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The Marquess Tames His Bride

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Clare couldn’t believe she was getting into Lord Rawcliffe’s luxurious chaise to travel to London, when not half an hour since she’d been planning to get on to the public stage and head in the opposite direction.

She couldn’t believe she’d let him sweet-talk her into going along with his ridiculous proposition, either.

He couldn’t possibly really want to marry her.

In spite of the outrageous claims he’d made about saving him the bother of choosing one from among the hordes of females who practically swooned whenever he walked into the room.

They were too far apart. Socially, to begin with. And morally, which was more important. He was a rake and a libertine, and a...well, no, she could not accuse him of being a drunkard.

Nor, if she was being completely honest, did he deserve the label of rake. He had never littered the countryside with his by-blows, nor taken any woman against her will.

No, because he didn’t need to. Women had been throwing themselves at him since he’d first started sprouting whiskers on his arrogant chin and he hadn’t thought twice about enjoying what they had to offer. He only had to smile at them, in that certain sort of melting way he had, and they’d...well, melted.

All except her. On the contrary, she’d lifted her chin and told him exactly what she thought of his promiscuity whenever he’d smiled at her in that lascivious way. Had kept all the melting she’d done hidden, deep down. Concealed it behind a smokescreen of invective. Told him he should be ashamed of attempting to corrupt a vicar’s daughter. Informed him she would never become yet another victim of his dubious charms. And when all else failed, simply hidden if she’d seen him coming.

Not that she’d had to resort to such measures all that often. Thankfully. She cringed as her mind flew back, for about the third or fourth time that day, to the time she’d almost fallen out of the tree into the field where Farmer Westthorpe kept his bull. She’d climbed the dratted tree in the first place because she’d seen him coming down the lane. Shinned up it fast, so that she wouldn’t have to bid him good day, or face the sniggers of Betsy Woodly, who was clinging on to his arm. And the innkeeper’s daughter would have sniggered, because there could only be one reason why she was strolling along the lane on Lord Rawcliffe’s arm. Which was that they were looking for a convenient place to...urgh.

Unfortunately, it was directly after they’d passed the tree whose leafy branches were doing such an admirable job of concealing her that Betsy had pulled him behind a hedge and flung her arms round his neck. Clare had squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn’t have to witness the unspeakable things they proceeded to do to each other. Which was why she’d lost her footing and almost tumbled to her doom.

Of course Lord Rawcliffe had found it hilarious. Had taunted her with getting her just deserts for spying on him. And she’d been too mortified to offer a coherent explanation as to what, precisely, she had been doing up that particular tree at that precise moment. So that every time their paths crossed, for several months after that, he’d smile at her in a knowing way and offer to satisfy her curiosity.

She’d always managed to escape with her dignity intact. Until today, when he had proved that he was every bit as devastating as she’d always feared. His skilful kisses had not only melted her, it was as if they’d lit a fire in her blood and scrambled her brains. How else to account for the fact she’d ceased trying to find a way out of their predicament and agreed to marry him, instead? Yes, now she looked back over the past hour or so, it seemed to her that every time she’d almost come up with a rational alternative, he’d kissed her again and reduced her to a quivering heap of jelly on his lap.

On his lap!

She shifted on the seat.

‘Trying to keep your face averted from my corrupting presence is clearly giving you a crick in your neck,’ he said provokingly. ‘Why don’t you just turn your head and stare out of the other window? Pretend you cannot see me.’

She didn’t need to see him to be aware that he was sitting right next to her.

Even though he didn’t allow a single part of his body to touch any part of hers. He was so...there. So vital and male, and sure of himself. Dominating the whole carriage just by the act of sitting in it.

How did he do that? Dominate whatever place he happened to be, just by breathing in and out?

‘Have you ever been to London? I am not aware that you have done so, but you might have sneaked up to town in secret, on some mission you wished to conceal from me.’

She gritted her teeth. How could he accuse her of being sneaky, when she could not tell a lie to save her life? Everything she thought was always written on her face, or so he kept telling her.

Although—she darted a sideways glance at him under her lids—he’d never discerned the one secret she would die rather than have him discover. Which was the way she felt about him, in spite of herself. The way her heart pounded and her insides melted when he turned that lazy smile of his in her direction. The way her insides knotted with feelings she couldn’t name or even fully understand whenever she’d heard about his latest conquest.

‘You mean you don’t know?’ she said with mock astonishment. ‘I thought you were infallible.’

His face hardened. ‘No. As we have both discovered today, I do not know everything that occurs even within my own sphere of influence. Clare, you still cannot think that I would have stayed away had I known of your father’s death?’

‘Yes, I can think that,’ she retorted. There had been no love lost between the two men she cared about the most and she could easily believe he would prefer not to attend the funeral. ‘But,’ she put in hastily when his lips thinned and his eyes hardened to chips of ice, ‘I do acquit you of deliberately hurting me earlier. I do believe, now, that you just fell into the way you always have of teasing me.’

‘How magnanimous of you,’ he drawled, looking far from pleased.

They fell into an uneasy silence for some considerable time. Such a long time that she began to wonder if he was ever going to speak to her again. How could he think a marriage would work between two people who couldn’t even conduct a civil conversation?

Perhaps, she reflected darkly, he didn’t consider conversation important. His own mother and father never seemed to speak to each other. Whenever they were out in public, it was as if there was a wall of frost separating them. She almost shivered at the memory. Surely he wouldn’t be as cold a husband as his father had been to his mother? Although...they’d still managed to produce him, hadn’t they?

A strange feeling twisted her insides at the thought of conceiving his child. Under such circumstances. Though a pang of yearning swiftly swept it aside. That had been what had silenced her very last objection, the prospect of becoming a mother. To his child. She’d have had to be an idiot to carry on insisting she’d rather spend the rest of her life tending to an unfamiliar and probably cantankerous old lady.

She’d actually seen it. The child. Seen herself rocking it in her arms, holding it to her breast. Imagined what it would feel like to belong to someone. And have someone belong to her in a way she’d never truly known.

‘We are now crossing the section of the Heath,’ he suddenly said, jolting her out of her daydream which now featured not just one baby but three little boys of varying ages, ‘where once a serving girl, armed only with a hammer, fought off a highwayman with such vigour she left him dying in the road.’

‘Why on earth,’ she said, half-turning in her seat to gape at him, ‘would you think I would be interested in hearing that?’

He gave a half-shrug. ‘I thought you would find her behaviour admirable.’

‘What, clubbing a man to death? With a hammer?’ She caught a glint in his eye. ‘Do you take me for a complete idiot?’

‘I do not take you for any kind of idiot.’

‘Then kindly cease making up such outrageous tales.

As if a maidservant would have been wandering around with a hammer in her hand, indeed. Let alone have the strength to fell a fully grown man with it.’

His lips twitched. ‘I beg your pardon. No more tales of grisly crimes.’

He fell silent for only a few moments, before pointing out a ditch into which he claimed an eloping couple had met their grisly end when the gig in which they’d been fleeing to Gretna had overturned.

‘I thought you were not going to regale me with tales of grisly crimes.’

‘It was not a crime. It was an accident,’ he pointed out pedantically.

‘Well, I don’t want to hear about grisly accidents, either.’

‘No? What, then, shall we discuss?’

He was asking her? She swallowed. Then noted what looked like a mischievous glint in his eye.

He was trying, in his own inimitable fashion, to break through the wall of silence that she’d thrown up between them by being so ungracious. It made her want to reach out and take hold of his hand.

Rather than do anything so spineless, she said, instead, ‘You could...point out the landmarks as we pass them. Explain what they are.’

‘I could,’ he said. And proceeded to do so. So that the ensuing miles passed in a far more pleasant manner. Especially once they reached streets thronged with traffic and bounded on either side by tall buildings. She was actually sorry when, at length, the chaise drew up outside a white house with at least three storeys that she could make out, in the corner of a very grand square.

‘Is this your house?’

‘No. This is not Grosvenor, but St James’s Square. This is the home of that friend I was telling you about. The one who will be looking after you until we can be married.’

‘If you can make her,’ Clare mumbled as one of the postilions came to open the door.

He shot her one of his impenetrable looks. ‘She will be an ally for you, in society, if she takes to you, so I hope you will make an effort to be agreeable to her.’

Which set her back up all over again. How dared he assume she would be anything but agreeable to a woman who was going to be her hostess?

She avoided taking his hand as they alighted and even managed to evade the hand he would have put to the small of her back as he ushered her into the portico that sheltered the front door.

A smart butler admitted them and took Lord Rawcliffe’s coat and hat as a matter of course.

‘Lady Harriet is in the drawing room, my lord, Miss...’

‘Miss Clare Cottam,’ said Lord Rawcliffe in answer to the butler’s unspoken question.

For some reason, the butler’s demeanour squashed any lingering suspicion that Lord Rawcliffe might be bringing her to the home of his mistress. Which made her slightly less annoyed with him. Which, she decided the moment they entered the most opulent drawing room she’d ever seen, was probably a mistake. Because it was only her anger which was shoring her up. Without it, she felt rather insecure and out of her depth. And had to fight the temptation to grab his hand and cling to it. Or the sleeve of his coat.

‘Oh, Zeus, thank heavens,’ said a young woman getting to her feet and coming over to them, rather than staying in her chair by the fire. She had nondescript hair and a rather square face. Not a bit like the kind of woman she could see Lord Rawcliffe taking for a mistress. At all.

‘I am so glad to see you. Is this Jenny?’

Jenny? She looked up at Lord Rawcliffe’s impassive profile. Why on earth would this woman think he was going to bring someone called Jenny into her front parlour?

‘Ah, no, I am afraid not. Allow me to intro—’

‘Then it was a wild goose chase? Just as you predicted?’ Lady Harriet wrung her hands. ‘Oh, this is dreadful. Dreadful. You see—’

‘This is neither the time nor the place,’ began Lord Rawcliffe, only to be interrupted almost at once.

‘It most certainly is the time,’ said Lady Harriet indignantly. ‘Past time, you see, Archie—’

‘We will not discuss that matter now, if you please,’ he said sternly, jerking his head slightly in Clare’s direction.

‘You don’t wish this person to know?’

‘Astute of you,’ he said sarcastically.

‘Oh, well, then, perhaps we can leave her here and go into the kitchen to—’

‘We are not leaving her here alone while we go off to discuss anything,’ he bit out. ‘And will you stop referring to her as this person. Clare is my fiancée!’

‘Your fiancée?’ Lady Harriet stared at her with all the shock Clare had felt last time he’d announced their betrothal. ‘Good heavens. But she looks...’

‘Be careful, very careful, what you say next,’ he growled.

‘I was only going to say she looks quite sensible. Whatever came over her to agree to marry you?’

‘She has been recently bereaved. She was distraught. She had nowhere else to go—’

‘Excuse me,’ said Clare, goaded beyond patience by being talked about as though she wasn’t there. ‘But I had a very good place to go. And I was not distraught until you decided to taunt me with my misfortunes.’

‘I thought we had already agreed that was an oversight.’

‘Yes, we had. Which is why I cannot permit you to go about telling people it was anything other than it was. I think we’ve had quite enough economies with the truth for one day.’

Lady Harriet turned to gape at her. ‘If what he said wasn’t true, then how come you are going to marry him?’

‘She hit me,’ said Lord Rawcliffe, ‘if you must know. In front of several witnesses who would have torn her reputation to shreds had I not made them believe it was a...lovers’ tiff. She would not have been able to gain respectable employment, if word got out, which it was bound to do. Which left us with no alternative.’

‘You hit him,’ said Lady Harriet, ignoring all the rest.

‘Well, yes, but—’ Clare meant to explain that he could have blocked her, easily, if he’d been in the mood to do so. She didn’t want this lady, in whose home she was going to have to stay until she could come up with a better plan, to think she was violent.

But Lady Harriet was smiling. ‘I know, you don’t have to explain how it was. I have very often wanted to hit him myself.’

‘I am so glad,’ Lord Rawcliffe interjected sarcastically, ‘that you are hitting it off...’

‘Nice pun,’ said Lady Harriet.

‘Since,’ he continued as though she’d said nothing, ‘I am going to have to leave her in your care while I go and procure a marriage licence.’

‘Oh! Yes, of course. Only, well, you won’t mind, will you,’ said Lady Harriet turning to Clare, ‘that this household is a little, um, disorganised at present? You see, I am getting married in a day or so myself and you wouldn’t believe the amount of work and upheaval it creates.’

Clare turned to Lord Rawcliffe. ‘It clearly isn’t going to be convenient for me to stay here. Can’t you take me to a hotel, or something?’

‘My wife does not stay in hotels,’ he said implacably.

‘I am not your wife. Yet.’

He waved his hand as though dismissing her remark as irrelevant. ‘I can see no difficulty about your staying here. You are a most capable woman. I am sure that you will be able to help Lady Harriet with whatever tasks she,’ he said with a distinct sneer, ‘is finding so onerous.’

Oh. Had he just intimated that he thought she was better, in some respects, than Lady Harriet? He’d called her capable. Had suggested that Lady Harriet wasn’t coping as well as she ought.

And Lady Harriet was wearing the exact expression on her face that Clare was sure she’d worn on many occasions, when crossing swords with his lordship.

‘I am not finding arranging my own wedding onerous in the slightest,’ she said through gritted teeth. ‘I was just explaining that I might not have time entertain in the manner to which she might be accustomed.’

‘Please,’ said Clare, stepping forward and laying a hand on Lady Harriet’s arm. ‘Do not let him annoy you. I am perfectly happy to give you any help I may, since you are being so kind as to have me stay with you at what anyone with a modicum of sensitivity—’ she shot Lord Rawcliffe a look loaded with reproach ‘—would know is a very difficult time to entertain strangers.’

‘Besides, Clare isn’t used to being entertained in any manner whatever,’ he said coldly. ‘She is far more used to being a drudge. Put her to work and she will immediately feel at home.’

She whirled on him. ‘What a beastly thing to say!’

He shrugged. ‘The truth? I thought you had been exhorting me to tell the truth. And not to be economical with it.’

‘Yes, but that is quite different from wielding it like a weapon!’

‘I think I’d better ring for some tea,’ said Lady Harriet, darting across the room to a bell pull and yanking on it with a slight air of desperation.

‘You have somebody to bring it now, do you? When last I came here,’ he said to Clare, as though they had not just been on the verge of yet another quarrel, ‘I had to come in by the back door because she had neither butler nor footmen to answer the front.’

‘Clearly, I have rectified my lack of staff,’ said Lady Harriet, ‘since Stobbins let you in and announced you. Oh,’ she said, clasping her hands together in agitation. ‘What kind of hostess am I? Please, Miss... I forget your name, but it is Clare something, isn’t it?’

‘Cottam,’ supplied Lord Rawcliffe.

‘Please, won’t you sit down? You must be exhausted if you’ve travelled up to town today.’

‘And it was such a long way,’ said Lord Rawcliffe sarcastically.

‘I am sure it felt like it, if she was shut up in a coach with you the entire time,’ shot back Lady Harriet.

‘Fortunately,’ said Lord Rawcliffe, turning to subject her to one of his lazy-lidded, stomach-melting smiles, ‘Clare is not you. Clare and I have known each other practically all our lives, you see. And we...understand each other.’

He took her hand. Kissed it.

And her heart soared.

Because he’d declared he preferred her to another woman. True, he’d only implied he thought she was more capable that Lady Harriet and that he was glad she’d been the one in the coach with him, but for the first time, he’d made it sound as though she wasn’t a total disaster.

And he wasn’t laughing at her. Or mocking her. Or provoking her into an argument.

Suddenly she had to sit down. Because her knees were buckling. Oh, dear, whatever was she going to do? She was used to sparring with him. But if he started paying her compliments and kissing her whenever he felt like it, however was she going to resist him?

Because she had to.

Or he would, one day, casually break her heart without even noticing.


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