About the Author
Jane Feather is the New York Times bestselling author of A Husband's Wicked Ways, A Wicked Gentleman, To Wed a Wicked Prince, and more than twenty-five other historical romances. She was born in Cairo, Egypt and grew up in the south of England. There are more than 10 million copies of her books in print.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
An Unsuitable Bride Prologue
“But I don’t understand.” Alexandra Douglas stared at the two objects the lawyer had placed on his desk in front of her. “These are our inheritance?” She touched the heavy gold signet ring and the diamond fob before looking up at Lawyer Forsett, her clear gray eyes bemused. “Sylvia and I were to have ten thousand pounds each on Papa’s death. He told me so himself.”
The lawyer pulled at his chin and stared down fixedly at the blotter on his desk. He cleared his throat. “Mistress Douglas, yours and your sister’s circumstances changed when Sir Arthur divorced your mother.”
“I’m well aware of that, sir,” Alexandra responded somewhat tartly. “When my mother ran off for the last time, I was sent to St. Catherine’s Seminary and Sylvia to live with our old nurse. Quite different circumstances from our previous life at Combe Abbey. We were under no illusions, sir.”
The man looked at his visitor with a hint of compassion. “There was another aspect to your changed circumstances, Mistress Douglas, that perhaps you did not fully understand.” He cleared his throat again. “Your legal status changed as well.”
A little needle of apprehension pierced Alexandra’s customary composure. “Legal status?” she queried.
The lawyer sighed. It was a damnable business. He’d told his client, Sir Arthur Douglas, many times that he owed it to his daughters to explain what his divorce meant for them, but Sir Arthur had waved away any urgency. “All in good time, my good man.” The lawyer could hear the brusquely dismissive tones as if the man were sitting right in front of him, instead of dead and buried in the family mausoleum. In essence, Sir Arthur had not had the courage to inform his daughters of the ghastly situation his own selfish actions had put them in. And now it was up to his lawyer to do his dirty work for him.
“Your father obtained a divorce from his wife, your mother, a vinculo matrimonii,” he began.
“What does that mean?” his visitor interrupted before he could continue.
“It means, ma’am, that the marriage in question was null and void from its inception, either because of an improper blood relationship, insanity, or . . .” He paused, a slight flush on his cheek. “Or because of nonconsummation. On such grounds, the marriage is dissolved as if it had never been, and all children of the union in the first two causes are declared illegitimate. Your father had your mother declared insane in absentia.”
Alexandra began to see where this was leading, and the needle of apprehension became a knife of fear. “So Sylvia and I are bastards, sir? That is what you’re saying?”
His flush deepened, and he coughed into his hand. “In a word, ma’am, yes. And as such are not legally entitled to inherit anything from your father’s estate, unless specific provision has been made.”
The young woman was very pale now, but her voice was steady, her eyes focused. “And am I to assume that no such provision was made?”
“Your father intended to do so, but his death was rather sudden, before he had managed to settle anything on you or your sister. However . . .” Lawyer Forsett opened a strongbox which stood on a small pedestal table beside his chair. “Sir Stephen Douglas, your father’s heir, has agreed to allow you and your sister fifty pounds apiece from the estate, just to tide you over until you find some means of employment.” He pushed a bank draft across the table to Alexandra.
She looked at it in disgust. “Cousin Stephen? That’s what he considers fair?”
The lawyer’s distress increased visibly. “I did suggest to Sir Stephen that he honor your late father’s intentions and make a one-time payment to each of you in the sum of ten thousand pounds. Unfortunately, Sir Stephen did not see the matter in the same way.”
“No, of course he didn’t,” she returned with a bitter little smile. She had never met this distant cousin, but her father had never had a good word to say for his putative heir. The need to disinherit Sir Stephen by producing a male heir of his own was the main reason, she had always assumed, for her father’s hurried second marriage.
She folded the bank draft and tucked it into the deep pocket of her muslin skirt. The signet ring and fob followed it as she rose to her feet. “I thank you for your time, Lawyer Forsett, but I won’t take up any more of it.”
He rose himself, saying awkwardly, “Have you considered your next step, ma’am? You must find gainful employment. Perhaps the seminary would employ you as a teacher, or maybe you could hire out as a governess in some respectable family. Your education will stand you in good stead.”
“No doubt that was my father’s intention when he sent me to the seminary in the first place,” she stated, her eyes burning. “And I presume it will be up to me to earn sufficient for my sister’s care in addition to my own?”
“I could approach Sir Stephen again, ma’am, appeal—”
“Indeed not, sir,” she interrupted his awkward speech. “I would not ask my cousin for the parings of his nails. I bid you good day.”
The door closed on her parting vulgarity, and the lawyer shook his head, mopped his brow with a large linen handkerchief, and sank back into his chair.
Alexandra went out onto the freezing wind of a London winter’s day. Chancery Lane was busy with traffic, iron wheels splashing through puddles, sending up sprays of dirty water from the kennel. For a moment, she stood, heedless of her surroundings, numbed by the prospect of a future that was no future. She had been brought up to believe that her world would never significantly change, that she would tread the path well trodden before her by other young women of her position in Society. Not even her parents’ divorce, an almost unheard-of circumstance among her peers, had caused undue alarm over the prospect of the next stage of her life. She had settled happily enough at St. Catherine’s, close enough to her sister, who was being well cared for by their former nurse, and waited patiently for the doors to the life to come to swing wide.
Instead, they had been slammed shut.|An Unsuitable Bride Chapter One
The Honorable Peregrine Sullivan drew rein on the high Dorsetshire cliff top and looked out over the calm waters of Lulworth Cove. The sea surged through the horseshoe-shaped rock at the entrance to the cove in a flash of white water and then smoothed out as it rolled gently to the beach.
Perry was not familiar with this southern coastline, having spent his own growing in the rugged wilds of Northumberland, where rough mountains and hilly moors were the usual scenery, but he found it rather soothing, the expanse of water sparkling under the Indian summer sun, the rough grass of the cliff top, the air perfumed with the clumps of fragrant pinks crushed beneath his horse’s hooves. It was altogether a softer part of the world, and none the worse for that, he reflected.
His weary horse raised his head and whinnied. Perry leaned over and stroked the animal’s neck. “Almost there, Sam.” He urged the horse forward with a nudge of his heels. It had been a long ride from London, three days in all. The Honorable Peregrine was not overly flush with funds and had decided a post chaise would be an unwarranted expense, and he didn’t wish to change horses on the road, leaving Sam in an unknown stable, so they’d taken it slowly, at a pace that the gelding could comfortably manage, but now they were within two miles of Combe Abbey, their final destination.
The gray stone building stood on a slight hill, easily visible from the road that wound across the cliff above the Solent. It was an impressive turreted building, with arched mullioned windows glowing in the setting sun. Well-tended green lawns swept down to the cliff top, and a stand of tall pines served as a windbreak along the boundary of the grounds and the cliff.
Perry felt a little surge of anticipation. In that impressive building was a library, and in that library were treasures, some known, such as the Decameron, which set his literary juices running, and many, he was sure, unknown and equally priceless. His good friend Marcus Crofton had assured him that he could spend as long as he liked in the library. Its owner, Sir Stephen Douglas, had given him carte blanche to browse as much as he chose.
Peregrine turned his horse through the gates, which were opened at his appearance by a robust gatekeeper. “Dower House is just around the first bend in the drive, sir,” he informed Peregrine in answer to the latter’s question. “They’s expectin’ you. Master Crofton told me to look out for ye.”
“Thank you.” Perry nodded his thanks with a smile and rode on up the drive. He was looking forward to this visit with his old friend, and not just because of the opportunity to see the library. Since his twin brother, Sebastian, had taken his new wife, the Lady Serena, on an extended honeymoon to the Continent, Perry had to admit that the house they had shared on Stratton Street seemed far too big, and very lonely. It had surprised him how lonely he had been. He’d always considered himself perfectly self-sufficient, perfectly content with his own company and that of his books. But he’d been mistaken, it seemed.
Now he nudged Sam into a trot as the Dower House came into view. It was a pleasant thatched building in the Queen Anne style, nowhere near as impressive as the Abbey itself but rather inviting. Smoke curled from the kitchen chimney, and the windows on both levels were opened to catch the freshness of early evening. Perry dismounted at the front door and pulled the bell rope beside it. He heard the chime within the house, and the door was opened almost instantly by a white-haired steward, who bowed and murmured, “The Honorable Peregrine, I assume, sir?”
“You assume right,” Perry agreed with an amiable smile, drawing off his gloves.
“Perry, is that you?” A cheerful voice hailed him from the cool depths of an oak-floored hall, and a young man of around Perry’s age appeared behind the steward. “Welcome, m’dear fellow.” He extended a hand in greeting.
Perry shook his hand warmly. He had known Marcus Crofton since their school days. But whereas Perry had had the protection of his oldest brother, Jasper, and the constant companionship of his twin, Sebastian, Marcus had been thrown into the brutal waters of Westminster alone and left to sink or swim. The Blackwater brothers had extended their protection and friendship, and Marcus and Peregrine had quickly become fast friends once they had discovered a shared passion for science. A passion that the less rigorously academically minded Sebastian had found hard to understand and after a few attempts had given up trying to share with his twin.
“I’ve been expecting you for the last two days. You rode?” Marcus peered over Perry’s shoulder to where his horse stood patiently behind him.
“In slow stages,” Perry returned. “Where should I stable Sam?”
“Oh, up at the Abbey,” Marcus replied. “My mother didn’t wish to go to the expense of opening the Dower House stables, and Sir Stephen offered to extend the hospitality of the Abbey’s whenever we need it. For a not so small stipend, of course,” he added with a cynical note that Peregrine didn’t miss.
“Mother keeps her barouche up there,” Marcus continued. “But, except when I’m down here for some hunting, we don’t trespass further on his generosity.” The cynical note was again difficult to miss. “Except for our visitors, who also use the stables. Roddy will take him up and see him settled. See to it, will you, Baker?”
“Of course, sir.” The butler disappeared into the back regions of the house.
“Come into the parlor,” Marcus urged. “You must be dying of thirst after all that riding.” He led the way into a square parlor. It had an intimate, family feel to it, the air scented with great bowls of roses planted on every available surface. “You’ll have to excuse my mother, Perry. The Dowager Lady Douglas suffers from ill health and spends much of the day on the chaise in her boudoir. She’s resting now before dinner.” He poured two glasses of ruby claret, passing one to his guest. “You’ll meet her at dinner, of course.”
Peregrine raised his glass in a toast of thanks before saying, “I hope the dowager doesn’t consider my visit an imposition.”
“Oh, good heavens, not a bit of it, dear boy. There’s nothing my mother likes better than visitors. She just don’t like to exert herself. But Baker and his wife, the inestimable Mistress Baker, run the house between ’em, and m’mother has to do little more than wave her sal volatile in their direction and miracles occur.” Marcus chuckled, clearly not considering this less than respectful description of his parent to be in the least offensive.
Peregrine smiled knowingly. His own mother had been of the valetudinarian stamp, and he understood the situation well. “I’m most grateful to the dowager for her hospitality. I confess I can barely hold my patience until I can see the library. Your stepfather was known as the most skilled antiquarian book collector in the country. And his father before him,” he added, his blue eyes sparking with enthusiasm. His fatigue seemed to have left him now that he was at journey’s end and so close to the object of his passionate interest.
Marcus chuckled. He knew well the depths of his friend’s literary enthusiasms, even though he could not himself summon up such intense interest for anything outside the realm of science. “I doubt the library will expand under Stephen’s caretaking. Sir Stephen Douglas doesn’t appear to share the literary interests of his two predecessors. But you should be able to see the collection soon. We shall dine quietly at home, and I should warn you we keep country hours, but afterwards we are bidden to the Abbey for an evening of cards. Every evening, Sir Stephen has card tables set up, either with his own houseguests or members of the local gentry.” Marcus shook his head with a slightly rueful smile. “I give you fair warning, my friend. If ’tis not whist, then ’tis fierce gaming. Sir Stephen plays for high stakes.”
Peregrine had neither the desire nor the funds to play for high stakes, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it. He shrugged the issue aside. “As long as there’s an opportunity to look at the volume of the Decameron, I’ll do the best I can.”
“Oh, no one will trouble you on that score, although you’ll have to beard the librarian.”
“Librarian? There’s a librarian?” Perry was surprised that a man with no interest in books should employ someone simply to take care of them.
“Yes, she’s been there for a while. Stephen has little interest in the collection, except in terms of its monetary value, so he employed this Mistress Hathaway to catalogue it with the aim of selling it to the highest bidder. ’Tis a damn shame, and I’m sure my stepfather is turning in his grave.” Marcus shook his head. “Such a waste of a lifetime’s assiduous collecting, and, as you said, not just Sir Arthur but his father before him. Some of the works are priceless. Anyway, Mistress Hathaway is just a dab of a thing, although I think she knows what she’s doing. She’s so shy and retiring, she’ll probably run a mile if you speak to her.”
“It’s hard to believe Sir Stephen doesn’t appreciate such a treasury,” P...
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