The Lady Travelers Guide to Happily Ever After
Richard Branham, the Earl of Ellsworth, stood at the window in his library gazing at the back gardens, his hands clasped behind his back. One could tell by the set of his shoulders this was to be one of those discussions. Said discussions usually centered around his nephew’s—his heir’s—poor behavior, lack of responsibility and questionable future. Although James Branham thought his future had been rather firmly settled yesterday.
“Uncle Richard?” James braced himself. “You asked to see me?”
Uncle Richard turned from the window, the late morning light emphasizing the lines of aging in his face. But then the man had passed his seventy-fifth year. “I thought we should talk.”
“It seems to me we’ve done nothing but talk the last few days.”
His uncle studied him for a long moment. “I’m proud of you.”
“I beg your pardon?” Not exactly what James had expected.
“You did the right thing.” Uncle Richard crossed the room and took his usual seat behind his ancient mahogany desk. “It wasn’t easy.”
James shrugged and sat in the equally old wingback chair in front of the desk. They’d faced each other countless times across this desk since James had come to live with his uncle at the age of nine when his parents had died. Fifteen years later, James’s behavior was still a matter that warranted discussion.
“There wasn’t much of a choice.” It seemed to James it came down to his future, or hers. He would survive a scandal. Men with money and titles always did. Violet would have been ruined. And it was entirely his fault.
“You saved that girl from scandal and probably a life alone. A young woman’s fate rests on her reputation.”
“I am well aware of that.” It didn’t seem at all fair that Violet should have to suffer for his mistake. What had he been thinking? Or had he been thinking at all? Apparently, there was a great deal of guilt that went along with selfish errors of judgment, even when one ultimately did the right thing.
“Public indiscretions, even those we might deem minor, are rarely forgiven by society. Being kissed by a man whose engagement to another woman is about to be announced is not something that is easily forgotten.”
“She did slap me,” James pointed out. “Hard.”
“Yes, I saw that as did everyone else.” Uncle Richard’s lips twitched as if he were holding back a smile. He met his nephew’s gaze directly. “It was a mistake, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, of course.” James nodded, perhaps a bit too vehemently. There was no need to change his story now. He had kissed Violet Hagen on a dark terrace at the ball where his engagement to Marie Fredericks was to be announced.Admittedly, in the light of day, one would never confuse Violet with Marie, but then it hadn’t been the light of day. And he had possibly drunk more than was wise. And…
And marrying Marie had looked more and more like a fate worse than death. He should have come up with a better way to escape marriage to her but he’d tried to convince himself he was simply experiencing the kind of apprehension most men felt when coming face-to-face with an eternity tied to the same woman. Regardless, that night, with his engagement moments from being publicly announced, he could feel a noose tightening around his neck. A wiser man, a betterman, would have simply called it off. Only a true idiot would have seen the silly challenge of his friends to kiss his almost-fiancée as a chance for escape. Only a stupid ass—or a coward—would have allowed the world to think he had mistakenly kissed the wrong woman, knowing full well that very public mistake would lead to calling off any engagement. It had seemed a brilliant idea.
He never for a moment thought it would also lead to a fast marriage with the mistake in question.
“Do you like her?” Uncle Richard said without warning.
James frowned in confusion. “Who?”
“Your wife?” A hard tone sounded in Richard’s voice. “The one you married yesterday?”
“Ah, Violet.” He nodded. “Well, yes, certainly. She’s quite pleasant. Quiet, rather shy I would say. But witty under that terribly reserved exterior as well. And not unattractive.” Indeed, as he had been courting Marie he’d grown to know Violet. The idea of kissing her had not been an entirely new one. But then that particular idea occurred to him with most of the women he knew.
“What do you intend to do now?”
“Now? Honestly, Uncle Richard.” James shook his head. “I have no idea. I don’t think I am ready for marriage.”
Violet’s breath caught. She’d been about to enter the library to greet her new husband and his uncle. Obviously James had no idea she’d be up and about but then it was already late morning. She suspected James rarely rose before noon.
“And yet you are married,” Lord Ellsworth said.
What was one supposed to do when hearing one’s husband of less than a day proclaim he was not ready for marriage? Violet Hagen—now Branham—was not given to eavesdropping under ordinary circumstances. These were scarcely ordinary.
“Well, yes but…”
Uncle Richard’s voice hardened. “But?”
“None of this is Violet’s fault. She shouldn’t have to pay for it.” James paused. “I’ve legitimately made her my wife, given her my name. I was thinking Violet and I would have one of those modern marriages. You know, the sort where we go our separate ways for the most part.”
Violet bit back a gasp. Her heart twisted in her chest. No! Twenty-one years of quiet, reserved, proper behavior, of not standing up for herself, of doing what was expected up to and including marrying a man who had no desire to marry her, shattered with his words.
“She and I could—”
“She and I could what?” Violet swept into the room.
Both men jumped to their feet.
“Good morning, Violet,” Lord Ellsworth said pleasantly. “I trust you slept well?”
“Quite, thank you, my lord.” She moved closer. “I couldn’t help overhearing. As you and James are discussing my marriage and my future, don’t you think I should be present?”
“Of course.” James offered her a chair.
“I’d prefer to stand.” She braced herself. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re suggesting that you and I continue our lives as if we were not married? You go your way and I go mine?”
“Well, yes, something like that.”
“I see.” Good Lord! The man really didn’t want her. A lump lodged in her throat. She ignored it. Now was not the time to feel sorry for herself. She’d thought, she’d hoped, that he liked her well enough to make a success of this marriage. She more than liked him, she’d been secretly smitten with the man very nearly since the moment she’d met him. What an idiot she was. “Then last night was…” She steeled herself, not sure if she wanted the answer. Still, only a coward wouldn’t ask the question and the time for cowardliness was past. “An obligation? The responsibility of a dutiful husband?”
“No, not entirely.” He paused to choose his words. “But last night does erase any question of the legality of our union. It protects you should something happen to me. Death or something of the like.”
“That’s certainly the best idea I’ve heard today,” she snapped.
Lord Ellsworth cleared his throat.
“I say, Violet, that’s uncalled-for.” James frowned.
“Really? And I think that’s the very least that is called for!”
“Didn’t you say she was shy and reserved?” Lord Ellsworth said in an aside to James.
“Shy and reserved will not serve me well at the moment, my lord.” She clenched her fists by her side, as much to still the trembling of her hands as from anger.
The oddest look of what might have been admiration shone in the older man’s eyes. Any other time she would have reveled in it. Now, she was fighting for her future. Her husband—her new husband, was about to turn her into that most pathetic creature—a wife in name only. Absolutely not! She squared her shoulders. “I will not return to my family’s house.”
“We shall find you a house,” James said quickly.
“She shall stay here.” Lord Ellsworth shot him a hard glance. “This is her home now.”
“Yes, of course.” Unease shaded James’s words. He was no doubt thinking exactly what she was—being under the same roof would be exceptionally awkward if indeed they were living separate lives.
“I’m not sure I wish to.” Violet crossed her arms over her chest. “In this marriage you’re proposing, you are free to continue your reckless and scandalous ways?”
“Yes, I suppose, although calling them reckless and scandalous does seem a bit harsh.”
She ignored him. “And I may do as I wish as well?”
“I hadn’t really considered…” James’s brow furrowed in confusion. Obviously the man didn’t like the sound of that. Good. “I would think so.”
She smiled slowly. He didn’t seem to like that either. “Now that we have agreed to the rules—”she turned to Lord Ellsworth “—I hate to be indelicate but I would like to discuss finances.”
His lordship nodded. “James will provide you with an allowance suitable for your position. Yours to spend as you please.”
She looked at her new husband for a long moment. Silly of her to think that simply because she had feelings for him, because they shared a certain friendship, that this sham of a marriage would succeed. She shifted her gaze back to his uncle. “Given our arrangement, London is going to be uncomfortable for both of us. I have always wanted to travel. Can that be arranged?”
“Yes, of course.” Lord Ellsworth glanced at his nephew. “Unless, you have any objection?”
“Whatever she wants,” James said quietly. It really was the least he could do and the man knew it. He’d ruined her life. Destroyed any real chance of a good match and put her at the center of scandal. Now he could make amends by financing her freedom.
“Very well then.” She met her husband’s gaze directly. “I do agree with you, James. I don’t think you’re ready for marriage. For that matter, I doubt you’re ready for any significant responsibility whatsoever.”
“Come now, Violet.” The man actually had the nerve to sound indignant. “I should be given some credit. I did marry you and in doing so saved you from ruin. One might say I rescued you.”
“After it was you who put me in an untenable situation in the first place.” She ignored the fact that she had kissed him back with all the enthusiasm of unrequited love. “And destroyed my life in the process.”
“Not deliberately,” James said as if that made a difference. “That was never my intention.”
“I’ll arrange an appointment with my solicitor.” Lord Ellsworth smiled at his new niece. “I know it’s difficult at the moment, but regardless of where your travels take you, I do hope you will consider Ellsworth House your home.”
She forced a smile. “Thank you, my lord.” She turned her attention back to James. Resolve hardened her voice. “As for you, I never want to see you again.”
“There will be occasions—”
“Never!” She fairly spat the word, ignoring the pain squeezing her heart. Apparently, this was what true heartbreak felt like. No doubt made worse by the hope that last night…she thrust the thought aside. “I’m quite serious, James. Never.”
He stared, a stunned look on his handsome face. As if only now did he realize the consequences of what he’d done, of how he’d crushed her hopes and her heart. “Very well, never.”
“Now, if you will excuse me.” Violet nodded and headed toward the door. It was all she should do to keep her pace calm and sedate when what she truly wanted was to flee and then weep. Possibly forever.
“That appears resolved,” his lordship said behind her. “I must say, I’m rather disappointed.”
Tears blurred her eyes and she started toward her rooms. This was not the future she’d envisioned yesterday when she’d said vows that apparently only she really meant.
“It’s for the best, uncle.” James’s voice trailed after her.
Maybe in that at least, James was right.
On Sale August 27, 2019
AMAZON BARNES & NOBLE BOOKS-A-MILLION HARLEQUIN
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