The rest of the preparations were completed without drama, although the wound to Anaria’s heart still ached.
Finally, she was pronounced ready, and her helpers led her from the room. She was escorted downstairs by the group of laughing, chattering women and felt warmed by their happiness on her behalf. Well, if her mother couldn’t appreciate her, it was a good thing she’d found people who did, even when she made mistakes.
They left her in a small, neat waiting room, outside the entrance to the Great Hall. She took a few deep breaths and waited for Tam to open the door for her.
When the door did open a minute or so later, it wasn’t Tam, but the Duke who walked in.
“Your father wishes to apologise to you. He’s sent your mother home, as she said she was unwell. Would you like to speak with him?”
Anaria breathed deeply again. “I will speak with him after I’m married to Liam. Not before.”
The Duke gave one of his rare smiles. “I’ll tell him. Tam will be with you as soon as he can scold me back into position.”
Anaria chuckled and started a final check of her appearance as the door closed behind him.
Tam appeared shortly afterwards, slightly frazzled. “Sorry for the wait, My Lady, but My Lord Duke insisted on wandering about and everyone needs to be in their proper place.”
He collected himself and held the door open for her. Then as she left the room, let the door go so he could run around her and signal the two guardsmen to open the main doors to the hall.
The guards shared an amused smile at the boy’s officiousness, but followed his orders and swung the doors open to reveal the Hall to Anaria; and Anaria to the Hall.
Spirits of the Wind, but there were a lot of people there and every last one of them looking at her. Another of those deep breaths and she caught a wink and a smile from Tilly, who was standing near the back, keeping a positively effervescent Patty from bouncing right off the bench.
Anaria smiled back and walked forward.
By the time she was halfway down the aisle, she’d run out of villagers to share smiles with and focused on the front. Liam was standing there, waiting for her. His hair unusually neat and his gaze completely focused on her.
Everyone and everything else receded, she smiled at him and was rewarded with a returning smile that said everything; love, pride, nervousness and joy.
She reached him and he took her hands. The ceremony was a blur. Before she knew it, everyone was cheering and Liam was leaning in to kiss her.
The following couple of hours were a flurry of laughter, hugs and well-wishes. As the crowd thinned and people were tempted away by the tables groaning with food and drink, Anaria’s father approached her.
Liam bristled, but remained silent as her father stood before them, his mouth downturned as he fidgeted, saying nothing for an exceedingly awkward amount of time.
Anaria broke the silence. “My Lord Duke said you wanted to speak with me. Thank you for waiting. What is it you wanted to talk about?”
Her father looked at the ground, then at her. “I’m so sorry Ana. I did the wrong thing. I should never have let my pride put a guest before my daughter and should never, never, have turned on you like I did.”
He turned to Liam. “All I can do is to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for being a better man than I am.”
He went on. “I know what I did was unforgivable and I don’t expect you to do so, but I would ask that you maybe visit, or write, from time to time, and let me know you’re alright.”
His breath shuddered out. “I searched the forest villages for you for months. I never knew there were so many, but no one had ever come across someone of your description.”
Anaria held tight to Liam’s arm. “You looked for me?”
“Of course. You’re my daughter and my stupidity put you in danger. I had to find you. And then there you were at the castle. When they brought you back, unconscious and bleeding, that was the worst night of my life, although all the ones since losing my temper were bad.”
Anaria felt tears welling up. “Papa, it wasn’t all your fault. I was rude to you and your guests. I did provoke you.”
Liam scowled at that. Her father noticed and a tiny smile peeked through. “I think I’m going to agree with your husband on this, Ana. No provocation should warrant that response.”
“What about mother? She came to give me Grandma’s necklace, then tried to tell me to come back to town with her and marry Sebastian.”
Liam spun to her, eyes wide. “What?!”
Anaria nodded. “That was sort of my reaction too. She thinks I’m just a silly little girl and not good enough for you, or for this. She’d given me the locket by then so I asked your mother to put it on me and then Tam showed her out.”
Anaria’s father sagged and they both darted forward, helping him to a seat, then pulling chairs around so they could sit as well.
“I’d wondered what had happened. She was so determined to see you and then just about ran out of the place when she returned. I’m afraid she’s not able to see beyond her own little world and can’t understand how others can not only see, but grow beyond the confines of their childhood. You were already growing beyond Gandry and I thought you’d have more scope for your talents in Orna. I hadn’t realised quite how bad Sebastian was though.”
He grinned suddenly. “Nice punch by the way, Your Lordship. Sebastian’s been staying with us since Anaria left, Master Gent’s request, so he can ‘get a feel for the business’. I’ve been aching to punch him as you did for most of that time.”
“Why’s mother still so keen on him then?”
“Oh, he’s very good at being charming to the ladies when he wishes and being nice to your mother gets him all sorts of treats and spoiling. She probably would have been better with a son she could just trail along and admire.”
He looked at Anaria. “She doesn’t understand our daughter is every bit as admirable.”
He sat up straight. “I’m taking up too much of your time. I just wanted to say I’m sorry and I was wrong and I love you and I am so proud of you.”
He turned towards the duke, who was making his way over. “Thank you for letting me monopolise them for so long.”
The duke inclined his head. “Not at all. It allowed me the time to see to that business matter you asked about. Since all the staff and town councillors were assembled and I told them it was a wedding present of sorts, the notaries were more than happy to speed the approvals.”
He presented Anaria with a sheaf of papers, signed, sealed and beribboned until the original script could barely be seen.
“Congratulations, my dear. Your father has bought Master Gent’s shipping business and asked me to oversee the formalities of transferring it to you as a gift on your marriage.”
Anaria’s jaw dropped and she stared at first one man, then the other, before slowly reaching out and taking the offered papers.
Her father cleared his throat awkwardly. “There is one condition though. You need to maintain a job of some sort for Sebastian until such time as he chooses to leave it.”
He then gave her a slightly evil sideways grin. “Of course, the actual nature of the job is entirely up to you.”
Anaria and Liam took a moment to process this, then started laughing. The other two joined in and some time passed before any of them could stop.
Anaria mopped her eyes. “Well, he can’t be allowed anywhere near customers or suppliers, and he’ll need to be supervised by someone who won’t put up with his antics. I’ll draw up a list tomorrow.”
Her father reached for the papers and shuffled through to one at the back. “I’ve made a start. There are a few of Master Gent’s boat captains who’d be happy to build his character, so I added them in as well.”
Anaria grinned up at Liam and leaned in to him. “Something to think about on our journey?”
He grinned back and reached across for the papers as her father offered them back.
“Absolutely. And on that note, we need to find food and have a few more conversations, although I doubt they’ll be anywhere near as interesting or rewarding as this one. The coachman is insistent we leave before tea time in order to make the first inn this evening, so there is a lot to pack into a very short time.”
The four stood and re-joined the crowd, the duke taking charge of the papers at Liam’s request, with a promise to see them into the luggage.
In the blink of an eye, Anaria was climbing into the Clearfall coach, setting off with her new husband for the Court-of-All-Nations. As they cleared the castle gate and left the cheering, waving crowd behind, she settled into her favourite spot, tucked into Liam’s side and smiled at him.
“Happy, town girl?”
“Yes, yes I am. And all because you stood in front of the right window, at the right time, and were kind to a book.”