The wedding day was fine and clear. A brilliant Scottish blue sky hovered over Edinburgh. The breeze was warm; the air carried the freshness of spring. There was silence in the square; no raucous noise disturbed the serenity of this most fortuitous of mornings. Even the sun shone brightly in approval for the nuptials of the Earl of Lorne and Miss Davina McLaren.
The bride stood at the window surveying the morning. Her predominant emotion was neither anticipation nor fear. Davina McLaren was supremely irritated.
Her aunt, the woman who’d orchestrated this fiasco of a marriage, had been absent for the last three days. Just when the furor of dressmakers was at its most unbearable, Theresa took a train to London. Just when Davina could have used some womanly advice, her aunt was unaccountably gone. Finally, Theresa had arrived home late last night, claiming exhaustion, and promising explanations in the morning.
But that was not the greatest source of Davina’s annoyance. She’d not yet met her bridegroom. In this modern day, she was being treated with no more regard than a piece of furniture. Would you like that chair, Your Lordship? We’ve had it in the family for a number of years, but it’s yours if you like.
How very annoying.
None of her female acquaintances had been married in a similar fashion. Every single one of them had known their husbands, either because they’d been acquainted for years or the bride’s parents had made an effort to involve the bride in decisions about her own future.
But then, most of her acquaintances had been forbidden to talk to her in the last year.
Had she been invited to any balls, dinners, or other entertainments, would she have been able to pick her soon-to-be-husband out of a crowded room? Or was it true that he was a hermit? What a pair they were. She, who had been forbidden society’s company, and the Earl of Lorne, who shunned it willingly.
Should she look for a man with the devil’s looks? What had he done to be labeled with such a nickname? The Devil of Ambrose. He’d have black hair, no doubt. And piercing black eyes, perhaps. Would he have an evil smile? A large nose and a pointed chin? His ears would probably stick out at an angle, and be pointed at the top.
She could only imagine what their children might look like. Children. Dear Lord, children. Tonight, her wedding night, she was supposed to undress in the presence of a stranger and allow him to do that to her.
Thanks to Alisdair and her own foolishness, she was only too aware of what was expected of her on the wedding night. Alisdair Cannemot, adventurer, connoisseur of women, and despoiler of innocents. Perhaps that was not entirely correct. If he’d despoiled her, it had been with her willing cooperation. She’d gone to her own downfall armed with curiosity and not a little anticipation. When they were discovered, she’d already lost her anticipation, and her curiosity was being rapidly supplanted by a rather startling reality.
She was wrong in assigning Theresa any of the blame for this marriage. While it was true that her aunt had accepted the offer from the Earl’s solicitor immediately, it was also true that Davina was completely, fully, and despicably ruined, and this was probably the only offer she’d ever receive.
The prospect of being a spinster was almost as disconcerting as that of being married to a man she didn’t know, and had never met.
No, she alone bore the brunt of responsibility for this marriage.
Regret was a strange emotion to feel on her wedding day, but it was better, perhaps, to feel regret than fear.
Her aunt bustled into the room, uncharacteristically flustered. Theresa Rowle possessed blue eyes the color of Scotland’s sky, hair as red as the blood it had shed, and the disposition of a clan chieftain trapped in the body of a voluptuous woman. The serene face she showed the world masked a will of iron, a fact to which Davina could attest.
“There you are, Davina,” she said. “We must hurry.”
Davina ignored the second part of that sentence in favor of the first. “Where did you expect me to be, aunt? Did you think I would escape?”
Her aunt halted, and stared at her as if she’d never before seen Davina. “What are you going on about now, child? Time is passing, and your trunks need to be readied. I have had a message from the earl. It is his wish that we have the wedding at Ambrose.”
She began to direct the three maids who had followed her into the room with a series of hand gestures, pursed lips, and headshaking, all the while ignoring Davina as if she were simply an ornament. A chair?
Davina folded her arms in front of her and wondered just how much rebellion her aunt might tolerate. It felt as if the entire world had marshaled against her, but in this circumstance, at least, shouldn’t she have some say?
“Isn’t that a bit precipitous, aunt? The arrangements are made. The guests have been invited. Do you expect all of those people to travel to Ambrose with only a few hours’ notice?”
Her aunt waved a hand in the maids’ direction and they instantly disappeared from the room.
“Did you think that you would be forgiven so easily, Davina?”
Was there pity in her aunt’s eyes?
“Did no one agree to attend?” Davina asked.
Instead of answering her directly, Theresa only smiled. All the same, it was an expression with more grimness than amusement.
“It is a good thing we are summoned to Ambrose, Davina. It will spare us the shame of a ceremony in an empty church.”
When Davina didn’t speak, her aunt continued. “People love to hear stories, Davina, and you’ve provided them with one that is not only entertaining, but gives them lesson to teach their daughters.”
What did she say to that? Unfortunately, her aunt had spoken the truth.
“You should congratulate yourself on this match, Davina, and on the fact that the Earl of Lorne is so anxious for a bride that he’s willing to overlook your reputation.”
Everyone knew the story of the Earl of Lorne. A diplomat with a brilliant future in front of him, they said. A genius in dealing with difficult issues, a man who’d been sent to China on an errand for the Crown. Something terrible had happened to him, and he’d been a hermit ever since.
“Have you not heard the rumors about him?”
Her aunt’s face grew stern. “I don’t listen to such things, Davina, and I caution you not to do so.”
“Are you saying that it’s not his fault he’s earned such a horrible nickname?”
“And what would that be?” Theresa asked.
“Aunt, the man is a mystery, and he’d not been seen in polite company since he returned from China. Does that not give you cause for concern?”
“Not concern, Davina, as much as gratitude. You’ve created an impossible position for yourself. You do not have a fortune; there are no male relatives who might champion your cause. There is nothing for you but to grow old as a spinster, and forever be singled out by the mothers of Edinburgh. Unless, of course, you become the Countess of Lorne. A title and a fortune go a long way toward cleansing a reputation.”
Theresa marched to the door, opened it, and summoned the maids inside.
“Will you, at least, be in attendance, aunt? Or are you remaining behind for some reason?”
Her aunt looked startled at the question. Suddenly, she began to smile.
“I understand what all of this is about, Davina. You have nerves, and it’s to be expected. Perhaps it would benefit you if we had a talk about what to expect from marriage.”
Davina began to shake her head and then borrowing one of her aunt’s often used gestures, held up her hand. “Please, Aunt, that is not necessary. I have no nerves other than the ones any woman would feel about marrying a stranger. Why did he not come to Edinburgh to meet me? Why did he not at least invite us to Ambrose early, so that we might become acquainted?”
Her aunt planted her hands on her hips and frowned at Davina.
“You’re marrying the Earl of Lorne, Davina. Not any person off the street. He was the Attaché at Stuttgart, Attaché at Lisbon, and Attaché at Paris. He was Secretary to Mr. Gladstone on his mission to the Ionian Islands in 1858. He gained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the service of the 2nd Aberdeen R.V. He was invested as a Companion, Order of St. Michael and St. George just three years ago. The man is a legend.”
“Quite so, Aunt Theresa, and no one can cease talking about him.”
Theresa frowned at her. “Then you’re well matched. No one can cease talking about you, either.”
Silence stretched between them, moments punctuated by the rustle of silk, the lid closing on a trunk, the click of a lock.
Davina finally nodded, knowing there was no sense arguing with her aunt. Her father had left her little but their house, and the proceeds from the sale of it had not lasted long. There was her future to consider and she’d created the dismal nature of it herself, hadn’t she?
Trapped on the horns of logic. If her father had been alive, he would have smiled and tapped his finger against his nose to indicate to Davina that Theresa had it right. Perhaps she was fortunate that someone, anyone, wanted to marry her.
There was a tight feeling in Davina’s throat that almost prevented her from speaking. “So, I am to be the Devil’s bride, then?”
Her aunt laughed, a tinkling little bell of a laugh that had captivated her many admirers. “What a silly appellation. Not at all, my dear girl. You’re to be the Countess of Lorne.”