Lady Anne Hewitt, only child and avid card player, is getting married. True, the marriage is to avoid a scandal after getting caught in the arms of a well-known ton rake, and the groom seems to hate her. And there’s the little problem Anne has sharing what she considers hers with other ladies. If he continues his womanizing ways, she’ll cause a scandal grand enough to send her ducal grandfather to an early grave. To avoid this, her plan is to woo her husband so he’ll fall in love and never stray. No problem.
Thomas Oakes, successful gambler and second son of an earl, avoided virgins for good reason. Traumatized by love in the past, he had no interest in marriage. Ever. And now, because he’s a gentleman and values his honor, he’s marrying a girl who tripped into him. Anne is beautiful, rich, well-connected, and too good for him. She also likes to try and dictate how he lives his life. For better or worse, they’re stuck together. One thing is for sure: he has to find a reliable income, lucrative enough to support a family, yet within the limits of acceptability in polite society. Simple.
When he is falsely accused of adultery, her trust in him is shattered. He must prove to her that she is the woman who matters most to him, or lose her love forever.
Theme song: Accidentally in Love by the Counting Crows
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” Lysander, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Lady Anne Hewitt lay in bed, staring toward the elaborate scrollwork on the ceiling, trying not to think about the wedding she would attend in a few hours. The vows, the first kiss, the breakfast following the ceremony—under normal circumstances, weddings were great fun.
Unfortunately, this was no ordinary wedding. It was hers.
She should consider herself fortunate, finding a husband after only one Season in London. Having a reluctant bridegroom was not how she imagined it, though.
Nor had she ever anticipated being reluctant herself.
She’d lain there for most of the night, sleep eluding her until the barest hint of light peeked at the edges of her drapes. Her candle had long since burned out, removing her ability to see, but she knew every nook and chiseled edge in the carved plaster above. Every painted line in the fresco between, depicting a wedding between characters from her favorite play—Titania and Oberon. Soon enough, Anne’s mother and maid would arrive to prepare her for the ceremony and she may never see this ceiling again. Her life would change over the course of a few hours—her name, her home, even her bed would be his.
Mr. Thomas Oakes. A charming rake with a penchant for winning at the gaming hells. With a dimpled smile, he left women all over Town breathless, including Anne. The man sought after by the ladies of London.
And forced to marry her because his damnable honor dictated he do so, rather than because she was his choice.
Thomas had avoided her most of the Season—a good thing, as he never would have been a possibility. Anne’s grandfather wouldn’t have allowed her to marry someone with such potential for scandal under normal circumstances.
“Our family has been above reproach since the duchy was conferred,” he regularly said.
So Anne had shoved her attraction to the back of her mind and focused on the more suitable gentleman vying for her hand. There were several, and some even called her the season’s diamond.
Until The Incident.
The rags had been horrid, and utterly lacking in veracity. Some of the less kind gossips suggested she had orchestrated The Incident, where she’d been found alone with Thomas at a country house party in a less than proper embrace.
She glanced at the drapes again. The light was strengthening, and she was no less restless than she’d been when she climbed into bed. Tightening the coverlet around her shoulders, she allowed herself an additional moment of warmth before sliding her feet to the floor. She collected her wrapper and tiptoed down the corridor to her cousin’s room. Selina was the only other person Anne knew who woke before the sun rose.
She trailed her hands on the wall to count the doors—her other cousin, Selina’s twin, Martha, would not appreciate being woken before noon. Her room was one of the two chambers between Anne’s and Selina’s.
At the third door, Anne knocked softly, but no one answered. Her shoulders drooped. Selina must have already left for the stables.
Turning to leave, she almost missed the groggy call to enter.
The room was too dark to see anything, so Anne inched toward the bed located in the center, her hands stretched before her. A plush rug’s edge connected with her toes, causing her to stumble. Almost there. What she wouldn’t give for a lit candle.
“Selina?” She squinted trying to see if there was a body under the coverlet. “Are you still abed?”
“I did not sleep well,” Selina rasped.
Anne’s eyes adjusted enough to make out her cousin’s raven locks spilling over the cream-colored pillows. She hastened to the bedside and placed her hand on Selina’s face.
“Ow.” Selina removed Anne’s finger from her eye. “I already wear spectacles. An eye patch would not improve my visage.”
“But you’d look quite dashing. Piratical, even.”
A pillow walloped Anne in the head.
“Apologies.” Anne grabbed the pillow, wrenched it out of her cousin’s grasp, and tossed it aside. Unfettered energy caused her to rock on her heels. Selina never slept this late. “Are you ill?”
“Not physically.” With a sigh, Selina sat up. “Did you need something?”
“Nothing important. When I woke early, I thought it best not to remain in my own company.”
“Of a sort.” Anne plopped onto the bed, tucking her feet beneath her.
Anne ignored Selina’s dry tone and reached for the pillow she’d earlier discarded, hugging it to her chest. She inhaled deeply, the scent of jasmine infusing her nostrils.
“I don’t know the first thing about being a wife,” Anne blurted.
“We’ve been learning about running a household since we could walk.” Selina rolled her eyes. “How could you possibly say you don’t know how to be a wife?”
“Mother has certainly tried, though I fear she’s been unsuccessful.” Unsuccessful may be an understatement. “And then there’s the groom.”
Placing her spectacles on her nose, Selina shuffled to the drapes and opened them. Then she climbed back into bed, sighing dramatically. Again. “I thought you liked Mr. Oakes.”
“I hardly know him. And all the evidence suggests he hates me.”
“How can you say that?” Selina’s eyebrows created perfect arches over the edge of her spectacles. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you, and there was that time you danced together.”
“That was one dance. At the very beginning of the season.” And one during which they spent the entire time matchmaking his best friend, Evan MacIntosh, and Selina. Apparently, that relationship hadn’t blossomed the way they’d hoped.
“So what were you doing together in Bedford?”
Anne thought back to the moment when her life took a sharp turn in a direction she’d never planned on. “I was supposed to meet Janet, and he wandered in looking for his brother. I tripped—you know how clumsy I can be. He caught me. Someone saw because the door was open. After that, there was no question what would happen, even if he’d not announced an engagement immediately.”
“True.” Selina frowned. “Grandfather would have dragged him to the altar by his cravat if Mr. Oakes hadn’t done the honorable thing”
“Since we became engaged, I have not seen nor spoken to him.” He’d disappeared so soon after The Incident, she had wondered if he’d escaped to the Continent.
“He’s been at the estate for the past two days. Surely—”
“Have you not noticed that he all but runs from the room the moment I arrive? The only time he’s remained is when he must—at meals.”
Selina paused, doubt crossing her features. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“I’ve tried talking with him. I even went to his chambers—”
“You didn’t.” She sat up and grasped Anne’s elbow.
“You’re not my chaperone any longer.” Anne reached down and extricated herself from her cousin’s strong grip. Though only ten years older, Selina had been named Anne’s unofficial chaperone during the Season, in the name of matchmaking. “But not to worry, he didn’t answer.”
With a slow exhale, Selina pulled her hand back to her own lap. “So you believe he hates you.”
“Is it not a rational deduction?” Anne asked, her voice barely above a whisper. She cast her gaze down, not wanting to see the truth in Selina’s expression. The logic was undeniable. “It’s my fault we’re engaged.”
“I disagree.” Selina leaned back against the headboard and shook her head. “I have seen no hate when he looks at you.”
A spark of hope flared in her chest, but she squeezed her hand as though snuffing it out. Her cousin could argue until her last breath—Selina hadn’t seen him look at her since their engagement. Anne hadn’t seen him look at her since then. Why else would Thomas not want to speak to her, if not unable to tolerate her presence? It was one thing when they were in different counties, but he’d been in the same building for the past thirty-six hours and had not sought her out.
“Why don’t you cry off?” Selina shrugged.
“And leave him to the wolves?”
“Ah, to be young and melodramatic,” her cousin said with a wry tone. “Society is more forgiving toward a man, and unless he wants to marry soon, it shouldn’t be a problem for him.”
“You are not so much older than I. But I’ve already had society turn on me, even with the engagement, and I’ve no desire to make it worse. Plus, Grandfather would cast me out of the family for causing such shame.” She shuddered as she thought of who might be a prospective husband if she didn’t have her family supporting her. “Can you imagine the quality of suitors—if any—should I not marry Mr. Oakes? Without a dowry or connections, I wouldn’t even be able to entice scoundrels of the lowest order.”
“There is that.” Selina stared over Anne’s shoulder for a long minute, then met Anne’s gaze. “What is it you want?”
“I want you to help me calm my fears.” Honestly. She huffed. Selina was supposed to be the smart twin.
“I mean, what do you want in a husband? I may not have been wholly attentive during your time in London, but I noticed you weren’t taking much interest in your potential suitors.”
Anne fidgeted. That wasn’t entirely true. She showed interest. She just spent more time sneaking glances at Thomas and wishing her beaus inspired a modicum of the attraction she felt for him. If only he weren’t so wrong for her in every other way.
“I suppose the good fortune of finding a love like my parents’ is out of reach. The majority of ton marriages are less than cordial.”
“Do you worry that you and Mr. Oakes wouldn’t get along?”
“I am not concerned over our ability to live amicably,” Anne said, especially because he’d rather not be in her vicinity. It would be a simple matter to avoid arguments if they never saw each other. “Rather, I worry about infidelity.”
“It is not uncommon for men to have mistresses,” Selina said, her voice catching.
“Do you see me as the type who would be able to ignore it?” And therein lay another of Anne’s fears. The gossip she’d already caused could be negated by marriage, but any additional gossip would not dispel so easily. That she was a possessive sort as well as outspoken, heightened the odds of scandal becoming a real possibility, which her grandfather would not appreciate.
“Well, no, I suppose not.” She tapped her finger on her lips. “Do you think he would?”
A loose thread on the embroidered coverlet caught Anne’s eye and she ran her fingers over the delicate needlework as she considered the question. “His womanizing is no secret. Why would he not continue after marriage?”
“That is a cynical view to have on your wedding day.”
“It is merely realistic.” To hope Thomas would refrain from his rakish ways simply because he had a wife seemed naive. If she wanted to avoid heartache, she could ill afford lovesick musings. Her father often reminded her to stop wearing her emotions on her face when they played cards. Mother claimed Anne was too passionate to hold back. Over the years, Anne finally realized that if she paid more attention to the reactions of others, her own expressions would mirror theirs, rather than her inner experiences. But this was no game of cards. Scandal broth aside, she couldn’t risk falling in love with a rake.
“You could always reform him.” Selina laughed.
The offhand remark caused Anne to straighten. A man in love did not stray. A man in love wanted to make his spouse happy. “That’s a brilliant idea.”
“I wasn’t serious.”
“But you were correct. Reform the rake. Why hadn’t I thought of it already?”
The image of Thomas’ golden eyes staring lovingly at her caused a shudder down to her toes, for reasons she didn’t care to peruse. She may not have considered him before, but they were about to marry, barring divine interference, and a flood or sudden death was unlikely. She had no choice but to help him become a good husband. So the question remained, how did one go about making a man fall in love?
“I must become the perfect wife,” Anne announced.
Selina stifled a laugh. “And what would that entail?”
Excellent question. Her father doted on her mother, so her mother should be a good model, except that Anne had tried to emulate her mother for years and failed miserably. The woman exhibited a degree of subtlety to which Anne believed herself incapable. “Perhaps there is a book in Grandfather’s library? You’ve been there so often, surely you would know.”
“I can look, but when? Your wedding is in a few hours, and the breakfast will last most of the afternoon.”
“Please, Selina.” She was not above begging, and now that she had a plan in mind, the ceremony inspired far less fear. How difficult could it be to make Thomas love her?
The simple band of gold looked foreign on her finger. Anne blinked several times, but it remained, a testament to her new status. Married.
She’d been at the ceremony, of course. She remembered her mother and Selina fussing with her veil before Anne walked to the front of the church to meet her groom. After that, the only thing she recalled was Thomas’ tight-lipped expression and his frequent glances between her and the door as though he considered running. The rushing sound in her ears and the pounding of her heart drowned out the vicar’s words entirely.
The ring she now wore weighed her hand down much like her thoughts weighed her mind. How would she make the man fall in love with her if she couldn’t even get him to stay close? Even now he was missing from her side.
“Why so glum?” Janet, Lady Dunham, approached the table at which Anne sat. Janet was Anne’s most trusted friend, her partner in card games as often as possible, her matchmaking companion…and now her sister-in-law.
Anne gestured instead at the empty place beside her. “Need you ask? I’m married to a man who cannot even be in the same room as me.”
“Nonsense. Thomas is fond of you.”
“Yes,” Anne said, unable to keep the wryness from her tone. “His adoration is hardly tolerable.” Why did people insist he liked her? A halfwit could feel the tension in the church that morning, and Anne liked to think the entirety of her wits was present.
“Sarcasm is unnecessary.” Janet sat in the empty chair and grasped Anne’s hand in both of hers. “I know Thomas. Believe me when I say he wouldn’t have married you if he didn’t care for you at all.”
Anne remained silent, but her mind churned. If he cared, why wasn’t he there? If he was so fond of her, why had she seen him a sum of four hours in the three and a half weeks since The Incident?
“Give him time.” Janet seemed to be reading Anne’s thoughts. “Your marriage came about suddenly, and you must both adjust. One does not learn to live with another overnight, and marriage takes compromise.
“Now smile,” she continued, speaking between her teeth. “Otherwise, people will think this is a funeral, rather than a wedding.”
Anne shot her a look that she hoped translated to are you mad? but forced her lips into the desired shape as Janet suggested. She must remember her plan. Somehow, she needed to get Thomas’ attention so they could talk. Of course, they would be together alone that evening, but Anne wasn’t sure she wanted their first talk to occur during their wedding night. She had enough to be nervous about in that regard as it was. Unless he didn’t come to her.
Disappointment welled in her at that thought and she shoved it away. Thomas was a rake by reputation. Why wouldn’t he come to her?
Because he doesn’t want you, a nasty little voice in her head whispered.
“And what are we going to do about Selina?” she asked, desperate to silence the doubts in her head. “She never told me what happened between her and Mr. MacIntosh, but her reaction gives me reason to believe things are not going well.” Mr. MacIntosh happened to be Janet’s brother, and Thomas’ best friend.
“Never you mind about that.” Janet smiled. A wicked, calculating sort of smile. “Evan went back to Scotland, but I’m headed there myself. I shall endeavor to have Selina join me.”
“You’re going to continue without me?” She couldn’t quite hide the hurt in her voice.
“You have enough to contend with, now that you’re married. How would it look if you traipsed about Scotland only a week after your wedding?”
“You say that as if he would notice,” Anne grumbled. As soon as the words left her lips, she shook herself. This sort of musing and uncertainty was not in her character. She was the sort of woman who decided what she wanted and then obtained it. And that’s what she would do. She did not fail at anything. The pianoforte did not count. Nor did the violin. Luckily her parents had given up after the second instrument.
“Janet?” Anne stood and pulled her hand from her friend’s grasp. “Where do you suppose Thomas is?”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps with Dunham.”
“Then let us find them. I would like to have a word with my husband.”
Janet’s smile widened. “There’s the Anne I know.”
They exited the ballroom, where guests were mingling and reacquainting with each other before the breakfast started. Thomas wasn’t in there—Anne would have noticed him. She always did.
“Have you an idea where they might have gone?” Janet asked.
“No.” Anne hesitated. “But I know who would know.”
She strode to the nearest footman. “Have you seen Mr. Oakes, or Lord Dunham, recently?”
The footman pointed toward the polished-oak steps leading to the second floor. “I believe they went to the salon, my lady.”
“Thank you.” She flashed him a grin and hurried upstairs, Janet keeping pace beside her.
“I wouldn’t have thought to ask a servant,” Janet said. “Effective.”
Anne shrugged. “Servants know everything.”
The salon had once been her grandmother’s domain, and her grandfather hadn’t changed it much since her passing. White lace drapes framed the windows, and the delicate furniture near the fireplace was covered in lilac-dominated chintz fabric. Anne had spent a great deal of time in this room as a child, listening to her mother tell stories of Anne’s duchess grandmother and twin sister, and the mischief they got into.
Raised voices drew Anne’s attention from the empty salon. Male voices. She and Janet followed the sound to the music room—where Anne had spent almost no time in her youth.
“Perhaps you should consider some of the avenues Father suggested. Gambling is not an appropriate source of income. Now that you’re married—” A tenor voice pleaded.
“I did not wish for this.”
There was no mistaking that second voice, though she’d never heard it so cold. In an instant, Anne’s fears were confirmed. Thomas did not like her, though it was too late now. They were stuck with each other.
Janet cleared her throat as they entered the room, gaining both men’s attention. Dunham looked horrified, and glanced at Thomas, who merely set his glass of spirits down on the piano and turned toward the window.
Dunham stood a few inches shorter than his younger brother, but they shared similar features. Both men were fair-haired with brown eyes, though Thomas’ eyes were closer to the color of amber.
Dunham bowed. “Forgive us, ladies. We were discussing—”
“Nothing.” Thomas glared at his brother. “It was nothing.”
“Dunham, I’d like to check on the children,” Janet said. “Would you accompany me?”
He hesitated, but then nodded and followed his wife out. Thomas moved to leave, as well.
“Mr. Oakes,” Anne said, putting as much authority in her voice as she could, “I’d like a word.”
He stiffened, and turned slowly to face her.
The hat he’d worn for the ceremony was absent, but otherwise, he looked just as fine as he had that morning at the church. His intricately-tied cravat was a little looser. His dark coat and trousers tailored to show off his broad shoulders and long legs. His hair styled fashionably, as well. There was no question why he was sought after—unlike many of the young men in London, his muscular frame and dimpled smile melted the frostiest of hearts. She met his gaze and his eyes softened.
Now that she had his attention, she wasn’t sure where to begin. She smoothed her hand over the embroidered silk of her wedding gown.
“Did you have something to say, Lady Anne?” Formal, but not as cold as earlier. It gave her a glimmer of hope.
“Why did you agree to marry me?” she blurted.
His brow furrowed. “You were compromised.”
Oh, for the love of…she hadn’t truly been compromised. But in the eyes of Society, she supposed it didn’t matter. “Is that the only reason?”
The lines between his eyebrows deepened and he ran a hand through his hair. “Did we need another?”
“Mr. Oakes,” she said as she dropped onto the chaise, suddenly tired. “We are married now. Are we to continue as we once were?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.” He followed her example and sat. It was a start, she thought.
“You have avoided me ever since our dance, months ago. Doubly so since The Incident.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “The Incident?”
“Yes, well, I needed a succinct way to refer to that debacle in Bedford.” She clasped her hands in her lap and forced herself to look away from the uneven tilt of his lips. “I know you did not want a wife.”
“What would you have had me do? I don’t have much, Anne, but I have my honor. It’s the one thing no one can take from me.”
“Of course not, but—”
“You think me a cad? That I would leave you to your ruin?” His expression soured. “And what of you? I had been under the impression you were more interested in getting Lady Selina settled than to enter marriage yourself.”
“I wanted to find a husband eventually.”
“But not me.”
“You’re a fine man. Half of the ladies in London vie for your attentions, and you are well aware of it.” Anne was more than aware of it, too, and she didn’t particularly care for the way women threw themselves at him. But now was not the time to delve into that topic.
“Half the ladies in London aren’t as well-connected or wealthy as you,” he said. “You could have made a better match.”
“And now you are wealthy, too. What your brother said, the income, you needn’t worry about that anymore. And without entailed properties, the dowry is yours to spend as you wish.”
He recoiled as though she’d struck him. “I do not want your money.”
“I only meant—”
“Why didn’t you cry off, Lady Anne?”
“The scandal to follow would have been enormous. The gossips did nothing but speculate and spread rumors as it was. If I had jilted you…” She shuddered. This was getting too close to the conversation she’d had with Selina that morning—before it was too late to do anything about it. The gossip would have been so much worse if she’d ended the engagement. In truth, she couldn’t do that to Thomas or her family. “My grandfather would have been furious.”
“Do you always do what they tell you to do?”
“I try.” Sometimes, she even succeeded.
“So you understand why we had to get married.” Thomas’ matter-of-fact statement recalled her to the moment.
A marriage to avoid a scandal, but one neither of them wanted. An auspicious start.
Back to the matter at hand, though. “Why have you avoided me?”
“I had some business to conduct in the short time before the wedding, which I had not planned on.”
“Of course. But what of the time you’ve been here? Surely you haven’t had business here.”
Thomas dropped his gaze. “That was nothing to do with you.”
“I’m not certain how avoiding me has nothing to do with me.”
“What does it matter, Anne?” He sighed and stood.
“I suppose it doesn’t.” She couldn’t bring herself to ask him again. What if her worst fears were confirmed and he agreed they could never be happy together?
Anne hoped Selina had found something useful in the library, because the way things appeared now, she was going to have to be the most exemplary wife in the history of Britain to win Thomas’ heart.