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The Vengeful Bridegroom
By Kit Donner
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Kit Stanford Donner
All right reserved.
Chapter One15 May 1812 St. James Street London, England
"No question Miss Madelene Colgate is a beauty, but no gentleman in his right mind would want to marry the termagant," Lord Vincennes insisted.
Mr. Arnold Duckins, great grandnephew of the Marquess of Stalingsford, hurried to disagree with his lordship's pronouncement. "One with such beauteous features could only have the temperament of an angel. Those deep blue eyes and the long, dark hair. She could make Aphrodite jealous." He sighed and looked heavenward, hoping his dramatic flair would intrigue his companion.
Earlier, Duckins had noticed his target, Lord Vincennes, lounging by the bow window at White's, as he was wont to do every morning. To be most effective, Duckins took his time to bait the hook before he reeled in his fish.
Since gossip abounded Vincennes and his wife had a very acrimonious marriage, Duckins thought to walk a tightrope in introducing the topic of matrimony and a sure bet into the conversation. After exchanging pleasantries on the weather and the Prince Regent's latest excesses, Arnold had launched the subject of marriageable ladies, and in particular, one Miss Madelene Colgate.
As they watched the street peddlers pushing their carts up the street in search of those with funds to spare, they continued to dispute the merits of the young woman. In another corner of the club, the morning crowd enjoyed a hot repast of scrambled eggs, sausages, fresh salmon, and fried tomatoes in the lingering smoky air from the previous evening.
Duckins watched Vincennes's countenance closely to determine his best strategy.
His lordship shook his head and swallowed his coffee. "You, young swain, are charmed by any young thing with a pretty face. I heard tell not a year ago she jilted a man from Kent, and it wasn't the first time. Said he went home with a broken heart. Even the family's former servants have spoken about their mistress's blazing temper and to watch for flying objects when she's in a sniff. Seems the death of her father has only served to exacerbate this rash behavior. And to compound matters, prattle-bags waggle their tongues her brother has spent all of her dowry."
Vincennes presumably had an opinion on everything, and obviously not a fair consideration of Miss Colgate. Undeterred, Duckins continued, while staring out the pristine window, "Perhaps the death of her father struck her insensible, and she needs a man to set her on the right path. For the suitable man, I'd bet she'd prove easy to tame."
Vincennes snorted. "And I'd be willing to bet no man would have her, not until she learned to control her passions." He popped out his watch fob. "Must take my leave and see to my lawyer," he muttered.
Duckins wasn't about to let his prey slip away. "Would you be willing to wager Miss Colgate could be married off in three days?" he asked casually while fingering a coin from his pocket.
The older man stared at Duckins in consternation. "What say you? Are you suggesting a wager that you can find a man to marry Miss Colgate? I'd like to see the day."
"In three days," Duckins told him succinctly.
"Three days until what?"
"I'll find a husband for Miss Colgate within three days, and she'll go to the altar happily." Duckins smiled and waited to see if his lordship would nibble at the trap. The older man had plenty of money to lose, even with his impending divorce. Indeed, given his lordship's penchant for gambling on lost causes and his considerable wealth, Vincennes had been an easy choice for this venture.
His lordship heaved himself out of a cozy chair. "Impossible," he uttered, probably thinking the conversation at an end.
"Then you have everything to gain," Duckins replied lightly. He hoped Vincennes wouldn't notice he held his breath.
His prey appeared to study his options and Duckins, and then shook his head. "Bah, you probably are not even acquainted with the lady. How could you convince Miss Colgate to marry in such a short period of time? And who," he smirked, "would be the lucky bridegroom?" He waved his hand in dismissal, but narrowed his eyes on Duckins.
Duckins lifted his chin confidently. "I like a right challenge. I'll find the bridegroom, don't worry. One thousand guineas?"
Scratching the back of his head, Vincennes seemed to consider the offer. "A thousand guineas? Quite a sizeable amount." He hesitated, then nodded. "Done. I hope you have plenty of blunt to back up your claim. You'll need it."
Duckins stood and together they walked to the betting book and entered their wager, figures, and date.
After Vincennes shook Duckins's hand, his lordship sauntered down the stairs, whistling.
While Duckins lingered by the stairs waiting for Vincennes to leave the club and its vicinity, he noticed another gentleman rise from his chair and head toward the betting book. Wonder what he'll be wagering on, he thought.
Dismissing the stranger, Duckins trotted down the stairs to the club door. A quick glance up and down the street assured Duckins his movements would go unnoticed.
Sir Matthew Colgate grabbed Duckins by the arm as he strolled past and pulled his accomplice deeper into the narrow alley. It would not do to be found together. If his plan had gone accordingly, anyone seeing him and Duckins together might be suspicious of the wager just placed. It must appear to be an honorable and fair bet. If it were to be discovered that he'd arranged this elaborate scheme to dupe Lord Vincennes and any other gentlemen of the ton, he would either land in prison or have to flee the country.
"What is the news? Did he agree? Did you place the bet?" Matthew asked, snatching a look at first one end, then the other of Water Lane.
Duckins rubbed his hands together. "The wager is in the book, sir. Now it's up to you to convince your sister. As you say, I'm sure the old beard will spread the word to his associates. This wager should put a pretty penny in our pocket."
"Yes, thanks to your excellent work. You'll get your share when all is done. Remember, not one soul can learn of what has transpired here." Matthew's tone implied what would happen should he not keep their bargain.
Duckins nodded several times. "Of course, of course! Not a word to anyone."
Colgate watched his short companion hurry down the alley and back to the street, where he resumed a casual walk. Smiling broadly, the young baronet turned in the opposite direction, pleased with the events of the day. His plan was set in motion. He knew Madelene would agree. What choice did she have?
Crash. There went the cup and saucer.
Crash. A crystal vase.
"Mad, please listen to me!" her brother, Matthew, called, dodging the teapot she threw at him. "Not the teapot! It was our-"
The heavy china teapot missed her target and smashed against the parlor wall. Crash. The looking glass didn't survive the meeting with the teapot.
"-our grandmother's," he ended lamely.
Madelene breathed heavily, her shoulders heaving, as she looked for something more to throw at her imbecilic brother. "Impossible! I refuse! Find another solution! Marry a stranger? In three days or three years? Never! It will not do!"
Normally her favorite room in their town house, the front parlor, in lemon colors, had become a battleground where in all likelihood, no one would claim victory.
Her brother hovered by the door, his face downcast, his shoulders hunched. His silence indicated he didn't have another solution.
Madelene shook her head in disbelief. How had it come to this? She found it hard to credit this marriage wager was Matthew's only solution. If only Father hadn't-or if only her fashion designs had made progress, but it was still too early for the kind of success and funds she needed in haste, particularly to save her brother.
Her brother finally found his tongue. "Mad, I know this plan must sound insupportable, but trust me. I have thought it all out carefully, and I am assured it will work." He still remained near the door, correctly assuming she wasn't nearly finished with him yet.
Madelene needed to sit down, her temper cooling slightly. If her anger continued unabated, she'd have to begin throwing larger objects, which would be difficult to lift. Instead, she pulled a white handkerchief from her pocket and began twisting it, imagining it was her brother's neck.
He must have sensed he was safe when she sat down because he joined her on the settee, albeit at the other end. "If you will simply listen for a moment, I can explain everything to you."
Staring wide-eyed at Matthew, she couldn't keep her voice from rising. "What is there to explain? How did you end in such a fix that the only solution to your problem is my marrying a complete stranger? Do you understand what you are asking of me?"
"Yes, I do know. Would that I could think of some other scheme, but time is critical. You see, since Father has been gone, I've been a bit extravagant with my gaming, believing my luck due to change. I have delayed my creditors for as long as I can. But the time has come, and I can put them off no longer."
Large brown eyes filled a pale youthful face, older than he appeared. Madelene heard pity, contriteness, and desperation in his words.
She closed her eyes to deny this scene, this moment. Their situation, indeed, did seem dire. Restless, she rose to pace the length of the room, stopping to view herself in the lone remaining looking glass and patting her curls. She had read recently in the London's Lady's Companion how strain could conceivably cause widow lines. She pursed her lips and took a seat at the window.
"Matthew, please explain how this wager at White's can possibly save our apparently soon-to-be penury existence? And however did you get this maggot in your head?" As the younger sister, she could still inject reason into the situation, although it often fell on deaf ears. Usually they got on well, but their relationship had been strained since the death of their father, and Madelene's pleas for caution had not halted her brother's path to apparent ruin.
She watched as Matthew leaned forward and rested his arms on his thighs, favoring his weakened left arm. The movement reminded her of the duel and how he had almost died, over a year ago.
"I'm not really sure how this idea came to me, but when I latched on to it, I immediately saw its possibilities."
She shook her head, tapping on the windowsill. "Oh, how many times I have regretted we lost Father too soon. He would never have allowed this to happen."
Matthew rubbed his brow. "Yes, yes, I realize that is the way of it. However, it does not change matters, Mad. You are the only one who can make things right." Her brother, always one to see the humor in any circumstance, used his serious tone. He was never serious.
With raised eyebrows, he pleaded, "But you will do this, Mad, won't you? I've already put my plan into action."
Her eyes widened, and she straightened her back. "What are you saying?" Was there no choice? No going back?
He scratched his neck before his words rushed out. "Simple. An acquaintance of mine placed the wager at White's that you will be married within three days."
A coughing spell nearly overwhelmed her before she could recapture her thoughts and derision. "I see. Please do not delay in telling me the name of the man you are planning for my husband. Do I know of him? Is he aware the marriage will be a sham in order to win this wager?" She rose to pace the room again.
"Ah, yes, he is aware of the circumstances." He rubbed his finger between his neck and his cravat. "And actually, no, you have never met him. His name is Mr. Leonard Brelford."
She raised her eyebrows in inquiry. "The name means nothing to me. So this Mr. Brelford is agreeable to marry me in three days? Without ever having met me?" Madelene closed her eyes briefly. The evening's events had given her quite the headache. Reseated at the window, she waited for her brother to continue.
Perhaps long ago she had dreamt of marrying for love, but that dream had been discarded not long after Madelene realized any man who would need her dowry for inducing a marriage proposal would be a man she would have no wish to marry. Thomas Winchester had taught her that particularly cruel lesson.
"Mr. Brelford has agreed. You know, Mad, there has been many a suitor who has spoken of your beauty and your wit."
Wherever did he think he was going with this excess of flattery? "Not in some time, because as you know, my dowry no longer amounts to much to encourage any new offer for my hand. Be that as it may, go on." She gritted her teeth.
"Ah, yes, Mr. Brelford, whom I met through a series of acquaintances, has agreed to marry you on a name-only basis."
"I presume the only motivating factor would be money won from the bet," she said more to herself than her brother. "How can you be sure that Mr. Brelford will keep his part of this bargain?"
Matthew hung his head. "Mr. Brelford seems to prefer-" His voice faded.
"Prefer what? A shorter bride? A bluestocking? A chit?"
"Men," he interjected and looked away toward the cold fireplace.
An evening in mid-May did not require a fire, but Madelene felt a chill. She rubbed her arms for warmth, contemplating his answer.
"Men," she said softly. Prefers men. It sounded quite strange. Preferred men to women? For what purpose? To gamble with, enjoy a cigar at their club? Boxing?
Matthew must have seen her confusion because he came to sit next to her and whisper in her ear.
Before he was through, Madelene jumped up as if burned from hot coals. "No, no, I will have nothing more to do with this plan of yours." She hurried to the door, tossing over her shoulder, "Tell Mr. Brelford that I cannot marry him."
"Madelene," he said to her back, "if you don't marry Mr. Brelford, we will lose this house. I'll have to go to the Continent, and you to live with Aunt Bess."
A moment passed or was it an hour, before he added, "You know, our father would want you to do this."
At the door, she swallowed hard and bowed her head. His argument was persuasive for all the reasons she should continue with this farce. Living with Aunt Bess? Move all the way to Scotland? Seldom to return to Town, if ever?
This was her home. And what about her fledgling fashion designs? She needed more time to create a success behind the name of Madame Quantifours. But they needed funds now, and she couldn't leave Matthew in this state, his tone mired in self-pity and anguish, even if he had brought this misery on himself. If he didn't make it to the Continent, surely he would be sent to Newgate, if his debts were such as she imagined. She couldn't let her brother dwell in prison.
But all those reasons meant nothing as much as doing that which her father would have wanted her to do.
She turned to face her brother and said, "Perhaps you could review your plan with me again. I did not catch all of the particulars." She still had three days to plan the end of her arranged marriage.
Mr. Brelford opened the door to his rented lodgings to Matthew, who rushed in, hoping no one had seen him enter. Issuing no greeting, Matthew threw himself into a nearby worn chair, wiping sweat from his brow, relieved. No time to waste since he had a wedding ceremony to prepare. Everything was proceeding exactly how he had planned. At the earliest opportunity, he had hastened to share his news with his accomplice, although he heartily disliked Brelford's address at Covent Garden. A couple of footpads had gained Matthew's notice but fortunately the distance between his hack and 73 Swan Alley was quite abbreviated due to his earnest regard for his pocket and his life.
He took a deep breath and announced, "Brelford, my sister has agreed to our plan. I have sent a message to our Aunt Bess in Dumfries, where you'll stay for the short duration of your marriage. Oh, I'll send your share of the winnings to you as soon as everything is settled. I also made arrangements to obtain a special license."
Excerpted from The Vengeful Bridegroom by Kit Donner Copyright © 2010 by Kit Stanford Donner. Excerpted by permission.
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