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Authors: Valerie Bowman

A Secret Proposal

A Secret Proposal
Valerie Bowman

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London, June 1816

Amelia Templeton propped her hand on her chin and tapped the nib of her quill against the paper lying on the desktop in front of her. She’d spent the entire morning preparing the list that now sat glaring at her like a challenge. But she was pleased with the result. Three names. (Well, four, actually, but the fourth one didn’t truly count.) Names of the three men she was targeting to…marry. And this time,
this time,
she would
fail. Mama wanted a title in the family and Amelia—always dutiful, always
—intended to deliver. With these three names, she could not fail.

She rubbed a finger down the list, smudging the ink a bit.

Number one, the Duke of Stanford.

Number two, the Marquis of Bartholomew.

And number three, the Earl of Highland.

All of whom were exceedingly eligible, exceedingly titled, and—most importantly—exceedingly p-o-o-r. Which made them the perfect trio. Papa had money to spare, after all. Amelia was sitting upon an indecently large dowry. One that was sure to lure these gentlemen.
Which one didn’t matter.

Amelia let her gaze slide to the fourth name on the list. It tugged at her heart. Sent her mind reeling back to memories. Memories—

“Have you finished your task?” Amelia jumped as Mama strode into the drawing room, her skirts crinkling. She arched a judgmental brow at her only daughter.

Mama never failed to frighten her. She stood in front of her, tapping her slippered foot on the marble floor and glaring at Amelia over her folded arms. The woman always smelled like starch. The acrid scent burnt Amelia’s nose.

Her heart firmly lodged in her throat, Amelia quickly ripped the fourth name from the bottom of the list. It would not do for her mother to see that name. Not at all. Amelia stuffed the bit of paper into the pocket of her morning dress. Then she quickly stood up and hurried over to face her mother.

“Yes, Mama.” Amelia nodded, gulping. “I just finished.”

Mama’s hawk-like eyes rested on the paper. “Let me see it.” She held out a palm and allowed Amelia to press the parchment into it.

Mama turned the paper around. Her gaze scanned the page. One blond-gray eyebrow still arched.

“The Earl of Highland,” she intoned. “Certainly a fine and decent choice. His connections are impeccable.”

And he’s nearly sixty
. But Amelia let out a sigh of relief. Thank goodness Mama approved. The earl was the least prestigious title on the list and Amelia had been half-afraid Mama would reject him. Amelia had lost a marquis, after all. Would a lowly earl replace him? Apparently, so.

Her mother gave her a stern stare. “
wringing your hands,” she commanded, before
turning her attention back to the list. “The Marquis of Bartholomew.” A slow smile spread across Mama’s face. “Excellent. If you land him, the Marquis of Colton will rue the day he let you go.”

Her face carefully blank, Amelia nodded. “Yes, Mama.” She hated it when Mama brought up the Marquis of Colton. But after what Amelia had done—crying off from her engagement to one of London’s most eligible noblemen—she was fortunate Mama was still speaking to her. A few mentions of Lord Colton were to be taken in stride.

The Marquis of Bartholomew was also much older than Amelia, but no matter. What did being young and attractive have to do with the business of marriage, after all? Well, at least for the men… Unfair, unfair, unfair. But, typical, typical, typical.

Mama’s eyes touched the last name on the list. She sucked in her breath. “The Duke of Stanford?” Her voice nearly dripped with anticipation. Was Mama salivating? Amelia could have sworn she saw a bit of spittle on the sides of her mother’s mouth. “The duke…” Mama repeated, her eyes growing wide. She stared off—not seeing—out the window into the gardens beyond. “You could be the Duchess of Stanford…a duchess.”

Amelia pressed her lips together. Of course Mama liked Stanford the best. He held the most prestigious title of them all. He also happened to be the oldest and sickest of the lot. Amelia fought her shudder. Perhaps Stanford would do her the courtesy of slipping away peacefully in his sleep soon after the nuptials—oh, and after he’d done his duty and got her with an heir. The duke had survived three duchesses already—none of whom had produced the future duke—so Amelia had placed his name on the list. He was decrepit—and if rumors were to be believed, sorely in need of her dowry, and desperate for a legitimate heir. The perfect candidate.

Mama let the list float to the desk in front of Amelia’s face. “You’ve done well, my child. I find nothing to object to with any of these gentlemen. And now that you’ve picked the names
yourself, I expect there shall be no more nonsense about the fright of your wedding night. Do you hear me?”

Amelia nodded again. Of course Mama didn’t find anything wrong with the gentlemen.
didn’t have to face the prospect of spending a scary wedding night with any of them. She wasn’t the one who’d read that awful
Secrets of a Wedding Night
pamphlet, after all.

Mama and her crinkly skirts turned back toward the door. “I’ll tell Hannah to begin packing for the house party immediately.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“And then I’ll see to it that all three of those gentlemen are in attendance.”

“Yes, Mama.”

Amelia had no doubts. If Horatia Templeton was anything, she was well-connected. The woman was gifted with the ability to procure an invitation to nearly any party in town, for anyone. Their little family was Society hangers-on, barely able to claim a foothold in the
and that, based solely upon Papa’s distant relatives. But Mama used their wealth and what little connection they did have to full and constant advantage.

Mama swept from the room, her mind no doubt filled with images of her daughter, the future duchess. Amelia waited until the door clicked shut, then turned back toward the windows and slowly pulled the bit of paper from her pocket.

The fourth name.

She unfolded the little crumpled piece of parchment and smoothed her hand across the three words. She swallowed hard. A title did not accompany this name. And in addition to that sin, there was another even greater one. For the name that stared back at Amelia from the scrap of paper was
Mister Thaddeus Hammond
. Her brother’s former best friend. Her own former close
friend. The man responsible for her brother’s death.

And she didn’t have much time to find him.


Amelia waited in the coach, her breath stuck in her throat. The footman was taking a bit too long. She bit her lip. Either that or he was unable to find Thaddeus Hammond.
Oh God, please don’t let it be that
. Thaddeus had to be here, didn’t he? He owned the place. She glanced out the window anxiously. If anyone saw Papa’s coach stopped in the back alley near a boxing saloon, she’d never live it down. And if word got back to Mama—Amelia shuddered—oh, she couldn’t even think about the peal that would ring around her ears then. Best not to contemplate it. But what the devil was keeping that footman?

Moments later, the door to the coach cracked open and Thaddeus Hammond’s familiar face appeared. When he saw Amelia, he smiled, but there was a bit of a warning in his eyes. She remembered Thaddeus being happy, friendly, open. This Thaddeus was a bit guarded, brooding. And there was something else about him too, something…compelling. There was a scar near his right eye. Amelia swallowed. She knew where he’d got that scar.

“Good to see you, Amy,” he said with a smile. “But what in the deuce could you be thinking, coming here?”

Amelia swallowed. She hadn’t been called Amy in so long. It was odd, awkward. Bittersweet. She shook her head. But she’d also come prepared for his argument. What indeed had she been thinking, coming here? She folded her hands in her lap and regarded him calmly. “Good afternoon, Thaddeus. I really must speak with you.”

He arched a brow. “You couldn’t have sent round a note?”

She shook her head emphatically. “No. There’s no time. I’m leaving for the country soon. And, er, I didn’t quite want what I have to say to be captured in…writing.”

Both of his eyebrows shot up then and he looked back and forth over his shoulders quickly before pulling himself up into the coach. He settled himself in the seat next to Amelia and rapped on the door to the coachman. The door slid open. “Yes, sir?”

“Drive around the park, please,” he commanded and Amelia knew he’d done it so her coach wouldn’t be spotted behind the boxing saloon.

Amelia allowed her shoulders to relax. Oh good. Thaddeus would hear her out.

Now that he was sitting next to her, she was afforded a better view of her old friend. She glanced at him and her eyes widened. Thaddeus looked…different. Quite different. The last time she’d seen him, she’d been fifteen and Thaddeus had been twenty-two. He’d always had chestnut-brown hair, which was now closely cropped, and nearly aquamarine eyes, but she’d never noticed quite how, well—devastatingly handsome he was before. But then again, the last time she’d seen him she’d been in mourning for her brother, nearly out of her mind with grief, trying to comfort her mother…and shocked at the news she’d just heard.

She stole another surreptitious glance at Thaddeus. He wore buckskin breeches and a white lawn shirt that was partially open at the throat. He might have the same eyes and the same hair, but otherwise, Thaddeus looked about as different as a man could look. He’d been thin the last time she’d seen him, lanky perhaps. The remnants of adolescence hadn’t entirely worn off. But now there was absolutely nothing adolescent about him. Thaddeus had grown muscles in the last three years. Big, strong, bulging muscles. His arms were wide and thick. His neck was strong and his shoulders positively broad. His ready grin had been replaced by the barest hint of creases around the sides of his firm lips. Thaddeus Hammond had changed. No question about it.

“Have you spent the last three years doing nothing but boxing?” The words sprang from her lips before she could stop them. She quickly pressed her gloved fingers over her mouth. Not the best start to a conversation.

His grin was positively wolfish. “Best boxer in town,” he answered. “Gentleman Jack’s got nothing on me.”

There was his trademark cockiness too. Amelia had always admired that about him. She herself didn’t possess a cocky bone in her body.

“Well, you certainly look it,” she replied, and then her blush burned her cheeks. She must learn to keep her mouth firmly shut. Good heavens, not every thought in one’s head should come out of one’s mouth, as Mama would say. And it was especially distracting when all she could think about was how he smelled like an intoxicating combination of soap and leather and the barest hint of manly cologne.

He winked at her and her heart did a little flip. “I can fight anyone,” he said. “Nearly makes up for the shame I’ve brought upon my poor family, owning a boxing saloon and all.” His tone indicated that he didn’t give a fig what his “poor family” thought.

“But enough about that,” he continued. “What about you?” He stared down at her over his perfectly straight nose. “You took a great risk coming to the saloon, you know?”

The coach pulled away from the alleyway with a jolt. Thaddeus pulled the curtains tight on both windows before settling back in his seat and facing her. “All right then, out with it. What do you so desperately need to speak with me about?”

Amelia bit her lip. She’d had plenty of time to think about this. She’d produced and discarded a great number of explanations. But she’d yet to have settled upon one that seemed quite—well, accurate. She glanced at Thaddeus out of the corners of her eyes. She’d just have to do her best. She pressed her hands to the seat so she wouldn’t wring them. Unladylike, Mama would say. But today was a bit of a hand-wringing day. Amelia cleared her throat. “I suppose you’ve heard the gossip…about me, I mean.”

Thaddeus nodded solemnly. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t.”

Amelia expelled her breath. So much the better. Thank goodness. She wouldn’t have to explain much about her disgrace unless…

“What the deuce happened between you and the Marquis of Colton to make you cry off?”

Amelia pulled at the collar of her day dress. Unless Thaddeus started asking questions.

She forced herself to clasp her hands together tightly. No. More. Hand. Wringing. She
winced. “I got…frightened.”

“Frightened?” He blinked at her.

“Yes.” She nodded vigorously. “I was extremely frightened actually.”

A dark storm cloud of a look settled on Thaddeus’s face and he shifted forward in his seat, his eyes meeting hers. “You know I never worried about you, Amy, when you were engaged to Colton. I’ve always thought he was a good sort. But if he did anything to harm you…anything at all, I swear by God I’ll find him and—”

Amelia rested her hand on Thaddeus’s and squeezed. Why did that simple motion send sparks up her arm all of a sudden? “No, no. Nothing like that. It wasn’t the marquis’s fault at all.”

Thaddeus’s shoulders relaxed a bit but his eyes remained narrowed on her. “Then what happened exactly?”

Amelia squeezed her eyes shut. She’d hoped to have been spared this particular bit of humiliation, but Thaddeus deserved the truth, especially given what she was about to ask of him.

“Exactly what happened is…” This time she shoved her hands under her skirts. Better to sit on them than wring them. “Have you heard of a pamphlet entitled
Secrets of a Wedding Night

Thaddeus whistled. “Heard of it? I’ve had scores of patrons ask for a copy of the thing. Though I can’t say I’ve read it myself.”

She closed her eyes again briefly. Of course he’d heard of it. The entire town had heard of
it. “Yes, well, I read it. Was sent a copy, actually. Though that doesn’t matter. I read it just after the marquis and I became betrothed and I was so frightened I nearly…well, suffice it to say… I cried off.”

Thaddeus’s eyebrows remained raised. “What exactly did that pamphlet say?”

Amelia pulled her hands out from under her skirts and pressed them against her heated cheeks. “Oh, it’s neither here nor there. I’ve since learned that it was probably written by the new Marchioness of Colton in an attempt to thwart my engagement, but—”

“Not very sporting of the marchioness, now, was it?” Thaddeus winked at her with those positively mesmerizing blue eyes.

Amelia waved a hand in the air. “I’ve forgiven her. Seems she was madly in love with Lord Colton and I cannot say I was. Though he was a sight better than my current choices, but that’s also not the point.”

Thaddeus took her free hand and squeezed it. Despite the barrier of her glove, sparks shot up her arm again. She tamped down the nervous feeling that rose in her belly and met his eyes.

“I’ve been worried about you, Amy. Very worried. Ever since I heard your engagement had been broken.”

“Why didn’t you write?” The question was more difficult to ask than she’d expected. And once again she wished she could take back her words.

“Unless you knew a letter was coming, it was too dangerous.”

Amelia glanced away and swallowed. He was right. They’d kept in touch all these years.
But she’d always been the one to initiate the correspondence. She kept the loyal footman on the lookout for Thaddeus’s responses, and ensured Mama never knew she was corresponding with the enemy.

Amelia drew back the curtain slightly and glanced out the window. They were halfway through the park already. She’d have to speak quickly if she was going to explain everything and secure his agreement before their trip was through. “I’m fine, Thaddeus. At least… I will be. But I need your help.”

His brow furrowed. He searched her face. “What is it, Amy? Are you all right?”

She straightened her shoulders and steeled her resolve. This is what she’d come to say, after all. Might as well out with it. “Do you remember that day…when you told me you would assist me anytime, with whatever I needed?” Of course they both remembered that day, the day Paul had died. How could they forget it? But did Thaddeus remember his promise?

He sat up straight. His jaw tightened. “Of course I remember, Amy. I stand by that promise. I would do anything for you. Whenever you need it. I owe your brother my life.”

Amelia let out her pent-up breath. Thank God. He remembered.

His eyes quickly scanned her face. “What do you need? Money? Name it. It’s yours.”

She pressed her shaking hands against her knees. Name it. Exactly what she’d hoped he would say. Amelia briefly closed her eyes. She was about to give new meaning to the word
. But there was no help for it. She lowered her voice. She would die a slow, agonizing death by embarrassment if the coachman overheard what she was about to say.

“Thaddeus,” she whispered. “I need you to spend a wedding night with me.”

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