The Youngest Bridesmaid

THE YOUNGEST BRIDESMAID

Sara Seale

Louise was
the poor relation as far as her cousins, the
C
haileys, were
co
ncerned, and when her glamorous cousin Melissa was planning her wedding to wealthy playboy Piers Merrick, Louise was given the comparatively humble part of the youngest
(and least important!)
bridesmaid.

Nevertheless, when at the last moment Melissa walked out on him, it was to Louise that Piers turned, and asked her to marry him instead—a proposal w
h
ich she was
h
appy to accept. Louise was quite well aware that it
was purely a matter of convenience for Piers, but she was prepared to work to make the marriage succeed, in the hope that he would come to love her as she already loved him.

But Melissa had other ideas
—and the honeymoon had barely started when she began to put them into practice.

 

CHAPTER ONE

The w
edding dress had been unpacked and hung in splendid isolation in one of the empty guest rooms. The youngest bridesmaid stood gazing with awe at the shimmering folds of velvet, the trimmings of white mink, the rich simplicity of a fairy-tale creation for a winter

s bride.

Melissa would look beautiful, she thought, with
o
ut envy,
and her own unexpected part in this modern pageantry once again overwhelmed her with an innocent wonder that she, with her two small feet set so
firmly
on the ground, should have been thrust , haphazardly into a fantasy, for fantasy it was. The Chailey cousins had lived in another world; cards had been sent at Christmas if they remembered, and sometimes she
f
illed in at the last moment for a defaulting guest. She was
fi
lling in now for the bridesmaid who had so
i
nconsiderately contracted mumps, and none of it was quite real.


Lou! Lou!

a voice was calling somewhere in the house.

Voices frequently called, sometimes persuasively, more often i
m
patiently, quite of
t
en cross, but this was Cousin
B
lanche

s voice, and not to be ignored, for to her the youngest bridesmaid owed not only her dress and a participation in the most
f
ashionable wedding of the year, but a fortnight

s respite
f
rom of
fi
ce routine to live under the same roof and make herse
l
f generally usef
ul.


I

m here, Cousin Blanche,

she called, and Me
l
issa

s mother opened the door with an irritable thru
s
t
.


For heaven

s sake, chi d, why do I have to hunt a
ll over
the house
f
or you
,

she exclaimed impatiently.

There are a
hundred and one jobs you could be
doing while
we

re waiting
f
or the other brides-
maids
.


A
re
we
waiting
for
them?

Lou asked anxiously, trying to
k
eep pace with the last
f
ew days. The house
seemed always to be in the state of waiting for something or someone, fittings, hairdressers, florists, caterers, bridesmaids and, often as not, a truant bride.


Had you forgotten we

ve got a rehearsal? Really, Lou, you might pay attention to what you

re here for. Why are you mooning up
here by yourself?


I was admiring the dress. I wanted to see it the moment it was unpacked. It

s so beautiful, Cousin Blanche, like a dress made for a fairy-tale princess—but then it

s all rather like a fairytale, isn

t it?


H

m
...
for you, perhaps,

Blanche Chailey observed a little dryly, and advanced into the room to examine the dress. Even hanging limply from its padded hanger, its lines had the beauty of expensive simplicity.

Not bad, at all, even at the price. I

m glad Melissa was persuaded out of that rather vulgar design she fancied, but Piers, of course, has excellent taste.


Piers?

Lou looked startled.

But the bridegroom doesn

t choose the bridal dress, surely?


Why not, since he

s paying for it?


Oh!


Does that rub the bloom off your fairy tale?
Piers
is a very rich young man and can
afford
splash, and you must have gathered by now that we haven

t a bean—or did you think all these years that the Chaileys were numbered among the idle rich?

Lou had. As long as she could remember the Chailey cousins had lived in a separate world, a world Lou

s parents had never aspired to. Cousin Blanche, thirty years ago, had been a noted beauty, feted and spoilt, a legendary rich relation whose pa
th
seldom crossed that of her poor relations. In her fifties Blanche still preserved her beauty with every aid that diet and cosmetics could give; her daughter, so very like her, looked in certain lights not a great deal younger.


Well, did you?

Blanche

s fine eyes were cynically amused as Lou did not speak.


Well, yes, I suppose so.


And now you know better? Oh, my dear child, you needn

t imagine I don

t know the gossip that

s go
es
around. The other bridesmaids t
a
lk, don

t they? Jealous of Melissa, of course, which is natural—Piers has been the despair of ambitious mamas for years. Did they resurrect ancient history for you, too?


How you were once engaged to Piers

father, you mean?


And threw him over at the last minute for a rich man
ol
d enough to be my father? I did, you know. It was one of life

s little ironies that later Piers

father should inherit that vast, very unexpected fortune, and my extremely dull husband should lose his in some City swindle. Sounds like a cheap novelette, doesn

t it? The wheel is turning full circle.


How?


Piers is a romantic at heart—so unrewarding these materialistic days. He never quite forgot, you see.


Forgot?


Didn

t you know his father was
a
widower at the time I was engaged to him? Piers, as a small boy, had a thing about me—put me in the place of his own mother, I suppose. I think he has some crazy notion that in marrying Melissa he

s putting things right.


But, Cousin Blanche,
that

s—that

s absolute nonsense!

Lou was so unusually emphatic that her cousin gave her a more attentive glance.


You think he

s in love with my daughter, do you?

she said on a faint note of amusement.


Of course—besides, I shouldn

t think young men make those kinds o
f
gestures.


Of course! You

re very simple, Lou, and rather tediously unworldly.


Very likely
,

Lou replied with that grave, unexpected air of censure that could sometimes make for disc
o
mfort.

I was brought up simply by unworldly parents, but they taught me values, I think,
before they died. Does—does that sound—smug, Cousin Blanche?


Yes, it does rather,

her cousin replied coolly, but she gave the girl a brief, appraising look. Little Louise Parsons, remembered only when she could be useful, had some vague quality that Blanche recognized from her own childhood when life had been more simple and no hint of the human rat-race had clouded her awakening desires. The child, of course, would strike a wrong note in Melissa

s retinue of smart young lovelies, but all the same ... all the same, she thought with surprise, she could show them up, too. Lou might have none of the tricks and assurance of Melissa

s fashionable friends, but she had something that the other hadn

t. What? thought Blanche, frowning, and assessed again the dubious attractions of the young cousin who possessed so few recommendations to present day distinction. Solemn, wide-awake eyes, set far apart in a face too small for them, soft brown hair with a fringe, straight and unfashionably styled, and a long, fragile neck; nothing there to stir the pulses, except, perhaps, her stillness. In an age of restless activity, that stillness could possibly be an asset, Blanche thought uneasily, then wondered at her own disquiet. Why in the satisfactory culmination of her hopes and schemes, should she be disconcerted by the unspoken censure of an insignificant little kinswoman who had only been roped in from dire necessity?

Lou, uncomfortable under this sudden appraisal, moved away, and her cousin noticed with this unfamiliar, new-found perspicacity
,
the unconscious grace with which the child moved. Louise Parsons, worthy of a second glance? Blanche thought impatiently, and spoke with more sharpness than she had intended.


You must learn to avoid smugness, my dear,

she said.

It doesn

t attract sympathy—or the young men.


No, Cousin Blanche,

Lou said with her eyes downcast, but Blanche thought she detected a faint gleam through the thick lashes.


Have you any young men?

she enquired idly, and laughed when the girl did not reply.

Poor Lou—that was an unfair question, I suppose,

she said graciously.

You haven

t had much chance of meeting eligible admirers, I imagine, but still, you

re only nineteen—twenty, is it? You musn

t let Melissa

s good fortune sour you.


Why should it sour me?


Well, my dear, let

s face it, Piers is rather the Prince Charming of the story books, isn

t he?
Besides, I think you

ve lost your heart
to him a little, haven

t you?

Lou colored, deeply and uncharacteristically, and the older woman, who had not intended her remark to be taken in any seriousness, made a small grimace of exasperation.


My dear child, be your age!

she exclaimed impatiently.

Piers has had more girls in and out of love with him than he can count. You

d only be following the pattern.

The girl

s, color faded as quickly as it had come and she replied with a sedate composure that added to her cousin

s annoyance:


Naturally. He

s been quite a catch for a good many years, hasn

t he? Personally, I find him a little alarming and—and rather too sure of himself.


Really? But he

s scarcely noticed you, has he?

No, he had scarcely noticed her, and why should he, thought Lou, amongst the other smart and sophisticated bridesmaids who, in their turn, had given her no second thoughts. She spoke only the truth when she declared she found Piers Merrick alarming, and had she not heard his voice before seeing him she might even have disliked him. She had heard him in the hall asking for Melissa, and the unfamiliar voice was warm and somehow tender, and she had caught herself thinking:

That is a voice one could fall in love with.

The voice, she had found on meeting him, was a complete contradiction. His dark face, lined perhaps in an early maturity, was
the face of a man who had lived his life and found mostly disillusionment, and
his glance when it rested on a woman was at once questing and calculating and soon diverted. He had no real pretensions to good looks but carried a faint air of raffish distinction. She could, Lou had thought, watching and listening in the background, believe there was something of truth in the gossip columns which for so long had bandied his name about,
stopping just short of scandal, for the Merrick whims were notorious. His yacht, his racing cars, the island, purchased it was said to satisfy a feudal desire for power, were symbols of a success in which women must have shared from time to time, and Lou experienced a moment

s distaste for the willingness of her own sex to accept such carelessly proffered crumbs in
order to boast of a temporary conquest. He was spoilt, and indifferent to possible heartaches in others, she had decided with the confidence of youth, then suddenly he had focussed his attention on her and she had the uncomfortable feeling that he knew quite well what she was thinking.


Our youngest bridesmaid has a disapproving air.
Are you finding yourself out of your depth, Cinderella?

She had felt herself flushing at his tone. Was so obvious, then, that she was the poor relation
stepping in to fill a tiresome gap, or was he simply taunting her for forming unwarrantable conclusions?

But her eyes met his steadily across the room and she sat with her hands still demurely folded in her lap, beating down her embarrassment.


No,

she replied with composure.

Just on unfamiliar territory.

His sudden smile, she thought, matched his
voice, warm, appreciative, and with a hint of tenderness.


Well answered,

he had said, one hand sketching a mocking salute to her, and immediately turned away.


And what were you thinking of, then?

Blanche asked, aware that her remark had, if not eliciting a satisfactory answer, set off a train of thought which the child had no right to keep to herself.

Lou, who had turned back to the wedding dress, and stood fingering its soft folds with an absent but appreciative touch, moved slowly round to face her cousin.


Nothing that matters,

she said.

Cousin Blanche, are the stories true?


What stories?


That Piers is paying your debts in exchange for Melissa?

Blanche gave an imperceptible shrug and her smile was indulgent and faintly bitter.


Quite true, though you make it sound rather fustian melodrama,

she replied.

We

re broke, as I told you, Piers wants a wife, and all in all, the arrangement is very suitable. If you

re thinking of high romance, my poor child, that

s hardly Piers

conception of marriage. He

s sown his wild oats and needs to settle d
o
wn and found a family.


And Melissa—doesn

t she want more? Doesn

t she want—

Blanche frowned, looking at the girl with faint dislike.


You sound rather impertinently censorious, Lou,

she observed.

If you

re thinking of that old affair, Melissa was scarcely serious about a penniless young actor who turned her head for a time.

Lou returned her cousin

s look with slight bewilder
m
ent. She had not meant to be either impertinent or prying. She had not known Melissa well enough to be conversant with her love affairs, and she was only concerned with the present.


Was there someone else, then?

she asked a little timidly, and saw from her cousin

s uneasy expression that she had touched o
n
a sore subject.


My dear child, there have been dozens,

Blanche replied impatiently.

Melissa is a beautiful girl, though I do say it myself.

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