He couldn’t do it…
He couldn’t not do it. Not like this, not in front of all these people. But looking at Madeleine’s set, pale face, Theo knew with utter certainty she wanted this marriage as little as he did. If only he had spoken to her earlier, not spent the sixteen months of their engagement living separate lives.
Which was worse – making vows he knew he had to unravel the second the day was over or jilting a blameless woman at the altar? All he had wanted was to make his father happy, to do the right thing for Flintock Hall. But in the end he was going to let everyone down. He who had always prided himself on his integrity.
He was running out of time… He opened his mouth, trying to summon the right words, only for his jaw to snap shut as Madeleine turned to the vicar. ‘I object.’
Madeleine’s mother paced up and down the vestry, her mouth set hard. ‘I will go out and calm everyone down and then we’ll carry on,’ Lady Fitzroy said finally. ‘Madeleine is clearly overwrought. We saw you last night, with that PA of yours, Theo. Very ill-bred of you to be waving these affairs of yours under Madeleine’s nose, but that’s no reason for her to overreact. Once you’re safely married…’
Madeleine had been looking steadily at Theo but at her mother’s words she turned. ‘We are not going to get married, Mother. Are we, Theo? I should be looking for a home of my own, not trying to find one through marriage or feel entitled to inherit one because my great-great-grandfather times a hundred was on the right side of the Norman Conquest. And Theo should marry someone because he loves them, not because he’s grateful. Gratitude is a terrible basis for a marriage. I’m sorry,’ she added to Theo. ‘I should never have said yes. I was angry because everything I loved was being handed to my brother even though I was the one who turned Stilling Abbey into a profitable business. We both deserve better.’
It was as if Madeleine’s words had removed a burden Theo had got so used to carrying he had barely noticed it weighing him down until it was gone. ‘There’s nothing going on between Elisaveta and me. I have never cheated on you.’ He wasn’t lying, but he was aware he wasn’t telling her the entire truth. He owed her the truth, but not here, in front of her grim-faced mother.
She held out a hand. ‘I know. You don’t have to explain. Look, the best thing to do I think is to go ahead with the eating, drinking and dancing as if the wedding had happened. That will defuse the situation somewhat.’
He took her hand. ‘Thank you. I didn’t deserve you.’
‘No, you didn’t. Repay me by being happy, Theo. We are both owed some happiness.’
Theo released her hand. He needed to speak to his mother – and then he was going to find Elisaveta.