Stephen studied the maid’s steady hand as she poured. His eyes wandered up her arm and fell unabashedly on her face. She was a plain girl, with an odd boyish allure. Her eyes barely twitched as she shyly averted his gaze. Thin chestnut bangs fell across her face. Her natural pout pursed ever so slightly as she carefully reached up a single forefinger to push the strands back into place. Stephen was sure he caught a brief glance while her hand shielded her eyes.
Duchess Whitmore cleared her throat impatiently, but Stephen ignored her. Lydia Whitmore held little more interest for him as a bride than he imagined he offered as her suitor. It wasn’t a lack of beauty that caused his disdain. Quite the contrary. If it were beauty that would tame his heart, then the elegant and graceful radiance of her mother seated across the table should be an assurance that this matrimony would endure.
Arranged marriages were passé, were they not? Some would still hold his thoughts brazen, but he considered this a custom belonging to dispassionate fools, married to their legacies, who knew nothing of their own hearts. And this even for avarice? His father stood so little to gain, and so what then to gain had he? He barely knew this girl. Lydia was a beautiful young woman true, but perhaps a beautiful young woman meant for the affections of another.
“That will be all, Anne,” the Duchess dismissed her servant, who had hesitated in spite of her completed task.
The girl smiled quaintly and curtsied with a slight bow of her head. She turned politely away, avoiding her lady’s guest in custom, and quietly left the room, the lid of the teapot pinned delicately beneath the fingers of her free hand. Stephen smiled as he watched her walk away. She was small and almost frail, but her stride was strong and smooth upon legs that had known toil all their lives.
“Lydia is my only daughter,” came his hostess’ refined reminder, determined to tear his attention away from the maid’s retreat. “I’m certain you understand her husband will be a man of sagacity and integrity.”
Stephen looked down at his cup and slid it toward him. The ripples in the surface disrupted the reflection and he watched for a moment as it settled again before lifting his eyes to greet his future mother-in-law’s.
“I’m certain he will be, this husband of hers,” he mused.
There was no change in the Duchess’ expression. Neither did further words utter forth from her polished lips. Tension turned the air between them to slate awaiting the awl. Stephen reached his finger down and tapped the surface of the bronze liquid in his cup to watch the ripples settle once more. Indecision had ridden along in his saddle, but this simple maid had sent that uninvited rider on his way. He put the single drop to his tongue, savored its sweet splendor, and pushed his chair from the table to stand.
“And I shall be honored to meet this fine gentleman, my lady,” he said with a nod of his head. “When he has won fair Lydia’s hand.”
© 2011 Anne Schilde