THE BRIDE, THE BABY AND THE BEST MAN                                           Vintage eBook

 

 

 

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What do you when, three weeks from your wedding, a blackmailing aunt leaves you holding the baby?

Faith Bridges should be wedding dress shopping with her bridesmaids, finalising the menu for the reception, house hunting. Instead she's up close and personal with Harry March - the last man on earth she’d trust with her heart - a fractious baby and a four year old diva.She and Julian may not have had the most conventional of courtships but he’s wise, responsible and utterly dependable. The exact opposite of Harry, who thinks that all he has to do to get her to stay and take care of his sister's children is to tease her, charm her and, when that doesn’t work, make love to her.

It won't work; Faith knows that love is like meringue — all sugar and air, and about as substantial. And she has made a promise that she isn’t about to break. So why does she find it so hard to walk away?

 

 

 

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"Liz Fielding delivers "must" reading in THE BRIDE, THE BABY AND THE BEST MAN as she spins a wonderful story with emotionally driven characters, crackling scenes and a fantastic plot twist..."

 

...4 1/2 stars RT BOOKCLUB

 

 

taste test...

 ‘I wonder what would buy you, Faith Bridges?’

‘I’m not for sale, Harry March,’ she said, crossly, longing to turn and walk out of the house but, hampered by the baby, escape was impossible.

‘Maybe no one has ever offered you something you wanted enough,’ he suggested.

She finally snapped. ‘Considering I’ve driven all the way from London in answer to your cry for help you could at least try to be civil.’

‘Well, I’m sure it’s very good of you…but I can’t understand why you’d bother. I’m beginning to wonder if I wasn’t right in my first assumption after all… Suppose I did what Elizabeth and Janet so desperately want and offered to marry you, Faith Bridges? Would you stay then?’

‘Are you really that desperate?’ she asked, congratulating herself for retaining her cool manner under pressure.

‘Not yet.’ She had expected a lop-sided grin, an admission of defeat. Disconcertingly, Harry March was not smiling. ‘But come back in a couple of days and who can tell.’

 * * * 

 ‘BLACKMAIL,’ Faith muttered for perhaps the tenth time that day. Her aunt was an expert in the technique. One of these days she’d call her bluff — except of course that she wasn’t bluffing. She never bluffed. But whatever crisis had befallen Harry March, Faith vowed that it wouldn’t occupy one minute more than twenty-four hours of her precious time. ‘Not one second longer,’ she informed the signpost she had slowed to consult — Wickham Ash being too small to appear on her road map. A timely reminder not to weaken.

Despite the urgency of the call for help, there was no enthusiastic rush to greet her when she drew up in front of Wickham Hall. A small stone manor house it seemed to almost hang from its wooded hillside perch above the river, dominating the well-kept estate that stretched for acres in all directions. It was timeless, peaceful and quite beautiful but Faith, long past the age when she could be impressed by this evidence of wealth, or the man who possessed it, tugged at an old-fashioned wrought-iron bell pull.

For a moment nothing happened then she heard a faint far off jangle in some distant servants’ hall. All impressively picturesque and charming no doubt, like the house, like the stunning bird’s-eye view over the woods to the river glinting silver in the evening light below her. Not terribly efficient, but pretty much what she would have expected from a man whose response to an emergency was to send for his old nanny.

The door was eventually opened by a middle aged man of military bearing. ‘Yes, miss?’ The accent was unexpectedly Scottish, the tone dour, the expression lugubrious rather than a grateful welcome for someone who had dropped everything to ride to the rescue, no matter how unwillingly.

‘Mac? Is it her? Don’t keep her waiting on the doorstep, man, bring her in.’ The irritable tones of a disembodied voice raised impatiently above the more insistent cry of a baby, that grew louder as it came nearer, cut off her attempt to introduce herself. A baby?

The man who had opened the door regarded her doubtfully for a moment before turning away. ‘It’s not Miss Bridges, sir, it’s a young female.’ Young was clearly not a recommendation.

‘I’m Faith—’ she began, but as Harry March appeared in the open doorway of a room leading from the hall, the comfortable shabbiness of which could only have been accumulated through generations of hard use, Faith’s attempt to explain her presence died on her lips.

The man whose summons she had raced to answer was, according to her aunt, irresistible but Faith had never doubted her ability to resist the smooth, boyish good looks and too-obvious charm that oozed from the photograph in the silver frame that had pride of place on her aunt’s sofa table.

Foolishly, she had expected him to look just the same as a ten-year-old photograph. Ten years was not long and men, after all, changed less than women in the decade between their early twenties and thirties but time, it seemed, had dealt harshly with Harry March.

He still made a singularly striking figure; he was tall — far taller than she had imagined from his picture, probably because he was so beautifully proportioned, with the broad shoulders of an athlete and a strongly muscled neck to support the kind of head that more usually adorned the warrior statues of ancient Greece.

Pain, though, had chiselled away the boyish good looks, forging the smoothly handsome features into something harder, stronger, revealing a strength of character she would never have imagined from the softer features in that smiling portrait taken in his youth.

The confident curve of his smile had hardened to a straight line, the slight droop of his lower lip retaining only a suspicion of the reckless sensuality that dared girls to resist his charm. His nose, long and once arrow-straight now showed battle fatigue and his chin, deeply cleft, boasted such stubbornness that she almost flinched. But dominating the whole was a scar, livid against the tanned outdoor complexion, a scar that scythed from the centre of his forehead to his temple. It was no longer a pretty face, she thought, remembering her own instinctive recoil from such blatant and careless charm, but one that had been lived in and lived in hard. And the effect on Faith was far more devastating than the unmarked beauty that it had replaced.

She had no time to analyse the odd little skip of her heart-beat, however, no time to shield herself from the heat that flickered unexpectedly through her veins as his vivid cornflower blue eyes swept over her. Jerked from her shocked scrutiny of Harry March by the red-faced infant lying in the crook of his arm who, having screwed himself up to some special pitch of anguish, let out a cry of such passionate intensity that he gained the undivided attention of all present, she took a step back.

‘What on earth is the matter with the poor thing?’ she demanded. A career woman, who made a point of avoiding babies, she ignored the instinctive urge to reach out to offer comfort, an unexpected tug of longing deep within her and clinging to her shoulder bag as if to a lifeline, kept her distance. No answer being forthcoming she rushed on. ‘Where did it come from?’

‘Don’t you know?’ Harry’s mouth twisted briefly in a provoking smile.

‘Of course I—’ Too late Faith realised the trap and found herself colouring. ‘I meant —well, it’s not yours is it?’

‘He.’

‘What?’

‘He,’ Harry repeated. ‘Not it.’

‘Oh, right. It’s just, I didn’t think you were married.’ Didn’t think, she knew… He’d jilted the beautiful Clementine Norwood days before their marriage. Called the whole thing off. Her aunt had been going to the wedding and had bought a special outfit that cost a fortune. She’d justified the expense because she would be wearing it to two weddings that summer.

Maybe there had been something in the air because it never left her wardrobe. It had been a bad year all round for weddings.

‘Who the devil are you?’ he demanded, his eyes sweeping her with a fierce, raking glance that swept her from head to toe. Then some kind of understanding crossed his face. ‘Oh, good grief, you’re another of my sister’s doe-eyed blondes,’ he declared, bitterly. ‘That’s all I need.’

‘One of your sister’s...?’ For a moment words failed her. But only for a moment. ‘Tell, me Mr March, does she keep a supply in a cupboard for use in emergencies?’ This was an emergency — her aunt had said so.

‘Not content with lumbering me with her offspring,’ Harry March continued, ignoring her question, ‘she’s back on a matchmaking jag. Well you’ve picked the wrong day to call, lady,’ he said, walking around her, a slight limp betraying that his injuries extended beyond the scar etched across his forehead. ‘As you can see, I’m otherwise engaged.’ The baby, as if to emphasize his point let out another howl of anguish.

‘From the look of you, any woman would come in handy right now,’ Faith replied, coldly. ‘Blonde or otherwise.’

‘I’m not that desperate, madam. Help is at hand.’ He continued to glare at her, jogging the baby more in hope than expectation of it doing any good. Faith found herself leaning forward a little, wanting to do something but unsure what would help. ‘Well?’ he continued, impatiently. ‘Let’s get it over with. What excuse have you managed to drum up to cover your arrival on my doorstep? You’ve lost your way perhaps? That’s a favourite.’ He didn’t bother to disguise his scorn. ‘Or do you have some desperate need to use the telephone?’

‘It can’t be that, sir,’ Mac intervened, apparently deriving some dour amusement from the situation. ‘The last young lady who dropped by used that as an excuse.’

Harry glanced at Mac. ‘Did she? Was that the one with the teeth like gravestones?’

‘A picket fence was the expression you used at the time.’

‘Oh God, that smile…’ Harry turned back to Faith. ‘Well, come on, out with it. I’m considering a prize for the most original reason for knocking on my front door over a six-month period. Today’s young women have so little imagination that if you can come up with something amusing it should be yours for the taking.’

Faith, who had been listening to the man with growing irritation, finally snapped. ‘Frankly I can’t think of thing you might have that I could possibly want. You said help was at hand, Mr March. Well what you see is what you get. Take it or leave it. And for your information,’ she added, with what she considered remarkable restraint considering the provocation, ‘I am neither doe-eyed nor blonde.’

The slightest lift of his eyebrows did nothing for her blood-pressure. ‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ he said. ‘I was once acknowledged to be an expert on the subject.’

‘That’s not much of a character reference.’

‘Maybe not,’ he agreed, unmoved, ‘but then I never claimed to be perfect.’

‘Very wise of you.’

‘I never claimed to be that, either, but when I called Janet for help it was because I wanted her, not some flibbertigibbet female. And you are not Janet Bridges,’ he said, accusingly.

‘Ten out of ten for observation,’ she replied, somewhat dryly. Whatever blunt instrument had been used in an attempt to scalp him had clearly not affected his eyesight, even if he was incapable of distinguishing between blonde and the somewhat commonplace shade of streaky mouse that represented her crowning glory. ‘Janet Bridges is my aunt and if I were a flibbertigibbet she certainly wouldn’t have sent me in her place. In fact, Mr March, you’ll be relieved to hear that I am positively renowned for my level-headedness.’

‘A level-headed woman?’ He made no effort to disguise his disbelief. ‘Now that is original. Although whether anyone could be renowned for level-headedness I very much doubt. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?’

Faith had a suspicion that he was right, but she wasn’t about to admit it. ‘You can take my word for it,’ she assured him. ‘My level-headedness is spoken of with hushed awe.’ Admittedly not in the world of baby care.

‘I’ll make up my own mind, thank you, although I would have thought I could have trusted Janet...’ He stopped. ‘Oh, I see. This is a joint effort. Elizabeth and Janet have used my predicament to entrap me.’ He raised his eyes appealingly to the ceiling. ‘Heaven spare me from the machinations of all women. Especially the ones who think they are acting for your own good.’

Faith, hungry, tired from a long day that had culminated in this dash into rural England instead of the anticipated pleasure of shopping in Knightsbridge with her two best friends, had not been expecting to be welcomed with a pipe band, but neither was she amused by her less than enthusiastic reception. In fact she was seriously annoyed, but since she was also an acknowledged expert at keeping her thoughts to herself, Harry March had no way of knowing that.

‘Heaven has been merciful on this occasion, Mr March, although why it should bother itself with you when you’re quite so impossibly rude is beyond me. I have never met your sister and if she is seeking to inflict you and your bad manners upon some poor unsuspecting female then frankly I don’t much want to. Aunt Janet certainly has more sense.’

Or had she?

She’d made no secret of her disapproval of Faith’s forthcoming marriage. But surely she wouldn’t stoop to such underhand tactics?

The baby, who had momentarily ceased yelling in order to contemplate her with large myopically blue eyes, opened his mouth and began to make his presence felt once more.

‘Is he hungry?’ she enquired tentatively, partly in an effort to be helpful, partly to take her mind off the uncomfortable feeling that her aunt was perfectly capable of trying to upset her wedding plans. She had once described Harry as “irresistible”. Was she hoping that he might be?

‘I fed and changed him, miss,’ Mac informed her.

Faith turned thankfully to the dour Scot, hardly surprised that particular task had been delegated by Harry; he was, no doubt, a past master at the art. But at something of a loss as to any other likely cause of the infant’s distress she asked, ‘And you closed the nappy pins?’

‘I used one of those disposable things. They don’t have pins.’

‘Disposable?’ Faith repeated, with exasperation. ‘Have you any idea of the landfill problems caused by—’ She stopped. This was not the moment for a lecture in ecological correctness and the pathetic yells were beginning to tug uncomfortably at this hitherto undisturbed instinct to nurture. Despite herself she took another step closer. ‘Can’t you stop it crying?’ she demanded of Harry.

‘I’ve been attempting to do that for most of the day but, since you’re here to help, why don’t you have a try?’ With that he dumped the baby in her arms. ‘His name is Ben.’

He was so small, so defenceless, so loud! And she didn’t have a clue what to do. ‘But…’

‘I don’t believe I know yours,’ he added.

Faith, perfectly at home with a balance sheet, or a company report tried to ignore the yelling and, more by instinct than any real idea of what to do, she let her bag drop to the floor, put the infant over her shoulder and began to pat his back. Ben dug his tiny nails into her shoulder and was promptly sick down her back but he stopped crying. She kept very still, afraid that any untoward movement might start him off again, afraid that he might throw up again. Instead he lifted his wobbly head and looked at her before yawning mightily and falling asleep with his warm damp head tucked trustingly against her neck.

‘Oh, well done, miss,’ Mac said.

‘Well done? But he’s been sick all over me,’ she whispered fiercely, the dampness beginning to seep through her silk shirt.

Harry looked over her shoulder. ‘It’s not much,’ he informed her.

She looked up. ‘That’s easy for you to say,’ she began, then because his eyes were uncomfortably close to hers she shifted her gaze to the sleeping infant and was immediately enchanted by the delicate curve of long dark lashes resting on his downy cheek.

Once, a long time ago, she had been desperate to start a family of her own, but when Michael had cut and run a week before their wedding that part of her died and she’d concentrated on her career. Numbers never let you down. Yet this little creature seemed to catch at something deep within her, tugging dangerously at her heartstrings.

She looked up, saw the two men looking at her with a knowing expression and she stiffened. ‘Right, Mr March. If that was what all the fuss was about I’ll be on my way.’

‘Who are you? Really?’ Now that Ben had stopped crying and the immediate crisis was over Harry’s features relaxed slightly into the possibility of a smile. Faith avoided the temptation to respond in kind.

‘I’m Faith Bridges. Janet Bridges is my aunt. Really.’

‘I see. It runs in the family, does it?’ He indicated the sleeping child. ‘Being able to handle yelling babies?’

‘Not in this family. I work for a bank.’ Worked. She still hadn’t quite got used to her freedom.

Harry’s dark brows peaked in surprise. ‘By choice?’

‘By choice,’ she confirmed.

‘Extraordinary.’

The fact that his surprise was clearly genuine didn’t make it any less insulting. ‘What’s extraordinary about it? It certainly beats wiping dirty noses and bottoms for a living.’ She reached up and eased the wet cloth away from her shoulder as if to emphasize her point.

His smile was definitely widening. ‘Put like that, I’m prepared to concede you may have a point. But most women can’t wait to do it, even without a pay cheque at the end of the month.’

‘I am not most women.’

‘No?’ He regarded the tender way she held the child and dismissed her protestations with a disbelieving look. ‘Well, the nursery suite is on the first floor, second door on the left. You’ll find everything you’ll need in there.’ He didn’t wait for her response, but turned to Mac. ‘I don’t know about you but I could do with a drink.’

Faith stood for a moment open-mouthed as he turned towards the library. Then she found her voice.

‘Excuse me!’

‘Yes?’ As Harry turned his dark blue eyes upon her she wavered, but only for a moment.

‘The only thing I need right now is the door out of here. So if you’ll kindly take the baby I’ll be on my way.’

‘But you’ve only just arrived,’ Harry said, apparently impatient for his drink. ‘I told Janet that I needed her for at least a week.’

‘A week!’ Of all the conniving, blackmailing manipulating old women — she knew that was impossible! ‘I don’t have a week to spare—’

‘Then you should have told her that before you came. In fact you never told me why she didn’t come herself.’

Faith felt herself sinking into boggy ground. Janet had made her promise not to tell Harry about her operation, although she wasn’t sure that her aunt deserved such loyalty under the circumstances. ‘She retired two years ago, Mr March, when it all got a bit much for her,’ she said, sidestepping the question. ‘And she seems to have forgotten to mention anything about staying for a week. Or babies.’

He looked disbelieving. ‘She sounded perfectly rational when I spoke to her. And she was as fit as a fiddle last time I saw her.’

‘And when was that?’ she snapped back and was gratified by the tightening of the muscles that clamped his jaw tight. ‘Anyway, I thought you had already made up your mind that I was sent by your sister to lure you up the aisle?’ she added, caustically. ‘Since you’re clearly not interested, I might as well be on my way.’

His eyes gleamed in the dusky evening light. ‘Oh no, Faith Bridges. You look the part but you’re altogether too sharp-tongued for that particular game. But if Janet could have come she would, retired or not. So why did she send you in her place?’

He was so sure of his authority, his power to command instant attention that Faith felt an urgent desire to dent his arrogance. She restrained herself. ‘She had other commitments that she couldn’t avoid, Mr March, but she asked me to try and sort out your problems as best I could. Since I’ve absolutely no experience as a nanny my advice is that you do what you should have done in the first place and call an agency.’

‘An agency?’

‘A nanny agency. There are dozens of them in the Yellow Pages. Since this is your sister’s baby, why don’t you ask her to help you find one? Where is she, anyway?’

‘My sister is in America. I told—’

‘She went away and left Ben with you?’ Faith’s disbelief was palpable and ignited a dangerous spark in his eye.

‘It was an emergency,’ he said, glaring at Mac when he would have interrupted, ‘and it was Elizabeth’s idea to call Janet.’ Then, without warning, he smiled. It was an assured, I-can-get-away-with-anything smile, just the kind of smile to captivate a recalcitrant female and Faith suspected it had been used to devastating effect on more than one occasion. It was a slightly crumpled version these days to be sure, but if you were in the least bit susceptible—

Faith discovered her mouth was softening in response and had to mentally shake herself, remind herself firmly that she was twenty-five years old, with a reputation for being anything but susceptible. On the contrary, she told herself, she was furious that he would think her so gullible. Unaware of the effect it was causing, he turned and walked back towards her. ‘Surely Janet meant you to stay? Otherwise why would she have sent you in her place?’

His logic was impeccable, but for one minor detail. ‘If she’d understood the nature of the problem I imagine she would have made some other arrangements.’

‘Understood the problem?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘She’s a nanny for heaven’s sake, what other reason could I possibly have for asking her to help out?’

Not susceptible, huh? For someone much-applauded for her objectivity why hadn’t she been able to see that for herself? Had she been thinking too much about the man rather than the problem?

‘I knew this was a mistake,’ she muttered, feeling very stupid. ‘I wanted to telephone, but she knew I wouldn’t come if I discovered the true nature of the problem, that was why she threatened—’

‘Threatened?’ He was on the word like a terrier on a rat. ‘What exactly did she threaten you with?’

She bit her lower lip as she realised she had very nearly given the game away and shifting the sleeping child into the crook of her arm, she offered him to Harry. ‘Look I’m really very sorry, Mr March, but even if I knew the first thing about children I just don’t have a week to spare. I simply have to get back to London.’

‘Ask for a week’s leave,’ he advised, ‘on compassionate grounds. Or are you going to tell me that you are indispensable — that your bank couldn’t possibly manage without you for a whole week?’

He wasn’t insulting her, she realised, but teasing. ‘It’s not my bank,’ she said. ‘It’s got nothing to do with the bank. It’s personal business.’

‘Couldn’t you handle it from here?’ Harry ignored the proffered baby and she took a desperate step closer which was plainly silly, since she had to tilt her head to look up into his eyes and that made her feel vulnerable — too vulnerable to explain why she had to organise her wedding single-handed. While technically it was perfectly possible to do most things from Wickham Ash, she certainly had no desire to do it under Harry March’s taunting eyes.

‘The minute I get back to London I’ll telephone an agency for you and ask them to despatch a temporary nanny,’ she promised.

‘That all seems rather unnecessary now you’re here.’ His smile took on a coaxing quality. He could, apparently, turn it on like a tap. The knowledge didn’t make the effect any less devastating. ‘Despite your protestations about your lack of experience you obviously have a way with you. Ben seems to like you and that’s worth a lot. I’d pay you top rates,’ he said. ‘You would have your own sitting room,’ he offered, temptingly. ‘There’s a TV, you can use Elizabeth’s car any time you want and the swimming pool when I’m not using it—’

‘I don’t need your money,’ she said quickly, sensing that she was being steamrollered for the second time that day. ‘And I have my own car.’ She glanced down at Ben as he sighed in his sleep.

‘A vintage Alpha Romeo Spyder, sir,’ Mac interjected, with a certain dour satisfaction. ‘A red one with a black hood. Very nice.’ Harry March ditched the smile and threw him a warning look that would have silenced thunder.

 

 

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From the book THE BRIDE, THE BABY AND THE BEST MAN by Liz Fielding

© Liz Fielding