Her Accidental Groom – Nadine Millard

Lady Natalia Soronsky’s heart was racing, though outwardly she remained calm. It was a big change for a young woman, moving from Russia to England. Natalia attending Miss Fincham’s finishing school had been something her English mama had dreamed of for her daughter. “It shaped me into the woman I am today, Talia. And it will shape you into the woman I know you can become.” Natalia was a precocious child. She’d heard that sentiment enough to know it must be true. Papa called her a rough diamond. He was sorry to see her go but could see the merit in her travelling to her mother’s family in England and attending finishing school before returning home and choosing a suitable husband from the Russian nobility. That was the plan for Natalia’s life, and at only twelve years old, she had neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to argue. Travelling to England seemed a grand adventure to her young mind. Certainly, she would miss her family greatly; Mama, Papa, and the twins Petr and Andrei. But she would also get to know her mother’s family properly, given that she would be staying with Aunt Mary, Mama’s sister, when not at Miss Fincham’s. Natalia stood on the deck of the ship, watching the unchanging expanse of water all around her. By the time she returned to Russia, she would be a proper English lady, just like Mama.

And, Papa informed her regularly during the long, monotonous trip to England; she would come home, meet the gentlemen that Papa wished her to marry, pick one, and live out her life just as he intended. CHAPTER ONE “I just cannot believe it has come around so quickly.” Talia bit her lip anxiously as she ran her gaze once more over Mama’s elegant handwriting, though she could have recited by heart what the letter contained at this point. Her friend, Lady Beatrice, reached over and patted Talia’s hand sympathetically. “Surely your father does not expect you to travel so close to Christmastide?” she said with worry, a frown creasing her forehead. Natalia shook her head swiftly, her sable curls bouncing with the action. “No,” she sighed. “He is coming here.” Her ice-blue eyes scanned the missive once more. My dearest Natalia, Your father has decided on three suitable grooms and believes it is time you return home.

We will travel to England to spend Christmas with my sister, and then we will all return home to Russia so you may choose your husband. The twins are so looking forward to seeing you, as am I, my dear. Eight years is far too long to spend away from you, my daughter. With all my love, Mama It was true, of course. Eight years was too long. What’s more, it was four years longer than it should have been. The plan had been for Natalia to come to England and attend Miss Fincham’s finishing school from ages twelve to sixteen then return to Russia, enter Society, and meet the right sort of gentleman. But from almost the first moment Natalia had arrived in England, she had fallen in love with the country. And while she missed Russia and her family, she had been so very happy here. Besides, as she’d gotten older, Natalia had realised that the last thing she wanted was a husband picked for her by her father, especially before she’d even set eyes on him! Natalia wanted to live her own life.

Choose her own path. And going home to Russia, to a man of whom Papa approved, was certainly not living her own life. For four years she’d managed to put her father off. First by claiming that she needed to experience a London Season to be a truly well-rounded lady like Mama, then by claiming Aunt Mary was in ill health and needed Natalia by her side. The latter was only half true. Aunt Mary had been in ill health, but she had never expressed a wish to have Talia remain with her, though she was always happy to have her there. With only sons, Aunt Mary had enjoyed having a surrogate daughter around. But Freddie and Joseph were married now, with wives and children, and Aunt Mary had plenty of family nearby. Talia was running out of excuses. And it seemed like Papa was running out of patience.

“What will you do?” Bea asked now. “What can I do?” Talia countered. Beatrice and Natalia had met on the first day of Miss Fincham’s finishing school and had been fast friends ever since. Bea was the only child of an obscenely wealthy widow, Lady Fortescue. When they met, her friend had been missing her recently deceased father, and Natalia was missing her family, so the girls had bonded from the start. Given that Bea had no siblings, only an odious, arrogant cad of a cousin, Lord Benjamin Trafford, Earl of Staunton, the girls had grown closer still, like sisters. They had been introduced since Lady Fortescue and Aunt Mary were neighbours, their country seats only five miles from one another. But the friendship that had grown from that first introduction was genuine and precious to them both. The drawing room in which they now stood was as familiar to Natalia as her own home with Aunt Mary, so often did she come here. How could she leave all of this behind? How could she say goodbye to Beatrice and the life she’d known here to marry some Russian nobleman she’d never even met? She couldn’t.

It was as simple as that. “Perhaps, if you reasoned with your father?” Beatrice said now, a tinge of desperation in her voice. “Perhaps, if you explained how happy you are here, how settled?” “It’s no use, Bea,” Natalia answered, though her mind was whirring with crazy, insane possibilities. “My father isn’t a man to be reasoned with,” she finished distractedly, schemes and potential plans flitting around her head. Papa was determined for her to marry. But what if she were already engaged by the time he got here? Her family would arrive in England next week. And Christmas Day was two weeks after that. Father intended for them all to be gone by Twelfth Night. All she needed, Natalia thought excitedly, was a fiancé. Someone to whom she could be betrothed – or at least fake betrothed.

It would only need to last long enough to buy her some time. Long enough to get Papa to return to Russia without her. If she could convince her father that she was engaged and that she would wed the year after, that he could return to England from Russia then to see her married, she wouldn’t be forced to go home and marry a stranger. A lot could happen in a year, she reasoned as she hastily thought through her scheme. The man could cry off! Or, or be killed at sea, or something equally tragic. If she were heartbroken, that would buy her at least another few years. Even her father wouldn’t force her to marry if her one true love was at the bottom of the Atlantic. “Bea,” she turned to her friend, hearing the excitement in her own voice. Bea’s hazel eyes widened at whatever she saw in Talia’s expression. “Oh Lord,” her friend said dubiously.

“What are you up to?” “I need a fiancé,” Natalia declared triumphantly. Beatrice frowned, a light brown curl falling over her forehead with the action. “Erm – yes,” she said in confusion. “Isn’t that what we’ve been worrying about?” “Not a real one,” Natalia said with exasperation. “A fake one.” “Whatever do you mean?” Bea gasped. Natalia jumped up and began pacing on the Aubusson rug. “Father is determined to see me married. But he didn’t say when he wanted me married by. If I can make him think I’ve found a suitable match here in England, that should be enough to throw him off.

To get me my freedom, at least for a while, until I figure out something more permanent.” Beatrice shook her head. “It all sounds very complicated,” she said. “And dishonest,” she added, her tone laced with disapproval. Beatrice was nothing if not proper and decorous at every turn. “Couldn’t you just marry someone and stay here?” Natalia immediately shook her head. “No, I could not,” she said firmly. “I won’t marry a man unless I’m quite desperately in love with him,” she continued determinedly. “And if I haven’t met such a man up until now, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll meet one in the next week.” She moved swiftly back to the chaise, sitting in a flurry of white sprigged muslin.

“I just need a fiancé until Papa goes home,” she said quickly. “And then I can kill him off or make him a blackguard who breaks my heart.” Bea’s eyes widened in alarm, but Talia ignored it. Sometimes Bea just didn’t have the stomach for what was necessary. And she’d never really shared Talia’s flair for the dramatic. “And when you break this ‘engagement,’” Bea said with a frown. “What then? Your father will just come right back and take you away.” Natalia frowned. Hmm. An excellent point.

But soon enough she rallied. “I’ll simply deal with that when the time comes,” she said airily. “After all, if I kill him off, I could be broken hearted for years,” she finished gleefully, ignoring Beatrice’s gasp of disapproval. There was a short silence whilst Bea mulled over Natalia’s plan. Eventually, however, she spoke again. “It seems you are determined,” Bea said, and Natalia could sense a however coming. “However,” her friend continued, “There is one rather large problem you have yet to address.” “Oh?” Natalia smiled rather smugly, for she knew her plan was practically fool proof. “And what’s that?” “There is the matter of the gentleman, Natalia,” Bea said. “Where exactly are you going to find a man of whom your father will approve, and who will agree to a crazy charade such as this?” Another excellent question.

But Natalia wouldn’t be deterred. “Come,” Natalia said suddenly, too worked up to remain seated inside. “Let’s go for a walk in the garden. It will help me think.” CHAPTER TWO Benjamin Trafford, Earl of Staunton, pulled at his cravat as he awaited an audience with his aunt. Aunt Elizabeth, or rather Lady Fortescue, was a formidable woman, of that there was no doubt. She was his father’s older sister and, more importantly, the widow of one of the richest Peers in Christendom. The title and holdings of the Fortescue earldom had passed to the lady’s nephew on her husband’s side, since she hadn’t begotten a son. But her own money was still not to be sniffed at. In fact, upon her husband’s death, Aunt Elizabeth had inherited a fortune that would rival that of a small country’s.

Benjamin was ashamed to say that his aunt had been bankrolling the family almost since his infancy. Ben’s father had been a wastrel who had squandered the family money before Ben had been out of short trousers. His death ten years ago had left Ben with an earldom in chaos, a mountain of debt, and a real possibility of debtor’s prison. For the last decade, Ben had fought like a lion to keep his head above water. He had refused to take any more money from his aunt. Instead choosing to be parsimonious with what little he had. His sisters were taken care of – both receiving Come Outs as were befitting the sisters of an earl. But he’d been frugal with it. Having only a skeletal staff in London and refusing to spend more than absolutely necessary on their fashions. Thankfully, it had paid off, and they both found themselves happily married and no longer relying on Ben to finance them.

Their dowries had almost crippled him and had only been available because he’d sold two hunting lodges, one in Scotland and one in Wales, and he’d lived on the bones of his arse for years now, providing for his mother and his tenants as best he could within the confines of limited cash. But it never seemed to be enough. Everything he made he pumped back into his estates so they were at least in the black, if only just. But there was no real possibility of things improving unless he got an influx of coin, and fast. When Aunt Elizabeth had sent word that she wished to see him, Ben thought perhaps it was Providence. A sign that the time had come to rid himself of his damnable pride and ask his aunt for help. With money in the earldom’s coffers, he could invest properly in his farmlands, increase his investments in his various business ventures, and start to make real money. Money he could pay back to his aunt sooner rather than later. Ben had a keen eye for business and had never made a bad investment. He could change the future of the family title for years to come within six months.

He knew he could. Perhaps even start thinking about his duty to marry and produce an heir. But nothing could be further from his mind right now. For one thing, he would never even consider marrying someone and dragging her into the current financial mess he was in. For another, there wasn’t a single lady of his acquaintance to whom he felt even a passing attraction. He stood agitatedly and walked to gaze out at the wintry morning. Ben loved it here. He’d been planning on arriving next week for the yearly festivities as it was. And he would, of course, stay on now given that his own seat in Sunderland was so far from Essex where his aunt resided. The extra week didn’t particularly bother him.

Though he was curious as to why whatever this was couldn’t have waited a mere seven days. A movement outside the window of the morning room in which he stood awaiting his aunt’s arrival caught Ben’s eye, and he moved to peer out into the gardens. It was freezing outside, with frost still clinging valiantly to the grass and bare branches of the deciduous trees. Ben immediately located the source of the movement and frowned. His cousin Beatrice was walking briskly through the flowerbeds stripped bare for the winter, and beside her, Lady Natalia Soronsky. Ben’s eyes narrowed as he took in the two ladies. Bea blended into the dull surroundings, bedecked in a thick, grey winter coat and black bonnet. His cousin had never been the type to draw attention to herself if she could help it. Lady Natalia, however…she was another matter entirely. The chit couldn’t blend in if she tried.

Not only was she Russian nobility, and therefore somewhat exotic amongst the English roses of the ton, but her beauty was very nearly intimidating. Tall for a lady, she still only reached Ben’s chin. Not exactly willowy but certainly seeming that way beside his shorter, plumper cousin. Her hair was the darkest black, almost blue when the sun hit it. He’d never seen anything like it. And her eyes – they were like chips of glacial ice. She looked like a Nordic Goddess, coolly beautiful and untouchable. But even as he watched, she looked at something Beatrice pointed out and burst into a fit of giggles that he could hear even from behind the closed window. There was nothing cold about her laugh. And there was nothing cold about Ben’s surprising and unwanted reaction to seeing her smile.

However, he comforted himself with the knowledge that of every young miss he’d ever met, Lady Natalia Soronsky was by far the most annoying. So, whilst he could acknowledge how beautiful she was, it didn’t mean he liked her. Quite the opposite, in fact. She used to come back here on breaks from finishing school, spending long summer days following him and demanding to be allowed to join in with whatever it was he was doing. She and Bea had been joined at the hip from the first and completely inseparable. Yet whilst Bea had always been happy to leave Ben to his own devices, given that he was already a young man and therefore as uninterested in twelve-year-old girls as possible, Natalia had clung to him and insisted on trying everything he was doing. He’d drawn the line when he’d caught her dragging a shotgun out of the gun shed in order to try shooting quail. Aunt Elizabeth had insisted on Ben spending at least some of his breaks from Eton and then Oxford here, treating him as the son she’d never had. And Ben had been grateful for it, as his aunt had shown him, in ways his father never could have, how to be responsible with money and run a successful earldom. The only blight had been the little miss walking with his cousin in the garden.

Before Ben could examine that peculiar stirring he felt again too closely, the door to the morning room opened, and Aunt Elizabeth swept in, formidable in maroon-coloured skirts. Her gown, Ben noticed, was only a shade or two darker than the rich red Natalia was currently wearing. And the fact that he noticed annoyed him. “Good morning, Aunt Elizabeth.” He strode over to place a kiss on her aging cheek. “How well you look this morning.” “Tsk.” The lady shooed away his compliment. “This cold is no good for my bones.” Ben escorted her to sit by the already crackling fire in the hearth then rang for tea.

“Though you may dislike the cold, Aunt, I know you love the season.” He grinned. “Tell me, how many have you invited to your Christmas Eve ball this year? I seem to recall we had a hard time stuffing them in last year.” “Stuff and nonsense,” Aunt Elizabeth replied stoutly. “There was plenty of room, as there will be this year. And we are to host rather exotic guests this year.” “Oh?” “Indeed. I’ve just had it from the girl’s aunt. She called this morning at a rather unusual hour. But Natalia was desperate to speak to Beatrice.

” There was a timid knock, and a maid arrived with a silver tea tray. Aunt Elizabeth set about pouring, still chattering away. “Lady Natalia’s family are arriving to take her home, and they will spend Christmastide at our neighbours’, so of course they have been invited. Not just to the ball, but to all of our planned activities for my guests.” Ben was momentarily speechless. “Home?” he asked. “Back to Russia?” “Just so.” His aunt nodded. “Her father has decided it’s time the girl married, and so they will be returning to Russia in January. He has some suitable gentlemen lined up.

” Ben couldn’t have said why the news made him feel unsettled. Perhaps he was just used to having the chit around. Even if interactions with her inevitably ended in a headache. “Beatrice will miss her,” he manged, whilst accepting his tea. He hated the stuff, but he would drink it dutifully. “Terribly.” Aunt Elizabeth sighed. “And you know, much as I worried the young lady would be a bit of tearaway, which she is, she’s been good for Beatrice. Brought her out of her shell somewhat. When she goes, I worry that Beatrice will never go out into Society again.

” Ben didn’t respond as his mind tripped over the news. It would be – strange. Not having her around. Quieter though. And infinitely more peaceful. “Perhaps it will encourage Bea to settle down herself,” he said in what he hoped was an encouraging tone. The truth was he didn’t think that would happen. His cousin was shy as a church mouse. “Yes, perhaps. I admit that I’ve grown accustomed to Natalia.

It won’t be the same around here without her. She certainly brightens up the place. I’m sure whoever she marries will be counting his lucky stars to have one such as she on his arm.” Aunt Elizabeth eyed him shrewdly for a moment, before turning her gaze to her cup. Ben and Lady Fortescue then fell into a pensive silence. “Anyway—” His aunt’s voice jolted Ben from his thoughts. “That’s not why I’ve called you here, of course.” “Y-yes, of course.” Ben shook his head slightly and attempted to concentrate on the matter at hand. Aunt Elizabeth put her cup and saucer back on the tray, and Ben followed suit.

A vague feeling of foreboding awoke inside him. Aunt Elizabeth’s face had grown serious. More serious than he was comfortable with. “Benjamin.” She reached out and clasped his hand in both of her own. “You know I have always cared a great deal for you. Loved you as though you were my son.” Ben’s feeling of foreboding increased exponentially. He was terrified the dear lady was about to tell him she was dying or some such awful news. “I have never been more pleased in my life than when I realised you were nothing like my wastrel brother, that your father hadn’t shaped the man you’ve become.

” Foreboding gave way to confusion. “I have watched you fight, and struggle, and claw the family back from the brink of disgrace, and I commend you for it. Truly. You have made both your mother and I inordinately proud.” Ben felt a knot of nausea form in his stomach. Here was his aunt exclaiming how proud she was that he’d stood on his own two feet, and not twenty minutes ago he’d been contemplating asking her for a loan. Well, he wouldn’t ask her now. Come Hell or high water, he would find his own way out of his troubles. “But,” Aunt Elizabeth continued. “I know what a struggle it must be for you.

Just as I know that you are too prideful to ask for my help.” He nearly laughed aloud at the irony. “And the truth is, I don’t want to lend you money.” Ben’s heart sank, but he retained his equanimity. “O-of course, Aunt.” He smiled, if a little weakly. “That being said,” Lady Fortescue continued, as though he hadn’t spoken. “Whilst talking about money is rather vulgar, the fact is I have more of it than I know what to do with. Beatrice will continue to be a very wealthy woman. And you, my other benefactor, will be a very wealthy man.

” Ben froze. Surely she didn’t mean that he would inherit part of her fortune? He had never had any such expectation from the lady. “But – “ “Your sisters are settled,” his aunt went on, ignoring his spluttering. “And even if they weren’t, I’m honest enough to admit that you have always been a favourite of mine. “I could ramble on all day.” She let go of his hand and sat back, eyeing him intently. “But what it comes down to is I want to give you your fortune now. Bea will be well taken care of in my lifetime and has as obscene dowry should she choose to marry. On my death, she will be one of the wealthiest women in Christendom. In short, she doesn’t need the money now.

And I suspect you do.” Ben’s head was spinning. Never would he have imagined that he would be summoned by his aunt for this. “You’re a hard worker and a good man, Benjamin. So instead of making you wait until I shuffle off this mortal coil, as the bard would have it, I am going to give you your inheritance now.” Ben’s heart nearly flew straight out of his chest. He couldn’t quite believe it. Could it really be that, just like that, all his worries would be over? “There is, however, one condition.” As quickly as the excitement had come, it dissipated. “What is that, Aunt Elizabeth?” Outwardly he was calm.

Inwardly he was a raving lunatic. “As I said, you are a hard worker. Too hard working, to my mind. You are getting older, Ben. And whilst my brother was a scoundrel, my father was not. I want to see his name carry on. And you are so entrenched in your work that I’ve never seen you even glance at a lady, never mind court one.” What the hell is this? Ben wondered. Not liking for a second where his aunt was going. “In short, Benjamin, I will give you the money—” his aunt paused long enough to put the fear of God into him.

“When you announce your betrothal.”

.

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