The Fairy Tale Bride
Once Upon a Wedding
Originally published by Kensington Zebra, October 2000
Ebook edition published by Kelly McClymer, October 2010
Miranda Fenster gave up on a happily-ever-after following a disastrous London season, but she is determined to help her brother regain his star-crossed love by convincing the impeccably proper Duke of Kerstone he was wrong to thwart their love match. Instead, she finds herself compromised, married, and with a second chance for a fairy tale ending — if only she can show the duke fairy tales do come true.
“So you think you have won your battle?” His anger was daunting. “I told you I have no intention of being compromised.”
Miranda flushed. He must hold the incident five years ago against her, despite his kindness then. “I only wish to convince you to intercede with the Earl of Connaught to win Emily back for Valentine. They are meant for each other.”
“So you said. I can only wonder how far you are inclined to go to convince me.” His gaze traveled her length again. Miranda recognized the look she had endured in her short sojourn on the marriage mart. But never once from Simon Watterly. A painful twist in her chest made her short of breath.
“I will do anything ? ” His expression darkened and she broke off in confusion.
He smiled his wonderful smile again, and Miranda did not hear his words for the rush of her heartbeat in her ears. “I beg your pardon?” she asked.
“I said,” he repeated slowly, as if for a daft child, “though the idea of spending the night with the notorious Miss Fenster intrigues me, I must decline.” Without a further word, he turned and started across the field.
“I would suggest that you stop following me, Miss Fenster, or you will find yourself in the awkward position of being forced to explain yourself to the Camberleys. I hardly think you’d like a scandal attached to your name after all this time.”
A light rain had begun to fall, a gentle misting. Miranda scrambled to keep up with his long stride as she stared angrily at his broad-shouldered back. “I care very little what those shallow, hypocritical – ” she broke off, surprised by the painful wave of hurt that engulfed her at the injustice that she could be ruined because some man had tried – unsuccessfully – to take advantage of her friendship. All because she was a woman – held to a higher standard, yet not believed competent to defend herself.
He turned toward her so abruptly that she nearly ran into him. In the half darkness, she could feel his fury radiating toward her. “I would not have expected this of you, Miss Fenster. I suppose it is to your credit that you are naively loyal to your brother. I believe I can find it in myself to forget this lapse if you take yourself home immediately.”
Miranda found a tendril of comfort in his words. He had thought her actions honorable – perhaps even justified? No. He had labeled her naïve. She fought the urge to tumble him to the ground again and pin him there until she’d told him the full story and wiped the smugness from his expression. With difficulty, she held herself in check. As much as she longed for him to look at her and see that she was as competent – and as flawed – as any man, she knew that his respect for her was not her current battle.
It was Valentine’s future she needed to fight for now. And here, with the light rain pattering onto her face, and the darkness soft around them, was her only chance.
Her tightly reined anger made her bold. She took his hands in her own and stepped close enough to look up into his eyes. “I told you I don’t give a fig for my own reputation. But you have crushed Valentine – he and Emily were to marry and you have torn them apart. Do you realize what your actions mean to my brother? To my whole family?”
The frustrating man merely stared impassively down at her as she spoke.
Driven to desperation, Miranda blurted out, “Valentine and I are grown, but we have five sisters to bring out.”
His voice was hard as he removed his hands from her grip and stepped back to bring distance between them. “Your brother knew the risk when he attempted to elope with the Earl of Connaught’s daughter. If he wanted a dowry so badly, he should have offered for one of the merchant’s daughters. They are always glad of a man with a title, even the title of baron.”
Miranda did not want to admit that such had been Valentine’s intent when he had first gone looking for a bride – to find one with a large, liquid dowry. “Emily is the only woman for him. He has known it since he first spied her on the dance floor – just as Prince Charming recognized Cinder Ella as his one true love.”
“He’d best get over it. Her father has set his sights on a marquess or better for his son-in-law, and a false prince, charming or not, will not do.” A smile played at his lips, which was quite infuriating. “And if your brother has five more like you to bring out, he’ll need all the ready he can marry.”
Miranda stiffened in protest. “My sisters are nothing like me. And Valentine is no false prince.” Blindly, she turned and walked away from him. Tears burned in her eyes and she let them fall. He was some distance away and it was dark. Another failure to add to her long list. It was her fault her sisters might never marry well, her fault that the investments she had made in Valentine’s absence had nearly beggared them. Though she had hopes, they had not yet paid out enough to make Valentine a “catch” on the marriage market. Given her luck, they might never do so.
The tears obscured the rabbit hole until she was upon it and Miranda fell with a pained cry. Another failure. She pulled off her boot to examine her injury. Her insides twisted in utter humiliation at the sound of bootsteps approaching on the wet grass. He was beside her in moments, kneeling down, his fingers quick and sure as he examined her twisted ankle.
“You were heading in the wrong direction, Miss Fenster,” he said. His gaze seemed focused on her as if able to penetrate the cover of darkness and rain. For a moment she feared he saw her tears.
Thankfully the rain came down harder at that moment. She wiped the drops on her face. “Don’t allow your pride to force you to walk in this rain. Stay at the cottage, where it is warm and dry. I will trouble you no further.”
What she would do about Valentine’s broken heart was another matter altogether. Miranda rose, holding back a gasp at the pain in her ankle. It wasn’t broken; it would get her back home. “I’m sorry, Your Grace, I cannot offer you shelter at Anderlin … Valentine …”
He smiled grimly. “You will take a chill.” He whipped his short cloak from his shoulders and slung it around hers before she could protest. Distracted by the long-ago memory of her mother draping her lace shawl in the same manner, Miranda fought back more tears, unable to speak. As he reached for her again, she realized that he meant to lift her into his arms.
She warded him away with her hands, stumbling only a little at the sharp pain in her ankle. “I am perfectly able, Your Grace.”
“No doubt,” he answered, sweeping her up so that her cheek was pressed against the damp linen of his shirt. She realized that she had been chilled before, only because she was now warmly nestled against his chest.
“You have no need to do this, Your Grace,” she protested, a needle of humiliation plying through her. He ignored her words as if she had not spoken and began walking purposefully toward the cottage.
She settled back, surprised at how easy she found it to relax against him, wrapped in the cloak that smelled of sandalwood – of him. She was aware that he did not share her comfort. His every movement indicated a great deal of tension. Hope sprang anew that this twist of fate might allow her to reach the Simon Watterly of old and convince him to help Valentine. But first, she must lay his primary concern at rest. “I will not risk compromising you, I promise. Anderlin is not far. I have walked it in the rain before; I will again.”
He did not answer.
The rain grew heavy and Miranda admired how little note he took of the water that gathered in his thick honey-colored eyebrows and run in rivulets down his lean cheeks. The rain had darkened his blond hair and curls had sprung out on the back of his neck. She twisted in his arms until she brought her head level with his and drew the cloak so that it would protect him from the worst of the rain.
Though she did not feel in the least penitent, she knew he would expect an apology. In her experience, men did not give apologies, they demanded them, deserved or not. Best to give it now, and wait until they were dry and warm again before she renewed the campaign to get Valentine and Emily wed. “I’m sorry that I did not accept your refusal at the first. I’m afraid one of my many faults is an inability to understand when a battle is lost I would not blame you if you chose to scold me.”
He stopped, oblivious to the rain, and turned his head until their eyes met. His grip tightened. “Is that all you think I should do? Scold you?” His voice was soft and strained.
Miranda became abruptly aware that his fingers were touching the edge of her breast. She was grateful for the darkness that hid the scarlet of her blush, and shadowed the expression in his eyes as he stared down at her.
After he resumed walking once more, there was a long silence between them. Miranda silently contemplated what his words meant. She could not dredge up within herself any mistrust of this man. He had behaved too well in the past and his reputation was impeccable, though his years away had obviously hardened his heart against lovers. And he had secrets dark enough that he would ride to a ramshackle hunting cottage before he dared pull certain items from his leather pouch and examine them.
She would not chide him for the tightness of his grip. Really, how could he support her otherwise? And if she had mended her stays weeks ago, she would likely have been completely unaware that two of his fingers pressed against the far side of her breast.
“I suppose I should be grateful that no one shall ever know of this. My sisters do not need for me to create a scandal before they come out. And it certainly could not help Valentine’s cause.” She thought of Valentine, sitting listless and mute in their father’s chair before the fire. She had had to climb through the study window to see him, for all the good it had done her.
Miranda closed her eyes as sadness swept over her.
“He said that you were right, and he should never have overreached himself with Emily in the first place.”
“Perhaps he is not as foolish as I had thought. I will speak to him ? ”
His words dispelled Miranda’s growing sense of hope. Knowing her impertinence, but anxious that he heed her, she put her hand to his cheek. The rasp of stubble against her fingers startled her. “He has been badly hurt. Do not humiliate him further by speaking to him as if he were an errant lad in need of guidance. ”
He turned his head so that his lips brushed her fingers as he spoke. “I take your point, Miss Fenster.”
Miranda let her hand drop away from his face.
But the intimacy of being in his arms and jolting comfortably against him at every step could not be prevented. “Valentine must never know that I tried to intercede on his behalf.”
“It does not speak well of you that you would deceive him.”
Stung by the censure in his words, she said, “Perhaps someday, when Emily joins our family, I shall tell them both.”
“Then you believe your brother will not give up his hopes so easily?”
“Wouldn’t you search for your Cinder Ella, Your Grace, if you had once met her at a ball and wanted no one else to be your wife?” He stumbled slightly, and her arms tightened around his neck in alarm.
After a silence so long that she realized he would not answer her, she said, “No. Valentine will not give up so easily.” Remembering her brother’s slumped figure, Miranda wondered if she spoke the truth. “I do understand that you only did what you thought was best for Emily. I will be happy to act as though this meeting between us never occurred.”
They reached the cottage as she spoke. He stooped slightly to enter the doorway, and his arms tightened around Miranda. His breath against her damp neck made her shiver. “And what if I am not?”