You May Kiss the Bride(8)

By: Lisa Berne

Cheered by a comfortable sense of resolve, Gabriel rode on.

Chapter 2

“Not go to the ball?” Aunt Bella said, for what was possibly the twentieth time. “But Livia, whyever not? Such a delightful treat for you, I’m sure, and your Uncle Charles so thoughtful as to take you. Come away from those drapes. It will rain, I feel it in my very bones, and I do not care to see it. What on earth are you wearing? You look a positive ragamuffin. Your ankles are showing! Surely it’s not one of the gowns which Cecily so generously gave you?”

“No.” Today was one of those days when Livia couldn’t bear to put on yet another of Cecily’s things, and so she’d worn an old dress of Aunt Bella’s which she hadn’t even bothered to alter. What did she care that it was too short and an ugly puce color and looked ghastly on her? As Cecily had pointed out with that barbed sweetness of hers, she didn’t go anywhere anyway.

Briefly vivified by Livia’s dreadfully off appearance, Aunt Bella now lost interest in the subject. “My head is aching,” she said fretfully. “I need a little more cordial. Ring for someone to bring it to me. And do go. Your pacing about is making my head worse.”

“Certainly, Aunt.” Livia pulled violently on the bell cord and without ceremony left the drawing-room. She went quickly to her bedchamber where she exchanged her slippers for a pair of sturdy old boots and flung round her shoulders another of Aunt Bella’s discards—a large and hideous gray shawl, stretched in places and shriveled in others. Then she ran downstairs and out a little-used side door. She couldn’t bear the stifling atmosphere for one more minute.


She needed to be outside.

Livia walked rapidly along the damp, soft path that led her to the woods and into their quiet refuge. With a deep sense of relief, she breathed in the rich, wild scent of earth, plants, seemingly even the sky itself. How beautiful it was. She had spent so much time here, walking and wandering, it seemed that every tree, every shrub, every stone was known to her. Rain began to fall, and a cool wind whipped playfully around the tops of her boots and fluttered at loose tendrils of hair that had escaped her careless braid.

She had forgotten to wear a bonnet, but there was no one to see her and besides, she was hardly some delicate little miss to melt away in a little rain: she had no fear of succumbing to illness. A good thing, she thought sardonically, for who would tend to her if she did? Not Aunt Bella, who could barely get herself out of bed each day, nor any of the harassed, unhappy servants who went sullenly, sloppily, about their duties.

Livia could feel her boots sinking deliciously into the mud, then kicked at some sodden clumps of leaves, scattering them. She wished she never had to go home.

Not that Ealdor Abbey had ever really felt like home.

Fighting back a sharp, sudden pang of loneliness, Livia found herself walking quietly now, along a faint and twisting track that led to the old woodsman’s cottage she had discovered long ago. Here it was, a simple little dwelling formed from crudely fashioned logs, abandoned and decrepit, entirely covered with vines, with only a gaping space where once a door had been and the doorway itself rotted away. In her fancy it had been an elven home, or a mystical chapel where fairy weddings took place beneath the green canopy that the roof had become. All at once a slight movement within stopped her. She caught her breath in wonder, and stared, for inside the cottage, twenty feet away, stood a young doe, unmoving, gazing back at her with dark liquid eyes.

And then: a tawny form to her left, among the trees; it shifted, stamped a hoof, and she saw a great stag, its head lifted proudly. The doe’s mate?

Livia stood absolutely still, as if frozen in time, half-expecting some fantastical minister—part human? part beast?—to show himself and perform the sacred rites of marriage.

Instead there came the unmistakable sound of hoofbeats. The doe darted in one direction, the stag another, directly across the path where a rider had come and startling his immense black horse, which reared in alarm, deadly sharp hooves flying out, and was promptly reined in, in a display of strength and finesse that Livia watched with a kind of fascinated alarm. She wanted to run away—the horse looked horribly fierce—but wondered, panicked, if it would come after her. It was just the sort of situation in which she would be running, trip over an exposed tree root, and immediately be trampled. For all she knew, the horse and rider would simply go on and leave her to die an ignominious death in the mud. Things like that happened all the time. Her life was far from perfect, but neither did she have any interest in meeting her Maker today. So, willing her erratic breathing to slow down, she stayed right where she was.

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