The Mischievous Bride (The Clearbrooks), страница 1
THE MISCHIEVOUS BRIDE
Copyright © Teresa McCarthy, 2014
All rights reserved
Ebook, January 2014, Teresa McCarthy
Cover Art, LFD Designs For Authors
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, copied, or transmitted without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
She was in heaven. There was no place like London during the Season.
Fourteen-year-old Millicent Harriet Shelby smiled at her reflection in the colossal looking glass hanging in the Duke of Elbourne’s empty ballroom. She let out an exhilarating sigh as she batted her long lashes. Curly chestnut locks bounced about her heart-shaped face as she put her hands on her slim hips and conversed with her imaginary beau. “Why, sir, I am not that beautiful. You make me blush.”
She may not have lovely blond hair and sparkling blue eyes like her older sister Lizzie, but she was almost of age, and the world was hers to command!
Lifting up on her toes, she raised her delicate chin and narrowed her round gray eyes into two haughty slits, giving the invisible gentleman her most imperious glare. “My dear sir, no one is going to tell me what to do. No, indeed! How could you say such a thing?”
Dark brown brows dipped into a grim “v”. “Pshaw! You must be mistaken. My Papa will never decide whom I will marry like he has done with Lizzie. I make my own decisions.”
The sound of heavy footsteps made Milli jump. She frowned and looked quickly about the room. She would die if anybody saw her talking to herself, especially Stephen and his brothers.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t like Lord Stephen Clearbrook, the youngest of the four Clearbrook brothers, who was to marry her sister Lizzie. But he already thought her a bit silly, and she didn’t want him thinking she was an addlepated ninny. However, she had to admit, the man was as kind as he was handsome.
Since she had arrived only hours ago, she had met Stephen’s sister, Lady Emily, and her husband, Lord Stonebridge, but no one else. She wondered if the other Clearbrook brothers were as good looking as Stephen. The oldest, the Duke of Elbourne, was already married, but the other brothers were fair game. She had heard rumors they were tall, broad shouldered men with dark hair.
But drat! A room full of tall people was the last thing she needed! She hated being the shortest person in the room. Yet she consoled herself with her papa’s words. “Your heart is big, Millicent, and so is your personality. Not many females can say that, my girl.”
Milli tipped her head and studied her surroundings as she thought about her sister’s predicament. It seemed every matchmaking mama wanted her daughter to marry a Clearbrook. She guessed that was why Papa had moved so quickly with Lord Stephen, tricking him into the engagement with Lizzie.
Although Lizzie didn’t have an inkling that Stephen had been coerced into the engagement, Milli had a vague feeling Papa hadn’t been quite fair about anything regarding the arrangement. But some day Lizzie was going to discover exactly what Papa had done, and when that happened, Milli did not want to be anywhere near the fireworks.
Well, the fireworks probably wouldn’t happen for a while, she thought, and staying at the duke’s home while Lizzie weighed her engagement to Lord Stephen was going to be very interesting.
Her lips lifted into a wide smile as she tapped her slipper on the ballroom floor and listened to the soft echo pinging about the walls. There were so many places to explore in the mansion, it made her giddy.
She giggled in pleasure and twirled about the room. The duke’s home wasn’t as big as Papa’s, but it had the charm of a country castle.
Once again, heavy footsteps thudded down the hall, breaking into her reverie. She stopped dancing and listened intently, waiting for someone to tell her she wasn’t supposed to be there.
Her shoulders sagged in relief. Thank goodness, they were heading the other way.
With a shrug, she stared into the mirror again, scowling at herself and setting her chin into a stubborn line. It was hard to look important when she looked about ten years old.
She placed a small hand against the coolness of the glass, wishing she were taller. “La, sir,” she whispered, tilting her head. “I must inform you that I am going to choose my own husband, no matter how much money my father William Shelby offers you.”
Letting out a frustrated sigh, she dropped her hand. She adored Papa, but she was determined to love her husband, and he was going to love her!
She wasn’t going to have any of those marriages of convenience so common in Society today. Hopefully, Lizzie wouldn’t give in to Papa’s demands unless her union with Lord Stephen was a love match.
Smiling, Milli spun on her heels, thinking if her sister married Stephen, the London ladies were not going to be happy.
With a few curtsies, Milli weaved about the grand space, finally letting out a shy laugh to her unseen partner. “Oh, you shouldn’t say such things, my lord. I daresay, you are quite forward.” She shook her finger at him. “Papa won’t like that.”
She chuckled softly, loving the sound of her slippers tapping against the marbled floor as she danced.
She raised her hands over her head, turned on her toes, and cackled like some silly London lady hunting for a husband. “Dear me. Not so fast, my lord. I can hardly catch my breath.”
She puckered her lips and kissed the air. She could smell the lavender she had poured into her hair this morning.
She twirled round and round, faster and faster, feeling the air whip about her cheeks, loving the freedom of the room.
"Well, well, what have we here?"
Milli came to a dead stop. She had been dancing in the ballroom by herself, pretending she was a beautiful ballerina when the most handsome man appeared before her like a prince in a fairy tale.
"Who are you?" she asked boldly.
"Your servant, Lord Marcus Clearbrook, mademoiselle. And you?"
So, he was one of Lord Stephen’s brothers. He probably thought she was a child.
She lifted her chin, her heart beating fast. The velvety sound of his voice was mesmerizing. "Miss Millicent Shelby."
She narrowed her eyes. He seemed rather daunting and very tall, with calculating gray eyes, eyes much lighter than hers, almost a smoky silver. There was also a certain command in the way he stood there, gazing at her. She could barely breathe, but she wasn’t going to let him know how much he affected her.
His black wavy hair was about the only thing that seemed a bit out of place. His fine black jacket and white cravat set off his straight nose and firm lips as if he were some majestic character in a Michelangelo painting.
She blinked, her stomach feeling strange. Those longs legs looked so powerful, he could probably sweep her off her feet without any effort at all. Although Stephen was quite good looking, she guessed Lord Marcus was the most handsome of all four Clearbrook brothers.
His black brows lifted. "Ah, Miss Millicent Shelby. Your sister is going to marry my brother, is she not?"
There was something hard in his voice that set Milli's teeth on edge. She wasn’t certain Lizzie was going to marry Lord Stephen at all.
But the way Lord Marcus was staring at her, she speculated the man
"Elizabeth is very pretty."
"And very smart."
"And very rich!"
The man’s eyes darkened. "Indeed," he drawled.
"Oh, you think I am a child, but I'm not. I'm fourteen and going to be fifteen next month."
His lips curved into a mischievous grin. "Indeed. Well, little ballerina, when you are out, may I ask you for a dance?"
Her eyes narrowed. He was making fun of her. "Indeed not! You are too stuffy, by far. Why, you are nothing like your brother at all. He is everything that is proper." She brushed past him and heard him chuckle.
"Good-bye, my little ballerina. I will be looking forward to that dance in a few years."
Before he could say another word, she ran into the hall and disappeared.
She could still smell the spicy cologne he wore and wished she were four years older! But Lord Marcus Clearbrook thought her a . . . a child! How horrid!
Minutes later, she found herself gazing out the tall windows of her beautiful bedchamber, feeling a bit low. Lord Marcus Clearbrook was a gentleman, the brother of a duke, and very handsome indeed.
She threw her hands to her cheeks. How long had he been watching her? Had he seen her kissing her invisible prince? Or talking to thin air?
Well, it didn’t matter what the man thought of her. She was almost his equal. Even though she did not have a lord for a papa, her father was one of the richest men in England! Not very many people in the country could match Papa’s wealth, not even Lord Marcus’s brother, the Duke of Elbourne himself!
Milli stared at the high ceilings and frowned. But money didn’t seem enough for Papa. He wanted his girls to have husbands with titles. Lord Stephen Clearbrook didn’t have riches, but he did have a title, and that’s all Papa wanted. But what about love?
Papa didn’t understand. She wanted to love her husband and have her husband love her. And Lizzie should have the same choice too.
Lizzie. She suspected her sister was already falling in love with Lord Stephen, which made their engagement very agreeable indeed.
As for Stephen’s brother, Marcus, my goodness, Milli thought. She wasn’t falling in love with him! No, indeed! She was in love with him!
Though Lord Marcus had seemed to be laughing at her, he would eventually discover she was no mere youngster. She was a woman fully grown. Well, almost.
She chewed her bottom lip and spread her small hands against her gown. In a year or two, a girl could grow five inches, could she not?
Her heart gave a skip when she recalled those beautiful silver eyes. She would have to act like a woman now and curb her impulsiveness, especially if she wanted to marry the man. He didn’t seem like a person who did anything rash. He was perfect.
A dizzy feeling filled her head.
The handsome lord didn’t know it yet, but she would be his.
She clasped her hands together and smiled. She would prove to Lord Marcus that she was a woman of mystery. A woman of character. A woman every man in London would want to marry.
A warm glow spread through her. Oh, yes, Lord Marcus would yearn for her love! There would be duels and sword fights! Walks in Hyde Park! Rides in the country! And kisses in the moonlight! And dances! With his arms wrapped around her, as if he would never let her go!
She frowned, fingering the ribbon on her gown that encircled her ribcage. Oh, how she wished she were like Lizzie! Her sister was tall, and smart, and had curves where females were supposed to have curves. Lizzie always planned ahead and was hardly ever impulsive, except for maybe that one time when her sister had jumped out the window to elope with Mr. Fennington.
Milli giggled when she thought about that night. It had been a stupid thing for Lizzie to do. It was something Milli would have done, not prim and proper Elizabeth Shelby!
Milli tugged at a stray chestnut curl beside her cheek. With a dramatic sigh, she leaned forward and stared out the window into the gardens. She would have to make a few changes of course. She would have to transform her looks and find the best modiste in London. Moreover, she would have to look a tad older to catch Marcus’s eye.
She groaned, recalling his amused expression.
“At least he didn’t call you an imp,” she mumbled.
Maybe he thought her charming. Maybe even attractive? Hmmm, maybe even sweet?
Not pretty like his sister Lady Emily. Not voluptuous like Lizzie. But sweet?
She bristled. Confound it! She had no wish to be sweet like a piece of candy. She wanted him to want her like a man wanted a woman.
She heard voices outside and dropped her gaze. He was there, beneath the oak tree, talking to a servant! Her body tingled at the very sight of him.
The sun peeked through the clouds, and she pressed her hand against the glass separating them. “I’m going to marry you, Lord Marcus,” she whispered, her eyes locking on his shiny black hair. “You may think I am a child. But in a few years, I will be all grown up, and you won’t be laughing at me then.”
Four years later
“He loves her. He loves her not. He loves her. He loves her not.”
Milli hung onto the smooth rung of the ladder in the Duke of Elbourne’s library, letting her gaze roam over the massive bookshelves.
That book was here somewhere, she thought.
Candlelight flickered about the room while music from the string quartet playing in the ballroom floated beyond the closed doors. She found herself swaying to the melody.
“I think he loves her.”
Lord Hughmont’s deep voice startled her. She looked down. She had almost forgotten the young man was there.
She was a bit embarrassed she had been talking out loud. But Lord Hughmont had no idea she had been daydreaming about Lord Marcus.
She leaned further into the shelves, hanging on with one foot. “Well,” she replied, smiling. “I do believe there is nothing more wonderful than the love of Romeo and Juliet, don’t you think?”
She reached for one of Shakespeare’s works, but couldn’t quite grasp it. She shoved her ball gown out of the way. “Push me over a bit, would you?”
Milli dropped her gaze to find the blond man staring up at her, his blue eyes glazed over with what must have been love for the grand library.
Not many people would think a man with Lord Hughmont’s good looks would be so interested in Shakespeare. His muscular build made him more fit for Gentleman Jackson’s boxing ring. Of course, he did box, and rode horses, and did everything else a man about town was supposed to do. But the theater was his joy, as it was hers.
A wide grin spread across her delicate face as she gazed in appreciation about the dark paneled library. The smell of clean polished wood reached her nostrils. “I admit, the duke has a great number of books in here that could keep us busy for a long time.”
The man swallowed and looked away. “Jupiter, Miss Millicent. This library rivals anything I’ve ever seen. Does he, uh, read them all?”
Milli grinned. “Of course not. He is so in love with his duchess, he barely gets through the day’s work as a duke.”
Lord Hughmont’s blue eyes twinkled. “Sounds like one of those plays one would read in his library.” He gazed up at her and grabbed the ladder. “‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.’”
She giggled. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
Lord Hughmont chuckled. “Indeed, it is.”
Milli sighed, tilting toward the shelves with one hand on the ladder. “The duke and the duchess are quite the romantics. I guess you could say that about my sister Elizabeth and Stephen, as well
She closed her eyes and smiled. “The heart is but the union of two souls, together at last, caught adrift in the abyss of endless time.”
“Sounds rather familiar. What play is that from?”
Milli’s lids lifted, delight gleaming in her pale gray eyes. “It’s not from a play. I just made it up.”
Her gaze wandered over the books. She shook her head and frowned, then glanced at Lord Hughmont. “Drat, I thought that was it. It’s probably on the other side of the room. Push me over there. Would you, please? If we want the book for this month’s meeting, we must find it now.”
Lord Hughmont glanced toward the doorway, his blond brows dipping into a frown. “Why now? I know you wanted to show me the library, but I thought we were going straight back to the ball.”
“I did show you the library, did I not? This is it. As to the play, I can’t wait, that’s why. When I want something, I go after it.”
Besides, she thought, Marcus might believe she was with one of her admirers, and he would come to her rescue. Not that she was with any rake. But perhaps Marcus would worry if he realized she had left the ball. A little competition made for a greater love.
“Oh. It’s just that, well, Miss Millicent, one hears stories about those Clearbrooks brothers, and I can tell you—”
Milli waved an untroubled hand in the air. “Pish posh. Don’t worry about them. I can handle anything that comes our way, even the Clearbrook brothers, no matter how domineering they may be.”
Lord Hughmont straightened, and Milli could see she had hurt his pride. “King George, I am not worried,” he snapped. “I can hold my own. But don’t want anyone getting ideas, don’t you know.”
Milli’s brows rose. “I suppose you’re right.”
She was being a bit silly about Lord Marcus. He still thought her a child, no matter how hard she tried. She was beginning to think it was useless to gain his attention. But she wanted that book, and this was as good a time as any to snatch it from the shelves.