Titolo: The Bride Thief
Casa editrice: Dell
Data di pubblicazione: 2002
Condizione libro: very good
Gently used. Expect delivery in 20 days. Codice inventario libreria 9780440237129-3
Riassunto: HAS ENGLAND?S MOST INFAMOUS BRIDE THIEF FINALLY MET HIS MATCH?
At six-and-twenty, Samantha Briggeham knew her marital prospects were fading by the season and she was pleased by the thought. She had no intention of being betrothed?especially against her will?to a man she did not love. She had a plan...and it didn?t include being swept into a pair of powerful arms and spirited away by a masked rider. News of Sammie?s heroic rescue from undesired wedlock turned her into the toast of the ton, wooed by suitors far and wide. But she couldn?t forget the swashbuckling brigand who?d abducted her?something about him intrigued her completely. Then she met Eric Landsdowne, the dashing and seductive Earl of Wesley.
His exploits were legendary, his life filled with danger. He was the elusive Bride Thief, who had his own reasons for helping young women escape the unhappy fate of arranged marriages, and whose true identity was a scrupulously guarded secret. But from the moment he rescued Sammie?only to discover she?d already managed to get herself un-betrothed?Eric knew he couldn?t lose her a second time. Marriage was out of the question. Which left only one option: A clandestine affair that might lead to scandal, social ruin, and the unmasking of a love-bested legend. . .
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Samantha Briggeham turned from the opened window where the cool night breeze drifted into the drawing room, and faced her beloved but clearly addle-brained father. "I cannot believe you're suggesting this, Papa. Why would you think I'd consider marrying Major Wilshire? I barely know him."
"Pshaw. He's been a family friend for years," Charles Briggeham said, crossing the drawing room to join her near the window.
"Yes, but most of those years have been spent in the Army," she pointed out, striving to keep her voice calm and suppress a shudder. She couldn't imagine any woman entertaining romantic thoughts of the dour Major Wilshire. Heavens, the man sported a puckered frown that made him look as if he'd just tasted a lemon. She strongly suspected this conversation was the result of Mama's well-intentioned, but unwelcome matchmaking machinations.
Papa stroked his chin. "You're nearly six and twenty, Sammie. 'Tis time you married."
Sammie fought a strong urge to look heavenward. Papa was the dearest, sweetest man alive, but in spite of having a wife and four daughters, he was as thick as a plank when it came to understanding females--especially her.
"Papa, I'm well beyond marriageable age. I'm perfectly content as I am."
"Nonsense. All girls wish to marry. Your mother told me so."
His words confirmed her suspicion that Mama was at the root of this mess. "Not all girls, Papa." The shudder she could no longer suppress edged down her spine at the thought of being leg-shackled to any of the men with whom she was acquainted. They were either tiresome dolts, or they simply stared at her with a mixture of pity, confusion, and in several cases, downright horror when she dared discuss mathematical equations or scientific matters with them. Most of them regarded her as "eccentric Sammie," a nom de plume she philosophically accepted as she knew she was eccentric--at least in the eyes of her peers.
"Of course all girls wish to marry," Papa said again, jerking her attention back to the matter at hand. "Look at your sisters."
"I have looked at them. Every day of my life. I love them dearly, but Papa, you know I'm nothing like them. They're beautiful and sweet and feminine--perfectly suited to be wives. For the past decade we've all but tripped upon their constant stream of suitors. But just because Lucille, Hermione, and Emily are now all married doesn't mean I must marry."
"Don't you wish to have a family of your own, my dear?"
A long pause filled the air, and Samantha ignored the twinge of longing that tugged her insides. She'd buried such unrealistic fantasies long ago. "Papa, we both know that I am not the sort of woman to attract a man to marriage. Not in appearance or temperament. And besides, I'm much too old--"
"Nonsense. You're prettier than you think, Sammie. And there's nothing wrong with a woman being intelligent--so long as you don't let anyone know." He shot her a pointed look. "Luckily, Major Wilshire finds neither your advanced age nor your keen intellect overly offputting."
Sammie pursed her lips. "How incredibly kind of him."
Her sarcasm floated over Papa's head. Stroking his chin, he continued, "Indeed. In fact, the Major prefers a mature bride. Of course, helping Hubert with his experiments, gathering insects and toads and all that, will have to stop. Quite undignified for a married lady to be crawling about in the dirt, you know. Your brother will simply have to carry on without your assistance."
This situation had gone quite far enough. Sammie cleared her throat and pushed her spectacles higher on her nose. "Papa. I love working with Hubert in his laboratory and have no intention of stopping, especially now as my own experiments are showing promise of a breakthrough. And I am perfectly happy at the prospect of being a doting aunt to my future nieces and nephews. I have no desire to become Major Wilshire's wife, and frankly, I'm stunned that you would even suggest such a thing."
"Major Wilshire is a fine man."
"Yes, he is. He is also old enough to be my father."
"He is only three and forty--"
"Provided he had children when he was quite young," she continued smoothly, as if her father hadn't spoken. "But more importantly, I don't love him, and he does not love me."
"Perhaps not, but he certainly holds you in some affection."
"Certainly not enough to marry me."
"On the contrary, he quite readily agreed to the match."
A heavy silence filled the air as the significance of his words settled upon her. "What do you mean, he agreed to the match?" she asked, when she finally located her voice. "Papa, please tell me you haven't already discussed this with Major Wilshire."
"Well, of course I have. Everything is settled. The Major couldn't be happier. Nor your mother and I. Congratulations, my dear. You're officially betrothed."
"Betrothed!" Samantha's explosive reply rang through the air like a pistol shot. She squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to draw deep, calming breaths. Mama had tried unsuccessfully in the past to find suitors for her, but had finally abandoned the effort in favor of focusing her attention on her three younger daughters--all beauties of the first water.
But ever since Emily's wedding three months ago, Mama's matchmaking eye had once again focused on her one remaining unmarried daughter--a turn of events Sammie should have anticipated, but hadn't. Clearly Mama had not given up such ridiculous hopes. Still, she'd shrugged off Mama's efforts, knowing full well that there wasn't a man amongst her acquaintances who would consider marrying a plain, bespectacled, outspoken, socially inept, firmly on-the-shelf bookworm.
Except, apparently, Major Wilshire, whom Sammie could only conclude had taken leave of his senses.
Papa fitted his monocle over his left eye and peered at her. "I must say, Sammie, you don't look quite as ecstatic as your mother assured me you would be." He looked truly perplexed.
"I have no desire to marry Major Wilshire, Papa." She cleared her throat, then added very clearly, "And I will not do so."
"Pshaw. Of course you will. Everything is already arranged, my dear."
"Why, yes. The banns will appear this Sunday. The wedding will take place next month."
"Next month! Papa, this is madness. I cannot--"
"Now don't worry, Samantha." He reached out and patted her hand. "I'm sure you'll be happy once you and the Major get to know each other a bit better." His voice dropped to a conspiratorial level. "He's planning to call on you later this week to present you with a betrothal ring. A sapphire, I believe."
"I do not want a betrothal ring--"
"Of course you do. All girls do. Your mother told me so. Now, it's terribly late and I'm exhausted. All this marriage arranging is quite wearying, and I wish to retire. Your dear mother harangued me for hours, and I'm quite incapable of talking any more. We'll discuss the plans further tomorrow."
"There are no plans to discuss, Papa. I will not marry him."
"Of course you will. Good night, my dear."
"I will not marry him!" Samantha shouted to his retreating back as he closed the door behind him. An exasperated oohh! escaped her, and she massaged her temples, where a thumping headache was rapidly forming.
What had brought on this madness? And how on earth could she fix this tangle?
Hellfires scorched her cheeks when she imagined what Mama must have said to convince Major Wilshire he wanted to marry her. She knew all too well how determined her mother could be when she'd made up her mind about something. One often left Cordelia Briggeham's company with the sensation of having been smacked in the head with a cast-iron skillet.
Yes, Mama's good intentions were unfortunately not always tempered with tact, but Sammie couldn't help but admire--occasionally in a horrified way--how her mother could outmaneuver anyone. She had no doubt that if Mama had been allowed to serve in the Army, Napoleon would have met his Waterloo years earlier than he had.
Twisting her fingers together, she paced the floor, her footsteps muffled by the thick Axminster rug. What on earth was she going to do? The thought of spending the rest of her life with Major Wilshire, listening to him recount his every military maneuver in excruciating detail, sent a shiver akin to panic shuddering through her. And he would certainly demand that she cease her scientific work--something she most certainly would not do.
Surely she could bring Papa around. But the finality in his voice when he'd said everything is already arranged, echoed through her mind. She could usually bend Papa around to her way of thinking, but there was no swaying him once Mama embedded an idea in his head. And her marrying Major Wilshire was clearly embedded in his head.
Humiliation burned her cheeks. God in heaven, this was just like her coming-out eight years ago. She'd begged not to endure the pomp of it all--the parties where she knew people whispered about her behind their hands, pitying her because she possessed none of the beauty or grace of her younger sisters. The frilly dresses that made her feel conspicuous and awkward. Yet Mama had insisted, and Papa had fallen meekly into line. So with her head held high, she'd endured the whispering and the pitying glances that were made away from Mama's sharp eyes and ears, and buried her hurt behind countless false smiles.
She pressed her hands to her churning stomach, recalling how Mama had arranged Hermione's marriage with a tactical brilliance that would have rendered Wellington breathless. True, Hermie was happy, but the poor dear had barely known Reginald when they'd wed. She just as easily could be miserable, although Sammie couldn't imagine sweet-natured Hermie being anything but content. And Reginald worshipped the ground his beautiful wife's petite slippers tread upon.
Sammie could not imagine Major Wilshire so much as noticing whether she even wore slippers unless he could somehow relate them to military strategy.
Flopping down on the chintz-covered settee, she huffed out a frustrated breath. If she refused to honor the arrangements Papa made, her family would suffer from the ensuing gossip and scandal. She couldn't disgrace them. But neither could she marry Major Wilshire.
Heaving a tired sigh, she rose and closed the window. After extinguishing the candles burning on the mantel, she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Dear God, what was she going to do?
In the flowerbed, Arthur Timstone heard the window click shut and drew his first deep breath since he'd heard the voices above him. He slowly rose from a crouch, his knees creaking in protest, then stifled a yelp when his backside found the rose hedges.
Glaring at the offending bush, he muttered, "I'm too bloody old fer this sneakin' about in the bushes in the middle o' the night. Unseemly, that's wot it is."
Stubble it. A man approaching his fiftieth year shouldn't be gallivanting about after midnight like a randy lad. Ah, but that's what love did to a bloke, made him act like a slow-witted, puppy-eyed fool.
If anyone had suggested that he'd take one look at the new cook at the Briggeham house and fall instantly in love, Arthur would have called them daft, then laughed himself into a seizure. But fall instantly in love he had. And because of it, he'd just spent the last half hour trapped beneath the Briggeham's drawing-room window, afraid to move lest Miz Sammie or her pa should hear him, and trying his best not to long for his warm bed an hour's ride away. If he'd left Sarah's quarters only a few minutes earlier . . . ah, but that would have been impossible.
Leaning back against the house's rough stone exterior, he paused to rub his stiff joints before dashing across the darkened lawn where he'd tethered Viking at the edge of the woods. Poor Miz Sammie. Clearly she didn't want to marry Major Wilshire, and Arthur didn't blame her for one moment. While the Major wasn't a bad sort, his nonstop talk of the War and his important role in it, could bore the feathers from a chicken. Why, he'd drive Miz Sammie straight to Bedlam. And salt of the earth Miz Sammie was. Always a kind word and a smile for him, always asking after his mother and brother in Brighton.
Emerging from the bushes, Arthur set off across the lawn at a brisk trot. Determination stiffened his spine. Something had to be done to help poor Miz Sammie.
Arthur knew only one man who could help her . . . the mysterious man whose name hovered on everyone's lips from London to Cornwall. The man eagerly sought after by the magistrate for his daring exploits.
The notorious, legendary Bride Thief.
Through the window of his private study, Eric Landsdowne, Earl of Wesley, watched Arthur Timstone cross the terrace lawns on his way back to the stables.
The stableman's words rang in his ears. 'Tis a terrible situation, my lord. Poor Miz Sammie wants not a thing to do with that stuffy Major Wilshire, but her pa's insistin'. Bein' forced to marry this way, why, it'll just break Miz Sammie's heart, and a kinder heart I've yet to meet.
Eric had sat behind his desk listening to his faithful servant, neither one acknowledging by so much as a flicker of an eyelash why Arthur would bring this news to him, but both knowing exactly why. The secret they shared bound them together tighter than a vise, although they rarely discussed it during the day when the servants were awake, for fear of being inadvertently overheard.
Such a mistake could cost Eric his life.
But simply knowing that Arthur shared his secret, that he wasn't completely alone in the dangerous life he'd chosen, afforded Eric a strong measure of comfort. He loved Arthur like a father; indeed, the servant had spent more time with him during his formative years than his own father ever had.
Now, watching Arthur striding across the perfectly manicured lawns, the early-morning sun glinting on his graying hair, Eric noted the man's slight limp, and his heart pinched. Arthur was no longer a young man, and although he never complained, Eric knew his aging joints were often stiff and painful. He'd offered him a well-appointed bedchamber in the manor house, but the servant had refused. Tears had glistened in Arthur's pale blue eyes at the generous offer, but he chose to remain in his rooms above the stables, close to the horses he loved and cared for.
A smile tugged at Eric's lips, for he knew Arthur had also refused his offer so as not to risk sneaking into the main house in the middle of the night after returning from seeing his lady love. Even though there were no secrets between them, they rarely discussed their respective love lives. Arthur would be mortified if he suspec...
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