Days passed, and Deirdre was slowly regaining her health and brightness. Gerard was glad that he had not called a medic, for if he had done so, now he would probably regret that. Now, though, he could enjoy the sight of his future wife smiling and conversing with him more willingly. He suspected that the fact that he had stayed during that ill-fated night right by her bedside had influenced immensely her perception of him.
He could not know to what degree. Deirdre felt that she did not do him justice, however, it was that very night that had caused her to look at him more keenly. No, in her eyes he had not become either more handsome or, as if by magic, in any aspect more desirable. He was still the very same thirty-year-old prince, stooping and dragging his one foot – and yet, something had changed.
Deirdre did not feel right, hiding from the prince a fact so terrible, but she did realise that she could not reveal it to him. Not now, when he finally seemed to be so happy... and somehow his good humour descended to her as well. When she met him smiling in the morning, as though he was not a bitter, tired of living gentleman but a ten years younger boy who, just like her, was only getting to know the sweet taste of first love, she could not help but return this smile.
They spent much more time together. Although at first even those three meals and two hours of conversation had seemed to Deirdre to be something unbearable, she had soon discovered that the prince was a truly entertaining companion. The assets of his mind made up for any flaws of his physique: a conversation with him had turned out to be more pleasant than one with anybody else, for the prince had a vast knowledge of many subjects. He taught her, then, what the tutors failed to teach her. He also helped her with creating her own taste when it came to the music and art, for those subjects seemed to be his speciality.
Not long after that, she had got to understand that even his physical faults were not as repugnant as she had at first thought. Moreover, they did not impede the way of life many other men from affluent families led. Although the season for the shooting was already over, the prince quite often organised horse rides.
He was just getting himself ready for one of such rides when he got to know that the Geography tutor had fallen ill and he would not be able to come for a lesson to the young lady. Gerard decided that it was a perfect moment to introduce his future wife to the arcana of his favourite sport.
"I will need to have proper attire for horse rides sewn for you... but I am certain that some of your clothes will be perfect for today's ride," he said, seeing an excited blush on the girl's face as soon as he had mentioned the little excursion. It seemed that Deirdre had never mounted a horse before.
He, therefore, took her to her chamber and chose an attire that would do perfectly well during this trip. He promised her also – aside from a proper costume – a horse that would belong to her only. For if she was to learn riding a horse, she should have such a companion whom she could trust completely, and only a steed belonging to one person exclusively would do.
At such moments, Deirdre could not help but remember Quinnelly's face, distorted by an angry grimace when he had been reminding her that she had, after all, promised him that she would have never accepted anything from the prince. But what could she do when the prince apparently enjoyed giving such presents immensely, and at some point, she had found herself quite excited, too, when she had got something new. It was not simple gratitude, even though she felt that one, too; it was something much more complex, and still, so very natural.
The maid, therefore, helped her change, while talking incessantly.
"His Highness, up until now, has always been riding all by himself," she confessed to Deirdre at some point, tying her hair up in a tight bun at the back of her head so it would not get in the way during the ride. "Well, unless it was some hunt. But for such rides, he has never taken anyone."
"Why?" asked Deirdre, apparently quite intrigued, glancing at her reflexion in the mirror. Even though she was afraid that it was immodest, she found herself looking much prettier than usual.
"His Highness is a kind of a recluse, young lady," answered the maid. "He doesn't like spending time with other people... unless he must, obviously. He does hold balls, dinners, teas and God alone knows what else. But all this seems to bother him. After they are all finished, he is unusually glum."
Deirdre thought back to the ball in Ireland during which he had introduced her as his fiancée. Truth be told, when she thought of it, he had seemed to be particularly pleased with himself after it had been finished. But the circumstances had been quite different... for that night, he had been the victor. He had finally achieved what he had been wanting.
The maid had finished braiding her hair and moved back a little.
"Well, young lady, you look exceptionally beautiful," she smiled joyfully, clearly proud of her achievement. "Nothing strange His Highness is so much in love. Each and every gentleman would have fallen head over heels."
Hearing such words, Deirdre could not help blushing. For some reason, though, it was not the sentence about the other gentlemen that had pleased her so much.
"Oho! I beg your pardon, young lady... but you are blushing like this... so His Highness did hit your fancy, too?"
"We should not be gossipping," answered Deirdre at once, but she did not chide the maid for her audacity, even though she probably should have done that, and the prince would have presumably advised her to do such a thing had he heard this conversation. Fortunately, though, he had not. "His Highness is awaiting me, and I do not want to make him wait long if he is not fond of that."
The maid nodded her head and opened the door so the young lady could leave the chamber. Deirdre, then, went down the corridor, then downstairs. In the hall, Gerard was already waiting for her. Seeing her at the top of the steps, he looked at her with such a glance with which only men in love could ever look at anyone.
She was exquisite – and she belonged only to him. He could not imagine what he would have felt had Deirdre been engaged to anyone else. No, he did not even want to imagine that, for then, his heart would be filled up with fury and envy he had never felt before. Meanwhile, his betrothed's presence strangely soothed him... and he hoped that it would not change after the wedding. He needed someone who would be able to tame him. And she could do that, even though she was doing it completely unawares.
"You look very pretty, my dear," he said, offering her a gloved hand which she accepted. Recently, she had seemed not to have any problems with allowing him to lead her anywhere. She looked much more comfortable with him nearby now than before. And he did hope such a tendency would continue since he really did not want the girl to keep running away from him for her whole life.
She thanked for the compliment, smiling softly and looking down. She did that in a way very specific to the ladies from august families; for sure, an achievement of the savoir-vivre teacher's. And yet, there was something completely new in this gesture; something fresh. Something that had caused the prince to understand without any words spoken that the courtesy had indeed pleased her.
She seemed to be so fragile, and yet, he had no doubts that she alone could deal with the life awaiting her. It was not, after all, life as easy as many ladies would have imagined. Of course, she would be provided with all the luxuries, but even those luxuries at some point became quite jejune, and they could not bring any comfort to the life which resembled but a theatre: impersonating someone one was not.
Gerard had once thought that he could not desire Deirdre more, and that alone gave him the right to begin a formal courtship. Back then, he had been convinced that it had been love. A strange one, for sure, for by that time he had never believed in love at first sight, but love nevertheless. Only now, though, he was learning how much he had been at fault back then.
Now, that he had finally begun to learn how to live with Deirdre by his side, getting to know all of her virtues and blemishes, he had understood that she was not a perfect woman, but that exactly made her an ideal life companion. Although before he had seen a goddess in her, now, she had become his angel: full of goodness and warmth – and not so desperately distant as a deity would be.
By nature, Gerard was a distrustful man, yet now, he had given all of his trust to his fiancée; he would trust her with his life, believing that she would take better care of it than he would. He could not suspect that Deirdre hid something from him.
And she did not even try to change that. Indeed, she was afraid of what would happen at the moment the prince would have got the truth... but that was probably why she was trying so hard to postpone this moment as much as possible.
"Today, you will ride Bianka," said the prince once they had arrived at the stable where the stablehands had already prepared the horses for their master. "She is calm, you should have no problems whatsoever with her. Come closer."
Gerard led Deirdre towards a wonderful, cream-coloured mare which moved slightly, not recognising the person who had just approached her. After a while, though, she calmed down – just like the girl who was about to mount her. The prince gently guided Deirdre's hand along the mare's muscular body so the two would get used to each other's presence; and yet, Deirdre could not help feeling a soft twitch of her heart which had nothing to do with the fact that she was to find herself in the saddle for the first time.
Truth be told, never before had she wanted for the moment to never end. For the first time, she truly wished to be close to the prince. Not in the elegant chambers, but exactly there, in the place in which, even for a little while, she had forgotten that Gerard was a prince.
And yet, that wonderful moment was soon over, and the prince helped her get onto the horse before he, too, in an exceedingly daft motion had seated himself in the saddle on the back of his stallion. He looked at Deirdre; she had turned white and seemed to be quite terrified, but he believed that she would deal with everything without any problems. After all, he knew both – Deirdre and Bianka – and he was sure that both of them were gentle enough not to scare the other.
Soon, the girl realised that horseback riding was something incredible. Although at first, she held herself rather stiffly in the saddle, gripping the reins tightly when the prince led her to the vast meadow, as time passed, she began to relax.
Just like when I am with the prince, she thought at some point, and the thought itself caused a dark blush to appear on her cheeks. But was it not so? Her initial fury had been induced mainly by her being so terrified of the unknown, and Quinnelly only had been egging her on to stand against her future fiancé. But now, when she was finally trying to understand this man, she felt that actually, she could call this place her home. Even though she had been claiming she would never do that.
"Soon, you will be riding like the noblest of ladies, my dear," said the prince, his voice rather buoyant, as he looked to Deirdre by his side. "I will have everything prepared for you. All the equipment which will be yours only... we will be riding together if you too, as I see, seem to fancy this pastime."
Indeed, Deirdre did fancy horseback riding much more than she had at first suspected, even though at the very moment when the prince had even mentioned it, she had felt excited. And yet, this excitement had nothing to do with the elation she felt right now.
When some time later they had come back to the stable, and the boys approached them to take care of the horses, Gerard gently took Deirdre's hand and kissed its back.
"Every day, I am even prouder of the fact that I can call you my fiancée, Deirdre," he said quietly, then caressed her cheek with the very tips of his fingers. "Every day, I love you even more."
Deirdre did not answer, yet she looked up into his eyes, smiling softly. Her heart was beating madly in her chest. His subtle loving touch and endearments were barging into her heart with unforeseen force. Not that long before, she would not have suspected that she would ever be able to like this man; now, though, she realised that just his presence made her completely breathless, her head spinning.
It did not go unnoticed by the prince's clever eyes, however, he treated the case very carefully indeed, as though he was afraid of being hurt; after all, he did not want to assume anything for it would be harmful to both. And yet, he was almost certain that he had finally discovered the path to stealing the heart of his beloved.
The next evening, a ball was to take place, so Deirdre would be introduced to the local society, therefore when they had returned to the manor, there was quite a bustling in it. The prince wanted, after all, for the ball to be as sumptuous as possible – therefore, he had had different rarities from distant countries brought there, which were now being carried to the basements and pantries by the servants.
"Think of it, my dear," he addressed Deirdre, smiling, as they were passing by a couple of boys carrying enormous drums of cheese. "A ball honouring our wedding will be even more splendid. And all of that only for you."
They came to a halt. The girl felt a pang of fear at the thought of their wedding. Two days before they had set the date to the first day of Christmas. However, it was not entering the new life that horrified her to such an extent. Actually, she had got a feeling that before it would take place, something disastrous would occur.
And she had her reasons for that: Quinnelly's words about him forcing her to keep her promise were still echoing in her ears. She had no idea what the prince might do but she was quite anxious, realising that his heart was in fact exceptionally ardent. He could do something exceedingly foolish only because he fancied so. He would not think twice – instead, he would start acting.
"You know that I do not care whether the ball is grand," whispered Deirdre, slightly intimidated by the gorgeousness of everything, however, it was enough to annoy the prince. A shadow of a grimace crossed his visage, but he said not a word; he had to take a deep breath, and when he exhaled, he felt himself calm down.
"I want it to be. I want you to be surrounded by all the best," said Gerard, then gently squeezed her hand. "You deserve that."
At that moment, they were approached by a maid who curtsied slightly, by this drawing their attention to her; she was not certain whether she was not interrupting her master.
"I beg your pardon," she said quietly, "but the French tutor is here. He is waiting in the little drawing-room."
The prince looked at the clock, astonished.
"Oh, by God, indeed, you should already have begun your lesson," he cried. "Go and change, quickly, quickly. I shall talk to your tutor, he will be with you in a quarter so you may have normal classes."
And having said that, he limped towards the little drawing-room. The young lady, in turn, escorted by the maid, headed for her chamber, where she could get changed and prepare herself for the lesson.
According to what was set, a quarter of an hour later the tutor arrived in her chamber and gave her a proper lesson. Once it was over, to Deirdre's great astonishment, he handed her a little piece of paper, folded nicely into a minute square, then left.
Deirdre was right to have waited until his departure before she unfolded the note.
Dearest mine! she read,
Do be so kind and forgive me my outburst... I love you so desperately that I could not restrain my envy upon learning that at least the tiniest part of your kind heart could be open so wide for a monster of such a soft. You know perfectly that never would I ever have hurt you! Yet I am so terrified that the beast could do any harm to you.
The first banns have already reached my ears, my sweetest, dearest little bird. I am very glad that you keep this behemoth in the dark. It will be better if he suspects nothing till the very end. I can already imagine his face when he discovers that you have vanished but a night before your wedding! Tell me, my dearest, will it not be a great laugh?
Be ready, dearest mine, at the midnight on the twenty-fourth of December. And I shall find a way to steal you out of there and take you back home.
Keep in mind that all of my heart belongs to you. And it always shall.
And so it had happened. The girl closed her eyes and leant back against the wall down which she slowly slumped. She needed to end it somehow... she could not, after all, deceive Quinnelly till the very end, especially when she had finally made her choice. And no longer was it all about her responsibility; at the very beginning it had been so, yet now, she had understood that indeed, her marriage to prince Gerard would be more reasonable. Moreover...
Even in a situation as abysmal as this, she could not help but smile for she felt her heart fluttering at the sole thought of the prince. The feeling was utterly different than the one ignited by Quinnelly at the very beginning of their acquaintance. It was stronger, more intense, and yet, equally fresh. And although she did not want to admit it to herself, she finally began to understand that – whether or not she wanted it – she had started falling in love with her betrothed.
It could only bring her happiness, therefore, she did not even try to stop it. After all, every marriage could last without love, but only love could add a little bit of sweetness into it.
Doing what was in her power to calm down, she finally stood up and once again glanced at the piece of paper in her hands. Not so long ago, a similar note would have caused her to blush. But no more. She had already got to know Quinnelly's true face, and she could not imagine living with such a person. Especially not when it would have meant breaking the official engagement.
Her hands were trembling slightly but not enough to make it impossible for her to rip the note in half. She was doing it with some strange, fierce tenacity as if this way she could rid herself of all the fear and all the anger Quinnelly kindled in her. When the paper resembled nothing but a little pile of cuttings, she tossed it into the fire, blessing the fact that it was already late autumn and the servants always made sure there was flame buzzing in the fireplace.
When she took a breath, she felt strangely light. As though she had just fought off some demon from her past, as though she had shaken off the old her with whom she wanted to have nothing in common. Yes, she did know that it was not over yet and that in all probability Quinnelly would not let her forget him so easily, but she still did feel relieved.
A soft smile on her face, she called her maid, then walked to the closet to choose a gown which she would wear for dinner. That day, she wanted to look particularly pretty.