Monday, June 20, 2011

EXCERPT: The Gentleman Takes a Bride by Louise M. Gouge

Hampshire, England
June 1810

“I will not settle for an untitled husband.” Lady Diana Moberly lifted her pretty little nose and sniffed. “I shall find a peer to marry, or I’ll not marry at all.”

Seated beside her cousin in St. Andrew’s Church, Miss Elizabeth Moberly listened with rapt attention. After all, Di had just returned from her first London Season and knew everything about courtship and marriage. And in a few minutes, the wedding ceremony would begin, and Di’s older sister would marry a handsome gentleman she met at Almack’s only two months ago. An untitled gentleman. Di insisted she would do better.

Before Elizabeth could voice agreement, her other cousin, Miss Prudence Moberly, squeezed Elizabeth’s hand and leaned around her to address Di.

“But what if the Lord wills for you to marry a good Christian gentleman without a title?”

Elizabeth swung her attention from Pru back to Di.

Di sniffed again. “La, such a question, Pru, but just what I would expect from you. Haven’t I told you? The Almighty and I have an understanding about such things.” She gazed down her nose at Pru.

Elizabeth released a quiet sigh. She and her two cousins had been born within months of each other eighteen years ago. The youngest daughters of three brothers, they looked almost like triplets, with blond hair, blue eyes, and ivory complexions. They had enjoyed a merry childhood together, yet these days their views on most everything were different. Di was always ready with an opinion on any topic and brooked no contradiction. Pru was the sweetest soul, but she never backed down from differences with their more influential cousin, especially on spiritual matters. Elizabeth vacillated between the two, but these days she tended to follow Di, who always seemed to have more fun.

Still, Elizabeth could not deny the peace she felt in this small stone church, which her family had attended for over two centuries. Nor could she guess how many relatives had been baptized here or how many lay buried in the ancient graveyard outside. This building was a place of beginnings and endings and all good things in between. Whenever she came here, it seemed to enfold her in sheltering arms, encouraging her always to seek God’s will, whatever she might undertake in life.

Perhaps she could take the advice of both cousins. She would ask the Lord to send her a titled Christian husband.

But this was Sophia’s day, and Elizabeth wished her great happiness with Mr. Whitson. Today, all things seemed to smile upon the bride. The sun shone brightly, and no one in their vast family had succumbed to illness to spoil the celebration. Flowers from Aunt Bennington’s garden and bright green and white ribbons bedecked the altar and the pew ends, filling the air with the heady fragrance of roses.

The rustling of ladies’ gowns and the shuffling of leather shoes on the wooden floor caught Elizabeth’s attention, and she glanced over her shoulder. Across the aisle, several people had moved down so a tall young man of perhaps three and twenty years could slide into the pew.

Goodness, he was handsome, if a bit untidy. His wavy black hair appeared to have been arranged by the wind, and his black coat, while quite the mode, had a leaf caught under one lapel and perhaps a stray burr or two clinging to the sleeves. His lean, strong jaw was clenched, and his blue eyes gleamed with the look of a man set on accomplishing an important task. The gentleman must have ridden posthaste to arrive in such a condition. At the sight of him, Elizabeth’s heart seemed to hiccough.

Or perhaps it was Pru’s elbow in her ribs. “Tst,” her proper cousin admonished.

“Humph.” Di’s ever-uplifted nose punctuated her disapproval of the latecomer.

Wishing to please her cousins, Elizabeth stared ahead. Her aunt, Lady Bennington, sat on the front row with her eldest son, the viscount. In the second row, Elizabeth’s parents, Captain and Mrs. Moberly, sat with one of her brothers.

Soon the door beside the altar opened, and the vicar, Mr. Smythe-Wyndham entered, followed by Uncle Bennington, the bride Lady Sophia, and Mr. Whitson. Elizabeth’s resolve about titles wavered when she saw the groom. Tall, with broad shoulders and blond hair that curled around his well-shaped face, Mr. Whitson more than made up in form what he lacked in rank. Elizabeth could not deny cousin Lady Sophia had found a handsome man, even though Elizabeth preferred darker features.

As if summoned by her own thoughts, she turned toward the dark-featured stranger across the aisle. Seeing the stormy expression on his face, she drew in a quiet gasp. His strong, high cheeks were pinched with. . .anger? Dark stubble shaded his clenched, sun-bronzed jaw. His black eyebrows met in a frown over his straight nose, which pointed like an arrow toward the wedding couple, while his blue eyes shot flashing daggers.

Alarm spread through Elizabeth, but she had no time to think or act.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” Mr. Smythe-Wyndham intoned the opening words of the solemn rite in his rich baritone. He read of God’s purpose for marriage, then moved on to charge the couple to confess it now if there existed any impediment to their union.

Suspicion shot through Elizabeth, and her gaze again slid across the aisle to the dark-browed stranger. His face exhibited a controlled rage much like her father’s when indignation filled him over some serious matter. The man edged toward the front of his seat, like a lion about to spring upon its prey.

“If any man do allege and declare any impediment,” the minister read, “why they may not be coupled together in Matrimony, by God’s Law, or the Laws of this Realm—”

The stranger shot to his feet, holding high a folded sheet of vellum. “Indeed, sir, I do declare an impediment.”

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