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An Excerpt from The Secret Wedding

An adventurous romance set among the nobility of Georgian England.
By bestselling author of historical romance, Jo Beverley



Prologue
    February 1754
    The Tup's Byre, Nether Greasley, Yorkshire.
   
    The scarlet-coated officer stalked into the low-ceiling inn, heels harsh against the flagstoned floor. "Lieutenant Moore?" he demanded.
    The innkeeper hurried forward, bobbing his round, bald head. "The gentleman's summat busy, sir. Would you care for some ale as you wait?"
    If he sounded nervous, it wasn't surprising. The invading officer was young, but the taut lines of his fine-boned face said danger, and striplings could be the worst. Impeccable uniform and white powdered hair didn't help, either, especially when he had a sword at his side.
    "I carry an important message," the officer said in that clipped southern accent. "What room?"
    Jacob Hood was used to dealing with the roughest drunks, but when confronted by armed authority, what could he do but say, "Upstairs, sir. First door on your right."
    The officer ran lightly up the stairs, spurs and sword-hanger jingling, high boots thumping ominously. Hood moved to follow, but then thought better of it and hurried to summon his pot boys and grooms, muttering about people who brought trouble to a respectable inn.
    He'd known, though, when that couple had turned up -- another young officer, though not so young as that one, with his "wife" swathed in a cloak. Wife to this other man, perhaps, though he seemed young to be shackled. Not yet twenty, even. But that'd be a fine kettle of fish.
    On the upper floor, Lieutenant Christian Hill opened the first door to his right without pause. The room was low-ceilinged and poorly lit from a small window, but it stank of what was happening here. The man on the bed jerked up, cursed and rolled off the woman beneath him.
    Hill could only spare an appalled glance at the white-eyed victim because Bart Moore swooped up his sword belt, discarded on the floor with his outer clothing, and drew. He was a broad-built, robust man with sandy air and a square jaw and mostly dressed other than his flap, which hung over to reveal an exhausted penis.
    "Damnation, Moore-"
    But the manís sword swung viciously without warning. Swung to kill.
    Hill ducked, then rolled under the bed to rise dusty on the other side, his own sword in hand. "Don't be a fool, man. You don't want to do this."
    "Don't tell me what I want to do, pip-squeak!" Moore yelled. "Get out while you can!"
    Hill was more lightly built and softer in the face, but he spoke with noble determination. "Only with the lady."
    "Fancy yourself Sir Galahad?" Moore sneered. "She doesn't want to go. We're about to be married, aren't we, sweetheart?"
    The girl -- and she was a girl, hardly budding yet -- made no sound, but she shook her head frantically, pushing her skirt back down over thin, pale legs.
    Hill turned on Moore. "You disgusting-"
    Moore's face engorged with fury and he raced around the bed to slash viciously at Hill's head. Hill ducked, but the blow took a chip out of a massive oaken bed post.
    The girl gave a muffled scream then, but neither man could pay her any attention. Their swords clashed until Hill got the oaken table between them.
    "Have sense!" Hill gasped. "Do you want to die over this?"
    "Scared to fight, stripling?"
    Fueled by new outrage, Hill vaulted the table, kicking out to drive his opponent back and then attacking ferociously. Bed-hangings parted, more chips of wood flew. Moore retaliated with wild murder in his eyes.
    Hill pushed a chair at Moore's legs. "Think, you madman!"
    Moore kicked the chair across the room. "Get out, get out, or I'll spit you like a chicken." His sword shot forward.
    Hill lifted the second chair so Moore's blade point drove inches into the wood -- where it stuck.
    Hill could have killed him then, but stepped back, breathing hard. "Now will you see sense?"
    Moore placed a foot on the chair and wrenched his blade free and swung with snarling, deadly force. Hill blocked, then slashed back. Blood spurted from Moore's arm and Hill retreated again, but Moore his opponent howled with rage, blood spraying from his wound. He charged, blade point driving for the heart.
    Hill jumped aside and turned the blade, but not quickly enough. The point sliced through the his open jacket and into the his waistcoated torso.
    Hill He staggered back, a hand to his wound.
    Moore cried out in triumph and raised his sword over his head to deal an annihilating, final blow.
    But at that crucial moment the door burst open and inn-servants rushed in. Moore hesitated for a small but fatal second. Hill drove his sword, right through his opponent's heart.
    "Murder!" someone gasped, and then everyone leaped into action.
    Three men seized and disarmed the panting victor without care for the bloody slash in his white waistcoat.
    Two others ran to the fallen man.
    The innkeeper shouted, "Liza! Liza! Run fetch the magistrate, girl. There's been murder done!"
    So much, thought Lieutenant Christian Hill, for trying to rescue a damsel in distress. And that was his first death. What a pointless one.
    He was thrust into the heavy, scarred chair and kept there by threat of a dirty kitchen knife -- a knife able to slash off his head in one stroke, held by a man who looked as if he'd be happy to do it.
    One of the men kneeling by Moore said, "Dead and gone, Mr. Hood. Didn't have a chance."
    "Of course he did," Christian said, pressing a hand to his wounded side. A glimmer of good news there. It seemed to be a mere slash. "Moore attacked me first, and he was at least as good a swordsman."
    "So you say," the innkeeper interrupted. "And who's to pay for all the damage?"
    "I will." Money was the least of Christian's worries right now. He needed a witness to the fight. He risked turning his head to look toward the bed.
    It was empty.
    "Where's the girl?" he asked.
    "The wench who came with him?" the innkeeper said. "Long gone, by the looks of it."
    "She was there. On the bed."
    Christian moved to look. The kitchen knife stung. He jerked back, glaring at the scrawny man who clearly hadn't moved an inch to avoid cutting him.
    He rolled his head sideways to look at the bed again. He couldn't have imagined her, but other than the dragged back sheets and general rumpling, there was no sign of her at all.
    Clattering feet and a variety of voices said that someone else was coming. Christian prayed for the magistrate. A gentleman seemed a better bet than these ferocious yokels. He couldn't turn toward the door, but he could see part of it in the reflection of a small mirror.
    The person who entered was not a magistrate. A middle-aged woman invaded like a man o'war, her bolster of bosom and belly like wind-full sails. Christian had no idea who she might be, but he assessed her as if his life depended on it.
    It very well might.
    She wasn't alone. Two men took up position behind her, muscular men with ominous, big-knuckled fists. She didn't look as if she'd need protection. He'd take her for a man in a dress if not for the immense bosom. Her jaw was heavy and bracketed with jowls. Her eyes, mere slits in sagging folds, managed to be both cold and angry at the same time as she scanned the room.
    Eventually, she said, "Where's me niece?" in the flat accent of this part of Yorkshire.
    The innkeeper was bobbing anxious bows. "The lady who arrived with the officer, ma'am? Left, ma'am. Gone before this disaster."
    The eyes turned on Christian. "You this Moore?"
    "Neither moor nor dale, dear lady. Only a Hill."
    She was not amused and her steely gaze moved on to the body. "That's Moore?" she demanded.
    The innkeeper shuffled forward. "Yes, ma'am. At least, that was the name he gave."
    "Half undressed and indecently exposed. You 'ave many guests arrive in the afternoon and strip like that when alone?"
    "Er, no, ma'am."
    "Dorcas!" the woman commanded, slapping her riding crop against the palm of her gloved hand.
    There was a scuffling noise and a dusty head appeared from beneath the far side of the bed, looking, if possible, even more terrified than before.
    "Don't bully her," Christian said, weak with relief. He had his witness. "She's been through enough-"
    "Do you think so? Anything she's suffered 'as been entirely 'er own fault, and now a man lies dead for it. Get up, girl!"
    This Dorcas scrambled to her feet and hugged herself, tears trickling through the dust on her cheeks.
    If her aunt's shape was aggressively female, the girl's was the opposite. Despite rouge on her cheeks, she was as flat as a boy. Her mousy dull brown hair had been pinned up, but now straggled in wavy rat's tails around her thin dirty face.[cz2]
    What had Moore seen in her?
    Money. At least that was the gossip that had sent Christian on this mad venture. Moore planned to ruin a besotted heiress to force a marriage. He must have been desperate to need whatever funds this waif owned.
    "You've ruined y'self, y'silly twit," the woman said. "That woman as runs that fancy-dancy school your mother insisted on 'as made a great alarm of your running off."
    The girl whispered, "I'm sorry... I thought..."
    "Thought what?" the terrifying aunt snapped. "That he luvved you? A scrawny piece of nothin' like you? Lord save me from fools. And ?ere 'e is dead, so you'll have to marry 'im."
    The girl's wide eyes went to the corpse and the whites showed. Christian stared at the woman, wondering if she were mad.
    "Not 'im, y'dope. 'im." She was pointing at Christian.
    "Ma'am-"
    "Shut up." Formidable jowls turned on Christian. "You killed 'im, young man, so you'll take 'is place."
    "The devil I will!" Christian surged forward. The knife bit again. "Damn and blast you all!"
    One of her henchmen moved forward, fist ready, but the woman commanded, "No." Into the frozen silence, she spoke with flat calm. "I don't bear with profanity, lad, so guard your tongue. Now be sensible. You've no choice 'ere but the gallows."
    Breathing hard, rage in every sinew, Christian snapped, "I'll take my chance with the law then."
    "Will you now? I don't know anything about duels, but this doesn't seem to 'ave been a proper 'un." When Christian had no answer to that, she pulled a leather money pouch out of her pocket and addressed the room, chinking it. "Didn't I 'ear it declared cold-blooded murder?"
    After a moment, one man said, "It was indeed, ma'am. T'other man looked to the door, and this'un ran 'im straight through."
    "Struck to kill," said the innkeeper, "as God's me witness, ma'am. Struck to kill. No doubt about it."
    "Likely wanted the girl for 'imself," called a woman from the back of the crowd, eager for her bit of the reward.
    "Then 'e'll get 'is wish, won't he?" the aunt said, turning to look at Christian with something that might be a grim smile.
    Christian could almost feel a noose around his neck, but he still wanted his day in court. If he could once get out of this madhouse he could summon help from his family. He burned with embarrassed fury at the thought of having to tell his father about this fiasco, but that was better than hanging.
    He fired a glance at the girl, demanding her witness, but she was staring into space, shivering and hugging herself. Just his luck. She'd been terrified out of her wits.
    Christian unclenched his teeth and tried for a reasonable tone. "Perhaps, ma'am, we can talk about this more temperately and without so many listeners."
    "They know what they know and they know you killed 'im."
    A murmur of assent ran around the room.
    "Ask her," Christian said, glaring at the girl. "She'll tell you it was as fair a fight as possible!"
    "It doesn't matter. Dorcas needs a husband."
    "And to marry like this won't be a scandal in itself?"
    "A marriage papers over anything."
    That was unfortunately true.
    "But it can't be achieved in moments," Christian argued desperately. "There are laws..." He had no idea what they were. "I'm only sixteen!" he protested.
   Plague take it, that sounded pathetic. "I'm a military officer," he said with more dignity, "and may not marry without my colonel's consent."
    "Then don't tell 'im," the woman said, unimpressed.
    Christian gaped at her. "What?"
    Before he could explain how outrageous she was, a stir in the doorway behind him suggested a new arrival. A magistrate at last? He tried to turn, but the knife bit again. Muttering curses, he watched in the mirror, praying for help.
    He saw a short fat man in a short fat wig, dressed in clergyman's black. Where the devil had he come from? He might as well be a hangman in Christian's eyes.
    The clergyman stopped at sight of the corpse and began to retreat, but the gawking audience had closed in behind him.
    "You 'ere to perform a marriage?" the woman asked.
    "Er... for a Lieutenant Moore, yes, ma'am..." His eyes, tiny currants in a red, glossy moonface, darted around and fixed on Christian. He stared, swallowed, but then said, "You are Lieutenant Moore, sir?"
    "No," Christian said.
    The eyes moved on to the corpse. "Oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear..." The clergyman pulled out a handkerchief to dab at glistening sweat. Christian was damn hot, too, both from fury and the press in the room.
    "You 'ave a license with you?" the woman asked.
    The man turned to her. "Er... yes, ma'am. I am... I am authorized by law to provide them, and... er... to perform marriages. Though normally speaking, in a church. I was told the bride was confined to her bed."
    "She can be if you insist on it," the aunt said.
    Had ?`confined to her bed? ' been grim humor on Moore's part? What the devil had been the plan? How had he intended to force the girl to marry him?
    But then Christian considered the aunt's determination. If Moore were still alive, the girl would be married to him by now.
    The clergyman was still dabbing his face and clearly wishing himself anywhere else in the world. Christian prayed he'd balk, but given the demeanor of the aunt and her two men, and the mood of the entrapping crowd, Christian wasn't surprised when he said, "Of course, if all is in order..."
    He looked at the girl, but took her frozen state for consent. Christian had heard of brides and sometimes grooms dragged to the altar bound and gagged, forced into a nod as agreement to the vows. Hadn't there recently been a change in the laws about things like that? If so, word hadn't reached this nether end of nowhere.
    The clergyman went to the small table and took a folded document out of a battered portfolio. He smoothed out the paper, extracted a pen and a capped ink-pot, and began to amend the license.
    Christian watched in disbelief. The whole world knew there were clergymen willing to overlook nearly every impediment and marry almost anyone for a fee; that they'd overlook nearly every impediment.
    But this couldn't be happening to him.
    The man turned his head toward Christian. "Your name, sir?"
    "This is monstrous," Christian protested. "I've done nothing wrong. I heard of Moore's plans and came here to rescue the girl."
    He saw no change in expression of anyone around him. The inn servants didn't seem hostile, more like people enjoying a play in fact, but determined that it go on. Or like a Roman mob, Christian thought grimly, keen to see someone fed to the lions.
    "If you want money for your witness," Christian said to the audience, "I'll outbid her."
    He saw some reaction, but then one man said, "Let's see your gold, then."
    Of course, he didn't have more than a few coins on him, and not much gold of his own at all, if truth be told. He was his father's heir, but his father wasn't a rich man and had many obligations.
    He tried reason again. "The girl can go home and forget about this. Marriage to me locks her up for life."
    "Don't be daft," the woman said, turning from where she was supervising the alteration of the license. "A marriage like this is easy to end."
    Christian wanted to believe her flat certainty, but in his experience a wedding took place in the parish church by license or after banns and was then indissoluble.
    People did go to court sometimes to end marriages. He thought bigamy was the main cause, but he remembered one case of a man who'd drunk too much and woken up married. This felt like a similar nightmare, but he couldn't remember the outcome of that court case.
    "Dorcas will return 'ome married," the woman stated. "I won't be balked on that, so give us your name."
    Christian would still prefer to take his chance with the magistrates, but his mind was working furiously, spinning out grim alternatives. If he ended up before the magistrates he'd have a dozen people swearing he'd committed murder and it seemed the girl would be no help.
    Once he summoned help from his colonel and his family he wouldn't hang, but the affair would embarrass him forever and could easily ruin his newborn military career. His regiment was set to leave for Canada within days, where they'd oppose the French. No bunch of yokels were going to block his way to adventure, or prevent him fighting for king and country.
    Moore was dead. That couldn't be covered up, but he could probably convince Colonel Howard of his side of the story. A plaguey mistake, but when he glanced at the pale and shaking girl, he could only wish he'd arrived sooner.
    "Someone put a blanket around her," he snapped.
    His words seemed to startle everyone, but one of the henchmen pulled the coverlet off the bed and draped it around the girl, helping her to a seat on a bench.
    "Yer name, lad!" the woman barked, snapping Christian back to his intolerable situation. If he wanted to escape, he was going to have to go through this farce. As she'd said, no need to tell anyone about this, and surely such a forced affair would be set aside. If there were witnesses to his killing Moore, there were as many to this abuse.
    And, he thought, no need to give his real name...
    He was inventing wildly when he remembered that quip about moors and hills. Damn his flippant tongue! And now his mind had gone blank and he could do no better than change Christian for something more common.
    "Jack Hill," he said. There must be hundreds of Jack Hills.
    Whether the woman believed him or not, she nodded and turned her attention back to where the clergyman continued to tamper with the document. Christian glanced again at the girl who was huddled in the coverlet like a bird trying to keep warm. She reminded him of his younger sisters and he hoped Moore was roasting in hell. No matter how great her folly in running off with a scoundrel, she hadn't deserved this.
    The aunt was right about the magical healing power of marriage. One of his cousins had run off with a rascal last year, been brought back and married off, and now everyone politely forgot about her error.
    In contrast, Miss Barstowe had also disappeared with a rascal at about the same time. When she returned to her family she claimed to have been abducted, and refused to marry the man. Or had it been some other man in that case? Last Christian had heard she was living a penumbral life, officially still part of County society, but rarely appearing and not truly accepted anywhere.
    Of course this Dorcas and her aunt weren't of the gentry, never mind the nobility, but if there was a school and some money they were a respectable family in their own way, with a place and reputation to preserve.
    "Father's name?" the clergyman asked.
    Sons were often named for their father, so he said, "John Hill." In fact, it was James.
    "I assume you're not already married, lad?" the woman asked, her tone implying it would be the worst for him if he was.
    "I'm only sixteen, if you remember."
    "A lad can marry at that age. Let's get on with it."
    "Can we dispense with the knife at my throat?" Christian asked, with careful calm. At least he could go to his execution with dignity.
    "What?" She seemed to see it for the first time. "Oh, take that away. 'E couldn't escape now unless 'e sprouts wings."
    As soon as the knife-wielder retreated, Christian stood and straightened his uniform. He felt the wound in his side, but it was a mere scratch and seemed to have stopped bleeding. Ruined a perfectly good waistcoat, however.
    He demanded his sword, and when it was warily returned to him, he cleaned it as best he could and sheathed it. Then he pulled free a sheet and spread it over Moore's corpse.
    Now he had more command of affairs his tension eased. If the woman insisted on this sham and it helped the girl preserve some fragment of her reputation, so be it. A marriage performed in an inn involving a groom who used a false name, with an altered marriage certificate... It would collapse as soon as it was blown on.
    He turned to the woman. "Your name, ma'am? And my bride's?"
    "I'm Abigail Froggatt, and she's Dorcas Froggatt."
    Dorcas Froggatt. Christian shuddered.Gathering himself, he asked,
    "From?"
    The woman's eyes narrowed as if she were considering ordering him back in the chair with a knife at his throat. "Sheffield, if it's any concern of yours. Let's get this done."
    The girl was extracted from the quilt by the henchman. He attempted to put his arm around her, so perhaps he wasn't unkind. She pushed him away, however, then walked forward, chin up in an attempt at dignity. There was still little to recommend her -- she was bony, pale, and straggle-haired, and the heavy paint she'd applied to attempt to look older was a streaky mess -- but Christian appreciated her courage.
    He found it hard to make himself speak the necessary vows, for his word was his honor and he had no intention of cherishing this creature 'till death did them part, but he reminded himself that this was merely a formality to salvage the girl's reputation.
    His bride seemed to choke on the vows, but the dreadful woman barked, ?I, Dorcas Froggatt?? and she repeated that and managed the rest. When he had to take her hand it was cold and seemed fragile as a sparrow's wing. He slid on a cheap metal ring the clergyman provided. Clearly the man performed irregular marriages for a living and came equipped.
    Christian signed the documents, as did his bride, the aunt, and one of her men. The clergyman made a great show of recording the marriage in a decrepit book and then smiled as if this was a happy occasion. "God's blessings upon the happy couple!"
    Mistress Froggatt turned to the audience. "Off you go now and toast the bride and groom." She gave the innkeeper some coins and the crowd pushed out to be the first downstairs.
    That left only six people in the room, if one didn't count the corpse.
    "May I go now?" Christian asked coolly.
    "Not quite. You," the formidable Froggatt said to the clergyman, "write me a document."
    "I am not a clerk, ma'am!"
    Abigail Froggatt put three guineas on the table.
    The clergyman uncapped his ink, picked up his pen again and wrote as she dictated what seemed to be a brief marriage contract. Contracts were usually drawn up and signed before the wedding, and Christian realized that as the girl's husband he now had a great deal of power over her and whatever property she possessed.
    He didn't give much for his chances of wielding it.
    He glanced to where his bride had resumed her huddled position on the bench and a protective instinct twitched. He stamped on it. The sooner he was free of Froggatts the better.
    He paid attention to the document, however. He'd sign nothing blind. He read it over to make sure it said what he'd heard dictated. It did.
    His bride's property would remain as disposed in her father's will. So she was an heiress of sorts. In lieu of his rights thereto, her family would provide him an income of thirty guineas a quarter as long as he remained in the army.
    He paused over that. A hundred and twenty guineas a year was a substantial sum to someone like himself, who was living on his officer's pay. Pride made him strike that section out, however. "I'll make no profit from this," he said, signing.
    That gesture would probably please the monstrous woman, but he wanted nothing of this event to linger in his life. He'd leave the country with his regiment as planned and never think of it again. Perhaps, he thought philosophically, the hazards of war would end this misbegotten marriage without need of courts.
    If not -- it could not hold it could be dealt with later. A false names, irregular circumstances, and lack of consummation must explode it. Hades, the greasy clergyman was probably defrocked.
    "Your name?" Christian demanded.
    The man's slack mouth moved as if he'd rather not give it. "Walmsly, sir. Walmsly."
    Doubtless a lie, but that made this even less valid.
    Mistress Froggatt signed the contract as the girl's guardian. Then she said to Christian, "Now you can go."
    From sheer bloody-mindedness, Christian turned to the girl, thinking to at least kiss her cheek, but she was such an image of hopeless misery he couldn't. Again, he felt he should rescue her. He was, after all, her husband...
    To Hades with that.
    He turned and left the room, determined to put the past hour out of his mind.
    He was done forever with playing Galahad to damsels in distress.

Read the second excerpt here.

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