“I fail to understand,” Isabel said as she bent to put the salmon into the oven, “why you are so nervous. You know these people. You have known them your whole life — you have known some of them as long as they have been alive! If anyone is to be nervous, it should be me!”
Joshua sighed, unable to be mollified even by the lovely view he should have been enjoying. “It’s not every night a man introduces his fiancee to his family.”
“Indeed no. Most of the time the parents are handling the introductions,” Isabel agreed.
“Er–well, perhaps you have a point.”
Isabel stood, staring at him. Joshua gulped. He had no idea what the court at Simspain was like — even now, six months into their engagement, Isabel rarely spoke of her homeland — but he assumed it was vicious. He didn’t see how else Isabel could have developed that glare, and that uncanny ability to see straight into his soul. “You are afraid,” she said matter-of-factly.
“I’d say more … nervous.”
“No. Afraid. Afraid … afraid we won’t approve of each other.” Isabel lifted one eyebrow. “Afraid I won’t approve of them … or that they won’t approve of me?”
Joshua pulled at his collar. “I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t approve of you,” he replied with an attempt at a smile.
“Indeed not.” Her unquestioning assumption that she would be everything his parents had ever looked for in a daughter-in-law brought a real smile to his face. Luckily Isabel did not notice, for that would have been a hard one to explain. “So why would I not approve of them?”
She bent to check on the salmon, then paused. “They do bathe regularly, don’t they?”
“Do you have any idea how offensive that is?”
“You seem to be worried that I won’t approve … what else is there for me to disapprove of?”
Joshua knew better than to answer that. “Maybe I was just worried about a personality clash?”
“Oh. Is that all?”
“Is that–” Luckily, perhaps, a loud rat-a-tat-tat from the knocker interrupted his question. He sighed. “That would be them.”
“Good!” Isabel replied with a smile. “Dinner should be ready soon!”
“Excellent,” Joshua answered, unable to keep the quaver from his voice.
Then he turned and went to face his fears.
The whole Wesleyan brood — Mark, his father; Helena, his mother; his brother Rob and his sisters Heloise and Babette — stood crowded on the tiny porch. Mark was the first to step forward with a wide smile. “Joshua,” he said, folding his son into an embrace.
“Dad,” Joshua replied. “How are you?”
“Well, son. And you?”
“This is a nice place,” Babette interrupted, gawking around the foyer and into Isabel’s living room with open-mouthed amazement. “How did you afford this all?”
“Babette, that’s rude,” Helena scolded, “and more to the point, it’s the question your father should be asking.” She sent a rather pointed glare in her husband’s direction.
Mark ignored it with the ease of long practice. “What about your friend, Joshua?” he asked.
“Aye, when do we get to meet him?” Babette asked, openly looking around the foyer. Rob and Heloise rolled their eyes, but Helena only concealed a smile.
Joshua ignored all of his siblings. “Her, actually,” he said, ignoring his father’s jump and his mother’s sudden knowing look alike, “her name is Isabel, Lady Isabel de Valencia. She’s still fixing dinner, we can all go into the kitchen and meet her …”
“Let’s,” Helena said, before Mark could demur on the grounds of politeness. So the whole clan trooped into the kitchen, to mob Isabel at her oven. And Joshua tried hard to ignore the quizzical looks Mark was sending him, or the raised eyebrow Rob sent him from over his shoulder.
His stomach turned into knots as the group entered the kitchen; but he should have known better than to worry. After Smoors ravaging her homeland, what could a family of overeager merchants do to Isabel’s composure? She greeted them all with wonderfully done pleasure and an aplomb Joshua was afraid was wholly natural. Much to his relief, she didn’t explicitly mention the true nature of their relation. Moreover, as if to prove that the Isabel he knew and loved was hiding underneath the exterior of the courtly hostess, she set the womenfolk to work without any of them suspecting that it had been anything other than their ideas.
Well, maybe Heloise suspected. She was a sharp one. She was also sharp enough to know when resistance was futile, and did her part without complaint.
Owing to the extra help Isabel received, dinner was on the table a mere ten minutes after the Wesleyans’ arrival. Joshua nervously took his place at the head, Isabel slipping into the seat to his left as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and his family took whatever other seats appealed to them.
“So,” Mark asked in a clear attempt to begin the conversation, “how did you and Joshua meet, Lady Isabel?”
“I believe it was in … one of our introductory classes, was it not, Joshua?” Isabel asked. “World history?”
“Right, that was it.”
“You asked the professor a question about the Smoors, I remember,” Isabel murmured.
“And you nearly bit both of our heads off when he answered it.” They smiled at each other. Rob looked up from his food, cast them a curious look, then tried to look around Helena to exchange a glance with Mark.
Babette left off playing with her rice to ask, “So, you must have met … gosh … four years ago? How come you never mentioned her in your letters, Josh?”
Isabel’s fork fell to the plate with a harsh clatter. “You–never–mentioned–me?” she hissed.
“That’s silly, Babette, of course I’ve mentioned Isabel …” Joshua desperately tried to hedge, but by Isabel’s glare, he wasn’t getting off this easily. “You must have forgotten.”
“I highly doubt she could have forgotten some of the things you should have mentioned in your letter,” Isabel said through gritted teeth.
Now Mark and Helena were watching them very closely, Rob’s face was carefully closed, Babette’s gaze darted around the table in confusion and even Heloise looked at least mildly interested. “Well,” Joshua replied, pulling at his collar, “I–I thought that some information wasn’t — appropriate to share in a letter.”
Before anyone could ask him what that was, Joshua reached for Isabel’s hand. She took it in hers, and he had to hold back a wince as she squeezed it harder than was strictly necessary. “Father — Mother — everyone — Isabel and I have an announcement to make.” He gulped while Isabel glared death at him. “We — Isabel and I — are engaged. And we want to be married as soon as we graduate.”
Mark’s knife fell to his plate with a clatter that echoed through the room. Babette’s jaw fell open. Helena had to hide a smile, and Rob looked nervously around the room. Joshua forced himself to keep smiling, while Isabel tried to turn a charming, beatific smile upon her future in-laws, then, noting the lack of reaction, quickly changed to a glare at Joshua.
Heloise was the first to speak. “We-ell,” she murmured. “Damn. And here I thought you were sane, Lady Isabel.”
“Don’t you ‘Heloise’ me, Mum, you’ve been downwind of his boots, a girl would have to be insane to marry a man who produces that kind of stench.” Heloise turned back to her food. “Though I have to give you credit, Josh, even if she is nuts, she’s a great cook and awfully pretty. How did you manage to convince her?”
Isabel stared at her future sister-in-law, clearly not sure whether to be flattered or to make a similar judgement regarding Heloise’s sanity. As she stared, Rob nervously cleared his throat. “Lady Isabel?”
Isabel turned, by the expression on her face dreading whatever was going to come out next.
Rob’s voice was deep and rich, a slow-moving river, quiet but resonant. Joshua always expected it to sound rusty from disuse, but somehow it never did. “I wouldn’t worry about Heloise if I were you … that’s just her way of welcoming you to the family.” He gave a slow half-smile. “And welcome to the family, by the way.”
Isabel smiled. Just as Joshua was about to thank his lucky stars and his brother for pulling his fat from the fire, Rob had to open his big mouth again. “Though she’s got a point, Josh — ever since you left, our room only smells like something died in it, not like it’s in an advanced state of decomposition … Lady Isabel, you might want to make him go to an apothecary for that.”
Joshua felt heat rising along his neck and he didn’t dare look over to Isabel.
“Rob! Not you too!” Mark scolded. He sighed and turned to Isabel. “Forgive my younger children, my lady … they … well … consider it a compliment. They already consider you so much a part of the family that they see no need to filter what comes out of their mouths.” He glared at them, then turned back to Lady Isabel. “But in all seriousness … welcome, my lady. Welcome to our family. We only barely dared to hope that Joshua would come home with both a diploma and a wife … and we never dreamed it would be one as lovely and accomplished as you are.” He smiled.
“And I think,” Mark continued, reaching for Helena’s hand, which she suffered him to take, “that I speak for both my wife and I when I say that we cannot wait for you to join our family officially.”
“Oh, indeed,” Helena added. “It will be so wonderful to have another lady around the house.”
“And what are Babette and I, chopped liver?” Heloise asked.
“Yes!” Joshua and Rob replied.
Later that night, when the Wesleyans were safely on their way home and Isabel and Joshua cuddled in the safety of their shared bed, Isabel leaned her head on Joshua’s shoulder. “That was …”
“Horrible. I know. I’m sorry.”
“It could have been worse …” Isabel murmured. “Why did you you not tell them about us earlier?”
“I thought … well … I thought this was the kind of news you broke in person.”
“But not even mentioning me at all?”
Joshua rolled his eyes. “I have … off and on ever since we met … Babette just …” He shook his head.
“I see.” Isabel’s hand started to absently play with the belt to his pajamas. “Your sister is awfully pretty,” she remarked. “Probably drives the boys crazy.”
“Heloise?” Joshua asked, surprised. The only way he thought Heloise would drive the boys crazy would be with her intellect, in the classroom …
“No! Well — I suppose she could be all right if someone worked on her … but I was talking about Babette. That long blonde hair … and those cheekbones …”
“Hmm,” Joshua replied. “I’m not sure I want to think about Babette driving anyone crazy …”
Truth to tell he didn’t want to think much about Babette’s looks at all … whether it was the long blonde hair, the cheekbones, the nose that no-one in the family shared, or the blue eyes that had not shown up on a Wesleyan in more generations than Joshua could count …
No, he didn’t want to think about those things, for thinking about those things would soon lead him to other things he knew he didn’t want to think about … starting with the conversation his father had insisted he have with his future wife …
“Isabel?” he said suddenly. “I love you — you know that?”
Isabel looked up. “Of course. And I love you. Why do you ask?”
“Because …” He sighed and cuddled closer to her. “Just because.”