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When she reached the drawing room the butler opened the doors. The young man waiting inside, dressed formally in black boots, cream-colored breeches, a crisp high shirt collar, a carefully folded cravat and white waistcoat under a well-fitted jacket of dark blue superfine, looked up as she entered. He started, and was momentarily speechless when she smiled at him. Then he recovered his poise.
"Simon," said Rosalinda, walking towards him with her hands extended. "It is so lovely to see you again. It has been many years since we played together on the banks of the village stream, has it not?"
"Yes, and in that time you have become a diamond of the first water," said Simon with a bow. "Though you were quite lovely then as well."
"Fie, Simon. I was fifteen and in my awkward years," said Rosalinda with a self-deprecating laugh, fully aware she had never experienced an awkward day, much less a year.
Simon continued to hold both her hands in his, and seemed to struggle for words. The Duchess, coming into the room behind her daughter, cleared her throat.
"Indeed, Mr. Phelps. I would scarce recognize you as the young scapegrace who used to romp across the countryside with Lord Harry whenever the Montagues came to Wallingford Hall. How is your father, the village vicar?"
"Very well, thank you, your Grace."
"And how goes you? I understand that you are now in the King's diplomatic service, Lord Ellis having taken an interest in you while you were at Oxford."
"I have been very fortunate, your Grace. My tutor at school aided my entry into that great university, and there I found a kind mentor in the Earl. He has great influence with the Court and helped meobtain my present position."
Somewhere in the hall a clock chimed half past ten.
"I am sure your achievements are well-deserved. But we must away to St. George's for the wedding, which I see you are dressed for as well, so perhaps you should now tell us the purpose of your call."
Simon twisted his high-crowned beaver hat in his gloved hands.
"I am afraid I am the bearer of somewhat difficult news."
"Difficult news?" said the Duchess, crossing the room to the settee. She sat on the brocaded seat with a flourish of her ample skirt. "Pray, explain what you mean by 'difficult news'?"
"Perhaps you should sit as well, Lady Rosalinda."
Rosalinda stood in the middle of the room, rooted to the floor, and acted as if she hadn't heard his suggestion.
"What difficult news? Where is Lord Harry? Has anything happened to him?"
"Ah, I am glad you brought that up," said Simon. "I am afraid Lord Harry is a bit indisposed."
"Indisposed?" said the Duchess. "Whatever do you mean? Is he in his cups?"
"No," said Simon, his face reddening under his sideburns all the way to the roots of his dark brown, close-cropped curly hair. "That is, he did stay rather late at his club last night. And we did go through quite a few bottles of claret."
"If he is ill," said Rosalinda softly, "we can postpone the ceremony."
Even as she made the suggestion she thought how galling it would be to have to admit to Letitia that her groom was too drunk to make it to the church. But in a society where nearly every male was a hard drinker, she knew his sin would soon be forgiven, even laughed about.
"I am afraid it would be no use to postpone the ceremony. Lord Harry is no longer in London. He is on his way to Dover."
"Dover? Is he going to start the wedding trip without me?" asked Rosalinda, confusion on her lovely face and a quaver in her voice.
"My stars and garters!" said the Duchess. "Harry's done a bunk, hasn't he?"
"I don't understand. Mother, what are you saying?"
The Duchess was too flabbergasted to break the news gently to her daughter.
"He's bolted. Fled the country. There'll be no wedding, gel. Your bridegroom has taken a powder."
Rosalinda sank to the floor in a fluid silk puddle. Simon rushed to catch her.
"I am so sorry to be the bearer of this news, Lady Rosalinda. You must allow me to help you. Are you ill?"
Rosalinda put one shapely hand to her brow. "I am far from well. I cannot comprehend what has happened. How could he leave without me?"
"I do not understand it either, my lady," said Simon, still cradling her in his arms. "Any man would have to be mad to abandon you at the altar."
Rosalinda looked at him, her blue eyes wide, as his words sunk in.
"I have been jilted, haven't I? And in the worst possible way. I will be the laughingstock of London."