As Sarah moved across the room to help with arranging Anaria’s hair, someone knocked at the door. Gwen went to answer it, standing to one side as her little brother slipped through the door, wide-eyed.
“Mum, you look like a princess.”
He flushed at the smiles and chuckles this brought and Sarah gave him a quick kiss on the forehead which he didn’t squirm away from quite as quickly as he once might have.
“I’ve a message for Lady Anaria.”
Anaria looked around, “Thank you Tam, what is it.”
Tam looked up at her, “Your mum’s here and asked to see you, My Lady Duchess says I’m to ask what you want.”
The busy group around her paused and Anaria pressed a hand over her heart, “Just my mother?”
“Yes miss, Lady I mean.”
Anaria looked down at her hands, still work roughened and likely to stay that way with her visits to Maggie, “I’d like to see her. Please ask her to join us. And maybe the Duchess as well if she’s not busy with Liam or important guests.”
Tam grinned, “My Lady Duchess has been wanting to join all morning but didn’t want to intrude. She’ll be here soon as winking.”
Anaria gulped, but smiled and nodded, “Thank you Tam.”
The boy skipped to the door and opened it, calling out as he left, “You look like a princess too My Lady, and Gwen looks like Gwen.”
He scampered out before his sister, sure that was somehow a tease, could catch him.
Miriam arrived first, pausing just inside the door and sighing sentimentally, “You look lovely my dear.”
She crossed the floor and took both Anaria’s hands, kissing her on each cheek, “Just a few more hours until you’re properly and officially part of our family.”
She stepped to one side as Tam arrived, holding the door open for Anaria’s mother.
She hurried through the door, then stopped, much as the Duchess had, but her focus was on the people surrounding her daughter, “Oh dear.”
Anaria did her best to hide her hands in her skirts without doing anything to crush the fabric, “Hello mother.”
Before she could respond, Anaria turned to the Duchess and Sarah, “Lady Miriam, Sarah, may I introduce my mother, Janna. Mother, may I present the Duchess of Clearwater, and Sarah.”
The warm smile accompanying the latter part of her speech was returned by the two women beside her.
Her mother started and dropped a quick curtsey before moving to stand in front of Anaria, reaching out a hand to touch her cheek.
“My poor child, I’m so sorry for what your father did.”
Anaria smiled gently, “Well, it turns out it was all for the best, so there’s no need to worry.”
Janna reached into a pouch at her waist, “I brought your grandmother’s necklace, she gave it to me on my wedding day.”
She held it out, a heart-shaped locket, suspended on an intricate gold chain. Anaria, confused, reached out a hand to receive it, her mother gasped, “Ana, your hands.”
Anaria refused to hide them, “Yes, I’ve been learning to spin and weave, among other things.”
Her mother pressed the necklace into Anaria’s hand, leaning forward to say quietly, “It’s not too late you know, you can still come home.”
Anaria jerked back, “What?”
“Darling, you don’t belong here, you’re a merchant’s daughter, you need to come back where you belong. If you’re very nice to him, we might even be able to convince Sebastian to renew his courtship.”
“You want me to abandon the man I love, so you can try and push me back into a tight little box and try your best to marry me off to a man I despise?”
Anaria stepped away from her mother, the pain punching through her heart like an arrow. A horrible thought occurred and she carefully opened the locket. Empty, her mother had removed their pictures from it. At least she hadn’t put a miniature of Sebastian in there.
She found shelter in the shocked support of the two women who’d all but adopted her as their own.
She turned to the Duchess, “Miriam, my father’s mother gave this to my mother to show her delight in welcoming her to the family. You’ve already done so much to welcome me, it would mean so much if you could put this on me, so I have a keepsake of my grandmother at my wedding, gifted by my husband’s mother.”
She turned to Sarah, “I wish I had two of them, you’ve been my friend, my mentor, my teacher and my mother in so many ways.”
Both women gave her warm, fond smiles, effortlessly ignoring the woman standing awkwardly before a group of horrified castle staff.
Miriam took the offered necklace, and Anaria turned so it could be fastened around her neck.
“There you are. It goes beautifully with your dress.”
Anaria looked over at her mother, “Thank you for bringing the necklace and I’m sure your concerns were kindly meant, but I do belong here, in a way I never did in town. Far more importantly, I love Liam, and can’t wait to see him, it’s only been since yesterday and I miss him like a part of me is gone. I will not give that up for anything.”
Miriam stepped forward a little, “You are welcome to come and take tea with us one afternoon, once the children are back from their travels.”
Janna looked bewildered, “Travels?”
Miriam looked amused, “Your daughter is the future Duchess of Clearwater, she is to be presented to the Court-of-All-Nations at their Midsummer Ball.”
Janna’s jaw dropped, “But she’s just a little town girl.”
Anaria put up her chin. “I’m Liam’s town girl mother, and that makes all the difference.”
She turned to the women clustered around her, “I believe we have a wedding to prepare for. Are we on time?”
As if released from a spell, the attendants breathed out, then started chattering and bustling. Tam, showing unusual astuteness and diplomacy, politely hustled Janna out of the door and back to the main hall.