Elinor Burkenstock never believed in fairy tales. Sure, she’s always been a fool for love—what woman isn’t? But Elinor knows the difference between fiction and truth. Daydreams and reality. True love and false promises. . . . Until the unthinkable happens, and Elinor’s engagement is suddenly terminated and no one, least of all her fiancé, will tell her why.
Sir Michael Rollins’s war-hero days seem far behind him when, after one last hurrah before his wedding, he gets shot and his injuries leave him in dire shape. He wants nothing more than to marry Elinor, the woman of his wildest dreams. But Elinor’s father forbids it . . . and soon Michael is faced with a desperate choice: Spare Elinor a life with a broken man or risk everything to win her heart—until death do they part?
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The Forever Brides
By A.S. Fenichel
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 A.S. Fenichel
All rights reserved.
See the dressmaker
Find just the right gift for Michael
Ask Mother for pin money
Write to Michael so he will know I am thinking of him
Elinor had many more items to add to her morning list. A knock on her door forced her to put down her quill. "Yes."
Mother stepped inside. "Your father wishes to see you in his study, Elinor."
"Why so formal, Mother?"
"The matter is quite urgent." Virginia Burkenstock folded her hands and grimaced; her sour face much different from her normal serene expression.
Elinor placed her list inside her desk, stood, and shook out her skirts. When she reached her father's study, nerves twisted her stomach. She entered, her mother close at her heels
Rolf Burkenstock scratched his belly where it hung over his trousers, then tugged on his morning coat. He pointed at the chair near his desk. "Sit, daughter."
"You will not marry Sir Michael Rollins." Clearing his throat, he fiddled with a document on his desk.
For a full thirty seconds, Elinor couldn't respond. It was so outrageous for him to be cancelling her wedding a mere month before the much anticipated day, she was sure she had misunderstood. She stared at him for some sign that he would say more or make her understand. "Father?"
"We'll say no more on the subject, Elinor. It's bad enough that we will have to deal with some gossip for breaking the engagement. The man should be left with some dignity." Her father's new earldom meant that Sir Michael Collins was now beneath her, but she never dreamed that either man would go back on their word. Recently raised to the rank of Earl of Malmsbury by the crown, Rolf had a new sense of his own worth. He stood prouder, had lost much of his natural modesty, and lived in fear of gossip and scandal.
Lady Virginia's eyes were puffy and her nose red. She bit her lip and sniffed, which she always did when trying to contain her tears. Several strands of her blond hair had escaped her usually neat chignon.
Father hadn't cried, of course. His imposing height and piercing pale blue eyes usually intimidated Elinor, but now he wouldn't make eye contact, looking from a spot on the wall to one in the carpet. As a diplomat for the crown, he met with kings and princes on a regular basis, but his own daughter made him uncomfortable.
"Has Sir Michael cried off?" Elinor was calmer than she would have thought possible.
Now neither of her parents would look her in the eye.
"Father, what is going on?" Her voice gained an edge.
Mother spoke. "He has been injured, Elinor."
"Injured? When? How? Why was I not summoned to care for him?" Panic rose in her chest. She rushed away to gather her wrap and have the carriage take her to Michael's townhouse.
Both of her parents shouted in unison, "Stop."
She spun, gaping at them. Her place was at Michael's side if he required care.
Mother sprang forward like she might leap over the table to reach her. One hand covered her mouth and, with the other, she reached toward Elinor.
Hands outstretched, Father strode across the room with his hands like claws about to physically restrain her if she persisted in her efforts to leave.
It was almost comical.
Father pointed one fat finger at her. "You are forbidden to see Sir Michael. You will not care for him. He is nothing to you, as you are no longer engaged. I will be dissolving the contract immediately, so there is no reason for you to be in his company ever again."
"I will brook no argument, Elinor. You will obey me in this." Returning to his desk, he pushed a pile of papers to one side and plopped a heavy glass ball on top of them.
The entire world had gone upside down. Her parents had lost their minds. It wasn't possible that she couldn't marry the man she loved, after a year-long engagement. Her emotions boiled to the surface. "Will no one tell me what is going on?"
"Elinor," Mother scolded, "you must not raise your voice like a scullery maid."
She stared at her and forced her mouth closed. Everyone had lost their minds. She took a deep breath. "Mother, I have been summoned, told that I am no longer engaged, and informed that I am not to even see Michael again. What reaction were you expecting?"
"I expect you to act like the lady I raised you to be." Mother straightened her back and folded her hands in her lap.
"Then tell me what has happened to Michael."
"Sir Michael," Father corrected.
"As you wish, Father." She continued to stare at Mother as if seeing her for the first time.
"It is just as well. He is beneath you now anyway. I was only allowing the wedding because the agreement was already signed, and I did not wish to renege. It is a shame that a true patriot has suffered such a fate, but you can certainly do better now that you are the daughter of an Earl." Father was mostly talking to himself, but she listened for some bit of logic that would make this sudden change of plan make some kind of sense.
"Mother, what is going on?"
Father cleared his throat. "I'll leave you two ladies to have a chat." He practically ran from the room, his morning coat flapping as he went.
Most people in London society thought Elinor was silly and senseless, and she would admit to her closest friends that she rather liked the low expectation her ignorance afforded her. However, at that moment she wasn't concerned about what society, her friends, or her mother thought of her intelligence. "Mother, I demand to know what is going on."
Mother sat in the small chair, then leaned forward, putting her head in her hands. The pose imitated the one she'd taken just over a year earlier, when the paper had reported Elinor's certain ruin. She and Michael had been caught kissing in a library at a ball by Lady Pemberhamble, the most notorious gossip in London. The kiss had been brief and passionate. It had been foolish really, but she couldn't help herself when she was with Michael Rollins. Then, when Michael had escaped town after the report became public, she was only saved by her friends' support. She hated causing Mother any pain, but needed to know what was going on.
"Elinor, please take a seat," Mother whispered.
She perched on an armchair facing Virginia. Whenever summoned to her father's study, she snuggled into the soft cushion. Usually the chair was warm and cozy, and no matter what silly rules her father set out to impose, she would snuggle into the chair and listen to him with half an ear. She waited for her mother to speak.
And she waited.
Mother held her head, fidgeted in her seat, and looked up and back several times at the Persian rug between them.
After a full three minutes, it became clear that Virginia might never speak if not prompted further.
"Mother, I can see that you are upset. Shall I ring for tea?" Though tea was the last thing in the world that Elinor wanted, it might put her mother at ease and thereby speed up the dissemination of information.
"No, dear. That will not help today."
"What would help, Mother?" The question came out less kindly than she intended.
Mother looked up, and a weary sadness dulled her usually clear blue eyes. "What I am going to tell you is not easy for me, Elinor. These kinds of things are just not discussed. Your father had much difficulty in his explanation to me, and I dare say probably left out quite a bit. Now, I will tell you, but at this point who knows where the story has gone wrong with so many people between the source and you and me."
Elinor couldn't think of a single response.
"Sir Michael was in an accident of some kind while working on behalf of England. He was in France." She looked up at her daughter hopefully.
"He did mention that he would be traveling on the continent for a few weeks. He promised to return a week from now and told me that I should not be concerned about his missing the wedding. He said it rather jokingly, and so I took little notice." Michael often went away on some business for the crown. Never asking the nature of his business, she'd accepted him at his word.
"Yes, well, I do not know the exact nature of his business in France, but I do know that it was official and important, according to your father. I also do not know the exact nature of the injury or how he obtained it. I cannot tell you exactly where he was in France. I do not know when he returned to England."
"Mother, what do you know?" Elinor's frustration leaped to her breaking point.
A deep sigh shook Mother's shoulders. "It would seem that his ability to be a proper husband has been compromised."
Elinor waited for her to continue. This couldn't be all the information she would be receiving.
Virginia took a deep breath and her expression eased, as if satisfied with her explanation and would say no more.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
Her mother's frown returned. She pulled her handkerchief out of the waistband of her skirts and dabbed her bright red cheeks. "It means that you cannot marry him."
"But why? You have not told me anything." Hysteria was one more bit of strange conversation away. Her skin itched, which meant red blotches were appearing all over her neck, arms, and face. It happened whenever she was hysterical, and there was no way to stop it.
"I have told you enough," Mother said.
"No. You have told me nothing." Elinor stood and walked toward the door.
She faced her mother. "Tell me what has happened, or I swear I will go directly to Michael and ask him myself." She scratched her neck making the blotches worse.
"He is no longer able to father children," Virginia screamed.
Elinor stood still and let what Mother said seep into her mind. "This is certain?"
"Your father had it from Lord Marksbury at his club. I cannot imagine the earl would make up such a tale." Virginia pressed two fingers to her temple, which meant she was developing a headache.
It was difficult not to sympathize, but she had to get to the heart of the matter. "Perhaps his Lordship was mistaken. Where did he hear this news?"
"I do not know. You know how fast news travels in London, dear."
"And how in error those rumors often are." Anger welled up from her gut.
Virginia stood, walked over to her, and placed an arm around her shoulder. "I understand that you would wish the rumors were false, my dear, but I am afraid we must look elsewhere for a husband for you."
Her life was once again turned upside down by the will of London gossip. She shrugged off her mother's embrace and stormed across the room. "Look elsewhere. You make it sound like we are purchasing a dress. I will not be looking anywhere, Mother. I will marry Sir Michael Rollins or no one at all until I hear from his lips that he does not want me. Father can do as he wishes, but I will not cry off. I am not quite sure how anyone could know whether or not my fiancé is capable of producing an heir, but I am certain that London's gossips will not stop me from having the man I am in love with."
"Do you mean to disobey your father?" Virginia's eyes were wide and her skin pale as death.
To actually state such a thing would be foolish. Her father would likely lock her in her room, or worse, exile her to the country estate. She must be smarter than them. "I will think on all you have explained to me, Mother. I realize I have become overwrought. I would prefer to go to my room now, if that is acceptable to you."
"Quite understandable, dear; you will need some time. I completely understand. We will not accept any invitations for the remainder of the week. Monday will be soon enough to begin again. I do hate the thought of starting this whole marriage business again. We were so close." Sighing heavily, she closed her eyes.
Elinor left her mother, curtsied to her father, who hovered outside the door, and rushed up the steps to her room. She had to have a plan.
Sitting at her desk, she pulled out her journal and made a list. Perhaps the most important one of her life.
Get out of the house unseen
What to say to Michael
Would he require care when she saw him?
Find the address of the best surgeon in London
What if he refused to see her?
The last item sat her back in her chair. Then what? Tears filled her eyes. Elinor wiped them away, but more came.
All her shock at the news she wouldn't be married to Michael overwhelmed her. Gasping for breath and shaking uncontrollably, she tried to move herself to the bed. She had to write a letter to Michael. She had to know if he had truly thrown her over. It was obvious that she wouldn't be able to go to him, at least not immediately. It would take time to plan a clandestine visit to a man's townhouse.
Once the tears began, she couldn't stop them. Writing was difficult with the flood coming down her cheeks and blurring her vision. After several failed attempts, she gave up and put her head on the desk. Racking sobs shook her body.
There was a scratch at the door, but Elinor did not answer.
* * *
She woke to a dim room hours later without the slightest recollection of being undressed or put into her night clothes. The fire was warm and kept the room from complete darkness.
Had the entire evening been a horrible nightmare? The dread in her chest spread down her arms. It had all happened. If her father had his way, she would never be Mrs. Michael Rollins. Fresh tears filled her eyes.
At her washstand, Elinor splashed her face with cool water, wiped it dry, and went to the small desk strewn with a dozen crumpled and torn pages. She opened one of the tear-splattered attempts at writing from the night before.
Michael, why have you deserted me?
Even to her grief-stricken mind, the note was pathetic and selfish. He was injured, and she was only thinking about herself. Had she even asked Mother about the seriousness of her fiancé's injuries? She couldn't remember.
She began a new letter. It took her the rest of the night to compose the correspondence, but once done, she was satisfied. Once he responded, she would know how to proceed.
What if he were too ill to respond?
Taking another sheet, she wrote a second letter addressed to his mother. This was even more difficult than the first. The sun peeked through the heavy drapes by the time she'd completed her writing.
She rang for her maid.
Josephine popped her head in a moment later. "Miss, have you been up all night?" Her tone was near scolding.
"Josephine, can you take these two letters and see that they are delivered without my parents' knowledge?" Elinor's voice was higher than normal even with the scratch of a sleepless night.
Josephine took the letters and stared at them. She scrunched up her nose and frowned.
Elinor was grateful Josephine couldn't read.
"If you will promise to take yourself to bed immediately, I will see them delivered. I'll not have you becoming ill."
Elinor grabbed her in a quick hug. "I will sleep for a while. Just see that those are delivered, Josephine. It is very important."
"Yes, Miss." She tucked the notes in her apron and bundled her mistress into bed.
* * *
Knowing that Rolf Burkenstock waited below stairs, Michael fought the pain shooting down his legs and up his back until he was somewhat upright.
His mother, Tabitha, tucked several pillows behind his back. "Are you sure you are up to this, Michael? I can send his lordship away. I'll tell him to come back in a week. It's impertinent, his coming at this point in your recovery."
Closing his eyes, he waited for the sharp agony of his wound to subside to a dull ache. "Another week will not change what Malmesbury has to say. Tell him to come up, please."
A deep frown crossed her face. "As you wish, but I think he could wait a week or so."
Forcing a smile, he pushed the pain to the side. "Your objection is noted."
She brushed his hair back from his forehead. "Do not let him overtax you, or I will become cross."
"Yes, ma'am." It had been years since Mother had ordered him around. Hiding his amusement wasn't an option.
With a nod, she left the room.
Michael's hero status might have kept the bill collectors at bay after his father's death, but nothing would stop Malmsbury from having his say. No amount of money or deeds done would help him now.
Hands flat against the mattress, he pressed himself more erect and endured the jolt of pain, clenching his teeth to keep from crying out.
As the door creaked open, Michael steadied himself and hoped his expression was mild and calm. "Come in, my lord."
Excerpted from Foolish Bride by A.S. Fenichel. Copyright © 2016 A.S. Fenichel. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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