Bride By Mistake

By: Anne Gracie

One



London 1819

“You’re a madman, Ripton!”

Luke Ripton shrugged and gathered his reins. “The curricle can be repaired, Jarvis. At least your horses aren’t injured.”

“No thanks to you!” Jarvis snarled. “Passing me like that—you damned near grazed my wheels—”

“But I didn’t,” Luke coldly interrupted. The man drove like an over-anxious debutante. “There was no need to swerve so violently. You had only to hold your nerve.”

“Nerve? I’ll give you nerve.” Jarvis started forward, only to be restrained by the friends who’d come to witness—and bet on—the race.

“Steady on, Jarvis. Lord Ripton won fair and square,” said one of his friends.

“You were a fool to challenge him in the first place,” said another, a little too drunk for tact. “Everyone knows Ripton don’t care if he lives or dies. Makes him—hic!—unbeatable.”

Luke tipped his hat to his still fuming opponent and drove away. Was it true? Did he care if he lived or died?

He considered the question as he drove back into town. It was not untrue, he decided as he turned into Upper Brook Street. He wasn’t certain he deserved to live. He’d tempted fate often enough.

But fate, it seemed, had other plans for him.

The letter in his pocket confirmed it.

He pulled up outside his mother’s town house. The house belonged to him, of course—it came with the title he’d inherited when his uncle and cousins had been drowned two years ago. But though Luke was fond of his mother and youngest sister, he preferred not to live with them. His mother had a tendency to fuss. Luke preferred his bachelor lodgings, a neat suite of rooms in Clarges Street, where nobody questioned his comings or goings.

“Thank God!” Lady Ripton exclaimed as Luke entered the drawing room. She rang for fresh tea and cakes.

He kissed the cheek she raised. “I’m not unduly late, am I?” She’d asked him to call on her in the morning. It was just before eleven.

“No, but I was worried about you, of course. These frightful races! I don’t understand why—”

“—why impertinent busybodies bother you with things that are not your concern,” Luke interrupted. He’d done his best to keep such activities from his mother, dammit.

“Not my concern? My son, my only son, risking his neck in the most reckless—”

“My neck is in perfect order, Mama. I apologize for any unnecessary worry,” Luke said crisply. And when he found out who’d been passing tittle-tattle to his mother, he’d wring their neck. “Now, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

As if he didn’t know. Molly’s impending come-out was all his mother and sister talked of. Even though Luke had given her carte blanche to order whaatever she liked, Mama still wanted him to approve all the arrangements—her way of reminding him he was head of the family. How she’d react if he ever actually made a suggestion of his own…

Mama had been a widow since Luke was a schoolboy and Molly a little girl. Luke had been away at war since he was eighteen, and Mama had managed to launch and successfully marry off Luke’s two older sisters. She was accustomed to ruling the roost, though if anyone suggested as much, she would be horrified. It was a man’s job to rule.

So each week they went through the ritual of Mama producing plans and expenditure and Luke approving.

He drank his tea and listened with half an ear. Today he was even less interested in her arrangements than usual. He had to tell her about the letter in his pocket.

She wasn’t going to like it.

“Now, about the ball, I thought we’d invite forty to dine beforehand. Molly and I have compiled a list, but there’s the question of who you would like us to invite. I don’t mean dearest Rafe, Harry, or Gabe, and their wives, of course—naturally they are already on the list. Molly has never forgotten how, when she was still a little girl, all you boys promised to dance with her at her come-out. Thank God you all came back from the war.”

Not all, Luke thought, but then his mother hadn’t known Michael very well.

“Is there anyone special you’d like me to invite? Any special lady?” she said with delicate emphasis.

“Lady Gosforth?” he said, naming his friends’ great aunt.

His mother slapped him lightly on the hand. “Do not be provoking, Luke. You know very well what I mean. It’s two years since you came into your uncle’s title, and it’s high time you thought seriously about marriage.”

Ah. His opening. Luke set down his teacup. “As to that, I have been thinking seriously about marriage.” Damned seriously, in fact.

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