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SCANDAL'S BRIDE
a novella in
THREE TIMES A BRIDE
and
MARRIED AT MIDNIGHT

Lady Victoria Carlton's reckless scheme to defy her father's ultimatum leads to a hasty union with handsome recluse Miles Grayson, Earl of Stonehurst. And because of one foolishly impulsive act, she finds herself trapped by the very institution she sought to avoid…

 

 

 

 

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To order Scandal's Bride, bundled in Three Times a Bride, click here.

To order Scandal's Bride, bundled in Married at Midnight, click here.

 

Three Times a Bride

Available May 2010 · Avon Books
ISBN 0061971804

Married at Midnight

October 1996 · Avon Books
ISBN 0-380-78615-X

Three Times a Bride

I was flattered when my publisher asked me to participate in an anthology along with three other authors. Naturally, I asked what other authors would be included... I was floored when I learned romance superstar Kathleen E. Woodiwiss was one of the others... and I wasn't about to say no!

The concept was simple. Each story would feature a woman forced to marry by circumstance; four brides with nothing in common but a twist of fate... each one must marry by the stroke of midnight.

My contribution is the tale of a woman who seeks to defy her father's ultimatum with a daring, impetuous kiss that instead seals her future, thus the title Scandal's Bride. I conceived the story idea before coming up with the title, which had been shot down for an earlier book (that book ended up being titled Just One Kiss). But Scandal's Bride suited Victoria and Miles' situation so perfectly, I figured it was worth another shot.

Married at Midnight

When I learned I got to keep the title Scandal's Bride, I was ecstatic, since that hasn't happened very often! It only solidifies the old saying, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again...

In 1996, Scandal's Bride was originally released in Married At Midnight, the first of a two-book mini-series. Book 2 is Every Wish Fulfilled. In 2010, Scandal's Bride was rereleased in Three Times a Bride.
His Wicked Promise

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"SCANDAL'S BRIDE"
IN THE ANTHOLOGY:
MARRIED AT MIDNIGHT

a New York Times bestseller.

a USA Today bestseller list.

a Waldenbooks bestseller.

a B. Dalton bestseller.

a main selection of the Doubleday Book Club.

also available in Hardcover and Large print.

Married at Midnight

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Three Times a BrideChapter 1

London 1820

Had she known what fate awaited her, she'd never have kissed him.

But Lady Victoria Carlton, only daughter of the marquess of Norcastle, did not act out of a mere frivolity of nature. Oh, no. In all truth, she was desperate to seek an end to her predicament.

She was convinced her only hope lay in scandal.

Unfortunately, there was precious little time. Papa had informed her this very morn that she must choose a husband by midnight tonight.

Or else he would.

It was not an idle threat--of this, Victoria was very certain. Much to Papa's vexation, she had passed through several Seasons, turning down each and every one of the marriage proposals that had come her way. But now Papa's patience had come to an end. He'd received three proposals during the last fortnight. He was usually not a tyrant, but when in one of his testiest moods, he was an imposing figure--there was simply no crossing him. And since she had no engagements other than the Remingtons' ball that evening, it must be soon. Very soon . . .

The ball was a typical gala affair. A din of voices rose on the air. Dozens of couples swirled across the floor in time to a lively waltz. The ballroom and adjoining salon had been decorated with huge clusters of pink and red roses.

With the deep curtsy, Victoria laughingly retreated from the arms of her latest dance partner. Her steps carried her to the edge of the salon, near the terrace doors. It wasn't so crowded there, and she needed time to think. Good heavens, time to act, for only a few hours remained before midnight.

There was a touch on her arm. Victoria turned to her good friend Sophie Mayfield. Two years her junior, Sophie had just come out this Season. Sophie gazed at her, her brown eyes softly beseeching. "Victoria, I beg of you, please do not do this. Perhaps your father is right. Perhaps you should have chosen a husband long ago. Certainly it's not from a lack of suitors--"

"Pompous and selfish young bucks dazzled by the size of my dowry, and none of whom I care to spend the rest of my life with." A finely arched long brow rose high she spoke. Though her tone was light, the strength of her resolve was not.

She had entered her first Season with stars in her eyes and romance in her heart-- with the dream of catching a dashingly handsome young man, of having him fall madly in love with her. Vivid in her mind was the certainty that marriage would follow, and they would live out the rest of their lives in blissful enchantment.

Another dear friend, Phoebe Tattinger, had shared that very same dream.

It was Phoebe who found her prince first. She'd tumbled head over heels in love with Viscount Colin Paxton the instant they met. Victoria did not envy her good fortune -- no, not in the least! How could she, for never had she seen Phoebe so happy! She discounted the rumors that Colin's proposal stemmed from his desire to marry an heiress, though Phoebe was indeed an heiress. Colin loved Phoebe Ð she was as certain of it as her friend.

Phoebe's joy had not lasted even three months after the wedding.

A pang swept through Victoria. She tried not to remember, yet she couldn't help it.

She and Phoebe had been out walking in Hyde Park one day; Phoebe had only recently learned she was with child. For that very reason they'd stopped to rest, sitting on a secluded bench with a view of the pathway, where they could watch the members of the ton strut and parade their fine feathers on this sunny spring morn.

A man and woman passed by. 'Twas very clear both gentleman and lady were of an amorous inclination. One lace-gloved hand lay tucked into the gentleman's elbow. The other was snugly enfolded within his. Even as they watched, the couple stopped, touching their lips together in a sweet, binding kiss.

Phoebe had laughingly commented, "It must be the air in London, Victoria. Everyone is in love these days--"

But all at once her voice choked off. Victoria's regard snapped back to the pair in question.

Never in her life would Victoria forget her friend's expression. She had watched as Phoebe's heart shattered into a million pieces. She'd held her while Phoebe cried throughout the day. And she had waved good-bye when Phoebe departed for the country two days later.

Colin remained in town, where he continued his association with his ladybird, the Lady Marian Winter, a widow.

Since that day, Victoria had lost count of the women who had been associated with him. For the most part, Phoebe remained in the country. Victoria had seen her only a few times since that horrible day, but the change in Phoebe was sobering indeed. She was no longer lively and vivacious. There was no light in her eyes, no dazzle in her smile, where before there had been sunlight bursting in her heart and soul.

Slowly, her attention was drawn back to Sophie. "Oh, come now," Sophie was saying. "Victoria, when I think of your suitors--why, none have been so terrible! And this very moment, your father his offers from three prospects. What about Viscount Newton--"

Victoria's generous mouth had turned down. "A man whose arrogance I cannot abide," she finished succinctly.

"Well, then, what about Robert Sherwood?"

"A cad, Sophie, and you know it as well as I."

"But there's still Lord Dunmire's youngest son Phillip--"

"Boorish and dull, Sophie. I should grow weary of my own voice were I to marry him. And I'm told he gambles to excess."

"Victoria, I beg you reconsider."

"There's nothing you can say to change my mind, Sophie."

"But your reputation will be ruined--"

"Quite," Victoria pronounced grimly.

Three Times a BrideSophie sighed. "'Tis because of your friend Phoebe, isn't it, that you refuse to marry? But I would remind you, Victoria, not all men are scoundrels such as her husband."

"I'm quite aware of that, Sophie. Indeed, there are times I enjoy their company very much." It was true. Oh, she laughed. She danced, but she was no longer the innocent she'd been when she entered her first Season.

Her chin came up. "But I would remind you that you are only in your first Season, and I am not so na·ve as I once was. I have borne witness to countless infidelities--husbands with mistresses, wives with lovers. I've seen fortunes lost and amassed with the turn of a card. The ton is filled with despicable men whose vices are exceeded only by their monstrous ego."

"And so you will never marry?" Sophie remained unconvinced.

Victoria's gaze turned cloudy. "I would never bury myself in the country as Phoebe does," she said slowly. "But long ago I abandoned my foolish notions about love and marriage. I've learned that marriages are made to gain money, power, position, or land--perhaps to breed an heir--perhaps any and all of these."

Sophie fluttered her fan in utter distress. "But you will spend your life alone, Victoria, with no husband, no children. Why, I find the thought simply unbearable!"

Victoria said nothing. She couldn't deny that Phoebe's painful experience had left its mark, for she had no wish to suffer a betrayal such as Phoebe had done. She would not allow any man to use her as a pawn, for his own gain.

Her heart twisted, for there was a part of her that was torn in two--a part of her that could not disdain love entirely. Her parents had loved each other, something she never doubted for an instant. Though it had been nearly ten years since Mama died, Victoria still remembered shared, subtle glances between them, a lingering touch on the shoulder that spoke with such eloquence.

If she were ever to wed, it must be to a man she could love enough to trust . . . ah, but could she trust enough to love?

She had no answer.

She knew only that she could not spend her life as Phoebe did, in melancholy despair, hopelessly in love with a man who shared nothing of her feelings... never being loved in return...

She would not.

She would far rather spend her life alone.

But now Papa was insisting she marry... oh, she truly did not wish to defy him!

And so she turned her attention to her mission, which was simple. Were she embroiled in scandal, her suitors would want no part of her -- neither those present nor prospective. As for Papa, surely he would consider her totally beyond redemption and would at last cease his efforts to see her wed.

Twisting her white lace handkerchief between slender gloved fingers, Victoria directed a fervent prayer heavenward. Forgive me, Mama. Her poor dead mama would be horrified at what she proposed to do, yet Victoria could see no other way. All she needed was a gentleman to help her carry out her plan, such as it was.

The only problem was who. In all truth, she couldn't quite summon the nerve to approach a gentleman with whom she was already acquainted. It must be a stranger then, for she knew she'd never have the courage to face him again. With that singular thought high aloft, she scanned the sea of bodies. Faith, but there must be someone...

A figure brushed by, elegantly clad in black. The man was tall, long of limb and broad of shoulder, a study of lean, masculine grace. Victoria caught her breath, for it was as if he'd been lifted from the very essence of her mind -- from those dreams she'd cast aside long ago. Her gaze followed him as he passed through the terrace doors and out into the shadows of the gardens.

Something leaped in her breast. There would be no better time. There would be no better man. Anticipation sparked within her. If all went as planned, by midnight her fate would at last be her own.

She turned to Sophie and saw that Sophie had again gleaned her intent. Her friend looked ready to cry.

Victoria lightly squeezed her shoulder. "Don't look like that," she scolded gently. "I shall be fine, you'll see. You have only to come to the terrace in a few minutes' time, but make sure someone is with you was well. And don't forget, you must pretend to be horrified at finding us --"

"I will be horrified!" Sophie's eyes were huge. "Victoria, when I think of what you are about to do... throwing yourself at a gentleman..."

"Shhh," Victoria cautioned, then summoned a smile and pinched poor Sophie's cheek. "Wish me luck, love." With that Victoria turned and fairly flew through the terrace doors.

It was a moment before her eyes adjusted to the dimness. The man stood perhaps ten paces distant. His hands were locked behind his back, his dark head slightly inclined as he stared out into the night. Victoria had to force her feet to do her bidding. But a rustle of skirts warned of her presence. Before she could say a word, the stranger spun around just as she came to a halt.

Wide sapphire eyes met those of steely gray. Victoria's eyes flew why, and she clutched at her skirts. It was all she could do to stand her ground. Her heart knocked wildly, both in fear and anticipation. All sense of reason fled her mind. The moment was upon her, yet she knew not what to say. She knew not what to do.

It was he who spoke first. "If you're looking for someone, I fear you're destined for disappointment. I'm the only one here."

"Oh, but I'm hardly disappointed. You're the very one I sought." The words tumbled forth before she could stop them. Victoria colored as she realized how rash--and how audacious--she must surely sound. But she couldn't tear her gaze for his face. She was tall for a woman, yet he was half a head taller than she. And he really was stunningly handsome, with winged brows as black as his hair, and a square, masculine jaw. His eyes were most unusual, like clear crystal with a glimmer of silver. She found herself thinking that he would be quite irresistible if only he smiled.

But now it seemed she was the one who merited a closer look. The stranger proceeded to inspect her from the shining blond coronet atop her head to her narrow, slippered feet. Though Victoria had always prided herself on her ability to remain unruffled no matter the circumstances, there was a sharpness to this man's gaze that rendered her distinctly ill at ease.

Three Times a BrideA dark brow hiked upward. "Indeed," he responded coolly. "To my knowledge, we've never met."

"No," she agreed. "We have not." Her mind was turning frantically. However was she to accomplish her mission without sounding like a brazen hussy?

"You sought me out, yet you don't know who I am?"

"Yes. You see, I have a favor to ask of you."

"A favor. Of a man you do not know."

"Precisely. You see, I find myself in a situation only you can help me with."

His eyes narrowed. "How so?"

Victoria forced a light, buoyant laugh, even as she battled the urge to turn and flee. "Men are very fond of gambling, are they not? Well, you see, my friend Sophie proposed a rather outrageous dare, a dare I simply could not refuse. She dared me to kiss the first stranger I met tonight. And so, kind sir, I wonder if you are willing to oblige me."

The moment was tortuous. Victoria held her breath and waited.

Nor did she have long to wait.

"Oblige you? Ah, but we have not met, have we? You have no idea who I am. I haven't the faintest idea who you are, and I do believe it's best we keep it that way." His smile was cutting. "In short, my lady, I think it best if I remove myself from your silly, schoolgirl schemes."

Victoria understood; truly she did, for already she had recognized that this man was not a carefree, frivolous young buck, like so many others in the ton. He was older, for one, and his bearing was that of a man who knew what he wanted, and knew it well.

Panic flared high and bright as he stepped past her. It appeared he had every intention of returning inside.

"Wait!" she cried. "I beseech you, please do not leave!"

He swung back to face her. Victoria cringed inside, for his expression was no less than forbidding.

"Young woman," he said sternly, "please do not make this more difficult than--"

Victoria never heard the rest. A medley of voices came from behind him, near the terrace door.

She had been polite. She had asked. And now it seemed she must take matters into her own hands. Quickly, before she lost her courage, she flung her arms around him, and pressed herself against him.

Strong hands clamped down on her waist. Victoria felt him stiffen, but she didn't give him the chance to do more. She tangled her fingers in the hair that grew low on his nape, pulled his head down and levered herself upward in one fluid move.

Her lips met his. Her eyes squeezed shut.

The world seemed to tilt and spin. A hundred different sensations bombarded her. His mouth was soft, while his body was hard. She battled the strangest urge to clutch at him wildly, to press herself against him and feel even more of him against her--In her heart she was appalled at such a wickedly unladylike thought, yet she could not deny the hungry surge within her.

In some distant corner of her mind, she heard his swiftly indrawn breath; she sensed that he was as startled as she. Though his fingers bit into the soft skin of her hips, he didn't thrust her away. An odd little quiver shot through her, for she'd never thought to find pleasure in this moment--yet pleasure there was, a world of it, intoxicating and sweet. Her lips parted, a silent invitation.

Behind her there was a gasp-- That would be Sophie, she thought hazily.

Aware they were no longer alone, Victoria reluctantly broke off the kiss. She levered her heels to the floor and prepared herself for the sight of Sophie standing there, pretending to be horrified. With a breathy little sigh, she opened her eyes.

Only to confront her father's blistering regard.

"Oh, dear," she whispered. Sophie was behind Papa, her eyes huge. Their host, Lord Remington, was there as well.

The stranger, too, had turned toward the door. Oddly enough, one lean hand remained anchored to her waist, the gesture almost protective. "Good heavens," he said irritably. "Who the devil are you?"

Papa straightened himself to his full height. "I am the marquess of Norcastle," her father said grimly. "And I'll thank you to unhand my daughter."

 


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