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The Least Likely Bride b-3


  The Least Likely Bride

  ( Brides - 3 )

  Jane Feather

  Brimming with passion, laced with humor, Jane Feather's tantalizing historical romances have been called "well-written and fast-moving...entertaining" (Booklist) and "great fun" (Publishers Weekly). Now the New York Times bestselling author of The Accidental Bride makes her exciting hardcover debut with this irresistible tale of a bookish beauty who has never met a man who could best her, tempt her, or seduce her...until now.

  Brimming with passion, laced with humor, Jane Feather's tantalizing historical romances have been called "brilliantly crafted" (Affaire de Coeur) and "vastly entertaining" (Rendezvous). Now the nationally bestselling author of The Accidental Bride makes her exciting hardcover debut with this irresistible tale of a bookish beauty who has never met a man who could best her, tempt her, or seduce her-until now.

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  One moment Lady Olivia Granville is strolling along a path, her nose buried in a tome of Greek philosophy; the next she is plunging down a rocky cliff. Only when she regains consciousness-naked and unwittingly trapped on an unknown ship-does she discover that she owes her life to a stranger who is clearly not a gentleman!

  Wickedly handsome, disturbingly mysterious, the gray-eyed master of the Wind Dancer admits to making his living from the sea. But it doesn't take long for Olivia to realize that the rogue who'd so intimately tended her wounds is a brash pirate whose schooner is bearing down upon a Spanish galleon. She knows she should be appalled. Instead Olivia is shockingly entranced...and recklessly attracted to an outlaw whose gaze holds bothchallenge and invitation.

  Anthony Caxton has known from the first that Olivia Granville is no ordinary woman. But who would have thought that the sheltered daughter of a marquis would have a genuine taste for piracy? Delighted by her response, teased by her beauty, he welcomes her as the newest of his crew, confident that it is only a matter of time before he wins her surrender.

  Yet even as Olivia welcomes his embrace, she remains unaware that Anthony is harboring a devastating secret...one that will lead them to heartache, scandal, and betrayal. For Anthony is much more than a common pirate. He is the mastermind behind a perilous plot of royal intrigue that could change the course of history.

  And in this enterprise his opponent is none other than Cato Granville...Olivia's father. Anthony knows the success of his scheme-and his very life-depends upon minute planning, on anticipating every possible difficulty. But he never imagined that he would fall in love with the daughter of his most formidable enemy. And he never dreamed that the dangerous game he was playing would leave Olivia vulnerable to the attentions of a cunning villain-one who wants to possess the dark-haired temptress almost as much as he wants to see Anthony Caxton hang....

  With more than four million copies of her novels in print and twelve consecutive national bestsellers, Jane Feather is poised to capture ever more of the voracious romance-reading audience. In this new novel, she delivers her unique take on the classic Pygmalion tale: a young woman transformed by love, who embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.

  THE LEAST LIKELY BRIDE is Olivia-young, chronically shy, and addicted to ancient Greek literature. As she walks on the sands of an island off the coast of England, her nose buried in a book, she takes a fall - and wakes up days later on what seems to be a pirate ship. Her captor, though, is no ordinary pirate. He possesses the skills of both a physician and an artist. He is also the most gorgeous male Olivia has ever encountered. Most disconcerting of all, when he looks at her, he sees-not the stammering, hopelessly bookish young girl Olivia has always been-but a desirable, beautiful woman.

  Feather weaves together plot and passion into a mesmerizing whole that is perfect for fans of Julie Garwood.

  Jane Feather

  The Least Likely Bride

  Preface to The Brides Trilogy

  LONDON, MAY 11, 1641

  Phoebe swiped one hand across her eyes as she felt for her handkerchief with the other. The handkerchief was nowhere to be found, but that didn’t surprise her. She’d lost more handkerchiefs in her thirteen years than she’d had hot dinners. With a vigorous and efficacious sniff, she crept around the hedge of clipped laurel out of sight of the clacking, laughing crowd of wedding guests. The high-pitched cacophony of their merrymaking mingled oddly with the persistent, raucous screams of a mob in full cry gusting across the river from Tower Hill.

  She glanced over her shoulder at the graceful half-timbered house that was her home. It stood on a slight rise on the south bank of the river Thames, commanding a view over London and the surrounding countryside. Windows winked in the afternoon sunlight and she could hear the plaintive plucking of a harp persistent beneath the surge and ebb of the party.

  No one was looking for her. Why should they? She was of no interest to anyone. Diana had banished her from her presence after the accident. Phoebe cringed at the memory. She could never understand how it happened that her body seemed to get away from her, to have a life of its own, creating a wake of chaos and destruction that followed her wherever she went.

  But she was safe for a while. Her step quickened as she made for the old boathouse, her own private sanctuary. When her father had moved the mansion’s water gate so that it faced the water steps at Wapping, the old boathouse had fallen into disrepair. Now it nestled in a tangle of tall reeds at the water’s edge, its roof sagging, its timbers bared to the bone by the damp salt air and the wind.

  But it was the one place where Phoebe could lick her wounds in private. She wasn’t sure whether anyone else in the household knew it still existed, but as she approached she saw that the door was not firmly closed.

  Her first reaction was anger. Someone had been trespassing in the one place she could call her own. Her second was a swift pattering of fear. The world was full of beasts, both human and animal, and anyone could have penetrated this clearly deserted structure. Anyone or anything could be lying in wait within. She hesitated, staring at the dark crack between door and frame, almost as if the tiny crack could open to reveal the dim, dusty interior for her from a safe distance. Then her anger reasserted itself. The boathouse belonged to her. And if anyone was in there, she would send them off.

  She turned into the rushes, looking for a thick piece of driftwood, and found an old spar, rusty nails sticking out in a most satisfactory fashion. Thus armed, she approached the boat-house, her heart still pattering but her face set. She kicked the door open, flooding the dark mildewed corners with light.

  “Who are you?” she demanded of the occupant, who, startled, blinked but didn’t move from her perch on a rickety three-legged stool by the unglazed window where the light fell on the page of her book.

  Phoebe entered the shed, dropping her weapon. “Oh,” she said. “I know who you are. You’re Lord Granville’s daughter. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the wedding? I thought you were supposed to carry my sister’s train.”

  The dark-haired girl carefully closed her book over her ringer. “Yes, I’m Olivia,” she said after a minute. “And I d-didn’t want to b-be in the wedding. My father said I didn’t have to b-be if I d-didn’t want to.” She let out a slow breath at the end of this little speech, which had clearly cost her some effort.

  Phoebe looked at the girl curiously. She was younger than Phoebe, although she was as tall, and enviably slim to the eyes of one who constantly lamented her own intractable roundness. “This is my special place,” Phoebe said, but without rancor, sitting on a fallen beam and drawing a wrapped packet from her pocket. “And I don’t blame you for not wanting to be in the wedding. I was supposed to attend my sister, but I knocked over the perfume bottle and then trod on Diana’s flounce.”

&
nbsp; She unwrapped the packet, taking a bite of the gingerbread it contained before holding out the offering to Olivia, who shook her head.

  “Diana cursed me up hill and down dale and said she never wanted to lay eyes on me again,” Phoebe continued. “Which she probably won’t, since she’s going to be in Yorkshire, miles and miles away from here. And I have to say, if I never lay eyes on her again, I won’t be sorry.” She looked defiantly upward as if braving heavenly wrath with such an undutiful statement.

  “I d-don’t like her,” Olivia confided.

  “I wouldn’t like her for a stepmother either… She’ll be absolutely horrible! Oh, I’m sorry. I always say the wrong thing,” Phoebe exclaimed crossly. “I always say whatever comes into my head.”

  “It’s the t-truth, anyway,” the other girl muttered. She opened up her book again and began to read.

  Phoebe frowned. Her step-niece, as she supposed Olivia now was, was not the friendliest of creatures. “Do you always stammer?”

  Olivia blushed crimson. “I c-can’t help it.”

  “No, of course you can’t,” Phoebe said hastily. “I was just curious.” In the absence of a response from her companion, she moved on to the second piece of gingerbread, idly brushing at a collection of tiny grease spots that seemed to have gathered upon her pink silk gown. A gown specially made for her sister’s wedding. It was supposed to complement Diana’s pearl-encrusted ivory damask, but somehow on Phoebe the effect didn’t quite work, as Diana had pointed out with her usual asperity.

  There was a sudden whirlwind rush from the door that banged shut, enclosing the girls in semidarkness again. “God’s bones, but if this isn’t the peskiest wedding!” a voice declared vigorously. The newcomer leaned against the closed door. She was breathing fast and dashed a hand across her brow to wipe away the dew of perspiration. Her bright green eyes fell upon the boathouse’s other occupants.

  “I didn’t think anyone knew this place was here. I slept here last night. It was the only way I could get away from those pawing beasts. And now they’re at it again. I came here for some peace and quiet.”

  “It’s my special place,” Phoebe said, standing up. “And you’re trespassing.” The newcomer didn’t look in the least like a wedding guest. Her hair was a tangled mass of bright red curls that didn’t look as if it had seen a brush in a month. Her face looked dirty in the gloom, although it was hard to tell among the freckles what was dirt and what wasn’t. Her dress was made of dull, coarse holland, the hem dipping in the middle, the perfunctory ruffles on the sleeves torn and grubby.

  “Oh-ho, no I’m not,” the girl crowed, perching on the upturned holey hull of an abandoned rowboat. “I’m invited to the wedding. Or at least,” she added with scrupulous honesty, “my father is. And where Jack goes, I go. No choice.”

  “I know who you are.” Olivia looked up from her book for the first time since the girl had burst in upon them. “You’re m-my father’s half b-br-brother’s n-natural child.”

  “Portia,” the girl said cheerfully. “Jack Worth’s bastard. And so you must be Olivia. Jack was talking about you. And I suppose, if you live here, you’re the bride’s sister. Phoebe, isn’t it?”

  Phoebe sat down again. “You seem to know a great deal about us.”

  Portia shrugged. “I keep my ears open… and my eyes. Close either one of ‘em for half a second and the devils’ll get you.”

  “What devils?”

  “Men,” Portia declared. “You wouldn’t think it to look at me, would you?” She chuckled. “Scrawny as a scarecrow. But they’ll take anything they can get, so long as it’s free.”

  “I loathe men!” The fierce and perfectly clear statement came from Olivia.

  “Me too,” Portia agreed, then continued with all the loftiness of her fourteen years, “But you’re a little young, duckie, to have made such a decision. How old are you?”

  “Eleven.”

  “Oh, you’ll change your mind,” Portia said knowledgeably.

  “I won’t. I’m n-never going to m-marry.” Olivia’s brown eyes threw daggers beneath their thick black eyebrows.

  “Neither am I,” Phoebe said. “Now that my father has managed to make such a splendid match for Diana, he’ll leave me alone, I’m sure.”

  “Why don’t you want to marry?” Portia asked with interest. “It’s your destiny to marry. There’s nothing else for someone as well born as you to do.”

  Phoebe shook her head. “No one would want to marry me. Nothing ever fits me, and I’m always dropping things, and saying just what comes into my head. Diana and my father say I’m a liability. I can’t do anything right. So I’m going to be a poet and do good works instead.”

  “Of course someone will want to marry you,” Portia stated. “You’re lovely and curvy and womanly. I’m the one no one’s going to marry. Look at me.” She stood up and gestured to herself with a flourish. “I’m straight up and down like a ruler. I’m a bastard. I have no money, no property. I’m a hopeless prospect.” She sat down again, smiling cheerfully as if the prophecy were not in the least disheartening.

  Phoebe considered. “I see what you mean,” she said. “It would be difficult for you to find a husband. So what will you do?”

  “I’d like to be a soldier. I wish I’d been born a boy. I’m sure I was supposed to be, but something went wrong.”

  “I’m going to b-be a scholar,” Olivia declared. “I’m g-going to ask my father to g-get me a t-tutor when I’m older, and I want to live in Oxford and study there.”

  “Women don’t study at the university,” Phoebe pointed out.

  “I shall,” Olivia stated stubbornly.

  “Lord, a soldier, a poet, and a scholar! What a trio of female misfits!” Portia went into a peal of laughter.

  Phoebe laughed with her, feeling a delicious and hitherto unknown warmth in her belly. She wanted to sing, get to her feet and dance with her companions. Even Olivia was smiling, the defensive fierceness momentarily gone from her eyes.

  “We must have a pact to support each other if we’re ever tempted to fall by the wayside and become ordinary.” Portia jumped to her feet. “Olivia, have you some scissors in that little bag?”

  Olivia opened the drawstrings of the little lace-trimmed bag she wore at her waist. She took out a tiny pair of scissors, handing them to Portia, who very carefully cut three red curls from the unruly halo surrounding her freckled face.

  “Now, Phoebe, let me have three of those pretty fair locks, and then three of Olivia’s black ones.” She suited action to words, the little scissors snipping away. “Now watch.”

  As the other two gazed, wide-eyed with curiosity, Portia’s long, thin fingers with their grubby broken nails nimbly braided the different strands into three tricolored rings. “There, we have one each. Mine is the one with the red on the outside, Phoebe’s has the fair, and Olivia’s the black.” She handed them over. “Now, whenever you feel like forgetting your ambition, just look at your ring… Oh, and we must mingle blood.” Her green eyes, slanted slightly like a cat’s, glinted with enthusiasm and fun.

  She turned her wrist up and nicked the skin, squeezing out a drop of blood. “Now you, Phoebe.” She held out the scissors.

  Phoebe shook her fair head. “I can’t. But you do it.” Closing her eyes tightly, she extended her arm, wrist uppermost. Portia nicked the skin, then turned to Olivia, who was already extending her wrist.

  “There. Now we rub our wrists together to mingle the blood. That way we cement our vow to support each other through thick and thin.”

  It was clear to Olivia that Portia was playing a game, and yet Olivia, as her skin touched the others‘, felt a strange tremor of connection that seemed much more serious than mere play. But she was not a fanciful child and sternly dismissed such whimsy.

  “If one of us is ever in trouble, then we can send our ring to one of the others and be sure of getting help,” Phoebe said enthusiastically.

  “That’s very silly and romantical
,” Olivia declared with a scorn that she knew sprang from her own fancy.

  “What’s wrong with being romantic?” Portia said with a shrug, and Phoebe gave her a quick grateful smile.

  “Scholars aren’t romantic,” Olivia said. She frowned fiercely, her black eyebrows almost meeting over her deep-set dark eyes. Then she sighed. “I’d b-better go back to the wedding.” She slipped her braided ring into the little bag at her waist. With a little reflective gesture, as if to give herself courage, she touched her wrist, thinly smeared with their shared blood, then went to the door.

  As she opened it, the clamor from the city across the river swelled into the dim seclusion of the boathouse. Olivia shivered at the wild savagery of the sound. “C-Can you hear what they’re saying?”

  “They’re yelling, ‘His head is off, his head is off,’ ” Portia said knowledgeably. “They’ve just executed the earl of Strafford.”

  “But why?” Phoebe asked.

  “Lord, don’t you know anything?” Portia was genuinely shocked at this ignorance. “Strafford was the king’s closest advisor and Parliament defied the king and impeached the earl and now they’ve just beheaded him.”

  Olivia felt her scalp contract as the bloody, brutal screech of mob triumph tore into the soft May air and the smoke of bonfires lit in jubilation for a man’s violent death rose thick and choking from the city and its surroundings.

  “Jack says there’s going to be civil war,” Portia continued, referring to her father with her customary informality. “He’s usually right about such things… not about much else, though,” she added.

  “There c-couldn’t be civil war!” Olivia was horrified.

  “We’ll see.” Portia shrugged.

  “Well, I wish it would come now and save me having to go back to the wedding,” Phoebe said glumly. “Are you going to come, Portia?”

 
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