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Authors: Joan Johnston

Invincible

BOOK: Invincible
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Praise for the novels of
JOAN JOHNSTON

“Johnston warms your heart and tickles your fancy.”

—
New York Daily News

“Joan Johnston [creates] unforgettable subplots and characters who make every fine thread weave into a touching tapestry.”

—
Affaire de Coeur

“[Johnston is] a top-notch craftsman.”

—
RT Book Reviews

“Romance devotees will find Johnston lively and well-written, and her characters perfectly enchanting.”

—
Publishers Weekly

“Ms. Johnston writes of intense emotions and tender passions that seem so real that readers will feel each one of them.”

—
Rave Reviews

“Johnston's characters struggle against seriously deranged foes and face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to true love.”

—
Booklist

“A guaranteed good read.”

—
New York Times
and
USA TODAY
bestselling author Heather Graham

JOAN JOHNSTON

New York Times
bestselling author of

The Hawk's Way series,

The Benedict Brothers series,
which includes

OUTCAST

INVINCIBLE

and the Bitter Creek series,
which includes

THE COWBOY

THE TEXAN

THE LONER

THE PRICE

THE RIVALS

THE NEXT MRS. BLACKTHORNE

A STRANGER'S GAME

SHATTERED

Please visit her website at
www.joanjohnston.com
for a complete listing
of her titles and series.

JOAN JOHNSTON
INVINCIBLE

For Donna Hayes, Loriana Sacilotto,
Margaret O'Neill Marbury, Valerie Gray and Linda McFall.
A writer couldn't ask for a better support team.

Prologue

H
ow hard could it be to find spouses for her five grown children before she died? Bella supposed it depended on how long it took for her failing heart to give out. No one had ever accused the five Benedict children of being easy to handle. All of them over twenty-five, and not one of them ever engaged, let alone married.

That might have something to do with the lives they led as members of British royalty. Bella was actually Isabella Wharton Benedict, Duchess of Blackthorne. She certainly had her work cut out for her finding mates for four British-American lords and a lady. Bella corrected herself. Make that four gentlemen rogues and a spoiled rotten lady.

Could she do it? Did she dare try?

Bella stared out the window from her hospital bed at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, wondering where to start. She ran a brush through her shoulder-length black hair, which was threaded with more silver every day. She might be in the autumn of her life, but here in Virginia it was spring, when love blossomed.

Cardinals flirted in the flowering dogwood trees. Blue-and-black-and-yellow butterflies cavorted in the daffodils. Squirrels chattered at each other and played tag, tails flying. With any luck, her titled offspring would find themselves equally vulnerable to romance during this fertile season.

She threw the engraved silver brush onto the bedside table and turned her attention back to the doctor standing at the foot of her hospital bed. “What's the verdict?”

“You're still at about thirty percent heart function.”

That was actually good news. At least she hadn't lost function since her last checkup. She could live—for a while, maybe years—with that little heart function. But the point was, her heart was dying, and she was dying along with it.

That's what she got for insisting she could ski down an icy slope in the Alps. She'd survived the blunt force trauma to her heart when she'd lost control and gone over a cliff. But the injury had caused scarring that had resulted in reduced heart function and continuing heart failure.

“How long do I have?” she asked.

“The new meds I gave you should keep you up and running for a while.”

“Running?” Bella said with a quirk of her lips.

“Figuratively,” the doctor qualified. “You should certainly be exercising regularly to keep what's left of your heart muscle healthy. And take your meds!”

Bella eyed the numerous bottles of pills she needed to keep her heart functioning. She hated depending on all
those pills, but they allowed her an almost-normal life. ACE inhibitors. Beta blockers. Aldosterone antagonist drugs. She couldn't begin to name the individual prescriptions. The problem was, at some point—in the not too distant future—her heart was still going to fail.

“How long do I have?” Bella asked again.

“Can't say,” the doctor replied.

“Guess.”

The doctor shrugged. “A year for sure. Maybe two. Three if you take care of yourself—and you're lucky. Or you could have a heart attack tomorrow. We just can't predict these things.”

Bella shivered. That wasn't much of a future.

“I do have some good news,” the doctor said.

“I'll take what I can get.”

“We've been making enormous strides in stem cell therapy. Stay alive long enough and we may be able to rejuvenate that heart of yours with your own stem cells.”

“How long is long enough?” Bella asked.

The doctor focused on the medical chart in his hands. “Can't say.”

“And if my heart continues to fail?”

“Heart transplant is a possibility down the line. Unfortunately, it won't be easy finding a heart for you, Bella. B-negative donors aren't thick on the ground.”

Bella smiled. Her doctor was young, a prodigy whose bedside manner left a lot to be desired. She appreciated his honesty. Knowing how much—or rather, how little—time she had left allowed her to plan how to use it wisely.

But a year? Two years? Three, if she was lucky? She had even less time than she'd hoped to get her children wed. With so little time, some of those marriages might have to be arranged without her offspring's cooperation. It had to be marriage, she'd decided. Nothing less would do. Her marriage to Bull Benedict had been her salvation.

It had started badly, with blackmail on her side. Her aunt had threatened twenty-nine-year-old billionaire financier Jonathan “Bull” Benedict with charges of statutory rape if he didn't marry destitute seventeen-year-old Isabella Wharton, Duchess of Blackthorne. Bull had sworn he'd hate her forever if she forced him into marriage.

She'd bit her lip and gone along with her aunt's wishes in order to save her hereditary home, Blackthorne Abbey. And to give her unborn child a name. It was only later that Bull questioned whether he was the father of their first child. Only later that he learned Oliver was some other man's son.

Because they were bound by law, they'd been forced to deal with one another's lies. Because they were husband and wife, they'd scratched their bloody way through the tangled thorns of deceit to a love that healed all wounds.

Bella wanted her children bound to someone they could love by vows made before God. She was certain the moral commitment created by the spoken words, words pledging love and faith to one another, would give the
young lovers the perseverance necessary to work through any differences that threatened their happiness.

She didn't want her children wandering the world alone after she was gone, believing that love was a false thing. That love couldn't be trusted. That was the lesson she feared they'd learned from the wickedness—the malicious trickery—that had finally torn her marriage apart.

“Of course, Bella, if you do end up with a new heart—or a rejuvenated one—you'll be good to go for another fifty years,” the doctor said, interrupting her thoughts.

“Thanks a lot,” Bella said with a wry laugh. She was fifty-two. Reaching a hundred and two sounded pretty ambitious. And lonely, unless she could find a way to win her husband's forgiveness. Bella felt hopeless about any sort of reconciliation with Bull. Especially when she considered how little she could tell him—certainly not the truth—about the event that had caused their bitter separation ten years ago, after twenty-five years of marriage.

They were still legally wed, but it was a marriage in name only. They lived separate lives. Every day for the past ten years, she'd feared Bull would come to her and ask for a divorce. It had never happened. She wondered if he was clinging to a fragile thread of hope, as she was, that someday they would find their way back to each other. Or whether he simply wanted to preserve his fortune. A fortune which, thanks to an ironclad prenuptial agreement, would only have to be shared with
her if they stayed married for twenty-five years. They'd reached that mark a month before their separation.

Bella sighed inwardly. The chances of “love conquering all” seemed slim, considering how little time she had left. She needed to focus on her children's happiness. When the end came would be soon enough to make peace with Bull.

“When can I get out of here?” she asked.

“Today, if you promise to follow my orders,” the doctor replied. “Make sure you exercise, Bella. Take your meds. And avoid stress. Otherwise…” He drew a finger across his neck, hung his head sideways and made a dying sound.

Bella grimaced at his antics. Maybe she could get Oliver, Riley, Payne, Max and Lydia to come to her, instead of having to go to the four corners of the earth to find them. Without revealing her precarious health, of course. Mother's Day was coming up. That would make a good excuse to summon them to The Seasons, the Benedict family estate near Richmond, a former tobacco plantation her estranged husband's family had owned since colonial days.

The doctor turned to Bella's personal assistant, a quiet, intelligent, almost homely girl Bella had hired three years ago when she first began taking medication for her ailing heart, and ordered, “I don't want her out partying till the wee hours, Emily. Bella needs rest if she's going to stay alive until we can repair her heart—or find her a new one.”

“Of course, Doctor,” Emily replied. “I'll take good care of Her Grace.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Emily Sheldon was nothing if not dutiful, Bella thought. The young Englishwoman refused to address Bella by name, instead referring to her in clipped British tones as “Your Grace,” an honor to which Bella was entitled by virtue of her aristocratic rank.

The refined, straitlaced young woman, who'd become as dear to her as another daughter, would follow the doctor's orders to the letter. If Bella didn't want to find herself being hounded by her assistant, she was going to have to involve Emily in her matchmaking plans.

When the doctor was gone, Emily began fussing with the sheets, pulling them up around Bella's pale blue silk robe and smoothing them down. “I urge you to consider the consequences if you disobey the doctor's orders, Your Grace. I'll do my best to help you—”

Bella put a hand on her assistant's delicate wrist and said, “Please sit down, Emily. I have something to discuss that's going to require your entire attention—our entire attention—for the foreseeable future.”

BOOK: Invincible
13.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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