The Wicked Wife - Blackhaven Brides, Book 9
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Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to Blackhaven, where the great and the bad of visiting Regency society turn local life upside down...
Can a wife hide behind a mask?
Lady Frances married her Scottish earl for love. Now one year and one child later, she feels bored, trapped and lonely, convinced Lord Torridon only married her for convenience. When she can stand it no longer, she flees his stately Highland home for the Edinburgh town house of her most scandalous friend, widow Ariadne Marshall.
Unfortunately, she has also brought the Torridon rubies, which she stakes in an outrageous wager with Ariadne - that their own families will not recognize them at a masked ball. In no time, they are off to Blackhaven, and the infamous masked ball at Frances’s old home.
Little does Frances know that her furious husband is on her trail... and that she is not the only one in disguise.
Among all the masks, misunderstandings, and general Blackhaven mayhem, can Frances and Torridon find a way back to each other before it’s too late?
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"such a page turner"
"An enchanting story"
"such a fun story! ...twists with intrigue and even danger."
"another thrilling story...the ninth installment and every one of them is a delight!"
"I enjoyed reading this series, and I look forward to reading more books by this author."
"A Beautiful, Captivating Read! ...an enchanting story! I have loved each and every installment in the Blackhaven Brides series, and I highly recommend them!"
"a very nicely written cloak and dagger tale with many twists. An absolutely delightful read."
"Loved the book and I've loved all of the books in the series. A must read."
"an exciting page turner of a book that keeps you glued to the story until the very end. I recommend the entire series as each are so creative and exciting in their own way. This is a don’t miss"
"I loved it! I have loved all of the books and this was another fun read...I definitely recommend it!"
"a excellent addition to a most appealing series."
"Fantastic way to finish a series...I loved this book and can’t say enough good things about it , it’s Exceptional, exciting...well written as always by Mary and an awesome storyline. Watch out for all the old favourites making their last appearances. Highly recommend!"
- Amazon reviewers
Frances, Countess of Torridon, woke to discover her husband sitting on the edge of her bed. Her heart fluttered. She had almost forgotten how darkly handsome he was, how the smoke-grey of his hard eyes could ignite with lust.
She smiled. “What are you doing here?”
“Admiring the beauty of my sleeping wife.” He leaned down to her and at the first touch of his lips, desire flared, hot and wonderful.
She reached up and touched his cheek, but he lifted his head after a mere moment.
“Your son still sleeps,” she said huskily.
He took her hand and kissed it, just a little too hard for civility. “I know. I have picked the wrong morning to depart.”
“Depart?” She sat up. “Where are you going?”
“Just over to Ardnacraig, but I’ll need to start now. I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon.”
“I’ll come with you,” she said brightly. Suddenly, she craved company more than anything in the world. Well, it wasn’t really so sudden. The longing had been growing for weeks. Besides, she wanted to be with her husband. And to escape her mother-in-law for a day and a night seemed like bliss.
“I wish you could,” he said ruefully. “But I have to leave now to get there by three as I promised. And we can’t take Jamie.”
“I don’t see why not, and I can be ready in five minutes.”
He smiled. “No, you can’t. Besides, one of us should keep my mother company or she won’t feel welcome.”
Torridon released her hand and stood. The decision had been made before he entered the room and would not be altered.
“She’s your mother,” Frances snapped. “You stay and keep her company. Jamie and I shall visit Ardnacraig.”
His smile became a little fixed. He did not like to quarrel with her. “If you feel competent to discuss the boundary drainage and related matters—”
“Of course I do,” she interrupted. “I was born on an estate not so unlike this one. I knew as much about running it as my brother before it was decreed my poor feminine brain could only handle subjects like dresses, balls, and babies.”
Encouraged by the gentleness of his tone, she said passionately, “I don’t want to go without you, Alan. I want to go with you, and truthfully, there is no reason why I should not. I have had a baby, not a sickness, and neither of us are weak or ailing, whatever your mother says.”
“Frances, she does know about these things,” he replied in the familiar tone of patience she so hated. “She has had a few children of her own.”
“But I am not her,” Frances said, jumping out of bed. She caught his wrist as he would have walked away. “And Jamie is not any of her babies who died so sadly.”
But she had lost him. She had never really had him. She saw that quite clearly in his cold, impatient eyes. “If you will not be guided by my mother, then please respect my wishes. Please stay here and look after my house, my mother, and my son. Those things are not nothing to me.”
“Or to me!” She twined her fingers through his, stepped closer to him, desperate to make him understand. “Alan, I just want to be your wife again, not your burden or your nursery maid.”
As soon as the words spilled out, she knew they were the wrong ones. But she could not take them back. His eyes almost froze over like the loch in winter.
Gently, yet deliberately, he disentangled their hands and stepped back. “I have given you no cause to imagine such things,” he said coldly. “I have given you everything.”
“Have you, Alan?” she whispered. “Have you really?”
He stared at her, his eyes unreadable, although she could have sworn that at last some storm raged beneath the ice. “What would you like now? Diamonds? Silk? A new carriage? Just speak to MacDonald and he will arrange it.”
If he had slapped her it would have hurt less. Was that what he truly thought of her? After more than a year of marriage? That she was just some discontented, grasping female? The blood drained from her face so fast she had to seize the bedpost to steady herself.
He didn’t notice, for he was already striding to the door. “Goodbye, Frances. I shall see you tomorrow afternoon.”
The door closed behind him with a sharp click.
“How dare you?” she whispered. “How dare you even think such things! I have given you no cause to—”
Inevitably, Jamie began to cry in the next room. At almost four months old, James Ross, Viscount Inchkeith, was quite imperious when hungry. Fueled by anger with his father, Frances almost burst into the nursery and snatched the baby from his surprised nurse.
I have had enough. I won’t let him oppress me like this. I will not be kept a prisoner in my own home. If I don’t have his love, then I must have something or I’ll die here…
She sat and began to feed Jamie, absently stroking his head as she thought. No one dies from lack of love.
No, well, he shall not order my life from his lack. I have family of my own. I have friends…
Ariadne Marshall. The most outrageous of her London friends was in Edinburgh, winding up her late husband’s Scottish estate. If only she was still there…
Excitement surged, and with it formed a plan to escape, to enjoy a little of the fun she had been so starved of since before Jamie’s birth. And more than anything, she would show Torridon how wrong he was to behave like this.
Around dusk the following evening, Frances’s coach, ablaze with the Torridon arms, came to a halt in Edinburgh’s gracious Charlotte Square. Frances gazed down at the sleeping Jamie and wondered guiltily if she had made a terrible mistake. Not in coming away. Things could not go on as they were, and she was more than happy to show Torridon a little spirit. But perhaps Ariadne was not quite the right person to choose as her companion…
Frances remained inside the coach as the boy dismounted and stood at the horses’ heads. Only then did the coachman himself dismount and make his stately way to Ariadne Marshall’s front door. He gave it a sharp rap.
She is not at home, Frances thought in despair. Now she and Jamie would have to put up somewhere in Edinburgh until morning, and then word would inevitably get back to Torridon… The only question would be whether she should face his wrath at his home or her family’s. If she could outrun him. But if she did not stop for the night, if she simply changed horses in Edinburgh, they could drive through the night and be in Blackhaven by morning.
A cry from outside dragged her gaze back to Ariadne’s front door just as Ariadne herself flew out of the gate and wrenched open the coach door.
“It is you!” she exclaimed. “Frances, how wonderful!” In her droll way, she peered into the dark corners of the carriage. “Where is he?”
“If you mean Torridon, I imagine he is at home,” Frances said dryly. “If you mean my son, here he is.”
Ariadne accorded the baby a cursory glance. “I don’t do well with infants. They always cry at me. But you had best bring it in all the same!”
“So,” Ariadne said, as they finally sat down to dinner alone together. The baby was asleep in the bedchamber hastily allotted to Frances, watched over by Ariadne’s personal maid, Lawson, who had merely sniffed when given the instruction.
“You will fetch me if he wakes at all?” Frances had urged.
“Of course, my lady,” Lawson had replied woodenly.
Frances met the gaze of her friend over the table, and lifted her fork. “So, what?”
“So, what brings you here?” Ariadne asked. “Have you quarreled with him?”
“What makes you think so?”
“I’ve met him. I’m surprised you could wait so long.”
“Stop it, Ari, I won’t traduce my husband with you. I only wanted a break, a little conversation, a little fun.”
“How did you escape?”
“I simply ordered the coach, directed it to the village, and then south from there. Torridon keep horses on all the roads he’s likely to use. And I stayed last night at a very respectable inn.”
“Then no one knows you are here?”
“They will when the coachman returns. And of course, I shall write to Torridon.”
“Of course you will, though I can’t think why.”
Frances shrugged, as though she did not care. “He will be anxious for his son.”
“If you’re to have fun,” Ariadne said, leaning over to pour wine into Frances’s glass, “you should probably have left the child with his nurse.”
“But I couldn’t do that. I’m feeding him—much to my mother-in-law’s annoyance. She had a wet-nurse picked out for him, and now claims that Jamie’s feeding from me is the cause of my ill-health.”
Ariadne glanced up uneasily from her plate. “Are you in ill-health?”
“Lord, no. I have a sneaking feeling old Lady Torridon knows it, too, but Torridon himself does not! I am in an impossible situation, for if I remonstrate or object to anything, it is immediately put down to the hysteria of a sick woman weakened by childbirth! As a result, I am hemmed in by an army of servants to care for Jamie and for me, all specially chosen for their sour faces by my devoted mother-in-law. And it’s only got worse since my own mother’s visit in January.” She drew in a breath, even managed a bright smile. “But I shall not bore you with that. How are you, Ari? How are you bearing life without Tom?”
“Much as I bore life with him,” Ariadne replied lightly. “I miss him, for no one ever called him dull. But I cannot say widowhood has changed my life much.”
“It was such a shock. I was so sorry to hear of his death.”
“Yes, I was grateful for your letter,” Ariadne said, so casually that Frances knew she wanted the subject changed. Some wounds should not be poked.
“How goes your business in Edinburgh?” she asked instead.
Ariadne wrinkled her nose and finished chewing before she replied. “It’s completed, but not terribly satisfactorily. I had hoped the Scottish estate would amount to something, even if only to pay off the debts of the English one, but apparently not. I’ve sold this house, of course—much to the annoyance of my sisters-in-law who have a fancy to live in it, but it is mine to do with as I choose, and I choose to live in London.”
“I suppose it would be cheaper to live in Scotland,” Frances suggested.
“Who wants to be cheap? I want to live the rest of my life with fun and adventure, without Tom’s myriad relations popping out from behind pillars all over the world just to disapprove of me.”
Frances laughed at the image but with a sense of genuine sympathy. “I know what you mean. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be anonymous for a day? To do what we liked and have no one report us to disapproving family?”
“Go in disguise you mean?” Ariadne said with a sour smile. “Some hope. Family rarely needs to get reports. Some member or other is always there to recognize one.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Frances sipped her wine in fond reminiscence. “Serena and I once dressed up in the maids’ clothes, talked the local milliner into lending us hats, and went to an al fresco party on Blackhaven beach with all the fishermen and townspeople. No one recognized us. And we had grown up there.”
“How old were you?”
“Fourteen. Maybe fifteen.”
“They’d recognize you now,” Ariadne said with certainty.
Frances followed the sudden spark of excitement. “Oh, I don’t know about that. Let us experiment and see if we cannot fool your sisters-in-law.”
“Disguised as a maid?” Ariadne asked, amused.
“Or a washerwoman or a beggar, whatever we can think of!”
“And what will you do? Watch from your elegant carriage?”
“No, for it will leave for Torridon tomorrow. I’ll come with you to observe, of course.”
Ariadne regarded her and then laughed. “Adventure it is, then, my dear. But if I am discovered, you must support me!”
They talked it over for a little longer, but after two days travelling over often poor roads, Frances was shattered. After dinner, Ariadne accompanied her to her bedchamber and relieved Lawson from her task. As though he smelled his own supper, Jamie promptly woke up.
“I shall feed the little brute and then retire,” Frances said apologetically. “Tomorrow, I shall be more fun.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m so glad to have you. I’d have fled south from boredom tomorrow if you hadn’t appeared at my door to save me. Feed your brute, and I shall unpack for you, since Lawson clearly considered the task beneath her dignity.”
“You don’t pay her to look after me,” Frances excused. “Or Jamie.”
“How much work does staring at a sleeping baby entail?” Ariadne wondered, opening the portmanteau. “You didn’t bring much, did you? And most of this appears to belong to your hungry little beast… This is pretty, though.”
Frances, sprawled on the bed and feeding Jamie, glanced up at the evening gown of deep blue embroidered in gold. “I’ve never worn it. I brought it on impulse, even though it probably doesn’t fit me any longer.”
Ariadne hung it up with her morning gown and put her few other garments and Jamie’s into drawers. She was about to close the portmanteau when something else caught her eye, for she delved back in and came out with a jewel case.
Frances’s heart bumped. “Oh no.”
“What?” Ariadne asked, opening the case. Her eyes widened. “Oh my goodness,” she said reverently. “Frances, these are beautiful!”
“The Torridon rubies,” Frances said in annoyance. “Alan had them re-set for me as a wedding gift. They must have been in that wretched portmanteau since we first came to Scotland! Certainly, I have been nowhere that I could wear them since I arrived.”
“Well, we must make sure you get a chance during your escape,” Ariadne said comfortably. “For truly, it’s a crime not to wear such exquisite jewels when you possess them.”
“I should not be gallivanting with them! Do put them back in the portmanteau, Ari, so I don’t forget them!”
Ariadne closed the case slowly and reluctantly. She wore an expression Frances had seen many times before, one that made her smile in anticipation. Instead of replacing the case in the portmanteau, Ariadne dropped it on the bed. “One moment!”
She rushed out of the room.
“What is she up to now?” Frances asked Jamie, who stopped feeding to smile at her and then carried on.
A minute later, Ariadne strode back into the room with another jewel case, which she set beside the rubies and opened. “My diamonds and your rubies.”
Frances blinked. “What about them?”
“What do they look like to you?”
“Expensi—” Frances broke off, her breath catching as she met her friend’s gaze. “They look like stakes in a wager. Only I can’t wager the Torridon rubies. They’re not mine but part of the Torridon estate.”
“Then you had better make sure you win. Or at least don’t lose. Let’s see if I can fool Susan and Euphemia tomorrow, then we’ll bolt down to Blackhaven the day after and see if you can fool your family. If you succeed and I don’t, you get my diamonds. If I succeed and you don’t, I get your rubies.”
“Seriously, Ari, you can’t have Torridon’s rubies.”
“Oh, don’t be such an old stick! You can ‘buy’ them back from me or something. But I get to wear them for a night!”
“If you win,” Frances taunted.
“Frances, no one is more recognizable than you. Of course I shall win.”
With a little discreet use of Ariadne’s face paint, Frances gave her friend a few extra lines of anxiety and some sleepless shadows under her eyes. Then she backcombed her hair until it stuck up at all sorts of odd angles and thrust in a couple of random pins to let the hair straggle down from them. Ari’s last remaining footman was sent to scuff and rip her oldest pair of boots.
“All very well,” Ariadne said, gazing at herself in the glass. “But where am I to get some horrible old clothes?”
“You only need one garment,” Frances assured her. “Perhaps two, providing they cover all the rest.
She drew a blanket off Ariadne’s bed. “Well, you won’t miss it for tonight, and I doubt you’ll sleep here again.”
“I planned to take the bedding with me.”
“Not this one,” Frances said cheerfully. When the footman came back with the badly scuffed boots, she thanked him in delight and handed him the blanket and a torn Paisley shawl that Ariadne had been about to throw away. “Do you think you could drag these through the garden? Get a good lot of mud—and even rubbish—on them. Oh, and maybe let the kitchen cat play with them for half an hour?”
The footman glanced rather wildly at Ariadne who merely waved him away with amusement. He bowed and went to do their bidding.
Ariadne complained loudly when Frances tied the disgusting shawl half over her bizarre hair, and wrapped the blanket round her to cover her fine gown. She tied it around Ariadne’s middle with a piece of string and stood back to admire her work.
“Though I say it myself, your own mother wouldn’t know you,” Frances said with satisfaction. “So what chance do mere sisters-in-law have?”
“You do realize you’re talking yourself out of my diamonds? To say nothing of your own rubies.”
“Torridon’s rubies,” Frances corrected somewhat mechanically.
“Though actually, you know, I do still look like me,” Ariadne said uneasily. “I don’t really want Susan and Euphemia to see me like this.”
“They won’t look. People of a certain class don’t really see those beneath them without a very good reason. Could you describe to me the last washerwoman you saw? The last vagrant or even someone else’s maid?”
“I take your point, Frannie, but how the devil do we get out of the house like this?”
Frances, having donned her smart pelisse, picked up Jamie and wrapped him in warm —clean—shawls. “We get your kind footman to smuggle you out. Pretending to throw you out would probably work best. And when I emerge from the front door, I’ll follow you at a discreet distance to your sisters’ house to observe.”
The plan was duly followed. For a moment, Ariadne lingered at the top of the area steps while Frances, at the front gate, looked regally through her across the square. Ariadne complained that the footman had seemed to derive a little too much pleasure from pushing her out of the kitchen door. “I’d dismiss him,” she finished, “if this was not his last day.”
“You mean to stay here with no servants but Lawson?” Frances asked, surprised.
“And the cook. I told you, I would have fled to London this morning had you not given me a reason to stay—at least until tomorrow, when we’re off to Blackhaven.”
In the light of day, Frances discovered she still liked that part of the plan. She had a yearning for home, for her own stern mother and her brother and sisters… She hadn’t even met Serena’s husband or Gervaise’s wife. And she really wanted to see Serena before she went south to her husband’s estate in Devon.
Her thought jolted back to reality as Ariadne, taking her role to heart, hobbled past the gate, bent almost double inside her bulky blanket. She even muttered at the gentleman walking up the road. He glared at her as if she had no right to be in such a hallowed neighborhood. Ariadne cackled, and Frances had to smother her laughter as she closed the gate and followed her friend to the end of the square and further into Edinburgh’s gracious new town.
Ariadne waddled past most people at a good pace. Her sisters-in-law apparently kept to a strict routine, and she was anxious to catch them as they left home on their way to perform charitable work at the church. Otherwise, there would be a lot of dull waiting around. However, two thin, middle-aged women strode energetically uphill toward them, and Ariadne glanced back over her shoulder. These unfashionably dressed ladies must be their quarry.
“Good morning, ladies,” Ariadne addressed them in an impressively strong Edinburgh accent. “Spare a poor old woman a penny on such a beautiful day?”
The sky was gray and beginning to drizzle, but this didn’t seem to be what offended the Marshall ladies. “Outrageous! Begging in the street!” one exclaimed, grasping the arm of the other and trying to hurry past.
“Please, ma’am, it’s for the children…”
“I’ll have you taken up,” one of the ladies threatened. “You and your children!” And they sailed on, leaving Ariadne staring after them with theatrical fury.
Trying not to laugh, Frances passed them with the faintest nod of acknowledgement, which they barely returned. Their ill-nature seemed to have no basis in class.
Frances took a sovereign from her reticule and pressed it into Ariadne’s too-soft hand. “For your children,” she said loudly. “Make them a good broth.”
“I’m more likely to make them into broth,” Ariadne said below her breath. Then more loudly, “Thank you kindly, ma’am. God bless you!”
They turned the next corner together, and Ariadne straightened, tearing off the blanket. “This thing stinks! What on earth did George do with it?”
“Let’s not ask,” Frances said, smiling at a baffled family who were passing them. “After all, it served its purpose. They most certainly did not recognize you.”
“Well, you can’t have my diamonds yet. Let us hire a chaise to Blackhaven.”
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