Even the weightless scent of a thousand flowers could not freshen the stale, suffocating scent of the Dowager Duchess of Cambria and Martisine. Despite the canopy and warm breeze, the indulgent woman employed a handmaiden to fan her; she demanded iced water and that the party remain immobile where their table was set in the middle of the gardens.
Uniformed servants tiptoed about, producing plates of the finest fruit and freshest scones to accompany the tea. Birds called and fluttered through the clouds while bees hovered from petal to petal. The weather, it seemed, had resigned to being temperate.
For Lecia, good weather or bad was irrelevant, as even the company of her family did little to settle the unease she felt in her stomach. Despite her lack of any romantic motivation for the approval of her betrothed's closest relatives, she realized that those same relatives would be her acquaintances for the rest of her life. Should they be displeased with Vaughan's selection, her days would be spent in misery.
From the moment she arrived, she had singled out his younger siblings as her easiest conquests. Surely if they liked her, their mother would be more civil. The eldest, William, seemed the most pressing. His good opinion would influence his sisters…and the tactics would not be too dissimilar to luring suitors. He was, after all, a man in the making. Blanche, the youngest, would be dazzled by smiles too, for she still enjoyed fables and folklore and tales of beautiful princesses. Sarah, the middle child, however, seemed rather staunch and proper. She would be the most difficult, considering Lecia had never been completely invested in being polite.
Next, his cousin—and dearest friend—Ezekiel Shevington; there was no doubt that he would be around more than any of them. The trouble was that Lecia had already met him under different circumstances and the greeting that day had been exceedingly uncomfortable. He seemed the type to forgive easily—he would have to with a bold friend like Vaughan—but the humiliation she had caused him would likely take more time to forget than friendly trifling. The key to his approval was time, and she granted it willingly.
Ezekiel's grandmother, the Marchioness of Brahmsboro, was a complicated woman to comprehend. Lecia understood that her good graces were not given often, but also that it was nearly impossible to know if you'd received them. Thus, Lecia elected to postpone any incursions on that front.
The Dowager Duchess, though she immersed herself in the luxury of her own self-righteous importance, was of little value to Lecia's happiness. While having a neutral relationship—something supported by the affections of her children—would make things much easier, there was no need to be loved by her. After all, it was quite plain to Lecia that her purpose as Vaughan's wife was solely to displace and anger Drothea Cantington.
There had been no talk between them since the engagement was revealed. Lecia entered the luncheon with no knowledge of anything other than what were certainly false truths circulated by the London elite. Even her father knew little else than the address at which they were to arrive. At first she had been utterly blindsided by her introduction to Ezekiel, a Marquis by law and her future kin by blood, and she had been admittedly nervous about meeting her soon-to-be in-laws, but the very second she laid her eyes on the over-dressed, sour face of that god-awful woman, nothing else mattered because it all made sense.
The Marchioness dominated the conversation. She asked questions frequently and listened in turn. Her interest was directed at Zora and Henry for some time; their nuptials intrigued her. Ezekiel said little, though he spoke softly to the quiet William who sat across from him. At the other end of the table, Blanche was attended by her elder sister with words of etiquette while their mother sat in silence as the world revolved around her. Lecia watched them all, her parents beaming with pride while her fiancé seemed unsettled.
"Do you have many accomplishments, Miss Harper?" suddenly the interrogation began. Lecia had not expected to be frightened, but the disdainful tone of the Dowager Duchess was disconcerting.
Practically too stunned by the sudden end of silence, Lecia managed a garbled, "Well…"
"I'm simply curious as to what could have possibly attracted our Vaughan to marry you. It must be more than your pretty face, I'm sure. After all, he's had his pick of young girls for years. You must truly be quite special."
Coated with compliments, her words still dripped with hatred. Aware, Lecia clenched her jaw and squared her shoulders toward the monster.
"I play the piano quite well, in fact, and have often been complimented on my singing. I'm rubbish at mending, but that's proven rather irrelevant with servants to do it for me anyhow. While my French has been neglected for some time, I daresay I could spend a year in France just fine. My handwriting is superb, and neighbors have collected my watercolors for years. Of all my accomplishments, however, I am most proud of my horsemanship skills, and look forward to the pastures at Martis."
"Hmm," the Duchess pursed her lips. "I do hope if you have children you're sure to employ a decent governess. Some people neglect the education of their children and corrupt our ways."
Though it pained her, Lecia kept her eyes on the woman. She felt the slight slice through her mother's pride.
"I'm sure you meant to say when, Drothea," the Marchioness chimed in from the other end of the table. "It's only a matter of time before we're blessed with the next Duke."
The two women shared pointed stares with one another, unaffected by their company. In her innocence, however, Blanche detected only talk of children and perked up from her indifference. With wide eyes she gazed at her brother and Lecia, excitement evident in her grin.
"You're to have a baby? Am I to be an aunt?" the girl asked.
While everyone else at the table allowed a quick laugh—or at least a small smile, as Lecia became quite self-conscious—the girl's mother expanded with fury and immediately laid to rest any notion that the previous statement had any truth.
"Absolutely not," the Duchess fumed. "They, of course, are yet to even be married. I fear you cannot even fathom the indecency. To think, the bastard of a duke," she scoffed. Her eyes were filled with hatred and it became quite clear that Vaughan was more than some nuisance in her life; he was an enemy, and thus, so was Lecia.
"Cantingtons are far too disciplined for that," he told the woman, sipping his tea. "More honor than sense, some say."
She balked, like a great horse, as Vaughan took her aback with his words. It was then that Lecia realized exactly what this union meant: wealth, above all, which bought power and encouraged criticism, but what truly caught her attention was the confirmation that all of the mystery that was Vaughan Cantington, Duke of Cambria and Martisine would become her mystery. And all of the thousand secrets that were ever so cryptic would only multiply.
"Hmm," she gritted. "I suppose you are correct, dear boy. Your father never was very sensible, as I'm quite sure you remember rather well."
There was only Vaughan and the Duchess. They were two wolves, circling one another, waiting for the other to charge. It was a melee for status, one of many; not the first. Lecia was to be his advantage. With her, the woman would have to go.
"I suppose that it's for the best that I take after my mother, isn't it?" he replied with ease, again sipping at his tea.
She should have retreated, but proud animals are not capable of retreat. Instead, the lunch party watched as she lunged forward and bared her teeth.
"If only," she began darkly. "We wouldn't be in this mess then, would we? Even this Honorable Miss Lecia Harper would be too fair for you. You in your ruddy shacks covered in mud and sleeping with the pigs. Tell me, how did you survive? We know she didn't; too delicate where a Duchess ought to be made of iron. Terrible fate; pathetic even. Very unfortunate. I almost feel sad…but her sacrifice has brought me so many wonderful things." She took an even breath. "If only she had taken you with her."
Before there was any time for him to respond, the Marchioness rose to her feet.
"Drothea, too far," the older woman rumbled. All sat stoic; Vaughan was indifferent, his stepmother was fuming, the Marchioness was enraged, and Lecia was intrigued.
The party had retreated indoors. The Marchioness had declared a need for the comfort of her armchair, but truly it was to cage the Dowager Duchess before she set forth her fury to eradicate all evidence of peace. Both women were situated on the opposite side of the Marchioness' sunny parlor, separate from everyone else. Lecia concluded that in order to keep her future mother-in-law civil the woman must be confined.
The Baron wandered alone through the room, admiring the late Marquis' extensive collection of books; he carried a glass of gin. Sarah remained by her mother's side, a most faithful companion, and Blanche was playing with a doll. William spoke with his brother at the window, the Duke frequently turning his gaze to his fiancée. Zora and Henry had said their goodbyes and left, announcing an engagement with his mother. Meanwhile, Lecia sat with her mother who was having a pleasant conversation with Ezekiel.
"I can't imagine that Zora had anticipated leaving a luncheon for a date with the Countess," Lecia said when the conversation her mother and her future cousin reached a lull. The Baroness stiffened, not wanting to acknowledge the debacle this family gathering had been nor speak ill of a woman a superior rank. The Marquis stifled a laugh.
"You'll find that on the rare occasions you are required by decency to spend any time with Drothea there will be no amiability," Ezekiel admitted. "I ought not say too much more than this, but I'm sure you've already sensed the hostility. How could you not?"
"What exactly is the issue?" Lecia asked. The expression on Ezekiel's face told her that it was not his place to say. He looked sorrowful and uneasy.
"It has a lot to do with the…the previous Duke, Vaughan's father. It's not my place to say any more. When he decides you should know, he'll explain it all. Some of the court conjecture is accurate, but not all of it."
"I'm just not quite sure what the Duchess expected when she married a man with a son," the Baroness said. Both Lecia and the Marquis were taken aback by her audacity.
"She expected to convince the world that I was the bastard child of a common whore," Vaughan answered, appearing behind Lecia and placing his hands on her shoulders. "Of course my illegitimacy would strip me of my titles and William would inherit everything."
Lecia turned to see her fiancé's face, but she was limited in her mobility. Instead, she witnessed conflict in her mother's eyes and sadness in Ezekiel's demeanor. William was still at the window, unaware and despondent.
There was not much to be said about the party save for that it was eventful and surprising. The Baroness would not have expected that such staunchly titled women could behave so poorly. Her husband travelled home drunk and unable to look at his daughter. Lecia, though she knew that she could accept the future, could not forgive her father. So it was that everything would begin to unravel.
A/N: Obviously I've been MIA for forever. Hopefully you guys still want to read, but if it's just been too long, I understand. Please know that the majority of this chapter was written well over a year ago, but I couldn't ever get the ending right. I thought that it was time, however, to just get this out there. So the last bits are little shady, but, on the bright side, I can now move on to bigger and better things. Thank God. Sorry for the weird break, too. I was trying to keep away from those, but given the circumstances one was necessary.