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Authors: Cheryl Ann Smith

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

A Convenient Bride (2 page)

BOOK: A Convenient Bride
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The plan was flawless; now to convince the highwayman.

Taking a deep breath, Brenna carefully pushed the door open and peeked out. The thief was urging Brenna’s coachman to continue his journey with clipped words and a wave.

Fletcher, an elderly coachman who’d served the Harrington family for as long as she could remember, was obviously in the throes of his first robbery, too. He sat frozen, with his hands still lifted over his head, in spite of the highwayman’s insistence that all was well.

Her mouth twitched at the corners. Lud, the fact that he’d not shot Fletcher made him perfect. A killer of coachmen just would not do. She wasn’t

Gathering her skirt in one fist and clutching the doorframe with the other, she tamped down her reservations.

Taking advantage of her coachman’s temporary paralysis, she made a hasty climb from the coach in a flurry of gray muslin and white petticoats. Mud squished beneath her boots from an earlier rain, but she ignored the possible ruination of the fine leather and focused instead on the back of the retreating thief.

“Pardon me. Sir?” Soiling her hem in her haste, she rushed over to him as he collected his waiting horse. She kept her eyes averted from the pistol in his waistband, so as not to lose her courage, and boldly faced him. “Sir, if I could have a moment.”

The highwayman paused and scowled down at her. He was tall, though not overly so, and unshaven, with several days of beard growth marking his hard jaw. His clothes were those of
a laboring man, though cleaner than most. Close enough to touch his dusty coat, Brenna realized that he smelled better than a groom or farmer, too, like strong soap, leather, and rain.

Most important, though, was his clear lack of wealth: worn gloves, scuffed boots, not a bit of lace on his cuffs. He was likely without the means to give up his life of thievery, even though he didn’t steal her jewels. That information worked well in her favor.

“Please, I must speak to you privately.” Emboldened by desperation, she pressed ahead and focused away from the fact he was a dangerous criminal and could kill her in an instant. “I’d like to propose a financially beneficial arrangement between us that will thicken your purse and keep my life from ruin.”

His icy glare set her back on her heels. Why did he not seem intrigued with the offer?

He was an odd fellow. Perhaps he was new to thievery and inexperienced? She needed to do something to pique his interest.

Brenna tucked the stray hairs on either side of her face behind her ears so that the diamond ear bobs were clearly visible for his inspection. The pair, and her pearl necklace, were worth a tidy sum—certainly enough to intrigue a thief.

She braced herself and waited for him to pluck the necklace from her neck.

He ignored the expensive items and held his angry expression.

“Young lady, return to your coach.” He claimed the loose reins and walked around his horse. Brenna stepped back as he passed her, her lips parted in disbelief. Her baubles were as uninteresting to him as stones on the muddy road.

Was the man daft?

Undeterred, she ducked under the horse’s neck. “Wait, I beg of you. I am in a dire situation and am desperate for help. My father and brother intend to marry me off to a man I find intolerable. I cannot be his wife.”

His expression didn’t improve. “Perhaps your father and brother know what’s best for you.” He removed his gloves and jerked a stirrup into place. “Women often let emotion muddle their judgment.”

Brenna grabbed the bridle and ignored the insulting comment. She wasn’t about to chase this thief off by arguing with him.

Without the highwayman, she’d need weeks, maybe months, to find another disreputable character that wouldn’t be intimidated by her father’s title and wealth. By then, she could be Lord Chester’s new marchioness.

“Release my horse,” he demanded. She met his eyes and shook her head. She’d not be cowed.

“Not until you listen to my proposal.” She tightened her grip on the bay gelding. Even if he shot her, it would be preferable to wedding Chester Abbot.

His exasperated sigh must have carried all the way to London. He briefly closed his eyes—she hoped for patience and not because he was about to shoot her—and crossed his arms across his chest.

“State your business and be quick about it,” he said gruffly. His icy eyes peered out from beneath mussed sable hair. “I do not have time to waste while you whine about the unfairness of your life. If you need a sympathetic ear, look elsewhere.”

Brenna’s back stiffened. If she had any other choice, she’d tell this arrogant clod where to take his boorish manners and be done with him. But desperation held her tongue.

She pulled in a deep breath, knowing that what she did in these next few moments could either save or ruin her.

“As I previously explained, my family intends for me to marry this man, a dolt of high standing. He is dull and weak and about as exciting as the mud currently wetting my feet. I would rather throw myself under the hooves of your horse than to suffer that fate.”

His jaw clenched. “What has this to do with me?”

Clearly his controlled temper was faltering. She rushed on, “The wedding cannot happen. I need you to compromise me.”

The stranger started and his brows shot up.

Brenna’s heart raced. Finally, she had his full attention. Her heart raced beneath the shocked surprise in his eyes. She prayed she’d not just made a grave, and possibly fatal, mistake.

“Have you lost your senses, young lady?” He shook his head slowly and stared as if she’d sprouted horns. “You think that my tossing up your skirts and violating you on this
sodden ground will be a superior choice over wedding the man your family has chosen? Are you mad?”

The words and the way he looked at her left her feeling foolish and a bit childish. Still, Brenna held fast. Her brother, Simon, was already making overtures to Abbot. This man
her only option. It mattered not what he thought of her, only that he’d help her.

She fingered her expensive necklace. “You will not actually take my innocence,” she clarified, her body recoiling at the thought of him touching her intimately. “You need only misbehave just enough to convince my father and brother that you are a cad, a bounder, out to ruin me. While they are focused on trying to rid me of you, I will be free to choose my own husband. And it will not be Lord Abbot.”

“Lord Chester Abbot, the marquess?” His eyes lit with confusion. “You are intended for a marquess? Who are you?”

“That is not your concern. I will pay you well for any blackened eyes or loose teeth you may suffer at the hands of my father and brother. Then you will vanish before they recover their wits and see you flogged.” She paused to allow him to catch up. “Surely a man in your profession would be happy to line his pockets with coin, even if it comes with a beating?”

He raked his hands over his head. “You

“I am as clear thinking as you are, sir,” she countered tartly. The back of her neck prickled. “In fact, I think a man who robs coaches has no place to judge me.”

A heartbeat or two passed before he spoke again. “You think I’m a highwayman, a desperate thief who would take your money and be grateful to have my face pummeled, so that you can avoid being leg-shackled to a marquess?” His stern face melted into a disbelieving smirk. He shook his head and laughed. “What an interesting turn. And I thought this day could get no worse.”

His humor raised her hackles. She could no longer hold her temper. “How dare you find amusement in my situation! You, sir, are no gentleman.”

The stranger chuckled again. “There you are wrong, Miss. I am indeed a gentleman.”

The coach horses rattled their harnesses and brought Brenna’s attention away from the highwayman. Fletcher, though
far enough away not to have heard the exchange, was obviously distraught over her close proximity to the stranger.

“Miss Brenna, please come away from that man,” Fletcher begged, when he noticed her attention turn away from the highwayman. His voice held barely concealed panic. “We must get you home before your mother worries.”

Posh. Her parents were the reason she was in this fix.

After learning of the plot to wed her off to the marquess, she’d threatened to sail off with a pirate or some other such thing, and Father threatened to have any servant turned out if he or she took her out of London. Fletcher had finally given in to her pleas for fresh air and sunshine and had taken her on this secretive outing into the country.

The coach robbery had been an unintended and lucky turn of events.

“Miss Brenna?” The stranger’s question returned her attention back to him. He’d lost his smirk. “Are you Brenna Harrington?”

Shocked that he knew her name, she refused to answer. He clearly took this as confirmation of her identity. Stepping toward her, he closed his hand over her wrist and wrenched it off the bridle. He held her in a tight grip and leaned to look directly into her face.

Brenna bit back a whimper. She’d underestimated him. He
dangerous. Could he be rethinking ravishment? Worse, would he kill her just for the enjoyment of doing so?

And for a moment, she thought that was her fate. Trapped in the grip of his dark gaze, her breath caught as his eyes trailed from her eyes to her breasts and back up again. Yet even as she braced herself to fight, she suddenly felt no fear.

His eyes spoke not of murder or rape but of something else she could not read. She would live another day.

“Forget this nonsense and go home before your father gives you a beating you well deserve.” He released her, and she rubbed her chafed wrist. But it wasn’t his callous treatment of her delicate bones that left her silent.

In those few seconds when his warm hand had touched her exposed skin above her glove, something upended inside her, and her body had snapped to attention. Beneath his drab and dusty clothing, Brenna became shockingly aware he was not
just a highwayman but a man, a very virile and dangerous man.


Thankfully, he appeared unaware of his effect on her. Had he known how her body reacted from his simple touch, she might have been compromised in truth.

With a fluid motion, he swung up into the saddle and shot her one last glare as she stood stock-still, her skin still tingling from his grip.

“If I see you alone on these roads again, Miss Harrington, I’ll paddle you myself.”

Brenna gasped and watched him spin his horse around and race down the road, mud clumps flying up in their wake.

Time slowed. The smell of wet leaves, a distant bird call, the sound of Fletcher muttering, all blurred as she watched him race out of her life on a lathered horse.

Calling him back would serve no purpose. He’d made his decision not to help her. And she did have some pride left.

She rubbed her wrist and waited until he disappeared around a bend before slowly turning back toward the coach. It was then she realized there was more to his stunned reaction to her name. He’d looked at her with puzzled recognition.

Could the man have intimate knowledge of her family? Was he someone with whom Father or Mother were acquainted?

Surely not; he was a highwayman, after all. Yes, her family had many rogues and reprobates in their history. However, none recently—well, as far as she knew of anyway. Still, it was impossible to think that any of her extended family was closely connected with thieves.

Through gossip was likely how he’d gotten his recognition of the Harrington name. Her family was often the topic of whispers and speculation. Either way, this highwayman made his decision quite clear. He’d not rescue her.

Beneath crushing disappointment, she sloshed back to the coach and climbed inside, still feeling unsettled by the encounter and her stunning response to his touch.

renna Harrington. Richard found it difficult to believe the daughter of his good friend, Walter Harrington, had been
wandering the countryside looking for a rogue to rescue her from a wedding to a marquess, even if he agreed with her description of Chester Abbot.

The man
a milksop.

But Brenna Harrington? He hadn’t seen her since she was a gangly hellion who ran wild around the Harrington estate. And even then, their acquaintance had been brief and hardly worth noting.

The chit had certainly grown into a beauty with the sort of face that could get a man into all kinds of trouble.

He’d heard of the recent death of her uncle the earl and her father’s ascent to the title. Therefore, the tart-tongued termagant with the seductive green eyes was Lady Brenna now. Even as he wanted to believe Walter’s daughter would not be foolish enough to make a scandalous offer to a stranger, he knew without a doubt that Brenna was the image of her beautiful mother, Kathleen.

Though the Harringtons were a wild bunch and not prone to follow all the stiff rules of society, the chit’s behavior went far beyond a bit of rule bending.

As soon as he returned home, he’d send off a note to Walter and let him know what his strong-willed daughter was up to before she put herself in real danger.

Returning his attention to more pressing matters, he urged his horse back toward Beckwith Hall and within minutes met his steward, Andrew, riding up in the opposite direction. The man clung to the reins with one hand while shoving his spectacles back into place with the other.

“Any luck?” Richard asked, eager for news of his runaway sister, Anne. He’d hoped that between the two of them, they’d get her home before anyone heard of her elopement and her reputation was ruined.

Now he feared it might already be too late. Before Richard had found her note, Anne had had a head start.

Andrew shook his head as the rain began anew. Beneath the brim of his hat, the young steward appeared defeated. “There’s no sign of her or that bounder who made off with her. They have vanished.”

A sickening dread chilled Richard’s veins. Stewart Lockley was divorced, twice her age, and known for his taste for
innocents. How his intelligent sister had ignored all warnings and fallen for his questionable charms was incomprehensible.

BOOK: A Convenient Bride
4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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