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Suddenly a Bride
by Gayle Callen
Book 3 of the Brides trilogy
Gwyneth Hall has heard the dark rumors about Sir Edmund Blackwell, the man she is betrothed to but has never seen. To save her penniless family from ruin, however, she would wed the devil himself. And this gorgeous, moody "devil" sends a tremor of excitement racing through her when they first meet—sparking the young bride's determination to turn a marriage of convenience into much more.
Edmund dares never love again after being blamed for his first wife’s death. And while his exquisite new bride fills him with desire, their union is simply a means for him to retain his hard-won lands. Gwyneth is, after all, related to his enemy and therefore not to be trusted. But how long can Edmund resist the temptation of her touch?
Note: This book was previously published as His Bride.
"Gayle Callen keeps getting better
"Gayle Callen is
(The following is the property of the author and Oliver Heber Books and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
“My wife is dead.” Sir Edmund Blackwell folded his arms across his chest and stared into the faces of his wife’s parents. “I am sorry for your grief, my lord, but I do not understand why you felt the need to see me. After all, you know how she died.”
He’d been summoned from Yorkshire to Earl Langston’s estate in Lincolnshire to face the two people who’d conspired to make the last few years of his life a nightmare. He knew they blamed him for their daughter’s poor choices. When he arrived, he’d been offered no refreshments, only led through the great hall with its racks of spears and suits of armor, as if the threat of their military power was supposed to daunt him. The gallery where he now faced them ran the length of the mansion and let in the sun through stained-glass windows, which cast muted color everywhere. He was seated on a heavily carved chair. Dour ancestral portraits glared down at him; the earl and his countess did the same from a cushioned bench. A polished table stood as a barrier between them. Buffets and cupboards were scattered down the length of the room, decorated with china or covered with Turkish carpets.
Lord Langston, a thin, cold man, made no effort to conceal his contempt. “As part of Elizabeth’s dowry, we gave you Castle Wintering and its lands, which is an ancient part of our family estates. We merely wish to buy it back from you now that our daughter lies at peace.”
Edmund resisted the urge to voice his disgust. Their daughter hadn’t let herself have peace in life, so why would she be blessed with it in death? He had hoped that with time, he and Elizabeth would have grown to suit each other, but she and her parents had made sure that had never happened.
But give up Castle Wintering? Give up what he’d worked so hard for, and the only source of income he had left? Never.
Edmund returned the cold stare with one of his own. “I have invested much time and labor in the estate, and I wish to continue.” He started to rise. “If this was all you had to discuss, we could have done it through letters.”
“Please sit down, Sir Edmund,” said Letitia Langston, his wife’s mother. Where her husband pretended civility, she let malice glitter behind her eyes. “We could force you to sell us the land. After all, there are already those who believe you were the cause of my daughter’s death.”
He remained standing above them, knowing that his size usually frightened people. He narrowed his gaze at Lady Langston as her threat seemed to coil around him. What more proof did he need that they had planted this lie even as far away as Castle Wintering, all in an attempt to manipulate him? Would it ever end? “And we both know that that is a lie. I have already agreed not to publicize the details of her death. Do you wish me to change my mind?”
Edmund knew his own threat was a gamble, for they were a very powerful family. Yet their weakness was the merest thought of a scandal connected to their family name.
The countess’s fingers were white where she gripped her skirt at the knees.
Before she could speak, her husband interrupted. “Blackwell, we have another suggestion for the dilemma presented to us.”
“There is no longer a dilemma between us,” Edmund said tightly.
“Then there is your dilemma.”
He stiffened but remained silent.
“You have land, Blackwell, but you no longer have the money to make it succeed.”
Not a difficult thing for their spies to discover. “Thanks to you—and your daughter.”
Lady Langston slammed her hands onto the table between them, but her husband touched her arm.
“I am resourceful,” Edmund continued, “and will get what I need for Castle Wintering.”
Lord Langston said, “I have a solution to your problems—all of them. We regret that there are those who blame you for our daughter’s death. We would like to offer you a new bride.”
Edmund tried not to let his astonishment show. He had known Elizabeth’s parents had something planned, but he never would have guessed this attempt at manipulating him. “I am not interested in marrying so soon, my lord.”
Lord Langston continued as if Edmund hadn’t spoken, and his eyes glittered with challenge. “The girl is of good bloodlines, as she’s a cousin of mine through her mother, and her father was knighted by the queen. By offering another relative in marriage to you, we prove to the world that we do not believe the rumors about our daughter’s death.”
Edmund controlled his bitter laugh. Another Langston wife? They had said nothing that would induce him to marry someone from their family again.
“There is a substantial dowry involved, of course,” the earl said slowly, as if dangling bait.
And it was the perfect bait. Money was the one thing he desperately needed, now that his wounds prevented him from earning his living as a mercenary.
The Langstons were offering him a way out—but at what price and for what twisted reason? He could only imagine the kind of woman they wanted to saddle him with. But what choice did he have?
“Sit down, Sir Edmund,” said Lord Langston.
He sat. “Why are you doing this? Are you trying to rid yourself of this girl?”
The earl leaned back in his chair, not bothering to hide his triumphant smile. “She is a good girl whose family is not wealthy. We’ve taken her under our wing. She is used to hard work and will be an asset to you.”
That Edmund doubted. Why should a cousin of Elizabeth’s know anything more than beautiful clothes and what court functions to attend? If he actually went through with this farce, he would handle marriage much differently.
“Show me the bridal contract.”
Lord Langston reached into a cupboard behind him and brought forth a sheaf of papers, which he pushed across the table. Both of Elizabeth’s parents were watching him closely now.
As he bent over the contract, the thought of another Langston bride made his stomach churn. His instinctive reaction was to refuse, but he had to be smarter now, to weigh the advantages. Castle Wintering’s potential was enormous, with the land so perfect for raising sheep, and the wool trade prosperous. And he had yet to have the land explored for mining opportunities. But all of this required money. He desperately needed this estate, even if it meant matching wits with the Langstons.
The contract was brief and the language precise. There was only one clause that Edmund had to read twice, a provision that should he die without a male heir, the land would return to Langston hands. He glanced at them, and the earl’s lip curled as if he knew exactly the clause Edmund was reading.
They really wanted their property back, did they not, even if their heirs had to await Edmund’s death?
He sat back in his chair and studied Elizabeth’s parents with narrowed eyes.
“You are still suspicious,” the earl said.
“Every dealing I have had with you has made me that way.”
“Then let us be open about the hostility between us. You seduced our daughter and forced that marriage, and now she is dead.”
Edmund gritted his teeth, knowing all the critical things Langston had left out of his summary. But he would let some of that go for now. “And while I was away, you threatened my steward to make sure two years’ worth of profits from Castle Wintering went for Elizabeth’s lavish accessories rather than grain and cattle. Why should I trust you now?”
“There will never be a time for trust between us, Blackwell. If you choose not to accept this…arrangement, you shall lose the land for taxes, and who do you think the queen will agree to sell it to?”
“Then why are you interfering?”
The earl leaned forward, and his lips curled back over his teeth. “Because this is personal between us, Blackwell. Consider this a challenge, a duel of wits between you and me. If you accept, you shall have the money to begin the restoration of Castle Wintering and a woman to give you an heir. But always you will have to wonder what I’m planning, how I’ve manipulated this situation to win. The money and land aren’t as important to me as knowing you’ll be humbled in the end. Dare you take that chance?”
For several moments, Edmund could only stare at the old man, feeling hatred suffuse the gallery. And by God, he returned their feelings. “And what do I win if I defeat your plots?”
“Your freedom from me. You will already have the money and a gently bred bride to begin a new life.”
“And if I lose?”
“But you’re already close to losing everything, are you not, Blackwell?”
How Edmund longed to defeat Langston in battle, the honorable way. But it could not be. He desperately needed that money—and he needed to defeat Earl Langston once and for all. Already he had a plan simmering in his mind.
He took a quill pen, dipped it in ink, and signed his name at the bottom of the contract. “Your challenge is met, Langston.”
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.
Sir Edmund Black--for who else could it be?--stood before the doors of the church, clothed in a loose leather tunic, bellted at the waist, over plain cloth breeches. A clloack was thrown back on his shoulders. He was taller than any man Gwyneth had ever seen. His shoulders filled the3 door frame, a nd surely had had to duck to step outside. She didn't think she could have put her arms around his barrel chest. His devil-black hair was cropped in layers close to his head. His clean-shaven face had the hard spare lines of a granite cliff, not handsome, but impressively male and darkened by the sun. This was a man who'd seen more of battlefields and death than home and family. There was no welcoming smile or even nervousness. Beneath his frowning brow, pale blue eyes the color of a dawn sky shone out at her, assessing, and maybe finding her lacking.
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