London, England 1814
The Boscastle-Welsham marriage would have been the wedding of the year—if the groom had bothered to put in an appearance. Sir Nigel Boscastle was so noticeably absent from his own nuptials that the bride’s father had been forced to walk the long-suffering Lady Jane to the altar where, surrounded by a cluster of distraught bridesmaids, the wedding party minus the bridegroom waited. And waited.
“I shall deal with the corkbrain after the ceremony,” the distinguished seventh Earl of Belshire muttered as his daughter stood with her back to their bewildered guests. “The idiot will be late to his own funeral.”
After several minutes of confusion, the minister and bride’s parents decided that perhaps until the bridegroom arrived, Jane’s older brother, Simon, Viscount Tarleton, should stand in as temporary proxy. And so brother and abandoned bride stood. And stood.
At first no one doubted that Nigel would eventually show up to rescue Jane from this embarrassment. If, as one guest in the third pew remarked, he remembered what day it was.
After all, Sir Nigel was hardly known about town for his towering intellect, although his generosity had earned him a loyal following of friends.
The bride-to-be had not wished to be married at the popular St. George’s Church in Hanover Square. A respectable young lady never previously involved in scandal, she avoided fussy affairs as a rule. Yet today the haut ton were crammed to capacity inside the private chapel of the Marquess of Sedgecroft’s Park Lane mansion. To witness a wedding that apparently would not take place.
Lady Jane Welsham, the guests agreed, resembled a royal princess. She positively glowed in an eggshell white satin dress worn over an ivory tissue underbodice. The scalloped hem of the dress foamed daintily around her pearl-seeded slippers. A flowing veil of Honiton lace framed her face, casting in shadow whatever emotion it revealed, to the disappointment of her enrapt audience.
The bouquet of white rosebuds she held glistened from a double-dipping in gilt. White kidskin gloves encased her slender hands, hands that remained remarkably steady considering that their owner was undergoing one of the worst humiliations in a young woman’s life. To be abandoned at the altar.
What could have happened?
Everyone in London knew that the parents of both parties had been planning this wedding since Jane and Nigel had toddled about the nursery in nappies. The Society papers had remarked more than once that rarely had a betrothed couple seemed so compatible.
What had gone wrong?
The bride’s sister Lady Caroline bitterly remarked, “Those flowers will have dried into a sachet if Nigel takes any longer. I shall strangle him for this.”
Her younger sister, Lady Miranda, shook her head in sympathy. “Poor Nigel. Do you think he might have gotten lost? Jane did say he required a map to find his carriage.”
Caroline’s golden-brown eyes narrowed in contemplation. “She’s holding up well under the humiliation, isn’t she?”
“Would you expect less of a Welsham?” Miranda whispered back.
“I don’t know,” Caroline replied, “but I daresay that such bad behavior is probably typical of the Boscastle male. For all his gentle ways, Nigel did descend from one of the most notorious bloodlines in England. Just look at our host Sedgecroft over there, lounging like the lord of lions in his pew with his ladybirds around him.”
“His what?” Miranda asked in a scandalized whisper.
“I can hardly shout out the word, Miranda. That woman in the deep pink dress is Lady Greenhall, his last lover.”
“And he brought her here, to Jane’s wedding?”
“If there is one.”
“Well, his brothers are said to be no better,” Miranda added. “The lot of them should have their foreheads branded with an R for rogue.”
“I wonder what Sedgecroft thinks of all this,” Caroline murmured. “He does not look exactly pleased, does he?”
The host in question, the chapel’s owner, Grayson Boscastle, the fifth Marquess of Sedgecroft, sat thinking that the bride had the most appealing derriere he had seen in quite a long time. Not that he made a point of lusting after young women in wedding dresses, but he had been staring at the back of her for over two hours now. A normal man’s curiosity could not help but be aroused. What else was he to look at? He wondered whether the rest of her was as appealing.
Besides, he was pointedly ignoring the guests in his family’s pews: various cousins and dozing uncles; two former mistresses, one of whom had brought along her bumpkin sons; and his three younger brothers, who were sprawled out in irreverent disregard for the holy ceremony.
If the ceremony ever came to its usual unhappy conclusion, that is, the entrapment of another man in wedlock.
His brother, Lieutenant Colonel Lord Heath Boscastle, leaned forward from the pew behind him. “What do you think?” he asked in amusement. “Should we start taking bets on whether he’ll show?”
“He’d better show or answer to me,” Grayson said darkly. “I’ve spent half a day already staring at—well, staring at something usually reserved for a husband’s eyes, let us say.” Nigel happened to be their cousin, a Boscastle whom Grayson actually liked, although at the moment he felt like clobbering him for being such a dolt.
A grin broke across Heath’s handsome face. “The last time I saw such a collection of Boscastles in church was at Father’s funeral. Who invited the mistresses?”
“I think I did,” Grayson said, suppressing a yawn. “God knows I’ve been sitting here so long my brain’s gone stiff.”
“You invited them to a wedding?”
“It’s not my wedding, thank God.”
“Well, it is your chapel.”
“Ergo, I invite whom I please.”
“Someone might have thought to invite the groom.”
Grayson folded his arms across the chest of his charcoal gray long-tailed coat. “This thing has gone on so long I’m tempted to marry the woman myself.”
“Say it isn’t so.”
Grayson gave a deep laugh. “It isn’t.”
“By the way,” Heath said, stifling his own laughter, “I had to refuse a supper invitation for the pair of us at Audrey’s last evening. Where the blazes were you when I called?”
Grayson grunted. “Flushing Drake and Devon out of gaming hells so we could put on a pretense of family approval for this wedding.”
“I thought nuptials made you nervous.”
Grayson’s blue eyes glittered with devilish lights. “The avowed bachelor in me is dying by the moment.”
Heath’s grin faded. “And the soldier in me senses the trouble has only begun. How is the hot-blooded Helene?”
“Considerably cooler the last time I saw her, at least toward me. We did not come to an arrangement.”
“Ah. So, anyone new caught your eye?”
“No, Gray? Not yet?”
Grayson glanced around. Two of his former mistresses appeared to be engaged in a battle of frosty glares. Open hostilities seemed possible.
His younger brothers, Drake and Devon, and one of Drake’s disreputable gambling friends had been discussing a certain young demirep they had met last night. The discussion had escalated to an argument when the trio discovered she had promised herself to them all. A fight seemed inevitable.
Chloe, the younger of Grayson’s two sisters, leaned from her pew to whisper to the bridesmaids, all of whom looked more upset than the bride.
Seeded like grenades amid these three dangerous camps sat a small but select group of the beau monde. Politicians, aristocrats, debutantes, and marriage-bent matrons who regarded Grayson much like a fortress to be seized.
He placed his fingers inside his neckcloth as if to ward off the marriage noose. It undid him, the air of holy matrimony, the warring mistresses, the militant bridesmaids, the responsibilities he had inherited almost overnight. No one, least of all him, had expected the sudden death of his father last year when the marquess had learned that his youngest son, Brandon, had been killed in Nepal. Grayson still blamed himself for not being there to deliver the news.
The weight of family obligation had fallen upon his broad shoulders like a shroud. There had been so many questions he longed to ask his father, and now it was too late. The selfish pursuits he had so enjoyed suddenly held no appeal. He could find little pleasure in his previous life.
He did not like the man he had become, and lately had begun to wonder if he could ever change.
And now this, his first public test as patriarch of the Boscastle clan. How to handle the abandonment of the bride by his own cabbage head of a cousin.
“What does one do in such a situation?” he muttered to himself.
Heath shook his head, looking mystified. “It’s too bad our Emma is so far away in Scotland. She’d know exactly what to do.”
Emma, their older sister, had been recently widowed and was giving etiquette instructions to the elite of Edinburgh to occupy her empty hours.
Grayson returned to his leisurely, more enjoyable inspection of the bride’s heart-shaped backside. Very, very nice, he thought. Not a bad choice at all for a bride, if one had to choose one. Of course, Nigel had already claimed her. A pity he hadn’t shown to pick up the package. Still, who knew what lurked in the shadows of that veil? A beauty or a beast? A siren or a shrew?
This provocative rake’s reverie ended when Heath tapped him on the shoulder to speak again. “The bride is quite lovely, isn’t she?”
“Hmm.” He steepled his fingers under his clefted chin, his expression neutral. “I haven’t made a study of it. I suppose she might be. It is hardly a thing I would notice.”
“You great liar, Grayson,” Heath said with a subdued laugh. “Those blue eyes of yours are absorbing every detail right down to her garters.”
Well, some of his less admirable qualities had not changed. He was still a man even if he wasn’t sure of anything else.
“That is a rather crude remark to be making in chapel, Heath,” he said with mock piety, as he eyed his once-mistress Mrs. Parks from the other end of the pew, where she sat between her two boisterous offspring from a previous affair. She had been a successful mantua maker when she’d taken up three years ago with Grayson. His generous pension had left her nicely settled for life, and she maintained a friendly relationship with him. “Need I remind you, dear brother, that we are in a holy sanctuary?”
“Is this your first time here, Grayson?” Heath inquired in a droll voice.
“Second,” he whispered, clearing his throat.
He took another look around the chapel. One of the bridesmaids had started crying. The bride was comforting her. The guests were definitely becoming restless, squirming in their seats, wondering in whispers what was to happen. He was going to have to take action soon, make up some ludicrous excuse for Nigel’s behavior. He began practicing in his mind.
It was highly improbable, but he could not rule out the possibility that his blasted fool of a cousin had fallen down the stairs in one of his satin slippers and knocked himself unconscious. The guests who knew Nigel would not find this difficult to believe.
He turned his attention back to the appealing figure who stood at the altar with her white shoulders held high. A man would have to possess a heart of stone not to feel some empathy, some urge to protect her from the pain his own relative had inflicted.
He spoke quietly to Heath. “One has to admire her for not bursting into hysterical tears or shredding her flowers in a fit as a few other women I know might have done.” And with this, he directed a teasing frown at Lady Greenhall and Mrs. Parks, neither of whom were known for their submissiveness.
From one of the pews on the same side of the nave, an elderly MP had just been awakened by his wife. In a befuddled shout, he asked if the accursed wedding was over yet.
“It never began,” Mrs. Parks whispered to him in embarrassment. “The groom appears to have gone missing.”
The gentleman shook his head, gazing in pity at the abandoned heroine at the altar. “She’s bearing up well, I’d say,” he said gruffly. “Stoic, like her father. That’s the stuff of old stock. Welsham backbone can’t be broken.”
“The poor innocent must be shattered,” Mrs. Parks murmured, sniffing back tears. “To be jilted by the man she has loved her entire life. I wonder what she thinks of this.”
Excerpted from The Seduction of an English Scoundrel by Jillian Hunter. Copyright © 2005 by Jillian Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.