Her Sudden Groom
Groom Series, Book 1
The overly scientific, always respectable, and socially awkward Alexander Banks has just been informed his name resides on a betrothal agreement right above the name of the worst chit in all of England. With a loophole that allows him to marry another without consequence before the thirtieth anniversary of his birth, he has only four weeks to find another woman and make her his wife. Being the logical scientist he is, Alex decides to take his friend's advice and treat his quest for a bride just like a science experiment...
Caroline Sinclair is still trying to scrape her jaw off the floor after hearing her cousin, Lady Olivia’s, latest announcement when the object of their conversation, Alex Banks, Olivia’s intended, arrives for what Caroline assumes is a bout of drawing room chitchat with his betrothed. But when an experiment is mentioned, Caroline, who cannot resist a science experiment any more than she can deny her lungs air, volunteers to help before she even knows what his latest experiment is!
Alex Banks sat paralyzed as the cold fingers of death closed around his neck, choking the life right out of him. Gasping for breath, he reached one tanned hand up and slipped two fingers under the cravat-turned-noose that hung around his neck, then jerked, loosening its suffocating hold. Who knew that little scrap of fabric he normally wore only to appease the females in his life could transform into such a deadly weapon?
Well, it hadn’t really, but it might as well have become a hangman’s noose for all it mattered to Alex. He’d just been given a death sentence, as far as he was concerned.
“Are you certain?” he rasped when he’d loosened the garment enough to catch his breath.
“Quite certain,” his father told him apologetically.
Alex took his spectacles off and rubbed his eyes, pressing them so hard bright shapes burst in front of him.
Edward Banks, Baron Watson, put his glass of water on the nightstand beside him. Readjusting himself in his bed, he blinked then reached for the stack of papers on the bed next to him. “Here.” He handed the papers to Alex.
Alex jerked the papers from his father’s limp grasp with far more effort than necessary. “Sorry,” he murmured as he thumbed through the life-altering—nay, life-shattering—documents.
Leafing through the papers, his panic didn’t ease like he’d hoped; instead it escalated with each page he scanned. There had to be a way out of this mess. He exhaled a deep, shaky breath and patted the ends of the papers against the tabletop to straighten them back into a neat, even stack.
Placing the papers on his father’s bedside table, he slouched in his chair and ran a hand through his unkempt hair, giving it a hard, painful tug to make sure he wasn’t in a nightmare. No such luck. The nightmare was a reality, and he was only at the start of it. He glanced to his father, who was having yet another nasty sounding coughing fit.
“There might be a loophole,” Father said when he was done hacking. His voice was weak and uneven.
Alex’s ears perked up, and he impaled his father with his eyes, waiting for him to divulge anything that would allow him to escape the equivalent of an innocent’s lifetime sentence in the Tower of London.
Father patted his aching chest and tried his best to swallow a gulp of water before looking at Alex. “You could marry another.”
Alex looked at his father, dumbfounded. He could have sworn he’d just read a betrothal agreement that linked his name to Lady Olivia Sinclair. How could he possibly marry another without: one, creating a scandal; two, being termed a cad; or three, being called out by her brother?
Father coughed again. “You only scanned the agreement. You missed the contingency part.”
“Thank goodness,” Alex muttered. “What page is that on?” He thumbed back through the papers.
“It’s on the final page,” Father said with a harsh cough. “This whole fiasco is all contingent on your being single on the date of your thirtieth birthday.”
Alex frowned. “Why?” He moved his eyes slowly over each word on the last page, making sure not to miss a single word.
His father at least had the good manners to look somewhat guilty. As guilty as one can possibly feign when one is on one’s sickbed, that is. “Well, you see, son.” He flickered a glance at the wall just past Alex’s left shoulder before meeting Alex’s eyes again. “Joseph, the former Lord Sinclair, and I were good friends. We went to Eton and Cambridge together and remained close ever since. We thought it would be ideal to have our children marry.”
“Without their consent,” Alex muttered, irritation bubbling inside him.
His father frowned. “Marriages oftentimes are arranged. Mine was.”
“I know.” Alex had always had sympathy for the plights of his mother and father. Neither of them had even had a chance to find a spouse of their choosing. Apparently, he was about to endure the same fate. How fortunate for them, his parents had received a much better bargain than he was destined to have.
“Anyway,” Father said, breaking into Alex’s thoughts, “when Lady Olivia was born, I joined Sinclair at his house to celebrate, and in a drunken state, we marveled at the irony that she was born on the same day as you. Well, eight years later, of course.”
“Of course.” Alex vaguely remembered the night of his eighth birthday. That was the night he’d snuck out to see his first mare and witnessed his father coming home foxed, singing the Hallelujah Chorus, and claiming to have some excellent news.
Hell’s afire. The “excellent news” Father was exclaiming about had been this confounded betrothal contract, binding him to Lady Olivia for life. Lady Olivia. Nobody could be a worse match for him than Lady Olivia. He swallowed hard, trying to return the bile rising in his throat back to his stomach.
Father coughed. “Sinclair and I thought it would be a brilliant arrangement. My son. His daughter. Our grandchildren. However, none of us knew just how shrewish Lady Olivia would grow up to become.”
A shudder wracked father and son simultaneously. “No one could have known,” Alex grumbled. Looks were one thing; personality was another. Alex considered himself mature enough to see past her always-tangled, fire-orange hair, rotund figure, horrid teeth, and absurd fashion choices. Her physical appearance, however, paled in comparison to her personality, which was enough to test the patience of a martyred saint. She was whiny, clingy, hateful, and suffered more ailments than he was aware even existed. Everything she did was completely self-serving in one manner or another. If anybody believed otherwise, they were a fool.
Clearing his throat, Father said, “That’s of no account now, son. Either you’ll have to marry her, or go ask her brother if he’ll honor the last page of the agreement.”
Alex’s eyes flew to his father. “Why wouldn’t he?” It was right here, combined with all those other suicide-inducing papers. There was no reason for him not to.
“Because that was an addendum added some eight years later. It was the only page not originally part of the agreement, and it isn’t signed by a third party,” Father explained after a brutal coughing fit. “The originals—” he grabbed the stack of papers and pointed to the bottom of each page as he flipped through— “were all signed by Sinclair, me, and Richard Barnes. Barnes is a mutual friend who was there celebrating with us, and who happens to be a solicitor. As you can see, the last page has only my and Sinclair’s signatures on it.”
“If he signed it, it’s legal,” Alex argued flippantly.
“Not exactly,” his father rasped. “It could be contested, and it might not stand. Now that Joseph is dead and Marcus has taken his place, it would be my word, which won’t mean anything in a few weeks, I’d wager, versus a court.”
Alex gulped. He hated to think that in a matter of weeks, or even days, his father might be gone. Six months ago, Father had become ill, and since then his health had been declining rapidly. After several fruitless attempts to cure him, the physician concluded his condition was internal and medicine wasn’t going to help. Father took the news in stride and continued to read, talk about science, go down to dinner, and even ride his horse. It wasn’t until the past week he’d taken to spending most of the day in his bed, too frail and exhausted to do much more than read and go down for dinner. Watching Father’s illness progress in the past months had been terribly painful for Alex. “All right,” Alex said softly. “I’ll see what can be done for it now.”
Father pulled the covers up to his chin. “Son, I’m sorry I made that agreement. But if you can get Marcus to honor the contingency, you’re halfway there.”
“Yes, then I just have to find a lady to agree to marry me in a month’s time.”
“Considering that you’ll have to marry Lady Olivia if you don’t, I think you’ll find a way.” His father flashed him his best attempt at a smile.
“That’s all the motivation one needs,” Alex said, twisting his lips. He removed his spectacles and rubbed his nose. “Why was I never told of this before?” His voice was flat and dry, almost disinterested, belying the nervous excitement coursing through him.
Father shrugged. “I always assumed you’d find a bride on your own, thus voiding the agreement per the conditions on the last page. With that assumption, I didn’t tell you when you were younger because I didn’t want to heap this upon your head then. As you both got older, I saw what kind of a girl Lady Olivia had become, and I assumed her father would let you out of the agreement altogether. However, since he passed away last year, I’m not sure you can count on that possibility. Her period of mourning ended less than two weeks ago and I received a letter from the solicitor yesterday. That makes me think the agreement has not been forgotten.”
Alex sighed. He couldn’t fault his father for not telling him this. The poor man must have been living in a delusion thinking Alex would somehow find a young lady who would actually want to marry him. When in reality, some would think marrying Lady Olivia was the only fathomable solution to marriage for a gentleman who had somehow acquired the nickname Arid Alex.
Smoothing the covers and rearranging the pillows, Alex did what he could to make his frail father comfortable before leaving his sickroom.
Dorset it was, then. He needed to go see Marcus post haste.