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The mansion room door opened, and I barely heard the guard over the hustle and bustle happening just outside the four walls.
"M'lady. Her Grace, Madam Virginia."
My ladies behind me slowed their adornment, each new flower in my dreadlocks applied to the rhythmic click-clack of jeweled heels.
"Lia, honey? The court is all lined up. They're simply waiting on us."
In the vanity reflection, a red blur appeared as Madam Virginia stepped inside.
Moving from the vanity, my ladies curtsied, to which the Madam tipped her head and gestured toward the door.
"Ladies, if I could please have a moment with my daughter-in-law."
"Your Grace," they replied with bowed heads and displayed skirts before leaving us.
I continued styling my flowers in the vanity reflection, smiling at the fuzzy red vision of a dress that had always caught my eye.
"You know our wedding date is still weeks away, don't you? We haven't married yet."
Adjusting my focus, I saw the small patch of skin between the madam's groomed brows had gathered ever so slightly, as well as the tears forming at her lash line, so I stood, grabbing tissues, and reached out to her.
"Madam Virginia, please."
I dabbed at her eyes, holding her.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," she said.
She sniffled and took the tissues, dabbing her eyes for herself.
"You are so beautiful. I-I can't wait for Joshy to see you."
"He'd kill us both if he heard you calling him that."
She rolled her eyes.
"Please. I brought that child into this world; I can bring him right back out, and on his birthday of all days."
"The irony would be too much."
I laughed, and she joined me for a moment, before sighing.
My gut twinged, feeling tight under the look overcoming her blue eyes, but easy, I smiled up at her.
"What is it, Madam?"
"Come, Lia," she said, grasping my hand and guiding me with her toward the padded bench beneath the window.
"Sit. Sit. I've so much to say before someone comes to find us, and I need to say this now."
My brows furrowed, and my head tipped to the side at her tone.
"Lia, today my son turns twenty-four, and he is closer now than ever before to inheriting the Ricci fortune. After Joshua's birthday, you and he have only a few weeks--weeks, my dear, before you're to be married, and I know I don't understand the relationship you have with your parents, or it's lack, thereof, but since you were first presented at our home, you have been a daughter to me."
I had trouble seeing her through a watery haze, and I pressed at my eyes.
"I've seen the happiness you've brought my son through the years, Lia, which is why I you need to listen."
Her fingers squeezed mine, the tiny pulse in her thumb pressed against my knuckle, beating so, so fast.
"With great power has always come-"
"Great responsibility. I know."
She sniffled and wiped at her nose.
"Oh, Amelia, would you please?"
I bowed my head.
"I'm sorry, Madam."
She sighed, adjusting and tightening her grip on my hands. She was looking down at them when she inhaled deeply.
"Amelia, you are going to be marrying a Ricci man. Ricci men have an arduous task of legacy and pride, but the integrity of the Ricci name has long been sullied with blood shed."
My lips parted, and my eyes narrowed.
"Madam, what are you going on about?"
She moved strands of dark brunette hair from her sweaty forehead.
"Earl Nicholas, Amelia. Joshua's father."
My eyes widened.
She nodded furiously.
"I loved him, Lia. I loved him more than anything on this earth, and when he was taken from me, when Joshua was left without his father, I wasn't sure what we were going to do. I only knew how to take care of my household; I-I didn't know how to run a business much less a nation."
Her reddened eyes finally met mine again, only revealing what I'd already known.
"Nicholas hadn't favored the helpless role his own mother had played when with his father. She was lovely and courteous, a virtuous woman, but she did not rule.
"Nicholas wanted more. He wanted to mentor me, help me. Elevate my mind and my person, alongside loving me."
Misty, and far away.
Her eyes had been misty, and far away in a time neither Joshua nor I were yet born.
"He understood my place beside him more than I had," she said, "and instead, I dedicated my hours toward milk and honey baths, massages with oils infused with the finest flowers, adorned in designer dresses, jewelry, soon, fattening up Joshy along the poolside. I did not want to learn.
"And essentially, I acted just as his mother had, a madam who simply made her earl look good, enhanced his net worth, and gave him children, and my gluttony is what caused me to sit by and watch the love of my life slip away."
She turned her head and looked out the window, and I followed her gaze to find Tracy, my sister, running along with Gianna, Joshua's sister. They held flowers in their hands and sweet smiles on their cherubim faces.
"I'm sure you know the history: Earl Nicholas died in his sleep after falling sick of teburculosis a month after Gianna was born, also the month before Joshua's seventh birthday."
I nodded, for she was right. Of course, I'd known the history.
Everyone knew of the Earls, Ricci, and their successfully victorious and centuries long reign of the Mettedicci land.
"And a week later, I marry his brother."
I looked past her shoulder to the photo sitting on the vanity. Joshua, with what I've been told is his father's smile, was behind me with his arms around my waist, and we were stationed beside Madam Virginia who stood in the solid arms of Earl Richard, brother of the late Earl Nicholas.
I looked at Madam Virginia and saw the sudden tiredness in her eyes, and I reached for her cheek, letting my thumb pad her dampened skin, and Her Grace leaned into my warmth, placing her manicured fingers atop my own.
"I'm sorry, Virginia, really, I am, but I'm not sure I understand the necessity of this history lesson."
I searched her eyes, seeing tiny crystals twinkling in them amidst her sorrows.
"I know you loved the Earl Nicholas. Your body shakes in sadness each time you utter his name. You do not need to explain anything to me."
The corners of her mouth quirked and she grasped my face in her hands.
"Oh, Lia, darling."
Her arms circled me, drew me to her, and I embraced her closely. She pulled away sooner than I'd anticipated, but I released her and allowed her to take my hands.
"You have the chance to grant my son his greatest happiness, and I pray you choose to continue to truly rule by his side as you have done so graciously for the past year.
"Do not make the same mistakes I did. Do not be blinded by your power and your position. Keep your eyes opened, your ears opened, your heart and your mind, opened, because not everything in this mansion is as it seems."
My eyes narrowed, and I couldn't help my scoff.
"I've been at this mansion, on these grounds, for years, and not a thing has changed. Maybe except Joshua and the Earl, and you and I, of course," I said. "We're all a bit older, now, but the mansion is no different."
She clicked her tongue.
"None of us, not a single one of us, are who we say we are, Lia. Not until certain circumstances prevail over others and we have to make decisions based in more than just logic and in reason do we understand who it is we really are."
"Your Grace, I do not understand."
The door to my vanity room opened with a guard and an announcement:
"His Grace, Earl Richard Ricci of Mettedicci."
His earlship stood before us adorned in
his finest reddened threads for the hour, and together, Madam Virginia and I dabbed our faces quickly, and stood, displaying our dresses with deep curtseys.
"Your Grace," we greeted.
"Ah, Amelia, darling."
He opened his arms and shared a smile, brightened more by the sunlight of the window, before closing the distance between he and us.
Always surprisingly gentle despite his callouses, he grasped my hands, drawing me to him, and pecked my cheeks, scratching them with his scruff.
"You look absolutely wonderful. Wait until Joshua sees you."
He took my hand, and he twirled me, pulling a deep laugh from me, until I fell into his arms after losing my footing, and my face grew hot.
"Your Grace, my apologies," as I pulled away and smoothed my dress.
"No," as he kissed my rings, "forgive me. I guess you can say my excitement got the best of me."
"Was it just your excitement, dear?" Madam Virginia asked, moving to post herself by the vanity. Her fingers fiddled with perfumes, touching our ears with sharp clinks.
"It's quite contagious, Ginny," he mumbled, his lips still against my rings.
He did pull away, soon dropping my hand, and turned to bow to his wife.
"I came to escort you to the flower garden, personally," he said, "seeing as you two were no where to be found."
"Well, you found us here, did you not?"
The madam gestured about the room. She, then, stepped to her husband, the lacy red train of her dress marking her wake, and trailed her fingers up his chest.
Their noses touched, and she smiled.
"And I'm, oh, so glad you did."
He growled and wrapped his arms around her, her chest, then, flush against his, and she squealed before she giggled.
His lips captured hers, and I was forced to look away.
I cleared my throat, a hand on my necklace, and focused on the golden linens.
"Um, I mean no disrespect, Your Graces, but we do have a birthday to attend."
Shortly, their kisses stopped, but their laughter continued, and arm in arm with their pride and their dignity, they departed from the room.
I, for one, took a final look in the mirror at my dark locs pinned upward, at the flowers strategically placed within, at the necklace Joshua had given and the rouge upon my lips and cheeks.
I took in the brown skinned girl before me, only a few inches taller and some waistlines smaller, dressed in silver and in gold, and adjusted my posture. I returned my smile to my face, losing it quickly at the glimpse of my mother.
Blinking, I no longer saw her.
I shook my head, teasing my necklace again, and smiled once more, looking away from the vanity.
A smile brighter than the diamonds, and far less traumatic than the past, soon awaited me.
[ t o b e c o n t i n u e d ]
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