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A March Bride
By Rachel Hauck
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Rachel Hauck
All rights reserved.
For the first time in her life, Susanna Truitt was uncomfortable in a garden. As a landscape architect, she viewed gardens as her sweet spot, her place of rest and peace, but standing among the esteemed guests of Lord and Lady Chadweth's seventeenth-century ivy-covered stone and glass atrium, she felt the arrow of doubt spear her heart.
Three weeks before her wedding, and anxiety rumbled in her soul.
She cut a glance toward her fiancé, King Nathaniel II of Brighton Kingdom, as he laughed with his old university mates.
What in the world was she doing here? Surely Nathaniel had changed his mind about marrying her.
Susanna breathed out, collected her fears, and shoved them aside as she tipped her face toward the bright rays of sun slicing through the glass pane ceiling. After a long Brighton winter, she was homesick for Georgia.
"You know you did, mate ... We were there, eyewitnesses ..."
Susanna tuned in to the conversation around her.
"No, no, you've got it all wrong, Nigel." Nathaniel's protest launched a jovial debate among his friends, an aristocratic group of eight who seemed to look to Nigel as their leader.
Susanna smiled, rocking from one high-heeled foot to the other, exhaling. She had no idea what they were going on about, but lately Nathaniel seemed to have many things in his life that excluded her.
Which led to her feeling a bit like an outsider, even among her garden "friends"—the potted palms, hydrangeas, lilies, and royal maples.
"So, Susanna, how is every little thing?" This from Winnie, Nigel's girlfriend.
"Every little thing is just fine." It was the bigger things that concerned her.
He's changed his mind. Of course. It would be on par for her love life. Adam had changed his mind. Why not Nathaniel?
"I can't imagine all you're going through for this wedding." Winnie chortled. "It's the wedding of the century."
"So they say." Susanna's legs wobbled a bit as she pushed her smile wider.
First lesson in being a royal? Smile. Be cordial. And stand a lot. Who knew royal life included so much standing? And handshaking. Lots and lots of handshaking.
And pulling out the hand sanitizer was considered ill form.
Susanna had rallied the King's Office to let her wear sneakers or flip-flops for long receiving lines, but the protocol officers flatly refused.
"Tell me, are you nervous?" Winnie pressed her hand on Susanna's arm. A move, she'd learned, that was acceptable for family and close friends, but not others. "I'd be a nervous wreck. The Liberty Press is reporting a telly audience of over a billion."
Susanna's smile faltered as a fresh wave of nerves washed ashore. "Well, then, we're going to need a bigger cake."
Winnie stared at her, then tee-hee'd. "You're quite droll, Susanna. I like that in a woman."
With that, Winnie returned to reminiscing with the men and Susanna was back to feeling alone and aching for home. For warmth. For unobstructed sunlight.
Aching for her own folks with whom to reminisce. She'd not been to Georgia since her best friend Gracie's wedding last October. She'd finally said yes to her boyfriend, Ethan.
But even then, it wasn't really like being home. Nathaniel couldn't get away, so Susanna traveled with a security officer and stayed in a hotel.
She returned to Brighton, a North Sea island gem, and enjoyed a lovely, mild October only to have November descend with gray days and an early snow.
For four long months, Susanna hibernated in palaces and castles, enduring the Brighton winter while being schooled on Brighton law, customs, traditions, and how to be the wife of a king.
So today as the sun crested the first pure blue, cloudless sky of March, she felt ready to burst with longing for south Georgia's heat and balmy breezes.
She missed the wind in the live oaks and the jaunty sway of Spanish moss, the fragrance of Daddy's barbecue sauce simmering on the Rib Shack's stove tops, the feel of a surfboard under her arm, and above all, the ability to move about town without a gaggle of photographers on her heels.
She longed to hear Daddy's "Hello, kitten" and Mama's "Susanna Jean, need you to pull a shift at the Shack." She missed hearing her baby sister, Avery's, exuberance about ... everything.
"Susanna—" Nigel leaned toward her. "Surely Nathaniel told you the story of the skiing bear." Nigel's laugh bent him backward and he seemed more like a frivolous playboy than the CEO of his own shipping company.
"A skiing bear?" She glanced at Nathaniel, who smiled, shaking his head and sipping from his champagne flute. He didn't care much for champagne, but he held a glass out of respect for his host and hostess. "No, he didn't."
"It's an old story, love." He peeked at her, then away, down the wide aisle of the warm, bright atrium, toward the open doors. A fresh breeze sauntered in and rustled a few maple branches, spraying the atrium with the saline fragrance of the bay. "I'd nearly forgotten all about it."
"Forgotten it?" Nigel's tone contained no reserve. "Please, Nathaniel, it was the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen. I can't remember when I laughed so hard, I'll tell you that, old chap."
There, she caught a hint of Nathaniel's laugh. Something he'd not done much of lately.
Susanna regarded him for a moment, trying to figure what bothered him. What bothered her.
As their wedding drew near, her man looked ... sad.
He's changed his mind and he's afraid to tell me!
Her heart crashed and her lungs strained for a pure breath. It took every ounce of her will not to run out of the atrium.
"Susanna, you should've seen him." Nigel's story reeled in the rest of the circle—Winnie, Blythe and Morton, Lord Michael Dean and his wife, Lady Ruthie, and her sister, Lady Becky. "The lot of us went skiing on a spring holiday from university. Michael, Mortie, you were there, remember?"
Skiing on spring break? A luxury in Susanna's world. She'd spent every spring and summer break from the University of Georgia at her parents' barbecue place, waiting tables and running the back of the house just to earn enough of her living expenses for the following semester.
And if she ran out of money before the semester's end, she cut Friday classes, drove home, and worked nonstop all weekend.
"... on our last day we determined to take in as much skiing as possible." Nigel geared up from storyteller to entertainer. "We'd spent all day on the slopes, you see. Our boy Nathaniel here was the most determined to ski the day away, like a man facing a life sentence or some such."
"He was set upon graduation to enter the Royal Fusiliers as an infantryman like all the crown princes before him," Michael said.
Susanna knew about his military days. Nathaniel was quite proud of serving his country. He'd even briefly served during the war with the Royal Fusiliers Intelligence Corps.
"So this holiday was his last as a free man."
"I was born a crown prince," Nathaniel said to his glass more than to his friends. "I've never been a free man."
Susanna leaned to see his expression. What happened to the man of confidence and security who'd come to embrace his divine destiny?
He'd been at great peace over his calling as a king. So why the snarky comment?
When his gaze met hers, she smiled, searching for the teasing glint he reserved just for her beneath his blue eyes.
He nodded to her and she waited for that tug to appear on the side of his lips when he wanted to kiss her in public but couldn't.
However, his eyes did not twinkle, nor did his lips twist.
She could live with his dull eyes and sober expression, but she could not live without his look of love. The one that sparked a warm twinge of lover's passion. The one that made her tremble with longing when he kissed her.
For well over a month now, she'd missed his tender glances and wooing warm words. Yes, he'd been busy, traveling, distracted and distant with his kingly duties. But when they were alone, he remained distant. Lost in a world she could not enter.
Their typically lively and deep conversations were now of mundane things like a late winter snow or the unusual prediction of sun and refreshing temperatures in early March.
Nathaniel no longer spoke about their dreams, hopes, and plans.
"So there he is, love. Susanna, are you getting this?" Nigel nudged her again, catching an eye from Nathaniel. "Pardon, I see your fiancé didn't take kindly to me calling you love or my elbow in your ribs. Anyway—"
"If you're going to tell the story, Nigel, tell it," Nathaniel said, gruff and irritated.
"Mate, you can't deny me the luxury of milking this fabulous story."
"Go on," Susanna said, reaching out to set her champagne flute on a tray carried by a black-tie server. "I'd like to hear this."
"So there we are, having a grand time. Nathaniel is flying down this slope, I mean flying." Nigel crouched down into a skiing position. "It's a fantastic hill and a fantastic run. There he is at jet speed when a bear—a big, blasted black bear—ambles out of the woods right onto the run."
"Hungry. Just out of hibernation." Nathaniel came a bit more alive. Nigel's storytelling had a way of turning off the silence and chasing away the blues. Even in Nathaniel. "He looked square at me like I'm his lunch, heaven sent."
"The lot of us are right behind him, pulling up, skiing off to the side," Michael said.
"In the meantime"—Morton's laugh was low and cool, the sound of a stuffy blueblood—"we're watching our friend and crown prince ski to his death."
"You should've seen it from my vantage point," Nathaniel said. "I've nowhere to go but into the trees, square into the beast, or off the side of the mountain."
"And people tell me surfing is dangerous," Susanna said, laughing, finally feeling a bit more at ease, realizing it wasn't the garden making her uncomfortable but Nathaniel's surly silence toward her.
He regrets his proposal. What else could it be? Enough. She'd confront him the moment they were alone.
Theirs had not been the easiest of engagements. Not only were they blending lives and hearts, getting to know one another as a couple, but they were blending cultures and expectations, all before the eyes of the world.
Most of the adjusting fell on her shoulders because she wasn't merely marrying a man, but a king. She wasn't getting to know just a new family but one with deep roots in ancient European history.
She wasn't just learning the ins and outs of her new country, but a whole different way of life.
And the press ... nothing can prepare one for the press. Behind Duchess Kate in the United Kingdom, Susanna was now the most photographed woman in the world. She found it exhausting.
"We're yelling for him to stop, but he keeps plowing down the hill," Nigel said.
"I couldn't stop, ole chap."
"Then we start debating," Nigel went on. "'Who's going to tell the king? And shall we say his son died bravely, doing what he loved?'"
"Fine lot, that, having me dead before seeing my great plan of escape." Nathaniel broke out of his somberness with a heartfelt laugh.
"What's all the hilarity? I wasn't invited?" The raven-haired beauty, Lady Genevieve Hawthorne, boldly inserted herself into the group as a spark of jealousy ignited a prickly heat in Susanna.
"Ginny, love, where've you been?" Blythe leaned forward to air-kiss Lady Genevieve's cheeks.
"Bowing out of another engagement."
Lady Genevieve was everything a crown prince-turned-king would want in a wife. A former Miss Brighton and Olympic lacrosse champion, she was stunning, sexy, and intelligent. Worse yet, she had once vied for Nathaniel's heart.
He'd refused her, choosing Susanna instead. But perhaps now, as the wedding neared and he had a chance to watch Susanna function in royal situations like this hoity-toity garden party, he wished he'd made a better choice.
Susanna flipped her gaze up at Nathaniel. Was he staring at Ginny with any longing or affection?
No, he was staring down at her. Susanna finally felt a bit of warmth in his expression. He smiled and her knees went weak.
"We're telling the story of the skiing bear," Nigel said.
"Oh my word." Lady Genevieve rolled her eyes. How did she make even that look alluring? "What a grand time we all had." She ha-ha'd like she ate diamonds for breakfast and flossed with spun gold. "Of course I knew you'd escape, darling. Naturally." Lady Genevieve fell against Nathaniel, caressing his arm. Then she shot Susanna a sly glance. "Susanna, darling, gorgeous dress. Love the orange flowers and vintage vibe. A Molly Turnwalt design or I'll turn in my fashionista card."
Susanna smoothed her hand over the ivory skirt with its splash of orange blossoms. "From her spring line, yes."
"In college, I only wore Molly Turnwalt." Lady Genevieve laughed with Winnie. "Remember her T-shirts and peg-leg jeans? Oh, to be twenty-two again."
Susanna burned with embarrassment, breathing deep, refusing her soul the sweetness of firing off a sour retort. Lady Genevieve was trying to make Susanna look out of touch and childish.
"Ginny, darling—" Nigel shoved her aside. "I'm telling a story."
"Oh right, Ni, I forgot it's all about you." Lady Genevieve rocked back, folding her arms, pulling a face. "Do go on."
A twittering laugh floated through the group with familiar, longtime-friend glances. Susanna hated feeling like a wallflower. She peeked up again at Nathaniel to discover he was watching Ginny, a slight smile on his lips.
Susanna felt sick. Weak. She'd been here before. Two years ago. On the beach at home with her longtime boyfriend, Adam Peters. She had expected him to propose, but instead he toiled with the words to end their relationship.
"I've found the right ring but not the right girl." Adam Peters's confession still pierced through her heart at the oddest times.
But she'd been so committed to her plan to marry him that Susanna had refused to see the truth. They were not right for each other.
Well, she refused to be so naive this time. If she and Nathaniel had wandered down a dark romantic dead end, then she'd be the one to turn on the light.
However, she'd not give up just yet. She joined the conversation, turning to face Nathaniel. "Since clearly you lived, I suppose you found a way out of this bear collision?" Susanna stepped closer to her fiancé, sending a signal to Lady Genevieve to back off. Susanna was the one wearing Nathaniel's ring.
"Yes, I managed to calculate an escape."
"Escape?" Nigel laughed. "Susanna, he performed a feat only Houdini would attempt. To the right there was a thick stand of trees. An option worse than running into the bear. Trees don't frighten and run off. To the left"—Nigel arched his hand through the air—"was a tumble over the side of the mountain with a straight drop down to the rocks."
"I had no choice but to ski into the bear," Nathaniel said.
"You really skied into the bear?" Susanna smiled, searching his expression for truth. For hope.
"Not exactly. As I whisked closer and closer, going faster and faster, I started yelling for the bear to move, but he merely stared at me as if I annoyed his sleepy thoughts. I braced for impact when I hit one of nature's moguls and—" Nathaniel whistled, slicing his hand through the air.
"He went airborne," Nigel said.
"You jumped the bear?" Susanna liked the mental image of a young prince soaring through the air, his regal, chiseled features cutting through the icy breeze as he hurdled a sleepy, hungry winter bear.
"Cleared him by a good four feet," Nigel said.
"It was spectacular. You should've seen it." Genevieve's tone carried a subtle reminder. I'm a part of Nathaniel's inner circle, and you, Susanna, are an interloper. "We sat around the fire talking of it all night."
"Say, Nig, didn't Hampsted film it with his camera?" Morton snapped his fingers, remembering. "He was always sticking that thing in our faces."
"By George, I believe he did." Nigel stretched, searching over their heads. "He's round here somewhere with his new wife. Ah, there he is ... Hammie."
Nigel and Lord Michael scurried off to hound Hammie about his home movie while the distinguished Henry Montgomery, Brighton's former prime minister, approached Nathaniel.
Excerpted from A March Bride by Rachel Hauck. Copyright © 2014 Rachel Hauck. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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