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The Other Groom
By Lisa Bingham
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe moment was here.
So much planning and preparation had led up to this moment, Louisa realized. The real Louisa Haversham had long since donned the name Phoebe Gray and headed for the wild and wooly West, while Phoebe - or rather Louisa, as she would be known for the rest of her life - had waited for her husband-by-proxy to show himself.
Not for the first time, Louisa felt a burst of pique. When she had agreed to assume the life and destiny of her friend, it had all seemed so simple. The daughter of the Marquis of Dobbenshire, the real Louisa Haversham had been married by proxy to a wealthy American businessman, Mr. Charles Winslow III. That was how the two women had met. Louisa had needed a companion to accompany her on the journey from England, and since Phoebe had been on her way to America as a "mail-order bride," she'd been hired to take the position.
Her lips twitched in a quick smile. Who would have suspected that the two women had been so unhappy with the intended course of their lives that they would consider switching places? Her friend had longed for a life of adventure, while Phoebe ...
She wrinkled her nose. As far as she was concerned, she'd had enough "adventure." Her mother had died in a typhus epidemic when Phoebe had been but a toddler. Since then, she'd endured a series of orphanages and charity schools, where she'd been trained for service. She'd been a nanny, a governess and, most recently, a paid companion. But when the untoward advances of a wayward husband in London had resulted in her termination without references, Phoebe had been in dire straits. Weary of the life of a servant, she'd impulsively agreed to marry Neil Ballard.
Dear, sweet Neil. They'd been so young when last she'd seen him. How long had they proved to be an inseparable team at the orphanage? Two years? Three? Then, finally, his aunt had sent for him and he'd moved to America to become a farmer in Oregon. Yet even then their friendship had endured, through years of correspondence. Indeed, Louisa would hasten to wager that they had each revealed more about themselves in their letters than they ever would have in person.
Shifting uncomfortably, she pushed away the wave of guilt that threatened to be her undoing. In hindsight, she realized that she never should have agreed to marry her old chum. By the time the travel arrangements to America had been made, she'd begun to regret her hasty action. The thought of living in the untamed wilderness of the American Territories and becoming a farmer's wife had filled her with trepidation. She was tired of living hand-to-mouth. Moreover, Neil had made it clear that he was looking forward to having a woman to help "take care of his property."
Drat it all! By marrying him, she would have doomed herself to a lifetime of servitude.
Absently patting her bonnet and smoothing a hand down the front of her bodice, she pushed aside her misgivings about her cavalier treatment of an old friend.
She would have been a horrible homesteader, there was no doubt about that - and the real Louisa Haversham had been equally distressed about being locked into the predictable routine of a woman of privilege.
Was it any wonder the women had stumbled upon this solution? The fact that they both had similar builds, auburn hair and blue eyes had seemed foreordained. It was as if heaven above had planned their meeting.
Briefly closing her eyes, Louisa pressed a hand to her fluttering stomach and offered a quick prayer. Any moment now, her husband would arrive and her new life would truly begin. More than ever, she would have to be on her guard. She couldn't allow even the tiniest mistake to reveal her original background and identity.
You're Louisa Haversham Winslow now. You will be Louisa Haversham Winslow until the day you die.
So why was it still so hard to remember that she no longer had to struggle to survive? Even the tardy arrival of her husband had proved no hardship. A note from Charles's solicitor had informed her that accounts had been set up for her with the hotel and local businesses. At the solicitor's urging, she'd been able to spend her time augmenting her wardrobe, visiting the theater and ballet - even obtaining a lapdog and a lady's maid. In an amazingly short amount of time, she had been able to don all the trappings of a wealthy woman.
But her delight in amassing such luxuries had begun to wane. As the days of waiting had become weeks, she'd begun to despair of Charles ever making an appearance. She'd tortured herself with her own imaginings - that Charles had the temperament of an ogre or the age of Methuselah.
Finally, this morning, she'd received a telegram stating that she should meet the noon train.
With the help of her new maid, Chloe, Louisa had dressed in exquisitely embroidered undergarments, had laced her corset to a point where she could barely breathe and had donned a delicate white gown dotted with tiny pink rosebuds and adorned with yards and yards of ruffles. Her hair had been upswept in an intricate coiffure of braids and curls, and a perky straw hat bedecked with lace and ribbons tipped rakishly over one eyebrow. As a final touch, she'd indulged in a pink silk parasol and reticule, and white kid gloves and high-buttoned shoes.
She, Phoebe Gray, was a living, breathing fashion plate.
No. Not Phoebe. She was Louisa now.
Louisa Haversham Winslow.
Her pulse knocked erratically against the stricture of her stays and she took several quick, panting breaths. Dash it all, she shouldn't have laced the thing so tightly!
What would he be like, Mr. Charles Winslow? Would he be kind and gentle? Handsome and forthright?
More than a thousand times, Louisa had fantasized about Charles - so much so that she'd formed an ideal picture of the person she hoped to encounter. He would be of a certain age - not too old, but not too young. Judging by his attention to business, he would be quiet and studious, with the manners of a true gentleman. Despite the marriage by proxy, he would woo her gently, insisting on a proper church wedding before taking Louisa to his bed.
She felt a warmth flood into her cheeks at the mere thought. Although she'd resigned herself to the physicalities of marriage, she still hadn't been able to think of her wifely duties without blushing.
If only ...
If only ...
A disconcerting restlessness rushed through her veins. A sense of foreboding.
Seeking a diversion from her fears, she darted her gaze around the crowd of people who waited for the train from Charleston, then found it fixed on a huge giant of a man.
If only Charles could look like him.
Excerpted from The Other Groom by Lisa Bingham Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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