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The Marquess Tames His Bride

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Rawcliffe drew in a deep breath and started counting to ten.

Just as he got to two, he realised he wasn’t angry enough to need to resort to his usual method of dealing with Clare. He was still far too pleased with the ease with which he’d finally got her on to his lap, and into his arms, to care very much about what she had to say about it.

He smiled down into her furious little face.

‘Far from kidnapping you,’ he pointed out, ‘I have rescued you from the consequences of your own folly. However,’ he interjected swiftly when she drew a breath to object, ‘I concede you must have been at the end of your tether, to hit me when all I did was tease you the way I have always done.’

And it hadn’t hurt that much. Not as much as discovering she thought him capable of such casual cruelty that she’d ended up being evicted from her home before her father was even cold in his grave. When she’d said he’d gone, he’d just assumed she meant that he’d managed to get on to a coach when she wasn’t watching and that she was searching for him. Reverend Cottam’s behaviour had been getting increasingly erratic of late after all. And his sarcasm had been mainly aimed at her brothers, who’d left her with a burden she should no longer have to shoulder all on her own. He’d never dreamed the irascible old preacher could actually have died.

‘But you cannot deny,’ he continued when she drew her ginger brows together into a thwarted little frown, ‘that had I not announced you were my fiancée, you would have been ruined.’

‘I don’t see that it would have been as bad as that,’ she said, defiant to the last.

‘Johnny Bruton, the man who is a member of my club, is a dedicated gossip. He would have left no stone unturned in his quest to discover your name and station in life.’

She shifted on his lap, giving him a delicious experience of her softly rounded bottom.

‘That was why I instructed the landlord to have your belongings placed in my own chaise. So that he would not be able to read your luggage label with, no doubt, its destination thereon. Not for any nefarious notion of abduction.’

‘Well, if you’ve prevented him from discovering my name, there is no need to carry on with this deception, is there?’

Need? No, it wasn’t a question of need. But it was so deliciously satisfying to have the proud, pious little madam so completely at his mercy for once. True, she was still spitting insults at him, but they lacked the conviction they might have had if she wasn’t sitting on his lap. If she hadn’t put her arms round his neck instead of slapping his face when he’d kissed her.

Not only that, but she’d actually apologised to him. And thanked him, though the words had very nearly choked her as she’d forced them through her teeth.

Oh, no, he wasn’t finished with Clare just yet. There were just too many intriguing possibilities left to explore.

‘That depends,’ he said, as though considering her point of view.

‘On what?’

Hmmm. She’d stopped scowling. It was worth noting that pretending to be taking her opinion into account made her sheathe her claws. He would have to bear that in mind.

‘On where you were planning to go. I presume, to the home of your new employer?’

‘Yes, I told you, Clement arranged for me to begin work as a companion to an elderly lady.’

‘No, you didn’t tell me that.’

‘Oh. Well, he did. You see, he is involved in all sorts of charitable work. And one of his causes is to find honest work women.’

Something like an alarm went off inside him. Because he’d just spent the better part of a month searching for a girl who might have criminal connections. A girl who’d disappeared after the elderly, vulnerable woman she’d been working for had been robbed. And Clement’s name had come up then, as well.

‘He finds work for fallen women, does he?’ He only just prevented himself from asking if he also found work for professional thieves.

Just because he was on the trail of a group of criminals who’d been systematically robbing elderly ladies, it did not necessarily mean that Clare’s brother was behind it. It could be just a coincidence that one of the people he’d questioned had mentioned Clement Cottam’s name.

‘What sort of work? And, more to the point, how does this affect you?’ Because he couldn’t see Clement being fool enough to ask Clare to rob an elderly lady she was supposed to be looking after, even if he was involved in the crimes Rawcliffe was currently investigating. She was too conscientious. ‘Are you not insulted?’

‘No, no, he... It is just that he has a sort of network, I suppose, of elderly ladies with charitable dispositions, who are willing to give that sort of woman a chance to reform. At least, that is how he explained it to me when I couldn’t credit how swiftly he’d managed to find me a post.’

‘That does sound hard to credit,’ he agreed. So, Clement had a network of elderly ladies who would agree to take in servants with a shady past, on his recommendation, did he? Even though that could be a coincidence as well, two coincidences regarding a man he already suspected of being up to no good, coming in such rapid succession, were hard to ignore.

‘You had better explain how it came about.’

‘Well, I wrote to him, naturally, to inform him of Father’s passing.’

‘Naturally.’ And somebody must have written to him, as well. What a time for him to be trying to stay beyond the reach of anyone who might have been able to reveal his identity.

‘And within two days he was back, helping to arrange the funeral. And, say what you like about him, I cannot deny that I was very grateful for his help. He is very, very good at organising things. Keeps a cool head, you know, when I...’

He reached up and tapped the end of her nose with the tip of his forefinger. ‘You feel things too deeply. You don’t need to explain it to me.’

She jerked her head back, out of his reach. And he let her do so.

For now.

‘No, and you don’t need to bring up the curse of my red hair, either,’ she said mutinously.

‘It would, patently, be absurd to do so, when Clement has hair of almost exactly the same shade as yours.’ His features were similar, too, so that nobody looking at the pair of them together could doubt they were siblings. Yet Clare’s sharp little features and pale gold eyes made her look like some kind of sprite, or a woodland nymph, whereas Clement’s face just reminded him of a fox. A fox that was contemplating a raid on the nearest hen coop.

‘But do, pray, continue to explain how the saintly Clement provided you with employment.’

‘Oh, well, as I said, he has this network of elderly ladies willing to employ girls on his recommendation. So he just sent a letter to one of them recommending me as her companion. And she accepted me by return of post. So, you see, before the funeral was over, I had work and somewhere to live, whereas before that I...’

She didn’t need to say more. She’d had nothing. Believed she had no options. As she bit down on her lower lip, which had started to tremble, a strange feeling came over him. A feeling compounded of admiration for her bravery in the face of such adversity, coupled with a very strong urge to protect her from ever having to go through anything like it again.

Who would have thought he’d ever consider that the crusading Clare needed anyone to protect her from anything? But then who would have thought she could ever look so vulnerable as she did, sitting there trying not to give way to tears? Having just spoken of what must have been a horribly lonely experience in such a matter-of-fact way?

It made him want to hold her tighter. Tell her she was not alone anymore. That he would look after her...

‘And I am sure,’ she said, removing her arms from about his neck, reminding him that he was the last person she’d willingly accept help from, ‘she will still take me, if only you will arrange for me to get on the next coach.’

‘I am sure she will not,’ he said, tightening his own hold round her waist in instinctive reaction to her attempt to escape him. She was going nowhere until he was ready to let her go. Until he’d wrung every last drop of satisfaction from this encounter. She hadn’t anything like begun to repay him for the insults she’d heaped on him over the years. If he couldn’t make her eat her words, precisely, then he could at least rub her nose in the fact that she was where she was because she’d fallen so very far short of the exacting standards she’d always been waving under his nose. ‘Nobody wants to employ the kind of girl who gets into fist fights in public inns.’

‘I didn’t!’ She glanced guiltily at his nose. ‘That is, she isn’t likely to find out about it.’

‘Oh, but she is. Things like this get out. People like Johnny Bruton make sure of it.’

‘But she lives so far away from London...’

‘If she is part of a network of elderly women, who have little better to do with their time than write letters, somebody is bound to write and inform her of your part in this fracas.’

Clare’s mouth turned down at the corners as the truth of his observation struck home. Oh, but revenge could be sweet.

‘Even if she does not know anything about it to start with,’ he persisted, ‘the fear of discovery will hang over your head from the moment you inveigle your way into her household.’

‘I would not be inveigling my way anywhere!’

‘Oh, but you would. No doubt Clement promised her, and her family, the companionship of a gently reared, caring, competent young lady. Once they hear about this little escapade, they will think you have deliberately deceived them. That your brother deliberately deceived them.’

‘No, no. You are making it sound far worse than it was!’

‘And how do you think the likes of Johnny Bruton will make it sound? And how much do you think the tale will be embellished every time it is repeated? Why, the gossips will probably have the pair of us repairing to one of the bedrooms in this establishment and making up our quarrel in the most uninhibited fashion.’ Which would, now he came to mention it, be the way he’d rather like this interlude to progress. The taste of her lips had been every bit as sweet as he’d once dreamed it would. And, though she’d fought her response, there was no hiding the fact that she had responded to him. If this were any other woman, they’d be negotiating terms by now.

But Clare, being Clare, was looking wildly round the perfectly respectable coffee room, then wrinkling her nose in disgust.

‘You are probably right,’ she said gloomily. ‘Particularly given your reputation.’

And even though he’d been thinking along the very same lines, to hear her estimation of his character come out of her lips in such a disdainful manner was like a slap to the face.

He tried not to tense. He was not a rake or a libertine, but Clare had never managed to comprehend that a young man, with tolerable looks and plenty of money, was bound to make the most of the opportunities that came his way. In her opinion, men and women should never yield to the temptations of the flesh, outside the marriage bed.

‘Exactly,’ he purred, injecting every ounce of lasciviousness into his voice that he could muster. Living right down to her low expectations of him, the way he always did.

‘Nobody will ever believe that I could take a young woman into a private room, particularly not one to whom I have declared myself to be betrothed, and allow her to walk away with her virtue unsullied.’

‘Oh, dear.’ She buried her face in her hands and bowed over as though trying to curl up into a ball.

And hang it if another surge of protectiveness didn’t choose that very moment to sweep away his urge to needle her. Causing him to start rubbing his hands up and down the curve of her back.

‘Never mind,’ he said, wondering why humbling Clare wasn’t making him feel like the victor. ‘I am sure there are worse fates than marrying a marquess.’

She made a strangled little squeal as if of half-swallowed outrage. Bringing any inclination to show mercy grinding to a juddering halt.

Last time she’d acted as though his proposal was an insult, he’d had to walk away, licking his wounds. He’d been smarting under the insulting manner of that rejection ever since. So that every time their paths had crossed, he’d felt he had to make a point of demonstrating that he was over it. Over her. That he didn’t give a rap what she thought of him. In fact, on occasion, he’d gone so far out of his way to show her how unimportant she was that he’d even disgusted himself.

Yet she could still wound him by shuddering in genuine horror at the prospect of marrying him.

And suddenly, he couldn’t think of any sweeter form of revenge than actually doing it.

Marrying her.

Because, for the rest of their lives, if ever she felt inclined to look down her nose at him, or complain about his lax morals, or...anything...he’d be able to point out that it was entirely her own fault she was shackled to such a reprobate.

His lips quirked. He couldn’t help it. She could be his, now. For as long as they both would live, if he dug in his heels. And she would have nobody to blame but herself.

Because she’d lost her temper and swung that punch a split second before he’d made his own move. Since, he’d reasoned, she couldn’t think any less of him than she clearly did, since he hadn’t thought he had anything to lose, he’d decided he might as well kiss her. It would, he’d thought, have taken the wind out of her sails. Taken her down a peg or two.

Thank God for her temper. Because now she was the instigator of the scene which had fatally compromised her and he was the magnanimous one, stepping in to save the day. Rather than playing the role of villain for the rest of their lives, the villain who’d ruined her reputation by kissing her in the corridor of a public inn, he would always be able to claim the moral high ground.

He could hardly wait.


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