Darienne stared across the room at the man who would become her husband in less than a sennight, and shuddered inwardly. Lord Guston Daeton was engaged in quiet conversation with Duke Clifton Dargon at the head table, reserved for the elite guests. She knew that she was the subject on his lips because his eyes would meet hers fleetingly each time he looked up, and the duke had made a point of turning his head in her direction. She squirmed on the bench and averted her gaze. There was a spicy-smelling feast spread on the table in front of her: platters of sliced roast pheasant and boar, bowls of steaming kale and honey-glazed carrots, as well as freshly baked breads and richly matured cheeses. The servants of the keep flitted between the tables replenishing wine and ale and were now serving crusty fruit tarts for dessert. Darienne lifted her goblet and sipped slowly, her appetite for food overwhelmed by a feeling of misery.
“We all envy you.” Darienne turned sharply to the young woman at her side who had gushed these words enthusiastically.
“You *envy* me?” she said with a degree of skepticism as she took in her youthful dinner companion’s pert little mouth and vapid blue eyes. There was a sudden lull in the conversation as the other young women at the table inclined their heads in her direction.
“You’re to be married to Lord Daeton, aren’t you?” The woman was in fact no more than a girl dressed up for her evening out with Dargon’s aristocracy — her face flushed with naivety and her head filled with imagined romance.
“Regretfully so,” Darienne said bluntly — and noticed their eyes widen. She knew what it sounded like. It was callous and an insult to someone of Daeton’s stature, but she did not care if everyone in Dargon knew that she felt resentment. After a brief pause, the women around her started their twittering and snickering again. Darienne shifted sideways on the bench, looking for Melly, her chaperone, and stifled a sigh.
Their small party had arrived at the keep less than a bell before, and instead of being shown to their rooms, her father’s envoy had scuttled away and left her in the care of the steward. The six-day journey from Hawksbridge had taken its toll and Darienne had longed to change out of her traveling clothes, have a wash and retire to bed. Instead, the overbearing steward had insisted that she join the feast, leaving Melly to make the necessary room arrangements. Darienne had been compelled to follow the steward down the winding staircase from the guest quarters to the keep’s great room. The lavishly adorned room was alive with chatter and laughter, with the melodic background strains of a jongleur entertaining Duke Dargon’s diners.
The first time she had seen Guston Daeton he was leaning heavily on his cane in the shadows of the great room, talking to her father’s envoy. He had paused to look at her, and she had felt as if she was being inventoried by his brooding stare. She had matched his gaze, her lips set tight and her eyes flaring the unspoken bitterness in her heart. It had felt as if there were a hundred eyes in the room glancing over her as she had waited in the doorway, the guests suspended over their meals as they ogled the late intrusion. In that moment she had despised her father even more for having agreed to this marriage and had felt deeply humiliated at the thought of being paraded for all to see. Worse — Daeton had made no move in her direction. Instead, he had stopped a passing servant and had issued his instructions. Soon she had found herself seated at a table with several of the young ladies from Dargon — the same women who now ignored her, just occasionally flicking an incredulous look in her direction.
There was still no sign of Melly, and Darienne was forced to stare down at the goblet in front of her and fiddle with the lace on her dress as she continued to distance herself from the company around her. A masculine voice at her side startled her.
“Would you care for a walk in the garden?”
She turned and looked up into the face of her future husband. This close she could see the dark intensity of his eyes, the hard lines of his nose and lips and the shadow of beard growth darkening his firm jaw. A brief fluttering of unease gripped her insides as she extended her hand wordlessly and stood up. The ladies around the table had ceased their conversations, and in the growing quiet, she could hear the clunk-clunk of Daeton’s cane as they crossed the stone floor to the exit.
As they descended the stairs, she had to pause and slow her pace to his. It was obvious from his tight-set lips that his leg pained with each step on the narrow staircase, and they descended without a word. Her mother had told her that Daeton had been badly wounded in the war — almost crippled. He would never recover, but was sufficiently propertied and titled for her father to have deemed this “a worthy match” for his youngest daughter. She recalled how her aging parents, who had been discussing her future with growing concern, were delighted when the unexpected marriage proposal had arrived. Daeton had not delivered it in person — in fact, she had never met him before coming to Dargon. Instead, he had acted through an intermediary: a merchantman who was an acquaintance of his and an infrequent visitor to her father’s household.
The prospect of having to pay very little in the way of a dowry was an added benefit for her father’s ailing fortunes, but Darienne had felt betrayed. Both her sisters had married early, when the family’s wealth and their noble stature were still in their favor. Many years had passed and successive seasons of failed crops and unwise decisions had left the coffers bare. Added to that, Darienne’s sharp tongue and keen wit had discouraged the few would-be suitors, despite her mother’s implored pleas for her daughter to be less headstrong and unyielding. For Darienne, the men were either passive and mindless, or brash and aggressive. She had repeatedly expressed the view that a lifetime of loneliness was preferable to marriage with either kind. This was probably why, without as much as a consultation, her father had merely informed her that he had a husband for her. That had been less than a month ago, and here she was, with a crippled stranger at her side.
Leafless vines twisted and curled over the archway that led into the garden. As they stepped onto the pebbled pathway beneath it, Darienne realized that the evening air around them was crisp, a sign that winter had not yet fully yielded its grasp on the land. She could feel Daeton’s firm hand under her elbow and the unevenness of his gait as they continued to walk in uncomfortable silence.
“You should see this garden in its full glory.” His words hardly stirred the air and sounded as if they were wrapped in distant thoughts. She stared about her at the lackluster foliage, naked twigs and stark branches. The grass looked hard and dry and the shrubs bordering the path had the same brittle quality. Hardly glorious — but her gaze was drawn to an imposing tree in the corner of the garden, its bare branches silhouetted against the late afternoon sunlight.
“I’ve never seen a tree like that.” She realized that this was the first time she had spoken in his presence and felt a blush on her cheeks.
“It’s an uncommon tree,” Daeton responded, following her gaze upward to where the branches broke the late sunlight into soft beams. He steered her in its direction. “It has quite a tale attached to it.”
As they neared the tree, she saw that the bark on its mammoth trunk was almost black in color, coarse and scaly, and made up of deep grooves and ridges. High above her, the tree’s gnarled limbs reached out into the deep blue sky, their harsh starkness contrasting sharply against the azure backdrop.
“A tree with a tale.” Darienne reached out and touched the bark, feeling its cool moistness beneath her fingertips. “Tell me about it.”
“Would you mind if I sat?” Without waiting for her reply, he limped across the path and settled on a wooden bench nearby. Darienne leaned back against the tree, resting her hands on the hardness of the bark as she steadied herself.
“Many years ago, Cabot Dargon, Clifton’s grandfather, fell in love with a sea merchant’s daughter. It was a chance meeting. The prosperous merchant was from a distant land and his daughter had accompanied him on his voyage. She was radiantly beautiful, adventurous in spirit and quite unlike any other woman Cabot had ever met. However, she was no noble and everyone knew it. It was a very unsuitable match. Yet, the young Cabot Dargon was so smitten that he proposed marriage within days of the merchant’s ship having anchored in the bay — ignoring his advisors and dismissing the public outcry. He was in love.” Daeton paused and Darienne responded with raised eyebrows and a disbelieving expression.
Daeton spoke again.
“Her father was not happy about leaving his daughter in a foreign land. Cabot offered a generous payment for her hand and promised her father that, as the future Duchess of Dargon, she would have status and wealth, and a husband who adored her. Still, the people complained and, it is said, they even jeered her in public. The young couple took to meeting in this very garden, away from critical and prying eyes. Cabot eased her fears with his words of love and prepared for a lavish wedding feast, inviting guests from far and beyond.”
Daeton stopped and stood up, walking back to Darienne’s side beneath the tree before he continued.
“The day of the wedding dawned. The first thing that Cabot saw when he looked out from his turret window was that the merchant’s ship was no longer in the bay. He rushed downstairs, only to find that the merchant and his daughter had left under cover of darkness. Shattered and heartbroken, Cabot came to the garden to seek solitude. As he walked along the path, he noticed that a sapling had been planted in this corner, the freshly turned soil the only evidence that someone had been there. He instructed his gardener to nurture the small tree. It grew rapidly, and within three years, just about the time when Cabot had overcome much of his grief and heartache, he awoke one day to discover the tree in bloom.” Daeton reached out and braced himself against the coarse trunk. “To this day, once a year the tree bursts forth with a profusion of richly perfumed purple blossoms. Cabot Dargon called it the Julip Tree, after the woman who broke his heart.”
There was a sudden silence in the garden again and Darienne realized she had been completely absorbed and that she was staring at the teller of the tale. Daeton’s gaze settled on her and she felt a slight flush.
“Hmmm. ” She straightened brusquely and stepped aside. “An unlikely story.”
“No — it was a real love story, even if it had a sad ending.” Daeton looked up at the tree, running his hand over the rough bark.
“Love stories involve two people.” Darienne stared at the darkening sky. “You only know Cabot Dargon’s tale. Perhaps it was a happy ending. Perhaps even her choice.”
Daeton kept quiet and Darienne sensed that her words had cut deeply. She could not help but wonder at his strangeness. He was aloof and confident, but then there was also an intensity and sensitivity she had never expected. He stepped back onto the path next to her. Their arms brushed fleetingly and his sudden closeness caused her to twist her head away.
“It’s getting late and my chaperone will wonder what has happened to me.” Her words sounded as startled as she felt, still taken aback by the rush of powerful feelings that flooded through her in that brief moment. She turned abruptly and started to walk back to the castle, aware that Daeton would not be able to keep pace with her. As she left the garden, she glanced back and saw him seated on the bench beneath the Julip tree.
The first thing she heard the next morning was Melly’s urgent tone from afar, “Mistress Darienne!” She stirred in the rumpled sheets just in time to see her chaperone burst through the door.
“What is it?” She sat up and shoved the covers back. “Can’t it wait?” Her head was still throbbing from a troubled sleep.
“It’s Lord Daeton. He wants to see you. In the garden.” Melly was panting from the exertion of the stairs and the words came in short bursts.
Darienne leapt from the bed, stripped as hurriedly as she could and donned her petticoats while Melly lay her pale green day dress on the bed, then scrabbled in the trunks for matching slippers.
“Did he say why?” she asked as she slipped the dress over her head.
“A scullion brought the word just a few menes ago.” Melly was trying to comb her hair, but Darienne flicked her hand away and brushed her own fingers through the tangle of curls instead. She caught sight of Melly’s beaming face and scowled at her.
“The man is a rogue!” she chided, not once thinking she could actually dampen Melly’s enthusiasm after the young woman had told Darienne the previous night how thoroughly handsome and charming she thought Lord Daeton was. To make matters worse, Darienne had been unable to fall asleep easily — her head filled with words and images and feelings all churned up by a man she really wanted to despise.
“Bother and bluster!” she cursed, steeling herself inwardly for another encounter with Guston Daeton.
A light breeze stirred and rustled in the garden as she hurried down the pathway to where he stood waiting. In the early morning light she noticed that the garden seemed to be awakening to the warmer days — a tender emerald grass shoot here and there and sprigs of green in the shrubs and trees were signs that spring had arrived. She saw with a strange sense of delight that the Julip tree was now also covered in delicate purple buds.
“I’m sorry that you had to wait,” she said breathlessly as she drew close.
“One learns patience when you have a failing such as mine.” He said the words matter-of-factly, pointing to his cane, but Darienne thought there was a bemused look in his eyes. He started to stroll ahead, leaving Darienne to clutch her skirts and follow him. After a few silent paces, he stopped suddenly and turned to look at her.
“Do you know that when I asked about you, they described you as *unusual*.”
She felt the color sting her cheeks as the description sank in. It would typically be what her father would have said of her, his temperamental daughter with her odd ways and uncharacteristic looks. So unlike the painted and powdered ladies of Dargon who had been seated next to her last night. She looked away to hide the long-unexpressed hurt and anger she felt. There was an awkward silence when neither of them moved, but she sensed that he was watching her.
“They were kind to me then,” she said, trying to force a flippant tone.
“Not kind,” he said, his words hanging in the air until he continued in a lowered tone, “but not that wrong, Darienne.” Her name sounded gentle on his tongue as he reached across and tilted her chin up with his fingers, forcing her gaze to meet his. “You are an unusually beautiful woman. Never be ashamed of your uniqueness.”
She swallowed, acutely aware of his light touch on her skin. He dropped his hand to his side and glanced away. She stared at his profile, the hard jaw and straight nose and the curve of his lips.
He straightened and stepped away from her side. When he spoke again, his voice had a hard edge to it.
“I may be a cripple, but I am not blind or unfeeling,” he said through clenched teeth. “I’ve seen the reluctance in your eyes and sensed your disapproval.”
“Milord …” she started, not sure what to say to the forthright man in front of her and thinking about her callous words at the dinner table. He paused before facing her again.
“Perhaps what I have been is a fool.” His tone was tinged with regret. He adjusted his footing and she noticed that the knuckles gripping his cane were white. “I suppose that I wanted a wife who would not see my limitations, but find comfort in my strengths.”
Darienne kept her eyes downcast but could feel the blood pounding in her ears and knew that her breathing had quickened.
“That is the reason why I have decided to release you from this marriage obligation.” The words, when he uttered them, were unexpected. It was what she had wanted to hear, but somehow it seemed unreal.
“Lord Daeton, I …” she stammered, not sure of what she was trying to say. She realized her father would lay the blame at her door, and rightly so. Daeton, too, had every right to be angry with her.
“I will make it clear that it is my choice and see that there is no shame in it for you.” It was as if he had read her thoughts. He glanced across at the Julip tree and spoke again in a rueful tone.
“I suppose you could say that I am anchoring a ship in the bay for you.”
In the moment that stretched between them, “Thank you, milord,” was as much as Darienne could muster.
Sunlight streamed in through the window as Melly thudded and clumped around the room, folding clothes and moving their trunks out of the way. Three tumultuous days had passed. Darienne pulled the drapes aside and looked out over the garden, now jacketed in bright spring blossoms and filled with the tittering of joyful birdsong.
She remembered how she had returned to the garden alone later that day, drawn to the strange tree in the corner. She had picked one of the tiny Julip buds and was caressing it in her hands, its scented tender petals half unfurled and already showing a hint of deep violet. In that moment, she had marveled at how the little bud was an assurance of color and fragrance that would transform the hardness and ugliness of the Julip tree. She had twirled around in the warm sunshine and watched the blossom glide gently from her fingers, surprised to find thoughts of love drifting into her mind. Then she had meandered back to the keep, pausing to smell the fragrant blooms and touch the fresh green sprigs along the way.
“You look truly beautiful, Mistress Darienne.” Melly’s cheerful voice brought her back to the present as she fussed about at her mistress’s side, straightening the pleats of the rich cream brocade and pulling the bodice tighter. “You are such a radiant bride!”
Darienne smiled and hoped that Guston would find her beautiful too. In less than a bell, they would be man and wife. She trusted her instinct that he would be a wise and caring husband. After all, she suspected that he had known all along that unless she chose him freely she would never be able to truly love him. She reached up and adjusted the tendrils in her hair, carefully tucking the fragrant Julip blossoms into the dark red curls.