An Award Winning BookA New York Times BestsellerUSAToday Bestseller
Captain Nathaniel Beckwith has been something of a recluse since returning from the great battle at Waterloo. But now family duty has forced the gruff soldier into the throes of the social Season to find a bride.
Despite a disability that prevents her from dancing, Philippa Reynolds’ mother insists she join in the balls and other social events in hopes of finding a man who will overlook her limp.
Could these two misfits perhaps join forces to avoid all the fuss of the Season and enter into a marriage of convenience?
This anthology was the second by the same group of authors who wanted to use a single plot line for each of their stories. The intent was to demonstrate that, no matter now similar the plot, no two stories are ever alike. This time, the plot was chosen by readers. Read more about how that happened.
Follow the links in brackets to learn more about these real Regency references in Candice's book.
From Chapter 1 …
Philippa’s heart ached for the poor man. He really was quite terrified of entering the ballroom, though he would never admit it. She could have cut out her tongue when she saw his reaction to her mention of cowardice. She ought to have had better sense than to say such a thing to a soldier. How mortifying.
“I know exactly how you feel, sir.”
His eyes narrowed. “Do you?”
“I do not fit in, either, Captain. That’s why I’m hiding.”
“A pretty girl like you? How can you not fit in?”
“I have a limp.”
“Yes. Some people try to ignore it, others can’t stop staring in horror. Either way, it makes people uncomfortable, which means I make them uncomfortable, which means I don’t fit in. ”
“Good God. Are you serious? Is the bloody – forgive me – ton that narrow-minded over a little bit of a limp?”
“It’s not so little, Captain.”
“Bah. I have seen fellow officers who’ve lost an arm or leg in battle mingle perfectly easily in Society. How can a minor limp cause such a fuss?”
“In the first place, I did not lose a limb in a battle to save our country from that dreadful Corsican. A wounded hero is still a hero. A girl born with a displaced hip is not. In the second place, it is not a minor limp. It is rather severe.”
“Stand up and show me. I want to see you walk.”
Goodness, what a request. Philippa did not believe he mocked her, though, or had a morbid curiosity. She got the impression he simply wanted to see for himself whether or not she exaggerated her condition. Well, then, let him be the judge.
“All right.” She rose from the bench and stood facing him. Her skirts disguised the fact that she did not stand quite straight, that she had to keep one knee bent so that she did not tilt to one side. It was a posture that was second nature to her, but she was excessively conscious of it at the moment, as she stood before the handsome Captain Beckwith with his straight-backed military bearing. “Stand aside and let me pass.”
He did, and she lurched past him, her crooked hip forcing her to lift her right leg awkwardly and high at each step in order to maintain balance, then place it carefully and drag the left forward quickly. Because she could not put much weight on the right hip, her steps were uneven – one short, one long, one high, one low. Philippa had lived with her disability her whole life and was well-accustomed to it. But having to demonstrate its effects to man who looked to be as perfectly formed as one of those Greek statues at the British Museum was unnerving at best.
She turned around and walked back toward him. He frowned as he watched her, his eyes on her feet and legs, and stood back so she could take her seat on the bench again. She arranged her skirts nervously, then looked up at him.
“You’re right,” he said. “That’s a hell of a limp.”
He said it without sympathy or pity, just as a statement of fact. Philippa could not help herself. She burst into laughter.
He first looked stunned, then rolled his eyes. “Damn, I’ve done it again, haven’t I? I must make a better effort to guard my tongue. I am more accustomed to being around other military men and not mincing words. My apologies, Miss Reynolds. That was a harsh thing to say.”
Philippa wiped her eyes and grinned at him. Heavens, he was adorable. Could one say that about a man who stood at least a foot taller than her and outweighed her by four or five stone? “No, Captain, it was not harsh, it was honest. It is a hell of a limp, but no one has ever before had to courage to say so to my face.”
“I’m so sor—”
“Do not apologize, sir, I beg you. I far prefer blunt honesty to lies and euphemisms. It is irksome to have people always watching what they say to me, thinking they might offend if they dare to notice that my hip is twisted and bent. I hate dissimulation, even when kindness is behind it. I would rather hear plain speaking any day.”
“Then I am your man, Miss Reynolds.”
Her heart skittered for an instant. Perhaps he was.
“I am more than plainspoken,” he continued. “I fear I am too often gruff and tactless. Vulgar, too, I suppose. I have forgotten the art of guarding one’s tongue in polite conversation. You may not credit it, because I have certainly given you no reason to do so, but I was actually taught how to behave as I ought. My mother was a stickler for proper behavior, and she did her best. I was never good at fitting in, though, and tact never came easily to me. It’s one of the reasons why I went into the army. I thought I might fit in better with other rough customers. My father gave his enthusiastic support, as he knew I would likely disgrace him one day. And it was his fondest hope that the military might make a man of me. It did.”
He let out a disdainful huff, and his next words were muttered so low Philippa had to strain to hear. “Not the sort of man he would have expected, though.” He raised his eyes to hers and his voice to a more natural timbre. “I am sorry, Miss Reynolds, that you were forced into the company of such an uncivilized lout without an ounce of charm.”
“Ah, but sir, there are many types of charm. Most are based on guile and flattery, which I find tiresome at best. In fact, I find I much prefer your brand of charm, Captain. Charm based on honesty.”
He uttered a snort of disbelief. “Most would say there is no charm in honesty, ma’am. No, I think nine years in the military leeched any hint of my mother’s teachings clean out of me. But tell me,” he said and leaned back against the balcony balustrade to face her, “what the devil – damn, I beg your pardon – are you doing at a ball if you cannot dance?”
She shook her head and gave a hollow, mirthless laugh. “Silly, isn’t it? It is Mamma’s hope that I will meet some compassionate soul who will take pity on me, or her, and marry me.”
“At a ball? Where your impediment is most exposed because you cannot dance?”
Goodness, he really was plainspoken. This was surely the most refreshing conversation she’d ever had.
“What a beastly thing to do to you,” he said.
“Not at all. It was my doing as much as hers. I wanted to go to balls like other girls. In my first season, I did not mind sitting out as I loved to watch the dancers. But the more I watch, the more I wish I could join in. That’s why I was hiding up here. I sometimes tire of watching others do what I cannot.”
“I do not doubt it. You’ve a great deal of forbearance, Miss Reynolds. I suppose no compassionate gentlemen have yet come to your rescue?”
“The occasional gentlemen will kindly sit out a dance with me, or take me into supper. I have two brothers, and they often send their friends to keep me company. But this is my third season, and I have grown tired of pretending to be part of the Marriage Mart when it is clear that no one will ever marry me.”
“Do you wish to be married?”
“Of course. Doesn’t every woman? But I do not bother to dream of what will never be.”
“But your mother does?”
“Yes. I am her only daughter and she wants me to have everything in life that she has had. It pains me that I cannot be the sort of daughter she wants. Oh, do not misunderstand. She loves me and understands my disability better than anyone. But she still thinks I can be like other girls, when it just isn’t true.”
“No wonder you were hiding.”
She could not help staring at him. Not because he was handsome, though there was that, but because she had never met anyone who spoke to her so candidly about subjects others found unpleasant or awkward to mention. Someone who did not treat her with kid gloves because of her lameness. It was both exhilarating and touching.
“So,” he said, “this is to be your last season?”
“Yes, I think so. I enjoy many of the social events, but I tire of being patronized as though I were an invalid.”
“What will you do after this season is over?”
“How will I spend the rest of my life?”
The captain shrugged. “I almost said exactly that, but thought better of it. I suppose I am not entirely lost to good manners. But yes, since we are being honest, that is what I meant.”
“I will stay on at Harcott Manor in Wiltshire with Mamma. It is where I grew up and is now my elder brother’s estate. Sir William Reynolds. He inherited it from Papa and allows Mamma and me to live there. I will act as companion to her while she lives, and then will likely do the same for William’s daughters. And I have my music and my needlework to give me pleasure, and some charity work from time to time, when Mamma allows it. In truth, it is a very comfortable life and the grounds are lovely. I am more than fortunate, and have nothing to complain of.”
“Except the lack of a husband and family of your own.”
She lifted her shoulders in a little shrug. “As I said, I no longer dream of what will never be. But I will admit, since we are being honest,” she said, smiling as she threw his words back at him, “that I regret having to be so dependent on others. It is the lot of women in general, of course, but my disability makes me even more dependent. My mother and brothers feel responsible for me and always will. I will forever be a burden to them, and I dislike that very much.”
* * *
Nat sympathized completely. In the last year, since Waterloo, he had been so off balance that he had hidden himself away in the country rather than impose himself and his bad moods on anyone else. He’d suffered since that last battle in ways that still surprised and disturbed him. After nine years of hard fought battles in Copenhagen and Spain and Portugal, he thought he’d been inured to the hardships of war, both physical and mental. For reasons he did not understand, he had not yet been able to shake off that final stand at Waterloo. Nat found that sort of weakness intolerable. He hated what he’d become, and it made him constantly angry and frustrated and irritable. He’d tried to convince his brother that he was not fit to enter Society again, but Dearne would not be dissuaded and insisted that Nat come to Town and find a bride.
So Nat had some understanding of Miss Reynolds’s frustrations. Neither of them wished to inflict themselves and their weaknesses upon their well-meaning families.
He suddenly realized he’d been speaking with her for at least a half hour without the usual tight knot in his chest that kept him on edge in polite society. He was almost entirely at ease with a perfect stranger. A female stranger at that. How extraordinary.
As he looked down at her – an attractive young woman with a charming personality who would surely have been snapped up by some young swain by now if she did not have the limp – an idea burst upon his brain full-blown, like a kind of epiphany. The perfect solution to both their problems.
He was reminded of those turning points in a battle, when a breech unexpectedly opened or the enemy faltered and he had to make a decision instantly to take advantage. Even a moment of hesitation would have meant a missed opportunity, or worse. And so, before he could convince himself it was not an absolutely brilliant idea, before he could second guess himself, he blurted it out to her.
“I think we should marry, Miss Reynolds.”
Her mouth dropped open as she glared at him wide-eyed, then, in a thin voice she said, “I beg your pardon?”
“Forgive me. I ought not to have come out with it so baldly like that, but hear me out, please. You wish to marry but have no hope of doing so. I need to marry and have no desire to go through the bother of finding a bride who will have me. You have no wish to sit out another Season without hope of finding a husband. I have no wish to endure a Season where I have to pretend to be someone I am not in order to find a bride. We could save ourselves a great deal of fuss and bother by becoming betrothed.”
“But we’ve only just met, sir.”
“Yes, but consider our conversation. We have each been frank about our situations. There has been no pretense or artifice between us. I suspect we already know each other better in half an hour than many betrothed couples do in half a Season. I have enjoyed our conversation, and believe me, I do not enjoy the company of very many people these days. I think we would rub along nicely together, don’t you agree? I already know I like you, Miss Reynolds, which is more than I was expecting to find in a bride.”
She looked flustered and confused, a bit embarrassed. Damn, he had not done this well. Naturally. But he still thought it a grand idea and hoped she would consider it. “Miss Reynolds? Have I put my foot in it too far this time? You must think me a complete idiot and wish to fling me over this railing to land crashing on the dancers below. But I assure you, I am quite serious. Will you consider it? Marrying me, I mean, not sending me over the railing.”