“Are you sure I look all right?” Nicole asked for the third time.
Erin smiled, but she didn’t shake her head: the last time she had tried that, Nicole had yelped and started fixing her hair, her dress again, trying to determine what was wrong. “Ye look lovely, Nicole. An’ yer Milo ain’t gonna know what hit him when ye walk in that door.”
Nicole blushed to hear it, and that — that was the perfect last piece to complete the look. Too bad it would fade in a few moments. But it would be back.
After all, they didn’t call girls like Nicole “blushing brides” for nothing.
Erin leaned back, her back resting against the doorpost, smirking from the corner of her mouth. The truth was, she suspected, that Nicole could have walked down the aisle in a canvas sack, and not the silk dress Milo had had made for her in record-breaking time, and Erin doubted anybody would have noticed. A girl that effervescently happy exuded beauty no matter what she was wearing or what her hair looked like or what cosmetics she choose to use.
And if you looked at a girl on her wedding day, and she wasn’t that happy … well, again, hair, clothes, cosmetics, they didn’t matter. No girl could be pretty if she wasn’t happy. Erin knew that. She’d heard it whispered on her own wedding day that several of the guests had never seen a more miserable-looking bride.
Nicole gave her hair what looked like a last pat and her bodice what seemed to be a final tug. Then she turned to Erin. Before Erin could do more than smile, Nicole was embracing her.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “If — if it wasn’t for you, what you said, I … I doubt I would have ever had the courage to start anything with Milo.” She pulled away with a grin that looked suspiciously watery. “I –we — can’t thank you enough for that.”
“Aw, Nicole, ye ain’t got nothin’ ter be thankin’ me fer. What ye an’ yer Milo have, ye made fer yerself.” Nicole had also had the sense to reach out and grab happiness when it presented itself to her, when had Erin done that? She’d tried, but she hadn’t gotten the knack of it before it nearly left her grasp entirely. Surviving, that was what Erin was good at, not being happy.
Still, she’d managed well enough for herself. And she had helped Nicole manage. Almost twenty years ago, on her own wedding day, could she have ever imagined for herself that things would turn out this well?
But thinking of her own wedding day would only make her maudlin, and Erin didn’t want to be maudlin today. There was no reason for it. Nicole was happy, her Milo was happy, Wulf was looking forward to the prospect of stuffing himself full of cake at the party, and Erin was happy for them all.
“So!” she said to change the subject, “what questions have ye got about tonight, hon?”
And really, for all that plenty of folks would have been aghast at the notion of a former whore speaking to a virgin bride on her very wedding day — much less talking about this of all subjects — who better to hold this talk than Erin? Who would know more? Not little Roma, who might have gotten some tips out of Marigold but who was barely more knowledgeable than Nicole herself. Not Lyndsay, who would probably envision herself as practicing for her daughter Ginny’s and all her other daughters’ wedding days and who would advise Nicole as a mother would advise her daughter, not as friend would advise a friend. That was fine if the person speaking actually was your mother, or your aunt or your stepmother, but from one friend to another it was just shy of insulting.
“Oh, I’m not too worried,” Nicole laughed. “My mother … when she gave my sisters their last talks, she had me sit in. I’m sure we’ll figure things out.”
Erin’s jaw fairly fell. It wasn’t just hearing about Nicole’s mother. After Nicole had told Milo about her past, the floodgates had veritably opened and she had told Erin everything, too. Roma and Lyndsay had both gotten abridged versions, and all three had been sworn to secrecy. If it wasn’t for the fact that Nicole still shivered and shook whenever she thought of the diplomats from Reme, Erin wouldn’t have guessed the seal on that secrecy would outlast a week. But Roma and Lyndsay would keep quiet while the Remans were still around.
No, what made Erin gasp was the fact that Nicole’s mother had allowed a younger daughter to be in the room when she gave her elder daughters the wedding-night talk. “I — yer ma what?”
“Well, I don’t think I was in there for Cecelia’s wedding,” Nicole laughed. “I was only ten! And I was so jealous that Junia and Tacita got to stay! But after I got my courses, I was allowed to stay, so I heard Junia’s talk and Tacita’s talk, too.”
Erin nodded, slowly, having no clear idea what else to do.
“Innocence isn’t as — um — oh, dear,” Nicole murmured. “Well, let’s just say that in Reme, things are … different.”
Erin could agree with that. Her own mother would have no sooner let her sit in on the talk she gave to one of her elder sisters than she would have brought Erin to a brothel to get tips from the girls. But it wasn’t just that. Erin knew her mother was much stricter than most of the other mothers of Glasonland. Plenty of girls got the full talk when they first got their courses, and the wedding night talk was just a brush-up, a chance to get a few last questions dealt with before it was too late, so to speak. But — this was important — noble girls usually didn’t get that talk. Girls whose virginity truly mattered weren’t allowed to know what was going on until it was too late to back out, or too late to take matters into their own hands.
“But if there’s anything you want to add,” continued Nicole, “I — I’d be happy to hear it. Oh — oh, my mother and Widow Thatcher both told me that if it really hurts, he’s doing it wrong and I’m to tell him that.” She giggled even as she blushed.
Erin could do nothing more than blink at that. Nobody had told her … well, maybe not in so many words. The other girls at the brothel, they had groaned and shaken their heads over men who couldn’t be bothered to not be so rough, and Erin herself had had to explain to many an over-eager young man that this wasn’t how he wanted to treat her bride on the wedding night. And Erin’s mother, forget it. In her mind, since babies hurt coming out, they ought to hurt going in as well. Of course, by the point of her own wedding day, Erin knew that it didn’t have to be uncomfortable … but she hadn’t known how painful it could be, either, if your partner was a man determined to make it so.
Best not to think of that. Not today.
“Well!” Erin laughed, or tried to laugh. “I guess ye’ve already got the most important bits down, then. Still, if ye’re comin’ up with anythin’, don’t ye be shy about grabbin’ me anytime before yer man sweeps ye off ter the bedroom.”
“Aww, Erin, you’re too sweet!”
“It’s what friends are for, love.” And somebody had to be looking out for Nicole on today of all days. “Besides, who else would ye be axin’ — Lyndsay? Or better yet, Roma’s battle-ax o’ a mother-in-law?”
Nicole giggled, even if the giggles were a little uncomfortable. But there had been no avoiding inviting Cerise, not when Edmond was giving Nicole away. Nicole had desperately wanted somebody to hand her off to Milo, since her father couldn’t do it. Lyndsay’s Ash couldn’t, since nobody wanted to find out the hard way that a Plantsim would be a persona non grata, as the Remans would say, in the Royal Chapel. As for Roma’s Simon, he was barely older than Nicole and a bit of a shifty fellow besides. But Roma’s kind father-in-law? He was perfect for the role, and had been touched to be asked, according to Roma.
As for Erin, she was trying very hard not to dread the fact that Wulf’s grandparents would be in her very house. Hopefully nobody would note the resemblance.
“An’ ye know,” Erin continued, mainly to drive that pesky train of thought away, “after ye’re married … if ye an’ yer man want ter be spicin’ things up …”
What she wouldn’t say was, After you’re married, don’t be a stranger. Don’t forget about me!
Yet that was the statement Nicole answered. “I’ll come to you before anybody. I promise.” She kissed Erin’s cheek. “Anyway — shall we go?”
“Aye,” Erin answered. And with that, Nicole took a deep breath and charged out of the bathroom.
Not that she got very far. The exclamations of Lyndsay and Roma stopped her soon enough. “Nicole!” Lyndsay gasped. “My goodness, ye look a treat! That dress!”
“Oh, Nicole!” Roma somehow managed to hop to her feet and embrace Nicole with the lightness of a woman a lot less pregnant than she. “Ye look so happy! Oh, an’ yer hair …” Roma ran some of the feather-light strands through her fingers. “Erin! I never knew ye were that good with hair!”
“Learn somethin’ new every day,” Lyndsay chuckled. She winked at Erin over Roma’s head. Nicole was luckily too busy hugging her to notice.
For Lyndsay knew exactly who she was, knew that Erin had often helped Wei Li, Tambu, even Mirelle with their hair, even if Roma hadn’t made the connection between Erin-Nicole’s-friend and Erin-the-whore. Hopefully she never would. The last thing anybody needed was for Pierre Chevaux’s sister-in-law to be knowingly waltzing into Erin’s life. Or for clacking tongues and gossips — to say nothing of Cerise Chevaux — taking one look at whatever relationship Erin and Roma might develop and assuming that Roma was being used to get Wulf into the Chevaux’s lives.
But it was too late to worry about that, at least for today. Erin moved a bit forward, standing next to Lyndsay as Nicole and Roma emerged arm-in-arm, giggling, into the main room.
“Oh, Miss Nicole!” gasped little Ginny Thatcher, running forward to meet Nicole. “Ye’re so pretty! I hope me weddin’ dress is a pretty yellow like yers!”
“Yellow!” mock-gasped Lyndsay. “I thought ye wanted a pretty purple dress when ye got married!”
Ginny glanced at her purple frock, blushing, and looked at Lyndsay. “… Can’t it be both? Like Nicole’s? Or Auntie Roma! She’s wearin’ two colors! An’ it ain’t even her weddin’ day!”
“I think,” Nicole replied, and Lyndsay leaned back and let her, smiling to herself, “that when you get married, you will have very pretty dress, and I think your mummy and daddy will let you make it any color you like.”
Lyndsay snorted under her breath, and Erin privately agreed. Dyes weren’t as cheap as Nicole was making them out to be. But then again, when had Nicole ever had to worry — truly worry — about that? When she was poor, she always had bigger things to be worryng about than what colors she wanted to dye her dresses. And now that she was marrying a wealthy man, when would she worry about the prices of dyes again? Probably never.
“Nice one,” Lyndsay murmured. Erin just heard her, and she glanced at her. Lyndsay only winked.
They had not much more time to contemplate that, though, for Wulf made his way — so shy, when he was usually laughing and boisterous! — up to Nicole. “Ye look really pretty, Missie Nicole.” He stood with his hands locked in front of him, rocking on the balls of his feet. And Erin wouldn’t be a mother if she didn’t see how he shot her a quick glance over his shoulder, as if to ask, Am I doin’ this right?
Erin smiled hugely in reply.
“Oh, thank you, Wulf!” Nicole reached down and hugged him, and Wulf hugged her back just as tightly. “And you look so handsome! Don’t you think he looks handsome, Ginny?”
“I guess?” Ginny replied, her nose wrinkling. Lyndsay had to duck to hide her laughter, and so, for that matter, did Erin.
“Lord!” Lyndsay laughed breathlessly, if softly. “If only her pa could have heard that! It would’ve made his day!”
“It would have?” Erin whispered.
“‘Course! No pa likes ter see his little girl growin’ up. Seein’ Ginny so far from that ought ter make Ash right happy, don’t ye think?”
“Well, when ye put it like that …” It certainly was one way to think about it. Erin wondered how her own father had felt about her growing up. He’d certainly seemed suspicious of the whole process, especially once Erin stared looking like a woman — from the neck down, at any rate — and trying to dress like one.
“O’ course,” Lyndsay sighed, “it does beat the alternative.”
“An’ what’s that?”
“Not seein’ yer little girl growin’ up.” Lyndsay’s gaze seemed to rest in equal measures on Roma and Nicole as they talked and laughed with the kiddies.
“They can see ’em,” Erin whispered. “At least — they must be able ter see ’em, wherever they are.”
“I hope so,” Lyndsay sighed. “Jeremiah would be prouder than anythin’, ter see what a little woman Roma has become. He’d laugh, ye know — ’cause she’s jest like her ma in so many ways.”
“No!” Erin gasped. Laughing, fun-loving — well, for the most part, when she wasn’t thinking about her little lost baby — Roma, just like serious, calm, and capable Kata Thatcher?
“Oh, aye, she is!” Lyndsay chortled. “I mean, she ain’t all the way there, not yet — that’ll take another twenty years or so — but jest ye wait. Once she gets there, she’ll be Kata Thatcher all over.” Lyndsay cast a half-amused glance at Erin. “But ye don’t know Kata all that well, d’ye?”
“Well, there’s only so well ye can get ter know a woman when ye’re at one end o’ … yerself, an’ she’s at the other …” Erin nodded to Wulf. “Ye know?”
“Well, when ye put it that way …” Lyndsay chortled. “An’ she used ter come by durin’ the daytime, when she were droppin’ by fer social calls, eh?”
“Still does, as far as I know,” Erin replied.
“Oh, ye know what I mean.” Lyndsay nudged Erin’s elbow and winked. “At any rate, ye were too occupied with other things when she came over ter be socializin’, eh?”
If by other things, Lyndsay meant “sleeping,” Erin supposed that was true.
“I mean, ye did need yer beauty rest, ain’t no Sim on the Lord’s green earth who is gonna deny that,” Lyndsay continued.
Good Lord — she did mean sleeping! Erin almost gasped.
But she turned the gasp into a chortle and managed a reply. “Still do. Can’t be treadin’ the boards with a face like leather.”
“Well, that’s the nice thing about cookin’,” Lyndsay replied. “Ain’t nobody who cares what ye look like, as long as the food’s good. Really helpful fer a woman with kids.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Erin asked.
“What I said, o’ course! How much beauty rest ye think ye get with kids.”
“Enough?” Erin hazarded. True, she didn’t sleep as well now as she had before she had Wulf; she always had to get up in the middle of the night once or twice to check on him. But she sure slept better than she had with Walter. “At least once they start sleepin’ through the night.”
“Which Cicely hasn’t, an’ by the time Cicely does, well, there will be a new one stayin’ up all night. Fact o’ life,” Lyndsay sighed.
“Can’t — can’t Ash be helpin’ ye with that? I mean, I know folks like him don’t … sleep, as such.”
“Oh, they don’t! An’ if it’s the older kids what need somethin’, somethin’ small, like a glass o’ water or what-have-ye, he takes care o’ that. It’s a good man what I married,” Lyndsay replied with no small satisfaction, and no small amount of tenderness, either. “But with even the best man … well,” she tapped her chest, or rather her breast, “there’s a limit ter what he can do.”
Erin blinked. “I never –”
Knock-knock-knock! “Yoo-hoo! The rest o’ the party’s here!”
Drat that Cerise Chevaux — just as the talk was getting interesting! “Come on in, door’s open!”
And in came Cerise and, more importantly, considering today’s proceedings, her husband.
“Where’s Simon?” laughed Roma. “Ye said the rest o’ the party was comin’!”
“Seein’ ter the horses an’ wagon, Roma. After all, we can’t stay too long. Don’t want ter be late!” laughed Cerise.
Erin, meanwhile, caught Wulf’s eye and gestured for him to come closer to her. Wulf’s eyes narrowed, but he skipped over without a further word.
Good Lord, thought Erin has she watched Edmond’s eyes crinkle at the corners, then looked at her Wulf’s eyes, what a resemblance! And how was she to keep either of the elder Chevauxes — or Simon Chevaux, for that matter! — from noticing?
Easily, it turned out, for the elder Chevauxes: both of them appeared to have eyes only for Nicole, who was just starting to fuss about gathering her things. “Easy, lass,” replied Edmond, his voice as slow and steady as any river, “ye ain’t gonna be late fer nothin’. Why, nothin’ can start until ye get there.” He kissed her formally on the cheek. “Ye look lovely, by the way. I’m sure yer pa would say the same if he were here ter see ye.”
Nicole again blushed. “Thank you. I — I hope he would.” She smiled a little shakily, and Erin wondered, not for the first time, what Nicole’s father might have made of her marrying the bastard son of the Glasonlander king. She doubted a Glasonlander father of Nicole’s rank would have felt so happy about his daughter marrying a bastard son of a Reman emperor.
Then again, considering that the Reman emperors tended to be deposed once every five years or so — and considering that they all supposedly had dozens of concubines and could call any good matron to their beds as sure as snapping their fingers — maybe it was a bit of a different proposition. At least Vortigern had been the only king in recent years to have those kinds of proclivities.
“And thank you,” Nicole repeated, “Goodman Chevaux, for doing this for me.”
“Me lass, it’s me pleasure. Now,” he said, extending his arm to her, “I don’t suppose ye’d be willin’ ter come ter the church with me? Yer young man will hold up everythin’ fer ye, but he’ll be right nervous doin’ it.”
Nicole laughed. “Oh, I know! Come on — let’s go!”
And with that, Nicole took the first steps on the journey that would take, Wright willing, the rest of her life.
As Erin took Wulf’s hand and followed in everyone else’s wake, she decided that she couldn’t think of a better way to start that journey.