His Perfect Bride – Heather Boyd

Ophelia Shaw set her hand upon Mr. Drayton’s sleeve, grateful for his support as she hobbled along on her wooden foot and bamboo cane, but aware her stomach was bound in knots. Ophelia’s anxiety had a lot to do with the man at her side…but also with another, currently absent gentleman’s likely reaction to a question she’d been recently asked. “I very much enjoyed your sermon today,” she assured the vicar. Stephen Drayton was not much taller than herself, gray-haired and pleasant to look upon but not handsome. He was at least fifteen years older, though she had never dared ask his exact age. Stephen Drayton had sad brown eyes that perfectly matched the equally somber attire required for his profession as a country vicar. He had asked her to marry him last week after a subtle inquiry about her place in the duke’s household. Honestly, she couldn’t have been more surprised. Drayton was a good man, and yet Ophelia harbored doubts about accepting his offer of marriage before the Duke of Montrose returned. Her late husband’s cousin might not like the connection. And Ophelia couldn’t picture herself as a proper and prim country vicar’s wife, even if such a marriage might be her only choice for a secure future. Ophelia could never imagine sharing the marriage bed with Stephen Drayton, either. He didn’t excite her passions in the least. Drayton chuckled.

“Are you sure? I could have sworn I heard snoring from your side of the church,” he teased. He was amusing at times. Mr. Drayton liked to tease her, but only when no one could hear him do it. She laughed softly. “Snoring?” “Delicate snoring. Tiny sounds. Though perhaps, now I think about it, Mrs. Mason was sitting a distance behind you. I always manage to put her to sleep with my sermons.

” Ophelia liked that Drayton’s offer of marriage and her failure to answer in the affirmative immediately had not affected their interactions thus far. Marriage was a big decision to make a second time round. The first time, Ophelia had jumped in without any real consideration for the consequences or knowing the full character of the man she would wed. She’d told Mr. Drayton she’d give him an answer soon. But as the days passed, she was no closer to knowing what to do. Drayton was too polite to complain that a woman her age ought to know her own mind by now. “Your sermon has given me much to think about.” Mr. Drayton’s eyes lit up.

“I had hoped so.” She shivered. “Montrose will not be home with his bride for some weeks yet.” Mr. Drayton nodded slowly. “His bringing Sherringford a new mistress has everyone excited. More than a few widows and unwed ladies are put out that Montrose had not considered them for the role. He’s taken us all by surprise. Speaking of marriage, have you given any more thought to my proposal?” So much for giving her time. Drayton’s proposal had been contingent on the duke not needing her anymore to run his household, a responsibility she enjoyed and that gave her purpose.

She had become quite fond of her new home, and the duke too. Not that Montrose could have any clue he was so often thoughts or like that she foolishly imagined him in her bed some nights. That was one of the reasons she hadn’t dismissed Mr. Drayton’s proposal out of hand. She was also aware that the expense of a wife, one with her physical limitations, would put a strain on Drayton’s pocketbook, more so than if he married someone more ablebodied who didn’t need a maid’s help for almost everything. Stephen Drayton had thought they would be good company for each other. He’d spoken of a quiet life of prayer and doing good for others. To be completely honest, Ophelia worried that she’d grow bored with such a life. She may not be the devil-may-care debutant of her youth, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to still be in the thick of things and live a passionate life. Stephen was well informed but not brilliant.

He didn’t fascinate her like other men could when he spoke, but he did not put her to sleep during his sermons, either. Yet if not a marriage to this man, and if Montrose had no more use for her, what would she do with her life? Ophelia had done nothing but wonder about that since the moment she’d first arrived at Sherringford—newly widowed and unable to move about easily. It had been a relief that Montrose had charged in and made decisions, as her husband had complained he was wont to do. Montrose had come as soon as he’d learned of her husband’s passing and her injuries, though Paul and Montrose had not been close cousins. Upon waking after the accident, Ophelia had become aware of a male presence beside her sickbed, though his head was bowed. At first, she’d mistaken the man for her husband and had threaded her fingers into his soft dark hair. When Montrose had lifted his face instead, blinking his sleepy green eyes, her heart had started to pound in shock and panic. Her husband had been dead a week by then, Montrose had told her brusquely, and was already buried, his life stolen by the same carriage accident that had crushed her foot beyond repair and required an amputation. It was very likely only because of Montrose that she was alive to this day. He’d browbeaten the surgeon and maids into doing their best work and stayed to oversee her recovery.

He’d refused to allow her to give up, too. She remembered his insistence and the words he’d uttered over and over each night, when she couldn’t sleep for the pain. Stay with me. She had. Her recovery had taken months. While she recovered, Montrose settled her husband’s debts and packed up their modest belongings, sending them on to Sherringford, his ducal estate. Ophelia had been relieved to have him take charge because, aside from her husband’s family, she had no one else to turn to. But seeing Montrose’s severe expression at her bedside each morning had been a somewhat unnerving experience for those first few weeks. Ophelia had only met Montrose once before the accident, a month after she’d married his cousin. She remembered how awkward she’d felt, and self-conscious around the austere and clearly disapproving duke.

He hadn’t helped to make her feel at ease around him, either, being curt and seemingly impossible to please. He also never smiled. But from the day she’d woken after the accident, he’d become her lifeline. When she announced her belief that she was fit to travel, the duke had insisted on a delay of another week and then borne her home to Sherringford in grand style—traveling in easy stages that had still left her exhausted each night when they’d taken shelter at a succession of inns. She had slept most of the trip, reclining in Montrose’s well-padded carriage during the day. He’d sat across from her the whole way to Sherringford, hardly taking his eyes from her, it had seemed. And then, once at Sherringford, he’d abandoned her to the care of an army of servants, and she’d hardly seen him but once a day as he enquired how she fared. She owed him so much, and had no means to ever repay him. She also had no explanation for why he’d taken such a personal interest in her recovery at the beginning, when she’d suspected early on in her marriage that he hadn’t even liked her. But when she’d become restless with her confinement and able to move around his vast home on crutches or in a wheeled chair, he’d suddenly offered her the challenge of running his household, with a battalion of servants to do her bidding.

Her new role had helped Ophelia set aside her grief, and also gave her an excuse to get out of bed each morning. She’d assumed, though it was never spelled out, that it was only ever to be a shortterm arrangement. He’d said nothing about making the position permanent. But weeks had dragged into months with no discussion of the future until one day, out of the blue, he’d confided that he would make a change in his life, and thus hers as well. His announcement that he would be going to London to marry had come as a complete shock. She recalled standing frozen in his presence, not knowing what to say, and feeling like her world was about to end all over again. The day of his departure she recalled with perfect clarity. She’d stood with the servants on the drive early one morning as his carriage rolled away and had started to weep because he was leaving her behind. Ophelia had quickly brushed away her tears before anyone saw of course, and had turned for the manor, determined to make the house perfect for his return, and for the future Duchess of Montrose. But during the long nights and endless days of his absence she had worried about him.

Worried more than she felt she should. “I have been thinking of the future, of course,” she told Mr. Drayton with a sincere smile. “Until I am certain of the duke’s wishes for the future, I cannot yet answer. Leaving could inconvenience him and his new wife. I owe him so much after all the kindness he’s shown me.” Marriage was a big step for a woman—especially for one with only one foot. Drayton was not the sort of man Ophelia would once have paid any attention to. However, she was not a respectably dowered young lady anymore with the world at her feet. Especially not now; she did not even possess two feet to stand upon.

She did not hope to make a better marriage…but wondered if she had to make any at all. Drayton picked up her free hand and clasped it firmly in his. She noted his hands were dry and rather soft. “Well, no matter what happens, always remember you were a welcome addition to our society when you came. Your kindness to us all has impressed us. Especially me. You have done a lot of good here in Montrose’s name. That means a lot to our little community.” She blushed at his praise. She did have a tiny bit of influence over the Duke of Montrose, but that would likely end when he married.

She hoped the future duchess could persuade him the way she had, and do better, too. Montrose had confessed he’d chosen a lady of great fortune but had never been persuaded to describe the woman in any detail. Ophelia assumed her young, fashionable, and very beautiful. Like all the wives of great men should be. The toe of her false foot caught on the edge of a flagstone, and she would have fallen flat on her face if not for Drayton catching her and pulling her close. “I have you,” he promised. “Hold tight to my arm and I’ll help you to the carriage.” “I’m fine,” she promised, pushing aside his assistance quickly, flustered as much by her tripping as by Drayton’s nearness. “You’re doing very well. So much improved since the day we first met, my dear.

” Ophelia almost winced at the endearment that rolled off his tongue. She really should have given Drayton an answer, but she had the added excuse of Montrose’s extended absence to delay giving it. Living upon Montrose’s generosity and charity meant she’d been able to forget certain hard truths about her situation. She would need to learn the state of her financial affairs before she committed herself to any match. Ophelia’s knowledge of finance was very limited, a fault of no one’s but her own and her rash impulse to elope with her late husband, allowing him to keep her in the dark. “You are very kind. I am sure Montrose will discuss how things will change when his bride arrives.” Mr. Drayton nodded, his fingers returning to claim hers. “If you need someone to confide in after, I’m available to you at any time,” he promised.

“I know how distressing talking to him can be.” Ophelia pulled her hand back. Too much familiarity could have tongues wagging. “The Duke of Montrose has been nothing but kind to me.” “Of course,” Drayton said soothingly. “You are kind to overlook his bad manners to others. I’m glad to hear, at least to you, he can remember to be gallant.” Ophelia wouldn’t stand about to hear anyone disparage Montrose. “Yes, he can be cutting to those who displease him. That is the way of duke’s.

Good day to you, Mr. Drayton.” “Mrs. Shaw,” Drayton murmured with an apologetic smile, as if realizing he’d gone too far in his critique of her cousin by marriage. “Might I have the honor of assisting you into your carriage.” “I am capable of the feat alone now, thank you,” she assured him. Most of the time. She hobbled away from Drayton before he could detain her with further conversation. Montrose’s grooms loitered by the second-best carriage not far away, partaking of the sunshine instead of the sermons inside the stuffy church house. She did not blame them.

She had avoided church most of her life once, too. But soon after her arrival, Ophelia became aware that people of the district viewed her with a certain degree of hostility and suspicion, and gossiped about the arrangement she had managing the Sherringford great house. She had come to church as soon as she was fit enough, though Montrose disagreed that she ever needed to bother. He didn’t seem to realize or care that her presence in a bachelor’s household might be considered scandalous. Ophelia had done all she could to project an image of dignity and decorum while in society. At the door to the open carriage, she faced the interior with weary resignation. This was the tricky part. Climbing up two steps into a carriage was not always simple, but she refused to be lifted in anymore. No matter how well-intentioned that help might seem, Ophelia was tired of always feeling embarrassed afterward. A pair of grooms rushed to stand at each side of her, ready to catch her should she become unbalanced and start to topple.

She handed one her cane and took hold of the newly added rails at each side of the carriage doorway and hopped up. On the first step, she wobbled. On the second, she grinned, but the harder step was still to come. She had to stretch farther forward without anything substantial to hold onto and hop inside to finally reach the carriage seat. As she made an attempt, she wobbled—and then someone grasped her firmly around the waist from behind and steadied her. “I have you.” Ophelia fairly flew across the carriage then and landed horribly awry across one seat. Her skirts became wrapped around her legs, making it hard to straighten up with any sort of ladylike precision. She was embarrassed, her cheeks flaming. The hands around her waist, the voice, had belonged to the Duke of Montrose.

The duke was back. The carriage shook, and then gentle hands lifted her up and deposited her on the seat properly. She looked up at the Duke of Montrose’s stern face in utter surprise as he settled into the opposite seat. “You are home,” she noted, then blushed even more. She had thought of him every day since he’d left her behind. It was such a relief to see him again that she fought to contain her overwhelming happiness. But contain it she must because the duke would likely not appreciate her making a fuss over him. “Indeed. I should have known I would find you here again amongst the grasping rabble,” Montrose grumbled. Montrose was not religious, they had that in common, and he had little time for the vicar, too.

He’d never forbidden her from attending services on Sundays, but he never looked happy when she was on her way out the door. He threw a thunderous scowl at the lingering grooms, who scrambled to return to their positions posthaste. Only with his nod of approval did the carriage begin to roll forward, driving them back toward the Sherringford Estate. Ophelia wet her lips, suddenly nervous of him. “I wasn’t expecting you for some weeks yet.” He grunted, scowled darkly, and Ophelia knew better than to ask another question straight away. The duke was a moody man. He could terrify his servants just by dropping a book too loudly. She glanced out the window and spotted his larger closed traveling carriage following them home. So, he was only just back.

Had he brought his bride with him already? She lifted her hand, prepared to wave to the new duchess, until Montrose spoke. “Don’t bother. There’s no one in the carriage,” he told her. Ophelia met his gaze slowly, astonished by the news. Montrose had promised to return with his bride. He had sounded so sure that he would be a married man the next time they saw each other. “What do you mean?” He scowled again. “She changed her mind.” “Oh,” Ophelia said slowly—and was ashamed to realize she felt immense relief at the news Montrose was not married, or about to be. And then anger on his behalf.

“But why?” “Isn’t it explanation enough that she released me from the engagement?” he snapped, and then his jaw clenched. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Ophelia bit her tongue. She wouldn’t be getting any more conversation out of Montrose until he was calmer. She’d made a study of his moods and behaviors over the past months. If she pried, he’d throw up his defenses, and he’d tell her nothing at all.

.

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