A rugged and ruined naval officer comes to claim his bride in an unforgettable tale of love, revenge and redemption from the national bestselling author of Marry in Scandal.
Lady Rose Rutherford—rebel, heiress, and exasperated target of the town's hungry bachelors—has a plan to gain the freedom she so desperately desires: she will enter into a marriage of convenience with the biggest prize on the London marriage mart.
There's just one problem: the fierce-looking man who crashes her wedding to the Duke of Everingham — Thomas Beresford, the young naval officer she fell in love with and secretly married when she was still a schoolgirl. Thought to have died four years ago he's returned, a cold, hard stranger with one driving purpose—revenge.
Embittered by betrayal and hungry for vengeance, Thomas will stop at nothing to reclaim his rightful place, even if that means using Rose—and her fortune—to do it. But Rose never did follow the rules, and as she takes matters into her own unpredictable hands, Thomas finds himself in an unexpected and infuriating predicament: he's falling in love with his wife....
About the Author
Anne Gracie is the award-winning author of the Marriage of Convenience romance series and Chance Sisters romance series. She started her first novel while backpacking solo around the world, writing by hand in notebooks. Since then, her books have been translated into more than sixteen languages, and include Japanese manga editions. As well as writing, Anne promotes adult literacy, flings balls for her dog, enjoys her tangled garden, and keeps bees.
Read an Excerpt
Marry in Secret by Anne Gracie
***This excerpt is from an advance, uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2019 by Anne Gracie
Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Lady Rose Rutherford was not a young lady who dithered and, having made up her mind, she generally stuck to it. It was, she had decided, high time she moved on.
She was not generally superstitious either. But after refusing twelve offers of marriage, the thirteenth . . . well, it was bound to make a girl think. Especially since it came from a duke.
Even if it was the most careless, most dispassionate offer of marriage that a girl could ever receive. “Oh, and by the way, if you want to put an end to all this nonsense . . .”
The truth was, she did.
Now it was the eve of her wedding and she’d planned a quiet night in, a nursery supper with just her sister and her niece—who was more like a sister, really—toasting bread and crumpets before the fire. But instead of a cozy, quietly intimate sisterly celebration, it was turning into an argument.
“It’s a civilized arrangement,” Rose said.
“No, it’s a mistake,” her sister, Lily, insisted.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would want to marry him,” Rose’s niece Lady Georgiana Rutherford said. “He’s rude, he’s arrogant and he doesn’t care two pins for anyone. Why would you imagine he could make you happy?” She peered at the slightly scorched crumpet on her toasting fork, then, deciding it would do, reached for the butter dish. Behind her a large hound watched mournfully, doing his best imitation of a Dog Who Hadn’t Been Fed in Weeks.
Rose threaded bread onto her toasting fork. “Nobody can make another person happy, George. The recipe for happiness lies within each of us and is unique every time.” And if she told herself that often enough, she might even believe it.
George snorted. “That’s as may be, but people can make other people unhappy—and he will, I’m sure of it.” Ever the cynic when it came to marriage, George had been betrayed by every man she’d ever known until her uncle, Cal, Rose’s brother, found her and brought her into the family fold—the family she’d never known she had.
Lily laid a hand on Rose’s arm. “Are you sure about this, Rose? Because it’s not too late to back out.”
Rose’s expression softened. Her sister was such a dear, but really, there was no backing out at this stage. “No, Lily darling, I’m not going to back out. The contracts are signed, the banns have been called, the church is booked, my dress is finished, the guests invited. Discussion over.”
“But you barely know him.”
“And you hardly knew Ned Galbraith when you married him, and look how happy you are—not that I’m planning to fall in love,” she added hastily. “I leave that sort of thing to you, little sister.”
“The point is, I need to marry someone and the duke is more than eligible—the match of the year, they’re calling it.” She needed to marry and get the waiting, the endless, fruitless waiting, over and done with. To start her life instead of . . . dreaming.
“Why do you even need to marry? In five years’ time you’ll be in full control of your fortune and you can do what you like.” It was George’s plan, they all knew.
“She wants children,” Lily reminded her. She spread her toast with strawberry jam, cut it into four careful triangles and topped each one with a lavish dollop of cream.
Rose nodded. “I do, but it’s more than that. Five more years of waiting, George? I’d go mad. I can’t bear this life, where nothing interesting ever happens and everything I do is reported and monitored and judged. As a young unmarried miss, I am, oh”—she flung up her hands—“‘cabin’d, crib’d, confin’d.’ But as a dashing young matron I’ll be my own mistress.”
George shook her head and made a thumbs-down screwing motion. Under the thumb.
“Yes, but why the duke, Rose?” Lily persisted. “You don’t love him, and he doesn’t love you. I know you’ve turned twenty, but you still have plenty of time to find the right man and fall in l—”
“But I don’t want to fall in love, Lily dear,” Rose said gently. “Neither he nor I have any interest in that kind of marriage.” It was the very reason she’d accepted his offer.
“Enact me no emotional scenes” was how he’d put it, and wasn’t that a relief, when the others who’d proposed had vowed their undying love and devotion—and expected the same of her? Or said they did.
How dreadful it would be to marry a man who loved her, knowing that with the best will in the world, she could never return that love. She’d never been good at lying. She’d probably end up hurting such a man, and she didn’t want to hurt anyone.
The duke, on the other hand, had been very clear—quite adamant, in fact—that he didn’t love her, and that he wasn’t looking for love—quite the contrary. What he wanted, he told her, was a courteous, unemotional, rational arrangement. And children. An heir, in particular.
Rose had decided she could live with that, and so she’d accepted.
So what if the rest of the world thought her calculating, cold-blooded and ambitious. She knew who she was. A marriage was made between two people, and if she and the duke were content with—actually preferred—a lukewarm pragmatic arrangement, it was nobody’s business but theirs.
“But you don’t know what you’re missing,” Lily began. “Love is—”
“Not for me,” Rose said firmly. She knew exactly what she was missing. And was grateful for it.
“But you’ve never been in love, so how can you—”
“Drop it, Lily,” George interrupted. “If she doesn’t want to fall in love, she doesn’t. You don’t go on about love to me all the time. Why badger Rose about it?”
“I’m not badgering her,” Lily said indignantly. “Besides, you and Rose are different.”
“I know—you wouldn’t catch me putting my fortune and my future into the hands of a man I barely know and don’t much like. Or any man, for that matter.”
“On the contrary, I’ll be virtually independent. Cal has arranged the marriage contract and the settlements are very generous. And Aunt Agatha is over the moon.”
George snorted. “Call that a recommendation? Aunt Agatha would happily marry you to a . . . a cannibal, as long as he was rich and titled.”
Rose couldn’t help but laugh. It was pretty close to the mark. “Nonsense. A cannibal would never meet Aunt Agatha’s lofty standards of behavior. His table manners would be lacking, for a start.”
“As long as he had a title and a fat purse, she’d forgive his peculiar eating habits,” George said darkly.
“It’s not badgering,” Lily persisted. “When we were schoolgirls, Rose and I both dreamed of falling in love—we used to talk about it all the time, remember, Rose?”
Trust her little sister. Lily might not be able to read books, but she could read people, especially her sister.
But Lily didn’t know everything.
“Yes, well, that was a long time ago. A lot has changed since then. I’m not soft and sweet, like you. I don’t want the hearts and flowers. I just want to be married and get on with my life.”
“You know he won’t be faithful,” George said into the silence.
Rose dusted crumbs off her fingers.
“You don’t mind?” Lily said incredulously.
“It’s the price of freedom.”
“Freedom?” George echoed. “To be under a man’s thumb?”
“I won’t be under his thumb,” Rose said. “We have an agreement. I’m to give him an heir, and he will give me the freedom to do what I like, as long as I’m discreet.” Not that she had any intention of breaking her marriage vows. She took her vows seriously.
“That’s horrid,” Lily said, dismayed. “I can’t believe you’re being so . . . so cynical, Rose.”
“Cold-blooded,” George said.
“Practical,” Rose corrected her. “I used to want too much out of life. I’m more mature now.”
“Oh, but you should want more,” Lily exclaimed in distress. “I never believed I could have even half of what I dreamed of, and then I met Edward. You never know what—or who—is around the corner.”
Rose loved that her sister was so happy, but she knew it was not for her. She leaned forward and took Lily and George by the hand. “Please, my dears, let us drop the subject. I know this marriage is not what you hoped for me, but you’ll just have to accept that I’m a cold-blooded creature who will marry a man she doesn’t love for the sake of freedom, a beautiful home, and a very generous allowance. And babies.” She ached for a child of her own, and seeing her sister-in-law, Emm, so rounded and glowing, her child growing within her . . .
Lily shook her head. “You can’t have changed that much, I don’t believe it. I don’t understand why you’re doing this thing, and I wish you wouldn’t, but if it’s what you want—what you really truly want, I’ll say no more.”
Rose gave her sister a one-armed hug. “Don’t worry about me, little sister. I’m going to be just fine.” Dear Lily, so newly married and so deeply, joyfully in love. Of course Lily wanted the same for her sister.
But falling in love was the very last thing Rose wanted. She couldn’t explain why to Lily and George—or anyone else. Not without stirring up . . . things better left untouched.
Love was simply too painful.
Rose paused at the church door. Lily and George fluttered around her, straightening the circlet of flowers in her hair, arranging the lace train of her dress. Rose stood, lively as a statue, and about as warm. “Now, don’t be nervous,” Aunt Dottie had said a few moments before. “It will all work out perfectly, trust me, my love. I have one of my feelings.”
But Rose wasn’t the slightest bit nervous. It all felt strangely distant, as if it were happening to some other girl. She moistened her lips and waited.
George poked her head around the door, glanced in and pulled a face. “He’s there.”
“Well, of course he’s there,” Lily said crossly. Poor Lily. She’d been in a brittle mood all morning, trying to put a good face on a wedding she still had grave doubts about. Lily wasn’t very good at hiding her feelings.
What if the duke hadn’t come? He was notoriously unreliable about keeping engagements. What if he’d jilted her at the altar? Rose considered it briefly and decided that it would be embarrassing . . . and possibly something of a relief.
Nonsense. She needed to do this, needed to draw a line in the sand between her old life and her new. Cut the bonds of the old, and move on.
The church was full—Rose’s friends and relations come to see her married, the duke’s too, of course, and quite a few other members of the ton come to witness what some were calling the wedding of the season. Strangers had gathered in the street outside to watch and wait, in hope of some largesse in the form of a shower of coins from the happy groom.
It didn’t feel real.
“Ready?” her brother Cal asked. She nodded and took his arm.
Now. She took a deep breath and stepped inside the church and stood blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the interior. A hush fell, followed by a susurration of whispers and rustling silk as the congregation turned as one to look at the bride.
The church smelled of flowers, spring flowers, and beeswax, brass polish and perfumes, a hundred clashing perfumes.
At the end of the aisle, in the dappled light of a stained-glass window, stood her future husband, the Duke of Everingham, looking bored. He’d removed his gray kid gloves and was slapping them in his palm. Bored and impatient.
At least he’d turned up.
The organ played a chord that swelled to a crescendo, then died, and then the music started and she was walking, walking like an automaton, toward the altar, toward her fate.
She felt everyone’s eyes on her. She’d hardly slept. Did it show? Did she care if it did?
The duke stepped forward. Cal waited, his arm steady beneath her hand, ready to hand her over—like a parcel, like a possession, George had muttered once at another wedding they’d attended.
Rose glanced up and met the duke’s gaze. Dark eyes, gray-green, and cold as the winter sea.
Perfectly good eyes, but the wrong color. The wrong eyes.
She regarded them bleakly. Time healed all wounds. Or so they said.
The bishop, resplendent in his robes of gold and purple, cleared his throat and they turned to face him. For the marriage of a duke and the daughter of an earl, their usual minister wouldn’t do, it seemed. Aunt Agatha’s doing, no doubt.
Rose hoped he wasn’t the kind of bishop who would give some long dreary sermon. She wanted this wedding over. Over and done with. No going back.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here . . .”
The familiar words washed over her. She was calm, quite calm. Coldly, perfectly calm. Not like last time.
The bishop continued, speaking in those melodic rises and falls peculiar to ministers. Did they teach them that singsong cadence at minister school? “. . . not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites . . . but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly . . .”
She shivered. Lord, but this church was cold.
“. . . for the procreation of children . . .”
Children. Yes, think of that. Imagine swelling like Emm, round and glowing with joy in the child she was carrying. Not long for Emm now. Would it be a boy or a girl?
“Therefore if any man can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak or else hereafter forever hold his peace.”
Her fingers were freezing. She should have worn kid gloves instead of these lace ones.
The bishop paused for a perfunctory breath, then continued, “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that—”
“Stop the wedding!”
There was an audible gasp from the congregation, followed by a hush, as everyone waited to hear what would happen next. Rose’s heart jolted—feeling as though it stopped. Heart in her mouth, she turned to stare at the man who’d just entered.
After a long, frozen moment, she breathed again. For a moment she’d imagined—but no. She’d never seen this man before.
The church door banged shut behind him, the sound echoing through the silent church.
“What the devil?” Cal muttered.
Rose fought to gather her composure, shaken by the brief flash of—whatever it was.
The stranger stood in stark contrast to the smoothly groomed and elegant congregation. He was tall and gaunt-looking, but his shoulders were broad—a laborer’s shoulders. His clothes were ill-fitting, coarse, the trousers ragged and patched in places. He wore no coat. His shirt was too flimsy for the season and his shoes were of laced canvas, dirty and with visible holes.
If he knew he was grossly out of place in this, the most fashionable church in London, interrupting the most fashionable wedding of the season, he showed no sign, no self-consciousness.
He was heavily bearded. Thick hair rioted past his shoulders, wild and sun-bleached. The face above the beard—what she could see of it—was lean and deeply tanned, the skin stretched tight over prominent cheekbones. His nose appeared to have been broken at least once. The tattered shirt sleeves revealed tanned, powerful-looking muscles.
No, she’d imagined that fleeting resemblance. But who was he? And what was he trying to do?
“Is this a joke?” the duke demanded of his best man.
“Lord, no, Hart—of course not. Nothing to do with me.”
“Rose?” Cal asked.
Her heart was still pounding. She stared at the big ruffian who stood in the center of the aisle, shabby and confident, as if commanding it. He met her gaze with an assurance that shook her.
For a moment she wondered . . . But no. He was too brutal-looking, too rough, too wild.
“Rose?” Cal repeated.
She shook her head. “No idea.”
The bishop surged forward. “Ho there, fellow, by what right do you seek to disrupt God’s work?”
“By the right of law,” the stranger replied coolly. “Lady Rose is already married.”
A low, excited murmur of speculation followed his announcement.
Rose’s heart almost stopped. He couldn’t possibly know.
“Throw the dirty beggar out!” Aunt Agatha shook her stick at him.
“Rose?” Cal glanced at her, and despite the racing of her heart and the knotting of her stomach, again she shook her head. She did not know this man. How many times had she imagined—but no. No! It was some cruel, tasteless joke.
Cal snorted and raised his voice. “Is she now? And who is my sister married to, pray tell?”
A hush fell as everyone waited for his response.
“To me.” His voice was deep, a little rough. Faintly surprised by the question.
There was a universal gasp, then a babble of amused and outraged speculation. Several people laughed. There were a couple of catcalls.
“That’s a lie!” Dry-mouthed, breathless and suddenly furious, Rose moved forward.
“Stay here, Rose.” Cal caught her arm and thrust her toward the duke. “Look after her, Everingham. I’ll get rid of this madman. Galbraith?” Rose’s brother-in-law, Ned Galbraith, nodded, and the two men approached the rough-looking stranger.
“Back off, gentlemen,” the stranger warned with chilling menace. “I’m neither madman nor beggar. Lady Rose is indeed my wife.” His bearing was in stark contrast to his ragged appearance. And he spoke with the crisp diction of a gentleman.
Cal frowned and glanced at Galbraith.
“What rubbish! Who the devil do you think you are, coming here to disrupt my wedding?” Furious at the sight of her brother’s hesitation, shaken by the tall beggar’s confidence and the cruelty of his lies, Rose shook off the duke’s grip and marched forward.
The duke tried to draw her back, but she evaded him and half ran, half stumbled up the aisle, almost tripping over her train. She pushed in between her brother and brother-in-law, ready to confront the big, weather-beaten stranger who was trying to ruin her wedding.
“What nonsense is this?” she snapped. “I’ve never seen you before in—”
White teeth glinted through the beard. “Ahh, that temper of yours, Rosie.”
She froze. This man with the spare, rangy frame, the powerful shoulders, the crooked nose, and the wild sun-bleached hair, he wasn’t . . . He couldn’t be . . . He was nothing like . . .
She opened her mouth to repudiate him again—and met his gaze. Eyes of the palest silvery blue. She faltered. And in her memory the echo of her much younger self saying, Like a summer sky at twilight.
“Thomas?” she whispered, and fainted dead away.
Rose’s brother lunged forward, but it was Thomas who caught Rose before she fell, caught her and clasped her to his chest. She was his and he wasn’t going to give her up. He glanced down at her pale face, her skin pearlescent in the candlelight, the crescent sweep of sable lashes, the full, rosy lips parted slightly. Unconscious, but breathing evenly. His woman. His wife. Rose.
She hadn’t recognized him . . .
The hostile circle of faces edged closer. Thomas eyed them coldly, silently daring them to interfere.
Rose’s brother held his arms out. “I’ll take her.”
Thomas’s hold on her tightened. “She’s my wife. You heard her.”
“I heard her call you Thomas. That proves nothing,” he growled. But he made no move to move to wrestle her out of Thomas’s arms. He couldn’t, not in a church. And with such an audience. He faced Thomas with contained anger.
He must know who Thomas was. Rose’s recognition, belated as it was, had confirmed it. It must be obvious to everyone. So why deny him? Why pretend?
Yet another person who wanted him obliterated? When would it end? Thomas tamped down on the familiar cold anger. He was home at last, in England, and Rose was in his arms. It was all that mattered to him. He would deal with the rest later.
The warm weight of her was almost shocking to his senses, the fragrance of her perfume, the silken texture of her skin, the fine-spun gold of her hair. She was still insensible, pale as paper, breathing gently. His grip on her tightened. It was shock that had caused her to faint, nothing more.
Four years . . .
A small, round, sweet-faced young woman pushed through the ring of male protectors. “What did you do to her?” she demanded fiercely. “Rose never faints!” She unstoppered a tiny crystal flask and waved it under Rose’s nose.
He remembered seeing a miniature of her once, much younger but still recognizable. “You’d be Lily, then, Rose’s little sister.”
She snorted. “Everyone knows that.”
“She used to worry about you. You were very ill.”
She stopped waving the smelling salts under Rose’s nose for a moment and glanced up at him, frowning. “Who are you—really?” It was a strange question. Who the hell did she think he was?
“Nonsense.” She shook her head vehemently. “If Rose were married I would know.”
He frowned. “You didn’t know?”
At that moment Rose jerked abruptly into consciousness. She sneezed, recoiling and shaking her head. “Ugh! Take that vile stuff—” She broke off, glanced at the concerned faces surrounding her, then up at Thomas. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.
“How are you, Rose?” The words came out low, ragged and hoarse.
There was a long, fraught silence. Not a soul in the church moved. Everyone craned to hear what she would say next.
Her hand fluttered up, hesitated, brushed his cheek, a moth wing of a touch, faint and fleeting, then drew back. “It is you, isn’t it?” she said finally. “But you’re . . . I thought . . .” And then she said, almost accusingly, “But you’re supposed to be dead.” She sounded . . . Was she angry? With him? For not being dead?
It wasn’t the reaction he’d expected. He wasn’t sure exactly what he’d expected, but somewhere in his imagination there had been joy, laughter . . . kisses.
Fool. Had the last four years taught him nothing?
She was getting married. Today. To someone else.
He’d upset her fancy wedding. His unexpected appearance had given her a shock. That was inevitable.
Still . . .
You’re supposed to be dead. Was she angry with him for surviving? If so, she wouldn’t be the only one. He wasn’t going to apologize for it. He’d fought to stay alive, fought to get back to England. To Rose.
For a moment she clutched his shirt in a tight fist, her mouth quivering. Then, abruptly, she released his shirt and pushed at his chest. “P-put me down, please.”
Several females now pushed past their menfolk and clustered around Thomas, clamoring, “Put her down!” and “Release her, you beast!”
He set Rose on her feet. She swayed. He barely had time to steady her when her sister and the other females closed around her in a protective clump and swept her away to the other side of the church.
You’re supposed to be dead. What the hell had she meant by that. Did she want him to be dead?
It was not the homecoming he’d expected. Of course, some people reacted uncharacteristically to shock . . .
“Now look here, whoever you are—” her brother began.
Thomas turned and said crisply, “Commander Thomas Beresford, late of His Majesty’s Royal Navy.”
His announcement sparked off a renewed buzz of controversy among the congregation.
People rose from their pews and pressed closer, the better to hear. “He’s no officer,” some one called out.
“For shame,” a woman said.
“Toss the wretch back into the gutter.” A silver-haired old lady gestured angrily with an ebony cane.
“Shoot the scoundrel,” an old man shouted. A murmur of agreement followed.
Thomas turned and swept a cold gaze over the congregation, staring the crowd—the overfed, overindulged, smug society pets—down. The mutters died away, stares slid sideways and eyes failed to meet his.
His detractors silenced, he turned back to Rose’s brother, who eyed him narrowly and said, “You claim to be married to my sister? On what basis?”
Thomas glanced at Rose, then back at her brother. “You’re saying you didn’t know? She never told you?”
A tall dark fellow—one of the family?—stepped forward and said quietly to the brother, “Cal, I think this is a conversation best conducted in private.”
Rose’s brother nodded. So that was who he was, Calbourne Rutherford, the brother who’d been away at war.
“The vestry?” the bishop suggested.
Rutherford agreed, then jerked his chin at Thomas. “Beresford?”
Thomas glanced once more to where Rose sat surrounded by her female relatives, watching him with wide, distressed eyes. Distressed for what reason? Because she was shocked at his return? Because he’d messed up her wedding? Because he wasn’t dead? He couldn’t tell.
Of course, he’d given her a shock, appearing so suddenly when apparently she thought he was dead. And in the middle of her wedding—which at least proved that she did believe he was dead. And looking as he did, with no time to shave and dress appropriately. And given how he’d lived for the last few years, it was no wonder she didn’t immediately recognize him.
But it wasn’t like Rose to stay silent or in the background. Not the Rose he remembered. Or the Rose who five minutes earlier had marched up to him demanding to know what he was doing, disrupting her wedding.
“Beresford?” Rutherford said again. Thomas gave a brusque nod.
“Coming, Everingham?” Rutherford addressed the groom—Rose’s groom—who up to now had said not a thing. Thomas inspected him. Good-looking in an ascetic sort of way and elegantly, if severely, dressed.
Thomas wasn’t impressed. If their places had been swapped, Thomas would never have stood by silently while another man claimed Rose.
“Duke?” Rutherford repeated. “Are you coming?”
Duke? Rose had been about to marry a duke? Might explain why she seemed so upset. Might explain the anger he’d heard in her voice.
Belatedly he recalled Ollie shouting something at him as he’d raced off, something about “the wedding of the season,” but he hadn’t stopped to listen. Ollie had just told him that Rose was getting married at eleven and Thomas hadn’t waited to hear another thing. He’d taken off running, running like a madman, cutting through alleys and across parks.
He’d only just made it in time.
The duke turned a basilisk gaze on Thomas, raked him slowly from head to toe. Thomas, unmoved, gave him look for look. Rose was his. And nobody, not family, not a duke, not an angry congregation waving sticks was going to stop him claiming her.
The duke turned to Rose’s brother and lifted one indifferent shoulder. “It’s your mess, Ashendon, you deal with it.”
Ashendon? Rose’s father must be dead if Cal Rutherford was now Lord Ashendon. And what had happened to the older brother? Dead too, he supposed.
Not that it made any difference to Thomas.
The duke stepped forward and addressed the congregation in a bored voice. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attendance but I’m afraid your time—and mine—has been wasted. There will be no wedding today.” He picked up his hat and strolled from the church, apparently oblivious of the murmurs and whispers that followed his progress, quite as if he hadn’t just been effectively jilted.
His best man hesitated, then snatched up his hat and hurried after him. The door banged shut behind them.
Rose’s brother swore under his breath.
None of the congregation moved. They were all waiting to see what happened.
The bishop opened the door to the vestry. A thin, elegant, elderly lady—the one who’d ordered him tossed back into the gutter—rose to her feet. “I will be part of this discussion,” she declared.
The bishop smirked indulgently. “Dear Lady Salter, this sordid business is not for ladies. We gentlemen will sort it—”
Lady Salter. Thomas recalled that Rose had a sweet aunt and a scary one. He’d met the sweet one, so this must be Aunt Agatha.
She skewered the bishop with a glare. “Pshaw! I arranged a brilliant match for my niece—a duke!—and if some ragged scarecrow thinks he can set it aside with some spurious false claim . . .” She directed a contemptuous look at the scarecrow.
Meet the in-laws. The scarecrow couldn’t help himself—he winked at her.
The old lady swelled with indignation, but before she could damn his impudence, the bishop distracted her by saying, “Lady Salter, this is a complicated matter better suited to a masculine understanding.”
She fixed him with a scathing glare. “Masculine understanding? Pshaw! Weddings are women’s business!”
The bishop opened his mouth, ready to argue the case, when a voice from the doorway drew everyone’s attention. “I vouch for Commander Beresford and the truth of his claim.” As one the congregation swiveled toward the speaker. Thomas’s friend Ollie had finally arrived.
Ollie strolled down the aisle quite as if he weren’t the cynosure of all eyes. “I gather you made it in time,” he said to Thomas.
“And who might you be?” Ashendon snapped.
Ollie made a graceful bow. “Oliver Yelland of the Navy Board, at your service. Sorry I’m late. Things to arrange, cab to catch, jarvey to be paid.”
“Yelland? Yelland?” Lady Salter said irritably. “Never heard of you. What are you doing, poking that long nose into other people’s affairs? You have no business here, sirrah, so—”
“On the contrary, madam, business here extremely pertinent.” His glance took in the group gathered by the vestry entrance. “Known Thomas Beresford any time these last ten years. Vouch for him absolutely.”
At Ashendon’s skeptical snort, he added, “Doubt my veracity? Admiral Sir Thomas Byam Martin—Comptroller of the Navy—will vouch for me.”
“That’s as may be, but what—” Ashendon began.
“Am a witness.”
“Witness?” snapped Lady Salter. “This is a private family matter. We don’t need any more witnesses.” She shook her cane at the listening wedding guests. “We have far too many of the dratted things as it is. Now, be off with you.”
“Witness to the bride’s wedding,” Ollie said sweetly. “The original one. I was Thomas’s best man.”
Ollie was enjoying this, Thomas could see. He liked a bit of drama, enjoyed stirring things up. But Thomas wasn’t worried about proving his claim. He knew he was married to Rose.
It was Rose he wasn’t sure of, her reaction—or rather, her lack of reaction. He could feel her watching him when she thought he wasn’t looking, but she made no move to leave her relatives and come forward and stand with him. The Rose he knew, the Rose he’d married, hadn’t been backward in coming forward.
Then again, people changed. Who knew it better than he?
“Where and when did this wedding take place?” he heard the bishop ask.
Thomas said to Ashendon, “You really didn’t know about it?”
“No. And if my sister were truly married, why would she hide it from her family?
Why indeed? Ashendon seemed sincere. But why would Rose have kept it a secret? The whole point of the marriage had been to secure her position.
It had seemed so right at the time. In the four years since, he’d never had reason to doubt that their marriage, hasty as it was, had been for the best. He’d thought it the best thing he’d ever done.
So why had she said nothing to any of her family? And why didn’t she come to him now, stand with him in front of them all and explain that yes, they were married?
He glanced at her and caught her watching him. Their eyes met, clung, and then she dropped her gaze and moved back in her seat, out of sight. Failing to acknowledge him.
A familiar cold bitterness stole over him. Et tu, Rose?
The last four years should have prepared him for this. And yet it hadn’t.
He’d come running in, full of expectation, expecting to surprise her, yes, but in a good way. Not this blank-faced silence.
“Genuine marriage all right,” Ollie said. “Took place four years ago, small village church outside of Bath, St. Thomas’s church—hard to forget that name, don’t you think? Ceremony was conducted by . . .” He frowned and clicked his fingers. “Purdy or Proudy, some name like that. Old fellow. White hair, what he had of it. Nature’s tonsure,” he added, twirling his finger around the crown of his head.
“Bath?” Rose’s brother turned to the bishop, a question in his eyes.
The bishop pursed his lips and nodded. “Cecil Purdue was the vicar of St Thomas’s in that diocese, but he’s dead. Passed away last year.”
“Purdue, that’s the fellow,” Ollie agreed. “Dead, eh? Not surprised. Getting on for ancient when we met him. But the wedding’s recorded in the church register, all right and tight, eh, Thomas? Thomas?” He elbowed his friend in the ribs.
Thomas dragged his thoughts back into the present. “Yes. Rose has—had—a copy of her marriage lines.” He’d ensured that, in case she needed to prove she was married. Instead she’d apparently never even mentioned it. Had she burned the precious document as well?
“Arrant nonsense!” Lady Salter interjected. “Four years ago, Rose was a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl. She couldn’t possibly have married without her father’s permission—and that I’m certain he would not have given!” She directed a scathing glance at Thomas and his witness.
“Such a marriage might not be legal,” the bishop offered. “If the girl was underage, if she had no parental permission . . .”
“Rose?” Ashendon turned to his sister. “You haven’t said a word. Is there any truth in this story?”
Thomas folded his arms and waited. What would he do if she denied it? The possibility hadn’t even occurred to him. But then, nothing about this day had gone remotely to plan.
Finally, Rose stood, ashen-faced and with a troubled expression. She opened her mouth to speak, then pressed her lips together and nodded. She looked at Thomas for a brief moment, then her gaze dropped. An older woman put an arm around Rose and drew her back out of sight.
A cold fist clenched in Thomas’s chest. It was as he thought. She was ashamed of marrying him. Regretted it. Wanted to deny it, but had been trapped into admitting it. It explained why she couldn’t look at him, why she didn’t speak.
Thomas’s hands curled into fists. All these years, dreaming of Rose, dreaming of getting back to Rose, and now . . . this.
She hadn’t told anyone about him. Not even her family.
She’d been about to marry a duke.
Cold, familiar anger coalesced in his belly. During the last four years there had been one attempt after another to obliterate him. But he had survived. He was not so easily destroyed, not so easily set aside. He would show them all.
But oh, Rose. It hurt. It shouldn’t, but it did.
“It’s a damnable blasted mess.” Ashendon glared at the twittering congregation, so avid to hear every juicy detail, watching as if it were a play put on for their entertainment. Thomas would happily turn a hose full of cold seawater on the lot of them.
“Damned gossip-mongering vultures,” Ashendon continued. “Aunt Agatha’s right. This is private family business. We’ll sort it out at Ashendon House.”
He turned toward the audience and raised his voice. “My apologies, ladies and gentlemen. As the duke said, the wedding has been canceled. Thank you for your attendance. The wedding breakfast is canceled. Your gifts will, of course, be returned.”
He gave a nod to the small knot of females surrounding Rose. They immediately rose and hustled Rose out of the church. At the church door Rose paused, turned, gave Thomas one long, unreadable look, then disappeared into the daylight.
Once the bride and her female relatives had left, under Ashendon’s gimlet gaze the remaining guests reluctantly dissipated, talking nineteen to the dozen in hushed, excited voices of the scandal they’d witnessed. The wedding of the season, in absolute, delicious ruins. It would be all over the ton by teatime.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Anne Gracie creates great characters, and her plots pull you in. This story of Rose and Thomas was full of twists and emotions. Can't wait for Lady George's story.
Series: Marriage of Convenience #3 Publication Date: 7/30/2019 Number of Pages: 336 I absolutely loved this book! There was no “Oh, woe is me”. No navel-gazing. No page-after-page of angst - even though both of these characters had every reason to do those things. I know – it is odd to love a book for what it doesn’t have, but I do get so tired of books where the main focus is nothing but those things. This one was refreshing, romantic, steamy and just a lovely read. There are some heartbreaking subjects in this novel, particularly that of the slave trade on the Barbary Coast. It doesn’t touch on or deal with the African slave trade (to the Americas), only that of the Ottoman Empire. Lady Rose Rutherford is one of the best heroines I’ve read in a long time. She’s smart, steadfast, loyal, faithful and loving. She fell head-over-heels in love at sixteen and never doubted, never faltered, never stopped – even in the face of some of the worst heartache you’ll ever see. Thomas Beresford followed in his father’s footsteps and purchased a commission in the Navy when he was sixteen. He loved the navy and rose through the ranks over the next seven years to the rank of Commander. Then, at the age of twenty-three, he met, fell in love, and married Rose Rutherford. They married in secret and then he sailed away. His ship sank with all hands reported lost – and his four-year nightmare began. Thomas was a wonderful hero. After all that had happened to him, he was still the most honorable and caring of men. He was truly a hero in every sense of the word. He was totally unselfish and bent on rescuing the other members of his crew who were enslaved. I loved the opening scene. Rose had finally agreed to marry because it would, with agreement from the groom, be a totally loveless marriage based solely on procreation. Rose would never love again, but she did want children, so a marriage of convenience would suit her fine. At the wedding ceremony, during that tensest of statements “If anyone has a reason this marriage cannot take place” – there is a shout from the back of the church. The man is unkempt – with long hair, beard, ragged clothing, and a stench – and he had just claimed that Rose was his wife. After Rose’s initial shock – and wouldn’t that be a shock – she embraced her marriage to Thomas and her love for him. She never, ever wavered even when he tried to dissuade her. Her initial reaction might not have been everything he had hoped for, even he recognized that his appearance and his return from the dead was enough to shock her for a while. But boy, once that shock wore off, she was a very determined lady. I highly recommend this book and hope you love it as much as I did. I voluntarily read and reviewed an Advanced Reader Copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.