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Almost a Bride
by Gayle Callen
Book 1 of the Brides trilogy
Roselyn Harrington ran from her arranged wedding to Spencer Thornton and into the arms of a man she thought loved her. Years later, when a wounded Thornton washes ashore on her island, his presence threatens her in more ways than one.Spencer lies helpless, knowing that a Spanish spy plans to accuse him of treason—or kill him. He must return to London, but how can he leave, when his anger over Roselyn's betrayal is rapidly becoming passion?
Note: This book was previously published as His Betrothed.
"Skillfully blending poignancy and
humor, she will enchant readers seeking excellent entertainment."
riveting, emotional read. It's 'Shakespeare in Love' meets 'Jerry
Maguire.' I couldn't put it down!"
(The following is the property of the author and Oliver Heber Books and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
London, October 1586
On the eve of her wedding, at a party to celebrate the joining of their families, Lady Roselyn Harrington laid eyes on her betrothed for the first time— and felt like tearing the flowers from her hair.
Oh, Sir Spencer Thornton was handsome enough, with his dark, foreign, brooding looks. His mother was Spanish, but he’d been born and raised an Englishman, and would someday inherit his father’s title of viscount. But courtesy was beyond him.
He was nothing like Philip
Grant, her father’s stable groom, who accompanied her on her wild gallops
Thornton had obviously been
drinking before he’d arrived at the celebration, because his laughter was too
free and too loud. He stood across the room with his friends, looking the very
picture of the court dandy, from his silk doublet to his high neck ruff to the
pearl earbob dangling from one ear. Yet where his friends wore their beards
dyed in outrageous purple or orange,
He smiled broadly at every lady who passed him, be she maiden or dowager, and his teeth glimmered like moonrise in his dark face.
But he spared not a glance for his betrothed.
Smoldering with fury, she
watched him and catalogued the sins he’d thus far committed during their short
betrothal. He had never come to visit, never brought gifts. While every other
young maiden was at least being wooed by her family’s choice in husband,
Philip’s gifts might be only a handful of wildflowers and the pleasure of his company, but she felt cherished by his adoration, beloved.
Thornton, on the other hand, had come early to their betrothal ceremony the previous week, and after signing the contract, had left before she’d even come downstairs. She’d caught only a glimpse of his back as he slammed the front door.
Roselyn should have expected no better, since her parents had chosen her husband because of his money. When they had taken care of the contract without her, her father had said only, “Don’t worry yourself, dearest.”
When she’d tried to ask about Thornton and his family, her mother had asked in a frigid voice, “Are you questioning our choice of your husband?”
Roselyn had been so offended by the whole process that she went along with them, for after all, she didn’t need to read that ornate tiny script when every marriage contract was the same: the groom would be well paid to marry the bride.
But the groom could have made a small effort to pretend to court her, for the bride’s sake!
She had heard stories of Thornton’s wild revelry, his attachment to Queen Elizabeth, his Spanish ancestry—which no one ever let her forget. And to think there might soon be a war with Spain, and she would be married to the enemy! She suspected every female friend of laughing behind her back, and every gentleman friend of deserting her.
Finally, Thornton’s father led him forward for the First Meeting, and her own father, the Earl of Cambridge, gripped her elbow as he escorted her to the center of the hall.
“Lady Roselyn,” Viscount Thornton said, his brown eyes filled with hope, “this is my son, Sir Spencer Thornton.”
Spencer Thornton glanced at her with those hooded, dark eyes, and a tremor of something—probably shock—jolted her. Then he looked away and swallowed another mouthful of wine. He was as dark as Satan himself, and she wondered if on the morrow the church would burst into flames rather than admit him.
“Sir Spencer,” said her father, “allow me to present my daughter, Lady Roselyn.”
Full of affronted pride, she wasn’t even going to curtsy until her father squeezed her hand in warning. With her chin high, she sank into a deep curtsy. Viscount Thornton gave her a warm smile, while his son stood stone-faced until his father elbowed him. Even then, he only nodded to her.
Roselyn’s outrage flamed higher, and she felt humiliated, knowing everyone was watching.
Her betrothed and his friends left the celebration without waiting for the first dance. Alone, Roselyn watched them go from her place near the wall, her arms across her chest. How could she marry such a man? she wondered, glaring at her preening parents as they accepted the congratulations of the nobility. Thornton would probably send her off to his family seat in Cumberland, as far from London as one could get without crossing the Pict’s Wall into the wilds of Scotland—just when she was finally of an age to attend the queen’s court.
As the party guests began to dance, again her mind returned to Philip, who just this day had sworn his undying love for her, vowing to help her escape this forced marriage. She’d told him it could never be, but as she stood alone and contemplated a loveless match, she was more unsure than ever of what she should do. He was forbidden to her by class, by betrothal, but it made their time together wildly exciting. Could she have the unthinkable—a man who loved her for herself?
London, one week later…
“Gwyneth, we have news of the most excellent kind,” said Earl Langston. “We have found you a husband.”
Feeling suddenly light-headed, Gwyneth Hall tried to keep herself from gaping at him. “A husband, my lord?” He had never shown interest in helping her family—his cousins—before. Why now?
Stunned, she sat back in the cushioned chair and tried not to feel overwhelmed by the opulent withdrawing room in her cousin’s London mansion. Painted angels hovered above her on the ceiling. Somber portraits of people she’d never met decorated the darkly paneled walls. While a timid maid served her spiced cider, the earl and his wife smiled like they were baring their teeth.
They’d only invited her to their home once, a few months ago, when they’d needed a companion for their daughter, Elizabeth, while her husband was out of the country. Gwyneth had accepted, glad to experience more of London than her poor corner of it. Instead of a companion, she had been an unpaid servant, seeing to her cousin’s wardrobe. But Elizabeth was dead now, and Gwyneth had promised to keep the circumstances a secret. Was this offer of a husband a repayment for her silence?
“How old are you now?” Lord Langston asked.
“I have three and twenty years.”
“And I believe your father does not have dowries for his four daughters.”
She saw the earl glance distastefully at her garments, knew her green woolen gown with its simple linen ruff at the neck might as well be rags to him. But besides her gloves, she wore a hat with a narrow brim that her mother had given her tilted at a smart angle. She felt proud of her appearance.
Her back stiffened as she lifted her chin. “My father works hard, Lord Langston, but he has grown sickly over the last several years.”
“I understand, my dear. That is why I have taken it upon myself to provide you with a dowry.”
She narrowed her gaze. “And why would you do this?”
She heard Lady Langston inhale with a hiss, and the earl’s smile thinned.
“Because, girl,” said Lady Langston, “we cannot give you in marriage to Edmund Blackwell without it.”
Edmund Blackwell? The name echoed about in her head like a stone thrown down a rocky cliff.
“Elizabeth’s husband?” she finally managed to say in a faint voice, though her tongue felt swollen. The husband her cousin had cried over?
The earl nodded. “He has an estate to run, and we feel that a wife will ease his burdens and provide companionship.”
Gwyneth well remembered trying to start awkward conversations with Elizabeth. Once she had asked if theirs was a love match, because she’d always thought the Langstons wanted to marry her to a nobleman. Elizabeth had only burst into angry tears and refused to discuss it.
“Elizabeth died but six weeks ago,” she said in bewilderment. “He needs a wife this quickly?”
Lady Langston shook her head. “Do not think he agreed to it easily, girl. It is a difficult thing to lose such a woman as my daughter was. But he understands the reality of needing the dowry for his lands and a woman to run his household.”
But of course he needed the money most of all; she could see that immediately. Such was the way of things in marriage. She had hoped it would be different for her, that she’d have a man to love and a family to care for.
And there was no saying she couldn’t have that yet. She had spent her life learning how to be a good wife, and had despaired of ever getting the chance—until recently, that is, when a prosperous merchant had begun to court her. He was twice her age and had lecherous intentions, but he offered a gift of money that would bring her family back from the edge of poverty, and he had wanted no dowry, which in itself made him attractive to her family. She would be one less daughter to worry about feeding.
But Edmund Blackwell would offer no money. How would this help her family—help her sisters with dowries?
Suddenly her hope soared as she glanced from the earl to his wife excitedly. “Forgive my curiosity, but does this mean you will be so kind as to offer my sisters dowries as well?”
Lady Langston gave her a frosty, knowing look, as if Gwyneth was begging for ownership of all of their estates. “Your mother is family. We are offering to ease her burdens by seeing one of her daughters settled. Is your greed so great that you demand more?”
Gwyneth felt the blood drain from her face. “My lady, you misunderstand me. I am grateful for this opportunity, and only wish to make my decision with all the facts available. I only ask that I might meet Sir Edmund before I decide.”
“He has already returned north to Yorkshire because the grain harvest is well under way.” The earl already seemed distracted, as if her concerns were unimportant.
“There is no choice, girl,” said Lady Langston coldly. “He needs a wife, and we have already offered you to him. The marriage contract has been legally signed.”
Gwyneth stared at her clenched fists, trying to quell her rising panic. The decision had been made without her. Did Sir Edmund leave so quickly because he did not want her to see him? She tried not to think about the cold, bitter tone of Elizabeth’s voice whenever she spoke of him.
Yet she had been wishing desperately for another man to choose as her husband, because she soon would have been forced by her conscience to marry the merchant. Was an ugly stranger better than an old man whose odor often lingered after he had left the room?
Although her cousin Elizabeth had complained about her husband leaving her alone when he went to France, she had never said that he mistreated her—and he had put up with her selfishness. Of course, Gwyneth had heard the rumor that he’d killed Elizabeth, but Gwyneth herself had been there at the end of her cousin’s life, while Sir Edmund had been with the army in France. Malicious gossip was only for people with little else to occupy them, and she gave no credence to it.
Surely if she was a good, hard-working wife to him, she could persuade him to offer small dowries to her sisters. After all, wasn’t she bringing a large dowry to him herself, thanks to the Langstons?
“What are you thinking about, my dear?” Lord Langston asked.
“I am thinking how kind you are to offer a dowry for me, my lord,” Gwyneth said firmly, looking up in time to see them exchange relieved glances. “When will Sir Edmund come to London for the ceremony?”
“He cannot spare the time,” said Lady Langston. “He is sending an escort to bring you north to Castle Wintering.”
The name of the castle sent a strange chill through her. She inwardly berated herself for foolishness, even as she imagined how lonely her new life would be. She wouldn’t be getting married amidst a family celebration—not her family anyway. None of her three sisters could be spared from the family bakery to travel with her. She would be alone with her new husband. She had to force aside thoughts of a wedding night with a man she’d never met.
Earl Langston stared out the window at the receding figure of his cousin Gwyneth and allowed his satisfaction to show.
His wife came to his side. “Everything worked out as we planned.”
“Aye, my lady wife. Blackwell signed the contract, and Gwyneth agreed to it. Not that she had much choice. The pressure I would have put on her father might have been…distressing to his health. And she’ll be away from London, where she cannot cause trouble with what she knows about our daughter.”
“If only Blackwell had been willing to sell us the property instead. The gall of that baseborn churl to obstruct us! We could have begun the mining immediately. You said if we started rumors that he killed Elizabeth, he would have no choice but to do as we wished. She was so unhappy that it was apparent to all that he was at fault.”
“Patience, Letitia. The steward at Castle Wintering has made certain that all the servants understand that Blackwell killed Elizabeth but that we cannot prove who Blackwell hired to do it. And Blackwell has done as we wished—he’s taking another Langston bride. We shall send the bailiff from our Durham properties to witness the wedding. Then he can examine the ore site to see if Blackwell has discovered it. If it is undisturbed, the lead ore will wait.”
She flung up her hands and strode away from him. “But you have made certain we must wait years. It will take many female brats before that barbarian realizes that Alyce Hall’s branch of the family never has boys. Since the marriage contract states that the property returns to us if he has no sons, this could last beyond our death!”
“And you do not wish to provide for your sons’ future?”
At least she still retained the ability to blush, the earl thought with his usual exasperation.
“But I wish to provide for ours as well, you fool,” she said.
When she returned to his side, he gripped her arm tightly to hold her still. He watched her blanch and enjoyed her wince. “Do you not yet trust my abilities, my lady wife? After all, Blackwell believes that we’ve raised Gwyneth as almost our ward.”
She bit her lip. “I trusted you with our children, and our daughter ended up married to an ignorant monster. And now she’s—”
He quickly spoke before the inevitable self-pitying tears began. “Elizabeth chose poorly, Letitia, but we have begun to remedy the insult to our family. I have not fully informed you of the extent of my plan.”
Her stare was skeptical. “And I am supposed to trust this? You challenged him, when we could just have waited for him to lose the estate to taxes.”
He softened his grip, and her shoulders relaxed. “I was correct about the rumors of murder forcing Blackwell to accept our offer, wasn’t I? Then trust me in this. I would not risk the chance that he would grovel to a wealthy friend for the money. Edmund Blackwell will fail as a landholder long before we have to care what brats he sires. I’ve already made certain of it. And then the land will be ours again, and he will be ruined.”
Gwyneth had never imagined how difficult it would be to leave her family. Her father’s frailty weighed on her, and she prayed that she would see him again someday. Would her new husband ever bring her to London to visit her parents?
They had once lived on a farm north of the city, when her father had been whole and could support his family by working the land. They’d been so happy there. His illness had necessitated their move to London, where her father could guard merchants, a less demanding occupation. Even that had eventually proved too much for him.
Now her three sisters would have to assist their mother without her. They supplied several of the London bakeries with their baked goods, and Gwyneth had always been the one to deal with their customers.
But her mother reassured her and displayed genuine enthusiasm and gratitude because Gwyneth would finally have a home of her own. She even calmed Gwyneth’s fears about her wedding night with an explanation of what would happen. Although Gwyneth was grateful for the truth, she worried about doing such things with a stranger. And what if he wasn’t as gentle as her mother said husbands should be?
The trip to Yorkshire took ten long days. Sir Edmund’s soldiers were pleasant, especially the sergeant in charge, Sir Geoffrey Drake, who had a good-natured smile and seemed too irreverent to be a military man. Even his garments were too rich for a soldier, but a soldier was what he professed himself to be. She was grateful for the friendship he offered her, and interested to realize that he seemed to be Sir Edmund’s friend as well.
Thank goodness for Lucy Tyler, who’d insisted she accompany Gwyneth. She was a tall, thin girl, with startling black hair and ambitious eyes, who’d often had to walk the streets selling the fish her father caught. They had met the first day Gwyneth’s family moved to London. They had been two little girls dealing with the danger of city life and had become good friends in the process.
The day before Gwyneth was to leave, Lucy had volunteered her services as companion and maid, hoping to send money home to her own struggling family. It was a great relief to Gwyneth not to face the wild north all alone.
On the last part of their journey, they rode through the broad, fertile plains of the York valley, and Geoffrey pointed off to the northwest, where the Pennines rose flat-topped to the sky. He explained that Castle Wintering was in Swaledale, the valley of the River Swale, which flowed from the Pennines. But for the wedding, Sir Edmund would meet them the next day in Richmond. Gwyneth’s dulled nerves roared back to life as she realized she would be married on the morrow. What would her groom look like? She’d spent the entire journey trying to remember everything Elizabeth had ever said about him, but her cousin’s usual conversation had been only about herself.
In the morning, she and Lucy were escorted into Richmond, a village of stone houses in the shadow of Richmond Castle, which had been built on a cliff above the River Swale. While Gwyneth’s stomach tightened with nervous spasms, she consoled herself with the thought of a warm bath at an inn before she would meet her husband.
Geoffrey dashed those hopes as he rode alongside their coach. He informed her that she and Sir Edmund were returning to Castle Wintering today after the wedding ceremony.
“Sir Geoffrey!” Lucy protested, leaning over Gwyneth’s lap to look out the window. “Mistress Gwyneth is a bride. Surely she can prepare. She never even met the man.”
He shrugged, his expression reluctant. “I understand, ladies, but Edmund…he has much to do. The letter I just received—”
“I am sorry, Geoffrey,” Gwyneth said, “but I shan’t marry until I can change into my best gown. Please find a suitable place.”
“There’s no one who will see you but Edmund and myself. We’ll be late—”
Her heart did a little flip of disappointment on hearing that not one of Sir Edmund’s friends and villagers would be coming. “Regardless, I am changing. Do what you must.” She had never felt so certain of anything. Her life was out of her control—but how she met her fate was not. She would not be wed wearing dusty travel garments, with her face full of perspiration and dirt.
Soon they turned into a quiet church courtyard with benches and a garden on one side, and a graveyard on the other. While Geoffrey went inside the church, Gwyneth and Lucy stepped out of the coach and stared up at the largest black stallion they had ever seen. Its back was well above Gwyneth’s head, and it seemed to roll its eyes as if possessed by the devil. It tossed its shiny mane and snorted at them, and the silly childhood fear of horses that Gwyneth thought she’d conquered came flooding back.
It had to be Sir Edmund Blackwell’s horse, and she stayed well away, wondering about the size of the man who could ride such an animal. Geoffrey returned with the black-robed vicar, who smiled and bowed as he escorted her to a small chamber at the rear of the church. Lucy followed with the gown, and they were left alone.
Gwyneth felt unreal as she washed her body with tepid water from a basin. She had wanted to bathe and perfume herself, but it was not to be. She could only put on the blue cloth gown over her smock and petticoats and allow Lucy to button it up the front. Before she left London, her mother had cheerfully told her that she’d lowered the square neckline to display the assets Gwyneth was bringing to the wedding, but she had not realized how exposed she would feel. She tried to tuck a piece of lace in her bodice, but with a frown, Lucy removed it and tied a long scarf about her waist.
When they returned to the courtyard, Geoffrey rose from the bench with a smile and motioned for them to sit.
Minutes passed, and Gwyneth’s nerves were stretched taut. Lucy got up to wander through the garden, sniffing roses and daisies. Gwyneth couldn’t move her legs to do the same. Why did Sir Edmund make them wait, if he was in such a hurry?
Wearing a smile, Lucy eventually came back, holding up a circlet of blossoms. “I’ve made ye a garland for your hair, mistress.”
Gwyneth felt foolish tears sting her eyes as she bowed her head and let the girl place the flowers in her hair. “Lucy, please, I’ve been your friend forever. Call me by my name.”
“Soon ye’ll be Lady Blackwell, mistress,” she said soothingly. “Won’t that be fine?”
When she heard a door open at the top of the stairs, Gwyneth shuddered and slowly looked up.
On his wedding day, Spencer Thornton waited on the stairs of the church, his head pounding, his throat dry, and prayed for the nausea to subside. Sometime before dawn he’d fallen into his bed roaring drunk, but that was still not enough to make him forget the disdain in his betrothed’s eyes.
He’d handled the entire affair badly.
But what choice had he? Spencer had done his best to ignore the poor girl his parents had picked for him, hoping that her family would end the courtship. But short of outright disobedience—and he loved his parents too much for that—there was nothing he’d been able to do but drown his rage in his cups.
But he did regret his treatment of her last night. It wasn’t her fault that his parents had resorted to the blackmail of needing an heir. If only they understood that he would never have the kind of marriage they had.
Through the crowds gathered to stare, Spencer saw the approach of Roselyn Harrington’s gilt carriage. A tight feeling of despair clutched his chest, but he straightened grimly.
The bride was helped from the carriage, and her wedding garments glittered under the sun. Again, he saw that pale face, remembered the vulnerability of freckles scattered across her nose. He found himself hoping that they wouldn’t hate each other.
Roselyn took a step toward him and stopped as their gazes clashed.
Suddenly she turned and ran.
Spencer stood in stunned silence as he watched her dodge past people on the street, pull off her headdress and throw it into the mud. Both sets of relatives moved about in pandemonium, shouting, pointing. Someone ran after her, but it wouldn’t matter even if they caught her. The damage was done.
Spencer stood as if he’d been turned into a statue, unsure what he was feeling. Shouldn’t it be relief, exaltation?
Everyone turned and looked at him, mouths agape, and a chill shuddered through him. He was used to creating scandal, and enjoyed making sure the nobility knew he was there.
But not this way. His gaze darted from person to person, and soon they were whispering behind their hands. His own friends started to laugh, and the ensuing uproar reverberated through him.
He’d forever be a laughingstock, an object of ridicule—and it was all Roselyn Harrington’s fault.
He looked at his parents, whose disappointment must be even worse than his humiliation.
“Am I too late?” said a familiar voice. “Just got into town for the wedding of the year.”
Spencer glanced aside to see his brother Alex, lurching up the church steps with a giggling, dressed-up doxy on his arm.
“She left,” Spencer said, wondering if his brother would take satisfaction in the rejection. “There will be no wedding.”
“But I wanted to meet her,” Alex said with an exaggerated sigh. He slung his free arm around his brother. “Come on, Spence, let’s go. There’s this tavern by the river…”
For the last time, Spencer looked down the street where his bride had disappeared, feeling the bitterness inside him freeze and become brittle. Then he turned and walked away.
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