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The Rogues' Dynasty A Marquis to Marry
By Amelia Grey
Sourcebooks Inc. Copyright © 2009 Amelia Grey
All right reserved.
Chapter One My Dearest Grandson Alexander,
I am confident you will agree with these wise words from Lord Chesterfield: "At all events, a man had better talk too much to women, than too little."
Your loving Grandmother, Lady Elder
Alexander Mitchell Raceworth, the fourth Marquis of Raceworth, stared at the cards in his hands, but his mind was on the surprisingly bold, albeit beautiful Miss Maryann Mayflower. She sat beside him, slowly rubbing her foot up and down his leg. It was her second Season, and the talk around the clubs was that she would do anything to make a match before it ended.
That rumor gave Race pause, even though the invitation she issued under the table was tempting. He never minded a tryst in the garden from a willing miss, but he wasn't interested in getting caught in a parson's mouse trap.
For the past three years, Race had held an afternoon card party in his garden during the Season. Only this year, the coveted outdoor event had to be moved inside because of a hellish rainstorm. The social gathering was so well attended, he had to move the furniture out of his drawing room and the dining room and place it in other areas of the house so that he could accommodate the more than three dozen guests who had come to play whist, cribbageand speculation.
"Excuse me, your lordship."
Race looked up at his housekeeper. "Yes, Mrs. Frost?" "Could I have a word with you in private?"
The stocky-built woman was well-trained. She wouldn't interrupt him unless it was something important. "Of course, I'll be right with you."
He looked at the players at his table. There was the comely blonde who wasn't letting a little thing like a housekeeper standing so closely keep her from seducing him with her foot. The other lady at the table was the quite charming and unattached widow, Mrs. Constance Pepperfield, and the other gentleman of the foursome was his cousin Morgan, the ninth Earl of Morgandale.
Race laid his cards facedown on the white linen-covered table. "Excuse me, ladies, Morgan. I have to bow out of this hand. As you know, this is the problem with being the host of a party." "Must you?" Miss Mayflower asked, pouting.
"I'm afraid so," Race assured her pleasantly, and moved his leg away from hers. "It seems that duty is calling me. Morgan, can I depend on you to charm the ladies while I'm away?"
"More than happy."
"Good. Ladies, I'll return shortly," Race said with a smile.
He then rose and went in search of Mrs. Frost. He found her in the vestibule, closing the front door.
"You needed to see me?"
"Yes, my lord," she said with a grimace on her plump face. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I knew you would want to know that the Dowager Duchess of Blooming is here to see you."
Race's brows drew together. He didn't like surprises. "A dowager duchess to see me?"
"That's what the lady said."
Race started clicking off in his mind all the dowager duchesses he could remember and couldn't think of a reason any one them would come to see him. "I wonder what has brought her to my door."
"I have no idea, my lord."
Unlike his cousin Blake, the ninth Duke of Blakewell, who was notorious for forgetting appointments, Race knew every entry on his social calendar. He certainly would have remembered it if a dowager duchess had requested to call on him. But what was he going to do? He couldn't see her this afternoon. His house was stuffed with people chatting noisily around card tables.
"Where is Her Grace now?" Race asked Mrs. Frost.
"In her carriage. I didn't speak to her. The duchess sent her companion to the door to say she would appreciate a few minutes of your time, if you would be so kind." Mrs. Frost's eyes widened. "I told her you had a party going on. The companion apologized for the interruption and said Her Grace was content to wait in her coach until you are available to speak to her."
"That's odd," Race mumbled more to himself than his housekeeper.
"It was a quick win for me after you left," Morgan said, walking up to Race. "Those two ladies don't know much about card games. I gave them both a cup of punch and told them I would check in with you to see if you wanted us to wait for you or find another partner. What's going on?"
Race stepped away from Mrs. Frost and, in a low voice, said, "I don't really know. The Dowager Duchess of Blooming is here to see me."
His cousin's blue eyes narrowed. "Good Lord, who is she?"
"The devil if I know." Race brushed his light brown hair away from his forehead and studied over her name, drawing a blank. "There are at least a dozen dukes, if not more. I'm not acquainted with all of them. And I certainly don't know how many dowagers there are."
"The area of Blooming is up near the Northern Coast," Morgan offered. "That must be the reason we're not familiar with the name."
"It would seem so, but I haven't a clue why the dowager would be here to see me."
"Maybe she was a friend of our grandmother's and wants to converse with you about her."
"Damnation, Morgan, I can't do that now with a house full of lively guests to entertain. She's come without an appointment and says she's willing to wait until I'm available to see her."
Morgan grinned. "And I can see you are on the verge of telling her just where she can wait."
Race smiled mischievously. "Tempted? Yes."
"But you won't. Our grandmother would roll over in her grave that you would even think of treating an older, titled or not, lady any way other than if she were a queen."
"Don't remind me," he grumbled, all good humor vanishing from his face. "Why wouldn't Her Grace do the proper thing and leave, and then later make an appointment to see me?"
"It tells me she wants to do more than just converse about our grandmother. Is there any chance she's here because you seduced one of her maids, or worse, one of her granddaughters?"
Race glared at his cousin but stayed silent.
"Blast it, Race, whoever it is you've taken to your bed, I suggest you turn on that charm you are so famous for and make amends right now. It's better to win her over upfront. She'll go easier on you if you have to ask her forgiveness later."
"Bloody hell, Morgan. I don't even know who she is, so how can I know if I've seduced someone she's related to?"
"Are you in any other kind of trouble that I don't know about?"
"No," Race stated, cocksure.
"Hmm," Morgan said and then added, "It's too bad Blake and Henrietta missed the party. With his being a duke, they would know exactly what is and what isn't acceptable in a situation like this."
"Why the devil isn't our cousin here? What's he doing today, anyway?" Race asked in an annoyed tone.
"He married Henrietta two weeks ago." An amused twinkle danced in Morgan's bright blue eyes. "You figure out what he's doing on a rainy Sunday afternoon."
Race uttered a curse under his breath. "Oh, right."
"Where is Gibby? He's been around long enough he should know what to do."
"I don't know what he's up to. I received a short note from him earlier today, saying he couldn't make it."
"So what are you going to do about the duchess? She's waiting to speak to you; you can't just leave her in her carriage. That's an outrage."
As much as Race didn't want to concede to Morgan or the dowager, his grandmother had raised him and his cousins to respect women. As inconvenient as it was now, he couldn't change his nature. And he had to admit that the woman had piqued his interest. While he'd had his share of unannounced females appear at his door, none of them had been old or titled.
"You know I'll do the proper thing," Race finally admitted.
He called to Mrs. Frost, who had remained silently by the front door. "Go out to the carriage and inform Her Grace that I insist she come in and join the party. If she refuses, which I expect she will, have some of the servants move enough furniture out of the music room to make a comfortable place for her to sit down. See to it that she is served tea and some of Cook's plum tarts, and tell her I'll make time to see her."
Race turned to Morgan and grinned. "Satisfied?"
"I am, but she'll probably think you've treated her atrociously. You know how fretful dowagers get when they feel they haven't been pampered and treated as if they were queens. She will probably tell everyone what a scoundrel you are." Morgan chuckled lightly. "And if she does that, you will be the talk of the ton after this little escapade."
"Most certainly," Race agreed. "No doubt it will give the scandal sheets a week's worth of articles if anyone finds out I've not rushed to do her bidding."
"Or more, and the gossipmongers will love you for it. A titillating story makes them money. And look on the bright side of this."
"Is there one?"
"Of course. This could encourage other ladies to arrive at your door unannounced."
"I don't see any harm in that as long as they are younger than a dowager."
Morgan clapped Race on the back, and they laughed as they rejoined the party.
Several games of cards and at least two glasses of wine later, Race was enjoying another good hand of cards at a table with two delightful young ladies and their father, when Morgan tapped him on the shoulder.
Race looked up at his cousin and frowned.
Morgan leaned down and whispered, "Have you met with the mysterious duchess?"
"Not yet," Race said, glancing down at the amazingly good hand he had been dealt. "I was giving her time to have a cup of tea."
Morgan cleared his throat and whispered, "She's been in the music room over an hour. I think her cup might be empty by now."
That got Race's attention. "Has it been that long?"
Morgan nodded. "She's probably fuming by now."
Race downed the remaining wine in his glass, and with a grimace, asked his cousin, "Do you mind taking over this hand for me? Some problems just won't go away without a little push."
Once again, Race excused himself from the game and headed for his music room. Upon entering, he saw a prim-looking gray-haired woman dressed in black, sitting in a side chair with mountains of furniture piled up behind her.
Race stopped in front of her, bowed, and then took her hand and kissed it. "Your Grace, you should have joined us. I take it you aren't fond of cards, but I trust my servants have made every effort to keep you comfortable."
"Please, my lord, I am Mrs. Princeton." The tall woman rose and backed away from him while she curtsied. "May I present the Dowager Duchess of Blooming."
The woman pointed to a much younger lady who stood by the window, staring at him with an amused expression on her lovely face. Race's heart skipped a beat. The dowager was not an old, unattractive lady. She was a stunning beauty.
She walked toward him with a slow, confident stroll, stopping a respectable distance away. "You know, I've heard that about you," she said.
His stomach did a slow roll. "What's that?"
"That you can charm a leopard out of its spots and a nun out of her virtue."
Race raised one brow. "You shouldn't believe everything you read in the gossip pages."
"In your case, I think they may be right."
Race let his gaze slowly peruse her. He appreciated the fact that she looked him over as closely as he looked at her.
She had the prettiest eyes he'd ever seen. They were a light shade of green, large and expressive. She wore a forest green traveling dress banded at the high waist by a black velvet ribbon. Her shiny, dark brown hair was swept up to the top of her head with soft, wispy curls framing her face.
"Then tell me, Your Grace, are you a leopard or a nun?"
Mrs. Princeton gasped.
Race cleared his throat. For a moment, he'd forgotten the other woman was in the room.
The dowager quickly hid her grin behind her hand, not answering his question at first, but finally saying, "I can see you are surprised by my age, as most are," the duchess continued. "My husband died a short time after we married. His son from his first wife is now the Duke of Blooming, and he and his duchess reside at Chapel Glade in Blooming. I live nearby at Chapel Gate."
Her words brought to mind the vague memory of a young lady who married an older, reclusive duke because of an indiscretion. Could she be that lady?
"I see," he said. "I have to admit that you have caught me at a busy time, Your Grace, and I feel at a complete disadvantage."
"I'm sure that's not a place you often find yourself."
"To say the least."
Suddenly, that same amused smile played at her beautifully shaped lips again, and it irritated the hell out of him. So much for his and Morgan's thinking she'd be horrified at being left alone to sip her tea for the better part of an hour.
"Do you mind if we speak alone?" she asked.
She was full of surprises.
"No, of course not. I'm more than willing if you are sure you are comfortable with that."
"Your Grace?" the duchess's companion said, moving to stand closer to her. "Are you sure you want me to leave the room?"
"I am. The rain has stopped. Perhaps you could take a short walk in the garden."
"Yes, Your Grace." The woman's spine stiffened, and her shoulders lifted as she turned and marched out of the room.
The duchess turned back to him and smiled again. Race's heart fluttered so fast he felt thunderstruck. What the devil was that feeling all about? And why was he so sensitive to every move she made?
She was the most intriguing woman he'd ever met. And it had nothing to do with her being a duchess. Because of his cousin, Blake, Race had been around dukes and duchesses all his life, and he wasn't awed by them as were most of the people in Polite Society. Her Grace's beauty was very appealing, but that wasn't what unnerved him, either. He often had the pleasure of spending time with beautiful women.
She unsettled him because of her poise, her self-confidence, her regal manner. She was simply alluring, and when he looked at her, he was completely enthralled. His fingers itched to touch her. He had never met anyone so captivating. Everything about her told him that, with her, he had met his match.
"I believe I owe you an apology for arriving at your home unannounced."
"Why do I get the feeling you don't apologize often, Duchess?"
He saw a brief look of admiration flash in her eyes.
"I'm sorry that, in my eagerness to speak to you, I rushed right past my good sense as if I had none. I should have written and asked for an appointment to see you."
"That's difficult to dispute. I admit to being a little astonished that you didn't."
A soft smile lifted just one corner of her lips. "Only a little?"
She was teasing him. All right, it surprised him a damned lot!
The duchess was controlling their conversation, and he seldom let that happen with anyone other than his two cousins. She was too confident, too beautiful, and too desirable.
His gaze focused fully on hers, and in a more relaxed tone, he said, "Tell me what I can do for you, Your Grace."
"I'm here because you possess something that belongs to my family, and I want it back now."
Race went still. That proclamation raised the hair on the back of his neck. He couldn't have been more shocked if she had suddenly slapped him.
What kind of accusation was that? You have something that belongs to my family, and I want it.
What astonishing nerve she had.
Race grinned, and then he laughed. She was truly an amazingly strong-willed lady who had no problem speaking her mind. He appreciated the courage he sensed in her, but he couldn't let her get away with being so brash.
His laughter caused the first crack in her overconfident demeanor. She bristled noticeably. It made him feel damned good to finally see her rattled.
"I'm sorry for laughing, Your Grace."
She lifted her chin a notch to counter his arrogance. "No, you aren't." Her voice was taut and steady. There was a determined set to her lips and genuineness in her eyes that gave him a moment's pause, but only a moment.
Excerpted from The Rogues' Dynasty by Amelia Grey Copyright © 2009 by Amelia Grey. Excerpted by permission.
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