“You look absolutely lovely,” Hugh said quietly.
“Shh,” Esther said. “Charles is about to give his toast!”
Indeed, Charles was on his feet, his glass lifted. “I want to thank everyone for being here today,” he said. “And I want to offer a special thanks to Lady Harcourt for allowing us to give this magnificent event here in her home. Lady Harcourt, it gives me great pleasure and pride to be welcomed into your family.”
Aunt Tabitha nodded stiffly. Esther tried to hide a smile. She knew that if Aunt Tabitha had her way, she wouldn’t have allowed Charles and Eugenia to marry at all, much less to hold the wedding here in Harcourt Manor.
But her cousin had been unspeakably brave. She simply hadn’t asked.
Esther had been there the day Charles had finally asked for her hand. He had done it right in front of Aunt Tabitha, and it had been masterful.
With your consent, Lady Harcourt, I’d like to ask Lady Eugenia to marry me. Lady Eugenia, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?
It had been so deft. He had implied that he wanted Aunt Tabitha’s consent, but he hadn’t actually given her a chance to withhold it. Esther didn’t think anyone could have done a better job.
Charles went on. “I want to say that I fell in love with Lady Eugenia the moment I met her two years ago today,” he said. “My love for her has only grown, and I can’t wait to begin our life together.”
He took Eugenia’s hand and helped her to her feet.
“Please join me in raising a glass to Lady Eugenia, my bride,” he said.
“To Lady Eugenia!” Hugh agreed heartily, and the sentiment was echoed around the table.
Esther lifted her glass and drank.
“Please continue to enjoy your meals,” Charles said. “But the musicians will be beginning to play momentarily, and Lady Eugenia and I will be moving to the ballroom to begin the dancing. We welcome everyone to join us when you’re ready.”
Hugh looked at Esther. “What do you say?”
She got to her feet. “Let’s go.” There was no meal in the world delicious enough to keep her from wanting to be in his arms.
They made their way into the ballroom, which was decorated with an abundance of flowers and candles.
“Wow,” Hugh said quietly. “They really put a lot of energy into decorating this place. I wouldn’t have expected Charles to care so much about the decorations. But I suppose this was Eugenia’s handiwork?”
“No,” Esther said, laughing. “It was Aunt Tabitha, actually.”
“Really?” Hugh said. “I thought she didn’t support this wedding.”
“I think it was her way of trying to take back some control,” Esther said. “She insisted, if they were to marry here in her Manor, that she be allowed to decide everything. The decorations, the food, the music—it was all her. She even chose Eugenia’s wedding gown for her.”
“And Eugenia didn’t object?” Hugh asked.
“Eugenia didn’t care,” Esther said. “All she cares about is that she has the chance to marry Charles. I believe it’s more than she ever hoped she’d get.”
“I’m very happy for her,” Hugh said, smiling.
“So am I,” Esther said. “I know how excited she is.”
“I can’t help but think of our wedding day,” Hugh said.
Esther nodded. “I’ll never forget it,” she said. “I was so nervous!”
“Were you? It didn’t show at all. You were absolutely radiant.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” Esther said. “But I couldn’t stop shaking. I was so afraid that something would go wrong at the last moment.”
“What could have gone wrong?”
“You know my family,” Esther said. “Anything at all could go wrong. They might have decided to intervene, to try to stop us from marrying.”
“Nothing would have stopped me from marrying you that day,” Hugh assured her. “I almost lost you once. I wouldn’t have allowed anything to take you away from me again. You had nothing to worry about.”
The musicians began to play. Esther turned toward Hugh and allowed him to lead her into a slow and simple dance.
“Nothing could have kept me away from you, either,” she assured him. “Not even if my parents had done what Aunt Tabitha is doing here. They could have insisted that I wear a gown of their choosing, served whatever food they wanted, invited guests they liked instead of the people I wanted to see…it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have married you in any conditions.”
“I’d have married you outside in the rain and the mud,” Hugh said.
“I would have married you in a cave at night,” Esther countered.
“A cave? At night?”
“With bats.” She smiled up at him.
“You must really love me.”
“I love you more than I hate bats.”
“Well, that is more than I ever expected to be loved.”
Caroline appeared, dancing toward them with an imaginary partner held in her arms.
“Hello, Caroline,” Hugh said. “Who are you dancing with?”
“The gentleman I’m going to marry,” Caroline said. “I haven’t met him yet, but he’s out there somewhere, and when we grow up and meet, I’ll tell him how I’ve danced with him at every ball I’ve ever been to.” She spun around carefully and pantomimed being caught in her partner’s arms.
“That’s a lovely idea,” Esther said. “I’m sure your gentleman will be very gratified by it when the time comes.”
“Have you been up to the nursery?” Caroline asked them.
“No,” Esther said. “We left Ginger in the care of her nurse for the evening.”
Caroline nodded. “I know,” she said. “I was just up there myself, paying her a visit.”
“Were you?” Esther asked.
“Well, she is my only niece,” Caroline said. “And it’s such a shame she can’t attend the party.”
“She’s only two months old,” Esther pointed out.
“What of that?” Caroline asked.
“She wouldn’t remember any of the party, even if she did attend,” Hugh pointed out.
“She would,” Caroline insisted. “I remember things that happened when I was two months old.”
“No you don’t!” Esther said, laughing.
“I do,” Caroline said. “I remember the butler we used to have. Tompkins.”
“Tompkins worked for us until you were almost three years old,” Esther corrected her sister. “If you remember him, your memories are certainly from when you were more than two months old.”
“Well,” Caroline said, “even if that’s true, you can tell that Ginger enjoys exciting sights and sounds. I think she’d love having the chance to come down and look at all the ladies in their pretty gowns. She’d like to hear the music.”
“Maybe she would,” Esther said. “But all the same, I don’t think we’re going to bring her down.”
“You just don’t want your daughter to have any fun,” Caroline accused.
“Caroline, why don’t you and I have a dance?” Hugh interjected. “Do you think your future husband would mind if I cut in?”
“Oh, I suppose not,” Caroline said, her tone making it clear that she felt she was doing Hugh a monumental favor.
Hugh grinned at Esther. “I’ll be back shortly,” he said. He took Caroline’s arm and led her into the middle of the dance floor.
Esther faded back toward the wall to watch her sister and her husband dance. It always pleased her to watch them together, to see the people she loved most in the world so happy.
Esther turned. Eugenia was hurrying toward her, her face flushed and her eyes bright with merriment.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” she asked as she reached Esther’s side. “Isn’t it a beautiful party?”
“It’s wonderful,” Esther said, embracing her. “And I’ve never seen you so happy, Eugenia.”
“I’ve never been so happy!” Eugenia enthused. “I just can’t believe this has happened. I’m married to Charles!”
“You deserve it,” Esther said. “And he’s a very lucky gentleman to be with someone like you.”
“I always assumed that if I married, it would be to someone too old for me,” Eugenia said. “I knew how important status was to my mother, and I thought she would force me into a marriage with a high-ranking gentleman who was too old to find a match with a more desirable lady.”
“I hope you see now how wrong that thought was,” Esther said. “Charles may not have a high rank, but he’s a young, attractive, clever gentleman, and he loves you more than anything. I hope you can see yourself through his eyes.”
Eugenia nodded. “I was wrong to listen to what my mother had to say about me,” she said. “I should have had more faith in what I had to offer all along.”
“I’ve always said so,” Esther agreed.
“Yes, you have,” Eugenia said. “And it’s because of you, Esther, that I was able to feel confident enough to pursue my own happiness. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for you. I had to come over to thank you.”
“No thanks are necessary,” Esther assured her cousin. “If anything, I should be thanking you. After all, my marriage would not have come to pass either if it hadn’t been for your intervention. Hugh would have never understood how much I truly cared for him.”
“We helped each other, then,” Eugenia said.
“Yes,” Esther agreed. “And in the end, we both got what we longed for.”
“In spite of our parents’ meddling,” Eugenia added.
Esther laughed. She had developed the ability to see her parents’ constant manipulations and interference as humorous. In fact, she felt it necessary to allow herself to laugh about it sometimes.
“I just hope I’ll be able to see Caroline safely through the rest of her childhood and a successful courtship with a gentleman,” she said. “If I can do that, I’ll be able to stop worrying about my parents altogether.”
“Do you fear they might try to make Caroline marry someone who isn’t right for her?” Eugenia asked.
“They might.” Esther looked out at the dance floor and caught sight of her little sister. Her dance with Hugh had ended, and she had resumed twirling with her invisible partner. “And I won’t allow it to happen. Caroline deserves what we have. She deserves to find love. All I wanted when we set out to attend our Season was to provide for Caroline’s future, and that’s still one of my most important goals. I want her to have every opportunity I had in life, including the opportunity to find love.”
“I wish I’d had an older sister like you,” Eugenia said. “My childhood would certainly have been easier if I had. But at least I had you as a cousin.”
“You and I were very lucky to have one another,” Esther said. “I would never have wanted to go through all of this without you by my side.”
“Ladies,” Charles said, approaching the two of them with Hugh at his side. “What are we talking about?”
“About you, of course,” Esther said, smiling at him. “It’s your wedding day.”
“That it is,” Charles said, smiling back. “And I’d like to dance with my bride, if she’ll favor me.”
“Of course,” Eugenia said, taking his hand and allowing herself to be led away. “I’ll find you later, Esther,” she called back.”
“Shall we join them?” Hugh asked Esther.
By way of an answer, Esther stepped into his arms, allowing him to pull her body close to his.
I’ll never get enough of the way it feels to be held by him.
It was the most magical feeling in the world.
He turned them slowly as the musicians played, gazing down into her eyes. Esther felt captivated, unable to look away.
“Thank you,” he murmured. “Thank you for being my wife, Esther. Thank you for filling my life with joy.”
Esther started to reciprocate the sentiment, but Hugh stopped her lips with his own, and after a moment, the thought of what she had been about to say left her completely.
Ah, before you go...
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