Wrackwater Bridge, Book One
From the glitter of Regency London…
Knowing little of love, Anna Spain arrives for her one and only Season yearning for love.It’s surely fate when she falls for charming, handsome Gideon Aubrey—but when he spurns her in public, after seducing her with lies, she must find a way to support herself and her baby, or abandon the innocent child to the horrors of the workhouse.
To the grit of industrial Leeds…
For Lewis Aubrey, who has grown up under Gideon’s malignant shadow, there’s never been anyone but Anna Spain. Infuriated by his brother’s treatment of the woman he adores, Lewis steps in to shield her. He thinks he might even court her himself—until one day, without a word, she’s gone.
In a winter of impossible choices…
Can a heartbroken young mother learn to love again? Can her would-be hero endure raising the child of a brother he hates? Can one fragile infant bring these two splintered souls a second chance at love in rural Wrackwater Bridge?
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SILVER MEDAL Romance -- 2020 President's Book Awards sponsored by the Florida Authors & Publishers Assoc.
FINALIST -- Royal Palm Awards sponsored by the Florida Writers Assoc. (results in October)
FINALIST -- Maggie Awards for Excellence sponsored by Georgia Romance Writers (results in October)
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The London Season
Anna Spain hid her smile—easy to do in the dark carriage. She was not ready to reveal her secret, especially to Mama.
It had happened so fast! When they first danced together, she’d known Gideon Aubrey was the one. And this Adonis had fallen for her, the shy daughter of a Bristol manufacturer, whose best marriage option had been old Mr. Wexcombe.
“You look pretty tonight,” Mama said, begrudging. “No match for the Season’s diamonds, but you’ll do. Thanks to Putnam.”
Anna heard a cluck of disapproval from Putnam, Mama’s maid, seated across from them. Or perhaps it was an involuntary grunt as a wheel dropped into a chink between the cobbles.
“At all events, Mr. Aubrey can have no doubt about your interest. You present a convincing show of true love.”
“It isn’t a show, Mama. It’s real.”
“Of course it is, dear,” Mama said, with a perfunctory pat on the arm. “Very wise.”
Anna huffed in frustration. Could Cedric and Evelyn Spain possibly be her true parents? Surely neither of them ever had a romantic notion. The only poetry in the house Anna had borrowed from the lending library or written herself. However had they managed to conceive two children?
“It’s time to bring Mr. Aubrey to the point, Anna. I’ve let him haunt the house, even given you time alone with him. Your father will settle the finances, of course, but you must seal the deal.”
Mama talked of it as a business arrangement, but that was the tiniest part of it. If Mama had ever loved Papa the way Anna loved Gideon Aubrey, she would understand.
Well, Anna had done all she could, and more than she should, to seal the deal. Next week Gideon would go to Bristol to see her father. Then the whole world would know how fortunate she was. Nothing else in her eighteen years had made her think so, but now! Now she was promised to the perfect man, the man who’d filled her dreams since she first thought about men as anything other than father, uncle, or brother.
They joined the stream of guests entering the grand house in Brook Street, hired by Sir John Wedbury for his daughter’s first London Season. Miss Cassandra Wedbury officially celebrated her coming-out tonight, after six weeks of balls and routs. She had welcomed Anna into her circle though she was a success and Anna was not.
So strange to have a friend—almost as exciting as a fiancé. Both of them overflowed with confidence that bolstered Anna’s fragile self-assurance. She no longer shrank when she walked into a crowded ballroom like this one.
Two hours later, for what was surely the hundredth time since she arrived, Anna looked toward the door where Gideon must enter. It lay invisible beyond a sea of people, but Gideon stood half a head taller than most of the men in the room, with broad shoulders and splendid dark curls arranged across his brow. In any case, his presence made a room thrum with expectation. She would feel it in her bones when he arrived.
Anna dragged her attention back to her partner as they awaited their turn in the dance. Mr. Hudson was no Gideon, droning on about the functions of the Colonial Department, but he deserved her courtesy. So she smiled, admitting her ignorance while pretending interest.
Gideon was late, but he would come in time. The waltz would be next—their waltz, arranged yesterday during a private moment in the shrubbery at Kew Gardens. All the hours since, she’d looked forward to being in his arms.
When the set ended, Mr. Hudson returned her to Mrs. Worley, whom Mama had enlisted as Anna’s chaperone before absconding to the card room. No sooner had he walked away than Miss Cassandra Wedbury took possession of her arm.
“May I borrow Miss Spain, ma’am?” Miss Wedbury asked. “Mr. Aubrey is looking for her.”
The woman’s thoughtless wave showed her disinterest in the matter. She had no reason to care whether Anna danced with someone Mama had approved or with the devil himself.
“Mr. Aubrey?” Had Gideon sneaked past her guard? Naturally, he would first seek out Miss Wedbury at her debut ball to pay his respects—it was only polite. Their families were neighbors up in Yorkshire, after all. Not York itself, or anyplace that anyone had ever been, but some primitive village hardly worthy of a name, to hear Gideon speak of it. “Why do you think I live in London, my sweet?” he’d said, laughing.
Anna had laughed too. He had such a droll way about him.
But Gideon was not Miss Wedbury’s target. Instead, his younger brother watched their approach with Miss Wedbury’s own brother Jack.
Mr. Lewis Aubrey stood almost as tall as Gideon but thinner, his hair a lighter shade of brown with a tendency toward disorder, his expression serious and guarded in contrast to Gideon’s infectious grin. Miss Wedbury named him her best friend and confidant although she was so lively and he so quiet. Like Anna herself.
He was handsome in his own way and rather sweet. He’d spilled lemonade on her gown at Almack’s once, and she forgot to be annoyed as she soothed his mortification. She had liked him and flattered herself that he returned the sentiment.
Then Gideon had claimed her attention with jokes that made her laugh and compliments that made her blush. Swept away by his gallantry, she’d almost forgotten he had a brother. Which was not nice of her, but there was nothing she could do about it now, except show him she still liked him, though in a different way.
She greeted Mr. Wedbury politely and then shone her nicest smile upon the man who would be her brother-in-law. His eyes widened in surprise—yes, he had noticed her neglect these past few weeks.
“Has your brother been delayed?” she asked him after the obligatory courtesies. “He claimed this waltz when we talked yesterday.”
“I’m sure he…” began Mr. Lewis Aubrey, a blush creeping into his cheeks. “Miss Wedbury’s ball, you know. I mean to say…”
“Here he comes.” Mr. Wedbury’s voice sounded hoarse as he scowled at something behind her.
Anna spun around to follow the direction of his gaze. Exhilaration tingled from her fingertips up her arms, all through her chest, and down to her toes. Her voice vibrated with it as she greeted her betrothed.
“Good evening, Mr. Aubrey! I knew you would not miss our waltz.” As she spoke, she noticed the possessive way Miss Landrum gripped his arm and the challenge in her blue eyes as they met Anna’s own. Poor Miss Landrum thought Gideon could be hers.
She would learn her mistake soon enough.
Gideon raised his brows and surveyed Anna coolly before making her a formal bow. “I’m sorry, Miss…Paine, is it? This dance is promised to Miss Landrum.” He fondled the gloved hand resting on his sleeve and smiled down into Miss Landrum’s face. Anna blinked. Such a tender expression, so like…
“But don’t you remember?” she blurted out. “We agreed yesterday—”
“But Miss Landrum,” Mr. Wedbury said at the same time. “You said you—”
“Oh!” Gideon looked up with a start, as though he had not seen the rest of them standing there. “You know Miss Landrum, do you not? Miss Landrum, this is Mr. Wedbury and his sister, who was so kind as to invite us to her little party. And Miss…Sprain, is it not? And this,” he continued, giving the younger Mr. Aubrey a slap on the shoulder that knocked him off balance, “is my own baby brother.”
What was wrong with Gideon? He knew her name very well, and they’d all met a hundred times. He had a swagger about him tonight, and his eyes gleamed with devilry. Almost with evil.
Anna forced a laugh and shook her head. It was only a bit of mischief. “Oh, you’re teasing again, Mr. Aubrey.”
She would have gone on, making light of it, but Miss Landrum tossed a careless smile at no one in particular and tugged on Gideon’s arm. “Listen, they’re striking up for the waltz.”
“Beauty calls,” Gideon said with a grin. He stepped toward the dance floor with Miss Landrum.
“But, Mr.—” Anna couldn’t breathe. She lurched forward, reaching out to him. He never looked back.
Miss Wedbury put an arm around her waist, drawing her into the protection of their little flock. “It won’t do any good, I’m afraid. No, Miss Spain, you may not faint.”
“But I… He…”
“Shhh,” Miss Wedbury hissed at her. To the others, she said, “People are starting to notice. I’d best take her to the retiring room. Or to her mama.”
The words hurtled by as in a dream. Surely Anna must awake in her bed at any moment with the ball yet to come, the waltz, her whole future secure in Gideon’s love.
His brother spoke through clenched teeth. “And I’ll have to watch him gloat for the rest of the evening? I think not.” He took Anna’s hand and set it on his arm. “Come, Miss Spain. We’re going to waltz.”
“I can’t,” she mumbled. “I must—”
“No, you must not.” So fierce and hard-hearted. She’d thought him a kind young man, but his expression showed no sympathy as he led her in amongst the dancers.
Instead, he smiled. How could he, when her world was crumbling to dirt around her feet?
He bowed. She curtsied.
What am I doing? I must talk to Gideon, alone.
The younger Mr. Aubrey put his hands in the right places and set her in motion.
Why would Gideon play such a trick on me? When they next met he would chuckle, and call her a goose, and reassure her with kisses and words of love, and—
“I must apologize for my brother, Miss Spain. He has always been an inconsiderate fellow.”
She glanced at Lewis Aubrey, desperate to get away. To scream, to cry.
It would cause a scene. Break all the rules, embarrass him and herself, Miss Wedbury and her parents.
She missed a couple of steps, slewing around awkwardly in his arms. He righted her, his grip strong and secure.
When he spoke again, his voice was gentle, coaxing.
“Let’s play a game, Miss Spain. Pretend nothing’s wrong. My brother likes to see the misery he’s caused.”
She stared him in the eye. “I don’t believe it. He can’t have feigned it all.” Could he?
“I’ve known him a long time, Miss Spain. He enjoys it even more when there’s a room full of gossips to witness his triumphs.”
He was wrong. Of course he was wrong. To say such things of his own brother! Rivalry must drive him, or jealousy. Sour grapes.
“Miss Spain?” She returned her gaze to his. He grinned, ridiculous and exaggerated.
It was the hardest thing she’d ever done, far more difficult than walking into Almack’s the first time among all those people who belonged there.
But it was necessary.
He squeezed her hand, and for the rest of that dreadful waltz, they competed to see which of them could out-smile the other.
He won, but by heaven, she held up her end. He nodded his approval.
She wanted to cry.
The silence hissedin Anna’s head as they descended the grand staircase. Smile, Miss Spain.Smile, Miss Pain, Miss Plain, Miss Stain.Smile, smile, smile. She dared not meet her mother’s gaze.
It was getting late and they were not the only party awaiting their carriage. The voices rumbled through her head, sound without meaning. Still she smiled, in debt to Gideon’s brother, a rock standing obdurate in a roaring ocean of color and light. She forced the smile wider as her heart cracked open, spilling blood and dreams all through her body, leaving her dumb and teetering.
Anna found brief solace in the darkness of the carriage. Putnam’s presence precluded conversation beyond the obvious comments on the evening. In fact, it could not be called conversation at all.
“Quite a crush, was it not?” Her mother’s voice grated like sackcloth rubbing against a rash. Anna tugged off her gloves. “There was hardly a seat to be found in the card room. And I was winning, I’ll have you know. Why you must have the headache tonight, of all nights.”
A pause while Anna gnawed the inside of her cheek and fixed her gaze on the drizzle wetting the streets as they passed.
“Mr. Aubrey seemed keen on getting his waltz with you when we saw him yesterday. Did he not come after all?”
“He came.” As you would know, Mama, if you had done your duty.But perhaps it was better she had not. If Mama had been there when Gideon had appeared, Anna might have gotten one final waltz with him. It would not have changed the outcome.
In any case, it was too late for Anna to wish for a proper chaperone. Two weeks ago, she’d been delighted to be left entirely alone with Gideon.
The carriage stopped, the door opened. Despite the footman’s helping hand, Anna slipped as she set her foot on the wet step. Grasping for the edge of the doorway, she dropped her gloves into the muck.
“You go ahead, miss,” said Putnam with a tsk of annoyance as she climbed down behind and then bent to retrieve them. Anna hurried to the house under cover of the footman’s umbrella.
Mama followed her to her room, denying her even a moment alone. She began the inquisition as she undid Anna’s gown.
“That was Mr. Aubrey’s dance. Why did he not see to your comfort rather than that brother of his?”
“Mr. Aubrey cares nothing for my comfort.” Anna choked on the words.
“What?” Mama yanked the gown off over her head and then tossed it across a chair. “Speak up, girl!”
“Mr. Aubrey danced with someone else.” Anna’s voice sounded dull, inert, even as the shards of love and pride sliced her heart into mincemeat. To be treated with such contempt after all his declarations, his poetic recitations.‘A lovelier flower on earth was never sown,’ he’d quoted. ‘They sin who tell us love can die.’
She would never trust poetry again. However deeply the poet might feel the words he wrote, the man reciting them need not feel anything. He might in fact feel quite the opposite. Mirth and mockery.
“Someone else?” Mama snapped, her tone scalding. “And you did nothing?”
“I reminded him, though I’m sure it was improper. But Miss… The other girl was on his arm.” Anna swallowed the anger boiling up in her throat. “He pretended he’d forgotten my name.”
How could he be so insulting, so heartless? Her mother tugged at her stays, cutting off Anna’s sob. She clamped her lips tight and held her breath until Mama was finished.
“And Mr. Lewis Aubrey? What had he to say to anything?”
“He helped me avoid making a spectacle of myself.”
“Humph. If he wanted to help, he should have brought you to me. I would have made sure Gideon Aubrey fulfilled his promise.”
Oh, a marvelous sight that would have been. Her mother, torn from her card game, plowing her way through the dancers to drag Miss Landrum from Gideon’s arms. Maybe she would beat him with her reticule.
“Now, let’s put our heads together and figure out how to get Mr. Aubrey back. He’s the best you’re likely to get.”
“I don’t want him back.” Anna’s heart cried out that she lied, but it was the only possible decision. A man who would betray her after— No. She must not think of that until she was alone. She sat before the mirror but quickly averted her gaze, horrified at the face she saw there.
“Nonsense,” said Mama, jerking the pins from her hair. “It was merely a ploy to make you jealous, I’m sure of it. Or a test to see how much you really want him.Or perhaps nothing more than a wager at one of his clubs. We just need to play our cards right.”
Anna buried her head in her hands. She’d heard that men bet on all sorts of things. Had he wagered she was too love-struck to see through his charade? What if he’d wagered on how quickly he could…?
She fought the panic smashing at the foundations of her sanity. Her problems went far beyond heartbreak. She must get rid of her mother, and then she must think.
“How about Mr. Jack Wedbury, then? He’s nothing to look at, I grant you, but worth more, and a baronetcy into the bargain.”
“No, Mama.” Anna groaned, lifting her head. It felt heavy, like a rock. Mr. Wedbury was nice enough, probably, but he’d left no impression whatsoever. Nor had he shown any interest in her.
“So you admit defeat, girl?” her mother accused. “You’ll trudge home and marry Mr. Wexcombe? He has a grandchild nearly your age!”
Anna’s hands shook with the compulsion to cover her ears. The words bit deep, bitter and degrading. She had all but forgotten Mr. Wexcombe waiting in Bristol, drinking port with Papa as they discussed marriage settlements, waiting for her to fail. Mama had negotiated for this one Season, one chance for Anna to find someone better, a man who was both wealthy and youthful. Handsome too, if possible.
And Anna had found the man of her dreams. Or so she had thought.
“My God, Anna!” Mama’s gaze bored into Anna’s, her tone piercing. “Were I you, I would kiss Gideon Aubrey’s feet to get him back. Masculine perfection, or that old man? You just think about that, miss!”
Oh yes, Anna thought long and hard after the door slammed shut, though there was not much that was rational about the process. Mr. Wexcombe! She had known the man all her life. He had brought her sweets when she was small, trinkets as she grew older. Now he carried liver spots on his hands and decay on his breath, but he was not a bad man. He would treat her well. At his age, why should he even care that she was no virgin, as long as she gave him what he wanted?
But to have intimate relations with him? How could she bear the comparison with her memories of Gideon? His touch, his kiss, his murmured endearments.His hand slipping between her thighs, her heart soaring with the knowledge that he had chosen her to share his life.His plea that they should hold their love between themselves a short while, their own delicious secret.
Ha! No wonder he wanted to keep it secret. If his brother was right, it had all been fiction. Only a game.
Was it possible for a man to be so base? Was it possible for a girl to be so blind? Not only blind but stupid.All his talk of love, of their future together. He couldn’t live without her, couldn’t wait to make her his. Never once had he mentioned marriage, only implied it. And never once had she noticed! Why else should he visit her father, after all?
He wouldn’t. He had lied. She had heard what she longed to hear.
She dropped to her knees by the bed, but no prayer came, and no tears either. Fear stared her in the face with Gideon’s eyes, crinkled at the corners with the crooked smile that told her she was the most desirable woman in the world. The only woman he would ever love.
Except he had not loved her at all.If his brother was right.
Prove him wrong, Gideon, please prove him wrong!
She would give him one day. If he came tomorrow and begged her pardon, and pledged his heart, and told Mama of his intentions… If he did those things, Mr. Wexcombe did not stand a chance.