There were very few things Shepard hated more than Anderson’s elegant dinner parties, and there were several very good reasons for it. One, she had to make nice with stuffy lords and nobles and act “like a lady”. Two, no smoking. And three, she knew it meant Anderson was trying to find her a husband.
It had been six years since Anderson and Lady Sanders had taken her in, and she adored the pair like parents since her own were dead. They’d turned her from a street rat to a somewhat upstanding woman. But of course, there was nothing they could do to make Shepard anything less than Shepard. And she was glad they seemed to have no intentions of doing so either.
Shepard took her place at the back corner of the ballroom in their manor, and watched over the guests, knowing that very few of them would want to speak with her. They knew her as the reject child of Anderson and Lady Sanders’ manor, the one poor girl they’d taken in and reformed. She heard this whispers. While Sir Anderson and Lady Sanders had never been able to have children of their own, they had Shepard, and they’d missed the adorable stages of having a young child, but got all the rebellion and nonsense of a teenager and young adult. And Shepard knew they’d always been thankful for her; it was something. But no matter how good she was, she’d never be the lady they expected her to be.
While most of the women wore white, or some other elegant light color, their dresses modest and respectable, Shepard wore red, with twinges of black worked into the lace and bodices, and if she was feeling particularly difficult later, it wouldn’t be very hard to make her corset show. She kept a silky pair of black gloves over her hands at nearly all times, but Liara repeatedly told her that it made her more intimidating than ladylike. Shepard would just smile in response, because that was exactly the goal.
“For you,” Liara said, passing a glass of wine to Shepard as she rejoined her friend in their corner.
Shepard took it and threw back most of the drink in one sip. Liara watched on with amusement. “You really are fighting to keep people away from you.”
“I don’t need their condescending comments or pity. It might be better for them to think I’m a whore, or converting the village children to worshiping the devil. Besides, it more fun when they make up stories. I like hearing them.”
Liara nodded. “I do too. Last I heard, you wrestled a bear last week.”
Shepard shrugged. “Well, it’s at least more interesting than the rumor that I worked in a whore house.”
Liara looked dashing, wearing a soft blue dress, with gentle white accents along the bodice. She was exactly the example of what Shepard should have been. Liara was proper and smart. She had her wit, but kept it to herself, and she never misbehaved. Shepard hated most women like Liara because she felt like they only did so to follow the rules, but Liara had her own ambitions, a strong interest in history that she wouldn’t sacrifice for any man. And Shepard was one of very few people who knew that Liara’s wit and charm packed a punch when she knew it was safe to do so.
“Let me guess how you spun that,” Liara teased.
“Any place I go is a whore house,” Shepard said, smiling but feeling something tug in her stomach. The things people said about her wouldn’t get to her. Not tonight, not ever. She was who she was, and she wasn’t prepared to change, no matter what man Anderson tried to throw at her tonight.
At the other end of the room, Shepard made out Tali and Garrus, announced at the doors. Tali wore an elegant purple and grey gown, where Garrus donned a blue and grey suit, which did not match with Tali’s attire at all. They’d probably fought about it the entire ride there, Tali elbowing him in the stomach repeatedly before someone noticed. And because of that, Shepard would refrain from commenting.
The duo joined Shepard and Liara, taking drinks along the way. Shepard greeted their close friends and the group snuck off to a more secluded area of the manor. They were still technically in the ballroom, and wouldn’t get in trouble for being “anti-social” or in Shepard’s case, no one would accuse her of corrupting good people.
As the night went on, Shepard greeted people as they came to speak with the group, but most of the patrons of the night were interested in talking to Liara, or Tali about her recent engagement. She explained how she intended to keep the “vas” in her name, even after marrying. And Garrus rolled his eyes, commenting that “Miss vas Vakarian” sounded stupid. She disagreed, loudly and violently. After several drinks, this was the usual for Tali.
What was also the usual for Tali was sitting down very close to Shepard and examining every single, eligible man in the room. She’d point out ones she knew were new, and ones she suspected Anderson had invited just for the sake of introducing them to Shepard. The routine normally consisted of a man asking her for a dance, and then they’d casually slip in that they heard she was looking for a husband. She always took it as her cue to remove herself from the ball entirely.
“Okay,” Tali began, trying to subtly point out the men she thought would be on the menu for that night. “The one with the red coat. Him. Definitely.”
The man Tali had pointed out was a stout fellow with an ill fitting suit, and an even iller fitting hair piece atop his head. He vaguely reminded Shepard of a slightly uncooked potato.
Shepard crinkled her nose. “Anderson wouldn’t dare.”
“He might. He’s getting desperate, Shepard. He’s running out of places to look.”
She crossed her arms. “Well, then he can stop looking.”
“I’m not having this conversation with you again, Shepard. There is no choice in the matter.”
And before Tali could list another possible suitor, Anderson appeared before them.
“Miss vas Neema,” he said, kissing the back of her hand. He greeted Liara the same way, and shifted his eyes to Shepard. He motioned for her to stand, and come with him, which she did, bringing her drink with them.
“Shepard, I’ve found someone I would like you to speak with,” he said.
She groaned. “I don’t want to.”
Anderson’s face hardened and he frowned. “I know you don’t want to, and you’ve made that extremely clear, but you have to understand. This will be good for you. A good husband would help you to have a little more stability. Plus, it would stop rumors from swirling.”
“It would tarnish a good man,” she said, crossing her arms.
Anderson placed a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “You know that isn’t true.”
“Debatable, sir. How many are there tonight?”
And without any hesitation, he introduced her to Mr. Conrad, an overly eager and blonde man with an even blonder facial hair arrangement, who was considerably older than her. She heard Tali stifle a giggle, and Liara tell her she was being rude. Garrus giggled as well, and both ladies didn’t hesitate to tell him that he was being a real ass.
Shepard reluctantly placed one hand on Mr. Conrad’s shoulder and took his hand with her other.
“Lady Shepard. I must have you know that you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen”
Shepard cracked a fake smile and nodded curtly. “Thank you, Mr. Conrad. I appreciate the compliment.”
He made casual small talk as they danced to several songs together. He stepped on her toes four times, and told her she was beautiful eight. And he only slightly backed off when she told him more intimate and gritty details of her life, like how she owned pants and liked to ride the horses in the stables, race them actually. And she also mentioned the bear rumor.
“Lady Shepard, Sir Anderson spoke to me several weeks ago and mentioned that you were still in need of a husband, and I-,” he began.
Shepard felt a soft hand come to her waist, and someone step between her and Mr. Conrad. She turned around, to find a missing member of her friend group there to interrupt the awkward and all too straight-forward proposal. She’d been proposed to nearly ten times now, and said no to everyone. And her main reason for doing so was because either she had no desire to marry them or even entertain the idea, but also because not a one had even tried to make the proposal anything special.
“Lady Shepard, might I interrupt and ask for a dance?” Sir Alenko interjected.
Shepard turned to her friend and gave a relieved smile. “You may. It was lovely meeting you, Sir Conrad,” she said, stepping away from Sir Conrad.
“Of course, my lady. You are a very popular and desired woman, I see,” he said, giving her a brief bow before departing.
Shepard turned back to Kaidan. He took her hand, and placed his lips against the back of her palm, his lips faintly brushing against the silk. He wasn’t one to show up at many events, and was rather awkward when he did come, but Shepard had always found something charming and pleasant about him. And on most occasions, she could even consider him a friend. He was tall and very handsome, with smooth black hair, littered with a fair share of grey strands throughout. Shepard knew little about him personally, other than the fact that his family owned a sprawling orchard in the country, and that he treated everyone with the utmost respect. He was commendable, to say the least. And Shepard did think he looked extremely dashing in the blue suit and jacket he was wearing.
“What brings you to the party tonight, Sir Alenko?” she asked.
He cracked a gentle smile at her. “Oh, why not? I needed something to do this evening. I’m no one to turn down an invitation from Sir Anderson. And please, no titles. Just Kaidan is fine.”
“It seems as though you had quite the fan,” he added.
Shepard rolled her eyes. “At least he was polite, didn’t let his hands wander, and seemed genuine in his compliments.”
“I cannot imagine any man being ingenuine when speaking about someone as formidable as you, my lady,” he said, pulling her slightly closer to him. Shepard could feel Tali and Liara’s eyes on her as Kaidan led her around the ballroom floor. He was naturally elegant with his movements and as usual, everything about him was refined and polite.
“Formidable?” she asked, glancing up at him.
He nodded. “Of course, a woman who will take no one’s trouble. Especially not a man’s. It’s admirable.”
“You are one of few people to think that way.”
“Well, perhaps it matters to.”
Shepard shrugged. “At least you’re not trying to marry me too.”
Kaidan pursed his lips together, and sighed. “I suppose not.”
While the music played, she and Kaidan caught up, discussing the things that they’d missed over the past several months. He told her of his father’s business on the orchard, how he’d brought his wild cousin Lady Ashley to stay for a while, and how he had his hands full with her. And she’d been nagging him about marriage as well, which both he and Shepard laughed off.
That was until Anderson found them again. He greeted Kaidan warmly and gave a smile that told Shepard there was absolutely something behind it. It was the first time all night that she’d felt comfortable and cared little what people said about her, and actually enjoyed the man she was dancing with.
“Sir Alenko, I was hoping to find you.”
Shepard stepped away from Kaidan, allowing him to say his hellos to Anderson. Kaidan shook his hand and gave a warm smile. Anderson asked him several short questions about his family, about work, and how he was doing himself. All the while, Kaidan kept an arm around her waist, and toyed with some of the beading on the dress.
“Well, Lady Shepard, you’ve done a wonderful job of finding a man on your own this evening. Look at that, a smile on your face for once,” Anderson said.
Shepard narrowed her eyes. “Sir?”
“You didn’t think that Sir Alenko was coming just for fun, did you?”
Shepard turned her head to Kaidan, who bit down on his lip and diverted his eyes away. He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly and groaned.
“What?” she snapped. “You brought him here to try and marry us?”
Anderson nodded. “Sir Alenko would be a perfect match for you, Shepard, and you already quite enjoy each other’s company. I’ve invited him to stay for several weeks, to see if this plan will work out as I expect it will. What could be so bad about it?”
Shepard pulled herself away from her partner and glared. “Because both you and him are aware that I’m not interested in marriage, and the more you force it, the less I’ll want anything to do with it. How definite is this contract already? What did you sign me on for without my consent?”
Kaidan sighed and looked away, even more so. Shepard was wondering when his head would snap off from trying to turn it all the way around.
“The terms of the marriage are to be arranged, but Sir Anderson has grown tired of your constant refusals to marry, and well…”
Shepard turned to Kaidan, her face bubbling red with anger. “How dare you agree to this, and then come here and flatter me? I’m not that simple, as you certainly said yourself. You knew, didn’t you? And you tried to pretend there was nothing going on?”
Kaidan rubbed the back of his neck again. “Yes, I did know.”
In a flurry of anger, Shepard raised her foot and jabbed the end of her heel onto Kaidan’s foot. He stiffened, but didn’t react as strongly as she wanted him to. And she charged for the door, making as much noise as she possibly could on her way out of the ball room.