Lady Rachel Denby faced the altar of the cold stone church trying her best to keep a straight face. The situation was hardly humorous. She kept telling herself that. But the dour, youthful curate, and the severe bridegroom beside her, were making the corners of her generous mouth twitch. The curate, obtained on short notice with her bridegroom’s special license, had just spent several minutes explaining the solemnity of the occasion. But still…
She took a breath, schooling her countenance, drawing her shoulders back and thrusting her chin up to better stare down her nose seriously at the fair-haired man clad in a white surplice before her. He had frowned at her twice when she had insisted on answering his rhetorical questions. She could not help it, it was a fact. When Rachel came across individuals with enhanced senses of their own status, taking them down a peg or two seemed only the right course of action. But, apparently, the curate did not need to know from Rachel whether God thought marriage was a holy covenant, nor whether it was to prevent fornication. It had quite put him off his recital of the marriage service.
She glimpsed Nellie. Her loyal maid had not offered anything but service in the face of the suddenness of her mistress’s marriage. Then there was Viscount Arleigh’s valet Jeffries beside the maid. That was it. The sum total of witnesses.
She risked a darting glance at her groom. His gaze was fixed ahead, his lips tightly pinched, no intention of staring lovingly into his bride’s eyes. The thought almost sent Rachel off again. She clamped down on the rebellious smile. Her bridegroom had not appreciated her humorous answers to the curate and nor did she think he would enjoy her laughter during his repetition of the vows.
That expression, as cold as the air in the church this morning, was not exactly the expression a bride would hope for on her wedding day. But Rachel was not just any bride. She had been through this before. A suitable match had been selected for her, she had participated in the mandatory period of courting, she had married with all the neighbourhood in attendance. None of that was needed here. It was understood; she needed Lord Arleigh just as he needed her. It was plain, it was simple, it was their deal.
“I require and charge you both…” the vicar’s crisp voice carried easily in the church. His grey eyes refused to catch Rachel’s again. No more disruptions.
Good. She needed this alliance. Lord Arleigh had promised her a secure independence. It was necessary for she had been on the brink of throwing herself on the mercy of her parents. Conditional mercy. That had always been the way. Do this, behave this way, marry that suitable gentleman. She would not be returning to the shelter of that roof – there was no need for such extremes. She held no desire to be thrown in their power again, even in widowhood. Soon she would be a widow no more. Better than that, she would be indebted to no one, because her marriage to Arleigh was as much for his convenience as for her own.
Imagine if the curate knew the cynical nature of this wedding. Then again, this was how the ton operated. There was little room for love and affection. Those particular afflictions were a happy coincidence rather than a planned future and they happened to the few. Her first marriage had not been affected by such considerations as was the way for the daughter of an aristocrat. She had married where she had been bade to do, though, she noted with a quick upturn of her wide lips, she had not done so willingly. How she had screamed. The servants could have mistaken the disturbances for someone dying. But her father had always been relentless in his will and though she had been in hers, there was only so much a woman could do, especially a young one. That was about to change for Rachel. After this wedding, she would be the mistress of her own fate. No master would be needed.
She had never intended for her husband to die just yet. Not before she had given him an heir and secured her future at Godalming Hall. But nature was not always inclined to bend to the will of woman, now matter how desperate the desire. She bit back the feelings that rose from some deep, dark place within her and focused.
She need only get through this marriage service and then she would be able to discard this stiff, uncomfortable gown that had already seen one wedding. She hadn’t told the Viscount that, she doubted he would approve, but the speed of their wedding had necessitated the reuse of a gown and this was, after all, the most appropriate. At least, she thought as the curate droned interminably on, her dead husband’s estate had backed onto a friend of the Viscount’s. Otherwise she might never have been given this opportunity for salvation. She had had to grab it with both hands but then so had he. One must admit, Lord Arleigh’s circumstances were less than normal. In fact, they were as, if not more, peculiar as hers. It was the reason this bargain had been struck.
After a respectable amount of time had passed, Lord Arleigh had agreed to seek an annulment, and both their purposes would be served. Rachel would be free with a tidy sum for her independence. Lord Arleigh would have adhered to his father’s oddly specific will bequest that his son marry by eight-and-twenty to received his inheritance. To be quite honest, it was a very neat and tidy arrangement. Rachel could not have thought of a better solution herself.
He was droning on, that vicar, rambling nervously so that Rachel lost interest. Fortunately the important part came soon.
“Lord Julian James Andrew Arleigh wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”
Fancy that. Without so much as a glance at her or a murmur of hesitation.
“And Lady Rachel Constance Denby, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”
“I will,” that voice didn’t sound like hers. All animation was lost in pragmatic tones. “And if you could hurry a little, vicar, my shivering limbs would be most obliged.”
He jerked his head up and down, almost dropping his bible, and her betrothed for the first time turned toward her briefly.
She saw his glance rise from somewhere below her neck to her eyes, catching there with an unfathomable look, and then turning away. He offered a curt nod to the minister which the frightened young man took as his cue.
It was hardly her fault that they were getting married at eight in the morning and it was well below an acceptable temperature. Apparently her outburst worked, for the curate sped along the next bit of the service and before she knew it he was passing her hand to that of her bridegroom. She felt the cold of the jewelled gold ring as it was threaded along her finger. It matched the temperature of his hands. She wasn’t the only one feeling the cold. Or perhaps they were nerves on his part. It was his first wedding after all.
“With this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
With his worldly goods, that part was music to her ears. When the hastily bought ring was installed on it’s rightful finger they obeyed the curate and knelt for his prayer of blessing. He held their hands together and spoke those fateful words,
“Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.”
Rachel’s brows rose a fraction and for a brief moment she could not look the man of God in the eye.
He made the pronouncement soon after and spoke several more blessings and that was it. They were rising and walking towards a back room in which the register was laid out. A few dips in the ink pot, slashes across the page in clear bold lettering, and they were married.
Lord Arleigh thanked the curate and then offered his new wife a courteous arm.
“I had best fetch Nellie, she has had barely a moment to understand these rapid proceedings.”
“I can assure you Jeffries, my valet, will not leave her behind.”
He didn’t speak with peeved tone, not frustratedly, Rachel noted that he did not speak with any expression whatsoever.
“As you wish,” he said when she did not respond. “I shall meet you at the doors, if convenient.” He bowed her out.
Rachel nodded and strode from the room in the hopes the quick movement might warm her chilled limbs.
“Well, I never,” said Nellie the moment her mistress came upon her. She had not dealt well with the shock of the sudden wedding but Rachel was pleased to see a bright smile on her maid’s face. “Congratulations, my lady, Lady Arleigh. I only hope you do not catch a chill.” Nellie’s fine little hands grasped around at a large shawl she was wearing over her short jacket.
“So do I, Nellie, come, we shall warm ourselves at his Lordship’s fires!”
Rachel hated to admit it, but for a brief moment her easy resolution had faltered when she had seen the ink dry on the register. Her talkative maid Nellie had been with her for years and she always had something to say which was calm and reassuring.
Feeling much more the thing, she took her gloves from Nellie’s outstretched hands and frogmarched with her maid in tow to the waiting man at the door. He dutifully took her on his arm for the few feet to the carriage and handed her up whilst Nellie and Jeffries took the smaller vehicle behind.
“It is done then.” He was turned away from her, his eyes on the rapidly retreating church outside the carriage window.
“Yes, and tolerably quickly – and you will be thankful to hear that will be the last time you need hold my hand.” She refrained from adding, and show me affection, for even the thought of it caused her to start smiling. He could not have looked more coerced during the ceremony than if he’d had a loaded flintlock pressed again his spine.
Lord Arleigh did not respond though she saw his lips purse even further.
“Just think what Rebecca will say.” She didn’t want to imagine what her parents would say. That particular musing could wait at least a day.
“You speak of your sister?” He asked in a tone that did not invite a response. He was being polite, Rachel noted, as though it were an ingrained behaviour he could not help. She found his eyes briefly but he failed to hold her gaze.
“I imagine she will believe like the rest of London that we have taken leave of our senses.”
“Oh, she already knows that of me. You, I suppose, will be a shock.” Rachel threw her gloves into a corner of the carriage and slumped back. “Oh come, ‘tis naught but a joke,” she replied to his frown. “You must know I have a sense of humour if we are to be married.”
“We are married,” he corrected without pause. “Three months,” he said, looking back out the window. “That should be sufficient time to satisfy the requirements of my father’s will.”
“Well, then you shall only have to laugh at my jokes for that long. I am sure you shall do tolerably well.” She pulled out her hat pin which had been ill-placed this morning and removed the whole from her head. She sent it the same way as her gloves and sighed in relief at the loss of pressure from her head.
“A pretty ring,” said she, admiring the emerald gem on her wedding finger. “I shall miss it come July.”
“Madam,” said her new husband curtly. “Your flippancy is hardly appreciated.”
“Very well,” said Rachel, straightening in her seat and looking very much the injured party. “But I don’t see that you should be in such a foul mood. I have just become financially secure and you shall receive your inheritance. It is our wedding day after all!”
She caught him grimacing at her crass mention of money. “It is no done deal – sordid that it is – my family must be deceived or the sham will be found out and I shall receive nothing.”
“Sordid! I am not sordid and nor is the deal I proposed to you. It is as ingenious as it is clean. As good as any business deal. You should at least acknowledge our initial success.” When he continued to look stern. “If you continue with that face of yours, the wind will change, and you shall have to look like that forever. Very well,” she raised her hands in surrender at the look he flashed in her direction. “I shall desist in my flippancy, but not my relief.”
“Of course – you are to be a rich and independent woman when this is over.”
“You make me sound the very caricature of a fortune hunter,” she matched the sharpness in his tone. He clearly regretted their decision already. This marriage was off to a triumphant start. At least it need only last three months.
“You knew my circumstances when you agreed to this, as I knew yours,” she spoke those first words with amiability but not the next, “I would ask that you kindly stop making a cake of yourself.”
He unfolded his arms at that.
“I shall hold up my end of the bargain and perform beautifully for your family, but a word – it is your acting that needs polish – perhaps one small smile on your wedding day?”
As they pulled up outside Lord Arleigh’s London home near Grosvenor Square there had never been a married couple so at odds so shortly after their wedding. Rachel shot a meaningful smile at her new husband as she was handed down from the carriage. It was not long before Lord Arleigh displayed one too, but Rachel was not so sure it was more akin to a snarl.
“I hope you are not tempting my wife with any more fripperies, Lady Fairing. You have spent quite enough of my wife’s money – thank you.”
Felton flicked up his cane and pushed a number of ribbons held by a draper in one of London’s fashionable shops away from Caro Felton’s large blue eyes.
“Oh pish!” Lady Fairing flicked her fan shut and rapped Felton’s cane thrice. “I have done no such thing and, besides, there is no harm in looking and keeping one’s eyes on the current fashions. Dear,” Rebecca addressed Caro, “This is why bringing your husband on such an outing is dreadfully ill-conceived. At least when we bring your brother we manage to obtain such useful information as to the quality of the textiles we are handling.”
“Very true.” Caro linked arms with Rebecca and guided her from the shop onto one of London’s busy streets.
They stepped out beside carts and carriages and riders. Hawkers swelled the ranks of the passersby. Ladies and gentlemen of every shape, size and age, and all of the fashionable bent, milled and walked and talked and shopped.
“What?” Rebecca called over her shoulder at Felton who followed them behind at a leisurely pace, unaffected by the jostling crowds.
“Don’t humour him, Rebecca.”
“Humour him?” She flashed her dark brown eyes over her shoulder and caught Felton’s gaze fully intent on the figure of his wife.
“Happy to walk behind us?” Caro finished for Rebecca. “He has recently taken it into his head that he much prefers the…” Caro blushed. “The view if he walks at least five paces behind me.”
“Scandalous!” Rebecca cried. “I should call you scoundrel if Caro had not been your wife these last seven months.”
Felton only laughed and Caro did her best to ignore both the offend-ee and offended. It was enough to negotiate the swathe of people.
“Well,” said Rebecca before an uncharacteristic pause. Caro knew what question was coming. “Where is your brother? I have not seen him for several weeks.”
“Now?” Caro responded mildly to the enquiry. “He should be returning across the Atlantic. The outbreak of the war has necessitated his travel. It has been essential for him to continue fostering old and new trade associations during the upheaval.”
“I suspect he is as irritated with those colonial upstarts as the King?”
“Actually, I do believe he rather admires them – he said he has been reading Adam Smith’s, The Wealth of Nations, and it has quite opened his eyes to an alternative form of trade.”
“Well, I am sure I would like to hear about that when he is back.”
“Would you?” asked Caro, a smile hovering about her lips.
“Oh,” Rebecca rapped her fan across Caro’s gloved fingers with little force. “Do not look at me so, you know how it vexes me.”
“Very well – but don’t say such silly things.”
“Silly! How dare you. Perhaps a book on the economy is just the thing to keep me from buying fripperies – could not that be right Felton?”
“Forgive me ladies, I’m afraid I was quite side-tracked.” He came alongside them.
“Lady Fairing was just saying she wished to look at some enlightened reading on the economy.”
“I believe so.” A grin-filled look passed between the couple.
“You two are thick-as-thieves. I declare that ever since you married I have been out-gunned.” She broke away from them. “Quite unjust!”
“Oh come, Rebecca!” Caro’s outstretched arm could not reach the rapidly striding woman, made all the more tricky by Caro’s giggling.
She was so busy wiping tears of laughter from her eyes in fact, that she ran straight into the back of Rebecca. Caro recovered herself with her husband’s help and found her friend standing stock-still staring after a black and yellow carriage dissolving into the equestrian traffic.
“Rebecca? What is it?”
“My sister!” Rebecca’s shocked face kept watching after the vehicle. “That was her in Lord Arleigh’s carriage.”
“But I thought you said she is mourning in Gloucestershire?”
“I did – I thought she was. What on earth was she doing in Lord Arleigh’s carriage? And why were they alone?”