Florence had known how the preparations would proceed. She would have her hair brushed and pinned and sprayed and spritzed; her dress fitted and laced; her veil tacked gently into place; her lips carmined and cheeks rouged and lashes mascara’d; scent applied, jewels clipped on, feet daintily shod.
She had known how the wedding would proceed. Up the aisle to the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s Lohengrin, avoid looking at Hunter-Fox for as long as possible, vows, rings, pronunciation of Man And Wife, kiss (a shudder passed through her slight frame of either fear of anticipation), sign the register, some singing and suchlike, a procession, lots of congratulations and bellringing and Mendelssohn.
She had even known more or less how the Reception would proceed. A feast she would not be able to stomach, a desire to drink too much champagne (though her groom had kept a close eye on her alcohol consumption throughout the banquet), a hypocritical speech from her father and some German fellow Hunter-Fox had roped in as Best Man, heaps of insincere congratulations and an overarching dread of the party coming to an end. She had not predicted her pleasurable, slightly squirmy flashbacks to the kiss in church, nor Lord Hunter-Fox’s perfect gentlemanliness and near-affectionate demeanour as he sat at her side. Many times he took her hand and held it close, with no further intention than checking that the ring was truly on her finger and had not disappeared along with her. He seemed truly…happy.
But now the time had come for her to enter into the nebulous hours after the Reception, and this was the moment on which all her fears of the day had centred. This was where her ability to mentally organise and rationalise the day’s events disappeared and events slipped catastrophically beyond her control. What on earth happened next? She had tried asking her mother, but a faint, “Oh, my poor dear, how we women suffer,” had been the unsatisfactory outcome of her queries. Exactly the same remark she recalled from mention of the onset of her monthlies at thirteen.
At nine o’clock, the men had moved through to one of the drawing rooms, while an unsmiling maidservant had come forward and offered to help her undress and make ready for bed.
Following her up the stairs, Florence could feel her chest tighten with every step, her bridal train shushing on the cold marble behind her. The maid carried a candle, even though Hunter-Fox seemed to have the latest electrical lighting installed, and the shadow of herself on the wall was fascinating to her eyes; the silhouette of a reluctant bride, like something from an illustration in a Gothic horror novel.
“I’ll help you undress, Ma’am, and then I shall run a sponge bath before dressing for bed. I have laid out your night things on the wicker chair.”
Florence squinted around the room into which she had been shown; it was very large for a bedroom, and decorated to a decidedly masculine taste, in greens and golds. The bed was a high four-poster, and Florence shivered at the sight of the drawn-back covers, waiting for her…but not her alone.
The maid seemed little given to conversation, for which Florence was quite relieved, for she knew she would have gibbered like an idiot if pressed. Instead she unlaced, unhooked, unpinned with deft precision, folding the wedding garments over her arm once her mistress was down to underclothes, and announcing her intention of putting them away and fetching a basin of warm water and a sponge.
While she waited, Florence sat heavily on the dressing-table stool, looking about her at the pictures on the wall. There were some patches of lighter wallpaper, in oval and rectangular shapes, where pictures had presumably been taken down. With an internal gasp, she realised that they were probably portraits of the first Lady Hunter-Fox, a woman about whom she still knew almost nothing. Her husband had done this all before. At least he might know the form, even if she did not.
The grim-faced maid returned and wordlessly stood by as Florence removed her underclothes prior to a sponge bath and the anointing of her arms and legs with some kind of scented balm. Then she was helped into the nightgown from her trousseau – the special nightgown, all frills and froth, that felt like a whisper against her skin.
“Is there anything else you would like me to do for you, my Lady?” asked the girl, folding the towel and picking up the basin ready for her exit.
“No, just…what is your name? Shall you be my regular maidservant?”
“My name is Ada, and no, I believe his Lordship will be hiring somebody especially for that position. Will that be all, Ma’am?”
“Oh…yes…I suppose so. Goodnight.”
Florence trudged around the bed, noting the paisley pattern of the counterpane, running a hand along the smooth, cold silk. She supposed there was nothing for it now but to wait. Should she wait in bed? Or might she sit in the basket chair and read a book. But the only book in the room was a Bible on the nightstand, and she really did not feel in the correct frame of mind for spiritual instruction.
All the same, she could hardly just lie there, stiff as a board, clenching her stomach in anticipation of his footfall on the stair, his hand on the doorknob…
She grabbed the Bible and scooted under the bedclothes, opening the book at the passage in Corinthians that had been running through her mind all day. Love. What was it?
The Bible called it charity, but her mother had always told her it was about love. So did she and could she feel it?
“Charity suffereth long and is kind; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”
Florence knitted her brow, puzzled. Really, this sounded nothing like the way she had felt for Alex, and had precious little to do with the way she felt about anything or anyone. Did this mean she could not love? Long-suffering and kind were certainly not epithets often applied to her. Yet if she came to love Lord Hunter-Fox, then she would be able to bear anything, apparently.
But what if he put his hands on her body? Could she bear that? How would he touch her? She put the book down and crossed her legs, feeling her stomach and breasts through the sheer ruffles on her gown. They felt so warm, so soft, and so pure. Perhaps she could pretend to sleep? Yes, that’s what she could do.
She reached for the Bible, preparing to replace it on the nightstand and burrow beneath the covers, but it was too late.
The doorknob was turning. Lord Hunter-Fox had arrived to claim his conjugal rights.