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Authors: Alyssa Everett

The Marriage Act

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The Marriage Act

By Alyssa Everett

London
,
1821

When John, Viscount Welford, proposed to Caroline Fleetwood, the only daughter of the Bishop of Essex, he thought he knew exactly what he was getting—a lovely, innocent bride.

Five years later, he knows better. The woman who ran to another man on their wedding night—
after
they’d consummated the marriage—is hardly innocent. Years spent apart while John served as a diplomatic attaché have allowed them to save face in society, but all good pretenses must come to an end. When Caroline receives word that her father is dying, she begs John to accompany her on one last journey to see him.

But there’s an added problem—Caroline never told her father that her marriage to John was a farce. As they play-act for others, Caroline is delighted to find she never really knew her husband at all. But can she be the kind of wife he needs—and does she want to be?

85,950 words

Dear Reader,

I’ve been hearing the term
brand promise
a lot
recently in business articles. This is something we talk about behind-the-scenes
at Carina Press quite often, because we know there’s a trend right now to call
something romance but not deliver on a happily-ever-after or even a
happily-for-now. But those of us at Carina Press are longtime romance readers
and fans, and we know how important that brand promise of a HEA is to romance
readers, so we want to assure you that if we call something romance, we’ll
deliver a story with strong characters, a wonderful relationship and,
eventually, an emotionally satisfying ending at the conclusion of the story
(even if that conclusion comes after two, three or four books, not just one!)
You can trust us to want that romance ending just as much as you do!

This month, we have seven romances in a variety of subgenres
I’m happy to be sharing with you, including one by a debut author.

Christi Barth wraps up her contemporary romance Shore Secrets
trilogy with the stand-alone novel
Back to Us
. When her ex-boyfriend
refuses to sell her his land unless she dates him for a month, an uncompromising
winemaker learns that some bargains are worth making for a second chance at
love.

Joining Christi in the contemporary romance category, with
one of a male/male nature, is A.M. Arthur and her Restoration Series. In
Finding Their Way
, Boxer thought he was done with relationships,
but deepening his new and evolving friendship with Riley could be worth the risk
of another heartbreak.

And in the erotic contemporary romance subgenre, a
financially destitute and desperate woman agrees to a shocking contract—engaging
in BDSM sex with a man who has a dark and mysterious past—in exchange for all
the money she could ever wish for. Check out
Under Contract
, part of
Jeffe Kennedy’s Falling Under series, which also includes her previous two
novels
Going Under
and
Under His Touch
.

Fan-favorite Cindy Spencer Pape is back with a new steampunk
romance in the Gaslight Chronicles. In
Ether & Elephants
,
Tom and Nell have loved one another since they were children, but one
cataclysmic mistake destroyed their chances. Now they are forced to work
together to save a missing child and all the old sparks have returned, igniting
fires that may burn out of control.

If you’re looking for a bit more of a traditional historical
romance, Alyssa Everett delivers a fantastic one with
The Marriage Act
.
Though bitterly estranged since their wedding night, warring husband and wife
John and Caro must mask their hostility to play a devoted couple for Caro’s
unsuspecting family in a second-chance-at-love regency romance.

Taking a less traditional historical romance route is Kari
Edgren. Defying her goddess-born family, Selah Kilbrid joins with a mortal enemy
in
An Immortal Descent
to save the two people she loves most as they
race toward a long-forgotten nightmare that awaits them in Ireland.

And this month we’re proud to present debut author Caitlyn
McFarland and her Dragonsworn trilogy. In book one,
Soul of Smoke
, Kai
Monahan’s uneventful hike in the Rocky Mountains ends with a dragon shapeshifter
named Rhys magically bound to her—now she must complete the bond and give up her
freedom or risk unleashing dragons on humanity in a war that will decimate
both.

Escape into fun (and a happy ending!) with a Carina Press
romance this month by picking up one of these novels or one of our more than a
thousand backlist titles.

Until next time, here’s wishing you a wonderful month of
books you love, remember and recommend.

Happy reading!

Angela James

Editorial Director, Carina Press

Dedication

To Mom and Dad, the beloved polar opposites of an uncaring stepmother and a spendthrift father.

Author
Note

There is no Bishop of Essex; the county of Essex currently
belongs to the Diocese of Chelmsford, and during the Regency it belonged to the
London diocese. Chelmsford Cathedral was simply St. Mary’s until 1914, and
Bishop Fleetwood, his family and his Regency-era bishop’s palace are all
entirely fictional.

Also, though both Strelley and All Saints are real places,
and while the squire and the rector there during the Regency were members of the
Edge family, Caro’s cousin Anne and her family in Strelley are all entirely
fictional.

A note about the term “grinning like a Cheshire cat.” Though
many readers today associate it with
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
,
the expression had already existed for generations when Lewis Carroll
incorporated the cat and its grin into Alice’s story in 1865. “He grins like a
Cheshire cat” appears in the second edition of Grose’s
A
Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
(1788) and notable figures
such as Charles Lamb (1808) and William Makepeace Thackeray (1855) alluded to
the phrase before Alice was published.

Marriage. n. s. [
mariage
, French;
maritagium
, Low Latin, from
maritus
.] The act of uniting a man and woman for life.

—Samuel Johnson,
A
Dictionary of the English Language
, 1755

Chapter One

Love is the wisdom of the fool and the folly of the wise.
—Samuel Johnson

Chelmsford
,
Essex
,
May 1816

“If you’ll come with me, my lord,” the butler said, “Miss Fleetwood is in the morning room.”

The Bishop of Essex clapped John on the back. “Good luck, my boy. She’s young, and I couldn’t give her up to just any man, but I believe you’ll be good for her.”

“And to her,” John assured him, shaking the bishop’s hand. “If she’ll have me. Thank you, sir.”

He drew a resolute breath and followed the butler from the Right Reverend Matthew Fleetwood’s modest, book-lined study, past the small knot of supplicants waiting to request the good bishop’s help and down a corridor flanked by a series of comfortably furnished rooms. The house was one of the many things John liked about Bishop Fleetwood and his daughter. Though it was nominally a palace, everything about it felt cozy and welcoming.

Despite his outward calm, John’s heart beat slightly out of time as they approached the morning room. He’d ridden to Essex for one reason and one reason only, and he was far from certain about his odds for success.

Miss Fleetwood was reading something—a letter?—as the butler announced him, but she opened the top drawer of the rosewood desk beside her and quickly shut the paper away before turning toward the door with a flustered look. “Lord Welford. I didn’t know you were in Chelmsford.”

John bowed to her as the butler withdrew. “Miss Fleetwood.” Gad, she was even lovelier than he remembered—raven hair, milk-white skin and eyes as blue as larkspur in July. Her light muslin gown hinted at the graceful lines of her lithe, slender figure. The butterflies in his stomach fluttered happily. “I arrived late yesterday and spent the night at The Bell. I trust I haven’t come at an inopportune time?”

“Not at all.” She clasped her hands together in a faintly nervous gesture, her eyes straying to the desk drawer beside her.

“I have your father’s permission to speak to you,” he said, in case she was worried about entertaining him unchaperoned. He smiled, hoping to set her at ease despite his own barely suppressed excitement. “I’ve just come from a long interview with him.”

“Have you?” A crease formed between her delicate brows. But then, why shouldn’t she look puzzled? She was a month shy of her eighteenth birthday, and wasn’t the least bit spoiled or vain. Though he’d admired her from afar since the beginning of the year, he’d spoken to her only a handful of times, and had walked her home from church in London exactly twice. He doubted she was expecting a marriage proposal.

Perhaps he should lay some groundwork before popping the question. “I learned yesterday morning that I’ve been appointed to a diplomatic post in Vienna. I’m likely to remain there for some time. Perhaps years.”

She tilted her head to the left. “I’m not sure whether to console you or congratulate you. Was this news welcome to you?”

“Yes, very much. Except—” He stopped. On second thought, the expression she wore wasn’t puzzlement at all. She looked...distressed? And not because he was leaving. He’d only just told her his news, and her eyes were already red-rimmed. “Is something wrong?”

She stiffened. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s only...forgive me, but you seem troubled.”

She looked away, blushing. “Nothing is wrong. I had a cinder in my eye, that’s all.” She added in a firmer voice, “It’s gone now.”

Relieved, he closed the distance between them in two strides. “Miss Fleetwood, perhaps you haven’t given much thought yet to marriage—”

She raised startled eyes to his. “Marriage?”

“Yes. I realize you’re young, and if my circumstances were otherwise, I’d be disposed to wait. But I’m twenty-six, and if I’m to live abroad, I’d prefer to marry before I leave England.” Despite his usual caution, the words tumbled out of him. “You’re far too lovely to pass an entire Season without receiving other offers, and I can hardly ask you to wait for me, not on such slim acquaintance. And whatever your age, you carry yourself with grace and poise beyond your years.” Grace, poise, charm...Miss Fleetwood was the most enchanting young lady he’d ever laid eyes on. John was more than half-convinced she was some kind of otherworldly vision who’d stepped straight from the pages of a fairy tale.

Her blue eyes had gone wide with astonishment. “I’m not sure I understand you.”

“Miss Fleetwood...” Though it was most unlike him, he seized one of her hands in his. The warmth of her skin sent a jolt of pleasure through him. “It can’t have escaped your notice how much I esteem and admire you. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

She gazed back at him, speechless.

“I would strive to be worthy of your affection.” He let go of her hand. “Unless there’s someone else?”

“No.” She lowered her eyes and gulped. “There’s no one.”

For a dreadful, sinking moment he was all but certain she meant to turn him down. “If you’re wondering about my stepmother—” botheration, he’d never intended to mention her “—allow me to assure you she keeps her own establishment and, aside from my duties as guardian to my half brother, I have little to no contact with her.”

Miss Fleetwood gave a slight, distracted shake of her head. “No, I wasn’t wondering about Lady Welford. I know you don’t get on.”

“Ah.” John rocked back slightly on his heels. He’d imagined two ways this conversation could go, one good and one bad, and he still couldn’t tell which version this was. “Your father has given my suit his blessing, you know.” That might weigh with her. The bishop was universally loved and respected, and he clearly doted on Miss Fleetwood—his only daughter, his youngest child. It certainly weighed with John. Bishop Fleetwood had served as John’s mentor in the Lords, steered him toward a diplomatic career, and given him invaluable advice when his stepmother’s extravagance had left him at his wits’ end. There were few men he respected more.

Miss Fleetwood still hadn’t given him her answer. If she was going to turn him down, John hoped she’d make some excuse, if only as a sop to his pride. Surely his offer deserved serious consideration, even from a diamond of the first water like Caroline Fleetwood. He was a peer, and the first steady, self-disciplined Welford in three generations. He’d spent the past three years successfully hauling his family back from the financial brink, and despite his relative youth he’d just secured a coveted diplomatic post.

He waited.

At last Miss Fleetwood looked up, a gleam in her eyes. “Would our engagement be announced in the papers, do you think?”

His heart gave a hopeful bound. “Not unless you wish it.”

A barely perceptible frown flitted across her white brow. Had he said the wrong thing? He’d assumed a clergyman’s daughter would shrink from the immodesty of a public notice, but perhaps even the most sheltered young lady wished to advertise her marriage plans. He quickly amended, “Though speaking for myself, I should be honored to make such an announcement.”

Her gaze slipped to one side, the side with the rosewood desk, before coming back to meet his. “Yes, Lord Welford. I accept.”

He let his breath out in a whoosh. “Oh, God.” He laughed, the reaction a combination of exultation and surprise. “I mean—do forgive me. I meant no irreverence, I was simply...You’ve made me very happy, Miss Fleetwood.
Caroline
.” He could use her Christian name now.

No, he could do more than that. He’d dreamed of little else since first setting eyes on her that winter, though he hadn’t begun to hope until their first extended meeting outside the press of Easter worshippers leaving St. George’s in Hanover Square. Now she’d agreed to become his wife. Smiling, he set his hands on her shoulders. “May I?”

He wasn’t sure she would understand what he was asking, but she looked up at him and nodded solemnly.

He leaned his head down until his lips met hers. Despite his ardor, he took care to keep their first kiss—surely her first ever—as gentle as it was respectful. He had no wish to frighten her, and they had a lifetime of embraces to look forward to. He was going to dedicate his life to making her happy.

She felt small and delicate in his arms, though she was taller than average for a woman and came up almost to his nose. Her lips were petal soft. She didn’t sigh or melt against him, but neither did she draw back in alarm, and that was all he could ask. One couldn’t expect a young lady of her age and background to be at ease with the physical aspects of love. That would come later, once they were married.

And he meant the wedding to be soon, not only because he was eager to begin their life together, but because he was needed in Vienna the following month. “We can marry by license,” he said when he let her go. Giddily, he added, “I know a bishop who might be willing to issue one.”

She nodded, a faraway look in her eyes.

He had never before been so hopeful or so proud. Even her dreamy expression struck him as a promising sign. Apparently their first kiss had affected her more than he’d realized.

BOOK: The Marriage Act
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