A Scandal Before Christmas by April Moran
Just south of Stratford, England
Lady Lauren Georgianna Kendallconsidered returning to London as the coach trudged along.
But it had taken almost forty-eight hours to come this far, and she was close to her destination.
It was so cold. No, it was more than that. It was positively freezing, the wind cutting with such sharp bitterness, she wondered how anyone could stand it.
A loud snap of the reins reminded Lauren of the driver handling the coach in such foul weather. Sympathy flashed through her. She hoped his coat, and that of the horses, too, proved thick enough to withstand the biting wind.
Yesterday, it had taken only a few hours on the train to travel from London to the tiny town of Farringdon. The train’s passenger car was relatively luxurious, with emerald colored seats and brass lanterns. Lauren’s maid, Anne, sat with her while Ollie, Lord Kendall’s former manservant, traveled in a separate area along with other male servants. Anne practically bounced on the richly hued velvet, excited by her first train ride.
Debarking in Farringdon for the next leg of the trip, Lauren immediately hired this coach upon the train master’s recommendation. But the four-in-hand vehicle, jostling over the ruts and holes in the road, was certainly a reminder of more primitive travel. Snowdrifts impeded their progress, stretching the time it would normally take to reach Settleton Hall in Stratford. For the safety of the driver and the horses, they’d spent the previous night at a cozy inn along the way.
Turning back for London was not an option at this point. Viscount and Viscountess Settleton were expecting her, and besides, Mother would not allow her cousin’s invitation to be declined anyway. She insisted Lauren go, even if it meant going alone.
“I hope Lady Kendall is feeling better.” Anne snuggled under the carriage blanket, propping her boots beside Lauren’s on the tin can of coals keeping the coach’s interior on the edge of being warm. On the opposite seat, Ollie was fast asleep, wedged upright in the corner. The man would have ridden up top with the driver, but because he’d nearly frozen to death the day before, Lauren insisted he ride inside the coach today.
“Mrs. Townsend is taking excellent care of her,” Lauren replied. In fact, their housekeeper treated Lady Kendall as if she were the Queen herself.
Her mother was recuperating from a recent illness. She could not travel with the bitterly cold weather currently gripping England.
When Lauren said she would remain home and continue caring for her, Mother objected at once.
“No, you simply mustn’t miss it, Lauren,” her mother claimed in an almost panicked tone.
Lauren swallowed the lump of guilt rising in her throat. She’d spent a year mourning her father’s death. But when the opportunity presented itself, she readily escaped London. Did that make her a terrible daughter? The fact she was so eager to experience gaiety and laughter again? Even with her mother’s blessing, she wondered if she was doing the right thing.
Lauren’s jaw tightened. She could, and would, venture out into society. She was her own woman now, responsible for herself and her decisions. There was only one person to whom she would have answered, had matters progressed as planned.
Fisting the coach blanket in agitation, she told herself she would not think of “that day.”
But thatwas impossible.
The call had not been a pleasant one. Just a week following her father’s funeral, Lauren faced her betrothed. There, in the drawing room of her parents’ Mayfair home, she broke off her engagement with the man who had stolen her heart.
Even now, her heart clenched painfully at the memory.
“It’s good you decided to go to Stratford, milady. You deserve a chance to make merry,” Anne said, her teeth chattering. “Although I do wish it were warmer.”
“I do as well,” Lauren agreed softly, pulled from her memories. “We should be there soon, I think.”
It wasn’t much longer that a knock on the coach roof alerted them of their imminent arrival at their destination.
Ollie sat up with a start while Anne giggled.
“Have we arrived, milady?” He removed his spectacles, blinking like an owl at the two women.
“It appears we have.” Lauren adjusted her cloak, lifting the coach’s small window curtain to see the house come into view down a long, tree-lined drive. She pretended not to see the wink the servant gave her maid. She was well aware of the budding romance between the two of them and thought it quite sweet.
Accepting the coachman’s hand as she descended the coach steps, Lauren was immediately bundled within an oversized blanket of blue tartan. It must have been warmed by the fire, for it was toasty, smelling of chestnuts and cinnamon. She inhaled the scent with appreciation while tucking her hands within her ermine muff.
“Let’s get you out of this wind, my dear,” George, her cousin’s husband, stated cheerfully. The viscount pulled Lauren along, his larger form blocking the stronger winds as they hurried up the manor’s steps. Behind them, servants helped Anne and Ollie with the baggage.
Several guests were gathered in the large foyer, and in the midst of the merry confusion, Lauren was warmly embraced by her cousin, Penelope.
“My dear Lauren, it is wonderful to see you after so many months. We’ve been so worried for your arrival with the temperamental weather.” The viscountess squeezed Lauren tight then held her away so she could better look her over. “Still as lovely as ever, but you are too thin. No worries, though. We shall remedy that well enough over the next few weeks.”
Lauren grinned, gratified that marriage apparently agreed with Penelope. Her cousin’s face still glowed as it had after her wedding to the earl just two years before.
“I see you still like to meddle,” Lauren teased.
“Guilty, I’m afraid.” A spark of something lit Penelope’s soft blue eyes. “I hope you forgive me for it, too.”
“How can I not? Thank you for inviting me for Christmas. I’m so sorry Mother could not accompany me.”
“I do hope she is feeling better. I’m sure the past few months have been very difficult.”
Lauren nodded as the chatter around them ebbed and flowed. Her cousin must have invited nearly two dozen people to spend the holidays at Settleton. It was a lively mix of people. Some she knew, a few she did not.
Hopefully, the scandal created when she broke off her engagement the year before had died down. Every now and then, Lauren accepted a kiss on the cheek or a handshake of greeting while continuing her conversation with Penelope. The atmosphere of acceptance was reassuring. She thought she might face more censure, even among this tight-knit group of people her cousin considered friends and family, but it appeared that was not the case at all.
“Mother is much improved. Not well enough for travel, of course, but she would not be dissuaded from my attending the festivities,” Lauren replied.
Penelope, who at twenty-five was older than Lauren by two years, tilted her head just as George wrapped an arm around her waist.
“So, Lauren, you haven’t decided to return to London?” he inquired with a raised brow.
Penelope looked vaguely distressed as Lauren laughed. Whipping the tartan blanket and her heavy traveling cloak from her shoulders, she handed the items off to a servant. “I’ve only arrived, Lord Settleton! You won’t get rid of me so easily, I’m afraid.”
Penelope bit her lip as the noise in the foyer abruptly ground to a halt. “Lauren, my dearest, there is something I must tell—”
It suddenly felt as though the tension in the room spiked by several degrees. An immediate shiver coursed through Lauren’s body.
She knew who stood behind her. Knew he was the reason for the familiar tingle on the back of her neck, the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. For six months, he’d held claim over her, commanded her thoughts, and hijacked her breaths. When she ended things between them, his strong reaction, his anger and bewilderment, had both confused and saddened her. Many nights were wasted wondering if she’d made the right decision, just as many were spent convincing herself she had until, at last, her heart was insulated from feeling anything at all.
And now, it was happening again.
Lauren rotated, coming face to face with Theodore Samuel Hawthorne, the new Earl of Hawthorne.
Her former fiancé bowed at the waist; his eyes fixed on her as though starved for the very sight of her face. It was disturbing to realize she could not tear her gaze away from him, either.