I am so excited to share the first chapter with you for my new book, The Marquess Meets His Match!
Let me know what you think of this one!
The Marquess Meets
By Julie Coulter
Her current partner took her gloved hand as they came back together in the dance. “The weather is exceedingly fine tonight, don’t you agree?” Lord Huntley squeezed her fingers, a hopeful smile on his face.
Alice sighed inwardly. She didn’t want to give him any reason to think she’d welcome his attentions as a suitor. He had the right pedigree and was someone her father might ask her to consider if he made an offer, but she’d come to the conclusion she wasn’t suited for marriage. To anyone. “Why, yes, it is. The breeze from the terrace doors is quite refreshing.”
She used the mention of the terrace doors as an excuse to discreetly glance around the room again just as Lord Pembroke was announced. He’d finally arrived. She let out a sigh of relief. He was the last person who had talked to Thomas Norwich and she needed to know what their reportedly heated conversation had entailed. Thomas hadn’t been seen alive again and his body was pulled from the Thames this morning. She hadn’t let herself think too hard on his murder yet. This was the first time someone she knew personally had been killed and while her emotions were involved, she needed to stay professional. When she’d found his killer, then there would be time to remember him properly.
Unfortunately for her, her intelligence-gathering this evening had had limited results. She’d gotten all the details she could want about the latest on-dit that Lady Jane Wakefield had been betrothed to Viscount Farleigh. The viscount was old enough to be her father, and had been married twice already. He had no heir, however, and was anxious to produce one. Sympathy had filled Alice at the news, but it was not the information she’d been looking for. Tonight, she needed to know who had killed Thomas and why.
The dance ended and Alice smiled prettily at Lord Huntley. “A pleasure, my lord.”
He patted her hand that she’d placed on his sleeve as they made their way back to her mother. “The pleasure is mine, my lady.”
They made their way slowly through the throng of people to the edges of the ballroom and Alice leaned into him just enough that their conversation wouldn’t carry. “Did you hear the unfortunate news about the Earl of Moreland’s third son? Some think he was accosted on his way home from his club early this morning.”
Lord Huntley frowned. “A terrible business.” He tapped her on the nose, as if she were a girl fresh from the schoolroom. “And not something for a lady’s ears,” he lightly admonished her. “Shall I get you some refreshment?”
Alice gritted her teeth, but smiled up at him. “That would be lovely.”
Once they reached her mother’s side, Lord Huntley bowed over her hand. “I will return shortly with your lemonade.”
Alice dipped her chin, watching him for a moment before turning to her mother. The duchess looked regal this evening in her turquoise gown and turban. The ensemble made her stand out in any crowd. “Mother, I—”
But her mother cut her off, tilting her head toward the impeccably dressed man beside her. “Lord Wolverton, while we are waiting for the duke to return, may I make known to you my daughter, Lady Alice Huntingdon.”
Alice almost started with surprise, but held her reaction in. Lord Wolverton hadn’t been seen at any society events since he’d been called home from war three months ago. His elder brother had been killed in a horseback riding accident and his father, the duke, had suffered a severe apoplectic fit soon after. Lord Wolverton had been given the title of marquess that his brother had held, but would soon be the new Duke of Colborne when his father passed. He had understandably been in near seclusion since his return, but that fact had fanned the gossip.
Some said the new marquess was hideously scarred from the war and couldn’t be seen in public. Others said he locked himself in his father’s study and had been in a constant state of drunkenness since he’d returned, barely able to stand. Obviously neither of those things was true. He was standing in front of her, presumably sober since her mother had deemed him fit for introduction, and definitely wasn’t hideously scarred, though there were two small white scars near his left ear and eyebrow. The edges looked ragged, and if Alice had to guess, they were from a small, dagger-like knife wound. Whoever had treated him, though, had known what they were doing. The scars were barely noticeable unless one was looking very close.
Alice dropped her eyes and dipped into a low curtsy. “My lord.”
When Lord Wolverton didn’t respond, she rose with surprise. He was looking behind her, obviously distracted by something. A flush crept up her neck as her mother cleared her throat.
The sound snapped Lord Wolverton’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 Wolverton?” Alice asked sweetly, barely able to hide her annoyance. She didn’t have time to deal with an arrogant marquess. She needed to get to Lord Pembroke and make sure his name was on her dance card.
Then Lord Wolverton’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, a prickly awareness stealing over her shoulders and down her spine. His eyes searched hers, as if he knew his effect on her and his lips curved 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. “I'd be delighted, my lord," she murmured. Placing her hand on his arm, she 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 Wolverton’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?”
He had an odd tone to his voice, with an anxious edge to it. Perhaps the person he was looking for was outside. If so, she would happily leave him to his search and finally be able to seek out Lord Pembroke. “Very well.”
He practically pulled her through the terrace doors, as if in a great hurry. Alice walked as fast as she could without tripping over her skirts. What was going on? Lord Wolverton was acting very strangely. But all of that was forgotten when she spotted Lord Pembroke on the terrace. Now was her chance. She only needed to get rid of the man by her side.
“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, before he let out what sounded like a sigh of relief. “Yes, that’s a brilliant idea.” He led her to the bench where she sat down and arranged her skirts.
Out of the corner of her eye, Alice could see Lord Pembroke standing alone near the corner of the house. What was he doing? Was he waiting for someone? She needed to stay out on the terrace and see. “I miss the country where you can see the stars,” she said, softly, raising her face to the darkened sky, careful to keep Pembroke on the periphery of her vision.
Wolverton was quiet for a moment. “When I was in Spain, the stars seemed so close at night, as if someone had dropped a million diamonds on a black velvet cloak.”
His words hung in the air and she turned to him in surprise. The thread of pain in his voice was hard to miss. Did his memories of the war haunt him like they did so many others? “How long were you in Spain?”
He stared at her for a moment as if debating his answer, then turned toward the garden path. “Too long. Are you cold, my lady? Should we return to the ballroom?”
Alice glanced at where she’d last seen Pembroke, but in the moments she’d focused on Wolverton, he’d disappeared. Drat. “Yes, my mother will probably be looking for me,” she agreed.
They’d just passed the hedges on the edge of the terrace when Pembroke appeared in front of them. “Wolverton,” he said with a nod. “Lady Alice.” He took her hand and bowed over it, giving her an appreciative smile and a wink. “A pleasure to see you again.”
Alice could feel the muscles in Wolverton’s arm stiffen at the wink, but he quickly relaxed. “Pembroke,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you. Now that I’m back in London, I wanted to talk to you about going to Tattersall’s. I find my stables don’t have anything like the horses I had in Spain and I’d like to see what England has to offer.”
Pembroke barely spared Wolverton a glance. “Of course, of course. But first, Lady Alice, if you are not already spoken for, may I have the next dance?” He tilted his head and raised a brow as if daring her to accept.
Alice smiled. She couldn’t have planned it any better. “I’d be delighted.” She lifted her hand from Wolverton’s arm. “Thank you for the turn on the terrace,” she said as she stepped away from him.
But Wolverton moved in front of her, a fleeting scowl on his face before he was able to mask it. “Ah, well, for propriety’s sake, Lady Alice should return to the ballroom with me, Pembroke. How would it look if she left with one gentleman and returned on another’s arm? It could damage her reputation.” He glanced at Alice and held out his arm to her before returning his gaze to Pembroke. “Once we’re finished with our obligations in the ballroom, perhaps we can leave the debutantes and chaperones behind and have some real entertainment in the card room.”
Alice nearly gasped at his audacity, implying she was merely a debutante and an obligation, but she pursed her lips to hold in any reaction. “This is to be the supper dance, Lord Wolverton, so I’m afraid Lord Pembroke will be quite busy with obligations.” She gave him her best society smile.
“An obligation I will enjoy, I assure you.” Pembroke stepped close enough that the toe of his shoe brushed the bottom of her skirt.
Wolverton swiftly captured her hand and guided it through the crook of his elbow, holding it there. “Shall we go inside, Lady Alice?”
She kept her eyes on Pembroke, stifling her annoyance with Wolverton’s high-handedness. “Yes. I wouldn’t want to miss a moment of my dance with you, Lord Pembroke.”
Lord Wolverton’s fingers tightened over her hand and she could feel his eyes on her. She glanced up and even in the low light his stormy blue eyes pinned her. “I’ll be waiting for you just inside the doors,” Pembroke said.
Hastily looking away from Wolverton, she fixed her gaze on Pembroke. “I shall join you momentarily,” she promised.
Pembroke gave her one last glance before he went inside. It might not be hard to get him to talk after all, Alice mused. If he was as taken with her as he seemed to be, he might give up the information she needed without a lot of prodding. Alice quickened her step so she wouldn’t be far behind him, but Lord Wolverton held her back.
“In a hurry, my lady?” he said, arching his eyebrows and slowing his step.
“I wouldn’t want to keep Lord Pembroke waiting,” she said, nearly pulling the man along with her.
But Wolverton stopped altogether. Since he still held her arm fast, she did, too, rather abruptly. Alice looked up in surprise.
“Why were you asking Huntley about the Earl of Moreland’s son?” His voice was soft, as if she was going to spook if he spoke too loudly.
Alice gaped. How had he overheard? “I met Thomas once and was shocked at his death, that’s all. There are so few details on what happened.” She gave Wolverton a demure smile, hoping to cover her earlier reaction. “But Lord Huntley reminded me that such things aren’t fit for a gently bred woman.”
“Since it was reported that Pembroke was the last person to see Thomas alive, is it reasonable to assume that is why you’re so anxious to talk to him? To find out more details? If so, I’d like to know why.” His blue eyes bored into hers. He wasn’t going to give up easily, that much was clear.
Alice pulled her hand away from his arm and straightened her spine. “Lord Wolverton, this conversation has become tiresome and I have promised this dance to another. If you will please escort me inside.” She turned toward the door and started toward the ballroom doors, but Wolverton caught up easily and blocked her way.
His hands were behind his back now, the picture of a gentleman, but his voice was edged with tension. “Be careful, my lady. Curiosity can be a dangerous thing.”
“Thank you for the advice,” Alice said coldly. He held out his arm, as a gentleman should, but Alice didn’t take it and moved past him. Before she reached the doors, however, a crack broke the silence of the night and a brick shattered into fragments to her right. Alice found herself being thrown to the ground, with Lord Wolverton's body surrounding hers, cushioning the fall.
Alice lay on the terrace looking up at the sky she’d admired earlier, trying to regain her breath. Had someone just taken a shot at her?
Lord Wolverton’s face hovered over hers as his eyes raked over her form. “Are you all right? Are you hit?”
She looked up at him, trying to gather her wits. “I’m fine.” Her hip hurt, but other than that she was unscathed. Pushing against his chest, she noted that he smelled of bergamot and mint. Resisting the urge to press into his warmth to stave off the cold seeping from the terrace stones to her silk gown, she slowly moved to a sitting position, peering into the shadows. Was the gunman still there?
He stood and reached down to help her stand. "We should get you inside. Quickly now."
She barely heard him. A shadow was moving toward the back garden gate. “You’re not getting away that easily," she murmured. Without a backward glance, she lifted her skirts and began to run after him. The shadow must have heard her footsteps because he began to run as well. Alice heard the clank of the back gate that led into the mews. If only she weren’t wearing slippers!
She slowed and finally stopped just before the gate. It was too late. He was gone.
Wolverton appeared at her side, his breath coming fast. He took her elbow and pulled her around to face him. “Are you trying to get yourself killed? We need to get you inside. Now.” He spoke as if she were a recalcitrant child escaping from her lessons.
“Go back inside, my lord,” she said, her tone icy. “I know my way.”
He stared down at her, his jaw clenched. “I can’t leave you out here alone. You were nearly killed a moment ago.”
“Not likely. He shot wide. It’s a wonder he even hit the house,” she scoffed. “Nearly killed is a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?”
“No.” He tugged her toward the house. “And I certainly never thought to be dodging bullets at a ball in London. We’re going inside.”
With one last look over her shoulder at the shadowy path that led to the mews, Alice allowed him to escort her back to the terrace. They walked in silence, his long strides shortened to keep pace with hers.
“You don't seem surprised," he said, staring at the terrace doors in front of them.
Alice glanced over at him. She probably owed him an explanation, but there wasn’t one she was authorized to give. “I’m very surprised, actually.” Surprised that someone had gotten through her father’s security precautions. Surprised that a gunman had been in the garden at all.
He gave her a brief nod before he opened the terrace door. “I’m glad you weren’t hurt, Lady Alice. I'm sorry if I put you in any danger.”
“Do you think the shot was meant for you, then?” Alice said, quietly, as she rubbed her now-throbbing hip. “Why would someone try to kill you?” She could be a target because of her work for the Falcon group. But why would anyone want Wolverton dead?
Wolverton lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. “Ah, remember my advice about curiosity and questions, my lady.”
She stared into his blue eyes, their depths serious and secretive. Who was he, really?
Before she could ask anything else, he released her hand and opened the door. Once she was safely inside, he melted into the crowd surrounding the dance floor. Alice patted her hair and smoothed back the loose strands.
Someone had taken a shot tonight. But had it been for her as an agent or Lord Wolverton, as he suspected?
She meant to find out. Immediately.