The Earl's Mistaken BrideBy: Abby Gaines
Love Inspired HistoricalChapter One
Piper’s Mead, Hampshire, England
“I wish to marry one of your daughters.”
Marcus Brookstone, Earl of Spenford, was certain his
position and wealth more than compensated for the
urgent, somewhat irregular nature of the request. Every
father in England would be honored to hear those words
“I gathered as much from the message you sent.”
Reverend Adrian Somerton removed his spectacles.
“How is your dear mother?”
Marcus spread his fingers on the arms of the
rosewood chair and forced himself to appear at ease.
The reverend’s study was a fine enough room, but
smaller than Marcus was used to. Whether it was the
room, or the awkward nature of his mission, he felt
hemmed in. Trapped.
He turned his neck slightly within the starched collar
of his shirt, seeking relief from the constriction. He
couldn’t bear to discuss his mother’s fragile condition,
even with her parson. More particularly, he couldn’t
bear any delay.
But the Earl of Spenford always behaved in a manner
befitting his position.
“The dowager’s health is somewhat worse,” he
informed the reverend stiffly. “I hope my marriage will
be a source of strength for her.”
“Indeed.” Reverend Somerton’s smile managed to
convey both understanding and a shared grief.
A churchman’s trick, Marcus supposed, but a good
one. He wondered if the reverend had positioned the
leather-topped oak desk precisely so the fall of April
afternoon sunlight through the study window should
bathe him in its glow, making him look as reverent as
his title suggested.
Sitting in relative dimness, Marcus recalled assorted
sins of which he probably ought to repent. He quelled
the instinct to squirm in his seat. He was here for his
mother’s sake, and the reverend’s affection for his
patroness, the Dowager Countess of Spenford, was both
genuine and reciprocated, which was why Marcus
expected full cooperation.
A series of framed embroideries hung on the wall
behind the rector. The colorful words were Bible verses,
Marcus guessed, though they were too distant to read.
The kind of needlecraft with which genteel country
ladies occupied their time. There were five of these
works of art, each presumably the handiwork of one of
the reverend’s five daughters. One of them Marcus’s
“Am I to understand,” Reverend Somerton inquired
gently as he polished his spectacles with a
handkerchief, “your primary aim in seeking a wife is
your mother’s peace of mind?”
Marcus bristled, unaccustomed to having his actions
questioned by men far more important than the rector of
a quiet parish in Hampshire. But this particular parson
was not only the man whose sermons he’d sat through
as a child, he would soon be Marcus’s father-in-law.
“I have always planned to marry, of course,” he said.
“The age of thirty seemed reasonable. I’m now twenty-
nine. I won’t deny my mother’s illness has spurred me
to action, but only to bring forward an inevitable
He didn’t mean inevitable to sound quite so
The rector gave him a quick, assessing glance. “I fear
my daughters,” he said, “lovely though they are, may
lack the sophistication to which you are accustomed.”
“I have had ample opportunity to—” take my pick “—
engage the interest of a young lady in London, but this
has not occurred.” Rather, though Marcus might have
engaged their interest, they had not engaged his.
Reverend Somerton and his wife would prove more
pleasant relatives than some of the grasping parents
he’d encountered in the city, he mused. The rector was
of excellent birth, even if he’d forsaken his noble
connections to “serve the Lord,” as Marcus’s mama put
it. Two of the Somerton daughters were beauties—in
the absence of fortune or title, the world would expect
Marcus to settle for nothing less. His father would have
insisted upon a bride worthy of the Earl of Spenford.
Marcus insisted upon it, too.
“I am still at a loss to understand why you alighted on
the idea of one of my daughters.” The rector’s manner
remained pleasant as ever, but his persistence was
beginning to grate on Marcus’s taut nerves.
“It is my mother’s desire—and mine—that I should
find a Christian bride.” He schooled impatience out of
his voice. “I have known your daughters at least as long
as any other young lady of my acquaintance, and I hold
them in the highest regard.”
No need to mention the bargain he’d struck with God
on the subject. He wasn’t sure how reverends felt about
mere mortals bargaining with the Deity.
Marcus Brookstone, Earl of Spenford, would bargain
with whomever he chose.
He pressed into the arms of the chair, ready to leave if
the reverend didn’t come to heel. “Sir, I regret to inform
you this is a matter of some haste. While I would like
nothing better than a courtship of normal duration—”
an untruth, since he could think of nothing more tedious
than courting a country miss “—upon securing your
consent I must return to London immediately. I’m not
happy to have left Mama even for the journey down
here—her physician has said she may have only a
Mortifyingly, his voice cracked. Somerton made a
hum of concern.
With the ease of long practice, Marcus set sentiment
aside and pursued that slight advantage. “The marriage
would take place as soon as a special license can be
obtained,” he said, his words thankfully steady.
Today was Monday. He could have the license by
Thursday evening and return here Friday morning. In
normal circumstances, Marcus would avoid the
unsavory implications of such a hasty wedding, but his
mother’s failing health ensured no gossip would attach
to his actions.
“I would wish the marriage to take place here.”
Reverend Somerton settled his spectacles back on his
nose. “To perform my daughters’ wedding services is a
At last, some indication the man would consent!
Marcus had expected this condition, had reconciled
himself to it on the journey down.
“Of course,” he said magnanimously. “All I ask is
that my bride and I leave for London in time for me to
present the new countess to my mother that evening.”
Somerton pressed his thumb to the distinctive cleft in
“Which of my daughters do you have in mind?” he
asked. “Serena, my oldest, isn’t here. She is governess
to the Granville family in Leicestershire.”
Marcus frowned. That would have to cease. The Earl
of Spenford couldn’t have a sister in any form of
He’d left London struggling to remember any of the
Somerton girls’ names—five was a ludicrous number of
daughters for any family—despite having encountered
them many times previously. Not only in church, where
they filled the front left-hand pew in the company of
their mother, but also at dinners and receptions held at
the homes of nearby gentry. Including Palfont, the
estate bequeathed to Marcus’s mother, which would
return to her family coffers upon her death.
She will not die. I have agreed it with God.
He’d had nightmarish visions of taking tea with all
five Somerton sisters, inspecting them as if they were
horseflesh before making his choice.
Thankfully, circumstance had spared him that.
“Miss Constance Somerton…” he suggested.
“Constance,” the rector said, delighted. “Why, that is
excellent news.” All of a sudden he seemed more kindly
disposed toward Marcus’s request.
Marcus could guess why. He’d encountered Miss
Constance Somerton a short while ago in the village,
when he’d climbed down from his curricle at the Goose
& Gander, not wishing to be forced to prevail upon the
rector for refreshment.
Having eaten, and about to leave the inn, he’d heard a
female cry out. In the stable yard, he’d found the
prettiest girl he’d ever seen, trying to sidestep around a
young man of clearly amorous intentions.
“May I be of assistance, miss?” he’d inquired of the
“Yes, please, sir.” She turned a relieved face toward
him. Then recognized him. Alarm flashed across her
features, putting a pretty pink in her cheeks as she
curtsied. “I believe, my lord, Mr. Farnham was just
Bellingham, the squire’s son, Marcus recalled,
stammered an apology to the girl before scuttling away
like a beetle. Marcus took a step after him.
“He meant no harm, my lord,” the girl said quickly.
“I’m certain he regrets presuming on our friendship.”
Marcus decided to let the youth go; doubtless he’d
learned his lesson. “That is gracious of you, Miss…?”
She blushed deeper. “I—I’m Constance Somerton,
Marcus started. “How remarkable. I’m on my way to
visit your father.”
“Indeed, my lord?” She’d recovered her composure
and spoke with a demureness belied by the dimple
dancing in her left cheek.
“Allow me to drive you home in my curricle.”
She cast a longing look toward the fine pair of gray
horses an ostler was walking up and down. “My lord,
Papa would not be pleased to discover me abroad in the
village. It’s best if I walk home.”
“But that will take at least an hour,” he protested.
“My sisters and I walk it all the time.”
Perhaps that explained her slender figure. In which
case, how could Marcus complain?
“Very well.” He executed a bow of a depth he would
usually reserve for an equal in the peerage, and was
rewarded with an appreciative twinkle in her near-violet
eyes. “Your servant, Miss Somerton.”
Her beauty and lively nature were more than he’d
dared expect. She would command the admiration of
Society…he just hoped she was of marriageable age.
“My lord…” She hesitated as she curtsied. Her eyes
widened in an unspoken plea.
He guessed what she wished to ask, and appreciated
her delicacy in not framing the question outright. Yes,
with a little guidance, Miss Constance Somerton could
be the ideal bride.
“No benefit will be served by my mentioning to your
father that I met you here,” he assured her.
“Thank you,” she breathed. Her hand touched his arm
ever so briefly.
Now Marcus returned Reverend Somerton’s smile
with understanding. Constance Somerton’s liveliness
was doubtless a source of concern to her parents—he
suspected the average parson’s daughter was far more
docile. Not to mention her appeal to the local young
men. Her parents would be delighted to have her safely
off their hands.
“I believe I don’t speak out of turn when I assure you
Constance holds you in the highest esteem,” Somerton
“I’m happy to hear it.” Marcus wondered why the
man felt obliged to say such a thing—naturally all the
Somerton girls would appreciate his position. He
remembered there was still one potential obstacle. “Er,
how old is the young lady?”
He would have put her at seventeen, better than
sixteen, which would have been impossible, but still
arguably too young. Though in a year or two the
maturity gap between them would narrow…?.
“She turned twenty last month,” Somerton said. “She
is my second daughter.”
Twenty? Marcus was surprised, but pleased. Though
no one would dare accuse him to his face of robbing the
nursery, he hated to be the subject of gossip. His father
had spent years schooling him to be worthy of his
title—he would not let it fall into disrepute again.
“Unfortunately, Constance is sitting with a sick friend
this afternoon,” Somerton said. “I could send for
“That won’t be necessary.” Knowing full well
Constance wasn’t at a friend’s sickbed, Marcus had no
desire to land her in trouble. “I must return to London—
in addition to the wedding license and to reassuring my
mother, there are marriage settlement documents to be
drawn up. I propose an allowance of—”
Reverend Somerton held up a hand. “My lord, your
family has never been anything but generous to mine. I
trust you to create a settlement that will be fair to my
daughter and her offspring.”
Marcus would do exactly that. His position demanded
it. But still, such na?veté seemed irresponsible. “Sir,
your trusting nature does you credit, but you might be
“Naturally, I will read the settlement document
thoroughly before I sign it.” The reverend smiled
kindly. “If it’s not fair, I won’t sign it and the marriage
will not take place.”
Not so naive after all. He knew Marcus wouldn’t risk
that. The settlement wouldn’t be fair; it would be more
“Of course,” Marcus said stiffly. He gathered his
riding gloves and stood.
“One more thing.” The reverend did not rise, a
surprising breach of courtesy, yet his holy calling made
it impossible for Marcus to take offence. Or to take his
leave. “You do not love my daughter.”
Just when Marcus thought the awkwardness past!
He had the uncomfortable sensation his face had
reddened. “I cannot love what I do not know.”
“An excellent reply, my lord.” Somerton’s smile
bordered on indulgent. “For to know Constance is to
It was the comment of a hopelessly doting father. The
kind of father Marcus had never had. He found himself
touched by the rector’s paternal loyalty.
“Sir, you know enough of my family’s history to
understand that a—an infatuation is the last reason I
would marry,” he said. “But it is my hope a strong and
natural affection will develop in my marriage.” He
would not use the word love, as the parson had. Love
was what a chambermaid might feel for a groom. Love
had almost destroyed the Spenford earldom in the past;
it would not be given the chance to do so again.
Affection seemed a proper objective for his marriage.
“I know your mother to be a lady of great faith,”
Somerton said. “Do you share her faith, my lord?”
Marcus tensed, but he said lightly, “Indeed I should,
sir, having listened to your sermons for so many years.
However, I believe a man’s faith to be his own
“And God’s,” Reverend Somerton added with a slight
smile. Not before time, he rose to his feet. He came
around his desk, stepping out of the sunshine that made
him look so dashed holy. “You are right, my lord. It’s
not for me to judge a man in his faith. However, I
wouldn’t like any of my daughters to marry an
“Then I’m happy to assure you, you need not fear,”
Marcus said. This was the worst interview of his life—
he thanked heaven a man must only be interrogated by
his father-in-law once. An irritating urge to prove
himself worthy of Somerton’s paternal devotion, the
kind of urge he should have outgrown, made him add,
“It may comfort you to know I prayed before the outset
of this journey.”
Perhaps not a conventional prayer of the kind a
reverend might favor…but Marcus had spoken to God,
had he not?
“Thank you, it does indeed comfort me.” The
reverend moved to open the study door. This awkward
encounter was finished.
“I wish you Godspeed.” Reverend Somerton shook
Marcus’s hand. “I will discuss your offer with
Constance this evening. If she does not wish to accept, I
will send word immediately.”
Living in a house filled with women must have
addled Somerton’s brain. The parson’s daughter— any
parson’s daughter—would be honored to marry the Earl
Marcus didn’t waste time pointing that out. He’d
come here for a wife; he’d found one. Nothing else
THE CURRICLE PULLED out of the rectory gate right
in front of Constance, so close that one more step would
take her smack into the side of a very large gray horse.
She gave a yelp of surprise, and the driver, who’d
been looking to his left for traffic, somehow heard her
over the clatter of hooves and the rattle of bridles. He
immediately reined in the horses, coming to a stop.
“My apologies,” he called.
Lord Spenford! It had been an age since she’d seen
him. Why was he here? She wanted to call out an
assurance that no apology was needed, though in fact it
was: he should have been looking. But as usual, the
sight of him reduced her vocabulary to a few nonsense
words and made her feel as if it had been days since her
last meal. She steadied herself by reaching a hand to the
brick wall that ran along the front of the rectory
Lord Spenford jumped down, still holding the reins of
his grays. “Are you all right?”
His voice was exactly as Constance remembered—
deep, beautifully modulated. It sent a delightful shiver
He glanced behind him at the rectory. “Miss
Somerton? You’ve had a shock. Should I drive you
Such consideration! Such— She realized that by now
he must be wondering if she’d been struck mute since
the last time they met. “I’m quite well,” she said.
“Thank you, Lord Spenford.”
It sounded as if she was thanking him for almost
running her over.
“I was going too fast,” he said ruefully. “In a hurry to
get back to London. No excuse for such poor driving.”
“Don’t think about it,” she said. “I know you must be
worried about your—about the dowager countess.”
He gave her a surprised look, then his face closed
over. “Indeed,” he said briefly. “If you truly are unhurt,
Miss Somerton, I will resume my journey.” He sprang
back up onto the curricle. About to drive off, he
checked the horses. “We will meet again soon,” he said,
Then he was gone, and all that was left to show he’d
been there was a cloud of dust and what Constance
knew must be a sappy expression on her face at the
memory of that smile.
“HE WISHES TO marry me?” Constance sat stunned
on the sofa in the rear drawing room, closed off from
the front room except when the family had company.
“Me? Not Isabel or Amanda?”
It was the answer to a prayer she’d never dared utter.
A dream come true, an absurd fantasy…now about to
“He can’t have meant me, ” she said faintly. Hoping
against hope that he had. “I saw him outside. He didn’t
say a word.” He almost killed me! Although, he had
said, We will meet again soon. How could she have
guessed he meant in church, at our wedding?
“Nor should he, before your father spoke to you,” her
mother said. “Besides, Lord Spenford was in a hurry to
return to town…but he definitely wanted you, my dear.”
Her mother patted her knee, as she smiled at her father,
occupying one of the Hepplewhite chairs he frequently
condemned as too spindly. “Didn’t he, Adrian?”
“So he did,” her father confirmed. “Mind you,
Constance, I’m not telling you the earl’s in love with
“Of course he’s not,” she said quickly. “His sort
doesn’t marry for love.” Unlike my sort. She frowned,
still struggling to believe this marvelous proposal.
“His mother must have recommended you,” Margaret
Somerton suggested. “Her ladyship was always fond of
“That must be it,” Constance agreed. “It’s been more
than a year since I last spoke to Lord Spenford. He has
certainly not been enchanted by my conversation.”
It went without saying he hadn’t been enchanted by
her physical charms: she had none.
“His lordship’s desire to marry now is largely to
please his mother,” Adrian inserted.
Constance nodded. She did not find that odd, quite
the opposite. Marcus Brookstone, Earl of Spenford,
might be rumored to enjoy every pleasure of the ton,
but he loved his mama dearly, always had, and
Constance admired him for that.
Among other attributes.
As if he read her thoughts, her father prompted, “I
was correct in assuming, my dear, that you would
welcome this proposal?”
Constance felt pink in her cheeks. Her long
infatuation with Lord Spenford hadn’t gone unnoticed
by her family. “Yes, Papa,” she murmured. Slightly
defensive, she added, “I know him to be a good man.”
Her father thumbed the cleft in his chin. “My dear,
his reputation is not spotless.”
“None of us is perfect,” Constance pointed out.
“True,” her father agreed.
“Constance, you don’t find him a little proud? ” her
“Margaret!” The reverend shifted on his chair, which
wobbled, causing him to mutter ominously.
“Much as I admire your reluctance to condemn
people, Adrian,” Margaret Somerton said, “Spenford is
widely regarded as a proud man. I preferred him before
he became the heir.”
“Mama, he was just a boy,” Constance protested.
“The man is always different from the boy.”
Marcus had been born the second son of the previous
Earl of Spenford. Stephen, his older brother by six
years, had been by all accounts the perfect heir. Until he
died in a hunting accident when Marcus was fifteen.
“A delightful boy,” Margaret corrected her. “Until his
father, who by the by was also a proud man, took him in
“I don’t find Lord Spenford at all proud.” The event
that had informed Constance’s opinion would seem
trivial to her parents. But three years ago she’d realized
Marcus Brookstone was a man worthy of her deepest
“All I’m saying is, you’re not obliged to accept this
offer,” her mother said. “Your father’s future may be
uncertain, but we are confident God will supply.”
Constance didn’t know how, even with their faith, her
parents could remain so calm. Her father’s insistence on
taking the Word out to the laborers in the fields, or
wherever they might be, had landed him in trouble with
his bishop. He’d been accused of Methodism, of
creating a schism in the parish. It was monstrously
unfair, when her father held unity and inclusiveness
within the church as one of his dearest tenets. There
was a risk the bishop might remove him from the
parish; her parents would lose their home and
“I don’t expect any of you girls to marry if you don’t
wish it,” the rector confirmed. “St. Paul himself said it’s
better not to marry if one can be content in the single
life, and while my heirs will never be wealthy, you will
live in modest comfort. But blessed as I have been in
my own marriage—” he reached across to squeeze his
wife’s hand, almost over-setting his chair “—it
wouldn’t surprise me if God’s providence should
include loving husbands for at least some of my
frequently to live with Mama and Papa the rest of her
days. But in truth, Constance had expected to be the
spinster of the family.
With four sisters prettier than she, she was used to
going unnoticed by all, with the exception of her
parents. And perhaps of older people, like the dowager
countess, who seemed to find her plainness soothing.
Though the local young men were scrupulously polite
in greeting her, in asking her to dance after they had
danced with her sisters, no marriageable man had ever,
as far as she was aware, seen her. Looked past her
sisters, past all other young ladies, and chosen her.
Marcus Brookstone had.
Her mother said dubiously. “I hope the earl will know
how lucky he is to win you, Constance.”
“How blessed he is, my sweet,” her husband
corrected her. Though in many ways the most tolerant
of men, he didn’t allow luck to be given credit for
Constance took a deep breath. “Papa, I believe God
has given me this opportunity, and I wish to accept his
lordship’s proposal. I am certain we can make each