A Heart to Love
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Once Agatha could stand, Harper insisted she must be taken home. “My landau is waiting. No need for her to walk.”
“Nor should she,” Mrs. Archer snapped. Beatrice laid a hand on her mother’s arm, hoping the gesture proved calming. A glare, followed by a deep breath. “You are right. A carriage would be best. Mr. Archer and I will accompany her.”
Harper opened his mouth, only to shut it again. He wanted a word alone with Agatha, no doubt, nor did Beatrice blame him. No getting around her mother, though. All he might hope for would be stolen moments the family dealt with the now-cancelled wedding breakfast. She would do what she could to ensure the couple found them.
“Miss Archer’s parents assisting you is an excellent idea,” one of Harper’s supporters said. The competent, not annoying one. “This will put paid to any rumors of ill-blood between the families.”
Mr. Archer let loose a relieved breath. “Thank you, Mr…?”
The gentleman bowed. “Laurence Browning at your service, sir. Perhaps myself and…”
“Beatrice Archer,” she supplied at his glance, dipping a curtsey.
Browning nodded. “Miss Archer and I can see to the rest of the guests, offer your regrets.”
“We’ll provide refreshment to any who want to come to the house,” Mrs. Archer said. “Not a full wedding breakfast, but the least we can do.” At her husband’s surprised expression, she added, “No point in letting the food go to waste. Why should we hang our heads? Agatha refused to eat this morning due to nerves, so fainted from hunger. The wedding’s delayed, not cancelled.”
She turned to Beatrice. “Make certain Mrs. Minton understands. I’ll wager her tongue’s already wagging.”
Even with a whisper, words had an odd way of carrying among the old stones of the church. No surprise when the older woman appeared at Beatrice’s side as soon as her parents were out the door. “I do hope nothing is seriously wrong with Miss Archer. So unexpected for a bride to faint, and at the moment when the vicar asks if there is any impediment.”
Beatrice did her best to smile. “Agatha was so nervous about the ceremony she ate precious little last night, then refused breakfast. Along with the delay in Mr. Harper’s supporters arriving. I’m afraid everything proved too much for her.”
Mrs. Minton made clucking noises meant to convey sympathy. “First Mr. Harper’s sisters are unable to attend, then his supporters are late. These are ill omens, child.”
Her cheeks would hurt by the end of the day from keeping this smile in place. “Have you met Mr. Browning?” she asked. “He is one of Mr. Harper’s supporters.”
Beatrice supposed she should feel some sympathy in drawing Mrs. Minton’s attention toward him, but only a little. Without a delay to the proceedings, Agatha would now be wed, likely with some food in her to prevent a collapse. Browning played his part, bowing and uttering the appropriate words. “Best let tell the other guests,” he said once he finished the niceties. “Allow me to get their attention.”
His voice had no difficulty filling the church, with all heads turning toward him. “Miss Archer wishes to convey a message to you on behalf of behalf of her parents. Pray attend.”
With a lifted eyebrow at the slightly archaic language, Beatrice stepped forward. “My parents would like to thank everyone for attending today. My parents have taken my sister home in Mr. Harper’s conveyance. The wedding will be rescheduled when she recovers. Any who wish are welcome to the house for some small refreshments.” She glanced towards the other bridesmaids. “I’m certain you wish to reassure yourself Agatha is well.”
Her sister’s friends nodded, looking quite pleased when Harper’s other supporter offered them his arms. Beatrice restrained the urge to roll her eyes as she looked up at Browning. “I suppose that leaves us together, sir.”
Browning offered his arm with a bow. She placed her hand on the fabric of his coat, allowing him to lead the way. “I’m afraid you must direct me,” he said in a quiet voice as they stepped into the late summer sunshine.
“While looking as if you know the way? We turn right at the gate.”
He dutifully steered her in the correct direction, the other bridesmaids with their escort falling into step behind. The turn allowed her a chance to glance back. Many of the guests chose not to accept the invitation, but a small crowd still followed. No surprise to discover the village gossips among them.
Which brought to mind a question. “Have you met Mr. Harper’s sisters?”
“You mean, why aren’t they here?” Browning sighed. “They do not approve of the match. They hoped Kit would marry someone of elevated station who might be of use to them in meeting suitably titled and rich husbands. His parents…”
Another sigh. “Baron Harper is not in good health, nor is his wife. They wished to be here, but found themselves dissuaded from making the journey. They are excited about the marriage, hope to welcome your sister into their home soon. They would not mind if a grandchild followed.”
Beatrice did her best to control her wince. “I suppose you have known him for some time.”
“Since school. Eton first, then Oxford. Connolly also.” He cast a glance back over his shoulder. “Connolly excelled in finding pretty girls.”
A feminine giggle came from directly behind them. Flirtation was afoot. “Allow me to ask how Mr. Harper met your sister. I know few details. The news of the betrothal came as a surprise to many of his friends.”
“At our local assembly. The Master of Ceremonies made the introductions, he kindly asked Agatha to dance, and they proved been nigh on inseparable ever since. I do not hold with love at first sight, but they made a match from the first.”
Was that a frown on his face? Perhaps Harper’s sisters were not the only ones to disapprove of the match. No time to frame a question, though, as they arrived at the Archer home.
On the surface, things appeared calm, Mr. Archer greeting them as they stepped across the threshhold. As Beatrice grew near, though, he leaned in to whispered, “Your mother needs you upstairs. Agatha’s been ill.”
Beatrice needed no further encouragement, heading for the stairs. None of this was going the way they hoped.
* * *
Laurence watched Miss Archer speed away. More to this than simple nerves, a concern borne out when Harper appeared, relief on his face. “Thank heavens you’re here. This is a mess.”
Laurence moved him away from the arriving guests. The door to the dining room stoodopen, the table set with the refreshments to be offered. Not the place for conversation. A bit further down the hall, he escorted Harper through a closed. “In more ways than one,” he said. “The Archers are doing their best to contain the story, but I fear they’re faced with a leaking boat.”
He took a breath. “Your young lady. Is she better?”
Harper shook his head. “We got her home, and her mother insisted on her taking some food. Nothing much, a biscuit or two. Agatha almost immediately vomited them up.”
Laurence frowned. “Has the doctor been summoned?”
“No, and he most likely won’t be. Mrs. Archer shoved me out the door, but I heard her confessing to her mother.”
His friend’s face bore an earnest expression. “She’s with child.”
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