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Authors: Eileen Putman

The Perfect Bride

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The
PERFECT BRIDE

By
Eileen Putman

 

Copyright© Eileen Putman, 1997

All Rights Reserved

Second Edition


 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Spring
1816

 

 

 

 

"My
wig, Jeffers, if you please."

"The
grey or the brown, major — er, my lord?"

"I
believe I shall require the hoary privileges of age for this particular
mission."

Jeffers
nodded and carefully removed the grey wig from a stand on the massive oak
chest. "Do you wish a mustache as well, my lord?"

There
was a brief, contemplative silence from the figure in the large wing chair.
"The cursed things are a nuisance," came the response, "but I
should not care to chance exposure."

From
a drawer, Jeffers removed a matching grey mustache that he proceeded to tame
into a neat military style. When he offered it for inspection, his employer
frowned.

"Too
rigid. Something more casual, perhaps with a bit of a droop to gain the young
lady's sympathy. I mean to disarm the target, Jeffers, not frighten her."

The
batman smoothed the mustache into a less prepossessing appendage and was
rewarded with a nod from the figure in the chair.

"Perfect."

Jeffers
preened under the compliment. The man who had commanded his loyalty and service
for half a decade dispensed few enough of those.

"Did
you procure the clothing?" his employer demanded in the deep baritone that
had compelled instant attention on the battlefield.

Jeffers
opened the mahogany wardrobe and removed a pair of trousers, waistcoat, and
jacket. The frayed edges of the dimity twill betrayed its years, but the suit
was impeccably clean.

With
a critical eye, the figure in the chair studied the costume. "Where did
you obtain it?"

"From
an impoverished bank clerk who was only too happy to have the fifty
pounds."

A
rare smile spread over uncompromising features that had consigned many a foe to
his doom. "I cannot imagine how I devised my disguises without your
assistance in the early years of the war."

"It
was my good fortune that our paths crossed, sir — er my lord," Jeffers
insisted, flushing with pleasure.

"Nonsense."
Briskly dismissive, his employer dispensed with Jeffers's heartfelt
declaration. "You would have bested that French bastard eventually. I
merely hastened his demise."

Jeffers
kept silent, knowing that above all things, his employer disliked praise.
Still, nothing would ever persuade the scrawny batman he could have defeated
the Frenchman who weighed nearly twenty stone and who ambushed him that day
near Bayonne. Fortunately, the tattered "beggar" who had come along
as Jeffers made his last prayers possessed extraordinary fighting skills. The
French soldier breathed his last in the pauper's lethal embrace.

A
rustling of paper from the wing chair indicated that his employer's attention
had moved on to other things. "Three names. That is the best you could
do?"

Jeffers
bowed. "Your requirements were exceedingly stringent, my lord."

A
mercurial gaze held his. "You believe I demand too much from my future
bride?"

Jeffers
took note of the warning tone. "It is not my position to express such a
view."

"But
it is your opinion, is it not?"

The
batman had long ago learned that a strategic retreat could be more valuable
than a frontal assault when dealing with his employer's unyielding nature.
Silently he returned the worn suit to the wardrobe, making a great show of
arranging the garment so as to avoid wrinkling it. Reaching for a polishing
cloth, he donned a preoccupied air as he rubbed the ancient suit of old armor
that stood next to the wardrobe as if in a constant state of battle readiness.

An
impatient sigh filled the chamber. "Your silence does not fool me, man. I
know what you think of my methods."

Jeffers
stared at the ancient broadsword that hung on the wall along with all manner of
fighting implements. "I merely find them...methodical, my lord," he
replied carefully.

"Method
has served me well enough in the trenches and out of them," came the brisk
reply. "I defy you to think of a better way to select a bride."

Jeffers
cleared his throat. "Some allow the heart to be their guide," he
ventured.

"The
same people who marry in hast and repent in leisure, no doubt," scoffed
his employer. "I do not think it is the heart that guides them as much as
another part of their anatomy."

Jeffers
bowed. "As you say, my lord."

"Enough
of this idle chitchat."

"How
do you mean to begin?"

"As
with any mission, Jeffers," came the impatient response. "Reconnoiter
and reconnaissance. A wife is no different from an enemy target. Both must be
chosen carefully and taken from a position of strength."

"Yes,
my lord." As his gaze settled on a particularly lethal-looking cudgel from
the twelfth century, Jeffers cringed.

***

"What
a masterful figure! It is too bad you did not have more of his gumption,
Edward."

"You
know that Edward has not spoken to us in nearly five hundred years, my
dear."

"Hmmph.
He always could hold a grudge."

"Be
reasonable, Isabella. We had him deposed. And roasted alive."

"I
still say five hundred years is too long to nurse a grudge. It gets lonely up
here."

A
hurt silence followed this remark.
"You used to say that
I
was
all you needed, Isabella."

"After
five hundred years, even your presence becomes wearing, Mortimer. I need
something to occupy my time."

"Time
is meaningless when one has eternity to atone for one's sins."

"But
do you not see, Mortimer? Time is all we have."

"What
are you planning, Isabella?"

"We
must do something about our tenant. He is missing the passion to which he is
entitled in his lifetime."

"I
would prefer not to get involved, if you do not mind."

"But
I do mind, Mortimer. Our hearts have always beaten as one, have they not? Or so
you always said."

"Yes,
Isabella. That is what I have always said."

*** 

Felicity
Biddle, daughter of Sir Thomas Biddle, adjusted her spectacles. "Only
think, Amanda! The fearless warrior rescued the princess from the phantasm
without a care for his own safety." She sighed. "I cannot imagine any
of my admirers braving an apparition in the name of love."

Amanda
Fitzhugh regarded her young cousin with a critical eye. "Since phantasms
exist only in your exceedingly fertile imagination, it is not necessary to put
any prospective suitor to such a ridiculous test."

Felicity
pursed her heart-shaped mouth, which had already provoked several eager young
swains into declaring undying love. "You would rob the fairies of their
fairy dust, Amanda. Is there not a fanciful bone in your body?"

"No
more than there are fairies." Amanda walked over to the hearth in the
Biddles' parlor and briskly stirred the fire. "I have lived long enough to
understand that fairy tales and dreams derive from wishes, not fact. I am most
thankful for the exceedingly practical nature I have developed over the
years."

Miss
Biddle closed her book, put aside her spectacles, and studied her cousin with
brilliant violet eyes that had captivated those same besotted suitors.
"You speak as if you are past praying for, when you have but twenty-eight
years. You are still a remarkably handsome woman, Amanda. You could have your
pick of husbands."

"Only
if they are doddering widowers with a clamoring brood to raise." Amanda
shot her cousin a wry smile.

"Not
so! Why Mr. Merson was most particular in his affections last year, and he is
neither doddering nor a widower. I thought him quite appealing."

"He
is a reprobate and lecher," Amanda declared bluntly. "You had best
clean those spectacles of yours. They must be fogged to see so poorly."

Felicity
gave her cousin a reproachful look. Her spectacles were the one aspect of her
appearance that she fervently wished to change. Of what use was a pair of
exquisite violet eyes if one must hide them behind thick spectacles? She never
wore them in public. No lady could captivate a suitor if she could not bat her
exceedingly long lashes without the obstruction of thick lenses.

"I
only make the point that you would have been wed long ago if you had shown the
slightest willingness to entertain offers," Felicity said. And perhaps wore
something other than the high-necked frocks that discouraged all but the most
determined suitor, she thought.

Amanda
bestowed a tolerant smile on her young cousin. "I have no desire to wed,
as you know. I could not be happier with my little spinster's cottage by the
sea. I shall stand in for your mama this Season, see you happily betrothed, and
then return as quickly as I can to Kent."

With
a resigned sigh, Felicity shook her head. "I am sorry, Amanda. I have been
insensitive. It is all because of that nasty Mr. LeFevre, is it not?"

This
untoward statement brought a severe frown from her cousin. "I have long
since forgotten about him,” Amanda said briskly, “but since you raise the
subject, there is no more apt example of how fanciful notions can lead one
astray."

Felicity
held her breath. Amanda had never spoken at length of the scandalous incident
in her past, and she knew she had been wrong to mention it. But Amanda had
evidently decided that a purpose was to be served by her cautionary tale, for
she fixed Felicity with a stern eye.

"I
was no more than a girl when I allowed myself to fall prey to a man I imagined
to be the hero of my dreams. Instead, he proved to be a scoundrel of the worst
sort, as everyone but me knew to begin with." Her lips thinned. "I
wish I had had someone to warn me at the time, but I do not suppose I would
have listened, any more than you are listening to me now."

Felicity
blushed at her cousin's description of the scandal that had barely been avoided
when Amanda had been discovered in the arms of the dastardly Mr. LeFevre on one
of the darker paths at Vauxhall, her bodice askew and her skirts in disarray.
Felicity could scarcely imagine that the unsentimental Amanda could have been
carried away by anything as impractical as passion. Nevertheless, it seems she
had.

Fortunately,
it was Felicity's father — Amanda’s uncle — who found her in the man’s embrace,
so the discovery went no further. Despite being heir to a dukedom, LeFevre was
deemed so beyond redemption as to make a disastrous and totally unsuitable choice
for a husband. Thus, Sir Thomas did not press the scoundrel to do the honorable
thing and marry his niece. Amanda had abruptly ended what was otherwise a
promising Season and beseeched her uncle to take her away to the country. In
the eight years since, Amanda had retired to Kent, firmly closed the door on
all prospective marriage offers, and become a relentlessly practical woman.

"I
respect your opinion," Felicity replied, "but I could not live as you
do. There is no harm in seeking a husband who inspires one's fancies."

"As
Julian inspired mine,” Amanda put in dryly. “Pray, consider the disaster it
wrought."


Nearly
wrought.” Felicity pouted. "And I am not you."

"No,"
Amanda agreed, laughing. "I am firmly on the shelf."

"By
your own choice."

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