First Floor Of The Manor:
For a day so early in spring it was surprising to most of the guests how warm it had grown. The afternoon heat was almost unbearable as many of the guests finally abandoned the outdoor festivities and returned to the cool haven of the house. Only a few diehard individuals remained in the courtyard now.
Most of the crowd gathered on the first floor, spread throughout the building. A variety of buffet tables had been set in each room and everyone was testing the meals presented. The amount of food consumed was amazing. It was quite an event in itself to watch the servants trying to refill bowls faster than the crowd emptied them.
Within an hour many of the guests had gorged themselves into weariness. Scattered chairs were soon filled as the guests continued to socialize.
Serena stood at the bottom of the stairway glancing from room to room in search of Andrew. She had no desire to speak with him. Instead, she sought him out in an effort to avoid him. She spied him in the ballroom. He was conversing with Caleb and Blake. Neither looked the least bit interested in their conversation with him, which wasn't all that surprising. Still, sighing gratefully, she crossed the hall and entered the busy dining hall. She spotted Cassandra and Kyra seated at a table across the room.
Smiling now, she made her way through the crowd slowly, taking a longer route around the outskirts of the room. She would rather avoid the attention of the other guests at this point. She felt like a waving flag in the outfit Andrew had picked out for her to wear. She couldn't believe the man's taste.
The gown she wore had certainly gained her the disdainful stares of many women in the manor as she finally descended the stairs a few minutes ago. Upon his call to the tailors, Andrew had demanded they construct a gown with all due haste using a shiny royal blue satin fabric that swished and bustled with every move she made. He had insisted they sew in as many layers of fabric as possible so that the skirt flared out maddeningly. It bumped up against everything as she walked, which made traversing through the crowded tables nearly impossible without asking someone to politely move.
As if that weren't bad enough, he had insisted they design a new corset to enhance her modest figure. The straps bound her waist so tightly that she could scarcely breathe. The sharp arch created under her bosom was extremely uncomfortable. Andrew insisted this was all at the height of fashion in London. He would hear no argument of protest from her when the finished product had been presented to her three hours later. He seemed unusually pleased with the effect it had on her figure, assuring her that she would grow used to it in time.
All Serena knew was that she couldn't wait for this day to end. She couldn't remember feeling so uncomfortable in her life. As she approached her friends, she couldn't imagine what their reactions would be. She almost dreaded it. Still, it was much more preferable to being shuttled around on Andrew's arm as he showed her off to the other guests.
Kyra sat at a table eating with Cassandra. Her earlier moodiness had disappeared now. She was actually enjoying herself quite thoroughly. She was coming to depend on Cassandra's companionship more and more as they spent time together. She felt almost as comfortable socializing with Cassandra as she did with Serena now.
Cassandra was just beginning a delightful tale about the time Caleb and Elizabeth were caught in a maidservant's closet by his father. Just as she began to laugh over how embarrassed they both were, she suddenly paused and looked up over Kyra's shoulder. Turning in curiosity, Kyra blinked in rapid succession, as she viewed what she believed to be Serena walking toward them in the most stunning dress she had ever seen in her life. It was a bit overdone for the afternoon affair, but Kyra couldn't believe the way it fitted to her every curve. Kyra hadn't realized Serena had so many curves.
With her mouth hung slightly agape, she could only nod as Serena stopped close by them. She almost felt inclined to stand and curtsy to Serena in that dress. It was out of character for her to dress so formally. She wondered what had brought about the change.
"Not a word," Serena forewarned with a look that shot daggers. She was fairly fuming inside. It was obvious that both Cassandra and Kyra were in shock as they caught their first glimpse of her. She had hoped they might at least attempt to disguise their reactions for her sake.
Raising brows at her in surprise, Kyra immediately realized Serena wasn't at all pleased. In fact, she seemed rather embarrassed from the look of things.
Noticing Serena's sour mood as well, Cassandra managed to mask her own feelings with a more pleasant expression. "Serena," she welcomed warmly. Smiling as best she could, she complimented, "You look stunning. Honestly, you do."
Feeling a measure of relief as Cassandra spoke, Serena searched her friend's eyes. Knowing Cassandra was trying to be kind, she explained, "This was not my idea. I assure you, this dress was not of my choosing."
Kyra listened to that and caught Serena's attention as she asked, "Why would you choose to wear such a gown if you aren't happy with it? I've never seen you so formally dressed before."
Just as Serena was about to explain, Andrew entered the room and called out to her. All three women turned their attention to him. It was Kyra who was caught by surprise this time. Serena merely whined, knowing she'd been found.
When had he arrived, Kyra wondered as he quietly approached them. She knew the reason for Serena's overdressed state then. She silently wished someone would snake out a foot to trip Andrew as he made his way over to their table. He walked with the grace of a thousand kings. His thin frame was held proudly and his hands were clasped lightly behind his back as he took each step. It was obvious he craved the notice of the entire room as made his way across the room. That was probably the reason he remained forever garbed in white. He loved standing out in a crowd.
"Serena, darling," he chastised lightly when he neared her. "I've been waiting to introduce you to some of the men in the other room. It seems a great many of the people here were unaware you are my intended bride."
"Is that so," she remarked innocently. She almost wished it were possible to keep it that way. Knowing it was her duty to entertain his fancy, she grudgingly accepted his arm. Plastering on a pleasant face, she apologized to both Cassandra and Kyra as he led her away.
Kyra frowned after the two of them. She couldn't believe Andrew had made an effort to come all this way to spend time with Serena. What on earth could he have up his sleeve now? Was it possible that no one else could see how fake the man was?
"Kyra, where have you gone off to," Cassandra smiled and waved a hand before her face.
Turning back around, she shrugged and shook her head. One of these days she was going to have a serious talk with Serena regarding Andrew Brady. It was so hard to believe that Serena was going to be married to him one day soon.
"Do I get the impression you do not care for Lord Brady, hmm?" A teasing light entered Cassandra's eyes. She imagined Kyra might be feeling a bit jealous of the man her friend was engaged to. She was nearly losing a sister after all.
Waving a hand away from them, Kyra motioned that she would prefer to end the conversation concerning him. There was little point in trying to make Cassandra understand her dislike of Andrew. It was a topic she had no right to pursue, at least not with Cassandra in any case. She was determined to discuss this with Serena, however.
Out in the hall, Jacob entered the manor just as he spotted Serena being escorted into the ballroom. His eyes examined Andrew as he watched the two exchanging pleasantries with some of the guests. Seeing Caleb standing in the doorway of the ballroom, he decided to broach the subject with him.
"Caleb," he called out lightly, greeting his brother with a smile.
"Ah, Jake," he returned. Noting his brother's disheveled appearance, Caleb felt a bit amused. Jacob would never change. He just couldn't resist a good ball game, no matter how prestigious the company was that they were entertaining. "I trust you won at least, considering you're wearing our driveway on your sleeves."
Sending Caleb a wry smirk, he remarked, "There are twelve men outside that are more covered than I, Brother. But, if it will ease your conscience, I shall adjourn to my room and get cleaned up."
"That would be appreciated," he said, though it was obvious his seriousness was feigned. He was glad to see Jacob in good spirits today. He'd been so moody of late. Though he tried to allow Jacob his privacy, Caleb did not enjoy seeing his brother unhappy. It was good to see his disposition improved.
"Well," a voice remarked from behind Jacob. "This must be your young brother."
Jacob's grin remained in place as he slowly turned around, though an irritated spark lit in his eyes. His face remained pleasant as he came face to face with Andrew.
Andrew examined Jacob for a moment and distaste immediately rose in his eyes. Then it seemed he saw no reason to care about the man's unkempt attire as his brows once again rose and his face turned to acknowledge Caleb instead.
Jacob looked at Serena for a moment. She looked absolutely stunning as she stood in the full length gown, though it was a bit overdone in his opinion. He couldn't help noticing that she looked rather uncomfortable as she stood beside Andrew. Her eyes did not meet his as he looked at her. She seemed a bit embarrassed by Andrew's remark.
Rather than letting his irritation show, he swallowed a bit of pride and feigned ignorance. "That's right," he agreed suddenly. Andrew's eyes turned back to him and Jacob replied with a smile, "I'm Caleb's younger brother. And, you must be Serena's fianc'. I'm pleased to make your acquaintance." A bit too enthusiastically, he clapped Andrew on the shoulder and was pleased to notice the dark handprint that marred the crisp white material of Andrew's suit. Appearing oblivious of his faux pas, he nodded happily to both of them and turned back to Caleb saying, "I'll go and get changed now. Good to meet you, Lord Brady," he said and as he bound up the stairs to go get cleaned up.
Andrew stared after him, turning to Serena a moment later. He noted a smirk on her face as she turned away from him. Mindless of what she found so amusing, he merely shrugged as he turned his attention back to Caleb.
Caleb bit back a smirk of his own, realizing Andrew had not yet noticed the stain on his shoulder. Though he knew he should reprimand Jacob for pulling such a stunt, his momentary amusement outweighed his desire to appropriately deal with his brother. He knew Jacob had taken exception to Andrew's remark. It was unacceptable to allow his brother to offend the Viscount's son for such a reason, but at the moment he couldn't manage to contain his laughter. Rather than antagonizing the situation further, he pretended to notice a friend in the distance and excused himself before he erupted in a fit of laughter.
In the dining hall, Kyra had nearly regained her former enjoyment for the party, before Phillip Redmon decided to make his presence known to them as they conversed with a man who had stopped by to compliment Cassandra. A bit arrogantly, Phillip stepped in front of the man, blocking him out of their line of sight. A bit insulted, the man took the hint, giving Phillip a dirty look as he walked away.
Kyra tried to hold back her annoyance with him. Cassandra, however, took up with him as though Caleb had never interrupted them the day before.
"Did Damon have anything interesting to tell you yesterday," he asked Cassandra bluntly. He seemed to assume she should tell him her private business, Kyra noticed. Cassandra did not seem to mind.
"No," she answered shyly. "As a matter of fact when I finally went with him, he seemed quite distracted. As soon as you left, his urgent business with me seemed unimportant. But, Caleb has always been strange at times."
His motives were probably more direct than you think, Kyra thought. It was heartening to know Caleb disapproved of this man as well.
"You know, Cassie, the afternoon heat must surely be dissipating by now, do you not agree? Be that as it may, I believe it would be nice to take a walk. Would you care to accompany me?" When he reached for her hand, Kyraaccidentally knocked her drink over which spilled onto Phillip's leg.
"Oh, no," Cassandra cried. "How awful! Kyra dear, are you well?"
A bit frantically she shook her head, trying to convey that Cassandra should not go with this man. Realizing the question she had asked, she suddenly nodded yes.
Cassandra looked at her with confusion. Kyra knew Cassandra had lost her train of thought. She would have to do something to get her attention. She truly did not trust this man. His eyes were too shifty and his voice was changing in pitch every few seconds. It seemed he was nervous, and he was much too pushy with Cassandra.
"Kyra, if you aren't feeling well, perhaps'"
Huffing loudly, she shook her head to say no. One look at Phillip told her that he knew she didn't trust him, but he also knew she was mute and that Cassandra didn't understand what she wanted to say.
Phillip stood up as he finished wiping his trousers and said mournfully, "You cannot blame her for her frustration. If I had no voice, I would also become angry if someone could not understand me."
Kyra was beginning to see red where this man was concerned. If she had a fork nearby, she would gouge his eye out with it. As it was, she had opted for picky foods rather than something more substantial.
"Kyra, perhaps you should take a small walk'"
"Yes, I think she needs some air," Phillip interjected. "Geoffrey," He called over Kyra's shoulder, "Would you mind terribly, walking with the lady? She seems a bit pale."
"Not at all," the man agreed.
He seemed friendly enough and she hated to seem rude, but she was not leaving this table. As the man held out his arm to her she sat still as a stone.
"Kyra, perhaps after this morning's worries, I think you may have overdone yourself'"
That statement died when Kyra slapped her napkin down on the table. Fine! Let her deal with the situation herself. After all, what on earth could Phillip do with so many people sitting so close by?
She roughly grabbed Geoffrey's outstretched arm and walked off with him. The silly fool! Couldn't she see that Phillip was nothing but trouble?
Geoffrey had led her no more than a few steps from the door when she turned back to see that Cassandra had already left the table with Phillip. A momentary chill raced through her. A strange sensation invaded her as her heart began to race. Her eyes searched the room and she felt very cold. Where had they gone, she wondered dimly.
As politely as the situation would allow, Kyra pulled away from her escort and curtsied slightly. She attempted to look most apologetic as she walked away, leaving him staring after her.
"But, Miss, would you not care to..."
No, I would not, she thought to herself as she left him standing there. Something told her that Cassandra and Phillip had left through the side door at the far end of the room. She followed that inner voice and headed straight toward it. The door led out to the side courtyard. Scanning the grounds, she saw that they were nowhere in sight.
The hairs rose on the back of her neck as she gingerly stepped outside. The door shut behind her as she stared from side to side seeing nothing. There was an eerie silence hanging in the dry air. Turning back for a moment, she couldn't fathom that Cassandra had gone any other way. She wasn't in the dining room and she hadn't gone out into the hall. There was just nowhere else she could have gone.
Seeing an old cobbled walkway that head towards a dense grove of woods, she followed it timidly as she tried to think rationally. With measured breaths she followed the trail to the end. Squinting off into the distance, Kyra tried to calm her wild imagination. Cassandra wouldn't have followed him into the woods, would she?
She stood there for what seemed an eternity, her ears picking up every snap of a twig. Common sense told her that she must be wrong. She just couldn't imagine Cassandra traversing alone with Phillip into those unguarded woods. Turning around, she glanced up and down the courtyard, but she saw no one within sight. Feeling thoroughly chilled, she was just about to turn back to the manor when a very faint cry in the distance caught her ears. It only lasted for a fleeting second, so short and faint, but Kyra knew it had come from Cassandra's lips.
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