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Never Marry a Stranger

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ISBN 978-0-06-123507-8

Featured Alternate
for Rhapsody and Doubleday Bookclubs

Finalist: Best Historical, National Readers' Choice Awards





 



Never Marry a Stranger
by Gayle Callen

Book 3 of the "Sons of Scandal" trilogy
(The books do not have to be read in order.)

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It's an absolute scandal when Captain Matthew Leland arrives at Madingley Court. Presumed dead in battle, his sudden appearance gives the tonquite the shock. But no one is more surprised than Matthew, because waiting for him at home is a bewitching, blue-eyed beauty--and she claims to be his wife!

Miss Emily Grey was alone in the world when a knight in shining armor came to her rescue, claimed her heart, and then disappeared. But now her little white lie, a desperate act of self-
preservation, has come back to haunt her. Her husband, once a far-off fantasy, is now a flesh-and-blood man who insists she share his bed...

Matthew has no memory of any marriage to this scheming seductress, and he's determined to expose her in every way. But a life with the exquisite Emily will prove irresistible...and a
marriage of deception will become a marriage of sweet, sweet surrender. 
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REVIEWS

"What sets Callen's latest apart from the usual "hero returns to find himself married
to a poser" romances are the intelligent, likable characters who don't fall into the
trap of foolish misunderstandings. They think their way through the situation
as their love grows. That's why Callen is deservedly such a favorite."
RT Bookreviews Magazine

"Ms. Callen engages readers in Emily and Matthew's seductive dance."
FreshFiction.com
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Excerpt

(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)

(Story Setup: Matthew was thought dead in battle in India through a miscommunication. He discovers the mistake and returns home to find that Emily has been living with his family as his widow, but he never married her. He sees how much his family trusts her, and what a big scandal this would be if he revealed the truth. He decides to take his time figuring out the real story, so he tells Emily and his family that his war wounds gave him partial memory loss, and that he doesn't remember being married. Emily faints, and Matthew carries her to their room.)

 

          Emily Grey opened her eyes, thinking groggily that she was supposed to be in the drawing room. Instead she was lying on her back, beneath the canopy of a bed—in her husband’s bedroom.

          It all came to her suddenly, and her wary gaze found the man who’d brought her here, who now watched her after his pleasant greeting.

          The dead man she’d claimed as her husband.

          She’d thought she’d become a strong woman, but his entrance into the drawing room had stunned her so that she’d been speechless, unable to think about what to do. She’d fully expected to find herself tossed from the house.

          But he hadn’t denounced her. When he’d said he’d lost part of his memory, her relief had been so absolute she must have fainted. How appallingly weak of her. Weakness was a liability; only her strength and her wits would see her through this now.

          She found herself studying Captain Matthew Leland, trying to remember the man she’d known for only a few hours not quite two years ago, the man whose death she’d used for her own convenience.

          But he wasn’t dead. He was very much alive, and alone with her in the bedroom they were supposed to share as husband and wife.

          But he wasn’t her husband.

          She wouldn’t panic. This rare illness of his had given her the chance to continue as his wife. She was strong now, and had learned she was capable of doing terrible things in order to survive. And she would survive this.

          “Matthew?” His name came out in a feigned whisper of disbelief.

          Casually he leaned against the bedpost, arms folded across his chest, and a small smile turned up his lips. He was a handsome man, as she’d thought from the first moment she’d seen him on a boat in the stormy English Channel. He had dark, auburn hair that glistened by lamplight. His amused eyes were hazel, not just one color, but changeable the more she looked at him. When she’d first met him, she’d thought his eyes intense, as if he would focus only on her whenever they spoke together. With a classically square jaw and thin lips, he was the picture of what a handsome man should look like. He was still broad with muscle, perhaps even more so since he’d been serving as a soldier in India. His coat almost seemed too tight across his shoulders, as if he hadn’t had time to purchase a new one since he’d been back.

          Well, of course, he hadn’t. He’d rushed straight from the ship to tell his parents that he was alive—only to find a wife he didn’t remember.

          What would his wife do?

          Without a second thought, she flung herself from the bed and into his arms. He didn’t even stagger, so strong was he. She thought he hesitated, but at last his arms came around her, and she was enveloped by warmth—but not security. She would never delude herself. She’d grown up thinking that marriage meant security, but she’d found it herself, without needing an actual husband. She’d learned never to rely on anyone else.

          At last she leaned back to look up at him, smiling with happiness, forcing tears to glisten in her eyes. “Matthew!” She repeated his name with gladness and joy.

          He was smiling down at her, which gave her some ease, but he studied her face closely. Should she kiss him, distract him from thinking too deeply? She was fully prepared to do what was necessary, but…something stopped her.

          “They called you Emily,” he said slowly, as if testing out her name on his tongue, his voice a deep rumble of masculinity.

          She grinned as her hands stroked down his shoulders. “I was Emily Grey, but you made me a Leland.” She let her smile fade. “But now I don’t know what to do. I want to show my happiness for your safe return, and cry at the same time. Do you truly remember nothing?”

          He shook his head. “A fine homecoming for a wife who hadn’t allowed herself to hope I would return.”

          His hands slid down her back slowly, coming to rest on her waist. She’d wanted to distract him, but strangely, just his touch was distracting her. She could not risk such a mental failing.

          “How could I hope?” she asked, fingering his lapels. “They said you were dead. I was ill when your mother told me. Even now I remember how lost I felt. But to you, I am just a newly introduced stranger.” As a tear fell from her lashes, she was grateful for such a mask behind which to hide. Though she was playing with fire, she reached to touch his cheek, feeling the warmth of his skin and roughness of stubble.

          Suddenly, his hands tightened on her waist, pulling her even more intimately against him. His gaze was centered on her mouth.

          He thought she was his wife. He could claim his marital rights.

          She found she couldn’t breathe, her breasts rising and falling against the hard wall of his chest. Though he was not an exceptionally tall man like his cousin the duke, he still leaned over her, powerful and intimidating. If he ever remembered everything—

          He bent even closer, his mouth just above hers. She felt his breath, knew an intense ache that she couldn’t identify. To her surprise, at the last second he turned his head and pressed his warm lips to her cheek. He let her go so quickly that she stumbled back against the bed.

          He caught her arm, his smile charmingly distressed. “I need…time to get to know you again, almost as if we are starting over. I know that isn’t fair to you—”

          “Of course it’s fair,” she said, almost too hastily. She was supposed to be distraught and sad—but she could also be an understanding wife. She took a deep breath, then patted his hand where it still gripped her upper arm. “This is all a shock to me, too.”

          He nodded.

          “We have not seen each other in over a year,” she continued, feeling calmer, stronger. “I find myself wondering how you’ve changed, wondering what you’ve seen and done while in the army.”

          He let her go and stepped back. “My parents said you’d spent six months with me in India.”

          “Until you thought I would be in too much danger if I stayed with you. Do you remember any of that?”

          He slowly shook his head.

          “By the time I returned to England to meet your family, it was only to hear that they’d already had word that you were—dead.” She looked away, inspired to fumble for the handkerchief on her bedside table. She blew her nose.

          When she looked back at him, he was walking toward the desk.

          “I found our marriage license,” he said.

          Her breath halted in her lungs as she waited for him to continue.

          “It’s dated only two days before I left for India. I remember some of the preparations in London, the train journey to Southampton, but not how long I spent there.”

          “Two weeks. It is where we met. I am from a nearby village, where my father was a country squire.”

          “Was?” He sat on the edge of the desk, watching her.

          Was he deliberately keeping his distance? What a shock he must be feeling, faced with a woman he thought intimately connected to him. She could not let herself feel sorry for him or for what she was doing.

          “My father and brothers perished in a boating accident on the Channel,” she said.

          Even now, the memories of the wind rising up, the waves crashing over the bow haunted her, distracted her. In her nightmares, she could still see her oldest brother swept over the side, vanishing from sight. She did not have to fake these emotions; they pierced her stomach with such sorrow that she’d been unable to come up with a lie for Matthew’s family.

          “I was sailing with my father and brothers when the boat tore apart in the storm. As I clung to the wreckage, I thought for certain I would die. Then I heard the sound of the ship’s bell and saw the schooner emerging from the mist. Yours was the first face I saw as you leaned out over the water above me, like an archangel come for me. I thought you were—fearless, so brave.” She looked away, swallowing. “You only smiled at me with encouragement, though I clung to your hand so tightly I could have dragged you under with me.”

          She risked a glance at him, but he still watched her with intent.

          Calmly, he asked, “You had no other family?”

          “No one close. My mother died when I was a child. I thought my brothers would care for me no matter what.”

          “How old were you?”

          “Twenty.”

          “And there was no man in your life before me?”

          She shook her head. “I spent most of my time in our small village. I just…assumed I would marry one of the gentleman farmers, a man of my father’s class, but I never found anyone. And then I met you. You were so caring, so concerned about me, making sure I had a place to stay with fellow parishioners. You stood by me at my family’s funeral, came to visit me every day. Talking to you made me remember that father would want me to go on with my life. To distract me, you told me stories of your family, the cousins who were like brothers to you, the sisters you doted on. Hearing about another family helped me remember the good times with my own.”

          He cocked his head, his expression interested. “And what stories did I tell as I courted you?”

          She smiled playfully, taking a chance that he would respond to flirting. “There were so many. We even spent our nights on the steamship to India talking under the stars as we related our childhoods. But one story I remember was how you played the big brother when your cousin Daniel was teasing Susanna about her obsession with painting. If I remember correctly, Daniel ended up with paint all over him, and you were Susanna’s hero.”

          A half-smile quirked his mouth.

          In a softer voice, she added, “As we spent time together, I came to see what kind of man you were, so close to your family, yet wanting to serve your country. I admired that.”

          He looked away then. Was flattery going too far?

          She walked slowly toward him. “I know it happened quickly, but somehow we fell in love.” The lies came out of her so easily now. “I was alone in the world, and I worried that I was clinging to you, my rescuer, but you did not agree. You thought…you thought we were perfect together.”

          “I wasn’t looking for a wife,” he said.

          “You said as much, even then. But what we had…you didn’t want it to end. So you proposed marriage, and wanted to take me with you to India.”

          “And you didn’t mind becoming an officer’s wife, following the drum.”

          She shook her head. “There was nothing in Southampton for me. A distant cousin inherited our family manor, but I did not want to live with strangers. You were all I thought I would ever need.”

          “And we married so quickly that I did not even have my family join us?”

          “You were scheduled to leave. There was no time.”

          She held her breath, hoping he wouldn’t ask when they’d notified his family of the marriage. Because then she would have to mention the letter that loomed large in her mind, containing a secret that could destroy this fake marriage and her life. For Matthew had written his parents about a marriage—but Emily wasn’t the bride.

          Lady Rosa had mentioned it to her when she was still ill, and Emily remembered feeling dull and resigned, thinking her masquerade was finished. In this letter, Matthew had written that he had married, but had given no other news, not even his wife’s name, promising to explain everything when he had more time.

          But he never had. The Leland family simply assumed he’d been preparing his family for Emily herself, making them even more willing to accept her. And all along, the worry lurked in the back of her mind that another Mrs. Matthew Leland would return.

          What had happened to his real wife, and why wasn’t she with him? For this was the one woman who could spoil everything Emily had worked so hard for.

          It was so easy to study her, Matthew thought as he watched his “wife.” Emily Grey had not only beauty, but true poise—and an answer for every question. She’d leapt into his arms as if he truly were her long-lost husband. She even cried on command.

          She’d gone to a lot of trouble to build a life for herself here; his memory loss played right into her hands.

          But not every word was a lie, for her story had made him remember the boating accident. The local Southampton authorities had begged for any soldiers willing to sail out into the storm to help mount a rescue.

          “Matthew?”

          She stood close to him, put her hand tenderly on his arm. He could inhale her sweet scent, stare into the lovely blue of her eyes. A woman of such beauty surely knew how she affected the male of the species. Did she think she could sway him so easily? He looked forward to matching his intellect against hers.

          He remained seated on the edge of the desk, which almost put them at eye level. He gave her a tired smile. “I’m sorry, my mind must have wandered. It is so damn frustrating to know something happened, but be unable to conjure up even one memory. How could I forget you?”

          She blushed and looked away, pink highlighting the perfection of her skin.

          “So you spent six months with me?”

          She nodded.

          “And there wasn’t a child?”

          She shook her head, then whispered, “But how I wished for one when I thought you dead.”

          It was his turn to nod, his deepest concern satisfied. At least there would not be a child hurt by what she’d done. “I am sure I’ll have many more questions, but not tonight. I am exhausted.”

          “Oh, of course you are,” she said swiftly, her forehead creased with worry. “Can I do anything to ease you?”

          He tilted his head and smiled, even as her blush deepened. He held her eyes for a moment, and she stared at him. He won this small contest when she lowered her gaze. The devil inside him wanted to ask what she was offering tonight. Her lips would taste sweet; her body would ease his tired soul and let him truly forget.

          But would she surrender willingly, while inside some part of her retreated?

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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