Upon opening the door to his home, Henry Banks is stunned. First, he’s greeted by a woman he never expected to see on this side of the ocean. Second, she’s just handed him a piece of paper that says she’s betrothed to his twin brother Elijah who just so happens to be on his wedding trip. When threatened with a scandal, Henry does the only thing he can think of: pretend he’s Elijah and asks to court her.
Laura Swift doesn’t believe for one second that the twin she’s standing in front of is Elijah. Neither does she care. She’s come to England for one reason: revenge against the Banks family; and it matters not one jot which twin she marries as long as she’s granted an introduction to their extended family.
While Henry must struggle to keep from exposing either his identity or his heart, it’s Laura who stands to lose the most; and when the opportunity presents itself to exact her revenge, she must decide if it's revenge she’s longed for, or the love of a good man, because even she knows she cannot have both.
[CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD!]
“I'm ready to get married.”
“Pardon me?” Henry Banks said, matching the same blunt tone the young lady with the sophisticated bun standing outside his door had used.
She sighed and shoved a folded piece of parchment into his hands.
Henry's pale blue eyes widened as he scanned the foreign lines. When had he lost his ability to read? It had to have been in the last five minutes, because he knew his twin brother Elijah hadn't signed a betrothal contract during their brief time in America. Not that it was an official contract written up by a solicitor, but it had all the important details about a marriage that was to take place between the two parties who had signed below. One of whom was definitely Elijah. Under Elijah's name were the names and markings of two witnesses. It might not be as “official” as most he'd seen, but with Elijah's signature and those of two witnesses, it was official enough.
The creature with pink lips and alabaster skin who'd shown up on his doorstep cleared her throat.
He met her hazel eyes. “Yes?”
“I'll only require a few days before the wedding,” she said, flashing him a sweet smile that matched her all-too-sweet Southern United States accent. “As you already know, I'm a simple miss. I require nothing fancy.”
Henry nearly snorted. He remembered meeting this chit during his travels; she was anything but a simple miss. Every time he'd seen her, she'd been dressed in the height of fashion and her hair had been styled in a different arrangement, complete with some of the fanciest combs he'd ever seen. Either she'd fallen from grace in the worst way possible or the woman he'd met before had a twin. There was no way the lady he'd met could be termed as a simple miss. “Ah, so a small wedding with only family in attendance will suffice,” he said, more for the amusement of saying it than out of being serious.
Something flickered in her eyes and her smile as sweet as her accent returned. “Yes, I think that should do nicely.”
Henry sighed and shook his head. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, madam, but there won't be a wedding—”
“Yes, there will be,” she interrupted, jabbing her index finger at the paper he held. “It says so right there.”
Henry's chest constricted at the desperation he heard in her voice. She'd come halfway across the world with the intention of getting married—she'd be crushed to find her groom was already married. But what could he do about it? “Won't you come inside?” he invited, gesturing inside the little cottage on the edge of Watson Estate that his oldest brother, Alex, allowed him to stay in, while visiting the country. Technically, the cottage belonged to his mother, since she was the dowager; but she much preferred to stay in the main house and neither Alex nor Caroline had a problem with that, leaving it available for Henry to occupy.
His uninvited guest pressed her lips together. “No. Ladies do not go into the homes of gentlemen they're not married to.”
He blinked at her. Her starchy tone and the uneasy look in her eyes spoke much louder than her voice had. She might want to marry, but she surely seemed to be uneasy at the idea of what she'd be expected to do after she was married. Fortunately for her, that wouldn't be a problem she'd need to concern herself with in the near future.
“About that—” he idly tapped the paper she'd given him against his thigh— “would you be interested in marriage to another?”
Her eyes narrowed on him. “Are you interested in a scandal, Mr. Banks?”
Her challenge brought him up short. “No,” he said carefully.
“That's what I thought,” she said, her sweet smile resuming its former place on her lips.
Henry's mind raced. His family might not wish for her to bring a scandal to their doorstep, but unless his scientifically-inclined brother, Alex, was able to discover a way to travel back in time within the next few days, a scandal was exactly what would come to them. A thought popped into his mind. It wouldn't work long term, but it might work just long enough to accomplish his goal and avoid scandal.
He heaved a heavy sigh then stepped onto his porch. “What would you think if I were to court you a while first?”
Laura Swift stared at the addled gentleman who stood in front of her. She'd just spent the last two weeks traveling; first across the ocean and then all over southern England, tracking down her groom-to-be. Surely she should be the one speaking nonsense—not him.
“Why?” she asked.
He shrugged. “To see if we suit.”
Why would Henry care if they suited? Her agreement was with Elijah. “Does it matter how we suit?”
“Absolutely,” he said jovially. A little too jovially. “I think it's important that we rub along well if we're to be married.”
Oh he did, did he? She didn't remember signing a betrothal agreement with the pompous Henry Banks. She'd found his intense, blue eyes unnerving and seemed to lose her confidence whenever he spoke to her. No, Henry was not the brother she'd tricked into signing the agreement. But apparently marriage to Elijah wasn't an option any longer. Otherwise, Henry wouldn't be pretending to be him and asking to court her. The good Lord knew Henry's disinterest in her rivaled hers for him.
She tamped down her nerves and forced a smile. “Very well; you may court me,” she forced herself to say as evenly as she could. Truly, it didn't matter which one she married; one was as good as the other for the purpose she needed him.
“Excellent,” he said; his face and tone as impassive as always. He offered her his arm and turned his head to the right, then the left. “Have you ever ridden a horse?”
“My brother has some of the best horses in England in his stables. We should go riding.”
She commanded herself not to grind her teeth at his suggestion. “Why?”
“Because that's what people do when they're courting.”
“They also spend time in the parlor,” she pointed out. The last person she wanted to ride horses with was Henry and his scrutinizing gaze and condescending tone.
He led her in the direction of the stables. “While I'm sure my mother would love to act as a chaperone, I'd rather court you without her presence so we can actually get to know each other.”
She came to an abrupt stop. “I think not, Mr. Banks.” His wince at her sharp tone made her blanch. “Excuse me,” she said in an uneven tone. “What I meant to say was that I think it would be best if we spend time in the presence of a chaperone until we know each other a little better.”
He spun around to face her. “Is that so?” His cool blue eyes held her gaze. “But no more than five minutes ago, you were discussing our wedding. You do realize that once we repeat our vows and leave the church, there will be no more chaperones. It'll just be you and me. Alone. Together.”
She swallowed the lump of emotion in her throat. “I know,” she whispered, as her mind flooded with the memories of what happened the afternoon she'd married her late husband. At least this time, she'd know what to expect and could take precautions.
She looked at Henry's profile. He was close to six feet, a good six inches taller than average, and had a large, imposing body with broad shoulders, a rounded chest that was clearly muscled and a thickness in his abdomen that she highly doubted was composed of loose fat, but firm muscles. His appearance was drastically different than that of her first husband, Robbie Swift, which would mean Henry would only hurt her more than Robbie had. She shivered at the sickening thought and then pushed it away. She wasn't getting married this afternoon, so there wasn't anything to worry about. Besides, she might not have to do that after all if everything fell into place the way she hoped. And if she did, well, it was a small price to pay.
She looked over at a waiting Henry. His eyes were fastened on her, his lips tight and his left eyebrow quirked; but as unnerving as his demeanor was at times, she knew that he was a gentleman and wouldn't try to coerce her into sharing intimacies today. There was no need to be nervous.
“I know there won't be chaperones on our wedding night,” she said, forcing a smile and praying there wouldn't be “chaperones” or any other type of observer on any of their other nights, either.
“Are you feeling well?” he asked, his usually high brow puckered.
“Of course,” she said quickly. “I was just thinking that I'm not properly attired to ride just now.”
He swept her with his gaze from the top of her head to the hem of her wide skirt.
“You'll be riding sidesaddle. I think you'll be fine. You can just lift your skirt and sit directly onto the saddle, then rest your skirts over top to cover up with.”
Her jaw fell slack. Was he trying to scandalize her? If so, she'd have to congratulate him because it was working. She narrowed her eyes on him. The left corner of his mouth twitched. Not a lot, just enough to give him away. He was trying to scandalize her. Presumably, he was doing this because he wasn't Elijah and he had every intention to make her cry off.
Well, that would not be happening. She'd determined she'd marry one of the Banks brothers five years ago and she'd see to it that she did. No half-hearted scandalous statement would keep her from her task.
“Very well, then. That seems to be the perfect solution.”
His impassive face gave away nothing as he nodded once then led her toward the stables. “Why don't you wait here and I'll get our horses?”
A small wave of sadness crashed over her. As a girl, she'd loved to ride. Never sidesaddle, mind you. But her riding days felt like a lifetime ago. She'd not been atop a horse since she was taken to New York at seventeen and married off to an imbecile who didn't know how to ride.
She clasped her hands in front of her and waited for Henry's return. The warm country air felt good against her face, a reminder of the cotton plantation she'd been forced to leave behind more than seven years before for the stale air she'd been inhaling in Brooklyn, New York. She swallowed. There was nothing that could be done about it now. She had no future in New York or Georgia, nor did she have one here, either.
“Your mount,” Henry's clipped tone brought her from her thoughts.
She took a step back so he could lead the slow stepping nag in front of her. She frowned. “Is there a reason you selected this particular horse for me?”
“I thought perhaps you'd prefer this one since you were so apprehensive about riding.”
“I wasn't apprehensive about riding a horse,” she said defensively. “I was apprehensive about being alone with you.”
He clicked his tongue and the horse whose name couldn't have been anything but About-To-Be-Glue came to a shaky stop in front of her. “As I said earlier, madam, you're going to have to get accustomed to being alone with me, if we're to be married.” The challenge in his tone was unmistakable.
Unease settled in Laura's stomach. She'd never ridden sidesaddle before. She'd seen a number of ladies in New York do so, but where she'd lived in Georgia, it hadn't been practical. But she'd be damned if she'd admit her unease to Henry.
“Mrs. Swift,” she corrected, trying in vain not to make a face, since saying her own last name filled her mouth with a bitter taste. “My name is Mrs. Swift, not madam. As for the rest of your statement, I have no qualms about being alone with you after we're married—” I'm already preparing myself for the travesty that will befall me then-- “nor do I have any aversion to riding a horse.” She walked right up to the tired-looking horse he'd brought out for her and took the reins for both horses from him. “I'll hold the horses while you go fetch me a mounting block, if you please.”
Wordlessly, Henry's two strong hands encircled her waist, lifted her high into the air, and then brought her down onto the saddle.
Apparently, a brute like him didn't find a mounting block necessary!