Wicked: Reluctant Brides Trilogy by Cheryl Holt
New York Times bestselling author, CHERYL HOLT, delights readers once again with the first sizzling story in her new “Reluctant Brides” trilogy…
Rose Ralston has spent her life at Miss Peabody’s School for Girls—first as a student, then as a teacher. But with Miss Peabody’s passing, the school has been closed, the students sent away, and Rose is facing an uncertain future. As Miss Peabody’s will is read, Rose had been told to expect a small bequest, but she’s stunned to discover that her inheritance is a dowry that’s already been paid to an elderly widower. The man is in quick need of an heir, and Rose can agree to wed or she’ll get nothing and will have no money and nowhere to go. She’s never lived on her own, and without family or friends to assist her, she’s out of options. Reluctantly, she agrees to the marriage and heads off to the man’s Summerfield estate.
James Talbot grew up at Summerfield. But as an orphan, his position was never exactly clear. The owner, Stanley Oswald, constantly tormented James with the secrets of his parentage. Rumors abound that he’s Stanley’s natural-born son, but the truth has been impossible to unravel. Needing to escape Stanley’s manipulations, James has spent the past decade in the army. But Stanley has lured him home, and when James learns of Stanley’s pending marriage, he can’t help but be intrigued. He’s eager to engage in a little mischief, and nothing would give him greater pleasure than to ruin the match before it begins.
Rose is fascinated by handsome, virile James, but bound to wed elderly, decrepit Stanley. As Stanley woos her and James interferes, any wild ending seems possible. For Rose—who only ever wanted a home of her own—she just might end up with more than she ever dreamed.
RELUCTANT BRIDES… When love is the key and dowry the bait, who can predict what a woman might do?
“…a master of the genre.”
Romantic Times Magazine
“…a master writer.”
“There is no money for any of you.”
At Mr. Thumberton’s announcement, Rose Ralston blanched with surprise.
She’d been told to expect a bequest from poor, deceased Miss Peabody. During the woman’s final days, as her condition had deteriorated to the point of no return, she’d been very lucid. She’d been possessed of her faculties.
She’d insisted Rose would receive an inheritance.
Rose hadn’t wanted to seem like a vulture, circling with avarice as they’d stumbled to the end, but she’d been counting on that inheritance. She’d built up a dozen fantastic scenarios as to how she’d spend it.
Yet it wasn’t likely that Mr. Thumberton would be mistaken. He was a renowned solicitor who served only the most prominent families, and for decades, he’d been Miss Peabody’s attorney and advisor. He’d handled her business affairs, drafted her contracts, and sued the double-dealing fathers who refused to pay tuition they owed for their daughters to attend Miss Peabody’s School for Girls.
He’d written Miss Peabody’s will for her. He had to be aware of the terms.
“Excuse me,” Rose interrupted, “but I could have sworn you just claimed there is no money for us.”
“You’re correct,” Mr. Thumberton somberly replied.
Rose glanced over at her two friends, Amelia Hubbard and Evangeline Etherton.
The three of them had comprised Miss Peabody’s faculty, all coming to the school as students and orphans when they were very young. They’d lived in the dormitories, had grown up playing on the beautiful, manicured grounds. As they’d completed their educations, Miss Peabody had had such faith in them that she’d kept them on as teachers.
Now, at age twenty-five, they’d never resided anywhere else, had never had to establish themselves in the outside world. They weren’t even sure they had the skills to succeed elsewhere.
For months, they’d been worrying over their plights and pondering what Fate held in store. Ultimately, Miss Peabody had assured them that they needn’t fret, that she’d provided for them.
Her promise had eased their anxiety and tempered the sorrow they’d suffered over her passing. Though she’d never been much of a maternal figure, she was the closest thing they’d had to a mother. Stern and fair and blunt, she’d doled out guidance as well as criticism and praise when they were due. She’d done her best, and they were grateful for her tutelage.
She’d never married and had no heirs. Her life had been devoted to her school, to the girls she’d taught. If anyone had been her family, it was Rose and Amelia and Evangeline. They were as near to relatives as could be found.
They’d thought to pool their bequests, buy the school, and run it themselves. It was a grandiose idea, and they’d had hundreds of conversations about what they would retain, what they would alter, who would be in charge of what duties. The planning had supplied a flare of optimism during a very dark period.
“I don’t wish to question your assertion,” Rose tentatively ventured, “or to sound greedy, but as Miss Peabody was failing, she told us we would each receive an inheritance.”
“She was very clear about it,” Amelia agreed. “We were mentioned in her will.”
“I understand,” Mr. Thumberton commiserated, “and I apologize for any confusion.”
“Did she change her mind about us?” Evangeline asked. “Did she decide we didn’t deserve her assistance after all?”
“No, it’s just that she…” He paused and sighed, shaking his head as if he was vexed and upset. “She provided for you—but not in the way you were anticipating.”
The three women scowled, and Rose queried, “What do you mean?”
“She greatly lamented the fact,” he explained, “that she never wed or had a family of her own.”
“The school was her family,” Evangeline loyally declared. “She always said so.”
“That’s what she said,” he pompously retorted, “but when people are facing the end, they often have many regrets.”
“She regretted the school?” Amelia inquired.
“No. She simply wondered if she should have made other choices. The notion haunted her—especially that she never had any children. She grew to think every woman should have the chance.”
“So…where does that leave us?” Rose asked.
“I have some information for each of you.”
He reached into his satchel and pulled out three files filled with papers. As he handed them over, he looked abashed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I tried to talk her out of it, but one of the difficulties of my profession is that clients don’t listen.”
Evangeline frowned. “What are you sorry about?”
“She’s bought you husbands.”
Amelia gasped. “She…what?”
“She felt you’d be wasting your lives if you remained spinsters. She thought the three of you should marry, that it would be the best conclusion. She used the proceeds from the estate as dowries.”
“Dowries?” Rose stupidly mumbled as if she’d never heard the term before.
“Yes, and they’ve already been paid.”
“I don’t want to…to…marry.” Evangeline hurled the word like an epithet.
“She believed you should,” was his unruffled response.
Rose gaped at her file, seeing her name—Rose Ralston—printed in big letters. But there was another name, too, and it swept through her with incredible unease: Stanley Oswald.
“This man,” she said to Mr. Thumberton, “this Stanley Oswald. I’m supposed to wed him?”
“I’ve never even met him. How could I?”
“Miss Peabody met him for you. She had his background thoroughly checked and decided the two of you would be a perfect match.”
Nervously, Rose peered at Amelia and Evangeline, and they were staring at her in return, their expressions demanding she do something. Of the three of them, Rose had always been their leader.
“We assumed,” Rose said, “that we would receive money. We had planned to pool our resources, to purchase the school and keep it running.”
“There was never any chance of that,” he said.
“We could have!” Evangeline insisted.
“The property was mortgaged to the hilt,” he stated.
“I thought Miss Peabody owned it free and clear,” Amelia said.
“She did—in the distant past. But the entire enterprise was very expensive and many families were negligent about paying tuition. It was a constant problem.”
“She took out mortgages to stay afloat?” Rose asked.
“We didn’t know. She never mentioned it.”
“Well, she wouldn’t have, would she? She wasn’t the type of person to air her troubles in public.”
“No, she wasn’t.”
There was a fraught, excruciating silence, then Amelia queried, “What now?”
“The property has been sold to square the debts, with the balance used for your dowries. The facility is closing, so you’ll have to notify the students. Over the next month, they either have to head home or to another school. They have thirty days to vacate.”
“And what about us?” Evangeline inquired. “What are we to do?”
“You’ll have this month to deal with the students, then you’ll have a month after that to arrive at your new…situations. Your husbands are expecting you.” His cheeks flushed bright red, and he turned to Rose. “Except for you, Miss Ralston. I’m told that your fiancé is elderly, and he’s requested you leave right away so the wedding can be held at once.”
“She’s betrothed me to an old man?” Rose bristled.
“Not old precisely. Just…older.”
“This is insane,” Evangeline muttered. “Miss Peabody is dead, and we’ve been at her beck and call since we were babies. She can’t direct our lives from beyond the grave.”
Amelia snorted with disgust. “It certainly appears that she has.”
“What if we refuse to comply?” Evangeline asked of Mr. Thumberton. “What if we strike out on our own?”
Mr. Thumberton shrugged. “Then I don’t know what will become of you. The dowries are your gift from her. There’s nothing else.”
Rose scowled. “We’d be tossed out on the road?”
“I wouldn’t think it will be that drastic. You have two months to apply for other positions.”
“It’s the middle of the school term, Mr. Thumberton. How could we find another post so quickly? And there are three of us.”
“I’m aware of that fact, Miss Ralston. As I previously mentioned, I tried to talk Miss Peabody out of this scheme.”
“Why didn’t you?” Evangeline harshly chided.
Rose leaned over and patted Evangeline’s hand to calm her. Evangeline had always been excitable. Rose and Amelia liked to go along and get along. Evangeline was the one with a temper, with a spark of mischief, the one most likely to land herself in a jam. She’d never been able to accept consequences or blithely obey ridiculous commands. She argued and dissected every circumstance.
“It’s not his fault, Evangeline,” Rose said.
“He aided and abetted her in her lunacy.”
“I did,” he admitted, “to my immense regret, but she was very determined. She felt if she simply gave you the money, you’d spend it and then you’d have nothing. She was buying you security. It was her method of protecting you.”
“But…husbands.” Evangeline actually shuddered.
“Yes, husbands.” He frowned. “It’s not the end of the world, Miss Etherton. You’re not the first women in history to be pushed into arranged marriages. There are many worse conclusions for a female. You’re not even related to Miss Peabody. She could have kicked you out the door without a penny in your pocket.”
“Yet she didn’t,” Rose mused.
“Lucky us,” Evangeline sarcastically retorted.
“These sorts of unions,” he contended, “where the parties are carefully selected, can be extremely successful.”
“These men are strangers to us!” Evangeline wailed.
“But not to Miss Peabody,” he continued. “She went to a great deal of trouble on your behalves. She picked gentlemen who will compliment your personalities, who will furnish you with the futures you deserve.”
They were quiet again, stunned, shocked beyond measure. Finally, Amelia gazed at Rose and inquired, “What do you think, Rose?”
“I don’t know. It’s all so sudden.”
“It’s an even faster—and more difficult—decision for you, Miss Ralston,” he reminded her. “Miss Hubbard and Miss Etherton can dither and debate, but your fiancé has asked us to send word today that you’re on your way.”
Rose paled. “Today?”
She couldn’t believe it, couldn’t come to grips with the bizarre turn of events.
She’d been expecting money, a bequest that would have allowed her to carry on in the same condition in which she’d muddled through for years. She’d thought they could buy the school, that they could remodel and decorate and make the place their own, but she could see now that it had been a fool’s dream, perpetrated by a trio of inexperienced, naïve ninnies.
Hadn’t she secretly wished she could wed and have children? Hadn’t she secretly hoped that a dowry would magically appear? She’d never had any prospects and had no relatives who would claim her, so she’d assumed her position as a teacher was her only option.
Miss Peabody had given her a different choice, had opened up a whole new opportunity. Should she refuse the gift that had been bestowed? After all, if she didn’t take the husband and the change of situation, what would she do?
Mr. Thumberton had insisted she’d have nothing, and the notion of being without funds or alternatives was terrifying.
“Can I ponder this for a bit?” she asked him.
It seemed a reasonable request, but his reply was too, too infuriating.
“You can have a half hour to confer with your friends,” he said. “I’ll be waiting for your answer.”
CHERYL HOLT is a New York Times, USA Today, and Amazon “Top 100” bestselling author of over thirty novels.
She’s also a lawyer and mom, and at age forty, with two babies at home, she started a new career as a commercial fiction writer. She’d hoped to be a suspense novelist, but couldn’t sell any of her manuscripts, so she ended up taking a detour into romance where she was stunned to discover that she has a knack for writing some of the world’s greatest love stories.
Her books have been released to wide acclaim, and she has won or been nominated for many national awards. She has been hailed as “The Queen of Erotic Romance” as well as “The International Queen of Villains.” She is particularly proud to have been named “Best Storyteller of the Year” by the trade magazine Romantic Times BOOK Reviews.
She lives and writes in Hollywood, California, and she loves to hear from fans. Visit her website at www.cherylholt.com.
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