Mismatched lovers and unexpected attraction catch fire in this timeless novel by the New York Timesbestselling author and legend in historical romance Mary Jo Putney. . .
Forced to wed to keep her inheritance, independent Lady Jocelyn Kendal finds an outrageous solution: she proposes marriage to Major David Lancaster, an officer dying from his Waterloo wounds. In return for making her his wife, she will provide for his governess sister. But after the bargain is struck and the marriage is made, the major makes a shocking, miraculous recovery. Though they agree to an annulment, such matters take time. . .time enough for David to realize he is irrevocably in love with his wife.
Haunted by her past, Jocelyn refuses to trust the desire David ignites in her. She never counted on a real husband, least of all one who would entice her to be a real wife. But some bargains are made to be broken--and his skilled courtship is impossible to resist...
Delightful... a perfect escape.
~Baton Rouge Morning Advocate
Lady Jocelyn Kendal must marry by her rapidly approaching twenty-fifth birthday or she'll lose her very substantial inheritance. Unfortunately, she hasn't yet persuaded the man she wants, the Duke of Candover, that he should propose, and time is running out.
Worrying about what she can do to solve her dilemma, Jocelyn decides to go to a military hospital to meet her friend Captain Richard Dalton (of The Diabolical Baron), who was wounded at Waterloo and is now convalescing in London.
Jocelyn slammed the door shut and ran blindly into the open space at the end of the corridor. She'd thought it would be simple to locate a friend. Instead, she was finding the worst suffering she'd ever seen in her life.
Eyes clouded with tears, she didn't even see the man until she slammed into a hard body. There was a clatter of falling wood, then a strong hand grabbed her arm. Jocelyn gasped, on the verge of a hysterical scream.
"Sorry to be in your way," a quiet voice said. "Do you think you could hand me my other crutch?"
Blinking back her tears, Jocelyn bent to pick up the crutch that had skidded across the floor. She straightened to hand it over, and was profoundly relieved to see the man she sought. "Captain Dalton! I'm so glad to see you up and about."
Richard Dalton was a brown-haired young man of medium height, with hazel eyes much like her own. Though his face was drawn with fatigue and pain, his quick smile was warm. "This is an unexpected pleasure, Lady Jocelyn. What brings you to this wretched place?"
"You did, after Aunt Laura learned you were here." She glanced ruefully at the crutches. "I didn't intend to put you back into a hospital bed."
"It takes a good deal more than a collision with a beautiful woman to do me an injury," he assured her. "I can say without reservation that running into you is the most enjoyment I've had in weeks."
Richard's teasing flirtation helped restore her ragged nerves. Though there had been nothing romantic between them, they had always enjoyed each other's company. Probably the lack of romance had made them friends. "Aunt Laura sent her apologies that she could not accompany me today, but she will call on you day after tomorrow."
"I shall look forward to it." He shifted awkwardly on his crutches. "Would you mind terribly if I sit down? I've been upright for as long as I can manage at the moment."
"Of course," she said, embarrassed. "I'll never make an angel of mercy, I fear. I seem to be causing nothing but problems."
"Boredom is one of a hospital's worst problems, and you're alleviating that nicely." The captain swung over to one of several chairs and card tables set beside a window to create a lounge area. He gestured her to the chair opposite him as he lowered himself with a wince.
Jocelyn examined the drab walls and furnishings, and the windows that faced another depressing wing of the hospital. Not a place designed to aid convalescence. "Will you be staying here long?"
His smile faded. "It may be a while. The surgeons periodically poke around for bits of shell and bone they might have missed. We had one long argument about amputation, which I won, but now they are trying to convince me that I'll never walk without crutches again. Naturally I have no intention of believing them."
"In any such disagreement, my money is on you."
"Thank you." Bleakness showed in his eyes. "I'm fortunate compared to many of my fellow patients."
"Aunt Laura mentioned Major Lancaster in particular," Jocelyn said, remembering the letter. "Is there news of him I can take to her?"
"Nothing good. He has grave spinal injuries, and is paralyzed from the waist down." Richard leaned against the high back of his chair, his face much older than his years. "He can barely eat, and it's an open question whether he will die of starvation, pain, or the opium they've been giving him to make living bearable. The physicians don't understand why he isn't dead already, but they agree it's only a matter of time."
"I'm sorry. I know the words are inadequate, but any words would be," Jocelyn said with compassion. "He's a particular friend of yours?"
"From the first day I joined the regiment, when he took me in hand to turn me into a real officer." Richard's gaze was on the past, and the days and years that had gone into weaving a friendship.
"Even in dying, he's an example to us all. Completely calm, except for his concern for his younger sister's future. She's a governess and well situated for now, but when he's gone, she'll be alone in the world, with nothing and no one to fall back on." He gave his head a slight shake. "Sorry. I shouldn't be depressing you with the story of someone you've never even met."
Jocelyn started to say that he had no need to apologize, then froze as an idea struck. She needed a husband, and the mortally wounded major wanted security for his sister. Unlike Sir Harold Winterson, there would be no question of "marital rights" since the poor man was on his deathbed. In return for his name, she could settle an annuity on the sister that would keep the woman in comfort for life. It was a perfect meeting of needs: she would retain her fortune, and he would be able to die in peace.
"Richard, I've just had a most bizarre inspiration that might solve a problem of mine while helping Major Lancaster." Quickly she sketched in the requirements of her father's will, then explained the solution that had occurred to her.
To her relief, the captain listened to Jocelyn's proposal with no sign of revulsion. "Your proposition is unusual, but so is your situation," he said thoughtfully. "David might well be interested. It would be a great comfort for him if Sally is provided for. Shall I introduce you to him if he's awake?"
"That would be wonderful." Jocelyn rose, hoping the major wasn't asleep. If she had time to think about her idea, she might not be brave enough to go through with it.
Richard pulled himself onto his crutches and led her to one of the rooms she'd glanced in earlier, where the patient had appeared unconscious. After opening the door for Jocelyn, he swung across the room to the bed.
As Jocelyn studied the emaciated figure on the bed, it was hard to believe that a man so thin and motionless could still be living. Major Lancaster appeared to be in his late thirties, with dark hair and pale skin stretched across high cheekbones to form a face of stark planes and angles.
The captain said softly, "David?"
Major Lancaster opened his eyes at the sound of his friend's voice. "Richard . . ." The voice was no more than a low whisper of acknowledgment.
The captain glanced at Jocelyn. "There's a lady here who'd like to meet you."
"Anything to oblige a lady," Lancaster said, a thread of humor in the low voice. "And I've nothing pressing on my schedule."
"Lady Jocelyn Kendal, allow me to present Major David Lancaster of the 95th Rifles." Richard beckoned her to his side.
"Major Lancaster." She moved into the injured man's line of sight and got her first clear look at him. A jolt of surprise went through her. Though his body was broken, his eyes were very much alive. Vividly green, they showed pain, but also intelligent awareness. Even, amazingly, humor.
He scanned her with frank appreciation. "So this is the legendary Lady Jocelyn. It's a pleasure to meet you. Every man in the regiment took pains to tell me what I'd missed by spending the winter with the Spanish army."
"The pleasure is mine, Major." Jocelyn realized his eyes were striking not only for the unusual shade of transparent green, but because the pupils were tiny pinpoints, making the irises even more startling. Opium. She'd seen eyes like that in society ladies who were overfond of laudanum.
She had intended to make her proposal without delay, but as she stood by the wreck of what had been a warrior, her throat closed and left her silent. To look into Major Lancaster's green eyes and say that she was here to make a bargain in anticipation of his death was impossible.
Correctly interpreting her strained expression, Richard Dalton said, "Lady Jocelyn has a most unusual proposition, one I think you'll find interesting. I shall leave you two to discuss it." He shifted his crutches to a more comfortable position, then left.
Jocelyn took a deep breath, grateful that Richard had broken the ice. Where to start? Not wanting to overtire the major, she said succinctly, "My father died several years ago and left me a substantial inheritance, on the condition I marry by age twenty-five. I shall reach that age in a few weeks, and am still unwed. Richard mentioned your situation, and it occurred to me that we might make a bargain of mutual benefit. If…if you'll marry me, I shall settle an income on your sister to ensure her future security."
When she finished, absolute silence reigned, broken only by the distant sounds of street traffic. It took all of Jocelyn's control not to flinch under Lancaster's startled gaze. Yet when he spoke, his voice showed only curiosity, not anger at the bald implication of his imminent death. "I have trouble believing you can't find a husband in the usual fashion. Are the men of London mad, blind, or both?"
"The man I want has shown an unflattering lack of interest in me," Jocelyn admitted, feeling that nothing less than honesty would do. "Perhaps he may someday change his mind. I hope so. In the meantime, I don't want to marry only for the sake of an inheritance, then regret it the rest of my life. Do you understand?" Her last words were a plea; it was suddenly important that he accept her actions as reasonable.
"It would be utter folly to marry the wrong man because of a ridiculous will," he agreed. His eyes closed, leaving his face alarmingly corpse-like. She watched anxiously, hoping she hadn't overstrained him.
His eyes flickered open. "How much of an annuity were you proposing?"
Jocelyn hadn't thought that far. After a swift assessment of her income and the costs of living, she asked hesitantly, "Would five hundred pounds a year be acceptable?"
His brows rose. "That would be very generous. Enough for Sally to live a life of leisure if she wished, though I can't imagine her idle. Perhaps she'd start a school."
He fell silent, the pain lines in his face emphasized as he thought. Uneasily Jocelyn said, "No doubt you'll want some time to consider this."
"No," he said emphatically, his voice stronger. "There is…no time to waste."
The words chilled her. For an endless moment, their gazes locked. Jocelyn saw no fear about his impending death, only stark honesty, and hard won peace. With every breath he drew, this man humbled her.
Carefully shaping each word, Lancaster said, "Lady Jocelyn, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?" A faint, wry smile curved his lips. "Though I have nothing to offer you but my name, for your purposes that will suffice."
His ability to joke under these circumstances almost undid Jocelyn's self-control. Choking back her feelings, she laid her hand over his. It was bone-thin, almost skeletal, but the pulse of life was still present. "The honor would be mine, Major Lancaster."
"David," he corrected her. "After all, we are about to wed."
"David," she repeated. It was a good, solid name that suited him.
His brows drew together in concentration. "We shall obviously have to be married here. I'm afraid that you'll have to arrange for the special license, but if you have a man of business, he should be able to obtain one by tomorrow."
"I'll have my lawyer take care of it. He can also draw up the settlement for your sister. Her name is Sally Lancaster?"
"Sarah Jane Lancaster." He closed his eyes again. "Your lawyer must also draw up a quitclaim for me to sign, relinquishing all customary claims against your property."
Surprised, she asked, "Is that necessary?"
"Legally your property would become mine on marriage, and on my death half would go to my heir, Sally. Since the purpose of this exercise is for you to retain your fortune, we don't want that to happen."
"Heavens, I hadn't thought of that." What if she'd made this strange proposal to a man less scrupulous than Major Lancaster? It might have meant disaster.
Voice almost inaudible, he said, "If your lawyer is worth his hire, he would have protected your interests."
Recognizing that he was at the limits of his strength, Jocelyn said, "I should be able to have the license and settlements by tomorrow. Will this same time be agreeable to you?" As she studied the spare figure under the blanket, she wondered if he would still be alive in another twenty-four hours.
Uncannily reading her mind, he said, "Don't worry, I shall still be here."
She gave his hand a gentle squeeze, then released it. "Thank you, David. I shall see you tomorrow then."
A little dazed by the speed of events, she left the room, quietly closing the door behind her. Richard was seated in the lounge area at the end of the hall, so she joined him, gesturing for him not to stand for her. "Major Lancaster has agreed. The ceremony will be tomorrow. Thank you, Richard. You…you've allowed me to take a measure of control over my life."
"I'm glad I could help two friends at once," he said quietly. "Perhaps providence was taking a hand."
"I'd like to think so." With a slightly crooked smile, she bade him farewell.
Wondering if David looked as shaken as Lady Jocelyn, Richard pulled himself onto his crutches and made his way to his friend's room. "I gather all is well?" he asked as he entered.
David's eyes opened. Though he was gray with exhaustion, there was a smile on his face. "Very much so. Will you stand witness for me?"
"Of course." Richard settled in the chair beside the bed. "Do you need me to do anything else for the wedding?"
"Could you take the ring from my little finger and keep it for the ceremony?" He pushed his right hand over the dingy sheets. "I think it's small enough to fit her."
Richard carefully removed the ring. It came off David's bony finger easily.
"My efficient bride will arrange everything," the major said with a spark of amusement. "Thank you for bringing us together."
"The marriage of convenience is a time-honored tradition, though I've never heard of one quite like this," Richard said thoughtfully. "But everyone benefits."
"There are other men here whose families could use the money more than Sally, but I am selfish enough to be glad she will be provided for. A woman without family is only a step away from potential disaster. An accident or illness could push her into abject poverty. Now that won't happen." David exhaled roughly. "Time for more laudanum. Over there, on the table . . ."
Richard poured a dose of the medicine, then held the spoon so David could swallow. "Your sister is not entirely without family."
"She'd starve to death before she would ask help of one of our brothers. Can't say that I blame her. I'd do the same." David's eyes drifted shut. "Now she'll never…have to ask help of anyone."
Thinking his friend asleep, Richard hoisted himself onto his crutches, but before he could leave, David murmured, "I would have helped her even without the annuity. I rather like the idea of being married to Lady Jocelyn, even if it's only for a few days." His voice faded to a bare whisper. "Something to look forward to…"