“And do you, Selma Quickly, take Cedric Brown to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
The Brown children could only watch in silent horror as the odious blonde nodded her bewigged head.
The parson turned to Mr. Brown. “And do you, Cedric Brown, take Selma Quickly to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
Mr. Brown took a deep, steadying breath. “I--”
Sebastian ran forward, his eyes pleading. “Papa, please. Don’t marry her.”
“Shut up, you little cretin,” Mrs. Quickly hissed.
Sebastian ignored her, taking several steps closer to the nearly-wed couple. “We promise to be good from now on, truly we do. Only don’t marry her. She’s horrid, and she’d make a terrible mother.”
“I told you to shut up,” Mrs. Quickly squawked. “Shut up or I’ll make you shut up, you snot-nosed brat!”
“Shut up!” Mrs. Quickly shrieked. Hiking up her hideous pink skirt, she aimed a vicious kick in Sebastian’s direction. The heel of her shoe struck the boy’s chest, sending him flying.
There was a gasp from the wedding guests. Mr. Brown started toward his son, but Evangeline was faster. In a matter of seconds she knelt at the little boy’s side, her eyes blazing with anger as she glared at Mrs. Quickly. “How dare you!” she cried. “How dare you hurt a child!”
“He’ll be fine,” Mrs. Quickly sneered. “The little ones always are.”
She grabbed Mr. Brown’s arm, yanking him back towards her. “Come on, darling. Just two more words and we’ll be all married proper.”
Mr. Brown shook her off disgustedly. “I wouldn’t marry you for all the money in the world. Leave at once, before I have my children drive you out.”
Ignoring her shocked protests, he half-ran to his fallen son, kneeling at Evangeline’s side. The former maid had gathered Sebastian into her arms, cradling him against her chest. He was conscious, crying weakly as he clutched at her silken dress. “Shh, dearest,” she murmured. “Slow breaths.”
“Hurts,” Sebastian moaned.
“I know it does,” Evangeline replied in the same soothing tone, rubbing little circles along his back. Despite her outward calm, there were tears in her eyes. “Your father’s here. You don’t need to worry anymore.”
She made as though to hand the child off to Mr. Brown, but Sebastian held on even tighter, shaking his head. “Evangeline,” he sobbed.
Evangeline glanced nervously at Mr. Brown, as though worried he might blame her for his son’s behavior, but her hands were gentle as she held the boy. “I’ve got you,” she assured Sebastian. “I won’t let you go.”
Mr. Brown sat back on his heels, looking stricken. “My God, what have I done?” he whispered.
“No time to think of that now,” Evangeline chided softly. “We need a doctor for him. I think that monstrous woman might have broken one of his ribs.”
Mr. Brown was given no chance to answer, for at that moment a commanding voice rang out through the garden clearing. “A fine choice of wife, I must say!”
Mr. Brown tensed at the sound of Aunt Adelaide’s voice, but couldn’t bring himself to leave Sebastian’s side. “I’m sorry, Aunt Adelaide,” he called over his shoulder. “You gave me no time to find anyone else.”
“I see now how ludicrous it is to expect proper child-rearing from a man like you,” Aunt Adelaide proclaimed. “These little heathens have no manners whatsoever, interrupting a wedding, and you have not the slightest ounce of sense, choosing a bride as unsuitable as that Mrs. Weekly, or whatever her name was. No doubt separating you from your noxious brood will turn out to be the wisest choice in the end.”
“Please, Aunt Adelaide,” Mr. Brown begged, panic rising within him. “Don’t take the children.”
“I have no intention of taking them,” Aunt Adelaide said loftily. “I have enough work to do taming your eldest daughter, I certainly feel no need to take on the burden of reforming your younger offspring. Were it not for the promise I made to your late wife, I wouldn’t even bother with the older girl, but I gave my word, and I never break my word.” She gestured imperiously. “Come, Evangeline.”
Evangeline looked from the imposing hook-nosed woman to Mr. Brown, her eyes wide. Lily and Tora ran forward to stand by their former maid. “You can’t take her,” Lily declared.
“We need her,” Tora insisted. “We love her.”
Lily leaned in toward their father. “Won’t you just get married already?” she whispered.
Mr. Brown gazed around helplessly, but Mrs. Quickly was long gone. “I doubt there’s a way to convince her to return,” he admitted.
“Not that old bag,” Lily said impatiently. “Her!”
She pointed at Evangeline. The other children, who had drawn steadily closer, nodded fervently.
Mr. Brown stared at the young woman beside him. Her eyes were lowered, a blush mantling her cheeks. She still held Sebastian close to her chest, his quiet sobs muffled against the fabric of her dress. With the sun gleaming off her golden-brown hair, she looked absolutely radiant: the perfect wife and the perfect mother. He felt his heart begin to ache. “I can’t,” he murmured. “It isn’t right.”
Evangeline flinched, turning away. “But why?” Chrissy whined.
“Because I’m beneath him,” Evangeline explained in a whisper. “I’m only a servant. Proper gentlemen don’t marry scullery maids.”
She was trembling, and in that moment he realized why she’d always lingered when she’d brought his tea and waited until she’ said goodnight each evening before going to bed. Joy shot through his veins, along with nerves the likes of which he hadn’t felt in over a decade.
Aunt Adelaide’s face was livid as she pointed to Evangeline. “Tell that daughter of yours to obey me!”
Slowly, Mr. Brown stood, his attention shifting from Evangeline to his children and back. “I’m afraid that’s impossible, Aunt Adelaide. You see, Evangeline is not my daughter.”
“Not your daughter?” Aunt Adelaide looked highly dubious. “Well, who on earth is she then?”
Mr. Brown smiled down at the young woman. “She’s my wife. That is,” he qualified swiftly, “If she’ll have me.”
Evangeline was staring at him, eyes wide with disbelief. “But . . . I’m just a maid.”
He shook his head. “You’re so much more than that.”
A swish of black woolen skirts announced the approach of Nanny McPhee. She leaned forward and touched Sebastian lightly on the shoulder. “Come with me now,” she instructed firmly, looking around at the children. “Let’s give Evangeline a moment to think.”
Sebastian looked up, blinking in surprise. His tears had stopped, and he glanced down at the place where Mrs. Quickly had kicked him. Slowly he disentangled himself from Evangeline, standing and taking the hand Nanny McPhee offered him. Evangeline watched as the group of children moved away, leaving her alone and the center of attention as she knelt at Mr. Brown’s feet.
“Well, Evangeline?” Mr. Brown murmured. “Will you marry me?”
Her whisper was too soft for him to hear. He leaned closer, aware of the crowd that had gathered in a circle around them. “What was that?”
“I asked, why?” she murmured, her voice laced some emotion he could not place. “Why would you want to marry me?”
Feeling foolish standing over her like some bizarre scarecrow, Mr. Brown knelt once more. “Because I believe you will be an ideal mother for my children. Because I believe we could make each other very happy. And because,” he braced himself for the admission that he’d never dared speak aloud. “Because I love you.”
He heard whispers from the surrounding watchers, but his attention was on Evangeline. She’d turned toward him, her face dead white. “You do?” she whispered.
He nodded awkwardly. “I do, yes,” he admitted. “I have for some time, I think, but I’ve been too blind and pig-headed to notice.”
She reached a trembling hand toward him and he took it, feeling the warmth of her fingers in his. “Will you marry me?” he repeated, heart in his throat.
Aunt Adelaide stalked forward, her face livid. “I cannot allow this farce to continue for one moment more! First you claimed this girl as your daughter, making any idea of marriage utterly abhorrent, and then your children announced that she is in fact your scullery maid, which is, if anything, worse!”
“Worse than incest?” Mr. Brown exclaimed, but his outrage died away at once as he heard Evangeline speak.
“I’m not his maid.”
The crown of wedding guests whispered louder than ever. Aunt Adelaide drew herself up to her full height, staring down at Evangeline with a look of utter disdain. “Oh, you aren’t? Well, what are you then?”
Evangeline stood and Mr. Brown followed a beat later. She turned to address not just the irate old woman standing a yard away, but the entire wedding party. “I’m his wife,” she said firmly. “That is,” she qualified, looking shyly over at Mr. Brown. “If he’ll have me.”
Beaming, Mr. Brown nodded. He heard cheers from the children, but they seemed oddly distant. The only person that really mattered was her. Evangeline, whose fine dress bore grass stains from her rush to embrace Sebastian, whose delicate body failed to disguise her strength of will. He drew close, intent upon the enticing dusky rose of her lips, but just as he was about to embrace her he heard the parson cough meaningfully.
“Begging your pardon, Mr. Brown, but shouldn’t you wait until after the ceremony before indulging in such things?”
Mr. Brown realized that his hands were wrapped around Evangeline’s slim waist, and he let go of her at once. “Yes, of course,” he said quickly, feeling his face grow hot. He glanced at his wife-to-be, who was looking at him from beneath her long, dark lashes. “Hurry,” he instructed the parson fervently. He was not in the mood to wait much longer, not now that he realized what he’d been missing all these months.
A droplet of something very cold struck his cheek, followed by another and another. He looked up in surprise and saw that the skies had darkened to grey. Snow was descending in a flurry of white, draping elegantly over the chairs and forming lacy patterns on the hedges. “Snow in August,” he murmured. It made perfect sense in its way. In a matter of minutes his fortunes had completely reversed, his bleak future brightening until it shone with hope. Why not add a final anomaly to the bunch? Snow in August was just the thing.