Authors: Cheryl Ann Smith
THE BRIDE WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH HER HUSBAND
CHERYL ANN SMITH
Berkley Sensation Titles by Cheryl Ann Smith
THE SCHOOL FOR BRIDES
THE ACCIDENTAL COURTESAN
THE SCARLET BRIDE
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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THE BRIDE WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH HER HUSBAND
A Berkley Sensation eSpecial / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2012 by Cheryl Ann Smith
The Scarlet Bride
copyright Â© 2012 by Cheryl Ann Smith
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Berkley Sensation eSpecial / May 2012
The mantel clock ticked loudly through the parlor as Rose sat on the patterned settee and peered over at her new and, sadly, grim-faced mother-in-law and two fair-haired, brown-eyed, and nearly invisible new sisters.
“Would you care for tea, Mrs. Stanhope?” the maid asked, and poured a cup when Rose nodded.
“Thank you,” Rose said, and lifted the cup to her lips. The clock ticked on as she struggled to ease the tension in the room. In spite of all her lessons, she was decidedly tongue-tangled under the baroness's withering glare.
She'd married the Honorable Thomas Stanhope, Baron Linley's youngest son, not three hours ago, in front of Miss Eva and several former courtesans, in a simple ceremony before a parson in a small church outside London.
In that moment, her life as a courtesan came to an end.
The day had started out quite happily, as her affection for Thomas had grown in the two weeks since they'd been matched at a party at the courtesan rescue school. The wedding this morning was the clotted cream on top of weeks of hard work to change her situation for the better.
Turning from courtesan to proper wife had involved learning everything a wife needed to know to be successful at the position. Miss Eva's determination to turn peacocks into hens had certainly challenged everything Rose had been for the last several years. Seductive, sensual, forwardÂ .Â .Â . there were many parts she'd played to stave off destitution. And she'd played them skillfully. Men chased her, gifted her with jewels, and begged to bed her. Truthfully, for the daughter of a downstairs maid who'd lived far from London on a quiet country estate, it had all been a seductive whirl.
An elderly duke won the battle for her innocence and had made her his courtesan for the last four years. As such, she'd lived a life of pampered indulgence and leisure. Then one day not long ago, at the grand old age of twenty-one, she'd crawled from his bed and caught her image in the mirror. It was in that moment that she truly realized what she'd become: a pretty pet, the duke's plaything, nothing more.
The duke did not want her opinions on important matters and cared not if she had a wicked wit. She was to be seen on his arm and make sure to please him in bed. That was all. And suddenly that was not enough for her anymore.
She'd fled to the courtesan school and begun her new life
There had been moments when Rose had feared that she couldn't settle into a quiet existence. But with Miss Eva's encouragement, she'd exceeded all her expectations.
It wasn't until ten minutes ago, when Thomas had brought her into his tidy town house with its tasteful furnishings and presented her to his shocked and instantly disapproving mother and prim sisters, that Rose was certain she'd been tossed into a tumultuous sea without the skills to swim.
She peered around her, taking in her ordinary surroundings, and panic welled. The high neck of her proper gown seemed to tighten on her neck, further adding to her sudden distress. Was she truly ready for this new life? Could she be a good wife?
She sipped the tea and willed her hands not to shake.
“Thomas has told me that you are from Lancashire,” the Baroness Linley said sharply, and Rose flinched. “You do not sound like you are from Lancashire. Are you from the north or south?”
Rose glanced toward the door. If only Thomas hadn't had to step out for a moment, leaving Rose at the mercy of the dragon.
She tried to remember the history she and Thomas concocted to keep her real past secret from his mother. Though Thomas wasn't ashamed of her history, he knew his mother would shun Rose if the truth came out.
“I was born in Lancashire, but moved around, as my father's employment took us all over England. My accent is a blend of many regions.” She tried to smile and remain calm.
“Was your father a peddler?” the woman pressed.
“No, he was not.” Rose considered revealing that her father was a soldier who died bravely in battle, but held her tongue. She sensed the baroness was digging around for information to use against her in the future.
The baroness hadn't been warned about the wedding. In fact, she hadn't known about Rose at all. So Rose could understand her misgivings. However, Rose suspected that her coldness was not caused by Thomas coming home with a wife, but because of the general sense of gloom the woman lived under.
Thomas had explained his mother to Rose very well.
“Was he an actor? What a deplorable profession,” the baroness pressed. “Do tell me he was not an actor.”
Rose's ire flared. Her control over her fiery nature was being tested. Only her devotion to Thomas kept her from telling the pinch-faced biddy to mind her own business and stay out of hers. “He was not an actor.”
There was a moment of silence. Suddenly the Baroness Linley looked as though she'd swallowed something tart. “Dear Lord, your father was a Gypsy.”
Rose gaped in astonishment. “Where in heaven did you come up with that notion?”
The woman leaned forward, her eyes shrewd. “I find your vague answers suspicious and your family history clouded. Therefore, I am led to believe that the reason you are evasive is that you are at least part Romany. There is no other explanation.” She ended the comment with a low grumble about thieving Gypsies.
A prickle went up Rose's spine. Though she was not Romany, if the idea of having a Gypsy in her midst could irk the baroness, Rose would let the woman believe what she wished.
Rose chose her next words carefully. Thomas would be displeased if she were to spend her first moments with his mother berating her for her small-mindedness.
“My childhood was unhappy. My father died when I was young and my mother married a horrible man soon after. So if I do not speak freely about myself, it is because I would rather look to a happier future.”
This part of her history was true. She'd fled her mother's home when fighting off her husband's lecherous advances became almost impossible. Rose knew eventually he'd force himself on her and couldn't bear the thought of suffering that degradation. If she was to become a whore, it would be her choice, not his.
Baroness Linley looked over at her two daughters, Prudence and Priscilla. Under her glare, they shrank back into the red-striped settee.
Rose sympathized with the young women. Twenty-seven and twenty-six, respectively, they were so firmly settled into spinsterhood that they were collecting dust.
Thomas had explained to Rose that he'd tried for years to see them wed and settled, but growing up under their mother's rule had left both girls timid and without the courage to speak up for themselves. Eventually, he'd given up hope.
Rose's eyes narrowed. Beneath unflattering gowns of matching yellow, the sisters were colorless, almost featureless really. Their pale faces beneath tightly pinned-back hair showed a hopelessness that came from living under the dark cloud that was their mother.
Her hands twitched to drag them outside for a rousing game of cricket in the garden. A rosy flush brought on by an hour or two in the sunshine would certainly go far to ease the deathly pallor on their faces. Or perhaps she could match them herself if she could find a pair of suitors with the fortitude to stand up to the dragon. It would certainly irk the duchess.
Rose squelched a smile. It was an idea worth considering.
“I do apologize for my rudeness, dearest,” Thomas said as he returned, crossed the room, and took a seat beside her. “My steward had a question about the property in Kent.” With his father ill and his older brother in Paris living a debauched life, the responsibility of caring for the family and overseeing their holdings had fallen on Thomas.
He swept his gaze over his mother and sisters and his smile wavered. “I hope you have spent the time getting acquainted?”
He turned back to Rose and she saw a familiar twinkle in his deep brown eyes. He'd warned her about his family and knew he'd tossed Rose into a cage with a tiger and her cubs.
Leaning in, he whispered, “I see you have not been bitten, love. This pleases me greatly.”
Rose's mouth twitched and she forgot Baroness Linley for a moment as she stared into the handsome face framed beneath wavy russet hair. She whispered back, “I long ago learned how to avoid gnashing teeth and sharp claws as part of my previous profession.”
He took her hand. His warm brown eyes spoke of his affection. She shivered under his stare.
A sharp harrumph ruined the moment. “Does the cook plan to serve luncheon today or are we to starve while you make calf eyes at each other?”
Thomas chuckled low and turned back to his mother. “She is at the moment laying out a feast in the breakfast room. I do not think you're at peril of starving to death in the next few minutes, Mother.”
Rose smiled as she let her eyes roam over his square jaw to his mouth. He'd only managed to kiss her once, after the parson declared them wed, and it was not enough to satisfy the curiosity that had been building ever since their first meeting in the garden of the courtesan school.
She'd been kissed by only two men before Thomas: once by an overly zealous groom from an estate near her childhood cottage; and by His Grace, whose passionless kisses had left her cold.
The thought of kissing Thomas again, without an audience, helped to ease the tension she was feeling. It did not matter what the baroness thought of her. Thomas cared for her. That was all that mattered.
The next several hours were trying. Everywhere Rose went in the sizable town house, the Baroness Linley seemed to find an excuse to linger nearby. Rose wasn't certain if the matron hoped to scare her off with her glares or was expecting Rose to try to abscond with the silver.
Either way, Thomas did his best to calm her with smiles and promises that life would be easier once his mother got over the initial shock of returning home from a short visit to a cousin to find her son married.
Unfortunately, he could not watch over her every moment of the day, and business took him from her side. The steward asked to speak with him again, the earlier issue still unresolved, and Rose was left alone to her game of avoiding the baroness. It worked well for almost an hour before the woman's shrill voice carried up the stairs.
“Where has that woman gone off to?”
Wincing, Rose slipped inside the drawing room and hid behind the door. As expected, it was only seconds later that she heard the familiar heavy footfalls of the baroness passing by.
Frustrated, Rose closed her eyes and prayed for patience. When she was a courtesan, there were no mothers-in-law to question her, to judge her, to treat her as if she were something vile picked up on the bottom of a shoe.
For a moment she felt the urge to flee the town house and seek her freedom. How far could she get before anyone noticed she was missing?
The sudden pressure of a hand on her waist startled her as Thomas joined her behind the door. He grinned and pulled her close.
“I'm very proud of how you've managed to tolerate Mother without pushing her out a window.” Thomas hesitated for only a moment before reaching up to cup the back of her neck. He leaned in until his breath brushed her face. “I think you deserve a reward for your patience.”
Her breath caught when she realized his intention. She didn't have time to breathe again or smile her encouragement before his mouth closed over hers.
The kiss started out as a brief, teasing brush of his mouth, and all thoughts of fleeing vanished. He pulled back to peer into her smiling eyes. It was all the permission he needed to kiss her again. He reclaimed her mouth in a searing kiss that she felt all the way down to her toes.
She moaned in her throat, fitting her body to his. He clasped her tightly against him, one hand on her lower back and the other guiding her head for a perfect fit.
Tongues teased and Rose forgot about his mother, sisters, anything outside of the moment and their first real kiss.
When Thomas finally lifted his head, his face mirrored her surprise at her passionate response. It took a few heartbeats before his mouth twitched into a lopsided grin.
“You surprise me, my beautiful wife.” Thomas bent to kiss her neck, nuzzling his way up to tug her earlobe with his teeth. “I thought the presence of my mother would put a chill over my stolen kiss. I am pleased to discover my error.”
She ran her hands over his waistcoat. “I have been waiting for weeks to kiss you,” she admitted shyly. “Though I suppose it is improper to admit such a thing.”
He released her neck and cupped her face. “Anything that happens between us should be a natural part of our marriage. I do not want you to feel as if you need to hold back your opinions with me.” He caressed her cheek. “It is your spirit that drew me to you, in spite of your attempts to be proper. Your eyes couldn't hide your mischievous side.”
Smiling softly, she rose up on her toes and threw her arms around his neck. “Then you'd best kiss me again. We have weeks to make up for and I plan to be a demanding wife.”