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Authors: Cheryl Ann Smith

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

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BOOK: A Convenient Bride
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“I threatened any gentleman who dared ruin your party with lashings. They all promised to behave.”

Brenna smiled. She knew he was teasing. Still, he had been watching over her. She took comfort in that.

They got to the top of the staircase when she felt a small fluttering in her belly. She pulled Richard to a stop and released his arm. She placed both her hands over her belly.

“I felt something.” Her eyes widened. The fluttering came again. “I think the baby is moving.”

Without thinking, she reached and placed his hand over the spot. The movement abated. “Drat.”

Richard stood frozen, as if waiting for the babe to move again. Then he blinked and pulled his hand away.

In her excitement, she’d forgotten about the son he’d lost. Surely, he’d also felt that baby move. The memory had to ache deep within his heart.

He often appeared uncomfortable when she spoke at length about the baby, his worry over losing another child tempering his anticipation of the impending birth. She tried to reassure him, but until their child was born healthy, he’d still suffer from the malady of fear.

“Soon we will feel him kick,” she said, and reclaimed his arm. “Mother said I was prone to hiccups. It often kept her up at night.”

A longing filtered through his eyes. It was then that Brenna realized how desperately he wanted to be a father.

Hoping to keep him from turning sober, Brenna continued on in a mock-serious tone. “Soon, we will need to choose names. I was thinking Daisy, Petunia, or Nettle if it’s a girl, and Horace, Newlin, or Percy for a boy.”

He frowned. “You cannot be serious?”

A brow went up. “You do not like Nettle or Newlin? I am quite fond of Newlin Ellerby.”

“We are not naming our daughter after weeds, or giving our son a name better suited for an ancient uncle than a robust young man. I think you need to rethink your choices, madam.”

She feigned insult, though she agreed wholeheartedly with his assessment of the names. She chose them to tease him.

“If you think my choices dismal, then perhaps you should try to come up with a few of your own.” Choosing names would further establish his role as a father.

“I shall put thought into it.” He grimaced. “Newlin? How dreadful.”

They stopped before her bedroom door. “We do have a few months to decide.” She lifted to her toes and kissed him, a brief brush of her mouth, a press of her breasts against his arm, just enough to remind him that she was still his wife.

One day soon, after the baby was born, she’d find her way into his bed, permanently, if she had to use all her femininity and seductive wiles to do so.

She did not like sleeping alone. “Good night, Richard.”

“Good night, Brenna.”

Christmas Eve came with the excited squeals of children, as all the little ones who resided on the property came to collect the presents and treats prepared for each. The servants and tenants were not left out of the celebrating. Each received a gift and a side of pork or a turkey; and the household staff, a Christmas bonus.

Brenna made Richard a robe of deep blue velvet, and he gave her a pendant of emeralds and diamonds. But her most cherished gift of the holiday was watching Richard watch the children open their gifts and to see the happiness in his eyes.

“Your husband is more at ease than I’ve ever seen him,” Lucy said. She and Brenna stood back from the melee. They would exchange their gifts the next morning, when Brenna’s parents arrived late from London.

“He does take well to the children.”

Lucy shook her head. “It is more than that. He is not nearly as sober as when we first came, and he smiles more often. I
believe the man has accepted you and the marriage, though I do not think he realizes it yet.”

“Perhaps.” Brenna wanted so much for Lucy’s words to be true. “However, he still keeps me at arm’s length.”

“That will change.”

Brenna looked at her friend. “I hope so.”

The evening grew late. The tenants left for home, and the servants retired to their rooms, leaving the household quiet again. Lucy yawned and went off to bed. Richard took Brenna up and saw her settled for the evening.

“It was a very nice day,” she said, squelching a yawn of her own. “I enjoyed the children’s laughter.”

“As did I.” Richard kissed her cheek. “I shall see you in the morning.” He prepared to leave through the sitting room.

“Wait.” He turned, and Brenna walked to him. “I have one last gift.” She stood up on her toes and kissed him full on the mouth. He seemed hesitant for a moment. However, it did not last. He swept her against him and deepened the kiss with a hungry sweep of his tongue.

Brenna melted. She wrapped one arm around his neck and splayed the other flat on his chest. She felt his rapid heartbeat beneath her hand.

A shout broke them apart.

T
here was commotion from somewhere below. Richard left Brenna and went to the staircase. Taking the stairs down two at a time, he was shocked to see smoke coming from the library. A footman ran by, clad in only his trousers and shirt, carrying a pair of buckets filled with water.

Richard darted after him. The children’s tree was ablaze. Luckily the tree was small, and the water buckets doused most of the flames rather quickly. A second footman and his buckets took care of the final smoldering branches.

“What happened here?” he asked. Luckily the fire was limited to the tree, though there was some minor soot damage to the ceiling.

“I do not know, Milord,” Mrs. Beal said, her voice high. I came down for a glass of milk and found the tree burning.”
She pointed to a melted candle beneath the black branches. “When I retired upstairs, I know the candle was not there.”

She seemed so certain that Richard believed her.

Could this be the work of the culprit who damaged the wheel? The idea could not be dismissed easily.

“Oh, dear. The tree,” Brenna said from the doorway, her hand over her mouth. “Thank goodness the fire was contained before it spread.”

“Someone accidentally left a candle burning near the tree.” He walked over and took her by the arm. “Go back to bed. I will see to the cleanup.”

“Such a shame,” she said, as he led her out. He watched her go back upstairs.

The footmen filed out with empty buckets in hand. When he and Mrs. Beal were alone, he joined her by the tree.

“I am certain about the candle,” she said.

Richard pulled the blackened candleholder from under the tree with the edge of his sleeve. The metal was hot. “I believe you.”

“Do you think someone set this on purpose?” she asked. “Who would do such a terrible thing?”

“We do not know what happened,” he said. “Unless we have proof of mischief, we must take this as an accident. Please do not say anything about your suspicions to my wife.”

“Yes, Milord.” Mrs. Beal frowned and left him.

The dull ache of dread settled into his stomach. From a place in the back of his mind, he knew this fire was no accident.

T
he holidays passed, and the new year came with several inches of snow. Richard had taken to getting up during the night and walking the halls, just to reassure himself that all was well. After weeks and then months passed without further trouble, he began to convince himself that the fire
had
been accidental.

Spring planting began in earnest with the arrival of warmer weather, and Richard was often out overseeing the work on the property as soon as the sun came up.

This left Brenna and Lucy time alone to prepare for the
baby. There was so much to do. With Mrs. Beal’s assistance, the nursery was aired out and a nanny hired. Clothes were made and Richard’s old cradle brought down from the attic and repaired.

“I think my feet have swollen to twice their previous size,” Brenna groused during a quiet moment, as she put her feet up on the stool in her sitting room. “I do not know how I am expected to attend the spring ball tonight when I cannot see my feet.”

“You could beg off and spend the evening in front of the fire with a book,” Lucy said, dropping into a chair beside her. Her friend looked trim and youthful in a dress of pale pink cotton. Brenna felt a slight twist of jealousy. Beside Lucy, she was positively bovine.

“I cannot. If I do not keep an eye on
that
woman, she will snatch Richard away from me. Did you see her last evening? That gown barely concealed her nipples.”

Lucy rolled her eyes heavenward. “Nonsense. Your husband has no interest in Bethany and never will, in spite of her nipple display. You worry too much about her.”

“You saw the gown she wore three evenings ago,” Brenna said, annoyed. “I am quite certain I caught a glimpse of her nipples at least twice. It will not be long before Richard finds comfort in her bed.”

“He only notices you,” Lucy insisted. “The man would not take so many cold baths if he was enjoying the favors of other women.”

Brenna’s interest perked up. “What is this news?”

Shrugging, Lucy examined her fingernails. “I may have overheard a whisper or two about how His Lordship has taken to cold baths these last few months. That does not sound like a man who plans to cuckold his wife. It sounds like a sexually frustrated man who is waiting for his child to be born before taking his rightful place in her bed.”

The idea was both preposterous and endearing all at once.

“I think your imagination has taken flight,” Brenna said, and stood. She walked into her bedroom and stared down at the silver dress laid out on the bed. “Richard knows he can come to me at any time and has not done so. If he found me so desirable, why then does he not press his intentions?” She felt
the baby move and looked down. Her shoulders slumped. “Only a bull elephant would find me appealing.”

Lucy giggled. “Patience, dearest. Your time draws near. Soon you will have your husband on his knees begging for your favors.”

T
he ball was festive and fun, as everyone from the park, and beyond, came to celebrate. Within the next few weeks, most of the citizenry—particularly those with marriageable daughters—would be leaving for London to partake in the new season.

“Oh, to be young,” Mrs. Turner said, from her seat beside Brenna. “I have not danced in years. My ancient bones will not allow such activity.”

Brenna murmured something unintelligible as she watched Richard and Miriam join a line of dancers. Envy filled her. The shy spinster was dressed in a gown of cream and rose and was smiling brightly at Richard. Why had Brenna never noticed how pretty she was?

Mrs. Turner must have noted that her attention had wandered as well as who was the focus of her perusal. “What have you done with that girl? She has certainly blossomed since I last saw her at Christmas.”

There had been a change in Miriam over the last few weeks. Brenna had been so busy she had not done more than take casual notice. Miriam was positively glowing with happiness and good cheer.

“I have done nothing to her,” Brenna said glumly. Miriam smiled brightly at Richard. He responded in kind.

“Does she have a beau?” Mrs. Turner pressed. Not waiting for an answer, she went on. “She must have a beau. She has the look of a girl who is smitten.”

Brenna had a ready denial, but it failed to materialize. Truthfully, Miriam could have had ten beaus, and Brenna wouldn’t have noticed. She was focused on the baby.

Frowning, Brenna watched Miriam look at Richard like a love-struck schoolgirl. Her stomach dropped. Richard did not find Miriam attractive. Or did he?

Before her mind could put the pair into a steamy affair,
George approached, a young man in tow. He bowed before Mrs. Turner. “Mrs. Turner, you look lovely tonight. Perhaps I can persuade you to give up that chair and dance with me?”

Mrs. Turner harrumphed. “You know I do not dance, and not with the likes of you, George Bentley. You have too much charm for your own good.”

George grinned. He turned to Brenna. “Lady Ashwood, this is Mister Clive Ever—” A drunken guest jostled against him, and his smile wavered. He watched the guest stumble off and darted a tense glance at his companion. She suspected the two men had been arguing. George continued, “He is visiting the park and staying with Lord Ponteby.”

Brenna allowed the young man to bow over her hand. There was something familiar about him. An unpleasant feeling came over her.

“A pleasure, Lady Ashwood.”

The man was tall and blond and impeccably, if not expensively, dressed as a young man of some means.

He released her hand and straightened. “I see you find me familiar.” He winked, and she frowned. “You probably notice my resemblance to my uncle, who you do know. Mister Everhart?”

Brenna winced.

Chapter Twenty-four

H
ow much did Clive know about his uncle’s kiss at the ball and her subsequent slap? She was sure she’d seen something calculating in his eyes when he mentioned his uncle, as if he knew the entire tale in detail.

“Yes, Mister Everhart and I have met,” she said. If he expected some emotional reaction, he’d not get one. She kept her features bland. “You do look much like him.”

Their appearance was not the only thing the two men shared. Clive, whether intentionally or not, shared his uncle’s ability to pique her temper.

BOOK: A Convenient Bride
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