Loving the Marquess
Tagline: When love seems impossible.
She is on the verge of losing everything…
To save her home and keep her two younger siblings safe, Louisa Evans must turn to the head of the family that ruined hers.
He needs an heir…
The Marquess of Overlea is starting to show signs of having inherited the same illness that killed his father and older brother. To prevent the marquisate from falling into the hands of an unscrupulous cousin, Overlea must secure an heir before that illness also claims him.
But he is determined not to be the father of that heir…
Overlea’s plan is simple—marry the practical, yet desperate, Miss Evans and hold Louisa to her promise to provide him with an heir. But he waits until after they are married to tell his wife that he intends to have another man father that heir. His careful plan becomes complicated by an almost desperate need to claim Louisa for himself and an outside threat that proves even more dangerous than his illness.
Loving the Marquess is book 1 in the Landing a Lord series. (Approximately 76,000 words.)
A knock at the door in the middle of the night never brought good news. Casting a longing glance at the welcoming bed she’d been about to sink into, Louisa Evans tied the sash of her dressing gown. Pushing aside the weariness that threatened to drag her down, she hurried downstairs.
She expected to find one of her neighbors when she opened the door and was surprised to find, instead, a stranger. A very tall man with dark hair who sagged against the door frame, his eyes closed. She shivered as the cool autumn air cut through her nightgown and dressing gown.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
When he didn’t reply she wondered if he were foxed and had somehow stumbled across their cottage. She placed a hand on his arm to gain his attention and repeated her question.
His eyes opened and he pinned her with a gaze that was dark and penetrating.
“I require assistance…” he managed to say before closing his eyes again.
He swayed slightly and started to slide down the doorframe. Moving instinctively, Louisa had her shoulder under his arm in a moment, steadying him as he collapsed. He was much larger than she, and for a second she thought she would collapse with him.
She straightened and stared down, stunned, at where he sat propped against the doorframe. Hesitating only a moment, she leaned over him to smell his breath and detected a faint hint of alcohol. She brought a hand to his forehead and was alarmed to find he had a fever.
Another blast of the night air, uncharacteristically cold this early in September, had her shivering in earnest now. She would have to move the stranger inside and close the door. She didn’t know what was wrong with him, but with his fever he couldn’t afford to catch a chill. She wasn’t strong enough, however, to carry him inside on her own.
Her decision made, she hurried upstairs and rapped on her brother’s door. When he didn’t answer, she entered the room and shook him awake.
“What’s the matter?” he mumbled, his eyes still closed.
“I need your help. There’s a man downstairs who is ill. He collapsed on our doorstep.”
John jolted awake at the mention of the stranger. At eighteen, he was seven years younger than her, but since their father had died he’d decided it was his duty to protect the family.
He dressed quickly and followed her downstairs to where the man sat, still propped up, in their doorway.
“Who is he?”
Louisa shook her head. “I don’t know, but he’s ill and the cold can’t be good for him. Help me bring him inside so I can close the door.”
They managed to rouse the man enough to help him to his feet, supporting his weight between them. He was unsteady and their progress was slow, but at her insistence they managed to bring him to her room, which was still warm from her recently banked fire. He collapsed on her bed with a groan.
“I’ll see to his comfort,” she told John. “I saw a horse outside that must belong to our guest. He’ll need to be cared for.”
John set his shoulders and she knew he was going to insist that she look after the horse. She cut him off before he could protest the impropriety of the situation.
“Do you actually believe this man is in any condition to do me harm?”
Her brother hesitated, but it was clear the stranger had lost consciousness. Grumbling something under his breath about bossy sisters, he turned and left to see to the horse.
Louisa occupied herself with rebuilding a fire in the small fireplace before turning to look at the man lying on her bed. Despite her assurances to her brother, she was nervous. She’d cared for their father during his long illness, but this man was nothing like their father.
She approached the bed and looked down at him, and her heart fluttered as she realized just how handsome he was. His hair was a dark brown, almost black, framing a face that had no doubt caused many other hearts to beat faster, as well. Despite his fever, he was very pale, his skin drawn taught over high cheekbones and a strong jaw that was already showing a hint of stubble.
She swallowed hard as her gaze traveled down the length of him. He was asleep, but his presence filled the room. She shook her head to clear it and turned away, telling herself that caring for this man would be no different than caring for her father as she went to her washstand and poured water from the pitcher into the washbasin. Concentrating on the familiar task, she set the basin on her bedside table, dipped a washcloth into the water, and wrung it out. Her hands were not quite steady as she washed his face, hoping the cool water would bring him a measure of comfort. Her movements were brisk, but slowed when he moaned. His eyes opened and she froze as his black, inscrutable gaze caught and held hers.
She was spiraling downward, drowning in twin pools of darkness. The heat in the room seemed to increase as a flush spread through her body. The seconds ticked by, seeming to stretch into minutes.
Without another sound, the stranger’s eyes closed again. She dragged in a shaky breath and shook off the paralysis that had stolen over her. She could not, however, shake off her sense of unease.
Her hands were still shaking when she dropped the damp cloth into the basin. Pushing aside her trepidation, she moved to the bottom of the bed to remove his boots. She hesitated only a moment before placing one hand on the heel of the black leather molded to his right leg and the other on his knee. A jolt of awareness surged through her at the contact and she jerked back. Her gaze flew to the stranger’s face, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw he was still asleep. She would have died of mortification if he’d seen her foolish reaction to touching him.
She tugged off his boots before turning her attention to removing his coat, but she knew her bravery did not extend that far. Her bedcovers were already turned down and it took only a couple of tugs to free them completely from under his legs. Concentrating on the blankets and not on his form, she covered him before exhaling the breath she’d been holding. Most of him was now hidden from sight, but she found it impossible to ignore the keen sense of awareness brought on by the knowledge that a very attractive man now slept in her bed.
Trying to ignore the less than chaste thoughts that rose, unbidden, to her mind, Louisa retrieved a blanket for herself from the trunk at the foot of her bed and settled into a chair to wait. When John returned from seeing to their unexpected guest’s horse, he tried to insist on taking her place, but if the stranger’s condition took a turn for the worse John wouldn’t know what to do. He helped her to remove the man’s coat and loosen his cravat before returning to his own room, but only after extracting her promise to fetch him when the man woke.
It was a long night. The stranger’s slumber was restless, interrupted, at first, by frequent bouts of thrashing and murmured words that were indecipherable. Eventually, he settled into a deep sleep and she was able to close her eyes and get some rest. She had just drifted off when a low moan woke her. She struggled up from her cramped position in the armchair by the bedside, and her blanket slid to the floor.
“Papa? Do you need anything?” she asked, disoriented after being pulled from the middle of a strange dream.
But the man lying in the bed, her bed, wasn’t her father. She was confused for a moment before the memories rushed back. After a year of failing health, her father had finally succumbed to death six months before. She leaned back in the chair and examined the stranger more closely in the faint morning light. She hadn’t dreamt him after all.
The fire had long since gone out and she shivered in the cool morning air. She picked up the blanket from where it had fallen, wrapped it around her shoulders, and took the few steps to the bed. Leaning forward, she laid a hand on the man’s forehead and breathed a sigh of relief when she found his temperature was normal.
She looked over at the window where the first rays of morning light were already creeping over the horizon and sighed softly. So much for a good night’s rest, she thought as she began to work the kinks from her knotted muscles.
Nicholas Manning’s head was killing him, but he was used to that. He raised a hand to rub at his temples, hoping to massage away the pain. Unable to stop himself, his thoughts went back to that time a few years ago, before his parents’ deaths. They’d been content, their love still evident even after more than thirty years of marriage. But then his father started complaining of headaches and his health began to deteriorate rapidly. Nicholas had spent most of his time in London, away from Overlea Manor, but he’d witnessed his father’s strange moods and increasing surliness on several occasions. Had witnessed how his father had pushed away all who’d loved him before the accident that had taken both of his parents’ lives.
He remembered, too, how his older brother had developed the same mysterious ailment last year. An ailment that had led to his death.
His father was sixty when he’d first started complaining about headaches. His brother’s attacks had started much earlier, at the age of thirty-two, and his illness had progressed more quickly. Nicholas was only twenty-eight, but he could no longer ignore the fact he was now showing signs of suffering from that same disease.
Pushing back his grim thoughts, he opened his eyes and squinted against the bright light streaming through the window. He began to sit up but froze when he took in the unfamiliar surroundings.
Vague images filtered back to him, most of them featuring a blond-haired, gray-eyed woman hovering over him. He frowned, trying to remember what had happened the night before, but his memory eluded him.
He surveyed the room around him. Where was he? Not in his London townhouse. He remembered receiving a letter from his grandmother the day before. While not unusual, his grandmother’s letters were rare enough to make him wary since she never bothered him with good news.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on the memory. He’d arrived home yesterday afternoon, and a footman had presented him with the letter. He remembered wondering what bad news he was about to read as he proceeded to his study and threw the letter on the desk. He’d poured himself a brandy before picking up the letter again and breaking the seal.
And that was all. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember what his grandmother had written. Nor could he remember anything after that. He must have read the letter. He always did. He’d learned long ago there was no point in putting off bad news.
He opened his eyes at the sound of the door opening to find a woman standing there. Could this be the woman he remembered hovering over him last night? She was younger than he’d thought, not yet twenty if his guess was correct. Her long blond hair, tousled from sleep, trailed over her shoulders.
He frowned. Had he spent the night with her? He must have been truly out of his head, because he didn’t usually dally with girls who were barely out of the schoolroom.
She was rubbing the sleep from her eyes when she entered. When her gaze met his, she froze. Her eyes were blue and wide with shock. Then, to his surprise, she opened her mouth and screamed.
Well, this was different. He’d made many women shriek in his day, but usually with pleasure.
©2012 Suzanna Medeiros