London, not far from St. George’s, Hanover Square Summer, 1827
His lungs were on fire.
Gregory Bridgerton was running. Through the streets of London, oblivious to the curious stares of onlookers, he was running.
There was a strange, powerful rhythm to his movements-one two three four, one two three four-that pushed him along, propelling him forward even as his mind remained focused on one thing and one thing only.
He had to get to the church.
He had to stop the wedding.
How long had he been running? One minute? Five? He couldn’t know, couldn’t concentrate on anything but his destination.
The church. He had to get to the church.
It had started at eleven. This thing. This ceremony. This thing that should never have happened. But she’d done it anyway. And he had to stop it. He had to stop her. He didn’t know how, and he certainly didn’t know why, but she was doing it, and it was wrong.
She had to know that it was wrong.
She was his. They belonged together. She knew that. God damn it all, she knew that.
How long did a wedding ceremony take? Five minutes? Ten? Twenty? He’d never paid attention before, certainly never thought to check his watch at the beginning and end.
Never thought he’d need the information. Never thought it would matter this much.
How long had he been running? Two minutes? Ten?
He skidded around a corner and onto Regent Street, grunting something that was meant to take the place of “Excuse me,” as he bumped into a respectably dressed gentleman, knocking his case to the ground.
Normally Gregory would have stopped to aid the gentleman, bent to retrieve the case, but not today, not this morning.
The church. He had to get to the church. He could not think of anything else. He must not. He must-
Damn! He skidded to a halt as a carriage cut in front of him. Resting his hands on his thighs-not because he wanted to, but rather because his desperate body demanded it-he sucked in huge gulps of air, trying to relieve the screaming pressure in his chest, that horrible burning, tearing feeling as-
The carriage moved past and he was off again. He was close now. He could do it. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes since he’d left the house. Maybe six. It felt like thirty, but it couldn’t have been more than seven.
He had to stop this. It was wrong. He had to stop it. He would stop it.
He could see the church. Off in the distance, its gray steeple rising into the bright blue sky. Someone had hung flowers from the lanterns. He couldn’t tell what kind they were-yellow and white, yellow mostly. They spilled forth with reckless abandon, bursting from the baskets. They looked celebratory, cheerful even, and it was all so wrong. This was not a cheerful day. It was not an event to be celebrated.
And he would stop it.
He slowed down just enough so that he could run up the steps without falling on his face, and then he wrenched the door open, wide, wider, barely hearing the slam as it crashed into the outer wall. Maybe he should have paused for breath. Maybe he should have entered quietly, giving himself a moment to assess the situation, to gauge how far along they were.
The church went silent. The priest stopped his drone, and every spine in every pew twisted until every face was turned to the back.
“Don’t,” Gregory gasped, but he was so short of breath, he could barely hear the word.
“Don’t,” he said, louder this time, clutching the edge of the pews as he staggered forward. “Don’t do it.”
She said nothing, but he saw her. He saw her, her mouth open with shock. He saw her bouquet slip from her hands, and he knew-by God he knew that she’d stopped breathing.
She looked so beautiful. Her golden hair seemed to catch the light, and it shone with a radiance that filled him with strength. He straightened, still breathing hard, but he could walk unassisted now, and he let go of the pew.
“Don’t do it,” he said again, moving toward her with the stealthy grace of a man who knows what he wants.
Who knows what should be.
Still she didn’t speak. No one did. It was strange, that. Three hundred of London’s biggest busybodies, gathered into one building, and no one could utter a word. No one could take his eyes off him as he walked down the aisle.
“I love you,” he said, right there, right in front of everyone. Who cared? He would not keep this a secret. He would not let her marry someone else without making sure all the world knew that she owned his heart.
“I love you,” he said again, and out of the corner of his eye he could see his mother and sister, seated primly in a pew, their mouths open with shock.
He kept walking. Down the aisle, each step more confident, more sure.
“Don’t do it,” he said, stepping out of the aisle and into the apse. “Don’t marry him.”
“Gregory,” she whispered. “Why are you doing this?”
“I love you,” he said, because it was the only thing to say. It was the only thing that mattered.
Her eyes glistened, and he could see her breath catch in her throat. She looked up at the man she was trying to marry. His brows rose as he gave her a tiny, one-shouldered shrug, as if to say, It is your choice.
Gregory sank to one knee. “Marry me,” he said, his very soul in his words. “Marry me.”
He stopped breathing. The entire church stopped breathing.
She brought her eyes to his. They were huge and clear and everything he’d ever thought was good and kind and true.
“Marry me,” he whispered, one last time.
Her lips were trembling, but her voice was clear when she said-
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