The Reluctant Bride

Page 1

Chapter 1
Spring 1813 ‘It’s not a sin, unless you get caught.’
The gentle breeze seemed to whisper Jack’s teasing challenge, its soft, silken fingers tugging at Emily’s ingrained obedience. She put down her basket and stared with longing at the waters below, sweat prickling her scalp beneath her poke bonnet as desire warred with fear of the consequences.
‘Where’s your sense of adventure, Em?’
Still resisting, Emily closed her eyes, but the wind’s wicked suggestiveness was like the caress of Jack’s breath against her heated cheek; daring Emily to shrug aside a lifetime of dutiful subservience – again – and peel off her clothes, this time to plunge into the inviting stream beneath the willows. She imagined Jack’s warm brown eyes glinting with wickedness. Taunting her like the burr that had worked its way into the heel of her woollen stockings during her walk. Exhaling on a sigh, Emily opened her eyes and admitted defeat as she succumbed to the pull of the reed-fringed
Desire had won, justified by practicality.
If she had to remove one stocking to dislodge the burr she might as well remove both.
Scrambling down the embankment, she lowered herself onto a rock by the water’s edge.
Her father would never know.
If he glanced from his study in the tower room, where he was doubtless gloating over his balance sheet, he’d assume she was a village lass making her way along the track. Emily had never seen him interest himself in the poor except …
Like most unpleasant memories, she tried to cast this one out with a toss of her head, still glad her father had never discovered what she’d witnessed from her bedroom window one evening five years ago: the curious sight of Bartholomew Micklen ushering the beggar girl who’d arrived on his doorstep into his carriage.
Then climbing in after her before it rumbled down the driveway and out of sight.
Now was just another of those moments when Emily was glad her father remained in ignorance. Her insurance, should she need it, was that she knew a few of her father’s secrets the excise men might just want to know.
By the time the first stocking had followed Emily’s boots onto the grassy bank she was bursting with anticipation for her swim.
What did one more sin matter when she’d be Mrs Jack Noble in less than a week?
The second woollen stocking came next. Fine enough quality but ugly and serviceable, like most of her clothes. Jack had promised her scarlet silk stockings spun with salutary Bible story scenes on his return from his covert mission to the Continent. This, he’d suggested as he’d debunked her father’s theory that all women’s flesh was vile and corrupt, would enable her to feel as dutiful a daughter as a wife: sensuous silk for sinning with her husband-to-be, saintly stories for her sanctimonious father.
Jack liked to shock her.
With water up to her shoulders, Emily raised her arms above her head in a swift arc, splashing for the pure pleasure of it and glorying in her sinful nakedness. Who would ever know?
Finally she acknowledged she was living on borrowed time. She dried herself with her chemise, which made it
thoroughly damp by the time she pulled it over her head, then sat down on the rock again and stretched out her bare right leg, pointing her toe as she pretended to ease on a scarlet stocking emblazoned with winged chariots. Exhaling on another sigh of pleasure once she’d pulled on her dress, she raised her face to the sun. When she was Jack’s wife, she’d contravene every sin she could think of. He would buy her gowns that stretched the limits of decency. She’d dance naked with him on the lawn.
Grunting with irritation when she was unable to ease her boot over her damp foot, Emily hurled the ugly lump of leather over her shoulder. Though she’d have to climb to the top of the embankment and put it on later, it was catharsis not to be called to account for giving vent to just one of life’s daily frustrations.
‘Good God, what was that?’
The outraged expletive, followed by a peevish whinny, confirmed she was no longer alone. Feeling foolish, Emily scrambled up the river bank.
‘I presume this is what you’re looking for?’ A tall, straight-backed soldier regarded her from the saddle, her boot dangling from one gloved hand. He was dressed in the green jacket of one of the two Rifle battalions and Emily’s heart fluttered with excitement as she looked past him.
But Jack was not there and her disappointment was quickly replaced by embarrassment at the soldier’s unsmiling scrutiny. The unsettling effect of his dark gaze was intensified by a thin ridge of scar tissue which slashed his left cheek in a graceful arc from eye to ear.
Lowering her head so the brim of her bonnet kept her face in shadow, Emily accepted the boot. ‘I had no idea anyone was on the path,’ she mumbled, hoping he’d put her lack of