Read The Bridal Season Online

Authors: Connie Brockway

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Regency

The Bridal Season

 

Version 1.0

Letty Potts has gotten into a few fixes in her twenty-five years, but this is
her worst predicament yet. A petty schemer by necessity, the struggling music
hall performer has decided to go straight. But after narrowly escaping the
wrath of her partner in crime, she finds herself at Paddington Station with
nothing but the gown she’s wearing...and another woman’s train ticket clutched
in her hand. Now masquerading as the redoubtable “Lady Agatha,” of Whyte
Wedding Celebrations, Letty arrives in the backwater burg of Little Bidewell,
where she is to arrange the nuptials of a young society bride.

Amid the dizzying whirl of pre-wedding festivities, nobody
suspects Letty’s secret...except the sensual and aristocratic Sir Elliot March.
A war hero who has forsworn love, Elliot senses something decidedly amiss about
this outspoken young woman. Yet she awakens a passionate yearning he’d thought
was lost to him forever. And soon a desperate masquerade embroils them both in
a web of scandal and danger as Letty’s past catches up with her—threatening
their lives...and a love without peer.

“MY FRIENDS CALL ME LETTY.”

“Letty,” he repeated, testing the syllables and seeming to
like them. “It suits you. A pet name?”

“My middle name.” It was difficult to cling to hard practicality
when he smiled at her like that.

Elliot reached out and swept a tress of hair from her brow.
His finger stayed, lingered, following the shallow indent at her temple, the
outer curve of her cheek, the line of her jaw. Desire began to spill liquid heat
through her. She forgot her fear. She inclined her head, leaning into his
caress.

“I fear I am doomed to spend most of my time with you
apologizing,” he said. But he didn’t look in the least remorseful.

“Why is that?”

“Because I can’t seem to keep my hands off you.”

Her heart thudded in her chest. “Oh.”

His hand circled to the back of her neck. She closed her eyes.
He brushed a kiss across her mouth. Her lips parted a sliver, her head tilted
back in anticipation of more.

None came.

She opened her eyes. He was regarding her with a hungry,
amused, and heated intensity.

“Just what is this game?” she demanded. “What exactly are you
playing at?”

“Why, Letty,” he answered. “I’m courting you.”

THE BRIDAL SEASON
CONNIE BROCKWAY

ISLAND BOOKS

ISBN: 0-440-23671-1

For Marcia Howard,

the jock,

who taught me to throw a ball

and swing a racket;

the “undercover” author,

who taught me to love books;

the champion of the neighborhood kids,

who taught me to stand up to bullies;

the best pie maker in the world,

who (unfortunately) taught me

the pleasure of good cooking;

and best of all, my mother.

I love you, Mom.

 

In writing this book I owe a debt of gratitude to Damaris
Rowland, my über-supportive agent, and also to Maggie Crawford and Wendy
McCurdy. And finally to Grace Pedalino, whose contribution to my literary craft
is ever shrouded in mystery. Thank you.

THE BRIDAL SEASON
Chapter 1

When someone drops a pearl

in your palm, make a fist.

 

London, the last decade of Victoria’s reign

 

“BUT HOW CAN I?” LADY AGATHA WHYTE asked Henri Arnoux in a
hushed undertone, painfully aware of the other passengers waiting in the lobby
to board trains. “The Bigglesworths are depending on me. They fear that unless
they make some sort of statement with the wedding ceremony and postnuptial
celebration, the Marquis of Cotton’s family will never accept young Miss
Bigglesworth as their equal, and she will be forever marked as socially
inferior to her new in-laws.”

“But, how is this your problem, my dear, my darling, Lady
Agatha?” M. Arnoux begged in his wonderful French accent.

Lady Agatha stared at him helplessly, trying to think of some
way in which to phrase her unique position, and subsequent power, in Society.
It would be immodest to call attention to her undoubted influence, but she had
to make him understand just how important her services could be... couldn’t
they?

Perhaps she was deluding herself, she thought in alarm, and
what influence she had was not as extensive as she herself had been led to
believe.

“The Bigglesworths are convinced only the cachet of my
involvement will gain Miss Angela entree into Society. Indeed,” she said
apologetically, “they say the only reason Society will venture to so remote and
provincial a place as Little Bidewell is because I will have planned the post
matrimonial celebration. As I did for your daughter, sir.” She felt a blush
rise in her cheeks. How many years had it been since she’d blushed?

“And a lovely celebration it was, too,” Henri Arnoux assured
her. “Yet, delightful as it was, it was not the basis for my daughter’s future
happiness. Unlike the decision I am asking you to make, which most definitely
forms the basis for
my
future happiness and, dare I be so bold, perhaps
in some measure your own? That is, if you can feel for me something of the
regard I have for you,
dear
Lady Agatha.” He secured her gloved hand and
raised it to his lips.

Lady Agatha’s reservations began to melt. He spoke so
chivalrously and his face was so earnest—and hadn’t it been romantic, the way
he’d followed her all the way here, to the train station? Yet, how could she
even consider eloping to France with M. Arnoux instead of going to Little
Bidewell, the ticket for which she held in her hand?

If only she hadn’t agreed in the first place. But the bride’s
aunt, Miss Eglantyne Bigglesworth, was an old classmate of Lady Agatha’s
favorite cousin. And when dear Helene had asked, it had seemed a fairy-tale
sort of endeavor: a simple country girl wedding a man who, as well as being one
of the ton’s most eligible bachelors, was the scion of one of Society’s
haughtiest families.

“I fear Miss Bigglesworth might feel my loss acutely, and how
would I forgive myself if—”

“Ach! I never ‘eard such flummery,” a disgusted female voice
muttered from somewhere behind M. Arnoux. “I don’t mean no offense, mum, but
believe me, if this ‘ere chippy has managed to land ‘erself a marquis, she
ain’t needing no ‘elp from you.”

Nonplussed, Lady Agatha leaned sideways to look around M.
Arnoux. She stared. The person who’d delivered this blunt advice was not the
Cockney girl Lady Agatha expected to see, but a genteel and well-to-do-looking
young lady perched decorously on a bench.

She looked to be in her mid-twenties and was remarkably
handsome in an unconventional sort of way, with high, chiseled cheekbones and a
sharply angular jaw. Her warm, brown eyes were deep-set and heavily lidded, the
thin brows above them straight and dark. Only her mouth failed to be exactly
ladylike, being too wide and full-lipped to be precisely... nice.

Lady Agatha’s gaze rose to the enormous and ornate picture hat
perched atop a mass of upswept auburn tresses. Sprays of silk lilacs nestled
amidst striped ribbons, while a long purple dyed plume flirted rakishly with
her temple. An amazing confection.

And while her dress was unsuited for travel, it was the
absolute height of fashion and obviously expensive. From her slender throat to
her narrow wrists, delicate ivory-colored lace overlay a snug sheath of rich
periwinkle-hued silk. The frock hugged the narrow span of her waist and curved
out to accommodate the swell of her hips before falling free and sweeping the
tops of kidskin half-boots. One could purchase a gown like that for no less
than twenty-five guineas. Certainly no Cockney girl could afford it.

Lady Agatha looked around quickly for another possible source
of the unsolicited advice. No one else was near.

The young lady smiled brightly. “Crikey, ducks. If a
well-’eeled-lookin’ bloke like this one ‘ere asked me to peel off with ‘im, you
wouldn’t see me for the dust!” She grinned cheekily and winked. “Best look
lively, dearie.”

“Excuse me?”

“Listen to her, Agatha,” Amoux urged. “Come with me.”

“But—” Agatha’s attention, momentarily diverted, returned
fully to M. Arnoux. “I have made a commitment. I can’t simply leave this poor
motherless girl and her father...” She struggled to find the appropriate words.

“In the lurch?” the auburn-haired young woman supplied
helpfully and then shook her head in disgust. “Coo! That’s a dodge if ever I
‘eard one. I’ve got your number. Taken to overstating your own importance, you
‘ave. Made your bit of talent out to be all the thing, and why? Because you’re
afraid if you don’t
‘ave
something, you’ll
be
nothing.”

Agatha remained mum. The young woman’s words too closely
echoed thoughts she’d more than once entertained.

“Well, that’s fine and good if you ain’t got nothing, but you
do. You’ve got ‘im.” The young lady jerked her thumb at Henri Arnoux. M. Arnoux
nodded eagerly. “Take my advice. Don’t be a chump. Life grants you only a few
choice bits of plum, far too few to be spitting out those what’s already in
your mouth. If this ‘ere muck-a-muck wants to set you up on easy street, you
let ‘im. It’s now or never, ducks.”

The amazing creature leaned forward, her dark eyes sparkling,
transformed from a fashionable young aristocratic Miss into an irresistible
vixen. “Besides which, it don’t take a genius to see you’re in love with ‘im
and ‘e’s a fair goner where you’re concerned!”

Finally, something Agatha understood. She blushed fiercely.

Her unsolicited advisor was about to say something more, but a
shaggy little dog that had been rooting about the refuse bin suddenly darted
past her, the oily wrappings from a sandwich in his maw. With a cry, the young
woman nabbed him by the scruff of the neck and set about wresting his prize
from him. “Fool mutt! Could be rat poison on this!”

The mangy creature began to growl, the young woman shook him
in response, and—

—and M. Henri Arnoux kissed Lady Agatha Whyte. Right there, in
full view of everyone in the station!

Oh,
my!
It had been years, nay, over a decade since
Agatha had been kissed. Her knees began to buckle.

Her eyelids fluttered shut. Her reasons for refusing him
suddenly seemed pitifully inadequate and the advice of the young woman like the
wisdom of Solomon.

“Who would have thought when you took over the arrangements
for my daughter’s wedding that you would also take over my heart?” Arnoux said,
stepping back. “I love you, Agatha. Marry me. Now. Today. Come with me to
France.”

Dimly, Agatha heard her counselor sigh with pleasure.

“It’s as the young lady says, Agatha. You must decide now.
Now!” He spoke so manfully and his little black mustache quivered so
passionately and yet... and yet...

“But M. Arnoux, what of Nell?” Agatha motioned vaguely toward
the area where her lady’s maid had discreetly taken herself. “What about all my
trunks and my things? Except for some few personal things, they are already in
Little—”

Gently, he placed a finger over her lips. “Nell will come with
us, of course. As for your trunks, if there are sentimental items amongst them,
we will send for them later. But for now, let
me
buy you things, Agatha.
Let me dress you, bedeck you with jewels, cosset you—”

“Gorblimey, let ‘im!”

The young woman had the little canine in a stranglehold, half
the greasy wrapper in her hand, the other half clamped in the dog’s maw. Both
sets of brown eyes, canine and human, gazed unblinkingly at Agatha.

“Really?” Agatha whispered, amazed she should seek advice from
a stranger and such a remarkable stranger at that.

“Without a doubt.”

The last of Agatha’s hesitation evaporated. Happiness washed
over her. Henri Arnoux cupped her face in his hands.

“Will you marry me,
ma chere, mon coeur?”

“Without a doubt,” she answered.

He kissed her soundly and, wrapping an arm around her waist,
hastened her from the railroad station. So dazed and happy was Lady Agatha that
she didn’t even notice her train ticket fall from her fingers and drift to the
ground, like confetti at a wedding.

But the young woman sitting on the bench did.

“Well, I’d say we’ve done our good deed for the day, eh,
Fagin?” Letty Potts said to the dog. All traces of the Cockney accent had
vanished. She watched the couple exit the London train station, a plump woman
scurrying in their wake—doubtless the soon-to-be-expatriated Nell.

“Ain’t love grand?” she asked, reverting to the cheeky Cockney
accent. “Gor, sweet as treacle puddin’, it be. Fair makes me teeth ache.”

But the twinkle in her eyes belied the sarcastic comment and
she dropped a fond kiss on Fagin’s nose before bending to retrieve the fallen
ticket. She peered at the name inscribed on the destination line.

“Little Bidewell, Northumberland,”
she read. “Coo, now
that is remote. Where in the world is it, do you suppose? Not that it matters,
eh, Fagin me lad?” Fagin’s tail thumped against her side. “If a ticket to
Little Bidewell is what we have, Little Bidewell is where we’re going.”

Her smile slowly faded. With the amusing diversion provided by
the tall, thin redhead and her potbellied French swain at an end, Letty’s
thoughts turned to her own problems. Nick would be looking for her soon. But he
wouldn’t have started yet. He’d still be sitting at his “office” awaiting her
arrival.

After all, in burning down the lodging house where she lived,
he’d destroyed not only her home, but everything in the world she owned, except
the gown she wore. It, too, would have burned if Letty hadn’t donned her one
truly elegant dress in a futile attempt to impress the manager of Goodwin’s
Music Hall.

After two weeks of searching for employment she should have
realized it was useless. One way or the other, Nick had found the means of
“persuading” every theater manager in London to blacklist her, in spite of the
fact that she was one of the musical theater’s rising stars. Or could have been
if she could only cut herself a break.

The critics would come round in time. They already loved her
voice; sooner or later she’d land a role that allowed them to see that she
could sing with this “emotional depth” they all seemed to think she lacked, as
well as comedic lightheartedness. But that break would have to be delayed some,
it seemed.

She smiled bitterly. Nick must be congratulating himself on
finding a way, short of murder, that left her no options but to come crawling
back to him and be part of the nasty confidence game he was plotting.

But she hadn’t crawled back. Instead, she’d come straight from
viewing the fire at her boardinghouse to St. Pancras Station, where she’d
counted out her few coins and asked the ticket master how far the small bit
would take her. The answer had been disheartening: not even as far as Chelsea.
Not nearly far enough.

Only then had desperation begun to unravel the tight hold
she’d maintained over herself during the past weeks. She’d sat down to think,
fighting the unfamiliar wash of helplessness. She was Letty Potts, by gad!
Known for her spit-in-your-eye spirit, quick wit, and ready smile. Saucy, bold
Letty Potts.

She wasn’t going back to Nick. She wouldn’t be part of his
latest confidence game. This wasn’t the usual bait-and-switch where they
hoodwinked some peer’s over bred, over ornamented slumming son. Nick’s newest
enterprise was a cruel bit of work involving filching middle-class widows’
much-needed inheritances. She’d have no part of it.

Then, as Letty sat deep in thought, the Society folks had
appeared and literally dropped the answer to her woes at her feet. She could go
to this Little Bidewell and lie low for a good while. Maybe she could even get
a job doing a spot of millinery work—supposing this town was big enough to have
a milliner. At the very least, she’d be out of Nick Sparkle’s way.

Now, Letty was nobody’s pigeon. Benevolent guardian angels
were about as likely as snow in July. But she’d seen enough to know that every
now and again Fate cracks open a door that only a fool refuses to slide
through. She tucked Fagin under her arm and rose to her feet, looking about for
the platform number printed on the ticket.

Letty Potts was no fool.

Chapter 2

If a minor character is introduced in

the first act, you can be sure

he’ll be carrying a knife by the last

 

“I WON’T BE BULLIED INTO GRANTING MY water rights to some vile
Whig!” Squire Arthur Himplerump thumped his cane against the train platform’s
floor.

Sir Elliot March placed his hand on the older man’s shoulder,
turning him. As soon as he had the elderly curmudgeon away from the ladies, he
intended to put an end to this nonsense once and for all. The old reprobate had
seen him drive the Bigglesworth ladies up to the train station and had immediately
cut across the main street to speak with Elliot. Or rather
at
Elliot.

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