Excerpt: The Accidental Wedding
Book 4: The Devil Riders
Bath, England 1819
“Find you a suitable wife?” The Honorable Nash Renfrew’s aunt stared at him through her lorgnette. Maude, Lady Gosforth, enjoyed using her lorgnette. It magnified her gimlet eye horribly and usually made the recipient of the stare squirm.
Nash never squirmed. “If you would be so good, Aunt Maude.”
She sniffed. “From all I’ve heard, you have no difficulty finding women. Even in St. Petersburg.”
Nash didn’t blink an eyelid. How the deuce had she learned of his activities in St. Petersburg when her principal residence was in Bath? But her contacts were legendary. It was why he’d asked for her help.
He said coolly, “It’s not the same.”
His aunt snorted. “No, it’s not. And you also want me arrange a ball for four weeks’ time? A ball—at the beginning of the season?”
“If it’s not too fatiguing a task, dear Aunt.”
“Fatiguing? Of course it is! I’m too old to give parties anymore!” she said with an attempt to look feeble.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Maude. I didn’t realize. You’re in such blooming looks, you see . . . Never mind, I’ll hire someone—”
“Hire someone? You’ll do no such thing. Events organized by hirelings”—she spoke the word with loathing—“cannot be anything but vulgar. I will try, somehow, to find the energy to arrange something—and to find you a suitable gel—but I warn you, Nash, with such short notice and at the beginning of the season with all the invitations already gone out, it will be the paltriest, most insipid affair.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Nash had no fear it would be anything but magnificent. He added casually, “Can I prevail on you to send an invitation to the Czar of Russia’s aunt, the Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna Romanova.”
The lorgnette dropped. “The Czar of Russia’s aunt?”
“She’ll arrive in London a few days before the ball. She knows nobody in London and has requested my assistance. She won’t mind a small affair.” The grand duchess was as gregarious as his aunt and adored a grand fuss.
“A grand duchess?” Aunt Maude sat up, her eyes sparkling with ambition. She achieved a weary sigh. “How you do run me ragged, boy.”
“I know.” He assumed a penitent expression. With a Russian grand duchess, this ball would be the event of the season and his aunt knew it.
Nash had applied for leave to return to England for two reasons: to take possession of an inheritance, and to find a wife. The ambassador, knowing how difficult the elderly grand duchess could be, had granted leave on condition that Nash dance attendance on the old lady in London.
Nash, the ambassador said, had a way with autocratic and difficult old ladies. It came, Nash informed him, from a lifetime of dealing with eccentric and autocratic aunts and great—aunts. One of whom was currently peering beadily at him through her lorgnette.
“So on top of balls and grand duchesses, you expect me to conjure up a wife out of thin air?”
“Not just any wife. The right sort of wife. I wish to make an excellent marriage.”
One well—plucked brow rose. “Naturally, you are a Renfrew, after all. It is what we do. But what, pray, is your definition of an excellent marriage?”
Nash had given the matter a great deal of thought. Apart from birth, breeding, education, and intelligence, his bride needed to be not just well born, but well connected. She should have some understanding of politics but be dispassionate about “causes.” She should be well trained in the management of large social occasions and have a certain degree of charm. Above all, she should be discreet, refrain from gossip, and be tolerant of other people’s eccentricities. As for children, he had no need of heirs and no interest in children. If his wife wanted one, he supposed he wouldn’t mind.
“And I suppose you expect this paragon to be beautiful and an heiress, as well,” Aunt Maude said caustically when he finished.
Nash gave her his most brilliant smile. “That would be delightful, best of aunts.”
She softened visibly. “Pshaw! Younger sons!” Then she’d eyed him thoughtfully, with the gimlet look that all her nephews were familiar with. “Not interested in marrying for love, then?”
Nash raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Marry for love?”
“Your brothers did and they’re both very happy.”
“Gabriel and Harry weren’t raised at Alverleigh with the daily example of my parents’ great love before them,” Nash pointed out. “If they had, they’d be bachelors still, like Marcus and myself.”
“Gabriel and Harry were raised by your spinster great—aunt on whose pantheon of life men ranked below dogs and horses, and slightly above cockroaches,” his aunt pointed out affably. “She did, of course, revere Renfrew blood, which balanced things slightly.”
Nash shrugged. “My point is, they’ve never seen how destructive love matches can be. My marriage will be a carefully planned alliance based on shared ambitions, not on the murky byways of passion.”
She snorted again. “A bloodless arrangement.”
“That will suit me perfectly.”
“But to go through life without love or passion—”
“Passion?” Nash cut her off. “According to both my parents, theirs was the passion of a lifetime. And when they weren’t ripping each other—and our family—apart with their jealous quarrels, they were circling each other like randy dogs.” Nash repressed a shudder. “I would rather dwell in . . . in the middle of an ice field than live like that.”
“You’re wrong, dear boy, but I won’t try to change your mind. You have the legendary hard head of the Renfrew male, after all. I’ll find you your paragon, but don’t blame me if you expire of boredom after six months.”
He shrugged indifferently. ”Marriage isn’t meant to be entertaining.”
She viewed him with dismay. “But, dear boy, it is. Marriage should be a continuous adventure.”
“My work gives me all the adventure I want. But in your terms, perhaps what I want is a bad marriage.”
Aunt Maude shuddered. “Never joke about such things,” she ordered him. “Never!”
* * * * *
But when Nash is riding across country in a storm he is thrown from his horse and is badly injured. Maddy Woodford rescues him. She patches him up, places the unconscious stranger in her own bed and settles down to sleep on the floor…
* * * * *
Two hours later, Maddy was still wide awake and getting crosser by the minute. She was freezing.
All that was left of the fire were a few pale coals. Fuel was so hard to come by she couldn’t afford to keep it burning all night. Besides, the woodpile was outside, and she’d freeze if she went out there. Flurries of sleet beat against the windows.
She’d made a bed of hessian sacks then wrapped herself in a patchwork quilt and two blankets. But the stone floor was icy and every draught in every crack in the old cottage seemed to find a way directly to her skin.
And all the time the steady, rhythmic breathing of the man in her bed taunted her. She could hear it in the lulls between the rain and wind. He was warm. She was half frozen. He was sleeping—it didn’t matter why. Broken head or not, he wasn’t lying awake, cold and tired and miserable and cross. She was.
He was unconscious, for goodness sake. Insensible. Oblivious. What harm could he do? She sat up, seized the patchwork quilt, rolled it into a thick snake, then stuffed it lengthways under the bedclothes of the bed, against the body of the sleeping stranger.
Her own little Hadrian’s Wall, to keep her safe from the barbarian. The unconscious barbarian with his beautiful mouth and dark bristles and his clean, well-kept hands.
He didn’t move or make a sound, just kept on breathing steadily. She smiled. Some barbarian.
She slid into the bed. Heaven. It was warm from his body. Nobody would ever know . . .
In the bleakest hour of the night, the man in the bed woke. He lay in the unfamiliar surroundings, trying to make sense of his situation. He had no idea where he was, no idea when he was, for that matter, except that it was nighttime. But what day, and what place—it was a mystery. His mind was a blank.
Not a blank, he corrected himself, more like a swirling fog, with people and events half glimpsed and then vanishing. Taunting him.
His whole body ached. His head felt as though it had been split open. He lifted a hand to it and frowned as his questing fingers discovered the bandage. He’d been injured then. How? And by whom? And been bandaged by . . .
A woman. At the heart of all the swirling thoughts and fleeting images, he knew there was a woman. With gentle hands and a soft voice. And the smell of . . . He turned on his side and breathed in. He could scent her. Like a hound, he could scent that she was close.
He wasn’t alone.
Who was she that she shared his bed? He closed his eyes. So many questions. So few answers.
He didn’t care. She was there and that was enough. He moved closer and found something else in the bed. A long lump of cloth. Why?
He pulled it out and tossed it aside, then returned to the woman. She lay curled on her side, facing away from him, warm and soft. He slipped his arms around her and drew her close against him, curling his body to fit the curve of hers.
Her foot brushed against his leg. It was cold. He tucked her feet between his calves and felt them slowly warm.
The nape of her neck lay exposed on the pillow. He lowered his face to the soft skin and breathed in her fragrance.
It felt right. His hold on her tightened. She was his anchor, the one solid thing in a shifting sea of taunting ghosts. The questions hammering at the inside of his skull slowly faded.
He lay with his aching body curved against hers, his mouth just touching the fragile skin at the nape of her neck, breathing in the scent of her. Gradually the rhythm of his breathing slowed until it matched hers, and he slept.
* * * * *
Morning dreams were the nicest. In morning dreams, Maddy woke slowly, letting her deepest wishes run riot, spinning fantasies . . .
Her fantasy lover . . . Warm, strong . . .
Skin to skin with nothing between them. The heat of his body, the hard, relaxed power of it curled around her protectively. . . . possessively. The warm weight of his arm . . . Legs entwined, his brawny, a little hairy, pressing her calves between his . . . His breath, matching hers, in . . . out . . . in. . . .out.
She lay entwined with him in a soft, soft bed, sharing warmth, skin against skin, sharing dreams and plans for the day, after a splendid night of making love . . .
She stretched, then stiffened as she realized that the stranger was holding her breast, gently but firmly.
She froze. “What are you doing?” she whispered. Ridiculous question. It was perfectly obvious what he was doing. “Stop it.”