Salt Bride: A Georgian Historical Romance
The Earl of Salt Hendon and squire’s daughter Jane Despard share a secret past of misunderstanding and heartache. When the Earl is forced to marry Jane, society is aghast. None more so than the conniving and delusional Diana St. John. Hopes dashed at marrying the Earl herself, she will go to extreme lengths, even murder, to destroy the newlyweds’ second chance for a happily ever after.
Another delicious Georgian gem from Lucinda Brant: High drama, deep emotion, and witty prose, all deftly sprinkled with historical detail to keep you mesmerized from beginning to end. Immerse yourself in the romance and opulence of her eighteenth century aristocratic world.
- Australian Romance Readers Awards Finalist
- B.R.A.G. Medallion
- Readers' Favorite International Book Awards winner
As the plot develops and darkens you realize the imagery is spectacular. If you’ve never met true evil just wait ’till you meet Diana St. John; definitely made me a fan. —SWurman, Night Owl Reviews 5 STAR TOP PICK
A love story fans of historical romance will relish. The rakish and raucous character of the period is contrasted superbly with the sophistication of the age. —Fiona Ingram, Readers’ Favorite 5 STARS
Brant’s talent is undeniable and dare I admit… I enjoyed SALT BRIDE more than many of Georgette Heyer’s own beloved works and that is high praise indeed. —Courtney Webb, Stiletto Storytime
Release date: February 25, 2011
Print pages: 362
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Salt Bride: A Georgian Historical Romance
LONDON, ENGLAND, 1763
“TOM, DO I HAVE A DOWRY?” Jane asked her stepbrother, turning away from a window being hit hard with rain.
Tom Allenby glanced uneasily at his mother, who was pouring him out a second dish of Bohea tea. “Dowry? Of course you have a dowry, Jane.”
Jane wasn’t so sure. When her father disowned her four years ago, he cut her off without a penny.
“What is the amount?”
Tom blinked. His discomfort increased. “Amount?”
“Ten thousand pounds,” Lady Despard stated, a sulky glance at her stepdaughter. Annoyance showed itself in the rough way she handled the slices of seedy cake onto small blue-and-white Worcester porcelain plates. “Though why Tom feels the need to provide you with a dowry when you’re marrying the richest man in Wiltshire, I’ll never fathom. To a moneybags nobleman, ten thousand is but a drop in the Bristol River.”
“Mamma,” Tom said in an under voice, close-shaven cheeks burning with color. “I believe I can spare Jane ten thousand when I am to inherit ten times that amount.” He regarded his stepsister with a hesitant smile. “It’s a fair dowry, isn’t it, Jane?”
But Lady Despard was right. Ten thousand pounds wasn’t much of a dowry to bring to a marriage with a nobleman who reportedly had an income of thirty thousand pounds a year. Yet Jane hated to see her stepbrother miserable. Poor Tom. The terms of Jacob Allenby’s will had disturbed his well-ordered world.
“Of course it’s a fair dowry, Tom. It is more than fair, it is very generous,” she answered kindly.
She retreated once more to the window with its view of London’s bleak winter skies and gray buildings and wished for the sun to show itself, if but briefly, to melt the hard January frost. Tom could then take her riding about the Green Park. Somehow, she had to escape the confines of this unfamiliar townhouse crawling with nameless soft-footed servants.
But there was no escaping tomorrow. Tomorrow she was to be married. Tomorrow she would be made a countess. Tomorrow she became respectable.
Tom followed her across the drawing room to the window seat that overlooked busy Arlington Street and sat beside her.
“Listen, Jane,” he said gruffly. “You needn’t rush into this marriage just for my benefit. Attorneys for Uncle’s estate said there is still time…”
“It’s perfectly all right, Tom,” Jane assured him with a soft smile. “The sooner I’m married the sooner you inherit what is rightfully yours and can get on with your life. You have factories to run and workers who are relying on you to pay their long overdue wages. It was wrong of Mr. Allenby to leave his manufacturing concerns and his estate to you without any monies for their upkeep. You shouldn’t be forced to foreclose, or to sell your birthright. Those poor souls who make your blue glass need to be paid so they can feed their families. Should they be made destitute, all because your uncle willed his capital to me? You are his only male relative, and you have an obligation to those who now work for you. We know why your uncle made you assets rich but cash poor, why he left his capital to me—because he hoped to force a union between us.”
“Why not? Why not marry me, Jane?”
“Because despite being my brother in law, you’ve been my little brother since I can remember, and that will never change,” Jane explained kindly. “I love you as a sister loves a brother, and that is why I cannot marry you.”
“But what of Uncle’s will?” Tom asked lamely, not forcing the argument because he knew she was right.
“We have been over this with Mr. Allenby’s attorneys,” Jane answered patiently. “The will does not specifically mention that I must marry you, Tom, and so we are not obligated to do so. That was an oversight on your uncle’s part. The attorneys say that I may marry any man, and the one hundred thousand pounds will then be released in your favor.”
“Any man?” Tom gave a huff of embarrassed anger. “But you are not marrying just any man, Jane. You are marrying the Earl of Salt Hendon! I cannot allow you to make such a sacrifice. It is not right. Surely something can be worked out. We just need time.”
“Time? It has now been three months since Mr. Allenby died and you cannot keep putting off your creditors. How much do you owe, Tom? How long do you think you can go on before you must sell assets to meet your debts?” Jane forced herself to smile brightly. “Besides, is it such a sacrifice to be elevated from squire’s daughter to wife of the Earl of Salt Hendon? I shall be a countess!”
“Wife of a nobleman who is marrying you because he gave his word to your dying father and feels honor-bound to do so,” Tom grumbled. “Not because he wants or loves you… Oh, Jane! Forgive me,” he apologized just as quickly, realizing his offence. “You know I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t apologize for the truth, Tom. Yes, I am marrying a man who does not care two figs for me, but in doing so my conscience is clear.”
“Well, if you won’t marry me, then marriage to a titled lothario is better than you remaining unmarried,” her stepbrother said in an abrupt about-face that widened Jane’s blue eyes. “Only a husband’s protection will fend off lecherous dogs. Living unmarried in a cottage on the estate was all well and good while Uncle Jacob was alive to protect you. But even he was powerless the one and only time you ventured beyond the park. You became fair game for every depraved scoundrel riding the Salt Hunt.” Tom squeezed her hand. “Uncle showed more restraint than I. I’d have shot those lascivious swine as let them take you for a harlot.”
That humiliating incident had occurred two years ago but the memory remained painfully raw for Jane. What Tom did not know was that the lascivious swine of which he spoke were in truth the Earl of Salt Hendon and his friends. On the edge of the copse, with her basket of field mushrooms over her arm and dangling her bonnet by its silk ribbons, she had not immediately recognized the Earl astride his favorite hunter, with a full beard and his light chestnut hair tumbled about his shoulders.
He had brought his mount right up to her and stared down into her upturned face with something akin to mute stupefaction. Then, much to the delight of his boon companions, he exacted a landlord’s privilege for her trespass by dismounting, pulling her into a tight embrace and roughly kissing her full on the mouth. She had tried in vain to push him off but his arm about her waist was vise-like, and he continued to crush her mouth under his, violating her with his tongue; he tasting of spirits and pepper. When he finally came up for air, his brown eyes searched her shocked face as if expecting some sort of revelation. It was only when she slapped his face hard that the spell was broken, and he was brought to a sense of his surroundings. He released her with one vicious whispered word in her ear and a low mocking bow.
Even now, two years on, remembering how pitilessly he had whispered that hateful word, Jane shuddered and swallowed. He could very well have stabbed her in the heart, such was the hurt that came with that one word: Harlot.
She smiled resignedly at her stepbrother, all of one-and-twenty years of age and with so much responsibility resting on his thin young shoulders.
“But what else were they to think, Tom? I, an unmarried girl cast out of her father’s house, living under the protection of an old widower, they could not take me for anything less than a harlot.”
“No! No, you’re not! Never say so!” he commanded, a glance across the room at his mother, who was pouring out more tea into her dish. “You made one tiny error of judgment, that’s all,” he continued. “For that you must suffer the consequences for the rest of your life? I say, a thousand times, no.”
“Dearest Tom. You’ve always been my stalwart defender, though I don’t deserve such devotion,” she said in a rallying tone. “You cannot dismiss what I did as a tiny error of judgment. After all, that error caused my father to disown me and brand me a whore.” When Tom made an impatient gesture and looked away, she smiled reassuringly and touched his flushed cheek. “I cannot—I do not—hide from that. If your uncle had not taken me in when my own father disowned me, I would have ended up in a Bristol poorhouse, or worse, dead in a ditch. I will always be grateful to Mr. Allenby for giving me shelter.”
“I’d have looked after you, Jane. Always.”
“Yes, Tom. Of course.”
But they both knew the unspoken truth of that lie. Jane’s father, Sir Felix Despard, would never have permitted Tom to interfere in a father’s justifiable punishment of a disobedient and disgraced daughter. The loss of her virtue and its tragic consequences had bestowed upon Sir Felix the right to cast her out of the family home, alone, friendless, and destitute. Jane had disgraced not only her good name but also her family’s honor. She did not blame her father for her disgrace, but Jane would never forgive him for what he had ordered done to her.
Regardless of what others thought of her, she still believed in upholding the moral principles of fairness, honesty and taking responsibility for her actions. The predicament she had found herself in had not been of her father’s making, it had been hers and hers alone. But Tom would never understand. He had been spared the whole sordid story, for which she was grateful. Tom was an earnest young man who saw the good in everyone. Jane hoped he always would.
“You’re the best of brothers, Tom,” she said sincerely, and swiftly kissed his cheek.
But Tom did not feel he had earned such praise. He grabbed Jane’s hand.
“If you had accepted any man but Lord Salt!” he said fiercely. “He always has this look on his face—hard to describe—as if someone has dared break wind under his noble nose. The way his nostrils quiver, I just want to burst out laughing. You may giggle, Jane, but God help me to keep a straight face if the rest of the Sinclair family have the same noble nostrils!”
The butler chose that moment to interrupt.
“What is it, Springer?” Jane asked politely, bringing her features under control.
“Lord Salt and Mr. Ellis, ma’am,” the butler intoned.
Stepbrother and sister exchanged a wide-eyed stare, as if caught out by the very object of their gossiping.
“What? He is here now?” Lady Despard blurted out rudely, and before the butler could confirm that indeed the Earl of Salt Hendon and his freckle-faced secretary waited downstairs, added with a trill of breathless anticipation, “What a high treat for us all! Shall I order up more tea?”
Jane informed the butler in a perfectly controlled voice that he was to show his lordship and Mr. Ellis up at once, and to bring a fresh pot of tea and clean dishes. But no sooner had the door closed on the servant’s back than she sank onto the window seat, as if her knees were unable to support her waif-like frame. She was deaf to her stepmother’s entreaties that she go at once to the looking glass and there tidy her hair and straighten the square neckline of her bodice. And she was blind to her stepbrother’s frown of concern, thinking that if she’d brought her needlework to the drawing room she could at least pretend occupation and never need look the nobleman in the eye.
Coming face-to-face with the Earl of Salt Hendon, Jane lost the facility of speech.
~ ~ ~
MAGNUS VERNON TEMPLESTOWE SINCLAIR, ninth Baron Trevelyan, eighth Viscount Lacey, and fifth Earl of Salt Hendon, strode into the drawing room on the butler’s announcement and immediately filled the space with his presence. The papered walls and ornate plastered ceiling shrunk inwards, or so it seemed to Jane, accustomed to the Allenbys, who were all short and narrow-shouldered. The Earl was neither. He was dressed in what Jane presumed to be the height of London elegance: A Venetian blue frock coat with elaborate chinoiserie embroidery on tight cuffs and short skirts; an oyster silk waistcoat that cut away to a pair of thigh-tight black silk breeches, rolled over the knees and secured with diamond knee buckles; white clocked stockings encased muscular calves; and enormous diamond-encrusted buckles sat in the tongues of a pair of low-heeled black leather shoes. Lace at wrists and throat completed this magnificent toilette. Yet, neither ruffled lace or expertly-cut cloth could hide the well-exercised muscle in the strong legs, or the depth of chest and width of shoulder. But he did not dominate by size alone. There was purpose in his stride, and when he took a quick commanding glance about the room, the intensity in his brown eyes demanded that those who fell under his gaze pay attention or suffer the consequences of his displeasure.
Lady Despard, standing near the fireplace, brought him up short. She dropped into a low curtsy, giving his lordship a spectacular view of her deep cleavage. When the Earl tore his gaze from her overripe bosom, it was to turn and regard Jane with a disdainful glare. A look, hard to read, passed across the nobleman’s square face, and then it was as if he suddenly realized he was being less than polite. He bowed slightly as Lady Despard rose up and with her son crossed the carpet to greet him.
Formal introductions gave Jane time to find her composure. She stood frozen, awed by the sheer physicality of the man, unable to bend her stiff knees into the desired respectful curtsy. She appeared calm enough, but inwardly she felt sick to her stomach and relieved at the same time. She was glad that he barely looked at her. When he did, it was with tacit disapproval, and as if to make certain she was paying attention. This expression stayed with him when he spoke a few words with Tom. Jane saw it in the clench of his strong jaw and the way in which his lips pressed together in a thin line, giving his classical features a hard, uncompromising edge. Yet, no amount of cold disdain could diminish the fact he was a ruggedly handsome man.
Tom managed only a few words with the Earl before his mother interrupted. She looked up expectantly at the nobleman from under her darkened lashes and endeavored to engage his interest with a run of small talk; her inanities about the inclement weather, particularly the unusual severity of the frosts for the start to the new year, receiving polite but monosyllabic replies. Jane frowned and was embarrassed by her stepmother’s blatant flirting with this jaded nobleman, who was obviously accustomed to and thoroughly bored by the wiles of women who constantly threw themselves at him.
When he turned his powdered head and stared straight at her, as if he were well aware she was taking full measure of his person, Jane was so startled to be caught out that she felt the heat rush up into her white throat. The fire burned more brightly in her cheeks when he had the bad manners to look her over, starting at her thick black braids caught up in a silver net at her shoulders, lingering on her breasts covered by a plain muslin bodice, before traveling down the length of her petticoats to her matching silk slippers. When he frowned, as if she did not meet his expectations, Jane dared to put up her chin and stare back at him before turning to the window in dismissal.
Her gaze remained steadfastly to the driving rain, despite being aware that her stepmother was now droning on at the freckle-faced secretary, Mr. Ellis, whom Jane had failed to notice standing a few steps behind his noble employer, and who was now doing his best to be polite and interested in Lady Despard’s London sightseeing forays. Then, close at her back, she heard Tom’s eager response to the Earl’s invitation to take part in a game of Royal Tennis, being held at his lordship’s private court at his Grosvenor Square mansion the day after next. Tom said he would be honored to be included in his lordship’s tournament.
His lordship’s tournament indeed, thought Jane, when only a few minutes earlier Tom had been poking fun of his lordship’s noble nostrils!
The Earl drawled something banal about hoping this Arlington Street address—usually occupied by his lordship when Parliamentary sittings continued on through the night—was proving satisfactory accommodation for Tom and his mother. Tom thanked his lordship for the use of his townhouse, saying that as soon as it could be arranged, he and his mother would let a suitable residence of their own for a month or two, to enjoy what London had to offer before returning to Bristol. The Earl told him to take his time. There was no immediate rush for them to vacate. And then the room fell silent.
The silence went on for so long that curiosity made Jane turn away from the window. Had there been a chair close by she would have sat upon it from shock. Tom had deserted her, settling with his mother and the secretary, his friend from Oxford days, in the far corner of the drawing room, to take tea and talk over old times. They had left Jane to face Lord Salt alone.
His lordship stared over her head and out the window.
“Miss Despard, it is customary to permit me to bow over your hand,” he drawled, with just that touch of insolence required to bring immediate obedience.
But Jane was too much affected by his closeness and his earlier unfavorable appraisal to be bothered with the niceties of a formal introduction, and her hands remained firmly clasped in front of her. She told herself she was being obstinately bad-mannered, but, for the first time in years, she allowed emotion to rule her tongue and spoke her thoughts.
“I am fully sensible to the honor you do me, my lord,” she answered in a clear voice, gaze riveted to the engraved silver buttons of his waistcoat. “But I am not ignorant of the fact it was forced upon you in a most ungentlemanly manner. It is a circumstance I bitterly regret and wish I could alter.”
There was the smallest of pauses before Salt said in his insolent way, “You’ve had ample opportunity to release me from such a damnable circumstance. You merely had to refuse the honor. Still, there are some eighteen hours before the ceremony…”
This blunt speech did tilt Jane’s chin to his face, blue eyes wide with astonishment. He was offering her the opportunity to give him an eleventh hour reprieve; indeed his very manner suggested he expected her to do so there and then. That she wanted to release him from his forced obligation with all her heart was momentarily forgotten with the wound to her feminine pride. That he did not even have the good manners to disguise his abhorrence for a match that was of her father’s making, not hers, angered her into giving an impudent reply.
“You cannot imagine, my lord, that I leapt at your backhanded offer of marriage,” she stated with as much coldness in her voice as she could muster. “Doubtless there are dozens of females eager to take their place at your side as Countess of Salt Hendon. I wholeheartedly wish you’d offered for one of these ladies, for then this horrid situation would never have presented itself.”
“I am not in the habit of making life-altering decisions merely to oblige others,” he replied coldly, gaze remaining fixed to the wet windowpane. “Yet… Knowing you for a fickle female with no heart and even less brain, who has the barefaced cheek to accept a backhanded offer of marriage, I should indeed have married the next fresh-faced virgin who presented herself for mounting.”
Jane staggered back a pace, mind reeling and hand out to the heavy brocade curtains for support at such crude speech. “How… How dare you speak to me in such a repulsive manner!” she whispered indignantly, a fervent glance at her tea-drinking relatives at the far end of the room. “I am not one of your whores who you can—”
This brought his hard gaze down to her beautiful face. “Come now, Miss Despard,” he said with bored indifference. “Your show of offended sensibilities insults my intelligence. It is a bit late in the day to exhibit virginal outrage.” He watched her throat constrict, and when she turned her fine nose to the window, giving him a view of her lovely profile, he smiled crookedly. How well she played the part of indignant female! As if she were the injured party. “By the way, I don’t waste conversation on whores.”
“If you hope to unsettle me with your-your—by that, then you are vastly mistaken in my—in my—” She stopped herself and bit her full lower lip, for how could she say the word character when she had none?
He seemed to read her mind, for he said so softly that she could only just hear him, “You were wise not to say it. You lost what little character you possessed when you thumbed your nose at constancy and decency to take up with a conscienceless old merchant. But as you are your father’s daughter, I am inclined to believe Sir Felix never taught you the meaning of such words. Thus I will own that the fault lies with me for being taken in by your beautiful face.”
Jane bravely met his gaze, and seeing the loathing in his eyes, a painful knot formed in her chest, making it difficult for her to breathe. She did not understand what she had done to deserve such hatred. He spoke of her not being constant or decent, and yet if there was one thing she had been in those days, weeks, and months after the night in the summerhouse, it was constant. Nor did she understand why he had such an intense dislike for Jacob Allenby, the only person to offer her sanctuary. She knew there was no point defending her own character with this male colossus of unreasonableness, but there was no reason for him to besmirch her protector. She forced herself to remain outwardly calm.
“Your vast experience of the type may give you some latitude to speak to me as you would any whore of your acquaintance,” she said in a steady voice. “But it does not give you leave to besmirch Mr. Allenby’s unblemished character. I have never heard an unkind word spoken about him. And despite the difficult circumstances in which I lived under his roof, I never had cause to—”
Salt goggled at her, appalled. “I won’t stand here and listen to you praise—”
“—slap his face!”
There was a moment’s heavy silence, then the Earl let out such a bark of genuine laughter that he startled those taking tea to momentary silence.
“My dear Miss Despard, pride still smarting?”
“I have no idea to what you are referring, my lord.”
“Don’t you?” he asked curiously, the anger gone from his deep voice. “I’d wager my best Hunter you were sorely disappointed when your merchant protector intervened that day on the Hunt. Truth be told, you had no need to lash out as you did. I wasn’t about to offer you a second helping of my vast experience.”
“What a dull, hollow existence you must lead to hold to the memory of such a trifling incident. I assure you I had not recalled it until now.”
His smile was sardonic. “It was to your dull, hollow existence I was referring, madam. Your hand hasn’t been the only one to have slapped this noble cheek.”
“What a comfort to know there are females who have spurned Wiltshire’s libertine lord!”
“No. I never said that. Every other slap invited pursuit; yours, I’d no desire to satisfy. Easy game doesn’t interest me. No, don’t turn your face away,” he commanded in a low voice, pinching her small chin between thumb and forefinger and forcing her to look up at him. “Do we go before parson tomorrow or not?”
To her shame and embarrassment, Jane felt hot tears sting her eyelids and she swallowed hard, unable to give him an immediate response. He had exposed the raw nerve of her life under Jacob Allenby’s protection by stating the painfully obvious. The old Bristol merchant had kept her fed and clothed, and in return, whenever he visited the little thatched cottage that nestled in a grove between the Sinclair lands and the Allenby estate, she was at his beck and call. If it hadn’t been for Tom’s supervised quarterly visits, her life would’ve been unbearable. And now this arrogant nobleman dared to sneer at her and expect release from an obligation he had given in good faith.
It humiliated her to think that on his deathbed, her estranged father had forced Lord Salt to honor a promise made to her years earlier. Her father had fulfilled his life’s ambition in bringing about her marriage to this arrogant nobleman by means of blackmail, with no thought to her feelings in the matter or the mortification she would endure as wife of a reluctant husband. It humiliated her further that Jacob Allenby had written up a despicable will, leaving her no choice but to accept the Earl’s offer of marriage or watch her stepbrother face financial ruin. And as much as she wanted to release Lord Salt from his forced obligation, as much as she wanted to tell him why she must accept his backhanded offer of marriage, she could not; it was with an aching heart and a halting voice that she gave the Earl the answer she knew he did not in the least want to hear.
“There are factors—circumstances—Yes, my lord, we will go before parson tomorrow.”
“You surprise me,” he said with an ugly pull to his mouth. “But what female could resist the lure of a coronet? Be good enough to hold out your left hand.”
Listlessly, Jane did as she was told, and was rewarded by having an old gold filigreed band set with sapphires and diamonds slipped over her ring finger. She did not look at it, nor was she aware the band was too large for her slender finger until the Earl mentioned he would have the ring resized once they were married. She thought her mortification complete until she was ordered to sit on a ribbon back chair placed in the center of the Turkey rug by the fire. It was only then that she realized she was alone in the drawing room with the Earl and his unobtrusive secretary.
Tom and his mother had abandoned her.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...