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About the author:
Born in the UK and a keen traveller, Darcy has lived all over the world. Currently living in England with her husband, young son and baby daughter she is enjoying writing, reading and baking horrendously. Author of non-fiction guide 'Date Nights at Home' and Regency romance series – 'Romance for the Seasons', with more exciting things planned soon.
What inspired you to write your book?
Aunt Annabelle – Lady Annabelle Warrington – is a recurring character in all of the other books in the Romance for the Seasons collection and was a favourite of mine. She is feisty, independent and a staunch protector of the ladies she chaperones in society. The more I wrote about her as a supporting character, the more I realised she had a story of her own and so, One Stolen Christmas, and Aunt Annabelle's story and character development began. I'm really looking forward to you reading about her!
Here is a short sample from the book:
Christmas 1 – 1804
Things would get better.
Eventually, she knew things would get better.
He cannot live forever.
Annabelle repeated each phrase like a mantra to soothe her nerves as she watched the carriage pull-up outside. All she had to do was endure until he died. Which, she reasoned for the third time since waking, could surely not be too far away; her husband had already exceeded everyone’s expectations by at least ten years.
Annabelle, the young Countess of Warrington, stared out across the lawns into the distance and tried to silence her bitter thoughts; such desires would blacken her soul no less than if she killed him herself. In an effort to lift her mood, Annabelle turned her gaze to the grounds outside and sighed; it was yet another oppressively grey day. The clouds hung thick and heavy from the sky, their abundance leaking a thick mist across the horizon, wrapping everything but the closest of objects in its dreary cover. If only there could be a patch of blue sky, some sharp rays of golden sunshine, or even a single feathery flake of snow to fall from the sky, it was Christmas day after all. It was not to be however, nor was it likely to change; the weather had been dismal for weeks. All there had been, from what felt like the moment the summer had ended, was grey: wet, stony grey. Annabelle let out a sigh and allowed her shoulders to sag. It was not only the weather that was unlikely to change, her situation was not likely to improve either, for, soon she would be forced to suffer confinement until her baby was born.
At the thought of the baby, Annabelle allowed a smile to touch her lips and looked down at the roundness of her swollen belly. There, at least, she could find some joy, and she cradled its warmth with her hands as tenderly as if it were the bundle itself. It would be but a few months more and Annabelle could hold her little wonder in her arms; it needn’t matter that she despised the father – the baby would be hers, and she would love it as much as any mother could. Unable to stop them, her thoughts drifted to her own mother, to her father, and Annabelle found herself wondering, not for the first time, whether they had loved her at all; for surely no parent would force their daughter to endure what she had. Her life had been nothing short of torturous these last few months and all because her father had consented to her marrying the Earl of Warrington. Everything had happened so fast; it had all been arranged and carried-out barely a handful of weeks into her first season.
Feeling suddenly heavy on her feet, Annabelle plodded towards the ornate mahogany dresser and sat upon the chair beside it. Instinctively, she picked up the pages from the latest letter from her friend, Marianne Allen, and closed her eyes to seek solace in the delicate feel of the pages and scratches of the words upon their surface between her fingertips. Annabelle loved to read her friend’s letters; they were so full of humorous anecdotes and the recklessness of youth that she had so very recently taken for granted. Reading the letters somehow sharpened her happier memories, and reminded her that outside the confines of these walls, the world was not truly as dull, grey and cold as the seemingly perpetual dismal view outside. She could still recall the excitement of her first few weeks in London, but mostly she recalled the fateful day her father had told her his ‘wonderful news’.
Opening her eyes, Annabelle recalled the bleakness that had descended that day like a shroud and felt it envelope her memory again. They had argued, of course; she had no desire to marry a man at least fifteen years older than her own father. A man so frail and weak, that he seemed to cough more often than he spoke. Never had she dreamt that she would one day be tied to such a man, and it had never crossed her naïve young mind that her father might expect her to be. Annabelle remembered his words, uttered what felt so long ago now, when her father had told her that he had always wished she had been more ambitious. That she should have focussed on developing her feminine wiles more. ‘Perhaps they should have sent her to one of the more notorious finishing schools,’ he had wondered aloud, before advising her that despite his doubts, that she had somehow secured the attentions of a very powerful man. He’d been almost giddy at the prospect; smiling broadly as he merrily informed her that the marriage would be far more advantageous than he could ever have wished for. Annabelle vividly remembered his next words, for at the time they had struck her as odd, but her father had informed her that she ‘should see the fact that your husband would likely not live long as a distinct advantage.’
At the time, she had wondered why anyone would wish for anything but a long life for her husband, but then she had endured her wedding night. Annabelle had laid ‘still and calm’ as her mother had told her all good wives should, and before long had found herself understanding her father’s words. They had been wed only a few weeks before Annabelle had found herself all but begging that his advanced age would end her suffering. For each evening, she became less convinced that she could survive another night of his foul panting breath and creaking bones, as he did all he could to fill her with a son. Thankfully, it was only a few months after their wedding that his efforts miraculously succeeded. Now, upon her first Christmas as a married woman, Annabelle already found herself heavy with child and while she stared into the bleak grounds and wished, that despite the dreariness, that she could walk outside. She longed for fresh air and a break from the stale atmosphere inside the house. But there would be no such respite, it was impossible, for ‘in her condition’, she was permitted only to walk indoors.
Tensing, Annabelle heard a soft knock against the door and called out ‘enter’, readying herself for the visit she had been dreading since going to bed the night before. Annabelle straightened her back and heard the shuffle of her husband’s unsteady feet towards her. It took all of her self-control, but Annabelle remained seated and prepared herself to tolerate his words and presence; her husband was not only achingly old, but pompous and arrogant as well. What could one expect of a man prepared to wed and bed a lady almost fifty years his junior?
“Good morning, my dear,” he began, his voice coming out in barely more than a whisper as he took her smooth, supple hand in his and brought it to his blue-tinged lips. “May I be the first to wish you a merry Christmas?”
“Merry Christmas, your grace,” Annabelle heard herself respond as she forced herself to keep her hand placid in his.
“Come now, my fruitful little mare, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus – we must have a smile upon that pretty little face of yours.”
Annabelle forced a smile, the edges of her upturned mouth feeling uncomfortable as they reached her cheeks.
“There now, that wasn’t so hard,” he began, grinning in that irritating way of his. “I have brought you a gift, and women like nothing more than an expensive gift,” he told her, assured that he knew what she liked better than she. “We must have you looking your best and heaven knows that pregnancy does not suit you.”
His words sliced her like a knife, but still she remained seated and tolerated his gaze. It mattered not to him how she felt, she knew that to him she was no more than a vessel for his child, ‘the great future of the Warrington estate’. There was utterly no point in revealing her true feelings to him, for he simply did not care.
Suddenly he breathed in, sucking in the air in a great wheeze that all but hissed as he dragged it into his failing lungs. Annabelle readied herself for the racking coughs that usually followed, but after a pause, his breathing returned to normal and Annabelle desperately buried her disappointment. She hated it of herself, but she simply could not control it; she longed for him to die. Although, what would happen to her then? Annabelle had no idea, but at least she would be free of him.
Not bothering to ask her permission, her husband, the ailing Earl of Warrington, shakily scooped her shiny blonde locks away from her neck and wrapped a string of exquisite opals around her neck. Reluctantly, she acknowledged their beauty, for they really were quite stunning and rendered her little choice but to admire the way they appeared to glisten like newly fallen snow in the sun. Annabelle tried to find some joy in their splendour, but somehow she could not quite muster it as she waited patiently for him to fit the clasp and felt his unsteady breath return behind her ear.
How had she found herself here? Annabelle had made her debut only that spring, and she had utterly believed she would spend at least a year or two enjoying the charms of society before she would wed, but it had not been meant to be. Even her mother had been shocked when the earl had asked for her hand; she had quite reassured Annabelle before her debut that ‘really, it was all just a little practice, for you are only ten and six. Enjoy yourself and learn from the other ladies’. Everyone, not least of all herself, had been astonished when she had apparently captured the heart of the earl a mere six weeks after her arrival in town.
“Thank you for the beautiful gift,” she managed to whisper, trying her best to keep the emotion from her voice and her tone even, “you are very generous, sir.”
“As I hope you will be.” The earl hobbled around so that he could face her and place his pale, wrinkled hands against the roundness of her belly. “I know,” he paused to clear his throat, as he was often to do of late, “…that this one will be a boy. He will keep the earldom where it belongs…”
Annabelle smiled weakly, knowing full well that every bone in her body told her that the baby she was carrying was to be a girl. She had dreamt it; bright green eyes and fiery red hair – just like her grandmother’s.
“Come, my dear, I must show you off to our guests.”
Forcing herself to avoid rolling her eyes at the prospect, Annabelle began the task of pushing herself forward in her seat; “Yes, of course, my lord, your daughters and their families will be waiting for us.” Annabelle gripped her resolve ever more tightly, and willed her body not to slump. As if she wasn’t already feeling awful enough, waddling about as she was, but now she was to endure, what was supposed to be the merriest day of the year, with her three spiteful step-daughters. All older than she, Annabelle could understand their dislike of her, but none of this had been her choice. She could only hope, as she embarked on what would no doubt be her worst Christmas ever, that this baby would bring her the love and joy she so desperately needed.
He cannot live forever… She repeated the mantra.
Christmas 2 – 1825
Despite being inside the confines of the carriage, Annabelle watched her breath mist into the air before her. Good Lord, it was cold she thought and hugged her velveteen shawl around her shoulders before pulling the hood over her head. She would have been better-off crammed tightly inside the post, instead of rattling around a hired carriage with only her lady’s maid for company or warmth. At least then, there would have been an abundance of body heat to share. As it was, they were woefully unprepared for the sudden briskness of the weather. Only that morning, the late December sky had been crystalline blue as she had bid her dear friend Marianne a tearful goodbye at Gatsby Hall. Although it had very obviously been a winter’s day, the sight of the bright sunshine had more than created the illusion of warmth.
Now, only several hours in the hired carriage later, the clouds hung grey and heavy across the sky, bringing an odd stillness with them. Almost subconsciously, Annabelle recognised the strange quality of the air – it was far too still. She became aware of the an unnerving absence of birdsong, and the branches in the trees were oddly motionless, appearing as if they were no more than statues as they rode past. It was the calm that always settles before a storm, and judging from the heavily bruised appearance of the clouds hanging low to the ground, this storm would be one of snow. Even from within the dark belly of their conveyance, the obviousness of their unfortunately timed journey was inescapable.
Annabelle turned her attention from the window to her companion and fought a sigh upon seeing the ashen face of Rosabelle, her rather pessimistic lady’s maid. Schooling her own features, Annabelle stared straight ahead; it would be of no benefit for her to betray even the slightest hint of her own concerns – Rosabelle could worry for England. It would be better to keep a brave (and supposedly warm) face on things for as long as possible. Inwardly, Annabelle rolled her eyes, realising that this would unlikely be for long – the first fat grey flakes were already floating down from the dark sky. It would be no passing flurry she conceded, tapping her umbrella handle hard upon the roof. They would have to call in and stop at the next inn; there was nothing else for it.