She didn’t think that anyone had noticed their disappearance, but when Jessica had returned to the rest of the company, her sister had come up beside her and gently pulled an errant twig from her hair. “How lucky for you,” Ellen had said, with a sly, sideways look. “It seems that Sir Mark has no interest in being practical about chastity.”
It would almost hurt to leave her sisters again. They hummed about her now, Ellen patting the bows on her dress into place. It was tomorrow, finally, and a mass of butterflies seemed to attack her from inside. Charlotte went to join her husband in the front pew, and Ellen departed to take her place as maid of honor. Seconds seemed to stretch into minutes. For this small space of time, Jessica was utterly alone once more.
And then: “Hello?” A short man popped his head through the door of the vestry where she waited.
“Mr. Parret. What are you doing here?”
“You invited me.” He smiled cheerily. “Also, I wanted to give you this.”
He handed her a newspaper. Jessica unfolded it—and gasped.
Sir Mark: Married at last! proclaimed the headline.
“By the time the church bells have rung,” the man said gleefully, “all the other papers will have copied the details from me.”
This morning, she read, Sir Mark Turner wed Miss Jessica Carlisle, the daughter of Reverend Alton Carlisle of Watford. Our readers will be interested to note that she is the woman whose account appeared first in these pages. Our investigation has uncovered the details of her past, which we hereby recount.
Her fall, according to the article, was that she’d taken up reporting for a London scandal sheet at a young age and had been cast out by her family as a result. Nothing more. It made her sound…youthfully ambitious. In comparison to the truth, she sounded almost respectable.
“Mr. Parret,” Jessica said, shaking her head, “this is a pack of lies.”
He shook his head. “Nonsense. You were a re porteress—and quite young for one. Fully twenty years younger than me.”
“I suppose you couldn’t resist the money,” she teased.
A faint smile touched the man’s face. “This one, I’m distributing for free. Your…your brother-in-law-to-be came by the other day, and told me what you’d done. Mr. Turner—not the duke.”
“What did Mr. Smite Turner claim that I did?” she asked, puzzled.
“He told me that you’d insisted upon settling money on my Belinda.” Parret’s voice cracked. “Enough for her to have a Season. A dowry. For that, I would even tell lies for a reporteress.”
“He said that, did he?” Jessica hid a smile. She could already imagine how Smite would have done it—just a little cold in his delivery, and so distant. But Jessica had made no such settlement. Smite must have done it himself.
“You know—” she began.
“There’s no time to argue now.” Parret reached up and touched her veil, sliding a ribbon into place. “It’s already printed, and here comes your father. Even if you don’t mind keeping Sir Mark tapping his toes, you shouldn’t keep Her Majesty waiting.”
“Oh, yes.” Parret set one hand on her shoulder and turned her toward the door. “I had nothing to do with that—but a certain duke that we both know made sure she received an early copy. After she read what I had written, she insisted on attending. You know that she admires a happy marriage. Not one person in all of London will dare look down on you after this.”
They hadn’t planned on living in London. They probably still wouldn’t. But…it was nice to know the possibility was not entirely closed to them.
Mr. Parret suddenly looked down. “You gave my daughter a dowry,” he muttered. “The least I can do is give you one, too.” His eyes looked suspiciously red. But he gave her a gentle shove toward the door.
She walked out in a daze, let herself be guided to the aisle. The organ music seemed to swell around her. Light played through stained-glass windows, casting patterns on the gray stones that marched up to the front. Fabric swished as guests rose to greet her—a sea of faces, new and terrifying mixed with old and familiar. His brothers. Her mother. Old friends from childhood, who had long thought her dead; new acquaintances whose names even now slipped from her mind.
And, yes. Her Royal Highness.
Panic struck, blinding. She couldn’t walk down there, not in front of all these people. She couldn’t.
Jessica forced her breath to slow, and she looked even farther up the aisle.
Mark stood in front of the church, wearing a white-and-silver dress coat. He smiled at her; she could feel it clear through to her toes. Dukes and queens and all her fears disappeared.
There was nothing in front of her but her future. And she walked toward it with open arms.