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Authors: Maggi Andersen

Tags: #Regency, #General, #Romance, #Historical, #Erotica, #Fiction

The Reluctant Marquess

BOOK: The Reluctant Marquess
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The Reluctant Marquess

Maggi Andersen

KNOX
ROBINSON

PUBLISHING

London
• New York

KNOX
ROBINSON

PUBLISHING

1205 London Road
London, SW16 4UY
&
244 5
th
Avenue, Suite 1861
New York, NY 10001

Knox Robinson Publishing is a specialist, international publisher of historical fiction, historical romance and medieval fantasy.

Copyright © 2012 by Maggi Andersen

Jacket art copyright Cathy Helms © 2012

The right of Maggi Andersen to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by an means, without the prior permission in writing of Knox Robinson Publishing, or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning the reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Knox Robinson Publishing, at the London address above.

You must not circulate this book in any other binding or cover and you must impose the same condition on any acquirer.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-1-90848310-2

Manufactured in the United States of America, Australia and the United Kingdom

www.knoxrobinsonpublishing.com

NOW thou hast loved me one whole day,

To-morrow when thou leavest, what wilt thou say?

—JOHN DONNE

With grateful thanks to my wonderful critique partners at Historical Fiction. Your help has been invaluable.

Chapter One

Cornwall, 1786

The carriage rocked as it travelled along the cliff road. Charity Barlow grabbed the window frame with one hand, and the edge of her seat with the other, to hold herself steady. Following her parents’ deaths in a carriage accident some months before, she was a little nervous at the best of times.

The coachman’s curse was followed by a crack of the whip.

This rugged coastline was foreign to her and different from anything she had ever known. Through the mist, she glimpsed the white-tipped waves of the ocean pounding the black rocks below. The colors reminded her of death, and the rhythmic boom, boom, boom filled her with the same dread she experienced when a tolling church bell signalled a village disaster.

Tamping down the fear of tumbling to her death, Charity pulled her cloak closer, and directed her thoughts to what might await her in the castle on the cliff overlooking the sea.

Unfortunately, this produced anxieties of a different sort.

Charity had not seen her godfather, the Marquess of St Malin, since she was fifteen. Now, at two and twenty years of age, she found herself entirely alone and at his mercy. She remembered him as tall and somewhat haughty. Her father had saved his life when he fell overboard during a boat race on the river at Cambridge, and after that, they had become firm friends.

Now her fate lay in the marquess’ hands, for he had said as much to her father years ago. She was grateful for his kindness, of course, but would have much preferred to remain snug amid the green fields of Oxfordshire with her old governess who was like one of the family. This was now impossible, for her father had left very little money after making bad investments on the ’Change.

Her childhood home had been sold to pay off debts and Nanny sent to live with her sister in Kent.

The carriage reached a bend in the road and the solid stone walls of the castle loomed ahead, the outline of its battlements imposing against the darkening sky. At the sight of the massive structure, a prickling sensation rose up her spine. She half expected to see knights in armor riding towards her.

Lights from the braziers along the walls danced on the waters of the moat. The coach rattled across a drawbridge and entered the arched gatehouse in a towering stone wall. They came to a stop in a courtyard. Moments later, the groom put down the steps and opened the door. The sense of relief at finding herself on solid ground was short-lived as she stepped down onto mossy cobbles and stood, disorientated, in the swirling sea mist.

A door was flung open, spilling candlelight into the gloom like a welcoming hand. She hurried towards it and entered a lofty, stone-paved hall. Heavy Tudor beams and ornate timber panelling spoke of its origins.

A liveried footman stood waiting. “I’ll take ye to the master. He’s in the library.”

Her heart beat unnaturally fast as Charity followed the servant up a stone stairway and along a corridor. Candles flickered in their sconces along the walls, lighting huge tapestries depicting bloody battles. She tried to rake up some clear memories of the marquess, but he’d seemed of little interest to her back then, beyond his eccentric manner. He had smiled with warmth upon her father, she remembered. But that wasn’t surprising; a cultured man who quoted Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, Father had enormous charm. Now she was in this man’s debt. Would he be kind to her?

The footman knocked on a solid oak door. “Enter.”

She stepped with trepidation into the room and was embraced by warmth. A fire blazed in the baronial fireplace where a liver-spotted spaniel lifted its head to study her. After a thump of a tail, its head sank to its paws again, lulled back to sleep by the heat. Above the fireplace, the painting of a hunting scene featured several dogs. Two tall china spaniels flanked the fireplace mantel. The heavy oak beams across the ceiling, and walls covered floor to ceiling in shelves of tomes made the room seem snug. Charity rushed over and crouched on the Oriental rug beside the animal, giving it a pat. The dog’s tail thumped harder. “You’re a nice fellow, aren’t you?” Her stiff cold muscles loosened, and the icy pit at the base of her stomach began to thaw. Maybe she could be happy here. She loved dogs.

“Welcome to Castle St Malin.”

A man rose from behind a massive mahogany desk strewn with papers in the corner of the room. He crossed the room to greet her. He was not her godfather. She caught her breath. He was tall, his dark hair drawn back in a queue, and there was something of the marquess’ haughty demeanour about his handsome face, but she doubted he’d yet reached thirty.

“Thank you.” Charity could only stare at his attire, her gaze locked on his gold silk waistcoat as he bowed before her. He was in mourning, for black crepe graced the sleeve of his emerald green coat. With a sense of foreboding, she curtseyed on wobbly knees. “Where is the marquess, if you please?” She looked around hoping her godfather might pop out of somewhere, but the room was otherwise empty.

“I am the Marquess of St Malin. My uncle passed away a short time ago.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry.” What she feared was true. Charity had an overwhelming desire to sit and glanced at the damask sofa.

He reacted immediately, taking her arm and escorting her to the sofa. “Sit by the fire. You look cold and exhausted.” He turned to the footman. “Bring a hot toddy for Miss Barlow.”

Charity sank down gratefully, her modest panniers settling around her.

“Why did you send a carriage for me?” she asked, leaning back against the sofa cushions. “I wouldn’t have come had I known.”

“I thought it best to sort the matter out here and now.” He rested an elbow on a corner of the mantel and stirred the dog with a foot. “Shame on you, Felix. You might accord Miss Barlow a warm welcome.” He looked at her. “My uncle’s dog; he’s mourning his master.” He raised his brows. “Notice of my uncle’s passing appeared in The Daily Universal Register.”

“We don’t get that newspaper in my village.”

“You don’t? I wasn’t aware of you until the reading of the will. Then I learned of your parents’ death from my solicitor. I’m very sorry.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry, too, about your uncle.”

“My uncle fell ill only a few months ago. He rallied and then …” The new marquess’ voice faded. He sighed and stared into the fire.

“You must have been very fond of him,” Charity said into the quiet pause that followed. Though, if she were honest, she felt surprise that the cool man she remembered could have provoked that level of affection.

He raised his eyes to meet hers and gave a bleak smile. “Yes, I was fond of him. He always had my interest at heart, you see.”

He sat in the oxblood leather chair opposite and rested his hands on his knees. “I am his acknowledged heir, and the legalities have been processed. I’ve inherited the title and the entailed properties. The rest of his fortune will pass to another family member should I fail to conform to the edicts of his will.”

“His will?” Charity gripped her sweaty hands together, she couldn’t concentrate on anything the man said. Her mind whirled, filled with desperate thoughts. With her godfather dead, where would she go from here? Her heart raced as she envisioned riding off along the dark cliffs to join a theatre troupe, or become a tavern wench.

“This must be difficult for you to take in, and I regret having to tell you tonight before you have rested. But I’m compelled to move quickly as you have no chaperone and have travelled here alone …”

She raised her chin. “There was no one to accompany me.” She would not allow him to make her feel like a poor relation, even though she was quite definitely poor. And alone. She hated that more than anything. What had her godfather left her? She hoped it would allow her some measure of independence and wasn’t just a vase or the family portrait.

The footman entered, carrying a tray with a cup of steaming liquid. Charity took the drink and sipped it gratefully. It was warming and tasted of a spicy spirit. She found it hard to concentrate on his words, as her mind retreated into a fog and her eyes wandered around the room. She finished the drink, which had heated her insides, and allowed her head to loll back against the cushions. Her gaze rested on her host, thinking he would be handsome if he smiled. She was so tired, and the warmth of the fire made her drowsy. What was he saying?

“It’s the best thing for both of us, don’t you agree?”

She shook her head to try and clear it. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

He frowned. “The will states we must marry. Straightaway, I’m afraid.”

“I … What? I’m to m-marry you?” Placing her cup down carefully on the table she struggled to her feet, fighting fatigue and the effects of whatever it was she’d just drunk. Smoothing her gown, she glanced at the door through which she intended to depart at any moment. “I have no intention …”

His lips pressed together in a thin line. “I know it’s perplexing. I didn’t intend to wed for some years. I certainly would have preferred to choose whom I married, as no doubt would you.”

Her jaw dropped. What kind of man was this? She had been raised to believe that marriage was a sacred institution. He made it sound so … inconsequential. She stared at him. “The will states I must marry you?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it states.” He rose abruptly with a rustle of silk taffeta and moved closer to the fire. She wondered if he might be as nervous as she.

“Unless I’m prepared to allow my uncle’s unentailed fortune go to a distant relative. Which I am not. As I have said.” His careful tone suggested he thought her a simpleton. Under his unsympathetic gaze, she sank back down onto the sofa.

“You are perfectly within your rights to refuse, but I see very few options open to you. As my wife, you will live in comfort. You may go to London to enjoy the Season. I shall give you a generous allowance for gowns and hats, and things a lady must have.” His gaze wandered over her cream muslin gown, and she placed a hand on the lace that disguised the small patch near her knee. “What do you say?”

She tilted her head. “I shall receive an allowance? For gowns, and hats, and things a lady must have.”

“Exactly,” he said with a smile, obviously quite pleased with himself. “I see we understand each other perfectly. So … do you agree?”

What was wrong with this man? Slowly, Charity released a heavy sigh. She could barely contemplate such a thing as this, and yet he acted as though he’d solved all the problems of the world with fashion accessories.

She had hoped for a small stipend, but marriage! And to a complete stranger. She couldn’t!

Not for all the gowns and hats on earth. She straightened up in her chair and lifted her chin. Her words were clipped and precise, and she hoped beyond hope he would accept her decision gracefully. “I say no, Lord St Malin.”

“No? Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“How disappointing,” he said quietly.

She gulped as his heavy-lidded eyes continued to study her from head to foot. She was uncomfortably aware that the mist had sent her hair into a riot of untidy curls, and she smoothed it away from her face with both hands as she glanced around the room. She tucked a muddy shoe out of sight beneath her gown and then forced herself to meet his gaze.

Might he like anything of what he saw? She loved that she had inherited her mother’s tiny waist, and she thought her hands pretty. His lordship’s gaze strayed to her breasts and remained there rather long. She sucked in a breath as her heart beat faster. When their eyes met did she detect a gleam of approval? It only made her more nervous.

There was another pause during which the grandfather clock struck the hour. Eight of the clock. Charity’s stomach gave a loud, protesting growl.

The embarrassing noise seemed to galvanize him into action.

His restless energy made her even wearier. “How can you make such a decision on an empty stomach? We will dine. And then you shall retire. Tomorrow, I’ll have your decision. Come, Felix. Are you too lazy to eat your dinner?” The dog seemed to understand his words, and jumped up, wagging its tail. He sounded so confident he would get his way.

Frustration and something close to anger threaded through her, but when the footman arrived to escort them to the dining room, she rose quickly, her mind already on the meal. It had been a long day, and her nervous stomach had only allowed her to eat a little breakfast.

Over sole in cream sauce followed by roast venison, which proved tender and delicious, the marquess explained his plan further. “If you decide to marry me, I shall leave you in peace.”

She pursed her lips. “I have already said no.”

“Then I shall convince you to change your mind.”

She grunted. “I highly doubt that. I can be very stubborn.”

His gaze drifted from her eyes to her mouth then dipped to the bodice of her dress. “I can be very persuasive.”

She felt heat blaze across her cheeks. “That I don’t doubt,” she murmured.

He laughed and tossed a piece of meat, and the dog caught it in his jaws. Swallowing the morsel with barely a chew, Felix danced on his back legs and begged for more. The marquess seized a knife and cut off another piece, and it went the way of the first. “That’s enough, Felix, off to the kitchen with you.” The dog dutifully trotted through a door opened by a footman. The marquess turned his attention back to her. “We need not always cohabit. I have property in London, Hertfordshire and Italy.”

“Italy?” Charity paused, a fork of artichoke halfway to her mouth. She had longed to visit Italy since reading her father’s copy of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet.

His long fingers toyed with the stem of the crystal wineglass.

“In fact, we need hardly meet.” His heavy-eyed gaze focused on her mouth, making her shift in her seat. “Although I do require an heir at some point, you understand.”

“Of course.” A shiver passed through her. “An heir.” She bit her lip, aware she sounded like the simpleton he must think her.

“Yes.” He tossed back the ruby wine in his glass. “And, by accounts, my uncle felt that, together, we should produce a fine one. He said as much in the will.” His speculative glance made her cheeks burn hotter.

BOOK: The Reluctant Marquess
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