Runaway Christmas Bride – Isabella Hargreaves

This couldn’t be happening. Miss Amelia Fortescue looked from one parent to the other and an icy chill flowed through her body. They were matchmaking again! “What are you two planning?” she asked, in a low, controlled voice. “You will make him a beautiful bride.” Her mother continued her line of conversation as though unaware of Amelia’s horror. “But I don’t know the man!” Amelia swayed in her seat as her father’s ancient travelling coach lurched between the twin stone pillars marking the entrance to Wellworth Park. “That will soon be remedied,” her father, Baron Fortescue, said, dismissing her objection with a brusque rustle of the newspaper he held open at a report about a recent curricle race to Brighton, which Amelia knew he had bet upon. “Look!” her mother said, pointing out the window. Amelia craned her neck to see ahead from her rear-facing position. An expanse of snowdusted pasture lay beyond the avenue of bare-branched elms through which they drove. Within minutes, the sight of a large and new-built house filled the small carriage window. “What an impressive home Wellworth possesses,” her mother prattled on. “You lucky girl. He’s a marvellous catch.” “Indeed,” her father agreed.

Having finally finished reading his newspaper he entered the conversation fully. “I’m looking forward to Christmas here.” Her parents exchanged a meaningful look. “I’ve heard his house is furnished from Sheraton’s latest catalogue and holds prize-winning artworks,” Amelia’s mother purred. Do furnishings matter when I don’t even know the man? Her parents’ conversation batted back and forth, praising Wellworth Park, its owner’s taste, and his wealth. Amelia continued to stare out the window at the wintery scene. “Just a pity about his war injury,” her mother mused. Amelia darted her eyes from the view out the window to her mother. What injury? “I hear he no longer fences or boxes because of his leg, but I’m not sure whether he still rides,” her father replied. Had he been seriously wounded? “I can’t understand why a man of his age and fortune joined the army.

What a foolish idea! But I’m sure Amelia will not be bothered by that,” her mother said. She turned to her daughter. “As you looked after your grandmother all those years, you have good nursing skills. You’re a perfect match for him. So much better than the usual debutant.” Is Wellworth both old and an invalid? “How could you?” Neither parent answered. Her mother flicked a glance at the baron then leaned forward to pat Amelia’s hands where they lay in her lap. Finally, her mother replied, “If you were to find Major Wellworth at all acceptable as a husband, we urge you to encourage his advances. That is all. He is very eligible.

” “But I’ve never met him.” “But you soon will,” her mother said. “Why would he be making advances?” Amelia’s heart pounded from foreboding. “See what you think of him before dismissing his suit out of hand,” her father said. “His suit? He’s already approached you? For me, sight unseen?” “But he has seen you,” her mother replied. “Will I have any choice about whether I marry him?” Amelia’s blood curdled in her veins at the thought of such a one-sided union. “It appears to have been love at first sight for him.” Her mother gave a smug smile. I can hardly credit that as true. “But why? I didn’t take during the Season and I haven’t had a single offer! I know dressmakers don’t sigh resignedly when they see my figure, and my teeth are straight so I don’t mind smiling, but those are my only positives.

My hair is boring brown, and I’m not a beauty—as you’ve told me yourself, Mother. Doesn’t that say enough?” “You underestimate yourself, my girl,” her father said. “I don’t think I do! What could possibly have interested him in me?” Except my family’s pedigree? “I suspect Major Wellworth fell in love with your title, Papa.” Her father’s mouth, with permanent creases of disapproval etched around it, hardened into a straight line. “And if he did, does it matter?” I can see that it doesn’t matter to you. His wealth wouldn’t have anything to do with it? She twisted her fingers into the pale material of her debutant dress. Her father added a frown to his stern look. “He’s a very gentlemanly fellow despite being the son of a banker.” “That’s as may be, but—” “No buts, Amelia,” her mother cut in. “As you say, you didn’t receive a single offer during the Season.

You will be charming towards him. We have high hopes that his affections are engaged and you are not to do anything to discourage that state of being!” Amelia’s stomach hollowed into a pit of dread. Her great-aunt had warned her of her parents’ desperate scheming for wealth through her marriage. “No matter what I think of him?” “Only if he were found to be a rake of the worst sort. Anything less and I would consider him perfectly suitable husband material,” her father said. “But—” “And you should, too,” her mother finished. Her father pointed a manicured finger at her. “Listen to your mother, Amelia. Our financial situation is dire. I borrowed heavily for your come-out this Season.

I will not see that investment squandered. It’s not for you to be looking for some beautiful beau to swoon over. You have a duty to your family to make as good a match as possible, and that means wealth, not looks.” His set expression told her not to dare argue her case. Amelia’s face heated. She didn’t trust herself to say one more word without her anger escaping. She would either utter something rude, or burst into tears at the injustice of her position—as bait to land a wealthy husband to pay off her family’s debts; all of them the result of her father’s love of gambling. “And you will be the perfect Christmas bride.” Her mother gave her an encouraging smile. “What do you mean ‘Christmas bride’?” Amelia’s stomach felt like it had fallen to the centre of the earth.

Christmas was just three days away. Neither answered. Was she to be married off to a man she had not met, before she could get to know him? This was her worst nightmare! The coach rocked to a stop in front of the enormous stone edifice she had seen earlier. Mutiny bubbled in her mind. She would not be forced to marry an elderly invalid. Her next actions would be determined by Major Wellworth. If she didn’t like what she saw, she would catch the first coach to Great-Aunt Lavinia in Bath. Her parents could have the competence her grandmother had left her, as soon as she turned twenty-one. Her grandmother had wanted to ensure Amelia was not forced into marriage or a poor relation’s role because of her father’s desperate financial state. Her birthday was only a few weeks away.

She just needed to avoid the trap her parents had set with Major Wellworth until then. She could, couldn’t she?

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