Once Upon a Wedding Night Page 1

Author: Sophie Jordan

Series: The Derrings #1

Genres: Romance , Historical

Chapter 1

 Oh what a tangled web we weave,

 When we first practise to deceive.

Sir Walter Scott, “Marmion”

 England, 1835

“It cannot be true.” Lady Meredith Brookshire paced her drawing room, fisting the missive only just delivered into a crumpled ball.

“Might I see the letter?” her aunt asked, flicking her wrist in the air impatiently. “Before it is destroyed?” Meredith blinked at the ball of parchment in her hand and quickly passed it to her aunt as if it were a deadly serpent. It might as well have been for the death knell it rang in her heart.

They had found him. The new Lord Brookshire. The missive did not indicate where they had located him, but he would surely descend upon them soon. Like a vulture scenting its next meal.

So much for the solicitors’ assurances that he was dead, she mused wryly. Despite those assurances, they had put forth a search for him anyway. Blasted solicitors. Must they follow the letter of the law precisely?

Her aunt smoothed the crinkles out of the parchment, her expression growing perplexed as she scanned the message. “But, dearest, isn’t he dead?”

Meredith continued to pace, rubbing the base of her palm against her forehead to ward off her impending headache. “Unless a ghost is about to descend upon us, Nicholas Caulfield is alive and well and intends to claim his inheritance.” She halted her pacing steps as the ugly significance of Nicholas Caulfield’s pending arrival washed over her. Ruin. Destitution. Doom settled like a heavy stone in her chest.

Surely he would rid the premises of his half brother’s widow and her few clinging relatives. Then what? They had no other family to take them in. And Edmund had not provided for her beyond his death. Not that she would have expected him to for all the care and thought he extended her over the years. Still, she had not anticipated her husband expiring so young. He had only been thirty-five, and robust by all appearances, rare though the sight of him might have been.

Her hands balled into fists at her sides. “Blast Edmund! Do not husbands set up jointures for their wives?”

“Do not curse, dearest, and do not speak ill of the dead,” Aunt Eleanor reproved with a chiding tsk. “Especially since he no doubt suffers in the throes of hell as we speak.”

A smile tugged her lips at her aunt’s uncharacteristic spite. Aunt Eleanor’s nostrils quivered with disdain. “After all he put you through, the Almighty is not going to take a kindly view of him as he stands at Judgment.”

“He did not put me through anything.” The lie tripped off Meredith’s tongue with practiced ease.

“He wasn’t cruel or abusive. He was just—” She paused, groping for the appropriate word.

Arriving at it, she shrugged and uttered, “—absent.”

“For seven years,” Aunt Eleanor reminded hotly, her indignation on Meredith’s behalf both familiar and tedious.

“I was quite content with the arrangement.” Again, the fib fell smoothly. Content? Lonely was more accurate. “Many wives would appreciate being rid of their husband’s oppressive yoke.”

“Well, then he has put me through much suffering. Look at these dreadful frocks. I hate to speak uncharitably of the dead, even his rotten soul, but he’s getting the last word if we wear these ghastly gowns.” Aunt Eleanor plucked at the heavily starched black paramatta of her mourning dress. “I cannot wear black for an entire year. And certainly not for him. I haven’t a turban to match.”

Meredith looked down at her dress and frowned. Her aunt was correct. Nothing could complement such atrocious gowns, matching turban or no.

Aunt Eleanor’s gaze slid over her in distaste. “You look like a ghost. Completely washed out.”

Meredith sighed and touched her cheek wistfully, knowing—with exception of a spattering of unfortunate freckles—her skin was white as milk. A black gown had little to do with her resembling a ghost.

“We’re not in Town. This is Attingham,” Aunt Eleanor continued. “Who will comment if we only mourn for, say… three months?” She shrugged one thin shoulder. “Everyone knew you had a disagreeable marriage. No one would blame us for the slight breach.”

“My marriage was perfectly agreeable.” Meredith leveled a stern look on her aunt, annoyed by her allegation that everyone knew. If everyone knew, it was because her aunt’s complaints had reached all of Attingham.

“Posh! He embarrassingly neglected you.”

“Only you were embarrassed,” Meredith reminded with the stoic facade she had mastered over the years. On certain days she could almost convince herself that the years of neglect did not bother her—days her aunt usually wasn’t around.

“Appalling. The way he left you, simply appalling,” Aunt Eleanor forged ahead with the mercilessness of a battering ram. “Not what the earl had in mind, I warrant. Perhaps it’s best the old gent did not live to see his son abandon you.”

“Well, the earl will no doubt get the heirs he always wanted.” Meredith sank down on the settee, arms falling limply at her sides. “Only from the wrong son.”

“You should have borne those heirs. If Edmund had been any kind of husband, you would have a dozen babes by now. Not to have even consummated—”

“Please.” Meredith lifted a hand to ward off the rest of her aunt’s words. Some memories were too bitter to speak aloud. The night her husband had refused to consummate their marriage and walked out on her was one such memory.

“And now we will lose Oak Run to this… man, when it has been you caring for everything.”

Aunt Eleanor counted off on her fingers. “You’ve managed the house, the servants, the tenants, the dairy, the harvesting—”

“I know, I know,” Meredith broke in, hot tears stinging the backs of her eyes. “I can do without the reminder.” She blinked fiercely, refusing to succumb to the tears bubbling just beneath the surface. Ever since she had learned that Nicholas Caulfield was alive and stood to inherit everything, she had clung to a glasslike facade of calm. One more stone thrown would send her fragile world crashing down.

Oak Run had become the home of her heart. She’d made it so. From refurbishing to landscaping, the Elizabethan manor house had thrived under her care. She could not lose it. Not without a fight. Besides, she had more than herself to consider. She had her aunt and father to care for. And Maree and Nels. They needed her to be strong, to look out for them, to fight for their home.

“I will not lose Oak Run,” she vowed, crossing her arms to hug herself. “There has to be a way.”

“Well, you best discover it soon,” Aunt Eleanor grumbled, adding the burden of her fate to Meredith’s shoulders without the slightest compunction—as she always had. “We do not even have the vicarage to return to.”

Meredith sighed, feeling the beginnings of that headache.

Her aunt rose from the tapestry floral chaise, her slender form as elegant as a painter’s brushstroke as she strolled nonchalantly to the gilded mantel. Quick as a wink, she snatched one of several crystal figurines crowding the mantel and pocketed the costly trinket.

“Aunt!” Meredith’s admonishment was strangled on a laugh.

Aunt Eleanor widened her eyes in mock innocence. “We must look to ourselves now, mustn’t we, dearest?”

Trust her aunt to always cheer her. She had been the one, after all, to comfort Meredith when she awoke in her cold marriage bed, Edmund’s cutting words ringing in her ears. At the time such crushing rejection did not seem surmountable. That an earl’s son actually wanted to marry her seemed the makings of a dream. Deceptive logic led her to believe that Edmund wanted her, for why else would he marry the vicar’s frumpy daughter?

Her mind touched upon her wedding night and shied away from the memory—a bleeding wound that could never be staunched. She was no longer a dewy-eyed eighteen. She was mature, wiser, no longer expecting a knight in shining armor to save her.

Experience had taught her the world was a hard place. Only the circumstances of men kept her living in luxury one moment and indigent the next. Never again would she rely on a man for rescue. Never again would she believe love could be so easy, or at least so easy for her. So what if her heart had turned into a hard little stone. A heart of stone could never break.

But it could feel fear.

Like the fear of finding herself at the mercy of a stranger. Her fate lay in the hands of a man who would probably cast her out without a penny. They weren’t blood relations, after all. Nicholas Caulfield owed nothing to her.

If she had just herself to look after, Meredith could acquire employment as a governess or lady’s companion. There were, however, others to consider.

Her father, bless him, was a growing burden, scaring the household staff with his unsuitable behavior. Yesterday he had attacked the upstairs maid while she changed the linens in his room.

He ranted that she was a Spanish spy come to poison him. Her father’s lifelong love of history fed his dementia. He periodically believed himself in the sixteenth century with Papist spies about bent on assassinating Queen Elizabeth. The new earl would want to rid himself of such a blight. No one wanted a half-mad old man skulking about the place. Many of the staff had quit since her father had become so unstable. Only the most stalwart remained, like Maree and Nels.

Formerly members of a traveling show, they could not be considered standard household servants. They relied on her, needed her.

Despair, acrid as vinegar, rose up to choke her. If only she could have inherited. If only she could have given birth to Edmund’s heir. Then all would be secure. If only…

Meredith stopped and gave a small shake of her head. She had always wanted a child, but never before had the lack of one carried such significance. She joined her aunt before the mantel.

Propping her elbow on the gilded surface, she mused aloud. “Too bad I couldn’t have given birth to that heir.”

Her aunt turned and surveyed her through shrewd, narrowed eyes. Meredith’s nape prickled.

Removing the crystal from her pocket, Aunt Eleanor carefully set it back on the mantel, gave it a gentle pat, and asked with deceptive calm, “When was that letter dated?”

“Why?”

“Merely curious,” she mused, tapping her lip. “How much time do I have to spread the joyous news that my niece is carrying the late earl’s child before Nicholas Caulfield arrives?”

A long moment passed before Meredith spoke. When she did, her words were slow and pained, as though trying to make sense to a dim-witted child. “That is not possible. I have not seen Edmund in years. And the two of us never… grew acquainted.” Her cheeks warmed at discussing such a delicate subject with her aunt. “Not as a husband and wife should.”

“I am aware of that. But no one else is.”

Meredith’s eyes widened with understanding. “Oh, you aren’t thinking…” Her hands flew to her now scalding cheeks, unable to speak the words aloud.

“Do you have a better idea? Some other way to keep us from living on the streets? I, for one, am not suited for poverty.”

“Well. No. But certainly there is another way. We don’t even know the new earl. Perhaps he is—

“Kind? Generous?” Her aunt snorted in a surprisingly unladylike manner. “I think not. He is kin to Edmund. I vow he’s as evil as his brother.”

“Perhaps he would let us stay on at the dower house.” Even as she said the words, they rang hollow in her ears. Not for an instant did she expect such charity from Edmund’s brother when Edmund himself did not possess a charitable bone in his body. Blood is blood, after all.

“More likely he is a heartless, greedy wretch who intends to throw all of us out on our ears,”

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