The Changeling Bride

By: Lisa Cach

The Wish

The perfect marriage, Elle mused, was an arranged marriage. No emotional agonies, just a commitment to a partnership with a firm basis in financial stability. The divorce rate was proof enough that marriage based solely on love led primarily to misery.

She stopped again and thrust the slip of paper the strange woman had given her into the air. “I’m redeeming my coupon!” she said to the towering Douglas firs. “I want my free husband. Give me a man who is civilized, owns a very big house, and doesn’t expect me to dote on him.” The trees dripped in response. She titled her head back, looking up into the dark, greenish black branches, the hood of her parka sliding off. “Do you hear me?”

Drops plopped on her face, making her blink. She lowered her head and pulled the hood back up. She gave the paper another little shake at the forested gloom. Nothing happened. Quiet and solitude surrounded her. The trees appeared unimpressed.







Prologue

England, 1790s

“I do not think I can go through with it.”

She gave him no answer. He had not expected one.

“The entire arrangement galls me. I feel like a bull on the auction block, going to the highest bidder. A man should not be reduced to such a thing.” Henry paced in front of his great-grandmother, who sat like a shrivelled gnome under layers of shawls. He was not certain she remained capable of either seeing or hearing him, and it had been at least two years since she had spoken. She had always been a good listener, though, and he liked to think some part of her listened still.

“I should not balk, I know. A marriage of convenience has never been a dishonourable arrangement.”

He dropped into the chair across from her, the wooden joints creaking under his weight. “But I wonder what Grandfather would have thought if he had seen the new Earl of Allsbrook going hat in hand to a merchant, bartering his title for cash?” He paused, considering that idea.

“Perhaps he would not have disapproved. He always, after all, put duty before all other considerations, pride included. Pity Father did not share his view.”

He looked at his great-grandmother, at the wrinkled face and the half-closed eyes that never seemed to blink. Even when he was a child, she had been old and mysterious, and had spent all her time in her suite of rooms, doing he knew not what.

“Of course, there are the girl’s sentiments to be considered as well—not that I think she is old enough to know her own mind on the matter. She is not in the least bit eager for this marriage.”

He briefly lost himself in the recollection of the shouting match he had been unable to avoid overhearing between father and daughter. It had been during his first and only visit to his betrothed, and although the sliding doors to the drawing room had been closed, his fiancée’s voice had carried through the wood with piercing stridency. “I will not have him! He will spend all my money on his stupid farms and stick me away in his decrepit old house, where I will never see my friends and never have new clothes, and the air will smell of sheep.”

A bellow of rage from her father had drowned out any further complaints. When Henry was introduced to his betrothed half an hour later, she was white-faced and red-eyed, but outwardly compliant. That was, until her father had left them alone together.

“If you insist on this marriage,” she had warned him, her lips tight over the words, “I will do everything in my power to make your life a living hell.”

Henry tried to shake the memory from his mind. “She is perhaps not as bad as she seems,” he said, more to himself than to the silent figure in front of him. “She is pleasing in form and face. She has an eye for fashion. She has been taught proper behavior, and her father assures me that she knows well the running of a house. And I cannot forget the money.”

A silence lengthened, broken finally by a log shifting in the fire. As if the thought were dislodged from some hidden depth by that falling piece of wood, he added softly, “And yet, I could have wished for a happy marriage.”





Chapter One

Present Day

Elle had the uncomfortable feeling that eyes were following her as she made her hasty way up the wet sidewalk. She was not late for work, but the sense of being watched made her feel exposed and vulnerable, and she hurried through the rain to reach her building.

This wasn’t the first time this week that she had felt as if she was being followed when she came downtown, as if someone hidden from view was tracking her every step. She wanted to laugh at the foolishness of the idea, but couldn’t. Either someone really was stalking her or some essential part of her personality was cracking and falling apart. Neither conclusion was reassuring.