The sun had begun to slant through the trees, amber patches appearing on the grass and bushes as they gathered in the arboretum for the first handfasting most of them had ever attended. The survivors clustered around the gravel pathway, settled on benches or leaning against the T-shaped metal arbor where Phelan stood with Thom. The banner—Thom’s battle standard—fluttered in the afternoon breeze.
Thom tugged nervously at his sleeves. There’s no reason to be nervous, he reminded himself. It’s not like she’s not going to show up. You know that she’s going to be here.
Knowing that didn’t stop his heart from trying to beat right out of his chest, or stop the butterflies from waging war against his stomach. Dressed in dark pants and his black doublet, he felt almost like a shadow, like smoke, as if a stiff wind might blow him away if he dared to stand still.
Brandon perched on one of the benches with his guitar, his fingers drawing a haunting tune from the strings. Drew had the harmony on his violin. Thom wasn’t sure either of them quite knew what the other was playing, but the sound was pleasing nonetheless.
Where are they? What’s taking so long? He tugged at his cuffs again. J.T. grasped his arm to make him stop. Thom glanced up in time to see his friend shake his head almost imperceptibly, a smile tugging at the corners of the bulkier man’s mouth.
Thom smiled back and tried to settle down.
They’re coming. Nothing’s going to ruin this. Not today. Thom glanced at his feet, studying the gravel for a moment.
Phelan cleared his throat. “It’s time, fear fiach. You and Jameson both, turn toward me.”
He spotted her coming, then. Thom took a deep breath and slowly turned his back to the path, facing Phelan and feeling his heart start to beat a little faster. It was the tradition of Phelan’s people that the groom not see his bride until they stood side-by-side to have their union blessed.
J.T.’s hand fell on his shoulder for a moment. Thom shot him another smile, this one reflecting his nervousness.
Don’t forget the words, damn it all. Don’t forget the words.
He stared at Phelan, focused on the intricate tooling of the man’s doublet, of how comfortable he seemed to be in the garb that would have left Thom squirming with discomfort. Phelan wore calf-high boots with tight woven leather leggings tucked down into them. His doublet was brown with orange and green knotwork tooled onto the dark brown leather. The shirt beneath was not quite orange and not quite red—in fact, it was almost the same color as his flaming hair. Most remarkable, though, was the mask he wore that covered the upper half of his face. Of the same brown leather as his doublet, it was marked with various patterns, including one that was painfully similar to the banner hanging above them.
Thom had decided earlier that perhaps he should ask about that—but later.
The music changed almost abruptly. It wasn’t Here Comes the Bride by any stretch of the imagination, but it made Thom’s heart begin to swell in his chest. She had to be coming now.
Thom counted footsteps and heartbeats for what felt like forever until he realized that the footsteps had stopped and Phelan was speaking, his voice soft and his accent—for once—pronounced. “Fáilte deartháireacha agus deirfiúracha. Blessings on all this day as we gather to celebrate the love of Thomas Xavier Sebastian Ambrose and Marin Vivian Astoris, anamacha spiorad faoi cheangal na fola ársa. Who bears forth ár n-iníon Marin to this happy place?”
Matt looked almost as uncomfortable as Thom, dressed in dark pants and a borrowed tooled leather tunic—Davon’s, Thom was half certain. “Her brother does,” he murmured, just barely loud enough to be heard. “Matthew David Astoris.”
Phelan had said that their full names were important, though he hadn’t explained why. Thom wouldn’t have been surprised if their ancient friend was going to be working a little magic that afternoon to seal the union.
“A fáilte a chur roimh agus ar a suaimhneas, deartháir. Do you attest that your sister comes freely to this union without bond to any other man?”
Matt nodded slightly. “I can and do.”
“Do you so swear?”
“I so swear.”
Phelan nodded slightly to him and turned toward J.T. Thom risked his first look at Marin as Matt turned to her and kissed her cheek.
The white brocade bodice hugged her torso, emphasizing the curve of her waist and bosom. A full satin skirt cascaded into a train trailing at least five feet behind her. Her sleeves were voluminous as well, falling in a wide, open triangle with one point starting at her elbow and slanting down into an incredibly wide cuff. A crown of leaves, holly, marigolds and roses perched top her braided hair.
His throat swelled and tears stung his eyes.
She’s beautiful, like something out of a fairy tale.
Phelan was asking J.T. if Thom was coming into the union without attachments to any other woman, but Thom could barely hear the words above the pounding of his heart, the roaring in his ears.
Then Phelan was touching his shoulder and Marin’s, turning them to face each other. Thom’s eyes met Marin’s and he felt his heart skip a beat when she smiled, shyly, nervously.
Don’t tell me she’s got as many butterflies as I do right now.
But it was right. This was the way it was supposed to be.
“Leannán, fear fiach. You have come here this day to pledge troth to each other, to confess and profess your love and your intentions to remain together for a year and a day, for as long as love lasts, now and forever. Déithe agus bandithe miongháire ar d’aontas, beannachtaí a bheith ar tú.” Phelan took their right hands and laid Marin’s on top of Thom’s. From his belt, he freed a length of leather cord and wrapped it three times around their linked hands before knotting it carefully and bending to kiss the knot.
Thom swallowed and stared into Marin’s eyes. His left hand itched to rise from his side to cup her face, to brush his thumb along her cheek. “Marin,” he said, voice almost breaking at first. Keep it together, Ambrose. You can do this. “I have made so many mistakes in my life. I’ve run when I should have stood firm, I’ve lied when I should have told the truth, I hid when I should have faced my fears.
“Today, in this moment, I pray for your forgiveness and I vow to you that I will not hide anymore, not from any of it—from nothing that would turn me away from you, that could ever make you want to banish me from your sight. You are my heart, my life, the breath in my lungs and the missing half of my soul. I swear to you my love and my life from this day forward until the end of everything.” I love you, Mar. Always have. Always will. For a brief moment, he couldn’t breathe as he watched a diamond tear well up along the rim of her right eye and then trace down her cheek.
Then she smiled and his heart began to beat again.
“Will you take me as I am? Will you have me?”
“Now and forever,” she whispered.
He closed his eyes as the butterflies finally went away and he could breathe once more.
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