Snow Angel – Mary Balogh

It’s going to rain,” Rosamund Hunter said, leaning toward the window of the carriage and looking up to the heavy gray sky. “Snow,” her brother said, glancing through the opposite window. “It’s going to snow.” Rosamund looked across at him and laughed. “Even about the weather we must quarrel,” she said. “It has not been a very relaxing journey, has it, Dennis? You will be sorry you came for me at all and did not leave me to rusticate in Lincolnshire.” “Snow is nothing to laugh at,” Dennis Milford, Viscount March said. “It could seriously delay our journey. We have two more days to go even if the roads remain clear.” “I would not relish a few days snowbound at an inn, I must confess,” Rosamund said. “We must hope that on this occasion I am right and those clouds shed rain rather than snow.” “Besides,” her brother said, “I would not have left you in Lincolnshire, Rosa. Not once your year of mourning was decently at an end. And not when Lana and I had found someone else interested in you.” Rosamund tapped one gloved hand sharply on the window ledge, deciding whether she would take the bait or not.

But she could not resist. It was not in the way of things—and never had been—for her and her brother to agree on much. And it had certainly never been their way to agree to disagree. Confrontation was the only way they had been able to approach each other. “I thought we had said everything that was to be said on that topic yesterday,” she said, not even trying to hide the annoyance from her voice, “and the day before. And the day before that.” “The Reverend Tobias Strangelove is perfectly eligible,” Lord March said, “and eager to meet you again when we go to Brookfield next month.” “Poor Toby,” Rosamund said. “He has been at a disadvantage since the day of his birth with a name like that, hasn’t he? I was moderately fond of him, Dennis, when we were growing up. But my feelings never went beyond fondness.

Indeed, I always feel the urge to yawn whenever I think of him, which is not a kind thing to say at all, is it? I wish you had not encouraged him in the impression that I might be eager for his addresses. Just as if I were your daughter and not your sister.” “You must admit that he is closer to you in age than Hunter was,” he said. “Doubtless there are many thousands of other gentlemen closer to my age that Leonard was,” she said. “It would be tedious to consider them all as prospective husbands, though.” “You cannot have had much of a life with him,” Lord March said. “I always felt guilty for having allowed you to marry him.” “What nonsense,” she said. “You had to give your consent, I suppose—I was only seventeen. But I chose Leonard, remember, not you.

I do not recall being prepared to take no for an answer. And I had a very good life with him, I thank you.” She spoke curtly. “I know it must be the common belief that I could not have been happy with a man thirty-two years my senior, and one who was portly and quite bald even when I married him. You were probably delighted for me when he released me by dying just eight years later.” “Not delighted, Rosa,” he said. “How could I be delighted with my brother-in-law dead and you in mourning? Give me credit for some feelings.” “Well, I was happy with him,” she said defiantly, tears of mingled anger and grief in her eyes. “He was the kindest man ever to live, and I wish he had lived to be ninety. Although even then I would not have been quite sixty.

” She sighed. “Anyway,” Dennis said briskly after reaching across the carriage to pat her on the hand, “it’s time to forget him, Rosa. He has been dead for fifteen months. It’s time to look about you for someone else.” “I shall do so,” she said, “in my own time and my own way. I don’t need your help, Dennis, thank you. I am your sister, even though I’m fifteen years younger than you. I am not your daughter. You can use all your energies on matchmaking for her, and have clearly been doing just that.” “My mother-in-law chose my daughter’s husband nine years ago, and Lana and I approved even at that time,” he said, “last year she was old enough for them to ask formally for her and I gave my consent.

She is agreeable. Anna does not rebel merely because her parents and her grandparents have chosen an eligible husband for her, you see, Rosa. She trusts us to make a wise choice and to have her best interest at heart.” “That is very satisfactory for all of you,” Rosamund said dismissively. She looked up to the sky again and shivered. She hoped they would not be stranded by snow at some wayside inn. Such a delay in returning to his wife and daughter would make Dennis a very disagreeable companion, and the two of them would doubtless spend every waking moment quarreling. She had almost forgotten what it was like to bicker. She and Leonard had never done so. She looked across the carriage at her brother, who was staring moodily from his window.

He was putting on weight about the middle and he had begun to comb his hair across the top of his head from a low side parting to hide his thinning fair hair. And yet he was still a good-looking man. And she was fond of him. She always had been, despite the constant quarrels before she had married and gone into Lincolnshire with her husband. Had they quarreled so much before Papa died when she was ten years old? she wondered. It was hard to remember. Perhaps the antagonism had developed only from the awkward situation that had succeeded his death. Dennis had already been married to Lana and apparently very happy with her. It had been a brilliant match for him, Lana being the daughter of the Marquess of Gilmore and enormously wealthy in her own right. And they had already had an infant daughter.

Rosamund had suddenly felt like a stranger in her own home, though Lana had always been kind to her and Dennis had done his best to be a father to her. That had been the trouble, of course. He had not been content to be her brother. He had tried to take Papa’s place. And she had resented that horribly—and he doubtless had resented having a rebellious young sister on his hands when he had his own family to concern himself with. Rosamund sighed inwardly. She probably would not have married Leonard at the age of seventeen if life at home had not seemed so intolerable. But she had gone to Bath for a month with Dennis and Lana and Lord and Lady Gilmore, and at the end of the month she had been betrothed. A month later she had been married, five months before her eighteenth birthday. She had never regretted her decision.

She had known that her father had not been a wealthy man and that her dowry was small. She had quarreled loudly with Dennis on several occasions when he had expressed his intentions of adding to that dowry himself. She would not be beholden to him, though of course she could not dream of a brilliant match with her dowry. Sir Leonard Hunter had not been a wealthy man, but he had been well connected and the head of an old, respected family. More to the point, she had liked him, and she had married him. She was not sorry. They had spent a happy eight years together despite appearances. She would not change her decision even if she could go back now and do so. “Hunter might at least have left you a decent competence,” Lord March said after they had been silent for a few minutes. “The property had to be left to his nephew,” she said.

“There was not a great deal else. He left me as much as he could and trusted that Felix would provide me with a home and an allowance. He has done so for the past fifteen months.” “You don’t need to live like a poor relation,” Lord March said. Rosamund clamped her teeth together hard and stared sightlessly from the window. She could feel fury boiling inside her, perhaps because her brother had hit on a raw nerve. “Not when Tobias can be brought to the point with no effort at all,” her brother added. She turned to him, her eyes flashing. “So that is what this is all about,” she said. “Finally we arrive at the full truth.

You are afraid I am going to be a burden on you, a fading poor relation to be provided for for the rest of my days.” She knew she was being unfair. But anger is not a rational emotion, and neither is hurt pride. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, raking her with scornful eyes. “You a fading creature!” He clucked his tongue. “I would not dream of imposing on your charity,” she said with great dignity. “You need not fear it, Dennis. And you do not need to sell me to the first bidder, either. I will find my own husband, thank you kindly. And I will do it quickly to get myself off your hands.

” “Don’t be ridiculous,” he repeated, and kept his eyes resolutely on the scenery beyond the carriage window. “That is all I am to you, is it not?” she said. “I am ridiculous and a nuisance and a burden. And I must be treated like merchandise. Toby Strangelove, indeed! I should have stayed where I was. Felix did not need the house—he lives in London. And he never so much as hinted that I was unwelcome there.” “You are still a spitfire at the age of six-and-twenty,” he said. “I thought you might have changed, Rosa. I thought perhaps Hunter would have tamed you.

” “You probably imagined him taking a whip to me every day,” she said. “He happened to love me, Dennis, difficult as that may be for you to comprehend. He was unfailingly courteous to me. He did not constantly bicker with me.” Lord March tossed a look at the roof of the carriage. “In the last few days,” he said, “I have sometimes wished that I had left you where you were. Life has been peaceful for the past nine years. I begin to wonder why I came for you. You are obviously not grateful.” “Oh,” she said.

“Stop this carriage immediately. I am getting out.” Lord March favored the roof of the carriage with another look. “And walking back to Lincolnshire, doubtless,” he said. “Be thankful I don’t take you at your word, Rosa.” “I am getting out,” she said, leaning forward before her brother realized what she was about and rapping sharply on the front panel for the coachman to stop. “I am sorry in my heart that I came, and I have no intention of riding another mile with you.” The carriage drew to a halt. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Lord March said. “I have every intention of being just that,” she said coldly, “since that is what you clearly expect of me.

” A footman opened the door and peered in. “The steps, please,” Rosamund said. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Lord March said. She buttoned her cloak at the chin and retied the strings of her bonnet. She grasped her reticule. “You may hand me out,” she said to the footman. “You expect me to beg you to stay, don’t you?” Lord March said. “You expect me to grovel at your feet and apologize for every fancied insult. You may put up the steps,” he said to the footman. “It would serve you right if I let you go, Rosa.

” Rosamund held out an imperious hand to the footman. “You may hand me down,” she said icily. The servant looked uncertainly to his master. “Well, go then,” the viscount said irritably. “If you are determined to be so foolish, go ahead. I hope it does snow.” “Thank you,” Rosamund said with exaggerated courtesy to the footman as he assisted her down onto the roadway. She looked up into the scowling face of her brother. “Do have a pleasant life, Dennis.” She turned and walked resolutely away along the road, in the direction from which they had come.

She was walking into the teeth of an icy wind, she found. And there was already snow sifting down. How ridiculously she was behaving, she thought as she listened to the horses clopping off into the distance. Dennis was quite right. She had forgotten about such childish rages. It was mortifying to know that she was still capable of them at the age of six-and-twenty. She smiled as she drew her cloak more closely about her and shivered. For how long would Dennis punish her? She wondered. How long would it be before he had the carriage turned in order to come after her? And when he came up to her, should she accept the olive branch graciously and smile at him? Even laugh, perhaps? Or should she remain icily cold and pretend that she was surprised to see him, and not altogether pleased? She shivered again. It would not be difficult to act icily cold.

The wind paid no heed whatsoever to her heavy winter cloak but seemed to be penetrating to the very marrow of her bones. The snow was turning from sleet to thick white flakes. Viscount March, inside the carriage, was mentally estimating how far two miles was. He would allow the carriage to continue for two miles before ordering it to turn back for Rosamund. It would serve her right if he went five—or ten. It would serve her right if he did not go back for her at all. Accusing him of being mercenary, indeed. Accusing him of wanting to marry her off just because she would be a burden on him. All he wanted was to see her happily and respectably married. That was all he had ever wanted.

It had fairly broken his heart nine years before when she had insisted on marrying Hunter, a baronet who had been close to fifty at the time and who had looked ten years older. And even that time she had done it because she had felt herself a burden on him and Lana and Anna. Ridiculous woman. It would serve her right if he left her to freeze out on the road. Had they traveled two miles yet? It must be pretty close, perhaps even a little more. It was far enough, anyway. She must be chilled through to the bone, and sure enough, it was starting to snow in earnest. By the time he picked her up, turned around, and found the nearest inn, there was like to be snow on the road. He hoped it was just a passing shower. Yes, this was far enough.

He leaned forward to tap on the front panel. But before he could do so, the coach lurched alarmingly to one side and he was thrown forward and sideways to land painfully nose-first against the opposite seat. The carriage had lost a wheel. It was snowing—not just sleet but fluffy white flakes, the kind that stuck. And they were coming down faster and thicker every moment. Well, the Earl of Wetherby thought, relaxing back against the comfortable cushions of his traveling carriage, he must be almost there now—there being Price’s hunting box in Northamptonshire. He had been watching the clouds with an apprehensive eye ever since noon, afraid that they would empty their load before he could reach his destination. The very last thing he wanted to do was be forced to spend a day or two snowbound at a country inn. But he must be almost there. The house could be no more than a few miles distant.

It would be entirely in keeping with this whole fiasco, of course, if he were forced to put up at an inn. Indeed, it was amazing that the snow had not come down a few hours before. Even now, he noticed, sitting forward in his seat and looking out into the late-afternoon twilight, the snow had settled in a thin film on the road and hedgerows. And what the devil was he doing in the middle of Northamptonshire headed toward a hunting box he had never seen before, quite alone? He might have been comfortable in his town house in London or in the reading room at White’s or in Jude’s boudoir. No. He frowned. Not at Jude’s—not with her sneezing and wheezing and barking all over him. Confound it, he had planned things so carefully. He was to be officially betrothed to Annabelle in one month’s time—if she accepted him, that was, and there seemed to be no reason why she would not. Certainly there was no way he could now avoid it, even though no public announcement had been made yet and even though his official offer had not been made to her yet.

But he had finally bowed to the persuasions of his mother and his own sense of responsibility and spoken to the girl’s father. And his mother was delighted, and his sisters. Who was he, then, to be undelighted? No one had held a pistol to his temple and forced him to this turning point in his life. And there was no point in getting cold feet now when his decision had been made and voiced. He was to be thirty years old in three months’ time—a dangerous age for a man, it seemed, especially when that man happened to be a wealthy and landed member of the British aristocracy. It was perfectly acceptable to be twenty-nine and single. One was merely still sowing one’s wild oats. It was not acceptable to be thirty and single. One was being selfish and endangering one’s succession. It was time to set up one’s nursery.

And he had come to accept the inevitable, however reluctantly. Lord Wetherby sighed and crossed his booted ankles on the seat opposite the one on which he sat. If the deed must be done, Annabelle was a perfectly good choice. She was rather lovely and seemed sensible enough. And he had known for several years that when he did get around to marrying, he would be expected to choose her as his bride. His mother had had her heart set on it for years. He had not fought her wishes, since he had no real objection to them and knew no other lady whom he preferred. He would not think about it anymore. He would marry the girl and get on with the next phase of his life. He would be reasonably contented once he got used to it, he supposed, but he did resent the way things had turned out for this particular week.

He resented it bitterly. He had one month of freedom left, and look what had happened to it. He had an annoying belief in marital fidelity. Annoying, because it was not a belief shared by many of his peers. Many men of his acquaintance seemed to have perfectly satisfactory marriages and yet a cozy little love nest set up somewhere, too. And annoying because he was satisfied with Jude. She had been his mistress for almost a year, and she knew just how to please him. It was a comfortable relationship, and the thought of having to end it irritated him. The thing was that he could not even extend the liaison until the day of his wedding, whenever that was to be—doubtless he would find out soon enough. Oh, no, he knew that he would feel obliged to see the last of Jude as soon as his betrothal was an accomplished fact.

They were to have had a week together at Price’s hunting box, with Price and his latest ladybird—a last hurrah to freedom. And then Price’s aunt had decided to leave this world at a most untimely moment, the day before their planned departure, with the result that Price had had to stay for the funeral. He had been very decent about the whole thing, though. Wetherby and Jude must still go into Northamptonshire, he had insisted. He would send word to the two servants he kept there. But on the morning of their departure, when he had driven up to the house where he kept Jude, a trunk full of new clothes and finery for her strapped to the back of his carriage, he had found her in bed with watering eyes and a hacking cough and a running nose and a raging fever. He had sent a servant to summon a physician, accepted her offer not to feel obliged to kiss her, and climbed back into his carriage. To return home, defeated? No. Inexplicably, he had given his coachman the signal to begin the journey that had been planned for four passengers but instead had only one. What was he doing? How was he to enjoy a final week of freedom all alone in the middle of nowhere? And doubtless he was going to be very much alone.

He put his face close to the window and gazed along the road. It was all whiteness. And there seemed to be plenty more snow ready to fall. He was going to be incarcerated in that house for days. By the time he got out of there, he would probably be screaming for company—any company—to ease his loneliness. He saw the figure by the roadside at the same moment as his coachman. Certainly the carriage lurched to a stop as Lord Wetherby was raising his hand to knock on the front panel. Whoever it was was hunched up, head down, trudging in the opposite direction from that being taken by the carriage. Making for some cottage? But he had noticed no habitation for the last several miles. It was a woman, he saw as his coachman hailed her and she looked up.

And no country girl, either. Her bonnet was fashionable and her cloak of good fabric, though both were liberally covered with snow. He opened the door and vaulted out into snow that was already ankle-deep. “It is quite all right,” she was telling the coachman. “My brother will be along for me in just a moment.” Her teeth were chattering. “Has your carriage met with some accident, ma’am?” the earl asked her. Dark eyes were directed his way from a heart-shaped face with bright red cheeks, chin, and nose. “Oh, no,” she said. “It is quite all right, I do assure you.

I just got down to walk for a while, but Dennis will be back for me soon.” The earl peered ahead through the snow, but there was neither sight nor sound of an approaching carriage. She had got down to walk? In a snowstorm? “We quarreled, actually,” she said in a rush by way of explanation. Her teeth chattered again. “It looks as if you have been walking for some time, ma’am,” the earl said. “And it is beginning to get dark. Do, please, allow me to take you up.” She looked somewhat wistfully up into the interior of the carriage. “Dennis will have a heart seizure if he does not find me,” she said. “I had better keep walking, sir.

But I thank you.” She tried to smile, but it seemed that her facial muscles would not quite obey her will. “May I present myself?” he said. “Justin Halliday at your service, ma’am.” “I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Halliday,” she said. “Rosamund Hunter.” “We will keep a watch out for your brother’s approach from the carriage,” he said, reaching out a hand for hers. “I cannot leave you here, Miss Hunter, and risk becoming a murderer.” He smiled.

“Oh, perhaps I will, then,” she said, putting one gloved hand in his. “I had no idea it was possible to be quite this cold.” Her teeth clacked together as he released her hand, took her by the waist, and lifted her into his carriage before jumping in after her and closing the door. “He said it would snow,” she said as the earl took a heavy blanket from the opposite seat and spread it over her knees. “He will be pleased that he won that argument at least.” “Do you mean,” he said, “that you have been walking since before the snow began, Miss Hunter? But that must be more than an hour?” “Is that all?” she said. “It seems more like three. He must be very angry with me. And I am not a miss. I am a widow.

” “I’m sorry,” he said. “Yes,” she said, “so am I. If Leonard were only still alive, I would not have found myself on this road today arguing with Dennis.” “You’re very cold,” he said. “Pull the blanket up over your shoulders.” “I think I will,” she said, clamping her teeth together to stop them from rattling. And she drew the blanket up to her chin. She regarded him candidly from her dark eyes and laughed. “How do I know that you are not a highwayman abducting me?” “In a carriage?” he said. “With no pistols and no mask? Where would be the romance, ma’am?” “I don’t know about romance,” she said, “but I do know that it would be dreadfully unpleasant to be on horseback with you at this moment if you really were a highwayman.

Dennis is going to give me a thundering scold for allowing myself to be taken up like this. He likes to treat me as if I am a little child just because he is fifteen years older than I and was my guardian from the time our father died when I was ten until I married at the age of seventeen.” “Better that he be annoyed with you than grief-stricken to find your frozen body against a hedgerow,” he said. She laughed. “I daresay you are right,” she said. “He must have been very angry. I thought he would have gone three miles at the farthest before turning back for me.” The carriage stopped again at that moment and the coachman opened the door after knocking on it. “This is where we turn off, sir,” he said. “Another two, three miles down this road if I have the rights of it.

What about the lady?” The earl turned to look at her. “Another hour or less,” the coachman said, “and the roads are going to be impassable.” “You had better come with me,” the earl said to Rosamund. “But Dennis will have an apoplexy,” she said. Lord Wetherby thought that Dennis probably deserved an apoplexy, but he did not say so. “If I knew of an inn farther along the road,” he said, “or if I knew this country at all, Mrs. Hunter, I would take you farther. But I might be taking you into greater danger. The house I am making for is close. I believe we have no choice but to go there.

Your brother will surely realize that you have taken shelter somewhere.” “Oh, dear,” she said, “I should not have been so foolish, should I? He told me I was being ridiculous.” “Shall we continue along this road for a while, then?” the earl asked. She looked at him with sudden decision. “No, Mr. Halliday,” she said, “I would not inconvenience you so. I will have to come with you and hope to find Dennis tomorrow. I hope Mrs. Halliday will not be too vexed to see me.” The earl nodded to his coachman, who closed the door and climbed back to his perch.

The carriage was soon in motion again, turning sharply to the right. “There is no Mrs. Halliday,” Lord Wetherby said with a smile. “Indeed, there is no one else there except for two servants. I am borrowing a friend’s hunting box for a week. There will be just you and I, Mrs. Hunter.” “Oh, dear,” she said. “It sounds quite shockingly improper.” She looked at him and laughed.

Despite the rosiness of her cheeks, nose, and chin, and the dampness of her dark hair beneath a bedraggled bonnet, she was really remarkably pretty, the Earl of Wetherby noticed for the first time.

.

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