“Are you nervous about the ball, my lady?” Tansy stood behind her, brushing Celeste’s hair into an intricate updo. Bringing her from London guaranteed at least one ally in a house where she was deemed the interloper.
“Of course not. Why would I be nervous?” The maid’s flush of embarrassment caused Celeste a moment of regret. Why was she purposely alienating her most loyal ally?
Nevermind that Tansy did the most beautiful work with her unruly hair…
Turning, she admired the girl’s work. With a placating smile, she placed one hand on Tansy’s shoulder. “My apologies, Tansy. It would appear I am more nervous than I thought.”
“I hear the master will be there. Is he as ferocious as they, my lady?” Tansy bustled about the room, tidying as she went.
Celeste had counted on her for the latest gossip in London. It proved no different upon their arrival at Summer Haven. In a home where one was not welcome, it helped to have an ear to the ground.
“The old man refuses to meet me, Tansy.” Her cheeks burned as she admitted this. Swallowing the lump welling up in her throat, she acknowledged the truth at last: Summer Haven was killing her self-confidence.
Tansy tsked sympathetically, but said nothing further regarding Lord Blacke. Instea she asked which jewels Celeste would be wearing.
“I’ll have the diamond pendant, Tansy. I believe its simplicity will perfectly contrast the intricacies of my hair.”
“You would dishonor my boy by wearing the gift of another man?”
With a gasp, Celeste turned toward the door. She must have left it cracked because an elderly man in a wheelchair had pushed into her room. This must be Lord Blacke, she decided.
“Lord Blacke. How kind of you visit me. Finally. This is not, as you must be aware, an ideal time for a visit. Shall I call your valet to see you back to your room?” Celeste pulled her father’s old silk dressing gown tighter about her body.
“I am not so easily dismissed, girl. And I will not allow you to dishonor my House with your harlot’s jewels.” Lord Blacke’s sightless eyes bored into her. “You will not wear it.”
“You would rather I present myself as a dowdy frump with no jewels than wear something from my past? Where is the honor in that, sir?” Taking the large pendant from Tansy, she placed it on the dressing table at which she sat. “No fear, though. This is a family heirloom, passed down through the generations. I, and my jewels, bring nothing but honor to the Blacke family name.”
“Honor? From a worthless gypsy whore?” Lord Blacke spat in her direction. Celeste mentally gave thanks it landed quite short of her.
“Please leave my room, Lord Blacke. I will not allow you to spoil the beauty of this night.” Turning her back on the old man, Celeste watched through the mirror as he sputtered, red mottling his face.
“You go too far, girl. Ordering me about in my own home?” Spittle formed at the crack of his thin lips, dribbling onto the black jacket he wore. “I will see this sham of a marriage annulled, mark my words.”
Celeste let loose a brittle laugh, unable to stop it. “When Thomas and I have been sharing a bed these last weeks? I think not, my lord. Now, do leave me be. I have a ball to get ready for.”
Lord Blacke flinched. Jerking back in the wheeled sedan, he rolled himself away, muttering curses under his breath.
“Best not to upset that one too much, miss,” Tansy said, slipping back into sight.
“What the hell did you say to my father just now, Celeste?” Thomas threw open the door joining their suites, a pinched expression on his handsome face.
“Only the truth, husband. Perhaps you should be asking what he said to me.” Sitting down, Celeste let the dressing gown fall loose, breasts pale against the blue silk framing them.
“You dare question me? Clearly you said, or did, something to anger him. Damn it woman, learn your bloody place.” The veins in Thomas’ neck bulged as he shouted.
With a murmur, Celeste dismissed Tansy, secure in the ability to protect herself. A woman alone quickly learned these things.
“I know my place, husband. By your side, proud and strong. It is you who forgets. You, and the people in this cursed pile of stone.” Celeste dropped the thin gown to walk naked to the tall bureau in which she kept her jewels.
Lifting the heavy gold chain from its resting spot on a bed of velvet, she dropped it over her neck, allowing the cool diamond to nestle under her breasts.
“Which of the many before me gifted that to you, wife? Was it the king?”
“This was not a gift, my lord. It is a family heirloom, passed down over generations.” Celeste’s skin rippled as a shiver passed down her spine. “One day, I shall pass it along to a daughter.”
“I would ask which great family it was stolen from, but I honestly do not want to know.” Thomas moved closer to her, wrapping one strong arm around her waist.
It had become like this since their arrival. Words of anger, accusations, and name calling that ended in bouts of sex.
This time, her shudder had less to do with despair, and much more to do with excitement. Thomas’ lips met hers, and all sensible thoughts left her head. One hand crept down her naked back, roughly cupping her rear.
The kiss was over all too soon, however. Thomas broke the embrace, swiping the back of his hand across his lips. Stalking to the door, he said, “Get dressed woman. You are expected to be on time as the hostess. You will not embarrass sweet Eleanor with your crass behavior, either.”
Slamming the door behind him, Thomas left no room for Celeste to respond.
The sharp smell of peppermint soap lingered in the air. She trembled; her knees grew weak. Collapsing, she tumbled to the floor where Tansy found her moments later.
Tsking, the maid helped her stand. “Quick now, Miss Celested. I’ve strict orders to get you ready on time.”
“Yes. It is time for me to play meek hostess while my husband fawns over the young Lady Harley.” Pursing her lips, Celeste felt the bitter taste of jealousy, and despised herself for it.
“What possible excuse could I have for feeling jealous, Tansy. I hold no love for Thomas. Friendship, respect, yes. Love? No.”
“Maybe not, but he is still your husband, your family. We guard what is ours, do we not?” Holding open the shimmering emerald gown, she waited while Celeste stepped into it before tightening the corset bodice.
“Yes, we do.” Smoothing the silk gown over her curves, Celeste twirled in front of her long mirror, admiring the way the fabric shimmered. It would positively glow under thousands of candles reflecting off crystal chandeliers and mirrors.
“Now then miss, let us get you downstairs. No reason to give Lord Thomas another excuse to be angry.”
“No, I suppose not, Tansy. No need to wait up for me, of course.” Dismissing the maid, Celeste made her way down the grand staircase.
There, Thomas waited for her, tapping his foot against the cold marble floor of the Great Hall. Twisting the amber cufflinks at his wrist, he grabbed her arm roughly. “My father and I both told you not to wear the pendant, Celeste.”
“I guess it is a good thing you do not control me, husband.” She said. Plastering a smile across her face, she whispered, “Now release me. Our guests are arriving.”
Celeste felt the shift in the air before she even heard Peter’s melodic voice introducing Lord and Lady Harley. Thomas tensed next to her, hitching in his breath. Celeste quietly cleared her throat. Thomas exhaled in a disjointed breath, muttering quietly.
From her vantage point at the bottom of the marble stairs, Celeste could not see the mysterious earl or his young bride. Not through the crowd of people lining up to greet her. Next to her, Thomas kept the line moving. Soon, the auburn haired bride stood in front of Thomas, a polite smile upon her face. Towering in front of her, a… Really, she had no words. Towering above her, Lord Harley had golden hair, a chiseled jaw, and the kindest eyes she had ever looked into. When her knees buckled, he grabbed her elbow, steadying her. A jolt coursed through her body as his hand brushed against the flat of her stomach.
“Thank you, my lord.” Lowering her lashes, Celeste studied the man before her. She was as mesmerized as her husband. What a great bloody laugh, she thought.
“Baldwin. Please call me Baldwin Lady Blacke.”
“Only if you call me Celeste.”
Standard note: I do not own the painting shared with this post. No copyright infringement is intended. All credit remains with the original artist. I located it here, by the way.