The Mask Revealed(4)By: Julia Brannan
Somewhere in the distance a dog howled mournfully, twice. He shivered suddenly, although the room was not cold, crossing himself instinctively as protection against the Cù Sith, in case there should come a third howl, and then just as instinctively glanced around to make sure he had not been seen. Which was ridiculous, because he was alone in his room.
He laughed out loud at this, and the black mood which had possessed him for a moment dissipated. He stood, moving away from the fire, and began to prepare himself for bed. His decision had been made. It was too late to go back now, and if he were being honest, he would not go back if he could. It would work out, as everything he’d done until now had worked out, in the end.
He would make it so.
Beth had felt somewhat reassured by the actions of her fiancé on the eve of their wedding, sufficiently so that, against all her expectations, she had actually managed to sleep for a few hours. Impressive though it had been, it was not his rescuing her from the imminent prospect of a forced marriage to the impecunious and desperate Lord Daniel that had reassured her; it was his offer to release her from her promise in the carriage on the way home that had made her feel more comfortable about marrying him.
She had no idea why he had made such an offer. After all, he had coerced her into agreeing to marry him by his unspoken threat to expose her as a Catholic and, by implication, a Jacobite. It was clear to her that whatever his real reasons for wishing to marry her, he had been willing to resort to blackmail to secure her reluctant agreement to his proposal. So why he had, at the last moment, given her the chance to back out, she had no idea. Maybe he had just acted on impulse, although it was becoming increasingly obvious to her that Sir Anthony Peters was not an impulsive man.
But whatever his reasons, the fact that at the last moment he had truly allowed her the choice, had given her a sense of freedom, a feeling that to some extent she had control of her own destiny, something she had not felt since her father had died and Richard had returned home. And for that, at least, she was grateful to him.
By the evening of the following day, however, all the camaraderie Beth had felt with Sir Anthony the night before had evaporated, replaced by renewed doubts as to whether she was doing the right thing.
Whether she was or not, it was too late to worry about it now, she reflected, as she sank down wearily into her chair at the dinner table. In actual fact there were several tables; the head one at which Beth, Sir Anthony and all the Cunningham family were seated, and the rest adjacent to it, at which all the other guests were accommodated, nearly two hundred in total.
It was a great relief to be able to sit down at last, and once settled, she slipped her feet unobtrusively out of her shoes and wriggled her crushed toes ecstatically, reflecting on the day’s events so far. To her satisfaction, she had managed to drag the cumbersome weight of her shimmering gown down the stairs and up the improvised aisle in the drawing room with surprising dignity, although the effort had left her momentarily breathless and flushed, which had merely enhanced her ethereal beauty, causing not only the bridegroom but also most of the guests to catch their breath. It was generally assumed that the blushing bride was overcome with the emotion of the occasion, and everybody expected her to swoon delicately away at any moment.
They were disappointed. Beth gave her vows in a clear, confident voice. Sir Anthony, dressed tastefully for once in silver-embroidered cream silk, also made his responses unwaveringly, but as she raised her hand to his for him to place the ring on her finger, she noticed with surprise that his hands, gloved as always, were trembling as he placed the plain gold band on her ring finger. The trembling was slight, but not an affectation, Beth was sure of it. Until now she had avoided meeting his eyes, but once the ring was safely in place, she glanced up at him, surprising a look of such tenderness that she had looked away, momentarily confused by the rush of sympathy she felt for him.
By the end of the ceremony though, Sir Anthony had himself firmly under control, and any sympathy or warm feelings Beth may have felt for him had been well and truly annihilated by having to stand at his side and endure an hour and a half of his simpering, unctuous and fluttery responses to the endless parade of guests giving their congratulations. Although, she had to grudgingly admit, he was very good at it. He had managed to give a different response to everyone, and enquire after their health and families. Sir Anthony was so enraptured by all the attention he was receiving that Beth thought the wedding banquet would never be served. Her stomach was grumbling rudely by the time the summons came to go in to dinner.