Why, Clarice wondered as she walked into the house, rubbing her right temple and tossing her books to the side table, must he be so … so … persistent?
No, that wasn’t it. Oh, Frederick was persistent, there was no doubt of that. He had, once again, followed her home from the class they shared. Even though the men of Albion’s fraternity house was only across the street from the ladies’ house, she knew that he was following her home and not merely keeping her company for the mutual walk. After all, if he was merely keeping her company, and not following her, he might have been willing to let her walk in silence. But no. Frederick had questions, always questions. How did she like the lecture, was she enjoying the class? Was she nervous for the final exam? Did she want to get together and study for it, sometime? Maybe soon?
It wasn’t the questions — even the last two — that got under Clarice’s skin so much as the expression Frederick would wear when he asked them. So eager, so hopeful, especially when he asked if she wanted to study with him. It made Clarice’s stomach turn when she had to tell him “no” and watch his face fall.
She did have to tell him no — didn’t she? It surely couldn’t be proper for her to study alone with Frederick. No, there wasn’t any way it could be proper. Even in the library — people might see them, they would talk, gossip. It might even get back to her father. In her less-paranoid moments, she doubted that it would, but even in those moments of less fear, the thought of her father’s reaction, should he find that she was gadding about with a young man, any young man, when he had not specifically given permission … well, it made her shudder and shake and decide that no, until she heard from her father one way or another, she would not be alone or “alone” with Frederick.
Besides, if she wasn’t with Frederick, she wouldn’t be troubled by those … feelings that came up whenever he came too near to her. Feelings like a racing heart, sweating palms, flutters in the stomach. Those strange shocks that came whenever her sleeve accidentally brushed his tunic or her hand, Wright forbid, touched his. Why, once she had stumbled on some loose gravel and Frederick had caught her arm before she fell. Not only had his hand rested on her elbow for an unseemly length of time, the shock had been so long and so powerful that she could barely breathe — never mind summon the necessary mental presence to thank him, as politeness alone would dictate!
It was not that these feelings were unpleasant; no, not at all. If they were unpleasant, she would be worried less. It was that she enjoyed them, every last drawn-out second of them, that made her feel as if there was something wrong with her. Wanton, loose. Dirty.
Women, noblewomen, were not supposed to enjoy the touches and caresses of their betrothed or husbands, were they? Wright knew her mother never gave the least sign of enjoying the touches, pats or quick kisses that was all Bors ever gave her whenever anyone could see them. Lady Guinevere seemed to enjoy it, but Lady Guinevere had had a strange childhood, or so she had heard: her father’s only daughter, she had run wild in the keep and been raised half as a boy. Dannie seemed to enjoy Robert, but they were both commoners. And Lynn … Lynn never seemed unhappy when the Prince was kissing her or touching her, those few times Clarice had caught a glimpse of them, but Lynn was so effervescently in love with the Prince that surely she was happy just to be making him happy.
But if Clarice was so shocked, so affected by the slightest brush of Frederick’s hand — what was she? Some kind of whore?
She shuddered. She didn’t need this right now. Not with exams so close, and her mother due to give birth any day. At this time, the last thing she needed was —
“You’ve got a lot of nerve, you know that?”
Clarice looked up to find herself in the drawing-room — with no memory of how she came to be there — and Dannie standing in front of her.
“I — beg your pardon?”
“He’s just trying to get to know you. Wright!”
“Do — do you mean Frederick?”
“No, my other brother who is the sweetest guy on the continent and is head over heels in love with you, little as you appear to appreciate it. Yes, Freddy!”
Clarice swallowed. “I doubt very much that he feels anything of the kind.” Though if she doubted it so much, why was a flush beginning to creep up her neck and cheeks?
“Bullshit!” Clarice almost choked when Dannie let drop that — that — that word. “I see his face when you get on your noble high horse and leave him! You’re crushing his heart with every step!”
“Im–impossible,” Clarice forced herself to say. She couldn’t be breaking Frederick’s heart. They barely knew each other! You surely had to know someone to break their heart, didn’t you?
“Impossible? Look, not everybody has a heart made of ice and solid stone!”
“My heart is not made of ice! And I fail to see what business it is of yours what my heart is made of!”
“When you and your Ice Queen ways started freezing my poor brother out, it became my business, my lady!”
How is it that she managed to make the honorific sound like an insult? Clarice shook her head and turned, prepared to leave the room and the pointless argument behind.
“Oh, you’re not going anywhere!” Dannie shouted, somehow moving more quickly than Clarice and blocking the exit. “Not until you tell me what the hell gives!”
“What gives? Are you mad? Can’t you recognize a young lady who has a care for her reputation? Or do you think that we’re all as wanton and depraved as you are?”
Any true lady, Clarice thought — no, knew, she had to know this, if she did not know this, then what did she know? — would have been shocked, appalled, aghast at the insult. She would have stood with mouth agape, or began to shriek at the top of her lungs for the guards, or even started to cry!
No true lady would have done as Dannie did, which was to laugh.
“Wanton? You think I’m wanton with Rob? Honey, have you seen Jessie with Sir William — or your sister with the Prince?”
“They’re always perfectly polite and composed in public!”
“Aye — exactly. In public. Look, before you start getting on my case for what I’m not ashamed to let people see, why don’t you ask your sister what she and the Prince get up to when nobody’s looking?”
“What are you suggesting, Mistress Danielle? Are you — do you dare –”
“I’m not insulting her honor, if that’s what you mean — I’m just saying that four years is a hell of long time to be betrothed, and even if you’re saving yourself for the wedding, well — most healthy, affectionate couples get a little creative before that, to slake certain urges, capisce?”
“That is the most vulgar thing I have ever heard!”
“Clearly you have never been within three miles of a shipyard.”
“No, I most certainly have not!” Clarice shouted. “Unlike some people’s parents, mine raised me with a sense of decency and decorum!”
Dannie froze and stared at Clarice. “You are not,” she whispered, “even going to go there.”
“And why not?” Clarice returned. “Why shouldn’t I? Look at what you’re willing to do in public with you betrothed — and you weren’t even betrothed yet! Shameless! If your parents aren’t ashamed of you for–”
“Unlike your parents, who just sit on their noble asses all day and worry about their daughters’ virtue, apparently, my parents have enough of a life that they don’t particularly care what I get up to with Rob — especially not now that we’re betrothed!”
“And you wonder why I call you wanton!”
“And you wonder why I call you fucking frigid!”
“You — you–”
“Is there a problem in here?”
Standing in the doorway were Lynn, her hands over her mouth in horror, and Princess Jessie, looking … far less horrified, but more than a bit nervous.
“No,” came Clarice’s automatic reply, but Dannie’s explanation overrode hers.
“Aye, there’s a problem. This one,” she jerked, “from what I gather from what she’s saying, is apparently jealous that while Mummy and Daddy Dearest netted a prince for big sister Lynn, poor deprived Clarice only got a merchant. Now, normally this wouldn’t be any of my business, but when said merchant is my brother, aye, my ladies, it becomes my business!”
“Danielle! Clarice is not–” Lynn began, but the ringing in Clarice’s ears cut off the rest of her sentence.
Jealous that Mummy and Daddy Dearest got a prince for Lynn, and only a merchant for Clarice–
“You know?!” Clarice shouted, wheeling on Dannie.
“About — about my father’s plans for –” She turned to Lynn, betrayal warring on her face with hope. Lynn only shook her head.
“Clarice,” soothed Princess Jessie, “Clarice, we all know.”
“You — you all know?”
“I don’t see why it’s a big fu–”
Dannie rolled her eyes at Princess Jessie’s rebuke. “Why it’s a big freaking secret.”
Clarice felt her breath start to come in gasps. “You knew. You all knew. You — you –” Forgetting decency and decorum, she pushed past Lynn and the Princess and ran up the stairs, to the sanctuary of her bedchamber.
You all knew about my betrothal, and my father hasn’t even told me yet!
“Clarice!” Lynn shouted as she went to follow her sister up the stairs.
“What a–” Dannie began, ready to let loose with the one woman in this house who she thought would listen with some sympathy.
“Dannie, please don’t start.”
“Don’t start? Don’t start?! St. Robert and St. Agnes, Jess, how the hell would you react if a stone-cold bitch like that was tearing your brother’s heart into tiny little pieces?”
“First of all, Clarice is not a bitch, stone-cold or otherwise.”
“Tell me that after she tears Prince Thomas or Kay’s heart to shreds.”
“I don’t need to. Lynn, now that I think of it, actually reacted much the same way when Tommy started courting her. Pretend to be cool and aloof, while really just running like a frightened rabbit.”
“Clarice is not a frightened rabbit. You saw how she took me on!”
“Dannie, I know that besting two brothers regularly at verbal combat can give you an exaggerated idea of your own fearsomeness and prowess — believe me, I’ve been there — but honestly, you’re not that scary to Clarice. She dealt with much more at home, on a daily basis.”
“If I’m not scary, then how the hell is Freddy making her act like a frightened rabbit?”
Jessie bit her lip. “Honestly?”
“No, I want you to lie to me.”
“Ha-ha. Well, honestly — I have no idea. But I never saw how Tommy could make someone run like a frightened rabbit, either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still shocked Lynn hasn’t run for the hills yet, but running for the hills would just be a measure of sanity, not fear.”
“Jess, however amusing, your constant digs at Albion’s future king are not helping.”
“Darn. And here I was thinking I was lightening the mood.” Jessie took a deep breath. “Seriously, Dannie — just lay off Clarice, that’s all I’m asking. There — if she’s anything like Lynn, and trust me, she’s a lot like Lynn — there are more issues bubbling underneath the surface than any mentally healthy girl can begin to understand.”
“Clarice is not like Lynn. Lynn would never — could never — treat a man the way Clarice is treating my brother.”
“Oh, yes she could,” Jessie breathed. “And yes, she did. The only difference was, Lynn’s nowhere near as good an actress as Clarice.”
Clarice managed to hold the tears inside until she reached the bedchamber. Then, of course, the floodgates opened, but she had been expecting as much.
Because of that she did not hear the door open, nor Lynn’s soft footsteps as she entered the room, but Clarice did not mind that. She knew that the arm that went around her was Lynn’s, that the shoulder that presented itself to be cried upon was Lynn’s, that the voice whispering the calming words that stirred her hair and tickled her ear but did not penetrate her mind was Lynn’s. Because really, who else was there who would even begin to understand?
“It’s not so bad, you know,” were the first words that Clarice could begin to understand. “I know you’re frightfully embarrassed, of course, and I know I would be, knowing that everyone else knew what I hadn’t even been officially informed about — but it could be a lot worse. He’s a good man, Clarice, everything I’ve seen leads me to believe that.”
“I hate him,” Clarice whispered, the first time such words had been drawn from her, even from her thoughts.
“Oh, Clarice! Oh, no, no!” Lynn hugged her. “You barely know Frederick! You can’t hate him already!”
Clarice’s breath hitched in mid-sob, then came out with explosive force.
“He’s a sweet man, a good man, I know he’ll treat you well — there’s no reason for you to hate him!” Lynn tried to soothe. “Listen — listen, I know you’re nervous and scared. It’s probably making you feel that this whole thing is much worse than it really is. And of course feeling that you can’t control anything that’s going to happen. Listen, listen. Just give Frederick a chance, wait until you graduate. By — by that point, I’ll be a Princess, Wright willing, and maybe — maybe, if you still don’t want to marry him, and Father gets upset, you can be my lady-in-waiting and I’ll take care of you–oh, Clarice, don’t cry! Everything is going to be all right, I promise!”
But Clarice still cried. She cried because of her sister’s generosity, she cried because of her embarrassment, she cried because she knew of no other outlet for her anger at Danielle or her confused feeling of … something for Frederick.
But most of all, she cried because now she knew she could admit to no one — not even her sister, the one person who could possibly understand — that the person she spoke of hating was not Frederick, not Frederick at all.
It was their father.