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The Captain's Christmas Bride

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Captain Lord Dunbar despised her! Oh, he’d been trying to hide it, but he wasn’t a very good actor. He’d been wearing a brave, rather resolute smile when he’d entered the room but he hadn’t been sitting next to her for more than a minute before she detected the anger and distaste simmering just below the surface. And as for the way he’d demanded she meet him, so that they could speak privately. Oh, she had no doubt what kind of things he wanted to discuss. No doubt at all.

Especially after the way he’d looked at her when she’d suggested they meet in the orangery...

Even now she cringed at the message his wintry grey eyes had sent her. He thought she was a trollop. A scheming baggage.

And if he did, she had nobody to blame but herself.

She sniffed loudly, blinked hard, and quickened her flight up the stairs. She had to get to her room, where she could pace up and down, or throw something, or scream into her pillow. She was not going to give way in public. She was not.

Both Papa and Captain Dunbar were doing their best to conceal how they felt, which was shielding her from any threat of censure. She must not be the one to give the game away by giving so much as a hint that there was anything amiss.

Julia got to her room, shut the door firmly, then sagged back against it.

She was going to be married to a man who despised her. In the chapel where, for years, she’d dreamed of marrying David...

Oh, David. Her stomach contracted into a knot of pain.

The way he’d looked at her! She slid to the floor, landing with a bump on the bare boards, covered her face with her hands, and groaned.

However was she going to get through it? How was she going to walk down the aisle to wed another man if David was sitting in the congregation, watching? Remembering her with her bare legs wrapped round Captain Dunbar’s waist—yes, for that was the way he was always going to picture her, now. Just as she was always going to remember him with that appalled, disgusted look on his face.

Perhaps he wouldn’t attend, though. He wouldn’t want to attend, surely? And who was likely to invite him, come to that? The chapel was not all that big. Wouldn’t it be filled with all those currently staying as guests in the house itself? Anyway, she would be in charge of issuing invitations, wouldn’t she?

So—that was one problem dealt with.

She raised a trembling hand to her brow. Rubbed at the furrow between her eyebrows where a headache was beginning to form.

Oh, but it was tempting to use that as an excuse to stay in her room and hide all day. She didn’t know how she was going to face anyone, never mind David. But she would have to. Almost her entire family had come to stay for Christmas. Not to mention a smattering of those people in whom Papa was currently interested. The poet whose latest work was all the rage. The brace of scientists who’d discovered something or other. Not only was it her duty to ensure they were all enjoying their stay, but the family would also think it was their right to ask her why she’d suddenly, as Herbert had put it, dropped the handkerchief, when until now she’d managed to evade all attempts to get her to the altar.

Her unmarried cousins would also want to know how she’d managed to snare Captain Lord Dunbar when all their efforts to get him to notice them had failed.

When she thought of the way the girls had sighed over whispered rumours of his prowess in various naval battles, gazed adoringly at his rugged profile, simpered, and giggled, and generally made total fools over themselves, because he was so manly, it made her want to scream. Because she’d seen the man behind the reputation. The reputation, she reflected waspishly, that he’d done his best to promote with all those tales he’d regaled the gentlemen with over the port.

And the man behind the so-called hero of the British navy was dour as well as being a braggart. Harsh, and judgemental, too, if his own sister’s determination to avoid him was anything to go by. Nobody knew a man quite so well as his own sister. And his sister, Lady Lizzie Dunbar, had been doing her level best to avoid him, even though he’d been away at sea for so long. If he’d been even a halfway decent brother, surely she would have been pleased to see him? Surely she would have wanted to spend every moment she could with him? Instead, her attempts to hide from him had reminded her of the way, as a little girl, she’d always done her utmost to evade her own brothers whenever they’d come home from school in the long vacation.

And this was the man she was going to have to marry.

She pushed herself up from the floor and made her way to her dressing table. Within the many pots scattered across its surface there must surely be one that could help her look as though she was an excited bride, on the eve of her wedding to the man she loved, with such fervour she’d anticipated her vows.

Although—her hand stilled as she reached for a pot of rouge—only a few people knew she’d actually done so. If Marianne, or Nellie, or David, had let the cat out of the bag, breakfast would have been an ordeal of an entirely different nature.

Everyone who’d heard would have dragged themselves out of bed to goggle at the spectacle of Lady Julia Whitney, in love. As it was, the half-dozen or so habitually early risers had behaved the way they always did. There hadn’t been a keen glance or muttered aside to suggest she’d become the subject of gossip.

Not until Captain Lord Dunbar had made his way to her side and played the part of adoring swain.

She dipped her brush in the rouge pot, idly swirling it round and round. She still couldn’t really understand it. He’d been trying to make it look as though he was delighted to be marrying her. When he was anything but.

Perhaps he’d calmed down overnight, and was now resigned to his fate?

Absentmindedly, she flicked the rouge over her cheeks. No, that couldn’t be it. He hadn’t looked resigned to his fate. He’d looked determined. As though he’d decided to make the best of it. Hadn’t he said something to that effect last night? It was hard to recall. She’d been such a seething mass of mortification, and loss, and dread, and anger, and...oh, a dozen other negative emotions.

But later, when she’d tried to get to sleep—oh, heavens! She caught sight of herself in the mirror, her cheeks such a deep shade of carmine she looked like something out of a pantomime. She flung the rouge brush aside, dipped a clean handkerchief in water, and began to scrub it off. She had no need of rouge when she recalled the thoughts that had slid into bed alongside her last night. Far too many of them involving searching hands, and determined lips, and the feel of a large, masculine body pressing down on her. Pressing into her.

Not even now she knew exactly who it had been doing all those wickedly exciting things. And that was another thing. Modesty dictated she should have felt ashamed, not excited. So excited that she hadn’t been able to lie still. She couldn’t understand herself. Even thinking about it now made her feel all...

She wrung out the handkerchief and dabbed at her heated cheeks in an attempt to reduce the redness that the rouge, and the blushing, and the scrubbing had produced. Though perhaps a natural blush wasn’t such a bad look to wear. Didn’t they talk of blushing brides? People would expect her to blush, and look a little uncomfortable when they began to congratulate her over her marriage.

And they would congratulate her. Everyone considered Captain Lord Dunbar to be a terrific catch. His name had often been in the papers, in connection with some great naval victory or other. Nobody cared that he was penniless.

Oh. She sat up a little straighter. Hadn’t Papa said something last night about him now being able to buy as much property as he wanted? She’d been so angry that he wasn’t going to cut up stiff over the settlements, the way he’d threatened to do when she’d told him of her intention to marry David, that she hadn’t taken any notice of Captain Dunbar’s reaction to the news he was about to become a wealthy man. But perhaps that was why he looked more cheerful this morning. He’d had all night to consider what it would mean to be able to spend her fortune however he liked.

Well, she thought, shrugging one shoulder, he’d obviously decided that her money was some compensation for the fact he hadn’t wanted to have anything to do with her, let alone marry her.

Something cold landed on her lap. She looked down to see that she’d squeezed her handkerchief so hard a rivulet of pink water was trickling over her dressing table and onto her gown.

She’d have to get changed. Bother. Now he’d think she’d done so just to impress him—if he was the kind of man who noticed what a woman wore.

She’d pick something as close to this morning gown as she could, then. And hope he couldn’t tell the difference between muslin and cambric.

It was only as she went to ring for a maid that it struck her that on any other day Marianne would normally have been in here by now. Julia wouldn’t have needed to ring for a maid at all. Marianne would have helped her to change. But Marianne was clearly too embarrassed to face her this morning.

And no wonder.

* * *

Alec paused and narrowed his eyes as he left the ballroom through the door on to the terrace. Though whether it was the bright sunshine, or his reaction to Lord Mountnessing’s attitude that made him blink, it would be hard to say.

Not that he’d been surprised to find the old man so keen to get his wayward daughter off his hands. Alec hadn’t been surprised either, all things considered, to find her money tied up in such a way that if he had been a fortune hunter, he’d have been mightily disappointed.

He was surprised, however, by the amount left over, free and clear, to dispose of exactly as he saw fit. For the first time in his life, there wouldn’t have been any need for him to take out a loan in order to fit out a ship—had he a command awaiting him. He could have bought the best supplies, silver buckles for his shoes, new lace for his uniform—hell, he could have gone the whole hog and purchased a new uniform altogether while he was at it.

And still be able to leave his wife living in the kind of luxury she’d always been used to enjoying.

Of course, he’d never be sure who she’d be enjoying it with, but that was a risk all men who spent most of their lives at sea had to run.

Shaking his head, like a dog caught in a shower of rain, he set off across the terrace with the measured tread his officers and crew called his ‘mulling’ walk—behind his back, naturally. Any landlubber who saw him would have assumed he was just out for a stroll. But the way he clasped his hands behind his back and the angle of his downbent head were a certain sign to those who knew him. He was mulling over a plan. A complex plan, if his completely wooden expression was anything to go by. The deeper his thoughts, the less they always showed on his face.

Or so his crew had believed.

Right now the thoughts uppermost on his mind concerned the woman he was about to marry. In particular, did he stand any chance of making such a spoiled, society beauty pay him any heed?

He didn’t hold with beating wives, though it was within his legal rights to do so, should she misbehave. It might make a certain kind of man feel better, but he wasn’t that sort. And yet her father had just informed him that he was relying on his son-in-law to discipline his lively, self-willed new bride.

‘I’ve always been too soft with Julia,’ the earl had admitted ruefully. ‘Could never deny her anything. She was such an affectionate, demonstrative sort of child, you see. As well as being the first fruits of my second marriage. I was terribly in love with her mother.’ He took a pinch of snuff then shut the box with a snap, as though he was annoyed with himself.

‘She gave me another brace of sons, as well as those I had from my first wife.’

Had there been just a hint of distaste about his lips?

‘But you cannot mollycoddle boys if you want them to grow up to become men.’

‘Indeed not, my lord,’ he’d agreed wholeheartedly. He’d gone to sea himself at the tender age of twelve. If his own father had ‘mollycoddled’ him, the harshness of those first few weeks on board his first ship might well have destroyed him.

‘When my Maria died,’ the earl had continued, ‘I suppose I switched all the affection I felt for the mother to the daughter. Very much like her, you see.’ He sighed. ‘Now, of course, I see that it was disastrous to appear to favour her over my other children. But at the time...’ He shook his head.

‘However, since she claims to love you, I have no doubt she will do her best to be a good wife to you.’ He frowned. ‘Her idea of a good wife. It will probably not be your idea of what a good wife should be, but then, women, you know...’ He’d finished with another of his grimaces of distaste.

Captain Dunbar had made no response. If Julia really had been in love with him, it would have been the act of a scoundrel to complain about the way she’d entrapped him. Especially since her poor old father was trying to encourage him to hope the union might bring him the same kind of happiness he’d experienced with her mother.

Nor could he very well explain that Lady Julia had been as appalled as he when their masks had come off. He hadn’t needed to question her assertion that she hadn’t been trying to trap him. He’d seen his own shock mirrored on her face. She didn’t love him, but another. The last thing on her mind was making him a good wife. No, for her, it was all about saving face.

So why the hell had she asked him to meet her in the orangery? His heart started skipping like a frigate in a stiff breeze as it hove into sight. But he kept his pace even and steady. He wasn’t going to betray, by any outward sign, just how much it affected him to approach the scene of last night’s tryst, in broad daylight.

Which was a foolish resolution to make. The moment his mind turned to the astonishing events of the night before, his body began to behave in a most unruly manner, springing enthusiastically to attention. Giving an all-too-visibly outward sign that he was far from reluctant to be meeting her in such a secluded spot.

So it was with a frustrated growl that he tried the handle of the door, and with a scowl on his face that he knocked on it.

She emerged from behind a screen of foliage, and gestured to one of the windows. Then she went to it and threw up the sash.

‘Gatley—that’s our head gardener—keeps the door locked when we have guests,’ she explained, beckoning him over. ‘You will have to climb in through this window, as we did last night. The lock is broken, you see. But hardly anyone knows. So we won’t be disturbed.’

So that was why she’d suggested they meet here. It was just as he’d thought. She was going to try to fuddle his mind with memories of last night, so that he wouldn’t see whatever trap she’d laid for him today until it was too late. He’d laid enough traps, himself, when he’d needed to sneak up close to an enemy in order to inflict maximum damage, to recognise one.


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