Things were looking up for Babette. She just knew it.
She looked around the restaurant, hardly able to contain her ear-to-ear grin. Just think! Aglovale had taken her out, into public! And to a rather nice place, too! True, it wasn’t the nicest place around, the place where Isabel and Josh had gone when they first began to court each other in earnest. But it wasn’t some hole-in-the-wall pub, either, where the table grime was so thick that the places rested a full inch above the table surface, where the plaster was stained with years’ worth of woodsmoke and dirt, where the clientele would size them both up with gold in their eyes. No, this was a clean, reputable place, a place where perhaps someone she knew or someone Aglovale knew might see them.
That, in Babette’s mind, could only mean one thing.
Aglovale was getting ready to introduce her to his family.
Oh, what a happy day that would be! A wide vista of the future opened before Babette. She saw herself riding — no — being driven in a magnificent carriage to the castle of Gwynedd family. Surely her father had at least one of those in his stables, didn’t he? Or at least he had something that could be spruced up into something that looked magnificent.
She would have a new dress; if there was anything Babette was sure about, it was that. A dress that would put all the frocks Heloise had brought with her to Camford to shame. What color would it be? Everyone else in her family was inordinately fond of green, except for her mother, who favored blue, because it favored her complexion. Blue favored Babette’s complexion too, so she wore it. But for this occasion, she would wear … pink, she thought. It would make her look oh-so-delicate and properly feminine. Like a fairy-tale princess.
And when she went inside, she would … what would she do? Well, she would be charming, she knew that. But she wasn’t sure if the charm would work. If it did, all well and good. If Aglovale’s parents refused to get off their noble high horses and be charmed, well, then Aglovale would take her hand and vow his undying love to her. His father would swear that it would never be, that Aglovale had to marry some fat ugly noble maiden who had nothing to recommend her but the huge tracts of land for her dowry. Aglovale would refuse to do so; he would sneak out of the castle that very night and they would run away together. They would run to some far-away kingdom, where Aglovale would hire himself out as a knight or even a common soldier while Babette proved the value of her common ancestry by working hard at her spinning wheel and little garden to provide for their table and clothing. But their time of suffering and toil would not last long, for soon Aglovale would rescue the princess from a horrible evil wizard …
… No, not the princess. She didn’t want him rescuing princesses, unless the princess was, say, five. Better make it a prince.
In any case, Aglovale would do something to prove his valor and skill, and he would be granted enormous tracts of land, land to rival the fat noble maiden’s dowry, and then all would be well for them. They would live happily ever after, just like in the fairy tales.
Babette glanced at Aglovale, who was looking over the bill of fare with no idea about just how bright their future was. She heaved a happy sigh.
Aglovale glanced up. “Something wrong?”
“I was just thinking of how much I love you.”
Aglovale shifted in his seat and tried to smile. Oh, what a dear, sweet man he was! Always looking so ill-at-ease when she told him she loved him! It was almost like he didn’t believe himself worthy of her love! So, so, adorable! Staring into his wide blue eyes, she sighed again.
“You’re doing it again.”
“Oh!” Babette giggled. “I was just thinking …”
But what she was thinking was destined to remain, for the moment, unsaid, for the waiter came by and Aglovale placed an order for both of them. “What were you thinking?” he asked when the waiter left.
“Well …” She blew him a kiss. “I was just thinking of how happy I am with you.”
“And,” Babette added, “I was thinking how adorable your blue eyes would be on a baby. Our baby. Wouldn’t it be the most precious thing?”
Aglovale’s jaw fell. “B-baby?”
“Well, not now, silly!” she giggled. “I mean, after we’re married! If we get married,” she added, remembering that Aglovale, like most men, didn’t like to feel cornered.
“Heh,” Aglovale murmured. “I think it’s a little soon to be thinking about babies, in any case …”
“Silly! I’m sixteen, my mother was nineteen when she had Josh. It’s plenty of time to be thinking about babies.”
“And I’m seventeen, and my father was twenty-five when Dindrane was born. It’s way too early to be thinking about babies.”
“But how old was your mother?”
Twenty-three? What was she doing with her life before she had Lady Dindrane? “Well, maybe we could split the difference!” Babette replied. “I think twenty-one would be a good age to have a first baby …” Isabel was almost twenty-three too, so twenty-one isn’t so bad. “And that way you’d be twenty-two! Only three years younger than your father!”
“And five years from now. I’ll have barely graduated from Camford by then — who’s to say we would even be married then? If we were married.”
“Oh … point.”
She was still pouting when their food came. She hadn’t thought of it like that; she hadn’t precisely calculated the amount of time involved. And since Aglovale hadn’t even introduced her to his parents — yet — it wouldn’t do to tell her the idea she was toying with; namely, marrying and starting their family while Aglovale was still at Camford.
“But you know what,” Aglovale said without warning, reaching out for her hand, “if you want to think — just think — about babies — why not? It’s not like it’s harming anyone.”
“Besides,” he added, “though I hope babies won’t be in our future for a good long time … I was thinking about taking our relationship to the next level …”
He kept the remark cryptic, no doubt expecting Babette to pester and badger him, so he could be lofty and aloof and not tell her. But Babette did not ask. She didn’t need to.
He’s going to introduce me to his parents! I’m going to be Lady Gwynedd before I turn twenty-two!
After a dinner like that, was it any wonder that she and Aglovale ended up in their “spot” as soon as the plates were cleared and the bill paid?
“Oh … Aglovale …” Babette managed to murmur into his ear when his lips left hers, trailing across her cheek, closer and closer to her ear.
“Mmmph,” was the only reply he gave. Not very intelligible, but, as her mother had told her during their “just-girls” talks (which never included Heloise), one couldn’t expect intelligence, much less intelligibility, from a man at these times.
His lips reached her ear. “Ooh!”
“What?” he managed to whisper.
Aglovale paused in what he was doing long enough to give her a baleful glare, then his hand cupped the back of her head, her hair running through his fingers like silken water. Then he started kissing her again, and Babette forgot what the word ticklish meant, never mind its possible applications to the situation she and Aglovale found themselves in.
Her entire being then focused on his hand. His left hand. It moved away from her head, down her neck … her shoulder, her collarbone … her sternum … she shifted slightly, putting the laces to her bodice underneath his hand. And then she waited for the inevitable pawing and fumbling. Aglovale was getting better at this step, but she knew better than to expect too much — even she couldn’t undo her laces one-handed without a bit of trouble!
He didn’t undo her laces, though, just loosened them enough to stick his hand in. It brushed her breast, sending a delicious thrill tingling down her spine. But it didn’t stay there, as usual, instead it went down … down … down …
Babette pushed him off her and scuttled to the end of the bench, adjusting her chemise and trying to lace herself back up again with a shaking hand. “What was that?” she demanded as she stood up.
“What do you think that was?”
“You were trying to feel my — feel my –“
“Well, why not?”
“Why not? Good girls don’t do those kinds of — of things!”
“Oh, please, Babette! You sneak out with me at least once a week, you think you’re a good girl?”
Babette started backward. “I’m only sneaking around with you because you don’t want anyone to know!”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you’re sneaking around! Good girls would be in home and in their beds at this hour!”
“It’s not my fault that you only want to go places in the middle of the night!”
“It’s your fault if you come with me!”
“Well, even if that is my fault, it still doesn’t make me a bad girl!”
“What would, then?”
“Letting you do — do — do that before we were married!”
Aglovale’s jaw fell. “Married? Married? Wright, I can’t even let you meet my parents, and you’re expecting us to get married?”
“You said I would soon, though!”
“What? I never said that!”
“You said we were going to ‘take things to the next level’! What else is that supposed to mean?”
“What I was just doing was what that means! Wright, Babette! You are so — so –“
“I am not dumb!” Babette said, before he could. “I don’t care if I’m not as smart as Rob and Heloise! I’m not dumb!”
“I don’t give a damn about how you measure up compared to your stupid siblings–“
“They’re NOT stupid!”
“Oh, that’s right, you are!”
Babette stared at him. “How — how could you say that?”
Aglovale didn’t reply. Instead, he turned around and walked out of the hedge maze. Puppy-like, stumbling, she followed him, unable to say anything.
Until they rounded the corner of the building and Aglovale continued to walk on, not even looking back. Then the tears that Babette wanted to shed morphed into an angry grimace.
“Fine!” she shouted after him. “FINE! You walk away! Walk away like a — like a spoiled little boy! Not like a MAN, who would never call a lady stupid! Even if she wasn’t too quick on the uptake!”
Aglovale said nothing. He didn’t even turn around.
“So what if I’m not smart!” she called to his back. “At least I’m not a slut! Is that what you want, Aglovale? A worthless slut! Someone you’d actually be ashamed to bring home to meet your parents?”
He still did not turn around.
“Because I’m not a slut!” she added. “I’m not smart and I’m not noble, but I’m not a slut! There’s nothing wrong with me, Aglovale! I don’t know why you think there is, but if you do — if you do, you’re wrong and that’s all there is to it!”
His back showed no expression to her.
“Are you so much of a coward that you’re going to just walk away and admit that I’m right? That you’re not treating me the way you should?”
Still no reaction.
“I deserve better than this, Aglovale!”
… Oh, who am I kidding, he’s a nobleman! How am I going to get any better than this?
She ran after him and barely gave him a second to turn around before she pounced.
“Oh, Aglovale, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! I just — I don’t know why I said what I said! I was just — oh, I was just surprised, when you did that! I should have known you would never do anything to hurt or dishonor me!”
He didn’t reply.
“I just — I overreacted, that’s all! And I was afraid you’d think I was a slut if I let you do that! Because I’m not a slut, Aglovale, I’m really not.” Babette tried to pout, but it came out more as a genuine, sad-little-girl’s frown. “Please, I know I’m not very bright, but I’m not a slut.”
Aglovale almost smiled. “Maybe … maybe I misspoke. Maybe it’s more a … becoming naiveté. Maybe I should have clarified to you what I meant.”
Just as Babette’s frown began to upend itself, Aglovale continued, “Because I still do want to take things to the … next level.”
He still wants me to be a slut?
… But that means he still wants me …
Babette knew she would never be as brilliant as Rob. She would never be as cutting and clever as Heloise. She would never be as sensible as Josh, or even as quietly shrewd as Isabel. But she knew she was one thing.
She was wanted, wanted by Aglovale. A nobleman. And as long as she could keep being wanted, how much did the rest matter?