Authors: Allison Lane
Tags: #Regency Romance
THE MADCAP MARRIAGE
Marry in haste and repent at leisure
Old English Proverb
May 20, 1814
Helen St. James awoke to cold, dank stone under her cheek and people murmuring off to her right. Where was she?
“—never saw … lengthy swoon.” The voice belonged to a stranger.
A pounding head and overwhelming sense of danger kept her motionless. She was clearly indoors, though she dared not open her eyes to find out where. Instead, she sniffed – delicately.
Mustiness blended with the scent of wax candles. And something more – wine, perhaps? The combination was odd. Wine and stone might indicate a cellar, though cellars were usually lit by tallow lanterns. Yet even Audley’s disused Tudor wing smelled fresher than this.
A second voice penetrated her fog. “—carriage sickness … nothing since breakfast … excitement too much…”
Her uncle, Sir Steven St. James.
Fear lashed her brain. Fury followed, burning away the fog. Steven was dangerous, and more cunning than she had expected. He’d tricked her by—
“I’ve seen many a bride swoon, but none who remained insensible for so long,” insisted the first man. “I won’t be a party to a deathbed marriage. Your man assu—”
. This must be that church on the edge of London. Her last memory was of Steven ordering the coachman to stop. How long had she been unconscious?
Steven’s hearty tone cut across the vicar’s words. “It is merely weariness. The lovebirds are so eager to wed, they refused to postpone the ceremony a minute longer.”
A snicker rippled from her left. Steven’s son, Dudley. She was surrounded.
Helen barely controlled a shudder. Dudley made her skin crawl. Not because of his pockmarked cheeks and scarred forehead – or even his limp. She blamed no one for the ravages of time. It was the gleam in his eyes that she loathed, and his rapacious hands, his quick temper, his disregard for anyone weaker…
The whisper of a silk skirt approached, accompanied by a cloud of cloying perfume that obliterated all other odors. Here was yet another enemy – Maude Cunningham, who doused herself in chypre several times a day. Now exposed as Steven’s mistress, she had served as Helen’s maid since the day Steven turned off Tessa.
Helen stifled another burst of fury. Why had it taken her so long to realize that Maude was Steven’s spy? If she’d paid attention, she might have escaped their clutches.
If only she hadn’t been distracted!
Fate had played her a cruel trick, striking her mother with apoplexy at her father’s deathbed and throwing the household into chaos. Steven had taken advantage of her inattention to insinuate himself into Audley Court – in flagrant disregard of his brother’s will – by convincing her trustees to appoint him as overseer. By the time Lady St. James had died, Sir Steven ruled both house and estate, making Helen a prisoner in her own home, denied callers and forbidden to write letters.
She had still been reeling from that shock when Dudley arrived bearing a special license. Only her vicar’s refusal to read services for an unwilling bride had saved her. But this vicar wasn’t an ally. Sir Steven would not have stopped here unless a hefty bribe had convinced the man to ignore her objections.
“Wake her, Maude. She must have fallen asleep.” Steven’s irritation boded ill.
Helen concentrated on remaining limp – Maude loved to kick. Until she could escape, she had to stay unconscious.
She had known that accompanying Steven to London posed risks – he never acted without a reason – but she hadn’t expected him to spring his trap so quickly. Underestimating him could cost her everything. Her own plan had been to slip out after dark and find her guardian, Lord Alquist. But they’d stopped before reaching Mayfair. When she’d tried to flee, Steven had bashed her on the head.
A pitcher of cold water suddenly drenched her face and gown. Yelping, she surged to her feet, then cursed. Doom was at hand.
“Excellent,” said Steven. “I knew you were eager to conclude the formalities.”
Dudley laughed, reaching for her arm.
Shaking off water let her evade Dudley. Her eyes darted about, seeking an exit. But the church was larger than it had appeared from the carriage window. Its nave could easily hold five hundred, so flight was out of the question. As wobbly as she was, even Dudley could catch her before she reached the door. And there were more people to give chase than she’d thought. Steven’s secretary and Dudley’s valet stood to one side, blocking another avenue of escape.
Fighting was also useless. She could never defeat five opponents.
That left guile. Steven’s one weakness was contempt for female intelligence.
She staggered, then clamped a hand over her mouth. “I’m going to be sick!”
Maude and Dudley recoiled. Steven froze.
Helen met the vicar’s gaze, then stumbled toward the oversized chalice atop the nearby altar.
As she’d hoped, he didn’t want her using his chalice as a basin. Grabbing her arm, he hustled her along the transept and shoved her into his study.
Helen locked the heavy wooden door as her eyes frantically scanned the room. His desk held the parish register, open and ready to sign. A basin atop the low bookcase explained why he’d dragged her here. Her gaze skimmed past it, coming to rest on an open window.
Hiking her skirts to her hips, she wiggled through the narrow casement, then nearly yelped when she landed in a rosebush. Thorns slashed her legs and gown as she struggled free. Other roses covered the walls enclosing this tiny garden. For one terrible moment she feared she must climb them….
A rusty gate was tucked into the corner. Exhaling in relief, she sprinted for freedom. London might be dangerous for a woman alone, but anything was better than Dudley.
* * * *
“How dare you ignore my summons for four days?” thundered Lord Hillcrest, his face purpling as he pounded on his desk.
“I wasn’t at home to receive it.” Rafael Thomas glared at his father. “I was attending Alquist’s funeral – as you should have been,” he added deliberately. “You should at least have sent condolences to his widow.”
“Why? She schemed against me for years, undermining my authority, turning my family against me….”
Rafe let the diatribe flow past him. If he withdrew deep enough into his mind, the words made no impact. Hillcrest’s complaints never varied. Even the few that contained a grain of truth were pointless.
As he settled into a chair, Rafe wondered what the man wanted this time. They had been at odds for twenty-eight years. Hillcrest made impossible demands. Rafe ignored them. The pattern was too established to change, though a thread of hope wished otherwise.
“Pull your mind out of Lady Willingham’s bed and pay attention,” snapped Hillcrest, slamming a book down with a crack like thunder.
Rafe opened his mouth – Lady Willingham’s obvious availability didn’t interest him – but Hillcrest gave him no chance to speak. “You’ve sowed more than enough oats, boy. It is past time for you and Alice to set up your nursery.”
Rafe rolled his eyes. For ten years Hillcrest had demanded that he wed Alice Pauling, but Rafe refused. Aside from disliking Alice on her own account, her dowry included the estate adjacent to Hillcrest Manor. Never would he consider living so near. Constant battles would destroy his sanity.
He much preferred London. Gossips might cluck their tongues over his latest conquest and shake their heads at past foibles, but the liveliest courtesans and most passionate matrons vied for his favors. Society hostesses kept him at the top of their lists, for his wit enlivened any gathering. Reformists courted his support against the day he would assume a seat in Parliament.
Marriage could wait until raking lost its charm – another five years, or maybe ten. But Alice Pauling would never be on his list of potential brides. His wife must share his interests and satisfy his libido, for he had vowed fidelity after marriage. She should respect his decisions and defer to his desires. And she must have a limited dowry – preferably no dowry at all.
Steadying his temper, he met Hillcrest’s flinty eyes. “I will
wed Alice. I’ve refused this match for ten years. Nothing has changed.”
“Of course you are marrying Alice.” Hillcrest shook his balding head. “Pauling and I agreed to the match when Alice was born. You cannot jilt her. She loves you.”
“I cannot jilt someone I never offered for,” he snapped. “Forget this insanity. I won’t wed the chit. She’s timid, insipid, and hasn’t two thoughts to rub together.” Rising, he headed for the door. “I have plans for the evening, so if you will excuse—”
“Sit down!” Exploding from behind the desk, Hillcrest shoved Rafe into a chair.
Rafe stared at his fists while he fought to rein in his temper. This was turning into the worst confrontation yet.
The library had always been dismal, its austerity reflecting Hillcrest’s character. But the ghosts of past confrontations made it worse. Here a young Rafe had endured unearned lectures and petty punishments. Here he had repudiated Alice again and again. Here he had declared independence by throwing his allowance in Hillcrest’s face.
“I am appalled to claim you as my son,” snarled Hillcrest, punctuating the words with his hands. “You are the worst excuse for a gentleman society has ever seen! A debauched, drunken gamester without an ounce of intelligence, a dissipated wastrel who has long since sacrificed honor on the altar of hedonistic impulse. Thank God your mother is gone. She would have wept to see what you have become.”
“Don’t drag Mother into this!” Rafe surged to his feet, removing Hillcrest’s height advantage. He had learned long ago that arguing merely prolonged these meetings, but he could not sit silent while Hillcrest maligned his mother. “She protested this match from the moment you suggested it. Were she here, she would protest even more. She despised arranged marriages – and with good reason. Hers made her miserable!”
“Lies! You misunderstood everything about her. Her only reservation concerned Lady Pauling’s weak constitution, so she counseled patience until we discovered whether Alice might share it. She would agree that you need a calm, sober wife to counter your wild ways. Your name has become a byword. Newspapers bulge with your scandals. Everywhere I go, men condemn your public drunkenness and reckless gaming. How many women have you seduced?”
“That is none of your business,” Rafe snapped, though in truth he hadn’t seduced anyone in years. He didn’t have to.
“No.” It was time to stop caring that harsh words might alienate Hillcrest for all time. His hope for reconciliation was a fantasy. “I came of age seven years ago and answer to no one, especially a fool. You are worse than the most irresponsible gossip, accepting baseless speculation and wild exaggeration as truth because you are too stupid to know who to believe and too lazy to investigate for yourself.” He kept his tone icy, though his knees shook and curses ricocheted through his head. Hillcrest was so sure of his own judgment that he refused to listen to evidence in Rafe’s favor – as Rafe knew all too well.
“Exaggeration?” demanded Hillcrest, shaking his fist. “I can read, boy. As can society. The papers are full of your exploits.”
“Most of them false.”
“Enough, Rafe. Pauling will forgive you once you settle down—”
“I would never ask him to lower his standards so far.” Rafe moved behind the desk so Hillcrest was farther away. “Nor would I associate with anyone who felt it necessary to do so.”
“I said enough! He is dying and wants Alice wed before he goes. It is time to assume your responsibilities. The contracts have been accepted—”
“Not by me!”
Hillcrest raised his chin another notch, signaling increased implacability that hardened Rafe’s resolve. “We will hold the wedding in three weeks. The betrothal announcement will appear in tomorrow’s papers.”
“No!” Betrayal. All the worse for being unexpected. Why would Hillcrest court the very scandal he abhorred? “You cannot force me into a union I repudiate.”
“You have nothing to say in the matter. Pauling and I signed the settlements last week.”
signed?” He glared, appalled at this newest evidence of disrespect. “I am of age and cannot be constrained by your signature. I have refused the connection a hundred times. A thousand times. Nothing has changed.”
“Exactly. Nothing has changed. Pauling accepted your hand on Alice’s behalf twenty years ago. Since you are dragging your feet, I’ve made all the arrangements. Your valet is closing your rooms and will arrive this evening.”
Rafe’s temper shattered. “You are worse than Napoleon, trying to force your will on others. But you’ll lose, just as he did. I will never wed Alice. Your scheming will only create a new scandal for you to mutter over.”
Rafe grabbed the brandy decanter and headed for the door. “I’m leaving – permanently. If Jameson has removed so much as a cravat from my rooms, I’ll have him transported for theft. Think about that next time you consider playing God with other people’s lives.”