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The Perfect Wife
By Lynsay Sands
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2004 Dorchester Publishing
All right reserved.
Chapter One"'Tis damned strange."
"Hmm?" Lady Christina Gerville glanced up from her meal with surprise at those muttered words. Her gaze softened as it ran over the man seated between she and her husband. Paen Gerville, her son. His long dark hair was caught in a ponytail low at the back of his neck, his face was clean shaven and he was wearing the new forest green tunic she'd made for this auspicious occasion. He looked much as his own father had on their wedding day; handsome, strong and just about as grumpy she noted with mild amusement. Then she recalled what he'd muttered to catch her attention and asked, "What is strange, son?"
"This." Paen gestured around the trestle tables filled with people. Lord and Lady Straughton, and all their people surrounded them, all but one. The most important one in his mind. "Where is my bride? 'Tis damned strange that she is not here. She was not about when we arrived last night either. Something is amiss."
Lady Gerville exchanged an amused glance with her husband, Wimarc, as he turned from his conversation with Lord Straughton to hear the end of Paen's comment.
"There is nothing amiss, boy," Lord Wimarc Gerville assured his son. "No doubt the girl is delayed by ... er ... beautifying type things. Typical female stuff. Women are always the last to arrive," he assured him. Then, catching the way his wife's eyes narrowed with displeasure the older man cleared his throat and sent an apologetic smile her way for slandering the whole of her gender before continuing, "Well, anyway, just refrain from worrying. 'Tis just those wedding jitters I warned you about, they are playing havoc with you."
He concluded this bit of encouragement by giving his son what he considered to be a gentle supportive nudge. That nudge nearly sent his large son flying backward off the bench, but Paen - used to his father's affectionate thumps and bumps - grabbed at the table and was able to save himself from ending in an ignoble heap in the rushes.
Grunting as he settled back in place, Paen picked up a piece of cheese and took a bite, but he was distracted. His gaze was locked on the stairs he expected his bride to descend any moment. He knew his father was right and that he was unusually nervous, but Paen had no idea why. It had come upon him suddenly. He hadn't been the least uncertain on the way here. In his mind there had been nothing to be uncertain about. He was merely collecting his betrothed, making her his wife.
True, it was a new venture for him, but 'twas not much different than collecting a new war horse and he'd done that oft times. 'Twas nothing to get all worked up about.
Or so he'd thought on the journey here yesterday. This morning however, Paen was of a different mind. It had suddenly occurred to him that a wife might be a somewhat different proposition than a horse. After all, a man needn't bed his horse. He also didn't have to live out his life with the horse for however long he should be fortunate enough - or unfortunate enough as the case may be - to live. And, too, he could always sell the horse if it displeased him. Unfortunately, one could not sell a wife, no matter how bad she was.
On top of all that, he had yet to set eyes on his would-be bride. It seemed almost to him that she was avoiding him. He found it hard to imagine that was a good sign.
* * *
"Suck in your breath a bit more, my lady."
"I cannot, Runilda. This is as much as I can suck in." Avelyn pushed the words out on the last of the air left in her lungs, then had to inhale a bit to ask, "How close are we?"
The painful silence that followed her question was answer enough. Avelyn let her breath out on a defeated sigh. "'Tis no use, Runilda. I shall not get this gown on, and we both know it. Besides, even did I manage the chore, no doubt the seams would split the moment you finished fastening the hooks."
"I am sorry, my lady. I should not have taken it in so much." Runilda released her hold on the sides of the gown and stepped around in front of Avelyn, her face a portrait of guilt.
"'Tis not your fault. I ordered it done." Avelyn sank dispiritedly onto the end of the bed. She was biting her lip furiously, her mind racing over her options. There were very few that she could see. She had not lost two stone in the last two weeks since her determination that she would. She hadn't lost one stone either. She hadn't even lost an ounce. In fact, despite all her determination and her best efforts, Avelyn very much feared that she may have gained a pound or two instead. The lovely blue gown she and Runilda had planned and worked so hard over would not fit.
On the bright side, she supposed she would no longer need fear looking like a giant blueberry on this her wedding day. Unfortunately, that left her with the choice of resembling a large cherry or a pile of-
"Perhaps we could let the seams back out," Runilda suggested doubtfully, but Avelyn knew that was impossible. She had insisted the cloth be cut away to ensure her success at losing weight. She was an idiot. She had even deceived herself into thinking that she had lost some weight. Right up until that morning, Avelyn had been positive that her day gowns were growing looser. She was a fool. Her gowns had already been loose. Avelyn preferred them that way and had them made so.
She should have tried the gown on sooner, of course. Then, at least, there would have been the chance of doing something about it. But she hadn't. What with all the arrangements for the wedding, the feast and the influx of guests, there had been so much to do that she simply hadn't thought of her gown or the fact that she'd asked Runilda to take it in. Then to, in her heart of hearts, Avelyn supposed she'd not wished to face the reality that she would be married looking as fat as ever. She'd wished to hold on to her dream of looking lithe and lovely as she started her new life. She was a fool.
Forcing away the misery and self-pity attempting to swamp her, Avelyn stood abruptly and began to struggle out of what was supposed to have been her wedding gown.
"Well, it shall have to be the red gown then. 'Tis the one with the least wear." She tried not to think of the reason for that. The last thing she needed was to fret over its unfortunate effect of turning her face florid. Fortunately, Runilda was kind enough not to bring up that point and merely murmured a heart-broken, "Oh, my lady."
Hearing the tremble in the young maid's voice, Avelyn stiffened her spine. "Here, now. No crying, Runilda, else you shall start me crying as well. Although that would not be all that bad, I suppose. A red and blotchy face and eyes would go nicely with my red gown."
Her attempt at humor failed somewhat and actually saw the maid bursting into tears. Swallowing unhappily, Avelyn turned away from the sight, determined that she would withstand this disaster with all the dignity and aplomb she could muster. She would not cry. Even if Lord Paen Gerville should reject her on sight, she would hold her head high and keep a calm and unaffected facade.
Leaving Runilda to mop up her tears, Avelyn moved to her chest and sorted through its contents until she found the red gown in question. Her mouth twisted as she unearthed the dress and she paused to caress the soft material with her fingers. She'd thought it the loveliest material she'd ever seen when the traveling merchant had brought it out of his wagon to show her. Avelyn had imagined the cool cloth cut in simple lines, flowing over her body in caressing waves. Of course, she'd imagined herself lean and lovely in the gown. An image that had stayed in her head even once the gown was finished and she tried it on. Avelyn had felt more than beautiful on first donning it ... then she'd gone below for the sup.
Hugo, Stacius and Eunice had been quick to help clear her vision. Their caustic comments and cruel words had sliced at her pride and pleasure in the new gown, leaving her feeling 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 being distracted by the very girth of her in what appeared to him to be a warrior's blood-soaked traveling tent.
Avelyn had never worn the gown again. Hence the reason it was her least worn gown and why it had not faded from washing and had no frayed hems on the skirt or sleeves. It was the reason she would be meeting her betrothed looking like a large round cherry.
It was to be hoped that Paen Gerville was partial to cherries, she thought with a touch of self-mockery as she lifted the gown out of the chest and gave it a sharp snap.
Most of her gowns - including this one - had been packed away for the journey to Gerville. According to the letter Lord Gerville had sent, they intended to stay for only a few days after the wedding, then hoped to return home, carrying the new bride with them so that she might settle into her new home while the weather was still fine. Avelyn grimaced over the unavoidable wrinkles in the red fabric, then shrugged inwardly. She was sure a few wrinkles would hardly be noticed next to her vast girth.
Trying not to think on how much she'd come to hate this gown, Avelyn stoically set to donning it, relieved when Runilda recovered enough to help her with the fastenings. The maid had just finished the task and stepped back to look her over when the chamber door opened.
"Avelyn!" her mother cried. "What are you doing? You are not even in your dress yet! Paen is impatient to meet with you before the wedding."
"What is he like?" Avelyn asked as her mother hurried to her side. The Gerville's were supposed to have reached Straughton early the day before, giving Avelyn and Paen at least a little time to become acquainted. However, the day had passed with an agonizing slowness and no sign of her betrothed and his party. Most of the other guests had arrived and been settled in before a messenger had arrived with the news that there had been a mishap with one of the Gerville's wagons and they were delayed. Avelyn had already been abed when they finally arrived at Straughton.
If she were to be honest, Avelyn had been relieved at the delay in having to present herself before her betrothed. Her cousin's taunts that he would surely reject her the moment he laid eyes on her had haunted Avelyn these last two weeks. This was a possibility she'd never considered until then, but had fretted over repeatedly since her cousin had suggested it. And each time she considered the possibility, she felt queasy with anxiety.
"He seems very nice," her mother assured her. "In fact, he reminds me a great deal of your father when younger. Now, come. We must get you into the blue gown."
Avelyn forced a smile for her mother, but could not completely hide her misery as she said, "I have decided to wear this gown instead."
"What?" Lady Straughton stopped, her dismayed gaze traveling the length of her. "Nay! But why? The blue gown looks so lovely on you and this one is wrinkled." Her mouth firmed and she shook her head. "Nay. You must wear the blue."
Avelyn stepped back as her mother grabbed up the blue gown and approached. "It does not fit."
"Of course, it does. I saw you in it but a fortnight past. It fit beautifully. You looked lovely."
Avelyn could not keep the doubt from her expression at this claim, but merely confessed unhappily, "I had Runilda take it in and cut away the excess. I hoped to lose weight ere the wedding but-"
"Oh, Avelyn!" Lady Straughton let her hands drop, the precious gown now dangling from her fingers and pooling on the rush-covered floor. Her expression was full of disappointment.
Shame washing over her, Avelyn started to turn away, but her mother would not let her. Catching her arm, she drew her back and pulled her into a warm embrace. Her words were a heartbroken whisper when she said, "Oh Avelyn, how I wish you would not fret so over your shape. You are beautiful just as you are. Why do you suffer so over it?"
"Because I am a great cow, mother, and would have it otherwise."
Much to Avelyn's amazement, she could have sworn her mother hissed a curse word as she released her. When she stepped back there was temper in the woman's eyes and her lips had thinned out rather cruelly. "I ought to hide Hugo, Stacius and Eustice. Honestly! I know they are behind this. Those three-" She suddenly fell silent and a struggle took place on her face, then she calmed and shook her head. "Never mind. You are no cow, Avelyn. You are pleasingly plump. Men prefer their women that way."
Avelyn snorted at that, but her mother ignored her and instead glanced from she to the blue gown, determination entering her gaze.
"You cannot wear the red. 'Tis too wrinkled." Lady Straughton's gaze dropped to the blue gown dangling from her fingers. "I have an idea. But we shall have to hurry. They are ready to head to the church and are waiting only for you. Take off the red gown," she instructed, then turned to Runilda. "Go find Gunnora. Tell her to find that length of white linen we purchased from the traveling merchant who was last around and to hurry back here with it."
"What are you thinking, mother?" Avelyn asked anxiously as she shrugged her way out of the red gown - for truly she had no idea how the woman intended to fix this problem.
"We are going to bind you," her mother announced with determination.
Avelyn's eyes widened uncertainly. "Bind me?"
"Aye. If we cannot change the gown to fit your shape, we shall change your shape to fit the gown."
"Oh dear," Avelyn breathed, not at all sure that this sounded a good idea.
Excerpted from The Perfect Wife by Lynsay Sands Copyright © 2004 by Dorchester Publishing . Excerpted by permission.
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