I am so excited to share the first chapter with you for my new novella, The Marquess Meets His Match! It's a companion novella to A Highlander's Hidden Heart (that comes out next week. Woohoo! You can preorder that one here)
The Marquess Meets His Match will be released on June 1st and I can hardly wait. Let me know what you think of this one!
The Marquess Meets
By Julie Coulter
Lady Alice Huntingdon’s new slippers were starting to pinch her feet and the ball wasn’t even half over. That would never do. As a duke’s daughter, she was expected to dance every set and hope that the Prince Regent would ask for a dance when he arrived. She sighed and scanned the room for a secluded spot with a chair. If only she could sit down for a moment. The ball was a crush, however, and there wasn’t an empty chair to be seen. Her mother had been planning this event for weeks and would be elated at how well attended it was, but all Alice could think about was when it would be over.
She finished the dance with the newly minted Lord Huntley and gave him the same stilted smile she’d had pasted on her face all evening. Taking his arm, they began to wend their way through the throng of people as he escorted her back to her mother. It was easy to spot the duchess in her turquoise gown and turban. The ensemble made her stand out in any crowd. Once they’d reached her side, Lord Huntley bowed over her hand.
“A pleasure,” he said, his voice cracking. He was young and a bit on the shy side. Having just come into his title, he’d decided to look for a wife. Alice knew they wouldn’t suit, however. She looked at him in almost a brotherly way, wanting to offer him guidance as he found his feet among the ton. She was only in her second Season and not much older than Lord Huntley, but he had a lost puppy dog air about him that practically begged for someone to reach out and help. All she could do tonight, though, was pat his arm and give him a smile as he headed off to find his next partner.
She watched him for a moment before turning to her mother. Her throbbing feet were begging her to sit down. “Mother, I—”
But her mother cut her off, tilting her head toward the impeccably dressed man beside her. The feathers on her mother’s turban were shaking almost as much as she was. It was hard for her to hide excitement over tiny things, like finding a bolt of material she loved or hearing a bird sing outside her window. The thrill of introducing her daughter to this gentleman was obviously beyond her mother’s ability to even attempt to conceal.
She nearly clapped her hands with delight, but managed to clasp them in front of her instead. “Lord Balfour, I’d like to introduce you to my daughter, Lady Alice.”
Alice almost started with surprise, but held her reaction in. No wonder her mother was excited. This would be the coup of the season. Lord Balfour never attended society events. Some said the marquess had come home from the war so hideously scarred he never went out. Others said he traveled the world to escape his overbearing father and had vowed never to return to England. But obviously neither of those things were true. He was standing in front of her and definitely wasn’t scarred.
Alice dipped into a curtsy. “My lord.”
When Lord Balfour didn’t respond, she rose with surprise. He was looking behind her, obviously distracted by someone. A flush crept up her neck, as her mother cleared her throat.
The sound snapped Lord Balfour’s gaze back to them. He hastily took Alice’s gloved hand and kissed the back of it. “My lady,” he murmured. When he straightened, he stole another quick glance around the room. Was he looking for someone in particular? Another lady perhaps?
“Am I keeping you, Lord Balfour?” Alice asked sweetly, barely able to hide her annoyance. She didn’t want to stand with an arrogant marquess when she could be resting her feet.
Lord Balfour’s deep blue eyes fixed on hers and for a moment she forgot why she was out of sorts with him. “Please excuse me, Lady Alice. I’ve behaved intolerably. Would you grant me this dance and allow me to make amends?”
His velvety voice stirred something deep within her and she couldn’t speak. It was all she could do to break the spell his gaze had woven around her. His eyes searched hers, as if he knew she was caught in his web and he smiled slightly. Alice’s pulse started to pound.
Her mother’s sharp elbow in her side brought her back to the present, reminding her of his invitation to dance. “Yes,” she said, and felt her mother bounce beside her. Wincing, she smiled, hoping Lord Balfour would forgive her mother’s exuberance.
She grasped his arm and looked up at him, but he wasn’t paying her or her mother the least bit of attention. His eyes were searching the crowd again. Her heart sank a little. Who could he be looking for and why did it matter so much?
They were nearing the dance floor when Balfour’s hand tightened over hers. “Lady Alice,” he said, turning to look down at her. “Would you mind terribly if we took a turn about the terrace instead?”
There was an odd tone to his voice, an anxious edge to it. Perhaps the person he was looking for was outside. If that were so, she would happily leave him to his search, while she sat and rested her feet. “Very well.”
He practically pulled her through the terrace doors, as if he was in a great hurry. Alice was walking as fast as she could without tripping over her skirts. What was going on? Lord Balfour was acting very strangely. “My lord,” she said, breathlessly. “There is a bench just over there. May I sit for a moment?”
He looked in the direction she’d indicated then let out what sounded like a sigh of relief. “Yes, that’s a wonderful idea.” He led her to the bench. “Why don’t I go back and get you a glass of punch, my lady? I’ll just be a moment.”
Her eyes narrowed. Would he come back or go on searching for whomever had captured his attention? “Thank you, my lord.”
He bowed and turned back the way they’d come. Alice closed her eyes and wished she dared to take her slippers off. At least she could sit for a while and let the cool evening air flow over her. The sounds of the ball faded away, and she turned her face upward. It was a full moon tonight, with a beautiful array of stars on all sides. She took a deep breath and flexed her aching toes. If only she could stay out here for the rest of the ball. But her mother would be frantic if Alice was gone for too long. This was merely a momentary respite.
After a few more minutes, Alice was starting to feel chilled and there was no sign of Balfour. He’d obviously deserted her. Deciding that she’d been gone long enough, Alice stood to make her way back inside.
She’d just passed the hedges when a man’s arm shot out and grabbed her from behind. She opened her mouth to scream, but his hand stifled her cry. The pain in her feet forgotten, she stomped as hard as she could on the boots of the man who held her captive, but her satin slippers had no effect. Fear slithered down her spine. No one knew she was out here or that Lord Balfour had abandoned her. She could be ruined by a stranger on her own terrace.
A whimper escaped. “Hold still,” the man behind her whispered. “Someone’s coming, and if you don’t want to be caught in a compromising position, you will be quiet.”
Alice froze. She recognized that voice. Lord Balfour! He loosened his grip and she took a breath to tell him exactly what she thought of him, when she heard the sound of booted footsteps approaching. They stopped, and Alice peeked through the hedge. A man was searching the terrace. She’d never seen him before and was quite sure he wasn’t on the guest list for this evening. He was shorter, about her height, his cravat slightly askew, and his brown hair was mussed. He turned her way, and she could plainly see the gun in his hand. Alice fought the urge to run.
Stay still like a statue.
Alice leaned back slightly, and Balfour’s arm tightened around her stomach. She should have drawn away and not allowed him such a liberty, but he was a haven of safety at the moment. They stood there for several more minutes before the smaller man finally moved on and they both breathed a sigh of relief.
“Who was that man?” Alice whispered. Balfour released her and she turned to face him.
“Someone who shouldn’t have been here,” he said brusquely. “We need to get you back inside.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on,” she said, stepping back to put some distance between them. “I’m owed an explanation after being scared out of my wits.”
“I don’t have time to mollycoddle a debutante. If you won’t go inside, I will.” He started toward the house, his boots a staccato on the stone, but he’d taken only a handful of steps before he turned on his heel, blowing out a frustrated breath. “I can’t leave you here alone. He may come back. If I asked nicely, would you return to the party with me?”
Alice’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not a debutante or just out of the schoolroom.” She shook her head. Why was she defending herself to this man? “I need to inform my father of what’s happened.”
Before she could stalk away, Balfour took her arm. “No. You cannot inform your father of anything that happened on this terrace tonight.”
She pulled away from him, ignoring the frisson of heat racing up her arm at his touch. “Tell me why.”
His lips thinned, and he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Very well, but not here. I’ll call on you tomorrow for a ride in Hyde Park.”
Alice took a moment to ponder on that. Her mother would be overjoyed if she agreed, but all Alice wanted was an explanation for what was really going on.
“I’ll agree to ride out with you, but don’t even think about changing your mind,” she warned. “Or my father will hear every last detail.”
He moved closer. What was he about now? Alice stood her ground.
“Every detail?” He leaned in until his breath fanned the tendrils of her hair that strategically framed her face. “We’ve been out here for quite some time, sweet. What would he say if he knew that?”
Her heart skipped a beat. “He’d think you’d compromised me, my lord.” She flushed as she said the words. His gaze pulled her in once more, flicking down to her mouth. She instinctively inched closer. He smelled of bergamot and mint and it was intoxicating.
With a deep sigh, Balfour stepped back and cleared his throat. “We’d better not take that chance.”
He extended his arm and Alice took it, a tingle of disappointment running over her. Lord Balfour was a man of contradiction. He pulled her in, only to push her away. He was annoying and yet, appealing. But a little thrill layered and settled over her. In spite of all that, the marquess was involved in some intrigue.
And she was going to find out what it was.