When Gideon Albury lifts his new bride's veil he can't believe his eyesthis dark-haired dab of a girl isn't the blonde beauty he's been courting! Stunned, Gideon resolves to seek an annulment at the earliest opportunity, but to do so he must first make sure Dominique Rainault's virtue stays intact .
Blackmailed into marrying Gideon by her despicable cousin, Dominique is just as keen to keep her distance from her unsettling husband. But despite their good intentions the marital bed beckonsand a stolen kiss could prove to be their undoing!
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'Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder!'
The words boomed around the small church, echoing off the walls. The Honourable Gideon Albury grinned down at the heavily veiled figure at his side. Bless her, she was taking maidenly modesty to new heights!
Perhaps she thought it would inflame him, but she did that perfectly well without dressing as a nun. With her voluptuous body, golden curls and cornflower-blue eyes, she was a rare beauty. And that little trick she had of peeping up at him from under her lashes, those blue eyes promising the lush delights to come-his body hardened with anticipation. At last he would be able to enjoy those ample curves to the full!
Not that the little darling had flaunted her charms. She was, after all, a lady-the Earl of Martlesham's cousin, in fact. He would not else have contemplated marriage without his father's approval. Depraved as Lord Rotham might think him, he had not sunk so low that he would marry out of his sphere. But 'fore Gad, Gideon had never before seen such perfection in a gently bred young lady. She had allowed Gideon a glimpse of her pretty ankles, his hands had spanned that tiny waist and her plump, snow-white breast had been just crying out to be kissed. By heaven, just the thought of it made it difficult to concentrate on the marriage service. The register was produced. Gideon scrawled his own name carelessly and watched as his bride added her name to his. He guessed that damned veil was making it difficult for her to see because her hand shook a little as she held the pen. As a witness, Martlesham signed with a flourish and grinned. 'There-'tis done.'
'So it is.' Gideon smiled down at his new wife. 'I think we can dispense with this now.'
He reached for her veil, but she quickly put her gloved hand over his.
'Not yet,' she whispered.
'Be careful, my love, I shall begin to think I have married a little prude!'
He expected to hear her delicious, throaty laugh, but she was silent, merely putting her fingers on his arm as he escorted her to the door.
After the darkness of the stone building the spring sunshine was almost blinding when they stepped outside. He stopped and turned to her again.
'Now, Miss Propriety, let me kiss you Good God!' He stepped back, his eyes widening with horror as he looked down into the face of a complete stranger.
Dominique stood very still, staring up into the shocked face of her new husband. It was all there, everything she had expected: horror, revulsion, disgust. She had known how it must seem to him once the trick was revealed. He pushed his fingers through his auburn hair, disturbing the carefully arranged disorder, while behind them Max's cruel laugh rang out.
'Caught you there, Albury!'
'But I don't understand. Your cousin-'
'This is my cousin.'
Max chortled and Dominique's heart went out to the man standing before her. He looked stunned.
As well he might. Instead of the beautiful, voluptuous blonde he had courted for the past two months he was married to a diminutive brunette whom he had never seen before in his life.
'Is something amiss?' The vicar looked from one to the other before directing a vaguely worried look towards Max. 'Lord Martlesham?'
'No, no, nothing's wrong,' declared Max, still chuckling. 'The groom is struck dumb by the enormity of the occasion, that's all.' He began shepherding the guests away from the church. 'Come along, everyone, the carriages are waiting!'
'Just a moment!' The man beside her did not move, except to shake her hand from his arm. 'Where is Dominique?'
'Lord, Albury, have you not understood it yet? You have married her!' Max gave him a push. 'Come along, man, don't stand there gawping. Let us return to the
'Please.' Dominique forced her vocal cords to work. 'Come back to the Abbey and all this can be explained.'
Frowning, he grabbed her arm and set off for the gate with Dominique almost running to keep up with him. As was usual with weddings, the path was lined with well-wishers who showered them with rice as they hurried to the carriage. It was decorated with ribbons for the occasion, the Martlesham coat of arms displayed prominently on the door. Without ceremony her escort bundled Dominique into the carriage, climbed in after her and the door was slammed upon them. Max's grinning face appeared in the window.
'Now then, Gideon, try to contain your lust until after the wedding breakfast. The journey from here to the Abbey ain't long enough to tup a woman properly. I know, I've tried it!'
Dominique closed her eyes in mortification. The carriage began to move and the raucous laughter was left behind them.
'So, this was one of Max's little tricks.'
Dominique looked at Gideon. His voice was calm, but there was a dangerous glitter in his hazel eyes that made her think he might be about to commit murder. She swallowed.
'And everyone at the Abbey was privy to the joke, except me.'
'You and my mother.'
'Max told me she was too unwell to attend the ceremony.'
Dominique bowed her head.
'She does not know. Maman would never have agreed to such a scheme.'
'I take it the female I knew as Dominique was hired for the part?'
'An actress. Agnes Bennet.'
'And a damned good one. She fooled me into thinking she was a lady. Whereas you-' His lip curled. 'You may be Max's cousin, but no true lady would lend herself to this, this joke'
His contempt flayed her. Given time, she could explain to him why she had agreed to Max's outrageous scheme, but they had already arrived at the Abbey. She waited in silence for the carriage to stop and a liveried footman to leap forwards and open the door. Her companion jumped out first and with exaggerated courtesy put out his hand to her.
'Well, madam, shall we go in to the wedding breakfast?'
Miserably, Dominique accompanied him into the house.
'Now, perhaps you will explain to me what the hell is going on.'
Gideon looked about him at the company assembled in the dining room. The servants had been dismissed and it was only the twenty or so guests who had comprised Lord Martlesham's house party for the past two months-with the exception of the blonde beauty, of course. The woman he had believed was Martlesham's cousin. She had been replaced by the poor little dab of a girl who was now his wife.
Everyone stood around, ignoring the festive elegance of the dining table, all gleaming silver and sparkling glass, set out in readiness for the wedding breakfast. His eyes raked the crowd, but no one would meet his gaze.
'It's a practical joke, old boy,' said Max, who was helping himself to a glass of brandy from the decanter on the sideboard.
'Not one that I appreciate!' Gideon retorted.
Max turned to him, still smiling.
'No? Strange, I thought you would, given what happened at Covent Garden last year.'
'Ah ' Gideon nodded slowly ' so that is it. You are paying me back for stealing the divine Diana from under your nose!'
The scene came back to him. He had been one of a dozen rowdy, drunken bucks crowding into the dressing rooms after the performance. Max was paying court to a pretty little opera dancer, but Gideon knew from her meaningful smiles and the invitation in her kohl-lined eyes that she would happily give herself to the highest bidder.
'Confound it, Albury, I had been working on that prime article for weeks, then just when I thought she was going to fall into my lap you offer her a carte blanche!'
Gideon felt his temper rising. There was a world of difference between competing for the favours of a light-skirt and trapping him into marriage!
'And because I bested you on that occasion you concocted this elaborate charade?'
'Why, yes, and I thought it rather neat, actually,' returned Max, sipping his brandy. 'I hired Agnes Bennet to play my cousin and you fell for her-quite besotted, in fact. All I had to do then was persuade you to propose. Of course, it helped that you were still smarting from the roasting your father gave you at Christmas and ripe for any mischief that would pay him back.'
Gideon could not deny it. He recalled that last, fraught meeting with his father. They had rowed royally. If he was honest, Gideon had already been a little tired of Max and his constant tricks and stratagems, but he did not like his father criticising his friends. He had lost his temper, declaring that he would do what he wanted with his life. He remembered storming out of the house, declaring, 'I will make friends with whom I like, do what I like, marry whom I like!'
How unwise he had been to relay the whole incident to Martlesham.
The earl continued, 'You knew that marrying any cousin of mine would anger your father. It helped, of course, that she was such a little beauty. A typical English rose.'
'Couldn't wait to get her into bed, eh?' cried one of Max's cronies, a buck-toothed fop called Williams.
Dear heaven, Gideon wondered why he had never noticed before just what a hideous smirk the fellow had! Max filled a second glass with brandy and handed it to him.
'Then, of course, you said you could never marry a Frenchie.'
'Well, what of that?' said Gideon, stiffening. Max's smile grew.
'It so happens that my dear cousin here is most definitely French. Ain't that so, m'dear?'
The girl made no answer, save for a slight nod of the head. Gideon's eyes narrowed.
'Reynolds is an English name. And you told me Dominique was an old family tradition.'
'Now there I admit I misled you, my boy. The name is a family tradition, but it belongs to her French ancestors, not mine.' Max's hateful smile widened. 'My dear Gideon, you should have looked more closely at the register before you signed it. You would have seen then that her father's name was Rainault, not Reynolds. Jerome Rainault, a wine merchant from Montpellier. A full-blooded Frenchman, Albury, and a paid-up Girondin to boot.'
Gideon was surprised out of the dispassionate hauteur he had assumed. Max's pale blue eyes gleamed with malicious triumph.
'Oh, yes,' he said softly. 'You swore that the French were all your enemies, did you not? It seemed poetic justice to marry you off to a Frenchwoman.'
More of Gideon's last, heated exchange with his father flashed into his head.
'Martlesham is a bad lot,' the viscount had said. 'You should choose your friends more carefully.'
He had been angered by his father's words, but now the truth of them stung him even more.
Williams guffawed loudly. 'What a good joke. You have been well and truly duped, Albury! You fell head over heels for Max's actress, didn't you? He made the switch this morning. He even had shoes made with a heel so that you didn't see that your new bride was shorter than the lovely Agnes.'
Williams pushed his silver-topped cane under the bridal skirts, but the girl whipped herself away from him, her cheeks aflame with embarrassment. The others sniggered and Gideon cursed silently. How had he ever found their childish humour amusing?
He said furiously, 'This goes beyond a joke, Martlesham. This time you are meddling with peoples' lives.'
'We all found it devilishly amusin', old fellow.' He held out the glass. 'Here. Admit we caught you fair and square. Then let us enjoy the wedding d jeuner and afterwards I'll summon the vicar and my lawyer from the village and we can arrange to have the marriage annulled. After all, there's witnesses enough to the fact that you have been tricked.'
Gideon took the brandy and sipped it. Everyone around him was grinning, save the bride. The heat had left her cheeks and she now stood beside him, pale and silent. This slight, dark figure could not be less like the bride he had been expecting. The enormity of his folly hit him. He had not consulted his father about the marriage-a petty revenge against his parent for daring to ring such a peal over him at that last meeting. He had not even notified his lawyer, knowing that Rogers would demand settlements should be drawn up. In his eagerness to secure his bride he had accepted Max's assurances that they could deal with all the usual formalities later. Now he knew why and a cold fury seized him.
He said slowly, 'Admit I was tricked and become a laughing stock? No, I don't think so.'
It gave him some satisfaction to see the smiles falter. Max frowned. His bride turned to stare at him. Gideon forced a smile to his lips.
'No,' he drawled. 'I have to marry sometime. Your cousin will do as well as anyone, Martlesham. The marriage stands.'
* * *
Dominique gasped out the word. This was not the way it was meant to be. She looked imploringly to her cousin, but the earl's face was a mask.
'Come.' Gideon was holding his hand out to her. 'Let us sit down and enjoy our first meal as man and wife.'
His tone brooked no argument. Reluctantly she accompanied the stranger who was now her husband to the table. Only he was not a stranger to her. For the past two months she had watched him from the shadows as he laughed and danced and flirted with the woman chosen to impersonate her. How Dominique wished that she was more like the beautiful Agnes, with her deep, throaty laugh and bewitching smile. She had watched Gideon fall in love with the actress and realised that she would willingly exchange her dusky locks and green eyes for blonde curls and cornflower-blue eyes if Gideon would give her just one admiring glance. Max had not objected when he discovered Dominique had dressed herself as a servant so that she could watch the courtship. Indeed, he had enjoyed the added piquancy her masquerade gave to the proceedings and gradually she had found herself being drawn ever closer to Gideon Albury. He was different from the others, more thoughtful, and lacking the cruel humour that characterised so many of Max's friends. She had thought at first that his lean face was a little austere, but she had seen the way his smile warmed his eyes and she had learned to listen out for his voice, deep and rich as chocolate.
And she had fallen in love.
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Slow and rather boring.