The only thing more inconvenient than Camilla's marriage at gunpoint is falling in love with her unwilling groom...
Adrian Hunter, the son of a duke's daughter and a black abolitionist, is determined to do whatever his family needs-even posing as a valet to gather information. But his mission spirals out of control when he's accused of dastardly intentions and is forced to marry a woman he's barely had time to flirt with.
Camilla Worth has always dreamed of getting married, but a marriage where a pistol substitutes for "I do" is not the relationship she hoped for. Her unwilling groom insists they need to seek an annulment, and she's not cruel enough to ruin a man's life just because she yearns for one person to care about her.
As Camilla and Adrian work to prove their marriage wasn't consensual, they become first allies, then friends. But the closer they grow, the more Camilla's heart aches. If they consummate the marriage, he'll be stuck with her forever. The only way to show that she cares is to make sure he can walk away for good…
1. Once upon a Marquess |
1½. Her Every Wish |
2. After the Wedding |
2½. The Pursuit Of… |
3. The Devil Comes Courting
4. The Return of the Scoundrel | 5. The Kissing Hour | 6. A Tale of Two Viscounts | 7. The Once and Future Earl
Nobody has read it yet, and so consequently, nobody likes it!
All my books get code names. This book’s code name is (a) a spoiler, and (b) a line from The Suffragette Scandal. All will be revealed in the author’s note.
Surrey County, England, 1867
Lady Camilla Worth had dreamed of marriage ever since she was twelve years of age and had been shunted off to the first family who reluctantly took her in.
Marriage? She had quickly learned not to be persnickety in her choice of fantasies. It didn’t have to be marriage.
When she was younger, she had used to imagine that one of the girls whose acquaintance she made—however briefly—would become her devoted friend, and they would swear a lifelong loyalty to one another. When she lived in Gloucester, she daydreamed about becoming a companion—no, an almost-granddaughter—to an elderly woman who lived three houses down.
“What would I ever do without you, Camilla?” old Mrs. Marsdell would say after Camilla learned to crochet properly and thereby wormed her way into her heart.
But old Mrs. Marsdell had never stopped frowning at Camilla suspiciously, no matter how well she crocheted, and Camilla had been packed up and sent off to another family before she had a chance to charm anyone.
One person was all she had ever wanted. One person, just one, who promised not to leave her. She didn’t need love. She didn’t need wealth. After packing her bags nine times and boarding trains, braving swaying carts—or even once, walking seven miles with her aging valise in tow—after nine separate residences, she would have settled for tolerance and a promise that she would at least have a place to stay.
Of course she also hoped for marriage as she grew older. Hope had always whispered sweet and promising words to her, and she always gave in.
She stopped think of marriage the way children did, dreaming of white knights and declarations of undying adoration and houses to look over and china and linen to purchase. She hoped for it in the most basic possible terms.
She wanted someone to choose her. She wanted not to be sent away again. Her husband didn’t need to love her; he just needed to say, “We should stay together for the rest of our lives.”
Hope was forever beckoning, and having allowed herself to hope for so little, she had believed that surely she could not be disappointed.
It just went to show: Fate had a sense of humor, and she was a capricious bitch.
For here Camilla stood on her wedding day—wedding night, really. Her gown was not white, as Victoria’s had been, and really shouldn’t be called a gown, as tiny down feathers still clung to it from when she’d aired the bedding. Her hands were so dry they caught on the rough fabric of her apron; her throat was parched. She had no trousseau packed in trunks, no idea what sort of home—if any—awaited her.
She was getting married and still her dream eluded her.
Her groom’s face was hidden in the shadows.
Late as this wedding was on this particular night, a few candles lit in the nave did more to cast shadows than shed illumination. He adjusted his cuffs. The linen fabric gleamed white against the brown of his skin, and seemed whiter still when he folded his arms in disapproval. She couldn’t see his full expression in the darkness, but his eyebrows made grim slashes of unhappy resignation.
It might have been romantic—for versions of romantic that conflated foolhardy with fun—to marry a man she had known for scarcely three days.
What Camilla knew of her groom was not terrible. He’d been kind to her. He had made her laugh. He had even—once—touched her arm and made her heart flutter.
It might have been romantic, but for one not-so-little thing.
“Adrian Hunter,” Bishop Lassiter was saying. “Do you take Camilla Winters to be your wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and protect her, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”
She would have overlooked the lack of a gown, a trousseau, almost anything. God knew she had given up hope of such luxury. She would have forgiven anything except…
“No,” said her groom.
Anything except this: Just like everyone else in the world, her intended didn’t want her.
The moment felt like a distant dream. It was happening to someone else, someone very, very far away, someone standing in Camilla’s body and feeling Camilla’s feelings.
Behind Mr. Hunter, Rector Miles lifted the pistol. He didn’t quite aim it at her reluctant groom; he held it askew, angled in the vague direction of the man in a way that managed to be a threat without quite amounting to a promise. His hands gleamed white on the barrel; the flickering light made his fingers look like maggots writhing on the tarnished steel.
“That’s not the way this is done,” the rector said calmly. “You will agree and you will sign the book, damn your eyes.”
“I do this under duress.” His words sounded clipped and harsh. “I do not consent.”
Camilla couldn’t even call him her intended. Intent on both their parts was woefully lacking.
“I’m sorry,” Camilla whispered.
He didn’t hear her. Or maybe he heard and didn’t care to respond.
She wouldn’t have minded so much if he didn’t love her. She didn’t want white lace and wedding cake. But this wasn’t marriage, not really. She’d stayed with her uncle, then his cousins, then…well, she could recite the chain of people who had not wanted her around until her eyes stung and their faces blurred together.
She’d been with Rector Miles longer than almost anyone, and she’d tried her hardest. She honestly had. This time, she had thought. This time, she’d stay for certain.
Instead, she was being wrapped up like an unwanted package again and sent on to the next soul.
After being passed on—and on—and on—and on—for all these years, she should have outgrown all illusions about the outcome in this case.
The candlelight made Mr. Hunter’s features seem even darker than they had appeared in the sun. In the sun, after all, he’d smiled at her.
He didn’t smile now.
Camilla was finally getting married, and of course her husband didn’t want her.
Her lungs felt too small. Her hands were shaking. Her corset wasn’t laced tightly, but still she couldn’t seem to breathe. Little green spots appeared before her eyes, dancing, whirling.
Don’t faint, Camilla, she admonished herself. Don’t faint. If you faint, he might leave you behind, and then you’ll truly have nowhere to go.
She didn’t faint. She managed to breathe—in and out, in and out. She said yes when it was her turn to do so, and the pistol never jerked in her direction. Eventually, the dizzying spots went away. She managed not to swoon on her way to sign the register. She did everything except look at the unwilling groom whose life had so forcibly been tied to her own. That was it; she was married.
There were no congratulations. There was no wedding dinner. There was just that look in Rector Miles’s eyes—the one that said Camilla deserved no better. She’d heard him say it often enough; she’d never let herself believe it. She took a deep breath and looked upward. She’d avoided thinking the worst of herself all this time. No point starting now.
“Camilla.” Kitty, the other maid in the household, had been present to serve as a second witness. She reached for Camilla’s hand as they passed. “I’m so, so—”
But Rector Miles just glared at the woman. “Kitty was going to say that she packed your things. Your valise is outside.”
She followed him out into the night. It was late summer, but it had been unseasonably cold and rainy and the wind still raged. The rectory was in the middle of wide, rolling pastureland south of Surrey. A small collection of houses surrounded them, but it was five miles to the nearest town of any real size. An icy breeze whistled coldly down Camilla’s neck, and she shivered.
“There’s an inn three miles away,” Bishop Lassiter said. “They might allow you to take rooms for the night.”
Mr. Hunter made no response.
The rector who had given her a home for the last year and a half did not even look at Camilla. He had told her earlier how disappointed he was in her behavior. And there was no chance for Camilla to speak with him now, because her new husband, without saying a word, shouldered his own bag and started walking down the road without her.
That was how Camilla left the tenth household that had taken her in: on foot, at nine at night, with a chill in the air and the moon high overhead. She picked up her valise, gritted her teeth, and did what she did best: she hoped. So. She had a new…husband? Should she call him a husband? Maybe this would all work out. Just because it had never worked out yet didn’t mean—
She shook her head, coming to her senses. Daydreaming, at a time like this? Mr. Hunter had started walking without so much as a glance at her, and he was now ten yards distant.
She was being left behind. Never mind what they could someday be to each other. Would he talk to her tonight? Would he want to consummate the marriage without even looking at her? Bile rose in her throat at the possibility.
His long legs ate away at the ground. She scrambled to catch up. The handle of her valise began to burn a line in the palm of her hand. Switching shoulders, then trying to rest the weight against her hip, didn’t help.
She didn’t dare complain. She didn’t want to be left behind, not so soon. If she was abandoned again, in less than an hour…
She had almost no money.
She had no idea what she would do.
Halfway to the inn, he stopped. At first, she thought he might finally address her. Instead, he let his own satchel fall to the ground. He looked up at the moon.
His hands made fists at his side. “Fuck.” He spoke softly enough that she likely wasn’t supposed to hear that epithet.
Finally, he turned to her. She still couldn’t make out the expression in his eyes, but she could feel his gaze on her. He’d lost his position and gained a wife, all in the space of a few hours. She didn’t imagine that he was happy with her existence, but acknowledging it was a start.
He exhaled. “I suppose this…is what it is. We’ll have to figure this mess out.”
That was what she was: not a wife, not a companion. She was a mess. She inhaled once more, and tried, desperately, to reach for the thing that had sustained her for years: hope. She had never given up; she had never stopped trying.
Her fingers tightened on her valise.
She would make this work. She’d made everything work thus far, hadn’t she? She’d just keep trying—harder this time—and…
Camilla exhaled into the cold of the night.
Hope felt very far away. How on earth had her life come to this?
Ah, yes. It had started three days ago, when Bishop Lassiter had arrived on her doorstep with Mr. Hunter in tow…