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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 yet that realization didn’t make him any more palatable, nor did knowing he was a lord and not a criminal. He was despicable no matter what form he took. She still had to find a husband because of him.

“There are few choices for women seeking employment,” Alice added. “Positions are filled as soon as they are posted. Poor women without employment often end up on the docks, servicing sailors. It is a lucky few who secure wealthy patrons.”

Brenna thought about the women of the Harrington staff whose hard work made her life one of ease. One unfortunate turn, and any one of those women could have ended up here.

She’d no longer see the housemaids, Tippy, and even their cook the same way.

“Thankfully, we have Miss Eva,” Iris said. She clasped her hands together and smiled. “She will give us husbands.”

The grim conversation quickly turned lighter. Soon there was talk about a matching party and a Husbands Book. The women spoke about it in awed tones. Brenna assumed the latter was the way Eva found matches for her courtesans.

“I want a husband who is handsome and kind,” Alice said, reaching to reclaim her needlepoint. She stabbed the cloth with the needle. “And a bit of wealth cannot hurt.”

“I want a passionate man,” Lucy said, smiling. At Alice’s frown, she shrugged. “If I am to spend my life with one fellow, I want our beddings to be enthusiastic.”

“Is sexual pleasure your only requirement?” Iris pressed. She frowned. “What if he has smelly breath or a large nose?”

“Then I shall have to hope another part of him is large as well. Then I can forgive his breath.”

“Lucy!” Iris scolded. “You must not talk so!”

Lucy glanced sheepishly at Brenna. “I do apologize for my outspoken candor. I will try to behave.”

Brenna tipped her face down and fiddled with her skirt to hide her blush. Where was Sophie?

The women continued to discuss men and the matching party, though they kept the topic suitable for all ears.

Brenna wished her own life was so easy to settle. She needed a husband, too, and thought society might fare well with its own Husbands Book. No matter how she put her mind to finding an acceptable partner, she had no success.

It was that unpleasant Lord Ashwood that continued to occupy her thoughts. He was crass and rude and unfortunately handsome, if one preferred a man who eschewed a razor. He likely enjoyed treating women poorly as a rule and took some fiendish pleasure in doing so.

If only he’d been less rude. If only he’d accepted her offer and helped her. If only he hadn’t told on her to Father.

If only.

Growing weary of husband talk, Brenna excused herself and went to her room. The bedroom was barely large enough to spin around in, though a colorful coverlet on the narrow bed and soft blue curtains warmed the space. She wondered if this was the room Laura occupied after Simon had rescued her and left her in Eva’s care.

For the first time all day, Brenna smiled. Her family certainly had its adventures. And secrets.

She went to the dressing table and sat on the chair. Her eyes looked back at her from the mirror; the same green eyes as her mother. It was the blue shadows under her eyes that were new. The stress of implementing her father’s unwelcome plan was making her positively haggard.

What to do? Finding an unacceptable suitor was no longer an option. It was likely to end badly and would take up too much of her valuable month. Still, she needed a husband, a man who would not protest if she spent her time lost in the social whirl of London, who’d not ask much of her, who’d be content with small increments of her time in exchange for a large dowry.

Slowly the grim line of her mouth dissolved into a smile, and her eyes took on a wicked cast. A man who’d rather spend time buried in the country with his sheep.

*  *  *

D
arkness disappeared into gold and orange hues as dawn drifted over the horizon. Brenna slipped over the sash of the first-floor parlor window and dropped to the ground, her boots making a soft thud on the damp grass.

She paused and listened for any sign that she’d been heard. Nothing indicated that her escape had been noted. Though the small staff of servants were beginning their day, Miss Sophie and the former courtesans were still abed.

This was the perfect time to escape. She’d not be noticed missing for several hours.

She adjusted her borrowed clothing. She’d found the blue skirt and soiled white shirt in a bin meant for charity, and she’d altered the skirt into a crude pair of trousers with scissors and two rows of crooked stitches.

A coach ambled down the street, and she pressed herself against the house. She breathed again only after the conveyance made a turn at the corner and faded off into the distance.

Thankfully, her father hadn’t posted guards. She felt guilty breaking his trust but hoped that if her adventure went well, all would be forgiven when she returned.

Like a thief, she lowered the window behind her and crossed the small garden. The gate squawked when she pushed it open and stepped through. The groom from the house next door stood just outside the gate with her horse, Brontes, saddled and waiting.

Once she’d decided to run off, a quick trip into the mews after supper, and a brief search of the row of small stables, found her the perfect conspirator. The groom had no qualms about thievery for the right price.

“Yer late,” he grumbled, and scratched his ear. He was a slovenly fellow of undetermined age, whose stained clothing smelled offensively of manure and ale.

“I overslept.” She nuzzled the mare’s white nose and smiled as the horse returned the nuzzling. “Were there any problems collecting her?”

He grinned, showing a missing tooth. In the dim light, he appeared a menacing character. Thankfully, Brenna was
within screaming distance of several houses, should he decide to collect more than the agreed-upon payment.

“Not a one. The stable is not well watched. Only a fool does not guard ’is horses.”

Brenna glared. “Lord Harrington does not expect anyone to steal from him.” She scanned his unpleasant face. “You promised to speak about this to no one. I ask you now to renew that promise.”

He shrugged and stuck out his calloused hand. “Yer reasons fer stealing the nag are no matter te me.”

She showed him his payment. “You left the note?” At his nod, she pressed her ear bobs into his open palm. He grinned again, licked his lips, and ambled off.

Father would be livid when he received the note and realized she’d taken Brontes. Worse, that she’d fled the courtesan school and thwarted his orders. If this plan did not end as she hoped, it would be the convent, or Chester Abbot, for her. Either made her shudder.

Shaking off growing reservations, she quickly made certain the stirrups were at the right height, then wrapped the reins around Brontes’s neck. With the skill of an experienced rider, Brenna mounted and settled into the saddle.

Riding astride was not difficult. As a child, she’d raced bareback around the fields with her brothers on whatever grazing horses they could catch. She knew this ride would take her some distance and hoped her disguise would keep her from recognition should she stumble upon someone she knew.

The saddle, her odd clothing, and the fact that she was traveling alone would be ruinous if she were caught.

Adjusting her hooded cloak to partially obscure her face from view, she made her way from London.

By the time she reached the outskirts, though still early, the road west was already filled with travelers. She waited until a pair of coaches passed her, heading in the right direction, and fell in behind them for safety.

If she kept up the brisk pace, she’d be at Beckwith Hall in about two hours. If her plotting came to fruition, she’d return in a day or two, none the worse for wear.

With a husband in tow.

Chapter Four

T
he inn was raucous, the sound of ribald laughter spilling from open windows and into the darkened yard.

Brenna slowed as she neared the squat and ramshackle building, her eyes and ears alert to possible danger. After discovering through his butler that her quarry, the now missing viscount, had left his home a half day earlier on a ride north to find his sister, she knew the simple trip to find her future husband had gotten much more complicated.

This was the third inn she’d stopped at today, and both she and Brontes were nearing the end of their stamina. If she did not find Ashwood here, she could be in serious trouble.

Clearly, by the looks of it, the inn was no place for a lady. Worse, the darkness that now shadowed the roads held all sorts of dangers to unwary travelers. A woman alone would be easy pickings for highwaymen and other scoundrels.

There was nowhere else to go. She’d have to take her chances with the inn and pray for luck to finally turn her way.

She’d not expected to have to chase down the viscount on muddy roads and through bouts of both blinding sun and brief showers. She longed for home and a bath to ease her aching muscles and clear travel grit from her hair and skin.

“Can I take yer ’orse from ye, Miss?” A small boy with
dirty cheeks and mussed hair peered up at her in the dim light spilling from the inn.

Brenna nodded. “See that she is fed and watered.”

“Aye, Miss.” The boy took Brontes and the proffered coin and ambled away. Brenna pulled her hood low to hide her face, traveled the short distance to the door, and pushed her way into the inn. Hers wasn’t the best disguise, but it would have to do.

The smell of unwashed bodies and peat smoke assailed her senses, and she stumbled to a halt just inside the door. She resisted the urge to press a finger up under her nose. Showing weakness could encourage harassment from the coarse men seated around the common room.

A few travelers glanced in her direction, as she swept her gaze around the packed space. Thankfully, there were a few women scattered about, though not enough to ease her mind.

Quickly, so as not to draw more attention to herself than necessary, she sought out the innkeeper. She described Ashwood as she remembered him from their one brief encounter.

“There are several men who match that description, Miss.” He shrugged and ran his gaze over her, his keen eyes taking her measure. “Maybe, if ye give me a moment to think on it, me mind will clear.”

Brenna frowned. She understood quite well what would clear his mind. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a coin. She held it up. “The man has a small scar under his left eye.”

The innkeeper reached for the coin. Brenna pulled it back. “The information first,” she said. She wasn’t a world traveler, but she had the intelligence to know the man would cheat her, had he the opportunity.

The innkeeper scratched his round belly under a soiled white shirt and snorted. “The bloke took a room upstairs, third door on the right.”

Brenna tossed him the coin and retreated toward the staircase. She felt the heaviness of several pairs of eyes on her as she weaved through the common room and hurried up the staircase.

The corridor to the indicated room was dark. Brenna
shivered and pulled the hood of the cloak low over her forehead. She couldn’t let panic overwhelm her. If this man wasn’t Lord Ashwood, she didn’t think she’d make it back out of the building unmolested.

Brenna paused outside the door and looked down at her travel-stained garments. She knew she smelled of horse and leather. Not the best condition in which to confront the man she intended to marry. Still, she had no choice but to forge onward.

A sharp rap on the scarred panel brought a shuffle of feet from inside. Her heart raced. The door jerked open, and Lord Ashwood stood before her, his face weary and his clothing rumpled from hard travel.

He grimaced. “I didn’t order a woman. Find another bed to warm, wench.”

Brenna stuck her boot in the door before it slammed closed. “Wait.” He paused. She pushed back her hood. “I was not sent by the innkeeper, Milord.”

It was impossible to guess whether it was the sound of her voice or the remembrance of her face that caused the look of utter surprise on his face. But she had only enough time for a short gasp as he grabbed her arm, jerked her inside the room, and slammed the door behind her.

“Brenna.” His grip tightened, and she tried not to whimper. “What in the hell are you doing here?”

He left her no time to answer. He pushed her against the wall and pressed a hand over her mouth as muffled footsteps sounded from the corridor. Whoever the party was, he or she paused outside the room as if listening for…something. Low-voiced conversation followed. There were at least two men.

Brenna felt Ashwood’s irregular breaths on her cheek as he pressed against her. Her heart raced, and her blood whooshed in her ears.

“Where’d the wench go off to?” a gruff voice asked.

“She has te be ’ere somewheres,” said a second man. They went silent, as if listening for clues to her whereabouts.

Brenna pressed her face against the viscount’s neck to help muffle her breathing. He smelled of male and fresh air and slightly of horse. His arm around her confirmed he was no
milksop but a man of sinewy strength. If the two men wanted trouble, she’d be well protected.

BOOK: A Convenient Bride
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