Lady Sandrilene fa Toren settled her hands in her lap and tried not to fidget. What she’d give for her embroidery in her hands, but she knew all too well that attempting to stitch in such a state would result in nothing but a snarl of knots and garish colors splashed across the soft fabric. Not to mention that her uncle frowned upon needlework at the breakfast table. It was one of the rare places he preferred her attention not wander to needle and thread.
Besides, while it was true needlework often soothed her out of her usual moods, today was hardly a usual day.
The banns had been posted in the Society pages. In just a few hours, all of the Ton would know that she was finally to wed her childhood friend, Daja Kisubo.
And with that knowledge would undoubtedly come the rumors, then the callers, and then inevitably, her cousin in full strident disapproval.
In the chair across from her, her uncle Duke Vedris fer Toren sipped his tea and ate his toast in a comfortable silence, allowing his great niece and heir to work herself into whatever tizzy she wished to. He at least had chosen not to concern himself with the opinions of the Ton. After all, he was well practiced in riling them all up with various unpopular decisions with everything from publically supporting the Winding Circle College in person as well as financially – why they allow women and tradesmen, how utterly inappropriate! – to, most lately, publically asserting that his niece would inherit both his moneys and his title, no matter who or even if she chose to wed. There would not be another Duke if his Sandry did not wish it; only his little Duchess, and to hell with anyone who disagreed with him.
Many did, though few dared to do so directly in front of his person. Aged though he might be, the Duke was still in top form and more than willing to duel over an insult to that one cherished remaining family member.
It was unfortunate for both he and his darling niece that the morning’s paper would likely bring one of the few people neither of them could easily ignore an insult from, nor duel them for the insult itself. It was this person that kept Sandry from enjoying the delicious breakfast that the cook had presented to her, that chilled her simple delight in the lovely dress she’d created with her own hands.
Eventually, the duke asked the housekeeper to have the meal cleared away. Sandry had eaten little, not that either of them expected otherwise, but there was nothing for it. Callers would likely be arriving soon to either offer their congratulations or present their gentle – so they likely thought it to be though each word would strike Sandry like a blow – confusion and disapproval. She’d weather it, though; as long as her uncle approved, she would convince herself that she didn’t care for the opinion of anyone else.
The first caller of the morning made her amend her previous decision. She did in fact care for the opinion of a few others, the young botanist Mr. Briar Moss among them.
“Finally asked her, did you?” were the first words out of his mouth, impertinent as always and as she allowed only him to be with her. “I thought you’d never work round to it!” He offered a polite bow to the duke and a kiss on the cheek for Sandry before seating himself on the settee next to her.
Sandry shook her head in exasperated amusement. “She asked me, I’ll have you know. Her pride wouldn’t have allowed her to accept if I had offered.”
Briar hummed thoughtfully, then nodded in agreement, ceding the point. Their Daja would have had to convince herself she had the right to offer, and any such action on Sandry’s part would have reeked too much of charity for the smith, never mind that Sandry never cared about her dear one’s money or standing.
Daja cared, and that was the important bit. Briar’d known both Sandry and Daja almost as long as the ladies had known each other, with a fourth student, Trisana Chandler, rounding out their study group and ‘his girls’ as he affectionately called the three of them. They’d been one of the first classes at Winding Circle, each encouraged to apply by their joint mentor Niklaren Goldeye. They’d made a motley bunch: the duke’s heir who insisted on sewing his clothes herself, the Trader with a passion for metalcraft, the street kid turned gardener, and the wealthy merchant’s daughter with an intellect to rival any at the ‘proper’ – wealthy and male – university students Oxford might offer.
That was the point, though, the goal that the professors and trustees of Winding Circle College had hoped for: to bring together anyone, anyone at all who wanted to learn.
And learn they had, both from the college and from each other.
The four of them had become family long before Sandry dreamed of making Daja a more official part of her life, and it warmed her heart to know that Briar approved of the match. She imagined Tris did as well, though she’d be less likely to say so out loud, despising emotional scenes as she did.
“Has she been by yet?” Briar asked into what had been a comfortable silence. Sandry shook her head, bright smile fading to the practiced ‘company’ smile. He winced. “Maybe she’s out of town?”
This time it was the duke who shook his head, an unspoken admonishment in his mild glare.
“Cousin Berenene will undoubtedly have much to say regarding my decision, as she does with most of my decisions,” Sandry said, hiding her disappointment at the thought. She’d hoped once, years before, that she might find a friend and near mentor in her mother’s cousin, but that was not to be. Sandry was too much herself, too settled in the young lady she had started learning to be back at Winding Circle. Lady Berenene dor Ocmore – called the Empress by her many swains – wanted to forge Sandry into a proper society jewel to swan about Almack’s for the Season, proof of her prowess as both mentor and hostess. She had never married, and indeed had being unmarried but still elegant and desirable down to an art, but that didn’t mean she planned such a lifestyle for Sandry. Oh no, she was meant to marry and marry well, perhaps even higher than the station she would inherit upon her dear uncle’s passing.
The Empress had never understood that such plans were not in Sandry’s view of her future. Oh, Sandry always hoped to marry, sure, but it would be someone she knew and could grow to love based on that someone’s mind and spirit, not on their pedigree or thousands of pounds per year.
Sandry shook the thoughts away and let Briar’s wry humor chase her worries away through three more rounds of their butler announcing callers that she or the duke would either allow or firmly state that they were not at home.
There was only one of the latter, for a pig of a suitor who’d waved his University degree and Earl father’s name about as if to fell her with them like a sword. Sandry had no doubt he was well aware of the engagement announcement, but felt he could convince her to jilt her chosen fiancé. Idiot.
After Lord what’s-his-angle departed with a tantrum they could hear even outside, Briar took his leave, having promised to assist his mentor with an experiment, one the stern college donna would not appreciate waiting for. Sandry gave him another kiss on the cheek and waved him away, then settled herself back in her place. “Uncle, I swear the suspense is killing me. Will she come or won’t she?”
“You know Berenene, my dear. She’ll arrive when it suits her and not a moment earlier.” He glanced toward the window and scowled as he only allowed himself to do in front of his niece or her circle of friends. “On second thought, I believe I see her carriage coming down the lane. Prepare yourself.”
Sandry allowed herself a matching scowl and a wrinkle of her nose for just a moment, reveling in the expression that her cousin would disapprove of just as much as her fiancé. Then, with a deep breath, she straightened her posture and smoothed her face into a polite company smile.
Mr. Howell, the butler, paced in with the expected card and a barely visible look of commiseration on his face.
“Lady Berenene dor Ocmore to see her cousin, sir,” he said with a bow to her uncle.
“Are you sure we are at home?” Sandry asked with one last bit of petulance.
Her uncle winked at her, but answered Mr. Howell. “Let her in then, Howell. Might as well get it over with.”
“Of course, sir.”
The Empress herself swanned into the sitting room, looking impeccable as always, though the near snarl twisting her lips ruined the image of the perfect lady she normally presented.
“My dear Lady Berenene,” the Duke said, rising to his feet. “What a pleasure to see –”
“Oh drop the act, Vedris!” Berenene snapped. “We both know why I’m here. What were you thinking – allowing such a match?”
Sandry mentally rolled her eyes and sat back a bit in her seat. So Cousin Berenene was here to blame Uncle, was she? Because of course Sandry couldn’t make such a decision on her own. Her cousin should have known better than to underestimate Sandry’s personal resolve regarding Daja. No matter, she’d let Berenene get most of her ire out, and then state her own opinions on the matter.
“I was thinking that my niece deserved her happiness, Berenene,” the Duke replied, emphasizing the lack of honorifics in turn since she had so impolitely done so first. “And I was thinking that it was her choice, and that I’ve made clear she could marry where she wished and only where she wished.”
“But someone in Trade? And a smith no less! She could have married anyone. I know she was sought by two lords, an earl, and another duke no less! But no, she couldn’t even have agreed to a gentile tradesman. Even a bourgeois merchant family would be more respectable than a blacksmith.” Berenene’s expression turned in a flash from ire to the pouting supplication that worked so well on her admirers. “Surely you can see that our little Sandrilene can do better, can’t you?”
Unfortunately for Cousin Berenene, the Duke was hardly impressed by such manipulation. He’d been a wealthy bachelor long enough to build up armor against matchmaking mothers and lovely young ladies. In a blatant show of disrespect, he sat down beside Sandry, leaving Berenene as the only one standing in the little sitting room. “All I can see, Berenene, is a chaperone who made plans without considering the nature of her charge. My little Sandry has made me nothing but proud with her choice of a fine woman, one well respected in her field and by her many, many customers.”
“It’s true,” Sandry added, feeling it was finally time to add herself back into the discussion, “soon people will be clamoring for a ‘Daja Kisubo’ piece. She’s as much artist as smith, you know. Her art is already in two museums that I know of, and that isn’t considering the wealthy members of the Ton who have commissioned her so far.” Sandry could feel the fond smile that always appeared when she thought of her dear friend and love creeping over her face. “She’s brilliant, Cousin, absolutely brilliant. I could have married anyone, you’re right. But I only want to marry her.”
Berenene stared them both down, then shook her head. “I should have known there was no talking any sense into either of you. Not after you allowed her to start wearing her own gowns, and during the Season no less!”
“No I suppose there wasn’t,” the Duke agreed.
Sandry just smiled brighter, her fingers finding the familiar embroidery on her dress. Yes, she supposed that had been the final straw for Cousin Berenene: that Sandry refused to allow a modiste to dress her when she could so easily herself create beautiful – and surprisingly comfortable – gowns all on her own.
It probably didn’t help that more than a few of the dressmakers about town had taken to subtly – or not so subtly in some cases – copy Sandry’s gowns.
With that in mind, a ‘mere’ tradeswoman was probably an even better match for the ‘peculiar’ Lady Sandrilene than Berenene might guess.
“Would you like tea, Cousin?” Sandry asked gently, knowing the other woman might need it after such a shock as their stalwart refusal to agree with her would have been.
“No, no I would not,” Berenene refused with a sniff. “I must be off. Someone has to try to salvage this mess with the Ton. If you won’t think of your reputation, I suppose I will have to.” Her voice softened. “You really are resolved in her, aren’t you?”
“I am, Cousin. I truly am. And I am happy to be so.”
The Empress drew her presence about her like the armor it really was and nodded once. “I see. Well, I suppose I must congratulate you then, my dear. I hope you remain happy with your decision.”
She left the room before Sandry could respond.
“She must always get the last word, mustn’t she?” her Uncle mused, and Sandry giggled.
“Is she finally gone, then?” Daja’s voice came from the doorway to the sitting room, causing Sandry’s smile to broaden until her cheeks practically hurt. At the sight of that smile, Daja strode the rest of the way into the room, looking dapper as always in her three piece suit, perfectly tailored as always by Sandry herself to emphasize Daja’s height and delightfully broad shoulders. “I still think I could have waited here with you.”
A knowing smile on his face, the Duke quietly took himself off, though the two ladies were so focused on each other, they hardly noticed he left. Sandry rose and took Daja’s hand with just the slightest blush at the contact without the gloves Daja usually wore to hide the callouses on her hands in polite company. “We discussed this – with you here, Berenene would have had a proper target for her anger, and I preferred to spare you that.”
Daja frowned. “I am hardly afraid of that woman, Sandry. You know that.”
“I do,” Sandry agreed. “But I did not know if Cousin Berenene would have brought Rizu along with her.”
Daja paused in whatever else she might have intended to say, then slowly nodded. “That would indeed have been…awkward.” She pulled Sandry back to the settee and the pair sat down and cuddled close to each other, not caring about the impropriety just then. “You know there is nothing left between Rizu and I, do you not?”
“Considering you asked me to marry you, love, I certainly assumed so,” Sandry answered pertly, and Daja’s dark faced flushed a little in embarrassment. “But that doesn’t mean she didn’t hurt you then, or that you’re comfortable facing her now.” She curled in closer and rested her head on Daja’s shoulder, ignoring the little voice – which sounded distressingly like Cousin Berenene – that said she was surely mussing the perfect coif. “You may be willing to face her, Daja, but I’ll spare you any discomfort I can, whenever I can. That’s what partners are for, right?”
Daja sighed and relaxed against her love. “I suppose I can’t argue with that.”
They stayed that way, simply enjoying each other’s presence until the next caller arrived.