The Bride's Seduction
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‘My dear, that is quite the most provocative nightgown I believe I have ever seen.’
His voice was a growl dipped in honey, and his weight on the bed next to her angled the mattress so that her hip touched his flank. His skin was hot.
‘You forgot the candles.’ The room seemed bright as day.
‘Oh, no, I haven’t.’ Justin’s fingers were tangling with the ribbons at her neckline, not with any apparent urgency, but with the leisurely pleasure of someone trailing wool for a kitten. ‘I love looking at you, Mari. I love it when you blush. I love it when you drop your lashes like that to try to hide the expression in your eyes.’
She gasped again as his fingers brushed the line of her collarbone. Focus on how it feels. Do not think... How hard that was to do. Her mind ran off along its own unhappy path. He loves all those things about me, but he does not love me. He does not trust me. He will not share his life or his worries or his secrets with me. His secrets.
LOUISE ALLEN has been immersing herself in history, real and fictional, for as long as she can remember, and finds landscapes and places evoke powerful images of the past. Louise lives in Bedfordshire and works as a property manager, but spends as much time as possible with her husband at the cottage they are renovating on the north Norfolk coast, or travelling abroad. Venice, Burgundy and the Greek islands are favourite atmospheric destinations.
Recent novels by the same author:
ONE NIGHT WITH A RAKE
THE EARL’S INTENDED WIFE
THE SOCIETY CATCH
A MODEL DEBUTANTE
THE MARRIAGE DEBT MOONLIGHT AND MISTLETOE (in Christmas Brides)
THE VISCOUNT’S BETROTHAL
The Bride’s Seduction
June 6 1817
‘With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship...’
Marina was thankful for the protection of her veil as the blood surged hot in her cheeks.What am I doing? How did I let it come to this? If only I had more resolution. She resisted the temptation to look up at the tall figure standing next to her and made herself concentrate as the ceremony took its course. Finally,
‘I now pronounce you man and wife.’
A soft murmur went round St George’s. Relief? Marina wondered, or surprise that the old maid of the Winslow family had found herself such an eligible husband? Or perhaps it was simply a sentimental sigh. Her distraction was cut short by Justin raising the edge of her veil and setting it back from her face. She looked up at him and saw the look in his eyes that had convinced her to accept his proposal: kindness and honesty that had made her trust him, had made her feel safe and able to set aside all her doubts and scruples. Suddenly her nervousness seemed foolish.
Then, as he bent to touch his lips to hers, she saw a spark in his eyes, which turned their hazel to green. Not so safe, a panicky little voice whispered as their lips met. She returned the pressure until another murmur, this time an unmistakably sentimental one, brought her to herself. She was standing almost on tiptoe, one hand raised to rest against her new husband’s chest, and there was the strange fluttering through her veins that she was coming to expect whenever he touched her. Whatever she did, she must not betray her true feelings, not to this man she had just married.
Blushing in real earnest now, and without her veil to protect her, Marina let Justin place her hand on his arm as they turned. Slowly they began to walk back down the aisle and she made herself behave as her position now required. Nodding and smiling from side to side, the new Countess of Mortenhoe was conscious of genuine smiles, of her mother unashamedly weeping into her lace handkerchief, of some speculative looks and one or two less friendly glances.
Well may they stare and wonder, she thought as they emerged on to the steps of St George’s overlooking Hanover Square. They probably find it as hard to believe as I do that Justin Ransome should marry Charlie Winslow’s sister, a woman who has been on the shelf these four years past.
And what possessed me to agree? she wondered as she had done almost every waking hour since Justin’s proposal, the panic rising in her breast again. Whatever made me think I could make a success of a marriage to a man I have known only eleven weeks and who makes no pretence of the fact he does not love me?
As the animated, chattering guests thronged out of the church into the bright sunshine, she turned, catching their mood all of a sudden. She threw her bouquet with a laugh into the mass of young ladies who reached and jostled for it. Beside her Justin laughed too, amused by the sight of ladylike behaviour abandoned for a few moments, and she glanced up at him again.
And why did he ask me? she queried for the hundredth time. Why should one of the most eligible men in London wish to marry me? She had gone over his words again and again, had dreamed them, analysed them to the point of exhaustion. It was too late to wonder now, she realised as Justin helped her into the waiting carriage. Far too late.
Eleven weeks earlier—3 April 1817
Take a deep breath. Justin Ransome stood on the upper step of the double-fronted house in Cavendish Square with his life in the balance. Today, after twenty years, if he could keep his temper in check and his wits about him, he was going to achieve the ambition that had driven him since he was eight years old.
He found his right hand was in his coat pocket, the thumb and forefinger rubbing the small crystal lustre that had been a talisman for all of those years. The sharp edges had become dulled with handling, the ball of his thumb had a callus from the habitual, unthinking gesture.
Now. He raised his hand, let the knocker drop with a thud that echoed the knocking of his own heart against his ribs. Almost immediately he heard faint footsteps from inside the house. They were expecting him, of course. He stepped back slightly as the door opened, a fortunate move; for, instead of the impassive figure of the family butler, a small boy erupted out of the opening pursued by a frantically barking dog almost the same size.
At the sight of the tall man on the step the hound skidded to a halt and regarded him hopefully, head on one side. Justin braced himself to repel a leap, but the creature simply dealt his highly polished Hessians a swipe with a slavering tongue and bounded after its young master.
So much for working oneself up into a state of high drama: fate had a sure way of bringing one down to earth.
‘Giles! Hector! Oh, sir, I can only apologise for my brother.’
Justin looked up from the rueful contemplation of his footwear to find himself being regarded with anxiety by a fine pair of silver grey eyes.
‘Which is which?’ he enquired of the owner of these admirable features, smiling as the anxiety in them was replaced with something closer to amusement. The lady was dressed for walking, presumably in the wake of the harum-scarum child.
‘Giles is my little brother. Hector is the abominable hound. I am Miss Winslow and my brother—my elder brother—is Charles Winslow. Just so you know how to direct the account from your bootmaker.’
‘Good morning, Miss Winslow.’ Justin, by now diverted by the situation, held out his hand. The gesture was met with a warm smile and a confident handshake in return. ‘I am Justin Ransome. I am sure only the most superficial damage has been done: a wipe will put it to rights.’
‘Lord Mortenhoe.’ Miss Winslow nodded. ‘I recall Charlie said you would be calling. I cannot conceive where Bunting has vanished to. Ah, there he is. And I should not be keeping you standing here on the doorstep—you must think you have arrived at Bedlam, not a respectable home. Bunting, here is Lord Mortenhoe to see Lord Winslow, but first, please see if Kyte can do something with his lordship’s Hessians—that hell hound of Master Giles’s has been slobbering all over them.’
‘Of course, Miss Winslow. My lord, if you would care to step into the salon, I will fetch Lord Winslow’s valet to you immediately. One trusts no lasting damage has been done.’ The butler relieved Justin of hat, gloves and cane and opened the door into the front reception room as another young lady came down the stairs.
Justin bowed slightly to the new arrival, succeeding in reducing her to blushing confusion. She was a pretty child of perhaps fifteen, still childishly plump but with wide blue eyes, a pert little nose and abundant blonde ringlets emerging from under her somewhat plain bonnet.
‘My lord, this is my sister Elizabeth. Lizzie, Lord Mortenhoe has called to see Charlie and unfortunately has encountered Giles and Hector.’ Miss Winslow held out her hand. ‘My lord, I can only apologise once more and leave you to the care of Bunting and Charles’s valet. If I delay much longer, I shudder to think what havoc will have been wrought upon the gardens in the Square.’
‘Miss Winslow, good day. I trust you have an uneventful walk.’
She smiled up at him, drawing on her gloves. ‘No hope of that, my lord. Good day to you. Come, Lizzie.’
Justin was left with the impression of amused tranquillity, a pleasing sensation. Not a beauty, the elder Miss Winslow, with her soft brown hair, oval face and wide grey eyes, but a soothing presence, which was very much in tune with his needs just now.
The valet descending upon his Hessians with a cry of distress distracted him from further thoughts of the Misses Winslow. ‘The merest dabbing with a little warm water, my lord, then a buff with my own polish and a chamois cloth, and all will be restored. If your lordship will permit me to remove both boots...’
Justin submitted and was therefore at the disadvantage of standing in his stockinged feet when his host sauntered in. ‘Mortenhoe.’ They shook hands and the younger man peered at Justin’s feet. ‘Raining, is it?’
‘No, my lord,’ the butler hastened to intervene. ‘That Dog, my lord.’
‘Oh. Enough said. Is Kyte fixing things? Good. Do you want to borrow some slippers? No? Then let’s make ourselves comfortable in my study.’
Winslow led the way across the hallway and waved his guest to a chair. As Justin sat he found he had an admirable view out over the Square to where young Master Winslow was engaged in hot pursuit of his dog while his sisters, parasols unfurled, looked on.
‘Brandy?’ Lord Winslow was unstopping a decanter.
‘Not for me, thank you. But please—’
His host needed no encouragement, pouring a good measure into his glass before dropping into the chair opposite. Justin regarded him thoughtfully. Having now, he assumed, seen all the brothers and sisters, he could see the likeness between Charles and his younger sister, despite Charles’s dark brown hair and Lizzie’s blonde curls.
But in the brother the good looks were already blurred at only twenty-seven by what, from his reputation, was a mixture of late nights and strong drink. The elder Miss Winslow with her well-bred, pleasant face seemed to have missed out; she would never have been an Incomparable, which he suspected Lizzie one day might be. Young Giles was still blessed with the chubby features of any small boy; too early to tell how he would turn out.
‘We’ll wait until Kyte brings your boots,’ Winslow announced. ‘We don’t want to be interrupted while we talk business.’
‘No, indeed,’ Justin agreed equably, hiding the stab of impatience he felt. Calm, he told himself. This is the most significant piece of business you will ever have to do, just keep calm. Without conscious thought his eyes strayed again to the window from whence Miss Winslow could be seen. She was fending off a now filthy hound, which had decided it wanted nothing more than for her to throw its ball. She was laughing out loud, he could see, and felt a sudden curiosity to hear what her laughter sounded like.
Marina’s laughter was, in fact, nearer a series of breathless and indignant gasps as she did her best to keep Hector’s large paws off her skirts. ‘Sit, sir!’ she ordered, more in the hope than the expectation of being obeyed. ‘Giles, come and get hold of this animal at once. It defeats me,’ she added to Lizzie, who was giggling, ‘how this creature manages to get muddy on a fine day like today. Thank you, Giles. Now please put a cord through his collar and let us attempt to present the appearance of a normal family out for a walk and not a group of wandering circus performers.’
Giles, finding this vastly humorous, captured Hector and allowed himself to be towed off around the flower beds that edged the curving paths in the centre of the Square. Lizzie fell in beside her sister and the two began to pace more decorously.
‘Who was that gentleman?’ she demanded.
‘Lord Mortenhoe. I did introduce you, Lizzie, you must make a push to remember introductions. It will present a very off impression when you come out if you cannot recall people’s names. A true lady takes an interest in other people.’
Lizzie, sublimely confident that her come-out would be a great success and nothing but a pleasure from start to finish, ignored this good advice. After all, poor Marina had been out for three Seasons and had quite failed to catch a husband, so really, fond though one was of her, her advice could safely be disregarded.
‘I am taking an interest, I just could not recall his name. And why is Lord Mortenhoe visiting Charlie?’
‘I have no idea,’ Marina said repressively. ‘A matter of business, no doubt, and no concern of ours.’
‘You mean that one of them owes the other some money?’ Lizzie deduced pertly. ‘Let us hope Lord Mortenhoe owes Charlie, for that would be a great comfort to poor Mama.’
‘We have no reason to suppose Lord Mortenhoe is a card player,’ Marina pointed out, giving up the effort to turn her sister’s thoughts to a more seemly topic.
‘It might be anything,’ Lizzie countered. ‘Racing, cards, hazard—anything. Someone told me Charlie would even bet on which of two flies would land upon a window first. When I am out in society and playing cards I will be like dear Papa and always win. I do not know why Charlie never does.’
Marina contemplated a lecture on how fatally fast it would be to be seen gambling and decided it was pointless just now. There were two more years before Lizzie came out—if the money lasted that long. Time enough to instil some decorum.
‘He is very good looking, is he not?’ Lizzie observed. ‘Is he an earl?’
‘Lord Mortenhoe is an earl, yes. As for looks, I am sure he presents a most amiable and gentlemanlike appearance.’ She was certainly not going to agree that the breadth of Lord Mortenhoe’s shoulders, his classically moulded features or the flexible, deep voice were more than enough to flutter any lady’s pulse. They had certainly fluttered hers, an unusual occurrence in a well-regulated existence. It was a surprisingly pleasant sensation. ‘That,’ Marina added firmly, more to herself than to her sister, ‘is all a lady should be concerned with.’
‘Poppycock,’ Lizzie announced reprehensively. ‘I think how a gentleman looks is very important. After all, fancy being married to someone with bad teeth like Mr Percival or to a man who looks like a codfish.’
Much struck by this, Marina swallowed a laugh and demanded, ‘Whoever do we know who looks like a codfish?’
‘Sir Willoughby Cavendish. Have you not noticed?’
Now it was pointed out, Marina could easily see the likeness. ‘Certainly not. And what are you about, young lady, thinking of gentlemen at all, let alone about marrying one?’
‘Well, I will have to, will I not?’ Lizzie pointed out. ‘A rich one, because of not having any dowry. So it would be nice if he was handsome too, I think.’
Kyte returned the now gleaming Hessians and assisted Justin into them with much play of gloved hands and soft polishing leather.
‘I venture to say, my lord, that your man will be unable to detect the slightest defect. We must be thankful that the Animal did not paw at them.’
Justin had a strong suspicion that Shepton would be distinctly put out that another valet had so much as touched the boots, especially since the finish obtained was so fine, but he smiled and thanked the man. With a final pat at the tassels, Kyte bowed himself out.
His host did not immediately take advantage of their privacy, fidgeting around the room and pouring himself another brandy before finally returning to his seat.
‘I suppose you find it strange that I should decide to sell Knightshaye after all this time,’ he said abruptly.
‘Considering that I have offered to purchase it on at least a dozen occasions since I came of age seven years ago, and first your father, and then you, has always refused to even discuss it, then, yes, you may say I am surprised.’ Justin kept his tone even. He had no reason to distrust the young baron, no reason to suppose that, however rackety his reputation, he took after his father in any way. To project his loathing for the late Lord Winslow on to his son would be both unfair and counterproductive.
‘My father always swore he would never sell to you, and he would never sell to anyone else either, in case you approached them. He told me I must do the same thing. Damned if I know why.’
‘You do not?’ Despite his control, the words sounded sceptical to Justin’s own ears.
‘And you do know? Something to do with a quarrel between our respective fathers, that is all I could ever gather.’ Charlie shrugged. ‘Ancient history now, and whatever it was, I can’t afford to cut off my own nose just to prolong some pointless feud.’
‘Then you definitely intend to sell?’ Justin was conscious of a tightness in his chest and switched his gaze from the face opposite him to the scene outside. Feigning indifference was pointless, but pride forced him to at least an appearance of calm. Miss Elizabeth threw the ball for her brother and an ecstatic hound to race after while Miss Winslow stood gracefully, watching. She had a calm poise, which suggested not only that she was past her green years but that, despite her single state, she had acquired much of the style of a young married lady. He found his lips had curved into a smile; she seemed to have that effect on him.
‘Fact is, I’m going to hell in a handcart,’ his host announced abruptly, startling his attention back.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I drink too much, game too much and, unlike my revered Papa, I lose too much. I’ve tried reforming my way of life, and it don’t last above a week or two, mostly.’ Winslow shifted uneasily in the high-backed chair. ‘But I’m not so far gone I can’t see what effect it’s going to have on the family if I don’t do something about it. So I’ve spoken to the lawyers and what I’m going to do is sell Knightshaye to you, put the whole lot in a trust and that will look after Giles’s education, Lizzie’s dowry and set Mama up comfortably in the Dower House, which is where she’d rather be most of the time anyhow. I won’t be able to touch a penny, even if I wanted to.’
‘An admirable plan,’ Justin said drily. ‘I am honoured by your confidence.’ Odd he had made no reference to Miss Winslow, but perhaps she would be expected to become her mother’s companion. Or perhaps there was a respectable suitor in the background.
‘You do still want it?’ Lord Winslow looked anxious.
‘Yes,’ Justin admitted, suddenly wary. ‘Considering it is my family home and I have been intending to retrieve it for twenty years, you may be confident that I still wish to buy it back from you.’
‘Twenty years? But you must only have been, what, six, seven...?’
‘Eight. I was eight when my father lost Knightshaye to your father in a card game and eight when he...died three months later.’ And he had been ten when his mother died, apparently of no other cause than a broken heart.
‘Why do you question whether I still want it?’
‘Well, I, er... Have you been there recently?’
‘No. I have never been back.’ As the carriage had pulled away, his mother weeping, his father with a face set like stone, he had vowed never to set foot on Knightshaye land until it was his again. But he saw no reason to confide that to the son of the man who had taken it from the Ransomes. ‘Why do you ask? Is something wrong there?’
‘Shouldn’t think so,’ Charlie said with a somewhat suspicious carelessness. ‘Never been there myself. The tenanted farmland’s all in good enough heart—the rents are fine, so my steward tells me. The house is shut up. My father left instructions for its maintenance, so I just told our steward to get on with everything in the same way as before.’
So, the late Lord Winslow had taken Knightshaye entirely for revenge, not because he wanted it for itself. If spite had not been the reason, then surely the family would have used it: it was a far finer mansion that their own small estate. It was as Justin had always suspected, and he knew the reason why, even if apparently old Winslow’s heir did not.
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