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Authors: The Marquess Takes a Fall

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BOOK: Amy Lake
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He felt, somehow, that she was accusing him, although he was not sure of what. Certainly the women of his class did not call him Colin, ’twas Lord Ashdown, or your lordship, and lady this-and-that—

“I suppose not,” he said.

“Very well . . . Colin,” said Mrs. Marwick. “There is a storm coming in. I won’t bother you for more than a moment, but I must check the window latch.”

She passed by the foot of the bed, and Lord Ashdown caught a faint scent of rose and vanilla. His attention was even more engaged, however, by the sight of her figure, a glorious hourglass shape in flowered muslin.

I have been in Northumberland far too long, thought the marquess, if my first idea is to take a village widow to my bed. He was immediately ashamed of this thought, and turned his head away, paying as little attention to her movements as he could. But the vanilla and rose lingered, and he could not avoid hearing the soft sweep of the muslin, and imagine the feel of—

Gods. What was wrong with him? There were any number of beautiful women in London, but he’d never felt such a powerful attraction before, not to any of the supposed diamonds of the
ton
.

Mrs. Marwick returned to the doorway, and paused there.

“More tea, your Colin-ship?” she said, eyebrows arched, and with a slight upward quirk of her lips.

He had to laugh.

  * * * *

But Mrs. Marwick’s forays into the guest room were infrequent. Lord Ashdown had begun to think that Fiona was avoiding him, which was not his usual experience with young females, or indeed females of any age. At first he attributed it to womanly reticence; after all, she had probably seen more of him than was seemly during the first days after his fall. Then he began to think she must dislike him, although he could not imagine why, other than he was an unwanted lodger, which—for the moment—he could do nothing about.

Perhaps she simply felt overworked. Colin had arranged for food to be delivered to the cottage, as much of it as he thought he could get away with, and he would have arranged for entire meals had the doctor not warned him off.

“She would be insulted,” Dee had said. “Besides, Fiona is an excellent cook. I can promise that you won’t be as satisfied with what else the village has to offer.”

Of her cooking skills Lord Ashdown could now, quite happily, attest. The vegetable stew alone had brought him to a new appreciation of the lowly carrot. And in no elegant London home had he tasted such an excellent Welsh rabbit, although admittedly some fine homes would have considered such a meal beneath serving. More fools them.

 And as for the cook herself—

The marquess considered again the cool green eyes in her lovely face, the thick auburn hair that was ever escaping from its pins and falling in curls around a face of startling, almost other-worldly beauty.

She must have every man in the village at her heels, and Colin wondered about Dr. Fischer in particular. The two seemed to share a considerable rapport, and to speak very freely to one another, although their manner reminded him more of a brother and sister than a romantic pair.

The marquess had slipped into reverie, his eyes closed. Now he heard voices outside and turned to the window. It was Mrs. Marwick and a gentleman Colin did not recognize, but to whom he took an immediate dislike. Not much older than Lord Ashdown’s twenty-eight years, the man was dressed in a style that the marquess recognized all too well, and which he had named, in his own mind, London foppery. Skin-tight trousers, padded shoulders, and a cravat tied seven ways from Sunday—yes, thought Colin. The complete dandy.

Fiona had her hands on her hips, and the marquess thought she looked upset. Although he could not hear words through the window and over the ever-present wind, it looked like an argument.

What was this?

Lord Ashdown damned the injury which made it impossible for him to move from the bed and join Mrs. Marwick in the garden. The doctor had said that his leg had improved enough so that they could bring in a Bath chair from Durham, if he wished. Colin definitely did wish, arrangements had been made, and they were expecting the contraption any day, but until then—

Fiona had moved so that she was facing the cottage, which meant that the stranger, as he spoke to her, was facing away. The man gestured, his hand making an angry arc through the air.

How dare he? thought Colin, frustrated beyond measure.

At that point, Madelaine came in.

“Colin! Look what I found!”

She stopped in the doorway, seeing his face, and then looked out the window.

“Oh,” said the girl. “Sir Irwin.”

Her expression, for once, communicated nothing.

“Who is he?”

“He lives at Marsden Hall.” The girl chewed her lip. “My mother doesn’t like him.”

The marquess smiled inwardly at this bald assessment. “Why not?” he asked, unable to stop himself.

Madelaine shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s stupid,” she added, “but you can’t tell mum I said that. And he wants to marry her.”

That piece of news went off like a small explosion in the marquess’s mind.
Marry
her?

Why should you care? he asked himself. It would probably be an excellent match for the widow, and surely even a fop could do some good as a father for Madelaine. Lord Ashdown was fighting the temptation to ask the girl more about Sir Irwin when Dr. Fischer came in the door to the cottage.

One always knew when Dee Fischer had arrived. The voice alone, thought Colin, could be used to wake patients from coma.

“The Bath chair has arrived!” announced the doctor, entering the room. “Madelaine, are you annoying Lord Ashdown?”

“No,” said Maddie. “Sir Irwin is back.” The girl pointed out the window.

The marquess watched the doctor’s face closely. He saw an expression of annoyance—and even, thought Colin, a bit of anger—pass over it quickly.

“Is he now?” said the doctor. “Well, how nice.”

“Did you see my dog whelp?” asked Maddie, holding out her discovery. It was a pretty whorled shell with a spire, banded in orange. “See? It’s still got something inside.”

“Dog
whelk
, Maddie,” said the doctor, and he took a look. “That’s a
Purpura
.”


Purpura
,” the girl repeated, and nodded. Colin had the impression she was carefully filing this information away.

“You should go get my mum,” said Madelaine, talking to Dr. Fischer. “You know she hates being stuck with Sir Irwin.”

Dee nodded. “You’re right.”

Madelaine was directed to return the dog whelk—”It could be a mother, Madelaine,” said the doctor, with a perfectly serious face. “You could be taking it away from its babies.”—and Dee was about to leave as well, when Colin stopped him.

“Who is he?”

The doctor took a breath, hesitating.

“Well whoever he is, Madelaine said that he wants to marry Mrs. Marwick.”

“Ah.” Dee seemed to come to some decision. “That,” he said finally, “is Sir Irwin Ampthill, baronet of something-or-other, and God’s gift to Barley Mow.”

Colin frowned. The name rang a faint bell.

Ah. “The baronet of Ferndale,” he said, remembering.

Dr. Fischer was surprised. “You’ve met him.”

The marquess shook his head. “No. But the name—Sir Irwin has a certain . . . reputation in Town.”

“So I’ve been given to understand. Although no-one hereabouts is quite sure of the details.”

The doctor had moved back toward Lord Ashdown’s bed, and it was Colin’s turn to hesitate. But really, what did he owe a baronet? And if it prevented Mrs. Marwick from some terrible mistake—

“Cards,” said Lord Ashdown, not beating about the bush. “He made quite a bit of money at pharo, and there was evidence, later, that the play was not fair.”

“Gods.”

Fortunes—real fortunes—were won and lost at the gaming tables of London, and to be known as a cheat was the end of a gentleman’s reputation.

“I suppose that means he’s unlikely to go back,” said Dee. “We’ll never be rid of him.”

“Probably so, I’m afraid.”

They could both tell, from the set of her shoulders, that Fiona’s patience was wearing thin.

“I should see about this,” said the doctor, and left.

Colin watched as he re-appeared, moments later, in the garden. He saw the relief on Mrs. Marwick’s face, and the wary look in Sir Irwin’s eyes. Dee slapped him on the back in jovial greeting, and the marquess imagined that he could hear the man’s teeth rattle, even from inside the house.

Why is he here? wondered Colin. Madelaine says he wants to marry her mother, but Mrs. Marwick is clearly not fond of him, Dr. Fischer hates him, and if Maddie liked him at all she would be out there this moment, showing off her dog whelk. It was puzzling, and although Lord Ashdown was not normally a man to involve himself in other people’s business, he found that lying in bed for a week or two gave one an increased appreciation for the small mysteries in life.

 

Chapter 8: The Baronet of Something-or-Other

 

Sir Irwin Ampthill, baronet of Ferndale, had lived in Marsden Hall for the past several years, which made him a rank newcomer in the eyes of the village. He was an average gentleman in some ways; of standard height and build, with straight brown hair that was thinning slightly on top. On the other hand, he wore
ton
fashions in County Durham, a very un-
ton
world, and had he not been so insufferably self-assured he might have felt embarrassment at the comments elicited by his dress.

“Ruddy peacock, he is. Why’d a man need shirt points up to his flaming’ ears?”

Others were less flattering. Ampthill employed a few villagers as servants, and even though the employment was appreciated, the baronet paid his help poorly and clearly viewed them as necessary evils in the life of a fine gentleman; they repaid this treatment by describing the goings-on at Marsden Hall to the rest of Barley Mow. Usually these stories were reported of an evening at the one small village tavern, and if a bit of embellishment occurred, ’twas all part of the fun.

Very secretive, Sir Irwin was, the footman said, adding that they’d all had instructions to claim the baronet was not-at-home to anyone at the door.

“Stays in ’is study an’ drinks,” added another, “and he’s a right nuisance to clean up after.”

Sir Irwin was said to be clever about money, and to have been fortunate in business dealings in the City, even if the type of business was unclear. Marsden Hall itself was the largest establishment in the area, but ’twas a poor excuse for the home of an aristocrat, even a baronet, and everyone knew it. The fireplaces smoked, there was rising damp in the walls, and no amount of cleaning could quite erase the smell. The place had been left empty for a decade prior to Sir Irwin’s arrival, and the village had been quite surprised when he showed up, keen to take on the lease.

If the villagers had little praise for the man, they also had little to truly complain about. Lord Ashdown was entirely correct concerning the baronet’s reputation in London, but Sir Irwin kept himself honest in Barley Mow. He made no wagers, and never played cards at all, although it was admittedly difficult to think of someone who would be willing to sit down with him. He did not stay the entire year at Marsden Hall, leaving occasionally for weeks at a time, and it was rumored that he owned several other residences.

No-one in the village knew for sure where he went, or cared to ask.

  * * * *

Fiona closed her eyes and sighed, as the sounds of Sir Irwin’s carriage faded.

Thank heavens the man was gone. She looked at Dee. “Thank you,” said Fiona, knowing that he had come outside specifically to rescue her.

“My lady,” smiled the doctor, with a bow.

“I believe he visits with the particular purpose of annoying me.”

“As do we all.”

She laughed. Dee always said that Ampthill was as shrewd as they came, but Fiona wasn’t convinced. This was Barley Mow, not the city, and if he expected to be flattered and fawned over as some baronet-in-residence he was a birdwit. The villagers were having none of it.

“Thinks he’s a prince,” had been Hobbs’ assessment. He and Sir Irwin had once nearly come to blows over a report of the manner in which Ampthill treated his horses; Dee intervened, but not before the baronet had been pushed to the ground. The man cursed and threatened Hobbs, to no effect, and Fiona was a little surprised when, afterwards, he continued his visits to Tern’s Rest.

“He smells funny,” said Maddie, to which Dee snorted, because the baronet did, in fact, wear an overpowering amount of cologne.

“Funny in a good way?” asked the doctor.

Madelaine wrinkled her nose. “He smells like . . . bad pudding.”

Which only made Dee laugh harder.

Ampthill demonstrated a particular antipathy toward Dr. Fischer. Dee claimed to have no idea why, but Fiona thought she knew. Deandros Fischer occupied a position of respect in the community, a place that the baronet thought should be his. Not to mention her own relationship with the doctor because, for reasons that remained entirely mysterious, Fiona Marwick was something else that Sir Irwin seemed to feel belonged to him.

After ignoring her when he’d first moved into the area—she’d sent a small pie as a welcoming gift, and the tin had been returned empty, without remark—he had begun to call on her regularly during the past year. Neighborly visits, he called them, since the land attached to Marsden Hall was unfortunately bordering to that of Tern’s Rest. Fiona never encouraged him. She felt an aversion to the man and his foppish airs from the start, and attempted only to be polite when making her lack of interest clear. This indifference seemed to embolden Ampthill, and he had become increasingly insistent during the past few months, going so far as to suggest that they should be
married
.

Fiona remembered the first time he had used that word, and her astonishment at the proposal, which had been advanced without the least concern—so it seemed—for her own feelings.

They should be married very quickly, Sir Irwin had said; the child needed a father, and it wasn’t right, Mrs. Marwick living on her own, with that doctor visiting the house near anytime he pleased. The villagers were starting to talk—

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