The Convenient Felstone Marriage
ŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
ďI have a proposal for you...Ē
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 heís also insufferable, impertinentóand Iantheís only possible savior from her uncertain fate. Sheís hesitant to play the perfect Felstone wife, but Robert soon shows Ianthe thereís more to him than meets the eye, and more to marriage than vows...
ĎSince weíve already established that Iím not a true gentleman, I have a proposal for you.í
ĎA proposal?í She repeated the words suspiciously.
ĎA business proposition, if you prefer. Something that might benefit both of us.í
ĎIíve no interest in anything else you have to say, sir.í
ĎYou wonít hear me out? Shame í He looked nonplussed. ĎI was prepared to offer you an alternative to your current situation.í
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?
ĎWhat kind of alternative?í she couldnít resist asking.
He smiled suddenly, transforming his features from simply striking to quite devastatingly, heart-stoppingly handsome. ĎI need a wife.í
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 Stokerís 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 stationsĖfounded in 1802, although it didnít 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 Iíve simplified the details, the fact that lifeboatmen were prepared to take such extreme risks is based on real-life eventsĖfurther details of which can be found at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum. For anyone interested in the areaís history, the Whitby Museum in Pannett Park is also an amazing gem and one of my all-time favourite museums. Also visit Sherlockís Coffee House, which hasnít changed much since the Victorian era and look out for Violet Harperís 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. Sheís 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 YorkshireóJuly 1865
ĎBut I donít want to marry him!í Ianthe Holt felt as though sheíd just been slapped in the face. ĎHow could you even suggest such a thing?í
ĎBecause itís a good idea, thatís why!í Her brother, Percy, threw his head back against the carriage seat with a sigh. ĎAnd I didnít say that you had to, just that you ought to consider it.í
ĎHeís twenty years older than me!í
ĎThirty, more like.í
ĎThen how could you... How could I...?í
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.
ĎYou said we were going to visit Aunt Sophoria.í
ĎWe are, but Charles has a house near Pickering too. I didnít lie.í
ĎYou didnít say youíd been arranging a wedding behind my back!í
ĎDiscussing, not arranging. Look, sis, you donít have to do anything you donít want to, but you might try to like him. Heís quite sincere, you know, asked permission for your hand and everything.í
ĎHe asked you?í Ianthe swung around incredulously, calm resolve forgotten. ĎIím twenty-one! I donít need your permission to marry.í
ĎIím head of the family.í
ĎYouíre my brother, Percy, my little brother! Iím perfectly capable of making decisions on my own.í
ĎI thought it very good of him to come to me first.í
ĎOh, donít be so pompous! You never used to be. Thatís his influence, too.í
ĎAnd you never used to be such a dowdy old spinster. You know you were quite pretty before you went to Bournemouth, but now itís 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.í
ĎYou know I donít care for appearances.í
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.
ĎAnd do you have to wear grey every day?í Percy seemed to be warming to his theme. ĎItís depressing.í
ĎWeíre only just out of mourning!í
ĎExactly, out of mourning. Iíd have thought youíd want to wear colour again. Personally, I donít know what Charles sees in you.í
ĎI wish he wouldnít see anything! And you neednít be so unchivalrous. Weíre not alone.í
She threw a pointed glance towards the man sitting opposite. Heíd been asleep when theyíd 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 wasnít at all certain that their travelling companion was quite as unconscious as heíd first appeared. During Percyís last tirade, she thought sheíd 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 gentlemanóthough surely a gentleman wouldnít eavesdrop quite so blatantly?
She must have imagined it.
ĎWhat?í Percy followed the direction of her gaze. ĎOh, heís asleep. And I doubt heíd be very interested in our little domestic drama even if he werenít.í
ĎYou should still keep your voice down.í
ĎWhy? If he wakes up, we can ask his opinion. Iím sure heíll agree with me. No man wants a wife who looks like an old maid.í
ĎI donít want anyone elseís opinion. And donít you dare ask!í
ĎIím only trying to help. If you donít marry Charles then Iíve done my best and thatís that. Youíll have to find someone else on your own and youíll never catch a husband looking like that. Ow!í
Ianthe shot her brother a venomous glare, slowly retracting the elbow sheíd just jabbed violently into his ribs. She knew exactly how her appearance made her appear. That was the whole point. She didnít like her grey clothes or dowdy hairstyle any more than he did, but at least she couldnít be accused of drawing attention to herself. She couldnít 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 motherís death from consumption the previous year, followed by their fatherís grief-stricken demise soon after, her brotherís 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...
ĎI just wish youíd told me the truth about this trip.í She tried not to sound too accusing. ĎCanít we be honest with each other?í
Percy heaved a sigh. ĎLook, Charles asked me not to tell you heíd 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. Thatís why I didnít say anything until we reached Malton.í
ĎBecause you knew Iíd take the first train home, you mean.í
ĎThat, too. But now weíre here, canít you just look on it as a holiday? It must be at least ten years since we last visited Aunt Sophoria.í
Ianthe found herself relenting slightly. Their aunt hadnít been well enough to attend either of their parentsí 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 sheíd 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 motherís sister were vague, but happy. Mostly she remembered a mass of lace and blonde ringlets enveloped in a cloud of sweet-smelling perfume.
ĎIíll be glad to see her again.í
ĎAnd sheís agreed that you can stay as long as you want.í
ĎWhat do you mean?í The nostalgic feeling evaporated at once. ĎI thought we were only staying a week.í
ĎWell...í Percy squirmed in his seat. ĎThe truth is, Londonís expensive. I canít afford lodgings for us both any more. And Charles thinks itís more appropriate for you to live with Aunt Sophoria anyway.í
ĎCharles thinks that?í
ĎYes, but I agree. I should have seen the propriety of it sooner.í
ĎSo you mean thisóall of thisówas his idea?í
ĎI suppose so, though it really just goes to show how much he cares for you. Heís a capital fellow. You know Father thought so, too.í
ĎFather never suggested I marry him! And you know how Mother felt. She didnít even like being in the same room with him if she could help it. She always took me away, too.í
ĎOh, you women and your prejudices!í Percy rolled his eyes in exasperation. ĎAll I know is that heís been very good to me this past year. Heís helped me out a lot with expenses.í
ĎYou owe him money?í
ĎJust a little, though you neednít look so disapproving. Itís not easy supporting both of us. I know Father didnít mean to leave us in such a sorry financial state, but he did. I had to pay the bills somehow.í
ĎYou canít blame Father.í Ianthe stiffened defensively. ĎYou know he was heartbroken after Mother died.í
ĎHe was irresponsible, letting all his investments go to ruin and leaving me to carry the burden.í
ĎBurden?í She flinched. Was that all she was now?
ĎI didnít mean it like that.í Percy at least had the decency to look shame-faced. ĎAll Iím saying is that we need to be practical. We donít 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 youíre not overwhelmed with suitors. Thatís why I brought you here to see Charles.í
Ianthe felt a roiling sensation deep in the pit of her stomach, something between fear and disgust. Sheíd had her suspicions about the Baronetís intentionsóhad made her own feelings on the subject abundantly clear, or so sheíd thoughtóbut she still hadnít 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 sheíd be forced to marry him.
Well, she wouldnít be manipulated so easily. There had to be another alternative.
ĎIíll find employment.í
ĎDonít be ridiculous. After what happened last time?í
ĎThat wasnít my fault!í
ĎSo you keep saying. Itís just a good job the family were discreet or your reputation would have been ruined. Iím only glad Charles didnít hear of it.í
Ianthe folded her arms mutinously, heartily wishing the opposite. ĎItís not likely to happen again.í
ĎNo.í Percyís gaze swept over her critically. ĎI suppose not. But if getting a job doesnít work out, what then? Youíll have nothing to fall back on. Marrying Charles is your best option, you must see that. Youíll have money and protection and children, too, I suppose.í
ĎChildren?í 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 wasnít exactly sure what that entailed, but she definitely didnít want to find out.
From a practical perspective, however, Percy was rightóthe Baronet was her best option. Life as a governess had been far more dispiriting than sheíd 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 wasnít as if she could ask for references! If word of what had happened there got out, sheíd 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. Heíd always looked at her strangely, ever since she was a child and heíd introduced himself as an old friend of her motherís, but since her death those looks seemed to have become more intense than ever. Heíd gone abroad for a few months after the funeral, but since heíd come back, around the same time sheíd 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?
ĎThis must be Rillington.í Percy leapt up as the train slowed to a halt. ĎIím going to get a newspaper. All this arguing is giving me a headache.í
ĎWait!í She grabbed his hand as he passed by, making one last desperate appeal. ĎThereís just something about him. I canít explain it...í
ĎWell, whatever it is, it shouldnít bother you for long. Charles must be fifty at least.í
ĎPercy!í She dropped his hand at once. ĎYou shouldnít say such things! Someone might hear you.í
ĎOh, I canít win!í He flung the compartment door open and jumped out. ĎI wonít be long. Just promise me that youíll think about it and be sensible.í
ĎIf I do, will you promise to tell me the truth from now on?í
ĎOf course!í He was already striding away. ĎJust remember, thirty years! Youíll be a rich widow soon enough.í
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 brotherís 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 hadnít moved, hadnít 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.
ĎYouíre awake.í She found herself stating the obvious.
ĎAs you can see.í
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 sheíd started to think herself almost invisible to the opposite sex, but now this strangerís 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.
ĎSir.í She lifted her chin up defensively. ĎI beg you to forget anything you might have overheard. It was a private conversation.í
ĎThen perhaps you ought not to have held it in a public carriage.í
ĎA gentleman ought not to eavesdrop.í
ĎI could hardly help it. I should think the whole locomotive could hear your brotherís voice.í
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?
ĎMy brother shouldnít have been so indiscreet. But as you doubtless heard, I already reprimanded him.í
ĎWas that a reprimand?í Grey eyes regarded her mockingly. ĎIt sounded as if you were more afraid of having your little scheme overheard.í
Scheme? She opened her mouth to protest and then closed it again. Now that she thought of it, sheíd only told Percy to be quiet. She hadnít contradicted him at all. No wonder this man assumed the worst, though he still had no right to chastise her. They hadnít been introduced and she was a lady sitting on her own. They shouldnít even be talking, let alone arguing.
She folded her hands primly in her lap. ĎI do not have a scheme, sir.í
ĎExcept to marry a man you dislike for his money and then wish for his imminent demise. What would you call that but a scheme?í
ĎIíd 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.í
ĎPerhaps not, though Iíve been called far worse, I assure you.í
ĎI donít doubt it. But my affairs are none of your business.í
ĎOn the contrary.í A shadow darkened his face. ĎI think it every manís business to know that women like you exist.í
ĎWomen like me?í 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?
ĎSchemers. Deceivers. Women who say one thing to a manís face and another behind his back.í He let his gaze drop contemptuously, as if he were studying her from head to toe and finding her wanting. ĎYou donít 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?í
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 sheíd done to alter her appearance, to alter herself, how could he still look at her and call her a schemer?
ŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ