The Earl's Mistaken Bride

By: Abby Gaines

Love Inspired Historical

\Chapter One


April

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

from him.

“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

future bride.

“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

event.”

He didn’t mean inevitable to sound quite so

distasteful.

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

week….”

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

long-cherished ambition.”

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

his chin.

“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

employment.

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

girl.

“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

leaving.”

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,

my lord.”

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

said.

“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

her….”

“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

wiser—”

“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

than fair.

“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

love her.”

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

business.”

“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

unbeliever.”

“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

of Spenford.

Marcus didn’t waste time pointing that out. He’d

come here for a wife; he’d found one. Nothing else

mattered.





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

grounds.

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

through her.

He glanced behind him at the rectory. “Miss

Somerton? You’ve had a shock. Should I drive you

inside?”

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,

and smiled.

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

become reality?

“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

you.”

“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.

“Why me?”

“His mother must have recommended you,” Margaret

Somerton suggested. “Her ladyship was always fond of

you.”

“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

mother asked.

“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

hand.”

“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

feelings.





“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

livelihood.

“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

daughters.”

Constance’s

youngest

sister,

Charity,

vowed

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

divine Providence.

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

other happy.”



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