Caleb had been standing in the hall listening to their conversation. He was not pleased with Serena's last remark, although he greeted her courteously appearing as though he'd just happened by.
"Serena," he nodded. "Deep in thought this morning," he asked, noting the darkened color of her face.
"Oh," she stammered for a moment. She turned her eyes down, uncertain whether he'd heard her last comment. Gauging his pleasant greeting, she wasn't certain. Hoping he'd merely been passing through, she smiled, though she was unable to fully meet his eyes. "Cassandra and I were about to venture downstairs. Surely some of the other guests are up and about now," she said and forced her eyes to meet his. He appeared calm and unaware of what had transpired. She hoped her hesitation did not warrant his suspicion.
Cassandra noted his rather stiff posture. Though he appeared to be in a good mood, she felt certain he'd been eavesdropping on them. Hoping he might be preoccupied with some other matter though, she played along with Serena's game.
"Good morning, Caleb," she greeted and stepped closer. "Are you going to be joining us at breakfast this morning," she asked. His eyes turned on her a bit too sharply. She knew then that she'd been right. Caleb had heard their conversation. She was amazed that he was trying to disguise his anger from Serena.
"I've got a few things to attend to right now. However," he spoke to Serena, "you might be interested to know that you have a visitor in the entrance hall. That's why I've come looking for you."
Distracted from her embarrassment, she eagerly asked, "Who is it?" For a moment she wondered if her father had come to call. If so, did that mean she might have to leave?
A small amount of pleasure lit in his eyes then. He knew she would have better things to do than gossip about his ability to run the manor now. He had the feeling Serena might not be too pleased to learn that her fianc' had arrived.
Andrew Brady had never been one of his dearest friends, though he did admire the man for his position in life. He had used his title and influence to gain a great deal of land and wealth over the last few years. Andrew's status in life nearly rivaled his father's by now.
He did not begrudge the man for his wealth or his rich heritage. It was Andrew's view of society that irritated him most of the time. Andrew was a man who could not be pleased in Caleb's opinion. The man was a downright snob. Nothing but the best attracted his attention. His eyes measured every possession in the manor, searching for the slightest flaws. Caleb had no time for such nonsense. He could care less if the building was ornately dressed with vast displays of treasure, so long as the foundation was sound and the walls built to last.
He could not imagine Andrew's opinion of the Tyler's estate. It was a wonder that he had agreed to go through with his marriage to Serena. How on earth Sherman had managed to talk his way into the Brady's world was a mystery.
While speaking with Andrew earlier, he had wondered what possible motive there could be for this visit. It must be love, he'd thought to himself. Why else would Andrew inconvenience his week for a visit to the manor? He disliked the place, that was apparent from the moment he stepped foot in the building. His proud, aristocratic nose seemed to take offense at the notion of entering such a place. Still, he demanded to be announced and soon asked if Serena was yet dressed.
Not given to taking orders, Caleb thought about sending a servant up to fetch her, then he changed his mind. Curiosity got the better of him. He decided it would be interesting to gauge Serena's reaction to the news that Andrew had arrived. His good humor had immediately soured as he walked upon the conversation the two women had been having. Hearing Serena's opinion of his ability to run the manor did not sit well with him. He suddenly lost all interest in her questionable relationship with Andrew.
"I'm not certain who the visitor is," he informed her at last. Stepping past her, he remarked, "I was on my way up to my room when a servant caught my attention. I thought you'd be interested to know. Cassandra," he nodded cordially and continued on his way.
Let her discover Andrew on her own, he thought a bit devilishly. She was none of his concern after all.
"Cassandra," Serena asked nervously, "will you come down with me?"
A frown marred Cassandra's face as she watched Caleb's retreating back. She felt certain he was deeply insulted by their conversation. Though he'd appeared casual as he spoke, she had seen the measure of irritation in his eyes. He was not at all pleased, she thought as she turned to stare at Serena.
"What," she asked in distraction.
"Please," Serena replied, "come down with me to the entrance hall. If it is my father, I'll need a little added influence."
Tilting her head just a bit, she asked, "What do you mean?"
Grasping Cassandra's hands, she explained, "He has probably come to take me home today. I'm not ready to go yet." Her dismayed expression grew more profound as she spoke. "It has only been a few weeks since my mother passed away. I'm not ready to go back home yet."
"Oh, Serena, I'm so sorry," she gasped. "I hadn't heard about that! How awful for you'"
Shaking her head, she explained, "I'm just not ready to move on with my life. Here at Damon Manor, I've been able to let some of it go. There aren't so many reminders here. Back home it will be too much, and before I am able to come to terms with any of it, my father will be making the arrangements for the wedding. It's just too much to deal with yet'"
"Alright, Serena," she agreed and patted Serena's shaky hands. Giving her a smile of encouragement, she entwined her arm in Serena's and they began to walk down the corridor. "Introduce me to your father then," she announced determinedly. "We'll convince him that you simply must remain for the week to join in the festivities while the Earl's son is visiting."
Sighing gratefully, Serena said, "You are such a good friend to me, Cassandra."
Scoffing at the praise, Cassandra laughed, "Friendship is something that must be earned, Serena. You have certainly earned mine these past days."
Frowning a little, Serena replied, "I cannot think of anything I've done for you." Her eyes met Cassandra's as she spoke. She honestly couldn't think of a thing.
Pausing slightly, Cassandra admitted, "You have kept my secrets, just as you promised. That means more to me than you could ever know."
"Yes, but'" Serena's words broke off as they reached the top of the staircase. Her eyes were glued to the man standing by the dining room. Andrew! Her mind went numb from shock as she saw him talking with another man. "What is he doing here," she gasped.
"Who," Cassandra questioned as she saw Serena's shaken appearance. Serena had stopped dead in her tracks as she stared down to the first floor. Spying the man who'd caught her attention, Cassandra's eyebrows rose in curiosity. "Who is that," she whispered as her jaw dropped open.
The man standing by the dining room was possibly the most handsome man Cassandra had ever laid eyes on. His perfection seemed endless as she viewed him unnoticed. He could not be real, she thought in amazement.
As usual, Serena saw that Andrew was dressed as immaculately as possible. His light brown hair had been recently cut and styled. She noted that fact immediately. He wore a starched white suit with a long black cape tied about his neck, held neatly in place by a thin golden chain. He almost always wore white. It was an odd habit he'd formed, disdaining the thought that some stain on his clothing might go unnoticed.
She'd thought he was jesting when he'd mentioned it to her once. Yet, each time she saw him there he stood in his freshly pressed white suit. He carried several changes of clothing with him at all times, always prepared in case an accident should happen.
He stood with rigid posture as he glanced up at the clock impatiently. Serena felt near to fainting as she watched him. Was he here to take her home? How could she convince him to let her stay?
Looking down at her own appearance, she suddenly began pulling at the creases in her gown. She stepped back out of view as she hastily ran over to the closest mirror. Spying her pale features in it, she began pinching at cheeks to give them some color. She didn't want him to think she was sickly.
"Serena," Cassandra pleaded and asked once more. "Who is that man? You cannot keep me in suspense."
"Th-that's Lord Andrew Brady," she answered at last. Her teeth chattered as she spoke. What could he possibly want, she wondered in rising panic.
"Serena stop," she huffed and placed a gentle hand on her tense shoulder. "You'll work yourself into a frenzy. Just take a deep breath and try to relax."
Gritting her teeth, Serena sighed and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "He's going to take me home now," she whined miserably. "What if he is thinking to marry me now," she asked, biting nervously at the corner of her lip. She wasn't ready to make those vows to him yet. Her whole world would change once they were married. She didn't see how she could ever live up to his impossible standards.
"Come now," Cassandra chastised. "He's your fianc'e, Serena. He likely has come out of an effort at courtship. You must try to calm yourself and gather the strength to venture downstairs. You mustn't keep a man like him waiting."
Turning worried eyes to Cassandra, she took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "Do I look alright," she asked as they headed for the first step.
"Yes, Serena, you look beautiful," she encouraged.
Serena nodded then. This was the best gown she'd brought to the manor. Somehow fate had given her the foresight to wear it today. She'd almost broken down and chosen a much subtler color and style for today. She would never have been able to greet him in anything less than the best that she owned. He would frown on it for sure.
They descended the staircase slowly. Cassandra walked behind Serena, fairly nudging her into movement each time they stopped. Unwilling to allow Serena another moment to think, she edged her down the stairs until Andrew turned and spotted them at last.
"My dear Lady Tyler," he welcomed as he saw her. Stepping away from the man he'd been talking to, he walked over to meet her half way. "Lord Damon told me you might still be sleeping," he commented in amusement.
Did he disapprove of that too, she wondered. "No," she smiled to hide her nervousness. "I was visiting with my friend upstairs."
"Ah yes," he turned to admire Cassandra. "You are the daughter of Lord Carrington I presume. Lord Damon told me you were staying here as well." His eyes took in her appearance, measuring her against Serena. He was not pleased with what he saw.
"I'm certain my father would wish for me to send his dearest regards on your impending marriage, Lord Brady. I'm certain he will plan on attending," she added on impulse. Goodness knew Anson wouldn't be caught dead at a wedding!
"He will," Andrew questioned mildly. "Did we invite him," he turned to Serena pointedly. Realizing the mistake he was making, he quickly qualified, "Of course, if you are a friend of Serena's, you are more than welcome to attend." His eyes returned to Serena once more and he bowed his head slightly as he said, "I'd have a word with you if it is possible, Serena."
Smiling ever more brightly to hide her nervousness, Serena agreed, "Of course there is time to speak. Why don't we step outside and'"
"Uh'" he hesitated and then pointed to the ballroom. 'Why don't we use that room since it is unoccupied at the moment?'
Shrugging, Serena nodded and waited for him to lead the way. She heard his muttered curse about the dust outside as she followed him through the door.
She stood just inside the door as he paced for a moment. Coming to some decision, he finally turned and asked, "Are you nearly finished with this adventure away from home. There is much to begin planning and time is growing short."
Swallowing back against a lump in her throat, Serena replied, "I thought we weren't going to be married for a while yet." Her face grew forlorn as she said, "My father explained to you that I am helping Kyra adjust here, didn't he?"
Nodding shortly, Andrew agreed, "I know you have come here to get her settled in, yes. And I know that you've needed some time to get over the loss of your mother. But, Serena, things are being moved up a bit. It has become necessary to advance the date of our wedding."
"Advance it," she cried, then stifled her outburst when she saw his expression. His eyes had widened and he did not look pleased.
"I suppose it would be best to continue this conversation a little later," he spoke after a moment of reflection. "When you are a little less unpredictable, we will discuss it further." Dismissing her emotional outburst, he began to walk past her, then changed his mind and turned back. "Perhaps," he suggested, "you would consider changing your outfit before the others begin to arise."
Holding back the insulted look from her eyes, she turned away to face the far end of the room. She should have known he would find fault with her.
"Were you merely dressed among these peasants it would be one thing, but you are soon to become my wife, Serena. It isn't fitting to have the daughter of a Viscount dressed in the height of fashion while my own fianc' dresses in clothes meant for a Baron's home. Better yet," he announced, "I'll have my tailors sent up to your room. In the meantime, why don't you go and see if there is something more you could do with your hair."
Serena bit her tongue. She refused to give in to the temptation to spit at him. Her father would be furious if she did anything to dissuade the impending marriage. Forcing herself to smile once more, she turned to face Andrew. With the bravest face she could muster, she walked past him and left the room without a word to him.
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