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Authors: Gayle Callen

Never Marry a Stranger

BOOK: Never Marry a Stranger
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Gayle Callen
Never Marry a Stranger

To my agent, Eileen Fallon: We’ve been together for fourteen years, through twenty-two books, and our working relationship keeps getting better—as does our friendship. Thank you for your excellent brainstorming, and your thoughtful advice which has enhanced my career.

Contents

Chapter 1

Captain Matthew Leland didn’t usually knock on the front door…

Chapter 2

Matthew scooped Emily up before she hit the floor, enjoying…

Chapter 3

It was easy enough to find Reggie, who would be…

Chapter 4

The eggs tasted like dry pieces of rubber going down…

Chapter 5

Since Matthew’s father wasn’t the master of the household, his…

Chapter 6

Emily looked between Mr. Derby and Matthew. She knew they’d grown…

Chapter 7

Emily leaned her forearms against the stone balustrade of the…

Chapter 8

Emily knew Matthew watched her too carefully. What emotions chased…

Chapter 9

Late that evening, Emily was surprised when she opened her…

Chapter 10

Matthew prowled his new bedchamber, unable to sleep. He ached…

Chapter 11

When Matthew reached the stable, he questioned the boy, only…

Chapter 12

When Emily set her school books on her desk, she…

Chapter 13

Matthew wanted to unbutton his trousers and take her now,…

Chapter 14

After breakfast the next morning Matthew sat alone on a…

Chapter 15

Late in the afternoon, as Emily was approaching her suite…

Chapter 16

As Matthew unhooked Emily’s gown, he felt certain that she…

Chapter 17

In the morning, Emily left a slumbering Matthew undisturbed. She…

Chapter 18

When Matthew entered the ballroom with Emily on his arm,…

Chapter 19

Matthew stared at the bloodstain on the sheets, and his…

Chapter 20

Emily took a slow bath, hoping Matthew would come in,…

Chapter 21

After dinner that night there was much excitement as all…

Chapter 22

That night, Matthew led Lady Rosa, his sisters, and Emily…

Chapter 23

Emily watched Matthew reach toward her, then stop, his face…

Chapter 24

Emily stood still while Matthew hooked up her gown. Over…

Epilogue

She’d had more than her share of weddings, Emily thought,…

Chapter 1

Cambridgeshire, England, 1845

C
aptain Matthew Leland didn’t usually knock on the front door of his ancestral family home, but when one was returning from the dead, it seemed the proper thing to do.

When he’d heard that the army had mistakenly informed his family that he was dead, he rushed home from India, knowing he could reach his parents as quickly as a letter could.

At his side, Lieutenant Reginald Lawton sent him an encouraging grin. Matthew and Reggie had been friends since they’d left England; they’d fought side by side, saved each other’s lives countless times. Though Matthew had insisted he didn’t need his friend’s help as he reunited with his grieving family, part of him was glad for Reggie’s presence.

Reggie whistled in disbelief as they both tilted their heads to look up at Madingley Court, the palace of the Duke of Madingley, Matthew’s cousin.
It rose imposingly above them, all turrets and sprawling wings that seemed to stretch on forever, windows gleaming to light the growing darkness of evening.

“I still can’t believe you were raised here,” Reggie said, shaking his head. “You never seemed so fine to me.”

Matthew grinned. “My mother was the daughter of a duke, after all. My cousin now carries the title and owns the property. But still…this is home.”

Madingley Court was the place he’d lived much of each year. Lady Rosa, raised at the pinnacle of Society, conducted her life accordingly. But being born into the Cabot family had come with a price—even a curse, as Matthew had once thought it.

Cabots were notoriously scandalous, their names on every tongue, their deeds the stuff of infamous legend.

And his parents had been no different. His father, Randolph Leland, was an anatomy professor whom his mother, Lady Rosa Cabot, had fallen in love with, regardless of Society’s scorn. Her own father, guilty of neglecting his children as he rebuilt the family name, gave in to whomever his daughters wanted to marry. Lady Rosa, in her pride, had thought her choice—her good sense—infallible. And then her husband dragged her into scandal.

An anatomist, Matthew’s father had been paying men to purchase the bodies of criminals condemned
to death, which was allowed by the law. His studies consumed him. But when he needed a female corpse, which was harder to find, his employees had dug up the graves of the newly dead. The professor was caught in the scandal of it all, and although his work was legitimate and he was innocent of the crime, he could not escape the notoriety of buying female corpses.

Matthew had only been a little boy at this time, but even he could see the strain between his parents. Lady Rosa had disregarded Society to marry a commoner, and was furious and humiliated by his actions. Each was hurt by the other’s mistrust, and they’d gone to the very brink of divorce, scandalizing London for months. After being the subject of condemning newspaper stories and caricatured in cartoons, they pulled back for the sake of their family and called off divorce proceedings. On the face of it, many thought they’d healed their marriage. But Matthew and his sisters knew it was all a facade. The Lelands loved their children—but not each other.

And Matthew somehow felt guilty, for even as a boy, he had fought his natural inclinations to do whatever he wished. Trouble seemed to find him, with the help of his cousins, Christopher and Daniel. Matthew continued to resist his very nature, unable to forget the stark hurt on Lady Rosa’s face whenever she was reminded of the scandal of her near-
divorce. Marriage had only seemed painful to him, for although his parents tried to follow the rules and repair their relationship, they were never the same. To him, such pain didn’t seem worth it.

As an adult, he’d found it harder and harder to be the proper son. His cousin Christopher had given up his wild ways when he took on the responsibility of his title at eighteen, determined to save the family by being the perfect duke. Daniel had gone the other way, invoking one scandal after another, doing as he wished. When Matthew’s envy of Daniel’s freedom became too much, he knew that something drastic had to change, or
he
would be the one humiliating his mother.

So he’d bought a commission in the army four years ago. His parents were shocked but did not protest. After all, it wasn’t as if he would inherit a title and vast wealth, along with all the management responsibilities. Matthew had never even shown an interest in the investments Professor Leland made. And the army was a perfectly respectable choice for a gentleman.

After two years stationed in England, he was at last shipped to India—and to freedom. No one knew his name or his family history; nothing but duty and loyalty were expected of him. He could do as he wished, give in to the wildness he’d spent his whole life resisting.

And it had been exhilarating. He’d fought battles
with such ferocity and recklessness that he found himself promoted for bravery. An unintended consequence, but he accepted it with gusto. He had thought himself a new man—a free man—but with recklessness came arrogance, and he’d gone too far.

He shoved the painful memory away, feeling barely a twinge of emotion; he’d become good at ignoring what he wanted to.

Regardless of what had happened in India, he was home now—and he was different. He couldn’t go back to repressing every inclination. He had to be himself, to do as he wished. Perhaps his parents would want to think the change in him was due to serving his country, but Matthew knew he would be a coward if he let them believe that. The army had freed him, had allowed him to become the man he’d always wanted to be—a man who no longer lived by Society’s unwritten rules. He did as he pleased, as long as no one was hurt. His parents would someday understand that, for at least he’d always known he had their love.

At last the front door opened and Hamilton, the family butler since Matthew’s childhood, gave an imposing stare down his patrician nose, first at Reggie, then at Matthew. He opened his mouth—and then his jaw seemed to drop to his chest.

Matthew smiled. “Good day, Hamilton.”

“M-Master Matthew?” the man sputtered, his face going white.

Matthew winced as Reggie’s elbow hit him in the side, because of the name the servants used to call him during his boyhood. But if the unflappable butler was stunned, Matthew knew that his arrival was going to give his parents apoplexy.

“I know it’s a shock, but yes, it’s me, back from the dead. Except I never really died.”

Blood finally rushed back into Hamilton’s cheeks, and he tried to use a proper expression to mask his grin. “Captain Leland, it is good to see you. It is not my place to ask about this miracle, so I will only say that your parents will be beyond grateful.”

“Then they’re here?” he asked, feeling a rush of anticipation and pleasure. He was relieved to at last bring them out of their grief, and to begin the journey of letting them know his real self, the one he’d been hiding for so long.

The butler hastily stepped back. “Goodness, yes, they are! Please do come inside.” He glanced at Reggie.

“Forgive me, Hamilton,” Matthew said. “This is my friend, Lieutenant Lawton. He’ll be staying with us for a while.”

As Matthew crossed the threshold, Hamilton took his portmanteau from him, and Reggie set his just inside the door.

“Do you have more luggage, Captain?” the butler asked.

“Yes, we each have another trunk in the coach outside.”

“I’ll see to it after I’ve taken you to Lady Rosa and Professor Leland.”

Matthew put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you.”

The marble statues in their recessed alcoves almost seemed to greet him as something familiar from childhood. Reggie openly gaped up at them. The doors to the great hall were open, and Matthew could see the shields and swords on the walls representing the Madingley past, but Hamilton continued walking by. The butler gave him an uncharacteristic grin as he reached the closed doors to the drawing room, and Matthew shared his excitement.

Speaking over his shoulder, Hamilton said, “Her ladyship, the professor, and your wife are spending the evening in the drawing room. If I may admit to such boldness, I cannot wait to see their faces.”

Matthew exchanged a perplexed frown with Reggie. Whose wife? But before he could question the servant, the door was thrown open and he saw three people sitting near the main hearth.

His father, Professor Randolph Leland, had Matthew’s auburn hair, but tinged with gray. It was disheveled, as if he’d recently run his hands through it, a habit Matthew remembered since childhood. His mother, Lady Rosa Leland, looked more gaunt
than he recalled, her face deeply lined—because of his supposed death, of course, and not just the passage of time. Matthew wanted to wince with guilt. With them was a strange woman who completed a cozy tableau. While the professor read the newspaper, Lady Rosa and the woman sewed, their heads together as if in discussion. They all looked up when Hamilton cleared his throat.

And something inside Matthew went still in relief, in gladness, knowing that he could bring them renewed happiness. He was so glad to be home after a long journey halfway around the world.

“Excuse the interruption, Professor Leland and Lady Rosa.” The old butler’s voice was husky, as if with emotion. “I bring good news.”

The newspaper sagged in his father’s lap, and Lady Rosa gave a sound halfway between a gasp and a cry, her sewing falling to the floor as she rose. The unfamiliar woman remained silent and still, but her face blanched.

“Matthew?” Lady Rosa spoke his name faintly, then clutched her husband’s arm as if she would fall.

He rushed forward. “Yes, Mother, it’s me, but please don’t swoon. There was a terrible mistake made, and when I discovered you’d been sent news of my death, I rushed home as quickly as I could.”

It was his parents’ turn to rush, and they met him halfway across the room, tears streaming down
their faces. Matthew’s throat tightened at their display. Much as he’d distanced himself from Professor Leland’s scandal, just as his mother had—albeit for vastly different reasons—he’d never forgotten how much they loved him.

He hugged them both at once, then let Lady Rosa sob against his chest, holding her as he grinned at his father.

“How did this happen, son?” the professor asked in bewilderment, using a handkerchief to wipe away tears.

To Matthew’s surprise, Professor Leland gently patted Lady Rosa’s back, as if to ease her heightened emotions. What had happened to the distance kept so carefully between them, like the earthen walls thrown up to protect a soldier? Much of his childhood involved him walking very carefully between their respective encampments, where they stood like two enemies under cease-fire.

Laughing and crying, Lady Rosa at last looked up at him, staying within the circle of his arms. “Yes, tell us what happened, please!”

“I was injured,” he explained, “and my regiment had to leave me behind.”

As he spoke, Matthew found himself looking beyond them at the woman who still stared at them. She seemed frozen, her sewing neglected in her lap, her hand clutching the arm of the sofa, leaving her knuckles white. Her pale blond hair was piled in
random curls on top of her head, reminding him of champagne bubbles. She was classically lovely, with elegant cheekbones, a slender nose, and full lips that were now parted in shock. She seemed oddly…familiar.

The lure of his curiosity was such that he almost couldn’t remember what he’d been talking about. He turned back to Lady Rosa. “After I recuperated and transferred to another regiment, somehow my first post thought I’d died from my injuries. I learned too late that they’d sent a letter of condolence to you.”

“Oh, Matthew!” she cried again. “I cannot tell you how we grieved your loss.”

She was shaking now, and he felt as guilty as if he’d deliberately misled her himself. Her dark brown hair had gone mostly gray, and she seemed frail.

At last Lady Rosa saw him look over her head at the woman.

“Oh my goodness!” she cried. “Your beloved Emily deserves the happiness of your reunion!”

Beloved Emily?

He blinked at the woman, even as his parents took both his arms and led him forward. The woman—Emily—seemed unnaturally stiff, as if fighting the inclination to lean away from him.

Lady Rose went to her, guiding her to her feet. “He isn’t a dream, Emily dear,” she said softly, with a gentleness born of love.

And then Emily was urged toward him, and he could see that the elegance of her form continued down her body, with delicate curves perfectly proportioned, high breasts, narrow waist, and a flare at her hips. But it was her eyes that drew him, wide and brilliant blue as china—especially against her skin, so pale as to have no color at all.

“Matthew,” Lady Rosa said in a chiding voice. “Have you nothing to say to your wife?”

And then at last Matthew had to accept what his brain hadn’t wanted to believe—this woman had told his family that she was his wife.

He pressed his lips together to keep a burst of laughter at bay.
His wife?

But his parents believed it, believed her, he realized with incredulity. For some unknown reason, this woman had deceived them with her lies—and gotten away with it.

He should be angry, incensed. But instead he felt a reluctant sense of admiration at her daring, and at her success.

He glanced quickly at Reggie, but with a soldier’s control, the man gave away no reaction, only awaited Matthew’s response.

Matthew knew there could very well be a wider conspiracy; after all, this woman might be swindling his family. But Professor Leland was no fool, and although he might seem focused on his research, he would have known if thievery were taking place.
And there had been love in Lady Rosa’s voice, and this woman couldn’t have earned that very easily.

She’d claimed to be his
wife?
When the truth was revealed, it would be the biggest scandal his scandal-prone family might ever have seen. And he, having created his own scandals in India, now faced a new one erupting right in the middle of his family. Thank God he’d finally accepted the fact that scandal followed him wherever he went.

BOOK: Never Marry a Stranger
7.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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