Once Upon a Christmas Wedding – Scarlett Scott

IF ONLY SHE’D been born a man. Lady Lila Breton, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Quimbly, would have rather been almost anyone else on that sunny but cold December morning. Or anywhere else, for that matter. She scrunched her nose in frustration. She had long ago given up on running away from her father’s home, from his outbursts, his unreasonable expectations, and his outrageous demands. Although the idea presented itself from time to time, she just as quickly dismissed it. She had no money, no skills, and nowhere to go. And besides, running away would require that she abandon her mother and her younger sister, Arianna. She could not leave them alone to cope with Father’s madness. “You should wear something pretty today, my lady.” Fran, her ladies’ maid for the past ten years, held up a silk rose-colored gown for Lila’s inspection. “It’s your wedding, after all. You ought to look pretty for your groom.” “A groom I’ve never met and who cares nothing about me as a person. How much do you think my father is paying him?” This was her second betrothal, the first one having lasted for most of her life, only to come to an abrupt end when her prospective groom married another woman.

From what she understood, the lady had been a homely bluestocking. Miss Emily Goodnight had married the Earl of Blakely, thwarting the betrothal that had been in place for as long as Lila could remember. When the betrothal had ended, her father had moved them away from the home they’d always known, away from the few friends she’d managed to make, and up to a distant estate near the Irish Sea that she’d barely known existed. Nearly as far north as one could go and not end up in Scotland. In fact, Gretna Green was not far off. Her father had forbidden them from making the short journey into the nearby village of Burnbridge even once, keeping her and her sister from having any sort of social life whatsoever. They could not take part in any church gatherings, town assemblies, or ladies’ socials. Nothing. It was difficult not to think of herself as a prisoner. Lila stared in the mirror, feeling none of the emotions a bride ought to be feeling.

Her only excitement came from the fact that she would soon be free of her father. Which presented her with a new set of worries. She exhaled loudly. Her prospective groom was the Duke of Pemberth. She would be a duchess, no less. She’d never heard of the dukedom until the night before when her father had informed her of their appointment today. Not an appointment for the man to pay his addresses. An appointment with a clergyman and two witnesses. She’d been given no choice in the matter. “Not the rose,” Lila answered, feeling frustrated and powerless.

“The brown muslin.” “Oh, my lady, not that one. I’ve mended it more times than I can count. It’s the most atrocious gown you own.” “Precisely.” Lila reached up and began pulling her hair into a tight and unimaginative chignon. It would emphasize the dark circles beneath her eyes. And yes, if she pinched her lips just so, she could appear even older than her six and twenty years. Any man who transacted business with her father could not be much better himself. Honor was for the weak in her father’s mind.

Money and status were all that mattered. And beauty. Fran made some disapproving noises but returned the rose gown to Lila’s wardrobe and then withdrew the brown one from an old trunk. “Leave the wrinkles,” Lila ordered. “And I’ll wear the green shawl Mama made for me last Christmas.” Utterly appropriate, with the holidays less than a month away. Her mother had used two colors of green: moss and bright parakeet. Lila lifted her arms as Fran assisted her into the dress and studied herself in the looking glass. She smiled tightly. Oh, yes.

This ensemble was most appropriate. She had no idea why a duke would deign to marry her. There must be a great deal of money involved. She’d do nothing to sweeten his bargain. A knock sounded on the door, and her mother entered without waiting for permission. “Oh, Lila.” She met Lila’s eyes in the reflection of the mirror. “He’s not going to be happy with you at all.” He. Her father.

Lila grimaced. She resembled her mother a great deal. Slim and with the same blue eyes, both stood barely over five feet tall, and, until the last few years, had shared the same color of hair. Glossy mahogany, as her mother liked to call it. “He’ll have no reason to care one way or the other, presumably, after this morning.” If the duke does not cry off upon seeing me. And what if he went ahead with the marriage? A shiver of apprehension slid down Lila’s spine. What if he was old? What if he was very young? She’d imagined all sorts of horrifying scenarios while trying to sleep the night before. His estate was located even farther north, yet remained in England. But instead of facing the Irish Sea, it was located on the opposite coast.

She wondered if the North Sea would bring her the same solace she found along the shores of Bryony Manor. Perhaps they all looked the same… water and sky. If the duke did not call off, Lila would have to leave her mother and sister. But she would do everything within her power to convince her new husband to send for them. If not her mother, at least Arianna. “Will Arianna be allowed to be present… for the ceremony?” Lila would feel only slightly better if her sister could be there. But her mother was already shaking her head. “She’s not to miss her lessons.” Lila had guessed as much. “Fran.

I’d like a moment alone with my daughter.” Lila hadn’t expected her mother to attempt any sort of mother-daughter pre-wedding heart to heart. She met her maid’s gaze in the mirror and shrugged. Fran finished fastening her gown from the back and then dropped the ghastly shawl around her shoulders. Her mother frowned in further disappointment but did not object as the maid took her leave. “You don’t need to—” Lila would save her mother such embarrassment, but her mother raised one hand and then gestured for her to sit down in the high-backed velvet chair at the end of the bed. Lila lowered herself in place, and her mother stood facing her, hands hidden in her deep skirt pockets. “I know little of this Pemberth, whom your father has called here to marry you. But I’ve seen him.” Clamping her lips together tightly, she stared out the window for a moment, as though she’d forgotten she was even speaking.

“Mother?” Lila reached up and touched her mother’s hand. Her mother blinked and then nodded slowly. “I want you to take this. Hide it with your jewels, and if you ever have need of subduing your husband, simply sprinkle this into his food.” She withdrew one hand from her pocket and held out a velvet drawstring bag for Lila to take. “What is it?” Lila took it, wondering if this was how her own mother had managed to survive her father all these years. Her mother’s eyes seemed unfocused and then she blinked again. “A sleeping potion. Only use it if you fear him. Do you understand?” She’d never seen her own father actually act out in violence toward another soul, her mother included, but she’d heard rumors that he’d committed atrocities.

She did her best to imagine the rumor held little, if any, truth. Her imagination never grew powerful enough to believe it. Yes, she could understand her mother’s concern. Nodding, she took the little cloth bag from her mother and then stuffed it into the back of her valise. She prayed she’d never need it. Strangely, her mother took Lila by the shoulders and leaned forward, dropping a kiss on each cheek. “I love you, Lila. I want you to know that I’ve done my best for you and Arianna. Please, always remember that.” Lila nodded.

“Of course. It cannot have been easy for you.” And then she added, “I love you too, Mama.” But this wasn’t going to be goodbye forever. She’d make certain of it, no matter what she had to do to procure her husband’s cooperation. “Best not to dawdle.” Her mother brushed at Lila’s sleeves and then tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “They await you downstairs.” Feeling as though her limbs had suddenly gone numb, Lila nodded again. She had no idea what she was walking into.

If you are there, God, please let him be a decent man. He doesn’t need to be smart, or an appropriate age, or handsome even. She cared not one fig if he was charming and affable. All she could hope for was that he would be kind. What was the chance of that? Fear sent ice coursing through her veins as she followed her mother downstairs. Perhaps it would be best if he took one look at her and changed his mind. Because as horrible as her present circumstances were, better the devil you know than the one that you don’t. She caught sight of herself in a large mirror in the foyer. The gown was delightfully wrinkled. And the bright green yarn of the shawl made her skin appear almost yellow.

Stunning. VİNCENT SAİNT-PİERRE, the Duke of Pemberth, would rather be anywhere but Lord Quimbly’s library that morning. Since his older brother Keenan’s untimely death three months ago, Vincent’s life had been irrevocably altered. Death. His heart curdled inside at the word. Suicide. He would not ignore the truth. After driving the dukedom deeply into debt and then gambling away anything left of value, Keenan had not even had the decency to remain on this earth to face the consequences of his actions. No, he’d left that for Vincent. A penniless dukedom, a broken-down estate, and now this.

The promise to marry Quimbly’s daughter sight unseen. His brother’s vowels had not died with him. No, they, too, had been bequeathed to Vincent. He’d like to hate his brother for it, if only he hadn’t loved the benighted fool. A noise at the door had him turning in some curiosity. The older woman, he presumed to be the countess. She was followed by a timid-looking creature wearing a color that offended his eyes. Good God. Beneath the hideous garments appeared to be a shapeless form, part of the hem dragging behind her as she shuffled into the room, head ducked meekly. He barely contained a groan.

But of course, his brother had saddled him with an antidote. Not that it mattered, he supposed. He’d likely be too busy working his own land to seek any satisfaction with her. Although he’d require an heir. Vincent made no comment, choosing instead to bow toward the countess. Lord Quimbly wasn’t so considerate. “Good God, Lila. It isn’t going to work. Step over here, this instant.” It was her—his betrothed—Lady Lila.

The name hinted at a feminine beauty he’d not seen so far. She hesitated only an instant before doing as the earl bid. Before she made it halfway across the room, however, her father had stepped forward to tug at the shawl before then tearing it off of her shoulders. She nearly lost her balance at the violence of his gesture. “Now, here.” Vincent stepped forward. “That’s not necessary.” “I know my daughter, Pemberth. She’s doing this on purpose.” And with his other hand, his fingers delved into the back of her head.

The girl covered her face with her hands while Quimbly, her father, dragged out a few pins, releasing the twisted mane to tumble down her back to just past her waist. With one last motion, the earl forced the girl to drop her hands. “See. Not so bad.” Quimbly tilted her chin up and turned her face in Vincent’s direction with some satisfaction. Vincent swallowed hard. Her beauty stunned him. His soon-to-be wife. Cobalt blue eyes glared at him. The clergyman Lord Quimbly had summoned rose from where he’d planted himself earlier.

“Are we ready to begin, then?” Keenan had promised to make Quimbly’s daughter a duchess as an ante in a game of cards. And then he had lost. If Vincent didn’t make good on his brother’s promise, the Pemberth title would not only be penniless but without honor as well. Vincent nodded. A small cry came from the girl, who’d dropped her gaze once again. “My lady.” The collared man gestured to the defiant young woman. “You stand here, beside His Grace. And Lord and Lady Quimbly shall act as witnesses.” The girl’s mother nudged her forward until she was standing beside Vincent, her reluctance so strong he would swear he could feel it burning along his side.

Vincent dropped his gaze as well, ashamed to be a part of such a sordid affair. Damn you, Keenan. He barely made out the words on the book the vicar clutched before the man opened it and began performing the ceremony. The Book of Common Prayer. Not much godliness going into this marriage. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God…” Vincent glanced sideways in time to see Lady Lila raise a handkerchief to her mouth. She clenched her hands so tightly, her knuckles appeared white, and he was almost certain that she was crying. Should he put a halt to the proceedings? All of this was quite beyond his realm. He’d be far better at comforting his livestock than an unwilling bride. “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed….

” The clergyman’s tone was even and steady. “For be ye well assured, that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s Word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their matrimony lawful.” Would her mother stop the ceremony? If Lady Lila was so disinclined to marry him, why did she not speak up herself? Quimbly was the only person in the room who appeared satisfied with the proceedings. “Your Grace, Vincent Sebastian Lucifer Saint-Pierre, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?” Vincent swallowed around a huge lump that had appeared in his throat. “I will.” He’d never taken a vow he did not feel confident he could keep. He glanced down at the woman standing beside him. Until that moment. “And my lady, Lila Catherine Breton, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?” The room fell uncomfortably silent until his bride jumped. Vincent suspected a sharp elbow had landed on her ribcage at the same time her mother shot her a stern warning look.

Lady Lila responded in a thin voice, “I will.” Quimbly mumbled something in satisfaction. When asked about rings, it was her father who handed them over. His bride’s icy cold hand trembled as she slid the cool metal circle upon Vincent’s finger. He noticed how small and delicate her hand was compared to his. The remainder of the ceremony passed in a blur. The next thing he knew, he’d signed his name on a license and Quimbly was showing the clergyman the door. Vincent had planned on staying the night at Bryony Manor initially but having already spent more time than he’d prefer in Quimbly’s company, he decided he’d rather take to the road and stop at an inn along the way. Along with his less than enthusiastic bride. A servant chose that moment to enter.

“The nuncheon is served, my lord.” “Oh, yes. Indeed. You must be hungry, Your Grace? From your travels?” Lady Quimbly lacked the maniacal force of her husband and seemed to wish to bring some normalcy to the situation. She was petite like her daughter but rather than hold her shoulders proudly, she hunched over. Vincent did not have the heart to refuse her. “I would be grateful for the meal but we’ve several miles to cover and cannot take long.” He turned to address his… wife. “I hope you have already packed. I’d like to get on the road shortly after, however, as I’m needed at Glenn Abby.

” “But—” she started to interrupt, showing more life than she had since she’d first presented herself. “I’ve already been away longer than I ought,” Vincent added. Which was mostly true. His steward would require his assistance in the fields, what with three of his tenants having up and left for the Americas after Keenan’s death. Not to mention the accounting books he’d put off, a task he barely tolerated. Vincent was not much of a numbers man. Hell, truth be told, he wasn’t much of a books man either. He was far more comfortable in the pastures, atop his horse. The earl scowled at his daughter. “Lady Lila’s maid can have her belongings prepared immediately.

” And then, waving at Vincent, he said, “This way, Your Grace.” “Her Grace,” Vincent corrected the earl. “She is no longer Lady Lila.” The earl turned back, eyes narrowed. Vincent had not appreciated the manner in which Quimbly had treated his daughter, and as his wife now, she was entitled to Vincent’s protection. The earl would treat her with all due respect. Vincent knew nothing of who she was; her thoughts, her likes and dislikes, nor her dreams. But she’d taken vows to live the rest of her life as his duchess and he would make certain she was afforded the deference that came as a result. By God, he didn’t have much, but he had his honor. And so would she.

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