Short Story: His Last Love

IV

 

“I like your earrings,” said the viscountess who had just greeted them. “Do they mean anything special?”

“They’re the astrological symbol for Capricorn, the mergoat. I thought it was appropriate for Countess Rivers; don’t you?”

Daniel had been surprisingly patient as Diana had progressed around the room; as it seemed everyone wanted to speak with the mysterious American woman. Whoever stopped for a visit usually had an escort with whom he could make small-talk; but Diana occasionally talked to someone alone, leaving him to regret missed opportunities.

How can I forgive her? he thought. She made me so anxious…I didn’t know what to do with that outpouring of affection. He sighed mentally. I still don’t.

You agreed to be her date, didn’t you? asked a voice he thought might be his conscience. Isn’t that forgiveness enough?

But will she accept it? Women are so bloody sensitive that if it wasn’t for sex, I’d swear off them all together!

A waiter came by with champagne; Daniel grabbed a flute and downed it in one.

She should probably apologize to me!

Are you mad?

“Daniel, I’d like you to meet Maxwell and Stephanie,” Diana was saying. “Lord and Lady Sanders, this is Mr. Daniel Winters.”

“A pleasure,” he replied, shaking their hands, but the baroness was a little more observant.

“I don’t think he’s with us,” said Stephanie.

“Really? He’s been okay thus far…” Diana looked into Daniel’s eyes and realized they were far away.

“Daniel, are you excited that Diana is going to become Countess Rivers tonight?” asked Maxwell.

No response.

“Huh. That’s weird,” said Diana. “Maybe he’s on autopilot and doesn’t realize I’ve been introducing him to different people all evening.”

The three of them endured a moment of awkward silence.

“My Lady…with your permission.” She nodded to Maxwell and when Stephanie raised an eyebrow, Diana whispered in her ear.

“I suppose you’ve always wanted to do that?”

“Not always,” the younger woman said with a slight giggle.

“Would you mind letting me in on the conversation?” the baron inquired.

“Gladly!” Diana leaned in and kissed him. As the ladies suspected, Daniel didn’t even notice.

“That’s too bad,” Stephanie said, shaking her head. Her husband was about to add his input when Diana tapped him on the shoulder and gestured toward the stage.

“Good evening, lords and ladies,” said the Duke of Somerset. “It is my pleasure to welcome you to this banquet honouring my dear cousin, Diana.”

The crowd applauded and Diana acknowledged them with a wave and a smile.

“For centuries, the cadet lines of the noble houses have been ignored,” he continued. “Since my twelfth great-grandfather was the firstborn son of the first Duke of Somerset, the title was passed down through each generation, raising me to the rank at which I am today. But my dear cousin is descended from Edward Semmele’s third daughter, Anne, whose honours died with her granddaughter—a tragedy for a family of noble blood.

“But this evening, we rectify that indecency once and for all. By the grace of Parliament and the blessing of Her Majesty, I am privileged to ennoble Ms. Diana Emmons.”

Everyone applauded a second time and the Duke stepped aside for Lord Sanders, who had joined him onstage.

“Good evening. I’m Maxwell, Baron Sanders and I’ve had the privilege of knowing tonight’s honouree for a few years now,” he said. “When we met, Diana knew nothing about my title, nor that my eldest daughter would be denied the right to become the next Baroness Sanders simply because of her gender. But as she came to know me, Diana began to understand my family’s plight. Lady Stephanie and I have two daughters and my brother James was also blessed with daughters. If none of our girls have sons—or if any of them opts not to have children—the Sanders barony will cease to exist when James and I die.

“Diana made it clear from the first that she was upset by this development. We were pleased when Parliament paved the way for Princess Charlotte to be her father’s heir—should she have been born first—but dismayed when both chambers were unable to pass an amendment extending the same privilege to the nobility. Thus, when word reached her that the queen was considering re-establishing an old Semmele title at a higher rank, Diana politely refused. My dear friend turned down the opportunity to become Marchioness Saint Maur so that my beloved Johanna can take my place when I leave this world.

Maxwell thanked everyone and left the stage as an assistant moved the podium and two more brought forth a handsomely carved chair. Lord Somerset appeared with a flat white box, which he placed to one side.

“I beg your pardon if the next part seems overly elaborate,” he said as the first assistant fitted him with a lapel microphone. “I allowed her to write her own ceremony and she got a little carried away.”

The banqueters chuckled politely and Geoffrey opened a three-ring binder.

“I, Lord Geoffrey Alexander Semmele, Duke of Somerset, as the highest peer present, do hereby summon the following to serve as witnesses:

He chuckled, shook his head and put on his reading glasses.

“Lady Angela Erica Semmele, Duchess of Somerset.”

Daniel finally shook himself free of his web of thought as Lady Angela’s forest green gown swept past him.

“Lord Timothy Allen Conley, Earl of Leicester.

“Lady Caroline Isabella Conley, Countess of Leicester.”

Will I ever feel like that again? he wondered as he watched the countess take her husband’s arm and move toward the stage.

Although she had honoured the Sanderses with the certainty that Johanna would one day be ennobled, Diana had not written them into the ceremony, Daniel noted. Nevertheless, Lady Stephanie seemed quite comfortable with slipping closer to her and squeezing her hand.

“As a sworn representative of Her Majesty, the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms, I am entitled to declare and appoint a new peer for this evening only,” Geoffrey continued. “Ms. Diana Emmons, please step forward.”

Good luck!” Stephanie whispered as Diana lifted her skirts and made her way to the stage. As she climbed the steps, the Duke of Somerset moved in front of the chair.

“By the queen’s own grace, you have been named the first Countess Rivers of the fourth creation. Do you accept this honour?”

“I do.”

“As Lady Rivers, you are entitled to all the rights and privileges of a peer of the United Kingdom, save for a seat in the House of Lords. As a reward for your achievements in the arts and your unwavering loyalty to the Kingdom and to the Commonwealth, this title will pass to your first child and his or her first child thereafter, until the fourth Rivers line no longer produces heirs. This endowment is a gift, but it is also a bounden duty to the crown, and you must answer as the queen and her successors demand it of you, both now and in the future.

“Are you willing to accept this burden?”

“I am.”

“Are you willing to swear an oath to the realm?”

“I am.”

“Then let us begin:”

 
 

I, Diana Sofia Emmons, having been granted the title of Countess Rivers, do hereby solemnly swear to give my mind, body and spirit over to the service of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms. I vow that I will support and defend the rule of Parliament and Her Majesty the Queen against all enemies, foreign and domestic; and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms for life. I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion. I do hereby swear that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the peerage which I am about to enter. So help me, Goddess.

 
 

The crowd applauded, but Geoffrey held up a hand for silence as he stepped aside and allowed Diana to take her seat upon the great chair. Lord and Lady Leicester handed the white box to the Duchess of Somerset, who opened it and offered the contents to her husband.

“A family heirloom,” he announced, producing a circlet of moonstones and sterling silver. “Designed by the countess when she was a young lady of twenty-two.”

Geoffrey showed it to the audience, then turned and held it poised above her head.

“By the power vested in me by the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms, I hereby declare you Diana Sofia Emmons…” he placed the circlet on her brow. “Fourth Countess Rivers.”

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