A Heart to Love
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“Please, Mrs. Archer,” the vicar’s son said, a bit breathless from his run. “Mr. Harper sends his respects and asks if you would wait another five minutes longer.”
“I do not understand this,” Mrs. Archer complained as the rest of the wedding party groaned. “Are we to hang in limbo forever due to the mythical gentlemen coming to attend him?”
“Mama, please don’t fret,” Agatha Archer, soon to—hopefully—be Agatha Harper said. “I’m certain he has a reason for the delay.”
A few steps away, Beatrice Archer noted while her sister spoke in usual calm tones, the bouquet in her hands trembled. Everyone expected a bride to be a touch nervous on her wedding day, but unfair to put her under additional stress. “What does your father say?” she asked the boy.
“Hush.” Mrs. Archer shook her head while she fussed with the short veil attached to Agatha’s bonnet for the twentieth time in the last half hour. “We have enough worries without you adding to them.”
“He says if we wait much longer, the ceremony will have to be put off.” The boy offered up a gap-toothed grin. “Has to be done by noon, he says.”
Mr. Archer said. He fished a small coin from his pocket. “You take this, my lad. Tell your father, we are on our way. If the wedding needs to be delayed, it won’t be because of the bride.”
The boy grabbed the penny and set off, back in the direction of the church. “But if Mr. Harper’s friends have not arrived…” Mrs. Archer said.
“Best we discover if he values his friends over his future wife now, rather than after they’re wed.”
His face softened as he turned to his eldest daughter. “Are you ready, Agatha?”
Agatha smiled, her expression wavering only slightly. “I am.”
“Excellent. Shall we?”
The wedding party swept out of the house, Beatrice falling into place behind the other bridesmaids. Per custom, they travelled the short distance between the Archer’s fine stone house to the church on foot. On-lookers cheered and shouted out wishes as they passed.
Christopher Harper better be ready, or I swear I’ll make him pay.
How she would do so Beatrice did not quite know, but one didn’t mess with an Archer. If he cancelled the wedding or forced a delay, Papa would have a word or two to say. Mama would fill the gaps, leaving her with the odd bits not already been mangled.
They grew closer, and Agatha stopped, hand pressed to her bosom. “Oh, I can’t breathe. What if he’s not there? What if he’s changed his mind? What if…?”
“What if horse galloped without tiring?” Mrs. Archer said. her tone urgent. “Don’t lose heart. Not here in the street.”
A nod and Agatha began moving again, head high. Beatrice strained to look ahead, spying the stone wall of the church—and two gentlemen dismounting from horses. The mysterious supporters Harper insisted on having at his wedding? She hoped so. The clock ticking, the time for the ceremony was fast running out.
“Here I feared we would be late for the wedding. Did you hold things for us?”
Laurence Browning resisted commenting as Joshua Connolly embraced their friend Christopher Harper. There’d been on delay after another, forcing them to arrive in Nowhere-on-Avon this morning rather than the night before, or whatever the village’s name. The fault didn’t lie with him. “Damn fool thing to do. We’re close to noon and I saw the bridal party behind us.”
Harper blanched. “Dear god. Mrs. Archer is a tartar when annoyed…” He shook his head. “Ah, but Agatha is the soul of sweetness.”
He continued to wax rhapsodic over his future wife as Laurence moved toward the minister who hovered on the steps. “Is everything ready, sir?”
“For my part, yes. You might move everyone into place, then we can begin as soon as the bride is inside.”
Laurence did so by the simple expedient of hooking Archer by the arm. A yelp, but little resistance otherwise, Heflin trailing behind.
They took their places as the wedding party entered the church. Three bridesmaids? With his luck, he would find himself stuck entertaining two at the breakfast to follow. All three if Connolly focused his attention elsewhere.
The girls made their way down the aisle, two followed by one. Friends of the bride, most likely, simpering the lot of them. No, not all. One of the lead pair wore a relieved expression, as if she held doubts this would come off.
Now the bride herself. Her coloring delicate, with hair the color of cornflower silk, Harper had found himself a beauty. Hopefully, there was more to the match than a pretty face. Her expression as she looked up at Harper when her father laid her hand in his was bright and shining, and Laurence counted himself content.
The vicar began the familiar words. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation…”
Laurence tried to focus, but his stomach rumbled. We’ll be at the wedding breakfast soon. Perhaps a bit sooner than expected, given the clip at which the minister read the service, for which he stood grateful. Riding out early from their lodgings of the night before, there’d been no time to break their fast.
No witnesses offered up a reason to stall the marriage when asked. “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgement when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.”
Again, silence. With a smile, the vicar opened his mouth to begin the next passage.
The bride fainted.
Harper dropped to his knees, cradling Miss Archer in his arms as he called her name. Two of the bridesmaids gasped out, their cries drowned out by the shriek of Mrs. Archer, who sagged against her husband. The other guests surged forward to crowd around as the vicar asked everyone to step back.
Behind Laurence, Connolly sniggered. “That set the cats among the pigeons.”
“Will you be quiet for once?” Laurence snarled over his shoulder.
He turned his attention back to the scene in front of him, to find the other bridesmaid, the one not dissolved into tears, glaring at Connolly. Lovely. Who else heard the idiotic comment?
Laurence stepped forward to urge the guests back before helping Mr. Archer to settle Mrs. Archer in a pew in hopes she might regain some composure. The third bridesmaid—a sister?—produced smelling salts from somewhere on her person and passed them to Mr. Archer while Laurence moved the other bridesmaids behind Mrs. Archer. Perhaps less gently than politeness decreed, but they were no longer in the way.
The vicar, who disappeared into the sacristy, now reappeared with a small glass. “A touch of brandy might help revive her,” he suggested in a tone which indicated he’d seen such incidents before—.
Harper nodded, and tried to reach for the snifter, but struggled with the burden in his arms. The Other Miss Archer (as Laurence now thought of her as) took the glass, kneeling opposite him. “You hold her up,” she said, her voice crisp.
Gingerly, he shifted the bride a bit more upright, a slight noise escaping her which might be a moan. Or perhaps wind. “Drink this, Agatha,” the other Miss Archer said, putting the glass to her lips.
Brandy administered; Miss Archer coughed. Harper groaned in relief. “My dearest, speak to me.”
Blue eyes opened, unfocused at first, but turning toward her groom. “I’m sorry, Kit. I thought…”
“There is nothing to be sorry for, my darling. We’re together. That’s the important thing.”
Laurence stepped back from the murmured protestations of love. They deserved some privacy, and he didn’t need to listen to sentimental tosh.
The Other Miss Archer stepped back as well, appearing relieved and unhappy at the same time. Clearing his throat, he said, “I must apologize for my friend. He is sometimes prone to remarks inappropriate to the moment.”
She nodded. “The sad thing is, he’s right.”
In the distance, a clock chimed noon. No, there wouldn’t be a wedding today.
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