Alexandra took one look at Elizabeth's white face and hurtled off the bed, wrapping her arms around her friend. "What is it, Elizabeth? Is it bad news? Tell me-please, you look ready to drop."
Elizabeth wanted to tell her, would have told her, but she very much feared Alex would try to talk her out of proceeding with the wedding. The decision had been hard enough to make; now that she had decided, she didn't think she could bear to listen to arguments or she'd start to waver. She was determined to believe in Ian; and since she was, she wanted Alex's liking for him to continue to grow"
"It's nothing." she said lamely. "At least not yet. Mr. Wordsworth simply needed more information about Robert, and it's a difficult thing to talk about with him."
While Alexandra and a maid fussed with Elizabeth's train the bride waited at the back of the church, cold with nerves, torn with misgivings, telling herself this was nothing but wedding jitters.
She looked past the doors, knowing that in the entire packed cathedral there was not one relative of her own-not even a single male relative to give her away. At the front of the church she saw Jordan Townsende step out and take his place, followed by Ian, tall and dark and overwhelming in stature and will. There was no one who could make him abide by their bargain if he chose to ignore it. Not even the courts would force him to do that.
"Elizabeth?" the Duke of Stanhope said gently, and he held out his arm to her. "Don't be afraid, child," he said softly, smiling at her huge, stricken eyes. "It'll be over before you know it."
The organ gave forth with a blast of melody, then paused expectantly, and suddenly Elizabeth was walking down the aisle. Of the thousands of people watching her, she wondered how many were still recalling her publicized "liaison" with Ian and speculating on how much too soon a babe was likely to arrive.
Many of the faces were kind, though, she noticed distractedly. The duke's sister smiled as she passed; the other sister dabbed at her eyes. Roddy Carstairs gave her an audacious wink, and a hysterical chuckle bubbled inside her, then collided with a rump of terror and confusion. Ian was watching her, too, his expression unreadable. Only the vicar looked comforting as he waited, the marriage book open in his hands.
The Duke of Stanhope had insisted that a grand wedding banquet and reception, with everyone of social prominence in attendance, was just the thing to put a final end to the gossip about Ian and Elizabeth's past. As a result, the festivities were being held here, at Montmayne, rather than Havenhurst which lacked not only the size needed to accommodate one thousand guests but furnishings as well. Standing on the sidelines of the ballroom, which Ian's army of florists had transformed into a gigantic bower of flowers, complete with a miniature arbor at the far end, Elizabeth tried with every fiber of her being to ignore the haunting memory of Wordsworth's visit this morning. No matter how hard she tried, his words still hung over her like a wispy pall, not thick enough to prevent her from carrying on as if all were normal, but there, nonetheless.
Now she was dealing with it the only way she could. Whenever the gloom and dread closed around her, she looked for Ian. The sight of him, she had discovered in the long hours since their wedding, could banish her doubts and make Wordsworth's accusations seem as absurd as they undoubtedly were. If Ian weren't nearby, she did the only other thing she could do-she pinned a bright smile on her face and pretended to herself, and to everyone else, that she was the radiantly happy, carefree bride she was supposed to be. The more she practiced, the more she felt like one.
Since Ian had gone to get her a glass of champagne and been waylaid by friends, Elizabeth devoted herself to smiling at the wedding guests who passed by her in an endless stream to wish her happiness, or compliment the lavish decorations or the sumptuous supper they'd been served. The coldness Elizabeth had thought she felt in church this morning now seemed to be a figment of her nervous imagination, and she realized she had misjudged many of these people. True, they had not approved of her conduct two years ago-and how could they?-yet now, most of them seemed genuinely anxious to let the past be laid to rest.
The fact that they were eager to pretend the past hadn't happened made Elizabeth smile inwardly as she looked again at the glorious decorations. No one but she had realized that the ballroom bore a rather startling resemblance to the gardens at Charise Dumont's country house, and that the arbor at the side, with its trellised entrance, was a virtual replica of the place where she and Ian had first waltzed that long-ago night.
Across the room, the vicar was standing with Jake Wiley, Lucinda, and the Duke of Stanhope, and he raised his glass to her. Elizabeth smiled and nodded back. Jake Wiley watched the silent communication and beamed upon his little group of companions. "Exquisite bride, isn't she?" he pronounced, not for the first time. For the past half-hour, the three men had been merrily congratulating themselves on their individual roles in bringing this marriage about, and the consumption of spirits was beginning to show in Duncan and Jake's increasingly gregarious behavior.
"Absolutely exquisite," Duncan agreed. "She'll make Ian an excellent wife," said the duke. "We've done well, gentlemen," he added, lifting his glass in yet another congratulatory toast to his companions. "To you, Duncan," he said with a bow, "for making Ian see the light. "
"To you. Edward," said the vicar to the duke, "for forcing society to accept them." Turning to Jake, he added, "And to you, old friend. for insisting on going to the village for the serving women and bringing old Attila and Miss Throckmorton-Jones with you. "
That toast belatedly called to mind the silent duenna who was standing stiffly beside them, her face completely devoid of expression. "And to you, Miss Throckmorton-Jones," said Duncan with a deep, gallant bow, "for taking that laudanum and spilling the truth to me about what Ian did two years ago. ?Twas that, and that alone, which caused everything else to be put into motion, so to speak. But here," said Duncan, nonplussed as he waved to a servant bearing a tray of champagne, "you do not have a glass, my dear woman, to share in our toasts."
"I do not take strong spirits," Lucinda informed Duncan. "Furthermore, my good man," she added with a superior expression that might have been a smile or a smirk, "I do not take laudanum, either." And on that staggering announcement, she swept up her unbecoming gray skirts and walked off to dampen the spirits of another group. She left behind her three dumbstruck, staring men who gaped at each other and then suddenly erupted into shouts of laughter.