The Ideal Bride by Laurens Stephanie

Chapter 1 

Late June,

Eyeworth Manor, near Fritham in the New Forest, Hampshire

Wife, wife, wife, wife.

Michael Anstruther-Wetherby swore beneath his breath. That refrain had plagued him for the last twenty-four hours. When he’d driven away from Amelia Cynster’s wedding breakfast, it had run to the rhythm of his curricle’s wheels; now it was playing to the steady clop of his bay gelding’s hooves.

Lips setting, he wheeled Atlas out of the stableyard and set out along the drive circling his home.

If he hadn’t gone to Cambridgeshire to attend Amelia’s wedding, he d already be one step closer to being an affianced man. But the wedding had been one event he hadn’t even thought of missing; aside from the fact that his sister Honoria, Duchess of St. Ives, had been the hostess, the wedding had been a family gathering and he valued family ties.

Familial links had helped him immeasurably in recent years, first in gaining his position as Member of Parliament for this district, and subsequently in forging his path upward through the ranks, yet that wasn’t the wellspring of his appreciation; family had always meant a great deal to him.

Rounding his house, a sturdy, three-storied manor house built of gray stone, his gaze went—as it always did when he passed this way— to the monument that stood on the verge halfway between the house and the gates. Set against the dark-leaved shrubs filling the gaps beneath the tall trees, the simple stone had stood for fourteen years; it marked the spot where his family—his parents and younger brother and sister racing home in a curricle in the teeth of a storm—had been killed by a falling tree. He and Honoria had witnessed the accident from the schoolroom windows high above.

Perhaps it was simply human nature to value highly something one had lost.

Left shocked, grieving, and adrift, he and Honoria had still had each other, but with him barely nineteen and her sixteen, they’d had to part. They’d never lost touch—they were, even now, close—but Honoria had since met Devil Cynster; she now had a family of her own.

Slowing Atlas as he approached the stone, Michael was acutely aware that he did not. His life was full to bursting, his schedule perennially crammed; it was only in moments like this that the lack shone so clearly, and loneliness jabbed.

He paused, studying the stone, then, jaw setting, faced forward and flicked the reins. Atlas picked up his pace; passing through the gates, Michael held him to a steady canter along the narrow lane.

The nightmarish sound of horses screaming slowly faded.

Today he was determined to take the first step toward establishing a family of his own.

Wife, wife, wife, wife.

The countryside closed around him, embraced him in its lush green arms, welcomed him into the woods and forests that to him were the essence of home. Sunlight flickered, glimmered through shifting leaves. Birds called and twittered; beyond the rustle of the canopies, there was no other sound to punctuate the clop of Atlas’s hooves. Narrow and winding, the lane led nowhere but to the Manor, joining a wider road that led south to Lyndhurst. Not far from that junction, another lane wended east to the village of Bramshaw, and Bramshaw House, his destination.

He’d decided on his course some months ago, but once again government concerns had demanded his attention and he’d let matters slide… when he’d realized, he’d pulled himself up short, sat down, and laid out a schedule. Despite the distraction of Amelia’s wedding, he’d stuck rigidly to his self-imposed timetable and left the wedding breakfast in good time to drive down here. To his necessary destiny.

Leaving Somersham in midafternoon, he’d stopped with a friend at Basingstoke overnight. He hadn’t mentioned his xeason for heading home, yet it had weighed—preyed—on his mind. He’d set out early and arrived home midmorning; it was now two o’clock, and he was determined to delay no longer. The die would be cast, the matter, if not finished with, then at least begun—halfway arranged.

A constituency matter?

You might say that.

Amelia’s question, his answer, perfectly true in its way. To a sitting Member, one who’d reached the age of thirty-three unwed and been informed he was being considered for advancement into the ministry, marriage was definitely a “constituency matter.”

He accepted he had to marry—indeed, he’d always assumed he would someday. How else was he to establish the family he craved? Yet the years had rolled by and he’d become caught up in his developing career through that and his close links with the Cynsters and the haut ton, increasingly cognizant of the breadth of experience the state of marriage encompassed, he’d become less and less inclined to pursue it.

Now, however, his time had come. When Parliament had risen for the summer, he’d been left in no doubt that the Prime Minister expected him to return in autumn with a wife on his arm, thereby enabling him to be considered in the cabinet reshuffle widely tipped to occur at that time. Since April, he’d been actively seeking his ideal bride.

The peace of the countryside wrapped him about; the wife, wife, wife refrain remained, but its tone grew less comp ulsive the closer he got to his goal.

It had been easy to define the qualities and attributes he required in his bride—passable beauty, loyalty, supportive abilities such as nostessly talents, and some degree of intelligence lightened with a touch of humor. Finding such a paragon proved another matter; after spending hours in the ballrooms, he’d concluded he’d be wiser to seek a bride with some understanding of a politician’s life—even better, a successful politician’s life.

Then he’d met Elizabeth Mollison, or rather remet her, for strictly speaking he’d known her all her life. Her father, Geoffrey Mollison, owned Bramshaw House and had been the previous Member for the district. Brought low by his wife’s unexpected death, Geoffrey had resigned the seat just as Michael had approached the party with his grandfather Magnus Anstruther-Wetherby’s and the Cynsters’ backing. It had seemed a stroke of fate. Geoffrey, a conscientious man, had been relieved to be able to hand the reins to someone he knew. Even though he and Geoffrey were from different generations and markedly different in character—namely in ambition—he’d always found Geoffrey encouraging, always ready to help.

He hoped he’d help now, and support his notion of marrying Elizabeth.

She was, in his estimation, remarkably close to his ideal. True, she was young—nineteen—but she was also well bred, well groomed, and unquestionably well brought up and, so he judged, capable of learning all she needed to know. She was a very English beauty, with pale blond hair and blue eyes, a fine complexion, and a slender figure well suited to the current fashions; most important, however, she had grown up in a political house. Even after her mother had died and Geoffrey had retired from the fray, Elizabeth had been placed in the care of her aunt Augusta, Lady Cunningham, who was married to a senior diplomat.

What’s more, her younger aunt, Caroline, had been married to the British ambassador to Portugal; Elizabeth had spent time at the embassy in Lisbon under her aunt Caro’s wing.

Elizabeth had lived all her life in political and diplomatic households. Michael was perfectly certain she’d know how to manage his. And, of course, marrying her would strengthen his admittedly already strong position locally; that wasn’t something to sneeze at, given that by all accounts in future he’d be spending much of his time on international affairs. A wife who could be relied on to keep the home fires stoked would be a godsend.

Mentally, he rehearsed what he would say to Geoffrey. He did not yet wish to make a formal offer for Elizabeth’s hand—he needed to get to know her better and allow her to get to know him—but given the connection between himself and the Mollisons, he deemed it wise to sound Geoffrey out; no sense in proceeding if he was set against it.

Michael doubted that would be the case, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask, to keep Geoffrey firmly in his camp. If over two or three meetings Elizabeth proved as pleasant and amenable as she’d appeared in town, they could progress to an offer, and thence to the altar, all in good time for autumn.

Cold-blooded perhaps, yet in his opinion a marriage based on mutual affection rather than passion would suit him best.

Despite his links with the Cynsters, he did not consider himself as one with them when it came to marriage; he was a different sort of man. They were passionate, determined, high-handedly arrogant; he would admit to being determined, but he’d long ago learned to disguise his arrogance, and he was a politician, ergo not a man given to the wilder passions.

Not a man to allow his heart to rule his head.

A straightforward marriage to a lady close to his ideal—that was what he needed. He’d discussed the prospect and specifically Elizabeth Mollison with his grandfather, and also with his aunt, Mrs. Harriet Jennet, a political hostess of note; both had supported his stance, in both cases with typical Anstruther-Wetherby ascerbity.

Harriet had snorted. “Glad to see Honoria and that lot haven’t turned your head. The position of your wife is too important to be decided by the color of a lady’s eyes.”

He doubted that the color of a lady’s eyes had ever featured highly in any male Cynsters mind as a deciding factor in marriage—other physical attributes perhaps… of course, he’d held his tongue.