Bath had probably never known such a grand day as that on which Miss Claudia Martin, owner and headmistress of Miss Martin’s School for Girls, married the Marquess of Attingsborough at Bath Abbey. There were so many titled people among the guests that one wag was heard to wonder as he waited with a large crowd of other interested persons in the cobbled yard outside the Pump Room for the bride to arrive if the rest of England was empty of titles for the present. “And nobody would ever miss ’em,” he added, causing a large woman with an even larger basket over one arm to wonder why he had come to watch, then. All who had any claim to be related to the marquess were on the guest list, of course. So were large numbers of his friends and acquaintances, including all the Bedwyns except Lord and Lady Rannulf, who were in imminent expectation of adding to their family. The Duke of Bewcastle had permitted his duchess to attend with him since Bath was not very far from home and she had been enjoying vigorous good health desp ite her delicate condition. Claudia did not fail to see the irony of it all. Indeed, while Frances’s personal maid, brought to the school for the express purpose of dressing her hair, was in the middle of creating a style that was elegant but not too fussy, she started to laugh and could not stop. The poor maid was forced to pause in her task of forming a cluster of smooth curls to replace the usual simple knot at Claudia’s neck. Susanna, Frances, and Anne were all crowded into the bedchamber, watching. Eleanor and Lila Walton had already left for the abbey with a neat crocodile of boarders and charity girls, all in their best dresses and on their best behavior. The day pupils would attend with their parents. The nonresident teachers would be there too. “This is going to be the most absurd marriage ever,” Claudia said between laughs. “I could not have imagined anything more bizarre in my oddest dreams.” “Absurd,” Susanna said, looking from Anne to Frances. “I suppose it is an apt description. Claudia is going to be married in the presence of a good half of the ton.” “She is going to have a duke for a father-in-law,” Frances said. “And a duke’s heir for a husband,” Anne added. They all looked at one another poker-faced before they too collapsed into laughter. “It is the funniest thing,” Frances agreed. “Our Claudia to be a duchess one day.” “It is a just punishment for all my sins,” Claudia said, sobering as her attention returned to her image in the glass and she saw all the splendor of her new apricot-colored dress with the frivolous new straw hat that Frances’s maid was just pinning to her hair above the luscious curls at her neck. A straw hat in early October! Goodness! Did she really look ten years younger than she had just a few months ago? Surely it was just her imagination. But her eyes looked larger than she remembered them and her lips fuller. There was surely more color in her cheeks. “But who,” Susanna said, “could resist Joseph’s charms? I have always been exceedingly fond of him since Lauren first introduced me to him, but he has risen immeasurably in my estimation since he had the good sense to fall in love with you, Claudia.” “And who,” Anne said, “could possibly resist a man who dotes so much on his child? Especially his blind, illegitimate child.” “It is a very good thing that we have Lucius and Sydnam and Peter,” Frances said. “We might be mortally jealous of you, Claudia.” Claudia swiveled on the stool. The maid tidied the top of the dressing table and left the room. “Is it natural,” Claudia asked, “for a wedding day to evoke such opposite emotions? I am so happy that I could fairly burst. And I am so sad that I could weep.” “Don’t do it,” Susanna said. “You will make your eyes red and puffy.” As they had been last evening. It had started with the final, farewell dinner in the school dining hall, to which the day pupils had stayed—and the surprise concert and speeches that had followed it. It had continued with the exchange of hugs and final words with every pupil and teacher. And it had concluded with a couple of hours in Claudia’s private sitting room—soon to be Eleanor’s—talking and reminiscing with these three friends and Lila and Eleanor. “I was happy teaching here,” Anne said now, “and I was not at all sure I would be happy with Sydnam when I married him. But I am, and you will be with Joseph, Claudia. You already know it.” “It is perfectly natural to be sad,” Frances assured her. “I had Lucius and the promise of a singing career to go to when I married, but I had been happy here. It was home, and my dearest friends were here.” Susanna got to her feet and hugged Claudia carefully so as not to disturb either her hair or her hat. “This school was home and family to me,” she said. “I was taken in here at the age of twelve when I had nowhere else to go, and I was educated and loved. I would never have left if I had not met Peter. But I am very glad I did—for the obvious reason and because I could not bear now to be the last one of us to be left here. I am that selfish, you see. But I cannot tell you how happy I am for you, Claudia.” “We had better go,” Anne said. “The bride must not be late, and we must be at the Abbey before her. And what a very lovely bride. That color is perfect on you, Claudia.” “I love the hat,” Susanna said. Claudia held back her tears as each of them hugged her and went down to the carriage that was awaiting them. After they were gone, she drew on her gloves and looked one last time around her bedchamber. Already it looked empty—her trunk and bags had already been removed earlier in the morning. She went into her sitting room and looked around it. All her books were gone. It was hers no longer. For the past week the school had officially been Eleanor’s. After today it would be Miss Thompson’s School for Girls. It was a terrible thing to leave one’s life behind. She had done it once before, and now she was doing it again. It was like being born again, leaving the safe comfort of the womb to brave the vast unknown. It was a terrible thing even though she ached with longing for the new life, for the home that awaited her, for the brave, intelligent blind child who would be her daughter, for the other child who would be born in a little more than six months—she had told no one yet except Joseph yesterday when he had arrived from Willowgreen—and for the man who had stepped into her school almost four months ago and into her heart not long after. Joseph! And then she went downstairs, where the servants were lined up to say good-bye to her. She held her poise and had a final word with each, most of whom were in tears. Mr. Keeble was not. He stood woodenly by the outer door, waiting to open it for her. And somehow saying good-bye to him, her elderly, crotchety, loyal porter, became the hardest thing of all. He bowed to her, somehow setting his boots to creaking. But she would have none of such formality. She hugged him and kissed his cheek and then nodded briskly for him to open the door and hurried outside, where Joseph’s coachman was waiting to hand her into his carriage. She would not weep, she thought as the door closed and the carriage rocked into motion and she left behind the school and fifteen years of her life for the last time. She blinked her eyes several times. She would not weep. Joseph was awaiting her at the Abbey. So was Lizzie. So was a churchful of aristocrats. It was that thought that rescued her. She first smiled and then laughed to herself as the carriage turned onto the long length of Great Pulteney Street. Absurd indeed. One of God’s little jokes, perhaps? If so, she liked his sense of humor.

  Not so long ago, it seemed, Joseph had stood beside Neville at the front of a church, awaiting the arrival of a bride. He had been the best man then, Nev the bridegroom. Now the situation was reversed, and Joseph understood why his cousin had been quite unable to sit or stand still on that occasion and why he had complained about the tightness of his neckcloth. It was absurd to imagine that Claudia simply would not show up. She had agreed to marry him and she had written to him every day—as he had to her—since July, except during the ten days late in August when he had brought Lizzie to Bath. She had also burned her bridges by selling the school to Miss Thompson. She had instructed Hatchard, her man of business in London, to keep an eye out for young children with handicaps and no home. And if all those things were not enough to reassure him, there was the dizzying new fact that she had confided to him only yesterday. She was increasing! They were going to have a child of their own. He still had not quite absorbed this new knowledge to the full—though he had raged at her for all of thirty seconds after she told him before grabbing her and half squeezing the life out of her. She ought to have told him sooner. Good Lord, if he had only known, he would have rushed her into a marriage by special license, and to the devil with this grand wedding that his army of female relatives, headed by Wilma, had concocted without his by-your-leave. There had been another marriage by special license a couple of months ago. Either McLeith or Portia or both of them together had seen sense after leaving Alvesley on the night of the anniversary ball. They had gone to London instead of Scotland, announced their betrothal to the Balderstons, and had a small but quite respectable wedding a few days later. Joseph’s stomach was feeling decidedly queasy and Neville threw him a sympathetic glance. And then Claudia arrived, and he turned to watch her approach alone down the wide center aisle, between pews filled with guests. She was beautiful. She was…How had she described herself once after they had made love? Ah, yes. She was woman. Schoolteacher, businesswoman, friend, lover—all the things she was and had ever been were overlaid by that one central fact. She was simply woman. Typically, she was simply, neatly, elegantly dressed—with the exception of the absurdly pretty straw hat that sat atop her head, tilted slightly forward. He smiled—at the hat, at her. She smiled back and he forgot about the hat. Ah, Claudia! They turned together to face the clergyman. “Dearly beloved,” he began in sonorous tones that filled the large church. And in no time at all the nuptial service was ending and they were married, he and Claudia Martin, now Claudia Fawcitt, Marchioness of Attingsborough. For the rest of their lives. Until death them did part. Through good times and bad, sickness and health. Her eyes gazed into his. Her lips were pressed into a thin line. He smiled at her. She smiled back and the summer sun, gradually receding into autumn beyond the Abbey doors, shone warm and bright through her eyes. They signed the register and then began the long walk up the nave of the Abbey past smiling guests, who would soon crowd into the Upper Asse mbly Rooms for the wedding breakfast. It was Claudia who stopped at the second pew, where Lizzie was sitting between Anne Butler and David Jewell, gorgeously clad in a froth of pink lace with a matching satin bow in her hair. Claudia leaned past her friend, whispered something to his daughter, and drew her to her feet. And so, with half the beau monde watching, they walked up the nave, the three of them, Lizzie in the middle, her arms linked through theirs, looking radiantly happy. There were those who would be scandalized at the sight. They could go hang for all Joseph cared. He had seen his mother smiling at them and Wilma wiping a tear from her eye. He had seen his father gazing sternly at them, a look of fierce affection in his eyes. He smiled at Claudia over the top of Lizzie’s head. She smiled back, and they stepped out of the church into the Pump Room yard, which was surely as crowded as the Abbey behind them. Someone cheered and almost everyone else joined in. The Abbey bells were ringing. The sun was breaking clear of the cloud cover. “I love you,” he mouthed to Claudia, and her eyes told him that she had heard and understood. Lizzie tipped back her head and looked from one to the other of them as if she could see them. She laughed. “Papa,” she said. “And Mama.” “Yes, sweetheart.” He bent to kiss her cheek. And then, to the noisy delight of the spectators and the few guests who had already spilled out of the Abbey behind them, he leaned across her and kissed Claudia on the lips. “Both my sweethearts,” he said. Claudia’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I am not going to be a watering pot now of all times,” she said in her schoolmistress voice. “Take us to the carriage, Joseph.” Lizzie nestled her head against her shoulder. “This instant,” Claudia said in a tone that must have had fifteen years’ worth of pupils jumping to attention. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, grinning. “No. Make that, yes, my lady.” They were all laughing as he hurried them across the yard, past crowds of well-wishers, and finally through the stone arches and a tunnel of assorted cousins and Bedwyns, all of whom had sneaked out early and armed themselves with flower petals. By the time they reached the street and the carriage, Claudia had an excuse for the tears that trickled down her cheeks. They were tears of laughter, she would have said if he had asked. He did not. He set Lizzie on one seat, took his place beside Claudia on the other, set one arm about her shoulders, and kissed her thoroughly. “What are you doing, Papa?” Lizzie asked. “I am kissing your mama,” he told her. “She is also my bride, remember.” “Oh, good,” she said, and laughed. So did Claudia. “Everyone will see,” she said. “Do you mind?” He leaned back from her to note again how vibrantly beautiful she looked. “Not at all,” she said, lifting her hand to his shoulder and drawing him back toward her as the carriage moved forward on its way to the Upper Rooms. “This is the happiest day of my life and I do not care if the whole world knows it.” And she leaned forward, took Lizzie’s hand in hers and squeezed it, and then kissed him. He spread his hand over her abdomen, which surely was slightly rounded already. All his family was here. His present and his future. His happiness. Love. I dream of love, of a family—wife and children—which is as close and as dear to me as the beating of my own heart. Had he spoken those words once upon a time? If he had not, he certainly ought to have. Except that he no longer had to dream that particular dream. It had just become reality.