The spell is broken when I learn what Angeline truly seeks. I know I must take back my husband and my family. Suffer not a witch to live, and I have labored too long under her spell.More info →
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
~ Jane Austen
“Ouch! Bloody hell.” Elizabeth sucked her wounded thumb into her mouth, grimacing down at the badly embroidered linen in her lap. A droplet of blood fell to the snowy white fabric, leaving a red splotch in the middle of a half-finished blue pansy. Her mother had always told her needlework was a useful skill for a lady to know, but she had no talent for it.
She looked out her window and scowled irritably. Ice pellets mixed with snow fell from the clouds, and she sighed in disappointment. If the weather had been a bit more cooperative, she wouldn’t be stuck inside with a scrap of bloodstained linen in her lap. She much preferred riding their closest neighbor’s stout gelding, or tending the herbs and flowers in her garden.
The household’s only maid knocked softly on the open door and blinked at the sight of her mistress with her thumb in her mouth, her slack lips falling open. Elizabeth groaned and wiped her injury on the unadorned handkerchief from her pocket.
“What is it, Nan?”
“Sir James wishes to see you in his study.”
“Thank you. Tell him I’ll be there in a moment.” The maid nodded and scurried away, leaving Elizabeth to wonder what her father wanted. He rarely spoke to her unless he had something unkind to say. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d ordered her presence.
Sighing in resignation, she checked her appearance in the framed mirror above her dressing table and straightened her dress. It would not do to go downstairs looking rumpled. She had no interest in listening to her father’s scathing comments today. Her dark hair rested in its accustomed chignon at the base of her neck, and her faded blue muslin dress fell in tidy folds from her waist. She decided she looked presentable enough for a day at home.
There was no lady’s maid for her, nor money to hire one. Her hands were incapable of the intricate hairstyles fashionable in London, and even a corset was a challenge. Frankly, there was little point in trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse for the interminable days she spent doing her best to avoid his cruelty.
With one last tug at her faded skirt, she made her way to her father’s study and rapped on the door, opening it at his gruff command. A man was seated across from her father, his back to her.
As usual, the shabby room held a miasma of coal, tobacco smoke, and lingering mildew, though it was as clean as Nan could make it. Truly, the whole house bore the same acrid odor. It was a wonder the place didn’t fall down around their ears. Her own chamber was better; she cleaned it herself and opened the windows whenever possible, cleansing her space of the lingering stench of genteel poverty.
The stranger turned to face her, and she held in a gasp. His thick hair was cut unfashionably short over his high forehead as if someone had hacked the black strands with a razor. His body dwarfed the chair he occupied with indolent grace, and his pale blue eyes framed by thick, dark lashes pinned her in place. Full lips twitched up into a smirk, and he touched his top lip with the tip of his tongue as he stared at her. He was very handsome, but his icy countenance chilled her to the bone.
“I beg your pardon. I didn’t realize you had guests.”
“Come in, girl, and shut the door behind you.”
Holding back a flinch at the harsh tone in her father’s voice, Elizabeth did as he asked and shuffled toward the desk. Her father hadn’t invited her to sit, so she stood like a supplicant in front of his massive desk with her hands clenched tightly in front of her. His cheeks were flushed by excess drink; his nose red from burst capillaries under thin strands of greasy brown hair. Deep set dark eyes narrowed maliciously, and he smirked, stained teeth glinting.
“Lord Shepton, this is my daughter, Elizabeth. I trust she is suitable for your needs?”
The stranger stood, towering over her, and she looked up into his startling eyes.
“You are charming, like a tiny porcelain doll, and those lovely whiskey eyes quite stop my heart.” Bowing low to her, he said, “I am Richard, Earl of Shepton.”
She dropped into a curtsy and lowered her head, hiding her hot face. No one had ever said such things to her before. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lord.”
He grasped her chin, lifting up her face to peer at her as if he was buying her from an auction. She wanted to jerk away from his grip on her jaw but knew her father would punish such insubordination. As he stared into her eyes, she wondered what he expected to see.
Lord Shepton turned to face her father then bent down and scrawled his name across the bottom of a sheet of parchment. “She’ll do. I’ll expect things to be arranged when I collect her tomorrow morning. There is no need for her to pack anything aside from her personal mementos. I will see to her future needs.”
Lord Shepton’s nose wrinkled as he glanced around the shabby room. “She shall want for nothing under my care.”
Her father’s face turned purple at the snub, but she ignored him and placed a trembling hand on Lord Shepton’s arm. “Excuse me, my lord.”
“What is it, Miss Stratton?”
She wanted to hide behind her father when Lord Shepton leveled that frigid stare on her, but she straightened her spine, knowing such an act would be folly. “What do you mean when you say you will collect me?”
“Your father will explain everything, my dear. I’m afraid I must be off.” He lifted his hand and stroked her jaw. “You will be well taken care of, indeed.”
Her hand flew to her face, and she jumped when the door slammed closed behind him. Elizabeth stared at the closed door, her thoughts all a muddle until her father cleared his throat behind her.
He waved a pudgy hand at her. “I’m sure you have something suitable to wear tomorrow. Pack everything you wish to take to your new home as everything else will be burned.”
“Do try not to be an idiot in front of your new husband, Elizabeth. Tomorrow, you shall become the Countess of Shepton. It is my hope that you will behave appropriately.”
She wasn’t sure if she should laugh or cry. It had always been her dream to marry and set up her own household. Yet this was— Well, it was rather forward of Lord Shepton, but she supposed it was the nature of marriage contracts. With some surprise, she realized that the only feeling she could muster was relief.
She could admit certain truths to herself now that she would be leaving. She stared at the man in front of her, hiding her thoughts behind a placid smile. Her father was a bully. He was rude and uncouth and had the manners of a wild boar. He didn’t bathe nearly often enough. And she didn’t like him, much less love or respect him as the bible said she should. This was an opportunity, and she resolved to grasp it with both hands. Indeed, she should thank God for Lord Shepton’s offer. How often did the impoverished daughter of a knight manage to snare a young and handsome earl for a husband?
Such things happened only in stories. Real life was far more prosaic and involved dissolute men of middle age with bad breath and worse habits.
“Very well, sir. I’ll leave you to your work.” As if the man ever did anything aside from eat too much and drink himself into a stupor every night.
“Where’s my curtsy?”
She turned back to face him and lowered herself nearly to the threadbare rug in front of his desk, her skirts spread wide about her body. It would be the last one she gave him. Her future obeisance would be toward her new husband.
Elizabeth sat in her empty chamber as she waited for her father to drink himself to sleep. The sum of her life rested in a small stack of cases and trunks by her door. Her father’s threat to burn her belongings didn’t upset her; she planned to leave nothing behind, even going so far as to pack the few watercolors she’d painted that were worthy of display. The last of her mother’s things were safely tucked into one of the chests, along with the few books she could call her own. She would miss Mr. Harding, the kind bookseller who had looked the other way when she’d borrowed tomes from his rather eclectic stock, but perhaps her new husband would allow her to purchase books. Why, he might even have a library! The thought made her giddy.
Her father’s feet were loud on the stairs as he made his way to his chamber. She waited until his trumpeting snores filled the upper floor of their home before creeping down to his study, avoiding the creaky spots in the centers of most of the treads.
Closing the door, she lit a taper from the banked fire and sat down behind his desk. The parchment Lord Shepton had signed laid in the center of the blotter. Bringing her candle closer, she began to read. The amount for her hand was astonishing and insulting all at once. She couldn’t fathom being worth such a sum, yet it likened her to chattel. The reduction of her life to a financial transaction was a humbling experience. Was her value no more than twenty thousand pounds? The document was dated for tomorrow; the twelfth of November, in the year 1890.
Even the amount listed for a settlement in the event Lord Shepton changed his mind was more money than they would receive in a year’s time. The paragraph detailing the penalty her father would owe if she refused was laughable. If the earl wanted the house they lived in, he could have it; mice and all. She resisted the urge to crumple the parchment in her fists and stood up.
She poured herself a glass of her father’s brandy and sipped, the spirits burning a path into her belly as she stared at her marriage contract. The wretched oaf would probably drink himself into the grave within a year.
She smiled and lifted her glass. “To you, Sir James,” she whispered. “May you enjoy the fruits of your actions.”
Sir James had chosen their finest parlor for the wedding. It wasn’t truly fine, but had the dubious honor of being the cleanest and least shabby room in the house. She would have preferred to marry in the village church, but Lord Shepton requested a small ceremony in Sir James’s home. Theirs was by no means a love match, so Elizabeth supposed it didn’t matter that she wasn’t married in front of an altar.
Indeed, it was for the best. If she had been married in the church, the vicar would have refused her friend Lily entrance, and Elizabeth was grateful for her company.
Sir James hovered at the window, glaring outside as he ignored the few neighbors who had taken the time to attend the nuptials. Elizabeth’s friends, Matilda and Lily, flanked her on the worn chaise longue. She’d already done her duty as hostess, and had greeted each guest as they’d arrived. They milled about as they sipped up the last of the wine stored in the cellar, thankfully leaving Elizabeth alone with her friends.
“Your fiancé is late, Elizabeth. Do you think he’s not coming?” Lily asked, her blonde head tipped down as she wrung her fingers in the skirt of her navy dress.
The word fiancé made Elizabeth hold in a dry chuckle, and she gave her nervous friend a comforting pat on the knee. This was surely the shortest engagement in history! By her estimation, it had lasted fourteen hours, and – she glanced at the clock on the mantle – twenty minutes. It was a blessing in disguise, she supposed. She wouldn’t be forced to cobble together acceptable clothing for engagement excursions.
“The peerage keep their own schedules, Lily. Don’t make Elizabeth worry.” Matilda’s usually crisp voice was soft as she squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. Matilda’s first pregnancy was starting to show, and her brown eyes sparkled with contentment. Elizabeth had to thrust away a tiny pang of jealousy. She hoped to be so blessed very soon.
“I’m not worried.” Giving her friends a smile, Elizabeth added, “He’s already signed the contract.”
“But—” Lily wrung her hands, and her lower lip quivered. “What if he doesn’t come?”
“Then he shall be out a great deal of money, and I will have something to eat besides boiled cabbage,” Elizabeth snapped. She was immediately ashamed of her harsh words when a fat tear rolled down Lily’s cheek, turning her cornflower eyes into pools of distress.
Elizabeth leaned toward her friend and embraced her with one arm around her shoulders. “I’m dreadfully sorry, Lily. That was unkind of me. I think I must be nervous about getting married.” She chuckled softly and straightened her spine. “Why, I’ve only met him once, and we barely spoke! Perhaps he’s late all the time.”
Tears sparkled in Lily’s eyes and she dabbed at them with her handkerchief. “I know, but—”
“It’s not the same as what happened to you, darling.” Elizabeth bit back a yelp when Matilda pinched her, but the damage had already been done. Lily paled and pressed her lips together, her expression pained. Thankfully, nothing had come of poor Lily’s disgrace, yet the memory of her rakish suitor stung all three girls, even though no one had seen his face, and she’d refused to tell anyone his name.
Elizabeth tugged irritably at the green silk of her skirts, suddenly wishing the earl would do her the great courtesy of appearing so they could get this farce over and done. She was tired of waiting in this nasty room, and her impatience was making her testy.
The dress had been her mother’s, and it was the only bit of finery left in the house, though she knew it was many years out of fashion. There had been no time to make it over, even if she possessed the skill for such an endeavor. She’d settled for removing the excess lace, ribbon, and decorative flowers adorning the bodice.
It surprised her that no one commented on the unseemly haste of the wedding. Even contracted marriages usually required a period of time for the engagement and banns. Shepton would have had to have purchased a special license, and she didn’t understand why he was in such a hurry. Indeed, she wondered why he was so bloody late if he’d gone to so much trouble. Had he gotten a license with her name, or had it been a blank space he could fill in at his leisure?
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth, what did you say?”
Elizabeth’s head came up at Matilda’s words, and she cringed when she realized she must have said her thoughts out loud. “Nothing. I’m sorry; I was just thinking to myself.”
Her father stomped toward her from his perch at the window. “Lord Shepton has just driven up. We’ll have some refreshment and commence with the wedding shortly.”
She thought she heard him whisper ‘thank heavens’ as he hurried from the room to greet her fiancé. Had he thought the earl wouldn’t show? It made no sense to her, and she shrugged the thought away.
The man himself suddenly loomed in the parlor doorway, his countenance set in firm, uncompromising lines. Heavens, her father hadn’t even thought to take his cloak! Elizabeth rose to her feet and walked toward him slowly, careful to avoid stumbling over her long skirts.
Her fiancé made her nervous. He was far too tall and handsome for a poor little mouse, and she wondered what had made him choose her. She supposed he sought a meek and biddable wife as she’d heard all such gentlemen did.
“May I take your cloak, my lord?”
Her father flushed in anger, but Lord Shepton smiled down at her and handed her the heavy wool garment. She hurried away and hung it on the tree in the hall, suddenly irritated with her father and this household in general. They’d had maids and a footman in the distant past when her mother had been alive. Did he think those people existed here because he wished it?
She returned to the parlor, and her father grasped her arm roughly. “How dare you embarrass me in front of the earl!”
“We have guests, sir,” she whispered, careful to keep her voice down. “Surely, you didn’t expect the earl to attend his wedding in his cloak?”
Lord Shepton approached them with two glasses of wine. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Miss Stratton. I hope you are well.” He glanced pointedly down at her father’s hand still clutching her arm, and her father jerked away as if he’d been burned. Lord Shepton handed her a glass and raised his own.
“Here’s to a mutually pleasurable relationship,” Lord Shepton murmured.
The toast was entirely inappropriate, yet she gave him a soft smile of thanks for deflecting her father’s abuse. No one had ever done such a thing for her before, and she liked his protectiveness.
“To a long and successful marriage, my lord.”
Lord Shepton touched his glass to hers. She drank and lifted her head. His eyes darkened as he gazed at her, and something warm took up residence in her belly.
“You look lovely, Miss Stratton. So fresh and innocent.”
“I beg your pardon, my lord.” The vicar shuffled toward them, clenching his hands in front of him. “I do not wish to hurry matters, but I have a christening—”
Lord Shepton took her glass and handed it to her father, along with his own, ignoring the other man’s scowl of displeasure. “I apologize for the delay. Completely my fault, of course, but we won’t keep you any longer than necessary.”
He took Elizabeth’s arm. His hand was gentle, unlike her father’s, but she knew she couldn’t escape it and followed him obediently to stand in front of the vicar to say her vows.
She looked up into his handsome face. He smiled down at her, his teeth bared into a feral smile. He looked so hungry, but she couldn’t fathom why such a word would come to her mind. When he let go of her arm, she shivered, and wanted to rub her icy hands down arms suddenly covered in gooseflesh.
The vicar began the ceremony and looked at her expectantly. With a start, she realized she would be required to speak. “I—” She coughed and cleared her throat. “I do.” Those few words, her promise to obey her new husband, were ash in her mouth. There were other words, of course. He promised to love and cherish her as he slipped a heavy gold band on her finger, but she barely heard them. His hot flesh scalded her cold hand, and she resisted the impulse to burrow against him for warmth.
Her lips silently mouthed the syllables of the vows she’d made, knowing they were a forever sort of thing. Until the vicar had made her say those fate-riddled words, she’d felt as though the whole thing was a farcical bit of nonsense.
They signed the registry and shared cake and punch as Shepton’s groom loaded her few belongings in the carriage that would take her to her new home. Her neat penmanship was stark against his lazy scrawl on the yellowed vellum. She felt for a moment as if she’d signed her own death warrant.
Elizabeth, the new Countess of Shepton, stood on the front steps of her childhood home, praying she would never see it again. With her gloves and wearing her cloak over her mother’s dress, she felt quite grown up, though she wondered if she had the breeding and manners to do justice to her new title. Her father hovered like a crow on the landing behind her. She ignored him as she thanked their few guests for attending the nuptials, saying goodbye to Lily and Matilda with tearful hugs and promises to write.
Perhaps the fine pair of grays drawing the earl’s carriage were evidence of what she would find in his stable. She could only hope, but she didn’t want to appear greedy and ask for a mount of her own so soon after their marriage. Horses would be there, or they would not. If they were not, she hoped she would please him sufficiently enough that he would buy her a saddle horse.
When her duties as hostess were complete and their few guests milled about the courtyard sharing gossip as they waited for the newlyweds to depart, Sir James grabbed her arm. She stiffened in fear but knew better than to pull away.
“Don’t even think of running away from this marriage, Elizabeth.” Spittle dotted his lips and he sneered at her. “You will get no sanctuary here, and I don’t give a damn if he beats you bloody every night.”
“It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do such a foolish thing, sir. You’ve made your feelings about me quite clear since before Mama died.”
His mouth opened and closed, and she thought he looked like nothing more than a large fish gasping in the cold air. He scowled, the expression ugly on his florid face, and he tightened his hand around her arm as he lifted his fist to strike her.
“Go inside, sir,” she said softly. “There is nothing else for you here.”
Elizabeth didn’t move, despite the pang of fear making her belly tumble. He would not hit her now; not when there were guests milling about in front of the house, and he could be seen. A warm arm wrapped itself around her waist, and her father let her go and backed away. She resisted the urge to rub at her sore arm, knowing Sir James had left a bruise.
“Thank you for seeing my wife on her way to her new home,” the earl said, his smooth voice trickling down her spine.
Elizabeth shivered under her husband’s touch. “Goodbye, sir. I shall write to you when I arrive.” Both her father and she knew she would do no such thing, but it was the polite thing to say and Shepton would expect it. Lord Shepton turned her around and escorted her to the carriage, easily lifting her inside.
She sat, facing forward, and arranged her skirts around her in a neat puddle of silk. Her new husband would sit across from her, and perhaps they could converse. The carriage was luxurious, filled with soft cushions upholstered in midnight damask. Burgundy velvet curtains were drawn aside to reveal glass windows. There was a brick to warm her feet, and a large basket rested under the bench across from her. She assumed it contained food for their journey.
She peeked out the window as he strode back to speak with her father. When her father’s face darkened into an unattractive shade of purple, she hid a smile behind her gloved hand. The two men were too far away for her to hear their conversation, but whatever Lord Shepton said had displeased her father greatly. Knowing Sir James, it could have been almost anything, but she wasn’t foolhardy enough to ask.
Lord Shepton left her father standing on the front steps, and climbed into the carriage. He pushed her skirts out of the way to sit next to her on the bench. She stiffened in surprise, but didn’t object. It was his carriage, after all, and she supposed she ought to get used to acceding to his wishes.
It had occurred to her to ask for a chaperone for the trip, but the idea seemed silly. What use did a married lady have for a chaperone with her own husband? Asking for such a thing would only make her appear frightened, and that was not the impression she wanted to give to her handsome new husband. She refused to start off their marriage from such a position of weakness.
The carriage lurched forward, and she grasped the handle on the door to steady herself. He stared at her pensively but made no indication that he would speak. She considered beginning a conversation herself, but she had no idea what to say to the arresting man seated next to her. Glancing sideways at him from under her lashes, she wished she had a clever tongue like Matilda. In an effort to control her nerves and discomfort, she pulled a book from her reticule and settled back against the soft squabs.
He bent forward and pulled the lid from the basket, exposing a bottle of wine, beaded with condensation, and a crystal flute. With an expert twist of his thumbs, he released the cork and poured the pale liquid into the glass.
“Have you nothing to say, Lady Shepton?”
Her new name sent a shiver of pleasure down her spine, and she looked up from her book. “Should I have, my lord?”
His mouth quirked up into a smile, and she was struck anew by his physical beauty. God had indeed been generous with this man. Long lashes surrounded his icy blue eyes, nearly resting on his cheeks when his lids closed to blink. His nose was a sharp blade above full lips turned up into an enigmatic smile. His closely cropped hair suited his ascetic mien. She looked down in fascination as his long fingers stroked the stem of his wine glass.
“I’ve found that girls your age have no end of chatter,” he said, his voice mocking and daring all at once. He touched her chin with two fingers, tilting her head up as he held the glass to her lips.