The Convenient Felstone Marriage
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“I have a proposal for you...”
The last place respectable governess Ianthe Holt ever expected to be proposed to was in a train carriage...by a stranger...who had just accused her of trying to trap another man into marriage!
Shipping magnate Robert Felstone may be dashing, but he’s also insufferable, impertinent—and Ianthe’s only possible savior from her uncertain fate. She’s hesitant to play the perfect Felstone wife, but Robert soon shows Ianthe there’s more to him than meets the eye, and more to marriage than vows...
‘Since we’ve already established that I’m not a true gentleman, I have a proposal for you.’
‘A proposal?’ She repeated the words suspiciously.
‘A business proposition, if you prefer. Something that might benefit both of us.’
‘I’ve no interest in anything else you have to say, sir.’
‘You won’t hear me out? Shame ’ He looked nonplussed. ‘I was prepared to offer you an alternative to your current situation.’
She froze. He sounded sincere, but why would he offer to help her? Was this some kind of cruel joke or just another veiled insult?
‘What kind of alternative?’ she couldn’t resist asking.
He smiled suddenly, transforming his features from simply striking to quite devastatingly, heart-stoppingly handsome. ‘I need a wife.’
This is the first in a series of books set in and around the ancient coastal town of Whitby. The town now tends to be associated with Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, but it has a rich shipbuilding, whaling and maritime history as well. It also has one of the oldest, busiest and most decorated lifeboat stations–founded in 1802, although it didn’t join up with the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (now the RNLI) until the 1860s. This followed the tragic events of 9th February 1861, during which twelve out of thirteen lifeboatmen were drowned when their vessel was hit by two freak waves on their way to their fifth rescue of the day. The only survivor was wearing a sample cork lifejacket.
The shipwreck in this story is based loosely on that of the hospital ship the Rohilla in 1914, when a lifeboat from Whitby was carried over the cliff to Saltwick Bay by six horses before being lowered by ropes at the other side. Although I’ve simplified the details, the fact that lifeboatmen were prepared to take such extreme risks is based on real-life events–further details of which can be found at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum. For anyone interested in the area’s history, the Whitby Museum in Pannett Park is also an amazing gem and one of my all-time favourite museums.Also visit Sherlock’s Coffee House, which hasn’t changed much since the Victorian era and look out for Violet Harper’s story, coming next.
The Convenient Felstone Marriage
JENNI FLETCHER was born on the north coast of Scotland, and now lives in Yorkshire with her husband and two children. She wanted to be a writer as a child, but got distracted by reading instead, finally writing down her first paragraph thirty years later. She’s had more jobs than she can remember, but has finally found one she loves. She can be contacted via Twitter, @jenniauthor.
A previous book by Jenni Fletcher in
Mills & Boon Historical Romance
Married to Her Enemy
Visit the Author Profile page
at www.millsandboon.co.uk for more titles.
To M&M with lots of love.
North Yorkshire—July 1865
‘But I don’t want to marry him!’ Ianthe Holt felt as though she’d just been slapped in the face. ‘How could you even suggest such a thing?’
‘Because it’s a good idea, that’s why!’ Her brother, Percy, threw his head back against the carriage seat with a sigh. ‘And I didn’t say that you had to, just that you ought to consider it.’
‘He’s twenty years older than me!’
‘Thirty, more like.’
‘Then how could you... How could I...?’
Ianthe spluttered the words, barely resisting the urge to kick her brother violently in the shins. There was a great deal more about Sir Charles Lester than simply his age that bothered her, not that Percy would ever believe that. Good idea or not, the Baronet was the last man on earth she wanted to marry. Even the sight of him these days gave her goosebumps, yet here she was, trapped in a train compartment, every burst of steam and thud of the pistons taking her closer towards him.
Silently she gritted her teeth and stared out of the window, trying to soothe herself with a view of the countryside rolling past. Arguing with Percy these days was pointless, and an outright refusal would only make him more stubborn. No, she had to try and stay calm, however much she wanted to scream.
Not that the rugged terrain was doing anything to steady her nerves. She was used to city life, to houses and shops and factories. This Yorkshire landscape was so different it felt strangely unnerving, as if the whole world had suddenly become bigger and wilder, as if she were losing control of every aspect of her life.
‘You said we were going to visit Aunt Sophoria.’
‘We are, but Charles has a house near Pickering too. I didn’t lie.’
‘You didn’t say you’d been arranging a wedding behind my back!’
‘Discussing, not arranging. Look, sis, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but you might try to like him. He’s quite sincere, you know, asked permission for your hand and everything.’
‘He asked you?’ Ianthe swung around incredulously, calm resolve forgotten. ‘I’m twenty-one! I don’t need your permission to marry.’
‘I’m head of the family.’
‘You’re my brother, Percy, my little brother! I’m perfectly capable of making decisions on my own.’
‘I thought it very good of him to come to me first.’
‘Oh, don’t be so pompous! You never used to be. That’s his influence, too.’
‘And you never used to be such a dowdy old spinster. You know you were quite pretty before you went to Bournemouth, but now it’s impossible to tell behind that high collar and that awful hair. Do you have to scrape it back so tightly? You look such a prig.’
‘You know I don’t care for appearances.’
Ianthe twisted her face away quickly, catching an unwelcome glimpse of her reflection in the carriage window, of nondescript brown hair and matching, wide-set eyes. Doe eyes, her father had called them, though they seemed to have grown even bigger since his death. Now they looked almost unnaturally large in her narrow face, making the rest of her features appear too small by comparison.
‘And do you have to wear grey every day?’ Percy seemed to be warming to his theme. ‘It’s depressing.’
‘We’re only just out of mourning!’
‘Exactly, out of mourning. I’d have thought you’d want to wear colour again. Personally, I don’t know what Charles sees in you.’
‘I wish he wouldn’t see anything! And you needn’t be so unchivalrous. We’re not alone.’
She threw a pointed glance towards the man sitting opposite. He’d been asleep when they’d entered the compartment, his dark head resting casually against the windowpane, but Percy was doing nothing to keep his voice down and the last thing she wanted was an audience. Her situation was mortifying enough without it being aired in public.
Besides, she wasn’t at all certain that their travelling companion was quite as unconscious as he’d first appeared. During Percy’s last tirade, she thought she’d glimpsed a slight shift in his expression, an almost infinitesimal furrowing of his brows, as if he were offended on her behalf.
Had she imagined it or was he listening?
She narrowed her eyes, studying his profile as she watched for any further flicker of movement. Even asleep, he was quite strikingly handsome, with a straight nose, chiselled cheekbones and square jaw all framed by black, neatly trimmed hair. His skin was lightly tanned, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors, though judging by the expensive cut of his clothes he was also a gentleman—though surely a gentleman wouldn’t eavesdrop quite so blatantly?
She must have imagined it.
‘What?’ Percy followed the direction of her gaze. ‘Oh, he’s asleep. And I doubt he’d be very interested in our little domestic drama even if he weren’t.’
‘You should still keep your voice down.’
‘Why? If he wakes up, we can ask his opinion. I’m sure he’ll agree with me. No man wants a wife who looks like an old maid.’
‘I don’t want anyone else’s opinion. And don’t you dare ask!’
‘I’m only trying to help. If you don’t marry Charles then I’ve done my best and that’s that. You’ll have to find someone else on your own and you’ll never catch a husband looking like that. Ow!’
Ianthe shot her brother a venomous glare, slowly retracting the elbow she’d just jabbed violently into his ribs. She knew exactly how her appearance made her appear. That was the whole point. She didn’t like her grey clothes or dowdy hairstyle any more than he did, but at least she couldn’t be accused of drawing attention to herself. She couldn’t be accused of anything untoward at all. This was who she was, who she wanted to be now, whether Percy or any other man liked it or not.
But his words still hurt, especially since the old Percy would never have been so cruel as to insult her. Since their mother’s death from consumption the previous year, followed by their father’s grief-stricken demise soon after, her brother’s whole character seemed to have changed for the worse, his sunny disposition darkening the more time he spent with Sir Charles. Now she felt as though she hardly knew him at all. If she could only reach out to the old Percy, appeal to his better nature somehow...
‘I just wish you’d told me the truth about this trip.’ She tried not to sound too accusing. ‘Can’t we be honest with each other?’
Percy heaved a sigh. ‘Look, Charles asked me not to tell you he’d be here. He said he wanted to surprise you, show you his house or something before he proposed. He spends most of his time in London, but he seems very proud of the place. That’s why I didn’t say anything until we reached Malton.’
‘Because you knew I’d take the first train home, you mean.’
‘That, too. But now we’re here, can’t you just look on it as a holiday? It must be at least ten years since we last visited Aunt Sophoria.’
Ianthe found herself relenting slightly. Their aunt hadn’t been well enough to attend either of their parents’ funerals, though her letters of condolence had been tender and thoughtful, even inviting her to move north, though Ianthe had known that her aged, impoverished relative could hardly afford to keep herself, let alone anyone else. Given what had happened afterwards, however, now she rather wished she’d accepted...
In any case, the thought of spending some time with Aunt Sophoria now was the one bright point on her horizon. Her memories of childhood holidays spent with their mother’s sister were vague, but happy. Mostly she remembered a mass of lace and blonde ringlets enveloped in a cloud of sweet-smelling perfume.
‘I’ll be glad to see her again.’
‘And she’s agreed that you can stay as long as you want.’
‘What do you mean?’ The nostalgic feeling evaporated at once. ‘I thought we were only staying a week.’
‘Well...’ Percy squirmed in his seat. ‘The truth is, London’s expensive. I can’t afford lodgings for us both any more. And Charles thinks it’s more appropriate for you to live with Aunt Sophoria anyway.’
‘Charles thinks that?’
‘Yes, but I agree. I should have seen the propriety of it sooner.’
‘So you mean this—all of this—was his idea?’
‘I suppose so, though it really just goes to show how much he cares for you. He’s a capital fellow. You know Father thought so, too.’
‘Father never suggested I marry him! And you know how Mother felt. She didn’t even like being in the same room with him if she could help it. She always took me away, too.’
‘Oh, you women and your prejudices!’ Percy rolled his eyes in exasperation. ‘All I know is that he’s been very good to me this past year. He’s helped me out a lot with expenses.’
‘You owe him money?’
‘Just a little, though you needn’t look so disapproving. It’s not easy supporting both of us. I know Father didn’t mean to leave us in such a sorry financial state, but he did. I had to pay the bills somehow.’
‘You can’t blame Father.’ Ianthe stiffened defensively. ‘You know he was heartbroken after Mother died.’
‘He was irresponsible, letting all his investments go to ruin and leaving me to carry the burden.’
‘Burden?’ She flinched. Was that all she was now?
‘I didn’t mean it like that.’ Percy at least had the decency to look shame-faced. ‘All I’m saying is that we need to be practical. We don’t have the income to carry on as we are. Marriage is the only solution for a woman in your position and as far as I can see you’re not overwhelmed with suitors. That’s why I brought you here to see Charles.’
Ianthe felt a roiling sensation deep in the pit of her stomach, something between fear and disgust. She’d had her suspicions about the Baronet’s intentions—had made her own feelings on the subject abundantly clear, or so she’d thought—but she still hadn’t expected him to stoop so low.
This was all a trick. No, worse than that, a trap. Sir Charles had manipulated Percy into bringing her here, cutting her off from her home and friends, isolating her in a remote northern town with only an impoverished maiden aunt for company, probably assuming that she’d be forced to marry him.
Well, she wouldn’t be manipulated so easily. There had to be another alternative.
‘I’ll find employment.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. After what happened last time?’
‘That wasn’t my fault!’
‘So you keep saying. It’s just a good job the family were discreet or your reputation would have been ruined. I’m only glad Charles didn’t hear of it.’
Ianthe folded her arms mutinously, heartily wishing the opposite. ‘It’s not likely to happen again.’
‘No.’ Percy’s gaze swept over her critically. ‘I suppose not. But if getting a job doesn’t work out, what then? You’ll have nothing to fall back on. Marrying Charles is your best option, you must see that. You’ll have money and protection and children, too, I suppose.’
‘Children?’ She spluttered the word in horror. The way Sir Charles looked at her was bad enough. The thought of him touching her made her skin crawl. As for having children...she wasn’t exactly sure what that entailed, but she definitely didn’t want to find out.
From a practical perspective, however, Percy was right—the Baronet was her best option. Life as a governess had been far more dispiriting than she’d expected and, after what had happened in Bournemouth, the thought of finding another position made her stomach twist with anxiety. If she could find another position... It had been hard enough the first time and it wasn’t as if she could ask for references! If word of what had happened there got out, she’d be lucky ever to find employment again.
Besides, no matter how hard she tried, how severely she dressed or how distantly she behaved, nothing she did ever seemed to deter Sir Charles. He’d always looked at her strangely, ever since she was a child and he’d introduced himself as an old friend of her mother’s, but since her death those looks seemed to have become more intense than ever. He’d gone abroad for a few months after the funeral, but since he’d come back, around the same time she’d returned from Bournemouth, he seemed to be always around Percy, always there, always watching her. There seemed to be no escaping him these days. She was tired of resisting, tired of trying to hide. And if Percy owed him money...surely it was her duty to help repay the debt, no matter what the cost to herself?
‘This must be Rillington.’ Percy leapt up as the train slowed to a halt. ‘I’m going to get a newspaper. All this arguing is giving me a headache.’
‘Wait!’ She grabbed his hand as he passed by, making one last desperate appeal. ‘There’s just something about him. I can’t explain it...’
‘Well, whatever it is, it shouldn’t bother you for long. Charles must be fifty at least.’
‘Percy!’ She dropped his hand at once. ‘You shouldn’t say such things! Someone might hear you.’
‘Oh, I can’t win!’ He flung the compartment door open and jumped out. ‘I won’t be long. Just promise me that you’ll think about it and be sensible.’
‘If I do, will you promise to tell me the truth from now on?’
‘Of course!’ He was already striding away. ‘Just remember, thirty years! You’ll be a rich widow soon enough.’
Ianthe glared after him, seized with the impulse to follow, to grab her bag, leap down onto the platform and run away. But where would she go? Percy and her aunt were the only relatives she had left and now it seemed even they were conspiring against her. She fell back against her seat, watching her brother’s retreating back, silently resenting his freedom. He never worried about how he behaved or how indiscreet he sounded. He never worried about censure at all. How could the rules for men and women be so different? At least no one else had been around to overhear his last remark.
She gave a sudden guilty start, sitting bolt upright again as she met the steely gaze of the man sitting opposite. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t so much as lifted his head, but he was wide awake now, looking straight at her with an expression of brooding, almost ferocious intensity. This time there was no mistaking the frown on his stern features. He looked furious.
‘You’re awake.’ She found herself stating the obvious.
‘As you can see.’
She blinked, taken aback by the scathing tone of his deep, northern-accented voice. He was leaning back in his seat without making even the slightest attempt to sit up, as if she were so far beneath his contempt that there was no need for propriety, the look in his eyes even more insulting than his manner. She felt her mouth turn dry. Besides Sir Charles, no man had looked at her so intently for a long time. In her new, drab garb she’d started to think herself almost invisible to the opposite sex, but now this stranger’s pale gaze seemed to bore straight through her.
Quickly, she glanced out of the window, but there was no sign of Percy. Typical of him to be indiscreet and then leave her to clear up the mess! Clearly this man had overheard some, if not all, of their conversation after all. Now it looked as though he were about to rebuke her for it. Well, she was in no mind for a lecture, especially not today.
‘Sir.’ She lifted her chin up defensively. ‘I beg you to forget anything you might have overheard. It was a private conversation.’
‘Then perhaps you ought not to have held it in a public carriage.’
‘A gentleman ought not to eavesdrop.’
‘I could hardly help it. I should think the whole locomotive could hear your brother’s voice.’
She felt her cheeks flush scarlet with mortification. Even if that were true, which she was afraid it might be, he ought not to mention it. What kind of a gentleman was he?
‘My brother shouldn’t have been so indiscreet. But as you doubtless heard, I already reprimanded him.’
‘Was that a reprimand?’ Grey eyes regarded her mockingly. ‘It sounded as if you were more afraid of having your little scheme overheard.’
Scheme? She opened her mouth to protest and then closed it again. Now that she thought of it, she’d only told Percy to be quiet. She hadn’t contradicted him at all. No wonder this man assumed the worst, though he still had no right to chastise her. They hadn’t been introduced and she was a lady sitting on her own. They shouldn’t even be talking, let alone arguing.
She folded her hands primly in her lap. ‘I do not have a scheme, sir.’
‘Except to marry a man you dislike for his money and then wish for his imminent demise. What would you call that but a scheme?’
‘I’d say you know nothing about it. And since you care so little for good manners, I might add that appearances can be deceptive. You, for example, look like a gentleman, yet you very clearly are not.’
‘Perhaps not, though I’ve been called far worse, I assure you.’
‘I don’t doubt it. But my affairs are none of your business.’
‘On the contrary.’ A shadow darkened his face. ‘I think it every man’s business to know that women like you exist.’
‘Women like me?’ An icy chill raced down her spine. What did that mean? How could he know what kind of woman she was? How could he possibly tell?
‘Schemers. Deceivers. Women who say one thing to a man’s face and another behind his back.’ He let his gaze drop contemptuously, as if he were studying her from head to toe and finding her wanting. ‘You don’t even have the decency to speak well of your quarry. At least I know what I am. You still think yourself a lady, I suppose?’
He turned his face away, staring out of the window as she gazed into thin air, speechless with shock. How was it possible? After everything she’d done to alter her appearance, to alter herself, how could he still look at her and call her a schemer?
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