A Groom of One's OwnBy: Maya Rodale
On her way down the aisle . . .
Chesham, Buckinghamshire, England
If she is to marry, a woman must have a dowry and a groom of her own. At an exquisitely inconvenient moment, Miss Sophie Harlow discovered one essential prerequisite was deserting her.
To be jilted at the altar is the sort of thing that happens to someone’s cousin’s friend’s sister; in other words, it is something that only occurs in rumors and gossip. It never actually happened to anyone, and it couldn’t possibly be happening to her.
Yet here she stood in her new satin wedding gown, hearing the words, “I am deeply sorry, Sophie, but I cannot marry you after all,” from the man who ought to be saying, “I do.”
She could not quite believe it.
Sophie was vaguely aware of the curious expressions of her guests. The Chesham church—small, quaint, centuries old, and well-to-do like the town itself—was packed with friends from the village, extended family members, and visitors from surrounding counties, as many wished to witness the nuptials uniting two of the most prominent families of the local landed gentry.
Of course they were wondering why the groom had stopped the bride halfway down the aisle. Of course they strained to hear what he said in a voice too low to be audible to anyone else.
She saw her dearest friend, Lady Julianna Somerset, in attendance and as curious and concerned as the rest. Even the church cat, Pumpkin, looked intrigued as she peeked out from underneath a pew.
“I am so sorry to cause you such misery,” Matthew repeated quietly, looking pained. His brown eyes were rimmed with red, his skin ashen. His dark hair was brushed forward and tousled in the usual style for a rakish young man. His lips were full and tender, even as he said the bitterest things.
Sophie tried to breathe deeply but her corset would not allow it. She was very glad for the veil obscuring her face.
Her brain was in a fog, and she was pained by every little crack in her heart as it was breaking. Behind the veil her eyes were hot with tears. Her palms were damp underneath her gloves. The cloying aroma of the lilacs in her bridal bouquet was unbearable, so she let them fall onto the stone floor.
It was her wedding day, and he was leaving her. For the occasion, she wore a new cream-colored satin gown with the fashionable high waist and short puffed sleeves, and the delicate lace veil worn by generations of Harlow brides. Flowers decorated the church pews and beeswax candles added to the gentle late-morning light streaming through the stained-glass windows.
All her worldly possessions were packed up in anticipation of the move from her parents’ home to her husband’s. And now the dress and flowers were for nothing, and her belongings were packed to go nowhere.
“But why? And when did you . . . and what happened and . . . why?” Sophie sputtered.
No one could be expected to form coherent thought in a moment like this.
“Marriage is . . . it’s such a commitment . . .”
“. . . and I haven’t experienced enough. I’m not ready yet. There’s so much out there I haven’t seen, or done, or . . . I haven’t really lived, Sophie,” Matthew stuttered while he toyed with the polished brass buttons on his brocade waistcoat. He’d lost enormous sums at cards because of this nervous habit. It had vexed her before, but she loathed it now.
“Hadn’t you considered this before you proposed? Or in the entire year that we’ve been betrothed? Or before I started walking down the aisle? Honestly, Matthew, you only realized this now?” Sophie tried, and failed, to keep her voice low. Why she bothered, she knew not. This was not destined to remain a secret.
She was not going to spend the rest of her days as Mrs. Matthew Fletcher after all, but as “Poor Sophie Harlow” or “That girl that got jilted.”
Sophie turned to go, keenly aware that all eyes were on her. Matthew followed.
“How could you do this to me?” she asked once they were in the vestibule of the church, which provided a modicum of privacy from the dozens of prying eyes. Their curiosity was understandable; she would be nearly falling out of her seat straining to hear, too. Presently, however, she was pacing.
“I know my timing is terrible,” he said. “But we have been together for so long already.”