Authors: Carolynn Carey
Tags: #Romance, #Regency, #General, #Fiction
THE SECRET CHRISTMAS CIPHERS
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
THE SECRET CHRISTMAS CIPHERS
Copyright © 2012 by Carolynn Carey
All rights reserved.
Cover art by Dar Albert
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in encouraging piracy of copyrighted materials in violation with the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Buckinghamshire, England, early October 1813
She might be in the middle of her wedding, but all Abigail could think about was the miserable, penetrating chill of this ancient stone chapel. While the vicar droned on, she clenched her arms against her sides, hoping to warm them. Then she made the mistake of looking into her future husband’s eyes and felt as though a column of frigid air had enveloped her.
Struggling to suppress a shiver, she lowered her gaze. No sense in letting Derek read her misgivings in her eyes. After all, she’d raised no objections when his father decreed that the wedding be held here, on his country estate. And besides, as a mere “Miss Abigail Pickering,” who was she to go against the wishes of her future father-in-law, the powerful Earl of Melton?
A soft rustling sounded as the thirty or so guests shifted on the wooden pews, and Abigail forced her thoughts back to the ceremony. Had the vicar asked her a question? She wrenched her gaze upward and looked into Derek’s narrowed eyes. His lips barely moving, he coached her: “Say
, for God’s sake.”
Abigail choked back a sudden and inappropriate urge to laugh out loud. Surely God had little interest in this farce of a wedding, but she’d not objected when her father and the earl agreed that their offspring should marry. And since she had not objected then, she could hardly do so now. Forcing the words through her clenched teeth, she muttered, “I will.”
Ignoring her future husband’s glare, Abigail allowed her gaze to sweep outward over the guests, who had stilled in their seats, obviously waiting for the vicar to pronounce the couple husband and wife. The pronouncement came within seconds, and as soon as the words left the vicar’s mouth, a muted muttering emanated from the restless well-wishers occupying the pews. Slightly unnerved by the concentrated stares coming from their friends and family members, Abigail shifted her gaze back toward her new husband.
Unfortunately, she felt even further unnerved by the unusual intensity burning in Derek’s eyes. She found herself wishing she’d paid more attention when his stepsisters tried to educate her about the desires of men. Was it lust she saw in his gaze? Or disgust?
Not that it mattered really. Her reaction would be the same in either case.
Ignoring the increasingly interested stares of their guests, she looked into Derek’s eyes and lowered her voice to ensure that her words reached only his ears. “Just so you know, my lord, I plan to take a dagger to bed with me tonight. If you dare enter my chamber, you stand a good chance of losing your manhood.”
He bit his lip before managing to smile over his clenched teeth. “Never fear, my lady. I’d as soon attempt to bed a scorpion as you.”
She tilted her head to one side and heaved a sigh, hoping to convince some of the guests that she was a bedazzled bride. “How soon can you leave to join your regiment?”
Pleased that he continued to look deeply into her eyes, she couldn’t help hoping that some of their friends would assume that his gaze was loving rather than scathing, especially since he continued to smile as he spoke. “Unfortunately, I must spend the night here. No doubt you’ll wish to see me off tomorrow morning, praying all the while that I’ll not return unless it’s as a corpse.”
Taken aback by his vehemence, Abigail stifled a gasp, then lifted one shoulder in a half shrug, trying to project a casualness she was far from feeling. “I’ll do what any loyal wife would do, my lord. I’ll stand on the front steps to wish you a safe journey.”
“And hope for the opposite, I have no doubt.”
She thinned her lips. “I’m not such a shrew as that, although marriage with you may soon turn me into one.”
“If your aim is to behave shrewishly, you’re on the right path, if I may say so.”
She imbued her gaze with as much scorn as she could manage. “You may say whatever you wish, my lord. I know exactly how much your words are worth. Or should I say how
your words are worth?”
His smile slipped for a second but immediately returned. “While I’m away you can put your time to good use by practicing your insults. But you’d best remember that you’re a married woman now. I’ll require an heir someday, and I don’t want any questions about the paternity.”
Abigail was aware that her answering smile showed more teeth than might have been expected of an obedient wife. “In that case, you’d better pray your father leads a long and healthy life.”
“Or that I lead a short one?”
“Must you persist in raising my hopes for your early demise? I fear you’re only taunting me.”
A gentleman in the congregation cleared his throat rather loudly, startling Abigail, who noticed that Derek also jerked his head around toward their guests. Then, as though they’d planned the whole thing, the two of them turned and stepped off down the aisle, nodding and smiling and pretending they were in perfect harmony.
* * *
The wedding breakfast took place in the earl’s banquet hall, and the fare was elaborate and plentiful. The guests, both neighbors and relatives, helped themselves to the food while casting puzzled glances toward Abigail and Derek.
Most people, Abigail knew, could guess at the hostility she’d felt toward Derek in recent years. Their wedding day was no different, which would only result in speculation about their motives. Many people probably surmised that the two had agreed to marry to please their fathers, although a couple of Derek’s aunts were overheard saying that Abigail had no doubt been attracted to Derek’s courtesy title of Viscount Westdale. She would go from being a “miss” to a viscountess and, eventually, the Countess of Melton.
Of course the people in the neighborhood who knew the family best speculated that some bribery had been involved. After all, Derek’s father had suddenly forgiven his wild ways and agreed to buy him a commission in the army, thus giving his blessing to his heir’s participation in England’s war with France.
In addition, as a married woman, Abigail would no longer be tied to her father’s estate where she’d been in charge of the household since right before her fifteenth birthday when her mother had passed away. But perhaps Abigail’s greatest incentive to accept the marriage proposal, everyone agreed, was the fact that her father had announced plans to marry a widow from Bath who had made clear her disinclination to have a spinster stepdaughter residing in her new home.
Well aware of the speculation that was rampant among the guests, Abigail tried to convince herself she didn’t care what anyone thought. Still, she waited a decent interval before slipping away from the head table to seek out Derek’s stepsister. She spotted Catherine standing near one of the hall’s ancient tapestries visiting with the squire’s wife.
After saying a few words of greeting to Mrs. Platt, Abigail grasped Catherine’s hand and gave it a meaningful squeeze. Within two minutes Catherine had made her excuses to Mrs. Platt and followed Abigail out of the banquet hall into a chilly corridor.
Abigail pulled her friend to one side and lowered her voice. “Which chamber has been assigned to Derek and me for tonight?”
Catherine grinned. “Do you intend to let Derek bed you then?”
Abigail winced. She always winced at the directness of Catherine and her younger sisters, twins Louisa and Sophia. And as usual, she tried to ignore any reference to physical intimacies. “Which chamber, Catherine?” she demanded in a firm tone.
Catherine shrugged. “The green one with the adjoining blue chamber.”
Abigail nodded. She was quite familiar with the rooms in this residence. After all, she’d spent most of her youth here. Her father, a mere baron, had sought to ingratiate himself with his neighbor, the Earl of Melton, by offering to hire a governess for Melton’s three stepdaughters if Abigail was allowed to study with them.
Melton, who had little interest in his stepdaughters’ education, readily agreed, no doubt pleased at the prospect of having one less salary to pay. Nor did he raise any objections to Abigail spending most of her waking hours at Melton Castle.
Abigail soon learned that the earl’s stepdaughters were mischievous to the bone. At the same time, each of them looked angelic, with golden curls and eyes so blue they seemed to shine with an inner light. Since most people judged by appearances, the darker complexioned Abigail got blamed for any of their misdeeds that came to the attention of adults. She eventually learned it was to her advantage to remain in the schoolroom studying while the sisters slipped away to pursue their own style of education.
As the girls aged, the sisters sought information from the less savory of the servants, and as their knowledge expanded, their risqué conversations with Abigail accelerated. The fact that Abigail invariably blushed at the sisters’ language was a cause for great hilarity, but no matter how inured she tried to become, she never got used to those angelic faces spouting crass words.
This morning, the day she had become a married woman, was no different. She tried to hide just how elated she was at the news that she and Derek would have separate bedchambers. The rooms might be connecting, but she knew he wouldn’t try to join her. He’d no doubt meant every word of his comment about preferring to bed a scorpion. After all, he’d made it clear some time ago that he preferred another woman to her.
A loud whisper sounded from behind her. “There you are. We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Abigail turned to see the twins approaching. Their beautiful eyes twinkled. “We’ve just found out where the housekeeper is putting you and Derek tonight, Abigail,” Sophia announced.
“I’ve already told her,” Catherine said with a thinning of her lips. “Apparently the silly girl doesn’t plan to let him touch her.”
Louisa frowned. “You’re not still angry with Derek because of Melonnie, are you? He didn’t marry her, after all.”
Abigail rolled her eyes. “Only because the poor girl died before the wedding could take place. And I certainly would have had no reason to object to the marriage had she lived.”
“Oh please! Remember who you’re talking to, my dear,” Catherine said. “You know that the twins and I saw Derek and you kissing on more than one occasion.”
“Only because you were spying.” Abigail tried to imbue her tone with indignation but knew her outrage was wasted on the sisters.
Sophia spoke up. “You really ought to lure Derek into your bed. You know you’ve always been attracted to each other.”
Abigail sighed. “Will you three get your mind off of—well,
—for a few minutes? I just wanted to know which chamber I’d be sleeping in tonight. Now I’d better return to the banquet hall. The guests will be leaving soon, and I don’t want to give them more cause to gossip.”
Squaring her shoulders and pasting a smile onto her face, Abigail marched back into the banquet hall where she took her place beside her groom and thanked all of their neighbors for their good wishes.
* * *
Servants, Abigail reflected that evening, were at best a mixed blessing. For appearance’s sake, she’d had to bring her maid, Mary, to Melton Castle. Mary, of course, had insisted on coming to Abigail’s chamber at bedtime to brush out her hair and help her don her prettiest night rail, smirking all the while as though she knew just what was about to occur when she left the room.
Abigail smiled to herself. Mary would have been less apt to smirk if she’d known about the dagger Abigail had secreted under her pillow earlier that afternoon.
Not that she really thought she’d need it against Derek. In any case, she wouldn’t actually use it even if he entered her chamber and demanded his husbandly rights, which he would never do.
But she had her pride. She intended to prick a finger and leave a few droplets of blood on the sheets for the servants to find the following morning. There was no sense in setting tongues to wagging more than they already did.
So she allowed Mary to fuss over her for a few extra minutes before sending the maid on her way. The fire in the grate was burning low and the chamber was growing cool. Abigail decided to get the finger pricking done so she could climb under the covers. She’d just slid her hand under the pillow and pulled out the dagger when she heard a strange tapping noise.