The day before the wedding, Tahn Dorn stood on the stone steps of the Trilett house, watching a shiny golden carriage glide up the lane and come to a stop almost in front of him. The silver-haired coachman gave him a merry smile and a nod, but instead of responding, Tahn turned his eyes toward the stable and guardhouse. Where was Josef? He and the other men should be standing at the ready to escort Lady Netta. If she must go to this party, at least she should go with a full guard.
As though he had heard the thought, Josef led his horse from the stable at that very moment, followed almost immediately by four of the other men. Then the last three came riding from behind the guardhouse. Good, Tahn thought. They’re armed and ready. He turned his eyes to the carriage once more and finally gave the old gentleman at the reins the courteous nod that was due him.
“Are you the Dorn, sir?” the coachman asked him.
“Congratulations to you,” the man said pleasantly. “May God bless your union.”
None of this seemed real. Finally, the day had nearly come. Tahn looked down for a moment at the stone stairs. Why wasn’t he sharing the joy that floated around him like water in this place? Everything was fine. The children were all well, and excited. He was happy. There’d been no trouble since leaving Alastair almost nine months before. This was the grandest time he’d ever known, and he knew he was blessed. But an old fear still lingered inside him, dark and numbing, as though everything that mattered could still be snatched away.
Behind him, the estate house door opened swiftly, and Tahn spun around. But it was only Netta’s cousin Jarel coming out to meet him on the steps.
“What’s the matter?” Jarel laughed. “Did you think Netta would try sneaking up on you?”
Tahn turned his eyes again across the courtyard to the approaching guardsmen. “I am waiting to see her off. But it would please me better if she were minded to stay.”
“What bride is there to shun her own bridal party?” Jarel exclaimed. “Relax. There’s nothing to fear from the House of Eadon. The party shall be all women, and Netta’s father has approved the guest list. There’s no cause for concern. Besides, it appears you’re sending the lady with a small army—”
“Her party should have been held here.”
Jarel shook his head. “Netta has no sisters. So the Eadon girls have a right to be hostesses for her. They’re among her oldest friends. Besides, your party will be here. We couldn’t possibly have both—”
“I wanted no party.”
“I realize that,” Jarel replied patiently. “But if you’re going to marry Lord Trilett’s daughter, you’ll have to accept some attention and ceremony now and then. It will be fun for you tonight, I hope. You have friends coming.”
“My friends are no more used to noble parties than I am.”
“I’m aware of that too. Deeply. And it does pose quite a challenge. I may be the one to feel out of place.”
Tahn studied Jarel’s expression but said nothing in reply. Josef, still leading his mount, strode to the side of the ornate carriage and made a quick bow toward Tahn and Jarel on the steps.
“Ride two to the front and two to the back of the carriage as you go,” Tahn instructed him. “Two to each side as the road allows.”
“Tahn—” Jarel interrupted. “You needn’t act as captain of our guard during your wedding time—”
“If I thought less about her safety now, I could not claim to love her.” Tahn turned his attention quickly back to Josef. “Please stay in waiting at the door once you escort the lady inside, and do your best that you’re not late bringing her home.”
Jarel shook his head. “One who didn’t understand could think you had a jealous streak, Tahn. Lord Trilett has been careful. If he thought there was any danger tonight, he would not have agreed to this.”
“I expect he is right,” Tahn answered. “This should be an occasion for my lady to enjoy. But I would still thank you to be watchful, Josef.” He glanced again at Jarel. “Perhaps I’ll be called a worrier without cause. I hope so. Or jealous. I don’t care. I’ve been called far worse.”
“You’ll certainly never be called lighthearted.”
Tahn didn’t answer Jarel. His eyes moved beyond the carriage in front of them, toward the gate where he’d heard a distant noise.
Jarel put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t mean to belittle your caution or your heart to duty, Tahn. I do understand. Though I wish you could be at ease.”
“Someone else has arrived.”
Jarel smiled. “So we can expect, with the noble guests beginning to grace us. But perhaps it’s some of your friends. I hope they have such excellent timing, to take your thoughts from Netta’s absence. Shall we go and see?”
Tahn didn’t have time to answer before the gilded door behind him swung open again. With a sudden leap of his heart, he turned, knowing what he would see. Netta stood at the top of the stairs in a green satin gown and pearls, her auburn hair done up with ribbons and fresh flowers yet still cascading down in waves in the back. She was such a glorious vision that he had to catch his breath. And he wasn’t the only one. He heard what sounded like admiring sighs from the old gentleman at the carriage behind him and from at least one of the guards.
“Netta—” he started to say, but her merry eyes met his immediately, and he stopped. A bright smile spread across her face, and she came skipping down the steps in her embroidered slippers to snatch him into her arms.
Jarel cleared his throat. “I believe I’ll go and greet whoever it is at the gate for you, Tahn. No need to trouble yourself.”
“Tonight will be splendid!” Netta exclaimed as though no one else was even there. “And I can scarcely wait for tomorrow!”
She kissed Tahn, and he spread his arms around her and returned the kiss, drinking in all he could of her. Everything about her, everything, was marvelous. More than the satiny gown and the intoxicating perfume. She was more than beautiful. Godly, loving, trusting, and kind. Lord, help me, Tahn prayed. It is almost too much. Too good to be true.
“Netta, I wish you would stay here with me,” he told her.