Chapter Five

The dreaded day has finally come.

I take a deep breath and a last long look at the mirror, not overly satisfied with what I see—though, objectively, I have to admit that I honestly didn't expect I could look like this. The glossy brown waves cascading two-thirds of the way down my back are complemented beautifully by a traditional wedding wreath of pink flowers that also complements my just-barely flushed cheeks, set over which are large, expressive eyes said to be as blue as the ocean that I've never seen. Beneath that are a small nose, full lips, a round chin, and a slim pale throat adorned by a string of fake pearls—also traditional.

My dress is a pink that matches the wreath, typical of wedding attire. Cut high enough not to make me uncomfortable, it's still low-cut enough to satisfy both wedding customs and the current fashion. The dress falls halfway between knee and ankle, and it's made of a stiff and scratchy but formal-style beautiful fabric. It's made in the latest style, and I bet it was expensive.

But that's Eric's problem, as he himself assured me as he left the room, leaving the paper-wrapped new dress on a chair after telling me to change.

My stockings are thin, pure-white, and uncomfortably tight. My new shoes—shiny black dress shoes—pinch my toes. By tradition, everything a girl wears to her wedding must be brand-new, made especially for her. Some legend—old wives' tale is more like it—about a new start, no "dust of the past", no "soot of another's feelings", etc., etc.

I look at my scarred hands with a shiver. It's been a little while since he last whipped me, so the scars are faded—but they're still there, and clearly visible. Does Eric really want to marry me so badly? Turning my head so I don't have to see the disfigurement any longer, I bless wedding-dress traditions as I pull on thin elbow-length gloves as white as my stockings.

The past week was definitely not what I'd expected.

I'd given in on Sunday. Once I'd killed any chance of escaping what seemed to be my destiny, I was released from my wooden prison but confined to the cellar for three long, lightless days. I could dimly make out the outline of The Box, and I shuddered every time I looked at it, thinking At least I'm not in there now.

On Thursday, I woke up alone on a luxuriously soft bed (although sleeping on the floor may have messed up my perception of hardness) in a small room with a locked door and nailed-shut windows. I remember how I blushed when I realized I was wearing a new pale-pink nightgown that I'd never seen before in my life. That day I didn't get to leave the room once—it had an adjoining bathroom—and the only other person I saw was the tailor, who fitted the then-almost-finished wedding dress that I'm wearing now.

Friday was the day Eric gave me a tour of the little house. Kitchen, bathrooms, dining room, sitting room, bedroom, tiny guest room (the only room that I'd already seen), cellar, attic. "After all," he mused, "as my wife you will need to know where everything is. It's not like you couldn't learn, given we really have nothing but time... but I have nothing to do anyway."

That night we slept in the same bed, despite my protests and struggles—but Eric didn't try anything. I was surprised but somewhat relieved when I heard him mutter to himself, "There's plenty of time. No need to push her into anything right now. Besides, we're not married yet..." In any case, he stayed on his side of the bed all night—at least as far as I knew. I had intended to stay awake, not trusting him at all; but my weariness won out and I fell asleep.

I was once again alone when I woke on Saturday. (It's traditional to have weddings on Sundays.) That was another busy day—I had not been awake five minutes when there was a timid knock on the door and a young girl—likely no older than eight or nine—tiptoed in. She looked familiar—I'd seen her in Mistress Mackenzie's house sometimes, doing the work no one else would deign to dirty their hands with.

"You're Catherine?" she whispered shyly. "I'm Erin—Eric's sister. I hope you'll be happy here—truly, my brother means well. He's just not used to being defied or denied—growing up, he was our parents' golden boy. Anything Eric wanted, Eric got. Then Mother died and Father got so distracted—he sent us to Miss Mackenzie, knowing his adoptive sister would be able to take better care of us than he could. He was right, of course—she pampered us for a few months before Father died and she decided we owed her. That's how we became her servants, and why we don't call her 'Aunt'. Naturally, Eric charmed her just like he charmed our parents. Luckily when he left her place for good, he hadn't completely forgotten that he had a sister. He had to go back, you know, for a few days, so he could pretend to Miss Mackenzie that you'd run away and he'd found you, and you declared you'd never go back. He told her that he'd been thinking he wanted to settle down, get married, have a family—and she said he could have you if she saw with her own eyes that you accepted him."

She'd gradually gained comfort and confidence as she spoke, and so had I. Now I was considering not marrying Eric after all. Why not run away? But I hesitated. Erin clearly loved her brother; it was plain in the way she spoke of him.

Besides, I never got a chance. The only other time the door was even briefly unlocked and opened was when Eric brought in some plain dresses. He didn't seem surprised to see Erin sitting on the bed talking to me as he muttered tonelessly, "I should have known you'd find your way in here, Erin. Really, no place, no secret of mine is ever safe from my little sister."

As Erin gave him a sweet, childishly innocent smile, his features softened a little. He explained that the dresses were mine and they might need to be altered. He'd brought my workbasket from Mistress Mackenzie's—or at least an excellent replica. "These had better be ready to wear for tomorrow afternoon, after the wedding," he warned me.

Erin was really sweet and helpful. Turns out she's really good with pins and needles. By late afternoon, all the dresses had been changed to fit me perfectly.

And that brings me to now. Standing before the mirror, nervous about the wedding that is set to start just about... now.

Right on cue, the door opens and Erin slips in. "Catherine, it's time."

She leads me onto the patio for the quiet, traditional ceremony: the girl's papers (everyone has papers that show, among other things, who they belong to) are signed over to the young man (since I know nothing of my parents, this is done by Mistress Mackenzie); and her wreath, the symbol of childhood innocence, is cut and discarded, except for one pink blossom that Eric gently tucks into one of the thin braids that falls against the loose brown hair on either side of my face.

Unlike other traditions I've heard of, there is no kissing in our traditional wedding ceremonies—except for one quick, light one on the bride's cheek if the groom so chooses—as Eric seems to seize the opportunity to enjoy before pulling me into the dance already beginning on the lawn.

I've always loved the feeling of the soft grass under my slippers as I dance, regardless of the identity of my partner. Now the familiar pleasure makes me forget that I'm dancing with Eric, that I have just been married to him, that my future is set and yet uncertain.

Off in my world of familiar pleasure, I barely notice when Eric stops dancing, pulls me closer, and leans down to kiss me.

When I do realize what's going on, I blush—oh, the burn of my cheeks!—and discreetly try to pull away. But he only tightens his grip so painfully that I remember what he's capable of doing if I dare to defy him, so I force my muscles to relax, and try, for the sake of the audience—and myself—to seem like I'm maybe enjoying this.

Evidently he's pleased with, if not fooled by, my pretense; his frown remains but he loosens his grip on my arms and takes a half step back—not enough to put me completely at ease, but enough for us to keep dancing comfortably.

After an hour or so, the ceremony is finally concluded. The guests leave with lots of congratulations and good wishes, and soon it's just Eric, Erin, and me left.

As soon as Eric releases me, I head back inside to change into one of the dresses Erin helped me alter yesterday. Leaving her brother—he's my husband now!—alone on the patio, Erin follows me into the bedroom and makes suggestions as I survey the outfits hung neatly in the closet.

"How about the pink? It almost matches your wedding dress, except that it's everyday wear, not as fancy. Oh, but they say it's not good luck to keep wearing your wedding colors once the ceremony is over. You can wear that pink as early as tomorrow, though. Maybe the green, then? It looks awesome on you: spring-grass green; it brings out the color of your eyes and complements your complexion perfectly."

But I decide, after a lot of thought, on a pale yellow gown instead. The frosty shade emphasizes the natural highlights in my hair—even though, as a personal attendant of Mistress Mackenzie, I wasn't really supposed to go outside by myself, and especially not without hat and parasol, Nat often coaxed me out of the house for an evening walk. (Mistress Mackenzie never knew, about the walks or the fact that Nat came to see me, and neither did Eric. It was our secret.)

Oh, Nathaniel. I wish you could see me now, to rescue me! He was just one of the local boys at first, one of Connor's few father-approved friends. But then one day he saw me and confronted the Fonraks. From then on he was one of my two best and only friends. He disappeared a year before I left Mr. Fonrak's house—and then he somehow found me, fourteen months later (yes, I did count them because I missed him that much). While I lived with Mistress Mackenzie, he was my only friend and comfort. (Connor was always working harder than the other servants—I think Mistress Mackenzie had a grudge against him or something; I never got to talk to him.)

"Oh!" Erin gasps, reminding me she's in the room, when I pull the dress on. "You're absolutely right—it's perfect!" She extracts the pink rose from my braid, placing it in a clear vase on the bathroom counter. In its place she inserts a yellow rose that matches the dress. "Flowers are the perfect accessory for you, Catherine," she pronounces in an all-knowing voice. "I wish I was as pretty as you. No, wait—you're not pretty. You're absolutely beautiful." She sits down next to me on the bed. "You're so lucky."

To my shame and horror, a tear drops onto the lap of my dainty golden gown. As if a door was opened to admit them, more tears fall as I allow myself to cry for the first time in months—no, years.

My childhood, both before and after that fateful day in the wildflower patch, was one of discipline. Crying was frowned on as attention-seeking weakness. Even as a very young girl—I may not remember my parents or my childhood, but I do remember that much—I seldom wept, knowing it was only safe to let the tears fall in the solitude of the nursery, or, later on, my bedroom.

I quickly look up at the sound of the door opening and closing, and relax when I discover that instead of Eric having entered the room, Erin's left. But I tense, moments later, when I hear approaching footsteps and both of their voices.

Eric is scolding his sister. "So you left her in the room alone?" There's the sound of a slap. "Don't you realize she might well have decided to run away? If she's not inside when I open the door, Erica—"

"But you have her papers, you could easily find her," Erin sobs. "Where would she go? She probably doesn't even know where she is now, and—" Another slap.

I stare as the doorknob turns, then quickly drop my gaze to my lap. I had been considering running away, but now I know I could hardly do so at Erin's expense. She's just a sweet, innocent little girl!

"So the little bird hasn't flown the coop after all." Eric's tone is completely cold. "You should consider yourself lucky, Erin. But I will see you out back in a few minutes anyway—for disobedience. You may leave now." Although his words are harsh, his touch is gentle as he places two fingers on my chin, tilting my face up.

Realizing her persecutor is distracted, Erin flees the room, closing the door behind her with a soft click.

The room is deathly silent for a few minutes. Eric, standing over me, is studying my face—I think. I'm not sure, since I'm avoiding all eye contact. At last he drops his hand to sit down on my right.