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Authors: Deborah Hale

The Wedding Season

BOOK: The Wedding Season
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DEBORAH HALE

After a decade of tracing her ancestors to their roots in Georgian-era Britain, RWA Golden Heart Award winner Deborah Hale turned to historical romance writing as a way to blend her love of the past with her desire to spin a good love story. Deborah lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, between the historic British garrison town of Halifax and the romantic Annapolis Valley of Longfellow’s
Evangeline.
With four children (including twins), Deborah calls writing her “sanity retention mechanism.” On good days, she likes to think it’s working.

Deborah invites you to visit her personal website at www.deborahhale.com, or find out more about her at www.Harlequin.com.

LOUISE M. GOUGE

has been married to her husband, David, for forty-six years. They have four children and six grandchildren. Louise always had an active imagination, thinking up stories for her friends, classmates and family, but seldom writing them down. At a friend’s insistence, in 1984 she finally began to type up her latest idea. Before trying to find a publisher, Louise returned to college, earning a BA in English/creative writing and a master’s degree in liberal studies. She reworked the novel based on what she had learned and sold it to a major Christian publisher. Louise then worked in television marketing for a short time before becoming a college English/humanities instructor. She has had eleven novels published, five of which have earned multiple awards, including the 2006 Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award. Please visit her website at www.louisemgouge.com.

The Wedding Season
DEBORAH HALE
LOUISE M. GOUGE
MUCH ADO ABOUT NUPTIALS

Deborah Hale

 

In memory of my beloved grandmothers,
Edna MacDonald and Agnes Graham,
who were such a loving, inspiring presence
in the lives of their many grandchildren.

 

Bear with each other and forgive whatever
grievances you may have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.


Colossians
3:13

Chapter One

The Cotswolds, England
1814

“M
iss Leonard, I presume?”

The question, posed in a rich, firm baritone voice, startled Rebecca Beaton as she stooped to pluck a fragrant purple hyacinth in the garden at Rose Grange. Had Hermione decided to abandon her sketchbook and venture outside to help gather flowers?

Rising, Rebecca scanned the garden. But she saw no sign of her former pupil, to whom she now served as companion.

The only other person in sight was a well-dressed gentleman, presumably the one who had spoken. He was tall and broad-shouldered with dark brown hair, a high brow and a proud, jutting nose. His piercing slate-blue eyes regarded her with a mixture of surprise and disapproval.

But that was ridiculous. How could he possibly disapprove of her when he did not even know who she was?

Realizing he must have mistaken her for Hermione, she was about to correct him when he rushed on. “I beg your
pardon for presuming to address you without a proper introduction, Miss Leonard. But since we might soon be quite intimately connected, I hope you will permit me the liberty of introducing myself.”

How was Hermione going to be
intimately connected
with this gentleman?

Again he refused to give Rebecca an opportunity to inquire, but continued speaking as if he did not care whether she objected. “I am Sebastian Stanhope, Viscount Benedict. I have just come from London after learning, to my considerable dismay, that my brother has gotten himself engaged to you.”

So that’s what this bewildering visitation was all about. Rebecca felt on firmer ground at last, though it grieved her to hear the viscount was displeased with his brother’s betrothal. She must explain his mistake at once and fetch the real Hermione to speak with him, though she feared such an interview would upset the dear girl.

But Lord Benedict still refused to let her get a word in. “I am certain you have many fine qualities, Miss Leonard. Indeed, I can understand how your beauty must have secured my brother’s admiration.”

Her
beauty?
Even if his lordship had paused just then to let her speak, Rebecca doubted she could have produced a sound. Her teachers at school had always impressed upon her and the other girls their deficiencies of appearance. Whenever she peeped in the looking glass long enough to check that she was neat and tidy, all she saw was an unattractive square jaw, unmanageable hair of a commonplace brown shade and brows far too full and dark for beauty.

Was the viscount trying to flatter her or mock her?

He sounded sincere enough in his brusque, imperious
manner. “I am pleasantly surprised to discover you are not some green girl barely out of the schoolroom.”

That must be a polite way of implying she was so firmly “on the shelf” it amazed him that she’d managed to secure any marriage proposal. Even if his lordship had put the case in so blunt a manner, Rebecca could not have disputed it. With her lack of fortune and beauty, she’d never had much hope of securing a husband. Each passing year had only whittled away at whatever unlikely dreams she might have had. Dreams of a poor but kindly curate, perhaps, or a widower who needed someone to care for his motherless children and could not afford to be particular.

Firmly turning her thoughts from such modest romantic fancies, Rebecca forced herself to concentrate on what Lord Benedict was saying. “Your manner of dress suggests a character not afflicted with frivolity and I approve your reticence. It is refreshing to meet a woman who does not chatter on like a magpie.”

Rebecca barely stifled a hoot of laughter. Though no magpie, she would have had plenty to say for herself, if only his lordship would give her an opportunity. The viscount was certainly talkative enough, though she could hardly compare the mellow resonance of his voice to that of a squawky bird.

“My brother’s taste in women has clearly improved.” He swept a glance from the toes of her shoes up to the crest of her bonnet. “Still, I fear it would be a terrible mistake for him to marry you.”

“Why is that?” Rebecca managed to squeeze in the question when Lord Benedict paused for breath, though she wondered why she hadn’t used the opportunity to reveal her true identity.

His lordship started at the sound of her voice. Had he
begun to think she might be mute? Or was he not accustomed to having his pronouncements questioned?

Whatever the cause of his surprise, he quickly recovered from it. “For a number of excellent reasons, I assure you. Though my brother is a fine young fellow in many respects, he is impulsive and changeable in his affections. You are not the first woman with whom he has fallen in love. Fortunately I was able to end his other dalliances before they reached the troublesome stage yours has.”

Lord Benedict was a fine-looking gentleman of great consequence who had paid her more compliments in five minutes than she had received in her whole life. Yet Rebecca found herself forming a decidedly poor opinion of him.

For one thing, it sounded as if he was trying to run his brother’s life. For another, she did not care for the way he dismissed Mr. Stanhope’s feelings for Hermione as a meaningless dalliance without ever having seen them together. She
had
seen the way the young gentleman looked at Hermione and spoke to her. Though admittedly no expert in matters of the heart, Rebecca believed she could recognize the difference between a transient fancy and true love.

His lordship must have sensed she was not swayed by his reasoning.

“There is also the matter of your birth and fortune.” He dismissed the fine old manor house with a flick of his gaze. “The woman my brother weds will one day be Lady Benedict. It is not a position that should be assumed by someone who is unprepared for the demands it will entail.”

Once again Rebecca had a chance to get a word in, and once again she let her curiosity get the better of her. “Why will your
brother’s
wife become Lady Benedict? Surely, if you have a son one day…”

She lowered her gaze, chiding herself for raising such a
delicate subject with a man she’d just met. A man who didn’t even know who she truly was.

“I will have no sons, Miss Leonard, nor daughters either. Carrying on the family line is a task I will leave to my brother and his wife, which is why it is of the utmost importance for Claude to choose his bride wisely.”

The viscount’s answer piqued her curiosity further still, but this time Rebecca refused to indulge it with more questions. It was clear Lord Benedict wanted his brother to select a wife using his head rather than his heart, and the only qualifications should be fortune and rank. Hermione Leonard might not be the daughter of an earl with a large dowry, but she was well bred and accomplished. What was even more important, in Rebecca’s opinion, she would make a loving wife and devoted mother.

Lord Benedict reminded Rebecca of the haughty relatives who had tried to prevent her parents’ marriage. “Is that everything you wish to say, sir?”

“Not quite. I have an important request to make of you. After hearing me out with such civility, I hope you will be inclined to grant it.”

“Request?” Rebecca arched one eyebrow.

The viscount thrust his arms behind his back and drew himself up to his full, impressive height. “Having heard some of my reasons for opposing the match, I must ask you to promise you will not wed my brother.”

Though her conscience prodded her to explain his mistake, Rebecca could not bear to expose poor Hermione to this dreadful man without proper warning. Besides, Lord Benedict would discover the truth soon enough. “I give you my word, sir. I will not marry your brother under any circumstances.”

“Truly?” Her reply seemed to take some of the starch
out of the viscount. “Just like that? You’re certain you won’t change your mind?”

“Entirely certain.” Rebecca reminded herself she was telling the truth. “After everything you’ve said, nothing could induce me to make such a match.”

Once he believed he’d gotten his way, Lord Benedict became far more affable. “That is very sensible of you and most obliging. I came here fearing I might have a fight on my hands. Many women, once they’d accepted a marriage offer from a man with my brother’s prospects, would have clung to it against all appeals. Your willingness to act in everyone’s best interests speaks well of your sense and character.”

His cordiality made Rebecca begin to regret misleading him. Lord Benedict had misled
himself,
she reminded her nagging conscience. She’d never once claimed to
be
Hermione. If he’d given her an opportunity to speak in the beginning, rather than rattling on in that arrogant manner, he would soon have learned of his error.

“If you will excuse me, sir, I must retire.” If she stayed in the garden any longer, Rebecca feared Hermione might come looking for her and expose the whole mistaken identity.

“Of course.” His lordship paid her the compliment of bowing very low. “I will not detain you any longer.”

With that, he marched away looking greatly pleased with himself, while Rebecca hurried into Rose Grange to tell Hermione everything that had transpired.

 

“You did
what?
” The Honourable Claude Stanhope hurled down his silver fork with such force it might have chipped his china dinner plate.

Leaping to his feet, he glared down the length of the
dining table at his half brother. “How dare you speak to Miss Leonard without my knowledge, let alone demand she break our engagement?”

“I did not
demand
anything of the lady.” Sebastian continued to consume his helping of roast pork with a better appetite than he’d had since he learned of his brother’s latest romantic entanglement. “I simply explained the situation and requested her cooperation. To my surprise, she was most agreeable.”

“Agreeable?” Claude huffed. “She’s a perfect delight! And I refuse to believe she consented to break our engagement at a mere word from you. Tell me the truth. Did you threaten her? Try to bribe her? Did you tell her despicable lies about me?”

“Nothing so nefarious, I assure you.” Sebastian tried to dismiss his brother’s description of Hermione Leonard as a
perfect delight
but found he could not.

Though her looks were not perfect by any objective measure of feminine beauty, there was a strength about her jaw and brow that appealed to him more than the porcelain delicacy currently in fashion. Her eyes were very fine, too. The warm golden brown suggested prudence and constancy, while flickers of emerald betrayed lively intelligence, perhaps even an impish sense of humor. Ever since their meeting, he’d found himself recalling those eyes and the mystery he’d sensed in their beguiling depths.

Now he strove to put them out of his mind so he could concentrate on this discussion with his brother. Having rescued Claude from his latest scrape with such ease, the last thing he needed was for his brother to run back to Miss Leonard and urge her to change her mind. Not that he suspected the lady could be easily persuaded, in spite of his experience to the contrary. Sebastian flattered himself that he
had made a good case for breaking the engagement. It was also possible Miss Leonard had been having second thoughts even before he spoke to her.

“I simply explained my reasons for objecting to a union between you,” he continued. “Then I requested her promise not to proceed further. I must admit, I was surprised by her willingness to oblige me so readily. I was prepared to pay well to secure your freedom.”

It would have cost him a pretty penny to extricate his brother from an engagement to any of the grasping beauties with whom Claude had been besotted in the past. What a relief that Hermione Leonard had proven to possess far more sense and strength of character than those others. Sebastian had considered offering her generous compensation for her cooperation, but Miss Leonard’s admirable behavior had made him fear she might take offense at such a suggestion.

“I don’t want to be free of Hermione!” Claude pounded his fist on the table, making the silverware jump and the crystal shudder. “Why can’t you understand that, Sebastian? I want to spend the rest of my life with her.”

To his considerable dismay, Sebastian found he
could
understand his brother’s desire for something more than a passing flirtation with Hermione Leonard. For that very reason, he was relieved he’d been able to break the engagement. He would not relish the prospect of feeling more than brotherly concern for his attractive sister-in-law.

“You didn’t want to be free of the others either, remember?” he snapped, unsettled by the interest Miss Leonard had stirred in him after such a brief meeting. He’d believed himself immune from those sorts of feelings and wanted it to remain that way. “Yet later you were always grateful for my intervention. I have no doubt it will be the same this time.”

In truth, Sebastian was not quite as confident as he strove to sound. Though he had many reasons for hoping this latest dalliance would end like all the others, he would lose considerable respect for his brother if Claude recovered too easily from his feelings for the intriguing Miss Leonard. “It will
not,
I tell you!” Claude’s boyish features clenched in a resolute scowl that made him look older. “Hermione is nothing like those other girls.”

Sebastian could not gainsay that. Miss Leonard was as different from those simpering coquettes as a modest, fragrant spray of lily-of-the-valley was from a patch of showy Oriental lilies with their cloying scent.

“Consequently,” Claude continued, “my feelings for her are quite beyond anything I felt for them.”

His blazing hostility seemed to moderate, as Sebastian had known it would. His brother had always been prone to strong, sudden passions that quickly burned out. His infatuation with Miss Leonard, however intense at the moment, would be no different. Sebastian assured himself that what he’d done was as much for the lady’s benefit as for Claude’s. He would not want her hurt when his brother’s ardor waned.

“I am grateful to you,” Claude admitted in a grudging tone, “for saving me from myself with those other ladies. If you hadn’t, I would not be free now to commit myself, heart and soul, to Hermione.”

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