How to Lose a Bride in One NightSophie Jordan
For Shana Galen,
who helped plant the seed for this story.
Who knew a book of folk tales would be so inspiring?
About the Author
By Sophie Jordan
About the Publisher
It wasn’t every day a woman lost her virginity.
This was the only justification Annalise could give herself for the way her hands trembled. Ordinary wedding day nerves and nothing more. Any bride would suffer it. Especially a bride like her. Plain. Crippled. Muddied lineage.
A little over a year ago she could barely afford a new pair of winter boots. By all accounts, a day such as this should never have occurred. And yet here she stood in a lavish gown of gold charmeuse trimmed in the finest Brussels lace, her hair swept up in emerald-studded combs. She had certainly never allowed herself the dream of a happily ever after such as this. Not before her father had found her, claimed her, and insisted she deserved only the finest things in life—namely her own knight in shining armor.
She buried her gloved hands into the voluminous skirts of her bridal gown as she crossed the vast expanse of lawn and reminded herself that she deserved happiness as much as the next girl.
It had showered earlier in the day, leaving the grass damp and yielding beneath her feet. Her jewel-studded slippers were soon soaked, the cold wetness seeping into her stockings and numbing her toes. Her husband walked a few feet in front of her, an assortment of young bucks on either side of him, all decked out in a vivid assortment of cravats and jackets, their boots polished to a high gleam. His closest friends, all young men from the finest families, garbed in finery the likes of which she had never touched as a seamstress’s apprentice a mere year ago.
The irony was not lost on her. Peerage such as these had not even seen fit to grace the confines of Madame Brouchard’s humble shop, and yet here she was. Among them.
One of them.
Her gaze fixed on her husband’s back. As though sensing her stare, he looked over his shoulder at her. A slow smile curved his lips, and her heart tripped as it always did when he looked at her.
Husband. The word reverberated through her mind before sinking like a stone in her stomach, where it sat uncomfortably alongside the kippers and champagne from their wedding feast. Her thumb rolled against the band on her ring finger. She glanced down at the giant yellow diamond in disbelief. It was an enormous monstrosity that had been in the Bloodsworth family for generations. And now it was hers. She was a bona fide duchess. Married to a duke. And not just any duke. A young handsome man only seventh in line from the Crown.
He looked over his shoulder at her again and winked, grinning that endearing smile that had charmed her from their very first meeting. And he was besotted with her, too. Unbelievable but true. Her cheeks heated and she was certain she was as red-faced as any schoolgirl ensnared in the gaze of a member of the opposite gender.
Really, she was no callow maid. She had seen much of the world before Jack plucked her from obscurity. She should comport herself better. Especially now. As a duchess ought to.
A glance behind her revealed the massive stone-faced edifice of the new home she would now reign over. Dozens of windows lined the five-storied mausoleum, all dark eyes staring out at her in the fading day. The family seat of the Duke of Bloodsworth. And the Duchess of Bloodsworth—her.
Family and friends surrounded her as they made their way to the dock. Even that structure was bedecked with flowers and ribbons for the happy occasion. She glanced around her at the merry faces. Perhaps not friends, she amended. At least not hers. Lord Bloodsworth was exceedingly popular. The same could not be said for Annalise.
Her year in London had not afforded her many friendships. As the bastard daughter of Jack Hadley, her father’s deep pockets might have won her entry into the finest ballrooms, but it did not win her esteem within the ton.
Once it became clear she had gained the young duke’s favor, the ladies were quick to cast her withering looks. One such lady glared at her now. The beautiful Lady Joanna. A true English rose with her golden hair and sea-blue eyes. The duke had been paying her suit when he met Annalise. Everyone had been convinced he would offer for her. When Annalise had dared to ask him why he chose her over Joanna, his reply only deepened her regard for him.
You, Annalise, are a rare gem. I could not stomach being wed to a female who cannot engage me in discourse. It is my greatest fortune that I can see you better than these other fools.
“Nervous?” Marguerite, one of her half sisters, fell into step beside her. Her skirts swished softly on the night, mingling with the hum of conversation and soft laughter surrounding them.
Annalise tore her gaze from the sour-faced Joanna and offered a smile that belied the tremor in her voice. “Not at all.”
“It’s fine, you know,” Grier added from her other side. “If you are.”
Of her three half sisters, Annalise knew Grier the least. She’d only just arrived from Maldania a fortnight ago in order to meet Annalise and attend her wedding. The shock of marrying a duke was nearly as astonishing as learning that her half sister was a princess.
Until a year ago, Annalise had been an orphan, inhabiting a rented room in Yorkshire with two other shop girls employed by Madame Brouchard. Jack Hadley’s man had found her. Evidently, Annalise’s mother, dead these last six years, had once been Jack’s paramour, and Annalise was in fact the bastard daughter of one the wealthiest men in England. All her life, she knew nothing of her father. Her mother never spoke of him and only scowled when Annalise mentioned him.
It was a fairy tale come true. Her father riding in on his white horse to save her from a life of drudgery. And the fairy tale only continued once she reached London and met the duke. After a whirlwind courtship, he’d proposed. It didn’t matter to him that she was illegitimate. Or a cripple. Or plain as a wool sock.
Oh, she was no fool. She knew her dowry played a significant part in his interest, but he had assured her that he’d come to care for her as well—that they would have a marriage in the truest sense. That they had found love together. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach.
“I am a bit nervous,” she admitted, wobbling when the foot of her lame leg hit a patch of uneven ground. Grier’s arm tightened around her, stoppin
g her from falling. It was a nuisance, but she had grown accustomed to this limitation of her body. She’d lived with the disability long enough. At fourteen she fell from a tree and broke her leg. Unfortunately, her limb never healed properly.
“Very normal,” Marguerite asserted. “But anyone can see your handsome duke is clearly besotted with you. I’m certain he’ll be a most solicitous husband.”
Grier nodded. “For certain. Do you not agree, Cleo? You are the newlywed among us, after all.”
Annalise glanced at her other sister—the first she had met upon moving to London. Cleo walked beside Grier, her lips pressed into a straight line that was unlike her usual smiling self. Especially since she’d married her Scotsman. She was rarely without smiles now. Only today she had been oddly solemn. All throughout the wedding ceremony and during brunch, she sat in pensive silence, even as her husband offered up a congratulatory toast.
“Cleo,” Grier prodded.
Cleo blinked as if her thoughts were somewhere else. “Of course. I’m certain His Grace will be most gentle and understanding with you.”
Grier shook her head and looked back at Annalise. “It will be lovely.”
“Have more champagne,” Marguerite suggested. “that shall relax your nerves.”
Grier nodded in agreement.
Cleo continued to stare ahead. Almost as though she was attending a funeral and not a wedding.
They reached the dock and the chatter grew to a surge all around them. The wedding barge swayed softly on the current. Bloodsworth approached her and claimed her hand. Richard. After he had proposed, he insisted she call him by his Christian name, but it still felt strange. She wondered when it would become natural. When would she think of him as Richard and not Bloodsworth or simply the duke?
Bringing her hand to his lips, he pressed a moist kiss to her knuckles, his smiling gaze brushing over her briefly before addressing the wedding party.
“Thank you all for your delightful company on this most glorious of occasions.” His free hand moved naturally, gracefully, as he spoke.
She’d noticed that about him right away—his inherent grace, the smooth elegance of his hands. Not like her own—thankfully snug within a pair of gloves so he couldn’t feel the rough, chapped palms, testament to her life of toil.
Applause broke out, perhaps none louder than Jack. Her father had finally gotten his wish. His daughter had married a duke—about as close to a British prince as he would ever get. Bloodsworth might not be an actual prince like Grier’s husband, but he was British-born and close enough. Jack could hope for no better. Certainly she had never hoped for as much. It still felt a bit unreal, like something that was happening to someone else.
Annalise blinked, realizing Bloodsworth was still talking and he must have uttered something amusing because everyone laughed. The ladies tittered behind their artful fans and gloved hands. He winked down at Annalise. Her heart pounded as wildly as a snared rabbit as he leaned down to press a swift kiss to her lips. It was only their second kiss, the first having been less than five hours ago in the Bloodsworth family chapel.
Heat crept up her checks at the hoots of approval from the gentlemen. The ladies showed more restraint, giggling softly.
“Come, Your Grace.” He gave her fingers a comforting squeeze. She started. If he wasn’t looking at her she wouldn’t know he was addressing her. Would she ever become accustomed to it? “Ready to begin our new life?”
Our new life. She smiled, reveling in the sound of that. She finally had a future. And someone to share it with. That was all she had ever wanted. Acceptance. Belonging. Love.
“Yes, Your Grace,” she murmured.
Nodding in approval, he led her toward the edge of the dock where a ramp extended from the grassy knoll up to the barge. She was too busy studying his face, caught up in the remarkable fact that he was her husband. That she was his and he was hers. She did not lift her lame leg high enough. It caught on the edge of the ramp and she went tumbling. Her right knee hit the wood before he managed to get his arms around her and halt her descent. Sharp pain shot up her leg.
“I—I am so sorry,” she stammered, brushing away the multitude of hands that were suddenly there. Aside of her own husband, her sisters’ husbands were there to assist her . . . making her feel even a greater fool. Oh, they meant well, but the pity on their faces only reminded her of the feelings of inadequacy she had harbored all her life. Ever since she took that fateful fall.
“I’m fine,” she insisted, face flaming, waving their hands away while still clinging to Bloodsworth. She sent him a small, embarrassed smile.
“Come.” He patted her hand reassuringly where it rested on his arm.
She faced forward and tried to calm the hammering of her pulse. Even worse than the hammering pulse at her neck was the trembling that coursed through her. Wedding night nerves. Perfectly normal, according to her sisters.
Only this trembling was the result of something else. Her stomach tightened and knotted.
In her mind, she saw it again—the look of contempt that had crossed her husband’s face when she stumbled. For a fraction of a moment the scornful expression was there. Just a flash, but she saw it nonetheless. The expression was not new. Others had looked at her with disgust in her life.
Just never him.
The barge rolled slightly beneath her as she sat at the small dressing table and stared upon her reflection in the gilded mirror. Her large brown eyes gazed back at her—too big, in her opinion. They were certainly nothing like Lady Joanna’s stormy blue ones. She immediately reprimanded herself for the comparison. Bloodsworth had not chosen Lady Joanna. He had picked her, Annalise, for his bride.
They had cast off some time ago and Bloodsworth left her so she could prepare herself. Prepare herself. For some reason the words made her feel like a goose before Christmas dinner. She shook the thought aside and considered herself critically, hoping Bloodsworth—Richard—would approve.
Sighing, she fussed with one of the ribbons at her throat. She supposed the nightgown was satisfactory. By no means seductive, it was still the prettiest thing she had ever worn to bed. The fabric was the finest lawn—virginal white with several delicate, pale blue ribbons braided through the neckline and tied off in a bow at the center of her chest.
She glanced to the cabin door, wondering where her husband had disappeared to. There couldn’t be too many places to hide on the barge. That look on his face rose up in her mind, and she gnawed at the corner of her lip. She closed her eyes in a tight blink and told herself to think no more of it. She had likely imagined it—projected it upon him because of her own embarrassment for losing her footing.
Rising, she moved to the window and gazed out at the river. A soft current rippled the black surface. The moon gleamed down, leaving a ribbon of glowing white on the undulating water.
The door opened behind her, and she turned, the hem of her nightgown whispering at her ankles as her bare feet rotated on the floorboards. Bloodsworth—Richard—stood there, leaning one shoulder into the doorjamb, a glass of port in his hand. He gazed at her thoughtfully, wearing that boyish smile she adored.
She tried not to fidget beneath his perusal.
“Frightened?” he queried, taking a sip.
She shook her head. Perhaps too quickly. “A bit,” she allowed, returning his smile with a tremulous one of her own.
He pushed off the door and closed it after him with a soft and final click.
Suddenly she was aware of how alone they were. Her throat thickened and she fought to swallow. She had never been alone with a man before. The air throbbed with a strained silence around them—as though they were sealed inside a tomb, secreted away from the world.
She knew there were two members of his staff on board. His valet, to see to their needs and someone steering the vessel abovedeck, but it
felt as though they were utterly alone, cast adrift in a vast sea. When he first suggested the wedding be held at his family estate followed by a night aboard their very own wedding barge, she had thought the idea romantic and thoughtful. It had only confirmed her belief that she was the luckiest of girls.
Only now, on this barge, in this cabin, floating down a dark river, she wished they had married in St. James with all the pomp and ceremony of any peer’s wedding. She longed to hear the steady pulse of Town bustling outside her window. She missed the gentle cacophony lulling her to sleep. Somehow there was comfort . . . safety in the busy clatter.
He advanced on her. She held her breath, releasing it in a soft whoosh when he stepped past her to gaze out at the river.
She turned to follow his gaze out the window. “Yes. It’s been an altogether lovely day. A lovely wedding.”
She felt his gaze return to her face. She held her poise, her hands clasped together before her.
“It was, was it not?” he mused. “A memory to keep. Something to . . . cherish.”
If his comment struck her as strange, she didn’t reveal it. If an even odder sense of disquiet grew in her belly, she did not reveal that, either.
“Tired?” he asked.
She nodded, and then stopped, having no wish for him to think her too wearied and resistant to the notion of sharing a bed with him.
Her gaze skimmed over him. She knew the sight of him well by now—had memorized his tall slimness, his slightly sloping shoulders, the narrow waist. For nigh on a year he had been the embodiment of all her dreams.