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Excerpt from

The Bride's Secret

Chapter 1 

She knew they were gossiping about her. As soon as Carlotta Ennis had glided into the sedately gay Pump Room, the snickering women's voices had risen to a crescendo. Never mind them, Carlotta told herself as she regally strolled to procure her cup of the medicinal water.

While she waited for the attendant to fill her cup, Carlotta heard a distant female voice. “Will you look at how low her neckline plunges!”

No doubt, Carlotta was the subject of such outrage. The lady under discussion stood up straighter and tugged at the bodice of her purple velvet gown, a sly smile playing at her lips as her neckline fell even lower. Flaunting convention had always been as much a part of Carlotta's persona as the velvety timbre of her seductive voice.

She took her water and began to drink. Surely the water would do her good. She had not been here—nor anywhere in this watering city—since the unpleasantness with Gregory.

“Nasty tasting, is it not, Mrs. Ennis?” a gentleman's voice asked.

She swallowed the water, silently agreeing with the man's accurate description, returned her cup to the liveried attendant, then turned her gaze upon the gentleman who had spoken to her. It was Sir Wendell Anthrop. She guessed him to be roughly three decades her senior—in his mid fifties. What he lacked in hair he more than made up for in girth.

“Yes, it is quite revolting,” she answered, “but as I have been in poor health of late, I thought it would do me good to drink the abominable restorative.”

She felt his eyes sweep over her from the top of her head to the tip of her toes, with a perceptible lingering over her full bosom. “I am sorry to hear you've been unwell, Mrs. Ennis,” he said, his steely eyes pensive. “I knew the Assembly Rooms have seemed wretchedly empty without you.” He moved closer, possessively placing a hand on her elbow. “May I have the pleasure of walking with you this morning?”

It was a welcome sign. A man of decent birth was not ashamed to be seen with her. It would do her good to allow Sir Wendell to see her home to Queensbury Street.

Before they left the Pump Room they strolled the lofty chamber from one end to the other, Sir Wendell pausing frequently to speak with acquaintances who icily ignored Carlotta's existence.

It had not always been this way. Not so very long ago she had been as vital a part of Bath society as the Master of Ceremonies himself. Women vied to befriend her; men made fools of themselves to attract her attention. And Carlotta had thrived on their adulation.

Despite the drone of voices and the soft orchestra music, Carlotta and Sir Wendell were easily able to converse on banal topics, such as the fair weather and the actors performing at the theatre.

After leaving the Pump Room they joined the flow of people funneling onto Milsom Street. The streets were far more full than the last time she had ventured out—when Gregory had been with her. But, then, this was the season for Bath. That is why Sir Wendell was here. He could afford residences in several cities. Unlike Carlotta who was forced by pecuniary circumstances to live in Bath year round. She craved the shops and the assemblies and theatre—all of which were far cheaper in Bath than in London.

As they strolled along Milsom Street she avoided looking at the milliners and mantua maker shops where her accounts were sadly in arrears, fearing the shopkeepers would recognize her and run from their establishments, demanding that she settle her bills. She read the sign for Bingham Butchers and colored, remembering the extent of her unpaid bill there. At least Peggy, her cook/housekeeper/maid, was the one who had to patronize the butcher. Bless poor, devoted Peggy.

Carlotta and Sir Wendell turned on to George Street and spoke again of the weather and mutual friends and the musicians who were performing in the city.

“It would give me the greatest pleasure if you would accompany me tomorrow evening to the musicale,” he said, giving her hand a firm squeeze.

A pity Sir Wendell was old and fat. Though not in the least attractive to her, he was a man of consequence in Bath. Allowing him to escort her in society would reintroduce her in an agreeable manner. “The pleasure would be mine,” Carlotta said, gazing at him through heavily lashed eyes.

Perhaps the man could even be her savior from economic woes. Despite that she was not attracted to him, she could entertain the idea of being married to Sir Wendell. As the wife of such a wealthy man, she would be able to pay off all the tradesmen she owed, she could help Gran—and best of all, she could bring her little boy to live with her at long last. Yes, she could marry the man for incentives such as those. She knew better than to hold out for love. Her love had been lavishly spent on a man who wanted no part of it.

Sir Wendell appeared to puff up with self importance and proceeded to regale her with trivial observations of Bath. She caught herself not attending his words, for each street brought memories of Gregory. Thank God he had gone home to Sutton Manor. She did not think she could bear to see him with that young wife of his.

She fought back tears when she saw the tea room where Gregory had taken her for refuge during blustery winter days. How she had loved to sit there, warming her hands around a cup of steaming brew, and gazing into his honeyed eyes. She grew weak just remembering the effect his crooked grin had on her. Surely it was a sin to love a man as totally as she had loved Gregory. Even Stephen Ennis—the husband whose son she bore, the man who had given her his name and earned and deserved her ceaseless love—had received but a trickling of the affection she later laid at Gregory Blankenship's shrine.

“I believe this is your residence,” Sir Wendell said.

She had not realized they had reached Queensbury Street, and to assure herself, she looked up to see the familiar little row house. “Thank you, Sir Wendell, for seeing me home.”

The man grabbed her hand much as a thief would steal a chop of mutton. And he held it firm, his eyes devouring her bosom. She was uncomfortable and wished she had a shawl to drape over her breasts. Before Gregory she never would have been visited by such shame. She allowed a stab of anger at herself and of resentment toward Gregory.

“I must say I was happy to learn that Blankenship has left Bath and taken up residence at Sutton Manor for I've always had a tendre for you, Mrs. Ennis.”

Carlotta's heart began to drum madly as he squeezed her hand even harder and leered at her with a lecherous grin. “That is too kind of you, Sir Wendell.” Why did she say that when the man repulsed her? Avoiding contact with his puffy green eyes, she set one slippered foot on the first step to her house.

His grip on her hand tightened. “You know I am a very wealthy man.” He moved closer and spoke in a husky, low voice. “I'm noted for my generosity, especially to the women I . . .ah, protect.”

Her stomach flipped. The despicable man wanted her for his mistress! She had to get away from him. Her other foot now moved to the first step.

His gaze was once more on her bosom. “I am prepared to settle you with five hundred a year, my dear Mrs. Ennis.”

She twisted her hand free and whirled around, fairly flying up the steps, not deigning to reply to the obnoxious man.

“How dare you turn your back to me!” he shouted. “All of Bath knows you were Gregory Blankenship's fancy piece!”

She came to an abrupt stop and turned to face him, anger flashing in her eyes, scorn in her voice. “You, sir, are not Gregory Blankenship.” Then she turned back and hurried up the steps.

“What's the matter,” he bleated viciously. “Is five hundred pounds not enough? How much did Blankenship pay for your services?”

Despite the tears which blurred her vision, Carlotta's hand found the knob, and she shoved the door open, slamming it behind her and hurrying up the stairs to throw herself on her bed for another good sob. Thank God Gran wasn't here to see her shame.

She had only cried twice in her life: when Stephen Ennis died and when Gregory Blankenship left her. But during the year since Gregory left she had turned into a watering pot. She not only had lost the man she loved recklessly and hopelessly, she had also lost her last semblance of respectability.

* * *

James Moore, now the Earl of Rutledge, was born under a lucky star. From his earliest days he had known it. He had been a great favorite with his nurse and had been blessed with good health. His strong body had not only resisted disease and infirmity but also gifted him with uncommon skill in rugby and cricket and any manner of gentlemanly sports. His extraordinary abilities distinguished him through Rugby, Sandhurst and in the Light.

He had been the only young man in his lodgings at Sandhurst not to succumb to a deadly fever that claimed many of his classmates. When he was a soldier in the Peninsula, his noble Captain Stephen Ennis saved James from almost certain death—at the cost of his own life. From Waterloo, he emerged unscathed. While later serving in India, he received the news that an uncle, whose existence he had been unaware of, had died and left his fortune and title to James.

At the age of seven and twenty James, whose father had been a gentleman farmer of modest means, found himself master of Yarmouth Hall. Now, he settled back in a comfortable leather chair, propped his boot-clad feet on the massive Jacobean desk, and surveyed the jewel-toned leather volumes that stacked row upon row two full stories up to the paneled wood ceiling far above. Bindings of red, emerald green and lapis blue wrapped around the cavernous room. James wondered how many of them his uncle had read.

A shadow darkened the west doorway, and he turned to see Adams.

“Your lordship has a visitor,” the tall, stiff, gray-haired butler announced.

The lord quickly dropped his feet to the Turkey carpet, hoping Adams had not witnessed his uncivilized behavior. James was not at all used to having a butler or to being master of any place, much less a four-hundred-year-old ancestral home of nearly one hundred rooms. He was not sure how he was supposed to act. And truth be told, he was a good deal intimidated by the overbearing butler. A haughtier man he had never beheld.

“Pray, who is it?” James asked.

“A Mr. Jonas Smythe.” Without saying another word, Adams conveyed his distaste for the unfortunate Mr. Smythe.

“Show him in,” James said.

The Bow Street runner had not been expected back so quickly. It had been less than a week since the man had been hired. James stood and greeted Mr. Smythe, then asked Adams to close the door. As Mr. Smythe had done at their first meeting, he lowered his stooped-over frame into a chair facing the desk James sat behind. “Have you a report so soon?” James inquired.

“Yes, milord.” The bearded man withdrew a small notebook from the pocket of his red vest. “I believe I have all the information you requested.”

James's anticipation heightened as he watched the man thumb through the Occurrence Book

Mr. Smythe leafed through a few sheets of paper to refresh his memory, then spoke without consulting his notes. “Let me jest give ye the the lay. Mrs. Ennis stays year round in Bath on a right respectable street, Queensbury by name. Seems like a dull sort of place. I'm from Lunnon meself, and I like a bit 'o bustle.” He looked down at his book once more. “Well, like I was tellin, she rents lodgings in a town 'ouse. The rub is the lady can't get the dibs in tune. She owes everyone, gov'nah. Quarterly income won't cover. 'Tis only sixty pounds. Too bad Mr. Ennis was put to bed with a shovel.”

James was almost relieved to hear Carlotta Ennis was in financial difficulties, for that meant he could have the pleasure of assisting her. It was a small price to pay for what her husband had done for him. And until James was assured of the happiness of Captain Ennis's family, he could never sleep well in his silken canopied bed at Yarmouth Hall.

“Tell me,” James said, “did you see Mrs. Ennis?”

Mr. Smythe looked up from his notebook, snapping it shut. His pudgy fingers twirled his moustache, and his drooping eyes glimmered. “As fine a looking woman as ever there was.”

James nodded. Yes, that would be Carlotta Ennis. “I thank you for the information, Mr. Smythe. My man of business will settle your bill if you will have my butler direct you to the morning room.” James pulled the bell rope.

The runner stood and handed James several pages of paper from his notebook. “'ere's the official report with all the proper documentation, yer lordship.”

Once the man was gone, James perused the report. How different Carlotta Ennis's life would have been had Captain Ennis lived. And it was James's fault she was a widow. He felt bloody bad about it. He always did when Lady Luck smiled upon him while trampling another.

Oddly, as he read the report he thought he smelled lavender, Carlotta Ennis's scent. It was as much a part of her as her glossy black hair. He vividly pictured the captain's elegant wife. Lavender and purple gowns of the latest fashion had softly molded to the smooth curves of her taller than average body, scarcely covering her full breasts. She carried herself so regally, she seemed almost ethereal. Her rich black hair—seldom covered with bonnet or hat—swept back, with wispy curls tumbling about her perfectly chiseled face. He'd always thought her cold, perhaps because she brought to mind a statue of a Roman goddess. Even her smooth skin reminded him of flawless polished marble. Only her smoky lavender eyes showed any warmth.

He was somewhat piqued that the report had not mentioned the son she bore in Portugal in eighteen-twelve. For it was the boy who troubled James the most. The poor lad would be raised without a father. The corners of James's mouth tugged downward as he remembered his own fatherless childhood. He had been the only one in his class at Rugby who had no male parent to visit him on Father-Son Day. But it was not that one day every spring which blemished his otherwise satisfactory childhood. It was not having a father to teach him the ins and outs of riding and shooting and angling, or to teach him the correct way to tie a cravet. It was having to become the man of the family when he was but four years of age. It was his self-imposed sense of isolation that permeated his childhood. He was different. He had no papa. Who could expect him to know what other lads—lads who had fathers—knew?

James turned his thoughts once again to Captain Ennis's son. James wanted to buy the lad's first horse and teach him to ride. They could go angling, and he would instruct the boy on how to shoot. If the little fellow needed help with his Latin or his sums, James wanted to be the one to provide it.

He pulled the bell rope again, and when Adams appeared he told him to inform Mannington to pack his things. “We go to Bath inside the hour.”

Surrendering an arm or leg to a sawbones would have been more pleasant than facing Captain Ennis's widow. For she knew James's insubordination had caused her husband's death.





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