Elizabeth “Betsy” Springer came awake with a gasp. She could barely breathe! The last thing she remembered was the coachman’s yell and the way the world tilted as the carriage slipped off of the road. Then . . . nothing.

I must have died, I know it! A picture of the headline for the next edition of the Grantville Times flashed through her head.

Daredevil reporter killed at 22. King calls for extended period of deep mourning. Editor calls Springer an irreplaceable national treasure.

“Meow?”

The sound cut into her fantasies of her own rose-strewn coffin proceeding through the streets of Magdeburg in a grand state funeral. She opened her eyes and saw a dark grey fur-covered face staring at her from only a few inches away. That was when Betsy sneezed, not once but twice. She always sneezed twice.

“Evil creature of darkness in the shape of a feline,” she muttered. She must have gone to hell. Why else would there be a cat?

The sneeze didn’t send the cat running away; instead it rode the sudden upheaval like a master surfer. Apparently this cat thought that her chest was a fine place to sit and did not intend to give up its nice warm bed.

“Let me guess,” she muttered, her throat feeling rough and raw as she spoke. “For your next trick you disappear—all except for your smile.”

The cat in question didn’t deign to answer her. Instead it calmly turned around and began to groom itself.

“I wondered when you were going to wake up,” a familiar voice spoke from the darkness beyond the bed.

Betsy looked past the furry annoyance. The speaker sat in a shadowed corner of the room, but it sounded like Denis. She raised herself up on her elbow enough to dislodge the cat and send it running.

“Was that all it took to get rid of you?” she asked the feline. Just speaking made her throat hurt, although less so now that she had banished the furry nuisance. Then she turned to her unseen minder. “Is that you, Denis?”

“Who were you expecting? Tom Cruise?” Denis Sesma turned in his seat and lit a candle from the small fireplace. He held the candle near his face so that Betsy could see him.

“You making a movie comment? I really must be dreaming.”

“I guess you’re just a bad influence on me.”

Betsy chuckled as she examined the room. Even with the light from the small fireplace and the candle that Denis had in his hand, she could see very little. She knew she was in a large bed, with a heavy quilt spread across her, but much more was beyond her.

“What happened?” she asked in a raspy voice as she noticed a glass of water on her side table. When she rolled to reach it, pain shot through her ribs. Betsy lay back with a groan. Denis stood to help her, but she waved him off. “I’ll be fine.”

In the dim firelight, she saw his wry smile of disbelief. Instead of returning to his seat, Denis moved to the mattress at the foot of the bed in case she changed her mind.

Just for that, I’ve got to get that glass on my own, now! Betsy wriggled across the mattress, feeling weak as a baby with every move. Eventually she managed to get her hands around the glass, take a couple of swallows and return it to the night stand without spilling the contents all over the bed.

She flopped back in an exhausted pose and smiled at him in triumph.

Denis shook his head at her antics. “The road washed out in the rainstorm and the coach ended up on its side in a gulley.”

Betsy winced as she suddenly remembered the events of the previous night: the lighting, the heavy rain, horses bolting, people screaming and then the world turning upside down. “Was anyone hurt?”

“Hurt, yes, but, thankfully, no one died. You got the worst of it. I only pulled a muscle in my leg and got a few scratches,” he said. “Of course, if my cousins Carlos and Antonio hadn’t found us almost immediately, who can say what kind of condition we would have been in?” He shrugged. “We could have both caught pneumonia.”

“Cousins?” She muttered in confusion. Then she recalled the reason that they had been on that coach to begin with. “Oh, yeah.”

****

“Denis, I need your help!”

Mirari Sesma, his cousin, waved a letter at them from her seat in the corner of the chocolate shop when Denis and Betsy both walked in.

“Is it your ankle?” Denis frowned at Mirari’s foot where it sat on a stool. “You’re worse than Betsy was that time she sprained her ankle. She was supposed to stay off of it, and instead she pulled us into investigating the murder of a beekeeper.”

Betsy shoved Denis’s shoulder affectionately. “How can you expect me to stay off my feet and out of the action when there are wrongs to right? Speaking of which . . . ” She turned to Mirari. “What’s the matter?”

“This letter is from home, from Aunt Serina.” Mirari passed it to Denis. He took the letter with a frown and started to read. As he did so, Mirari explained the contents to Betsy. “Our Grandmamma is turning eighty and there is to be a family celebration. We have to be there, if at all possible”

“And the implied part of that is ‘it better be possible,’ ” said Betsy. She knew how her own aunts had been when it came to family gatherings.

“Exactly! You know this family like you were born into it,” said Mirari.

“Mirari, you can’t possibly go,” Denis said with an apologetic frown. “Not with your leg in the shape it is. Next time someone tries to rob your shop, run get the authorities. Don’t try to hold off the thieves with nothing but a pistol and a sword.”

“I was better armed than they were.” Mirari shook her finger at Denis. “I would not have them rob me blind!”

“Better than robbing you lame,” Denis countered. Betsy knew that no matter what he said, Denis would not win the argument with his cousin.

“I had them on the run,” Mirari argued. “If I hadn’t tripped over a chair, I would have been fine. But that’s not important now. Grandmamma is the problem! And from the hints that Aunt Serina dropped in this invitation, I fear that her mind is slipping away.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Betsy wasn’t sure it was even her place to offer, but she hated to see either of them so down. Righting social wrongs and stopping murderers and bandits were more her forte, not nursing a sick, possibly crazy granny.

Mirari looked at Betsy. Immediately, her face brightened. “You can go with Denis in my place to Grandmamma Juliana’s place in Flanders ! I’ve written to the family about you often enough; in fact, they’ve been asking when they were going to get a chance to meet you. This is a perfect time!”

“Wait a minute, Flanders ? I thought your family was from around the Pyrenees,” said Betsy.

“Most of them do come from there. Flanders is where our great-grandmother was born and our grandmother inherited the place,” said Mirari. “So you will go with him!”

Denis looked a little worried. “I don’t think—”

“Nonsense!” Mirari cut him off with a wave.

At that point, Mirari took over travel arrangements and before she knew it Betsy was giving her bags over to a coachman in preparation for a trip to the ancestral Sesma family home.

While Denis and the coachman labored to pack the carriage, Mirari hobbled up on her crutches with a new letter clutched in one hand. She nodded for Betsy to follow her and when they were a little ways off, she held the letter up for Betsy to see.

“This came in the mail this morning. It’s a letter from my cousin, Carlos.”

Betsy took the letter, but couldn’t read it. She turned it sideways, and then upside down. Neither action helped. Although she had picked up spoken French in the time since the Ring of Fire, reading it was still difficult. Not to mention that she thought the author had terrible handwriting.

“And?” she asked Mirari.

“It tells me everything that the last letter didn’t,” Mirari said. “And it’s worse than I thought. Grandmamma has given her patronage to a young . . . poet.” She frowned at that. “The family worries that he might be taking advantage of her in her dotage. They want Denis to come home immediately. He always was one of her favorite grandchildren. Hopefully he can convince her to cut the purse strings on this lay-about. But I’m sure there is something more to this whole matter,”

“Why do I feel like I’m going straight into an Agatha Christie movie?” Betsy muttered.

“Agatha Christie? Oh, yes I’ve read her books from the library,” Mirari said. “I’m sure this journey will be nothing like that. I doubt seriously you’ll be tripping over any bodies.”

“For a change,” Betsy muttered.

****

“Why is it that I’m the one who always seems to get knocked around whenever you and I go out of town?” Betsy muttered.

At that, Denis got up from his seat on the bed and hobbled up to her. As he drew closer, she could see the injuries that he mentioned earlier.

“I didn’t exactly come though this whole thing none the worse for wear,” he said. “From what my cousin Soro says you got a mild concussion and a whole lot of bruises, but it could have been worse.”

Betsy sneezed, followed by a second one several seconds later and then a bout of coughing that made her ribs throb again.

“Denis, will you stop tormenting that poor girl! She needs her rest!” A new voice sounded from the doorway, interrupting him mid-sentence.

At the sound of that voice Denis jerked back and turned, his face as pale as one of the sheets on Betsy’s bed. “Grandmamma,” he said.

Betsy craned her neck to see who could have provoked that kind of reaction. The voice came from a woman standing in the doorway. She had a ramrod straight posture and long, neatly-coifed hair held in place by an intricate comb. Even though Betsy couldn’t see her face clearly, she could sense disapproval in the woman’s bearing.

Betsy’s eyebrows climbed her forehead. This was Denis’s Grandmamma? From Mirari’s words Betsy had been expecting a tiny, hunched woman doddering about on a cane, barely aware of what was going on around her. Looking at the woman standing in the doorway she would have expected to see her on the floor of the USE senate or in the middle of a presidential cabinet meeting.

“I wasn’t bothering Betsy. She just woke and I was . . . ”

Denis’s grandmother snorted in disbelief as she stepped into the room and pointed at the doorway that she’d just vacated. “Don’t fib to me, young man. Go downstairs and make some tea for her! Make it chamomile and use the mint honey in the kitchen. We have to beat that hacking cough before it sets in her chest,” she said. “And take this infernal cat with you!”

Denis glanced at Betsy and then at his grandmother. The most Betsy could do then was to shrug, at which point he snatched up the cat and headed out of the room.

Denis’s grandmother watched him disappear and then turned back toward Betsy. “He’s a good boy. He just needs a firm hand from time to time.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Betsy replied. Her upbringing kept her from saying anything to an elder that would be considered “sass.” Not to mention the fact that if she got into trouble and needed to make a fast exit, she was in no shape to do so.

The woman came over and pressed her hand against Betsy’s forehead. She had the same sharp green eyes as Mirari, obviously a family trait. With swift moves she checked Betsy’s pulse and then began to rearrange the covers over her.

“You seem to be doing all right,” she said. “You should be rather stiff for the next couple of days; that much is to be expected. We still need to keep a close eye on you for any effects from hitting your head as hard as you did.”

Betsy’s head swam at the list of her injuries.” A concussion, yeah,” she muttered.

“Indeed,” the older woman said with a pronounced nod. Then she froze as if in sudden remembrance. “Oh! We have not been formally introduced, since you were only semi-conscious when they brought you in. I’m Juliana Anihoa Maria Constance Sesma, Denis’s grandmother.”

“I’m honored to met you, ma’am,” Betsy put her hand out for a good old-fashioned American handshake. She wondered what Grandmamma would make of that. But if it was good enough for Gustavus Adolphus the Second, it was good enough for Juliana Anihoa Maria Constance Sesma. “I’m Elisabeth Springer, you can call me Betsy.”

“My dear, Elizabeth, I know all about you. You’re my grandson Denis’s intended and will soon be his bride,” said Denis’s Grandmother Juliana.

Betsy’s brain shut down as she pulled her hand back. Her mouth moved under its own power. “What?”

At the same moment, Denis walked back into the room with a fully-loaded tray. He froze in place. The tray slipped from his hands and clattered to the floor. The teapot shattered, splashing steaming tea across his trousers.

“What?” He repeated.

Juliana Anihoa Maria Constance Sesma looked from one of them to the other in confusion. Her eyes narrowed in a way that reminded Betsy of a hawk diving for prey. “Denis! Surely you are engaged! Mirari writes to me of the two of you traipsing about the countryside for that newspaper. You must be engaged to do so without an escort for the young lady! Unless you’ve taken up with a fallen woman?” She lifted an eyebrow at that.

“Fallen woman!” Betsy spluttered as she struggled to push herself into a sitting position. Her ribs gave another painful throb, so she settled for rising to her elbows. “Now just a second here! I’m one of the most highly-paid reporters in the USE!”

“Only because the Kindred family pays by inch of copy,” Denis muttered.

“Not the point here!” Betsy shook her finger at him the way that she’d seen Mirari do. “I’m a woman of independent means! I don’t need a husband to escort me!”

Grandmamma turned to Denis, her face as dark as a thundercloud. “You will not bring scandal to the Sesma family name, Denis.” She crossed her arms under her chest. “Before this visit is over, you will do the honorable thing!” With that, she strode from the room. She paused at the door and pointed to the shattered tea things. “And pick that up!”

Silence descended in the wake of her leaving. Betsy plopped back on her pillow and blew her bangs out of her face. Then she sneezed. Twice. “Well, that went well.”

****

“Okay,” Betsy said. “Start talking, and now. Just what did you and Mirari tell your ‘dear’ grandmamma?”

Denis sighed and stared out toward the lake. There was a stiff breeze coming across the water but he was absolutely certain that the chill running through him had nothing to do with the wind.

It had been a day and half since Betsy had woken up. This was the first time that his grandmother had allowed her to do more than huddle in front of the fire, drink tea and eat soup. “Denis, you will have the rest of your lives together. I just want to make certain that they are long lives, so we have to make sure Elizabeth stays healthy.” She had told him, in a tone that said she would not brook any arguments on the matter.

At lunch Betsy had insisted that she felt fine and wanted to go for a walk with Denis. The staring contest between her and Denis’s grandmother had lasted for a full minute before the older woman had nodded.

“It’s kind of scary how alike you two are,” Denis had said as they walked outside. Betsy scoffed at that. Her pony tail seemed to bob and weave like a prize fighter looking for an opening as she turned her nose in the air.

“It wasn’t me that started the rumor,” said Denis. He motioned her to follow him to a fallen log near the edge of the water. “This sort of thing was why I didn’t want to come back.”

“So who started it? Rob Reiner?” she demanded.

If there was one thing that Denis had learned, it was there were times it was best to ignore Betsy’s movie references, some of which he understood, but many he was still at a total loss with. This was one of those moments.

“Ever since Master Ribalta died, the family has, shall we say, been worried about my . . . future. That settled down a bit when I got the job on the newspaper. But when I decided not to apprentice with a different artist, Grandmamma Juliana and the rest decided that what I needed was a—”

” . . . a wife to keep you on the straight and narrow,” she groaned.

That pretty much summed up the situation. “I was ready to tell my relatives what to do with their ‘suggestions.’ That was when Mirari stepped in. She didn’t want me to cut myself off from the family.”

Betsy reached over and patted his hand. “It’s never good to be feuding with your kin, no matter how irritated they make you,” she said with a melancholy air. “You never know when they’ll be gone.”

Denis knew Betsy was thinking of her father and how quickly he had taken ill and died.

“Anyway,” Betsy shook off her sadness. “Where did they get this other idea that we’re engaged?”

“Indirectly from Mirari.” Denis grimaced. “She’s been writing to our various relatives, including Grandmamma Juliana, ever since she came to Grantville. She never came out and said that we were . . . interested in each other.”

“But she let your grandmother think what she wanted.” Betsy smacked her forehead with one hand. “This is really sounding like one of those Doris Day and Rock Hudson romantic comedies. That was why you seemed worried when Mirari wanted me to come with you.”

Denis picked up a round flat rock and sent it skimming out over the water. The stone bounced three times and then sank out of sight.

“I will have to inform Grandmamma that we are not getting married and that this was a massive misunderstanding. That should bring me full circle: Right back to being estranged from the family,” mused Denis. “Of course, with a few of them that might actually be a blessing in disguise.”

“I don’t want to come between you and your family.” Betsy leaped to her feet and began to pace back and forth, her face lost in deep thought. “There has to be a way out of this mess and still leave your relationship with your family intact. Maybe we could have a nice, long engagement? We could just never get around to marrying?”

“I don’t think we could stall a wedding that long.” Denis shook his head. “But if we go along with them, we’ll be in front of a holy man before we leave.”

“Maybe we could stage an argument where I break up with you; I could find you in the arms of another woman, that sort of thing; you know very, dramatic”

“Then how do we explain to them that we plan to continue our working relationship? Besides, it would take a miracle of epic proportions for me to quickly find someone I’m not related to around here who might be interested in me. I’m just not that gifted with the fairer sex.”

Betsy face ran red to match her hair. “Denis Sesma! Any girl should count themselves lucky to have you interested in them!” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “You are a prime catch, remember that!”

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” Betsy and Denis both looked up and saw a familiar figure approaching them from the woods.

“Captain Pohl?” they wondered simultaneously.

“This is a surprise!” Betsy added. They’d met the captain on a trip to France for a story just before hostilities between their two countries erupted. As the USE was now at war with a French-led coalition, Betsy hadn’t expected to see Captain Pohl again.

“For me, as well,” Captain Marcus Pohl said. “I thought the two of you were back in Grantville.”

“Ordinarily, yes. But Denis is from this area. We came for a visit and to stop . . . Ohmygosh!” Betsy’s eyes grew round. “That poet that your grandmother was patronizing! Between the carriage accident and your family deciding that ‘it’s a nice day for a white wedding’, we completely forgot about him!”

“Why would you wear white to a wedding?” Captain Pohl scratched his head.

“It’s an American custom,” Denis said. To Betsy he said: “It’s patronage, not patronizing. There is a difference. One is money the other is an insult.”

“Whatever!” Betsy waved him away as she turned to Captain Pohl. “This whole marriage thing is a complicated and somewhat bizarre misunderstanding.” She quickly explained to Captain Pohl how they came to visit Denis’s family, the carriage accident and the ensuing mix-up.

“You being right in the middle of something complicated and bizarre does not surprise me in the slightest,” said Pohl as he plucked at his goatee. “However, I may be able to help you.”

“How?” Denis asked.

“How much do you know about this poet?” the soldier asked.

“Actually, a good deal. I’ve been able to interrogate my cousins while Grandmamma was distracted with nursing Betsy back to health,” Denis said.

“Nursing? Ha! More like torturing,” Betsy muttered.

“Aren’t they the same thing, sometimes? He goes by the name Jean LaRue de Rhizoy,” Denis said. “No one in the family really knows much about him. He simply showed up on Grandmamma’s doorstep one day with a letter of introduction from an old family friend—whom, by the way, no one has seen for several years. He spouted off a few poems and Grandmamma Juliana seemed to fall head over heels for him.

“Since then no one has seen a page of this epic poem he is supposed to be composing in her honor. Although he has been overheard spouting off a number of bawdy songs in the local tavern. From what my cousins tell me, he is gaining a reputation in town as a minor rake.”

“But you can’t get rid of him while he is under the protection of your grandmother” Pohl said. “Unless you decide to kill him. I could arrange for him to simply vanish, if you want.”

“No,” Denis and Betsy said simultaneously.

“Good. I would have been worried if you had agreed to that plan,” Pohl said. “Especially since I think I know of this man.”

“What has he done to earn your interest, anyway?” asked Denis. “And it just occurred to me to wonder, where are your dragoons encamped?”

“Most of them aren’t even here. They are doing guard duty for a few merchant companies several towns over. Dull, but it pays well.” Captain Pohl shrugged. “We may be lending our swords to the war effort in the near future.”

“I hope not,” Betsy said jokingly. “I would hate for the USE to hand you and your men a whuppin’ the way we’ve been whuppin’ up on the rest of France.” In their first encounter Pohl tried to pass himself off as a simple soldier, but her reporter’s instincts said there was a lot more to the man than he liked to portray.

“I shall keep that in mind,” Captain Pohl said in a dry tone.

“Did this de Rhizoy con you out of something?” she asked.

“Not me. Several years ago this man—if he is who I think he is—swindled a good friend of my family—and did it in such a manner that he was ruined. All because my friend wanted to be a patron of the arts.

“Since taking interest in the matter, I have found at least three different occasions where the same thing has happened: this scum passes himself off as a poet, occasionally an artist, and garners patronage from wealthy families. He hangs around as long as he can. And when he is expected to present his promised master work, he vanishes in the night.”

“This sounds like your Grandmamma’s poeeet buddy,” Betsy said, deliberately mispronouncing the word. “Why don’t you just speak with Grandma Juliana? She can force Jean to show you some of his work. If we’re lucky, she’ll forget all about making Denis and me get married.”

“I wouldn’t count on it, but if she does I may have an answer to that problem as well. Rest assured, Miss Springer, you won’t need to worry about having to wear white,” Captain Pohl said, arching his eyebrow just slightly.

“I’d never wear white,” Betsy said. “My colors would be blush and bashful.” She affected a stronger southern accent and hoped she sounded like Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias.

“Is blush a color?” Captain Pohl asked Denis.

Denis shrugged, rolled his eyes and said nothing.

****

“Denis! I can’t believe you would stoop this low!” Grandmamma Juliana glared at the three of them. “I knew that you wanted to avoid getting married, but how could you sully a man’s reputation like this? And you Elizabeth, I expected you to keep Denis from running off on a tangent of nonsense such as this.”

Betsy and Denis looked at each other in surprise. “She don’t know me vewy well, do she?” Betsy muttered in an imitation of Elmer Fudd.

“Grandmamma, Captain Pohl is a well-respected gentleman,” Denis said while waving for Betsy to be quiet. “Shouldn’t you take his word about . . . this man?”

“And the captain is a friend of yours, so he would probably say anything to aid you in distracting me from the real issue,” Grandmamma Juliana said. “I meant what I said before. The two of you will not tarnish the family name! And I’ll thank you not to upset Jean by mentioning this to him!”

With that, Denis’s grandmother gathered herself to her full height and stormed from the room like one of the USE battleships.

“Well, that went well,” Betsy said. “Any ideas now?”

“I suppose the two of you will just have to get married,” said Denis and Betsy’s companion.

Betsy looked askance at the captain. “Captain Pohl, forgive me for saying this, but are you out of your ever-lovin’ mind?”

The captain smiled at her in amusement. “Not at all, my dear Betsy. My backup plan should take care of both of our problems.”

That comment was enough to pique Betsy’s interest.

“I only brought a few of my men with me, six to be exact. One of them, a Russian fellow named Illya, studied for the ministry. Let us say that things did not work out in that area; he found his true calling with a sword. But he knows enough to be convincing, and no one knows him around here.

“Betsy, since you are a up-timer, you can say that you want your marriage as close as you can to a traditional ceremony in your own faith. Illya will provide that. And then Denis’s family will leave the two of you alone, thinking that the two of you are actually married.

“Meanwhile you suggest to Madam Sesma that it would be a wonderful thing if you were to have a special poem composed in honor of your wedding.”

“And when de Rhizoy fails to produce one we trap him in his own lies!” Betsy said. “Hoist on his own Picard!”

Both Denis and Captain Pohl winced at Betsy’s mispronunciation.

“And if you want to stall the wedding further, you could insist on a dress made of those strange colors you were talking about. That should take a little time,” Captain Pohl continued as if he hadn’t heard Betsy.

“Maybe not, from what Denis has said about his Great-aunt Serina, I could see her coming up with the material,” Betsy said. “But I think I should insist on a bleedin’ armadillo red velvet cake!”

“This is insane!” Denis said and threw his hands in the air. “It’ll never work.”

Pohl laughed and pointed at Betsy. “She’s involved, of course it’s insane. Besides, it isn’t as if you have an alternative plan, short of sneaking off in the middle of the night. Are you two sure you haven’t been married for several years and just not noticed?”

“No,” snapped Denis

“Of course it’s insane,” laughed Betsy. “That is exactly why it will work!

You realize that de Rhizoy will know that we are onto him, probably within an hour.”

Denis shook his head. “A lot less than that. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of my cousins was listening at the door. If by chance someone was, then I am sure they would tell him in hopes of driving him off. Not that I think it would do any good.”

Pohl nodded but said nothing.

****

Denis watched in bemused horror as his Great-aunt Serina wrapped Betsy in yards and yards of pink fabric in preparation for making her wedding clothes. He had no idea where they’d found the material, but it seemed to swallow Betsy whole. The redheaded reporter stood on a stool with her arms straight out, as if afraid that Great-aunt Serina would stick her with a pin at any moment.

“Are you sure you want to wear pink, dear?” Aunt Serina looked up at her in concern. “With your coloring, this shade does nothing for you. And I don’t understand why you insisted that we make your dress out of a pair of drapes.”

“Just like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind,” Betsy said. The twinkle in her eye told Denis that she was enjoying the play acting. “It’s curtains for me, see!”

She sounded just like a gangster in one of her old movies.

This is quickly becoming what the up-timers call a ‘train wreck, Denis thought. When it seemed like Aunt Serina was done with the fitting, he cleared his throat. Both women glanced up at him in surprise, as if they hadn’t been aware that he was there.

“I could definitely use a drink right now,” he said.

“Sounds great to me!” Betsy wriggled out of the pieces of her new dress. “If that’s all right with Great-Aunt Serina here.” She waved to the venerable old woman.

“You children behave yourselves,” Great Aunt Serina said with a smile. “I’ll have nothing happening that would disgrace this family on my watch.”

As they headed out the door Denis couldn’t keep from laughing.

“Are you going to share the joke with the rest of the class?” Betsy asked.

“Considering the tales I heard about Great Aunt Serina when I was growing up, she’s the last one who needs to be talking about ‘disgracing the family.’ ”

“That would explain one or two of her jokes,” Betsy said. “I’ll be glad when this wedding nonsense is behind us. I felt so badly today when your Grandmamma paid that jeweler to make us a couple of rings.”

“You are the one who wanted to indulge Grandmamma in this for the sake of getting rid of that swindling poet,” Denis said. “I would be happy to just tell her the truth and accept the consequences.”

“I know,” Betsy nodded. “But it works out better this way. I won’t be the cause of you being disowned by your family.”

Denis’s steps slowed as they neared one of the local taverns. “Oh, do I remember this place! I used to sneak bread and cheese from the kitchen when I was a boy. The matron who ran it was a bit sweet on me.”

“So why didn’t you ask her to marry you?” Betsy teased.

“Maybe because she’s three times my age,” Denis said. “When I say she was sweet on me, I mean that I reminded her of her own son.”

“You miss being here,” Betsy observed.

“Occasionally,” Denis replied. “Why?”

“I was just thinking that we needed to make sure that you can come back when we take our leave.”

Just then Captain Pohl emerged from the alley between the tavern and the shop next door. His hawk-like gaze zeroed in on Denis and Betsy. “Ah! There you are! How go the wedding plans?”

Both Denis and Betsy jumped at the captain’s sudden appearance.

“You are entirely too good at sneaking,” Denis said at the same time that Betsy said: “I’m having way too much fun with this! I missed my calling! I should have been a wedding planner.”

Captain Pohl and Denis traded horrified looks at the thought.

“Why are you lurking in a dark alley, anyway?” Denis changed the subject.

“Keeping our friend de Rhizoy on his toes,” Captain Pohl directed a pointed look up the street.

A block or so away the door to another tavern came open and two men came stumbling out. One was a heavyset fellow with a beard halfway down his chest. The other a tall thin man in his twenties. The two of them were singing a song in what seemed a combination of Italian, French and some eastern dialect that Denis didn’t recognize.

Betsy lifted an eyebrow at their antics. “Are they auditioning for the Gong Show? And who are they anyway?”

“The heavy-set man is my associate, Sergeant Dimitri. He is one of the best soldiers I have ever known,” said Pohl. “As for the other fellow, that is none other than Jean LaRue de Rhizoy, poet and trickster.”

“Good! Now we know who we’re aiming for with our metaphoric sucker punch,” Betsy muttered as she cracked her knuckles.

“He seems to be having a good time, which is exactly what I instructed Demtri to show him,” said Pohl, as he pulled his hat further down on his head to hide his face. “Let’s make things interesting.”

“Oh good! I like it when things are interesting!” Betsy’s grin was positively feral.

“That’s God’s own truth.” Denis rolled his eyes, checked to make sure he knew the nearest exit routes, then linked arms with her and Pohl and the three of them sauntered up the street as if they hadn’t a care in the world. As they passed Dimitri and de Rhizoy, Betsy stumbled into the two of them with feigned ill-grace.

Pohl took an exaggerated look at his sergeant, allowing his face to be seen for the first time as he did so. “Dimitri, is that you?”

Dimitri’s eyes narrowed in a shrewd expression that he promptly hid behind a guileless look. “Captain Pohl? I didn’t expect to see you here!”

At the mention of the captain’s name, de Rhizoy’s head shot up. He directed an uneasy look at Captain Pohl.

“I hadn’t planned on visiting the taverns today, but then I ran into my dear friend Denis Sesma and his lady Betsy Springer. Betsy is an up-timer. They’re in town so that they can marry in the presence of Denis’s family. When she promised to tell me tales of the future that she is from, I couldn’t resist.”

At the mention of Denis’s family name, Jean LaRue de Rhizoy looked even more uncomfortable. He turned as if to slip away, when Dimitri grasped his shoulder.

“What a coincidence!” Dimitri slapped de Rhizoy in a friendly gesture that caused the poet to stumble. “My new friend Jean here is a poet in the employ of the Sesma family.”

“He is?” Betsy clapped her hands in excitement, her voice sounding as if she didn’t have two brain cells in her head and her eyes sparkled in a way that told Denis that she was enjoying every minute of their act. “Please Mr. LaRue, would you recite one of your poems for us?”

De Rhizoy shifted from one foot to another and looked away. “I’m afraid I couldn’t do my work justice on such short notice. I would need a little time to prepare.”

“How very unfortunate,” Captain Pohl said. “I would very much like to hear your work.”

“I know!” Betsy said, holding her index finger up the way Charlie Chaplain would if struck by sudden inspiration. “Captain Pohl, why don’t you come to the wedding? That way when Mr. LaRue recites the poem that he’s writing for the occasion, you can be there!”

De Rhizoy’s head whipped around as if he’d been struck. He stared at Betsy, eyes widening and mouth opening and closing as if he were a caught fish. Denis felt torn between pity and laughter.

“I beg your . . . that is . . . ” The poet stammered and trailed off.

“That is what you do for Grandmamma Sesma, isn’t it?” Betsy asked the poet innocently. “Write commemorative poems? I can’t think of anything that will be more memorable than this wedding.”

Denis had to turn away to fight down his laughter. Between Betsy’s wide-eyed innocent expression, Pohl’s vaguely threatening presence and the grey-purple hue that de Rhizoy’s face seemed to be turning, Denis felt like he was enjoying his visit home for the first time.

“I . . . Yes,” de Rhizoy trailed off. “In fact, I was just about to retire to my quarters to continue my work.” He sketched a short bow to them all. Then he backed away. Once he’d walked four storefronts distance, he broke into a run.

Pohl watched de Rhizoy’s retreat like a hawk. “Follow him,” he instructed the sergeant. “And make sure that he does not feel the urge to suddenly find inspiration in another town.”

****

“Twelve weeks,” muttered Denis as he poured himself a cup of wine. He wished there were something stronger available. But the small room that had been put at the disposal of “the groom” had not much else beyond the wine and some bread and cheese. There would, of course be a rather large wedding feast waiting after the ceremony. His cousin Carlos, who was acting as his best man, had to smuggle that little bit of nourishment in to him.

“What about twelve weeks?” asked Captain Pohl as he walked in the room with an empty goblet. “And pour me one of those.” He placed his drinking vessel on the table next to the wine.

The sudden appearance of the mercenary shocked Denis so much that he felt that if he had been close to a window he would have jumped out of it.

“We arrived here twelve weeks ago in the middle of a storm. Had you told me then that I would be standing here, ready to get married—even for pretend—I would have laughed.” Denis massaged his temples. “Between posting the banns and all the preparations, I have no idea if we managed to keep the news secret from Betsy’s mother and the rest of our friends in Grantville. I’m certain that Grandmamma wrote to Mirari with the particulars.”

He tilted his head as he regarded the captain. “By the way, where have you been? I haven’t seen you since we confronted de Rhizoy in the street.”

“Laying low,” Captain Pohl said. “We spooked de Rhizoy just enough that if he didn’t know he was being watched, he would have run like frightened a doe during a stag hunt. My men tell me that he has been borrowing money about town. I would not be surprised if some of the ladies in your family find that their personal jewelry has suddenly gone missing.”

“Perhaps we should apprehend him now?” Denis asked hopefully.

“Not yet,” Pohl shook his head. “I would like to give de Rhizoy just a bit more rope to hang himself with. Besides—” Here the corner of the Captain’s mouth turned up. “—I would not be the one to cause Betsy to miss out on her grand performance.”

Just then the prelude music started, signaling to Denis that it was time.

“You don’t know Betsy like I do,” Denis shook his head as he turned. “Every day for her is a grand performance.”

****

Betsy looked radiant.

Denis always thought she was pretty, from their first meeting when she burst into the offices of the Grantville Times screaming at Mr. Kindred angrily because he changed her copy.

But standing next to her in the chapel with his kin looking on, Denis realized just how pretty Betsy was. He really couldn’t understand why he had never really noticed it before.

In spite of the fact that he knew that the ceremony was not real, he nevertheless found himself wiping sweaty palms on his trousers.

Although he’d never entertained thoughts of being married, he was certain that if he had, it wouldn’t have been with a redhead in pink standing next to him like one of Mirari’s fluffy desert confections.

Nor would his Great-aunt Serina be standing there as a matron of honor in her own version of the pink monstrosity, wailing as if at a funeral, to say nothing of his Grandmamma Juliana standing off to one side, her face unemotional and stoic. To distract himself, Denis side-eyed Betsy again. Which was when he realized that she was wearing her diamond earrings, the same ones she had used in France to pass herself off as an art buyer when they busted the art forgery ring.

“I thought you never got those back,” he whispered to her out of the corner of his mouth.

“Captain Pohl just returned them,” Betsy muttered back.

“Shhhh!”Great-aunt Serina hushed them, which caused the faux pastor to bestow a glare on the entire wedding party. The pastor was a wide man, even in his vestments Denis could almost envision him swinging a sword on the Russian steppes. Denis wondered if anyone was fooled by this particular bit of deception.

“Have you the rings?”

Denis glanced over at his cousin, who with a swooping gesture brought forth the two rings. Denis took one, looked at Betsy, and then slipped it onto her ring finger. She followed suit and placed an identical one on his hand.

“It fits,” she sounded shocked.

“Madame,” the pastor paused the ceremony to direct a stern glare at Betsy. “You have the rest of your life to speak with your intended. Would you mind not jabbering on at this moment so that I can finish the ceremony and make him your husband?”

Behind him, Denis could hear his cousins titter and Grandmamma shush them all.

“Sorry,” Betsy whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Denis added.

“You’ll both be sorry if you don’t let him finish,” Grandmamma Juliana chided.

The pastor glared at them, completed the liturgy, and snapped his Bible closed.

“Fine! You’re married! You may kiss your bride, sir.”

Betsy and Denis looked at each other in surprise. “I didn’t think about kissing,” Betsy whispered to him. Denis reached in, wrapping his arms around Betsy and drew her closer. Their faces were only an inch apart when a boom echoed through the chapel. The two of them jumped apart as if caught misbehaving.

Denis’s grandmother and Great-aunt Serina let out identical huffs of exasperation. “What now?”

Captain Pohl entered the back of the chapel along with one of his soldiers. The captain carried a staff in one hand. The dragoon was pulling Jean LaRue de Rhizoy along by the scruff of the neck.

“I’m sorry to have to stop the ceremony, but I’ve caught a thief!” Pohl cried, then slammed the staff down against the stone floor, producing another attention-catching boom.

Both Denis and Betsy visibly relaxed.

“What is going on! How dare you insult this family by interrupting my great-nephew’s wedding!” Aunt Serina threw her hands in the air in an overwrought manner.

Betsy watched in fascination. “I could take lessons in stealing the show from her,” she whispered to Denis.

Pohl tilted his head and stared down at Aunt Serina. “I dare because it was necessary, madam. I caught him trying to ride away through your compound gates with his saddlebags filled with silver candlesticks and jewels.”

As if on cue, Sergeant Dimitri entered the room with a set of saddlebags. He reached into one and produced a silver goblet.

Great-aunt Serina ran to Dimitri. She pulled the bag away from him forcibly and began pulling contents out “That silver candlestick belonged to Cousin Yoshia! And these are Maria’s earrings! How did he get hold of all this? My emerald ring! No wonder I couldn’t find it this morning!” As she cataloged the contents of the bags at the top of her lungs, a few more women in the chapel cried out in anger over finding prized possessions among the missing items.

Juliana Anihoa Maria Constance Sesma strode over to Jean LaRue de Rhizoy. Under her imposing glare, the faux poet cringed as if expecting her to slap him. Instead she turned to Captain Pohl. “I assume you have something suitably grim in mind for this man’s punishment, Marcus?”

“I can think of a few things,” Captain Pohl said.

“Good! I’ll leave him to you.” With a final glare at de Rhizoy, she strode from the chapel.

Betsy watched Grandmamma go with wide eyes. “That is a classy lady. I would have spit in his face, at least. But where is she going?”

“She’s got to see to the festivities,” Great-aunt Serina said as she gathered up the treasures into the saddlebag to distribute back to their owners. “Who has time to dwell on feeling foolish when our Denis is finally married?”

Still clucking over the saddlebags, Great-aunt Serina also left the chapel, trailed by various family members intent on retrieving their lost possessions. At last, only Betsy, Denis, Captain Pohl and Dimitri were left.

“Wait just a minute!” Denis narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Captain Pohl. “How does she know your first name?”

“Oh, that,” said Captain Pohl. “It happens that my mother was her god-daughter. I didn’t realize that you were related to this Sesma family the first time we met.”

Betsy traded astonished looks with Denis. “Small world,” she said.

“Indeed,” Captain Pohl said. “At any rate, your Grandmamma knew about Jean LaRue de Rhizoy and when the little scum showed up here she wrote to me. You know the rest.”

“Then Grandmamma Juliana was never besotted with the poet?”

Betsy began to laugh, then ran her finger along the side of her nose. “It was all a con game, straight out of The Sting. She lured us here and the two of you used us to set de Rhizoy up.”

“Indeed,” said Captain Pohl. “I wish I could have told you, but then your performances in front of him might not have been so convincing.”

“I’ll have you know, sir,” proclaimed Betsy. “My performance would have been worthy of an Academy Award!”

Betsy stared longingly down at the third finger of her left hand for a moment, running her finger across the ring that Denis had so gently slid on there.

“It looks good there,” Denis said softly.

She pulled off the ring and handed it back to Denis. “Maybe you should save this for the girl who you really do decide to marry.”

“By the way,” asked Dimitri. “Where did you find such a convincing pastor at the last minute?”

Denis, Betsy and Captain Pohl all froze in place.

“What do you mean, Dimitri?” Captain Pohl asked slowly. “I didn’t get a look at the pastor; wasn’t it Illya?”

“No. I just spotted him through the window; something must have held him up. When I came in earlier and he wasn’t at the front of the chapel, I figured you got someone else to do the job.”

Denis and Betsy looked at each other with wide eyes.

“You don’t suppose . . . ” Betsy trailed off with a gulp.

“Betsy . . . ” Denis said slowly. “I think that might have been a real man of God. How did Grandmamma Juliana know what we were planning?”

“Well, I did see her in the hallway, after the captain and I were discussing the whole thing,” said a rather sheepish looking Dimitri. “I suppose she could have overheard our plans.”

“Then that was a real ceremony,” Betsy said slowly. “That means that Denis . . . and I . . . are . . . ”

“Really married!” laughed Captain Pohl. “Looks like your Grandmamma had one more trick to play on us all. And it’s about time! The world had better look out. Ladies and gentlemen; I give you Mr. and Mrs. Denis Sesma.”

Denis and Betsy looked at each other, then at Pohl and Dimitri.

“You could always get an annulment,” pointed out the sergeant. “Of course, you should give a little warning as I don’t want to be in the general neighborhood when you grandmother finds out.”

There was no noise in the room for nearly a minute, before Betsy finally spoke. “I don’t want an annulment.”

Denis cocked his head at her. “Are you sure?”

“Damn right I am. I’ve never been surer of anything in my life,” she snapped. “But I’m keeping my maiden name.”

Elizabeth “Betsy” Springer’s new husband shrugged and said, “Yes, dear.”

****