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"Do you, William Ledbetter, take this woman for your lawful wedded wife?" the vicar asked, his expression one of both concern and expectation.
"I do," said William Ledbetter, Eighth Baron Ledbetter, his own countenance verging on impatience. It had, after all, taken the vicar half an hour to reach this point in the wedding service. Ledbetter had expected something a great deal simpler, and certainly devoid of a lengthy homily. They were, after all, in the Grand Salon of his bride's family home, surrounded by no less than twelve members of her family. He himself had only his sister present.
His sister looked every bit as bemused as the vicar.
Not so his bride's family. Her mother was positively beaming on the couple soon to be joined in holy matrimony. Her father, though more restrained, exhibited signs of relief at getting a daughter of two and twenty off his hands. At least two of the three sisters were in states of alt, in anticipation of their turns at a Season now Prudence was safely out of the way.
Oh, he'd done a service to the family, no doubt about it. As for Prudence herself, he was not so sure. His bride looked composed, except for a bright spot of color on each high cheekbone. She repeated her vows with no hesitation or hint of panic. She was not going to back out at the last moment.
Ledbetter did feel a moment's wariness as the vicar looked sternly round the assembled audience and requested that anyone speak out who knew why the two of them should not be joined together. Given the nature of the gathering, however, only his sister could have been expected to say anything at this moment, and Harriet had her lips firmly pressed together in a slightsmile. If she had her doubts as to what kind of marriage he was making, she was keeping them to herself.
The vicar proceeded slowly and solemnly through the service, one Ledbetter assumed he must have performed dozens of times, for he was not a young man. His thatch of white hair capped a gnomish face and an aging body. The baron had been introduced to him just an hour previously, when he presented the special license he'd procured for the marriage. The vicar had perused the sheet of paper with a marked degree of skepticism, and, setting it aside, had proceeded to quiz Ledbetter.
Though the baron had been reasonably forthcoming, and had made some effort to charm the local man, Mr. Blackwood had made no similar effort. Only through the intervention of Mr. Stockworth, Prudence's father, had his agreement to perform the hasty marriage been won. Ledbetter felt under no obligation to further propitiate a man of the cloth who appeared to dispute his right to carry off a local spinster.
The groom suspected that Prudence would be sorely missed in the parish. Her major objection to the speed of the ceremony had been that she had not completed arrangements for the charity bazaar to take place the following month.
His bride now turned to face him as the vicar pronounced them man and wife. An odd sensation stole over him as he inspected the large hazel eyes. Had she any idea of whom she was marrying? Did he? Those eyes seemed so honest and straightforward: what if that was merely a trick of his imagination?
He had remembered the light sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose from when he had met her four years ago. And the wild, auburn hair, almost untamable with pins and combs. No beauty in the traditional sense, of course, but striking with those huge eyes and the full, provocative lips.
Her gown did not do her figure justice. There had been little time to have a suitable garment readied for the brief ceremony, so she wore a modified version of the court dress in which she had been presented to the Queen. White looked insipid against her pearly shoulders. The only thing that brought out her coloring properly was the emerald necklace Harriet had thought to bestow on her, a family heirloom which did not become his sister nearly so well as it did his bride.
"My dear," he murmured now, placing a chaste kiss on her upturned cheek. "I trust you don't share your vicar's hesitation about marrying me."
Prudence shook her head with a slight frown. "I don't know what's gotten into Mr. Blackwood," she whispered back. "He is ordinarily the most accommodating of men."
"No doubt it was the unseemly precipitation," Ledbetter suggested mildly. "But if we were to have Harriet here, we had no choice but to move matters along."
"I quite understand," Prudence said. She turned now to smile at his sister, offering her hand. "I'm delighted that you could be with us, Lady Markham. Lord Ledbetter deserved to have his only family with him on the occasion of his marriage, especially as I have so many members of my own family here."
Lady Markham pressed the hand offered to her and smiled. "I would not have missed Will's nuptials for the world. It was kind of you to accommodate my schedule, dear Lady Ledbetter."
Prudence looked momentarily startled at her new title. Ledbetter cocked his head and teased her with, "You will have to accustom yourself to your new name, my dear. No more Prudence Stockworth. I daresay your sister Elinor will delight in becoming Miss Stockworth for as long as it takes for her to change it."
This plain speaking did not earn him an answering smile, for Prudence's attention had indeed already been captured by two of her sisters, who had descended upon her with gushes of excitement and waterfalls of flowery words. Ledbetter found these two a little tiresome, though the same could not be said for the youngest, Lizzie, who had a decided penchant for mischief.
He felt certain it was Lizzie who had managed to mix the soap in his shaving kit with whitewash that morning. He would have painted himself white had not his borrowed valet discovered the trick. Ledbetter could not be sure whether the prank had been done in fun or in anger. In neither case would he have informed his host, but he noticed the youngest Stockworth hanging back now, and he directed a neutral gaze upon her and beckoned with a finger.
"Don't you plan to wish us well?" he inquired when she dutifully presented herself.
A younger version of Prudence, with long auburn hair and eyes too large for her face, she looked doubtful. "I would rather Prudence weren't going away," she said.
"Lizzie!" her mother interjected. "Really, you say the oddest things, child. Lord Ledbetter will think you a graceless scamp."
"Not at all," he assured her. "She'll miss her sister. That is only to be expected." And then, no doubt owing to the headiness of the occasion, he added, "Perhaps you will come to visit us, Lizzie."
The girl blinked at him. "When?"
Having already regretted the impulse, he said offhandedly, "Sometime in the months ahead, I should think."
Lizzie met his gaze for a moment and then turned away without comment. Ledbetter felt slightly discomposed by her obvious dismissal of his poor attempt to placate her. He had, once or twice, thought he detected the same kind of bluntly dismissive attitude in Prudence, but no sooner would he try to put his finger on an instance than it would slip away, and she would seem quite unexceptionable to him again.
His bride was now receiving her parents' enthusiastic best wishes. He observed her composure with appreciation. She was astute enough to know precisely how delighted her family was with this turn of events, and how lucky they thought her, but she gave no hint that their reaction was out of the ordinary. She might have been engaged to him for three years, as she had been to the Porlonsby fellow, for all the state of nerves she exhibited.
And then it was time for him to take her in to the sumptuous breakfast her family was providing as the wedding feast. Very practical of them to arrange for an early start to the day, so that he and his bride might be on their way and travel a fair distance before halting for the night on their way to Salston. With his post chaise and four he trusted they would need but one night on the road.
Prudence placed her hand firmly on his arm and smiled up at him. "I hope you're in good appetite, my lord," she said. "Mama has been to some trouble to make this as lavish a feast as the Venetian breakfast she accompanied me to some years ago in London."
"Trust me to appreciate even the most negligible potted viand," Ledbetter assured her. He liked the feel of her hand on his arm, liked the way she took her place beside him at the table with the ease of long association. Thank God there was no timidity here! He had been wise indeed to choose a woman of maturity rather than a green girl.
Her uncles and cousins proposed toasts. Her father and a neighbor proposed toasts. When it was Ledbetter's turn to do the honors, he lifted his glass to his bride and said, "To my wife, a treasure of beauty, intelligence and both sense and sensibility. May I prove worthy of her love and devotion."
Harriet's brows rose at this, but Ledbetter took little notice of her skepticism. What, after all, was so difficult about being a husband? Harriet's own lord and master was hardly an example of rectitude. And yet his sister loved Markham to distraction, didn't she? There was no reason why Prudence shouldn't grow to feel an equal estimation for himself. In fact, he believed he could see it forming already. Her eyes were luminous, her lips bowed into an engaging smile. An air of sweet abandon clung to her. Would that they were alone at this very moment!
At least, Ledbetter thought that until his bride rose from the table. Then her luminescence appeared to be a product of her having drunk too much of her father's very passable champagne. Prudence stood a little unsteadily on her feet, staring owlishly at him.
"I beg your pardon!" she exclaimed, covering a hiccup with her dainty hand. "I fear I'm not accustomed to spirits at this hour of the day."
Ledbetter laughed and pressed her hand to his lips. It would do no harm for her family to see such a token of his affection. "Will you be able to change into your traveling costume?"
She nodded, but looked around hopefully and smiled with relief when Lizzie appeared at her side. "Lizzie will come with me," she told him unnecessarily.
The baron watched her go with some misgivings. Did he really know her at all? What if she proved to be one of those women who imbibed too much alcohol on every social occasion? Or worse, who drank from morning to night. He had seen no evidence of such habits during his stay, but naturally she would be on her best behavior.
He found Harriet at his side and looked to his sister for reassurance. "I fear my bride is not accustomed to champagne," he remarked with a rueful tilt of his brows.
"All to the good," Harriet retorted as she brushed away a bit of fluff from the shoulder of his coat. "They really shouldn't let all those dogs in the house, though. That white one sheds hair like rain. You've got it on the seat of your breeches from the chair, Will."
Ledbetter gave a tsk of annoyance, but refused to be seen swatting at his rump in mixed company. "Perhaps I should put myself into that valet's hands now, anyhow," he suggested. "We have a long way to travel today if we wish to make the Crown and Sceptre by nightfall."
They had left the Stockworths grouped together in the hallway, obviously awaiting Prudence's reappearance in her traveling clothes. Harriet nudged Ledbetter into a small anteroom near the front door, where applicants were left to kick their heels while waiting for the squire. Ledbetter's sister bore a striking resemblance to him in her coal black hair and wide brown eyes. She was, however, dainty where he was virile, accommodating where he was brusque.
"You wished to say something to me in private?" Ledbetter guessed, amusement in his voice.
"I did." Harriet walked to the window and stood there with her back to him. "You may think Miss Stockworth is more sophisticated than she is," she began.
"I beg your pardon?"
Harriet turned with a frown. "Well, she's older than the chits in London. And that's perfectly acceptable, of course. But you may be thinking that she has the level of sophistication a married woman of her age might have."
A twinkle appeared in Ledbetter's eyes. "Are you trying to advise me on matters intimate, my adorable sister?"
Her face flushed slightly, but Harriet persisted. "I wouldn't presume to advise you on anything, Ledbetter. I'm just offering an observation. You're an accomplished flirt with women of her age, as I'm sure you would not deny. But they are women who have a level of experience that your Prudence cannot aspire to, in spite of her lengthy previous engagement."
"And why is that, my dear?"
"Don't be obtuse, Ledbetter!" Harriet gave a moue of frustration, and perhaps embarrassment. "The mild-mannered Porlonsby was in India almost the whole time they were engaged. She has no more experience of matters intimate, as you call them, than her sisters."
"Probably less," he admitted wryly, "especially that blond one. Harriet, you must think me a great deal less adept than I account myself. I'm well aware of my bride's innocence. I find it enchanting."
His sister regarded him critically. "I daresay you do. That does not mean you will know how to properly handle her innocence."
"And you wished to make me cognizant of the appropriate manner?"
There was just the slightest edge to his voice. Harriet threw up her hands in surrender. "Certainly not. I merely wished to call your attention to the possibility of your bride's ... shyness."
"Thank you, my dear, I shall be on the lookout for it." Ledbetter picked a single white dog hair from his sleeve. "I really should change. Was there anything else?"
His sister sighed. "You could have had the money from Markham, you know. He would have been willing to lend it to you."
Ledbetter shrugged. "I'm aware of that, Harriet. I chose to pursue my own course, as you see."
"She's a fine woman, Will," his sister admitted. "You don't deserve her, you know."
"Probably not. But I have her."
"Yes." Harriet turned again to the window. "She could be the making of you, if you let her."
"Ah, but is that likely, my dear? I'm a care-for-nothing London beau. I believe that was the expression your husband used."
"He meant it as a compliment," she retorted. "And it's quite obvious that you care for Salston."
"I do. It's my seat, and I've every intention of keeping it intact. Hence my marriage."
Harriet turned slowly to face him. "Have a care for Prudence. As your wife, she is deserving of your attention and your kindness. I trust her father insisted on an allowance befitting a baroness."
Ledbetter found himself sorely tempted to give his sister a set-down. Instead, he said with marked neutrality, "He was a great deal more astute than one would think from looking at him. Prudence will have quite a handsome allowance."
"Excellent." She opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again with a sigh.
Ledbetter approved of his sister's decision to forego any further comment. No doubt she realized how close he was to being seriously displeased with her unnecessary intervention. He could not image what possessed her to think he would act anything less than honorably with his bride, unless it was that he had married her for her inheritance from the poor deceased Porlonsby.
Which was hardly to the point, was it? Someone had to marry her with that handsome fortune, and it might as well be he as anyone, mightn't it? What choice did a man with a title and a large draw against his estate have, after all? To have borrowed from his brother-in-law would not have suited him, and his need had been rather pressing.
Ledbetter felt a sudden desire to be on his way. He moved to stand beside his sister at the window, looking out over the gravel drive and the row of chestnut trees. "I know you mean well," he said, without looking at her. "And I'm delighted that you came for the ceremony, Harriet. It meant a great deal to me, having my only family here." He turned then and lifted her chin with his finger. "You worry too much. Everything will work out splendidly."
"I'm sure you're right," she agreed, if not with as much enthusiasm as he could have hoped. "Go get changed. You don't want to keep your bride waiting."