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The Captain's Christmas Bride

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With child? Heavens, that possibility hadn’t even crossed Julia’s mind.

But of course, doing what they’d just done was obviously what started babies.

And just as obviously, she would have to marry the man who might have started one growing inside her. She simply couldn’t have a baby out of wedlock. She couldn’t do that to a child.

And no matter what she felt for the father, she would love her own child. She knew only too well how much a child could suffer because of what the parents felt about each other. She’d always known that the main reason her father hadn’t been able to warm to his first two sons was because they resembled their mother in looks.

The thought sent a fresh chill down her spine. Captain Dunbar was very, very angry with her. What if that anger never went away? What if the resentment he felt about having to marry her spilled over to their child?

‘It appears,’ her father continued, jerking her back to her present difficulties, ‘that my daughter has escaped the wiles of one fortune hunter only to fall into the clutches of another.’

* * *

Alec’s stomach turned over, as her father brought that aspect of the case to his attention. Not only was he going to be saddled with a wife, he was also going to be accused of marrying her for her money. Like father, like son, they’d say. When he’d worked so hard, for so long, to prove he wasn’t that kind of man at all. Damn the chit!

‘No, Papa!’ Lady Julia took a step forward, as though attempting to defend him from the invisible darts her father was shooting his way. ‘I told you it was my fault. Entirely my fault. He didn’t even know it was me in the orangery. Just look at the way I’m dressed.’

‘Eh?’ The earl stopped trying to send Alec to the coldest reaches of hell by sheer force of will, and turned to look at his daughter.

‘He thought I was the Neapolitan Nightingale. I... I deliberately deceived him and lured him out there...’

‘You did what? Why?’

‘Well...’ She swallowed and then started gazing frantically along the rows of books on the shelves, as though she might find inspiration amongst the stiff leather spines.

Yes, what excuse could she possibly come up with to explain this evening’s fantastic sequence of events? Without, that is, confessing the whole truth, which would land her friends in the very trouble she’d already declared she wanted to spare them.

Or laying the entire blame upon his shoulders, which it looked as though she was equally reluctant to do. Which came as quite a surprise. He would have thought she’d have been only too willing to throw him to the lions. Instead, she’d drawn the earl’s fire down on herself. Although from the look on her face now, she hadn’t really thought it through. She’d acted on impulse. And backed herself into a corner.

Alec supposed he had to give her credit for speaking up in his defence. He hadn’t expected her to demonstrate the slightest shred of honour over this affair, not given the way it had come about.

‘Don’t say another word,’ he advised her. He’d come in here seething with resentment at the way she’d trapped him. But she’d drawn the line at letting her father think he was a fortune hunter as well as a despoiler of innocence. It would cost him nothing to return the favour.

Besides, he could see she was floundering in a welter of equally unpalatable choices. Whatever lie she might choose to tell her father next was only likely to plunge them both into even deeper water. And he was used to thinking on his feet. Alec knew, only too well, that no matter how meticulously you planned an assault, something always cropped up that you couldn’t possibly have foreseen. The success or failure of many a mission had depended on his ability to adapt to such new challenges.

‘My lord,’ he said, turning to her father, ‘I am sure your daughter did not know what she was doing. She is so naïve—’

‘No, I won’t have you taking the blame, and everyone saying you are a fortune hunter when it is no such thing,’ she cut in, hotly. ‘I may not have planned for things to go so far, but—’ She broke off, blushing. ‘Papa— saw how he was with all the ladies. So curt. So dismissive. How he refused to take any notice of me at all.’

The old earl’s wintry gaze turned on her. He regarded her coldly for some moments. ‘I have spoiled you,’ he said. ‘You saw a man who wouldn’t pay court to you, and decided you must have him, by hook or by crook.’

It hadn’t been like that. It hadn’t been the least like that. She had detested him.

So why was she implying that it was? Why was she willing to shoulder the blame herself? She could easily have painted him as the very sort of opportunistic fortune hunter her father had taken him for. Instead, she was clearing his name.

And he couldn’t even contradict her story, not without exposing what she’d really been up to out there... Ah! So that was it. A matter of saving face. She’d rather her father think he was the man she’d wanted to seduce all along, than for him to know how very far her true plans had gone awry.

He gave a sort of mental shrug. If that was the way she wanted to play it—fine.

‘Well,’ said the earl with weary resignation. ‘At least this one is an improvement on the last fellow you fancied yourself in love with. At least nobody will blink at the connection. Only the manner by which it came about.’

‘Yes, Papa. He is the Earl of Auchentay, as well as being a naval captain, is he not? And you always did say I should marry within my own class.’

‘The title is hollow, sir,’ he felt duty bound to point out. ‘My lands are mortgaged—’

‘But still in your possession?’

‘Aye, but not likely to bring in any revenue, beyond what I get for renting the house and land. Which isn’t very good land, either.’

‘You won’t be needing the rent so very much now you are marrying into my family. Julia’s dowry will enable you to buy half-a-dozen Scottish properties, I dare say, if you had a hankering for them.’

‘I’ll not be squandering your daughter’s money on foolishness of that sort,’ he said testily. A man should take care of his womenfolk, not marry them for their dowry then fritter it away. Making free with his wife’s money would smack too much of what his father had done—marrying an heiress then gambling away her entire fortune. Something he’d sworn he’d never do.

Not that lifting the mortgages would be a bad thing, if he could do it.

And he would like to improve conditions for his tenants, too. But...

‘I had no thought of that when we—that is when I—’

The earl held up his hand in a peremptory gesture. ‘Spare me the details of what you were, or were not, thinking when she took you out to the orangery.’

‘Aye, sir.

’ For the first time that night, he felt his cheeks heat in a flare of embarrassment. He’d been too long at sea, too long without a woman to have been thinking of anything but the glorious release the siren in the blue-silk gown had appeared to be offering. He just wasn’t used to being surrounded by so many females, all revealing so much flesh. There’d been nothing but delicate arms, and slender necks, and tantalising bosoms wherever he’d looked, ever since he’d arrived. And all of them belonging to gently reared girls who were out of bounds. He’d been so frustrated, what with one thing and another, that by the time a mature, available woman—or so he’d believed—had offered him the opportunity to do something about it, he hadn’t stopped to think.

He’d just followed her out to the orangery like a lamb to the slaughter.

‘Whig, I suppose, are you? Like so many of your countrymen?’

‘Aye, but—’

‘Good, good. You’ll be taking up your seat in the House, in due course. When you do, it may interest you to know I have the ear of—’

‘No. My lord, it is very good of you to take a concern in my future, but I must tell you right now I have no head for politicking.’

‘Then what do you plan to do, now the war is over? England doesn’t need so many ships. Nor so many captains. Do you intend to return to your ancestral lands and take up the reins of estate management?’

Alec hadn’t thought about it. He’d still been in the process of gutting his last ship when he’d received that letter from Lizzie which had brought him hotfoot to Ness Hall. Getting married and restoring his ancestral home had been the last thing on his mind.

‘You didn’t expect to be pressed into marriage, did you, by Gad!’

It was as if Lord Mountnessing had read his mind. Not only that, but his cold expression had melted into something approaching sympathy, the words sounding downright apologetic. Having given them both a hearing, he’d clearly decided to blame his headstrong daughter.

And it was her fault. All her fault.

Yet he couldn’t just stand here and let her take all the blame. It wouldn’t be the act of a gentleman.

‘I did not, no, but I can only say what I always say to men pressed into the Navy. This is my life now. No point in complaining. Just have to make the best of it.’

He felt her stiffen at his side. Probably in outrage that he should speak of making the best of marriage, when she must consider it ten times the disaster he did.

‘Quite so,’ said the earl drily. ‘Julia—’ he turned to his daughter ‘—I need to speak with Captain Lord Dunbar in private.’

‘Oh, no, Papa—’

‘Oh, but, yes, my girl,’ said the earl firmly. ‘You need not fear I am about to tear the poor fellow to shreds. But we do need to deal with all the dull, legal matters with our lawyers. Settlements, and so forth.’

‘Yes, but—’

‘But nothing. I am too disappointed in you to bear looking at you tonight. Tomorrow, when I have come to terms with your behaviour, you may say whatever you wish. I dare say I shall even be able to consider forgiving you once my anger has cooled.’

‘Thank you, Papa,’ she said in a small, penitent voice. He glanced sideways at her downbent head. If he were a doting father, her pose would have wrung his withers.

As he was not, it made him want to wring her neck.

‘We will announce your engagement tomorrow, at the Hunt Ball,’ Lord Mountnessing continued. ‘Too many people saw you coming in from the garden in a state of disarray for us to prevent gossip. But at least we can turn it into the kind that nobody will very much mind. And then everyone can attend your wedding before they return home. We can fit most of them into the chapel. We even have a bishop on hand to perform the ceremony—’

‘Uncle Algernon?’ Lady Julia’s head shot up, and she wrinkled her nose.

‘And there will be no problem procuring a licence. So we can hold the wedding the day after tomorrow.’

‘Oh, but—’

He turned a wintry stare on his daughter. ‘If you are going to say something about not having time to shop for bride clothes, or anything of that nature, then I have to tell you, my girl, that you should have thought of that before you dressed up like a trollop and all but ruined a man who has so far served his country in a brave and commendable fashion.’

Nothing commendable about deflowering his host’s daughter though, was there? Angry with her though he was, still it rankled to hear the man scold her, in his hearing, whilst remaining silent in regard to his own conduct. He’d rather the man had ordered him flogged.

For Lord Mountnessing had been a remarkably generous and understanding host. He hadn’t batted an eyelid when he’d shown up two days ago without an invitation, demanding to see his sister. Instead, after hearing a brief, and strategically censored, version of what had brought him here, Lord Mountnessing had told him he was welcome to stay for as long as he needed, to get the business with the wayward girl settled to his satisfaction. True, he’d then proceeded to serve him up as a sort of after-dinner entertainment to stimulate the jaded palates of the lords, poets, and bishops already in situ. Nothing like having a serving naval officer, who could provide eyewitness accounts of battles they’d only been able to read about in the papers before.

Though he found it hard to speak about his part in any of the actions in which he’d been involved, he felt he owed it to his host to repay his hospitality by at least answering any question put to him as honestly as he was able. And so, each evening after dinner, when the ladies withdrew, Alec had rendered accounts of various engagements in which he’d fought, drawn verbal sketches of the more famous among the officers with whom he’d served, and attempted descriptions of the various countries where he’d dropped anchor.

It generally ended in them all raising their glasses to him. Which he’d hated. His answering toast had always been to all the other gallant officers and men who’d served with him. Aye, and died, too, in defence of their country. Though the memory of all the friends he’d lost over the years wasn’t all that left a bitter taste in his mouth. It was the fact that these pampered, soft gentlemen felt a sort of patriotic glow from just drinking a toast to the men who’d actually gone out and done the dirty work. That they felt a part of an action they’d never seen, just because he’d told them about it. And though possibly one or two of them might have followed the course of the war against France, the general level of ignorance of the others had been hard to stomach.

They hadn’t cared, not really, that men like him had spent their entire adult life fighting so that they could lounge about their clubs and country estates, secure from threat of invasion.

‘I shall do all in my power,’ said Lord Mountnessing, now, to his daughter, ‘to prevent any slur being cast upon his name because of this. And you will do the same, d’ye hear me?’

She hung her head again. And in a small, chastened voice, a voice that might have fooled him had he not known how many lies she’d told this evening, said, ‘Yes, Papa.’

* * *

One good thing about having been at war for most of his adult life was that Alec was used to surprise attacks from the enemy. Not that Lady Julia was his enemy, but she’d certainly surprised him. Which meant he’d had to come up with a strategy to deal with the new tack on which he was going to have to steer his life. He’d spoken the truth last night when he’d said that, like a press-ganged man, there was no point in struggling against the inevitable. Marriage, like life on board ship, would depend a great deal upon how a man went about it. So the question was, what did he want from marriage?

He’d had a vague notion of finding a sympathetic companion, one day, eventually, to be a mother to his children. A woman he could trust to run his household while he was away, and make it a place he’d be glad to return to after an arduous voyage.

Instead, he was going to have to make a life with a woman he neither liked nor respected. He was facing a lifetime with a challenging, unprincipled, hot-blooded siren for his wife. Just as she was facing a lifetime with the last man on earth she would have chosen, to judge from the look on her face when the masks had come off.

Well, he’d been faced with seemingly impossible challenges before. He wouldn’t have gained promotion to captain without displaying ingenuity and daring. Could making a success of his marriage truly be more daunting than closing with a French frigate twice the size of his own vessel, or leading a boarding party against apparently insurmountable odds?

No. Besides, though his mind balked at spending a lifetime with a woman of Lady Julia’s stamp, his body wasn’t paying attention. His body was eager to engage with her all over again.

And so he planned to tell her. At least, that his conclusion was that they were both going to have to make adjustments. Huge adjustments, if they didn’t want to make each other completely miserable. He had to let her know that he bore her no ill will, that he was willing to put in the effort required to make the match run as smoothly as it could, all things considered. And not just for themselves, but for the sake of any children they might have. He didn’t want his children to become casualties of the kind of warfare waged between his own parents.

To that end, he’d decided to go along with the fiction that this was a love match. He was pretty certain she’d see the sense of that. For the one thing he’d learned about her last night was that she didn’t want anyone to suspect he wasn’t her choice. Which suited him fine. Alec didn’t want anyone to know what a tangle they’d landed in, either, nor have any shadow of scandal cast over his children’s lives. So he had to speak to her in private, as soon as possible, and negotiate terms.

Lizzie had informed him, when he’d managed to corner her briefly at luncheon the day before, that most ladies took breakfast on trays, in their rooms. She’d offered it up as an explanation as to why he’d not been able to locate her, though it was a poor excuse. She’d been avoiding him. And continued to do so.

Women! He still hadn’t got to the bottom of what Lizzie was up to—though he hadn’t been in Ness Hall for five minutes before discovering it wasn’t what she’d led him to believe—and now he was entangled in another net, cast by another scheming, manipulative female.

But at least he could begin to make some headway with Lady Julia. Though he had hardly seen any female make it to the breakfast table during the time he’d been here, and scarcely more of the men either, she’d always been up, acting as hostess.

Or, as he’d thought of it before last night, queening it over the breakfast table and all its occupants.

* * *

Well, he’d have to erase any trace of disdain from his face before he spoke to her this morning. The success of his plan depended on it.

As he descended the stairs, he schooled his features into what he hoped passed for the kind of expression a man would wear, who’d just been granted the hand of a woman with whom he was infatuated.

He was glad he’d taken the precaution. There were decidedly more people clustered around the table this morning. Mostly men. Dressed in riding gear.

Of course—the hunt.

It was a tradition for the guests staying here to join the local hunt on Boxing Day, so Lord Mountnessing had informed him upon arrival. He’d even offered to provide him with a mount, should he wish to take part.

He was glad he’d declined now.

He glanced to the head of the table, where Lady Julia was sitting next to her father. Alec breathed a sigh of relief. For she was dressed in a simple morning gown, which meant she wouldn’t be joining the hunt either.

It would give him an opportunity, he hoped, to speak with her alone. Surely, with so many of the houseguests being out of doors, they would be able to find ten minutes in which to negotiate the terms of truce? It shouldn’t take much longer than that. He’d already seen signs she might be amenable to his terms when she’d admitted she’d been at fault, and defended him against the charge of being a fortune hunter.

Lady Julia was sitting, as usual, at her father’s left hand. She looked pale, but calm. Her eyes were clear. She didn’t look as if she’d spent the night weeping into her pillow, at least. Nobody would guess how very upset she must be to have landed herself in this predicament.

He ignored the footman who was holding out a chair halfway along the table, went to where she was sitting, and pulled out his own chair, sitting down on it without taking his eyes from her face.

Which put paid to her pallor, anyway.

‘Good morning, my lord,’ she said, then, her blush deepening, lowered her head to stare at her plate.

‘Good morning, indeed,’ he replied, edging his chair a little closer to hers.

One or two people, he noted out of the corner of his eye, were already shooting curious glances their way.

He leaned in close.

‘Follow my lead,’ he murmured into her ear. Then took a crust of her toast from her plate and popped it into his own mouth.

‘Coffee or tea, my lord?’ A footman thrust a silver pot between them, dangerously close to his face, obliging him to heel to port. He had to admire the servant’s loyalty. And wonder at the devotion she appeared to have inspired in him, since he’d come to her defence from what he must assume was an importunate male guest, with such alacrity.

‘Ale, if you have it,’ he replied, which made the servant glower at him, since it meant he’d have to desert his mistress, to go to the sideboard and fetch him a tankard.

By this time, all eyes were upon them. And conversation ebbed. Claiming the place at her side, and whispering into her ear had been enough to raise brows. But the fact that she was doing nothing to rebuff him, when he’d previously observed her repelling all boarders with chilling hauteur, was clearly such unusual behaviour that it invited speculation.

‘What the deuce,’ said Lord Staines, who was sitting on the earl’s other side, ‘do you think you are about, sir? How dare you treat my sister with such familiarity at the breakfast table?’ He blinked as though realising the absurdity of what he’d just said, and added, ‘Or anywhere else, come to that!’

‘No need to get into a pucker, Staines,’ the earl said drily. ‘I meant to announce it today anyway. The pair of them have decided to tie the knot.’

Alec carried Julia’s hand to his lips, striving to look as though she’d just made him the happiest man in the world.

‘And they have my blessing,’ said her father, shooting Lord Staines a frosty look.

Masterly. Lord Mountnessing had concealed his displeasure at their behaviour by turning it all upon his son, for speaking out of turn. Nobody would now guess that he was far from happy about the match. Or the way it had come about. Nor even the fact that he’d had to announce the betrothal at breakfast, rather than at the ball later on, as he’d planned.

‘Good grief,’ said a man who looked so very much like Staines that he had to assume they were brothers. ‘She’s finally deigned to drop the handkerchief.’

‘No call for vulgarity of that sort, Whitney,’ said Lord Mountnessing, confirming his suspicion that they were related. ‘Mixed company.’

There were only two ladies present. One of whom was Lady Julia. The other, a matron who was rigged out in full hunting gear, uttered a little gurgle of laughter.

‘No need to mince words for my benefit,’ she said. ‘I think it’s marvellous. Especially the fact that I’m clearly one of the first to find out about this sudden turn of events. Your other aunts are going to be green with envy, Julia dear, that I found out before they did.’

She popped a forkful of eggs into her mouth with a cat-like smile.

‘So,’ said Lord Staines, dourly, ‘I suppose this means you are going to break out the champagne.’

‘Too early for that,’ replied the earl, firmly.

‘I didn’t mean at the breakfast table,’ retorted Lord Staines.


Lord Staines glowered at his father. And Alec, who’d put the man’s ruddy complexion down to his love of outdoor pursuits, now wondered whether it owed as much to consumption of alcohol.

‘We will have champagne tonight, to mark the occasion,’ said the earl to Lady Julia, turning his shoulder to his heir. ‘Instead of making the announcement just before supper, as I’d planned, we’ll let everyone know that this year’s Hunt Ball will serve as your betrothal ball as well. I am sure all those radicals, who are forever decrying the shocking extravagance of the ruling classes, will applaud the economy of utilising an occasion when all your family are already about you.’

‘Just as you say, Papa,’ she said, half-rising from her seat to place a dutiful kiss upon his cheek.

Her apparent meekness made him feel a trifle nauseous. The last thing she wanted was to have a ball celebrating her union with a man she detested. And as for being pleased that all her family would be about them—neither the earl nor his daughter, from what he’d observed, seemed all that fond of any of the others.

But perhaps it was as well to know exactly how duplicitous she could be. Alec would be on his guard with her, which would stand him in better stead heading into the choppy waters of the matrimonial sea, than the blinkered hopes and dreams of men who believed their brides were paragons of virtue. He was at least going into this with his eyes open. There would be no shocks along the way. For he’d already seen her at her worst.

‘My sweet,’ he said, when at last she’d finished pushing a selection of meats and bread around her plate, signifying the end of breakfast. ‘Will you allow me to escort you for a walk about the gardens?’

‘In this weather?’ The man who looked so very like Lord Staines shot a disbelieving glance out the window.

‘You’re going hunting in it, Herbert,’ Julia retorted.

‘Yes but I don’t care about getting my clothes muddied,’ he replied scornfully.

‘Plenty of gravel walks in the grounds,’ put in the matron, with a twinkle in her eye. ‘So she won’t need to get her skirts muddy and there are all sorts of convenient little outbuildings, should it come on to rain.’

Did everyone feel they had the right to make observations about how he intended to spend his day?

‘Captain Lord Dunbar won’t have time for strolling round the grounds this morning,’ Lord Mountnessing informed the table at large. ‘I’ve arranged for Benson—my man of business,’ he explained to Alec, ‘to attend us in the library. We have a lot of documents to sign.’

‘Plenty of time for that, I should have said,’ remarked Lord Staines.

‘No, you really shouldn’t,’ replied his father coldly.

Lord Staines narrowed his eyes. His lips twisted into the beginnings of a snarl.

‘What Papa meant,’ put in Lady Julia swiftly, ‘is that we are going to marry very soon. As soon as can be arranged. So there isn’t much time.’

Lord Staines didn’t look the slightest bit grateful to her for attempting to smooth over their father’s cutting remark. Instead, he turned his venom on her.

‘You? The embodiment of all the virtues? Getting married in a hurry? To a man you only met two days ago?’ He laughed rather nastily. ‘You do know what people are going to say, don’t you? They are going to say you have to get married. Lord, if that were only true! I’d give a monkey to hear you’d been knocked off that pedestal on which you stand looking down your nose at all us lesser mortals.’

‘That’s enough, Staines,’ growled Lord Mountnessing, as Lady Julia turned an even deeper shade of red.

‘By Gad, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head,’ cried his brother. ‘Just look at her face!’

Indignation sent him surging to his feet.

‘If either one of you,’ he snarled, glaring from one sneering, malevolent face to the other, ‘dare repeat such foul accusations again, I shall—’ He stopped, recalling that it wasn’t the done thing to duel with one’s brothers-in-law. Even if they hated her. Which it appeared, from their faces and the pleasure they took in baiting her, that they did.

He didn’t know what she’d done to rouse that hatred, but whatever it was, no man who had a sister ought to treat her with such contempt. Especially not in public.

‘The reason we have decided to marry so swiftly is—’

‘Is none of their business,’ Julia said, cutting him off before he had time to manufacture an excuse. ‘Don’t descend to their level. They’d enjoy nothing better than starting a brawl over the breakfast table.’ She gave them a scornful look.

Lord Mountnessing rose from the table. ‘Come, my lord. We have more important issues to deal with than petty family squabbles.’ He tossed his napkin on the table with the sort of disdain that told everyone present exactly what he thought of his sons.

‘I shall have to go,’ he said, bending down to murmur into Julia’s ear, hoping it looked as though he was whispering an endearment. ‘But I must speak with you privately at some time today. When can we meet?’

She twisted her own napkin between her fingers. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I have a thousand-and-one things to do today.’

‘I won’t have you avoiding me,’ he growled. This was what Lizzie was already doing—coming up with feeble excuses when what they needed to do was sit down in private and talk. ‘If you don’t think of a time and place, I shall hunt you down.’

‘Very well, very well. Oh, um, how soon as you have finished with Papa and Benson? In the orangery.’

He quirked one eyebrow. Really?

She flushed, and lifted her chin.

‘I will be waiting for you there.’


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