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Once Upon a Wedding Night
Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When we first practise to deceive.
Sir Walter Scott, "Marmion"
"It cannot be true." Lady Meredith Brookshire paced her drawing room, fisting the missive only just delivered into a crumpled ball.
"Might I see the letter?" her aunt asked, flicking her wrist in the air impatiently. "Before it is destroyed?"
Meredith blinked at the ball of parchment in her hand and quickly passed it to her aunt as if it were a deadly serpent. It might as well have been for the death knell it rang in her heart.
They had found him. The new Lord Brookshire. The missive did not indicate where they had located him, but he would surely descend upon them soon. Like a vulture scenting its next meal.
So much for the solicitors' assurances that he was dead, she mused wryly. Despite those assurances, they had put forth a search for him anyway. Blasted solicitors. Must they follow the letter of the law precisely?
Her aunt smoothed the crinkles out of the parchment, her expression growing perplexed as she scanned the message. "But, dearest, isn't he dead?"
Meredith continued to pace, rubbing the base of her palm against her forehead to ward off her impending headache. "Unless a ghost is about to descend upon us, Nicholas Caulfield is alive and well and intends to claim his inheritance." She halted her pacing steps as the ugly significance of Nicholas Caulfield's pending arrival washed over her. Ruin. Destitution. Doom settled like a heavy stone in her chest.
Surely he would rid the premises of his half brother's widow andher few clinging relatives. Then what? They had no other family to take them in. And Edmund had not provided for her beyond his death. Not that she would have expected him to for all the care and thought he extended her over the years. Still, she had not anticipated her husband expiring so young. He had only been thirty-five, and robust by all appearances, rare though the sight of him might have been.
Her hands balled into fists at her sides. "Blast Edmund! Do not husbands set up jointures for their wives?"
"Do not curse, dearest, and do not speak ill of the dead," Aunt Eleanor reproved with a chiding tsk. "Especially since he no doubt suffers in the throes of hell as we speak."
A smile tugged her lips at her aunt's uncharacteristic spite. Aunt Eleanor's nostrils quivered with disdain. "After all he put you through, the Almighty is not going to take a kindly view of him as he stands at Judgment."
"He did not put me through anything." The lie tripped off Meredith's tongue with practiced ease. "He wasn't cruel or abusive. He was just -- " She paused, groping for the appropriate word. Arriving at it, she shrugged and uttered, " -- absent."
"For seven years," Aunt Eleanor reminded hotly, her indignation on Meredith's behalf both familiar and tedious.
"I was quite content with the arrangement." Again, the fib fell smoothly. Content? Lonely was more accurate. "Many wives would appreciate being rid of their husband's oppressive yoke."
"Well, then he has put me through much suffering. Look at these dreadful frocks. I hate to speak uncharitably of the dead, even his rotten soul, but he's getting the last word if we wear these ghastly gowns." Aunt Eleanor plucked at the heavily starched black paramatta of her mourning dress. "I cannot wear black for an entire year. And certainly not for him. I haven't a turban to match."
Meredith looked down at her dress and frowned. Her aunt was correct. Nothing could complement such atrocious gowns, matching turban or no.
Aunt Eleanor's gaze slid over her in distaste. "You look like a ghost. Completely washed out."
Meredith sighed and touched her cheek wistfully, knowing -- with exception of a spattering of unfortunate freckles -- her skin was white as milk. A black gown had little to do with her resembling a ghost.
"We're not in Town. This is Attingham," Aunt Eleanor continued. "Who will comment if we only mourn for, say . . . three months?" She shrugged one thin shoulder. "Everyone knew you had a disagreeable marriage. No one would blame us for the slight breach."
"My marriage was perfectly agreeable." Meredith leveled a stern look on her aunt, annoyed by her allegation that everyone knew. If everyone knew, it was because her aunt's complaints had reached all of Attingham.
"Posh! He embarrassingly neglected you."
"Only you were embarrassed," Meredith reminded with the stoic facade she had mastered over the years. On certain days she could almost convince herself that the years of neglect did not bother her -- days her aunt usually wasn't around.
"Appalling. The way he left you, simply appalling," Aunt Eleanor forged ahead with the mercilessness of a battering ram. "Not what the earl had in mind, I warrant. Perhaps it's best the old gent did not live to see his son abandon you."
"Well, the earl will no doubt get the heirs he always wanted." Meredith sank down on the settee, arms falling limply at her sides. "Only from the wrong son."
"You should have borne those heirs. If Edmund had been any kind of husband, you would have a dozen babes by now. Not to have even consummated -- "
"Please." Meredith lifted a hand to ward off the rest of her aunt's words. Some memories were too bitter to speak aloud. The night her husband had refused to consummate their marriage and walked out on her was one such memory.
"And now we will lose Oak Run to this . . . man, when it has been you caring for everything." Aunt Eleanor counted off on her fingers. "You've managed the house, the servants, the tenants, the dairy, the harvesting -- "
"I know, I know," Meredith broke in, hot tears stinging the backs of her eyes. "I can do without the reminder." She blinked fiercely, refusing to succumb to the tears bubbling just beneath the surface. Ever since she . . .Once Upon a Wedding Night. Copyright © by Sophie Jordan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.