Read The Perfect Stranger Online

Authors: Anne Gracie

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Regency

The Perfect Stranger (9 page)

BOOK: The Perfect Stranger
7.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“It will be a ceremony, that is all. A mere form.”

She shook her head. “I…I’m sorry. I cannot think what to do.”

“What is there to think about?”

Her jaw dropped. “What is there to think about? Only everything! I’ve almost destroyed my life by trusting one man—and I thought I knew him”

“I am a man of my word and was an officer in Wellington’s army. You may trust me. By all means take some time to think. A moment’s reflection will convince you.”

“Oh, will it?” His calm masculine assumption of rightness exacerbated her already tense nerves. “Then I’d better go off and reflect, hadn’t I?” Faith lifted her skirts and marched into the water, enjoying the cool water against her skin, knowing he could not follow because of his boots.

He waited on the shore, picking up stones and skimming them across the glassy surface of the sea, as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

“You may trust me.”

Trust me?
The last man who’d said that had also been trying to coax her into marriage. Not that Nicholas Blacklock was exactly coaxing. The way he’d put it was more like an order. But whether a blunt, unemotional order or a wildly romantic proposal, the effect was the same; she must trust herself and her future to a man.

Never again,
she’d sworn. Never again put herself in the power of a man. She’d escaped Grandpapa’s harsh rule, only to hurl herself into Felix’s web of lies and humiliation. Both of them had left her scarred. She would be mad to trust herself to another man, particularly one she didn’t know.

A small voice reminded her that she hadn’t done too well with men she’d known. What was the difference in trusting a stranger?

She couldn’t afford to put her fate in a man’s hands. Any man’s. And especially this—this stranger!

But could she afford not to? She’d made such a mess of her life. Could he truly make it worse?

Yes. He could. There were worse things than those she’d experienced. Those men last night, for instance.

“It would be a white marriage, naturally.”
If he truly meant it, a white marriage with his name as a gift, what would he get out of it? He had to get something. No man would offer what he offered without some reward.

She turned back to him. “You know nothing about me. I could be a…a criminal, for all you know.”

He snorted. “Nonsense!”

She splashed back toward him. “I might be! You cannot tell I am not!”

“Believe me, I can tell.” Nick kept his expression bland. She sounded almost put out at his refusal to consider her a criminal. “As for myself and what I get out of marrying you, well, for one thing, it will please my mother.”

“Your mother?” She sounded just as put out by that.

“Yes. For the last few months she has flung eligible young ladies at my head in the hope that one of them might interest me.”

“Why didn’t they?”

Why didn’t they?
He thought of the young ladies his mother had brought home for him. He couldn’t imagine any of them looking such a gift horse so suspiciously in the mouth. They’d have jumped at his offer, no matter what. It was only he who knew the gift horse was no gift at all.

“That bad, was it?” Her soft voice interrupted his thoughts.

He grimaced. “The process was unfortunate. And so my mother did not get the daughter-in-law she wanted so badly.”

“Did she have a particular girl in mind?”

“No, anyone would do—as long as I was married.” He picked up a handful of sand and trailed it though his fist onto his boots, listening to the soft hiss it made. “I should add that since my older brother Henry died of a fever three years ago, I am the last of my line. It is not so much a bride my mother wants—it is a grandchild. A grandson.”

“Oh!”

He realized at once what she was thinking. “It was not, however, an heir for Blacklock Manor that I was thinking of when I proposed to you. I care nothing for that. That was my brother Henry’s job, and if he did not secure the succession before he died…” He shrugged. “I simply thought that since you were in need of a husband and my mother was desperate for me to wed, I could kill two birds with one stone. I should add, I have been something of a disappointment to her all my life. You could live safely and securely at Blacklock Manor, and you would be company for her.”

“But what would she think of having a daughter-in-law foisted on her who was not really your, um—”

“She need not know that there was no marriage bed. My cousin will inherit the estate when I die, but my mother is amply provided for. As will you be.”

“I could not take your charity—”

He snorted, “It is not charity. You would be doing me—it would be a mutual favor.” He shifted his position on the sand and crossed his legs restlessly. His mother would have a fit! The heir to Blacklock and a waif of the sand hills! Nicholas imagined the letter he could write:

Dear Mother,
I have found the new mistress of Blacklock. I found her hiding in some French sand hills, courtesy of a bogus Hungarian swine called Yuri Popov. She is a dear little soul, and I think she will make a very nice daughter-in-law. I hope this compensates for my running away.
Your loving though disobedient son,
Nicholas.

“Is your mother an invalid? Lonely? Is that what you want—someone to take care of her?”

“Lord, no, she’s as fit as a flea! Nor is she lonely; she has dozens of friends. I am not after a nurse or companion for her.”

“Then I don’t understand! I would have my reputation saved and a home—in exchange for what? It seems a very unequal proposition.” Her voice softened, “Forgive me if I seem rude or ungrateful, but my recent experiences have taught me not to trust people’s words so simply.

He shook his head. “No, you are right to question me. For a start, it is no great thing I offer. I am no great catch, if that’s what you are thinking. You would simply get my name, a place to live, and a comfortable allowance. And I would get…” He frowned, wondering how best to convince her.

Convince her?
Nicholas caught himself up on the thought. Why would he want to convince her? She was nothing to him. At least she ought to be. And yet…he did want her to marry him. It was the only way he could think of to protect her from her folly. He could not continue his journey knowing he’d done nothing to ease her lot. It would rest his mind considerably to know she was safe and well provided for at Blacklock.

“Almost all my mother has talked about for the last few months is my wedding. Instead, I left England, unmarried. And I left in a hurry.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t. It is a bigger oversight than you realize. I am only now realizing how much my actions will have upset my mother. If I can send her my bride…” He shrugged. “I don’t know—I suppose it would be a form of apology for the abrupt way I left.”

There was a short silence. Her voice trembled as she said, “You don’t think a bunch of flowers and a nice little note might be easier?”

It took him a few seconds to realize. “Are you laughing at me?” he asked suspiciously.

“I am sorry,” she said eventually, her voice still shaking. “It is just that I have never thought of myself as a living apology before. It takes a little getting used to. Tell me, would I expect to be wrapped up? And would you wish to pin a note to my skirt, or would I be required to repeat your apology, parrot style. I must warn you, I never was very good at recitation.”

The chit
was
laughing at him! He didn’t know how long it had been since someone had actually had the temerity to laugh at him.

“You, miss, are a baggage!” he said severely.

“Yes, sir,” she said in a docile manner that fooled him not at all.

“I simply wish to please my mother, to show her that her attempts to urge me into marriage had not been in vain and that I am not completely the ungrateful, undutiful son she no doubt thinks me.”

Her voice sobered. “But you would still be undutiful, for if we made a…a paper marriage, it would be a deception. You said she wanted grandchildren.”

Nick made a dismissive gesture but said nothing. Her logic was impeccable, dammit!

She pondered his silence for a few moments and then said, “So if we were to marry, I would go to England and be foisted on your mother. What would you be doing in the meantime?”

“Me?” He shrugged again. “I will continue my journey, of course.”

“I see. To Paris?”

“No. We shall make our way down the coast to Spain and then travel inland.”

“Oh?”

He hesitated. It would do no harm to explain his route. “In Spain and…and beyond, I will be visiting some sites of the late war, places I fought in…battlefields where some of my friends died.”

“You must miss your friends very much.”

He shrugged. He did miss them. More than he could explain, even to this soft-eyed girl.

“And when your journey is completed, shall you return to Blacklock Manor then? To your mother and—if I married you—to me?”

He picked up another stone and threw it far out to sea. “I doubt I shall return to Blacklock. My journey will go on. You will be free to do as you wish.”

“I don’t understand,” she said after a moment. “Do you mean we would get an annul—?”

“Those are my terms. Now choose,” he said in a hard voice.

Faith’s thoughts were in turmoil. She sat in the sand and thought and thought. It seemed all wrong. It was not how two people should marry—without love, without knowing each other, for the sake of appearances. But she’d married for love once and ruined her life by it.

“I know it’s not ideal, but I must press you for an answer today. It is just that I don’t have much time.”

“There is no need to delay your journey because of me,” she said, knowing she sounded snippy and ungrateful. But really, would he leave her no choice, no say in her own wedding? Did he think she had no pride left at all? “Besides, you haven’t even asked me!” She sighed. “I know it is irrational, that I have no choice, but—”

“You
always
have a choice!” He bent and picked up another stone. “Forgive me. I am anxious to get on my way, and I was so certain of the rightness of this, that I did not consider your feelings.”

“Oh, but I—”

“No!” He skipped the stone along the surface of the water, and they both watched as it skipped four times before sinking. “There is
always
a choice. Always!”

She was surprised by his vehemence. “I know, but not for me.” He opened his mouth to argue, and she stopped him with a finger on his lips. “No, don’t. I—I suppose I’m just being missish and contrary.” His lips were cool and firm, and his breath was warm against her fingers. An odd tingle ran through them. She dropped her hand hurriedly. It was just—

“It is a habit of mine, to see a problem and solve it.”

She winced.

“Oh Lord, I didn’t mean you were a problem, I meant—oh hell. Let me tell you what I’ve arranged, and you can tell me whether it is acceptable to you or not.” His voice was rueful as he added, “I might be an insensitive clod, but keep in mind that I would be honored to marry you.”

Faith felt tears prickle at his words. Honored, to marry a scruffy, homeless, fallen woman. He was such a gentleman.

He continued in a brisker voice, “It will—if you agree—be a civil ceremony. In France these days one is married by a town official—the mayor. There is normally a three-week wait—the banns, you know—but,” he rubbed his thumb and fingers together in the age-old symbol of bribery, “I was able to convince the mayor that the marriage of two foreigners could be expedited with greater haste, and it will be done tomorrow. Do you mind a civil wedding?”

“No.” She quashed the pangs she felt. As a little girl, she’d always dreamed of a church wedding, with flowers and lace and everything. As she’d had with Felix. Ironic that her dream wedding had been the false one and that her real wedding would take place in an office.

He grinned. “Our interpreter was very glum—he is an elderly priest, you know, who is appalled by this notion of civil weddings—it is against God, you understand. But since we are Protestants, we must register in the town. So, Miss Merrit, what is it to be? Will you marry me tomorrow morning or not?”

The moment of truth had arrived. Faith stared at him a long moment. He was looking straight at her, his eyes gray and unemotional. She scanned his face, searching for an answer. It was severe and unsmiling, but it was a good face, she thought. Strong. His lips were firm and fine-chiseled, his nose long and aquiline, his chin square and somehow dependable looking.

Oh, what did she know about men? One couldn’t tell by looks. Grandpapa had been just such a big, strong-looking specimen. And Felix was positively beautiful! Looks meant nothing. Her mind was in turmoil.

“Miss Merrit?” His hand reached out and touched hers. “I give you my word, no harm will come to you from this marriage.” His voice was deep and sincere.

She kept her eyes closed and grasped his hand. It was a strong hand, warm, a little battered. She felt safe holding it. A small thing, but it was enough. It would have to be.

Eyes still shut tight, Faith made her leap. “Mr. Blacklock, if you are certain it is what you want, I would be very honored to marry you tomorrow morning. And I thank you for it, from the bottom of my heart. I am well aware that I don’t des—”

“Hush!” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “Thank you.”

A tremor passed through her. He kissed her hand as if she’d done him the most tremendous favor. As if she were redeeming him, instead of the other way around.

There was a lump in her throat. She swallowed. He would not regret his chivalrous deed; she would make sure of that. She gripped his hand and made a silent vow.

BOOK: The Perfect Stranger
7.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Temple Boys by Jamie Buxton
The Bonded by John Falin
The Falcon Prince by Karen Kelley
Part II by Roberts, Vera
The Profiler by Chris Taylor