"I say, if you're running away from your wedding, you're going about it quite wrong."
I paused with my leg out the window, satin wedding gown hitched up above my knees. A layer of tulle floated over my face, obscuring my view. I shoved it aside to find a tall, bespectacled young man standing behind me. His expression was serious, but there was an unmistakable gleam in his eyes that was distinctly at odds with his clerical garb.
"Oh! Are you the curate? I know you can't be the vicar. I met him last night at the rehearsal and he's simply ancient. Looks like Methuselah's godfather. You're awfully young to be a priest, aren't you?" I asked, narrowing my eyes at him.
"But I'm wearing a dog collar. I must be," he protested. "And as I said, if you're running away, you've gone about it quite stupidly."
"I have not," I returned hotly. "I managed to elude both my mother and my future mother-in-law, and if you think that was easy, I'd like to sell you a bridge in Brooklyn."
"Brooklyn? Where on earth is that?"
I rolled my eyes heavenward. "New York. Where I live."
"You can't be American. You speak properly."
"My parents are English and I was educated hereoh, criminy, I don't have time for this!" I pushed my head out the window, but to my intense irritation, he pulled me back, his large hands gently crushing the puffed sleeves of my gown.
"You haven't thought this through, have you? You can get out the window easily enough, but what then? You can't exactly hop on the Underground dressed like that. And have you money for a cab?"
"I" I snapped my mouth shut, thinking furiously. "No, I haven't. I thought I'd just get away first and worry about the rest of it later."
"As I said, not a very good plan. Where are you bound, anyway?"
I said nothing. My escape plan was not so much a plan as a desperate flight from the church as soon as I heard the organist warming up the Mendelssohn. I was beginning to see the flaw in that thinking thanks to the helpful curate. "Surely you don't intend to go back to the hotel?" he went on. "All your friends and relations will go there straight away when they realise you've gone missing. And since your stepfather is Reginald Hammond"
I brandished my bouquet at him, flowers snapping on their slender stems. "Don't finish that sentence, I beg you. I know exactly what will happen if the newspapers get hold of the story. Fine. I need a place to lie low, and I have one, I think, but I will need a ride." I stared him down. "Do you have a motorcar?"
He looked startled. "Well, yes, but"
"Excellent. You can drive me."
"See here, Miss Hammond, I don't usually make a habit of helping runaway brides to abscond. After all, from what I hear Mr. Madderley is a perfectly nice fellow. You might be making a frightful mistake, and how would it look to the bishop if I aided and abetted"
"Never mind!" I said irritably. I poked my head through the window again, and this time when he retrieved me he was almost smiling, although a slim line of worry still threaded between his brows.
"All right then, I surrender. Where are you going?"
I pointed in the direction I thought might be west. "To Devon."
He raised his brows skyward. "You don't ask for much, do you?"
"I'll go on my own then," I told him, setting my chin firmly. Exactly how, I had no idea, but I could always think of that later.
He seemed to be wrestling with something, but a sound at the door decided him. "Time to get on. My motorcar is parked just in the next street. I'll drive you to Devon."
I gave him what I hoped was a dazzling smile. "Oh, you are a lamb, the absolute bee's knees!"
"No, I'm not. But we won't quarrel about that now. I locked the door behind me but someone's rattling the knob, and I give them about two minutes before they find the key. Out you go, Miss Hammond."
Without a further word, he shoved me lightly through the window and I landed in the shrubbery. I smothered a few choice words as I bounced out of his way. He vaulted over the windowsill and landed on his feetquite athletically for a clergyman.
"That was completely uncalled-for" I began, furiously plucking leaves out of the veil.
He grabbed my hand and I stopped talking, as surprised by the gesture as by the warmth of his hand.
"Come along, Miss Hammond. I think I hear your mother," he said.
I gave a little shriek and began to run. At the last moment, I remembered the bouqueta heavy, spidery affair of lilies and ivy that I detested. I flung it behind us, laughing as I ran.
"I shouldn't have laughed," I said mournfully. We were in the motorcara chic little affair painted a startling shade of bright blueand the curate was weaving his way nimbly through the London traffic. He seemed to be listening with only half an ear.
"What was that?"
"I said I shouldn't have laughed. I mean, I feel relieved, enormously so, if I'm honest, but then there's Gerald. One does feel badly about Gerald."
"Why? Will you break his heart?"
"What an absurd question," I said, shoving aside the veil so I could look the curate fully in the face. "And what a rude one." I lapsed into near-silence, muttering to myself as I unpicked the pins that held the veil in place. "I don't know," I said after a while. "I mean, Gerald is so guarded, so English, it's impossible to tell. He might be gutted. But he might not. He's just such a practical fellowdo you understand? Sometimes I had the feeling he had simply ticked me off a list."
"A list?" The curate dodged the little motorcar around an idling lorry, causing a cart driver to abuse him loudly. He waved a vague apology and motored on. For a curate, he drove with considerable flair.
"Yes. You knowthe list of things all proper English gentlemen are expected to do. Go to school, meet a suitable girl, get married, father an heir and a spare, shoot things, die quietly."
"Sounds rather grim when you put it like that."
"It is grim, literally so in Gerald's case. He has a shooting lodge in Norfolk called Grimfield. It's the most appalling house I've ever seen, like something out of a Brontë novel. I half expected to find a mad wife locked up in the attic or Heathcliff abusing someone in the stables."
"No, thank heavens. Nothing but furniture in the attic and horses in the stables. Rather disappointingly prosaic, as it happens. But the point is, men like Gerald have their lives already laid out for them in a tidy little pattern. And I'm, well, I'm simply not tidy." I glanced at the interior of the motorcar. Books and discarded wellies fought for space with a spare overcoat and crumpled bits of greaseproof paperthe remains of many sandwich suppers, it seemed. "You're untidy too, I'm glad to see. I always think a little disorder means a creative mind. And I have dreams of my own, you know." I paused then hurried on, hoping he wouldn't think to ask what those dreams might be. I couldn't explain them to him; I didn't even understand them myself. "I realised with Gerald, my life would always take second place. I would be his wife, and eventually Viscountess Madderley, and then I would die. In the meantime I would open fêtes and have his children and perhaps hold a memorable dinner party or two, but what else? Nothing. I would have walked into that church today as Penelope Hammond and walked out as the Honourable Mrs. Gerald Mad-derley, and no one would have remembered me except as a footnote in the chronicles of the Madderley family."
"Quite the existential crisis," he said lightly. I nodded.
"Precisely. I'm very glad you understand these things." I looked around again. "I don't suppose you have a cigarette lying about anywhere? I'd very much like one."
He gestured towards the glovebox and I helped myself. As soon as I opened it, an avalanche of business cards, tickets, receipts and even a prayer book fell out. I waved a slip of paper at him. "You haven't paid your garage bill," I told him. "Second notice."
He smiled and pocketed the paper. "Slipped my mind. I'll take care of it tomorrow."
I shovelled the rest of the detritus back into the glovebox, and he produced a packet of matches. I pulled out a cigarette and settled back then gave a little shriek of dismay. "Heavens, where are my manners? I forgot to ask if you wanted one."
He shook his head. "I don't indulge."
I cocked my head. "But you keep them around?"
"One never knows when they'll be in demand," he said. "How long have you had the habit?"
"Oh, I don't. It just seems the sort of thing a runaway bride ought to do. I'll be notorious now, you know."
I gave the unlit cigarette a sniff. "Heavens, that's foul. I think I shall have to find a different vice." I dropped the cigarette back into the packet.
He smiled but said nothing and we lapsed into a comfortable silence.
I studied himfrom the unlined, rather noble brow to the shabby, oversized suit of clothes with the shiny knees and the unpolished shoes. There was something improbable about him, as if in looking at him one could add two and two and never make four. There was an occasional, just occasional, flash from his dark eyes that put me in mind of a buccaneer. He was broad-shouldered and athletic, but the spectacles and occupation hinted he was bookish.
There were other contradictions as well, I observed. Being a curate clearly didn't pay well, but the car was mint. Perhaps he came from family money, I surmised. Or perhaps he had a secret gambling habit. I gave him a piercing look. "You don't smoke. Do you have other vices? Secret sins? I adore secrets."
Another fellow might have taken offence but he merely laughed. "None worth talking about. Besides, we were discussing you. Tell me," he said, smoothly negotiating a roundabout and shooting the motorcar out onto the road towards Devon, "what prompted this examination of your feelings? It couldn't be just the thought of marrying him. You've had months to accustom yourself to the notion of being the future Viscountess Madderley. Why bolt now?"
I hesitated, feeling my cheeks grow warm. "Well, I might as well tell you. You are a priest, after all. It would be nice to talk about it, and since you're bound by the confessional, it would be perfectly safe to tell you because if you ever tell anyone you'll be damned forever."
His lips twitched as if he were suppressing a smile. "That isn't exactly how it works, you know."
I flapped a hand. "Close enough. I always had doubts about Gerald, if I'm honest. Ever since he asked me to dance at the Crichlows' Christmas ball during the little season. He was just so staid, as if someone had washed him in starch rather than his clothes. But there were flashes of something more. Wit or kindness or gentleness, I suppose. Things I thought I could bring out in him." I darted a glance at the curate. "I see now how impossibly stupid that was. You can't change a man. Not unless he wants changing, and what man wants changing? The closer the wedding got, the more nervous I became and I couldn't imagine why I wasn't entirely over the moon about marrying Gerald. And then my aunt sent me a book that made everything so clear."
"Mrs. Stopes' book, Married Love"
"Oh, God." He swerved and neatly corrected, but not before I gave him a searching look.
"I've shocked you." Most people had heard of the book, but few had read it. It had been extensively banned for its forthright language and extremely modernsome would say indecentideas.
He hurried to reassure me. "No, no. Your aunt shocked me. I wouldn't imagine most ladies would send an affianced bride such a book."
"My aunt isn't most ladies," I said darkly. "She's my father's sister, and they're all eccentric. They're famous for it, and because they're aristocrats, no one seems to mind. Of course, Mother nearly had an apoplexy when she found the book, but I'd already read it by that point, and I knew what I had to do."
"And what was that?"
"I had to seduce Gerald."
This time the curate clipped the edge of a kerb, bouncing us hard before he recovered himself and steered the motorcar back onto the road.
"I shocked you again," I said sadly.
"Not in the slightest," he assured me, his voice slightly strangled. He cleared his throat, adopting a distinctly paternal tone in spite of his youth. "Go on, child."
"Well, it was rather more difficult to arrange than I'd expected. No one seems to want to leave you alone when you're betrothed, which is rather silly because whatever you get up to can't be all that bad because you're with the person you're going to be getting up to it with once you're married, and it's all right then. And isn't it peculiar that just because a priest says a few words over your head, the thing that was sinful and wrong is suddenly perfectly all right? No offence to present company."
"None taken. It does indeed give one pause for thought. You were saying?"
"Oh, the arrangements. Well, I couldn't manage it until a fortnight ago. By that time I was fairly seething with impatience. I'm sorrydid you say something?"
"Not at all. It was the mental image of you seething with impatience. It was rather distracting."
"Oh, I am sorry. Should we postpone this discussion for another time? When you're not driving perhaps?"
"No, indeed. I promise you this is the most interesting discussion I've had in a very long while."
"And you're still not shocked?" I asked him. I was feeling a bit anxious on that point. I had a habit of engaging in what Mother called Inappropriate Conversation. The trouble was, I never realised I was doing it until after the fact. I was always far too busy enjoying myself.
"Not in the slightest. Continueyou were seething."
"Yes, I was in an absolute fever, I was so anxious. We were invited to the Madderleys' main estate in Kenta sort of 'getting to know you' affair between the Madderleys and the Hammonds. It was very gracious of Gerald's mother to suggest it, although now that I think about it, it wasn't so much about the families getting to know one another as about the viscount and my stepfather discussing the drains and the roofs and how far my dowry would go to repairing it all."