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Authors: Sherry Thomas

Not Quite a Husband

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Praise for Sherry Thomas

 

“Sherry Thomas dazzles with her intelligent, compelling story and memorable characters. This well-crafted romance places her among the very finest of the next generation of authors.”


Romantic Times
(Top Pick!) on
Delicious

 

“Ravishingly sinful, intelligent and addictive.”

—Eloisa James,
New York Times
bestselling author, on
Private Arrangements

 

“Sherry Thomas neatly blends subtly nuanced characters, a stylishly detailed late Victorian setting, and a sublime, fairytale-inspired romance into an irresistible literary treat.”

—Chicago Tribune
on
Delicious

 

“Sherry Thomas breathes new life into the historical genre with her rich, sensual tale. … You’ll not want to be interrupted once you start.”

—Jane Litte,
DearAuthor.com
, on
Private Arrangements

 

“Deft plotting and sparkling characters … Steamy and smart.”


Publishers Weekly
(starred review) on
Private Arrangements

 

“A love story of remarkable depth … Entrancing from start to finish.”

—Mary Balogh,
New York Times
bestselling author, on
Private Arrangements

 

“If you’ve worried (as I have) about the future of historical romance, just remember two words: Sherry Thomas. Readers, don’t miss this one. It’s a keeper and be very thankful that historical romance has a new, shining star.”


TheRomanceReader.com
on
Private Arrangements

 

Also by Sherry Thomas
Published by Bantam Books

 

PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS

 

DELICIOUS

 

Getting a finished draft out of me takes
a good editor.
Making me cheerfully commit to start-over-from-
scratch revisions takes a great editor.
Getting a revised book out of me twice as good as
what I started with takes an extraordinary editor.

 

This book is dedicated to Caitlin Alexander,
my extraordinary editor.

 
 

My readers, for their encouragement.

Kristin Nelson and Sara Megibow of Nelson Literary Agency, who are not just fabulous agents, but all-around fabulous people.

My friend Vikram Jakkamsetti, M.D., Ph.D., for calmly and patiently answering all my questions about malaria. Sally Driscoll-Renta and Dr. Rainer Engel, for reassuring me that indeed surgeons still dug out bullets at the end of the nineteenth century.

Google Books, the best research tool I’ve ever had.

Courtney Milan, for unstintingly sharing her legal expertise.

Janine, for kind words, good advice, and pure friendship.

Meredith Duran, whose superb globe scene in her debut book,
The Duke of Shadows
, inspired me to write my own globe scene—only without any globes, of course.

My wonderful husband, for capably shouldering the preponderance of household responsibilities when I’m buried under a deadline. My mother, for all the good food she cooked for me when I spent this past Christmas on my own, madly scribbling away.

And as always, if you are reading this, thank you. Thank you for everything.

 

I
n the course of her long and illustrious
career
, Bryony Asquith was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, almost all of which described her appearance as
distinguished
and
unique
, and unfailingly commented upon the dramatic streak of white in her midnight dark hair.

The more inquisitive reporters often demanded to know how the white streak came about. She always smiled and briefly recounted a period of criminal overwork in her twenties. “It was the result of not sleeping for days on end. My poor maid, she was quite shocked.”

Bryony Asquith had indeed been in her late twenties when it happened. She had indeed been working too much. And her maid had indeed been quite
shocked. But as with any substantial lie, there was an important omission: in this case, a man.

His name was Quentin Leonidas Marsden. She’d known him all her life but never gave him a thought before he arrived in London in the spring of 1893. Within weeks of meeting him again, she proposed. Another month and they were married.

From the very beginning they were considered an unlikely pair. He was the handsomest, most popular, and most accomplished of the five handsome, popular, and accomplished sons of the seventh Earl of Wyden. By the time of their wedding, he, at age twenty-four, had had numerous papers read at the London Mathematical Society, a play staged at St. James’s Theatre, and a Greenland expedition under his belt.

He was witty, he was in constant demand, he was universally admired. She, on the other hand, spoke very little, was not in demand, and was admired only in very limited circles. In fact, most of Society disapproved of her occupation—and the fact that she had an occupation at all. For a gentleman’s daughter to pursue a medical training and then to go to work every day—
every day
, as if she were some common clerk—was it really necessary?

There were other unlikely marriages that defied all naysayers and prospered. Theirs, however, failed
miserably. For her, that was; she’d been the miserable one. He had another paper read at the mathematical society; he published an acclaimed account of his adventures in Greenland; he was more lauded than ever.

By their first anniversary things had quite deteriorated. She’d barred the door to her bedchamber and he, well, she did not think he wallowed in celibacy. They no longer dined together. They no longer even spoke when they occasionally came upon each other.

They might have carried on in that state for decades but for something he said—and not to her.

It was a summer evening, some four months after she had first denied him his marital rights. She’d returned home rather earlier than usual, before the stroke of midnight, because she’d been awake for seventy hours—a small-scale outbreak of dysentery and a spate of strange rashes had her at her microscope in the laboratory when she wasn’t seeing to patients.

She paid the cabbie and stood for a moment outside her house, head up, the palm of her free hand held out to feel for raindrops. The night air smelled of the tang of electricity. Already thunder rumbled. The periphery of the sky lit every few seconds, truant angels playing with lucifer matches.

When she lowered her face Leo was there, regarding her coolly.

He took her breath away in the most literal sense: She was too asphyxiated for her lungs to expand and contract properly. He aroused every last ounce of covetousness in her—and there was so much of it, hidden in the tenebrous recesses of her heart.

Had they been alone they’d have nodded and walked past each other without a word. But Leo had a friend with him, a loquacious chap named Wessex who liked to practice gallantry on Bryony, even though gallantry had about as much effect on her as vaccine injections on a cement block.

They’d been having excellent luck at the tables, Wessex informed her, while Leo smoothed every finger of his gloves with the fastidiousness of a deranged valet. She stared at his hands, her insides leaden, her heart ruined.

“… awfully clever, the way you phrased it. How exactly did you say it, Marsden?” asked Wessex.

“I said a good gambler approaches the table with a plan,” answered Leo, his voice impatient. “And an inferior gambler with a desperate prayer and much blind hope.”

It was as if she’d been dropped from a great height. Suddenly she understood her own action all too well. She’d been gambling. And their marriage
was the bet upon which she’d staked everything. Because if he loved her, it would make her as beautiful, desirable, and adored as he. And it would prove everyone who never loved her definitively wrong.

“Precisely!” Wessex exclaimed. “Precisely.”

“We should leave Mrs. Marsden to her repose now, Wessex,” said Leo. “No doubt she is exhausted after a long day at her noble calling.”

She glanced sharply at him. He looked up from his gloves. Even in such poor soggy light, he remained the epitome of magnetism and glamour. The spell he cast over her was complete and unbreakable.

When he’d come to London, everyone and her maid had been in love with him. He should have had the decency to laugh at Bryony, and tell her that an old-maid physician, no matter the size of her inheritance, had no business proposing to Apollo himself. He should not have given her that half smile and said, “Go on. I’m listening.”

“Good night, Mr. Wessex,” she said. “Good night, Mr. Marsden.”

Two hours later, as the storm shook the shutters, she lay in her bed shivering—she’d sat in her bath too long, until the water had chilled to the temperature of the night.

Leo
, she thought, as she did every night.
Leo. Leo. Leo
.

She bolted upright. She’d never realized it before, but this recitation of his name was her desperate prayer, her blind hopes condensed into a single word. When had mere covetousness descended into obsession? When had he become her opium, her morphia?

There were many things she could tolerate—the world was full of scorned wives who went about with their heads held high. But she could not tolerate such pitiable needs in herself. She would not be as those wretches she’d witnessed at work, wild for the love of their poison, tenderly fueling their addiction even as it robbed them of every last dignity.

He was her poison. For him she’d abandoned sense and judgment. For the lack of him she could neither eat nor sleep. Even now her mind reached toward those few moments of all-encompassing happiness she’d known with him, as if they still mattered, as if they still shone untarnished amid the rubble heaps of her marriage.

But how could she free herself from him? They were married—only a year ago, in a lavish affair for which she’d spared no expense, because she wanted the whole world to know that
she
was the one he’d chosen, above all others.

Thunder boomed as if an artillery battle raged in the streets outside. Inside the house everything was
silent and still. Not a single creak came from the stairs or the chamber that adjoined hers—she never heard any sounds from him anymore.

The darkness smothered her.

She shook her head. If she didn’t think about it—if she worked until she was exhausted every day—she could pretend that her marriage wasn’t a complete disaster.

But it was. A complete disaster, as cold as Greenland itself, and about as nourishing.

The solution came with the next flash of lightning. It was really quite simple. She had enough funds for enough lawyers to manufacture some sort of after-the-fact invalidity with the wedding ceremony. That plus one small lie—
This marriage has never been consummated
—would void the marriage altogether.

Then she could walk away from him, from the wreckage of the greatest and only gamble of her life. Then she could forget that she’d been stabbed in the heart, that all she’d ever known with him was a festering disappointment as unwholesome as any malarial swamp on the Subcontinent. Then she could breathe again.

No, she couldn’t. She could never leave him. When he smiled at her, she walked on rose petals. The few times she’d allowed him to kiss her, for
hours afterward everything had tasted of milk and honey.

If she asked for and received an annulment, he would marry someone else, and
she
would be his wife, give him the children Bryony knew she could not.

She did not want him to forget her. She would endure anything to hold on to him.

She could not stand this desperate, sniveling creature she’d become.

She loved him.

She hated both him and herself.

She hugged her shoulders tight, rocked back and forth, and stared into shadows that would not dispel.

 

She was still sitting up in bed, her arms wrapped around her knees, when her maid came in the morning. Molly went about the room, opening curtains and shutters, letting in the day.

She poured Bryony’s tea, approached the bed, and dropped the tray. Something shattered loudly.

“Oh, missus. Your hair. Your hair!”

Bryony looked up dumbly. Molly rushed about the room and returned with a hand mirror. “Look, missus. Look.”

Bryony thought she looked almost tolerable for
someone who hadn’t slept in more than three days. Then she saw the streak in her hair, two inches wide and white as washing soda.

The mirror fell from her hand.

“I’ll get some nitrate of silver and make a dye,” Molly said. “No one will even notice.”

“No, no nitrate of silver,” Bryony said mechanically. “It’s harmful.”

“Some sulphate of iron then. Or I could mix henna with some ammonia, but I don’t know if that will be—”

“Yes, you may go prepare it,” said Bryony.

When Molly was gone she picked up the mirror again. She looked strange and strangely vulnerable—the desolation she’d kept carefully hidden made manifest by the translucent fragility of her white hair. And she had no one else to blame. She’d done this to herself, with her relentless need, her delusions, her willingness to risk it all for a mythical fulfillment conjured by her fevered mind.

She set aside the mirror, wrapped her arms about her knees, and resumed her rocking. She had a few minutes before Molly rushed back with the hair dye, before she must arrange a meeting with him to calmly and rationally discuss the dissolution of their marriage.

But before that, she would permit herself one last indulgence.

Leo
, she thought.
Leo. Leo. Leo. It wasn’t supposed to end this way
.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

BOOK: Not Quite a Husband
4.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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