"Callin, come hear this," called Cassie. Callin agreeably stuck his red head in the open window and raised an eyebrow, enhancing his "passable good looks" with a glimpse of his quirky personality. "Lynna says Demarist has finally surrendered: Ari and Desidra have bested him at last."
"Huh. Stubborn kids. At that, though, I do see his point: wouldn't have done for her to wake up, married a year, and realise she'd mistaken infatuation for love."
"Well, no, I suppose not," she admitted as reluctantly as she always agreed with him. "I don't suppose we can go?"
"And why not? Gard can watch the estate for a month or so without running it into the ground, I think. When is it?"
She showed him the letter, and he nodded. "I don't see a real problem. Be kind of a nice trip... just don't you and Rhonda go falling for some man over there! I'd like to have some kin still in this part of the country."
Cassie threw a pillow at him and he went off toward the stables laughing. Rhonda made a face at his retreating back, and then paused and looked thoughtfully at his sister. "Is Ari going to marry Desidra, then?" When Cassie nodded, she added, "Well, I knew he would. I remember when he asked her."
"What? When was that? Lynna thought he never wrote her..."
"Oh, he didn't. He asked her in person.. aren't you supposed to?"
"In person?" Cassie sounded skeptical, raising a red eyebrow just as Callin had. "When? And how do you know?"
"When he met her, of course. Here. At Lynna's wedding. That night, when everyone was dancing, and we Desidra and me we were upstairs, supposed to be sleeping. We couldn't the music was too gay and the flowers smelled so good. We snuck downstairs and went into the garden to watch."
"You didn't. You sneaks. What horrible children."
"We weren't so young, Cassie. She was what, eleven?, and I was nearly nine."
"Too young to be up that late," said Cassie. But she couldn't maintain her sternness, and Rhonda giggled at her. "Okay, imp, you were watching the dancing in the middle of the night, no less. So what happened?"
"Well, some of those silly girls from south of here were chasing Ari"
"What else is new? A heartbreaker, east and west... literally, too, so it seems."
"He cut into the garden to get away from them, and found us. 'Remember me?' he asked Desidra, which I thought was dopey, since they'd been together in the wedding after all. And she asked him, wasn't he her new brother? And he said, 'No.' I remember, I thought that was wrong, and I said, 'But she's my sister now, isn't she? And I'm your sister, so'"
And he said, "True for you, Rhonda; you two are sisters, and you and I are sibs, but that's as far as it goes. Desidra and I are not kin."
Rhonda was a little worried that maybe her new sister would be insulted, but she didn't seem to be. Instead, she cocked tht blond head to one side and looked at Ari a little smugly, as far as Rhonda could see her expression in the moonlight. Ari looked a little peculiar, too, but the shadows were on his face and Rhonda couldn't tell for sure. Then Desidra said, "Dance with me."
Ari smiled, and put up his arms to help from the tree, and answered, "Indeed I will, lady." The band had just begun a new song, and Rhonda watched, bemused, while her older brother danced with this self-possessed new sister. She was tall, and rangy, like her brother, and almost matched Ari well for the dance, her head not quite at his shoulder. They footed the complex pattern neatly, only missing a step when the garden forced them, and when it was done, he bowed to her as deeply as if she were a lady indeed. The silence hung over them for a long moment, and then Ari said, "I'm going to marry you."
Rhonda blinked in surprise. It was an outrageous thing to say, even for a joke; at eight she knew that much.
But Desidra only cocked her head again, and smiled a little, and answered, "I'm very young."
"I know it. But when you're old enough, I'm riding to your house and marrying you." Ari was very serious.
"Yes," said Desidra consideringly. "Yes, you are." And she kissed him.
"How sweet," said Cassie.
"No," began Rhonda, "it wasn't..." She paused, and then continued. "It was more solemn, like a... a pledge, or a... a vow. Not really sweet." And if that left Cassie with the pleasing image of a young girl, wearing her first long dress with her hair up, planting a chaste and virginal kiss on the forehead of a young man, well, that was undoubtedly a better image for her to have than the real one, which was of a young girl in the short sleeping dress of a hot summer, with her hair loose about her face and shoulders, kissing a young man virginally enough, probably, but hardly chastely, clinging to him, with one arm around his shoulders and the other in his night-colored hair, with her moon-colored hair falling over his arms.... no, she could see now easily enough what had eluded her at eight: why neither Demarist nor Callin would have been pleased to hear about that evening. She had promised Ari a day later that she'd not mention his impending marriage until he or Desidra did, but she'd been confused. Ari had assured her that Demarist liked him well enough, it was just... well, one of those things you'll understand later, imp, when you're older. For once, that had been true.
But she had never forgotten that evening.
And neither had Ronaran.
Which was why, when Slaviana Darris said to him, "Dance with me," he was stunned into saying, "What? I'm sorry, what did you say, my lady?" and, thus, eventually, into marriage.
Slaviana had chosen that opening because it could work several ways. If he said, 'yes, all right,' that was fine. They'd dance. But if he said something like what he did say, that was fine too. "Dance With Me. That's the name of this song; do you know it?" He blinked at her, those beautiful eyes suddenly focussing on her as he returned from whatever sorrowful place he spent so much time in.
"No, my lady. I'm afraid I don't. I'm not from around here," he added, as if it were possible his delightful accent didn't say as much, as if it were at all likely he hadn't been discussed by everyone. But he seemed to think the explanation necessary.
"I rather like it," she paused for a moment, while the music came around to her, and began, softly, in her low contralto:
Dance with me,She hummed a few measures of the bridge, and then was quiet, looking at him. He was no longer looking at her, but was aware of her standing there, which was most of what she wanted. The music swirled around them, and the dancers, brilliant in their MidWinter finery, wove patterns as pleasing to the eye as the music's to the ear.
Make all my dreams come true tonight.
In your eyes I see
The promise of falcon's flight.
I have dreamed of the stars
And I am sure of the wind
If you give me a dance, give me a chance
To show you that I know you in the night.
Dance with me.
Make all the songs be real at last.
Can't you see
The hours are flying so fast - it can't last.
The words all so sweet
I am sure we can find
If you give me a chance, give me a dance
Then the stars will be ours in the night."
When he spoke, suddenly, her heart nearly stopped. "I'm counted a good dancer, I know, my lady. But no one will find the stars with me."
She looked at him. "No?"
"Finding them alone does that count?" his voice was slightly harsh, his eyes darkened.
"Sometimes," she said softly, "sometimes fireflies will do."
He not quite laughed, closing his eyes and shaking his head once or twice. "Fireflies, lady? Fireflies I can manage for you as long as you know what you're looking at."
"I know," she answered, and he took her into his arms and out onto the floor. And she did know, but he had no idea.
What he did know was that she was nothing like his lost Desidra, dark instead of fair, slim though nicely rounded at breast and hip instead of rangy, quiet instead of lively but she listened to him when he talked about Desidra, and no one else would. Even his family thought he was taking too long to get over her, and even Cassie grew impatient after a while. But Slaviana would listen for hours, on the days he was truly distressed. The result, of course, was that he spent hours with her, and she was alive as well as patient. And it did have its effect on him.
Especially the night that Lady Darris gave the ball. Everyone who was anyone was there. Callin danced with that redhead he was so taken with, Lady Armstrong who seemed taken with him, too, Ari noticed suddenly. How long had that been going on? Cassie and Rhonda danced with many young men, and some not so young. And, girls were beginning to sit up and take notice of him. Just like the old days. And, like the old days, he decided to slip away and catch his breath.
Slaviana, whose new dress had been designed to accentuate all her good points and which her mother had nearly forbidden her to wear, saw him leave. It only took her a heady moment to decide to follow him.
He was standing in the hallway near the formal gold parlor, closed off tonight, when Slaviana found him. Peering to study a painting more closely in the dim light, he jumped when she put her hand on his back, and when he turned to face her, her hand slid up along his shoulder before coming to rest on his collarbone. He swallowed, looking down at her. She wasn't beautiful, no; but she was attractive at the moment, very attractive. She touched her tongue to her lips and left them slightly parted, and he had no choice but to kiss them. And her response left him with no choices, too.
It had been a long time, and he had almost no control left. And her response to him, every step of the way, had served to take away what control he did have. When it was over, and they were lying quietly in the gold parlor, he could not quite believe what he had just done. But the goddess knew he had wanted to do it, and enjoyed damn near every minute of it, and wanted to do it again. And somehow, he didn't think Desidra would grudge it him or Slaviana, either. After all, Ronaran Morgan Evarian, he thought to himself, if you're going to be crazy enough to despoil the virgin daughter of the Countess of Darris, the least you can do is make sure she enjoys herself. In for a lamb, in for a sheep. And he was good, if out of practice, and she certainly seemed to enjoy herself.
So, somehow, did he. And more that a few times over the next few months. He never stopped warning Slaviana that his heart was irrevocably gone away, and she never stopped saying, as long as she had the rest of him she'd make do. He didn't love her, not the way he'd loved Desidra, still loved Desidra, but he found himself growing, first grateful to her, and then fond of her. He enjoyed her company, on several levels, and if she wasn't the spirited, learned verbal sparring partner he'd once had, well, he didn't want that. He wanted rest. He wanted quiet. He wanted acceptance. And those she gave him, in full measure and to overflowing.
He will love me, he will come to love me. Slaviana Darris believed that the way she believed the sun rose in the morning and set in the evening. She had known from the first moment she saw him that she was his: "That's him, Amber," she'd interrupted herself that day, "that's the one." She hadn't figured him to be quite so hard to convince. But she really, to the consternation of her friends, didn't mind hearing him talk about his dead wife. For one thing, if your rival is dead, she can't do anything; sure, she can't screw up or make him mad, but then again she can't smile at him, or hold him, or listen to his troubles. And he needed to talk, that was another thing; he really needed to talk, and no one else could, would, see it. And for another, oddly enough, she thought she'd have liked Desidra.
But she was sure that he'd get over her and she intended to be the one he saw when he stopped seeing a memory. And knowing that Desidra had loved him, she never felt threatened by her: Desidra would know that this man needed a woman in his life, a live woman, a family of his own. And sure enough, first she got him to spend time with her, and then she got him to make love with her, and finally she got him to admit that he wanted to live with her. And that once done, knowing that there would, maybe always, maybe not, but certainly for a long time to come, be a third in their house a tall, rangy, blond woman with a ready laugh she got him to agree to marry her.
Her friends, his family, no one was sure she was doing the right thing. But she was. And somehow she was sure that Desidra agreed.
And in the end, she was right.
|PART ONE: Ari 1 | PART TWO: Ari 2 | PART THREE: Desilyn | PART FOUR: Ari 3 | PART FIVE: Ari 4|
|Autumn Afternoon | Ilya's Wedding | Something... | Last Corner | Morgans|
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