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The Earl's Christmas Colt
By Rebecca Thomas, Robin Haseltine, Kerri-Leigh Grady
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Rebecca Thomas
All rights reserved.
Sussex County, England, December 1819
Thunder grumbled in the distance, corresponding in perfect harmony with the uncertainty simmering in Lady Arabella's belly.
Why had Will summoned her to the library? Meeting there was never a good sign, because only matters of great importance were broached in that room. Regardless of what her brother wished to discuss, she was going riding afterward. Her maid helped her secure the green fitted jacket over her long skirt and bodice. "Thank you, Millie. Did you ask Basil to ready my mare?"
"Yes, my lady. Although he grumbled about the weather and the appropriateness of a woman riding alone."
The fresh scent of lemon oil on the banister filled the air as Arabella descended the curved staircase with Millie on her heels. "Must a head groom always verbalize his misgivings over my actions?"
"Yes, my lady."
At the bottom, Arabella paused. "You may go now. I won't require further assistance until I return."
"Yes, my lady." Millie scurried past without making eye contact.
Millie was usually quite chatty and always met her gaze. Arabella frowned. Servants and maids knew everything that happened inside their master's home, oftentimes sooner than the masters themselves. Something was definitely amiss.
On edge, she glanced toward the oak-paneled double doors and clutched her riding gloves. Five years ago when she'd learned of her father's illness, it was in the library. Her mother's passing and subsequent funeral arrangements had been discussed in the dreaded room, too. She took a deep breath and nodded to the footman manning the entrance.
Must she always expect the worst? Mayhap Will had good news to share. Or, mayhap it was the afternoon's gray clouds that inspired such dismal thoughts.
Inside the large room, she took in the hundreds of volumes of books on shelves covering three walls, and imagined her father sitting with a leather-bound book in his lap, a glass of brandy on the end table, and a cigar in his hand. If she inhaled deeply enough, she still caught the tiniest hint of tobacco.
At the scuff of boots, she glanced toward the fireplace and found Will staring at the flames. After a moment he turned. "Thank you for coming."
Arabella fidgeted with the high-ruffed collar of her riding habit. "Why have you summoned me?"
"Never one to mince words are you, sister? Fine. Won't you sit down?" He gestured toward the mahogany gilded chaise longue with fraying blue damask fabric.
"No, I'd rather stand."
"All right then. No sense in waiting to tell you." Will strode around the sofa, closer to her. "I've arranged a match for you."
Incredulous, Arabella glared at her brother. He'd chosen her husband without her consent? Without considering it necessary to ask her? "I thought I was going to attend the season. I thought I would have a choice."
"I gave you a choice last season and you wouldn't select anyone, so now it's up to me. The London season doesn't suit you, I understand that. I do. You'd rather be in the stable with your precious horses than in a ballroom dancing."
"Perhaps that's true but —"
"Let me finish. You're well past a debutante's age, need I tell you? I've not pushed the issue because of Father's death, but he's been gone over two years now. It's time you marry. Trust me, Arabella," he said, his tone softening. "I would only select someone whom I believe you would be compatible with." With a hopeful smile, he extended his hand.
Decorum insisted she take it, while the stubborn part of her recognized his action for what it was — coercion. With a few words and a touch, he expected her to give up her dreams and instead follow the path he'd chosen. She'd found little interest in the season, and knew this day was coming, but she just didn't expect it today.
"He needs to be a fine horseman," she said, "or you know we won't get on well."
Irritation flashed in his eyes. "I know what kind of person suits you. Give me some credit. He's an earl, holds several other titles, and he's next in his line to inherit a dukedom." Arrogance curved his smile. "You should thank me. You're engaged to a future duke."
Any normal noblewoman would be thrilled at the prospect of marrying a duke, but all Arabella could imagine was how her freedoms would be taken from her.
"I've never met a single duke I liked." She crossed her arms over her chest.
Will gazed skyward, snorted, and shot her a look of disgust. "My beloved sister — more concerned whether her future husband is good with horses, than his pedigree, title, or fortunes."
"Why has this duke agreed to marry me?"
Will straightened his coat. "He isn't a duke yet, but he's a good man, Bella."
Her suspicions grew. Bella? The shortened form of her name Will used only when he tried to get his way. "If he is such a catch, then why isn't he selecting a young debutante in London?"
"He's not the type to go courting debutantes. He's a very private man, and an old friend of mine."
Annoyance churned within her. An old friend, which equaled some deplorable scheme. Or something was wrong with the man. "How old is he?"
"Four and thirty."
The image of a bloated, decrepit man who drank in excess came to mind. She wanted to strangle her brother. "He's nearly three feet from the grave."
"If that's your opinion, then I'm two feet from the grave."
Perhaps he'd slip and fall in. Inwardly chastising her errant thoughts, she asked, "He'll be requiring heirs?"
"Isn't that why every man marries?" her brother replied too smoothly. "At least a man of his rank. You haven't even met him yet. Don't judge him so harshly."
"Don't judge him so harshly? You decide to step in and dictate my life and expect me to thank you? To offer no judgment? Tell me," Arabella said, all thoughts of easing her brother's burden forgotten and her anger building, "did this almost duke find my lineage up to his standards?"
"Don't Bella me. Blast it, I feel like breeding stock." Her mind spun with outrage. "And he's agreed to marry me without having met me?"
"Yes. It isn't so unusual."
His mild tone grated on her further. She didn't want to discuss this right now; she needed time to think, to sort everything out. Arabella turned and headed toward the door.
"Where are you going?"
"Out ... riding. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
"Don't be glib with me. I can see your intention to ride, but it's going to rain and it's cold enough to turn to snow."
"And now you care? Tell me, is it because I am your sister, or for what you will receive through this arrangement?"
His face reddened. "You're being difficult."
"No," she said without apology, "I'm a woman who just learned she's to marry a stranger, nearly an old man, and leave behind everything she knows, without her permission." She yanked on her riding gloves. "Do you remember when we were children and we'd play pirates?"
Sadness and fear gripped her heart. She wasn't good with change; she liked her life steady and predictable. Tears pricked the back of her eyes. "I wish one of those pirates would capture me now and steal away with me."
"Bella," he said, his voice barely above a whisper, "you can't escape this."
She drew a deep breath and stood up taller. "I know my place. I don't intend to."
His gaze darkened with empathy. "Don't you want to know his name?"
Without glancing back, she padded to the entry, and stopped without turning. "Of course, what is his name?"
"Oliver Westwyck. The Earl of Marsdale."
She mouthed the name. She supposed she should get used to it. In her mind, the name Oliver conjured an image of strength, not a drunken old man. Mayhap some credit should be given to Will, but she wasn't feeling particularly obliging at this moment.
Her brother's footsteps echoed behind her. "He'll be here in time for our Christmas party tomorrow."
She gasped and spun around. "Tomorrow?"
Will nodded. "He'll spend Christmas with us, then you'll be married on the twenty-seventh."
The air she'd sucked into her lungs moments ago burned in her chest and her knees wobbled. This was all happening too fast. "Millie," she yelled. "I need my riding crop."
"Confound it all. Why do you have to be so difficult?" Her brother's hand settled on her shoulders.
"How am I being difficult? I didn't say anything."
"That's precisely my point. He wants to marry you." He held up his hands in mock surrender. "Don't leave yet. We need to speak more on this subject." At her frown he said, "If you insist on leaving, let me send one of the grooms with you. It's not safe riding by yourself, especially as the weather might turn at any moment."
She couldn't accept his affection or concern for her safety. It was easier to be angry with him. Easier to argue with him. "I'm plenty safe on Sutton lands. Or are you thinking I might injure myself ... what would your friend say then? He wouldn't want an injured bride, because he needs a healthy woman to produce heirs for his future dukedom."
Will's mouth tightened. "Do you know how many women would wish to be in your position?"
Producing heirs — in her position? Forced to the altar with a man she'd never met? Was that all she'd ever be to a man, a means of producing heirs?
She longed for something more. Longed for the freedom to do as she pleased without having to answer to a stranger who was to become her husband.
In her free time, she galloped across the countryside, over jumps and hedges, through rivers and forests. When she rode, a rush of happiness swept through her that she'd never experienced in any other way. Her brother, like her father before him, allowed her the freedom to be outdoors with the animals she loved. But what of her future husband?
"My lady." Millie shot Will a fearful glance before presenting Arabella with her riding crop.
"Thank you," Arabella replied, haunted by the constricting image of running a household and chasing after children, with no occasion to be with her horses. Her mind racing with ideas, she stepped outside, ignoring the chill in the air.
There must be a way to escape her conundrum. Oliver Westwyck, the Earl of Marsdale, was due to arrive at Black Pine Hall tomorrow. If she couldn't convince her brother not to marry her off, maybe she could convince Marsdale he didn't want to marry her.
She marched across the stable yard and considered the best way to make a man not want her.
At her approach, Basil held Andromeda ready for her.
Stepping on the mounting block, she climbed into the sidesaddle. "My thanks." She unhooked the loop holding her skirt in place for walking. With her ankles appropriately covered, she turned her mare and kicked her into a trot. Once past the long winding gravel road and outbuildings, she let Andromeda have her head.
The breeze blew off her riding cap and pins came loose from her hair. Enjoying the thrill, the freedom of racing across the countryside, she leaned against the withers and urged her horse faster.
Her steed's mane whipped across her face as they sped over the rugged, hard-packed road, the steady sound of hoofbeats thumping the ground in a heartening rhythm. Nerves tightly wound began to ease, and a smile tugged at her mouth. Riding always provided a temporary respite from her worries; if only it could solve this marriage problem as well.
The farther she rode away from Black Pine Hall, the darker the afternoon clouds became, but she refused to let the gloomy weather besiege her already-troubled heart. She concentrated on the power and brawn of the animal beneath her, but Andromeda's stride faltered, and before Arabella could recognize what was happening, her mare's head went down. Arabella pitched forward. Gasping for breath and gripping the mane, she managed to stay on.
Her mare trembled as she dismounted. "Steady girl." She patted her shoulder.
With expertise, Arabella rubbed her hand over each of Andromeda's legs searching for an injury. Discovering no warm spots in the fetlocks, she lifted each hoof and grimaced at the sharp stone wedged in the spongy mass of the mare's front right hoof. The culprit. Guilt swept through Arabella as she quickly removed the stone. "I shouldn't have pushed you so hard."
Taking in her surroundings, she recognized the forested area ahead that bordered the Sutton estate's hunting grounds. She had bigger problems than whom she was going to marry right now. With her mare's hoof injured, she was too far from home to make it back by dark and she needed shelter for the night. Although an unoccupied tenant cottage they sometimes used during hunting season lay beyond the ridge, she must seek help at Brighton. Her mare needed proper treatment. Once there, she would send a missive to Will.
A raindrop plopped on her nose, followed closely by another pelting her cheek. She glanced up. Curls of dark-gray clouds melded with black in ominous swirls. Without warning, lightning cut across the sky, followed by the sharp blast of thunder.
Her mare's eyes widened and she stamped the ground.
Arabella patted the animal's neck. "We will be out of the weather soon." Taking the reins, she strode toward the Brighton coaching route.
Intermittent raindrops transitioned into oppressive sheets. Wind slapped at her heavy skirts and battered her face, but she pressed onward through the mud-entrenched road to shelter.
"It seems that even the weather conspires against me." Arabella rubbed the velvety softness of Andromeda's nose and sighed. "Listen to me, feeling sorry for myself while you're suffering a hurt foot. This storm is like the troubles of life, and it, too, shall pass and you'll heal given some time to rest." And she prayed it was true. Andromeda's injury would heal and somehow she had to find a way to reconcile this idea of marriage to a would-be duke.
Shielding her eyes, she peered through the cutting rain and her spirits dipped. Mayhap the storm was God's way of informing her it was time to quit fighting the role society had deemed appropriate for her, let her brother sculpt her life, and succumb to the confines of matrimony as a good lady ought to. She should have selected a suitor last season, but truly no one interested her. Then again, if she was being completely honest, she hadn't tried very hard to find someone. She had given a halfhearted attempt, and look what it had gotten her.
With grim steps, she pushed on through the slash of rain until the coaching inn and stables came into view. Thank goodness. With a sigh of relief, Arabella gathered what little strength she had and trudged toward her sanctuary.
The scent of worn leather, moist hay, and horses welcomed her inside the blessed dryness of the stables. Exhaustion seeped through her shivering limbs as she searched for a groom. Frustrated, she glanced down the stable's corridor lit by a single lantern. "Anyone here?"
From a stall several paces away, a man emerged. Rough trousers outlined long, muscular legs. Wet chocolate-brown hair, a little longer than was fashionable, curled against the top of his tweed coat. Caught in the shadows, the strong cut of his face left her unsure if she should be thankful for his presence or if she should run.
A shiver swept through her. With his authoritative stance, surely he wasn't a groom? Except, if he was a gentleman, why was he caring for the horses? Whatever the scenario, it mattered little as she was wet, her horse needed attention, and a missive must be sent to Will. "Excuse me, I've traveled quite a long way and could use some assistance. Are you the stable master?"
* * *
Oliver Westwyck stared at the rain-drenched woman covered in mud spatters. The lantern's pale light illuminated wind-tossed hair splayed in varying directions. Despite her state of disarray, she spoke like a confident young woman though she watched him with a touch of apprehension. Did he know her? She looked vaguely familiar. Propriety dictated that he should properly introduce himself and inform her he was not the stable master, but something held him back.
At the silence, she cleared her throat. "My family's estate isn't far from here. Well, it's quite a fair way when you spend half the distance walking. Excuse me, I'm rambling. The storm has rattled me a bit. I'm Lady Arabella Sutton. My mare came up lame several miles back. Will you please see to her?"
Stunned, Oliver stared in disbelief. Of course, the familiarity was in her resemblance to her brother. The same brown hair, straight nose, narrow chin ... tall and lithe; even covered in muck, she was beautiful.
Excerpted from The Earl's Christmas Colt by Rebecca Thomas, Robin Haseltine, Kerri-Leigh Grady. Copyright © 2013 Rebecca Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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