<At the Christmas Wedding>

At the Christmas Wedding
978-0-9860539-3-1

Snowed in at a castle full of handsome lords, three young ladies are about to have the holiday of their lives…

From the authors of At the Duke's Wedding.

Map of a Lady's Heart by Caroline Linden

Hot Rogue on a Cold Night by Maya Rodale

Snowy Night with a Duke by Katharine Ashe

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"Perfect seasonal fare – warm, light-hearted and perfectly romantic, laced with humour, filled with likeable principals and served up with a soupçon of Yuletide cheer and festive frolic." —All About Romance

Inside Story & Bonus Features

<At the Duke's Wedding>A sequel to At the Duke's Wedding, the first anthology from the Lady Authors.

My story, Map of a Lady's Heart, stars a globe-trotting earl in search of an old map, once owned by his father, made by Louis Charles Desnos. Desnos was a real cartographer in Paris, and was one of the premier publishers of maps in the late 1700s. You can see a sample of his work here.

Prologue

<At the Christmas Wedding>December 1816

Kingstag Castle

A storm was coming.

Viola Cavendish didn’t need to look at the sky to know it. She could recognize the signs, all of them ominous, converging upon Kingstag Castle. Even worse, she had a very bad feeling she might find herself at the middle of it.

“I’m sure everything will be fine,” said the Duchess of Wessex as she buttoned her fur-trimmed pelisse. The footmen were carrying down the duke’s and duchess’s traveling trunks, and the coach was outside the door. Viola could see the horses’ breath steaming in the cold air as they stood waiting to carry her employers away for at least a fortnight.

The duke and duchess weren’t supposed to leave for another month. The duchess’s sister, Mrs. Blair, was expecting her first child after Christmas, and everyone at Kingstag could talk of nothing else. Well—all the females at Kingstag were keenly interested in the baby, although Kingstag was mostly populated by females. Aside from the duchess, the castle held the duke’s mother, the dowager duchess, the duke’s three younger sisters, and an elderly relation, Lady Sophronia. Since Mr. Blair was a cousin to the Cavendish family, everyone felt some claim upon the child, but especially the duchess, who was eagerly anticipating the visit she planned to make when the child was born.

But yesterday an express letter had arrived from Mr. Blair, saying his wife’s labor pains had begun almost a month earlier than expected, and she was begging for the duchess to come as soon as possible. The duchess and her sister were extraordinarily close; without hesitation the duchess declared that she was leaving at once. The duke argued with her—Viola had been ordered from the room, which was rare—but in the end the duchess had prevailed, although only on the condition that the duke would go with her.

That was the moment Viola foresaw the coming storm. As the duchess’s personal secretary, she was privy to almost everything that went on in the castle, and there was quite a bit going on at present. Not only was it nearing Christmas, but houseguests were expected, and the dowager duchess was ill. With neither the duke nor the duchess in residence, the position of hostess would fall on Lady Serena, who was young and unaccustomed to presiding. The next ranking lady would be Lady Sophronia, but no one would dare leave her in charge. Lady Sophronia delighted in chaos and mischief , and she always claimed to be pining for a scandal.

Viola could smile at that when she believed the duchess or dowager duchess would be around to prevent anything untoward. Now, though, the dowager duchess was confined to bed with a cold, the duchess was leaving, and Viola had the horrible thought that she would end up responsible for whatever disaster ensued.

Not that she could ever express that thought aloud. Her job was to be confident and capable, no matter what was asked of her. That was why the duchess had hired her, and Viola wasn’t careless enough to let something like a house party unsettle her—at least not visibly. She gave a poised smile in response to the duchess’s assurance that all would be well. “Of course, Your Grace.”

<At the Christmas Wedding>“The dowager duchess will surely be on her feet again in a day or two,” her employer went on. “Serena’s friends are delightful young ladies and I’m sure they’ll be no trouble.” She paused. “You might have to keep a close eye on Bridget.”

Viola fought back a laugh. Bridget was the duke’s youngest sister, and could be charitably described as high-spirited. Most of the trouble in the castle could be traced to Bridget.

On the other hand, Viola genuinely liked the girl. Once she had been just as enthusiastic and eager for adventure as Bridget was. Still, she said a quick prayer that Bridget wouldn’t go looking for extra adventure and mayhem in the next fortnight.

“Be sure to send the tenants’ Christmas baskets by the end of the week,” the duchess went on, “and let Serena tend to the decorating; I’ve already discussed it with Mrs. Hughes and she can assist.”

“Yes, madam.”

“I expect Serena and her friends will be rather quiet.” Worry shadowed the duchess’s eyes for a moment. “If they wish to have some entertainment, allow it. Especially… Well, encourage it as best you can.”

“Yes, madam.” Viola understood the concern. Serena was the eldest of the duke’s sisters, a charming beauty at age twenty-one. Until several weeks ago she’d been engaged to marry the Duke of Frye, pink-cheeked with happiness and excitement, and then one day the engagement was abruptly over, and no one spoke of why. Even Viola had no idea what had happened. Serena turned pale and silent, and her mother, the dowager duchess, had almost immediately announced a Christmas house party of friends to cheer her.

A burst of noise made both women look up. The duke was coming down the stairs, his secretary close behind. Because of the sudden change in plans, Geoffrey Martin was accompanying the duke, which left Viola even more in charge of the castle. Geoffrey was carrying the duke’s large traveling desk that contained the duke’s correspondence, and he went directly out to the waiting coach and horses.

The duke came to his wife’s side. “Are you ready, my love?”

“Nearly,” she told him. “We’re leaving poor Viola in a horrible situation, Gareth.”

Wessex glanced at her. Viola stood a little straighter under his piercing dark gaze, and bobbed a curtsey. “I’ll do my best, Your Grace.”

“And that’s why I’m not worried,” said the duchess firmly, putting her hand on Viola’s arm. “I have great faith in you.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” she said with another tiny curtsey. Viola tamped down her sense of impending disaster, which was surely just her imagination. The duchess had hired her for her competence, giving her a home and an income when she desperately needed both. It wasn’t only her own well-being that depended on it; her younger brother Stephen needed her support until he was old enough to manage it for himself. Viola would be forever grateful to the Duchess of Wessex for giving her such a plum position.

<At the Christmas Wedding>For the past two years she had devoted herself to earning the duchess’s trust, and she wasn’t about to lose it now. “I shall be guided by Her Grace the dowager duchess in every uncertainty.”

“Quite right.” The duke gave her a small smile, which did wonders to his face. He appeared very somber and intimidating until he smiled. “We must go, Cleo, if we’re to reach Morland today.”

The worry in his wife’s face deepened. “Yes, I’ll be right there.” She drew Viola aside as the butler stepped forward with the duke’s coat and hat. “Send someone to Morland Park if there’s any trouble,” she said quietly, naming the Blair home. “It’s only ten miles, we can return in a day.”

“Your Grace,” protested Viola, “I’m sure that won’t be necessary—”

The duchess made a subtle shushing motion. “Perhaps not, but if anything untoward happens…” Her eyes bored into Viola’s, as if trying to convey something too terrible to say out loud. Startled, Viola could only wet her lips and nod.

“Very good.” The duchess blew out a breath. “I hope all will be well, both here and at Morland.”

“Yes, Your Grace. I dearly hope Mrs. Blair is well.” Viola bowed her head. If Mrs. Blair’s child was born too early, he might not survive.

The other woman smiled wistfully. “I wish we were taking you with us. I don’t know what I shall do without you.” She sighed. “I wish we didn’t need to go at all yet.”

The duke approached with her cloak. “We must go, Cleo,” he said again. The duchess nodded, and Wessex folded the cloak tenderly around her shoulders.

Viola followed as they went out to the coach. Footmen rushed before them with hot bricks for the carriage floor. Geoffrey, his muffler pulled up almost to his hat brim, swung into the saddle of a gray gelding. The horses shook their traces as the duke and duchess climbed into the carriage.

“Good-bye,” called the duchess, waving as a footman closed the door. The duke touched the brim of his hat, and the coachman lifted the whip and started the horses.

Viola waved back, hunching her shoulders against the cold. Running footsteps sounded behind her, and then Bridget Cavendish was beside her, swinging one arm exuberantly in the air. “Good-bye,” she cried. “Give our love to Blair and to Helen!” The carriage rolled on, past the oaks.

Bridget lowered her arm. “I hope Helen has the baby safely.”

<At the Christmas Wedding>“Yes,” said Viola softly. “I hope so too.”

“With Cleo there, I’m sure she will.” Bridget turned to her, and Viola finally focused on her long enough to see the gleam in her eyes. Oh no. “Cousin Viola…”

“No,” said Viola immediately. Her late husband had been one of Bridget’s distant cousins, and Viola was therefore only a relation by marriage, but when the girl called her “cousin,” Viola had learned to be wary of what came next.

“You didn’t even hear my idea!” Bridget looked wounded. “It’s not rude or dangerous. I’m sure Cleo would allow it, if she were here.”

“And yet I can’t help but note you did not ask before she left.” Viola shook her head with a soft tsk. “What is it?”

Bridget brightened right out of her pretend hurt. “A play. To cheer Serena. It will be silly and make no sense at all and she’ll be so diverted. Please say we may put it on!”

That didn’t sound so dreadful… and yet it was Bridget, so Viola wasn’t reassured. “Which play?”

“Oh, I’m writing it,” was the cheerful reply. “Completely original. Nothing vulgar or inappropriate, I promise.”

For a moment she was shocked into silence. It wasn’t that Bridget wasn’t bright enough or creative enough to write a play, it was that Viola had never seen her sit still long enough to write a scene, let alone multiple acts. “How exciting,” she said, recovering. “May I read it?”

“Even better—you’ll be in it!” Bridget’s eyes glowed as she beamed back. “Everyone will be, except Mama if she’s going to be ill for a while, and Great-Aunt Sophronia. They’ll be our audience.”

Her heart settled into a normal rhythm again. If Bridget meant for her to have a part, she’d have to see the play, and could put a stop to any nonsense before it got out of hand. And if anyone could make Serena smile again, it would be Bridget. For all her madcap ways, the girl was irrepressible in her good humor and wit, with a knack for making people laugh even in their foulest tempers. And the duchess had said to encourage entertainments.

<At the Christmas Wedding>“It sounds like a fine idea,” she told Bridget.

“Thank you!” The girl clapped her hands and ran back into the house before Viola could say anything more, which was likely for the best.

A gust of wind made her shiver. She wrapped her arms around herself and cast one last look down the long oak-lined avenue; the ducal carriage was already gone from sight. Her gaze drifted upward. The clouds seemed to be growing thicker and grayer by the moment, and the air had a leaden stillness that promised snow.

Viola didn’t like storms.