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A Worthy Wife

By:Barbara Metzger

A Worthy Wife

Barbara Metzger

Chapter One

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The bride was radiant in ivory satin. The groom was splendidly stalwart in scarlet regimentals. The little stone church outside Bath was filled with flowers and weepy females. Aurora Halle McPhee was getting married!

The bells of Bath might not be ringing in celebration, but Aurora's heart was certainly pounding loudly enough, and her stomach was doing somersaults. Clutching her bouquet in trembling hands, she glanced up at her husband-to-be through lowered lashes, while the vicar droned through the marriage ceremony. The most important day of her life, Aurora reflected, and she'd be lucky if she recalled half of it. Then again, lucky did not half describe her good fortune. Lieutenant Harland Podell was marrying her! Aurora knew she was a merely passable female of undistinguished birth and unimpressive dowry, who'd never been out of Bath since her parents sent her home from India as an infant, shortly before their deaths. Adopted by her aunt and uncle McPhee, amateur naturalists, she had no lofty connections, no Town Bronze, no expectations of making any grand match. Why, she was more like to wed an amphibian than make her bows at Almack's. Yet the dashing lieutenant had chosen her. Some ten years older than her nineteen, he had arrived from London scant months ago, recuperating from an injury. He'd declared his heart was mortally wounded at the first sight of her blond beauty, and only her company could alleviate his pain. How could she resist, a sheltered young female not long out of the schoolroom? And why should she? The lieutenant was darkly handsome and polished and well-bred, casually mentioning this or that well-known acquaintance. He regretted that the Duke of Wellington was too busy to meet the Belle of Bath. Aurora had no regrets whatsoever when she accepted his proposal of marriage soon after. Why, dear Harland had even shaken Uncle Ptolemy's hand, the one recently holding an ailing bullfrog. If that was not a true judge of gentlemanly character, Aurora would eat her hat. Of course, her stomach already felt as if she had, silk flowers, beaded ribbons, and all. She really wished Reverend Mainwaring would get on with the ceremony.

After what seemed an eternity to Miss McPhee, the vicar looked out over the congregation. "If anyone here"he cleared his throat"knows just cause why these two"he paused to put his finger in the book, marking his place"should not be joined in holy matrimony"he wiped his nose"let him speak now or forever hold his peace."

Aurora let out a deep breath. She could hear Aunt Thisbe's muffled sobs and a few of her schoolmates giggling, even over the hammering of her heart as they all stood waiting for the awkward moment to pass and the vicar to proceed.

But the noise hadn't been the beating of her own pulse, it had been something from a bride's bad dream, or a worse novelsomeone pounding up the church steps, slamming open the heavy wooden doors. "I'll speak, by God," shouted a tall, reddish-haired stranger as he strode up the aisle, his caped riding coat flapping like the wings of Lucifer himself, and his boots leaving a trail of mud on the white carpet runner placed there.

The ensuing silence could have filled Westminster Abbey, much less the small stone church. Then they all heard a thud as Aunt Thisbe's prayer book hit the floor, and a louder thud as Aunt Thisbe followed.

"B'gad, she's fainted," Uncle Ptolemy cried, then turned to the broad-shouldered intruder, who was now halfway to the altar. "Sir, who the devil are you and what is the meaning of this heinous commotion?"

The gentlemanand everyone recognized his bearing, his tailoring, his very arrogance as aristocratic, if not noblepointed one gloved finger at Lieutenant Podell. "I am Windham, and that dastard is already married to my sister, by Zeus. If that's not just cause, I don't know what is."

Uncle Ptolemy fainted.

Aurora shook her head and turned to her almost-husband for reassurance. "How absurd. The man is obviously escaped from Bedlam. Or else he is one of your army friends playing a prank. Tell him to go away, Harland, do."

But Harland was turning as red as his uniform coat, looking over her shoulder for the nearest door. He never made it. The stranger grabbed the officer by the neck and lifted him clear off the ground, shaking Podell until gold braid and buttons went flying. "Tell them, you cad. Tell them it's true."

"T-true," Podell gasped, then tried to raise his arm to point to Lord Phelan Ramsey, the family friend who had brought the infant Aurora back from India. "But he"

Lord Phelan rushed up and struck Podell in the jaw, a not so difficult maneuver for the much smaller, older man since Windham still held Podell, dangling. He dropped him now, half-conscious, to the floor.

"Yes," Lord Phelan shouted, "I introduced you to my precious goddaughter, to my everlasting regret. Never has a man been so deceived."

A man ? Her godfather's outrage was nothing to Aurora's. When the lieutenant would have scrabbled an escape through the tumult and the titters of Aurora's girlfriends, the bride hauled up the small marble urn from in front of the vicar's lectern. She emptied it of orange blossoms and trailing ivy, then bashed her misbegotten bridegroom over the head with it. After which she dragged herself and the urn behind the lectern, where she cast up her accounts in as ladylike fashion as possible, while the wedding wrecker, Windham, ordered everyone to go home.

"But," Aurora whimpered, only loudly enough that half the exiting congregation could hear, "I need a husband."

The vicar fainted.

Damn, thought Kenyon Warriner, Earl of Windham. He hadn't been in time to keep another gently bred female from being ruined. He'd ridden from London as fast as he could as soon as someone in his club asked if the Podell chap calling the banns in Bath was any relation to his sister's deceased husband, and was he going to the wedding. He was going, all right. If Podell was not deceased, he'd wish he were when the Earl of Windham got through.

Now Kenyon almost kicked the ofttimes groom before he remembered he was a gentleman, and ladies were presentladies in delicate conditions, blast the bounder to perdition. Besides, Lord Phelan was tying Podell up with his own cravat, before they decided what to do with the scurvy cur. Calling the magistrate was the last choice, for everyone's sake. Lord Phelan stuffed one of Podell's gloves in the villain's mouth, so they did not have to hear any more of his filth, the long-nosed gentleman declared.

Kenyon took his quizzing glass out of his pocket and examined the young woman more closely. She was paler than her ivory gown and as wispy as a flower stem, but she did have starch in her backbone. She was young and pretty, and her dress was of excellent quality, if not precisely modish by London standards. The current high-waisted style concealed her current dilemma nicely, he considered. She was tenderly ministering to her aunt, while her uncle and the vicar shared the fortifying contents of the earl's own flask. Kenyon took a long swallow when the flask was restored to him. He wiped his mouth and said, " I'll marry you."

Aurora fainted.

When order had been restored, the gawkers removed, the wedding party revivedexcept for Podell, who had been clobbered again by Lord Phelan for trying to escapethey all gathered in the vestry. And they all turned to the earl.

"Harland Podell married my sister, Brianne, a year ago," he began, "while I was abroad on a diplomatic errand for the government."

By this everyone understood that such a misalliance would never have taken place otherwise. Uncle Ptolemy nodded. "Being responsible for flighty young females is a devilish business."

To spare Miss McPhee's blushes, Kenyon continued. "He declared that he could not sell out of his army commission, not in time of war, not even for her. And a battlefield was no place for a lady, of course."

"Just what he told us." Aunt Thisbe sobbed into her sodden handkerchief. "We were so pleased to have our dearest staying on with us after the wedding, we never thought to question his credentials."

"He had none, madamcredentials, that is. When I returned, I found Podell gone, along with all of my sister's handsome dowry. She was of age, so there was no refuting his claim. That was about a year ago. Soon after the wedding, she received notice from another officer that Podell had been killed in action. My subsequent inquiries at the War Office, trying to reclaim my sister's portion or her widow's benefits, showed he had been cashiered out of the army five years before. The officer's signature was a forgery."

Uncle Ptolemy tsked. Aunt Thisbe wept louder. Aurora was too numb to do more than nod.

Lord Phelan was cursing beneath his breath. "I suppose you searched for him, Windham, what?"

"Yes, I had men scouring the countryside. That's how I discovered that Brianne wasn't merely, the victim of a scurrilous fortune hunter, but that her husband was a bigamist besides, making her own marriage illegal. Podell's family had sent him to Jamaica after he was drummed out of the army. He married a plantation owner's daughter there and sired two children. He might even have other wives. I'll find out as soon as the dastard wakes up enough for me to question."

"I'll help with the interrogation," Lord Phelan volunteered, holding up his fists and hopping around like a spindle-shanked, bantam-weight pugilist.

Windham turned to the young woman's uncle. "The man is a proven coward. I'm sure he'll tell us what we need to know without such drastic measures. And I am certain no one wishes to involve the magistrate's office in this matter."