Authors: Laura Lee Guhrke
Trouble at the Wedding
Abandoned at the Altar
Laura Lee Guhrke
For Aaron, who really knows
how to give a girl a birthday party.
Thank you, sweetheart. I love you.
Somewhere in the Northern Atlantic
he middle of the ocean wasn't the usual location for a lavish, high society wedding, but if anyone could make that wedding a success, it was Miss Annabel Wheaton.
First, she was an American, which meant she had no doubt that anything she wanted to achieve was possible. Second, she had money, which always helps transform impossibilities into realities. Third, she was a Southern girl, which meant that underneath the honeyed words and charming smiles was a stubborn streak as wide as the Mississippi. And if all that wasn't enough, Annabel was the bride, with all a bride's determination that her wedding day would be perfect no matter what.
So, when her desire to be married in England clashed with the desire of her British fiancÃ©'s family to have the wedding in New York, Annabel was undaunted. She fashioned a compromise, and though it did raise a few eyebrows and generate a few snickers when the invitations went out, the wedding of Bernard David Alastair, Fourth Earl of Rumsford, to Miss Annabel Wheaton of Jackson, New York, and Newport, was set to take place aboard the
, the world's most luxurious ocean liner.
The groom had a special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bride selected a white satin wedding gown from Worth, and on April 9, 1904, more than one hundred guests from the highest echelons of society gathered in the grand ballroom of the
, the most unorthodox location for a wedding any of them had ever heard of.
The bride had no illusions about why some of New York's most influential people had come to her wedding. Her daddy might have struck it rich in the Klondike and left all those gold mines to her when he died, but New York Knickerbockers wouldn't have crossed the street to watch a jumped-up, New Money nobody like her get married. No, they were here because of Bernard, and she would always be grateful he was making her most cherished dream come true.
Fifteen minutes before the wedding, as her maid attached the elaborate train to her bridal gown, Annabel stood before the mirror in her stateroom taking the shine off her nose with a discreet dab of powder and thinking with a hint of amazement that she'd come a long way since her first foray into good society.
An image of the ballroom from their house in Jackson flashed through her mindâits gleaming electric wall sconces that looked like candles, its crimson wallpaper that had flecks of real gold dust, its refreshment tables laden with food, its polishedâand emptyâdance floor.
They'd sold the house in Jackson shortly afterward and moved to New York, but the painful disaster of her debutante ball had proved to be only one of the many social snubs for her family, and Annabel had soon figured out that the Knickerbockers of New York were no different from the society matrons of Jackson. After three years of being ostracized, she'd almost given up hope her family would ever be accepted. And then Bernard had come along.
She smiled, remembering that night six months ago at Saratoga, and the shy, fastidious man who'd crossed a room full of Knickerbocker girls to dance with the redneck girl from Gooseneck Bend, Mississippi. An image of his face came before her eyes, a handsome, proud, very English face, and Annabel felt a rush of affection and fondness. It wasn't hot, passionate love, not by a long way, but Annabel didn't mind. She and Bernard understood each other, they had companionship, and mutual affection, and a shared vision of the future.
Fifteen minutes from now, she would become his countess, and the people she loved would never again be whispered about and shunned and laughed at. In the coming years, when she had children, no one would treat them like dirt. Her children would be part of the privileged class, and everything life could offer would be at their fingertips. And Dinahâ
A fierce wave of protectiveness washed over her at the thought of her baby sister, and above the powder puff she was using, Annabel met her own eyes in the mirror, vowing that Dinah would never, ever know how it felt to have a coming-out ball where nobody came.
But what about love?
Annabel paused as a voice went through her mind, a male voice that spoke in the clipped, well-bred accents of a British aristocrat but was not the voice of her fiancÃ©.
Lowering the powder puff, she watched her own reflection recede as another image took its placeâan image of smoky blue eyes in a dark, lean face, of unruly black hair against swirls of gray mist. She frowned, feeling uneasy as elusive, hazy memories of last night suddenly came into clearer focus, memories of moonshine and steaming heat and the desire she'd seen in Christian Du Quesne's face.
Annabel stared into the mirror, seeing that man's reflection before her instead of her own. She watched his mouth curve in a half smile and his black lashes drop a little as he gave her that lookâthe sleepy, seductive look all bad boys knew, the look that threatened to send a girl's common sense sailing right out the window and ruin her life.
That look of his wasn't the only thing about last night she remembered. Annabel closed her eyes, remembering his wide palms cupping her face and his warm fingertips caressing her cheeks. And his mouth tasting like moonshine.
Her lips began to tingle, and heat flooded through her body. Desperate, Annabel opened her eyes and reminded herself that Christian Du Quesne was like the serpent in the garden, offering temptations, whispering doubts. But none of it was real.
Bernard, she thought, was real. Bernard was a gentleman. Bernard wanted to marry her. Marriage was the last thing on Christian Du Quesne's mind.
Don't you want love?
She scowled at the mirror and the memory of that man. No, she didn't want love, at least not the kind offered by bad boys with hot kisses and dishonorable intentions. She'd had that kind of love once already, from Billy John Harding back in Gooseneck Bend, and all it had gotten her was heartache and humiliation. No girl needed love like that.
You're making the biggest mistake of your life
. Christian's words from last night echoed through her mind.
Trust him? She'd sooner trust a snake. Annabel made a sound of derision that caused Liza's hands to still behind her. The little Irish maid peeked around her shoulder, a frown of concern on her piquant face. “Are ye sure you're all right, Miss Annabel?”
“I'm fine, Liza,” she answered, working to make it true as she put the powder puff back in its silver case and replaced the lid. “I have never been finer.”
Those words fair reeked of insincerity, but Liza didn't seem to notice. The maid returned her attention to her task. So did Annabel, trying to put that man out of her mind and quiet the doubts he'd been trying to plant in her head for the entire week she'd known him.
Respect? You think Rumsford respects you?
His derisive words rang through her mind, as clear as if he were standing right in front of her, but thankfully, the door to her stateroom opened just then and her mother came bustling in.
“Heavens, child,” she cried, closing the door behind her and eyeing Annabel with dismay, “aren't you finished dressing yet? Liza, what's the delay?”
“I'm almost finished, ma'am,” the maid assured Henrietta, and after one or two more adjustments, Liza stepped back, carefully spreading out the train. “Sure and you're ready now, Miss Annabel.”
“Well, darlin',” Henrietta said, moving to stand beside her at the mirror, “it's time.”
Her stomach clenched, whether from nerves or from the aftereffects of last night, she couldn't be sure. But Annabel turned away from the mirror, turning her back on any memories of last night, that man, and all the temptations he'd stirred up. She faced her mother, but she ducked her face as she smoothed duchesse satin and Brussels lace. “How do I look?”
“Beautiful. So beautiful, it hurts my eyes.” Henrietta lifted her chin and kissed her cheek, then moved toward the door, stepping carefully to avoid the sweep of the long bridal train. “Now, we'd best be gettin' on with this. If'n we don't, all the guests will think this wedding's called off.”
Annabel followed her mother out of her stateroom to join her uncle Arthur, who was frowning like thunder; her stepfather, who was smiling like he'd had a nip or two from the jug already today; and her half sister, Dinah, who was looking far more serious than usual, and older than her eleven years. The five of them left the suite together, with Liza following behind to carry her train. They paused at the first mezzanine by the grand staircase, joining Bernard's three sisters, who formed the remainder of the bridal party.
Liza pulled the veil down over her face and straightened her train. Lady Maude, Bernard's eldest sister, handed over the enormous bridal bouquet of pink magnolias, then moved behind Annabel to take her place in line with her sister Lady Alice beside her, and her older sister Lady Millicent behind her with Dinah. Mama and Uncle Arthur moved to the back of the line, Mama signaled to the organist, and the prelude to
's Wedding March began.
On her stepfather's arm, Annabel started down the stairs, the bridal party behind her, and as she made the slow descent to the ballroom below, a strange sense of unreality enveloped her.
This was her wedding day, the moment that would give her what she'd only been able to dream of a year ago, and yet suddenly it all seemed superficial, like a stage setting or a dream. She couldn't smell the flowers or hear the music, and through her filmy veil, the Knickerbocker faces she passed as she started up the aisle seemed hazy and indistinct.
Only one thing seemed clear to herâthat man's eyes and all the desire she'd seen lurking in their smoky blue depths.
There are things you'll never know with him, things he'll never be able to make you feel.
A throb of fear touched Annabel's heart.
Her steps faltered a little, but she recovered and kept walking. She looked straight down the aisle, squinting through her veil, searching for Bernard. The sight of him standing on the dais at the opposite end of the ballroom, waiting for her, was like a soothing balm to her jangled nerves.
With his slender build, long nose, and fair coloring, he was every inch the aristocratic English gentleman, and as she came closer to him, as his grave, dignified face became clearer and clearer, Annabel's doubts and fears slowly faded away. Yes, she thought, looking at her husband-to-be as she halted before him, this was a man with whom she could build a new life.
When George's arm slid out of hers and she moved to Bernard's side, it once again felt like the natural place for her to be, as if she'd never met Christian Du Quesne.
“Dearly beloved,” the reverend began, “we are gathered here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company, to unite this man and this woman in the bonds of holy matrimonyÂ .Â .Â .”
With those words, Annabel sent Christian's bad-boy blue eyes and last night's momentary madness to oblivion. She cast off the past, all of it. Her future with Bernard was what mattered.
Annabel took a deep breath, stepped up beside Bernard, and readied herself for the vows that would transform her life forever.