Isabel fidgeted in front of the mirror, running her hands along the bodice of the wedding dress she was wearing. It was still unfinished, but it was already turning out better than she could have imagined.
She shifted a bit to get a better view of the skirt, but then stopped when she felt the sharp stab of pin in the small of her back. “Ouch.”
“I did warn you not to move, sir- ah, miss,” Jopson said. Stepping back to examine his handiwork. “How does this feel?”
“Much better, less like I’m going to tear the seams just by moving about.”
“Excellent,” Jopson said. “Now if you can hold still for just a few more moments so I can mark where the pins are, I’ll get this off you and we can both sit down.”
“Don’t take too long or my leg is going to take the decision out of my hands,” Isabel said with a laugh.
Jopson chuckled. “Not if mine gives out first.”
The marking and the unpinning took relatively little time, but it was almost too long for Isabel, who collapsed onto her bed in her underthings just as soon as Jopson was done helping her out of the dress, and Jopson followed after, dropping into a chair a moment later.
“I hate this blasted leg,” Jopson muttered. “Sometimes I just wish I’d lost it.”
“I think I prefer keeping mine,” Isabel said. “Though it’s not particularly injured, it’s just weak. Have you thought any about Francis’s offer?”
A smile quirked on Jopson’s face. “To be his steward again? I’ve thought about it, yes.”
Isabel laughed. “Being a butler is a respectable position, and the formal title is really only for show, seeing as our housekeeper is the only staff we currently have, but I understand completely if you want to decline. I’m sure Mary could see to the place herself, she’s certainly competent enough and it’s not as if Francis and I don’t do work around the house… but I’m rambling. I truly don’t mean to overstep, I know you’ve been very happy working as a tailor, and I am happy to be benefitting from your talents, I just… I suppose it’s the selfish desire to keep friends close really.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Jopson said. “Edward was quite upset when Francis told us the two of you were planning to move out of London, though don’t tell Ned I told you that.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” Isabel assured him.
Jopson grinned. “I don’t think Ned would mind too much really, if I moved out to the country to work for you. It would still give him a place to stay when he’s on land, but I do rather enjoy the freedom of being my own master. I think unless something arises, I’ll decline for now.”
There was a knock on the door to Isabel’s room then. “Are you decent for visitors?” Francis called through the door.
“Absolutely not,” Isabel called back. “Who is it?”
*Several months ago*
“Sir, I’m so sorry, I never would have let them in if I’d known. Or if they’d insisted I’d at least have warned you, I’d never-”
James held up a hand to quiet Mary. “It’s all right, I know you didn’t mean any harm.”
James had just re-emerged from his bedroom, having changed out of a dress and back into trousers and a shirt. William and Elizabeth had decided to surprise him with a visit since they were in London and an unfortunate series of miscommunications had led to them seeing James dressed for the day as Isabel.
“There’s nothing to be done for it now, I’ll just have to make my excuses,” James said. “If you could bring tea, I would appreciate it. It would be nice to have a friendly face hovering.”
Mary nodded and rushed off to the kitchen.
When James met William and Elizabeth in the parlor he remained silent until he’d seated himself in the arm chair closest to the door, so that there was an empty armchair between him and the settee where his brother and sister-in-law were seated. “I suppose you’ll be wanting an explanation.”
“That would be appreciated,” William said. “I can’t say I’d ever expected to see you in ladies clothes of all things.”
“It wasn’t the first time,” James said. “I do believe I told you about the time I performed as a lady in a play.”
“You did, but this was not that James, I’m not a fool,” William replied and James averted his eyes so as not to see the disappointment on his brother’s face.
James was silent, he had no idea what he was supposed to say. “I- I wear women’s clothing, sometimes, at home. Francis knows. Our housekeeper Mary knows.”
William frowned and Elizabeth looked between them anxiously. “And you trust their discretion?” she asked.
“Yes,” James said. “Francis… has been fully supportive and Mary, well, let’s just say she’s more than earned my trust.” His and Francis’ relationship was another thing to dance around. He didn’t want to bring him into this if there was going to be trouble.
William sighed deeply. “And you’re sure you’re being safe in this James? You must know how dangerous this is.”
James nodded. “We’ve been careful. With only a few exceptions all my dresses have been acquired through a tailor friend, and I’m well aware to be careful of windows.”
“So is that where that old dress of mine disappeared off to?” Elizabeth asked, with a sly grin and James flushed.
“I didn’t think it would be missed.”
Elizabeth laughed. “It wasn’t, don’t worry. It’s just became a bit of a household mystery, the disappearing dress. Poor Roberta was convinced someone had broken in and insisted on an entire inventory of the house. I told her she was being ridiculous, because who breaks in and just steals an old dress that’s been repaired and adjusted to death.”
“James apparently,” William said, finally breaking his silence.
James, who had been relaxing at Elizabeth’s lightheartedness, was immediately tense again.
“I don’t understand, James,” William continued. “You risk so much, your reputation, your freedom, your life, and for what?”
“A brief reprieve, where… where I can pretend to be the woman I wish I was.” He hadn’t intended to be so blunt about it, but put on the spot as he was, he hadn’t been able to think of anything else.
William, for his part, was stunned back into silence, starting at James agape.
Once again, it was Elizabeth who broke the tension. “Why would you choose that? I know a great deal of women who would prefer the freedom of being a man.”
“I don’t know,” James admitted. “It doesn’t make sense, it’s just this feeling. I haven’t been unhappy in the life I’ve led, and I’ve said to Francis more than once I think I’d scream if I had to wear skirts all the time, but there’s something inexplicable about how I feel when I put on a dress to…” he trailed off.
“To what?” Elizabeth asked.
James shook his head. “It’s nothing.” Revealing Isabel felt like entirely too much.
James was momentarily spared further inquiry by the sudden entrance of Francis with the tea that James had requested Mary bring. He hadn’t heard Francis come in, but it was an unbelievable relief to see him.
“Are you all right?” Francis asked, not even acknowledging William and Elizabeth yet.
“Better now that you’re here.” It ran the risk of being too revealing of their relationship, but James was still feeling quite panicked and Francis’ presence now was calming.
Francis gave him a small nod and set the tray down on a small side table before dropping into the chair between James’ chair and William and Elizabeth on the settee.
“So, you’ll have to fill me in on what’s been discussed.”
“Mostly me,” James said, hoping that it comes across that he hasn’t implicated Francis in anything other than tolerating James’ inclinations.
“I see,” Francis said. “Then I must ask, what are your intentions toward James, considering what you now know Mr. Coningham?”
William let out a long breath, “I intend him no harm if that is what you are implying.”
“And if I might posit a question, just what is the nature of your relationship with my brother?”
James thought he might just vomit for the knots rolling in his stomach, but Francis didn’t seem immediately concerned by the question so James tried to force himself to relax.
“We live together as husband and wife, more or less,” Francis said.
William’s jaw was tight. “I see… and this is… desired… by both of you.”
“Yes.” James was quick to respond. He wanted William to suffer no delusions that any of this was coerced.
“And your dressing as a woman hasn’t been… it wasn’t because of this?”
“I do it more regularly now that I have Francis’ support, but no, as I said, it started before I even knew Francis.”
William nodded slowly. “Well, if this…” He gestured vaguely. “Makes you happy and it seems as though you have taken safety into account. I suppose I can only give you my support as well.”
James choked back the sob that bubbled suddenly in his chest at those words. He wanted to thank William, but he also didn’t know if he could get words out without bursting into tears.
“I do think I will need some time to… to think about all this,” William continued. “But once I have my thoughts in order I would like to have this conversation again. For now,” he said, getting to his feet. “Elizabeth and I shall take our leave. You have our discretion, Jim, I promise.”
James could only nod.
James did not break down into tears until he heard the front door shut and William and Elizabeth were gone from the house. Francis was at his side in an instant.
“I’m all right,” James tried to assure him between sobs, but he could only imagine that wasn’t particularly convincing.
“You’ll forgive me I find that hard to believe,” Francis said as he coaxed James to his feet.
James let himself sink into Francis’s arms once he was standing, tucking his head into Francis’s shoulder. “I’m overwhelmed more than anything,” he murmured. “I didn’t think… I’d always thought Will would disown me if he found out. Do you really think he meant it? When he said he wouldn’t….”
“He seemed sincere, but if he wasn’t, know that I will fight for you.”
“You didn’t have to out yourself with me,” James said, pulling back from Francis just a bit to wipe a sleeve across his face. “I hadn’t said anything to implicate you except perhaps in that you supported me in my dressing as a woman.”
“Yes, but given everything it was going to have to be said sooner or later,” Francis said.
James sighed, curling himself against Francis again. “Thank you.”
“You know,” Francis said, later that evening once everything had calmed somewhat. “I told William that we were living as husband and wife, but we haven’t really had anything like a wedding, have we. I only started calling you Lady Crozier when we went to Portugal, because anything else would have been suspect.”
James looked up from the sketch he’d been doing, Francis in profile. “Francis… we can’t. There isn’t a church in the world that would marry us.”
“Nothing we could do would be legally binding, true,” Francis said. “But, we could still have our own small ceremony, with friends, family. The people whose opinions matter.”
James opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again. It was an appealing idea, having their own private wedding. Inviting only those who already knew, perhaps even opening up to more of their friends. James could think of a few others who they could likely trust, Bridgens and Peglar chief among them, as well as Hartnell and Irving… The more he thought about it, the more James wanted it very badly.
“Yes, I… I would love that.”
The visitor was none other than Edward Charlewood, James’ dearest friend and confidant.
Edward had been the person James had confided some of his earliest wondering about what it might be like to be a woman. They’d also been briefly been… involved, but it had been more a fun mutual flirtation than anything committed. And Edward was happy with Sarah just as James was happy with Francis.
All that to say, Isabel knew he wouldn’t react poorly if she came down in a dress unannounced.
She was correct in that assumption, because when she entered the parlor Edward greeted her like any other lady he might be meeting for the first time.
“I was unaware there was a lady of the house,” Edward said, teasing.
Isabel laughed. “There only is sometimes, but when there is she is Isabel Fitzjames.”
Edward was taken aback for just a moment, and it was just enough time for James to steer them onto the settee with a well placed, “Shall we sit?”
“This is serious,” Edward said after a moment. “I mean, you’re doing this in earnest aren’t you? Not as a joke.”
“I am, and I have been for a few years now,” she paused just a moment. “You’ll forgive me for not telling you sooner?”
“I can hardly fault you,” Edward replied. “This isn’t dressing up for a lark, but… what is this?”
Isabel sighed. “It’s mostly just a feeling. I know when we were younger I broached you the question, of what it might be like to be a woman, and, well, that was something I was never quite able to let go of.”
“I see,” Edward said with a slow nod. There was a moment’s silence before he continued. “Well, you look lovely. This is clearly something that suits you.”
Isabel smiled broadly. “Thank you.”
“And Francis is on board with this I would assume, since you did say years?”
“Yes, he’s been… I did hide it from him at first, but he’s been nothing short of wonderful since he found out. That’s actually why I invited you down. Francis and I have been trying to have these conversations in person whenever possible, to avoid the danger of letters.”
“Well, don’t keep a man in suspense then,” Edward teased.
“Francis and I are getting married, well, we’re having a ceremony at any rate,” Isabel said. “And I would very much like you to be there.”
“And I would be glad to be,” Edward said. “Might I bring Sarah or am I to keep this close to my chest as possible?”
“I would like Sarah to be there as well if she’s feeling well enough,” Isabel said. “I know in your last letter you mentioned she’d been quite ill.”
“She has been ill yes,” Edward said. “Is there a date set?”
“Not as yet, William and Elizabeth are organizing all that. They offered their home for the wedding, and they’ll be sending out ‘party’ invitations once it’s settled.”
Edward grinned. “Splendid! I’m glad you have your brother on your side in all this. I’m very happy for you.” He paused a moment. “Though I will admit to being a bit disappointed that I won’t get to be your best man. I’d been banking on that ever since you were mine when Sarah and I married. Does Francis have a best man?”
“Thomas Blanky,” Isabel said. “He was Terror’s ice master, and he and Francis had sailed together with Parry before that. They’ve been close friends for some time.”
Edward nodded. “I’m glad you’ve found a group of friends that you’re safe with, Isabel. Say, I don’t suppose I’d be allowed to be your maid of honor, would I?”
Isabel laughed and smacked Edward playfully on the arm. “As much as I would love to see you in a dress, Elizabeth has already claimed that role.”
Edward laughed as well. “I should have guessed. Now, I believe I am owed several years worth of stories, if I’m not mistaken. I imagine you’ve been getting up to your usual amount of trouble as a lady.”
After the initial discussion of actually having a wedding ceremony, Francis had sat down to figure out logistics. Weddings were large affairs typically, families and friends were invited, there were other roles to be filled aside from bride and groom. Isabel and Francis’s wedding certainly wouldn’t be large, but both he and Isabel wanted their friends to be there. There were a few people that would likely be safe to invite. John Bridgens and Henry Peglar, Tom Hartnell and John Irving, came to mind, and of course Jopson already knew, as he had been Isabel’s tailor for some time now and Isabel had already written him about a wedding dress.
The issue that it came down to for Francis was the matter of who he would ask to be his best man. Isabel had said she’d likely ask Elizabeth to be her maid of honor when things settled with William, but Francis felt at a loss.
His first choice for best man, who he’d considered when courting Sophy, had been James Ross. But Ross didn’t know Isabel, and Francis didn’t know how Ross might react to Isabel, or even just to James dressing as a woman at all. This was on top of the fact that Ross didn’t know that Francis and James were romantically involved at all, and Francis was unwilling to subject Isabel to that sort of risk.
To Francis’ knowledge, Ross had never seen sodomy as being more than how it was listed in the articles, and while he wanted to believe that Ross wouldn’t react poorly to the idea of Francis being with a man, he just didn’t know. And just because Ross had done his fair share of crossdressing in the past, that had been in the Antarctic and Arctic, where societal rules were often disregarded and bent. Would he view Isabel with the same acceptance? Or would living as a woman being crossing a line? No, it was best not to ask this of Ross.
In the end, he asked Blanky. Blanky was already well aware of the years that Francis had pined for Ross, and while he hadn’t been told that Francis and Fitzjames were living discretely as a couple, Francis was sure the man had sussed it out for himself.
“You know I wasn’t going to say anything, if you hadn’t brought it up,” Blanky said as he sat with Francis in the kitchen of Francis and James’ home.
“I know,” Francis replied, perhaps a bit shortly. “I didn’t bring this up because I was worried you’d tell. I wouldn’t have told you about Ross if I was worried. If you’d let me finish you’d have heard me say I’m telling you this because I want you to be best man at my wedding.”
Blanky cackled. “Oh that’ll be a sight, is James going to be wearing a dress?”
“Yes actually, he… he will,” Francis said. “That’s something else too, James is… has been living as a woman, as far as he’s able.”
Blanky nodded slowly. “I’ve known some ladies like that, not usually in such a nice position as James though. And he’s doing all right?”
“Yes, we’ve been quite fortunate to have discrete friends. Jopson is James’ tailor now.”
“James does know that you’re telling me this?” Blanky asked.
Francis nodded. “I asked him before I even wrote you.”
A few moments passed and then Blanky snickered. “I’m sorry Francis, I don’t mean to laugh. I just really never thought I’d see you get married. Between Ross and Miss Cracroft, I thought surely you’d be a bachelor forever.”
“I still will be in the eyes of most,” Francis pointed out.
“But not to the people who matter the most,” Blanky said. “And I’m glad to rank in that number.” He paused. “Does Ross not know?”
“No,” Francis admitted. “I’d… I fear I don’t know enough about his thoughts on the matter. He is a dear friend, but I… I don’t know if he’s safe to bring into this. I don’t want to distrust him, but…”
“There’s just too much risk involved.”
Francis slumped in his seat. “Yes.”
“Well, maybe you’ll tell him one day, but for now, I would agree with keeping quiet about it,” Blanky said. “Not that James Ross isn’t a good man in other respects, but this is more sensitive than most things.”
Francis sighed, but made no further comment on the matter.
“So, does James have a name he uses as a lady?”
It was only a few days after Isabel’s conversation with Charlewood that they received a dinner invitation from the Rosses.
“Is it a big dinner or just a friendly dinner,” Isabel asked, picking up the letter from where Francis had put it down on the table.
“Just a friendly dinner it would seem,” Francis said. “Would you want to go?”
“There’s no good reason why we shouldn’t,” Isabel said. “It’s been a good while since we’ve last seen them, and I know you’ve turned down other invitations because we had something planned. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, just because I can’t go out as Isabel doesn’t mean we have to become shut-ins.”
Francis sighed. “I know, I just want you to be able to have as many opportunities as possible.”
Isabel leaned forward to take Francis’ hand. “I know you do, and I am incredibly grateful, but I don’t want you to sacrifice your happiness for me either. Besides, it would be suspicious if we never went out.”
She examined the letter again. “The date is the week after next, so why don’t you write back now saying we’d be glad to come. I doubt anything major is going to come up with the wedding planning between then and now, so we might as well just relax and visit uninvolved friends.”
“Or is that why you’re hesitant,” Isabel asked. “Because we haven’t told them. Do you want to?”
“I’ve given you my reasons for not wanting to tell them,” Francis said. “And they still hold true, but you are right, we have no good reason not to visit. I think this wedding business has made me overly anxious.”
“We are doing something big and telling a lot of people very sensitive secrets,” Isabel said. “I think we’re well in our rights to be anxious, but it’s also not going to hurt us to go and see old friends.”
Francis was dying of embarrassment and James was not helping. They were sitting around the Ross’s table at dinner and Ross, God love him, was needling Francis about marriage of all things and James, the traitor, had sided with Ross when it came to discussing Francis’ eligibility.
“Just because you’re getting up there in years doesn’t mean you won’t find someone,” Ross said. “There are plenty of ladies who I’m sure could make you very happy. Besides, and I don’t say this discount your friendship with Fitzjames, but what are you going about your living situation once he marries.”
James had chosen that moment to take a drink of wine and promptly choked.
“Well, there’s no plans at present for that either, I’m afraid,” James said, once he had recovered himself. “My only plans of late have been searching for a house outside of London.”
“An excellent choice,” Ross said. “Ann and I have been much happier for having left the city.”
“Blackheath was well enough for a time,” Ann said. “But I was so glad to take our leave of it. And you must agree Buckinghamshire is a beautiful area and the air is much better.”
“I think just about any air is better than London air,” James said, grinning. “But it is lovely here. I haven’t settled on a location yet. My brother, well, cousin really, wants me to move to Brighton.”
“And will Francis be moving with you?” Ann asked.
James, who had just taken a bite of food, nodded, leaving Francis to reply.
“That had been the plan, yes,” Francis said.
Ann looked between Francis and James curiously, and Francis was, for a moment, horribly anxious, but Ann didn’t say anything and returned to her meal.
Ross on the other hand sighed, “Moving out of London won’t help your prospects. You know I’ll never understand why you didn’t renew your suit to Sophy when you came back.”
Francis shook his head. “It wouldn’t have ended happily. I think it’s best we stay as friends.”
“I heard she turned down another marriage proposal,” Ross said, taking a sip of wine.
Francis gave Ross a pointed look. “If you’re implying that she’s pining for me…”
“All I’m saying is that this man was the last in a line of several that she has met with an unequivocal no.” Ross set down his glass. “Ann turned down several suitors while we were away in the Antarctic. If she’s determined…”
“If she is, she hasn’t said anything,” Francis said, interrupting Ross mid-sentence. “She’s never been one to hedge around what she wants, you know that.”
“I suppose that is true, isn’t it,” Ross said. “Well, Miss Cracroft is hardly the only woman in the world, there will be someone out there for you.”
“Very true,” Francis agreed. “And, perhaps, at some point in the future, you will see me married.”
Ross grinned. “Let’s have a toast then, to Francis’ prospects!”
James, to his credit, managed valiantly to not burst out laughing or choke on his wine again.
“You were utterly horrid at dinner last night” James said fondly as they disembarked from a carriage in front of their home.
“You did start it,” Francis pointed out with a grin.
James shook his head, turning his attention to the driver; Ross’s driver, as he had been kind enough to lend them the use of his carriage to see them home. He tipped the man and acquired their one small piece of luggage before returning his attention to Francis.
“Yes, and it backfired horribly, which you,” James poked Francis in the chest, “made enthusiastic use of.”
Francis laughed, “Well, I think it would have been a horribly awkward dinner if we hadn’t tried to make light of it.”
“And breakfast,” James added, “Be a dear and open the door Francis.”
Francis quickly got the door open before relieving James of the small trunk they’re brought for their overnight stay with the Rosses.
“Are you sure it’s not safe to tell Sir James,” James asked as he shut the door behind them. “He does have his own experiences with… with playing a lady. You’ve told me about your time in Antarctica and the plays he was in before.”
“I want to believe it is,” Francis said. “But I don’t know how much of that is desire to be accepted by my dearest friend and how much is genuine trust. I certainly don’t want to think he’d behave badly, I just worry for your safety.”
James smiled. “Well, I thank you for that. I know these… divisions… we must make in our lives are hard. It’s not just… well it’s slightly more than most in our situation.”
“Agreed,” Francis said. “Now go change, I’ll see if Mary’s here, we are home a fair deal sooner than I told her. I’ve never been good at estimating travel times on land.”
James laughed and kissed Francis on the cheek before sauntering off to exchange his trousers for a dress.
“We need some sort of officiant, don’t we,” Francis mused as he sat as his desk, pouring over the list of people they intended to invite. He’d made a little ‘x’ next to the names of people he’d already spoken too, with Blanky being the most recently checked.
Isabel sat up, from where she’d been lounging with a book on the small settee in the room. “Well, we’ve spoken to Hartnell and Irving haven’t we? Irving is well versed in scripture. He’s not a man of the church, but it’s not as if this needs to be proper and official.”
“Yes, Tom did suggest that,” Francis said. “But I haven’t had a chance to speak with Irving, he was away visiting family when I called on them. Tom said he would speak to Irving, but I haven’t heard word since.”
Isabel got to her feet. “I’ll write them then.”
“Nothing overt,” she promised when Francis cast her a worried glance. “Just a little note that I would like to continue the conversation you had with them and that I have a proposition for Irving, maybe under the pretense of inviting them to dinner.”
Isabel was trying very hard not to worry about greeting Tom Hartnell and John Irving in a dress. Francis had told them, well, he’d told Hartnell, who’d said he’d discuss it with Irving… and they’d accepted the invitation readily enough. Still… it was rather difficult to convince herself that she was just overthinking things.
Her worries were not eased by the fact that Irving appeared downright startled to see her in a dress and remained flustered and quiet throughout dinner. As such, Isabel waited until dinner was concluded to ask Irving about perhaps officiating the ceremony, not wanting to put the man on the spot in such a formal setting. Once they moved into the parlor, and Francis, catching on to Isabel’s intent, had engaged Hartnell in conversation, Isabel approached Irving, joining him on the couch while Francis and Tom occupied the armchairs.
“Now, I don’t mean this as an accusation,” she said. “But you have seemed a bit out of sorts this evening, and I believe I am the most likely cause.”
Irving flushed. “I am sorry, sir, I-“ he cut himself off as he realized that “sir” was likely not the appropriate form of address in this case.
“I appreciate the apology, but there is no need for it,” Isabel said. “It wouldn’t be fair of me to expect you to be on the right footing with this at first.”
“It’s also not fair to make you uncomfortable, just because I’m out of sorts,” Irving countered. “This is… I’m still settling into what I’m doing, er… living with Tom. It’s a rather new thing despite how long we’ve been…” he cleared his throat.
“Living with a person does solidify things more than just exchanging letters,” Isabel agreed, smoothing a hand over her skirts, an anxious habit akin to worrying at his cuffs. “It seems we’re both making significant changes at the same time, or close to.”
“Tom had told me about this, but seeing it is rather different than hearing about it.” Irving continued. “It was difficult to imagine you as Captain Fitzjames and also… also a lady, but it does suit you well, I think. I suppose I had imagined it looking more like a costume, but it really does seem natural on you.”
Isabel smiled. “That would come down to practice. I was a much more ungainly thing at first, but I thank you for the compliment.”
“You’re very welcome,” Irving replied with a small nod.
“Now,” Isabel said, feeling now was as good a time any to put the question to Irving. “I’ll admit to having had a bit of an ulterior motive for inviting you and Tom to dinner. I… I was rather hoping you might be willing to officiate Francis’s and my wedding.”
Irving looked rather dumbstruck, but he made no protest, so Isabel continued.
“We can’t very well get married in a church in any official capacity, but you are certainly the most well versed in scripture of anyone I know.” She paused for a moment. “I will not be upset if you say no. This is a rather large thing to ask, after all, and as you’ve said, you have your own concerns.”
Irving had recovered himself by the time Isabel finished speaking. “Tom had thought you might ask something like that…” he said, a bit sheepishly. “He’s been trying to encourage me to offer, but I worried that might be presumptuous and I’m certainly no priest, but as you said, this could never be official…” he trailed off.
“If you need more time to think about it, I understand,” Isabel assured him. “Francis and I have yet to even settle on a date, though I expect to hear from my cousin about that before long.”
Irving nodded. “I do think I would like some time to think this over. I’d like to have a reasonable idea of what I might do, before I say yes.”
“Which is perfectly understandable,” Isabel said. “Now, I feel like you have questions about all this that you didn’t feel like you could ask over dinner.”
Irving’s relief was almost palpable. “Yes… I’d worried I’d be overstepping by asking, are you certain it’s all right for me to pry?”
“That will depend on the exact nature of your questions, however, I don’t think your questions will be as invasive as you think they are.” Irving, Isabel knew, was not the kind of man who would ask truly nosy questions about her life. She had a hunch he was really only after clarification, which was something most of their friends and family had needed.
“You obviously can’t be Isabel publicly,” Irving began. “But when you are at home… is it… are you always Isabel?”
“More or less,” Isabel said. “However, to put it simply, if I am dressed as Isabel I am Isabel, if I am dressed as James I am James; clothes make the man and what have you. Should you visit in the future and find me in trousers and a waistcoat, I would not expect to be called Isabel.”
“That seems a reasonable way to do it,” Irving mused. “I imagine, given the growing number of people who… who have come to know this, it makes it easier to avoid a potential slip up in the wrong company as well.”
“Yes, it does,” Isabel agreed. Then she leaned in, just a bit closer to Irving. “That does not constitute an impolite question, I hope you know. This is a complicated matter and I understand the need for… well, understanding.”
Irving let out a deep sigh, clearly relieved.
“And,” Isabel continued. “I know you and Tom mean me no harm and that any offense you might cause would be out of ignorance alone, which is quite easily remedied.”
“Tom will be better at asking things, I’m sure,” Irving said.
Isabel chucked, straightening up. “Why don’t we get him and Francis over here then?”
Irving had written a week after he and Tom had come for a visit, to say that he would be glad to officiate. Although, between not being trained for it and the unorthodox situation, he wasn’t sure he should follow the church’s structure for weddings exactly. He’d sent along a few different ideas for what the ceremony might sound like (all based in scripture).
Isabel had initially been a touch disappointed, but as she’d read through what Irving had written out her opinion had quickly changed. The traditional ceremony lay at the heart of them, but, in lieu of church sanctified blessings, Irving had sought out places in the Bible that would indicate God’s blessing regardless; in the love between two men with the story of Jonathan and David, as well as in noting that they were all made in God’s image and if that happened to include giving a man the inclination to dress as a woman, so be it. In her reply Isabel had noted her favorite portions of each, and told Irving that she would like his final product to remain a surprise until the day of.
The wedding was to be entirely indoors; it was the safest option and the Coninghams’ house was certainly big enough for their small party of guests. When Francis and James had arrived several days prior, the house had been in a flurry. Everything in the middle of being cleaned and decorated.
“We were hoping to have everything ready before you arrived,” Elizabeth had said, “But between hiring new staff and trying to get wedding-like decorations without letting on there’s a wedding…”
James had assured her it was no trouble. He was deeply grateful to her and William for offering their home for this; he certainly wasn’t going to complain about minor delays.
“I do want to make sure we have everyone else’s rooms straightened out,” Elizabeth had continued. “Could we go over who we’ll be putting up in the guest rooms and who will be taking rooms elsewhere?”
Isabel’s wedding dress was not white. She had been rather particular with Jopson about that and he’d accepted her rational simply enough. She didn’t want a dress that she would only wear once, so it was vastly more sensible to pick a color that could suit other occasions.
The final product was beautiful. It was a pale green with flowers embroidered across the fabric, with long sleeves and a high collar. Isabel ran her fingers along the pleats of the bodice, stopping occasionally to touch the buttons that ran up to the collar. “It’s perfect, Thomas. You’ve outdone yourself.”
“Well, I wasn’t about to do this by half, miss,” Jopson said, grinning. “Might I see the right sleeve? I noticed there was some loose thread and we can’t have you walking down the aisle with loose ends.”
Isabel held out her arm, and watched as Jopson cut the loose thread before adding a few more stitches to ensure that the frills on the cuffs were secured.
“That should be all,” Jopson said, looking carefully over the dress. “If you’ll give me one more turn…”
Isabel slowly spun in place, relishing in how the skirts moved around her legs.
“Perfect. I will leave you in the capable hands of your bridesmaids,” and, with a small bow, Jopson swept out of the room.
He was immediately replaced by Sarah Charlewood, looking a delight herself. “Oh, look at you!”
She rushed forward to take Isabel’s hands. “You’re absolutely gorgeous.”
Isabel beamed, but wasn’t given a moment to reply as Sarah continued almost immediately. “Now lets get you sitting down, so I can do your hair.”
Sarah drew Isabel over the vanity. In truth, Isabel was quite grateful to sit. She would be standing for some time, and she did want to get through the whole ceremony on her feet.
“I also wanted to discuss the matter of your veil,” Sarah said, carefully unboxing Isabel’s hairpieces. “And how you’ll be pinning it on.”
“I’d just thought to use a few discrete hair pins,” Isabel explained as she watched Sarah in the mirror. “Most of my nice hair pins and combs are attached to my postiches.”
Sarah nodded, carefully affixing a bun to the back of Isabel’s head, followed by loose ringlets that would hang down the back of her neck. “I wanted to offer the hairpin I used when I married Ned. You still need something borrowed, don’t you?”
Isabel had to fight the urge to turn sharply to embrace Sarah. “Yes, I… thank you.”
Sarah smiled. “You’re very welcome. It was Ned’s idea, in part, he wanted to be able to do something for your wedding, and I suggested perhaps giving you something from ours. It’s a nice big pin and I’m fairly certainly it will hold well in your bun, but we can figure out if more support is needed once you’ve got your veil on.”
“I’ll have to thank him later,” Isabel said, reaching back to take Sarah’s hand. “I’m so glad the both of you are here.”
Sarah squeezed Isabel’s hand in return. “And we are glad to be here. Are there any other hair pieces your want to use?”
“No, thank you. I wanted to keep it simple for this,” Isabel said. Many of her favorite pieces were also in need of a bit of maintenance and not suitable for wedding use at the moment.
“All right then, I’ll let Elizabeth know your hair is done and then I’ll be back with the hair pin.”
Isabel was left alone longer this time, and she took the time to collect herself somewhat. She was already on the verge of feeling utterly overwhelmed, not because of anything that had gone wrong, it was just… this was really happening. She was going to have the closest thing to a proper wedding she could have and she would do it surrounded by friends and family. This was no furtive secret thing anymore, this was real and legitimate and acknowledged, by people who weren’t Isabel and Francis.
There was a small knock on the door before it pushed open and Elizabeth entered with two small boxes in her hands.
“I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’ve asked Sarah if she could oversee the flower set up, they only just arrived,” Elizabeth said, sweeping over and setting the boxes down on the vanity in front of Isabel. “So much for the speedy delivery they promised, I didn’t even ask for anything unusual… anyhow I have the hairpin Sarah brought for you.”
“You’ve outdone yourself, Lizzie,” Isabel said fondly. “I could never have imagined all this.”
Elizabeth smiled. “We just wanted to make sure you had as close to the real thing as you could. You deserve it.”
She brought over a chair to sit down next to Isabel. “Now, I have something for you, or well, they’re really from Will, I’m just delivering them.”
Picking up the boxes from the vanity, Elizabeth set the smaller top box aside and then opened the larger one beneath, placing it in front of Isabel.
Inside were earrings, a necklace, and a brooch. They were beautiful, all a matching set, with opals at the center and diamonds surrounding them. Moreover, they were all pieces that Isabel recognized, having seen them quite often growing up. “These are…”
“Will wanted you to have them,” Elizabeth said. “And it finishes out, something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. New dress with blue buttons, the hairpin borrowed from Sarah…”
“And Aunt Louisa’s old jewelry,” Isabel murmured lifting one the drop shaped opals that hung off the necklace. “I…” her voice was choked and she tried to hold back the building tears. “Thank him for me, please. This is… I don’t know what to say.”
“There’s no need to say anything right now,” Elizabeth said. “And you can thank him yourself later. For now, let’s get at least the earrings and brooch on you. The necklace will have to wait for another time.”
Isabel was saddened suddenly, because Elizabeth was right, the high collar and buttons would not allow the necklace to lay correctly, but at the same time the promise of another time made her heart swell. These were her’s now.
“There is one small problem,” Isabel said, as the practicality of putting the jewelry on sunk in.
Elizabeth paused in the midst of picking the brooch and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t… My ears aren’t pierced,” Isabel said. “I can wear the brooch, but…”
Elizabeth hummed. “I could pierce your ears. It can be done easily enough with a needle, but… I wouldn’t want that to impact you as James, and you’d have to wear a pair constantly while they healed.”
Isabel worried the inside of her cheek with her teeth for a moment. “Let’s pierce them. We’ll be here for a few days more days… Would that be enough time, do you think?”
“It might be not be quite long enough, but if you keep wearing earrings at home for a few more days, you may be all right,” Elizabeth said. “But we can repierce your ears if it comes to that. Would you turn toward me a bit more so I can…” she held up the brooch.
With the brooch affixed Elizabeth went off to fetch a needle from her embroidery kit.
Left alone once more, Isabel picked up the necklace gingerly. She had a vivid memory of Aunt Louisa wearing it at a dinner party of some sort. James and William were supposed to have been in bed, but they had wanted to see what the grown ups were getting up to. William had gotten bored and gone back to bed, but James had stayed a while longer, watching the ladies in their pretty dresses and jewels. What would that little boy think if he could see himself now? Isabel looked at herself in the mirror.
It really was something to see. She so rarely stopped to just look at herself in the mirror. There were still many anxieties that haunted her about her appearance, but they all seemed so far away right now. She reached up to touch the grey streak in her hair. It had gotten more prominent of late, but Isabel hadn’t found the need to try to dye it. Considering what they’d been through, living to become grey was something to look forward too.
Isabel turned her head see the work that Sarah had done and found herself wondering if she could get postiches that were streaked with grey. Some of her older ones would need to be replaced before too much longer. She was spared falling into further thought about it when Elizabeth returned and took her seat next to Isabel.
“I brought a needle, some thread and a bit of cork,” Elizabeth said, laying everything out on the vanity.
“What is the thread for?” Isabel asked as Elizabeth cut a small amount of the thread and began threading the needle.
“To hold the hole open while I put the earring in.”
“And the cork would be to brace the back of the ear,” Isabel mused, picking it up. It was the cork of a wine bottle on closer inspection.
“Yes.” Elizabeth chuckled. “I was going to use my pincushion, but thankfully Lucy found me in the midst of plucking out all my pins and brought me a piece of cork from the kitchen. May I have it please.”
Isabel laughed handing the cork over to Elizabeth. “Thank God for Lucy, savior of your pincushion. I would have hated to get blood on it.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “It’s already got blood on it. Mine. Pins are horrid little things that catch you unawares because you’ve forgotten where you put them.” She paused a moment. “All right, lean forward a bit, and turn your head to the right.”
It was all over very quickly and it barely hurt, particularly when compared to the other injuries James had sustained over the years. It was a strange feel to have the small little earrings bouncing against her neck, but the effect was lovely.
“What do you think?” Elizabeth asked, glancing toward the mirror and Isabel turned to look at herself.
She immediately felt her eyes begin to water, and took a slow breath to steady herself. “I… It’s overwhelming.”
Elizabeth rested a gentle hand on Isabel’s arm. “Not in a bad way, I hope?”
“No.” Isabel shook her head. “I’m very happy, it’s just…”
“It’s an emotional time,” Elizabeth said. “Though I imagine the emotions might not be quite the same for you as they were for me. Are you ready to get your veil on? We shouldn’t keep everyone waiting.”
There was no real set time for things, the wedding ceremony would begin when Isabel was ready, so Isabel nodded. “Should I get up?”
Elizabeth hummed. “Yes, let’s do that and I’ll just stand on a stool to be taller than you.”
The veil was the simplest thing Isabel had put on all morning, barring perhaps the brooch. Standing over her, Elizabeth carefully lowered the gauzy fabric into place before carefully affixing it with Sarah’s hairpiece.
“There we are,” Elizabeth said as she stepped down from the stool. “You look perfect. How do you feel?”
“Like I’m going to be sick,” Isabel replied. All the anxieties she had thought she’d gotten tucked away were now bubbling back up.
Elizabeth nodded, taking Isabel’s arm. “That’s normal. It will pass once things get started. It’s the waiting that’s the worst. Thankfully, you don’t have much of that left, so let's go find Will and I’ll get everyone else organized.”
“Yes,” Isabel murmured, forcing herself to tear her gaze away from the mirror. “Thank you.”
William was waiting for them in the sitting room, from which they would be entering into the drawing room, where the ceremony proper would take place. He stood as Elizabeth and Isabel entered the room.
“Give me a few minutes to make sure everyone and everything is in order, I'll knock when it's time for you to enter,” Elizabeth instructed the both of them before handing Isabel her bouquet and taking her leave.
Isabel tried very hard to not worry at the stem of the bouquet, but the tension in the room was mounting because William seemed just as unsure of what to do as Isabel felt. Outside of that first, accidental instance, William had never seen James as Isabel. Their subsequent conversations had taken place over carefully worded letters and a single visit James had made down to see them.
At length William stepped forward and took Isabel’s free hand. “Had I not known it was you, I hardly would have recognized you. You look stunning, truly.”
Isabel’s eyes were watery all at once. “Thank you, and… and thank you for…” Her free hand came up to touch the brooch pinned to her chest.
“You are most welcome,” William said, squeezing Isabel’s hand. “If anyone should wear those it’s you. If mother were here now, you would have her blessing, I am sure of it.”
A sob slipped out of Isabel’s throat despite her best efforts and William was quick to offer her a handkerchief to dry her eyes.
“Ugh, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry until the ceremony,” Isabel muttered.
“I’m sorry,” William said. “It wasn’t my intent.”
Isabel smacked William lightly in the shoulder. “You don’t need to apologize for being kind.” She finished dabbing at her eyes and passed the handkerchief back.
“Well, if you won’t let me apologize for that, will you let me apologize for how I’ve fumbled throughout all of this?” William asked.
“Yes,” Isabel said. “And you are forgiven. I… You and Elizabeth have been better to me than I ever could have hoped.”
“You are family, I-Isabel, and you always will be.” William sighed and reached to take Isabel’s hand again. “It’s simply… this is all terribly much to comprehend and… and I fear for your safety a great deal.”
“I know you do,” Isabel said, squeezing William’s hand gently. “It terrifies me too sometimes. Can you trust I’ll be safe with Francis?”
William smiled. “Of course I can. I haven’t seen a thing that would make me think otherwise, and I also trust your judgement about who is safe and who isn’t.”
It was a relief to hear William speak like this. Their letters had been so stilted as they’d tried to discuss this covertly; it had been difficult to tell what was being talked around for the sake of safety and what was being talked around out of avoidance or discomfort.
“Thank you,” she murmured at length. “Your words mean more than you know.”
William did not get the chance to respond because a soft rap came at the door that led to the drawing room. “I believe that’s our cue,” William said, offering his arm to Isabel.
Isabel took a long breath to steady herself as she took William’s arm.
“You’ll be just fine,” William murmured quietly before pushing the door open.
It was everything Isabel could have imagined and more. Elizabeth had not tried to imitate the setting of a church in her decorating the drawing room, but it did not feel much like a drawing room either. Bookshelves were covered in fine drapery and all the furniture, repositioned to create an aisle, seemed to have been reupholstered for the occasion. Any nook that might have exposed the room’s original purpose was filled with flowers and while the windows were covered, they were covered with a fine gauzy material that still let the light stream in.
And then there was Francis, standing at the makeshift alter with Thomas Blanky standing just off to the side. He looked perfectly dashing, Isabel thought, and he was made all the more handsome with the smile that lit up his face when he saw Isabel. Isabel smiled in turn, though Francis likely couldn’t see it behind her veil at this distance.
Off to the side someone, Charlewood, she guessed, whistled sharply and muffled laughed broke out over the assembled party. Isabel wasn’t able to entirely stifle her own laugh and it came out something like a choked hiccup, which had William tighten his grip on her arm and whisper quickly to ask if she was all right. She gave his arm what she hoped was a reassuring squeeze in return.
“You look beautiful,” Francis murmured once Isabel had taken her place next to him, having passed her bouquet off to Elizabeth to hold.
Isabel smiled, though she didn’t get the chance to respond in kind as Irving began speaking then.
The speech was very different from the last iteration Irving had sent to James, but it was lovely. Irving had deviated quite considerably from the “standard” wedding service, prioritizing what Isabel had earlier indicated she loved so much in the draft’s he’d sent. The story of Jonathan and David was placed front and center, and around that was woven mentions of Jesus and St. John, who it frankly had not occurred to James to consider.
It was true though, Isabel realized, as Irving continued speaking.
“Even King James, the King for whom our Bible is named, knew that Christ’s love for St. John went beyond that of brotherhood and used it in defense of his own love for George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.”
There were some hushed whispers at that, and out of the corner of her eye Isabel noted that Peglar had leaned in to murmur something to Bridgens. She smiled, returning her gaze to Francis, he had begun to flush quite pink and it made Isabel want to forgo decorum entirely and throw back her veil to kiss him immediately.
“And so if we know that our Biblical forefathers and Christ himself could love men so, then how can this not be God’s will. This is…” Irving paused a moment, taking a deep breath. “This is not a mistake. We are all made in God’s image, and surely He would not wish us to deny that.”
Isabel could feel herself beginning to get choked. Never in her life, not as Isabel or James, had she heard the language of the Bible used to affirm her feelings so.
“Which brings me to the two people here before me,” Irving said, and when Isabel glanced over him, she could see that there were tears in his eyes as well. It was an emotional speech for all of them. “The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity. Marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and deliberately.”
Irving turned to Isabel and she had to take a deep breath to stop her stomach from rolling like a ship in a squall.
“Isabel James Fitzjames, will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?”
Isabel locked eyes with Francis, swallowing back tears, even as one slipped down her cheek, before she answered, “I will.”
“And Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”
Isabel couldn’t help but smile as Francis all but choked out his “I will.” He was doing a bit better a job at keeping his emotions in check than Isabel was, but that was hardly a care. Any nerves Isabel had were coupled equally with the giddying thrill of what was happening.
“O gracious and everliving God, you have created us, male, female, both, in your image; Look mercifully upon this man and this woman who come to you seeking your blessing, and assist them with your grace, that with true fidelity and steadfast love they may honor and keep the promises and vows they make; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who loved his John as well as any man may love a women. Amen.”
Francis felt a bit like he’d been punched in the chest. He had never been privy to any of Isabel’s letters to Irving about what the words to the ceremony would be altered, but every change made struck something deep in his chest. When had he ever felt such welcome from the words of God? He wasn’t sure he ever had, but Irving made them sound as natural as anything.
So lost in his thoughts as he was, Francis very nearly missed his cue to start their vows. He reached out to take Isabel’s hand, not quite realizing how his hand was shaking until Isabel had to squeeze his hand, gently but firmly, to still it.
“In the Name of God, I, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, take you, Isabel James Fitzjames, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”
Isabel squeezed Francis’ hand tightly once more before letting go, and then it was her turn.
“In the Name of God, I, Isabel James Fitzjames, take you, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, to be my husband.” Her voice caught and, as Isabel had done for him, Francis gave her hand a comforting squeeze.
“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”
Francis could see Isabel’s eyes shining with tears even through her veil and he wanted nothing more than to draw her close and kiss her tears away. Instead, he brushed his thumb over her knuckles briefly before she let go.
Irving brought forth the rings then, that had been placed on a table behind him before the ceremony began, and said a quick blessing over them before presenting them to Isabel and Francis.
Francis again went first, taking the ring for Isabel and willing his hand not to shake so he wouldn’t drop it.
Then, as he took Isabel’s hand and slid the ring on, a thought occurred to him. If Irving had made such changes to the wording of the ceremony, why shouldn’t he. “Isabel, I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you for who you are.”
Francis felt quite pleased with himself as he saw Isabel’s eyes go wide and a broad smile spread across her face.
Isabel shook her head lightly, still grinning fondly, as she reached for the remaining ring.
“Francis.” She took his hand. “I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you, you ridiculous, wonderful man.” Isabel punctuated “wonderful” by sliding the ring onto Francis’s finger and Francis beamed.
“Now that Isabel and Francis have given themselves to each other by solemn vows,” Irving began again, taking their hands to join them. “With the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings, I pronounce they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those whom God has joined together let no one, not even the Church, put asunder.”
There was a beat as Irving released their hands and stepped back. Then Hartnell called out, “Now kiss!”
Laughter filled the room, and without overthinking it Francis stepped forward and drew Isabel’s veil over head and, bringing up a hand to brush the tears from her cheek, he kissed her.
Isabel returned the kiss with fervor, throwing her arms around Francis, as cheers and whistles rang out from their friends.
They ended ceremony there. They had seen no point in having everyone sit around for strings of further prayers. There were better, more fun things to do, like throw the bouquet and eat a festive meal with friends, which Isabel kicked off by telling anyone who wanted to catch the bouquet to line up.
That was entertaining in and of itself because it was really only Hartnell and Peglar. Francis had tried to call for Jopson to join them, but he’d just shaken his head with an “I don’t think so, sir,” and, seeing the look of utter relief on Little’s face at Jopson’s words, Francis didn’t push.
He watched with amusement as Isabel made a great show of looking over her shoulder, grinning as Hartnell and Peglar vied for what they thought to be the ideal spot. Then she turned back around, raised bouquet as if to throw it behind her, and lobbed it directly into Irving’s face. He only barely managed to catch it before it hit the ground.
Francis clapped Irving on the shoulder as the man flushed beet red. “Looks like you and Tom are next, lad.”