You Can't Always Get the Marquess You Want
By Alexandra Hawkins
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Alexandra Hawkins
All rights reserved.
Black Goat Tavern, 1816
"You astound me, Fairlamb. Most days you are not so careless. Nevertheless, I am not one to question my good fortune. Seeing that I have gained the advantage and your attention, are you prepared to offer an apology?"
A wise man would have nodded and apologized. With his arms wrenched and pinned behind his back by an unknown foe, Mathias Rooke, Marquess of Fairlamb, clearly was at a disadvantage as he watched through his narrowed gaze while a familiar dark-haired gentleman with the build of a pugilist approached him with an air of confidence that revealed he reveled in having the upper hand.
Mathias was expressionless as he stared at the man, silently noting his disheveled evening attire and the clumsy retied cravat. Oliver Brant, Earl of Marcroft, appeared to have spent his evening fighting or in a brothel. Not that he was particularly concerned if Marcroft caught the French pox from an unfortunate harlot. The ladies of the ton had a high opinion of him, considering him fashionably handsome with his square jaw and prominent cheekbones.
All Mathias saw was the burning hatred in the man's hazel gaze.
He had only himself to blame for his current predicament. After all, it had been at his suggestion that he and his companions delayed their journey home by stopping at the tavern for a few pots of ale. He had also been the one to send his friends off to see to their horses as he settled the bill. Otherwise, he and Marcroft might not have crossed paths this day.
It was unfortunate for all involved that his decisions had placed him in the same room with Marcroft, since this particular gentleman tended to bring out the devil in him.
Mathias squared his shoulders. "Apologize for what precisely? My comment regarding your mistress's equine features was not meant for your big ears, Marcroft. If you take offense to an honest impression of the wench, then present your complaints to her mother and sire. It is not my fault you have appalling taste in —"
Pain burst like fireworks in his brain as the earl's right fist connected with Mathias's left cheekbone. His head snapped to the right, giving him a shower of bright sparks in his left eye and an instant headache.
Mathias shook off the pain as if he had been doused with a bucket filled with water. He smiled in a contemptuous fashion, deliberately baiting the man. "A respectable punch, Marcroft, I will grant you that. Order your mongrel to release me, and let us see how you fare when your opponent is unfettered — or do you take after your sire ... striking only the defenseless?"
"I am my own man," the man holding him in a ruthless grip growled into Mathias's ear.
The Earl of Marcroft's thunderous expression revealed Mathias had struck a definitive blow without using his fists. Although he was not personally acquainted with the earl's father, the Marquess of Norgrave, he had heard all kinds of nasty rumors about the gentleman's misdeeds his entire life, which included goading unskilled opponents into duels for amusement. He had also heard that his father, the Duke of Blackbern, had once called the marquess his dearest friend, though Mathias believed such a close connection was an exaggeration. Even if the duke had confirmed the rumor was true, he would have never believed it. His father was a decent, honorable gentleman. He was nothing like Marcroft or his immoral sire.
"Release him!" the earl curtly ordered.
About bloody time, was Mathias's savage thought.
Before his arms were released, Marcroft drove his large fist into Mathias's stomach. He doubled over, his internal organs shifting in silent protest at the abuse while he struggled not to throw up the ale he had imbibed with his friends.
The earl clapped his gloved hand on Mathias's shoulder and lowered his head until their gazes were level. "I grow weary of listening to your brazen tongue and dull wit, Fairlamb. Before you disgrace yourself further, I shall accept your apology so you may take your leave."
Mathias slowly straightened, scowling as he noted that Marcroft mimicked his actions. By Christ's holy hand, he despised the dark-haired tyrant. "Why would you wish for me to leave when you put so much effort into gaining my interest?"
The slight furrowing of the earl's forehead revealed that subtlety was lost on the heavily muscled brute.
Mathias pursed his lips together and kissed the air. "Tread carefully, good sir. Else your passions will be the death of you." To emphasize his point, Mathias drew his finger across the front of his breeches and then his throat.
The tavern's patrons quieted as a look of incredulity flashed across Marcroft's face before it was swiftly replaced by outrage at the unspoken accusation. The earl's companion, who was standing behind Mathias, murmured something, but the only words he could discern were "courting" and "death."
In the next breath, Marcroft lunged for him.
The casual observer might have deduced from Mathias's relaxed stance that he was too inebriated to defend himself. Admittedly, once he had noticed the earl's presence, the ale that he had imbibed might have influenced his reckless decision to provoke a confrontation. Nevertheless, there was a reason why his family and friends affectionately called him Chance.
Luck was often on his side.
Mathias did not brace himself for the impact of Marcroft's charge. Instead, he seized the man's expensive coat at the waist and allowed the momentum to pivot them as if they were dance partners. Halfway through the graceful turn, he released his hold and sent his angry companion into the nearest wooden post. The brutal collision caused everyone in the public room to wince as the post shuddered but held firm.
The Lord Marcroft fell to his knees and then toppled over onto his side. He made no attempt to sit up. Or move. Several men rushed to the earl's side to assess the extent of his injuries.
The blond-haired man who had been so helpful in restraining Mathias earlier took a menacing step in his direction. "You will pay for what you have done."
Mathias was unimpressed. "Don't fret, you miserable flea-bitten cur. I always settle my accounts. Besides, I highly doubt that mild tap has put a dent in your friend's thick skull."
The man's cheeks puffed as he expelled a hot impassioned breath. His face was a mottled red as he raised his fists as if to exact revenge in Marcroft's behalf. A soft shuffling sound caught his attention, and his gaze shifted from Mathias's face to its source just over his shoulder. The man halted so abruptly, he skidded the final inches.
"It took you long enough," Mathias said, not bothering to glance back at the two gentlemen who flanked his sides. The arrival of his cousin Lord Kempthorn and their good friend Lord Bastrell meant his exchange of pleasantries with Marcroft had come to an end. "As you can see, during your absence I was outnumbered and quite defenseless."
"So I see," his cousin said as he grabbed Mathias's chin and tugged to get a better look at the bruise forming on his cheek. Satisfied that any damage was minimal, he dropped his hand and squinted down at the unconscious man on the floor. "Good grief, is that Marcroft?"
"I am afraid so," Mathias said, trying to sound as if he regretted the outcome of their skirmish. "I do not think he likes me very much."
"No, he does not," Christian Lyon, Viscount Bastrell, concurred. Everyone called him St. Lyon because there was nothing saintly about the charming gentleman when it came to his dealings with the ladies of the ton. His handsome features could have been made of chiseled stone as he glared down at Marcroft. "I doubt this latest encounter will improve his opinion. By the by, the horses are ready. Perhaps we should depart."
"A prudent decision," Mathias replied. He opened his coin purse and retrieved a guinea. Addressing the gentleman who claimed to be the Earl of Marcroft's friend, he said, "I regret we must take our leave before your companion recovers what little sense he possesses, so let's settle our account."
With a careless flick of his thumb, he tossed the coin in the air. When the other man stepped closer to snatch the coin out of the air, Mathias rammed his right fist into the man's soft belly. He caught the gold coin and watched dispassionately as the man groaned and doubled over.
Mathias slipped the coin into the small pocket of his waistcoat. "That was for binding my arms. You are learning some very unsporting tactics from Marcroft. In a moment of quiet contemplation, you might want to ponder the benefits of your friendship with the earl. Or else, the next time we shall meet will be on a grassy commons at dawn."
Mathias glanced up and noticed the amused expressions of his companions. "Our bill is settled. Shall we depart?"
No one spoke as the three gentlemen strode toward their awaiting horses.
Mathias placed his gloved hand on the pommel of the saddle and tried to slow his breathing as his companions gracefully mounted their horses. His shoulders ached from the rough restraint, and the abdominal muscles protecting his organs were sore from Marcroft's abusive fist. He quietly wondered if he could climb onto the beast without assistance.
"How badly are you injured?" his cousin asked in subdued tones.
"I'm fine, Thorn," Mathias said, using his cousin's nickname. He still made no effort to mount his horse.
St. Lyon also looked unconvinced. "We leave you alone for ten minutes, and you manage to find the one person who would happily wipe that smirk from your face. What the devil happened? From the look of things, Marcroft did more than add a little color to your face."
"Oh, you know how Marcroft is. Why throw one punch when there is an opportunity to deliver several. Cease fussing over me, I will recover." Mathias grimaced as he placed his foot in the stirrup. He sucked in his breath, quickly swung his leg over the back of the horse, and planted his backside on the saddle.
"Why didn't you send a servant for us?" Thorn demanded, sounding furious in his cousin's behalf. It was probably a blessing that the man's identical twin brother, Gideon, was out of the country. Together, the brothers could be rather formidable against any adversary.
Not that he needed any assistance when dealing with a member of the Brant family.
"And frighten Marcroft off?" Mathias snorted. "I was counting on him taking advantage of the odds that were deliberately stacked in his favor."
Understanding gleamed in the viscount's dark blue eyes as he slanted a glance at Mathias. "So that's why you sent both of us out of the tavern," St. Lyon said, shaking his head in amazement. "I suppose there was a good reason why you wanted the earl to practice his pugilist skills on your face."
He touched the swelling on his cheek and winced. "Now you are just being insulting. Lest you forget, I was not the one who was lying unconscious on the dirty floor of the tavern."
"Damn me," Thorn muttered. "You baited him into attacking so you could hit him?" His cousin sounded a little appalled by Mathias's strategy.
He shrugged. "I did not say it was a wise plan. It is not the first time I have lost my head around Marcroft. I truly despise the man."
"It is the one thing you and the earl have in common," St. Lyon dryly observed. "I have no great love for the scoundrel either, but you would do well to avoid him."
Mathias had been given similar advice on numerous occasions by his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Blackbern. His family and Marcroft's parents, the Marquess and the Marchioness of Norgrave, had some unpleasant history between them that had taken place long before his birth. Although he was not privy to all the details, one fact was apparent — the Brant family was his enemy.
"Excellent advice, but nigh impossible. Marcroft has been a barb in my arse since all of us were boys. His temperament has not improved with age."
He and Marcroft had been trading physical and verbal blows since their first meeting. He was not overly optimistic about their future encounters. Nothing short of a sword or bullet in the earl's heart would prevent the obnoxious gentleman from meddling in Mathias's affairs.
"Speaking of Marcroft's infamous temper — perhaps we should leave before he awakens," Thorn said, tipping his head in the direction of the tavern. "As it is, your father will be upset when he learns that you were attacked by a member of the Brant family so close to home."
Mathias tightened the reins in his grip. "How many times must I say it? I was not attacked. And I was the victor, by my account." He sighed. "Let us leave the retelling of this tale to me, eh?" He spurred his horse forward.
St. Lyon snickered behind him. "Lies will not work, my friend. How are you going to explain your face to your family?"
His companions' laughter muffled Mathias's creative curses as the distance increased between him and his enemy.
Several hours later, Mathias was alone when he strolled through the front door. St. Lyon and his cousin were tarrying at the stables while he smoothed things over with his mother and father. He quietly pondered the most expedient excuse he could offer his family for not finding his way home until now. He was several days late, and he had missed breakfast by three hours. Since he had reached the mature age of two -and-twenty, he thought it rather unfair that he was forced to suffer the indignity of presenting himself to his parents as if he were an errant child. Nevertheless, if all went according to his plan, this would be the last time he would be required to do so.
"Good morning, McKee," he genially greeted the butler, handing the servant his hat and gloves. The man had been in the Duke of Blackbern's employ long before his father had married Lady Imogene Sunter. The man could have retired with a generous pension and his parents' blessing, but the elderly servant considered it his duty to watch over the Rooke family. His dedication had made him part of their family.
"Always, Lord Fairlamb," McKee replied as if Mathias's statement had been a question. "Cutting it a bit short, are you not?"
Mathias chuckled, assuming the mild censure was in regards to his lateness. "Always."
His mother liked to tease her husband by telling him that he only had himself to blame for siring a son so much like him. Mathias viewed any comparison to his father as the highest praise. He had earned the nickname Chance before he spoke his first words. Later, his not-so-innocent exploits at the gambling tables and other reckless adventures with his friends had ensured that use of the name extended beyond his family.
"I hope Cook does not mind filling a few more stomachs," he said, mindful to keep the bruised side of his face hidden from the butler's keen gaze. "Thorn and St. Lyon have followed me home. We are planning to return to London together."
"I shall have their rooms prepared immediately," the butler said, the lines in his face becoming more pronounced when Mathias edged away from him. "How long will Lord Kempthorn and Lord Bastrell be staying with us?"
Mathias had private reasons why he was eager to return to London, but he had no intention of sharing them with McKee. He could have pushed onward to London, but he had not seen his family in a month. He missed his beautiful mother and his overly protective father. They had privately argued about it before he departed for one of their northern estates, and he regretted they had parted so formally. And then there were his younger siblings: Benjamin, who was twenty and also feeling the weight of their father's watchful eye; Honora, who at seventeen years old was looking forward to being presented at court; fifteen-year-old Mercy, who was less enthused about entering London's polite society; shy twelve-year-old Frederick, who preferred animals and books to people; and little Constance, who was seven years old and the youngest in the Rooke family. He had not realized how much he missed them all.
"We haven't decided. It could be a few days or a week."
McKee nodded, unruffled by Mathias's vague reply. "Good. Your mother lamented that your absences grow closer together. She will be pleased to have you and your friends seated at her table."
"Unless my mother and father have changed their plans, I shall see them in London," he said, uncomfortable with the twinge of guilt that crept into his chest and squeezed.
"Your mother and father have not altered their plans. However, priorities shift, and a man's amusements differ from those of his family."
"How did you —?"
"Who do you think looked after your father after his parents were lost to him? He was younger than you when he inherited the title, so I assume he knows better than most that a young gentleman craves his freedom."
He wondered if his father had turned to the old man for advice after his departure. Had he hurt his father's feelings? Distracted by the thought, he let down his guard and lowered his head.
It was all McKee needed. Mathias winced at the strength of the butler's hard grip as he forced his face to the side so he could get a closer look at the bruises. "You were brawling," the butler said flatly. "Were you fighting with your cousin? Lord Bastrell?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from You Can't Always Get the Marquess You Want by Alexandra Hawkins. Copyright © 2016 Alexandra Hawkins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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