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Authors: Elizabeth Rolls

The Unexpected Bride

BOOK: The Unexpected Bride
“You’re supposed to kiss her, Peter,” his groomsman said in a loud whisper.

The rector looked as though he was trying not to laugh.

Very carefully Darleston lifted the veil back from Penelope’s face. He put a gentle hand under her chin and bent to kiss her lightly on the mouth.

Penelope was unprepared for this. Although she had known it would happen, it was the one thing that she had not rehearsed, and the strange feeling of yearning that swept over her at the touch of his lips was a complete surprise. She wondered if he had wanted to kiss her.

She felt the earl draw her hand through his arm to lead her from the church and realized that the hardest part was still to come.

She still had to tell him that he had been duped.

The Unexpected Bride
Harlequin Historical

The Unexpected Bride

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The Dutiful Rake

The Unexpected Bride

Chapter One

n impartial observer might have been excused for stating that the crowd at Almack’s Assembly Rooms on that fine spring night was entirely made up of members of the Ton who were intent upon enjoying themselves to the hilt. Young ladies dressed demurely in silken gowns of various pastel shades swirled past escorted by nattily attired beaux. Anxious mothers chatted together in groups, each certain that her daughter outshone every other girl in beauty and elegance. All in all it was a scene of great interest to the student of human nature.

One fair-haired young gentleman stood apart, however, looking the picture of gloom. Although dressed with great elegance and propriety he did not appear to be entirely at ease in his surroundings. He returned an occasional polite rejoinder to greetings from various acquaintances, all of whom registered surprise at finding him in such a place. Otherwise the Honourable George Carstares seemed to be very much in a brown study, with a frown of worry in his blue eyes.

He looked with ever-decreasing expectation and hope at the entrance doors of Almack’s Assembly
Rooms. It wanted but ten minutes to eleven. If Peter doesn’t arrive soon, he thought, they won’t let him in at all. Lord! If those high-nosed ladies wouldn’t relax their rules for England’s hero, his Grace the Duke of Wellington, they’d certainly refuse admittance to Peter Augustus Frobisher, Seventh Earl of Darleston! Not for all his handsome looks and undeniable charm would they unbend!

It occurred to him on a wave of optimism that if Peter didn’t arrive in time there was nothing to stop him leaving and seeking more convivial entertainment elsewhere. The Patronesses might insist arbitrarily that no one should enter after eleven, but there was nothing in the rules to stop a fellow leaving whenever he pleased. Mr Carstares devoutly hoped that such a thought would not occur to any one of the six great ladies who presided over Almack’s. He had little doubt that they would be able to persuade the Ton to abide by such a decree, and then one would be in the basket!

A faintly surprised drawl brought an end to these depressing reflections. ‘You here too, George! Whatever for? Don’t tell me Darleston is sacrificing both of us this evening!’

Carstares swung around, the gloomy expression giving way to something more like his usual merry smile. ‘Good God! Carrington! Did Peter ask you as well? What the devil is he up to?’

‘Standing us up, by the look of things!’ answered Viscount Carrington. ‘Never mind, in less than ten minutes we can go and wait for him in the street! Give him another few minutes out there and then toddle off to more entertaining pastures!’

‘Just what I was thinking!’ said Carstares with a
grin. He ran a hand through his fair locks. ‘D’you know
he asked us to meet him here?’

‘Not the least notion. Do you?’ asked Carrington curiously.

Carstares rubbed his nose thoughtfully. ‘Got a slight suspicion. Was with him, you know, when he heard about the death of young Nicholas Frobisher in that hunting accident last winter.’

Carrington looked more than a little puzzled. ‘Well, yes. I know Peter was cut up about it. He was fond of the lad, and he
Peter’s heir after all, but there’s nothing in that to make the fellow run mad!’ Then, in very polite tones, ‘Good evening, Lady Sefton. How delightful to see you!’

The kindly-looking peeress smiled gently at him and said, with not a trace of sarcasm, ‘And so unusual to see you here, Lord Carrington and Mr Carstares! But you must come further in. The young ladies do not linger at the front doors in hope of dance partners, you know. I shall make it my especial concern to introduce you to the very prettiest!’ Not a muscle in her face betrayed what George Carstares knew must be her considerable inward mirth at the expression of startled horror on the Viscount’s face.

The Patroness delivered her final thrust with a dead straight face, ‘And, of course, my lord and I shall look forward to your company at supper!’ She departed to mingle with the crowd, not waiting to hear their response to what amounted to a royal command.

Carstares groaned. ‘I knew one of them would think of it!’

‘Think of what?’ asked Carrington. ‘Oh, never mind! We’re done to a cow’s thumb now! Get on with
your theory, and later on we can toss for the honour of calling Peter out!’

After a moment to gather his wits Carstares continued, ‘So Nicholas is dead. Don’t suppose you know who the heir is now?’

‘Can’t say I do,’ replied Carrington. ‘I don’t keep track of all my friends’ distant relations!’ Then, in tones of shock as a possibility struck him, ‘My God! It couldn’t be! Not Jack Frobisher?’

George nodded.

Carrington thought about it. ‘Peter won’t stand for that. He’ll have to remarry. Unpleasant for him after his experience with Melissa, but he might choose better this time!’

‘Hope so,’ said George. ‘Because I think that’s what we’re doing here. Helping Peter choose a wife! Or at least providing moral support while he chooses! And thank God—if he’s here, he ain’t contemplating marriage to Caroline Daventry!’

Whatever Lord Carrington might have said in response to his friend’s suspicions was destined to remain unspoken. At that moment a startled hush came over the crowd and they realised that most people were staring in disbelief at the entrance. An even more startled murmur replaced the hush as the tall gentleman in the doorway moved into the room.

He seemed quite unconcerned by the collective gaze and whisper of the assembled throng, but stood and surveyed the scene carefully. His was a tall, athletic figure, dressed with unobtrusive elegance in the satin knee-breeches and swallow-tailed coat which were
de rigueur
for a ball. His cravat was tied with an artistry calculated to turn any aspirant to fashion pea-green with envy. The curly black hair was brushed into the
fashionable Brutus and the dark brown eyes seemed to search the room.

After a moment this direct gaze fell upon Lord Carrington and Mr Carstares. A smile lightened the rather sombre countenance as the gentleman came towards them. This was Peter Augustus Frobisher, Earl of Darleston, veteran of the Peninsular War and hero of Waterloo.

He reached his friends and said with a faint twinkle, ‘How kind of you not to depart! Had you quite despaired of me?’

‘You’d have had two friends the less if you hadn’t shown your front, my boy!’ said Carrington trenchantly.

The Earl looked amused. ‘How very extreme! You could have left, you know! In fact the thought occurred to me, while I was screwing up my courage in the carriage, that all I had to do was wait and the pair of you would shortly emerge. There’s nothing in the rules to stop you leaving!’

His friends stared at him in speechless dudgeon. George was the first to recover the use of his tongue. ‘Oh, yes, there is, when Lady Sefton has personally commanded your presence at supper!’

Darleston said soothingly, ‘Never mind, there are worse fates!’

Before either of his indignant friends could draw breath to ask exactly what he had in mind, an attractive woman of about fifty came up behind them and tapped Darleston on the arm.

‘Peter! You dreadful boy! What on earth are you doing here at the Marriage Mart?’ Her voice held deep affection and Earl turned around with a smile of delight on his face.

‘Aunt Louisa!’ He bent to kiss her on the cheek. ‘Simply for the joy of seeing you dressed like the Christmas beef! Can you doubt it?’

‘Easily, you trifler! Oh, it is good to see you! And you too, George and Michael! How long it seems since you were all schoolboys racing around Darleston Court. Making the place hideous with your noise and muddy boots!’ She smiled at the recollection.

The three gentlemen grinned, and Carstares said, laughing, ‘Seems like yesterday for you, Lady Edenhope. You appear to remember our sins only too well!’

‘I’ve cause enough!’ she replied with a chuckle. ‘I never did find out who put the frog in my bed!’

‘All of us!’ admitted Darleston. ‘Carrington caught it with George’s boot and I climbed up the ivy with it. A joint effort, in fact! And didn’t we feel like sweeps when you simply gave it to Meadows the next morning and asked him to return it to the owner with thanks? He was furious with us!’

Lady Edenhope laughed up at them. She was not, in point of fact, related to Darleston, but had been his mother’s dearest friend, and she cherished a deep affection for him. Knowing him as well as she did, she too had a very fair notion of the interpretation to put on his presence at Almack’s after so many years. No doubt so did many of the Ton, she thought ruefully. The matchmaking mamas would be in full cry after the quarry in no time! Enough to make any man turn tail and bolt for cover!

At thirty-two, the widowed Earl was a matrimonial prize of the first stare. Extremely wealthy and possessed of an ancient and honourable name, he had charm and good looks that were the final seal upon
his fate. Perfectly aware of this, for the past few years he had avoided the more respectable entertainments afforded by the Metropolis, preferring to spend his time in pursuits unlikely to bring him within the range of marriageable young girls and their mamas.

‘Well, it is lovely to see you all here,’ said Lady Edenhope. ‘Now I must run along. I’m supposed to be chaperoning a friend’s daughter and I mustn’t neglect my duty. Not that it’s very onerous. The dearest girl, and already snapped up!’

She departed into the throng and the three gentlemen looked at each other reminiscently. Darleston broke the silence, saying lightly, ‘Well, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends,’ as the Bard would have it! No doubt enough people know us that we shan’t find ourselves utterly ignored.’ This last was said in distinctly sarcastic tones.

They suited the action to the word and began to mingle with the crowd. One by one they found themselves being presented to various young ladies, all of whom seemed flatteringly anxious to please and entertain them. George Carstares and Lord Carrington took this in good part, and even found that they were quite enjoying themselves.

For Lord Darleston, however, it was quite another matter. Despite the fact that he had been introduced to the very attractive Miss Ffolliot, his mind persisted in wandering. Here at Almack’s twelve years earlier he had met his first wife and fallen madly in love with her lovely face and charming ways. What a fool I must have been! he thought bitterly. Calf love! He had been
aux anges
at the thought that such a divine creature should favour him over so many suitors who had appeared to him far more eligible. A modest young man,
he had been quite innocent of the lure of his prospective title and fortune. He had seen himself as a callow youth, miraculously favoured by the loveliest debutante of the season.

With an effort he jerked his mind out of the past and back to his companion. ‘I beg your pardon, Miss Ffolliot, I was wool-gathering. What were you saying?’

Miss Ffolliot smiled up at him and said in a soft voice, ‘It was of no consequence, my lord. Just a polite commonplace. Should we take our places now?’

‘Most certainly we should,’ he answered, and led her into a set. Really she was a very pretty girl, he thought to himself. Many spiteful matrons would have described her hair as red, but in fact it was a deep rich auburn and she had the delicately fair complexion which goes with such hair. Wide-set grey eyes gazed up at him in innocent enjoyment and her smile was quite delightful. Her figure was just what he liked too, slender but with a suggestion of womanly curves. All in all, thought Darleston, she was quite lovely!

As they danced he attempted to engage her in conversation, but she had very little to say for herself besides polite rejoinders to his comments. The only question to which she replied with any enthusiasm was his query as to whether she was enjoying her visit to Almack’s.

‘Oh, yes, my lord! Very much! It is nice to see so many new people and to dance all night!’

From all of which Lord Darleston came to the swift conclusion that this young lady would not do at all. While he did not wish to marry a chatterbox he preferred to seek a lady who had a little more to add to a conversation. Without wishing to be unkind, he
found Miss Ffolloit a little dull for his taste. Very charming and sweet, but just not his sort!

At the end of the dance he returned Miss Ffolliot to her mother to find that she had been joined by her husband, a kindly-looking man of medium height, as well as Miss Ffolliot’s next partner. He was introduced to Darleston as Mr Richard Winton, a gentleman of roughly the same age as the Earl, who recognised him as a fellow member of White’s. The two of them chatted politely before Mr Winton excused himself and Miss Ffolliot to join a set.

Darleston noted without the least rancour that Miss Ffolliot was chatting merrily to her new partner without the slightest hint of shyness.

Mr Ffolliot watched the pair and said, ‘Mr Winton is a neighbour of ours in the country. Phoebe always finds it easier to chat to old acquaintances!’

Darleston smiled and said, ‘I tend to agree with her! And the dreadful thing is when someone who has been presented to you once should chance to recognise you and you simply cannot remember the right name!’

‘Dear me, yes!’ said Mrs Ffolliot with a chuckle. ‘And they always seem so hurt if one admits one can’t remember them! Mr Ffolliot has a truly terrible memory for names.’

‘Nonsense, my dear! You do exaggerate!’ protested the maligned gentleman.

‘Not by very much!’ she asserted with a twinkle. ‘Still, no doubt Lord Darleston is not afflicted too badly. I’m sure people are only too glad to recall themselves to his mind!’

‘Only too true, ma’am. You can have no notion of the number of people who claim long acquaintance on the basis of one meeting years before!’

‘I can imagine!’ laughed Mrs Ffolliot. ‘Never mind, my lord! My husband and I shall remember to cut you the next time we meet, and Phoebe shall be given strict instructions to do the same.’

Laughing at this, Darleston made his farewells and departed to seek Carstares and Carrington. George was easy enough to spot. He was taking part in the same set as Miss Ffolliot and Mr Winton. And after a few moments’ searching Darleston found Carrington listening very politely to Lady Jersey, another of the Patronesses, wickedly, if aptly, known as ‘Silence’.

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