The morning of the party dawned bright and sunny. It almost promised the beginning of a great day for the manor. Kyra opened her eyes slowly and the beams of strong sunlight forced her to squint. For a moment she lay still, blinking rapidly to adjust her eyes. The light cascading into the room reminded her that it must be well past sunrise. What time was it, she wondered quietly.
Her mind was hazy from a restless night of sleep. She was slow to think. Almost in answer to her thoughts, the clock in the great hall began chiming away. She lifted a finger for each sound it made. Eight o'clock, she huffed in disgust. That meant she only had four hours left to complete her new dress. There was no possible way to finish the dress by noon! Why in the world had she allowed herself to fall asleep in the chair last night?
She stilled as the memory of the previous night came back to her. The realization that she was not in the sewing room reminded her of how she'd been carried back to her room by Caleb.
Lying against the pillows, she could vividly recall him sitting on the bed with his face just above hers. She groaned inwardly as the memory of his kiss penetrated her mind. It had been so thrilling to feel a man's lips caressing hers, and Caleb's kiss had proved to be so satisfying. If she were given the chance, she knew she would allow him such leisure again. It was a terribly unnerving thought. That she could lie here daydreaming of it was pitifully unchaste.
She closed her eyes to drown out those thoughts. As she recalled the more embarrassing event of waking to find him holding her on the floor, she groaned in shame. He must think she was simply a vile woman. She could remember so much of the nightmare that had consumed her. Had she been acting it out in her sleep? Had she looked as lunatic as Serena often described?
Then, as she thought about it, she realized this was the first time she had been able to recall so many graphic details of the dream. Normally, it faded from her mind almost as quickly as she awoke. But this time, with little effort, she could hear the words of the man who'd attacked her.
Maybe she will become a real wife to me when we are rid of you'
His words had implied that she was an unwanted child of theirs. Was she his or hers? Or, was she both of theirs? It was so apparent that he wanted her dead and out of their way. His assault on her had reached murderous levels before she had awakened on the floor, kneeling before Caleb.
She knew it was the same dream she had been having all these years. She was certain of that. But, why did that dream continue to haunt her? Was it real? Could those scenes be locked away memories from her past?
She prayed it was not so. The thought was too frightening to contemplate.
Opening her eyes once more, she decided to shut her mind against the many unanswerable questions. It would do no good to keep rehashing it. It would only prevent her from conquering her immediate problem. How was she going to finish her gown in time for the party? Oh, she sighed miserably, it probably would have been better to contract some wicked illness after all! Perhaps she should just...
Her thoughts were silenced when she noticed an odd figure standing near the door. It startled her. As she raised her head to peer at it, the sun temporarily blinded her. She blinked against the offending light and shaded her eyes to see. With growing curiosity she finally sat up and climbed out of bed to inspect the object more closely.
With slow footsteps she drew nearer to it. Her eyes widened as her mouth hung open in awe. She gazed in disbelief of the elegant creation that stood in the center of the room. It was a stunning floor length dress. Caught in shocked delight, she stared at the sight, unable to believe it.
It was made entirely of a luscious blue fabric that she knew must have cost a small fortune. It was such a soft cotton that it almost begged to be touched. Though the neck of the dress rose high, a sheer white lace had been used to create the neckline and sleeves. It dipped down with a daring cut over the bosom. A stunning white cape was attached to the neck which would cover some of the skin the lace would reveal, but it was apparent to her that a great deal would still show. Lower on the dress there was a blue satin sash that had been placed around the waist. It was so long and puffy that it acted almost as a second skirt. By far, this gown had to be the most beautiful thing she had ever set her eyes on.
She took a deep breath and began to circle around the gown, unable to believe her eyes. Just as she rounded the front of it, she spied ever more presents awaiting her on the vanity. Laid out, there was a frilly satin chemise and white lace gloves to match the sleeves. She fingered the white satin fabric and sighed at the feel of it. She'd never been offered anything so feminine before. It made her smile almost tearfully that someone would think so much of her. The last thing she noticed was a new set of hair combs sitting beside her old ones. Was that a hint that she should wear her hair up?
Who on earth would give her such a generous gift? This gown and all of its accessories must have cost dearly. So few people even knew that she needed a dress'
She discounted Cassandra almost immediately. The woman hardly knew her at all. Then, it over a bit more, she wondered if Jacob might have been the bearer of this gift.
But, no' She reasoned the fact that, if he'd been the one to do this, he probably wouldn't have let her go to so much trouble making her own dress the night before. He'd watched her spend nearly every coin in her pouch to buy the supplies at the tailor's shop. She couldn't imagine that he would have let her do that if he intended to buy her a dress. The only one left that she could think of was Serena.
It would make sense that Jacob might have mentioned the problem she was facing to Serena. Still, Kyra couldn't believe Serena's generosity. The dress had been expertly crafted and looked like nothing she'd ever seen before. It was absolutely beautiful.
She was amazed that Serena would go through so much trouble for her. She felt an immediate need to thank her for such a wonderful gift. But before leaving the room, she wanted to try the dress on.
With some haste, she stripped out of her clothes and washed with the cold water from the pitcher. Patting her skin dry with a towel from the vanity, she smiled as she slipped the satin chemise over her head. It moved with her in a most inviting way. She peeked at herself in the mirror, amazed how the material hugged her curves.
After delighting in the moment, she turned her attention to the dress. She had never owned a gown this complex. Now Kyra could see why most ladies required a maidservant to help them dress and disrobe. After unclasping the long row of hooks concealed in the back beneath a strip of fabric, Kyra finally managed to pull apart the last facet. She managed to step into it, marveling all over again as she felt it moving against her skin. It was almost made to fit her perfectly, she thought.
The sleeves were another matter entirely though. The lacy material was thin and she feared stretching it, but the fabric molded perfectly around her arms after she readjusted the sleeves a few times. The most frustrating part was trying to fasten the hooks at her back. She found herself wanting to scream in frustration as she was forced to contort in a number of ways to reach them all. She had to rest several times to keep from perspiring, but in the end she stared at herself with a satisfied smile.
The dress fit perfectly against her slight curves. The fabric shifted so invitingly against her as she moved about. It was so nice to wear a beautiful dress that actually fit so well. As a young child, she'd sometimes crept into Serena's room when no one was peeking to play dress up in her beautiful gowns. Those dresses never fit her quite right. They were always oversized and awkward to move in. This wonderful creation seemed specifically made for her alone.
How well would it blend in with Caleb's society friends though? She had to wonder. It seemed perfect for the weather today, and though it was bold in style, the colors were soft and restrained. She would just have to wait and see what everyone thought of her in it when the party started.
Another hour passed while she played with her hair. As she glimpsed the final results, she wondered if she had picked the right style. It wasn't exactly fancy. After all, no one had ever really taught her the art of braiding hair. She tried to copy what the servants sometimes did to Serena's hair, but it was an impossible task for her to manage alone.
Frustrated, she pulled the wavy mass high above her head. After some wrestling with straying wisps, she clasped it all in place with the pretty hair combs. In the front she carefully pulled down small bits and curled them around her fingers after dampening the strands with water. She knew that after a while the shorter pieces would fall anyway. This would make them appear as a planned effect.
The bells of the clock tolled out once more and Kyra's stomach set to fluttering. It was already the eleventh hour. Only one hour remained until the guests would arrive. She was so nervous that she decided to go sit by the window and look out over the garden for a while. Perhaps she might actually pass the real test downstairs, if she practiced greeting the guests beforehand, imagining their pleased reactions'
Outside the manor, Jacob was breathing heavily as he stepped from his horse and raced up to the entrance doors. Two guards had been posted outside and he waved to them with a wry smirk as he passed by. They both nodded politely, but retained their watch over the walkway.
He loved how Caleb produced such an air of formality around the manor whenever they were hosting such prominent guests. He had passed three other sets of guards along the path to the manor. It almost made the place feel like the fortress that it was intended to be. Caleb had called forward a number of the dungeon guards to play foot patrol for the day.
When the soldiers were mired in training exercises, Caleb often placed a number of the newest arrivals in such menial positions. For weeks at a time, he bid inductees hold such meaningless posts in between their heavy battle training. It taught them that the art of soldiering was not always as exciting as field play. Today though, without the aid of his soldiers in training, Caleb had uprooted a number of men from their normal positions. The entire honored guard wore their uniforms and armor. All were fitted with their best swords as they stood in wait of the entourage that was approaching.
As he laughed in silence at the dungeon guards, Jacob could well imagine what they must be thinking of him as he entered the manor. He looked in no shape to greet a house full of guests today. He was a mess from working in the fields all morning.
He had set out very early to direct the servants about the outdoor seating arrangements. All he'd intended to do was help lead a few of the crews, but he soon found himself engrossed in a thousand tasks before he knew what had happened.
Everyone was in such a frantic rush to complete their work before noon that some things were left unattended. One such obvious task had been cleaning out the stables to house the guests' horses. He could picture Caleb's reaction to that bit of news. His initial impulse was to let the news pass him by and let Caleb eat crow for missing such a simple, yet crucial task. But, then his conscience got the better of him.
He really did want more to do around the manor each day than to continue sitting idle, relaying messages for Caleb. He wanted to prove to his brother that he was capable of leading more than just the household servants. He knew he was ready to take on more responsibility, but Caleb didn't.
So, instead of letting Caleb know about the stables, he took it upon himself to gather a group of young men and set them to work. It was interesting to note how people automatically respected his authority for Caleb's sake. He had never noticed that until he'd taken over the fieldwork for Caleb a day ago. It felt good to see things accomplished by his command.
One unfinished task after another presented itself and he found himself overwhelmed before long. But he kept moving until almost everything was ready to receive their guests. By now though, he was completely behind schedule. He was supposed to have been washed and readied an hour ago to meet with Caleb. Duty called them to greet each guest as they arrived and etiquette demanded they be ready at least fifteen minutes early in case of an early arrival'Or so their mother had taught them. He was not nearly ready.
Without notice for the servants who were placing the finishing touches on the decorations, he climbed the steps two by two. He knew it was going to be a tight squeeze to the finish. He was so focused on reaching his room that he nearly knocked Serena down as he rounded a corner.
"Jacob," she gasped in fright as they jumped back from one another. "My word, you nearly toppled me over! What are you in such a'" She smiled suddenly, seeing he was a mess. His hair was flying all over and dirt and sweat was gathered on his face. She could see he was in a hurry, but she couldn't help casting him a small sideways glance for his appearance.
He sighed unavoidably. Serena was the last person he'd expected to see this morning, especially as grubby as he appeared at the moment. He did not usually care for a woman to see him when he was not at his best. Normally that was no problem. He usually detested overexerting himself for any reason. So, it was a rare moment when a woman caught him in so disheveled a state. After their tense discussion last night, he was doubly unnerved to see her now.
"Serena, I'm terribly late," he apologized as he stepped around her. "If you see Caleb, please tell him I'll be down shortly."
Lowering her eyes from him, she nodded and allowed him to go. She could see how uncomfortable he was with her right now. She was almost certain she knew why too. Had he really been offended to find her drinking a little too much brandy the night before? She'd been contemplating the error of her ways through most of the night, chastising herself for letting someone see her acting so unladylike. Biting the corner of her lip, she wondered if he'd found it necessary to inform Caleb of her behavior. She'd certainly given him enough grief to do it by arguing with him so publicly. Fretting over the thought, she changed her mind about deciding to venture downstairs just yet. If Caleb knew, she was sure to get another of his serious discussions. She was in no mood for it today.
Once again she found herself upset with Jacob. How could he be so stuffy! Why would he turn away their friendship so quickly just because she'd chosen to indulge a bit too much last night? Where had that wistful man disappeared too that she'd spent time with in the game room? In a matter of days, he'd grown so difficult and serious. But, why? Had he been in a rare mood the other night? Or was there something deeper bothering him?
She had no answers for any of it. All she knew was that she missed the whimsical comic she'd met that first day here. The man Jacob was growing into was no different from Andrew. Stuffy and irritable! It was very disconcerting to think she might end up this enraged with Andrew each day. How could she possibly live with someone who riled her each time they met?
"Another fine start to the day," she grumbled as she walked back to her room. She wouldn't go down there yet. She would wait until the guests began arriving, then she would go down. Caleb would be much too busy to lecture her then, if he even knew.
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