Married to the Viscount
From The Swanlea Spinsters
Married to the Viscount
Abigail Mercer was breathless with anticipation at being reunited with Spencer Law, a man she first met in America and later married by proxy. But now the dashing Viscount Ravenswood denies all knowledge of their union! Too many witnesses have made it impossible for the secretive Spencer to reject his “bride” without causing a scandal, but he has sworn never to marry. His solution: Marriage in name only until they can locate his mysterious absent younger brother Nat—who appears to be responsible for everything!—and untangle their messy affair.
Abigail is incensed, irate… and irresistibly attracted to this handsome, infuriating man who hides his smoldering passion behind a proper exterior. So the lady will agree to his terms on one condition: Spencer must seal their bargain with a kiss. When Spencer agrees, he finds that one deep, lingering kiss not only unforgettable—but not nearly enough. Keeping his hands off his pretty wife is going to be much more difficult than he thought…
Thanks to you wonderful readers, the book hit the following bestseller lists:
- #24 on the New York Times Bestseller List
- Three weeks on the USA Today Bestseller List
- #16 on the Waldenbooks Bestselling Mass Market Paperbacks List
- #10 on the Waldenbooks Bestselling Single Title Romances List
- Voted Best Post-Regency Romance of 2004 on the Romance Reviews Today website.
- Nominated for the Maggie Award for Best Historical of 2004
- Nominated for the National Readers Choice award for Best Historical of 2004
- Nominated for the Madcap award for Best Romantic Comedy, Historical division, of 2004
“If Sabrina Jeffries is not one of your auto buys and you love the Regency era, add her to the list. Sabrina Jeffries brings the Regency era alive. Married to the Viscount includes love, passionate sex scenes, betrayal and a life-altering secret… An excellent story and wonderful book.” —Dawn Myers, Writers Unlimited
“Married to the Viscount is worthy of six out of five stars, in my opinion.”
—Meghan, winner of an early reading copy
Abigail Mercer stared up at Lord Ravenswood accusingly. “You can’t possibly expect me to wait here penniless until your brother is found.”
“You can’t gain your father’s business free and clear until we find him.”
“I don’t need it free and clear,” she protested. “Just advance me enough to pay for my return to America, simple lodgings, and a few supplies. Then I’ll produce Papa’s Mead myself. I’ll call it …Miss Mercer’s Medicinal Mead or something.”
“There’s more to running a business than producing the product.”
“I’m not an idiot, my lord. I realize it won’t be easy. But I knew many of Papa’s customers and all of his suppliers. Though it might take me a while to get things going again, I’m sure I can manage.” With an air of defiance, she lifted her pear again and bit into it.
“Running a business is difficult even for a man, much less a woman. How do you know your father’s business associates will deal with you? They might decide that Miss Mercer’s Medicinal Mead can’t possibly be as effective. They’ll wonder why you changed its name. They might even assume—and rightly so—that your father didn’t support your efforts.”
She thrust out her chin. “I’ll convince them they’re wrong. I’ll explain what happened and win them over. I don’t see why I can’t.”
When she wiped pear juice from her lush lips with her bare fingers, the blood beat savagely in his temples…and lower. He cursed his uncontrolled reaction. Time to stop dallying, before he changed his mind. “I have a better suggestion.” He gestured to a nearby bench. “Come, let’s sit a moment.”
A decidedly suspicious expression crossed her face, but she did as he asked.
He sat down beside her. “What if I offered to give you double the money Nat stole by taking your dowry and the business?”
“Why?” She arched one pretty brow. “Out of the kindness of your heart?”
“I’m afraid not. I’d want something in exchange.” When she looked stricken, he realized what she must think. Hastily he added, “I’d want you to continue here in London as my wife. At least for a while.”
“But I’m not your wife. Not legally or morally. Those papers are a farce. And since you didn’t authorize them—”
“Unfortunately, no one knows that. Several people, including a very persistent writer of gossip for the papers, have already heard you or your servant claim that you’re my wife. To deny it would mean either inventing another reason for your claim—and I haven’t found a plausible one—or telling the truth.”
“Then tell the truth,” she snapped.
“It’s out of the question. It would embroil my brother in a scandal that would tarnish not only him but his fiancée and her family. Not to mention ruin my own reputation. I can’t risk that. Besides, severing the marriage legally would require a trip to America, which I can’t make while Parliament is in session. It would also require countless meetings with solicitors, one whiff of which would also cause a scandal.”
“For a man who generally does as he pleases, you seem overly concerned about causing ‘a scandal,’” she said, mimicking his accent with amazing accuracy.
He wasn’t amused. “I told you, the government is in great turmoil. The home secretary recently resigned when people protested certain actions he’d taken.” Actions Spencer had rightfully opposed. “The new home secretary has everyone behind him, but a scandal involving his under-secretary and the defrauding of an American innocent would surely change that. I cannot risk it.”
She regarded him with surprise. “You’re so devoted to your country that you’d remain married to a woman you don’t want?”
“I’m not suggesting we continue this state of affairs forever. What I require is a temporary pretend marriage. You remain here as my wife while I locate my brother. Then you can go to my estate until Parliament is no longer in session and I’m free to leave England. We’ll tell everyone we’re returning to your home to settle your late father’s affairs. While in America, we’ll legally dissolve the marriage and we’ll be free again.”
“Aren’t you worried about that causing a scandal?”
He shrugged. “It’s not as if anyone here would find out about a discreet legal maneuver taking place in America.”
“But how will you explain when you return here without your wife?”
“I’ll say you were so happy to be home that you chose to stay. You’ll be my estranged wife. It’s more common than you think and less likely to cause comment.”
“I guess so,” she said archly. “After being astonished by your marrying a vulgar American, your friends won’t be surprised when you want to get rid of her.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Anger flared in her eyes. “You can wax on at dinner parties about how happy you are to have your highly unsuitable wife out of your hair.”
“I’d never say anything of the sort. And if I found you so unsuitable, why in God’s name would I suggest maintaining the marriage at all, even temporarily?”
“Because you have no choice. Apparently you prefer the scandal of having a common American wife to the scandal of having a thief and a fraud for a brother. Especially when the wife can be disposed of once she’s outlived her usefulness.”
The bloody wench insisted on viewing this as something that helped only him. “You’ll benefit from this arrangement, too. When it’s over, you’ll own your father’s business—which I might point out was never possible before—and have plenty of money to run it. And you’ll still be able to marry. I don’t know why you’re complaining.”
Her anger faded to sadness. “No, I guess you don’t.” Biting off more pear, she chewed it mechanically, her eyes staring blindly ahead. “Let me see if I understand you correctly—after our ‘marriage’ is severed, I’ll be free. But you’ll be married, at least in society’s eyes.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“Not at the moment, no.”
He could reveal that he never planned to marry, but then she’d plague him with questions he still refused to answer. Or worse, she might regard his determination never to marry as a challenge.
No, better to stick to his story about his busy career. Surely not even Abby would attempt to entice a man into continuing a marriage that might damage his future.
“But eventually you’ll want to marry,” she said, tossing her pear core into the daisies behind them. “What then?”
He thought fast. “I’ll tell everyone that you died. Who would know?”
“They could find out easily enough.”
“You let me worry about that. Since there’s no prospective Lady Ravenswood on the horizon at the moment, my first concern is to squelch all scandal.”
“By having me pretend to be your wife.”
A hint of mischief touched her face. “Ah, but how will you fit even a pretend wife into your busy schedule?”
He shot her a quelling glance. “A pretend wife will not harangue me into dropping my activities to entertain her. A pretend wife will not divide my attentions from my work. A pretend wife will not turn my household upside-down in order to make it her own.”
“In other words, a pretend wife will be entirely under your control,” she said dryly. “What an appealing prospect for me.”
He bristled. “Will you do it or not? It’s a better prospect for you than any other.”
She pondered that a moment, with her face turned east like a bloom seeking the sun. Why must she looked so perfectly at home in his garden, among the chirping lapwings and blossoming lilacs? It made him want—
“This pretend marriage of convenience,” she said. “What will it involve?”
“I won’t expect you to share my bed, if that’s what worries you,” he retorted bluntly, half for her benefit, half for his.
Judging from her shocked glance, however, he needn’t have worried about hers. Good God, did she really not know what she did to him?
That was probably just as well. Mustn’t have her guessing that she tempted him. Women built cottages on less expectation than that. Bad enough that he’d have to be around her for weeks without being able to touch her.
“Actually,” she said, blushing, “I was talking about more mundane wifely duties.”
“I have a housekeeper, a butler, and other servants for those. I will expect you, however, to accompany me to the occasional social engagement to maintain the illusion. I’d want to start tonight by taking you to the theater. Nat and I were supposed to attend with his fiancée and her mother, but now—”
“Yes—what about your brother? How will you explain his disappearance?”
“I’ve already taken care of that.”
“You can explain away an absence of days, weeks, even months?”
“It won’t be months.” Please God, don’t let it be months. How could he endure months of her teasing, her flirting, her alluring forbidden lips…“I’ve charged my best investigators with finding him. We suspect Nat has fled to the Continent. That’s where he usually goes to avoid me after one of his…mishaps. Undoubtedly he figures it’s easier to hide from me there.”
“It depends on how good a trail he left behind. But he won’t evade the runners forever. I’m hoping for a few weeks at the most.”
“You wouldn’t want me to get too used to being Lady Ravenswood,” she bit out.
“I wouldn’t want you inconvenienced any more than necessary.”
“How very considerate of you.” She lifted a shaky hand to pluck the lilac from her hair, then held it to her nose as if sniffing it gave her solace. “And what happens if I refuse your proposition?”
He wished he could just give her the money. But that would prove disastrous for everyone, probably even her. In her typical naiveté, she thought she could simply step into her father’s shoes in America. It wouldn’t be that easy.
Better to let her think him an officious bastard for forcing her to agree to his terms than a “nice man” she could twist around her finger. “If you refuse, then I hope you have another source of funds, because you won’t have a penny from me.”
Her eyes began to flash and her shoulders to shake. “You would actually refuse to give me money after your brother—”
“Yes. And you can’t return to America without it. You certainly can’t start up a business.”
“But I could tell everybody in England about my awful mistreatment at the hands of you and your brother.”
“I wouldn’t advise that,” he said in the coldest voice he could muster. “I am not a wise man to cross, Miss Mercer. Besides, who do you think people here will believe—you or me?”
She paled. “I thought you were worried about scandal.”
“I am. But if you don’t do things my way, there will be a scandal regardless. So I have nothing to lose by offering this. While you have much to lose by refusing.”
An angry flush crawled up her neck. “This is blackmail!”
“Indeed it is.”
She gazed at him a long moment, as if trying to assess his intent. Then taking him by surprise, she reached over to clasp his hand. “You wouldn’t force me into this—I don’t believe it. You’re too much of a gentleman, too good—”
“I am not good.” He shook off her hand as if it were poison. She mustn’t think she could get around him by engaging his sympathies. Quickly, he rose to put some distance between them. “What I am is determined. When it comes to my family, my country, or my king, I will do whatever it takes to protect them.”
“Even if it means forcing me to continue a farce I’m uncomfortable with?” she whispered in an aching voice.
He stared down at her, struggling to maintain his cool façade. “Uncomfortable or no, you’ll end up richer and better situated with my scheme than if you cling to your pride and try fending for yourself.”
Hurt etched deep lines in her golden brow as she gazed up at him.
Unable to witness her distress any longer, he turned away. “Come now, you know this is best. Even if I gave you every penny my brother stole—and I won’t—you’d have to struggle to reestablish your father’s business without its being legitimately yours. You’d have to return to Philadelphia under an embarrassing cloud of speculation.”
“I don’t care about that.”
He whirled to face her. “No? You don’t care if they claim that the viscount tossed you aside because you were common? Or worse yet, if they imply you were never married at all? Hasn’t it occurred to you that your hasty return to America might rouse speculation that you’d been my mistress rather than my wife, and a rejected one at that?”
Judging from her horrified look, it hadn’t. “You, sir, are an awful man!” she cried, apparently at a loss for how to refute his argument.
“That I am. But my shortcomings needn’t stop us from playing this scheme out to the end.”
She rose, her face a rigid mask. “You think not? All right, I’ll agree to your outrageous request if you meet one condition.”
“What?” he asked, instantly on his guard.
Her green eyes grew icily distant. “You must kiss me to seal the bargain.”
Abby could almost smell Lord Ravenswood’s alarm, but she stood her ground.
“Isn’t that a rather strange condition?” he asked in a strained voice.
“You want me to pretend to be your wife, yet you find me repulsive. That will make the farce even harder, don’t you think?”
“I don’t find you repulsive,” he snapped.
“You recoiled when I touched your hand moments ago. What do you call that?”
He glanced away, and the tension in her belly tightened unbearably. She hated to force this, but she had to know this one thing. Her instincts regarding him had led her astray once. So this time she needed some sign that the gentleman she’d grown to care for in America wasn’t a complete fiction. She’d trusted the gentleman; she didn’t quite trust the viscount.
But if he could bring himself to kiss her, if he had any vestige of warm feeling toward her, then she might bring herself to trust him…at least with regard to this charade.
He finally returned his chilly gaze to her. “You’ll agree to my terms if I kiss you?”
She hesitated. But what choice did she have? Without money, she couldn’t go back to America. And there was Mrs. Graham to think of, too, both of them trapped in an unfamiliar city. “If you kiss me, I’ll agree.”
“You can’t simply take my word for it that you don’t repulse me in the least?”
“Not when your actions say otherwise.” She steadied her nerves. “Believe it or not, my lord, I don’t actually enjoy public humiliation. Last night’s events provided me with enough of it to last a lifetime, so the prospect of enduring more every time you jerk away from my touch before God and everybody isn’t exactly appealing.”
“I see.” A sudden flare of heat in his face was her only warning before he moved forward to capture her chin in a firm grip. His eyes shone down at her like steel through crystal. “Remember that you asked for this,” he rasped. Then he lowered his mouth to hers.
She’d expected a brief brush of his lips, the absolute minimum he could get away with. What she got was beyond her experience … lips more fluent than language, stroking and caressing and molding, melting her bones into water and heating her blood to steam. Dear heaven, what had happened to the cold viscount, the aloof man of property and position who had no use for a wife?
This was the man she’d dreamed about, the man she’d come to England to marry.
The aroma of bergamot burst through her senses, overlaid by scents of lilacs and garden soil. Then she couldn’t smell anything, for she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. The kiss went on and on, tender and urgent and thrilling. He bound her so thoroughly in its spell that she became a willing slave to his mouth, praying the bliss never ended.
But it did, of course. And much too soon.
He drew back, his eyes unreadable. Yet he still clasped her chin, still loomed close enough that his quick, coffee-scented breaths fanned her face. “Satisfied?” he clipped out, as if that were all he could manage.
“That’s not exactly the word I was thinking of.” Not when her heart pounded hard enough to shatter her breast bone, and her muscles seemed to have been replaced by rubber.
A stark hunger glimmered in his face as he tightened his fingers on her chin. “I meant—have I sufficiently met your condition?”
“I-I…yes. It appears you can tolerate touching me after all.”
“Despite what you think, it would be better if I couldn’t, my dear.” He regarded her mouth regretfully, his thumb tracing the line of her lip. “You might find that more difficult, but I would find it infinitely easier.”
With that enigmatic comment, he released her chin and stepped away.
When his lordly mask dropped instantly back into place, she wanted to cry. Once more he wore that impersonal expression that so infuriated her. Yet the warmth of his fingers lingered on her jaw, his taste lingered on her lips, and pleasure mingled with agony in her breast.
Had she simply imagined the passion behind his kiss, the tenderness in his touch? Or worse yet, was he simply more adept at simulating deep feeling than she’d realized? Which man was the real Spencer—the English friend who’d just kissed her or the haughty stranger who faced her now?
Either way, maintaining this charade of a marriage was going to be a lot harder than she’d thought. Because if that was the real Spencer who’d just kissed her, then she was in deep, deep trouble.