THE MARQUESS MEETS HIS MATCH

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A sexy Georgian Romance as only bestselling author Maggi Andersen can deliver!

A country-bred girl, Kate Bancroft always intended to marry for love, like her parents. She wanted a husband who adored her, who would be her knight in shining armor. But her plans don’t go as she had hoped – suddenly, she finds herself married to a marquess, and her new husband an aloof stranger determined to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself.

It is the unfortunate truth that she and Lord St. Malin have been forced by circumstances to marry, and Kate is painfully aware that she is not the woman he would have chosen given a choice.

Robert makes it plain that marriage is merely for the procreation of an heir, and once that is achieved, he intends to continue in London living the life he enjoyed before he met her. Kate suspects Robert plans to tuck her away in the country, while he pursues his own interests, and she becomes determined not to let him have it all his own way.

A quiet battle ensues. Kate is left to wander the echoing corridors of St. Malin House, when she isn’t thrown into the midst of the mocking and clever Haute Ton. She’s not at all sure she likes them, as they live by their own rules, which seem rather shocking. She’s not at all sure she likes her new husband either, except for his brilliant blue eyes, the panther-like way he walks, and the smoldering expression in his eyes when he looks at her. He is a rake and does not deserve her love, but neither can she resist his searing touch.

Robert appears quite willing to do his duty, but Kate demands love and affection, and nothing less will do.

Can people from two worlds, and two ideals, find their happily ever after?

(Originally published as Thre Reluctant Marquess but extensively rewritten and edited)

Reviews:

What a wonderful book.
A veritable delight to read and had me totally entranced by the characters,
The broody and stern Robert,
The confused but determined Kate ,
The enigmatic and teasing Southmore,
All playing perfect parts to bring fun and tension to this story .
I laughed , cried , huffed mainly at Robert , wow I wanted to shake that man .

A thrilling and addictive book that I read in one sitting , finding it very hard to put down ,and a definite 5 stars , I wish I could give it more .Maggie Whitworth

A stubborn, hardheaded Marquess meets a beautiful woman he can never have… or can he?

This is a beautifully written, novel with strong multidimensional characters thrown together by the unexpected conditions written into the will of Robert’s eccentric uncle, the deceased Marquess St. Malin. Robert, his heir, was required to marry, Katharina Bancroft, the daughter of a friend of his, before he, Robert, could inherit a large portion of his fortune. When Katharina Bancroft finds herself destitute after the unexpected death of her parents in a carriage accident, she receives notification that her Godfather had made an arrangement with her father she was unaware of. If anything ever happened to her parents, the Marquess was to step in and make sure Kate had a good life with someone to take care of her. Kate had always lived a simple life and was the daughter of kind, but not very successful parents who lived basically as free spirits. Her father was often thought of and viewed by others as somewhat of a poet. Unbeknownst to Kate, the old Count had passed away unexpectedly not long before she arrived and Robert, as his heir, was the new Marquess St. Malin. Needless to say, Kate was as shocked as Robert to find out the conditions of the will. She had always planned to marry for love, so she can have a
marriage like her parents. Robert had had a troubled background in love and marriage so therefore was determined not to let Kate crawl under his skin and make him fall in love with her. Read the book to see all he does to try to keep her at a distance and just how much Kate is able to endure, or not, before her heart and her spirit are irrevocably broken. Do they ever come to their senses and resolve their differences and difficulties of their past. Due to the complexity and depth of the characters, this book really holds your interest and is a real page-turner. Ms. Andersen writes exciting Regency books that make one wish to keep reading and hope for a continuation or sequel to this novel, expanding on other characters from this story. I really enjoyed reading this book and finished it very quickly. Amazon reviewer.

A Wonderful Story!

Cornwall 1786 A wonderfully woven story that tore at my heart and left me wanting more by this author..When the unexpected happens, one never knows how it will end. Kate Bancroft had lost so much with the death of her parents and had only her nanny for company. But she is summoned to the estate of her godfather, the Marquess St. Malin, who she hoped would help her, but finds instead he has recently died. His heir, Robert, is there in his stead and finds his uncle has made a stipulation of the will that he marry Kate to inherit all of his estates. What is a country girl to do when she only wants to marry for love? Not having a lot of choices they wed, but Robert is determined to keep Kate at arms length and carry on with his life as usual. But Kate has other ideas and as they journey to London, she is determined to make Robert proud.! She is so charming and although not use to the Ton, she excels at comporting herself so that she makes Robert take notice. There are so many facets to this story that as you journey through the pages, there are a lot of surprises and strong emotions. I could not wait to find out what happened. Can Robert come to love Kate and can they have a happy marriage? Will Robert every get close to his family again and come out of his shell and heal from past hurts? This is not a story to miss and I cannot wait to read more!!! Amazon Reviewer.

A Powerful Emotional Read

THE MARQUESS MEETS HIS MATCH is a riveting read that I thoroughly enjoyed!

This is the first book that I have read by Maggi Andersen, and I found it to be captivating from the start! Our Hero and Heroine, Robert and Kate, will capture your heart!

I loved Kate’s determination, her kindness, and her compassion. Robert was leery of falling in love…will he ever surrender his heart to the sweet and lovely Kate? Maggi Andersen weaves a beautiful tale of the power of love to transform and to heal.Amazon Reviewer.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story!
Both main characters, Kate and Robert, are headstrong in their own ways and as a result they tend to butt heads rather often instead of enjoying what love could bring them after they are thrown together in an arranged marriage that they both agree to for their own reasons.
This amusing and clever story is beautifully written and flows off the pages with ease. It kept me entertained from beginning to end and so I am quite happy to recommend it.
Zena on Amazon.

Excerpt:

Prologue

 

Katharina Bancroft looked around the home she’d lived in all her life for the last time. Memories of a happy childhood lingered as she shut the front door and led her old governess down the path to the waiting yellow chaise.

“My dear Kate. What will become of you?” Nanny sniffed into her handkerchief. “Your father would never have wished such a fate to befall you. But then he did not expect to shuffle off this mortal coil so soon, and your dear mother, too.”

Nanny was fond of Shakespeare and employed the language from the bard’s plays in everyday speech as Kate’s father had done. It just served to make her think sadly of her parents now resting below ground. She stiffened as tears welled up in her eyes again. She really must get some backbone. But when she thought of the ordeal ahead, she struggled to tamp down her fears. She had no idea what awaited her in Cornwall. She drew in a shuddering breath and escorted the elderly lady through the gate to the hired chaise which would take her to her sister’s home in York.

Kate assisted Nanny inside the carriage and the coachman shut the door. “You are not to worry about me, Nanny,” she said through the carriage window. “You must enjoy your new life with your sister. I shall be perfectly all right.” She glanced behind her at the grand coach with the St. Malin crest emblazoned on the doors where a liveried footman was loading her trunk and bandboxes. “After all, my godfather has sent his coach to collect me.”

“Indeed, my dear. Now don’t forget to write to me. You are an excellent correspondent. I believe I have taught you well and shall greatly look forward to your letters.” Nanny’s handkerchief fluttered from the window as the coachman moved the horses on.

Kate waved until the chaise was out of sight, a heavy ache in her heart. She turned and walked over to the coach and the waiting footman. Cornwall seemed like the end of the earth, and why the Marquess of St. Malin requested her presence remained a mystery.

 

 

Chapter One

 

Cornwall, 1786

The carriage rocked as it traveled the road along the cliff. Kate grabbed the window frame with one hand and the edge of her seat with the other, to hold herself steady. She was nervous in a vehicle at the best of times, made worse after her father’s carriage careened off a bridge in Oxford.

Kate reminded herself that this coach her godfather had sent was a fine one. She was exhausted after being thoroughly jolted about for three days. It had been impossible to sleep in the inns where the coach stopped for the night. They were most dreadfully noisy, and the looks men gave her when she ate in the dining room caused her to lie awake with her gaze fixed on the chamber door, despite having locked it and placed a chair against it. She stiffened when the coachman’s curse was followed by a crack of the whip. The rugged coastline was different from anything she’d ever seen. Through the misty rain, she glimpsed the dark gray sea swirling around the blackened rocks. The lack of discernable color in the landscape reminded her of the drab-colored mourning clothes she’d worn, and the rhythmic boom, boom, boom of the waves filled her with the same dread she’d experienced when a tolling church bell signaled a village disaster like the fire which had spooked her father’s horses and ended her parents’ lives.

In an effort to overcome the fear of tumbling to her death, Kate pulled her cloak closer, and directed her thoughts to what might await her at St. Malin Castle. Unfortunately, this produced anxieties of a different sort. The last time she’d seen her godfather, the Marquess of St. Malin, was when she was fifteen. She remembered him as tall with a long thin nose which made him appear haughty. Her father had saved St Malin’s life when he fell overboard during a boat race on the River Cam in Cambridge, and despite their different stations in life, they’d continued to correspond regularly.

Now, at twenty years of age, her fate lay in this marquess’ hands, for apparently, he said as much to her father years ago. Papa made mention of it in his will. And a letter addressed to her with the waxed St Malin seal came shortly after her father’s funeral. Then the coach had arrived. The marquess seemed keen to keep his promise. Whatever that entailed. Kate was grateful for his kindness, of course, but would much have preferred to remain with Nanny in Oxfordshire. That was impossible, for her father left very little money. Poets were not good at business, and he’d lost a considerable amount of money on the ’Change. Subsequently, her childhood home had been sold to pay off the debts.

The coach reached a bend in the road, and the sheer stone walls of the castle loomed ahead, the outline of its battlements imposing against the darkening sky. At the sight of the massive structure, a prickling sensation rose up her spine. Kate half expected to see knights in armor riding toward her. Lights from the braziers along the walls fell upon lawns which must once have been a moat. The coach rattled across a bridge and entered the arched gatehouse. The horses came to a stop in a courtyard. Moments later, a servant rushed out. He put down the steps on the coach and opened the door.

Kate’s sense of relief faded when she stepped down onto mossy cobbles, and stood, disorientated, in the swirling sea mist.

A door was flung open, spilling candlelight into the gloom like a welcoming hand. She hurried toward it and entered a lofty hall. Heavy Tudor beams and ornate timber paneling spoke of its ancient origins.

A tall liveried footman stood waiting. “I’ll take ye to the master, Miss. He’s in the library.”

Kate’s heart beat unnaturally fast as she followed him up a stone stairway. Along the walls of the wide corridor, candles flickered in their sconces, throwing light on huge tapestries depicting bloody battles. As the moment approached when they would meet, Kate tried to rake up some clear memories of the marquess. But he’d been of little interest to her back then, beyond his eccentric manner. He’d smiled with warmth upon her father, she remembered. But that wasn’t surprising; a cultured man who quoted Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, Papa was possessed of enormous charm. Now she was in this man’s debt. Would he be kind to her?

The footman knocked on a solid oak door.

“Come.”

Apprehensive, she stepped into the room and was embraced by a welcoming surge of warmth. A fire crackled and spat in the baronial fireplace where a liver-spotted spaniel lifted its head from the rug to study her. After a thump of a tail, its head sank onto its paws again, lulled back to sleep by the heat. Above the fireplace, the painting of a hunting scene featured several dogs. Two china spaniels flanked the fireplace mantel. The walls were covered floor-to-ceiling in bookshelves, which made the room seem cozy.

Kate looked around for the source of the voice, and when she saw no one in the room, she crouched on the Oriental rug and gave the dog a pat. “You’re a nice fellow, aren’t you?” Her stiff, cold muscles loosened, and the icy pit in her stomach began to thaw. Maybe she could be happy here. She loved dogs.

“Welcome to St. Malin Castle, Miss Katharina.”

Startled, Kate looked around. She hadn’t noticed the man who rose from behind a pile of papers and books on the massive mahogany desk. He crossed the room to greet her. He was not her godfather. The young man not yet thirty, was tall, his black hair drawn back in a queue.

She scrambled to her feet. “I’m here to see the marquess.”

“I am the Marquess of St. Malin. My uncle passed away a short time ago.”

Kate was so shocked she could think of nothing to say. There was something of the marquess’ haughty demeanor about his handsome face.

With a sense of foreboding, she curtsied on unsteady legs. She could only stare at his attire, her gaze locked on his exquisite gold embroidered silk waistcoat as he bowed before her. Black crepe graced the sleeve of his emerald-green coat.

“I am sorry.” Dead. She had an urgent need to sit, and glanced at the damask sofa facing the fireplace.

She must have looked unsteady, for he reacted immediately, gesturing to the sofa. “Sit by the fire. You must be cold and exhausted.” He turned to the footman. “Bring a hot toddy for Miss Bancroft.”

Kate sank down gratefully, her modest panniers settling around her.

“You shall feel better presently,” he said. “I find a hot toddy can cure many ills.”

“Why did you send your coach for me?” She leaned back against the soft cushions. “I wouldn’t have come had I known your uncle passed away.”

“I thought it best to sort the matter out here and now.” He rested an elbow on a corner of the fireplace mantel and stirred the dog with a foot. “Shame on you, Felix. You might accord Miss Bancroft a warmer welcome.” He looked at her. “My uncle’s dog. He’s mourning his master.” He raised his dark brows. “Notice of my uncle’s passing appeared in The Daily Universal Register.”

“We don’t get that newspaper in my village. What matter do we need to sort out?”

“I’ll come to that. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of your existence until the reading of the will. Then I learned of your parents’ untimely death from my solicitor. Please accept my condolences.”

“Thank you. How long ago did your uncle…?”

“He fell ill some months ago. He rallied and then it happened very quickly at the end.” The new marquess sighed and stared into the fire.

“You must have been very fond of him,” Kate said in the quiet pause that followed. Though, if she were honest, she was surprised the cool man she remembered could have provoked that level of affection.

He raised his eyes to meet hers and gave a bleak smile. “Yes, I was. He always had my interests at heart, you see.”

The marquess sat in the oxblood leather chair opposite and rested his hands on his knees. “I am his acknowledged heir, and the legalities have been processed. So naturally, I’ve inherited the title, plus the entailed properties. But the rest of his fortune will pass to another family member should I fail to conform to the edicts of his will.”

“His will?” Kate held her hands tightly in her lap, she found it difficult to follow him. Her mind whirled, filled with desperate thoughts. With her godfather dead, where would she go from here? She tensed as she envisioned riding off along the dark cliffs to join a theatre troupe or become a tavern wench.

“This must be difficult for you to take in, and I regret having to tell you tonight before you’ve rested. But I’m compelled to move quickly as you have come without a chaperone and have traveled here alone…”

She lifted her chin. “There was no one to accompany me.” She would not allow him to make her feel like a poor relation even though she was quite definitely poor. And alone. She hated that more than anything. What might her godfather have left her? She hoped it would allow her some measure of independence and wasn’t just a vase or a family portrait.

The footman entered carrying a tray with a cup of steaming liquid. Kate took the drink and gratefully held it in both hands enjoying its warmth. She put it to her lips and took a sip. It tasted of a spicy spirit. “What is in this drink?”

“A few spices, sugar, nutmeg, and a dash of liquor,” Robert said. “More of a restorative.”

“I don’t drink liquor, usually.” She was finding it even harder to concentrate on his words as her mind retreated into a fog. Her gaze wandered around the room. She finished the last of the delicious beverage and licked her lips. Her head lolled back against the squab as she studied her host. He would be handsome if he smiled. But this was a serious business. Whatever it was. And she was awfully tired. The fire made her drowsy. What was he saying?

“It’s the best thing for both of us. Don’t you agree?”

She shook her head in an unsuccessful attempt to clear it. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that last bit.”

He frowned. “The will. It states we must marry. As soon as it’s possible to arrange it.”

“I’m afraid I’m most dreadfully tired. I’ve misunderstood you. Please forgive me. I thought you mentioned marriage.”

“Yes, that’s precisely what I said. We must marry.”

Kate placed her cup on the table and struggled to her feet, fighting fatigue and the effects of whatever it was she’d just drunk, which was a good deal stronger than he’d lead her to believe. She smoothed her skirts and edged toward the door through which she intended to depart at any moment. “I have no intention…”

“I know it’s perplexing. I didn’t intend to wed for some years. I would have preferred to choose the person I married as no doubt would you.” He shrugged. “Best we make the most of it, don’t you think?”

Her jaw dropped. What kind of man was this? She had been raised to believe that marriage was a sacred institution. He made it sound so…trivial. Like going for a Sunday ride. She stared at him. “Why would your uncle’s will stipulate something so outlandish?”

“That’s exactly what is written.” With a rustle of silk taffeta, he moved closer to the fire. She wondered if he might be as nervous as she was. “Unless I’m prepared to allow my uncle’s unentailed fortune go to a distant relative,” he continued. “Which I am not. As I have said.” His careful tone suggested he thought her a simpleton. Under his unsympathetic gaze, she sank back down onto the sofa.

“You are perfectly within your rights to refuse, but I see very few options open to you. As my wife, you will live in comfort. You may go to London to enjoy the Season. I shall give you a generous allowance for gowns and hats, and things a lady must have.” His gaze wandered over her cream muslin gown, and she placed a hand on the lace that disguised the small darned patch near her knee that she’d torn on a briar. “What do you say?”

She tilted her head. “I shall receive an allowance? For gowns, hats, and things a lady must have?” she repeated.

“Exactly,” he said with a smile, obviously quite pleased with himself. “I see we understand each other perfectly. So… Do you agree?”

What was wrong with this man? Slowly, Kate released a heavy sigh. She could barely contemplate such a thing as this, and yet he acted as though he’d solved all the problems of the world with fashion accessories. She’d hoped for a small stipend, but marriage! And to a complete stranger. She couldn’t! Not for all the gowns and hats on earth. She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I say no, Lord St. Malin.” Her words were clipped and precise, and she hoped beyond hope he would accept her decision without argument.

His dark eyebrows rose. “No? Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“How disappointing,” he said quietly sitting down again.

Kate gulped as his heavy-lidded eyes studied her from head to foot. She was uncomfortably aware that the mist had sent her hair into a riot of untidy curls, and she smoothed it away from her face with both hands. With her muddy shoe tucked out of sight beneath her gown, she forced herself to meet his blue eyes. Might he like anything of what he saw? She had inherited her mother’s tiny waist, and she thought her hands pretty. But apart from that, she was perfectly aware she wasn’t a beauty. His lordship’s gaze strayed to her breasts and remained there rather long. She sucked in a breath as her heart beat faster. When their eyes met, did she detect a gleam of approval? She caught her lip between her teeth.

The grandfather clock struck eight of the clock. Kate’s stomach gave a loud, protesting growl. The embarrassing noise seemed to galvanize him into action. He leapt to his feet again.

His restless energy made her even wearier. “How can you make such a weighty decision on an empty stomach? You’d like to freshen up before dining, I imagine. James will show you the way. We shan’t dress as I’m sure you’d prefer to retire early. Tomorrow, I’ll have your answer. Come, Felix. Are you too lazy to eat your dinner?” The dog seemed to understand his words, and jumped up and stretched, wagging his tail.

The new marquess sounded confident he would get his way.

Kate suffered a keen sense of frustration and something close to anger at being dragged into this absurd situation, which left her stranded in a strange place. But when the footman arrived, announcing dinner, she rose quickly, eager for a meal. It had been a long day, and her nervous stomach had only allowed her to eat a small breakfast.

Kate visited the privy, and in an antechamber, was provided with a bowl of hot water. She washed her face, and did her best with her unruly hair, then scrubbed the splotch of mud from her half boot. James appeared again and escorted her to the dining room, a magnificent room brightly lit by the massive chandelier overhead and several silver candelabras placed about on mahogany tables. Gilt-framed oil paintings hung on the walls. Kate sat opposite St. Malin at a dining table long enough to seat King Arthur and all his knights.

The marquess poured her a glass of wine as the covers were brought in. She ate the fish soup and allowed the footman to serve her the sole in cream sauce, and the roast venison, which proved tender and delicious. While they ate, the marquess explained further. “If you decide to marry me, rest assured I shall not bother you overmuch.”

That was hardly a recommendation. Was he going to shut her up in the tower? She pursed her lips. “I believe I’ve refused.”

A glimmer brightened his attractive eyes. “Then I shall have to convince you to change your mind.”

Was he responding to the challenge? Or did he not like to lose? “I highly doubt that. I can be very stubborn.”

His gaze drifted from her eyes to her mouth, then dipped to the bodice of her dress. “I can be very persuasive.”

Heat blazed across her cheeks. She stiffened. What manner of persuasion did he have in mind? “That I don’t doubt,” she murmured, wondering when she could leave. He would not get the opportunity.

He laughed and tossed a piece of meat to the dog. Felix caught it in his jaws. Swallowing the morsel with barely a chew, Felix danced on his back legs begging for more. The marquess cut off another piece, and it went the way of the first. “That’s enough, Felix, off to the kitchen with you.” The footman opened the door and the dog dutifully trotted through it. Lord St. Malin turned his attention back to her. “We need not always cohabitate. I have homes in London, Hertfordshire, and Italy.”

“Italy?” Kate paused, a fork of artichoke halfway to her mouth. She had longed to visit Italy since reading her father’s copy of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo, and Juliet.

He nodded, his long fingers toying with the stem of the crystal wineglass. “In fact, as I have said, we need rarely meet.” His gaze wandered over her face, then focused on her mouth. She shifted in her seat. “Although I do require an heir at some point, you understand.”

“Of course.” She dropped her gaze to the plate, her appetite gone. “An heir.”

“Yes.” He tossed back the ruby wine in his glass. “And, by all accounts, it was my uncle’s opinion that you and I could produce a fine son. He said as much in the will.” His speculative glance made her hot all over.

She swallowed. “But why? He knew my father well, but he knew little about me.”

He shrugged. “I’m as surprised by this as you are. My uncle was an unusual man.”

Italy? Her interest was piqued. To be left alone in Italy, to enjoy the arts, the statues, and the food, which she’d been told was delicious. “I shall need time to give this er… proposal, proper consideration,”

He gave her an impatient, sidelong glance as if he wanted the business of their marriage over quickly, as if he was purchasing a property. “How much time? Surely you must see the advantages it offers you.”

“I said I will consider it.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you wish me to or not?”

His mouth twitched. “I do indeed wish you to consider it.”

“Then, rest assured I shall.”

“I must make it plain that I shall continue to live as I have done until now,” he said, rubbing his chin.

He was laboring that point. He didn’t like this anymore than she did. What a conundrum. But he must be quite sure of her answer. And why wouldn’t he be? When she really considered it. What choice did she have? Marry him or live in poverty. Still, she wasn’t going to give in easily. Something about his supreme self-confidence irked her. And she didn’t know him. He might hurt her, make her life a misery. What would her father have made of him?

He rose to refill their glasses. After the footman cleared the table, leaving a bowl of nuts, he left the room. When the door closed, St. Malin held his glass up to the light. “And once you have provided an heir, you can take a lover if you wish. But take care, for I don’t intend to house any bastards.” His brows snapped together in a dark scowl as if she planned to take a lover straight after they’d exchanged their vows. Had one waiting in the wings, in fact.

“I beg your pardon, my lord?” Kate sputtered, wondering if he’d lost his reason.

He rubbed a hand over his forehead. “Forgive me. That was uncalled for, and I’m not sure where it came from.” He shook his head as though clearing bad thoughts. “I’ve never negotiated the terms of a marriage before.” He smoothed his hand over his black hair, and she realized that he was as unsettled about the prospect of marriage as she was. “This has been a shock for me,” he added, confirming her thoughts.

“Yes, of course.” She selected a nut and reached for the cracker. Her godfather was dead, and she found she wasn’t able to mourn him, for she’d hardly known him. Her mind refused to form a coherent plan, but all her senses seemed to have come alive. The taste of the superb vintage on her tongue, the tang of beeswax candle smoke, the crystal, and the silver gleaming on the white linen cloth. The dark hairs on his wrist below his cuff. Surprised, she batted that thought away. She’d been thrust into another world—a beautiful world filled with elegant things she’d never dreamed she could call her own, along with a man who, at one time, might have fulfilled her every fantasy. He was inviting her to remain in this world, but not with him, at least not very often with him. She put down the wine as her head swam. The man sitting across the table from her was handsome with a strong, trim body. He was wealthy and titled, and yet he needed something from her.

Without her consent, he would lose a fortune.

And she suspected he was far too used to getting his own way. Aristocrats were spoiled from birth. Hadn’t her father always said so? Why the former marquess wished for this union, she couldn’t fathom. Surely, he would have wanted someone titled for his nephew? She couldn’t think of it now. The long exhausting trip, the shock of his words, plus the wine, had all taken their toll; she simply must sleep. Her eyelids began to droop, and she fought to focus on his face.

She put down her napkin and rose from the table. “If you’ll excuse me, my lord—”

“Robert.”

“Robert,” she said hesitatingly. It felt odd to say it. “I believe I’ll retire.”

“The footman will show you to your bedchamber.” He stood and seized the bell cord, pulling it with the same energy he applied to everything he did. It made her think of him as a prospective lover, and her eyes widened.

“Good night, Katharina.”

“I prefer to be called Kate,” she said faintly, wishing to hang on to some semblance of her past life. “My father named me Katharina. It’s from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.”

“It is to be hoped you and she have little else in common,” he said with an elegant bow.

“I like to think I do.” Kate ignored his arched brow, gathered up her skirts, and curtsied, hoping she appeared as graceful as he, but rather doubting it. She was too short for imposing gestures. Resigned, she followed the footman from the room, up the winding staircase, and down a long corridor hung with tapestries and impressive works of art to another heavy oak door.

Her chamber, filled with solid mahogany furniture, echoed with the ocean’s loud roar which filtered through the arched, leaded windows. A young maid waited in attendance. A pile of Kate’s faded gowns lay over a chair. Kate was gripped again with embarrassment and consternation. Her father was an academic, far better at verse than providing his wife and daughter with glamorous gowns. It had never mattered to her before, but now she would welcome a lift in her confidence.

“You’ve unpacked my trunk. What is your name?”

“Rebecca, Miss Bancroft.” The sturdy, fresh-faced maid bobbed, her brown curls bouncing.

“Thank you, Rebecca.”

Kate moved closer to the fire to warm her hands, cold again after negotiating the chilly corridors. The carved tester bed festooned with royal blue velvet hangings beckoned enticingly.

Rebecca closed the windows and pulled across the thick velvet drapery, the sounds of the sea muffled to a dull roar. She assisted Kate out of her gown and unlaced her stays. Then she withdrew after saying a quiet goodnight.

Discarding her shift and panniers, Kate washed herself from head to toe at a basin of lukewarm water with sweet-smelling soap. Cold despite the fire, she shivered and toweled herself dry, then donned her nightgown. She plaited her hair and climbed into bed to discover a bedwarmer at her feet. With a moan of delight, she pulled the covers up to her chin.

Her thoughts turned to the marquess—Robert. She must remember to call him by his given name. It seemed friendlier, and if all went according to her godfather’s will, he would be her husband. Her heart raced at the thought. She would have to learn to be a marchioness, and nothing in her life up until now had prepared her for such a role. She might fail and embarrass him. Or, he might remain a stranger she seldom saw, keeping her shut away somewhere. Either of those possibilities wasn’t exactly heartwarming. But what other course was open to her?

A governess? She felt sorry for governesses. They lurked in corners at social gatherings like poor relations, and even though Nanny had enjoyed a comfortable life with them, she’d never had a family of her own. Well, Kate was rather like a poor relation herself. Could she really refuse Robert and have him lose a substantial part of his fortune? It would be foolish for them both to lose out when they might gain something valuable by marrying.

“Robert. My husband,” she said to the empty room.

Such a declaration did not result in the happy emotion that should come with the thoughts of a husband, instead, it induced a quiver of alarm. Her tired mind refused to deal with it anymore. His handsome face kept distracting her. Were his eyes more blue than green? What sort of man was he? His broad shoulders and hard jaw made him appear very strong and determined. But there was something else she sensed in him that worried her. It was as if he’d donned a metaphorical knight’s armor for protection and would never allow her to get too close.

He was not the kind of man she’d wished to marry. She’d wanted someone kind and quite desperately in love with her. Someone brave who would fight her battles for her like a chivalrous knight but would never keep her at arm’s length or make her feel she was an inconvenience. Her husband would be like her father, who adored her and wrote love poetry to her mother. She had rejected two offers of marriage because she’d been waiting for such a man to appear in her life, and if she married Robert, she would never find him.

Kate sighed, what was expected of a marchioness? She had no idea. Would she be prepared for that role or thrown into it, to sink or swim. It was all so disturbing, she’d expected to lie awake all night, but sleep claimed her as soon as she snuggled down into the comfortable bed and nestled her head on the feather pillow.

***

Robert returned to the library and splashed a liberal portion of brandy into a goblet. He sat down at the desk with Felix settled at his feet. He’d never owned a dog, because his parents hadn’t approved of them as pets, but he found that he did. He wasn’t fond of this place though. The castle was too isolated and drafty. The old man had loved it here. The climate was superior, but with good society scarce, life was dull. Apart from fishing and riding, there was little to offer that could equal life in London.

Uncle Alford offered him love and support when his family had failed him. Robert fully intended to honor his memory and make him proud, but if his uncle had believed Robert marrying this young woman would improve his character, or that it might heal Robert’s emotional wounds, he was wrong. His uncle’s will was unfair, and it asked a great deal of him.

He leaned down and absently patted the dog. Robert quickly banished the disloyal thought that his uncle might not have been of sound mind when he made the will. He shook his head, bemused. He should be outraged that such a trick had been played on him, but he couldn’t find it in himself, because he knew his uncle had cared deeply for him. And this might have resulted from his uncle’s disapproval of Millicent, the one thing he’d shared with Robert’s mother and her husband.

Robert shrugged and went to add coal to the fire. He stood close to the burgeoning heat as if it might melt the tense knot in his chest. It mattered not whom he took to wife. Society beauty, Millicent Borrowdale, who set the ton on its ear, had rejected him for a nabob’s son. Her choice of husband was neither titled nor distinguished, but heir to one of the richest men in England.

And at that time, Robert had little to offer her. It was expected his uncle, who was in rude good health, would live for many years. Perhaps all women were calculating, and that small, sweet-faced young woman asleep upstairs would most likely prove to be the same when put to the test. It would be a shame to see that happen, for she had an honesty and a frankness that he liked. He liked her pretty, green eyes which tilted up at the corners in a most intriguing way, below straight brows.

With a frown, he returned to his desk and mended his pen. He dipped the quill into the ink pot and paused. He’d barely made a dent in the mountain of paper he worked through. His uncle had vast interests and owned several businesses including an iron works in Birmingham and a pottery factory on the lands of his great aunt’s estate in Vauxhall.

There were tenant farmers who had been left to the care of a steward which required his attention. When his uncle grew ill, he lost interest in his investments and left it all to his man of business, Mr. Garvie. Mr. Garvie also rested below ground now. Consequently, Robert had inherited a fine mess to sort out. He needed to employ a new business manager, another steward, and would need to inspect all the properties to ensure the staff were up to scratch.

He’d been gratified to find that St Malin Castle at least, was well run. Although his uncle discussed business with him and attempted to prepare Robert for the responsibilities which lie ahead, he sorely missed his sound advice, and the weight rested uncomfortably on his shoulders. His agreeable life in London seemed to have been thrown into chaos. Despite obtaining a first in mathematics at Cambridge, he’d never actually had to employ it much, beyond toting up bets at White’s or the races, and now felt totally unprepared for what was now required of him.

His marriage might prove the easiest part of this new order to manage. Kate seemed the sort who would be content with the comfortable life he could give her and ask little of him.

He threw down his pen and took a liberal pinch of snuff, admiring the large ruby on the quaint silver box engraved with a stout pig which had belonged to his uncle. It was so like him to have such a thing made. The pig was a delightful jest at what he perceived as the shallow habits of the ton, although he did enjoy his own special blend of tobacco. Robert flicked snuff from his coat, preferring to mull over his bride-to-be instead of what was on the desk before him. There was nothing for it, but to accept his lot with as much grace as he could muster.

Kate’s appearance and bearing would improve considerably with a more fashionable and costlier wardrobe. Robert had not been blind to her charms beneath the shabby, old-fashioned clothes. In time, she may even trump a diamond of the first water like Millicent. He’d studied Kate over the dinner table. Her un-powdered, dark, honey-colored locks, tied up with a green ribbon, had curled around her shell-like ears. When startled, those large eyes appeared greener. She was every inch an innocent country girl, completely unaware that the way she bit her full provocative bottom lip was bordering on erotic. He soon realized his attraction to her would serve to make the act of producing an heir far more pleasant. Yes, he was more than willing to bed her, but he would have to go gently. She might become too dependent on him too quickly. Even though she’d refused him, as was the fashion, he was confident that she would agree.

Kate’s family was unimpeachable although poor as church mice. He smiled. His eccentric uncle didn’t care for most of his own kind. He’d thought aristocrats too lazy and dependent on others to care for them, and at times too inbred. Indeed, it was unusual, but Uncle Alford had admired all forms of endeavor, from poets to inventors. He’d talked at length of James Watt’s invention of a steam engine to work a mine pump and had often said he wished he’d lived a more productive life.

Might this be the reason he’d chosen Kate? Was it his belief that a more satisfactory life could be had for Robert with someone of her background? His uncle might have asked him. Robert would have been happy to set him straight. A man could go about his business without needing a wife at his side. An heir and a spare were necessary, of course, but he should have liked to choose the lady and taken his own good time to do it.

Robert topped off the brandy in his glass. A wedding as soon as possible would be wise, and hopefully an heir would quickly follow. Perhaps Kate was the perfect choice. This unsophisticated young woman would never have the wherewithal to get under his skin or have the power to hurt him as Millicent had done.

Once married and his heir secured, he would return to the caresses of his accomplished mistress and the life he enjoyed in London.

Chapter Two

Kate woke as Rebecca entered the bedchamber bearing a cup of steaming hot chocolate. She sipped it while the maid drew back the draperies and threw open the window. The sun streamed in, the breeze carrying with it the strong briny smell of the sea. From her bed, Kate viewed the blue sky beyond the window, and heard the cries of the sea birds. Invigorated, she was ready to tackle whatever the day had in store. Perhaps it was best not to examine too closely what that might be, having in mind the strange events of yesterday.

“I’ll wear the green damask, Rebecca.”

Kate left the bed and went to perch on the window seat, gazing out. An area of clipped grass bordered the rocky foreshore. The sea was so different today, the deep violet-blue, rolling waves sparkled in the sunlight. A man astride a black stallion appeared below with Felix following, tongue lolling. Robert. A strange nervous tension settled low in her stomach. Perhaps she needed breakfast.

Flicking her plait over her shoulder, Kate began to unravel her hair, fearing it was too long to be stylish. “Can you put up my hair, Rebecca?”

“Yes, miss. I’ve quite a way with hair, I’m told.”

Seated before the mirror, the maid brushed Kate’s waist-length locks. Her father had disliked the fashions in her mother’s magazines. He preferred women to be without artifice. Tucked away in their small community, Kate had little interest in following the fashion trends. Even at the Oxford assemblies, neatness was favored over high fashion. Now it became a source of anxiety. She wasn’t at all sure what a lady should wear on any given occasion. Her eyes went owlish in the mirror. She was sure to make a faux pas and embarrass herself and Robert.

If he became her husband.

An hour later, a little more confident, Kate entered the breakfast room, patting her hair, braided and pinned close to her head. Robert sat at the table reading the Gentleman’s Magazine with bacon and eggs, and a cup of coffee before him. He rose and bowed. “Good morning, Kate.”

“Good morning.” The footman held out a chair for her and she sat, nodding her thanks when he poured her coffee. “After breakfast, I should like to see my godfather’s will, if I may.”

His dark brows arched. “You are questioning my interpretation of the will?”

“No, of course not. But it would be foolish of me not to read it, don’t you think?”

His astounded gaze searched hers. Yes, she had been right, his eyes were more blue than green. It pleased her that she’d surprised him. Perhaps he would not be so quick to take her for granted. She wiggled slightly in her chair, very happy with herself.

A servant carried in a tray and unloaded it before her. Warm rolls, scrambled eggs, and ham, a pot of marmalade, and a small jug of buttery-colored cream.

Kate helped herself to the eggs and ham, and ate quickly, while Robert talked of how they might spend the day.

She reached for a roll. “Mm. What lovely thick cream.” She spread it and the jam liberally over the bread.

Robert observed her with a faint smile. “You have a hearty appetite.”

“It’s pleasant to discover different foods than those one is used to.” She took a bite of the roll, savoring it. “As the day is fine, I should like to see more of St. Malin.”

“Then we must make the most of it. The weather can change swiftly here. Storms roll in across the ocean.”

“I trust you enjoyed your morning ride?”

“You saw me?”

“From my window. I was admiring the view.” She added the last, not wishing him to think she’d spied on him. It occurred to her that he was part of that view, and she had been admiring him. She lowered her head over her plate.

When she looked up, a spark of interest had brightened his eyes. “Do you ride, Kate?”

“Of course. You would ask a country girl that?”

“Then I’ll show you over the St. Malin lands after you’ve read the will.” He dropped his gaze to her gown. “I gather you brought a riding habit?”

“I did.” She doubted he would approve of it, though, as it was a style from several seasons ago. She glanced at his immaculate blue coat. He was even more unnerving this morning in riding clothes. Last night, the marquess had seemed like a peacock in his silk taffeta coat. He’d made her a little apprehensive, but she’d felt reasonably capable of standing up to him. He was different today, the rightful lord of the manor, his clothes emphasizing his narrow waist and broad shoulders. In a way, he was closer to her vision of a knight of old. One of King Arthur’s court. His carefully constructed wall still in place to fend off trespassers. Amused at her woolgathering, Kate smiled.

“What’s amusing?”

He’d taken to reading his paper again, and she hadn’t realized he was watching her. “Just a thought.”

“Care to tell me?”

Her cheeks grew warm. “You wouldn’t find it amusing.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you give me the benefit of the doubt?”

Heavens. What had she got herself into? Could he read her mind? She squirmed in her seat. “I, uh, was thinking about this old castle. I could envisage a knight riding into the forecourt in his armor.”

He studied her. “I have a feeling you’ve left something out.”

She shrugged. Surely her thoughts were her own at least. “It wasn’t important.” She glowered at him. “Really.”

“As you wish.” He rattled his paper as if he’d grown annoyed. “You have an active imagination. Are you artistic like your father?”

“I suspect I am.”

“Excellent. You’ll find much to divert you when by yourself.”

She crumbled the last of her roll while studying him from under her lashes. His coal-black hair was thick and silky, his skin smooth and olive-toned. His dark brows formed a peak when she’d surprised him, and they almost met in the middle when he frowned. He had frowned a lot during the previous evening, but now a tiny smile, albeit a self-satisfied one at dealing with her and then tidying her away, in one of his properties, no doubt, hovered around his generous mouth. She wished she could find something witty to say. She suffered an urge to make him laugh, but that urge died when he resumed talking.

“If you find the situation to your liking, we could be married in the parish church here. I’ll arrange it with the parson and return to Doctors Commons in London for a special license.”

A piece of bread lodged in Kate’s throat. She spluttered.

“Are you all right?”

She took a long sip of coffee. “Yes, I think so. It’s just that it’s so sudden.” She needed time to get used to the idea, but apparently, she wasn’t going to get it.

“Yes, it is, and I’m sorry. I know you women like to turn the occasion into something special. Family and so forth. But you don’t have brothers or sisters, do you?”

“No. Do you?”

“Yes. A half-sister and half-brother.”

Kate longed to be part of a large, boisterous family. “Would they come here? If we should marry.”

“No.”

“But your parents will.”

“I’m afraid not.”

Shocked, she said, “They won’t come to your wedding?”

“As I have said.” His eyes turned glacial, and his expression brooked no more questions.

She gazed at him uneasily, wondering what lay behind his bleak countenance. Was he ashamed of her?

Then, as if the subject of his family had been neatly tidied away, he drank the last of his coffee, put the cup on its saucer, and folded his arms. “I gather this means that you’ve accepted me?”

“You shall have your answer after I read the will. As we have agreed.”

Robert would not tidy her away quite so easily. She pushed her plate away. He took her for granted and did not consider her feelings at all. And he would have to ask her properly.

“As you wish,” he said mildly, and returned to his newspaper as if all would be resolved like magic just to suit him. Everyone must dance to his tune.

Kate drank the last of her coffee and glowered at him.

Apparently oblivious, he folded his newspaper, pushed back his chair, and stood. “You must excuse me, I’m attempting to sort out my uncle’s affairs. You’ll find me in the library.”

“Very well, my lord.”

He paused at the door. “Robert.”

“Robert,” she amended.

After he left the room, Kate glanced out the window. She would take a walk through the garden before she followed him to the library.

When she entered the room an hour later, Robert pulled out a chair for her. He placed the document before her. “I shall leave you to read it. Anything that concerns you, please ask me.” He left the room.

More than a little daunted by the legal jargon, Kate labored over it. Although difficult to decipher on first reading, it did appear to be as Robert had said. She was not surprised at the amount of money and estates involved, only that her godfather had cared so much about her to secure her future. She wished she’d had a chance to know him better.

Even so, couldn’t he have left her a small stipend? Why tie her and his nephew together? He had been a little odd. That much she recalled. She remembered the unusual snuff box he carried better than she did him. A large pig was engraved on the silver box with a ruby for an eye. He’d had it specially made. Why a pig? She’d asked him. Amusement lit his eyes, and he’d stated that pigs, unlike humans, were admirable beasts. She hadn’t been sure if he was joking.

Would Robert prove to be as unfathomable? Was it a family trait? She put the document down and left the library, accepting the inevitable. They would marry, and even though a woman didn’t have much sway, she was determined it wouldn’t all be on Robert’s terms.

Kate dressed in her olive-green riding habit. The cloth was faded and her hat outmoded, for it had belonged to her mother. Robert would disapprove, but she wouldn’t let it bother her, she was looking forward to riding over the estate.

At the stables, he greeted her with a smile and thankfully, made no comment about her habit. She smiled up at him, relieved to have escaped criticism.

Robert assisted her to mount a small roan mare. Kate would have preferred something more challenging but decided it was prudent not to mention it now. As they rode out into the sunny afternoon, she was soon smitten with the beautiful countryside around St. Malin where a strong sea breeze blew the branches of the trees about. It was very different to Oxfordshire, but she was fast coming to love the fresh, briny scent and the limitless view of the ocean right to the horizon.

She and Robert trotted their horses through the village. Slate-roofed, whitewashed cottages clustered around a small harbor where fishing boats bobbed on the water.

They turned their horses inland where the hills were ablaze with pink and purple heath. The last of the summer roses tumbled over dry stone walls in the country lanes. The fields crisscrossed with hedgerows.

Kate guided her horse after Robert’s through a gap in a hedge onto a meadow of golden gorse. Willows trailed their long graceful branches in the water and in the distance, the crenellated tower of the castle appeared through the trees. Thomas Gainsborough might have liked to paint it.

The breeze ruffled the leaves of a spreading oak where Robert dismounted. He tethered his horse to a branch and came to assist her down.

“You’ve said little since reading the will. What did you make of it?” he asked as he held up his arms.

She could feel herself wanting his touch and leaned toward him. “I managed to understand most of it. I was surprised that my godfather cared so much about me. I hardly knew him.”

“He was a difficult man to know. But he had a good heart.”

“Yes, I can see that,” she said breathlessly as his large hands bracketed her waist drawing her down to set her on her feet. She looked away, suddenly shy. It seemed intimate and a little scandalous to be alone with him. Rather thrilling, in fact. He towered over her, so powerfully masculine. His enticing sandalwood cologne had wafted around her as he’d lowered her to the ground.

He stepped away. “Will it be so difficult for you if we don’t marry?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Life would go on much as it has done, I expect.”

She could believe that. He was now a marquess, and a very wealthy one whatever she decided. And he had no desire to marry her. It was she who would suffer most. Her future would be unsure without an act of generosity on Robert’s part. Could she convince him to do something for her, without them marrying?

Her parents had been in love, and she’d wanted the same for herself. This arrangement offered none of the emotional depth she’d anticipated. What sort of existence awaited her, closeted in a mansion alone with servants, while her husband came rarely to see her?

She would be happier with a simpler life. Even a small farm like one of those they’d ridden past. A thatched-roofed cottage with a few cows, pigs, ducks, and chickens… And yet, she forced herself to look into his blue eyes, searching for just a sign of warm anticipation at the prospect of spending his life with her. He did not press for her answer, apparently already sure of what it would be. Why would he not be? A woman in her circumstances had little choice, but that didn’t stop her wayward thoughts or her last hope for a future of her choosing.

“And what of my life? What will happen to me if we fail to marry?”

“I can’t answer that with any certainty, but I assume…” He spread his hands as though his empty palms reflected the empty life she would surely have. “Would you prefer I secure you a position in a household nearby? Perhaps as a governess? I know that my neighbor—” Apparently, he would not offer her a stipend. And she suspected he was toying with her.

She swallowed hard. “You must ask me properly.”

His brows peaked. “So I should,” he said with a laugh.

Despite her misgivings, Kate smiled. He had a lovely laugh, full-bodied and joyful. She liked him better when he laughed, his reserve dropped away. She wished to hear more of it but was silenced when he solemnly knelt before her.

He gazed up at her, a smile on his lips and a twinkle lurking in his eyes. “Kate, will you give me the greatest pleasure of becoming my wife?”

She took a deep breath. Say no, she urged herself. They were very different people. It would not work. She would struggle to measure up to him and probably fail, no matter how hard she tried. There was no love in his smile, just a rather lazy and lustful glance. That smile might set her pulses racing, but she’d wanted much more from marriage, hadn’t she? She suspected he would agree to financial assistance, even a cottage, if she asked for it. Ask for it, her mind urged her. But he gazed at her in such a way that her body wasn’t listening. “I will, my lord.”

“My name is Robert, remember?” His voice carried a seductive tone as he rose and gazed at her mouth. A hot expression entered his eyes, and he took a step closer. She swallowed, and trembling, resisted the urge to step back. Did he mean to make love to her? Perhaps even before their marriage vows had been taken? She was vulnerable, with no one to chaperone her. He might do what he liked with her now. The thought was shocking, but not entirely unpleasant, especially when he stood so close and made her feel small and rather fragile.

But it was all happening too fast. Confused, she wanted his touch and yet was afraid that if it happened too soon, before she could give herself to him, gladly and with at least affection, it would set the tone of their marriage and irrevocably spoil any chance of it becoming a love-match.

She placed a hand on his chest as he leaned close to her. “But please allow me to make a demand of my own.”

He straightened. “But of course.”

“I need time to get to know you before we… consummate the marriage.”

He frowned. “How much time?”

She touched her mouth with her fingers. “It’s hard to say. When we get to know each other better.”

“I bow to your wishes.” He made her an elaborate bow. When he raised his head, she saw something flicker in his eyes. Was it annoyance or frustration? The delay for an heir would mean he’d have to spend more time with her.

“Why do you ask me to call you, Robert?” She sought to change the subject and lighten the mood a little. “Don’t ladies call their husbands by their title or surname?”

His gaze returned to her mouth. “Perhaps I like to hear you say it and see your lips form my name.”

It was the first flirtatious thing he’d said. At first surprised and pleased, she saw that he was teasing her again. “Robert,” she said, wanting to find out what he would do. With another question on her lips, he caught her to him and silenced her with a kiss.

His lips were cool and soft, sliding across hers. When his arm tightened around her waist, her breath caught and her whole body felt odd. How extraordinary it was, how natural and intimate. With a gasp, she breathed in sandalwood, leather, and male. She’d never been clasped in a man’s arms before. And his kiss was not a peck like a relative might have given her, but a deeply probing kiss which stirred her body in an unfamiliar and deeply pleasant manner.

When he pulled away, she almost staggered and was tempted to reach out to him. But she dropped her hands and tried to show some measure of calm acceptance as if this was an everyday occurrence. She couldn’t help hoping he would kiss her again.

Apparently, he didn’t suffer a need for more kisses, for he smiled and turned away to untie the reins. She gazed shyly at him from beneath the brim of her hat as he gave her a leg up into the saddle.

He seemed absorbed in his own thoughts as he mounted and reined in alongside her. They rode back to the castle, with Kate reliving the moment his arms came around her and his mouth settled over hers. She’d sought to gain his respect and make him understand that he could not take everything he wanted from her, but now feared she might have been hasty. Impossible to change her mind, for it would make her look foolish. And it would give him carte blanche to do with her as he wanted. While that caused a shiver of anticipation, it might not be wise. She should stick to her guns. She had to protect herself, and feared this man could hurt her badly if she let him.

His gaze roamed her riding outfit as they rode across the field. “We’ll need to have a new wardrobe of clothes made. A marchioness cannot appear in society looking poverty-stricken. Some would say I kept a tight purse.”

“Not to mention my embarrassment.” Tears filled her eyes. He was angry with her and perhaps even disappointed. Well, now she was angry with him and glad she’d made that request.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, Kate. Surely you must agree. I would have expected you to relish a new wardrobe.”

“Yes, I will of course.”

“Good. Let’s give these horses a gallop.”

The gallop was exactly what they both needed. He rode ahead on his strong stallion and she was left to admire how well he appeared in the saddle. His seat was truly splendid. She wondered how many things he excelled at. Random thoughts wandered from the playing of an instrument to his prowess in the bedchamber, and heated her face. She really must stop doing that. She was glad of the fresh cooling sea breeze as she rode up to the bridge where Robert waited.

A gabble rose from the ducks and swans crowding beneath the willow fronds on the river. “Where will home be?” she asked, reining in beside him.

He tipped back his hat with a finger. “I don’t plan to live here. Would you?”

She was pleased to be considered. “I don’t mind where I live.” But not shut away in the country alone. “I love St. Malin castle. Are the other houses as charming?”

“More comfortable. Hertfordshire is leased, at present. The house is not as old. I shall have to visit it later after I’ve attended to my more demanding business affairs. I prefer to live in London for most of the year, apart from quail shooting in autumn and the Christmas season when no one is in Town. Of course, you must come to London for the Season.”

He had said it as an afterthought, as though he’d rather she didn’t. Kate firmed her lips, longing to give him a crushing set-down. “Perhaps I’ll live in Italy.” She tossed her head and was pleased when he swiveled to stare at her.

“Italy?” he queried, drawing his mount alongside hers.

“If I’m to spend most of my time alone, I fancy Italy shall suit my needs splendidly. I’ve heard it has a pleasant climate, and the people are warm. The gentlemen especially.” She urged her horse ahead of him and left him to mull over what she’d said, relishing the surprised glance he’d cast her.

The next day, Robert departed for the Doctor’s Commons, planning to return with the special license within a sennight. Kate was left to ponder if he enjoyed escaping back to London and what he would do whilst there.

She planned to spend the afternoons outdoors and was about to go to her chamber when the footman asked her if he could fetch her hat and shawl. “Why, thank you, James. I believe you know what I want before I do.” Kate smiled at the footman.

People were so welcoming here. Kate hoped to delay things a little by suggesting to Robert that they had the banns read in the local church. He explained they would also have to be read in her parish and the whole thing would take far too long. Why it was such a rush was beyond her, she’d found nothing in the will to suggest a time limit had been placed on their marriage. It confirmed her suspicion that he wanted the matter dealt with before he returned to his old life.

As the days passed, Kate investigated the castle. The library was her favorite room; the scent of old tomes made her think of her home in Oxfordshire. She spent hours there, reading by the fire with Felix stretched out on the rug beside her.

Kate’s footsteps echoed as she walked beneath the high buttressed ceiling of the paneled great hall. She imagined a grand ball there with an orchestra in the minstrel gallery and ladies and gentlemen performing the steps of a country dance. Perhaps one day she and Robert would hold one. The responsibility of such an undertaking sent a prickle of unease through her even though she doubted it would appeal to him. He seemed to prefer the metropolis to the country.

There were so many bedchambers she lost count, most furnished in heavy mahogany. Her chamber was one of the best, although Robert’s was larger. Would she join him there after they married? Another anxious shiver followed the first. The breakfast room was her favorite because it overlooked the sea.

Each day she ventured farther, leaving the rounded walls of the castle which were shaped like the petals of a rose, and walked along a balustraded-walk leading to formal gardens to the north of the castle. Clipped yew hedges bordered the path. Bees buzzed among the roses along the sun-warmed stone walls, the majestic trees of the park in the distance.

Her wanderings always led her back to the foreshore. She began collecting interesting pieces of driftwood that took her fancy, and soon had quite a collection. It might have been the mild weather and the beauty of the place, but she began to feel more at home. Every day, the chef sent a kitchen maid to inquire if there was anything special she’d like for her supper. It surprised and touched her as she wasn’t yet the mistress of the house. After she sent Rebecca to the kitchens to relay her approval of the day’s meal, the menu became more elaborate. She supposed the chef appreciated having someone to cook for. And the footman, James, danced attendance on her. She must tell Robert what a treasure he was.

***

Robert arrived back in Curzon Street. And after a bath and a change of clothes, he left for dinner with friends. It was close to ten of the clock when he abandoned them at Whites where they wandered the gambling tables, planning to visit the theatre later and be entertained by opera dancers.

After the maid opened the door for him, he walked into Anastasia’s boudoir where she sat at her mirror.

He rested his hand on his mistress’s slender shoulder. She was applying a patch to her cheek. “You are going out?”

Her eyes narrowed. “I didn’t expect you to be back in London for some time, St Malin.”

“I wasn’t sure myself.” He eased himself into an uncomfortable chair with spindly guilt legs. “I’m here in London for a special license.”

Her eyes met his in the mirror. “You are marrying her then.”

“I have little choice in the matter. It’s what my uncle wished.”

She shrugged. “But your uncle’s wishes no longer matter, surely. What is she like, your fiancée?”

“An unaffected country girl.”

“How gauche.”

“Gauche? No, I wouldn’t say that.” He’d found Kate refreshingly intelligent but considered it imprudent to say so.

As Anastasia rose from the chair, her wrap parted to reveal a long, slim naked thigh. Robert cast an admiring glance over her flowing, fair hair and graceful slender body, which the silk wrap barely covered. Her likeness to his first love, Millicent Borrowdale, struck him again.

She stepped close and ran a hand over his chest. “Is she pretty?”

“I don’t intend to discuss my future wife with you.”

“No?” Her hand moved lower. It reached its destination, and his cock tightened under her practiced touch.

She smiled, her eyes filled with anticipation. “Can she do what I can do for you?”

“I very much doubt it.” Robert picked her up in his arms and laid her on the bed. “We shall go on much as we did before, shall we not?”

“If you wish it?”

He stripped off her robe and bent to kiss a breast. “Oh, I do. I do wish it.”