A perfect Christmas wedding, a snowstorm, and a shocking secret. What could go wrong?
Susanna Lorican must marry the man she loves before the truth is discovered, or face the gossip of the ton. With an unexpected snowstorm injuring the minister, her future hangs in the balance.
Viscount Camden Beckinworth vows to keep his bride safe, even if he must betray her confidence. When their love is put to the test, how will he uphold her honor without jeopardizing his own?
– Warning: this sweet, complete Regency romance novella features a brief scene where the heroine is assaulted.
– Second edition. Newly revised and edited.
Read Chapter One for FREE!
Southern Derbyshire, England
Christmas Eve, 1834
“My wedding is ruined.” Susanna Lorican pushed down the ball of sorrow threatening to choke her. The wind buffeting her father’s manor blasted a barrage of snow flurries across her bedchamber window in wicked defiance of her hopes and dreams. Her knees weakened, and she clutched the sill to keep upright. Why now? What did she do to deserve this? She rested her forehead on the cool glass windowpane and inhaled a deep breath.
“Calm down. Fretting over things you cannot change is useless.” Lady Marie Lorican tsked from somewhere behind her. “The road is still travelable, so hope is not lost.”
She leaned back and peered through the glass to spot the long, winding dirt road cutting through acres of white, rolling pastures and snow-laden trees. The clouds shielding the early morning sun cast a gray, depressing pall over her father’s estate and billowed darker in the distance. A shiver snaked down her spine.
“Come. You must finish dressing.” Her mother wrapped her arm around Susanna and pulled her to the white-wood vanity.
The same old floral wallpaper, ivory furnishings, and short-thread rugs in her room mocked her. Would she ever become the mistress of her own home?
After Susanna plopped in the cushioned chair, Marie divided her thick, dark hair into two equal parts. “Do not let ill-timed weather crush your spirit.”
“Snow is so uncommon in December. The first snowfall last season was in January, so I expected the same.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “All the planning, Mama—the greenery, the ribbons, the tulle. Months of preparation are ruined. The courtyard would have been the most splendid sight.”
“Pshaw. I’ve already instructed the servants to prepare the main hall, which will be just as lovely, but you could postpone for a church wedding. Perhaps for next week?” She pinned one section of Susanna’s hair back and forced a quill brush through the other section. “With your siblings and their families visiting for the holiday, there are more than enough people to make good use of the wedding breakfast. The pantry and stores are teeming with foodstuff, so Cook will have no trouble preparing another breakfast fit for a wedding.”
Susanna scowled at her mother’s reflection in the mirror. The woman’s high, hopeful voice skewered her already raw nerves. Would the disapproval never end? She’d begun her courtship with Camden in the courtyard last Christmas Eve. Why would she wish to have their wedding anywhere else or at another time?
Lady Lorican sighed. “So be it.”
As her mother brushed the long length of her mussed hair with short, hard strokes, Susanna bit her cheek to hold back her wincing and twisted her fingers in her wool day dress. Warmth wafted from the fire crackling in the hearth, but the icy dread churning her stomach nearly emptied the remains of her dinner from the night before.
She flattened her hand on her belly and blinked back tears. Was this her punishment for coupling with Camden outside of marriage, though he had already vowed to marry her before she surrendered to his fiery kisses? Her heart, soul, and body belonged to Camden Beckinworth, the fifth viscount of the Beckinworth estate, but the babe growing in her womb needed his or her father’s name to survive well and good in this world. If she shamed her family by becoming an unwed mother, she and her child would know nothing but gossip and heartache.
“Relax. You have always enjoyed the snow.”
“Not today.” Susanna forced a laugh as her mother braided her hair. Though her lady’s maid usually helped her dress, the girl was busy assisting with the wedding arrangements, so Lady Lorican took over the task. Should she tell her mother the truth?
Thank heavens for her stubborn nature. Everyone had tried to persuade Susanna to wait until spring, but she insisted on a Christmas wedding. If she hadn’t, where would that leave her? She could only conceal her condition for maybe another month before her belly grew larger and rounder like a melon. Would Camden welcome a child so early in their union?
Blast the snow. She’d planned everything to the last detail and fabricated the story she would tell about the woes of childbirth striking two months early, but now all that was for naught if she couldn’t marry sooner rather than later.
Her mother looped the braid into a fashionable style and pinned it in place. “There. I’ve done what I can with this wild mane you call hair.”
Susanna tugged lightly on an errant curl near her temple. Unlike her demure mother and two older respectable sisters, Susanna the Hoyden struggled to tame her sharp tongue and wild chestnut-brown locks. Her father had always claimed the Lord did her grave disservice by sentencing her to the life of a female. With her clever brain, accounting skills, and love of reading, she could have become a solicitor, a professor, or a physician like her brother Percy. But alas, she was born of the gentler persuasion with a less-than-ample dowry to her name—an unfortunate happenstance since she was the youngest of five children.
“I’ve waited so long, Mama. I want to marry the man I love.” She sighed heavily. Tonight, if everything didn’t fall apart before her eyes, she would no longer have to worry about bearing a child outside of wedlock. She would again succumb to Camden’s sensual touch and finally wear the lacy silk gown she’d secretly purchased in London a few months earlier.
“You will, my dear. I’ll make sure of it.” Lady Lorican grasped Susanna’s shoulders and met her stare from the mirror. Her cotton cap concealed the threads of silver in her blonde hair while the high waist of her beige dress lengthened her short, slight frame. “Of all my daughters, you are your father’s child the most. Even though I don’t need to waste my breath on preparing you for your wifely duties”—she paused as Susanna blushed scarlet—“come to me when you are ready to discuss other sensitive matters.”
Susanna stiffened under her mother’s firm hands. Oh, dear. Did she suspect the truth?
Not much escaped Lady Lorican’s watchful gaze.
She’d discovered Susanna and Camden in the compromising incident that now left Susanna on the verge of motherhood. Had she somehow discovered the knowledge of Susanna’s missed menses and the sickness her body had expunged each morning for the past two weeks?
Susanna cringed. Almost compelled to turn to her rumpled bed and give away her secret, she grabbed her elegant blue glass bottle from the vanity with shaky hands and dabbed a bit of cinnamon-infused perfume on her neck.
She’d hidden her chamber pot under the bed frame, which was filled with the proof of her condition. If only Etta could have absconded from her duties to dispose of the contents as she had been doing. Susanna had sworn her maid to secrecy, but Etta would lose her position and home if she lied to or upset Lady Lorican.
I must talk with Etta. She swallowed hard and smiled at her mother from the mirror. “Of course, Mama. I will when I need to.”
She would, but not right now. As long as the reverend arrived safely to perform the ceremony, nothing could truly ruin her long-awaited day.
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