The Truth Behind Their Practical Marriage

By: Marguerite Kaye

A marriage hiding secrets

...but forged by passion!

A Penniless Brides of Convenience story. Miss Estelle Brannagh has never met a man who’s tempted her to renounce her hard-won independence—until an encounter with Irish landowner Aidan Malahide blossoms into spine-tingling attraction. He’s carefree and charismatic; accepting his proposal seems practical and shockingly desirable! Yet Aidan is hiding a dark secret, and it will take all of Estelle’s courage to ensure it doesn’t tear them apart...







Prologue


October 1832—Castle Duairc,

County Kildare, Ireland


A flurry of rain rattled the windowpane, and a gust of wind found a gap in the casement, making the curtains billow. Shivering, Estelle curled up under the sheets, knowing that sleep would never come. How could it, when in a few short hours she’d finally discover the true reason for her husband’s tortured and self-destructive behaviour.

Another strong gust of wind blew the window open. Jumping out of bed, she wrestled to close it over. A storm was brewing in more ways than one. A shaft of moonlight pierced the thick cloud casting a shadow on the lake, illuminating the ruined tower on the island. It looked stark, brooding, ominous, as befitting a place harbouring dark secrets.

Secrets which had already blighted their marriage. They had lived—no, barely existed—in the shadow of those secrets for far too long. Was it too late to salvage something from the wreckage? Tomorrow, the past would be dug up and the truth unearthed. Whatever that turned out to mean, she was determined not to let it destroy them completely.





Chapter One


May 1832—Florence, Grand Duchy of Tuscany


She first became aware of him in the Piazza della Signoria. It was a Monday morning and she was enjoying her ritual morning coffee. He was perched on the stone balustrade of the Neptune fountain set in the middle of the piazza, trailing his hands languidly in the water, his back to the looming Palazzo Vecchio. His gaze roamed over the same milling throngs that she had been idly observing, a mixture of tourists and Florentines enjoying the morning sunshine.

There were any number of well-dressed and presentable young men among the crowd. What was it about him that particularly caught her attention? Perhaps it was the fact that he was so obviously not Italian. But then, so were a good many of the passers-by. Was it his looks? But he was not handsome, not in the flamboyant, peacock manner of the local dandies who didn’t so much walk as strut. He had light-brown hair, close-cut, with strong rather than striking features. His skin looked weathered rather than tanned, and his nascent beard could have simply been the result of neglecting to shave for two or three days. Unkempt, that was the word that sprung to mind, for his hair, though short, had a rumpled look, as if it were a stranger to a comb, and his clothes, though clearly the product of expensive tailoring, looked as if they had been donned straight from a valise without the intervention of either a valet or a hot iron. Yet she couldn’t take her eyes off him.

How long she had been staring before their gazes clashed and held, she had no idea. Her insides jolted. It was not recognition, for they most certainly had not met before, but an urging, as if it was imperative that they should meet. He didn’t stare openly in those attenuated moments. She had the impression of being subject to a cool assessment, then surprise was registered in the slight raising of his brow, before he turned away as if shielding himself from view, resenting the intrusion on his thoughts.

In the aftermath, her cheeks heated. Had she been ogling him, the very thing that she loathed being subjected to herself? She had become accustomed, now that she had finally come out into the world, to being assessed, to being leered at and even occasionally accosted. Her flamboyant looks gave men the impression that she welcomed close attention. She did not, but she’d come to expect it, and had become practised too, at rebuffing it. Yet this man had done none of those things. She was being fanciful, she decided, for the piazza had been crowded and he was at least twenty yards away. But the fleeting encounter haunted her for the rest of the day.



* * *



She saw him again the next morning, in the same square. Not that she deliberately sought him out, certainly not, it was simply that she went to the same café every morning, at the same time. In the ten days she’d been in the city, it had become her habit to sip one of the small, syrupy cups of Italian coffee there, on the pretext of planning her day. In reality, it was simply another way of whiling away the time—something the Florentines did with élan and at which she had been surprised to discover she too was rather adept.

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