Read an Excerpt
The Wedding Clause
By Alexandra Ivy
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 Debbie Raleigh
All rights reserved.
"What the devil! Is this some damnable jest?"
The slender, rather pale solicitor gave a nervous twitch as the angry nobleman stormed toward his desk, a wad of papers clutched in his hand.
The poor gentleman had reason to be twitchy. Anthony Elkington, Viscount Woodhart, known to his friends simply as Hart, was an intimidating force under the best of circumstances. Not only tall, he possessed the hard, relentless strength of a well-honed soldier. He had also been blessed, or perhaps cursed, with the beauty of Lucifer himself. A wide brow, thick ebony hair, features that had been chiseled by a master's hand and stunning midnight black eyes that smoldered with a relentless power all added to his aura of invincibility.
Women coveted him, even when they shivered at the hint of danger that cloaked his large form. Gentlemen flatly refused to cross his will.
At least a wise gentleman did so.
Unfortunately, Mr. Grady was in no position to be wise. Swallowing heavily, he clutched the arms of his chair as he valiantly struggled to overcome his natural instinct to bolt toward safety.
"N ... no, sir," he managed to croak. "'Tis no jest."
"You expect me to believe that this ridiculous will is legal? Clearly my grandmother was out of her wits," Hart growled.
"I ... yes, I mean no. That is, the will is perfectly legal, my lord, and I assure you that Lady Woodhart was in sound wits when it was drafted."
"Impossible. No one in their sound wits would think that I would ever wed Miss Conwell. Not if she were the last maiden in all of England."
"I believe your grandmother was very fond of Miss Conwell."
"Indeed." The black eyes abruptly hardened with a lethal glare. "She was also fond of that damnable parrot, Mr. Meeks. Am I expected to wed him as well?"
"I ... no, certainly not." The words came out as a squeak. "Perhaps if you would have your own solicitor review the will, he could assure you that it is all perfectly legal and straightforward."
"No, I do not bloody wish to contact my solicitor." Hart struggled to maintain his composure. No easy task when his hands itched to wring the scrawny neck of Mr. Grady. Damn it all. It was difficult enough to have lost the grandmother he adored. A woman who had raised him after his parents had died when he was just sixteen and had been an indomitable source of strength in his life. Now to realize she had betrayed him in such a nefarious manner was nearly unbearable. No. He gave a small shake of his head. It was not his grandmother who had betrayed him. It was that damnable ... vixen who had managed to worm her way into his grandmother's heart and, more importantly, into her fortune.
He had attempted to warn his grandmother when she first insisted that she desired Miss Conwell as her companion that the minx was nothing but trouble. Unfortunately, Lady Woodhart was quite as stubborn as himself and nothing would convince her that the young maiden was nothing more than a clever charlatan. "I want you to explain in words clear enough for my feeble brain to comprehend how you allowed a common fortune hunter to take advantage of my grandmother in such a disgraceful manner."
Well aware the looming gentleman could no doubt twist him into a knot as intricate as the one that currently graced his starched cravat, Mr. Grady carefully considered his words.
"Actually Miss Conwell was no more aware of the contents of the will than you were, my lord. And I fear just as displeased when she discovered the terms."
Hart offered a short, humorless laugh. "Oh yes, I can just imagine that she was utterly devastated to discover she had the opportunity to get her greedy hands upon near thirty thousand pounds. What fortune hunting Jezebel would not be displeased?"
Mr. Grady pinched his features to thin disapproval. "I believe you do Miss Conwell a grave injustice, my lord. She was quite devoted to Lady Woodhart and brought her much happiness in her last months."
Well bully for her, Hart thought angrily. He hoped she choked on her bloody devotion.
Then, with an effort, he forced himself to contain his raging fury. As much as he might desire to deny the truth, his grandmother had enjoyed the companionship of Miss Conwell. She had claimed the younger woman quite brightened her days with her gentle humor and sweet temperament. And whether the chit had only been angling to feather her nest with his grandmother's considerable wealth or not, she had tended to Lady Woodhart with unwavering care during her last painful months.
Still, it had been her job as a companion to tend to her employer, a voice whispered in the back of his mind. And no one, no matter how generous of nature, could possibly believe her efforts were worth thirty thousand pounds.
"Very well, if you believe that she should receive some reward for her care of Grandmother, then I am perfectly willing to offer an annuity that will allow her a measure of independence," he graciously conceded. "She could not expect more."
The pinched countenance of the solicitor did not ease, despite his perfectly reasonable offer. "A very handsome gesture, my lord, unfortunately ..."
"Good. Then contact Miss Conwell and inform her of my decision, and I will ..."
"Unfortunately," the solicitor continued in dogged tones, "the will is quite specific. The thirty thousand pounds will be divided equally between you and Miss Conwell on Christmas day, but only after the wedding ceremony has been performed at the family chapel. If either you or Miss Conwell fails to arrive for the wedding, then the entire fortune will go to the one who does appear. If neither of you arrive, then the money will go to the Woodhart Charity for the Disadvantaged."
Although Hart had read the damnable will on a thousand occasions over the past week, he thought his head might actually explode at once again hearing the outrageous terms.
Damn it all, his grandmother must have been daft. She knew better than anyone that he and Molly Conwell could not bear the sight of each other. Gads, they had only to be in the same room for the both of them to be bristling and snarling like angry hounds.
She thought him a heartless rake. He thought her a callow fortune hunter.
To even consider the notion of taking her as his wife ...
Hellfire. It was enough to cause any sane gentleman to break out in a rash.
"This is ludicrous. My grandmother could be stubborn but not even she could possibly desire me to wed a woman I would most certainly strangle within moments of the ceremony," he muttered. "There has to be some means of proving she was not in her proper wits when the will was written."
Mr. Grady licked his thin lips. "She did possess the foresight to have myself as well as her doctor and her steward present when the will was made. It would be near impossible to prove she was too feebleminded to decide how she desired her wealth to be distributed. And certainly not before Christmas day."
The solicitor was right, blast his scrawny hide. It was already the middle of November. He had less than six weeks to find some means of outwitting the ridiculous will.
Or doing away with Miss Conwell.
Perhaps the preferable choice.
"Well, this is a bloody mess."
"Yes, well, it will no doubt work out in the end," the solicitor murmured in weak tones. "In my experience, arranged marriages are quite often for the best. Far less awkward and messy than supposed love matches."
The vein in his temple throbbed even harder. "Indeed? And what of blatant blackmail? Are you in favor of that as well?"
There was no mistaking the furious edge that threaded through his voice. The gaunt gentleman abruptly scooted his chair back a few inches as if ridiculously presuming he could flee before Hart could manage to shake him senseless.
"Please recall, my lord, that this ... desire for you to wed Miss Conwell was solely the wish of Lady Woodhart," he at last muttered cowardly. "I am merely acting as a messenger."
Hart checked his scathing retort. Perhaps he was being a tad unreasonable. Although the solicitor could be branded an incompetent twit, he had not actually been to blame for his grandmother's mad flight of fancy.
No. The blame could be laid squarely upon the shoulders of Miss Molly Conwell.
"Bloody hell." His nose flared with distaste. "It appears I have no choice but to meet with Miss Conwell and convince her to put an end to this madness."
A hint of relief rippled over Mr. Grady's narrow countenance. Clearly, he vastly preferred to turn Hart over to Miss Conwell. No doubt a wise decision, Hart acknowledged wryly. In his current temper he could only be pressed so far.
"Yes, I believe that would be the best solution."
"Fine." Hart leaned upon the desk to glare directly in the pasty white face. "I hope for all our sakes that she is willing to be reasonable. No one, including you, Mr. Grady, will enjoy the outcome if she is not."
With his parting shot successfully delivered, Hart turned on his heel and swept from the carpeted office, his heavily caped greatcoat billowing behind his rigid form.
* * *
The cottage perched upon the isolated bluff not far south of London was held together by little more than a handful of nails and a prayer. Without the stones were crumbled and the thatching in dire need of repair; within the cramped rooms were damp and possessed the ever-present scent of must. A hovel that was unfit for the lowest tenant, let alone Lord Canfield. Thankfully, however, it was a perfect setting for a renowned smuggler avoiding the authorities.
Pacing through the tiny parlor Andrew Conwell jammed an impatient hand through his overly long golden curls. He was young to be the current Baron, barely four and twenty years of age, and blessed with a handsome beauty that had made him an undoubted favorite of society. He also possessed the sort of charm that had caused women to flutter in delight since leaving the cradle.
Such abundance of wealth and prominence had been bound to turn any young gentleman's head. And unfortunately, Andrew had been easily tempted by the numerous hazards that London had to offer. After his parents' death nearly two years before, he had indulged in months of decadent excess. With the self-centered indulgence of sheer youth, he had gloried in his heedless entertainments, never hesitating to approach the numerous moneylenders who were anxious to offer the endless supply of wealth that a young rakehell was ever in need of.
Life was meant to be enjoyed to the fullest, he had adamantly maintained.
Until the debts had come due.
It was in that moment that Andrew had at last realized that he was more than just ruined. The moneylenders that had once seemed so benign and helpful were now threatening his very life. And worse, they had threatened his beloved sister with their vile brutality.
There had been nothing to do but make a hasty disappearance. And swiftly.
With a cleverness born of desperation, he had traveled to Europe, leaving just enough of a trail to convince his creditors that he was well out of reach before secretly slipping back across the channel to take up his current profession of smuggler.
No one knew of his whereabouts beyond Molly. To all Lord Canfield was currently continuing his life of dissipation in Italy, while those nearer the coast simply knew him as Shade, a smuggler extraordinaire.
But while he guarded his secret with his very life, his sister's brief missive had prompted him to risk all and contact her with a demand that she travel to the cottage.
Now he glared at her slender form perched delicately upon the battered chair, appearing as innocent as an angel with her glorious golden curls and flashing dimples. It was only when one happened to glance at the dark brown eyes that held more than a hint of stubborn intelligence that the vision of sweet compliance was firmly shattered.
"No, Molly," he said as he reached the empty grate and turned to send her a warning glare. "I absolutely forbid you to have anything to do with the man. They do not call him the Heartless Viscount for nothing."
Well prepared for the inevitable lecture, Molly Conwell merely folded her hands in her lap. In truth, she had considered ignoring her brother's curt letter. She had known he would attempt to undermine her decision. A waste of both of their time. But the fear that he might do something absurdly risky, such as appearing in London himself, had forced her to enter the carriage he had sent for her and travel to the remote cottage.
"Fah." She gave a faint sniff. "I am not frightened of Lord Woodhart, Andrew."
Her brother planted his hands upon his hips, his blue eyes flashing with annoyance. "Then you are a fool. For God's sake, he is one of the most powerful and wealthy men in all of England. That is not even to mention the fact that he is a ruthless enough demon to eat young maidens like you for breakfast. To even consider crossing his will is madness."
Molly swallowed a sigh. Gads, she was not utterly stupid. She knew quite well that Hart was a dangerous opponent. Had she not endured his sharp dislike and blatant insults for the past year? And now with his worst fears of her being a fortune hunter seemingly confirmed, he was bound to be even more difficult.
That, however, did not sway her determination. For the first time in over a year there appeared to be the faintest hope that her brother could somehow put an end to his debts and return to his rightful place at Oakgrove. Even more importantly, he could put an end to his perilous life as a smuggler.
She would endure any torture for such a gift.
"You would have me simply toss away the solution to all our troubles?" she demanded softly. "That is madness, Andrew."
He gave a slow shake of his head, his handsome features set in somber lines. "Not our troubles, Molly. My troubles. It was my selfish stupidity that led to our current difficulties and I will be the one to solve them."
He stiffened at her abrupt demand. "Allow me to worry about that."
"I will not. You are being absurd."
An unmistakable flare of pain rippled over his countenance. It was a pain that tugged at Molly's heart. Whatever his mistakes in the past, she did not doubt that her brother suffered from regret and self-reproach every moment of every day.
"I am being absurd because I will not allow my sister to sell herself to save my own hide?" he retorted with an edge of bitterness in his voice.
She slowly rose to her feet to cross the uneven floor and place a hand upon his rigid arm. "I have told you, Andrew, I do not intend to wed Lord Woodhart. All I need do is arrive at the chapel on Christmas day and I will have thirty thousand pounds. Enough to pay off your creditors and even to begin repairs upon Oakgrove."
Andrew offered a short, disbelieving laugh at her confident words. "Just arrive at the chapel? You believe that Lord Woodhart will allow you to blithely snatch a fortune from beneath his very nose? I never thought you such a goose wit."
She gave a faint shrug. "To prevent me from acquiring the fortune he must also arrive at the chapel and risk having me as his wife. A fate you must know he considers worse than death."
"That all depends upon whose death you refer to, Molly."
Her eyes widened at his grim tone. "Good heavens, do you mean to imply that you fear Lord Woodhart might murder me for the paltry sum of thirty thousand pounds?"
Astonishingly, her teasing words merely deepened Andrew's fierce scowl. "It is not a paltry sum, as you well know."
"Not for us, but Lord Woodhart is hardly in need of additional wealth," she pointed out with a careful logic.
"A nobleman is always in need of wealth, Molly." He grimaced with self-derision. "It is extraordinarily expensive to be a gentleman of leisure, as I learned to my regret. Besides, whatever his need or lack of need for a fortune, it will be his pride that will demand he not allow a fortune hunter to steal what he believes to rightfully belong to him."
Molly abruptly stepped back, a frown marring her wide brow. "Andrew, that is a horrid thing to say. I am no fortune hunter."
He held up a soothing hand. "Of course, you are not. But Lord Woodhart has made it obvious that he suspects you of nefarious purposes since you first took a position with his grandmother."
Well, she could hardly argue with that. His high and mighty lordship had made her life with Lady Woodhart a near misery with his unrelenting suspicion. Of course, she had begun to presume that he made a sport of causing everyone misery. For all his astonishing male beauty and undoubted success among the fairer sex, he seemed to take perverse pleasure in strolling through society like a predator on the prowl for his next meal.
Excerpted from The Wedding Clause by Alexandra Ivy. Copyright © 2005 Debbie Raleigh. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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