This week, we’ll start the second half of the Banks Brothers’ Brides with His Jilted Bride.
The stars of this book is Elijah Banks as the hero and Amelia Bryce as the heroine.
A little set up on this scene: Amelia has found herself embroiled in a scandal and as a result, she’s being forced to marry Hiram, Lord Friar. Only he doesn’t show up for the wedding so in rushes our dashing hero who does what any Banks man would do: offers to marry her to save her from any further humiliation.
Elijah Banks clenched his hands into twin fists and willed himself to stay seated.
He shifted on the hard bench and took a deep, calming breath. It had only been forty minutes. Lord Friar could still arrive.
The silence that filled the room seemed louder than the crowds who gathered each night at Vauxhall.
Or mayhap that was just the steady tattoo of his blood pounding in his ears.
“Would you relax?” his twin Henry whispered. “It’s not your wedding.”
And what a pity that was. For as much as he’d denied the possibility to his father when he was younger, he’d gone and fallen in love with Lady Amelia Brice. And desperately wished it was his wedding today. “It might not be my wedding, but she is my friend.”
“Do you think he woke up this morning and realized he was about to marry a spinster?” one of the ladies sitting in the pew behind him asked with a slight giggle.
Elijah bridled at her remark. Amelia might be four-and-twenty, but she wasn’t what he’d consider a spinster. Besides, if anyone was getting the bad end of this bargain, it was Amelia. At least she was young and attractive. Hiram, Lord Friar was older than her father; and though Elijah had never actually seen the man, as he mixed in circles that even Elijah wasn’t welcome in, the man’s reputation of being one of the worst sort of no-good, lecherous scoundrel preceded him.
Henry lifted his eyebrows at him and Elijah jerked his gaze away. In a moment such as this, he wished he wasn’t a twin. For as odd as it might seem to others, he and Henry had the ability to finish each other’s thoughts and sentences with no difficulty, and with something as simple as an exchanged look, they could communicate every thought and feeling they had to the other. And right now, he didn’t want his twin to know a single thing that was racing through his mind.
“Only five more minutes, then I can claim my winnings,” another lady said behind him.
The hair on the back of Elijah’s neck stood on end. What was she talking about?
He was saved from asking when one of the lady’s companions inquired.
“Nothing you’d be interested in, Griselda,” the woman said archly. “Just a little wagering.”
“You placed a wager on the wedding today?” the lady who must have been Griselda said in shock.
A little sputter of laughter passed one’s lips and Elijah’s temper flared. Amelia had been his friend as long as he could remember and he’d be damned if he’d continue to sit idle while she was mocked behind her back.
He shoved to his feet. “Excuse me,” he murmured, pushing his way down the pew and to the aisle, where he dodged a multitude of curious looks on his way to the back of the sanctuary.
Closing the large oak door behind him, he exhaled and swallowed. He could do this. He needed to do this. He owed it to Amelia.
Chancing a look down both sides of the hall to make sure her father or brother weren’t stirring about, he knocked softly at the door to her bridal chamber. “Amelia?”
He twisted his lips and considered knocking again, then dismissed the idea. She was in there, he was certain of it. Quiet so not to startle or upset her, he turned the knob and opened the door.
“Amelia,” he said, uncertain if his word was a question or a statement as his eyes fell over her quiet form.
She half sat, half lay on a floral settee that blended into the equally flowery wallpaper, wearing one of the fluffiest dresses he’d ever seen. Her shawl lay in a little pile of white silk next to her, which was exactly where it should be, not draped around her, covering up her delicate shoulders or the tops of her luscious breasts. He swallowed. She’d always been a beautiful young lady, but just now she was absolutely breathtaking as she sat there and idly twirled a fallen lock of her silky, dark brown hair.
He found an empty chair from across the room and pulled it over to her so he could sit beside her. At least when they were both sitting, the height difference between her petite five foot frame and his towering five foot-eleven didn’t seem so noticeable; and that was much the way he preferred it: equal.
“I should have known he’d do something like this,” she whispered.
“I’m sorry,” Elijah whispered just as softly as she’d spoken.
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault he jilted me at the altar.”
No, but it is my good fortune, because now I won’t even have to halt a wedding and pray your answer will be yes. He shoved the thought from his mind. If she truly wanted to marry Lord Friar, he’d have stepped aside and blamed himself for taking too long to tell her how he felt. But since he knew as well as she did that a match between Amelia and Lord Friar would be the equivalent of a death sentence, he’d come today to make one last appeal. Not to her father, to her. Fortunately, Lord Friar’s absence had afforded him an opportunity to offer her marriage without the same risk of scandal or rejection.
He hated the bitter taste that word put in his mouth, but it didn’t change the truth of it. Amelia was no longer the simpering miss she’d once been around him, talking of love and marriage to him. Instead, she seemed guarded around him and spoke as if those sorts of feelings no longer existed.
“Nobody has to know he jilted you,” he said, reaching forward to push the hair sweeping across her forehead behind her ear.
She shook her head; her grey eyes shining with unshed tears. “They already do.”
“No,” he corrected. “All they know for sure is a wedding is not currently taking place. What they don’t know is if it was the groom who jilted the bride or the bride who jilted the groom.”
Amelia eyed him curiously. “No, I’m fairly certain they all know it was the groom who jilted the bride. My mother and father are both out there.”
“Yes, and they are doing a wonderful job acting as if they’re waiting for their daughter’s wedding to take place.”
“Acting?” she said, her eyes narrowing in on him.
“Acting,” he confirmed. “See, your mother is sitting in her pew, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief while your father is pacing a hole in the wooden platform just outside the front door of the church. Both are playing their roles perfectly, giving off the illusion to the rest of the guests that they are just waiting for the wedding to begin any moment.”
“Which seems to be less likely to happen as the minutes pass.”
“Exactly,” Elijah agreed. “Which is why you need to act now before someone discovers your game.”
He nodded once. “Yes, madam, your game.” He picked up her petite hand and wrapped his fingers around it. “I’m not as dimwitted as the rest of them. I see what’s really going on here.”
“At least you do, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He ignored her. “I almost fell for it, too.”
“Fell for what?” she burst out in hysteria, presumably due to her current situation, lacing her voice.
“You’re jilting your groom,” he said evenly, meeting her eyes.
A shadow crossed her face and she cleared her throat. Twice. “What are you suggesting?”
“I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just merely making mention of the fact that the wedding has yet to begin, and both the bride and the groom have yet to be seen. How does a guest such as myself truly know whether it was the bride or the groom who didn’t come today? How do I—a random guest—know that the bride and groom were not so in love with the other they could hardly wait another day and decided to elope?”
“All right, well, perhaps that scenario isn’t very believable, but the other very well could be possible.” He took a deep breath. “Amelia, listen to me, I know you’re a very strong young lady and you come from a very important family; but none of that will matter come tomorrow when this is all over the scandal sheets.”
“I know,” she said with a swallow.
“Then see the sense in what I’m saying and marry me.”
Amelia’s jaw would have hit the end table next to the settee had she had the mouth of an ostrich. Elijah Banks was offering her marriage as a way to escape a scandal?
“Elijah, you don’t have to do this.”
He laughed at her weak protest. “I know I don’t have to. I want to.”
“Why? To make amends for dumping a bucket of cold water on me after I told your father that you wouldn’t let me ride your mare?”
“No, nor is it because I feel bad about volunteering you to sing during the reception at Edwina’s wedding.”
“I knew it was you, you scoundrel!” She clapped a hand over her mouth.
He grinned at her outburst. “What do you say, Amelia? Will you be my wife?”
Had his question been asked because he loved her, she’d have dissolved into a watering pot on the spot. But it wasn’t. Well, perhaps it was, but not love born of a romantic feeling; but rather that of a friend. A pang of sadness pierced her heart. Elijah was the only gentleman she’d ever wanted to marry. Since she was a young girl running around his parents’ estate when spending summers with her aunt and uncle, she’d fancied herself in love with Elijah. He was the reason she’d turned away any gentlemen who wished to court her, hoping one day he’d see her as more than a friend. How unfortunate he never saw fit to feel the same for her.
She bit her lip. Hard. She needed to put that thought out of her mind immediately. If she let emotions get in the way and didn’t take him up on his offer, she’d forever face a life of shame. But what of her other problem? The one that made this hasty marriage necessary. It had only been two weeks and she still didn’t know whether she carried a life inside of her yet. A lump formed in her throat. “I can’t.”
Amelia blinked back her tears. “Elijah, I cannot marry you and condemn you to—”
“Nonsense,” he cut in. “Amelia, if I didn’t want to be here right now, I wouldn’t be. You know that. No amount of goading and threatening can make me do something I don’t want to do. I want to help you. You’re my friend.”
She inwardly flinched at his confirmation: she was just a friend. She knew that of course, he’d told her for years he was only her friend and had even gone so far as to help her find another gentleman to give her attentions to. Gently, of course. He’d never been cruel about her feelings or dismissive of her as a person, just the sincerity of a young girl’s feelings. But try as she might, she couldn’t fall out of love as easily as she’d fallen in. Only now, she didn’t dare let him or anyone know the truth. He wanted to be her friend and that’d have to be good enough. “But what if I have a secret?” she challenged.
He pulled a face that reminded her of his late father. “It’s not that you’re genuinely in love with Lord Friar, is it?”
“Most certainly not! It has nothing to do with him.” At least it had better not. She’d still yet to determine the identity of the masked stranger, and for all she knew it could have been Lord Friar. Her stomach lurched at the wretched thought. “It’s something else.”
Elijah’s gloved fingers tilted her face up toward his. “As long as it’s not that, I don’t care what it is. Now, what do you say?”
A lead weight lowered on her chest. He might say he didn’t care about her secret, but how would he feel in nine months when she presented him with a child that wasn’t his? Or even sooner when he went to take her innocence only to discover it was already gone?
His deep sigh pulled her from her thoughts. “You’d be doing me a favor, wouldn’t you know?”
How could she be doing him a favor? “How so?”
“Now that Weenie and Alex have both married, Mother has nobody to play matchmaker for except me and Henry, and if I’m married…that only leaves Henry.”
Amelia nearly laughed. “Your mother doesn’t play matchmaker, Elijah.” She played the role of confidant and voice of sanity to perfection, but never once had Amelia caught Regina Banks, the dowager baroness, playing matchmaker.
“Just because she hasn’t yet, doesn’t mean she doesn’t intend to,” Elijah pointed out. “She and my Aunt Carolina have been spending a lot of time together recently. And there is nothing that can stop thatwoman when she takes a notion into her mind. So what do you say? Will you spare me the unpleasant fate that would befall me otherwise?”
“All right, but only if you promise me something.”
“No matter what happens, you won’t regret this?”
Elijah grinned and shook his head. “I accept your condition. Now we just have to sneak you out of here.” He walked over to a window and opened it just far enough to poke his head out. “Perfect.” He pushed open the window as far as it would go and motioned for her to come over. “All right, I’ll climb out first and then help pull you through.”
She cast him a tentative glance. “Is that really necessary?”
He stared at her as if she’d just asked the stupidest question ever. “Do you know another way to get out of here without being seen?”
“No.” But that still didn’t mean she wanted to climb out a window.
“Don’t worry, Amelia. I’ll be right there to help you.”
“Wonderful,” she muttered as he threw his left leg over the window sill, then his right.
He jumped down and took a step back. “All right, Amelia, let’s see those superb leaping skills you used to boast about having.”
Had she a heavy object at her disposal—and not been in the middle of escaping what was sure to be the scandal of the season—she’d have brained him right then and there. With as much grace as her heavy satin gown would allow, she made her way to the window, pulled her skirt up as far as she could, and then threw one stocking-clad leg over the windowsill.
And that’s as far as she got.
Between the heavy skirts and the voluminous petticoats underneath them, she couldn’t move.
“Elijah, help me. I think my skirt is stuck.”
He grinned at her.
“Elijah, why are you just standing there?”
“Just admiring the view,” he said with a wink.
“Elijah!” She gave her dress a hearty yank, but it would seem her iron hoop stays were too wide to go through the window. “You can gawk all you want later. Just help me out.”
“Promises, promises,” he muttered, coming up to her.
If she honestly thought he was genuinely interested in seeing her naked body, she’d be flattered by his staring and excited by his statement. But she knew better. He was just enjoying the fact she was stuck in the window!
He walked over toward her and reached his hands up inside her skirt to find the ties that would release her stays. The bare skin of her thighs burned at the feeling of his gloved hands brushing them.
“Just cut them,” she blurted.
“Are you sure?”
She’d never been more sure of anything in her life. “Yes. I have no idea why my mother insisted I wear these hoops anyway, they’re nearly twenty years past fashion.”
“All right, I’ll cut them. Step back into the room and lift your skirt.”
“How charming,” she said under her breath.
“I try,” he said with a smile. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his penknife. “Ready?”
She nodded as nervous excitement coursed through her. It was bad enough she’d been jilted today. It’d be even more awkward if someone were to enter the room at this very moment and see her holding her heavy skirts up so Elijah Banks could reach in through the window and cut her stays away. If her bridegroom not showing up wasn’t enough to make her a laughingstock already, this particular situation would get her name whispered behind fans for generations.
The sharp sound of cloth—not just any cloth, but the cloth under her gown—being torn sent chills up her spine. Chills of excitement or danger or uncertainty, she might never really know.
“Turn,” Elijah commanded.
She turned and he continued cutting the fabric until suddenly the sound of fabric-covered metal hitting the wooden floor floated to her ears.
Elijah put his knife away and then reached up toward her. “Let’s go.”
Without hesitation, she leaned out the window, wrapped her arms around Elijah’s neck and let him pull her out of the church and away from the public shame and embarrassment she’d be condemned to as a jilted bride.