The Wrong Sister!
The Earl’s Mistaken Bride
Love Inspired Historical
Piper’s Mead, Hampshire, England
“I wish to marry one of your daughters.”
Marcus Brookstone, Earl of Spenford, was certain his position and wealth more than compensated for the urgent, somewhat irregular nature of the request. Every father in England would be honored to hear those words from him.
“I gathered as much from the message you sent.” Reverend Adrian Somerton removed his spectacles. “How is your dear mother?”
Marcus spread his fingers on the arms of the rosewood chair and forced himself to appear at ease. The reverend’s study was a fine enough room, but smaller than Marcus was used to. Whether it was the room, or the awkward nature of his mission, he felt hemmed in. Trapped.
He turned his neck slightly within the starched collar of his shirt, seeking relief from the constriction. He couldn’t bear to discuss his mother’s fragile condition, even with her parson. More particularly, he couldn’t bear any delay.
But the Earl of Spenford always behaved in a manner befitting his position.
“The dowager’s health is somewhat worse,” he informed the Reverend stiffly. “I hope my marriage will be a source of strength for her.”
“Indeed.” Reverend Somerton’s smile managed to convey both understanding and a shared grief.
A churchman’s trick, Marcus supposed, but a good one. He wondered if the reverend had positioned the leather-topped oak desk precisely so the fall of April afternoon sunlight through the study window should bathe him in its glow, making him look as reverent as his title suggested.
Sitting in relative dimness, Marcus recalled assorted sins of which he probably ought to repent. He quelled the instinct to squirm in his seat. He was here for his mother’s sake, and the reverend’s affection for his patroness, the Dowager Countess of Spenford, was both genuine and reciprocated. Which was why Marcus expected full cooperation.
A series of framed, embroideries hung on the wall behind the rector. Colorful words: Bible verses, Marcus guessed, though they were too distant to read. The kind of needlecraft with which genteel country ladies occupied their time. There were five of these works of art, each presumably the handiwork of one of the reverend’s five daughters. One of them Marcus’s future bride.
“Am I to understand,” Adrian Somerton inquired gently as he polished his spectacles with a handkerchief, “your primary aim in seeking a wife is your mother’s peace of mind?”
Marcus bristled, unaccustomed to having his actions questioned by men far more important than the rector of a quiet parish in Hampshire. But this particular parson was not only the man whose sermons he’d sat through as a child, he would soon be Marcus’s father-in-law.
“I have always planned to marry, of course,” he said. “The age of thirty seemed reasonable. I’m now twenty-nine. I won’t deny my mother’s illness has spurred me to action, but only to bring forward an inevitable event.”
He didn’t mean inevitable to sound quite so distasteful.
The rector darted him a quick, assessing glance. “I fear my daughters, he said, “lovely though they are, may lack the sophistication to which you are accustomed.”
“I have had ample opportunity to—” take my pick “—engage the interest of a young lady in London, but this has not occurred.” Or rather, though Marcus might have engaged their interest, they had not engaged his.
Reverend Somerton and his wife would prove more pleasant relatives than some of the grasping parents he’d encountered in the city, he mused. The rector was of excellent birth, even if he’d forsaken his noble connections to “serve the Lord,” as Marcus’s mama put it. Two of the Somerton daughters were beauties—in the absence of fortune or title, the world would expect Marcus to settle for nothing less. His father would have insisted upon a bride worthy of the Earl of Spenford. Marcus insisted upon it, too.
“I am still at a loss to understand why you alighted on the idea of one of my daughters.” The rector’s manner remained pleasant as ever, but his persistence was beginning to grate on Marcus’s taut nerves.
“It is my mother’s desire—and mine—that I should find a Christian bride.” He schooled impatience out of his voice. “I have known your daughters at least as long as any other young lady of my acquaintance and I hold them in the highest regard.”
No need to mention the bargain he’d struck with God on the subject. He wasn’t sure how reverends felt about mere mortals bargaining with the Deity.
Marcus Brookstone, Earl of Spenford, would bargain with whomever he chose.
He pressed into the arms of the chair, ready to leave if the reverend didn’t come to heel. “Sir, I regret to inform you this is a matter of some haste. While I would like nothing better than a courtship of normal duration—” an untruth, since he could think of nothing more tedious than courting a country miss “—upon securing your consent I must return to London immediately. I’m not happy to have left Mama even for the journey down here—her physician has said she may have only a week….”
Mortifyingly, his voice cracked. Somerton made a hum of concern.
With the ease of long practice, Marcus set sentiment aside and pursued that slight advantage. “The marriage would take place as soon as a special license can be obtained,” he said, his words thankfully steady.
Today was Monday, he could have the license by Thursday evening and return here Friday morning. In normal circumstances, Marcus would avoid the unsavory implications of such a hasty wedding, but his mother’s failing health ensured no gossip would attach to his actions.
“I would wish the marriage to take place here.” Reverend Somerton settled his spectacles back on his nose. “To perform my daughters’ wedding services is a long-cherished ambition.”
At last, some indication the man would consent! Marcus had expected this condition, had reconciled himself to it on the journey down.
“Of course,” he said magnanimously. “All I ask is that my bride and I leave for London in time for me to present the new countess to my mother that evening.”
Somerton pressed his thumb to the distinctive cleft in his chin.
“Which of my daughters do you have in mind?” he asked. “Serena, my oldest, isn’t here. She is governess to the Granville family in Leicestershire.”
Marcus frowned. That would have to cease. The Earl of Spenford couldn’t have a sister in any form of employment.
He’d left London struggling to remember any of the Somerton girls’ names—five was a ludicrous number of daughters for any family—despite having encountered them many times previously. Not only in church, where they filled the front left-hand pew in the company of their mother, but also at dinners and receptions held at the homes of nearby gentry. Including Palfont, the estate bequeathed to Marcus’s mother, which would return to her family coffers upon her death.
She will not die. I have agreed it with God.
He’d had nightmarish visions of taking tea with all five Somerton sisters, inspecting them as if they were horseflesh before making his choice.
Thankfully, circumstance had spared him that.
“Miss Constance Somerton…” he suggested.
“Constance,” the rector said, delighted. “Why, that is excellent news.” All of a sudden he seemed more kindly disposed toward Marcus’s request.
Marcus could guess why. He’d encountered Miss Constance Somerton a short while ago in the village, when he’d climbed down from his curricle at the Goose & Gander, not wishing to be forced to prevail upon the rector for refreshment.
Having eaten, and about to leave the inn, he’d heard a female cry out. In the stable yard, he’d found the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, trying to sidestep around a young man of clearly amorous intentions.
“May I be of assistance, miss?” he’d inquired of the girl.
“Yes, please, sir.” She turned a relieved face toward him. Then recognized him. Alarm flashed across her features, putting a pretty pink in her cheeks as she curtsied. “I believe, my lord, Mr. Farnham was just leaving.”
Farnham, the squire’s son, Marcus recalled, stammered an apology to the girl before scuttling away like a beetle. Marcus took a step after him.
“He meant no harm, my lord,” the girl said quickly. “I’m certain he regrets presuming on our friendship.”
Marcus decided to let the youth go; doubtless he’d learned his lesson. “That is gracious of you, Miss…?”
She blushed deeper. “I—I’m Constance Somerton, my lord.”
Marcus started. “How remarkable. I’m on my way to visit your father.”
“Indeed, my lord?” She’d recovered her composure and spoke with a demureness belied by the dimple dancing in her left cheek.
“Allow me to drive you home in my curricle.”
She cast a longing look toward the fine pair of gray horses an ostler was walking up and down. “My lord, Papa would not be pleased to discover me abroad in the village. It’s best if I walk home.”
“But that will take at least an hour,” he protested.
“My sisters and I walk it all the time.”
Which perhaps explained her slender figure. In which case, how could Marcus complain?
“Very well.” He executed a bow of a depth he would usually reserve for an equal in the peerage, and was rewarded with an appreciative twinkle in her near-violet eyes. “Your servant, Miss Somerton.”
Her beauty and lively nature were more than he’d dared expect. She would command the admiration of Society…he just hoped she was of marriageable age.
“My lord…” She hesitated as she curtsied. Her eyes widened in an unspoken plea.
He guessed what she wished to ask, and appreciated her delicacy in not framing the question outright. Yes, with a little guidance, Miss Constance Somerton could be the ideal bride.
“No benefit will be served by my mentioning to your father that I met you here,” he assured her.
“Thank you,” she breathed. Her hand touched his arm ever so briefly.
Now, Marcus returned Reverend Somerton’s smile with understanding. Constance Somerton’s liveliness was doubtless a source of concern to her parents—he suspected the average parson’s daughter was far more docile. Not to mention her appeal to the local young men. Her parents would be delighted to have her safely off their hands.
“I believe I don’t speak out of turn when I assure you Constance holds you in the highest esteem,” Somerton said.
“I’m happy to hear it.” Marcus wondered why the man felt obliged to say such a thing—naturally all the Somerton girls would appreciate his position. He remembered there was still one potential obstacle. “Er, how old is the young lady?”
He would have put her at seventeen, better than sixteen, which would have been impossible, but still arguably too young. Though in a year or two the maturity gap between them would narrow….
“She turned twenty last month,” Somerton said. “She is my second daughter.”
Twenty? Marcus was surprised, but pleased. Though no one would dare accuse him to his face of robbing the nursery, he hated to be the subject of gossip. His father had spent years schooling him to be worthy of his title—he would not let it fall into disrepute again.
“Unfortunately, Constance is sitting with a sick friend this afternoon,” Somerton said. “I could send for her…”
“That won’t be necessary.” Knowing full well Constance wasn’t at a friend’s sickbed, Marcus had no desire to land her in trouble. “I must return to London—in addition to the wedding license and to reassuring my mother, there are marriage settlement documents to be drawn up. I propose an allowance of—”
Reverend Somerton held up a hand. “My lord, your family has never been anything but generous to mine. I trust you to create a settlement that will be fair to my daughter and her offspring.”
Marcus would do exactly that. His position demanded it. But still, such naivety seemed irresponsible. “Sir, your trusting nature does you credit, but you might be wiser—”
“Naturally, I will read the settlement document thoroughly before I sign it.” The reverend smiled kindly. “If it’s not fair, I won’t sign it and the marriage will not take place.”
Not so naïve after all. He knew Marcus wouldn’t risk that. The settlement wouldn’t be fair; it would be more than fair.
“Of course,” Marcus said stiffly. He gathered his riding gloves and stood.
“One more thing.” The reverend did not rise, a surprising breach of courtesy, yet his holy calling made it impossible for Marcus to take offence. Or to take his leave. “You do not love my daughter.”
Just when Marcus thought the awkwardness past!
He had the uncomfortable sensation his face had reddened. “I cannot love what I do not know.”
“An excellent reply, my lord.” Somerton’s smile bordered on indulgent. “For to know Constance is to love her.”
It was the comment of a hopelessly doting father. The kind of father Marcus had never had. He found himself touched by the rector’s paternal loyalty.
“Sir, you know enough of my family’s history to understand that a—an infatuation is the last reason I would marry,” he said. “But it is my hope a strong and natural affection will develop in my marriage.” He would not use the word love, as the parson had. Love was what a chambermaid might feel for a groom. Love had almost destroyed the Spenford earldom in the past; it would not be given the chance to do so again.
Affection seemed a proper objective for his marriage.
“I know your mother to be a lady of great faith,” Somerton said. “Do you share her faith, my lord?”
Marcus tensed, but he said lightly, “Indeed I should, sir, having listened to your sermons for so many years. However, I believe a man’s faith to be his own business.”
“And God’s,” Reverend Somerton added with a slight smile. Not before time, he rose to his feet. He came around his desk, stepping out of the sunshine that made him look so dashed holy. “You are right, my lord, it’s not for me to judge a man in his faith. However, I wouldn’t like any of my daughters to marry an unbeliever.”
“Then I’m happy to assure you, you need not fear,” Marcus said. This was the worst interview of his life—he thanked heaven a man must only be interrogated by his father-in-law the once. An irritating urge to prove himself worthy of Somerton’s paternal devotion, the kind of urge he should have outgrown, made him add, “It may comfort you to know I prayed before the outset of this journey.”
Perhaps not a conventional prayer of the kind a reverend might favor…but Marcus had spoken to God, had he not?
“Thank you, it does indeed comfort me.” The reverend moved to open the study door. This awkward encounter was finished.
“I wish you Godspeed.” Reverend Somerton shook Marcus’s hand. “I will discuss your offer with Constance this evening. If she does not wish to accept, I will send word immediately.”
Living in a house filled with women must have addled Somerton’s brain. The parson’s daughter—any parson’s daughter—would be honored to marry the Earl of Spenford.
Marcus didn’t waste time pointing that out. He’d come here for a wife; he’d found one. Nothing else mattered.
The curricle pulled out of the rectory gate right in front of Constance Somerton, so close that one more step would take her smack into the side of a very large gray horse.
She gave a little yelp of surprise, and the driver, who’d been looking to his left for traffic, somehow heard her over the clatter of hooves and the rattle of bridles. He immediately reined in the horses, coming to a stop.
“My apologies,” he called.
Lord Spenford! It had been an age since she’d seen him. Why was he here? She wanted to call out an assurance that no apology was needed, though in fact it was: he should have been looking. But as usual, the sight of him reduced her vocabulary to a few nonsense words and made her feel as if it had been days since her last meal. She steadied herself by reaching a hand to the brick wall that ran along the front of the rectory grounds.
Lord Spenford jumped down, still holding the reins of his grays. “Are you all right?”
His voice was exactly as Constance remembered—deep, beautifully modulated. It sent a delightful shiver through her.
He glanced behind him at the rectory. “Miss Somerton? You’ve had a shock. Should I drive you inside?”
Such consideration! Such— She realized that by now he must be wondering if she’d been struck mute since the last time they met. “I’m quite well,” she said. “Thank you, Lord Spenford.”
It sounded as if she was thanking him for almost running her over.
“I was going too fast,” he said ruefully. “In a hurry to get back to London. No excuse for such poor driving.”
“Don’t think about it,” she said. “I know you must be worried about your—about the dowager countess.”
He gave her a surprised look, then his face closed over. “Indeed,” he said briefly. “If you truly are unhurt, Miss Somerton, I will resume my journey.” He sprang back up onto the curricle. About to drive off, he checked the horses. “We will meet again soon,” he said, and smiled.
Then he was gone, and all that was left to show he’d been there was a cloud of dust and what Constance knew must be a sappy expression on her face at the memory of that smile.
“He wishes to marry me?” Constance sat stunned on the sofa in the rear drawing room, closed off from the front room except when the family had company. “Me? Not Isabel or Amanda?”
It was the answer to a prayer she’d never dared utter. A dream come true, an absurd fantasy…now, about to become reality?
“He can’t have meant me,” she said faintly. Hoping against hope that he had. “I saw him outside, he didn’t say a word.” He almost killed me! Although, he had said, We’ll meet again soon. How could she have guessed he meant in church, at our wedding?
“Nor should he, before your father spoke to you,” her mother said. “Besides, Lord Spenford was in a hurry to return to town…but he definitely wanted you, my dear.” Her mother patted her knee, as she smiled at her father, occupying one of the Hepplewhite chairs he frequently condemned as too spindly. “Didn’t he, Adrian?”
“So he did,” her father confirmed. “Mind you, Constance, I’m not telling you the earl’s in love with you.”
“Of course he’s not,” she said quickly. “His sort doesn’t marry for love.” Unlike my sort. She frowned, still struggling to believe this marvelous proposal. “Why me?”
“His mother must have recommended you,” Margaret Somerton suggested. “Her ladyship was always fond of you.”
“That must be it,” Constance agreed. “It’s more than a year since I last spoke to Lord Spenford. He has certainly not been enchanted by my conversation.”
It went without saying he hadn’t been enchanted by her physical charms: she had none.
“His lordship’s desire to marry now is largely to please his mother,” Adrian inserted.
Constance nodded. She did not find that odd, quite the opposite. Marcus Brookstone, Earl of Spenford, might be rumored to enjoy every pleasure of the ton, but he loved his mama dearly, always had, and Constance admired him for that.
Among other attributes.
As if he read her thoughts, her father prompted, “I was correct in assuming, my dear, that you would welcome this proposal?”
Constance felt pink in her cheeks. Her long infatuation with Lord Spenford hadn’t gone unnoticed by her family. “Yes, Papa,” she murmured. Slightly defensive, she added, “I know him to be a good man.”
Her father thumbed the cleft in his chin. “My dear, his reputation is not spotless.”
“None of us is perfect,” Constance pointed out.
“True,” her father agreed.
“Constance, you don’t find him a little proud?” her mother asked.
“Margaret!” The reverend shifted on his chair, which wobbled, causing him to mutter ominously.
“Much as I admire your reluctance to condemn people, Adrian,” Margaret Somerton said, “Spenford is widely regarded as a proud man. I preferred him before he became the heir.”
“Mama, he was just a boy,” Constance protested. “The man is always different from the boy.”
Marcus had been born the second son of the previous Earl of Spenford. Stephen, his older brother by six years, had been by all accounts the perfect heir. Until he died in a hunting accident when Marcus was fifteen.
“A delightful boy,” Margaret corrected her. “Until his father, who by the by was also a proud man, took him in hand.”
“I don’t find Lord Spenford at all proud.” The event that had informed Constance’s opinion would seem trivial to her parents. But three years ago she’d realized Marcus Brookstone was a man worthy of her deepest feelings.
“All I’m saying is, you’re not obliged to accept this offer,” her mother said. “Your father’s future may be uncertain, but we are confident God will supply.”
Constance didn’t know how, even with their faith, her parents could remain so calm. Her father’s insistence on taking the Word out to the laborers in the fields, or wherever they might be, had landed him in trouble with his Bishop. He’d been accused of Methodism, of creating a schism in the parish. It was monstrously unfair, when her father held unity and inclusiveness within the church as one of his dearest tenets. There was a risk the Bishop might remove him from the parish; her parents would lose their home and livelihood.
“I don’t expect any of you girls to marry if you don’t wish it,” the rector confirmed. “St. Paul himself said it’s better not to marry if one can be content in the single life, and while my heirs will never be wealthy, you will live in modest comfort. But blessed as I have been in my own marriage—” he reached across to squeeze his wife’s hand, almost oversetting his chair “—it wouldn’t surprise me if God’s providence should include loving husbands for at least some of my daughters.”
Constance’s youngest sister Charity vowed frequently to live with Mama and Papa the rest of her days. But in truth, Constance had expected to be the spinster of the family.
With four sisters prettier than she, she was used to going unnoticed by all, with the exception of her parents. And perhaps of older people, like the dowager countess, who seemed to find her plainness soothing.
Though the local young men were scrupulously polite in greeting her, in asking her to dance after they had danced with her sisters, no marriageable man had ever, as far as she was aware, seen her. Looked past her sisters, past all other young ladies, and chosen her.
Marcus Brookstone had.
Her mother said dubiously. “I hope the earl will know how lucky he is to win you, Constance.”
“How blessed he is, my sweet,” her husband corrected her. Though in many ways the most tolerant of men, he didn’t allow luck to be given credit for divine Providence.
Constance took a deep breath. “Papa, I believe God has given me this opportunity, and I wish to accept his lordship’s proposal. I am certain we can make each other happy.”
Had he changed his mind?
Five minutes past eleven o’clock on Constance’s wedding day and no sign of a bridegroom for the ceremony that should have started on the hour.
Standing in the churchyard, trying to appear nonchalant while her body vacillated between chills and extreme heat, Constance was conscious of all eyes upon her. Most discomfiting.
She could almost feel sorry for Isabel and Amanda, the two of her sisters acclaimed as beauties. To be stared at so intently… Constance shivered in the spring sunshine.
“Cold, my love?” Isabel asked. Instilled with the supreme confidence that came with beauty, she wouldn’t understand Constance’s petrified state.
Constance shook her head. “Thank goodness you added this veil to my bonnet,” she said to Amanda. “At least I don’t have to meet the eyes of everyone wondering if the earl plans to make an appearance.”
“Veils are all the rage in London and Paris,” Amanda said, oddly defensive.
Constance patted her arm. “I trust your knowledge of the fashions, dearest, for you know I have none.” She considered taking back the reticule and small posy of flowers Amanda was holding for her, but there was too much chance her nervous fingers would shred them.
“It looks very becoming on you,” Amanda said. She’d used the same French lace for the veil as Constance’s mother had for the elegant trim she’d added to Constance’s best blue muslin dress. Without compunction, Margaret Somerton had cut into a beautiful tablecloth that had been a gift from her own mother.
The trim made a fine feature on an otherwise simple dress, drawing attention away from Constance’s face, and down to her figure. The veil, anchored to her bonnet with a cream-colored satin ribbon and reaching to her chin, achieved the same end. Constance dared not ask where Amanda had obtained the ribbon. Her sister managed to fancy all her clothes with furbelows that Constance suspected were gifts from young men.
“You realize, Amanda, as Countess of Spenford I will be in a position to offer you a London season,” Constance said. “Perhaps next year…” So long as they weren’t in mourning for the dowager, of course. Amanda had yearned for a London season for as long as she’d known such a thing existed.
Amanda merely squeezed Constance’s hand. Maybe she still had the headache she’d complained of earlier when she’d begged to be excused from the ceremony. Constance had in turn begged her to attend. It was bad enough to be getting married lacking one sister’s presence—there hadn’t been time to send word to Serena in Leicestershire and have her travel home to Piper’s Mead.
Now, that seemed a good thing. Serena might have had a wasted trip.
The villagers were growing restless, despite the valiant attempts of Reverend Somerton and his wife to engage them in conversation. While most of the men were working, a good number of the women thronged the churchyard, eager to witness the most prestigious wedding in the village for at least a generation. A couple of lads had taken advantage of the festive atmosphere to station themselves on the churchyard wall, normally forbidden territory. They nudged and jostled each other, enjoying the risk of an imminent fall.
“Maybe his lordship had an accident,” Mrs. Penney, the baker’s wife, suggested. “Could be overturned in a ditch on the London road.”
“Or footpads,” said Mrs. Tucker, from the Goose & Gander. “They’ll kill a man soon as look at him, these days.”
“No!” Constance said sharply.
“Sorry, love,” Mrs. Tucker said. “Don’t you worry, his lordship won’t let you down, he’s like his father in that respect. A stickler for his duty.”
Even as she spoke, she glanced at Isabel, confusion written on her broad face. She was doubtless wondering why any earl would choose Constance over Isabel, whose fair beauty had been a source of village pride since she’d been in the cradle.
“You look lovely, Constance.” The assurance came from Charity, who, although just turned fifteen, displayed an unusual sensibility for other people’s feelings.
Constance smiled her thanks, though her sister probably couldn’t see through the veil.
Constance had never wished for beauty…at least, not since she’d accepted, years ago, that she would always be the most ordinary of the Somerton girls. Not that her face sent small children screaming for their mothers, or anything like that. She’d spent enough hours in her youth searching the mirror for signs of beauty to know her brown eyes were warm, her eyebrows nicely shaped. Those features assured she was acceptable. And she’d inherited her mother’s excellent figure, for which she was truly grateful.
It was just…on this day, when she was about to marry one of the most handsome men in all England, she would have given much to be pretty.
“God sees the heart,” Charity reminded her, still reading Constance’s thoughts. “Perhaps He has revealed your gentle heart to the earl.”
“Perhaps,” Constance said doubtfully. She hoped the Lord hadn’t revealed her besottedness to Lord Spenford—the poor man would be mortified to know his bride cherished such romantic notions for a near stranger.
She could only hope it was indeed her gentle spirit, whether revealed through divine guidance or through the dowager, that had caused the earl to settle on her.
One of the urchins perched on the churchyard wall shouted, “He’s coming! And he’s got a bang-up rig, too.”
His mother boxed his ears for referring to Lord Spenford as “he” rather than “his lordship” and for daring to express an opinion on the earl’s conveyance. The women set to straightening their dresses, adjusting their bonnets in a panicked flurry that reminded Constance of the Bible parable about the foolish virgins readying themselves for the bridegroom.
Constance stayed still. No minimal adjustment would elevate her to sudden beauty.
“Mama,” Amanda said, “I think I’m going to faint.”
A stir of interest ran through the crowd, dividing attention between her and the churchyard gates.
“Oh, gracious.” Margaret Somerton was visibly torn.
“Stay there, Mama,” Amanda told her. “I’ll sit in the side chapel until I feel better. Excuse me, Constance.”
“Of course, love, I should have let you rest at home.”
Amanda did look wan. There was no sign of the dimple in her left cheek that had inspired several young men to attempt poetry, with woeful results. As she handed over Constance’s reticule and posy, she asked with a strange urgency. “Connie, this is what you wish, isn’t it? To marry Spenford?”
It wasn’t like Amanda to show such care for others; Constance blinked away unexpected tears. “It’s what I wish more than anything,” she confirmed. Hoping it was true.
Almost before she finished speaking, Amanda was hurrying into the church. And Constance’s attention was drawn to the fine curricle pulling up behind the dowager’s coach, sent earlier from Palfont to convey the Somerton women to the church.
Constance didn’t recognize the gentleman driving the curricle, nor did she notice the groom on the back. She had eyes only for her betrothed, sat alongside the driver.
Poor Lord Spenford would be exhausted, having traveled so far the past few days. Marcus, I must learn to call him Marcus.
But the moment the curricle stopped, he jumped down with an energy that made a mockery of her concern.
His dark hair lifted in the breeze as he strode toward her father. The crowd melted back in a flurry of curtsies and, from the boys, removal of caps.
“Sir, forgive me.” He shook her father’s hand. “We encountered an overturned post chaise on the road out of Farnham and stopped to render assistance.”
An impeccable reason for tardiness. Constance wouldn’t wish to marry a man who failed to render assistance.
Her father inquired of the injured passengers, declared his intent to pray for them.
“May I introduce you to the Marquis of Severn, who will stand with me as groomsman,” Marcus said.
His friend, the same impressive height as the earl, but to Constance’s eye not as handsome, exchanged bows with the reverend. Reverend Somerton introduced his wife to the Marquis…goodness, would the formalities never end?
Then, suddenly, they were finished, and her father was beckoning to Constance.
Isabel gave her the slightest of shoves; Constance made her way on trembling legs.
She dropped a tiny curtsey, afraid if she sank too low she would never rise again. To nurse a girlish dream was one thing; to live the reality quite another. I can’t go through with this.
The earl took her hands in his, an intimacy she hadn’t expected. His fingertips curled beneath hers, warm through the fabric of her best gloves, anchoring her.
“My dear Constance.” His smile held kindness, chagrin, and an uncertainty that somehow boosted her confidence. “How fortunate I am that your nature aligns with your name, and you have waited for such a tardy wretch. Will you do me the honor of accompanying me into the church?”
Her gaze darted over his shoulder to the worn stone building she loved as well as her own home. She would enter the church a parson’s daughter; she would leave it a countess. A wife. His wife.
The earl’s grip tightened. Her doubts lifted like mist warmed by the sun, to drift away on the breeze.
“I will,” she said.
He brought her left hand to his lips, and through her glove pressed a kiss to her knuckles. Warmth flooded her, traveled directly to her legs where it had a bizarre weakening effect. Constance locked her knees, put all her energy into holding her ground.
“Come,” Spenford said, “let us be married.”
“I, Marcus Albert Edward Spencer Brookstone, Earl of Spenford, Baron Brookstone, take thee, Constance Anne Somerton…”
Constance calmed her nerves by focusing on the string of names. And reflected she would be more pleased if he were mere Marcus Brookstone.
Her father recited the next portion of the vows in the dear, measured tone that had guided her life. “To have and to hold…to love and to cherish…”
He spoke clearly, rather than loudly, but the words rang to the rafters above the heads of the enthralled congregation.
“To have and to hold…to love and to cherish,” the earl repeated firmly.
Constance let out a breath of relief. He had sworn to love her. Not today, or tomorrow, necessarily, but he would try and when he succeeded it would be—
“Till death us do part…”
She made the same vow, her voice shaking, adding the bride’s promise to obey.
Behind her, she heard a small sob. Mama. Pragmatic Margaret Somerton had surprised her daughters, and herself, with several bouts of sniffling over the past few days. Her mood had been unimproved by her husband’s assurance she was not losing a daughter, but gaining a son.
Constance slid a sidelong glance at her mother’s new “son.” At several inches taller than she, at least six feet, his height was potentially intimidating.
“Do you have the ring?” her father asked.
The earl—Marcus—turned to his groomsman. Constance had forgotten his name…Severn, that was it, the Marquis of Severn.
Severn handed over a circlet of gold. After a moment’s pause, Constance realized everyone was waiting for her.
She fumbled to free her left hand—the one he kissed—from her glove. Marcus took her bare fingers, and for the first time they were flesh to flesh. About to be made one.
“With this ring, I thee wed,” he repeated after her father.
Another few moments, and the gold band slid down her finger. Making her his.
Constance’s mind shied away from the thought.
“Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,” her father intoned.
The next phrases washed over her, until she heard “I now pronounce that they be man and wife.”
Constance’s gazed snapped to the earl. She hadn’t even been listening to that final declaration and now she was married. Just as well she didn’t attend to omens, because surely…
The worry evaporated in the warmth of the gaze Lord Spenford—her husband!—turned on her.
A half-smile on his lips, he reached for her veil, lifted it.
His brilliant blue eyes scanned her face.
Constance smiled shyly.
Marcus’s mouth straightened into a line that could only be described as grim.
“My—my lord?” Words died away as Constance absorbed his expression.
He looked appalled.