Claire was a very lucky woman. She had lost sight of that over the past few years, but it was true. It did not erase the suffering of the past two years, but it did put it into some kind of perspective. Despite her difficulties, despite the black thoughts that still lurked, quicksand-like, in the cobwebbed corners of her mind, she was still very blessed.
She had six wonderful children, the eldest was married to a man who adored her and would take good care of her (and was a prince to boot), and with any luck, the second would soon be well-married as well.
In the meantime, Claire forced herself to focus on the positive, like her daughter’s glowing appearance her smile. “You look lovely, dear.”
Clarice turned to her with a wry half-smile. “Thank you, Mother. You look well, too.”
“Oh, me!” Claire laughed. “Don’t worry about me.” She patted her daughter’s glossy black locks. “If that Ferreira boy knows anything, he’ll be thinking that the luckiest day of his life was when your father and his started negotiations.”
“Hmm,” Clarice murmured. “It’s … it’s not as if he hasn’t seen me before.”
Claire was silent. If she had not known better — if Frederick Ferreira was any other young man invited with his family to supper — Claire would have called that tone indifference. But a young woman could never be that indifferent to her betrothed. An carefully-schooled faux indifference could only mean one thing.
Oh, no. Oh, no! She despises him!
Claire took deep breaths and tried to think positive thoughts, as Morgan had taught her. Positive thoughts refused to come. So she moved to her next coping strategy: was there anything she could do to fix the situation?
“Of course you’ve seen each other,” Claire replied as Clarice turned around. “Do you know each other well?”
“Well … enough.”
It was all Claire could do to keep the panic at bay. “Oh? What do you think of him?”
“He — he –” Claire could see the terror of the stricken deer peeking out from her daughter’s eyes. “He’s very nice!” Clarice squeaked.
“Oh?” Claire asked.
“And — and — he wants to become an engineer. Er. A … a designer, a builder, you know? At least, that’s what Dannie — er — Mistress Wesleyan, now, told me.”
She was scrambling — scrambling for good things? This was worse than Claire’s nightmares. “And he …” Clarice continued, her eyes dropping, “he’s very nice.”
If there was one thing Claire knew, it was when her daughters were being sincere. So Clarice did think him nice. Claire felt herself begin to breathe again. Clarice she knew for an exacting and skeptical judge of character — if Master Frederick had convinced Clarice that he was nice, then surely there were no hidden depths of capriciousness or cruelty in him that would only come out in marriage.
But if she thought he was nice, and if she felt nothing more than that for him, well, then, that might explain her reticence. Perhaps she was even feeling a bit of guilt for not feeling more for him. Clarice was a sharp one, and if Bors had failed to fool any of his children, Clarice would have been the one who was not fooled. She would know that it could have been much, much worse.
“You know, Clarice …” Claire began, hesitantly, “if you don’t … if you don’t feel anything for him … it’s nothing to be ashamed of, or worried about.”
“… Oh?” Clarice murmured, her face a mask even to Claire.
“You see … you see, feeling, regard between married couples, that often is something that takes time to grow up. You saw that even with your sister — even though she and the Prince cared for each other before their marriage, it didn’t just happen overnight, did it?”
Clarice shook her head, and with good reason: Claire was rather certain that the Prince had been doing a great deal of chasing before either she or Bors had become aware of it. Lynn had led him on a merry dance, even if that hadn’t been her intention. And Clarice, Claire was sure, had watched every last step of it.
“So — so I shouldn’t worry about feeling, or not feeling, anything for Master Frederick, if I were you. Give it …” Claire ran her hands over her daughter’s shoulders, ostensibly checking for wrinkles, half-ostensibly checking for tension in her daughter, really trying to calm herself, “time. Give it time. Get to know each other better. And you have a year before you’d wed, you know. Use this time with him, but don’t … don’t …”
“Don’t give him too many liberties?” Clarice whispered to the hem of her gown.
“Clarice!” Claire gasped. She could not help it — at that moment, the image of her long-dead stepmother rose in her mind’s eye, and with that image all of that woman’s words. “You …” She held her daughter’s shoulders and stared into her eyes. “You are not his property. You allow him no more — or less — than what you feel comfortable with. You are not married, and you owe him — you owe him –”
“Mother!” Clarice yelped as Claire’s hands began to shake. “Mother, sit down — let me get you –”
“No, no.” Claire pulled her hands away, closed her eyes, and breathed deep, as Morgan had taught her. “No. I’m fine, Clarice. I just …” Her eyes opened. “I’m sorry for frightening you. But I was …” She smiled for Clarice’s sake. “I remembered, you see, a great deal of things that my stepmother said to me on the evening I met your father for the first time. They’ve stayed with me, you see, for many years.”
Claire took a deep breath and forced herself to be calm, to be forgiving. What her stepmother had said had not been said from malice. The worst case scenario was that she was simply repeating strictures that Claire’s father had imparted to her. The best case scenario was that she believed everything she said and repeated it to Claire in order to help her.
“She said to me … she told me to be on my best behavior. To be calm, to be meek, to be gracious. She even told me — tacitly — that if your father made any moves … well, I was to permit him to go as far as my dignity and honor would permit.” Claire frowned. “I’m still not sure what she meant by that.” Did she even know? “What my stepmother impressed upon me was that I was being honored immeasurably by your father’s … actually, he hadn’t even proposed by that point, I don’t think. Interest, I suppose? And that it was incumbent upon me to keep my family’s honor and to not do anything that could cause your father to withdraw his interest.”
As she spoke, she watched Clarice wilt. Claire had to blink back tears. Had she looked like that when her stepmother spoke? Had her stepmother felt her sadness, her compassion?
“But what I want to tell you,” Claire continued, “is too forget all of that.”
“I — what?” Clarice gasped.
“Forget it all. You …” Claire fingered one of the dark ringlets left to trail down the side of Clarice’s face. “You are a beautiful, intelligent, caring and kind young lady. Any young man, even a king, would be lucky to have you. Keeping the family’s honor, ensuring that the most advantageous match is made — that is your father’s responsibility, not yours. You just be yourself, and that Master Frederick will count himself the luckiest man alive.”
Clarice dimpled, and Claire felt herself able to breathe again. But why was Clarice’s breath coming faster? “M-Mother,” she started, “he –”
A knock came from the door and silenced Clarice. “Yes?” Claire called.
“The Ferreira’s carriage is approaching, my lady!”
“We’d best go down,” Clarice murmured.
“In a moment — what were you going to say, dear?”
Clarice blinked until her eyes dropped. “Oh … nothing that important.”
Claire waited, but nothing more seemed forthcoming. So she locked her daughter’s arm into hers, and together they walked down to the vestibule.
“Well!” Bors huffed when they arrived. “Took you two long enough! They’re almost here! Now, Clarice –”
“Doesn’t she look lovely, Bors?” Claire interrupted, taking her place by her husband’s side. And with any luck, she’ll distract from that eyesore you call a tunic …
“Well, yes, of course –”
“Then tell her so, dear.”
“You look lovely, Clarice,” Bors said a little distractedly. “But what I wanted to remind you was –”
Another knock sounded, this time from the large door leading to the outside. Claire thanked her lucky stars. The family barely had time to compose themselves before the porter opened up the great doors.
And so, without further ado, Nobility met Commons.
Both sides were so distracted by taking each other’s measure that neither realized quite how rude it was being, standing there and saying nothing. Finally something jolted Sir Bors from his reverie, and he boomed, “Welcome! Welcome, Master Ferreira — Mistress Ferreira — Mistress … er …”
“Parkinson,” the white-haired lady replied. “Maude Parkinson — but you, my dear!” she started, striding toward Clarice, ignoring all proper rules of precedence and decorum, “you can call me Granny.” And without further ado, she reached out and embraced Clarice.
Bors sputtered, and the elder Ferreiras stared at Mistress Parkinson in shock — but Clarice, after a moment’s seeming surprise, embraced the old lady back. If Claire had been able to see her daughter’s face, she would have seen the faintly questioning look she sent to Master Frederick. If Claire had not been staring at her husband, praying against an explosion, she might have noticed how Master Frederick smiled and shrugged at Clarice. But Claire saw none of this.
Instead she stared at her husband, who snorted heavily, then turned to glare at the elder (though not the eldest) Ferreiras. Mistress Ferreira visibly quailed, but Master Ferreira only stood up straighter and glared right back. Claire almost gasped. However, that was nothing compared to what Master Ferreira would say: “Greetings, Sir Bors. I must say, I’ve heard terrible things about your latest crops — I hope they’re not true?”
Mistress Ferreira’s eyes bulged, probably at the rudeness of bringing up business in such a formal setting, but Bors, far from turning up his haughty nose at the gaffe, blanched. “Er — well — there was a bit of a blight among the tomatoes … but never fear! The rumors about crop failure were quite, quite exaggerated.”
Liar. It had been a stretch to collect together Elyan’s university fees; Clarice’s new gown for this night had been a gift from Lynn; and if the Ferreiras were asking for anything approaching a dowry for Clarice, Claire would have had no idea how they were to afford a wedding in a year. Still, they soldiered on.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Master Ferreira replied, even if he wore the smooth smile of the cat licking its lips clear of canary feathers. The implication was clear: he had won this round. The de Ganises needed him enough to excuse any potential rudeness on the part of his mother-in-law, especially when Clarice herself did not seem particularly bothered by it.
Claire’s stepmother and father would have been proud.
“Has anyone mentioned that you look lovely, Lady Clarice?” asked Mistress Parkinson, cutting through the silence with a grin.
“Oh … oh, thank you.” Clarice colored very prettily, but Claire noticed how her eyes went to Master Frederick. As for him, he said nothing. “And — it’s a pleasure to finally meet you, all of you. Danielle talked so much about you –”
“My granddaughter is a vicious liar!” Mistress Parkinson replied.
Clarice jumped. “She … she only said good things …”
“Ah! Well, in that case, she’s a veritable paragon of truth-telling. Richard and Bianca did raise that girl right.”
As hostess, it was Claire’s duty to see to any guests who were not already entertained by other members of her family — but there was only one of her, and two unattended guests. To turn to Mistress Ferreira would be the least rude thing she could do. “Welcome to our home, Mistress Ferreira. It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Likewise,” smiled the other woman. “You do have a beautiful home. I love the effect of the lighter woods in here. It makes it look fresh and clean and new.”
“Thank you!” Claire gasped, touched and surprised by the compliment. None of the other ladies had ever complimented her decorating before …
But after that compliment, both ladies were at a loss for further conversation. Claire was about to murmur some nothing on the weather, when Mistress Ferreira took a sudden deep breath. “Lady Claire — you are probably going to think this impudent, and far too personal, but …”
Claire began to panic.
“I pray you won’t blame me — unduly — for … well, that,” she said, nodding her head in the direction of their husbands. Claire turned to look, unable to understand what it was that Mistress Ferreira was seeking to escape blame for —
And she was nearly blinded by her husband’s tunic anew. “Oh!” Claire gasped. “Oh, never mind that. I — I wouldn’t blame any woman alive for that.”
“Oh, thank the Lord!” Mistress Ferreira sighed. And with that artificial impediment out of the way, Claire’s heart was bright and cheerful when Bors announced that time was wasting and dinner would soon be served.
Except … except that Clarice and Master Frederick had not gotten one single moment to converse together.
The dinner was no more conducive to their conversing than the vestibule had been. Though Bors did not do anything so foolish as place Clarice and Master Frederick at opposite ends of the table, he still dominated the conversation so that no side conversations could be had. When Clarice and Master Frederick were able to speak, it was more in the manner of an interrogation than a true conversation, and what is more, that interrogation could have revealed nothing to either party that the other did not already know.
Then, after dinner, came the splitting of the sexes — the women to the parlor, the men to Bors’s study — and Claire was ready to despair of Clarice and Master Frederick ever getting a quiet moment to themselves.
“All right,” said Mistress Parkinson as soon as the men were gone, “what I am about to say is going to be very rude, but bear with me, for I am old and I used up the last of my patience twenty years ago. Is he always like that?”
“Mother!” gasped Mistress Ferreira, while Claire groaned, “… He?”
“Your husband, I’m afraid.”
Claire knew she ought to be polite — to be offended — to imply that the question as unwanted or uncalled for or just plain rude. She lacked the energy. She sighed. “Yes.”
“It explains a lot,” Mistress Parkinson nodded. She smiled at Clarice and patted her knee.
Explains …? Claire thought, but the thought was interrupted by Mistress Ferreira turning to her. “So — so — Lady Claire, how does your little granddaughter? The Princess?”
“Oh! Oh, she’s doing splendidly! Getting bigger and bigger every day, and such a happy baby! Although she is a bit shy, but I think — oh, I’m sorry. I’m babbling. This can’t possibly be of that much interest to you.”
“Oh, nonsense!” Mistress Parkinson laughed. “It’s only grandmothers’ courtesy. Bianca, you are officially allowed to join the club early.”
Claire blinked and glanced at Mistress Ferreira, who smiled broadly. “My daughter — my Dannie — is due any day now.”
“Oh, how is Dannie?” Clarice exclaimed, and blushed as all eyes fell upon her.
Mistress Parkinson smiled and answered for all of them. “She’s at that point where the desire to have that baby out is more than offsetting any fear of labor — but of course you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?” asked Mistress Parkinson. Before Claire could move from confusion to offense, Mistress Parkinson added, “From your studies?”
Ah, yes, of course, Clarice’s studies in medicine. Claire was still not certain how it was that the university allowed a woman to study medicine — still less a noblewoman who would never have the opportunity to practice it — but Clarice seemed to be happy and enjoying it, and that was all that mattered.
Clarice smiled and laughed. “A little bit — although they don’t talk much about the expectant mother’s feelings in my obstetrics classes. Just … well …”
“What to expect from the other end of things? And not a word out of you,” Mistress Parkinson waggled a finger at her daughter, “that was the politest way I could think to say it, and I dare you to come up with a better one.”
“Mother, did it never occur to you that, perhaps, if you can’t think of a way to say something so that it’s fit for polite company, you shouldn’t say it?” sighed Mistress Ferreira.
“What a question! Of course it’s occurred to me! I just don’t hold any truck with the notion!”
Claire looked on in more than surprise — it was indeed shock — but Clarice? Clarice laughed. And instantly put her hand over her mouth and stared at her mother as if she had done something wrong.
“Oh, you’ll fit in just fine with us!” laughed Mistress Parkinson.
“Indeed, I hope you will,” Mistress Ferreira added. “I … oh, goodness. I don’t even know how to begin this. I … well, I’m sure you’ve heard all sorts of horrible mother-in-law stories. I know I have.”
“She’s witnessed a fair few, too,” Mistress Parkinson added with a wink to Clarice.
“Indeed,” Mistress Ferreira sighed, “as Mother will be the first to tell you, I’ve had well over twenty years’ instruction on what not to do as a mother-in-law.”
“But Richard loves me anyway, despite how much I torment him,” Mistress Parkinson winked at Clarice.
“Somehow,” Mistress Ferreira added. “I suppose … you know, we’re just putting the finishing touches on the manor. Would you — that is, decorating needs a woman’s touch, as you know. Would you and your mother like to come by some afternoon, before you return to Camford? I’d love to hear your input, especially on the surgery.”
Surgery? wondered Claire, and Clarice’s eyes went wide.
“Oh … oh, that’s very generous … but of course it’s your home …”
“But it’ll be yours, too — assuming the menfolk don’t get into some stupid argument about money or lands or some similar nonsense,” Mistress Parkinson pointed out.
“If … if Mother has some free time …” Clarice asked, sending a pleading glance to Claire — but pleading for what? “I’d love to come. M-mother?”
All eyes turned to her — but what was Claire to say? Clarice’s eyes still pleaded. “I … I am not quite certain,” Claire hedged. “I shall have to check. You …” She addressed herself to Mistress Parkinson. “You know how it is, with a daughter with a new baby — or a new enough baby — every little cry is a cause for alarm! And you soon will know how it is,” she added to Mistress Ferreira.
“Ah, well, we can’t argue with that,” Mistress Parkinson said sagely.
Claire looked to Clarice, to see if that would do for her — but Clarice would not look at her. “Ex–excuse me,” she murmured, “I — I’ll be back in a moment.” She slipped out of the room without a further word.
Claire took a deep breath, prepared to ask Mistress Ferreira about the brocade on her overdress — a topic of conversation sure to keep them going for the rest of the evening, and safe besides — but Mistress Parkinson held up a hand. Claire waited.
She continued to wait until the soft slapping of Clarice’s slippers faded entirely. Then Mistress Parkinson spoke. “She didn’t tell you about the surgery, did she?”
“I …” Claire started.
“What? Mother, that’s silly. Why would she tell us but not her own mother?” Mistress Ferreira interrupted.
“I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count,” snorted Mistress Parkinson. “Lady Claire, forgive me, for I am old — but I am about to be quite impertinent. Now, I’ve raised three daughters — and half-raised a granddaughter — so I think I know a panicked girl when I see one. She didn’t tell you, did she?”
Claire hesitated, but after a moment, she sighed and shook her head.
“Did she tell you,” Mistress Parkinson asked, “that she’s studying medicine?”
“Yes, of course!”
“And how did her father react to that?”
Claire’s mouth opened and shut again. “She …”
“She?” asked Mistress Parkinson.
“She didn’t tell us until it would be … too late for her to change …” Claire murmured. “Or at least — that’s what she said — her — her father …” She turned to Mistress Ferreira. “You — you all don’t have a problem with it — do you?”
“No, no, of course not! It’ll be wonderful to have a doctor in the family!” Mistress Ferreira reassured her.
A doctor in the family … That was not how Clarice had phrased it to her parents. She had implied — never actually stated, but implied — that she was studying herb lore, some obstretrics, courses in preventative medicine … all things useful for a chatelaine to know, all things that would never threaten male doctoral expertise. All things that Bors would not be able to argue with.
“I think,” Claire murmured, “that I need to speak with Clarice.”
“No, please don’t!” Mistress Ferreira gasped. “Don’t get her into trouble on our account. Really, it doesn’t bother us at all! And it certainly doesn’t bother Freddy.”
“I think,” Mistress Parkinson said, “that you need to talk to her.”
“Mother! She’s going to be a doctor, not a — not a — demimondaine! Do you want to be responsible for crushing her dreams?”
“Excuse me,” Claire murmured, leaving mother and daughter to argue it out as she disappeared into the corridor after her own daughter.
Why hadn’t Clarice told her any of this? Not telling Bors she could understand — that was only self-defense. But her, Claire, Clarice’s own mother? Surely, if anyone would support Clarice, it would be her!
Or would she?
Claire stopped. Before her sickness — before her healing — what were the odds that she would have stood up to Bors in this? She couldn’t even keep her bright, vivacious Angelique from being stifled to death in the nunnery!
Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord …
The dark thoughts were rising up again, and Claire had to grab the doorpost to keep herself upright. She closed her eyes. That was the past, she told herself, as Morgan had taught her. That was the past, and I cannot change that. But I can control how I will act in the future. I can control how I will act right now.
Claire stood up, took a deep breath, and kept walking. She would check first for Clarice in her bedchamber, then with the babes, then — she knew not next where to check. But she would find her. The château —
She heard rustling coming from the music room.
What on earth … Her footsteps turned to the archway of their own accord. Was it one of the dogs? A manservant and maid? Mice?
It was none of these.
Claire barely managed to stifle a gasp before she hurried away from the arch and around the corner.
Clarice! she thought. Clarice alone with a man — oh, Lord — what else hasn’t she been telling me? Why wasn’t I paying attention? Why? Why couldn’t I have been —
Her thoughts suddenly stopped.
Clarice was alone with a man — yes — but that man was Frederick. Her betrothed.
And couples did not kiss that passionately after half an evening’s stilted acquaintance.
Claire felt her knees begin to sag as the first unbidden tears came.
Clarice was all right! Clarice, who had always been lost in the shuffle of Lynn, lover of a prince; Angelique, bright and vivacious; Elyan, the boy. Clarice, the daughter Bors had — if Claire was honest with herself — sold for a few loans and the promise of more financial assistance. Clarice, who had been even more forgotten of late, between Claire’s illness and the birth of the twins and Lynn’s wedding and Lynn’s baby and Elyan’s beginning at Camford. Clarice had found her own way, her own man, her own happiness.
And she was going to be a doctor!
Claire’s bubble of happiness demanded release; unfortunately, the only one available to her was a wail.
She did not realize how loud she was — not until she heard two gasps, one feminine, one masculine, and a shocked, “Mother!” An arm curled around her shoulders. “Mother, what’s wrong?”
Claire closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe. “I — I saw you! You two! I –”
She could speak no more — their gasps, and Clarice’s growing whiteness, silenced her. “Oh — oh, Mother!”
“I — I meant no disrespect, Lady Claire –”
“But we’ve been courting for — for –”
“Ever since the moment I saw her.”
“Well, something like that — you see, Freddy knew, and I overheard you and Father talking –”
“We — we didn’t think there was anything wrong –”
“Since we were betrothed –”
“But — but I swear I meant no disrespect!”
“No, no!” Claire shook her head. “You don’t understand!”
“But — but Mother! Lynn — Lynn and Prince Tommy –”
“No — no — I’m happy! Baby!” She managed a watery smile for her daughter. “My baby! I’m so happy for you!”
Both stopped speaking. “You — you are?” asked Master Frederick.
“Mother?” Clarice whispered.
“Oh, Clarie,” Claire murmured, pulling her daughter in for a hug. “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life.”