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of Contemporary Women's Fiction, Romantic Comedies, and Historical Romances


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Whirlwind Wedding

Chapter One

England, 1816

     Austin Randolph Jamison, ninth Duke of Bradford, stood in a shadowed alcove and surveyed his guests.  Couples swirled on the dance floor, a colorful rainbow of expensively gowned and jeweled women, escorted by perfectly turned out gentlemen.  Hundreds of beeswax candles twinkled in the overhead chandeliers, casting a warm glow over the festivities.  Over two hundred of Society's elite had gathered in his home, and he had only to reach out his hand to touch any one of a dozen people.
     He'd never felt so alone in his life.
     Emerging from the shadows, he plucked a brandy from a passing footman's silver tray and raised the snifter to his lips.
     "There you are, Bradford.  Been looking for you everywhere."
     Austin froze, smothering a vicious oath.  He wasn't sure who the speaker was, but it didn't matter.  He knew why whoever stood behind him had been looking for him, and his stomach tightened into a knot.  Well, there was no escaping now.  Tossing back half his brandy, he braced himself, then turned around.
     Lord Digby stood before him.  "I just visited the gallery, Bradford," Digby said.  "The new portrait of William in his military uniform is magnificent.  A fitting tribute."  His round face collapsed into a frown and he shook his head.  "Deuced tragedy, passing on during his final mission."
     Austin forced himself to nod politely.  "I agree."
     "Still, it's an honor to die a war hero."
     Pressure built in Austin's chest.  War hero. If only that were true.  But the letter locked in his desk drawer confirmed his suspicions that it was not.
     A vivid picture of William flashed through his mind--that last gut-wrenching image that nothing could erase.  Guilt and regret slammed into him, and his fist tightened around his brandy snifter.
     Air.  He desperately needed air to clear his mind.  Excusing himself, he headed toward the French windows.
     Caroline caught sight of him and smiled, and he forced his lips to smile at his sister in response.  As much as he dreaded social functions, he was pleased to see Caroline looking so happy.  It had been too long since that gleam of carefree joy had lit her lovely face, and if hosting this damn ball was what was necessary to make her happy, then host it he would.  Still, he wished Robert were here instead of traveling on the Continent.  His jovial younger brother was much more at ease in the role of host.
     Ignoring the curious gazes cast in his direction, Austin exited the ballroom and made his way to the gardens.  Neither the sweet fragrant roses scenting the warm summer air nor the full moon casting a silvery luster over the landscape improved his mood or relaxed the tension clenching his muscles.  Couples strolled together, talking quietly, but Austin ignored them, determined to find a few minutes peace.
     But even as he struck out along a well-manicured path, he knew in his heart that peace was too much to ask for.
     Would anyone guess the truth?  No, he decided.  Everyone--Caroline, Robert, his mother, the entire bloody country--all believed William died a hero, and it was an illusion Austin would pay any price to maintain.  Anything to keep his family and his brother's memory safe from ruin.
     He soon arrived at his destination, a private area surrounded by tall hedges at the perimeter of the gardens.  The unoccupied curved stone bench was the most welcome sight he'd beheld all evening.  Sanctuary.
     Heaving a sigh of relief, he sat on the bench and stretched out his legs, ready to enjoy this peaceful haven.  He reached into his pocket to extract his gold cigar case, but paused when he heard a rustling in the hedges.
     The bushes parted and a young woman attempted to scramble through them.  Panting and muttering under her breath, she tried unsuccessfully to free herself from the branches tearing at her hair and pulling at her gown.
     Austin gritted his teeth and stifled an obscenity.  He knew it was pointless to pray for her to go away.  His prayers hadn't been answered very often lately.
     The thrashing and muttering in the bushes continued.  No doubt some chit sneaking about to indulge in a clandestine meeting with a lover.  Or perhaps she was but yet another senseless female in search of a title and hoping to trap him into marriage.  For all he knew, she might have followed him into the garden.  Frustration shot through him and he arose to leave.
    The exasperated cry exploded from the young woman's lips.  She tugged impatiently on her gown to free it from the thicket, but it refused to budge.  Grabbing her skirt with both hands, she gave a mighty heave.  The unmistakable sound of fabric tearing cut the air.
     Suddenly freed from the constraining hands of the bushes, she pitched forward, landing facedown in the damp grass.  The air rushed from her lungs in a loud whoosh.
     "Blasted ball gowns," she mumbled, shaking her head as if to clear her vision.  "They're going to be the absolute death of me."
     Austin clenched his hands.  His first instinct was to escape before she caught sight of him, but as she remained lying there, motionless, he hesitated.  Perhaps she was injured.  He couldn't very well leave the foolish baggage here to rot, tempting though the idea was.  If Caroline were injured, he'd want someone to help her--not that his sister would ever find herself in such a ridiculous situation.
     Cursing his inability to simply walk away, he asked, "Are you all right?"
     She gasped and jerked her head up.  Her gaze locked on his black formal breeches for several seconds, then she lowered her head back onto the grass.  "Why, oh why did someone have to see this?"
     "Are you all right?" he repeated, fighting his growing impatience.
     "Yes, of course I am.  My health has always been of a most robust nature.  Thank you for inquiring."
     "May I offer you some assistance?"
     "No, thank you.  Pride demands I extricate myself from this, my latest in an endless series of embarrassments."  She didn't move.  A heavy pause filled the air.
     "Are you going to get up?"
     "No, I don't think I shall.  But thank you again for asking."
     Austin clenched his teeth until his jaw ached and wondered how much champagne the chit had swallowed.  "Are you foxed?"
     She raised her head several inches.  "I don't know.  I suppose it is possible.  What does foxed mean?"
     Her distinctive accent pierced through his annoyance.  Closing his eyes, he barely suppressed a groan. "American?"
     "Oh, for the love of heaven!  I swear if one more person asks me that--"  She broke off and glared at his knees.  "Obviously I'm American.  Everyone knows that an Englishwoman would never be caught dead sprawled on the grass in such an undignified fashion.  Heaven forbid."
     "Actually it wasn't your present position on the lawn, but your accent that gave you away," Austin said, staring down at the top of her head, surprise mingling with his annoyance.  The chit was impertinent as hell.  "For those unacquainted with English cant, foxed means to have overindulged in strong spirits."
     "Overindulged?" she echoed, sounding outraged.  Employing a series of unladylike but nonetheless effective movements, she scrambled to her feet.  Planting her hands on her hips, she jutted out her chin at an unmistakably belligerent angle. "I have not indulged, over or otherwise, sir.  I merely tripped."
     Any response he may have considered making died on his lips as he took in her appearance.
     She was remarkably attractive.
     And an utter mess.
     Her coiffure, which he surmised had started out as a topknot, now listed precariously to the left.  Leaves and twigs clung to the shiny auburn strands and several curls stuck up at odd angles.  The entire affair resembled a lopsided bird's nest.
     A slash of dirt marred her chin, and a blade of grass clung to her lower lip--a very lush lower lip, he noted.  His gaze traveled slowly downward, observing that her pastel gown bore an unfortunate mass of wrinkles, and grass stains, and was further decorated with clumps of dirt.  The ruffled flounce around her hem drooped in the back, clearly the result of the tearing noise.  And it appeared she was missing a shoe.
     He wasn't sure if he was more shocked or amused by her appearance.  Who on earth was this disheveled woman, and how had she come to be a guest in his home?  Caroline and his mother had made up the guest list for the party, so clearly they knew her.  Why didn't he?
     And as she'd called him 'sir', it appeared she didn't know him either, a fact that stunned him.  It seemed as if every breathing female in England dogged his steps, intent upon gaining his favor.
     But apparently not this woman.  She was spearing him with an expression that clearly stated I wished you'd go away, a fact which both irritated him and piqued his interest.
     "Perhaps you'd care to tell me why you were lurking in the bushes, Miss…?" he asked, still suspicious of her sudden arrival.  Were her mother and a posse of outraged chaperons about to leap from the hedges and claim he'd ruined her?
     "Matthews.  Elizabeth Matthews."  She performed an awkward curtsy that dislodged several clumps of dirt from her gown.  "I wasn't lurking.  I was walking and heard a kitten meowing.  The poor little fellow was caught in the bushes.  I managed to rescue him, only to find myself entangled in the very same hedge."
     "Where is your chaperone?"
     Her expression turned sheepish.  "I, um, managed to escape while she was dancing."
     "She isn't lurking in the bushes?"
     She appeared so amazed by his question, Austin knew she was either alone or the finest actress he'd ever encountered.  And he suspected she was a poor actress.  Her eyes were too expressive.
     "Do you question if everyone lurks in the bushes?  My aunt is a lady and does not lurk."  She squinted at him.  "Oh, dear.  I really must look a fright.  You have a most peculiar expression on your face.  As if you just tasted something sour."
     "You look…fine."
     She burst out laughing.  "You, sir, are either incredibly gallant, or extremely short-sighted.  Perhaps a bit of both.  While I appreciate your effort to spare my feelings, I assure you it's not necessary.  After spending three months on a wind-tossed ship sailing to England, I'm quite accustomed to looking frightful."
     She leaned toward him, as if she were about to impart a great secret, and her scent assailed his senses.  She smelled like lilacs, a fragrance he knew well for the gardens abounded with the purple flowers.  "An Englishwoman traveling on board the ship was fond of muttering about 'Colonial Upstarts'.  Thank goodness she isn't here to witness this debacle."  Sticking out her foot, she examined her one remaining grass-stained slipper and heaved a sigh.  "Good heavens.  I am indeed a spectacle.  I--"
     A mewling sound cut off her words.  Looking down, Austin watched a tiny gray kitten pounce from beneath the hedges and attack the flounce trailing from Miss Matthews' gown.
     "There you are!"  She scooped up the furry bundle and scratched behind its ears.  The kitten immediately set up a loud purr.  "Did you perhaps see my shoe on your travels, you little devil?" she murmured to the fur ball.  "I believe it's stuck somewhere in those bushes."  She turned to Austin.  "Would you mind terribly taking a look?"
     He stared at her, trying to hide his astonishment.  If anyone had told him that his quest for solitude would turn into a rescue mission for a madwoman's slipper, he would not have believed it.  A madwoman who had asked him fetch her shoe as if he were a lowly footman.  He should be outraged.  And as soon as this inexplicable urge to laugh left him, he was sure he would be.  Crouching down, he peered into the hedge from which Miss Matthews had sprung.
     Spying the missing shoe, he plucked it from the bushes, stood, then handed it to her.  "Here you are."
     "Thank you, sir."
     Raising her skirts several inches, she slid her stockinged foot into the slipper.  She had lovely, slim ankles and surprisingly small feet for a woman whom he judged stood about five feet seven.  Taller than fashion dictated, but a very nice height, he decided.  His gaze roamed upward to her face.  Her head would nestle perfectly on his shoulder, and he'd have easy access to that incredibly lush mouth--
     Heat rushed through him.  Bloody hell, had he taken leave of his senses?  One peek at her ankle and he'd lost his mind.  He forced his gaze away from her lips and settled it on the contented kitten nestled in the crook of her arm.  The animal opened its tiny mouth in a huge yawn.
     "It appears Gadzooks is ready for a nap," he said.
     "Yes.  One of the tabbies gave birth ten weeks ago.  When Mortlin, the groom, found the brood living in the stables, he said, 'Gadzooks, look at all those kittens!'"  Despite himself, a smile tugged at his lips.  "Actually, we should consider ourselves fortunate.  The last litter was born in Mortlin's bed and the names he christened the beasts were much more, er, colorful."
     Twin dimples appeared on either side of her mouth.  "Goodness.  It appears the tabby is quite busy."
     "Indeed she is."
     "You seem to know all about Gadzooks and his mama.  Do you live nearby?"
     Austin stared at her, nonplussed.  She had to be the only woman in the bloody kingdom who didn't know who he was.  "Ah, yes, I do live nearby."
     "How nice for you.  It's lovely here."  She settled Gadzooks more comfortably in her arms.  "Well, as much as I've enjoyed speaking with you, I really must be going.  Could you possibly direct me to the stables?"
     "The stables?"
     "Yes."  Her eyes twinkled at him.  "For those unfamiliar with American cant, it means 'a place where the horses are kept'.  Since Gadzooks lives there, his mama is no doubt looking for him."
     Amused, he asked, "Perhaps you'd permit me to escort you?"
     Surprise flitted across her face and she hesitated.  "That is very kind, sir, but unnecessary.  Surely you wish to remain and enjoy your solitude."
     Yes, surely he wished to do that.  Didn't he?   But the idea of being alone with his thoughts suddenly held no appeal.
     When he didn't answer, she added, "Or perhaps you'd rather return to the party?"
     He suppressed a shudder.  "As I only escaped the party a short time ago, I'm not anxious to return just yet."
     "Indeed?  Were you not enjoying the festivities?"
     He considered telling a polite lie, but decided not to.  "In truth, no.  I detest these soirees."
     She gaped at him.  "Heavens, I thought it was only me."
     He couldn't hide his surprise.  Every female he knew lived for balls.  "You weren't enjoying yourself?"
     A pained look settled in her eyes, and she dropped her gaze.  "No, I'm afraid not."
     It seemed clear that someone had treated this young woman unkindly--someone in his home, attending his foolish ball.  He could well imagine the belles of Society twittering behind their fans about the "Colonial Upstart".
     Polite manners dictated that he return to the house and act as host, but he had no desire to do so.  He suspected his mother was at this very moment sending exasperated glances in every direction, wondering where he was and how long he planned to remain in hiding.  Knowing there were at least two dozen marriageable women his matchmaking mother hoped to throw in his path made him more determined to avoid the ballroom.
     "Clearly we both needed some fresh air," he said with a smile.  "Come.  I shall show you to the stables and you can tell me about your adventures with Gazooks."
     Elizabeth hesitated.  If Aunt Joanna knew she was alone in the garden with a gentleman, she knew she'd be on the receiving end of a lecture.  But returning to the party was simply impossible considering the current state of her appearance.  Besides, she'd suffered enough for one evening.
     She was tired of being stared at and whispered about because she enjoyed conversing on topics other than fashion and the weather.  And she could not help it if she was a miserable dancer and taller than deemed appropriate.  If this gentleman was aware of the mockery circulating about her nationality and personality, he was polite enough not to show it.
     "I realize you are without a chaperone," he said, his tone amused, "but you have my word I shall not abscond with you."
     Assuring herself there was no harm in accepting his offer of escort, Elizabeth said, "By all means, let us walk."
     Strolling beside him down the path, her flounce dragging behind her, she cuddled Gadzooks in her arms and cast a surreptitious glance at her companion.  Thank goodness she wasn't prone to heaving dreamy, romantic sighs, for this was certainly a man who could induce them.  Thick ebony hair framed a strikingly handsome face made all the more intriguing by the play of shadows from the moonlight.  His eyes were steady and intense, and when he'd gazed at her a moment ago her toes had involuntarily curled inside her slippers.  High cheekbones, nose straight as a blade, and a full, firm mouth that she knew could quirk with amusement and she imagined would look fierce in anger.
     In truth, everything about him was attractive.  But there was no point in finding this stranger intriguing.  As soon as he realized what a social disaster she was, he would surely rebuff her, just as so many others had.
     "Tell me, Miss Matthews, with whom are you attending this ball?"
     "I came with my aunt, Countess Penbroke."
     Speculation filled his gaze.  "Indeed?  I knew her late husband, however I was not aware they had an American niece."
     "My mother and Aunt Joanna were sisters.  My mother settled in America when she married my father, an American physician." She shot him a side-long glance.  "My mother was born and raised in England.  Thus, I am half English."
     A smile tugged at his lips.  "So, you are, then, only half an Upstart."
     She laughed.  "Oh, no.  I fear I'm still an Upstart through and through.
     "Is this your first visit to England?"
     "Yes."  There was no point in telling him this was more than a visit--that she would never return to her hometown.
     "And are you enjoying it?"
     She hesitated, but decided to tell him the unvarnished truth.  "I like your country, but I find English society and all its rules restricting.  I grew up in a rural area and had much more freedom.  It is not easy adjusting."
     He glanced at her clothing.  "Clearly you're experiencing difficulty giving up the American custom of crawling about in the bushes in your evening clothes."
     A giggle erupted from between her lips.  "Yes, it appears so."
     The stables loomed ahead.  As they approached, a tremendously plump cat emerged from the doorway and let out a loud meow.
     The gentleman bent to stroke the animal.  "Hello there, George.  How's my girl tonight?  Are you missing your baby?"
     Elizabeth lowered Gadzooks to the ground and the kitten immediately pounced on George.  "Gadzooks' mother is named George?"
     He looked up at her from his crouched position and smiled.  "Yes.  As in 'By George, that cat must be a female because look there--she's having kittens!'  My groom named her.  Mortlin knows everything about horses, but little, I'm afraid, about cats."
     Her answering smile faded as the significance of his words hit her.  "Your groom?  Are these your cats?"
     Austin rose slowly to his feet, inwardly cursing his carelessness.  His pleasant interlude was about to come to an end.  "Yes, the cats are mine."
     Her eyes widened.  "Oh dear.  Then this is your home?"
     Austin cast a quick glance toward the mansion in the distance.  It was where he lived, but it hadn't felt like a home in over a year.
     "Yes, Bradford Hall belongs to me."
     "Then you must be..."  She swept downward into an awkward curtsy.  "Forgive me, your grace.  I didn't realize who you were.  You must think me incredibly rude."
    He watched her arise from her curtsy, waiting to see her eyes narrow with speculation, flicker with avarice, sparkle with anticipation of how to best put her unexpected meeting with "England's Most Eligible Bachelor" to her advantage.
     He saw none of it.
     Instead, she seemed genuinely distressed.   And anxious to get away from him.
     How very interesting.
     "I'm so sorry I said I wasn't enjoying your party,"  she said, taking several steps backward.  "It's a delightful party.  Delightful.  The food, the music, the guests, they are all..."
     "Delightful?" he supplied helpfully.
     She nodded and retreated several more steps.
     His gaze never left her face.  Emotions streaked through her expressive eyes--embarrassment, dismay, surprise, but not once did he discern a hint of coyness or speculation.  Nor did she seem particularly impressed with his lofty title.  But it was the complete lack of something else that utterly fascinated him.
     She wasn't flirting with him.
     She hadn't flirted earlier, before she'd known who he was, but now…
     How incredibly interesting.
     "Thank you for escorting me, your grace.  I believe I shall return to the house now."  She took several more steps backwards.
     "What about your gown, Miss Matthews?  Not even a Colonial Upstart would dare enter the ballroom in your present condition."
     Halting, she looked down at herself.  "I don't suppose there's any hope that no one would notice."
     "No hope at all.  Are you and your aunt spending the night?"
     "Yes. In fact, we're staying on here at Bradford Hall for several weeks as guests of the dowager duchess..."  understanding dawned in her eyes, "who is your mother."
     "Indeed she is."  Austin briefly wondered if his mother had arranged for the visit with the hopes of making a match, but he immediately discarded the idea.  He couldn't imagine that his very proper mother would deem an American to be a suitable duchess.  No, he knew all too well that she had her matchmaking eye set on several young women of impeccable British lineage.  "As long as you're staying here, I believe I can solve your problem.  I'll show you to a little used side entrance that leads directly up to the guest chambers."
     There was no mistaking the gratitude in her eyes.  "That would certainly avert the social disaster I fear looms on the horizon."
     "Then let us be off."
     As they walked toward the mansion, Elizabeth asked, "I hate to further impose upon your kindness, your grace, but would you mind giving my excuses to my aunt when you return to the ballroom?"
     "Of course."
     She cleared her throat. "Ah, what excuse shall you use?"
     "Excuse?  Oh, I suppose I'll say you suffered from a fit of the vapors."
     "Vapors!"  She sounded outraged.  "Nonsense!  I would never fall victim to such a frivolous thing.  Besides, Aunt Joanna would not believe it.  She knows I am of a most robust nature.  You must think of something else."
     "All right.  How about the headache?"
     "I never get them."
     "My stomach never causes me discomfort."
     Austin fought the urge to roll his eyes heavenward.  "Do you ever suffer from any malady?"
     She shook her head.  "You keep forgetting that I am--"
     "Most robust.  Yes, I'm beginning to see that.  But I fear that any other excuse, such as a fever, would unduly alarm your aunt."
     "Hmmm.  I suppose you're right.  I don't wish to frighten her.  Actually, a headache is not far from the truth.  The mere thought of returning to the ballroom sets my temples to pounding.  Very well," she said with a nod, her tone crisp.  "You may say I've succumbed to the headache."
     Austin's lips twitched.  "Thank you."
     She beamed at him.  "You're quite welcome."
     They arrived at the mansion several minutes later and Austin led her through the shadows to a side door almost entirely obscured with ivy.  He felt for the knob and pulled the door open.  "There you are.  The guest chambers are at the top of the stairs.  Be careful on the steps."
     "I shall.  Thank you again for your kindness."
     "My pleasure."
     His gaze searched her face in the dim light.  Even completely disheveled, she was lovely.  And amusing.  He could not recall the last time he'd felt so lighthearted.  Pressing concerns awaited him once he returned to the house, yet he couldn't resist prolonging this pleasant interlude for a few moments longer.  Reaching out, he gently grasped her hand and lifted it to his lips.  Her hand was warm and soft, her fingers long and slender.  The subtle scent of lilacs again assailed him.
     Their eyes met and his breath stalled.  Damn it, she looked so delightfully mussed…as if a man's hands had disarranged her hair and clothing.  His gaze dropped to her mouth…her full, incredibly tempting mouth, and he wondered what she would taste like.  He imagined leaning forward, brushing his lips over hers, once, twice, then deepening the kiss, sliding his tongue into the luscious warmth of her mouth.  She tasted delicious, like--
     "Oh my."
     Her fingers tightened on his hand and she regarded him with wide eyes.  Her gaze rested on his lips for several seconds, then she looked away, clearly flustered.  Warmth crept through him, surprising him.  If he didn't know better, he'd swear she'd read his thoughts.
     He was about to release her hand when she gasped.  Their eyes met and he noted she appeared suddenly pale.  He tried to extricate his hand from hers, but she only tightened her grip.
     "What's wrong?" he asked, alarmed at her pallor, unnerved by her concentrated stare.  "You look as if you've seen a ghost."
     He froze.  "Excuse me?"
     Her eyes desperately searched his.  "Do you know someone named William?"
     Every muscle in his body tensed.  "What game are you playing here?"
     Instead of answering, she squeezed his hand between her palms and closed her eyes.  "He's your brother," she whispered.  "You've been told he died while serving his country."  She opened her eyes and the look she leveled on him gave him the eerie sensation she could see right into his soul.  "It's not true."
     His blood turned to ice.  He pulled his hand from hers and stepped back, shocked by her words.  By God did this woman know his darkest secret?  And if she did, how did she know?
     The images he'd spent the last year trying to erase crashed through his mind.  A dark alley.  William meeting with a Frenchman named Gaspard.  Crates of weapons.  An exchange of money.  Haunting questions.  A bitter confrontation between brothers.  Then, only weeks later, the news that William had died at Waterloo--a war hero.
     His heart beat heavily in his chest as he fought to remain calm.  Could this woman be more than she appeared?  Could she know something about the letter he'd recently received or the activities William had conducted with the French?  Could she be the clue he'd spent the last year searching for?
     His eyes narrowed on her pale face and he uttered the lie he'd told countless times before.  "William died fighting for his country.  He is a hero."
     "No, your grace."
     "Are you saying my brother wasn't a hero?"
     "No.  I'm saying that he didn't die.  Your brother William is alive."

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