The Unintended Bride
Book 3 – Once Upon a Wedding
Originally published by Kensington Zebra, July 2001
Ebook edition published by Kelly McClymer, April 2011
Bookish Hero Fenster and heir to a duke Arthur Watterly share a common passion: the Legend of King Arthur. When the pursuit of the original manuscript of Malory’s Le Morte d’Artur leads them to be trapped overnight in a bookshop attic, they find themselves unexpectedly married. They might be happy. If only they’d admit their biggest secret: they love each other even more than they love books.
Hero was determined that Digby would not catch her alone today. When she saw his card on the silver tray the footman held out, she flashed a panicked look at Juliet. “I feel ill.” She rose and turned to the door like a cornered hare.
Juliet raised a cool brow and smirked. “Why you fear that adorable man, I cannot imagine, Hero. You must put him out of his misery soon.”
She thought of Digby, handsome, scholarly, sincere. “I don’t fear him, Juliet. I simply don’t know that I feel as strongly as he does.”
“What does that matter? He is by far the most promising man to pay you court in the four years you have been on the market. String him along until you find someone who does make that stubborn heart of yours beat faster.”
“I would never behave so odiously! Digby is a good man.” The truth was, Hero enjoyed talking with Digby, and they shared many interests: a love of the world’s literature in its original Latin, Greek, French. He could translate Old English even better than she, and they frequently had entirely enjoyable debates over the pronunciation of some obscure word. But he was not the husband she wanted, and only common sense made her hesitate to be so final in her judgment.
“Good perhaps. Handsome, certainly.” Juliet nodded to the confused footman. “We will see him.” For Hero’s ears only, she murmured, “But boring, or I would have long ago offered to take him off your hands for you.”
Maybe she was simply not destined for love. Maybe she should settle for warmth and companionship? The thought was not appealing. Hero could not help the plaintive note in her voice as she asked quickly, “Could you not ? ”
Her sister stopped admiring the flare of her new skirt and raised her head to pin Hero with a stare. “So it is odious for you to toy with the man but not for me to pretend an interest I do not have?” Juliet’s eyes flashed with pique or amusement, it was not quite clear which. “One would quite think you had already given your heart away.”
“My heart is my own, I have given it to no one.” Hero felt herself flush at the accurate barb. “It is not as if you do not break dozens of hearts each Season. Why should one more bother you?” She heard her own words with horror. “It is not as if I’m asking you to break his heart ? only distract it a little, until I can decide what it is I want ? or until the right woman for him passes under his nose and he forgets about me altogether.”
“I’m afraid I’m already engaged today ? to distract that adorable young Lord Wyndham. Who is dreadfully late, I must say.” Juliet laughed as she glanced at the door, though Hero could see she worried Wyndham might not visit. “And anyway, you’ve already paraded half the eligible misses in London past Mr. Digby and he still seems to want only you, for some unfathomable reason. I don’t know if you’ll be able to avoid breaking his heart much longer ? unless you agree to marry him.”
“I cannot ? ”
“Then you will have to live up to that foolish name Papa gave you and tell him so directly.” Juliet patted her hand in a surprisingly empathetic moment. “If anyone can find a way to do so kindly, you should be able to, Hero.”
Hero could not answer, as the gentleman in question arrived in the room, his face carrying a smile, his eyes alight with a passion that she wished she could douse as quickly and efficiently as a bucket of water put out a burning candle. Her father should have chosen a different name from his beloved works of Shakespeare for her. Or better yet, Timidity would have suited her best.
She watched, feeling wretched, as Digby quickly greeted Juliet and then turned to her, beaming. “Miss Fenster,” He lifted her fingers to his lips and pressed a kiss against her gloved hand.
“Mr. Digby, how kind of you to visit.” She noted at once that he seemed to be bursting with some great good news. She hoped he would not wish to draw her aside to tell her of it.
After all, there were already too few good reasons to avoid giving the man the opportunity to ask her to marry him. “Have you had some good fortune?” she asked, hoping to forestall any request for privacy. “You seem elated today, sir.”
His smile grew wider. “You know me so well, Miss Fenster.” As soon as he spoke ? instantly, mysteriously ? his smiled dimmed. “I have indeed had some tremendously good news, but I fear I cannot share it with you today.”
What kind of good news would put such a glow in his cheeks, and yet he could not share it with her yet?
He must have observed her confusion, because he said quickly, “Day after tomorrow I will come to you and you will be the first to hear what I hope will be astonishing and delightful news.”
“I cannot wait to hear your news, Mr. Digby.” For a moment her heart leaped. Had he fallen in love with some other woman? But his gaze into her eyes was as ardent as ever. Hero dared hope only that his words meant he would not be visiting tomorrow. She would certainly appreciate one day alone to enjoy the afternoon rather than dreading a proposal she was not ready to accept.
He glanced at Juliet, the wretch, who had pretended to some interest in a book in the farthest corner of the room to give them privacy. He lowered his voice. “I had hoped to find some time with you to broach a private matter, but in the light of this impending news, I think I would prefer to wait until next I see you.”
Hero felt herself relax infinitesimally at this turn of fate. She smiled, and dared to tease him. “Then, if you are to keep secrets from me, sir, I feel it only fitting that we read Lord Byron today for our poet. Mystery for mystery, don’t you agree?”
He nodded. “An excellent suggestion, as always, Miss Fenster.”
“Juliet. Can you bring the Byron? We will read him today.”
Juliet came nearer, a mischievous smile lighting her eyes, as if she considered trying to encourage the man to declare himself. “Is she not a paragon of common sense, Mr. Digby?”
With a stern warning glance, Hero said sharply, “Since you agree with me so well, sister, perhaps you would do the honor of reading from Lord Byron’s work today?”
But she could not feel truly piqued, even with her sister’s deviltry. She had been reprieved and she was coward enough to be happy for it.
“Lord Byron’s words require a deep and masculine voice, don’t you agree, Mr. Digby?” Juliet of course knew exactly how to turn the situation to her liking.
He did indeed agree with her, and settled happily to read a selection from the collection that Juliet pulled from the shelf for him. Hero heard hardly a word. Her thoughts were occupied with the debate over whether to accept Digby’s proposal, or risk finding herself with no chance of marriage and family.
Thankfully, Juliet’s young lord had not yet arrived, so Juliet amused herself by entertaining Digby with fervor. Neither of them noticed Hero’s rising confusion. Her overwhelming sense of relief that she could put off a decision on whether or not to marry Gabriel Digby shamed her slightly. After all, it was not that he was not a catch.
No. There had been girls willing to set their caps for him for as long as she’d known them. Girls willing to go to lectures where he might be, to museums just to chance an encounter with him. She had seen them. It amazed her how Digby himself seemed oblivious to the adoration.
Juliet was right, he was a very handsome man. Hero stared at the way his lips moved as he read, willing a flare of passion, an ember. Nothing. She did not love him in any way other than as a cherished friend, a kind of affection similar to that admiration and love she had for her own brother. Perhaps she should be content with that?
But she dreamed of passion. At times she realized how silly it was that she should imagine herself, plain and quiet Hero, evoking that kind of love in a man. But to feel it herself, that she wished with all her heart. And that was why she had not accepted the few perfunctory proposals she had received these last four years. And why she was so afraid that Digby would be the next to ask for her hand.
Perhaps her brother Valentine and the duke might have encouraged her more strongly to make a marriage if it were not for the fact that the duchess was on her side. Bless her, her oldest sister, Miranda, now the Duchess of Kerstone, had promised that she need never marry a man she did not truly love. She closed her eyes, letting Digby’s deep warm voice flow over her. She opened her eyes, suppressing a sigh. Despite all his shining virtues, Digby did not make her heart stir with passion in the least.
No, though it might have been convenient, considering how much else they had in common, it was simply not to be. Her heart ignored her pleas to beat faster when she danced with him, or when they conversed and he said something impossibly witty. She had heard other women refer to his handsome face, claiming he had the beauty of Adonis. And, dispassionately, she could agree that he did. By every measure, she knew she should have fallen passionately in love with the man.
Unfortunately for her, there was only one man who had managed to affect her heart thus far in her twenty-four years ? and he was promised to someone else.
Fortunately, just as she was sternly remind herself that a well-bred lady did not wish ill on those who had what they coveted, several more callers were introduced to the parlor ? all suitors for Juliet, naturally, along with two young ladies who seemed to favor calling upon Juliet because she offered the most varied selection of spurned suitors. Hero forced her attention back to the moment. It would not do to insult any of their guests.
Each man took a turn reading from Byron. It was almost amusing to see how each tried to outdo the other in “manly” voice. Only Hero seemed aware that her sister was paying no attention at all. Though she kept each of her suitors dancing to her bidding, at the moment Juliet herself was focused only on one ? and he had not yet arrived.
How many times had Juliet’s eyes strayed toward the doorway? Yet her distraction had not been noticed by her besotted suitors. Such blindness amazed Hero. They claimed to adore the lively and witty Juliet, and yet not one of them seemed to sense her impatience and her lack of attention.
Just as she had the thought, her sister laughed and declared, “How can any decision be made fairly between such wonderfully romantic and emotive readers? I have never heard Byron read so beautifully before.”
Apparently, Hero alone recognized that her sister had heard not one word of Byron’s beautifully crafted poems. Each man took a turn trying to convince Juliet he was the one who should win the coveted prize ? the last of Cook’s lemon tarts.
It was no wonder that no man had yet captured her sister’s heart for more than weeks at once. No one had yet seen past her laughing facade to the passionate intensity that lurked beneath the beautiful surface. Woe betide whoever did ? her sister would lead him on a merrier chase than she had led the others, no doubt.
When the impromptu poetry competition had been decided in favor of Gabriel Digby ? by Juliet, of course ? those who had lost graciously left to pay other calls while Digby enjoyed his prize. Cook’s lemon tart was served warmed, with clotted cream and tea. Even Hero could not begrudge him his enjoyment, though winning the prize extended his visit.
Juliet’s attention was so focused upon the doorway that she was drawn tight as a bowstring.
Digby swallowed each bite of tart and his sip of tea without speaking, though he watched Juliet curiously. Hero was grateful that he had the wisdom to make no remark upon her sister’s agitation.
Quickly, he finished his prize to the last crumb. “Thank you for the tart, and the Byron. I look forward to our next meeting,” he told Hero meaningfully as he stood to take his leave, apparently under the impression that he had been thought to overstay. As he did, the footman entered with a card upon his tray. Juliet leaped from her chair and met the footman halfway across the room. She snatched up the card from the silver tray and read it avidly. A puzzled yet pleased expression blossomed upon her face. Together the girl and the servant left the room without a further word.
Digby’s eyebrows rose, and he turned to Hero, an unspoken question in his eyes.
Instantly, she defended her sister’s impetuous action. “Juliet is impatient for a visit from someone who has captured her heart.”
Digby smiled as if he understood completely. And then his expression shifted, deepened, and Hero’s heart dropped to her knees as he said, “Perhaps I am wrong to wait to tell you my deepest secret.” He grasped her hands in his. “My dear Miss Fenster, I long to ask you the most important question a man may ask a woman.”
She barely had time to panic before her salvation appeared like a knight in shining armor behind the returning Juliet. Arthur, her brother-in-law’s cousin.
The very man – the only man – she had ever truly loved.