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cover of No Ordinary Groom

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ISBN 0-06-054394-9

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No Ordinary Groom

by Gayle Callen

Book 1 of the "Spies and Lovers" trilogy
(The books do not have to be read in order.)

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Miss Jane Whittington's hopes have been dashed. She'd always imagined herself marrying someone daring, adventurous, exciting. Instead, the man her father has betrothed her to is...a fop! Certainly William Chadwick is devastatingly handsome, but Jane could never love a dandy who cares for nothing save the latest fashions. So why does his heated gaze enflame a desire in her that she's never known?

His work as a British spy has kept William apart from proper society for years--and he has no idea that his latest "disguise" is anything less than appropriate. Now that he longs for a simpler, safer lot, he believes he's found his ideal bride in this irresistible beauty. But it will take a special sort of seduction to win Jane's heart. And when the Crown calls him back into service, how can William refuse--even if it costs him the peace he covets...and the woman he can no longer live without?

"Tender, touching, and classically romantic."
Jill Barnett, NY Times bestselling author

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Excerpt

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

Chapter 1

London
August 1844

     Miss Jane Whittington sat at her dressing table, her chin resting on her hand, and stared at her own reflection. There was a pensiveness about her that put an odd wrinkle between her slim, black eyebrows, and turned down the corners of her mouth.
     This was now the face of an engaged woman.
     No wonder she looked miserable.
     She groaned and swept to her feet. Her mother was giving a dinner party this evening in celebration of Jane's engagement to a baron, William, Lord Chadwick. Even if Jane had to force a smile, she would do it for her mother’s sake, though she still felt hurt by her father's haste and secrecy in arranging the match. She had been waiting for the right time to tell them she didn't wish to marry at all, that she wanted to control her own dowry.
     Was it too late?
     She picked up her thin gloves from the dressing table and slid them on like armor before a battle. For once she remembered them without having to be reminded. There was nothing left to do but go downstairs, greet their guests, and formulate a miraculous plan of escape from her fate.
     When she reached the second floor landing, she was able to peer over the edge of the wide staircase. She immediately caught the eye of the man glancing up.
     Lord Chadwick, her groom. She wanted to look away, but there was something in his gaze she hadn't seen before, an intensity that felt strangely…intimate. A hot blush swept over her face. She was behaving like a girl fresh from the schoolroom instead of a sensible woman of twenty-one years. For a moment he didn’t smile, and she felt an absurd hesitation, a feeling of something dark and hidden beneath his usually cheerful countenance. Then he gave that irreverent grin that made him seem so…shallow, and she dismissed her unusual feeling as nothing but a flight of fancy.
     She had become acquainted with Lord Chadwick but a week before, at a dinner party hosted by her sister Charlotte, a widow newly out of mourning. He had been all charm and good manners and decent looks--and rather too talkative, she thought reluctantly.
     Giving him a cool nod, she put her hand lightly on the banister and descended the stairs, studying him. He was a man of decent height and nice breadth of shoulders beneath a perfectly cut black evening coat. His face was lean, with a pair of deep dimples scoring his cheeks when he smiled. His teeth were shockingly white and his eyes brown. His dark hair--a nondescript brown to match his eyes, she thought--was slicked back with macassar oil, and his long sideburns had a touch of gray that made his age hard to determine. Her father, Viscount Whittington, hadn’t thought to include such personal information in the letter that had told her the unwelcome news about her marriage.
     Overall, there was nothing to dislike about Lord Chadwick's countenance--his description could fit a score of her male acquaintances. When he wasn’t talking, he could almost be called handsome. Most women would be quite content, but Jane could not understand settling for such a feeling.
     When she reached the foot of the stairs, Lord Chadwick bowed over her gloved hand and brought it to his lips for a moment too long.
     His eyes, as well as his mouth, smiled up at her. "Good evening, Miss Whittington."
     She nodded perfunctorily and removed her hand from his. "Good evening, Lord Chadwick."
     As he straightened she watched his gaze slide down her body. It seemed impersonal, as if he were merely deciding if she was properly dressed for the occasion. She should be offended, but she was only annoyed.
     She put her hand on his offered arm and walked beside him into the drawing room. She could see that only a few guests had arrived. They were scattered between overstuffed tasseled chairs and sofas, potted ferns and marble columns. Cluttered on every table and shelf was her mother's odd collection of bric-a-brac, including the unusual gifts from Jane's father.
     Just the thought of his many years in exotic countries made Jane sigh with a frustrated longing to travel abroad--something her mother didn't understand. Jane had made plans for her dowry money in anticipation of her parents' acquiescence, mapping out each country she would visit, continuing to learn the appropriate languages. She refused to give up on her dreams so quickly.
     Lady Whittington stood arm in arm with Charlotte Sinclair, Jane's sister. The two women were so alike in their petite, rounded beauty; Jane felt like a lanky giraffe next to them. They watched her and the baron with hopeful speculation.
     Lord Chadwick led her near a small table, then turned to face her. "I say, your gown is quite the fashion, my dear."
     She began to wonder if he flashed his dimples with deliberation. "Thank you, my lord. You do justice to your garments, as well." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her mother whiten with shock.
     But Lord Chadwick only looked inordinately pleased. "Do you really think so? I must say that since I arrived in London a month ago, I have been frequenting many a tailor to find just the right man for the style I require."
     Jane's smile remained frozen on her face. Surely he would not subject her to the details.
     "I am quite exacting in my demands about the quality of material and the emphasis on the latest designs."
     He suddenly walked about her, and she narrowed her eyes at the spectacle he was making of himself.
     "I do have an exacting eye," he continued, "with a little help."
     To her surprise, he pulled a monocle out of his breast pocket, and she noticed it was attached to his lapel by a delicate gold chain. He fixed it before his right eye and squinted down at her.
     "Is your gown of satin broche?"
     "How--"
     "And what a lovely shade of peacock blue."
     Peacock? What a perfect description of him! She was beginning to panic over the thought of endless evenings listening to such topics, when he paused and grinned.
     "Ah, but you're diverting me from the perusal of my lovely bride-to-be."
     Again she felt his gaze linger below her neckline, and the squint caused by the monocle made it seem as if he leered at her. She was hardly displaying an immodest amount of skin, and she was affronted by his rudeness. More and more of her mother's guests were arriving, and she felt their curious, amused stares.
     "That is an exquisite necklace you're wearing," he murmured.
     He had pitched his voice lower, and his eyes seemed overly warm.
     She touched the pearl pendant self-consciously. "My father sent it to me from India."
     "I always knew he had good taste."
     She narrowed her eyes as she stared at him. "And how long have you known my father, my lord?"
     He'd been bending near her, but now he straightened almost imperceptibly and let the monocle drop to hang by its chain. "We've done business for many years, but as you well know, he's often been abroad. Since he returned to Yorkshire these two months past, we've renewed our friendship and have begun even closer ties between our families." He grinned. "And naturally you will be the bridge between us."
     A bridge. How romantic. "And what sort of business do you and my father engage in?"
     "Mostly our estates interact--buying produce, wool and other goods."
     Her father had based the most important decision affecting her life on someone who bought the estate's farm goods? Although she had not seen her father in well over two years, he could not have changed so much. Why the secrecy about her marriage?
     And why had her father traveled directly to Yorkshire instead of London on his return from India? Why had he not visited his wife and daughters? The pain from this almost made tears well in her eyes, but she refused to cry before anybody, especially strangers. And that's all William Chadwick was.
     "Excuse me, my lord, I must speak to my mother about the dinner arrangements."
     "By all means," he said cordially, bowing again as he blotted his forehead with a handkerchief. "I look forward to sharing a meal with you."
     She approached her mother and Charlotte and, after drawing them into the library, closed the doors. A startled servant looked up from refilling a sherry decanter and was promptly waved away by Lady Whittington.
     Both women frowned at Jane.
     "Why did you leave Lord Chadwick so quickly?" her mother asked. "You wished for an opportunity to get to know him--this is your chance."
     "I meant before the engagement," Jane answered dryly. "It might have mattered then."
     "Jane," Charlotte said with an underlying impatience that was new to her character since she'd become a widow, "you are being very stubborn."
     Jane shook her head. "'Stubborn' would be if I refused to marry at all. But I would never disgrace you that way, Mama." There must be a way out of the engagement without disgracing anybody at all.
     "I know you wouldn't, dear heart," her mother murmured, touching her arm. "I just wish that you'd trust your father's choice. He knows you well, after all."
     "You don't seem as if you've always trusted his choices."
     Her mother's face blanched, but Jane would not take back the words. Her parents rarely spoke to one another and usually lived continents apart.
     "I trust his love for you, Jane."
     Maybe he no longer understood his own daughter, she thought with despair. All those years apart--how could mere letters make him understand her temperament? His correspondence had been full of the wonders of Egyptian pyramids and African tribes. He’d sent her rare, fanciful gifts from all around the world: little statues of wood or stone, fans made from the feathers of birds so exotic she had to look them up in books. Across the continents, her father had been the one she'd confided in, to whom she’d told her deepest wishes to live a different sort of life than her mother's. He had seemed a sympathetic ear, even though he had never encouraged her to openly leave society's restrictions behind. Had he just been humoring her?
     She needed to see him, to talk to him face-to-face. Once again she was tempted to abandon all she was, all her mother wanted for her, and strike off on her own to visit her father. The scandal seemed minor next to living with a man she couldn't respect or love.
     She turned to her sister, saying aloud what Charlotte had not confided in her. "Surely you understand my concern. You were married to a man you did not love."
     Charlotte's open expression instantly shuttered, and Jane despaired of ever understanding her. Charlotte was too much like their mother, so concerned with what society thought.
     "Jane," Lady Whittington said quickly, "Charlotte is too recent a widow. Do not hurt her so."
     Before Jane could dutifully apologize, Charlotte held up a hand. Her wedding ring glistened in the candlelight, and the three of them hesitated.
     Charlotte dropped her hand and sighed. "It has been over a year now, Mama. No longer so recent, I'm afraid. Jane, it is still difficult for me to talk about it, but you must understand that although I didn't love Mr. Sinclair in that girlish way I once thought I would, there was an understanding between us. You tarnish his memory by assuming the worst."
     But what else could Jane assume? She had seen how controlling Mr. Sinclair had been, how little Charlotte had participated in decisions that affected her own life. Nothing had shaken Jane more than realizing the trap that her sister had fallen in. Surely Charlotte was free now--and happier? But such a thing her proper sister would never admit.
     "I don't mean to assault your memories," Jane whispered, unusually close to tears. "I just--I don't--oh, forgive me. I know not what has come over me this evening."
     Her mother offered a weak smile of relief. "Nerves, dear heart--nothing more. You need to give your young man a chance to prove himself to you. Now go find Lord Chadwick, and before we go into dinner, we'll all offer our congratulations."
     Jane nodded and opened wide the doors leading into the drawing room. All seventeen of their guests seemed in attendance now, and as her mother circled to greet the newcomers, Jane wandered the perimeter of the room, looking for Lord Chadwick. With so many people crowded together, it was growing warmer every second, and she felt a trickle of perspiration slide between her breasts.
     Soon enough, she saw him standing with three other men beside the columns flanking the tall windows. Lord Chadwick gestured with his monocle in a flamboyant fashion that made her teeth grind together. As she approached, they did not seem to see her, and she found herself staying behind a column, pressing her hands to the cold marble and pausing to listen.
     The four men burst into laughter and she held her breath.
     "Chadwick, I've given you my tailor's name," said Sir Albert Dean, a genial friend of Charlotte's late husband. "So now you owe me a game of cards at White's tonight."
     "Now come, Sir Albert," Lord Chadwick said with a chuckle still in his voice, "surely one thing does not equate with the other. We all know that I am not a master of card games. I simply can't keep track in my head. Numbers have always bored me."
     Sighing, Jane closed her eyes and pressed her forehead to the column. She loved anything to do with knowledge, and she had insisted her tutor train her in advanced mathematics, usually a male realm. But her mother had always told her she didn't need mathematics to be a good wife. It appeared her mother was right.
     "Now Chadwick," said another man, who sounded like Mr. Roderick, one of the Yorkshire members of Parliament, "there are more ways to celebrate your loss of freedom than just a dinner party."
     More laughter followed this brilliant statement, and then Jane heard Lord Chadwick's voice.
     "But gentlemen, I prefer treating myself to an extravagant suit of clothing rather than gambling. Speaking of my betrothed, she must be back in the drawing room, since I see her mother. Adieu until a later moment."
     Jane remained frozen behind the column, hoping Lord Chadwick did not find her eavesdropping. She couldn't help wincing over his mispronunciation of adieu. Languages were her great passion.
     After a lengthy pause, Mr. Roderick said, "Dean, why ever did you invite Chadwick to join us? The man truly has no idea how to play."
     Sir Albert Dean laughed again. "But he managed to take all of your money last time, didn't he? And damned if I know how he did it."
     Mr. Roderick grumbled something unintelligible.
     "Gentlemen," Sir Albert said, "the queen made a point of introducing him to us. We cannot ignore that."
     They were all murmuring their agreement when Jane slipped away, intrigued as to why Queen Victoria had taken special interest in Lord Chadwick.
     She had not gone more than a few paces, when she saw her betrothed staring at her from across the room.

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