A Chinese monk was walking up the aisle of her wedding. Evelyn blinked to make the apparition go away, but there he was, bright yellow robes billowing out behind him as he strode the length of the Norman church. Right toward her.
Evelyn hadn’t heard the commotion at first. She’d been waiting breathlessly for her moment to say, “I do.” But a minute beyond “Dearly beloved,” her bridesmaid sister had giggled nervously. Maddie often giggled inappropriately, so Evelyn ignored it. Moments later she’d heard at least four whispers, two creaks from the pews, and one gasp. The final blow came when the Reverend Smythe-Jones faltered. His words stumbled and his mouth fell slack. That had been too much. She’d had to see what was behind her no matter that it was her wedding and brides did not turn around in the middle of their ceremonies. So she’d turned her back on cleric and future-husband, shot a warning look at her sister Madeline, then glared all the interruptions into silence.
That’s when she’d seen him: the Chinaman. There were three of them actuallytwo men and a boybut the first seemed to dominate, with his ground-eating stride and his bright yellow robe.
This simply would not do. Evelyn shifted her gaze to her father and arched her brow. She could already see the Earl of Warhaven, her fiancÃƒ© Christopher’s father, rising to his feet on the other side of the aisle. But the Earl was choleric in temperament; he’d likely make a bad scene worse. Thankfully, her father felt the same. He would get to the disruption before her future father-in-law. It would only take a moment.
Except, it did not take a moment. Her father had barely found his feet before the Chinaman reached the front pew. Evelyn expected that the twin forms of both fathers would at least make the man pause, but they didn’t. He neatly and almost magically sidestepped them. One moment both fathers blocked the man’s path; the next moment, he had somehow left them behind and was continuing up to the dais.
And still, all Evelyn could do was stare. The man wore yellow robes that wrapped him from head to foot. At her wedding?
“Now see here!” Christopher exclaimed as he stepped forward, his outrage a palpable force. He sounded just like an indignant future earl should, and Evelyn felt the tension in her shoulders ease a bit. Christopher would handle this disturbance.
Except, the Chinaman completely ignored him. He bowed once respectfully to the Reverend then threw back his cowl to focus on her.
“My God, you’re white!” she gasped. And he was. Bald as a billiard ball, but with bright blue eyes, a Roman nose and ruddy, stubbled skin. If he hadn’t obviously been in robust health, she would have thought he resembled Christopher’s great grandfather before the poor man died at the age of ninety-eight.
The white Chinaman arched an eyebrow at her. It was an aristocratic expression and completely at odds with his clothing. Then he spoke in a commanding voice that was strangely accented. “You are Evelyn Stanton? Of twenty-four years age today?”
Evelyn swallowed and forcibly reminded herself that she would one day be a Countess. Lifting her chin, she responded as haughtily as possible. “I am, and you, sir, belong outside.” She should turn her back on him, she decided. It was the best way, according to Christopher’s mother, to appear regal without actually being crass.
But before she could even start to move, his arm shot out. He grabbed her elbow and held her fast. She squeaked in alarm, but fortunately Christopher intervened. He’d been too slow to prevent the Chinaman from touching her, but managed to grab hold of the man’s rather massive biceps clearly outlined by the folds of his robe. And there they stood: Christopher holding the bizarre Chinaman who held her.
“Release her, sirrah,” Christopher growled.
Again the Chinaman ignored her fiancÃƒ©, and he boldly scanned Evelyn from head to toe. From the tight compression of his lips, he was none too pleased with what he saw. “You are to wed the Earl of Warhaven on this date? In this church?”
“Yes!” she snapped. “Now go away!” She glanced over his shoulderno easy feat given his heightin the hopes that the fathers would be able to help. But what she saw made her grimace with disgust. Trust the men to be having a furious whispered
ebate with two other gentlemen while completely ignoring the Chinamen interrupting her wedding. What was going on?
Meanwhile, Christopher leaned forward and spoke clearly and directly into the Chinaman’s face. “If you have something to say to my wife, you can do so after the ceremony.” He jerked his head sideways at his groomsmen. “These are my brothers. They will escort you outside where you will await our pleasure.”
The Chinaman’s gaze abruptly sharpened, but not on Christopher or his bristling brothers. Instead, he pinned the Reverend Smythe-Jones with his intense stare. “The ceremony is accomplished? They are wed?”
Was there a note of hope in his voice?
“Er…no…n-not yet,” stammered the cleric. “We’d just begun.” Then the Reverend abruptly straightened and peered down his bulbous nose. “If you would please leave the altar area, I will proceed.”
“Then I am in time.” The Chinaman’s tone was almost dull, but still clearly heard. He turned to Christopher, and with every word, his voice became clearer and more authoritative. “You are not wed. And she is promised to the Earl.”
“And now I am here.” He turned to look at the Reverend. “You may marry us. I am the Earl of Warhaven.”
Once again, the words did not fit into Evelyn’s consciousness. She heard him, of course. Everyone likely heard him with that booming voice of his. But the meaning would not settle in her thoughts, and she simply gaped at him.
Not so Christopher, who snorted one word”Madman!”then waved to his two brothers. As one, they sprang into action to drag the disruptor out of the way. Evelyn did her part, shying sideways to stand protectively in front of the elderly cleric. She also kept a watchful eye on her sister. Madeline was more likely to join the mayhem than avoid it.
Unfortunately, this Chinaman who was not Chinese refused to release her. He held her fast in one hand whilequick as lightningthe other shot forward in two chops: one to Christopher’s forearm, the other to his shoulder. Evelyn’s fiancÃƒ© gasped and stumbled backwards, his arm dropping uselessly to his side. Evelyn reached
out instinctively, trying to steady him, but he was too far away and she was held fast.
Then it was the brothers’ turn. They rushed forward, but the Chinaman lashed out with his soft brown boots from beneath his yellow robes. Truthfully, the footwear did not look all that soliddesigned more for warmth than fightingbut Evelyn distinctly heard the impact of each kick. Alcott took two blowsone to his chest, then his faceand dropped on his bottom beside Christopher. Stephen’s arms were raised to protect his face, but his knees were vulnerable. Two kicks to his legs and he dropped away.
“This is ungodly!” cried the Reverend as he charged around Evelyn to attack the Chinaman. The madman did not react. He simply stood his ground. His hands remained lowered as the elderly cleric rushed forward. Evelyn had a moment of irrational hope that a man in his sixties could accomplish with fisticuffs what three brothers in their twenties could not. She was wrong. At the last possible second, the madman stepped back and away, easily avoiding the Reverend’s fists. The cleric swung anyway, missing by a mile as the madman arched backwards. Then the Reverend’s momentum carried him farther to stumble down the dais steps and into the other Chinaman’s arms: the one wearing orange-saffron robes.
“Don’t hurt him!” Evelyn cried.
The other Chinamana real Chinaman this timedidn’t need the warning. He gently guided the cleric to a seaton top of the Countessand then returned to his place between the madman and everyone else.
Evelyn hurriedly scanned the crowd for more assistance. But the people in the pews remained rooted in place, their mouths hanging open like an audience at a bizarre show. To one side, Christopher and his brothers were regrouping, but it would take them a moment. On the other, Madeline had dropped her bouquet and raised her fists.
“Don’t you dare!” Evelyn hissed, effectively stopping her miscreant sister long enough for their cousin, who was the other bridesmaid, to grab Maddie’s skirt and hold her back. Which left Evelyn at the top of the dais with a madman. It was up to her to end this.
Using her bouquet as a weapon, she roundly smacked the intruder on the back of his head just as she would an errant child. “Why are you ruining my wedding?” she demanded. It was a ridiculous question. Madmen did not respond well to reason, but it did, at least, bring his attention to her. Perhaps that would give Christopher enough time to coordinate an attack.
“My apologizes for my tardiness,” was the man’s response, and it came in surprisingly cultured tones. “I wish no one harm,” he said as he tossed a glare at Christopher and his brothers. “But I am the Earl and you are my intended bride.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Evelyn returned. “You are nothing of the sort.”
“But I’m afraid he is!” came another voice, a young voice tremulous with apology. It took a moment for Evelyn to find the speaker. He was older than his voice suggested: twenty-six, she would guess. He was standing next to the arguing fathers, his pale skin slick, his expression anxious.
“What are you talking about?” she demanded.
He didn’t answer, because the madman spoke up. “Nearly twenty years ago, my father took me, my mother and sister and a few servants on his travels to China. He wanted us to be together as a family.” He said those last words with a negligent wave of his free hand. “We were attacked by bandits. None survived except me, his son.” He turned back to her, and she was struck by the raw intensity in his pale blue eyes. “My parents promised us to one another when we were children. I have returned now to honor that vow.” His shoulders sank somewhat as he grimaced up at the altar. “I am here to wed you.”
“Like bloody hell!” bellowed Christopher as he barreled forward.
Evelyn squeaked in alarm. She knew what would happen, even if she thought Christopher terribly gallant for trying. But without the support of his brothers, who were a step behind as usual, Christopher would not fare better against the madman this time than he had the last.
She tried to help. She jerked her immobilized arm backwards as hard as she could while slipping sideways to interpose her body between the two men. It didn’t work. The madman easily moved with her, allowing her to step between him and her fiancÃƒ©, and then follow all the way through until she stood on his other side. That gave ample room for his booted foot to connect with the center of Christopher’s chest, and again her fiancÃƒ© went flying backwards. The madman, of course, was not even breathing hard.
“This is outside of enough!” cried Evelyn. “This is my wedding!” She glared at Christopher’s brothers before they could attack and fail again. “Do not be foolish. And you!” She turned to the madman. “You are not the current Earl!” She looked out to her father for confirmation. She even tried to get the attention of the real Earl, but it was useless. The fathers plus an older gentleman were hissing and blustering to one another, completely oblivious.
Or perhaps not completely oblivious, because at that moment Evelyn finally placed the graying man nervously wringing his handkerchief as he cringed in the pew. It was the Honorable Mr. Grayson, the Earl’s family’s London solicitor. Which meant the
Evelyn blinked and tried to understand what could possibly be happening there.
“Solicitors argue like chickens,” said the madman in a strangely reasonable tone. “But the truth does not change. I am my father’s son. I am the current Earl, and you were promised to me.”
She focused back on him because, honestly, how could she not? He had that commanding tone that captured one’s attention even in whispers. Still, the situation simply didn’t make sense. “You cannot possibly be the Earl.” She looked into his very blue eyes and pleaded. “This just isn’t the way things are done.”
His eyes narrowed. His gaze was so intense, so direct, she felt as if her skin sizzled. He looked at her nose and her mouth, her ears even, but eventually, his gaze returned to her eyes. “This is important to you? That things be done properly?”
She stiffened. Here was proof positive that the man was mad, but she answered his question nevertheless. “Of course things must be done properly. Anything else isimproper!”
The tension in his grip eased, and she thought perhaps his face relaxed, but it was hard to tell as he dipped his head in a bow. “Very well then, my wife, I will concede to your wishes. We will do things correctly.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. Except, he didn’t move. He didn’t release her arm, and he didn’t step away from her. And most importantly, he didn’t take his fellow Chinamen with him and leave so that things could return to order. He simply stood and looked at her.
“What?” she finally snapped.
He reared back slightly and arched a brow. Then, with a sweeping gesture of his arm, he indicated Christopher, who was whispering to his injured brothers, the arguing fathers and solicitors, and the entire slack-jawed congregation. “How does one proceed correctly in such a situation?”
There was no Earthly way to answer that question. And yet it was incumbent upon her to answer, since the only other ranking woman in the room was the Countess, who was sobbing uncontrollably beside the Reverend, who had managed to climb off her lap to sit rather awkwardly by her side.
Evelyn sighed then made her decision. “Father,” she called. No response. So she raised her voice despite the fact that brides most certainly did not do such a thing. “Father!”
Her father jerked around to face her. “Dearest, there seems to be some question,” he began.
“So I understand,” she interrupted. “Perhaps our guests could all adjourn to the breakfast? It appears that there will be no wedding today.”
Her father glanced ruefully back at the Earl and the solicitorsboth young and old Mr. Graysonas the three hissed and spat in their squabble. The madman had a point: they did seem rather animalistic, though more like snakes than chickens.
Her father grimaced. “Don’t worry, Button, we’ll get this all sorted out soon enough. Then you can have your wedding day just as everything ought to be.”
She smiled at her father. Simple and even-tempered, he always knew just what to say. Putting his words into effect, however, took much more time. Evelyn turned and address her mother. “Mama, do you think you could help everyone find the wedding breakfast? I’m sure they must all be very hungry.” It was a polite fiction. No one was hungry, everyone clearly wanted to stay and watch the unexpected show.
Mama blinked, then a martial gleam entered her eyes. “Of course! Excellent idea,” she said. Then with quick words and pointed stares, she shamed the audience into leaving, enlisting the bridesmaids in getting the stragglers out the door. At Evelyn’s insistence, the groomsmen left as well: Stephen with a limp, Alcott nursing a bloody lip. The Earl was urged by the Reverend to remain silent until they at least had more privacy. And finally, Christopher ordered everyone to sit down and conduct themselves as befitted their stations.
No one obeyed until the madman bowed politely to Evelyn then settled in her father’s seat in the front pew. He reclined there like a…well, like a Chinaman, she supposed. He sat with his back straight, his legs spread, and his hands on his thighs. But he was at least silent and no longer holding her prisoner, so that was progress. At least she was no longer held captive.
She waited until the last guest was escorted out. A number of Christopher’s family remained, for he had retained them. Evelyn’s own familyexcept for her fatherwas gone. Mother and Evelyn together had marshaled every last one to “assist” at the wedding breakfast. The other two Chinamenthe orange-robed one and the boywere standing respectfully off to the side.
“Well,” Evelyn said as the door shut behind the last straggler, “I suppose it’s time to hear from theer, from Mr. Grayson.” She’d almost said “chickens,” and right there was a clear indication of how upsetting this whole situation was.
“You may sit beside me, wife,” the madman intoned. He nodded regally to indicate where.
“I think not,” Evelyn responded, startled by her sudden urge to laugh. Fortunately, the exchange prompted Christopher to stop fussing at his mother and turn to her. He was beside her in a moment, taking her hand and escorting her gently to a place beside the Countess. Unfortunately, the woman’s sobs made it rather hard to hear.
“I am terribly sorry about this, Miss Stanton,” said the younger Mr. Grayson. He bowed deeply in front of her. “Terribly sorry, but we got here as fast as we could.”
“My grandson is an idiot!” snapped the elder Mr. Grayson. “Interrupting a wedding like this! If you had just waited an hour, then this poor gel wouldn’t be in the middle of it. Contract or no contract, she would have been wed!” He folded his arms and looked most put out.
“But…but she thought she’d be wedding an earl!”
“She is!” bellowed the current Earl.
Evelyn stood up, crossing to Christopher’s side because she wanted to hear and because she did not want to become trapped in comforting the Countess. “Please, please, forget my situation right now. You can’t possibly suggest that this…this…” How did one refer to an Englishman in yellow robes? “That his claims are true.” And why was he staring at her like that: steady-eyed, without apparent emotion, completely focused upon her? It was disconcerting. She resolved to ignore him completely in favor of her husband-to-be.
“He is a charlatan!” bellowed the Earl.
“I’m terribly, terribly sorry,” babbled the younger Mr. Grayson, “but I believe this to be Jacob. I am so sorry.”
Evelyn frowned at the man, wondering why he was apologizing to her. After all, Christopher’s father was the one who would lose the title. But that was ridiculous, since this madman wasn’t the rightful Earl. Either way, her place was beside her fiancÃƒ©, so she smiled reassuringly at Christopher. His face was pale and set, his lips compressed into a thin line. And his gray-blue eyes glinted with steel as he stared at the madman.
“What is the proof?” he demanded.
“There is no proof!” bellowed his father, stomping forward. “We have the signet ring.” He lifted his hand to wave the item. “Joseph went off to China and was slaughtered. The only survivor…” He turned and glared at the madman. “The only survivor was his valet, who saw it all. Higgins told us everything. Everyone was slaughtered except him. He stayed hidden, sneaked back to get the ring then made it here to me.” He turned to the young Mr. Grayson. “That is what happened. I am the Earl, and there will be a wedding!”
From his place in the front pew, the Chinaman turned, his expression fierce. “Higgins did survive! We searched the bodies and couldn’t find him. I thought he’d gone home. I thought he’d tell someone I was alive. Why didn’t you send someone back for me?” His voice was rising in clear fury even though his body remained absolutely still. It was as if he restrained all his emotions, but couldn’t control his voice. Or the burning intensity in his eyes.
“Because Jacob died!” bellowed the Earl. “And you are a miscreant thief!”
“I wish that were true, sir,” the young solicitor inserted. “But he remembers things. We played together as boys, you recall. He remembers me.”
The Earl spun around to glare at the older Mr. Grayson. “Control your man, sir, then fetch the Reverend.”
But it was Christopher who stepped forward to glare at the madman. “What was your horse’s name?”
The madman’s gaze turned abstract as he looked not at Christopher, but over his shoulder. “Zeus,” he answered.
“Where did you hide your toy soldiers?”
“Under my bed.”
“Did you have a pet?”
“A dog named Apollo. And the barn cat Ginger.”
The elder Mr. Grayson snorted. “That’s hardly proof. Every boy has a dog and a barn cat. And toy soldiers are always under the bed!”
“Look at me, God damn it!”
Everyone abruptly stared at Christopher, Evelyn included. She had never heard him raise his voice before, much less bellow a curse in the middle of a church. His face was flushed, his eyes sparked like flint and tinder, and for the first time in her life Evelyn actually believed that Christopher was related to his choleric father.
One glance at the madman showed that he, too, was now looking at Christopher. No expression, no emotion; his was just a simple, steady stare.
No one dared interrupt as Christopher continued to glare. For a madman, the Chinaman possessed remarkable composure. In truth, he was completely and totally calm, whereas Christopher’s breath began to huff and his hands were tightening into fists.
Then Christopher abruptly relaxed. His fists opened, his shoulders dropped, and in a low, calm tone, he said five very distinct words: “I do not believe you.”
“Well, of course not!” his father began, but Christopher raised his hand and effectively silenced his father.
“I remember Jacob as wild and loud and…” He glanced apologetically at the Earl. “Very much like my father.” His gaze returned to the madman. “You are not Jacob. You may leave before we call the constable.”
“You are my cousin Christopher. You had freckles on your nose and talked about sheep manure. You wanted to go to sea and be a pirate, and when we played soldiers you always wanted to be the French. You said it would prove you were smarter than any frog when you beat me.” He frowned and shifted his gaze to a spot in the air over Evelyn’s shoulder. “That is all I remember of you.”
It didn’t matter. No one cared what a madman claimed to remember. But at the very moment Evelyn decided everything was settled, Christopher’s grandmother let out a wail. It was loud, it echoed, and it sounded equal parts joy and terror. She struggled to her feet, using her cane to hobble around the pew.
“It is you!” she sobbed. “It’s James! I knew it! I knew it!” And she went to throw her arms around the startled madman.
“Nana! Stop that!” Christopher cried as he tried to restrain the elderly woman. Evelyn also leaped forward, but the dowager countess pushed them both away.
“James used to speak just like that!” she cried. “That was Jamesstiff and arrogant!”
“Mother,” the Earl ground out behind them. “James was your husband. James is dead.”
She glared at him with watery eyes. “I know that, you idiot, but I raised this boy. I would remember. Besides, there’s proof!” With surprisingly quick movements, she abruptly shoved down the edge of the madman’s robe, baring his shoulder and chest all the way to his left nipple. Evelyn gasped and tried to force herself to look away. Shedidn’t. She couldn’t. She’d never guessed that a man could have such a well developed chest.
Meanwhile, Lady Warhaven pointed at a moon shaped scar, half faded but still obvious. “You did that to him! Don’t you remember? You were riding too recklessly with him, and he fell right in those horrible bushes.” She lifted her chin. “This is Jacob.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” began the Earl, but he was cut off as his mother turned directly to Evelyn.
“And you, young lady,” she continued, “will marry the correct grandson!”