The Reluctant Bridegroom
An Authentic Regency Romance
historical fiction · Valentine's Day · clean romance · Regency England · women's fiction
The handsome Earl of Wenham has no intention of marrying any time soon. His sister Almeria points out to Hugo that he owes it to the title and the estates to marry and produce an heir. Failure to do so means the entire lot devolves upon his second cousin, the Honourable Felix Barstowe. She also reminds him that their father had promised an old friend, Lord Lavenham, that his son should marry Lord Lavenham’s daughter, Miranda. Out of respect for his father’s dying promise (which he had never taken seriously), the earl sets off for Lavenham House. He is stranded by snow a few miles away from his destination and takes refuge in a local inn. He meets up with a heavily veiled, mysterious young woman, who, by her confidences to him, he realises is the elusive Miranda. To his shocking surprise, the feisty Miranda declares she will not have anything to do with someone whom she declares, “is possibly so fat and gouty, that he needs to have a wife found for him.” In fact, she would rather run away with a childhood friend. Intrigued, the earl makes it his business to get to know Miranda better by inviting her to stay in London with his sister. Unfortunately, this strategy annoys his dandyish cousin Felix Barstowe who is determined that the young and healthy earl should not marry and cheat him out of his birthright. Will Felix succeed in a dastardly plan to murder his cousin?
— scroll down to read book sample —
"Arabella Sheraton gifts her readers with a beautiful traditional Regency romance when she introduces the feisty Miranda Lavenham and the charming Earl of Wenham. The chemistry between the lead couple in this story is sparkling. I have seldom enjoyed witnessing the banter of two people as much as I have between these two, and they seem to bring out the best in one another. I loved watching the self-assured young earl deal with self-doubts and jealousy; it was definitely fun for me and his sister was a puppet-master without emasculating him. I lost myself in the traditional plot and could not have asked for better descriptions or settings. The supporting characters were well developed and entertaining and added depth and value to the story. I'd love to see Miranda's best friend get his own adventure as I believe he deserves to find himself a stunning match. I've come to expect a good solid read from this author and this story lived up to my expectations. If you are a fan of sweet historical romance, then this is a fabulous choice." —Pauline Michael, Night Owl Reviews
"The Reluctant Bridegroom is a work of charming and highly entertaining Regency romance by author Arabella Sheraton, who is fast becoming one of my favourites in this light and fluffy genre of scandals, romances and intrigues...The mix of characters and intrigue in this plot make it my favourite read from Sheraton so far, and I can’t wait to get into more!" —★★★★★ Reader Review
"If light-hearted, but witty, regency romance is your thing, I can guarantee that you’ll probably devour this book in a single sitting, as I did. I’m now looking forward to getting my teeth into another delicious tale by the same author." —★★★★★ Reader Review
"A fabulous story, thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish!...The whole book was written so well and a great deal of thought and care has clearly gone into it. The characters are wonderful, really well developed and highly entertaining. The storyline was solid, the characters fit in perfectly and the added touch of humor rounded the whole thing off very nicely. Full marks to Arabella Sheraton; this really was a romping good read, a fun story that was just perfect to take the edge of a tough week!" —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Arabella Sheraton grew up on a diet of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and many other writers of that period. From Jane Austen to Georgette Heyer, Arabella has found both enjoyment and inspiration in sparkling, witty Regency novels. She also loves history and generally finds the past more fascinating than the future. Arabella wrote her first Regency romance to entertain her aged mom who loved the genre. Arabella is honoured to share the adventures of her heroes and heroines with readers.
SAMPLE FROM THE RELUCTANT BRIDEGROOM
“But my dear Almeria,” said Hugo, casting an amused glance at his older sister, “I am in no hurry at all to get married. It seems that you are more concerned than I am over my marital state, or the lack thereof.”
A small explosive squawk of annoyance came from Lady Almeria Pickerton, the earl’s senior by fifteen years. She was a handsome dark-haired woman who had kept both her looks and her figure, despite the passage of time. At that moment, she surveyed her sibling with an angry expression and a jaundiced eye.
“You’ll be the death of me, Hugo, I swear it!”
“Oh, surely not. You must not become too excitable over matters which do not bear thinking about, well, not yet anyway.” He yawned. “Not for a very long time, at any rate.”
Hugo unhooked his leg from the arm of the chair in which he had been lounging during his sister’s lecture on the benefits of matrimony and strolled over to the window. He gazed down upon the busy throng of carriages and people in Mount Street, an excellent address in London. But then, Almeria always did everything so well.
Almeria was a superior woman in all respects: an excellent wife, hostess, and sister. Her Mayfair home was comfortably furnished, yet retained a fashionable elegance that pleased the discerning eye; her French cook was a culinary master, and the well-stocked Pickerton wine cellar was a delight to sample. She was a credit to the Wendover family and her husband.
However, the only marital task she had failed to complete was to present Lord Pickerton with an heir and a nephew to inherit her brother’s title should Hugo Charles William St. John Wendover, the Earl of Wenham, fail to marry and produce a successor.
“Look at you!” she said. “You’re tall, good looking—that much you got from Papa—with more money than sense, possessing enough charm and style to satisfy every woman in London, yet—”
Hugo swung round to face Almeria. “And yet at thirty, I am still unmarried, with no firm intention to correct the situation in the very near future.”
Almeria’s face crumpled a little. She fished a dainty handkerchief out of her reticule and dabbed at her eyes. Then, she gave a tiny heart-rending sob.
“But why, Hugo, why?”
Her voice was unusually wistful, very different from her customary firm tones.
“Is it too much to ask that you choose a wife? If you don’t produce a son, you know very well that upon your death, the entire lot, and by that I mean the title, the estates, and the money, will go to that awful cousin of ours, Felix Barstowe.”
Hugo blinked in surprise when his generally calm and collected sister almost spat their cousin’s name.
“Now, Almeria, Felix is our—”
She shook her head in an angry gesture, interrupting his attempt to mollify her.
“I don’t care if he’s our only cousin. He’s a nasty, slimy little eel. Just the thought of him getting his paws on the family estate makes me want to explode!”
Hugo strode to Almeria’s chair and took her hands.
“Now, now, my dear. Please don’t upset yourself. I’m hardly likely to die in the very near future. My health is excellent, and if you wish it, I’ll give up all my dangerous sports like curricle racing and…and even hunting.”
Almeria’s eyes filled with tears and she gave a pathetic moan as she turned her face away.
“How can I ask you to stop doing all the things you love the most?”
“It’s a small sacrifice to put a smile back on your face, Almeria.”
Hugo gave an inward sigh. It was an enormous sacrifice! He would hate to have to give up his horse and field pleasures, but he’d say whatever would please Almeria to prevent her going into a decline. Just recently, she seemed to be suffering from unaccustomed melancholy. Perhaps having no children had affected her more deeply than anyone thought.
Almeria’s next words confirmed his suspicions.
“I blame myself. If only I had given Pickerton an heir. And if you don’t marry and produce an heir, I will have failed my family and his.”
Hugo gave her hand a gentle slap. It was so unlike Almeria to succumb to fits of weeping or depression. Ever since he could remember, she had taken charge of the family’s affairs and governed both him and his father until the old earl’s death five years ago. Almeria seemed indomitable, but there was a chink in her armour.
“I hate to see you like this and hear you speak such nonsense. What can I do to cheer you up, besides meet yet another of your friends’ daughters in desperate need of a rich, handsome, and very suitable husband?”
Almeria looked at him, her sudden smile radiant with hope.
“Will you do something to please me, Hugo?”
Hugo’s heart sank a little. No doubt some onerous social duty was about to be foisted upon him, but seeing his sister so distressed cut Hugo to the core. After all, Almeria had taken the place of his mother when that lady had died giving birth to a still-born younger brother. A brother whose survival would have ensured the safety of the succession. He pushed aside guilty thoughts and grinned at her.
“I will do anything you ask, dearest Almeria, and I will meet any young woman of your choice.”
His words, spoken in a light-hearted tone, wrought a remarkable transformation in the previously distraught Almeria.
Almeria rose from her chair with a militant gleam in her eyes.
“Any young woman of my choice?” she repeated in triumphant tones. “Excellent! Now, remember, you promised, Hugo.”
Hugo paled. Judging by her pleased expression, Almeria had caught him in a cunning trap. But what could it be?
He cast his mind back to some of the disastrous encounters she had engineered with single young women, all plain and learned, or boring and beautiful, or terrified at the idea of making their social debut.
However, a promise was a promise. How much worse could her plan be than squiring some impressionable young woman to a dull picture gallery or standing up with her at a ball?
What else could it be but a dreary social obligation?
He clapped one hand to his chest in a noble gesture. “I am a man of my word.”
“Good,” she said coolly, all traces of tears now erased from her cheeks. “And now that you’ve given it, all you have to do is keep it.”
She went to a small writing desk in the corner of the room and rummaged in a drawer. When Almeria withdrew a missive, Hugo’s heart sank even further into his well-polished Hessians. He recognised the distinctive looped handwriting on the envelope because he had seen it several times before.
“Because I have recently received a letter from Lord Lavenham.”
Hugo assumed an expression of attentive curiosity.
“Oh, yes? One of Papa’s friends, if I remember correctly. How is the old—I mean how is Lord Lavenham?”
Almeria waved the envelope under his nose, with a disapproving expression.
“Very much, ‘oh, yes.’ Don’t pretend you are unaware of what I mean. You do remember correctly. You are a wicked creature to ignore the pleadings of an old man in the winter of his life.”
Hugo made a helpless gesture with his hands. “I…er…I forgot—”
“No matter,” said Almeria, cutting him short as she sashayed over to the sofa. “I will refresh your unreliable memory right away.”
She opened the envelope and scanned the letter. Hugo slumped into his chair, knowing full well what was about to be revealed.
“Lord Lavenham bewails the fact that despite writing numerous times”—Almeria’s voice hit a high note on the word “numerous”—“to you, inviting you to visit Lavenham Court and meet his daughter Miranda, you have ignored every request. He appeals to me, in the name of our dear Papa’s promise made many years ago to him, that you will fulfil your filial duty and meet with Miranda.”
Hugo threw one long, well-muscled leg clad in fashionable fawn-coloured pantaloons over the arm of the chair. He mumbled something non-committal.
Almeria cocked her head to one side. “Pardon, Hugo. I must be going deaf. I didn’t hear that.”
“Dash it, Almeria, this nonsensical promise was made when I was a baby and Miranda Lavenham wasn’t even a glimmer in her parents’ eyes. I thought everyone had forgotten all about it. I had until now.”
He folded his arms in a petulant gesture.
“I mean, how perfectly unreasonable of Papa. How could anyone, in this day and age, make such an antiquated promise to an old friend and then expect their unfortunate offspring to actually keep to a bargain in which they had no say?”
Almeria allowed a patronising smile to play across her face.
“Dear Hugo, don’t be so Gothic. We’re not living in the Dark Ages.”
She gave a small shrug.
“No one is expecting you to rush down to Little Twilling and actually propose to Miranda, but—”
“Where?” he demanded. He swung his legs to the floor, and sat up straight.
Almeria coloured. “Little Twilling, I believe, which is a very small village in Cambridgeshire. It’s a little out of the way, I agree. But not an impossible destination, given your excellent horses and your new chaise.”
“Little Twilling!” Hugo exploded in outrage as he leaped out of his chair.
“Almeria, this is too much for any man to bear. Not only am I supposed to agree to some outdated mode of betrothal, but my bride very likely is almost a dairy maid, coming from a place with one duck pond and a population of twenty good souls, all gapeseeds and country yokels.”
“Er…actually Little Twilling is an old village dating back to…oh…ever so long ago. It has an impressive history, and some historic buildings as well for visitors to admire. And the population is around two hundred and thirty souls,” said his sister, bending her head over the letter to hide her amused expression.
Hugo found the sight of Almeria fighting her desire to burst out laughing annoying in the extreme.
She composed her features and then looked up at Hugo, adding, with a touch of defiance, “They cannot all be gapeseeds because Lord Lavenham boasts an impressive lineage, also very ancient, I believe, and he is of the nobility.”
Hugo grunted and strode to the window again.
“How do you know so much about this place? Or shouldn’t I ask?”
Almeria coughed. “Er…I made it my business to know since I was aware of Papa’s promise to Lord Lavenham.”
Hugo turned and fixed Almeria with a cold glare.
“And you seriously expect me to run along to Little Twilling and visit a young woman, who knows as little about me as I know about her, because of this silly promise?”
Almeria lifted her chin and adopted a haughty expression in response to Hugo’s tone. Her eyes flashed their disapproval.
“If you care to fulfil your duty, Hugo, do it with good grace. If you choose to decline, then it is up to you. It would be impolite not to respond to Lord Lavenham’s invitation.”
With deliberate slowness, she folded the letter, replaced it in the envelope, and put the missive on a side table. Hugo waited, anticipating her final comment, the one that always made him feel guilty.
Almeria gave a long-suffering sigh and examined a loose thread on one sleeve of her stylish, twilled silk morning gown.
“However, I would hate for you to arrive at Lavenham Court with a long face and a boorish attitude when Lord Lavenham has extended courtesies in the name of his friendship with Papa.”
Another mournful sigh, which made Hugo flinch inside. Almeria had the uncanny knack of putting him in a spot.
“So, perhaps, you are right. Perhaps you should not go. It would be preferable to tarnishing Papa’s memory by your rude behaviour.”
Hugo flushed. “I apologise. I don’t mean to be boorish. But what of this Miranda? Surely she must be…”
“Twenty-two by now,” said Almeria.
“And since she is not married, I assume”—Hugo raised a questioning eyebrow—“either she is as plain as a pikestaff or she has been waiting for me to come along and offer for her.”
Almeria dropped her gaze. “I…er…I am not sure. I met Miranda once eight years ago when she was only fourteen and, well, one can hardly comment on the looks of a mere schoolroom miss.”
She waved one hand, dismissing his comment as inconsequential.
“Hopefully, as in the way of all well-bred young ladies, she has grown up to be acceptable, with good manners.”
“So you cannot tell me if she is ugly or pretty?” demanded Hugo, suspecting the worst. “You mean you don’t know.”
Almeria shifted uncomfortably and prodded the sofa, avoiding his question.
“Goodness me, I think the stuffing in this sofa is lumpy. How vexing.”
She looked up at him. “What did you say, Hugo?”
“Never mind,” he said with noticeable irritation. “I can see I shall have no peace until I hie me down to Little Twilling and meet the mysterious, possibly plain, Miranda.”
Almeria gave him a huge, relieved smile. Her eyes sparkled as she clapped her hands.
Hugo noted sourly that her joy was almost palpable. Almeria had gotten her way again. Another arduous social trial to endure, and this time with no easy means of escape. An excursion to Lavenham Court was not a boring afternoon to be whiled away with obligatory small talk and cups of tepid tea. It meant a trip of several days.
“There, Hugo, that wasn’t so bad, now was it? Just a short journey north to Cambridgeshire, and spending a few days there to please an old man with fond memories of Papa. The countryside will be very pretty with the snow falling. Just think of that. It sounds charming.”
“And what happens after my visit to Lavenham Court? What if they expect me to make an offer right away?” Hugo scowled. “Which, for your information, I have no intention of doing.”
Almeria shrugged in a nonchalant manner.
“This is the nineteenth century, Hugo. No one arranges marriages any longer, well, I don’t think so. Moreover, I am sure Lord Lavenham doesn’t expect you to propose to someone you have just clapped eyes on. Let’s simply set the old gentleman’s mind at rest with a gracious visit to introduce yourself. And if you and Miranda get along with each other…well, won’t that be a nice surprise.”
“And if we don’t?”
Hugo put on his recalcitrant look, one he knew his sister recognised. It meant he would not be pushed farther than he could bear.
She laughed and made an airy gesture with one hand, as if to wave any potential problems away.
“I think Miranda Lavenham is an unspoiled young woman who has possibly not met many handsome, elegant, wealthy, and sophisticated men like you, Hugo. More than likely her head will be completely turned.”
Having met a few young damsels just out of the schoolroom, Hugo grunted. “Unspoiled” generally meant gauche, prone to furious blushes, and incapable of holding a sensible conversation without coy giggling and gazing about for a protectively hovering mama.
“Hasn’t Lord Lavenham got a pile of money?” he demanded.
“Oh, yes,” said Almeria with a sage nod. “Miranda will be a very rich young woman some day.”
Hugo pounced on this information with glee. “Aha! So, there’ll be no problem getting her a husband if she comes with a large settlement.”
He snapped his fingers in the air. “Why, she’ll be married in a trice. You don’t need me to offer for her.”
Almeria gave him a cold stare. “At the risk of repeating myself endlessly, all I want you to do is fulfil whatever part of Papa’s wish that you can, without inconveniencing yourself too much. That means simply being polite enough to respond to Lord Lavenham’s invitation to pay them a visit.”
She fanned her hands in a noncommittal gesture. “However, if you two do not get on, why, you’ll just return to London, having done what was required of you. What more could anyone ask?”
Almeria scrutinised him with a critical eye. Hugo squirmed under the minatory gaze he knew so well.
“I know there’s nothing wrong with you, Hugo, because I am only too well aware that you have had numerous barques of frailty pandering to your every whim.”
He reddened. “Dash it, Almeria. Has a man no privacy? You shouldn’t even know about these things.”
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” she replied in a sharp tone. “I haven’t been married to Pickerton for twenty-five years without learning something about men along the way. Most men have kept a mistress at some time or other. I know Papa even had one many years ago for a little while. He was involved with her before he married Mama, and I suppose old habits were hard to break.”
Hugo clenched his jaw. “How on earth did you come to hear of it? It was a mistake, he told me. He said he got rid of her once he was sure he loved Mama.”
Almeria gave another martyred sigh.
“You can be so naïve sometimes, Hugo. Mama found out much later, and since the woman was already a thing of the distant past, it did not bother her. Papa was just lucky the creature was so accommodating and accepted his decision without a fuss. Some men end up having to pay through the nose just to get rid of their paramours and avoid a scandal.”
She adjusted the lace ruffle on her cuff. Her next words came out as casual, but Hugo picked up her implication right away.
“You should never have taken up with Dolly Wardle. I’m surprised you chose someone so indiscreet. The woman can’t keep her mouth shut about anything.”
Hugo scowled, angry that his current fling had been so imprudent regarding their arrangement. In his mind that was all it had ever been.
“It’s…er…over. Definitely ended. Been over a few weeks now.”
Almeria raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Really? Perhaps you should inform the lady her services are no longer required then.”
She smiled in the smug way Hugo found so annoying. Almeria always smiled like that when she had won a verbal tussle.
“Possibly this little expedition comes at the right time?” she said in a condescending tone. “Hmmm?”
“That’s none of your business,” Hugo muttered, when in fact he was quite relieved at his sister’s comment.
Dolly, the prettiest little dancer in London, was becoming extremely possessive. Although Hugo plied her with exotic gifts and paid many of her numerous expenses in exchange for her favours, she wanted more. For a woman like Dolly, “more” meant the inevitable, a status he had managed to evade quite easily up until now.
He was positive he had explained to her that when he married, (some time in the very distant future), his family and society expected him to marry a lady of quality. He chewed his lower lip. Yes, in fact Almeria had come up with something of a solution. He would rusticate in the depths of Cambridgeshire for a few days, and with a bit of luck, Dolly would take up with Lord Arlington in his absence. Arlington, wealthy and single, was besotted with the enticing dancer. He would give anything to edge Hugo out and take his place in Dolly’s warm, willing embrace.
Hugo rubbed his hands together in what he hoped appeared to his sister to be a merry, enthusiastic way, related only to his family duty and not to his problems with Dolly.
“I think this little trip has come at just the right time, Almeria, as you say.” His tone was cheerful. “Good of you to remind me of my responsibilities towards Papa and the family.”
She narrowed her eyes, as if wavering between nascent suspicion and complete distrust at his sudden change of heart.
To allay any reservations she might have, Hugo flashed his charming, boyish grin.
“Actually, I think I am quite looking forward to a change of scenery. You know, getting away from the hurly-burly of the city.”
“Good. I am glad you can spare the time out of your busy schedule of…er…time-consuming interests to do a favour for Papa’s old friend,” said Almeria.
Her crisp tone implied her intense disapproval of all the activities her younger brother and his friends found so amusing. She appeared to have forgotten her earlier tears and the declaration that she could not ask Hugo to give up these pleasurable pursuits. Hugo hid a wry smile. It was just like Almeria.
Then, he frowned. “What on earth will I talk to the old man about? I mean, he must be in his dotage by now.”
Almeria laughed in a knowing way. “Horses.”
“What? You’re well-informed. But Lord Lavenham must be positively ancient. He couldn’t get on a horse now if he tried.”
Almeria nodded. “I agree, not since the poor man was crippled so terribly with arthritis. However, in his heyday he was a superb equestrian and kept an excellent stable. He commanded the respect of every hunting man. I believe in his prime he had few equals, and many gentlemen with aspirations of equestrian proficiency have asked for his advice.”
She shot him an arch look. “I know how much you love riding, Hugo, and since you’re very good at it perhaps you will be able to converse quite happily on the subject of horseflesh. I am sure Miranda will also be an excellent rider, which will give the two of you a shared interest.”
“I’ll be off then,” he said, anxious to avoid further discussion of his and Miranda’s potential compatibility. “How many miles did you say it is to Little Twitting?”
Almeria regarded him with an ironic smile. “Little Twilling. About fifty-six miles, I believe. It’s just a few miles outside Cambridge. Perhaps you should make an early start the day after tomorrow. I shall send a letter posthaste to Lord Lavenham, telling him to expect you in the evening.”
Hugo blanched. Fifty-six miles! Mowbray, his valet, would have to wake him up at the crack of dawn. Lord knew what the roads would be like. Travelling in December could be difficult on icy, snow-bound surfaces.
“Nothing to it,” he said brightly. “I’ll be down there before you can say Little Twilling. Perhaps Miranda and I will get on famously.”
“Let’s hope so, Hugo,” said Almeria drily. “I would rather die than see Felix Barstowe swanning around in your coronet and robes.”
A cold shiver travelled down Hugo’s spine. He was not prone to superstition, but something in her voice had touched a nerve. Their only cousin Felix was a self-proclaimed fop and a willing slave to the most preposterous pinnacles of fashion. Felix’s wardrobe was a joke to any self-respecting Corinthian: bright coats with overlong tails and huge buttons, especially made boots with gold tassels, garish waistcoats, elaborate neck cloths, and ludicrously high collar points. Everything, including the array of fobs, rings, pins, seals, and quizzing glasses with which he embellished his person, called for attention, and attention was what Felix loved most.
However, underneath Felix’s flamboyance, Hugo sensed a streak of mean ambition, the kind of callousness that would drive him to any method to achieve his ends. Hugo would not share this opinion with Almeria. It would only cement her strange notions that Felix wanted him dead.
“Felix? He’s not a bad fellow, despite his ridiculous outfits,” he said, with a flippant gesture. “He seems to be perfectly happy with his own life. He has a healthy amount of money his father left him, a splendid little house in Grosvenor Square, and everything a man could want.”
Almeria fixed him with the glacial stare for which she was famous in society salons. Many a pert young damsel or a forward mama had quailed beneath it.
“Do not trust that man,” she commanded. “If he could do away with you he would. He has everything except a title. Yours! That’s what he is aiming for, Hugo.”
She shook her head. “And to get it, he has to rid himself of you.”
“Er…goodbye, Almeria,” he said, giving her a swift peck on the cheek. “Must be off, regards to Pickerton. Tell him we should play a game of cards at his club some time soon.”
Hugo strode out of Almeria’s front door with much to think about.
Little Twilling? Good God! What was Papa thinking?”