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The Marquess Tames His Bride

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‘You had better remove your gloves,’ he said, once the landlord and the waiter had bowed their way backward out of the room.

‘My gloves? Why? I am not staying. My coach is due in any moment and I—’

With an expression of impatience he strode across the room and seized her wrist. ‘You need to get some ice on your hand,’ he said, wrenching the buttons undone and tugging at her fingers.

Oh, good heavens. He was removing an item of her clothing. True, it was only a glove and he was doing it as though she were a naughty child, but still it was making her insides go all gooey.

Until something he said jolted her out of that pathetic state.

‘Ice?’ The bowl of ice he’d ordered, while he was standing there staunching the blood flowing from his nose, was for her hand? She’d assumed it was for his nose.

‘Yes, ice,’ he repeated, drawing her over to the table. ‘It is the best thing for injuries sustained when boxing,’ he said, thrusting her on to a chair. ‘I know how painful it must be.’ He took some chunks of ice and wrapped them in one of the cloths the waiter had brought. ‘It is just fortunate that your hand connected with my nose, rather than my jaw, at which,’ he said as he placed the cloth over her knuckles and held it there, ‘I believe you were aiming.’

‘Are you saying you deliberately moved your face so that it was your nose I struck, rather than your jaw?’

He shrugged one shoulder. ‘You don’t seriously think you could have landed a blow unless I permitted it, do you?’

‘Well, now you come to mention it, I was a bit surprised you didn’t try to block me.’

He gave her one of those withering looks that made people say he was insufferably arrogant.

‘There are a lot of little bones in the hand,’ he said, looking at hers as he dabbed at it with the napkin full of ice. ‘And not one of them, as you should know, as strong as the jawbone.’

‘What do you mean, as I should know?’ Did he think she went round punching people on a regular basis? And had he really, deliberately, put his nose in the way of her fist, rather than letting her injure herself on him?

‘Judges 15, of course,’ he replied scathingly. ‘How do you think Samuel managed to slay all those Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, if it wasn’t harder than all their skulls?’

Oh, that was more like him. To quote scripture at her in order to make her feel stupid. And yet...he was taking care of her. Tending so gently to her hand, which did hurt rather a lot. When never, as far back as she could recall, had anyone ever tended to any of her hurts.

She had always been the one tending to others. She’d started learning to care for her brothers, and her father, well before Mama had died and left the task of running the bustling vicarage entirely in her ten-year-old hands.

‘There,’ he said, giving her hand one last gentle pat. ‘Does that feel better?’

She nodded. Because she couldn’t have spoken even if she’d been able to think of the right words to describe how she felt. The ice did indeed feel soothing. But the fact that he’d sent for it, that he’d made it into a compress, that he was applying it...that was what was bringing a lump to her throat.

Oh, this was why Lord Rawcliffe was so dangerous. Why she’d always stayed well away from him. Because he made her want things she had no right to want. Feel things she had no right to feel.

Eventually she pulled herself together sufficiently to lift her chin and look straight into his face, and even give him a tremulous smile.

‘Thank you for tending to my hand. And accepting my apology. And...and even for dodging so that I got your nose rather than your jaw.’ She got to her feet. ‘But I really must be going now.

My coach is due in any minute and—’

His face hardened.

‘I have not accepted your apology.’

‘What? But—’

‘Sit down,’ he said sternly. ‘You are not going anywhere until you have given me a full explanation. Besides, have you forgotten?’ He gave her a cold smile. ‘You are my fiancée. Do you really think I am going to permit you to go jauntering off all over the countryside, on your own?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. I am not your fiancée. And I don’t need your permission to do anything or go anywhere!’

‘That’s better,’ he said, leaning back in his chair, an infuriatingly satisfied smile playing about the lips that had so recently kissed her. ‘You were beginning to droop. Now you are on fighting form again, we can have a proper discussion.’

‘I don’t want to have a discussion with you,’ she said, barely managing to prevent herself from stamping her foot. ‘Besides, oh, listen, can’t you hear it?’ It was the sound of a guard blowing on his horn to announce the arrival of the stage. The stage she needed to get on. ‘I have a seat booked on that coach.’

‘Nevertheless,’ he said, striding over to the door and blocking her exit once again, ‘you will not be getting on it.’

‘Don’t be absurd. Of course I am going to get on it.’

‘You are mistaken. And if you don’t acquiesce to your fate, quietly, then I am going to have to take desperate measures.’

‘Oh, yes? And just what sort of measures,’ she said, marching up to him and planting her hands on her hips, ‘do you intend to take?’

He smiled. That wicked, knowing smile of his. Took her face in both hands. And kissed her.

‘Mmph,’ she protested, raising her hands to his chest to ward him off. He paid no attention. He just wrapped his arms round her and kept right on kissing her.

‘Mbrrrhgh!’ She wriggled in his hold. To no avail. His arms were like bars of iron. Besides, she wasn’t only fighting him. She was also having to fight the stupid, crazy urge to push herself up against him, to open her mouth and kiss him back.

And just as she was starting to forget exactly why she ought to be fighting him at all, he gentled the kiss. Gentled his hold. Changed the nature of his kiss from hard and masterful, to coaxing and...oh, his clever mouth. It knew just how to translate her fury into a sort of wild, pulsing ache. She ached all over. She began to tremble with what he was making her feel. Grew weaker by the second.

As if he knew her legs were on the verge of giving way, he scooped her up into his arms and carried her over to one of the upholstered chairs by the fire. Sat down without breaking his hold, so that she landed on his lap.

And instead of struggling to break free, she subsided on to his chest, burying her face in his neck. Because she could see absolutely no point in struggling to escape from the one place she’d always wanted to be: in his arms, the focus of his whole attention.

‘Now,’ he growled into the crown of her bonnet, ‘you will tell me why you are in this godforsaken spot, trying to get on a coach, when you should be snug and safe at home in the vicarage.’

‘The vicarage is not my home anymore, as you very well know,’ she said, jerking upright under the impact of a dose of that bleak truth. ‘Now that Father has died.’

‘The vicarage is your home,’ he said.

‘Even,’ he laid one finger to her lips when she took a breath to protest, ‘even when the vicar is no longer living. There was no need for you to leave, the moment you buried him.’

‘But the curate—’

‘The curate should have damn well contacted me before evicting you and presuming to move in, which is what I have to assume he did?’

‘Well, yes, but he did contact you. At least, I mean, he tried to. And when you didn’t respond, he—’ Well, everyone in Watling Minor believed that Lord Rawcliffe knew everything. Which meant that if he hadn’t responded in the negative, then he simply didn’t care what arrangements had been made for the late vicar’s daughter.

‘Assumed I would be happy to have you evicted?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘I shall have to have words with the Reverend Cobbet.’

‘No, no, it wasn’t like that.’ She laid one hand on his chest. ‘It wasn’t him. I just... There didn’t seem any point in me hanging on there. Not when Clement had arranged everything for me’

‘Clement? Kind?’

‘Yes, well, it was kind of him to go to so much trouble on my behalf.’ He’d told her so. ‘He didn’t have to make any arrangements.’ As Lord Rawcliffe raised one cynical eyebrow, Clare hastened to add, ‘I mean, I would have thought if anyone had the duty to provide for me it would have been Constantine.’

He made a scoffing noise, expressing his opinion of her oldest brother. Since it pretty much coincided with her own, after the way he’d behaved lately, she made no objection.

‘And what form did this kindness of Clement’s take, dare I ask?’

‘He found me work. A good, honest job. One I am well qualified to take up.’

‘You are going to be housekeeper for another family of ungrateful, lazy, hypocritical, sanctimonious prigs, are you?’

‘Don’t speak of my brothers like that.’

He closed his mouth. Gave her a look.

Which somehow had the effect of reminding her that she was still sitting on his lap, with her arms about his neck, though she couldn’t recall the moment she’d put them there. And that he was running his big hands up and down her back, as though to soothe her. And that, although she had just, out of habit, leapt to defend her brothers, right at this moment she couldn’t help agreeing with him. For she’d spent years keeping house for them. Then nursing their father, while they’d all left and got on with their own lives. But when she’d needed them, all they’d had to offer her were excuses. Constantine’s wife was due to give birth to their third child at any moment, he’d written, and couldn’t be expected to house an indigent sister. It was asking too much.

Cornelius had no room for her, either. Though, since he lived in bachelor quarters in the bishop’s palace she hadn’t really hoped for anything from him apart from sympathy. But even that had been in short supply. Instead of acknowledging how hard it was going to be for her to leave the vicarage, the only home she’d ever had, he had, instead, congratulated Clement on his foresight in arranging for her removal so swiftly, so that the curate, a man who had a wife and a baby on the way, could move out of the cramped cottage where he’d been living before. He’d even gone so far as to shake Reverend Cobbet by the hand and say how pleased he was for him to finally be moving into a house where he and his family would be comfortable.

It had felt as though he’d stabbed her in the back.

At which point in her bitter ruminations she heard the sound of wheels rattling across the cobbles.

‘Oh, the coach, the coach!’ Finally she did what she should have done in the first place—she made an attempt to get off his lap. But he tightened his hold, keeping her firmly in place.

‘Too late,’ he said smugly. ‘It has gone without you.’

‘But my luggage! Everything I own is in my trunk...’

‘Which has been conveyed to my chaise.’

‘What? How can you know that?’

‘Because I told the landlord to have it done when I ordered the tea and ice. Did you not hear?’ He widened his eyes as though in innocence, when he must know very well she had heard no such thing. That he must have mumbled it while she’d been busy getting the table in between them. Which had worked really well, hadn’t it? Since she’d somehow ended up not just in his arms, but also on his lap just the same.

‘Well, you shouldn’t have.’

‘Of course I should,’ he said with a touch of impatience. ‘If I hadn’t had the foresight to do so, you would have just lost everything you own.’

‘Instead of which, I have fallen into the hands of a...a... Why, you are so high-handed, ordering people about and...and forcing people into fake betrothals that you... Why, you are little better than a kidnapper!’


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