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#42615

Alright – I will bite the volunteer bullet.

Working Title: His Forgotten Countess

Juliette Hyland

Genre: Historical Romance – Regency

The carriage jostled along the rutted path, but the uncomfortable ride didn’t seem to bother the new Countess of Delbar. His bride. Edward James Douglas Winter, Earl of Delbar, crossed his arms and stared at the creature who’d been a stranger a few weeks ago. Was still a stranger…

Sophia Wegerly was the daughter of a well-established merchant. She wasn’t quite the shopkeeper’s daughter his mother had been, but they were both social climbers. Successful social climbers.

However, unlike his father, Edward wasn’t enthralled with his bride. Perhaps, if his father had said no to his countess and first son more often, the Delbar family fortune wouldn’t be in such disrepair. And he wouldn’t be sitting across from a stranger only interested in his title.

It didn’t matter. Sophia’s dowry was enough to keep his creditors at bay until his construction business was on firmer footing. If Edward had had a few more months his business would have been able to handle the creditors’ demands. If…

Edward let that thought float away. Focusing on the ifs wouldn’t get him out of this union. His family had made his bed, and Edward was the one lying in it.

The carriage struck a pothole, and he barely managed to catch his bride before she hit the floor. Fire ripped up his spine as Sophia’s fingers wrapped around his wrists. Deep chocolate eyes rimmed with hints of amber locked onto him. Edward’s breath caught as she held his gaze. Her dark locks were curled and pinned atop her head in a fashionable manner. For only a second, he contemplated pulling one of the pins, letting the curl loose and running his hands along her cheek.

A few freckles dotted her nose, and her full rich lips opened, “I can right myself, sir.”

The spell broke as she shook herself loose. Sophia was stunning, a fact her father had bragged about repeatedly during their marriage settlement discussions. But the new countess, his wife, hadn’t sought out Edward. Her family had entertained negotiations with his brother Sebastian first, and when he was thrown from his horse, turned to Edward. It was the title she’d sought – and now had. Nothing more. Edward needed to remember that. He couldn’t fall into the trap of a pretty face. He was not his father.

“How long until we arrive at Britchard, my lord?”

Her soft question was reasonable, but the mention of his family estate sent a whip of panic through him. Edward hadn’t returned Britchard since his father had unceremoniously informed him he was no longer welcome. Only a few days after his twenty-first birthday. And a week after he launched his architecture venture.

Not that he’d ever been truly welcome. Edward had spent years drawing and designing houses, stables, businesses – any structure that caught his imagination. With the end of the Corsican’s wars, Edward was certain his venture could succeed.

His father hadn’t cared. It didn’t matter that his family had no intention, or funds, to provide a living for his second son. An earl’s son did not enter trade. Edward was used to being unseen, unwanted, but being tossed out of his family home for having the audacity to fend for himself had cut deeper than he’d anticipated.

Now he was arriving as the Earl. A broke earl – with a wife who wasn’t interested in him. Closing his eyes, he pulled himself together. He’d learned long ago not to count on anyone but himself. “I suspect we will be there in the next hour or so.”

Gripping the seat, Edward added, “Assuming the carriage doesn’t throw a wheel on these blasted roads.”

“I would prefer you not use such language in my presence.” The countess’s words were tight, but her tone was level.

“That is the longest statement you’ve made outside our vows, Countess.” Edward laughed as a delicate pink traveled across her cheeks.

The color, and its implication, fascinated him. During their short acquittance, Sophia had shown no emotion. Nothing when he arrived to tell her father of his brother’s passing. No emotion when Edward had turned down her father’s request to discuss marriage settlements with him then. And no emotion when Edward had arrived five weeks ago – tail between his legs after learning how deep his family’s ruin was. A fact Sophia’s father had clearly known.

She’d been a living doll. A creature that breathed but showed no interest in anything. Had he misread her?

He tossed that thought away. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who’d made it known before the start of the season that she was seeking a brilliant match. And, even with an estate that was nearly penniless, he was that – unfortunately.

“I wasn’t aware that you were seeking conversation.” Sophia tilted her head and pushed a lone curl that had fallen from her elaborate updo out of her face. “What would you like to talk about, husband?”

The unmistakable challenge in her soft tone almost made him smile, almost. Perhaps his bride was more than a pretty doll. “We could discuss our wedding night, wife.”

She pursed her lips as she pulled back., “If you wish,” the flush traveled down her long neck as Sophia crossed her arms.

Edward saw her fingers tremble just a bit and wanted to kick himself. Despite not being raised in an aristocratic household, his bride was gently raised. Hopefully, her mother had prepared her for their marriage bed, but there was no reason for him to make her uncomfortable. They were bound together for the rest of their lives. It would be easier if they at least maintained a civil relationship.

“I apologize, Sophia.”

Her head snapped back before she uncrossed her arms and laid her hands in her lap. “Thank you, Edward. I apologize for my curtness as well. So much has happened…” She stared at her hands for a moment before directing her gaze at him.

The air in the carriage constricted as those deep eyes held his. Edward found himself unable to stop himself from leaning towards his bride.

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