The Sherbrooke Series Novels 1-5

By: Catherine Coulter


Catherine Coulter The Sherbrooke Series Novels 1-5



The Sherbrooke Bride


The Hellion Bride


The Heiress Bride


Mad Jack


The Courtship






THE SHERBROOKE BRIDE



A Jove Book / published by arrangement with the author






To David,



The Good, the Sexy, the Humorist, the Competent.

I hope you laugh as much reading this novel as I did writing it. Do try it out on beautiful Lori.






CHAPTER

1





Northcliffe Hall

Near New Romney, England

May 1803


“I SAW HER last night—the Virgin Bride!”

“Oh no, not really? Truly, Sinjun? You swear you saw the ghost?”

There were two shuddering gasps and fluttery cries of mingled fear and excitement.

“Yes, it had to be the Virgin Bride.”

“Did she tell you she was a virgin? Did she tell you anything? Weren’t you terrified? Was she all white? Did she moan? Did she look more dead than alive?”

Their voices grew fainter, but he still heard the gasps and giggles as they moved away from the estate room door.

Douglas Sherbrooke, Earl of Northcliffe, closed the door firmly and walked to his desk. That damned ghost! He wondered if the Sherbrookes were fated to endure unlikely tales of this miserable young lady throughout eternity. He glanced down at the neat piles of papers, sighed, then sat himself down and looked ahead at nothing at all.

The earl frowned. He was frowning a lot these days for they were keeping after him, not letting up for a day, not for a single hour. He was bombarded by gentle yet insistent reminders day in and day out with only slight variations on the same dull theme. He must needs marry and provide an heir for the earldom. He was getting older, every minute another minute ticked away his virility, and that virility was being squandered, according to them, for from his seed sprang future Sherbrookes, and this wondrous seed of his must be used legitimately and not spread haphazardly about, as warned of in the Bible.

He would be thirty on Michaelmas, they would say, all those uncles and aunts and cousins and elderly retainers who’d known him since he’d come squalling from his mother’s womb, all those sniggering rotten friends of his, who, once they’d caught onto the theme, were enthusiastic in singing their own impertinent verses. He would frown at all of them, as he was frowning now, and he would say that he wasn’t thirty on this Michaelmas, he was going to be twenty-nine on this Michaelmas, therefore on this day, at this minute, he was twenty-eight, and for God’s sake, it was only May now, not September. He was barely settled into his twenty-eighth year. He was just now accustoming himself to saying he was twenty-eight and no longer twenty-seven. Surely his wasn’t a great age, just ample.

The earl looked over at the gilded ormolu clock on the mantel. Where was Ryder? Damn his brother, he knew their meetings were always held on the first Tuesday of every quarter, here in the estate room of Northcliffe Hall at precisely three o’clock. Of course, the fact that the earl had only initiated these quarterly meetings upon his selling out of the army some nine months before, just after the signing of the Peace of Amiens, didn’t excuse Ryder for being late for this, their third meeting. No, his brother should be censured despite the fact that Douglas’s steward, Leslie Danvers, a young man of industrious habits and annoying memory, had reminded the earl just an hour before of the meeting with his brother.

It was the sudden sight of Ryder bursting into the estate room, windblown, smelling of leather and horse and the sea, alive as the wind, showing lots of white teeth, very nearly on time—it was only five minutes past the hour—that made the earl forget his ire. After all, Ryder was nearing an ample age himself. He was very nearly twenty-six.

The two of them should stick together.

“Lord, but it’s a beautiful day, Douglas! I was riding with Dorothy on the cliffs, nothing like it, I tell you, nothing!” Ryder sat down, crossed his buckskin legs, and provided his brother more of his white-toothed smile.

Douglas swung a brooding leg. “Did you manage to stay on your horse?”

Ryder smiled more widely. His eyes, upon closer inspection, appeared somewhat vague. He had the look of a sated man, a look the earl was becoming quite familiar with, and so he sighed.

“Well,” Ryder said after another moment of silence, “if you insist upon these quarterly meetings, Douglas, I must do something to keep them going.”

“But Dorothy Blalock?”

“The widow Blalock is quite soft and sweet-smelling, brother, and she knows how to please a man. Ah, does she ever do it well. Also, she’ll not get caught. She’s much too smart for that, my Dorothy.”

“She sits a horse well,” Douglas said. “I’ll admit that.”

“Aye, and that’s not all she sits well.”

Only through intense resolve did Douglas keep his grin to himself. He was the earl; he was the head of the far-flung Sherbrooke family. Even now there might be another Sherbrooke growing despite Dorothy’s intelligence.

“Let’s get on with it,” Douglas said, but Ryder wasn’t fooled. He saw the twitch of his brother’s lip and laughed.

“Yes, let’s,” he agreed, rose, and poured himself a brandy. He raised the decanter toward Douglas.

“No, thank you. Now,” Douglas continued, reading the top sheet of paper in front of him, “as of this quarter you have four quite healthy sons, four quite healthy daughters. Poor little Daniel died during the winter. Amy’s fall doesn’t appear to have had lasting injury to her leg. Is this up-to-date?”

“I will have another baby making his appearance in August. The mother appears hardy and healthy.”

Douglas sighed. “Very well. Her name?” As Ryder replied, he wrote. He raised his head. “Is this now correct?”

Ryder lost his smile and downed the rest of his brandy. “No. Benny died of the ague last week.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

Ryder shrugged. “He wasn’t even a year old, but so bright, Douglas. I knew you were busy, what with the trip to London to the war office, and the funeral was small. That’s the way his mother wanted it.”

“I’m sorry,” Douglas said again. Then he frowned, a habit Ryder had noticed and didn’t like one bit, and said, “If the babe is due in August, why didn’t you tell me at our last quarterly meeting?”

Ryder said simply, “The mother didn’t tell me because she feared I wouldn’t wish to bed her anymore.” He paused, looking at the east lawn through the wide bay windows. “Silly wench. I wouldn’t have guessed she was with child although I suppose I might have suspected. She’s already quite great with child. She may well give me twins.”

Ryder turned from the window and swigged more brandy. “I forgot, Douglas. There’s also Nancy.”

Douglas dropped the paper. “Nancy who?”

“Nancy Arbuckle, the draper’s daughter on High Street in Rye. She’s with child, my child. She will have it in November, best guess. She was all tears and woes until I told her she needn’t worry, that the Sherbrookes always took care of their own. It’s possible she might even wed a sea captain for he isn’t concerned that she’s carrying another man’s child.”

“Well, that’s something.” Douglas did a new tally then looked up. “You’re currently supporting seven children and their mothers. You have impregnated two more women and all their children are due this year.”

“I think that’s right. Don’t forget the possibility of the twins or the possibility of Nancy marrying her sea captain.”

“Can’t you keep your damned rod in your pants?”

“No more than you can, Douglas.”

“Fair enough, but why can’t you remove yourself from the woman before you fill her with your seed?”

Ryder flushed, a rather remarkable occurrence, and said, his voice defensive, “I can’t seem to keep my wits together. I know it isn’t much of an excuse, but I just can’t seem to withdraw once I’m there, so to speak.” He stared hard at his brother then. “I’m not a damned cold fish like you, Douglas. You could withdraw from an angel herself. Doesn’t your mind ever run off its track, doesn’t it ever turn into vapor? Don’t you ever want to just keep pounding and pounding and the consequences simply don’t come into it?”

“No.”

Ryder sighed. “Well, I’m not so well disciplined as you. Do you still have only the two children?”

“No, the babe died whilst I was in London. There is only Cynthia left now, a sweet child, four years old.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was expected and just a matter of time so the doctors kept telling his mother. I went to London not just to see Lord Avery in the War Office but also to see Elizabeth. She’d written me about the babe’s condition. His lungs never really properly developed.” Douglas drew out a clean sheet of foolscap and adjusted last quarter’s numbers.

“Your lust becomes more costly,” he said after a moment. “Damned costly.”

“Stop your frowns, Douglas. You’re bloody wealthy, as am I. Great-uncle Brandon would be pleased that his inheritance to me is being put to such excellent use. He was a lusty old fellow until his eightieth year, as least that’s what he told me. Bragged like a bat he did.

“You’re always saying that our bastards are our responsibility and so I agree with you. I also agree with this plan of yours, for it ensures we don’t miss any. What a general you would have made! A pity you had to sell out when you were only a major.”

Ryder was chuckling when the estate room door opened. He looked up to see his youngest brother come somewhat diffidently into the room. “Ah, if it isn’t Tysen. Come in, brother, our meeting is nearly done. Douglas has already told me my lust must soon poke holes in my pocketbook. Now he is completing his mathematics, truly a meager number, particularly when one considers what one could do with more available fields to plow and sow and tend.”

“What meeting?” asked Tysen Sherbrooke, coming into the estate room. “What numbers? What fields?”

Ryder shot a look at Douglas, who just shrugged and sat back in his chair, his arms folded across his chest. He looked ironic, and if Ryder hadn’t known him so well, he would have thought him annoyed rather than obliquely amused.

Ryder said to Douglas, “Look, brother, Tysen wants to be a vicar. It’s important that he understand male frailties and that, without mincing matters, is basic lust. Attend me, Tysen, this is our quarterly meeting to determine the current number of Sherbrooke bastards.”

Tysen stared, then turned an agonized eye toward Douglas. “Your what?”

“You heard me,” Ryder said. “Now, you’re nearly twenty-one, Tysen. It’s time you come to our meetings. Isn’t it time we included him, Douglas? After all, we don’t want him sneaking in a bastard all unknown to us, do we? Think of our reputation. All right, my lad, have you gotten any of the local girls with child?”

Tysen looked apoplectic. “Of course not! I wouldn’t ever do anything so despicable! I will be a man of God, a vicar, a shepherd who will lead a righteous and devout flock and—”

Ryder rolled his eyes. “Please, stop! It boggles the mind that a Sherbrooke could speak thusly and believe it. It makes one want to puke. Ah well, it’s too bad that you are what you appear to be, Tysen, but one always hopes, particularly if one is of an optimistic nature.”

“Does optimism go hand in rod with lust?” Douglas said to the room at large.

Ryder laughed and Tysen looked stunned. He knew his brothers were men of the world, that they understood many things that he’d scarce thought about, but this humor? A meeting to count up their bastards? Sweat broke out on his forehead. He began to inch toward the door.

“At least smile, Tysen,” Douglas said. “A vicar can have a sense of humor, you know.”

“Oh no,” Tysen said. “It’s just that—of course I can smile, it’s just that—”

“You’re not finishing any of your sentences, Tysen,” Ryder said, his tone utterly irreverent. “You’re repeating yourself.”

“Well, a man of God can also share his boundless love with a specific sort of love. You know, I can also love a lady, and, well, I do!”

“Oh Jesus,” Ryder said, turning away in amused disgust. “Do you want some brandy now, Douglas?”

“That’s nauseating,” Douglas said, “and I probably couldn’t keep the brandy down, so no, Ryder.” Then he took some pity on Tysen, whose lean cheeks were alarmingly red. “Who is the chit, Tysen? Surely as you’re a future vicar, she’s no actress or shop girl?”

“No,” Tysen said, his voice strengthening, now bordering on very unvicarlike worship. “Her name is Melinda Beatrice and she’s Sir Thomas Hardesty’s daughter.”

Ryder cursed. “I know the wench. She’s silly, Douglas, and she simpers, for God’s sake, and she acts as if she’s better than everyone else, and she’s got no breasts to speak of. Her eyes look watery, her elbows are bony, and she’s got two names and her parents use both of them. It’s beyond too much. Two names!”

“She will make a fine wife for a man of God!” Tysen would have further defended his goddess, but he stopped abruptly as Douglas slowly rose from his chair, staring at him. Ryder’s insults were forgotten under Douglas’s look, an expression that was alarmingly identical to their now-dead father’s. Tysen began to step back, slowly, slowly, until he was hard against the closed door. Douglas said ever so softly, “You mean to tell me that at twenty years of age you’ve decided to fancy yourself in love with a girl who is your equal in birth and fortune? We are speaking of the Hardestys of Blaston Manor?”

“Yes,” Tysen said. “I’m nearly twenty-one.”

“Young fool,” Ryder said dispassionately, flicking a dust mote off his sleeve. “He’ll get over it within the month, Douglas. Remember how you thought you wanted that duke’s daughter? When was that—yes, some three years ago, you fancied yourself tip over arse in love. You were home with that shoulder wound. Now, what was her name? Melissande—yes, that was it.”

Douglas sliced his hand through the air, silencing Ryder. “You haven’t spoken to Sir Thomas, have you?”

“Of course not,” Tysen said. “You’re the head of the family, Douglas.”

“Don’t forget it, no one else allows me to. Now, just promise me you’ll not declare yourself when the chit smiles at you, or gives you a glimpse of her ankle. I’ve determined that girls must be born knowing all sorts of tricks to entice the unwary male, so you must be on your guard, all right?”

Tysen nodded, then said quickly, “But not Melinda Beatrice, Douglas. She’s kind and honest. She has a sweetness about her, a goodness, that will make her a wonderful shepherdess to my flock, a helpmeet to cherish. She would never—” He saw that both brothers were on the verge of incredulous laughter. His jaw tightened, his brows lowered, his back stiffened, and he said, “That’s not why I came in, Douglas. Aunt Mildred and Uncle Albert are here and want to speak with you.”

“Ha! Preach to me is more like it. I suppose you told the servants to bag it and volunteered yourself to come find me so as to escape their eagle eyes?”

“Well, yes.” Tysen paused when Douglas groaned, then went on in an apologetic voice, “Yes, you’re right about their visit. I heard them speaking about the Marquess of Dacre’s eldest daughter, Juliette, a diamond of the first order, Aunt Mildred was saying, and just perfect for you.”

Douglas looked sardonic and remained silent as a stone.

“God grant you long life, Douglas,” Ryder said with fervor. “I respect you and am grateful to my toes that you are the eldest son and thus the Fourth Earl of Northcliffe, the Sixth Viscount Hammersmith, the Ninth Baron Sanderleigh, and therefore the target of all their cannon.”

“I respect you too, Douglas,” Tysen said. “You make a fine earl, viscount, and baron, and I’m certain Uncle Albert and Aunt Mildred think so too. All the family agree if only you’d marry and—”

“Oh God, not you too, Tysen! Well, there’s no hope for it,” Douglas added as he rose from his chair. “Ah, Tysen, your gratitude will make me endure, no doubt. Pray for me, little brother. Our meeting for this quarter is adjourned, Ryder. I believe I’ll speak to your valet, Tinker, and see if he can’t sew your randy sex into your breeches.”

“Poor Tinker would be appalled to be assigned such a service.”

“Well, I can’t ask one of the maids. That surely would defeat the purpose. I vow you would break our pact if one of the younger ones did the task.”

“Poor Douglas,” Ryder said as his brother left the room.

“What did Douglas mean about your pact?” Ryder asked.

“Oh, we have both vowed that any female in our employ is not to be touched. When you are safely out of love, and thus your wits are yours again, we will gain your assurances as well.”

Tysen decided not to argue with his brother. He was above that. He would be a vicar; his thoughts and deeds would be spiritual. Also, to the best of his memory, he’d never won an argument with either brother, and thus said, “This girl they’re going to batter at him about is supposedly quite wonderful.”

“They’re all wonderful with pillow sheets over their heads,” Ryder said and walked out of the estate room.

Leaning against a dark mahogany Spanish table was Sinjun, her arms crossed, looking as negligent and indifferent as a potato, and whistling. She stopped when she saw that Ryder saw her, and said with a wonderfully bland voice, “So, how went the meeting?”

“Keep your tongue behind your teeth, brat.”

“Now, Ryder, I’m young, true, but I’m not stupid.”

“Forget it, Sinjun.”

“How are all your Beloved Ones?”

“They all do very well, thank you.”

“I’m silent as a soap dish,” she said, grinned at him, blew him a kiss, and walked toward the kitchen, whistling again, like a boy.





CHAPTER

2


THE EARL WASN’T frowning. He was anxious and he felt in his innards that something was going to happen, something he wasn’t going to like. He hated such feelings because they made him feel helpless and vulnerable; on the other hand he knew it would be stupid to ignore them. Because the government was in disarray, and that damned fool Addington was dithering about like a headless cock, he thought that this anxiety in his innards must spring from his fear of Napoleon.

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