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Brenda Hiatt

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Regency England: 1811-1820

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

As George III languished in madness, the pampered and profligate Prince of Wales led the land in revelry and the elegant Beau Brummel set the style. Across the Channel, Napoleon continued to plot against the English until his final exile to St. Helena. Across the Atlantic, America renewed hostilities with an old adversary, declaring war on Britain in 1812. At home, Society glittered, love matches abounded and poets such as Lord Byron flourished. It was a time of heroes and villains, a time of unrelenting charm and gaiety, when entire fortunes were won or lost on a turn of the dice and reputation was all. A dazzling period that left its mark on two continents and whose very name became a byword for elegance and romance.

Books by Brenda Hiatt

HARLEQUIN REGENCY ROMANCE
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81-THE UGLY DUCKLING
91-LORD DEARBORN’S DESTINY
102-DARING DECEPTION

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A Christmas Bride
Brenda Hiatt

For my friends on the GEnie RomEx,
who were of invaluable help on this book.
Thank you.

PROLOGUE
July 1812

“O
H
, N
OEL
, can’t I
please
come with you?” Holly seized her twin brother’s coat sleeve and put on her most beguiling smile. “I’m as capable of heroics as you are, and two of us could be of twice as much help to England as one.”

“We went over all this yesterday,” said Noel firmly. “You promised to do your part here on English soil, covering for my absence.”

“But I speak French as well as you do, thanks to Maman and Grand-père. We could be a team, just the way we used to be when we were younger. I would make a marvellous spy, Noel. You’ve said so yourself.” Despite her eagerness Holly kept her voice low, even though the dusty village road was yet deserted in this cool hour before dawn.

“You’ve always been a marvel for sticking your nose where it don’t belong,” he admitted, “but that’s not quite the same thing. Anyway, those were mere childhood games, Holly—this will be the genuine article.” Noel’s whisper was adamant. “We are nearly twenty now, you and I. France in wartime is no place for a young woman. I’ll do far better alone, for Uncle Henri might well find me a clerk’s position in Paris, where he could never find one for you. Besides, there is the matter of your come-out this fall. You’ll scarce notice I am gone, I daresay, once you’re caught up in the whirl of Society.”

Holly snorted. “I never wished for a formal début, and well you know it. Blanche has always said the London ton are snobbish beyond belief.”

“To her, I doubt not they were—fat, prissy, parading thing that she is.” Noel’s mouth twisted with disgust. “She must say something, you know, to account for the fact that she didn’t take in three Seasons on the market. But you’re different. I’d have insisted Maman fire you off last spring, had we not still been in mourning. But even during the Little Season, you’ll likely nab yourself an earl at the very least!” His hazel eyes twinkled irrepressibly in the faint light of approaching sunrise.

In spite of the pain she felt at her brother’s imminent departure, Holly had to chuckle at his absurdity. Her dowry was respectable, but scarcely enough to tempt a peer. “Merely an earl?” she asked with assumed lightness. “If I can’t go off with you to become a national heroine, I shall look to become at least a marchioness, or perhaps even a duchess!”

“That’s better,” said Noel approvingly. Then he sobered. “Now remember, you are not to breathe a word to anyone—
anyone
—of where I am going. It could be extremely dangerous, especially since I’m not precisely ‘official.’ I will get word to you if I possibly can, using our old code, but as far as Maman and everyone else is concerned, I’ve joined a regiment taking ship for Upper Canada to defend it against the Americans.”

Holly nodded solemnly. “I won’t forget. But I
will
find some way to do my bit here, Noel, you’ll see.” Her voice caught as she heard the low rumble of the approaching stage. It rounded the curve and its pale lamps twinkled into view.

“Oh,
must
you go?” she cried suddenly, startling herself as much as her brother. “As a spy—especially an unofficial spy—you will be in far more danger than if you were truly going to fight as an officer. And whatever would I do if—”

“Ever my sentimental little raven,” chuckled Noel, gently tugging his sister’s straight ebony tresses, so unlike his own curly chestnut mop. “You of all people know how much I want to do this. And England needs me in this capacity, whether she knows it yet or not.”

The stage pulled to a halt before them, the horses stamping and jingling their harnesses.

“Take care of Maman—and old Arrow, here.” He patted the hound at her side. “Don’t let Blanche ride roughshod over any of you.”

Digging her fingernails into her palms, Holly forced a smile. “You will win the war for England, I know. But do be careful!” Blinking rapidly, Holly fought to hold back the tears that suddenly threatened. She was determined that her brother’s last sight of home would not be of her weeping.

Noel gave her a quick, rough hug. “I promise. And you do your damnedest to catch yourself that marquess!”

His luggage was stowed and in less than a minute the coach was under way again. As the bobbing lamps receded, Holly’s shoulders sagged and her tears, no longer held in check, ran freely down her cheeks.

CHAPTER ONE
Christmas Eve, 1812

“D
O STOP TWITCHING
,
chérie,
” admonished Mrs. Paxton as she tried to adjust Holly’s veil. “’Tis nearly time for you to go down.”

In spite of her mother’s remonstrances, Holly turned her head slightly, trying to get a peep at herself in the glass. “I know the bridegroom is not supposed to see me before the ceremony, Maman, but surely I may have a look at myself!”


Eh, bien.
You are ready, I think.” Mrs. Paxton stepped back and allowed her daughter to turn completely around.

“’Tis a shame white does not suit you so well as it does me,” said Blanche peevishly from her place by the window. She shook her head slightly to better admire, in a small hand mirror, the fall of her blond curls against the rose velvet bridesmaid’s gown she was wearing for the occasion. Plainly, she had still not forgiven her younger sister for marrying out of turn.

Finally able to examine herself in the pier glass, Holly felt sure she had never looked so well, not even in her finest ball gown. Despite Blanche’s words, she thought the white became her quite well, the lace over satin looking as sumptuous as it felt. Her black locks were swept up beneath the Brussels lace veil, and her green eyes positively glowed.

“Pray don’t do anything to embarrass us, Holly,” Blanche advised as their mother handed Holly the fragrant
hothouse flowers she was to carry. “It is scandalous enough that you are marrying Vandover a mere two months after your betrothal—and in the wilds of Yorkshire instead of in London.”

“Blanche,
mon ange,
do not add to our little bride’s nervousness.” Mrs. Paxton gave a quick shake of her head.

But Holly spoke up. “’Tis not scandalous at all. I think it very sweet that Lord Vandover wished to marry on my birthday. And, Blanche, you know that he insisted on holding the wedding here so that his grandmother would not miss it. The two of them are very close.”

Holly could understand what was bothering Blanche. Not only was she marrying first, but she had attracted a peer. The thought of herself as a marchioness—and eventually, a duchess—seemed vaguely absurd even to Holly. For the hundredth time she wondered what the dashing Lord Vandover could have seen in her to prompt an offer.

“It…it all seems almost unreal, doesn’t it?” she asked, as her mother moved to open the door. “Everything happened so quickly.” Since her arrival in London in mid-September, her life had become one exciting whirl.

“’Twas the most romantic thing I ever saw,” responded Mrs. Paxton with enthusiasm. “Who would have guessed you would take so well? And Vandover—so gallant, so handsome! A marquess—heir to the Duke of Wickburn!” She sighed happily, tipping her head to one side. “And he must have been thoroughly enchanted with you to make you an offer only a month into the Little Season. Such a coup for you—for us all!”

Blanche’s face took on a pinched look, but Holly smiled dreamily into the mirror, remembering.

Of course she had accepted him. Not only did his title, wealth and looks place him head and shoulders above his rivals, as Maman had repeatedly pointed out, but he seemed to have a depth that went far beyond the shallow flirtation of her other suitors. His compliments, though few and never
flowery, always sounded sincere. And, even more important, he seemed kind. But so serious. Holly had sensed a need in him, a hunger for happiness, for simple gaiety, that she immediately longed to fill.

She had fallen head over ears in love before she knew where she was.

Swept up in the wonder of her first romance, Holly had not recalled until just recently her brother’s parting words. Wouldn’t Noel be amazed when he discovered she had done just what he had jokingly advised—and through no real effort of her own. She chuckled, finally turning away from the glass.

“Allons,
my love, come!” Her mother urged her through the door. “The others will be waiting by now. Blanche,
chérie,
you have my fan?”

Once she was out of the now-familiar chamber she had occupied during her two weeks at Wickburn, Holly’s flash of humour unexpectedly gave way to near panic. There was no turning back now, she suddenly realized. Glitter and romance were all well and good, but marriage was for a lifetime—a lifetime to be spent with a man she barely knew.

Since asking for her hand two months ago, the marquess and Holly had enjoyed exactly three private conversations, all of them brief. She knew that he was used to having his own way—his insistence on a speedy wedding told her that much. What else might he insist upon? She tightened her grip on her mother’s arm as they descended the grand staircase.

Mrs. Paxton merely patted her hand comfortingly. She had given her daughter reams of advice, both practical and cautionary, and pieces of it spun through Holly’s head now.

“For all that he is plainly a passionate man, you must not be hurt if your marquess conceals his feelings. The English are not so open about their feelings as we French,” she had said once. And then, only last night, “Pray have no fear of your wedding bed, my love. A little pain—tut!—what is
that? ’Tis over in a flash, and many women feel none at all, only pleasure…”

Oddly, it was the Christmas decorations that helped to restore Holly’s equilibrium. The drapings of greenery and the red velvet bows reminded Holly of Christmases past at her home in Derbyshire. Somehow, the familiar sharp scent of fir and the gleam of holly berries made the imposing Great Hall seem less intimidating.

At the same time, they reminded Holly again of how much she missed Noel, especially today, on Christmas Eve—their joint birthday. His absence lent the only melancholy note to what surely had to be the happiest day of her life. What
was
he doing all this time in France? So far he had sent no word.

Suddenly she was at the bottom of the grand staircase and all thoughts fled in the bustle around her. The dowager duchess, Lord Vandover’s grandmother, was there, along with the Duchess of Wickburn, his stepmother. The duchess was strikingly lovely in pale green satin trimmed with white fur, her flame red hair piled elegantly beneath a matching bonnet that was the height of fashion. The marquess’s sister, Lady Anne, stood close by, cheerful and pretty in a rose gown which matched Blanche’s.

“Well, my dear, your day has arrived!” The dowager duchess, dressed in lilac velvet and looking remarkably lively for her eighty-odd years, came forward at once to clasp her hands. “Dare I hope you are as happy as I about it?”

Holly warmed instantly to the elderly woman’s infectious cheerfulness. “Happier, I should hope, your grace,” she responded, though somewhat breathlessly.

The dowager perceived it at once. “A bit nervous, are ye?” A touch of Irish lilt was noticeable in her voice. “That’s to be expected, I suppose. You needn’t be, though. Hunt will do well by you. If he don’t, he’ll answer to me!” She nodded vigorously, her blue eyes twinkling.

“Have the gentlemen gone on to the church already?” asked Holly’s mother.

“Nearly ten minutes ago,” replied the duchess, from behind the dowager. “We should hurry, Miss Paxton.” Holly had a fleeting impression that the duchess’s smile did not quite reach her eyes.

Then she was being bundled out the door and into the carriage waiting to convey the ladies to the ceremony. Wedged between the dowager and her mother, who chattered across her like magpies, Holly felt herself again swept up into the moment.

At the door of the church she felt her panic momentarily resurface. A throng of the local people waited without, ready to cheer and offer congratulations the moment the newlyweds emerged. Their presence underscored the fact that one day she would be duchess on these lands, with important responsibilities to these people. It seemed an awesome prospect.

Then, seemingly between one breath and the next, she was inside the church, with her mother and the dowager putting finishing touches to the set of her tiara and the fall of her lace. Music was struck up and the portly, jovial Duke of Wickburn himself stepped forward to escort her the length of the aisle to where the marquess awaited her. For just the merest moment, Holly wished that Noel could have been here to give her away, but then her eyes met those of her bridegroom and all her misgivings fled.

The marquess looked handsomer than she had ever seen him, attired in deep blue satin, the gold embroidery of his waistcoat picking up the matching highlights in his brown hair. At the sight of her, his clear blue eyes warmed and his firm lips curved in a slight smile.

Ashton Huntcliff Maitland, Marquess of Vandover, or “Hunt” to his friends, watched Holly’s progress with pride. Amazing that he had found such a woman so soon after
making the decision to wed. What a wife she would make him!

With her raven hair, ivory complexion and wide green eyes sparkling with laughter, Holly had offered a welcome contrast to his own sombre, world-weary outlook. Years of diplomatic missions, mostly abroad, trying to forge his own career while covering for his father’s frequent blunders, had left him cynical almost to the point of bitterness. Holly’s easy, open gaiety had drawn him like a moth to a flame.

Nor did she have any of the airs and affectations one would expect in one so lovely. Instead, she seemed totally unaware of her own charms, a vivid contrast to his stepmother, who demanded that everyone within her radius pay homage to her beauty. Watching Holly walking toward him, so elegant in her bridal finery, Hunt felt a surge of longing. Schooling her in love would be sheer delight—a delight that would begin tonight.

Finally completing the long, slow walk up the chapel aisle, Holly took her place at her bridegroom’s side. As she repeated the vows, his eyes frequently sought hers and she felt a delicious warmth fill her at the promise in their expression. Their kiss at the conclusion was all too brief; she would have liked to explore further the interesting sensations that occurred at the touch of his lips on hers.

Holly floated on air during the return trip down the aisle on her new husband’s arm. The wintry daylight that greeted them, as much as the cheers of the common folk, buoyed her spirits further—she had always loved winter. Glancing up at the sky, she wondered whether it might snow, to complete the perfection of this Christmas for her. But then, she recalled, that would cause travelling difficulties for the hundred or more guests who had come for the wedding. Snow in January would do just as well, she supposed.

“You make as beautiful a bride as I thought you would, Lady Vandover,” the marquess whispered into her ear as he
handed her into the decorated carriage that was to bear them back to Wickburn.

Holly blinked.
Lady Vandover.
The title sounded so strange, so new. She smiled. “And you make a very handsome bridegroom, my lord,” she responded warmly, meaning every word. Surely, this was her happiest birthday ever.

As though divining her thoughts, her new husband drew her close against him in the private carriage as it began to move. “My Christmas bride. I’m glad I insisted upon a Christmas wedding instead of waiting until next summer, as the duchess wished us to do. Are you?”

Holly nodded happily. “’Twill make this special day even more so. Nor need I fear you will forget our anniversary, my lord,” she teased.

“Nor your birthday, either.” His answering chuckle delighted her, for Lord Vandover’s apparent lack of humour had been her one reservation when she accepted him.

“But come,” he continued. “Now we are married you must call me Hunt, as my friends do.” He gazed down at her. “And what do your friends call you? Holly Berry perhaps?” She rolled her eyes at him in response. “Perhaps not. But I rather like it, I think. Come, Holly Berry—give your new husband a kiss.”

She tipped her face up to him, smilingly surrendering her lips. He had kissed her only twice before the wedding, chaste kisses much like the brief brush of lips in the church. This was quite different.

Putting one arm about her shoulders, he pulled her to him gently. With his other hand he traced the curve of her face. His lips teased hers and she revelled in the masculine, spicy scent of him, the strength of him. As he deepened the kiss, the sensation she had briefly felt at the end of the ceremony rekindled and she responded eagerly. She felt his hands stroking her back and the nape of her neck, and the first real surge of desire she had ever experienced awoke within her.

Chuckling again, he put her gently away. “We will be at Wickburn in a moment, and I would not have our guests think me so impatient that I ravished my new bride on the drive from the church!”

The glitter in his eyes told her clearly that he very much wished to do just that. Absurdly, Holly felt herself blushing.

“Now your lips look like holly berries in truth.” Then he became serious again. “Tonight cannot come too soon for my taste!”

She remained silent, suddenly recalling in detail what her mother had told her yesterday about the marriage bed. Would she be one of those fortunate women who felt little pain? Surely so. She could not imagine Lord Vandover—Hunt—hurting her.

Their carriage came to a stop before the ducal mansion and a footman lowered the steps. Nervously tucking a stray hair back into place beneath her veil, Holly emerged to another burst of cheering, this time from the extensive staff at Wickburn. More people who would one day be dependent upon her, she realized nervously, as she smiled brightly to the assemblage.

The dowager had promised to school her thoroughly in her duties, she reminded herself. With Hunt’s stepmother and grandmother both here, surely little would be expected of her as yet. For today, at least, she would not worry about the future.

Guests from Yorkshire and the surrounding counties had been invited to the wedding breakfast, and nearly all were in attendance despite tomorrow being Christmas. The marriage of a duke’s heir was no small occasion. Many would stay through the holiday season as well, Holly knew, recalling the flurry of preparation over the past few days. Tomorrow would be a happy Christmas, indeed.

Blushing again, she recalled that by tomorrow morning she would be indoctrinated into the mysteries of married
life. But then, glancing up at Hunt’s strong profile, she felt secure, even eager. It would be all right.

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