Excerpt: At the Christmas Wedding

Here is what you need to know: Greyson Jones has loved Lady Serena since forever. She has been jilted by his best friend, the Duke of Frye. Now they are pretending to be in love in the most ridiculous play ever, brought to you by Great-Aunt Sophronia and Lady Bridget Cavendish, no relation to the American Cavendishes. If you’ve met Sophronia and Bridget in At the Duke’s Weddingyou’ll understand. And if you haven’t, 1) you should and 2) you’ll see…

 

Chapter 4: In which Bridget and Sophronia. That is all.

 

A note arrived in Grey’s room informing him in no uncertain terms that play rehearsal was to take place immediately after breakfast. There was no requesting his attendance; it was merely understood that he would be present. While the rest of the house party would be enjoying sleigh rides in the fresh fallen snow, he would be assuming the role of Lord Pirate Captain.

Someone really ought to recruit Lady Bridget as a general. The enemy would probably surrender to her before the war could even be fought.

Upon arriving at the appointed time and place, Grey discovered an unfolding disaster. The set was still only half built. There was an explosion of props and costumes. A few actors—presumably they were actors—milled about, looking nervous. Grey recognized a few faces from supper the night before. As for the rest, he had no idea who they were or how they came to be participating in this…this.

Whatever it was. This.

Grey was leaning against a pillar reading a copy of the script and attempting to learn his lines—and oh, what lines they were—when Serena entered. He was shaking with laughter and she was all business.

“Ah, there you are, Bridget. Sophronia. The guests who have not embarked on the sleigh ride are about to play some parlor games and we are in need of extra players. Do come join us.”

“My dear, parlor games are all well and good, but we’re in the middle of something grand,” Sophronia said.  “We are making art.”

Serena glanced warily around the room. “Dare I ask?”

“Play rehearsal,” Grey said, stepping into the conversation.

Serena looked at him and blinked. Repeatedly. She pursed her lips. Just when he thought she had reached peak disapproval, a giggle escaped her sweet little mouth. Then she laughed. That dulcet laugh.

Shit. His costume. Sophronia had insisted on a white shirt with an excess of white lace ruffles, a cape, a tricorn hat. And the eye patch. One could not forget the eye patch.

“And you are…?”

He bowed extravagantly.

“I am Lord Captain, a pirate from Shropshire.”

“But Shropshire is inland,” she pointed out.

His gaze locked with Serena’s. And he could tell she sized up the situation in an instant—Bridget had a ridiculous notion, and he was going along with it, and something in her heart was pointing out that this was a sweet thing for him to do even though she did not wish to recognize it. He knew, because he saw the line of her mouth soften, and he saw the laughter in her eyes, even if she wasn’t laughing out loud.

“How astute of you,” he murmured.

“It’s not astute. It’s basic geography.” She turned to her sister. “Which someone who had excellent tutors should know.” She turned to Sophronia. “Or someone who has spent over eighty years in England should know.”

“I’m not a day over forty-five,” Sophronia replied.

“Be that as it may,” Bridget began. “We need someone to read lines with the Lord Captain, inland pirate of Shropshire.”

“Don’t look at me. I have a parlor full of guests, ready to play games, and a luncheon to oversee. To say nothing of approving tonight’s menu and finding music to play after supper. I must also check on Mother, who is still quite ill.”

“Never mind all that boring nonsense,” Sophronia said bluntly. “Your mother will be fine. Leave the tedious house party business to Viola. The duchess asked her to help manage it all, so you have some free time to…you know…” Serena’s cheeks reddened. “Enjoy the company of eligible gentlemen.”

“Which I would like to do. In the parlor. With the other guests.” Serena tried to control her impatience. “What about the two of you? Why can’t either of you read lines with him?”

“I am directing,” Bridget said haughtily.

“And I am stage managing,” Sophronia added.

And I am eternally grateful for this excuse to be with Serena. Not that Grey would say that. Instead, he handed her the script.

Their fingers brushed.

He felt it everywhere. Shocks and sparks. Wanting.

She seemed oblivious.

“What is my role?”

“Lonely Spinster.”

“Bridget!”

And with Bridget’s impish, unapologetic grin, play rehearsal began. They were ushered to the makeshift stage, Serena grumbling all the way.

Grey felt ridiculous, but also…happy.

He suspected the duchess had invited him out of pity—he was Frye’s friend, the one with no family with whom to spend the holidays. He was probably just there to even out the numbers. He was the last person Serena would have invited.

But now he was about to see what it was like when Serena Cavendish liked him. Granted it would be in their roles as Lonely Spinster and Lord Pirate Captain, but he would take it.

At Bridget’s direction, he began halfway through the scene. No, he did not know why they didn’t start at the top.

“Arrgh, my lady.”

“This just says that I faint,” Serena said, annoyed. “I don’t even have a line.”

“So faint,” Bridget said.

“But I shall fall.”

Grey pointed to a line three-quarters of the way down the page. “No, it says I am to catch you in my strong, muscular arms.”

“It does not say that.”

“It does. See.”

She leaned in so she might get a closer look. He ought to have been looking at the words too, but instead he was breathing her in, a lovely scent of lavender and woman.

“It does not,” she murmured. And she was right. It only said, Lord Pirate Captain catches her.

“Try again!” Bridget declared.

“Argh, my lady!”

Serena pretended to swoon. Greyson caught her easily. Again and again they practiced swooning and catching. Each time he might have held her for a second longer than necessary because this was probably the only chance he would ever have to hold her thusly. She didn’t seem to notice that extra second, precisely as long as one extra excited heartbeat, that she was in his arms.

But she did notice when Lord Gosling arrived.

“What is this?”

“Oh, it’s just play rehearsal,” Serena said, hastily returning to her feet and smoothing out her hair and skirts. “A silly performance… my younger sister…keep her busy….out of trouble…”

She was so anxious to please him that she couldn’t complete a sentence.

“I have been known to enjoy a bit of playacting,” Gosling said, being perfect. “Is there a role for me?”

Grey did a quick scan of the page. No, he did not see a part for romantic interloper. If said role did exist, his inland pirate would probably murder him by the end of the first act.

“My stage manager and I shall have to confer,” Bridget informed him. After a moment of a heated, whispered conversation in which Grey overheard his name, Serena’s name and the words suitor, elephant, and homicide, Bridget was ready to make her pronouncement.

“You may play the role of the lovesick swan.”

“You mean swain,” Lord Gosling said.

“No. I mean swan.”

The group took a moment to process this. What the devil was a lovesick swan doing in a play about an inland pirate from Shropshire and a lonely spinster?

Then again, why wouldn’t such a play include exactly that cast of characters?

But Gosling, being perfect, took it all in stride. “Very well, I shall be the most gallant, lovesick swan ever to grace the stage. With whom am I in love?”

Grey cursed the man’s agreeableness.

“Serena, of course,” Sophronia barked.

Serena beamed. She had no idea what that smile did to him. What all her smiles for other men had done to him. Once, just once, he’d get her to smile like that at him.

He had a week left at the house party to accomplish this. Just seven days before he forever lost his chance. As long as she didn’t fall too hard for Gosling in that time, or pin all her hopes and dreams on Frye arriving, it could happen.

Maybe. A man could dream.

“She’s playing the role of Lonely Spinster,” Bridget added. Serena scowled.

“It might be funnier if the Lovesick Swan were in love with Lord Pirate Captain,” Sophronia mused.

“It would,” Grey agreed, seizing an opportunity to thwart their budding romance between the lonely spinster and lovesick swan.

“Oh, now you’re being ridiculous,” Serena replied.

“I think that ship sailed some time ago,” Grey said. No one disagreed.

“It doesn’t matter anyway, because Serena will fall in love with the pirate,” Bridget said.

Serena gazed at him warily. “Is that so?”

He and Sophronia said, “Yes.”

“Well, you can’t fall in love with a swan now, can you?” Sophronia replied. “Now that would be ridiculous.”

“I’m sure I could,” Serena said, now holding Gosling’s gaze. Bridget made a gagging sound. Privately, Grey concurred.

“Love isn’t something you could do,” he said. “It’s something that happens to you. It is something that you are helpless to stop. Something you don’t even want to end. If you’re lucky it happens to you and you hold on to it for as long as you possibly can.”

Serena looked at him and blinked.  “I wouldn’t have thought that you know so much about love, Grey.”

He held her gaze. “More than you know, Serena. More than you know.”

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