Excerpt: A Wedding Code

Excerpt: A Wedding Code

Book 5: Code Breaker Series

Chapter One

Miss Amelia Bonnington dropped the tangle of wedding ribbons and rushed into the morning room to assist Lady Henrietta Rathbourne. Amelia winced in sympathy at Hen’s valiant but unsuccessful attempts to adjust her very large and very pregnant abdomen into a comfortable position on the settee.

Grabbing a pillow from a chair, Amelia tucked the cushion under Hen’s swollen feet. “Darling, does this help?”

Not wanting to burden her best friend’s sensitive feelings, Amelia tried hard not to stare at the massive round hump straining against Hen’s morning gown. Amelia wasn’t sure she wanted her body to ever grow and distort in such an uncomfortable manner. “Would another pillow behind your back help?”

“Nothing helps. I’m the size of a whale. It’s not surprising that I’m having a big baby, since Cord is such a large man.” Hen could barely wrap her arms around her middle.

Amelia didn’t want to think about the imposing size of her fiancé, Lord Brinsley, and how large Derrick’s babies would be. Although Amelia was inches taller than Henrietta, Derrick was a giant, the tallest and broadest man of her acquaintance.

Hen fanned her flushed face. “The entire family and staff are tiptoeing around me as if I might explode at any moment, like a Guy Fawkes firecracker.”

It was true. The usually calm and composed Hen would tear up at the most unpredictable moments, leaving everyone around her baffled as to how to respond.

Amelia squeezed her friend’s hand. “Everyone is concerned. And it’s obvious that you’re uncomfortable now that your time is near.”

Henrietta stroked her abdomen in a protective, soothing circular motion. “Cord is constantly monitoring my growth. Every time he looks at me, I see him estimating the size of the baby. My enormous expansion has cracked his impenetrable confidence. He doesn’t say anything, but I can see he is worried that the baby is too big for my small frame. And when my husband, the bravest and most fearless leader of our country, appears fearful, I feel a need to shelter him from what comes next.”

Amelia shook her head. “But my dearest, you know Cord likes to be in control of everything and everyone. I’m sure he is struggling with this birthing business.”

“My husband is used to bending all of England, even the king, to his will. His inability to control nature is driving him mad.” Hen shifted on the settee, looking miserable.

Amelia jumped back up from her chair and repositioned the pillow under Hen’s feet. “Does that help?”

Hen winced when Amelia moved her feet. “And Michael,” she continued. “You know my brother can’t hide a blasted feeling. It’s all there on his face—fear and worry.”

“It’s normal for the men to worry. Besides, what other part can they play in the pregnancy?”

Hen rolled her bright green eyes toward the ceiling. “Well, we know what part Cord played in the onset of my condition”

The childhood friends laughed together. And Amelia was relieved to see Hen able to muster some semblance of her usual wit.

“I still have days before the birth, according to Dr. Oglethorpe, which means I’ll be able to attend your wedding.”

Amelia didn’t want to think about her best friend missing her wedding, which was but two days away. Hen refused to follow convention, and planned to attend despite her pregnant state, and Amelia supported her decision. She and Hen always planned to play a part in each other’s weddings. They had shared their fantasies of romance, their future husbands, and dream weddings since they were eight years old.

“I’m so very weary of discussing the size of my abdomen and ankles. How are all the wedding details coming?”

“You don’t have to pretend interest. I know you couldn’t care less about colors, fabrics, or flowers.”

“True. I was prodigiously grateful when you did everything for my wedding. How is Derrick faring with your need for perfection?”

Amelia had orchestrated Hen’s, then Gwyneth’s, and, most recently, Gabby’s weddings. The brides were all dramatically in love and could scarcely be bothered with the kind of details that could turn a simple wedding into a glorious affair.

Their weddings were the talk of all London because of Amelia’s eye for design. After Beau Brummel, Amelia was considered the highest arbiter of women’s fashion. Although she hated the image of herself as another boring society woman whose only interest was fashion. She was an artist who saw color and shapes in everything around her.

Amelia grumbled. “I really don’t need to have everything perfect.”

Hen shifted on the settee and raised both eyebrows, accenting her round emerald eyes. “You changed the ribbon on my wedding dress at least five times to get the exact color of green moss. And the color of the hydrangeas and the candles… Should I go on?”

Amelia resisted pointing out that Hen looked magnificent on her wedding day because of Amelia’s meticulous attention to every aspect of the event.

Hen fingered the sleeve of her gown. “And your protégé is worse. He couldn’t be more persnickety.”

“Pierpont is a wonderful help. He knows a great deal about fabrics, flowers, and proper etiquette.” Amelia wanted to bite her tongue. She sounded like the snobbish society ladies she detested.

“I can’t like him. There is something very cagey about him,” Hen added.

“You’ve been listening to Derrick, haven’t you?”

Hen shook her head. “Derrick hasn’t said a word to me.”

Amelia raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure?”

“Derrick barely speaks to me. I think he’s intimidated by my size and my waddle.”

Amelia snickered. “You might be right. It is rather startling to think that the two bravest men in England are afraid of one pregnant woman.”

“Amelia, I don’t care about Pierpont. But I do care about you. You did a remarkable job with all our weddings, but you were left exhausted and barely able to enjoy the festivities. I want you to enjoy your time as the bride.”

Amelia had relished doing her close friends’ weddings. But for her own dream wedding, she envisioned a thousand ways she wanted it to be perfect. And therein lay the problem. She couldn’t decide. Every small detail became exaggerated and daunting, and she debated with herself for hours over everything. And perhaps Hen was correct about Pierpont. He did seem to add to her anxiety by questioning every one of her decisions, making her second-guess herself.

Amelia gave a half-hearted laugh. “I’m driving Derrick mad. He might decide not to marry me.”

“That giant, growling bear of a man only smiles and laughs when you’re near. He isn’t going to change his mind. He loves you.”

Amelia felt her pale skin flush. The hardest part of being a redhead was when every tiny emotional response registered on your face for public consumption—no hiding any feelings. And didn’t her brothers love to use her fair skin as a weapon against her?

“I keep asking him his opinion, but he doesn’t have one. I believe he is actually color blind. I hope our children take after me when it comes to design.”

Hen had been rubbing her hands in circles over her abdomen. “Oh, she’s kicking again. I swear she is listening to our conversation.” Hen reached for Amelia’s hand. “Come feel her kick.”

Hen and Amelia had decided when they were ten years old that their firstborn child would be female, against all societal expectations that they produce a firstborn male heir. They wanted their daughters to grow up to be best friends, as they had.

Hen placed Amelia’s hand over her swollen belly, and the tiny foot kicked against Amelia’s hand. Joy and wonder filled Amelia’s entire being. “Oh, my goodness, she is strong. She is going to make an exceptional cricket player.”

Hen moaned suddenly, gripped her middle and threw her head back against the settee. “Her kicking started a painful birthing spasm.”

Breathing through her mouth, with her eyes closed, Hen gripped Amelia’s hand and whispered in something that sounded like Greek, “μὰ τὸν Δία.”

Of course, only Hen would be swearing in Greek during her painful spasms.

Amelia stood helpless, watching Hen, pain etched across her forehead, her hold on Amelia’s hand tightening into a death clasp. Anxiety pounded through Amelia. “My God, Hen, is the baby coming? What should I do?”

After a few interminable seconds, Hen’s breathing slowed, and she opened her eyes and looked around.

Amelia released the tight breath she had been holding and squeezed Hen’s hand. “I’m going to ring for Dr. Oglethorpe.”

Lying back against the pillow, Hen gave a wan smile. “Please don’t ring for him. Dr. Oglethorpe has reassured me that these spasms are a sign that my womb is preparing to have the baby.” She swiped against her hair, further loosening the disarray of long auburn hair gathered at the back of her neck. “But the pain has definitely intensified.”

“But if the pain is getting worse, shouldn’t I summon him? This is why your husband has moved the doctor into your home.”

Amelia’s heart still pounded, and her knees were shaky from the fear coursing through her. Her mother had died in childbirth with her youngest brother.

“Amelia, you are not to tell anyone. Dr. Oglethorpe has already told me these pains can go on for days. And please spare me—I don’t want Cord or Michael hovering over me. They will drive me batty. It should be hours before we must notify my husband and my brother.”

Hen bent over her abdomen and talked in a light, sing-song voice. “We’re not going to permit the gentlemen to agitate us with their loud voices and commands, are we my darling?”

She wanted to argue with Hen, but lifelong loyalty held her back. “I’m going to ring for tea. You must have something to keep your strength up.”

The door cracked open as Amelia moved toward the bell. Lisette, a new member to the Rathbourne household, peeked around the corner and asked, in her heavy French accent, “Madame?”

As if the last moment of pain and panic hadn’t occurred, Hen smiled warmly at the petite French maid who had been hired to help with the baby. “Yes, Lisette, what is it?”

The young maid’s eyes remained focused on the floor. “Mademoiselle Gabrielle.” The maid’s eyes jerked up in agitation. “Excusez-moi, my lady. Lady Kendal has arrived, and has asked if you are receiving visitors.”

Hen made a brave attempt to sit in a more ladylike position. “Of course, show her in. But she’s not a visitor, she’s family.”

When Lisette closed the door to summon Gabby, Hen flopped back on the pillows. “Oh, I hope Gabby has come alone. I would rather not see my brother, with his probing stares, until after the baby is born. Michael will realize immediately that I’m becoming uncomfortable. I can’t keep anything from him.”

“Your husband must have summoned him.” Hen and her brother were both brilliant linguists who worked for the Intelligence Office deciphering sensitive messages from France. “Michael will most likely be busy for a while.”

“You must keep my brother and my husband out.” Hen grabbed Amelia’s hand. “Remember our promise.”

“Of course, my dear, but at some point Cord will demand to see you.” Amelia didn’t want to stress Hen by telling her that there was no way Amelia could stop Hen’s formidable husband. With four brothers, she was quite skilled at redirecting men, but no one could stop a determined Lord Rathbourne except his diminutive wife. And Cord loved Hen too much to be swayed by his wife’s attempts to protect him.

“If there was any way to shield him from the labor, I’d wait and present the baby to him after. He will no doubt issue commands to everyone including poor Dr. Oglethorpe and our baby. He can be quite a tyrant.”

The door opened quietly. Hen’s new sister-in-law, a tiny Frenchwoman who always made Amelia feel gargantuan in comparison, waited in the doorway. The former Mademoiselle Gabrielle de Valmont had recently escaped France and Napoleon’s plans to marry her to his brother for her fortune.

“Good afternoon, my ladies.” Gabby curtsied properly before entering Henrietta’s drawing room. Gabby’s time spent hiding from Napoleon in a convent had influenced the young woman to behave with propriety despite Amelia and Gwyneth’s attempts to cajole her into joining them in their “unseemly” antics.

Lisette remained at the door. “Shall I ring for a tea tray, Madame?”

Amelia answered when Hen flinched and closed her eyes. “Yes, Lisette, please bring tea. And if Lady Gwyneth, Lord Rathbourne’s sister, arrives, please escort her to the morning room.”

Unaware of Hen’s discomfort, Gabby walked over to stand next to Amelia and said, in a light, melodic voice, “Lisette told me this morning how very happy she is to be at Rathbourne House. It was most generous of you and Lord Rathbourne to permit my meme’s children to become part of your household. Lisette loves babies. She will be very helpful, just like my dear nanny.”

Sensing her friend’s distress, Amelia rearranged the pillow under Hen’s feet and fluffed the one behind her back.

Repositioned, Hen exhaled softly and rubbed her belly in light circles. “Please, both of you, be seated.”

Amelia didn’t want to sit. She needed to keep moving to get rid of the fidgety, restless feeling overtaking her. She studied Hen’s face, saw her try to mask her pain for her gentle sister-in-law. The tense lines around Hen’s mouth had softened during Gabby’s distracting conversation.

Taking a slow breath, Amelia sat next to Gabby on the diminutive, gilded ladies’ chairs facing the settee.

“It is the least we could do for the family. It is because of Lisette’s mother that you and my brother were able to escape France,” Hen said.

Like all the ladies’ husbands, Amelia’s fiancé, Derrick, was involved in the war against France. The men tried to make little of the brutality of their work, but the arrival of Lisette and her brother had brought the harsh reality into their homes.

“I still can’t believe Lissette and Adrien were sent to the worst prison in France for helping you and Michael escape.” Amelia didn’t share that Derrick was surprised that the youths hadn’t been executed for their treason. Derrick had not told Amelia, but she overheard him discussing it with Cord.

Derrick, like all the men, tried to protect their women. Amelia didn’t want to be protected. She discovered a French spy ring headquartered in a modiste’s. She had skills that could assist Derrick’s fight against France. She didn’t want to be consigned to being yet another aristocratic, pampered, and coddled female.

“I still feel terrible about what she and her brother have suffered, but I had no one else to turn to. And Michael was so ill.” Gabby’s voice wavered.

“It isn’t your fault that Fouche is evil and is willing to make innocents suffer. And remember what the consequences would be if your meme hadn’t helped you. Michael wouldn’t have come home.” Hen wiped away the tears streaking her face.

“And now Lisette and Adrien are out of France and away from Fouche,” Amelia chimed in, to turn Hen’s thoughts away from the possibility of losing her brother.

Gabby nodded. “Yes, Michael reminds me that they’ve been freed, and will never suffer again. I’m sorry that my meme is in France while her children are now in England. But she refuses to leave France. When the war ends, I’m sure Lisette and Adrien will return to her.” Gabby straightened the morning blue walking dress Amelia had selected for her. “Lisette and Adrien have reassured me that Fouche considered their mother too old to be sent to prison.”

“Well, I guess there is some goodness in Fouche.” Amelia snorted. She wanted to comment, “Devil a bit,” as her brothers would have.

Hen closed her eyes again and gripped the side of the settee, saying under her breath, “μὰ τὸν Δία.”

Gabby stared at Hen, her cornflower blue eyes widening and her mouth gaping.

Amelia jumped up to stand next to Hen. “She is starting labor.”

Gabby muttered in French. “Oh, mon Dieu.”

Trying not to disturb Hen—who now was panting through her open mouth, her face again contorted in agony—Gabby tiptoed closer to Amelia and whispered behind her hand, “Shouldn’t we call Dr. Oglethorpe? And Lord Rathbourne?”

Hen groaned. “No. Not yet. You promised, Amelia.”