A Wedding Story



Kate Bright Goodale has no intention of meekly accepting her suddenly straightened circumstances. But her best plan for a comfortable future requires entering an uneasy alliance with the one man she'd never been able to control. . . the one man she'd never been able to forget:
dashing adventurer Lord James Bennett.

Avon · isbn: 0-06-052518-5

A Wedding Story I have to admit that this is one of the most difficult books I've ever written. Not because I didn't like it – I do, almost too much (I'll never be able to shrug off a bad review about this book) – but because I so badly wanted to do Kate justice.

This is the third book in the MARRYING MISS BRIGHT series (the other two are MARRY ME and THE BAD MAN'S BRIDE), and Kate was a strong and vibrant presence in the previous book. She is mature, determined, fiercely protective, a tad ruthless in support of a cause she deems worthy. I needed a story that could challenge her and a man who was more than a match for her.

So I sent this resolutely "city" woman into the wild, into a situation and place completely A Wedding StoryA Wedding Storyalien to her chosen existence. And her only hope for not only survival but triumph rests with a man who'd rejected civilization years ago, a rogue and an adventurer (sort of a British Indiana Jones, a few decades earlier) with whom, years ago, she'd shared the one unforgettable indiscretion of her life.
Bits of the story came from the "new millennium" madness that was going on while I was working on it. Another thread from the "reality TV" madness – though this is "reality newspaper." All in all I'd say that Kate, and I, are delighted with the final result.

--Susan


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A Wedding StoryAugust 28, 1899
Battle preparations . . .


Were she a man, she might have checked the loading of her pistol one more time, held it out with one eye narrowed along the barrel. Drew her sword from its sheath and watched the light shear down the keen edge of the blade before swishing it through the air to reacquaint herself with its weight. Perhaps bounced on her toes once or twice like a boxing champion finding his balance.

But she was Kathryn Virginia Bright Goodale, and so, in the silent, lush hallway of the Waldorf-Astoria, she leaned closer to a mirror framed in elaborate gold and inspected herself with ruthless precision. She pinched fresh color into her cheeks and bit red into her lips. She was too disciplined to frown at the fine lines that framed her eyes because that would only encourage more.

Will it do? she wondered. Twelve years . . . she'd held up well, she judged. Kate didn't believe in false modesty, particularly when one could not afford it. But graceful aging was still aging, wasn't it? Would he take one look at her and see a mature and blossoming woman or immediately note the fading of that glowing girl that had perhaps only existed for one brief moment, for him?

But delaying never solved anything. She'd little enough time as it was. And so she made one final adjustment – this, to the neckline she'd shaved a full inch from for just this occasion – and turned her smile up to full brightness.

The door was a thick, gleaming slab of rosewood, the sharp report of her knuckles against it satisfyingly authoritative. She must not give the impression that she came in supplication . . . even though that veered uncomfortably close to the truth.

"Come on in." The voice was muffled through the door, low and hoarse, and her heart pounded harder than the echo of her knock. Nothing ventured . . .

"You coming in or not? Because I'd rather not get up."

Well, she hadn't sought him out for his manners, had she? Though he'd certainly owned them once; she recalled a handsome bow, an elegantly correct kiss of her foolishly trembling fingers.

Americana RomanceShe pushed open the door, stepped through in a hiss of expensive silk, and forgot how to breathe.

She'd been so busy worrying about how he'd view the changes in her that she'd never considered that he'd have changed, too. He'd remained constant in her memory, handsome and brash and so vibrantly alive the air had seemed to hum around him. A perfect reminiscence, one she'd no right to claim but had cherished just the same, even as she knew he hated her for it.

His skin had darkened. His hair, too, from light, sun-streaked brown to something richer and darker and far more interesting. His shoulders, clad in the thin silk of a burgundy robe, were broader. He sat sprawled in a chair, contemplating the half-filled glass in his hand, the gaping front of the robe exposing a long length of hairy, muscular leg and a far too much chest for any healthy woman's composure.

"Put the towels down anywhere." Years of travel had roughened the edges of his aristocratic British accent but never eliminated it entirely, an odd contrast with the informality of his grammar.

" I –" She'd practiced her speeches, all the arguments she'd suspected she'd need. And they'd all fled the instant she stepped into the room.

"Huh." Eyes that were more than a shade blurry focused them on the hem of her skirt. "Guess you're not the maid."

That put genuine warmth into her careful smile. "I most certainly am not."

He made no move to get up, just traced his gaze slowly up her until he paused at her chest. He grinned, lazy, seductive. "Heard this place had the best service in the city, but I certainly underestimated it."

And then he looked up, into her face at last, and every trace of boozy warmth disappeared from his expression. Hooded eyes, set mouth, all emotions carefully blanked away, the expression he'd worn the last time she'd seen him. Just before she'd walked away.

He set his drink aside, taking more care than the task required to place it square in the center of the tiny carved table at his elbow. Was he that soused? She hadn't considered him a drinker but a lot could change in twelve years. A lot had changed.

"Starting early this morning, aren't you?" she asked. She meant her comment to be light, nothing more than conversation, and winced when it came out sounding like an accusation.

"It's never too early," he said, in a tone that implied he'd have started a whole lot sooner if he'd suspected who would show up at his door. He pushed himself out of his chair with far less concern for the gap in his robe than Kate would have preferred.

His steps were slow, a bare saunter, yet they ate up the space between them with disconcerting speed until he towered over her, her nose just level with his – bare! – breastbone.

She couldn't look at him and so studied the room instead, as lush and rich as the hotel lobby had promised, gleaming in shades of blue and gold and cream. He'd left it an awful mess, three mismatched socks strewn over the Aubusson carpet, a crumpled khaki jacket tossed over the back of a chair, a clutter of glinting rock specimens and poor, stuffed creatures strewn across a fine tabletop. The bed was in worse shape, a riotous twist of sheets and blankets that gave testament to one sort of a wild night or another.

"Mrs. Goodale," he said, so formal and stiff and suddenly British that he could have been another man than the warmly tipsy, casual one who'd spoken before he'd realized her identity. "I am sorry about your husband."

"I know that." He was perhaps more sorry about her husband's death than anyone else on earth.
"I would not have missed the –" He paused, cleared his throat. "I was in Greenland. I did not receive word until long after . . ."

"I understand." And then, because it was the truth: "So would have he."

"Good." She'd have to look at him sooner or later and she finally worked up the courage only to find that he was apparently no more eager to meet her eyes. His gaze focused over the top of her head and all she could see was the bold jut of his jaw bristling with at least a day's growth of dense beard. "Then, with the formalities done, you can go away."

Well, she hadn't thought it would be easy, had she?

"Lord Bennett –"

"Lord? Oh, please. You can do better than that."

She tamped down a spurt of irritation. "I was attempting to be polite."

"And when have you ever known me to appreciate politeness?"

"People change."

"Do they?" he murmured, and then he looked fully at her at last. It made her suddenly realize just how close they stood, so near a half step would bring their bodies together. She would have jumped back if that movement wouldn't have taken her out of the room. For she suspected that the instant she did so he'd slam the door in her face. "Not that I've noticed."

"Now why doesn't that sound like a compliment?"

"I can't imagine."

She could leave at any time, she reminded herself. Walk away and do . . . something. The fact that she'd no idea what didn't have to be a deterrent. But she'd never been one to wander off a path once set she'd set her feet upon it. "May I come in?"

It hovered in the air between them, the "no" she knew he wanted to snap out. "Please, Jim?" She used the name deliberately, reminding him that she was not a stranger.

He sighed and stepped aside just enough to allow her entrance. Her skirt brushed his bare legs and hissed, soft as surrender.

"May I sit?"

"I'd rather you didn't."

She swept a long, striped scarf and crushed black bowler off an armchair upholstered in royal blue plush, fluffing her skirts as she settled into it.

A Wedding Story"Why did you bother to ask?"

"I always attempt the easy way first," she told him. Not bothering to remove a pair of black leather gloves on the seat, he dropped into the nearest chair.

She'd been married for nearly fifteen years. She was not an innocent young woman, terrified and fascinated by a man's body. And it was taking every ounce of determination she'd ever owned not to flee the room in embarrassment.

"If you'd like to get dressed –"

"My less-than-correct attire isn't disturbing me if it's not disturbing you."

Pride left her no other answer. "Of course not."

"Glad to hear it." He sprawled back, by all appearances completely at ease, so big and male she could scarcely breathe with it. How could she have forgotten? How could she have believed that somehow in those years he might have . . . aged, muted, diminished? Instead he'd become even more overwhelming.

But she was no longer young, foolish and easily impressed, she reminded herself. And if she'd failed utterly to handle him years ago, well, this time would be very different.

If only she could dredge up the right words.

"Wandering around the halls of a hotel unescorted, Mrs. Goodale? Not to mention slipping into the hotel room of a notorious adventurer." He shook his head. "Quite a risk to your reputation, isn't it?"

"I was supremely careful."

"You always are, aren't you?"

Except once. Once, which had been both the biggest and sweetest mistake she'd ever made. The memory bloomed over her, a memory she allowed herself to pull out and savor so very rarely in case she'd become too tempted by it. A memory she indulged in only at the most difficult moments of her life, when she needed its consolation the most.

The scent of roses, the heavy, sultry air of late summer. The silver radiance of moonlight frothing through the intricate gingerbread of the gazebo. That hollow, empty ache for all she'd surrendered, an ache which she almost always managed to subdue but which had seized her viciously that night, driving her out of her husband's party. And the young man who stepped out of the garden like he'd been conjured from her dreams, everything she'd never known, could never hope to know, and that brief moment of surrender to fantasy.

Enough! Only a fool did not learn from her mistakes. "I need to speak to you."

"You've been here five minutes and haven't said anything worth hearing yet."

"After the doctor's death, I –"

"The lawyers found me. You don't have to do this. I know he left me his maps, the books." She kept looking for a flicker of emotion in him, finding none. Had he always been so dispassionate? Had she imagined them, then, the empathy and warmth she'd once seen in his eyes?

"There was a letter –"

"Oh, for God's sake!" He sprang up, coming back to his feet in a flash of bare leg as if the chair couldn't contain him any longer. But he'd never been one to settle in one place; every time the doctor heard from him, he was in another country, embroiled in another quest. Kate would never admit it to anyone but she used to pull out the atlas every time a letter arrived, driven by a curiosity she found both embarrassing and surprising to find the exact spot on the map where he'd last reported himself. "Don't do this, Kate. I got the letter, the lawyers will hold the papers for me, so don't pretend you've anything from the Doc to give me." His mouth thinned into a sneer. "What is it? Or it simply that you've come to conclude unfinished business?" His gaze, blatantly sexual, slid down her full length. "I suppose I should be flattered, after all this time."

A Wedding Story"Don't be." She snapped to her feet, jerking her skirts into place. "Believe me, you've nothing to be flattered about in that regard."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes, really." She wished she could climb on the chair to meet him nose to nose. "You know, you really don't wear this constant anger well. For some reason I thought you'd have outgrown it by now. Most young men do when they mature." He was not the only one who could sweep someone with a contemptuous gaze, she thought in some satisfaction.

"This is absurd," she went on. This . . . this was what she'd cherished all these years? How disappointing. She'd no idea she'd so much of the sentimental fool in her. "I've no idea why I ever considered for so much as an instant that this might work."

He was quicker than she, slapping the door shut before she could sweep through it, denying her the grand exit.

"Move aside, please."

"That what might work?"

"Oh, now you're interested?"

"Interested? No." He inclined his head. "Call it curious, maybe."

"Yes, I do believe you are quite . . . curious."

Stalemate. Kate, ready to spring out the door should he give her the slightest opening. Jim, as impenetrable and implacable as a palace guard, thoroughly blocking her way.

Let her go. Even as his brain commanded his body, Jim couldn't seem to step aside. Letting her walk out that door for another twelve years would be the wisest move he could make. But he'd spent more years than he liked to remember with questions nagging him. This time, he'd have enough answers to finally put her to rest. And that was the only reason he kept her here, he told himself. And thought that maybe it was even true.

He reached behind him and shut the door. "Wouldn't want anyone to wander by and see you here," he told her. "And I am curious. How did you find me?"

She relaxed a little. The set of her shoulders softened in their sheath of periwinkle silk; the line of her mouth curved up. Good. Perhaps if she were not so rigidly on guard he'd even pry the truth from her this time.

"Oh, that was hardly difficult. 'The famous Lord James Bennett, discoverer, adventurer, arctic survivor.'" She quoted directly from the hotel's flyer. They'd sent it out before he'd had a chance to stop them and he'd damn near gagged at it. He was everlastingly glad he missed ninety percent of what was written about him. "'Scintillating stories of bravery, daring, and conquest from the most dashing explorer of our generation.'" She tucked her tongue firmly in her cheek, mischief lighting her eyes in a thoroughly attractive way. "Have they not heard of Sir Stanley, do you suppose?"

And then the attraction hit him like a sucker punch, sending his breath out, making him take a quick step aside in hopes of escaping the reach of her allure.

"'Lord Bennett, the famed explorer –'"

He snorted. Lord Bennett. He was not a Lord, merely an Honorable, a distinction that seemed lost on Americans, and a title he'd abandoned when he'd quit England in any case. But he'd given up protesting a dozen years ago. The Americans, for all their egalitarian ideals, did love a title, and as long as that upgrade in status kept them flocking to his lectures and snatching up his books, why should he care?

"Don't you want to know what they write about you?" she asked. "Oh, I should have realized. You've memorized every word already?"

He would not smile at her. He felt the pull of it; the corner of his mouth twitched. She was dangerous enough when he was furious at her – and the mere fact that some anger still simmered when it should have faded to cinders long ago warned him how much – but there was no accounting what he might do if she could get him to smile at her. Didn't he know by now how she worked? A little softening was the merely the first step on the way to surrender.

"How'd you find my room?"

She didn't even have the grace to look embarrassed. "That charming young desk clerk is most accommodating."

"Of course." He doubted there was a man in the place who could hold out against her charms if she was determined to wield them. Well, he'd just have to be the exception. "What do you want, Kate?"

It stopped her cold. The serene confidence she wore like a tiara gave way to a flutter of panic, quickly masked.

"Now there's a question," she murmured. "I wish I knew."

She could be doing it on purpose. The faint, plaintive note in her voice, the shadow of uncertainty in her brilliant eyes, could be as calculated an effect as the flirtatious smile she'd undoubtedly bent on that poor desk clerk.

And then that moment ended. She collected herself in a wink, her shoulders square and firm, chin set at a sharp angle, as if that instant of vulnerability had never existed.

"I beg your apologies for disturbing you. I thought that – well, it does not matter what I thought, does it? I was wrong. If you'll step aside, we can both forget that this ever happened."

Forget? Where she was concerned, he'd never managed that nearly was well as he wanted.

So he stayed where he was, his eyes level on hers. Hers were brilliant blue and utterly cool, and he looked into them to remind himself of the truth. A man could scarcely look at her, all lush curves and gleaming hair and inviting smiles, without his brain getting all snarled up with baser urges. But her eyes betrayed her essential unavailability. She was not a woman there for the taking, or the giving. Not for him, and not for anyone.

"It was a foolish idea," she said. "Born of grief, if you will. But since you clearly will not let me go until you hear of my fancy, I'll confess it and be done. You have heard of the Great Centennial Race?"

His hesitation was brief. "Yes." But not brief enough.

"Oh." She smiled, wryly amused at her own foolishness. "Of course you have. You must have received an invitation as well."

"No," he said, wondering at the stray impulse that caused him to mouth the slight lie to protect her feelings. She was as unlikely to truly have them as he was prone to shield them. "Doc got one, did he? Surprised. He hasn't been out in the field for ages."

"They'd hoped to lure him back. Wrote an immensely flattering letter about how the slate of contestants would be incomplete without his presence." A bit of color had come back to her pale cheeks, a hint of life into her guarded.

"He would have liked that."

"Yes," she said softly. "He would have. But the letter came after he passed. It seemed a pity to let the opportunity go to waste, though."

"You intend to take his place?" he said, incredulity leaking through before he thought to stop it.

Her chin came up, a small, gallant gesture that somehow made her look vulnerable instead of brave. He wondered if she knew that, if she'd sought that effect. "There is no requirement that the invitation be used solely by the one for whom it was originally issued."

He laughed. He couldn't help it. And if that chin climbed any higher it was going to approach vertical.

"Forgive me. I just . . . unless you've had some extraordinary transformation since the last time we met – and I must say you've shown no signs of it so far – I just can't quite picture you dashing madly around the world, scaling mountains or creeping through caverns or whatever else they come up with, besting experienced adventures in search of . . . what the hell are they in search of, anyway?"

"Fifty thousand dollars," she said briskly. "For the first person who can finish end before New Year's or the prize will be forfeited."

"And you figured you'd win?"

"That," she said, "was where you come in."

A Wedding Story

END OF CHAPTER ONE
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