deep blue, the only feature that satisfied her. Her stature was not stately like Rosy's; Ann was merely on the tall side with bosom and hips significantly curvaceous on a frame that ran towards scrawniness.
"Mother," complained Rosy, "I still do not see why Ann is to be introduced tonight when it should be my ball. I am the bride after all."
Lady Astweir sighed, "Because, as I have told you, it is not the fashion to have a ball for a wedding celebration, but by giving the ball in honor of Ann's birthday you can have the ball you wanted."
"But why can't Ann be introduced next week when the Earl and I are in Italy? Surely, this should be my day."
Lady Astweir cried, "My darling, you have had your Season and you have snared your Earl! Is it too much that your dear sister should have one night with the ton? You know that she will not have a full Season, only a few parties. Your Papa spent the money on you. Need I remind you that it was the Earl who arranged for this ball tonight to honor your sister?"
Rosy muttered bitterly. "How could I forget it?"
"Without his generosity your sister would not have her entree, and that would not be befitting your new status as lady to an Earl."
Rosy perked up at the reminder of the title that she would bear within the hour. Rosy turned to her sister to gloat, only to find that Ann was no longer standing demurely at her side.
"Mother!" Rosalyn burst out. "Ann has her nose in a book again! I swear she will take that book to the church and read it during the wedding ceremony."
Lady Astweir snapped, "Ann, how can you sit there reading when we are hurrying to leave. Put that book down this instant and let's go!"
Lord Astweir handed his wife and daughters into the carriage and then seated himself. He gazed proudly at his three lovely females: his wife, though middle-aged, still youthful and charming; his elder daughter magnificent and beaming in her wedding attire; his younger daughter elfin in her fair loveliness as she gazed dreamily out the window. He patted his side where the letter of good news was safely tucked away in a waistcoat pocket. So far he had maneuvered things well. He took out a cigar and looked at it; later when not around the ladies he would drink his brandy with this cigar to congratulate himself on his adroit fathering.
"Oh Papa, we are here!" moaned Rosy, her eyes big and moist with tears.
"There, there my dear," said Lord Astweir his chest puffing out in pride at this modest and pretty fear of his virgin daughter, "Earl Corringdon will make you very happy, I am sure."
After handing his daughters and wife down from the carriage, Lord Astweir sauntered off to join the other men. The ladies adjourned to the minister's parlor to make their last minute adjustments to their toilets.
Seeing Rosalyn was still all a-tremble, Ann took advantage of their mother having stepped from the room to say gently, "I envy you, but I wish you every happiness."
"Gunther does love me best!" wailed Rosalyn.
Ann wrapped her arms about her sister and crooned, "Of course, he does dear. He only flirted with me; it was you he always wanted. It is you he is marrying and taking to Italy."
"Then why is he giving a ball for you?"
"Rosy, Rosy, he knows you have always wanted a ball for your wedding celebration. This ball is for you, not for me! As Mama said, I am only the excuse."
"Oh, Ann, so you were listening to us and not reading. I am afraid we were quite horrid weren't we. You surely are never 'an excuse.' I know I was quite dreadful. I do not know what the matter is with me. Do not be angry with me."
"It is not permitted to be angry with a bride on her wedding day," smiled Ann. "Besides you are far too beautiful and good to me. Remember it was you who prevented Mama from making me wear that wretched orange-yellow gown."
Rosalyn sniffed away her tears and giggled, "That was an awful thing wasn't it! What could have Mama been thinking? I saw this fabric," Rosy held out Ann's skirt and smiled tenderly at her sister, "and knew it would make you look like one of Reubens' angels and Oh! It does."
This brought forth a bright blush on Ann's cheeks--a blush that was the same blush as her exquisite gown. Rosalyn pulled her veil over her facing thinking that if Ann blushed like that at her entree this evening, Ann would have ten proposals without dancing a single dance with anyone. A giggle erupted from Rosalyn. Ann was so shy she would probably refuse to dance anyway. In the next instant, the two beauties were regally marching up the aisle. Earl Corringdon looked dashing, fashionable, and elegant in his wedding attire. His dark brown curls were cropped short in Grecian fashion. His pale blue eyes glittered as he gazed greedily upon his approaching bride.
Ann sighed with relief. For once the man kept his eyes where they belonged: on Rosalyn's face and not on Ann's bosom. Ann had yearned for this day, this day when she would finally be free of the Earl of Corringdon's unwanted and untoward attentions. With great satisfaction Ann listened to the exchange of vows. Her sister was in bliss and Earl Corringdon was now forever in check. Tomorrow the two would be off to Italy and when they came back the Earl would forget that he had ever found appeal in Ann.
Similar thoughts passed through Ann's father's mind.
But who was that gentleman standing next to Earl Corringdon as best man? Ann found she could not take her eyes from him. He was slightly taller than she, with straight blonde hair falling freely and unfashionably to his shoulders. His eyes were huge--absolutely huge and deep dark brown, almost black. His eyes were huge luminous pools into which she might fall and drown. His figure was slender, but there was a muscular, virile quality to him as though he might ... might ... what was she thinking? His shoulders were straight and wide, his carriage a glory, and his waist narrow and trim, inviting her eye to travel from it down ... down along ... along his legs, his shapely, muscular legs. Ann swallowed. She couldn't quite catch her breath. Her palms were damp, and so she turned her bouquet in her hands. Why was her heart making great, slow thumps? She looked at her bouquet, but her eyes traveled up into his great pool eyes. What was happening? Why did she have no control over her eyes? Oh! Rosalyn and Earl Corringdon were walking down the aisle laughing and nodding to the families. Ann trailed behind them, finding her arm in the arm of the very man at whom she had been staring. He looked into her eyes gravely for a moment as he took her arm, and Ann's entire body tingled inexplicably.
In the vestibule of the church Earl Corringdon whipped his head around toward Ann and the young man and chortled, "Now that you have met, let me introduce you. Lady Ann Astweir this is Lord Gordon Treezwey, the heir of the Marquess of Dumchambord. The two of you have something in common: you are both of titled, ancient families, and both of you are penniless!"
Ann once again turned the color of her dress, but she managed to murmur a how-do-you-do to LordTreezwey.
Lord Treezwey, in turn, looked at her gravely and bowed slightly.
Rosalyn said, "Darling, do not torment my sister. You are really quite naughty to say such a thing."
"Whom should I torment?" returned the Earl.
"Why me, of course!" laughed Rosalyn, and she and the Earl whisked off to their carriage.
Ann's parents approached beaming. Lord Astweir said to LordTreezwey, "Ah, sir, may I introduce my wife, Lady Serena Astweir."
Treezwey lifted the Viscountess' lace gloved hand to his lips.
Astweir continued, "And my daughter Lady Ann Astweir."
Here Lord Treezwey spoke: "It is indeed a pleasure," and he lifted Ann's pretty hand to his lips as he gazed gravely into her eyes.
Lord Astweir continued, "Might I prevail upon you for a favor, sir? My wife wishes to ride with Earl Corringdon's mother and aunt, but the three of them do not have a gentleman to hand them up or ride with them as I must ride with my daughter, Lady Ann. Would you be so kind to escort those ladies to the wedding breakfast?"
Treezwey bowed politely and said, "It would be a pleasure to do so."
Lord Astweir smiled winningly. "Oh, that would be quite the thing. I hope you will be attending the ball Lord Corringdon hosts. He is your cousin is he not?"
Treezwey stifled a sigh; how he hated to admit that: "Yes, he is sir. His younger brother was to be best man, but was unable to return from Spain in time. Something about a gale. I was called in to be best man in the last moment. A happy circumstance. Lady Rosalyn is such a charming bride. It will be a delight to dance with her at her ball this evening."
Lord Astweir said, "The ball is in my younger daughter's honor," nodding at Ann, "It is in honor of her coming of age today."
Ann wished the ground would open up and swallow her. Her face burned. Lord Treezwey gazed at Ann as though he might say something, but instead he turned a slow, winning smile upon her mother, and offered Lady Astweir his arm.
What a lovely creature this Lady Ann was. Perhaps he could get the mother to tell him something of her. He would like to murder his cousin, Earl Corringdon, for embarrassing the chit. Probably she would be too embarrassed to dance with him. Well, no matter, there would be no end of ladies all too glad to pay him attention. For all his fortune was modest, his title and ancestry demanded consideration.
Lord Astweir had not missed how his Ann and
Treezwey had looked at each other. Astweir smiled benevolently at his daughter as he handed her into the carriage and seated himself across from her. Resting his right hand on his cane, he watched Ann's gaze follow Lord Treezwey and her mother. Lord Astweir, well pleased, rapped his cane upon the ceiling, and the tiger obediently set the carriage into motion.
"Ann, my love."
"Yes, Papa," said Ann noting that her father was leaning forward with his hands resting upon his cane. His countenance and position informed her he had something pressing to tell her.
As was his way, her father came to the point directly: "Your great-grandmother has died and left you a fortune of twenty-thousand pounds a year. This makes you the equal of any lady you will meet at tonight's ball, and the superior of most. This means you will be able to enjoy a full Season, and even a second, if you like. You have the time and the means to select a suitor worthy of you."
"Papa! I have a fortune of my own?"
"Yes, love, and I am so happy the money fell to you!"
"But Papa, I did not know I had a great-grandmother living."
"Well, you see, she was a bit batty and had Heathenish ideas which quite distressed the family. She had been reared in India since her father started and ran the West Indies Tea and Spice Co. She had an Indian nanny who taught her to believe in reincarnation. When I went to see her for the last time, last summer," here a shadow crossed over his face and Ann knew that her father had loved this eccentric grandmother of his, "I took her a miniature of your sister and one of you. When she saw you, her poor bedeviled brain thought she had already been reincarnated. You look so much like her, only you are prettier than ever she was. You have her fair skin, her hair, and above all her sapphire eyes."
"She left her money to me because I look like her?"
"She thought she was you, you see. She died happy thinking she had been blessed to live again the same type of life she had already enjoyed: a lady of nobility with her own money."
Ann sighed, "Poor old thing."
"She was old and had a wonderful life. Now, for tonight's ball you are to put on the gown I have bought for you."
"Another gown, Father? But this one cost a fortune."
"My dear, you no longer need to economize. You can live as befits our family's rank. You have a new gown, a maid of your own to dress you in it, and another gift that I have for you."
"Oh, Papa! This is all so unbelievable!"
"Believe it, my pet. Now that you might have any sort of man you wish, tell me what you like in a fellow."
At her father's words, the image of Lord Treezwey rose in Ann's mind. His narrow face, determined chin, his flaxen hair, and above all his eyes; those huge, engulfing deep brown eyes. Thinking of his grave and gentle manner, a flush crept up her face.
Enjoying watching her, her father said serenely, "I hope you will choose a bookish fellow who has a house in the country and plenty of fine horses."
This set Ann at ease and she laughed gaily, "Oh, Papa, he must have a house in the country and good jumpers, mustn't he! And a vast library!"
The two laughed together, but Lord Astweir with a certain satisfaction for he knew Treezwey had such a house, such horses, and such a library. And, of course, eventually Lord Treezwey would become the Marquess Duchambord.
The wedding breakfast was held at the Astweir's town house. As part of the wedding party, Ann sat beside her sister at the head table. Lord Treezwey sat beside the groom, and of course the bride and groom sat together. This meant that Ann did not get a chance to talk to or even look at Lord Treezwey because whenever she turned in his direction Earl Corringdon grinned at her lasciviously. Under the circumstances Ann could not initiate conversation.
"Ann," said Earl Corringdon, "is it true what your sister tells me that you always have the seamstress sew a secret pocket into your day dresses?"
Ann sucked in her breath and looked at her sister.
Rosalyn laughed gaily, and truth to tell, a bit drunkenly: "Now, Ann, it is true, you must confess! She does have a secret pocket sewn into each and everyone of her day dresses!"
Earl Corringdon parted his lips and set his moist tongue upon his lower lip as he looked into Ann's eyes. Ann stifled a shudder and looked down at her plate.
Earl Corringdon said, "And what trinkets do you hide in this secret pocket? An old nose-gay given to you by some clandestine lover?"
Horrified, Ann stammered, "Goodness no."
"Not a nose-gay then, but something else from the clandestine lover, something more intimate then." Earl Corringdon winked.
Ann flushed, turned pale, and flushed again at a loss how to answer the man.
Lord Treezwey spoke up, "It is hardly the thing to accuse a lady of having a clandestine lover. Nor do I think it quite the thing to discuss a lady's dress except to say how well it becomes her." This last was said with a small but warm smile to Ann.
Ann smiled tremulously and gratefully at him.
Rosalyn, though, liked the subject, "Oh, I must protest! There is nothing improper in discussing a gown. Why else do we put so much effort into our appearances if not to have them discussed!"
"Right you are my pet," laughed Lord Corringdon.
"We must know about this pocket. Perhaps she keeps nothing in this pocket; perhaps the pocket is for the expectation of something." He raised his eyes suggestively at Ann as he wound his arm around Rosalyn's waist.
"No," said Ann, in embarrassed confusion.
"Aha!" chortled Lord Corringdon, "Then you admit there is something in the pocket."
"I admit nothing of the kind!" burst out Ann indignantly.
Even Lord Treezwey smiled at this.
"Then," said Earl Corringdon meaningfully, "we must find out what is in this pocket."
To Ann's horror, and to Rosalyn's merry giggles, Earl Corringdon rose from his seat and pulled up a chair on the other side of Ann. He seated himself and grabbed Ann's skirt.
"Let go of my skirt," muttered Ann between gritted teeth.
Lord Corringdon said, "Why I feel an unexpected heft. Could I have found the location of the secret pocket?" He tapped her skirt with the hollow of his hand and a definite thump thumped.