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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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“Do not press me, Brenna.” He tossed back the remaining ale and kept his back to her. “I am a nudge away from paddling you.”

Brenna hid her smile. “You treat me as if I am a child and you a man of advanced years. We are not so far apart. You are not yet thirty, not too old.”

“A person’s age is not always judged in years, but experiences. In that, you
are
a child.” He finally turned to her, his face stoic. “I served my country, saw things a young man should never see. I married young and lost my wife and son in childbirth. My sister may be in danger, and I can do nothing for her.” He walked to her. “So if you think I will easily succumb to your seduction, you need to rethink your game. I am world weary and hardened to the games of women.”

Stunned by his confession, Brenna sat on the bed. She realized she knew very little about the man she intended to wed, and nothing about his lost wife and child.

“I didn’t know,” she said softly. She tried to imagine the pain of losing someone she loved. How he must have suffered.

Ashwood’s jaw tightened. “I have much to accomplish tomorrow. While there is still a chance to save my sister from making a grave mistake, I’ll continue onward.” He returned to the bed and stretched out on the quilt. “For now, I need rest.”

Brenna watched him for a moment before taking a second quilt from the foot of the bed and making a pallet on the floor. She’d not ask him for any consideration.

Blowing out the lamp, she lay on her hard bed and listened
to him breathe. “I want to help you find Anne. Though I have no experience in such matters, I can see things through a woman’s eyes. If we are successful, perhaps you will do me my favor in return. As your wife, I would make no demands of you.”

The silence stretched until Brenna was convinced he was asleep. Then, “Perhaps,” he whispered in the darkness.

T
he first rays of sunlight stole through the darkness and peeked through a space in the worn curtains, the light teasing her lids. Brenna awoke to movement in the room, stretched, and startled upon realizing she was in the bed and tucked neatly beneath the quilt.

Sometime during the night, Lord Ashwood had placed her thus. There was no other explanation for her placement there or his kindness. She’d certainly given him no reason to treat her well.

“The maid brought bread with jam and tea,” he said, from a shadowed corner of the room. “If you hope to break your fast before we leave, you’d better hurry. I’ll wait below.”

Before she could answer, he collected a small pack and left her alone. Brenna wasted no time dawdling and hurried from the bed. She took care of her needs, ate quickly, and fled the room. There was no guarantee he’d wait very long for her. He’d said he was in a hurry to find his sister. He’d not think twice about leaving her behind.

The common room was quiet, with only two men lingering over their breakfast. She worried that they might be the two men from last evening, but they paid her no mind.

Ashwood sat in the corner watching her with hooded eyes, a hat low on his head. He was dressed casually in workman’s clothing and his dusty coat. He was obviously trying not to draw notice to himself, perhaps to protect his identity and therefore his sister’s reputation. Or perhaps it was to keep from being robbed on the road. Either way, there was nothing about him that indicated his nobility or wealth.

He pushed up from his chair, and Brenna followed him outside.

Brontes was standing next to his horse, saddled and ready.
The mare bobbed her head as Ashwood gave the boy a coin and helped Brenna mount. Brenna patted Brontes’s neck and stared down at her companion. “I thought I was to take the mail coach back to London.”

He looked up from checking her stirrup. “I thought proper ladies rode sidesaddle.”

She smiled. “Then we were both mistaken.”

Ashwood snorted and stepped back. “The ride will be long and difficult. If you whine, whimper, or complain, I’ll leave you off at the first coaching inn and be done with you.”

Brenna shrugged. “Then do try to keep up.”

Gathering the reins, she nudged Brontes. The mare took off as if she had wings, while Brenna laughed happily as a curse followed her flight. She was no simpering lass, and it was about time the viscount learned not to judge her only by her mistakes.

In the saddle, she was quite accomplished.

The path was easy to follow, and she slowed the horse to a walk when they came to the road, not wanting to tire her too quickly. Ashwood appeared around the bend, scowling. He drew up beside her.

They stopped.

“I already regret my decision to allow you to accompany me, but the mail coach is gone, and if I leave you behind, you’d only follow me anyway. Stubborn chit,” he groused. “If I was ever fool enough to marry you, I’d never have peace.”

“Oh, do not be grim,” Brenna replied, her smile steady under his glower. “I was only setting your mind at ease. As you see, I am a skilled rider. I’ll not whine, whimper, or complain even once, I assure you.”

He moved his gaze down her, from her cloak, to her odd trousers, to her boots, and back. “I suppose I owe it to your father to return you to him in perfect order. I cannot watch you if you are straggling along behind me. So keep close. The road can be treacherous.”

Not as treacherous as being with him, Brenna thought, if their kiss was the gauge on which to base her conclusion.

“So we are in agreement?” she asked, her tone hopeful. “We find your sister, and you marry me?”

“I agree to nothing. But I promise not to beat you. You
should consider that proof that I have forgiven you for your intrusion into my life.”

Brenna scrunched up her face. “I do not like you.”

He shrugged. “Then a marriage between us may work.”

Not knowing how to read his moods, she took the comment, and the one about not beating her, as teasing, and left it at that. She was just pleased to be allowed to join his adventure. This would give her time to convince him to wed her.

If she returned to London without a spouse, it would not be for lack of trying.

Nudging his horse forward, he led on, and she fell in behind him. Taking advantage of the opportunity to observe him unnoticed, she let her attention roam.

His hair was a sort of mix of brown and light, a bit long and unkempt. She wondered what he would look like under the care of a valet and dressed in well-made clothing. He’d likely cut a fine figure. And she knew from spending time locked against his chest that the man hadn’t an ounce of fat anywhere. He was a perfect male specimen.

A little tingle shivered through her as the kiss tugged at her mind. She wondered if, sometime during the next two or three days it would take to get to Gretna Green, they would share another kiss.

She certainly hoped so. If she were to marry the man, they’d share much more than that, even if their marriage was to be one of convenience, for his kiss was splendid, indeed.

The horses traveled onward for some time before Brenna’s attention began to wander. The pace was steady, and Ashwood made no attempts to engage her in conversation.

They were on Great North Road, heading for Scotland, like an eloping couple eagerly seeking marriage, hurrying to keep ahead of outraged relatives.

Brenna glanced behind them, expecting to see her father racing after them, her brother Simon on his heels. There was nothing but road. She turned back, and her mind drifted.

Certainly Mother and Father were worried. She hated the idea of distressing them. Still, she could not return now, without an engagement in place, or Father would make good his threats.

Her neck prickled. She turned around again; this time
there were three riders, though she was confident none were Father or Simon.

She nudged Brontes to quicken her pace, remembering Ashwood’s warning to stay close. A space had opened between them. The mare closed the gap, and Brenna took another glance behind her. The men had turned off. In their place, a large coach was visible in the distance and coming fast.

“Coach,” she said, feeling foolish for worrying. They moved to the side of the road. There would be many travelers on the road today. She should not let her mind trick her into feeling danger. The inn was behind her, and there was no sign that the men from last evening had followed them and intended to abscond with her.

Brenna turned her face as the ornate coach sped past. She’d not risk recognition. Her family was well known in society.

Richard urged his horse into a lope. Brenna did the same. She’d thought this hunt for his sister would be a grand adventure. She’d see England in a way she’d never experienced. When her family traveled, it was always by coach. They stayed at the finest inns, or at the fine homes of friends.

Some adventure, this. He barely spoke to her.

After another hour, she’d reached the last thread of patience. When he drew his horse to a walk, she nudged Brontes up beside him.

“Are we heading for a particular destination, or are we just traveling north to Gretna Green with the hope of stumbling upon your sister?”

Ashwood looked around them and up at the sky before answering. “I was delayed from the search for a few days. My steward has gone ahead to Scotland. If he has news, he will leave word at the inns he visits. The first, if I am not mistaken, is not far ahead.”

Brenna hid her relief. Though she’d promised not to complain, she did have to take care of certain needs.

The inn was small and tidy, and was far better than the one from last evening. Ashwood ordered a light repast and left Brenna at a table near a window. When he returned, he held a note that he tucked into his pocket.

“Andrew is certain that Anne passed this way by coach,
though there was no sign of Lockley. Perhaps they travel separately to keep from drawing attention.” He took a chair across from her. “She will do anything to thwart me.”

“She is headstrong like her brother,” Brenna remarked, from behind the lip of her teacup.

He frowned. “I do not understand how a woman with good breeding and intelligence could desire to marry a man of such low character.”

“She must love him. Perhaps she sees something you do not.”

The frown deepened. “He has had two wives that were still in the schoolroom when he wed them, and the first he divorced to take the younger, second bride, who died last year of a fever. He has ruined two other young women in our village, one of whom was only fourteen.” Ashwood shook his head. “Why he would want Anne is a mystery. At twenty-five, she is a full decade older than most of the girls he normally chooses.”

The story left a sickening feeling inside Brenna. She did not know Anne but agreed with the viscount’s concerns. A man who abused innocents would ruin his sister’s life.

She reached to place a hand over his. “We will find her.”

They locked eyes for a moment, and then he pulled away and stood. “Since you are both foolish enough to run away from your families, the least I can do is see to your care while you’re under my protection and hope Anne is also safe.” He tossed some coins on the table. “We must go.”

Brenna took a last sip of tea, shoved a biscuit into her pocket, and scurried after her companion.

Chapter Six

I
t was almost noon, and two more inns behind them, when Richard eased his horse off the road and into a field, where a narrow creek wound its way through the weedy expanse.

They’d ridden hard, and the horses were tired. Truthfully, though he’d never admit it to Brenna, he needed rest, too. His back ached, and his eyes were losing focus. It was easier to use the horses as an excuse than to admit to his fatigue.

“We’ll rest for a bit and eat.” He slid off the horse.

He watched Brenna nod, her face weary. Her fortitude impressed him. Though he knew she had to be exhausted, she’d held to her promise and not complained.

“You find a spot to sit, and I’ll retrieve the food,” he said, and watched her dismount. She wobbled slightly but locked her knees and stayed upright. He kept his attention on her, expecting her to crumple, and when she did not, he snorted and turned away.

Brenna nodded a second time and ambled off. After slaking their thirst in the creek, he tied the pair of horses to a tree and untied the pack from behind his saddle. For a young woman who had been raised to a life of ease, she could certainly take a battering. Her bum alone had to ache.

As if to prove his point, she rubbed her backside as she
stepped into the shade of a large tree. He chuckled low. If nothing else, she had her father’s strength.

The thought of Walter jerked his eyes from her backside. He could not forget who Brenna was. If anyone deserved his loyalty, it was Walter. He’d helped Richard when he was battling his demons and nearly everyone else had turned away from him. No matter how the kiss between them had left him out of sorts, he’d not betray his friend by taking liberties with his daughter.

This was easier to think than to actually carry out. Her appeal did not wane despite the layer of dust on her skin or the tangled locks of hair clinging to her damp skin.

He joined her where she leaned against the tree. Her eyes were half closed, the fan of black lashes shading her beautiful green eyes.

BOOK: A Convenient Bride
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