You May Kiss the Bride(5)

By: Lisa Berne

After that charming little debacle, he’d toyed with the idea of remaining unwed, and allowing the Hall to eventually pass into the hands of his cousin Hugo Penhallow. He was a nice young chap, good-tempered, poor as a church mouse, Army-mad. As soon as Gabriel had come into his inheritance he’d set up Hugo with an allowance and purchased his commission. The lad was now roiling about the so-called United States, happy as a lark.

But there was no certainty that madcap Hugo would return alive and whole, leaving open the ominous possibility of the heir being his distant Scottish cousin Alasdair Penhallow who, if the rumors were correct, was a most unsavory fellow as well as being irremediably stupid.

Before long, he’d come to accept his fate. The Penhallows had been arranging dynastic marriages for decades—centuries, really. He would wed and do his duty, but aside from the congress necessary to create progeny, he and his wife would lead separate lives. It was the Penhallow way, and he’d yet to hear anyone complain about it. Besides, he wasn’t in any danger of giving way to maudlin sentimentality about his lot in life. Generally speaking, he was a fortunate man, blessed with intelligence, good health, and a substantial fortune; too, he wasn’t some callow lad, pining away in the quest for some kind of grand idealized love.

No, he had business to transact.

And luckily, Grandmama had spared him the tedium of having to search for a bride.

Some months ago she had left Bath—where she’d been ensconced for many years—and made her way to London. There she had taken occupancy of the family townhouse in Berkeley Square and proceeded to spend the Season looking for a worthy young lady. Invited everywhere and universally fawned upon, she attended breakfasts, teas, dinner parties, assemblies, balls, Almack’s; indefatigably had she searched, interviewed, investigated. Her letters came to him bristling with detailed reports.

Angrily, she wrote that this earl’s daughter was already affianced, and that duke’s girl had just gotten married; their available sisters were too young, or too old, or had a squint, or teeth that made one blench. The girls of a fine old family from the North would have been considered if not for their abject lack of fortune. One otherwise promising young lady, Grandmama had learned to her fury, had been concealing the ugly fact of an uncle in the fishmongering trade. The granddaughter of an old friend, whom she had long thought to be a possibility, looked decidedly consumptive. Another girl who had seemed likely at first came from a family in which the women were notoriously poor breeders. And, naturally, there were whole swathes of young ladies who could be ignored—no matter how wealthy or pleasing in appearance—as their bloodlines were pitifully inferior.

On and on it went, until at last the Season had come to an end, and Grandmama returned to Bath in defeat.

Then she had met the Orrs.

Not long after he arrived in London had come the jubilant letter with the news that she had finally met the perfect young lady for him: the Honorable Cecily Orr was from a noble family, wealthy, exceedingly good-looking, elegant, fashionable, and graceful.

It was all arranged.

He was to come to Bath immediately, whereupon they would together set out for Wiltshire so that he could meet his prospective bride. She had no doubt that he would approve her choice.

He’d been slightly annoyed by her peremptory tone, but, after all, business was business. He might as well get it over with, and the sooner the better.

So off he had gone to Grandmama’s palatial residence in Upper Camden Place where she had—over a distinctly odd supper—declared her intention to leave at dawn the next morning. But it had taken several hours until the carriages had been loaded to her satisfaction. In the meantime, two footmen had nearly been dismissed. The cook, castigated for the inappropriate nature of the muffins she had baked and tenderly packed in a basket, wept. Miss Cott had trotted up and down the steps with an apparently infinite number of bandboxes, cases, and shawls. And when finally they had set out, the pace of the massive coach was so ponderously slow that Gabriel felt like they were on a royal progress of yore. He half-expected the people they passed on the road to wave and offer posies.

Once underway, Grandmama’s spirits had brightened considerably. At their halts she spoke ceaselessly of the wedding, the brilliancy of the guests, the beauty of the bride-to-be and the handsomeness of the Penhallow sons she would produce; he listened politely and thought of other, more interesting things. He was thankful to be riding outside, as at least she did not shout to him through the carriage window, and confined her seemingly endless flow of remarks to the more receptive Miss Cott.

Livia looked balefully at the rumpled heap of expensive, fragile gowns lying on the floor. So Cecily thought one of her old cast-offs might suit her for the ball? And Lady Glanville thought that she’d be thrilled, grateful, to peek out from behind a potted palm to enjoy a glimpse of luxury?

Well, they were wrong.

Dead wrong.

Livia jumped to her feet and went over to the gowns. She snatched them up and shoved them onto a low shelf of her armoire.

She was not going to the ball. Uncle Charles might if he wished—and let him drink port until he had to be carried out by the servants. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.