The Marriage Contract (Marriage #3) by Cathy Maxwell

Prologue





London, 1815



Anne Burnett held her breath as Lady Waldo signed her brother’s bold, singular title “Tiebauld” to the proxy marriage contract. The scratch of the sharp quill across parchment resounded in the sudden quiet of the lawyer’s office.

Finished, Lady Waldo handed the pen to Sir Rupert, who officiously sanded the signature before turning the document on his desk toward Anne. “Your turn, Miss Burnett.” He dipped the pen in ink and offered it to her with a slight flourish.

Anne stared at the writing instrument as if she’d never seen one before. A bead of ink formed on the nub’s tip. If she didn’t take it quickly, the ink would fall onto the desk and make a splatter. But she couldn’t breathe, let alone move.

“It is your turn to sign, Miss Burnett,” Sir Rupert prompted again.

“Yes, Anne,” Aunt Maeve said, sitting in the hardback chair beside her niece’s. She gave Anne’s elbow a little wake-up pinch. “This is no time for missish airs. It’s as good as you could ever hope for. Better, in fact.”

Anne could only agree, but the minuscule writing of terms and agreements her aunt and uncle had spent hours negotiating leered up at her. No one had asked her opinion. Not once. After all, this marriage was considered the best an orphan with a disgraced past could achieve.

Of course, in fairness, she’d had her chances. Uncle Robert and Aunt Maeve had sponsored her for two Seasons. However, the consensus was her looks, while pleasant—straight brown hair, serious gray eyes, and a mouth too generous for beauty—were not spectacular enough to overcome her lack of fortune or social connections.

No man wanted her save one. Lord Tiebauld, Lady Waldo’s brother. The man whose very name made every eligible debutante shudder.

Bitter disappointment replaced fear. Anne had dreamed of marriage, of being loved for herself, and of finally having a place where she was wanted and belonged…

Instead, she was to be shipped off to the wilds of Scotland. Dismissed, was more like it. Her relatives couldn’t wait to be rid of her.

She reached for the pen and angled the contract on the polished wood desk in front of her. Her fingers tightened on the stylus—and suddenly she couldn’t do it.

Not until she asked the question burning in her mind, “How mad is he?”

For a heartbeat, everyone stared as if Anne had spoken in tongues. Politically powerful, socially adept, Lady Waldo appeared most disconcerted of all. Then chaos erupted.

Uncle Robert rose to his feet with a soft oath while Aunt Maeve cried out, “Anne!”

Sir Rupert leaned across the desk, frowning at her uncle. “I thought you said the girl was agreeable to the match?”

“She is,” Uncle Robert answered. He placed a warning hand on Anne’s shoulder. “She will sign.”

“It’s nerves,” Aunt Maeve assured everyone. “Her father was just as high-strung. She’ll calm down.”

“Maeve, shut up,” Uncle Robert growled, but it was too late. Sir Rupert grasped at the possible implications.

“You told me she was healthy!”

“She is,” Aunt Maeve shot back. “Didn’t your doctor tell you so? He even verified her virginity.”

Hot color flooded Anne’s cheeks at the reminder of the invasive and too personal examination the doctor had given her. She started to rise, feeling an urge to run, to hide—but Uncle Robert’s hand shoved back down in the chair.

Besides, where would she go?

Sir Rupert turned to Lady Waldo. “I can’t let you continue with this endeavor, my lady. Not until we are completely sure of the girl’s mental soundness.”

Aunt Maeve started a keening protest. The lawyer ignored her and reached for the contract, but Uncle Robert snatched it up. The slip of parchment would make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. They could not let the marriage go, even if it meant coming to blows with London’s most prominent solicitor—

“Enough!” Lady Waldo’s command cut through the madness.

Their mouths clamped shut.

“Mr. Crisp,” she said to Uncle Robert, “place the contract back on the desk.” He followed her command with an uncommon docility. “Now leave us. Take your wife. You go with them, Sir Rupert. I don’t want Mrs. Crisp listening at the door.”

“As your solicitor, I should be present with you,” he protested.

“Go,” Lady Waldo answered, and to Anne’s amazement he did, herding Uncle Robert in front of him.