"Are you certain?" Cleo took her sister's hand.
Helen nodded. Her face was pale but determined. "I should have done it days—weeks—ago."
"I doubt it would have upset them more." Cleo shrugged philosophically, drawing a quickly repressed smile from her sister. Helen took a deep breath and opened the door in front of them.
There was a moment of stunned silence before their mother let out a peircing wail. "Helen! Oh, Helen, there you are! We were so worried—where did you go?" Her gaze flickered over Helen's dark blue traveling dress, her dusty boots, her braided hair. "Never mind that," she quickly added, as though deciding she didn't actually want to know where Helen had been. "There's still time—we must hurry!"
"Mama, there's something I need to tell you and Papa." Helen resisted her mother's attempts to drag her toward the dressing table.
"Surely it can wait!" Millicent's laughter trilled nervously. "We must get you ready for your wedding. Oh, we've barely half an hour—Rivers! Rivers, come at once!" she called for her maid.
"No, Mama." Helen glanced at her. Cleo nodded in encouragement. Her heart was racing almost as much as her sister's must be doing, but Helen had insisted that she would tell their parents. It was her wedding—at least, it was supposed to be her wedding—and she would be the one to call it off. Since Cleo had a feeling her parents wouldn't listen to a word she said anyway, she hadn't argued. "Mama, I won't marry the duke," said Helen in a clear, firm voice.
Millicent's eyes darted warily to Cleo, then veered away. "Don't be silly, dear. Your father signed the contract. You must marry the duke."
"I've already told Wessex I'm breaking our engagement," Helen went on, two bright spots of pink in her cheeks. "He took it very well."
Her mother moaned, covering her face with both hands. "Don't say that—oh, please don't! What will your father say?"
This time when Helen pulled against her mother's grip, Millicent let her go. "Sit down, Mama. And you, Papa."
Their father scowled, but their mother, as if sensing she would be glad to be seated when she heard Helen's news, went directly to the sofa. When Sir William didn't move in the same direction, Helen just waited, her chin up and her expression composed. Cleo went to her side without a word. Neither parent looked at her, only at Helen.
Perhaps that was to be expected. They'd said she was dead to them now, and she'd replied in kind. Still, they were her parents; it hurt that they could shut her out so easily and swiftly. And because it bothered her, she was content to let Helen break her news in any way she liked.
"You'd better have a good explanation for causing such trouble," growled Sir William, but he finally sat.
"There is something I should have told you weeks ago," her sister began. "Perhaps even months ago. I don't love His Grace."
Millicent blinked. Sir William scowled again. "Love? Is that why you disappeared? Some female fit of hysterics about love when you've got a duke waiting for you in the church?"
"You're being too hasty," Millicent cried. "Helen, dearest, you must give yourself time to fall in love with him—I don't see how you couldn't! Why, just look around at this house, this park, the lovely family—"
"I never loved him and I never could," said Helen, raising her voice slightly. "I am in love with someone else and I intend to marry him."
For a moment the silence seemed deafening.
"You can't," said her father shortly. "I've signed a marriage contract with Wessex. You're marrying him."
She shook her head. "No, Papa, I won't. He doesn't want to marry me now, either."
Her father's face reddened. "Nevertheless, he also signed that contract. It's binding!"
"Not if both of us refuse!"
Sir William made a visible effort to contain his anger. His tone softened, becoming almost wheedling. "Helen, see reason. Your marriage will be the making of us all. Wessex is a good man; your mother is right, you'll come to care for him. And you'll be a duchess. You'll be mistress of this house, dressed as finely as any of the duke's sisters, accepted in the finest circles in London. You'll never have a shop door closed in your face; your every wish can be indulged."
Helen shook her head. "It's not worth it. I am in love with James Blair, and I'm going to marry him."
Her father's eyes bulged. "The secretary? Now see here, Helen—don't be ridiculous! What sort of cork-brained idea—?" He broke off suddenly, and slowly turned toward Cleo. "This is your doing, putting foolish romantic rubbish into her head!"
She shook her head. "I had no idea until this morning."
"She didn't," Helen agreed. "I told no one, Papa."
A vein was pulsing in Sir William's forehead. "Helen," he said through his teeth, "I pledged my best bit of land in that marriage contract. It's the only property I've got that isn't mortgaged to the hilt. It was a stroke of luck His Grace wanted it, or else he might not have offered for you. If you jilt the duke, he could sue me for that land, ruining us all beyond redemption."
"I don't think he'll do that," Helen murmured, her lips beginning to twitch.
Cleo bowed her head to hide her expression. Gareth wouldn't sue anyone—or so he'd said, provided her father didn't make a fuss over breaking the betrothal.
"And you'd risk it, for a secretary, a man with few prospects? A man who may very well lose his position for making off with his employer's bride?" Sir William lurched to his feet. "Helen, I am ordering you: you are going to marry the duke today!"
"How can you be so willful?" wept Millicent. "How can you disdain a duke? Oh, I'd so looked forward to visiting Kingstag often and now we shall never be able to show our faces in all of Dorset!"
"His Grace might have you to visit, but if I were you, I'd make up with Cleo before asking." Helen winked at her. Now that she'd told her secret, she seemed uncaring of anything else. Cleo, who had carried a similar secret like an arrow in her chest, grinned back. Yes, it was very freeing to cut the lines behind her, to decide to face forward without thought for whatever dismay lay in her wake.
"Please, Helen," their mother begged. "Please reconsider. There's still time…"
"No, Mama, I don't think there is."
A knock sounded at the door. Cleo was already on her way to answer it. Gareth had said he'd give them ten minutes, no more. When she'd asked if he didn't trust her and Helen, he merely raised his eyebrows in that way he had and said he didn't intend to let the wrong engagement endure a moment longer than necessary. And now, as she let him into the room, part of her almost looked forward to hearing what he intended to say.
"Your Grace!" Sir William hauled his weeping wife to her feet and bowed, scarlet-faced. "You must pardon us—a family affair—"
"Indeed." Gareth turned to Helen. "Have you told them?"
She beamed back. "Yes."
"Excellent. You'll find Blair in my mother's suite, no doubt consuming a very large breakfast. Mother thought a spot of privacy would be best."
Helen laughed. "How right she is! Thank you, Your Grace." She bobbed a curtsey and hurried from the room, leaving her parents staring after her in open-mouthed astonishment.
Gareth faced them. "Sir William, we must discuss the marriage contract."
"Er—yes. I suppose we must." Sir William licked his lips. "My daughter tells me you no longer wish to marry her. That is breach, sir."
Gareth arched one brow. "Do you intend to sue me?"
The baronet seemed to be scrambling for thoughts. "I must consider my options, sir. There was a very large settlement, you might recall—"
"Ah yes, the money that was to save you from penury, at least for a time. I have a strong suspicion it wouldn't have lasted very long. You're not a thrifty man, Sir William."
To Cleo's amazement her father turned pale. "A gentleman has expenses," he protested. "But—but if you refuse to marry my daughter, I insist on satisfaction…"
"Oh, I intend to marry your daughter." Gareth turned to look at Cleo, his dark eyes gleaming. "As soon as possible."
For a moment her parents stared at him, uncomprehending. Then Millicent gasped and looked at Cleo. "You?" she whispered blankly. "Cleo, dearest—"
"You want Cleo?" Sir William seemed to realize how appalled he sounded, and rushed on. "That is—it's such a shock, Your Grace. She's nothing at all like Helen—"
"I know," Gareth said, still watching Cleo with such heat in his gaze, she found herself blushing—and smiling so happily, her cheeks hurt. "And she suits me perfectly."
"Oh." The baronet seemed at a loss. "Well, then, I suppose I could give my consent…"
"Your consent?" Gareth turned back to him. "I haven't come to ask for your consent. Cleo is an independent woman of legal age. Her consent is all I need." He winked at her. "Will you still have me, darling?"
"You know I will," she told him, her pulse speeding up as she remembered having him already, up against his study door.
There was another moment of shocked silence. "Cleo," said Millicent, her voice trembling. "Cleo, darling, you'll be a duchess."
Cleo tore her eyes off Gareth and faced her mother. "I never asked for that, but since I love a duke, I suppose I shall have to endure it."
Millicent blinked, then tittered nervously. "Don't be silly, dear! You're very fortunate…"
"I am," she replied, giving up any pretense of not staring at Gareth with her heart in her eyes. "Even though he's a duke."
Her parents froze. Gareth laughed. "A duke in love." He glanced at the older couple. "I do apologize for any fright you might have felt when Helen went missing. I believe she was worried that her choice wouldn't be accepted calmly and reasonably, for some reason." Sir William frowned, Gareth's dry tone obviously striking home, but Millicent was too anxious to please.
"Helen's always been such a good girl! I don't know what got into her, Your Grace."
"Blair is an excellent man, and he's as deeply in love with her as she is with him," Gareth went on. "I wish them every happiness."
"And you… And Cleo…" Millicent made a helpless motion, still looking dazed. "You really want to marry Cleo?"
"Desperately." He put out his hand, and Cleo let him draw her into his arm. And to think, just a few hours ago she'd thought today would be the worst of her life…
Her father cleared his throat. "But the settlements…"
"You may have the money," said Gareth, gazing down at Cleo with a smile. "You may even keep the land. She's all I want."
There was a long moment of silence. "My," said Millicent blankly. "Oh my." She mustered a smile for Cleo. "You'll be mistress of Kingstag Castle, dear."
Cleo closed her eyes. That was the last thing she wanted to hear about. Good Lord, could her mother think of anything else?
"Indeed she will be, but I think her shop will have prepared her quite well for it." Gareth grinned. "Directing housemaids and gardeners can't be much different from directing clerks, can it, darling?"
A thought struck her. "What shall I do with the shop?" she asked him. "I can't very well run it from here."
He shrugged. "Whatever you like. Sell it, or keep it and hire a manager. I do hope you'll show it to me, though. My sisters will never let me hear the end of it if I don't take them to visit the finest, largest draper's shop in Melchester." Ignoring the way her parents were now gaping at them both, he brushed a loose wisp of hair back from her face. "Now, change out of this ghastly dress."
She struggled to keep back a laugh, wondering if her parents had noticed the damage Gareth had inflicted upon the garment.
"But Your Grace," said Millicent hesitantly. She was wringing her handkerchief and looked quite dazed. Sir William, on the other hand, looked as though he'd be sick at any moment. "What about the wedding?"
Gareth shrugged. "My mother has already set out for the church. She'll explain as much as necessary. I suggest you and Sir William compose yourself into gracious, even joyous, approval before she and the other guests return to the house." He gave her a very ducal stare. "If there is any scandal attached to this morning's events, I will hold you directly responsible. My mother couldn't have been happier when I told her how much I love Cleo, and how dearly James loves Helen."
"Oh," said Millicent again, in a very small voice. "Yes—yes, of course, Your Grace."
"Excellent." Still holding Cleo's hand, he turned and walked out of the room. In the corridor, the door barely closed behind them, he took her face in his hands and kissed her. "Thank God that's over," he murmured between kisses. "We can get on with more enjoyable things."
She laughed, winding her arms around his neck even though they were in full view of anyone coming along the corridor. Although, now that she thought about it, most of the guests would be already at the church for a wedding that wouldn't happen. They very nearly had Kingstag Castle to themselves. "Such as?"
His eyes gleamed. "This." He kissed her again. "And escape. I've never been more desperate to get out of this house and spend a day at idle pleasure."
Her breath caught. "Oh? Then perhaps… perhaps you might finally show me the grotto. I hear it's not to be missed…and quite private."
Gareth's mouth crooked in his endearing half-smile. "Anything—and everything—you want, my darling. Today and forever after."