Despite it being high summer, Con was so pale he looked ill. But he had come to her at the ring of stones, and that was the important thing.
In a few days time, he would belong to some other woman. He would stand in front of the altar at All Saints and pledge his troth to Marianna Berryman, that sleek stranger who looked very like a cream-fed cat.
Laurette understood this intellectually. It was something he had to do for the sake of his estate and all the people who depended on him. There were two villages in his purview which had suffered year after year from neglect. The prosperity of the local populace rested upon the shoulders of a nineteen year old boy. When others his age were out carousing, he was promising his future away.
What she planned for the twilight was foolish. It would mean nothing in the wider world, but it meant everything to her. She smoothed the fabric of her beaded blue dress—the dress she had worn for her hopeless come-out—and almost enjoyed the shock on Con’s face when he saw her. She had lowered the neckline—if her chest were the heavens, infinite constellations of stars were twinkling brightly.
But Con loved her freckles.
“I am considerably underdressed, I see.” He wore a homespun shirt and breeches, clean but worn. New clothes were filling his closets, but she was glad he didn’t come to her wearing Berryman largesse.
“This is a special occasion.”
Con laughed a bit bleakly. “Yes, it’s Wednesday evening. Bring out the fireworks.”
“I didn’t think of those. But I do have a bottle of champagne I pinched from my father’s cellar.”
“I’m not thirsty, Laurie.” He collapsed onto the ground, but made no motion for her to join him. She could feel his retreat as though it were a living thing. Carefully she spread her skirts and sat beside him.
“You’ll ruin that dress.”
She shrugged. “I’ll never wear it again. But I wanted to wear it for you tonight. So you would remember.”
“I’ll never forget you, Laurie, and that’s the problem.”
She grabbed a hand. “It’s to be my wedding dress, Con. I’m going to marry you tonight.”
He pulled away. “Don’t be daft. I’ve signed all the papers. Berryman will send me to jail if I renege now.”
“You’ll marry on Saturday, just as they planned. But your heart will always belong to me.”
“You know it will, but what good is even saying it? This is over, Laurie. We are over.”
His words were brutal. He looked angry, his thick black brows drawn into a frown.
“Please give me tonight, Con. I want us to stand in this magical place under God’s sky. To speak what’s in my heart. To be your wife of the heart, if not in a church register.”
She searched his face for a reaction. At first there was none. Then residual anger turned to incredulity, and, eventually, a faint smile.
“A pagan wedding for my pagan girl. It’s not much to cling to.”
“It’s all I’ll ever have,” she said simply.
He kissed her then, too gently. She stole control and pushed him on his back, eating him up as if she were starving. If she didn’t stop she would make love to him before she said the words she had labored over so long. She broke the kiss, leaping to her feet.
“We shall continue all that in a moment, my Lord Conover. First I want you to stand up with me before the altar stone.”
He shook his head. “You really are serious.”
“All right.” Con got to his feet, brushing off his threadbare pants. “I wish—”
Laurette placed a finger on his lips. “No regrets. We have tonight, as the sun is sinking and the shadows loom. Now, hold my hands.”
“Yes, madam.” He brought them to his lips.
“That’s soon to be Lady Conover to you. Oh, don’t look so stricken. I know this is all pretense. But when winter comes, the thought of this summer evening will keep me warm.”
“It’s not enough.”
“It will have to be. Now then.” She squeezed his hands. “I, Laurette Isabella Vincent, do take thee, Desmond—”
“Quiet. Your turn will come. Do take thee, Desmond Anthony Ryland, seventh Marquess of Conover, to be the husband of my heart and keeper of my soul and body for all eternity. Though circumstances may part us, nothing will ever break the bonds of our friendship and love.”
The next part was tricky. She certainly was not going to promise to obey. Not Con or anyone.
“I do solemnly promise to be mindful of thy wishes in all things, even if I do not always agree. I will love you—thee—and support thee until I cease to draw breath. I pledge this to thee before the altar of the Ancients, in the sight of God our Father, whose ways may be a mystery at present.”
There had been more, but her throat was becoming thick as Con looked down on her, his black eyes somber. “Amen.”
He kissed the tear from her cheek. “I, Desmond Anthony Ryland, seventh Marquess of Conover, take thee Laurette Isabella Vincent as my wedded wife of the heart. I shall be true to thee until death. I love you so much, Laurie, my heart is breaking.”
They held each other as the sun dipped behind the megalith, casting its last light on the sparkles of Laurette’s dress. The champagne was forgotten, but the consummation of their union was not.