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By Delia Parr
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2011 Delia Parr
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWestern Pennsylvania 1831
Annabelle Tyler may have hoped she would marry again someday, but she never dreamed she would be wearing handcuffs during the ceremony when she did.
Scarcely thirty-six hours after leaving Hanover, Pennsylvania, to forge a respectable future for herself, she barely listened to the man next to her as he grumbled his vows. She was still struggling to make sense of the frightening turn of events that had led her here, to this nondescript minister's cottage in a small rural hamlet where she knew absolutely no one.
Despite the sheriff's coat around her shoulders and the hearty fire burning in the small parlor, Annabelle shivered with cold that had penetrated every bone in her body. She glanced up at the man by her side. Harrison Graymoor had been a complete stranger to her until only yesterday, but the ordeal they had endured together had taken its toll.
His finely tailored vest and cambric shirt were badly soiled with the same dirt and grime that stained her travel gown, and exhaustion had painted dark circles beneath his ebony eyes. His determined fight to prevent this marriage had now been replaced by a resignation that surprised her, since he had far more at stake by marrying than she did. The grim reality that he was being forced into this marriage, however, had erased his rakish smile and the surprisingly deep dimples in his cheeks, but he held his head high when he finally gritted, "I do."
She swayed a bit, locked her knees, and dropped her gaze. She had not eaten since the day before yesterday, and she used every last bit of her waning strength to keep standing on her own two feet, if only to maintain a modicum of dignity in front of the four men who were witnessing this mockery of a ceremony. When she adjusted the heavy coat about her shoulders, she inadvertently yanked the short chain on the metal cuff on her right wrist that kept her linked to Harrison.
She froze instinctively, and his hiss of pain distracted her from the minister's monotone recitation of the vows she was supposed to pledge. When she looked down, she saw a fresh trickle of blood ooze down the back of his hand from beneath the too-small cuff that dug deep into his swollen left wrist. She quickly averted her gaze, but not before she got a glimpse of the end of the rifle barrel nudged against his back. "I didn't mean to hurt you again," she whispered. "I-I'm sorry."
"The proper response is 'I will' or 'I do,'" Reverend Wood admonished, as if she had been speaking to him.
When she turned her attention back to the minister, she wondered if he could see anything more than a few inches in front of his face, since his eyes were so clouded by age.
"I'm still waiting for you to recite your vows and acknowledge them," he demanded, clearly annoyed that he had been dragged from his bed shortly before dawn to marry them.
One of the two men standing directly to her left edged closer in an unspoken warning to cooperate, reinforced as the two men on Harrison's side nudged him closer to her. Determined not to utter any words that would seal her union to Mr. Graymoor, she took a deep breath to gather up the last of her rapidly fading strength. Now that it appeared she had no other choice, she swallowed her pride and decided she had to admit she was not the maiden they believed her to be. "Please. Just let me explain. There's no need to force this man to marry me."
The minister's voice hardened with impatience. "Do you or do you not recognize the scandalous nature of your situation and the attempt we're all making on your behalf to salvage your reputation?" he snapped.
"I'm a God-fearing woman of faith, and I'm telling you that nothing improper happened," she insisted, repeating the claim she had made to the four men when they had rescued her, as well as Harrison, less than an hour ago. "I give you my word."
Harrison cleared his throat. "I'm afraid it's not your word and your character that are in question. It's mine."
She looked up at him and frowned. "That may be, but my future's at stake, too," she quipped before turning her attention back to the minister again and softening her voice. "The men who stopped our stage robbed us, handcuffed us together, and left us tied to the stagecoach while they escaped with the driver and all of our possessions. It's not Mr. Graymoor's fault or mine that it took a full day and night to find us. Mr. Graymoor was a complete gentleman and quite concerned for my well-being the entire time," she insisted, remaining silent about his attempts to flirt with her when they first boarded the stage or the fact that the robbers would never have robbed the stage if he had not been aboard in the first place.
The sheriff snorted. "Harrison Graymoor may be exceedingly wealthy, but he's also a cad and a libertine who needs to be held accountable for his outrageous behavior, particularly with women. His reputation, I assure you, is well-known far beyond Philadelphia, where he resides."
"We're far from Philadelphia, and we should all avoid gossip that no one here can confirm," she argued, but she was also relieved they were a far cry from Four Corners, the small town where she had become equally infamous.
The minister nodded. "I'm retired from active ministry now, but I'm not a hermit. I recognize the family name, as well as this man's reputation," he informed them and looked directly at Annabelle. "The sheriff told me he found you lying in this man's arms after spending the night with him alone. Are you now disputing that fact, or is it true?"
She blushed, although she could not remember exactly how or when she had ended up cuddled against his side during the night. "Yes, it's true," she admitted, "but the weather had turned exceedingly cold again and the thieves had stolen my cloak as well as his coat. Mr. Graymoor eventually freed us from the ropes they used to bind us to the stagecoach, but there was nothing he could do to remove the handcuffs," she explained, still ridden with guilt for injuring Harrison when she tried to do just that. "We tried walking to find help, but a thunderstorm forced us back to the stagecoach for shelter. By then, we were both drenched and—"
"And this wretched man used this poor woman's distress to his sinful advantage." The man directly to her left squared his shoulders and took a step forward. "My name is James Jenkins. One of Graymoor's country estates is near my home in Chad's Landing. My wife, Camille, went to work there when he showed up four months ago, and this man ... this man ... seduced her," he murmured, repeating the charges he had made to the sheriff earlier.
"I did no such thing," Harrison argued in a low voice that was just as authoritative as it had been earlier when he'd tried to reason with Jenkins and the sheriff. "I did not seduce Mrs. Jenkins, and I did not seduce Miss Tyler."
"He gave this to my wife," Jenkins charged, pulling an intricate gold bracelet from his pocket and dangling it in front of the minister, who leaned his face so far forward to see it that Annabelle wondered how he kept his balance. "What sort of man gives a married woman an expensive gift like this unless he's seduced her?"
The minister pulled back and pursed his lips. "Mr. Graymoor?"
Harrison shrugged. "It was a parting trinket to thank her for her work as a temporary member of my staff. Nothing more."
Jenkins shoved the bracelet back into his pocket. "You gave it to her to assuage your conscience, although I'm surprised you have one," he charged and drew in deep breaths of air as his cheeks reddened with the shame of his wife's betrayal.
"I did not seduce your wife, and she did not betray you. Not with me," Harrison argued.
Sheriff Taylor shook his head and addressed the minister. "I'm afraid Mr. Graymoor's reputation as a womanizer makes it difficult, if not impossible, to take him at his word. Not where women are concerned."
The minister cleared his throat, effectively ending the discussion. "Perhaps if Mr. Graymoor were to be married to a 'Godfearing woman of faith,'" he said firmly, using Annabelle's own words against them both, "she might inspire him to lead a life of honor befitting the name he carries. More importantly, Miss Tyler should not bear the burden of having her reputation or her name sullied—"
"There is no burden," Annabelle argued, tilting up her chin. Although she was weakened by fatigue as well as frustration, she could not overlook the absurdity of the predicament she was in or the fact she was actually handcuffed to the man she was being forced to marry. Handcuffed!
"Even the appearance of impropriety demands that you be protected. If you were a married woman, that would be a matter for Sheriff Taylor to address. You are, however, a single woman, and it is a matter for me to remedy," he insisted and turned to Harrison. "Are you prepared to fulfill the vows you have already pledged or do you rescind them?"
Harrison sighed. "No. I do not rescind them," he murmured and arched his back as if the barrel of the rifle had been pressed harder.
"And you, Miss Tyler, will you accept this man as your lawful husband and be faithful to the vows I've already recited for you?"
She swallowed hard. She was only twenty-four years old. She could hardly believe that all the hopes she had had for the future would be gone once she married this stranger, but she was too disillusioned and too exhausted to argue anymore. Holding tight to her faith in God, if only to give strength to her belief that He was totally in charge of the new path her life was taking, she let out a long sigh and finally uttered the words the minister wanted her to say. "I ... I will."
"Then as a minister of the Word, I now declare that you are man and wife. Go in peace, together, to serve Him in this world in order to rejoice with Him for all of eternity. Now then, would you like to kiss your bride, Mr. Graymoor?"
Harrison held up the handcuffs that still bound them together. "I believe my wife and I would like these handcuffs removed before I consider anything else," he countered.
When she nodded her agreement, the minister smiled for the first time that morning. "There's a blacksmith not more than a few miles from the inn, which is about five miles farther away," he offered. "Sheriff, I trust you'll deliver Mr. and Mrs. Graymoor there? They're obviously both in need of nourishment as well as rest before they continue their journey."
"I will indeed."
"Then once the marriage certificate is duly signed, you can all be on your way." He walked over to a small table in the corner of the room and signed the paper lying there. One of the men who had helped Sheriff Taylor rescue them signed right after the sheriff, who ordered all three of his companions to go outside to ready the horses.
In turn, the minister motioned Annabelle and Harrison to come to the table. "While you two sign this marriage certificate, I've got to record the marriage in my book, which I've left in the other room. Sheriff, perhaps you could ask one of your men to saddle up my horse for Mr. and Mrs. Graymoor to ride. Joshua Lawrence, down at the inn, will see that it's returned," he said before taking his leave.
As Annabelle and Harrison slowly made their way to the table, she took great care to make certain she did not pull on the chain that bound them together. Under the sheriff's watchful gaze, they each signed the document, and she noted the crooked scrawl the minister had managed to write.
"Wait here. I'll be back to get you both as soon as we have your horse ready," the sheriff ordered before he left them alone for the first time since they had been rescued.
Once the ink dried, she folded the certificate, planning to add it to the few things she had been able to hide from the thieves by storing them in a cotton pouch she had pinned to her chemise. She also pressed her arm to her side to make certain the knitting stick she had convinced the thieves to let her keep was still at her waist. "There was no need for you to be saddled with me as your wife. Why didn't you argue with those men more?" she whispered.
"I seem to recall having the barrel of a rifle planted in the small of my back, in case you didn't notice," he replied. But there was just a hint of that twinkle back in his eyes as he snatched the certificate out of her hand and stored it beneath his vest.
"But we didn't do anything wrong. I mean ... you didn't ... we didn't ..." Unable to put such a delicate matter into words, she dropped her gaze and hoped her cheeks were not as red as she feared they were.
"No, we didn't. Your virtue is intact, which is another reason why I didn't need to waste precious time arguing with men who weren't prepared to listen to anything either one of us had to say. Once we get these handcuffs removed, get something to eat and some well-deserved rest, we'll travel straight to Philadelphia, where I can have this marriage annulled."
"You're certain we should arrive within a day or two?"
He nodded. "You won't miss that appointment of yours," he promised, and she was pleased that he recognized how important it was for her to arrive before the deadline. "When I meet with my lawyer to get the annulment proceedings started, I'll also have him draw up a settlement for you."
Annabelle shook her head. "That won't be necessary."
"I rather think it is," he argued. "At the very least, you'll need to replace what the thieves stole from you, which I assure you I can easily afford to do." He smiled when she nodded reluctantly.
"Are you absolutely certain there won't be a problem obtaining a quick annulment?"
He shrugged. "Since our marriage never has and never will be consummated, I should expect it will be rather easy to obtain within a month or so," he said, using an authoritative tone that invited no argument from her. "Granted, it may be a bit awkward for both of us for a while, but the annulment should be granted so quickly, no one need ever learn we were married at all."
"There are more than a few people who already know we're married, and Reverend Wood is recording it in his book as we speak," she reminded him, worried that he was either overconfident or merely accustomed to getting what he wanted because of his immense wealth that everyone else had mentioned.
"We'll never see any of these people again. Even if their gossip spreads to the city, I've learned that rumors quickly disappear when no proof emerges," he countered. "Don't worry. I'm absolutely certain I can have our marriage annulled. When I do, it will be as if it never existed at all, legally speaking," he said as he led her closer to the fire to share one last bit of warmth before they ventured outside again into the freezing cold that had blanketed the area for most of November. "If all else fails, of course, I can always petition for a divorce, which will be a first for anyone in my family."
A chill raced up the length of her spine, and she trembled. "I'm afraid it won't be the first time. Not for me," she whispered so softly she barely heard her own words.
At least this time she knew the man she had married was a womanizer before they were wed.
Excerpted from Hidden Affections by Delia Parr Copyright © 2011 by Delia Parr. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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