Lady Marabelle Danvers, the only surviving child of the Earl of Gray, loved Christmas. She loved it with every fiber of her being, every part of her soul. What wasn’t there to love, after all? Every year, she spent the days in December eagerly preparing for the twelve days of revelry which would begin Christmas Eve.
Every year, that was, until this one. For this year was strange, indeed. The month of December had been spent not in simply preparing for Christmas but also preparing for her wedding to a man she had never met.
Frankly, one year ago, it had never occurred to her that instead of tossing snowballs and giving instruction on the placement of the mistletoe, she would be planning her wedding breakfast to the new Earl of Gray.
But then again, one year ago both her brother and her father had been among the living.
This long, painful year had been a year of darkness. The deaths of her dearest loved ones had added to her conclusion that this particular winter seemed darker than any she’d ever known.
It was unfortunate, for she had always been what she considered to be a merry creature. Winter was a season she quite enjoyed; Christmas being the culmination of it. But on this particular morning, with Christmas Eve but a few days away, as her maid secured the diamond starburst in her curled hair, she glanced at her pale reflection. She wondered if she’d ever feel truly merry again.
The soft knock at her door sent a shiver of apprehension down her spine.
She’d hoped to meet her future husband before the day, but it hadn’t been possible.
Sebastian Rutherford, Earl of Gray, had only just returned from Egypt, having traveled directly from the coast to his new estate. This morning, as she understood, he was making the last leg of his journey from York.
A part of her had prayed he wouldn’t arrive at all. After all, she’d been running the estate quite sufficiently on her own. Still, it had been a hollow prayer for the one thing that had gotten her through the last excruciating months was the knowledge that she would be carrying on her father’s direct line and last wishes with this practical marriage.
It had been a great relief to learn that Lord Sebastian had been amenable to the matrimonial arrangement. After all, there was nothing to induce him to it but goodwill and, hopefully, good sense.
Despite her personal fortune and, dare she say, pleasing appearance, she had had some doubts that he would agree. After all, Lord Sebastian was a bachelor of the first order.
A soldier, a gambler, a rogue. . . He’d traveled the world and seemed to have no need to come home to England until the ultimate duty had called. . . An inheritance that never should have been his.
But instead of allowing herself to sulk as she supposed it would have been all too easy to do, Marabelle called on the pithy spirit of her family and finally stood. She braced her hands on the delicate, ivory-painted, gold-edged dressing table before giving herself a fortifying look in the mirror. She then took the nosegay of winter greenery and allowed her maid to drape her in a fur-lined, crimson cloak.
As she strode down the hallway, her voluminous, pale green skirts, embroidered with gold leaves which fell from just under her bosom, swished about her. Each measured step was resolute and determined. For after all, she was about to become a countess and mistress of the estate she’d spent her entire life on.
It didn’t matter that she hadn’t met her husband. No. All that mattered was that she was going to save everything her father had worked for. As the lady of the house and her soon to be husband’s guide, she could achieve such a thing.
God only knew what might happen to Northly without her there to anchor Lord Sebastian.
That thought was what she clung to as she headed down the sprawling, mahogany stairs. She moved through the glass-domed foyer then exited the manor into the brisk winter air.
Snow fell like gentle feathers, landing on her lashes and cloak, turning the landscape into a sugar-frosted confection. A smile teased her lips despite the nerves playing havoc with her insides. She adored snow.
So, she would choose to believe it was a sign of goodwill from the world about her on such an important day.
The footman, his cherry red livery as cheerful as a cardinal’s feathers, escorted her into the warmed interior of her coach.
She sat back on the ivory brocade and looked out the window. Tucking her toes next to the small brazier burning coal, she drew in a deep breath and willed herself to be calm.
The coachman snapped the whip. The team of four pulled them along the slippery lane, passing frost-covered hedges.
Soon, the world would be white with snow and she could hardly wait. For though she was full of trepidation, she wouldn’t allow herself to be brought down, not when the first true snow of the year was beginning to fall.
Indeed, she reminded herself, it had to be a sign of luck. Yes. Luck. It couldn’t be coincidence. For Lady Marabelle didn’t believe in coincidences.
They finally pulled up before the small, yet beautiful medieval church which had been on the Earl of Gray’s land since before the War of the Roses. She drew in a fortifying breath.
The small church had endured wars and reformation. It had seen change after change and persevered.
And like the little house of worship, Marabelle was made of stern stuff. It mattered not that she’d never laid eyes upon the man she was about to call husband or that his reputation as a rake and rogue had preceded him.
No, she was going to make the best of it, as anyone worth their salt did, and that was certain. So, she gathered her cloak and skirts and stepped down into the snow.
A low cough met her arrival and she spun.
Wilkins, her father’s man of business, stood shuffling from one booted foot to the other. His dark blue cloak fluffed like a pigeon bathing in the dust.
She forced a smile. “I’m ready to go in.”
It was to be a very intimate wedding with only two witnesses in attendance (the breakfast was to be the grander affair). She was shocked when Wilkins shook his tricorn-covered head.
“No, my lady,” he choked, his cheeks red with the cold.
“No?” she queried.
Wilkins shifted his weight from side to side. “He’s. . . He’s. . .”
She cocked her head to the side and prompted, “He who? Lord Sebastian?”
Wilkins nodded, his brown eyes all but bulging. “He isn’t here, my lady.”
“Not here?” she echoed, not quite believing her ears.
“No, my lady.”
She turned slowly to look at the narrow, grooved road which led off towards the coast, determined to spot Lord Sebastian.
There was no sight of anyone. All she could see were the moorland and the road stretching out to the snow-covered distance.
Well, this was a dratted nuisance.
Should they wait? She couldn’t stand out in the cold forever. Her toes were already quite cold in her wedding slippers. Should she go home? What would she tell the guests? That she’d been jilted?
Should they eat the great wedding feast without the groom?
It had never occurred to her that he wouldn’t be here. She found herself uncertain of what to do next. A state quite unfamiliar to her.
Just as she was about to suggest they go inside the small church and, at the least, get in out of the cold wind and falling snow, the thunderous sound of horse hooves echoed across the wild moor.
She turned toward the noise.
There, in the distance, she spotted the rider. Her breath caught in her throat.
My God, it was something straight out of a novel.
While his white stallion nearly blended into the falling snowflakes, the rider was a dark shadow upon the beast. His cloak was flying out behind him like black angels’ wings.
A strange thrill coursed through her at that powerful figure, racing toward the church.
It was him. It had to be.
Her future husband.
And he was tearing across the rugged terrain as though the devil’s dog were upon his heels.
Lord Sebastian Rutherford, the twelfth Earl of Gray, hated weddings. He hated England. He hated ladies. But most of all, Lord Sebastian Rutherford hated Christmas.
And at present, he was about to be wedded to a lady just a few days before the offending holiday in the north of his motherland. He wasn’t certain how his life could grow any more gruesome.
His horse had thrown a shoe outside of York. That very fact had seemed a strong sign that he should turn, head back to the harbor, find a ship and make haste for parts unknown.
Years of adventure and keeping himself as far from the island of his unhappy youth did not lead him to return. Yet, the title of earl was not something he could either refuse or ignore.
Even more powerful was the passionate plea by his distant cousin’s will that Sebastian marry the daughter, Lady Marabelle. Since, as the earl, he’d have to marry and have a little earling, the appeal of a ready-made wife had been impossible to ignore. There was also the fact that his one meeting with the previous earl had been the only event of his childhood in which someone had demonstrated kindness. So, he couldn’t really say no. Not with any good conscience. Thus, he’d agreed out of duty and practicality.
To marry, he’d had to do that one abhorrent thing that he had avoided for almost a decade.
He’d been so certain that, after he’d sold his commission from the King’s Army, he’d never need to set his feet upon England’s damp soil again.
Still, life was full of surprises.
As soon as he could wed, bed, and get his wife with an heir, he’d be gone again.
The world held far too much scope to spend it on a tiny patch of land filled with tiny minded people. Family life was not for him.
Still, it had not been his intention to be late.
So, he spurred his freshly-shod stallion over the icy moor.
He’d had but the barest of directions to the appointed church. At last, he turned down a road lined with a stone fence and urged his horse on.
They raced at breakneck speed. Finally, he spotted the holy building in the distance.
There was a small group of people outside.
No doubt, Lady Marabelle was in the church, cursing his name.
At the sound of the hard-hitting hooves of his ride, the group turned.
He pulled lightly on the reins and his horse reared onto its hind quarters. The animal’s breath was blowing white from its nostrils.
To Sebastian’s amazement, a lady swathed in the folds of a rich crimson cloak looked up at him. She blinked and said, “Terribly glad you could make it, my lord.”
A laugh burst from his lips. He couldn’t stop himself.
“Lady Marabelle?” he queried, barely able to believe that his future wife might have an admirable sense of humor.
“Yes,” she admitted with a surprisingly relieved smile on her lips. “Now, do come down from your horse. We are keeping the poor vicar waiting.”
“Whatever my lady commands,” he said dryly. He then swung down from his saddle and planted his boots onto the unforgiving soil.
“An admirable beginning,” she said lightly.
He arched a brow. “I must admit, you’re taking my tardiness very well.”
“It had not been my intention,” she admitted.
“You planned to scold?” he couldn’t help asking as he adjusted his tricorn with a gloved hand.
“Of course.” Her eyes widened with melodramatic horror before she teased, “The bride shouldn’t arrive before the groom.”
“Then what changed your mind?” he asked in all seriousness.
“If you must know,” she replied honestly, “your entrance was absolutely splendid. One couldn’t ask for a better one, not even in the pages of a novel or an epic poem.”
He gaped at her. Sebastian decided he needed to pause despite her urging and truly take a good look at her.
Everything had transpired so quickly. He hadn’t really allowed himself to take her in.
Lady Marabelle was shorter than he was by a foot.
He’d have to sweep her up into his arms to kiss her.
To kiss her.
He looked to her lips.
In the crisp December cold, her mouth and cheeks shone red. Seductive, glorious red. In contrast, her face was as pale as the gentle snow falling in lacy flakes about them.
Dark hair curled from under her crimson hood. Strangely, he found himself wanting to push back that fabric and see the extent of her curls.
He had a strong feeling that her stunning, black hair would be perfect for winding about his fists.
That’s what it was. Abrupt. Powerful. Undeniable.
It had happened in just a few moments. From the teasing tone of her rich voice to her charming person, he’d fallen in lust with Lady Marabelle.
It was almost entirely the opposite of his expectations. He found himself to be without words.
He’d expected an overbred miss, not this witty, laughing, blue-eyed wonder who looked at him with a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. She said, “Do you fancy becoming an icicle? I don’t. Besides, our guests are already waiting for us.”
Guests. He grimaced.
How had he forgotten so easily?
Oh yes. He’d been captivated by her.
Sebastian swept an elaborate bow then offered her his arm. “Shall we?”
She nibbled her lower lip then lilted, “Ah. Poor Lord Sebastian, Earl of Gray. To the gallows then?”
He opened his mouth to speak. But, once again, he was unable to reply.
She then winked and whispered, “Never fear. I know you’ve no real wish to marry me.”
She paused and then continued with blatant optimism. “But you’re going to like it. Very much. I promise you that, my lord. Indeed, I do.”
Was he, by God?
And with that, he led Lady Marabelle into the church. He was certain that this was going to be the strangest Christmas he’d ever known.