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Authors: Patricia Rice

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The Marquess

BOOK: The Marquess
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The Marquess

Patricia Rice

Book View Café Edition
June 12, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-61138-173-3
Copyright © 1997 Patricia Rice
www.bookviewcafe.com

Prologue

March 1816

In the weak light of the carriage lanterns, Gavin Lawrence,
Marquess of Effingham, pulled the hood of his billowing cloak more securely
around his face and climbed from the aged vehicle into the pouring rain.

Michael, the driver, leapt from his unprotected seat,
following his passenger toward the lighted inn. “You could have taken the
public coach,” he pointed out, arguing as no real servant would have
done.

“I could have flown in on vampire wings,” the
marquess growled irascibly, with a distinctly foreign accent.

Hugging his jug and lingering beneath the roof overhang,
Tipplin’ Tom blanched. The nobility hadn’t risked their lives and
their vehicles on the rutted path to this humble village in decades. The menacing
black barouche and those terrifying words seemed portentous. Gulping, Tom
scurried back to warn the tavern’s inhabitants.

Unaware of their audience, Michael continued arguing
vehemently. “This has gone far enough, Gavin! You’ve hid at sea
these last years, nearly killing yourself to earn our passage. Now’s the
time to assert yourself. You’re a highfalutin marquess over here! Just
glare at the villagers and toss a few coins. They’ll bow at your feet.”

“I don’t want anyone bowing at my feet. I
don’t want the damned title. I want a roof over our heads and a chance to
earn something besides wormy biscuits. What I do with myself the rest of the
damned time is no one’s business but my own.”

With the hood pulled low to disguise his features, the new
marquess entered the dimly lit, low ceilinged tavern.

As he stomped through the doorway, the inhabitants cowered
in far corners. None came forward to greet them or offer ale.

Scowling, Gavin glared at this reaction to his presence.
They didn’t even know him, and already they acted as if he had three
heads instead of just one slightly damaged one.

He’d grown used to averted gazes in the dismal seaside
taverns he’d frequented these last years. He’d learned to walk
alone. He didn’t need these puling, ignorant villagers. He just needed
directions.

“And you wanted me to act the noble aristocrat?”
he whispered to Michael, turning around to stalk back out.

“Coward,” his driver returned disrespectfully.
But he strode into the tavern to ask directions while Gavin retreated to the
waiting carriage as had been his preference from the first.

A little later, with a local driver perched upon the outside
seat, the barouche returned to the road—just as the clouds opened and
rain fell in torrents.

Inside, Michael shook out his soaked hat. No one had
bothered relighting the carriage lamps, and only their dark silhouettes were
visible in the gloom.

“You’ll need servants,” the slighter man
answered Gavin’s silent protest about the new driver. “He’s a
half-wit, but he knows how to find the manor.”

Gavin made a choking noise that might almost be a rusty
laugh. “An auspicious beginning: a half-wit for manservant. I like your
thinking.”

“If you mean to bury yourself out here in the middle
of nowhere, I won’t be buried with you.”

Gavin threw off his hood and nodded understandingly. “You’ll
do as you wish, as always. When have I ever interfered?”

Both of them could write volumes into the silence that
followed, but they knew the words by heart and had no need of repeating them
aloud or recording them for posterity. As the rain pounded and the carriage
lurched and righted itself, they watched for the first sight of their new home.

Soaked and overgrown evergreens brushed the carriage doors.
The right forward wheel hit a deep hole, then propelled itself out by the sheer
force of the blow. Gavin clung to his walking stick and winced. He suffered a
suspicion that they traversed the drive to his inheritance.

They rounded a curve and not even Michael’s vivid
imagination could have conjured up the monstrosity looming before them.
Silhouetted against the horizon, gabled roofs soared with medieval turrets,
mixing with Roman arches atop a structure that sprawled across the hillside.
Unused to English architecture, both men stared at the storybook fantasy as the
carriage lurched to a halt.

Concurring with Gavin’s unspoken thought, Michael
whispered, “Do you think we’ll find a sleeping beauty inside?”

Dropping his gaze from the outrageous roofline to the more
mundane elements of land and foundation, Gavin shook his head. “If we do,
she’s covered in thorns, and I’m too damned tired to hack my way
through.” With a sigh, he kicked open the coach door, ignoring the
etiquette of allowing his newly hired servant to unlatch it for him.

Instead of hitting a paved drive, his boot sank in foot-deep
mud.

Torn from a long-rotted trellis, a rose cane swung out and
snatched his hood.

In all that vast monstrous exterior, not a single light
flickered to welcome them home.

* * * *

Later, staring into a fire created from a particularly
odious bric-a-brac shelf and a kitchen stool, Gavin morosely contemplated the
inheritance for which he’d spent these last years earning passage to
England in a style that wouldn’t shame his unknown family.

The estate solicitors had informed him that he possessed
female cousins of some sort. He’d notified the solicitors of the date of
his arrival so he did not arrive unannounced. Not only had his unknown and
unacknowledged family departed the estate before he arrived, they’d taken
with them every servant and every sign of life. What remained was a
deteriorating shell of a house requiring more wealth than he possessed.

Kicking at an elegantly carved and extremely filthy wing
chair beside the fireplace, Gavin wondered how long the place had lain empty.
Michael’s comment about finding a sleeping beauty didn’t seem far
off the mark.

Filth coated every surface. Vines had crept in through
windows. So far, he’d not discovered any evidence of leaking roofs or
cracked walls, but the night was young and the rooms were dark. No doubt mice
scuttled about in the walls and wind blew down chimneys. For this he’d
bought a new suit of clothes and a carriage. He’d have better invested
his limited resources in return passage.

On the far side of the room, with firelight gleaming off his
auburn hair, Michael wandered the towering library, staring at the elaborately
carved moldings layered in cobwebs and the dusty thick oak paneling of the
walls. Books filled the shelves, and by the light of a candle, he pulled them
off randomly, dusting them off and examining their contents.

Gavin could tell from his soft exclamations that he thought
the place a treasure trove, but Michael had never been the practical type. One
couldn’t eat books.

“In the morning, we’ll survey the lands,”
Gavin said aloud, although he might as well talk to himself. Michael had no
interest in land. “It’s early enough in the year to put in a crop.
The solicitor’s letter said the main estate had no mortgage.”

“The solicitor’s letter said the estate had no
funds,” Michael reminded him vaguely, lost in a tome of ancient origin.

The solicitor’s letter had left Gavin more than
underwhelmed. Merely noting the firm had spent some years locating the closest
heir to the title, it announced Gavin Lawrence as the eighth Marquess of
Effingham and the heir to Arinmede Manor, as the prior marquess left only a
female descendant. The letter invited him to visit at his convenience.

Gavin had known then that he couldn’t expect much. He
had only to look to his father and grandfather to know the Lawrences of
Arinmede and Effingham had little going for them beyond charm and good looks.
But through the years of war, in the aftermath of disaster, Gavin had clung to
that foolish letter. He had a family in England, a titled family and a home.

Until the letter’s arrival, he’d thought his
father a liar. He
knew
his father to be a liar. But apparently he
hadn’t lied about his origins. The solicitor’s letter proved that
much.

The solicitor’s letter hadn’t lied any more than
his father about the family inheritance. It had just left out a few pertinent
facts.

He had spent these last years captaining ships and trading
in foreign ports so he could earn enough money to put him right back where he
was before, bankrupt and without family, except now he was faced with a foreign
country and strangers with odd habits who knew nothing of him. He would have
been farther ahead if he’d stayed in the States.

Glancing up at the coat of arms engraved in the wood above
the fireplace, Gavin lifted his glass in salute to his long line of ancestors.
At least this time, they’d left him a roof over his head.

Chapter One

May 1817

Flames shot through the lower windows and licked at the
eaves of the sprawling ducal mansion. Smoke billowed in thick black clouds
blending with the night sky. Women garbed only in cotton nightclothes hugged
each other in horror and screamed hysterically from the lawn as a beam crashed
in the interior.

All eyes turned with despair and helplessness to the slender
female materializing in an upper-story window. Fire ate at the old wood just
below her. Smoke nearly concealed her as she lowered another bundle of valued
possessions to the ground.

“The woman’s mad as a hatter,” an
auburn-haired footman exclaimed in disbelief as the servants dived to sort
through the rescued valuables.

Dillian ignored the new servant’s comment as the
falling blanket gave her an idea. Even as someone handed her the rescued bag of
coins representing all her worldly goods—outside her father’s
useless papers—her mind returned to the blanket.

Blanche played the role of martyred heroine well, but
Dillian had no intention of allowing her best friend, cousin, and employer to
die a heroine’s death. She had no intention of allowing her to die at
all.

“Grab a corner of that blanket!” she yelled to
the footman and the burly butler. “Hold it out flat so Lady Blanche can
jump!”

A wail of joy replaced cries of distress as people grasped
Dillian’s idea. When the lady next appeared in the upper-story window,
they had the sturdy blanket spread between the fingers of a dozen servants
yelling, “Jump!”

Dillian’s stomach knotted in fear as Lady Blanche
hesitated. Fire had already destroyed the old wooden stairs, trapping Blanche
in the upper stories. Flames had charred all the downstairs windows and worked
its way through the centuries-old floorboards.

Only Blanche’s quickness had seen the household roused
and sent to safety, but she hadn’t been quick enough to save herself.
Blanche had always been too good for this world, seeing to others before she
saw to herself. Selfishness was not a concept Blanche understood. Sometimes, it
made Dillian want to scream. Right now she could scale that wall and wring her
cousin’s neck.

“Jump, Blanche! Now!” she shouted over the roar
of fire and hysteria.

For a brief instant through the swirl of smoke, Dillian saw
Blanche turn despairing eyes in her direction. Then the wind caught the flame
and sent it flying upward.

Screams pierced the night air as the figure in long blond
tresses disappeared behind the inferno.

The blazing figure leaping from the upper window was barely
recognizable when it finally soared in the direction of the blanket. Shaking
hands lowered the net to the ground.

Tears rolled down the cheeks of the liveried footman as he
smothered flaming night-clothes with the blanket. Auburn hair gleaming like the
fire behind him, he lifted Blanche gently, and a path opened through the crowd.

Hysterical shrieks died to quiet sobs.

Refusing to resign herself to the inevitable, Dillian fought
her way through the crowd to follow him.

BOOK: The Marquess
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