An Unsuitable Bride, страница 1
Long ago, young Viscount Bradley’s prudish family forbade him to marry his beloved. Now, the aging lord has plotted a subtle revenge. His three nephews can split his fortune, but only if each marries a fallen woman. Two have found brides who meet the terms . . . and all depends on the youngest, Peregrine Sullivan. New York Times bestselling author Jane Feather’s Georgian trilogy concludes with a sexy tale sure to delight.
Only desperation would drive a lady to disguise herself in hopes of employment, but the twenty thousand pounds that their father promised beautiful Alexandra Douglas and her invalid younger sister has vanished into the hands of the greedy cousin who inherited the estate. Alexandra, in search of justice, embarks on an elaborate charade to infiltrate Combe Abbey, her ancestral home, and secretly take the money back.
Peregrine, visiting the Abbey, is intrigued by a woman whose mind matches his on every level. Who is this middle-aged spinster with a young woman’s eyes and a youthful step that even a limp cannot disguise? Sensing some scandalous secret, Perry assumes the lady would delight in being rescued. But his efforts are rebuffed; Alexandra will take care of herself and her sister, thank you very much. Can Perry court the daring and independent young woman, win her heart, and be the last brother to wed?
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ILLUSTRATION BY CRAIG WHITE
Born in Cairo, Egypt, and raised in the south of England, JANE FEATHER began her writing career when she moved to Washington, D.C., with her family in 1981. As well as being the author of The Blackwater Brides series, she wrote the New York Times bestselling Wicked series: A Wicked Gentleman, To Wed a Wicked Prince, and A Husband’s Wicked Ways. Recently, she ventured out of romance with her Elizabethan-set historical novel, All the Queen’s Players. Her romantic holiday novella appeared in the collection Snowy Night With a Stranger, and her all-new, full-length Christmas novel is coming soon from Pocket Books. In total, she has written nearly fifty bestselling novels and there are more than ten million copies of her books in print.
Don’t miss any of the Blackwater Brides, available now from Pocket Books!
And look for Jane Feather’s sensuous new Christmas novel, coming soon from Pocket Books
A lady’s secret . . .
“Do you have the first idea what you’ve done?” Alexandra demanded. With cold clarity, she thought, It’s over. All the work, the misery of the charade, all for nothing. Blind rage filled her, and her palm cracked against his cheek.
Peregrine grabbed her wrist. “No. You won’t do that again.”
Under his steady blue gaze, Alex felt the rage die down. “You’ve ruined everything,” she said in a low voice.
“How?” he demanded. “I don’t intend to spoil your game. I’m only curious. Will you tell me your first name, at least?”
“Alexandra. Let go of me, please.”
“Do you promise not to run?”
She shook her head impatiently. “Where the hell would I run to?”
That made him smile, dissipating the tension. “Much better. Now I feel I’m in the company of the real Alexandra . . . whoever she may be.” He released her. “How can I be of help?”
“You can pretend this never happened.”
He shook his head. “Oh, no. I’m afraid I could certainly never pretend I didn’t see you frolicking on the beach, with your hair flying in the breeze.” He trailed his fingers through the cascade of chestnut hair, as the mystery of who Alexandra Hathaway was suddenly lost its importance.
He cupped her face, and his mouth hovered over hers, his breath brushing against her cheek.
A Wedding Wager
“This compelling read delivers an unforgettable cast of characters and places them in an irresistible story . . . that only an author with Feather’s talents can pull off.”
“Vivid protagonists, appealing secondary characters, and a passionate romance.”
“A page turner. . . . A thoroughly enjoyable novel.”
Rushed to the Altar
“Gathers momentum much like a classical opus that ends in a resounding crescendo. . . . Ms. Feather certainly knows how to titillate the imagination with some sizzling scenes set in a tapestry of bygone days.”
—Winter Haven News Chief
“Fun and intelligent. . . . I am completely captivated.”
“An ingenious story line, witty prose, and charming characters . . . a well-written addition to the historical romance genre.”
A Husband’s Wicked Ways
“A consummate storyteller, Feather rises to new heights in her latest Wicked novel of intrigue and desire. Her utterly engaging characters and suspenseful plot combine to hold you spellbound.”
“Filled with recurring quirky characters, truly evil villains, and a fearless heroine who is definitely an equal to her hero.”
To Wed a Wicked Prince
“Enchanting and witty . . . sizzling.”
“A poignant love story . . . strong characters, political intrigue, secrets and passion . . . it will thrill readers and keep them turning the pages.”
A Wicked Gentleman
“Will enchant readers. . . . Filled with marvelous characters—and just enough suspense to keep the midnight oil burning.”
“Intriguing and satisfying. . . . The captivating romance is buttressed by rich characters and an intense kidnapping subplot, making this a fine beginning for Feather’s new series.”
All the Queen’s Players
“Beautifully moving . . . rich in period detail.”
“A truly fantastic novel.”
—The Romance Readers Connection
—Genre Go Round Reviews
Also by Jane Feather
Rushed to the Altar
A Wedding Wager
All the Queen’s Players
A Husband’s Wicked Ways
To Wed a Wicked Prince
A Wicked Gentleman
Almost a Lady
Almost a Bride
The Wedding Game
The Bride Hunt
The Bachelor List
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Jane Feather
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ISBN 978-1-4391-4526-5 (print)
ISBN 978-1-4391-5551-6 (ebook)
“But I don’t understand.” Alexandra Douglas stared at the two objects the lawyer had placed on his desk in front of her. “These are our inheritance?” She touched the heavy gold signet ring and the diamond fob before looking up at Lawyer Forsett, her clear gray eyes bemused. “Sylvia and I were to have ten thousand pounds each on Papa’s death. He told me so himself.”
The lawyer pulled at his chin and stared down fixedly at the blotter on his desk. He cleared his throat. “Mistress Douglas, yours and your sister’s circumstances changed when Sir Arthur divorced your mother.”
“I’m well aware of that, sir,” Alexandra responded somewhat tartly. “When my mother ran off for the last time, I was sent to St. Catherine’s Seminary and Sylvia to live with our old nurse. Quite different circumstances from our previous life at Combe Abbey. We were under no illusions, sir.”
The man looked at his visitor with a hint of compassion. “There was another aspect to your changed circumstances, Mistress Douglas, that perhaps you did not fully understand.” He cleared his throat again. “Your legal status changed as well.”
A little needle of apprehension pierced Alexandra’s customary composure. “Legal status?” she queried.
The lawyer sighed. It was a damnable business. He’d told his client, Sir Arthur Douglas, many times that he owed it to his daughters to explain what his divorce meant for them, but Sir Arthur had waved away any urgency. “All in good time, my good man.” The lawyer could hear the brusquely dismissive tones as if the man were sitting right in front of him, instead of dead and buried in the family mausoleum. In essence, Sir Arthur had not had the courage to inform his daughters of the ghastly situation his own selfish actions had put them in. And now it was up to his lawyer to do his dirty work for him.
“Your father obtained a divorce from his wife, your mother, a vinculo matrimonii,” he began.
“What does that mean?” his visitor interrupted before he could continue.
“It means, ma’am, that the marriage in question was null and void from its inception, either because of an improper blood relationship, insanity, or . . .” He paused, a slight flush on his cheek. “Or because of nonconsummation. On such grounds, the marriage is dissolved as if it had never been, and all children of the union in the first two causes are declared illegitimate. Your father had your mother declared insane in absentia.”
Alexandra began to see where this was leading, and the needle of apprehension became a knife of fear. “So Sylvia and I are bastards, sir? That is what you’re saying?”
His flush deepened, and he coughed into his hand. “In a word, ma’am, yes. And as such are not legally entitled to inherit anything from your father’s estate, unless specific provision has been made.”
The young woman was very pale now, but her voice was steady, her eyes focused. “And am I to assume that no such provision was made?”
“Your father intended to do so, but his death was rather sudden, before he had managed to settle anything on you or your sister. However . . .” Lawyer Forsett opened a strongbox which stood on a small pedestal table beside his chair. “Sir Stephen Douglas, your father’s heir, has agreed to allow you and your sister fifty pounds apiece from the estate, just to tide you over until you find some means of employment.” He pushed a bank draft across the table to Alexandra.
She looked at it in disgust. “Cousin Stephen? That’s what he considers fair?”
The lawyer’s distress increased visibly. “I did suggest to Sir Stephen that he honor your late father’s intentions and make a one-time payment to each of you in the sum of ten thousand pounds. Unfortunately, Sir Stephen did not see the matter in the same way.”
“No, of course he didn’t,” she returned with a bitter little smile. She had never met this distant cousin, but her father had never had a good word to say for his putative heir. The need to disinherit Sir Stephen by producing a male heir of his own was the main reason, she had always assumed, for her father’s hurried second marriage.
She folded the bank draft and tucked it into the deep pocket of her muslin skirt. The signet ring and fob followed it as she rose to her feet. “I thank you for your time, Lawyer Forsett, but I won’t take up any more of it.”
He rose himself, saying awkwardly, “Have you considered your next step, ma’am? You must find gainful employment. Perhaps the seminary would employ you as a teacher, or maybe you could hire out as a governess in some respectable family. Your education will stand you in good stead.”
“No doubt that was my father’s intention when he sent me to the seminary in the first place,” she stated, her eyes burning. “And I presume it will be up to me to earn sufficient for my sister’s care in addition to my own?”
“I could approach Sir Stephen again, ma’am, appeal—”
“Indeed not, sir,” she interrupted his awkward speech. “I would not ask my cousin for the parings of his nails. I bid you good day.”
The door closed on her parting vulgarity, and the lawyer shook his head, mopped his brow with a large linen handkerchief, and sank back into his chair.
Alexandra went out onto the freezing wind of a London winter’s day. Chancery Lane was busy with traffic, iron wheels splashing through puddles, sending up sprays of dirty water from the kennel. For a moment, she stood, heedless of her surroundings, numbed by the prospect of a future that was no future. She had been brought up to believe that her world would never significantly change, that she would tread the path well trodden before her by other young women of her position in Society. Not even her parents’ divorce, an almost unheard-of circumstance among her peers, had caused undue alarm over the prospect of the next stage of her life. She had settled happily enough at St. Catherine’s, close enough to her sister, who was being well cared for by their former nurse, and waited patiently for the doors to the life to come to swing wide.
Instead, they had been slammed shut.
The Honorable Peregrine Sullivan drew rein on the high Dorsetshire cliff top and looked out over the calm waters of Lulworth Cove. The sea surged through the horseshoe-shaped rock at the entrance to the cove in a flash of white water and then smoothed out as it rolled gently to the beach.
Perry was not familiar with this southern coastline, having spent his own growing in the rugged wilds of Northumberland, where rough mountains and hilly moors were the usual scenery, but he found it rather soothing, the expanse of water sparkling under the Indian summer sun, the rough grass of the cliff top, the air perfumed with the clumps of fragrant pinks crushed beneath his horse’s hooves. It was altogether a softer part of the world, and none the worse for that, he reflected.
His weary horse raised his head and whinnied. Perry leaned over and stroked the animal’s neck. “Almost there, Sam.” He urged the horse forward with a
The gray stone building stood on a slight hill, easily visible from the road that wound across the cliff above the Solent. It was an impressive turreted building, with arched mullioned windows glowing in the setting sun. Well-tended green lawns swept down to the cliff top, and a stand of tall pines served as a windbreak along the boundary of the grounds and the cliff.
Perry felt a little surge of anticipation. In that impressive building was a library, and in that library were treasures, some known, such as the Decameron, which set his literary juices running, and many, he was sure, unknown and equally priceless. His good friend Marcus Crofton had assured him that he could spend as long as he liked in the library. Its owner, Sir Stephen Douglas, had given him carte blanche to browse as much as he chose.
Peregrine turned his horse through the gates, which were opened at his appearance by a robust gatekeeper. “Dower House is just around the first bend in the drive, sir,” he informed Peregrine in answer to the latter’s question. “They’s expectin’ you. Master Crofton told me to look out for ye.”
“Thank you.” Perry nodded his thanks with a smile and rode on up the drive. He was looking forward to this visit with his old friend, and not just because of the opportunity to see the library. Since his twin brother, Sebastian, had taken his new wife, the Lady Serena, on an extended honeymoon to the Continent, Perry had to admit that the house they had shared on Stratton Street seemed far too big, and very lonely. It had surprised him how lonely he had been. He’d always considered himself perfectly self-sufficient, perfectly content with his own company and that of his books. But he’d been mistaken, it seemed.