The public meeting hall nearest the Tate house was packed with guests. Coralie saw most of the elders, several family members of those elders, a sizable contingent from Archet’s lab at the army hospital, a number of doctors and specialists, and a good many strangers she could not name. She leaned against Everard’s shoulder and said, “How many contacts does Archet have?”
“He has made a name for himself in his field,” her husband said without raising his voice over the chatter. “People know him, and he knows people.”
They were seated in the front with the family. Archet was at Everard’s other side, on the aisle. He seemed to be the only person in the crowded hall who wasn’t talking to someone. Instead, he sat gazing thoughtfully at the high window at the near end of the hall.
Michael and Helena sat in the row ahead of them. Gar sat beside Michael, and Conneran sat beside Helena. The two older men were leaning toward the couple, speaking to them of various last-minute matters. The rest of the front row was occupied by Apple, Nigel and Penelope Yeardley, Allimae Cram, Rosamund Fulke, and the lady from Helena’s boarding house. In the row with Coralie, Crystallin and Lyndon sat immediately beside her, with the boys and Michael’s brothers beyond them, except for Rusza. Rusza sat in the row behind them, between Mrs. Demyan and her daughter. Coralie kept hearing little giggles from the girl, but she was not overly concerned over whether the girl would behave herself because Hapzah was planted at the girl’s other side, with Feilin and Kent next to her. Once, Coralie heard Hapzah say, “Miss Demyan, this is a public meeting house. Keep your hands to yourself.”
“Oh, Rusza,” the girl said, as if she had not heard the rebuke. “I can’t wait until our wedding.”
Rusza said nothing.
Coralie glanced at Everard, but it was so hard to tell what his reaction might be. She knew that, if she had heard that, he must have heard it too, but he showed no sign of any response.
At the appointed time, the musicians up in the balcony at the back struck up a joyous hymn that quieted the crowd below. Those who knew it by heart began to sing, and others joined as they grew confident in the words. Coralie felt tears sting her eyes. It was a beautiful sound. One song turned into two, and then three, with the assembled guests singing out jubilantly. Some clapped, while others broke off into harmony parts. Coralie saw Michael and Helena singing together, gazing at each other with laughing eyes. It made her take hold of Everard’s arm in a firm, affectionate squeeze that he returned by leaning his head against hers.
After the music, Gar and Conneran stood up. Gar spoke first. “Well, I must say, I underestimated how hard it would be to keep from crying at my first grandson’s wedding! I have watched Michael grow from his infancy, and to see him today take the first step in building his own family brings me unspeakable happiness. I am especially happy that all of you came to give your support and witness to this day.” He went on to welcome certain guests by name, introducing the Yeardleys and finishing with the words, “I’ll pass the baton to Conneran now, to say his part.”
When Conneran stood up, Coralie braced herself for just about anything. But Conneran seemed unusually solemn. “I didn’t know, when I went to the aid of a young girl in South Territory, that I’d end up here, speaking at her wedding. I took responsibility for you and brought you here, Helena, but it was the Only One who did the rest. I’m awed at it all. That terrified girl has become this radiant bride. It’s a marvel, plain and simple. Michael, you’re a good boy from a good family. I know you’ll take good care of this girl, and she’ll take good care of you. That’s all.” He sat down and blew his nose loudly.
Gar got up again, grinning. “I never thought I’d ever see Conneran Stone break down. Now, all of you came here because you know one or both of these two young people, know someone in their family, have some connection to them. You’re their community. So we’re bringing this new marriage before all of you as witnesses. Michael, Helena, stand up please.” He took the two by the hand, standing between them. “You’re entering into a new part of your lives. It’s an important part, so you’ll understand why we ask you to make a public promise to one another.” He walked each one through the traditional vows of marriage, asking the necessary questions and listening to each one’s response. Then he turned again to the guests. “Now for your part. You’ve heard what they said to one another. They have the right to ask something of you too, since you’re their community.”
Michael said loudly, “Will you stand by us and help us stay true to the promises we have made?”
More or less in unison, the guests responded, “We will.”
Helena asked, “Will you warn us if we start to turn aside from those promises?”
“Will you encourage us in our hardships and rejoice with us in our blessings?” Michael asked.
And Helena finished by asking, “Will you take us as we are, and help to shape us into what we ought to be as husband and wife?”
“We will.” Coralie had to mouth the words, because her voice failed her. She wiped away her tears as Michael and Helena turned back to Gar and said, “We have their promise.”
“And you have ours, too,” Gar said, “as your family. We want a good future for you both. You might not always like what we have to say to you, but believe that we say only what we must, so that we can help you.” He took the two hands he held and joined them together. “In front of all of these witnesses, I declare that you are husband and wife.”
Michael just grinned dazedly. Helena threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, causing a ripple of light laughter among the guests. Helena’s landlady declared, “Glory be to the Only One, they’re finally married!” That caused another ripple of laughter as Gar and Apple, Nigel and Penelope, and Archet moved forward to surround the couple in a confusion of hugs and kisses. The musicians struck up a triumphant chord and played as the wedding party returned up the main aisle, followed by a veritable tidal wave of guests. The street outside soon filled, and the wedding party had to keep walking at a brisk pace in order to keep ahead of the guests.
Coralie wanted to go to the kitchen and make sure everything was going smoothly, but Gar and Apple’s nearest neighbor, Nell Robbin, chased her straight back out again. “You’re family,” she said. “You stay and enjoy the party.” The neighborhood women had taken over entirely. They were serving the food and drinks, clearing away the dirty dishes, and directing traffic all around the Tate house. There were so many guests that the reception took place mainly in the yard and in the street, which had been blocked off at the nearest two intersections for the event. Coralie found herself come to rest at a table not far from the newlyweds. “Oh, look,” she said to Everard, “there’s Perdy. Hi, Perdy, over here!” she called.
Perdita came in response to the summons, but she said immediately, “I can’t stay here talking for long. I have to keep moving.”
“That Katz is here, and I don’t want to dance.” Perdita hurried onward.
Coralie heard Everard cough. She was on the brink of scolding him for laughing at Perdita’s discomfort when the humor of it struck her. “I’ve heard of men pursuing women,” she said, “but I never thought I’d see it literally.”
“Every metaphor starts somewhere,” her husband said placidly. He was watching someone in the crowd. After a while, it became obvious that he was watching Rusza and the Demyan girl as they approached the newlyweds’ table. Rusza said, “Congratulations, you two. It’s good to see Michael this happy.”
Coralie was near enough to see how Helena’s expression of happiness faded at the Demyan girl’s presence. Michael, on the other hand, seemed not to notice the girl at all. He stood a little and leaned over the table to hug Rusza. “Thanks, Rusza. I’ve never been this happy before in my life.” He glanced over the girl vaguely on his way to gaze at Helena. “You can see, can’t you? How happy you make me?”
Helena started to smile again. “I can sense a lot from you, Michael Tate, and not all of it is pure happiness. Some of it is going to have to wait until we’re alone.”
Michael laughed out loud. “Maybe so. But we’re married now, so I can do this in public without fear of a scolding.” He leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips. “Mrs. Tate.”
The Demyan girl clung to Rusza’s arm, raised herself onto her toes, and tugged as if to get him to bend down and kiss her, but Rusza just shook his head with a smile and said, “I’m glad for you two.” Then, excusing himself, he went back to circulating among the rest of the guests with the Demyan girl on his arm.
“What is it?” Coralie asked Everard close to his ear. “Why are you watching them so closely?”
“I’m curious what he’s thinking about. It’s hard to tell from just watching. She’s easy enough to read, as always, but for some reason, today he is not.”
Coralie heard the musicians tuning up in the corner of the yard roped off for dancing. Michael pulled Helena to her feet and led her to the dancing area. A number of guests took this cue and followed them. “It’s a beautiful day,” she sighed.
“I was just thinking back to our wedding,” Everard said.
“The sleet storm of the century?” Coralie laughed.
“I don’t remember very much that happened at the party afterwards.”
“That’s probably because you were lost in your thoughts most of the afternoon. I even asked you what you were thinking about, but the only answer I got was the word us. I was so relieved that you recovered by the evening.”
“Oh, yes. I remember.” Everard leaned close and whispered in her ear, “That was because I was thinking about the evening all day.”
Coralie’s face heated, and she giggled. “Were you?” She enjoyed snuggling close against his side for the duration of the first dance. It came as a surprise when he stood and raised her to her feet to join the second dance, without waiting for her to bring up the topic. More than that, he continued through the next three dances, until Coralie expressed a need to sit down and catch her breath.
“You are a model dancer,” she laughed, “as always.”
“Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked suddenly.
“More than I can say,” was her answer.
“Good. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Everard left the table and disappeared in the direction of the refreshments.
While she waited, Coralie watched the guests milling around her table. A fair number of them stopped to greet her on their way to congratulate the newlyweds, so she was not bored with the waiting.
A voice at her shoulder said, “You dance so nicely, you and Father Locke.”
Coralie looked up and back to find Mrs. Demyan standing close. “Thank you. I always tease Everard that he dances as if he’s teaching a dance class, but I do enjoy the precision. It makes it so much easier for me to keep my place in the steps.”
The woman sat down in Everard’s place. “Such a crowd! The whole capital must have turned out for this wedding!”
At first Coralie took this for the usual hyperbole, but then she noticed just how impressed the woman looked, and it occurred to her that the comment might have been literally meant. She decided to try to talk with the woman. “Mrs. Demyan… actually, what is your given name? I can’t keep calling you ‘Mrs. Demyan,'” she added.
“Well, isn’t that nice of you to ask! I’m Agnessa.”
“I’m Coralie. I wanted to ask you…” Coralie had to stop, because she realized that the thing she really wanted to ask was, Why do you never tell your daughter how she ought to behave in public, and that wasn’t a good way to start a conversation with a stranger. “What do you think about the capital so far?”
Agnessa Demyan began to gush. She thought it was very grand, and it seemed to go on forever, and wasn’t the ground so flat! She looked forward to visiting one of the capital’s elegant dress shops, not for herself, because who looked at an old lady like her, but to see Irina outfitted in real fashion. Wasn’t it wonderful to see Irina enjoying her time among all these important people, because after all, Rusza’s grandfather was a capital elder and knew all the important people, so it was too bad Irina didn’t have her new dress today, wasn’t it?
Coralie could see Irina Demyan enjoying herself, dancing a slow and intimate dance with Rusza at the edge of the outdoor dance floor during a sprightly reel. The girl held a cup of punch that kept threatening to slosh down Rusza’s back. The dancers trying to follow the music as it was being played were sometimes forced to shorten their steps or take an impromptu rest so as not to collide with the out-of-step couple. Rusza seemed make occasional efforts to steer his girlfriend off the dance floor, but not effectively.
“You don’t think,” Coralie said, “it might be better to give Irina a hint that she should be more aware of the people around her?” She leaned back out of reflex as a cup of punch was set in front of her. Everard was back, but he merely placed his own cup in front of Agnessa Demyan and took an empty chair at the next table.
“Oh, no,” Agnessa Demyan was laughing, “I’ve learned it’s no use— oh my, waiters like in a fancy restaurant, even!— no use telling Irina anything when she has her mind set on something. Her father does spoil her so, and he always just says, Let my little girl have her head, or something like it.”
“Ah, but her father isn’t here,” Coralie suggested. “You can tell her anything you want, and he’ll never know.”
Agnessa responded to the mischievous tone with good humor. “I won’t say I’ve never done that, but… why shouldn’t she have a good time with the boy she loves? It isn’t doing anybody any harm.”
Coralie tried again from a different angle. “In her high spirits, she might do something to bring your family name into disrepute. She can be careless that way, I’ve noticed.”
“Nonsense,” Agnessa laughed, “what reputation could a little family like ours have all the way out here in the capital? Even if they do think she’s a little too high-spirited, who will care? And it isn’t as if I don’t recall what it’s like to be a high-spirited girl, admired by the young men, though I may be an old married lady now. What right do I have to tell her she’s wrong, when I did the same things at her age? No, she’s better off grabbing what she wants now, instead of settling for what’s available in Sawtooth Ridge. She won’t be sorry for it when she’s my age.”
Too many replies came to Coralie’s mind to say even half of them. She wanted to say, You’re her mother. Who else has the right to correct her, if you don’t?
But she had no opportunity to say anything, because Agnessa went on to say, “You’re such a nice person, such a fine listener. I tell you frankly, I don’t want her to live with the regrets I have.”
Agnessa nodded with vigor. “Yes. I was married at her age to Laurent because he had his own land and he admired me so, but… it wasn’t what I dreamed. He always cared more for his ranch than for me. Oh, so many times I keep telling myself I should’ve gone with Jon when he left!”
“Who is Jon?” Coralie asked in confusion.
“Jon,” the woman sighed. “Jon was wonderful. Not handsome, exactly, but such a smooth way with him, and so taken by my looks and graces, as he called them. He hired on to help with the roundup, the fall after Gavin was born. Sometimes he came back to the ranch house for one reason or another, silly reasons mostly. I knew he just came to see me.”
A sharp, panicky premonition made Coralie want to excuse herself so as not to hear what she suspected was coming, but the woman was deep into her reminiscences.
“Such wonderful times we shared,” Agnessa breathed. “So tender and passionate.”
Coralie glanced around for an interruption. She knew Everard was listening at the next table, but he made no eye contact and seemed oblivious to her distress.
“Only two months, such a short time,” said Agnessa. “And then, at the end of the roundup, he was gone, just took his wages and rode away. He couldn’t say goodbye, Laurent was there, and I’m sure he didn’t want to cause me trouble. He left, and I always regretted ever since not going after him. I wish I had. True, I have Tim, and I’ve always treasured him, but I’m sure I would’ve been happier if I had had the courage to go after what I wanted. I don’t want Irina to suffer the same disappointment I did.” She sighed again. “Oh, Coralie, you’re such a fine listener! All that talking makes me thirsty.” She looked around in vain. “No waiters now? Well, I’m not one to stand on ceremony. I’ll go refill my cup myself. Can I get you anything?”
Coralie stared numbly at her own punch cup, which she hadn’t touched. “No, thank you.” As soon as the woman pushed into the crowd, Coralie turned and grabbed her husband by the shoulder. “I have to get away from this table before she comes back.”
He gave her a look of amusement. “You lasted longer than I expected.”
“You! You knew what was going on! Why didn’t you interrupt?”
“Why didn’t you? I was curious to see how much she would divulge.” He led her to the dance floor, where the musicians had transitioned to a couple’s dance. Its tempo was slow enough that he could speak in her ear while they danced. “She had no thought for the possibility of being overheard, only for speaking her story to a stranger who couldn’t harm her with it.”
“I’m still shocked,” Coralie said under her breath. “The woman just confessed to me that she betrayed her marriage and had a son by her lover! Who tells that kind of thing to a stranger?”
“She is that kind of person. You heard her. What reputation could an obscure ranching family have in the capital?”
“But… but we’re Rusza’s family,” Coralie said. “She couldn’t possibly want him to know.”
“And he won’t know. Right now, he sees his own immaturity in that girl. He thinks he can help her grow with the help he has received from others. If you or I told him the kind of family secrets she brings with her, there is a high probability that he would think he was rescuing her from that by marrying her into this family.”
“He might be doing just that,” Coralie mused.
“Your tenderheartedness,” Everard replied with a tinge of longsuffering. “Does she seem to you the type who wants to be rescued from selfishness and pleasure-seeking? So we must not tell any of this to Rusza, or indeed to anyone who might tell him secondhand.” He tightened his arm around her waist. “As my penance for leaving you to listen to that melodrama, I will make it my aim to return you to the enjoyment you professed earlier.”
Coralie cuddled closer to his chest. “I do love you. I’m so glad I’m married to you.”
“I return both sentiments to you in full.” Everard swept her through the next several steps of the dance without speaking a word, and Coralie saw nothing with her face against his chest.
At the end of that dance, Everard brought her to the refreshments table instead of seating her. They took fresh punch and retreated to a table in the shelter of a bare willow at the back of the yard. It was such a secluded, intimate place that, for a short while, Coralie felt as if the world had been narrowed down to just Everard and her.
It was also such a secluded, intimate place that Coralie was not at all surprised to see the Demyan girl pulling Rusza toward it. They stopped short after ducking under the branches. Rusza blushed. “Aunt Coralie… Uncle Everard.”
“What are you doing in our place?” The girl spoke more loudly than necessary. She clung to Rusza’s arm as usual, but her knees occasionally sagged.
Coralie opened her mouth to ask how much punch the girl had drunk, but Everard spoke before she could. “We were here long before you, Miss Demyan. It can hardly be called your place.”
“You came here just to stop me and Rusza from being alone,” she declared, “I know you did.”
“On the contrary. I came here to be alone with my wife. You are the ones intruding.”
Rusza started to apologize and move Irina back, but she lunged forward and braced her hands on the tabletop in front of Everard. “You lie. Besides, I’m prettier than she is. I should get what I want. You know I’m pretty. Even a mean old man like you thinks I’m pretty. Don’t you? “
“Miss Demyan, you don’t want me to answer that.”
“See? I knew you do.”
Everard paused. “Very well. I see I must answer, to prevent you from making up nonsensical answers that suit your own designs. Miss Demyan, I find you repellent. The mere sight of you, or the sound of your voice, gives me an unpleasant sensation at the back of my throat. It is the same sensation I experienced in Leeward, when Rusza vomited in the mess hall. I wish fervently that you would remove your drunken person from this vicinity and stop ruining this wedding for me and my wife.”
Coralie noticed that most of this had been addressed, not to Irina Demyan, but to Rusza directly. She asked Rusza, “How much punch has this girl drunk?”
“Three… four glasses?”Rusza gazed down at the girl in concern. “Is she actually drunk?” He sounded horrified by the prospect. “What should I do? Take her inside?”
“The last thing you need to be doing in your situation is going into a private place with a drunken and lascivious girl. If you want to take her inside the house,” said Everard, “you’ll be giving her over to Nell Robbin, and then everyone will know.”
“Take her to her mother,” Coralie said, “explain the problem, and then go back to your father and brothers. It’s the only way to protect your integrity and reputation.”
“Just give her to her mother,” Everard called after Rusza. “You don’t need to go in with them.” He took Coralie’s hand and brought it to his lips. “Good riddance, should I say?”
She gazed at him for several seconds. “You change gears far too quickly, dear.”
“I told you, I have made it my responsibility to return you to the enjoyment you felt before. No matter how great the obstacles in my path, I always obtain my objective by perseverance and industry.”
Coralie suddenly had to laugh. “True enough.” She let him draw her into his arms, almost onto his lap, and they shared a long kiss.
“And I spare no effort,” he murmured. “Such as telling you that I see you as far more beautiful than any other woman, of any age or station in life, without exception. I have been pierced through by the beauty of your soul, and so cannot rest until I know you in every aspect, through every moment, for all our lives.”
“Oh, I haven’t heard you say that in years,” she said. “Do we still have that book?”
“Mm-hm.” Everard nuzzled her ear. “This morning, when I went home to change for the wedding, I dug it out of the box of hecatolite samples in your museum. An apt hiding place to choose. Very romantic.”
“Moonstone,” Coralie sighed. “Signifying romance, tranquility, and fertility. It did seem like a fitting place for a book like that.” She giggled. “That tickles. We are still outdoors, dear, with so many people nearby.”
“Then, shall we dance?”
“Oh, yes, let’s dance again. I love dancing with you.”
They returned toward the ongoing music. When they came close to the family tables, however, Coralie noticed signs of disruption. Nigel Yeardley and Gar were seated together, talking in undertones, and the two grandmothers were nowhere in sight. The newlyweds were out dancing among the guests, but Mica, Finn, and Larimar were clustered together in solemn conference. When Mica noticed his parents, he beckoned for them to come over. “That girl,” he began in a tone of disgust. “She has gone and gotten drunk on punch and vomited on Grandma Apple’s wedding clothes. They’re inside, cleaning both of them up, but this is past the limit. Lyndon and Slate are walking Linnie home. She won’t stay here while that girl is here, and I don’t blame her.”
Coralie gave Everard a regretful glance and headed inside the house. She came face to face with Nell Robbin, who said, “In the back hallway, Coralie.” So Coralie made her way back to find Penelope Yeardley and Hapzah in conference. Penelope was saying, “… and he agreed, based on everything I told him from last night, that it really is the only solution. So we shall impose upon you—”
“It’s no imposition to us,” Hapzah said. “I feel like we’re the ones imposing on you.”
“Not at all,” Penelope assured her. She turned slightly to invite Coralie into the conversation. “I was telling Hapzah that Nigel and I have decided that it is best if we give our hotel room to Mrs. Demyan and her daughter, while Nigel and I find what places we can here in the house.”
“That solves the most pressing problem,” Coralie said. “It’s very generous of you.”
“Nonsense,” said Penelope, “it’s simply necessary. Elder Fulke was right. That girl mustn’t stay in the house here with so many young men around. She isn’t to be trusted around young men. I sent Rusza out to sit on the veranda, or she would have dragged him into the bedroom with her while her mother cleaned her up.”
Coralie said, “I’ll check on him.”
She found Rusza slouching on the top step. She sat beside him and said nothing, watching the guests come and go. The street in front of the house was less full than it had been at the start, but it was still busy.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Coralie.” Rusza spoke so quietly that she almost missed the words.
“Why are you apologizing to me?”
“Because Irina was so rude to you.” He sounded weary.
“That’s true,” said Coralie, “but I still don’t see why you are apologizing.” She listened to his silence. “Is it because you know she never will? How long will you go on apologizing for her, Rusza?”
“It’s just,” he said, “it’s just that she’s still immature, Aunt Coralie.”
“Is that it? I think I should ask you, Rusza, since I suspect no one else has asked yet: why do you love her?”
“She’s… she’s so pretty and spirited,” he said. “From the first time I met her, it felt like I’d known her all my life.”
“So you like how she looks,” Coralie said slowly. “What about when she isn’t pretty and young anymore? When she looks like her mother, then what? She’s spirited, you say. What do you mean by that?”
“She likes to have fun, to dance and to enjoy herself with lots people,” the boy said.
“And when you are married, and all your time and energy goes toward work and childcare,” Coralie said, “when there isn’t much time for fun or energy for playing, what then? What else does she have? There must be something, for you to be so attached to her so quickly. You aren’t a stupid boy, Rusza. You wouldn’t consider marriage on such shallow grounds, would you?”
“I… I just feel like I’ve known her…”
“All your life,” Coralie cut in, “you keep saying that, but what does it mean in solid terms? I’ve been married to Everard almost thirty years, and still I feel like I barely know him at all sometimes, because he and I look at things so differently. This feeling of yours, I suspect, just means that you recognize some of your own traits in her. Like preferring fun over effort, and preferring parties and dancing and company. All those things can be said of you— have been said of you, and often. But what is she like in herself, not in company with others? Can you describe that for me? I want to understand this. Is she giving? Is she kind-hearted? Is she loyal? Is she joyful in times of hardship? These are the kinds of qualities marriage is built on. Otherwise, you might as well just have sex with her and keep your permanent options open.”
“Aunt Coralie!” Rusza exclaimed, solemn and scandalized.
“That’s a major part of your relationship right now, isn’t it? Physical desire, I mean. If that’s the foundation, then don’t expect to build anything on it. It’s only temporary. But if you plan to build something permanent, then don’t even touch her until you know why you love her, and are sure that the why is solid. If your relationship can last without physical contact, then you have something real. If it can’t, then you don’t.”
He said nothing for a while. Then, without looking at her, he said, “I thought you were another one who wanted me to be with… someone else.”
“I do,” said Coralie, “if you mean Sanna. I wouldn’t need to have this conversation with you in the first place, if you were, and your Grandma Apple wouldn’t be washing puke out of her best dress.”
Rusza out his head in his hands and groaned. “She puked on my grandma,” he moaned. “It’s so humiliating. Why didn’t she stop with the punch sooner?”
“You’ll have to ask her.”
The front door opened behind them. Agnessa Demyan came out with two suitcases. “Oh, Rusza, there you are.”
“Where are you going?” Rusza sounded and looked alarmed.
“Mrs. Yeardley has done the nicest thing,” said Mrs. Demyan. “She offered us her hotel room so Irina can rest up and feel better.”
Hapzah emerged with Irina Demyan leaning heavily against her. When Rusza stepped forward, Hapzah said, “No.” Her voice slashed through the noise of the party. “It isn’t your place.”
Rusza stepped back, almost at attention. He watched with tender anxiety as Hapzah slung the girl down the front steps.
“Remember,” Coralie said, “don’t touch her unless you know exactly why you love her. It just clouds your judgment.”
“Clouds my judgment?”
“Yes. It happens to me whenever Everard puts his arms around me. He knows it, and he uses it sometimes to get me to agree to things I wouldn’t otherwise agree to,” she said with a slight smile of remembrance.
“I can’t just refuse to give her my arm when I’m walking her somewhere,” Rusza said.
“Why can’t you?”
“She’ll think I don’t love her.”
“Do you agree? Can you love without touching? Can she? As Everard would say, it could be an interesting and informative experiment. Speaking of Everard, I want to get back to him. He’s in an interesting mood, and I want to see where it takes us.” She left Rusza on the porch and returned to the yard. She found Everard talking with Fineas. “Where are the boys?”
“Mica said goodbye to Michael and Helena and went home. I lost sight of Larimar a few minutes ago.” Everard slipped his arm around her waist. “You’ve tried your best. Now you should forget about it for the present.”
“If it weren’t for the sunset escort,” Fineas said, “I’d head out to the farm myself.”
“You only need to suffer through three more hours,” Everard said. “Sunset tonight is just after 1630.” He whirled Coralie around and danced her all the way to the dance floor, making those around them smile. “Are we taking part in the sunset escort?”
“Since it’s Archet’s first time,” she said, “I thought it would be good if we walked back with him. He must be missing Nirva intensely today. Did you notice how quiet he was this morning?”
Everard made an affirmative noise, but what he said was, “I find it curious, how irritated I become today when I hear you talk about another man while I’m dancing with you. Could that be jealousy?”
“Even if it’s just Archet?”
“Even so,” Everard said. “Tell me, why did you take all my classes when you were a trainee? I want to know.”
Coralie gazed at him in astonishment. “What has gotten into you? Are you drunk?”
“On half a cup of diluted punch? Unlikely. I just want to know, and you’ve never told me.”
So, as they danced in a close embrace to the soft rhythm, she told him how she had been fascinated by him from the first time she saw him. She told him how she had struggled to keep up with each course because it let her see him every day. She confessed to asking him for help sometimes just because she knew that, in correcting her form, he would put his hands on her, albeit briefly. This made him laugh, but she said, “I was young, and I had never been in love with someone so much older than me. I might have been rebelling. But I did find you so very attractive.”
“You are the only woman who does, as far as I know. I have never been counted as handsome, with this face.”
“I’ve never been counted as beautiful,” she retorted, “but what did you say earlier?”
“Then we were made for one another,” he said. “The perfect mismatch.”
The music ended, and they left the dance floor to find Archet watching them. “Why don’t you two head home,” he said.
“We were going to walk with you, back from the sunset escort,” Coralie said.
“You two, being romantic like that, only make me miss Nirva more,” he replied, but he was smiling. “I’ll walk with Mom and Dad and the boys. That will be just right for such a night. Go home and enjoy the rest of the day together.”
Everard suddenly rested his hand on Archet’s head and ruffled his thinning hair as if he were still a boy like Rusza. “You’re all right?”
“Fine,” Archet replied, “fine. It has been a good day, and now I have a daughter. I am blessed. Take him home, Coralie. You two aren’t appropriate to be out in company.” He grinned, and for a moment Coralie glimpsed the youthful Archet once again.