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Authors: Michelle McMaster

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency

The Marriage Bargain

BOOK: The Marriage Bargain
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Copyright 2000 by Michelle McMaster

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

The Marriage Bargain

A Peanut Press Book

Published by

peanutpress.com, Inc.

www.peanutpress.com

ISBN: 0-7408-1109-6

First Peanut Press Edition

Electronic format made

available by arrangement with

Dorchester Publishing Co., Inc.

276 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY 10001

The name “Leisure Books” is a trademark of Dorchester Publishing Co., Inc.

To

Paulette Phillips

My mother

My cherished friend

Prologue

Hertfordshire, England, 1814

“Ashes to ashes… dust to dust,” the parson croaked. He raised his hands up to the heavy gray sky that pelted the mourners with icy rain. “Receive these, thy servants, O Lord, Charles and Clarissa….”

Isobel stared down at the twin coffins in the cold ground and felt her heart turn to lead in her breast. A shovelful of dirt landed on top of her father’s casket with a thud.

She closed her eyes against the pain, and felt the cold raindrops mix with the tears that trickled down her face.

Now, she was alone.

She felt a touch on her arm, and looked up into the dark eyes of Sir Harry Lennox. He smiled down at her, and a chill infused her blood.

He was trying to comfort her, she thought, and she almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of that notion.

She had never liked her father’s old friend—never trusted him. She thought of the day only a few months ago when she had surprised Sir Harry and her mother in the conservatory; he’d been clutching her mother’s arm in a firm grip, and they had been arguing.

Later, her mother had forbidden Isobel to mention a word of it to her father. Her mother’s eyes had been haunted, frightened, and she’d desperately crushed Isobel to her breast. She had warned her daughter never to be alone with Sir Harry, but why? Her mother had never spoken of it again.

What had they argued about that day?

And was it just coincidence that Sir Harry had been visiting Hampton Park the very day her parents had been killed by highwaymen?

Isobel stared helplessly at their coffins, unable to tear her gaze away as each shovelful of dirt covered and hid them from her sight. The finality of it threatened to rip her heart in two.

Sir Harry bent his head down beside her and whispered in a silky voice, “Try not to cry, my dear. You must be brave. You are the mistress of Hampton Park, now, Isobel. You must be mindful of your station.”

Making no attempt to hide her hostility, Isobel glared up at the tall, dark-haired man who stood beside her. “I am well aware of my obligations, Sir Harry. My guardian, Mr. Langley, has explained them all to me.” She motioned to the man who was heading off to fetch their coach, the man to whom her father had entrusted her care. “With no sons and no other male relations to name as his heir, my father had no choice but to leave Hampton Park to me. I owe it to his and my mother’s memory to ensure the estate’s protection and prosperity. And I intend to do just that.”

“But to do that you will need a husband, my dear.” Sir Harry reached for her hand. “Have you given any thought to the matter?”

She snatched her hand away.

“No. I have not. My parents have just been buried, sir, and you would have me going to the marriage mart? I will not even consider such a thing until I am out of mourning, in a year’s time.”

Sir Harry looked pensive. “Of course. But that is not entirely what I had in mind, my dear. You know that I have always been fond of you.”

Unable to speak, Isobel simply stared at him in disbelief.

“As your father’s oldest and most trusted friend, I must tell you that he and I discussed the idea… and he was most pleased by the notion of a match between us.”

A sickening stab of fear pierced Isobel’s heart. “I do not believe you. He would never have suggested such a thing. Never.”

Sir Harry chuckled condescendingly. “My dear, you are quite naïve in the ways if the world, aren’t you?

You’ve been sheltered here, on this country estate. But it is time for you to grow up, Isobel. It is time to take your place in the world as mistress of Hampton Park… and later, as Lady Lennox.”

Isobel remained silent, fighting against the feelings that swirled within her.

“Your father wanted it to be so, Isobel.”

She stepped away from him, seething with anger. “And what of my mother? Did she want it, too? I daresay she didn’t. She warned me about you, Sir Harry. But she needn’t have. I have eyes. I have ears.

And I have seen and heard things over the years that told me you were a man to be wary of.”

The man was silent, looking down at her with the glittery dark eyes of a snake.

Isobel continued. “I know what you want, Sir Harry. You want Hampton Park. I think you have always wanted it. And now that my parents are dead, you think to take possession of it by making me your bride.” She shook her head. “That is never going to happen, I promise you.”

He smiled a thin, cold smile.

“You are upset, my dear. Overwhelmed with grief. And I have been too hasty in my proposal. When you are through observing your year of mourning, we shall talk more of it.”

“No, we shall not talk more of it. I will not marry you, Sir Harry. Not in a year’s time, or a hundred years’ time.”

Sir Harry made to reply, but stopped when he saw Isobel’s guardian approaching. She breathed a sigh of relief when Mr. Langley took his place at her side. He and Sir Harry made their bows, then Sir Harry backed away and turned toward his own carriage.

Mr. Langley led Isobel to their carriage then handed her in. She sat forward to look out the window, to reassure herself of Sir Harry’s departure.

He walked with long strides toward his carriage, but before he reached it, he looked back over his shoulder and pinned Isobel’s gaze with a dark, menacing one of his own.

As her carriage pulled away down the road, Isobel watched her father’s friend until she couldn’t see him anymore. Horrified, she knew that she hadn’t seen the last of Sir Harry Lennox. Of that she was certain.

Chapter One
One Year Later

Isobel stepped back into the shadows, her blood turning to ice water in her veins.

So… Sir Harry had come back for her as he’d promised. He had given her a year to mourn, and now he was here at Hampton Park to claim what he thought was his.

Her stomach tightened into a knot of fear and disbelief. She listened intently to the two men arguing in the library, still unwilling to accept what she was hearing.

Did Sir Harry actually think she would willingly marry him?

Isobel’s heart hardened with cold anger.

Not as long as there was breath in her body. She would never let Sir Harry take possession of the estate her father had worked so hard to build. And she would never let him take possession of her.

“Certainly, it is time for Isobel to marry—” Her guardian’s voice floated out of the library to where Isobel listened near the open door.

“It is past time for her to marry. The girl is almost twenty,” Sir Harry scoffed. “I’m doing you a favor, Langley, taking the girl off your hands. Of course, I would give you a generous gift to retire on, as well.”

Favor indeed. Isobel felt her blood heat with anger. Only Sir Harry would have such audacity!

“Isobel’s father entrusted me with her care, Sir Harry,” her guardian said. “Since her parents’ deaths a year ago, she has relied on me to look after her best interests, and it has been an honor to do so.” He cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I do not see marriage to you as being in her best interest at all. There are many things to consider—not the least of which is that Isobel is the heiress to a substantial fortune, and you, sir, are deeply in debt.”

“Pure speculation, I assure you,” Sir Harry said, coldly.

“That is not what my solicitor says.”

“Well, your solicitor is misinformed. I have many business interests. I will bring much to the marriage.”

“You will bring disaster! Do you think I don’t know why you want so badly to marry her, Lennox? What man wouldn’t want to marry her? A beautiful young girl with a handsome estate, and enough wealth to turn even the prince regent’s head? I know exactly what you’re after, and you won’t get it! Just because she has no family—”

“You know nothing! A man like you could never understand. I am in love with her.”

Isobel covered her mouth to keep from making a sound.

Love? The man didn’t know the meaning of the word!

“Even if that were true,” her guardian continued, “it is hardly reason for me to give my consent. You are nothing more than a gold-digger. I would be a fool to agree to such a match.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong, Langley—about a great many things. You would be a fool not to agree.”

“Are you threatening me, Sir Harry?”

“Call it what you will. But make no mistake. I shall have Isobel. And I shall have Hampton Park, with or without your consent.”

“Over my dead body, Lennox!”

There was a brief silence, then, “If you insist.”

Sir Harry’s words were followed by the sounds of a scuffle, then an ungodly scream sliced through the night. Isobel tried to stifle her own gasp of horror as she stood immobile, listening helplessly to her guardian’s death cries.

She heard the muffled thud of a body falling to the floor. Sir Harry’s dark frame appeared in the doorway, silhouetted against the yellow light that spilled out of the library.

“Ahhh.” He purred, staring at her with dark, flashing eyes. “Dessert.”

Isobel turned to flee, but he was quick, his blood evidently still fired by the heady thrill of murder. His iron grip encircled her arm like a shackle, impossible to break.

“Let me go! Let me go—Murderer!” she shouted, flailing against him.

“Let you go?” He looked down at her with eyes as black as hell itself. His gaze flicked to the body on the floor. “After all I’ve done to make you mine?”

“I am not yours. I will never be yours, do you understand?” Isobel struggled anew.

“I beg to differ, my dear.” He pulled her close. She could feel his breath on her neck. It smelled of brandy.

She turned her face away and saw her guardian’s body—the handle of a knife embedded in his chest. A pool of blood stained the Persian rug around him deep crimson. She felt a wave of queasiness and fought hard against it.

“You will be mine when you marry me, my sweet.”

“Marry you!” Isobel spat, fighting against the hands that imprisoned her. “I would sooner marry the devil himself!”

Sir Harry smiled coldly and pulled her closer. “What a happy coincidence. Mother always said I had the devil in me.”

Isobel’s gaze returned to the dead man on the floor. Perhaps it was true that the devil himself stood before her now, for what other creature could have murdered her guardian so brutally?

“Killing Edward won’t get you what you want, Sir Harry.” Isobel stared up at him, refusing to cower. “I shall go to the magistrate. You will hang for murder.”

He smiled down at her and chuckled. It was a cold, hollow sound. “You think the magistrate will arrest me, do you? Well, it will be my word against yours. And who do you think they’ll believe, hmm? Me, a baronet? Or a young girl who is known to be mentally unstable?”

“I am not mentally unstable. You are!”

He shook his head, sadly. “You see? If you insist on spouting nonsense like that, it will not be difficult to convince them. I assure you, they will believe me. Perhaps I could even convince them that you killed Mr. Langley. That shouldn’t be too hard. A lover’s quarrel gone wrong, perhaps?”

“They would never believe such a thing.”

He smiled darkly. “Won’t they? You’d be surprised what people will believe, my dear. I am very well-connected. My business interests have put me in contact with a vast array of influential people, many of whom owe me… favors, shall we say? I could call on anyone from a pirate to a magistrate, and they would be only too happy to assist me. It would be terribly easy to come up with papers declaring me your new guardian, now that Mr. Langley has so conveniently expired.”

Isobel struggled anew as fear crept up her spine like a spider. “My guardian? No. You can’t!”

He jerked her closer to him. “As I said, I can be most persuasive when it comes to getting what I want.

And I always get what I want.”

“Hampton Park will never be yours. And neither will I.” Sir Harry tightened his grip, but Isobel ignored the pain. “I would rather die first.”

“Silly girl.” He stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. Isobel twisted her face away, but he grabbed it roughly and forced her to look at him. “I could make you wish you were dead. Don’t tempt me.”

“And what will you do?” she demanded. “Tie me to my bed so I can’t escape?”

He looked pensive for a moment. “Charming idea. I hadn’t thought of that.” Then he smiled a dark, horrid smile, and pulled her tight against him. “I must say, the thought of you tied down and helpless fires my passion for you even more.”

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