A prequel to Winter Is Past.
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Ruth Axtell Morren now publishes under Ruth Axtell.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Tertius Pembroke, Fourth Earl of Skylar, observed his future bride across the drawing room.
"She's a comely lass, isn't she?" his father, the Marquess of Caulfield, asked in the false hearty tone Sky recognized as the striving-to-please one when he wasn't at all sure his news would be well received.
When Tertius said nothing, his father went on. "Look at that porcelain skin, those exquisite arms, the dainty turn of her ankle." He was positively gushing now.
Sky surveyed Lady Gillian Edwards, determined to find some fault with his father's choice. He took a critical appraisal, from the crown of her brunette curls cut in the latest short fashion to the tips of her silver slippers.
What he found in between was in no way displeasing. Pale skin delightfully tinged pink at the cheeks bespoke untouched innocence. A pleasant tinkling sound reached his ear when she laughed at what the young dandy beside her was saying.
Comely indeed, he thought, noting the even white teeth. "A true English rose," his father added.
A low-cut evening gown revealed a creamy bosom. There was nothing inordinately immodest about the fashionable neckline, just enough to whet a man's appetite. A silver ribbon cinched in the high-waisted white gown.
"Well, haven't you anything to say?" his father demanded.
"Didn't I tell you I'd picked the best for you?"
"So you did." At that moment, the young lady's glance strayed to him. The two stared at each other across the room. He weighing, judging. She caught in midsmile, a smile that slowly died as it wasn't returned, and she stood trans-fixed, as if uncertain what to do next.
Then the moment passed. His father nudged him on the elbow. "Come, Tertius. I told the duchess we would be here this evening to present you to her daughter."
Skylar made no reply, having become resigned if not wholly convinced of his duty to marry and produce an heir. He'd made it clear to his father earlier that he would commit to nothing until he'd seen the young lady.
"Duchess." Bending over her hand, his father greeted the stately woman seated near her standing daughter at the opposite end of the drawing room. "Delighted to see you. As always, you are looking more splendid than all the ladies present."
His father's eloquence grated on Sky's nerves. He, in turn, bowed over the duchess's gloved hand. "Lord Skylar, my youngest son. It has been long since you last met, nigh on ten years, I believe."
"Lord Skylar." The Duchess of Burnham gave Tertius the barest nod while directing her comments to his father. "I remember. He was making his mark here in London." The elegant, middle-aged woman appraised him. "You are much changed, my lord."
Sky knew the words were not a compliment. "The tropics," he replied. "They either kill you or leave you a wrecked shell as you see me now." He gave a thin smile, having learned it was better to preempt an intended insult by stating it plainly. That usually gained one a temporary advantage.
"You have my deepest condolences on your brother's demise," the duchess said in the silence.
Skylar inclined his head a fraction to acknowledge her remark. He took time to observe his future mother-in-law. She was perhaps in her late forties or early fifties, her beauty skillfully maintained with the aid of cleverly applied cosmetics, her honey-hued hair not revealing any gray.
He gave his attention to her daughter. Lady Gillian was petite, brunette to her mother's fair hair and, not quite as slim but shapelier than her mother, dressed in white muslin adorned with silver ribbons. Up close she presented even more distinctly the picture of youthful innocence than she had from across the room. Her pink cheeks contrasted prettily with her dark hair. Her neck, slim and pale, led the eye downward to the creamy expanse of shoulder exposed by the wide scalloped neckline.
She did indeed appear to be of superior quality. Trust his father to choose well. As the marquess had described her, she was "exquisitely fashioned, in good health, untouched."
In short, all the endowments required in a wife of a peer of the realm.
His father beamed at him. "What do you think, Sky, isn't Lady Gillian a pretty lass?"
"She'll do," he said, wanting as always to put a damper on his father's perpetual good humor.
He hadn't noticed the color of Lady Gillian's eyes until that moment, but as she turned their dark-lashed focus on him, he was struck by their pale green. Wintergreen, he thought, taking in their icy hue, rimmed by a dark spruce. She looked as cold as an icehouse, he thought, comparing her to the warm, honey-toned women of the Indies, with their open nature and easy embraces.
Knowing it was up to him to initiate the act of courtship, he asked her, "May I entreat you to take a turn about the room?"
She gave a slight bow of her head. Like mother, like daughter, he thought, comparing her condescension with the duchess's.
He held out his arm and she placed her hand around it, barely resting her weight upon it. Slowly they promenaded the long, guest-filled drawing room, as his father's voice trailed after them. "See there, what a handsome pair they make." He could be speaking of a matched set of bays. "I knew they would be agreeable to the arrangement."
Sky led Lady Gillian about the room as the tinkling strains of Telemann vied with the babble of voices in the background.
The top of her head scarcely reached his shoulder. She was looking away from him, and he realized she hadn't looked at him since that first straight-on stare.
He had no clue how to court a young lady of the ton. He hadn't even done so back in his days as a young buck in London society, preferring the company of tavern wenches. And now it had been at least a half dozen years since he'd said anything meaningful to a young chit barely out of the schoolroom.
He cleared his throat. "Is this your first season?"
"No, my lord," she replied, not deigning to turn toward him.
"Your second?" he asked blandly.
The deep-fringed eyes stared up at him. "It's my third." The tone dared him to make anything of the fact.
Something about her haughtiness impelled him to bait her. "Hanging out for a title?"
"Putting off the state of matrimony as long as possible." He raised an eyebrow. "I thought a young lady's sole ambition was to make a match approved by society?"
"If there were a worthy candidate, I might have changed my mind." When he continued studying her, she said, "It appears you have avoided the state longer than I. How old are you? Forty? And still not wed?"
"I'm sure the duchess has made you aware of my five-and-thirty years," he said, irritated that he felt the barb.
"Painfully," came the acid reply.
Wondering at her animosity, he said, "I have not 'avoided' the state, as you misjudge. In my case, there was no undue hurry. I was not in search of a fortune or anyone's good name to improve the Caulfield line. That responsibility rested upon my elder brother's shoulders. I could take a more leisurely approach to matrimony. A young lady hasn't that luxury. Her bloom quickly fades and soon she is what the gossips term 'on the shelf."
"I can assure you, my lord, I am far from on the shelf!" The hue of her cheeks deepened. "I have had plenty of offers, but I, too, could afford to wait. Just as you, I have no need of someone else's title or fortune."
"It appears we are well suited then. We should be grateful for our parents' having taken the trouble of the selection of partner out of our hands."
When she made no reply, he mused, "Three seasons... Aren't you concerned the gossips would have commented on you by now?"
She flashed him a look of anger. "I had no need to be! My mother has been very particular of whom she has allowed to pay court to me. When your father approached her, she viewed your suit favorably."
"How fortunate for me."
"As my mother has pointed out, apart from our difference in age, we are social equals in every way."
She feigned a cool facade, but contained some fire in her, he thought in grudging admiration. Beneath that exquisite bosom beat a proud little heart -- perhaps as proud as his own. At least he wouldn't have to worry about diluting his bloodline with inferior stock. "We should suit admirably by all conventional wisdom," he concluded.
Her dark eyebrows drew together in a slight frown. "As to that, I have no opinion. I trust, as is customary, we shall each go our own way once we are wed."
"Do you?" he murmured. "That depends," he added softly.
She disengaged her hand from his arm and turned to face him. "Lord Skylar, I think we should be clear on this point. I have agreed to this betrothal because, as my mother has so sensibly explained to me, you are Lord Caulfield's heir, which means I stand to become the Marchioness of Caul-field someday. Apart from your advanced age, you possess all the qualities suitable for a good match." She gave him the same kind of appraising look her mother had. "In short, my lord, you'll do."
Ah. Comprehension dawned. He had offended the chit and now she was striking back. She had spirit, and he liked that. Better than a simpering deb.
He smiled at her. "And did your mother further explain that, together, we need to produce one healthy male heir -- a feat my dear, departed brother Edmund, for all his other accomplishments, was not able to achieve. What think you? Shall we manage it?"
She seemed unfazed. "It remains to be seen."
"I would say, rather, it remains to be done." Her color rose to her already rosy cheeks until it suf-fused her whole face and neck at this direct reference to their marital duties. Tertius was almost sorry he had spoken so quickly, but he needn't have worried. She rallied admirably.
"You, my lord, are disgusting." With that pronouncement, she wheeled away from him and marched back toward her mother.
The next morning, Gillian paced back and forth in her bedroom. Her opinions about the insufferable man she had been introduced to the evening before had not changed overnight. Each...
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