“It’s a new variety, discovered in Australia last year. A black opal. If it’s too unconventional for your taste, we can easily exchange it.”
“No, I love it,” she exclaimed, beaming at him. “You may proceed with the question.”
“Should I kneel?” He looked chagrined. “Damn it, I’m doing this in the wrong order.”
“No, don’t kneel,” Cassandra said, feeling a bit light-headed as she realized it was really happening; her entire life was about to change. “There’s no wrong order. We make our own rules, remember?” The opal glowed with unearthly color as she lifted her hand to his jaw.
Tom closed his eyes for a moment, as if the gentle touch devastated him. “Please marry me, Cassandra,” he said hoarsely. “I don’t know what will happen to me if you won’t.”
“I will.” A radiant smile spread across her face. “I will.”
His mouth came to hers, and for a long time after that, there were no more words.
THEY MARRIED AT EVERSBY PRIORY, in a private family ceremony. As it turned out, the Christmas Day wedding suited Tom’s tastes perfectly. Instead of masses of flowers thickening the air with heavy perfume, the house and chapel were decorated with fresh boughs of evergreen: balsam, holly, and Scotch pine. The entire household was in a cheerful mood, and there was an abundance of good food and drink. Outside, it was gray and damp, but the house was cozy and well lit, with fires crackling in every hearth.
Unfortunately, not long before the ten o’clock ceremony was to begin, a crack of thunder signaled an approaching storm. As the ancient chapel was detached from the house, the bridal party and family members would have to walk through the rain to reach it.
Winterborne, who’d agreed to act as Tom’s best man, went out to have a look at the chapel and returned to the library, where Tom waited with Ethan Ransom, St. Vincent, and Devon. The women had gone upstairs to keep Cassandra company as she readied herself for the ceremony.
“It’s about to rain forks and knives,” Winterborne reported, water drops glittering on his hair and the shoulders of his coat. He reached for a glass of champagne from a silver tray on the table, and raised it in Tom’s direction. “Good luck it is, for the wedding day.”
“Why is that, exactly?” Tom asked, disgruntled.
“A wet knot is harder to untie,” Winterborne said. “The marriage bond will be tight and long lasting.”
Ethan Ransom volunteered, “Mam always said rain on a wedding day washed away the sadness of the past.”
“Not only are superstitions irrational,” Tom said, “they’re inconvenient. If you believe in one, you have to believe them all, which necessitates a thousand pointless rituals.”
Not being allowed to see the bride before the ceremony, for example. He hadn’t had so much as a glimpse of Cassandra that morning, and he was chafing to find out how she was feeling, if she’d slept well, if there was something she needed.
West came into the room with his arms full of folded umbrellas. Justin, dressed in a little velveteen suit, was at his heels.
“Aren’t you supposed to be upstairs in the nursery with your little brother?” St. Vincent asked his five-year-old nephew.
“Dad needed my help,” Justin said self-importantly, bringing an umbrella to him.
“We’re about to have a soaker,” West said briskly. “We’ll have to take everyone out to the chapel as soon as possible, before the ground turns to mud. Don’t open one of these indoors: It’s bad luck.”
“I didn’t think you were superstitious,” Tom protested. “You believe in science.”
West grinned at him. “I’m a farmer, Severin. When it comes to superstitions, farmers lead the pack. Incidentally, the locals say rain on the wedding day means fertility.”
Devon commented dryly, “To a Hampshireman, nearly everything is a sign of fertility. It’s a preoccupation around here.”
“What’s fertility?” Justin asked.
In the sudden silence, all gazes went to West, who asked defensively, “Why is everyone looking at me?”
“As Justin’s new father,” St. Vincent replied, making no effort to hide his enjoyment, “that question is in your province.”
West looked down into Justin’s expectant face. “Let’s ask your mother later,” he suggested.
The child looked mildly concerned. “Don’t you know, Dad?”
Tom went to the nearby window, frowning as raindrops seemed to come down faster than the pull of gravity, as if they were being shot from rifles. Cassandra might be fretting about the storm. Her shoes and the hem of her wedding dress were going to be wet and muddy, which he didn’t give a damn about, but it might distress her. He’d wanted the day to be perfect for her. Blast it, why hadn’t the Ravenels built a covered walkway to the chapel?
Winterborne came to join him at the window. “’Tis throwing down, now,” he said, watching the rain.
“If this is good luck,” Tom said acidly, “I could do with a bit less.” He gave a short sigh. “I don’t believe in luck anyway.”
“Neither do you believe in love,” Winterborne reminded him with a touch of friendly mockery. “But here you stand with your heart in your fist.”
The phrase was one of those Welshisms that sounded like a misstatement, but upon reflection made sense. A man who wore his heart on his sleeve was displaying his emotions … but a man with his heart in his fist was about to offer it to someone.
Not long ago, Tom would have responded with a mocking gibe of his own. Instead, he found himself replying with a raw humility he rarely permitted himself to show anyone. “Christ, Winterborne … I don’t know what I believe anymore. I have feelings coming at me I don’t even know the names for.”
Winterborne’s dark eyes twinkled warmly. “You’ll sort it all out.” He took an object from his coat pocket and handed it to Tom. “Here. A Welsh custom.” It was the champagne cork, with a silver sixpence partially inserted into a slit at the top. “A memento of the day,” he explained, “and a reminder that a good wife is a man’s true wealth.”
Tom smiled, reaching out to shake his hand firmly. “Thank you, Winterborne. If I believed in luck, I’d say I was damned lucky to have you as a friend.”
Another belt of lightning whipped across the dark sky, setting loose a heavy mantling of rain.
“How is Cassandra going to reach the chapel without being drenched?” Tom asked with a groan. “I’m going to tell Trenear and Ravenel to—”
“Let them take care of her for now,” Winterborne counseled. “Soon enough she’ll belong to you.” He paused before adding slyly, “And then you’ll be lighting your fire on a new hearth.”
Tom gave him a quizzical glance. “She’ll be moving into my house.”
Winterborne grinned and shook his head. “I meant your wedding night, you spoony half-wit.”
AFTER CASSANDRA REACHED the vestibule of the chapel, there was a flurry of activity involving umbrellas, toweling, and what seemed to be a canvas tarp. Tom could see little from his vantage point at the front of the chapel, but West, after folding the tarp, caught his eye and gave him a short nod. Taking it to mean they’d somehow managed to spirit Cassandra to the chapel in good condition, Tom relaxed slightly.