A Groom of One's Own (The Writing Girls #1) by Maya Rodale

Prologue

On her way down the aisle . . .

Chesham, Buckinghamshire, England

June 1822

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.

Misery, indeed.

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 . . .”

Obviously.

“. . . 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.”

Six months of courtship, and a one-year engagement, to be precise. From the time she made her debut, she had wanted Matthew Fletcher; no one else would do. She had turned down two offers of marriage waiting for him to notice her, and two more as he courted her.

Now she was twenty-one and damaged goods. Sophie the Spinster did, alas, have a ring to it.

“And we were about to spend the rest of our lives together,” he continued.

“Yes, I am aware of that,” she snapped, never ceasing in her steps back and forth like ringing church bells.

“But there is still more for me to experience before I settle down with one woman for the rest of my days,” he said, attempting to explain. It was something in the way he said “one woman” that caught her attention. At that, she paused.

“Who is she, Matthew?” Sophie asked coolly.

He looked in the direction of the heavens.

“Matthew.”

“With Lavinia, I feel as I have never felt before! We only became acquainted a fortnight ago, and yet . . . ” He could not meet her gaze. His fingers were fiddling with the buttons again.

“Lavinia?” It was a horrible, stupid name.

“We became acquainted at The Swan,” he said, referring to the inn five miles over in Amersham. “She lost her husband and is now traveling. She has extended an invitation to me to travel with her.”

“Matthew, I’m afraid I don’t quite understand. You’re leaving me—your sweetheart, your fiancée, your bride—for a woman you met at an inn less than a month ago?”

Matthew did not say anything, but his silence was answer enough.

“Oh God,” she whispered as the truth began to take hold. All the tiny cracks in her heart added up and now the whole thing crumbled into dust. Sophie clutched her hands over her chest and sank to her knees. Her wedding gown billowed around her on the stone floor.

She had loved him, promised herself to him and entrusted him with her heart and her future. And he was leaving her and the life they had planned.

He murmured her name and attempted to console her by snaking his arm around her waist.

“No.”

She shrugged off his hands, for she could not bear to be touched by him now, when he likely had held another woman with those arms and kissed another woman with those lips.

And yet, for more than a year, his arms and his kisses had been the surest comfort she had known. He had stolen that from her, too, at the moment when she needed it most.

Traitorous, heartbreaking bounder.

“Sophie,” he whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh! How could you!” She stood suddenly, and he did as well.

“Sophie, I—”

She smacked him on the shoulder. “How could you do this to me?”

“I’m so sorry,” he repeated. She didn’t want to hear it. He could apologize a thousand times with his sad brown eyes and she doubted she could ever forgive him for this.

She balled her hands into fists and pummeled his chest. “How could you do this to us?”

Matthew didn’t try to stop her, but he did take a step back. Sophie took one step forward, fists flying all the while. In that manner, they started down the aisle. She might just make it to the altar after all—by beating her unwilling groom every step of the way.

Almost.

Matthew tripped over the bridal bouquet she had dropped in the aisle and he began to tumble backward. With flailing arms he reached out for something to steady himself, and grasped onto Sophie’s veil, the very one worn by generations of Harlow brides. He took it with him as he fell, mussing up her elaborately arranged hair and tearing the old, delicate family heirloom.

A hush fell over the church. Not a sound from the entryway to the candles and flowers at the altar, from the hard wooden pews to the high, vaulted ceiling—save for heavy footsteps thudding toward her.

“Sophie, stand back,” her brother Edward declared as he marched toward her.

“What are you doing?” she asked as he helped Matthew to his feet.

The thud of her brother’s fist against Matthew’s face and the hideous crack of his jawbone was her answer.

And with that, all hell broke loose.

Edward pulled Matthew up and planted another facer on him, sending him falling once more. He knocked into the vicar, who stumbled and stepped on Pumpkin’s tail. The poor cat yowled and leapt onto the overly decorated bonnet of Mrs. Beaverbrooke, who shrieked once at the initial shock and again when she saw the damage done. The cat jumped from lap to lap, eliciting shouts and cries in her wake.

Mrs. Harlow fainted. Sophie’s father was heard arguing with Mr. Fletcher. Matthew’s brothers joined the fray, and the guests quit the pews to crowd around. Someone stepped on Sophie’s gown and she cringed at the sound of satin tearing. A baby was wailing. The vicar repeated “Let’s calm down now” to absolutely no effect.

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