Although Siana knew they were meaningless words uttered only for consolation, she was grateful for Alan’s kindness.
“Thanks, really. I know you are trying to comfort me. You’re a good friend.”
“I am not just saying that to comfort you. It’s the truth.”
“Alright,” she said, but she didn’t look like she believed him. “I am far from the standard of beauty the society fawns over. But I can’t rip my face and fix it.”
Alan listened to her every word. “My chances of meeting someone worthy is close to nonexistent. The only choice I have is to lower my standard or I might not even be able to marry someone.” Siana went wide-eyed. “Wait, this is serious. What if I am well into my adulthood and I don’t find anyone and can’t get married?”
“Do you absolutely have to get married?” Alan asked, “Can’t you just live alone doing what you like?”
“That only applies to guys you know,” she said, “Guys can do anything they like. But if a girl is well in her twenties and unmarried, we are treated like defective objects.”
Alan frowned. “That’s unfair,” he said.
“Is this the first time you’re hearing this?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” he said.
“Lucky you,” she said, “We girls, we are always worried about this. Since it doesn’t affect you, being a guy and all, maybe it’s not important for you to talk about.” Siana continued, “The older you get, the more society frowns upon you, if you are a woman. They get blamed for a whole lot of things, infertility, ugliness, bad attitude even if they haven’t done anything wrong.”
Alan frowned more, thinking about what she said. “Some families treat their daughters as pests leeching them off their fortunes if she is old and unmarried. Most people rush and force their daughters into marriages they might not want.”
“That is horrible,” said Alan.
“It is, isn’t it?” said Siana, “But that is the reality for most women. Maybe it will be my reality as well.
“I don’t think your father will do that,” said Alan, “he loves you.”
“Of course,” she said, “But you never know what the future might bring.”
Alan bit his lips as though he had no words to give her anymore. Siana clenched her fists raging at the unfairness of it all. “So, we are all raised that way. Girls. We are taught to sit straight and smile and please people. Only one goal, that is to find a suitor before twenty.”
Siana felt tired. Maybe her life would be different. Maybe, by some miracle, everything would turn out to be alright. She was going to fall back on bed when Alan looked at her.
“Hey,” he said gently, “If you don’t have anyone by the time we are twenty, then marry me if you are so worried.”
“What?!” exclaimed Siana. It was utterly unexpected from Alan.
“You don’t want to?” asked Alan.
“It’s not that…,” stammered Siana, staring at him to see if he was just playing a prank on her and would burst out laughing. But he seemed very serious. Siana didn’t think too much about it. Alan probably said that to make her feel better. It was touching that he wanted to help her in his own way. Siana decided to humor him.
“Alright,” she said, “If we both are unmarried and beyond our twenties, then we marry each other. Pinky promise.” She held out her pinky finger and hooked it with Alan’s.
The sun’s rays spilt into the room through the curtains and hit her eyes to wake her. The past was just a dream and an old memory. She opened her eyes.
“You’re up,” said a voice.
She turned towards the familiar voice to see a familiar face. “Alan…?”
She felt dazed. She couldn’t believe he was here.
Despite hearing his voice, she still didn’t believe it. What is he doing here? She thought. His bright blonde hair shone in the sun even more resplendently. It almost looked silver. Siana blinked a couple more times and realized that Alan was rubbing her hand. He was in the same robe as the previous night which reminded Siana of what had happened that night. His broad chest revealed under the robe brought back vivid memories. She tried to move to get up, but a pain shot up from between her legs.
“Ow!” she cried.
Alan who had been gently rubbing the back of her hand flinched. “What’s wrong?” he asked, worried.
“It hurts…,” she said, “But it’s alright. I can handle it.” Her trembling lips suggested otherwise.
Siana had expected her first time to hurt but she didn’t expect it to hurt so much after it was done. It feels like it’s torn… she thought, gripping the blankets.
“I am so sorry, Sia,” said Alan.
“For what?” she asked.
“For hurting you,” he said, “I was supposed to be considerate, but I couldn’t control myself and now you are hurt. I am so sorry.”
“It’s alright,” she said, “I heard that the first time is always painful. It’s not your fault.”
“So, you forgive me?” he asked.
“There is nothing to forgive,” she said, “We are both consenting adults. Besides, it was good.” She blushed a deep red.
At her words, Alan’s face brightened. “I am glad to hear that,” he said, “So… do you want to meet the lawyers after lunch?”
“What? Why?” she asked, surprised.
“To sign the marriage papers,” he said.
“If I plan to take on your debts, we need to be married,” he said, “Usually people sign it after the ceremony, but we are in a hurry.”
Siana felt like ice-water was upended on her head. How could she have forgotten her little problem with the vile Viscount North? She felt cold sweat trickle down her back. She had intended to run away at night, until she had ended up in this bed with Alan.
“Alan, you really want to marry me that bad?” she asked.
“Why? You don’t like me?” he asked.
“It’s not that, it’s just…,” she stammered.
“Am I not good enough?” he asked.
“What? No. I didn’t mean it like that,” she said.
Alan could have anyone he wanted. Any woman would have been lucky enough to marry the quiet, considerate Alan. “Why, Alan?” she asked. “I have a huge debt to my name, and I don’t even have a dowry to provide you with. I am not even conventionally pretty. If it is because you pity me or…”
“Sia…,” said Alan. He looked at her so sadly that she couldn’t continue. “You think I wanted to marry you out of pity for your situation?”
“Well, isn’t it?” she said, “I have nothing to give you.”
“Sia, I don’t care about the debt you have,” he said, “Nor any dowry. I have earned enough to last a lifetime. I want nothing from you. I just want to take care of you.”
“But my debt is not just a couple of hundreds of gold,” she said, exasperated, “And I couldn’t let you pay it off for me. It would be a heavy burden on my conscience. You earned all that because of the battle you fought.”
“Is that why you have been rejecting me?” he said.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said.
“It does matter,” he said, “Look, if your father hadn’t taken me in, I would have been turned to the streets. I would have starved to death. If not for your father, I would have never been able to become who I am today. So, I am paying it back to him, in a way, because I am very grateful to him. Always have been. I owe him everything.”
“You don’t need to do that,” she said, “That was just my father being kind.”
“You are his only daughter,” he said, “I can’t turn a blind eye when you are suffering, after everything he has done for me.”
Still, it felt wrong to Siana. Her problems were her own. She sat up, biting her lips. He pulled her towards him. “It’s not even your debt, is it?” he asked, “It is not exactly you who owes the debt to Viscount North. It was your father’s.”
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“Yeah, but…,” she said.
“Think of it as just me paying off your father’s debt, for everything he has done for me,” he urged. “I owe him everything. Think of it as me paying it off for him. Will that make you feel a little better?”
“A little,” she said.
He gently squeezed her hand. It was a comforting gesture but at the same time it seemed to say that he would not let go of her ever again. He was trying to convince her to not run away. It was too much for Siana.
“What else is there?” he asked, “Ahh, you always worry about your appearance.”
“You don’t need to say anything,” she said, “I know I don’t look that good.”
“And why do you feel like that?” he asked, gently.
“Because it’s true. I am not pretty, and I am short. Other girls my age are beautiful.”
“You don’t need to compare yourself to anybody else,” he said, “You are special. For me, you are the most beautiful woman of them all.”
“Liar,” she said.
“I have never lied to you,” he said, “I have said it over and over again. You are beautiful. Why won’t you believe me?”
Siana searched for an answer to his question but couldn’t find one. Alan tilted her head up and looked her in the eyes. His blue eyes burning into hers. “And you don’t need to listen to any half-wits out there,” he said firmly, “You are You. You are special.”