Where’s My Hero?
An anthology featuring JQ's novella:
"A Tale of Two Sisters"
After years of searching for the perfect wife, Ned Blydon found himself falling in love with Charlotte Thornton mere days before his wedding. The only problem was-- he was supposed to marry her sister!
"Rupert's poetry could surely have been improved by a cow or two. Saying moo on cue at Waterloo."
Inside the Story
Ned Blydon, the hero of "A Tale of Two Sisters," appeared in my first three novels: Splendid, Dancing at Midnight, and Minx. Over the course of these books, he grew up from a slightly immature university student to a more adult overprotective brother, finally emerging as a shameless flirt. But although readers asked me to write a story about him, I wasn't quite ready to do so. To me, at least, Ned was still a bit young, and I needed time for him to grow up in my mind. Then, unfortunately, Splendid and Dancing at Midnight fell out of print. There was no way I could write a full-length novel about Ned without bringing back characters from those novels, and I didn't think it would be fair to new readers who might want to learn more about Emma, Belle, and the rest of the gang from the Splendid trilogy. Three years later, Splendid and Dancing at Midnight were brought back into print, but by then I was very involved in the Bridgerton series and didn't want to take time off to write a novel for Ned. So when the Avon editorial department came up with the concept for Where's My Hero? (in which authors bring back a secondary character who always deserved a story of his own) I jumped at the chance to write a novella for Ned. It was really well past time.
Only two characters from the Splendid Trilogy appear in "A Tale of Two Sisters." I wish that I could have included more than just Belle and Emma, but the space constraints of a novella just didn't allow it.
If you like the concept for Where's My Hero? don't miss Hero, Come Back by Stephanie Laurens, Christina Dodd, and Elizabeth Boyle. This anthology features secondary characters who finally get their time in the limelight.
Julia Quinn was a double finalist for the Best Romantic Novella Category of the 2005 RITA Awards. "A Tale of Two Sisters" was up against "The First Kiss" (from Lady Whistledown Strikes Back). Neither won, however. The eventual winner was "Her Enemy" in Night's Edge by Maggie Shayne.
"Where's My Hero?" was named one of the Ten Best Romances of 2003 by the editors at Amazon.com.
#30 on the New York Times Extended Bestseller list.
Three weeks on the USA Today Bestseller list, peaking at #47.
JQ's Novella "A Tale of Two Sisters"
Ned Blydon let out a weary exhale and looked both ways before nudging his horse out of the stables. It was exhausting work, avoiding three women at once.
First, there was his sister. Arabella Blydon Blackwood had firm opinions about how her brother ought to live his life, opinions which she wasn't shy about sharing.
Opinions which Ned had consistently ignored for the past eight or so years.
Belle was normally a perfectly lovely and reasonable person, but she seemed to feel that her status as a married woman gave her the right to dictate to him, even though he was, as he often reminded her, her elder by over a year.
Then there was his cousin Emma, who was, if anything, even more outspoken than Belle. The only reason she wasn't tied with his sister on his current list of women-to-be-avoided-at-all-costs was that she was seven months with child and couldn't move around very quickly.
If Ned was a bad person because he would run to escape a waddling pregnant woman, then so be it. His peace of mind was worth it.
Finally, he was ashamed to admit, there was Lydia.
He groaned. In three days time, Lydia Thornton would be his wife. And while there was nothing particularly wrong with her, the time he spent in her company was all awkward pauses and looking at the clock.
It wasn't what he'd imagined for marriage, but it was, he had come to accept, all he could expect.
He'd spent the last eight seasons in London, a charming man about town, a bit of a rake, but not so much so that nervous mamas steered their daughters away from him. He'd never consciously avoided marriage --well, not in the last few years, anyway-- but at the same time, he'd never met any woman who inspired passion within him.
Desire, yes. Lust, most certainly. But true passion? Never.
And so as he approached the age of thirty the practical side of his mind had taken over and he had decided that if he wasn't going to marry for love, he might as well marry for land.
Enter Lydia Thornton.
Twenty-two years of age, pretty blond hair, attractive gray eyes, reasonably intelligent and in good health. And her dowry consisted of ten acres of very nice land that ran right along the eastern border of Middlewood, one of Ned's smaller estates.
Twenty acres wasn't much for a man with family holdings scattered across the south of England, but Middlewood was the only property that Ned could truly call his own. The rest belonged to his father, the Earl of Worth, and would until he died and passed the title on to his son.
And while Ned understood that the earldom was his birthright and privilege, he was in no hurry to assume the rights and responsibilities that went with it. He was one of the few men in his circle of acquaintances who actually liked his parents; the last thing he wanted to do was bury them.
His father, in his infinite wisdom, had understood that a man such as Ned needed something of his own, and so on Ned's twenty-fourth birthday, he'd deeded over Middlewood, one of the earldom's unentailed properties.
Maybe it was elegant house, maybe it was the superb trout pond. Maybe it was just because it was his, but Ned loved Middlewood, every last square inch of it.
And so when it had occurred to him that his neighbor's eldest daughter had actually grown old enough to marry-- Well, it all seemed to make perfect sense.
Lydia was perfectly nice, perfectly wealthy, perfectly attractive, perfectly everything.
Just not perfect for him.
But it wasn't fair to hold that against her. He'd known what he was doing when he'd proposed. He just hadn't expected his impending marriage to feel quite so much like a noose around his neck. Although in truth, it hadn't seemed so wretched until this past week, when he had come to Thornton Hall to celebrate the upcoming nuptials with his and Lydia's families. Not to mention fifty or so of their closest friends.
It was remarkable how many complete strangers could be found among such a group.
It was enough to drive a man mad, and Ned held little doubt that he'd be a candidate for Bedlam by the time he left the village church that Saturday morning with his ancestral family ring firmly ensconced on Lydia's finger.
It was a shrill female voice. One he knew all too well.
"Don't try to avoid me! I see you!"
Bloody hell. It was his sister, and if all went as it usually did, that meant that Emma would be waddling along behind her, ready to offer her own lecture as soon as Belle paused for breath.
And --good God-- come tomorrow his mother would be in residence to complete the terrifying triumvirate.
Ned shuddered --an actual physical shudder-- at the thought.
He spurred his horse into a trot--the fastest he could manage so close to the house--planning to move into a full-fledged gallop once he could do so without endangering anyone.
"Ned!" Belle yelled, clearly unconcerned with decorum, dignity, or even danger as she came running down the lane, heedless of the tree root that snaked out into her path.
Ned closed his eyes in agony as he drew his horse to a halt. He was never going to escape now. When he opened them, Belle was sitting in the dust, looking rather disgruntled but no less determined.
Ned looked past Belle to see his cousin Emma waddling forward as fast as her rather duck-like body would allow.
"Are you all right?" Emma asked Belle before turning immediately to Ned and asking, "Is she all right?"
He leveled a gaze at his sister. "Are you all right?"
"Are you all right?" she countered. "What kind of question is that?"
"A rather pertinent one," Belle retorted, grabbing onto Emma's outstretched hand and hauling herself to her feet, nearly toppling the pregnant woman in the process. "You've been avoiding me all week--"
"We've only been here two days, Belle."
"Well, it feels like a week."
Ned could not disagree.
Belle scowled at him when he did not reply. "Are you going to sit there on your horse or are you going to dismount and speak with me like a reasonable human being?"
Ned pondered that.
"It's rather rude," Emma put in, "to remain on horseback while two ladies are on their feet."
"You're not ladies," he muttered, "you're relations."
He turned to Belle. "Are you certain you're not injured in any manner?"
"Yes, of course, I--" Belle's bright blue eyes widened once she discerned his intentions. "Well, actually, my ankle feels a little tender, and--" She coughed a few times for good measure, as if that might help to prove her claim of a turned ankle.
"Good," Ned said succinctly. "Then you won't require my help." And with that he spurred his horse forward and left them behind. Rude maybe, but Belle was his sister and she had to love him no matter what. Besides, she was only going to try to talk with Ned about his upcoming marriage, and that was the last thing he wanted to discuss.
He took off heading west, first because that was the direction of the road offering the easiest escape, but also because he could soon expect to find himself among Lydia's dowered lands. A reminder of why he was getting married might be just the thing he needed to keep his mind on an even keel. They were lovely lands, green and fertile, with a picturesque pond and a small apple orchard.
"You like apples," Ned muttered under his breath. "You've always liked apples."
Apples were good. It would be nice to have an orchard.
Almost worth marrying for.
"Pies," he continued. "Tarts. Endless pies and tarts. And applesauce."
Applesauce was a good thing. A very good thing. If he could just keep equating his marriage with applesauce, he ought to retain his sanity until the following week, at the very least.
He squinted into the distance, trying to judge how much farther it was until Lydia's lands. Not much more than five minutes' ride, he should think, and--
"Hello! Hello! Hell-oooooo!"
Oh, wonderful. Another female.
Ned slowed his mount, looking around as he tried to figure out just where the voice was coming from.
"Over here! Please help!"
He turned to his right and then behind him, and immediately ascertained why he hadn't noticed the girl before. She was sitting on the ground, her green riding habit a rather effective camouflage against the grass and low shrubs around her. Her hair, long and medium brown, was pulled back in a manner that would never have passed muster in a London drawing room, but on her the pony's tail was rather fetching.
"Good day!" she called out, sounding a bit uncertain now.
He drew to a reluctant halt and dismounted. He wanted nothing more than a bit of privacy, preferably on horseback as he rode hell for leather over rolling fields, but he was a gentleman (despite his admittedly shabby treatment of his sister) and he couldn't ignore a lady in distress.
"Is something amiss?" he inquired mildly as he approached.
"I've turned my ankle, I'm afraid," she said, wincing as tried to tug off her boot. I was walking, and--"
She looked up, blinked her large gray eyes several times, then said, "Oh."
"Oh?" he echoed.
"You're Lord Burwick."
Her smile was oddly lacking in warmth. "I'm Lydia's sister."
Charlotte Thornton felt like a fool, and she hated feeling like a fool. Not, she supposed, than anyone was particularly fond of the sensation, but she found it especially irritating, as she had always judged common sense to be the most laudable of traits.
She'd gone for a walk, eager to escape the throngs of rather annoying houseguests who'd invaded her home for the week preceding her older sister's wedding.
Why Lydia needed her nuptials witnessed by a hundred people she didn't know, Charlotte would never understand. And that didn't even count everyone who was planning to arrive on the day of the ceremony.
But Lydia had wanted it, or rather, their mother had wanted it, and so now their house was filled to the rafters, and Charlotte was going straight out of her mind. And so, before anyone could flag her down and beg her assistance in some terribly important endeavor, like making sure that the best chocolate was delivered to the Duchess of Ashbourne, she'd donned her riding habit and made her escape.
Except that when she'd reached the stables, she'd discovered that the grooms had given her mare to one of the guests! They had insisted that her mother had given them permission to do so, but that had done little to brighten Charlotte's foul mood.
So she'd taken off on foot, stomping down the lane, looking for nothing but a bit of blessed peace and quiet, and then she'd gone and stepped in a mole hole. She hadn't even hit the ground before she'd realized that she'd turned her ankle. It was already swelling in her boot, and this day progressing as it was, of course, she was wearing her boots that pulled on, not the ones with the flimsy black laces that would have made removal so quick and easy.
The only bright spot in her morning was that it wasn't raining, although with her luck lately, not to mention the gray sky above, Charlotte wasn't even counting on that.
Now her savior was none other than Edward Blydon, Viscount Burwick, the man who was supposed to marry her older sister in three days' time. According to Lydia, he was complete rake and not at all sensitive to a woman's tender emotions.
Charlotte wasn't precisely certain what constituted a tender emotion, and in fact, she rather doubted that she herself had ever possessed such a feeling, but still, it didn't speak well of the young viscount. Lydia's description had made him sound like a bit of a boor, and an overbearing one at that. Not at all the sort of gentleman best suited to rescue a damsel in distress.
And he certainly looked like a rake. Charlotte might not be the romantic dreamer that Lydia was, but that didn't mean she was oblivious to a man's aspect and appearance. Edward Blydon --or Ned, rather, as she'd heard Lydia mention him-- possessed the most startlingly bright blue eyes she had ever seen grace a human face. On anyone else, they might have seemed effeminate (especially with those sinfully long dark lashes), but Ned Blydon was tall and broad, and anyone would have realized that he was rather lean and athletic under his coat and breeches, even someone who wasn't really looking, which she most assuredly was not.
Oh, very well, she was. But how could she help it? He was looming over her like some dangerous god, his powerful frame blocking out what was left of the sun.
"Ah, yes," he said, somewhat condescendingly, in her opinion. "Caroline."
Caroline? They'd only been introduced three times. "Charlotte," she bit off.
"Charlotte," he repeated, with grace enough to offer her a sheepish smile.
"There is a Caroline," fairness compelled her to say. "She's fifteen."
"And thus too young to be off on her own, I imagine."
Implying that she was too young as well. Her eyes narrowed at the vague sarcasm in his voice. "Are you scolding me?"
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"Because I'm not fifteen," she said pertly, "and I go for walks by myself all the time."
"I'm sure you do."
"Well, not walks very often," she admitted, somewhat mollified by his bland expression, "but I do ride."
"Why aren't you riding, then?" he asked, kneeling down beside her.
She could feel her lips twist into an extremely unpleasant expression. "Someone took my mare."
His brows rose. "Someone?"
"A guest," she ground out.
"Ah," he said sympathetically, "There seem to be quite a lot of those milling about."
"Like a plague of locusts," she muttered, before realizing that she had just been unforgivably rude to a man who thus far was not proving to be the unpleasant boor her sister had painted him to be. One man's locusts were another man's wedding guests, after all. "I'm so sorry," she said quickly, glancing up at him with hesitant eyes.
"Don't be," he replied. "Why do you suppose I'm out for a ride?"
She blinked. "But it's your wedding."
"Yes," he said wryly, "it is, isn't it?"
"Well, yes," she replied, taking his query literally, even though she knew he hadn't intended it thus, "it is."
"I'll let you in on a little secret," he said, lightly touching his hands to her boot. "May I?"
She nodded, then tried not to whimper as he tugged the boot off her foot.
"Weddings," he announced, "are for women."
"One would think they require at least one man," she returned.
"True," he acceded, at last easing the boot all the way off. "But truly, does the groom have much to do besides stand there and say, 'I will?' "
"He has to propose."
"Pfft." He gave a dismissive snort. "That takes but a moment and besides, it's done months in advance. By the time one gets around to the actual wedding, one can hardly remember it."
Charlotte knew his words to be true. Not that anyone had ever bothered to propose to her, but when she'd asked Lydia what the viscount had said when he'd asked her to marry him, Lydia had just sighed and said, "I don't recall. Something terribly ordinary, I'm sure."
Charlotte offered a commiserating smile to her future brother-in-law. Lydia had never spoken highly of him, but he really didn't seem like a very bad sort at all. In fact, she rather felt a kinship with him in that they'd both fled Thornton Hall, looking for peace and quiet.
"I don't think you've broken it," he said, lightly pressing his fingers to her ankle.
"No, I'm quite sure I haven't. It'll be better by tomorrow, I'm certain."
"Are you?" he asked with a dubious expression. "I'm certain it won't. It'll be at least a week before you're able to walk without discomfort."
"Not a week!"
"Well, perhaps not. I'm certainly no doctor. But you'll be limping for a while yet."
She sighed, a long-suffering sort of sound. "I shall look splendid as Lydia's maid of honor, don't you think?"
Ned hadn't realized that she'd been offered the position; in truth, he'd paid only scant attention to the wedding details. But he was rather good at feigning interest, so he nodded politely and murmured something that wasn't meant to make much sense, then tried not to look quite so surprised when she exclaimed:
"Maybe I won't have to do it now!" She looked at him with palpable excitement, her wide gray eyes sparkling. "I can pass it off to Caroline and hide in the back."
"In the back?"
"Of the church," she explained. "Or the front. I don't care where. But maybe now I won't have to take part in this wretched ceremony. I-- oh!" Her hand flew to her mouth as her cheeks turned instant red. "I'm terribly sorry. It's your wretched ceremony, isn't it?"
"As wretched as it is to admit it," he said, unable to keep the sparkle of amusement from his face, "yes."
"It's a yellow dress," she grumbled, as if that would explain everything.
He glanced down at her green riding habit, quite certain that he would never understand the workings of the female brain. "I beg your pardon?"
"I'm supposed to wear a yellow dress," she told him. "As if having to sit through the ceremony wasn't bad enough, Lydia picked out a yellow dress for me."
"Er, why will the ceremony be so dreadful?" Ned asked, suddenly feeling rather afraid.
"Lydia ought to know I look wretched in yellow," Charlotte said, completely ignoring his query. "Like a plague victim. The congregation is likely to run screaming from the church."
Ned should have felt alarmed by the thought of his wedding erupting into mass hysteria; instead, he was alarmed by the fact that he found the image rather comforting. "What's wrong with the ceremony?" he asked again, giving his head a little shake as he reminded himself that she hadn't answered his previous question.
She pursed her lips as she poked her fingers against her ankle, paying him little. "Have you seen the program?"
"Er, no." Which he was beginning to think might have been a mistake.
She looked up, her large, gray eyes clearly pitying him. "You should have done," was all she said.
"Miss Thornton," he said, using his sternest voice.
"It's very long," she said. "And there will be birds."
"Birds?" he echoed, choking on the word until his entire body collapsed into a spasm of coughing.
Charlotte waited for his fit to subside before her face assumed a suspiciously innocent expression, and she asked, "You didn't know?"
He found himself unable to do anything but scowl.
She laughed, a decidedly mellow and musical sound, then blurted out, "You're not at all how Lydia described you."
Now that was interesting. "Am I not?" he asked, keeping his voice carefully mild.
She swallowed, and he could tell that she regretted her loose tongue. Still, she had to say something, so he waited patiently until she tried to cover for herself with, "Well, in truth, she hasn't said much of anything. Which I suppose led me to believe you were a bit aloof."
He sat down on the grass beside her. It was rather comfortable to be in her presence after having to be at constant attention among all the crowds back at Thornton Hall. "And why would you reach that conclusion?" he asked.
"I don't know. I suppose I just imagined that if you weren't aloof, your conversations with her would have been a bit more..." She frowned. "How do I say it?"
"Exactly!" She turned to him with an exceptionally sunny smile, and Ned found himself sucking in his breath. Lydia had never smiled at him like that. Worse, he'd never wanted her to.
But Charlotte Thornton... Now there was a woman who knew how to smile. It was on her lips, in her eyes, radiating from her very skin.
Hell, by now that smile was traveling down his midsection to areas that should never be touched by one's sister-in-law.
He should have stood immediately, should have made up some sort of excuse about getting her back home-- anything to end their little interview, because there was nothing more unacceptable than wanting one's sister-in-law, which was exactly what she would be in three days' time.
But his excuses would have made rather transparent falsehoods, as he'd just told her that he wanted nothing more than to escape the pre-wedding festivities.
Not to mention that those unmentionable areas of his anatomy were behaving in a manner that might be termed a bit too obvious when one was in a standing position.
And so he decided simply to enjoy her company, since he hadn't enjoyed anyone's company since he'd arrived two days earlier. Hell, she was the first person he'd come across who wasn't trying to congratulate him or, in the case of his sister and cousin, attempting to tell him how to conduct his life.
The truth was, he found Charlotte Thornton rather charming, and since he was absolutely certain his reaction to her smile was a freakish, one-time sort of occurrence --not to mention that it wasn't terribly urgent, just potentially embarrassing-- well, there was really no harm in prolonging their encounter.
"Right," she was saying, clearly oblivious to his physical distress. "And if your conversations with her had been more conversational, I imagine she'd have had more about which to tell me."
Ned rather thought it was a good thing that his future wife wasn't one for indiscreet talk. Score one for Lydia. "Perhaps," he said, a little more sharply than he ought, "she doesn't tell tales."
"Lydia?" Charlotte said with a snort. "Hardly. She always tells me everything about--"
"Nothing," she said quickly, but she didn't meet his eyes.
Ned knew better than to push. Whatever it was that she'd been about to say, it wasn't complimentary toward Lydia, and if there was one thing he could already tell about Charlotte Thornton, it was that she was loyal when it counted. And she wasn't going reveal any of Lydia's secrets.
Funny. It hadn't even occurred to him that a woman like Lydia might have secrets. She'd always seemed so... bland. In fact, it had been that blandness that had convinced him that their marriage was not an ill-advised endeavor. If one wasn't going to love one's wife, one might as well not be bothered by her.
"Do you suppose it's safe to return?" Ned queried, motioning with his head in the direction of Thornton Hall. He'd much rather stay here with Charlotte, but he supposed it would be rather unseemly to remain alone in her company for very much longer. Besides, he was feeling a bit more...settled now, and he thought he ought to be able to stand up without embarrassing himself.
Not that an innocent like Charlotte Thornton would probably even know what it meant for a man to have a bulge in his breeches.
"Safe?" she echoed.
He smiled. "From the plague of locusts."
"Oh." Her face fell. "I doubt it. I think Mother has arranged for some sort of ladies' luncheon."
He smiled broadly. "Excellent."
"For you, perhaps," she retorted. "I'm probably expected."
"The maid of honor?" he asked with a wicked smile. "For certain you're expected. In fact, they probably can't begin without you."
"Bite your tongue. If they get hungry enough they won't even notice I'm gone."
"Hungry, eh? And here I thought women ate like birds."
"That's only for the benefit of men. When you're gone, we go mad for ham and chocolate."
She laughed, a rich, musical sound. "You're quite funny," she said with a smile.
He leaned forward with his most dangerous expression. "Don't you know you're never supposed to tell a rake that he's funny?"
"Oh, you can't possibly be a rake," she said dismissively.
"And why is that?"
"You're marrying my sister."
"Rakes have to get married eventually."
"Not to Lydia," she said with a snort. "She'd be the worst sort of wife for a rake." She looked up at him with another one of those wide, sunny smiles. "But you have nothing about which to worry, because you are obviously a very sensible man."
"I don't know that I've ever been called sensible by a woman," he mused.
"I can assure you I mean it as the highest of compliments."
"I can see that you do," he murmured.
"Common sense seems like such an easy thing," she said, punctuating her words with a wave of her hand. "I can't understand why more people don't possess it."
Ned chuckled despite himself. It was a sentiment he shared, although he had never thought to phrase it in quite those terms.
And then she sighed, a soft, weary sound that went straight to his heart. "I'd best be getting back," she said, not sounding at all excited by the prospect.
"You haven't been gone long," he pointed out, absurdly eager to prolong their conversation.