Sophia Langley's life is in turmoil. When she learns of her estranged fianc�'s death in a shipwreck, the last thing she expects is for his twin brother, Callum Chatterton, to make a shock proposal!
Her inner romantic objects to a marriage of convenience--and brooding Cal makes it very clear that's all it can be. Yet to save her family Sophia accepts with trepidation--and a highly inconvenient trembling of desire for her reluctant husband!
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Harlequin Enterprises, Limited
April 01, 2012
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Excerpt from Married to a Stranger by Louise Allen
Glebe End House, Hertfordshire--5th September, 1809
'It is from Callum Chatterton.' Sophia Langley looked up from the single sheet of paper flattened under her hand between plate and cup. Her mother, a slice of toast suspended halfway to her mouth, looked as puzzled as she felt. 'He says he will call this afternoon.'
'Then he is back.' Mrs Langley frowned. 'I do not think he has been back to the Hall since March.'
'It appears not.' Why the man who would have been her brother-in-law was calling now, six months after the funeral of her betrothed, she could not imagine. 'Lord Flamborough has said very little about him, now I come to think of it.'
Will Chatterton, the Earl of Flamborough, elder brother of the twins, was a near neighbour. He had always been a good friend--too good for Sophia's conscience once he had brought the news of Daniel's death. Her betrothed had perished in the wreck of the ship bringing the twins back to England after their ten years in India in the service of the East India Company. Will did not owe them anything now she would not be marrying Daniel.
Sophia looked down at her ringless hand and the tight cuff of her morning gown of deep mauve lawn. She had worn black for three months and had just moved into half-mourning. She still felt the most terrible hypocrite every time any of their friends or neighbours, reminded by her attire, sighed sympathetically over her loss.
With the reading of the will after the funeral it became clear that Daniel had neglected to amend it to recognise his betrothal. Neither Callum, who had been so outspoken about the engagement at the time, nor the earl, whom she suspected of not approving either, seemed to realise just how this left the Langleys.
Daniel had made no provision for her at all. Callum, who had seemed almost frozen with grief over the loss of his twin, had tried to explain that this was simply the result of Daniel's carelessness about business, his unwillingness to confront unpleasant matters such as his own mortality, rather than any lack of love or care for her.
But her heart told her differently. Daniel had fallen out of love with her, just as she had realised, too late, that she had with him--not that she could say such a thing to either bereaved brother. And if they had not loved each other, then, in all conscience, she had no claim on Daniel. If she had been honest with herself and ended the engagement sooner, she might well have found a husband and her family would have been secure.
She would probably have a family of her own by now, she thought with a pang of longing.
Perhaps Callum or the earl would have made over some funds to her if she had asked, but pride, and the awareness of her own youthful folly in ever agreeing to the betrothal, stopped her mentioning it.
Will had called regularly to offer assistance--the loan of a gardener from the Hall, his carriage when they needed to go into St Albans, a surplus of vegetables from the gardens. But in the face of her constant, polite refusals his visits had grown fewer. She worked hard to disguise their poverty and so far, just, she was succeeding. But the stack of bills in her bureau was growing and the polite requests for payment were becoming more abrupt. Sophia knew they were reaching a point where she was going to have to make some very hard decisions about her own future.
'Perhaps he has decided to do the right thing and make over some of his inheritance from Daniel to you,' Mrs Langley said. She sounded brighter than she had in weeks at the prospect.
'There is no reason why he should, or could,' Sophia explained patiently. 'The estate he inherited from Daniel was entailed, he cannot part with any of that even if he wanted to and he has his own career and future to consider. No doubt he will be marrying soon, especially if he is not returning to India.'
'Ah, well.' Her mother sighed. 'Never mind. Dear Mark will complete his studies soon and be ordained and then he will have a parish and everything will be all right.'
Sophia did not point out that Mark was hardly likely to find a parish with a stipend large enough to support himself, her and Mama and deal with their debts without an influential patron backing him. Her brother had neither the drive, nor the engaging personality, to seek out a good position for himself; a curate's place in some industrial town or rural backwater was more likely. It was up to her to deal with this.
She gave herself a mental shake and focused on the letter again. The note in the strong black handwriting was brief and without explanation. Callum Chatterton would do himself the honour of calling on her--not on Mama, she noticed belatedly--that afternoon and trusted that she would be able to receive him.
Sophia scooped up the rest of the post before her mother could realise just how much of it appeared to be bills. How could there be so many when all she seemed to do these days was make do and mend and search for economies? 'I will deal with these this morning,' she said brightly. 'How interesting it will be to see Callum Chatterton again.'
Her desk was in the corner of her bedchamber and she closed the door with a sense of finding sanctuary. Sooner or later she was going to have to make her mother understand just how serious matters were, but not yet. One more month and then she must write to a London agency and seek employment. The shock of having to dismiss their solitary footman had been bad enough for Mrs Langley who felt the loss of status very sharply. Explaining that her daughter was going to have to start earning her own living would doubtless result in hysterics.
The room was simple and light, hung with white and primrose muslins. A girl's room, Sophia thought, as she closed the door. And I am no longer a girl. I am six and twenty. I am on the shelf, stuck in the back of beyond with no eligible bachelors for miles around.
If only she had had the sense to face up to the fact that she had fallen out of love. She should have written to Daniel, explained, and they could have broken off the engagement amicably with no scandal; everyone had been surprised that her late father had allowed it in the first place, with her so young.
She had been too passive in accepting the betrothal as final. But in other ways she had changed so much in nine years. She had grown up and matured. Grown independent and forward, Mama would say. But what was a girl to do when she was neither a spinster on the shelf nor a wife? She had knowledge now, and her own thoughts and ideas, her own interests and beliefs.
For nine years she had waited, not happy about the length of time, but resigned and patient, learning to keep house and improve her mind. She wondered now with a sudden attack of conscience if it had been patience. Perhaps she had been selfish, enjoying this luxury of time to learn to be herself. When her friends had sympathised with her wait she had been uncomplaining. Her art was her escape and she had focused all her free time and energy into improving her skills.
On the desk lay her sketchbook open at the self-portrait she had attempted the other day. It had made her look at her reflection critically and the outcome was not likely to make her vain, that was certain.
In the years after Daniel had left she had grown upwards, if not much outwards. Now she was rather too tall for the mode, rather too slender, without much to fill out a gown in front. Her nose was a trifle long and her mouth a fraction wide, but her eyes were satisfactory, she thought. They were bluer than they had been, or perhaps that was just because her lashes had darkened with her hair which was virtually black now, no longer the deep brown it had been.
She flicked over the page to a study of the head and shoulders of a man. When she had received the letter that had told her of Daniel's imminent return she had studied the miniature she had painted of him before he and Callum left. It was poor work, she knew. So she had taken up her pencils and a drawing pad and began to sketch the twenty-seven-year-old man the boy might have become. And that had been when she had finally accepted--or perhaps allowed herself to accept--that she did not love him. She had waited for Daniel because he would make her his wife, give her a place in society. His family and resources and position in the East India Company would finally silence all their creditors.
It had been a shock to see the echo of that picture in Callum's drawn countenance on the few occasions she had seen him before he'd left Flamborough Hall in March. He had grown into his looks; his body was no longer that of a gangling boy, but a hard, fit man. The intelligent hazel eyes, darkened with pain, held years of experience, his mouth was firmer, his expression more guarded. Only the thick dark brown hair was the same, still apt to fall across his brow, just as Daniel's had.
That confrontation with Callum the day before he and Daniel had left for London and their new lives with the East India Company came back to nag at her conscience. It was strange how often she had thought of that and those clear hazel eyes summing her up and then dismissing her. I love Daniel and I swear I will marry him, she had vowed. And she had broken that vow. The acceptance of the true nature of her feelings had shaken her as though she was a butterfly breaking out of its chrysalis into a bright, dangerous, exciting new world. 'I do not love you any more,' she had whispered to the portrait. 'What if I do not want to marry you when I meet you and know you again?'
The dangerous idea had been niggling at the back of her mind that perhaps she could earn her living by drawing--not teaching girls, but actually selling her own work. It was not love for a man that made her heart beat faster now, but the act of creation as a picture took form on the page, when the visions in her mind came to life at the point of her pencil. She had toyed with the idea of approaching some book publishers--the famous John Murray or Mr Ackermann who produced so many prints, perhaps.
But there was no choice, not realistically. The idea of making her own living in that way was a daydream. Ladies did not become commercial artists; it would be one step up from the stage and the scandalous reputation that carried with it.
Nor could a lady jilt a gentleman; it would be a shocking and ungrateful thing to do now she had let things run on for years. No one expected marriages to be love matches, so that was no excuse. Nor did a dutiful daughter throw away an alliance that would secure her family's fortune--and certainly not if she would be left an old maid of twenty-six in the process. Whatever sort of man Daniel had grown into, saint or sinner, she must marry him and do her duty. But then tragedy had released her in the only way that society would accept, making her emotional turmoil even worse.
Sophia tossed the bills on top of the sketchbook and paced across the room. But there was no escape, for that brought her to the trunk that was full of linens, each sheet and pillow sham and towel embroidered in the corner with C and the cat's mask that was Daniel's family crest: a pun on the French chat for Chatterton. There were underclothes and handkerchiefs, nightgowns and sachets, pen wipers and gloves. The trunk represented nine years of collecting and embroidering and carefully ticking off each item on the list in The Ladies' Compendium and Housewife's Remembrancer.
That had been almost a fantasy. She had played at being betrothed while she got on with the rest of her life, as independent as any woman with limited means and a reputation to maintain might be. But now this was real and the folly of a young girl's infatuation was coming home to roost. It was all her fault. She should have broken off the engagement years before, found another match. If she had she would not be an old maid now, her husband would be supporting her mother and she would not be afraid to open the day's post or look at the accounts book.
Sophia squared her shoulders and went to sit at the desk. Ignoring the mess they were in could only make it worse. To throw herself on Lord Flamborough's mercy and ask for a loan would be to sacrifice every iota of self-respect and pride. To try to make a living by her art would scandalise all who knew her.