Alone with the Marquess Preview

A Steamy Regency Romance

 

About the book

In your eyes, I see something to believe in...

As a stubborn bluestocking, Anna Birks has vowed to never marry the repulsive Marquess of Brimdam no matter how handsome he is. Their marriage has been arranged ever since she was a babe, but she does everything in her power to avoid it. So when they are stuck together for the holidays, a passion she didn't know possible awakens...

Constantine Keats, the Marquess of Brimdam, has been dealing with his fair share of pain. After his father dies, the responsibilities are too much to handle and he is more than overwhelmed. But once he is forced to spend yet another holiday with Anna, stealing her innocence is all he has in mind...

Unforeseen as it is, their love blossoms into something unexpected until someone desperately tries to tear them apart. Thirsty for revenge, their goal is simple: kidnap Anna and make her suffer from the sins of her father.

Can Constantine save her from this fate?

Prologue


“Are you going to sit all curled up like that reading the entire day? Do you know what they call ladies like you?” Anna Birks did not lift her head from the book; instead frowned in annoyance. She had found an excellent spot in the study where she could bask in the sunlight while being concealed from the door. –

“Bluestockings,” she replied, her eyes still on the words of her novel.

“Yes, and that is not a good thing to be called.”

“Well, nobody asked you, so why don’t you just run off and hunt or joust or whatever it is gentlemen do for fun these days.”

“Boxing. I’m quite good at it if I do say so myself.”

“Congratulations! Now run along and be good at it somewhere else.”

Constantine frowned. “I can’t. My mother said I am to spend the day with you, properly chaperoned, of course.” He cast a glance at her governess, who was busy knitting in an armchair near the door of the study. The Brimdan children were rarely in this room, preferring more physical pursuits like riding, fishing, walking, or playing in the garden of their manor house. Anna was very different from them.

“Yes, well, you’ve done it already. I permit you to go. I promise I shan’t tell a soul.”

Constantine frowned at Anna. Of all the ladies his mother might have chosen for him, he did not understand what was so special about this one. Yes, her looks were striking with her jet-black hair – which she kept tightly bound beneath her cap – and her bright-blue eyes that seemed to sparkle in the sunlight. However, she had those pretty eyes buried in some book, so it wasn’t as if anyone could see them.

He stood up slowly, “Well then, I shall take my leave of you now.”

“Goodbye.” She still did not look up from her book. Constantine did not like to be ignored. He was heir to the Marquis of Brimdan and was used to being treated with respect. In a fit of pique, he reached out and slapped the book from her hand, making her shoot to her feet, glaring daggers at him.

“You shouldn’t be so rude to your future husband.”

Her mouth twisted. “Future husband? I’d rather join a monastery,” she mocked.

His ego bruised and feeling rejected, he spun away, with his long brown hair swinging around with the force of his movement. “Do that then! I look forward to hearing what your father has to say about it.”

With that, he stormed off to the mews at the back of the Duke of Leosted’s townhouse in London. He told himself he was glad to be shot of her as he rode away toward his uncle’s home, on the outskirts of Mayfair. The Brimdans did not keep a London townhouse, being too ensconced in their estate manor for it to be financially wise. Constantine decided to head back there in the morning.

It was four years before he saw Anna again.


Chapter One


“But, Papa, I don’t want to go. The Marquis doesn’t even like me. Why can’t you forget about this very foolish idea?” Anna tucked resentfully into her breakfast. The news blindsided her as soon as she stepped into the morning room. .

Her father beetled his brow, going so far as to put down his fork. “Now, now, Anna, let’s not be hasty. You know that your mother loved the idea of you married to the Keats boy. He is very well-mannered, accomplished, and educated. They say he graduated from Cambridge with honors. He’s liable to teach you a lot if you gave him a chance.”

Anna snorted. The Constantine she remembered had little interest in books, and it was unlikely to have changed in just four years.

“I know he is recently bereaved; God rest his father’s soul in peace but, why should we be held to a bargain you made when I was barely in leading strings?” Anna could not hide the resentment in her voice.

“The former Marquis and I put a lot of thought into this, Anna. You know full well how predatory people can be. Heaven knows you read enough stories about them in those penny-farthing papers you think I don’t know about.” The Duke gave her a look. “Lord Constantine will protect you from all that.”

Anna sighed. “Papa, I might be fairly youthful, but I am not naïve. I can discern a man’s motives for myself.”

The Duke smiled ruefully, “You say that, and yet you cannot see the absolute gem of a man that Lord Constantine has grown into.”

Anna narrowed her eyes. “I have not seen him for four years, Papa!”

“True, but before that, how many summers did you spend together?. They came to see us at Leosted or you went to their estate at Brimdan. That one memorable summer, we all went to bathe where three-year-old Helen fell in the water and almost swallowed all the sulfurous water before Thomas rescued her. What else is there to know?”

 “I could hardly keep up with them! You know how boisterous they all are.”

“If I’m being frank, I’d rather hoped you’d be infected by their vigor. You were such a quiet little mouse as a child. It's not your fault,” her father patted her on the hand, “growing up alone in a house full of adults and without your mother wasn’t easy and don’t get me wrong. I am proud of the woman you have become. But I wanted you to have the experience of a large family.” He looked so sad. His eyes had, suddenly, a far-away look in them. Anna knew he remembered her mother, who had died in childbirth, as well as the twins she was carrying.

In truth, Anna had enjoyed being one of many when the Brimdan children visited. Even when she was younger, however, her interests were more literary than any of the Brimdan children. They were more inclined to enjoy climbing trees and tearing about unfettered by any concern for propriety.

Even the girls!

It confounded Anna quite a bit. She was now four years past her coming out; even though she’d found no man who interested her; she still did not want to contend with Constantine.

“Please, Papa, I don’t want to go!”

The Duke sighed, picking up his fork again and spearing the fish on his plate. “Let me make you one promise, Anna. If you go on this trip and you absolutely cannot stand to be anywhere near this young man, I shall move to break my promise to my late friend and end any expectation of an engagement.”

Anna glared at her father. What he said might sound like a concession but it was designed to weigh heavily upon her sensibilities. If she did not try with the new Marquis, she would have to live with the knowledge that she’d disappointed not only her family but his as well.

She expelled a breath loudly turning away from her father. “Very well, Papa. I shall go on this visit. But you should know that he hates me too.”

Her father cupped her cheek and smiled affectionately at her. “How could anyone hate this lovely face?”

Her cheeks heated and she snorted, dipping her head to hide the color in her cheeks. “You’re practicing upon me, Papa.”

He reared back in a dramatic fashion. “Me!” he declaimed theatrically, “I would never!”

Anna giggled, covering her mouth with her hands to disguise it. Despite herself, she was in a much better mood and not at all put out with her father. He had a special talent in that way. She could never stay annoyed with him for long.

A pity that Constantine is not the same.

***

Constantine tossed back an errant brown hair that always annoyed him by falling across his eye. “I know father wanted this and you also do Mother, but I wish there was more than one Birks to choose from. Anna is fairly tiresome.”

“Oh, Constantine, do not say that!” his mother flapped her fan at him. She had it with her even though it was hardly warm enough to require one. “It's unconscionably rude and you have not seen her in four years, so you cannot really know if she’s tiresome or not, can you?”

He leaned forward in his seat, wanting to look his mother in the eye. “Yes, I can, Mother. A leopard cannot change its spots.”

The Dowager Marchioness of Brimdan smiled as she leaned back in her flower embroidered armchair, made especially for her by her late husband. “Look at your sister, Helen. Not a year ago, she was not content unless she was swinging from the trees; and now she’s a proper, polished, and accomplished young lady, ready to come out next season.” She gestured outside the large bay window of the drawing- room where they could see Helen twirling a parasol as she walked in the gardens with Henry Charles Rinkler, a neighbor who came to call on her even though she was not due to come out until next summer. Things being a little more informal in the country than in Town, Henry seemed to want to stake a claim before anyone else could.

Constantine shuddered. “Ugh, don’t remind me. I am not looking forward to chaperoning her to the balls.” He sighed, “Why is everything so tedious?”

His mother put her hand on his knee. “I know it’s been difficult, taking over everything when your father died. But allow me to say you’re doing a remarkable job.”

He covered her hand with his. “Thank you, Mother. That means a lot.”

“You’re welcome, Dear. Now, get your brothers and sisters ready. We are to travel to the Duke’s winter estate. They will meet us there.”

Constantine sighed, but stood up and went to do as he was bid.

***

The winter sun was out as they set off for Newcastle, and Anna decided to take it as a good sign. She always loved the paradox of it, sun brightening the place, while the cold wind sawed through her clothes, necessitating a shawl around her shoulders and a blanket wrapped snugly around her legs. Her lady’s maid made sure to pack some hot chocolate to drink as they rode, always a risky venture with the number of potholes they encountered.

Papa liked to sit up with the coachman except in inclement weather. With the bright sunshine, he was content to settle in and discuss the horses in great detail, a subject they were both thoroughly fond of. Anna, meanwhile, had plenty of books to entertain her along the journey. Matilda, her lady’s maid, had learned to read in self-defense. Otherwise, she might have spent many hours staring blankly at nothing as they rode together. 

The silence was companionable, and Anna had resolved to be of good cheer now that she’d agreed to this venture.

It could be worse. Papa might have married me off to some old Duke for the connections like Lady Millie.

The daughter of a viscount with a family whose dibs were not in tune, Lady Millie Eldritch had been shipped off to the Cotswolds to marry a reclusive Duke whose first wife had died of consumption. Anna was in no danger of suffering the same fate, but the way she saw it, she was still obligated to marry a man who had favor with her father. It irked her greatly.

She thought back to the last disastrous time she and Lord Brimdan had been in the same vicinity. The day he slapped the book from her hands and then ran off. They had gone for a walk along a brook that bordered their property at the behest of her father. Anna had found a convenient stump of wood to sit on and had refused to move another step.

Of course, Constantine had been annoyed, and his behavior had been less than chivalrous, but she’d been quite relieved to be left alone. The Duke, however, had not taken kindly to Constantine going off on his own and leaving her to her own devices. Constantine had taken the blame upon himself, not uttering a word about Anna telling him to leave. But since then, he hadn’t spoken so much as a word to her.

She did not know what his mother might have said to persuade him to give this peculiar thing between them one more chance. She imagined it must have been something along the lines of his father’s last wishes.

She refused to cause trouble, but she honestly did not see how this was going to work.

***

Traveling with his entire family was always a great big production; three carriages just for the family plus an extra one to carry the luggage. At least five armed guards always accompanied them to protect against brigands even though they tended to stop at whatever inn was convenient for the night. It was the first time they’d be spending the Christmas holidays with the Birks, although Constantine had been to the winter estate a time or two as a boy.

It was truly a picturesque place with a view of the mountains and excellent opportunities to skate and sled should there be enough snow. So far, the weather had been fairly mild for the season, but one could hope. He was looking forward to brushing up on his skills. He wrapped his heavy coat tighter around him, standing hunched by the horses as he waited for his two sisters, Helen and Cassandra, to hurry back to the house for ‘one last thing I forgot.’ Constantine sighed to himself.

At this rate, we’ll have to unpack the carriages and start over tomorrow.

Thomas, his second-born brother, came to stand by him, arm perched on his shoulders. “What do you reckon? Will we leave by noon or not?”

“Please, let us not even speak of it. If these girls don’t hurry up and get in the carriage, I will bring out my switch.”

Thomas threw back his head and laughed. “You do that very well.”

Constantine turned to him, “What do I do?”

“Act strict, as if you were father.”

There was a small silence; having invoked his name, Thomas now seemed regretful to having mentioned the late Marquis. Constantine felt a slight bump to the ever-present pressure in his chest that had not abated since the funeral. Everything he did, he felt somehow that he fell short of his father’s expectations.

Finally, Helen and Cassandra settled in the carriage with their mother. Thomas, Constantine, and their third brother, Samuel, would take the next one, while the servants and ladies’ maids would ride in the third. The guards would ride horses and flank the carriages. It was quite a way to the North Pennines, and Constantine was not looking forward to arriving, although he did enjoy the journey.

There was always something to see along the way.

What or rather who he was not looking forward to seeing, was Anna. He wondered if her disposition was still as sour as it had been then. He hoped not. Otherwise, this trip would be unbearable. He was resolved to try his best and woo her, see if they could make this marriage work. After all, love was not essential. As long as they could get along well, it should be fine.

At least, I hope so.


Chapter Two


They were an hour out from Newcastle when Anna put her book down, her excitement rising the closer they came to their winter wonderland. She loved the North Pennines – it was the most beautiful landscape she’d ever seen. Every time they visited, she always made her father take her to Hadrian’s Wall and tell her all the stories he knew about the Romans and the Picts who were said to have built it. They sometimes took day trips up to the Scottish borders or down to the Northumberland coast, all places that were rife with captivating histories and tales.

Anna did not mind outdoor excursions when there were stories involved. She loved the bleak romanticism of the lonely crags and valleys, especially in the winter. It seemed a place where star-crossed lovers might meet in secret, and decry their forced separation before slinking home again.

The sweeping moorlands of the North Pennines and cascading waterfall, as well as the colorful hay meadows, gave an excellent backdrop to Anna’s imagination. In addition to reading tales of doomed romance, she liked to pen her own little stories that no one would ever read. While her father went fishing, she would take long picnic walks along the grouse moors, sit on some craggy rock and write.

I suppose I shan’t be able to do that now. Not with all the Brimdans underfoot.

Although she was fairly certain they would find plenty of ways to occupy themselves, she was their hostess, and she would have to join in their no-doubt boisterous pursuits. Her heart sank as she sighed, mood dropping. She slumped back in her seat. “I used to enjoy Christmas.”

“What changed?” Matilda asked mildly, not bothering to look up from the pages of her book.

“The Brimdans. You know they’ll have us running around like headless chickens, don’t you?”

Matilda smiled. “Maybe they’ll have developed a penchant for the piano.”

Anna snorted. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Matilda cast her a glance and smiled. She reached out and patted her hand. “In any case, I don’t expect they’ll arrive before tomorrow. So you have the place to yourself until then.”

“Oh, how lovely!” Anna cast Mildred a glance of utter disgust. “I get one day of peace.”

Matilda laughed. “If you’d like, I could arrange for you to escape them once in a while. They don’t know the moors as well as we do.”

“That’s true, but it would be unbelievably rude. Papa would be very disappointed.”

“Well, then look at it as a new kind of adventure.”

“Mm.” Anna turned away to look out of the window and decided to enjoy the scenery. They would be home in less than an hour, and Matilda was right. She could enjoy the Manor for the one day she had her home to herself.

To her surprise, they stopped off at an inn on the outskirts of Newcastle. The Duke alighted from the top of the carriage and came to hand her out of the carriage.

“What are we doing here?”

His Grace smiled. “The Dowager and I agreed to meet at this inn as they are not sure of the way to the Manor. It has been quite a few years since they joined us there. They were not sure of the route from here.”

“Oh.” Anna schooled her face as she realized that she would not have even a single day to herself.

The Duke smiled, “Come on! I had Wilkins book our rooms in advance so they should be ready. You can freshen up and then perhaps we can take a walk and stretch our legs? I can tell you a story about Newcastle.”

Anna smiled. She was a grown woman but her father still sometimes tended to speak to her as if she were a toddler in need of bribes to do as he wished. “All right, Papa. I shall meet you downstairs in an hour.”

The inn was familiar to her since they ate there on their way home to the Pennines. Rose Manor, their winter home, had its own staff, headed by Wilkins, the butler. They usually began cleaning and decorating at the turn of the season in preparation for the Duke and Anna’s arrival. Many times, they sent a scout to the inn to wait for the carriages to arrive. While the Birks ate lunch at the inn, the scout would hurry home to warn the rest of the household that the Duke was approaching, giving them time to light all the fires and warm the rooms.

This time they sent one of the grooms, who had grown up at the manor. Hendricks greeted Anna with excitement and the Duke with deference. “Welcome, Your Grace, My Lady. It is our honor to be hosting guests for the Christmas festivities this year. I do assure you that we have prepared enough rooms for them all. Good news! The lake at the bottom of the garden is frozen over, and so you might be able to do some skating and sledding!” he clapped his hands in excitement.

Anna smiled. “How nice for them. Will you have a cup of tea with us before you set off for home?”

Hendricks’ cheeks flamed, and he seemed pleased with the invitation. “I’d love to stay, but I must go. They are waiting for word from me.”

The Duke nodded. “Go on then. I expect we’ll have some wassail awaiting us when we arrive?”

Hendricks bowed. “You can count on it, Your Grace.”

The Duke smiled and nodded as Hendricks hurried away to fetch his horse. He looked back at Anna. “Go on with you. I’m sure you’re anxious to shake the dust from your heels.”

Anna smiled, nodded, and walked away. She found that Matilda was already waiting in the room. A bowl of hot water was waiting for her as well as a change of clothes. She turned, allowing Matilda to unlace her bodice and loosen her skirt before stepping out of them. She discarded her underclothes, standing before the basin as Matilda wiped her down, then helped her don a simple wool gown, thick woolen stockings, and walking boots.

She went downstairs in search of her father and found him in the taproom, discussing coal prices with several patrons. She smiled, tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention. He looked up at her and smiled. “Anna, my dear, have a seat. I ordered you some soup and bread to fortify you before we go.”

Her stomach rumbled, and she sat down, just then realizing she was hungry. A server brought her a steaming bowl of vegetable soup and newly baked bread. She took a deep breath, taking in the delicious smell before tucking into it with gusto. Her father resumed his conversation, and she didn’t pay much attention to it, too focused on filling her belly.

A deep-clipped baritone invoking her father’s title had her dropping her spoon in a bid to see who had spoken. The deeply correct, yet melodic voice was clearly more at home in Ton company than wandering around inns in Newcastle. Her eyes locked with a pair of familiar green eyes, and she jerked in surprise. She could see that her shock was mirrored in his face and straightened her spine instinctively, breasts jutting forward. “Lord Brimdan?” the Duke sounded equally taken aback.

The man tore his eyes away from Anna’s to smile at the Duke. “Please continue to call me Constantine.”

The Duke got to his feet and reached out to shake his hand. “We were not expecting you until much later.”

Constantine smiled. “Yes, well, we had an early start, and everyone behaved for once and so we were able to make good time.”

“That’s wonderful.” He turned to Anna, “You remember my daughter, do you not?” he smiled impishly, “I know you were quite put out with each other before, but I’m hoping you can put that behind you.”

Constantine’s eyes returned to Anna. “That was a while ago.”

“Yes, it was. Now Anna and I were just about to embark on a walk to the moors. Perhaps you’d be kind enough to escort her instead?”

Anna frowned, annoyed at being passed from one to the other like baggage. Before she could say anything, her father turned to her. “Do you mind very much, my dear? It’s just that I’m hip deep in a discussion here, and I know it would not interest you in the slightest.”

She sighed, seeing right through his ruse but willing to play along. “Of course, I would be pleased for the Marquis to escort me if he should be so inclined.”

“It would be my pleasure.” Constantine made her an elegant leg before holding his hand out to her. She took it with a nod, getting to her feet and allowing him to lead her from the room. He seemed to have grown taller since she saw him and the breadth of him was quite compelling.

He wore a dark blue, huge greatcoat that nevertheless hugged his figure. His green eyes shone like emeralds, in contrast, his brown hair almost blending in the dimness of the hall. She looped her arm through the one he offered her as they walked sedately out the inn and into the comparatively bright outdoors.

Anna set a course for the hills, catching sight of the Brimdan carriages emblazoned with the family crest. “Where is the rest of your family?” she asked.

“Oh, they went up to their rooms to freshen up. They should find your father presently.”

Anna nodded. “And how was your journey?”

She blinked up at him, taken aback again at how much she was affected by his presence. It was not just his dark-brown hair, tied in a queue at the back of his neck and falling part way down his back; although that brought to mind rakish pirates and had her feeling quite dizzy. There was just something about him, a charisma, exuded confidence that made her lose her breath.

Four years ago, he’d worn his hair at shoulder length and loved to toss it out of his eyes in the most dramatic fashion. Anna used to find it annoying. Now she could barely breathe at how every sharp angle of his face stood out in stark relief with his hair tied back like that.

She couldn’t deny that he was an extremely handsome man.

How did I not see this before?

He smiled down at her. “And how have you been, Anna? I do hope four years has softened your stance a bit toward me.”

She just stared at him, spellbound by his smile. “Well, you do seem to have…grown…quite a bit.”

“I will take that as a compliment.”

“It was meant to be.”

His eyes brightened, and he seemed pleased. “If I may say so, you continue to be as beautiful as I remember, Lady Anna. I’ve always thought so.”

She lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “Is that so?”

“Yes, I did not feel quite comfortable expressing my admiration for your looks at the time, seeing as you showed such obvious contempt for me.”

Anna grimaced. “It wasn’t contempt. I was just…young and impatient. I wanted to read my books and think. You all are so…loud.”

Constantine smiled. “I regret to inform you that we’re still quite…loud.”

Anna nodded. “I know it. Perhaps it’s easier to accept after four years of quiet.”

Constantine threw back his head and laughed, the sound loud enough to echo across the moor. “I expect you’ll be tired of us soon enough.”

She spread out her hand grinning at him. “The moors are vast. I am sure I could lose you in them.”

“But what if I offer to be very quiet?”

“You have four siblings.”

“I shall send them off to sled and hunt grouse, perhaps some fishing if it’s possible.”

“I’m told the lake is frozen over so you can sled. I do not know about the fishing.”

“In any case, I shall find them things to do far from you.”

She squeezed his arm. “Don’t trouble yourself. I have promised my father and now I promise you too, I shall make a most attentive and entertaining hostess.”

Constantine smiled. “I have a feeling that we shall get along famously.”

Anna looked up at him and smiled back. “How strange. I had that very same feeling.”

With her attention occupied by his face, she did not see the stone in her path and tripped over it. With a squeal, she pitched forward, almost landing on her face. Her forward progress was stopped by a strong hand about her waist and she looked up in gratified surprise.

“Oh…” her breathing came in short pants as he pressed her against his hard body in an effort to stand her upright again.

He leaned down to stare at her, his breath ghosting her ear. “Are you all right?”

She turned, blinking at him in confusion. “I…don’t know.”

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