Merely Marriedby Patricia Coughlin
Life for Adrian Devereau, the sixth duke of Raven, was flawless, but for one nagging detail. Try as he did to live down to his reputation as the Wicked Lord Raven, the ladies persisted in viewing him as desirable husband material. So he conceived a bold solution to foil them once and for allhe would marry a woman on her deathbed and adopt the role of grieving widower. He even found a most suitable wife: Leah Stretton, overtaken by a sudden illness while journeying to London. But with Leah's "miraculous" recovery, Adrian found himself properly wedded to a beauty as headstrong as she was healthy. Now his only chance at freedom was playing her game. More adept at writing about romance and adventure than living it, Leah could not permit a new family scandal to ruin her sister's launch into society. If Adrian played her devoted husband, she would grant him an annulment later. There was only one rule: neither of them could fall in love. Of course, rules were made to be broken.
- Bantam Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.23(w) x 6.89(h) x 0.93(d)
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Adrian was still savoring the praise being heaped on him by his guests when the crusty manservant who managed his household appeared by his side.
"What is it, Thorne?" he asked.
Thorne bent to whisper close to his ear. "A problem, sir. You ought--"
"You handle it," ordered Adrian, reluctant to have his amusement interrupted.
"Yes, sir. But you really ought to--"
"Not now, Thorne."
The servant set his jaw and glared at Adrian.
Adrian glared back. He understood that formal entertaining was a rarity in Raven House and a bloody strain on everyone, but Snake, the former infantryman who passed for a cook, had turned out an edible meal and a pair of feckless footmen had managed to relay it to the table with a minimum of mishaps. The least the old crank could do was pretend to be proper and heedful.
Instead he continued to glare. "What I am trying to say to you, Y'Grace, is--"
"Raven? Darling?" a woman's voice called from somewhere outside the dining room.
Adrian registered the gleam of smug satisfaction in Thorne's squinty eyes just before the same intriguing female voice spoke again, this time from just inside the dining room.
"There you are." The woman threw open her arms and smiled at him as if they were alone. "Surprise, darling, I'm home."
Adrian gaped at her, frozen in his seat even as the other gentlemen at the table leapt to their feet. It was she. Leah. His wife.
Oh sweet Lord.
What was she doing standing in his dining room?
Hell, what was she doing standing anywhere?
She was supposed to be . . . well,dead.
He placed his palms flat on the table and pushed himself upright on leaden legs, only distantly aware of the expectant hush all around him.
This woman was most definitely not dead.
She was breathtakingly alive. With hair the color of blazing chestnuts and eyes like fields of clover. My God, his wife was a beauty.
Oh sweet Lord, what the bloody hell was he going to do now?
He squared his shoulders, his usually quick wits slowed by shock. Instinct made him certain of only two things. First, if Leah Stretton was standing there calling him "darling" and apparently presenting herself as his wife, he'd damn well better start acting like a husband in a hurry. And second, when he got his hands on Will Grantley, England was going to be minus one inept, disloyal botchbag of a rector.
"Leah. My sweet," he said, forcing his facial muscles to form a smile. "You have taken me totally by surprise."
"Good." She captured his gaze and held it. "That was my intent."
The look she gave him left no doubt that she had meant to ambush him with her sudden appearance and was enjoying his discomfiture to the hilt.
Why indeed, he thought, recovering his senses. He should probably count himself lucky she'd come alone--and unarmed. Belatedly it occurred to him to wonder if the woman had brothers. Large brothers. Belatedly it occurred to him to wonder any number of things he should have considered a fortnight ago.
At the moment however, his first order of business was to wipe the increasingly speculative looks from the faces of their audience.
Striding across the room, he grasped Leah by her shoulders. "God, how I've missed you. When you first walked in I thought I must be seeing things . . . that loneliness had driven me mad and you were but an apparition. But now . . ." He ran his hands down her arms, then up, finally sliding them around to her back to draw her closer and press her stiff body tightly to his. She blinked rapidly, signaling a crack in her composure.
Good, thought Adrian. Spring herself on him, would she?
"Now that I am convinced you are real, my own flesh-and-blood Leah," he went on, "I must do what I have been dreaming of doing since I left you in Devon what seems like years ago."
Their gazes remained locked as he lowered his head. He saw resistance flash in her eyes and felt it in her tensed muscles, but she didn't flinch or try to pull away. Had she, his urge to conquer might have been satisfied and he might have gone easy on her. As it was, he tightened his grip and opened his mouth, using his tongue to claim her the way any randy bridegroom would want to, but would doubtless restrain himself from doing before onlookers.
Adrian seldom restrained himself, and he certainly wasn't about to start now and give this presumptuous chit the notion that she had the upper hand. He kissed her hard and long, nearly forgetting that they were not alone and that it was merely a performance. His blood heated rapidly and one of his hands moved to rest on the pleasing curve of her hip, as naturally as if he had every right in the world to put it there.
When he finally remembered himself, he lifted his head slowly, watching her long, dark lashes flutter and open.
"Westerham," she said, her tone steady and audible enough for everyone in the room to hear.
Adrian frowned. "What did you say?"
"I said you left me in Westerham, not Devon. Have you forgotten already?"
Westerham. Saint Anne's. The rectory. Of course. Devon was where her fictional sister lived. But she had no way of knowing that, or the countless other details about her life that he had fabricated that evening. That could be a problem.
Could be a problem? He nearly laughed out loud at his own absurdity. This entire affair was turning into a debacle right before his eyes.
"No, no, of course I haven't forgotten," he assured her gently. "Though when you are close to me, it is a wonder I can even remember to breathe."
"Don't worry, darling. If necessary, I'll prompt you. I happen to be a most accomplished breather."
"Yes, I can see that," he murmured, aware of the impudent glint in her eyes as she gazed up at him with seeming adoration. He released her and turned to his guests. "Please forgive my lapse in manners. I totally forgot myself for a moment."
Sir Arthur raised his hand. "Perfectly understandable under the circumstances, Raven. Think nothing of it."
"Yes, allowances must be made for newlyweds," his wife chimed in, her eyes as bright as those of a hound circling a meaty bone. "Especially when they have been separated for so long. But now, Raven, I insist you make us acquainted with this surprise addition to our party."
"Of course." He handled the introductions as succinctly as possible. Try as his overtaxed brain did, it could not come up with any way to avoid using the words my wife in presenting her. Though the phrases long-lost sister and recently acquired ward did flit through his mind.
The damage was done now. The best he could hope for was to limit the repercussions as much as possible. To that end he proceeded to push the chairs nearest him back to the table before any of his guests could resettle themselves.
"I know you'll understand if I beg to end the evening prematurely," he said when they persisted in lingering, inquiring about Leah's health and her journey to town, precisely the things he intended to inquire about the instant he had her alone. "I fear if sh . . . Le . . . my wife overtaxes herself she will suffer a relapse."
His wife slipped her arm through his. "Your concern is touching, darling, but altogether unnecessary. The doctor assures me that kidney stones rarely afflict women my age and a recurrence is unlikely."
Stones? thought Adrian.
"Stones?" exclaimed Lady Hockliffe. "Is that what ailed you? Why you poor dear, that is a horror." She swiped at Raven with her closed fan. "You beastly man. If I were your bride I should never forgive you for abandoning me in my hour of need."
"I shall spend the rest of my life making amends," vowed Adrian, kissing the back of Leah's hand before tucking it inside his arm once more. Gently. There would be time later to squeeze the truth out of her.
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