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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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And now they were gone.

“We have to keep searching,” Richard said, and ran a hand through his damp hair. He’d lost his hat in the wild chase after Brenna’s coach. Catching a chill would be the perfect end to a disheartening day.

He’d run down and searched three coaches today, like the highwayman the exasperating Miss Harrington had accused him of being, and found no sign of Anne. Time was wasting, and he was losing hope.

A headache pressed against his temples.

“Where could they have gone?” Andrew said, his voice etched with concern. He and Anne were friends of long standing. His worry was second only to Richard’s.

Richard looked north. “As far as I can discern, they haven’t taken Great North Road toward Gretna Green, so that is some comfort. Whatever their destination, making the journey on less-traveled roads will be slower. I’ll send out men in all directions, and we’ll cover more ground. Until we get a hint of their route, we cannot take up their trail. I just hope we find her before she makes a run for Scotland.”

Andrew scowled and twisted the reins in his gloved hands. “The bastard needs a thorough trouncing.”

Richard nodded. “I will do that, and more, once I catch up with them. I can only hope I’ll not be too late.” He knew he needed luck and his swift horse if he was to save Anne from herself. “Until we have solid information of their direction, I intend to keep searching the surrounding area. I suspect Lockley has no real intention to wed her, so they may still be near. I’ll take the road to—” He was cut off by the sight of his groom, Manny, racing up the road, panic on his face.

“What is it?” Richard asked, as the horse skidded to a stop.

“The Cooksons’ cottage is burning. Mr. Cookson has been injured. He rushed in to save his youngest and was hurt. Milord, you must come quickly!”

Richard’s stomach turned. Mr. Cookson was his tenant and a friend. He had five children and a wife heavy with child. “Did you send for the physician?”

“Aye, Milord.”

Richard turned back to Andrew. “Take Great North Road and try to get in front of Anne, should she end up in Gretna Green. I will see to the Cooksons and continue my search here. If you discover she is indeed heading north, I’ll meet you in Scotland as soon as I am able.” He pulled the pistol from his waistband and handed it to his steward. “If you find them, shoot the bastard, Lockley, if you must.”

Chapter Two

B
renna!”

Father’s voice reverberated through the town house, startling a pair of maids, who skittered off toward the kitchen as if their skirts were ablaze.

Brenna winced. Walter Harrington seldom raised his voice to his children, unless they’d done something outrageous. Her father was generally a controlled man. For him to shout loud enough to send servants fleeing did not bode well for her.

And there was a note of anger in his tone.

She rose up onto her slipper-covered toes, hoping to tiptoe up the stairs and race to the safety of her room, when a second bellow from his study, outmatching the first, boomed off the walls and snapped her upright.

“Brenna!”

There was no escape. Two shouts indicated that she was about to be flogged, figuratively speaking, for some misdeed. A locked door wouldn’t keep him from his course. When father summoned, you answered the call. There were no exceptions.

With weighted steps, she headed off in his direction. The swish of satin and lace marked her passage down the suddenly quiet hallway. A sense of doom rose with each step.

The only thing she could do was accept her punishment and hope it wouldn’t be dire. But what was causing his ire this
time? Since her list of infractions was lengthy, it was impossible to point in one direction.

“Yes, Father,” she said sweetly, as she crossed the threshold into the study. “You wanted to see me?”

Slowly, he stood, and she froze. His face was angrier than she ever remembered seeing. A sheet of paper was gripped tightly in his hand as he rounded the desk and stalked toward her like a cat on a hapless mouse. It was all Brenna could do not to flinch backward when he reached her.

He thrust out his hand and handed over the note. “Explain this,” he said, his checks flushed a deep puce.

With hands shaking, she took the crumpled missive and quickly read the first two paragraphs of the lengthy note. Her heart squeezed painfully in her chest as her eyes dropped past the bulk of the note to the name at the bottom. In spite of not recognizing the scrawled signature, she knew immediately who had sent her to the gallows.

Her highwayman. The details of her crime were too intimate for it to be anyone but him. Theirs had been a private conversation. The bastard had betrayed her.

“How—?” Her voice was a strangled squeak.

“The man you offered to pay to compromise you was not a thief but my dear friend Lord Richard Ellerby, the Viscount Ashwood, who stopped your hired coach while looking for his missing sister. He was worried you’d come to harm and sent around this note.” His hands closed into fists in front of his mouth. “I cannot believe you’ve done such a thing, Daughter. Were you willing to risk your innocence, your life, just to avoid a marriage?”

Never had Brenna experienced such censure from her father. He was grievously disappointed in her. This realization twisted a hard knot in her stomach as tears threatened to spill. “I’m sorry, Father.”

He snatched back the note and shook his head. “What am I to do with you? Lock you in a wardrobe? Place a guard on your door day and night?”

Brenna sniffed and whispered, “I cannot marry Chester Abbot. Please do not force me to, Father. He is horrid.”

Father spun on his heel and returned to the desk. He dropped the paper on the surface and turned back. “It was
never our intention to force you to marry that toad.” His face softened, but only slightly. “We hoped that with Abbot looming as a potential mate, you’d finally accept a suitor, any suitor, and settle down with a family of your own.”

Her eyes widened. “I do not have to marry the marquess?” She was free! “Thank you, Father,” she exclaimed with relief. “You are the best father!”

When she opened her arms and took a step toward him, he raised his hand. She stopped.

“You may wish to reserve your glee until I have finished what I have to say.” He crossed his arms. “Daughter, you are in clear need of more supervision than I can give. You managed to coerce poor Fletcher into defying my directive, and had the ‘highwayman’ not been a friend, I can only speculate about what might have happened to you. Thus, I have made a decision. A husband
is
what you need to rein in your impulsive nature.”

She blanched. “Father, no!”

He leveled a hard stare on her. “For a moment, I considered a convent, but knew you’d never accept a pious life. So you will have one month to choose a man to wed. All I require is that he has some wealth to keep you in gowns, doesn’t gamble, and is kind. Otherwise, the choice is yours.”

Marriage. Though she was free of the marquess, she’d still be chained to some other man she didn’t love. She couldn’t fall in love in a month. It was impossible.

Several options raced through her head. She had to find a way out of this!

“Brenna…,” he warned, “I will not be dissuaded or tricked into changing my mind. You will be betrothed by month’s end or off to the convent with you.”

She swallowed. Hard. “Yes, Father.”

Mentally scrolling through a quick list of men of her acquaintance, dread grew. Though most of the chaps were pleasant enough to dance or chat with, not one of those men made her heart race or her skin tingle—an affliction commonly known to happen when a person felt passionate about someone else.

It was the Viscount Ashwood who held that unwelcome distinction. The beast. He’d kept her from following through
with one bout of poor judgment, only to throw her into another, slightly less unacceptable muddle.

Brenna’s frustration with the highwayman over the last two days had turned to exasperation when she realized that several times since their encounter, his unshaven face and expressive blue eyes had drifted into her thoughts. She’d even caught herself caressing the spot on her wrist where he’d touched her.

And those caresses weren’t to relieve an ache from his rough treatment of her wrist. His regretfully handsome features and male form had taken up a permanent place in her girlish dreams, like some dark knight of old, weighted with armor and ready to do battle for her affections. To learn he was not a thief but a peer, and Father’s friend, served to make it worse. It was probable that during society functions in the future, she would have to socialize with the man. A dreary notion indeed!

Lud, she hated him!

As if noticing her woolgathering, Father cleared his throat. “I do not accept your promise as heartfelt, the way I would were you a more manageable daughter. Already, I suspect you are thinking of some way to thwart my plan.”

Brenna looked down at her feet.

He waited a moment, then snorted. “You have been raised as a lady of quality and therefore have not been subjected to the harshness of life outside society. So I have taken it upon myself to arrange for you to learn what life is like for women without the benefit of your good fortune.”

Brenna frowned.

“For the next week, you will be in the care of your cousin Eva’s courtesan school. They are currently holding lessons, so there will be several courtesans in residence. Though I find the idea of putting my innocent daughter in the acquaintance of courtesans distasteful, I see no other option. Hopefully, by the end of the week, your eyes will be open to what can happen to unlucky young women who proposition strangers.”

Brenna gaped. She’d only just become privy to Eva’s secret school through her cousin Noelle and her brother Simon. She was still trying to get over that surprise news. Now her father
wanted to send her off to Cheapside to live among the courtesans?

“Father, you cannot do this.” Even now, her face burned. She’d never even been kissed, not really. A brush or two of male lips on hers did not count. What sorts of things would she learn in the company of women of loose moral character? What if the gossips discovered her whereabouts? She’d be ruined forever. What kind of man would marry her then? Even a highwayman would not have her!

“Father, please!”

His glare stopped further protest. “It has been arranged. As we speak, Tippy is packing what you’ll need.” He leaned to press a kiss on her forehead. “You need not plead to your mother. She is in agreement. And should you defy my wishes, I can still have you shackled to Abbot before the fortnight is over.”

Blood drained from her face. He left her to contemplate her fate.

She walked to a chair and dropped into it, her mind jumbled. She was a lady. How dare Father foist her off into a household full of courtesans?

Eva. Cousin. Secret courtesan rescuer-matchmaker. Duchess. A woman of many faces.

Brenna liked her very much, and her husband, His Grace, was pleasing to look at. Still, just because Eva enjoyed rescuing courtesans it did not make it right for a woman of society to move among them.

The clock chimed and snapped her from her musing. Perhaps she could hide with a friend until Father gave up this idea? She looked at the window and wondered if she could squeeze through the sash without tearing her skirt.

“I would not attempt escape if I were you, Sister,” Simon remarked dryly. “I would hate to ruin my boots racing after you across the damp grass.”

Brenna turned in her seat to see her brother standing in the doorway, smoothing the wrinkles out of his coat. Simon had recently married and was living nearby with his wife, Laura. She was a delightful addition to the family and agreed with Brenna’s mother, Kathleen, on the matter of Brenna marrying for love. It was the men who did not have the patience to wait
for Brenna to make her own choice. They considered her a hoyden who needed a marital leash.

“I can still outrun you, Brother,” she snapped, and sat back on the fine leather chair. “I suppose you have come to gloat. You will not convince me you did not know of Father’s plan to imprison me at the courtesan school.”

Simon cocked a brow and smirked. “Know about it? He has sent me to escort you. Only then can he be assured you’ll not leap from the coach and vanish.”

Brenna grumbled under her breath about traitorous brothers and obstinate fathers. Then, “When did I become the family menace?”

Simon shot her a wicked look. “At birth.”

For a moment, she considered launching from the chair and chasing him around the study with Father’s carved crystal paperweight. However, such a display of temper would serve to confirm to her father that she did indeed need supervision. Instead, she glared daggers at him and kept her seat.

“You have one hour to ready yourself.” Simon looked at his pocket watch. “At two ten, I expect you to be waiting in the coach wearing your plainest gown.”

This time Brenna couldn’t contain herself. She pushed to her feet and stuck out her tongue in a most childish manner. His chuckle followed her out of the room.

T
he distance to the courtesan school wasn’t long, and Brenna spent the ride to Cheapside scowling at and plotting the untimely demise of her smug brother.

BOOK: A Convenient Bride
11.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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