Marry In Secret — excerpt
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Lady Rose Rutherford was not a young lady who dithered and, having made up her mind, she generally stuck to it. It was, she had decided, high time she moved on.
She was not generally superstitious either. But after refusing twelve offers of marriage, the thirteenth . . . well, it was bound to make a girl think. Especially since it came from a duke.
Even if it was the most careless, most dispassionate offer of marriage that a girl could ever receive. “Oh, and by the way, if you want to put an end to all this nonsense . . .”
The truth was, she did.
Now it was the eve of her wedding and she’d planned a quiet night in, a nursery supper with just her sister and her niece—who was more like a sister, really—toasting bread and crumpets before the fire. But instead of a cozy, quietly intimate sisterly celebration, it was turning into an argument.
“It’s a civilized arrangement,” Rose said.
“No, it’s a mistake,” her sister, Lily, insisted.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would want to marry him,” Rose’s niece Lady Georgiana Rutherford said. “He’s rude, he’s arrogant and he doesn’t care two pins for anyone. Why would you imagine he could make you happy?” She peered at the slightly scorched crumpet on her toasting fork, then, deciding it would do, reached for the butter dish. Behind her a large hound watched mournfully, doing his best imitation of a Dog Who Hadn’t Been Fed in Weeks.
Rose threaded bread onto her toasting fork. “Nobody can make another person happy, George. The recipe for happiness lies within each of us and is unique every time.” And if she told herself that often enough, she might even believe it.
George snorted. “That’s as may be, but people can make other people unhappy—and he will, I’m sure of it.” Ever the cynic when it came to marriage, George had been betrayed by every man she’d ever known until her uncle, Cal, Rose’s brother, found her and brought her into the family fold—the family she’d never known she had.
Lily laid a hand on Rose’s arm. “Are you sure about this, Rose? Because it’s not too late to back out.”
Rose’s expression softened. Her sister was such a dear, but really, there was no backing out at this stage. “No, Lily darling, I’m not going to back out. The contracts are signed, the banns have been called, the church is booked, my dress is finished, the guests invited. Discussion over.”
“But you barely know him.”
“And you hardly knew Ned Galbraith when you married him, and look how happy you are—not that I’m planning to fall in love,” she added hastily. “I leave that sort of thing to you, little sister.”
“The point is, I need to marry someone and the duke is more than eligible—the match of the year, they’re calling it.” She needed to marry and get the waiting, the endless, fruitless waiting, over and done with. To start her life instead of . . . dreaming.
“Why do you even need to marry? In five years’ time you’ll be in full control of your fortune and you can do what you like.” It was George’s plan, they all knew.
“She wants children,” Lily reminded her. She spread her toast with strawberry jam, cut it into four careful triangles and topped each one with a lavish dollop of cream.
Rose nodded. “I do, but it’s more than that. Five more years of waiting, George? I’d go mad. I can’t bear this life, where nothing interesting ever happens and everything I do is reported and monitored and judged. As a young unmarried miss, I am, oh”—she flung up her hands—“‘cabin’d, crib’d, confin’d.’ But as a dashing young matron I’ll be my own mistress.”
George shook her head and made a thumbs-down screwing motion. Under the thumb.
“Yes, but why the duke, Rose?” Lily persisted. “You don’t love him, and he doesn’t love you. I know you’ve turned twenty, but you still have plenty of time to find the right man and fall in l—”
“But I don’t want to fall in love, Lily dear,” Rose said gently. “Neither he nor I have any interest in that kind of marriage.” It was the very reason she’d accepted his offer.
“Enact me no emotional scenes” was how he’d put it, and wasn’t that a relief, when the others who’d proposed had vowed their undying love and devotion—and expected the same of her? Or said they did.
How dreadful it would be to marry a man who loved her, knowing that with the best will in the world, she could never return that love. She’d never been good at lying. She’d probably end up hurting such a man, and she didn’t want to hurt anyone.
The duke, on the other hand, had been very clear—quite adamant, in fact—that he didn’t love her, and that he wasn’t looking for love—quite the contrary. What he wanted, he told her, was a courteous, unemotional, rational arrangement. And children. An heir, in particular.
Rose had decided she could live with that, and so she’d accepted.
So what if the rest of the world thought her calculating, cold-blooded and ambitious. She knew who she was. A marriage was made between two people, and if she and the duke were content with—actually preferred—a lukewarm pragmatic arrangement, it was nobody’s business but theirs.
“But you don’t know what you’re missing,” Lily began. “Love is—”
“Not for me,” Rose said firmly. She knew exactly what she was missing. And was grateful for it.
“But you’ve never been in love, so how can you—”
“Drop it, Lily,” George interrupted. “If she doesn’t want to fall in love, she doesn’t. You don’t go on about love to me all the time. Why badger Rose about it?”
“I’m not badgering her,” Lily said indignantly. “Besides, you and Rose are different.”
“I know—you wouldn’t catch me putting my fortune and my future into the hands of a man I barely know and don’t much like. Or any man, for that matter.”
“On the contrary, I’ll be virtually independent. Cal has arranged the marriage contract and the settlements are very generous. And Aunt Agatha is over the moon.”
George snorted. “Call that a recommendation? Aunt Agatha would happily marry you to a . . . a cannibal, as long as he was rich and titled.”
Rose couldn’t help but laugh. It was pretty close to the mark. “Nonsense. A cannibal would never meet Aunt Agatha’s lofty standards of behavior. His table manners would be lacking, for a start.”
“As long as he had a title and a fat purse, she’d forgive his peculiar eating habits,” George said darkly.
“It’s not badgering,” Lily persisted. “When we were schoolgirls, Rose and I both dreamed of falling in love—we used to talk about it all the time, remember, Rose?”
Trust her little sister. Lily might not be able to read books, but she could read people, especially her sister.
But Lily didn’t know everything.
“Yes, well, that was a long time ago. A lot has changed since then. I’m not soft and sweet, like you. I don’t want the hearts and flowers. I just want to be married and get on with my life.”
“You know he won’t be faithful,” George said into the silence.
Rose dusted crumbs off her fingers.
“You don’t mind?” Lily said incredulously.
“It’s the price of freedom.”
“Freedom?” George echoed. “To be under a man’s thumb?”
“I won’t be under his thumb,” Rose said. “We have an agreement. I’m to give him an heir, and he will give me the freedom to do what I like, as long as I’m discreet.” Not that she had any intention of breaking her marriage vows. She took her vows seriously.
“That’s horrid,” Lily said, dismayed. “I can’t believe you’re being so . . . so cynical, Rose.”
“Cold-blooded,” George said.
“Practical,” Rose corrected her. “I used to want too much out of life. I’m more mature now.”
“Oh, but you should want more,” Lily exclaimed in distress. “I never believed I could have even half of what I dreamed of, and then I met Edward. You never know what—or who—is around the corner.”
Rose loved that her sister was so happy, but she knew it was not for her. She leaned forward and took Lily and George by the hand. “Please, my dears, let us drop the subject. I know this marriage is not what you hoped for me, but you’ll just have to accept that I’m a cold-blooded creature who will marry a man she doesn’t love for the sake of freedom, a beautiful home, and a very generous allowance. And babies.” She ached for a child of her own, and seeing her sister-in-law, Emm, so rounded and glowing, her child growing within her . . .
Lily shook her head. “You can’t have changed that much, I don’t believe it. I don’t understand why you’re doing this thing, and I wish you wouldn’t, but if it’s what you want—what you really truly want, I’ll say no more.”
Rose gave her sister a one-armed hug. “Don’t worry about me, little sister. I’m going to be just fine.” Dear Lily, so newly married and so deeply, joyfully in love. Of course Lily wanted the same for her sister.
But falling in love was the very last thing Rose wanted. She couldn’t explain why to Lily and George—or anyone else. Not without stirring up . . . things better left untouched.
Love was simply too painful.
* * * * *
Rose paused at the church door. Lily and George fluttered around her, straightening the circlet of flowers in her hair, arranging the lace train of her dress. Rose stood, lively as a statue, and about as warm. “Now, don’t be nervous,” Aunt Dottie had said a few moments before. “It will all work out perfectly, trust me, my love. I have one of my feelings.”
But Rose wasn’t the slightest bit nervous. It all felt strangely distant, as if it were happening to some other girl. She moistened her lips and waited.
George poked her head around the door, glanced in and pulled a face. “He’s there.”
“Well, of course he’s there,” Lily said crossly. Poor Lily. She’d been in a brittle mood all morning, trying to put a good face on a wedding she still had grave doubts about. Lily wasn’t very good at hiding her feelings.
What if the duke hadn’t come? He was notoriously unreliable about keeping engagements. What if he’d jilted her at the altar? Rose considered it briefly and decided that it would be embarrassing . . . and possibly something of a relief.
Nonsense. She needed to do this, needed to draw a line in the sand between her old life and her new. Cut the bonds of the old, and move on.
The church was full—Rose’s friends and relations come to see her married, the duke’s too, of course, and quite a few other members of the ton come to witness what some were calling the wedding of the season. Strangers had gathered in the street outside to watch and wait, in hope of some largesse in the form of a shower of coins from the happy groom.
It didn’t feel real.
“Ready?” her brother Cal asked. She nodded and took his arm.
Now. She took a deep breath and stepped inside the church and stood blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the interior. A hush fell, followed by a susurration of whispers and rustling silk as the congregation turned as one to look at the bride.
The church smelled of flowers, spring flowers, and beeswax, brass polish and perfumes, a hundred clashing perfumes.
At the end of the aisle, in the dappled light of a stained-glass window, stood her future husband, the Duke of Everingham, looking bored. He’d removed his gray kid gloves and was slapping them in his palm. Bored and impatient.
At least he’d turned up.
The organ played a chord that swelled to a crescendo, then died, and then the music started and she was walking, walking like an automaton, toward the altar, toward her fate.
She felt everyone’s eyes on her. She’d hardly slept. Did it show? Did she care if it did?
The duke stepped forward. Cal waited, his arm steady beneath her hand, ready to hand her over—like a parcel, like a possession, George had muttered once at another wedding they’d attended.
Rose glanced up and met the duke’s gaze. Dark eyes, gray-green, and cold as the winter sea. Perfectly good eyes, but the wrong color. The wrong eyes.
She regarded them bleakly. Time healed all wounds. Or so they said.
The bishop, resplendent in his robes of gold and purple, cleared his throat and they turned to face him. For the marriage of a duke and the daughter of an earl, their usual minister wouldn’t do, it seemed. Aunt Agatha’s doing, no doubt.
Rose hoped he wasn’t the kind of bishop who would give some long dreary sermon. She wanted this wedding over. Over and done with. No going back.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here . . .”
The familiar words washed over her. She was calm, quite calm. Coldly, perfectly calm. Not like last time.
The bishop continued, speaking in those melodic rises and falls peculiar to ministers. Did they teach them that singsong cadence at minister school? “. . . not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites . . . but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly . . .”
She shivered. Lord, but this church was cold.
“. . . for the procreation of children . . .”
Children. Yes, think of that. Imagine swelling like Emm, round and glowing with joy in the child she was carrying. Not long for Emm now. Would it be a boy or a girl?
“Therefore if any man can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak or else hereafter forever hold his peace.”
Her fingers were freezing. She should have worn kid gloves instead of these lace ones.
The bishop paused for a perfunctory breath, then continued, “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that—”
“Stop the wedding!”
There was an audible gasp from the congregation, followed by a hush, as everyone waited to hear what would happen next. Rose’s heart jolted—feeling as though it stopped. Heart in her mouth, she turned to stare at the man who’d just entered.
After a long, frozen moment, she breathed again. For a moment she’d imagined—but no. She’d never seen this man before.
The church door banged shut behind him, the sound echoing through the silent church.
“What the devil?” Cal muttered.
Rose fought to gather her composure, shaken by the brief flash of—whatever it was.
The stranger stood in stark contrast to the smoothly groomed and elegant congregation. He was tall and gaunt-looking, but his shoulders were broad—a laborer’s shoulders. His clothes were ill-fitting, coarse, the trousers ragged and patched in places. He wore no coat. His shirt was too flimsy for the season and his shoes were of laced canvas, dirty and with visible holes.
If he knew he was grossly out of place in this, the most fashionable church in London, interrupting the most fashionable wedding of the season, he showed no sign, no self-consciousness.
He was heavily bearded. Thick hair rioted past his shoulders, wild and sun-bleached. The face above the beard—what she could see of it—was lean and deeply tanned, the skin stretched tight over prominent cheekbones. His nose appeared to have been broken at least once. The tattered shirt sleeves revealed tanned, powerful-looking muscles.
No, she’d imagined that fleeting resemblance. But who was he? And what was he trying to do?
“Is this a joke?” the duke demanded of his best man.
“Lord, no, Hart—of course not. Nothing to do with me.”
“Rose?” Cal asked.
Her heart was still pounding. She stared at the big ruffian who stood in the center of the aisle, shabby and confident, as if commanding it. He met her gaze with an assurance that shook her.
For a moment she wondered . . . But no. He was too brutal-looking, too rough, too wild.
“Rose?” Cal repeated.
She shook her head. “No idea.”
The bishop surged forward. “Ho there, fellow, by what right do you seek to disrupt God’s work?”
“By the right of law,” the stranger replied coolly. “Lady Rose is already married.”
A low, excited murmur of speculation followed his announcement.
Rose’s heart almost stopped. He couldn’t possibly know.
“Throw the dirty beggar out!” Aunt Agatha shook her stick at him.
“Rose?” Cal glanced at her, and despite the racing of her heart and the knotting of her stomach, again she shook her head. She did not know this man. How many times had she imagined—but no. No! It was some cruel, tasteless joke.
Cal snorted and raised his voice. “Is she now? And who is my sister married to, pray tell?”
A hush fell as everyone waited for his response.
“To me.” His voice was deep, a little rough. Faintly surprised by the question.
There was a universal gasp, then a babble of amused and outraged speculation. Several people laughed. There were a couple of catcalls.
“That’s a lie!” Dry-mouthed, breathless and suddenly furious, Rose moved forward.
“Stay here, Rose.” Cal caught her arm and thrust her toward the duke. “Look after her, Everingham. I’ll get rid of this madman. Galbraith?” Rose’s brother-in-law, Ned Galbraith, nodded, and the two men approached the rough-looking stranger.
“Back off, gentlemen,” the stranger warned with chilling menace. “I’m neither madman nor beggar. Lady Rose is indeed my wife.” His bearing was in stark contrast to his ragged appearance. And he spoke with the crisp diction of a gentleman.
Cal frowned and glanced at Galbraith.
“What rubbish! Who the devil do you think you are, coming here to disrupt my wedding?” Furious at the sight of her brother’s hesitation, shaken by the tall beggar’s confidence and the cruelty of his lies, Rose shook off the duke’s grip and marched forward. The duke tried to draw her back, but she evaded him and half ran, half stumbled up the aisle, almost tripping over her train. She pushed in between her brother and brother-in-law, ready to confront the big weather-beaten stranger who was trying to ruin her wedding.
“What nonsense is this?” she snapped. “I’ve never seen you before in—”
White teeth glinted through the beard. “Ahh, that temper of yours, Rosie.”
She froze. This man with the spare, rangy frame, the powerful shoulders, the crooked nose, and the wild sun-bleached hair, he wasn’t . . . He couldn’t be . . . He was nothing like . . .
She opened her mouth to repudiate him again—and met his gaze. Eyes of the palest silvery blue. She faltered. And in her memory the echo of her much younger self saying, Like a summer sky at twilight.
“Thomas?” she whispered, and fainted dead away.