“Just when there is so much to be done here,” she lamented, “and just as though our servants and the vicar cannot keep a stern enough eye upon Boris until after the wedding.”
“I will be back in time for the wedding, Millie,” Molenor said, patting her hand.
“That is not the point, Tom,” she complained. “There are all the things that will need doing between now and then.”
The dowager countess also scolded Anna for being from home this morning when Madame Lavalle arrived. The young footman had told her. Anastasia really must make herself available to all those whose task it was to get her ready for her wedding. A month might seem to be a long time, but it would fly by.
“It will definitely be the wedding of the Season,” she said. “And the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that you are right, Louise, and only St. Paul’s Cathedral will do.”
Cousin Matilda wanted to know where Elizabeth was and hoped Anastasia had not been entertaining Cousin Avery alone.
“She went to a bookstore that has taken her fancy, Aunt,” Anna explained.
Riverdale was arriving with his mother, Avery could see. Within another minute or two everyone would be present and accounted for.
“I believe,” Lady Matilda was saying, “I ought to move in here for the next month to add proper respectability to the approach of the wedding. If you can spare me, that is, Mama.”
While Cousin Althea greeted everyone and hugged Anna and asked cheerfully how she was feeling on this first full day of her betrothal, Riverdale looked hard at Avery as though he were wondering if the events of the early morning had really happened. Avery inclined his head and fingered the snuffbox in his pocket. He was given no opportunity to withdraw it, however. Cousin Althea was hugging him and asking the same question she had just asked Anna.
“Never mind the betrothal, Althea,” his stepmother said. “It is the marriage preparations we must concern ourselves with, and Avery is dragging his feet. When I asked this morning, his secretary informed me that Avery had not yet approved the betrothal notice I had helped Mr. Goddard draw up last evening. And Avery was nowhere to be found. Then the secretary disappeared from his office. The notice ought to have been submitted today to appear in tomorrow’s papers. And we must decide where the banns are to be read so that arrangements can be made before Sunday. Then we must—”
“But you see,” Avery said, his eyes upon Anna, “I was busy this morning with matters related to my wedding. So was Edwin Goddard. So was Anna. We must all be forgiven for being unavailable to those who expected us all to be at home. We were together, the three of us, and Cousin Elizabeth before she remembered the bookshop and hurried off there with Edwin. By then, though, neither was needed any longer. By then they had duly witnessed my marriage to Anna and were tactful enough to make themselves scarce.”
There were a few moments of total silence while Anna gazed back at him, seemingly composed—just as she had been in the rose salon at Archer House a few weeks or an aeon ago—but with her right hand tensed as it clasped the left, hiding her wedding ring.
Jessica was the first to find her tongue.
“You are married?” she cried, leaping to her feet. “Well, I am glad. That grand wedding everyone was planning would have been so stupid.”
Cousin Matilda had already produced a vinaigrette and a fan from her reticule and had turned toward her mother, seated beside her. It was only a pity she had no more than two hands.
“What?” His stepmother was on her feet too, her hand on Jessica’s arm. “What?”
“You are married?” That was Cousin Mildred.
“Now you can come home with me, Millie,” Molenor said, “and help me deal with our scamp.”
“Oh, you could not wait,” Cousin Althea said, her hands clasped to her bosom, her eyes shining as she looked from Anna to Avery. “How utterly romantic.”
“Romantic?” the dowager said. “Put those smelling salts away, Matilda, or use them yourself. Anastasia, you can have no idea what this will do to your reputation. Have you learned nothing in the past weeks except how to waltz? But Avery ought to know, and it is just like him to flaunt the unwritten rules of society and snap his fingers at its good opinion. You will be very fortunate if you do not find yourselves ostracized by the ton.”
“Anastasia,” Riverdale said, “may I offer my sincere congratulations and good wishes? And to you too, Netherby.”
“Oh goodness,” Avery’s stepmother said. “I am no longer the Duchess of Netherby, am I? Anastasia is. I am the dowager duchess.”
“It is just a name, Mama,” Jessica said crossly.
And then Anna spoke, in that same low, commanding voice she had used in the rose salon all that time ago. “Yesterday,” she said, “I was overwhelmed by the realization that I had become a commodity, the most highly prized item on the marriage mart. I wanted to escape, even if only for a short while to catch my breath and order my thoughts. I said, in the hearing of you all, that I wanted to go to Wensbury to see my grandparents, my mother’s parents, to find out if I could learn why they turned me out after my mother died, to somehow put that part of my history in its proper place. Avery offered to marry me and take me there. He knew that I wanted—that I needed to go soon. He knew that waiting for the grand wedding you have all been kind enough to envisage for us would be more than time wasted to me. It would be an ordeal that would overwhelm me even more. So he brought a special license here with him this morning and took me to a church whose name I do not know on a street I cannot name to be married by a clergyman whose identity I still do not know. Elizabeth and Mr. Goddard witnessed our nuptials. I know some of you are disappointed, both in me and in the loss of the splendid wedding you were beginning to plan. But this is my wedding day, and it was the loveliest wedding I could possibly imagine, and I must beg your pardon while not regretting for a moment what I have done. We will be setting out on our journey tomorrow.”