When he goes hunting a thief, he never expects to catch a bluestocking...
Marie had the perfect life plan: she would satisfy her father's ambition by graduating as one of the first female doctors in Europe, and she would satisfy her mother's ambition by marrying a very suitable fiancé in a grandiose society ceremony. Only weeks away from completing the former, Marie is mere days away from achieving the latter. But her whole life is thrown into chaos when her fiancé dies, mysteriously returns, and then is shot and killed, and Marie risks her own reputation to save the life of the man falsely accused of the murder.
Gordon, Lord Stanmore, finally tracks down the conman who stole from his estate, only to find himself embroiled in a murder plot. The woman he rescues offers to rescue him in return, by marrying him and providing an alibi. Gordon's ready agreement to the scheme grows the more time he spends with his new wife. Her wit, her intelligence, her calm, her charm: Gordon finds himself more and more enchanted with this woman he met by mistake. But as the clues to the identity of the murderer start to align with the clues to the thief, they reveal a more elaborate scheme than he could have imagined, and though he might desire Marie, Gordon is unsure if he can trust her.
As their chase leads them out of Amsterdam and into the UK, both Gordon and Marie must adjust to the life that has been thrust upon them and decide if marriage came first, can love come after?
About the Author
Renee Dahlia is an unabashed romance reader who loves feisty women and strong, clever men. Her books reflect this, with a side-note of dark humour. Renee has a science degree in physics. When not distracted by the characters fighting for attention in her brain, she works in the horse racing industry doing data analysis. She writes for two racing publications, churning out feature articles, interviews and advertorials. When she isn't reading or writing, Renee wrangles a partner, four children, and volunteers at the local cricket club committee.
If you'd like to know more about me, my books, or to connect with me online, you can visit my webpage www.reneedahlia.com, follow me on twitter, or like my Facebook page.
Read an Excerpt
Marie sat, head bowed, in the tiny red-brick church on the edge of the small village of Kleindorp. Her carefully constructed life plan lay in ruins. In only two days, the grandiose wedding ceremony that she'd spent two years helping her mother plan should have taken place. Instead, she sat at her fiancé's funeral, unable to believe that Bertrand was dead. How could a simple accident take away all her dreams? Light shone at an angle through the side windows in the church, sending scattered streams across the aisle, creating shadows on the wooden pews. Dust motes danced in the light breeze that swirled in the empty space, much like the vacancy inside her. The Aanspreker droned on, and his voice echoed around the empty room. His words muffled in Marie's ears against the clamour inside.
The final preparations for her extravagant wedding had been well underway when that fateful note had arrived from his sister, Loretta. Her dear Bertrand had been crushed by a wagon carrying fruit to market two days prior, and the funeral would be today. Guilt rose in her throat, and she rubbed her palm against her neck as she thought about how she'd spent more time with her mother on the wedding preparations than with him in the last week. Now the news of his demise seemed to appear out of nowhere. She'd left her mother and her two best friends — Josephine, now Lady St. George, and Claire — at her parent's house in Amsterdam, surrounded by happy wedding clutter. Flowers and gowns and the like filled the room with the happy scent of love.
'Your gown is so beautiful. I could almost bother with getting married for a gown like that,' Claire had said yesterday. She'd laughed carelessly with her friends. But now the hand-stitched gown, created by her mother over the past year just for this occasion, would remain unused. What a waste of effort. All those happy plans had collapsed in disarray. A sob filled her throat, and she choked it back down.
She'd been unable to cope with the sudden news, unable to tell anyone. What would she have said? It didn't seem real. Mostly, she didn't want to break the news to her mother yet. Her mother's almost unhealthy desire for this wedding meant Marie had found it easier to step away. She'd abandoned Bertrand in favour of wedding preparations, now she would abandon all that fuss to farewell him. She'd driven herself across town in her father's gig, blaming the cool spring air for the tears that streamed down her face during the short journey. It was one of those typical spring days, where clouds and sunlight fought each other in a slow battle for supremacy. Her father often said, 'April will do whatever it wishes to do.'
She had wiped her face clean at the local inn where she'd left the horse and gig and hired a room in case she needed time alone after the funeral ceremony. But the cleaning was to no avail. Her tears had continued to roll down her cheeks as she walked, staring at her feet, through the small village towards this church.
Now the tears kept flowing as she sat listening to the Aanspreker, and she let them. They dripped onto her black woollen skirt. She sniffed, unable to cry without her nose also dripping. Grief is so wet. The church smelled clean, a hint of vinegar underneath the incense that tickled her nostrils. She hadn't known Bertrand had a sister. Her hands dropped to her lap, and her face scrunched in confusion. They'd been engaged for two years, and he'd never mentioned Loretta. And he'd never mentioned this little village, Kleindorp, just on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Did he grow up here? What else didn't she know about him?
Slowly, she raised her head and looked blankly around the church. She could see why Loretta had organised this church for Bertrand. Maybe his love of architecture had stemmed from being a child in this church. He would have adored all the architectural details of the sixteenth-century church, from the wooden beams to the stone floors shaped by hundreds of years of footfalls. She could hear his voice humming in her memory as she imagined him here, his hands gesturing enthusiastically as he told her about the structural elements.
Everything blurred through the mist of her tears, and even the light seemed to grow dim as the service thrummed on. The Aanspreker, dressed traditionally in black with a long black mantle and black crepe streamer that hung down over his shoulder, adjusted his three-cornered hat and called for all to stand in prayer. Marie stood and her shoes scuffed against the stone floor. The sound echoed loudly in the mostly empty space. Perhaps she should have told Josephine and Claire. At least then this funeral wouldn't seem so depressingly lonely.
Only two other people were at this ceremony to remember Bertrand, a man and woman standing a few rows in front of her. The man was medium height and the same easy breadth as Bertrand. In fact, he was identical in size to Bertrand. Her brow knitted closer together as she peered at them. A slightly hysterical giggle threatened, and she clapped her hand over her mouth. She hated the way she laughed at inappropriate moments. But the shape of the man in front of her made her ache for the support of her friends. Claire had always called him 'Bland Bertrand'.
'He is so plain and boring. He could be almost anyone. I can't understand the attraction,' her friend had said once. Marie had been attracted to his quiet faithfulness, the way he'd always been attentive to her every word. Josephine had understood he'd made it easy for her to like him. Claire saw that lack of challenge as dull. Marie thought it was rather comforting. She had enough challenges in life without having to be continually challenged by a husband. The pressures from her parents — to be the perfect society Lady for her mother's upper middle-class aspirations, and to succeed academically at the Municipal University of Amsterdam's Medical Facility as befitting her father's position as Vice Chancellor — were enough of a balance and a cha0llenge.
But it didn't matter now, did it? She wiped her nose with a handkerchief, stuffing it back up the sleeve of her dress, and blinked away the fresh welling of tears to focus on the man in front of her. Not only was he the same build as Bertrand, but the shape of his ears and hairline were also familiar. He had that same shade of light brown, almost dusky blond, hair. She clutched the pew in front of her as the hairs on her arms rose. A cold chill rinsed over her skin, and she dragged in a shuddery breath. Was he a brother? Did Bertrand have a whole family that he'd never mentioned? Did she know so little about the man she had been keen to marry in two days' time?
The Aanspreker cleared his throat and commenced the final prayer. His nasal voice droned on. It filled the space with blank noise. The individual words were unimportant. A sudden shard of strong light pierced the space in front of her, and something metallic glinted near the Aanspreker's hip. The sharp flash of light stung her eyes and she glanced away to stare down at her hands as they held the pew before her in a white-knuckled grip. Her arms started to tremble under the effort of staying upright. Now that Bertrand was dead, she had so many questions for him. Questions that these people in front of her might know the answer to. Would she be brave enough to ask, or was she going to have to live with never knowing the answers?
Marie's head jerked up as a sharp crack, a gunshot, rang out. The man in front of her collapsed to the ground. Holy bells! Had he just been shot? Who would do such a thing in this sacred space? She flinched and peered wildly around the room for the gun. She looked up to the front of the church at the Aanspreker for guidance and saw him tuck a gun inside his garment, his face stony. All the training during her medical degree came to the fore, and she rushed to the fallen man without need for conscious thought.
He didn't just look like Bertrand. It was Bertrand. Ice froze in her veins and her core shrank as she halted. Her hands stuck in mid-motion. A bullet wound square in the middle of his chest leaked blood. It pooled sticky around her shoes, and she knew that it poured out from the exit wound that must be underneath him. She processed all the details automatically. She blinked and squatted next to him. She pressed fruitlessly on his chest. A lame attempt at aiding him. She reached for his pulse only to feel it slow and fade.
'Where is it?' spat the woman standing next to Bertrand. Marie lurched backwards at the fury in the woman's voice and tripped over her skirts to sprawl inelegantly on the floor. Blood seeped over the stone floor and wet her dress. Another dress ruined by blood. There had to be a better system for hospital wear. The random thought raced through her head, adding a crazed element to the chaos thudding in her chest.
'Where is what?' Her voice shook, unable to comprehend the question. She looked up to see a stranger's red face glare at her with pinched, harsh eyes and teeth bared through thin lips. Was that Bertrand's sister? Loretta? They didn't look alike, and yet her face was oddly familiar. Marie tucked her shaking legs underneath her skirt and reached again for Bertrand. She knelt beside him, in his blood, not caring anymore. The doctor part of her brain registered that he couldn't possibly survive this. His blood continued to slowly soak into her skirts as she sat on the church floor. The familiar metallic smell filled her throat and she swallowed back a nauseous wretch.
'The bullet.' The woman — Loretta? — stepped towards her with menace in her glare.
'Ahh?' Marie blinked in confusion, shaking her head. 'It went right through him, so I imagine it's somewhere at the back of the church.'
Bertrand moaned and made a spluttered attempt to talk. Marie leaned across him and rested her ear on his lips. His final breath fluttered out, warm against her skin. A reminder of better times, when he'd often leaned in and whispered sweet nothings to her. Her hand caressed his cheek as she checked his pulse with her other hand. Nothing. She enclosed his face in her hands, his light stubble familiar under her palms. She pressed a soft kiss to his forehead. She closed his eyelids. His gentle blue eyes gone forever.
'He's gone,' she whispered with a croak in her voice. She glanced at the Aanspreker for guidance, only to see him shrink back into the shadows.
'Murder!' screeched the woman next to her. 'He did it!' She pointed wildly to the back of the church, in the opposite direction of the Aanspreker with the gun. She's wrong. She can't possibly be right. But Marie's gaze followed the woman's finger, and for the first time, she noticed another stranger in the church. Dressed simply, and draped in a long travelling great coat, he bounded towards them.
'A thief, and now a murderer,' yelled the stranger, pointing at the Aanspreker. Yes. At least someone else knows what is going on here. The stranger's voice rumbled through Marie's tense body. Sunlight filtered through the church windows and made his dark hair gleam against his tanned complexion. Marie grabbed the nearest pew and forced her body to stand on her weakened legs.
'You are the murderer. I saw it,' accused the woman, pointing at the dark stranger.
'He can't be. I saw the g —' The end of her sentence was blocked as the stranger clamped his hand over her mouth. Marie jerked away, but he held strong. He wrapped her body against his as she instinctively started to fight him. She opened her mouth to protest and her teeth scraped against his palm. The salty hint of his sweat entered her mouth as time slowed down. Her legs jerked as he started to walk backwards down the aisle, pulling her with him.
'Come,' he whispered. 'He has more shots left.'
She gasped. Her breath was hot as he held her tight. His palm against her mouth forced her own breath to flow back over her cheeks. Her heartbeat pounded in her chest. He continued to move away, taking her with him away from danger. Part of her wanted to run with him. To save herself from the Aanspreker and his gun. It wasn't right to stay. But she had to stay with Bertrand, didn't she? It wasn't right to go with this man. Was it? Her thoughts hovered, unable to decide. His arms held her tight, but he wasn't hurting her.
'Don't let her leave. We need her,' screamed Bertrand's sister. The sound echoed and bounced around the small church. Marie panted hard. Did she mean me? What in holy cowbells was happening? The stranger loosened his grip on her mouth. He surrounded her. His size protected her without dominating her with his strength. His protection contrasted directly with the crazed screaming. She dragged in several quick breaths. Decision made.
'Get me out of here,' she said. He picked her up, effortlessly, as though she weighed no more than a loaf of bread and charged through the open wooden door into the afternoon rain. The cold drizzle, a hangover from winter, smarted on her skin.
'Can you ride?' he asked in English.
'Well enough,' she replied. Her breath was still too fast as energy coursed through her veins. He strode towards a horse, a plain job hack tied to the church fence.
'Good,' he said. He lifted her up, and she landed in the saddle with a gentle jolt. The horse threw his head in the air and skittered sideways. The stranger shushed the horse and gave it a calming pat. In a practiced manner, he untied the horse just as it pulled backwards away from him.
'The blood. The horse can smell the blood,' said Marie.
'Stay,' he said. To her or the horse? Marie slid out of the saddle and stepped away as her stranger soothed the frightened animal. In a smooth motion, the stranger swung onto the saddle with his long coat curling behind him. The ground disappeared as he reached for her and pulled her up. Marie landed in front of him with a thump, and she felt his thighs tighten against the horse. The horse leapt in the air, and Marie clutched at its mane as she slid sideways. The stranger wrapped one arm around her and pulled her tight against his hard chest.
There was a shout from behind them, and the stranger leaned into Marie urging the horse forward. The job hack exploded into a rough gallop down the path. A shot rang out, the sound reverberating in Marie's ears. The horse's mane was coarse against her fingers. A sheen of sweat and blood on her palms made them slip as she grasped for balance. Surrounding her was the stranger. His body was warm and strong as he held her securely in place. Her skirts were heavy, soaked with Bertrand's blood, and they slapped against the horse. Scents of horse sweat, damp clothes, the metallic copper tang of blood, and a hint of musk filled her nostrils, and all of it heightened by the rain. Her lungs ached as she panted in a ragged rush. Her skin prickled with cold while a confused heat churned in her stomach.
The man's chest and arms moved with the rhythm of the horse. Gosh, he was strong. He held her tight against him, his heat pressed against her back. Yet it couldn't take away the tightness in her chest. Bertrand was dead. Twice. Once by letter, and once for real. It made no sense. Bile rose in the back of her throat and she gagged. Immediately, her stranger sat them both up and slowed the horse to a rolling canter. The horse tugged against the reins and shook his head. Marie tensed as the horse's action jolted her body. Her stranger relaxed into the saddle and held her fast.
'Relax,' he said. His voice whispered against her neck, his breath warm in the cold spring air. The remnants of winter still hung icy in the shadows, and in the damp of her bodice that stayed after the drizzle petered out. She couldn't suppress a shiver. He stiffened almost imperceptibly against her back, then relaxed again.
'Where to?' he asked.
'To the inn at the end of the village,' she said in her native Dutch.
'You speak English?' he asked.
'Yes,' she replied, switching to her mother's language, and repeating her instruction. She felt her eyes widen as she realised he'd spoken English the whole time. She hadn't even registered it among the emotional shock of the morning. She gasped.
'Thank God. I only know a few Dutch words,' he said, jerking her out of her panicked thoughts.
'Which ones?' She half-smiled, grateful for a reason to think about something simple. He laughed, a quick bark that was loud against the rhythmic thud of the horse's feet. The sound rumbled against her back, a comforting vibration. Her body started to relax against his, and the chill on her skin eased. The horse responded, dropping his head and ambling along the village street, the drama at the church left behind them.
Excerpted from "In Pursuit of a Bluestocking"
Copyright © 2017 Renée Dahlia.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd..
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