Excerpt for The Ghosts of Rushton Court by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Marry in haste . . .

Chapter 1

London, Spring 1816

“Marian! Marian!”

My sister Vanessa burst into my bedchamber with the dramatic intensity of a Mrs. Siddons, her pale blue sprigged muslin swirling about her ankles, her face—which has been described as that of the angel—aglow with excitement. “You’ll never guess,” she burbled before glancing at the mound of ruffles in my lap and abruptly switching to an entirely different topic. “You have not finished my gown? You know I need it tonight. Really, Mari, how can you be so slow?” Hands on her hips, she glared at me.

“It was a very bad tear,” I said as patiently as I could. “Only very careful stitching can mend it so it won’t show—which is why I offered to do it, if you will recall, rather than leave it to Clover.” It was also the reason why I was in my room, sewing, while Mama and Nessa entertained morning callers—a ritual of the ton I was delighted to have an excuse to avoid. Clover, I should add, is the maid Nessa and I supposedly shared, although, as might be expected, when one sister is a widow of four and twenty and the other an outstanding beauty making her come-out, I was fortunate if poor, overworked Clover Billings remembered to take my garments below stairs to the laundress.

“Oh, very well,” Nessa grumbled, her face once again blooming with news as she recalled the reason for her pell-mell charge up the stairs to my bedchamber. “Rushton has returned,” she announced in ringing tones. “Lady Binghampton has just told us so.”

At my blank look, Nessa added, a trifle tartly: “Blakeney Durrant, the new Marquess of Rushton. He has been gone a decade or more, but his father’s death has brought him home. A marquess, Mari. An eligible marquess. Mama is aux anges. She has already determined he is to be mine.” Vanessa struck a pose, her hands gracefully extended to her sides, as if accepting applause from an audience—or perhaps congratulations from the entire ton for snabbling one of the highest titles in the land.

My sister tended toward the volatile, and I often allowed her bits of gossip to sail over my head, unheeded, but Lady Binghampton was not among the tattlemongers who thrived on creating sensation out of nothing. And an unmarried marquess popping into the Season of 1816 was rather like one of Congreve’s rockets exploding inside the exclusive circle of England’s finest. The matchmaking mamas would be scrambling for position—eyes agleam, sweet smiles disguising their predatory intentions, teeth bared behind their fans. And without doubt, my mama—Clarissa, Countess of Albemarle—would be at the forefront of the attack force aimed at the newly elevated Marquess of Rushton.

I searched my mind for what I had heard about the Durrant family and discovered very little. Devastated by the loss of my dear Julian at the battle of Vitoria, I had clung to the shelter of our country home, emerging from obscurity this year only because Nessa was making her come-out. And yes, deep down, because I was finally ready to face the fact that life must go on, that many women widowed by the long war with Bonaparte had already remarried and begun the raising of the next generation, while I . . .

Enough! I had taken the first step on the road to putting the past behind me. I would not fall back into maudlin thoughts of what might have been.

Rushton . . . family name Durrant . . . I had not lost complete touch with the world while in the country. I read as many newspapers as I could lay my hands on and corresponded with friends from my first Season, and somewhere in all that I recalled reading of the demise of the Marquess of Rushton—perhaps as much as a year ago. One of my correspondents had speculated that the heir might be dead. Another relayed the on dit that he had been gone so long that Lady Rushton, a second wife, made no secret that she expected her own son, still a schoolboy, to inherit the title. A juicy tidbit, certainly—the return of the elder son must have been a crushing blow. But other than that, I knew nothing about the Durrants or the new Marquess of Rushton. Not even where he had been all these years.

Surely not hiding himself from the war?

Appalled by such a horrid thought, I swiftly made excuses: he had been exploring in the Canadas . . . or Greece. Greece was, after all, on every young nobleman’s itinerary. Before Bonaparte, that is. Perhaps he had been trapped there, unable to return until the war was over . . .

“Marian, stop woolgathering and finish my gown!” Having delivered this scold, Nessa leapt back to the news of the hour. Clasping her hands in front of her and raising her eyes to the ceiling, she exclaimed, “Just think, Mari. He might be at the ball tonight, and this is my finest gown. Hurry up. Do!”

“It won’t get done if you stay here fussing at me,” I declared, and shooed her from the room. Nessa flowed out, no doubt to consult with our mother about the best strategy to impress a marquess.

I regarded the ten inches of torn ruffles left to be repaired with the tiniest of stitches . . . and sighed. As so frequently happened with my sister, I reminded myself that being young and heedless was a rite of passage. Nor was it Nessa’s fault she was so shockingly spoiled. But sometimes it was hard—until I looked at her as others did and saw the exquisite perfection of her face and figure, her graceful carriage, glorious golden blonde curls, long-lashed cornflower blue eyes, enticing lips . . . I sighed. Only three weeks into the Season and Nessa was already being touted as a diamond of the first water, the outstanding beauty of the marriage mart of 1816. So why should she not set her cap at the new Marquess of Rushton? Surely the man had come back from wherever he’d been for the sole purpose of finding the love of his life in Lady Vanessa Evesham?

I would not have wished my face to freeze in the wry grimace I made at that point in my thoughts. I huffed another sigh and returned to my painstaking stitching.

The ballroom of Viscount and Lady Harborough teemed with so many members of the ton it was a wonder the dancers could manage the figures without bowling over those who crowded the edges of the room. I was grateful to have found a place on an elaborately carved and gilded chair placed tight against a rosy marble column. In this sheltered spot I could lurk, watching the colorful display of the ton at its finest—including the maneuverings of the matchmaking mamas—while keeping my ears pealed for the torrent of on dits pouring from the ladies (and one frail old gentleman) seated near me. And torrent it certainly was. The advent of the Marquess of Rushton had set the cat among the pigeons, as the saying goes.

“I hear it was the Canadas,” Lady Savile, an elderly dowager, declared. “That is where he has been all these years.”

“No indeed,” Lady Westmeath corrected sharply. “It was Greece. I had it from Pomfret just yesterday.

“The American West,” Miss Pennyworth, a spinster of uncertain years, offered, eyes wide. “Lived with Red Indians, I’m told.”

“Fair and far out, ladies,” declared Lord Leyburn, a septuagenarian whose step might be doddering but whose wits were sharp. “It’s Inja, my dears. Boy’s been all these years in Inja.”

“Nonsense!” declared Lady Westmeath. “No Englishman could survive so many years in that dreadful climate.”

“Inja,” Leyburn repeated stubbornly. “Mostly in the north—heard it at White’s this very afternoon,” he added with the glee of an elderly gentleman trumping all tidbits his companions might offer. “Quarreled with his father and off he went. During the Peace of Amiens, it was. Never came back.”

India. My insides quivered with the wonder of it. India. So very far away, so exotic, so . . . completely different from anything I had ever known. How I should love to know more about it.

The more prosaic parts of me sneered at my girlish enthusiasm.

Why shouldn’t I be interested? I countered. I always wanted to see faraway places. I would have followed the drum if Papa had let me.

And been stuck in the middle of Spain at the tail end of the army, my inner voice mocked.

I cringed, a shiver striking through me from head to toe. Despite my determination to move forward with my life, Julian’s death continued to rear its ugly head, catching me unawares—

A great hush swept the room, cacophony turned to silence as every eye fixed on a figure in the doorway.

By a stroke of good fortune, I had a clear view of the stranger from my seat by the pillar. Oh! There could be no doubt—he had to be Rushton, the Man of the Hour. I stared, as vulgarly curious as everyone else.

He was striking. Caroline Lamb’s description of Lord Byron leaped to mind: mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Except Rushton was a lion to Byron’s half-grown kitten. Something long frozen inside me stirred to life.

“He’s dark as a native.” This horrified whisper from Lady Savile.

“The arrogance of a Durrant,” declared Lady Westmeath.

“So tall,” breathed Miss Pennyworth.

He was all that. And more. The Marquess of Rushton stood well over six feet. His shoulders were broad, neither they nor his calves needing the padding affected by many gentlemen of the ton. Indeed, he appeared fit enough to mill down any aspiring pugilist at Gentleman Jackson’s. Yes, his skin was dark and had more the weathered look of a gardener or gamekeeper than a pampered gentleman. But his sun-streaked brown hair was that of an Englishman, as were his firm lips and his aquiline and decidedly aristocratic nose. His eyes? I strained to catch a glimpse and caught my breath as he turned in my direction. They were not just blue, but the blue of a summer sky, of a field of bluebells. Glowing, penetrating, arrogant. The eyes of a man who knew his own worth, and that it was considerably greater than most. All in all, not a handsome man, but one with a face that was likely born rough-sculpted and was now fiercely etched by life.

A hard man, I guessed, not at all sure I could like him.

If he becomes your brother-in-law, you will hear all about India . . .

There was that. Which did not keep me from finding his king-of-the-world stance a trifle irritating.

Viscount and Lady Harborough broke the frozen tableau in the ballroom by stepping forward to greet the marquess and begin a round of introductions—concentrating, I suspected, on the hopeful masses of young ladies and their determined mothers.

“Here you are!” Nessa materialized at my side, clearly exasperated. “Mama says you must come at once. It is only proper you should stand with us when we are introduced to Rushton.” When I failed to jump up on command, she made a moue of disgust. “Hurry! Or we shall be left out!”

Frankly, it was surprise that kept me pinned to my chair. I was under the impression that my mother had forgotten my existence, except as a helpmeet in accomplishing the many demands of preparing Nessa for her come-out. Meekly, I stood and I followed my sister to where Mama and Papa had secured a place at the edge of the dance floor, as the Harborough’s guests lined up as if it were the Prince Regent himself about to walk by.

My pulse had not stirred out of mourning for three long years, but as Lord Harborough approached with the marquess by his side, I found myself as caught up in the moment as everyone else. A magnificent specimen, the Marquess of Rushton. He bowed over my mother’s hand, inclined his head to my father. “Albemarle.”

His voice, a rich baritone, reverberated all the way to my toes. Horrified, I struggled to conceal my inner turmoil as Lady Harborough proclaimed, “Lady Vanessa Evesham,” as if announcing the gem of the evening (which Nessa surely was).

Rushton inclined his head in a gracious nod—took a second, more comprehensive look as Nessa rose from a deep curtsey, her piquant face turned up to his—and offered his first full-blown smile of the evening. Of course. How could any red-blooded male do otherwise?

“Lady Marian Talbot,” our hostess intoned, moving on to me. “Lady Marian’s husband was one of our gallant soldiers lost on the Peninsula.” Why Lady Harborough made a point of mentioning Julian’s death I will never know, although it is possible she was an inveterate matchmaker, one of the few who did not think me destined for eternal widowhood.

I expected Rushton’s eyes to promptly pass over me to the next person eagerly awaiting an introduction. Instead, his gaze sharpened, those all-encompassing blue eyes lingering. Appraising me? He did not smile.

And then he was gone, leaving me shaken. And puzzled. I did not know the man from Adam, yet something odd had just happened. Perhaps it was only that he actually saw me, while for every other male, after one view of Nessa, I ceased to exist.

To my surprise, Papa gestured for the three of us to follow him to a quiet corner of the room, where an avaricious and admonitory gleam lit his eyes as he declared, “Rushton’s rich as Croesus. The old marquess was well inlaid, but ’tis said the boy’s made a fortune of his own during his time in the East—”

“Boy!” Nessa cried. “He’s quite old, thirty at least. And dark as a blackamoor. A shocking disappointment!”

“Vanessa, that is quite enough,” Mama scolded. “Your father is thinking of your welfare.”

And the prestige and advancement of the Evesham family, I added to myself.

Papa huffed. “Indeed, there’s not a better match to be had. Nor a more likely candidate than our puss, eh?” Papa favored Nessa with the smile of indulgence that had so contributed to her being spoiled, possibly past redemption. “An alliance with the Durrants would be the crowning accomplishment of all we have wished for you.”

“Yes, indeed,” my mother echoed as fervently as a prayer.

Nessa subsided into a pout. (On her even that expression was vastly becoming.) She would come round of course. A long lost vastly wealthy marquess? There was no way the Nessa I knew would not soon recall the glory of making the most advantageous marriage of the last five seasons or more. As for Rushton—who could possibly resist Lady Vanessa Evesham? Even her dowry was magnificent. Mine, not half as much, for Papa had not approved my marrying a second son and career soldier. But when, after Julian’s death, my dowry came back to me, allowing me to live modestly on my own, the paralyzing inertia of mourning had kept me fixed in the home I had never left. That, and my parents’ horror over the prospect of their elder daughter living an independent life. Hence, my continuing residence with my family.

Truthfully, my three years as a self-effacing hermit had suited me. Until tonight when I met temptation in the flesh . . .

You thought him cold, arrogant, my inner voice reminded me. You could not like him.

And then he smiled.

At your sister.

As I returned to my chair by the marble pillar, reality and fantasy clashed. I was intrigued by the newcomer. Attracted as I had not been since Julian was lost to me. Yet life continued to be cruel. The Marquess of Rushton—the only man to stir my soul in years—was destined to be my brother-in-law. Even if he did not yet know it.

Chapter 2

“I am sick, sick, sick of these insipid colors,” Nessa declared, tossing our copy of La Belle Assemblée onto the tea table in the drawing room. “It is not fair that you should wear turquoise, emerald, and midnight blue, while I am confined to the color of milk or the palest spring flowers!”

“But it is the spring Season in London,” I returned with an indulgent smile, “and you are a bud just blossoming into the ton. A young lady of purity, worthy of the finest gentleman. Surely the symbolism is apt. You would not, after all, wish to be mistaken for a widow.” I leaned closer and whispered, “Or a female of a quite different stamp.”

“Marian!” Nessa seemed truly shocked, reminding me that for all her veneer of worldliness, she was but an eighteen-year-old only three weeks into her first Season. My lips twitched as I wondered how she would have reacted if I had used the word “virgin” to explain why it was de rigueur for young ladies of the ton to wear the pale colors associated with innocence.

“Come, ladies, have you nothing better to do than look at fashions?” Our brother Nigel, Viscount Frawley—obviously just come in, as he was still in evening dress at eleven in the morning—leaned against the door jamb, eyeing us with the barely tolerant look big brothers reserve for younger sisters.

“Papa has said I may have three more gowns,” Nessa proclaimed, eyes shining.

“Three!” Nigel echoed, clearly incensed. “When he wouldn’t give me an advance on quarter day, and I’m the heir.”

“It’s because of Rushton,” I explained hastily. “Nessa has set her cap at him, and Papa and Mama agree.”

“Rushton?” Nigel came off the door jamb. Hands on his hips, he glared at both of us. “I am sick to death of hearing the name. For days it’s been nothing but Rushton this, Rushton that, Have you heard . . . ? from one end of Mayfair to the other. Believe me, my girl, as much as I’d like to see the Durrant fortune joined to ours, you don’t want him.”

“Do not be absurd,” Nessa responded roundly. “He is the most eligible nobleman the ton has seen in years. Mama said so!”

Nigel swaggered across the room, looking perfectly elegant when he should have looked hagged after a night on the town. His brown hair was lighter than mine, his eyes an identical shade of hazel, that odd mix of amber and green that reminds some people of cats’ eyes. But there the resemblance ended. Nigel, my elder by two years, was almost as handsome as Nessa was beautiful. He was, of course, Papa’s heir. There was no spare, just Nessa and myself. Which was unfortunate because Nigel seemed hell bent in a handbasket, as the saying went. So much so, we had begun to fear his wild ways went well beyond the highjinks indulged in by most young gentlemen his age.

However, I strongly suspected Nigel was considerably more knowledgeable about the Marquess of Rushton than Nessa and I. Perhaps more so than Papa and Mama.

“Sit down,” I said. “I can see you are big with news, and I admit we are all ears to hear it.”

“Whatever you say, I shall not believe it,” Nessa declared, as Nigel sprawled in a comfortably upholstered armchair across from the sofa where Nessa and I were seated side by side. A tiny smile played over his generous lips. Miserable mawworm, he was thoroughly enjoying his role as the bearer of bad tidings. And looking not at all like a man who has not been to bed in at least twenty-four hours. (Well, not in his own bed, that is.)

“Firstly,” Nigel intoned, pinning Nessa with a challenging look, “I suspect you would take one look at Rushton Court and run screaming back to town.”

“And where is Rushton Court?” I asked.

“Up river a ways, and nearly as old as the hills,” Nigel returned, with a vague wave to the west. “Parts of it are older than Hampton Court—late twelfth century, some say.” Inwardly, I grimaced. “That’s but the beginning,” Nigel continued. “It seems the Durrants never lacked for funds, no matter who was in power. But instead of adding a new wing in the current style every half century or so, they built entire new houses, leaving the old ones in place. Supposedly, there’s everything from an ancient keep to a house built less than a decade ago. From what I hear, it’s a hodgepodge of warring styles clinging to the banks of the Thames, considered a grotesquerie by those passing by.”

“Oh dear,” I murmured, glancing at Nessa for her reaction.

“I shall live in town,” she declared.

“You’ll live where Rushton says you will,” Nigel shot back. “I’ve heard tales, Ness. He’s not a man to be bowled over by that face of yours. And besides, that’s not all,” he hastened to add, cutting off her retort.

“More?” I studied my brother’s face, wondering for the first time if he was funning us.

Eyes alight with mischief, Nigel leaned back in the armchair, crossed his arms over his chest, and smirked. “Well, let’s see . . . “I am told Lady Rushton, the marquess’s step-mother, is somewhat queer in the attic. Been an invalid for years—off to Bath the moment her husband died. As for the son, he’s but a schoolboy, but it’s said he’s been encouraged to believe his brother was never coming back, possibly even dead, making him heir to the marquisate. Recent events rather a shock to the poor boy, I should imagine.”

So that rumor was likely true. Merciful heavens, what a coil.

Nigel frowned. “I believe there’s a sister also, but not much was said about her. Not out yet, in any event.”

“She lives in Bath with her mother, I presume?” I asked.

“Haven’t the foggiest,” Nigel replied. And of course he wouldn’t. My brother had no interest whatsoever in proper young ladies.

A quick examination of Nigel’s face revealed there was more to come. His eyes were positively dancing with glee. “Out with it,” I said. “What have you not told us?”

Hazel eyes widening, Nigel allowed silence to stretch between us—a storyteller preparing for his grand finale. “What I have not mentioned are the . . . ghosts.”

“Ghosts!” Nessa gasped.

“Oh yes,” Nigel returned, his face firmly serious, “Rushton Court is the most haunted property in England, hosting a veritable panoply of ghosts, more than five hundred years of ’em. And none shy about making themselves known.”

“No wonder Lady Rushton moved to Bath,” I murmured, striving for humor in a situation too fantastical to be true.

“You, Nigel Evesham,” Nessa declared, “are the greatest beast in nature. You have made all that up, I know you have. You cannot stand the thought of my being a marchioness when you are only a viscount. When you will never be more than an earl. For shame. I am going to tell Mama!”

Nigel, looking bored, stood up. “God’s truth,” he drawled, “every last word.” And with that, he strolled out of the drawing room.

“He is horrid!” Nessa exclaimed.

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if she meant Nigel or the marquess.

After Mama descended on us and fell into enthusiastic chatter with Nessa about which dressmakers and milliners would enjoy their patronage that afternoon, I retreated to my bedchamber, beset by a good many disturbing thoughts—primary among them, my disconcerting reaction to the marquess, unchanged by Nigel’s revelations. He was too big. He loomed. Everything about him said he was a man of action (though, alas, having married Julian Talbot, I could not deny I was attracted to such men). He was dark and drear and looked at me as if I were a horse for sale at Tattersall’s. He had sized me up, analyzed my points. To see if I were worthy of joining his stables? And yes, his gaze had not failed to encompass my figure while he was at it—something, to my mortification, gentleman had been doing since my fifteenth year.

All that in ten seconds? my inner voice mocked.

Indeed. Those ten second had been enough to curl my toes. And shock me out of my widow’s lassitude.

Physical attraction and liking were far from the same thing, I reminded myself. And besides, he was Nessa’s. The two brightest lights of the Season, male and female, were destined to be paired. After last night, every eye in the ton would be fixed on them, waiting to wallow in the details of the mating dance until it reached its inevitable conclusion.

But Nessa was not the only Evesham with new gowns. Here I was, standing in my dressing room, contemplating my own array of finery created expressly for this Season. Only a third of what had been ordered for Nessa, of course, but scarcely a paltry selection. I was not a pauper, and Papa had been generous, if only because, as he had declared, I must not be allowed to shame the family when I went about with my sister.

Therefore . . . I eyed the gowns suitable for a soirée at Lady Betancort’s.

What makes you think he’ll be there? my inner voice whispered. Insidiously.

I am dressing to please myself.


I fingered gowns of emerald green, deep rose, amber, and midnight blue, but it was a gown of shining turquoise silk that called to me—quite plain except for a wide band of cream lace at the hem of both gown and short puffed sleeves. Simple but elegant. Holding it up in front of me, I examined myself in the pier glass fastened to the wall.

Truth was . . . I cocked my head to one side, making a concerted effort to be realistic. Truth was . . . I had never been the beauty Nessa was. Indeed, no one was; she had no rival. But compared to other young women my age, I was more than passable. Though a blonde in my younger years, my hair had darkened to a warm brown. Admittedly, it had turned mousy over the past three years when I had let it go, but judicious applications of the hair brush and lemon juice had brought it back to life for the Season of 1816..

And the turquoise silk brought out the green in my eyes and enhanced the cream of my skin. Of which, I have to admit, there was considerably more flesh visible than my sister’s slim figure revealed, and not solely because I was three inches taller. A decided asset, Julian had assured me, insisting that willowy figures with little bosom were far less interesting—a man liked more in his arms than skin and bones. Dear Julian. I recall pointing out that willowy figures fit the current fashions far better than mine. He had laughed, and kissed away my pique.

Smiling in reminiscence, I carefully folded the turquoise silk and laid it back on the shelf. Sometimes I wondered where I had come from. Was I a cuckoo left in the Evesham nest that I should be so different, so ordinary while Nigel and Nessa cut a swath through the ton like a hot knife through butter? I who had never longed for high rank, who had loved a younger son à corps perdu, mourning him all these years with little thought of moving on—until I was exploded out of my doldrums by a dark, dangerous, arrogant aristocrat with whom I had absolutely nothing in common. Who looked at me as if I wore a “For sale” sign around my neck and he was estimating how high he was willing to bid!

He did not! You have windmills in your head, my girl!

It was more than likely my inner self had it right. Yes, Rushton had appraised me, but then he’d walked on, dismissing me. Any further interest from that quarter was all in my mind.

Air dreams at my age! Indulging in such nonsense could only lead to heartbreak. And I had endured enough of that to last a lifetime. I should thank Rushton for reminding me that I was indeed too young to mourn forever and be done with it. Tonight I would wear the turquoise gown for myself. I would not sit in a corner. I would make an effort to talk to people. I would smile, perhaps even attempt to be witty.

Panic struck me. I had forgotten how to manage the social niceties that seemed so simple for others. What happened at the next ball when someone asked me to dance? Did I even recall the steps?

I would not go. Not tonight or any other. I would flee back to the country, bury myself forever . . .

A vision of the Marquess of Rushton rose up before me, overwhelming my small dressing room with his presence. He looked at me, scowling. I could not breathe.

No! You will not flee. The words hung there, ringing in my ears, even though I retained enough common sense to realize it was all my head.

And of course I did not, or I would have lived out my life alone, never experiencing any of the adventures—and love—that was to come.

Chapter 3

The ton, having survived the shock of the Marquess of Rushton’s reappearance in their midst, maintained a remarkable sangfroid that evening, reacting to his arrival at the Betancourt’s soirée with no more than a whoosh of collective breaths, followed by a hubbub of conversation even louder than before. Not a single note from the string trio, laboring mightily in a corner of the drawing room, could be heard from where I stood with Nessa and a cluster of other young ladies. Two of the starry-eyed maidens were Nessa’s closest friends; the other two, I suspected, were hopeful of benefitting from the array of young gentlemen who surrounded my sister at every ton event.

Mama was currently holding forth among a bevy of hopeful mothers, each keeping an eagle eye out for Rushton and smiling politely while silently denigrating the beauty, gowns, and behavior of other women’s daughters. Papa had cried off and was enjoying an evening at his club. Nigel, eschewing matchmaking mamas like the plague, never attended ton events. As for me . . .

I longed to slip away to my usual hiding place in a corner, but true to my determination to rediscover the Lady Marian Evesham of 1810, I hovered beside the five young ladies, making an effort to appear fascinated by their youthful chatter.

You will never be that girl again, my common sense chided. That optimistic, naive, innocent fool—determined to follow the drum, heedless of the horror of war.

Too true. My shoulders slumped, my good intentions deflated a scant half hour into the evening. How I had railed at Papa when he laid down his ultimatum: I could marry Julian only if I did not follow the drum. And Julian had agreed, even though I fought Papa’s edict to the very moment Julian embarked for the Peninsula. In the next three years he came home but once—five weeks leave to recuperate from a thankfully minor wound.

In short, I had been Mrs. Julian Talbot since 1810, a wife for less than two months—

“Lady Marian.” Startled out of my reverie, I looked up to instant shock—the Marquess of Rushton loomed over me. “Lady Marian,” he repeated, “since we have been introduced, perhaps you would be kind enough to make me known me to your companions.”

He remembered my name?

I blinked. A quick glance showed all five young ladies with eyes aglow, their mouths agape. All but Nessa’s, that is. Of course Rushton had come to her side the moment he entered the room. It was to be expected.

Though still stunned that the marquess addressed me by name, years of training came to my rescue. “Of course, my lord, I should be delighted.” I huffed a soft breath and plunged ahead. “Lord Rushton, you have already met my sister, Lady Vanessa Evesham.” Nessa curtsied with exquisite grace, her smile dazzling. “May I present Lady Jocelyn Stafford, Miss Alice Chalmers? I continued with the two hangers-on, struggling to hide my disapproval when their cat-that-ate-the-cream smiles revealed their satisfaction at the success of their scheme.

Yet who can blame them? You yourself—

Be still!

Astonishingly, after saying all the right things to the young ladies, who simpered or preened according to their natures, the marquess turned to me. “Lady Marian, this is my first time enjoying the hospitality of this house. I wonder if you might be kind enough to show me where I might find a glass of punch.” He winked. “Or at least something fit for a man to drink.” To the accompaniment of hisses of shock from each of the five young ladies, he held out his arm.

Rendered momentarily speechless by behavior I could not fathom, I reacted like an automaton, laying my hand on his arm and allowing him to separate me from Nessa and the other girls. Outrageous behavior indeed. He had scarce exchanged a word with any of them. And he could have asked any guest, any passing footman where to find refreshment. Yet he had singled me out. Absurd! A thought proved all too true when Rushton led me unerringly to the Betancourt’s dining room, where crystal punch bowls at each end of a table sparkled beneath the light of an elaborate chandelier. Arrayed between the bowls were platters of luscious tid-bits designed to tempt the palates of a jaded ton—everything from lobster patties and shrimp in caper sauce to oyster loaves, almond puffs, and ratafia cakes.

Rushton’s lips curled as he eyed the two cut crystal bowls. “It would appear our choices are ratafia or claret cup,” he pronounced. “Would you be forever ostracized if seen drinking claret cup?”

I choked, stifled a giggle, and managed, “I fear so. Ratafia is must be.”

Rushton, looking a trifle long-suffering, nodded. Ignoring the lavish choice of food, he procured a cup of punch from each bowl before steering me out of the dining room and into a quiet salon where only three or four other couples were gathered. His chiseled features showed the barest hint of a smile as he handed me the cup of ratafia. “I understand you lost your husband at Vitoria, Lady Marian. May I offer my condolences, if rather belated.”

“Thank you, my lord,” I murmured, my head still not caught up with reality. Lady Harborough had not mentioned Vitoria, which meant Rushton had asked someone about me. But why?

Speak up, foolish twit! The most sought-after nobleman in London has singled you out. Don’t stand there like a ninny.

I took a sip of my punch, while I plumbed the depths of my soul to dredge up the courage that once was mine. Somehow I managed the semblance of a smile. “My lord, I am flattered by your attention, yet I cannot help but wonder if you are using me to escape the clutches of the matchmaking mamas hovering in the drawing room.”

His sharp blue eyes twinkled at me, far more benignly than I could have imagined from a man who exuded an aura of power with an undercurrent of danger. “You have caught me out, Lady Marian. It is true. I have no taste for the infantry.”

What? Oh, poor Nessa. And Mama. He could not truly mean it. He could not be rejecting, en masse, the most exquisite buds of the ton, their innocence just unfolding into womanhood.

Was it possible Rushton was not yet ready to look for a wife, though at well past thirty, the duty of begetting an heir must loom large?

A-ah! He might, of course, have something in mind besides a wife . . . something for which widows were supposedly ripe . . .

Insidious thought! I dressed modestly. I did not put myself forward. At no time did I indicate I was open to flirtation . . .

“Lady Marian? Mrs. Talbot . . . ?”

Appalled by the nature of my speculations and by the marquess catching my mind wandering, I murmured, “I beg your pardon.” I handed my half-full cup back to him. “I must go. I fear my mama will be looking for me.” And with that I fled, as awkwardly as a schoolgirl at her very first society event. No . . . worse. In my whole life, I had never been so thoroughly routed. And I could not even say why. I was fleeing from nothing more than my own fanciful thoughts. From memories of Julian. From the stirrings of a long-forgotten emotion. From guilt that I was considering putting Julian in the past. From the sheer irrationality of Rushton winkling me away from the girls and into private conversation. From my doubts about his intentions.

From the scene Nessa would enact when we returned home.

From Mama’s outrage.

Coward that I was, I paused only long enough to ask Lady Savile to tell Mama I had the headache and returned home, that I would send the carriage back for them.

As Papa’s crested coach bumped over the cobbles, my head whirled, tears ran down my cheeks. The only thing I knew for certain was that my first attempt to be something more than a widow still wearing the willow for her husband had been an abject failure.

Are you sure about that?

What else would you call it?

Capturing the attention of the Man of the Hour cannot be termed a failure.

Attention. Ha!

He said he had no taste for the infantry. That, silly twit, could be a more positive remark than you have given him credit for.

Marian Evesham Talbot, I told myself roundly, thy name is Fool for even entertaining such an idea for more than a second.

But it was hard to let go of the concept that possibly, just possibly, the marquess might truly be looking for a wife, and that he was considering something other than a chit just out of the schoolroom. The idea nagged, keeping me awake that night. Imagining. Wondering. Frightening myself.

Lady Marian Turmoil, that was I.

At the end of my long night, the sun dawned behind a solid cover of gray, my bruised (and barely hopeful) heart reverberating to the rain pounding on the roof. Just add lightning and thunder and we would have the perfect setting for what Nessa and Mama would have to say to me.

I pulled the bedcovers over my head and pretended I was sleeping soundly.

Coward that I was, later that morning I fell back on prevarication, using one of my own imaginings to concoct a tale I hoped would quell their wrath. “I know it seems hard to believe,” I said, “but I suspect Rushton is put off by the array of mamas jostling for position to bring their daughters to his attention. How much easier to converse with a widow, someone nearer his own age. He may quiz me about the young ladies at his leisure, without raising undue expectations.” There! I thought that well said, even if I had skirted the truth by a yard or two.

“Did he ask about me?” Nessa demanded.

In for a penny . . . “He considers you the loveliest young lady of the Season.” Which must be true, even if he had not said it. Nessa favored me with a glance full of suspicion before her firm belief in her own self-worth triumphed and she accepted my bald-faced lie.

Mama merely looked thoughtful. “We go to the opera tonight,” she said at last. “See that you efface yourself, Marian. Although . . . if we should encounter Rushton, you will, of course, use whatever influence you may have with him—incredible as that seems—to point out the superior qualities and upbringing that would make your sister an ideal marchioness.”

Superior qualities other than beauty? My mind boggled.

“Yes, Mama,” I replied meekly, even as I wondered what gown would be spectacular enough to distinguish me from the crowd, while at the same time effacing myself? A challenge, a veritable challenge.

You are believing your own fairy tales now?

It cannot hurt to consider all possibilities, I countered primly.

I suspected Julian—God bless him—was laughing at my dilemma: was the Marquess of Rushton a hero, villain, rake, or perhaps a molly man using me to hide behind? (I assure you, I was not so innocent that I did not know about such proclivities, though if that were his inclination, it would be a sore disappointment.

Or possibly, just possibly . . . was Rushton in search of a wife who had outgrown the so-called infantry? A wife who had been roughed and buffed by life? One who could stand up to a man of power and arrogance, a man with a mysterious background that hinted of danger . . .

And passion?

Foolishness, thy name is Marian.

And yet . . . I was caught. Intrigued in spite of myself. For me, the Season of 1816 had sprung to life.

Chapter 4

My customary seat in our box at the opera was the chair in the front row closet to the wall, a position which gave me an excellent view of the stage but shielded me from the prying eyes of all but the two boxes even closer to the stage than ours. If, that is, one did not count the young men in the pit whose eyes, on rare occasions, strayed from Nessa to me, and those on the far side of the vast theater who were gifted with excellent vision. This particular evening, however, I slipped into the seat next to the wall in the second row of scarlet-seated chairs, hoping Mama would consider my gesture properly self-effacing. I did not wish to upset her plans for Nessa, truly I did not. And yet I could not totally shut out the fascination that had seized me when I saw Rushton filling the doorway at the Harborough’s ball.

Nessa was sitting as far forward at the front of our box as she dared, eagerly scanning the crowd, while Mama and Papa flanked her like the frame on a portrait. “There,” she hissed, her perfect chin jutting ever so slightly toward a box across from us. “He is here!” And so he was. One gilded layer of boxes above us and slightly to the left, the Marquess of Rushton was in close conversation with a gentleman a good many years older than himself.

“Albemarle,” my mother demanded, “who is that man? Have we met?”

Papa, discreetly directed by the tip of Mama’s fan, found his quarry. “Ah! That is Alexander Allan,” he rumbled. “Director of the East India Company.”

Grateful for the protection of my nearly hidden position, I stared. Was this a hint of what the marquess had been doing all those years in India? Surely not. For all their power, even to the extent of military might, the men of the East India Company—often called the John Company—were merchants. Members of the ton might invest in the Company, but beyond that . . . merchants were denigrated as “cits.” One did not actually associate with them.

Younger sons did.

But Rushton had been the heir, not a younger son.

Yet there he was, enjoying the opera in the box of the Director of the John Company. Would Papa disapprove? A cynical smile tugged at my lips. More likely, he would be entertaining visions of guineas and pound notes. And who could blame him? The Evesham family could boast an ancient title, but few of Papa’s ancestors had a head for increasing the family coffers. All too many, in fact, had lived in the grand manner on an income that allowed for only modest aspirations to luxury. To put it bluntly, Papa was considering settlements as much as Rushton’s title and prestige when putting Nessa in his path.

I brooded a bit, all alone in the back row as the music washed over me. The niggling thought occurred to me that I was the tiniest bit envious of Nessa’s grand opportunity. Surely not. Yet the idea continued to grow in my mind, rather like an insidious weed. No taste for the infantry. If Rushton again cast eyes in my direction . . .

As I applauded the end of Act I, I realized I had scarcely heard a note. Hands folded in my lap, head bent, I vowed to pay more attention to the next act. The singers and the orchestra were expending a great deal of time and talent; the least I could do was pay attention!

A shadow loomed in the doorway. A tall, almost menacing shadow that moved gracefully into the light, revealing the weathered countenance of the Marquess of Rushton. After a cool nod in my direction, he greeted Papa, Mama, and Nessa, engaging them in polite conversation that proclaimed to the entire Opera House his interest in the Evesham family. Most particularly, Lady Vanessa Evesham. Wonder of wonders, Nessa was about to become the front-runner in the betting books at every club in town.

I should have been delighted for her.

The sound of handbells ringing in the corridor warned that the second act was about to begin. Rushton made his farewells, bowed to the Mama and Nessa and, to my astonishment, paused long enough to step into my row, looming over me like a mountain over anthill—or so it felt. “Lady Marian.” With what I was certain was deliberate insolence, he allowed his gaze to drop to my décolletage, which from his towering position meant he could see just about all the way—

He winked at me. And left.

I heard not a note of the remainder of the opera.

Mama and Nessa were, of course, in alt over the marquess distinguishing Nessa with his attention. They could talk of nothing else. Indeed, they seemed almost relieved when I declared that I would not attend Lady Fortescue’s Breakfast (at three in the afternoon) or the Ludlow’s rout party that evening. Mama, in fact, went so far as to give me a nod of approval. I was the good elder daughter, doing exactly as instructed.

The truth of the matter was, I was incensed. Furious. The marquess was playing a game to which only he knew the rules. I could not like it.

That far-too-intimate wink could have meant anything from See how I’m pulling the wool over your family’s eyes to How long must I wait ’til I have you in my bed?

Or had it been a simple comment from one solitary, soul to another: See what fools we all are, caught in the ton’s maneuvering.

Whatever his intentions, I would not play. The Marquess of Rushton could go hang.

You’re whistling him down the wind? my inner voice cried.

Well, put that way . . .

The Marquess of Rushton might be rude, arrogant, high-handed . . . his motives unfathomable, yet I could not remove myself from the game board. There was no way I was going to miss what happened next.

The next afternoon, I was in Mama’s sitting room, attempting to make sense of the month’s household accounts before Mama handed them over to Papa’s secretary—which frequently resulted in considerable ranting and raving when Papa learned that the only thing that was decipherable in the hodgepodge of figures was that the total far exceeded the amount he deemed acceptable. Even in the country Mama was not what one would call “of a practical nature,” and in London during the Season with a treasure like Nessa to display . . . ? I glared at the stack of bills beside the account book, nibbled on the feather tip of my quill, and sighed, doubting there was any way, short of fraud, I could make the figures palatable.

“Lady Marian.” Soames, our butler who had known me from the cradle, stood in the doorway, his face reflecting disapproval. “There is a caller, my lady,” he pronounced in icy tones. “I have informed him that Lady Albemarle and Lady Vanessa are not at home, but he states he will not go away until he has spoken with you.” Soames paused, his look of disapproval deepening. “I beg your pardon, my lady, but I did not feel I could oust him. Lord Rushton is very large,” he added apologetically. “I have put him in the drawing room.”

My quill wavered, shooting a blob of ink onto the pristine surface of Mama’s rosewood desk. I gasped, blotted it with the cloth kept expressly for such disasters, scrubbing the surface until it shone. Slumping back into my chair, I turned back to Soames. “You may inform the marquess I will be with him shortly.”

Rushton wished to see me! My stomach roiled, my hands shook.

Nessa aside, was this an acquaintance I wished to pursue? I could say I was ill, an excuse that would signal I had no interest in his attentions . . .

Except, heaven help me, it wasn’t true. I was like a moth to a flame.

And we all know the inevitable end of that story.

Be quiet!

How fortunate I was wearing one of my new gowns. I stood, smoothed my skirt, patted my hair in place . . .

Admit it—you dressed for the unexpected.

I slammed the door on my nagging conscience and made my way to the drawing room.

Rushton was standing with his back to the door, peering out at the central park that ran the length of Berkeley Square, an area filled this time of day with children and their nursemaids. Sensing my presence, he turned and bowed. As he straightened, his gaze swept over me in that appraising way he had, as if seeing not only my garments but the body beneath, and straight on into my soul. I shivered, rendering my curtsy a trifle on the wobbly side.

I was about to invite him to be seated when he spoke first. “Lady Marian, I have within the hour become the owner of a curricle and pair. I hope you will be willing to join me in my initial drive through the park. I understand it is de rigueur for any aspirant to fashion to be seen in the park at this hour.”

“Somehow I had thought the Marquess of Rushton above such aspirations.” I winced. The pert Marian Evesham of 1810 had reappeared just when I did not want her.

He chuckled, not at all put out. “I have a sister who will make her come-out next year, a brother who will enter the ton in the not-too-distant future.. For their sakes, if not for my own, it behooves me to be on good terms with the society we live in. So what say you, my lady, will you join me?” His penetrating blue eyes boldly offered a challenge.

I examined him as thoroughly as he had examined me. “Tell me, my lord, how long has it been since you last drove a curricle?”

This time Rushton did not chuckle, he laughed out loud. A rumbling baritone I could not help but find attractive. “I assure you, Lady Marian, we had similar vehicles in India. And, I might add, I was considered an outstanding whip when I first made my mark on the ton.”

“More than a dozen years ago, I believe?”

“Now I am on my mettle,” Rushton declared. “You must allow me to prove myself.” He held out his gloved hand in a gesture I found imperious. And compelling.

Although I bristled at his tone, my inner self was triumphant. The Marquess of Rushton was asking me—me!—to ride with him in Hyde Park before the eyes of the crême de la crême of the ton.

Nessa would kill me.

Any row we might have would be worth it.

I paused only long enough to don a spencer and my most fashionable bonnet and we were off in the latest style in two-wheeled vehicles, the spokes picked out in yellow, and drawn by a smashing pair of matched grays. And driven to an inch by the Marquess of Rushton, who clearly had not forgotten how to thread his way through London traffic with ease.

I was forced to face the truth. For all his oddities and rough edges, the marquess was a man to be reckoned with—a giant who would attract attention on Rotten Row like flies to honey. And I would be the female sitting beside him.

I struggled with a sudden rush of tears. A game. He was playing a game. I had to remember that.

But it had been six long years since I had driven through the park with anyone but Mama or Nessa. And once or twice with Nigel when he had slowed down long enough to take pity on me. Yet here I was on a bench seat high in the air, alone with the Marquess of Rushton—except, of course, for the groom perched behind. The sun was shining, the wheels of other carriages rumbling, the clip-clop of hooves echoing across the landscape. The park smelled of spring greenery, of horses, of great consequence, and vast sums of money. It truly did not matter what Rushton’s motive was, I was on top of the world, loving every minute. It was glorious.

I would not—absolutely would not—think about what Mama and Nessa would say.

Chapter 5

For some distance on the south side of Hyde Park, the carriage drive parallels Rotten Row, a broad path designated for those on horseback, making us the cynosure of all eyes from both passing carriages and riders trotting by on a stunning variety of high-bred horses. Oh dear. It was possible Mama and Nessa would hear of what they would consider my betrayal even before I returned to the house. My euphoria wavered. Chin up, I breathed in the fresh spring air and settled myself more firmly on the seat (where only a scant few inches separated me from Lord Rushton).

I fixed a gracious smile on my face, nodded to occasional acquaintances, and soaked up the pure joy of circling the vast park in the company of a gentleman of distinction. Even if there were times I was not certain if the marquess was as much of a gentleman as he should be, for what use he had for a widow of my age was certainly suspect.

We encountered a great many speculative looks—few attempting to hide their enormous interest in the sight of the two of us together. Our progress was slow as a rather astonishing number of people claimed acquaintance with Rushton from the days of his youth, welcoming him home with enthusiasm. And inevitably there were acquaintances of mine who seized the opportunity to be introduced to the most eligible bachelor in the ton.

We had just turned onto the north carriage drive when my eyes widened at the approach of a particular curricle and high-stepping pair of bays. The driver’s face worked through a variety of expressions before going perfectly blank as he urged his horses to a brisk trot and passed us at a spanking pace that raised a swirl of dust. I covered my mouth and nose with my hand, but could not completely stifle a cough.

“My apologies, my lady” Rushton said. “Do you know that young pup? He had the most peculiar look on his face.”

“It was not your fault,” I assured the marquess, the effect of my pronouncement spoiled by yet another hacking cough. I fished in my reticule for a handkerchief, blew my nose as daintily as possible, while silently railing at Nigel for being such . . . such a . . . I grimaced.

“Yes, I know him,” I admitted, “and must confess I understand his dilemma. That was my brother Nigel, who undoubtedly felt constrained by the rules of society which prevent him from introducing me to his companion.”

“A-ah.” Rushton had the temerity to chuckle. “And lovely she was too. The boy has good taste.”

That either of us on such short acquaintance should feel free to discuss Cyprians was outrageous, and yet I never hesitated. Our repartee seemed to flow as naturally as a brook through a meadow. Which was positively terrifying, as once again the rules of the game eluded me.

Speaking of Cyprians . . . I pasted a look of polite interest on my face as I eyed the sole occupant of the carriage slowing to a halt beside us. Well . . . to be perfectly truthful, Lady Melisande Mablethorpe was not a Cyprian. At least I doubted the ton’s more adventurous gentlemen left a pile of golden guineas on her dressing table, but the lady (in title only) was most certainly the female equivalent of a rake. She had survived marriage to a man thirty years her senior to become the most strikingly beautiful and dashing widow in the kingdom. Society’s darling, the ton continually poised with bated breath to see what she would do next.

Today, it seemed, she had chosen to accost the Marquess of Rushton. Had they been introduced? Or was she taking advantage of her extremely limited acquaintance with me to maneuver an introduction?

Did it matter? Lady Melisande Mablethorpe was displayed to perfection on the rear seat of a stylish open barouche. Her daygown of emerald silk spread in perfect folds over midnight velvet squabs. Chestnut hair peeped out from under a saucy matching confection trimmed with ostrich feathers, and a lace-edged parasol, tilted at a coy angle, allowed her to peep up at Rushton in the alluring manner she practiced with such perfection. I readjusted my polite smile, which had slipped—considerably—and nodded.

She did not notice, of course, her entire attention on the marquess. “Rushton,” she gushed. “My dear Blake, how delightful to see you again after all these years.”

Drat! Clearly, they were very well acquainted.

“Melisande,” Rushton rumbled, “the years have been kind. You are as beautiful as ever.”

“You must call upon me,” she offered with an arch look I could not like. “I should be enchanted to hear about your years in India.”

Rushton bowed, and without confirming any intention to call, drove on. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“You do not like her,” he said.

“I suppose,” I returned carefully, searching deep for the truth, which rather surprised me as the words tumbled out. “I look at her and see the so-called Merry Widow, which I am not. I admit to envy of her easy way with the world. Her confidence. Her independence. It is not that I would wish to walk in her shoes, but she reminds me that I have perhaps been too conventional, kept too close to home. That I have turned my back on life . . . when perhaps I should not.”

We had come back around to the Serpentine, and Rushton slowed his horses, driving off onto the grass and coming to a halt. “That was well said,” he approved. Turning to his groom, he said, “Ned, you may take a walk, feed the ducks if you choose.” He tossed a coin, which the groom caught—payment for the women who sold bread crumbs at the edge of the long pond.

“Ta.” Ned jumped down and headed for the calm blue water, its surface disturbed only by ducks, ducklings, and rowboats scattered here and there.

“So you have a brother as well as a sister,” Rushton offered.

Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-32 show above.)