Fridays were not Gwen’s favorite; they too often rained. But in April of 1890, they turned lucky for her. On the first Friday of the month, a note arrived from an anonymous admirer, delicately sprinkled with rose-scented tears. On the second Friday, she supervised the placement of the final pagoda in the garden at Heaton Dale. And on the third Friday, beneath an unseasonably bright sun, three hundred of London’s most fashionable citizens filed into church to witness her marriage to Viscount Pennington.
Gwen waited on her feet, in a little antechamber off the nave, a wholly unnecessary fire crackling in the hearth. The ceremony should have started half an hour ago, but (so Belinda had told her, in a brief visit to ensure that her veil still sat straight) the guests were too busy consorting to be seated. The brightest lights of society were convening, some for the first time since last season; according to one of the social columns this morning, “Only the angelic Miss Maudsley, whom everybody adores,” could gather a crowd of such numbers before Whitsuntide.
Gwen took a deep breath and cast her eyes to the window above her. It was not odd, really, that she wished she were in the pews, exchanging greetings. Or outside, even. In the park. The air in here felt stifling, far too warm.
The walls seemed to be closing in.
What am I doing?
She bit her lip. Her discomfort was only the fault of the fire, of course, and the boy who fed it too much wood. And perhaps a bit of it was owed to the memory of that other time, and that other fiancé. It had taken months of brilliant successes to persuade the papers to describe her as anything other than “the much-beleaguered Miss M——, so dreadfully disappointed by the treacherous Lord T——.”
Still, for all that she was now a shining success set to achieve her greatest triumph, this corset was strangling the life from her. And her gown, encrusted with innumerable pearls, weighed thirty pounds at the least. One might drown in such a gown! And these heeled shoes pinched her toes awfully.
She took a deep breath. This is the happiest day of my life.
Of course it was. Her feet throbbed, regardless. The stool to her right began to beckon like a siren. An evil siren. The bustle of her train would not survive a crushing.
Giggles exploded from across the room. Four bridesmaids in pink and ivory ribbons clustered by the door, their noses pressed to the crack. “Oh, Lord,” Katherine Percy squealed. “I died! She matched peacock feathers with plaid!”
“That’s appalling,” said Lady Anne. “One would cut her, but she’s evidently too blind to take note of it.”
Gwen cleared her throat. “Lady Embury has arrived?”
Four faces turned toward her, mouths agape. “You’re a marvel,” Katherine said. “How did you guess? Yes, it was she!”
Gwen pressed her palm to her stomach, which was jumping so violently that it seemed a wonder her hand could not detect the commotion. She had told the baroness not to add the feathers. An entire morning they had spent designing that hat! What was the point of soliciting counsel if one refused to heed it?
“Oh!” Lucy clutched Katherine’s shoulder. “Look now! Gwen, your groom is passing by!”
Lady Anne’s back went rigid as a poker. Gwen, meanwhile, felt a startling wave of relief. She realized that some secret part of her had been braced for another debacle like the one with Lord Trent.
Well, perhaps her nerves would settle now. This was the day she’d dreamed of for years. Surely she could manage to enjoy it!
Charlotte Everdell glanced toward her. “He’s so handsome, Gwen! Why, I think the viscount is the most attractive man in London!”
She managed a smile. Thomas was not so handsome. That word better fitted the angelic blondness of Mr. Cust, or, at the darker end of it, Alex Ramsey, whose blue eyes worked to such striking effect against his dark hair and angular cheekbones. But what of it? A wise woman did not place much import on looks. Mr. Cust, after all, was a mean-tempered scalawag, and Alex a notorious rogue; she rarely passed five minutes in his company before biting her tongue lest she reply to some rude quip in kind. Indeed, Alex proved the point: looks mattered little without a manner to match them.
Happily, Thomas’s manner was just like his face: pleasant through and through. He lacked a chin but made up for it with a fine beard, black as the hair on his head. His green eyes were kind and his thin lips, given to smiling. And he loved her! That was most important of all. He had told her so a hundred times. In an hour at most, she would once again have a family of her own—a real family, not just one made of friends and paid companions.
“He’s gone,” Katherine said. “Boohoo.”
“Up the aisle?” Gwen asked softly.
“No, not yet. Oh, Gwen, what a brilliant match. I’m so happy for you!”
“We all are,” said Lucy. “The nicest girl in England, and the handsomest heir in the realm! Why, it’s like some fairy tale.”
Charlotte clapped. “Oh, do tell us, Gwen—don’t you love him awfully?”
“Of course she does,” snapped Lady Anne. “Really, what an absurd question to ask at her wedding.”
Charlotte shrank. Lucy, patting her arm, sent a knowing look to Gwen.
Gwen pretended not to see it, but she took the meaning. Lady Anne had nursed a terrible crush on Thomas last season. She couldn’t afford him, of course; her father’s magnificent estates near Lincoln were as heavily mortgaged as his. But her eyes had followed him across the floor at every ball.
Gwen felt very bad for her. Only four weeks ago, she’d felt utterly wretched. But then she’d learned that Lady Anne had volunteered her to knit ten sweaters for Lady Milton’s orphanage before its spring excursion to Ramsgate. Ten sweaters in a month! Gwen was not a loom! It’s a marvelous opportunity to prove your dedication, Lady Anne had told her. But this was not the first time she’d made impossible promises on Gwen’s behalf. Last season, shortly after Thomas had paid his first call, it had been thirty embroidered handkerchiefs for Lady Milton’s charity bazaar, not three weeks away. It seemed clear that these sweaters were Lady Anne’s latest attempt to sabotage Gwen’s bid for a seat on the charity committee.
All the same, Gwen had smiled and thanked her and put in an order for merino. Madness was forgivable in the heartbroken. (Why, after Lord Trent had jilted her, she’d briefly taken an interest in learning Latin!) Still, when the newspapers claimed that she was “everyone’s bosom friend” on account of her “inborn good cheer,” they missed how much work the position actually required—not to mention the toll it took on her wrists.
Perhaps, she thought, she would give up knitting after marriage.
And embroidery, while she was at it.
What a thrilling notion. Did she dare?
A knock came at the door. The bridesmaids leapt back. Aunt Elma entered, smiling. When Uncle Henry appeared behind her, Gwen’s mouth went dry. “Is it time?” she whispered.
“So it is,” Elma said warmly. “I’ve come for your bridesmaids, dear.”
They turned to Gwen, clapping, crying out encouragement, blowing her kisses as they hurried out.
And then the door closed, and it was only she and Uncle Henry who remained.
Silence filled the room. Without her friends’ chatter to oppose it, the noise filtering through the door from the nave seemed much louder, like the roaring of the crowd at a circus. Surely three hundred people wasn’t that many?
That’s six hundred eyes.
“Well,” she said brightly.
Henry Beecham was not given to garrulity. He cleared his throat, nodded at her, ran a hand over his silver mustache, and then resumed his inspection of his shoes.
She smiled, remembering that the first time she’d arrived on his doorstep, he’d greeted her just so, with a stroke of his mustache and a snuffle. His wife, Elma, had told him to say something lest Gwen think him a mute. “All right then,” he’d said, and that had been the last Gwen had heard from him for a day or two.
As a thirteen-year-old, she’d found his silence quite puzzling. Frightening, even. Now, ten years later, she would not have the first idea what to do if he began to soliloquize. Call for a doctor, maybe.
She was glad he would walk her up the aisle. Her brother had paid the Beechams to raise her, but their affection had long since grown genuine. Since Richard’s death, they were the closest thing she had to family.
But not in half an hour. By noon, I will have a real family.
It would still be purchased, though.
The thought was dark and evil and skittered across her brain like a big black beetle. She shook her head to cast it out—mindful to do so carefully, lest she disturb the veil. This was not at all like the arrangement her brother had struck with the Beechams. The viscount loved her. And if she admired his station, that was only natural. His family tree was old and much distinguished, whereas hers . . . well, hers was more in the way of a very stumpy shrub. That it also happened to be gilded in gold—or the dyes her father had invented; no difference, really—made her more attractive to Thomas than she would have been otherwise. She knew that. Still, she was not paying him to be her husband. And as for his motives . . . well, her fortune hadn’t persuaded Lord Trent to the altar, had it?
“Auspicious day,” Henry muttered.
He looked up sharply. “Bit nervous?”
Her voice failed her. She nodded.
He chuckled. “Should’ve seen me. Shaking in my shoes. Best man had to hold my head over a chamber pot. I’ll tell you what he told me: ‘So long as you lay the cornerstone straight, Providence will build the house.’”
She managed a smile but found the adage ominous. Thomas had thirteen houses, all of them in terrible disrepair; another would only add to the expense.
Now came another knock, and Uncle Henry straightened and extended his elbow to her. She realized only belatedly, from the pain in her loosening fingers, that she’d been squeezing her hands into fists.
But he loves me, she thought. That is all that matters. He loves me, and I want this. What was all of it for, if not for this? I’ve wanted this forever.
And so did Mama and Papa and Richard. They wanted this for me, too. We all did.
I want this.
She cleared her throat. “Yes,” she said. She laid her hand on Henry’s arm. “I’m ready.”
Alex arrived without warning, flustering his brother’s butler with his refusal to be announced. There was a mystery here, and in his experience, ambushes were the most expedient way to uncover the truth.
He walked toward Gerard’s study on legs still braced for the unsteady sway of a ship. He could smell the widow’s perfume rising from his skin, and the scent compounded on his fatigue, making his stomach churn. The lady had slipped into his cabin last night after thirty days of idle flirtation, but this headache was enough to make him regret having entertained her. The attraction between them had been more the product of boredom than true interest. What harm? he’d reasoned. Left to his own devices, he wouldn’t have managed to sleep anyway. He barely remembered what a sound sleep felt like.
Odd to think that the insomnia had seemed a blessing, at first. So much useful time no longer squandered on unconsciousness. But after five months, the nights were beginning to stretch into dry-eyed eternities. The widow’s company had not made the time pass more quickly for him.
At least her perfume would lend him the illusion of having bathed.
As he turned the corner, he willed himself to focus on the task at hand. It would be convenient to find an obvious explanation for his brother’s actions, but nothing in the house spoke of want. The threadbare Aubussons had not been replaced by newer, plusher, cheaper rugs. The wallpaper bore no darkened patches where frames had been removed. In the box stalls in the mews, which he had checked upon arrival, a new pair of chestnuts now gave company to the matched grays. The carriages showed no signs of neglect. Everything looked exactly the same, which made Gerry’s decision all the more baffling.
The door to the study stood open. For an uncanny second, as Alex paused in the doorway, he had a sense of looking onto a scene long dead: his father, sitting ramrod-straight at his desk, industriously scrutinizing the household accounts. With the déjà vu came other, equally dead impulses—to stay quiet; to walk on by; to avoid a fight that could not be won. The weariness that touched him was not all from the insomnia, nor the long journey either. As a boy, he’d had to work very hard to believe in possibilities.
He exhaled. It was only Gerard at the desk, of course. His older brother was the picture of the Earl of Weston before him, lantern-jawed and stocky, as well-fleshed as a bull. Came home more frequently in the evenings, though. And there were other small differences—such as the fact that their father would have shot himself before surrendering any title to family land.
Of course, it would have been a waste of a bullet, in Alex’s view. He had no interest in the patrimony. It wasn’t his, anyway.
Why the bloody hell am I here, then?
He sighed. He was heartily sick of this question, having asked it of himself all the way from Gibraltar. Little else to do in the early hours before dawn. Best answer: his sisters had asked it of him. It would be his favor to them, then—enough to purchase twelve months’ freedom from additional pestering. “Cheers,” he said from the doorway.
Gerard looked up. “What—Alex!” He started to rise, then caught himself. “You’re back! We had no idea!”
“Neither did I,” said Alex. “A sudden decision when I reached Gibraltar. The whole place reeks of blood pudding—brought the motherland to mind.”
In fact, he’d received several telegrams during his stop there: two outraged screeds from his sisters, and a half-dozen cautions from friends who had seen Christopher Monsanto dining in Buenos Aires with the Peruvian trade minister. It seemed that the Yank now had his overbearing eye on Alex’s contracts with the Peruvian government.
The thought seemed to add weight to his exhaustion. He would probably regret not having turned back for Lima at once.
“Well.” Gerry was making a swift, critical inspection, his gaze raking Alex from head to toe. “I must say, this is a splendid surprise.”
As always, the inspection grated. As always, Alex produced a smile. “Will I live?” he asked. “Or does the deathbed draw nigh?”
His brother had the grace to redden. “You look whole enough. Do sit, then.”
Alex picked up an armchair on his way across the carpet.
“Careful,” Gerry said sharply. “That’s heavy.”
Sweet Christ. Alex dropped the chair in front of the desk and took his seat. “It weighs no more than a ten year old,” he said. “Really, Gerry, has it escaped your notice that I outstrip you by a head?” Since his fourteenth birthday, he’d been outrunning and outfighting his brother in any number of arenas. But if he picked up a toy poodle, Gerry would probably feel the need to call out a warning.
“Bulk, not height,” Gerry said critically. “Bulk is what matters.”
Alex eyed his brother’s ever-expanding gut. “Yes, I suppose that’s one view of it.”
“You look as if you could use a meal. And some sleep.”
He made a one-shouldered shrug. “Writing something, were you?”
“Ah . . . yes.” Gerard fingered the corner of the page. “Speech for tomorrow. This nonsense with the Boers . . .” He sighed. “Half the Lords wants a war.”
Frowning, his brother peered at him. “Actually, Alex, we fought in the Transvaal in ’81.”
Gerry had never had an ear for irony. “Did we? Never a dull moment, then.”
The frown was slow to clear. “Mm, yes. When did you arrive, then? Have you seen the twins yet?”
Had Alex not been listening for it, he might have missed the note of anxiety flavoring this last question. Gerry did not know, then, that the twins had already informed him about the Cornwall estate. “Not yet, no.”
“They’ll be over the moon to see you, then. Worry about you terribly.”
“Still?” He’d hoped that having children would redirect their focus, but his siblings seemed to have a marvelous capacity for multidirectional anxiety.
He reached out and retrieved Gerry’s pen, flipping it through his fingers. The tortoiseshell was second rate, a poor imitation of Chinese loggerhead, probably from Mauritius. It was exactly the sort of product that Monsanto, until now, had specialized in trading.
From the periphery of his vision, he saw Gerry’s fingertips come together into a steeple. This was the sign of imminent moralizing. Alex set down the pen and smiled.
“You can’t blame them,” his brother said. “You would not believe the rumors we hear about you.”
“Oh, I might,” said Alex.
Gerry took no note of this comment. “Listen, hell,” he continued in disgust. “Read, more like. The bloody newspapers are full of it! Dreck masquerading as financial news. And what do you expect? That spectacle with the showgirl—I’m surprised you weren’t prosecuted.”
Showgirl? Dimly, Alex recalled an acquaintance in New York twitting him over something along these lines. Bizarre. Some of these stories he started himself; his notoriety usefully eliminated most of the tedious social obligations to which he otherwise would be bound. But the showgirl belonged to that sizeable group of rumors that other people were kind enough to fabricate for him. Had he paid these faceless benefactors, they could not have served him better.
“Disgraced her, did I?” He was curious despite himself.
“I don’t know how else to describe such behavior in public!”
In public, no less. That did not sound impressive so much as stupid. How typical of Gerard to believe it of him. “Yes, well, the lung power,” Alex said with a shrug. “Foolish of me to underestimate her. She said she was a contralto, but to be honest with you, I think her range goes higher. Perhaps she’d lacked the proper . . . tutelage.”
Gerard made a scornful noise. “Is that meant to shock me?”
“No. If my aim was to entertain people, I’d have gone into the theater.”
No doubt Gerard’s glare made his soft, wheezing opposition in the Lords cower and tremble. Once or twice, in their childhood, it had made Alex tremble, too. Then Alex had mastered it himself. In his experience, it also worked well on foreign trade boards and corporate men desperate for investment. Paired with a smile, women fell before it like dominos—although, alas, he’d never tried it on a showgirl. They generally preferred coins to smiles, whereas Alex used money to buy goods; he did not buy people.
At any rate, the glare was useful. It also strained the eyes. “You’re going to give yourself an aneurysm,” he said mildly.
Gerard reached up to rub his brow. “Tell me this. Do you really think I waste my breath out of priggishness?”
The silence wanted an answer. Christ. Did they have to do this every time he came home? “No,” Alex said. “I think you waste it out of stubbornness.” Had it fallen to his family, Alex would have joined the church. The world was changing; grain from the Americas, meats and wools from the Continent, had sliced into the profitability of English agriculture. But the Ramseys still fared very well, and no son of Lord Weston, his father had often informed him, would dirty his hands in trade. In other words: the Ramseys would cling to the past and ignore the present so long as they could afford it.
Even as a boy, Alex had found this philosophy absurd. He’d spent his entire childhood buried in the country—for his own good, they’d said; for the sake of his health. He’d had no intention of hiding from the world as a man.
“You may call it whatever you like,” Gerard said. “Stubbornness or stupid optimism, I don’t even know. But I am certain of one thing: you keep leading this bohemian lifestyle, you’re bound to pay for it one day. Cross the wrong man and you’ll have a bullet in your brain. And in the meantime, it’s damned embarrassing for us.”
Alex rubbed his eyes. Dry as sand. Perhaps, in the first years out of Oxford, he’d derived an idle amusement in scandalizing stuffed shirts—but even then, he’d done it only by happy accident, never as a deliberate goal. “The bit about the showgirl is rubbish,” he said. “I don’t misbehave in public, Gerry. It’s bad for business.”
Gerard snorted. “Oh, indeed, God save the profit margin. And even if it’s rubbish, what of it? Do you think it matters, now, whether these stories are true or not? The way you live, who can tell? Who’s even bothered to wonder? Either way, it’s we who pay the price!”
Alex nodded and reached inside his jacket.
“Yes? A nod? Is that all you have to say for yourself?”
Alex laid the bank draft atop the desk.
Gerard leaned forward to examine the draft, then looked up, scowling. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“You need money, don’t you?”
“According to whom?”
Alex sat back and kicked out his legs, crossing them comfortably at the ankle. “The trade winds.” He glanced around the room. He’d been gone for seven months, first in the United States and then in Peru and Argentina. In that time, his sister-in-law had redecorated. The bust of some dead Roman now glared blankly from one corner. An entire wall had been consumed by an oil of some eighteenth-century massacre, replete with gleaming swords, anguished grimaces, and riderless horses, wild-eyed. “New painting,” he remarked.
A pause. “Yes,” Gerry said gruffly. “Picked it up from auction. I expect you don’t like it.”
“No, it’s quite impressive.”
“I know what you prefer.”
“So you do. Children’s scribbles, I believe you’ve called it.”
Gerry tried out a smile. “Well, you have to admit it, Alex. Very little talent required.”
Alex shrugged. What modern art required was an imagination drawn to possibilities, rather than braced by smug presumptions. Certainly the work of Gaugin did nothing to flatter a British imperialist’s vision of his role in the world. “But I meant it,” he said. “The painting is striking. I particularly admire the discreet pools of blood. Came cheaply, I assume?”
Gerard’s jaw firmed. “I can well afford the purchase, but clearly you think otherwise. I’ll thank you to tell me who’s maligning my name.”
“Your sisters. You mustn’t blame them. It was a natural assumption, upon learning that you’d sold the Cornwall estate to Rollo Barrington.”
Gerry slowly lowered his hand. “Oh.”
Alex waited, but that seemed to be the extent of Gerry’s reaction, which in itself seemed significant. His brother so rarely declined an opportunity to hear his own voice. Requirement of a nobleman, that healthy self-regard. “Interesting man, Barrington,” he said casually. “Never met, but I’ve seen him in passing. Heard a good deal as well. He’s making quite the reputation with these purchases of English land. Curious thing, though: nobody can say where he gets the money for it.”
“What puzzles me,” Alex said, “is why you didn’t come to me first.”
His brother flushed. “Because I don’t require your help.”
He laughed softly. If Gerry were dying of thirst and spotted Alex two feet from a well, he still would not think he required his younger brother’s help. It simply would never occur to him that Alex might be able to provide it. “Right. So you sold it for, what . . . a lark?”
“That estate was an albatross round my neck, and well you know it. Rent rolls falling for five years straight. There was barely a household left to me by the end.”
“True.” But since when had Gerard cared for financial wisdom? He was a creaking anachronism who spent his free time in musty gentlemen’s clubs, raging against the nation’s decline into capitalist barbarism. His only comfort, he often opined, was that most of England’s soil still rested in civilized hands. That he had sold a good deal of this sacrosanct substance suggested a variety of possibilities, but nothing so rational as a sound economic decision.
Gerard was growing redder. “What do you lot care, anyway? The twins never spent a night there. And God knows I’ve never heard you speak fondly of the place.”
“No, I’ve no particular love of Heverley End.” It had been little more than a prison to Alex as a child—the echoing house to which he’d been banished for months on end when his lungs had grown contrary. “But you must admit, the decision seems peculiar. Moreover, Bel and Caro had to learn of it from the gossips. If you wish to discuss awkwardness, I imagine that gave the showgirl a run for her money.”
Gerard looked back to his half-finished speech, his stubby fingers linking together atop the page, then separating again and clenching into fists. He pulled them abruptly into his lap, out of Alex’s sight, like secrets to be hidden.
The gesture raised some unpleasant feeling that Alex did not want to examine. If Gerry required his pity, he did not want to know the cause. Unlike his siblings, he did not enjoy worrying. It was a pointless exercise by which nothing was gained. “Tell me the problem,” he said flatly. “I’ll fix it.” This, after all, was the reason he’d come when he should have been halfway around the world, attending to his own business.
“Listen to me: you will let it alone.”
“If only I could. Alas, I’ve promised the twins to buy back the land.” And he was determined not to have made this trip for nothing.
His brother gazed stonily up toward the painting.
Alex took a breath, leashing his impatience. “Barrington stands to make quite a profit by selling to me,” he said evenly. “My last bid was double what he paid you. Yet he proves remarkably difficult to contact. Four letters I’ve sent now, and I’ve still to receive a reply. I was hoping you might facilitate our acquaintance.”
“Alex.” Gerard looked into his eyes. “I said, let it alone.”
What the hell was going on here? “Perhaps I will,” he said with a shrug. “Lazy by nature, you know.” At his brother’s snort, he gave up a lopsided smile. “Only give me a reason for it, Ger.”
Gerard’s snort flattened into a sneer—that same damned sneer inherited by every firstborn brat Alex had ever had the misfortune to meet. “It seems I must remind you of a very basic fact,” he said through his teeth. “I do not explain myself to you—”
“Thank God for that,” said Alex. “I’ve little enough time as it is.”
Gerry’s palm slammed onto the desktop. “Amusing,” he bit out. “You are very amusing, Alex, never doubt it. A veritable family clown. But much as it pains you, I am the head of this family. The land is mine to dispose of. You may remind the twins of that, if you please. And you may interfere in my business the same day you hand me the reins of your little business.” He gave a nasty little laugh, sounding, for a moment, exactly like the schoolyard bully he’d once been. “God knows, that would be rich. Bilking Chinamen of their tea. Wheedling teak from coolies in India! Christ, but you do the family proud.”
Alex inclined his head. “No prouder than you do in the Lords. Fine show, shaking your fists at the Boers for daring to take land that you’d prefer to steal yourself.” He rose. “Shall I find lodgings, then?”
Gerry eyed him, clearly struggling to remember the less autocratic obligations of the head of the family. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said finally, gruffly. “You’re always welcome to stay here.”
It was a marked sign of Alex’s fatigue that he almost found this statement touching. “And it would look rather awkward for you if I didn’t,” he said dryly. Well, he’d take a week to poke around in Gerry’s files, see what he could uncover. The mystery would irritate him now until he solved it.
His brother tried out an unsuccessful smile. Or perhaps he had a moment’s pain from indigestion. The twist of his mouth supported either hypothesis. “How long are we blessed with your company?”
“Not long.” Never long. Anywhere. Be restful, and rest will come: so spake the doctor in Buenos Aires. Very easy advice to give, a nice play on words, and as medical advice, useless. Alex took a breath. “I’ve a few showgirls waiting on the Continent, in fact.” An acquaintance in Gibraltar had mentioned that Barrington favored springtime in Paris. He glanced toward the clock. “Luncheon is still at half past?”
“Yes, but not today, of course.” Gerard rose. “Or do you intend to miss the wedding? If you’re in town, you might as well come.”
It took a moment to recover his smile. “Ah, yes. My brilliant timing.” He’d known mystics in India who’d predicted destinies based on the pull of the moon on the tide. Had his ship only met with an opposing current or a fractious wind, he would not be here. A mere hour’s delay into port this morning, and he still would have been in Southampton, free to miss this auspicious event.
Gwen noticed nothing on her walk down the aisle, so absorbed was she in negotiating the flagstones in her spindly, pinching heels. The altar seemed to leap up out of nowhere. Uncle Henry abandoned her with no ceremony, which rattled her; she’d expected a kiss on the cheek or, at the least, the press of his hand on her arm. Thomas was smiling at her and taking her hand, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe; the corset had tightened further and was about to finish her off. And then she saw her brother’s ring shining on Thomas’s finger, her betrothal gift to him.
The breath returned to her lungs. Of course she wanted this. Who would not want this? Everybody liked him. He was handsome and well-born and always joking. He was the nicest man she knew.
She stepped forward. The minister began to speak.
Gwen tried to attend, but an itch started in her nose. How maddening! If she wrinkled her nose it would go, maybe—but she didn’t dare.
The itch intensified.
Thomas glanced away toward the audience, and she took that as permission to do so as well. Do not wrinkle. Do not. What a profusion of flowers Elma had ordered! Roses over the chancel, orchids dangling from the rafters, lilies overflowing the baptismal font—good heavens, no wonder she wanted to sneeze! London’s bushes must have been stripped bare. It was a pity that people proved so ferociously single-minded about flowers; sprigs of pine and honeysuckle would have looked just as lovely, but of course nobody would have been impressed, since tree boughs came for free.
She turned her attention back to Richard’s ring, staring so hard at it that it began to blur. I will not sneeze, she thought, and risked puffing a small bit of air out through her nostrils. It didn’t help. What a monstrous collection; no garden in nature would ever contain such an overpowering combination of scents.
The minister droned onward. She forced herself to think of something, anything but the itch. Thomas’s hair was such a handsome, true black. She hoped it would overpower her own contribution. While her hair was acceptably close to auburn, Richard and her mother had looked like torches on fire. She did not want her children to accrue nicknames like “Carrot-top.”
Oh, stars above. If she sneezed, Aunt Elma would never forgive her.
Why did Thomas keep looking off to the side?
Gwen followed his glance again. Candlelight flickered over jeweled hat pins, skipping in flashes and gleams across the shifting rainbow of satins. She had the vague impression of smiles, of tears being dabbed discreetly. Warmth flushed through her, and the urge to sneeze subsided. All these dear, dear people! They had come today to rejoice for her. How she loved them for it!
She glanced back to Thomas. He looked very solemn now. But his hand turned under her palm so their fingers could thread together.
She found herself blinking back tears. She would be so good to him, better even than he dreamed. He could have anything he liked; she would not withhold a penny, no matter what her solicitors had advised.
“Do you, Thomas John Whyllson Arundell, take Gwendolyn Elizabeth Maudsley—”
A door closed at the back of the church. Thomas’s glance flickered away again.
“—to protect her and cherish her—”
His face went white. She darted a glance toward the back of the church but saw nothing.
“—as long as you both shall live?”
He opened his mouth.
His mouth closed.
But he hadn’t spoken. Had he?
Surely she hadn’t . . . missed it somehow?
She peered at his lips. They twitched and compressed, forming a flat, hard seal. His fingers began to slip free.
She tightened her grip and looked an urgent question at him.
His eyes slid away.
At Thomas’s elbow, Mr. Shrimpton, the best man, was now frowning. Her heart quickened. The oddity of this pause was not in her imagination, then.
The minister cleared his throat. “Sir?”
A faint wheeze whistled through Thomas’s nose.
Heavens above. The flowers. Of course! They must have been affecting him, too.
She sent a pleading glance to the minister. Give him a chance to breathe, she willed him.
The minister, ignoring her, sent a puzzled look toward the best man.
Mr. Shrimpton’s shoulders squared. He stepped forward, shoes squeaking in the pin-drop silence, to lean near Thomas’s ear.
He spoke too softly for Gwen to hear, but Thomas closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, his throat working in an effort to swallow. Oh, the poor man! How awful for him! Would he faint?
A whisper rose from the audience. Her heartbeat escalating, Gwen directed a bright smile toward the crowd. It’s all fine, she thought. Should she say it aloud? Really, it’s nothing. Only the flowers.
An abortive movement yanked her attention back to Thomas. His shoulders jerked, and she almost laughed from relief. Goodness, he was only gathering himself to speak, overcoming a brief bout of allergies. What an amusing story this would be to tell at dinner parties! We were both battling a sneeze, you see . . .
Then she realized the source of his movement: the best man had planted his fist in Thomas’s back.
This isn’t happening.
Over Thomas’s shoulder, Henry Shrimpton flashed her a panicked, horrified look. “Say it,” he whispered to Thomas.
I am dreaming.
“Sir,” said the minister.
I will wake now.
“Speak,” Mr. Shrimpton hissed.
Thomas made a choking noise.
“Nicest girl in town,” someone murmured, and something cold welled up in the pit of Gwen’s stomach. A million times she had heard herself described so, but never in a voice full of pity.
She looked out to the crowd, but it was impossible to find the source of the remark. All of a sudden, a great many other people were whispering, too, their soft remarks and speculative rustling blending into a mounting hum.
Good heavens. Gwen swallowed. She recognized this noise in her bones—had encountered it in her nightmares—but she’d never thought to hear it in truth. Not this time. Not when the groom had actually shown up!
She glanced back to Thomas. “Sir,” she whispered. “They—they think that you’re—”
But her throat closed. A chill danced over her spine. She could not finish that statement. She could not put it into words. Surely he must know what they thought!
He gave her a desperate, pop-eyed look. She could not interpret it. She shook her head—helplessly, frantically.
His bloodshot eyes rolled again toward the crowd.
What was he looking at? She tracked his stare but could see nothing remarkable, save a sea of gaping mouths that sharpened and dimmed in time to the roar in her head. Her eye landed on the second-to-last row, and the sight of four brown heads, the Ramseys, briefly penetrated her panic—Caroline hiding her face against Belinda’s neck; Belinda, bright red, twisting away to speak into her husband’s ear (oh, she had no patience for shenanigans, she would not forgive Thomas for this); Lord Weston scowling; and in the aisle seat, Alex, lifting his hand to disguise a yawn.
The sight jolted her. Alex was back in London?
He was yawning?
Was he bored by this?
Their eyes met. His hand dropped. He gave her a slight, one-shouldered shrug, as if to say, What of it?
Her thoughts jumbled. Did he mean that gesture to be comforting?
Why, no, he did not. He simply looked sleepy. Did nothing surprise him? Her brother had always claimed so. Unaccountably, Richard had loved him precisely for that—his unflappable, inhuman cool.
He transferred his gaze to Thomas. His mouth curled.
She drew a startled breath. The sight of his scorn acted like ice water on her sleeping wits. Because—really, why shouldn’t he sneer? The buzz was mounting to a clamor. Thomas was having cold feet at the altar.
What sort of woman let this happen to her twice?
She pivoted back to Thomas. Sandy hair and a ruddy complexion grown ruddier for his sudden, slack-jawed madness. “I will,” she hissed. “Say I will.”
His lashes fluttered rapidly. Someone in the audience called out, “Say it!”
From the audience! It was beyond humiliating; their wedding had turned into a sideshow! Yet all he did was stand there like some gawking chicken!
She cleared her throat. Her knees were trembling. “Viscount,” she managed. Oh dear Lord only make him say it and I will knit a hundred sweaters! And never again sleep till noon, or think a single unkind thought about anyone—“Will you not answer the vow?”
Thomas stumbled back a pace. “Forgive me,” he choked, and turned on his heel. Turned—away from her.
Mr. Shrimpton made a lunge for his arm, but Thomas shoved free and bolted past his groomsmen, then leapt the rail into the nave.
The crowd rose amidst a great communal shriek. “Swine!” someone shouted, and “Catch the cad!”
Thomas sprinted across the nave and cut a sharp left toward the arcade. Someone made a grab for him; he ducked into a somersaulting roll, shot to his feet, and bounded out of sight behind a row of pillars.
At her side, Mr. Shrimpton gave a low whistle. She turned, the world trailing sluggishly past her eyes, to look at him.
His brows were at his hairline. “Had no idea he could run like that,” he said.
Vises clamped onto her arms. She glanced down. Hands, they were—pale, slim fingers, wrists bound in fluttering ribbons and white tea roses. Oh, she thought. Her bridesmaids were trying to draw her away from the altar. Again.
God above. It had happened again.
He actually let me walk up the aisle.
Even Lord Trent didn’t do that.
“Oh,” she said, and the sound startled her. “Oh,” she whispered, as she tripped over her train and the candles seemed to brighten and the scent of flowers sharpened, pricking her eyes and making her nose run. She shook off the grasping hands. This was new; it really was. At least Lord Trent had the decency to have jilted her before the wedding day, to let her cry off the betrothal. A terrible mess, informing four hundred guests that their attendance would not be required; the number of notes she’d penned had left her hand cramped for weeks. But this?
Oh, this was quite different. Twice, now.
She stumbled back a pace, and then another.
The altar began to recede.
There could be no recovery from this.
© 2010 Meredith McGuire