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A Christmas Bride
By Jo Ann Ferguson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Jo Ann Ferguson
All rights reserved.
"All we need to do is find you a fiancée by tomorrow."
Timothy Crawford ignored his cousin's laugh. This was no laughing matter, and Felix should be quite aware of that. He thought that they had been in each other's pockets for long enough that his cousin would appreciate the gravity of this situation. This was all his own doing. If he had been honest with his grandfather, he would not be suffering from this predicament now.
Putting his glass on the table by the chair in his dimly lit parlor, Timothy rose and went to the window to look out on the square that was almost lost in the London fog. He clasped his hands behind his back to keep them from curling into fists of frustration.
What a bumble-bath! He had wanted only to ease his grandfather's anxiety about future heirs. When he had devised the story of a wondrous woman who had agreed to be his wife, he had not guessed he would actually have to produce her for his grandfather's inspection at his seventieth birthday celebration on Christmas Eve.
"How difficult can it be?" Felix continued, splashing more wine into his glass as he came to stand beside Timothy. He was half a head shorter, and, instead of the golden hair that was the hallmark of their family, his hair was a dull brown. "You are a viscount with our grandfather's title of earl to be yours upon his death. Cheyney Park is a magnificent country seat, and you shall have enough blunt to satisfy even the most demanding wife. I am sure, with no more than a crook of your finger, you shall be able to find any number of lasses eager to betroth themselves to you."
"I have plied Grandfather with out-and-outers for too long." He sighed. "I have no choice but to be honest." He reached for his glass and raised it to his lips, but it was empty.
Felix obligingly refilled it. "He will disown you. You shall have the title, but not a copper penny to go along with it."
"Which will be your father's good fortune, for he would be next to inherit it." He rubbed his eyes. How long had it been since he last slept? Two days? Three? He was not sure of the number of days, but knew it had been since the letter had arrived from Cheyney Park with the request that Timothy and his fiancée, Serenity Adams, attend the earl's birthday celebration.
Serenity Adams! He wished he never had written to his grandfather of this paragon of femininity. No woman he had met during the Season here in Town matched her perfection, with her ebony hair and silver-blue eyes. He had even gone so far as to describe in his letters to his grandfather how she was a pattern-card of style, favoring bright colors that accented the color in her smooth cheeks, and the betrothal ring he had given her.
He glanced at the box sitting on the mantel. The ring existed, for he had been want-witted enough to purchase it for Charlene Pye, not realizing she had set her cap for another. No other aspect of Serenity Adams existed, for she was the product of a lonely imagination on nights when his only company had been a bottle of something to sand the edges off his pain.
Now Grandfather wanted to meet her.
Downing the wine in his glass, he sighed. "I see no choice but to go to Cheyney Park and tell Grandfather the truth."
"That is a mistake."
Timothy smiled for the first time in days. "I trust you will tell me that all the way to Cheyney Park."
"You want me to go with you?" Felix shook his head. "I am not the favorite grandson, the beloved heir. Grandfather will waste no time dressing me down."
"For not telling him the truth." He took a deep sip. "He would see that as a gentleman's duty."
"I know." Squaring his shoulders, he said, "I cannot delay this any longer. Wish me good luck, because I shall be leaving at dawn to face his fury."
Felix sighed, then said, "I shall go with you. If I don't and Grandfather learns that I knew of your deception, he will be in a snit at Father for raising such a deceitful son."
"He cannot blame my deceit on anyone but me." He dropped back into the chair. "Blast it! It seemed like such a good idea when I first told Grandfather about meeting this charming young woman who was eager for my attentions."
"If you had not been so busy dealing with Grandfather's business interests, you might have time to meet the young ladies who are seeking a husband."
"I shall leave the flirtations to you." Without looking up, he added, "I am departing for Cheyney Park at dawn. If you wish to go with me, be ready to join me then."
Timothy did not move as his cousin walked out of the parlor. He could not fault Felix for finding the whole of this amusing.
Felix Wayne never would have found himself in such an untenable position, for he could tell falsehoods without hesitation. Only to his father was he unerringly honest. Grasping the bottle, Timothy poured himself another serving of wine. He started to drink it, then set the glass down again. What good was losing himself in wine? All he would have in the morning was a headache and the same problems.
He had not intended this ruse to go so far, but his grandfather had been unduly interested in Serenity Adams and Timothy's intentions toward her. No letter arrived from Cheyney Park without a query about Miss Adams. He should have foreseen this. He might have, if he had not been so caught up in the building of the new textile factory in the Midlands.
You should leave business to businessmen. How many times had Felix chided him with that? It might have been easy to agree if he did not enjoy overseeing the day-to-day management of his grandfather's investments. Mayhap he should have been born a merchant's son, instead of an earl's son's son.
Now he had to face the consequences of his web of lies that had been woven into the image of the perfect woman. He could only hope that his grandfather would forgive him. He doubted if he would ever forgive himself.
Felix cursed as the carriage bounced, and his head cracked against the roof. Glowering at Timothy, who sat across from him, he said, "You should rid yourself of that lame-hand in the box."
"You cannot blame Jenkins for this feather-bed lane." He gripped the window's edge as the carriage dropped into a chuckhole and out again. Water splattered up from the puddles to blend with the falling rain. "This winter's storms have washed it out."
"We shall not reach the Park tonight at this rate."
"True." He was not sure if that was a relief or not. He did not look forward to confessing to his grandfather, but he did look forward to the relief of being honest at last.
"Blasted inconvenient for the earl to have his birthday on Christmas Eve."
Timothy grinned. "I doubt if his mother took your discomfort today into consideration when the time came for him to be born. Most likely she was thinking only of her discomfort."
"By Lord Harry!" Felix bellowed when his head bumped against the carriage roof again. "Can't you tell him to watch where he is going?"
He did not bother to answer. Jenkins was an excellent coachman, and he would be finding the best route along this seldom traveled road that led across the moors not far from the old Roman walls at the farthest extent of their erstwhile empire. The rolling hills edged with low copses and gorse had been swallowed by the fog and freezing rain, and Timothy suspected the coachee could not see much past the tip of the lead horse's nose.
Closing his eyes, he decided to try to rest. He had found no sleep last night either. How long could a man go without rest before his own thoughts drove him to insanity? He had been bird- witted to embark on this journey of lies. Mayhap when he was honest with his grandfather, he would not have to suffer any longer from thoughts of a woman who was nothing but an air-dream. He was the brunt of the jest, because, although he had named her Serenity, he had found no serenity in the past week.
"Why are we stopping?"
Timothy opened his eyes at his cousin's grumble. He was not sure if he had fallen asleep or not. Only a moment might have passed or an hour. Either way, his mind was still groggy, and the heavy rain was still falling, and the fog still reigned across the moors.
He sat straighter as the carriage slowed. It bounced when Jenkins came down off the box.
Opening the door, he called, "Jenkins, what is amiss?"
"Lord Cheyney, there are tracks in the mud here that lead off the side of the road. Looks like a carriage went over."
He raised the collar of his cloak and, ignoring Felix's oaths, stepped out into the rain. Not rain, but sleet. It pelted him like dozens of needles, each cutting into his face. He paid it no more mind than he had his cousin's grousing. "Where?"
"This way." Jenkins was not much taller than a young lad, but he had been driving for more than a score of years. Only such keen eyes would have noted in this storm the path through the half- frozen mud.
Timothy muttered a few curses of his own as he saw the wheel tracks widen. The carriage must have been out of control, sliding across the roadway. Rushing to the side of the narrow road, he choked back another curse when he saw a wheel shattered against the stone wall.
"Get the lantern," he ordered.
"Aye, my lord." Jenkins's voice shook as he ran back to the carriage.
Peering through the storm, Timothy could see little. The hill dropped steeply away. Something glittered farther down it. He could not tell whether it was part of a carriage or simply water trickling down the hillside.
He took the lantern Jenkins handed him and stepped over the low wall. Sleet coursed into his collar while it weighed his hair low over his eyes, but he thought only of keeping his footing as he went down the steep hill.
He turned to see Felix lurching toward him. "No need for you to get wet until I see what's here."
"Too late." He grinned. "Besides, why should you have all the adventure?"
Although he would have preferred to have Jenkins with him, Timothy nodded. "All right. Take care. It's steep and probably as slippery as a pickpocket's fingers in your pocket." He balanced with one hand on the wall. "Jenkins, stay with the carriage, but listen for our call. We may need help if anyone survived."
"Aye, my lord." The coachman glanced uneasily at Felix.
Instead of replying to his man's obvious question, Timothy began to descend the hill. Felix was no good in an emergency, but denying him the chance to come down here would be a waste of breath. If Felix had a case of the vapors, Timothy would be cursed to perdition before he dragged him back up the hill.
He let his feet slide as he reached from tree to tree. The sleet was thickening to snow, which tried to blind him. The lamplight flickered with his uneven steps. When he saw broken branches and small trees that had been cut off a foot above the ground, he tensed. Something unquestionably had come this way. Something large and out of control, tearing up everything in its path.
A hint of a breeze tugged the curtain of sleet and snow aside, and he saw a broken carriage lying against a tree farther down the hill. A horse thrashed weakly against the harness.
"Jenkins!" he shouted.
"What is it?" Felix asked, slipping toward him.
Timothy pointed. While his cousin cursed with rare spirit, he called an order for the coachee to bring a gun down to end the horse's suffering.
Felix did not follow as Timothy edged down toward the carriage. Timothy stretched to open the door. The carriage shifted against the tree holding it above the creek. He cautiously drew the door aside.
"Is anyone in there?" Felix called.
Timothy did not answer for a long moment as he stared at the bodies clustered together in death. A man and a woman, both well dressed. Feathers on the woman's turban fluttered in the air coursing through the carriage, but that was the only motion within the carriage.
"Yes," he said, as he pulled the door closed, "but they are both dead."
"The coachman is over here," Jenkins shouted, pausing partway down the hill. "He is dead, too."
"Take care of the horse." Timothy sighed. He wished there was something else they could do other than report this to the authorities in the next village. They would have to figure out who had owned this carriage and let the family know of the disaster.
He flinched at the sound of the single shot. Its echo was muted by a woman's shriek.
Whirling, he almost lost his footing. That scream had come from the other side of the carriage. Someone must be alive!
Felix shouted something to him, but he did not pause to listen as he continued down the hill, trying to pinpoint where the sound had come from. He called for Jenkins to fire the gun again. As the shot resonated along the hillside, he followed the terrified cry to his right.
He knew he would never have seen this woman if she had not cried out. Her clothes, as befit a servant, were as drab as the leaves along the hillside. Mud further darkened them. A broken bonnet could not restrain her black hair, which camouflaged her. As she turned her head to look at him, her face was deathly pale. Her shadowed eyes were lost beneath the blood coursing along her forehead.
"Thank goodness," she whispered. "You did not leave me here."
He knelt beside her. "Calm yourself, miss. Where do you hurt?"
When she did not reply, he saw she had lost consciousness. He guessed that only the sound of the gun firing had roused her from her pain. He quickly checked her limbs to determine that no bones were broken. Tearing a strip from the hem of her apron, he bound it around her head to slow the bleeding. He wondered how long she had been lying on the hillside waiting for help that might never have come.
He slipped his arms beneath her and lifted her cautiously. Her moan against his neck sent shivers of dread to his toes. If one of her ribs was broken, he could be hurting her worse. He could not leave her here. Even if they were able to find a doctor in the next village, she might die before they returned.
Her head lolled against his chest. Jenkins scampered across the hillside and down to him. The coachman folded the young woman's arm over her breasts, which rose and fell so slowly. Bending, he picked up her ruined bonnet and one slipper.
"Do you need some help, my lord?" he asked. He tucked the bonnet and slipper under his arm as he gripped the gun with his other hand.
"I think I can manage."
Timothy was less sure of his assertion on every step up the precipitous hill. The woman was slender, but even her slight weight was a burden when he had to fight for each foothold. More than once, Jenkins's hand in the middle of his back steadied him. He was panting like a hound after a fox when he reached the wall at the top of the hill. Somehow he swung one leg, then the other over the wall and carried the young woman to the carriage.
"Oh, my! Oh, my!" Felix said with a gasp as he wrung his hands.
"Calm yourself," he said, as he had to the young woman, even though he knew it was useless. Felix was always ready to cede himself to panic.
"Is she dead?"
"Not yet." He set her on one cushion and climbed into the carriage. Settling her head on his leg, he motioned for his cousin to get in, too.
"What are we going to do with her?"
Timothy exchanged a wry grin with Jenkins. "We are going to the next village to see if we can get some help for her. If we hurry, she may live long enough to get there."
The young woman shuddered as she drew in a breath, and he retorted, "If we stay here until all your questions are answered, we may be burying her along with the others."CHAPTER 2
Pain laced every breath she took. She tried to breathe shallowly, but it made no difference. The pain began on her right side and leaped across to her left with each motion. When she tried to hold her breath, hoping it would ease the anguish, the very pulse of her heart augmented it.
"Shouldn't she be waking up soon?"
She tried to put a face with that petulant voice. For a moment a wisp of memory taunted her; then it vanished into a cacophony of agony. Just thinking hurt.
"Have patience, sir," a woman replied with a comfortingly familiar north country accent.
Did she know that woman? No, she was sure she had never heard the raspy voice before.
Something cool brushed her cheeks. She almost smiled at the brief respite from the pain, but winced as even that slight motion exacerbated the torment.
Excerpted from A Christmas Bride by Jo Ann Ferguson. Copyright © 2000 Jo Ann Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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