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Authors: Bride for a Duke

Fenella J Miller - [Duke 02]

 

BRIDE FOR A DUKE

By

Fenella J Miller

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any method, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of The Author - Fenella J. Miller

Bride for a Duke Copyright Fenella J. Miller, 2012

This e-Book is a work of fiction. While references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are from the author’s imagination and are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental.

 

 

This book is for:

Fay Cunningham, Jean Fullerton, Maureen Lee, Amanda Grange, Wendy Soliman

We all need a little help from our friends!

 

Chapter One

Anna checked a second time that her door was locked. The sound of loud voices approaching her chamber did not bode well.

“It ain’t right, Radcliffe, allowing your daughter to hide from us. You promised her to the highest bidder. That’s me.”

“Look here, Bennet, it won’t do any good chasing about up here. I’ve given you my permission to try your luck, that don’t mean it’ll be easy persuading the wretched girl to agree to marry you.”

Anna pressed closer to the door; she needed to hear exactly what her pernicious stepfather was planning. If she was to have any chance of remaining safe when his cronies were in residence she must be forewarned.

“I ain’t going to take no for an answer. If she won’t come willing then I’ll do it the other way.”

“She’ll come round in time. I tell you, you’ll not coerce her easily. She takes after her father, a colonel in the Horse Guards, and famous for his quick temper and stubbornness.”

“That’s as may be, Radcliffe. I ain’t marrying her for her temperament nor her looks but for half her dowry.”

The door rattled on its hinges. Anna froze. She held her breath and waited. The smell of alcohol seeped through the cracks of the door frame.

Sir John spoke. “Come away, Bennet, she'll not come out. Since her mother died she makes herself scarce. Used to be a pretty little thing but she’s gone downhill these past two years.”

The two men stumbled back down the passageway their feet heavy on the boards. Her breath hissed through her teeth and she pushed the heavy oak settle against the door. She felt safer with both the key turned
and
a piece of furniture in place to prevent unwanted visitors.

Since she’d taken residence in the rooms on the nursery floor previously occupied by her governess, she had been able to keep away from the predatory gentleman who frequently prowled around Hadley Manor. Before her mother passed away she had suggested Anna dye her hair with walnut juice and adopt the costume of a spinster aunt. In this way she would become almost invisible; no one noticed a plain woman. She’d almost forgotten what her original colour had been but Mama had often likened it to a nut brown.

She no longer had her own maid as Sir John wished to make her uncomfortable in the hope he might persuade her to marry one of his repellent friends.
Never!
She would rather die.
The clothes she wore nowadays needed no abigail’s assistance. Poor Molly was working as a parlour maid but that was better than being turned off without a reference.

Tonight had confirmed her worst fears. Sir John was an inveterate gambler and was permanently in debt. He relied on what he could trick out of the lawyers who controlled her trust fund. Marrying her to one of his friends would mean he could demand a large settlement.

She must get away. How could she persuade him to allow her to leave? Perhaps there
was
something she could do to save herself. Isobel Cunningham had written only last week to invite Anna to live with her. If she told Sir John she was going to visit an old school friend he might allow her to go.

Tonight she would write a letter accepting the invitation and see that Molly took it down to the posting inn first thing. That night Anna slept more soundly than she had for months and woke quite refreshed.

Mr Bennet would still be abed but her stepfather would be up and about. He was an early riser. However much he had imbibed he would appear for breakfast at nine o’clock every morning. Anna usually ate in her rooms but today she would go and talk to him.

Holding the letter from Isobel in her hand she hurried downstairs to the breakfast parlour. Early in the day she felt safe but by mid-morning there were often unpleasant gentlemen roaming the corridors. She paused outside the door to steady her breathing then stepped through.

Sir John looked up his red cheeks bulging with food. He was unable to speak until he swallowed but gestured for Anna to be seated in the chair opposite. The footman hovering by the sideboard hastily filled her plate with random samples from the silver chafing dishes. She stared in dismay at coddled eggs, ham, strawberry conserve and toasted teacake haphazardly presented on the same plate.

If she hadn’t been so nervous she would have smiled. She would speak her piece at once for he couldn’t shout at her with his mouth full. “Sir John, I beg your pardon for joining you here this morning but I have a request to make. Yesterday I received a letter from an old school friend inviting me to stay for a week or two.” She waved the paper about. “I should dearly like to visit if you would kindly give me permission.”

He slammed his cutlery down on either side of his piled plate and lent towards her his pale blue eyes bulging horribly. “I’ll let you go on one condition. When you get back you must choose from one of the offers you’ve received.”

Schooling her features was difficult but somehow she managed to keep her dismay from showing. “I scarcely know any of the gentlemen, I have no wish to tie myself to a stranger or one old enough to be my father.”

“Whose fault is that? You never join us and skulk around like a servant. But there is someone you’ve yet to meet, Reginald Bennet, he’s looking for a wife to take care of his motherless children.”

“I see. As you know I love children. Tell me a little about this gentleman, if you please, Sir John.” She clutched her napkin and waited to hear what lies would spill from his mouth.

“He’s in his thirties, a fine figure of a man, not given to gambling or drinking. He’s searching for a girl who will love his children as his sainted wife did and I reckon you will be perfect for each other.” He belched loudly.

It would not do to appear overenthusiastic; her stepfather would immediately suspect she was dissembling. “He sounds far more suitable than the other gentlemen you have suggested. Where does he live?”

“Hertfordshire or Hereford, don't remember which. Anyway, he’s got a neat little estate—a fine manor house which will no doubt be improved by having a wife to take control of things once more.”

“I give you my word I will consider his offer seriously when I return from my visit to St Albans. If he’s the man you describe then he might well suit me admirably.”

“Very well, miss, you may go, but for no more than a se’night. Now, if you ain’t going to eat your breakfast be about your business; I wish to finish mine without your sour face watching.”

Anna didn’t need telling a second time. Delighted to be sent away she pushed back her chair and curtsied before hurrying out. She had difficulty keeping her delight from showing. Her plan had worked perfectly; she had two weeks in which to come up with a scheme to remove herself permanently from Hadley Manor.

She spotted Molly dusting in the drawing-room and slipped inside to speak to her. “I’m to go and visit Mrs Cunningham in Romford and I cannot travel unaccompanied on a common stage so I’ll have you reassigned to me.”

“Thank you, miss. Will I continue with my duties here or come at once to your apartment?”

It would be better not to give Bloomfield, the recently appointed housekeeper, an opportunity to refuse the request. If Molly was already re-established as her abigail the wretched woman would have to accept the change.

“Please go at once to your room and collect your belongings, Molly. I wish you to move into the nursery maid’s room adjacent to mine immediately. I’m going to walk over to Bracken Hall and it might be better if you came with me.”

By the time Anna had changed into an outmoded, but far more flattering ensemble, Molly was bustling about next-door. Marianne Duncan, her bosom bow, understood the reason Anna wished to seem drab and unattractive but her parents were not party to the deception. Therefore when she visited her friend she concealed her hideous hair under a pretty chip-straw bonnet and dressed appropriately for a young woman of means.

As usual she kept to the back stairs and exited the house through a little used side door. The distance was no more than a mile across the fields and the early April weather was perfect for walking. Molly trotted respectfully behind, she knew better than to engage her mistress in idle chatter.

On arrival at her destination Anna ignored the imposing front door; she did her best to avoid any interaction with Mr and Mrs Duncan. The less they knew of her life the better. Her friend would still be at her toilette, an ideal time for intimate conversation. Molly and the girl who took care of Marianne were firm friends and would be pleased to spend an hour or two together.

She reached Marianne’s chambers and tapped lightly.

“Anna, how lovely to see you. It’s been an age since you walked over. What brings you here so early?” Her blonde curls danced on either side of her face. “Have you any more to tell me about the dreadful men Sir John is parading in front of you this year?”

“I do indeed. I have something of the utmost urgency to discuss with you. Perhaps you could breakfast in your parlour this morning and I might join you? I am sharp set, my appetite has returned.”

“I’m all agog. Life here would be so dull if I did not have your exciting tales of dreadful debauchery and bad behaviour.”

Much as she adored her best friend, she did have an unfortunate tendency to the melodramatic. Anna dreaded to think what Mr and Mrs Duncan would do if they ever heard the much embellished version of her life that Marianne preferred to believe was the truth.

“I do wish you would not exaggerate, my dear. My life is difficult enough without the added worry of your parents believing I am living in a house of ill repute.”

Marianne giggled and embraced her friend. “Dearest, I never said any such thing. But you know me, I have to add an extra detail or two to any story I hear.”

Once they were comfortably settled Anna explained her predicament. “So, I have gained myself two weeks. However, I’ve no idea how to avoid being married to Mr Bennet on my return.”

“Could you not find yourself a position as a governess? You’re so clever, can speak French and Italian like a native, play the pianoforte
and
your stitching and watercolours are exemplary.”

“Believe me I have considered that option but I should require a reference or at the very least a letter of good character. I can hardly ask Mr Simpson next time I attend church for my stepfather would hear of it immediately.”

The conversation was interrupted as Molly and Sarah carried in the breakfast trays. Once they were private again her friend came up with a remarkable suggestion. “You must contract a marriage of convenience; you reached your majority last year so do not need Sir John’s permission.”

“An excellent notion, my love, but I am unlikely to find a suitable husband in the next three weeks. Consider this—who in their right mind would contract such a marriage? Looking as I do, and dressed in outmoded fashions, I doubt all but the most desperate of men would give me a second glance and they would hardly be ready to tie the knot immediately.”

“It hardly matters what you look like as it will be a marriage in name only. I shall write to Lucy Pearson for she moves in the highest circles and will know exactly the right gentleman to approach…”

Anna laughed. “Enough of this nonsense; I would no sooner marry a stranger than I would any of the repellent gentlemen my stepfather has brought down. I shall remain with Isobel. Far better to be an unpaid companion than the alternative you suggest.”

“I suppose I’m not to write to Lucy?”

“Of course not; I do appreciate your kind thoughts but would much prefer you did not become involved.”

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