The little medieval church was crammed to standing room only, over half the guests accommodated under a canopy outside to watch the wedding through the open church doors. The housekeeper, Mrs Mellors, had saved Elisaveta a seat in the traditional house staff pew; although as she smiled her thanks and sat down she couldn’t help wishing she had stayed outside in the open air where she could breathe – and where she didn’t have such a perfect ringside seat.
She had only sat down for a couple of minutes when Theo entered the church by a side door, making his way directly to the front. She tried to focus on her order of service but every word blurred into one and, as she looked up, her eyes were drawn to him. She noted every detail: how pale he was, the whites of his knuckles as he clasped his own service sheet, the way one rogue lock of hair kept brushing his forehead. Their eyes connected for one brief second and she felt the heaviness, the heat of his glance with a physical ache before he wrenched his gaze away. She swallowed hard, trying to blink back the sudden, hot tears. He deserved better than tears. She deserved more. Elisaveta tilted her chin defiantly and stared straight ahead, focusing on the old stone carvings above the altar.
Before she knew it, the congregation were on their feet and the music was swelling through the church as Madeleine progressed down the aisle on the arm of her beaming father. Her dress was beautiful with an understated elegance that made the most of her pale good looks. But she wasn’t radiant.
No, not radiant. The word that sprang to Elisaveta’s mind was efficient as Madeleine reached the altar and handed her bouquet to a hovering bridesmaid, nodding coolly at Theo. Elisaveta looked over at the soon-to-be dowager countess, her heart thumping so loudly she couldn’t believe it wasn’t disrupting the wedding, her hands perspiring. Lady Navenby didn’t look happy either, her face set as she stared fixedly at her son. In fact, the only positive emotion seemed to come from the bride’s parents; both of whom were projecting enough radiance and happiness to almost mask the matter-of-fact atmosphere at the altar. Almost…
It was wrong. People shouldn’t marry because of a house, because of a title. They should marry for love. Pack-up-your-life-and-move-across-the-sea love. The love she saw shining out of her father’s eyes in every photo. The love that meant her mother never ever regretted her decision, no matter how lonely she was, how hard she found living in London. The love she knew with every fibre in her being was within her and Theo’s grasp if they were brave enough to reach for it. The kind of love that would validate Madeleine far more than a house ever could if she were given the opportunity to look for it. Elisaveta quivered as the knowledge flowed through her. This was wrong. And as that certainty slammed into her she heard the vicar intone the famous words.
‘Speak now or forever hold your peace…’