At that moment, Chuffy barged back through the door, followed by Nottle, who carried a tray laden with champagne glasses and a bottle. His lordship held two more bottles, one in each fist. “Here we are,” he bawled. “This party is so gloomy I expect to be measuring my poor nevvy for a grave, not a marriage bed!”
Vander headed over to his uncle, probably hoping to prop him up before he and the champagne smashed to the ground.
“He’s drowned in drink,” Lady Xenobia observed, not bothering to whisper.
Chuffy was the only person who’d demonstrated any kindness, so Mia felt she should defend him. She cleared her throat. “Sir Cuthbert seems to be making excellent sense to me.”
Lady Xenobia turned and looked down at her, as a queen might look at an errant chambermaid. “Only a fool finds a drunken man sensible,” she said.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Mia said haltingly.
Her ladyship raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t?”
“There’s no need to be angry.”
That was a mistake. She knew it the moment that Lady Xenobia’s smile deepened rather than slipped, which was a most disconcerting skill. “I am watching a dear friend caught in the coils of a shamming woman waving a letter that she likely had made up in a back alley,” the lady said with ferocious, if quiet, eloquence. “We need not discuss the ethics of blackmail. But who’s to say that Vander’s father actually wrote that letter?”
“He did indeed write it.” Honesty compelled Mia to add, “although he was likely already mad. I am sorry for causing you distress.”
Lady Xenobia paused for a second, reached forward and put her hand over Mia’s. “Please don’t do this,” she whispered.
Vander was on his way back to them, but Lady Xenobia waved him away. Perversely, Mia felt as if he were deserting her.
“I lose my temper far too easily,” the lady was saying. “But you see, Vander is a true friend to me. We cherish him deeply. He deserves to choose his own wife, Miss Carrington. A wife who is suitable for him. Please.”
“I well understand your concern for His Grace,” she said, trying not to think about her unsuitability, “and I respect your good wishes for him. I assure you that there will still be time for the duke to find a lady who is deserving of him. We shan’t be married long, and he’s still quite a young man.”
Before Mia could answer, Chuffy swooped down and sat himself between them. He had a glass of champagne that he handed to Mia, and a bottle that he was drinking from.
“I thought I’d better rescue you,” he whispered loudly, and turning to the group at large, “There’s no music at this party.”
“That’s because it’s not a party,” Vander said, coming around the settee. Lady Xenobia hopped up and swept her husband away to the other side of the room. Maybe she would be more polite now she knew the temporary nature of the union she and her husband were supposed to witness.
“Well, my boy, you are in luck: I can provide the music. What is love? ’tis not hereafter,” Chuffy caroled, or perhaps warbled was a better word for it. “Come kiss me, sweet and twenty, Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
He leaned toward Mia, lips puckered.
Vander’s hand shot out. He pulled her to her feet and back against his chest before she could stop him. “Miss Carrington is not for kissing, Uncle.”
Chuffy blinked up at them. “Are you older than sweet-and-twenty?” he asked Mia.
“Yes,” she said, feeling very old-maid-ish.
“Well, then, I wasn’t offering to kiss you,” he pointed out.
“Shall we join the vicar in the chapel?” Mia asked desperately. She longed to have this ghastly morning behind her so she could head back to her own house. Charlie might be anxious. She had never left him overnight; she was always there to greet him in the morning.
“Are you in a hurry?” Vander asked.
She stepped back, away from him. “Yes,” she said baldly. She wanted to get away from these people, all of whom loved Vander—which was nice for him—but reminded her that she had no one who cared for her, other than Charlie. “Your Grace, surely you don’t want to make this occasion more emotional that it already is?”
“O, stay and hear, your true love’s coming,” Chuffy sang. “‘Coming’? Did you hear that? People think ol’ Shakespeare was stodgy but we know different, aye?” He staggered to his feet and upended his bottle over Mia’s glass, but nothing came out.
He swiveled and glared at Vander. “It’s a poor house that doesn’t have a drop of champagne for a bride on her wedding day.”
“Someone must have drunk it,” Vander said.
“Coming after wedding, you see,” Chuffy cooed.
“Miss Carrington, you’re biting your lip again.” Vander bent closer. “It turns your lips a very appealing color. Some women would do it for that very reason.”
She scowled at him.
“I gather you weren’t trying to entice your soon-to-be spouse,” he said wryly, turning to his guests. “Shall we adjourn to the chapel? The bride is eager to be married.”
Eager to be married? That did it. It topped the humiliation of her poetry, of being jilted, of being disdained by Vander’s friends.
Welcome, Mia thought grimly, to the Twelfth Circle of Hell.
NOTES ON BEQUEST
Count Frederic wealthy beyond wildest dreams—begs Flora to give up Mr. Mortimer’s bequest. “Buy a nosegay for my buttonhole, my darling. No man except myself shall give you aught. Not even from beyond the grave!”
~ Flora fears to trust him. (avoid ‘Flora fears’)
“If you have no confidence in me, we are not destined to wed,” Frederic exclaimed, his blue eyes bright with betrayal. “How can I take a woman as my countess who trusts loves me not?”
Then he jilts her—after making her give up her inheritance. (Perfidious! Devilish! I like it!)
The vicar was clearly unhappy, likely for any number of reasons. “Who stands for this woman?” he demanded.
Vander was proud to see that Mia didn’t flinch. She regarded the vicar steadily, folded her hands, and said, “My closest living relative is eight years old.”
Chuffy tottered forward. “She has me. I’m it. I mean, I’ll be her kinsman and walk her where she has to go. Up the aisle, is it?”
The vicar regarded him with distaste. “Sir Cuthbert, how come you with this lethargy so early in the day?”
“Is it early?” Chuffy asked, with perfect surprise.
“I believe we should begin the ceremony,” Vander stated.
They waited while the vicar fussed about with his missal, and Vander started thinking about the way his father used to rant. His mother would listen, or pretend to, but then she turned to another man whenever she could.
Thinking about his parents’ wretched union, he looked down at Mia with a genuine smile. Her head was bent, and morning sunlight streaming through the chapel’s east window turned her hair to honey and gold.
A few days earlier he never would have imagined it, but he was coming to understand that this marriage really was the best of all worlds: She was desperately in love and wouldn’t turn aside from him. He was emotionally untouched and need not be concerned about becoming besotted by a woman.