The day had finally come, the day of my reckoning. The day my father had planned and paid for, my mother had fussed and prayed over, lighting her candles and repeating her promises to God. The day everyone said was the best day of the rest of my life. Married to Martin, the oldest son of the most powerful man in the city. The most powerful and the wealthiest, the two stepping hand in hand. He would one day inherit everything and I would be by his side in the receiving.
But what did I see for me? A blissful wedded union? No. I could only foresee days, endlessly long, of being the lone captive in a house of room after room, too many to count, each one more ornate and gilded than the previous. And, of course, I cringed at the nights, much worse, trapped with a man I did not love and who did not love me, but who would forcefully take me as his own, because to do so was his right, to ensure his name continued. His power.
This was not the man I loved. I loved another. A man of kindness and tender passion. Of intellect who saw me as one who could keep rhythm with his conversation, his knowledge. A man who had not once kissed my mouth but whose lips lingered just long enough at my cheek or my hand, his eyes meeting mine afterward with sad ardor.
Oh, how I desired him. How I needed him. How I wondered as the final clasps of my wedding dress were fastened by my mother how I could possibly survive the rest of my life without him as my companion.
He would be in my life, yes, but not as I wanted him. Never as I wanted him.
I blinked back tears as my mother pinched my cheeks a little too hard to bring about a natural blush. "Stop it," she warned. "You will do this. You must. Your father and I are depending on you now."
"Yes, Ma-ma," I answered her as any dutiful child would do.
"You've taken enough and now it is time to give back. Haven't we always given you the best? Didn't we allow you to spend time abroad, in spite of our reservations?"
She handed me my bouquet of flowers, the sweet scent of pink tea roses nestled in greenery rising to my nostrils. Sickeningly sweet.
"And didn't you promise us--"
"Yes," I answered too quickly, not wanting her to remind me further.
"And now that promise must be fulfilled," she said anyway. "You will marry Martin and you will come back to this home--this great and magnificent house--not as a bride-to-be, but as a wife. You will obey your husband fully and you will be happy to do so. You will have your own children and you will see that that we--your papa and I--have had only the best intentions for you. You will serve as his wife and you will . . ." She faltered, but only for a moment. "You will look the other way at his indiscretions."
Martin with other women. I couldn't care less, but I wouldn't tell my mother this. If he were with another woman, it meant he was not with me. For whatever amount of time he spent with her would be hours of my own freedom. Not that Ma-ma needed to hear me say this. It would bring another pinch, this time to the flesh behind my arm, a sting I had known well over the nineteen years of my life. "Yes, Ma-ma."
"Let us leave this room then. Papa waits at the foot of the stairs and the carriage is ready to take you to the church." Her eyes found mine again. "Tell me--promise me again--that you will not do anything to upset this day."
I took a breath. Swallowed back all protests. Shouldn't a mother care that her only daughter was being led like a lamb to slaughter? But to say so was fruitless. "I pro--"
My words were cut short by the opening of the door. We turned to see the formidable presence of my father filling the gap, bringing shadow to the light. "There is an issue," he said. But before he could say more, Martin's brother, Edward, came to stand behind him. Tall and dark and devilishly handsome, dressed in his own wedding clothes.
Papa turned to face him. "Well?"
"He is most definitely gone."
"Gone?" my mother said, her voice demanding. "What do you mean . . . gone?" She immediately rushed toward my father, toward Edward, brushing past them, her dress swooshing in her wake, disappearing into the corridor.
My father turned. Looked at Edward. "Do what you can to explain it to her," he said. "I must go after my wife before she does something--"
Edward nodded. "I will, sir."
He waited until my father had gone before walking across the room, looking down at me, his eyes almost worshipful. "My Lord," he whispered. "But you are a vision."
"Edward," I said, then ran the tip of my tongue over my lower lip. "What did you mean? Where has Martin gone?"
"No one knows," he whispered. "He left a note . . ."
A tear slipped down my cheek. Edward caught it with his thumb, then eased the bouquet of roses from my grip. He set them on the mantle behind him, before turning back to say, "You are sad, Marguerite."
"No," I said, keeping my voice low. "I am relieved." So blessedly relieved.
He opened his arms. Not wide as though for a child who would run into them, but just enough for a woman to understand the command. "Come here," he said.
I took a step--two--my bridal train wrapping around me like a foundation meant to keep me tangled. And then another step and Edward enfolded me in his arms. I pressed my face against his chest and breathed in the essence of him--leather and tobacco--then exhaled in exhausted compose. "Edward," I whispered.
He kissed the top of my head, not daring to leave his lips there longer than expected. Than would be deemed appropriate at this time. On this day. "Yes, my love," he said. "I am here."