Castles Ever After 02 Say Yes to the Marquess

BOOK: Castles Ever After 02 Say Yes to the Marquess
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Dedication

For the big brown dog, in loving memory.

You’ve been such a good boy.

 

Acknowledgments

S
o many smart and talented people had a hand in making this book happen. I owe much gratitude to my brilliant editor, Tessa Woodward; my fantastic agent, Steve Axelrod; all the wonderful people at Avon Books/HarperCollins, and copyeditor extraordinaire, Martha Trachtenberg.

Thank you to Courtney, Carey, Leigh, Bren, Bree, Susan, Laura, Karen, and all on The Unnamed Loop for your invaluable friendship, hugs, and support. I’m indebted to the following friends for sharing their experience and subject expertise: Brenna Aubrey, Jeri Smith-Ready, and Greg Nagel. Thank you to Diana and Carrie for the badger (bruiser) balm, and many thanks to Larimar for loaning her irreplaceable ring.

To my wonderful family, who put up with so much artistic angst and takeout—I love you.

And as always, thank you to my readers. I wish I could give you all some cake.

 

Chapter One

O
h, Miss Whitmore. Just look at this horrid place.”

As she alighted from the coach, Clio took in the narrow, cobbled passage between two rows of warehouses. “It looks like an alleyway, Anna.”

“It smells of blood. Lord preserve us. We’ll be
murdered.

Clio bit back a smile. Her lady’s maid was a marvel with curling tongs, but her capacity for morbid imagination was truly unmatched.

“We will not be murdered.” After a moment’s thought, she added, “At least, not today.”

Miss Clio Whitmore had been raised by good parents, with the benefits of education and close attention to propriety, and she was engaged to marry England’s most promising young diplomat. She was not the sort of foolhardy young woman to go skulking about dodgy alleyways at midnight with an unloaded pistol in her pocket, in search of London’s most infamous scoundrel.

No, that would not do.

When Clio struck out in search of London’s most infamous scoundrel, she waited until midday. She entered the dodgy alleyway with a footman, her lady’s maid, and a minimum of skulking. And she didn’t carry any weapons at all.

Really, what could be the purpose? When the man you sought was a six-foot, sixteen-stone prizefighter, an unloaded pistol wouldn’t be any help. The lethal weapons in the mix were his fists, and a girl could only hope they were on her side.

Rafe, please be on my side. Just this once.

She led the way down the dank, narrow alley, hiking her lace-edged hem and taking care that her half boots didn’t catch on the uneven pavement.

Anna skipped from one to another of the cleaner cobblestones. “How does the second son of a marquess end up here?”

“On purpose. You may depend on it. Lord Rafe spurned good society years ago. He delights in anything brutish or coarse.”

Inwardly, Clio wondered. The last time she’d seen Rafe Brandon, the man who was to be her brother-in-law, he’d been nursing grave wounds. Not only the physical aftermath of the worst—more aptly, the
only
—defeat of his prizefighting career, but the blow of his father’s sudden death.

He’d looked low. Very low. But not so low as
this.

“Here we are.” She rapped on the door and lifted her voice. “Lord Rafe? Are you there? It’s Miss . . .” She bit off the name. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to announce herself in a place like this. “I need only a few minutes of your time.”

That, and his signature. She clutched the sheaf of papers in her hand.

There was no answer.

“He’s not at home,” Anna said. “Please, Miss Whitmore. We need to be on our way if we’re to reach Twill Castle by nightfall.”

“Not just yet.”

Clio leaned close to the door. She heard sounds coming from within. The screech of chair legs across a floor. The occasional hollow thud.

Oh, he was in there. And he was ignoring her.

Clio was painfully accustomed to being ignored. Her engagement had given her years of practice.

When she was seventeen, Lord Piers Brandon, the handsome, dashing heir to the Marquess of Granville, had obeyed the wishes of their families and proposed marriage. He’d gone on bended knee in the Whitmore drawing room, sliding a gold-and-ruby ring on her third finger. To Clio, it had felt like a dream.

A dream with one snag. Piers had a new but promising career in foreign diplomacy, and Clio was rather young to assume the duties of managing a household. They had all the time in the world, he pointed out. She didn’t mind a long engagement, did she?

“Of course not,” she’d said.

Looking back, perhaps she should have given a different answer. Such as, “Define ‘long.’ ”

Eight years—and no weddings—later, Clio was still waiting.

By now, her situation was a public joke. The scandal sheets called her “Miss Wait-More.” The gossip trailed her everywhere. Just what could be keeping his lordship from England and the altar, they all wondered? Was it ambition, distraction . . . devotion to his duty?

Or devotion to a foreign mistress, perhaps?

No one could say. Least of all Clio herself. Oh, she tried to laugh away the rumors and smile at the jokes, but inside . . .

Inside, she was hurting. And utterly alone.

Well, that all ended today. Starting this moment, she was Miss Wait-No-Longer.

The brass door handle turned in her gloved grip, and the door swung open.

“Stay here,” she told the servants.

“But Miss Whitmore, it isn’t—”

“I will be fine. Yes, his reputation is scandalous, but we were friends in our childhood. I spent summers at his family home, and I’m engaged to marry his brother.”

“Even so, Miss Whitmore . . . We should have a signal.”

“A signal?”

“A word to shout if you’re in distress. Like ‘Tangiers,’ or . . . or perhaps ‘muscadine.’ ”

Clio gave her an amused look. “Is something wrong with the word ‘help’?”

“I . . . well, I suppose not.”

“Very well.” She smiled, unable to bear Anna’s look of disappointment. “ ‘Muscadine’ it is.”

She passed through the door, walked down a dim corridor, and emerged into a soaring, empty space. What she found made her blood turn cold.

Oh, muscadine.

She blinked and forced herself to look again. Perhaps it wasn’t him.

But there was no mistaking his profile. That rugged slope of a nose healed from multiple breaks. Add in the thick, dark hair, the strong jaw, the impressive breadth of his shoulders . . . That was Lord Rafe Brandon himself, perched on a crossbeam some dozen feet above the bricked floor. He had a rope in his hands, and he was knotting it securely to the beam. At the end of the rope was a loop.

A noose.

Apparently, his spirits hadn’t fallen as low as she’d feared.

They’d sunk lower.

And she’d arrived not a moment too soon.

Her heartbeat went into a panicked stutter,
whomp-whomp-whomp-
ing in her chest. “My lord, don’t. Don’t do this.”

He glanced up. “Miss Whitmore?”

“Yes. Yes, it’s me.” She advanced in small steps, lifting an open palm in a gesture of peace. “It’s Miss Whitmore. It’s Clio. I know we’ve had our differences. I’m not sure if we have anything
but
differences. But I’m here for you. And I beg of you, please reconsider.”

“Reconsider.” He gave her a hard look. “You mean to stop me from . . .”

“Yes. Don’t do something you’ll regret. You have so much to live for.”

He paused. “I’ve no wife, no children. Both my parents are dead. My brother and I haven’t been on speaking terms for nearly a decade.”

“But you have friends, surely. And many fine qualities.”

“What would those be?”

Drat. Clio should have known that was coming. She mentally ran through everything she knew of his life in recent years. Most of it came from the newspapers, and nearly all of it was horrid. Rafe Brandon had earned a reputation for being ruthless in a boxing match and shameless everywhere else. His endurance in the bedroom was almost as legendary as his quickness in the ring. They called him the Devil’s Own.

“Strength,” Clio offered. “That’s a fine quality.”

He cinched a knot tight. “Oxen are strong. Doesn’t save them from slaughter when they can’t pull anymore.”

“Don’t speak that way. Perhaps you’re no longer the champion, but that doesn’t mean you’re worthless.” Her mind groped for something, anything else. “I recall that you gave some of your winnings to a war widows’ fund. Isn’t that true?”

“Probably.”

“Well, then. There’s that. Charity is the best of virtues.”

He finished tying off his knot and pulled on it to test the strength. “It’s no use. A stray good deed or two could never balance my sins. What of all those women I’ve seduced?”

“I . . .” Oh, heavens. How did one speak of such things aloud? “I . . . I’m sure a few of them enjoyed it.”

At that, he laughed. It was a dry, low chuckle—but a laugh, nonetheless.

Laughter was a good sign, wasn’t it? Laughing men didn’t hang themselves. It shouldn’t bother Clio that he was laughing at
her.

“I assure you, Miss Whitmore. They all enjoyed it.”

He let the length of rope dangle from the beam, then made his way down it, hand over hand, until he dropped directly before her. He was barefoot, dressed in gray trousers and an open-necked linen shirt. His green eyes dared her to break with propriety in a dozen unthinkable ways.

And that smug quirk of his lips?

It said he already knew she wouldn’t.

“Breathe,” he told her. “You haven’t walked in on a tragedy.”

She took his suggestion. Air flooded her lungs, and relief filled her everywhere else. “But what was I to think? You up there on the beam, the rope, the noose . . .” She gestured at the evidence. “What else could you be doing?”

Wordlessly, he walked to the edge of the room. There, he retrieved a straw-stuffed canvas bag with a hook affixed at the top. He walked back and hung the sack from the loop of rope, sliding the noose to make it tight.

“It’s called training.” He gave the bag a single, demonstrative punch. “See?”

She saw. And now she felt unbearably foolish. In their youth, Rafe had always teased her, but of all the mischief he’d pulled over the years . . .

“Sorry to ruin your fun,” he said.

“My fun?”

“It’s a popular enough female pastime. Trying to save me from myself.” He threw her a knowing look as he sauntered past.

Clio blushed in response. But that was the wrong word. A “blush” was a whisper of color, and right now her cheeks must be screaming. Just ridiculously pink, like a flamingo or something.

Wretched, teasing man.

Once, when Clio had been a small girl, she’d seen a fistfight in the local village. A man buying hazels challenged a merchant over the honesty of his scales. The two argued, shouted . . . a scuffle broke out. She’d never forgotten the way the atmosphere changed in an instant. Everyone in the vicinity felt it. The air prickled with danger.

She’d never witnessed another bout of fisticuffs. But she felt the same prickle in the air whenever Rafe Brandon was near. He seemed to carry things with him, the way other men carried portmanteaux or walking sticks. Things like intensity. Brute power, held in check—but only just. That sense of danger mingled with anticipation. And the promise that at any moment, the rules that governed society could be rendered meaningless.

Were his rakish exploits any mystery? Really, the corsets must unlace themselves.

“I thought you’d given up prizefighting,” she said.

“Everyone thinks I’ve given up prizefighting. Which is what will make my return to the sport so very exciting. And lucrative.”

That followed a strange sort of logic, she supposed.

“Now explain yourself.” He crossed his arms. His large, massive, all-the-words-for-big arms. “What the devil are you doing? You should know better than to come to a neighborhood like this alone.”

“I do know better, and I didn’t come alone. I have two servants waiting outside.” On a stupid impulse, she added, “And we have a signal.”

One dark eyebrow lifted. “A signal.”

“Yes. A signal.” She forged on before he could inquire further. “I would not have needed to come here at all if you’d left some other way of reaching you. I tried calling at the Harrington.”

“I no longer have rooms at the Harrington.”

“So they informed me. They gave this as your forwarding address.” She followed him toward what seemed to be the living quarters. “Do you truly
live
here?”

“When I’m training, I do. No distractions.”

Clio looked around. She hadn’t been in many bachelor apartments, but she’d always imagined them to be cluttered and smelling of unwashed things—dishes, linens, bodies.

Lord Rafe’s warehouse didn’t smell of anything unpleasant. Just sawdust, coffee, and the faint aroma of . . . oil of wintergreen, perhaps? But the place was spartan in its furnishings. In one corner, she glimpsed a simple cot, a cupboard and a few shelves, and a small table with two stools.

He removed two tumblers from the cupboard and placed them on the table. Into one, he poured a few inches of sherry. Into the other, he emptied the remaining contents of a coffeepot, added a touch of pungent syrup from a mysterious brown bottle, then into it all he cracked three raw eggs.

She watched with queasy fascination as he stirred the slimy mess with a fork. “Surely you’re not going to—”

“Drink that?” He lifted the tumbler, drained it one long swallow, and pounded the glass to the tabletop. “Three times a day.”

“Oh.”

He pushed the sherry toward her. “That’s yours. You look like you could use it.”

Clio stared at the glass as waves of nausea pitched her stomach to and fro. “Thank you.”

“It’s the best I can do. As you can see, I’m not set up to receive social calls.”

“I won’t take much of your time, I promise. I only stopped by to—”

“Extend a wedding invitation. I’ll send my regrets.”

“What? No. I mean . . . I gather you’ve heard that Lord Granville is finally returning from Vienna.”

“I heard. And Piers has given you permission to plan the most lavish wedding imaginable. I signed off on the accounts myself.”

“Yes, well. About those signatures . . .” Clio twisted the papers rolled in her hand.

He walked away from the table. “This will have to be quick. I can’t be wasting time on chatter.”

He stopped beneath a bar hanging parallel to the floor some three feet over his head. In a burst of quickness, he jumped to grab it. Then he began to lift himself by means of flexing his arms.

Again, then again.

“Go on,” he said, clearing the bar with his chin for the fourth time. “I can talk while I do this.”

Perhaps
he
could, but Clio was finding it difficult. She wasn’t accustomed to carrying on a conversation with a barely dressed man engaged in such . . . muscular exercise. Awareness hummed in her veins.

She picked up the tumbler of sherry and took a cautious swallow.

It helped.

“I wouldn’t expect you to have heard, but my Uncle Humphrey died a few months ago.” She waved off the condolences before he could offer them. “It wasn’t a shock. He was very old. But the dear old thing left me a bequest in his will. A castle.”

BOOK: Castles Ever After 02 Say Yes to the Marquess
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