The Perfect Bride
A woman without passion...
A childhood trauma has left Lady Blanche Harrington incapable of all emotion, least of all love. Now circumstance demands she marry, and Blanche dreads choosing from her horde of fawning suitors. For one very eligible gentleman has not stepped forward...
a man without hope.
A war hero and a recluse, Rex de Warenne has long admired Lady Blanche. Though fate and his own dark nature have robbed him of any hope for the kind of future such a lady deserves, Rex is determined to aid her—and keep his feelings to himself. But when their growing friendship leads to a night of shocking passion, Blanche's newfound memories threaten their fragile love...and Blanche's very life.
Amanda awoke, tensing.
Two hundred and twenty-eight suitors, she thought. Dear God, how would she ever manage, much less choose?
Blanche Harrington stood alone by one of the oversized windows in a small salon, outside the vast room where soon, the invasion of callers would begin. Just that morning, the black draperies that indicated she remained in mourning had come down.
She had avoided marriage for eight years, but even she knew that with her father’s death, she needed a husband to help her manage his considerable and complicated fortune.
But she dreaded the deluge—just as she dreaded the future.
Her best friend swept dramatically into the salon. “Blanche, darling, there you are! We are about to open the front doors!” She cried enthusiastically.
Blanche stared out of the window at the circular front drive. Her father had been awarded his title as viscount many years ago, having made an impossible fortune in manufacturing. It was so long ago that no one considered them nouveau riche. Blanche had never known any other life than one of wealth, privilege and splendor. She was one of the empire’s greatest heiresses, but her father had allowed her to break off an engagement eight years ago, and although he had never stopped introducing her to suitors, he had wanted her to marry for love. It was an absurd notion, of course.
Not because no one married for love. It was absurd because Blanche knew she was incapable of love.
But she would marry, because although Harrington had passed too swiftly to have verbalized a dying wish—he had been suddenly stricken with pneumonia—Blanche knew he wanted nothing more than to see her securely wed to an honorable gentleman.
Three-dozen carriages littered her beautiful drive. There had been five hundred condolence calls six months ago. Of the cards left, 228 had belonged to eligible bachelors. Blanche was dismayed but resolved. How many were not fortune hunting rakes and rogues? As she had long ago given up on ever loving any man, her intention now was to find one sensible, decent, noble man in the lot.
Oh dear.” Bess Waverly came up besides her. “You are brooding--I know you better than you know yourself—we have been friends since we were nine years old! Please do not tell me you wish to send everyone away when I have announced your period of mourning to be over. Is there a point in mourning for another six months? You will only delay the inevitable.”
Blanche looked at her best friend. They were as different as night and day, and Blanche knew that was one of the reasons she loved her so—and vice versa. Bess was dramatic, vivacious and sultry—she was on her second husband and her twentieth lover, at least—and she made no pretense of the fact that she enjoyed every aspect of life--and that included as much passion as possible. Blanche was almost twenty-eight years old, she had chosen not to marry until now, and she remained a virgin. She found life pleasing enough—she enjoyed walks in the park, shopping and teas, the opera and balls. But she had not a clue as to what passion was, or how it felt, not in any shape or form.
Her heart was entirely defective. It beat, but refused to entertain any extremes of emotion.
The sun was yellow, never gold. A comedy was amusing, never hilarious. Chocolate was sweet, but easily passed up. A buck might be handsome, but no one could take her breath away. She had never, not once in her entire life, wanted to be kissed.
Long ago she had realized she would never have the passion for life that a woman was supposed to have. But other women hadn’t lost their mother in a riot at the tender age of six years old. She had been with her mother that Election Day, but she couldn’t recall it—and she couldn’t recall her life before it, either. What was worse was that she didn’t remember anything about her mother, either, and when she looked at her portrait hanging above the stairs, she saw a beautiful lady, but it was like looking at a stranger.
And vague, violent shadowy images of the past lived somewhere far back in her mind. They always had. She knew it the way some people claimed to know that they lived with a ghost or the way a child knew that imaginary playmates lived in her bedroom. But it didn’t matter; because she didn’t want to ever identify those monsters. Besides, how many adults could recall their lives before the age of six?
However, she hadn’t shed a tear in grief since the riot. Grief was beyond her heart’s capabilities, too. Blanche was very aware of being different from other women, and it was her secret. Only her father had known the truth and the reason for it. Her two best friends assumed she would one day become as passionate and insensible as they were. Her two best friends were waiting for her to fall wildly in love.
Blanche had always been sensible. She turned to Bess. “No, I do not see a point in delaying the inevitable. Father was sixty-four, and he had a wonderful life. He would want me to go forward now, as we have planned.”
Bess put her arm around her. She had medium brown hair, spectacular green eyes, a lush figure and full lips which she claimed men adored—in more ways than one. As Bess loved to gossip about her lovers, Blanche knew exactly what she meant and could not imagine a woman doing such a thing.
Once, Blanche had wished she could be like her best friend, Bess—or even a watered down version of her. Recently, she had realized that she was not going to change. No matter what life offered, she would sensibly and serenely navigate her course. There would be no drama, no torment, and certainly, no passion.
“Yes, he would. You have spent your entire life hiding from life,” Bess said pointedly. Blanche began to object, but Bess went determinedly on. “As tragic as it is, Harrington is dead. You have no excuses left, Blanche. He certainly is not here for you to dote on. If you continue to hide, you will be entirely alone.”
It was incredible, but she felt almost nothing at the mention of her father’s name. She was numb when she should have wept and sobbed—she had been numb since his death. The sorrow was a gentle wave, and it was very nearly painless. She missed him—how could she not? He had been the anchor of her life ever since that terrible day when her mother had died.
If only she could weep in grief and outrage. But only a few drops of moisture ever gathered in her eyes.
Blanche smiled grimly, leaving the window. “I am not hiding, Bess. No one entertains as much as I do.”
“You have been hiding from passion and pleasure,” Bess cried.
Blanche had to smile. They had argued over this too many times to count. “I am not passionate by nature,” she said softly. “And Father is gone, but thank God, I have you and Felicia,” she said with a small smile. “I dote upon you both. I do not know what I would do without you.”
Bess rolled her eyes. “We are going to find you a handsome young buck to dote on, Blanche, so you can finally live your life! Just think of it! Over two hundred suitors—and you have your choice!”
Blanche felt a frisson of uncertainty at the thought. “I dread the onslaught,” she said truthfully. “How will I ever choose? We both know they are all fortune hunters and Father wished for more for me than that.”
“Hmm, I can think of nothing better than a fortune hunting twenty-five year old rake! As long as he is obscenely handsome,” she grinned, “and even more virile.”
Blanche gave her a look and accustomed to such outrageous remarks, did not blush. “Bess.”
“You will be happy when you have a virile husband dear, you may trust me on that. Who knows? Your blasé indifference to all of life’s offerings may suddenly vanish.”
Blanche had to smile, but she shook her head. “That would be a miracle.”
“A good dose of passion can be quite miraculous!” Bess sobered. “I am trying to cheer you up. Felicia and I will help you choose, unless, of course, there is a real miracle and you fall in love.”
“We both know that isn’t going to happen. Bess, do not look so glum! I have had a nearly perfect life. I have been blessed with so much.”
Bess shook her head, as anguished now as she had been happy a scant instant ago. “Never say never! Even though you have never been in love, I will always hope. Oh, Blanche. You have no idea what you are missing! I know you believe your life to have been perfect until Harrington passed, but I know better. You are an island unto yourself and the loneliest person I know.”
Blanche stiffened. “Bess, this day is difficult enough, with all those suitors queued up at my front door.”
“You were lonely before Harrington passed and you are even lonelier now. I hate seeing you alone and I believe marriage and children will change that.” Bess was firm.
Blanche tensed. She wanted to deny it, but Bess was right. No matter how many calls she made, how many callers she had, how many parties she gave, how many balls she attended, she was different and she knew it acutely. In fact, she always felt separate and detached from those around her. But she wasn’t lonely, not at all.
“Bess, I don’t mind being alone.” That was the truth. “I know you cannot understand it. I will be terribly honest now. I feel certain that when I marry, I will still be alone, in spirit, anyway.”
“You will not be alone in spirit when you have children.”
Blanche smiled. “A child would be nice.” Bess had two children she adored—in spite of her affairs she was a wonderful mother. “However, even though you have this fantastical notion of matching me to some very young buck, I want someone older, someone middle aged. He must be kind, strong in character; he must be a true gentleman.”
“Of course you want someone older who will spoil you terribly—you wish to replace your father.” Bess sighed. “We are not replacing your father, Blanche; your husband must be attractive! Now, that solved, may I have the choice of your leftovers?” She laughed softly at the idea and Blanche knew she really wished to find a new lover from amongst her two hundred odd suitors.
Blanche did not want to continue her thoughts. And very fortunately, her second best friend hurried into the room. Felicia had recently married her third husband, her previous husband having been a young, handsome and very reckless equestrian who had died jumping a terribly risky fence. “Jamieson is opening up the front door, my dears!” She cried with a smile. “Oh, Blanche, I am so happy to see you out of that drab black. The dove gray suits you so much better!”
And Blanche heard the sound of dozens of male voices and footsteps. Her stomach vanished. The hordes had arrived. Bess had claimed she had her choice of husbands, but it wasn’t true.
Blanche smiled politely at the jest, not having really heard it. Six young men surrounded her and fifty-one gentlemen filled the salon—there was no seat left untaken. She was already acquainted with almost everyone who had called—she had been Harrington’s hostess for many years now. But she was exhausted in a way she had never before felt. For she was the center of attention in a far different way—she wasn’t sure she could withstand another admiring glance or respond to another flirtatious remark.
She must have been told that she looked well a hundred times in the past few hours. A few rogues had dared to tell her she was a beauty. As she was ancient compared to other marriageable women, she was tired of pretending she believed the flattery. And how many gallants had asked her to drive in the park? Fortunately, Bess had privately whispered that she would arrange all of her engagements. Her dear friend hovered by her elbow and Blanche was certain her calendar was now thoroughly booked for the next year, at least.
It was so stuffy inside. She smiled politely at Ralph Witte, a baron’s dashing son, fanning herself with her hand. She wondered when the afternoon would end, or if she dared make her own escape.
But more callers were arriving. And Blanche saw her dear friend, the countess of Adare, entering the salon with her daughter-in-law, the future countess, Lizzie de Warenne. And a tall, dark man strode in behind the women. For one instant, Blanche went still, surprised.
For Rex de Warenne so rarely appeared in society, and she had wondered about him, who hadn’t? But it was Tyrell de Warenne, not his brother, who was entering her salon. Of course the future earl of Adare he would be accompanying his wife.
“Blanche?” Bess asked. “What is wrong?”
Blanche turned, aware of a slight and absurd disappointment. It was nonsensical that she felt let down that Sir Rex of Land’s End had not called with his family, as she hardly knew him. She had once been briefly engaged to his brother Tyrell, and because of that, she remained close friends with his mother and his wife. Yet she doubted she had exchanged words with Sir Rex more than a half a dozen times in the eight years since that betrothal. Society knew he was a recluse—he preferred his estate in Cornwall to the ton and was rarely present. Still, every now and then they would encounter one another at a ball or a tea. He was always gentlemanly and polite; so was she.
And she decided that it was for the best that he hadn’t offered his condolences or called; his dark, intense gaze had always made her uncomfortable.
“I am going to greet Lady Adare and Lady de Warenne,” she said swiftly, now pleased by their presence.
“I will start hinting that you are very weary,” Bess said. “It shouldn’t take too long to clear everyone out.”
“I am weary,” Blanche returned, moving through the crowd. To do so required some determination in order not to be waylaid. And her smile became genuine. “Mary, I am so pleased you have called!”
Mary de Warenne, the countess of Adare, was a handsome blond woman, strikingly dressed and bejeweled. The women clasped hands and hugged. As Blanche had broken off her betrothal with Tyrell all those years ago so he could marry the woman he loved, it had been easy to develop a deep friendship. “My dear, how are you managing?” Mary asked with concern.
“I am fine, considering,” Blanche assured her. “Lizzie, you are looking so well!” Tyrell’s titian-haired wife was radiant. She had a year old toddler now—her fourth child—and Blanche wondered at her secret.
“Ty and I have been enjoying the afternoon,” Lizzie said, squeezing her hands. “I so rarely have him all to myself! My, Blanche, this turn-out is stunning.”
Blanche somehow smiled. “And they are all suitors.” She faced Tyrell, no longer mistaking him for his brother. Rex was a war hero and the more handsome of the two, even if he rarely smiled. Besides, Tyrell’s eyes were gentle and dark blue—Rex’s hazel stare was very dark and at times, unnerving. “My lord, thank you for calling,” she said, deferring to his rank.
He bowed. “It is a pleasure to have you back with us, Blanche. If there is anything I can do to help in any way, you must let me know.”
She was aware that he still harbored a deep gratitude for her having left him so he could marry Lizzie Then she turned back to the women. “Will you be in town long?” As Adare’s seat was in Ireland, she never knew if the family was coming or going.
“We have been in town since the New Year,” Mary smiled. “So we are about to depart.”
“Oh, I am sorry to hear that.” And she merely intended polite discourse, didn’t she? “Are Captain de Warenne and Amanda in town, too? How are they?”
“It is just the three of us,” Lizzie said, “and my four children, of course. Cliff and Amanda are in the islands, but they are coming up to town later in the spring. They are doing very well—they remain madly in love.”
Blanche hesitated, now thinking about Sir Rex. “How are the O’Neills?”
“Sean and Eleanor are at Sinclair Hall, and Devlin and Virginia are celebrating their ninth anniversary in Paris, without the children.”
She smiled, aware of some tension now. It would be rude not to ask about the remaining de Warenne. “And Sir Rex? Is he well?”
Lizzie’s smile remained. “He is at Land’s End.”
Mary said, “Only Cliff has seen him, and that is because he stopped at Land’s End on his way back to the islands last fall. Rex claims he has been renovating his estate and he cannot leave. I haven’t seen him since Cliff returned to London with Amanda as his bride.”
That was a year and a half ago. Blanche became somewhat concerned. “Surely, you believe Sir Rex? You don’t think something is wrong?”
Mary sighed. “I believe him, of course I do. You know he avoids society at all costs. But how will he find a wife if he closets himself in the south of Cornwall? There are hardly any eligible young ladies there!”
Her heart lurched oddly. That in itself was a stunning sensation, as she was never taken aback. “Does he now wish to marry?” He was two years her senior and should have taken a wife long ago; still, this was entirely unexpected.
Mary hesitated. “It is hard to say.”
Lizzie took her arm. “Put it this way, the de Warenne women are determined for him to have a family of his own. And that requires a wife.”
So the de Warenne women would plot to see him wed. Blanche had to smile. His days as a bachelor were undoubtedly numbered. They were right. He should marry—it was wrong for him to live alone as he did.
“And it requires his leaving Land’s End,” Mary said emphatically. “However, in May Edward and I are sharing our twenty-third anniversary here in town. Rex will attend—the entire family will gather for a celebration.”
Blanche smiled. “That sounds wonderful. Congratulations, Mary.”
“I have so many grandchildren, I have lost count,” Mary said softly, her eyes shining. Then she took her hand. “Blanche, I have considered you a daughter ever since your betrothal to Tyrell. I am hoping, very much, that you will one day find the joy and happiness that I have.”
The countess was one of the kindest and most generous women Blanche knew. She was also adored by her husband, her children and grandchildren. She meant her every word, but Blanche was somewhat saddened. She would never find the joy and happiness Mary de Warenne had. Had she been able to fall in love, she certainly would have done so now. Gentlemen were always sniffing about Harrington Hall. She could only wonder what it must be like, to be so loved, to love so much, and to be surrounded by such a family.
“I will no longer avoid matrimony,” she said slowly. “There is no point; I simply cannot manage these estates by myself.”
Mary and Lizzie exchanged pleased glances. “Do you have anyone in mind?” Lizzie asked with open excitement.
“No, I don’t.” Blanche realized that half the room had cleared—and it was much easier to breathe now. She fanned herself. “That was a long afternoon!”
“And it is only the beginning!” Lizzie laughed while Blanche felt a moment of dismay. “Well, I have seen a number of interesting prospects! If you wish to gossip, let me know.” Lizzie laughed again, now holding out her hand for Tyrell. He instantly left his group and came to her side, clasping her palm, their gazes meeting briefly in an intimate communication.
“We should go, as you seem very tired, dear,” Mary remarked. The women exchanged hugs and goodbyes.
Blanche then spent the next half hour smiling at the departing gentlemen, doing her best to seem gracious and truly interested in each and every one. The moment her last caller was gone, she went to the nearest chair and collapsed, her smile gone. Her cheeks actually hurt. “How can I do this?” She gasped.
Bess grinned, settling on the sofa. “I thought it went quite well.”
Felicia asked a servant for sherry for three. “That went very well,” the voluptuous brunette smiled. “My God, I had forgotten how many dashing men remain eligible!”
“That went well? I have a raging migraine!” Blanche exclaimed. “And by the by, the Earl and Countess Adare will be celebrating their twenty-third anniversary in May.”
Felicia looked surprised. Bess did not. “And Rex de Warenne will attend,” she said slyly.
Blanche looked at her and their gazes held. What did her friend mean?
“Are you certain you want an elderly husband, Blanche?” Bess smiled slyly.
Blanche was uncomfortable. “Yes, I am very certain. Why did you just mention Sir Rex?”
“Oh, hmm, let me see. I was standing behind you while you were discussing Sir Rex with his family,” Bess said pointedly.
Blanche failed to understand. “I am bewildered. I asked after the entire family, Bess. Are you implying I am somehow interested in Sir Rex?”
“I hardly said such a thing,” Bess gasped in mock denial. Then, “Come, Blanche. This isn’t the first time his name has come up.”
“He is a family friend. I have known him for years.” Blanche remained confused. She shrugged. “I have merely wondered why Sir Rex never called. It was a lapse. It was somewhat insulting. That is all.”
Bess sat up straighter. “Do you wish for him to court you?”
Blanche could only stare. Then she started to smile—and briefly, she laughed. “Of course not! I wish for a peaceful future. Sir Rex is a very dark man. Everyone knows he broods—and that he is a recluse. We would never suit. My life is here, in London, his is in Cornwall.”
Bess smiled sweetly. “Really. I have always found him disturbingly sexual.”
Blanche paled. She did not want to know what that meant! And only her friend could get away with such an inappropriate remark. She decided to ignore it. “If anything, I want my old life back,” she said sharply.
“Yes, of course you do. Your old life was just so perfect-- doting on your father, and living vicariously through me and Felicia.”
Felicia pulled up an ottoman as they were finally served sherry. “Bess, I tried to seduce him after Hal died. He is truly a boor. In fact, he was so lacking in charm, he was almost rude. He would be the worst possible candidate for Blanche’s hand.”
Blanche didn’t hesitate to defend him, for she hated malice of any kind. “You mistook an introversion of character, Felicia,” she said gently. “Sir Rex is a gentleman. He has always been the perfect gentleman around me--and perhaps, just perhaps, he did not wish to dally with you.”
Felicia flushed. “The de Warenne men are notorious for their affairs--until they marry. Perhaps he simply isn’t virile.”
“That is a terrible thing to say!” Blanche cried, aghast.
Bess cut in. “He has a reputation for preferring housemaids to noblewomen, Felicia. He also has a reputation for great stamina and skill, never mind his war injury.”
Blanche stared at her friend, aware of heat rising in her cheeks. “That is gossip.” Then, “I do not think it appropriate to discuss Sir Rex this way.”
“Why not? We talk about my lovers all the time—in far more detail.”
“That is different,” Blanche said, but even she realized how lacking her rationale was. She had never thought about Sir Rex in any way except as a family friend, albeit a distant one.
“It is unbelievable that he would bed servants,” Felicia said with condescension. “How crude!”
Blanche felt the heat in her cheeks increase. “It cannot be true.”
“I overheard two maids discussing his prowess very frankly—one of the maids having been the recipient of that prowess,” Bess grinned.
Blanche stared at her, more uneasy now than before. “I really prefer we not discuss Sir Rex.”
“Why are you becoming the prude now?” Bess asked.
“It is reprehensible for a nobleman to dally with the servants,” Felicia said swiftly, obviously determined to be catty.
“Well, I enjoyed my gardener very much,” Bess shot, referring to an old affair.
Blanche didn’t know what to think. She would never judge Sir Rex; it wasn’t her nature to judge and condemn anyone. Still, it wasn’t really acceptable for noblemen to dally with the servants, but now and then, they did. A mistress was acceptable, as long as vast discretion was used. Sir Rex probably kept a mistress. And now she was thinking about Sir Rex in a way she had no wish to continue. How had this conversation begun? Did he really have a reputation for stamina and skill? And she truly did not wish to know!
“When was the last time you spoke with Rex de Warenne?” Bess now asked.
This was far safer ground. And Blanche didn’t have to think about it. “At Amanda de Warenne’s comeout—before she married Captain de Warenne.”
Bess gaped. “Are you telling me you have pined for a man you haven’t seen in two years?”
Blanche sighed and smiled. “Bess, I am not pining for him. And that was a year and half ago. And frankly, I have had enough discussion for one day.” She stood abruptly, her feet hurting, too, forgetting all about the most enigmatic de Warenne.
Bess also rose, but like a terrier with a bone, plunged on. “Darling, do you realize that Sir Rex has not presented himself as a suitor?”
“Of course I do.” She hesitated. “I know what you are thinking—he needs a fortune and a wife, so that lapse is odd. Obviously he is not yet inclined towards matrimony.”
“How old is he?” Bess asked.
“I think he is thirty, but I am not sure. Please, Bess, stop. I can see where you lead. Do not think to match me with Sir Rex!”
“I have distressed you,” Bess finally said. “And you are never dismayed. I am sorry, Blanche. It must be the strain of your come out. And I would never match you against your will—you know that.”
Blanche was relieved. “Yes, I know. But you did begin to worry me—we both know how tenacious you can be. Bess, I cannot bear the strain of these suitors—and it is only the first day. If you do not mind, I am going to retire for the evening.”
Bess hugged her. “Go and have a hot bath. I’ll leave instructions for supper to be sent to your room, and I will see you tomorrow.”
“Thank you." Blanche smiled at her friend, embraced Felicia, and left the two of them alone together, and as they started whispering, she knew they were discussing her. It didn’t matter. They had her best interests at heart and she was truly exhausted. Besides, she had to escape the conversation about Sir Rex. It had been oddly disturbing.
“I see you are scheming,” Felicia declared.
Bess seized her hand. “I think Blanche is finally interested in a man—even if she doesn’t know it. My God—and for how long? I believe she has known him for eight years!”
Felicia gaped. “Surely you do not think she likes Rex de Warenne? He truly is a rude, boorish man with a highly defective character!”
I was eavesdropping when she spoke to the countess of Adare. I am not sure she even realizes her interest. Her expression changed completely when she began asking about Sir Rex and her color heightened. And Felicia, when is she ever distressed? Or embarrassed by our chats? And she is insulted by his failure to send condolences! No one can insult Blanche.”
Felicia was aghast. “She can do better! How can she prefer him? He is so black.”
“He is very dark—some women prefer brooding men. You are piqued because he turned you down. If Blanche has any interest in Sir Rex, we must do something about it.”
Felicia sighed. “If you are right, if Blanche has any interest in him, then we should do something about it. But God, I hope you are wrong.” Then, “What are you planning?”
Bess hushed her. “Let me think.” She began to pace.
“He will be in town in May,” Felicia offered.
“May is too far away.”
Silently, Felicia agreed with that.
Bess turned. “You do know the saying—if one can’t lead the pony to the cart, one brings the cart to the pony.”
“They also say one cannot force the horse to drink, even if he is led to the trough.”
“We are going to Cornwall,” Bess said flatly.
Felicia could think of nothing worse. It was the end of the world—and at this time of year, freezing cold. “Please, no. I have just remarried and I happen to like my new husband.”
Bess waved at her dismissively. “Oh, we will plan a little ladies holiday—but when it is time to depart, you will be ill and my daughter will have suffered a riding accident.”
Felicia’s eyes widened.
Bess continued, smiling, “I do think in a week’s time, Blanche will need to escape this crush—in fact, I am certain she will wish to do nothing more. And we, her dearest friends, will convince her to take a holiday at Harrington’s estate in the south.”
“I didn’t know Harrington had an estate in Cornwall.”
“He doesn’t. At least, not that I know of. But I have been helping Blanche sort through the vast fortune she has been left, and I will make a few interesting adjustments to her papers. So you see, there really is a small estate in Cornwall—just kilometers from Land’s End. Imagine what she will have to do when she arrives and realizes there has been a mistake—surely, surely, Sir Rex will not turn her away.”
Felicia slowly smiled. “You are so bloody brilliant" she said.
“I am, aren’t I?”