(SPOILERS AHEAD!: this epilogue takes places between THE VISCOUNT’S PROMISE and A MATCH MADE IN LONDON. All content is copyright 2019 by Christina Britton. No part of this may be copied, distributed or printed without the author’s express permission. Thank you!)
“Another blasted wedding at Willowhaven. Like the last one didn’t turn the whole place topsy-turvy; now we’re forced to go through it all over again.”
Malcolm Arborn, Viscount Morley hid a grin as Caleb Masters, Lord Willbridge leaned over the billiard table to line up his cue. His friend’s grumbling had not ceased in the past week since their return to Willowhaven. With Malcolm’s wedding to Willbridge’s sister Emily swiftly approaching, that grumbling had increased to an almost constant rumble of discontent.
Not that Malcolm would let that ruin his good mood. For in just twelve hours he would be married to the woman he loved above all others. Nothing on this earth or beyond could take away an ounce of his joy in that.
A smile stretched across his face at the very thought. Marry Emily. He did not know what he had done to deserve such a blessing, nor did he care. But he would sure as hell never take it for granted.
His unintentional display of happiness, however, did nothing to help Willbridge’s mood. A low growl sounded, rumbling like thunder through the room. Malcolm cast a glance at his friend just as, with a dark glare, Willbridge gave a violent whack to the ivory cue ball. It careened in a whirling panic across the green baize. A crack sounded, followed by a thunk as the red ball sank with vicious intent into the corner pocket. From Willbridge’s glower, it didn’t take much imagination to conclude that his friend rather wished it was Malcolm’s head he was sinking into the tasseled pocket instead.
He schooled his features into a suitably solemn expression. “Emily and I cannot thank you and Imogen enough for hosting the wedding here. It was important to the both of us that we be surrounded by the people we love so well, and in a place close to our hearts.” A bit over the top, perhaps. But he would do just about anything to mend the breach between himself and his closest friend, a friendship he had strained by going and falling in love with the man’s sister. Of course, he knew that Willbridge’s ire would not be nearly so great had Malcolm not first broken Emily’s heart before finally wising up and claiming her for his own. He had a feeling that, were he in Willbridge’s place, he would not be forgiving in the least.
His bit of groveling must have worked, for Willbridge’s face began to relax. Just a bit, of course, and nowhere near the level of comfort they used to have with one another. But it was progress, regardless. And one step further from Willbridge wanting to murder him in his sleep.
Unfortunately the final corner of their fraternal triangle, Sir Tristan Crosby, chose that moment to open his mouth.
“Will you be staying on at Willowhaven for your wedding might, Morley?”
The storm clouds that had begun to clear from Caleb’s brow returned tenfold. Malcolm shot Tristan a dark glare. “You are not helping,” he ground out.
“I don’t have the faintest idea what you mean,” Tristan replied, all innocence, before promptly ruining the effect by spinning his cue in a jaunty arc and grinning.
An image formed in Malcolm’s mind, of his fist landing with a satisfying thud into his friend’s smiling face. The bastard was getting too much enjoyment from seeing Malcolm and Caleb on the outs.
Thank goodness Willbridge’s bride Imogen chose that moment to enter the room, interrupting him from violent fantasies involving a good deal of teeth littering the ground. She smiled at them all, turquoise eyes shining behind the lenses of her spectacles, before turning to her husband “Caleb, your mother has suggested we all retire early so we are well rested for tomorrow.”
The transformation in Willbridge was immediate. He straightened, his face relaxing. “Of course. We’ll be there in a moment, love.”
As he turned to put away his things Imogen turned her attention to Malcolm, giving him a bracing smile before sailing out. That one little act of solidarity gave him just what he needed to do what came next. As Willbridge went to stride past him and out the door, Malcolm took a steadying breath and said, his voice quiet and full of the emotion coursing through him, “I love Emily, Willbridge. I’ll make her happy, I swear it.”
Willbridge’s steps faltered, then stopped altogether. Finally he looked at Malcolm. His eyes, the very same shade as Emily’s, peered hard at him. Then, all at once, Willbridge’s shoulders drooped, the breath leaving him in a harsh burst. “I know you will, Morley,” he said softly, clapping a hand on Malcolm’s shoulder. Then, with a nod, he left.
A thickness settled in Malcolm’s throat, his eyes suddenly hot. It was more of a blessing than he expected from his friend at that moment. Willbridge was normally an easy-going, cheerful fellow, and so Malcolm knew by his friend’s attitude of the past week that he had hurt him dreadfully. It gave him hope that, given time, the two of them could return to the closeness they used to share.
Once again, however, Tristan had to go and ruin a perfectly pleasant moment.
“Well,” he said, all cheerfulness as he sauntered toward Malcolm, “that went much better than expected.”
“No thanks to you,” Malcolm snapped.
But Tristan was even more of a sickeningly cheerful person than Willbridge typically was. He laughed and slung an arm around Malcolm’s shoulder. “Come now, do you blame me? I brought on enough of the man’s ire with that blasted fake infatuation with his other sister, and all so you and Emily could finally see what was right in front of you all the while. If anything, you owe me.”
Despite himself, Malcolm felt a smile tug on his lips. Tristan’s charm was the stuff of legend. The man could probably get away with murder if he put his mind to it.
“Very well, you cretin. But don’t think you shall be able to call in this favor until the end of time.”
“Only until we’re eighty, and not a day longer,” Tristan replied with a grin.
They made their way to the drawing room, where the rest of the party was rising to retire. At once every strain and stress and worry faded away. For at the center of that small group was Emily.
She appeared utterly relaxed. And completely happy, a fact that made his chest tighten with emotion. Her dog, Bach, was pressed into her side, Emily’s fingers subconsciously twining in the soft mop of fur that was quickly growing atop the animal’s head. She had her head bent toward her younger sister Daphne, who was talking in an animated manner, hands flying about as if possessed of a mind of their own. Emily smiled, the tilt of her lips just slightly crooked due to the scar that ran down her left cheek, her gray eyes filled with mirth. It was in that moment she looked his way.
The very breath left his chest. Damnation, how was it possible she was more beautiful every time he laid eyes on her?
As if she read his mind, Emily’s smile grew wider. Daphne noticed him then and, with a wicked smile, whispered something into her sister’s ear. Emily blushed scarlet, her scar standing out in relief, as she laughed.
So different from the defeated, frightened look that had held her back just weeks ago. Her expression was filled now with love and confidence as, her dog following at her heels, she made her way through the tight knot that was her family to stand in front of him.
“Hello, Lord Morley,” she murmured.
“Hello future Lady Morley,” he replied. Warmth spread through his chest at the very idea of it.
She must have felt the same, if the melting look in her eyes was anything to go by.
“I missed you,” he murmured.
Her smile grew. “You were gone a mere hour.”
“It felt like a lifetime.”
Instead of laughing off his outrageous words, Emily reached for his hand. “Yes, it did.”
“And now I have to spend another night away from you.” Even the thought of it sent him into a mild panic.
She squeezed his fingers. When she spoke it was with a voice that cracked from the emotion that saturated it. “It will be the last you’ll ever have to do so.”
He gripped her fingers tight, taking a step closer to her. “And thank God for it,” he murmured. He lowered his voice. “But be warned: once I have you in my bed you shall not leave it for a week.”
A wicked twinkle entered her pewter eyes. “Make that two weeks and you have a deal.”
Not caring that her entire family was watching, he lifted her hand and pressed his lips to the delicate skin.
A harsh harrumph broke through the moment, as discordant as a teacup crashing to the floor.
“If you’re done now,” Willbridge growled, “let us retire so we can get tomorrow over and done with all the sooner.”
Emily released Malcolm’s hand and went to her brother, kissing him on the cheek. “I love you, Caleb.”
Willbridge’s expression softened. “And I you, Emily. Even if you are marrying this cretin.” He indicated Malcolm with a jerk of his head.
“A cretin who I love,” she reminded him gently, “and who loves me in return.”
“So he keeps telling me,” Willbridge muttered, shooting Malcolm a wry look. The next moment Daphne loudly interrupted, drawing everyone’s attention her way. Through an impressive combination of distraction and coercion she managed to usher everyone but Malcolm and Emily out the drawing room door. Just before exiting into the hall, Daphne turned to her sister and gave her a roguish wink. And then Malcolm and Emily were blessedly alone.
“Remind me to send your sister a whole box of jewels,” he murmured in awe.
Emily laughed. “I do think she might prefer a crate of gothic romances, to be honest.”
“Then it will be hers.” He reached for Emily. She did not hesitate a moment before slipping into his embrace. And then her lips were beneath his and there was no room for anything else.
The past days since their engagement had been pure torture. A blissful kind of torture, to be sure, but torture nonetheless. What else could he call having Emily close enough to touch without being able to touch her, sleeping just down the hall from her and unable to make love to her? Their moments alone together this past week had been few and far between, their respect for her brother making them circumspect. He had been able to kiss her only a handful of times, each one hurried, stolen embraces that only made his appetite for her grow.
And this kiss could only be just as hurried. Yet behind it was the knowledge that when next he saw her, she would be walking down the aisle of an ancient stone church. And they would say the words that would bind them to one another for the rest of their lives.
“Tomorrow cannot come soon enough,” he murmured against her lips.
She gave a breathless laugh, a sound that quickly turned into a moan as his lips trailed a path across her scarred cheek to the long arch of her neck. Her head fell back, her fingers convulsing in the soft wool of his jacket. He longed to run his hands down her body, to grip her bottom and push her against that part of him that was straining and eager for the warm softness of her.
But he would not. Just twelve hours, he told himself as he pressed an open-mouth kiss to the sensitive spot just beneath her ear before gently putting her away from him.
She wobbled a bit, unsteady on her feet, the glazed expression in her eyes making his heart sing. Damnation, but she was passionate. Life would not be dull with his Emily, that was certain.
“Shall we pick up where we left off tomorrow?” he said, his voice husky with thwarted desire.
“Oh, yes,” she breathed, giving him a radiant smile that nearly had him pulling her back into his arms. Instead he looked to Bach, who sat patiently at her feet.
“Shall we go, boy?”
The dog gave a soft yip of agreement. Malcolm laughed and tucked Emily’s fingers into the crook of his elbow, leading her from the room, her dog following.
They made their way through the quiet house. How different from the chaos that had been Willbridge’s wedding to Imogen just weeks before. Then the house had been full to bursting with people, the staff in an uproar of preparation.
Now, however, there was only peace, and calm. And he was glad of it. The only people present at his wedding to Emily would be her family, the ceremony intimate, the wedding breakfast a small and modest affair. It was the perfect start to his marriage to this amazing woman he was blessed to marry, a woman who had learned to overcome her fears and see the strength in herself, and who had shown him that deep and abiding love was something that was attainable.
He was prepared to give her the world. He wished he could give her so much more.
~ ~ ~
Emily cast a glance at Malcolm. He had not said a word since leaving the drawing room. And while she had come to learn he was not the most voluble person—which was quite a good thing, as she was not either—still there was something incredibly distracted about his expression just then, as if he were a million miles away.
“You’re quiet,” Emily said. Though she had spoken low, her voice bounced back at them as they crossed the white and black tiles of the front hall.
He blinked, as if awakening from a trance, and smiled down at her. “I was thinking,” he said, his voice slow and thoughtful, “that I should speak to your brother about our marriage tomorrow.”
She frowned in confusion. “But you have talked to Caleb.”
“I’m not referring to Willbridge,” he said as they began the climb up the heavily carved staircase to the upper levels.
Her frown deepened and she thought of her flighty younger brother. “I hardly think Drew will care.”
“That is not who I am referring to, either,” he said, his voice gentle.
They reached the landing then. But instead of heading straight to their rooms, he turned into the wide portrait gallery that ran the front of the house.
It was then, as they stepped into the long space and she spied the rows of her ancestors staring benignly at them from their heavy frames, that she knew what he meant.
Her breath hitched in her chest. Ah, God, this was why she had fallen in love with this man. For he knew just what she needed to make this occasion perfect.
His steps moved with surety to one large portrait, set off a bit from the rest. And there they stopped. Together they looked up into the forever youthful face of a boy, no more than thirteen years of age.
“Jonathan,” she choked out. Her fingers dug into the soft wool of Malcolm’s sleeve as she tried with all her might to swallow down the burning tears that threatened.
His large hand covered her agitated fingers, squeezing comfort into the chilled digits. “I know what he was to you, Emily, and that you miss him dreadfully. But he will always be with you in spirit.”
She tore her gaze away from her twin brother’s beloved face to look up at Malcolm. He did understand. It was there in the tears that made his dark eyes glisten, in the soft smile he gave her.
“If I could give you one more day with him, Emily, I would, in a heartbeat. But, barring that…” He took a deep breath and turned full eyes up to her brother’s portrait. “Jonathan, tomorrow I’m marrying your sister. I want you to know that I love her, and that I will spend the rest of my life making sure she never regrets loving me in return. I swear I will do everything in my power to make her happy.”
Emily did not realize she was openly crying until Malcolm turned back to her. He reached up, and with a gentle caress wiped her tears away. She caught at his hand, pressed her lips to his palm.
“Thank you for that,” she whispered.
He pressed his forehead to hers, drew in a ragged breath. “I wish I could give you more.”
“You have given me more than I ever dreamed, Malcolm.” She looked up into his eyes. “I love you.”
“And I love you,” he whispered, his voice hoarse with emotion.
They stood that way for a moment, hands clasped and foreheads pressed together in front of her brother’s portrait. It was then she felt it, the certainty that Jonathan would have been happy for them. The last piece of the puzzle that was her joy snapped into place in that moment. And she smiled.
“Perhaps we’d best get to our beds,” she murmured. “We have a wedding to attend tomorrow, after all.”
He smiled down into her upturned face. “I cannot wait,” he said, and placed a gentle kiss on her lips.