Excerpt: The Perfect Bride

Excerpt: The Perfect Bride

Book 1 ~ Love in Disguise

Chapter One

Spring 1816

“My wig, Jeffers, if you please.”

“The grey or the brown, major — er, my lord?”

“I believe I shall require the hoary privileges of age for this particular mission.”

Jeffers nodded and carefully removed the grey wig from a stand on the massive oak chest. “Do you wish a mustache as well, my lord?”

There was a brief, contemplative silence from the figure in the large wing chair. “The cursed things are a nuisance,” came the response, “but I should not care to chance exposure.”

From a drawer, Jeffers removed a matching grey mustache that he proceeded to tame into a neat military style. When he offered it for inspection, his employer frowned.

“Too rigid. Something more casual, perhaps with a bit of a droop to gain the young lady’s sympathy. I mean to disarm the target, Jeffers, not frighten her.”

The batman smoothed the mustache into a less prepossessing appendage and was rewarded with a nod from the figure in the chair.

“Perfect.”

Jeffers preened under the compliment. The man who had commanded his loyalty and service for half a decade dispensed few enough of those.

“Did you procure the clothing?” his employer demanded in the deep baritone that had compelled instant attention on the battlefield.

Jeffers opened the mahogany wardrobe and removed a pair of trousers, waistcoat, and jacket. The frayed edges of the dimity twill betrayed its years, but the suit was impeccably clean. 

A rare smile spread over uncompromising features that had consigned many a foe to his doom. “I cannot imagine how I devised my disguises without your assistance in the early years of the war.”

“It was my good fortune that our paths crossed, sir — my lord,” Jeffers insisted, flushing with pleasure.

“Nonsense.” Briskly dismissive, his employer dispensed with Jeffers’s heartfelt declaration. “You would have bested that French bastard eventually. I merely hastened his demise.”

Jeffers kept silent, knowing that above all things, his employer disliked praise. Still, nothing would ever persuade the scrawny batman he could have defeated the Frenchman who weighed nearly twenty stone and who ambushed him that day near Bayonne. Fortunately, the tattered “beggar” who had come along as Jeffers made his last prayers possessed extraordinary fighting skills. The French soldier breathed his last in the pauper’s lethal embrace.

A rustling of paper from the wing chair indicated that his employer’s attention had moved on to other things. “Three names. That is the best you could do?”

Jeffers bowed. “Your requirements were exceedingly stringent, my lord.”

A mercurial gaze held his. “You believe I demand too much from my future bride?” 

Jeffers took note of the warning tone. “It is not my position to express such a view.”

“But it is your opinion, is it not?”

The batman had long ago learned that a strategic retreat could be more valuable than a frontal assault when dealing with his employer’s unyielding nature. Silently he returned the worn suit to the wardrobe, making a great show of arranging the garment so as to avoid wrinkling it. Reaching for a polishing cloth, he donned a preoccupied air as he rubbed the ancient suit of armor that stood next to the wardrobe as if in a constant state of battle readiness.

An impatient sigh filled the chamber. “Your silence does not fool me, man. I know what you think of my methods.”

Jeffers stared at the ancient broadsword that hung on the wall along with all manner of fighting implements. “I merely find them…methodical, my lord,” he replied carefully.

“Method has served me well enough in the trenches and out of them,” came the brisk reply. “I defy you to think of a better way to select a bride.”

Jeffers cleared his throat. “Some allow the heart to be their guide,” he ventured. 

“The same people who marry in haste and repent in leisure, no doubt,” scoffed his employer. “I do not think it is the heart that guides them as much as another part of their anatomy.”

Jeffers bowed. “As you say, my lord.”

“Enough of this idle chitchat.”

“How do you mean to begin?”

“As with any mission, Jeffers,” came the impatient response. “Reconnoiter and reconnaissance. A wife is no different from an enemy target. Both must be chosen carefully and taken from a position of strength.”

“Yes, my lord.” As his gaze settled on a particularly lethal-looking cudgel from the twelfth century, Jeffers cringed.

***

Felicity Biddle, daughter of Sir Thomas Biddle, adjusted her spectacles. “Only think, Amanda! The fearless warrior rescued the princess from the phantasm without a care for his own safety.” She sighed. “I cannot imagine any of my admirers braving an apparition in the name of love.”

Amanda Fitzhugh regarded her young cousin with a critical eye. “Since phantasms exist only in your exceedingly fertile imagination, it is not necessary to put any prospective suitor to such a ridiculous test.”

Felicity pursed her heart-shaped mouth, which had already provoked several eager young swains into declaring undying love. “You would rob the fairies of their fairy dust, Amanda. Is there not a fanciful bone in your body?”

“No more than there are fairies.” Amanda walked over to the hearth in the Biddles’ parlor and briskly stirred the fire. “I have lived long enough to understand that fairy tales and dreams derive from wishes, not fact. I am most thankful for the exceedingly practical nature I have developed over the years.”

Miss Biddle closed her book, put aside her spectacles, and studied her cousin with brilliant violet eyes that had captivated those same besotted suitors. “You speak as if you are past praying for, when you have but twenty-eight years. You are still a remarkably handsome woman, Amanda. You could have your pick of husbands.”

“Only if they are doddering widowers with a clamoring brood to raise.” Amanda shot her cousin a wry smile.

“Not so! Why Mr. Merson was most particular in his affections last year, and he is neither doddering nor a widower. I thought him quite appealing.”

“He is a reprobate and lecher,” Amanda declared bluntly. “You had best clean those spectacles of yours. They must be fogged to see so poorly.”

Felicity gave her cousin a reproachful look. Her spectacles were the one aspect of her appearance that she fervently wished to change. Of what use was a pair of exquisite violet eyes if one must hide them behind thick spectacles? She never wore them in public. No lady could captivate a suitor if she could not bat her exceedingly long lashes without the obstruction of thick lenses. 

“I only make the point that you would have been wed long ago if you had shown the slightest willingness to entertain offers,” Felicity said. And perhaps wore something other than the high-necked frocks that discouraged all but the most determined suitor, she thought.

Amanda bestowed a tolerant smile on her young cousin. “I have no desire to wed, as you know. I could not be happier with my little spinster’s cottage by the sea. I shall stand in for your mama this Season, see you happily betrothed, and then return as quickly as I can to Kent.”

With a resigned sigh, Felicity shook her head. “I am sorry, Amanda. I have been insensitive. It is all because of that nasty Mr. LeFevre, is it not?”

This untoward statement brought a severe frown from her cousin. “I have long since forgotten about him,” Amanda said briskly, “but since you raise the subject, there is no more apt example of how fanciful notions can lead one astray.”

Felicity held her breath. Amanda had never spoken at length of the scandalous incident in her past, and she knew she had been wrong to mention it. But Amanda had evidently decided that a purpose was to be served by her cautionary tale, for she fixed Felicity with a stern eye.

“I was no more than a girl when I allowed myself to fall prey to a man I imagined to be the hero of my dreams. Instead, he proved to be a scoundrel of the worst sort, as everyone but me knew to begin with.” Her lips thinned. “I wish I had had someone to warn me at the time, but I do not suppose I would have listened, any more than you are listening to me now.”

Felicity blushed at her cousin’s description of the scandal that had barely been avoided when Amanda had been discovered in the arms of the dastardly Mr. LeFevre on one of the darker paths at Vauxhall, her bodice askew and her skirts in disarray. Felicity could scarcely imagine that the unsentimental Amanda could have been carried away by anything as impractical as passion. Nevertheless, it seems she had.

Fortunately, it was Felicity’s father — Amanda’s uncle — who found her in the man’s embrace, so the discovery went no further. Despite being heir to a dukedom, LeFevre was deemed so beyond redemption as to make a disastrous and totally unsuitable choice for a husband. Thus, Sir Thomas did not press the scoundrel to do the honorable thing and marry his niece. Amanda had abruptly ended what was otherwise a promising Season and beseeched her uncle to take her away to the country. In the eight years since, Amanda had retired to Kent, firmly closed the door on all prospective marriage offers, and become a relentlessly practical woman.

“I respect your opinion,” Felicity replied, “but I could not live as you do. There is no harm in seeking a husband who inspires one’s fancies.”

“As Julian inspired mine,” Amanda put in dryly. “Pray, consider the disaster it wrought.”

Nearly wrought.” Felicity pointed out. “And I am not you.”

“No,” Amanda agreed, laughing. “I am firmly on the shelf.”

“By your own choice.”

“Nonsense. I know my assets, or rather lack of them.” Amanda smiled. “I am a long Meg, whereas you are charmingly petite. My eyes are ordinary brown; yours are violet jewels. My face is plain, and I have neither your delightful curls nor your angelic countenance. Your hair is the color of spun gold. Mine is rather like the dishwater the scullery maid throws out at the end of the day. I do not begrudge you your considerable assets, Felicity. Indeed, they would only prove an inconvenience for one bound to live alone for the rest of her life.”

Felicity sighed. Her cousin was determined to don the oppressive mantle of old age long before she reached that deplorable state. Even though Amanda was past her first blushes, she was still quite attractive for a woman of twenty-eight, though her appearance would be much improved if she did not discipline her hair into such a severe knot. And since that long-ago indiscretion, Amanda had conducted herself with such modest propriety and decorum that Felicity’s mother, Lady Biddle, suffered no qualms in charging Amanda with the responsibility for Felicity’s come-out, although Sir Thomas had stroked his chin thoughtfully before agreeing to the proposal.

Lady Biddle had brought out Felicity’s five elder sisters with stunning success, as all were married to men of wealth and title. Now, however, the prospect of another London Season seemed to weary her. When she tumbled from her horse and severely sprained her ankle a month before the start of the Season, Lady Biddle immediately — and rather happily, Felicity thought — summoned Amanda to step into the breach.

Delighted to have Amanda’s company, Felicity nevertheless worried that her phlegmatic cousin might take her chaperon responsibilities so seriously as to depress the attentions of any true romantic. Amanda eschewed sentiment with such fervor that Felicity shuddered to think of the fate of any suitor who dared quote the poets or offer a fulsome compliment in her presence.

“Cheer up, dear.” Amanda regarded her younger cousin affectionately. “I am not a dragon. I promise not to chase away any lovesick gentlemen. Unless,” she added with mock severity, “they try to do battle with phantasms.”

A vague image of a fearless warrior astride a white horse, churning up the dirt as he raced to Felicity’s side, caused the younger woman to sigh in longing.

Amanda’s brow furrowed thoughtfully as, unbidden, an image appeared in her mind as well. It was of Julian LeFevre in all his satanic glory, looking down at her with gleaming midnight eyes that promised a wild paradise of sinful delights.

A shiver rippled through her, though the fire still blazed warmly in the hearth. Thank goodness she no longer believed in fairy tales.

***

His pitifully thin collar provided scant protection against the rain, but Major Simon Hannibal Thornton had never had the luxury of minding the elements. Downpours that had left his fellow soldiers shaking with cold and cursing the heavens had never affected him. He had simply slid under his clay-smeared blanket, made a pillow out of straw, and slept.

Rain was blessed, life-restoring, and it held off the battle to come. Better to sleep whole and miserable in a quagmire than to rot senseless under the sun in a field of broken bodies. It was what followed the rain one always had to watch out for.

A betrothal would likely follow this rain, a tedious foray into the frivolous world of the Marriage Mart with a woman he had not yet met. She would hold him accountable for her protection and happiness, and he would provide those things for her because that was what was expected.

But facing Napoleon and his entire Imperial Guard paled in comparison to this onerous duty of finding a wife.

Jeffers was partially to blame for his foul mood. The man had outdone himself in procuring a broken-down horse to fit Simon’s masquerade. Surely even an earl’s impoverished cousin could afford a better mount than this nag. The grey would not make Mayfield by dusk. Simon could not imagine that Sir Thomas would welcome the delay of his dinner.

The real cause of Simon’s dour spirits, however, was the fact that his mission had suffered several setbacks.

Lady Serena Fielding had possessed considerable beauty, youth, and the requisite large family. Her reputation was spotless, her dowry considerable, her reading skills superb. But she had proven to be a snob. Though she had treated him with the respect due an earl’s emissary, she did not trouble to hide her disdain at his frayed collar. He could have told her that it was not wealth or clothing that made a man, especially on the battlefield, but he elected not to bother. He would not spend the rest of his life with a woman unwilling to welcome a down-on-his-luck soldier for dinner. He crossed the Lady Serena off his list.

The Honorable Harriet Dunham had no such pretensions. She read voraciously and displayed an egalitarian spirit. Her birth and breeding were unexceptional, her dowry superb, and she possessed a sufficient number of siblings to raise no doubts as to the breeding abilities of her family tree. Even at nineteen, her looks had nothing to commend them, but she had a friendly smile and a way of engaging a man in conversation that made the time pass pleasantly.

She had, however, articulated the shocking view that a woman had no obligation to provide her husband with an heir and even hinted that intimate relations ought to be solely a matter of mutual pleasure. Simon did not hold with such radical notions, which he suspected were but an excuse for a roving eye. Nor would he suffer a woman who would shirk her breeding responsibilities. 

That left only Miss Felicity Biddle. A baronet’s daughter, she was the lowest-ranked candidate on his list, but her father possessed sufficient means as to guarantee a perfectly adequate dowry. Not that Simon needed the money; the earldom had brought him great wealth. But a woman’s family ought to contribute to the marriage. It enforced the principles of duty and obligation, which had guided his undertakings on the field of battle and elsewhere.

Youth was on Miss Biddle’s side — she was but eighteen. She had five sisters but no brothers, a fact that gave him pause. He wondered whether the Biddle women could only produce girls. That would not do, as he must have an heir. Still, she seemed the most tolerable of the three ladies whose names Jeffers’s research had produced. If Miss Biddle were sufficiently biddable, he might take a calculated gamble on her ability to produce a son. When one scattered enough grapeshot, one was certain to hit the target.

Miss Biddle was said to be fond of literature, and although poetry bored him — he favored political treatises and military dispatches for his reading material — Simon was gratified to know that she understood the importance of reading and could see to the education of their children.

Sir Thomas had sent a letter welcoming Lord Sommersby’s emissary and inviting him to stay at Mayfield to discuss the potential suit and business matters that marriage to the earl would involve. The baronet was obviously inclined toward the alliance. If Miss Biddle proved adequate, the courtship could be conducted during the Season and a wedding held immediately after.

Simon’s tedious mission would be accomplished with satisfying efficiency.

Chapter Two

Amanda stared at the man Sir Thomas introduced as Major Thornton, secretary and cousin to the Earl of Sommersby. An uncommonly tall figure in a worn and somewhat ill-fitting suit, he surely must be all of fifty, as his hair had gone completely grey and his mustache wore a tired droop. Mr. Thornton’s jawline had held surprisingly firm for his years, however, and his keen gaze suggested his wits had lost nothing to age. The eyes themselves ran to neither blue nor green but seemed to change with the light. They radiated a coolly assessing air, and Amanda had the distinct impression that beneath Mr. Thornton’s politely respectful exterior lurked a rather arrogant nature. 

His proudly erect bearing seemed in keeping with a former military man now in the employ of an acclaimed war hero like the Earl of Sommersby. Were it not for his age, Mr. Thornton might still have been a soldier. His shoulders spanned the breadth of the doorway and appeared quite capable of bearing the entire weight of the door frame, if need be. Never once did he slump to accommodate Sir Thomas’s diminutive form; he was quite at ease towering over his host, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary about his proportions. Amanda wondered why a man of Lord Sommersby’s wealth and fame did not pay his employees well enough to procure a decent suit. An imposing form like Mr. Thornton’s demanded quality attire.

But of course, Amanda reminded herself, that was not her concern.

Mr. Thornton displayed no embarrassment at his frayed lapel and worn collar. Indeed, there was a subtle confidence about his demeanor, Amanda observed, as the party gathered in the drawing room after a late dinner. Moving with a grace and agility surprising in a man of his size and age, he surveyed the room with hawk-like eyes. And though he was clearly a man of lesser means, there was nothing subservient about his manner. Obviously, Mr. Thornton was a man to be relied upon. Amanda suspected that Lord Sommersby allowed his secretary a great deal of authority.

Lady Biddle’s ankle was troubling her, and she retired early. Sir Thomas assisted her up the stairs, charging Felicity and Amanda to get to know Mr. Thornton, as they would be spending no small amount of time in his presence. 

Her uncle’s cryptic statement confirmed Amanda’s suspicion that Sir Thomas favored a match between Felicity and the earl. Over dinner there had been talk of a visit to Sommersby Castle so that Felicity and Lord Sommersby could meet before the whirl of the Season began. That meant the Mayfield party would probably leave within a few days, as it was no inconsiderable distance from eastern Sussex to the western Dorset coast. Amanda never doubted that Mr. Thornton was quite capable of escorting them. The man exuded efficiency and leadership. Indeed, the only awkwardness he displayed came when Felicity, in high spirits over the prospect of meeting such a noted war hero as the earl, began to question him about his employer.

“Is it true that Lord Sommersby’s brilliant distraction of French troops on the Peninsula enabled Wellington to win at Salamanca?” Felicity asked, her lovely face becomingly flushed in anticipation of hearing tales of the earl’s cleverness.

Mr. Thornton stiffened. “Credit for the Peninsula strategy belongs to Wellington, of course.”

Felicity’s eyes grew dreamy. “But even Wellington accorded Lord Sommersby a hero, did he not?”

Shifting uncomfortably, Mr. Thornton regarded Felicity as if she had just said something extremely unpleasant. “The true heroes of that mission,” he corrected, “were the captains and sailors of our ships, who held their positions and forced the French to maintain a cordon defense around the entire perimeter of the Peninsula.”

Felicity eyed him in confusion. She was not accustomed to being contradicted by any member of the male gender and, in any case, had not truly comprehended Mr. Thornton’s explanation.

Amanda wondered why Mr. Thornton was so reluctant to sing his employer’s praises, which had already been trumpeted by Wellington himself and even the Prince. Still, his point was well-taken. 

“Mr. Thornton means that the threat of sea landings forced the French to leave no area undefended, greatly diminishing the number of French troops left to fight in reserve,” she told her cousin.

Felicity showed no interest in the finer points of military strategy and stifled a yawn. “I believe I will fetch a shawl from my room,” she said, and left. 

Mr. Thornton shot Amanda a surprised look.

“You seem to grasp the principles of war, Miss Fitzhugh.”

“My father fought on the Peninsula,” Amanda said quietly. “I followed the events most avidly.”

His eyes searched hers, and Amanda again noted their peculiar, changeable color — now more green than blue. They held a question, but he did not ask it. She readily comprehended the silent query, however, and his reluctance to pry caused him to rise in her estimation.   

“He is buried at Busaco,” she said. 

“I am sorry.” Was that compassion in his eyes?

“Thank you,” she said. “Some people do not understand why I have so little enthusiasm for the celebrations that have overwhelmed England in recent months. Many families lost loved ones, of course, but I cannot bring myself to celebrate the end of something I wish had never begun.”

He eyed her quizzically. “War is nothing to celebrate, to be sure. And yet, a nation must fight.”

“Must it?” Amanda challenged. “I cannot see that the sacrifice of so many lives serves any purpose other than to forever separate them from their loved ones.”

“Would you have handed the Continent to Napoleon, Miss Fitzhugh?” Beneath his neutral tone, Amanda sensed the accusation.

“It is one thing to defend one’s home,” she replied, “and quite another to cross the seas to interfere with a tyrant whose overweening confidence would have destroyed him eventually in any case.”

This time there was no mistaking the disapproval in his eyes. “Surely you do not mock the sacrifice of thousands, madam.” But though his words bore a sting, they were delivered in such an expressionless voice Amanda was seized by an urge to shake that implacable restraint.

“Not at all, sir.” For once Amanda was glad of her height, which made it easier to stand up to Mr. Thornton’s looming presence. “But I do not believe war serves any end except the causes of those who decree it. And while the soldier whose life is forfeit pays the price, the king and his minions see little change in their comfortable existences.”

A silence ensued. 

His expression betrayed nothing of the distaste she suspected he must feel. He merely studied her for a long moment. “There are those who would take such talk as treason,” he said in such a quiet and unemotional tone that he might have made an idle comment about the weather.

“There are those who dismiss any opposing view as treason,” Amanda replied, “though of course you are correct. Were I a man, I might have held forth in the taverns and meeting places and stirred the people with my seditious talk — and no doubt have been clapped in irons long ago. I suppose it is fortunate that I am a woman.”

His brows rose. Oddly, they displayed no hint of the grey that had overtaken his hair. Amanda flushed in sudden embarrassment. She had spoken these thoughts to no one. Why had she blurted them out to a man who — given his employer — could have no sympathy for such a position?

But it was not his silent disapproval that made her uneasy. It was the clear gaze that, without seeming to move at all, studied her from head to toe.

If he was taking her measure as a female, he would find her wanting, of course. Surely he would not be so rude as to mention that she was uncommonly tall for a woman or that her features were not small and delicate like Felicity’s. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and Amanda grew warm under his inspection. For all that he was old enough to be her father, Mr. Thornton did not possess a particularly fatherly air.

Though he made no comment, the prolonged silence between them was commentary enough. Amanda supposed she ought to steer the conversation into more amiable channels.

“I understand that we are to journey to Sommersby together,” she said politely, unable to bring herself to convey much enthusiasm over the prospect.

“It is a pity that Lady Biddle will be unable to come,” he replied, accepting her change of subject with an equal lack of fervor, “but Sir Thomas appears to have every faith in your skills as a chaperon.”

Despite his polite response, his cool tone suggested that he was wary of the suitability for the task of someone as heretical as Amanda. Amanda decided that anyone unwise enough to cross Mr. Thornton was to be pitied. On the other hand, she thought irritably, who was this tall stranger to judge her convictions?   

“That is because I am known to be incorrigibly practical, Mr. Thornton,” she replied evenly. “I am not one to be swayed by sentiment, nor do I scruple at plainspeaking. Ideal qualities for a chaperon, do you not agree?”

He did not reply. 

“I fear I will not be counted a lively addition to the earl’s gathering,” she added, unable to keep a cross tone from her voice. 

Something volatile flickered in his eyes before vanishing. “On the contrary, Miss Fitzhugh. A practical nature fares best at Sommersby Castle.”

“Oh?” Amanda eyed him curiously.

“The castle is very old — rich with history, but plagued by a rather dark reputation. I have spent only a little time there, but —”

“Come, sir. People have reputations. Buildings merely have names,” Amanda interjected.

He did not rise to the bait. “I merely suggest that Miss Biddle should be prepared.”

“For what, pray? Is the place haunted?”

“Not at all.” There was not even a glimmer of humor in his eyes. “But the castle is not in the best condition, and its reputation has made it difficult to secure servants. It seems that over the centuries, the castle’s dungeons were responsible for a considerable decrease in the local population. Political disputes, I understand.”

Had Mr. Thornton cast some sort of gauntlet before her?

“Fortunately, dark reputations do not frighten me, nor do I believe in ghosts,” Amanda replied. “To be sure, Miss Biddle has a rather more fertile imagination, but I will be certain to keep her occupied with other matters. I trust the place is not unsafe?”

“You may count on the earl to see to your safety.”

“I do not believe that answered my question, sir.” Amanda wondered how she was going to stand two more minutes in this maddening man’s company, much less two weeks at Sommersby Castle.

At that moment, Felicity returned with her shawl and insisted on taking the night air, the rain having stopped. Reaching for her own shawl, Amanda buoyed her spirits with the hope that Mr. Thornton would not find it necessary to remain at the castle during the whole of their visit.

Eager to take in the fresh scents of the newly dampened garden, Felicity moved quickly out onto the terrace ahead of them, leaving Mr. Thornton little choice but to offer his arm to Amanda. Amanda placed her hand lightly on his sleeve, and was surprised at how solid and firm his arm felt. It was rather disconcerting to feel such strength in a man of his years.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

Belatedly, Amanda realized she was staring at his arm.

“Not at all,” she replied quickly. She allowed him to lead her toward the terrace, and his hand briefly touched her back as he propelled her out the door toward Felicity.

In the heavy air, laden with the sweet smells of the garden made more pungent by the recent shower, Amanda was rather acutely aware of his presence. She found herself wondering exactly how many years Mr. Thornton had on his plate and why a man of his age should provoke such a reaction. 

Undoubtedly, she had been away from Kent too long.