An accomplished musician, Dorothea Flammel has refused more proposals than any London debutante; her only true love is her music. Dory’s shimmering talent and beauty have long been adored from afar by Thomas Wheel, an untitled gentleman who can only dream of asking for the hand of a nobleman’s daughter. But when her father, the insolvent Lord Flammel, arranges for Dory to marry a lecherous Earl in order to pay off a debt, she runs to Thomas—and proposes marriage to him.
Eloping to Scotland saves Dory from a disastrous fate, but what is for her a mere marriage of convenience proves more passionate—and more complex—than either imagined as rumors, scandal, and buried emotions come to light. And when a vengeful challenge from a drunken and embittered Lord Flammel puts Thomas’s life on the line, will the fragile trust between husband and wife be enough to save them both?
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More than an hour reading the Westgrove Estate titles and entailments left Thomas Wheel with an aching neck. If he acquired the property, those two fields neighboring his two family estates would be perfect for the Dutch four-crop rotation method. Increased productivity could mean putting the local children in a schoolroom rather than laboring for pennies to help feed their families. The little barn on the property could be converted into a schoolhouse.
Crowly cleared his throat. The butler was tall and wide and occupied the entire doorway. "Yes, what is it, Crowly?"
"Sir, I know you said you didn't wish to be disturbed, but you have a visitor." Many visitors found the unseemly size of the man intimidating. Crowly was quiet and efficient and that was good enough for a bachelor of Thomas's standing.
Thomas pulled the watch from his pocket. Nearly midnight, no decent person called so late. "At this late hour? Send whoever it is away. It is too late for callers."
The butler shuffled his feet but did not leave.
"Is there a problem, Crowly?"
"Well, sir, you see, the visitor is a young woman of apparent good breeding. She arrived in a hack and I am reluctant to put her back out on the street."
Thomas stood. "She is alone?"
"It would seem so, sir."
"Who is it?"
"The lady refused to provide a card and wishes to speak to you rather urgently."
After pulling his jacket from the back of his chair, he dressed himself. "I suppose you had better let the mystery lady in."
"Yes. Thank you, sir." Crowly's shoulders relaxed.
Within seconds, a woman draped in a black cape with a hood hiding her face entered the study.
Thomas stood behind his desk and waited for her to speak, but she fussed with the edge of her cape and shifted her feet. He suspected that she was contemplating running away. "How may I help you?"
Her head snapped up and her hood fell away. There, standing in his study, was Lady Dorothea Flammel. The amber in her blond hair came to life in the firelight and Thomas had to grip the back of his chair for balance. He did not know what he had been expecting, but in his wildest dreams he never thought to see Dory in his home. Well, maybe in his dreams, but never in reality.
Compared to the burly Crowly she looked lost in the doorway. She was petite and her green eyes ringed red as if she'd been crying.
His initial excitement overshadowed by her distress, his concern mounted. He crossed the room, stopping only when he realized that she backed away from him. "Lady Flammel, what is wrong? Is it Markus?" Markus Flammel, Dory's older brother and one of Thomas's closest friends, lost his wife during childbirth a year before. The child had lived, but losing Emma had sent Markus into a desperate depression.
"No. It's not Markus. He is in the country as far as I know." She stared at her feet.
Thomas waited for her to say more, but she pressed her lips together while avoiding his gaze.
"Perhaps you would like to sit," he suggested.
When she looked up, he thought she might run, but then her expression softened and she nodded.
When he offered her the chair in front of his desk, she skirted away from him to reach the seat. Never had he seen her so out of sorts. He rounded the desk and sat in his office chair.
The silence in the room was palpable. Thomas cleared his throat and the sudden noise made her jump in her seat. Dory had always appeared so calm and in control, his interest piqued. "Lady Flammel?"
"Yes?" Snapping her head up, she revealed her wide eyes and pale skin.
He smiled. Most women found his smile engaging, but she looked at him with wide eyes and trembling lips, like he'd bared his teeth for the kill.
He leaned forward, resting his arms on the desk. "I can only assume that you have come to me for some reason. You risk quite a lot coming to a bachelor's home, in the middle of the night, in a hack and all alone. You must permit me my curiosity at such an unorthodox act. I have known you most of your life and this is the first time you have arrived on my doorstep. What can I do for you?"
She sighed. "Perhaps it was a mistake."
"Was it?" he asked.
She stared at him. He had watched her play the pianoforte dozens of times over the past few years. She was an artist of the highest order. Her emotion when she played was enthralling, but away from her instrument she always appeared so calm and controlled. Here in his study that seemed to have escaped her. She was near tears. He wanted to stand up and go to her but he did not wish to scare her. The last thing he wanted was to allow his height to intimidate her.
"I am in trouble," she said.
Anger seared through Thomas. "Who was it? I will cut out his innards." He pounded his fist on the desk.
She flinched then waved her hand in a dismissive motion. "Not that kind of trouble, Mr. Wheel."
His fury seeped away. Watching her from the shadows for years, her music had drawn him in but those full eyelashes and deep green eyes kept him mesmerized. For a long time, he had yearned to touch the soft skin of her cheek and kiss those delicate ears. It was impossible. She was the daughter of an earl. She would marry a man of her own station, not Mr. Wheel of Middlesex.
"Perhaps you should just tell me why you are here since you have made the trip. I will help you in any way I am able. I assure you that your presence here will remain our secret. My staff is very discreet."
She frowned. "I suppose as you are a bachelor, they would have to be." There was a bitter twist in her voice.
He did not comment, though her distaste rang through her statement and the twist of her lips.
She took a deep breath, making her full bosom rise.
Distracted for a moment, he then steeled himself and watched her eyes, which he found almost as intriguing.
She cleared her throat. "I am in need of a husband and I have decided that, if you would not mind, you and I would suit nicely."
It took a full count for her meaning to penetrate his mind. "Perhaps earlier you didn't understand my anger." Anger rose again in his gut. He didn't want to frighten her. "It would seem that I must be blunt. Are you with child?"
She picked up her chin. "I understood you, Mr. Wheel. I am not with child nor have I been ruined. It is only that I need to marry immediately."
He sat back in his chair and scratched his chin where the late hour had left him with a shadow of a beard. No one intrigued him as Dorothea Flammel did, but she was the unattainable. Now, here she was in his home offering herself to him. Saying yes and rushing off to Gretna Green rumbled through his mind, but doubt reared its head and he asked, "Why?"
Those beautiful eyes drew together. "I suppose you have a right to know." Staring at her shoes, her hair fell in loose curls around her neck and shoulders. She shook her head. Some inner turmoil etched on her face. "My parents will sign a betrothal agreement for me in the next week."
His stomach clenched. "To whom, if I may ask?"
"Henry Casper, the Earl of Hartly," she said through clenched teeth.
Thomas jumped from his chair. "Henry Casper is old enough to be your grandfather. What are your parents thinking?"
She flinched but did not cower. "That I will be a countess."
"There are other earls in the realm."
"I am afraid that I have refused quite a few offers of marriage."
It was almost legend the number of offers that Lady Dorothea Flammel had turned down. A duke had even offered for her and reports indicated she had broken his heart. "There must be someone left other than a man who walks with a cane and can no longer hear a word spoken."
She stood and pulled her cloak back over her head. "I completely understand. You do not wish to marry or the idea of marrying me is repellent. Forgive me for taking up your time, Mr. Wheel."
She headed for the door.
He rushed over and took her arm turning her around to face him. "I am honored by your offer, Lady Dorothea, and wish I could help you, but I am only Mr. Wheel. I have no right to marry so far from my station."
Her face reddened. "I did not realize you were such a bigot, Mr. Wheel."
"I beg your pardon."
"My name is Thomas."
His face was close to hers. Her warm sweet scent filled his head with nonsense, a mixture of flowers and herbs.
"I ..." she stuttered. "Forgive me for the late intrusion. I am sorry."
He did not release her. "Tell me one more thing, Lady Dorothea?" "Dory, my name is Dory," she said in a smoky voice, while looking up at him.
It took every ounce of his control to keep him from sweeping her up in his arms and taking her to his bed. To hell with society and rules. "Why me?"
"I beg your pardon."
He leaned in closer. "I am curious why you chose me for this honor. You could have gone to any number of men who would jump at the chance to have you. I would like to know what made you come here."
She pulled away from him. "You seemed the safest choice."
He laughed so hard that she flinched as the noise of it filled the room.
"I do not mean to insult you."
"I am not insulted, Dory, just surprised that you would see me as a safe choice." He continued to laugh.
She was not laughing. Her eyes were again filling with tears.
The sight sobered him. "I am sorry to laugh but I see nothing safe about me being alone with you, my dear."
She dashed the tears away. "I only meant that you would not intentionally hurt me. You have a reputation for being kind to women and you like my music. I knew you would never stop me from playing or composing."
His gut twisted. "Why would you have to stop?"
"Mother has long told me that once I am married, my music must be put aside. I have resisted marriage for the last five seasons so I can continue to play."
"Dory, I will give you two insights into men of which you may not be aware. First is that we are not all tyrants and the second is that not all men are like your father."
Sorrow coursed through her eyes like the waves in the sea. "He lives to find ways to embarrass my mother in public. I will grant you she is no treat to be around, but I think she loved him once a long time ago. He is cruel beyond reason."
"Not all men are like that."
She shrugged. "I know. I do not think you are like that. For example, when you take a mistress you will be discreet. You would never cause me undue pain. That is why you would suit so well."
He crossed the room to where she stood with her arms wrapped around her middle. His hand moved of its own accord and reached out and touched the skin where her shoulder met her neck. It was like silk under his fingers. "What makes you think I would take a mistress?"
"All men do eventually. At least you would be kind about it." She pulled away from his touch.
"I must repeat myself, Dory. All men are not like your father."
She shrugged and waved off his comment. "Will you help me?"
How he wished he could. "What is your plan?"
Turning, she faced him. "I would like to leave for Gretna Green in the next day or two. It is best to not tell anyone. I have not even let on to Sophia and Elinor about my plans."
Sophia and Elinor had married two of his closest friends and were Dory's longtime confidants. It was incredible that she would not share something so monumental with her best friends.
"I know I can trust them, but I thought it best not to put them in an awkward position. It's not fair."
He sat on the chair near the fire. Too big for the delicate seat, he'd always hated it as it suited a lady better. He curled his long legs under, leaned his elbow on one knee and his chin on his fist. "Once we married how would we get along in this plan of yours?"
"What do you mean?"
"Would you share my bed?" He sat up and found her standing only a few feet away.
She flinched but did not run away. "It would seem the least I could do."
Laughing, he said, "Not exactly the romantic image I had hoped for."
She walked closer until she stood in front of him with only an inch separating them. "You may have me now if you wish." Her voice trembled.
His groin jumped in response to her offer, but he put his hands on her hips and leaned his head against her stomach.
She trembled, but stood her ground.
Incredible as it sounded, she would allow him to deflower her. "Oh, Dory, you do tempt me."
Tentatively, she touched his hair. "I think I heard a 'but' coming next."
He gazed at her perfect face. Her hand was still in his hair moving in tiny circles. It was an innocent touch but it felt erotic to him. Any touch from her would have had that effect he suspected.
Forcing a smile, he only wanted to ease her fear of him. "But it would be beneath both of us to make love here in my study without a marriage to make it legal."
"Are you saying you will marry me?" No joy bubbled in her voice at the notion. She sounded more like a death sentence had been averted and she would only suffer life in prison.
He took her hands out of his hair, kissed the back of one, and then the other, and stood. So she could sit in the chair he'd vacated, he pulled another from a few feet away. He sat so close, their knees almost touched.
"I hope you will forgive me, Dory, but my answer is no. I cannot believe I am saying it myself. If you truly wished to be my wife, it would make me unspeakably happy, but like this it is less than romantic. In fact, it borders on the morbid."
She frowned. "I could have come to you with lies and told you I was madly and rapturously in love with you and could not live without you another moment. Would that have altered your decision?"
"It might have."
A furrow appeared between her brows.
Thomas reached out and smoothed the wrinkle. "I am glad you did not attempt to mislead me, Dory. I wish I could help you. For the first time in my life I wish I was a lord or a knight so I would be worthy of your hand. However, my station is to be a gentleman and yours a countess. It would be selfish of me to lower your status in society."
She let out a long sigh. "I do not give a damn about titles. I am to be married to a lecherous old man who will keep me as a trophy and perhaps allow me to play pianoforte from time to time to entertain his friends. Everything I have ever wanted tossed aside. My mother will do as she has always threatened and burn all of my music." She leaned forward and touched his face. "Everything I am is about to be ripped from me. Can you understand, Thomas?"
He put his hand over hers and kissed her palm. "You are overwrought and have exaggerated the situation. I have never heard anything violent about Henry Casper. Though he is old for you he lives well and will provide for you in the fashion to which you have been raised."
"You are wealthy," she said.
He laughed. "I have ample funds, but I am not titled and I never shall be."
"You are a snob, Thomas. If I do not care about a title, then, why should you?"
"You should care, Dory. I will admit that my association with Marlton and now with Kerburghe has afforded me more invitations than most gentlemen of my station receive, but I fear you would find life as Mrs. Wheel very unappealing."
"Are you a man with a terrible temper?" she asked.
Surprised by the question, he sat up straighter. "I do not think so."
"Would you keep your wife from pursuing her own goals?"
"I don't believe so, as long as the goals did not put her in harm's way."
"So, if I wanted to join the fire brigade you would be opposed to that venture?" Her eyes narrowed but she did not smile.
He shook his head but answered. "The fire brigade would be quite a dangerous endeavor, and I would advise my wife against such foolishness."
"Yes," she said. "You do sound like a tyrant. I think it obvious we would not suit." Sarcasm dripped from her words. She squared her shoulders and stood.
"I do not believe you have thought this through." He stood with her.
She turned and raised her eyebrows. "You believe I am impulsive and rash?"
A small voice inside his head told him he should take care with his next statement, but he ignored it. "In this decision, you seem to have jumped before looking."
Pursing her lips, she nodded. "Do you know what it takes to play the pianoforte as I do?"
The question was so out of context, he fumbled for his answer. "I believe I do. I have tried to become more accomplished and my talent has limited me."
"Have you sat for hours at a piano to achieve perfection in one stanza?"
"I have," he admitted.
"I have not heard you play, Thomas, though I hear you are accomplished, and I have heard you say you are not. I suspect you play very well but are not gifted with that something which makes one musician stand out among the rest."
Excerpted from "Desperate Bride"
Copyright © 2017 A.S. Fenichel.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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