Authors: Amber Daulton
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A Books to Go Now Publication
Books to Go Now
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First eBook Edition –March 2013
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Southern Derbyshire, England
Christmas Eve, 1834
“Of all things, on all days.” Susanna Lorican rubbed her throbbing temples. “Why now? What did I possibly do to deserve this?” Tears welled in her eyes. She hated the injustice. Months of preparation ruined! Stomping to the largest window in her bedchamber, she pushed open the protective glass panels and stumbled back. An icy gust rushed into the room. Embers crackled in the hearth. A chill spiraled down her spine and goosebumps marred her skin. She grabbed hold of the windowsill and stared outside, eyes burning until the gust changed course.
Her heart clenched as her fists tightened.
Sheets of downy white fell from darkened clouds and blanketed the rich, fertile countryside, sheathing acre upon acre of prosperous farmland. Billowing gray clouds concealed the early morning sun as the wind howled and blew snow in all directions.
She wouldn’t mind a snowstorm on any other day—
Activity below her second-story window caught her attention. A gasp lodged in her throat. Dreaded white covered the barns, stables and gardens. Several stable hands toiled in the cold to keep pathways clear around her father’s stately manor. Luckily, the dirt road that led from town to Lorican Manor was still visible. If the snow continued, however, it wouldn’t be visible for long.
Susanna stepped back from the window and slammed the panels shut. Despising the floral wallpaper and ivory furnishings decorating her chamber, she imagined the rich colors and dark wood that decorated her future husband’s bedchamber—
bedchamber. She had dreamt of that particular room far too often. Even though she toured his estate twice throughout their engagement,
bedchamber was strictly off-limits, thanks to the efforts of her parental chaperons.
She growled beneath her breath—an unladylike habit—but she felt too stressed to care. She flung her head back in frustration. “One day. All I needed was
“Now, Susanna,” a gentle, chastising voice soothed from across the large chamber. “The tiniest thing could have plagued us today and your temper would flare like hot coals. Fretting over the weather is useless. As long as the road remains travelable, all is not lost.”
Susanna silently consented. She crossed her arms and stared irritably at her demurely dressed mother who sat on the edge of her rumpled bed.
Always soft-spoken and proper, Lady Marie Lorican was the epitome of class and beauty.
Susanna, on the other hand, her mother’s youngest daughter, felt destined to always disappoint. No matter how hard she tried, she would never be as proper or as beautiful as her mother—especially since she couldn’t seem to rein in her curses and reckless temper.
“I’ve waited so long, Mama. I want to marry the man I love.” She sighed heavily and stared down at her cotton bedclothes. A faint blush stole into her cheeks. Tonight, if everything didn’t fall apart before her very eyes, she would share a bridal chamber with her new husband and finally wear the lacy silk gown she’d secretly purchased in London a few months earlier.
Still, no matter what she wore, the eyes of her betrothed always gleamed in appreciation.
Lady Lorican clasped her hands together. Her thoughts followed Susanna’s. “I will not waste my breath on preparing you for
duties that you understand too well already.” Her pointed stare met her daughter’s.
Susanna blushed scarlet and diverted her sky blue eyes to the floor.
Lady Lorican smoothed out a nonexistent wrinkle in her beige skirt. “Things happen. You and Lord Beckinworth will marry. Preparations have already begun to ready the main hall for the ceremony.” As her daughter frowned, Marie huffed slightly in triumph. “I know you wanted to marry in the courtyard, but, as I have said, it is highly untraditional. A church is more favorable. You should postpone the wedding.”
Susanna shook her head. Dark, unkempt tresses swirled around her face. “Today! We will marry today if it’s the last blasted thing I do.” She clenched her fists until the knuckles whitened. She struggled to stay in control of her emotions. “No amount of snow, ice or even hail will ruin this day.” Stomping to her vanity and grabbing a brush, she forced the coarse quills through her thick mane and grunted as tangles snagged in the bristles. Her mother hurried to stand behind her and took the brush . She gently freed the tangles until locks of brown silk waved across her daughter’s strong shoulders.
Susanna breathed deep and smiled into the vanity mirror at her mother Lady Lorican smiled in return. Her mother was right. Snow was nothing to worry about. As long as the reverend arrived safely to perform the ceremony, nothing could truly ruin her long-awaited day.
Susanna glanced at the diamond ring on her finger. As long as she had Camden Beckinworth, she needed nothing more.
“You are to be her husband. You tell her.” Baron Alban Lorican poured himself a glass of brandy, drained it, and refilled the glass. He filled another and cast his gaze over his shoulder. A cursing young man sat hunched over in a comfortable leather chair with his head between his legs. He rocked back and forth. Lord Lorican stalked toward him, kneed his shoulder for attention and waited until their eyes met. Resignation darkened the younger man’s brown gaze. Lorican handed him the second glass full of crisp, burgundy liquid and set the crystal bottle in front of him on the coffee table. “Drink up, my boy. You’ll need it. In case you haven’t noticed, that little lady has a temper like an ox.”
Viscount Beckinworth’s brow rose. He drained the glass, visibly shivered and closed his eyes. Seconds passed before he grabbed the bottle for a refill. “Believe me, I have firsthand knowledge of that temper. I ever bear a scar to prove it.” He rubbed at a small mark on his cheek and smiled. The woman amazed him in so many ways. “Besides, you are to blame for that, my lord. Lady Lorican is far too kind.”
Lord Lorican huffed in a mixture of agreement and annoyance. He reclined in his favorite winged-back chair, lit a cigar and shook his head. “As I said, you tell the filly.”
Camden nodded. The newest problem wasn’t major in the slightest, for the men at least. The women, however, would undoubtedly make mountains out of molehills. Tunneling both hands through his hair, he ripped out the ribbon pinning his long hair respectably to his nape and considered strangling himself with it. Refastening it, instead, he refused to take the coward’s way out.
It was their wedding day. He shouldn’t even see the bride beforehand. But, alas, what choice did he have? Send a servant in his stead? No
That poor soul didn’t deserve his woman’s temper for simply relaying a message. Besides, the manor was in turmoil. Every servant was hard at work preparing for the morning nuptials, not to mention the normal household duties. The storm couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Spending several minutes with the baron in his immaculate study, Camden savored his second glass of brandy and a cigar before summoning the courage to speak to his betrothed. After appreciated but useless advice from the stressed baron, he headed toward the ladies’ parlor where he expected his future wife to be relaxing. Instead, he found the cozy little room empty.
She must still be in her bedchamber.
Biting his lip, he contemplated visiting her there. While engaged, they were not yet married. It was completely unacceptable.
But rakes were expected to ignore propriety— even reformed ones, from time to time.
Bypassing several rushing servants chatting about the cold and winter plants, he headed upstairs as if he belonged. And he did, somewhat. The Loricans treated him like family even without marriage vows. He was forever grateful. His parents died five years earlier while he was away on the Continent. An only child without aunts or uncles to call on, he had spent the past four years as a recluse. He didn’t know his parents had driven the Beckinworth name into the ground until he began sorting through his parents’ debts, liens on the family estate and failing business. Thankfully, their bad business decisions did not affect his inheritance. Once everything was in order, debts and liens paid off, the business thriving, and his money properly managed, he decided to re-enter society and find a wife.
Luckily, he wasn’t the same carefree man he used to be. He wasn’t a fool to throw away the name, land and fortune he had built from ruin on a conniving or doltish woman. There were many stipulations that a woman had to meet to become the next Viscountess Beckinworth.
Attending a Christmas party last year at the estate of his parents’ last true friends—the Loricans—he stumbled upon Susanna in the courtyard. She rested on a cobbled stair and held her foot, cursing under her breath. Once she noticed him, a blush stole into her cheeks and she instantly apologized for her foul language. Embarrassed, she explained that she played a game with the children and fell down a short flight of steps. The children left to find help. As he tried to help her to feet, she grimaced in pain and fell back on her bottom. Camden knelt beside her and grasped her ankle, covered by wool stockings. She gasped in pain but allowed the inspection. Without pulling down the stocking, he determined that her joint was slightly swollen and muscles tender. She had twisted her ankle.
Despite her protests, Camden picked her up and carried her close to his chest. The feel and weight of the supple woman stirred something primal in his blood. They had known each other for years but he never viewed her as anything other than the sister of his old playmates. But as she irritably folded her arms, humiliation flushing her face, he found himself wanting to kiss away her adorable frown. As a gentleman though, he refrained. Winding through the courtyard, they reached the manor just as Lord Lorican, two servants and the nervous children hurried toward them.
Fortunately, after her ankle was wrapped in linen and she’d downed a glass of steaming tea, she rejoined the party, determined to have a good time. He spent more time with her than appropriate, but since she was unable to dance, his presence passed as nothing more than a family friend keeping her company in the midst of several peers and chaperones. He told her stories of the places he’d been, the people he’d met and made her laugh, distracting her from her sore ankle. That night, after her father’s yearly Christmas Eve party dwindled into the wee hours of the morning, he surrendered to temptation and stole a kiss under the mistletoe that hung from the library light fixture.
Susanna was perfect in every way: honest, sweet and adoring, passionate, intellectual and stubborn. He had never known a woman like her. She exceeded every stipulation.
Camden paused at the top of the stairs and gripped the elegantly carved banister. His eyelids fluttered closed. He still remembered that moment in the library. Her lips parted into an innocent pout and blue eyes widened as he kissed her. Her breath caught in her throat and the hitching sound crawled through his stomach and twisted around his groin. But then sparks ignited in those docile blues and she pushed him back. Her hand slapped the entire length of his cheek. He didn’t realize her nail cut him until later. He then nodded to the discreet mistletoe hanging over their heads. Her bashful grin silenced every roguish line he had ever used on a woman. And the blush stealing into her cheeks made him want to possess her, care for her and love her until the day he died.
Never in his life had he felt anything so profound or powerful. He knew, right then and there, he could spend the rest of his life with her.
As a few maids scurried by, jostling him out of fond memories, Camden focused on the task at hand. Stalking down the hallway richly garbed in winter greenery, berries, red and white ribbons and candles of all shapes and sizes, a mischievous smile softened the firm line of his mouth.
For several months, he had been a perfectly respectable suitor until one night changed everything. Visiting the Loricans for dinner, a thunder storm kept him from returning home. After spending an hour with the baron in his study, he retired for the night, but instead of seeking the guestroom, he found himself outside Susanna’s bedchamber. Perhaps he had a little too much to drink, or was just desperate to see her, and he knocked on the door. When she answered, dressed in a modest robe that concealed every curve he wanted to sample, he couldn’t deny the hunger burning in his blood any longer. He entered, shut the door behind him and kissed her. She didn’t protest.
But when Lady Lorican accidentally walked in on them that morning, he thought everything was over. Or, at least, the wedding date would drastically be moved up. But the baroness simply diverted her gaze and walked out. She never mentioned a word of it—to him, at least. Susanna was another story.
It was a wonder her mother still treated him with any kindness or respect. Even more so that she didn’t tell her husband about the compromising position she’d caught them in.
He shook the thoughts from his mind and headed for her bedchamber. Just as he was about to knock on the sturdy door, it swung open and the loveliest face he had ever seen scowled at him in shock. Then a loud shriek echoed past her lips and she ducked behind the door.
“Camden, why are you here? Do you wish for bad luck? The blasted snow is already an omen!”
Camden simply stood in the hall with his fist still raised to knock. Lady Lorican softly hissed at her daughter’s language from somewhere within the room before she approached the doorway and invited Camden inside. He breathed a sigh of relief. Marie Lorican’s presence established proper decorum even though just
the room where his betrothed slept and dressed was highly inappropriate. Politely nodding to his unexpected hostess, he noticed that panic devoured his bride’s gaze.
“Now, Susanna.” He held up his arms as Lady Lorican closed the door. “Before a string of unladylike curses flies from your lips, I’ll explain. The—”
Susanna huffed and stomped toward him. She poked him in the chest and sniffed his breath. “You’ve been drinking and smoking this early? I bet my father is to blame. Even so, I thought you could abstain for one morning, you selfish, rude, irresponsible cad! You shouldn’t be here!”
A deep breath expelled from Camden’s lungs. She was right, of course. The blasted chit was always right. “I know, love. I apologize. But I am relaying a message from your father. You need to know there’s been a slight change of plans.”
She sighed as if his message was unimportant. “I already know about the snow. I know the ceremony must be inside. It doesn’t matter to me.” She shrugged her shoulders as if the situation was just an annoyance.
Camden’s brow arched. Even though the snow started to fall at daybreak, it wasn’t a blizzard. Thankfully, the clouds weren’t dark enough for one. Still, he expected her to be more upset than just annoyed.
“There’s something else.” He glanced at Lady Lorican as sudden dread filled her gaze. Susanna’s eyes widened with worry and she clutched her hands behind her back. He licked his dry lips and focused on Susanna. “Besides the storm.” He coughed to find his voice. “We just received word that the dressmaker in London cannot deliver the dress or accessories. The bridges leading outside the city are iced over. It’s too dangerous for the seamstress and her employees to travel here.”
He caught Susanna as she stumbled backward. He helped her to the nearest chair and gently kissed her forehead.
She clasped her pounding chest in shock. “My—my dress… Not here? It should have arrived hours ago, late last night as scheduled.” Her eyelids fluttered closed, and then snapped back open. Blue fire sparked like fireworks from them. “It should have arrived two weeks ago but the ignorant seamstress scheduled the wrong date . Last night was the earliest she could have it delivered.” Susanna breathed deep and gagged softly on faint candle smoke that filled the room. “We must fetch my dress. Are the bridges really so dangerous?”
Camden knelt beside her and grasped her hand. “If conditions were good, it would take several hours by horse and carriage to reach London, load the chests and return; you know that. In this weather, it is impossible.”
Susanna nodded even as tears beaded under her lashes. She abruptly swished her hand in the air to dismiss her own foolish question.
Camden wrapped his arms around her as her mother waited across the room by the hearth to allow them privacy. He tugged softly on Susanna’s silky braid and kissed her forehead. “Calm down, love. You have several beautiful dresses. Choose one. You will look radiant, I promise.”
” She pulled back, flabbergasted. Her eyes narrowed to thin slits. “This is my wedding dress we are discussing! Not apples. Not books.
I cannot just choose another.” She shoved out of his arms and stormed across the room. “How can I wear a dress if you’ve already seen me in it? It should be a surprise!”
“And it will.” Camden stood and slowly approached her as she paced like a frantic tiger. “Only a few sets of clothes are packed for the honeymoon. Most of them are still in your armoire.” Which were to be later delivered to Beckinworth Manor as they honeymooned in Paris. “Choose a dress you haven’t worn in a while and do not tell me which. When you walk down the aisle, I will be surprised. I swear it.”
Camden thumbed away her tears as she nodded. He knew Susanna had designed that damned wedding gown herself. Months of sketching and coloring, discussing details with a
respected seamstress, were all wasted. She had been looking forward to this day for months.
He wanted nothing more than to strangle the seamstress for the mishap.
As Susanna forced her wayward emotions under control, determination blanketing the sadness in her eyes, Camden kissed her hand, nodded respectfully to her mother and left the women’s company. Alone in the hall, a short, stressed laugh crawled up his throat and nearly strangled him. He swallowed hard. Even though the conversation went better than expected, his stomach still churned with anxiety. Something else was bound to go wrong.
He could almost feel it.