Always The Chaperon And Never The Bride...
At least, that's the way it was for Lady Annis Wyncherley. If this young widow was to remain as chaperon to society's misses, there could be no hint of scandal attached to her name. Rakes and romance were strictly off-limits, most especially a rogue like the handsome Lord Adam Ashwick!
But that proved nearly impossible when Adam made his daughter's chaperon the subject of his relentless seduction. Adam knew any attention from him could destroy Lady Wyncherley's fine reputation. But he was powerless to control the strong desires she aroused in him. And all too soon this reformed rogue was hell-bent on convincing a very stubborn Annis to become his chaperon bride....
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The Chaperon Bride
By Nicola Cornick
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJune 1816
The coach from Leeds drew into the yard of the Hope Inn at Harrogate in the late afternoon and disgorged a number of passengers. Although it was still quite early in the season, the spa villages of High and Low Harrogate were starting to fill up with visitors coming to take the healthgiving waters and on this occasion there were seven new arrivals. First to descend was a family of four: mother, father, a boy of about sixteen and a girl a year or so older, both with smiling faces and a lively interest in what was going on around them. Next descended an elderly lady wrapped up in a vast shawl and attended by a solicitous young man who might or might not have been her nephew. The other arrival was Annis, Lady Wycherley, carrying a small leather case and dressed in practical black bombazine and an unbecoming bonnet.
Annis Wycherley was not a newcomer to Harrogate, for she had been born near the town and had spent many happy holidays there with her cousins during the times that her papa had been on leave from the navy. The late Captain Lafoy had even bought a small estate out towards Skipton, which Annis had inherited almost a decade before and visited whenever she had the opportunity. She was not in Harrogate as often as she would like, however. Her employment, as a chaperon to spoilt society misses, took her to London or Brighton or Bath, although this latter was considered rather déclassé these days, a shabby genteel place that was not popular with the fashionable crowd. Harrogate, with its romantic setting in the wilds of nowhere, its unpleasantly smelling but healthful spa waters and its rustic northern charm, was fast becoming the new Bath in the eyes of the ton.
Annis, espying her cousin Charles in the crowd thronging the inn yard, hurried across and gave him an affectionate hug. He hugged her back, then held her at arm's length, looking her over dubiously but with a twinkle in his very blue eyes.
"Annis, whatever have you done to yourself?"
Annis gave a little giggle. "Dear Charles, it is lovely to see you too! I collect that your horror stems from seeing me in my chaperon's attire? I always dress the part, you know."
"It puts years on you." Charles gave the black bombazine a bemused look and frowned at the bonnet. "Lord, Annis, it's wonderful to see you again, but I barely recognised you!"
"You know that it is always a mistake to travel in your best clothes. You end up either mud spattered or dusty. Besides, as a professional chaperon I cannot look too elegant."
"No danger of that." Charles tried to hide his grin. "Was the journey good?"
"A little precipitate," Annis said. "I suppose that is why the coach is called the Tally Ho? The driver certainly seemed to take that to heart!"
"I would have sent the carriage to Leeds for you, you know," Charles said, gesturing to a smart black chaise that stood in the corner of the yard. "It would have been no trouble."
"There was no need," Annis said cheerfully. "I am accustomed to travelling on the stage." She waved at the family of four as the landlord escorted them inside the inn.
"Dear Mr and Mrs Fairlie ... Amelia ... James ... I shall hope to see you all at the Promenade Rooms before long."
"You make friends easily," Charles observed as the couple bowed and smiled in return.
"One must beguile the long journey somehow, you know, and they were a very pleasant family. Not like that young man over there ..." Annis nodded across at the young gentleman who was helping the elderly lady up into a barouche. "I am sure he is after her money, Charles. If I hear that she has passed away, I shall be most suspicious!"
"Oh, I am only joking," Annis said hastily, remembering belatedly that her cousin could be a bit of a high stickler. "Pay no attention! Now you ... are you well? And Sibella?"
"I am very well indeed." Charles grinned. "Sib is flourishing. She and David are expecting their fourth, you know."
"I had heard." Annis smiled, tucking her arm through his. "She has been very busy whilst you and I, Charles, have let the family down sadly! You are not even married and I only look after other peoples' children!"
Charles laughed and patted her hand where it rested on his sleeve. "Plenty of time for the rest of us. But it is fortunate Sibella did not come to meet you, Annis. She would have disowned you as soon as look at you!"
"Sibella is lucky in that she can indulge herself as a lady of fashion." Annis looked around for her trunks. "I am obliged to work for my living. Nevertheless I am grateful to you for swallowing the family pride and coming to meet me, Charles. I know I do you no credit!"
Charles laughed again. "It was shock, that is all. I barely recognised you in all that frumpish black. You used to be such a good-looking girl ..."
Annis gave him a sharp nudge. "You used to be quite handsome yourself! Where did it all go wrong, Charles?"
Charles Lafoy was in fact a very good-looking man, as most of the female population of Harrogate would testify. Like his sister Sibella, he had the fair, open features of the Lafoys, the honest blue eyes and engaging smile. As lawyer to Harrogate's most prosperous merchant, Samuel Ingram, he had a prestigious position in village society. There was no shortage of inn servants queuing up to help his groom put Annis's luggage in the carriage. Everyone knew that Mr Lafoy always tipped most generously.
Annis Wycherley was almost as tall as her cousin, having a height unfashionable in a woman but useful in a chaperon, since it helped to assert her authority. Her eyes were hazel rather than the Lafoy blue, but she had the same rich, golden blonde hair. In Annis's case this rarely saw the light of day, being hidden under a succession of lace caps, ugly bonnets and ragingly unfashionable turbans. She had learned early on that no one took a blonde chaperon at all seriously; it could, in fact, be positively dangerous to display her hair, for it made gentlemen behave in a most inappropriately amorous manner.
The shapeless gowns in dowager black, purple and turkey red were all designed and worn with one intention in mind - to make her look older and unattractive. This was a necessity of her profession. Just as no one would take a blonde chaperon seriously, so would nobody entrust their daughter, niece or ward to a girl who looked as though she had only just left the schoolroom herself. Annis was in fact seven and twenty and had been widowed for eight years, but she had a fair, youthful complexion, widespaced eyes, a snub nose and a generous mouth that all conspired to undermine the sense of gravity required by a professional chaperon. Prettiness combined with poverty had always struck her as a recipe for disaster, so she did her best to disguise those natural assets she possessed.
"I thought that we would go straight to the house in Church Row," Charles said, as they made their way across to his carriage. "You will have the chance to settle in comfortably before Sibella calls on you this evening. When do your charges arrive?"
Excerpted from The Chaperon Bride by Nicola Cornick Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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