A Night to Remember

Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan

St. Martin's Paperbacks

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (Chapter 1)

England 1813

The graveyard echoed silence but for the sound of running feet and her own straining breath. Kitty Trapp stopped to gasp for a moment against a tall marker stone, one carved with cherubs and the word “Beloved.” The morning sun had yet to rise above the London dwellings surrounding the churchyard, making the shadows dense and undefined.

There. White flashed between two tall stones—a mere translucent wisp as insubstantial as fog—then it was gone.

Again. The early morning light brightened through the mist to glimmer for an instant on a pale figure. Kitty dodged a headstone and dashed to the side of one of the great mausoleums, regretting her sedentary existence in an entirely new way as her side clenched in a stitch. She clutched her waist tightly with one hand while holding up her hem with the other—and kept running. Faster.

With a last burst of speed that she hardly knew she was capable of, Kitty burst through a decorative hedge that separated the rich from the not so rich even after death. With one hand stretched before her, she reached out—

And caught her sister’s sleeve before Bitty could make the largest mistake of her life.

It took a moment for Kitty to gather enough breath to speak. “Bettina Melrose Trapp! Get back in that church this instant! What can you be thinking to race through hallowed ground? And on your wedding day!”

Bitty let free a sob while struggling to pull away from her twin’s grip. Kitty, however, had years of experience in getting her way. She might be the ever so slightly younger and the ever so slightly less attractive and the much less financially desirable twin, but she was also ever so slightly taller and much, much meaner.

Bitty only struggled harder, surprising Kitty with her willingness to possibly damage her wedding gown. Kitty didn’t dare ease her grip, however. Behind them was a church full of influential people, including the Prime Minister and half the members of the House of Lords.

Thinking again of Mama’s eagerness to impress the imperious Lord Liverpool, Kitty began to drag her twin back through the gravestones to the tiny room off the nave where they’d been sent to await the first strains of the wedding march.

“But I don’t want to!” Bitty struggled harder, although Kitty noticed that she kept her wails muted. “I don’t want to wed him in front of all those people!”

“Well, you ought to have considered that before you accepted Mr. Knight’s proposal.” Reaching the old arched door of the back exit off the nave, Kitty towed her twin inside. She only released Bitty when she’d closed the oak door on its thick iron hinges and thrown the great latch once more.

 

In his small alcove off the nave, Mr. Alfred Theodious Knight paused in the act of adjusting his cravat. The hollow echo of a door slamming somewhere in the church distracted him. He waited a long moment, but no further uproar ensued. Good. Hopefully, events would continue as scheduled.

Not that he was in a hurry to wed the Trapp girl. She hardly inspired hot-blooded urgency. When one examined the match logically—and Knight examined everything logically—the girl would suit him well enough. Unexceptional looks, if not precisely pretty. Blond, which was pleasant but scarcely necessary. Of flawless reputation—aside from one recent blunder—and possessing an unobtrusive demeanor.

This last was important, for Knight wanted no torrid stories floating about concerning his marriage. He’d had a lifetime of living down the outrageous antics of his shameless mother. He’d not tolerate such nonsense from his own wife.

Further, the girl was of adequate family, with surprisingly high connections. Figure: landing somewhere between pleasingly plump and overindulged. Taste: excruciating, but that had already been dealt with. Inheritance: large enough to inspire interesting possibilities but not so large as to eclipse his own.

And finally, but in his mind the most important, wedding Bettina Trapp would erase a possible stain upon his family’s name. If only it were this easy to erase all the misdeeds of Knight’s younger half brother, John Tuttle.

Born out of their shared mother’s affair with a horse trainer hired to develop the blood stock, John Tuttle had never felt the need to live down his origins as Knight did. In fact, John seemed intent on broadening the spectrum of sins painted upon the family history by the late Mrs. Knight.

Several weeks ago Tuttle had decided to line his pockets with Miss Trapp’s inheritance. With characteristic Tuttle treachery, John had proceeded to lure the naïve Bettina Trapp onto a balcony during a ball and had there leaped upon her like a hungry hound. Only the happenstance of Bettina’s sister coming upon the scene had prevented a scandal that would have rocked London.

Upon reflection, Knight realized that he had never seen his bride’s sister. By John’s furious and drunken description just before Knight had ordered his half sibling boarded onto the next ship to the West Indies, the other Trapp girl was a proper witch.

Typical of younger siblings, Knight was sure.

The wedding march ought to play soon. With habitual calm, Mr. Alfred Theodious Knight firmly squelched his boredom and returned to adjusting a cravat that was already tied to perfection.

 

Standing with her back to the only escape from the tiny cell, Kitty folded her arms and regarded Bitty with fond exasperation. Bitty never could accomplish anything without a fuss and flurry, even something as simple as walking down the aisle. Melodrama was as much a part of Bitty as was her indecision and her basic timidity, although Bitty’s essential lack of will was the only thing that made Kitty able to live with her pampered and narcissistic twin.

Not that it was entirely Bitty’s fault. Kitty thought that she might herself have been as malleable as Bitty if she’d been the focus of her parents’ social ambitions for her entire life. Instead, she’d had to fight every day of her life for the slightest notice from her family.

Perhaps that was why Bitty was so prone to theatrics, as a sort of outlet for her own desires and dreams. Although Kitty couldn’t imagine why. As far as she knew, Bitty’s desires and dreams coincided entirely with Mama’s ambitions for her.

Until today, that is.

“If you didn’t want to have a grand wedding, why didn’t you say something weeks ago? Or yesterday, for that matter? What will Mr. Knight say?”

“Oh, I cannot bear to think on him. So grim—so dark!”

Kitty blinked at that. “You don’t fancy his looks? Then why did you accept him?” Astounding. She had seen the gentleman on the day when he’d come to offer for Bitty, although he hadn’t seen her. The landing on the stairs was a lovely place to spy on someone in the entrance hall. In Kitty’s opinion, the stern and silent Mr. Knight was quite ideal, at least in his even features and fine dark eyes.

Bitty only shuddered in response. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Again, something best brought up in conversation before today,” muttered Kitty. She threw out her hands. “The poor man is standing out there right now waiting for you! The world is standing out there waiting for you!”

That had been the wrong thing to say. Bitty shrank back, then unbelievably, reached behind her neck to begin undoing the tiny buttons that ran down her white silk-clad back. “No, no, no—” Then she began to tug the tightly fitted sleeves down, right there in the church with half the world waiting outside the door!

“Bitty, what are you doing?” Kitty rushed around behind her to do her up again, but Bitty twisted away to tug at the costly beaded silk as if it were a filthy rag.

“No!”

Kitty was astonished at the vehemence in her sister’s voice. Bitty was choosing now to exhibit a spine? Kitty tried a new tack. “Bitty, wait,” she said in a soothing tone. “Think on it. This is your wedding day. Everything is just as you wished. The church is the one where Mama wed Papa. The flowers are just as you dreamed. Your gown…” Well, to be truthful, the gown was a horror, all tucked and beaded and beribboned with not one inch unadorned. In Kitty’s opinion, Bitty had never had one smidge of taste, nor had Mama.

Kitty abandoned soothing to go straight to entirely livid. “Bettina Melrose Trapp, put your wedding gown back on this instant!” All to no effect. Bitty stripped the dress off and tossed it ruthlessly over the back of a heavy carved chair.

A tap came at the door that led into the church. “Girls?”

Kitty closed her eyes. Mama. Things were about to go from bad to disastrous. Bitty dove behind the dressing screen. The coward.

Mrs. Beatrice Trapp, society matron and patroness of everything socially advantageous, entered the room like a lavender ship under sail. “Kitty? Where is your sister?” She spotted the dress tossed unceremoniously aside. Her eyes widened in appalled surprise. “She isn’t yet dressed? The vicar is expecting us now!”

Kitty saw a scene in the making, what with Mama’s ambitions colliding with Bitty’s theatrics—a long, loud, and potentially very public scene indeed. Quickly, she stepped in.

“Mama, you must stall the ceremony.” She wrapped one arm about her mother’s stout waist and steered her back to the door. “A minor hair mishap, that is all. We only need a moment.”

Beatrice Trapp looked over her shoulder at the limp and empty wedding gown. “But don’t you need my help to get Bitty dressed?”

Kitty sent her mother out with a small push, just to build up her momentum. “Don’t worry, Mama. You’ll have a bride to marry off in mere moments.”

One way or another.

 

There were several hundred guests in the church. That meant nearly a thousand eyes turned Kitty’s way when she took her first hesitating step on her father’s arm down the aisle.

This is a dreadful plan. Kitty’s conscience seemed to beat against the barrier of her lie like a trapped moth. Don’t do this!

Firmly she squelched the inner protest. ’Twas no great problem. She would simply do this one thing for Bitty, and for her parents, and no one need know but Bitty and herself. After all, it wasn’t as though they hadn’t done it time and again in their childhood.

Mr. Knight stood tall and imposing next to the vicar. Heavens, had his shoulders always been so broad? Kitty’s veil—Bitty’s veil—hung mistily between herself and the groom—Bitty’s groom—

Kitty shook herself firmly back to the subject at hand. She need only make it through the ceremony, trot home to undress, and stuff her sister into the very fine traveling suit awaiting her, and kiss Bitty good-bye as she left on her honeymoon.

It was only that…when she’d dreamed of this moment in her life, she’d never thought it would be a farce, an unworthy prank. What should have been her first and only time taking this journey had been twisted. Now Kitty didn’t know if the purity of her own walk down the aisle could ever be returned to her.

So when she arrived at the altar and turned to face Mr. Knight, there were very believable tears in her eyes.

Knight tried not to heave a visible sigh of impatience at the slow intonations of the vicar. The pomp and symbolism that was wrapped around what amounted to a business transaction never ceased to amaze him.

His bride wept beside him. He hoped she would not turn out to be sillier than most. Unfortunately, he’d yet to see evidence of any brain at all in Bettina Trapp. The one report he’d had of her led one to believe she hadn’t the sense to get herself in out of the rain. His impression upon first meeting her on the day he’d proposed had not been favorable, for she’d merely blinked at his offer with wide brown eyes, then paled, then nodded.

Still, Knight retained a hope of finding some sort of intellect beneath the vapid exterior. A long and intimate future with a completely brainless woman didn’t bear thinking about.

He took his bride’s hand in his at the appropriate moments, said the expected litany, vowed forever away to this creature whom he truly didn’t know at all.

Wedded bliss, the vicar said. Knight didn’t see it as anything of the sort. Simply a business transaction, after all.

 

The entire party had arrived at the Trapps’ home for the wedding breakfast. The moment Kitty could manage it she ran for her room. It would only take a few moments to change, especially if Bitty had everything ready as they had arranged.

It wasn’t until Kitty had neared the top of the stairs at a run that she realized that never once—not before, during, or after the ceremony—had her parents asked after her…er, Kitty. Pausing at the door to her room, she fought down the hurt that no one had noticed Kitty’s absence from the festivities.

Flinging herself into the room, she pasted on a bright smile, ready to give Bitty every detail of the last hour—

There was no one in the room, or in Bitty’s room. Or in the bathing chamber, or in the small sitting room attached. Worse, much worse…Bitty’s traveling things weren’t anywhere to be seen.

Bitty was gone.

Kitty slumped on her bed, unmindful of crushing the priceless satin of her gown—Bitty’s gown.

What was she to do? She was tempted to change back to Kitty and merely report to her parents that Bitty was gone…but then she’d likely have to tell them of the deceit they had perpetrated. And if that deceit ever became public knowledge…

Kitty swallowed. If she’d thought the scandal of a reluctant bride would have been bad, the scandal of a runaway wife would be ruinous to the entire family! And she herself would be publicly branded a liar and mischief maker of the worst sort. Her parents would be dragged into it, there’d be no avoiding that. Mr. Knight might very well sue them or have them charged with something criminal!

“Oh, Bitty,” she breathed. “What have we done?”

Feeling dizzy and more than a little sick, Kitty stood up to reach to the buttons of the gown she was fast beginning to hate with a thick and choking passion. It wasn’t easy, but she managed to get herself out. Luckily, she hadn’t had to wear the corset beneath it, for Bitty had added a bit of weight during her engagement.

For the first time, it occurred to Kitty that her sister had been unhappy all along. Kitty tried to remember if Bitty had attempted to communicate that unhappiness at any time.

She couldn’t pin down any one moment, but now that she thought about it, Bitty had been very quiet lately, at least when she wasn’t planning details of the wedding.

Kitty always tried to be brutally honest with herself and she could see now that she had been more than a little jealous of Bitty’s nuptials. She herself had avoided talking to her twin soon after the engagement, although she had told herself it was because hearing about the lace on Bitty’s veil for the hundredth time was not terribly interesting to her.

She ought to have remembered that an unbearable Bitty was an unhappy Bitty. Now it was too late. Bitty had flown, but Kitty had no idea where to. Surely she wouldn’t hide with any of the families they knew, for no one would assist a young woman in her own ruination. Yet where could she have gone? When would she be back?

And why had she left Kitty in the lurch? Bitty was profoundly self-absorbed, that was true, but surely she must know that Kitty couldn’t keep the secret forever? What had been the point of this wedding farce if Bitty had never planned on behaving as a proper wife should?

Clad now in her chemise and stockings, Kitty began to pace the room. She must order her mind, that’s what Aunt Clara would say. Aunt Clara was Lady Etheridge, wife of the Prime Minister’s adviser. She was also a famous political cartoonist who feared nothing and no one.

Kitty wished Aunt Clara were here now, but Lady Etheridge had begged off the wedding breakfast, admitting her lack of appetite that morning.

Kitty picked up her silver hairbrush and began to undo the hasty twist she had put her hair into to fit beneath the veil. A small bark of laughter left her lips at the sight of the pile of pins on the dressing table.

Before disappearing, Bitty had taken the time to undo the elaborate mass of braids and ribbons that Kitty had spent hours putting into her hair this morning. Not truly one of her duties, but Bitty had insisted on having her sister with her and had disdained the help of a maid.

Kitty had been flattered at the time, and quite willing to oblige, but now a dark thought twisted through her mind. Had Bitty planned this outrageous flight? Had she herself been purposely maneuvered into taking her sister’s place at the altar, like some sort of ancient sacrifice?

No, surely not even Bitty would do something so unworthy. This morning’s panic had been unfeigned, Kitty would swear to that. Bitty had simply worked herself up further and had fled her own exaggerated fears.

Surely.

Bitty would be back, Kitty dared be in no doubt of that. Her sister would come back as soon as she had calmed, and the switch could still take place. There was no need to alert Mama and Papa yet. Mr. Knight need know no differently at this point.

She could continue the charade until Bitty returned, likely tonight or perhaps tomorrow. Even Bitty would not push the bounds of propriety by staying too long on her own. One night might be covered, two would be harder, and anything after that would require the help of the entire family and staff—which meant the gossip would get out, one way or another. No, Bitty would be home in two days at the latest.

Of course, that didn’t exactly clarify what Kitty should do tonight.

The wedding night.

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER Copyright © 2004 by Celeste Bradley