The Banished Bride
Book One—Scandalous Secrets
A drunken wager, a roll of the dice . . . Forced by their wastrel fathers to wed, Aurora Sprague and Alex Woodbridge have been man and wife for thirteen years. And yet they have barely laid eyes on each other—because the first and last time they ever saw each other was at their hasty marriage, and even then it was through a thick lace veil—and a haze of drink.
Banished to a remote estate by her unwilling husband, who immediately joined the army and headed off the war, Aurora has since carved out a independent life for herself helping mistreated women escape abusive marriages. Meanwhile Alex has served his country with valor, but with the recent death of his father, he must to resign his commission and take up his duties as the new earl. However, he’s asked to undertake one last mission on his return to England.
Secrets entangling with secrets. Sent to smoke out a dangerous spy, Alex mistakes Aurora for the enemy. Little does he know that she is his own wife—or that the brave and resourceful beauty will stir embers of attraction that he never dreamed possible.
Now the question is—can he win her love and make their marriage more than a sham?
Aurora tucked an errant curl back up under her bonnet and surveyed the dimly lit public room. At this hour it was not the smoke but rather the grime that prevented more than a few wan rays of sunlight from penetrating the paned glass. Suppressing a grimace, she took another sip of her tea. At least most of the male travelers who had been present during evening meal were far too cupshot to be up so early.
If Robbie had not been so befuddled by illness, she reminded herself, the redoubtable former governess would likely have remembered the one key fact that both of them had overlooked in the haste to be off. To whit, while Mary had served as a proper companion on the journey north, once she was safely delivered to the cottage of her aunt, Aurora had been left to negotiate the trip home by herself.
She hadn’t quite realized how tedious the ramifications could be, especially as her clothing was hardly of the first crack and her carriage a bit shabby for wear. The balding merchant from Dundee had been particularly hard to convince of the fact that his garlic-enhanced invitations to share sleeping arrangements were of no interest. It had taken a slight nudge on the narrow stairs to show him the error of his thinking. No doubt he would be nursing a sore rump as well as a splitting headache when he woke up.
Men, she fumed, her teaspoon stirring up the last of her lukewarm brew with a tad more force than necessary. They were far more trouble than they were worth. Pushing aside the chipped plate of stale toast and watery marmalade, she stood up and went to pay for the meager repast, certain that the bill would prove to be as much of an outrage as the charge for a night spent between dingy sheets that couched a goodly number of live bodies other than her own.
Her carriage was waiting at the far end of the muddy yard, the driver looking none to happy at being rousted from the straw at first light. His mood turned even more sour as a few drops of rain fell from the leaden skies. As no one made any sign of coming to her assistance, Aurora reached up and tugged the door open.
How odd, she thought, pausing for a fraction to peer into the inky darkness. She could have sworn she had left the curtains tied back. Then, with a shrug, she placed her foot on the iron step and started to climb in. Her ascent was suddenly made all the more swift by strong fingers that wrapped around her wrist and jerked her inside. The door slammed shut and she found herself in a man’s lap, a hand over her mouth and a blade of cold steel pressed up against her neck.
“Not a sound, sweeting, or I shall be forced to cut your throat.” The knife pressed a bit harder, as if to emphasize the command. “And a shame it would be, for it looks to be a very pretty throat.” It did indeed, added Alex to himself. Too bad it was the throat of a traitor.
Aurora leaned unresisting against his broad shoulder, making no attempt to cry out or to struggle.
“I see you have a modicum of sense to go along with your looks.”
She jerked her knee up hard, hoping to catch him a solid blow in the groin. The maneuver almost worked, but his reflexes proved a tad too quick. He shifted just enough so that her effort merely glanced off his thigh.
“Ah, sweeting, to succeed in such a move, you must be sure that your opponent is truly off guard. You would have done better to distract me with a tear or two, then make the attempt.” He reached up to rap a command for the driver to start off.
Twisting her mouth free from his grasp, she snapped,” I shall remember that, you lout.” She sought to push away his arm, but it held her in a vise like grip. The sharp edge of steel pinched a bit deeper. “If it is money you seek, your judgment is as bad as your manners,” she added. One of the curtains had been jostled during the short struggle and a bit of light filtered into the carriage. Aurora kicked up at the hem of her skirts. “My purse is as shabby as my dress. It will make but a meager prize.” She then gave a slight sniff at the odor of cheap brandy clinging to the rough wool of his jacket and wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“Though no doubt even a few shillings will keep your in good spirits for a day or two.”
Lord, he had to admit she was the one who had spirit. In spades. And courage to boot. But to do what she did, that should come as no surprise. She was a skilled and dangerous enemy. But still, he could not tear his gaze from the lush curves of her lips, now pursed in a delectable moue of anger. Without thinking, he leaned in closer. “Then perhaps I shall steal a kiss.”
“Do you always have to use a knife to purloin kisses from a female?”
Alex gave a throaty chuckle. “No, usually they are all to happy to offer their charms without the need of such extreme measures. Indeed, I often must use a weapon to fend them off.”
“Arrogant oaf. In my experience, most men use force to take what they want.”
He drew back a touch, surprised at the undertone beneath the harsh retort. Was it a note of vulnerability? Fear, even? With a sudden start, he wrenched mind away from such odd musings. What the devil had come over him? he chided himself. His icy detachment and ruthless efficiency were legendary among his comrades. It was most unlike him to be distracted, even for a moment, from the business at hand. This was hardly the time to be flirting with a pretty young lady.
Especially this lady.
His grip tightened on her arm. “Enough of games, sweeting. It’s not money I seek, but information,” he growled.
Even in the near darkness he could make out the sneer on her lips. “If that is the case, then it hardly makes sense to threaten slitting my throat.”
A grim smile crept to his lips “You have a certain raw courage, my dear, but the game is up.” He shifted in his seat, trying to ease the stab of pain in his shoulder, Damn, the wound was beginning to bleed again. It had been most unfortunate that someone had evidently been alerted as to his arrival. The bullet had only narrowly missed its mark, but the fellow who had pulled the trigger would have no chance to try again. His corpse was already feeding the fish off Ailsa Crag. “Your accomplice is dead, you know, so why not make this easy on both of us—”
Aurora couldn’t stifle a gasp. “You . . . you have hurt Robbie,” she whispered.
“I’m afraid Robbie is lying in a watery grave—”
A blow to his jaw cut off any further words. Then her fists began to pound against his chest. “How could you harm a sweet, little old lady, you despicable beast!” she cried. “I am the one who runs the whole operation. If you wish to avenge yourself, do so on me!”
Alex managed to catch hold of her hands. “Little old lady? The person you sent to ambush me was most definitely not a little old lady. It is a he who lies beneath a fathom of water.”
“I? I sent no one to take a shot at you,” she retorted. “Though considering how men treat their wives, it is no wonder that someone did.”
Her words were making no sense. Fighting off another wave of nausea, Alex forced himself to concentrate. Of course. She was trying to confuse the issue, the little witch. He twisted her arm hard around behind her back, drawing a cry of pain. He had never manhandled a female before in his life, but his strength was ebbing and he needed some answers out of her. Fast. “Tell me about the operation.” he snarled, giving the limb another hard tug. “And quickly. Otherwise you’ll have a broken arm to show for your stubbornness. Who supplies your information?”
Aurora winced, but he saw her bite her lip to keep from crying out. “Very well.” Her voice sought to maintain some measure of dignity. “It comes from a wide assortment of my female friends. Barmaids, tweenies, cooks, milkmaids and the like. Gentlemen seem to think anyone beneath them lacks ears as well as feelings.”
This was even more confusing than her earlier words, but he went doggedly on. “Then what?”
“Well, it’s really not hard to put the facts together. Numbers leave a trail that anyone with half a brain can sort out. It just takes a little perseverance and common sense. And then, you gentlemen tend to act like rutting sheep when engaged in an illicit affair—all lathered action and frenzied motion, with little mind as to whom may be observing your behavior.”
Despite himself, Alex felt his jaw go slack. “And?”
“After I compile the dossiers, I turn them over to the wife—it usually is a husband I have investigated, though on occasion it may be some other smarmy male relative—or whomever has requested the information.” She drew in a deep breath. “Which aggrieved husband or uncle are you?”
He had the oddest sensation that the inside of the carriage was starting to spin. “What the devil are you talking about?” he shouted, wondering why his voice was sounding so fuzzy.
“Why . . . the Sprague Agency for Distressed Females. Isn’t that what you are asking about?”
“Bloody hell! What in the name of Lucifer is the Sprague Agency for—” The knife suddenly clattered to the carriage floor, joined a moment later by the Earl of Woodbridge’s lanky form.