All the Pleasures of the Season

 

A
LL THE 
P
LEASURES OF THE
S
EASON

L
ECIA
C
ORNWALL

 

C
HAPTER
O
NE

L
ady Miranda Archer had been betrothed for all of five minutes before she realized she'd made a dreadful mistake.

Lord Anthony Stanwood, Earl of Kelton, was eminently suitable, being titled, wealthy, and handsome. And she—Belle of the Season, granddaughter of the esteemed Duke of Carrington, sister to a countess and a marquess—was beautiful, rich, and charming. They made the perfect couple.

But the Earl of Kelton's hands were cold as he slid the betrothal ring onto her finger. When Miranda glanced up at her husband-to-be, he hardly looked like a man overcome by the honor and pleasure of marrying her. His eyes were as chilly as his hands.

She reminded herself that this was an
aristocratic
marriage, a joining of families and land, a business arrangement involving the transfer of a large dowry and the acquisition of a pedigreed wife to breed pedigreed heirs.

Anyone might think Lady Miranda had lost her mind, not to be satisfied with six thousand a year, a large estate, and a man with a face and form that put Greek gods to shame.

Even
she
was somewhat surprised at her dissatisfaction, since this was exactly what she had been raised to do. She looked wistfully at the sparkling diamond ring, the seal to the bargain.
What about love?
she wondered, or at least show of regard, and the hope that they might be happy together in the future, even if they were strangers now.

A little desperately, she closed her fingers on his and smiled up at him—looking for some sign that he was pleased with
her
, happy that she had chosen
him
over all the other suitors she might have picked—but the smile he returned didn't quite meet his eyes. He pulled away from her grasp and stepped back, the announcement made, the ring firmly on her hand, the deal concluded.

All the doubts that had plagued Miranda for weeks rushed in to gnaw at her anew.

She looked around her sister's elegant drawing room at her family, all present to hear her decision. Her grandfather looked both proud and relieved. Her sister looked triumphant, since Lord Kelton had been her favorite candidate all along. Great-Aunt Augusta looked smug, having steered her youngest great-niece through her debut Season to this successful, if rather late, conclusion.

Only Phineas, her brother, was frowning. He looked more like he wanted to call Kelton out and shoot him than congratulate him and wish him happy.

Miranda felt her heart tighten, but it was too late to change her mind.

“I knew you would choose Kelton!” Marianne gloated as she hugged her. “I said all along he was the
only
one. You'll be Countess of Kelton by Christmas!”

“I agree—a magnificent match,” her grandfather said, bussing her cheek. “I am most pleased, Miranda. I was beginning to think I'd have to spend another Season in Town, listening to more proposals before you made your choice. Now that you are safely seen to, I can retire to Carrington Castle and enjoy my solitude.”

The Earl of Westlake, Marianne's husband, rang the bell and ordered champagne. “I wish you every happiness,” he said formally to the bride and groom. “When is the wedding to be?”

“It will take place at Christmas, at Carrington Castle,” the duke declared. “This year, the Christmas Ball will serve as a wedding supper. Since this will be the last wedding in our family for many years to come, we shall make it an event to remember.”

Miranda stood on tiptoe to kiss Carrington's leather cheek. “Oh, how wonderful, Grandfather!” She loved Christmas at Carrington Castle, and this year the whole family would be there: Marianne and Adam and their two children, Great-Aunt Augusta, her grandfather, and even her newly married brother Phineas—the Marquess of Blackwood—and his wife Isobel.

Oh, and Kelton, she reminded herself, and turned to smile at him, only to find he had left her side for the mirror across the room. She felt irritation ripple through her, and squelched it. It was no surprise.

She had known that Kelton could not walk past a window, a mirror, or even a puddle in the street without admiring his reflection. He was considered the handsomest lord in England, and he was very proud of his masculine beauty. He was regarding her now as he had during much of their courtship, glancing at her reflection over his shoulder in the glass, as if gauging how they'd look together at the altar or standing on the front steps of Kelton Grange.

He ran a manicured hand over the intricate knot in his cravat. He dined out on the fact that his valet knew more than twenty ways to fix his tie. He had never gushed over
her
with that kind of pride. And now she was engaged to him. She wondered if he'd even heard Grandfather's announcement, or cared what having the wedding at Carrington at Christmastide meant to her.

Northcott, the Westlakes' dignified butler, brought the champagne in himself. “May I offer the felicitations of the staff, my lady?” he asked across the tray of glasses. She murmured her thanks, and accepted a flute of golden wine.

No doubt Marianne's staff—and Grandfather, and all the rest of London—had wondered why it was taking her so long to select a husband. It wasn't for lack of offers. She'd been expected to marry by June, at the end of the Season, but as spring warmed to summer, and summer faded into fall, and as the Little Season approached, she was still unattached.

The frenzy of speculation as to the reason had swelled in recent weeks, since the Little Season offered so little fresh gossip. Wagging tongues predicted she would not announce her betrothal before the
ton
left Town for Christmas, and she'd have to return for a second Season. Most thought her difficult and petulant, a beauty who had decided no man was good enough for her.

Others, those of a more romantic bent, speculated that she was waiting for one particular offer that hadn't come yet.

Both assumptions were correct. In true Archer style, she wanted what she could not have.

Even now that she'd chosen someone else, the pang of disappointment was sharp. She had waited as long as she could, every day for months, but the man she desired had not called. She glanced at the door again—even now, just to be sure—half hoping he'd burst in, throw her over his shoulder, tip his hat to Carrington, and carry her off. But the doorway remained empty, and she shut her eyes.

She couldn't wait any longer. It wasn't fair. Grandfather was tired. He wanted to go home. He would have to admit defeat and take her with him, unmarried, only to return her to the marriage mart again come spring. Carrington wasn't young any longer. He'd come to London expecting that this would be easy, that his youngest grandchild would be launched, feted, wedded, and bedded within a month or two, without the difficulties and scandals her siblings had caused him.

Marianne had shocked Carrington when she married the
brother
of the gentleman he'd selected for her. Carrington had disowned Phineas for his scandalous behavior as a young man. Now reformed, Phineas had recently married a notorious and remarkable widow, Countess Isobel Ashdown, soon after several of the lady's relatives by marriage were executed for treason that Isobel herself had helped to foil.

After Phineas's wedding, Grandfather had taken Miranda aside. “My dear, you are the last of my grandchildren. You are of an age to choose a husband, and I hope you will do so with good sense and decorum. I am too old for any more surprises.” He had pressed a list of names into her hand, and begged her to choose one and allow him to retire to a peaceful dotage.

He was counting on her to make a brilliant match, and so she had accepted Lord Kelton's proposal.

“I wonder what Gilbert Fielding is doing this evening,” Phineas mused, coming up beside her.

Her skin prickled, and she sipped her champagne to hide the hot rush of blood that filled her face at the mention of his name. She forced herself to shrug, as if he meant nothing to her, and cast an adoring look toward Kelton.

“I really should shoot him,” Phineas murmured, following her gaze.

“Mr. Fielding?” Miranda asked.

“Kelton, Miranda. He won't make you happy.”

“That's hardly reason to shoot him. Besides, I intend to be very happy indeed. I'll be a countess.”

He looked disappointed in her, and she felt her stomach curl with shame. “Gilbert Fielding did not offer for me.”

“I would have thought
you
would offer for
him
in that case,” he quipped.

“It would have broken Grandfather's heart! It's better this way.”

Phineas drained the rest of his champagne and set the glass down. “I thought you were all grown up, but you're still a child, Miranda. This isn't about Carrington's happiness, or about being the debutante who lands the biggest prize. It's about what you want, what makes you happy.”

“Then perhaps you should shoot Mr. Fielding,” she suggested. “He has been the cause of my unhappiness—not Lord Kelton.” She turned away.

She
had
tried to dismiss Gilbert from her mind. He was penniless, and the second son of a minor baron from Shropshire. He had no land and was destined for a lowly lieutenant's commission in a respectable yet undistinguished cavalry regiment.

And he was perfect.

He listened when she spoke, told her the truth, and didn't waste his breath on insincere flattery. He talked of more than just horses, hounds, and the speed of his curricle. Not that he had a curricle, of course. His thoughtful compliments set her heart ablaze. She liked his company and did not count the minutes she had to spend with him as she did with Kelton. Time with Gilbert ended too soon, did not come often enough.

Even if Phineas did not understand the rules and practicalities of marriage, Miranda did. Grandfather would reject Gilbert's suit at once. It wouldn't matter that she loved him and that she was almost certain he loved her. Carrington didn't believe in emotion. He believed in bloodlines, land, and fortunes.

What
was
Gilbert doing tonight?
she wondered. And how would he react when he read the betrothal announcement in the
Times
in the morning? Regret tightened her fingers on the stem of her glass

“I would like to raise a toast to the happy couple, and to the future Countess of Kelton,” Carrington said. “Marianne tells me it is imperative that you remain in London to prepare for the wedding, and I must bow to her feminine expertise on the number of gowns and bonnets and pairs of dancing slippers a bride requires. You will be able to enjoy the parties of the Little Season for a few weeks before coming to Carrington Castle for the wedding and Christmas. We will hold the wedding in the family chapel, where Miranda was christened.”

The duke picked up a blue velvet box that Northcott held ready on a silver tray. “I have a betrothal gift, my dear.” Miranda took the box and opened it. Sapphires winked up at her, set in a pair of earrings and a beautiful necklace. Beside her, Kelton drew a sharp breath, impressed at last.

Miranda felt tears sting her eyes. “My mother's necklace! I remember her wearing this. Oh, Grandfather, thank you!”

He touched her cheek. “She would want you to wear them for your wedding. In the meantime, you can have the joy of wearing them to all the parties you'll attend with your fiancé over the next few weeks.”

She nodded and blinked away the tears, wishing the mother who had died when she was only four were here now. She could use some motherly reassurance and advice.

“We shall have to plan for a suitable gown for the Christmas Ball, then, as well,” Marianne said. “Something to go with the sapphires. Or you could wear pearls or even rubies, if the dress were done in a cream brocade,” Miranda watched her sister glance pointedly at Kelton as she cast out the hint, but he was studying his fingernails and looking bored.

She shut the jewelry case. She could not let Phineas be right. Nor could she live with a man who didn't love her, didn't make her happy. Tomorrow, when she and Kelton were alone and making plans for the wedding and their future life together, she would woo him, charm him, tell him about the pleasures of Christmas at Carrington Castle, and make him look forward to it as well.

Every year, the castle rang with games and laughter for the whole twelve days of the season, and there was an endless parade of delicious treats from the kitchens, and an expedition out into the frozen woods to find a suitable Yule log, some mistletoe, and enough greenery to decorate the hall. There would be kissing and dancing and singing, and plenty of misrule before the castle returned to the usual dignity and order of a ducal seat.

She looked at her brother, standing alone at the window, staring out into the early dark of the November evening. It would be his first Christmas with Isobel and her young son, and his first visit to Carrington Castle in a very long time. And Marianne and Adam would be there with their son Jamie and their infant daughter Juliana. It would be a warm, wonderful Christmas, and her wedding would add even more joy to the festivities.

Miranda rose to her feet. As she crossed to her fiancé's side, she sent up a silent vow that she would make him love her, see him happy and contented as her husband. She put her arm through his, and gave him her sweetest, most charming smile, filling her eyes with all the love in her heart.

He looked surprised, and she lowered her gaze to his sleeve and hoped he hadn't noticed that she was thinking of another man entirely.

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