The Runaway Heiress

A Marriage of Inconvenience?

Dina’s only chance to keep her inheritance from going to pay her brother’s gaming debts is to marry before her twenty-fifth birthday. When her carefully planned elopement goes awry, in desperation, she travels to Gretna Green alone. There she finds herself rescuing a naïve young lady from a fortune hunter, which earns the gratitude of the young lady’s handsome—and eligible—brother, who has come in hot pursuit. When he asks her to name her reward, she has her answer ready.

Grant Turpin, better known to his friends as Thor, is grateful to the girl who saved his sister’s honor, but is stunned when she demands marriage in repayment of his debt to her. She insists she will not infringe on his freedom in the least, but the more time he spends with her, the less attractive that freedom appears. Instead, he becomes increasingly determined to win her heart along with her hand. Surely spending Christmas with her at his parents’ estate will help him to do just that?

Like Tessa’s Touch, this book is loosely linked to my “Saint of Seven Dials” series and is, in fact, my second book about members of the “Odd Sock Club,” introduced in Tessa’s Touch.

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Excerpt

“How shall I tell Gregory that I won’t marry him after all?” Violet asked worriedly as she and Dina helped each other dress. “Suppose he is driven to despair —or becomes angry with me?”

Dina seized this perfect opening. “Let me tell him for you,” she suggested. “I can make you sound both regretful and reasonable, and you will be spared any entreaties to change your mind —or any outbursts of temper.”

Violet looked vastly relieved for a moment, but then shook her head. “No, I cannot ask you to do that for me, Dina. Suppose he takes his anger out on you?”

That was the least of Dina’s worries. “I can handle him, I’m certain. And if I can’t,” she added, as Violet still looked concerned, “I will simply call the innkeeper. I can’t imagine he will attempt violence, in any event.”

“If you’re sure . . .” The relief was back in Violet’s eyes.

“I am. I’ll return once it is done.” Thrusting down another surge of guilt, Dina smoothed the skirts of her travel-creased gown and went down. Mr. Plunkett was waiting at the foot of the stairs, resplendant in an impeccably tailored blue coat, gold waistcoat and a voluminous, intricately tied cravat.

“Ah, Miss Moore,” he exclaimed, his gaze straying past her up toward the second floor. “I trust Miss Turpin will be down directly? I’d thought to send for the parson as soon as we’ve breakfasted.”

Dina took a deep breath, pinned her most charming smile to her face and moved toward him. “Good morning, Mr. Plunkett. My, but that coat becomes you well! Please, join me in the parlor. I have something rather important to discuss with you.”

Frowning curiously, he followed her into the room where they’d dined last night. “Important? Violet, er, Miss Turpin is not ill, is she?”

“No, no, she is fine. Please, sir, take a seat, do.” Dina gestured to a chair, taking the one opposite it. She waited until he settled himself before continuing. “I fear Miss Turpin has had a . . . change of heart. However,” she said quickly, as he made to rise again, an exclamation on his lips, “I have an alternative to offer you.”

“An alternative?” he echoed suspiciously. “What do you mean? Did you talk Violet out of marrying me?”

Dina bit back the retort that nearly escaped her, schooling her expression to one of calm sympathy. “I did, for your sake as well as hers. I believe you can do better —as can she.”

His face darkened. “Better? What do you—?”

“I mean that my own fortune is greater than Miss Turpin’s.” She did not actually know that to be the case, but it was clear she had Mr. Plunkett’s attention. “Nor do I have a father with the authority to disinherit me should he disapprove of the man I marry.”

His brows rose. “You . . . you are offering to marry me in Miss Turpin’s stead? Why?”

Perhaps he wasn’t quite as dull as she’d assumed. Still, Dina felt fairly certain that her will was stronger than his. “My father left my inheritance in such a way that if I do not marry within two days, it will revert to my brother. To prevent that, I am willing to strike a bargain with you, Mr. Plunkett.”

“What sort of bargain?” he asked, leaning forward, his former fiancée apparently forgotten.

“If you marry me, you will have control of my fortune and the freedom to pursue your own life as you will. All I ask in return is the guarantee of a generous allowance that will allow me to live in independence. I am no romantic, Mr. Plunkett. I merely wish to safeguard my future.”

An incredulous smile broke across his face. Dina noted dispassionately that while it made him appear more handsome, it also emphasized his weakness —but that was all to the good, for her purposes. Yes, she could control this man.

“Miss Moore, I believe you have yourself a bargain. Shall I call the parson, or would you prefer we commit our agreement to writing first?”

Triumph welled up in Dina’s breast. But before she could answer, a commotion arose outside. She heard raised voices, and then a hurried knock came at the parlor door.

“Yes, what is it?” Mr. Plunkett called out impatiently.

“A gentleman has just arrived, shouting for his sister,” came the innkeeper’s voice through the door. “A great big fellow, he is. I thought I should warn you.”

Dina stifled an unladylike curse. A great big fellow? Silas must have followed her after all. She turned back to Mr. Plunkett, who had jumped to his feet, suddenly pale.

“Tell him—” she began, only to be interrupted when the door flew open with a crash.

The man who entered was a stranger, though he was certainly large— larger even than Silas. He moved menacingly forward. “Plunkett?” he all but roared.

Dina sat as though glued to her chair, all notion of intervening gone. This man was terrifying.

It appeared Mr. Plunkett shared her view. “Y—yes?” he gasped.

Without another word, the giant swung a huge fist and sent Dina’s would-be bridegroom crashing to the floor. “Name your seconds,” he growled at the heap of tailored blue, gold and white.

“But . . . but I—” Mr. Plunkett stammered, looking to Dina for support.

Following his glance, the giant noticed Dina for the first time. She drew back as far as her chair would allow. “My apologies, madam,” he said stiffly. “I—”

“Grant?” Violet’s voice came from the open doorway. He turned to face her, to Dina’s relief. Then she felt a twinge of guilt for that relief, for surely she was better equipped to face this angry colossus than young Violet could be.

She rose, ready to leap to her new friend’s defense if necessary. Certainly, he still looked angry enough to commit further violence, as he strode toward her.

“Vi! Thank God I found you. What on earth were you thinking?” he fairly shouted. “Have you any idea how frantic Mother has been?” He gripped the younger girl by the shoulders and gave her a shake.

Dina quickly stepped forward. “Mr. Turpin, I presume?” she said, mainly to divert his attention until the worst of his anger passed. In her experience with Silas, those first few minutes were always the most dangerous.

The large man frowned down at her in pardonable confusion. Dina couldn’t help noticing —quite irrelevantly —that he was actually rather handsome, with waving golden-brown hair and brilliant blue eyes blazing from beneath dark brows.

“Who the devil are you?” he demanded, his voice still angry.

Before she could answer, a crash recalled the momentarily forgotten Mr. Plunkett. They all turned in time to see him disappearing through the parlor window, which he had apparently forced open with a poker from the fireplace.

“The blackguard!” Mr. Turpin exclaimed, starting after him, though there was no way he would fit through that window. “He won’t escape me so easily. I’ll be back once I’ve made a widow of you, Vi. You’ll be happier that way, believe me.”

Dina took a step back at such bloodthirstiness, but Violet only laughed. “How very medieval of you, Grant. But I haven’t married him yet, so there’s no need for such extreme measures —though I had a few choice things to tell him, myself.”

His glance swiveled back to Dina, making her cringe. “And who—?”

Violet put an arm around Dina’s shoulders. “This is Miss Moore, Grant, and you mustn’t shout at her. She has been exceedingly kind to me.” She didn’t seem the least bit afraid of her imposing brother.

“Has she?” Mr. Turpin raked Dina with a glance before turning back to his sister.

Feeling suddenly out of place in this interview, and seeing that Violet was in no apparent danger from her brother, Dina excused herself and hurried out to the inn-yard. Mr. Plunkett was her last —her only —hope. Perhaps there was still a chance that she could intercept him and induce him to marry her. Maybe if they went to another inn . . .

She saw no sign of him, however, so went back into inside to find the innkeeper. Violet and her brother emerged from the parlor as she was questioning the man.

“Gone,” the inkeeper said with a shrug. “Hired a horse and headed South. He paid his shot, so I had no cause to stop him,” he concluded defensively, for Mr. Turpin was again frowning thunderously.

Despair hit Dina like a wall. She had been so close —so close!— only to have this bullying giant ruin everything. Now her last chance of saving her fortune was gone beyond recall.

“Perhaps it’s just as well,” Violet said, making her blink, before she realized that the girl wasn’t talking about her situation. “I’d have liked to think he’d fight for me, but I suppose I’m not surprised. And now you’ve no need to kill him, Grant, and end up in prison, or worse.”

Still struggling to understand this unexpected turn of events, Thor continued to frown at his sister. “How is it you didn’t marry him?” he asked. “You must have reached Gretna Green sometime yesterday.”

“Yes, late yesterday afternoon. Gregory wanted to marry at once, but I insisted on dinner first. And then I met Dina —Miss Moore. She allowed me to share her room last night, then opened my eyes to Gregory’s true nature, before it was too late.”

He turned to examine the other woman more closely. At first, he’d assumed that Miss Moore was somehow attached to the inn, but now he realized it was not so. Her gown, though creased with travel and at least two years out of style, was well made and there was a certain intelligence in her green eyes.

She lifted her chin to meet his gaze, but did not smile. No definitely not a servant.

“It seems I have cause to be exceedingly grateful to you, Miss Moore.” As he relaxed, it finally penetrated that none of his worst fears had—or would —come to pass.

“Yes, we should repay her somehow, don’t you think, Grant?” Violet asked, her natural exuberance reasserting itself.

The sudden rush of relief made him smile. “Indeed we should. What can we do for you, Miss Moore? Like King Ahasuerus, I feel I should offer you anything, up to half my kingdom —not that I have a kingdom, of course.” He paused, realizing he was on the verge of babbling. “Seriously, though, Miss Moore, name your reward.”

She regarded him speculatively for a moment, then gave a small nod, as though coming to a sudden decision. “Very well, Mr. Turpin,” she said. “In repayment of your debt, I would like you to marry me.”