Excerpt: The Banished Bride
ENCASED IN ICE. Numb. He couldn’t feel any thing. The wall of ice surrounding his heart seemed to separate him from everything. And it had nothing to do with the raging snow storm through which they traveled. His soul felt encased in ice. Wearily Justin Ashford, eighth earl of Waverly, leaned his head back against the velvet squabs, though the jostling of the traveling coach was not conducive to relaxation. He was heading for an estate his man of business knew more about than he did. Heading for a home where betrayal and anger and lack of love had been the norm. To a sister he scarcely knew, and the emptiness of an endless future.
His cousin Jeremy had always wanted the land. He’d inherit if Justin died without issue. Jeremy was undoubtedly established at Waverly Hall and would definitely not view Justin’s return as a happy circumstance. Idly Justin imagined the scenario as if from a distance, through the icy barrier that surrounded him.
They should reach the manor house in less than an hour. The journey had taken far longer than expected due to the storm. He gritted his teeth against the sharp pain in his thigh and the still-fresh wound in his arm. Each lurch of the carriage sent shafts of agony through the wounds. He should be used to it by now, they had plagued him for months. But as the night grew darker and colder, and he grew more fatigued, the pain became worse. The heated bricks had long ago cooled, and the single lap-robe across his legs wasn’t enough to keep the February chill from penetrating through to the bone. He’d been too long in Spain. The English winters seemed worse than ever.
Fatigue plagued him, threatening to topple him against his companion. But he held on. Duty demanded he return home. He’d be there in less than an hour. And he had no intention of arriving unconscious. It was bad enough to be returning from the dead, returning to a place he loathed; he had no desire to show any weakness when doing so.
Justin, shouldn’t we have stopped at that last posting house?” Michael Palmer, Viscount Easeley asked peering out between the curtains, seeing nothing in the black night.
The road was not the best in England, made worse by the harsh winter. The carriage lurched and buckled over its rough surface. The snow that had started some time ago made the way treacherous. Without the coach’s lanterns, it would have been black as pitch, but even their faint illumination scarcely enabled the coachman to keep on the road in the swirling snow.
No, we’ll be there soon,” Justin said between clenched teeth. He swept back the curtain, gripping the oiled cloth tightly, and looked out into the Stygian blackness. He’d been three weeks in that bloody wooden corn crib hiding from the French, and as a result had developed a dislike for small, closed-in places. He used the coach only because he had no choice. He could not have made the journey on a horse. Not with his leg. And not in this weather. But, by God, he wanted out.
A gust of wind swept across the road, rattling the barren branches overhead, sending the snow swirling, piercing their carriage doors and windows with icy fingers. The snow seeped in, wet and cold. Blasted hired coach. They’d have been warmer in his own travel coach, but he had been too impatient to wait for it to be sent to him. Releasing the curtain, he tilted his head, huddling down in his coat, still staring into the inky night. It wasn’t far now. He would make it, by damn.
He could have stopped at Burleigh Wells, but had pushed on, longing to reach home. It had been weeks since he’d begun this journey. To be so close and not push on had not even entered his mind. He would reach his estate tonight.
Those who knew Ashford well, knew him for a stubborn man. His goal these last months had been to reach the physical safety of his home and now he was too close to stop before achieving his goal.
* * * *
THREE WOMEN sat quietly near the sitting room fire at Waverly Hall, each dressed in deep black for mourning, though each mourned the dead man in a different manner. The older woman spoke quietly, sipping tea and glancing from time to time to the younger ladies. It was a quiet evening, much as all the evenings in the last few weeks had been. The initial tearing grief over the loss of the eighth earl had mellowed into a general melancholia. Sad but resigned, they waited for time to ease the pain.
Arabella’s diminutive blonde head bent over her embroidery as the slender young woman sat composedly beside her younger sister-in-law, absently listening to Caroline’s wistful comments regarding the dresses she studied in the most recent fashion plates sent from London.
Arabella, Countess of Waverly, had not seen her husband in almost four years when word arrived of his demise. She hadn’t had a chance to make her peace with him, nor convince him of the error that had separated them for most of their married life. Placing another neat stitch, she sighed gently, wishing things had ended differently. That she had handled the situation differently. But she had been too naive, too fainthearted, too young when she married, and Justin had never listened to her. Now it was forever too late. She couldn’t change the past. She could only make the most of the present and the future. She’d visit with his family for a few more weeks. Then she would proceed to London and the dreams she dared to begin to believe in.
Do you not think this is almost too crimson for good taste?” Arabella’s sister-in-law, Caroline, held up the latest fashion plate for the others to peruse.
Not if it’s included in the packet,” her aunt murmured softly, glancing at the plate as she sipped her tea. “It is, however, a little too early for you to be thinking of colorful dresses,” Lydia told her softly. “Though I daresay you’re growing tired of black.
We have worn it for years it seems,” the girl grumbled. “First for grandfather and now for Justin.”
A year of mourning is proper.” Lydia Strom sniffed. Sister to the seventh earl, she was as concerned with propriety as her late brother had been. Trained since childhood, she sat stiffly in her chair, her posture excellent, her black silk gown fashionable and proper.
Fond of her niece, Lydia had come to support her during the long illness and subsequent death of her brother as soon as she’d heard he was ailing. When the eighth earl did not return home upon his father’s death, she had remained. Almost two years had passed, but she knew her duty and would remain with her niece until she was safely wed.
Arabella flicked a quick glance at Caroline’s aunt, seeing again the deep sadness in her eyes, wishing there was something she could do to ease her sorrow. Time alone would be the only help now.
For herself, there was little sadness. She wore black because it was almost all she had. She had mourned the loss of her husband years ago, when in reality their marriage had ended. Yet she still couldn’t believe he was dead. He’d been the most vibrantly alive man she’d ever known. How could a life like his be extinguished so carelessly by a French bullet?
I hope the styles are the same next year when I can finally go up for my Season,” Caroline said petulantly, flipping through the pages again.
If they aren’t, what’s in style at that time will be as attractive,” Arabella said soothingly. She knew her sister-in-law grieved the loss of her brother, though she hadn’t seen him in four years either, since she was fourteen.
But Caroline was also disappointed to miss her come-out. Her father had died eighteen months ago and she had been in mourning last Season. Now this. To be forced to wait another year, while her friends and acquaintances made their bows, had been a sad blow. While Caroline hadn’t mentioned her disappointment, the longing glances she gave the fashion plates, the wistful recounting of her visits with her friends who were planning their trips to London made it clear to the other women.
Yet there was nothing to be done. Justin had died only a few months ago. The respect due the earl’s death required nothing less than a full year of mourning.
Arabella was not so old she couldn’t remember the excitement of her Season. She looked sympathetically at Caroline. “It won’t matter. You’ll set the ton on its ear when you do arrive. I can get town bronze at least by living in London. We could mourn there as well as here. What kind of polish will I get stuck here in mourning?” Caroline tossed the book down with a small pout, gazing sulkily into the fire. “We’ll do nothing here, no parties, no routs, no assemblies. All my friends will be having a wonderful time in London while I stay here and age.”
Arabella hid a smile and carefully placed another stitch. Had she been as dramatic when she was eighteen? She must have been. She was sure Justin had thought so. Vague regret pricked. She peeped at her sister-in-law again, then met her aunt’s eyes. Lydia frowned at her niece.
“I am sure Justin would never have been as inconsiderate as to have himself killed if he had only known how he would blight your prospects,” she said repressively.
Caroline’s gaze flew to her aunt’s. “Oh, Aunt Lydia, I never meant that. You know it. I am crushed we lost Justin. Though I had not seen him in an age, I remember him as the best of brothers when I was younger. Why did he have to go chasing Boney? After Father died he should have come home to see to the estates.
Lydia nodded and glanced at Arabella with speculation. “Indeed he should have. There were several things he should have done that he did not. We must make the most of what we have now, my lamb. Not the least of which is that Arabella is with us now.
And the best of sisters ” Caroline jumped up from her chair and went to give her a quick hug. “I can’t believe we have been out of touch for so long.
Hush, it’s all in the past,” Lydia said, looking back into the flickering flames. Her face had aged in the months since she’d learned of her nephew’s death. But her hair was still as dark as Caroline’s. All the Ashfords had dark luxuriant hair. Justin’s had been rich and thick and black as coal.
Arabella’s gaze was sober as she watched the older woman’s pensive stare. The woman wasn’t recovering easily from the loss of first her older brother and then her nephew. Justin had been almost a son to Lydia. Arabella could sympathize with the older woman’s sorrow. She knew she would never fully recover if anything happened to Isabella.
A strong gust of wind rattled the panes of the windows and interrupted their thoughts. Arabella looked up at the curtains, moving gently against the fierce storm. She was glad for the warm fire. She’d been cold for far too long. It was a luxury to be able to command a roaring fire to keep the chill at bay, delightful to sit quietly after dinner in the congenial companionship of family.
“Tis a blizzard. They’re saying in the village that it will snow for days and we’ll surely be housebound,” she said, grateful she was warmly ensconced before the fire. It wasn’t a night for traveling. “Might as well be housebound. It makes little difference. Christmas is long over, and nothing exciting will happen to brighten our days until we are out of mourning,” Caroline said dramatically, crossing the room to draw back the heavy drapery and look out on the bleak night and the blowing snow. Shivering slightly, she let the heavy brocade fall back.
“Tomorrow we can build a snowman if it stops snowing,” Arabella suggested slyly.
Caroline laughed and nodded. “What a wonderful idea And maybe throw snowballs. Has Isabella ever done that? Of course, we had lots of snow in Yorkshire.”
* * * *
THERE WAS the edge of the village. It was only a matter of a few miles now before they reached the hall. The carriage rumbled through the silent street. Lights here and there spilled out into the narrow road from the houses and crofts that lined it. The shops were all dark. It was late. Most people were in bed.
God, he breathed, just let me last a little longer. His hand rubbed against the aching wound in his shoulder, dropped to try to massage away the sharp pain in his thigh. He’d heal, the doctor in Lisbon had told him, but it would take time. Eventually he’d even walk without a limp, if he took care while convalescing. He rubbed the aching wound again and wondered how long it would be before he was fit again.
When he glimpsed the stark outline of the house on the knoll in the distance, he knew he’d sleep in his own bed for the first time in four years. Impassively he stared at the bleak house, knowing things had changed, he’d changed. Yet he felt nothing as he gazed at the scarcely visible outline of Waverly Hall where he’d spent his childhood. He’d grown up there, but it had always been his father’s exclusive domain. Now it was his. Damn.
“Waverly Hall,” he told his friend, nodding toward the huge stone house discernible as a dark splotch against the night sky, the lights from the windows shining like stars against black velvet, blurred by the swirling snow. Who was up this late? “You should have sent word,” Michael said mildly, straining to see. “Your arrival will shock them all.”
“Perhaps.” A disinterested shrug. “The messenger couldn’t have arrived any sooner than we did.
Not the way you’ve been pushing it, Waverly,” Michael agreed genially, though his next question betrayed his concern for his friend. “How’re you holding up? I think I have the energy to mount the stairs to my room. Beyond that, I don’t know.”
Justin was honest in his assessment. He felt as weak as a newborn kitten. He’d pushed himself to his limit, but his longing for journey’s end and the comfort that awaited had been a driving force since being severely wounded seven months ago. Nothing would stop him from reaching his goal now that it was so tantalizingly close.
As the coach drew up the drive, Justin Ashford, eighth Earl of Waverly, allowed himself to anticipate his arrival. He was not only returning home after four long years, he was also returning from the dead. The dispatches that had proclaimed his death in that battle on the Peninsula had been delivered months ago. He’d escaped death, though he’d been badly wounded and left for dead on the battle field. A quirk of fate in the form of a brave Spanish family had saved him. They had found him crawling away from the scene of carnage and spirited him to their small holding. Hiding him from the French for months, the first few weeks in that small corn crib, they’d given him rudimentary care. He remembered the sounds of the French cavalry as it searched the tract near the battlefield looking for spies, British soldiers, or traitors to the great Napoleon. Remembered the fear he’d tasted for himself and for the peasants who had risked their lives to shelter him. Each time he’d escaped discovery he’d renewed his vow to return home. It was time to put behind him the rash folly of youth and take up the responsibilities of his estate.
Once his wounds had healed sufficiently to travel, he’d started his journey. Through territory held by the enemy, through the Spanish countryside where he didn’t speak the language, hiding by day, moving west by night, he’d finally made it to the safety of Portugal. A frigate had been on the point of departure when he’d seen the doctor in Lisbon, and with no delays on his part, he’d obtained transport and landed in England, changed forever from the man he’d been four years earlier.
The first acquaintance Justin had met upon debarking in England had been Michael Palmer, Viscount Easeley. During the past four years they’d fought several campaigns together and forged a deep and binding friendship, the kind that could only result from common horrors shared in war.
Michael had been shocked and delighted to discover Justin was still alive, for he, too, had heard the reports of his death. If he’d been equally shocked at his friend’s emaciated frame, the lines of pain that framed his mouth, and the stiff manner in which he walked, he was polite enough to refrain from comment.
Michael, planning to return to his own home in the North, had readily fallen in with Justin’s suggestion that he accompany the earl to Waverly Hall. He’d stay to visit for a day or two, then proceed on.
Though Justin gave no sign, he regretted that invitation now. The icy wall between him and the world seemed to grow thicker as he drew nearer to his home. He longed for the privacy of his bed chamber, for the solitude that would be his when he would at last be alone.
He needed to put the past behind him. He’d sell out. He ‘d take Caroline to London for her season get her married off, then return home and see to his estates. He’d had enough fighting to last forever, seen enough carnage and death to cherish the mundane activities of country life. He wanted to build, not destroy. He wanted comfort and contentment, not reckless danger. Living on his estate would be the first step to forging that new life.
When the coach drew to a stop before the Hall’s huge double doors, he stepped out, but his legs threatened to fold beneath him. Sheer willpower kept him upright as he clutched the carriage door. Slowly he regained strength enough to step away and turn to the shallow steps that led to the massive oak doors.
Stables around to the back,” Justin called to the coachman as Lord Easeley joined him on the snowy ground. The wind blew from the west cold and harsh. Despite the warm great coat he wore, he shivered as the wet flakes coated the many capes on his shoulders, dusted his hat. As he stepped up the first stair, he wondered if he’d make it to the front door. How ignoble to fall on his face within inches of gaining entry.
* * * *
ARABELLA LOOKED up at the commotion that sounded in the entry hall. There was talking and shouting and hurried footsteps. Lydia and Caroline looked curiously toward the door.
What is it, stranded travelers, do you suppose?” Caroline asked eagerly jumping up and peering from the window, trying to make out the commotion.
Before the others could speculate, the double doors were flung open and the Justin Ashley stood in the doorway to the gold drawing room. Three pairs of astonished eyes registered the face, but for a long moment no one moved, unable to believe what they saw.
“Justin?” Caroline spoke first, hesitantly. At his nod she moved, springing from her place near the window, disbelief strong on her face. Dashing across the room she flung herself into his arms. “Oh, Justin, you’re alive.”
He groaned and staggered back, almost falling but for the Easeley’s quick support.
“Easy, Caroline. Have a care.” Justin pulled down her arms, his hands gripping hers as he tried to disentangle her embrace. His lips turned up as he smiled indulgently down at his sister.
“You’ve grown up, little sister. I hardly recognize you.”
Justin felt a deep sense of satisfaction. He’d reached home despite all the odds. The warmth of the room, the strength of his sister’s greeting began to melt the icy wall.
“Justin. My God, we thought you were dead ” Caroline was crying as she clung to his lapel, her eyes trying to verify that he was indeed alive and well, but the tears seemed to blur her gaze. Her hands reached out to stroke his solid chest, to authenticate his presence.
“Nephew.” Lydia stared from her chair, slowly rising on shaky legs as she wondrously beheld the man she had never thought to see again.
“Aunt Lydia. I didn’t know you were here.” He flicked a quick look at his sister. “Of course, for Caro.”
Arabella stared in stunned shock, her throat closing, making breathing difficult. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She’d thought him dead for months. Eyes wide, she couldn’t move, she could only stare at the dark-haired man by the door. Her husband. Alive. A brief spark of thanksgiving, of pure delight flickered. Then extinguished as reality returned.
Dear God, she’d believed Justin dead or she would never have come to Waverly Hall. How did he come to walk into the drawing room large as life? Her heart began pounding in anguished disbelief. This changed everything.
For a moment a flicker of fear washed through her.
Drinking in his haggard appearance she tried to quell the churning conflict of emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. She had only recently begun to let herself dream of a safe future where she’d have a modicum of happiness.
Was all that now threatened? Fearfully she stared at him, wishing she had never come to Waverly, wishing she’d gone straight to London as she’d first planned.
She darted a quick glance to the door behind him, escape uppermost in her mind. There was no way she could leave the room without his seeing her. He blocked the only doorway. He and his tall friend. She flicked him a glance. No one she knew.
Her eyes swung back to Justin, studying him as he gave his aunt a polite kiss on her cheek. With a pang she saw he’d aged. Was it a wonder? He’d been fighting in Europe for years. From all reports it was a hellish war.
She could clearly see the lines of fatigue on his face. From the way he’d jerked back from Caroline’s embrace Arabella knew he was in pain. They’d thought him dead, had he only been badly wounded? Where had he been these last months? And what was she going to do now that he had returned?
Despite her fear a slow wave of relief spread through her. He’d not been killed He was alive, safe. Suddenly she was fiercely glad. She had once loved him more than life itself. Even though that love was gone, she wouldn’t have wished him harm. She rejoiced he was safely returned.
Justin turned his head to introduce Michael and froze when he caught sight of the blonde woman by the fire. Arabella. The last person in the world he had expected to see this night For a long silent moment everyone remained absolutely still.