A Christmas Wedding Wager

A Christmas Wedding Wager

by Michelle Styles

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426810015
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 12/01/2007
Series: Harlequin Historical Series , #878
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 759,044
File size: 229 KB

About the Author

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance in a range of periods including Viking  and early Victorian. Born and raised near San Francisco, California,  she  currently lives near Hadrian's Wall in the UK with her husband, menagerie of pets and occasionally one of her three university-aged children. An avid reader, she became hooked on historical romance after discovering  Georgette Heyer, Anya Seton and Victoria Holt.   

Read an Excerpt

November 1846, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England

'It is no good getting your hopes up, Miss Emma, the first survey was clear, like. The Gaffer, your father, would agree with me if he were here,' Mudge the foreman pronounced with a solemn face, his words echoing off the walls of the small office.

Emma Harrison forced air into her lungs and struggled to hang on to her temper despite the overwhelming desire to scream. The last thing she needed was a lecture from Mudge about why the line of the bridge had to remain where it was. She could read a survey as well as any man. Better than most.

'My father agrees with me. I told you this. How many times must I repeat it?' She focused her attention on the plan of the site that hung on the wall.

'Your father ain't been himself lately. Begging your pardon, Miss. Everyone on site knows it.'

Emma forced a smile, ignored the growing pain behind her eyes. Today had started badly, and showed every sign of declining further. Her mind kept circling back to one question—how was she going to ensure that the bridge would be built on time?

A few of the navvies and workmen moved through the site overlooking the Tyne in a dispirited fashion, a full three-quarters less than Saturday. The lantern tower of St Nicholas's Church had been barely visible in the heavy fog on the way in from Jesmond this morning. The works bore little resemblance to the sunlit bustling place of last Saturday, when Jack Stanton had been expected.

Emma drew in her breath with a sudden whoosh. And what if Jack Stanton should appear today? How would he react to the deserted site? She swallowed hard and refused to contemplate the horror that would unfold.

'Be reasonable, like, Miss Emma.'

'I am, Mudge.' Emma tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. 'I know the excuses by heart. But it is the Monday after payday. A Saint Monday. The men will return when their pay packets, run out and the publican's pockets are full. I grew up around railway and wagonway projects. It is always like this, always has been.'

Mudge shuffled his feet and muttered another expletive. She rose and glanced out of the narrow window, wrapping her arms about her waist. The fog had lowered further, making the brazier near the first foundation site glow orange.

'What do you want, miss? What should I tell the men?' To have this bridge built before my father dies. It is his life's ambition to build the first railway bridge to cross the Tyne. A simple request, but one she didn't dare voice. She had to keep the true extent of her father's illness a secret.

Emma gave a small shrug of her shoulders, and fastened the plaid shawl more securely about her.

'A good run of weather until Christmas, maybe into the New Year. That the new survey of the riverbed proves true and we are able to get the piers erected in double-quick time.'

'You don't want much, miss.' Mudge scratched his head. 'Shall I add peace and prosperity for all while I'm at it?'

Emma ignored the remark. She refused to allow the foreman to intimidate her. She was no longer eighteen, with only thoughts about her next pair of dancing slippers in her head. She knew how bridges were built. She had learnt.

'Oh, and I forgot—the castle. The keep and the royal apartments are to be retained if possible.'

'Only a woman would be concerned about a pile of old stones. It would be far better if it was knocked down and the stone reused. It was what the first survey said.'

'Nevertheless it is to be retained. The first survey was wrong.'

'Ah, but what about the investors—Robert Stephenson and his new partner…that J.T. Stanton? They're right canny, they are.' Mudge crossed his arms. 'Your father ain't thinking straight if he agrees with you, if you don't mind me saying so. If it were up to me, I'd sell the company. Get out while he still can. Bridge-building is a young man's game.'

Emma bit her lip. She needed Mudge and his ability with the men if she was to have any hope of achieving her father's dream. She was under no illusions about the attitude towards women engineers and women directing important engineering projects. But, equally, she refused to let her father's dream and with it his company vanish simply because he had become too ill to be on site every day.

'If that is all,' Emma said through gritted teeth. 'I will take your report back to my father and return tomorrow with my father's further orders.'

'As you wish, miss. But think on what I say. I never steered you wrong before. There is none that can say that Albert Mudge ain't loyal.'

Emma scooped up the various papers, giving vent to her anger by stuffing them into her satchel. She would prevail. The keep was important.

'Miss, give your father my good wishes. There is nowt—'

'Is anyone here? Or is this shack as deserted as the site outside?' A deep, masculine voice sounded from the front counter.

Emma froze, allowing the papers to drop from her hands and cover the desk in a snowstorm. Seven years, and she knew the voice. It no longer held any warmth or intimacy, but she knew it. Jack Stanton. Fate's little joke. To make the day even worse.

'Allow me. Let me handle this.' Mudge tapped the side of his nose and moved towards the counter.

Emma forced a breath, and resisted the temptation to pat her hair or straighten her gown. She had to trust Mudge on this. Jack Stanton would not come in here. There was no need to encounter him. All she had to do was sit still, safe in her father's room. Unworthy of her, but a necessity.

'I'm expected.' The low, insistent tone echoed through the small study. 'There can be no mistake.You will allow me to pass.'

'Mr Harrison is out, sir. Perhaps if you would care to call again at some mutually convenient time?'Mudge's voice held the right amount of fawning.

Emma gave a short nod. She willed Jack to accept the invitation, to come back at an agreed time when she could be certain of getting her father here.

She eased back in the chair, heard a squeak and winced. 'Mr Harrison will see me. Tell him J.T. Stanton requires an interview. I can hear him moving in the back room.'

'Mr Harrison is unavailable.' Mudge moved to block the doorway with his considerable bulk, shielding her from Jack's sight. 'You will have to call at another time, Mr Stanton, if you wish to speak to him. But I am happy to help you with any enquiries you might have.'

Emma squared her shoulders. She refused to hide in the back room like some frightened rabbit while Mudge showed the site and no doubt put his case to retain the current line of the bridge. She would not be defeated so easily.

Jack Stanton held no terror for her. If she allowed Mudge to continue, her father's secret would be out and the company lost. She knew Jack Stanton's reputation.Almost against her will she had followed his progress as he had risen from her father's very junior civil engineer to one of the most respected and wealthiest railwaymen in the entire Empire. But no one rose that fast and far without being utterly ruthless. She had heard the rumours about how he had fired most of the men building a bridge in Manchester, forcing the remaining to work overtime to get the bridge completed and ensure his railway opened on time.

'Mudge, send Mr Stanton in. I will speak with him.' Emma forced her voice to sound strong. She was no longer eighteen, but twenty-five, a confirmed spinster if ever there was one. Railway millionaire or not, Jack Stanton remained a known quantity. She had ended everything between them. It had been the correct thing to do then. It remained the correct thing. She'd had to put the needs of her family before a fair-weather flirtation, as her mother had called it. If Jack had truly loved her, he would have understood. He hadn't. He had left without a word.

Mudge stared at her, open-mouthed. 'Mr Stanton speaks the truth. His presence is expected, even if it has been delayed.'

'As you wish, Miss Emma.' Mudge removed his bulk from the doorway and made an over-elaborate gesture of welcome. But she could tell from his voice that Mudge was singularly unhappy about the situation. 'Miss Harrison wishes to see you, sir.'

Emma forced her back straight, willing Jack Stanton to have become a bloated man with annoying facial hair and prematurely bald.

The black frock-coated figure stalked in, moving with the grace of an untamed predator. The cut of his coat emphasised his slim waist and broad shoulders. The very picture of the successful businessman, but with none of the flash one might expect from someone as newly wealthy as he.

Emma pressed her lips together. His jet-black hair and eyes were more suited to a hero in a Minerva Press novel or one of the penny-bloods found on railway stalls than to real life.

As with so many other things lately, God had turned a deaf ear to her prayer.

She forced her gaze away from his form and concentrated on the cold gleam in his eye and the faint smile on his full mouth. Arrogant. Self-opinionated. Dangerous.

She extended her hand, forced her heart to forget what he had been like seven years ago. The pain he had caused was a distant memory.

'Mr Stanton. It has been a long time.'

'Miss Harrison.'

He gave a nod but ignored her hand. Emma allowed her hand to drop to her side, wishing she had worn something more fashionable than last year's second best grey, but the grey offered easier movement in the sleeves, and the skirt did not require as many petticoats.

'May I ask what brings you here today?'

'My business is with your father.'

'Your business is with Harrison and Lowe.' She smoothed an errant fold in her skirt. 'We expected you two days ago.'

'I was unavoidably detained. Word was sent, informing your father of my intention to arrive today.'

'Obviously the letter was misplaced.' She waved a hand at the letters that dotted the desk. She would allow him the fiction of a letter, but she knew there had been none. No doubt he wished to catch them unawares. It was exactly the sort of trick she'd expect from such a man. 'My father is unavailable. Perhaps if you could enlighten me as to why you are here?'

'It was your father who requested the meeting,' he said, with the barest hint of a smile. 'I was hoping you might be able to enlighten me.'

'I hardly think he would. Ground was broken a little over a month ago. My father and Mr Stephenson had several long meetings at that time. Everything was arranged to their satisfaction.'

'I regret I was out of the country then. My boat from Rio was delayed.' His eyes raked her form before coming to rest on her mouth. Emma resisted the urge to straighten her gown. She didn't care what he thought about her. 'By the time I returned, the ground had been broken and the project begun. I trust everything is on time? The Newcastle to Berwick line is open in March and we cannot afford delays.'

Emma gave a slight nod. His inference was quite clear. Had Jack Stanton been here he would never have chosen Harrison and Lowe for the project, despite their long association with the Stephensons. And, given what the papers had said about his recent rise in fortune, she had little doubt that Robert Stephenson would have listened to his newest partner.

She refused to worry about that. She had to make him see that not only would Harrison and Lowe complete the project, as promised, but also that the keep should be saved.

'Then you must be given a tour of the site, and I shall be sure to point out the progress.' Emma forced a smile on her lips. She had not endured the rigours of high society without learning the fine art of dissimulation. 'There is a slight question of how the bridge will go through the castle grounds.

My father commissioned a new survey, and it would appear that we can retain the keep, the very symbol of Newcastle, even if the outer walls have to be destroyed.'

'Now, miss…' Mudge cleared his throat. 'Mudge, I believe you have other duties. I am quite capable of showing Mr Stanton around the site and answering any questions he might have. We are old…friends.'

'You show me around, Miss Harrison?' One eyebrow tilted upwards as a half-smile appeared on his lips. 'As delightful as the prospect might be, I hardly wish to trespass.'

'Miss Emma.' Mudge made a small bow, but continued to stand in the centre of the room. 'It is right cold out there. The sleet has started coming down fast, like.'

'I do wish, Mudge.'Emma forced her voice to be calm. She refused to have another screaming match with Mudge. The obstinacy of the man! 'I believe I am the best person to guide Mr Stanton around the site. We have already discussed your jobs for the morning.'

'Very good, Miss Emma.' Mudge continued to stand there. She looked pointedly at the door and the foreman left, grumbling. Emma hoped that he would force several of the men to make a show of working despite the weather. Jack Stanton had to see that progress, although slow, was being made. He had to. With deft fingers she fastened her bonnet, tying the bow neatly under her chin.

'And now, Mr Stanton—what do you wish to inspect first? The foundations, or the ruins of the castle?'

'I look forward to the tour with anticipation, Miss Harrison. Your dulcet tones will make a change from my usual guides.' Jack held out his arm, which Emma studiously ignored.

Emma heard the slight emphasis on Miss and winced. Knew what he must be thinking—Emma Harrison, the woman expected to make a brilliant match, living the life of a spinster. She had made the correct choice. Her mother had needed a nurse in her final days, and now her father needed a companion. She did not need to explain her decisions to anyone, least of all to a man to whom she had only been a passing fancy.

'The foundations it will be. This way, if you please, Mr Stanton.'She tightened the shawl about her body and straightened the folds of her skirt, bracing herself against the sting of the sleet. 'I have no doubt we both wish to spend as short a time as possible on this tour.'

'I am at your disposal, ma'am.' He inclined his head, but the smile did not reach his eyes. 'Can you inform me where your father is?'

'Unavailable.' She pointed towards where a solitary man dug in the mist. 'The sooner we begin this inspection, the sooner it will be over. Harrison and Lowe are the best bridge-builders in the area.'

'So your father always led me to believe.'

Emma attempted to ignore the growing pain behind her eyes. By the end of the tour Jack Stanton would be convinced that Harrison and Lowe could do the job. He had to be.

Jack Stanton followed Emma's slightly swaying hips out of the hut. He had not expected to find her here. As far as he was concerned, Emma Harrison and all she had once stood for belonged to a former life. One he had hoped to blot out for ever. He no longer had need of that dream.

He could well remember the number of beaux she'd had buzzing about her. Margaret Harrison had made that clear. She'd expected her daughter to marry and marry well. Impetuously he had followed his heart and made an offer, counting on her affection for him and his future prospects. She'd refused him, never answered his letter, and he had left. He'd expected, if he heard of her at all, to discover she had married.

Only it would appear she had not. Time had been less than kind to Emma. He tried to reconcile the Emma he remembered with the woman who moved before him, her grey clothes mingling with the mist. Her hair was scraped back from her face into a tight crown of braids and topped by one of the most unflattering bonnets he had ever seen. Her skirt moved through the mud as if it were weighed down with chains. It was not his concern. The past was behind him. He looked forward to a glorious future—building bridges and railways, consolidating his companies and enjoying the fruits of his labour.

First he wanted to discover the mystery of why Edward Harrison had written to him, summoning him here. He had intended on leaving the bridge to Stephenson, simply providing the necessary financing. But Stephenson had agreed with the letter. He needed to go up to Newcastle and determine if all was well.

An icy blast of sleet hit as he exited the meagrely heated hut. Winter in Newcastle instead of the oppressive heat of Brazil. Instinctively he braced himself for the next blast, pulled his top hat down more firmly on his head. Emma had moved on ahead, gesturing, pointing out various spots where the foundations would be laid or where the stone had already been cleared.

The wind whipped her skirts around her ankles but she paid no attention. A sudden gust sent her hurtling forward towards the precipice.

Jack reached out his hands, grabbed her arm, and hauled her back to safety. A stone gave way and tumbled down to the bottom of the castle walls. Up close, he could see her blue-grey eyes were as bright as ever, and her lashes just as long.

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